As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, poets Erika Meitner (Holy Moly Carry Me), Kiki Petrosino (White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia), and Brian Teare (Doomstead Days) read from and discussed their newest collections, highly-acclaimed poetry that speaks to contemporary life, working through history, genealogical roots, environmental crises, loss, and more, finding ways to understand and live and breathe.
Last year, these poets were selected to have letterpress broadsides made of their work at the Virginia Center for the Book, to be included in an exhibition set called Voice-Overs—work that confronts racism, sexism, and bias in our experienced environments. The full set of Voice-Overs broadsides will be displayed in venues throughout Virginia when possible. As the poets read these poems in this event, you’ll be able to see the broadsides onscreen. Artwork for these broadsides was created by Kevin McFadden, Laura Pharis, and Michael Powers.
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Watch this event (transcript provided below):
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.
“[Holy Moly Carry Me] is a book that really is dealing with raising kids in difficult environments and also kind of facing down the epidemic of gun violence in this country―which makes it sound like it might be kind of a depressing book. But what really impressed me about it is how beautiful and tender it is. It’s really just a live wire. She’s a Jew in Appalachia raising an African-American adopted son. She is and isn’t at home. She’s kind of meditating on these things but she does so in this very incantatory, almost prayer-like way.” ―Tess Taylor, NPR Books
“How do we live among the wreckage of what’s been spilled? Syllables hum with the felt sense of the poet, whose sweat wets the notebook as he walks. Teare has composed lyrics as formally meticulous and sonically aware as they are expansive, pleasurable, and unforgettable.” ―Oliver Baez Bendorf, Kenyon Review
“Fueled by what it means to identify your own blood, White Blood is a masterful book of poems that excavates, resurrects, and stares clear-eyed into history. Petrosino’s intricate attention to sound and the muscularity of the poetic line make these poems explode in both the ear and the heart. Here is a poet at her best.” ―Ada Limón, author of The Carrying and Bright Dead Things
Thanks to the Creative Writing Program at UVA for their help in sharing this event.
JANE KULOW: Hello. Welcome to Filled With Possibility: Poetry, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our local book seller, UVA Bookstore, please visit VaBook.org where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. Erika Meitner, author of five collections of poems, is a professor of English at Virginia Tech. Her most recent collection, Holy Moly Carry Me was the winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award and a finalist for the Library of Virginia Award and the National Book Critic Circle Award in Poetry.
Kiki Petrosino is the author of White Blood, a Lyric of Virginia, recently awarded the 2021 Realca prize and three other books of poetry. Her awards include a Pushcart prize and a Fellowship in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a professor of poetry at UVA.
Brian Teare is the author of six critically acclaimed books, most recently Doomstead Days, winner of the Four Quartets Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle, Kingsley Test and Literary awards. A 2020 Guggenheim fellow, he’s an associate professor of poetry at UVA.
And our moderator, Kevin McFadden, is the author of the poetry collection Hardscrabble and the chapbook, City of Dante, a collaboration with illustrator Jeff Pike. He is a letterpress printer and chief operating officer at Virginia Humanities.
Last year these poets were selected to have letterpress broadsides made of their work that are included in an exhibition set called Voice-Overs, work that confronts racism, sexism and bias in our experienced environments. The full set of Voice-Overs broadsides will be displayed in venues throughout Virginia when possible. As they read these particular poems, we’ll also display the broadsides.
Welcome everyone and Erika, we’ll begin with you.
ERIKA MEITNER: Thank you, Jane and thank you, Kevin. I’m so excited to be here reading with Kiki and Brian and to be reading for Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m going to read some poems from my book, Holy Moly Carry Me. This is a book about raising one white son and one black son in the 21st century Appalachian south. I live in Blacksburg, Virginia, and I wrote this poem right before the 2016 election.
You ask about the leaves and I tell you it’s been so dry here
the leaves are just giving up, turning brown, falling off the trees,
which all look dead. This might be a metaphor for the election or
might be a metaphor for nothing—it’s hard to say. Each morning
I wake up to machines across the street jackhammering limestone,
shearing away more rock-face and turning it to rubble strewn across
red clay soil so dry it heaves and cracks. It’s been seven weeks of
drilling and blasting, drilling and blasting, and that’s not a metaphor
for anything either except maybe my mid-life crisis, which I’m having
surely as there’s whiskey next to me and I’m up all night wondering
if I can be hairless again in some risqué places. Most days I refuse
to believe we’re doomed, despite growing evidence to the contrary.
