Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Midwest Chapbook Series - 2011

The Midwest Chapbook Series

GreenTower Press/The Laurel Review

Final Judge: Dana Levin

The contest is open to anyone who is living in, from, or closely associated with the Midwest, excluding close friends and former students of the editors or contest judge, as well as employees and students of Northwest Missouri State University.


20-30 pages (typed, single-sided, one poem per page).

Individual poems may have been previously published. You may include an acknowledgements page if you wish, though one is not required.

Include two cover pages: one with title only, the other with name, address, email address, manuscript title, and a short note establishing your connection to the Midwest.

Your name should ONLY appear on the cover page, which the staff will keep on file. Manuscripts will be read blind.

Reading period opens February 1 and ends July 1, 2011. Late entries will be returned unread.

$10.00 reading fee. Please make checks payable to GreenTower Press. Reading fee gets you a one-year subscription to The Laurel Review, starting with the summer issue.

The winning chapbook will be published in an edition of 300 copies. Winner will receive one hundred copies. Additional copies offered at 40% off the list price ($7.00) plus shipping and handling.

Winner also will be invited to give a reading at Northwest Missouri State University’s Visiting Writers series, which includes travel expenses paid and an honorarium of $250.00

All entries will be considered for publication in The Laurel Review.

Winner will be notified by email or telephone, and will be announced on our website ( ) in September, 2011.

If you’d like an acknowledgement of receipt send a SASP; please do not send a SASE.

Send entries to:

GreenTower Press
Midwest Chapbook Series
Northwest Missouri State University
Maryville, MO 64468

Questions may be addressed to the editors of The Laurel Review at:

Recent chapbooks available from GreenTower Press:

BLOOM, Rob Schlegel

Show Me Yours, Hadara bar-Nadav

Off the Fire Road, Greg Wrenn

Instructions for a Painting, Molly Brodak

ITINERARY, Reginald Shepherd

Anatomy of a Ghost, Rumit Pancholi

Grenade, Rebecca Hoogs

The BirdGirl Handbook, Amy Newman

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Jordan Davis on Confessing

Please, tell us ALL about it, and spare no detail.

Jordan Davis’s reviews of Michael Palmer and Dorothy Barresi is up at Constant Critic:

Whether you’ve read either book or are interested in them, you’ll still find something of interest in this review. The reviews I like the most are the ones that are after a larger question than “is this book good.” The best reviews are about poetry itself. What it does. What it might be doing, in the book under glass, yes, but also in the larger scope of the art itself.

As I’ve just finished the Michael Palmer, I’m interested in that part of the review for several reasons (I’m going to try to sort myself out on it and post it before I get on a plane tomorrow). On the other hand, I’ve not read the Barresi, so I’ll post Davis’s questions surrounding her book, as I can approach them without the weight of his example (Barresi).

The erotics of pointing. (I got dressed up for this?)

This part struck me:

“There are some poems in the earlier books about growing up in the Midwest, in Akron in the seventies and eighties, going to clubs, doing drugs. It’s a somewhat cautionary tale for poets in a developing cul de sac: would you want, when you’re fifty, to have this be the material you look back on. That’s too harsh a statement, and this harshness is probably why I’ve been avoiding writing this review. Too harsh to say. But I think there’s a reason people pursue aestheticization or the development of an aesthetics by taking the safe route. When you risk embarrassment in your work, you will often be embarrassed, and if your sense of embarrassment at yourself breaks, that may be a marvelous thing or it may be delayed onset of a social adjustment issue.”

It is a caution. I’ve seen some things, some content things, in books by people who keep the poetic I and themselves very close to each other, who really blur the line. And these things, as autobiography, often make me wonder how well these books are going to fit when the author is putting that big Selected Poems together. Is that a reason to not blur the line? Or is that a reason not to talk about having sex in the bathroom of a club? Why do people do that anyway? (Both the club itself and the writing about it?)

I’m not called to write from that standpoint, mostly because I don't see the point.  My experiences are my experiences, and I’m not sure why they should be a poem. This leads me to the second part of the above: “I think there’s a reason people pursue aestheticization or the development of an aesthetics by taking the safe route.” I’ve always thought of that in the direct opposite way that Davis does. When I was starting to write poetry seriously (in the late 80s), the type of poetry he’s talking about, the post-confessional, heavily autobiographical-seeming sort, seemed the safest, or the natural route, to take in poetry, simply because it was all around. Ashbery, then, was held up as something of a cautionary tale. Look at writers like this! They’re so full of nihilism that they refuse to participate in meaning-making! They are anti-humanist and anti-social! They’re not working for the common good!

Have things really changed? Am I transferring the ghosts of 1986 over the top of 2011? Perhaps no way is really a safe way, and every roué one takes into art is Los Angeles on fire. Can you really choose a way? Does one choose an aesthetic stance? I feel mine (whatever it is) was more thrust upon me than chosen. I need to do a survey. I’m afraid that what I will find is that if poets are shying away from disclosures of the drug and club sort, it might have more to do with their jobs (where most work at universities, yes, and that’s an obvious one, but also in other professional lines of work there might be repercussions to writing about a scandalous background that could be seen as yours). The temper and tone of the times . . .

Yes, I also feel like I'm the shadow of my former self.

Davis goes on:

“There’s a tradition of confessing in literature, lately somewhat degraded but going back to Augustine; Augustine’s confessions don’t look all that embarrassing now but maybe we’re just far enough away from them. Confessional poetry does not have a great reputation at the moment partly because there is a threshold you can cross with the reader where the reader doesn’t want to know anymore about you. Barresi’s nowhere near that point, but there is a reason confessionalism stopped being the main mode of what we agree to call mainstream poetry.”

