"Two Poets and the Extended Elegy" SwatTalk
with Octavio González '97 and Julia Bouwsma '02
Recorded on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021
Debby Bacharach So I'm Debby Bacharach. I'm class of 1988 and parent of '24. My daughter Rose is there. I am a member of the Alumni Council, and I am very honored to host this talk tonight between poets Tavi Gonzalez and Julia Bouwsma in a conversation about the extended elegy. So you might've noticed we're taping this session and it's going to be available at the SwatTalks recording website on the webpage in about two to three weeks. It is sponsored by Alumni Council. The way this is gonna work is I'm gonna introduce them. And then Julia and Tavi are gonna read for about seven minutes each. I have some questions prepared, and then we're gonna throw it open to you. So you can't see each other's questions but I'll be monitoring the chat and I will anything else background you need to know. I think that's it. So let me introduce Tavi Gonzalez, class of 1997. He teaches at Wellesley College where he's an associate professor of English and creative writing. He's on sabbatical this academic year and is a distinguished visiting scholar at the University of Buffalo. He's also a Lambda literary emerging writers fellow summer 2021. His latest book is "Misfit Modernism: A Monograph on the Modern Novel and Intersectional Alienation", which just came out in paperback from Pennsylvania State University press. As a poet scholar, Tavi divides his time between poetry and criticism. He's currently at work on a long form elegy "Conversations with my Fathers", part of which he'll read for us tonight. It's long. I've read it, I love it. But it's like 31 pages, which he's gonna read a portion of it. And the second poetry collection is titled "Limerence", a form of romantic love that borders on obsession. His first volume of the book of ours was selected series at Letrice Latinas, Notre billable online, and we'll put that link in the chat for you. And some of his work appears on Latino book review, the Lambda literature. He will be in the chat if you wanna contact him. And I also wanna introduce Julia Bouwsma, class of 2002. She was recently appointed the sixth poet Laureate of Maine, and off the grid Homesteader poet librarian and editor. Bouwsma is the author of two poetry collections, "Mitten" and "Work by Bloodline", and I will put links for both of those in the chat, because as a working poet, I wanna encourage you to buy their work. Honors she has received include the 2019 and 2018 main literary awards for poetry book, 2016 through 17 Poets Out Loud price, and the 2015 Cider Press Review book award. She's the library director for the Webster library in Kingfield, Maine and teaches in the creative writing department at the university of Maine at Farmington. Okay. So Tavi, maybe you can go first and I will just make myself disappear, and we'll hear some poetry for seven minutes.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 Sure. Thank you, Debby. I'm really excited to be here. The first thing, I just wanna thank you all for joining us. And I also wanna give my thanks to Dina for the invitation to participate in my very first SwatTalk. I also wanna offer my gratitude to Debby for your enthusiastic embrace of my work, and for putting all this together, putting Julia and I together on this panel. I also wanna thank Lisa for all of your help with the details of the zoomification, which hopefully will go very smoothly as Zoom always seems to do. And also last but not least, I wanna thank Julia for sharing your electric work in progress, a Royal kind of sonnets titled, "I'm Okay, But the Country is Not". I found that to be an incredible reading experience. I look forward to discussing it with you and Debby. Okay. So I'm gonna read, as Debby mentioned, an excerpt from my long poem, an elegy called "Conversations with my Fathers". He bought the blood to save my mother's life when they cut her venturum in half to splice me out of her womb, a nine pound infant who peed in my mother's mouth when she awoke and held me. His hair is all white now, soft as a unicorns or real Steed, not yet