I'm Al Filreis, and this is PoemTalk at the Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close, but not too close reading of a poem. We'll talk, maybe even disagree a bit. PoemTalk and ModPo have gone on the road again. Anna Strong Safford, and Chris Martin, and Zach Carduner, and I have traveled from Philadelphia to Boston. This afternoon, we have decamped at the Woodberry Poetry Room inside Lemont Library at Harvard University in Cambridge. Well, today, the four of us have gathered here to talk about a work by Tonya Foster called A Swarm of Bees in High Court published in 2015 by Belladonna, a section of which includes a sequence of paired haiku. We're going to talk about five of those haiku pairs. There's no need to go in any order here, but I just want to arbitrarily start with the first pair, but we can go whichever way you like. But bear with me, let's start with the first one. We've got a pair of haiku and they are to some degree, Stephanie, a rewriting, one is a rewriting of the other in some ways. I guess we should start there. How does this pair seem to have been rewritten and what's the significance, if any? This is two scenes that are one scene. Yeah. Should we talk about the rules of haiku though? Yeah, one of them. Because more than a lot of forms that Tonya Foster could have chosen, this is a form that comes with a ton of thematic and organizational history and expectation. Haiku come to us from Japan, where if you want to write it entirely traditional haiku, you have to have some semantic leap from one part to another and a unified mood. Otherwise, it's not a traditional haiku, and a reference to a season, if I'm not mistaken. Of course, that's alongside the 5-7-5 syllabic requirement of haiku, which Foster does not always follow. What she takes from that form is not just the 5-7-5 approximate shape, but the sense of compression, and the sense that this is a scene and that the poem is one take. But because these are paired haiku, we're getting often paired takes on the same moment, the same scene, the same two people, and the same two people in a network. This is a book about hives, and bees, and urban grids, and multi-family buildings and networks. What's happening in these two? Well, we already know, because it's called [inaudible] , that we're going to have someone who maybe should be asleep but isn't. It says that I am. What? The initial- The [inaudible] , yeah. Late-night commercials with talk like urgent auctions in uncrowded rooms. We don't have any pronouns in there, right? When you are looking around and you don't see anyone else, and you want to describe what you see rather than how you're feeling, you probably don't use pronouns. This is our point of view figure, who's going to turn out to be almost certainly an adult woman, hearing television commercials and thinking about the place of those commercials in that moment, in that multifamily dwelling in the larger context of the book, it's got to be Harlem, in her life, in her domestic life, and also in a specifically African-American historical context. Because the word auction is going to be one of a number of words in the sequence that have additional resonance, an additional semantics tied up in them. Sometimes horrific ones as here and sometimes comic ones that come from specifically African-American history, because an urgent auction out of context could just be somebody trying to sell a painting at Sotheby's or somebody trying to sell impounded cars. But there is, of course, a history here of evil auctions. Then that goes away, all of that macro-historical context goes away in the second haiku, where she, and we get a pronoun, and it's a third-person pronoun, gets up to do something. There is a him, there is a probably domestic partner who should not be awakened by the noise of what's going on around them in their, probably, apartments. We have the dynamic that runs throughout this whole book of how does the macro-social context of a domestic life, of life in a city, of life at a historically black part of the city, how does that guide, and channel, and shape, and limit, and enable the micro interpersonal emotional life of these characters? That is a fabulous start. Thank you, Stephanie. Bonnie, let's pick it up from there. Can we look at that first pair and talk about what actually happens when the poet slightly changes things? Give us a couple of examples of that. I'll ask Anna to do the same. Yeah. I kept thinking, just in terms of revision and the process here, that it reminded me of reading Dickinson, yet you get to keep all the changes and all the options. Slight alterations that turn the poem upside down. Yeah. My first question was late night, commercials. What happens when that comma goes away? Why is that out there? These poems don't exactly have speakers in the traditional sense. One of the things I struggled with, and I think these little punctuation marks reveal this, how much are these poems to be heard or to be seen? The question of the visual element, the auditory element, and then the articulatory element too, because I think it's in your mouth. But certainly, there's a different pace to late night commercials. Yes. But I also felt more solitude in the first one. In some, the Miloqui is a very interesting title for a number of reasons. I like the word play, and she's a great poet of word play. A soliloquy is usually not addressed to anybody present. There is a presence here, we find out in the second one, but a sleeping presence. It's like one of Odin's Lullaby or something, but it feels very solitary at first. Then the uncredit room, the noise of life and the outer world is coming through the TV. I felt at least the solitude in the first one, but she, as we learned the she in her pronoun of the second one, is