Rebecca Salazar is a PhD candidate and Vanier scholar at UNB. Her first poetry chapbook is Guzzle (Anstruther), and other writings have appeared in The Malahat Review, Lemon Hound, and Partisan. She edits for Qwerty, The Fiddlehead, and icehouse poetry.
Two of Rebecca’s poems appeared in PRISM 55.2. She recently spoke to poetry editor Shaun Robinson about editing, the ghazal, and undermining the love poem.
By Rebecca Salazar
Our marooned armchairs are overripe. Split-
plum upholstery. The buttons sinking into juicy folds.
Emmett says he’s sensual, a really nice sponge.
Scrubs the age-rings from cross-sectioned coral.
Driving in, you say, you caught a flash of Sasquatch
masturbating in a church of poison oak.
Nab a snatch of romance as you pass: her bouquet
of wagging pistils, her elastic, tooth-marked garter.
Overheard: “Pussycat Dolls played at my high school!”
Overheard: “It wasn’t pleasure, it was routine.”
Your two poems in this issue are ghazals, as are all the poems in your new chapbook, “Guzzle.” Not only but that, but they’re all five-couplet versions of the form—though you’ve excluded some of the traditional elements, like rhyme and the “signature” in the final line. What is it about the ghazal that appeals to you? Is it a form that you’d like to go on writing, like John Berryman with his Dreams Songs or David McGimpsey with his “chubby sonnets”?
I first encountered ghazals as a writing exercise in a poetry workshop with Ross Leckie, who introduced the form as a way of experimenting with non-linearity, using Phyllis Webb’s “anti-ghazals” as an example. What appealed to me about the form at first was that it is composed of several separate images that stand alone—miniatures, almost—that come to be related in unexpected ways, either thematically or somatically. About two years after this workshop, I went through a difficult time when I felt incapable of writing a “whole” poem. I filled notebooks with pages of fragments, and pieces of conversations I overheard, but couldn’t develop anything beyond one or two lines. Eventually, I started puzzling these fragments together based upon similarities in tone, imagery, or feel. I turned to form because I felt the need for a guide, and a deconstructed version of the ghazal felt like the most organic frame for what was emerging from the mess. I do still find myself gravitating to the form when I need it—this may say more about the state of mess in my life than about my aesthetic preferences, though.
Historically, the ghazal was a love poem. “Ring me” does have “a snatch of romance,” but it also has a masturbating Sasquatch, among other things. Were you trying to subvert the genre with this sexual but decidedly unromantic imagery?
When I started reading more about ghazals, I was excited that they originated in Persian poetry; this felt refreshing after years of studying almost exclusively European poetic forms. Something that exists through both traditions, though, and indeed in most love poetry, is that women are rarely more than aesthetic objects to be looked at, “snatched” up, and often discarded by male speakers. Simply choosing to write as a woman already subverts that narrative.
One of the problems with writing poetry as a young woman is that most readers assume everything you write is a love poem. But I think love poetry is powerful when it revises who can desire what or whom, and how—when it breaks open forms and ideas about desire. For me, that often involves laughter: taking as much pleasure in poking fun at love poetry as from writing about pleasure itself. Making bad puns about romance and its failures is one way to do this. Showing Sasquatch, this semi-human-semi-other-being caught in a moment of self-love, is another.
Besides being a poet, you’re an editor for a number of venues. Does working as an editor affect your practice as a poet?
Editing exposes me to so much poetry I would not otherwise encounter, and I am certain this has an effect on my writing. I have the privilege of reading new work at so many different stages—often at its rawest and most unpolished. Because most of my writing life has taken place in academic settings, too, getting to read poetry that is written in different contexts grounds me. There are many approaches and perspectives that are rare, or are not able to exist in university writing programs, because of the privileges it requires to access such programs. The “ivory tower” can be alienating, especially to those who are not straight, white, middle-class men, and even to those who live in it. I learn so much from reading submissions by poets who live and write differently than I do, but who sometimes have more in common with me than my immediate peers.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a full-length collection?
Most days I have two or three different collections in mind. These poems, and the ones in “Guzzle” are part of one, and may become part of my dissertation project. I have another half-written manuscript that I have been re-writing radically but sporadically. Lately, I am writing poems that feel alien to both of these projects, and some non-fiction, which feels even farther into deep space. For now, I am currently working primarily on PhD exams and teaching, and watching to see what falls into orbit.