The Mark Blog

Monday Feature: The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky


"Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares in The Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing."

A Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works. Pinsky is the 2011 PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Honoree. 


Meet the New Mark Participants!

Shanna Mahin is a high school dropout who rallied late and has become optimistic about a strong finish, due in no small part to a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Colony Fellowship, and a few summer residencies. She's currently working on completing her memoir, tentatively titled The Concerns of the Bourgeoisie. She asks that you make note of the word “tentatively.”

Monica Carter, a Milwaukee native, currently resides in Los Angeles and was a 2010 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2010 Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging GLBT Voice. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Cargo: An Emerging Voices Anthology, Black Clock, The Rattling Wall, and in the forthcoming issue of Bloom. She is currently working on her novel, The Affair of 1936. She also curates Salonica, a website dedicated to world literature.

Carl Peel
 was born in Santa Monica, California, and currently lives in Los Angeles. He received a BA from UCLA in English literature and was a 1999 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. His fiction has appeared in BeWhich Magazine, Newport Review, and in the anthologies Wild Things: Domestic and Otherwise and Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction. He is currently working on a novel, Lions & Ghosts, an early draft of which was shortlisted for the James Jones First Novel Award and was a semifinalist for the Virginia Center for the Book’s Great American Book Award.

Desi Desi Desi: A Four-Letter Non-English Word by Mehnaz Turner

This morning at work a couple of my co-workers, Jim & Demian, came by my desk to discuss the diction in one of my facebook posts. I had used the word “desi” to describe a comedian. Heckling my word choice, Jim wondered if I was claiming allegiance to Cuban ancestry by referencing Desi Arnaz.

“I’m talking about the Indian Subcontinent,” I said with exasperation. “Desi refers to any person who is originally from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, or Sri Lanka. It’s an ethnic adjective—an identity marker,” I added, using my teacher talking to student voice.

This, subsequently, precipitated a discussion of Indian food and restaurants, a conversation I am more than happy to get into. I am, strictly speaking, Punjabi, and we like our tandoori grill and naan bread more than anything. Eating heartily is practically a law. Meals are ritualistic for us, like a religion. But at the moment, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm that usually made others guffaw.

The truth is, I felt a bit puzzled after Jim and Demian left. While our banter around the term “Desi” had been playful, I felt a gnawing existential doubt swirling through my belly. Why didn’t more average Americans automatically know what the word “Desi” means, or how it is pronounced? I wanted, as a poet with a particular interest in this term, to be sure others understood it. And here a casual conversation with two educated teachers had revealed that this was not the case.

So why was I feeling morose exactly? Well, I’m thinking of including the word “desi” in the title of my poetry manuscript. I’m not revealing the full title yet, but I’m pretty stoked about this possibility. However, I suddenly felt unsure. Will people end up thinking I’m Cuban if I do this, I wondered. Will they frown and furrow their eyebrows at the title, activating potential future wrinkles? For goodness sake, is this word even in the dictionary?

To explore this some more, I decided to visit and do a basic search on the word “desi.” To my delight, it did come up! And it turns out it is defined as “indigenous” or “authentic”. It is also referenced as a Hindi language term. Still, I was a bit disappointed that a thesaurus search revealed no matches.

So after a moment of jubilation, I found myself getting morose again. The fact is the dictionary success proves little. Most people are not familiar with the word I am thinking of using it in the title of my manuscript, a manuscript geared toward an American audience. Would this present a problem, say, in terms of garnering sales and interest? Would it be a mistake? But maybe the opposite would happen. Maybe the mystery of the word would actually elicit a positive effect, piquing readers’ curiosity enough to make them pick up the book. Still, it was hard to know.

I opened my desk drawer and found myself a piece of chocolate. I think more clearly when I’m eating sweets, probably because I tend to think less. Taking a deep breath, I leaned back in my office chair and thought about the sky. And then it happened. I sensed a shift taking place. Closing my eyes, I pictured the clouds passing by shaped as the word Desi. I pictured a giant blimp sliding through the air, with the phrase, “Desi means people from South Asia” trailing behind it. I pictured a forest where every tree sported the term Desi. I wondered about getting the word tattooed on my back, shoulder, or thigh. I thought of a chocolate cake with the phrase, “Happy Birthday Desi!” frosted across the top in yellow. I pictured Desi written across a basic white tee, on the back of a baby stroller, on a fridge magnet. It could be a new fashion label, like Gucci. It might become a status symbol one day, to own a “Desi” purse. There would be glossy adds in Marie-Claire featuring Desi bling, Desi wear. It would become the next big thing.

