Book Review: Chapel of Inadvertent Joy by Jeffrey McDaniel

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The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
Poems by Jeffery McDaniel
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The first Jeffrey McDaniel poem I ever read was “The Quiet World,” originally published in his 1998 collection The Forgiveness Parade. I found it in the Poetry Foundation’s archive and only read it in isolation—appropriate, perhaps, since silence and isolation are so central to that poem’s meaning. Until I read Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, I was unsure how a collection of such emotionally rich, surreal-yet-real poems might function side by side.

My initial reading of McDaniel’s fifth full-length collection was thirty minutes spent gorging on the excess of dark, beautiful words. I read for candor and, to put it bluntly, a type of emotional orgasm that can only be stoked by the poetic moves McDaniel makes throughout this collection. But, over the next few weeks, I went back through the book more slowly, mining each poem for flashes of technique, motifs, and the tiny, bold truths that McDaniel drops among these pages like glittering jewels. I found much more than can be summed up in a singular review, but here’s a taste to pique your interest.

The first poem clues us in to the type of speakers we’ll meet throughout the collection’s 88 pages. “Hello” is a direct address to the reader that opens: “The person gazing at this page before you had really amazing eyes—/ blue the way the Caribbean is blue that first minute off the plane/ to someone who grew up in Jersey.” In these lines, we see the immediacy with which beauty fades, the nature of perception that causes most joys we find in life to manifest as inadvertent, unexpected flashes. Arguably one of the most autobiographical poems in the collection, “Hello” is written in the voice of a speaker who is newly forty and lamenting the arrival of middle age. “I know I’m complaining, and that it’s unattractive,” our speaker states, “but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.” This apologetic undertone, the confessional admission and request for forgiveness, is universal to many of the poems in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. After making a number of lyric turns built on a meditation about Eden, penises, and the physical signs of aging, the speaker makes a final direct address to the reader, pleading: “Now, if you would just lean forward a little, friend,/ and drag your fragrant strands over my voluptuous grief.”

Many of McDaniel’s speakers throughout the collection will make similar requests for pity and touch. In “Pity Party,” the speaker asks his reader to invite a crowd of mourners to join him—a widow and the father of a suicide victim among them—“but make sure/ each ends by testifying/ that my woes put/ their woes in perspective.” Another speaker envies “The Cougar Tree” because it doesn’t shy away from the touch of woodchucks, south-flying birds, termites, and teenage lovers. The emotions that McDaniel calls up are those we feel in times when we’re sick to establish human connection but too disgusted by ourselves to reach out. They are universal and visceral, but sometimes damn depressing.

Yet McDaniel never lets us sit too long in the darkness; it’s clear he aims to make us understand that these types of suffering are a part of our shared human experience, but he’d also like to remind us of the light. As many have said of his work before, some of the most beautiful imagery we get in these poems comes from the metaphors McDaniel employs. In “The Track of Now,” young women wear “dresses made from the skin of green apples” and Joan Wasser’s singing voice is “fierce and luminous,/ like watching glass being blown.” Later, a lover’s eyebrows become “church benches/ I want to be carved into like initials.” Neon is described as “an elongated firefly, a match/ in a constant state of strike.” Even one speaker’s description of his first relationship—“two malnourished, rootless things/ clinging to each other and calling it love”—connotes a sense of naïve hope and the freshness of feeling that comes with youth.

In fact, one might say that the dichotomy of dark and light is the engine of this collection. In “Happy Marriage,” the symbolic dark sedan, which will be a motif throughout the book, shows the reader that things are not always what they seem at surface-level:

“A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind. You know
you should turn and run the other way.
But you don’t. You stand there.
The blackened rear window rolls down.
It’s a boy you knew in high school, holding a rose.”

The poem’s subject, the unhappy wife, allows herself to give in to a fantasy that for a moment enlivens her mundane marriage. We can assume from the poem’s title that people around the wife are unaware of how restricted she feels. McDaniel plays with this relationship between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. In a later poem, “Yard Work,” the speaker prunes a hedge “so the bush can live, so its leaves can flourish/ and protect us from the eyes of neighbors.” Many of the speakers in the book’s first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” keep their darkest traits a secret despite feeling desperate to bare them to the world.

“Satan Exulting Over Eve,” based on a William Blake drawing of the same name, builds on the dark/light dichotomy. Wisdom becomes venom, “scaly logic coils around” Eve, and Satan accuses God of “dressing up/ your little mousetrap like paradise…” In Satan, we see a speaker who moves toward greater honesty, or at least provides a new perspective for an old story, when he remarks, “I, your slithering assassin,/ your eternal patsy, merely carried out/ your grimiest deed with reptilian loyalty.” Anyone who’s ever felt a flash of empathy for the serpent in Eden, this reviewer included, will find comfort in the gray areas this poem presents.

But perhaps one of the most self-aware personas that McDaniel employs in his first section is that of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. We can feel McDaniel’s awareness of pop culture here as he provides commentary on a recent political scandal, the epicenter of which, New York City, lies just twenty miles from where McDaniel teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. The poem ends with Spitzer holding a coin. One side says, “you will do great things in your lifetime./ The other side reads: you will rain shame/ upon your family.” Spitzer flips the coin to determine his fate, he quips, “as if only one of them can be true.” Here is Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, ends, and transitions, the presider over possibilities. Both of his faces, this collection reminds us, reside in all of us.

