Many poets/writers can probably point to a few people who were pivotal in their development as writers: mentors, confidantes, fire-lighters or sages. Nina Corwin is one of those people for me. She is the host of a long-running reading series in the Chicago area, which happened to be the first open mic/feature reading I ever attended. With a poem in my trembling hands, I took a seat at the back of the room and Nina introduced herself, asking if I wanted to sign up for the open mic. I must have looked terrified because she assured me of a kind audience and added her wide smile in such a way that my fear dissipated. She has been a friend and champion of my work ever since, and I am proud and happy to return the favor. She deserves as many readers as she can get.
Her work is astounding. Nina’s poems often seem to tumble in opposing directions, but she is a masterful weaver. All strands convene into a cohesive, astounding conclusions, no matter what her subject matter. This poem, from her book The Uncertainty of Maps, is one of my favorites.
It starts with Inspector 29, her nervous tics
and squinting eyes gone bad in the strip-search
for the wayward thread or almost invisible discoloration.
Or should I say, it starts with the apparel
on their hopeful parade from production line
to seller’s rack. But there’s always somebody judging:
saying yay or nay, fast track or going nowhere fast,
fine department store or strip mall cheap boutique.
As for me, you’ll know me by the labels
on the clothes I wear.
Gathering up the also-rans, the factory seconds
that stumbled under scrutiny, I who was always the last
to be chosen for blacktop kickball teams, I celebrate
irregulars! Those mail-order pantyhose marked down
for their slightly wavering seams, the snags that only
Inspector 29 can see, the skirt unevenly pieced together
by the anonymous sweat shop sewing machine operator
who must’ve had a really rough night. I welcome
their cut-rate selves into my home, sisters in imperfection,
standard-bearers and tainted saints of human error.
Once my breasts were a perfectly matched set.
But life comes along with its caustic shadows
on mammograms, its ambiguous cysts.
Life with its imperfect science, the winking
of uncertain stars. Like those forced choices
where vanity meets cancer in a face-off for a good
night’s sleep and next day when you wake up,
you find your right breast sporting a jagged new smile,
sagging a bit smaller than the left and thankful for it.
After awhile, you hardly notice.
There are times I see Inspector 29 in my dreams,
smug as the angel of cleanliness buzzing about
the right hand of God. She plucks me easily
out of a line-up of department store wannabes
with my collection of scars, my uneven teeth and
too big smile, my piles of papers cluttering every
available surface. She drops me into a large vat
along with all the other misfits where we are slapped
with Irregular labels: Inspected by 29. Loaded
into boxcars and destined for bargain basements.
We are assured, if merchandise doesn’t move
within thirty days, further markdowns will be taken.
I adore the way this poem discusses what seems like a quirk of shopping frugality then turns to the serious business of accepting self – including the imperfect and inescapable body – to the knowledge that the flaws of living will continue to accrue. Nina also slyly works in the politics of sweatshops and a slice of spirituality in the last stanza. Her poems can be mazes, but Nina drops breadcrumbs all the way through for her readers to follow. Do yourself a favor and click on the link below to hear Nina read her work- she is a powerhouse of a reader.
You can hear Nina read this and other poems here at the Fishhouse: http://www.fishousepoems.org/?p=4817
Nina’s first book Conversations with Demons and Tainted Saints is also wonderful, including persona poems from characters as diverse as Salome, Candide, and Orpheus.
If you want to write:
1. Use four of Nina’s line starters – once, but, after awhile, there are times – to begin your own new piece of writing.
2. Choose a seemingly unglamorous job – like Inspector 29 – and compare the work of that person to an event in your life.