This week, at a potluck, I learned a new word: affect. I was trying to describe the unifying experience of something “meaning more to people than the meaning itself.” There is a caveat: the experience mustn’t be explained. If explained then, it's no longer “affect.” This game of wits, or an innate ability to trust your understanding of a moment, is humbly illustrated by an exceptional potluck dinner-plate, where flavors are delighted in, best, together. More than the sum of its parts, I am claiming “affect.” My trajectory of approriation from psychology has since been applied to abstract paintings, my own art, and the poetry of Rob Schlegel.
Perhaps, an encounter with Rob Schlegel is the perfect experiential way of exploring “affect.” When looking at the same scene, with the help of Rob’s words, there is “an added intensity” to the communal understanding. If you could stop time, and turn the conversation into a white board with a pen, one could circle phrases, and turn them into a mathematical equation. The answer would produce a very different landing place. In this case, the parts are not black pepper tofu, and beet with goat cheese salad, they are the female and male in all of us. Yes, all of us.
Rob takes face-to-face conversation and poetry to places you have or have not been, through a lens you might not have experienced before, using steps that are individually understood. Here is the crux to it not being explained: Being in the forest, using Google, putting your hand around the stem of a plant….
The University of Iowa Press, which recently published Schlegel's book, writes: "Working from the premise that poetry is indistinguishable from the life of the poet, Schlegel considers how his relationship to the creative process is forever changed when he becomes something new to someone else.”
Please reader, read that again.
Schlegel's work changes with what is brought to the work. He intentionally negotiates and uses “affect.”
Schlegel writes, “'The meaning I’m trying to protect is, the heart is neither boy, nor girl.' In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps is a tender search for the mother in the father, the poet in the parent, the forest in the human.”
Schlegel, a resident of Walla Walla, has accolades and prizes coming to him for the ability to bring us along the evolution of the human experience. He is giving voice to duality in this long and shifting life we are all leading.
Rob Schlegel is the author of The Lesser Fields (Center for Literary Publishing 2009), selected by James Longenbach for the Colorado Prize for Poetry, and January Machine (Four Way Books 2014), selected by Stephanie Burt for the Grub Street National Book Prize. His third collection is In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps (University of Iowa Press 2019), selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the Iowa Poetry Prize. With the poets Daniel Poppick and Rawaan Alkhatib, he co-edits The Catenary Press. Most recently, he has taught at Whitman College, and in the MFA Program at Portland State University.
What does the pursuit of Authenticity look like? One of my favorite films is Pedro Almodóvar's, All About My Mother. In a monologue late in the film, La Agrado says, "...you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being." That feels true.
A hug or a handshake? Is it flu season?
Describe a pivotal moment in your life. In graduate school, the poet Forrest Gander read one of my poems and said, "It looks like you're pretty comfortable working in this mode. Maybe it's time to pull up the flowers and plant something more difficult to grow." I think he was quoting the New York School poet, James Schuyler. Since then I've always been hyper-diligent about not allowing either the form, tone, or content of my work to become too comfortable. Write what you know is true, I guess. But only to a point.
When have you felt the most seen? Or understood? I very recently read my poem "52 Trees" to a roomful of friends in an old Victorian Airbnb in Portland. We were all in the living room sitting around this giant purple quartz geode the house's owner turned into a coffee table. All of us could feel the geode's sadness. Or, maybe we were feeling each other's sadness amplified by the energy of the geode? Or maybe the geode was merely amplifying the energy of our own individual sadness? When I finished reading my poem another friend read her poem, then another, and another. There we were, a roomful of poets using our language to absorb (and hopefully lessen) each other's sadness.
What is your favorite place to be in Walla Walla County? What do you hear, taste, and smell there? My favorite place is wherever there is a strong sense of counter- culture. Most often this seems to be in a friend's backyard. Other times, it's the sidewalk on the way to the Farmer's Market where the kilted unicorn busks on the accordion for passersby.
Describe another artist that you would like people to learn about. Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a writer of personal essays and memoir. She is the author of two books, Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. She is also co-editor of the anthology Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, forthcoming from University of Washington Press. I teach Washuta's incredible essay "Apocalypse Logic" whenever I get the chance. Google it.
Speak about Mentors and or, apprenticeships in your practice. As a poet, I feel like a constant apprentice to other poets whose poems I love. The list of mentors is long. But a few of the poets I've met and worked with include Primus St. John, Lex Runciman, Barbara Drake, Janice Gould, Shane McCrae, Joanna Klink, Michele Glazer, Greg Pape, Malena Mörling, and Geoffrey G. O' Brien.
A few important notes:
The Union Bulletion, where this article was published on June 20, 2019, has a policy of never publishing poems. “We have a longstanding (more than 40 years) stance on not running poetry, except in ads. (Only using) …snippets from poems to show the person's style.” Hence the photograph of the poem with the dual hands. Incidently, they did publish the photo of the poem and the poem although with their own spacing. Hooray for breaking the art rules…. one. at. a. time.