ready to become mythical. The honeymooners, bugs bunny, even Alice's restaurant, I watched them all, black and white and Technicolor in a powder blue bedroom without windows, the TV screen, my only window into worlds made of English, unaccented, generic, perfect, or quite the contrary. "To the moon, Alice." Ralph Kramden bellowed his signature line with the uppercut gesture, menace hidden in canned laughter. "I don't wanna write this." So I take off my glasses, and squint in blurry vision. The sound of this, that, or the other, what the TV was on, "My American Babysitter". But I must stop crying now, put back my $300 frames, progressive lenses for my middle-aged vision. A scar down her belly, ugly as sikatricks. The Latin more realistic, the Spanish too real that marred my mother's forehead. The bangs would have hidden it, a perfect see, a third eye. "The last clairvoyant," I once called her. Even in this poem, her story takes some precedence for she it was who told me all, these fathers were better than only. "I count three, no, three and a half, three and three quarters? How many men have I slept with? Do I count each one as a father?" That my friend, sister, brother, lover, is a step too far, a step beyond the precipice of this story. I don't stand like Richard the third, lame legged after killing his brother's children to ascend to the throne of Lancaster, or was it Yorik, Rose Red or Rose White, and declaim now is the winter of our discontent? Richard and his three eyes, his three victims, my three fathers, all but one dead, but I didn't kill them. I bet he still carries his heavy backpack on one shoulder, the opposite that I carry mine on, or maybe the same. Which would you rather? My hair is only salt and pepper, more black than gray, curlier, Afro-ish, and as proud am I of it, as I am sad for its demise, that two is winter. Now I'm gonna skip ahead. There is no love unless it's tribal, goes the current cultural logic of identity. No love for thee nor for me, unless it's from we, from other mes goes the current dispensation of belonging, and I rage, rage, rage against the dawning of the light that says, yes. Okay, yes, I will. Yes, I will forsake, forsaking my forsaken identity. I'll grow up finally and accept that only those whose beautiful good looks resemble mine can love me like I want, need, deserve, expect, suffer to be loved because as I leave the classroom, I have spent an hour looking at my students' faces. And I see in some whose Amber colors resemble my own. I see in their glassed-in eyes a shadow of disappointment that I am not enough like them. I do not personify their ideal of who they want me to be, which is who they want to be, who they expect to be in order to feel safe, to feel wanted, to feel secure in the love of another space, reflecting their face back to them identically. But I'm no prince Hamlet, and I'm not a real Dominican. My fellow Dominican writer once told me because to be real, I'd have to be who I'm afraid I'm not. But what I don't understand, what I fail to realize is that I was never Dominican. If by that word is meant a traditional national selfhood beginning with the flaming sword of my macho masculinity. But there's more to be said. I began again with the notion that it is only tribal resemblance that affords the love that we need, expect, respect, desire, crave, suffer for eons to wait for. It's dawning on me slowly that only other people like me, who look like me and talk like me and think like me and were born like me and eat the same food as me and listen to the same music as me will, can, could ever love me. Except, I don't listen to the same music, I don't cook the same food, and my favorite dish is sushi. Like revenge, best served cold. And yes, that's another cringey joke, but it's only a fucking poem, not an autobiography. I never said I was an ex-Dominican, did I? Well, yes I did once. "Autobiography of an Ex-Dominican" was a bad working title for my first poetry collection. Though I'm no James Weldon Johnson and I may or may not have sold my birthright for a mess of poetry. Thank you.
Debby Bacharach Thank you, thank you. That last line, I'm still reverberating from it.
