The Night Before Christmas…

by Jim Coppoc

‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse

When Clement Clarke Moore wrote this poem in 1823—a poem once called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American1”—he published it anonymously. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the versified story of Christmas that gave America a good portion of its holiday folklore, was intended to be a gift. A contribution. A retelling and reshaping of many old tales into one unified narrative for the ages.

Or, in another history, Professor Moore was an erudite and serious academic, and was worried that such a light-hearted piece would reflect poorly on him in the academic culture of the time. Apparently, 190 years hasn’t changed all that much.

In either history, Moore only acknowledged authorship when his children, who loved the poem, requested he include it in his 1844 anthology.

However the poem came to be, I grew up with it, and likely so did you. My father. A third grade play. Disney. All the silly parodies we’ve heard over the years. Again and again—at home, at school, on TV, everywhere—we heard and saw version after version after version of this poem until it became part of us.

And this is the power of poetry.

To paraphrase Karl Kroeber, one of my favorite experts in the oral tradition, stories like this—the ones that really sink in—are at the root of how we learn culture, and they operate by what I’ve come to call Kroeber’s “3 Rs”: Repeat, Revise, Retain.

The repetition part is obvious. Most Americans have heard this story so many times that they can (and do) recite it out loud at some point in the holiday season at least once—especially those of us with children to raise.

The revision part might be a little more subtle, but one of the key features of this story is that it is not new. According to legend, Moore borrowed the image of St. Nicholas and the names of the reindeer, blended them with various cultural traditions, and threw in his own musings from a sleigh ride on a snowy day. Even the jolly figure of St. Nicholas was taken from a Dutch handyman of Moore’s acquaintance.

Even after Moore put all this together and codified it in verse, though, the poem continued to grow and change. It has been published under several titles and in many variations. It has been told and retold both orally and in-person, and in all our culture’s many evolving media. The surface details change, but the underlying themes that have to do with the spirit of the holiday remain intact. What anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss call the “deep structure” of the narrative has continued unbroken through generation after generation of Americans for almost two centuries.

And so we retain this little piece of culture—this story of the holidays. We shape our experience and that of our children around it. We keep the chain of culture unbroken, and forge our own links every year.

If, as many cultures believe, the world is made of stories, it’s fitting at this time of year to stop and reflect on the many stories that bind us together and keep us in community. That teach us how to see the world and how to be in the world. That make us human, and give us family, community, country and culture.

And while you’re reflecting, don’t forget to take a moment to open yourselves to the wonder of Christmas and share these beautiful, light-hearted verses with your children—the next link to be forged.

And next year—to embrace the pluralism of the Great American Story—remind me to tell you another story I know about a few brave Maccabees, or the Nguzu Saba of Kwanzaa, or the child of a carpenter and a faithful Jewish maiden, born in a manger in Bethlehem…
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1Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, from their 1999 book, Gotham: A History of New York City.
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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…

______

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.
______

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.

_______

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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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.
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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)]

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

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)]

Book Review: Proving Nothing to Anyone by Matt Cook

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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)]

Slam

by Jim Danger Coppoc

I wanna hear a poem about revolution
about fists raised high and hips
twisting in a rumble like a rhumba
I wanna follow the footsteps of Che
and hear the truth about the day
the CIA killed Lumumba

-from Steve Coleman, “I Wanna Hear a Poem”

I’m waiting just offstage, two hours after the plane landed, trying to catch my figurative breath, about to give what I hope will be the show of my life to a room full of total strangers.

“Jim Coppoc is, well, Dangerous.” the program director alludes to my Facebook name, which has somehow become securely attached to me in real life as well. She pushes her reading glasses into place, and beams down at the front row. The front row beams back.

“He’s, um…” she looks down at me, as if there’s a question she forgot to ask, then back to the audience. She lifts a paper from the podium.

“Coppoc has published several books of poetry and nonfiction, his plays are being produced in multiple cities as we speak, and…” she drifts off into boilerplate she got from a book cover somewhere.

Bookstore owners. Grad students. Library administrators. Conference organizers. It seems like nobody is quite sure how to introduce a creature like me at readings. They know that half the audience is there for my spoken word roots, but they’ve been trained to believe that “slam” is an insult to the serious and literary minded. So instead, they gloss over the most important parts of me, offer up a list of books and awards, and get off stage as quickly as they’re able.

But I am slam. And so are you.

See, poetry is a process, not a static art. It grows. It evolves. But it never loses the most basic parts of its own DNA—the core pieces that animate and give it life.

Poetry is the Ur genre. It existed before fiction, before nonfiction, before drama, before anything else we think of as literature. All other genres spring from it. Poetry is in the chants and ululations around the campfires of our earliest ancestors. It’s in the griots and shamans and monks and cantors and clergy and medicine people. It’s in our bones—the natural music of bodies in motion and at rest. It took a long time for us to forget that, and if slam and hiphop and charismatic religion are any indicators, the truth is that this most basic, primal aspect of poetry has never really left us.

The earliest laws were written as poetry. The earliest histories and religious texts too. For millennia, even poetry and music were indistinguishable. A ballad is a ballad is a ballad, no matter what the delivery. A psalm is a psalm with or without a lyre. A villanelle is just a villanella that goes undanced.

The list goes on, but I think the point is clear. This truth might be hidden now, but all the priests and troubadours and minstrels in our collective history knew, without a doubt, that poetry and music are just two dialects of the deeper language of the human spirit.

In the mid 1980s, a construction worker from Chicago named Marc Smith took a good look at the contemporary poetry scene, and realized that all of us could stand to be reminded of this. In a flash of genius, he added a silly game show format with live judging to an open mic, Slam poetry was born, history was made, and a movement was begun.

And once begun, Slam grew like a contagion. People get one taste of poets who write for a real human audience—poets trained by the random and arbitrary nature of the contest not to take themselves too seriously—and they want more. After the first couple years, slam spread like wildfire. Ann Arbor. New York. San Francisco. All the big cities and college towns of the United States and then abroad. It found its way into schools and libraries, coffee shops and theaters, street corners and music venues. It found its way into our culture, and made a home there for itself that it’s unlikely to be dislodged from anytime soon.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you’ve been touched by slam. Maybe you’ve read poets like Patricia Smith (a 4-time national champion), or maybe you’ve read one of the many hundreds of young poets in Cave Canem and elsewhere who’ve been mentored by her. Maybe you’ve picked up a book published by a trendy press like Write Bloody (founded by a slammer), or maybe your college poetry professor, like me, likes to sneak away on Tuesday nights to refill his tank at the local slam and draw inspiration to bring back to the classroom.

Poets write in community, and when the community is on fire with something this transformative—something that reaches this far back in our collective poetic unconscious to the deepest roots we have—it’s bound to touch all of us eventually.

I do have books, and I do have awards. I’ve been very fortunate so far. Some of that is talent, some of it is luck, and some of it is just hard work and good networking. But the core of who I am as a poet has nothing to do with the number of lines on my CV. Who I am and who I want to be as a poet is the thing that Marc Smith was trying to touch almost three decades ago. I am Slam.

To those who might be reading this blog because I’m coming to your town, and you’ve been tasked with introducing me—if you want the introduction to be both honest and meaningful, consider leading with that.

Book Review: What Things are Made Of by Charles Harper Webb

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What Things Are Made Of
Poems by Charles Harper Webb
University of Pittsburgh Press:
Pitt Poetry Series, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Webb’s title implies a certain amount of realism, an engineer’s approach, and his poems certainly follow through with this idea, though frequently with a philosophical bent. His weapon of choice is humor. The collection opens with “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used To Be,” an elegy for the ice cream trucks of his youth. Webb begins by admitting the fallacy often ignored in nostalgia for the past, the idea of “privileged bourgeois affability and valorized/ consumption.” The songs played by the trucks “legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,/ and the Mariana Trench of slavery.” He goes on to question the relationships he remembers, the people he remembers as “friends who may/have cared nothing for me.” He admits the “Capitalist hegemony” and even the stereotypes reinforced by some products. But under the weight of all this middle-class guilt, he does manage to dig out some slight memory of untainted human interaction.

