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In 2011, Binghamton, a small industrial town in upstate New York (formerly where IBM was headquartered), was hit by a flood that ravaged the quasi-rural area. Among the casualties of the flood were MacArthur Elementary School and MacArthur Park. These photographs were taken for archival purposes by N. Henry, a social scientist and cartographer at Binghamton University. The tops of a children’s swing set and jungle gym and the rooftops of the elementary school are visible; the reflections of sky and treetops visible in the flood waters give an odd, uncanny sense of brightness, of natural calm and beauty even in a disaster that fiscally devastated most of the quasi-rural area. For me, they cross the blurry boundary between archive and art / journalism and something more transformative. If humans are the part of nature that goes against nature’s grain, it might also be said that nature is an aspect of humanity and human existence with which we cannot ultimately argue. I see that in these photos.

 

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Photo Credits: N. Henry, 2011.

kristina marie darling

Requited: Poetry as a Truth-Telling Mechanism

The effectiveness of Kristina Marie Darling’s book Requited lies in its ability to remind readers that it is human nature to crave to be what we are not. To crave what we don’t have. Darling treats poetry as a truth-telling mechanism. This is a book that is aware of itself, its truths, and how it wants to tell them. The self-referential nature of this text urges the truth to make itself known. It enables the use of poetry as a truth-telling device, and reminds the reader of fundamental truths.

The book is the chronicle of a couple’s relationship, and their eventual parting. We begin the story in a garden, which might be a nod toward to the Garden of Eden, and what it symbolizes for us: a clean slate; new beginnings; fresh starts. Gardens and forests are so richly associated in Western literature with emotional truths, and the unfettered psyche. This trope was a clever one to utilize for the story of a romantic relationship because this draw that humans have toward the new, the fresh, the undiscovered, is what makes new relationships so intoxicating, but it is also what makes the end of relationships so difficult, because in breaking up with someone we acknowledge that a part of our innocence has been irrevocably lost.

The couple’s travels through these landscapes seems to mirror the shifting of their own minds and bodies. I was especially moved by the image of the deer that the couple encounters at the beginning of the book:

“Near the road, an injured deer has been left to die. Its dark brown eyes seem to wonder why we’ve left the roses behind.”

Like the Garden of Eden, deer also have connections with innocence and purity, but the image of the deer accomplishes things that the garden does not. The deer is a much more starting and emotionally relevant image because the deer is a living, breathing entity in a way that the garden is not. The deer looking at the couple so plaintively— essentially asking them why they are leaving the garden—enforces the emotional magnitude of the situation: the couple’s separation, and the resulting loss of their innocence and purity.

The passage about the girl’s lips turning blue is similarly jarring and powerful:

“How many dead flowers would it take to cover a field. You’re beginning to miss the girls in another city, their parade of torn dresses. A disheveled skirt retains an odd charm. In shop windows, mannequins still cling to bouquets. Their starched petals. My cold blue lips.”

The girl here is becoming a part of the landscape she is moving away from. This might be an allusion to the feeling that we are leaving a part of ourselves behind when we leave a relationship, and our desire to hold on to what we are losing. When we enter into relationships with people our identities shift, merge, and blur with the identity of the other person.

The emotional center of the book—the passage which I think anchors the entire text is found a bit later in the book:

“While I sleep, you’re documenting failure. An experience gives rise to ‘narrative.’ A heroine counting ‘unfaithful stars.’ Why can so many things be mistaken for metaphor. Above us, the room is heaving its small oceans. Somehow you imagine an elegant universe.”

The self-referential quality in this book manifests through the litany of literary devices and tropes the narrator mentions here– the poem is reminding us that we are reading a poem, by talking about various aspects of poetry. Reading this, we see that poetry serves as a way to document and memorialize failure. Maybe metaphor is a way for us to make ourselves into something we are not.

The erasure that closes the book—which is, essentially, the first section of the book with sections expertly whited out—seems essential to the narrative of the couple. It allows the book to come full circle, and is a way for the couple to dialog with one another—maybe in real time, or in each individual mind. Or maybe the epilogue is a reimagining of the past. A way to re-do what we have done, to right wrongs, to reevaluate and revisit or lives. Darling’s work reminds us that poetry gives us permission to do this—reinvent our lives.

Press: BlazeVOX, 2014
Page length: 41 pages
Price: $12.00

 

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Lisa M. Cole is the author of the poetry collections Heart Full of Tinders and Dreams of the Living, and is a contributor to Wood Becomes Bone: A Mental Health Awareness Series, all three titles forthcoming from ELJ publications. Lisa has also written six chapbooks, most recently Negotiating with Objects (Sundress Publications) and The Bodyscape and Living in a Lonely House (Dancing Girl Press). She was a recipient of the Lois Nelson Award in Creative Non-Fiction in 2005 and a runner-up in SLAB’s Elizabeth R. Curry poetry contest earlier this year. Lisa teaches writing workshops in Tucson Arizona’s prisons as well as in various places within Tucson’s vibrant literary communities, including the University of Arizona Poetry Center and Casa Libre En La Solona. You can read her book reviews at http://moonglows-reviews.blogspot.com/. Find her on Facebook in both personal and professional capacities at https://www.facebook.com/lisa.cole.poet and https://www.facebook.com/lisa.marie.cole

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On September 5, 2014, NPR ran an essay by critic Juan Vidal titled, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” which questioned whether American poets still produce political work, and suggested that “literary [political] provocation in America is . . . at a low.” Because I find this assessment of contemporary American letters to be very incomplete, I wanted to take the opportunity to create a dialogue on the subject by curating a series of compelling political poems from contemporary American poets. I christened this series “Political Punch” as an affectionate reflection on the cocktail of poets who decided to honor me with their participation in my little Infoxicated Corner; it was intended to celebrate the glorious mix of poetics, voices, and life experiences all being shaken and stirred into a sense of community and conversation, being distilled into burning gulps of experience for the reader. Leaving aside all the boozed-up metaphors, it was also intended to celebrate my experience of American letters, in all their willingness and ability to pack a political punch.

These two poems by the lovely Native American poet Susan Deercloud, who is eloquent and funny even in her sorrow and her rage, speak for themselves, in a cultural climate where we have a national football team called the Redskins, educators routinely disparage the tradition of oral literacy as ineffectual, and American twentysomethings of Western European ethnic descent think nothing of wearing feathered headdresses to concerts as a fashion statement.

 

Shoot

High noon at the community college. As usual,
the Dean was starring in her cowgirl-and-Injun movie,
a WASP looming seven feet tall, big-boned L.A. import –
what upper middle class white feminists aspired to
in Gloria Steinem 1970’s. She had heard rumors
about a poet hired to teach comp-lit for a semester,
complaints that this Mohawk played poetry on CDs
in the writers’ voices. The Dean swaggered into
the classroom, boomed she had come to observe.
The Indian, short, quiet, shocked, peered up
at the Dean encased in black suede cowgirl skirt,
fringed vest, boots shooting out spurs. She jangled
from turquoise and silver, bragged to the poet wearing
beads strung softly by her own hands on lonely nights –
“From Sedona, jewelry made by Native Americans,”
as if the savage needed to know she paid big bucks
for rings and necklaces made by Navahos. The Dean
spread cannon-thick legs at the front of the room,
made conspicuous notes. The students looked unhappy,
the poet went through the ridiculous motions. She was
back there – the little girl schoolmarms ordered to walk
“single file” in Catskill hometown. She was the teen
graded low for saying U.S. heroes were villains because
they massacred Indians. She was the sister already hip
about sisterhood, the real one of her blood sister, mother,
grandmother, aunts, great aunts, Indian girlfriends. The Dean
bullied, “I know your people believe in oral tradition
but you exist in our system now. No playing poetry on CDs.
Students have to read that stuff on the page. They forget
what they hear in ten seconds.” The Mohawk poet recalled
a male cousin laughing, “You mean it was our ancestors
who put that bug up their ass?” when she spoke about
Iroquois influence on white feminists. Yes, Haudenosaunee
felt sad for female settlers, the way their husbands legally
could beat them into obedience. Yes, they got their equality,
and some grew crueler than their men. They, too, could shoot
down Native women they secretly hated for their heart songs.
Poet with hair color of stars listened to Dean “Has It Made”
reeking of dead cow, her dominatrix words unlike poets’ voices
soaring from CD sacred circles. “Ooooo,” the Dean caressed
the Mohawk’s coat. “Polar bear? I simply must pet it.”
Showdown at The Not OK Corral. Damned if she’d let
that cowgirl get an Oscar. Damned if she’d stop spinning poetry
in her own movie where the beautiful Indians always win.

 

 

Kick

(“My grandmother still uses the term White Man.”
- Embarrassed statement by a young “mixed blood” Cherokee man)

May, Chenango State Park … she driving
sidewinder road to Lily Lake, small second lake
few people visited. New York sun flashed
past unfurling leaves, ghost danced across car hood.
At first the lump on asphalt seemed a ghost
of some darker kind, powerful enough to make her
brake. Then she saw what it was, leapt out
to nudge Turtle with one foot. It snapped towards
her, rocked rough penile head back and forth.
She laughed at its ferocity, picked up fallen branch
to poke it to safety. Cadillac squealed up behind
her old Indian car. Man, grey hair bristling
close to skull, strode over to her. He wore golfer’s cap,
white shoes, stared with pink face at her dilemma.
“I’ll get that damned thing off the road,” he kicked
Turtle in its map of shell, kicked harder, knocking
it upside down so flame of orange underside blazed up.
“Stop,” she choked, but he only kicked more when
Turtle bounced back on clawed feet, lunging, snapping.
How dare a mere beast snap at a man owning
a gold chromed Cadillac? He kicked it tumbling down
wooded bank. “There!” Pale eyes ran over her
long flowered skirt, breeze-tangled hair, bra-less breasts.
She gazed away, trying to see if Turtle landed upright.
This intruder playing uninvited “hero” would never know
her people called America Turtle Island. He would scorn
her love of Turtle, her delight in its sacred rage like that
of Indian warriors who defended women like her against
conquerors like him. Turtle rustled through old leaves.
“Thank you,” she breathed, nearly prayed, in soft voice.
“You’re welcome,” the golfer swaggered loudly
to his hard-on of a Cadillac, sped off. She stood
in the exhaust. “Stupid White Man,” she snapped.
It was only then she cried.

