“deeply concerned with language and the world around us…..” –

We’re so pleased that our 2012 Issue inspired this thoughtful, cranky, intelligent, and generous blog post on the state of poetry today, written by Amorak Huey (one of our 2012 contributors).

“There is plenty of ridiculously good poetry being written right now, and it’s easier than ever to find good, exciting, new poems to read. I do not understand the compulsion of the Perloffs and Dana Gioias and John Barrs and their ilk to focus on poems they don’t like and to extrapolate therefrom that we live in a woeful era for verse. Look, if you don’t like a poem or poet, move on ………………..

“The poems in this issue of RHINO do not build toward clever little epiphanies or pithy bits of wisdom. They are not unified in subject matter or style. They evoke and echo our times. The recession is in here, and so are punk rock and Don Knotts and sex and death and autumn and childhood and longing and Pound and James Wright and macaroni salad. ”

from his blog “The Reading Life”- enjoy the post in its entirety here – Marjorie Perloff is wrong, and RHINO proves it

We welcome your comments!

Who gave him the nerve to be this delicate? – Helen Degen Cohen on Roethke

Note: Each year RHINO has a four month “down” period (last year from January to April) during which we do not read submissions, focusing instead on getting the issue to press, as well as various administrative and business matters.   In order to stay more closely connected to poetry during the “down time”, in 2011 we used part of each meeting to hone our skills as an editorial board, as well as to make ourselves more conscious of the assumptions and criteria we apply in assessing poems.  One aspect of this was to compile a list of “most frequently made comments” at the editorial board table.  More significantly, each editor was asked to choose a poet/poem from “Groundbreaking Books” listed on the American Academy of Poets’ website, and to present that poem for discussion as if it had been submitted.  Editors were encouraged to choose work with which they were not familiar. This post is a retrospective by Helen Degan Cohen from her discussion of Theodore Roethke.

On Breaking Out of Boxes: Rediscovering a poet — Theodore Roethke

I had an interesting conversation with another poet recently––interesting, because it had to do with the current box we seem to be in, as we both agreed.  While driving leisurely to a reading, we, rather spontaneously, arrived at the same conclusion:  that we tend to “no longer trust” what we once trusted ––the gut, the expansiveness, the experiment, the emotion, the very length or density a poem wants to be.  We’re careful.  Often we don’t trust authors we once trusted, or ourselves, really.

Recently, Rhino editors began to do brief presentations at our bi-weekly meetings, each of us focusing on a poet  from a prescribed list.  I found myself choosing Roethke, a poet from one of my past lives, thinking that, since I was already so familiar with him, it wouldn’t be a challenge or take much time.   I was wrong.

I chose Roethke because a poem once again popped into my head whose first stanza I still remembered from years back when Roethke had come like a storm and then passed us right by:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,

When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;

Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:

The shapes a bright container can contain.

That poem lilts, though it’s quite worked.  It is unspecific, and  interpretable––by critics but also by people unfamiliar with poetry (as is evident even on line).  Behind its craft and cleverness is longing.  It is fun, poignant and lasting.  I remembered it because it had been pleasurable to recite it in my mind. I enjoyed dancing the rhythm, accents of the line, I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.

I have also always remembered these two lines of Roethke’s from In a Dark Time, which, perhaps because I thought myself a little mad as well, I found comforting:

What’s madness but nobility of soul

at odds with circumstance?

They still make me smile.  And so I chose to present I Knew a Woman and In a Dark Time, along with my notes — two of Roethke’s most famous poems.  And in the process I remembered, and in part discovered, what it is that we may no longer do:  not allowed, not cool.

Aside from the obvious unspoken taboos –– among them:  we must not rhyme, we must not get too emotional, or serious or wordy or––I realized that we must also not use direct statement, we must not rhapsodize or grieve, or long for, or philosophize –– too much –– or indulge in too many musical rhythms, or in too much pleasure.  All of which Roethke did, and was loved for doing, once.

Of course Roethke too was in a way stuck in his time and what was acceptable.  But he experimented continually, learned from his predecessors, found his own style/s, and did something brand new  more than twice.  (Check out I AM, SAYS THE LAMB.) The latter is most difficult.  Doing something new takes not only courage, but a great deal of trust in going your own way.  It may also take a recognition, at times, of the boxes we’ve been in, are in, even as we think ourselves “now” and “cool”.  (Which is the first sign of being––passe?  As soon as you can say “new”, it’s old.  Who was it who said There is no such thing as the avant garde?) This is all subconscious, of course.  It’s impossible to see the nose on your face when you keep wanting to be all the other noses in your mirror. Which may all be clones, too.

