By Marjean Harris
Letter to the Well-Meaning Guests at our Baby Shower
By Elizabeth Ratzlaff
By Austin Biggerstaff
It has been eighteen years since you entered my life and can I please request a little personal space? You always seem to stalk me. Whether I travel to another country, stay in one place and explore what it has to offer, or simply walk around campus, you always like to tag along and stamp another word onto my body. You never seem to leave my side whenever I try making new connections. You always enjoy watching me struggle with the consequences of the marks on my body and how they affect the interactions I try to build.
Since I was a young child, you’ve been assigned to me. I barely knew what you were doing until later on in life. I grew up being the “Director’s Daughter” and that’s all you ever put on me for fourteen years. You called me out for it and made sure others knew that too. I lost a ton of confidence because of your assigned work; did you know that? Do you remember that time when you sat on the steps while I comforted a friend, the other watching my movements and speech before telling me subtly that I did the wrong thing. Right then and there you stamped on “Worst Friend Ever.” Why did you do that? There is no need to put that on me; I tried! Was I wrong for trying to help someone that I care about? What about that time you stamped “Idiot” all over my body because of my attempts to get a better grade in a class, causing me to scratch and itch? Maybe you should get a better ink.
You’ve been harder to avoid since I moved away to college. I fear the marks you put on me since the day I was born. All I see are your stamps in the mirror, your eyes peering over my shoulder, your malicious grin. You’re ready to put more on me; I know you are. Every time I demand a restraining order for you, you manage to find a way around it. I cannot see you and that is the worst part.
I will ask one more time now that I send you this letter. Stop tailing me to my classes and to my visits with family and friends; stop making me feel useless and lost in this world. Your marks have burned into my skin and caused irritation. I have tried countless times to stop you and I am not about to lose this war. You will not win. I will not lose to your labels — not now, not ever.
Your Favorite Loser
Have you ever tried to think back and grasp your memories? I am sure right now you are trying to visualize a particular past event. Well, then we are not really different from each other.
Here I am, stuck in the middle of Lawrence, feeling isolated from the rest of the world. I am over 4,000 miles away from London, but it feels more like four million miles. I can’t stop gazing at this gloomy-looking fountain. The siphon has stopped pouring water into the basin. Not only is the fountain dried out, but the plants and trees also seem withered and brown. Butterflies lie on the ground, and squirrels hide from the people and heat in their burrows.
My dad used to talk about what a romantic and dreamy person I am. I could be physically present at a certain place but mentally in a different universe. That is why he used to call me Luna, which means moon in Latin. I believe that names have an impact on your personality, and I guess that is the reason for me living in a different world in my mind.
As I sit by the dried-up fountain, it seems to transform into the glamorous fountain in Regent’s Park, London. All the shades of the rainbow are mirrored through the water streams. The sunshine lets the leaves of the trees sparkle like thousands of emeralds. Butterflies are gliding with their majestically fanned out wings and lead me to the Queen’s Mary Garden, my favorite place. The essence of the roses always take me back to the times me and my dad spent with my mom. I can smell the different fragrances: apple, lemon, or even honey. They have the most extraordinary names like Princess Alice, Song and Dance, Remember Me, and my favorite one, Keep Smiling. If you think I made all of it up, go and see yourself. The flowers are dancing and splashing rain water. Squirrels are dangling from Oak to London Plane, and everything seems lively. One day before I came here to KU, my dad and I spent the whole day here.
“You’ll go there and make me proud!” were his exact words. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.” All of a sudden something ripped me out of my thoughts.
“Luna, Luna!” It was Isabelle. “I have been trying to catch your attention for a really long time now, but you kept staring at this fountain.…”
“I’m so sorry!” The fountain still looked the same, but at least I knew it could take me to my home and my dad, whenever I wanted. I just have to remember the smell of the roses and everything seems to be colorful again.
“Are you coming or what?” she asked me. “Have you been in your own little world again?”
“I’m coming. Wait for me!” She was already at the other side of the campus, but I closed my eyes one more time to give my dad one last hug.
