I am beyond excited that Kayla Sargeson is coming to town to read at Athens Word of Mouth, Wednesday, May 7th, upstairs at The Globe. I met her in 2009 at the Tin House writer's workshop. The poetry classes were small and scrappy so we bonded quickly, even across the two small groups. Word about Kayla traveled fast. But hearing her poem combining Frida Kahlo and masturbation sealed my fate as a fan. That and the fact that she was flirted with by one of my favorite living authors. Oh my, y'all. Here's Kayla.
I'm from Pittsburgh, where I currently live. I'm currently working on a project on the Human Barbie (if you don't know anything about her, look her up. She's a treat.) and examining gender/feminism/sexuality and its relationship to the body. I could talk about her for hours, but what I can tell you quickly is that as a feminist I should hate her and as someone who's into the body mod community, I give her props for what she's doing. For money, I teach composition at the Community College of Allegheny County, where I also work as a facilitator in their Learning Commons (kind of like a writing center). On weekends I'm the counter girl/shop rat at Jester's Court Tattoos & More and I work at my friend's hot dog shop called Krazy Dogz. I also tutor privately. For non money, I'm the poetry editor for the Pittsburgh City Paper, co-curator of the MadFridays Reading series, an Associate Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and Media Relations Director for the Savannah-based record label Dope Sandwich.
Do you have any touchstone poems?
This is probably the hardest question on here for me, so that's why I'm answering it. I stand behind all of my poems, but there are a couple that opened up new doors for me, that were harder to write than others. "Dear World" is one of those poems for me. I remember its first draft was just a stanza with these clipped ideas. I wasn't sure it was even a poem, but the collective response was that my peers wanted more. I took it to my mentor Jan Beatty, who told me to just give myself room (and she suggested the gun section markers) and I just wrote. What I like about this poem is that I wrote it directed to one person, but it reads like I wrote it to the world. Sometimes my speaker's a little tricky.
"Reading Edward Field..." is another one. Not only did I write in the voice of a gay man, but this poem was an imitation poem of a Timothy Liu poem, whose style is so dissimilar to mine and such a prominant gay writer, so it was such a daunting task. I had to strip the feminine from my work so it rang true, and it was a challenge to write this poem in general.
"Ozzyspawn" is one of my favorite poems for sure, my ultimate favorite persona. I wrote that poem after this guy I had a flirty thing with told me that there were no good female artists. I got angry, wrote "Ozzyspawn," and dropped the guy.
"Topography, Us"--love poems are hard for me to write, so I write them as much as I can.
Do you have a particular response you hope to get from a listener/reader?
I just hope somebody feels something--I don't care what that something is, I just want it to be there.
Someone calls you a poet--how do you respond?
I have the word "poem" tattooed on my arm, so I better be okay with being labeled as a "poet." It confuses me when poets get weird about being called poets because poetry is the reason I get out of bed every day--I think in poems, I live in poems, it's what I do and who I am, so why pretend to be anything but?
What inspires you?
Oh god--pop culture, other people--I'm obsessed with the margins, with what lurks in the shadows, the things we can't say. I'm constantly looking for complexity and duality.
How do you deal with creative doubt?
I think everything I write sucks (at first) and I'm probably the craziest person I know. When I have those "oh my god what am I doing with my life why am I even doing this" moments, I just write through them. I've given up too much to live this life, so I'm not going to bail now.
What are you wearing ;)
my tattoos, duh :)
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Kayla's first book, Mini Love Gun is available from Main Street Rag or directly from the poet if you come hear her at Word of Mouth.
It's spring and all, y'all.
All seed-turning, earth-warming, restless, naked-legged, sneezing, seething spring. Spring cleaning is happening -- from the rainswept pollen to finally throwing away those concert tickets from 1998 to kicking one tiny habit of regret about that thing that's bothered you for a while. The wind mimics what you know, everything needs to move - now. "Desire animates the world." - William Irvine.
