The Dogs Woke Me Up, or, Notes Towards a Utopian Poetic Community

1. The first time Kina and I drive to the Mississippi Delta, I’m overwhelmed by its flatness and its geometry, the endless powerlines above oceans of cotton. It’s Sunday, and when we enter Clarksdale, most everything is closed. We drive on to Moon Lake.

2. I wake up each day with the opening lines of Frank Stanford's poem “The Singing Knives” stuck in my head: The dogs woke me up. I looked out the window. It’s July and I’m living alone in an apartment complex in Oxford, Mississippi. I walk through the cul-de-sac past the piles of garbage on my neighbor’s porch, and it’s so hot that I feel exhausted just going to the mailbox and back. The dogs woke me up, and each time, the dogs embody something else: loneliness, anxiety, displacement that morphs into agency, a desire to write.

3. I’m in the garden in the yard of my friends Andrew and Jonny, and we’re plugging in floor lamps for the outdoor poetry reading we’ll host later that night. The chickens peck around our ankles. Later, when everyone is drunk under the carport while Abraham Smith is reading, in the light of the bonfire—the dogs running round—the poems will enter our skulls and become part of us, and our skulls will become part of the grass and the stars, and the entire scene will be a variegated pulsating surface. Stan Brakhage: “the stars tonight are like maggots on the side of a carcass.” Frank Stanford: “tonight the gars on the trees are swords in the hands of knights.”

4. When we hear a reading that changes our lives—when the energy from the performer permeates the crowd and reshapes us—where does that energy go? Is it something we breathe? What does it generate? Is it merely a product we consume?

5. Stanford: I dove down in Moon Lake. When we show up to Moon Lake and the sun is setting, I can’t breathe for a second, and I think of a gold ring that might be in the water.

6. Poetic geography as a method of being diffused and dispersed: when Kina and I are driving the L-shaped route to Memphis with C.D. Wright’s PennSound recording of Deepstep Come Shining playing through the stereo, I think of a poetics like a housefly in a moving car: rhizome of speed. Everyone in their car needs love. I repeat: Everyone in their goddamn car needs love.

7. I read Frank Stanford at a time when I only knew how to write narrative poetry. Dave Smith, my then MFA professor, told me that non-narrative poetry wasn’t actually poetry. He told me that life was not art.

8. Fuck you, Dave Smith.

9. Across from my apartment, there was a Mexican restaurant where I went almost every day. At the time, I didn’t have many friends; all of the staff at the restaurant thought I looked like a Serbian soccer star, and would greet me excitedly by his name every time I walked in the door. One day I was drunk on margaritas and reading Robert Duncan, warm in the sunlight coming in through the window. I felt something like rootedness.

10. Does rootedness suppose a teleology? Does it fix a body? Critiquing Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that nomadic movement is inherently liberatory, Édouard Glissant imagines a “rooted errantry.” He writes: It is around interactions of memory and place that things irreconcilable for both poet and storyteller are perpetrated.

11. When I was 20, I walked to the post office, where a poetry book had arrived for me in the P.O. Box. I started reading it while I was walking home, and it was the first book of poems that changed my life.

12. I desire a narrative that moves.

13. I refuse to give the root up. I imagine a root that stretches for miles across borders and counties, grafted on the infrastructures of the flows of capital, moving alongside them until it takes them over.

14. We’re on a book tour, in New Orleans. Tomorrow we’ll be in Lafayette. Kina is throwing up in the bathroom of the shotgun apartment where we’re staying. Each day we’ve started driving at 6 am, and for some reason, each day we begin by listening to the theme song for the television show “The OC.” I read in galleries, neighborhood bars, bookstores, and people’s homes; some of the time I’m depressed, or exhausted, or hungover, but a lot of the time, I feel like part of an immense body connected by an errant root. Like we’re all roommates in the same strange house, and when I put my ear to the thin walls, I can hear other people whispering poems.

15. Kina and I are on some kind of pilgrimage. We go to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and visit the New Orleans Hotel, where much of Battlefield was written. We eat tacos. We see a tree filled with shoes. We drink wine on a balcony porch above a biker bar, and realize for the first time that we want to spend the rest of our lives together.

16. How many times have I fallen in love with people or poetry on porches, and how many times will it happen again?

17. Deepstep, baby. Deepstep.

18. In 2016, Kina and I learn that we’ll be moving to Ithaca, New York. After three years in Oxford, Mississippi, we’re excited for what’s to come, but for now, we’re mostly overcome with sadness. In the weeks before we move, we decide we’re going to start a chapbook press. We name it Garden-Door Press, after the garden where the readings in Oxford were held—the garden that felt like the meadowy root of our community.