Webb tackles interesting occurrences as easily as many poets tackle life-and-death situations. “Mummies to Burn” deals with just that: the practice of burning mummies for locomotive fuel in the nineteenth century. “Duck Tape” plays with the common mispronunciation while also poking fun at the governmental placebo of the Bush era.

“Where Does Joy Come In?” Reads like a riff on one of those questionnaires one find’s in a Woman’s Day magazine:

It sneaks through the cat-flap when you’re busy microwaving a beef-and-cheese burrito.
It slides down a beanstalk from another galaxy.
It overflows your clogged commode.
It breaks into your triple-locked, burglar-barred life, just before you can bolt out the door.

Webb’s humor and verve morph what could easily be trite material into something profound and enjoyable. “Never Too Late” is a nature poem, ostensibly, but also a respite from the memento mori of life as Webb recalls his childhood. Webb’s true power, as evidenced by his humor but also demonstrated beautifully in this poem, is his ability to sneak up on the reader. He begins with a natural description:

Doves flute in peeling eucalyptus trees.
Rain pit-pit-pits off lance-point leaves,
and pings into expanding bull’s-eyes

on Descanso Pond. Redwings ride
bucking tules at the water’s edge.
Beside them, still as a decoy, a mallard

rests—emerald pate, brass chest,
pewter sides…

His language evokes elegant imagery which would be enough to make this a fine poem. But as he continues, the scene grows into something truly beautiful as flowers, wildlife, and fish all become evident, and then the turn:

…The baking soda

submarine I lost in 1963
surfaces: full-sized, blowing
like a whale. The crew flash V for Victory.

Suddenly, the poem isn’t simply a nature poem but recalls something profound from the narrator’s youth. Though in poems like “The Last Bobcat” Webb displays his ability to write a powerful, serious nature poem. He begins with the wonderful line: “The hill behind our house still wears its cape/of African daisies.”

The title poem deals with a history of physical philosophy, from Thales, who thought things were made of water, to Aristotle who added earth, wind, and fire. Though he waxes philosophic, Webb is really getting at the fragility of life. And at its heart, this collection reveals Webb as a humanistic, down-to-Earth soul trying to survive and prosper but also trying to live well and morally. The fragility of life is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh. In poems like “Manpanzee” and “Sad for the Hunchback,” Webb reveals his own moral failings while also recognizing that they are common failings; he doesn’t stand on an altar of shame or moral righteousness. There, he deals with the fragility of goodness and morality, which can shift so easily given the proper circumstance. There’s a preconception about humor: that it’s easy and that it lacks substance, but Webb shows that his humor isn’t light. There’s darkness beneath it.




Charles Harper Webb is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, and Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, and Poets of the New Century. Webb has received the Morse Prize, Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Pollak Prize, and Saltman Prize, as well as a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, and teaches in the MFA in creative writing program there.

Defense of Poetry

By Dawn Potter

Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” makes me proud to be a person who tries to write poems.

Language, colour, and religious and civil habits of action, are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonyme of the cause. But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone.

* * *

Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

* * *

A single word may be the spark of inextinguishable thought.

* * *

Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.

* * *

Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.

All of this feels true to me. No doubt someone with excellent arguing powers could prove otherwise, but the creation of poetry has nothing to do with argument. I especially love the final line I’ve quoted: “the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of [creation’s] approach or its departure.” I agree: any real poem I’ve written has crept in through an unlocked, unwatched door.

Book Review: Night Moves by Stephanie Barber

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Night Moves
by Stephanie Barber
Publishing Genius Press, 2013
$10.00



Reviewed by Barrett Warner

We’re a nation of critics and deciders—folks hired for their opinions rather than physical labor. One of the pleasures of nonobjective painting is that the role of the critic in defining contemporary art becomes obsolete. The artist—photographer Linda Conner in the Seventies, or painter Susan Rothenberg in the Eighties, or poet and video artist Stephanie Barber today—loosely shapes the art, sharing the discovery process with the viewer or reader. In its purest form, the nonobjective painting or poem is the energy produced between the original signifying work and its audience. An audience of thousands or an audience of one. It doesn’t matter. It’s about the waves produced by someone experiencing the photograph or poem, waves where feelings and thoughts don’t swim in different lanes. Think Reiki therapeutic massage. The touching is figurative, but the healing is real.

Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves tests the outer limits of concept poetry, but because hers are found words the bulky, baggy premises which accompany most concept works are happily not present. Barber draws on YouTube comment threads responding to Mr. Seger’s song “Night Moves,” a ballad of desire and aging and nostalgia. Is it even poetry one might ask, to tap into the energy between a Classic Rock song and its listeners and then to reproduce it without altering so much as a comma? Thomas Sterns Eliot might have thought so, based on his view that poetry was the mix of desire and memory. And whether one samples Sanskrit texts or The Golden Bough, or whether one samples three chord harmony, using literary allusion to scaffold the mix is sturdy stuff.

“I remember…I remember…,” writes one listener. Keyword search “Heart” and variations on “Memory” in this volume and you’ll quickly run out of fingers and toes to count with. One of the mystifying traits in Barber’s Night Moves is how the “comments” come from witness, and become seductive in the way that witnessing is so sculpted by memory and wanting. By using their comments, each listener becomes a speaker, each speaker, a viewer. Participation is the thing, Barber seems to say. It’s what makes art of our day to day, as if life weren’t about the drowning but all the riotous splashing we make before the end.

“Love this song…I remember this song and dancing around singing it, stereo as loud as it would go…” says another. Like people who all seem to remember what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, these speakers hear the song and it cues them involuntarily to a forgotten context. It was love-making before there were any responsibilities. It was having a magic night begin with an unforgettable dinner at the Golden Corral. It was a song you hummed driving your first car before you ever flattened a tire or bent a rod. The funny thing is that so many have forgotten an “unforgettable” time. Hearing the song out of context brings it back, which is one way that old music is still so important to poetry.

The comments Barber reproduces are not epitaphs in some strange graveyard. Listeners interact with the song, but they also interact with each other interacting with the song. There’s even a lot of debate as to what makes music real, or what “points” may mean, or what could be wrong with the seventy-eight or eighty-four people who hit the “dislike” button. Maybe they never had sex, one listener wonders. “Must be under twenty years old,” another writes. In one sequence, two listeners spar about the meaning of art:

You claim this song is boring but I think what
you are missing is that it is a “Mood” song. It might not
have interesting melodies and chord changes but to
Add these you would Subtract from the “Mood.” Some
of the best songs are the simplest and this you do not
understand.

In such plain-spoken ways, Barber transforms a modest 2013 discussion about a 1978 song that romanticized something going on in the summer of 1962, so that the YouTube comment thread reads like the minutes of an AWP panel about the meaning of poetry today, its riddle of memory, and desire’s cryptic role. “Gina will never know the truth,” someone writes, in what could well be the best six-word short story since Hemingway.

The interactions vary between the heart-breaking and ones sopping with praise. Most are emotional, some rational, some even seem scripted by authors who have some experience at this sort of thing. “I awoke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off I sat and wondered. I feel such emotion with this part of the song. So true. That’s how life is. Honestly, one of the best transitions in song writing I’ve ever heard.” This writer, like all the others, anonymous, which blurs point of view. We’re used to first, second, and third voice, but Barber’s Night Moves seems to offer a hybrid, a fourth voice which combines the other three and makes it seem as if the reader is hearing his own thoughts aloud.

Particularly evocative are the anonymous notes intended for a specific unknown someone: “Night moves in her dad’s barn 1975 love you Pam! Hope you are doing well. I think of you every time I hear this song.” Someone else chimes in “Pam I do not know where you are now. I think of you every time I hear this song. I am glad my first night moves were with you. I hope you have a great life.”

