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Juliana Spahr

Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1966, Juliana Spahr received a BA from Bard College and PhD from SUNY Buffalo.

She is the author of Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow Press, 2011); This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (University of California Press, 2005); Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You (Wesleyan University Press, 2001); and Response (Sun & Moon Press, 1996), winner of the National Poetry Series Award.

Spahr is also the author of Du Bois's Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment (Harvard University Press, 2018) and Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (University of Alabama Press, 2001).

As editor, she has published a number of critical works, including A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism (Chain Links, 2011), coedited with Stephanie Young; Poetry and Pedagogy: the Challenge of the Contemporary (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006), coedited with Joan Retallack; and American Women Poets in the Twenty-first Century (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), coedited with Claudia Rankine. From 1993 to 2003, Spahr coedited the arts journal Chain, which she cofounded with Jena Osman.

About Spahr's work, the poet Anne Waldman has said, "By listing, by naming, the atrocities—the harrowing stats, the scary particulars—in our world-at-endless-war, we might at least exert control over our sanity and extend our mind and compassion to others. It is a connected universe as Spahr so forecfully reminds us."

In 2009, Spahr received the Hardison Poetry Prize awarded by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

She teaches literature and lives in Berkeley, California.

By This Poet

2

December 2, 2002

As it happens every night, beloveds, while we turned in the night
sleeping uneasily the world went on without us.

We live in our own time zone and there are only a small million of
us in this time zone and the world as a result has a tendency to
begin and end without us.

While we turned sleeping uneasily at least ten were injured in a 
bomb blast in Bombay and four killed in Palestine.

While we turned sleeping uneasily a warehouse of food aid was 
destroyed, stocks on upbeat sales soared, Australia threatened first
strikes, there was heavy gunfire in the city of Man, the Belarus
ambassador to Japan went missing, a cruise ship caught fire, on yet
another cruise ship many got sick, and the pope made a statement
against xenophobia.

While we turned sleeping uneasily perhaps J Lo gave Ben a 
prenuptial demand for sex four times a week.

While we turned sleeping uneasily Liam Gallagher brawled and
irate fans complained that "Popstars: The Rivals" was fixed.

While we turned sleeping uneasily the Supreme Court agreed to 
hear the case of whether university admissions may favor racial 
minorities.

While we turned sleeping uneasily poachers caught sturgeon in the 
reed-filled Caspian, which shelters boar and wolves, and some of
the residents on the space shuttle planned a return flight to the US.

Beloveds, our world is small and isolated.

We live our lives in six hundred square feet about a quarter mile 
from the shore on land that is seven hundred square miles and five
thousand miles from the nearest land mass.

Despite our isolation, there is no escape from the news of how
many days are left in the Iraq inspections.

The news poll for today was should we invade Iraq now or should
we wait until the inspections are complete and we tried to laugh
together at this question but our laughter was uneasy and we just
decided to turn off the television that arrives to us from those 
other time zones.

Beloveds, we do not know how to live our lives with any agency 
outside of our bed.

It makes me angry that how we live in our bed—full of connected
loving and full of isolated sleep and dreaming also—has no
relevance to the rest of the world.

How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation
have so little power outside the space of our bed?

Beloveds, the shuttle is set to return home and out the window of 
the shuttle one can see the earth.

"How massive the earth is; how minute the atmosphere," one of
the astronauts notes.

Beloveds, what do we do but keep breathing as best we can this
minute atmosphere?

excerpts from "Will There Be Singing"

^
By the end of the year, I was used to
things I hadn’t seen before, 
like a series of street brawls between fa and antifa 
that often absurdly tumbled 
into the Berkeley all organic full-of-strollers farmer’s market.
Used to hearing about friends’ emails caught up in various FOIAs.
Used to the social media posts about how someone somewhere 
was getting a gun and planned to show up where we worked. 
I should add that the DMs and the @s were rarely realized. 
The gun never arrived.
And if the threat was made good on it was just that moment when 
someone called up my boss and she hung up on them, confused.
If there was anything new about this moment
it was that there was no making sense of what was left and 
right in the way I had previously understood it,
which was as a convention.
The DMs came in from all different directions. 
One day an anonymous white nationalist, 
the next a well-known comrade angry in love 
and wanting to take it out on someone proximate, 
and then perhaps a blog post from someone 
who had been perfectly nice when last seen at a poetry reading
but now was very upset about something I had implied.
It was hard to decipher who was hating what on what day.
By the time the state was burning from both ends
and one end was called Paradise, 
we didn’t bother with the metaphor. 
Instead we just looked out the window, noticed the smoke, 
shut the window, stayed indoors, and kept on typing.
Later we joked,
now we know what we will be doing when the world burns.
We will be shutting the windows and catching up on email
finally.

^
I’m concerned about these other things. 
Or that is what I thought when they said 
they were worried I was losing my relationship to poetry.
It was still summer.
Still mid-afternoon.
There was a nice breeze.
We had half a day of this beauty before us and we knew it. 
Unhurried. Pleasure. 
We drank a beer that was fresh on the tongue 
in a new way. Light. Almost carbonated.
They said they were concerned
about me and my relationship to poetry.
In the afternoon sun, as the breeze blew softly,
I first protested to them not about poetry, 
but about poets. Their nationalism, their acquiescence 
but also their facebook and twitter accounts.
Their brags and their minor attacks, their politics.
Their prizes and their publications.
Their democratic party affiliations.
So I said to them I’m not concerned 
about my relationship to poetry
which regularly felt to me like that moment 
when you open your app and there are a bunch
of mentions and you haven’t posted anything a while
and all you can do is say today is so FML and start to work through them.
This is not the same as the oh no way of the Berkeley farmer’s market brawl,
not the state burning and burning again,
but still, how to write an epiphanic possibility in this sociality?
I had written for so long about being together, 
about how we were together like it or not.
I had used a metaphor of breath and of space.
I had embraced the epiphanic 
not just at the end of the poem, as was the lyric convention,
but sometimes I even made the whole poem epiphanic.
And that I couldn’t do anymore.
Lately there wasn’t any singing that I could hear. 
Just attempts. Dark times. 
Nothing about this terrible moment was new though.
It has always been a terrible moment.
And there have always been poets too.
And always poets writing the terrible nation into existence.
This is one reason I will never get a tramp stamp that says
poetry is my boyfriend.

