Fill your carts with some bona fide good tidings.
Honestly, I was feeling kind of down the day Tom Crawford offered me my first book blurb. Wow, like Dinah Washington says in the song, what a difference a praise makes.
"What a surprise! Poetry that rightly deserves the
praise, by which I mean poetry that makes you forget you're reading poetry. How
refreshing. For far too many American poets, their poems are a glitter of
self-consciousness--the facile of the MFA crowd. This new collection by Mary
McCray should earn her a wide readership with its outer space leaps of
invention. Her ribald sense of humor. Grit. Originality. "
--Tom Crawford, Author of The Names of Birds, Wu Wei, and The Temple on Monday
While I've been at the Institute of American Arts this fall, I've had the opportunity to see some visiting poets. I've since read their books and all were completely unique.
dg nanouk okpik is an Alaskan Inuit alum of IAIA. In Corpse Whale, okpik's experimental verses make use of stacking verbs and pronouns to narrate with a sense of simultaneous voices, dimensions and time. The book is packed with Alaskan-ness. There are hyenas, wolves, whale blubber, seal skin, salmon,caribou, falcon, the ice shelf, sponge lichen, puffins, egrets, sea cows, eels, sea spiders, ravens feature prominently. This book could serve as an animal guidebook to Alaska. The poems are also full of juicy words like marrow, notched bones, and peat soil. Her use of stacked pronouns and verbs, along with creative spacing, italics and repetition, give the poems a surreal thrust. Her narrative is shaved down to almost shorthand, decidedly mythical. There exists an emotional constancy although the narrative zig-zags can be frustrating. Their strength is that poems are so stuffed but feel so light. Whether they are experimental or in traditional stanzas or in prose poems, they all read the same.
My favorite poems were "Cell Block on Chena River" for okpik's experiment solidly mapping as a form to an emotional strata, "Ricochet Harpoon Thrown Through Time Space" for simultaneously giving us modernity and history "and the evocative "A Cigarette Among the Dead." At the end of it all, I'm not sure where okpik's true center lies as the poems devolve into centrifugal wordiness. But I felt something etheral about the collection as a whole, as the poem "Her/My Seabird Sinnatkquq Dream" ends,
It's ash, ash all of it.
Nathalie Handal came to IAIA as a visting writer. Now living in New York City, Handal is a French-speaking Palestinian with Spanish heritage. Her book Love and Strange Horses has overtly erotic pieces created to be metaphors of political/international conflicts. Honestly, I wasn't getting that until Handal explained it to me. But the suggestion changes how you a consider a line like this from "Entrances and other Endings,"
the piling up of bones against our kiss
Handal makes use of the multiple languages she knows to decorate her poems, but her love and comfort with Spanish shines throughout. In fact, this poetry has a particularly Spanish flavor. My favorite pieces "Listen, Tonight" with the line
and answer me why we pretended/when we measured the earth/and there was no space for both of us.
and "Don't Believe" with the haunting line
Believe in the divided breaths of untitled men/and wait for the torture to believe in you.
Other good poems: "Intermission," "Portraits & Truths" and "Map of Home." In a way, the book speaks like a subconscious map to reconciliation. In "The Songmaker--19 Arabics,"
Who said we needed to be strangers when we listen to the same music?
(I've always felt that way about food. How can people who all eat baklava and humus hate each other so much?) There's a haunting abstraction going on throughout the book, with lines like this from "Dream of O'Keeffe's Dream,"
We are the suspension we believe in.
My favorite visiting writer of the three was Natalie Diaz, who came to read from her book When My Brother Was an Aztec. I'm thinking my attraction to Diaz has to do with her direct, aggressive writing style and her 3rd-Generation feminist language and perspective. You got your balls-to-the-wall bravery mixed with pop-culture references (army men, the ceramic handprint art piece of our toddlerhoods, Lionel Richie) and I'm hooked. I've been waiting a long time to read a poet I could identify with generationally.
Some of my favorite poems were pieces Natalie read at IAIA: "Hand-Me-Down Halloween," and "The Red Blues." I loved her anger, I loved her riffs, I loved her poems about her brother and sibling drama, I loved her erotic love poems (which were almost ghettoized to the back of the book) exploring the fleshiness of love with apples being devoured, thighs and shoulder blades and lines like "drag me into the fathoms." For me, she was the poet most in control of her words. She moved in front of them, not behind them. And her poems were filled with great lines like,
as I watch you from the window--
in this city, this city of you, where I am a beggar--
Or the final line in the poem about her veteran brother:
He was home. He was gone.
The centerpiece of the book are the poems about the drug addiction of another brother and how his drama depleted the souls of her parents. Every one of those poems works the problem at a new angle. The most amazing one was "No More Cake Here" where the narrator envisions the death of her troubled brother, the memorial party for the dead sibling complete with cake, which becomes a kind of coping, wishful thinking.
The book also deals with race in satisfyingly stark ways in poems like "Hand-Me-Down Halloween," "The Last Mojave Indian Barbie," and "The Gospel of Guy No-Horse."
It's always a gamble with those people.
Definitely one of my favorite new books of poetry.
It reminds me of what my boss used to tell me when I worked for those people who ran the Internet. If you think important stuff is happening out on the Internet, just remember the most popular pages are the ones that have these stupid pet videos.