taking the weight of all that to herself because she turns it down. She's heard it, the impact of it is there, but she's protecting her beloved by turning it down. I felt that revealed a tremendous amount about the dynamic of this relationship, that she's a protector in a certain way. Yes. Later on, we see different manifestations of this. Of course, the second line of each of this is quite different. With talk like urgent auctions is replaced by make her turn the TV down. But of course, the talk carries forward. We know that's why she's turning the TV down. One of the things I thought about as I was reading these, well, they're pairs. What does it mean to be a pair? Sometimes a pair is a contrast or an inversion. Sometimes a pair is a development. In this case, I felt it was more like a development, something happening and then a reaction from the inside to an action that takes place. Thank you. Here's what I'd like to do starting with Anna. I'd like to go around all four of us, so I'll play this game as well. Pick any moment in any of the five pairs, where you see the pairing work particularly well to create meaning. This is going to be a lightning round, everybody does it quickly, and I didn't give you a chance to prepare for that. No, I think I have one. Okay. Lets go around. Anna, then Steph, then Bonnie, then me. We'd go around. Give one example of the effectiveness of the pairing. I'm on 46. Forty six. Yeah. That is? She wants to sleep. Yeah. That pair. One thing that I really liked Stephanie's term to think about these pair of haiku as takes, two different takes on it, or to think about pairing as revision, or another perspective, or as a development, or as a contrast. I'm thinking about, not only that the first line in it is repeated to indicate that there's real relationship. "She wants a sleep that shutters thought like the sparse". Then I'm going to jump to the second pair, "Shut against the neighborhood". Its revisions in not only the content of the haiku, but also building these sonic relationships, that to me, really troubled my typical reading practice, which would be to read one, and then read the other, and then move on. Instead, I found myself reading one, reading the next, and then really stacking the two against one another, and seeing where these sound relationships builds up and bumped up against one another. Great example. Stephanie, your turn lightning round. Page 39. Thirty nine. "He's asleep after telling her about the boy he was, his father's fists. He's asleep. She can't fall to a nap that won't keep or unkink". In almost all of the paired haiku in these begin with the same or similar first line that is often altered. This is a wonderful alteration because it changes not just the meaning, but the grammatical structure without taking our focus off the male partner who's sleeping while the woman who's the focal center of the poem is awake. We get in the first frame, his history, which is embodied in him. He's someone whose sensitivity and whose trouble, and his need for protection comes from what's probably his history of being subject to corporal punishment, to what we would certainly call today, physical abuse. Then she takes a step back and uses the same sounds to think not about how he became him and how he sees himself, but about how she sees him, what he is in her life. There is so much emotional work done by the word play in Foster. That's not just this poem that's throughout this book. That's one of the things I love so much about this book, it's density. Lorine Niedecker comes to mind as a direct precursor for this. "He's asleep, she can't fall to a nap that won't keep or unkink." There's so much wordplay in there. She can't lie down with him. She can't sleep when he sleeps, because she is awake thinking about how to live with him and protect him. There's also a good deal of punning on those of us who don't speak the dialects have learned to call African-American vernacular English. Versus standard English, the kind that I'm speaking right now. Because "fall to" sounds unidiomatic in the dialect that I'm speaking now, but it wouldn't be in other Englishes. Nap means a lot of things, right? Yeah. Kink and unkink mean a number of things. The things these words have meant are all present in the way that Foster deploys them. That's typical of her poetry. It's one of the reasons I like it so much. Bonnie, it's going to be your turn, but I want to play the game too, so I'll go first. Yeah. On 42, the pairs that I just want to point out the first lines of the two haiku there. "Knots of woman," K-N-O-T-S, knots of woman and then "Nots form this woman," N-O-T-S. All I'll say, keeping to the lightning round format and being really brief about this is, is that the second is a great way of describing how a being, how an identity can be formed by absences, by negation. Knots form this woman. We're being told now. Knots of a woman is a version of this partner who is kinked by the trauma of childhood. But she herself, the speaker or our focalizing presence here is complicated. May be complicated by that relationship, it may be already complicated, but we don't find too much about that. But knots from this woman is just a very powerful alternative way of talking about identity formed by negation. Yes. All right. That was fun. Bonnie your turn. Okay. So I'll follow up on the poem that you. Oh, great. Thank you. Opened up here. Thank you. Since we're on that one, I certainly was very interested in that way that her taking on the pain of the other, while denying one's own emotional needs is part of the narrative here. It evolves from pair to pair. So these really do work as a sequence I think, that they're not numbered or anything. These are poems, they are compassionate. Stephanie mentioned I think