Theater Review: Oklahoma!

Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Directed by Patrick Cassidy. Point Park Conservatory Theater. October 18-27.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

It was morning in America on the stage at Point Park’s Rockwell Theater. I wasn’t eager to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, set in Indian territory on the verge of becoming the Sooner State. I almost said “evergreen” musical—can it really be evergreen? It’s actually 70 years old. Post-Sondheim, post-Chorus Line, post- the attacks on America and drone warfare, wouldn’t the corn be too high?

Reader—remember how good corn tastes? This production was sweet and fresh. It was done without irony, thank goodness, and was exceptionally lavish yet tactful. I wondered whether even the original Broadway production had such a large cast of cowboys, farmers, and calico-clad gals. [Evidently, according to the Internet Broadway Database, it had.] The student cast was absolutely equal to their roles, and the direction as well as the actors must get credit for the perfection of such details as the comic timing of Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. There was also a clarity about the production—the cowboys and farmers distinguishable, the dance sequences part of the drama. Projections of what appeared to be period photographs during the overture and musical interludes supplied historical context and, for me, didn’t tip over into intrusiveness, as audiovisual enhancements frequently do.

The dancing was spectacular. It was new, choreographed by Zeva Barzell, but the cowboys’ dancing had the flavor of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo choreography. Repeated gestural elements, as when Laurie and the girls sang “Many a New Day,” read very clearly. I expected the ballet sequence, Laurie’s dream, to be too long, awkward and dated, but the excellent young dancers, supported by the background projections and music, made it suspenseful, built real tension. Also building tension, and real menace, was the Jud Fry, both in the dream and in “real life.”

If I recall correctly, Leonard Bernstein made an extended comparison between the genres of musical and operetta, using Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella as examples. In addition to their formal differences, musicals, he said, came out of the milieu familiar to the New York audience and authors, like Guys and Dolls; operettas were set in a faraway exotic place—The Most Happy Fella in the Napa Valley of California. (Was this before South Pacific?)

It may not seem obvious now, when it plays all over the country and its title song is Oklahoma’s unofficial state song, but Oklahoma! would have been exotic to the Broadway audience. And recall the date: 1943. This sunny all-American musical opened during World War II, when the real-life boys were in uniform and the real-life girls might be wearing snoods and slacks for war work.

I have two regrets about this Oklahoma!: like most musicals I’ve seen lately, it was miked; and I didn’t see it early enough to recommend it to everybody I know.
________

Book Review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martins’ Press, 2013
Hardback: $25.99



Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Golden Couple of the Roaring ’20s was actually tarnished pyrite. This is revealed in Therese Anne Fowler’s recent novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Its overall message seems to be that reputations lie; it shatters any incomplete preconceptions of Zelda and Scott, leaving readers wondering what is fact and what is rumor. As Fowler writes from Zelda’s perspective,

“I was a Sayer, after all; a woman, yes, but still a Sayer; my life was intended to mean something beyond daughter-wife-mother. Wasn’t it?

“Oh, just let it go, a different voice urged me. What difference could your puny achievements possibly make?

“All the difference, the other voice answered.

“Which of my many possible lives did I want to define me? Which one could I have?

“And the question that troubled me most: Was it even really up to me?” (308)

Before readers delve into the story, they may skip to the last pages—not to learn how and when it ends in Zelda’s life, but how much of the novel is fact or fiction. Fowler’s repeated disclaimers that Z is a work of fiction based off an investigation of contracting facts, beliefs, and gossip is reassuring. The question, “Did this really happen?” may still exist in readers’ minds, but they can be assuaged by Fowler’s attempts to be as faithful to Zelda’s reality as possible.

The novel follows Zelda Sayer’s life after she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, and finishes soon after Scott dies. Readers are easily swept up in the glitzy and glamorous era of New York and Paris in the 1920s, and the soothing beauty of the timeless Mediterranean. The couple flits between parties, hangovers, and writing sprees in a whirlwind of activity and promises. However, Fowler does not dwell on Scott and Zelda’s moments of destitution. Readers are never sure how Scott and Zelda are able to survive—where they get their money when he’s not writing, how much they have to borrow, or whose kindness they request; they just seem to get by. And according to Fowler, even Zelda was in the dark about financial circumstances.

Plot holes aside, the novel uses solid descriptions and voices. Readers could easily envision Zelda’s hometown, the glittering parties, and the sweeping landscapes of New York and southern France. And in the beginning, Zelda’s enthusiastic southern belle mentality radiates from her narration and dialogue. But as the story progresses, the structural twang in her narration slowly disappears. Perhaps as the story progresses, she is assimilating northern American and French cultures and leaving the South behind.

Largely, Zelda’s growth is due to Scott, and her transition from maiden into worldly woman is gradual and believable. Readers witness Zelda’s growth through her own eyes, as well as Scott’s dismaying spiral into paranoia and alcoholism. There is something voyeuristic about living a renowned writer’s life through his wife’s eyes. Through Zelda, Fowler reveals more of an unbiased representation of the writing life than if she had undertaken the task from Scott’s perspective. So many writers are neurotic, self-deprecating, and overly critical about their work, and it seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was no different. This novel is as much about him as it is Zelda, and writing about him from a woman’s perspective might have been easier for Fowler. The double layer of writers’ mentalities might have driven Fowler mad, but Zelda’s madness was a challenging and welcome plaything.

