Just when I finish a terrible eBook, I have another great experience with eBooks. After reading about this book in American Poets magazine, I purchased the eBook of Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2013) by Patricia Smith.
Can I say, Coffee House Press does a great job with their eBooks. And they price them reasonably under $10.
It's one of the best books I’ve read over the last three years, up there with Natalie Diaz's book, My Brother Was an Aztec. They're both great modern books dealing race.
Smith's book also is full of penetrating family characters and covers the migration of southerners to Chicago, or rather Black Chicago. Interwoven are stories about Motown's artists and Altantic artist Aretha Franklin.
Her very baroque, word-strewn poems come in dense lyrics and include the occasional forms. In some, you could hear the echo of a slam performance. And yes, Smith does have history as a spoken-word performer.
The pieces are tinged with bitterness and topics cover tween growing pains, beauty, body image, race, and culture. Smith's mother poems are particularly memorable as are her pop-culture pieces, culminating in a crown of sonnets about Motown. We find there The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder, Lady D (Diana Ross), Mary Wells, and The Marvelettes. Later in the crown we confront being starstruck, encountering pop-star hasbeens, the bait and switch of a troubadour's promises, and the very unromantic ends of star crushes.
To read more about Patricia Smith:
Recently my friend Christopher sent me a March LA Times article from March called "Yarn Bombing L.A. challenges ideas of street art".
Although Los Angeles has always had an intellectual and artistic inferiority complex in comparison to New York City, having lived in both placed I find Los Angeles a highly competent art and book town, maybe even slightly smarter, truth be told.
Years ago, at an LA Times Book Festival symposium on something or other, I witnessed a New Yorker who stood up to tell us what a refreshing experience the LA book festival panels were and how in NYC intellectuals would be falling over each other posturing and posing. He felt LA intellectuals were more honest, open and for real. I agree. It's as if their inferiority complex makes them more honest.
LA has a vibrant art scene and this is why I love getting articles confirming my understanding of its vibrant culture, like the one about yarn bombing.
Artist from all over the world crafted kitted squares to bomb the LA Craft & Folk Art museum, which sits in the shadow of LACMA and the Page Museum in Los Angeles. The act of public art was designed to challenge street art as a masculine space and explore the idea of“who gets to belong in a public space.”
I also love the Riot Grrrl, Third Wave Feminism aspect of the bombing, girls taking back knitting: “By putting craft our in the public, we’re challenging the history of craft as well as the culture of street art that has a lot of embedded sexism.”
There is a “wealth of public art and performance collectives, such as Fallen Fruit and the Los Angeles Urban Rangers” and what Carol Zou describes as “grassroots arts projects happening …There’s a culture in L.A. of artists getting together and forming their own organizations from the ground up.”
Los Angeles is known for pop culture production but few give the city credit for its art and intellectual production.
I also received a brochure from The Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Buckneell is doing something called The Poetry Path, its first public art project consisting of a walking tour of historic downtown area. The locations are marked with poems and recordings by poets at ten markers that feature a poem chosen for its thematic and cultural resonance to the site.
All towns should be doing this!
Take a virtual tour: http://bucknell.edu/PoetryPath
In June I took Monsieur Bang Bang to Truth or Consequences for his birthday. We stayed at The Firewater Lodge, one of the old 1940s-era motels in town being renovated by neo-hippies. We liked this one because the rooms actually have hot springs inside and you can bring your dogs.
So you can do this combination of soak/sleep/soak/sleep which is pretty darn nice.
While we were there we visited the Geronimo Hot Springs museum, the local town museum. There I came across two poems. The one below is titled "Hell in New Mexico." This is the same poem Johnny Cash sings on his Mean as Hell album, except (as I remembered from my many listenings as a kid), in the Johnny Cash version, "Mean as Hell," Cash changes the reference from New Mexico to Texas. I like that version better. Read along with Johnny Cash.
