Sunday, August 30, 2009

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ashbery - Bang - Ramke - Three Books I'm Looking Forward to

Here are three books I’m looking forward to this fall. What else is coming up?

Planisphere: New Poems
by John Ashbery

The only thing I know about it so far is it will be 160 pages, and it will come out in December.

The Bride of E: Poems
by Mary Jo Bang

September 28

The goblet mouth on the table speaks
To your thirst, saying, Longing, your longing, is infinite.
-from "H Is Here Is a Song, Now Sing"

In her sixth collection, The Bride of E, Mary Jo Bang uses a distinctive mix of humor and directness to sound the deepest sort of anguish: the existential condition. Timeless yet tirelessly inventive, Bang fashions her examination of the lived life into an abecedarius that is as rapturous in its language and music as it is affecting in its awareness of--and yearning for--what isn't there. The title of the first poem, "ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness Is the Bride of Existence," posits the collection's central problem, and a symposium of figures from every register of our culture (from Plato to Pee-wee Herman, Mickey Mouse to Sartre) is assembled to help confront it. Riddled with insight, pathos, and wit, The Bride of E is a brilliant new work by one the most compelling poets of our time.

Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems 1978-2008
by Bin Ramke

September 1

Drawing upon four decades of poetry and including an ample selection of new work, this perceptive collection shares a wealth of intimate experiences and compelling encounters with the world. Citing an extensive range of social, scientific, literary, and philosophical sources, each piece offers a lens of both telescopic and microscopic precision. Sharing insight into many private forms of suffering—mental illness, loss of loved ones, family crises—personal issues are used to assess continued struggles with the profound questions of what it means to be human, moral, and conscious. Directly responding to current social and cultural issues, these engaging meditations examine the complex interrelations of people with their environment, work, health, cultural upheaval, and natural disasters. Deftly detailing the essence of human existence, small instances of daily activity—from drinking tea to remembering childhood experiences—are brought to the forefront and gently articulate the value of human life.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vendler on Stevens (and us all?)

Helen Vendler, below, writing on Wallace Stevens, is also speaking to a kind of divide in American poetry (not the only divide, but an important one nonetheless):

“Stevens wrote symbolic rather than transcriptive poetry.”

Oh, dear. Stevens died over 50 years ago now, and where have we gotten to with this question? Well, maybe there is no place to get to. Maybe there’s always this divide, this tension, between these tendencies. She goes on to say:

“How differently might a reader take in ‘Burghers of Petty Death’ if it had been called ‘A Son’s Lament for His Dead Parents,’ or ‘The Snow Man’ if it had been called ‘Stoicism in a Failed Marriage’? Like Dickinson, Stevens has won a wide audience in spite of the guard he put on his privacy, and we are now better acquainted with his sorrows.”

This fascinates me, the weight Vendler is placing on the titles alone. Of course, her alternate titles are terrible . . . but the idea there is that the poetry would instantly have become more personal by context. More revealing. In much the way that I used to hear people saying that one should replace all pronouns with “I” when reading Stevens . . . the personal, the personal, the personal. What an interesting flip and switch we’re called upon to perform when regarding Stevens. Anyway. She then, moving along, quotes this bit from Stevens, on receiving the Gold Medal from the Poetry Society of America:

“Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience.”

Well, there you go, then. Here’s her short piece, on the new Stevens Selected:

Monday, August 24, 2009

Archicembalo - G.C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo is a wonderful book. Everyone should have a copy or two.

What Is an Anthem
G.C. Waldrep

I sought a near care and left without having paid any particular price, I was not stingy, I did not think I was covetous, perhaps I betrayed a more vivid avulsion but I was not without integrity, I was possessed of a certain bodily charm.

When a charm grows ghoulish it demands more from the body, it is a consumptive delight.

I left the money on the table. Each penny separate and together, this is copper, this is how copper behaves: most elegant at high noon burnish. Like noon a furnished room requests the pleasure of a body’s judgment, its sovereign will, as seen in the shadow a hinged door makes, as seen in a cannon’s mouth.

What is inheritance, inheritance is subjugation of time through flesh, it is a staying motion and like a harp’s pedal but more slowly, it remains an intervailing conceit. I left the money on the table, I made every calculation.

Is this pretty at a distance.

When on is beautiful (which is to say when one has inherited) one may stand alone. Does this make one lonely, does this make one less beautiful or more, does this express a miserly disposition and if so when and to what purpose.

The country around Karbala is desert, meaning a dry wind and sand and pilgrims in like season, later skirmish coached with salt. What is a desert, a desert is, and empty desert makes one beautiful, an emptied desert is a breach and thus makes also whole.