Sam Taylor on Poetic Experimentation, Writing Beyond Your Intention, and How Crazy Civilization Is
Interview by Austin Biggerstaff
Listen to a clip of the interview here:
On April 20, 2017, associate professor and poet Sam Taylor visited Bethel College on the invitation of the English Department and gave a poetry reading on the Prairie Sky Stage. Because Taylor’s work often engages issues of ecology and species loss, his reading occurred around Earth Day, and the Environmental Action Club offered the audience an ecological footprint quiz. Taylor is the director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Wichita State University. He is the author of two books of poetry, Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series 2014) and Body of the World (Ausable / Copper Canyon 2006). He is currently working on his third book of poetry. Before his reading, Taylor found time to answer some questions over of cup of coffee with YAWP! editor-in-chief Austin Biggerstaff.
Austin Biggerstaff: What are you working on now? Is it similar or different from your previous works?
Sam Taylor: Well, I have a book that I’m almost done with and have been in the final stages of editing for a while that is actually radically different from my first two books. It contains a lot of different kinds of experimental poems — self erasures, strike-throughs, footnotes, and different approaches to constructing a lyric. At the same time, it tries to put all those experiments together in a larger narrative arc. I’ve been working on finishing that up for a while, so I’m also starting new work for a fourth book at this point. That book is, probably, less different. [Laughter.] After doing all these experiments, I have a renewed appreciation for the classical lyric.
AB: Is there anything interesting that you’re reading right now and drawing inspiration from?
ST: The book I’m reading right now is a book by Svetlana Alexievich, a Russian Nobel Prize winner. It’s not a book of poetry. It’s not really a book of fiction. It’s not a book of essays. It’s kind of uncategorizable. She compiles oral histories, so she compiles lots of voices of real people talking about their experience. I’ve previously read the one where she wrote about Chernobyl, which is just a mind-blowing and tragic book. Now I’m reading the one — and I don’t remember the title of it — but it’s centered in the period of the 1990’s in Russia, post-Soviet era … all those transformations that were going on in that time. It doesn’t directly connect with poetry, but it’s a pretty interesting world: there are stories going back to early Soviet times and Stalin times and stories about the transition.
AB: It sounds like you’re interested in politics and ecology. There is a poem on your website titled “Madagascar,” and it sounded as if the poem wanted to point out that there are big topics going on in everyday life that are being “swept under the rug.” It’s as if these people involved in this great tragedy were just put into TIME magazine to acknowledge the issue and then are quickly forgotten about. Does a lot of your work come from this impulse to make issues that are more likely to be forgotten more visible?
ST: I wouldn’t say that my work comes from a desire to make issues more visible for the sake of making them more visible. I think there are a lot of issues that are already very visible if you’re paying attention. I don’t approach writing poems as a way of advancing an agenda. I am interested in expressing the experience of being alive in our time, and I think part of that experience is being aware of an incredible number of disturbing things that are happening all the time. I try to let that into the space of the poem as I think it is in our space of consciousness.
AB: Do you like to write mostly about events that are happening outside the United States? Do you like to hit on topics that deal with the United States?
ST: I don’t really like to hit on topics. I think, like most writers, I write about what interests me, what haunts me, what fascinates me, and what disturbs me, but also just what arises in the space of a poem — which I think is beyond your intention.
AB: How has your work with the Wilderness Refuge inspired your writing?
ST: I love the Earth, and I’d say that the Earth, in general, is one of the things that inspires me most. So it was an opportunity to live in a beautiful place of the Earth for several years and to live there without most of the things that humans have created. I had a good shelter and I had certain kinds of security, but I didn’t have electricity or phone or Internet. So I was really with the land and trees and animals and the way that the sky and the way that the Earth is and has been for millions of years. From that perspective, that experience dramatized for me how crazy civilization is in a lot of ways that you kind of feel within civilization, but it is hard to see it that clearly when you’re immersed in it, and you’re part of it, and you’re dependant on it in so many ways.
AB: You had a couple experimental poems in the Kenyon Review that utilize text and space in very unique ways. How have you been playing with space and text in your work?