Farther on, I found a stack of books by a poet named Eugene Manilove Rhodes. (Manilove sounds like a Barry Manilow fanclub). He was dubbed the cowboy chronicler.
Here is the poem the museum had on display called "Engle Ferry:"
This New Mexico Museum Press publication of Red Earth, Poems of New Mexico by Alice Corbin Henderson is beautifully produced with an nice essay in the front and a New Mexico painting for every poem in the book.
But I was a little dissappointed. Henderson was writing about New Mexico in the 1920s, after she moved there for health reasons. It's not that the poems are dated, which some of them are. It's that I was hoping for more tactile images from this modernist aficianado, Assitent to Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine.
The best poem in the book is the epigraph beginning this very slim book of poems (54 pages):
Hear the roar, after the fierce modern music
Of rivets and hammers and trams,
After the shout of the giant
Youthful and brawling and strong
Building the cities of men,
Here is the desert of silence
Blinking and blind in the sun--
An old, old woman who mumbles her beads
And crumbles to stone.
The rest of the book doesn't live up to that.
In response to the story of the young New Jersey girl who lost control of a submachine gun at a shooting range outside Las Vegas and killed her instructor, poet Gregory Orr shares his own personal story of killing his brother in a hunting accident.
Poet Daniel Johnson writes an article and poem in remembrance of his slain friend, journalist James Foley, who was killed in Syria in August.
I’ve come to think most posts only get major notices in the newspapers when they die.
Canadian, Blackfoot Nation poet, Zaccheus Jackson, dies in train accident. He was a prominent member of Vancouver's poetry slams.
NPR reports that outspoken Iranian poet, Simin Behbahani, called The Lioness of Iran, has died.
In the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, there's an article blurb by William Deresiewicz that reminds me of some of the poetry essays I've been reading lately: "There is an idea in there somewhere, but it can’t escape the prose—the Byzantine syntax and Latinate diction, the rhetorical falls and grammatical stumbles"... the difference between "text that urges us ever onward" and text that like "boulders, say stop, go back.”
I also enjoyed a recent sketch from the show Portlandia about art overstepping the life boundary and how every celebrity and artist now seems to want to force the rest of us into the inescapable project of their own performance-piece-life. Watch the sketch here.
In Hector Tobar's piece called "Reading is Dead" from the LA Times, Tobar comments on famous celebrity editor Tina Brown's insistence that reading is dead (because she doesn't read or that as an editor she failed to sell magazines). Tobar quotes a website commentator's frustration with people who declare everything dead:
“This week, a reader at the American Conservative (which also reproduced [Tina] Brown’s words), took to his or her keyboard and responded on the website’s comments section with a summary of all the “death” talk he or she’s been reading about lately:
“Death of the novel, death of lyric poetry, death of literature, death of cursive writing, death of writing itself,” wrote the commenter, a lawyer from Philadelphia. “Death of August holidays. Death of looking at the stars. Death of romance. Death of marriage. Death of church music, death of Western Christianity, death of liberal American Judaism, death of American Judaism generally, death of religion generally. Death of democracy in Europe. Death of the moral community. Death of Western civilization …. Death, death, death.”
Declaring things dead is so dead. And Tina Brown is a classic narcissist.
My friend Mary Anne sent me this article from The New York Times: "Poetry: Who Needs It?" by William Logan. Which reminds me, a friend of mine once gave me a book of reviews by William Logan and I think I lost it.
Anyway, Logan doesn't see the fact that most people don't have a need for poetry as indicative of disaster. He says most people are also "unlikely to attend a ballet, or spend an evening with a chamber-music quartet, or the latest exhibition of Georges de La Tour."
"A child taught to parse a sentence by Dickinson would have no trouble understanding Donald H. Rumsfeld’s known knowns and unknown unknowns.
You can life a full life without knowing a scrap of poetry, just as you can live a full life without ever seeing a Picasso…"
In other news, the Academy of American is running a Poets Forum Oct 16-18. Read more here.