 

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Susan Deer Cloud is a mixed-lineage mountain Indian from the Catskill Mountains. An alumna of Binghamton University (B.A. & M.A.) and Goddard College (MFA), she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, two New York State Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowships, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and a Chenango County Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant. Published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, her most recent books are Hunger Moon, Fox Mountain, Braiding Starlight, Car Stealer and The Last Ceremony. Deer Cloud is the editor of ongoing Native anthology I Was Indian (Before Being Indian Was Cool) and the Re-Matriation Chapbook Series of Indigenous Poetry (FootHills Publishing).

 

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TLTR:
The Importance of Short Literature in the Age of TMI

The phrase “Too Long To Read” is apparently Too Long To Say—TLTR is an acronym for articles, essays, and whatever else we scroll past on our phones. Whether you use this (increasingly common) phrase or wish it were a “LOTR” typo, the fact remains: things are getting shorter. Texts, articles, attention spans—and as the distance between two points virtually shrinks, constant innovations allow us to communicate more with less. Condensed meaning, one of poetry’s proudest features, has taken on new forms more rapidly than ever before. Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, edited by Alan Ziegler, reminds us that this work was happening long before ‘lol’—and extending far beyond the realm of the poem.

Some people read horoscopes daily. Others, a Bible verse. Fortune cookies, proverbs, the bathroom collection of Calvin and Hobbes—everyone appreciates brevity. Short gives us nuggets of short ‘information’ in the guise of great literature. Without overly lending itself to debating literary labels, the validity of different forms, or the need for genre categories, the book is a veritable treasure chest—a collection of writing so varied, it boggles the mind to think of the time, space, and circumstance these pieces traversed to unite in this gift of a collection.

The main draw of this volume is its promise of variety, and it delivers aesthetically diverse pieces of exceptional quality representing four admittedly nebulous categories, as hinted in the subtitle: prose poems, short-short stories, brief essays, and ‘others’ or ‘fragments.’ In a useful, candid introduction, Ziegler welcomes the reader into the discussion at hand, admitting “the concept of genre is slippery, shape-shifting, and sometimes nonexistent…what’s an editor to do about pieces of short prose left uncategorized by their authors or given names like “anecdote” or “picture”…The answer in Short is to put them all together.”
After giving readers a sense of the history and range of these shorts, Ziegler gives us the barest definitions of the four sub-groups: “A prose poem is a piece without line breaks that the author calls a poem…A short-short story must be short and contain a narrative element…Brief essays…offer the reader an explicit promise of truth—however the author defines it…and ‘Fragment’ is used…for a complete piece with a fragmentary quality “like a chef ’s amuse bouche—which is not scooped out of a pot.” Ziegler goes on to note that the subtitle for this book could consist of a half-page list of short form nomenclature—a prose poem or brief essay unto itself.

After the introduction, Short sets aside the issue of categorization. The texts are presented not in formal groupings, but chronologically by author birth. This helps to brings them, and the book as a whole, out of the ordered realm of anthology and into the world of art, as the emphasis lands on the phenomenon of creation rather than category—celebrating invention, not ideology. Rather than chose the pieces that are easiest to put under particular subheadings, Ziegler gives us examples and counter-examples, leaving us to wander around and make up our own minds rather than leading us down the garden path. This is intentional, as the introduction notes that “One advantage of not designating a genre—or of using a nondescript term like paragraph, piece, or text—is that readers cannot respond that they like the work but it is just not a poem/story/essay….Each piece makes a prima facie case for itself, with no room for rebuttal based merely on formal expectations.” The point is inclusion, not despite uncertainty, but of it, and the possibility it represents. The only line in the sand seems to have been practicality—for reasons of space, Short is limited to pieces from Western literature with fewer than 1250 words. The way this arrangement encourages readers to take a text on its own terms is perhaps the greatest achievement of this anthology.

It’s a mixed and surprising bag—stories, sketches, and experiments that explore history, politics, emotions. Reading several pieces in one sitting can be quite the ride: narrative, allegory, address, and confession are among the myriad devices used by the authors to raise questions that range across the existential, the rhetorical, and the deeply personal. Paul Valery’s “Last Visit to Mallarmé” combines literary history with (quelle surprise) lovely prose. Luisa Valenzuela’s work appearing between Charles Simic and Margaret Atwood draws out the dark humor they share—all the more interesting for their disparate origins. It feels appropriate the Paul Celan’s stunning relationship to language coexist with that of Walter Benjamin, who has contributed so much to literature and translation theory. August Wilhelm Schlegel’s fragments arrive about one hundred years (and a few pages) after François de la Rochefoucauld’s, with a zing that harkens back to kindred minds, while asserting itself with lines like “Notes to a poem are like anatomical lectures on a piece of roast beef.”

Ziegler writes his own shorts and has taught short form courses for years in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and his experience manifests in a comfort with ambiguity that is passed on to the reader. Whether the writers are adhering to, disregarding, or undermining genre ‘rules,’ this expertly curated collection enhances and challenges our understanding of literature by virtue of what is juxtaposed within its pages.

The collection raises as many questions as it answers—probably more. What are these short forms, and what do they have to tell us? How do they challenge our notions of value and purpose? Ziegler discusses modern platforms like Twitter, but many of these concerns are hardly new. What is the difference between process and product, if notebook jottings are presented as Fragments? Does it change things if the author never presented those words as ‘work’? The only response is to read on, and perhaps enjoy the way the theoretical gears take a backseat to the work itself. Marcel Schwob “Cyril Tourneur: Tragic Poet” and Macedonio Fernández “A Novel for Readers with Nerves of Steel” are examples of the way these texts are, to take another phrase from Ziegler’s introduction, ‘literary tricksters.’ An Anne Carson “Short Talk” appears, drawing the connection between speech and written anecdotes. Anne DeWitt’s “Influence” was a response to Esquire’s call for stories that could fit on a napkin, demonstrating how our quotidian realities inform current art.

Readers will likely be familiar with some of the texts included, or their respective authors. Baudelaire’s “Get Drunk”—so often quoted—is here, in its three-paragraph entirety. Max Jacob’s “The Beggar Woman of Naples” is heartbreaking, especially on the heels of Jacob’s “Fake News! New Graves!” Oscar Wilde’s “The Artist” is an arresting instance of gravity not always associated with the notorious wit. Other heavyweights are present—Stein, Borges, Davis, to name a few—but the best part of this book, aside from the fact that it all happens in one place, is the inevitable discovery of great writers. Though a fan of Edward Thomas, I hadn’t read “One Sail at Sea,” until Short. Dawn Lundy Martin’s quicksilver voice contributes “If there is a prayer…” and “Lazarus,” Liliana Blum’s first work to be translated into English, is here, raising its hand. I enjoyed Lord Dunsany’s “The Demagogue and the Demi-Monde,” and then learned he was an influence cited by H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, Borges and Neil Gaiman. Many anthologies focus on a single genre or form of short (prose poem, flash fiction, etc), but here we have access to a fuller spread—the etc. Additionally, Ziegler shines several ‘Spotlights’ in the author bio section, elaborating on several authors’ work and context. These add fascinating social, political, and personal dimensions to the reading experience, especially through periods before the internet was able to facilitate dispersion of art across oceans and borders. Factual snippets about the criss-crossing of literature over the world are like candy to the literary-minded—for example, we may learn that Baudelaire read Bertrand and Poe in Paris; Peter Altenberg read Baudelaire in Vienna; Franz Kafka read Altenberg in Prague—and the rest is history. More ‘Spotlights’ would be wonderful, though it’s surely a challenge to include as much as possible without things getting unwieldy.

The selection gets heavily American as the timeline pushes farther into the twentieth century (due partly to the proliferation of these forms in the U.S and possibly to the simple fact that this book was produced in America). Ziegler notes that there are reams of good shorts being produced elsewhere, particularly Latin America. As a whole though, the texts do span continents, and their collective presentation in English is eloquent testament to the magic of translation—and an argument for language learning. The chronological structure reminds us about the evolution of literary approaches and styles, tracing lines that help us develop a richer web of understanding. Short is also a fantastic kickstart for writers, creators, and teachers—interesting language and unexpected turns are antidotes to all kinds of creative blocks, as well as marvelous examples for the classroom. Similar volumes representing other areas of the world would be a welcome companion. In the meantime, we’ve got a lot to dive into.

Press: Persea Books, 2014
Page length: 354
Price: $16.95

 

 

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K.T. Billey moved from rural Alberta, Canada, to study poetry at Columbia University, where she is now a Teaching Fellow. Poems have appeared in CutBank, The New Orleans Review, Phantom Limb, Ghost Proposal, Prick of the Spindle, the sensation feelings journal, and H.O.W. Journal. Translations have appeared in Palabras Errantes. She is proud to be a Girls Write Now mentor.