Roethke grew up in a plant nursery, and he made use of his obsession with nature, and wanted to crawl into a slug and be the glorious, insufferable slug, down to the slug-mush––instead of talking about a slug.  He was ripping out his being.  He let himself sink into his excess, which is also not cool to some of us.  And––as we sometimes hate to realize––might not be so easy.

But it’s his book, Words for the Wind, that first drew me in, years ago, along with Plath, who was influenced by Roethke, who was influenced by Stevens, who was influenced by Whitman –– so I hear.

These poems are blatantly adoring.  (My lizard, my lively writher/May your limbs never wither… from “Wish for a Young Wife”).  This from a man of height and heft.  Who gave him the nerve to be this delicate?   The freedom that poets are supposed to have so much of, takes a hell of a lot of permission.

“When you read him, you realize with a great surge of astonishment and joy that, truly, you are not yet dead”, said Harold Bloom of Roethke.  But who dares to live?  I mean, talk about trust.

Or, who can stay alive?  “”Only a few years ago he could refer to himself sardonically as “the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A.” America wants to wither its artists with neglect or kill them with success.””–– Stanley Kunitz.

Roethke allowed himself to do everything:  form, rhyme, free verse, direct statement, imitation, humor, children’s poems, angst, longing, adoration, despair.  He didn’t write about nature, he lived it:

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,–
The small water seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

“In a dark time,” he said, “the eye begins to see.”   Well, yes––if you trust the eye.

As always, when I become immersed in another poet, I learn about my own work.  Which I did, in doing this private little Roethke retrospective––for which there’s no space here.  Of course I’ve been influenced by dozens or hundreds of poets since Roethke, but sometimes we have to return, with all that’s happened to us since, and begin to suddenly see how we’ve been seeing things now.  That is, who we are as poets, at this moment.  And the variety of ways in which we get ourselves boxed in, and forget the sheer chutzpah we once had.  Very creative of us.

Let me finish on an optimistic note.  There are indeed poets who dare to trust, amongst us.  And it’s delicious to be made to ponder or feel.  For instance, I just heard Roger Reeves (at Rhino Reads) busting through, with lines like these:

(the ending to Parable of a Blade of Grass)

Watch them eat fire.
Watch the children grow
legs below the knees, watch
the old men kiss the old women
behind the house walls.
Love is when you can hear the flood coming.

I told Roger afterwords, “I’m so glad passion is back.”  Perhaps it wasn’t really gone––we just had it well under control beneath layers of craft and wit and the thin air above disillusionment and pure fatigue––the recent death of the 20th Century.  But where can you go but up––or out–– from there?  You can’t go beneath what the box sits on, when you open the door.  But there’s every other direction, and a past chock full of poets who went there––like Roethke––and can start some fire under you, and allow you to do whatever the hell you please.

~ Helen Degen Cohen

Accelerate softly my blood: Saenz on Berrigan

Note: Each year RHINO has a four month “down” period (from January to April) during which we do not read submissions, focusing instead on getting the issue to press, as well as various administrative and business matters.   In order to stay more closely connected to poetry during the “down time”, this year we are using part of each meeting to hone our skills as an editorial board, as well as to make ourselves more conscious of the assumptions and criteria we apply in assessing poems.   One aspect of this was to compile a list of “most frequently made comments” at the editorial board table.  More significantly, each editor was asked to choose a poet/poem from “Groundbreaking Books” listed on the American Academy of Poets’ website, and to present that poem for discussion as if it had been submitted.  Editors were encouraged to choose work with which they were not familiar. This post includes remarks by Jacob Saenz on his discussion of Ted Berrigan.

When I first came across Ted Berrigan’s Sonnet XXXIV, I was immediately captivated by it. I feel it’s filled with great lines that speak to me on a personal level but also, simply, on a human level.  The poem deals with projections; how we, as human beings, project certain images of ourselves to each other.  And the speaker in the poem states how tired he/she is of constantly shifting projections of his/herself: “…I find my hand grows stale at the throttle / Of my many faceted and fake appearance”.

