Banango Lit

Banango is a literary blog that talks about exciting literature. We like to read stuff. We are also Banango Street, a literary journal. You can email us at banangolit (at) gmail (dot) com if you would like to send us stuff to look at, or you can send a link in our Ask box. We will try to look at it but we have learned to avoid making too many promises.

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Today’s poem is from Sauce by Rachael Wolfe.

Rachael Wolfe is one of the co-founders of SP CE, a poetry studio and collective in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s one of the most exciting poetry scenes anywhere in the country, ground zero for an eclectic group of poets (Paul Hanson Clarke, Justin Ryan Fyfe, Amanda Huckins, etc.) who do seem to share, if not a common voice, at least a similar aesthetic.  

Less freewheeling than some of her colleagues, Rachael’s work feels tightly edited and focused. Her collection Sauce is a compact burst of oddly affecting vignettes. This group deserves more attention and when it comes, Rachael should be at the forefront.

from Sauce 

I read your journal while you were in the shower
and you spelled my name wrong. Nothing happens
when I’m out not fucking guys. A lady reads my palm
in the Haymarket. She says I’ll be a heartbreaker
in 8 years. She says I’ll be a cartoonist. That’s
death then. You have to think about the positive
aspects of everything, OK? Don’t think about
whatever you can’t not think about.
You’ll love this girl
I found for you. She can live on paper.
Feed it piece by piece
down the hatch.


Today’s poem is Whitey on the Moon by Gil Scott-Heron.

It’s almost a shame to me that Gil Scott-Heron wrote the epic poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” A poet makes something that great and then it’s like he’s never going to be allowed a second act. Nike will use it for a commercial and then it’s game over, he’s always going to be the Nike commercial guy. It’s almost as if society, sensing an intellectual threat, assimilated his work as a way of defusing it.

But Gil was making relevant poetry right up until the end of his life. His career as a recording artist exposed his work to a wide audience beyond the borders of the traditional poetry sewing circle. He’s like Leonard Cohen without all the sappy, self-regarding “Tower of Song” bullshit and better style, but he sure didn’t get that kind of respect while he was alive.

Whitey on the Moon

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
The man just upped my rent last night.
(‘cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s upping me?
(‘cause Whitey’s on the moon?)
I wuz already paying him fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Taxes taking my whole damn check,
Junkies making me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is going up,
An’ as if all that shit was’t enough:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arm began to swell.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Was all that money I made last year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I just about had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll send these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

Christopher Kempf was born and raised in the Rust Belt, and earned an MFA in poetry from Cornell University.  His manuscript, DISASTER CAPITAL, has been a semi-finalist for the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and, most recently, a finalist for the 2013 New Issues Poetry Prize and 2013 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books.  Christopher currently lives in Oakland, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

1. Tell us a little bit about the poems published in Banango Street.

I was so thrilled when I found out Banango Street wanted to publish “Quake Shaker” and “What Happens in Vegas,” two poems from two separate manuscripts I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. The first, “Quake Shaker,” describes an earthquake simulator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, using that exhibit as a way to meditate on the representation of disasters in American popular media, particularly the way such disasters— earthquakes, tsunamis, 9/11— are almost instantly, through the very act of representation, turned into aesthetic objects. The ultimate goal of the poem is to explore how poetry itself, as an aesthetic mode, responds to and in so doing transforms the kind of disasters which seem to be recurring with increasing frequency in our era of global climate change. The second poem, “What Happens in Vegas,” attempts to show the seedy underside of that city, the dark, inner-lining of a place built on the uniquely American idea of instant, glittering success. Really, though, it’s about how much I hate that place.

2. I’m very interested in your use of short lines, & in particular short lines that are broken in the middle by punctuation, as in “What Happens in Vegas.” What’s your relationship to line length & line breaks?

For me, as it was for Charles Olson, the line is above all a unit of breath. Similarly, Robert Pinsky says that “the medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth.” Poetry it seems to me, like dance, is an embodied art form, an opportunity for both reader and writer to feel their bodies in new and exciting ways. Or maybe what I want to say is “re-feel,” since the final purpose of the short lines is to estrange language from its conventional uses, defamiliarizing patterns of rhythm and diction to which we’re too frequently inattentive, both as poets and, I think, as citizens, as speakers of American English.

