Presenting Homeless God by Phillip Aijian

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Just in time for the holidays, Californios Press is proud to present Homeless God, a new chapbook of poems by Phillip Aijian. In these poems, Aijian explores people on the edges of society: refugees, prisoners, panhandlers, and more. Aijian asks his readers to reckon with the often grim selfishness that can blind our eyes to the dignity and divinity in every seeming stranger. These poems could not be more timely. Order here.

An Interview with Amy Katherine Cannon

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How did you first fall in love with poetry?
I think for most of us, for far more of us than become poets, childhood is particularly rich in poetry — from lullabies to nursery rhymes to jump rope chants, meter, rhyme, and song keep us company. I remember memorizing poems to recite for school competitions and because I liked them and thought they were funny — I remember especially enjoying Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Hilaire Belloc’s poems about unruly children meeting gruesome ends.
I think it was enormously shaping for me that my life was awash in literature of all stripes, high and low; that my family read out loud to each other; and that (crucially!) reading was encouraged, but there wasn’t a lot of expectation or pressure around it. Sure, I could get a personal pan pizza from the library if I read a certain number of books each summer, but what I mostly remember was people reading to me, and my enjoying it, and delighting in the play and fun of poems, way before it was the kind of thing I knew I could do too.
I do vividly remember the first poem I wrote, I want to say in the sixth grade. I had been reading Madeleine L’Engle, who is one of those wonderful gateway writers — writers who consistently refer outward to work that came before, offering a lineage for the reader to trace. One of her books referenced The World by Henry Vaughn, which inspired me to write my first bit of doggerel. I recall the last couplet was
Do we walk the narrow way, filled with love and light?
Or do we wander blindly, replete with hate and spite?
I had just learned the word “replete,” which says pretty much all you need to know about that poem.
Which influences have shaped you most as a writer?
Gerard Manley Hopkins is my lodestar, someone whose work took the top of my head off, and whom I continue to aspire toward and marvel over — but the whole lyric tradition is littered with inspiration. Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Kenyon, The Wrights (James, Charles, Franz), Robert Hayden, Li-Young Lee. Ross Gay and Solmaz Sharif and Ocean Vuong and so many others continue to carry the lyric tradition forward. I am drawn to play with language on the page, rich sound, but fairly plain and direct ideas, I think.
I have been very influenced by creative nonfiction as well — Annie Dillard, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss — and I can devour that in a way I can’t devour poetry. When prose is honed and crafted like poetry is, it’s a true delight and a teacher.
It’s clear from the Resources page in The Interior Desert that the Christian monastic tradition heavily influenced these poems. Tell us about how and why you chose to tackle this tradition as a subject.
I was first drawn to the Christian mystics in college — I probably encountered Julian of Norwich first through T.S. Eliot and fell in love with her Shewings, and worked backward from there, ending up at the desert fathers and mothers. My mentor in college, Dr. Greg Peters, happens to be a scholar of Christian monasticism, and he pointed me to the handbooks and received wisdom of these religious communities — The Rule of St. Benedict, the Ancrene Wisse, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. I became totally fascinated by religious instructions, by what moderation looks like to an ascetic, for instance, or how you schedule a day that starts at 3 a.m. and is mostly fasting and prayer.
I think I’ve always been drawn toward the apparently impersonal second person. Wisdom literature, and even instruction manuals, can have such a tranquil and apparently untroubled voice of authority. But, of course, however much our words attempt to be impassive, balanced, or neutral, we reveal ourselves. I can’t get over how monks are instructed to flagellate themselves — moderately! Don’t severely whip yourself! Just a little self-mortification. I’m fascinated by how almost unrecognizable these expressions of Christianity might seem today, how offensive in some ways. And yet, and yet. What is it that drew people in such droves to try this ascetic desert life, so that these desert caves got downright crowded? These were some of the fascinations that motivated this chapbook, and the larger manuscript it was drawn from.
At Californios we care a lot about form, and the formal structures of the poems in The Interior Desert are unique and often surprising. What principles informed your shaping of the caesuras, lines, and stanzas?
My temptation on the page has often been to edit my poems away into nothing. I do not tend toward lavishness. There’s always a weaker word that can be cut, an extraneous bit of gristle to be trimmed. I don’t think it’s entirely wrong to say that the blank page is the perfect poem.
Even given my love of paring back, these poems seemed especially to need a lot of space, a lot of spaciousness. The caesuras allowed for a call and response as well, since many of these pieces integrate language from the tradition of desert monasticism or from nature writing around the desert of California. So I think partly I wanted to let the words of others woven into my poems still have their own say, have a little breathing room.
Perhaps most importantly, these poems were written in the desert, and are situated in a desert landscape. The thing about deserts is that they appear sparse — there is nothing evidently lush about them. But the closer you get, the more life you find there. It’s life that has adapted by becoming hard, thorny, tough, parsimonious. But if you get out in it, if you’re really there and not just passing by on a highway, there are so many flowers, so many insects and birds. It’s teeming with a thousand little lives who’ve found a way to flourish in harshness. There is hidden abundance in the desert, and I wanted my work to honor that.
What role can poetry play in 21st century America? Why do poets and poetry matter in the age of social media and global awareness?
I think my poems couldn’t be less directly engaged with our political moment if they tried. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not of and for it. Robert Haas once made the point that Emily Dickinson’s most productive year was smack in the middle of the Civil War, and her poetry functionally ignored it. I think we live and write in fraught and momentous days, but the things that lyric poetry has traditionally attended to — the interior life, the I-Thou relationship, the heart and its discontents — still have a place.
I think poetry is as robust as it has ever been, and, to bastardize Twain, reports of its waning have been greatly exaggerated. I can’t even name the number of wonderful poets working now whom I adore and envy in equal measure. I love that poetry has become more accessible and more inviting in a time of greater and more direct connection — if people find poems they love on Instagram, how is that different from the tradition of broadsides? And spoken word YouTube artists are our balladeers! As long as there’s breath and heartbeat, there will be meter. As long as there are mothers singing babies to sleep, there will be rhyme. And as long as there’s language, people will keep making poems from it. I’m glad I get to take part in this very human enterprise.
To purchase Amy’s new chapbook, click here: https://californiospress.com/chapbook-series/

