Solastalgia: An Interview with Poet Chris Davidson

Californios is pleased to present an interview with Chris Davidson, author of Easy Meal, the current chapbook in the Californios Chapbook Series. If you haven’t picked up your copy yet, you can purchase one over on our Chapbooks page.

How did you first fall in love with poetry?

I loved when my teachers would read Shel Silverstein in elementary school, especially the wordplay and humor, but I didn’t ever read poetry on my own. I might say that I fell in love with it my senior year in high school, reading through King Lear in Mrs. Kasprzyk’s class, though I didn’t then think of that as poetry. I thought of it as a cool story with language that when I learned to decipher it let me in on a great secret. A few years later, my junior year in college, I had a few professors who read poetry so well, especially the Romantics and those of the English Renaissance. The pleasure of hearing those professors read and then trying and sometimes succeeding to suss out the meanings of those sentences was…thrilling. I had some amazing creative writing professors, too, one of whom I’m still in touch with, and they got me interested in working with language, but I didn’t yet respect language. I just wanted to be thought of as having deep and profound thoughts. If language served that end, great. It wasn’t till my second year in my MFA program that I started to care about poems as poems, as made things. My writing began to change. At their best, the poems I made then were like tiny engines that once started began to make their own way. One of my classmates, who’d read a bunch of my work, read one of these new ones and asked me, “What happened to you?” He meant that in a good way—like, had I experienced a knock on the head, or some revelation. I had, I think. I was in my mid-twenties then.

Which influences have shaped you most as a writer?

My first influences, and they’re still with me, were pop music and movies. There was a lot of music going on in and around the house, played on records by my brother and sister, who are a few years older than me, and by my parents. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were hugely important to me as a child. I think the compactness of their songs, how much melody and sound and sensation was packed into such a small space, shaped my whole young sensibility. That influence might be felt in my love of the short poems of Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Frank O’Hara, Lorine Niedecker, and the like. We were not a literary household. We watched a lot of television. There were plenty of books in the house, but all of it was popular fiction, along with TIME, Sunset, and Popular Science. The other influences would be my teachers, other writers I know, many poems from a few key poets, worry about climate change, fatherhood, trying to work out my faith in fear and trembling.

Your poems deal a lot with urban and suburban Southern California. How do you approach writing about nature as a dweller in the city? How do you think poetry can help us think about the particularities and challenges of living in a place that was once a very different landscape and even climate than it is today?

Los Angeles has a remarkably varied ecology, much of it unnatural and even tragic, home to a wide array of creatures and plants that live in a relatively dense area. I live in suburban Long Beach, and on any given night when I go for a walk I might run into skunks, coyotes, possums, raccoons, rabbits. In the daytime, there are flocks of green parrots squawking overhead, along with hawks, squirrels, doves, even ducks. There’s a woodpecker that returns every year to a tree outside our bedroom window and wakes me early every day for one spring week, and a family of sparrows that makes an annual pilgrimage to our back yard to nest in our eaves.

The city will pay people to replace their lawns with low-water foliage, and my wife did that, both in front and behind the house. This has changed the way our yard feels. For the few weeks our sunflowers were in bloom a half-dozen sparrow-sized birds would feed on them every morning. We live three miles from the ocean, which is a big roiling wilderness. Just thirty miles to my north rangers have discovered a higher-than-usual number of Mountain Lion kittens born this summer. I mean, nature is right here. Wendell Berry says something about how it’s a mistake to say there is a difference between the urban world and the natural world. He says that there are only sacred and desecrated places. If this largely desecrated place where I live contains so much will to life in it that a pandemic, or small change in a patch of it, has encouraged more animals and plants to make themselves seen, well…I don’t know how to finish that sentence.

Your question is about how I write about nature as a city dweller, and how poetry in particular can help me, I can’t speak for others, think through what it means to live where I live. My first formal introduction to poetry writing, in college, came through attention to the image. My professor, Kevin Clark, had his students all write short, four-line imagistic poems, in imitation of Ezra Pound and H.D. and others of that ilk. I did terribly, writing instead about my feelings, but the idea at least was planted: Begin with the image. Later, when I discovered haiku, which I’d known only as short poems of three lines and seventeen syllables, I understood that poetry is based on looking, on paying attention—on presenting the image, not commenting on it, and that haiku were valued for how well they captured the thing they described. This primacy of the image was further affirmed by a creative writing textbook I picked up in grad school. Western Wind began its lessons with “the senses”: make images, it told us. That’s what poetry can do: Help me see what’s around me. I’m simply not smart enough to formulate something beyond my own sensory experience. I walk a lot. When I walk I look, while listening to podcasts or music. What I see often ends up in the poems.

