Friday, June 29, 2012

Or there was no sadness, just a simple fold in time.

Cole Swensen has a new book out and I’m absolutely crazy about it. It’s titled Gravesend, after the town of that name in England. The book is an investigation of that, but also so much more about graves and endings and ghosts and her restless and nimble mind at work.

It’s broken into three sections, “Have You Ever Seen a Ghost?”, “How Did Gravesend Get Its Name?”, and “What Do You Think a Ghost Is?”

Each section has a short prose bit, a few pages long, culled from interviews Swensen conducted with people circling the questions that title each section. The rest of each section is poetry.

It’s one of the things I admire about Swensen’s work, her ability to inhabit a question, and to bring research and her thinking together to chip away at it with the suggestive power of art. It’s the contribution art makes to a subject, full of open spaces.

Anyway, here’s a bit from one of the prose sections, to give you a feel for the tone and voice:

“Ghosts? You’re writing a book on ghosts? This place is full of them. It’s the oldest pub on the river. They say Pocahontas died here. No, I mean here, in this pub, that’s what they say—and why not believe it? No, I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve heard one. I’ve been down here in the bar, and heard someone walking directly above me when I knew that no one could be up there. And bottles fly off the shelves sometimes, or chairs get up-ended. Everyone who works here has a different story; we all feel them.”

And here’s a poem:


In the grounds of Bayham Abbey in a garden designed by Repton
a procession of monks just about dusk or just after darkness has fallen
go walking.

Or there was no sadness, just a simple fold in time.

One must be for others a reason to live.

Often, it is said, the presence of a ghost is signaled by illogical cold.

Lord Halifax noted it when investigating “the Laughing Man of Wrotham,” who strode into his brother’s room and murdered him night after night

to the horror of the maid who, a century later, wedged a chair against the door and watched him disappear.

There is no cure

for anything, and that cough you have, Madam, once

there was a fire every Friday the 13th, and once there was a death
that seemed to deserve it, but that was an illusion. Once there was a
death, but that was illusory, too. And all over Kent, someone is still
heading up the stairs, lighting the way with a match.

Finally, here’s one more poem, that extends the theme a bit. I’m not able to post it here without messing up the form a bit, so I’m including a picture so you can get the feel for how the spaces work.

The Beginnings of the Modern Era

It wasn’t until the ghost story became a genre           that ghosts became strangers

denied as they were      by a Romantic flagrance so      stylized it found itself poised
to the tip of a letter opener           and the man holding it               in his hand

silhouetted      from the back      on a promontory      over a crevasse, which makes
his sister die of music      or the ghost is reduced         to an overpowering smell

of the sea      and only she can hear it:      what we’ve inherited      fletcher of tongues
thin in the wind who blinded by now      a ghost in fingers      is touching them empty

of all its burning      And we claim we never knew them living which gets lost in living
and thus the phaeton stopped to pick him up      and went on to plunge over the cliff

just as it had done in all its lost                         every night for the past fifty years
the ghost ship                  the phantom train                              the cathedral fear

and how right we are      to claim it isn’t ours      though it leaves them stranded
or we abandon      or we, a screw      in a door nailed shut.         It isn’t our fault

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lost Poets Project: 1

He attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Princeton University.
In the late 1890s he settled in Greenwich Village, in New York City, working as a librarian and becoming part of a circle of poets that included E. A. Robinson, William Vaughn Moody, and Robert Frost.
Edmund Clarence Stedman helped him revise.
He was the fiction editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, from 1905 to 1907.
The verse plays, showing the influence of John Millington Synge, showed realistic portrayals of African Americans, and a revolt against their station in society.
He was poetry editor of New Republic (1920–33), mentoring Louise Bogan.
He also organized the National Survey of the Negro Theater (1939), for the Rockefeller Foundation.
His papers are held at Princeton.
He was awarded the Shelley Memorial Award and an Academy of American Poets' Fellowship.
He wrote three books of poetry, three plays, a book of non-fiction, as well as an edited collection. 
His work was included in Louis Untermeyer’s 1941 edition of Modern American Poetry and Jessie B. Rittenhouse’s 1917 edition of The Little Book of Modern Verse.
He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets at the time of his death.

Who is Ridgely Torrence?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Questions for poems from a language theorist in 1968

Maybe David Bowie could be lured out of retirement to make the soundtrack?

One of my summer projects this year is to, well, I guess “reboot” is the closest word for it. I’m going back to the books that are way back in my reading history, those—for me—foundational texts. I’m wondering what I think of them now.

