Poetry Personas

Three well-known writers reflect on new, contemporary work

One steps back in time. Another straddles a cultural-geographic border. A third shimmies between panic and oblivion.

Camille Dungy, Heriberto Yépez and Richard Siken braid their incongruent strands of writing for the "Next Word in Poetry"--the third year the UA Poetry Center has invited writers to reflect on contemporary poetics.

"My goal in curating the program is to share poetries that herald a dynamic new era," says Frances Sjoberg, the center's literary director. "They represent diverse cultural and aesthetic perspectives. They also raise the poetic bar."

Each poet contributes new work to the landscape that is, Sjoberg surmises, wildly disparate from one another. Their poems don't sound like anyone else's.

Yet an echo resonates among them.

Camille Dungy has moved around the country, most recently in the South. But she grew up in Southern California and the Midwest and is heading back to San Francisco to teach in the fall.

"We all have an echo of the South in our work," acknowledges Dungy. Other poets have helped her hear those whispers.

"Lucille Clifton's focus is on Southern families, but her sonnet forms are pithy yet clear. Sterling Brown lived right here in Lynchburg. He got his start by listening to those voices. My book wouldn't have happened without him."

Dungy's first collection was just published by Red Hen Press. What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison joins an anthology she recently co-edited called Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade.

Perhaps the geographic shifts have allowed Dungy to step into opposing landscapes, but also anachronisms. She is keenly adept at writing the persona poem. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, O.J. Simpson--all meander through her words.

"It gives me a chance to explore outside my own experience, to move into other skins and time frames. But also, as writers of color, something like a persona is always necessary for our readers."

Baby you were meant to be home / you were / meant to be what I ain't never known / blue flame / done melted my song and you won't tell me / if you'll risk the curse between my thighs / won't give me more than the music of your fingers / strumming my slip's strap ...

"Black Spoon" croons like Billie Holiday singing in a smoky nightclub. You can smell the gardenia tucked behind an ear to cover up bruises.

"To write an effective persona, you have to be unmasked, but honest about your motivations," explains Dungy, who says she has to hole up into another world in order to write. "I have to go where I hear the sounds of the language, fly back into 1953."

Heriberto Yépez, aka Hache, also straddles worlds, but his borders are international, his poetry more didactic. The Tijuana writer and translator has written two novels in Spanish--El Matasellos and A.B.U.-R.T.O. --and several books of essays on Mexican and North and South American literatures. His English-language work has appeared in Tripwire, Shark and Chain. He teaches philosophy at Universidad Autonoma de Baja California and is also a practicing psychotherapist.

Yépez' work is "rendered in near-apocalyptic tones," according to one critic. In Mexperimental, a blog he pens, Yépez writes, "Americans should leave Afghanistan and Iraq so writers and clerks can move to more boring topics. I only can call poetry the most critical voice against every order, including its own."

He adds, "I suspect as poets we take advantage of times of crisis to try to offer poetry as part of the solution. Maybe to hide poetry is part of the problem. ... Poetry is always trying to put an end to a war that continues wars that poetry helped to instigate."

An echo to both Dungy and Yépez is heard in Richard Siken's writing. In a recent online interview, the Tucson poet mused on his own work. "If you think the world is a golden place made out of love, then the book is grim. If you think that life is brutal and short, then the book is uplifting. I think it's just true."

Siken's referring to his first poetry collection, Crush, chosen by Louise Glück for the Yale Younger Poets Prize and published last year. The book was recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. These two prestigious honors in a poet's short career are remarkable. But like Yépez, Siken is not entirely immersed in the academic world of poetry: In 2001, Siken co-founded and currently edits the literary magazine Spork, but he has also supported himself for 16 years with a job as a social worker.

Glück compares Crush to Sylvia Plath's Ariel. "The risk of obsessive material is that it may get boring (and) ... shrill. And the triumph of Crush is that it writhes and blazes while ... holding the reader utterly."

Siken hurls us into an obsession-ridden collection of such immediacy that you turn your head to see if someone's whispering the poems in your ear.

Who am I? I'm just a writer. I write things down. / I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure, / I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow / glass, but that comes later. / And the part where I push you / flush against the wall and every part of your body rubs against the bricks, / shut up / I'm getting to it ...

Although he's admitted that his book is not autobiographical, he does allow that the 1991 death of his boyfriend influenced his work. The book, he says, "is a little more about elegy and a little more desperate."

Desperation, crisis points, borders, lost voices--these are the foundations in this vibrant time for poetry. As Camille Dungy surmises about the contemporary writing climate, "There's a miasma in the air. But there are intersections and crossings."

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