There’s definitely a sense of solastalgia in the work, and has been for the last twenty years. I worry about the future of this place. As I’m writing, California—the whole west coast—is suffering the worst fires in recorded history. The temperature of the planet keeps going up. Species are dying. What’s still present is a miracle and maybe poems can in their small way help me see a little bit more of that miracle.

At Californios we care a lot about form, and the formal principles I think of most when reading Easy Meal are uniquenesses of phrasing and internal rhyme. How do you approach choosing your often surprising turns of phrase and sonic resonances within each poem?

It took me a long time to think about the importance of sentences. In this chapbook, I only use so-called received form in the tankas. Everything else is just trying to make interesting sentences that sound good to my ear when I say them aloud. Some of the poems are really recent, and I’m not sure they’ve settled into their phrasing yet, and that takes time. The main thing for me is, do the sentences sound good, and do the line breaks do anything interesting in working with or against the sentences? I will say that I’m better at line breaks than I used to be, my ear is better. This is from years of reading my work and that of other poets. My revision is guided by how the poem sounds much more than it is by concerns over meaning or content. And that wasn’t always true.   

By now it’s cliche to ask, but I’ll ask anyway: how has this pandemic affected your practice of poetry? How in particular has it changed what you choose to write about?

I don’t think it’s changed things that much, actually. The pandemic, or the world we’re living through, shows up in my poems, but that’s because whatever is going on in my consciousness shows up in my poems. I will at times try to get away completely from it, by drawing from history or science texts and seeing what language possibilities I can find there, but I mostly write about what I perceive. I should say that I don’t know if the poems are about those things I perceive, but the language of the first drafts is often generated by describing what I perceive. Once the language is in front of me, then it’s simply material. I just want to shape it into an interesting thing. That’s the most fun part of the whole process.

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 don’t know. A poem is made of language, and language is our way of connecting to each other, accusing each other, making peace with each other. It’s low-tech: you just need a voice and ears—this equipment is both literal and metaphorical, since a person unable to speak or unable to hear can still “say” a poem and “listen” to it. There’s something really cool about those arts that are extensions of, or shaped versions of, other activities: A marathon, for example, takes an activity that most people are equipped to do—run—and shapes it into a competition. Poetry does the same thing with speech. There are poets younger than me who are really good at using various electronic media to help us become more aware of the callings out and consolations of poetry in what seems a particularly tough time. I follow some on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’m grateful to discover new (to me) voices. For most people, though, poetry is not even part of the cultural landscape. I don’t have anything more insightful to say about this.

In addition to writing poetry, you also teach writing to undergraduates. What is your view of the role of the creative writing teacher in the university and in the larger community?

So few of the students who take a poetry writing class in will go on to regularly write poetry once they leave it. So my hope is pretty modest: That students may learn to read poetry with a little more interest and that they will become a little more excited by, and careful in their attention to, the English language. There’s a great sentence at the beginning of Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry, which I assign to my students. He writes that his aim is to help readers increase their enjoyment and understanding of poetry. I love that.

Announcing Easy Meal by Chris Davidson

PSX_20200721_124934We are pleased to announce the fourth entry in our Californios Chapbook Series: Easy Meal, a chapbook of poems by California poet Chris Davidson.

In Easy Meal, Davidson’s poems dwell on a Southern California caught between the timeless cycle of seasons and the present anxieties of pandemic and protest.

Easy Meal will be available to order next week!

“Write to Me”: An Interview with Poet Phillip Aijian

We are pleased to present the following interview with poet Phillip Aijian, whose chapbook Homeless God is out now from Californios Press. Head over to our Chapbooks page to order it!