I mean, it’s like the 1970s down there. Trust me. Most days, I listen
to NPR on my car radio and talk to one son or the other in the back seat
and ask them questions they sometimes answer as we drive home
past the pile of rubble and the leafless trees, which vaguely resemble
the girl I saw on campus wearing an entire shaggy outfit made from
flesh-colored plastic grocery bags campaigning on an environmental
platform for student council president. Her amazing bag-suit was rustling
in the breeze and it looked like she might take flight, just soar over campus
with the drones delivering burritos this week as a test stunt because
our motto here is Invent the Future, which I think about a lot—not as
‘your future’ in the sense of what I wanted to be when I grew up,
which I figured out by process of elimination was not a banker or a
computer programmer, and I never saw myself as a mother either but
here I am. More like I would invent a future where my black son will not
get shot by police for playing in a park, or driving, or walking from his
broken-down car. I would invent a future where there was always
enough chalk to leave notes for the next class: We are starting a revolution
somehow; instructions to follow. What no one told me about programming
computers for Merrill Lynch to keep their front-end trading systems
running past Y2K was that I was simply a dominatrix of code; the disaster
that would take our building down came later, and had nothing to do
with language. My cashier at Kroger has an epigraph on her name badge
under “Paula” that says, “I Will Make Things Right.” I hope that girl
wins her election. I hope that someday someone else will enter my
hairless palace and find it marvelous. The photos of broken glass; the piles
of rubble. The future is throttling towards us and it’s loud and reckless.
My next poem is actually a basketball poem and it is about the time the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championships. It begins at an artist colony and I think the only thing you need to know here is that the older Pulitzer prize winning poet, Steven Dunn, has a cameo in my poem.
is what the announcer dubs Steph Curry’s
flubbed shot that bounces diagonally
off the backboard. This is game seven
of the NBA finals, and Cleveland goes on
to defeat the Golden State Warriors,
but we don’t know this yet, because
we’re still watching the game, jammed
into an alcove where it’s live-streaming
from someone’s laptop onto a wall at an
artists’ colony, since a surprising number
of writers and composers and painters
are basketball fans, so when the sports-
caster reels out descriptions of plays,
Nate the jazz critic says, “Someone should
write a poem called Too strong,” and
Stephen Dunn isn’t interested though
he’s sitting behind me also rooting for
the Cavs, saying things like my goodness
and he’s the best closer for his size.
“You have to give the context in your poem,”
mansplains Nate, who points out that
‘too strong’ is a hyper-masculine way
of saying Curry basically just fucked up
the shot. It’s important to note here that
Cleveland hasn’t won a championship
in any sport since 1964—that’s a 52-year
curse in case you’re anti-math. I am well-
versed in the sadness of Cleveland—
skies hanging like lead most of the year,
husks of buildings, smokestacks pumping
raw flame over downtown. My husband
grew up in the sadness of Cleveland,
and we return there every Christmas to more
unemployment, more foreclosure, more
poverty, more shitty weather. When LeBron
left Northeast Ohio, my husband actually
burned his replica jersey in the yard, wouldn’t
mention his name for three long years of anger
and mourning. He uses Cleveland sports teams
to teach our sons about failure and perseverance,
with a heavy emphasis on the failure. But
here’s LeBron on screen, lugging his city’s
championship dreams like a bag of rocks.
Forget Tamir Rice, age twelve, gunned down
by police for being black, for playing with
a toy gun in a park, left to bleed out on a
sidewalk. Forget that Cleveland is the
poorest city in America other than Detroit.
LeBron’s stuffed this game with thunderous
dunks, fadeaway jumpers, and blocked shots,
towing his teammates along in his ferocious
wake. And when LeBron goes down in the final
minute of the game, writhes on the court
in pain after landing on his wrist we all
want him to get up—even the artists rooting
for Golden State. Get up, LeBron! Nothing
comes easy to Cleveland. The next morning’s
paper sports a photo of LeBron embracing
power forward Kevin Love, next to headlines
about Venezuelan food riots, triple-digit
temperatures in the West, vigils for
victims of the Orlando massacre, and
the Colorado woman who fought off
a mountain lion attacking her five-year-old
son—literally reached into the animal’s
mouth and wrested his head from its jaws.
Too strong. In the belly of fear and rust
and shame there is no such thing.
To pry open something with your bare
hands, look into the gaping maw
of the beast that eats your sons—
the lion, the bullets, the streets, racist
cops, heroin, despair, whatever is most
predatory and say, Enough—we will triumph,
motherfuckers. At the game’s end, LeBron
and the Cavs coach Tyronn Lue sobbed
without shame. “I’ve always been tough
and never cried,” Lue said. And LeBron
at the post-game mic, wearing a cut-down
net like a necklace says, “I came back to bring
a championship to our city. To a place
we’ve never been. We’ve got to get back
to Cleveland. We’re going home.”
I’m going to read a new poem that’s one of the poems I wrote this summer during the pandemic. And I think the only thing you need to know is that Helene Cixous, who’s a French writer and philosopher, makes a cameo in here and this takes place on the beach.
This morning on the beach there’s a small nurse shark,
whiskered & flipped on the sand & right past its shined
white underbelly, a man—dissipated, ponytailed, leathery—
filming his younger blonde girlfriend with his phone.