One of the hazards of living in a high concept world where the idea of something has more weight than the actual doing of it, where the abstract replaces the concrete, is that poets lose track of a narrative thread’s value. It becomes all about the lyric, or all about the extended metaphor, and we lose track of how important it is to use narrative to give the reader’s empathy some place to go. Greek myth is interesting, but it becomes relevant to us through the story of the Odyssey. “Today’s music can’t tell any stories about their experience in life,” someone writes. Neither does a lot of the poetry either.

I love how this “nonobjective painting” of a poetry book makes us ache for more in our lives to not be so objective. Praise to Stephany Barber for taking the time to sit cramped on her former bodega’s trembling wooden floor between the friendly cat and the other cat who gets sick a lot, hustling what internet she could when the wind was blowing right, and crying for days over this comment thread that was so sad and so inviting that she had to share it with us.

This book gives us permission to lust for what we remember about whom we loved. Take any three years out of the past fifty. What were you doing 1962? What were you dreaming about in 1978? What has become of all those doings and all those dreams? Your personal answer is a poem for everyone. Now thump your left hand on the roof of your speeding dark sedan and sing it.
_____

Can a person be taught to be a poet?

by Dawn Potter

Or can she only be taught to appreciate poetry? In other words, are all poets actually self-taught? And are writing workshops essentially useless–either “warm and fuzzy” or “butcher block”?

If you read the exchange here, and can manage to overlook the bad manners, you may find yourself pondering the questions the disputants bring up, questions that I find both tedious and germane. I do get weary of these what’s-the-point-of-an-M.F.A. quarrels, but I also know that nearly all the poetry workshops I’ve attended have been either “warm and fuzzy”–e.g., “This is such a great poem! I love it!,” which is flattering yet unhelpful–or “butcher block,” in which a participant prepares to be publicly humiliated for breaking craft rules, focusing on unfashionable subjects or forms, or not respectfully imitating the teacher’s style. Of course there are variations on these two extremes; of course there is also the personal bond (or lack thereof) between a student and a mentor; of course there are the issues of stage of growth and prior experience.

You can read about approach that Baron and I use at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which involves neither cuddling nor hatchets. But, in the end, is this method more effective than any other at teaching a writer to be a poet? We work primarily with teachers, who, even if they think of themselves as poets, are for the moment focused on bringing poems to their students. In other words we are trying to teach teachers to be the kind of mentors that we, as young embryo poets, did not have ourselves.

Nonetheless, we grew up to be poets anyway.

____

Book Review: The Beds by Martha Rhodes

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The Beds
Poems by Martha Rhodes
Autumn House Press, 2012
$14.95



Reviewed by Marcella Prokop

In her fourth collection of poems, Martha Rhodes examines illness, love, the infidelity of the body, and “The pleasures and inconveniences of being detested.” This, the title of the twelfth poem in her collection The Beds, begins with frailty, meanders through the doctor’s office around “friends tired of all the errands and schlepping” to end on a humorous note, setting the tone of breakdown and amusement that underscores this book:

Broken leg
Broken leg
And broken leg again.
And 81 stairs.

Despite the difficulty of caring for an ailing loved one, or caring for themselves, Rhodes’ speakers share an unwavering sense of grit and humor, and the poet’s ability to work from abstract title through bone (and heart) breaks and line breaks to clear image often brings the reader to a muscle-clenching moment of understanding. This sense of connection is sometimes so subtle it may be missed on the first read.

This is the case with “Thrombosis,” “A rat carried this week to us between its teeth and dropped it at our feet…And the rat will find its way to us here, too, where at the hospital I hold onto your foot lest you be rolled away without me…today I am able to eat every doughnut New York City offers.” Rhodes with another story within a story, the connotation of doughnuts and roundness and illness gelling together in an instant at the end:

My grandfather was a baker from Vienna. Perhaps he’d say to me today, Doughnuts are in your blood. And what should I say about your blood, dear, not knowing yet what’s in your blood that brings us here this week.

Without a doubt, Rhodes’ poems are curious and provocative, like a small animal scratching at the window. Her simple, quick lines create a sense of immediate imagery, urging the imagination to run like a fever unchecked. And as the sound and mouth feel of her words works its way inside, the symbiotic relationship of reader and writer, of experienced and imagined, consumes the reader.

On the surface, Rhodes’ poems are about the natural processes of separation and loss, illness and grief and the mirthful capacity to overcome reality. Weaving imagery of the domestic life and the human implements of hospitals and houseplants into the earthy textures of the world beyond, Rhodes yields a quiet, uncanny power over nature unknown to most humans.

In “Fog Horn,” for instance, the gauzy language of disorientation pulls at the reader’s senses.
The first stanza, “The sheet’s dark-on-dark pattern, / a flat dull sea, calm enough,” pulls readers into a quiet, dark seabed of solitude. But as the couplets progress, the speaker becomes unsettled, then solid, leaving the reader with a sense of direction.

I’ve begun my own noise—
of warning—a trembling at first,
then persistent, even confident,
through the night’s steady fog.

Rhodes continues drawing upon the natural world in “The Gathered,” layering the detritus of a stalled river and a stalled life until the physical image pushes the mind to a new reality.

The river sludge hardens and cracks.
We pitch tents in mile-long rows.
We’re camped above, too tired to press
one more step; we sleep in fits—
the gnats, the howlings, the mess
of our lives brought in our eyes and lit
before us, our precious disasters.

…we deserve this rot
and roll in it, thrive in it, and in turn
welcome those who follow us. Need a bed?
Rest here with us, friend. End of the line.

Dead end.

While Rhodes’ perception of the physical world lends itself to the hardscrabble life of the outdoors, that sense of emotion, fragility and strength comes through best when she relates the physical world to the natural process of stagnation, decay, creation and existence as it applies to the personal. The best poems in this fifty-four page collection explore death, absence and illness, and create meaning for those facing or remaining after, a final absence. Readers will search for the underlying connotation of each poem, and with each new reading the poems will reveal something new of themselves, in much the same way a wound’s appearance changes with each unbandaging.




Martha Rhodes is the author of At the Gate, Perfect Disappearance (Green Rose Prize), and Mother Quiet. Her poems have been published in such journals as Agni, Columbia, Fence, New England Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and TriQuarterly and anthologized in Agni 30 Years, Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, Poem in Your Pocket (a publication of the Academy of American Poets), and It’s Not You, It’s Me. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Martha Rhodes is the director of Four Way Books in New York City.

in my Nam dream

by John Samuel Tieman

the army drafts me back to the war
I’m the oldest corporal in the 4th Infantry
I curse my neighbors who are all my father
the barracks is French
I beg my wife not to leave me
the Red Alert siren turns to an alarm
Phoebe is surprised I would ask

—–

Allowing for a bit of poetic license, this is in essence a dream I had night before last. I’ve been home from that war for forty-three years. I learned in therapy that, while the pain fades, the wound remains.

But about that poetic license. And about that dream. The controlling image is my war. The dream is about abandonment, and the subject, my greatest fear.

In the actual dream, my love is disrupted, as is my work, as are my friendships. The barracks is a school in which I taught many years ago. There’s no work in that barracks/school, just disorientation. The French barracks image I take from an actual abandoned Foreign Legion barracks in which I spent a night in The Nam. I use a flat statement, ‘the barracks is French’, in which the disorientation is implied. In the dream, I simply turn my back on my father, who abandoned me when I was ten. I didn’t curse my neighbors and friends in the dream. I debated them, the end result being that they leave. I conflate these two bits into a single image, throw out the dream debate and throw in ‘curse’ for drama of the image and the hardness of the c and the r, the hiss of the s. The Red Alert siren turning into the alarm clock, that’s pure poetry aided by associational logic, the purpose being a transition to wakefulness. Phoebe comforts me in the dream. When I actually awoke, she really said almost nothing beyond, “I’ve got another hour to sleep” or some such.