The short lines, then, are ultimately a political tactic. By “breaking” the American vernacular into strange new units of meaning, I hope to show the constructedness of language as a socio-political tool, the kind of tool that can be used, for example, in phrases like “Mission Accomplished” or “enhanced interrogation” or “enemy combatants.” Language, like the human body, is one of the oldest weapons of imperialism. Through formal techniques such as short lines, syntactical inversion, enjambment, etymology, and caesura— which you pointed out— I want not only to re-fashion the linkages between language and the body, but in so doing reclaim that language, the American language, for more democratic, humanistic purposes.

3. How does place (specifically the Midwest) influence your work?

One of the most formative moments in my career as a poet occurred in George Bilgere’s undergraduate workshop at John Carroll University, when George brought in one day James Wright’s collected poems, Above the River, and read a poem from that book called “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.” Probably everyone already knows this poem, but at the time, as a 19- or 20-year-old whose most pressing concern was sneaking Natty Light into Sutowski Hall, I remember being astounded by the turn that poem takes in its final stanza, the famous “Therefore” stanza in which Wright describes high-school football players as horses “gallop[ing] terribly against each other’s bodies.”

But that poem, as its title suggests, is ultimately a poem of place, and it helped that that place was Ohio, where I grew up and went to college and which still seems to me to represent, like Vegas, a kind of almost mythical ur-Americanness. It seems appropriate that Ohio decides almost every presidential election now. It’s in Ohio, and more broadly in the Midwest, where the rhetoric of American nationalism— the can-do-it, we-will-not-go-quietly-into-the-night exceptionalism we see, for example, in those Chrysler commercials Matthew Dickman writes— meets the much grimmer reality of working- and “middle-”class American life.

I’m interested, then, in those places where the ideology of empire is undercut by the lived experience of the subjects of that empire. I think this is precisely the idea Wright was after in “Autumn Begins…,” where sport, as it does still, acts to discipline those who participate in it for their roles in and as imperial subjects. And for me, the places out of which I write— Ohio, Indiana, and now California— find a historical corollary in empires past, particularly Troy and Rome, both of which, of course, ultimately collapsed.

4. What is the Stegner experience like?

It’s going to sound like the polite, politically correct response when I say this, but one of the things that’s mattered the most to me during my time as a Stegner is the community of my peers, that week-in and week-out I get to discuss poetry with nine other people for whom line-breaks and similes, the positioning of the speaker and the merits— or lack thereof— of formalism, for example, are the most important things in the world. The Stegner program— like any MFA or post-MFA program— can only be as valuable as the quality of the writers and thinkers who make it up, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of program in which the caliber of thought is as high as it is here.

I suppose I’m being rather vague though. What I’ve appreciated, specifically, about the program are those moments when discussions of individual poems open out onto broader, to me more important, questions about what a poem should or can do and what poetry itself means for the culture in which we live. I’ve loved those moments when workshop has become heated, when we argue, for example, whether a speaker is saying “Allahu Akbar” ironically or not, or whether a poem’s relation to the suffering it represents is appropriative. I love when things get awkward and strained and uncomfortable. And then I love when we all get beers afterward.

Along these lines, one of my favorite perennial debates has been who we each consider the greatest American poet of the 20th century. I feel very lucky to have been part of a program where that debate comes back, time and again, to the question of what we mean by “American” and what we mean by “greatest.” Of course we also all know, though, that the real answer, irrespective of semantics, is Lowell. I mean, come on.

5. What’s next for Christopher Kempf?

My writing, over the past couple of years, has been grounded in both the Midwest— where I’m from— and in California, where I live now. California, for example, has been tremendously generative for my writing in thinking about the western edge of empire, the closing of the frontier, that place where America’s “manifest destiny” went to die. But I’m a Midwesterner at heart I think, and as heavy-hearted as I am to be leaving a community at Stanford that’s meant so much to me, I’m also excited to be heading home in the fall to begin a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago.


Today’s poem is Jean Rhys by Ellen Kennedy.

In some ways, Ellen Kennedy is a difficult poet. She is the subject of Tao Lin’s novel Richard Yates yet it’s almost as if we don’t know enough about her. In an almost Zachary German-esque manner, she seems to have departed the field at the peak of her powers.

But the work she left is important. Her point of view is well-developed and her voice is startlingly true. Her poetry collection “sometimes my heart pushes my ribs" is a touchstone. It’s an absolutely crucial work for understanding where poetry is right now and how it got there. Her collaboration with Tao Lin, Hikikomori, is also excellent. She is the kind of poet that every movement needs on its roster— an enigmatic genius.

