ONE. Diggs Gilmore Harvey Hayes Johnson Kearney PhI Williams CONTENTS. MuckWorks: A Cover Story Poems Author Statements MASTHEAD. MuckWorks is edited by Yona Harvey + Douglas Kearney (we created it, too) MuckWorks is designed by Douglas Kearney The cover photograph is by Yona Harvey but was tampered with by Douglas Kearney visit us at www.douglaskearney.com/muck ©2009 MuckWorks. All rights revert to authors. MuckWorks is an ePublication designed to be viewed as a PDF and as such, is not formatted for printing or assemblage. Feel free to e-mail it to whomever you’d like as often as you’d like. Enjoy! y+D=MuckWorks Muckworks: A cover story from yona harvey Popular musical covers have a complicated and familiar history. In the 1950s and 60s United States, musical covers entailed taking an original song, which was already a hit among black musicians and their audiences, and re-recording it for a white audience. Robert Witmer and Anthony Marks have commented in the Grove Music Database on these unsubtle, racist and commercial endeavors. The writers also note a gradual shift by the late 1960s and into the 70s, where covers become more tributary and nuanced, keeping the original artist at the center of the work1. MuckWorks, too, positions the original artist, Elizabeth Alexander, and original poem, “Ladders” at the core of this issue. We invited our contributors to access an online version of “Ladders” through The Academy of American Poets website (http://www. poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16672) or via Alexander’s first book2. Each poet was free to cover the poem as he or she saw fit, though we offered this for consideration: —“A parody” and a cover are not the same thing. Parodying suggests an imitation of style. Covering may not take the source’s style into account at all. —“A remix” and a cover are not the same thing. Remixing suggests rearranging the substance of source material. Rearrangement, however, may not lead to a cover at all. Enter Elizabeth Alexander. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading her poetry (The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book and American Sublime) and essays (The Black Interior and Power and Possibility: Essays, Review, and Interviews) you understand that she is a true child of integration; which means on some level, she relies on much invention and building as she goes. Her work, her very presence, encompass so much artistry and history—examining the past and producing a body of literature, which continues to benefit new generations of poets. When The Venus Hottentot was published in 1990, Doris Jean Austin aptly described it in The New York Times as “a historical mosaic with profound integrity.” We learned as MuckWorks headed for release that President-Elect Obama named Alexander Inaugural Poet, and Austin’s comments also feel rich with foresight. Rereading Alexander’s first book for MuckWorks, the level of diversity, curiosity and innovation (form, subject matter, persona) within the collection is striking. 1 2 Oxford University Press and Grove’s Dictionaries, Inc. The Academy of American Poets website actually has a typo in the poem’s final stanza, which Brian Gilmore pointed out. Specifically, line 21 has an extra “as”; it should read: “As soon a live Jemima.” Additionally, the website adds an extra “n” in its spelling of “Donnessa” and various mis-capitalizations. You can view the correct version in The Venus Hottentot. The same can be said for our very first MW contributors. Reading their poems and process statements, you, too, will be awed by the multilayered versions of “Ladders,” which reflect not only the poets’ writing talents, but their depth and diversity as readers. Brian Gilmore quickly pointed out in an e-mail that he and Alexander were born within days of one another: “she was born may 30, 1962. i was born may 28. 1962. we were like in line at the same time.” How fitting then, to see Alexander’s lyrics embedded in Gilmore’s “ladders (a cover).” These poets turned “Ladders” round and round before “messing” with it. Each rendition reveals the poet’s sensibilities, interests and entryways; they demonstrate also thoughtful readings or listenings. There’s an interesting process of transference happening in the “fat eye” of Bao Phi’s “The Deported, Part 1: Antique Store” and the conflicted buyer of Crystal Williams’ “Race Card.” Terrance Hayes and Amaud Jamaul Johnson nod to Alexander’s structure, control of the line, and bend it with the gift that is vernacular. And then there’s the intriguing game Donessa plays, for which LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs does not retreat: “DON-ESSA?”: “yeah she talking to you / advance your space according to the spinner” the poet charges. From DC to California to the love of music itself, the cross-overs and shared spaces here are startling. Almost as exciting as the poems were the poets’ enthusiastic responses to the journey (the words “wild” and “crazy” come to mind). Each sound is unique; yet each fits this collective. Have a listen. D + Y = MuckWorks January 13, 2009 Moksha Patamu LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs lazarus kiddy subdivision stock near nineteen-eighty-one inebriated Aunt Jemima slithers to the