LOCUSPOINT: Madison, May 31, 2008

Of the Wisconsin capital, Brent Goodman wrote, “Madison’s poetry scene cannot be contained. With 5 or more readings a week scheduled at various bookstores, to a strong community of resident post-MFA day-job poets, to the amazing national talent the university’s creative writing fellowships attract every year alongside the local award-winning slam team, this “Berkeley of the Midwest” remains an irresistibly-fun town in which to write, collaborate, and grow roots.”

In the ensuring years, Madison has (unfortunately) become a symbol of America’s troubled relationship between labor and leaders, an odd situation for a town loving called “an island of liberalism surrounded by reality.”

I grew up 45 minutes away from Madison, but know surprisingly little of it first-hand. I lived along an invisible border that separates Wisconsin into two cultural camps: the Madison side and the Milwaukee side.

For this retrospective, Brent selected a poem by Nick Lantz called “History of Fire.” Since appearing in LOCUSPOINT, Nick has gone on to publish his first and second books.

History of Fire

All things, oh priests, are on fire.
The earthquake on your birthday—

car alarms calling each other
like love-sick dogs, the forgotten

air-raid siren on the YMCA yowling
its one, sore note. The decks

of the freeway snap together,
the burning cars trapped. You watch

the rescue workers disappear
into the smoking gaps. Sometimes

they return with a survivor;
sometimes they do not. Begin

with the molecule, its carbons
shoulder to shoulder in the cold

quantum space. Begin 400 million
years ago, the Devonian air blushed

with oxygen, the first lightning-sparked
peat bogs smoldering on the shore.

Begin with this: fuel, oxygen, and heat,
this triangle, this tent of sticks you build

in the dirt. Begin with the room
where they waited until fire wormed

down through the rafters, draped
like a robe across them, until foreign

words clogged their mouths. Parthians
and Elamites, Arabs and the Greeks,

all understood, but someone
in the crowd jeered: they are full of wine.

The tongue is burning, oh priests,
its words unhinge their atoms.

From the hotel roof, in Istanbul,
you see it: a tire dump burning

on the other side of the Bosporus,
its base brighter than any city lights.

A waiter brings plates of olives
for your family. You hold your plate,

a cool O against your palm.
The moon is rust. The moon is gone.

Kallinikos the alchemist invented
liquid fire, a fluid that ignited

whenever it touched water,
and the Byzantines used it

to burn down the Muslim fleet
surrounding Constantinople.

The recipe for this fire is lost—
petroleum or calcium phosphide cooked

from lime, charcoal, and bones?
You have walked the covered

bazaar, its air rough with tea;
at the newly arrived American

burger chain, you ate your fill.
You stood inside the Blue Mosque,

your mother and aunt covering
their nude arms with burlap shawls

taken from a heap by the door,
while high on a pole, a loudspeaker

warbled out the call to prayer. The eye,
oh priests, is on fire. Everything

it sees is only flame or fuel.
All day, the Santa Ana winds

goad the fire. Neighbors stand
in the cul-de-sac and stare

at the orange ribbon draped
across the hills. You watch

whole groves of eucalyptus
sprout red wings, the trunks

screaming as they split in half.
The fire department hands out

sooty pamphlets that warn fires
persist in root systems for days,

and for a week you watch
the backyard maple, waiting

for it to give birth to a hot, angry child.
Fire burns a forest, a home,

a river. Cresting over the hills
at night you see the refinery,

caked in fluorescent light,
its stacks fingering the sky

with purple flames. You know
how close you’ve come to disaster:

the trio of gulls that disappeared
into the jet engine, a plume

of smoke and blood pouring out
the other side, the guttural heave

of the cabin as the plane
banked hard. Safe on the tarmac,

you looked back and saw
the fuselage feathered with carbon.

Colorado, Arizona, Oregon—
the summer every forest burned,

your brother took a job watching
trees from a stand, a lifeguard

without water. The fires at night,
he said, started like planets,

orange sparks low on the horizon.
After your parents’ divorce,

in your father’s cramped efficiency,
you opened the oven and flames

filled the small kitchen, crisped
the flesh on your arm and cheek.

All the way to the hospital,
your father chanted an apology.

Agni’s parents were two sticks—
rubbed together, they gave birth

to him and then burned to death.
You grow to understand this.

Agni grows up; he has two faces
and seven tongues. You understand

this too. Though it terrifies you,
you even understand when India

builds the Agni Missile, capable
of striking targets deep in China.

You grow to understand credible
deterrence, every other euphemism

of violence and mistrust, all
the Patriots and Peacekeepers

in the world. Nothing lasts,
oh priests; it turns to smoke

as we speak. Some fires are only
slower than others: a trash fire

catches a vein of coal that spreads
its own dark roots under the town.

The gases buckle the streets,
fill up basements, kill small dogs.

