Here is a link and news wrap-up for the first month of 2016:
Poetry is protest for poet Sasha Banks (PBS Newshour)
Chinese publisher pulls 'vulgar' translation of Indian poet (The Guardian)
Review of Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume III, The Tragic Years 1939–1972 by A. David Moody (Dallas Morning News)
I also received a postcard from the Dodge Festival. They say they are returning to Newark, New Jersey, to the Performing Arts Center and Downtown Arts District. I haven't been in decades but this event was the most fun I ever had at a poetry event. Read the review, "How to tell if you are at Ozzfest or the Dodge Poetry Fest." Save the date: October 20-23, 2016!
In the HarvardX class on Emily Dickinson, we studied this gem. Do you think the poem discusses relativity theory in 1864, before the Albert Einstein publications of relativity theory in 1905 and 1915? And what about a multi-universe theory before Stephen Hawking?
Pain—expands the Time—
Ages coil within
The minute Circumference
Of a single Brain—
Pain contracts—the Time—
Occupied with Shot
Gamuts of Eternities
Are as they were not—
I’ve always been attracted to cerebral poets, or rather a particular niche of them, the ones who explore a certain level of academic fiction and non-fiction. Specifically the David Foster Wallace level: not so genius you can’t follow them but pretty freakin’ smart and well read.
There's a line of complexity beyond which my brain starts to frizz. Conspicuous allusions also breaks my mind. Not that David Foster Wallace doesn't allude. I guess I'm just partial to modern, hip as opposed to Greek and Latin ones, Shakespeare-staling or the backwards-circular allusions to the already painfully allusive T. S. Eliot. I actually like T.S. Elliot just more his haunted, creepy allusions more than the "learned" riff-raff.
The exception is Anne Carson who definitely alludes to the classics but leaves enough in there for some of us dummies out here. I like her language. And that's what it comes down to for most of us--language that appeals to us, to our unique ears and ways of thinking. Below is my cocktail for smarty-pants poets, the ones I keep coming back to.
In my third or fourth poetry writing workshop at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, my professor Steve Schreiner gave me my first personalized book recommendation (like ever), the book Powers of Congress (1990) by Alice Futon. This was back in the mid-1990s and I found it impenetrable back then. Twenty-five years later (and seven cities later) I got back to reading it.
What I love about Fulton is that there is hardly a dead line in any of her poems. Her poems are eclectic and range in topics from technology to courtship to soap operas. And, best of all, she’s smart about science. As Sarah Howe said in her Paris Review essay "On Relativity," both science and poetry share the need to construct metaphors in order to explain our phenomena and both disciplines are "conscious of how these metaphors can mislead."
I also appreciate the level to which Fulton takes her experiments. She plays with the lyric but only parts of it or one aspect of it. Because of this her point is never lost in abstraction. A good example of this is “Point of Purchase,” a lyric with marginalia from different student characters participating in a writing workshop. The marginalia is funny and naively off-the-mark, workshop comments that are self-involved and prime with agendas.
Another favorite is “The Fractal Lanes” which circles around science and (of course) fractals, but also hints at bowling and writing in a subtle ars poetica. Who knew a few years later I would become interested in fractals and chaos theory myself when working on Why Photographers Commit Suicide.
"Losing heart, mind, or being
“To live is to be a threshold that persists.”
Or from “Losing It”
"When your brain’s become a byzantine cathedral
Flooded with the stuff of sump and dumpster.
into the mortal sludge."
My least favorite poems in the collection are probably the love/sex poems, which seem more convoluted and remind me, for some reason, or Erica Jong’s idea of the Zipless Fuck.
You get your money’s worth with Fulton, this book running over 100 pages.
Much of the same praise can be given Albert Goldbarth and his books. I finally finished the 185 page set To Be Read in 500 Years (2009). Here’s another poet of good quality and quantity for dollar spent. Even more so than Fulton, Goldbarth swims in ideas of science and cosmology and current culture, marriage, fame, product placement, identity theft, history, the Internet, illness. He also references Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman. One example from “I’m Nobody! Who Are You? Are You Nobody, Too?”
"The three, the wind: a fricative relationship.
A sound so shaped that some nights
it’s less music and more language.
Words. A few words, anyway. There
have been nights, admit it, when
you’ve thought you heard your name in the air,
your name being sung, a recognition
that you’re part of the star-resplendent sky
and the must vapors of earth—they
know who you are, you owe them for this special focus.
