On September 26, 2019, the poet Cedar Sigo approached a lectern at the City University of New York. He cracked a bottle of water, then searched for his papers. “Did someone take my lecture? It was up here.” The crowd laughed. “I don’t have to do it.” His introducer returned and handed him the papers. “I don’t know what I would have done without it,” Sigo says. He was here to talk, but lost without the writing. The lecture, about revolutionary poetry, began like this: “I have wondered if this piece of writing could be more accurately described as a speech rather than a lecture…. When does the word itself become action?”
Sometimes these boundaries—speech and writing, word and action—are clear. The brambles of a bureaucratic document aren’t talk, and some talk transcribed turns to gibberish. But elsewhere the divides are blurred, permeable. It’s this permeability that animates Sigo’s two latest books, both published by Seattle’s Wave Books. Guard the Mysteries, released in June, is a collection of lectures he gave between 2016 and 2019 for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry, established by Wave’s publisher Charlie Wright to let poets contemplate their craft deeply. All This Time, out October 5, is his latest book of poems.
Both are texts. Both are also conversations, encounters not only with Sigo’s voice, written and spoken, but with the array of voices he reads and loves. The five lectures in Guard the Mysteries blend the academic with the discursive. They quote prolifically from and discuss other writers: Diane di Prima, Audre Lorde, Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, Joy Harjo. Two lectures investigate the work of single poets, Joanne Kyger and Barbara Guest. These influences are as present, as vital to the text, as the biographical details Sigo includes—about growing up on the Suquamish Reservation, about having a sexual awakening upon seeing a naked picture of Allen Ginsberg, about taking the ferry into Seattle and getting books and coffee in the University District.
Kyger, Lorde, di Prima—so many of these names reappear in All This Time. Its poems are “for” them or quote from them, and the collection is enthralled with the possibilities of voices, the ways they can fold into and harmonize with Sigo’s own. The line of the first poem arrives as a sort of thesis: “(Welcome everything in).” From here the book leaps between influences, aesthetics, and images. Poems jitter down pages, wildly enjambed, or arrive in prose blocks, as if each were having a visual chat with some stylistic antecedent. “First Love,” for instance, unfolds in full, sharp sentences: “I’ve never lived in New York / but I died there once while / visiting.” Then, a few pages later, the title poem presents spare shards: “Wake up / Feel around for shoes / Sit warm at the wooden table.” Many of the book’s poems take shape where the rigidity of the shared world turns malleable, where text meets talk meets singing, within those mysteries he sets out to guard.
But near the beginning of that lecture at CUNY, Sigo describes another, budding aspect of his poetics, one bent on building “coalitions among people,” political and social. “This is the real pleasure of the poet anyway: to redefine our engagement with the way language comes to guide our lives.