Beyond on the opening line and the image of the “great whale” (which I love!), I was more drawn to lines 3 and 4 because I can related to the idea of “fake appearance”; I think we all can. In certain situations in life, we have to project an image of ourselves that may or may not be our true self.  For example, at work I have to present myself in a certain manner/way that I don’t at, say, RHINO meetings.  I suppose I have to be a bit more “professional” at my job than at an editors meeting (which requires a different sort of professionalism).  Either way, I am presenting myself in manner that contain elements of my true self while still, on some level, “fake.”  I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a chameleon or anything like that… In comparison to other sonnets in the book “The Sonnets,” sonnet XXXIV is one of the more straightforward poems, more traditional to the sonnet form.

If you read Sonnet XV straight through, for example, it makes little sense, at least from a narrative standpoint.  The lines read as if they don’t match up well and that is on purpose.

In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow
he is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
Or Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white–
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
and ate King Korn popcorn,” he wrote in his
of glass in Joe Brainard’s collage
Doctor, but they say “I LOVE YOU”
and the sonnet is not dead.
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. “Today
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
does not point to William Carlos Williams.

Sonnet XV, like other sonnets in the book, is composed using old material, if you will.  Sonnet XV is actually Sonnet LIX (which I don’t have a link for) just with the lines rearranged. So, if you read sonnet XV in this line sequence (1, 14, 2, 13, 3, 12, etc) you will actually read it the way Sonnet LIX is laid out.

In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow
does not point to William Carlos Williams.
He is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
Or Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white–
washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. “Today
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
and ate King Korn popcorn,” he wrote in his
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
of glass in Joe Brainard’s collage
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Doctor, but they say “I LOVE YOU”
and the sonnet is not dead.

Sonnet XV is not the only example of Berrigan using old or previously used material in a different context but it is, perhaps, one of the more famous examples.

But in keeping with the traditional manner of the sonnet, if we go back to Sonnet XXX!V, we see a deliberate turn in line 9: “But blood is still blood and tall as a mountain blood.”

I read this line to mean that beyond whatever projections we convey, there is a level of truth/realness that connects us, in this case “blood.”   But still, the speaker comes back to the theme of projections and how we, as people, rely on how others perceive us: “Padre, Father, or fat old man, as you will / I am afraid to succeed, afraid to fail / Tell me now, again, who I am”.

These last three lines are what really grabbed me about this poem.  It speaks to the contradictory nature we have as humans that, on the one hand, we tire of presenting ourselves as “fake” but, yet, rely on how others perceive us in order to make us who we are.

The speaker ends the poem with a plea asking God or some patriarchal figure to tell him who he/she is, perhaps because of his/her “many faceted and fake appearance” he/she somehow lost a true sense of who they are. And in this case, I can relate; I think we all can as human beings.

~Jacob Saenz, Associate Editor

I am for a moment made more alive

I cannot speak for the other editors, but I’m often blind, mostly numb, mostly selfish, mostly dim-witted and smug, mostly deaf, mostly distracted, often indifferent, mostly hiding, mostly lonely and afraid, mostly anxious, often phony, often lying, often lazy.  I look for poems to break through all that, to speak to me so forcefully—through stillness, or humor, or dazzling linguistic invention, or oddball charm, or lacerating insight, or polyrhythmic drive—that somehow, through mere alchemy of letters and space arranged on a page, I am for a moment brought more awake, made more alive.

I think of the judgment rendered by the escaped criminal in Flannery O’Connor’s story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, after murdering an elderly woman: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”   Savage words, yes—perhaps inapt in this regard—but that is finally what I want from a poem: to help reveal the world anew, sliced open, stranger and less certain, to make living in this moment more desperate, more delicate, more heart-breaking, more beautiful…and to hope I can stand it.

Sure, a poem’s just a literary enterprise, an instance of artifice, a verbal sleight of hand that pieces the world together or tears it apart.  And a poet should use any trick, any trope, any form, any subject, and every silence, every sound, every piece of paper (or screen) needed to achieve the poem’s end.  Poetry is big enough to accommodate many things called poems, written in different ways, with different combinations of tools, written for different purposes.  There’s room for the glib and the profound, the coarse and the finely spun, for delight and revulsion, for the serene and the manic, for the earnest and the coy, and most of all (in Frank Bidart’s and Keat’s words) for “necessary thought,” for “the true voice of feeling.”

