Open Letter to the Trustees of the "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad"

William A. Lowell, Esq.
Charles A. Cheever, Esq. 
Choate, Hall & Stewart
Two International Place
Boston, Massachusetts 02110

October 10, 2019

Dear Mr. Lowell and Mr. Cheever,

One of the greatest things about America is the fact that, as citizens, we pledge our allegiance not just to a flag but to a hope of a better future, despite our country’s history of racism, slavery, and native erasure. Since recent years have demonstrated reactionary regress inspired by xenophobia and America-First mentalities, I am writing this letter in the hope that you will consider the legacy that the Amy Lowell Scholarship leaves by basing it's application criteria so intensely (and profusely) around defining "Americans" as those citizens who were "born here."

As a child of defectors who was born in Romania, my experience growing up in Alabama was that of being told no matter how much I learned, no matter how passionate my academic and intellectual engagement, I could not be President. Meanwhile, my neo-Confederate friends could lead the Chambers of Commerce and state governments with an eye to the Presidency. As a student of history, I know our Constitution is far from perfect but I've been inspired by the poetry community's dedication to human rights, equality, and justice. And yes, I was required to learn A LOT about the Constitution before I became a US citizen at the age of 13.

The "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad" seems, on its surface, to be driven by considerations of merit. It asks for a poetry submission without focus on byline or academic background. It also states, clearly, "preference" will be "given to those of progressive literary tendencies". 

At no point does it ask about financial disability or previous travel (which would be appropriate questions if the intent of the scholarship was to reward untraveled Americans citizens without means to go abroad).

The application process is free and simple. All that is required is:

  1. Two copies of the completed application. You may also, but need not, submit a 2 to 3 page curriculum vitae (again, two copies).

  2. A sample of your poetry, consisting of either up to 40 typed pages (two copies) or two copies of a printed volume of your poetry and two copies of no more than 20 additional typed pages.

I don’t understand how a traveling scholarship intended to benefit underprivileged American poets doesn’t require any of the following: 1) a listing of their prior travels outside the country 2) a statement of their economic need 3) any evidence that they are better qualified to represent “Americans” than the sheer luck of being born here.

I don’t understand how a traveling scholarship intended to benefit underprivileged American poets doesn’t require any of the following: 1) a listing of their prior travels outside the country 2) a statement of their economic need 3) any evidence that they are better qualified to represent “Americans” than the sheer luck of being born here.

When I downloaded the application, I discovered that it asked for a birth certificate and that the primary information culled on that one sheet of paper had to do with where a citizen was born. As stated in your FAQ: 

"Any poet of American birth who is able and willing to spend one year outside the continent of North America. There is no age requirement, and there is no requirement that applicants be enrolled in a university or other education program. While many recent winners have been published poets, there is no requirement that applicants have previously published their work."

Past recipients of this fellowship include several of my favorite poets--writers whose work I cherish deeply. I believe that Amy Lowell would not be on the side of human beings who currently agitate to diminish the value and rights of naturalized US citizens and immigrants. I believe that she would be terrified by the birther scandal around President Obama and its resonance in our popular culture. If I am wrong in these beliefs, Amy Lowell's poetic excellence would not be enough to enable me to overlook a definition of "American citizen" that excludes naturalized citizens.

I considered suggesting a more appropriate title for this fellowship. For example, "The Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship for Native-Born Americans"--but that's the rub, isn't it? See, those who are actually native to America are not really represented in this Fellowship. It's not about First Peoples--it's about the people who replaced them. It's about the stories we tell about the country we can only honor through progress, restitution, and acknowledgement. Amy Lowell's efforts to portray the lives of First Americans in her posthumously-published Ballades for Sale reveals the way in which primitivist stereotypes can underlie even the most progressive intentions.

As a naturalized US citizen whose parents risked their lives (and me) to flee Ceausescu's dictatorship, I cannot accept the sort of nativism which makes my hard-won citizenship somehow inferior to that of those who did nothing to gain citizenship. Being born in the USA is enough of a privilege without institutionalizing this privilege in a poetry scholarship intended to preserve the legacy of a powerful female poet whose struggled to be accepted in a country that rejected her sexuality.

I don't believe that any law or wrong is immutable.

I don't believe that we are hostage to bad ideas from the past unless we deliberately choose to replicate and extend those ideas into the future.