This is the very thing that I often think, but without the word “mainstream.” I’m still not sure what it is we’re agreeing to call “mainstream poetry.” I would think, myself, that it would be more typified by Dorothy Barresi than Michael Palmer, though. But I go around about this a lot, in curlicues. If we’re talking about absolute numbers of poets writing poetry today, then Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (I know, I pick on them a lot, they’re my go-to examples! Where would I be without them? [Pinsky and Dove?]) can stand in as names for what I mostly see.

But is what one mostly sees, the mainstream? The example I’ve used before is the thick of Modernism. Now, looking back, the period seems dominated by WCW, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, HD, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot . . . but looking at the journals from back then, and the books published and the awards given out and the anthologies published, it seems that they were mostly unaware they were being so dominated.

In fifty, 100 years, our period is going to look very different than it does now, that’s for certain. We’re going to be very different to them than we are to ourselves, and perhaps some of this conversation about “mainstream” is our guess at what our period is going to be remembered as, rather than what it is to our daily experience. Question mark?

TMI. (And some things just don't need to be said.)
Davis goes on:

“There’s something to be said for relieving yourself of the burden of the ego-ideal, of always having to put the best possible face on all your actions. To always mean well, to always try to think for everyone—‘I thought hard for us all’—it’s not healthy to think for other people. Let other people think for themselves.”

I’ve had this very conversation with people, especially after reading that poem Davis quotes from, William Stafford’s “Travelling Through the Dark.” Yes, how much “I thought hard for us all” can one person get away with before we all start getting a little creeped out? That kind of tone is one that’s been a target of much of the poetry written over the last 15 or so years. It’s what a lot of people write against. And now, perhaps, there will (or are?) poets rising up against the poetry the rose up against it. Perhaps this will someday become the Age of Stafford that some were thinking back in the 70s it was going to be. Or the Age of Olds. I’m going to have to live a long time to find out, and by the time I’m 125, I’ll most likely not be all that interested in whatever the answer turns out to be.

So why not want everything everything everything everything?

Davis leaves us with a catholic homework assignment:

“Barresi. She’s a real poet. If you’re going to read poetry, why not read all the real poets. Why not see when they hit it, which she does at least once here. And many of the poems are memorable. People when they find out I write about poetry (when they don’t abruptly change the subject) ask me who to read, who’s worth reading now. I usually say pick up any book of poems, chances are there’s something good in it. You may have to read a lot of it, there may be a lot of it that doesn’t look any good, you may get discouraged. You may think I don’t get why this is good, why did someone print this. That’s true about pretty much all poetry. . . . But. Also, if you just read it, and see what you respond to, and aren’t in the market for being told that you’re having an experience, but actually are in the market for your own experience, and a companionable mind, then why not read everybody. If you’re going to read everybody, why aren’t you doing that yet?”

Indeed. Yes but. Well, we don’t have time, of course. We can’t read everything. Everything is not readable. What’s the figure now? 3,000 books of poetry published a year? OK, so that includes a lot of things no one will ever see (for various reasons, not all of them Artistic Worth), but, say, the number of books where we can find a memorable poem or three . . . 200, maybe? That would be 16.7 books a month. But I can read the Palmer and the Barresi. That’s one of the values of lists of names and lists of books and reviews such as this one. Not saying to read or not to read something, but to draw one’s attention, to make one curious.

And the larger point, the point of “read widely and broadly,” yes, absolutely. That’s something I need to keep being reminded of. I remember a few years ago, picking up an old book by Sharon Olds, one I thought of as terrible (Satan Says), and opening it at random, and finding a good poem right off the bat. Most things aren’t as bad or as good as we think. And the cost of finding important (to us) poems is only to read through some poems that aren’t very good. It’s not that heavy of a price.

And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Interesting Albums of 2011 (So Far)

Albums that I think deserve special attention:

Destroyer, Kaputt
Radiohead, The King of Limbs
R.E.M. Collapse Into Now
Bon Iver, Bon Iver (I’ve only heard half of it so far, but it’s a very good half)
East River Pipe, We Live in Rented Rooms

Favorite Songs (Not from the above albums, because the above albums each have enough excellent songs on them to make picking one or two not worth it.):

The Low Anthem, “Boeing 737” (This is the best song of the year so far. The rest of the album is just good.)
Thurston Moore, “Benediction”
The Belle Brigade, “Losers”
David Lowery, “Deep Oblivion”
The Decemberists, “Down By the Water”
Iron & Wine, "Tree By the River"
The Mountain Goats, “Damn These Vampires,” “Estate Sale Sign”
The Wilderness of Manitoba, "November," "Hermit"
Wye Oak, “Civilian”

There are a lot of albums I like this year, but not nearly as much as the top five. Maybe when I hear the whole albums from AM, or Hospital Ships? Who knows. Anyway, here’s the list of what I’ve listened to this year. NOTE: I don’t own all of these albums, and have not necessarily heard all the tracks from each of them. I stream a lot of music from promotional websites, NPR, etc.

Acid House Kings, Music Sounds Better with You
Akron / Family, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey Of Shinju TNT (Folk prog rock! It's quite fun. And it sunds like they're having fun as well.)
Alexi Murdoch, Towards the Sun (which is quite old, actually)
AM & Shawn Lee, [As Yet Untitled] (Not Out Yet)
Amy Bezunartea, Restaurants & Bars
Apex Manor, The Year of Magical Drinking
The Asteroid #4, Hail to the Clear Figurines

Banjo or Freakout, Banjo or Freakout
The Belle Brigade, The Belle Brigade
Bill Callahan, Apocalypse (Several wonderful moments right next to several cringeworthy moments.)
*Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Bright Eyes, The People’s Key (I want to like Bright Eyes, and I almost do.)
Braids, Native Speaker
British Sea Power, Who’s in Control
Broken Bells, Meyrin Fields EP
Buffalo Tom, Skins

Campfire OK, Strange Like We Are
The Cave Singers, No Witch (A lot of folk rock energy. I like it a lot. It comes across like a combination of The Rolling Stones and the Eels. Put THAT in your pipe.)
The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
Cloud Nothings, Cloud Nothings
Cold War Kids, Mine Is Yours
Cowboy Junkies, Demons (It should have been better than this.)
Cut Copy, Take Me Over (Yikes, the 1983 flashback was terrible.)