She’s wearing a tiny print bikini—the kind that’s nearly
a thong, cheeky—& is literally shaking her ass. When she
stops he says, Did we get it? & she must have nodded
no, because he says, Aw fuck, let’s do it again. I know
what I gotta do. Helene Cixous said to be human we need
to experience the end of the world & do you agreewith her
right now in this particular moment? There’s a tropical storm
throttling towards us, & everyone is out on the sand before
the cone of uncertainty sidles its way up the Eastern seaboard—
even a bridal party in blush-colored gowns. Even a family reunion
in matched t-shirts. So many things remain uncertain. I keep
thinking of what my friend Emily, who chained herself to a
bulldozer to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline, told me:
pipeline fighters never ask how are you? They simply say,
it’s good to see you. It’s good to see you, random strangers
on the beach. I’ve been in my house for months. You, under
your striped umbrellas. You smoking weed in the surf.
You fishing from the shore. You, head down, searching
for washed up shark teeth in the shell hash. Your radios &
coolers & sun hats. I know what I gotta do. Buy bottled water.
Safeguard the soul’s passage. Check the flashlight batteries.
Map a topography of displacement & exile. Remain untouched—
the hollow space of the body—the nothing of my mouth
covered by a mask. Cixous also said my body knows unheard of
songs. Laments. To use a gesture to communicate something.
The same crowd never gathers twice. A dead fish can symbolize
an uneasiness in your body. Someone who is unresponsive.
A portent of bad things to come. It can mean you’re next
on the hit list. An occupation of loss.
And my final poem is one that I’m really excited is included in the Voice-Overs broadside project. And the title of this poem comes from Native American visual artist Sky Hopinka.
I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become
If you are fearful, America,
I can tell you I am too. I worry
about my body—the way, lately,
it marches itself over curbs and
barriers, lingers in the streets
as a form of resistance.
The streets belong to no one
and everyone and are a guide
for motion, but we are so numerous
there is no pavement left on which to
release our bodies, like a river spilling
over a dam, so instead my body
thrums next to yours in place.
When we stop traffic or hold
hands to form a human chain,
we become a neon OPEN sign
singing into the night miles from
home when the only home left
is memory, your body, my body,
our scars, the dark punctuated
with the dying light of stars.
KEVIN MCFADDEN: Thank you, Erika. Very powerful reading. Next up we’ll have Kiki.
KIKI PETROSINO: Hi everyone. Thank you so much to the Virginia Festival of the Book. Thank you, Kevin and Jane for all of those intros. It’s an honor to be here and to share poems.
I am going to start by reading the poem that is part of the Voice-Over broadside series. This poem is called “Essay in Architecture” and it comes from my book, White Blood, a Lyric of Virginia. The title, Essay in Architecture, comes from Thomas Jefferson’s own writings in which he described his home at Monticello as his essay in architecture.
Essay in Architecture
The human face, its pine doors painted
like mahogany. Human face with horses
under each veranda. Perfect parquet tetragons
of the human face. Human face still legible
in Old French. Sealed closet of the human face
lit by oculus. Design face, tinker face, factory
face. Twine & bare wood comprising a pulley system
for the human face. Woodworked face with sunbeams
settling in. Revolving buffet supporting the human
face. Entire pewter plate collection in face. Human
face as soup tureen, as paint chip, as spit jack. Smoke rings
textured like the human face. Human face, cured. Human
face, pickled. Human face brushed with olive oil, anchovies
& Parmesan. Green floor of the Dome Room just above
the human face. Floating view of the face, its quarter farms.
Rough cabins dotting a sloped face partly visible. Human
face built to resemble a Great Clock. Great pendulum
drawing faces in the air.
The next poem is called “Terrorem” and it’s also about thinking about Monticello.
Every night I go back to Mr. Jefferson’s place, searching still
his kitchens, behind staircases, in a patch of shade somewhere
beside his joinery & within his small ice house, till I get down
that pit, lined with straw, where Mr. Jefferson once stacked frozen slabs
of river water until summer. Then, visitors would come to him
to ask about a peculiar green star, or help him open up
his maps. They’d kneel together on the floor, among his books
lavish hunks of ice melting like the preserved tears
of some antique mammal who must have wept
to leave Albemarle, just as I wept when I landed in Milan
for the first time, stone city where Mr. Jefferson began
to learn the science of ice houses, how you dig into the dark
flank of the land, how you seal the cavity. Leave open
just one small hatch through which I might lift, through gratings
Mr. Jefferson’s cold dressed victuals, his expensive butter & salads
the sealed jars sweating clear gems of condensation, white blood
appearing from warm air, as if air could break & slough, revealing
the curved arc of our shared Milan. There, I wore silver rings
on each thumb. I studied & spoke in fine houses
of ice. I knew a kind of crying which sealed me to such realms
for good. Old magic weep, old throb-in-throat. How much
of my fondness for any place is water, stilled & bound
The next section that I’ll read from is from the county right next door to Albemarle County. You know, Albemarle County is where Charlottesville is, that’s where Monticello is, that’s where I’m broadcasting from. But we’re going to move next door to Louisa County, another county in central Virginia where my ancestors were part of the free and enslaved communities.