For many years, I used to dwell upon Vietnam. In its many variations, this nightmare was a response to that trauma. Today, just now, I really don’t think that much about the facts of the war. But the emotions — the emotions are forever.
_____

Book Review: Trace by Eric Pankey

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Trace
Poems by Eric Pankey
Milkweed Editions, 2013
$16.00



Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Pankey explores the idea of traces in several ways throughout this collection. One version is as traces of religious faith or traces of evidence supporting that faith. Another is traces of memory, specifically memories of Pankey’s deceased father. And finally, there are traces of meaning in the poems, which could be inspired by any of the other traces.

The collection opens with a section of poems focused on Pankey’s religious beliefs. “The Sacrifice” questions the validity of blind sacrifice. “A Bird Loose in the House” nicely conjures an analogy of the soul, “A shadow-play alive on a curtain alive with wind.” As evidenced in this poem, Pankey finds inspiration in nature, not only for poetry but for his faith.

Pankey tends to avoid the easy, well-trod imagery of religious poetry. He doesn’t speak from a place of fear of retribution, or scold. He doesn’t belittle human endeavor for the sake of appeasing divine ego. Instead, he paints a chaotic world in which so little is understandable, not that science has failed us, but rather a world so complex, simple cause-and-effect relationships often don’t make sense. “The Creation of Adam” describes a humanistic landscape:

On a cross of branches tied with baling wire,
An old man hung a ragged wool overcoat.

As he weeded, he instructed the scarecrow
On the doctrine and conundrum of free will.
When a crow landed on the scarecrow’s shoulder,

The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew
If he chose, he could shrug and shoo the crow.
If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.

Another version of traces are traces of memory. “Faith” describes a lost love, which retreated like a glacier. “The Burning House” describes “The house afire, the house of my childhood,/All tinder and kindling married to spark.” The burning house is never consumed, of course recalling the biblical burning bush; it exists in a liminal state in Pankey’s memory. “Southern Elegy” is a subtle commentary on place. Pankey describes a garter snake hunting “along cracked masonry/Marked by rust, along slate//Slabs in the unkempt graveyard.” It’s a desolate world in which “Autumn passes like empty freight cars –//Some doors open, some doors closed.”

Finally, Pankey focuses on traces of meaning in his poems, which he struggles to reach. But clarity isn’t something that can necessarily be reached. “Sometimes I exist,” he says in “Models of Paradise” “only as anxiety.” And later, he struggles with finding that clarity not only in his poetry but in his faith as he describes “Just stars above me,/ a broken abacus of stars:/The beads scattered, the beads unthumbed.” Finally, he begins to reach meaning, “What we lack, mostly, is context.” This leads to wisdom: “One measures the void a gram at a time.”

Pankey doesn’t so much try to make sense of the world as he tries to make sense from the world. He shares observances, reserving comment many times, in favor of letting the images resonate by themselves. Pankey’s language is beautiful and spare and he constantly surprises with profound lines. Pankey’s built a name for himself, and considering the quality of the poems in this collection, it’s no surprise.



Eric Pankey is currently Professor of English and Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University. Trace is his ninth collection of poetry.

Scriptorium

by Jim Danger Coppoc

My grandmother used to turn off her hearing aids at what seemed like the oddest times. There are those in my family who considered this an act of passive aggression. The more of herself she lost to dementia, though, the more striking the difference became between those moments the hearing aids were on, and she was fighting through the pain and confusion to make sense of her surroundings, and those moments the hearing aids were off, and her face registered nothing but a perfect, blissful peace.

The world I live in—a world of students and their essays, children and their questions, a marriage by turns on fire and burning down—is chock full of beauty, love, joy, adventure and excitement, and I never have to reach very far to find my gratitude. But sometimes when that beauty comes at me from ninety directions at once, with demands and deadlines attached to every one, I wish I had my grandmother’s hearing aids—those magical instruments that could instantly switch off the noise and bring her back to center.

I think a lot of writers have the same dilemma. We are called to engage fully in life, so that we have something real to write about, but we are also called—sometimes at the same time—to disengage fully so that we can do the work of processing, writing and revisioning our experience.

Ernest Hemingway famously sharpened 20 pencils before each writing session to put himself in the right frame of mind. Willa Cather read the Bible. Best-selling novelist Steve Berry goes in to work early, before anybody else is there, and writes in his laptop. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in coffee shops because the walk outdoors was what it took to get her infant daughter to sleep.The list goes on—from the hyper-literary to the hyper-popular, writer after writer describes the need for silence. For escape. For a quiet center from which he or she can write.

That’s why this month my project to make myself a better writer was to find a space to escape the rest of my life. A scriptorium. A sanctum sanctorum from which I can put my words out into the world, and in which I can focus only on writing. I rented out a corner of an artsy tattoo shop on a second floor, with high ceilings, exposed brick, and a window overlooking Main Street. I don’t imagine the few lit journals that publish me will pay the rent, so I’ll take on more readings and sell more books to pay for it. I’ll be there 3 mornings a week for as long as I can afford it. With luck, I’ll find the place my grandmother found—my quiet center—and I’ll be able to put something worthwhile out into the world.

_____

What’s the Most Important Punctuation?

by Dawn Potter

It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.” Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:

A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.

And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:

they opn our mail petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns what
cud b less inspiring to ovrheer

Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.

cain’t nobody tell me any different
i’m ugly and you know it too
you just smiling to make me feel better
but i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.

Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:

sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—
sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—
sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—

Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:

Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.

But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.

Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:

Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith
of smoke, which I believed came from the house,
but every smoker carries his own wreath;
then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.

In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet “The Soldier” will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems.

[Draft excerpt from my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]

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What’s the Most Important Detail?

by Dawn Potter

“We know there must be consciousness in things,” writes Mark Jarman:

In bits of gravel pecked up by a hen
To grind inside her crop, and spider silk
Just as it hardens stickily in air.

Many poets might just as easily say, “We know there must be consciousness in words.” By fitting together individual bits and pieces of language, they work to create a facsimile of life, one that may reach even across centuries to touch the most unsuspecting of readers.

A few summers ago, as I sat reading Middlemarch on the front porch of the Robert Frost Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, a teenage boy came around the corner of the house. He was about eighteen years old—tall, curly-haired, athletic. Plopping himself down on a table, he crossed his arms and looked me in the eye. “Are you a poet?” he asked.

After I admitted that I was, he leaned back. Still holding my gaze, he announced, “‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is the bomb.”

I did what anyone would have done under the circumstances, which was to become slack-jawed and slightly dizzy. Undeterred, the boy remarked that Alfred Tennyson was his favorite poet, that he’d accidentally discovered Tennyson’s poems in a book in his grandfather’s house; also, that he hadn’t quite gotten his brain around “In Memoriam” and that other long stuff but “The Eagle” and “The Kracken” were also the bomb.

We talked. What he liked about these poems, he explained, were the details—those particular combinations of words that pulled him directly into the poet’s imaginative world. “I like that he makes me be there.”

Think of details as a poem’s information. The poet relays this information by choosing words and phrases that evoke specific characters, places, or situations while also advancing narrative action, lyrical intensity, and thematic unity. As Theodore Roethke explains, “The poet must have a sense not only of what words were and are, but also what they are going to be.”

In her memoir The Gift, H.D. wrote of her child self’s growing awareness of the link between observation and the urge to repeat, reframe, reinvent what one has seen : “It was not that I thought of the picture; it was that something was remembered. . . . You saw what was there, you knew that something was reminded of something. That something came true in a perspective and a dimension (though those words, of course, had no part in my mind) that was final.”