Some people learn to live with it;
most do not. The fire burns

for forty years, until the town
is all but deserted, until only a few

caved-in buildings still lean against
their naked I-beams, until the highway,

like a river, changes its course
to avoid the town. Backpacking

with your father in Arizona
you stop for lunch halfway up

the mountain, where a sign
memorializes a boy scout troop

that froze to death on this spot.
You can’t imagine dying that way,

not here, where the dusty lizards
pant on the rocks. You imagined

a desert of scrub brush and cacti,
but when you reach the peak

you see whole forests burning.
Your father tells you that fire

isn’t a thing—like a book or a building
or a child—but rather a process

of things, the road a thing walks
to become another, new thing.

Begin with accident or intent, a spark
or a hand. Begin with priests

smoldering in their temples.
Begin with the gods punishing

or rewarding us. Begin with this:
You wake up on a train

inside a tunnel of smoke.
You remember those plane flights

through clouds, miles above
earth, without bearing or reference,

the re-circulated air thin as a dream
about leaving. You’ve passed

the lumber yards, their damp stacks
of logs raw under the sun, the grunting

machine that rearranges them
with its hydraulic claw. You know

that fuel is fuel. Changing the trees
to houses won’t save them.

You stand and walk the length
of the train like a drunk, your legs

unsure. It’s barely dawn
and the other passengers mumble

half-words in languages you almost
understand. For hours, the train

glides through the smoke, and this
makes it easy to forget where you are,

where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

LOCUSPOINT: Lawrence, October 31, 2007

Of his city, editor Joseph Harrington warned, “If anyone discovers a “Lawrence School,” hold onto your wallet. It’s seriously eclectic & still too small to have cliques; hell, these people all drink together. Lawrence, a college town, wears Town and Gown as a reversible suit.”

To commemorate the anniversary, Joseph selected a poem from his edition to revisit. “I’d have to choose a poem by Kenneth Irby, whose 75th birthday will be celebrated with a symposium here in Lawrence on November. 5. This poem was originally published in LOCUSPOINT and appears in the “previously uncollected” section of Ken’s collected work, The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962-2006 (North Atlantic, 2009).

[on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 200th birthday, 6 Mar 2006]

so one tree will send out branch to join another and be saved
so the rock wall and its climber
elusive records, books
in what other dimensions inter-live
and returning maybe or not staying
and only in the mind keeping
and the memory itself going
flake flaking flaky from the start itself
no way to throw another after to find
and in the far distance in the interstice
another orb coming
or maybe here its cloud

LOCUSPOINT: Dallas, July 31, 2007

Shin Yu Pai, the editor of LOCUSPOINT: Dallas, was kind enough to share this update with us on her city and her poets:

“Though I left Dallas in 2007, I return to the city a few times a year to visit friends and family. Under Karen X’s leadership as Programming Director, WordSpace has blossomed into a vibrant programming series produced in collaboration with Dallas institutions like the Kessler Theatre and the Tyler Arts District. Poet and curator Roberto Tejada moved to North Texas from Austin to pioneer the new art history PHD program at SMU. And Micah Robbins operates Interbirth Books and distributes Sous Les Paves out of Dallas.

Some general updates on authors featured in the Dallas portfolio:

Lisa Huffaker received the 2008 Morton Marr Poetry Prize from Southwest Review, which published her poem “The Maze.”

Renee Rossi’s chapbook Still Life won the 2009 Gertrude Chapbook Competition for Poetry. Finishing Line Press published Third Worlds in 2011.

Gjeke Marinaj published Sung Across the Shoulder: Heroic Poetry of Illyria, a collection of Albanian oral folk-poetry in 2011. Marinaj traveled to inns and coffee-houses deep in the Albanian mountains to record the poets reciting their verse. Marinaj also photographed the speakers and the venues of their performances. He has also translated Frederick Turner’s books The Undiscovered Country: Sonnets of a Wayfarer and Out of Plato’s Cave into Albanian. He was awarded the 2008 Pjeter Abnori prize for literature by the International Cultural Center, part of the Albanian Ministry of Culture—an award given annually to an Albanian or international author in recognition of their ongoing contribution to national and world literature.”

Shin Yu selected this poem from her edition, “My muse is a dead fuse” by Karen X, to commemorate our anniversary:

My muse is a dead fuse

Cars sit squatting on the pavement, peeing oil.
The pills of holy bushes spill over.
Walk the plank to play with the sun, drink a coke and drive
my car with your thoughts behind the wheel.
Hedges dear spear the brick wall.
Sky’s thumbprint sits calcified in the field.
The new Mental Leather Chew is editing his latest
videotape blockbuster.
The virtuoso’s dream is the improvisationalist’s nightmare.
You can’t control the river, the ocean.
You can’t control your muse.

LOCUSPOINT: Vancouver, May 30, 2007

Of her city, editor Jen Currin wrote, “You can’t buy a carton of soy milk at your local grocery without bumping into a poet. This city has spoken word poets, closet-poets who gaze at the mountains, Wreck Beach poets who scream their lines on the sand nakedly, tending bar poets, poets who bicycle anonymously through the rain, poets who write screenplays or paint houses, coffee shop poets guzzling Canadianos, reading-poems-on-city-buses poets, and up-and-coming poets who haven’t yet left grade school…In my five years in this city, I’ve met a lot of poets. And one thing I’ve noticed about these Vancouver poets, whatever their school or clique, is that they value community. Nearly every poet I’ve met is in some kind of writer’s group—whether it is a workshopping, reading, writing, or sharing-new-work group.”