The Interior Desert is Now for Sale!

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We are pleased to announce that the second entry in our ongoing Chapbook Series is now for sale! 

The Interior Desert by Amy Katherine Cannon is a book full of deserts, both of the earth and the spirit. Weaving the wisdom of botany with the science of soul-making as found in the Eastern Christian monastic tradition, Cannon’s collection is a challenging, wondrous, and rewarding collection of well-crafted verse.

You can buy the collection here: https://californiospress.com/chapbook-series/

Announcing Our Second Chapbook!

cropped-Californios-Logo-and-Heading-page-0-2.jpgWe are pleased to announce the next entry in the Californios Chapbook Series: The Interior Desert: Poems by Amy Katherine Cannon.

Cannon is a lifelong Californian and one of the original contributors to the Californios Review. She currently serves as Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Southern California.  

The Interior Desert will be available mid-June on Californiospress.com.

In the meantime, you can check out some of Cannon’s poetry here: http://www.curatormagazine.com/author/amy-katherine-cannon/

Rumors of Rain On Sale Now!

Rumors of Rain, the inaugural title in the Californios Chapbook Series is now available to buy online! Go here to buy.

IMG_20180615_142113Rumors of Rain is a collection of golden sonnets, triolets, and more by Jonathan Diaz. In it, Diaz traces the sacramental commonplaces and sudden illuminations of life and history in Southern California.

Jonathan Diaz holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame, and teaches writing at Biola University. His poems have appeared in numerous periodicals including The Cressett, Rock and Sling, and Saint Katherine Review.