I was walking away but I had left the money on the table. This is a question of citizenship, this cannot be disputed. I was not giving up anything, I was within my rights, I was perfectly assured.

I left the money on the table and walked down to the bridge.

A bridge asks more of us. A bridge asks for commitment, a bridge is the instrument of a plaintive investiture, a bridge is the negation of one reputable stance. A bridge is an argument about form, a toll. A bridge may be a disguise.

To be alone one must be beautiful. To be beautiful one must be alone. To lie, with her and again precludes the possibility, to speak when spoken to is a modified circumspection.

To look into a cannon’s mouth is likewise an argument about solitude, it is a risky business. Does this make one beautiful. Of course. Which we have done and more surely for not wanting enough, for not waiting, for wasting and not trusting and for so. In my father’s house are many mansions. Does this absolve.

I left the money on the table and walked down to the bridge. Root and stone, my heart gives way to a third arm. I felt and I thought I was done.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Michael Palmer at ARCH

Arch has an interview up with Michael Palmer here.

It’s well worth reading. Here’s a snippet:


LR: . . . Are you concerned about the conceptual usefulness of the book to poetry in terms of the way it's now having to compete with the financial viability of online publication?

MP: Well, poetry, as far as being able to compete, has never been able to compete with anything. [laughter] So, it survives anyway. And it won't be able to compete with technology, but it will go on in its own particular way. And there will be a certain audience that is generated by technology that may want to go to the book itself. Because the luxury of the book, of being able to go back and forth, is not equivalent to pushing a button and going back and going forward. It may be that as the electronic book becomes more sophisticated than it is right now, we'll have the luxury of downloading a library into a little facsimile of a book and reading that way. And those inevitably may more and more come to approximate the book. I'm all for that because I can't travel with a hundred books like I'd like to, you know, to Paris or something like that. And I think that has a great use. Also for reference works. I live in a small house with ten thousand books, you know, and I'd love to be able to get rid of some of them and just access them online for information.

But I find other curiosities about it. For example, when I do teach (from time to time) creative writing now, a lot of the kids are kind of going on line to get particular algorithms for composition. And then they come up with something that's kind of weird and kind of interesting in a jazzy way. But it's just a construction. What they don't realize [is that] in doing that, and then having a kind of mechanistic play with language, they can come up with something strange, but not with something deep necessarily. And so that's something that has a something to do with a kind of maturing relationship to technology. It's like the early days of electronic music when a lot of people thought, "Oh, every sound I make here is weird, therefore interesting." But it soon became clear that everyone else was making the same weird sounds, and they quickly became boring. And then the great composers who worked in the electronic medium produced great music. But the others produced nothing. And I think there is a little bit of the same relationship to that sort of access. At the same time, I was coming here earlier - and I'm giving this talk next week - and one little section of the talk involves Catullus, one particular song of his that was a translation of Sappho. And I was looking through my translations (and they're all terrible) of the Catullus. And so I went online, and I just found this astonishing - I put in "Catullus Carmina 51" into Firefox [laughs] - and I came up with this unbelievable, beautiful scholarship, Latin translations were available, etc. etc. It was a marvel. And so even with my ten thousand books, I couldn't have had that at hand. It was terrific.


That’s just it, isn’t it, in a nutshell? Granted these sentiments aren’t new, but they do bear repeating, and rethinking. Especially this:

“. . . a lot of the kids are kind of going on line to get particular algorithms for composition. And then they come up with something that's kind of weird and kind of interesting in a jazzy way. But it's just a construction. What they don't realize [is that] in doing that, and then having a kind of mechanistic play with language, they can come up with something strange, but not with something deep necessarily.”

Fracture and fragment and cut ups and dislocation and chance operations preceded the internet, but the internet has helped make them cool. Once upon a time, it was fairly difficult to do what can now be done easily, the way one can google search, rip text and paste-collage. You used to have to want to do it, now it seems it’s difficult not to do it. The question has been around a long, long time, from Word Search games to text substitution writing prompts. I’m ambivalent about it all. The problem: Yes, you can do it, and yes, it often looks cool and jumpy and wow, but why are you doing it? Is doing it just because you can, reason enough? What are you revealing? What are you exploring?

The answers to these questions are always going to be nuanced, of course, but still, there must be answers. Meaning (which Palmer side-steps naming explicitly) is such a wobbly concept, and the play of meaning has, by and large, only been legitimated at the level of the signifier, so play at the level of the signified is always suspect by the guardians of what is allowed (all those chatty types who write essays against the jittery tendencies of younger writers [but of course rhyme is OK, but what does rhyme mean? They never much bother to ask that…]).