Listen: your name; a part
of the wind’s acoustical graffiti."
Like Fulton, Goldbarth also experiments but sets his limit. He experiments with stanza arrangements like Fulton and cross-outs and titles. He works out language theory issues but by talking through them. He’s always inclusive.
His micro and long poems consistently make me pause and say, Wow! The poem “Imperfect Knowledge” is an amazing thing. Channeling modernism's crisis of knowing, it references William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman and Bette Midler. Part of the lyric in the shape of a face while discussing prosopagnosia.
“…a museum, of sorts, for errors” is also a great multi-sectioned poem about bad ideas and blunders. “The Blank” is a great mid-sized poem about literary controversy, among other things. It’s hard to say what Goldbarth poems are about when they ramble luxuriously.
Here's an example of a tiny ars poetica called “Birds,”
"It’s hunger and territory
although we choose to call it song."
He’s also very funny. From “The Voices,”
“My mother worked in condemning.” Well whose
doesn’t. “No, I mean that was really her job,
condemning vacant buildings for the county.”
Jorie Graham's book The Dream of the Unified Field (1995) is a collection I’ve also had since the late 1990s and have finally finished, (it’s signed no less; I bought it at a Jorie Graham reading). Graham, although a more "difficult poet" is not dissimilar to Fulton and Goldbarth. She tackles the elusive way the universe works, she talks of hooks and currents and ghosts. But at times she can be cryptically Dickinsonian and she can also invoke biblical and classical allusions. She uses quick cutting transitions, and more often challenges knowledge instabilities.
She goes a little farther in her willingness to let gaps come between her and her readers (from “One in the Hand” – “And see how beautiful/an alphabet becomes/when randomness sets in.”) She goes farther into the project of abstraction (from “Mind” “the unrelenting, syncopated/mind”). And she’s also awfully more serious (from “Tennessee June” “Nothing is heavier than its spirit”).
But she’s abstract in the right recipe with the naturally particular.
From “The Visible World”
I dig my hands into the absolute. The surface
into shingled, grassed clustered; lifts.
If I press, pick-in with fingers, pluck
I can unfold the loam. It is tender. It is a tender
Maneuver, hands making and unmaking promises.
Diggers, forgetters…A series of successive single instances…
Frames of reference moving…
The speed of light, down here, upthrown, in my hands:
Bacterial, milky roots, pilgrimages of spores, deranged
mosses. What heat is this in me
that would thaw time, making bits of instance
shovel by shovelful—my present a wind blowing through
slogged and clutched-firm with decisions, overridings,
Last October, near Halloween, I had the opportunity to attend a reading of the poetry faculty at Central New Mexico Community College. The event was called “Faculty in Berets” and aside from the clichéd and hoaky title, it was one of the best lit readings I’ve been to in New Mexico these last five years.And because the college is a community college, (I guess), their bookstore doesn’t carry any faculty books. There also weren’t any books available at the reading. But at least I was able to track down some online.
When Felecia Catron Garcia read from her book Say That (2013), she talked about how well suited her poems were to Halloween--being, as they were, so full of ghosts. Her book is haunted by not only ghosts but domestic violence (From the poem "Whirlaway" -- “To think I will have to live through this”) and death, so much death that “death is weary of me.” The book also explores Catholicism, surreal dreams, inertia, motherhood and its moment of impatience, (a most sober look at parenthood), some of the best in traumatic love poems: dangerous love, absurd love, love from the dead.
From “Territorial Jockeying”
"Because I love you, I have given up on the idea of love.”
From “Dreams of the Dead”
your shoes and lie on his grave. Tell him
I live in this world and no other.
Put on your shoes. Don’t look back."
"We are here to discover what happened then,
but I want to know what happens now.
That gray sky is a stroke of luck. My fingers
Clutch the small hand bones of children."
After all the harrowing but honest parenting poems (“Four Gifts,” “Weaning”), the namesake poem, “Say That,” is a beautiful relief, both a play on a lie told to a child about their birth story and some suggestive, creative alternatives to the birth story.
Rebecca Aronson’s Creature, Creature (2007) contains poems that bounce between New Mexico and the Midwest in Kansas and Missouri (the flat parts) and had lines I especially appreciated (having lived in the Midwest) like “There are shadows from nothing but ourselves.”