You can feel it, see it happening, the mating dance of everything, a song will bring it back, that magnetic pull of you to that other One, cellular, singular, as loud and personal as a heartbeat. Courtship, call and response, push and pull. The alternate universes of possibility. Want, have, had, rinse, repeat.
I've been rooting through old papers and digital detritus. I found this prose poem from around 2007 which fits for the season, the feeling. So much has changed, thank goodness, primarily how much of life is lived in living instead of dreaming. I know what it's like now to have Someone who will listen to that first draft.
But this poem is a back-then meditation on topics and questions I still think about- about the relationships between love and desire, longing and having, idealization and realization. How those questions relate to creativity and the making of things, the making of a life. I doubt any resolution on these will come - which is probably a good thing. Here's the poem:
If Because Instead
If you hadn’t worn blackbird song around your head, I would have been fine alone. But you came in March when I am tender with memory. (You said you knew I was a March baby because my fine hair moved in the stillest air, conjuring wind.)
You approached in the twilight, when I was squinting toward the trees and their bare arms blurred with leaf buds. You spoke your name and the grackles and starlings exploded into the sky, a black lace sheet snapped by invisible hands. The squealing bird-racket and dimming light coalesced into this thought: my favorite face.
“But you love all faces,” you teased later. “You are like a baby, searching each one for home.”
You offered to cook for me, thin Thai soup full of coconut milk and fire. I choked and coughed in happy, grateful pain. You hit my back with tender aggression. That was the first time you touched me. Because of this, any time I watch you spank a new pack of cigarettes, I remember and my breath comes easier.
* * *
That never happened, not in the actual world. But it flickers in the cave-shadow of my unlived lives. You are in the secret society of lovers untaken due to circumstance, previous engagements, fear, or crossed desires. A group so select, some members are unaware of their enrollment.
* * *
Everything depends upon if and unless. I craft desire out of cannot and because.
* * *
A drafty, acid-yellow farm house squats next to a creek about twenty miles away. A covered bridge straddles the creek. My husband showed it to me shortly after I asked for the divorce. We had lived there for months, unaware of the hollow room that sat over the glass-bright water. We walked in and I peeked through the boards out onto the shining water and air. I cried in shame at the gift, at the fear that it was an omen to stay.
* * *
In that house, if you are very still during the greening light of March, you can see it, the phantom of the life I imagined with you (this phantom depends upon instead). Watch, we are sharing coffee in bed, hoarding warmth in our twined limbs. The wind catches and whines in the old cedar. We laugh at its haunted-house moans. After breakfast, we walk down to the creek. I bring something new I have written to read aloud. We will judge how it bounces between the walls of the bridge. “It is about how we met,” I say. I begin: “If you hadn’t worn blackbird-song around your head, I would have been fine alone.”
See also: Octavio Paz's "The Double Flame", the movie "Holy Motors" (which prompted a namesake poem I may put up later if it remains homeless), songs by Tom Waits. Let's just all enjoy the dance between have and want and celebrate when they coincide. Now, dip me!
I’ve been getting excited about Athens Word of Mouth this week, as our featured reader will be Cris Mattingly. On his last visit, he read his poem “A'int” which described the word as a “hillbilly ohm.” That settled it for me. I was sold.
It’s hard to describe the cell-deep pleasure of having disowned language claimed and even exalted. As a teen, I hate to admit how much of a self-loathing southerner I was. I tried to lose my accent. While I still cringe a little to hear myself in recordings, I try to adopt C.D. Wright’s stance, “I have a terrible accent. I see no reason to lose it.”
A friend recently described being prompted to defend The South (whatever that means) at a dinner party, as another guest sighed that it was too bad, in effect, that the region even existed. My friend launched her defense, acquired an apology in return. But the stigma remains for many. Some of us live the tension.