Jean Rhys

I’m preparing myself for an extended period of loneliness
That will begin very soon I think
I’ve illegally downloaded two new depressing songs
I’ve placed a copy of Good Morning, Midnight under my pillow for easy reference
I’ve printed out the tablature for every Morrissey song I know so I can sing them to
Alone in my room
Just a few things are needed really
To make me calm
While I figure out a simple, clean, and effective way to kill myself,
With minimal stress for the person who has to find and dispose of my body
But I’ll probably never think of a way
Because I’ll probably never kill myself
I’ll just lie in my bed suffocating myself with my pillows
While listening to the four songs you said were your favorite
And maybe burn myself a little with the iron
On special occasions
And the next time I’m in a subway station,
I’ll stand a little further on the yellow line
Or maybe the next I’m at your apartment
I’ll try a little harder


Today’s poem is Hay for the Horses by Gary Snyder.

Is Gary Snyder embarrassing in some way? The old wide-eyed beatnik now comfortably ensconced in academia. Traded in his counter-culture bonafides for a tenured gig at a Cali public. He’s the professor who shows up to class with an earring and some prayer beads. He’s a buddhist white bro. He invites his students over for dinner at his rich-guy estate in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

But what of old Japhy Ryder? Kerouac’s zen buddy, a gentle therapist guiding Kerouac through the PTSD of bewildering, Cobain-like sudden fame. Parties that last for days punctuated with buddhist rituals and then a lonesome firewatch— show me the way Gary Snyder.

Hay for the Horses

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
     behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
     sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
—-The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds—-
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”


Today’s poem is Twenty-Year Marriage by Ai.

Ai was a beautiful poet of the 90s. Self-identifying as “Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche,” Ai was a feminist poet. She never knew her Japanese father and legally changed her name to Ai, Japanese for love, stating she had no wish to be identified “for all eternity” with a man she never knew. Her 1999 collection “Vice" won the National Book Award. She died in 2010.

Twenty-Year Marriage

You keep me waiting in a truck
with its one good wheel stuck in the ditch,
while you piss against the south side of a tree.
Hurry. I’ve got nothing on under my skirt tonight.
That still excites you, but this pickup has no windows
and the seat, one fake leather thigh,
pressed close to mine is cold.
I’m the same size, shape, make as twenty years ago,
but get inside me, start the engine;
you’ll have the strength, the will to move.
I’ll pull, you push, we’ll tear each other in half.
Come on, baby, lay me down on my back.
Pretend you don’t owe me a thing
and maybe we’ll roll out of here,
leaving the past stacked up behind us;
old newspapers nobody’s ever got to read again.

For National Poetry Month, I will be posting some of my favorite poems with a brief explanation of how I feel about the poet or poem. Today’s poem is two of the last five people here by Mira Gonzalez.

The only way I can say it is that she’s a national treasure. Maybe the strongest young poet working today anywhere. If you want to dismiss alt lit or scoff or whatever, that’s fine— but watch your mouth when you talk about Mira. She’s beautiful and rare and why we all read poetry and feel good to be alive in this strange moment.

two of the last five people here

i am imagining the sound of your voice
on the phone when you hate me more than you ever have
i am touching each of my ribs, which are visible now
did i tell you that, i lost 15 pounds, do you like that
i am drunk and leaning against the hood of my car
i am thinking about that night when you
pushed all of your weight against me
and came out the other side as a small child
in our minds we created details, infinite in number
i am having a feeling that is like a ton of liquid
rising upward through the top of my head
creating subtle pressure when you tell me
something about free will and loving another person
how it will be better next time, or something


For National Poetry Month, I will be posting some of my favorite poems with a brief explanation of how I feel about the poet or poem. Today’s poem is Mad Lib Elegy by Ben Lerner.

What, you don’t know about Ben Lerner? Seriously, this guy is sick! He’s probably the best American poet of his generation except that Tao Lin obliterated everyone with Lebron-level poetry game (just one man’s opinion). But Lerner brings it.

He won over the New Yorker crowd (ie your parents) with Leaving the Atocha Station, his prose novel, so he’s not waiting tables like most of the cool internet writers. He can pretty much get grants and fellowships or whatever, not to mention academic gigs. But, damn, the guy’s got some chops. He can run the floor.