The one I’m currently reading is titled The Labyrinth of Language, written by Max Black. It was published in 1968 in the Britannica Perspective series. It’s an overview of language theory at the time.

Here’s something about poetry I find rather interesting:

“. . . to try to explain how a poet manages to display or exhibit a ‘meaning’ without making a literal truth-claim about that meaning—how [the poet] manages to ‘bracket’ the truth-claim in the interest of some more subtle, less explicit, ‘statement.’ This is perhaps the hardest unsolved problem in poetics.

Further complications would be introduced by the necessity of distinguishing within each dimension, . . . between the explicit and the implicit. And running athwart this already sufficiently complex scheme of analysis there is the distinction, constantly to be borne in mind, between what the words mean (conventionally express, conventionally evoke) and what the speaker means (expresses, evokes) by means of those words. . . .”

And now, a half quote, half paraphrase:

Questions for poems:

1.What does the explicit utterance “say” and in what modes of “saying”?

2.What does the same utterance “express”?

3.What kind of influence does it bring to bear upon the reader?

4.How much of all this is explicit, and how much, and in what ways, are these effects to be counted as merely suggested or implied?

5.How much is intended, how much merely revealed, without the speaker’s consent?

6.How far does all this come about as a matter of standard linguistic convention?

7.How much results from the distinctive contributions made by the speaker in the given context and setting?

What does the explicit utterance say, and in what modes of saying. I like the construction of that question. I think I’m going to try that one out next time I’m wanting to do that sort of thing with a poem. What does the same utterance express. Indeed.

So I’m almost done with this book. I wonder what’s next.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Jorie Graham in The Spectator

Is this real (Or is it Memorex)?

Jorie Graham: I believe we live in a world with way too little reality, or means of accessing reality — if by ‘reality’ we mean a place where your accountability for actions is not virtual. I am not the only one to think much of the tragic violence being perpetrated by soldiers, for example, is caused by the violence perpetrated on them by making them feel the ‘game’ is virtual — even the people their tanks fire upon are converted to resemble outlines in video games on their monitors. Put people in front of virtual people and they will come to feel, themselves, both immune and virtual. 487,000 US soldiers are suicidal and have acute Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Now obviously war’s hell has done this to generations — just thinking of World War I is enough. But something extra has been added here — and that is the video-game thinness of the reality of the other. One has to wonder how much not even feeling your so-called enemy to be “real” makes you even more broken and divorced from your soul. At any rate, I believe in, and deeply trust the apprenticeship to the non-virtual aspect of experience (the part not ‘just in your head’) as a form of life-teaching. And I believe in attending to it, as an actual practice. It is hard, as we say in the US, to ‘show up’ for life. It is far easier, and most of our technology encourages it, to go around experience, rather than through it. Thus the necessity of being physically present with one’s senses in lived experience in order to even have emotions. The virtual experience might feel like an actual one — it imitates it, but it invites one to bypass the body and go straight to the ‘information-gathering’ part of one’s person. Information is a very limited part of the real.


I’m having difficulty following this. I mean, I can see what she’s saying: “Virtual Reality” can desensitize people to violence. But when she says things about living in a world “with way too little reality,” I look around at what seems to me to be reality. And when she adds the clause, “or means for accessing reality” I’m completely lost. I access reality constantly, I’m thinking. So I’m guessing she’s talking about political candidates, but even there, there are consequences for their actions that are not “virtual.” Does she mean that we all play too many video games? I doubt it. I think she’s making a bigger point about the simulacra of modern life in general. Or maybe not. Maybe she just means political rhetoric. Political rhetoric can get pretty imaginary, but with potential devastating real world costs.

The flip side of the “VR = desensitization to violence” is that there have been some recent studies done where therapists can use computer animation and environmental stimulation (smell, etc) to take a person with PTSD back to the moment of trauma, where the stimulus can be recategorized, helping the person deal with regular stimuli (crowds, loud noises, airplanes overhead, etc).