For most of the book, Zelda’s famed craziness is nonexistent. Her physical and medical problems coupled with marital strains make her behavior erratic, but insanity seems to be nothing but a vengeful rumor… until part four. Fowler’s Zelda is a misunderstood and captured woman struggling with her own independence during a riveting but stifling age when a woman’s role was wife, mother, and homemaker. Scott’s insecurities and unstable senses of responsibility drive her first to infidelity and—after his desperate attempts to make her adhere to a woman’s “proper” role—a physical and mental breaking point. In the story, the doctors call schizophrenia a “divided mind,” which is what Zelda is pushed toward: a divide between who she is and who Scott tries to make her be. (Doctors have since reevaluated her condition and diagnosed her as bi-polar.) Fowler writes,

“I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it. He wanted to control everything, to have it all turn out the way he’d once envisioned it would, the way he’d seen it when he’d first gone off to New York City and was going to find good work and send for me. He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse. He wanted to recapture the past that had never existed in the first place. He’d spent his life building what he’d seen as an impressive tower of stone and brick, and woken up to find it was only a little house of cards, sent tumbling now by the wind.” (346)

But Fowler does more than explore the causes of Zelda’s insanity. She presents Zelda’s story and fragile state so realistically that readers will easily sympathize with her shifting emotions and rationality. This is one of Fowler’s main accomplishments: She made madness become rational. Another accomplishment: She reveals a person underneath the mask of legend.

Red State

by John Samuel Tieman

All this talk about red states and blue states reminds me of one of my favorite historical quotes. When asked in 1860 about secession, old Judge Petigru responded that secession will never work for his home state, because “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

Some things never change.

____

Book Review: The Philosopher’s Daughter by Lori Desrosiers

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The Philosopher’s Daughter
Poems by Lori Desrosiers
Salmon Poetry, 2013
€12.00



Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Lori Desrosiers first came to my attention as the editor of the Naugatuck River Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry, a journal, similar to Rattle or Flint Hills, and many of the better, though lesser-known journals, that carry the torch of well-crafted poetry publishers. Naugatuck stands out not only for its focus on narrative poetry but for Desrosiers’ fearlessness when it comes to publishing sometimes risqué, bawdy, gritty, but always powerful work. So I was quite excited to sit down with her debut full-length collection, especially considering that it was published by Salmon Poetry, one of the best small presses around.

The Philosopher’s Daughter is a portrait of Desrosiers’ family. She, herself, appears as an ancillary character, an observer; the true focus is on others. The first section, “Starting Places,” opens with “Conducting in Thin Air,” a poem ostensibly about the odd event of an airplane crash survivor (or fortunate dodger, since she missed the flight) who, a week later, died in a car accident. Desrosiers uses this springboard to examine larger issues of mortality and fate, setting up a major theme for later in the collection of the fragility of life. The final poem in the collection, “Night Writing,” bookends this nicely as a sensual exploration of the body, of feeling, so that we see that the answer to the curse of mortality is to fully inhabit the cage, so to speak.

Several of the poems in this section are simple-seeming scenic reminiscences. “Thinking Rock” describes a playing girl “safe/from pernicious imaginary monsters” as she climbs onto the thinking rock and “thinks until she is tired of thinking.” There is a marked lack of danger or stress. Back home, the girl watches her grandfather “smoke his cheroot,/have a whisky with her father./ Smoke rings rise like grey ropes.” There’s a hint of the future danger, here, with these ropes, but only a hint.

“Last Seat, Second Violin” is a humorous poem about the ability of children to overcome difficult or annoying situations in creative ways: “In 7th grade, Mr. Hayden would throw his baton/at anyone who played a wrong note,” she begins. The children are terrified, of course, and learn how to “fake bow” and not actually play any music, leaving it to the first chairs to actually play. A handful of the poems in this section deal with this theme of the attempted stealing of childhood. “Mile Swim” is about the Red Cross certification swimming requirement. The 12-year old swimmer stands “alongside fellow campers’ goose-bumped bodies/to start the swim across lake Coniston.” They “plunge into icy water, crawl away from the screaming/children on shore, relieved it is not their turn today.” Desrosiers’ language is vivid: “Our toes brush lake muck, seaweed, fishes,/shadowy spirits of unhappy campers forced to swim on rainy days.” But the 12-year old Desrosiers breaks free of the others:

To my surprise, I am alone.
Blue ripples, cloudless sky,
silence smells of dragonflies.
At the center of the emerald lake
all is green-gold and shimmery.

For a moment I am free—
free from swimming lessons,
the endless teasing,
the pain of my budding breasts,
my parents’ divorce.
It’s a moment of grace amidst the hardships of growing up.

“Paris 1950” captures a moment in Desrosiers’ parents’ lives in which “I am only a thought.” She begins:

Footsteps on cobblestone
Blanche eats crepes on Ile de la Cite
learns to sing Schubert.
Leonard studies philosophy
at the Sorbonne

The poem is spare and mysterious, mirroring Desrosiers’ knowledge of her parents’ lives at this time. Similarly, Desrosiers meditates upon reading her father’s philosophy books and connecting them to her memories of him (she’ll explore him more in-depth later).

The second section, “Mother’s Places,” focuses on Desrosiers’ mother, Blanche. “Last First Kiss” is a poem about love, specifically about a man who proposed to Blanche:

He was a violinist,
told her
he would pay
for voice lessons.
She described him as
older (27) and going bald.
She was seventeen

Unfortunately (for the violinist) Blanche declined. Desrosiers explains:

she had already been kissed
by my father,
who had no money,
but at eighteen
had long lashes,
blue eyes—
and silky blond hair.

“Daughter’s Places,” the third section, focuses on Desrosiers’ relationship with her daughter, and “Internal Spaces,” the final section, focuses more on Desrosiers’ herself as an artist. Throughout all of these sections, though, the mystery of Desrosiers’ father pervades, so that we see that she has become, in many ways, a philosopher herself by examining her life and the lives of those around her in order to find meaning.