Once McDaniel has established his particular brand of the good/evil dichotomy, he introduces us to the speaker of his second section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies”. The blasphemy, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, addressing the perceived sin that any real man in today’s society would be committing if he willingly allowed his wife to engage in adultery time and time again. Because of constructed gender roles, the fourteen poems we get from the cuckold’s perspective are, at times, uncomfortable to read. The voice McDaniel creates for our cuckold, though, feels so very real. At age thirteen, the speaker is sat down by his father for a talk about “The Birds and the Bees” which takes a page from Marcus Aurelius: “reject your sense of injury/ and the injury itself disappears.” Just when we’re ready to discount the impotent, emasculated cuckold entirely, he lets us in on the fact that he fulfills a necessary role: “I’m the one who sees the tree/ fall down in the forest./ I’m the one who makes it real.” The universality of this comment hits us in the gut. We are all, at our basest and most vulnerable, the cuckold. The answer to how we’d react in a similar situation becomes much less clear.

And that’s what McDaniel does—reminds us all that we’re painfully imperfect. That’s okay, though, as we learn in his final section. “Return to El Mundo Perdido” is an anthem for transience, the utter humanity of sinfulness, and the act of self-forgiveness. In the title poem of the section, the speaker returns to a Mayan city he’d visited thirteen years earlier looking for “some residue of the old me.” This poem is McDaniel in-process, “searching for a metaphor to connect the new and old” selves. After trying unsuccessfully to equate monkeys to teenage boys and an ocelot to his id, McDaniel’s speaker is ready to give up the attempt. At the last minute, he sees “a strangler fig, Ficus aurea” which (no spoilers) allows for the perfect comparison.

In “Mapache,” a speaker motivated by fury to run over a raccoon recalls that “In a dream, when an enemy appears,/ they say it’s a dark version of your self,/ a chance for your two halves to meet.” Here, McDaniel hits on the central theme of the collection. In life, we are always meeting our worse selves—the real question is what we’ll do when we come face-to-face.

It is this recognition that we are all made of dark and light that allows a speaker of indeterminate gender in “Kicking the Lust Bucket”—a genderlessness that seems necessary to the poem—upon being leered at by a man in a café, to empathize and “not recoil/ from the hunger/ in the man’s eyes.” Lust, the speaker says, is universal,

“a bucket
that never stays filled.
A drop always spills,
and all the bucket feels
is the absence of that drop…”

As the collection culminates, McDaniel’s speakers truly come to terms with their darker deeds, wishing only for reconciliation—or at least penance. In “Reckoning,” the speaker admits, “I don’t want to get away with it/ anymore. Getting away with it/ is the worst punishment of all.” But from where does this forgiveness come? The final and titular poem of the collection leaves us with the idea that we must find the small beauties that enter our lives and learn to forgive ourselves first. “When they said smell the roses,/ they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,/ that first you must identify the rose.” No matter the darkness, there will always be an inadvertent joy for us to relish in. And when we do, the speaker pleads with us to:
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling… It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment…

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Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
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On J.F.K., Memory and the Nuns

by John Samuel Tieman

Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
“And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.”

As I began 8th grade, my greatest existential conundrum revolved around whether nuns wore brassieres. And, if so, why?

When I was a boy, I attended a small, Catholic grade school. I thought that world timeless. Nuns in wimples. Daily mass. Incense. And, like all things that seem timeless, it was fleeting.

It’s hard to say when that world ended. But November 22nd, 1963, will do.

University City is a small, inner suburb of St. Louis. Small as it is, there are those of us who love it. Christ The King School, C. K. S. to those in the know, was (and still is) also a small place. In 1963, it was Old School Catholic. I was an altar boy. Mass every day before school. Stations Of The Cross every day after school during Lent. Latin. Almost every grade was taught by a nun. It was a world that seemed as immutable as a medieval hymn. A world that had always been thus.

Aside from my immediate family, and a few family friends, the Sisters Of Mercy were the most important adults in my life. I’ve heard tales of kids abused, smacked with rulers. While I will not dismiss their suffering, my experience was one of comfort and nurturance. Christ The King School provided stability, predictability, purpose.

The nuns were strong, capable, educated. And anachronistic. Their world was crumbling. Vatican II and the feminist movement would challenge their lifestyle irrevocably.

But, in 1963, nuns were still all long black habits punctuated by a stark white wimples. It was still a day when a daughter, who became a Carmelite, trumped the daughter who married a millionaire stock broker.

Into this world came John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Young. Glamorous. And Catholic. Catholic as St. Louis is – it is a city named for a saint, after all – I was not immune to anti-Catholicism. The Lutherans down the street would not let me play with their sons, because I was Roman Catholic. Once, in central Missouri, when we ate at a “Restricted” restaurant, my mother, in hushed tones, told me to not say anything overtly Catholic. “Restricted” meant no Blacks, no Jews, and no Catholics. So J. F. K. was a kind of vindication, a coming of age for Catholics. Then one day someone shot that young man.

On that Friday fifty years ago, we kids came in from our mid-day recess. It was immediately clear that something bad had happened. Sister Mary Amabilis, who was both our teacher and the principal, told us to sit quietly, and left us for, perhaps, half an hour. We could sense her seriousness, her anxiety, as she and the other nuns gathered in the hallway, as they chatted in whispers.
Then, shortly after one, the announcement.

Since is was a parish school, meaning everyone lived within blocks, we were dismissed early.

Thus were we introduced to a terrible truth. We didn’t learn it all at once. It was more like the way a small spoon of incense, poured over a single coal, fills a church. And gradually dissipates. People die. Lives change. Even the One, Holy, Catholic And Apostolic Church changes. Today, there is not a single nun teaching at that school.