As so it is true.
So in honor of the fact that this Ultimate Dog Tease is still one of the most popular videos on YouTube, I have created a script for Ultimate Poet Tease. And here it is:
Voice Over: Hey, little poet!
Voice Over: Guess what! The creative mind behind Ultimate Dog Tease took all his inspiration and craft and all his verbal dexterity...
Voice Over: ...and used it to take a video of his dog vocalizing and overdub it with hilarious comments that sound like they're coming out of the dogs mouth!
Voice Over: Yeah. Why do you think people like that so much?
Poet: I dunno.
Voice Over: Do you think these videos are so popular because we love our pets more than we love our deep thoughts?
Voice Over: And you know what?
Voice Over: As of today, Ultimate Dog Tease has received over 121,949,862 hits.
I still love the video. But don't get me started about Talking Cat Turf War or Talking Beaver on the Highway.
In honor of my new space poems, Why Photographers Commit Suicide, I'm posting the latest Mars news. (It's not so far-fetched as you think: poems on Mars.)
In New Scientist, "Rhyme and reason: the Victorian Poet Scientists," Paul Collins provides excerpts of verse from men of science. There was a bit of antipathy about the union of poetry and science:
"The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. Thus, the two are incompatible." -- Paul Dirac to J. Robert Oppenheimer
At Liverpool's Centre for Poetry and Science, Alison Mark explicates the writings of poet Veronic Forrest-Thomson and would disagree with Dirac saying, "Poetry and science are perhaps most intimately linked through the mathematics of metre, and one of [Forrest-Thomson's] processes was what she called smashing and rebuilding the forms of thought through technical experimentation with poetic form...As she said, 'the question always is: how do poems work?'"
In a good piece from The New Atlantis called "The Scientist and the Poet," Paul A. Cantor surveys Romantic poets writing about science and the great transformations of the Industrial Age, what poets had to say about it with the words of Goethe, William Blake, Tomas Love Peacock, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelly, Lord Byron and Mary Shelly.
Which is all so similar to the transitional pains we feel today with our technological revolutions. Cantor says, "the Romantic generation experienced the chief distinguishing characteristic of modern science: its link to modern technology and its effort to transform the world from the ground up in material terms. The Romantics are famous for reacting to these developments with hostility." As Wordsworth is famous for saying, "We murder to dissect."
Cantor continues, "Beginning in the nineteenth century, science and poetry began to compete for prestige and authority in Western culture, and there is little question that in this competition science gradually won out."
"If people in the nineteenth century had been asked: 'Who is the wisest man in Europe?' many would have answered: 'Goethe.' But in the twentieth century, if the same question had been posed, I very much doubt that many people would have offered a poet, or any imaginative writer, as their answer. I would venture to say that the most common answer in the twentieth century to the question: 'Who is the wisest man?' would have been: 'Albert Einstein.' That is a rough indication of how in the course of the nineteenth century science replaced poetry as the central image of wisdom in our culture. 'No wonder the poets are so hostile to us,' scientists could say: 'We stole their thunder.'"
Thomas Love Peacock believed, "poetry has gone wrong in the nineteenth century precisely because it insists on producing myths in a de-mythologized world: 'A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.''"
Cantor says, "I have quoted Peacock at length to show that the quarrel between science and poetry did not begin in the twentieth century..."
But some Romantics defend poetry for having widsoms science could never have.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge says in Lyrical Ballads:
"The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed.... If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration."
Percy Shelly "identifies the purely technical nature of scientific thinking as its chief defect. And Mary Shelly agrees. "The basic lesson of Frankenstein can teach us is this: science can tell us how to do something but it cannot tell us whether we should do it. To explore that question, we must step outside the narrow range of science's purely technical questions and look at the full human context and consequences of what we are doing....literature is better at imagining the human things."
In our times of great change, poets should be documenting these human things. We might find we are brought right back to the ideas and thoughts of the Romantics:
Like Percy Shelly saying, "Our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest...man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave."
Cantor agrees saying, "as human beings lose control of the products of their technological imagination...perhaps [they] end up serving the very forces that were meant to serve them."
Wow. Sound familiar?
Another good piece is from Ruth Padel in The Guardian, "The science of poetry, the poetry of science." Both poetry and science depend on metaphor she says, which is "a new mapping of the world."
"Science was born in poetry...the project that science had in common with explanatory verse was revealing 'the secrets of nature'....[both] Scientists and poets focus on details."
Some books of science-realated poetry listed in Padel's article:
This is very much appreciated.
This is a good time to revisit the very funny Caveman videos of John Lehr:
Although this is not an official endorsement by the Geico caveman himself, my poetry
is so accessible, a caveman could read it.
Enough copies sold in the first four days to get the book listed on the following Amazon Hot New Release Lists for a period of time:Astronomy New Releases (1)
Of course these numbers are based on sales rank, which change by the hour. Friday afternoon my rank was in the high 20 thousands and low 30s (pretty sweet). By Sunday, as the first marketing push waned, I was up in the high 90s.
"Don't obsess about rank," the marketers say. Just keep getting the word our there. Okay...but it's pretty facinating to watch sales. And seeing my book up on those lists was sorta SWEET!