Poetry Unbound

Your new ritual: Immerse yourself in a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing. Anchor your week by listening to the everyday poetry of your life, with new episodes on Monday and Friday during the season.

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Who are the friends that, despite different paths chosen, have remained steadfast in your life?

In this poem Christian Wiman recalls the changing beliefs of his friends: this one has a new diet, this one has a new relationship, this one is slipping away, this one is verdant. While doing so, he holds the love for his “beautiful, credible friends” as the thing to hold on to while the planet turns faster.

How has becoming a parent — or being a caregiver — changed you?

This is a poem of two halves. In the first half, a man questions God — how could a loving Father allow suffering to happen? And in the second half, the man becomes a father himself, filled with fear and love. His questions about fatherhood change; he’s no longer wondering about the beyond, he’s wondering about the right now.

What pet names have you been called? What are the circumstances and stories behind these pet names?

In this poem, a woman considers the pet names to give her female partner; “My beloved” isn’t very convenient when you’re dropping off dry cleaning. And what word to use when speaking of how she annoys you? Written in the time before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., the humor of this poem highlights how policy can steal language from the everyday.

Who do you trust with your body?

In this poem, a man writes about his wife’s life-drawing class. She’s been sketching a naked male model for weeks, and the poet worries, comparing himself, trying to figure out how he feels. This poem moves from anxiety to request to consent to reciprocality. His self-consciousness about sharing his body with someone is transformed into trust and vulnerability.

Have you ever projected your own awkwardness onto someone else? How did you do it? And how would you address them now?

This poem recalls how, as a young adult, Zaffar Kunial judged his immigrant father’s way of speaking English. A poem that’s filled with adolescence as with awkward parental relationships, it also speaks of his yearning to fit in, to enjoy his own life. Shame features in this poem — the younger poet had been ashamed of his father’s grammar, but now, with time, he seems ashamed to have been that son.

What do you find hard to forgive in yourself? What might help?

In this poem, the poet makes a list of all the things she holds against herself: opening fridge doors, fantasies, wilted seedlings, unkempt plants, lost bags, feeling awkward, treating someone poorly. Dilruba Ahmed repeats the line “I forgive you” over and over, like a litany, in a hope to deepen what it means to be in the world, and be a person of love.

When you feel like crying, do you cry? Or do you stifle it? Why?

The U.S. Congress 2009 “Joint resolution to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes” stated “Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.” Layli Long Soldier wrote poems in response to this resolution and its non-consultative process. In this poem, she speaks of the need to let griefs and laments be heard and acknowledged.

Has a guest ever been a soothing influence on a complicated family gathering?

In this poem, a son writes to his parents and invites them to a meal, letting them know that his boyfriend will also be there. He gives instruction to his parents on how they should behave, parenting his parents. In all this family tension, the boyfriend’s question “What’s in that recipe again?” offers calm, and builds lines of connection that had otherwise seemed unlikely.

Are there languages that once were spoken in your family that are not anymore? What caused those changes?

This poem considers the plight of a language, how it — like the child Moses in the biblical story of the Exodus — is vulnerable, and might be in need of someone like the Pharaoh’s daughter to nurture it. In considering the precarious situation of many lesser-spoken languages, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill casts a story of language preservation through the archetype of women helping women in ancient texts.

When you’re writing by hand, where is your other hand? What story is the space between your two hands — your dominant hand and non-dominant hand — telling?

This poem considers the posture of the body when writing: writing a letter, writing a note, writing a poem. The poet pays attention to hands — when dancing, when speaking from the heart, in prayer. This poem invites the listener to slow down, to listen to the stories the body is telling by how it’s held in small moments.

Who is in your chosen family?

This poem considers the lines of loyalty in families and how particular memories, like a grandmother keeping “wishbones from chicken carcasses / in an empty margarine container on top of the fridge,” can be a portal to love. The nan in this poem is a character of generosity and permission, and we imagine her through stories of trips, funerals, and visits.

What have you had to explore on your own? What, or who, helped?

This poem explores the archetype of the cave — a cave that calls, a cave that contains secrets and perhaps even information. “Someone standing at the mouth had / the idea to enter. To go further / than light or language could / go.” The poem manages — at once — to convey the bravery of exploration and the solitude and possibility that can accompany such journeys.

What do you notice about how you behave in times of conflict? Do you tend toward avoidance? Or compromise? Or collaboration? Or competition? Or accommodation?

This poem describes a conflict between neighbors: a tree hangs over a fence. The owners love this tree; their neighbors don’t. Somebody responds directly, somebody else avoids, a chainsaw appears. Suddenly this conflict becomes a parable for all conflicts, illustrating how deep they can go and how often they cannot be resolved with a question about what to do.

How do you hold onto hope? And who helped you find it?

This poem is about holding onto paradise in the midst of an environment that seeks to steal or quash it. Roger Robinson praises his grandmother who told him to “carry it always / on my person, concealed.” His deft language helps us understand that paradise is a quality of life; and, even deeper than that, paradise is your life.

In times of isolation, what stories have you turned to for comfort?

This poem is an exploration of isolation as seen through the mythical Irish character, Suibhne. Suibhne was cursed and lived a life on the move, a transitory isolation. In the midst of the sadness at all he’s missed, he also sees beauty — and he holds both sadness and appreciation together.

What is the story of your name?

In this poem, the poet calls on place, ancestors, and history to bear witness to the dignity of their name. They recall how their ancestors “acknowledged my roots grew in two / places” and how their name “is the definition of resilience.” With Black/Indigenous, Pasifika, and West Asian heritage, the poet speaks to those who mispronounce their name: “Say it right or don’t say it at all / for I am Meleika.”

In strength and defiance, Lucille Clifton celebrates her Black body and her survival. When have you said or heard words like this?

Calling herself “both nonwhite and woman,” Lucille Clifton glories in her shape and fact of her life in these two poems. She invites the reader to witness everything she’s lived through, and to celebrate the flourishing life that she has created in spite of everything that has tried to kill her.

How do you speak of and toyour body?

This is a poem dedicated to the body. “The body is a nation I have not known,” Chris Abani writes. Throughout the 21 lines of this work, he describes lungs, skin, bone, touch, smells, sweat, armpits and hunger. For all the embodiedness of the poem, there is disembodiedness too: the poem continues to question how to truly be in your own body.

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