David Lowery, The Palace Guards (Solid album that feels like a cut and paste job. But a good cut and paste job.)
The Dears, Degeneration Street
Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys (Like Bright Eyes, I feel I should like them, but they just bore me.)
The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Almost perfect arrangements of rather forgetable songs.)
Deerhoof, Deerhoof vs. Evil
*Destroyer, Kaputt
DeVotchKa, 100 Lovers (I go back and forth on this one. Depending on how I feel about his vocal drama. Right now I like it.)
The Dodos, No Color (Excellent guitar work. Kind of like Memomena, but even more frenzied. It makes me kind of dizzy to listen to it all the way through. The vocal delivery reminds me a lot of Paul McCartney, fwiw.)
The Donkeys, Born with Stripes
The District Attorneys, Orders From (Another solid indie rock outfit.)
Drive-By Truckers, Everybody Needs Love (Another band people keep telling me I should like but I don't.)

*East River Pipe, We Live in Rented Rooms
Elbow, Build a Rocket Boys!
EMA, Past Life of Martyred Saints

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (A lot like their other work. Very good. But I keep forgetting to listen to it.)

The Generationals, Actor-Caster
The Get Up Kids, There Are Rules
Grails, Deep Politics (It feels a bit like a guilty pleasure.)

Ha Ha Tonka, Death of a Decade (Good country-rock. I didn't think there were any new country-rock outfits out there. It was nice to see them at it. )
The Head and the Heart, The Head and the Heart
Hospital Ships, Lonely Twin (From the tracks I've heard so far, this could be a great album.)

I’m from Barcelona, Forever Today (I really like when all 27 of them sing. It has very good moments.)
Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean (Wobbly as an album, but with some very good parts.)

James Vincent McMorrow, Early in the Morning (I thought I was going to like it, then I hated it, and now I'm OK with it.)
Justice of the Unicorns, Animals Will Be Stoned (I've only heard two songs so far: Look them up. It's hard to explain.)

Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo (Great vibe, but no real stand out tracks. He hs a little of that drone thing going on that really bothers me in Panda Bear and Animal Collective, which is, he repeats himself a lot. He's touring with Thurston Moore [Sonic Youth] which should be a good show.)

Low, C’mon
The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh (I wish they could be as good all the way through as their best songs are.)
The Luyas, Too Beautiful to Work

The Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck (Much better than their [his] last album. A few excellent tracks and a few phoned in. And a few solid ones.)

Noah and the Whale, Last Night on Earth (They’re turning into the David & David for the next generation.)
Northern Primitive, Northern Primitive

Oh Land, Oh Land
Okkervil River, I Am Very Far (Another band I'm supposed to like, and I kind of do.)

Papercuts, Fading Parade
Parts & Labor, Constant Future (Excellent album for running. Heavy metal drums over an indie rock base.)
Peter, Bjorn & John, Gimme Some
Point Juncture, WA, Handsome Orders (This might be a good one, from the couple tracks I've hear so far.)

*R.E.M. Collapse Into Now
*Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Say Hi, um, uh oh
Smith Westerns, Dye it Blonde
Startfucker, Reptilians

Telekinesis, 12 Desperate Straight Lines
Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts (A few really good songs, but it also drags. Or perhaps just wanders off now and then in the acoustic strumming.)
The Twilight Singers, Dynamite Steps

John Vanderslice, White Wilderness (I keep thinking I should like this.)
Virgin of the Birds, Fugitive Works (Free EP) - I like this one a lot. And it's free.
Voxhaul Broadcast, Timing Is Everything

The Wilderness of Manitoba, When You Left the FIre (I've only heard a few songs, and they're wonderful.)
Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Is it her or is it me?)
Wye Oak, Civilian - Very good most of the way through.

Yuck, Yuck

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Neil Young - After the Gold Rush (Just in Case the World Ends Today)

Neil Young
After the Gold Rush

Because one of these days it will be the end of the world. And yes, there are many songs more directly about the end of the world, but this one has always struck me as just the right balance of apocalyptic and hippie dream.

And then, the circus version (because there must be a circus version):

End of the World

Archibald MacLeish

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Dean Young's New Book Is Out

I googled "American Surrealism" and this is the first image that popped up. Taa-Daa!
(Which plays directly into the hands of those who say American Surrealism, if there is such a thing, is derivative. Alas.)

There’s an interview with Dean Young in The Pedestal Magazine archives from a couple years ago, that I just came across. But it’s interesting to me right now as his new book of poems, Fall Higher (that I didn’t know was coming out, and that I haven’t read, but that I’ve already gone ahead and predicted as the next Pulitzer winner [Hey, it worked with Kay Ryan, so I thought I’d do another “guess without reading” exercise. {I will pat myself on the back as also predicting Rae Armantrout's Pulitzer, but I did that after actually reading it.}]) is just out, and for the fact that in the interview Young touches on Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, Stevens, Surrealism, American Surrealism, and the divine (if only he’d have mentioned Michael Palmer it would be a complete set!) . . . So here are the most relevant bits (PS, what a boy-heavy list of names above.):

LR: I’ve got a few questions about poetic heroes. You’ve often been called an nth-generation New York School poet. I notice, for instance, that Elegy on Toy Piano is dedicated to Kenneth Koch. Who in that first-generation group do you feel a particular affinity for, and are there any that you don’t?