Is it hard to show up for life? I have a hard time with that thought. It makes me wonder what the alternative is. How does one not show up for life? Watching TV or something? Still, that’s a way someone’s choosing to live. Is TV an example of “going around experience, rather than through it”? Probably. I don’t really like TV much either. But even then, TV allows me to know something about things I wouldn’t otherwise know in just that way. For example, yesterday, I watched the low-key, and rather charming documentary Pelata, about a couple of former soccer players travelling the world to play in pick-up games. Was my experience of that a going around experience? Well, it was the experience of watching someone else have some experiences I’m unable to have. I find that a broadening of my experience. I was sitting there with an ice pack on my leg from a rather large bruise I got from playing soccer on Wednesday. My daughter, then, came and sat down and watched it with me. We both talked about how much it made us want to go out and play soccer again. The next game is this Saturday.

You'll feel like you're virtually there! (Rendering Not Actual)

Jorie Graham says, “Thus the necessity of being physically present with one’s senses in lived experience in order to even have emotions. The virtual experience might feel like an actual one — it imitates it, but it invites one to bypass the body and go straight to the ‘information-gathering’ part of one’s person. Information is a very limited part of the real.”

I agree that TV and/or computer simulations, etc, are poor strategies to achieving an emotionally rich life (outside of the therapeutic uses I nodded to above). But does anyone think they are? I mean, I think people go to the VR stuff for a myriad of reasons, mostly to escape the rest of the day they had, or perhaps to mark time, or to have something going on while making dinner. Jorie Graham’s critique of culture here does have a point, but it’s, to paraphrase her, a very limited one. For instance, one could make a similar argument against people who study literature. That literature isn’t real experience. And then we’re in a big can of worms, talking about high and low. Of the making of distinctions there can be no end. So Sesame Street tells kids to go outside and play (which was my introduction to irony as a child, for which I’m thankful).

This critique only works if VR is the only thing one does (or if the only place one is getting information about society is from TV). And we hopefully do so much more. Our jobs. Our families. Our various groups (even, yes facebook groups). These are all real things. Or they are unreal things. I could be just as unreal in a face to face meeting with someone as I could be real in a facebook message to someone. There are many ways to connect or to disconnect. It’s a version of the thing I hear so many people say about high school and college, that one’s life as a student is preparing one for “real life.” No. All of one’s life is real life, it’s all part of the mix of who and what one is.

I like what she has to say much more when she’s talking about poetry directly:

“The human ‘mind’ dreams, free-associates, day-dreams, thinks on multiple tracks at once — doing one thing while thinking another and remembering another and noticing something in the same instant which might be totally unrelated — and so on. We live very little of our life in a rational, logical, or discursive state of mind. Why should our poems be simplified to that one limited aspect of the way our inwardness unfolds? Obviously some very great poems have come out of those more overt, coherently narrative, states. But to call all the rest of our existence ‘too difficult’ is pretty insane. Poetry’s job is, among other things, to make resistance to emotional oversimplification possible.”

Jorie Graham has a new book coming out. It’s titled Place. I’m going to read it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Five Questions from CANT

Aaron McNally has five questions for me over at the CANT journal blog.

Here’s a snip:

“I think we, to some degree, all agree that there are logical (or at least arbitrary) forms that our thinking must submit to in order to be expressed. Thought is messy, and language is a set of controls to form that into something that others might be able to receive. Because of the social nature of language and the private nature of thought, it is difficult for us in daily life to remain consistent in what we say, for each new saying creates at least a slightly different message. One of the ways the word arts, and poetry in particular, can find power (or interest or energy or value) is by playing with, or investigating, this relationship between thought and language. There is profit to be found in wandering through these veils. Cue Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself?’”

Also included at no extra charge are action shots from a conversation I had with him and Jon Barrett last Friday. I can’t imagine what I was saying to go along with some of these expressions. Perhaps we should have a caption contest.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Some good albums from 2012

This isn’t a big year for music, but it’s a decent year. Here are some of the albums I’m listening to:

Father John Misty – Fear Fun

Beach House – Bloom

Elephant Micah – Louder Than Thou

Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Hospitality – Hospitality

Moonface – With Siinai – Heartbreaking Bravery

Simone White – Silver Silver

Here’s a song I like a lot, Father John Misty’s “Now I’m Learning to Love the War.” An audience shot live version:

And the studio version that someone made a video for as a studio project:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Detente of Representation 1


I just read Peggy Nelson’s take on speed:

It reminds me that bridges often have interesting undercarriages. And artists are doing a lot of interesting, ephemeral things out there. Consider:

“Consider: what may be absorption and focus from one angle could be irresponsible escapism from another: surfing the web versus gazing at a Van Gogh looks much the same from the point of view of the object. And the converse may also apply. What may be fragmentary and distracted frittering might also be a way of integrating the experience of art into everyday life. Because as much as we crave continuity, we also crave interruption; and in the space of those breaks, art can surface.”