You wake up because
you hear someone singing
little lamb, little lamb
as if the singer were calling
from across a great
distance. You know, as you’ve always
known, that you’re the little lamb
in this song, just as you know
that no matter how far
you may wander from the loop
of sand where you were born
the singer of this particular song
will always sing little lamb meaning you,
quite distinctly. As you
slowly climb from the covers
you try to tell the song to stop
that noise, please but what comes out is
play it again, which you hadn’t meant
to say, at all. Soon, the song starts up
once more, spinning the long journey
of itself. It speaks of coiling into thickets
of sharp weeds, of slanting across hills.
The song even describes you
in some time before remembrance.
You wore a suit of woven water
& learned to speak in rippling syllables.
You, or someone like you.
Message from the Free Smiths of
You want to know who owned us & where.
But when you type, your searches returned no results.
Bondage was grown folks’ business, then old folks’.
We saw no reason to hum Old Master’s name
to our grandchildren, or point out his overgrown gates
but you want to know who owned us & where
we got free. You keep typing our names into oblongs
of digital white. You plant a unicode tree & climb up
into grown folks’ business. You know old folks
don’t want you rummaging here, so you pile sweet jam
in your prettiest dish. You light candles & pray:
Tell me who owned you & where
I might find your graves. Little child, we’re at rest
in the acres we purchased. Those days of
bondage were old folks’ business. The grown folks
buried us deep. Only a few of our names survive.
We left you this: sudden glints in the grass.
The rest is grown folks’ business we say. Yet
you keep asking who owned us.
Louisa County Patrol Claims, 1770–1863
I pry open the files, still packed
with liquor & strange brine.
Midnight seeps from the cracks
slow pulp of arithmetic. Four or five
or six at a time, the white men draw
along the Gordonsville Road on foot
or on horseback, clustered close—
each man counting up his hours, the knife
of each man’s tongue at the hinge
of his own mouth. For ninety-three years
& every time I slip away to read
those white men line the roadway
secreting themselves in the night air
feeding & breathing in their private
column. Why belly up to their pay stubs
scraping my teeth on the chipped flat
of each page? This dim drink only blights me
but I do it.
Two more poems. This one is also from the Louisa County section of White Blood and it’s based on a letter that I found preserved in the National Archive.
Mrs. A.T. Goodwin’s Letter to the
Provost Marshal, 1866
You ask why I raised my hand to that boy, why
I gave him some raps over the head, you ask
why I took my small riding whip to his shoulders
his head, why, you ask, when he would not cut logs
at the woodpile. You ask why I took him by the hand &
gave him some raps, when not one stick did he cut from twelve
to four. I told his mother, my milker washer, I told her
in plain words he must do better. I told her all this without
any improvement. She was insolent, which is why my son
struck her. He only struck her when she ran from her cabin
to pluck up the boy while I was giving him some raps
over the head & shoulders with just my small riding
whip. Understand, Sir, this boy had not cut more than
two scant handfuls of wood for my cookstove, but all
the family were engaged to me: his mother, the boy
to bring my horses to water, to cut wood, only yesterday
he said I shall not cut a stick of wood. I shall not touch it. So these
are the negroes we’ve raised, never abused a single one, always
had the kindest feelings, the kindest, so long as their conduct
were tolerable, so long as I did not have to stand
by my woodpile, smelling the woodpile, the smell of the sap
intolerable from twelve to four, the heave & snap of the clear
sap inside the logs, never holding still, so that I had rather stand
in the house, my hands sifting flour across a board, so that
in truth I had much rather be still, holding nothing
but my riding whip, dark & folded up small.
The last poem is a poem that I wrote the Fall before I left Kentucky where I was living before I came here to Charlottesville. And it was a poem I wrote for the city of Louisville after an incident of racially motivated violence in the city. A white supremacist opened fire inside a Kroger grocery store and two elder African Americans were killed in that incident.
Dear Lord, Dear High Remembrancer
Dear Providential Love—have mercy.
Have mercy, thou Surveyor of Wildflowers, Assessor of Royal
& Exquisite Bee-Realms. Have mercy, Ledger
Who Tracks Us in the Night, Who Measures without Speaking
Our Dark Trespasses. For nothing here survives—
not the gold-legged deer, browsing the bleached office park at dawn
nor the minute finch on her branch of long division—
but thou, thou, thou absorb it, all. O, Gazer, be kind in thy absorbing
calculus. Won’t be long before thy reckoning curve
arrives at the junction of our error. How, beneath thy Mineral Eye
we walk abroad, forgetting thee, Cartographer of Sparrows.
KEVIN MCFADDEN: Thank you, Kiki. One drawback of Zoom in a reading is you can’t hear the “hmmm” that so often is part of us when we’re reading together. So thank you, Kiki and Erika for those moments and more ahead. Brian?
BRIAN TEARE: Thank you, Kevin. It’s such an honor to be here with Kiki and Erika and I just want to thank you and Jane and everyone at Virginia Festival for the Book for making a gathering possible during this time when we can’t really gather. I mean some of us, unfortunately, have gathered and will continue to in Texas, apparently. But since most of us are being sensible I appreciate this gathering.
