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Meet the Poets, Take 2
For University Press Week we introduced you to two of the contributors to the latest edition of our annual poetry anthology, Best New Poets: Fifty Poems from Emerging Writers. In that interview, both poets discussed how they became writers, poetry’s place in the modern world, and their favorite work by other poets. In this follow-up we wanted to give them the chance to discuss their contributions to the Best New Poets book and to share the poems themselves. Last week we spoke to Tiana Clark. Our second poet is Emily Vizzo. The poem under discussion appears at the bottom of the post.
Q: Your poem focuses on a contemporary issue—undocumented immigration—but you approach it through a quite complex series of symbols and a vocabulary including words that resist even a dictionary (taxa, charlotte). Can you say something about the combination of such formal sophistication with an urgent social issue? You have very beautiful, mysterious passages alternating with mundane things such as lists and citations.
Emily Vizzo: I don’t think of my poem as focusing on undocumented immigration as a “contemporary issue.” I’ve lived in San Diego for 15 years, and in Southern California my whole life. The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and of the region itself, is something that makes me extremely uncomfortable from a humanitarian perspective, and I was writing into that discomfort from my own experience as a resident here. And I recognize that it’s a limited act, with very limited risk.
I work for a non-profit hospital in San Diego; there are signs warning pedestrians to watch for rattlesnakes in the parking lot. From my desk I can see giant, lumbering Osprey military aircraft and narrow, pointy, sky-tearingly loud jets flying from the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar–over the Sorrento Valley, over the glassy La Jolla biotech villages, over the 805 and 5 freeways that funnel directly past Carmel Valley, past South Bay, past National City, past Imperial Beach, past Chula Vista, past Rancho del Rey, Otay Ranch, and San Ysidro, past the Sweetwater schools where I used to teach, down to the border.
En route to work, I routinely pass helicopters flying low over the Pacific Ocean, traveling between the downtown San Diego Naval Base or North County’s Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. When I would work in schools in San Diego’s East County, out past the Kumeyaay Highway, in small communities like Jacumba, Descanso, Pine Valley, and Campo, being stopped at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints is part of the deal.
I definitely wasn’t trying to write in a sophisticated way. I was trying to be careful and specific, respectful, conscientious in my language and thinking about this difficult entanglement. Maybe I failed at that, as I’ve failed at many things. I try to be humble, and a learner, and ready to do better and be better, always. I was trying to understand myself and where I live. The final lines from the poem come from the U.S. Border Patrol.
Q: For me the bear encompasses many forces, from a threatening border patrol to a whole history, but when my colleague read the poem she felt the bear represented the immigrant. The roles do blur in interesting ways. The bear might react in an unpredictable manner, but then the “you” in the poem has hidden layers as well: he/she is everything from a holstered pistol to mere “chum.” Is this complexity intentional, or is one of us simply an obtuse reader?
Emily Vizzo: The bear was something that maybe happened in the poem as a way to think about power, risk, and wanting something badly. I wasn’t planning to write about bears. The bear just came into the poem and immediately made room for itself. I didn’t think about it symbolizing one thing or another. I would definitely not attempt to convey a bear as symbolizing a whole history of anything. I don’t think it’s possible to know a whole history of anything.
As it turns out I work with a man who fought off a bear, a grizzly bear. When I got my flu vaccine a few weeks ago he was somehow helping to run the vaccine stations. Seeing the prominent scars–he lost most of his scalp during the attack–reminded me that while poems can be big things, they are also small things.
The U.S. Border Patrol may stop my car at a lone desert checkpoint. The officer may have a gun. He may lean into my rolled-down window to ask me questions and he may walk around my car with his terrifying dog. There may be no one else around for miles but me and these bored men in uniforms, with their polarized sunglasses and their semiautomatic guns. I guess anything could happen.
But there is a difference between writing about bears and fighting a bear. There is a difference between writing about bears and being a bear. I know that difference. Writing about a bear is the smaller thing.
Q: Is the long, intentionally prosaic title a quote from somewhere?
Emily Vizzo: Yes, it is. Probably ten years ago, maybe more, my mom bought me this book by the American historian David McCullough called The Path Between the Seas–it’s a history on the construction of the Panama Canal.
I finally read it last year, and I kept highlighting his incredible prose with a pink Crayola marker. The lines were so good, and so moving from both a historical and human perspective, that I decided to write a poem series using those highlighted lines as long poem titles. Thinking about that wild engineering endeavor, the trauma and death that it caused, the way it brought countries and laborers and big money together in these uncomfortable ways, made me think about the absurdity of this other thing, a big fortified wall separating the United States and Mexico, extending deep into the Pacific Ocean.
That has now become a manuscript of new poems, each with a Panama title. The poems themselves aren’t really about Panama. They’re about my life in Southern California, especially Ventura and San Diego. As a result they’re also about waiting tables, my dad’s work as a plumber, my early career covering Congress in Washington, D.C., post 9-11, my eight younger brothers and sisters, my great-grandmother Lucia, who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy as a single mom (nine kids: two boys, seven girls, every daughter named Mary), teaching in Chula Vista, my grandfather sailing the Panama Canal on a post-World War II Navy goodwill tour, and the bizarre entanglement of Hollywood in normal life here. The house I grew up in, which my dad built, appeared without any permission or notification that I know of in the film Erin Brockovich, as part of that movie’s caricature of a poor semi-agricultural community in California. Writing the poems is helping me to understand my life, and to know my heart better.
It was a miracle route everyone had been searching for and the story caused a sensation
To catch a bear
during daylight hours
draw a simple line of sugar
rimming the os ilium.
Make that be the telephone line
you use to call the dead.
Your ancestors will still be Ohio
Give them overnight charlotte
w/ the good news of passage.
There are four ways to become an American citizen:
1. Be born here.
2. Marry an American.
3. Become an American soldier.
4. Secure the necessary documents, called “green,” called “natural.”
Though there is the fifth way, less advertised.
Around me, desert.
An angled border fence splits the leather
elbow of this mountain.
Upon approach I am filmed
by a camera flock.
There is a man with a large dog.
He walks around my car
To catch a bear
during daylight hours
draw a simple line of sugar
rimming the os ilium.
Make room for your body
on the ground.
When finally a black bear
comes for you,
oranges, whole milk, candy wrappers, nectarines.
Let your body be a mouthful.
Let the black bear be
an American black bear. Your sister
taxa. What he takes from you at this point
depends on his hunger.
His will might be simple.
A lob of fur, rank. Cinnamon
huge skull & molar.
There may be an archipelago
of sugar mouthing, faintly erotic.
You may be violently claimed.
Remember, it was you that hoped
to catch a bear.
You huckleberry. You chum
salmon. You apiary. You pistol, holstered.
Reasons why you did not catch the bear
1. Your line of sugar, though sweet, was not simple.
2. The meat cupping your os ilium, though luscious, was not savory.
3. Curettage made tender your feet, your heart.
4. The black bear was not in fact American. See also: Apprehensions, San Diego Sector.
Unaccompanied alien children. Fiscal year 2014, 875. Fiscal year 2015, 987.
(Best New Poets 2015: Poems from Fifty Emerging Writers is available now.)