What stands out when reading these poems is Desrosiers’ vivid, clear imagery, her attention to detail, and the emotional resonance she manages without tiptoeing into the realm of preciousness. Writing about ones parents, especially her father who died of cancer, would be a difficult task to accomplish without overt sentimentality, but Desrosiers manages to not only do this but to reveal her parents (and her children) as interesting characters.


Lori Desrosiers has a full-length poetry collection The Philosopher’s Daughter from Salmon Poetry (2013). She has a chapbook, Three Vanities, a chronicle of three generations of women in her family, from Pudding House Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications. She earned her MFA in 2008 from New England College. Desrosiers also edits the Naugatuck Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry.

Dead White Males, and Other Truish Stereotypes of Canon

by Jim Danger Coppoc

I’m writing this blog on Columbus Day. Because I am an American of Euro and Indian heritage, this is not one of those days I can ignore race.

I actually think about race quite a bit these days. Because I teach both literature and creative writing, from both mainstream and American Indian Studies perspectives, and because—after the basic bits I gather from Gardner and Bloom—I draw most of my teaching theory from the realm of Critical Pedagogy, I am always teaching race.

Let’s start with a few basic facts. A couple years ago, a student had a question I couldn’t answer in class. How do you know the canon is a bunch of dead white males? Everybody says this, but nobody ever proves it.

Every part of my political self wanted to scream at this student because it just is!, but for once, I was able to step back, and give my critical self some space to enter the conversation. I told the student I’d get back to him.

So I went to the capital-C Canon, and I dove deep into my own weird fascination with statistics-as-truth. After some consideration, I chose four primary stakeholders in the Canon: the government, the literary establishment, the education establishment, and mainstream America. I looked for consensus from the four main stakeholders by choosing representative groups of poets from each, comparing these groups side by side, and building a list of poets who appear all four places.

To represent the government, I chose the poets listed for the National Endowment for the Art’s “Poetry Out Loud” program. To represent the literary establishment, I chose the poets listed on the Academy of American Poets website at www.poets.org. To represent the educational establishment, I chose the Norton Anthology of Poetry. To represent mainstream America, I chose Wikipedia’s “List of Poets from the United States,” to which anyone can at any time add entries. Of the hundreds of poets listed in these groupings, exactly 75 were listed by all four.

Once I had uncovered the 75 poets who by process of consensus seemed to best represent The List of Canonical American Poets (hereafter referred to as “The List”), I decided to evaluate it in several dimensions to see if the stereotypes about canonical poets held true.

First, I wanted to know if The List really was populated by Dead White Males. The List is definitely white (85.33%, compared to 65.4% in the general U.S. population) and even more male (74.66%, compared to 48.5% in the general U.S. population). Surprisingly, though, The List wasn’t very dead. Of the 75 poets to make The List, 21 of them (28%) were still alive. Even those who were dead hadn’t been dead very long. A startling 67 poets, or 89.33%, were alive during the 20th century, with 35 of them, or almost 47%, alive during the past 20 years.

After establishing that the Canon of American Poetry is 1.3 times whiter than America itself, I began to wonder how many other races were represented. The answer, to any degree of statistical significance, is one. Of the 11 non-white poets on the List, 10 are African American. One, Li-Young Lee, is Asian American. With the possible exception of William Carlos Williams, there are no Latinos. With the possible exception of Langston Hughes, there are no American Indians. No other race is represented.

While it is a sign of progress that African Americans are proportionately represented (13.33% of the List, compared to 12.4% of the U.S. population), it is clear at least that no agreement has been reached about leading voices among other races. At best, this represents an unfortunate underrepresentation mixed with inevitable problems in the sampling process. At worst, this is institutional racism.

Although it’s difficult to pin down through statistics, one possible explanation for the racially imbalanced canon could be class. As I researched the biographies of these 75 poets, I was struck over and over again by the wealth and privilege that seemed to accompany the poets’ lives. Numbers aren’t available for each poet’s family income, but it is very revealing that 36 of them (48%) attended Ivy League schools with 21 (28%) at Harvard alone. Bio after bio revealed old families from New York and Boston, world leaders and captains of industry in direct lineage, and the sort of independent wealth that allowed for travel, education, networking, and other seeming prerequisites for the canonical poet’s life.

More than just economics, though, are the social connections these poets share. Thirty-seven of them (49.33%) lived in New York City at some point in life, and most of the rest came from other East Coast states. Thirty-eight of them (50.67%) taught at major universities, giving them access to each other and to the many book and journal editors supported by the American academic system. The Yale Younger Poets Series alone published the first books of more than ten percent of the poets on The List, 8 poets (10.66%) are Columbia grads, and 6 of the poets (8%) are graduates of the Writer’s Workshop.

The last dimension I evaluated The List for was a hodgepodge category of traditional stereotypes. As it turns out, most are true. Poets on the list are 5 times as likely as the general public to self identify as homosexual or bisexual, 3-4 times as likely to suffer from alcoholism, nearly 3 times as likely to suffer from depression, and more than 2.5 times as likely to commit suicide.

Conclusions? Well, all I really have to offer are the numbers. How America came to be this way is a mystery too deep for me, and too deep for any one blog post. The Canon is what it is, and my job, as I see it, is to give my students what they need to raise the right questions to build something better in the next generation.

As for the student who started me on this research project—let’s just say his participation grade was secure for the rest of the semester.

For those who are interested, I’ve pasted in The List below. Please feel free to use your own criteria and repeat the experiment as often as necessary. I’d be interested to see what you come up with on your own terms.

