poetry

Interview: Nathan Yungerberg

Those of you who attended JAGFest 2.0 back in February 2018 might remember a riveting staged reading of Nathan Yungerberg’s play Esai’s Table, where destiny meets eternity for three young black men atop an ancient magical table in a mythic tale of black lives, friendship, family, and love. Back then, we volunteered at JAGFest and were able to do a brief interview with this remarkable, thoughtful playwright.

This month, Esai’s Table is back as a full production at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vermont, and Nathan kindly took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about his experience in moving from a staged reading to a full production. We love his reflections on the process and hope you will too. Thank you so much, Nathan, and Jarvis Green of JAG Productions for bringing this incredible production to the Upper Valley. Break a leg!

The world premiere of Esai’s Table is at Briggs Opera House from October 10 to 17, starring Dimitri Carter, Cornelius Davidson, Marcus Gladney, Jr., and Benton Green, and directed by Stevie Walker-Webb.

Tickets to Esai’s Table are $35 and are on sale now!

Nathan Yungerberg

Nathan Yungerberg


Literary North: How would you describe Esai's Table to someone coming to it for the first time?

Nathan Yungerberg: Esai's Table is an Afro Surrealist fantasy that explores the humanity of young black men. It is hard to explain too much without giving away crucial elements of the story, but I would say be prepared for an otherworldly dimension jumping emotional rollercoaster!

LN: How did JAGfest and the work you did there shape the final creation of Esai's Table?

NY: Getting away from NYC for one week and having a chance to breathe allowed me to see the play from a whole new perspective. I ended up making a significant change to the ending of the play that is much more subtle on some levels but packs an emotional punch and wraps up the themes of the play.

LN: What do you think of the process, in general, of doing staged readings? Have you found it helpful (or essential?) to developing a full production?

NY: Staged readings can be helpful for so many reasons. This day and age, when it is so challenging to get a production, it is beneficial to be able to share your work in a simplified, cost-effective setting. I appreciate readings because I can learn the most when I can hear it. I also find it a great way to introduce people to my work. I can say that over a decade of writing and numerous readings, I am a fan of the process and find it helpful. I have found it useful in the developmental process that leads up to this full production. I have learned so much about the play over the past five years, and each reading I have done, I learned a little more.

LN: Were there things in the staged reading version (themes, characters, scenes, lines, etc.) that you ultimately decided to cut or change for the full production but were sorry to lose? If so, can you tell us about an example?

NY: There was a numerology theme that existed in the staged reading. While I loved it, I felt it was confusing for the audience. I had also not fleshed out the idea enough to warrant its place in the play, so it had to go. I wouldn't say I was sorry to lose it, but it is always a process of letting a creative aspect go. The good thing is that I recycle aspects of my stories that don't make the cut, so I will probably use it in another story one day.

LN: What special gifts do each of the individual actors bring to the production?

NY: First of all, the actors are so amazing, and I love them so much! When Benton Greene, who plays Esai, came into the audition room, he brought this air of mystery and otherworldly energy that was scary, but it was exactly what we wanted for the character! He also brings a lot of compassion and love to the role, which balances out the dark sides of Esai. Benton is also brilliant, and when he comments about something that isn't sitting right, I listen!

Dimitri Carter, who plays Adam, brings a level of optimism and innocence that is crucial to the character. We knew Dimitri was our Adam from the moment he walked into the audition room and melted our hearts.

Marcus Gladney, Jr. IS David. He has this authentic air of self-esteem and self awareness that is so beautiful.

Cornelius Davidson brings both the vulnerability and the sharp edge of Michael into the room. You get the sense that the character has a lot going on deep inside because Cornelius understands the revealing of layers that are required to make Michael believable.

LN: What are you working on next?

NY: I decided a few months ago that I am going to start calling myself a storyteller, and I am launching my own storytelling company, Mercurri. I will be producing a national tour of my play THEA (about Sister Thea Bowman) and an international tour of my play Mother of Pearl, which is a metaphysical love letter to the house music scene. I am also working on a play with music with Larry Waddell, one of the founding members of the R&B group Mint Condition.


Nathan Yungerberg is a Brooklyn-based playwright whose work has been developed or featured by The Cherry Lane Theatre (2017 Mentor Project with Stephen Adly Guirgis), Roundabout Theatre Company, The Playwrights’ Center, JAG Productions, Crowded Fire Theater, American Blues Theater, The Brooklyn Museum, The Nuyorican Poets Café , The Lorraine Hansberry Theater, and many others. Nathan is one of seven black playwrights commissioned by The New Black Fest for HANDS UP: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments, which was published by Samuel French.