I’m going to read four poems and the first three are from a book that came out in 2013 called Companion Grasses and these three poems are a part of a sonnet sequence called “Transcendental Grammar Crown.” I’m actually going to read them backwards so, against the crown form. And a lot of my work is really interested in our human capacity for reflexive thought and obstruction and how those things result in a kind of idealism that fails us when it meets material and social reality. In all sorts of ways it fails. But also a real pleasure in the material, despite the way our thinking often fails when it hits material reality.
These three poems are written in proximity to a field that I really loved. This is called “Otherwise Grasses Parable.”
—to have been built bent
to bear witness to have
been thin-stemmed spined
like a mind to have said
—it’s true we saw the grasses turned snake
flesh fall crept cribs of cryptic ribs we wished
it was a dream but the fields went weird & left
—was it a dream at forest’s edge we watched
dark arc over the fields how trees begin to lean
at that hour over their own shadows & the voice
called the grasses back
by name —timothy
bent orchard hair
poverty sweet vernal come
—solstice brings the field
to its knees yarrow
flax vetch heavy
estival air a gall of pollen
— & aren’t you novice again in lit Euclidean gilt
shadows to true each natural fact toward more
radical matter : a robe of rhetoric auric eulalia
—to angle praise fodder the color of how you felt
as a child pure Bible-light ochre smoke & ivory
vellum pages cut stems sweet —taller now
than grass you can’t
but muster nothing
longing a rope you’d use
to haul it all other-wise
And then this is the poem that’s the broadside, “Of Feeling.”
—no monument no moment no human
Passion just spider’s fiber cantilevered
Thing hedged best guess a net
to register the transparency identity
becomes its minimal matter fragile
—and then what plaint & wait as if
your whole life a pattern of spectacular
aptitude for disappointment your
intelligence a broken wing a bird
feigns to distract the hunt from kill
—it’s useless to reduce gesture further dear
Form : are you reason are you even feeling : fail better
And then this last poem is an attempt to fail better as opposed to feel better. It is called “Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Cornelian” and it takes place in Johnson, Vermont in the hills above that town.
Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Cornelian
On foot under thunder
heading in from the west,
I wasn’t thinking rain
but now I’m thinking rain
on Plot Road while I watch
Foote Brook do its thaw thing :
ropy cold clear water
pulls itself downhill fast,
its spatter lathering
granite banks with foam. Up-
hill, up the road, a field
mown gold. Its curve is cut
by horizon, a veil
of rain drawn across it
slowly so it darkens
in increments. I left
the house without poncho
or umbrella. I’m cold.
The good news is : the way
a place to stand to lift
the world, & Descartes sought
one thought as certain as
the point a lever turns
into a fulcrum, this
dirt road is a fine place
to get totally soaked
in the poem. The bad
news is : el niño. It’s
a bummer to go all
cogito here after
the hottest winter in
the hottest year so far
on record, all the thaw
finished by the first week
of March. Yet I can feel
the color the poem
gathers inside me, brown
of a dried milkweed pod,
everything outside it
on a spectrum of wet
& getting wetter as
the front moves overhead.
A little mist sizzles
high in the canopy,
its sound in the middle
distance of the sonic
landscape between Foote Brook
& thunder, a distance
rusty blackbirds also
fill from the oak they have
flocked to, so raucously
dominating its crown.
When the rain hits, they fall
silent. Then there’s nothing
in the hush but thunder
& water on water
& water hitting wood.
Above : the sky a kind
of crushed lilac. Around
me : Clay Hill an issue
of trickles gathering
mass heading south downhill
to the river. Little
streams even in the mud
under my feet, I want
to say I feel the pull
on all my vertebrae,
occiput to sacrum,
the water in my bones
longing to join the thaw.
& thought alluvial
too, the way valleys fill
slowly with gravel sent
down by the surrounding
mountains : olivine, quartz,
each stone an idea
washed then carried by rain.
Down Foote Brook’s leaf-slick steep
bank I slide the way walk
& watchbegin in rhyme
then fail the way those same
activities fit in-
side each other until
they don’t : I slip, hit rock,
my body stops, the walk
stalls, & I sit, my mind
rising toward quiet
as the brook goes by, south
by southwest. I watch, let
the current take over.
Over its rocky bed
the water runs clear, leaves
the distortions made by
its torsion flickering
the way musculature
moves its skin, all flexure
& shadow. Do not move
the x-ray tech told me,
so I stood & did what
I’m doing now : I watched
living turn to image,
a bruised sort of bluish
fluid on a white screen
lit up. You might have years
of mobility left
if you’re careful, he said.
I could’ve looked like that
for hours at my spine,
the molecules locked in
degrading matrices :
where the joints meet up, spurs
curve small bone hooks honed to
catch on flesh the x-rays
see through, causing the doc
to write in his report,
soft tissues unremark-
able.It’s weird to be
always incurring off-
screen injuries I have
to live with. The process
makes a space in my thought
like I make a space on
the brook’s hard bank : anthro-
pogenic nonpoint source
pollutant, my urine
a potent effluent
of medicines I need
& pesticides I don’t,
of harm for riverine
species. I close my eyes.