One weekend I watched Junebug, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia. All three films searched as goads and tonics. Through them I kept thinking about specifically the artist from and in the south, and the weight of depicting images about it. How much do you describe, especially if the depiction might resonate with a stereotype? Do you edit that stuff out and lie? Amplify and market it, cash in on the redneck/hillbilly trend as the freak du jour? Ignore anything but the noble and beautiful of a culture and risk sentimentality? Add to that reductionism: See Barry Hannah, below.
My accent and my writing are made up of contradictions and the exuberant mess of where I grew up. I might say a fifty cent word, but it’ll sound a bit off, the stress on the wrong syllable, the vowels stretched like taffy. I aim to keep the words like “favor” used differently in my poems. I hope to keep the contradictions alive and tense.
There’s a story that floated around about the late, great Vic Chesnutt that I hope is true and exemplifies this tension. At a party, someone was asking him about his music and when he heard the title “Isadora Duncan” made some crack, thinking it was just some girl he was pursuing. Supposedly, Vic finished his beer, smushed the empty can on his forehead and said, “Isadora Duncan was an American pioneer of dance and choreography at the turn of the century…” then proceeded to expound in his own terrible accent.
So maybe I'll just let the twang fall where it will. I hope to keep ‘em interested, or at least guessing, ala Ms. Badu.
Happy Monday, y’all!
" Remember that the South—and this is what people forget—the South is sixteen states and it’s the biggest region. It and the West are enormous country. Of the sixteen states, from Texas on up to Virginia, there is a stamp that means love of language and stories. But that might be the extent of the similarities. Texas lit is nothing like Virginia lit. The Tidelands is nothing like Appalachian. We’re talking about an enormous nation." - Barry Hannah
Frida to Diego
My infant, my love,
The eaves tremble with your laughter.
My body shakes above you,
a cracked boat on the sea.
My beautiful Gargantua,
my lovely monster, I would suckle you,
feed your enormous hunger.
Broken as I am, I weep blue-white milk,
rivers of it, for my lostlings, for you.
When you come home, you wag your centaur head
reeking of other women in your mane. Half-penitent, half-proud.
No matter. I draw you near while our fighting words
still drift above us like smoke from burning Judas figures.
I will not flinch when the embers land on my face.
My eyes will seek your eyes, and stay.
I will drink you forever and grow enormous
as a moon, full of you.
Diego to Frida
My peg leg, my dark brow,
Forgive me, Fridita, for I forgive you
because you do not see it,
the light that spills from the creases
in the low center of every woman.
Light with color, you see?
one like an orange marigold,
another with the velvet
ray as from a calla lily,
misty, milk-pale, and I am pulled
as one who falls.
It is not my pito that is the trouble, dear one,
it is my feeble eyes. I am just an old man
with dim eyes that need more light,
more light in order to see.
I ply the source to save us all
from becoming beggars,
deaf and stumbling.
You must believe me.
And you? Not light,
but music pours from you.
Here, little dove, my incendiary love,
let me put my face closer, lower
to hear you better.
Many writers, painters, and musicians have their muses. Sometimes they are the beautiful face or form that lights their imagination. Petrarch had Laura. Man Ray had Lee Miller. Frida and Diego had each other (among others). Some lucky creators get to live with and love their muses.
Grady Thrasher is one of those. A former lawyer turned author/film producer/community advocate and all-around lover of life, he has penned many odes to his wife, artist and muse, Kathy Prescott. By the way, Kathy shares all those "slashes" herself. They are quite the team, manifesting good things around them and inspiring many Athenians and folks far and wide.
Grady has confessed to an addiction to rhyming. His compulsion is visible in his work, but not nearly as brightly as his love for Kathy. This is the 10th anniversary month of an extraordinary couple. Cheers, you two!!
When We Are Old as Winter - Grady Thrasher
When we are old as winter, avoiding sleep,
We’ll retire beside a warming fire with a book,
But I, not reading, will linger on the soft look
Your eyes had once and yet still keep.
Long will I have lived in the gladness of your grace,
Loved your beauty then as I do now
And the honest aesthetic you show
In each glow and shadow of your changing face.