DY: The Big 3 have been hugely important to me, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Kenneth was friendly towards me. Ashbery has been nice. O’Hara, of course, was dead by the time I picked up his books. But more importantly, theirs were the first poems in which I felt a kind of living presence that I understood. I felt like I could somehow join the party of poetry. That I had people before me. Lord knows, everything about them as people is quite different from me. All three of them were well-educated intellectuals, and I’m not exactly that at all. But there’s something about the poetry.

With Ashbery it’s the associational mode, where he’s able to tap into so many different discourses of poetry in other ages. That’s so extraordinary. And O’Hara, along with all his wildness, there’s the familiarity. I think with all three of them, the familiarity is very important. Ashbery, for instance, is a very companionable writer. With Kenneth, it’s that his poems are so flat-out inventive. One feels in reading his poems that there’s a great joy in them, a great joy in making poetry. It’s fun. Poetry doesn’t necessarily have to be a measurement of suffering.

Those three are very, very important to me. And in the second generation, Ron Padgett and Paul Violi are two poets who constantly amaze me. Padgett’s incredible, screwball, goofy charm has evolved in the past few years into a lucidity and decorum that has both amazing gravity and lightness about it. Paul Violi is just an amazing inventor. One of the great things he does is to colonize various mini-genres and use them for poetry.

LR: How about Surrealism? An article in Wikipedia claims that “if neo-surrealism has a poetic corollary then it is [Dean Young].” How important is surrealism to your sense of yourself as a writer?

DY: Surrealism is part of my heritage. I thought you were going to say, how important is Wikipedia to me? I think in that same entry they claim that Rimbaud and Apollinaire are Surrealists, and they’re not. So that pretty much takes off the table what they’re saying. It speaks from a deep ignorance, I’m afraid.

The quality of invention is at the core of Surrealist poetry, the importance not only aesthetically but also philosophically of the imagination.

Robert Bly is really good about pointing out the difference between French Surrealism and Latin American Surrealism. He points out, and I think he’s right on the mark, that Latin American Surrealism has a whole bunch of emotive force behind it. Whereas with French Surrealists, they’re French after all. Surrealism arrived in the world not as a mode of artistic production, but as a means of transforming consciousness. So the imagination plays a more active role in our being. So I return to their poetry to get brushed up, to get the cobwebs knocked out of me. It always seems fresh and dynamic and exciting and unpredictable.

Association is at the base of what I do, and at the base of what many, many poets do.

LR: Can you comment on American Surrealism, if there is such a thing.

DY: I don’t know if there is such a thing. I don’t think of myself as a Surrealist, but Surrealism as a historical movement and practice and philosophy and concern has had an endless influence on my work.

LR: Also in the latest APR is an essay by Tony Hoagland entitled “The Dean Young Effect” in which he characterizes your relation to Surrealism thusly: “The poet is a channel for the cosmic Eros of the poem….Surrealists are not psychologists, working through neuroses, but devotees—language is their way of wooing the divine.” Is that an accurate description of what you’re trying to do with your poems?

DY: I don’t know if it’s an accurate description of what I’m trying to do with all my poems, but I think it’s not a bad reaction to Surrealism. You look at Tony’s work, Tony’s by no means terribly influenced or interested in Surrealism, but I think what he’s saying in that article is quite smart.

LR: So while it might be true about Surrealism, it’s not necessarily true about your own work?

DY: It sounds a little bit inflated. Access to the divine? Not really. I’m not really sure about that.

LR: I think modesty is always good when approaching the divine. I wanted to ask you about Wallace Stevens? Is he a model for your work, an inspiration?

DY: I hope he is. His work is extraordinarily beautiful and, God, sad! This is an interesting thing about Stevens. A lot of the time he’s just messing around. He’s able to evoke a sort of intellectual gravity but inhabit it with a kind of goofy play. But as his work goes on, there’s a darker vision that comes through in everything and with it the decorations drop away. His poems get barer and darker and more lonely, mourning the fact that there is no God, maybe, no connections that make sense of our life. The beauty of his language and the weirdness of his poems I find very inspiring. I also find it daunting. John Berryman in one of the Dream Songs says about Stevens: “Him hurt Henry’s head.”

Full interview:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Creep Covers . . . the "Glee, eat your heart out" version.

Radiohead's "Creep" is becoming the most covered song of the last couple decades, at least in indie-rock circles. This is one of the most interesting:

Scala & Kolacny Brothers

You simply MUST listen to this from the 2:50 – 3:30 marks.

Maybe you caught this song on The Social Network? Here’s a live version where they cut it short, so it’s not quite as powerful:

Scala & Kolacny Brothers

Because you’re just so darn special. You know?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The New Spirituality

Postmodernism made a lot of experiential sense to me, even as most of those around me (mostly older poets and teachers) raged at it. It’s vacuous! It’s nihilistic! Raging at it seemed about as useful as complaining about the weather. And now, twenty five years on, I don’t see the weather changing. What I see, though, is that we’ve long ago stopped making up new words for snow, and have moved to making igloos.

All we have is what we have, as they say.

Post-modernity is our existential condition, it’s what we steep in; it’s not a belief system. So what we do is not what we do with it but in it.

The “weee,” the jouissance, may be getting a little forced, but the conditions that produced it remain. So the end of history that many saw in LANGUAGE writing is now academic, and the hundredth anniversary of R. Mutt’s “Fountain” is looming. Nothing’s shocking, as both Jane’s Addiction and The Replacements, as well as numerous artists, had it, and that’s all at least 20 years old now too . . .