OK, so that sounds kind of unwieldy, I know. And it can be argued that “algorithms of composition,” as well as other chance-predicated methods are still playing at the level of the signifier anyway, even if they treat the signifier as if it were the signified. It’s a difficult economy to work with, and even more difficult to explain to a hostile audience, as I’ve had to do a time or two. Even so, or even as Palmer himself has been accused by some to be without real depth, he’s right in bringing it up. It’s one thing to toss a bunch of stuff on the page, it’s quite another to mean something by doing it.

By the way, I’m not thinking of Palmer as a hostile audience (he’s anything but). I think he’s making an important distinction, a difficult one to pin down, but an important one.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Louis L'Amour: An Appreciation

This is something I wrote for the National Book Awards Blog last week. Have you been following the 60th Anniversary fiction notes?

Go here:

You can follow the links by year. Anyway, I'm in Texas right now, and I'm away from the computer much of the time. I'm reading a lot of westerns and Postmodern theory, which seem to go well together.

Bendigo Shafter
By Louis L’Amour
Original Publisher: Bantam Books
Current Publisher: Bantam Dell Publishing Group
(Random House, Inc.)

John Gallaher writes:

Louis Dearborn L’Amour (1908 – 1988), wrote somewhere between 105 to 120 (for whatever reason, accounts vary) books between the late-50s and mid-80s, and at one point, when I was a teenager, I had close to all of them. He wrote so fast, that during the 60s, he was writing three western novels a year for Bantam Books. He really cranked them out, and it showed. The plots were nearly always highly implausible, relying on continuous fortuitous coincidences (finding gold, meeting just the person one is looking for in the middle of the prairie or in a restaurant in a large city, bullets deflected by belt-buckles, etc) which allowed the tall, strong-boned men accustomed to hard work and harsh landscapes to find their way into the hearts of beautiful, young women, usually with red-blonde hair. The writing itself is repetitious (written for busy people who apparently could use a little reminding what’s going on every few pages) and often long-winded and didactic (nearly every book has at least one long passage about the difference between the white man and Indians, while many contained nearly the same speech two or more times). But even so, even knowing all this, and being constantly irritated by it, I adored these books.

I hadn’t read one of them in close to twenty years when I saw Bendigo Shafter on the list of books I could write about for this blog, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to get reacquainted. I found the box in the basement with all my old paperbacks, and though I found close to twenty Louis L’Amour books (mostly from the Sackett series that was especially close to my heart [long live William Tell Sackett!]), I didn’t find Bendigo Shafter, so we drove down to Kansas City to see if I could buy a copy from Barnes & Noble, and there it was. I hadn’t made it more than about fifteen feet before a middle-aged man stopped me to start talking about Bendigo Shafter, and all his other favorite Louis L’Amour books. He nearly pushed my wife aside to keep the conversation going as I made my way down the escalator to the registers. After that, we went to a restaurant. When the young waiter saw the book lying on the table, he got very animated, saying that he’d “just started reading these books a couple months ago, and couldn’t get enough.” Louis L’Amour books are a part of the American male psyche, it would seem. And as I re-read Bendigo Shafter the other night, I realized just how formative Louis L’Amour has been to my world view. Not in the throw-away plots and impossible characters, but in the landscapes (L’Amour was a careful researcher) and in the sense of justice, and in the love of reading and learning that nearly all his protagonists share. In the midst of all the western hero action, would be moments like this one:

“At each place we stopped I asked for books. I was given some, and I bought some, and I traded for others. ‘You’re luckier than you know,’ one trader said to me, ‘and you’re getting better books than you will five or ten years from now.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Travel will be easier. People traveling west will not have to consider each ounce of weight. Now they only bring the best, the ones that can be read over and over with profit, so the books you trade for are the good ones. Later the trash will come.’

‘I’d find something to learn from any of it,’ I said, ‘for even a man who writes trash has to think, to select, to try to write as well as he can.’

‘Maybe.’ The man was doubtful.”
Bendigo Shafter, 226

That sort of exchange, as well as numerous little moments of practical philosophy along the line of “a mistake is really only a mistake if you persist in it” (244), or “nobody is anybody until they make themselves somebody” (135), is as typical for Louis L’Amour as are the gunfights and beautiful independent women who are just waiting for the strong enough man to come along, and Bendigo Shafter is as good as any of them, and a great place to start if you’ve never read a Louis L’Amour western. You really should, by the way. It’s worth the time, as Bendigo Shafter (or really any of Louis L’Amour’s protagonists, as they’re all stand-ins for his version of the great American western identity), while in dangerous territory being hunted by a renegade Shoshone (along with a dozen or so braves) pauses to look out over the Wyoming landscape, pausing on his journey to take an old Umatilla Indian to see the Medicine Wheel before he died:

“To live is not only to exist. It is not to wait for supper of an evening or for bedtime or for a drink at a saloon. It is all of these things and every marvelous moment that comes between. To live is to feel, and the senses have more to teach than the mind. More, at least, for the immediate moment. It is better, sometimes, to simply feel, to simply be.”
Bendigo Shafter, 432

Saturday, August 08, 2009

American Hybrid #5 or So: The Göransson Review

Johannes Göransson has written about American Hybrid.