floor pool of swine, vice & bubble gum smell of fruit loops contradicts flaunt feast for the fleasflight of the flatworms Auntie’s loop sided head tags over yonder banana ponders purple sounder dragon puff eyelids she a pot-likka pick-a-ninny field snot deep southern exposure more snakes to your ladders if you were to regulate grand stands you so serious at 11 & yeah she talking to you advance your space according to the spinner (paramapada sopanam)1 Donessa! Girl you hear me! Don’t act like you don’t see me… I know your mama! circa twenty 0-2, you elevate to Central Park West consequence eighty-four squares of seethe looka ma duke spittle of jiffy kernels week old Cineplex claims she feedin’ pigeons no remorse no subtlety nothing debutante when she winks and regur— good lordy backwood kacalaky in her toboggan on down that embarrassed skinned gut all for your proper behavior go on now 1 the ladder to salvation you apologize karma’s a cashier reality late check your contemporaries all up in that other habitat proletariat, the dang literati can’t theorized with you look a here girl them editor you subscript milk crates stack um up closer to nirvana chile it’s all in the eyes asking “You do remember me sir?” nah your status makes a neo-nigga wanna to act dumb chica stocking sodas sandwich wrapper cook dem eggs nah your status makes a post-nigga wanna to act dumb & there’s yo mama again your innards cramp “Please, why this gotta be my mama.” so what she doing now? Donessa! Girl you hear me! Don’t act like you don’t see me… I know your mama! oops upside your head there your cousin goes again in that wig, with the gin with the drool right down her chin how are you feeling now? polyester floral rolls up against the wild irish rose the been there done that sags of kohl mams, oodles & oodles of holey hose stretch marks drag like the earth when it cracks from the sun how fancy that your education led to more retail how fascinating between age & the dolly you pushing no one knows you. no one sees you. you just can’t mutilate the flustered memory this is what you’ll always see you go deaf when you see you in her you ain’t even trying to find her “Girl?” from the back of your neck “Girl?” her reflection the silhouette you keep packing them customer’s bags mirrors haunt you don’t they? the female kin the code of vodka as soon as a live junkie walks on by the shop, you shriek the possibility of a what if why can’t you get to the hundredth square? “Girl? Answer me. You forgot?” (paramapada sopanam) LADDERS (a cover) Brian Gilmore & i can hear strings. like the isaac hayes orchestra on “closer” “black moses,” church women praying swooning deliberate precision horns sacredness, look close, it is right there on their faces more than freckles or dimples this is their wedding day. not much matters; his brother didn’t show, the reception hall is tiny, she’s in white he’s in black a cake two rings they hold hands delicate all day no money worries; they don’t have much anyhow. they work steady for the uncle in washington dc & they are black they will make it & raise children it would be a fabulous moment in world history even if they had been married in filene’s department store nineteen-fifty-three: An Aunt Jemima floor display. Red bandanna, apron holding white rolls of black fat fast against the bubbling pancakes, bowls and bowls of pale batter. This is what Donna sees, across the “Cookwares” floor, and hears “Donessa?” Please, this can not be my aunt. Father’s long-gone sister, nineteen-fifty-three. “Girl?” Had they lost her, missed her? This is not the question. This must not be my aunt. Jemima? Pays the rent. Family mirrors haunt their own reflections. Ladders. Sisters. Nieces. As soon a live Jemima as a buck-eyed rhesus monkey. Girl? Answer me. talk of the magnificence. they can hear strings. they hold hands. & would have held them even tighter in filene’s department store. we should all be so lucky. small cake. tiny reception hall. the love of their lives. this is what i see. BRILLIANCE Yona Harvey Sometimes you find yourself facing it, after early July approximations have fizzled on an urban patch of green or sidewalk or down at the Riverfront you wisely avoided. “Our Radiant Light,” said The Stone. (True that, true that.) But who on Earth can stand it— to be brilliant, but always questioning the gift, its smart, black packaging: (What grace is wrapped this way?) Before you know it, it’s in your skin, your kin, your bone: I don’t know, you keep saying. But you do, no, Dammit, you don’t. THE LAST TRAIN TO AFRICA Terrance Hayes doesn’t leave the train station according to the story Stagger tells, until tomorrow morning. We shoot up 23 North, singing our version of Tribe, put pedal to floor doing a buck fifty, Stagger’s braids in a red bandana, chrome on the rims, the cab smokey, the volume rolled to its end. Beyond the insomniac nuclear silos built against nature where the wind tastes like roadkill or tiny bowls of fire, a gun in the glove box, there is no one badder than Stagger speeding across two counties until I can see he’s getting staggerly. I drive the rest of way, pedal to floor because his train to Africa is leaving before she can please him. We stop at a drive thru strip club where the poor and lonely