So if nothing’s been shocking for over a generation now (or close to a hundred years, if you want to go back, or longer, if you want to draw the line somewhere else), what are we to do?

The New Sincerity was going to be the big joke, wasn’t it? But a funny thing happened: a lot of poets took it seriously. Duchamp’s R. Mutt fountain becomes Jeff Koons’s sincerity (as an extreme example). What was an ironic move, or a political move, has become a method. I was thinking about it last fall:

And so went The New Sincerity. And I’m thinking about it again. And this time in a related, but very different way: The New Spirituality. It’s not devotional poetry, at least not overtly, instead it’s searching, questioning:

Diane Wald
Just One Thing

It occurs to me that the problem is that I keep thinking that I’ll be able to fix something so that it will stay fixed—not change. For example if I cut my nails correctly I won’t have to do it again, or if I get the garden to look just perfectly the way I want it nothing will grow or change or get ruined by hail or slugs—or if I could just for once just once get you to see how imperfectly I have loved you, that would explain everything for all time for both of us. This foolishness is a huge thing—a Buddhist I think would advise me about it. If I could find the right Buddhist that Buddhist would advise me and then everything would be all right forever and not change.

Diane Wald stands outside of this tendency, looking in, so I thought the poem fit, even if her poetry doesn’t. This desire to look in, and for many to then open the door and enter, has been brewing for years (Jean Valentine, Donald Revell, etc), and I think now we’re at something like critical mass. The recent more secular, but equally questioning, examples of Rae Armantrout and Mary Jo Bang having popular success (in poetry terms), is telling. Experimental poets write about real things. (The truth is, they always have.)

But the door is open now, and in walks several versions of spiritual and mythical investigation. One form this takes is the book of fables. Have you noticed how many poets are interested in writing fables lately? Craig Morgan Teicher and Sarah Goldstein both have recent books of fables, and the list goes on. I’m going blank right now on a complete list, but I’d put Sabrina Orah Mark there as well:

Sabrina Orah Mark
The Saddest Gown In the World

“I do not give anymore,” said Walter B., “a fig about you.” “Are 
you sure?” asked Beatrice. “Absolutely,” said Walter B. “Not a fig?” asked Beatrice. “Not a fig,” said Walter B. “Promise?” asked Beatrice. “Promise,” said Walter B. “When do you suppose,” asked Beatrice, “you will give about me a fig again?” Walter B. looked up at the sky. “Probably not for many years,” said Walter B. “Oh,” said Beatrice. “Should I wait?” “Of course,” said Walter B., “you should wait.” “I’d be very happy,” said Beatrice, “if you joined me while I waited.” Walter B. squeezed her hand. “One day,” said Walter B., “I will make for you a sewing of all the figs I never gave about you.” And one day Walter B. would. He would sew all the figs together. It would not be easy, but he would do it. If he could promise Beatrice anything he could promise her this. He would make for Beatrice a perfect sewing of all the figs he never gave about her. She could wear it, thought Walter B., like a gown. And everyone would applaud.

Call it fable or parable or analogy of metaphor, the result’s basically the same: the call to writing poetry such as this is, in the end, a call to spirit. It’s a way of explaining, of fixing a feeling of loss, the great loss of myth that poets can fill. This new ripple of interest fascinates me.

And then there’s the more direct route, spirituality itself. A great number of practicing poets belong to faith communities (G.C. Waldrep, Kazim Ali, Fanny Howe, Joshua Kryah, are just a few—there are many), but most don’t often write directly at the practice of faith. Or at least that’s been the case. It seems that the “direct treatment of the thing” is growing more common, with special issues of literary journals (a recent APR, for example, which wasn’t designated as such, but might as well have been), and more and more books with spiritual themes. Two recent examples are sitting right in front of me on my desk: Matt Mauch’s Prayer Book and Dana Levin’s Sky Burial.

Stephen Burt posed the question in a more generally existential way in a recent issue of Boston Review:

“To the questions, linked arm in arm, ‘Should we believe that we have genuine, unique, consequential, inward selves? Do you have one? Do your poems express it? Do they participate in the tradition called ‘lyric’?’ poets from Ashbery to Jorie Graham to Juan Felipe Herrera, have given the answer, ‘it’s complicated.’ Young poets still pursue intricately ambivalent answers. But poets can also answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

You can see where I’m going with this. It’s a landscape not a lot of poets have moved into for a long time. There will be cobwebs to deal with (and T.S. Eliot might have to make a reappearance at some point). My guess for why that suburb has been something of a ghost town lately is that because, to move there, poets run several risks: the risk of doctrine, which is potentially limiting to an artist; and the risk of apparent naïveté, which is the sort of accusation that circles in art circles. Perhaps we’re past that? It’ll be interesting to find out, as it appears there are many poets with their U-Haul’s loaded driving down the highway with their turn signals on.

Dana Levin

Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine.

On hunt for what hid
          in the tangle

The small citizens, mouse and gopher.

Body of Ra the hawk signified.

In the symbol book, which I opened after climbing the stairs,
          after the hawk fanned out its banded tail like I should

          pick a card—

The book was a prisoner of my ardor for the dark—through it I stalked,
          a seeker.

It was a character out of a Victorian novel—Symbol Book, an
          imbecile, a Dutch inventor.

Saying, You must bow
          to the Hippogriff (half raptor, half horse), it must

          lower its head to your hand.

Halcón Pradeño. Mexicano. Come to me for my winter ground.

According to

Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine. Going
          heel to toe, so as not to startle.

Cloud unhooding body of Ra a pale pearl of winter sun—

Renaissance printers
          often stamped their wares with hooded falcon,

          emblem of the dungeoned seer.

That “hope for light” the darkened nourish.