CAConrad glasses

On September 5, 2014, NPR ran an essay by critic Juan Vidal titled, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” which suggested that American poets no longer write political work. Because I find this assessment of contemporary American letters to be very incomplete, I wanted to take the opportunity to create a dialogue on the subject by curating a series of compelling political poems from contemporary American poets. I christened this series “Political Punch” as an affectionate reflection on the cocktail of poets who decided to honor me with their participation in my little Infoxicated Corner; it was intended to celebrate the glorious mix of poetics, voices, and life experiences all being shaken and stirred into a sense of community and conversation, being distilled into burning gulps of experience for the reader. Leaving aside all the boozed-up metaphors, it was also intended to celebrate my experience of American letters, in all their willingness and ability to pack a political punch. I’m very grateful and excited to begin by sharing this poem from the inimitable CA Conrad.

 

act like polka dot on
minnie mouse’s skirt

i am not a
family friendly
faggot i tell
your children
about war
about their tedious future careers
all the taxes bankrolling a
racist tyrannical military
i’m the faggot at
dinner asking to
be alone
with the
children
tell them their
future happiness
depends entirely
on how well they
cultivate rebellion against
any structure which
does not hold their
autonomy and
creative intelligence as a priority
CHILDREN your bliss is at stake
CHILDREN listen carefully for the
lies your parents tell you
CHILDREN prepare for joy in ways
none of them will ever imagine
prepare to live with no regrets

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CAConrad’s PACE The Nation Project is touring the U.S. to ask poets how to repair our war-obsessed nation. He is the author of seven books including ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (Wave Books, 2014), A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (Wave Books, 2012) and The Book of Frank (Wave Books, 2010). A 2014 Lannan Fellow, a 2013 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2011 Pew Fellow, he also conducts workshops on (Soma)tic poetry and Ecopoetics.

diamond years

 

FOR LACK OF DIAMOND YEARS

BY CAROLINE BEASLEY-BAKER

ISBN 978-1938349096

NOVEMBER 2013

PELEKINESIS 

diamond years

As a literary person who became an art critic, the nexus of visual art and poetry has always been of interest to me. I have known Caroline Beasley-Baker as a painter; now I know her also as a poet. 

In Beasley-Baker’s visual art—in all of its diverse forms—I always saw a perceptually acute link between the visual and myth. In his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer describes how visual feints and impressions, physiognomies (seeing faces in things), fears, animation of the inanimate, and conceptual reversals begin; how nervous ticks comprise the human fight-flight physiology.  He describes how epiphanies were experienced and then clarified over time  as the presence of a god (or “temporary gods”) emerged, places subsequently becoming sacred as shrines.

In secular life, such huhs? are often the result of mishearing something, of making a sudden new connection between two odd things, or having a little insightful eureka. Recent neuroscience has found support for Cassirer’s linking of  sight and myth to the study of how humans figure out the world; to how–from purkinjee trees inside the eye to how we see during reverie to how early dysmetropsic misunderstanding of the world is processed through the eyes of a child–forms the basis of all later perception of the world.

In one statement about her poetry, Beasley-Baker said that in her youth she saw the world as a whole laid out below her, that when when she blinked she thought the world changed. These are classic ur-dysmetropsic events, which, if held onto and cultivated, lead to a distinctly personal culture and mythology which seeks to give voice to that seen reality. A poet like Pound, so responsive to Japanese calligraphy, to the haiku, and to other short forms of poetry, sought out poetry to put a visual sensation into something other than conventional words. He sought to give voice to the passing visual sensation of the world in the form of a kind of nervous gestalt beneath or before words. This line of poetry is grounded in sensation. As a result, it paradoxically, harbors an alexithymic suspicion that once you put a label on something you have gone too far and crushed the moment in its delicate passing (as so much lyrical and more confessional poetry, in my view, does). Indeed, much of such poetry has been written precisely in response to visual moments or visual art with the express purpose of not using denotative or even connotative words…but some other kind of word. 

Beasley-Baker was the only artist I knew who dealt with both the macro and micro dimensions of mythic perception (or, as Cassirer called it, “mythic thought”). Later, the titles of her works of art developed into little poems, and she began to put captions or titles into her meanders of lines too, right there in the painting. Her current poetry digs even deeper; it strikes me as what art historians are now calling sfogo (Italian for “steam”)… the little musings to oneself that accompany the making of a work of art; a kind of nonstop texting-below-texting that the mind in metacognitive itch continues on with as it will. Not the lecturey talkback run-on that keeps one from getting to sleep, but the dream-phrasings that incant over walks in the cold or in the dark—or being in the flow of making art. Beasley-Baker seeks to capture these odd, errant “what-made-me-think-of-that?” thoughts at a very micro level. I have called this voice of nature “nomos”, and find that it often takes form in visual art in words that rise out of the very surfaces of the facture of painting or as broken fragments of words: fractured, surgically transposing adjective, adverb, verb, noun moments into other figures of speech; making use of punctuation as if in a musical score, thus leaving behind a finely etched and lean transcript of a visual-mental response, given overvoice or underbreathvoice by the mind. A mental world of phenomenological ghosts (Husserl’s term) and a world made of metaphor, this is not a nexus that positivist categorical American art and American poetry have had much time for. But in John Donne, in Emily Dickinson, in folk song, and in the late work of the Beatles, even, the hesitant, immediately retracting, spelling it out, taking it all back (it all adding up, after such an emotional outburst, to precisely nothing) has sometimes taken shape.

You can see this worked out perfectly in Beasley-Baker’s For Lack of Diamond Years poems. When she puts a slash in, she is pulling up short, telling herself, maybe, to stop; when she hyphens words into supercompounds, that’s an emotional compression, a sudden transposition, a freezing, a making noun of verb, adjectives into an entity. Then an image will come and immediately bump up against another, then something else will block it, or counter it: all of this mental byplay between talking to oneself and telling oneself to stop doing that, to be silent, is there. Beasley-Baker, as a painter, knows that the best moments are the most fleeting and mythic; in her poetry, she seeks to enlist words against themselves to capture moments prior to words, so fleeting as to almost be an enunciated form of silence. Consider her description of a clock stopping after her father dies: “I found meaning and comfort in that ceasing moment, in that…..what? the breath between living and my imagining”.  There it is, right there. The title of her poems refers to “diamond” years, a reference to age, but also to precision, facets, carats, if you will. Her visual art has always had, in addition to larger scale meanders, and an overall almost maximalist quality, countless dispersals of micro moments too, many of them faceted by gems or things that shine or sparkle. It’s really very rare  for a visual artist to so completely translate or, more precisely, transcribe her visual sense into words. For this reason, for me, Beasley-Baker’s poems are a significant achievement.

 

BEND TO IT
BY KEVIN SIMMONDS
SALMON POETRY
2014
ISBN 978-1908836793

cover_bend

When the young Miyamoto Usagi (from the pages of the Stan Sakai comic Usagi Yojimbo) won his first tournament, his reward was a pair of swords. The katana was named “Yagi no Eda” (or ‘Willow Branch’); and the short sword was name Aoyagi, or Young Willow. His future lord and master Mifune explained that the willow bends so as not to break, and that strength isn’t just power but, perhaps more importantly, adaptation.

This comic book was essentially my main role, from days at Alta Vista elementary to my present as a semi-professional thirty-something. Pliability over strength and sacrifice are things I learned from Usagi, and thought about way too much as a teenager. I still ponder them almost daily, and clearly so does Kevin Simmonds, as evidenced by his new book Bend to It.

The cover depicts a tree under the kind of weight one might encounter in a hurricane, which Simmonds’s New Orleans is all too familiar with. But he’s no stranger to Japan either, as he splits his time between there and America. This collection of poems is sectioned off by kanji numbers, and often references Simmonds’s faraway home. Between Louisiana and Nippon, the author is drawing from a wide swatch of culture and voice, including but not limited to music and growing up gay.

Not that such things are totally disparate, but between the various subjects, epigrams, shifting title conventions and poetic structures, and sections, this book does begin to bend under a certain weight. Throughout it though, Simmonds balances it all with grace.

Off the bat he gives us wild, there:

wreckage is the lasting thing

||:  so mean its music:|| 

 

whatever vows you’ve made

cello them

 

sink your vowel

into them

An undulating sense of music is well-wrought through the lines in this opening piece, which Simmonds continues to use to great effect throughout the book. His strength lies in communicating the effects of music without getting bogged down in the particulars of it, in utility in the right symbols and references without overuse.

Immediately after this he moves on with longer, more narratively rooted poems, and throughout shuffles through these modes regularly. One doesn’t get the chance to become bored with any style, but neither are they afforded a longer meditation. The poems are for themselves, and as soon as you settle into a section it’s over.

Later we find Exegesis:

There was nothing trivial about the

Thai masseuse who slid his vertical

along my vertical, the power

outage, or those extra minutes

without charge. I cannot say he

wasn’t God. What I felt then, what

I feel with a man’s body on mine, is

holy, holy the way I imagine it is

right & without damage, worth

thanks & remembrance &

justification for.

A more personal, sensual poem, still jetsetting and musical. In the book things are forced into a justified column, giving rigid rules to a subject matter better interpreted loosely and interpersonally.  The alignment of verticals references the narrator’s desire to align with the world at large: spiritual synchronization. But at the same time it’s a self-justification. It is what it is, knowing right but excusing that correct feeling as well. Though all contact is a form of damage, anything else is a wistful request.

The negotiation between contact and damage, yearning for what you love but in so yearning causing harm, threads throughout the book. Maybe it’s more a matter of time than interaction. Bend to It, a little wildly at points, swings to and fro as if buffeted by a hurricane. But Simmonds certainly does not break, and gives us a book of perseverance; and in that survival, between moments of confusion or abuse or damage, an exploration of the joy found in small moments of peace.