Image is the customary poetic term for a mental picture translated into words. Images are constructed of details, and precise nouns are their foundation. For instance, in the opening stanza of her poem “The Burn,” Terry Blackhawk chooses a handful of plain yet exact nouns to solidify the details of place:

I saw it once in a sycamore
at a fishing spot near the lagoon,
one of the tree’s three trunks combusting.

“Sycamore” is the accurate name of the tree. The compound noun “fishing spot” adds a casual connotation to the more exotic “lagoon.” In the last line the poet avoids repeating “sycamore,” this time allowing herself to draw back to the more general “tree,” which visually and sonically reinforces the repeated t sounds in the line. Blackhawk’s only adjective is “three.” Her only verb (until the shock of the participle “combusting) is “saw.” The imagery of this stanza depends primarily on those solid, simple nouns.

In “Christmas Eve in France,” Jessie Redmon Fauset also chooses a handful of basic nouns, but she reveals and varies her details by adding adjectives:

Oh, little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down tonight
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
What turns your cheek so white?

Even though “On breathless France, on bleeding France” repeats the same noun twice, Fauset’s shift from “breathless” to “bleeding” entirely reconfigures the imagery. Yet the adjectives are similar in sound, so the line retains its songlike quality even as it disrupts my mental picture of the situation.

Some poets, such as Ted Hughes, choose details of ornament that seem as weighty as the nouns they modify:

Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,
Hands never still, twist of body never still—
Bounds in for a cup of tea.

The extract’s grammar, like its subject, is jumpy. In “Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,” the hyphenated repetition shifts from compound noun to compound adjective. Hughes repeats the noun “hands,” the adverb-adjective combination “never still.” In the last line he tosses us the vivid verb “bounds,” yet we’re hardly aware that it’s the first verb in the extract. Thanks to the precise arrangement of his nouns and modifiers, Hughes has created the sensation of action from the details of a physical description.

The details in a poem do more than create specific images. They may also advance narrative action, develop character, hint at a back story, intensify a mood, reinforce sounds, and so on and so on. In the words of Baron Wormser and David Cappella, “Details are the confluence of observant intelligence, apt feeling, and thematic sense.” For example, the details in the opening stanza of Siegfried Sassoon’s “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still” draw together a present-tense situation and layered memories of other times and places to construct a unified moment of consciousness.

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still,
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

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

by Jim Danger Coppoc

So apparently, poetry is dead.

I know this because I hear it at parties. I know this because all my poet friends are terrified of their own irrelevance. I know this because Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia—in the latest installment of a centuries long tradition of replaying again and again the same essay lament about the state of contemporary poetry—tells me so on the pages of this month’s Harper’s.

See, according to the standard anti-party line, poems used to be more—bigger, grander, better. Poems used to be about Important Things, and their writers used to know how to get those Important Things across. Today’s poets wouldn’t know Important if it bit them in their assonance. All they write about is themselves, in voices meant only to please their masters. All they’ve ever been trained to do is intellectual masturbation.

And so, every couple years, someone in a (safe, tenured) position of authority bravely breaks (or rebreaks) the hegemonic silence and calls every living poet he (and yes, it’s almost always a “he”) can think of to account. Edmundson, a Yale-trained scholar of 19th century capital-R Romantic poetry, is only the latest in this series.

Of course, I’ve read just about all of the poets Edmundson mentions. In some cases, my pettier self wants to agree. Others, we’re so far apart on that I’m convinced I could change his mind if only he’d come audit my 300-level Intro to Poetry course. But there again, that’s my petty self talking.

Instead, maybe I’d do better inviting Mark Edmundson to audit another course at either my institution or his: Freshman Composition.

You see, Freshman Composition (or whatever each new crusader in that field renames it) is where students first come into contact with the idea of “rhetoric”—of the nuts and bolts logistics of getting a real message across to a real human audience.

In rhetoric, we learn (in some form or another) that “a Text occurs when an Author attempts a Purpose with an Audience under a Context.” We find—and for many this is a mind-blowing discovery—that there is no such thing as a “good poem” (or essay or letter or website or whatever you’re composing) in a vacuum. We discover that each text must appeal to its intended audience to accomplish its intended purpose in very heterogenous and personal ways.

In other words, if middle-aged hausfrauen with long-forgotten bachelor’s degrees in literary studies get turned on at their weekly trip to the bookstore reading about John Ashbery’s Mottled Tuesday—well, then, John Ashbery is doing his job. If some PhD student at a state college in the Midwest feels somehow changed by finally getting Jorie Graham, then Jorie Graham has done hers.

But of course these aren’t the only poets poeting. Edmundson conveniently forgets that. As with every other iteration of this same essay, Edmundson chooses the implied working definition of “poetry” as “whatever your 8th grade teacher beat into you.” If Edmundson wants the sound and the fury of poets in the trenches—the kind of conflict that makes the “agon” in pro- and antagonist—he needs only to look to the world of hip hop (the most popular contemporary poetic form). If he wants grand expository on Big Ideas, I’d happily buy him a beer at any local poetry slam.

For that matter, even in the “literary” world, if Edmundson needs to see some poetry with a pulse, I’d invite him to investigate groups like Cave Canem or Kundiman, or publishers like Write Bloody Press. I’d happily mail him a starter set of books that might help.

In the end, Edmundson is right, but he’s right only for himself, and only in very narrow ways. The poetry he’s attacking has a purpose and an audience, but that audience is not him. He would do well to recognize that, let go of his seemingly personal attachment to making this poetry about him, and move on.

And for next week (or next month or next year), when someone else writes the same essay believing he (yes, probably still “he”) is breaking new ground, I invite you to save this blog to your desktop, learn the “search and replace” function of your word processor, and see just how well the new critic’s name fits in place of Edmundson’s.
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The Guest Critic

by Jim Danger Coppoc

So there’s this setup I keep walking into. I get invited to be a guest critic (and sometimes even a “celebrity” guest critic!) for workshops run by various poetry and arts organizations. At least half the time, I’m the youngest person in the room—sometimes by several decades. There’s always a wide variety of experience and skill in the craft, but the poems are heartfelt, and the poets generally have such incredible life experience and perspective that I’m left thinking about what I’ve seen for weeks afterward.

The problem is that inevitably a certain number of poets in the room choose to write in a voice that isn’t theirs, and that doesn’t belong in the same century they’re writing in. They believe that the only way a poem can sound like a poem is to heighten the diction to sometimes ridiculous extremes—“the verdant, sylvan glades effervesce their leaves in brilliant hues of viridian and bice…” Sometimes I’m left wondering whether the poet or his/her thesaurus actually wrote the line.

And here we come to the setup. Out of duty, I make some gentle reminder along the lines of “less is more” or “be careful not to fall into the trap of bogging down your readers in language more complicated than they really need,” and some grizzled and venerable veteran of the group stares me down, takes a deep breath, and lets me know that writers of a certain age appreciate a certain gravity to their diction. Apparently, at 37, I’m just too young to understand the beauty of language.

There’s a group like this near where I live. They’ve invited me back five times over the last 6 years, so we’ve come to know each other almost as family. I’ve seen their souls bared again and again in the poems they’ve submitted, and they’ve seen mine in the readings I give at the end of each session. We meet at a Methodist church, they serve the kind of coffee and pie that can only come from middle-aged church ladies, and we grow together more every year.

This year, I finally got comfortable enough that I could share my response.

The most senior members of this group came of age in the Modern era, where economy of language was a key tenet. They didn’t know any of the same poets from this era I do, but they did recognize this trend in prose writers like Hemingway and Faulkner. The next generation down, which includes most of the group’s officers, came of age in the explosive mid-20th century that included writers like the Beats, the Confessionals, the Black Mountain Poets, etc. After that, postmodernism took root, then postmodernism’s many offspring, and so on. In fact, not one member of the group could think of a single poet contemporary to their generation who writes like they do.