I like this. And, as Nelson says early in her essay, we’ve had complaints of the “speed” of modern life since before “modern.”

But, even so, there is a pervasive feeling that things are pretty spaghettified these days. I think of it as the contemporary American epicurean impulse—Skittery, Hoagland called it, but in the catalogues of nouns it reminds me more of the other side of the Victorian age, the wild scramble for more random sparkly things from the corners of the globe.

As an American who’s not gone further than Puerto Rico, I can only speak of “American” with anything approaching even tentative confidence, and this America, the almost empire, mixed with globalization as supermarket, has stocked the shelves, and stacked the deck. As seen on TV, so seen in the arts.

The postmodernists called it the pastiche that follows modernist collage. Church night called it several BINGO cards at once. So we’re all multi-tasking now, with bulldozers and glue. It’s not subtle, but it can be rather fetching, in a buzz buzz zip zip kind of way. All Bodies Fall Equally Fast, as science tells us. It’s there in the principle of equivalence, as well.

The Swedish say “lagom” and we head to google and .5 seconds later we're all up to speed. There has been a fundamental shift over the last decade or two, from an economy of knowledge to an economy of search terms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. No longer does one need to hold knowledge in one’s head, one just needs access to the internet. Information used to be valued by how difficult it was to get (the journey to a library, etc), one had to travel to the information, to how fast it is to get (google), where the information travels to you. So that now, if information isn’t readily available, then it’s deemed to be of little value. Research is easy. But only a certain kind of research.

What (repetition compulsion) are we teaching ourselves?

Contemporary art is busy. This is not a focused or languid or slow time. Even our focused or languid or slow artists are busying it up. And how much of this—if anything—is a real change in how we pay attention? Were things really slower once? Nelson uses the example of Vaudeville, how acts were targeted to under three minutes so as to fit in the attention span of the audience . . .

The flip side of this energy, this busyness, this epicurean impulse, is the charge of a flattening of value. I understand that charge, but rather than a flattening of value, what I see in a lot of art—or even most art—is ambivalence. It’s not irony that marks our age, it’s ambivalence. And ambivalence is not the flattening of value, but the difficulty of settling on one value.

It’s easy to charge poets with irony (as if irony in and of itself is a bad thing, which, by the way, it’s not). There’s a value judgment in that, right? “The poets these day, they’re just ironic.” It makes them sound hollow, snarky, shifty. But if one were to say they’re ambivalent, that to some large degree the entire age is, that doesn’t carry the instant critique. A symptom of our busyness is the instant, and, as well, the quip, the instant diagnosis, the instant dismissal, those are as much a part of the speediness problem of our time as what they critique.

Maybe our contemporary relationship with silence—it scares us—explains the busyness of our art much more than does saying John Ashbery did it or Postmodernism did it. Silence, as TV has it or most art has it, is a missed opportunity for noise.

So how is art to take an adequate picture of this reality? The pleasures of simple answers to impossible questions? A new rug?

The Paper Chase, indeed

Monday, June 11, 2012

Back to Work

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Americana Tunes Competition!

There is this contest going on through Neil Young’s website, where people were to do covers of the same Americana tunes that Neil Young did on his just released album. I did a couple, and here they are.

This Land Is Your Land

Wayfaring Stranger

The winner gets $1,000. And, looking at the vote totals, there’s pretty much no chance I’ll even get close, but I thought since I did the covers and all, to at least post them here. The money was, ahem, a nice draw, but I mostly did the tunes because I've never done anything like that before.

If you have Twitter or Facebook, and feel so inclined, you can vote here:

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Part II

Tuesday, June 05, 2012



From the Editor
June 2012
Insider / Outsider

What does it mean, in the world of contemporary American literature, to be an "outsider"? And why does the culture-in particular, the reading culture, those who by nature of their consumption of serious contemporary writing are already "insiders"-value it? It's a problematic trope, one I found myself thinking about recently after reading a series of poetry reviews that praised not so much this or that poet's poems as this or that poet's cultural position. The poet does or does not teach (at a college, specifically in an MFA program). The poet's work is or is not represented in the "popular anthologies." (I wasn't aware there were any.) The poet's themes or subject matter seem, well, unpoetic, and therefore "refreshing." The poet's output is prodigious, proving her essential visionary impulse, or else it is scant, suggesting an admirable reticence in the face of the Great Unknown. The poet had a Significant Life Experience (cancer, war, a stint in the Peace Corps) that sets him apart from the quotidian herd. The poet has a miniscule but passionate readership. The poet lives in Ann Arbor, Grand Junction, Santa Fe...anywhere, it seems, but New York City-unless s/he does in fact live in New York but is distinguished (rendered "outside") by some other notable characteristic.