Adventures of Juan Chicaspastas (1985) by Rudolph Anaya
Anaya is famous for writing Bless Me, Ultima, which I am halfway through. This book is a somewhat short mock epic poem. The book (Arte Publico Press) had typos, confusing typos, typos that took me out of the action, which was full of witches, women, swords and switchblades and two brothers who want to be folk heroes. I didn't love it like I'm loving his novel.
Having lived in LA for eight years and attending many of the fabulously intellectual panels at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, I would see Carol Muske-Dukes speak often as one of the iconic LA poets. And I loved her memoir, Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood about poetry in LA and her life with actor David Dukes (you might remember him as Edith's would-be rapist on All in the Family).
This is compilation of some of her book reviews. Muske-Dukes is a second-wave feminist but this book in not an overarching study on women or feminist poetry, although most of the female poets she reviews are second wave feminists.
She has two reviews of Adrienne Rich, she revews the works of Laura Riding, and books by Brenda Hillman, Lynn Emmanuel (including a really good archaeology poem), Maxine Kumin, Rita Dove, Sandra Cisneros, Carolyn Kizer, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Jane Kenyon, Marilyn Hacker, Patricia Dobler, Maxine Kumin, Elizabeth Spires, Lucille Clifton, Ellen Bryan Voight, and Grace Paley. She talks about poets who write fiction, biographies written about women, and spiritual poetry by women.
An excerpt about mistrust of meaning:
“Ironically, similar perceptions about language among certain French critics and thinkers (all male) led to mistrust of language’s capacity to express anything accurately—leading to “terrorism” in literature, to the “literature of silence,” to Maurice Blanchot’s statement that the goal of language is “its own suppression.”
About the battle between poetry schools:
“The word crisis is, alsas, sorely familiar to the reader of contemporary American poetry. Indeed, the terrain of poetry has been commandeered as one of the battlegrounds upon which literary skirmishes representing larger culture wars are routinely fought. We have weathered a storm of aesthetic/political blitzkrieg: McPoem, neo-formalism vs. free verse, the Death of Poetry, lyric vs.narrative, feminism vs. phallocentrism, The Canon vs. Multiculturalism, the Balkanization of Poetry vs. Eurocentrism, the critic vs. the author, Poetry Slam vs. The Academy, and Harold Bloom vs. Everybody.
Another essay continues along the same vein:
…the “us and them” of American culture, that is something in us that really does love a wall, a fence, a line drawn in the sand; something anti-intellectual that casts a suspicious eye on the “generalist.”
My friend Ann sent me this book years ago, Ellen Bryant Voigt's The Flexible Lyric. For me, this book was hit and miss. She sets up her essay points very argumentatively. Stephen Dobyns says this so I would say something else. That continual combative set-up made it hard to connect with this writer. I felt that unspoken chip on her shoulder.
But there are many interesting things here:
She talks about having poet idols and about her readings of Elizabeth Bishop and Flannery O’Connor. She disputes the idea of women’s poetry- with a special critique of Alicia Ostriker's Stealing the Language, an argument I was not inclined to follow because Ostriker's book gave me an epiphany about myself as a woman writer (after years of hesitation in believing in such things as women writers).
But I loved her essay making the case for adjectives (in combat with the modernists). Her essay on images was too dense for me and I daydreamed through the one about tone. Some of these essays are really dry. dense and closed. Her essay on the narrative running through Southern writers was good, particularly discussion on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" which reminded me of the reading by Lisa Simpon and James Earl Jones.
She has a 60-page defense of lyric organization vs. using "an arbitrary form" with illuminating examples of Shakespeare and sonnets. She talks about textures of lines and list forms. There's also an essay on Philip Larkin.