On Faith and Form: An Interview with Jonathan Diaz, Part 1

IMG_20180615_201606_edit_edit_editEarlier this summer, Californios editor Timothy Bartel sat down to talk with Jonathan Diaz, whose chapbook Rumors of Rain: Poems is out this week from Californios. Here is part 1 of their conversation about Diaz’s new collection.

TB: You’ve spoken before about the concept of “writing between poles.” There are a lot of poems in this collection that are overtly religious in theme, but also some that are about California in general. If you had to map where the poles are between which you write, how would you talk about that?

JD: The poles being the places I want to take the poems, where I want the reader to be carried in reading, mirror what the poles were for me when I wrote these poems, which are from probably the last seven years, some being from the beginning of that period, some being as recent as the last month. They detail a lot my own religious journey from growing up in Southern California in the Los Angeles county area in a very Pentecostal home in a very Roman Catholic cultural milieu and extended family. So in the beginning of the collection there is a very, very Pentecostal sonnet about the experience of being in a service that’s filled with tambourines and loud music and speaking in tongues and maybe a little bit of being slain in the spirit. Then it moves to poems that are detailing my exploration of more ancient church history and more ancient church liturgies in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as you’ll see in poems about being at St Peter’s in Rome and trying to think through some of its implications for faith. So those are the kind of ecclesial poles, you may say, for my writing. Geographically it runs along the freeways and landscapes of the San Gabriel valley just east of Los Angeles.

TB: I think it’s fun that the collection goes from being set largely in California to being set in the Old World. So as someone who’s Californian, who grew up in a new world tradition like Pentecostalism, what do you think Rome and Europe should mean to the contemporary American West Coast poet? What do Rome and its traditions mean to you as a writer grounded in the West Coast?

JD: I think what’s interesting, coming from the West Coast, is that the old world is less so what you’re explicitly grounded against, what you’re trying to define yourself against in a way it might have been on the East Coast, where identity is colonial or American; it’s “we’re going to do things very different that Europe” which already is very different in England than on the continent. So to go to the Old World from California is almost to rediscover it. You’re thinking “oh, this is back in my history”, but also you feel as if you’re the first person to see it, to discover it anew.

TB: So there’s a freedom on the West Coast that there maybe isn’t on the East Coast, or wasn’t at one point. Let’s move from European culture to European literary tradition. You start off this collection with a sonnet, an inheritance from Italy. Talk a little bit about your choice of forms in this collection. How do you think about forms and choose them for your poems?

JD: I love writing formally, and pushing against the limits that they place on my writing. A lot of these poems came about as I was trying to navigate my own relationship with form as a writer. I was thinking not only what are some established forms that I want to try out, such as this very traditional sonnet, but also what sort of general formal structures that don’t have as much of a defined history or name? For example, the poem “Ghetto Bird”, I believe, is in a trochaic tetrameter.

TB: Right, it’s the Hiawatha meter.

JD: Yeah, so there is more of a history to trochaic verse, but it won’t be named, like a sonnet; it isn’t assigned as an exercise in writing programs. I try and say, “I’m going to try X kind of meter, matched up with X number of syllables.” And in trying that with random subjects, some of those turned out legibly, and most of those are in this book. Also I got a chance to take on, as you’re well aware, the Golden Sonnet, which is your own invention, a sonnet based more faithfully on the golden ratio of 5 and 8, to be a Golden Sonnet for writing about the Golden State, so a deeply Californian formal structure. Sorry, I don’t remember when you first showed me the Golden Sonnet.

TB: I think I came up with it in 2008.

JD: So is the Golden sonnet 10 years old?

TB: Yeah, I guess it is! I came up with it just playing with the Fibonacci sequence, and then realizing, “by golly, there’s an 8/5 ratio here, and that’s very much like the sonnet ratio [of octave to sestet]!” And then it turned out that the sonnet writers of the past had thought of that; it’s not like I was being new. But then I kind of isolated that into 8 lines of 8 syllables and 5 lines of 5 syllables.