Then came the clincher—most of them couldn’t think of a single poet contemporary to their generation at all. So we started talking about where they do draw their inspiration from, and it turned out most of the group never really outgrew the 19th century and earlier poets they’d first encountered in eighth grade English class.

The discussion ended with my joking offer to give any poet in the room a free pass on diction if they could show ID documenting them as a true Victorian at least 114 years old, but what we talked about stayed with me for quite a while after that session was over.

I’ve always told my students at the university level that writers write in community, and encouraged them to seek out writing groups, writing partners, slams, workshops, etc to support them and keep them moving forward as writers. I’ve never put much effort, though, into encouraging these same students to seek out the same sort of support for their development as readers of poetry. I give them a syllabus of books and journals and online resources, and just expect that they’ll continue seeking out contemporary influences after they leave my classes. My real world experience with lifelong writers of poetry tells me that this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like it to.

So today, as the deadline for this blog entry approaches, I’ve decided to make a commitment myself, and consciously model it both for my students and for my workshop attendees. I’m going to stop browsing journals for my friends’ names, and start reading them instead as an act of discovery—of intentionally expanding my awareness of what’s out there in the contemporary poetry world. I’m also going to start reading one full-length poetry collection each month that has been released in the last year or two. My current favorite press—Write Bloody—has recently been putting out books faster than I can read them anyway, so I’ve got a good place to start.

And from now on, every time I do a reading, instead of my usual “cover poem” by beloved dead poets like Ginsberg and Cummings and Piñero, I’m going to start making a point of sharing something beautiful I just read—something I intend to draw the audience to a certain journal or website or book publisher, so that they can do some contemporary reading too.

Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on so well that someday I’ll have to start cautioning the octogenarians to be less hip-hop or less New Yorker or less anything-new instead…

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Book Review: A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind

A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind:
The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton

Alfred Starr Hamilton,
Edited by Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal.
Song Cave, 2013

reviewed by Mike Walker

A poet, perhaps more than any other type of artist, can toil in total obscurity. He doesn’t need a band or a pianist to back his singing; he doesn’t need a dance company or theatre; he doesn’t want for a gallery to show his work or even a local art supply store clerk to one day ask with a friendly smile what he’s painting with all those brushes he’s purchased. He can write, safe at home, for hours on end day after day, night by proverbial night, and no one may know. Thus, there are poets who are unknown their entire lives, by either personal design or despite their efforts to bring their work to publication. Either way, it is fully possible that decades could flow by before a poet’s work becomes known and yet he or she has been working devotedly as a poet. Such is next to impossible with someone in the performing arts, with the exception of perhaps a composer and is unlikely for most visual artists. It could happen in other genres of literature, true, but poetry seems most suited to this lonesome life.

Alfred Starr Hamilton is one such poet, a poet who worked in more or less isolation and produced a body of poetry that is only now becoming widely known. Granted, he did publish duing his lifetime (he died in 2005) and an anthology of his work at the time both published and unpublished came out as early as 1970, yet it wasn’t until this year with Song Cave’s publication of A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind that his work has found the benefit of the logistics of major publication to reach a wide readership in the United States and beyond. Hamilton is unique—certainly that can be claimed of any poet, but he really is: his poetry defies both today’s MFA hot-house environment and the rise of contemporary poetry of the 1960s when he began to publish. No one else was nor now is quite doing anything akin to his efforts—at least no one known. His poems are fits and starts, they have the type of juttering feel that the poems of teenagers—especially boys—often have where the writer becomes carried away with thought and at once is lost from his attention to the form and where it’s going. Hamilton asks many questions, offers few answers, visits multiple metaphors and yet never settles on any running motif for long. Yet, somehow, it all really works. His “January Gallery” is a good example:

Did you say today?
Did you say tomorrow
Or the next day, or the day afterwards?
Did you say a picture at a January Gallery?
Did you say a glass eye for your mirror
For a club foot for a clump of wintery woods?
For a little lavender that stares back at you
Today and tomorrow, and days afterwards.

The focus on time recalls something similar I found in the first poet who really captured my attention: my high school friend Terik Trout and his poems at age fourteen, where he’d write things like “four years from then two years ago” in a way that was half between a faux Olde English, kings-n-castles attempt at sounding serious and imposing and half towards some obscure suggestion of time-travel or bending the very being of time as we know it so that what is future and the past became the same geography. The attention to physical features and ailments is also a common thread in Hamilton’s poems: the club foot, the glass eye—these sundry asylum items of severe deformative or recompense from misfortune or injury fit well the rugged woe of the “outsider” poet, the man who writes both from within and without.

There is no doubt that Hamilton desired his work to be read: he had sent poem after poem to literary journals, especially to Epoch of Cornell University which eventually did publish his work. In later years following his death, The Boston Review and New York Times would even get into the act with articles offering high praise for Hamilton’s offbeat work. Even before that, within his lifetime, poets who were established enough to make their livings and careers off poetry were becoming fans of Hamilton and word of his work spread, if slowly and in the shadows, through American literary circles. I mention this because whenever Hamilton garners a review or critical article such as the present effort, his “outsider” status is played up to the grandest levels of despair: he may have not had much—in his later years he lived on a paltry sum of inherited money—and he did in his letters let on to being lonely, but his legacy was far from neglected and he knew that, too. I don’t think it mattered very much to him either way though: he wanted his work in print but over time just writing appears to have become more central to his efforts.

Once we thus free Hamilton to a degree from the chains of forlorn hope and look at his writing without setting it aside as the work of a man seperate from society, I do feel we can actually appreciate his efforts even more: It’s a coy turn to make a writer’s work about himself, but it’s also one that runs the danger of subtracting from Hamilton’s best poetry its own unique powers. If there is merit in Hamilton’s isolationism, it’s located in his deft ability to craft poetry that doesn’t care at all about outside impressions. Yes, he wanted it read—Emily Dickinson also wanted her own poems read, despite the mythos to the contrary about her own isolation—but Hamilton valued his external status for the lack of demand it allowed. The lack of demand for given output in certain terms, certain timing, certain sizing, certain anything. There were no given guidelines to follow, no ready exclusion criteria. 


To sting a centipede around

A pineapple bend, on a peach –
truth is
Studied on the breast – abysmally

This is from Hamilton’s poem “Tampa, Florida” and is representative of his way with language, his wonderful lack of respect for conventions of syntax, for one, and his lust for what language can accomplish when free of its obligation towards narrative. Isn’t that part of the purpose of poetry? To be free of narrative, at least of traditional narrative? Yet how much contemporary poetry tells the tale of the poet’s move into a new apartment, how his bike was stolen from outside the economics building at his college, or how his sister came to leave her husband? Hamilton’s poem really is about Tampa—I can say that with some authority having been raised in central Florida myself—but it tells no story, explains no premise, leads us down into no beach, via no path, devoid of any human move from here to there. No street, no mayor, no “this is here”. It’s static, yet fully dynamic as few poems are: when a person is mentioned it is “A picture of a tramp is being excruciated/Betwixt a splintered parked bent bench” thus not really letting on in full whether there is a tramp, a park bench, an actual “parked bent bench” or a picture thereof of any or none of the above. I think it’s great that we get these blurs of images, of icons, really, as if he had been forced to paint Tampa from afar for us—which perhaps he was. We mostly expect a writer to provide a dispatch from a location to inform us—he can tell us with authority of this place because not only was he there, but he wrote from there: the words in hand were fostered by a pen in the very locale described. But is a second-rate writer or busy journalist more adept to describe a place just by the virtue of being there than a first-rate dreamer is to craft a portrait of it in a few scant lines from a distance?