I like American Hybrid, myself, and wrote about it several times around the turn of the year. Here’s the conglomeration link [FYI: once you hit the link, you'll have to scroll down, as it's a search resuls link, and this post will be the first result], which includes an email from Cole Swensen regarding their selection process and the full text of her introduction, for reference.

One of the things Göransson gets to that really interests me is this paragraph:


Admittedly, there are many attitudes toward tradition in American poetry. While the idea of the “hybrid” goes back to modernism and the New Critics, it is not the only reaction to various alternative aesthetics to take hold in American poetry. Over the past three decades years, representatives of the Quietist aesthetic—who, need I mention, hold most tenure track jobs in Creative Writing and edit most poetry series and journals—have been digging in their heels to defend “traditional poetry,” by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s. These poets, writing increasingly dull and out of touch poetry, have used their positions of power to control and defend “traditional” poetry against perceived plots and excesses, publishing and rewarding the least offensive poetry available. The summit of this “tradition” is the famously homogenous Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. For all its faults, American Hybrid is certainly a step forward from that morass.


One of the things that I think a lot about is the fight (often hidden) between aesthetic positions and generations in American poetry. So I want Göransson’s list of names. So often, when one is writing, it’s easy to toss a paragraph like this in (Tony Hoagland has made a stir recently by performing some wild generalizations, for instance) to stand for something that only the initiated can follow, or, perhaps more specifically, allows people to populate in their own fashion. Allowing a sort-of politeness, or deniability.

But what positions and journals is Göransson talking about? Certainly, for journals, he means these, off the top of my head (The list is much longer, but these can stand as general examples):

The Georgia Review
The Gettysburg Review
Tar River Poetry
New Letters
Poetry Magazine
Missouri Review
Prairie Schooner
Poetry Northwest

Looking at them, which I do on occasion, one thing I don’t find is that they “have been digging in their heels to defend ‘traditional poetry,’ by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s.” I wish they were. I kind of liked the Robert Bly of Silence of the Snowy Fields, and the James Wright of The Branch Will Not Break. (Granted, not all Bly and Wright from those books, as they both exhibited a tendency toward a kind of sloppy sentimentality that has always grated on my nerves.) What I see, when I look at the above journals, is a prevalence of “readable texts” that have the appearance of autobiography, or pseudo autobiography, where “communication” of a learned or experienced “truth” is the goal of the poem, often ending in some highly sentimental, elegiac, image (epiphany). I believe this is the “Quietist” that Göransson mentions above, and that Ron Silliman put forward years ago, as a sort of place-holder, so that it could be talked about it as one thing?

I see this much less as an outgrowth of Bly and Wright than I see it as an outgrowth of the post-confessional generation(s): Levine, Kinnell, Olds, Dove, and on, including the touchstones of William Matthews, Tess Gallagher, Billy Collins, David Wojahn. These poets were hybrids themselves of several tendencies (including Bly and Wright), granted, but to place it on Bly and Wright makes it sound much more interesting than it’s turned out to be. What’s lacking in a lot of the poetry I read in these journals is specifically what Bly and Wright were attempting to foreground through image, a certain mystery and unconscious (or preconscious) connection between things. Instead, many of the poets I see in these journals trade that imagistic mystery for a kind of asserted, or verbal nodding to mystery. The poster child for this tendency could well be Matthew Dickman.

What I’m getting at, other than that, is really to agree with Göransson, by stressing that all poets are a hybrid of tendencies. The name American Hybrid, while great for marketing, isn’t very good for an actual definition of anything. It ignores and elides too much. On the other hand, I like the anthology itself very much. It includes a tremendous number of poets I admire. I just wish it had been presented differently. Or as part of a larger conversation.

Back to Göransson:


In her introduction, Swensen mentions that the original idea for the book was to make an anthology of younger poets, but that the editors changed midway through and made it mostly about the preceding generation. There may be many reasons for this, but one possible reason is that much of the most interesting poetry written by younger poets is patently excessive and in bad taste—whether crass flarf, hysterical gurlesque, angry political slogans, or aestheticist panic attacks—a radical move away from Quietism that has been fomented by the proliferation of small presses and Internet journals. A fuller look at American hybrid poetry would have to account for this phenomenon. Meanwhile, American Hybrid merely proves that “indeterminate” poetics has shaped the tradition, leaving it as high-minded and ambiguous as ever.


