more (thoughtful)thoughts on ‘Sky Ward’

OK SO I WAS REALLY MEAN ABOUT SKY WARD YESTERDAY AND I FEEL A WAY ABOUT THAT. I shouldn’t have been so mean. I’m sure Kazim Ali does not feel personally entitled to my time, nor was he purposefully wasting it–not that I meant that. I’m kind of a poem-jerk.

I think the reason I went so hard is, first, because I can’t help but have an emotional investment in literally everything I read, so if I don’t love something I don’t really have the option of apathy so I have to get really over-excited about why it bugs me. Second, I think because I am such a staunch defender of sentiment, excess, affect, and the revelatory possibilities of the lyric (cue my cape flying in the wind as I stand on my poetic soap box), that when I encounter an example that strikes my ear/eye/heart/blood as disingenuous (to borrow Bri’s term) or flat or otherwise unsuccessful–well, that makes me feel some type of way.

Kazim Ali’s Sky Ward is a profoundly successful book. It lays claim to and reimagines a traditionally Western form that has been treated with contempt by the hegemonic US American contemporary poetry world. There are moments of revelation, heart-breaking vulnerability, truth, and revolution. Also–who the fuck am I?

As with the repudiation of the lyric in modern/contemporary poetry in favor of machismo-distilled minimalism, the cult of the new or original that pervades Western/US American cultural and artistic production is something I find great fault with. I think it rewards perceived originality over and above practice, pursuits of perfection, and methodical exploration. It squelches creativity with the fear of dismissal and, with its opaque white-boy blinders, leaves space for (if not encourages) cultural appropriation. It begs the questions–what’s new? And, more importantly, what’s new to whom, and why? I love lyricism. I love affect that I don’t have to sweat through Baudrillard to earn. I love imagery and metaphor and meter and all of the modifiers. I love knowing where to look to glimpse a life in motion. I love rhyme!

However, I do not think that the individual renaissance of a conventionally outdated form justifies transparent manufacture. By this I mean, in its least successful moments, the expression of affect for the sake of affect. The effort can appear clumsy and forced. The texture is over-wrought and the voice becomes prescriptive, directive, closed. This, in turn, may invite the enduring criticism of lyric, of affect in excess that is based primarily on fear (white patriarchy does not approve of feelings ‘ew’) and the militarized defense of the auto-erotic, self-congratulatory hyper-intellectualism of the poetic avant garde.

I am not demanding new forms, fewer flowers, or a moratorium on red, flowing damask. What I want to know is what is URGENT about what is being expressed to me. (I think that’s like my mantra this year: “find your urgency.”) In any form you like! I want to know: why do I care? Right now, in 2016? Show me. Show me in couplets or a fucking sestina or a 30 page ghazal about a field mouse in Salina, Kansas. I will show up. And Ali did show me! In many, many moments! (enter: Prayer Request Cards). However, it would appear that moments where I can’t find it are the ones that stuck in my side.

This brings me to my next thought–which is Erica’s closing remark about how we are conditioned academically (and socially) to critique the problematic rather than celebrate the good. I clearly exhibited the effectiveness of such conditioning on Tuesday, and have been thinking about that a lot. Why was I so ready to dismiss and basically (not basically, you did, Louise) attack the facets of Ali’s complicated and nuanced work that I did not respond well to, rather than celebrate the moments I found pleasurable, beautiful, revelatory, and clear? Maybe because it’s a lot easier to talk about what you don’t like–very, very little risk in that. Or maybe I was in a sad, garbage-can mood that day and wanted to lash out a little. Maybe I was not as careful a reader for Kazim Ali as I should have been-I did not show up. Most likely it was a combination of all three. And I’m regretful of that. I hope this serves as a tiny defense of my ire– and, more importantly,  thank you, Erica, for addressing a quickness to critique as opposed to love. I’m gonna work on it, I promise.

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One Response to more (thoughtful)thoughts on ‘Sky Ward’

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Honestly, this made me tear up a little. I’m so grateful you’re reflecting in this way on your aesthetics and your academic practice. I think showing up for the poetry we read is perhaps exactly what I want us to learn how to do best – to be committed, generous, compassionate, engaged readers. And there’s a way to do that that both celebrates and doesn’t merely accept the things we don’t like. We’re allowed to not like things, in part or in whole, too. But I think the showing up happens when we examine our reactions and ask ourselves “why, exactly, am I feeling this” – most especially for the criticism. We’re very conditioned in academia to critique as a form of demonstrating our intellectual prowess, of imposing ourselves on the object of critique. I think more interesting is when we turn that critique energy back on ourselves, and allow the object to impact and affect us. You’re definitely doing that here, and I think that’s great! Urgency, and a lack thereof, is an important factor in the lyric, and I think you’re exactly right that the parts of the poems we discussed as feeling disingenuous, or artificial, or “trying too hard” are lacking that urgency. And it’s interesting that we got there by way of artifice and a defense of sentiment and affect. In this way we can construct generous critiques that aren’t reproducing the systems of aesthetic marginalization of white supremacy.


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