I understand--and was reminded when protesting President's Bush's war in Iraq with a son incubating in my womb--that standing for the GOOD in one's country, as opposed to the bad, may render one "un-American" in the mouths of those whose institutions depend on historic preservation.

What I believe conspires with what I understand in hope.

I hope more for the legacy of the "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad". I hope more for how America extends itself into the world. And I hope more--so much more--for this country.

Yours in poetry and hope,

Alina Stefanescu, minor writer

Flashback on flash from what I was thinking in 2016. I still agree with me.

Flash, depending on the definer, can set its upper word limit anywhere between 500 words and 1,750 words. Usually any ceiling below this is classified as microfiction. Regardless-- and given that I'm in position to debate genre with those who know better-- here are the flash fictions I've been looping lately.  

"A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room" by George Saunders (Hunger Mountain)

"Break It Down" by Lydia Davis (The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, and Elevators)

"Cutting Edge" by James Purdy (The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, Liverwright, 2013)

"On the Edge of the Sidewalk" by Dumitru Tsepeneag (Waiting, Dalkey Archive, 2013)

"The Mariner: A Static Drama in One Scene" by Fernando Pessoa (The Brooklyn Rail)

"The School" by Donald Barthelme (Sixty Stories)

"This Person" by Miranda July (No one belongs here more than you: Stories)

"Tweet" by Sabrina Orah Mark (The Collagist)

"X unequals Y" by Susan Daitch (Storytown, Dalkey)

Also enchanted with Deb Olin Unferth's Minor Robberies published by McSweeney's. This book is my Mobius strip at the moment. 

Now for the super shorties, some of which might be classified as "micros", others which exist as just really excellent compressed fiction:

"Crazy" by Ron Hansen (She Loves Me Not, Simon & Schuster)

"Death and Life in the City of N." by Ron Gibson, Jr. (Noble Gas Quarterly)

"Exercises" by Bruce Taylor (Vestal Review)

"Marriage" by Anna Lea Jancewicz (Matchbook Lit)

"Wants" by Grace Paley (Electric Literature)

"When I Lose Track of the Children, 5 & 7, Near the Magazine Section at Costco" by Christopher Mercer (Smokelong Quarterly)

 

It's difficult to convey my gratitude to every daring, innovative, lyrical, difficult, and fascinating writer I discover on Twitter or in literary magazines which span the globe. Gratitude is abstract and heavy as Hallmark card stock paper.

On the other hand, it's not difficult to say this: You are my MFA. You are my teachers, my guides, my prods, and (sometimes) my provocations. I am so grateful for you. I am also beholden to my sweet wi-fi connection. Imagine all the writers that might exist given a laptop and a little wi-fi.  

22 things to add to a poem that acts "as if" it feels neglected.

  1. An unexpected acorn.

  2. The movements of a mother’s face as she repudiates longsuffering.

  3. A long-suffering velvet recliner.

  4. An unexpected metaphor or description of joy. I’m thinking of when Ross Gay wrote that something “truly filled my heart with flamingos.”

  5. A subversion of the word “rapacious”.

  6. A hex.

  7. A historic earthquake or volcanic eruption that family members have mentioned.

  8. A Xerox copy of something.

  9. An explicit reference to another poem in which you are referring to a poem by someone else. In the poem about colored pencils.

  10. A furry mammal you haven’t anthropomorphized for the purpose of the poem or pleasure.

  11. A tired O. The opposite of an ecstatic O. An O that generates suspense.

  12. A line from a poem by Mary Jo Bang.

  13. The word “syntax” in scare quotes. Possibly with reference to a body part.

  14. A sin tax dressed up like a poll tax.

  15. An I-statement that suffers from non-sequitur.

  16. What Ross Gay calls “an event illegible except for its unfathomable beauty”. Which may involve fireflies.

  17. An invented business establishment or office. Like the “Bureau of Sad Endings” that appears midway through a poem by David Berman.

  18. The word “busted”.

  19. A melting glacier. Or any effect of climate change that appears quietly, desperately, ominously in the background.

  20. A risk management heat map.

  21. A word from R. A. Villanueva’s “Sonnet 146”.

  22. Something he said to you and never took back.

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The playlist poetry challenge: "You Being Boss of the Playlist."