There are little moments of ritual and religious artifact in the book, a wonderful ode to pepper, a very visceral poem about oranges and body spheres called “Navel & Blood.” The poem “After Surgery” deals with the loopy state of moving through hospital rooms drugged.
Aronson works in parataxis or juxtapositions in many poems and some experimental prose. “Diary of Light” was a favorite experiment which ends “Enter through your own shirt. Try to be your best self.”
She does the elusive Midwestern prairie poem well. "West" is a good poem about prairies, insects and "whatever moves.”Or from the poem "Crossing" the first line: “I’m driving home, one eye on Iowa.”
tipped his hat, later introduced
as your mother’s favorite
neighbor at the market where
he shook your hand
a long time.”
“What If” is an example of an experiment I like. Parataxis that builds to something and “4 am, Sitting in the Dark” and “Echo” would each make a great meditation poem.
I've been very overdue on covering some of the books I read last year. I have a short little stack taunting me in my office. I didn’t want to just file them away (keep or garage sale?) until I mentioned them in some way.
One of the good things about contest submissions and their fees of late is that some publishers will now send you free books or subscriptions to their magazines as compensation for your submission fee. This is how I got the following two books:
This book was one of my favorite books of poetry last year. Olstein makes a steady study of perception, border zones, edges, fences, ("a crackling on the radio moving into silence) and she does so with graceful particularness and narrative experimentation. She studies tipping points, sleep’s edge (in the same way Proust explored it), wind shifts, the cusp of change, “the tensile strength of the moment.” Often she does this by weaving ethereal narratives together into poems that become slightly haunting.
From "Dear On Absent This Long While"
When I made it half-way through, my notes say I was getting fatigued of exploring this idea. But then amazingly there were great poems after that, like the long poem "Guide to Self Hypnosis," "Parable of Grief" and "Metaphor Will Get You Everywhere."
This is a book however where the titles seem unrelated to the poems.
However, I didn't. The poems try way too hard to be smart and you find yourself in a tangle of obscure, italicized references. She’s also too conversational for my taste.
An example from "The Visionary Under the Knife"
"…The needle stops. The doctor
The language feels flat as opposed to simple and the line breaks don’t seem very interesting. Also, the day-to-day content didn’t draw out anything spiritually or philosophically relevant. There were no lessons of language. She seemed to have the confidence of knowing without searching.Toward the end of the book there is a crown of sonnets about Elvis. Since I love sonnet crowns and pop culture poems, I felt sure to like this, but again I didn’t.
The Academy of American Poets sends members a book every year, the winner of the Walt Whitman Award. For 2015 it was the same-different by Hannah Sanghee Park. Rae Armantrout was the judge which gives you a hint that this book might end up being the same-different language type fun.
For a sample of these language experiments, the first few poems are titled “Another Truth” “And a Lie” “One Truth” “And a Lie.”
From the end of "T/F"
Poems are word play and etymology fun although some of it's make-believe etymology. There are playful, lazy hearings and cliché weaves, folk tale riffs, muses on the jackalope. I have to say her endings always feel good but I didn’t check a single poem to re-read later.
The book is oddly designed, too. Only every other page had page numbers printed like this “22/23.” I guess it’s the same different as well.
I went to Flagstaff last summer as part of a big family trip across northern Arizona where my father grew up. We visited Canyon de Chelly, Hopi, the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and La Posada, the Harvey House in Winslow. Since my brother and sister-in-law like to visit college bookstores for t-shirts and I like to visit them for books of local poets who teach there, we squeezed in a visit to Northern Arizona University's bookstore. I only found one local author there but I did find a copy of their local literary journal called Thin Air.
I did have trouble getting started with this book, something seemed off with the rhythm and line breaks and free association. I couldn’t tell if her line breaks were for look, sound, or meaning. Many feel like they could have easily been written as prose.
But there were poems in here I loved: the list poem “A Number of Things are Scarily Lacking.” This poem illustrates for me how parataxis really works, juxtapositions of content forced into poetry lines is getting old when what we're dealing with are essentially lists of poetic phrases.
“…We can all climb on, ride him up and down 101--
a whole country riding on the back of some awakened DNA, hanging
onto the bucking strands of a mappable--believable—dawn.
“The world, revised is beige not turquoise.
That is easier to swallow.”