Julia Bouwsma '02 Tavi, thank you. That was incredible. I loved hearing that. And I wanna echo all of your thank yous to everyone here. It's such an honor to be here and so much fun. And I'm really excited for this conversation. So I'm gonna read some sections from my heroic sonnet, "I'm Okay, But the Country is Not". So this is 15 sonnets. The first 14 sonnets, the last line of the sonnet becomes the first line of the next sonnet. And then the 15th sonnet is composed of all of the first lines. And I'm going to read the first three sonnets, and then I'm going to read the ninth sonnet and the 11th and 12th. So it is a little weird to be excerpting from this because they do link, but I'm hoping this will show some of the linking. "I'm okay, but the country is not," says my grandmother before she dies, before she closes her eyes and sleeps the sleep from which one does not rise. Breath curdles what's left of the words in her. The ocean her lungs will become drift down river, familiar current of language, swirling ink-stained skies. But at the end, it's calm, a blanket unfurls. She lies still a raft in an Eddy cocooned in cotton departure. On the far edge of the bed, a scarred shoreline waits. There's a map of ruin inside each veined limb, trails of bruises you can follow back. Once a girl played a finger piano in a white color dress and spades of curls exploded from her skull like scales as she laughed at the music her own fingers made. Follow the music her finger is made. This is how we slip into memory, laugh with her. This is how we fall. "I remember everything." She says faced to the wall. It's a problem. Her voice is frayed, a leaking ship. The newspapers pile up unread. She doesn't flip a page, afraid the words she will not say. And yet we see her see the people forgetting, unschooling a century, how the fascia? Invisible braid, coiling strip that ties our tongues to our hearts is tightening. Never forget, pink membrain shard of ash, she taught me to carry under it. Sugar cube, our sweet defiance. Now mouths hang open as we speak, even swallowing what you grow easy. She tosses, turns his fitful caught and not until the final day that she succumb to silence. On the final day, she succumbs to silences drip, but still at her own funeral, she speaks. The rabbi calls it a first. My uncle holds his iPhone up high and we huddle in close, listen as she recites with slurred lip, Carlisle waterlogged lungs swimming to the sodden tip of her tongue. Here hath been dawning another blue day. Then think, will thou let it slip useless away? I fold my printed transliterated page of cottage, grip these words I don't know, fold and fold until it is a white square at the bottom of my pocket. Promise or accusation, I hold tight to my fist. Later in the dead winter leaf litter of my mother's yard, I scroll headlines, weep by the riddle half cracked in my cheek. What slips and keeps on slipping? I am a hopeless clot of knuckles and grief. Unstring, unstrung. It gives me comfort, our shared loose tongue. I think before I speak, then stumbled the spiral staircase tumbled down, left foot, loose foot, the rights to bite at tablespoons for eating tables with the blue plate shattered, then the coffee cup. I tried to glue it before I threw it away. I write these poems to breed you a daisy chain, twists you a helix of fairy lights, line your path with brown hair girls, they're linked arms in Florida lease and silver snaps. But just look at these hands. I'm here with a tape measure, worse with a hammer. Mornings, I lie in my bed, rectangles on all sides and bang the walls with my fists. The sonnets are not what I thought. I'm sorry I built you a box when all I wanted was the blossom you back. I've seen this before. One by one, the results come in. First, a mild stroke. Next, kidneys wither. A fascist bloviate on the screen. A grandmother extends her left arm to the phlebotomist's glove. A dark ocean of bruise gathers title beneath her skin. Each morning's headlines are another fist. I wake to the woods' stoves cold belly and scrape the firebox clean. Sunrise comes for me through the trees and her bright wound demands, "Get up, get dressed." In the bathroom, I bare my teeth to the mirror, I grip the porcelain. Familiar doesn't make easier, but memory is a muscle. I let it hold me when my knees go loose. Inheritance means I will bend and lace my boots. I will pick up my shovel and teeter my blade into frosted root rock. I will tuck late daffodil bulbs between clay-packed stones, and some will die and some will bloom. Some will die before spring and some will bloom ragged and yellow, orange filled mouths hungry for a milder wind. Double heads casting in different directions. I weave the garden, rose tending. I wander the Rocky path and the thud of my footsteps echoes me. Once I breathed in the sharp green air and thought work will set me free, then I recalled the iron gates that spell these words, language like chromosomes set deep in the bones. A hole is for digging. I dig you another poem then descend into the poem to wait. Each hole leads to another whole half mitzvah, half gray. They gather in circles, they helix the hillside Half the time, I'm afraid of where my feet will take me. My mother furrows as she reads the news. We're going backwards. I press my nose to the earth. Wherever we end up, we'll bring our shovels. Wherever we go, they'll be music there.
Debby Bacharach Thank you. Okay, we know my internet is having terrible trouble, so I am staying off video, but I'm here feeling this. So I wanted to ask you both we think of a eulogy. When I heard the word, I just think of a eulogy as a remembrance and appreciation for a person who has died. But clearly, yours are so much bigger and encompassing so much more, and yours are elegies. So can you help us understand the difference and what you were working with?
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 Julia, do you wanna take this or should I start?