Today I am going to speak on a panel in front of graduate students discussing publication. I was surprised when I was asked, but found out I was third or fourth choice (I suspected that) when other professors turned it down. I will go inspite of the fact that, at the moment, I can’t speak above a whisper (should be OK with a mic) and even though most of those students are immured in careerism. I will go because they are immured in careerism, and do not care for anything except how and where to publish. Well, they do, but you’d never know it. Everything they want me to tell them is already available in dozens of books on how and where. There’s even a spot on line that gives all the ratios of publications , breaks it all down,and analyzes in almost sabermetric like detail. I will be facing Ivan Ilyich everywhere–no Tolstoys. Now when one has lived to the ripe old age of 55, one should expect Ivan Ilyich everywhere–the professional, the careerist, the one who plans his future to the last detail. Unlike Tolstoy’s Ilyich, most Ivans never get a mysterious but fatal disease. They don’t have conversion experiences. They die as neatly and as normally as they have lived–as Rilke put it–in 800 beds. They fill our best magazines and our best presses, and they don’t care if no one one cares as long as the few right people care, and sometimes any faculty news list sounds like Diane Chambers, the pedantic bartender from the old show Cheers, attempting to do an intellectual’s version of rap boasting: and I am in this top magazines, and I just did this and I just did that. And (Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels, Sprewell wheels!) I hate it. If I hate it, then it must be inside me. We only hate that which is inside us and we disown it at our peril. Tolstoy and the aristocracy hated the vulgar ambitions of the middle class because the Nobility was fading and part of them secretly wanted to hold on to the arts, and work in some capacity, and part of them was loathe to admit their art and culture had been built on the shit and sweat of serfs. They saw themselves as one with the land and one with their serfs, and the last thing the rising middle class wanted to be was poor and “one” with the serfs. The middle class sees clearly. They know what being one with the serfs really is. So it goes.

Hate does not come from God; it comes from some part of us that secretly shares in the crime by which we are outraged. No moralist is from God. Moralists are from 2-year-olds outraged that “Tommy did that!” When the middle class hates the poor it is because part of them is still back there and terrified of making a return visit. I do not hate the poor because I was raised to believe a life of art and the mind is available to all. I still believe that: I am thick headed. Success in the arts however is largely based on some talent for being a careerist–a subtle one, even an overt and obvious one. This is not the arts; it’s the art biz. part of me is a snob, too regal to embrace careerism and professionalism. This is wrong of me.If I would be fair, then I must admit that my parents raised me to think poetry was a given, painting, and dance, and music were a given. They belonged to me as well any other congressman or cuff, and they had nothing to do with wanting to be successful. I suffered from the delusion that I was already successful. Wasn’t I loafing on a sofa with tears streaming down my face because I had heard Elgar’s cello concerto for the first time? Wasn’t that the best sort of success–the success of transport? Didn’t I contain such depths, such sensitivity, such grace? Art and success were not even linked in my mind, and having a “career” in the arts seemed so distant from being an artist that I hardly connected them. You could work in a grocery store all your life and play Casale’s Cello Suites, couldn’t you. Why not?

I was not a utilitarian. Art was beyond both failure and success. So, I saw it in a very Russian way I suppose. Even though I am a factory worker, the son of a factory worker, there is a great deal of hothouse flower in me. My mother and father let me be languid in the parlor, listening to Chopin Nocturnes played by Dinu Lipatti while the dust motes settled on all their glass swans and beat up furniture. A part of me was an aesthete. It is the aesthete in me that hates publication and literary business talks. They are vulgar. They are of the factory–filled with purposeful, pragmatic people who maybe are more determined than talented. The fact that the determined beat out the talented appalls me. I forget that professionalism and careerism is also a talent: the talent for doing everything the right way. It is not Proust hanging out in a parlor. It is Zadie Smith going to Harvard and then hanging out in a parlor where she may not have been welcomed sixty years ago. I forget that shrewdness and stealth are virtues. I am limited as all people are by my particular brand of snobbery.

I didn’t go to Harvard. I did however, hang out in parlor with people who went to Harvard,sand, since I was no threat to them, we had a jolly time. The grad students were right to ask me only as a last ditch alternative. I’m a mess when it comes to being a careerist.They are professionals and their professors are professionals. I am a professional only in so far as I know a lot about poetry–its technical aspects, its history. I also know music, and painting. If I had been a woman inthe 19th century, I would have made some rich man a good wife. I’m a generalist. When it comes to publications, I fell into that, and , I am woefully ignorant. I believe most poems and stories are published because they fit a niche or fulfill the requirements of a code language for what is, at the moment, considered “quality work.” This code is hardly ever accurate as per art. It is highly accurate as per prevailing tastes.. Publication is an accurate measure of a standard mold set–not art. Factor X–that which makes living art–is the rare accidental catch in the net of publication. Oh see that glistening fish? It has beautiful scales and great fighting ability. We caught that without intending to. (no one admits that). Art is an accident that happens when one is allowed to loaf at ease and read Keats, and write many bad poems–without pressure. How can I tell the grad students that? They have to publish And for whom? Increasingly, programs are becoming 20 adjuncts and a celebrity hire. Increasingly, all the top magazines run contests, and winning a contest becomes everything. The parlor has become a factory. Tolstoy would be appalled. AWP would make him puke. It makes me puke, but I went this year. I was terrible at it, and didn’t schmooze. I may be known for my mouth but I am actually shy and terrible at chitchat. This is one thing I know: while you can’t ignore the business, but you die if you forget the parlor. Unfortunately, I think most people want to be comfortably dead instead of uncomfortably alive. Even I am attracted to it.. The parlor is not the given. You can’t take grad school or time spent with fellow artists for granted. How much time do you spend with friends talking about books or painting or music when you don’t have to? It’s an important question. Constructive sloth is vital. Everyone I know who is truly successful , including former students, knew how to waste time. How do you waste your time? When you aren’t being busy, or purposeful or submitting work, what do you do? It may seem like a stupid question, but I know what I do: I write a poem or play the piano, or listen to someone play, I read poems. I write essays on Facebook that will never be read by a larger audience. I do a lot of things for nothing. What do you do for nothing?That is a question for the soul. I am worried about a country in which no one does anything for nothing (instead they do it for slave wages and call it a career) I am worried for a country where a Reggie who loves free jazz just for the hell of it is no longer possible. He was our true and intelligent audience, but we ignored him. He didn’t count. How do you know at age 20 or 30 or 40 who doesn’t count? Who taught you such stupidity?You write only for other writers?. I am worried about a country in which everyone is a careerist. I am concerned about what I see as a sort of professional version of sociopathy. But I am also a working stiff, and I understand you need a job. Art is tied to economics like everything else. To actually starve is stupid, but to believe too much in being successful is also stupid. Believe in meaningful work and look for it–both from yourself and from others, and be willing to be shocked when it comes from an unlikely place.

Other than that, remember you are going to die, no matter how many awards you win, and you will spend large parts of your life forgetting that. Careerism is only evil if it makes you forget first and last things, for art comes from the contemplation of first and last things–lasting art. Not that a careerist believes in lasting art. A careerist believes in the moment and in a future he or she can control. He or she believes in craft talks and seminars. I am still in the parlor on the verge of tears because I am hearing Schubert’s Lieder. It is hard to hear Schubert when you are bragging about your latest publication. This is not because I am a better person. It is because I am wilfully ignorant and stupid.It is because I was raised to constructive sloth, and vital undirected transports of the spirit. I am porbably bi-polar.My parents were probably bi-polar. I probably have a brain that sees significance in the weirdest places. I also spent 21 years in a factory. I know what a factory is. A university is often a factory. Publication is often a factory. No one wants that–not even the careerists, but shit happens. I am reaching an age where I want to return to the parlor. My students are too young to stay there. They think there are better places to be (and they are probably right), or they want to be in more exclusive parlors watching famous people chew overpriced food… When you are old, you will long to have a decent conversation with someone–something beyond the business. Only those who know how to waste time will waste time on you. At least I hope so. I don’t like to go to author’s dinners because the conversation is always tepid and boring. That’s how professionals talk. They keep the good stuff for the books.

I am dying for a good conversation and I won’t get one here. In the information age, talk is cheap unless its info. I am not an A student type. No one ever clapped because I jumped through a hoop. No one ever fed me a fish. “Weil, you dumb ass, I told you to sharpen all the drills to a 135.” I have lived there all my life and still do. A day after my surgery, no one at the university asked me how I was doing. They asked if I’d finished judging the fiction contest no one else wanted to judge. It hurt, but so fucking what? Suck it up and get back to your machine.

The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with writer Mark Baumer.

http://archive.org/download/MarkBaumerInterview_18/MarkBaumerNew.mp3

Review: The Book of Knowledge, by Chad Faries
Vulgar Marsala Press
ISBN 978-0982007792 

My first experience of Chad Faries’ collection of poems, The Book of Knowledge was the cover—a sort of map to the whimsy, conjectures, and elaborations within. We have a blond haired child in the clothes of a page/minstrel/jester (there are pantaloons) holding what appears to be a paintbrush or a stylus (too small for my middle aged eyes to decide). He is in color and has his back turned to us. What he looks at is a night sky full of chalked lilies, a salamander, a motorcycle, two hands wielding a bow string and violin bow (primitive string instrument, fire maker?), an octagon of a zodiac, an outline of the great lakes, and to the left of the boy, the C cleft (the one violas use). There are also numbers 2, 3, 5 (Fibonacci sequence) as well as other mathematical signs, and we may wonder if this black and white universe is the boy’s created knowledge, and the secret, or metaphorical code for the book. The back cover has blurbs and a rather whimsical description of the author: “… the Owls in the wild oaks outside his house in Thunderbolt, Georgia, know him as an alien and call his name quite often. They coo and woo and, with Chad’s heavy sweet breath, they all shift into song. And so is the life of Dr. Chad Faries, famous American writer.”