I really enjoyed her long poem, “The unlikely Origin of Species” and “Nor do I know the ways of birds clearly” with:
It wasn’t premonition, just air
blown in from chaos, powerless as prayer.”
The lit journal Thin Air was so enjoyable its made me want to add college lit journals to my list of college bookstore scavenging. I would peruse this journal further although the layout was clunky. The short stories I enjoyed were “Meta-fictional Pasta” by Jaqueline Doyle and "Xerxes" by Andrew Bourelle. And I liked more of the poems in here than I do in most literary journals, student or professional.
"Birdwatching for Beginners" by Mark DeCarteret, the set of Frida Kahlo poems by Robin Silbergleid, "A Small, Graceless Sound" and "To the Woman Who Died After Being Electrocuted While Crossing a Las Vegas Street" by Chloe Warden, "An Observation at the Conjunction of Black Holes and Cricket" by George Korolog, "Goldfish" by Esteban Rodriguez, and "I Knew" by Ross Losapio.
This is a better than average college lit rag. Check them out: http://thinairmagazine.org/
The eBook is available for a limited time free on Smashwords and is available on all your reading devices!
Writing in the Age of Narcissism traces how the narcissism epidemic affects writers, including our gestures of post-modernism and irony, and proposes an alternative way to be a more positive writer, critic and reader.
Happy New Year! This very blog and all my sites were just given responsive re-vampings over the holiday break so they should be more accessible on mobile devices. This makes it a good time to revisit what this blog’s mission really is. I’ve been looking at it lately like a poetry toolbox, lots of little ideas being fashioned as tools poets can take forward into poetry projects.
I read quite a few stories toward the end of 2015 about how eBook sales have stabilized and experts surmise that they may have found their permanent sweet spot. It’s too early to tell as techno-babies continue being born. It also contradicts other reports, such as this one about “slightly fewer Americans are reading print books, new survey finds.” Smashwords also did its annual survey of the previous year's eBook sales.
And here’s a smattering of other content I came across before the end of 2015:
Monsieur Big Bang and I went to see Life of a Dog in December. This is the new movie by Laurie Anderson, a beautiful visual poem reflecting on the nature of life and death, a project that had been inspired by the recent deaths of her husband, Lou Reed, her dog and her mother. I was so enraptured by the movie I immediately went online afterwards to get "the book" on Laurie Anderson, the coffee table book, the biography, anything! But there was none to be found. Five or six books exist on Lou Reed however. WTF?
Anyway, all I managed to find was an article here from The New York Times on her projects during the 1980s! I also found another good piece on Laurie Anderson that’s more current from NPR. It had some great life advice:
"One of the things that I had to do when I inducted Lou into - or gave a speech when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few months ago was first of all, that's a very boring ceremony. It's - just goes on for, like, so many hours. And I was trying to shorten the speech because it was getting so dull. So I tried to shorten it, shorten it. And then I thought I'm just going to mention these three rules that Lou and I had. We made them up, and they had to do with how to live with your life 'cause, you know, life goes by so fast. It's really - and a lot of times things happen so fast you don't know - how should I react? What should I do? I'm in a panic, you know. So we came up with these, and they're time-tested rules. And I'll tell you what they are. So the first one is don't be afraid of anyone. Imagine your life if you're not afraid of anyone. Two, get a really good BS detector and learn how to use it. Who's faking it and who is not? Three, be really tender. And with those three, you're set."
At the end of the movie Life of a Dog Anderson invokes the old Huck Finn quote about "lighting out for the territories." I thought about that for a long time. The new year is, after all, a time to begin anew. It’s something we say when we’re in need of a life change, light out for the territories. We’ve been in that mindset now for over 100 years. But where does one go anymore? Where can you go to start over? California is pricing out even its natives. Portland is the new “it” but is it crowding up, too? Are cities the right answer anymore? Do we start to question ownership now? Should we just start going inside? Where are the territories? Does starting a garden count? It’s also true that all of humanity didn’t, in fact, all light out. This was an idea sold to us as hip and adventurous, which is was. But is it still?
There’s an old marketing adage that you can“frame or be framed” meaning if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you and you might be framed in a negative sense or literally framed for the crime.
My friend and fellow poet Christopher and I have been having good conversation about the trend of writers trying to develop their brands. He sent me an article about Diana Vreeland's heirs who have branded perfumes (and other things) under her name. With the new documentary about her (Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has to Travel) it felt the family was attempting to turn her life story into a brand.