__________

A.R. Ammons, John Ashberry, Amiri Baraka, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, Louise Bogan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gregory Corso, Hart Crane, Robert Creeley, Countee Cullen, E.E. Cummings, James Dickey, Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Robert E. Hayden, John Hollander, Langston Hughes, Richard Hugo, Randall Jarrell, Robinson Jeffers, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stanley Kunitz, Li-Young Lee, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Audre Lorde, Robert Lowell, Amy Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Herman Melville, William Meredith, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Howard Nemerov, Frank O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, John Crowe Ransom, Adrienne Rich, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, May Swenson, Phillis Wheatley, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, James Wright

Keeping Secrets

by Publius

I’m sworn to secrecy on this, so I just had to tell everyone. Some secrets are just too good not to share.

So I ask a colleague about my old school, Metropolitan Middle. Her lover works there. She tells me that, thus far this year, they’ve had three principals. “The one they got now, and one who just walked off the job. The other one got fired.”

And I’m like, “Really? Fired? That school is gang infested, drug ridden, violent — what do you have to do to get fired from Metropolitan Middle?”

She swears me to secrecy. Then she tells me that the principal was paying a teacher to come to his office — and spank him.

I kept the secret for about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what more can be expected of me?

_____

Book Review: Drift by Alan King

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Drift
Poems by Alan King
Willow Books, 2012
$15.00



Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The acknowledgments page is standing room only in Alan King’s debut collection of poems, Drift. In fact it’s two pages long, which might say a lot about King’s gratitude, but climbing aboard these poems (each one is a train car) the first thing I noticed were the many passengers. The speaker is almost never alone. Yet neither are King’s poems boxing matches where dramatic tension is drawn from characters at odds. Usually the company he keeps is a lover, a brother, his mom or dad, a wife, some friends, or just some fellows from the neighborhood. There is a matter of fact sort of intimacy that sweats out from his lines. It made me realize how I’ve been reading too much of the loner stuff, speakers isolated from the world, with fractured egos, driving empty cars on highways without any trucks to follow.

King seems like the kind of poet who would be perfectly comfortable with a stranger sleeping on his shoulder on an airplane. And these poems, having meter without being metric, are conversational without being plain spoken. How nice to read them without suffering the “I am being a writer” tone that dulls most music.

Drift is divided into nine roomy sections of between one and twelve poems each. I read one section a day in a span that included busheling some tomatoes for sauce canning, skipping a pitchfork, writing a poem for Saemus Heaney (how original), loading a piano onto a truck, and making love to my wife twice (once downstairs). It’s so pleasant to carry on with them, here and there, sharing King’s world with mine. King’s poems are almost always one page, but that’s plenty of space to offer some adventure. Consider his poem “Conundrum” in which the speaker and his brother head out to find the recipe for pheromones, an irrational pursuit of an irrational goal that somehow makes perfect sense:

A decade before, my brother
and I were strapped inside the leather
belly of an Oldsmobile 88 that roared

like something feral, with speakers
coughing up bass and spitting rhymes
from Busta’s first album. I don’t recall
where we were headed, just that we

cruised the city with our fresh
haircuts and fragrant whispers
of Egyptian Musk behind our ears.

The clock and the compass, the when and the where, are not so important to King’s journeys, this one to “answer the riddles of women,” which makes it possible to swing between narrative and metaphor without losing your balance. The logistics are rich with detail, while the subjects continue to be abstract, searching moments. In “Why I could Never Be Vegan” we initially think we’re in the land of memory: “The smell of charcoal gets me / nostalgic: my childhood and / those summers my parents / were always throwing something / on the grill…” But quickly the discussion moves from nostalgia, to animal rights, to human rights. Birmingham is also part of the speaker’s memory: “…fire hoses / and what was unleashed / on protestors. What’s sacred / then?” In this poem, the only sacred thing left is his mother’s sense of exaggeration: “Ask my mom and she’ll say / I might have been / an Alvin Ailey dancer the way / I Step Hop and Run to a bubbling pot / of curry goat.” The speaker concludes “Why does salad, / despite its dressing, seem incomplete / without chicken?” King is asking, Why does memory, despite its dressing, seem incomplete as well, given our Birmingham, our history?

The past, hunger, hope, and resignation are so intimate in these lines. Perhaps a thousand poets will write a poem about a horse this year, but almost none will have ridden a two minute lick in company, wire to wire, at a race track. Being so comfortable with intimacy, having had some experience with it, having ridden that horse a time or two, we’d expect King to shape some physical intimacy where the actual doesn’t sit so far back from the ideal. His love poems made me think of John Donne. King runs to all sorts of bubbling pots, and not all of them are cooking curry. In “The Invitation,” like many of these poems, King gets us into and out of a poem with images: “Your lips were petals brushing / my neck…” is followed by some light-hearted analysis “This was not supposed to happen // on the third date” and eventually concludes “our bass-heavy pulses. / The eye contact, / you biting your bottom lip, / then smiling.”

The poet’s vexing history and his passionate flair join up in “Horn”:

The more I watch the news,
the more my country resembles
a biblical city destroyed by fire;

the more I think of those
who spat on the messenger
their God sent them. At the gates

of a temple called “Beautiful,”
sat a blind man. How many of us
are him? Sometimes there’s no name

for what runs the streets with
misspelled picket signs and hate
as its bullhorn. Sometimes

what’s wrong with this life
could be an avalanche ready
to wipe us out. The only true Bible

might be your open arms. Your name
is a communion wafer on my tongue.
The only true psalm might be

what washes over us while
we sleep, your breath in my ears—
the sound in a shell.