So, having seen the front cover, and the back, I am assuming certain things: the book will have something to do with mapping, cartography, magic, whimsy, and a play on the name Faries. It will be about knowledge perhaps, and perhaps that knowledge will be random and surreal. It will ape old illustrated books—the sort of books with illustrations throughout. The author will speak of himself in the third person or make up characters to do so, which hints that it will be imaginative and, hopefully, fey and playful like Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, Dobbyn’s heart poems, Paul Zimmer’s work in which Zimmer is the main character. I am annoyed at the small print (it is a little book for little people supposedly) but delighted by the cover.

So, thus far, I am both annoyed and delighted all at once, and I have a sneaking suspicion the poet would not mind that I be both annoyed (or irritated/agitated like a clam) and delighted all at once. I am already shaking the book for its possible contents before I have even entered it. Is it meta-poetry? Is it playful like Trout Fishing in America? No less a luminary than Andre Codrescu has blurbed it, and so I am going to think this book is being claimed for the American surreal, and experimental (or what might be better called speculative). Sure enough, Codrescu is claiming the poet as a wonderful exception to the dregs out there. He blurbs: “In the easy narrative mess that many poets are now making out of the mystery of their lives, Chad Fairies keeps the mystery of his intact…” This is Codrescu’s way of saying Chad is not a confessional poet. I think this blurb widely true, but inexact, as good strategic blurbs often are. I translate the blurb as: “There are those terrible narrative poets out there (like Sharon Olds?) making a mess of the mystery of their lives, and then there is Chad Faries who is not committing the sin of the confessional, the straightforward, that which is bereft of mystification.” Perhaps Codrescu is doing a positive version of Anis Shivani? My heart (if you want to call it that) starts to sink because I am thinking that I am about to get the opposite side of the same MFA driven coin: the non-confessional school of MFA: moderately surreal, life tweaking, cute, playful, troping, mass produced competent surreal poem as opposed to the straightforward, utterly clear and as flat as Sharon Olds’ ass fully confessional poem. Oh no! I think: the stupid wars by which mediocrity wins grants! I’m as sick of Codrescu’s camp as I am of so called normative free verse. I think Codrescu is fighting a war that ended in the 80s. Both sides won and poetry lost. Both schools mass produce university magazines and poets. Fucking spare me. I wish to play Mercutio and shout a plague on both their houses.

So I have seen the front cover, read the blurbs, and now I enter the acknowledgements which contain Codrescu’s famous Exquisite Corpse, and the bastion of all that is not I: Barrow Street. I think: this is going to be another tongue-in-cheek,- eternally pop or lit-referencing- tropey- surreal– dada meets -John Ashbery meets comic shtick, and has a baby called Beavis and Butthead collection of poems by a really intelligent white guy who went to grad school and who is a smart ass. I’m kind of sick of those guys. They get on my nerves.

Where I am not right is where I highly recommend this book: first, it is thick, with verbal impasto (not the usual breezy lines of chit-chat and non-sequitur), with an “I” voice that at times lays it on thick with finger rather than brush paint, and enjoys hearing itself speechifying—sort of a drunken hybrid of Polonius and a character out of Confederacy of Dunces. Slight example of this pontificating shtick (the titles are often long and often mock didactic, and a little like the subtitles in old books which would have: “chapter 7 which treats of Justin’s realization of eternal truth”). This is from, We Must Not Let the Muddle of Words Mislead Us:

Let us move to heat. The simple word is used
For two quite different things though only the very
wisest of those who would study such things have
yet noticed how their word is deceiving
them. Now by coincidence I can speak
of heat slightly metaphorically,
though I didn’t plan to, and would rather
not…

Note how the enjambments aid and abet the breathless rambling preamble of it all. The voice of the poem hems and haws and qualifies, and is breathless. This is one of the pervading styles of the book—a sort of performed “I”, an “I” that would not be out of place in a book by Berryman.

But there is another, lyrical, even beautifully broken voice that reminds me of the Apollinaire of Mirabeau Bridge—a sort of harlequin sadness that encroaches in the midst of all the verbiage, and begins to make The Book of Knowledge far more than verbal trickery. One of my favorites that achieves this effect is the poem Seeing Voice:

I stood on the sky and looked;

A blue toy glider launched, arching
over the peak of a roof. A blond
child with a plastic and rubber band cross-
bow.

An omnipotent mother puffing a cigar-
ette, her breath a braid
of smoke…

This is beautiful and magical scene painting, true surrealism—the moment throbbing with its own unconscious, ephemeral life—utterly plausible, not just clever or tricky. It is in this way that Chad Faries keeps the promise mentioned in Codrescu’s blurb: not removing the mystery of life.

As mentioned, the book has many long poems, poems that leave a trail of strangeness on the page. It is full of illustrations like a 19th century text, and has many interesting cartographical and astronomical instruments drawn throughout. If you remove these, do you remove the effect of the poems? Not at all, but it is a book to rummage in, and for all its high concept, to skip around and enjoy as one might enjoy a book of maps—an almanac.
There are narrative poems here, lyrical narratives that have great emotional force. The poem Steve, if it were about suicide (and we will never know) is a better poem about suicide than Nick Flynn’s more famous Bag of Mice. Just the beginning, to get a sense of it:

On top of the roof he cut open the belly
of the sky with a pair of scissors…

Or these lines:

The fire truck in the distance
was a mourning woman who had lost her son.

There are many such moments in the book, and I do not truly know why the high concept of the illustrations and some of the voices are needed, but these moments are enough to make me not care. I enjoyed it almost as much as I did Peter Markus’ Good, Brother. It has moments that are as sweet-without-being-cloying as the playful love poems of Kenneth Patchen, and these moments make The Book of Knowledge a refreshing change both from straight on confessional narrative free verse, and the too easy surrealism and emotional disconnection that now passes for innovative. It is not a book for lazy readers. Its small print means that at 91 pages, it is really more like 130: a small novel. One can see it as a small novel or a very large miscellany. Either way, it is a book of poems worth struggling into. It has the muscular strength of something beyond sound bites and “projects.” I wish it were in hard cover with gold lettering here and there. For some reason I cannot fathom, The Book of Knowledge reminded me at certain points in its thickness and gnarled whimsy of Browning. If Browning is lurking about the book, then it transcends both the schools of confessional narrative and American speculative verse. And that is all to the good. Condrescu commends Faries for “Standing upright by the light of his torch, and for not assuming that he recognizes anything he sees.” I commend him, but not for not assuming he recognizes what he sees. Being puritanical about never-assuming can be a real bore (I love assumptions and find them amusing. I work in academia where all assumptions are qualified into oblivion). Every once in a while Faries sees something and points with his torch, knowing the fire of his words will distort it. And he does not apologize. Good for him. This is a book that manages to do things none of the prevailing books are doing. It is slow going in the beginning, but picks up. It is a book that insists on patience. In this case, patience is rewarded.

Now that you know something about free verse, I thought we’d approach imagery. You will hear in workshops: “Show, don’t tell,” but that’s a bunch of malarkey. It should be: “Show what tells.” If all you have is mere description, your poem will be like someone’s photo album: interesting to you, but perhaps boring to everyone else. Many poets can describe a tree–and this is no small accomplishment–but it is very rare that a tree is just a tree.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is so wonderful in its visual accuracy that she can get away with it just being about catching a tremendous fish, but besides being one hum dinger of a fish story, it is also about the mystery, the amazement of what we might turn up when we venture forth into the world. Wonder and awe are at the heart of the ontology of this poem. Ontology is the being that both proceeds from the poem, and animates it. Best description of ontology I can give is from my life: once, I was in an overcrowded and dark car, riding to the Jersey shore. I thought my bare leg was against the bare leg of a girl I was “in love” with. The whole ride was in relation to this leg. Oh brave new world! The lights scything across the car, the sound of air planes thirty thousand feet above the vehicle, the smells of Perth Amboy… it all went into this moment when I thought: “My leg is against my love’s leg, and she has not moved her leg, and I hope she never moves her leg until we get to the shore, and she falls naked and impassioned beneath me while the sea roars, and the moon is a ghostly galleon, etc, etc, and so forth.” The feel of her leg against mine became the center of my universe. I didn’t look. I closed my eyes, to restrict my senses to the tactile. When the car stopped at a red light, I glanced over and saw that my leg was against a different girl’s leg, a girl I did not like at all. It greatly disappointed me. The rest of the drive passed uneventfully, except the girl I did not like now thought I liked her.

I had taken a single detail and made a whole world out of it. Sometimes a leg is just a leg. Imagism, in its most radical form, advocates that a leg be just a leg. Some poets are anti-ontological. Haiku, in its strict form, is supposed to build an ontology through images alone–no overt emotions, or opinions of the imagery. It should imply a season:

Old man pissing in a grave yard.
Up from the tomb stones
smoke.

We’ll if smoke rises, or something like smoke, it is probably pretty damned cold. We don’t have to make a connection between the rising smoke, the piss, and the old man. I do. So here’s a rule of thumb: as much as possible, choose images that will create the effect, the mood or truth or emotion you desire. Just as good, choose images that will incite the reader to do the work for you. Don’t just describe. Also, don’t overdo the images.

Haiku is not 5,7,5. Anyone who has read Ron Padgett’s wonderful work on poetry forms, and anyone who has taken a class in Haiku will know this. I don’t like Haiku all that much, but I’ve written thousands, most of which I use as scrap material for my longer poems. You can link the Haiku:

Old man pissing in a grave yard
up from the tomb stones
smoke.

He adjusts his fly.
Snow on the stone angel,
snow melting into his P coat.

At the Baptist church,
free lunch
with a two hour service.

The girl smiles.
Jesus loves you.
Sound of forks scraping plates.

Ok, so now we can assume the old man might be homeless, or indigent, or willing to put up with God for a free lunch. It’s up to the poet.