Yet, when so many folks are gone, when things are broken, shattered, the memories remain like souls, their resurrections. Even after fifty years, the incense, the Latin, the ink wells, the Palmer Method, the uniforms, the Angelus bells. And those nuns, their strength, their intelligence, their holiness. These recollections no madman’s bullet can shatter.
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Book Review: The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

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The Cleaner of Chartres
by Salley Vickers
The Viking Press, 2013
Hardcover: $26.95



Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Everyone has a story. For The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers chose the one belonging to a quiet cleaner in Notre Dame, the famous cathedral in Chartres, France. Vickers’s problem with this choice, however, is the style with which she began the tale.

The use of a prologue has become such a stigma in contemporary literature that authors have resorted to explaining setting and history in the first chapter. In The Cleaner of Chartres, readers are greeted with the history of Notre Dame’s fires and descriptions of the main character’s obscurity instead of an intriguing opening line. Because of this, the first chapter is dry and factual, and readers may not become interested until the second chapter—one that should have started the whole book with the words “Agnes Morel was born neither Agnes nor Morel” (9).

The novel follows Agnes both as a teenager and an adult while she struggles to find a quiet place in life. Fate seems to conspire against her, and half the time she simply waits until it’s safe to move again. Readers meet Agnes as an adult who is appointed as the official cleaner for Notre Dame and various townsfolk. Readers are then introduced to baby Agnes, who is found in a basket by a farmer and brought to a convent. From there, teenager Agnes is raped, accused of being a whore, and shipped off to a psychiatric ward when her baby is adopted and she falls into severe postpartum depression, catatonia, and psychosis. The rest of the book is a juxtaposition of the crazed teenager and the somber, isolated cleaner; it weaves two timelines together until readers have a complete understanding of this unfortunate woman.

Compared with Agnes’s childhood, middle chapters in present-setting Chartres are dull. Agnes is often in the background of events and only becomes pivotal when she is falsely accused of a couple of crimes. Otherwise, she never stands up for herself. During her whole life, she allows others to dictate where she should live, what to think, and how to act. She perseveres with almost profound insight about others and abstract concepts, but she relies on truth and friends to save her. It is hard to care for a weak character; pity and morbid fascination should not be the only driving factors of a story.

Vickers’s fixation on the wrong elements extends further to backstory and architectural facts, so much so that the main plot is buried underneath a massive amount of unnecessary detail. For example, early in the novel, Professor Jones hires Agnes to organize his notes and photographs. He then inspects her work and gleefully relives memories, even in his dreams. Vickers writes,

“Professor Jones had dropped into a morning doze. He was five years old again, sitting beneath the keys of an upright piano at his mother’s feet, as she sang in the Welsh tongue that had long since left his waking mind. If he sat there long enough she would scoop him up in her soft white arms and carry him to bed. Nestling against his mother’s warm bosom – made slightly uncomfortable by the spikes of Sunday brooches of jet, bought during her parents’ honeymoon at Whitby – Professor Jones on his bench sighed in a peaceful contentment that he was unlikely to ever know again” (16).

Readers don’t need to know where Jones’s mother got the brooch or that it existed. In fact, the whole passage could be condensed into a few sentences about a mother singing a Welsh song to her son before bedtime. Short, endearing, and just as efficient as all the tiny details above. But with Professor Jones in particular, some of Vickers’s passages read like a free writing experiment, as if she donned memories and rambled just to see what emerged. Instead of determining what she could keep to provide depth to characterization, she kept it all, including breaks in speech patterns. She is adept at showing personality through dialogue, certainly, but the detail becomes cumbersome.

This detail is key to the whole story, though. It constructs the very thing that the novel presents as vile: gossip. Old biddies, Madams Beck and Picot, fill their days with speculation, prejudice, and judgment, and whispers and misconceptions surround Agnes. The narrator gives every possible piece of information—no matter how innocuous—about everyone in Agnes’s world just to appear “in the know” like certain characters. The result is a book that reads as if it is one long gossip session.

Luckily, Vickers occasionally inserts gems of description to counter an overabundance of detail. For example, when Agnes is marveling the cathedral’s ceiling, Vickers writes,

“The tremendous height of the ceilings, the noble lofty columns – like lichen-covered trees – the succession of roaring arches, affected her profoundly and the jeweled brilliance of the stained glass, re-created in the ephemeral butterflies of light which played over the grey stone, lifted and brightened her darker thoughts” (56).

Most people can imagine the splays of color along gray stone walls of ancient churches. It’s part of their lure. This visual talent, as well as speculation about Agnes—both her past and the resolution of her troubles—will pull readers to the last page. But it is a tough journey. Perhaps if Vickers chose to reorder her chapters, she might hold readers’ attentions better—hook them into Agnes’s childhood from the start and make them curious… instead of rambling about the church and secondary characters.

But, hidden much like the plot, The Cleaner of Chartres answers a question that most people have asked at least once: If I disappeared, would anyone notice or come find me? This reveals another gem in the book; The Cleaner of Chartres isn’t just about stories, self-worth, and truth… it’s about how one person can affect the lives of many, and the discovery and selection of family.

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Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the home of her mother and grew up as the child of parents in the British Communist Party. Her father was a trade union leader and her mother a social worker. She won a state scholarship to St Paul’s Girl’s School (something which caused her father some anxiety because of his dislike of public schools and for a while he felt that she should not attend the school) and went on to read English at Newnham College Cambridge, with which she recently renewed working ties. She has worked, variously, as a cleaner, a dancer, an artist’s model, a teacher of children with special needs, a university teacher of literature and a psychoanalyst. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, became an international word-of-mouth bestseller and a favourite among book clubs and reading groups. She now writes full time and lectures widely on many subjects, particularly the connections between, art, literature, psychology and religion.
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Labor Unions in U.S. and China

By Karen Zhang

My first understanding of a union strike in the United States came last year when I flipped on the TV station and saw dozens of public school teachers in Chicago picketing their school.