With so great an ambition, of course every poem will fail—condemned to be less than what it attempts or (in my case) heard by a reader sometimes unequal to its art.  A friend and good poet often reminds me, “Ralph, it’s only a poem!”  Yet reading a good poem, experiencing its struggle to grasp a small fragment of life, to voice something compelling—watching words torque and contract and flex on a page, reach for the real (or through the real), attempt to grasp something on the far edge of speech—entering a poem’s illusion made of nothing but sound and symbol, as it becomes almost animate and as contradictory as life itself, and holding us there, even for one trembling moment, “in the blue voice of air” (Neruda)—enacts my own struggle to make life richer, more acute, “to glorify things just because they are.” (Milosz)

With poems, as with any unknown, untamed thing we try to capture and cage (maybe housebreak,…even love), the questions remain: “Was its bowl or bed empty in the morning?”, “Do we care?”, “How hard will we search to find what we’ve lost?”

~Ralph Hamilton, Editor

“The Writing Life is Now” – Interview with Kevin Simmonds

Kevin Simmonds won the 2004 RHINO Editors’ Prize with his poem, “The Smell of Nutmeg“; we also published his poem “The Poet, 1955” that year.  I met Kevin when he gave me a ride to and from the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop where we were both fellows in 2010 — but discovered our RHINO connection when I was putting our new website together two months later. This interview was conducted March 10, 2011. ~Valerie Wallace, Associate Editor

VW: I love this photo of you for many reasons, but one is that it shows an aspect of your personality that I think is connected to your physicality — that is, you carry yourself like a performer, you use your body in your art. The two seem interconnected. Is that the case?

KS: No one has ever said that to me. I do know that I tend to overuse my body, especially my shoulders and neck, which stems more from stress than any kind of grand performer’s carriage. I did have a strong interest in dance. Unfortunately, my mother and stepfather didn’t take notice of me running around the house kicking up my legs.

VW: What took you to San Francisco? Tell me about the poetry community there, and your poetry community specifically.

KS: I moved to San Francisco in 1996 to live with a very accomplished composer and conductor. We’d met 3 years earlier when I was senior in college. I did love him but it was more awe than love. He was much older and doing everything I thought I’d wanted to do. We were together for a short time before I moved out.

San Francisco is a very disappointing place for someone (like me) trying to find a poetry community. It’s a very expensive place to live and people are always hustling, trying to get their work out into the world while making rent. Frankly, I have not found one person here that I consider poetry kin. No one commits to long-term, involved relationships. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I expect more than people are willing to give. Whatever the case, despite all the hype, the poetry writing groups, readings and all that, I find it an insular, mostly uninspired place for building community. I know many would probably disagree with me, especially those who are connected to the spoken word scene and the older, Beat or political poetry scenes. I know nothing about that.

VW: During our trip back from Squaw Valley you told me about your Hugging Asians project. Please explain it, and where things are at with it.

KS: Last April, Tian Sheng Yu, a Chinese Oakland resident, was beaten by two intoxicated Black teenagers. He died as a result and the media spun it as yet another example of Blacks targeting Asians for crime. It bothered me because, as a Black man who has an Asian partner and who’s lived and worked in Asia and with immigrant Asian communities in San Francisco, I know we certainly won’t benefit from reports amplifying perceived and real tensions between these groups.

I started thinking about what happened three years earlier, in 2007: Imus’s “nappy-headed hoes” comment and New York DJs JV and Elvis’s (Jeff Vandegrift and Dan Lay) racist call to a Chinese restaurant happened within a day of each other. Why didn’t Asian activists stand with the Black community? Why didn’t Blacks stand with the Asian community? Where’s our solidarity? To begin processing these questions, I wrote a poem entitled “Orient.” Then I decided I wanted to create a website featuring the poem and photographs of me hugging Asians — strangers and friends. I grew up in the South and we hug. I lived in Japan for a few years and, though it’s not at all culturally acceptable to hug, I did it frequently. It was my way of embellishing my language skills. An additional way to communicate. huggingasians.com went online last spring. Some people thought the site was great, others derided it. Regardless, huggingasians.com was part of my process and remains online. I add to it occasionally.