Remember, telling through showing is relatively new–about a hundred years old in Western poetry. Pound and all those early modernists were influenced by the Japanese and Chinese. It was a way of getting rid of maxims, and rhetoric, and all the clutter of rhetorical devices. Let’s translate an older poem into this sort of thing:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit impediments; love is not love
which alters when it alteration finds
or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever fixed mark.

Impede what? The marriage of true minds! Or perhaps “impediments” is not a verb here, but a noun, and means imperfections.

The wife adjusts her senile husband’s
hospital gown. She covers his ass,
Her hands remembering him.

I like the Shakespeare way better. Images alone can be boring, and they have a certain arrogance. Why should an oak tree at sunset move me? And why should an old lady, covering her senile husband’s ass, equal faithfulness and steadfastness in love? Suppose I despise sunsets. Or suppose I think people should be euthanized when they become senile. Who is the writer to assume an oak tree at sunset will make me feel tender, or that I will care about a doddering old couple? Who indeed!

We must be careful what we assume a reader knows or feels. For this reason, a poem ought to offer layers of meaning. Also, we should be careful when telling what we think is true. We should not bully a reader; neither should we be so unwilling to say anything that we bog down in our mystifications. One can either find something deeper, or just enjoy the surfaces.

So here’s a difficult assignment if you’re up for it: take a poem that makes a statement, like Shakespeare’s sonnet, and “translate” it into sensual imagery, so that the statement is implied through the imagery, and nothing else. Proverbs are good for this:

You can’t take it with you.
They also serve who only stand and wait
Death be not proud nor honor long.
Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.

Introduction: Why the Lyric Essay?

1.


I want to start with a problem: an overwhelming, close to paralyzing sense that an essay about John Ashbery’s poetry is like a representational critique of a cubist painting. The two (essay and poetry) just feel ill-fitting, strange bedfellows, as though a parent (the essayist), out of the desire to understand her son (the poet), gave him a lesson in thermodynamics. Ashbery can be theromodynamically complex, yet such a lesson would seem to miss the point, not to mention the fun. New forms of interpretation are needed to come close to an approximation to what Ashbery is doing.

2.

So how do we approach him?

One day I made a list of various things that go into an Ashbery poem. I’d just read Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” and, inspired, I decided to use his form, namely the “out of” incantatory rhythm, and apply it to what an Ashbery poem, in my mind, might be made out of. Here is a sampling:

  1. ambivalence
  2. wonder
  3. ideas stretched like mattresses
  4. language
  5. feelings too simple and complex at once
  6. narrative
  7. sight
  8. unsystematic thinking
  9. the bowels of the straining imagination
  10. the window where the morning does something just grand enough for a verb
  11. thoughts that ricochet around the laundry room
  12. sweeping symphony-like waves
  13. mud
  14. tissue boxes
  15. cardboard tents
  16. old political buttons
  17. aunt’s recipes scrawled in chicken-scratch on yellowing note cards
  18. domestic arrangements
  19. picture-frames
  20. pictures of loved ones doing random silly things
  21. pillowcases
  22. soap
  23. the noise the cat makes when it covers its litter
  24. cats and their following eyes
  25. fake plants
  26. trees
  27. ocean
  28. sea-rocks
  29. the distant realm of the voice that swoops down out of sheer necessity to splatter the page with its urgings

But this seemed to defeat my purpose. I should begin at the beginning: Why was the lyric essay my answer to the problem of writing an essay about Ashbery?

3.

A heightened attention to form and content seems to echo, among other poems, in some regards Ashbery’s longer work – I’m thinking of Flow Chart, or Three Poems, the sense of an unspooling thought following its own unwindings, but arguing for something, implicit or explicit, perhaps a way of being, perhaps a style, or maybe a space in the world for such a way-of-being/style to exist. A lyric essay does something similar: poetic and rhetorical, it gives the writer a freedom than the more conventional essay does not, a freedom that hopefully comes close to the Ashberian exuberance exhibited in poem like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or, better yet, “The Skaters.” The lyric essay, though argumentative, is more therapeutic, meaning it is more interested in providing helpful frameworks for thought than sending home an immaculate argument. Its intention is to “redescribe,” a la Richard Rorty – to speak differently, believing that “large-scale change of belief is indistinguishable from large-scale change of the meaning of one’s words.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 215) Indeed, this lyric essay has an ambitious goal: it posits that words placed in a lyric essay mean differently, work differently, and that this change in meaning is inextricably linked to changes in belief: the belief, say, that poems are best explicated by more formal essays, as opposed to other poems, or lyric essays; the belief that more conventional essays are mirrors reflecting the reality of the poem, as opposed to Lego-blocks, creating, blue block by red block, word by word, new interpretations, new angles, new ways of looking, which cannot happen separately from the form of the assay. The goal of the lyric essay, then, is to change writer and reader’s self-image, however slightly, “to insure that the moral consciousness of each generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 304)

Part 1: Ashbery and the Rortian Self-Image

1.

It has long been my contention, or suspicion, or just unverified hunch, that John Ashbery (like Gertrude Stein) has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism. Ashbery’s reluctance to make any statement or declaration that does not appear to arrive and disappear on the heels of his miraculous syntax seems to me evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the early years of the twentieth century. Ashbery’s joyous investment in a present reality as being inimical to what James called “copying” is further evidence: Ashberian poetics insists on the multidimensionality of time-space duration, as opposed to either pictorial mimesis or the cause-and-effect order of conventional, developmental narration: reality, for Ashbery, has neither linearity nor replica. Connections among thinking and feeling, knowing and doing are always in flux. – Ann Lauterbach, Conjunctions: 49

Lauterbach is making a wonderfully interesting claim: that Ashbery is doing something similar to what philosophers do – and, more specifically, what pragmatist philosophers such as William James do. (What do they do?) Notice that Lauterbach is very careful in her phrasing: Ashbery “has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism”; his reticence, his self-deconstructing poetics, are each “evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the twentieth century.” These are powerfully intriguing statements, and they are intriguing because they are vague. James himself would approve of this vagueness, who wrote in the first chapter of his monumental Principles of Psychology that,

It is better not to be pedantic, but to let the science be as vague as its subject […] we gain much more by a broad than by a narrow conception of our subject […] At a certain stage in the development of every science a degree of vagueness is what best consists with fertility. (James, 6)

Owing to the fact that our science here is literary criticism, which seems at best highly chimerical and dependent in some regard upon academic fads; and owing to the fact that our subject is John Ashbery’s poetry, an art form so florabundantly fertile as to deliberately court the benefits of suggestiveness, (if not the dangers of nebulousness), it seems best, following James and Lauterbach’s example, to proceed cautiously (but boldly) in our discussion of the affinities between Ashbery as poet and Ashbery as pragmatist philosopher. A pregnant vagueness is what we are after, as opposed to an insipid one.

2.

Pregnant vagueness defined in Ashbery’s “Clepsydra”:

A moment that gave not only itself, but
Also the means of keeping it, of not turning to dust
Or gestures somewhere up ahead
But of becoming complicated like the torrent
In new dark passages, tears and laughter which
Are a sign of life (Ashbery, 143)

3.

So what do pragmatist philosophers do?

Rorty, pragmatist par excellence, defines “philosophizing” as “[raising] questions about questions,” especially questions about “unexpressed assumptions” and “presuppositions.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) Voparil, quoting Rorty, points out that this activity of philosophizing “implies the primacy of ‘imaginative vision’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) So, a-ha (we want to say)! Philosophizing, or the raising of questions about questions – what we normally associate with philosophy – entails the importance of imaginative vision – what we normally associate with the driving force behind poetry! Here we might imagine William James and John Ashbery clasping hands. But what is the relationship, more specifically, between raising questions about questions and imaginative vision?

4.

Suffice it to say here…that imaginative vision might be described as a way of thinking outside the box, and therefore as its own idiosyncratic form of metaphilosophy…? Meaning that to reflect upon the old way of thinking, we have to first move out and away from that old way of thinking. Here’s a metaphilosophy as defined by Ashbery in “Clepsydra”:

Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: (Ashbery, 140)

5.

And what is the goal of philosophizing, as defined by Rorty? Voparil goes on to write, again quoting Rorty,

The aims of edifying philosophy involve helping not only readers of philosophy but ‘society as a whole,’ to ‘break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide ‘grounding’ for the intuitions and customs of the present’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 21-22)

Such a “[breaking] free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes” is valuable, because such edifying discourse will “take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 22) A very compelling sentence; but what does it mean, and how is it related to Ashberian poetics?

6.

Analogy. Do you remember as a teen wanting an article of clothing so badly, that you begged your parents for it – and for whatever reason, they decided not to buy it for you? I remember, as a pre-teen, desiring desperately a Corliss Williamson basketball jersey – red and white, with the word “Arkansas” at its center. The question is, why was I so obsessed with wearing that jersey? What is it that clothes represent that gets our desire-juices flowing? And what does this mundane example have to do with the seemingly extra-mundane notion of “[taking] us out of our old selves by the power of imagination, to aid us in becoming new beings”?

Another way to ask the question: Have you ever, after knowing a person for a good while, seen them in a different context, and the context changed the way you thought about them? Maybe you see your father interacting with an old friend you’d never met. Or you see a girlfriend interacting with her grandparents. Perhaps you see an old friend wearing a shirt you’d never imagine her wearing. And suddenly you’re feeling like you don’t know this person,

and you think to yourself, half-delighted, half-bewildered, “Oh my god, I never realized they had this side to them!”

This is what Voparil and Rorty are referring to, in regard to the goal of philosophizing, and what Ashbery enacts in his poeticizing: it’s the process by which we “change our clothes,” literally and metaphorically, to try on something new, for in so doing we are in effect trying on new identities, new self-images, imagining in the process the people we wish to become. We do this every time we start a new job, or try something new at our old job; every time we don a different haircut, or read a different poem, or wear a different style of t-shirt.