Christopher commented that branding humans feels, well, very inhuman: "I don't think I have sufficient words to express how much I detest the prevalence of all these people fretting over their brands. It's such an un-repentantly cynical approach to furthering one's reach in the world, a mission largely predicated on realizing greater profits, whether it be of the individual or corporate variety. Indeed, that is what is so troubling to me about it; people have become so inured to the heartless devices and practices of the corporate hegemony, they are now gladly adopting the same in order to best capitalize their own sense of self-importance, or more bluntly put, their product. Self as Product. Yes, we try to "sell" ourselves everyday--to prospective employers, to colleges to which we're seeking admission, to potential mates...the list goes on and on--but this concept of purposely disembodying/distilling oneself into an aspirational brand for others to follow, covet or purchase--it smacks of such inflated self-regard."
I submitted to him that writer brands are all the rage these days on book marketing sites. The rumor out there is you can't get a non-fiction publishing deal unless "you already have a viable brand." I did a short search today and came up with these sites about the need to develop your writer brand:
What bothers me about it is how commodified we have let our art become. Instead of art being a moment making a connection between people over a painting or a book, it's full-blown capitalism from intellectuals who profess to know better and want better. You really get a sense of their attitude toward you: you're just an email address, a body to market to. I think this is partly a reflection of how cut-throat authorship is out there and, yes, part narcissistic self-regard. But it's what the "experts" are pushing in order to solve the problem of low demand and a plethora of product.
Full disclosure: I’ve been dutifully working on my brand but, to be honest, it feels ridiculous. But then is that now part my brand?
For the past few months for work I’ve been reading the Bo Sacks newsletters on marketing and publishing issues. Here’s a sample of one of Bo Sack's pieces.
He posts a plethora of good quotes that apply to writers and thinking. Here are my many favorites so far:
"My fate cannot be mastered; it can only be collaborated with and thereby, to some extent, directed. Nor am I the captain of my soul; I am only its noisiest passenger." Aldous Huxley
"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." Isaac Asimov
"If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the military, nothing is safe." Lord Salisbury
"The wise man doesn't give the right answers, he poses the right questions." Claude Levi-Strauss
"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." Henry David Thoreau
"Anyone can negatively criticize - it is the cheapest of all comment because it requires not a modicum of the effort that suggestion requires." Chuck Jones
"The golden age is before us, not behind us." William Shakespeare
"I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts." John Locke
"The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions." Leonardo da Vinci
An interviewer once asked Ursula K. Le Guin advice for writers, and she replied: "I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you're writing. And if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn't flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work."
The final one is a quote from James Taylor on a recent Oprah’s Master Class episode: “Those days the amount of time to consider, experiment without distraction was a lot longer. It’s very easy today to be distracted. You actually have to really defend your time in order to have a long thought.”
"Fiction is the truth inside the lie." Stephen King
"A good teacher, like a good entertainer first must hold his audience's attention, then he can teach his lesson." John Henrik Clarke
"If you're riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there." Old West Proverb
"The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries." Rene Descartes
("The reading of all good books on any substrate is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries." BoSacks Corollary)
"A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success." Bo Bennett
"It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things." Leonardo da Vinci
"You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else." Albert Einstein
"It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be." Isaac Asimov
"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." Winston Churchill
"The only good luck many great men ever had was being born with the ability and determination to overcome bad luck." Channing Pollock
"Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith." Steve Jobs
"Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence." Leonardo da Vinci
It's easy to poetry this year for Christmas gifts because there are quite a few "best of" lists available.
The winner: Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf)
Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press) Interview
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn (Penguin/Penguin Random House)
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions) Interview
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine (Alfred A. Knopf) Interview
And if you'd like to hand out free poems of holiday cheer, here are some good resources:
Billy Bragg: 'I got this crazy idea I was a poet' (The Guardian)
John Updike the poet? (NBC)
Millennial Emily: Reimagining a poetry icon (Martha’s Vineyard Times)
Poet Carl Sandburg's Old House Being Renovated For A New Era (DNA Info Chicago)
Famed Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Birthplace Endangered (The Free Press-Maine)
Remembering Sylvia Plath (New York Daily News)
A poet and a police chief on the language of race (Minnesota Public Radio)