Closed books, post tenebras spero lucem along the spine—

I found the phrase in the Office for the Dead, in the Latin Vulgate:
          after darkness I hope for light

Then: hell is my house, and in darkness I have made my bed

I thought of my father and mother and sister being dead, I was so sick
          of feeling anything about it—

The hood stood for hope of liberty.

Of wanting to swoop and soar over enormous swells,
          as in my dream.

I hovered high, I could see the mammals in the raucous waters, their slick
of danger and wonder.

My soul hath thirsted, the Vulgate said, He hath put a new song
          into my mouth.

The hawk appeared. Unhooded.
          An auspice, from auspex, avispex, “one who looks at birds”—

I’d been wanting to know if it was all right to live.

An ascensional symbol on every level, the symbol book said.

Body of Ra. Solar victory. If one can believe the book
          of symbols.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Remember when we used to talk about Jorie Graham all the time? (We might be doing it again!)

What was in the air back then: The Interactive Game Version

There are the poets we love, there are the poets we award, and then there are the poets we imitate. This wobbly list that follows is a list of what I remember as the poets most name-dropped and imitated. It’s not a list of what poets were the most popular. Over these years the popularity of Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Rita Dove eclipsed everyone mentioned below (save Sylvia Plath), but they were/are not, by and large, imitated. This is more of a zeitgeist list, and it’s probably more wrong than it is right. But it was a pleasant morning thinking of it.

Late 70s: Robert Bly, James Wright, Richard Hugo, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop (William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman) [Deep Image, Confessional Poetry and its Descendents] Note from 2011: Sylvia Plath still gets brought into the conversation by more undergraduates than any other poet of the past hundred years, but there's very little conversation about her after that.

Early 80s: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop (William Carlos Williams) [L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry vs New Formalism - Neither won, but they did a number on both Deep Image and Confessional Poetry, which later got called Quietude, which took a lot of the air from the room for the next ten or so years]

Late 80s: Jorie Graham, Alice Fulton, Ch. Wright, James Tate, Mark Doty, Li-Young Lee (Wallace Stevens) [The poetry of identity: cultural, social, racial, sexual]

Early 90s: Jorie Graham, Ch. Wright, Michael Palmer, Anne Carson (Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens) [Performance Poetry, Spoken Word]

Late 90s: Dean Young, Donald Revell (Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, Emily Dickinson) [Stephen Burt’s “Elliptical Poetry” – say what you want about it now, but it hit like a sledgehammer.]

Early 2000s: Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, John Ashbery (Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson) [Poetry Projects, Project Books: Cole Swensen as most mentioned example] [Rob Silliman’s blog and the conversation on Quietude as a way to theorize {though negatively} the mainstream that refused to theorize itself]. I have a theory that the Library of America edition of Ashbery’s poetry, coupled with conversations about where Dean Young got his wacky [skittery] side brought Ashbery back to the forefront of contemporary poetry. I also think Ashbery’s near ubiquity had a lot to do with the rising tide of middle-aged, mostly white and male and heterosexual poets who were writing negatively about the “elliptical” [Post-Avant, Thrid Way, Hybrid] poets. And he turned 80, outliving most of his contemporaries, and was still productive, which allowed even those not wholly on the boat to give him a nod.

Late 2000s: Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Kay Ryan (Jack Spicer, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes) [FLARF, The New Sincerity, The Gurlesque, Poetry Projects: Cole Swensen, Harryette Mullen, Juliana Spahr, as major examples]

Early 2010s: Guesses? D.A. Powell? Matthew Zapruder? Rachael Zucker? Michael Dickman? Zachary Schomburg? Tao Lin? [The New Spirituality? Collaborative Works?]

Questions for the next canon:

1. Will Dean Young win the Pulitzer Prize for his next book? Yes.

2. Will John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens always have their fates joined? Probably, unless the conversational aspect of Ashbery gets contrasted with the more heightened diction of Stevens. But for now, they’re seen as two great examples of The Imagination.

3. It seems to me that American poets are always flipping between Whitman/Dickinson, and WCW/Stevens, as the literary history du jour. It seems to me that for now it's Stevens and Dickinson that are firmly in the spotlight. Some of that might be due to Ashbery, and the use of Stevens to “explain” him, as well as the popularity of Armantrout and Ryan, and how they are, if not “explained” then at least made friendly to readers through Dickinson. What might trouble this is that Ryan and Armantrout are also seen as “explained” by WCW. But maybe we can get into a situation where Wallace Stevens and WCW can co-exist? Whitman, on the other hand, doesn’t get talked about much at all, that I hear.

4. What will be the next major movement in American poetry? I suggest “The New Spirituality,” a name I might have just made up. And it extends not just into religious territory (See Dana Levin’s Sky Burial as a strong example), but also to myth making (See several examples of books of Myth or/and Fable that have, and are continuing to come out).

5. Over the past 30 years, the annual AWP conference has gotten much, much larger, and has grown younger and less white. It seems it’s gotten about as young as it can get now, and I’ve started to notice a lot of those young ones are starting to get older. Could AWP start to go gray again?

6. I’m quite aware this is all pretty wobbly.

"Type that up, make ten thousand copies, and send
them to all the important people in the world."

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Canon Is an Argument (Ongoing)

Lest We Forget: The American Canon (Flashback!)

Desire did this to me.

Of course we know the canon is an argument that says as more about who we are now than who we were, but it’s nice to see examples now and then, just to be sure.

This is what Louis Untermeyer thought the American Canon was, as of 1948. Ahem.