A few months later, I had the idea to create a multimedia performance piece entitled “ORIENT: a new anthropology,” which I’m working on now. I got a 2011 San Francisco Arts Commission grant for it. ORIENT will trace the lives of Asians and Blacks in America, beginning with the divisively racist work of early anthropologists in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

From the beginning, Asians and Blacks were pitted against each other as each group tried to build lives in a country that resisted their very presence. I want to underscore our interconnectedness, not just as people on the margins but as two groups that have stood together historically. Richard Aoki, a Japanese American, helped start the Black Panthers. He donated some of the first weapons. I learned that very recently. I know of a Black woman in LA (the mother of a friend) who, during the Japanese internment, took care of the belongings of a Japanese family. ORIENT is helping me get an education. And I think it’s especially pertinent now. The 20th anniversary of the LA Riots is next year, 2012. 20 years ago Asians and Blacks were killing each other on the streets. Have racial tensions diminished at all? I’m going to travel to LA several times to interview people whose lives were affected by the riots. Much of the poetry, music and images in ORIENT will emanate from interviews.

VW: What else are you working on?  Do you have any themes or preoccupations that you find yourself returning to?
KS: I’m putting the finishing touches on Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, a collection by the late Carrie Allen McCray Nickens. I can’t tell you how very special this project is to me. I met Carrie through Cave Canem in 2004 and, while I was finishing my Ph.D. in South Carolina, she and her sister Rose were my family. I’m talking about them cooking for me, opening up their home and giving me my own room during my return trips to complete my dissertation, telling me stories, coming out to my performances, giving me strength to endure and understand the grand (wizard) peculiarities of South Carolina. Carrie was 91 years old at the time and an accomplished and widely published writer. Rose was 92.

The collection tells the story of the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga who was infamously exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Shortly after that, Carrie’s family took him into their home in Lynchburg, Virginia. I edited many of the poems for a theatrical adaptation we did in 2007 and, after Carrie’s passing in 2008, a team of extraordinary people (poet Kwame Dawes and Carolyn Micklem, the former director of Cave Canem, among them) helped get these poems into print. The collection will appear in early spring next year.

I’m editing the first LGBTIQ anthology featuring poems about faith, religion and spirituality. It’s called Collective Brightness and the title comes from Benjamin Grossberg’s beautifully odd poem “Beetle Orgy.” It’ll be published by Sibling Rivalry Press this December and I’m extremely excited about it. Religion has done major damage to LGBTIQ people and this anthology will show how resilient, observant and resourceful we are. I hope it travels into the most dangerous places for us in America.

VW: You’re also a composer. I recall from a session we shared at the workshop a poem of yours which included a rhythmic hitting of the table.  Is that a typical style for you?

KS: That was new for me. I was trying to bring musical notation into a poem. It was effective for that one poem that one time.

VW: How do your music and poetry feed each other?

KS: I have a good ear for phrasing, tempo and timbre. I think that comes from growing up in New Orleans in a household with music. My mother played Motown and jazz records quite frequently. And it’s true what they say: music fills the streets of New Orleans. I heard it at school, walking in the neighborhood, at Catholic church and, of course, in the French Quarter.

But I’ve  always been in love with words, too. I’m pretty sure I get that from my mother and her sister, my Aunt Trina (now deceased). They loved books and reading. The first trophy I ever won was for a poetry contest in 2nd grade. My ear feeds my music and writing. It’s a body-based practice. No matter how much I try to get away from my ear — and the sounds and subject matter I keep wanting to manipulate — there’s no use. I actually feel a physical discomfort if I sing, play or read something that’s willfully intellectualized outside of my own personal “powers.” I’m not sure how to say this.

VW: One of the most revealing questions you asked me on the way home from SVWW was “Who do you want to publish your first book?”  This question forced me to consider myself beyond “being” a poet to consider how I wanted to activate my goals.  Tell me how your forthcoming book came about, and what your goals are for it.


KS: It’s a great story. Salmon Poetry, one of the foremost poetry presses in Ireland, had an anthology call for poems about dogs. I sent “Seeing Eye,” the only poem I have about dogs and, about a month or two later, got an email from the publisher. She poked around online and saw my other work and asked if I had a manuscript. That’s how it happened. (And they did use “Seeing Eye” in the anthology.) My first collection, which will appear in September 2011, is entitled Mad for Meat. The title comes from the final couplet in the poem “Inheritance.” The poem is about, among other things, my appetite for food, substantive human interaction, especially with men — in their various “cuts.”