This – the changing of one’s self-image – is the GREAT THEME of Ashbery’s poetry.

7.

Rorty describes this theme in terms of Freud and Hegel, although we might as well substitute “Ashbery”:

Freud, in particular, has no contribution to make to social theory. His domain is the portion of morality that cannot be identified with “culture”: it is the private life, the search for a character, the attempt of individuals to be reconciled with themselves (and, in the case of some exceptional individuals, to make their lives works of art).

Such an attempt can take one of two antithetical forms: a search for purity or a search for self-enlargement. The ascetic life commended by Plato and criticized by Nietzsche is the paradigm of the former. The “aesthetic” life criticized by Kierkegaard is the paradigm of the latter. The desire to purify oneself is the desire to slim down, to peel away everything that is accidental, to will one thing, to intensify, to become a simpler and more transparent being. The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself over entirely to curiosity, to end by having envisaged all the possibilities of the past and of the future. It was the goal shared by, for example, de Sade, Byron, and Hegel. On the view I am presenting, Freud is an apostle of this aesthetic life, the life of unending curiosity, the life that seeks to extend its own bounds rather than to find its center.

For those who decline the options offered by de Sade and Byron (sexual experimentation, political engagement), the principle technique of self-enlargement will be Hegel’s: the enrichment of language. One will see the history of both the race and oneself as the development of richer, fuller ways of formulating one’s desires and hopes, and thus making those desires and hopes themselves – and thereby oneself – richer and fuller.

8.

Here’s Ashbery writing at the close of “Clepsydra.” I’m choosing this passage, because 1. it is itself about self-image – (passages about self-image in Ashbery, as I’m suggesting, are legion); and 2. when I read the passage, I myself feel changed, feel as if Ashbery is articulating something I’d always felt but never heard articulated, something so innate as to be almost unconscious and habitual: the workings of the imagination (read: self-image) itself, talking about itself:

What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant
With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight
With ex-possibilities become present fact, and you
Must wear them like clothing, moving in the shadow of
Your single and twin existence, waking in intact
Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body
Is changed by the faces of evening. (Ashbery, 146)

This absolutely remarkable passage is not only about the imaginative process by which we imagine ourselves into the people we wish to become – it seems itself to somehow enact or re-enact that process in its own formulation. It’s as if Ashbery, in discussing his own experience of growth and becoming, helps us to experience it within ourselves as well. It is a powerfully poetic way of telling us to trust our hopes, by calling attention to the way in which those feathered things are inextricable from our desired self-image. We have a “single and twin existence” because we are constantly setting out (“twin existence”) from where we just recently started from (single existence) – (The Mooring of Starting Out is what Ashbery titled the collection of his first five books of poetry). We are constantly twinning ourselves, imagining ourselves into the people we hope to “really be.”

This is why William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe that “a man’s vision is the great fact about him.” (James, 20) “Vision” can be thought of synonymously here with personal imagination. James, like Ashbery and Rorty, is saying, modestly but confidently, that who we presently are is a quiet achievement, that growth is just as much an active process as it is a passive one. And Ashbery is one of our greatest chroniclers of this process by which we alter, gradually or suddenly, our self-image.

Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.

James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Why are the best artists not always the most successful? I have a friend, Marco, who I believe is the most visually gifted artist I’ve ever met. His eye, his sense of color, shape, perspective, line, and shading is beyond good; it’s great. His conceptions are often both original and novel (not always the same thing). Yet, he is unknown when many lesser artists, including people Marco and I grew up with, are far more successful. Why? I mean we could say the usual stuff: luck, the ability to schmooz, a benefactor who took a liking, etc, etc, but what might be the common, non toxic explanation?

I believe being recognized is a talent, a capability in its own right. It can arrive at success or fame either from the stand point of optimal normativity ( a word I coined to express a talent for fitting in to standards of excellence intuited among the prevailing norm of a field) or abnormativity (the ability to seem abnormal, or distinct in a manner that pleases the normative’s desire for variety). These are separate gifts from artistic ability, but I believe they are essential to most success in the arts.

True originality is never apprehended until it has been either normified or abnormified–either taken into the norm of what is considered right and well, or taken into the abnorm of what is considered acceptably quirky. In short, true originality does not exist until it is well on its way to no longer being original. The human mind, the eye, the ear, the sense, the intuition follows after it, not seeing it until the mind and ear and eye evolve enough to apprehend. The audience must be invented with the artist. And so I have several theories as to why Marco is not as famous or successful as some of our mutual friends who have not even half his ability. I could put them bluntly as: he is both too normal and abnormal in ways that do not signify success or fame:

1. He has poor skills for knowing who is valuable and who is not, and he does not cull the herd of who and who not to associate with. Alexandro, a mutual childhood friend of ours who is successful, highly successful (art books by Pittsburgh University press, exhibitions globally) knew who and who not to waste time on. He wasted time on us when he was a teenager and we were the only game in town, then departed from associating with us when he caught the eye of a major latin American art power broker. He did not hurt or help Marco. Alexandro simply took off for more promising associations. Alexandro did not waste energy. I don’t believe he did this consciously or out of disdain so much as he had a talent for recognition. He had good target sense and an ability to articulate his aesthetics. It is no surprise to me that his art works, though well received, are not as emphasized as his critical writings on the arts. He is an expert in Latin American art of social protest. He knows Marco is a superior painter. he will never champion his work. He went after what he instinctively knew would help him achieve his goal. His goal was never to be a great artist. Most people in the art scene do not essentially care about that.That’s too sloppy. His goal was to find steady and admired success in the arts, to achieve a homeostasis of well-being as an “artist” in the top circles.. To that end, Alex was good at being both normal and abnormal in all the right ways. He did not waste energy, and his desire was, in a sense , as normative as a law student’s. One brand of this sort of thinking is called professionalism. It is only one variant and it means showing up and presenting one’s normalities and abnormalities, one’s in the boxes and “out of the boxes” in a package that is appealing to the gate keepers.

2. Marco while at the same time he is too available, is also too unavailable: Alex was not available when it would make someone desire his availability. He had the gift for making others slavish, and courtly. They courted his attention. Marco, because of his superior artistic gifts, had great trouble either courting the power brokers who were not equal to his standards, or denying attention and availability to those he considered talented (some of whom were lost souls and would never do him any good). He was also so obsessed with his art he never developed a marketable “Style.” Marco did not imitate Marco. This is also problematical when it comes to achieving success: how does one learn to imitate one’s self without appearing to be stuck in a groove? Most people do not know the difference between true style and voice, and parody of style and voice. You can fool most of the people almost all of the time until some expert says you are a mere imitation of yourself, and then the crowd decides to agree.

Talent means many things: one is recognizable ability, and the other is the mystique of being recognized for that ability. I believe these are very separate talents. Picasso had both in abundance–a genius for norms and abnorms that would serve his fame and success. Some call this luck, or good fortune, or fate. I believe it is a talent whose mechanisms are capable of being studied. This is an opening salvo in that regard.

PHOTO CREDIT: MARCO MUNOZ

Seen above, for the first time, is a newly-discovered photograph of Arthur Rimbaud from the 1880s. I quote from the Associated Foreign Press:

Unseen photo of French poet Rimbaud unveiled

PARIS — A previously unseen photo of French poet Arthur Rimbaud was unveiled in Paris on Thursday, bringing the total number of known images of the writer to eight.

The photograph, which shows Rimbaud on the porch of a hotel in Yemen around 1880, was showcased at the International Antiquarian Book Fair at Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue.

The black and white image is only the fourth to portray the poet as an adult and is “the only one in which Rimbaud’s adult facial characterisics are distinguishable”, according to the poet’s biographer, Jean-Jacques Lefrere.

Rimbaud, who was once described by Victor Hugo as “an infant Shakespeare”, produced his best-known works in his late teens. At 20 he gave up poetry and left France to travel. He died from cancer in 1891 aged 37.

Below, Rimbaud’s most famous poem, in the best translation the poetry has yet received into English, by Martin Sorrell (Oxford World’s Classics, 2001). He is the poet most important to understanding the crucial line of 20th century American-English symbolism: the inaugurator of Hart Crane, as well as of John Ashbery. He liberated words to music, and embodied the sovereignty of the imagination as an aesthetic principle foremost. For his sensualism, his precocity, and his recondite combinations of unexpected words, phrases—he is simply unrivaled. Rimbaud’s use of color in poetry anticipates Munch, as well as Georg Trakl. Far from being a reckless raving beatnik, Rimbaud was systematic—advancing the discoveries Baudelaire had made in revolutionizing and modernizing poetic form and style. He could parrot any style; yet he remains inimitable, unique, and resembles no one else. His prose poems are arguably still the best of their kind, in any language. The complexities of his life, which only dealt with poetry very briefly, between the age of 17 to 20, is inexplicable. There are other mysterious poets in history, but there is no other mystery like Rimbaud’s. Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings, featured an epigraph of the French poet’s. (When he was drunk, he was taken to yelling, “I am Rimbaud come again!”) His letters are incredible. His insights have been adopted by no less an orthodox spirit than T.S. Eliot—whose own innovations, accredited to Jules LaForgue, owed much to Rimbaud’s. When W.H. Auden selected John Ashbery’s Some Trees he was quite reticent about the overall strategy and tendency in style of JA’s work, and saw Rimbaud as the precedent for such a subjective, surrealistic manner (one that might lead poets astray). Yet no style has meant more to poetry since.

THE DRUNKEN BOAT

I followed deadpan Rivers down and down,
And knew my haulers had let go the ropes.
Whooping redskins took my men as targets
And nailed them nude to technicolour posts.

I didn’t give a damn about the crews,
Or the Flemish wheat and English corn.
Once the shindig with my haulers finished
I had the current take me where I wished.