And somehow, this flurry of materialistic images offered a sudden relief. I felt a sense of possibility, a bit of humor creeping through the conundrum of my thoughts. I took a deep breath, I even smiled to myself. There was no need to panic. I would use the word “Desi” in the title of my manuscript. In fact, I would begin discussing the word at future poetry readings. As a high school English teacher, I would make it a point to teach students about the term. At the post-office or DMV, I may drop it into casual conversations with staff. I could even tell my manicurist about it. My psychic. My neighbors. Slowly but surely, I would help raise awareness.

And then it hit me: maybe this is precisely why I had written all my poems in the first place, just so one day I could publish a book that helped draw attention to the word “Desi” in America. Maybe the entire purpose of my poetic life, my mission, in fact, was to be an advocate for one mysterious term: a four letter non-English English word.

Poem of the Week: "Brotherhood" by Octavio Paz

I am a man: little do I last 
and the night is enormous. 
But I look up: 
the stars write. 
Unknowing I understand: 
I too am written, 
and at this very moment 
someone spells me out.

Pakistani-American Noir: Contextualizing Myself as a Poet by Mehnaz Turner

So this week I was one of the feature readers at The Cobalt Café for the noir poetry festival. In order to prepare for the reading, I had to peruse my work and gather together the darker pieces and organize them into a fitting read. The process was both fun and demanding. And as I prepared for performance, I was also inspired to reflect on my manuscript for the Mark program. What, for instance, is my reason for obsessing with noir, and how much do I want this mood to pervade my first collection of poems?
My earlier poems may have had noir moments, but I was not subject in the whims of my dark muse as frequently. I was writing about identity, being a woman, and cultural complexities. Taking Suzanne Lummis’s noir workshop the summer of 2008 introduced a shift in my writing voice. I was wooed by the lure of mischief-making in poetry, the opportunity to interrogate my experiences with the hip, wit-chiseled tongue of a femme fatale. It was refreshing, for instance, to cultivate some distance from my experience by exploring it in the sassy hues of black and white. I could still write what I knew, but now there was the possibility of making the familiar strange by taking aesthetic leaps in my work I hadn’t previously envisioned.
I’ve been an avid mystery reader since my early teens. I didn’t know how to reconcile my love for reading mysteries with my preference for writing autobiographical poems. But learning about the noir mood meant I could enhance the lens through which I was looking at my experiences. Not many writers of South Asian origin have produced material in the noir mood. More could benefit from doing so, and I’d like to be a part of this trend. 
I am drawn to noir because it represents a world that is the opposite of cliche. It also opens up the possibility for producing dark/edgy work–and writing about cultural duality in both a serious yet humorous way--with some detachment. So as I revise my manuscript for the final defense, I’m interested in heightening its noir potential. More and more, I’m willing to let my metaphors wear stilettos. My similes, wear a little black. Pakistani-American idea I’m growing to love. It’s where I’m beginning to contextualize myself as a poet. Can’t wait to see how it’s going to shape my final draft! 

Up the Ante: Apply for a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship

On the heels of Tuesday's Annual Literary Awards, where PEN Center USA gave US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky its Lifetime Achievement Award, the Mark blog calls your attention to another prestigious poetry prize and the chance to compete in a fellowship competition.

The Poetry Foundation's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is awarded annually and honors a living US poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition. The 2011 recipient of this $100,000 prize is David Ferry, an acclaimed poet and translator of some of the world's major works of poetry. Read more about Ferry here.

Luckily for emerging poets, the Poetry Foundation and Poetry Magazine give out five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships each year to aspiring poets in the US. The prize is $15,000 and is intended to encourage the further study of writing and poetry. Read about the winners of the 2011 fellowships here.