is something that I'm very aware of and it rewards thinking deeply about these poems. They swell. There's a lot of white space, but it isn't wasted white space by any means. But just to follow up with this poem, so there are this very simple words, and very simple diction knots from this woman. Monosyllabic, maybe two syllables. Is it knots from or knots form? Knots form. Knots form, yeah. Sorry, did I say from, knots form this woman, yes. But then we get, "Who sugars her mustards," which is like, I mean, these are not rare words one needs to look up. But that phrase is not one that most of us are familiar with, outside maybe of this community that she's describing. So I got very curious about that. It flashes out. I looked up the slang for mustard, what is mustard means good. It means the sauce, it means something plus. So this is something that she's stepping back from herself and looking at what she's doing emotionally here. She's trying to appeal to this other person, presumably to cut the mustard is to be up to the standards. Yes. Cut the mustard is certainly in there, right? Yeah. I mean, all of that, and the phrase is showy in that way. Then the next phrase, "Who sugars her mustards. Who want but never ask," reveals the emotional cost, I think, of the behavior that's emerged in this. Relationship which is turning TVs down. She's trying to present herself in a way that will appeal and so on and so forth. I just asked Dr. Google and I found what appears to be a nineteenth-century proverb, Sugared you're mustard if you're wise, which else with tears will fill your eyes. Sweet and bitterness and other things. Right. Even more specific than that, it's about do something so you don't cry in the performance of your daily tasks. This is a woman who's got a set of learned and strongly gendered ways to avoid being reduced to tears by the invisible domestic labor that she's going to go on performing and is perhaps right to perform because that's another beautiful thing about what Foster is doing. There's a history, Adrienne Rich early in her career did this beautifully of poems about invisible gender domestic labor where the emotional arc of the poem is, blow it all up, burn it down, get the hell out of there. That's great. That's a valuable feminist energy. That's not what's happening here. What I want to do is go around and get quick final thoughts. Something you wanted to say coming to this gathering, but haven't had a chance to yet. About Foster? About Foster, about this book, yeah. About any of the poems. Anna, you're first, final thoughts? We can come back to you. No. I wanted to talk about in 38. That's the beginning. Yes. One phrase I just really liked, and Stephanie did an amazing job talking about Foster's wordplay, but one little bit of wordplay that we didn't get a chance to talk to was in the second haiku on 38, "Make her turn the TV down." Turn the TV down is a great little vernacular compression of actually turn the volume down. Yeah, which we don't do anymore. There are no dial. Right. I'm doing this but there is no. It's a funny thing. Right. I'm old. I remember turning it down. But I just really like the idea of turning the whole TV down like, I'm just turning it down. Like either turn down like literally it's just standing on its face or just like I'm turning down, the idea of TV, turn the volume down. So I just think there's so much folded in that, and we move from this really sweet idea of insulation and protection in this couplet of this cup pair of haiku always where we arrived at the end, which is with much more psychological and emotional intensity. But this, I think, begins to prefigure the idea of turning down more than just volume, turning down a whole host of things that could potentially wake the parts. So it's just really sweet. Thank you so much. Stephanie, any final thought? Foster thinks in books and these haiku, each of which could be anthologized individually, if you wanted, work in pairs that speak to other pairs that speak to their place in the whole sequence called in some milkweeds, not all of which are haiku, I think there are some couplets as well, which in turn speak to the entire architecture of this book, which imitates and responds to the structure of urban life, the rooms and the people and the buildings and the blocks and the subway stops in a city work together in the way that the small units we've been talking about for the last 40-odd minutes. The lines in Foster's book work together to create a whole that has semi-autonomous parts. That's really hard to do. Well, there aren't that many poets who have been able to do it. One of the ways this is an amazing book for me is the way the parts add up to that network toll. A whole book instead of. Thank you, Stephanie. Yes. Thank you. Bonnie, your final thought? Well, I think given that she announces at the back of the book that she's taken on the job of speaking of a place and its grief, and it's an urban place, it's a very busy place, a very noisy place, so the tendency to overstimulation, to kind of being completely bruised, overwhelmed by the amount of stimuli is there. So she has chosen extreme minimalism as a response to that with a great deal of repetition. Not only are these very short poems, but the same words keep popping up, and each time there's a slight difference. So I find that counterpoint really interesting. I mean, it's something, clearly she's learned from many other writers. Langston Hughes comes to mind in particular as a way of responding to the urban setting. But she's taken it further, I think, and so as someone who loves Marianne Moore, minimalism of this kind of something that I need to work on and think about more. What I have enjoyed about our discussion is the way that it keeps yielding something.