^
I thought for a while there were two sorts of poets.
Poets who write the terrible nation into existence
and poets screwing around doing something else.
For years I was on team poets screwing around doing something else.
For years I had used poetry to slip away, 
elude the hold of the family, the coupleform, the policing of tradition, 
to pry open time into an endless stretch of possibility.
In that room where we try to pry open possibility.
When I first heard the avant garde 
I heard it as an opening. A door. A window,
Maybe a garage door.
A hole in the wall I could shimmy through.
I heard it as an opening. All sorts of openings.
I could make the hole. 
Or my pink crowbar could.
I would be writing and I would fall into the singing,
That whoosh. The singing whoosh.
And because at first I saw myself as someone who wanted
an opening in the tradition,
I split this whoosh up all the time. 
I fragmented it into words or took away its deictics.
Another friend, a poet, who no longer talks to me 
once gave me the image of the pink crowbar 
as a way of thinking about writing. 
Losing her was a loss all around. 
But to compensate for that loss 
I think often about pulling something open.
Although I’m fairly convinced she would grab 
the pink crowbar out of my hand if she saw me wielding it.
For years, there was that perfect moment after the reading
where we had to leave the bar because 
the couples were coming to buy their cocktails 
and we couldn’t figure out where to go.
Maybe it was Friday or Saturday night and all the bars
were full of people who were not talking about poetry
so we kept walking, looking in each bar and each one wrong.
Eventually the streets opened up and we were at the bridge
and there was a river and we walked across the open space to it
and climbed down its sides and sat there. 
We had bought some beers and a small glass flask of whiskey from a bodega.
We carried the cans and the flask in brown bags as a convention.
But we did not need this convention. 
If there was law, the law drove by, didn’t stop. 
Other things were. Night. Maybe moon. Water. Rats.
Sometimes drugs were involved.
We walked through Wall Street at 3 am and 
we rattled the locked doors of all the buildings, laughing
at their absurdity because we knew where it was at
and at was rattling the doors. 

^
During these days,
I would wake up and my head would hurt 
and then I would realize that in my dream 
I had said to myself that I should write some poetry.
But my dreams never explained to me why. 
Or how.
How to sing in these dark times?
It is true that I have been with poetry for a long time. 
Since I was a teenager.
Those loves of many years and our bodies changing together.
And yet also the deepening of this love. Despite.
That day with the breeze in the bar
And we said together, there needs to be some pleasure in the world. 
And next, poetry is the what is left of life.
And we pledged, more singing.
And we referenced by saying,
In the dark times. Will there also be singing? 
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.

^
At night I thought if I just read all of Brecht, 
I would maybe find the singing.
So I began to read Brecht that night, 
in bed with my son while he too read before he went to sleep.
There was a new edition. 
It was hard to hold because it was so big.
I rested it on a pillow and I rested my head on a pillow
and I turned the pages looking for the singing.
I couldn’t find the singing.
After I started reading Brecht, 
I began sorting through my books. I had too many. 
As I pulled them off the shelves, blew off the dust,
I asked myself would I need it if there was a revolution.
It turned out that I thought I would for sure need
five translations of the Odyssey
and all the books of Susan Howe.
I kept all the plant books too.
The comfort of the Jespen Manual of Vascular Plants of California.
It’s an open question if the revolution will still need poetry,
its tradition and its resistance to that tradition.
But it will for sure need the Vascular Plants of California.

^
It’s always been a terrible moment.
But now I understand it as even more terrible.
The nation is for sure not my boyfriend.
But the land it claims,
though I don’t claim it,
I hold my love for this land on my underside, 
in a small pocket that eventually bursts to release my love spores.
I mean it is not a casual love. 
It is though a difficult one. Threatened. Invaded.
A friend is dying
as the scotch broom is putting out its nitrogen fixing roots
but our friendship died years before 
the seed pods open explosively
another friend has cancer
and last for eighty years
and yet another friend now in the world in some new way
but they are hard and survive rough transport through water
and mainly it was all the information 
fleshy and full of proteins in a way that interests ants 
we suddenly knew about everything
as the ants carry the seeds back to their nests creating dense infestations. 
A mixture of hell. A metaphor of resilience.
The scotch broom has so many tricks.
Grows in patches and as scattered individuals
with a total cover of about 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively.
As does the Tree of Heaven.
There is no space too polluted for it. 
It absorbs sulfur dioxide in its leaves.
It can withstand cement dust and fumes from coal tar operations, 
as well as resist ozone exposure relatively well. 
Even mercury. 
It grows fast, and even faster in California.
And once it starts, it shows up everywhere,
impossible to destroy.
Loves the fires.
Everything. Never ending.
Everything. Yet to come.
And yet the world and the leaves continue to exist. 
Yellow veins. Flowers.
Large, compound leaves. 
Arranged. Alternately on the stem.
11-33 leaflets. Occasionally up to 41.
One to three teeth on each side. Close to the base. 
Everything. Small.
Yellow-green to reddish. Flowers.
Everything. Panicles up to 30 cm long.
Everything.