Undiminished by age, love’s brilliant flames,
Their unbroken fever forever abides,
Stronger than mountains, truer than tides,
Moving the stars to know our names.
I Held You in the Vision of My Mind
I held you in the vision of my mind,
The image I sought to make mine complete,
In perfect harmony with age and time,
Where others, imperfect, fell to defeat
By shadows real or shadows only feared.
You, doubtless and secure, at peace with light,
Your radiance embracing as you neared,
Warmed and softened the edges of the night.
Unhesitating, I surrendered all,
Set my sail to run before your breeze,
A course even angels cannot recall,
The journey melodious in its ease.
Awakening, I reach and find you there,
A goddess answering my fevered prayer,
My heart in the custody of your care.
First Attempts at Impermanence
There is no holding.
There is no stasis,
as a newborn
is wiped away
with the vernix
of its entrance.
of any substance,
much less gold,
Except the held
strong as spider silk,
If you want some love poetry, I'm posting some of my favorites on Twitter until Valentine's Day.
And this is new, a poem inspired by Chagall's painting "The Birthday", among other miraculous things. Especially from one particular being - someone a poet friend called "my beautiful muse."
Despite my mother’s warnings against superstition
and the black book pressed into her lap,
its exhortations: in the dark ink of nothingness,
on the white paper of winter skies.
Despite the cost of butter for a cake,
and the warning to save candles for blackouts.
Despite years of loneliness
packed into my bones like rationed flour.
I bought flowers for my birthday
and refused to pretend otherwise.
I made a cake and broke a pomegranate
while it baked, counted each jeweled seed
as it burst on my tongue while I waited.
I opened the window to March wind.
Despite everything, I made a wish.
It floated out on sugared air.
You floated back on jonquil breath.
Decades of stinginess had taught me
to wish only for a kiss.
Some granter of wishes, not conversant in lack,
gave me you.
...that was an awkward pause so forget the graceful transition and here we go.
Happy Tally: This winter has been rich with inspiration from talented friends and loved ones doing wonderful work. Life the Griot, a documentary about social worker and poet Lemuel (aka "Life") LaRoche, was just released in Athens to an enthusiastic and sold-out crowd. Not only is Life's work with young people a testament to the goodness of doing good, his work was artfully depicted by the talented Matt DeGennaro of Surprisingly Professional Productions. Many who saw the film in Athens immediately brainstormed ways to get involved in the community. Can one man make a difference? Can art make a difference? Hide and watch, people.
I've had a few more poems find homes, which is always satisfying. The title poem of the book was just printed in The Chattahoochee Review's animal-themed issue. I look forward to digging into to the issue soon, but it's a good-looking thing to have on the desk until then.
Love Poems: I have been pulling some favorite love poems and lines from them on my Twitter account. Right now the selections are heavily canted toward love/lusty themes, but I hope to add many from the other varieties of love. I'd love to hear some of your favorites - in whatever vein or style - requited/unrequited/anti-love/familial/sexual/spiritual or even an ode to bologna.
Everybody loves something, even if it's just tortillas. - Trungpa Rinpoche
My name’s Ciera Durden—nice to meet you, reader. Hope you’re doing well. I’ve lived twenty years of my twenty years in Georgia, with eighteen in Augusta and two in Athens. A very well-traveled writer, I assure you. My day “job” is being a student at the University of Georgia majoring in Japanese and English, though it hardly feels like a job—more like a four-year intellectual romp and rapture. We’ll see what it leads to after the happy trip is finished. Aside from that, I really don’t know what to say about myself. I’m a 5’10” lesbian, a graying brunette twenty-year old who drinks too much coffee, and a terrible cook. I like studying religion, language, sexuality/gender, and really anything else. I have a horrible memory. I hate driving. I write because I have to. There’s a really wonderful desperation to it that I feel is probably the best gift I’ve ever been given. Because there’s arguably no reason to do this—to sit in a room or stomp through the streets stringing words together and getting a high out of it but I do and it is such a strange and fulfilling thing.
Do you have any writing/revising rituals?