While not all flarf is “crass” and not all gurlesque is “hysterical,” there is a point to the fact that what once, a decade or so, could be called “Elliptical” can no longer be called so, as the first energy of many of the poets included in American Hybrid has fanned out into a proliferation of fascinating styles (some coming directly from poets included in American Hybrid, and some from other places entirely), which does point to the fact that there IS something of interest in having American Hybrid around. And maybe for close to the very reasons Swensen and St. John put it forward.

Looking at the last sentence from Göransson, above, I like “ambiguity,” but “high-minded” freaks me out. The “high-minded” moments in American Hybrid, and in poetry in general, seem a throwback to something essentialized, reductive. I want that to go away.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Poetry/ Not Poetry & The Turn

I think I must be missing something. Certainly I must be, as I have to admit, as much as I’m consumed with thoughts about poetry and what I find there (or don’t), one thing I’ve never been much interested in is how and why poetry differs from prose. I just kind of truck on my merry way, oblivious. Or not really oblivious, but more lacking some macro gene, I guess.

But questions surrounding Poetry/Not Poetry ARE often very interesting to me, as when Archambeau was writing about Romanticism recently, which I linked to here.

Now, he’s still think about Poetry/Not Poetry, and linking to some interesting things from Michael Theune (who I’m looking forward to meeting in about a month, so I’m doubly interested):


And who is the partisan of the volta, you wonder? Well, if I had to limit myself to a 150 mile radius of my study, I'd say the most powerful partisan of the volta would have to be Mike Theune. From his secret rebel outpost in Bloomington, Illinois Mike argues persuasively for the centrality of the volta to poetry. He's written a good book on the topic, and he totally schooled me on turns in Jorie Graham's poetry a while back.

Now he's picked up on my old
Poetry/Not Poetry post and offered his own riffs on the meaning of the volta to poetry.


So I followed Archambeau's links to Thuene’s site and looked around, finding several wonderful things to fill my morning, especially the list of quotes here, which includes, among many others, these very nice bits:


In a poem, one is always given, I would argue, a sense of place that matters–a place on suffered the loss of, a place one longs for–a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion (be it memory, description, meditation, fractured recollection of self, or even further disintegration of self under the pressure of history, for example) “takes place.”

…A break…can constitute trigger occasions, or situations, or kinds of place from which the spirit in language springs forward into the action of poetry.

All such moments–where we are taken by surprise and asked to react–are marked places in consciousness, places where a “turn” is required.

–Jorie Graham, “Something of Moment,” in Ploughshares 27. 4 (Winter 2001-02), 7-9.


The capacity to “express” the ineffable, the inexpressible, the emissary of the nonverbal territories of intuition, deep paradox, conflicting bodily impulses, as well as profoundly present yet nonlanguaged spiritual insights, even certain emotional crisis states–these are the wondrous haul that the nets of “deep image,” “collective emotive image,” haiku image-clusters, musical effects of all kinds (truths only introduced via metrical variation, for example), and the many hinge actions in poetry (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae) bring onto the shore of the made for us. The astonishments of poetry, for me, reside most vividly in its capacity to make a reader receive utterable and unutterable realities at once.

–Jorie Graham, “At the Border,” in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002): 146-48.


Is there a describable lyricism of swerving? For those poems for which the swerve, the turn, the sudden change in direction are integral, can we begin to articulate a precise appreciation? Is there a describable and individualistic lyricism of swerving?

I would argue that a flat mysticism of the particular is a problem. What’s needed is a twist or turn, a kind of swerve in another direction–as Louis Zukofsky suggests, “thought’s torsion.”

The lyric, to sustain our interest, to have complexity and beauty, and to remain compelling, requires “torsion”–that is, motion, tension, torque, and a twist.

–Hank Lazer, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (in Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008 (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2008), pp. 95-126; and American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2002), pp. 27-51).


Nice things from Archambeau and Thuene, et al. And now to close up this bit on turning and swerving and structure, here’s something from Martha Ronk that I like (I've posted it here before). It’s from her introduction to her work from Lyric Postmodernisms, edited by Reginald Shepherd, that I hightly recommend:

In his book In Quest of the Ordinary, Stanley Cavell states, “The everyday is what we cannot but aspire to, since it appears to us as lost to us.” I have tried to create poems that read in a seemingly temperate and straight-forward manner, but that unsettle the reader by intense, shifting, or confused focus, by a swerve toward the unexpected even if highly recognizable. The “quotidian” seems somehow a possible counter to skepticism, a check on self-involvement and a refusal to admit that there is anything other to confront than oneself. Such poetry has the potential to map and blur the ground between self and world, past and present, local and abstract. It can reach for the uncanny, can approximate something both ordinary and utterly odd, in an alternation and oscillation that maintains both. This luminal space may appear, for example, in the area between two images such that the eye/mind moving from one distinct image to another finds itself in a transitional space that undoes, unhinges, opens, slips. I am perforce drawn to the visual. In Lee Friedlander’s book, Black/White/Objects, there are two juxtaposed photographs, one of a man of wood (a crucifix) and one of a man of air (a balloon manikin in a Macy’s parade). As one’s eyes cross back and forth from the image on the left to the image on the right, one’s mind flutters, not only seeing the two as one, not only overlapping them, but also not being able to do this. The operation fails and in this splendid moment of failure, tied by slender thread to success and the released spark of juxtaposition, I would hope to locate my work. . . . .

The restless question, “why,” stands for me at the center of poetics: questioning why things are as they are, why standardized versions dominate: insisting, suspending, moving into fluidity and failure. . . . .

My work exists in the interrogative mood, whether or not a question mark appears at the end of a line.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Map of the Folded World reviewed at The Rumpus

A review is up on my most recent book, Map of the Folded World. It’s the first review that’s come out so far. Here it is:

If you scroll to the bottom, there’s a link to a new poem. And by new poem, I mean NEW poem. I wrote it last week. That’s one of the truly fun (and potentially terrifying) things about Internet-based publications. Things can really move fast.

Reading this review, while still thinking about the MFA consulting thing from the other day, got me to thinking about the value of feedback, of being part of a conversation. It’s the great reason for wanting to participate in an MFA or PHD program. It’s why people go to residencies and conferences. It’s the great value of community. OK, sure. That’s easy to say, but it’s difficult to participate in at times.

Feedback is such an odd thing. In any circumstance. I remember being in my first creative writing workshop back in the 80s. I was a journalism major surrounded by English majors. Some of the things I heard and said I still remember (others, thankfully, not). Unless one is very strong (and maybe even not then), the things people say affect you (effect you, even). A poet friend of mine, Rebecca Aronson has a writing group that meets for a week every spring. I’ve been envious of that for years.

When someone says you are X, what do you do in response? Can you really ignore the pull of description? Do you look at yourself more closely to see if you are, indeed, X? Do you run from X like from a burning building? Do you embrace it as inevitable? Do you do all these things by turns? Are they good things or bad things?

Well, both, certainly. It can be wonderful or devastating. Praise can give one confidence to continue or it can give one a self-obsession that leads to the failure of the work. Same with negative criticism.

When I’m talking with people about their work (or reviewing [which I don’t do much of], but that’s a little different), I find it important to talk to them about what I see them doing. It’s like watching a film of oneself doing a sport. But not just to make one’s form better or more fluid. It’s also to help someone decide, and then to assist them in investigating, who their family is. By that, I mean the constellation of poets with whom they share some affinity. But there’s a drawback to that, isn’t there? The feeling that you just sit there in the shadow of previous, stronger poets . . .

Well, it’s necessary to describe what artists are doing. At least I think so. It helps them. It gives them something to chew on. And it helps us contextualize what they're doing. It assists reception. It’s a carnival mirror at times, yes, but often it will say something that gives us a new angle on something we thought was finished. I often wish I could be in a writing group again. Are there many people who are in writing groups not affiliated with a school?

Or people who hate writing groups? People who never read reviews of their work?

And then, as an addendum, as I was writing this an email came in asking if I’d be interested in leading a one-day public workshop in St. Louis this October. Now THAT sounds like fun! Anyone in St. Louis want to meet for pizza?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Do You Need a Consulting Firm for Your MFA or PHD Application?

Well, do ya?

I spent most of yesterday, while doing the several things there are to do in a day when one has children, thinking about the back and forth about the new consulting firm that’s been created to assist people in applying to graduate programs in creative writing (I’m not posting any links because links seemed to be flying all over the place yesterday. Best just to say, if you don’t know about them, it’s just as well.). I don’t teach in an MFA or PhD program. I did go through an MFA program and a PHD program, however. While there, I didn’t think about graduate program rankings and all that. I was pretty clueless about, what one might call “The Big Picture,” or what others might call “The Scene.” In many respects I still am. I have this kind-of “just work on the art and forget about everything else because wondering or worrying about everything else will lead you down a cynical path that will come back to damage your art” notion that has kept me, by and large, from most all the opportunities out there. Needless to say, this is not my best topic.