How did you first fall in love with poetry? 
Poetry was part of my literary diet very early on, and I began writing it as early as second grade.  My mom has a poem somewhere about a lamb.  There were the usual nursery rhymes and Psalms followed closely by the works of Shel Silverstein and authors like that.  I think the love, however, probably began to set in with, oddly enough, Bill Watterson.  Much has been made of his artistic skill and the breathtaking imagination with which he composes Calvin, but little has been made of his poetry.  If I do another Ph.D. I will correct that injustice.  His poems are infrequent, but they often feature the odd combination of formal meter and end rhyme and ostentatious tone directed at the absurd subject matter of Calvin’s imagined exploits—often involving Spaceman Spiff.  The whole effect was to demonstrate a quality of playfulness in language that does not diminish for its marriage to discipline.  I loved it.  The same kind of thing can be found in the poetry of Robert Service, whose verse is breathtaking in both his humor and formal prowess.  I came to see that poetry expressed some of the truest and loveliest aspirations for other characters I loved in fiction, like Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader while it marked important occasions in my own life both at school and at events like birthdays and anniversaries.

Which influences have shaped you most as a writer?
 
My influences as a writer seem in constant flux.  For principles of writing and the creative act, I’d have to point to Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet I try to read every year.  I’m also eternally enamored of Annie Dillard, especially Holy the Firm and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Dillard is a lesson in sight and seeing and patience.  I’ve also been very shaped by my father, who was a career doctor but also has written quite a bit.  He introduced me very early on to the discipline of revision.  This practice has only reasserted itself in the vocations of being teacher and student.  The practice somewhat disenchants some of the more poetic notions of inspiration (with my apologies to Plato and and Coleridge).  In terms of more modern poets, I’d be remiss not to mention Elizabeth Bishop, who is one of the most enjoyable, demanding, and skilled poets I first encountered in college.  I’ve also been very fortunate to have studied with Scott Cairns.  His devotional poetry grapples with the questions of faith and doubt that I’ve grappled with for much of my adult Christian life, and in ways I’ve found honest and compelling.  And, finally, it’s hard to imagine my poetry existing without Scripture.  All of Homeless God assumes the first-person perspective, so in that way they’re “about” me, or distorted versions of me.  But in another very real sense they’re focused on the person of Christ as he is both revealed and concealed as suggested in Matthew 25.  So much of my poetry assumes Christ and the stability of his character and actions, even if I occasionally forget or lose sight of them.

We often think of “homeless” as a simple word, describing the bum on the corner, an object of sympathy, annoyance, or worse. Tell us about what the word “homeless” has come to mean to you as you wrote these poems.
 
As a term, “homeless” describes a wider range of situations than I can possibly account for, though I think the collection endeavors to show a pretty wide range.  In one of the poems, one of the speakers is a bit outraged to discover that Jesus has the resources to buy things like a bike lock or watch television.  Growing up, particularly with conservative parents and grandparents, the strong-work ethic that I was encouraged to cultivate contributed to a visceral, reflexive regard for “homelessness” as the predictable and ultimate consequence of laziness and a victim-mentality.  The realities are, of course, much more complicated.  “Homeless” has come to describe such a broad variety of people, even in America, in which their experiences of need do not preclude, for example, the fact that many of them have multiple cell phones.  The first time I encountered this I was a bit resentful of what I regarded as audacity on their part in possessing these things that I regarded as luxury while also asking for charity.  It seems to be a common resentment, at least in the West.  Iron & Wine has this really incisive line in his song “Monkeys Uptown,” where he observes that “no one likes a beggar slightly overdressed.”

When Jesus describes the division between the sheep and the goats, it seems implied that homelessness is a chronic state of isolation and/or deprivation that shapes an individual’s dietary, geographic, communal, and even political experience.  I try to reflect that instability in my poems, where Jesus seldom has a roof over his head, or a room of his own.  But of course that homelessness is also felt, in some ways, as estrangement and judgment, as when one of the speakers reacts with disgust to Jesus’ lack of table manners.  Writing the sequence has expanded the definition and, in expanding, has also hopefully widened the horizons in which I see the Lord in the faces of people that I am accustomed to ignoring, at best, or worse, criminalizing.  In some ways, writing this collection has only intensified my experience of helplessness or anxiety when I encounter such individuals.  I recently crossed paths with a visibly homeless and mentally ill man who came storming into a Taco Bell where my family was making a pit stop on our way home.  He was cussing uncontrollably and his actions were manic.  I was afraid for my kids, and felt unprepared to answer the questions they would inevitably ask if we lingered any longer.  We left as quickly as we could, but I’m still bothered by the encounter—both in that he’s not getting the help he clearly needs, and that I was unprepared or unable to give it to him.