ST: Those are poems from that third book that I mentioned earlier. In that collection, I was working a lot with self-erasure – with having two levels of text and erasing part of the text to find another text within it. That was one way. There are a lot of ways though. In that book, I was searching for how to tell the truth, really, and began from a place of feeling frustrated by the ways that the truth of what happens is usually more complex than the aesthetic form that expresses it. So I was looking for different ways to express that complexity and there are a lot of different ways in that book. Mostly, they deal with having different levels of what is said and what is not said instead of there being a clear line — this is what the poems says, and everything else it leaves unsaid. These poems say things that then they erase or that then are crossed out and that then are present in a ghostly way, or they find things hidden within what was originally said or were not said. So there is more of a three-dimensional process in movement and the poem becomes partly about the process of articulation and the process of deciding what’s said and what’s not. And those decisions are actually part of the meaning because they reveal something about what it is you’re trying to talk about.
AB: For my last question, what tips can you give to aspiring writers? Do you have any particular writing prompts or exercises that have been useful when you’re teaching students in the classroom or for yourself?
ST: I think it’s pretty individual. What I might say to someone depends a lot on who they are and where they’re at in what they’re doing. A lot of beginning writers have a hard time [with throwing ideas onto a piece of paper]. I find, when I teach an introductory course, a lot of aspiring writers — I don’t know if you can call them writers at that point — have a hard time of losing control and letting go. You have to be able to let go and be able to — you have to be able to … say things that you don’t understand, say things you don’t intend, you did intend, and be willing to sound stupid. There’s so much potential advice that could be said, that has been said. I don’t think I really have any special gem that’s never been said and the particular things — I would say — really depend on the individual person.
AB: Thank you very much letting YAWP! interview you, and we are very excited to have you on Bethel’s campus with us today.
ST: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.
by Marjean Harris
She didn’t fully understand why they had moved and now lived in a basement. But she did know that her mother was going to school to be a nurse, there was a nice grandma-like lady living upstairs, and she got to go across the street to the museum prairie. She was afraid to go to the deep woods beyond, but she loved the tall thick grass and flowers. No other kids went there, although there were kids around in the neighborhood. There was that boy who lived on the corner in the big house. She thought he must be rich, and she knew he had a father because they played out in the yard sometimes.
It was scary to be at a new school. Sometimes she wanted friends, but she felt kind of mixed up about it. Most of the time, she didn’t look at anyone and just stayed behind her long curtain of dark brown hair. As soon as she got home from school, she put some Ritz crackers and vanilla wafers into a baggie, dug out leftover celery sticks and an apple core from her lunch sack, picked up her book, and headed across the street. She always made sure there were no cars coming and even more importantly to her, no other kids or even grownups around.
She made her own path deep into the quiet grayish brown tall grass. Golden bees and orange butterflies hid against the yellow clumps of flowers. The pokey leaves and sticky spider webs did not deter her. She had tripped a couple of times over long grass and dried-out stems lying flat on the ground. Soon the prairie enveloped her and she made it her own.
There was now a special place for her in the middle of great falling sunflowers, crisscrossed and tangled into a canopy. Inside there was soft darkness with shifting spots of light. Wispy brushes atop tall grass waved lazily. Down below were rusty pointy stars and drying flowers turning to dust. The sky blue above held floaty puff clouds and sometimes a blackbird, hanging up high, wings beating against the wind.
Settling and munching salty and sweet, she listened to the hazy heat. Raspy droning filled the air, soft and then so loud it hurt her ears. She thought the choir was made up of crickets and the green jumpy bugs with fairy wings. There were also grasshoppers, nervously catapulting around. She imagined they were tiny flying dinosaurs with their scaly plates and big eyes.
She was surrounded by an aroma that smelled like bread toasting and mud all at the same time. If she put her face close to the grassy mat and dug with her finger, she could feel the cool earth below. There were narrow bumpy tunnels veering off here and there. The tops of the tunnels were soft, and she was careful to not disturb the creatures burrowing below. Eventually, she fell into her book, ending in a warm sleepy dream.
When her mother called her name, she sat up. Carefully offering the celery sticks and apple core into the black spotted green leaves and withering brown stems around her, she took in return a tiny bouquet of fragile white daisies, dark berries, and a cluster of pink.