Interview: Sara London

Sometimes the right book falls into your hands at just the right time, and that’s how we feel about Sara London’s new collection of poems, Upkeep, which is released today by Four Way Books. The poems in Upkeep feel somehow like burnished stones, solid and familiar in the hand, yet full of surprising veins and glinting minerals. Every word feels perfectly etched just where it ought to be, making each poem feel so fully formed you can’t imagine them being written any other way.

Through these poems, Sara London traces the pain of losing someone dear, the paths to finding a solid grip on the world again, and the ways we can all be both strangers and neighbors to each other. As the poet Tom Sleigh put it, “…her work embodies what Seamus Heaney once called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation,’ in which her care for language is continuous with her care for other people and the world.”

We are so delighted that Sara agreed to do an interview with us, and we are even more delighted that Upkeep is here in the world at last! Go get your copy, and then read it out loud!

Sara will be reading along with Sue Burton at the Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington, Vermont, on Thursday, September 12 as part of the Painted Word Poetry Series. This is a great opportunity to see two wildly talented poets in one great evening.

 
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Literary North: Upkeep begins with an epigraph from Seamus Heaney's “Clearances" and contains a poem titled “Letter to Seamus." The language in your poems also certainly shares a linguistic heritage with Heaney's poems (blunt, concrete, chewy, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary). Can you speak a bit about your connection to Heaney and his influence on this book and your writing?

Sara London: I love your adjective “chewy” to describe Heaney’s diction—those tongue-to-teeth words that afford so much pleasurable munching for the reader. His language dazzled me early on, the alliteration and percussiveness of the consonance, the imagery, his invocations of a rural Irish childhood amongst frogs and bogs. And his edibles, blackberries of course (“when the bath was filled we found a fur”), oysters (“The frond-lipped, brine-stung / Glut of privilege”), and milk’s “scuts of froth.” I love all his books, but Death of a Naturalist was a revelation to me as a young poet, and I still go to his many volumes and teach his poems routinely.

Within that lyrical feast, there are loamy, pitted layers of human complexity. It was a treat to hear him read on a few occasions, and when he and his wife Mary visited Smith College, I was able to join a more intimate afternoon chat with students. He struck me as a deeply generous, wise and unpretentious man. His sonnet cycle, “Clearances,” an elegy in memory of his mother, is one I return to again and again. And on the topic of language, in one section, he writes of his mother’s feeling of verbal inadequacy. “She’d manage something hampered and askew” — which makes the speaker “naw and aye /…relapse into the wrong / Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.” (Of course the Irish-inflected idiom is a famously rich dish, no matter the grammar!) I still feel sad that he’s gone—that big, profound poetic heart.

LN
: Speaking of language, we were struck (and comforted) by your use of Yiddish in several poems. Did you grow up with Yiddish as part of your language at home? Does it enter your poetry naturally? How does it feel to play with multiple languages in a poem?

SL: My grandparents and great aunts and uncles (all gone now) would sometimes spice their English with Yiddish asides. These were uttered amidst laughter for private commentary or as punchlines inappropriate for the youngsters around the dinner table. And they used endearments like shayner-kops (“pretty heads”) for my sisters and me. Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish was as thumbed through as any dictionary or encyclopedia in my parents’ home.

My father seemed to take special pleasure in the humorous application of Yiddish, and in translating for us. I’ve kept a note he wrote in Yiddish after making a quick stop at my house in Northampton many years ago. In part, it reads: “Ich hob zum der w/c (oo) geganger . . . Das ist alles. Pa!” The full translation he provided reads: “I came, I saw, I drank a glass of water, I used the facilities, I sat on the porch. Be well, I love you, thanks, that is all — Dad!” For me, my father will always be associated in part with that older world in which Yiddish commonly punctuated Jewish American conversation. (These days, Yiddish is mostly used among Orthodox Jews.)

I love the sound of the language, though sadly I know little of it myself. (For Yiddish enthusiasts out there: Philip Roth has a hilarious riff on the word “pupik,” belly button, in Operation Shylock, where he perfectly characterizes the “sonic prankishness of the [word’s] two syllabic pops…” And I recommend Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History, his richly anecdotal account of founding the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.)

LN: The Martian poem series in the section titled “Fugitive You" is clearly about someone considered alien to our world or culture, but maybe not a true interplanetary alien. "Rain on the Red Planet," for example, made us think of the Jew as an alien in America. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the Martian poems and the interplay between Judaism and "Martianism"?