Even if it isn’t necessarily a spoken word piece, I tend to read my stuff aloud as I write. I want to feel the language on multiple levels. Plus I often overuse my words—I get too excited and create really long phrases and sentences, so reading it aloud sort of puts me in check. If I run out of breath before I finish the thought, that’s typically a strong indicator that I need to revise it.
Also, since I mostly write on the computer, I’ll also copy and paste a lot to try out different versions of the poem/prose piece. Mix and match different endings to try to find the best whole.
Do you only write poetry or do you practice literary polygamy? (No judgement.)
I mainly do poetry, though I really love writing out little vignettes as well—strange scenes that are saturated with description, even if they never go anywhere. I know it’d be “wiser” to write prose if I want to be published (which I do) but I’m terrible about finishing a piece. I certainly don’t think I’ll ever write the next Great American Novel.
Do you have a particular response you hope to get from a listener/reader?
Tears or money would be appreciated. No, kidding—in all seriousness, it really depends on the piece. In general though, my secret wish is for my poetry to do to my listeners/reader as my favorite poetry does to me. I want it to shake them, to make them moan, to make them flash back to a memory. I want it to matter. It feels really arrogant to type that out, but it’s true—I want it to matter. But also I want it to be useful to the reader, somehow. I’d like for my poetry to be a hand reaching out, at times, stroking the reader’s face. Let it be an embrace.
What inspires you?
People, interactions, small phrases I hear, my sad (lack of a) love life, the shower, the bed, death, strange joys, eating, depression, song lyrics. I would say “everything” but I haven’t had a traffic cone or window sill inspire me yet. I’m primarily a confessional poet, so nearly all of my work comes from my personal experiences, though I do branch out occasionally. And by branch out, I mean I’ll write something like… a possible future situation and how I would respond to it (example: writing about being married, writing about the idea of separation/divorce, etc.). I’m a very self-oriented writer.
How do you deal with creative doubt?
I try to ask why I’m feeling the doubt, or what exactly that doubt is focused towards. If it’s a particular poem, I’ll often leave the piece alone and come back to it later, or just straight up erase the part that’s been giving me trouble (or squirrel it away for another piece) and try a different approach. If it’s my overall craft, I try to force myself to not write about a specific theme/use a particular writing mechanism for a while. Like recently I realized I focused a lot of the possible power of a poem to be centered on repetition and counting—I had to verbally repeat a phrase (i.e. the ‘thesis’ or driving point of the poem) or create a sort of list format in order to explain and give strength to what I was trying to convey. There’s not anything really wrong with this in a single poem, but after doing it repeatedly, I felt like I was cheating by creating a safe formula. So I forced/am forcing myself to shake it up a little and be more aware of the diversity that can (and, arguably, should) develop in one’s style.
Ciera Durden - Rituals
Honest, personal and powerful, Emily Gundlach's poetry rings like a bell. She took some time from her busy life to introduce herself.
"Here I am, world! I moved to Athens from upstate NY in July 2012 and never looked back! Ok, so i looked back a few times - but NY sure is pretty in the rear view mirror! Currently, I am a second year MSW student at UGA, concentrating in Nonprofit Management and Community Development. As for the rest of my life- I'm just living it, day by day, trying to figure out where I fit in, in this world...
Touchstone poems - sadly, I am not as well read as I'd like to be. I cut my teeth on slam poetry, so I'm partial to that style - think Andrea Gibson or Derrick Brown. I've always loved Robert Creeley's "I know a man" as it seems to hint at a darkness just beneath the surface and serves as a metaphor for something bigger than that poem. I also love the imagery in "Work" by John Engman.