are working. Naked jaded sea hag looking sisters, only one of them pretty, a dark chocolate chattering girl. Stagger spends the next hour soaking his money in her skin. Between there and Africa Simpson, all his questions amount to “What’s someone like you doing here with the aunts of poverty?” To which each of her answers sounds like “Rent.” I had no money, but the whole time I napped she was haunting my body. I was so fucked up then, even the reflections of truckers were godlike to me. She was one of my nieces caught along a road named America or named Jemima bucking for bills or company with the rhythm of a rhesus monkey. We made the train but her image was still with me. UNHOLY Amaud Jamaul Johnson “…to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” —John Donne Batter my aunt, three-pancake girl; a store Of fat bubbling across the floor. Near Fifty—red, white, pale—long gone, my father’s Sister, my mirror. He missed her. Please hear Me. Answer me. Black is not the question. Jemima’s wears? See Jemima’s red roll, Her monkey. Depart! Miss this reflection! “A display pays, girl.” A bandanna, please. A buck? Sisters live and the family haunts. Nineteen nieces. Don an apron. Cook. This Is not, cannot be the ladder. Hold on. Own this eye. See. Or lease a white mirror. Rent-a-Jemima (the black bubbling). Rent-a-Jemima, and hold fast to bling. UP In FILENE’S Douglas Kearney “Madam, Buy A New Hat!”—Filene’s Ad, 1913 Filene’s Bargain Basement Department Store c. 1953, an Aunt Jemima display on the cookware floor. donning a red bandanna and an apron, muffining black blubber (for the role). batter blubbles waxen in a cradled mixing bowled over, o Donna peeps spots sees it over by the kettles, pots— what?! please this can not be my aunt. DONESSA? c. 1953, and pops’ father’s long (dog)gone sister done gone found Donna don’t does matter if they missed her not GIRL? or not. this must not be my aunt “lawsee”ing to “temptilate” ladies for rent. Donessa dons “Donna” like a veil; the hant keeps calling her name, spooking her. rungs in the family? down through sisters, aunts, nieces: does it run in ya Donna? ain’t ya aunt ya ya ain’t ya. answer: “… THE DEPORTED, PART 1: ANTIQUE STORE Bao Phi “You know, like when Oriental girls say, me rike, me rike instead of like,” he says amongst Smurf tumblers and she says nothing to the white man old enough to be her father— why should she? He knows what she rikes. His eye is fat with sambos eternally lifting watermelon, injuns’ and squaws’ tomahawks leveled at Mexican banditos ay yi yi while Saudis draped in sand-colored sheets look like Jawas next to a Boba Fett action figure, its left boot gnarly, chewed up by a cat. Oh, yes, he watches me from the round corner of that fat eye to make sure I don’t run off with the afternoon’s tea. On a mirrored shelf, plaster mushroom hat figurines heft loads, gooky dwarves chink eyes like inverted pickaxes slanted sideways— mine hover, slopes just above their dust, my eyebrows cocked Spock-like. On the globe, if you spin it hard enough, the jagged borders of Vietnam look like the silhouette of Tila Tequila dancing, swear to god, just try. Sure they took it all, and they keep selling it back to us. Tea to a party you can only be a servant to. Fireworks to gunpowder crater a wound shaped like the country you left and now get back to where you came from. Self-hate is the fucking Cu Chi tunnels of oppression. Just look at your G.I. Joe collection. You reach for a worn copy of anything Tolkien before a brand new Carlos Bulosan. Walk where you want to. Assimilation gerrymanders that ass. Oh yeah me likee. RACE CARD Crystal Williams Dear Mr. Burke, As you might remember from our conversation, my mom gave me this Race Card (enclosed as per your request) at the beginning of the year because my college said that every freshman needed one. But I never used mine. My aunt had already bought my textbooks & everything else in the campus store seemed sort of goofy & irrelevant. So since I haven’t used it & probably won’t ever, I contacted your department hoping to either get a refund or an exchange. I really appreciate the huge exception you’re making for me (&, as per your request, I have not mentioned this to any of my classmates, although, most have used their Race Cards anyway). I realize you can’t give me a refund but can exchange the Race Card for some other type of gift card. After thinking about it for a while, I think a grocery store gift card would be best. $50 will buy lots of Ramen noodles! Anyway, I know you said your daughter is my age & is in college in Maryland. I hope she’s enjoying it there as much as I am here & that someone in Maryland is as kind to her as you’ve been to me. Thanks again. Sincerely, Anza Jenesis Jones class of 2012 AUTHOR STATEMENTS Latasha Diggs the title of elizabeth’s poem stuck to me while i sat with the poem. my version, a remix, is in the spoken word tradition as it is meant to be recited over a track i composed before actually writing. i kept thinking about what karma meant for this character and the things i have had to learn through morality. all this helped me come up with the title. all this led me back to the childhood game “Chutes and Ladders,” a game originally called “Moksha Patamu” in 16th