So, what do you think the difference is between when form works and when it doesn’t? Why do some subjects fit some forms, and then why do some forms fail? So, your sonnet about Pentecostal worship, it’s a heck of a sonnet. It really worked. Why does that work, and maybe a sonnet on some other topic or conceit not work?

JD: I feel like if I knew, poetry would be a lot easier, right? I feel like a more traditional sonnet might be easier to make different themes fit into. There’s not so much of a dramatic shift from one end to the other. A Golden Sonnet pushes you to just work much more concisely into the last quintet, which I think you once described to me initially as taking the poem from a very Western metered poetry to Eastern and japanese haiku-like poetry.

TB: Yeah, haiku and tanka use that 5-syllable line.

JD: So for the Golden Sonnet to work you need to be a little bit more elaborate and discursive in the octave, but in this quintet, you have to say “everything is more immediate, more sparse.” And so that kind of move fits some subjects really well. You say, “Let me give an experience, and then elaborate on it. Let me give you a location, perhaps, and then dig into it.” And I think that’s what unites the two Golden Sonnets in this collection: “Excavation Below St Peter’s” and “Feast of Entrance.”

“Feast of Entrance,” is a poem that was written initially in a very different form: long free verse that was disconnected and had probably come from reading a lot of Kerouac and T.S. Eliot… It was long, free verse, ungrammatical, awful. And then just in the last month, I felt like it was a really appropriate poem to make it into this collection. And I thought that it seems like all the parts of it that I really like and want to keep around are much closer to the length of a golden sonnet than this multi-page, long poem; let me see if it will fit! And it was a little bit of an experiment… you’re trying to cook without a recipe for the first time. And then, what do you know, it fit! The important parts were able to navigate and fit into that structure.

TB: I love that description of writing in a received form as experimental. Often we have this idea that experimental poetry can’t be formal, or it has to totally invent a new form. That’s a really frustrating idea to me. It’s wonderful to hear a poet say, “No, putting it into form, having to follow rules, is in fact itself an experiment, maybe even an adventure.” It’s Chestertonian, right? To rediscover the old forms is always an adventure. But let’s step over the the Kerouac/Eliot side of things for a moment, because some of these poems are in free verse. How do you decide to write a poem in free verse, as opposed to form? What’s the difference between a poem that ends up a sonnet and one that ends up in free verse?

JD: To an extent there’s a historical answer, as in the month was I writing them in. Or even as quick as the week I was writing them in: am I feeling like counting out lots of syllables this week, or do I feel different? I think the less dismissive answer is to say that poems that didn’t ever fit into a form are poems where a few lines jumped out and me at first. I want lines like this to fit into the poem, and I couldn’t ever find a common denominator between those lines. Even if I tweaked each of them, they are just too different in length or in meter to belong in the same formal poem, so why not write a free verse poem? I think that’s where “The First Luminous Mystery” fits in. The first line “This wistful and luminous wet is bright” was where the poem started for me. Other lines like the phrases “multifoliate bruise”, “benediction of hot wind” came about early in drafting and wanted to be in the same poem. There was also a desire for there to be something unexpected in the end of the poem, a sort of clearing of the throat and a changing of tone with the appearance of the imperative “Now”, and the second person address there. I think those elements, while a formal poem isn’t just rote, isn’t unsurprising, I do feel like there’s a level [in free verse] of introducing a new thing that doesn’t always gel with formal poems.

Rumors of Rain

IMG_20180615_142113Californios is proud to announce that the inaugural title in the Californios Chapbook Series will be Rumors of Rain by Los Angeles poet Jonathan Diaz. A collection of golden sonnets, triolets, and more, Diaz’s chapbook traces the sacramental commonplaces and sudden illuminations of life and history in Southern California. Rumors of Rain will be released July 15th.