TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

At a recent Poet’s House reading, Demosthenes Agrafiotis had some harsh things to say about haiku written in English. They fail not only because English can’t possibly pack as much information into a syllable as Japanese does, but the form itself is tied to a cultural imperative, a way of thought that one learns for so long that to even ponder how it works unravels the meaning.

That said, Brian Kalkbrenner’s Foul Feelings is the closest thing in English, spiritually, to haiku that I can possibly think of.  Sure, the poems are pithy and zazen, which is an easy link to the Japanese form. But these often tiny poems are ponderously gargantuan. Brian is a modern western ronin, wandering the new nature of urban living (as urbanized development has taken the majority of the Earth’s surface, it might as well be the modern rendering of nature) and living the poet’s path, sharpening his pen and honing his skills.

Such a road is not easily traveled, and to compound his difficulties, Brian has chosen to commit poetry seppuku by self-publishing Foul Feelings. How is self-publishing like slicing open one’s belly in disgrace? Samurai committed ritual sacrifice for many reasons large and small, but I believe that Brian has chosen to publish this book himself and therefore alienate the work from a large segment of the larger (read: academic) poetry world because that world has gone from focusing on art to focusing on the numbers, specifically the number of dollars given as prizes, scholarships, fellowships, etc.

You might as well save your Stegner application fee and invest in some Mega-Millions tickets because you have about the same chances of winning either. And even if you do make it, what guarantee is there that you will be a better writer, let alone a “successful” one? Brian bypasses the lottery of modern poetic politics, instead choosing to release these poems of their own volition. One would realistically consider this a grave mistake, given the stigma against self-publishing, if not for two things: the poems are sharp enough to parse atoms, and no journal would ever accept them. Brian had no choice but to climb the mountain and meditate on his craft.

It’s hard to talk about these lines without giving anything away, though there isn’t really much to give away. They are mostly small, ranging from seven words to paragraph-length prose poems. Not all of them are philosophical but neither are they simple narratives. They’re surreal in the way that you are given two things that don’t exactly connect logically but don’t exactly disconnect either; they are reflections from a broken mirror. Any meaning pulled from the lines are refracted through the reader.

Not that Brian is only writing about the big pictures here. In fact, that’s what makes these poems so haiku-like in the first place: modern life is explicated through the small moments, images, and thoughts of everyday life and everyday language. That same daily word choice, the common words we all utilize hourly, transformed like sand into glass by Brian’s capable hands. That’s the strength behind Foul Feelings and poetry at large, the way it can take something we thought we new and twist it into new meaning. Any publisher would be honored to have Brian in their ranks, but perhaps it would be best for us if he continued to walk the way of the warrior-poet.

To get free latest updates, just sign up here

Levi is a poet from Wyoming who got his MFA at NYU and has spent time as a teaching artist in the Bronx and Manhattan. He is a co-founder of the online literary journal Paperbag magazine, and has made himself useful to Ugly Duckling Presse and Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions. He is currently employed in the Journals division at MIT Press and can be found squatting online at

View all contributions by

  • Pigsnout2 December 17, 2010, 11:11 pm

    Self publish… Frost did it, and so did Williams. Flores, Angel Flores published Williams before New Directions, and Williams went to vacation down in Atlantic city as a mildly affluent doctor and was horrified to see the beautiful book Flores had produced remaindered on the boardwalk. The punk aesthetic of “do it yourself and fuck those who sniff” is admired but never embraced. Almost all poetry book are co-operative presses with the poet receiving the first fifty to 100 books for free, and then paying the retail price. I regret not self publishing my own books. I did an openly co-operative press with Iniquity press/vendetta books and sold five thousand copies. I was then published by Texas Univeisity press, a small press, and NYQ. These are national books. They are sold on amazon, etc. So are the books I did with David Roskos, with an intro by Harvey Pekar, and I promise the Dave Roskos books will prove more valuable. The other books get you tenure. I find the whole business of poetry to be high comedy. The first books I did were for a small but knowing audience in New Jersey who wanted to read what they had heard me do at features and open mikes. This to me seemed right. The others were to have and secure a job. Haiku is extremely difficult in English. One must expand or trespass against the form in order to do it well in English. Some of Etheridge Knight’s are amazing. . I wish your friend well. From now on. I think I will confine my books to small, self published texts.I worked in a factory for 20 years. I know what mass produced means.

  • Anonymous December 18, 2010, 5:22 am

    i highly enjoyed the process of publishing people on press electric. it’s a lot of fun and you don’t have to worry about much. we need to do another run of teaching the dead, i think. i liked how those books looked too. they are durable books, i think. they also are nice because you run copies as you need them, instead of putting in a huge investment.

Leave a Comment