From the Desk of Jennifer K. Sweeney: On Lyric Space During the Pandemic, and a Poetry of In-betweenness

Jennifer K. Sweeney is the author of three other poetry collections, including Little SpellsHow to Live on Bread and Music, and Salt Memory. The recipient of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and a Pushcart Prize, she teaches at the University of Redlands in California. Her poetry collection Foxlogic, Fireweed (Backwaters Press, 2020) was the winner of the Backwaters Prize in Poetry contest.

During National Poetry Month, the Backwaters Press is accepting submissions for this year’s Backwaters Prize in Poetry contest. Both winners will be awarded the publication of the book by the University of Nebraska Press under its imprint, the Backwaters Press. For more details, please visit the Backwaters Prize page.

As a part of our National Poetry Month campaign, we reached out to several poets that the Backwaters Press has published throughout the years to write about poetry. In the essay below, Jennifer K. Sweeney discusses the task of connecting with other artists during the pandemic and the importance of the lyrical sequence in Foxlogic, Fireweed.

“It’s not so much what poems are, in themselves, but the infinitely larger optimism they offer…that beneath the little lights on their tiny masts, so far from one another, so lost to each other, there must be a single black sea. We could have no sense of the continuousness of the unknowable without these buoyant specks.”

I often share this quote from Kay Ryan with students on the first day of a Poetry Workshop, where, refreshed by the reset of a new semester, we gather excitedly. But during this ghost year of pandemic, never have we felt so far from each other, so lost along that single black sea, where classes gather in the ether of Zoom-space, often just a collection of names shadowed by a pattern of dark squares on a screen, voices in a default of ‘mute.’ “Good to see your name,” I sometimes say, “I can’t see you, but I know you’re out there, and that matters,” though I rarely receive back any signals. It is not unlike the process of sending out a poem, a manuscript, a newly released book and hoping someone will eventually read it and respond. What a thin hope these greetings seem to ride on. What effect do they have, if any? “Only connect!” And yet, connection in the pandemic often seems impossible. In easier times, hope has felt frivolous, like decorum that knows nothing of the well-lit rooms it is placed in. This past year, however, hope has felt essential. Like the room itself. I vowed as a teacher to simply keep showing up and lighting the light regardless of what was returned to me. 

Ralph Angel, my first poetry teacher who passed away one week before the onset of the pandemic, had gently but steadily encouraged me to just show up for the work. I took this as a call to keep the fire burning and not to be “productive” as the machine of publishing will sometimes make us think we must keep churning out response-ready work, but just for process itself. If writing has gifted me anything, it is the practice in carrying myself across the difficult, wave by wave, and it is the lyric that has carried me most steadily.

In the anthology Lyric Postmodernisms, Bruce Beasley references the Italian expression rimanere in forse, “to remain in perhaps.” Often a hard line to teach or sense—when is enough given in the lyric poem, when does the poem remain cloaked? To remain in perhaps is one of the best ways I’ve encountered to capture it, and it is certainly an apt way to describe the state of life this past year. To remain in perhaps is the spirit that guided the arrangement and writing of my fourth book, Foxlogic, Fireweed, winner of the Backwaters Prize for Poetry, published September, 2020.

To Remain in Perhaps

Whatever the great it of your life

it may not happen, you know that,

withholding every third seed of breath,

and despite the outcome, afterward

you will feel better and worse.

The tar pits of La Brea are flecked

with iridescence. You might say

how beautiful and shiny the tar

but if your attention is keen

you’d see the dragonflies

sticking themselves to the hot

flats like carefully formed mistakes.

Welcome to flux.

The roofs are made of rice paper

and there are train tracks laid over the sand

going straight into the ocean.

When I visited a college class on Zoom that read Foxlogic, Fireweed this semester, the students were wary of the lyric. They liked the narrative pieces, grounded, fulfilling with their continuous time and completed arcs, but they were less willing to wander into the mist of the lyric with its timelessness and loss of the self. I’m not sure how “teachable” the lyric is, but I know they are absorbed, and one can make a practice of absorbing them, sensing how the lyric time carries you differently, the ways the images hold and sustain. The lyric allows the known and familiar to edge against mystery, to dwell in the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet. Hasn’t this year at home sitting in isolated pockets of time felt more like lyric time, its absences and silences, time unspooled from the narrative of calendars and routines and rhythms of continuity? But why have both, narrative and lyric, the students wanted to know? Does this disrupt the flow of a body of work; what is the prevailing “style?”

Foxlogic, Fireweed follows a lyrical sequence of five physical and emotional terrains—floodplain, coast, desert, suburbia, mesa—and sometimes the poems are placed in these literal spaces, but sometimes these spaces carry their own energies; they are metaphorical spaces. What is the dream-space of a desert? Where is field a verb that carries with it the emotional tone of field? How does grief reside in a floodplain? These are not always compressed moments that arc along a smooth axis point. Braiding lyric and narrative space allows a poem to be about something and to be in something at the same time. To slip in and out of the crispness of the integrated moment and to dissolve into the liminal and soften the boundaries of identity. While maintaining a narrative coherence, my book also dwells in the spaces of wonder, transcendence, dreamlogic.

Because these poems live in the threshold space between wildness and domesticity, which includes the wildness of the domestic and the domestication of the natural world, the exchange between lyric and narrative energies offers a permeability. The poet is doing a homework assignment with her son and the pair is placed alongside the dryad at evening’s northest altar, the living room is a diorama and a black forest, owls lean in toward the house like lamplight after a mass shooting, wild turkeys form a grief procession in a cul-de-sac. You can be held in the steady hammock of story carrying a wedding dress under a highway overpass in the underside of San Francisco and be swooshed into “waking dreaming.”

One of the more enduring consequences of the pandemic has been artists reaching out to each other—again, buoyant specks, a single black sea—to collaborate, correspond, read, exchange, and just find ways to be in this place together. Surely, the online readings that have sprung up like mushrooms after a hard rain, have helped us only connect and bring new poems and new books to living room audiences across the country. When Marsena Adams-Dufresne, the fiction writer, visual and mixed media artist and filmmaker that is Uncouth Curations, wrote to me in winter to ask if we could collaborate on a short poetry film, we found a way to be in lyric space together. I recorded my poem, “Crickets, Vespers,” fragment by fragment, fracturing the lines and folding them into silence, and she captured the images and arranged the poem alongside an omamori charm-making process in the lyric time of short film. Here is the four-minute poetry film, “Reaching,” a soothing gesture outward.

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