You play a lot with the name “Jesus” in these poems. This name has, of course, a very sacred meaning for people the world over. Why was it important to you to associate the concept of homelessness with the name of Jesus in these poems?

The deliberate naming of Jesus throughout the poem is meant to expose a certain tunnel vision in Christianity, which is to say, in my own Christianity.  I do hold his name as sacred and I like to think that when I address Him in prayer or worship or regard him in art, that I do my best to assume a posture of reverence.  This sense of urgency to be (and appear) reverent is a pervasively felt need in quite a bit of music and art.  Many representations of Jesus feature a carpenter’s lithe frame, clean complexion, modest beard, strong jaw.  These perfections overlap with many physical ideals in ways that I think sometimes serve to flatter our vanities.  But for having read Matthew 25 many times throughout my life, the dignity and reverence which Christ commands often vanish when I regard the homeless and poor.  This is why the poem begins, and I think must begin, with the line “Jesus has gotten fat.”  It directs vain and dismissive judgment toward the sacred form in ways that I normally fancy I could never utter or think.  But this is precisely the thought I had, even numerous times, as I drove by the man who inspired me to write these poems.  His “being fat” here is treated with the same tone of contempt and outrage as the bike lock and television in the other poems—like I’m off the hook for helping him out because if he were really needy and destitute, he’d be rail thin.

The poet Alexander Shurbanov has said that “A poem does not relate an event; it tries to be it.”  As the collection grew from a single poem into a series, I realized that the thing I wanted to do was to inhabit different roles and perspectives that are united in their rejection and misapprehension of Christ.  Hence, per Shurbanov, the poems are my attempt to inhabit those rejections and misapprehensions, and to make them a space that my reader can inhabit as well.  They are, I admit, spaces that I don’t expect my readers to always comfortably occupy.  It was very difficult to write the Fullerton/Golgotha portion, partially because the poem invites the reader to identify with the policeman who, in a fit of anger, loses control and beats Jesus to death.  At the same time, however, I have attempted to craft these “events” in ways that also feature unexpected moments of grace or tenderness that make the discomfort more bearable until the very end, where the speaker’s encounter with Christ is pure and overwhelming gift and relief.

At Californios we care a lot about form, and the formal principles I think of most when reading “homeless god” are narrative principles. Tell us about how you approached shaping the narratives in these poems.

In terms of narrative, the sequence of the poems is also critical, though it took years to recognize it.  The number and variety of narrative episodes I could have crafted in which I encounter different forms of homeless Jesus were/are endless.  Some of my readers have vocalized a desire to see more, and some have even written their own poetic responses, imagining their own encounters with Jesus.  But I wanted the poems to participate in the narrative of the Gospel with a greater sense of connection than the “mere” discovery of Jesus as homeless in different situations.  I have to give significant credit to my wife, Janelle, for helping me discover that this was the larger story I wanted to tell.  I had written many of the more dour poems, and the whole series just seemed in danger of wallowing in a kind of poetic self-flagellation.  The poem sequence kind of begins with the Beatitudes, where the final line of the first poem asserts “Bless the poor” which is also a cheeky way for someone to ask for money.  But then after the first few, the rest of the poems are organized around the passion and resurrection.    Building to the resurrection and atonement gives context to the sorrow and cruelty, and makes them easier to bear.

In addition to writing poetry, you also teach writing to undergraduates. What is your view of the role of the creative writing teacher in the university and in the larger community?
 
I don’t teach creative writing, per se, as often as I’d like, but even writing an argument is a creative act.  And I find that the thing that I most want to teach them to do is to develop the courage and curiosity to explore and to play with language.  To cultivate patience in the face of words and images and characters that puzzle them.  These sensibilities make the acquisition of discipline more palatable.    I’m teaching Homer’s Iliad right now, and I try and find one or two moments every class to just sit with an image and close read it.  I invite my students to speculate about what the image is doing and how it’s shaping their perceptions of the text.  I have to reassure them frequently that there’s not a secret list of answers.  I tell them I’m willing to entertain any claim or argument provided it can be reasonably supported.  I emphasize the values or experiences of play and experiment and exploration because I want them to feel authorized to take what they learn and like back into their own communities and relationships.  I know they won’t if they can’t enjoy something about it.  The other thing about creative writing is that learning to like it is a profound lesson in the discipline of patience and humility, which are requisite to the life of the student and academic.