century India. Writer, vocalist, and sound artist, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, is the author of three chapbooks and one album. She hails from Harlem. Brian Gilmore I chose to do it like Isaac Hayes, the greatest cover artist of all time. Isaac had just died so he was on my mind because I adored the guy and his music. Isaac loved intros; he used strings and singing to make the songs become his own. He loved to go out strong too, ad-lib. This is what I tried to do. “Ladders” is a great poem by a great writer so it was easy to play around with it. Isaac Hayes I tried to become; I hope it worked. Native Washingtonian, Brian Gilmore is a poet, public interest attorney, contributing writer for Ebony-Jet online, and frequent columnist for the Progressive Media Project. Yona Harvey Whenever I read “Ladders,” I get stuck on two lines: “This must not be my aunt” and “family mirrors haunt.” While covering I kept repeating those lines. Then, there’s that pesky grenade: “their own reflections” which came back to me when a brilliant, fellow music-loving friend came to visit my husband and our family. My poem is written in praise of Alexander and that friend. Yona Harvey’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bat City Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, The Journal, Ploughshares and West Branch. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Terrance Hayes I think Elizabeth is always in some way casting a benevolent shadow on my work so I wanted to use her poem as the literal scaffolding—the ladder—of my own. Thus all of the end words in “The Last Train to Africa” are lifted from “Ladders.” Content-wise I was most interested in the duo/partners/sisters of “Ladders.” The speaker and Stagger in my poem, like the speaker and Donna in “Ladders” are on a sort of “cultural adventure.” Terrance Hayes is the author of Wind in a Box (Penguin 2006), Hip Logic (Penguin 2002) and Muscular Music (Carnegie Mellon University Contemporary Classics, 2005 and Tia Chucha Press, 1999). He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his family. Amaud Jamaul Johnson After rereading “Ladders” several times the word “batter” began to ring in my ears. For reasons that I cannot fully explain I remembered the opening line from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets #14: “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” I made fourteen photocopies of “Ladders,” cut and compressed each copy until I found the shape of a sonnet. Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of Red Summer, winner of the 2004 Dorset Prize. He is a former Stegner Fellow, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Douglas Kearney In researching Filene’s, I found archived ads documenting its transformation from a “department store” to a “bargain basement” which struck me as the opposite of Donessa’s—or “Donna’s”—trajectory. “Ladders” is full of such revisions, with Alexander’s deft enjambment of “rhesus/monkey. Girl. Answer me.” as perhaps the most brutal. My cover plays these alterations from the perspective of an anxious striver like Donessa. Kearney’s The Black Automaton (Fence Books, Fall ’09) is a National Poetry Series selection. His first book is Fear, Some (Red Hen Press ’06). He lives in The Valley with his wife and their dog. Bao Phi When asked to remake Elizabeth Alexander’s great “Ladders” poem, my process was to basically read it over and over again in an attempt to soak in both its form and its tone. My own resulting poem wasn’t, at all, a strict adherence, but rather a remake that I hoped replicated the emotional truth and captured the intent of the original. Poet and community organizer Bao Phi is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist. Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. Crystal Williams Alexander’s poem “Ladders” makes me think of inheritance, mobility, generational shifts. Because I teach, I’m constantly at odds with/in awe of young people: how and what they inherit and how that is manifested in the world, how they move so fluidly amid such complication, how so often the ignorance of youth (my students last year didn’t know who Angela Davis was!) is also our very best hope for significant change. I wanted to write a poem that expressed some of that. And, I must admit, I was at the time obsessing about the 2008 election wherein every other word, it seemed, was “Race Card.” Crystal Williams was raised in Detroit, Michigan and Madrid, Spain. She currently lives and works in Portland, Oregon where she is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Reed College. Right now, you’re probably asking, “What is MuckWorks?” Answer: Poets Yona Harvey and Douglas Kearney with a trunk full of lab coats. We believe that writers should get the opportunity to muck around a bit. To try new things, but with the alibi: “MuckWorks made me do it!” And “it,” here, denotes one of a variety of secret poetic experiments. MuckWorks will produce a series of chapbooks, pamphlets and more in which some of our favorite writers will be invited to experiment with different projects and constraints. The results will then be made available as free pdfs just like this one. ONE.
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