While some poets may marvel about empathy, how it comes from using image and lyric to wed unmarriageable ideas, King returns again and again to the simple truth, that empathy is very intimate, expressed in the oneness you discover after slipping out of routines of living, desire and memory, but without slipping out of who you are. It’s cruising in a big car with your brother in blood. It’s the sermon in a barber shop. That post-modern poets love the hero afraid of being alone and dying alone may just be a mask for the greater fear of connecting with others, of being intimate. King describes such poets in his poem “How to Call It”:

Take the woman walking
alone down a boulevard
of lovers

or the guy seated
at a table for two
with a glass of wine

and his favorite book.

King concludes these portraits of poets with one of himself: “I need a lot of things: lips / and fingers waking the body. / And from what? // Call it hibernation, / but never loneliness.” Read a book to yourself and you’re a scholar. Talk to yourself and you’re a nut. But poetry evolved from an oral tradition. It’s always been about talking and listening between friends and strangers.

Why are we so afraid of empathy? That is the “drift” in Drift. King writes in the superb title poem: “What were you / searching for among the buzzing / kazoos and party blowers // punching the air? That night // the bright streamers were serpents / curled among liquor bottles that blurred / like landscape through the windows // of a train headed to the end // of its line. You watched the lit / subway cars zigzag the night / like the Dancing Dragon / of Chinese New Year.”

Move over Mr. grumpy disassociated poet with your arms and legs and ears falling off your disconnected body. There’s a new kid in town.


Alan King is a poet and journalist living in the DC metropolitan area. He is a blogger on art and domestic issues. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. A past Pushcart Prize nominee, Alan is also a Cave Canem fellow and VONA alum.

What’s the Most Important Sound?

by Dawn Potter

Sound may be our deepest and most instinctive connection to poetry, not only as individuals but also as members of the human community and inheritors of its ancient traditions. “The hearing knowledge we bring to a line of poetry,” writes Robert Pinsky, “is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants.” But that childhood comfort stretches beyond the confines of our private selves, back through the history of language and our species.

In “The Hymn to Earth,” a Greek poem dating from about 650 b.c., the speaker reaches out to his listeners, coaxing them to recognize their agency in his creations:

farewell:
but if you liked what I sang here
give me this life too
then,
in my other poems
I will remember you

No page lay between this poet and his first listeners. Sound was the primary element of communication, and poet and listeners shared a direct physical experience.

Today poetry has become as much a visual as a sonic art. Yet the sound of a poem still transmits an intensely emotional message, even in those moments before a reader begins to engage with the poem’s narrative or thematic threads.

Take the opening couplet of Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament”:

The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad.
One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours.

The poem doesn’t rhyme, nor does it scan as blank verse. Except for its couplet format, it looks rather like plain spoken English. Yet if you study these two modest lines, you will see that Justice makes extravagant use of sound: he repeats individual k and s sounds; he repeats entire words and phrases; he uses commas as silent beats within the cadence. Try reading the couplet out loud, and you will feel, too, how his syntax and word choice force you to modify your pacing. It would be almost impossible to read this poem quickly.

For contrast, look at the opening of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous “Recuerdo.”

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

In certain ways the lines look very similar to Justice’s. The two poems share a simple subject/predicate nominative construction: “The clocks are very sad,” “We were very tired.” Both use comma splices as musical devices. But while Justice’s poem moves slowly and heavily, almost to the point of exhaustion, Millay’s speeds across the page. Her rhymes sparkle; her commas denote breathlessness rather than weighty moments of silence. Like the ferry, her lines go “back and forth,” hustling between the rhymes, riding the alliterative vowels: short e’s, long i’s, the repetition of We.

In other words, as I hope this comparison has shown, a poet’s sound devices are intimate elements of a poem’s essential being. From the very first moments of creation, a poet begins to hear her poem take shape. In my own case, I often feel the pressure of a metrical stress or a letter sound before I begin to consider what words I might choose to try out next in a line. This is true whether I am writing formal or free verse. The sounds in my ear lead me to pursue the sense of what I am trying to articulate.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

The Hum of Music Beneath the Traffic

by Brigette Bernagozzi

11:06 a.m.

A daytime blog, at last…but something doesn’t feel right, though it’s beautiful outside. What feels off, I wonder? I stop and use my ears. I hear the ubiquitous traffic noises, the sounds of humans doing human things outside, and the calls of birds, all mingled together. I realize that what I need today is silence. Why is it so much easier to hear this silence at night? There is a stillness at that hour that makes it so much easier to think.

But then, there is something else happening in my mind today, a kind of distraction I can’t escape. It hums just below the surface of everything, until the distraction itself becomes my sole focus, flipping my world and its priorities around. All other noise becomes bothersome, intrusive. It is the strain of a song I have been working on for several months, and it is the only sound I want to hear right now. Maybe it is not complete silence I need today, but simply the ability to hear this music, underneath it all.

I have an upcoming concert with several choirs in Pittsburgh, and with the Symphony, yet I’ve been unable to really inhabit the space of the music all semester. Something to do with being too busy, and putting my graduate school homework first, methinks–music is always the thing that’s getting put on that proverbial back burner, since I don’t need it to graduate. I am doing it for the love, as they say.

But something has shifted in me this week. This shift has something to do with a few two-and-a-half hour rehearsals at Heinz Hall, spent in the presence of an inspiring musical trainer, who gives us bits of wisdom such as “The professional gives–the amateur gets. Do it for them, not for you,” and “Music is the consistent eternal march.” Somehow, I’ve started to internalize that last one this week; I’ve awoken these past several days mid-song, as though I’d nodded off in the middle of performing a concert the night before, with the words (in German, no less) still lodged in my throat. It is a strange sensation to wake this way, as this kind of focus usually takes many hours to achieve instead of being built-in to one’s morning–but it feels right to me, somehow. I think of Bing Crosby, of Rosemary Clooney and Billie Holliday–all my vocal heroes from the old days, from my grandfather’s day–and wonder how often they woke up singing.