Mad Lib Elegy

There are starving children left on your plate.
There are injuries without brains.
Migrant workers spend 23 hours a day
removing tiny seeds from mixtures
they cannot afford to smoke
and cannot afford not to smoke.
Entire nations are ignorant of the basic facts
of hair removal and therefore resent
our efforts to depilate unsightly problem areas.
Imprisonment increases life expectancy.
Finish your children. Adopt an injury.
     ‘I’m going to my car. When I get back,
     I’m shooting everybody.’
          [line omitted in memory of_______]

70% of pound animals will be euthanized.
94% of pound animals would be euthanized
if given the choice. The mind may be trained
to relieve itself on paper. A pill
for your safety, a pill for her pleasure.
Neighbors are bothered by loud laughter
but not by loud weeping.
Massively multiplayer zombie-infection web-games
are all the rage among lifers.
The world is a rare case of selective asymmetry.
The capitol is redolent of burnt monk.
     ‘I’m going to my car. When I get back
     I’m shooting everybody.’
          [line omitted in memory of _______]

There are two kinds of people in the world:
those that condemn parking lots as monstrosities,
‘the ruines of a broken World,’ and those
that respond to their majesty emotionally.
70% of the planet is covered in parking lots.
94% of a man’s body is parking lot.
Particles of parking lot have been discovered
in the permanent shadows of the moon.
There is terror in sublimity.
If Americans experience sublimity
the terrorists have won.
     ‘I’m going to my car. When I get back
     I’m shooting everybody.’
          [line omitted in memory of _______]


For National Poetry Month, I will be posting some of my favorite poems with a brief explanation of how I feel about the poet or poem. Today’s poem is Cassandra by HD.

WTF is Imagism? Or “Amygism” as Pound called it after Amy Lowell marked her territory by kicking him out of the movement. HD (Hilda Doolittle) was Pound’s first love. Bisexual her entire life (her most substantial relationship was lesbian), Pound adored her. He wrote her a little book of love poems titled Hilda’s Book and bound it with a ribbon and gave it to her. 

They started “Imagism” together which was basically an Orientalist poetry trend borrowing concepts from ancient Chinese and Japanese poets. Orientalism was big anyway in the larger culture and why not focus on a strong, minimalist image instead of boring shit. HD and Ezra killed it!

He ended up doing a fascist radio show in WWII Italy and she became a patient of Freud.

from Cassandra

A bitter, broken thing,
my heart, O Hymen lord,
yet neither drought nor sword
baffles men quite,
why must they feign to fear
my virgin glance?
feigned utterly or real
why do they shrink?
my trance frightens them,
breaks the dance,
empties the market-place;
if I but pass they fall
back, frantically;
must always people mock?
unless they shrink and reel
as in the temple
at your uttered will.

O Hymen king,
lord, greatest, power, might,
look for my face is dark,
burnt with your light,
your fire, O Hymen lord;
is there none left
can equal me
in ecstasy, desire?
is there none left
can bear with me
the kiss of your white fire?
is there not one,
Phrygian or frenzied Greek,
poet, song-swept, or bard,
one meet to take from me
this bitter power of song,
one fit to speak, Hymen,
your praises, lord?

For National Poetry Month, I will be posting some of my favorite poems with a brief explanation of how I feel about the poet or poem. Today’s poem is Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.

You can imagine what childhood must have been like for Robert Hayden— raised in a poor Detroit neighborhood so rough it was sarcastically called “Paradise Valley,” Hayden was small and nearly blind. His parents split early and gave him to the family next door. They were strict baptists and his foster father had a sometimes violent temper.

Maybe it was the perfect crucible for a poet but one can just as easily imagine Hayden burning out, resenting the world, retreating inward. Instead, Hayden found literature and attended Detroit City College, later studying under Auden and becoming a renowned poet.

Sometimes I see people post responses to poetry that say something like “I cried a little when I read this” or even “I’m sobbing” and I wonder if that is sincere. Is it meant to be like “LOL,” a hyperbole everyone understands? I don’t think I have ever cried upon reading something online.

But when I read Those Winter Sundays, especially out loud, I do choke up. I don’t know if it is just a fathers-and-sons thing or maybe knowledge of Hayden’s tough upbringing. That he would emerge so tender and so forgiving seems nearly a miracle. And of course I think of my own father and my own indifferent ways.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?