Rain on leaflitter sounds
like storm wind high above
& the brook thrown downhill
by its own force, the world
in an unending rhyme
with itself, consonant
& comforting. I know
it’s cogito that makes
it seem my ears make it
so. I open my eyes.
I get up & go east,
back up Plot Road, muddy
now with runoff. Off-road
landscape ranges from field
to forest to dwelling
& back, the visual
rhythm of settlement
& regrowth, clearcutting
& aftermath, my eye
always drawn to eco-
tone, richly liminal
& ugly where forest
meets field grown over stumps.
I love what yields green there
then dries in thickets : bull
thistle, milkweed, seedheads
in hundreds that luster
against the denser screen
of trees. I love how birds
the size of sparrows hunt
in the scrub, break cover
to duck between thin trunks –
the black-capped chickadee
loosing its slow two-note
sing-song sing-song only
after it lands a branch.
Some things must be listened
into appearances :
the thistles for instance
rustle, sigh into sight,
vatic static in wave
patterns that predict wind
that hits my face; the rain
slowly into puddles
of an abalone
as a rock pigeon’s neck;
& the poem starts first
as a color I hear,
its stiff dry stalks shaking
gray & brown. It’s almost
the world offers, texture
whose totality is
far beyond adequate
capture, & excites me
anyway, as endless
as the filaments of
beard lichen the same soft
bright green of olivine.
So I watch; I walk on;
I fill my pockets full
of milkweed pods, a few
still stuffed with floss; I watch
as if I could forget
the harm that happens where
the world’s flesh meets my flesh;
I walk as if I could
undo the human self
I’ve become & remain
through undoing done to
others. Between walking
& watchingthe whole world
slips, goes missing, my mind
empty as the chambers
of a gun whose bullets
have hit the intended
heat & soft black powder
all that cogito leaves
behind. I never meant
to fire. It’s not my voice
that cries out bulls-eye! but
I find my mouth moves too
without thinking as each
species goes down. & then
I do nothing but think,
for instance, of a cave
in upstate New York : there
a fungus introduced
from Europe infected
bats whose skin spread through touch
a syndrome inducing
to hibernate. Awake,
sick bats use up winter
fat stores & starve, thinned wings
torn, riddled with lesions.
emptied in the east, spores
moved mortality cross-
country to thirty three
states in the mere decade
since the fungus first jumped
the Atlantic on some
spelunker’s boots, perhaps,
or on infected gear –
extinction follows us
whether we mean it to
or not. We arethe point
the lever turns into
a fulcrum : by wounding
the world we lift ourselves
up. So I walk the way
I’m possessed by some god –
I don’t know how to know
what I know except to
put it on foot, gesture
as outwardly useless
as boots in a downpour
on a scale this total.
Just before Plot Road meets
Clay Hill, an abandoned
barn leans over a stream
that cuts under its right
back corner, its skewed floor
strewn still with tools & hay.
A few license plates hang
on its aged gray façade.
I like the look of it
the way I like the sound
of the passing cars harped
on Clay Hill by frost heaves
that rattle their chassis :
the sort of ruin
that seems livable
until it isn’t.
KEVIN MCFADDEN: And thank you, Brian. Great reading. And now I think, I hope we will have a great discussion, so I’ll invite everyone to come back re video and we’ll gather here, take a breath. I was struck in these poems at how time bends and morphs and how you each orient us to time. Erika, in the game that you’re describing, it already happened but you’re moving in and out through a larger context. And Kiki, obviously the context of Virginia’s history with inequality and violence on race permeates the poems. And Brian, coggy toe, you’re calling it, I’m hearing in that this thinking mind, this self that abstracts as you started with in those poems that you read from Companion Grasses. So I’m just curious to hear a little bit more from each of you, if you wouldn’t mind exploring that aspect of time, trans historical or how it moves and speeds up and slows down for you and what kind of responsibilities, maybe, you feel as a director of that flow of time. Any part of that you want to grab.
Kiki, will you start?
KIKI PETROSINO: Yeah, I can grab onto that very astute observation, Kevin. And I think that my relationship to time in the poems that I read for today goes all the way back to how I think that lyric poetry operates in general, which is, I believe that the lyric poem is … It preserves the movement of mind of the poet across the subject matter. So the poems that I find most interesting to read and the poems that I aspire to write are not poems that already know what they think or already know what they’re going to say about the subject matter, but rather poems that use the space of the poem to think through a problem. And in that way we may approach poetry with the same urgency that we may approach philosophy or divinity or any other area of humanistic inquiry. Poetry is a place to think about problems. And in so doing, time passes and the poem then, the completed poem, is the artifact or the trace of the time that the poet spent thinking through those complexities.
So when you are talking about history, there’s historical time which has already passed, but that time becomes more kinetic in the space of the poem because my thought about that problem takes time, exists in real time. And so the poem is a place where you may time travel, you know? And then the reader reading the poem gets to travel along with the poet as well.