Anne Bradstreet 1612(?) – 1672

John Saffin 1632 – 1710

Benjamin Thompson 1642 – 1714

Edward Taylor 1644(?) – 1729


Francis Hopkinson 1737 – 1791

Philip Freneau 1752 – 1832

John Quincy Adams 1767 – 1848

Joseph Hopkinson 1770 – 1842

Francis Scott Key 1779 – 1843

John Pierpont 1785 – 1866

Samuel Woodworth 1785 – 1842

Emma Hart Willard 1787 – 1870

Richard Henry Wilde 1789 – 1847

Fitz-Greene Halleck 1790 – 1867

Lydia Sigourney 1791 – 1865

Charles Sprague 1791 – 1875

William Cullen Bryant 1794 - 1878

Joseph Rodman Drake 1795 – 1820

James Gates Percival 1795 – 1856


Edward Coote Pinkney 1802 – 1828

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 – 1882

Charles Fenno Hoffman 1806 – 1884

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807 – 1882

John Greenleaf Whittier 1807 – 1892

Edgar Allen Poe 1809 – 1849

Oliver Wendell Holmes 1809 – 1894

Jones Very 1813 – 1880

John Godfrey Saxe 1816 – 1887

Henry David Thoreau 1817 – 1862

James Russell Lowell 1819 – 1891

Julia Ward Howe 1819 – 1910

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891

Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892

Frederick Goddard Tuckerman 1821 – 1873

Thomas Buchanan Read 1822 – 1873

George Henry Boker 1823 – 1890

Henry Timrod 1829 – 1867

Paul Hamilton Hayne 1830 – 1886

Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886

Thomas Bailey Aldrich 1836 – 1907

Bret Harte 1839 – 1902

Edward Rowland Sill 1841 – 1887

Sidney Lanier 1842 – 1881

Emma Lazarus 1849 – 1887

Edwin Markham 1852 – 1940

Lizette Woodworth Reese 1856 – 1935

Edwin Arlington Robinson 1869 – 1935

Amy Lowell 1874 – 1925

Robert Frost 1875 –

Carl Sandburg 1878 –

Vachel Lindsay 1879 – 1931

Wallace Stevens 1879 –

*T.S. Eliot –

Sara Teasdale 1884 – 1933

Elinor Wylie 1885 – 1928

Jean Starr Untermeyer 1886 –

H.D. 1886 –

William Rose Benét 1886 –

John Hall Wheelock 1886 –

Marianne Moore 1887 –

Robinson Jeffers 1887 –

John Crowe Ransom 1888 –

Conrad Aiken 1889 –

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892 –

Archibald MacLeish 1892 –

E.E. Cummings 1894 –

Horace Gregory 1898 –

Stephen Vincent Benét 1898 – 1943

Hart Crane 1899 – 1832

Léonie Adams 1899 –


Merril Moore 1903 –

Karl Shapiro 1913 –

Muriel Rukeyser 1913 –

Robert Lowell 1917 –

*T.S. Eliot is not included in the anthology because Pocket Books could not come to an agreement with his publisher.

The canon made a boom-boom.

Note One: As we all know, the canon was a very white male heavy thing back then, but it’s interesting to see that this version of the canon is not as lopsided as the first Donald Hall anthology that came out ten years later.

Note Two: Here’s Untermeyer’s note on his selections:

“No collection of poetry, no matter how large or how inclusive, can call itself complete. There will never be space enough for all the poets of any period; there will always be readers ready to detect and quick to resent the omission of their favorite, no matter how obscure or unimportant he may be.”

On the other hand, Untermeyer, as was his usual, published his wife in the anthology. Which is another important factor in canon formation (attempted).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Because Throwing Stones Is What We Do Best!

They'll stone you when you try to be so good. 

The old “MFA Programs = Bad” saw that keeps lulling so many with its siren wail continues to party away. This, from Joan Houlihan, sums up two of the most common complaints against MFA programs in general (yes, it’s from 2005, but I’m just now reading it):

“Like a Jules Verne novel, Dana Gioia’s famous essay ‘Can Poetry Matter’ got the future’s big picture right, but the particulars wrong. In 1991, when the essay was first published, Gioia thought that the newly burgeoning MFA programs were problematic because they prevented the poet from being the necessary outsider and because they encouraged the proliferation of poet-as-careerist in an academic setting, thus stifling the life experience necessary to refresh the art. As it turns out, the bigger problem is that in many programs the writing education itself is without standards of excellence or a basis in craft. How can you effectively evaluate writing without any standards? Furthermore, as the promise of so-called ‘language’ and ‘post-avant’ writing degenerates from a fresh approach into a redundant and prerequisite MFA house style, the evaluation of student work is dispensed with altogether. How can you evaluate what you can’t understand?”

I was thinking of the Gioia point, I’ll call it the Theory of No Experience, while I was reading an interview with Donald Hall, himself a famous MFA program critic. Specifically, what I was interested in was his thinking back in time to how he got his big break in The Paris Review, etc. While he was at Oxford, he “edited Oxford Poetry, worked on the Isis and as editor of New Poems, and then, on top of that, [he] became poetry editor for the Paris Review.” He became poetry editor of the Paris Review, because, while he was at “Harvard [he] had known George Plimpton a little…. So George over at Cambridge heard about [Hall] winning the Newdigate [a poetry prize at Oxford]. He [George P] came over to play tennis for his college against [Hall’s] college. He got hold of [Hall] and [they] went out for supper together after the tennis match.” And voila, it was done.

I don’t mean this as a slam against the upper-crust good old boy network of the 1950s (well, who knows, maybe I do), but rather, a nod to the way people are always thinking that before 1990 or so, poets somehow LIVED and that poets these days somehow DON’T. Hall and Plimpton, and many others, including many poets I like very much, started in college and went right from that to fullbrights and other non-yurt-carrying things that, for the most part, seem to me to be the very sorts of things they now complain about in the new generation. That was considered fine as LIVING then, as was whatever it was T.S. Eliot was doing a generation earlier, as he scuttled about finishing his PhD and then working in a bank (until he got “saved” from it and placed in Faber & Faber). All I mean by this is to say, I guess, that all living is living, and the way these poets lived in the 1950s (20s) doesn’t feel to me any more (or less) authentic than the way I see poets live these days.

