NAR editor Jeremy Schraffenberger’s artful reading of my translation inspired me. That’s because he paid attention to both the poem and translations, noting the resonance of sound and imagery in the three versions. It reminded me to appreciate the process. Though it’s a constant challenge to recognize the echoes of the original Zapotec when I translate via the Spanish, I realized that it is my duty to do so whenever possible. Part of what is unique about Natalia’s poetry is its music. She told me once that audiences in Thailand were captivated by the sound of her reading even though they couldn’t understand a word. Lucky for me, her vibrant images reinforce the patterns of her sound and meaning. When I cannot successfully navigate her sound, I can at least honor her imagery. Thanks to the editors of NAR for noticing the echo that Natalia wove deliberately through the original and her translation to Spanish: a mother weaving a bridal gown on a cloth that is at once loom and cotton and clothes.
I wrote “Eloise” one night some time ago. A lot of people in my family have died over the last several years, and even though Eloise wasn’t a blood relative, I took her death the hardest. She did a great deal in raising me, and my brothers and I tended to think of her as a second mother. It was always difficult to explain to others – this woman and her son who vacationed with our family and lived with us sometimes. It was a regular thing for all of us, explaining the unconventional-but-perfect setup we had, and so we got used to it and pretty good at explaining it to those who asked. Continue reading
I wrote the first draft of “The Baker’s Apprentice” when I was nineteen. I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever written, which was true, since I hadn’t written much that was any good at all. I’d been reading a lot of J.M. Coetzee and, in the first draft of “Apprentice,” aped his elegant, restrained style, shaped sentences that were beautiful in a way that resembled the beauty of the author I most admired. A half-conscious method. The task of revision, more than seven years of it, was to sift the traces of that borrowed style, break down the redundancies and flourishes that were among my immature literary habits, and bring out the core of the story, the spine of emotional urgency that, even when I wanted to junk the piece as juvenilia, wouldn’t let me go.
“The Baker’s Apprentice” is a fable about a boy who finds a job as a baker’s assistant and discovers that his idealism about work and women may not be borne out by reality. It’s limited by its austere style, I think, by the archetypal diction of fable; it’s the kind of short story that feels like it wholly contains its world, a world bordered by its language, not a novelistic one that points to human realities that go on and on (so we can imagine) after the story ends. It feels like a story that, perhaps in a problematically self-conscious way, aspires to be “timeless;” a fog hangs over its details of time and place, though such details are there, in the background. It’s not all that grounded in the sensory data of contemporary life, contemporary habits of speech. For these reasons, I suspect, it was rejected by a gazillion magazines over many years.
Sylvia Plath’s poem “Edge” is and should be notorious for its aesthetic theory: the poem states categorically that artistic perfection kills its creator and that only the death of the maker completes the work. The poem is notorious because Plath seemed to be in favor of suicide when she wrote the poem, calling not the poem but the poet “perfected” in death, and then, of course, she killed herself after writing the poem. But Plath’s “Edge” still makes a good point, of a kind. Any poem cannot be read all the way through, that is completely understood, until the circumstances of its writing, including the life of the poet from which it emerged, are set, done. Otherwise the work is in medias res, which has its own pleasures; to wit, the blog. Continue reading
I heard on the evening news some time ago a statistic about the large number of people in the United States who describe themselves as being “spiritual but not religious.” Some pundits proclaimed this a sign of our noncommittal times. They denigrated such people as wishy-washy spiritual slackers who wanted the comfort of faith without the discipline and possible sacrifice that adherence to an established religious tradition, complete with dogmas and laws and rules of behavior, might demand.
Being one of those spiritual but not religious folks, I saw things otherwise. And being a writer, I glommed onto the phrase “spiritual slacker” and started working it into a poem that became a kind of prayer – because hell, even a slacker might need one from time to time. That led to a series of prayer poems that range from the sincere to the snarky – with “Unrepentant Prayer” falling, obviously, on the snarky end of the scale. All the poems include or mimic bits of language from the traditional Catholic prayers I learned as a child.