In my continued quest to work through books of celebrity poetry, I took on Tarantula (1971) by Bob Dylan. Although I recognize that Bob Dylan is accepted as the only true poet among songwriters, I dreaded reading his poetry, tried of all the Beatles/Dylan hoopla of the last three decades. Although I like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, I'm tired of the hoopla.
However, I have to say (so far), hands down Dylan is the best celebrity poet. I guess this is not surprising since many of his songs stand up as poems, at least this is what poet Billy Collins tells us in the introduction to Dylan's other book of poetry, Hollywood Photo-Rhetoric.
No...Tarantula is good because it's experimental in a way that sometimes produces interesting results, characters and narratives. He does a much smarter playing around than most celebrities do.
And speaking of celebrities, he's as celebrity obsessed as the rest of us. Tarantula is stuffed to the brim with late 1960s celebrity references. I actually created a list.
Aretha Franklin (many times), Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen, Suzie Q, Lawrence Welk, Liberace, Valentino, Fats Domino, Minnesota Fats, Grace Kelly, Ernest Tubb, James Cagney, Madonna (but not ours), Janes Russell, Angelina the whore (but not ours), Goldwater versus Johnson, Sammy Snead, Jack London, Charlie Chan, Citizen Kane, Doris Day, Tarzan, Henry Miller, Thomas Edison, James Arness, Shirley Temple, Mae West, Sinatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Steve Jones, Robert Frost, Dostoyevsky, Betsy Ross, John Wayne, Bob Hope, John Huston, Einsein, Buddy Holly, Lee Marvin, Bod Diddley, Jane Mansfield, Lefty Friszzel, Sonny Rollins, John Wilkes Booth, Carl Perkins, Alice Toklas, Woody Guthrie, Kierkegaard, Ed Sullivan, Bob Dylan (indeed), Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, Little Richard, CoCo Joe, Prince Rainer, Charles de Gaulle, Agnes Moorhead, Eisenhower, Donald O’connor, John Lee Hooker, H.G. Wells, Lulu, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cary Grant, Jackie Gleason, Yogi Bear, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan, Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Hoffa, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle, e.e. cummings, “some celebrities passing by,” Fernando Lamas, and Phil Silvers.
What I liked about the book was the mass of words (sometimes free associative working into a real story) inter-cut with some very funny verses. Even when he is enigmatic, he is still interesting. There are some very funny sign-offs to the verses, all which are done as unique personas. There are also interesting and irreverent titles, one reusing the term "jingle jangle morning." Some of the prose pieces form and some don't. But there are bits that are prophetic.
From "Seems like a Black Nite Crash"
--it’s every man for
himself—are you a man or a self?
There are some uncomfortable racial usages (similar to in Jim Morrison poems of the same era): references to geisha girl, coon, queers, faggot, and dykes. Yikes! It's hard to tell in these moments if Dylan is critical of those words or using them without irony.
Bob Dylan must have a messy house because he's always losing manuscripts.
These poems were inspired by photos Feinstein took of Hollywood scenes in the 1960s. There are a scant 23 poems in the book that Dylan hesitates to call poems.
“If they are poems, or if they are not poems…does it really matter?”
The poems have no titles, punctuation, and use some spelling short cuts like using yr for your. The poems overtly about actors are the most interesting.
“you are acting all the time/even when you’re playing you.”
Yes mama, I’m an actor
the difference being my contradiction
do not really wish t be remembered
for my smile
but in compete reversal
as I look around
that I will be.
The pieces on Judy Garland seem too bullyish and mean-spirited. But there are good conversations between the photos and poems about stage mothers and a star kid who "memorizes to forget," wax-figured celebrities, sex behind the casting door, the airs of acting classes, movie-star hopefuls, the business of fame and Hollywood's general junky and seedy side.
could eat awhile
on what this
Here's another review in Pop Matters. As a junkie of pop and celebrity culture, I enjoyed both of these books.