Perhaps every day should begin this way, with the promise of a song on one’s lips.

“In the arts,” Bob says, “do not divide your own attention between many things. You think of only one thing.” This lesson seems so applicable to everything else in my life right now.

Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of handling only one problem at a time, but if I can manage to maintain my focus out there in the world, until the first of many problems is solved, I feel more accomplished, less divided amongst warring factions of my own psyche that want to do everything, and want to do it right now. I am surely a product of my generation, of this high-speed moment in our culture.

I wish I could hire Bob as my personal musical guru, but I’m sure he costs a lot.

*

Auf-er-steh’n,” we sing in German, “ja auf-er-steh’m, wirst du mein Staub, nach kur-zer…” He has some of us hum the words. Those in our choir born from May through August sing them, so that between the two groups we nail the pianissimo just right. A tremulous sound echoed throughout the hall before; now we seem sure of ourselves, sure of this language most of us don’t speak in our daily lives. Some of us hardly even know what we are singing, but nevertheless, we are certain of our voices, now. Bob has done his job.

Arise, yes thou shalt arise, my dust,” the translation reads on the first page of the Mahler, “after brief rest. Eternal lifeTo bloom again thou shalt be sown. The Lord of Harvest goes to gather sheaves of us who died…” But we are not capturing it, just yet. “I will arise,” Bob tells us, by way of translating the translation, so that we can understand not just the meaning but the purpose of the words. “My death will give life to something.” A Resurrection Symphony, they call it.

On page 6, Mahler’s own text appears: “O believe! My heart, Believe! Nothing will be lost to you! Yours is, yes, whatever you longed for. Yours-whatever you loved, fought for!” Enthusiastic exclamation points aside, his words seem beautiful to me, accessible. It is as though I could have written them myself, though he composed them between 1888-1894 when he was about my age. “O believe: You were not born in vain! Have not lived, suffered in vain!”

I think of the meaning we try consistently to locate, the purpose we must determine for ourselves before we die, lest we feel we have lived unfinished lives. Mahler felt it, too: “What has arisen must pass away. What has passed away, Arise! Cease to tremble! Prepare! Prepare to live! O pain, you all-piercing one! O death! You conquering one! Now you are conquered!”

*

Bob is speaking from above, perched at a music stand on the stage, while hundreds of us listen from the audience, in a reversal of the usual setup that places choir singers up high and the teacher down in front. The reversal seems appropriate, as everything Bob says is the opposite of what it seems to be when he’s not in the room. The girl sitting next to me frantically writes down every witticism and piece of advice he utters with her pencil, on the last page of her choir music, lest something get lost in the shuffle of pages and singing.

“Our modern technology keeps us from communicating. It does not help us communicate,” Bob tells us from the stage, and I know in an instant that he is right. It makes me wish I had turned off my phone during rehearsal, that all these girls sitting around me to my right had turned theirs off, too. Some of them are sending text messages during Bob’s talk, including the one with the pencil, even though she certainly seems to be paying close attention to his words in other moments.

I think again of what Bob said before: “You think of only one thing.” I wonder how we will ever find a cure for ourselves, for this inability to do just one thing.

*

With wings that I won for myself in fervent strivings of love, I shall spar to the Light,” we sing in German, “to which no eye has reached! I shall die that I may live again.”

My world is filled with music, suddenly. I don’t want to go back to a world that isn’t. I’ve been waiting all semester to wake up singing, to fill the bathroom with the sounds of German and Latin, Norwegian and French while I hum in the shower. To know the music well enough to recall it from memory. To let the voices fill my head, to give them accompaniment while I empty out the trash, take my dirty dishes downstairs, brush my teeth. All I want to do is sing, and the singing follows me to the bus stop, onto the bus, on the sidewalk. It is with me in every moment. The songs I carry with me become my life’s soundtrack for a day, for a week, for a month. When the concert is finished, when the last strains of 2,000 voices have hushed the audience and the applause recedes, the songs will fade from my mind. I will try to hold onto them, but they will lose some of their magic until next fall, until the next concert. I will live in a world where music is here only sometimes, like before.

But for now, the boundary between these two worlds is permeable, a “thin place” like St. John’s Cathedral or the entire city of Edinburgh, a site of transformation and possibility. The songs bleed through. The world is music, one endless song uttered in all languages at once, meant to be sung in the shower, on the bus, or anytime at all.

For more like the above, you can check out the author’s regular blog at http://oakandtheacorn.blogspot.com/.

Elizabeth’s Brilliant Career in Psychotherapy

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I.
But I want a brilliant career as a poet.

II.
May, 1995: I get
a brilliant career in psychotherapy.
I’m also put on Zoloft.
(The playing field is temporarily leveled.)

III.
May, 1996: I have my first seizure.
I’m taken off Zoloft, put on Clonapin, then Neurontin,
then med, med, med ad nauseam.
I have seizure after seizure, also
ad nauseam.

IV.
But I really want a brilliant career as a poet.
I get a brilliant career in Psychotherapy.
(I also get lots of seizures.)

V.
January, 2002: I start EMDR
to stop the seizures.
(EMDR doesn’t stand for Elizabeth Mary, Dylan and Robert, but it works.)