ERIKA MEITNER: Can I add two things to Kiki’s thoughts because that was so beautifully said. I work in narrative more often than lyric and I think one of the really fascinating things to me that kind of blew my mind in writing “Too Strong” was my partner would sit and watch the recording of the Cavs game after they had won and still be so nervous because he had been so traumatized as a Cleveland sports fan, that they would lose. Even though he had already seen that particular narrative happen, that I think narrative can create that same space in some way. And I use the term trauma loosely here for that experience, but I think it’s that old saying by, I think, Einstein of repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome. One thing narratives can do, particularly if they’re jammed up against each other in new ways, is create a new outcome, is create a new story. And while it doesn’t necessarily move time forward, it gives us new meanings for past, present and future, in, I think, a similar way to lyric, or can.
I think the really other interesting thing to me is that we’re always experiencing past, present and future, in some ways, simultaneously. Our brains are always moving and living in those moments in really simultaneous ways. When I walk down a street in New York City that I walked down as a child, even if different stores are on both sides of me, I’m experiencing the street in the moment. I’m experiencing the sense memories from when I was a kid, and I’m also often thinking about what’s going to happen next. And so I think those aren’t things that are separate to me, and poetry allows me to experience that clash or that melange of past, present and future all at once.
BRIAN TEARE: And I love both of those answers and I wanted to add something which is, when I started working on Companion Grasses and really thinking about a history of environmental writing and what it might mean to join that history or be in dialogue with that history, I read a really wonderful book by the writer Rebecca Solnit called Savage Dreams, which is this history, it’s multiple histories of the West in part, like nuclear testing in Nevada and then also water in northern California and Yosemite. But one of the things that, this idea that’s pretty simple but I think was really helpful to me, was that we never look at landscape with fresh eyes. Because landscape is already a cultural idea. It’s already sort of a kind of palimpsest of quotations and inheritances. And that we cannot look at anything, actually, but the natural world, other bodies, there are always this kind of melange of received ideas.
And so one of the things that is important to me in my own writing, thinking about the past inhabiting the present, is bringing forward some of the ways in which some of those thinkers or some of those ideas that shape our perception and experience of the present tense. Because those also determine how the future, as we know now from the environmental crisis, the global environmental crisis, we know that that actually will shape our future. We know that also in terms of racial justice, in terms of gender justice. These ideas from the past actually have determined both our own healthcare, our own safety in the present way public spaces are experienced and will continue to do so unless we examine those ideas and change the way they shape our material realities.
And so I do see that work of bringing forward and examining our inherited ideas and making ourselves responsible for them and how they get deployed both in our own work but also in social space. And a crucial thing that, an otherwise rarefied habit of quotation that we inhabit from modernism, let’s say, it can actually be utilized differently now, I think in ways that are much more critically reflective and justice-oriented, for lack of a better word. So I think of that as, I think sometimes of quotation as, this portal both into the past and into the future.
KEVIN MCFADDEN: That’s great. And maybe even building on that in a sense, across the books, as I was reading these poems, presences that really are asking for a poem to be written. Either quite literally or that is the feeling of presence that the poet’s encountering is feeling and experiencing and it is pushing. So could each of you speak to that a little bit? Have you felt those times and how does it feel when you are called? You are asked to write?
BRIAN TEARE: Kiki, do you want to begin again?
KIKI PETROSINO: If I think I understand you right, it’s about subject matter. Like what do we feel called to write about and when do we feel called to write about those things? With regard to my latest book which is all about, well it begins with my own connections to Virginia. I had never really written in a formalized way about the time I spent at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate. It was an intense time and a wonderful time of learning. It was also a time that was full of change for me. My parents separated and then divorced during the time that I was an undergraduate. And my grandfather took his own life during the time that I was an undergraduate. So in writing about my experience of Virginia, all these other things came up that had been a part of my experience for twenty years but that I had never told anyone, really, in words or expressed through my poetry.
And when I think about the book and how it grew, I think that it’s a book that I could only write now after having lived those twenty years and having gone back into time to recollect what it was like to be a student here. In doing that, I also needed to engage with ancestral connections to Virginia that I always knew about but that, as a young person, I didn’t explore fully and didn’t have a catalyst to explore fully until my grandmother, who was from Virginia, until she passed away in 2015. At that point I realized that if I wanted to know more about my grandmother than what she had told me herself, that I would have to research it, and I would have to find out what the connections were and the depth of those connections.
So those paths of inquiry entwine themselves and began to feel like a calling. Began to feel like work that I needed to do, that needed to be combined into one project. And I don’t think I would’ve been ready before now to have engaged those questions. So I think that things might always be inside you that could be potential subjects for poems, but there are some poems that you need to be in the right place in your life to begin writing.