Jen’s edition of LOCUSPOINT was unique because she was invited to edit work only from a poetry collective, Vertigo West, of which she is a member. This is the only edition of LOCUSPOINT to take this specific focus, although it seems to predict in some ways the two writing communities included by Brent Calderwood in his exploration of San Francisco.

Here’s a poem from that edition, “That Morning” by Helen Kuk:

That Morning

That morning, the suicide over the bridge
across from last year’s murder. My street blockaded,
jammed with voices. Sleepy, we crossed
a few streets over.

Or last night, the mouse
I thought was plum, was slug.
So much worse to know of bones. I didn’t feel
the skeleton or skull, the crack or squeal.
Surely killing is not this easy.
Simply, I stepped in the way of death
while I was greedy for you.

You scraped it up with a shovel,
buried it in gravel. Said,
“You sure took care of that, dear.”

Later than that and earlier,
first thing awake. Touch me
as if I were bird small. Only intend
to taste. What to find?
Meantime, I’ll feel for you.

LOCUSPOINT: Chicago, December 31, 2006

This edition featured poets from diverse backgrounds and even wilder aesthetic camps meeting together under the—dare I write it?—big tent of LOCUSPOINT. Chicago’s been a good poetry city since Carl Sandburg wrote about the city with the big shoulders. It continues to be a thriving mecca for writers today and is home to at least two wonderful journals—Court Green and Columbia Poetry Review.

Here’s a poem from that edition by Paul Martinez Pompa called “How to Be Invisible”:

How to Be Invisible

Don’t be so damn obvious
she says after shoving a T-bone

down his pants. Express lane
12 items or less & his belly’s numb

& pink from the blood through
the saran. The boy’s scared. Of both

mom & the lady in a smock
who flings buy-one-get-one

non-perishables across the scanner.
He imagines an entire police

squadron waiting outside, ready
to pounce. As they exit, a fist

forms in his pocket tight enough
to squeeze the breath from someone.

From Julie Dill, editor of LOCUSPOINT: St Louis

Stefene Russel’s “Equinox” is still one of my favorite poems of all time.

St. Louis is getting pretty beat up lately with the economy making everyone miserable and violent and losing our favorite anarchist artist/businessman to a bulldozer accident.

And yet, Stefene and I just read with three other people in the sculpture park, perched on installation pieces commissioned for the sole purpose of serving as platforms for our poems. And most of the things I’ve always found amazing about St. Louis are still as great today as they were five years ago.

Things are always looking up if you know where to look.”

Here’s “Equinox” by Stefene Russel:

Equinox

This is the part where I drive through Dutchtown in the springtime,
trying to lose a chunk of coal in the sock of my heart.

I looked for a blue marble Pieta,
and found a church called The Melvin that used to be a theater.

I was looking for an Indian mound with a diamond at its center.
I found a gleam that fell from a Mississippian’s eye,
lying on the road, a lost black sequin.

I looked for a hat trick to blind me with fist fighting stars.
I found a demolition man and his pile of yellow bricks.

I looked for Our Lady of Jupiter, embroidered with purple scars,
and found a toy ballerina in a grease-trap jail.

Factory that manufactures springtime, please pick me
to be the next U-turn or figure eight or just glaze me senseless.

Give me a cherub to keep in my glovebox and the choice
between chlorophyll and ozone.
I can’t stop driving, looking for the spot to dig
up the spring of thirteen going on fourteen,

standing on the edge of the river, coughing car fires out of my voice,

searching my wallet for a number
for some smart he or she to gunpowder me into a permanent magnolia.

LOCUSPOINT: Seattle, 30 September 2006

Of her city, editor Rebecca Loudon wrote, “Seattle is a city known for its rain, its lush green beltways, its flourishing theater and music communities, its suicides, and its serial killers. The Pacific Northwest poetic tradition includes Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, Sherman Alexie, Sam Hamill, Tess Gallagher, and Carolyn Kizer. When people think of the present Seattle poetry scene, they might think of the most visible type of Northwest poems; watery pastels, heron, the soft, the political, the easy landscapes, the ever present crow.”

Here’s a poem from that edition by Susan E. Butler called “Egypt Texas Ohio”:

Egypt Texas Ohio

Where were you when it happened
when it happened
where were you and after
when November stayed November
did you go stare at the screen
watch Cleopatra sail away
are we too late if we decide to live
did you know the answer
say the words out loud
no Mark Antony don’t go!
did you know what would happen
when it happened
did you read hear see
hill tomb flame
when the crazy man ran out
his bloodied wife
sagged in the doorway
when he lifted his white shirt
screamed here is my heart
when the chained dog lunged and cried for help
you stood silent
bookbag clutched against your chest
like a shield