In the furious riptides last winter,
With ears as tightly shut as any child’s,
I ran, and unanchored Peninsulas
Have never known such carnivals of triumph.

The storm blessed my maritime wakefulness.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
Which some call eternal victim-breakers-
Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares.

Sweeter than sour apple-flesh to children
Green water slid inside my pine-clad hull
And washed me clean of vomit and cheap wine,
Sweeping away rudder-post and grapnel.

From that time on, I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, lactescent and steeped in stars,
Devouring green azures; where a drowned man
Like bleached flotsam sometimes sinks in a trance;

When suddenly tinting the bluities,
Slow deliriums in shimmering light,
Fiercer than alcohol, vaster than lyres,
The bitter rednesses of love ferment.

I know skies splintered by lightening, breakers,
Waterspouts, undertows; I know the dusk,
And dawn, exalted like a host of doves -
And then I’ve seen what men believe they’ve seen.

I’ve seen low suns smeared with mystic horrors
Set fire to monster fires of violet;
Like actors in the very oldest plays
Slatted light shimmered, away on the waves.

Green nights I dreamed bedazzlements of snow,
A kiss rising to sea’s eyes slowly,
Circulation of undiscovered saps,
Blue-yellow wakefulness of phosphorsongs.

For whole months on end I followed the swell
Charging the reefs like hysterical beasts,
Not thinking that luminous Maryfeet
Could force a muzzle onto breathy seas.

I struck, you know, amazing Floridas
Where flowers twine with panther eyes inside
Men’s skins! Rainbows flung like bridles under
Sea horizons harnessed the glaucous herds.

I saw great swamps seethe like nets laid in reeds
Where a whole Leviathan lay rotting,
Collapse of water in the midst of calm
And distances tumbling into nothing.

Glaciers, silver suns, pearl seas, firecoal skies!
Hideous wreckages down in brown depths
Where enormous insect-tormented snakes
Crash from twisted trees, reeking with blackness.

I’d have liked to show children blue-water
Dorados, golden fish and fish that sing.
Foam-sprays of flowers cradled my drifting;
At times I flew on ineffable winds.

Sometimes, martyr tired of poles and wastelands,
My pitching was stilled by the sobbing sea
Which raised to me its yellow-sucker
Shadow-flowers – and I, like a woman, knelt.

Floating islands where the brawls and the guano
Of fierce albino birds bounced off my sides,
I sailed, while down among my fraying ropes
Drowned men descended backwards into sleep.

Now, I, boat tangled in the hair of bights,
Hurled high by hurricanes through birdless space,
Whom no protection-vessel in the world
Would fish up from the drink, half-drowned, half-crazed;

Free, smoking, got up in violet spume,
I, who holed the sky like a wall in flames
Which bears, good poet’s exquisite preserve,
Lichen of sun and cerulean snot;

Mad plank streaked with electric crescents, flanked
By dark formations of speeding sea-horse,
When Julys bludgeoned ultramarine skies
And pulverized them into scorching winds;

Trembling as I heard the faraway groans
Of rutting Behemoths and swirling storms;
Eternal spinner of blue stillnesses,
I long for Europe’s ancient parapets.

I’ve seen star-sown islands cluster; others
Whose delirious skies summon sailors.
Do you sleep banished in the pit of night,
You myriad golden birds, the Strength to come?

I’ve wept too much, it’s true. Dawn breaks my heart.
All moons are atrocious, all suns bitter.
Acrid love has pumped me with drugged torpor.
Let my keel burst, let me go to sea!

If I want Europe, it’s a dark cold pond
Where a small child plunged in sadness crouches
One fragrant evening at dusk, and launches
A boat, frail as a butterfly in May.

Steeped in your slow wine, waves, no more can I
Cadge rides in the cotton-freighters’ slipstream,
Nor brave proud lines of ensigns and streamers,
Nor face the prison-ship’s terrible eyes.

Arthur Rimbaud, from Poems 1869 – 1871, translated by Martin Sorrell

(To sum up our tryptych of posts for Dorothea Lasky, I present a brief and delicious interview)

It seems like some of the best writing that’s happening right now is coming out of the Amherst/ Northampton area. I’m thinking of Natalie Lyalin, Heather Christle, Emily Pettit. Matthew Zapruder went to school there. So did you. What’s the secret?

My instinct is to add to that list with the large number of great poets, writers, musicians, and artists who have come out of there also. But I am not sure where I would stop with this list. So, I will just shake my head and say yes, I agree.

That area is a generative space. Of course, I think so because I went to MFA school at UMass-Amherst (all of these people went to UMass, if not for MFA, then for undergrad.) The MFA program there is wonderful, it just generates. My teachers were Dara Wier, Peter Gizzi, James Tate, Noy Holland–they all taught me so much.

When I lived there, people always called the area the Happy Valley. I am not sure the origin of this, but there is something to the name. Amherst/Northampton, on the whole, is a very tolerant place. As an artist, I never felt more free to exist there and be myself. Where I hung around there, there was a dominant culture of acceptance of behaviors (although, probably this is a bit skewed as most behaviors there are pretty normative.) Still, I think tolerance is the ideal space and culture to create from within. And I think, despite the constricting other places I have lived, I carry this freedom with me always and probably these other poets do, too.

A lot of your poems, especially in your new one BLACK LIFE, use plain language—conversational, chatty—to get at huge ideas…like patience, simplicity, faith, etc. Can you talk a little about how you developed your style?

Sure. I developed my style after a long period of trying to hide what I was saying as much as possible in my poems. That is to say, for a long time I was interested in being as mysterious as possible and creating circles of language that the reader would never be able to follow. I think I distrusted my reader for a long time. Then somewhere in there, I realized that my reader was a person, just like me, who I trusted, but who existed outside of myself. So then, I decided I’d rather try to be as clear as possible and I combined the two instincts into the way that I write today. Still, I think my first instinct–mystery–always governs the poems a little no matter how plain-spoken they seem.

It’s been said that a poem can act as a spell and vica versa. Do you believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world?

I think language can always bring about physical change. I think language has weight, exists in the material world. It creates new materials by turning into and/or changing a thought. Thoughts, spells, and poems are physical things (they *almost* literally take up space in the brain.) And changing thoughts also make all kinds of physical change and actions quite literally. Words are the finite forms of a changing thought. They too have weight.

Anyway, casting a spell is like changing a thought, so I guess, yes, I do believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world. And, yes, I do believe that a poem can act as a spell. (And vice versa.)

When we worked on Poetry Is Not a Project, you often chose to say less in instances with more might have been said. Is discussing poetry simply case of less being more?

I think of Poetry Is Not a Project as an educational text and I take this category very seriously. I believe in sparseness, elegance, and clarity when explaining an idea to someone. I don’t like to flaunt the complexity of an idea when presenting it to a reader, because I think more often than not this turns off the very readers who are most important to me. In terms of discussing poetry, I don’t think less is more. But I don’t see the book as poetry scholarship, so I think my method is ok in this case.

What are you biggest influences outside of poetry?

I spend a lot of time listening and talking to people. I think the things people say, the ways people feel, and what lives they lead are my greatest influences outside of poetry itself.  Other than people, the visual world is a great influence to me and also, dancing and performance. The physical, spatial world and the arts that are closest to this world are among my biggest influences.

If there was something that you care about other than Love or Awe what is it?

Justice

Click here see Dorothea Lasky’s new book of poems Black Like. Click here to see her chapbook  POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT.

Recently I have begun the epic adventure of watching a series after its time on television. This means many hours of sitting in front of a screen, not having to watch commercials or wait a week, or a year, to see how it all unfolds. Often times when you should be writing the greatest poem you’ve ever written, you instead occasionally get sucked into some ghastly TV series with abysmal, trite acting from smarmy characters trying their best to act dramatic (and god-forbid actually funny), filling us with quiet horror. The symptoms after such excursions are as follows: A stunned sensation closely followed by confusion, acute anger, a longing to have everything you just wasted your time on erased from memory, and ending with a vow to write a letter to someone to make it stop. (One such show that fits perfectly into this category is Mental—the most offensive portrayal of mental illness I’ve ever seen, led by character posing as a wacky doctor, whose wackiness is just an extension of his ordinary narcissism. The show should have been called Cringe).

However, with a great love of X-Files, deep-space, and Patrick Stewart, I went merrily into Star Trek the Next Generation, created by Gene Roddenberry.

If you’re going to watch a lot of something, it’s best to have it be something that makes you a better person. This is the case in Star Trek. Laugh all you want about trekkies and dweebs and campy planetary sets—but you’re missing the point. One can easily live a better life with beam me up and set phasers to stun on their lips.  I’m finding myself constantly bringing TNG up in conversations about politics and human tribulations. For example, in Star Trek humans are no longer concerned with personal wealth (there is no actual money thus no marketing or advertisements) or material needs. True, 2010 is not a time when food and perfect martinis can be conjured up out of computer. Nor do we have the luxury of extra planets in which to cut down on over-population. But the human race in Star Trek (as well as many other interstellar races in the show) are now concerned with fulfillment of human potential. They’re curious. Their mantra is always the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of pre-warp civilizations, consistent with the historical real world concept of Westphalian sovereignty. This important law saves them from being imperialists.

In other words, we need to be more like Captain Picard. In stressful times he drinks Earl Grey and reads classic literature. He charges around the ship emulating bravery, reason, intelligence and finesse. All the main characters are extremely competent, trustworthy (there’s no locks on the doors they just open when you walk up to them. But I have yet to see a bathroom on the set) Finally, there is always some good, dry humor sprinkled throughout episodes.

Here are some good clips. Absorb. Indulge. Engage.

Klingon Men Read Love Poetry

Data trying to understand human humor

Captain Picard\’s Speech

Earl Grey. Hot.