What’s charmingly interesting about Hamilton is how at once his poetry can, on one page, read like a laundry list of glances and notes that make little immediate sense yet comes together in a delightful if odd construct and on the very next page, his work can read like a pop song’s lyrics. Hamilton seems keenly interested in describing the smallest of details yet in a manner that repeats, truncates, then somehow repeats again these details and the necessary verbs and adverbs to rescue them from the black hole of suck they’d otherwise trip into without his help. He retains the base connection between between actual life and pop/folk memory. Take as an apt example:

were you ever a little reindeer
out in the rain
not a big rain
but a little rain
and the way was clear

and you had your umbrella with you
not too big an umbrella
but a little umbrella
and your name was Cinderella

On some level this is simply pleasing nonsense, isn’t it? The verse here represents faux observations that are not really (we can only assume) factual observations able to actually tell us about anything going on—almost like nursery nonsense verse of old. These are words that feel good to read together, to say aloud as they sit on the page together, they seem to beg to make sense together yet they don’t: their syntax is correct, of course, but their meaning is truncated, limited, by no obvious trajectory or larger scope of narrative.

“And your name was Cinderella”: That’s about the level of narrative Hamilton commonly seems to provide, yet it works more often than not. There is no doubt in my mind that Hamilton intends this, that nothing he offers is by way of accident, mental mischance, psychological disease or overly honest toil sadly misplaced in intent: too often in reviews and articles he’s made out to be someone to pity, someone who was so far from the mainstream, such a loner perhaps, that he must have gone a bit mad. I don’t buy it. I think he was laughing all the way to the bank, even if his pockets were empty when he got there. His poetry reveals a complex sense of wonder, a delight in how people work even though this is a delight he would rather cloak away from direct details of a human nature much of the time. Did people scare Hamilton off in social constructs—in typical social aspects? Maybe. Did they fascinate him? Most certainly. Animals, too, but mostly people it seems. Places, also, but still people foremost. People could be addressed, they could be actors, they could play someone else, they could be stand-ins, replicas, evolutions of themselves. All of this comes across here and there in Hamilton’s poems when we look for it.

Hamilton also found language itself to be a landscape able to deftly entice and wrap us up in its darker ways no matter our first intentions when borrowing it for our own devices and desires. That is very clear in how he approaches words, often skirting their more-positive or most-common meanings and digging up the less-decent aspects. He is not often openly morbid, but as in his line quoted above where he asked “did you say a glass eye for your mirror” he is adept at dragging out obscure items, odd nouns, things that are a bit Victorian, a little gothic, or simply unseemly for polite discourse. A glass eye . . . what an interesting article, that. A device that cannot do what an eye does, but only replaces how others see an eye—a cosmetic item unable to do what its original does but required to take care of “looks”, the very thing it should be able to do but cannot even attempt. And a mirror? Is it a mirror? It produces a gaze, it’s needed for vain reasons alone, right? We don’t speak of glass eyes—well, in part today because thankfully we have improved medical solutions to many problems glass eyes once were called upon to—if not remedy—cover up. Like the ear-trumpet long before it, the glass eye is an older device by virtue of high technology now on its way out, though sometimes still necessary. Moreover, we tend not to speak of something that is unfortunate, something of an injury or its repair. Outside of sailors in bars near their ports or doctors in the hospital’s hallways late at night, such things are not supposed to reach the level of conversation. Even now, even when horror movies can show every awful act and then some, even when the television news can speak frankly of rape and murder, the glass eye is a bit awkward, a little not-for-the-faint-of-heart. It’s a replica, it’s meant to replace, it can be removed and set below the bathroom mirror apart from its human, ready to scare the child who wanders past it as uncle sleeps at night.

The main core of Hamilton’s world appears to be quintessence: he is focused on what is most-apt, most-common, most-repeated, most-associated with certain words, places, or concepts. He can do this and divorce it from things or people that are specific because his concerns are often so general, yet he still locates the unique within the broad, the global. Most of his geography is American, but he is not chained to the regional or national on a topical level at all. He is not a Robert Frost or Lorine Niedecker. His poetry is not, overall, useful in providing nuanced introspection into a cohesive landscape or cultural geography. However, here and there just as in the poem regarding Tampa, Hamilton is able to tell us a lot about a place while really saying very little. His poems stand alone, as they do not pretend to any vast designs of narrative, yet they speak nearly as letters would, the same voice coming back once again to pick up where he left off—even if on a totally new topic. You still know who it is, you don’t need to read the envelope. Again, quintessence. On his own terms, Alfred Starr Hamilton has a view of the world and all its worldly designs long in mind and he’s keen to say a thing or two about it.

For a retrospective anthology of a poet’s work, I don’t think I could ask for much better than this. Hamilton’s poetry is unique, forthright, and engaging and the organization of it here is produced in a manner that makes you want to read the entire book in one fell swoop, not overlooking anything, in desire of more and more.

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The Craft of Poetry

by Dawn Potter

It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.”

Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:

A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.

And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:

they opn our mail petulantlythey burn down barns they cantbug they listn to our politikulledrs phone conversashuns whatcud b less inspiring to ovrheer

Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.

cain’t nobody tell me any differenti’m ugly and you know it tooyou just smiling to make me feel betterbut i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.

Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:

sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—

Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:

Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.

But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.

Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:

Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith of smoke, which I believed came from the house, but every smoker carries his own wreath; then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.

In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet “The Soldier” will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems.

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a note to poets growing older

by John Samuel Tieman

the words we didn’t say
I take a bite of my lunch
silence sour and salt

This afternoon I sit on my porch, proud of all I’ve won, thinking of my poor days and how, at my age, the middle class doesn’t look as bad from the inside as it does from the outside. When a mockingbird, all balls on wings, flashes up at my snack, snags a berry, and flies off with an “Own that, asshole!” attitude.

Yesterday I spent the day grading final exams, doing the math, praying some day some kid sends me her first symphony. I opened my bag lunch, pulled out a wing, when it dawns on me that it all comes down to an empty belly, a body part, that saying Grace, for this critter, is the same as its Black Mass.

Which is to say that this morning I found a Mass card for an old friend dead now 17 years. I don’t know where the time went sitting here all afternoon. We’ve spent our days, my friends, lost in all the forms, pouring the concrete we hope will never dry, draining the swamp, filling the coffin, being the blank screen, praying like a priest who needs to be defrocked, praying for a vision or at least something in the eye.

Finally this evening and I will unlatch the front door, wait for the sound of the leaves beneath her feet. Meaning it comes down to this. Nothing goes away. Even in the darkness, we can write about the light.

late night candlelight
city power grid is down
in the indigo
a silhouette – our neighbor
nursing her child

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Who’s the Most Important Character?

by Dawn Potter

Today, most of us automatically equate narrative with prose: stories, novels, memoirs, plays, and biographies that depend on skillful narrative control. This is understandable because many successful poems ride on the strength of their word choice, imagery, or cadence rather than their superior character development or plot construction. Nonetheless, as a narrative form, poetry predates prose by thousands of years. Poetry and storytelling are synonymous in the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, and many, many others. Even by the nineteenth century, when the novel began to dominate European and American literature, narrative poets such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Browning remained enormously popular with a reading public hungry for stories.

A few contemporary narrative poets, such as Anne Carson and Rick Mullin, carry on this ancient storytelling tradition. But more often poets seem to turn to anecdotes, or brief narrative vignettes, rather than long, complex, plot-driven tales. Character development—particularly the first-person I character—is the linchpin of many of these anecdotal poems, which, in the guise of memoir scraps, informal conversations, or journal entries, lure a reader’s attention toward the I.Sometimes everything in an anecdotal poem seems to circle that central focus. In “The Quest,” for instance, Sharon Olds recounts the horror of briefly losing track of a child in the city. Yet even though the poem is filled with references to the daughter, the I character is its emotional core. The poem is constructed around how I feels, not how the daughter feels.This is my quest, to know where it is,the evil in the human heart. As I walk home Ilook in face after face for it, Isee the dark beauty, the rage, thegrown-up children of the city she walks as achild, a raw target.