It’s not because they are any worse or any better than other hamburgers, I imagine, but because there are so many of them. Fifty billion, or whatever the number sold is now, is obscene. And they destroy small restaurants, diners and cafes, places that have charm and variety, places that take time in preparation and service. Once in class, I was relating this story when a student said, “You’re lying.” “What?” “You ate Happy Meals when you were a kid.” “Really? This may be shocking, but when I was a kid there were no McDonald’s. In fact, there wasn’t even T.V.” But there was The Owl Café, and The Fresh Air Bakery, and Mae’s Best.
I read an article years ago about a couple who drove from San Francisco to Boston taking the route through the northern states, then down the coast to Florida and back to San Francisco taking the southern route. To see if it was possible, to see how the landscape had changed, they had Big Macs every day for lunch and stayed at a Holiday Inn every night. It wasn’t hard.
So, what’s the point? If you’re traveling to Boston, wouldn’t you want to sample the conch soup? In New Orleans, oysters and dirty rice, Cajun food? In Texas surely you want to try barbecue, and in Seattle, salmon and geoduck. But if you want to eat at McDonald’s every day and stay every night in a Holiday Inn, why travel at all?
This poem emerged from a series of fraught conversations with a poet with whom I was involved for a few months, as he struggled with conflicting romantic attractions and I struggled to insist on clarity out of confusion—from both of us! At one point in a heated discussion I quipped, “At least you’re clear about your confusion!” He burst out laughing—in my exasperation with him and with myself, I had spoken more truth than I knew! In fact, most of the passages in quotation marks and italics are derived from things actually said—some are as close to verbatim as I recall, or as I rediscovered them in notes and journal entries of the time; others were modified a little. Dialogue in an essentially narrative poem may not be very common—here, it was the best way to convey the complexities, contradictions, and fascinating but anguished energies at play during this volatile interlude.
The swirl of emotions that the situation provoked would have devolved into a sloppy verbal mess had my journal notes and draft lines been assembled into free verse. Instead, the poem demanded structural control, and early on found its way to nonce form—that of the double abecedarian, with the first word of both lines of each successive couplet beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. I had been playing with nonce forms for a while by the time I wrote this; but this was, I think, the first abecedarian I wrote. The first line was prompted by a remark that my companion made in a guilt-ridden moment: “I feel like an assassin.” But this confession was too raw, and really too much his; the poem had to begin more obliquely, with nuance and wit—and sustain that wit throughout. How else to redeem the (“Write it!”) emotional disaster of this liaison, or at least make it aesthetically interesting?
This is one of the oldest literary awards from the USA, first awarded in 1919. Elkins won the prize for her manuscript “Blue Yodel,” which will be published by Yale University Press in 2015. Read the full article here.
North American Review extends congratulations to Ansel Elkins for her accomplishments.
August: cotton blooms.
A brutal, feral laugh
spooks the mules.
in the rail yard quietly
build nests, one
finds a broken bone-
china teacup by the tracks
& weaves hay within.
August. In this land, lost
things just happen
to be found. In the sky
a buzzard eyes a trapped rabbit
he’s waited for. Scouring
the waist-high river grasses of
the Tallahatchie, a heat-dazed
sheriff removes his hat, shields
his blue eyes from the merciless sun.
Striding down the fishermen’s path
with labored breath & gargantuan weight
sweat soaks his white shirt, suspenders
mark a black X in the heat’s sickly
embrace. Halting by the river bank
he heaves, wrestles open
the buttons of his shirt collar to breathe.
Someone in a boat hollers
Over here, Sheriff. We found that nigger boy.
A seventy-five pound
cotton gin fan
strung with barbed wire
leashed to the child’s neck. Swollen
August sun, white blaze. Today
the cotton fields set themselves on fire.
You can read more of Elkins’s work here:
“Reverse: A Lynching” (Boston Review, 2011)
“Blues for the Death of the Sun” (Guernica, 2012)
Ansel Elkins was born in the Alabama foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Poems recently appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The American Scholar, The Believer, Best New Poets 2011, Boston Review, North American Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2011 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, a 2011 North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, and a 2012 fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society. Her poem, “Mississippi Pastoral,” is featured as the James Hearst Poetry Prize winner in issue 297.2 of North American Review.