Later, a hundred or so Walmart employees went on strike outside Washington, DC, dodging cars and shopping trolleys until they stood face-to-face with a shop manager. Just about the same time, workers of the 85-year-old Hostess Brands, the bankrupt maker of Twinkies snack cakes, also launched a strike against salary and benefit cuts.

Recently, confrontations between workers and employers appear to be sharper and more frequent in China as well. But independent labor unions are almost non-existent in China. The Chinese so-called national trade union is state-controlled. The Chinese government doesn’t allow unions with full legal independence from the national trade union. Worker strikes are illegal.

In America, labor unions play an important role in protecting employees’ labor rights. Take the teachers union in Chicago, for example. When the strike happened, even the mayor couldn’t utilize his power to stop the protest. He could appeal in public to end the strike but not to suppress by force, as the Chinese authorities would have done. Sadly, the Chinese government can command the police force anytime to prevent any form of worker strikes from happening.

I have been told teachers unions across America bear significant responsibility. Most public school teachers are associated with the teacher union. Perhaps it is one of the few strong unions in the country. According to a news report, as the American economy has shifted from heavy industry to services which are more mobile, union membership has fallen, from 24% of private-sector workers in 1973 to a mere 7% in 2011. Yet the unions still have considerable power among government workers.The politicians who negotiate wage deals with public-sector unions are often funded by the same unions. This partly explains why America’s municipal finances are a mess.

It has been a long-standing practice for Walmart to discourage its workers from unionizing. However, the mega-retailer has made an exception to allow employee unions in China. As I said earlier, all labor unions are associated with the national trade union, which is state-controlled. It is obvious that Walmart’s acceptance of government-sponsored unions is to maintain a good relation with the Chinese government. After all, who wants to miss a lion’s share in an economic power house, which has become the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan and following the US?
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Dance Review: See What I Hear by Murphy/Smith Dance Collective

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For the choreographic duo, Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, sound matters. Murphy deals with hearing loss in her left ear. And Smith’s grandfather has suffered from hearing damage since serving in the war. In the dance collective’s latest piece, See What I Hear, the two explored ways in which we are affected by sound or silence.

The evening-length work took place at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater for two nights and one child friendly matinee. Seven dancers took to the stage with an array of musical accompaniment. Gordon Nunn composed the pre-recorded sound, and the dancers performed live, using their own voices.

Large sheets of paper created the set; some dangled from the rafters and some lay crumpled at the back of the stage. One long, thinner sheet created a pathway from the back right corner to the front left. The dancers moved in and around and on top of the sheets, which added another layer to the soundscape.

To begin, we heard rushing water and hushed but excited voices. The dancers entered gradually, a few from the audience. As a group, they performed a gestural movement phrase that mimicked each sound they made. For example, we heard the creak of a screen door opening while the dancers used a pulling arm motion. Without the beat of traditional music, the dancers had to tune into each other with heightened sensibility.

Later, Smith performed a solo while five dancers voiced the accompaniment using a deep but breathy “whoosh,” a high-pitched “boop boop boop,” and more. When they noisily crescendoed, Shana Simmons tried to shush them, then yelled “Stop it!” which put an end to the racket. Eventually that led to a duet between Murphy and Smith. They manipulated each other with simple but interesting partnering, a calm after the sound storm.

One particularly compelling section used video projection to show how different sounds affect different people. Abigail Adkins moved lightly and freely to the image of birds chirping. Laura Warnock used pointed gestures to accent a smart phone’s many tones. When presented with the image of war and repetitive gun shots, Lamar Williams and Brady Sanders were jolted into spastic motion. In a humorous moment, Smith had a frenetic solo of fist pumping and hair pulling to the sight and sound of a Jerry Springer show. Eventually the solos and sounds overlapped and the audience was bombarded with a barrage of noise that ended in screaming, laughter and a blackout.

The lights came back up slowly. Murphy, Smith and Sanders all moved quietly on top of the sheets of paper. Sanders performed a lovely solo; paper shifted underneath him as he appeared weightless on his feet.

Each dancer re-entered, making their way to the diagonal pathway across the stage. Their individual movement phrases, combined with unison and moments of contact, showed how communication through touch is important. To end, they frantically tore down the paper, ripped it, and kicked it in a final wave of sound before the lights went down.

In a day and age of buzzing smart phones, beeping texts and dinging email notifications, the show reminded us to broaden our senses and heighten our awareness. I personally walked out with an appreciation for the bustling sounds of East Liberty, thankful that the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective created art that demanded a level of mindfulness important for all of us.

So You Want to be a Writer…

by Jim Danger Coppoc

At least once a month—and just about every time I do a reading—someone asks me for advice on publishing, getting a job, getting into an MFA program, etc. Most of the time this person is already a writer, and when I see their work it’s usually pretty good, but they also always seem to be looking to take that next step and become professionals.

The problem is that I’m not sure I actually know what professional means. If there is a clear path to a writing career, I never found it. I stumbled through my first few years on some combination of luck, pluck, guesswork and industry. I wrote all the time—most of it junk—and I failed again and again and again until I didn’t. Most days, that’s still the cycle I’m in. Writing is hard, making a career of it even harder.

So here’s my first piece of advice for those wanting to become a “professional” writer. Don’t.

Seriously—don’t. You’re probably very talented, but so is everybody else. MFA programs all over America are overflowing with young, ambitious, talented writers who will never make it and who will spend the rest of their lives working crappy jobs teaching freshman comp just to pay off student loans. Give up the idea of writing as a profession, because except for a lucky few that path just doesn’t exist.

If you can do that—if you can strip yourself of any capital-R Romantic notions of winning a National Book Award, getting your work in the Norton Anthology, and watching your mailbox flood with royalty checks—you just might come to a much more important and telling truth:

Writing is not a profession; it is a calling.

Right now, the rest of your life is spread out before you. If you can imagine yourself grading the essays of football players and Ag majors every evening for the rest of your life, replacing the steak-and-caviar award dinners of your dreams with Chinese takeout in your crappy apartment; if you can imagine yourself driving the same car fifteen years at a time, forgetting about royalty checks and watching your mailbox fill with rejection slips and past due bills instead—if you can imagine all that, and the writer’s life still seems worth it, then we might have something to talk about.

If it turns out instead that the lifestyle you imagine is more important to you than the actual act of writing—well, your skills would be equally useful in law school, and that path can buy you all the steak dinners and first-class living you need.

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So here, for those of you still with me, is what I know about becoming a professional. It’s not much, but it’s what worked for me…

First, write. Then read. Then write. Then read. Then write then read then read then write then write then write then read then write.

Most of what you write won’t be very good. You won’t know that on the same day you write it. Sometimes you’ll instantly fall in love with garbage. Sometimes you’ll hate what’s creeping out of your pen, but later it’ll turn into the best and most important art you’ve ever made.

If I’ve learned one thing studying the writers who have made it, it’s that they write. Whatever processes or rituals or routines they need—at the end of the day, they sit down with pen and paper (or keys and screen), and they do their job.

Anne Lamott—whose Bird by Bird is a book every aspiring writer should own—writes in her essay/chapter “Shitty First Drafts” that what is important is getting your thoughts on paper, no matter what shape they’re in. Self-censorship is the enemy. Quality comes with revision, not with drafting. You can’t really begin to apply real craft until you have something on paper to apply that craft to.

And of course, learning the craft you need to apply in revision is not something you can do by yourself. You can’t reinvent the wheel with every story/poem/essay. You would never get anything worthwhile done.

A more realistic approach is to carefully read all the writers you can who are better than you (and there will always be writers better at something than you), and learn how they work. My imagery comes from Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Pinero, the King James Bible, and a whole host of slammers from around the turn of the century. My prosody comes from Jack Kerouac, Saul Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Bryonn Bain, Shane Koyczan, and the Baptist hymns I grew up with. My themes come from grunge music, urban spaces, the Gospel of Matthew, and all the hip-hop crossover poets—like Saul Williams and Miguel Pinero—I can find…

These lists go on, but the point is that writers write in community. If you want to grow, you will need both a living community of writers, editors and honest friends, AND a large library of truly great influences you can draw from. There’s no Ginsberg without Whitman or Blake. There’s no Shakespeare without Petrarch. There’s no tree without roots. It just doesn’t work any other way.

As for the MFA—well, that choice is yours. I chose the best possible MFA for me. Hamline University is interdisciplinary by nature, and so am I. Jim Moore—one of their flagship poets—brings big metaphor to everyday living in a way I needed to learn. Deborah Keenan—their other flagship poet—is good at all the things I’m not. I learned more from her than I could have from a thousand professors whose writing is more similar to mine.

Maybe even more important than all that, the MFA program at Hamline prides itself on faculty who can teach instead of just faculty who bring big name recognition and high visibility. This is what I needed at that point in my life.

I made my choice. You make yours. Find writers you admire, and look them up on sites like Rate My Professor to see if they can teach. When you find the faculty you need, apply to the schools they work for, regardless of reputation or location or price or any other factor. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…

And give up on trying to game the application. Just send them your best writing sample and your most honest essay. Don’t overthink. Let the pieces fall where they may. If the program doesn’t like what you do, you would probably not be happy there anyway.

As for the job market and the publishing game—nobody really knows how they work. Apply to places you want to work, where you’ll be surrounded by people you want to work with. Send out to journals and book publishers you admire. Find out whether or not you admire them by doing your research, reading past issues, and learning what they’ve published before.

Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of what’s important. Careerism has its place. That place is not on top of your list of priorities. Read what you read. Write what you write. Remember your calling, and trust that somehow the Universe will keep you afloat long enough to put something worthwhile out into the world.

If it can happen to me…
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Old Soldiers

by John Samuel Tieman

Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”

And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Nemerov’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.

This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s more like wwwwhhhaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.

I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.

I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself.

Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.

_____

Smoking

By Karen Zhang

When I first arrived in America, I noticed a lot of teenagers smoking. On campus I was shocked to see girls in their late teens and early twenties smoking outside the buildings. Rain or shine or even snow, these smokers were adamant about their addictive love for cigarettes.

In China, a majority of smokers are men. Women smokers are always considered to be morally tarnished. While the ban on smoking inside buildings in America seems to do little to discourage the habit, in China, the situation is even worse. Smokers drag their cigarettes stealthily indoors regardless of the “No Smoking” sign hung on the wall inside the buildings.

In this regard, American smokers are more obedient as they walk out of the buildings to smoke. As for how obedient, let me tell you the news from Virginia where I live. Because Virginia’s tobacco tax is the second-lowest in America, smugglers buy cigarettes there in bulk and sell them to retailers at enormous profit in New York and other high-tax states.

I hadn’t thought that the difference in tobacco taxes between states would promote smuggling domestically, but evidently it does. When I was studying in Pennsylvania, my smoker classmates were aware of an increase of cigarette prices. But they didn’t quit the habit. I thought they probably purchased cigarettes out of state just as some Pennsylvanians go elsewhere to buy liquor. Aren’t the tobacco retailers doing the same thing?

What challenges the authorities to capture the smugglers is how cannily they evade the law. Virginia has recently declared it illegal to buy and possess, with intent to sell elsewhere, more than 5,000 cigarettes. Smugglers often break the big quantity of shipment into a small number of cartons.

Black-market cigarettes are not new in my home city Guangzhou where imported cigarettes are smuggled mainly from Hong Kong and Macau. Their prices are usually cheaper than the market price. But the black-market cigarettes in America are sold at the local market price. Unless there is some kind of technology embedded in the black-market cigarettes that differ from the legal cigarettes, cracking down the tobacco smuggling will be a long battle. No wonder the news report says, when gun-running was at its peak, I-95 was known as the “iron highway”. Now it is the new Tobacco Road.

_____

Book Review: Girl at the Watershed by Nicola Waldron

Girl at the Watershed
Poems by Nicola Waldron
Stepping Stone Press
$12

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

You’d expect a little vertigo from a poet who migrated from the berries and cream at Cambridge to the red eye gravy of South Carolina. The speaker in Nicola Waldron’s poems in Girl at the Watershed is ever on the move, but even at 30,000 feet, or on bicycle, or dogging it, she has an uncanny ability to find her middle in spite of the contrary motions she engages. Sometimes it’s a moment, or else a rock, but feeling or thing, it’s always a magic lamp of a noun kicked up in the flourish of action.

Waldron’s finding of her middle is often represented by holding the stillness of it in her hand. Stillness in spite of the heavy forehand pace. The result is that Waldron’s most profound lines have nothing to do with the obviousness I associate with light and dark subject matter. Sure, there’s some grief in here, but these are not poems about how the speaker lost a leg or had a parent die or sometimes considered suicide or noticed how an incident along the coast bore a resemblance to Greek mythology.

There’s plenty of Voice, and Tone, but these don’t steer the lines either. Instead, Waldron’s poems are crocheted with a kind of fantastic internal logic. Her words are marionettes, yet we seldom notice the strings. The drama is that dazzling.

Some readers will want a clue as to how a patriotic Brit would have found herself in a state known for hounds traveling in pick-up beds or which was the only state to carry Bush One in the 1992 Presidential election. About the only thing South Carolina and England have in common is a love for breakfast. England is one of those countries which have specialized dishes for coddled eggs. The state flower of South Carolina, on the other hand, is the Waffle House billboard that blooms at every highway interchange where one can have grits and pancakes for 24 hours every eight miles.

I was looking for those clues in Girl at the Watershed because I know Waldron as a memoirist who has made great work of tugging back the curtain and dressing, but not undressing, in front of the reader. The tone in her prose is so direct it’s as if you’re listening to her chapters instead of reading them. Her poetry however, is quite a different beast. The mystery is in the revelation. Every second, every small square inch, seems to have a story to tell.

Waldron’s poem “In the Capay Hills” involves a trek through old French fur trader country along the Cache Creek in Northeastern California where the speaker and her partner have gone to find “something more than fields / blank with winter; pages waiting to be turned.” Her partner has “purple rings around his eyes” much like the sediment that she cannot name that “splits the red stone.” The waters “rage with life” but a “quail sits dead on the trail like a defeated dancer.” The couple are lost and must become each other’s compass: “The bridge to the trail’s been washed away. / Without direction, what are we to do…?”

I pick out stones and when he calls,
I bring him the sandstone treasure in my hands,
and he takes my face in his hands,
because there’s no one like me who loves him.

The logic here transforms her face into his sandstone treasure, and “In these hills, / we cannot get enough of touching: we reach out / like prophets, making the streambeds run.” The couple have to pass the dead quail twice, once heading out, once heading in. On the second pass, the speaker gets “down on my knees, press my two fingers inside the crescent footprint of a deer, to show him I am true.” It’s a graceful stroke: the two lovers, the two fingers, the raging with life, the passing by death, the touching, the kneeling, the Sufi crescent, her lover’s washed out bridge of his faith, her belief in everything, and her trueness which becomes their direction.

“Red Barn” is a conditional poem. It’s premise is not what the speaker would do if she had a million dollars, rather, what she would do if she were a farmer: “I’d weave the dubious contours / of my land into some kind of dream…I’d kneel in the valley / and wash my face in the sand, / in the lines the sky made before falling…We could lie on our backs and look at clouds— / call it work, I would have reasons / for the folding of the mountains.”

Like Elizabeth Robinson has sometimes done, Waldron is more apt to dwell on her birth than her death, as if her own birthing, her becoming, were something that never stopped happening. It’s a process where we move from blindness to vision so that sense of self and sense of place are linked. Most poets start thinking a lot about death when their parents die and there aren’t any more doors between themselves and nothing. Waldron in her true and believing way looks for ways to add doors between herself and the fear. “New World” is a symphony of this thinking about existence.

If I chose to travel here,
how then did I come to exile?

If I can sort the broadness of new sound
like pebbles on sand, but make no sense

of a hand raised, a soft hello;
if I, afraid of voices jangling in midair,

feel color now but distantly,
translating marigolds as sun,

should I stay
to make my history happen here?

Will what was England in me
be swept down strange waters?

I do not recognize the bird you call robin:
to me, the hated blue-jay is miracle;

here, springtime is not carried in
on swallows’ feet, but comes to earth

as fury. How is it summer will follow
without lawns of daisies, ladies’ slipper, chamomile?

Can an alien lie down, feel April on her skin?
and what does her child hear

at the moment of birth?

Waldron’s syntax lets her connections and associates occur without any awkward self conscious feelings or edgy juxtaposition. Her poem “At 30,000 Feet” is a marvel of symmetry as she butts up against some issues: “While the movie runs eight inches from your face, / I lift the window shade and scan the screen.” In the first line, we’ve moved from 30,000 feet to eight inches, and soon we go from a movie running to the world running outside the window. The couple are flying and the first information we get is where they are not flying to: “the ice below that frills and parts like first love / is from Iqaluit: a place we’ll never go.” Waldron then smears her brush into the birthing and existence bucket: “It’s been six hours now since London, my body / lifted by my father from the gritty newborn earth. / Outside it’s 70 below and if we fall out here / we’ll freeze and die before we can say I—

Your hand falls loose against my thigh,
I squeeze the belt across my lap,

which makes me want you.
The sun behind us races to keep up.

When I turn my head, I’m looking
at the left side of your face, where

they cut the skin to take the cancer out.
I wonder about the science of flight,

and if we’ll understand each other
when we land breathing in America.

My favorite poem in this short collection is “Stalker” where again there’s a suggestion of sky and flying, and again, the speaker focuses on one small mystery: “I pick out a rock and / pretend it is my father: / it is a big rock, and cowardly. / When I grasp it in my fist / it cringes, and will not / look me in the eye. / Perhaps it is / the altitude.”

Girl at the Watershed is all too-brief a book from a writer who has lived and seen so much and publishes so seldom. Waldron surely has more to come—she’s previously been a winner of the prestigious United Kingdom Bridport Prize—and it will be fascinating to learn which press will have the honor of putting out her long anticipated debut collection.
________

Condo

by Nola Garrett

It was a Tuesday morning, my favorite day of the week because it’s so ordinary. Not yet dressed, I was eating my breakfast, reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when I noticed a couple of thick cords drop past my corner window. Window washer I thought and returned to another bite of toast, another front page article. A couple pages later, a young man, fully harnessed unto the two cords briefly met my glance, then in seconds soaped and squeegeed my seventh floor window clean. Though I knew my monthly maintenance fee paid for his services, I still felt amazed and grateful I didn’t have to clean that window that otherwise brings me a quiet joy with what property appraisers refer to as a “beneficial view.” Of course, the appraisers are talking property value, while I consider looking out that window or any window soul food.. Doesn’t really matter what I’m looking at, just that it’s framed by a window. The fact of the frame turns the view, any view—a coal heap, a brick wall, a tree branch—into art.

Billy Collins’ two page poem, “Monday” from The Trouble with Poetry addresses window watching from another point of view:

The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.

and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.

Then his poem becomes a bit darker:

…the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.

But, the poem goes on listing the ordinary views to be seen from windows and the necessity of poets’ to keep looking out windows. Then Collins writes the poem’s turn by proposing what it would be like if poets had no windows but only walls by ending “Monday” thusly:

I mean a cold wall of fieldstones,
the wall of the medieval sonnet,
the original woman’s heart of stone,
the stone caught in the throat of her poet-lover.

Hardly an appraiser’s beneficial view, yet something I found interesting to remember during breakfast.

Just as I laid aside my newspaper’s first section, I noticed the window washer’s dangling ropes had moved to an adjoining window. I turned to the Local News section, and there was a quarter page color photograph of my window washer, identified as Robby Hessmann, washing the windows of my building! I supposed he must have known his photo had been taken, but he might not have known if or when it would be published. And, besides now I could thank him, so I hurried to find my scotch tape, grabbed a marker, circled his pic, wrote “Thank You” above the page mast, and taped it to my window he would next wash.

I didn’t have to wait long until Robby arrived. He grinned in delight and waved a thank you back. He dug into his pants pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and swung back deep into the morning sky.

I froze in fear. What if I had so distracted him that he lost his grip? Fell to his death? It would be my fault. I’d be the woman whose heart was stone.

Robby Hessmann, though, is one cool dude. He swung back twice—took two cell phone photos—smiled another thank you straight at me, then cleaned my window perfectly.

________

The Party of “No!”

by John Samuel Tieman

If Democrats want an emotionally charged, yet meaningful bumper sticker, I suggest, “Republican = Anarchy + Nihilism.”

I am not anti-Republican. Nor am I anti-conservative. I am anti-anarchy. I am anti-nihilism. Our republic is based upon dialogue and compromise among groups committed to loyal opposition. In other words, I am fond of the African poet, Atukwei Okai, who wrote, “Between me and my God / There are only eleven commandments; / The eleventh says: Thou shalt not / Bury thy brother alive.” This is my point.

This is what I hate. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have another Democrat governor in Missouri.” Those words were spoken by Catherine Hanaway, former Speaker of the Missouri House, a recent candidate for Missouri Secretary Of State, and current U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. The “No. 1 objective” is opposition for the sake of opposition, negation for the sake of negation. There’s no sense that the state should have as its highest priority poverty, jobs, infrastructure. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have…” Hanaway is hardly unique. I could have chosen from dozens of similar quotes made at the local, state or national levels.

A couple of quick definitions. When I say anarchy, I refer to a society without a publicly supported government. When I say nihilism, I mean the negation of various aspects of life that give existence meaning. If this seems abstract, it has practical consequences. Taken together, these mean “No!” to almost everything. “No!” to public health care. “No!” to helping the poor. “No!” to the maintenance of bridges and roads. “No!” to dialogue and compromise. “No!” for the sake of negation itself.

Conservativism has never been about negation. Conservatism is a positive vision of, among other things, tradition, ritual, responsible hierarchy, noblesse oblige, family, small government, fiscal austerity, devotion to place, peace through strength, homage to the past. In other words, a “Yes!” Nowhere in this vision is the sense that, in order to be a Republican, one must adhere exclusively to ultra-right Christian dogma. Nor is there the sense that government can do absolutely nothing of value. Indeed, conservativism, at its finest, is an optimistic vision of both the individual and the community.