SL: So many thoughts converged in that poem. As we uncover more details about Mars, we come closer to “touching” the red planet, yet human touch comes with such serious liabilities historically and environmentally. There’s an apocalyptic note in that “hard rain.” And though I wasn’t making an explicit association between Martians (aliens) and Jews, I can see how one might decipher a link. The persecuted Jew and the Jewish immigrant hover as ghosts in some of my poems; they’re fixtures of my cultural and historical imagination I suppose. The Martian I’ve imagined, on the other hand, dwells in a sort of cosmic innocence—alien, yet safely so.

But the Martian series actually began as a sort of linguistic thought experiment: How might I describe both mundane and more profound aspects of human experience to “someone” who doesn’t know our world? It began with the playground swing—that universal apparatus of “escape” and “return”; children’s first release into “space.” I wanted to capture that uniquely kinesthetic sensation anew, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats once put it. So the Martian became my test audience, but grew quickly “real” and complex for me, a being from afar for whom I grew increasingly affectionate. Not a god, but perhaps a sort of analogue of myself—a “nobody” in another realm of space and time, who became for me a pulsing “somebody” on the far side of my grief.

LN: The book includes several touching and personal poems about your father's death. What was your experience in writing these poems? How does it feel to be sharing them with the world (including your family)?

SL: Death is such a strange thing—there’s nothing commensurate, nothing like the thrust of close personal loss to so unsteady us. It’s a bit surreal. When I think of those days now, my father’s dying, I see it as a kind of cruel yet fascinating “magic” played upon the family, that “there/not there” conundrum. In that last phase, there’s an intensified physicality, as we note each breath; we lean in closer and closer, yet ultimately the very mystery of endings holds us at bay. We remain “outside” the experience.

An odd theatricality characterized my father’s last days—there was much that I couldn’t write about. Of course, there’s such a highly personal aspect to this sort of writing; a lot of raw emotion involved. One hopes that family members will understand that these privacies of grief are also shared, gleaming, human moments—they’re ours, yet also part of the sweeping mortal saga. I’m so grateful to have had poetry and family to help me through that time. And if my poems resonate with anyone, that’s a true bonus. The work simply flooded forth; never before or since have I been as prolific. The elegy is a vital inherited form, and poets’ lives are in some ways spent in preparation for a dip into these powerful waters.

LN: Did this collection begin with a specific idea or poem? How did the experience of writing this book—your second—differ from writing the first (The Tyranny of Milk, 2010)? What do you look for when you are gathering poems together to put in a collection?

SL: Unlike the first book, this one came together tonally, through elegy, though it took some time to get it all right. Organizationally, it was tricky; many poems focus on my father, but not all. And issues of tone created some challenges—the question of how to blend the humor, irony and sobriety in a way that would make for dynamic and logical reading and provide that desired “narrative arc.” I ended up taking out at least ten poems from the original manuscript (mostly more topical poems). And, at my editor’s wise suggestion, I placed the Martian poems at the front of the book rather than at the end, where they’d originally been. (They’re the most recent work in the book.) I think this reversal helped establish a more surprising, and, ideally, a more interesting point of view at the outset. I thought I’d go on to address this alien figure for a longer series (a couple of Martian poems were not included), but my weirdly extraterrestrial imagination proved finite. The Martian just stopped visiting. Nonetheless, I keep a glass of luminescent milk on my windowsill, in case my poem-pal returns!

LN: What are the simple things that you encounter in a day that might move you to begin a new poem? Do you keep a notebook?

It’s hard to say just where most of my poems come from, but reading good contemporary poetry inspires me to write; reading has always been ignition for me. But often a memory or a phrase will come unbidden, and I’ll write something down that might develop into a poem. Observation, experience, memory—all feed my impulse to write. And I’m always eager to get those initial pen scratches onto the computer. I’m an inveterate reviser; my first drafts are typically weak. But I try to nail that first inspiration quickly, so I don’t lose it, and then I work on poems for months. I make notes constantly—words, ideas, images, phrases, little sparks that could lead me to greater illumination. I don’t use a single notebook; I’m not that organized or particular, but I do put scraps in (paper) files, to keep track of poems when they’ve made it to the “in-progress” phase.

LN: The final poem in the collection ("New Worlds") feels so uplifting after many poems of sadness: "the heart's / pipes never yet wrung, old tubes, they play on." What was the source of this poem and how did you choose it to cap the collection?