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland is a book I thought was recommended to me in a recent writing workshop. But I found online various books with similar titles. I read the eBook version of this book at it was terrible, a mess of typos and format confusion, footnotes randomly placed inside of text, very messy, very hard to read. The book was full of overwriting, oversimplification and hypocrisy. Talking about how harmful it is to shut down writers with critiques of their work, followed by chapters of judgements about other writer's works.
But then I found out the book was old, like 1940s-old and that's why I was sensing a 1930s/40s mentality. The big clue was her rhapsody about Eleanor Roosevelt. Everything seemed so dated, especially her cry for women to stop doing housework and start to write. I don't know any modern women who do housework. Even those of us who clean occasionally.
I finally had to skip over the overly-long student examples. This was partly dated-badness; partly eBook badness.
I did enjoy the new novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. This was a pleasant story about a small independent book owner and his obsessive love of books. And Fikry is unapologetically judgemental about the books he loves. He's a true snob but you like him even if you disagree with his harsh reviews of books and categories you love (like poetry). So what that the love story between him and the book publisher's publicist feels a little flat. It's just fun to sit in a small bookstore and talk about books for a short time.
There is one line in the book that applies to us directly: Fikry referrers to book jacket blurbs as "the blood diamonds of publishing.” So true.
Finally, the May/June issue of American Poetry Review has a great essay by Greg Wrenn on writing nature poems in a century of environmental destruction.
The Georgia O’Keeffee Museum hosted a educational program in June called "Walks in the American West: The White Place and Echo Canyon" and it was a trip led by poet Lauren Camp.
There we are at left, walking through an area Georgia O'Keeffe painted and once called The White Place for it's rock formations made of limestone.
While I was getting ready for the trip, I went through my closet looking for a notebook to take. I have a feeling all poets have a box of those fancy, unused notebooks our friends give us as gifts because we're poets and they imagine us writing in fancy notebooks instead of on the backs of cards and scraps of paper.
I had one such friend named Michelle who gave me a fancy hard-cover notebook as a goodbye gift in 2002 when I was fired from my job where we worked in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a dramatic firing and she had been my confidant through the hard-times I suffered there. She was that kind of a friend to many of us. Looking for any notebooks to take on the trip, I unknowingly and randomly picked up hers. I liked the size of the lines on the paper.
When I arrived in Santa Fe to start our journey up the Chama river valley, I discovered Michelle's lovely message to me inside, written 12 years ago, encouraging my creative endeavors and ending with, “I will miss our heartfelt talks and good laughs.” She had told me once you have three kinds of friends: friends for life, friends for the ephemeral moment, and friends who are there to help you through crucial times. She was the later. And she was speaking to me from the grave because she had passed away from brain cancer two years ago.
This sobering accident affected my thoughts all through my trip. Lauren Camp had us try out the Japanese form of poetry called the haibun, a combination of prose and haiku. We read "Lepidopterists" by Diana Webb and a haibun by Basho.
I walked out alone among the white place river bank and wrote a haibun for Michelle:
Letter to Michelle
Chica Micha, you are here in the White Place. Today, your own ink is here. Your fingertips have reached the White Place. Your small printed letters, your porous hardship, your palm is in the White Place touching hardened sand. Your soles are sinking in the river bed. Your breath is trailing me here, telling me, “Some friends stay forever; some friends come and go; and some friends are there only when you most need them.”
The vulnerable brain’s
Your majestic early precipice
Chica Micha, you are floating above the white space. Today, slowly sliding over me in a mass of shape-shifting. You are buzzing today, urgent. And then your quiet is here. You are monumental. Your wrinkles in the stone, your shards of stone, your cup of sand in the linestone. Your towering portrait of ornamental caprock. This of you is here.
The lawn of the river bed
A slow race of tumblers
Hard souls swimming to the next
Chica Micha, your ocean is here. Many shadows of the wave and white caps holding their foam-rock faces to the sun. The party is here, standing in a half-moon circle, grass in our toes, hard smooth backs. Weathered, we are here. Enveloped in your seldom shadows. You are in the White Place. You have traveled to the White Place. Your print is now here in the Place.