VI.
June, 2003: the seizures stop.
I go off med, med, med,
ad naseum.

VII.
December 9, 2003: I go crazy, land in the lock-up,
It’s Dylan’s eleventh birthday (boo-hoo, boo-hoo.)
I’m put on Risperadol.

VIII.
January, 2004: I start DBT
to stop the craziness.
DBT doesn’t work.
Because it doesn’t work, I call it the Dia-Bolical Training.

IX.
June, 2004: More craziness,
more psychotherapy.
(But I really, really want a brilliant career as a poet.)

X.
I get a brilliant career in psychotherapy.
(The less said, the better.)

XI.
2005: I’m still crazy.
I start shopping therapy
to look good for psychotherapy.
(I get a brilliant career in shopping.)

XII.
May, 2008: I move to Maine,
when Robert and I permanently separate, but
I’m STILL crazy after all these years.

XIII.
November, 2008: I meet the sheriff when
Robert files for divorce against me in the state of Maine.
This makes me even crazier.

XIV.
March, 2009: The Courtroom Massacre.
The sheriff may not have shot me, but
Robert’s lawyer does when he shoots down my character
in the courtroom because of my shopping therapy.
I go crazy in the courtroom.
(The Judge orders Robert to pick up my legal fees
for shooting down my character in his courtroom.)

XV.
January, 2010: I’m deposed.
Robert’s lawyer is shocked to hear
that there’s no money in the poetry biz.
The divorce settles.
When the Judge’s mallet thuds down, I’m no longer crazy.
(I stop shopping.)

XVI.
I STILL need psychotherapy, but
go off Risperadol.

XVII.
November, 2010: More EMDR
to make sure I don’t go crazy again.
EMDR works.
(left brain, right brain, left brain right brain.)

XVIII.
September, 2011: I take up yoga.
(left side, right side, left side, right side.)
I stop psychotherapy, start psychotherapy, stop psychotherapy, etc.

XIX.
2012: More etc.
(I learn in yoga to chant with my body.)

XX.
2013: Fin?
(Will I now get my brilliant career as a poet?)

_____

Book Review: Proving Nothing to Anyone by Matt Cook

 photo 159ebee0-c095-41c5-8795-707bd8cbd080_zps423f49fb.jpg
Proving Nothing to Anyone
Poems by Matt Cook
Publishing Genius Press, 2013
$14.95



Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Funny is hard. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s a popular attitude that funny is somehow easier than serious, that comedy takes less skill to write than tragedy. I would say that they are equally difficult in many ways—both (when done well) require careful pacing to achieve emotional impact, and both require all the hallmarks of strong writing—but I would argue that comedy, at its extreme, is more difficult in one way than tragedy, at its polar extreme: written comedy requires just as much tragedy as written tragedy does, but comedy also requires hope. Tragedy is allowed to revel in its nihilism, whereas comedy must resolve that nihilism by drawing forth hope from it. Tragedy brings us to the brink of desperation; comedy must bridge that gap.

Matt Cook’s collection is that rarest of thing: funny poetry. “Commitment to Excellence” is a self-deprecating piece which describes a dinner party:

A woman leaned back into a candle
And caught her long hair on fire.

She did not notice this right away, but I noticed it—
but at that very same moment,
I was in the middle of telling a really good story

But Cook isn’t simply reveling in the misfortune of others; he knows “the punch line of the story was only seconds away” so he continues, though he does wait until “after the appreciative reaction of the room” before informing the woman of her burning hair. He makes sure to tell us, “The woman was not seriously harmed,/And then ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.” So there’s a happy ending. Here, Cook is getting at something about the nature of storytelling and art. Aren’t all good stories about the misfortunes of others in some way? “Duane Duane” deals with this issue. Cook describes a man who “was in and out of institutions during the nineteen seventies.” Duane “wrote a song once about feeding saltine crackers to a duck.” Cook goes on to describe Duane’s belief that the actors in Gilligan’s Island were trapped on the island and forced to act out the episodes, “that they were enslaved by television executives and forced at gunpoint, or through emotional blackmail, or whatever, to act out Gilligan’s Island every week.” The depth of Duane’s delusion is intense. He believed the actors attempted to communicate their plight through codes. Cook concludes, “This story isn’t funny, but it’s also funny. It’s not my fault that this story is funny.”

“The Drunk Man’s Hat,” similarly gets at the nature of comedy in a surreal way. “The poetry comes easily in the morning,/Not because the head is clear, but because the head is confused,” he begins. He describes a dream he had about a drawing of a drunk looking for help from a security guard:

The drunk man is saying something like:
Give me the awful chemical I need to clean this hat.
If you can do that for me, I would certainly appreciate it.
If not, I can find something else to appreciate.

Cook’s turn at the end gets to the heart of humor, almost as a study in form rather than a comprehendible narrative. “Unchanged from Ancient Times” accomplishes this in a more straight-forward manner:

He wanted to see trees that were thousands of years old.
He wanted to lie on the forest floor and
Look up and see a view that was unchanged from ancient times.

So he went deep into a national forest and
Then he returned and I asked him how it went.

He said he took mushrooms and freaked out and
Smeared peanut butter all over his Volvo wagon.

Here, Cook explodes the expectation of the reader, but at the same time, he hits something profoundly human with this character. Frankly, if his friend had had some sort of magical experience, the reader might’ve said, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it wouldn’t have meant much, and at the back of our minds, there’d be a hint of doubt. I’ve been in a lot of forests and mostly felt itchy, though they were very pretty. Cook’s description, though, is absolutely believable.

“My Wife’s Car” is a narrative poem that stands out because of its powerful descriptions. The narrator goes for a walk and sees his wife’s car:

You feel a kind of existential panic when you see your wife’s car somewhere.
My grandfather said death is like looking at your house from across the street.
It’s probably something like that.