ERIKA MEITNER: I would definitely agree with Kiki 100% on all of this. I started Holy Moly Carry Me the day of the Newtown school shootings. And I arrived at Virginia Tech in 2007, the Fall after the mass shooting here. And one of the things I never thought I’d be writing about before I got here was gun culture and gun violence. And a lot of the book deals with that element of living here in Appalachia. And I think it took a moment where the age of the children who were being gunned down in Newtown were the same age as my children. And that was something that felt like it forced me to enter that conversation in a really palpable way. And there were all these other really dire things going on that are still going on, the immigration debate, the election protests, unarmed black people getting gunned down by police. And all of those things had personal connections to me. But I wasn’t able to really process a lot of it before the moment where Newtown spurred me into starting to write it. So I think sometimes there are catalytic events, too, that push you to the moment of, I’m going to write about this.
I think one of the things I was hoping while I was writing this book was that it would become obsolete before it was published and that just didn’t happen. The Orlando shootings happened right as I was finishing it up and there had been a lull. And gun violence is something, obviously that keeps happening. When you write about systemic issues like racism, like violence, like environmental crisis, they’re issues that unfortunately keep happening. And how we choose to address them as artists, I think, the three of us work through them really differently but all through, to some extent, our personal connections, experience and observations.
BRIAN TEARE: I love that. I love the way the three of us are working that way in these parallel tracks. Because I think all three of us, maybe, also began on some level, with a somatic knowledge that eventually needs to … At whatever point, either through research or through a chance conjunction of historical events, gets catalyzed into poetry and into music and into narrative. And I think for me, writing Doomstead Days started when I still lived in California and there was an oil spill, the tanker Cosco Busan grazed the Bay Bridge and then leaked, I forget how many thousands of gallons. 47 or something thousand gallons, 58,000 gallons of fuel into the Bay. And I had actually never lived, even though I grew up in Exxon Valdez spill, the y’all remember it, it was a thing in childhood and we all remember Dawn dish soap saved the day. And I had that as intellectual knowledge but I had never been near an oil spill. And I had never seen oiled water in person. And I had also never visited a marine animal rescue center and actually watched birds get scrubbed down with Dawn dish soap and little tiny toothbrushes.
And it was actually watching an oiled cormorant thrash in the hands of one of the people who were trying to help it that was the trigger for the book. That was the moment where all of the intellectual knowledge I had about environmental catastrophe and crisis, and all of the reading I had done and the history in various environmental histories and natural history and environmental writing, it all coalesced into finally a crystal of experience and of somatic bodily knowing that made me actually, it hooked my body into my conscience and the two fused and I was like okay, now I hear the call. And I know this in a way that I am pulled into and that I will never not be beholden to again.
And so for me, the rest of the book, that is in the first poem of the book and the rest of the book, even though I moved from California to Philly, I read Philly through that lens of being beholden to this larger network of creatures and how we’re all deeply enmeshed in the oil industry in various ways. So for me, not unlike for y’all, there’s always an experiential moment that calls my knowing into a more forceful relation to the poem and that demands to be spoken. And I think of it as conscience. There’s … It’s also music and it’s also feeling and all those things but there’s a core of conscience now for me that’s part of that calling.
KEVIN MCFADDEN: It’s amazing this far into this incredible reading and some questions of conscience didn’t come up earlier. That’s a great tie here. You have all been wonderful. I thank you for taking us into these places, sometimes difficult, certainly complex and being such thoughtful stewards with that intention. I think the Festival has granted us a wish for this excellent work and that is, knowing we have been so relatively restricted in our movements, you’re going to get to wish you were anywhere. If you could travel, after this reading, boom in your minds you are there, where might it be? Where and why? Rapid fire. Let’s reverse it. How about you first, Brian?
BRIAN TEARE: I would be on Hawk Mountain in central Pennsylvania during the Fall raptor migration, being part of the raptor count watching all of the different species of raptors make their way southwest down the Appalachians. It’s just one of the most beautiful, incredible experiences and then also it’s very social. You’re there with all the scientists doing the counts, and it’s like a tailgate party but for birds.
KEVIN MCFADDEN: How about you, Kiki?
KIKI PETROSINO: I would be home in my mother’s house. That’s what I wish for. It’s been more than a year since I’ve seen her and she’s gotten her first vaccination. And so I have high hopes that my wish will come true and that we’ll all be vaccinated soon and that I’ll be able to go and enjoy being with family again.
ERIKA MEITNER: And I haven’t been alone for about a year, because I’ve been in my house with my children and my family. So I would love to take myself to New York City and check myself into a hotel for a night by myself and go to the Whitney and the revamped MOMA and hang out with the art and then have dinner with my parents who I also haven’t seen for over a year. So yeah, I would love to do all those things some day.
KEVIN MCFADDEN: That would be great and it’s my wish that they all come true before too long. Thank you all, again, thank you Erika, Kiki, Brian. I’d also like to thank the two amazing artists, Mike Powers and Laura Pharis who had a role in the amazing broadsides we saw and the folks at the Virginia Center for the Book, the artists who helped make it. Thanks to everyone who’s watching. And please consider, these are great company while we are relatively restricted. These books, consider buying them from your local independent book seller or using a link to VA bookstore provided on VaBook.org. You can also check out other events for the all virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thanks again, everybody. Bye bye.