I figure a debut collection should tell you about the poet and his concerns while leaving room for readers to want more — a second collection, perhaps. There’s growing up in New Orleans, being an altar boy, gay, Black, the child of divorced parents, my travels (especially my years in Japan), music of all kinds, struggling with Christianity and racism — the list goes on. There are also persona poems in the voice of historical figures. Before I became brave enough to write more directly about myself, I wrote loads of persona poems.

VW: I remember when I was back in Chicago working on the new RHINO website, and came across your poem about Jacqueline du Pre. It blew me away and then I found out you wrote it in college!  What was your relationship with poetry then, and how did you find out about RHINO?

KS: I’m pretty sure I wrote that poem when I was finishing my master’s degree, not college. I didn’t write in college but did take a poetry survey class with Dr. John Plummer my sophomore or junior year. Dr. Plummer was extraordinary and everything I learned in that class affected how I would read poetry for a number of years. And it was music that influenced my decision to take Dr. Plummer’s course. I studied voice very seriously in college and was drawn to American and British art songs, especially the works of Barber, Britten, Copeland, Finzi and Vaughan Williams. I adored the sonic properties of their melodies, harmonies and all that, along with how the text transformed.

Kevin Simmonds composed the music for the “Voices from Haiti” Pulitzer Center project with Kwame Dawes.

A poem on paper is different than its incarnation as song. Two different musics. I’m still fascinated and confounded by that. Often, as a composer, I’m unable to find “additional” music in poetry. It’s a running joke between Kwame [Dawes] and I. I’ve set several of his poems to music and, anytime we begin a new collaboration, he wonders aloud if I’ll be able to find that music. He’s funny.

I’m pretty sure RHINO entered my consciousness because of an edition of Best American Poetry.  To date, you’re the only journal that’s ever awarded me a prize. It meant so very much to me. At the time, I was finishing my PhD and overwhelmingly miserable. You published two very different poems of mine: one about famed cellist Jaqueline du Pré; the other about the racially motivated murder of 12 year-old Emmett Till. Many journals don’t include such range in subject matter.

VW: Any advice for managing and advancing the writing life?

KS: Unless you have a benefactor, you’ll always have to do something to make money. You better figure out a way to compose in your head, make notes during your lunch break and in the bathroom. The writing life is now, not later. Sure, there will be blessed moments when you get a residency or your partner takes up more of the burden so you can get away. You might get some breaks. But chances are you won’t get very many. And certainly not enough to conceive of something, develop and finish it. Don’t be selfish: send out your work and give readings. No one will know you and your work exists otherwise. Don’t be selfish: support other writers by attending their readings and purchasing their books.

VW: Please tell us what poetry events and poets have inspired you most recently. And, what do you do that is NOT poetry or music which feeds your creative life?

KS: I’ve been enamored by poet Nikky Finney for years. Her latest and long-awaited collection, Head Off and Split, takes me to church and school each time I crack it open. It’s next to my bed right now. She’s one of the most important poets writing in America. I was lucky enough to hear her read at the book launch at Howard University during AWP. That experience will carry me for a long time. I can’t say enough about how much contemporary art/performance art and dance inspire me — both live performances and film documentaries of those things. San Francisco has a strong contemporary dance scene and I take advantage of that. We also have art galleries and world-class museums everywhere. All that inspires and sustains me. Other than that, I enjoy swimming, finding new restaurants, traveling and working on my Japanese.


Kevin studied voice at Vanderbilt University and taught middle school in Maryland for two years. Then, after stints as a teacher and part-time graduate student, he finished a masters degree in music at Middle Tennessee State University while starting Tono International Arts Association, an international arts presenter in northern Japan that sponsored the 2001 Tono American Music Festival.  Simmonds Company, a gospel choir that grew from workshops he led for amateur singers, won Second Place at the 2002 All-Japan Gospel Competition at Toyko’s Nakano Sun Plaza; the Company continues to perform throughout Japan.

He returned to the States, started his fellowship with Cave Canem, and finished a Ph.D. in music education at the University of South Carolina. He received a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore where he got hip to the work of Kumar, Alfian Sa’at, Cyril Wong and Su-Chen Christine Lim. Kevin has published poems, essays and reviews in journals like 42opus, American Scholar, Black Issues Book Review, FIELD, jubilat, Kyoto Journal, LA Review, Massachusetts Review, Poetry, Rhino and Salt Hill, and in the anthologies Beyond the Frontier, Gathering Ground, The Ringing Ear, To Be Left with the Body and War Diaries.