What so many of these reviews seemed to want was to identify some essential trait that would impute value to the work: render it authentic, meaningful, and not some detachable, forgettable part of the cultural noise in which Americans are immersed. And they wanted to locate this essential trait in context: in the life, times, or circumstances of the poet, anywhere but in the work itself.

Not long after reading those reviews, I was actually asked, by a colleague, to name my "favorite contemporary outsider poet." I replied that I couldn't, because for a poet to be "outside," in my opinion, he or she would probably have to be unpublished. To publish-to seek publication and achieve it, along with a readership of any size-is to step "inside."

A stranger comes to town and shows the way to salvation. A vigilante, a gunslinger in the American idiom. Or: a flâneur, a la Andre Breton and the Surrealists of Paris circa 1924.

We are frightened of literature, it seems to me-frightened of Art-and we want someone, something to tell us how to read what we read, how and why to value what we have read. To be "outside" is, somehow, to be authentic. In authenticity resides value.

I grew up in the authentically rural South in the 1970s and 1980s. I certainly felt like an outsider, in terms of art and culture, and specifically literature. But I left that world-I chose to leave that world-for Harvard when I was 17. Harvard: surely the mark of an insider! Nine years later, I dropped out of academia and joined the Amish. I lived in an isolated horse-and-buggy community for six years, working as a carpenter and baker. It was there that I began to read and write poetry, with no coursework or mentoring. I hitchhiked or hired a driver to get to the university library in Chapel Hill, where I picked up poetry books by the dozen: outsider, by almost any definition. That particular Amish community broke up, and after some wandering I found myself in Iowa, where I earned an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop: insider again.

Now I'm a tenured professor at a small college where I also happen to edit a literary journal: not only insider, but gatekeeper.

I thought about this again last weekend while I was helping a dairyman brother in the religious community of which I remain a part with his evening chores. The cows seemed very authentic.

To read a work of art through the biographical context of origin, publication, or circumstance is useful, for critics. But it suggests the work of art is insufficient, on its own terms, even within its moment. I am not arguing that the work, qua work, is autonomous, but I am suggesting that a work of art, of any quality from any period, may be sufficient, on its own terms. (Poetry is that which suffices, as Wallace Stevens maintained.)

The convoking of these terms is a curious matter, a negotiable contract between the work and any active, curious reader. As an editor, I am always on the lookout for that glint, that opalescent sheen suggesting something more than the ambient cultural noise.

Moving through thousands of submissions a year, one begins to discern contours: work that is "inside," vs. work that is "outside." The same plots, executed to the same degree of competence (more or less): this is the "inside" of American fiction, whether they come from recent Iowa graduates or inmates in the California prison system or grandmothers in Missouri. In poetry, the same lyric turns: the minor epiphanies of domestic confessionalism, the "elliptical" or "skittery" collages in the more recent tradition of Dean Young or James Tate.

The inside of contemporary Anglophone literature is a brightly-lit room: we know where we are, because everybody from Alice Munro and Toni Morrison and Ian MacEwan to Sharon Olds and John Ashbery and Yusuf Komunyakaa has told us. This is where we live, most of the time.

If there is an "outside" to the literature of our moment, it lies in the dim rooms and unmapped corridors leading off from this brilliant space.

And yes, we should be frightened. (See: the sublime.) Like infants, we will learn to know these new spaces by touch. We should whistle, and even sing, as we move around in the dark. It won't help us know any better what this new terrain looks like, but it will alert the inhabitants of these new rooms, these other corridors that we're present, we're here.

—G.C. Waldrep

Friday, June 01, 2012

Midwest Chapbook Series Postmark deadline extended to JULY!

OK, so today “is” the postmark deadline, but I thought it was going to be JULY 1, so if anyone still wants to send a chapbook submission to our scrappy little series, then feel free to do so until July-ish, when we’re going to actually read them. 

The Midwest Chapbook Series
GreenTower Press/The Laurel Review

Final Judge: Mary Biddinger

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, 2012.

$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, 2012.

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:

Elizabeth Clark Wessel, Whither Weather
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