Our red hot faces
Finding the small cactus—finally
Foot after rock foot
Later we traveled to Echo Canyon where we ate lunch and worked on epistrophs, forms where the end of each line repeats. I wrote an epistroph about breathing. I think subliminally I was thinking about both Michelle and the trip I made to Echo Canyon years earlier with my mother. She had a hard time walking up the path and she was out-of-breath with COPD. I thought she could probably make the trip today after she recently lost 30 pounds.
Ten Lines of Breathing
Finding the path to the bowl and I breathe.
Tangling over my roots and I breathe.
The rock that warms me and I breathe.
Stumbling and I breathe.
Knotting and I breathe.
Bathing in the amphitheater empty and I breathe.
Smelling the fly-sweat and I breathe.
The sound draining with the light and I breathe.
Tipping calls over the rail and I breathe.
Avalanche and I breathe.
We all received a Georgia O'Keeffe pen and tote bag and a generic composition notebook. You know I love me some tote!
Poet Lauren Camp was a great guide through these places and forms. You can find out more about her at http://www.laurencamp.com/. She also runs a blog and hosts workshops, such as Reading to an Audience, which I totally need and would take if I lived closer to Santa Fe.
It's been a crazy summer! I've either been hosting guests or traveling since early June. I've been tooling around in New Mexico (Truth or Consequences, Manzano Mountains, Albuquerque as a tour guide) and Oregon (Bandon-by-the-Sea) for a family reunion (mother's side), then have been chin-deep sunk into projects and job changes. More on my summer adventures and pictures.
Meanwhile, I've been collecting a slew of poetry things. Some news I've been reading:
My friend Christopher sent me the LA Times story about the passing of poet Maxine Kumin, who died in February. I also found a Kumin tribute online from Carol Muske-Dukes.
Christopher also sent me an LA Times story about the passing of Maggie Estep, one-time MTV poet and performer at Nuyorican Poets Café and the Def Poetry Jam, who also passed in February.
He also sent me an LA Times piece on Richard Blanco, most interesting for a section at the end comparing about how Cuban relatives respond to poetry versus how Americans do.
Monsieur Big Bang also sent me the link of the James Franco review in the New York Times for his new book of poetry. A good excerpt for those steaming in the ears over the idea that James Franco got reviewed by The New York Times:
“But is it, you may be wondering, good? No. But neither is it entirely bad…the sort of collection written by reasonably talented MFA students in hundreds of MFA programs stretching from sea to shining sea.”
“...Franco has a decent ear for speech, but a bad sense of the poetic line…He’s prone to phrases that sound good at first but collapse under scrutiny…[but] God knows he can write circles around Billy Corgan.”
“...This book wouldn’t be published by Graywolf (I hope) if James Franco weren’t “James Franco.” James Franco wouldn’t be doing events with Frank Bidart if he weren’t “James Franco.” For that matter, James Franco wouldn’t be getting reviewed right now if he weren’t “James Franco.” In fact, if James Franco were just another M.F.A. student struggling to catch the attention of the two part-time employees of Origami Arthropod Press, he’d probably be reading this piece and fuming about all the attention being given, yet again, to James Franco.
It’s easy to sympathize, even if one suspects some of the complainers are no better at writing poems than Franco is. Yet the annoyance this collection will inspire is rooted in a deeper anxiety: The attention commanded by James Franco’s poetry has everything to do with “James Franco” and almost nothing to do with poetry. And that cultural wealth is not transferable. Attention withheld from Franco’s poems will not instantly devolve upon some worthy but obscure poet; it will go to another actor, or singer, or commercial nonfiction writer, or memoirist — or even to James Franco in his novel-writing incarnation. Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th-century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion. Perhaps it’s a blessing to have James Franco on one’s side in that struggle.”
Poets with Sexy Hair