You walk past a row of meaningless automobiles,
And suddenly there’s your wife’s car—what do you do?
You can’t just walk past your wife’s car.

Cook’s language is straight-forward and lacking in pretention, even when relating profound ideas. The narrator decides to use his spare key to get in and wait for his wife. There are all sorts of preconceptions the reader might have about what will happen next, but the narrator assures us, “I knew she’d be happy to see me because we have an excellent marriage.” The question is, do we believe him?

Then I saw her in the distance approaching the car.
I was enjoying the situation, the childish suspense.
But then she came closer, and I could see she was crying.
She opened the door and she put her arms around me.
She said, “I’m so glad you saw my car.”

Even though Cook may have dispelled our expected outcome (that his wife might be returning from a tryst, perhaps) he still manages to surprise us.

Another thing that sets comedy apart from tragedy is the brutal honesty required of comedy. One has to be able to mock oneself ruthlessly. He states, in “They Probably Laughed”

Just because it takes courage to admit you’re wrong doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.
I used to be young and drunk and stupid.
And then I became less young and less drunk and less stupid.
But I’m still pretty young and pretty drunk and pretty stupid.

Cook makes observations on all sorts of things one might not realize, for example pointing out that fish never taste clean water and then wondering if he’s the first to consider this. At his best, Cook is shocking in the way all good comedy is shocking. He explodes the simplicity of ones preconceptions and gets to the heart of what it is to be human. And he’s funny. So there’s that.



Matt Cook is the author of three books of poetry (In the Small of My Backyard, Eavesdrop Soup, and The Unreasonable Slug). His work has been anthologized in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, The United States of Poetry, and in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. He lives in Memphis, TN.

Writing a Personal Literary Essay

by Dawn Potter

Early in this book I mentioned how common, almost ubiquitous, the I point of view has become in poetry. So often our poems are outlets for the personal, the private, the spoken secret. Even when it is an outright fiction, a first-person poem can feel as raw as a diary entry.

Literary essays are a different story. While the I does rule over many forms of creative nonfiction, it is conspicuously absent in academic and critical prose. Its scarcity is puzzling because publishers, even scholarly ones, explicitly ask their authors to avoid wordy passive-voice constructions that mute the speaker’s voice and opinions. “The book can be thought of as a waste of time” is a way to evade responsibility for announcing, “I think the book is a waste of time.” Yet time and time again, authors retreat behind that cushion of words. In doing so, they may take themselves off the hot seat, but they also retreat into obscurity, anonymity, invisibility.

As you work to become a poet, you may find yourself in a position of needing, in some deep, personal way, to write about what you are reading. I urge to you to commit yourself to saying I think—not we think, not people think. Work hard to keep yourself from falling into convoluted grammatical “objectivity.” The truth is that you should not be objective when you’re writing a personal literary essay. You should push yourself to write subjectively about your own curiosity, your own reactions. The goal is to discover what you think about a work of literature, not to create an essay that you makes you look well read or professorially remote. Please understand that I am not deriding academic scholarship or theory. Simply I am saying that, like poetry, a personal literary essay comes from a different and far more vulnerable place in the author. It’s important to push yourself to write in ways that cherish that vulnerability, not mask it.

If I sound bossy here, it’s because I believe that for many years my own writing suffered from a timid unwillingness to face head-on some of the many issues I brought up in the Blake and Milton essays I’ve excerpted in previous chapters. How does a contemporary poet speak to a poet of the past? How does an obscure woman speak to a canonized man? How can their speech be an actual conversation rather than rant, polemic, diatribe, or blind adoration? For creative writers who take reading seriously, these are fundamental questions that have never been easy to answer.

In the introduction of this book I mention Countee Cullen’s life-long, necessary conversation with the Romantic poets—and how some of his peers derided that need. Why, they asked, should a twentieth-century African American poet waste his time talking to nineteenth-century English white men? The question I ask is, why shouldn’t he?

[from a chapter in draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Small Print

By Karen Zhang

The other day when I dropped by a local CVS store for errands, I thought I could get my shopping done in minutes. No chance. It wasn’t that my list too long but I had to wait for the cashier to print out a longgggggg receipt—so much longer than my arm. How long is it exactly? Three feet. (I measured it with my metric/imperial system conversion ruler.)

Why on earth does a merchant give out customers long receipts? Does he think we will really read every word on that lengthy slip of paper? I like keeping receipts for the record. But I also notice the pile of receipts gets higher and higher despite the fact that I rarely shop. Perhaps this is an American custom that nobody should get away from the bombardment of advertisement and legal protection.

I did spend some time reading some of the recent receipts. From Home Depot to Macy’s, from CVS to Wal-Mart, nearly every receipt—some are front and back—includes retailers’ return policies, promotion coupons and limitation on these benefits. Of course, as a consumer, all I’m concerned about is how much I’ve spent on this transaction; when, where and what I purchased. This is the basic information on a receipt. In China, all this information can be summed up in a palm-size receipt or even smaller.

Ah, I see. Perhaps the American retailers want to make it easy for the customers not to lose their receipts. I often misplaced the tiny receipts in China. But now, since the overall receipts in America are longer than the grotesque tongue popping out from a jack-in-a-box toy. I have to roll each one of them like a wad of money. (I wish.) Plus, the coupons attached to the receipt may be of use someday. How should I mind carrying it around in a secure place on me?

The legal statement that comes with the receipts is written by attorneys, of course. But how many ordinary people understand the complicated legal terms? With the tiny print and weird font, the message is incomprehensible, but I’m afraid not to get the receipt — there may be something I need on it.

_____