Julia Bouwsma '02 So a eulogy is a funeral oration. So that's when we remember someone and celebrate their life. And an elegy is a poem of lamentation. So it's a dwelling and grief. And so for example, in mine, in a eulogy, I would avoid talking about someone's illness and death because that's not the way I wanna remember them. But in elegy, I wrote this trying to work through my grief. And so I was dwelling in things that I wouldn't necessarily dwell inside in eulogy.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 Yeah, that's a really wonderful way of thinking about it, I think, Julia. I love the idea of the elegy is dwelling in grief. And just to add a little bit to this. I'm obviously a sweaty nerd, and so I looked up the definitions. And eulogy is a speech or writing in praise of a person, especially an oration in honor of the deceased. So as Julia said, the eu kind of tells you that it's a positive approach. And as Julie also said, it's the things that you wanna remember, the good things. You don't wanna dwell in death when you're trying to eulogize someone. Whereas the elegy is a funeral song. So this is the definition of an elegy. A sad or mournful musical composition. I found it interesting that, again, echoing what Julia said, that very specifically an elegy is a poem, and in this definition, it's a song. And I find that that's another interesting distinction. A eulogy would be an aeration, a speech, whereas an elegy is a song. And what I loved about your crown, Julia, is how towards the end of the crown, the speaker starts addressing the grandmother. It's a wonderful moment of the you. And so I just thought it was a really wonderful way of distinguishing between those two modes. And in some ways, the elegy belies that eulogy. The eulogy is, in some ways, the pretty version, and the elegy is what the poets give us, which is the fists, the guts, the bones.
Julia Bouwsma '02 Right. Yeah. So I was thinking that in both of our pieces, there are eulogies embedded within the elegy. But then there's this very active grief. The moment in your piece of the, "I don't wanna write this," and the wiping of the glasses. These sort of raw moments, even of acknowledging how the formal hold the words that need to be said and the grief that needs to be voiced and experienced, which is the ways that it pushes on its own form, then as interesting and fascinating to me. That rawness is what makes the work so human and universal, I think.
Debby Bacharach I wanna add another element because both of your pieces aren't just about the individual, your personal grief, but kind of a bigger picture, political or sort of historical. Well, you can't see my hands moving, I'm getting larger and larger. But can you talk a little bit more about how it moves out and how you thought about how to move your personal dwelling and grief into a larger vision?
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 So I am gonna jump in 'cause I really liked how Julia does this in the "Heroic Crown". So toward the end of the "Crown", I was privileged to read it ahead of time, which is why this is a wonderful opportunity. And I love how the election starts. And so it's a wonder, and in a way temporarily, it actually goes backwards. So "The Crown" actually goes backwards in time, like reversing itself, almost as if it's trying to undo the final moment. And so you have moments of the 2016 presidential election, and the grandmother, she's seen it before. And so I loved how Julia did this, very, very subtle, and it felt really organic. And so it doesn't hit you over the head. And yet, I think it's a really wonderful way of tying the significance of this life and this bond to this larger set of significances. And so what I'm trying to do in this poem is also speaking about the collective and the political and the historical, as well as the personal, and the loss. And I think I struggle with how to integrate the political in ways that I'm still working through, because it is a poem, it's not a manifesto. Although, I think the mode that I'm working on does have a little bit of that kind of edge. And so in a way, I am trying to tap into the political, but, again, in a way that's organic, that doesn't feel like it's a form of posturing. In a way, I'm doing kind of an anti-political politics in terms of the position of the speaker.
Julia Bouwsma '02 That's really interesting. I have to say that for me, political grief and anger that were not... So they were inseparable, I guess, for me, for my personal grief. My grandmother who was born in New York in 1924 as the daughter Jewish immigrants. And then she passed away in the end of January, 2017. And it felt to me like the election and her death were directly tied to each other. I felt that completely. I basically felt that Trump killed my grandmother. I felt that she was someone who was passionately antifascist and there was a heartbreak for her. And so I think they were woven the outset in that poem because grief is a very, very messy process. And all of these things were woven together to me with the sort of emotional density that I tried to come across in the poem. But I think I wasn't always even aware of it because it was just the way I thought about it from the beginning, honestly.
Debby Bacharach I just wanna ask everybody to start putting questions in the chat. I have more, but I wanna make sure that I get to all of your questions as well. You started to answer this when you said about braiding. But I'm really thinking as a poet, I'm talking about structure now. So Tavi, yours, I've seen it on the page. It's a prose poem. At least at the moment, I know it's still in process. And Julia, yours is this crown of sonnets where that last line gets picked up as the first line of the next one, so braided together. And I wanna know how you decided which form to use. Did the poem go through several different forms before you found its way here?
Julia Bouwsma '02 Yes.
Debby Bacharach And how do you think those forms are serving the elegy?
Julia Bouwsma '02 Yeah, okay. So it definitely went through a lot of changes. I originally wrote this poem as sort of like a four-page kind of rant. And I hung onto it that way for a while. And it just eventually settled, and then I needed another form for it. And the sonnets came up in a couple of ways, but one of them is that they felt like a place to sort of crystallize the individual moments and experiences of grief, and also some of the anger that I was feeling, because this sort of compact look of the sonnet on the page felt like it could hold this sort of icy droplets of anger almost in a way. But the interlocking element of "The Crown" is really important here because for a couple of things. For one reason, my grandmother was a historian of science and her work was on 19th Century Theories of Heredity that pre-dated modern genetics. So I was thinking about DNA. I was thinking about epigenetic memory and trauma. And these studies that have been done that show that trauma is passed through generations. So historic trauma, et cetera. And so thinking about that, and I was thinking about the ways the grief carries on in our bodies. It transmits, but it carries with us. So the idea of the interlocking ability of the sonnets in the "Heroic Crown" really references for me those ideas of helix and braiding that ran through my grief, but also through my understanding of history, and sort of a way to honor my grandmother as well.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 That's really beautiful. I love towards the end of the Crown. And again, the end is in quotation marks because the crown is of course a cycle that never ends where we talk about giving her this tarnished crown. So I love the self-consciousness toward the end of the first cycle, so to speak. And I thought it was a really wonderful kind of harmonizing of content and form. I find that poetic form led itself to that kind of obsessive dwelling over grief. And so I really appreciate that the crown as well. I have a crown, a smaller crown, not a heroic crown, and anti hero crown in my second collection, "Limerence". And so I think I can see the usefulness of the crown itself as a form of mourning, as a monument, and also a way of holding onto the past. And I think what I'm doing in my poem is in some ways the opposite. I'm unleashing the poetry from the line breaks. And so the poem did go through iterations. The first, I was doing very random. It was basically like leaves of grass. So just all the way to the page. The poem has been compared to "Cottage", speaking of, obviously by Ginsburg. And so I kind of struggled with letting it not be a poem, letting it be a poem in prose. And so what I decided is instead of line breaks, I'm gonna do stanza breaks. And so that's how I decided to still make it a poem, but also release some of the conventions of poetness that I think are ways of holding the grief and ways of kind of condensing the rage and the pain. But I almost wanted to not condense and not to contain. I wanted to just unleash it. And so it really does edge onto memoir, it edges onto prose. But if you listen, I think part of what I'm doing is this kind of queering of the memoir by making it into a poem. And so what is a poem, really? I mean, I even say, or the speaker says, "This is not an autobiography." And so what makes it a poem if you don't have line breaks? And so I think that's really interesting to me. And it's also interesting to me that Julia, in your sonnets, one of them, I noticed that the rhymes were totally off. And just ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, and non ladies and non gentlemen, I hope we can say that this is an incredible performance, this heroic crown. She's using the Italian sonnet form, which is the most difficult. If you're gonna do it in English, it is so difficult. It has like two rhymes. Each sonnet has only two rhymes. And so when it breaks down, I really felt that unleashing that I'm talking about. So I thought that was a wonderful way of modulating. And so for me, the modulation happens at the stanza level. And then I also use Roman numerals to separate the sections. So it's in all these fragmented sections. And part of it is all the sections are a new beginning. So every Roman numeral is number one. And so in a way it's this obsessive, kind of cyclical in a different way that I'm working through the work of mourning.
Julia Bouwsma '02 I love that. And I think exactly what you were saying about finding a way to not... You didn't wanna contain the grief, and you didn't want it to be held by the form. It's exactly what you pointed out I wanna acknowledge, which is that the... So I used the Petrarchan rhymes scheme and in the beginning of the sextet, it gives way, so they're no longer rhymed after that point. So that's right at the Volta is where the form no longer can contain the grief.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 That's amazing. And just to sort of slip this in. So in other words, I think what I'm hearing, Julia, is that the crown itself is a sonnet and there's a Volta in the crown.
Julia Bouwsma '02 Yeah.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 So there's one sonnet that is the Volta for the whole crown.
Julia Bouwsma '02 That is the Volta for the whole crown. And that's why it's a broken crown, is because it breaks at that point.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 I love that. That's really great.
Debby Bacharach Wow. Wow. Now, I wanna go try to write the crown, just 'cause of all of these techniques. I just wanna give them a shot.
Julia Bouwsma '02 If you're willing to write a crown, I have insight from Patricia Smith, which I did not follow because I didn't hear this advice from her until after. Currently, you write the last poem first, and then you go backward. I didn't, and it's really hard not to so. That's why I dispense that word of wisdom. When she said that, I was like, "Oh, of course."
Debby Bacharach I love, Tavi, when he said, well, as a Swarthmore intellectual nerd, here's what I went and did 'cause you're speaking my language. But I do wanna know how do you think your experience at Swarthmore informs you as the subject matter in how you go about writing and kind of this nerdy, intellectual digging into things? How do you think it informs your poetry? And did you hear any of that, or did I go away?
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 We did. Julia, do you wanna start? I need to think about this for a second.
Julia Bouwsma '02 I mean, it's actually quite a dense question. I think that the obvious answer that I would like to start with is Nat Anderson, who is just an incredible mentor to me and professor at Swarthmore, and who is certainly the first person to challenge me to write and think about form. Although, I have to say, the sonnet that I wrote in her class was terrible. I've always been terrified of sonnets. I mean, that's actually part of why I use sonnets here was because they scare me. And I think I needed it to be scared, write a poem that would scare me, as grief is frightening and as so much that was going on in that poem is frightening. But yes, absolutely. I think for me, I can't tell you how I was transformed as a poet and continue to be by everything that Nat has taught me and all of the support she's offered me and my work since then as well.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 I'll jump in. So I did not study with Nat Anderson, and there's a lot of reasons for that. I've since met her, and she is wonderful, and she's also a mentor of another dear sweaty friend of mine who is also a poet, who's in the audience. Hi, Neil. So I was a bit of a shrinking violet at Swarthmore, I think. I didn't begin my journey as a poet at Swarthmore, but I think I became a serious poet at Swarthmore. But I did it outside of the workshop model. And so I did a lot of writing and just kind of traded poems with friends. John Freeman was in my freshman year dorm. I'm sure you've heard of John Freeman who used to edit Granta. So he was also editing small craft warnings. But I think I was an apprentice poet. I had only been writing poetry for two years in high school when I got to Swarthmore. And so in some ways, I didn't think I ready to do the workshops. So I've done a lot of workshops since. But I really felt like it was a more private kind of experience for me at that point. I don't think I was ready to do the public, the rigors of the workshop model. And to be honest, I also felt a little alienated. And I'm saying this as an associate professor of English. I felt a little alienated by the English department to be fair part. Again, part of it was me, 'cause I'm this brown kid from Brooklyn, English is my second language. And I hear that you have to submit a manuscript to get into the workshops. I'm like, "I'm not doing that." That's a racialized low self-esteem, which I write about. And so I think that also was a barrier, structurally. And of course, we all know Swarthmore can be very intimidating in many different ways. So that was one way that I was intimidated by that model. I don't know if they do that anymore, but I hope they don't. In any case, I think I did a lot of it on my own and with friends. A lot of us had a culture, poets and artists. And we did like student films and all this neat artistic stuff. But it was outside the institution. And I guess we cultivated that anti-institutional vibe at Swarthmore, which is the only way we could be there as youngins.
Debby Bacharach Thank you. I appreciate hearing all of that. And by the way, I applied to that workshop and didn't get in. So that's my history on it. So I have a question from Neil Demio, I hope I said that right. Both poets play with forms, so we're going back to the form conversation. Tavi talked about playing with stanza breaks and some pros leaning poems, and Julia modified the lines that links sonnet to sonnet, like laugh becoming follow and located a Volta within the broken crown. So the question is which do you like best, when form lines itself up, or when innovation presents itself?
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 That's a trick question.
Julia Bouwsma '02 Yeah, it is a trick question.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 Thanks, Neil. Do you wanna start?
Julia Bouwsma '02 This one's hard. Can I just say both? I mean, I think those two things can happen at the same time. And I think that innovation can present itself in the form lining up. So for example, the honest answer to the Volta in my crown and where it breaks down is that I just couldn't, I couldn't hang with the rhyme scheme anymore. As a poet, I got stuck. I stopped there and I let it hang with eight sonnets for months and months and months and months. And then I was reading Terrance's sonnets, American sonnets to my past and future assassin. And I was like, "Okay, well, I just couldn't just let go of the rhyme scheme here." And there was a sonnet particular... There were a bunch of them, and so I'm trying to remember which one it was particular where he's really talking about the limitations of the sonnet. I think he says something like half neat grinder, half casket, or something like that. I can't remember. Half music box, half meat grinder. I think those were the moments where I could start to acknowledge the problems with the sonnet form and how it was harming me as well in certain ways and in the poem. And so I wanna say that it was organic that it broke there and that it was a poet choice and I knew all the crafts, but the truth is I just got frustrated. And both things can be true, which is what's fun about poetry. So I wanna say that innovation and things lining up can be the same thing sometimes.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 I love that answer, Julia. And I think you're right. I agree with the idea that even if... I mean, I think maybe especially with a received form, you must innovate because otherwise, you're just painting by numbers, and the reader is gonna feel it. So one thing that I'll say is that the sonnet that Julia is talking about, the sonnet that breaks the mold is a really good poem. And so I think it's smart, and a good poet breaks the form instead of breaking the poem to keep the form. And that's what makes it really organic. And so I think the form can be useful. The crown that comes to mind, Julia, I don't know if you're familiar with a wreath for Emmett till, is incredible, another heroic crown. It's a beautiful book to illustrations. And I think in that collection, I'm blanking on the poet's name 'cause I'm really bad with names. She talks about how the form was almost like a vessel that allowed her to hold the pain of writing this political grief for this young boy. So in a way, form can be helpful for the work of mourning, the work of grief. But I think there is a point where the form becomes dead, and then you're unable to reach the actual pain. So I think it's interesting to not romanticize the form too much. It can be useful, but I think you have to let the spirit take over if the form feels like it's just a zombie. And there's no point in writing zombie sonnets. No one's asking for these things, right? Yes, thank you, Marilyn Nelson. It's an incredible tour de force. And again, so I do think there's room and there's a place for truly formal work, as we saw from Julia's work. And yet, I think the inspiration has to go beyond the formula because it's not simply about mastery. And what is grief and mourning if not the loss of mastery? So it would be weird if your crown did not break down, Julia 'cause then it wouldn't be authentic to the experience that you're depicting, that you're chronically.
Debby Bacharach Well, thank you. That was really interesting. As you were talking, you were starting to... So we have one more question, and then I'm gonna have you two read a little bit to close us out. And you were both starting to talk about people who inspired you or gave you permission. I loved what Julia said about Terrance Hayes' book giving her permission to approach the sonnet in a different way. And earlier Tavi, you said that you're going with queering the memoir. And I'm sort of curious did anybody help inspire you or give you permission to do that? And who's talking to you, whose work is talking to you?