19. Andrew painted a mural in our house, and before we move, Kina and I write a secret message in the mural for the new tenants: “This house is special. We hope you love it as much as we did.”

20. In this house, we had a latticed-in porch. Kina and I got married on this porch; I read Inger Christensen on this porch; I talked with my best friends on this porch. Four months after we leave, a friend tells me that the new tenants are using the porch exclusively for storage.

21. When José Esteban Muñoz writes about queerness, he envisions it in terms of utopia; not utopia as a fixed ideal, but rather, as a continually shifting horizon—one that we might never reach, but which we should reach toward.

22. It is within a similar register that I conceive of the garden; that I believe in Arcadia; that I believe in the messy utopian potentiality of poetry community.

23. The porch must be for more than storage. It must hold our kinships, our friends, our possibilities.

24. The first year that we’re in Ithaca, I’m miserable, homesick, and drinking too much. Garden-Door Press publishes its first chapbook, written by our friend Michael. It has a spray-painted cover; since it’s too cold to go outside, we spray the covers in our building’s basement, which doesn’t have much ventilation. Occasionally, it becomes too much and we have to step outside.

25. Things slowly get better. I read Aimé Césaire for the first time. I maintain three different group chats with poetry friends (MME; MKMSJ; and the chaotic one, KMLRCALJWNMM). Kina and I get access to a printing press. We make new friends. We reconnect with old friends. We go down to the city for a weekend to celebrate the engagement of our friends Mark and Layne. On the Staten Island Ferry, I’m talking about poetry with Carrie, and I think of the future as a moving vessel, as an invisible root dragging beneath the boat.

26. Kina and I are standing in a used bookstore in Ithaca. We’re looking excitedly at some broadsides for sale, and the woman at the front desk can tell that we’re a part of the same rooted body. Are you guys poets too, she asks. Her name is Gina; she becomes one of our best friends in Ithaca; and we start a reading series together. We create new roots and I refuse to give them up.

27. I reject the mythos of the solitary artist. I refuse to believe that I am alone.

28. I am not interested in the “the poetry community” as a monolith created through complex networks of social capital. Rather, I’m interested in the idea that poetry itself is a community, a commingling of language and paper and discourse and actors. The material formations of community—the presses, the journals, the reading series, the radio shows, the festivals—these are not vehicles for poetry, but rather, the organs of the body of poetry itself. These organs are shaped by the geography from which they arise; in turn, their roots reshape the earth in which they grow.

29. When Kina and I walk up to Stanford’s grave, we see a woman hurriedly leaving it; without saying anything to us, she gets in her car and drives away. There’s a handwritten note on the headstone that reads, I will always love you. Knowing that I’m standing above the literal bones of the body whose words have changed me so much, I feel oddly compelled to move. I feel like dancing.

31. It’s 2021. I just turned 30, and Kina is pregnant. I’m trying to finish a dissertation on rural poetry community, but most of the time I don’t have the emotional energy to think about poetry outside of that. I skateboard in parking garages in the winter. I have chronic headaches.

32. I know that poetry, more than being just a genre of cultural production, is a way of being in the world. I’m a poet even when I’m not writing poetry is what I tell myself.

33. Kina and I take a walk on Cayuga Lake. Garbage is frozen into the ice, and I see a tiny fish swimming a few inches below the surface.

34. I fantasize about leaving academia and opening an arts collective in Ithaca. It’ll have a poetry library, a printing press, and a stage where the teenage punk bands can play. I fantasize about being a stay-at-home dad and sewing chapbooks while the baby sleeps.

35. I let my copy of Deepstep Come Shining fall open to a random page: When the aim is to feel wholeness itself. She laid her hand on the deeply furrowed bark, groping for the area of darkest color.

36. We paint a glowing sun above the crib.

37. We bend towards utopia.

Marty Cain is the author of Kids of the Black Hole (2017) and The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir (forthcoming 2021), both from Trembling Pillow Press, as well as a chapbook, Four Essays (Tammy, 2019). Individual works appear in Denver Quarterly, Best American Experimental Writing 2020, Fence, Tarpaulin Sky, Poetry Daily, and other publications. He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he's writing a doctoral dissertation at Cornell on rural poetry collectives, and with Kina Viola, he edits Garden-Door Press.