Weekend Literary Roundup

Paris Review Editor Lorin Stein Has Never Read Moby Dick (for shame!) The Paris Review Daily (November 4, 2011)

"Tenth of December," a new George Saunders story The New Yorker (October 31, 2011)

"My Disappointment Critic": Jonathan Lethem on Being Reviewed by James Wood The Los Angeles Review of Books (November 7, 2011)

Bret Easton Ellis on David Fincher's Film Zodiac Collected from Twitter by Biblioklept (November 5, 2011)

A fall poem sampler from the Poetry Foundation

Poem of the Week: The Subverted Flower


She drew back; he was calm:
"It is this that had the power."
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-headed flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.
He eyed her for a while
For a woman and a puzzle.
He flicked and flung the flower,
And another sort of smile
Caught up like fingertips
The corners of his lips
And cracked his ragged muzzle.
She was standing to the waist
In golden rod and brake,
Her shining hair displaced.
He stretched her either arm
As if she made it ache
To clasp her - not to harm;
As if he could not spare
To touch her neck and hair.
"If this has come to us
And not to me alone -"
So she thought she heard him say;
Though with every word he spoke
His lips were sucked and blown
And the effort made him choke
Like a tiger at a bone.
She had to lean away.
She dared not stir a foot,
Lest movement should provoke
The demon of pursuit
That slumbers in a brute.
It was then her mother’s call
From inside the garden wall
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
And eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.
She looked and saw the worst.
And the dog or what it was,
Obeying bestial laws,
A coward save at night,
Turned from the place and ran.
She heard him stumble first
And use his hands in flight.
She heard him bark outright.
And oh, for one so young
The bitter words she spit
Like some tenacious bit
That will not leave the tongue.
She plucked her lips for it,
And still the horror clung.
Her mother wiped the foam
From her chin, picked up her comb,
And drew her backward home.
-Robert Frost (1874-1963)

A Pinch of Audacity: An Existential Writing Crisis by Mehnaz Turner

So this weekend I had a bit of an existential crisis with my manuscript of poems in progress. I showed up at the beautiful home of my instructor, Anna Journey, in a somewhat dejected mood. I was feeling a bit uninspired, and it only took about ten minutes and three sips of coffee before I was spilling my concerns: I was experiencing a sense of ennui with writing, revision, and book construction. Did it really matter that I got my work out there? Why did I bother to write at all?

Anna assured me that my concerns were normal, and so we talked about the demands on my schedule, the writing and revision, and what seemed to be blocking me from seriously diving in. "You need to get a bit selfish with your time," Anna advised. It was the only way to get the work done.

As we talked, I realized that part of my block has to do with being out of touch with my poems. I mean, I think about poetry all the time and leak out a few poems a week in my journal, but editing requires a different kind of mind set. It involves sustained effort, optimism, and pinch of audacity. It involves serious interrogation and reconsideration. It involves time and devotion. Or as Anna succinctly put it, "An intimacy with one’s work."

This notion seemed to brighten up some well-worn corner of my mind. I realized that Anna was absolutely right. I had lost intimacy with my work recently. I wasn’t connecting with my manuscript on a daily basis and felt estranged from it. The solution, therefore, was to make a point to peruse it every day...even if all I had was a few moments.

Later during our meeting, Victoria Chang, the author of Circle, joined us to discuss her book of poems. When I shared my existential concerns with her, she reminded me that being a poet means looking at the world a bit differently than others do. We write because it’s part of who we are, she said. Because we have to. Because it’s what defines us. I found her emphatic declaration inspiring.

And I’ve been feeling a sense of lightness since the Sunday meeting. I’ve been looking over my manuscript and feeling a spark of possibility again. I’ve decided I’m not going to get weighed down by existential questions, damn it. I’m going to cultivate intimacy and respect my perspective as a poet. I’m going to stop dwelling on the why I write question and consider instead the why not write point of view. The fact is, I’m a poet, and the only practical choice I have is to own the title. I churn out poems because it’s a habit I’ve been into since the seventh grade. Because it’s my way of making sense of things. Screw the cynics & metacognitive abstractions. I need to edit.