The problem is not conservativism. The problem is the Republican Party. It is easy to argue that the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Tea Party. There is much truth to that. But, if the Republican Party cannot immunize itself from a nihilistic and anarchistic far right, it becomes a national problem that affects us all, right and left. Why? Representative democracy is a dialogue informed by loyal opposition. “No!” is not a dialogue. “No!” is not diplomacy. “No!” is not fiscal responsibility. “No!” is not a nutrition program. “No!” is the impossibility of governance, and, indeed, the impossibility of hope.

Like an addiction, there can be no recovery without an admission that there is a problem. Denial merely postpones the inevitable reckoning. I am not wise enough to offer solutions to a party of which I am not even a member. I leave that to others who are better schooled in such matters. But this is a problem that affects us all. In the broadest sense, this anarchy, this nihilism, does not simply threaten this or that bill, this or that policy. It threatens our very vision of what it means to have government, our very vision of what it means to have hope.

I refuse to sound the death knell. But I do mourn for the party of Jack Danforth, Gerald Ford, David Brooks and, for that matter, many in my family. There is an old saying in politics. While a politician may only win 51% of the vote, he or she represents 100% of the district. The demand upon that politician, the demand upon all of us, is for an openness to, and a respect for, differing views, interests and hopes. But the Republican Party has become the party of “No!” “No!” to any positive vision of government. “No!” to anything except the most narcissistic vision of individualism. And I do mourn.

_____

Voices from a Conversation

by Dawn Potter

Gretel Ehrlich writes, “A writer makes a pact with loneliness. It is her, or his, beach on which waves of desire, wild mind, speculation break. In my work, in my life, I am always moving toward and away from aloneness. To write is to refuse to cover up the rawness of being alive, of facing death.” Within that aloneness comes, now and again, the grace of a conversation—with a poem, with a forest, with a circle of readers, with another burning, lonely mind.

For Robert Frost, that conversation happened with poet Edward Thomas, whom he met in England in about 1913. After Thomas was killed in the war, Frost said, “[he] was the only brother I ever had. I fail to see how we can have been so much to each other, he an Englishman and I an American and our first meeting put off till we were both in middle life. I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” He told Thomas’s wife, “He is all yours. But you must let me cry as if he were almost all mine too.”

I met my friend Jilline Ringle in the mid-1980s, when we were eighteen-year-old college students. She was an aspiring actor, I was an aspiring writer, and we began a burning conversation that lasted until her death in 2005. We wrote to each other when we were callow, hopeful, untrained girls. We wrote to each other when we began to achieve our first tiny successes. We wrote to each other at moments of misery and epiphany. Today she has been dead for nearly a decade, yet our conversation continues, as Frost’s conversation with Thomas continued for the rest of Frost’s long life.

In 1999, when I was overwhelmed by babies and solitude and the struggle to make poems, Jilline sent me a letter:

“I love, I love, she cries into the gust.”

That is our mantra, yours and mine, each for our own reasons, each for our own sanity. This is why we have each other. There is a talismanic charm . . . that we cling to in order to return ourselves to this earth. Keep figuring it out, honey; I will be flat and frank with you if you will as well with me. If it is impossible for us to hold each other’s hands, we will charge each other’s minds telepathically, ethereally, and hopefully we will help turn on some lights in those dark corners.

With love, your lantern bearer.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Theater Review: The Zero Hour

The Zero Hour. By Madeleine George. Directed by Robyne Parrish. Off the Wall Productions, Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 25–November 9.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

At Off the Wall Theater currently, Erika Cuenca and Daina Michelle Griffith are giving virtuoso performances as multiple characters. Their principal roles are the enmeshed lovers Rebecca (Cuenca) and O (Griffith). Cuenca’s Rebecca is the barely controlled Felix of the pair, gainfully employed writing school textbooks, riding the New York subway to work, seeing a therapist. Griffith is O, unpredictable, funny, impossible. She’s a Wild Thing, but one who doesn’t leave their one-room, leaky-ceilinged squat. They squabble comically like old married people. Both assume other roles. Griffith in particular becomes a dizzying variety of people Rebecca meets, from Rebecca’s therapist to a subway-riding Nazi with hypnotic blue eyes. Cuenca becomes O’s mother, then Rebecca’s.

I find it exhilarating to see theater whose artifice is transparent, as here. A row of chairs and a horizontal pole represent the subway, always in sight. (The Number 7 train is practically a co-star.) Quick costume changes take place on stage. The same person plays many roles. It’s a stunt, in a way, like watching the Cirque de Soleil of acting. But the level of acting here goes beyond virtuosity. Cuenca and Griffith inhabit their roles, make them human—and, not incidentally, sympathetic. We care about Rebecca and O. And they’re sexy. And comic.

At a poetry workshop recently I said that I generally feel that poetry that links the Holocaust with some personal emotional travail is disproportionate. Narcissistic. The Zero Hour comes perilously close to this but tactfully avoids it. Here, Rebecca is writing a text about the Holocaust for seventh-graders. O wants her to include material on Nazi persecution of gays, impossible in the bland, offend-nobody textbook world. The political is the personal: O wants Rebecca to come out, to her mother and the world. Rebecca doesn’t want to think about her sexual identity. She becomes more and more preoccupied, finally obsessed, with the Holocaust, until she’s seeing Nazis everywhere, including the train.

John Steffenauer is effective in a small role. I’d call him the deus ex machina that enables Rebecca’s climactic recognition, but the role’s no deus, more like a dork. No, sorry, Steffenauer, not a dork. A decent guy, maybe. The direction and technical team deserve a lot of credit. (Those costumes had to be engineered for quick changes.)