In one of his letters to the young poet, Rilke commends, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”  Creative writing is one of the purest forms of a self-directed and self-sustaining discipline; kind of like long-distance running.  The author should be able to find some satisfaction in the craft itself, independent of the sustenance that might be conferred by the praise of an audience.  I have found this to be the case even in my experience of particular words; I wrote a poem several years ago because I fell in love with the term “hootenanny” and decided I had to do something with it.  And while creative writing creates spaces like this for me to play with language, it’s also a place where I can wrestle with the those problems or questions that beset me and, to some degree, my community or culture.  Creative writing has taught me to love something for its own sake, even when (and perhaps especially when) my skills haven’t been the equal of my ambitions.  And learning to love a thing for its own sake is truly essential for students and apprentices the world over.  Especially graduate students who must spend solitary years in libraries and must learn to delight in well-crafted arguments long before they are awarded with tenure-track positions.

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What role can poetry play in 21st century America? Why do poets and poetry matter in the age of social media and global awareness?

In the 21st century I think poetry’s role is, at least in part, to reforge communities that have been fractured by a deluge of outrage and fear or even apathy.  Social media has, for good or for ill, made the question “who is my neighbor” much more complicated than it used to be—and it was already complicated.  The sheer amount of media available to us contributes a good deal I think to what Flannery O’Connor prophetically described in her own epoch; that ours is “an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”  This despair paralyzes, among other things,  faith in the possibility of my own change, and the possibility that my own words or acts of kindness or sacrifice can matter to others.   I long for poems and poetry to reforge communities that have been fractured, and to remind us of who our neighbors are.  Some of my critical research is interested in the way that Shakespeare stages moral ecologies; the idea that individual decisions and actions aren’t as discreet as they might appear, but are bound up with community of people around us.  I think I was led to this belief through Dostoevsky.  One of his characters, Fr. Zosima, insists, “But when [a monk] knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved.”  Homeless God tries to imagine what such guilt would look like and feel like in the hope that the process of writing the poems will have conditioned my vision a bit better to see the Lord in my neighbors.

For poetry to do this, I think it must be more than written and read in the privacy and silence of our various couches and chairs.  This is the flip side of the coin for writing poetry; learning to love creative writing for its own sake justifies the time and acquisition of the discipline, but I think even in the midst of those long seasons of solitary discipline, we must always have some audience or beneficiary in mind.  Some years ago, Dana Gioia puzzled over whether or not poetry could still “matter” at a time when MFA programs were pumping out professional poets who wrote to and for each other in small academic cells.  I think the hard work to be done is to continue “de-institutionalizing” poetry.  Gioia said, “As long as poets belonged to a broader class of artists and intellectuals…they [could avoid] the homogeneity of academia.”   I sort of lucked into this artistic ethos on accident.  I was writing poems for friends and relatives long before I had any notion of the subcultures of the academy.  I wrote because poems were ways for me to display affection or assert the significance of an occasion, and did so in a family where the creating and giving of art was a standard practice.  I’ve done this even more, recently, with the help of amazing musical and visual artists, especially Phil Glenn, who was in the band The Show Ponies.  He and I occasionally stage music/poetry events called “Phil & Phil.”  We did one this last December to celebrate the release of Homeless God.  The event paired a different reader with each poem and then we performed a song or song/medley for every poem which Phil had chosen and arranged.  I also enlisted nine amazing artists to respond visually to an element in one of the poems.  It was a really special and amazing opportunity to gather together with a shared purpose.  Writing and then relinquishing my poetry to both the audience and different artists was a way to make “new neighbors” and kindle deeper affection for the older ones.  I think this format of the poly-genre event, where there’s some good, old-fashioned ekphrasis happening among friends also helps to bring poetry closer to fulfilling Shurbanov’s vision of the poem as event.  I’d be remiss to point out that I’m only the latest arrival to this particular kind of party.  Chris Davidson has been involved in a similar enterprise with Salon/ la société de personnes intéressées, which has also included poetry from our other mutual friend, Amy Cannon.  We should keep doing things like this.  We should write poems for each other.  I recently wrote a limerick for my uncle on the occasion of him surviving a surfing accident.  I managed to rhyme “pelvis” and “Elvis.”  I wrote a three page ballad for friends who moved to Oregon, and I miss them.  Agha Shahid Ali has that great line, “The world is full of paper. / Write to me.”  So I do.

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.