But now that I teach undergraduates, I have to make it my topic. Mostly I think I give them the advice that I imagine we all give: look for the program that might be best for you (which for different people means different things: do you want to work on a literary magazine? Do you want to work with a poet somewhat like yourself? Is location really that important to you?), which might not be the program that other people rank as “the best,” in general (My version of “the best” in anything has never been what others consider the best. I imagine that’s the same for everyone?) Apply to as many programs as you can afford to apply to. Work on your writing sample (but please don’t do it cynically [this really makes me cringe, the pressure people feel to do something that they think will be impressive, and how damaging that might be to their art, even taking into consideration that “experimenting” and “modeling” are important ways to find out things…]). Don’t sound crazy in your Statement of Purpose.

I think what depressed me yesterday was the fact that a consulting firm seems to be necessary for what one really should be able to do for oneself, especially if one comes from a place where one has taken creative writing classes already (so one has—hopefully—modeled the behavior or both portfolio and SOP). I doubt a consulting firm will do anyone any real harm, though. At least no more harm than talking with anyone about one’s work (which, of course, could potentially do one a lot of harm). And if one has some money to spend (I think the amount mentioned is $250 or so?), then that’s their business. This consulting firm is doing what creative writing teachers do already for their students. It’s odd, though, to see a price tag on something I do as part of my job. It makes me feel underpaid.

I can envision that there are good candidates for a consulting firm for MFA or PHD admission out there. If a student has a difficult relationship with the person or people that student would have to work with at their school to put an application together, for instance—or if a prospective graduate student has been out of school for a time, and doesn’t feel comfortable going back to talk to people there (or if they've all retired or are in Europe or crazy or _______), perhaps these prospective graduate students would be more comfortable paying strangers for guidance.

Hmm, which gets me thinking. I’ll tell you what. For $20 I’ll tell you if a consulting firm is right for you.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Estes & Waldrep

Speaking of reviews, Stephen Burt likes a couple of books I also like, by two people I know fairly well. Well, I’ve driven around Columbus with Angie Estes, and published her poems several times, and I’ve written a manuscript with G.C., so I’m not exactly an objective source, therefore, rather than have me talk glowingly about them, I’ll just reprint the short Burt reviews from the New York Times (and you can go buy their books, if you've haven't already):

By G. C. Waldrep.
Tupelo, paper, $16.95.

Waldrep’s title denotes an antique keyboard instrument with 24, or many more, keys per octave. Notoriously hard to play, such instruments made subtle and challenging music, with notes a conventional score could not include. Waldrep’s sometimes bewildering, often exciting prose poems make their own unconventional music, replete with slippages, repetitions, suggestions: “Every sound is tropical, every sound is perishable,” he writes. “My aunt sends one wrapped in butcher paper & string.” Most poems take quizzical titles from musical terms (“What Is a Threnody,” “What Is a Motet”), and most take rhetorical gifts from Gertrude Stein; yet Waldrep’s poems, far more than Stein’s, revel in the variety of their subjects. Some include clear scenes and characters, as when the poet helps a boy cross a cold road: “we walked slowly, because he was not yet done with being five.” The poet also leavens his intricate compositions with self-consciously playful asides: “Nothing is what it appears to be, I say. To which you reply, yes it is.” Waldrep (who studied the labor movement for his Ph.D. in American history) attends to the meaning of work, to the hardships of lives unlike his own: “Who Was Scheherazade” begins “My job was to pick rocks.” Yet his great triumphs combine such outward sympathies with self-conscious attention to inward oddities, to fleeting thoughts, to the vectors of energy in abstract words: “If I subtract sacrifice from appetite from what fierce attention do I then compromise a strict union, have I faltered, have I made an argument for grace.”

By Angie Estes.
Oberlin College, paper, $15.95.

Gleeful and gorgeous, delighted by puns and other wordplay (including words from French, Latin and Italian), Estes’s fast-paced free verse, rich with internal rhyme, takes rightful pride in the beauties it flaunts and explains. Her fourth collection finds, for recurrent motifs, saints’ lives, medieval manuscripts, gold leaf and the alphabet: “hearts bloom / out of Ds like lamb chop sleeves / in the script of the fifteenth-century / scribe”; in a gilded Book of Hours, “the letters / have fallen out of the words and lie / scattered on the ground.” Each deft poem weaves together multiple topics — some art-historical, others autobiographical — through chains of homonyms and knotty analogies: “Take Cover” skates from the French “couvre feu, cover the fire” (the origin for our word “curfew”) to disheveled bedcovers and 1950s-style duck-and-cover drills. Though Estes revels in European reference (Dante, Trieste, Greta Garbo), her matchless hunger for experience makes her indelibly American: “how the tongue / keeps lapping the world’s / loot,” she exclaims, “even in the 499th lap / of the Indy 500.” The arts — from Cimabue’s painting to haute cuisine — are for Estes never mere luxuries; rather, the arts, and our pride in them, give us the only effective countermeasures to loneliness, helplessness and serious pain. And pain — remembered or feared — is always somewhere: “So Near Yet So Far” connects a lunar eclipse, a film starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, a concept from high-energy plasma physics and “the necklace / of pearls my father bought my mother / for their forty-fifth wedding / anniversary, which she made him / take back.”

