September 29, 2018KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingWriting

New Origins

Poetry may often come to us in small packages and brief passages, but poetry is rooted in our big human questions: who are we? how (and why) did we get here? what does it all mean, anyway?

As a reader, I never stop being delighted and moved when I encounter new poems that render these oldest of questions urgent again. As a teacher of poetry writing, I’m also grateful to find new go-to poems that illustrate the ways in which specificity and strangeness and surprise can allow each of us to engage our own origins (both literal and figurative) in wild and wondrous ways.

I often start workshops with “I Come From” writing exercises, to both express and exorcise the urge to establish “where we’re coming from” in relation to our writing and each other. This can be a way to speak our truths, to make connections, to celebrate differences, to open conversation, and to make space for each other. I know I’m not alone in this practice; George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” has become a go-to piece in this regard. The outpouring of responses to this piece even led Lyon and Julie Landsman to create the I Am From Project to gather those voices together and “celebrate diversity at a time when our country is divided by hatred and fear.” Personally, I often pair Lyon’s poem with Idris Goodwin’s “I Come From” performance.

Here at The Kenyon Review blog, I’ve drawn attention to poems that explore more literal origin stories, often with a formal twist, like Carley Moore’s “My Uncle In Reverse,” featured in the anthology Please Excuse This Poem (Viking, 2015), or Khaled Mattawa’s “History of My Face.” Of course, though these poems may be rooted in literal life stories or literal family history, they wouldn’t be possible without the imaginative leaps that the poets make.

And then there are the poets who tell the truth (even more) slant, taking a figurative approach to addressing the forces that have made us: Camille Rankine’s “Genealogy,” or Tara Tatum’s “Origin.” I’ve been happy to be able to add two more poems to that constellation this year, encountering Jenny Xie’s “Origin Story” in her debut collection Eye Level (Graywolf, 2018) and Katie Condon’s “Origin” in the September 3 issue of The New Yorker. I say that origin stories address the forces that make us, but these two (and others) also address the way in which we make our own origins, how we take hold of our own agency to shape our lives and worlds.

Yes, all poems are political, and yes, all poems are ars poeticas, but these poems do particular work in pushing us to the nexus of self, art, and world. Xie’s poem reads as an ars poetica (“wanted only the thickest rhymes, two of each”), but questions of power and agency are still enacted in the verb that propels the poem’s final three lines: “Demanded.” This is a speaker who will use language as action and advocate for what she needs to make the poem (aka the self) she desires.

Condon’s tone is initially more melancholy than Xie’s; instead of the unapologetic admission of being “profligate like a floodlight in the sun,” Condon’s speaker sees a more waning light: “in the end // the sun varnishes us all in amber.” But immediately, this speaker turns that observation into a kind of power with an order: “Undress for that light.” And that power continues to accrue by declarative, by imperative.

This is all to say that these two poems struck me and stay with me. As beloved poems do, they have every-so-slightly remade me and my own sense of the world in their image, and there is such pleasure in feeling myself yield to those new origins.