Writing/revising rituals. This is something I'd like to change, really. I'd like to become a bit more disciplined with my writing. As it is now, I typically wait for inspiration to strike and then find myself scribbling notes madly at 3 am or texting phrases to myself in the midst of a crowded restaurant. I am, without fail, and not for lack of trying other styles, an autobiographical poet. Everything springs from what I have experienced. I don't feel true "ownership" of my poems, I don't feel like I am creating brilliant imagery, I like to think of it more as learning to really listen to the world and getting what I hear down on paper. The best poetry comes from something inside me that is not really me. Is this getting a bit flighty? Probably. But it's the best way I can describe it, words coming through me, not from me.
I have written short stories and essays in the past. I enjoy writing - it's what has carried me through school! I enjoy a well crafted phrase or image. Currently, all I write are papers on community development and program design and the occasional poem.
On the desired response from a reader. I want to touch people. I want to reach past the facade that we all wear, mostly out of necessity, in our every day lives, and touch the core of people. This is where the interesting conversations happen and this is where real connections are made. If something I write can guide someone in the midst of turmoil toward light or a solution, even better. Using my experience to convey hope to someone else is what creates meaning out of the wreckage of my past. As I have said before, it's important to tell our stories. My story is not any more important than anyone else's, I've just been given the gift of being able to tell it. My aim to be honest. Always tell the truth. I think that's especially important in poetry.
On being called a poet When someone calls me a poet, I have to admit, I feel a bit like a fraud! Like I've pulled the wool over everyone's eyes! Me, a poet? I just like to write. I have been fortunate to have been in the presence of truly inspirational poets and have read literary works of such staggering genius, that I feel I cannot be placed in the same category as these "real" writers. Does it flatter me? Oh yes, absolutely! I hope to one day "feel" like a poet all the time - right now, I feel like an occasional poet.
On creative doubt. Learning how to deal with creative doubt is not something I have mastered yet. Right now, I feel too busy to spend much time doubting - or writing. Being busy is an excuse, of course. I find being around other writers, hearing other people's work to help with creative doubt."
* * *
Perfection and Its’ Keeper
I carry a knife in my purse so that I can carve out imperfections when I find them
This is not a metaphor
I hope that you are perfect for your sake
but mostly for mine
Sometimes I grow weary of cutting away the insignificance that creeps in to my life.
I watch mirrors and reflective surfaces as I walk by
waiting to catch a glimpse of ugly on my face
And I write this in fragments as I am distracted by the monotony of life
and I write this in fear that revealing the darkness within
will be called ugly
will be called imperfect
will be called not good enough
and there, under perceived judgment, I will wither and die.
I carry a knife in my purse and I imagine that when I am perfect, I will be happy
When I am perfect, I will be glorious
When I am perfect, I will loved and loving
and I will be everything that I dream of and yet am not.
I will be enough.
I carry a knife in my purse and in the past, I have turned it on myself
I have carved out the ugliness in my arms, reaching for the poison that flowed through my veins,
cutting away the dead feeling that crept within me
and I created scars that only served to advertise where I have been,
that brought into daylight what was done in the dark
and so I covered them with tattoos of flowers
and I called them beauty.
I wait for a man to tell me “you are perfect because of your flaws
you are beautiful because of what lives within you and the life you lead now”
I wait for a man to tell me “you are enough, you are complete
you are so complete that I am complete when I am with you.”
But what is this but more dependence?
What is this but more addiction?
What is this but more searching for something that is not me
and becoming less of me
and accepting less of me.
I carry a knife in my purse and sometimes I am angry
and sometimes I fierce
and sometimes I look at the world with a ferocious gaze
and I say fuck being perfect.
This knife point will not cure me
this man’s gaze will not lessen or increase me
this world will not burden me
I will walk upright and brave, I will carry with me my ugliness
I will show it to the world with fierce pride in where I have been because
I don’t live there anymore,
I will not be afraid.
And I will let perfection die underneath this knife
I will cut away the beliefs that have choked me for too long
it’s time to start breathing
it’s time to start living
It’s time to start using the weapons I have carried with me for so long,
the way they were meant to be used.
So let me be imperfect
and let me be free.
* * *
Emily is a regular reader at Athens Word of Mouth, 1st Wednesdays of every month at The Globe, 8 pm.