“The Quest” blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Is the I really Olds herself? Or has Olds invented an I who is disguised as herself? In “Self-Portrait as Van Gogh,” Peter Cooley plays more explicitly with these questions of character identity:Before a mirror at midnight I compose myself,donning the gold straw hat I tilt at just his angleto assure the vision will stay caged.I squint, ruffle my beard, henna the tips.

Cooley’s poem serves as a good reminder: although poems have the unique ability to make us believe in them as truth, we should never assume that the I in a poem is anything other than the poet’s invention. Even the intimate, eloquent, heartbreaking I in Keats’s “Bright Star” is a character framed within a work of art. He’s not the poet but the poet’s creation.In other words, characters, like so many other elements of poetry, can seem solid and simple even as they lead a poet to explore strange territory and make unanticipated disclosures. Like her relationships with real people, a poet’s relationship with her characters can be confusing, resentful, admiring, even dangerous. Yet she is also their creator and manipulator and thus remains separate and, to a certain degree, ambivalent about their behaviors and motivations.In an essay about Shakespeare, Auden wrote about this necessary detachment: “A dramatist’s characters are, normally, men-of-action, but he himself is a maker, not a doer, concerned not with disclosing himself to others in the moment, but with making a work which, unlike himself, will endure, if possible forever. . . . What a man does is irrevocable for good or ill; what he makes, he can always modify or destroy.” In other words, as my sons used to say with exasperation when they discovered that once again I’d borrowed bits and pieces from our shared lives to create characters and a situation, “Mom! You exaggerate everything!” For when she’s creating characters, a poet ruthlessly borrows from all the material she has at hand: her own internal motivations, her family’s actions, her neighbor’s peccadilloes. Sometimes the characters that emerge closely resemble the borrowed material. Sometimes the borrowed material becomes imaginative fodder for an invented persona.Yet in poetry, it’s not the character per se who charms, amuses, or repels the reader. It’s the way in which the poet uses words to construct that character. As D. H. Lawrence noted, without his “language so lovely,” even Shakespeare’s most famous creations would be intolerable company:

And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk’s whoring!

[From another chapter-under-construction for my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

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La Vie

by Jim Danger Coppoc

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it

-Willy Wonka

“In this class, and in the literary life in general, there are two rules, and two rules only—one, have something to say; two, don’t screw it up. These are the roots of both content and craft.”

-me, every semester on the first day of English 306/406, Intro to Creative Writing: Poetry

I have a good life. I married my dream girl, my friends and family are amazing, I have a good and growing audience for my writing and my music, I get to travel to places I used to only dream about, and I’m able to make a decent living teaching and doing only the things I love. This is not to say that there are no hard times, but in perspective, the ups in my world are bigger, better and more numerous than the downs by a long shot.

This, of course, makes it very hard to write good poems

See, when others teach poetry, they often teach that the center of a good poem is the image, or the metaphor, or the diction, or some other element of craft. I have never believed that for a second—not even during the grad school years, when I was required to accept at face value all the craft-based wisdom that dripped from my assigned teachers and mentors. This might sound like heresy, but I don’t believe the center of a good poem has anything to do with craft—I believe it has to do with conflict. Tension. The agon at the center of the Greek protagonist and antagonist. Paint me a picture as beautiful as you like—it’s not going to grab me until I see a little darkness behind the Mona Lisa smile.

Of course, there are moments. The poet (and my friend) Jack McCarthy died recently, and his passing touched me in such a way that I could not sleep until I’d written him a poem. My wife had feelings for another man, and I’m two poems and four songs into that experience already. Sometimes I remember the times my life was more of a struggle, and if I can dig my way deeply enough into those memories, works like my long poem Manhattan Beatitude are born. But these moments don’t erase the fact that on a day-to-day basis I am struggling to come to a place where I have something to say. Where I can write without violating my own first rule.

So now we’ve come to this blog, and to the direction I’m taking it. To accountability.

Each month, I plan to try a new experience or exercise to kickstart my poetic self. A way to dig back into the agon without having to destroy my life in the process. Live like Ward Cleaver—write like Sylvia Plath. I don’t have these exercises laid out yet, and I’d love any suggestions you (should I be forward enough to call you “Dear Reader”?) could offer, but I assume the best moves will come to me when the time is right.

This month, I chose to dive deeply into my domestic life, instead of rebelling against it. I’ve begun a writing project with my 3-year-old son, Fionn, one of the lights of my life. He supplies the content, and I supply the line breaks. We’re up to 5 poems now—my favorite so far is our first, where Fionn takes on the complex dynamics of a blended family. It begins with a few words about our cat.

My Mommy

Lilypad likes sunbeams
Lilypad likes cold beans
Lilypad likes to snuggle
and Lilypad likes my mom

What kind is your mom?

My mommy is Mommy
but my brother calls her “Jen”

My brother’s first mom is at work
I’m going to draw pictures for them both

What’s next?
I don’t remember

“What kind is your mom?” Agon. Tension. Beauty. And 3-year-old Fionn never had to set foot inside an MFA program to get it.

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Jim Coppoc makes his living through some murky but evolving balance of poetry, nonfiction, pedagogy, playwriting, music and performance. In addition to his long history on spoken word and musical stages, Coppoc has recently been getting a lot of good attention from the literary world, with 4 Pushcart nominations for both poetry and nonfiction. Among other projects, Coppoc teaches Film, Literature and American Indian Studies at Iowa State University; plays bass in the Gatehouse Saints and guitar/keys/vocals in Love Rhino; blogs for Coal Hill Review; and lives in Ames, Iowa with his wife and two sons.

Book Review: Blowout by Denise Duhamel

Blowout, poems by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series, 2012. $15.95.

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Duhamel charts the rise and fall and aftermath of a relationship in these poems, from the first real sparks to the warning signs to the realization it’s over, the divorce, and the settling of ashes. Her language is sedate, avoiding the easy trap of sentimentality and melodrama, though at times in danger of going too far the other way and reading like line-broken essays which rely on the subject matter to carry the reader, especially with some of the long-lined, multiple-page poems. This is, of course, the popular style, and Duhamel is a popular poet. One of the main reasons for this is her humor, which shines in many of these poems, even though she’s sharing often quite personal and obviously painful material. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. Duhamel bears her soul, sharing the darker stuff, and laughing along with us at her own, and our own, humanity.

“How It Will End” is a clear standout and the opener for the collection. It describes the couple witnessing a lifeguard fighting with his girlfriend. The onlookers immediately project themselves onto the couple, though they can’t actually hear what’s being said, “My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think/she’s sick of him only working part time/or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.” (11-13). I actually chuckled a few times at this poem. How often does that happen? The onlookers’ own frustrations come out – the true success of Duhamel in this poem is her timing. She surprises the reader with her honesty and humor. “’You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,/so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?’/ and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh reall?/Maybe he should start recording her tirades…” (25-28). The pacing and rising action of the poem is perfect (which is interesting as Duhamel later shares that she never really learned to write fiction because she missed a fiction writing class).

In addition to her marriage woes, Duhamel charts much of her love-life, but again, in a non-melodramatic and often quite touching way. “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and others like this break up the tone of the book, adding more humor and warmth. “Shortcut” describes an ominous encounter with a group of older boys that could’ve gone very badly for the young Denise. She also moves to deftly-rendered character studies which also follow the theme of love and relationships.

The portrait of Duhamel’s ex-husband is very unflattering. An artist who was often unemployed, or underemployed, one isn’t quite sure what it was that attracted her in the first place, other than the allure of his art, itself. Duhamel pokes fun at herself; she realizes that her choices in life could reflect poorly on her. But who hasn’t made dumb choices? And who hasn’t thrown good money after bad and stayed in a negative situation rather than changing it? Duhamel has emerged from these experiences wizened and confident. She also realizes that she doesn’t have anything particularly new to add to this idea of lost love. It’s the same old story, but her humor, her honesty, and her attitude “make it new” and make her work truly exceptional.

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