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 I think it's an interesting exciting time to be working in this bizarre queer space of memoir and autobiography and poetry. So I did the Lambda retreat this past summer. I had an amazing workshop where I workshoped this poem, and it was still very raw. And they really helped me think through the questions of form 'cause even a prose poem has form, and I think that's one thing that I liked from their feedback. And so I've been in touch with a lot of these guys. They're all incredibly talented queer and trans poets. I'm really bad with names, so I'm not gonna mention their names. But I've also been working on a more formal poems, like a crown that's a little bit... It's a different kind of mode of mourning, so to speak. But like I mentioned Marilyn Nelson, I think there's a moment for the sonnet right now that I think is very exciting. So Terrance Hayes has been, obviously, a huge influence. Evie Shockley as well is an incredible formal poet. So those are some of the exciting work. And to be honest, as a scholar, I'm also interested in writers who are bending the rules of critique, like Julia Kristeva. She has that essay, "Stab at Matter", that's in two columns. And so I got a lot of interesting kind of feedback about how to think about this poem beyond even the poetry category. And yet that it still holds onto it being a poem. And there's a weird kind of queer magic in that. And I'm not quite sure what that means. The last thing I'll say is that I was very frustrated with the poetic form when I turned to this memoir, I think because it does have that element of mastery that I think is antithetical to some of the emotions I want it to mine, that kind of like virtuosity. And I think I have that obviously in this poem, but it's not about this kind of pointillist perfection that a lot of poetry tends to be 'cause it's so finessed and so specific. And so I wanted something a little freer, a little baggier, a little angrier. So, yeah. That was a lot.
Debby Bacharach Okay. I want you both to read a little bit more, or can both of you read for a minute or two to close this out? Tavi, how about you start?
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 Sure. I'm gonna read a poem called "Rosie Guildenstern". Just a little bit of background. This poem, I wrote a long time ago, and it's about a therapist that I had who helped me with a lot of the issues that are in that poem I read earlier. And her name is not Guildenstern. You can probably guess what her actual name is, but of course, there's the veil of confidentiality that must be protected. She loved this. It was published in this collection of writings about psychoanalysis by a therapist, as well as an Alison's. And so "Rosie Guildenstern". she stood five feet four, red brown hair, glasses. Oblong shape, her nails, blunt, simple. Her nose would wrinkle as she urged me to keep talking through snotty tissue. Once I had to wait in the narrow lobby where a brown-haired woman, faceless, standing, blotted soundless tears. The amazing vitality. However did you sponge so much from so many of us pulling our heads from the sands of our own stories? There you sat, hands on lap, in a dark suit, pearls, never yawning.
Debby Bacharach Thank you. Julia?
Julia Bouwsma '02 Yeah, but I just have to say pulling us from the sands of own stories is just... All that wine, oh my gosh. Okay. Sorry, I have papers everywhere. Hang on. I'm just gonna read the final poem in the crown. So this is the one that's a version of the first lines of all of them. "I'm okay, but the country is not," says my grandmother before we follow the music her fingers made. This is how we slip into memory, how we fall. The final day, she succumbs to silence, leaves me a hopeless clot of knuckles and grief. A friend slips my iron shoes off. Now, they're bolted to riverbank cement. Where have we left our dead? Maureen is a resume inside my bones, proof I'll never slip. Smooth as the space we're born to, we talk the Mobius strip. Our heels sing against the kitchen slate, blue plates, silverware, unstring, unstrung. It gives me comfort, I was shared loose tongue. All I wanted was to blossom you back, but the results come in one by one. And I've seen this before. Some will die before spring, some will bloom ragged and yellow, bring your shovel. Wherever we go, there'll be music there. If a damage crown is all I can give you, then here it is.
Debby Bacharach Wow, thank you. Thank you. Let me just go find it earlier. Nancy Beck Quebec said the crown is like the Memorial Reese that used to be hung on the door when someone died. Those black or very dark Reese lasted into the later 20th century, often with trailing black ribbons. So it's given us that in poetic form.
Julia Bouwsma '02 I have thought about it that way, but that makes sense.
Debby Bacharach Yeah, I think that's a really good image to put with it. Thank you both so much, and thank you everybody for coming. I love that we're celebrating poetry and sharing it. And I learned a ton. I put in the chat links to all of their books. I don't think I have ways to contact them, so I will add that to the chat right now if you wanna email them. And remember that the recording is gonna be up on the Swattalks, the alumni page in two to three weeks. I'm gonna say bye. I'm really here. All right, Thanks everybody.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 Great to see you.
Julia Bouwsma '02 Thank you so much.
Octavio (Tavi) Gonzalez '97 Thank you so much. This is wonderful. Thank you guys