They got a message from the action man.

But then there’s critique number two, the Theory of No Standards, that Houlihan offers. She’s serious enough about this as to blame it for pretty much all of what’s keeping poetry from being popular:

“In a time when there are no critical standards, only proliferation of more poems, each new poem can only matter less. Over a decade after his spookily predictive essay, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ Dana Gioia’s question has a troubling answer: it can, but more and more, it doesn’t.”

And that is the difficulty I’m having with what she’s saying. Problem one: say for instance that she’s right. Is she right 100%? Is it true that every single MFA program in America has no standards? Every teacher is a bad teacher? Certainly she doesn’t mean herself, as she is part of a manuscript preparation conference. So obviously, she has standards. So if she has standards in her teaching and evaluation of manuscripts, doesn’t that kind of ruin her argument?

Here’s what she says we have instead:

“It is a well-known phenomenon that the creator of a work is not an objective evaluator of it. Every capable writer and poet knows that they need critical feedback on their work in order to improve it—even T. S.Eliot had Pound. But instead of such feedback, students report a lack of criticism, of having a ‘group hug’ type of atmosphere or an overly subjective, mystical or impressionistic response to a poem.”

When I was at Ohio University, scuttling around, working on my PhD, one thing I most assuredly didn’t get from students or teachers, was a “group hug.” Us students, for the most part, were close readers. We were more than a little competitive. While there, I studied most closely with Wayne Dodd, who was very encouraging, but also could be quite formidable. But I also studied under Mark Halliday (who really disliked everything I wrote and was very clear about how they violated his standards), Sharon Bryan, Mary Ruefle, among others. And prior to that, in Texas, I studied mostly with Miles Wilson and Kathleen Peirce, who were both close, exacting readers and teachers.

So, my research on this topic shows that 100% of my association with creative writing programs directly contradict both The Theory of No Experience (as I was broke both places and had to take odd jobs to make ends meet, thereby getting a LOT of life experiences) and The Theory of No Standards arguments. How about you? Do you find MFA programs to be “Group Hugs” without standards, or are they muddy Woo Woo places, or are they High Standards (in the Houlihan sense) places? Or are they all sorts of things? My guess is that they are all sorts of things. Therefore, if they are all sorts of things, they can not, as is argued, be the reason Dana Gioia’s interested readers aren’t reading poetry.

Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses.

Last week I was part of a reading in Santa Fe. Cormac McCarthy walked in, took a look at what was going on, and scurried back out to the range. On the other hand, a man wandered in who has a son in California who has taken some creative writing courses, so he was interested in what was going on. He stayed, and he even bought a book. This supports my counter thesis to Houlihan and Gioia. What is keeping poetry from being read is simply marketing.

PS. You have to love Houlihan tossing in the bit about “the promise of so-called ‘language’ and ‘post-avant’ writing” that she sees degenerating into a “redundant and prerequisite MFA house style.” And look how I didn’t take the bait! See how “water off the duck’s back” I’m becoming? Hakuna matata, y’all.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Beware the Woo Woo

Monday, May 02, 2011

From the Bookshelf: Brian Henry - Lessness

Now that time is opening up a little for me, I can get caught up on my reading. A lot of books have been sitting here (some for some time) patiently. I’ve opened a few at random here and there, but finally, now, I’m going to be able to really read them (before I go on a big summer buying spree with money I don’t have).

Systematically, then:

Paul Legault, The Madeline Poems
Dana Levin, Sky Burial
Jon Davis, Preliminary Report
Emily Kendal Frey, The Grief Performance
Sommer Browning, Either Way I’m Celebrating
Zach Savich, The Firestorm
Paula Closson Buck, Litanies Near Water
Melissa Kwasny, The Nine Senses
Lily Brown, Rust or Go Missing
Daniel Khalastchi, Manoleria
Sarah Goldstein, Fables
Alexandria Peary, Lid to the Shadow
Susan Briante, Utopia Minus
Joshua Corey, Severance Songs
David Hadbawnik, Field Work
Dan Boehl, Kings of the F**king Sea
Tony Trigilio, Historic Diary
Martha Silano, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception
Derek Mong, Other Romes
Kevin Prufer, In a Beautiful Country
Trey Moody, Climate Reply
Dora Malech, Say So
Shane McCrae, Mule
Sarah Maclay, Music for the Black Room
Christopher Kennedy, Ennui Prophet
Sarah Vap, Faulkner’s Rosary
Crystal Curry, Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium
Samuel Amadon, Like a Sea
Kirsten Kaschock, A Beautiful Name for a Girl
Brian Teare, Pleasure
Karla Kelsey, Iteration Nets
Sandra Doller, Chora

Today I’m reading Brian Henry’s Lessness:

Even / Even

Is there anything not broken,
any part not about to break?
The question snaps. The line
cracks where it should be whole.
The chair in splinters, the sidewalk
in tatters. Bodies in pieces.
Because of the weight? gravity
& inertia yanking everything
apart? Everything belongs in pieces,
earth says, you try to hold everything
together, always have, & still
you fail, always will, your failure proof
that rot is too advanced for you, too far
ahead, or down, like strata, too patient,
like a fossil, which you collect & kill
in the collecting. Even your dust
shatters. Even your air.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

And Now a Word from our Sponsor:

And now a word from our sponsor:

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (The Short Film Version)

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (G.C. Waldrep / John Gallaher) is now available at Amazon: