Ephraim, Associate Professor of English at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC, was a Feature Reader for our Afternoon of Poetry and Prose a few years ago. In addition to his poetry that opens up every institution–marriage, government, religion–and questions what’s inside, his delivery is wide open. Ephraim doesn’t recite his work, he dances it. He moves from right to left and back, he lifts on his toes and dips with bended knees. His hands open and close, fingers play the rhythm of the words or fists punch out the beat. I’m sure he’s capable of standing behind a podium and reading, but I’m not so sure he’d still stand still.
Someone You Love Is Still Alive, is Ephraim’s second collection and was selected as the 2019 Jacar Press Full-Length Book Prize winner. The title comes from his poem, My Sister Sings Reba at Forty-Three, a poem that illustrates the tension throughout the book as Ephraim finds the glitter in the grit. He doesn’t shy away from topics like mass shootings and addiction, but as Mary O’Donnell, judge for the Jacar Press competition, writes “. . . that the most important consideration of all, tone, characterized by a mix of tenderly expressed feeling and a brave kind of horror at the state of the world. It is poetry we as readers need.”
With Ephraim’s permission I’m sharing two poems from his recent book. (Titles are bolded).
So here’s Ephraim!
- Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? How old were you? What was it about?
The very first poem I wrote seriously was in a beginning poetry course at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I had been writing lyrics to songs for a while, and I thought it might be a helpful jump to get me thinking about lyrics in a new way by reading and writing poetry. I don’t even remember the body of the actual poem or any lines from it. I just remember the metaphor of digging a very deep hole as a metaphor for trying to claw deeper into the self for meaning. There was a little bone and dirt and mud imagery, and I’m sure it was filled with general statements, but the overall metaphor was there. I think the poem was called, “Digging into Me.” It’s funny to think about this poem because it is representative of one thing I still reach for in poetry: a good extended metaphor to carry a poem.
- If you could share a cup of coffee or raise a glass of wine with any poet, living or deceased, whom would it be?
I thought of a lot of possible poets to have a drink with, but I’m not certain any person would be as interesting to me as their poems are (which I can go to whenever I choose). I thought first about Whitman, then perhaps Philip Levine because he wrote mostly about blue-collar people and places (which speaks directly to my upbringing), but if I’m absolutely honest, I’d choose to have a beer with my mother and father. I say this because Covid has kept us apart for about two years. They live in California, and both of them had more of a profound impact on my work as a poet than any poet living or dead. My mother exposed me at a very young age to bible verse memorization and to hymns, meaning I got a masterclass in the sound of language from day one in my life. My father is both a musician, a songwriter, and a wordsmith, and he, too, through music and through building artistic communities that came to our house three nights a week (for band practice), made me see that an artistic life was possible. If I could choose, I’d love to go to a Mexican restaurant in our hometown of Atascadero with my parents, order a couple of Coronas, and have some Chile Verde. I can think of nothing on earth that would be better for my poems right now!
When They Said Atlas Held The Earth Upon His Shoulders,
What kind of times are these when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors? ~ Brecht
it must’ve been a metaphor for my lover and me
in 2018, for we who are so Atlas and anxious,
my friends, for the sassafras tree out in back
of our apartment, even, as it labors its own globe
of difficult nations into the spring dream
between its tangled arms and keeps the whole thing
living through summer. Those sassafras leaves
when they let go, though, aren’t Nigerias
or New Yorks. They aren’t people. They don’t die in mass
homicides or missile strikes. They don’t matter,
I know, but don’t you, too, overload your skull full
of metaphor when there is no other way to fathom
all that is dead in the world? No right way to hold them
in these many-branched bones, my friends.
The leaves, therefore, today, I shall suggest,
are only leaves, are only thumbnails
gnawed off, only stray hairs in middle age
the new scalp never needed to save, only eyelashes,
yes, and each brown one whispered
onto the earth’s cheek, right now, is the wish
every one of us should be making–
let this simple joy of lifting my lover up
above me (despite the burdened world I carry
inside me) (for one more day) be certain.
This Impossible Kiss
In the dry fountain at the center
of the Sunken Gardens, on one foot,
a woman in a coat of living pigeons
holds her breath, and–hallelujah–
where always there is doubt,
I am not afraid to call this belief.
Soon, someone already ashamed says,
she will lift her arms
like a conductor,
and they’ll scatter right off
of her. We’ll be on our own
again. But think of them
together this second, Lover.
I know you, Lover,
a piece of something
about to unhold
while, everywhere, people say,
Look! The world’s wings
are coming apart.
This Impossible Kiss first appeared in Prairie Schooner
Ephraim Scott Sommers ~ Someone You Love Is Still Alive
Available through Jacar Press