It just sort of happened as I was doing small, mindless tasks in the house while listening to old playlists my hubcap made when we in some wild dalliance that wasn’t legit.

The thing is: this taught me to love Bruce Springsteen…. he sort of rug-burned Bruce into my skin and I never got over it. So here’s what I did.

I made a list of all Bruce’s songs and then wrote a poem that incorporated the titles on our old playlists. And then fiddled like a fresh-rain-licked fern with all the tiny pieces…

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The Playlist Poetry Challenge is so easy and fun—a perfect excuse to sit around and listen to nostalgia-inducing music on a muggy Saturday.

  1. Pick an old playlist (or just pick a favorite music artist) and make a list of song titles.

  2. Tell the song titles that you plan to use them as a word bank for a poem you will write. Don’t be sorry or apologetic. The songs want to be felt. You are doing those titles a favor.

  3. Write a poem that makes use of those titles. You can capitalize the titles (see above) to make it clear when you’re referencing the song. Alternately, you can putz around in italics. You can even use white space to draw lines in the sand between your words and what music makes of them.

  4. Title it with a name that hints at the artist or the playlist conceit.

  5. If the final result is HORRENDOUS, email it to family members who think you’re a terrible poet that is wasting their time in profit-less vocation. Make sure to preface the poem with a note saying something like: “OMG tonight I wrote this poem that was just SO INTENSE. I had to share it with you because I’m really proud of it and I hope it wins a prize. Maybe someone will read it on their talk show. Family, I think this is IT.”

Song and poem sandwich: Joan Osborne and Haryette Mullen.

Because music and poetry mine the same vein in me.

We’ve been together so long
I hope it wasn’t just the drugs
What happened to the energy we had
The morning glories and the rodeo hugs
And I know you like the back of my hand
With a stamp that says I paid to get in
And yes I am your television show
And you’re the nicest place I’ve ever been
— Joan Osborne, "Let's Just Get Naked"

Wipe That Smile Off Your Aphasia

by Haryette Mullen

as horses as for
as purple as we go
as heartbeat as if
as silverware as it were
as onion as I can
as cherries as feared
as combustion as want
as dog collar as expected
as oboes as anyone
as umbrella as catch can
as penmanship as it gets
as narcosis as could be
as hit parade as all that
as ice box as far as I know
as fax machine as one can imagine
as cyclones as hoped
as dictionary as you like
as shadow as promised
as drinking fountain as well
as grassfire as myself
as mirror as is
as never as this

(Poem source: Contemporary Poetry)

Chaconne for My Lover's Hands.

A chaconne is a composition in a series of varying sections in slow triple time, typically over a short repeated bass theme.

"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."

- Brahms on Bach's Chaconne in D-Minor For Left Hand in letter to Clara Schumann, 1877


Chaconne for My Lover’s Hands

i.

Regret I wore raw

a silk dress, poured to follow
each fold & slouch of peridot flesh

that met the suede
touch of fingertips
nails nibbled down to nub

the unexpected flange
of a lover’s hands
conspiring to caress

or to crowbar me open
like neon, the unsettled buzz

of lust for ravish holds tempo



ii.

Terror I wore raw

into rooms without windows
the beauty of barbarism
being all ways it could have been
otherwise

nothing binds us
to what is brutal
but a choice

lust for ravish shears
the safe silhouette, the story of luggage
packed to leave him

semiprecious plagiarism
of affections past
unsecured from a boat

useless life rafts

iii.


Regret I wore nothing

swore the image
of his hands on my hips
would not stab me

like the dry stems of flowers
tucked into boxes, the death of over-admired
objects hurts to touch

or be touched
by such familiar thunder
when rain bruises us with kisses
because it must

let us rust
into lust for ravish
or what rushes me into chapels

where Joan of Arc once knelt
in a village named after a flea
and the itch of this hairshirt

is just longing
for me


The Warm-Up Routine: I listened to this chaconne and picked three words that kept whispering somehow from the melody and particular measures. Then I wrote into those words and their associations. I do things like this every day as exercises to loosen images and clumped thoughts before getting started on writing. For the most part, I don’t keep or use or even revisit these many warm-up poemings (my notebooks are full of them), but I appreciate when other poets share their practice routines so I thought I’d share mine from yesterday. Which started with googling Trifonov performances and then discovering this fascinating thing called a chaconne, and then using it as a bridge into my warm-up exercise.