Get It In The Rumpus

OK, so I liked The Rumpus even before I heard that there’s a review of my book going up today. It’s not always about me . . . well . . . not always . . .

Here’s a review of Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead, by D.A. Powell, for instance:

Here’s a snippet:

“Her Nixon is a fallen monument, an apparition who stalks the grounds of the Whitehouse; who sits with his head “like a Rushmore in space” awaiting his ultimate pardon. Later, he is a bauble, a plastic man inside a snowglobe “while hoodoo snow is falling.” Loden’s Nixon is the crooked leader for whom I grew nostalgic, as the eight torturous years of the Bush regime raged on like an unchecked virus. Deeply human, deeply flawed, he is the most tragic figure ever to appear on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

(That was the famous “Sock it to ME?” bit, above)

And since I’m on the subject of D.A. Powell, there’s an interview with him up at Shark Forum:

Here’s a snippet:

One evening David and I were on one of our typical long phone conversations, and the subject of memoirs came up. I joked that I had been toying with the idea of writing a memoir by lifting sentences from other people's memoirs. David laughed but then he got quiet and his tone turned serious. "You know, that's a really great idea," he said. "Yes," I replied, "but when would I have the time? I'd get bogged down after the first sentence." We talked about a few other things, then David came back to the idea: "Would you do it as a collaboration?"

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Matthew Collings Is Fascinating

Matthew Collings is fascinating. What I admire about him isn’t just his honesty, but the fact that it’s not self-aggrandizing in his presentation. What I mean is, take William Logan, for instance. William Logan isn’t afraid of being negative (hardly!). It’s not about negativity. The problem with William Logan is that he tries so hard to be clever with what he’s saying, that he writes over what he’s talking about. It makes his criticism unhelpful, beyond the “he said what!” level.

Matthew Collings seems to me to have his heart in the right place. He’s not a jerk. He’s just ready to say what he sees. It makes his art criticism actually useful, something I wasn’t sure was possible. It would do us all well if the poetry world could have someone like him writing.

Anyway, his columns are linked off the wonderful Shark Forum:

To read his posts go here.

Here’s a sample:

Imagine someone writing about poetry who would be able to say, about a poem, "This one as usual didn't mean anything it was doing."

It makes me all quivery.

Addendum (added on Monday, taken from my comment in the comments section in response to vazambam):

To be more specific, Collings’s above critique is to me the most important, valuable critique—and the most difficult one to make and to back up—in art (and in the rest of the arts):

“This one as usual didn’t mean anything it was doing.”

Think of how many times you’ve read a poem and thought that. It’s the foundation of Collings’s criticism. And it’s different than the usual one we hear about poetry, that “something is at stake.” I contend that something is always at stake in a work of art that is available for purchase. But, this idea of “meaning what it is doing” is universal. It’s why Collings has such a textured response to Jeff Koons, who I believe Collings would say, means what he’s doing, but what he’s doing doesn’t mean past a sort of gesture toward the quaintness of meaning. Or something like that.

Such a stance as Collings has, allows him to have a rather open—and at the same time skeptical—response to any art.

It's also the critique that I believe Michael Schiavo was finally making against Matthew Dickman, famously, a few months back. His critique felt persuasive to me, and now that I’ve read the book, I agree with much of it.

This is also Tony Hoagland’s critique of those poets he’s (I think absurdly) gesturing to as the Cult of Dean Young . . .

And, likewise, Collings’s trip to the art gathering (the above link will take you directly there, but here it is again:, by and large, seems to me a valuable critique (though I think some of his targets seem a little sketched in—the gallery directors, for instance), unlike the facile and unhelpful critique Kay Ryan made of AWP a few years ago. I’ve been meaning to write on Kay Ryan. Perhaps I will later in the week. I’m sure it will get a lot of negative response, however, so I’m hesitating. There just seems this general “leave her alone” vibe out there that I think is unfair, as she’s now a very public figure and the things she says about poetry (and her own poetry) seem so facile as to be really damaging to the art.

The art world, because there's so much money involved, has a level of interest and scrutiny (and hyperbole and myth) that poetry is exempt from (exempt isn’t quite the right word, but maybe you know what I mean?). Too bad. To have someone like Matthew Collings talking about poetry would do much to raise the level of conversation.