As a composer and performer, he’s collaborated with poet and writer Carrie McCray on a musical adaptation of Ota Benga, Under My Mother’s Roof and with poet and writer Kwame Dawes on I Saw Your Face, Hope and Wisteria: Twilight Songs of the Swamp Country. Wisteria was the subject of a 2007 BBC Radio documentary and Hope received a News and Documentary Emmy in 2009. His music has been performed throughout the US, Japan, the UK and the Caribbean. sfexhale.com features his photography.

Kevin has received fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Cave Canem, Fulbright, Jack Straw, Squaw Valley, Napa Valley and the San Francisco Arts Commission. His debut poetry collection, Mad for Meat, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in late 2011. He creates and teaches privately in San Francisco and can be reached at simmondskevin at gmail dot com. http://kevinsimmonds.com/.

Bearing Witness

Two Wednesdays ago, I attended a lecture by Professor Christine Froula about the Circe chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses at the Evanston Public Library on Orrington.  The library, which also hosts the RHINO Poetry Forum on the last Sunday of the month, has launched Mission Impossible: Ulysses, a project where residents read Ulysses during one year.  Professor Froula emphasized that in leaving Ireland and using his own life as the fodder for this literary works, Joyce was bearing witness to the effects of British imperialism and the Catholic Church on the Irish psyche. I thought about writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Elie Wiesel, who also “bear witness” in their writings; because, in Wiesel’s words, “…to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”

Bearing witness without succumbing to an excessive sentimentality is difficult to manage, but RHINO poet Larry Janowski succeeds  brilliantly in the poem BrotherKeeper in his book of the same name.  In his review of BrotherKeeper (Puddin’head Press, 2007), Ed Hirsch calls Janowski an “unwavering truth teller” who answers the question, “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?” in the affirmative. Janowski uses newspaper accounts, the trial transcript, interviews, his own near drowning to bear witness to the senseless death of Eric Morse, ending with an exhortation to his readers: “catch him, catch him.” If there’s no safety net, what else can we do but catch little boys falling from the sky?

Larry Janowski appeared in RHINO 2010 and he read BrotherKeeper at the 2010 RHINO Release party.

~Moira Sullivan, Associate Editor

I love that “oooh” moment

Here it is!! Check out our gorgeous RHINO 2011 cover featuring a collage by Doug Stapleton.

Here are a few words from some of the folks who worked with 2011’s nuts and bolts:

Doug Stapleton’s cover art is a departure for us – odd, quirky, powerful, polarizing.  It has motion and strength, like the best poetry (or like a charging rhino!) and is, in all of these ways, a perfect fit for RHINO and for our amazing 2011 issue in particular.  RHINO has always been about the gathering of disparate voices, and this image embodies that. In its center, I’m reminded of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and that poem’s final words, which resonate as a call to artists everywhere: “You must change your life.”

~Jan Bottiglieri (Managing Editor)

I am a book person, through and through, so it gives me great pleasure to watch the poetry of RHINO gradually coalesce through each year’s reading period toward the “body” of literature that will eventually take form as one of our beautiful, annual journals.  Once the poems are all determined for each year’s volume, the hard but sweet labor of actually building the book begins.  Ordering, indexing, massaging the texts toward the final shape they will take on the pages — and compiling a sense of the lives of our poets through their Contributors’ Notes — and fixing, fixing, fixing all the little things that try to go astray in the digital fields of design and production, this is the lot and the light of my work as a Managing Editor.  Makes me sound like some kind of shepherd, and maybe I am — finding great joy this year in finally bringing home the sheep.

~David Jones (Managing Editor)

This my third time pitching in on the graphics end of RHINO. I see the start of a RHINO poetry book as a calendar landmark that we’re finally tilting over from the gray-slush winter tail to spring sprouts. I love that “oooh” moment feeling the weight of the final book and seeing the wonderful words and art pacing through real paper pages.

~ Godfrey Carmona (graphic design)

Find your questions asked and answered in RHINO 2011 – a world turned halfway upside down or perhaps, turned right side up.

~Deborah Nodler Rosen (Senior Editor), from the “Editors’ Notes”