Life in Public

What Sparks Poetry is a new, serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. In the newest series, Life in Public, we ask our editors to examine how poetry speaks to different aspects of public experience.

What does it mean to say that a poet is, as C. D. Wright has put it, “one with others”? What is poetry’s place in the public sphere today, of all times? How has life in that sphere been expressed in poems? Is all published poetry public speech? What is a private poem? What is occasional poetry? What is political poetry?

With questions such as these in mind, we asked each of our editors to select a poem written by another poet that addresses an aspect of public experience—that celebrates, historicizes, memorializes, critiques, questions, or subtly references its public element—and to write about what interests and inspires them about that poem.

We are excited to present to you the resulting sixteen meditations on the private and the public, and how the intersection of these states sometimes results in poetry.

Heather Green on Standing Outside

Brenda Hillman’s “Angrily Standing Outside in the Wind” begins with the witty opening gambit: “—kept losing self control / but how could one lose the self / after reading so much literary theory?” Recently, while reading Hillman’s Extra Hidden Life, among the Days and preparing to teach my own critical theory class, I discovered the work of new media artist Jacolby Satterwhite. In an Art21 segment “Jacolby Satterwhite Dances with His Self,” the artist layers drawing, video, and 3D animation, featuring multiple simultaneous images of himself, dancing, voguing, or just climbing into the frame. Satterwhite states: “Social media, technology, the Internet, and the way that our bodies exist virtually: it’s a paradigm shift for the multiplicity of the body. My body is multiplied several times in my videos.”

Satterwhite’s work, the way it makes a complex interiority public, partly through the proliferation of the artist’s own image, immediately brought to mind Hillman’s poem, in which—instead of Satterwhite’s “unlimited sci-fi surrealist paradise”—a subtle conflation of exterior reality and interior landscape become a space where the wild or sur-rational parts of the self can reach for expression. In Hillman’s landscape, littered with “doubt debris,” “clouds” move above the trees like “the bones of a Kleenex.”

The first line of the poem, “—kept losing self control,” exposes one danger of being in public, the danger of losing control. But is it in our best interest, or even rational, to demonstrate control over ourselves, our emotions, in the face of fascism or environmental collapse? What is the use of self control, the poem asks, as the speaker’s persona fractures on the page.

There is no “I” outside of quotation marks in this poem. The title omits a subject entirely, and in the body of the poem, itself (un)bounded by dashes that gesture toward an unlimited space, we find the “shorter ‘i’ stood under the cork trees” while “the taller ‘I’ remained rather passive,” and then, most surprisingly, “the Brendas were angry at the greed, angry / that the trees would die.” Like Satterwhite’s selves multiply in grief, joy, or desire in his evocative video work, the poem’s titular “anger” creates a pressure under which identity stutters across reality.

And what about the wind? The wind is “soughing” through the poem’s landscape, and the word “soughing” itself begins to enact the wind’s passage through the scene, appearing as a fresh gust each time. Though it’s most often pronounced to rhyme with “cowing,” it can also be pronounced, in British English, to rhyme with “huffing.” I hear the wind “suffing” and puffing, wind of change, a chilling “Weltgeist,” world-spirit, world-ghost haunting all of us as we weigh whether it is or is not, after all, “too late for trees.”

The poem abandons syntactic control in its final stanza, as phrases remix and repeat, and the “wind with its sound sash” deranges the awful, aforementioned “gaps between can’t and won’t.” Jacolby Satterwhite says of his artistic persona: “the body that I’m performing as doesn’t understand limits.” Hillman’s personae stand, likewise, vulnerable and powerful presences at the vortices of seemingly unlimited forces—climate crisis, hypocrisy of the powerful, philosophy, and emotion, to name a few—herselves “increasing bold.”

Writing Prompt

Consider the feeling of moving from a private to a public sphere, whether that means leaving home to go outside or even logging on to social media or reading the daily news.

Translate the feeling of stepping into public (either physically or virtually), into an image, one in which your body is present in an imagined landscape, what does that landscape look like? What are the forces acting upon you in that landscape?

Write a poem set in this space, in which the speaker transforms, possibly in a magical or surreal way, in response to the environment. In addition, consider letting formal elements of the poem—grammar and/or syntax, line and/or stanza, meter and/or sound—somehow enact the transformation.

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Heather Green

Heather Green

Heather Green is the translator of Tristan Tzara’s Noontimes Won (Octopus Books) and Guide to the Heart Rail (Goodmorning Menagerie). Her translations of Tzara’s work have appeared in Asymptote, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and several anthologies, including the recent In the Shape of a Human Body I am Visiting the Earth, from Poetry International and McSweeneys Press.  She is the author of two chapbooks, No Omen (LATR) and The Match Array (Dancing Girl), and her poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Everyday Genius, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, and are forthcoming in the Bennington Review. More at https://www.heather-green.com/.