SL: That poem, dedicated to the Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui, was, in fact, unique in that I wrote it for a Mount Holyoke College Art Museum exhibition catalogue. As a member of the MHC InterArts Council, I worked with an interdisciplinary team of faculty members involved in collaborating on the Anatsui exhibition catalogue. His dazzling bottle-top sculptural pieces inspired the poem, and my own memory of collecting bottle caps in Mexico as a child helped me respond very personally to his process of trash-redemption. I was thrilled to meet him when he came to campus to talk about his work. And I wanted my book to close on a note of affirmation. I’m passionate about the visual arts in general, and for many years wrote arts journalism and reviewed contemporary exhibitions. I also love ekphrastic poetry (poems about art) and often teach it in my classes. I find that visits to art museums can be poetically soul-pumping.

LN: What is the most memorable thing you've read this summer?

SL: The most memorable book of poetry I’ve read in recent years is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. The artful ambitiousness of that collection, its use of many forms and employment of technical acrobatics (his graphically sprung “syncopated sonnets,” for example), is truly inspiring. The poems are instructive historically, and awaken a world of voices from unheralded African American musicians and performers of the past. The book is a paean to lost artists, and a political statement so crucial to our moment.

As for what I’m reading now: a fascinating study of empathy in the primate world, Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug. This summer has been one of interruptions, so I’ve begun a number of excellent books that I’m still finishing: Margo Jefferson’s Negroland; Tom Sleigh’s new essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers; Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Patrick Donnelly’s Little Known Operas. In these terribly distracting and very troubling times, stretches of reading are too often broken up. But I’m always eager for the kind of linguistic, intellectual and emotional pleasure that’s most reliably found amidst the pages of books. I treasure that simple task of scrutinizing words, roaming among lines of poems—like Heaney’s lantern of Diogenes in “The Haw Lantern” —for that one honest thought.

 
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Sara London is the author of Upkeep and The Tyranny of Milk, both published by Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The Common, Quarterly West, The Hudson Review, Poetry East, The Iowa Review and the Poetry Daily anthology. She teaches at Smith College, and has also taught at Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges. Sara is the poetry editor at The Woven Tale Press. She lives in Northampton, MA.

Friday Reads - April 19, 2019

We asked our friend, poet Rena Mosteirin, to recommend a book for Friday Reads. She chose We Begin in Gladness by Craig Morgan Teicher.

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Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness is a must-read for poets and lovers of poetry. He begins the book by looking at the style of poem known as the Ars Poetica; then moves through the works of Sylvia Plath, John Ashberry, Susan Wheeler, francine j. harris, W.S. Merwin, Louise Glück, W.B. Yeats, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz and Lucille Clifton.

Teicher refuses the stereotype that all the best work happens early in a poet’s life. He charts the lives of these poets as journeys, shows us where the work surges and where it subsides. He shows us poets looking at themselves in the mirror. We see the mechanics of the poem taking off, and how the best of them land. This is criticism that makes itself available, and is very readable. This is a lively thinker and an accomplished poet at his best.

Interview: James Crews

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When we first heard the title of the new book of poetry edited by James Crews, Healing the Divide: Poems for Compassion and Connection, we thought: How wonderful! It seems to us that James is the perfect editor for this book. You see we know James. He read his beautiful, compassionate poems at our inaugural Poetry & Pie. And we're still hoping to make it to one of his Mindfulness and Writing workshops. In this day and age, when we're all reeling a little from divisive politics, we like the idea of seeking wise counsel from poets like Ross Gay, Donald Hall, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marie Howe. A morning meditation perhaps? Flip open this anthology and read some words of hope before moving about your day. Thank you, James, for the work you do!

James will join several other local poets to celebrate the launch of Healing the Divide with a reading at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, on Tuesday April 16, starting at 7:00 pm. It should be a really wonderful evening.

In honor of the today’s release of Healing the Divide, we interviewed James about this book, how it came together, and the work that poetry can do to help bring us together. We hope you enjoy James’ replies to our questions as much as we do.


Literary North: Where did the idea for this book come from? Did someone approach you, or did you approach someone?

James Crews: The idea for Healing the Divide actually came to me one day while I was in the shower. My husband, Brad, ran for political office in Vermont last year, and he had been working on his speech all winter, much of which was about how the power of kindness and community literally saved his life when he returned home from the military, discharged for being gay. He talked about how the smallest gestures—the flick of the wrist waves, the folks stopping to chat with him while on a walk—made him feel that he belonged to a place again, and really began the healing process. It dawned on me that poetry can do the same kind of work, and I have always preferred poems that highlight connection in some way, whether between lovers, family members, friends or strangers. Once I had the idea, the pieces quickly fell into place. I asked Dede Cummings with Green Writers Press if she would publish the anthology, and she instantly said yes. Ted Kooser also immediately agreed to write the Preface, so all I had to do was gather the poems and get permissions from the writers and their publishers, which was no small task. But I was struck over and over with the support and generosity that people showed toward this project.

LN: How did you go about selecting the poems to include?

JC: I have a whole trove of poems that I really treasure and go back to over and over. "Shoulders" by Naomi Shihab Nye is one of those, as is "Small Kindnesses" by Danusha Laméris. So I had quite a few already on hand, but once you start looking for something, you will always find more and more of it. People started sending me poems about kindness, and Naomi Nye connected me with numerous poets I'd never even heard of, who had wonderful work to share. I combed through Ted Kooser's “American Life in Poetry” newspaper column quite a bit, since I knew I wanted as many of the poems as possible to be accessible to a wide readership. I worked with Ted on his column for several years at the University of Nebraska, and I really credit that experience with teaching me how to locate poems that might appeal to a mass audience.

LN: How do you try to include compassion in your own writing practice, towards yourself and your words and your readers?

JC: I often lead workshops on mindfulness and writing as a way to teach (and re-teach) myself the practice of compassion and attention for the world as it is. And if we're really paying attention, we'll see that we are not as divided as we think. Yes, there are disagreements, there are life-and-death issues that must be addressed, but there are also people coming together and being kind to each other on a deeper level every day. I feel it's my job as a writer (as a human being, really) to highlight those moments first for myself —to keep myself out of despair—and then for others too. Writing is an integral part of my spiritual practice, so I feel my poetry is always showing me ways to pay closer attention, how to be more kind and gentle to myself and others. I'm working on a new book right now, a collection of poems, reflections and exercises, which essentially argues that writing itself is a spiritual practice that can connect us to ourselves and each other. Quite honestly, I try to follow Anne Lamott's advice quite a bit in my work: "Write the book you would most want to come upon in the world."

LN: In what ways can poetry work to help us heal and come together in the face of so much anger, division, and mistrust in the world?

JC: Mark Nepo, one of our great spiritual writers, has said that "Poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul." It's hard to put into words, but I also believe that poetry comes from some deeper place inside us—whether we call that the soul, the spirit, or the intuition—and as a result, it's what we really want to say, it's the truth as we know it. All art works this way, but poetry has a distinct advantage in that it's made from the material of language that we use every day. Poets turn that democratic, raw material into something strange, harrowing, transcendent, beautiful, and often universal. I admit that I have a personal bias for poems that seek to uplift, and do so in accessible language, but creativity of all kinds has never been more important than it is right now at this political moment, and we need as many diverse voices as we can get to heal us all and remind us of the one human story.

LN: Is there a poem—or a poet—that you rely on to help you remember kindness and connection on really hard days?

JC: Most of the poets I return to over and over are in the anthology: Ted Kooser, of course, but also Barbara Crooker, Anya Silver, Ross Gay, Li-Young Lee, and the late W. S. Merwin, among many others. But I keep coming back to "The Way It Is" by William Stafford, which we were lucky enough to be able to include in the book. In the poem, he talks about a thread "you never let go of," and I've always wondered what that thread was for him, what he meant by that. The older I get, the more I think that the thread is whatever intention we carry with us out into the world, whether through our work, our creativity, and our relationships (to others and to ourselves). And for me, that thread is to be as present and kind as I can be. I will make mistakes, take wrong turns, get distracted, but as long as I can keep holding onto that thread and letting it guide me, as he says in the poem, I know I can't get lost. I hope Healing the Divide can do the same for a few readers as well.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

JC: I know that I'm a latecomer to this book, but I finally got around to reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I relished every word and so appreciated how she blended memoir and storytelling with science and indigenous knowledge. This book comes at the right time too, since I'm now (slowly) putting together a new anthology called Down to Earth: Poems of Mindfulness and Devotion. This will be a collection of nature poems that honors elements of the living world as having a consciousness and agency of their own. I hadn't thought of it before, but I suppose this anthology is also very much about compassion and kindness, just this time between humans and the Earth. I can't help but think we all need to be reminded of that essential connection right now.

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