Archive by Author

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Larissa Szporluk

11 Apr

traffic225For final event of this season’s Poets of Ohio reading series, Larissa Szporluk visited Case Western Reserve University from Bowling Green, OH to read and discuss her poetry. Below is an excerpt from my introduction to the event, as well as a video clip of her reading one of her poems:

I first became aware of Larissa Szporluk’s poetry in 2004, when one of my graduate school professors, the late-Jake Adam York, mentioned her as someone he considered to be one of the premier, contemporary poets writing at the time. Specifically, he directed me to her third, full-length collection of poetry, The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind (Alice James Books, 2003).

While reading the book, I was struck by the ability of Szporluk’s poems to challenge not only the manner in which we use language, but their capacity to fundamentally alter the way in which we view the world; or, as she herself wrote in the poem “Death of Magellan”:

Heaven was lost

when up and down
lost meaning. (5)

Yes, just as Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe altered humanity’s spatial relationship to/of the world during the sixteenth century–literally changing our notion of what “up and down” meant–Szporluk’s poems changed the manner in which I conceived of both language and poetry at a time when I was primarily familiar with the canonical and anthologized poems taught in literature courses. More than a decade ago, then, her poems acted as a literary and poetic passage that was theretofore uncharted for me.

This semester, though, my students and I read her most recent book, Traffic with MacBeth (Tupelo Press, 2011), which, among other things, explores what happens when “violence takes over” (26) both the natural and human worlds. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the poem “Mouth Horror”:

Five male crickets
sing and fight.
The loudest wins,

the softest dies (38)

The poem presents the reader with the seemingly benign image of crickets chirping on a summer evening; but the moment quickly transforms it into a Darwinian struggle, wherein the “loudest” crickets “win,” such that their “chirp[s]” become “swords” that leave the “loser[s to] rot”:

into the sweet black gore
of cricket joy
expressed to death

in one dumb glop (38)

Such violence manifests itself again and again throughout Traffic’s representations of the natural world, as seen in the wind that “leaves a deep pocket / of dusk in your scalp” (3), a ladybird “carcass / on a snow-white beach” (7), or the image of an “eye of the cat-torn mouse” (41).

The violence that permeates natural world, though, does not remain within its bounds; rather, it overflows into the human realm by way story and myth. For example, in the opening stanza of the poem “Baba Yaga”; the poem’s namesake, who is a sorceress from Slavic folklore, tells us that:

I cooked my little children in the sun.
I threw grass on them and then they died.
I sit here and wonder what I’ve done. (47)

While, no doubt, this moment of infanticide demonstrates most evidently the violence inherent to the human world, there are also minor violences, often self-inflicted, that occur throughout the collection. In the poem “Accordion,” the speaker notes:

When the blood leaves my arm at night,
my arm is independent.
I hold it up, my own dead arm,
and flap it at the sleepers
in adjoining rooms around me.
Beating time, like being dead, is easy. (41)

Indeed, something as mundane as sleeping on one’s arm so as to cut-off circulation, thus inducing that “pins-and-needles” feeling, offers us a meditation on death that confers upon us the understanding that “being dead, is easy”—at least to the extent that its specter is ever-present and always near.

To this end, I think, the purpose of Traffic with MacBeth’s violence is to provide us with a heightened awareness of the fragility of life; and, thus, instills within us a greater appreciation for our brevity.

Here’s a video clip of Szporluk reading her poem “Flight of the Mice” from her first collection Dark Sky Question (Beacon Press, 1998):

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Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Ian Huebert

4 Apr

If you don’t recognize the name Ian Huebert, you probably have, at least, seen his work. Most recently, Huebert designed the cover for Matthew Zapruder’s newest collection of poems Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014). He also created the cover art for Dan Chelott’s X (McSweeney’s, 2013), Jeff Alessandrelli’s Don’t Let Me Forget to Feed the Sharks (Poor Claudia, 2012), and is the primary cover artist for the chapbooks released by Dikembe Press.

In addition to designing covers for collection of contemporary poetry, though, Huebert also is an accomplished cartoonist and minimalist poet. Over the course of the past year or two, he has self-published a limited-run chapbook series of his drawings and poetry, titled Comb. Take a look at the below excerpt from issue one (click for large view):
Ian
One of my favorite aspects of the above image is how the text of the poem appears to both rupture the aesthetic surface of the cartoon, while simultaneously integrating itself into the image rather seamlessly. At least as a visual text, its ability to look both coherent and fractured is something that pleases me. (My critical vocabulary for visual art is limited, so my apologies for any idiomatic lack.)

As far as the poem itself, I enjoy how Huebert transforms a rather benign, childhood activity, such as climbing a “cherry tree,” into a “base,” sexual experience. Likewise, the wordplay via repetition and difference (i.e. “said” and “saying) and homonyms (i.e. “right”) adds another dimension of linguistic depth within the rather small space of ten lines.

Moreover, the sexual transformation that occurs in the poem alters our interpretation of the image; a child peeking through a hole in a fence becomes a moment of voyeuristic, sexual gratification instead of an innocent moment of childhood “spying.”

If you’d like to purchase a copy of issues one and two of Comb, or any of the other various woodcuts and prints Huebert has made, check out both his website or his tumblr account. You can also find a handful of Huebert’s poems in this year’s Lovebook by SP CE.

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: 2014 Argos Poetry Calendar

2 Apr

The past two years, Argos Books–which is run by E.C. Belli, Iris Cushing, and Elizabeth Clark Wessel out of Brooklyn, NY–has released a limited-edition, monthly poetry calendar.

This year’s version contains poems by Kazim Ali, Sommer Browning, Christophe Casamassima, Don Mee Choi, Ryan Eckes, Farrah Field, Joan Kane, Bhanu Kapil, Rachel Levitsky, Anna Moschovakis, Jared White, and Simone White. The illustrations were drawn by Essye Klempner.

This month’s poem is Ryan Eckes’ “chase scene #10,” an image of which is below (click for a larger view):

photo (20)

While we’re already in the fourth month of the year, consider ordering one of these wonderful artifacts to hang on your wall so that you may pencil-in (and not forget) trips to the tropical fish store and next your Laser Tag outing.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Tyrone Williams

28 Mar

adventures-of-pi-lgYesterday, the poet and critic Tyrone Williams traveled from Cincinnati to Cleveland in order to read and discuss his poems at Case Western Reserve University for the Poets of Ohio reading series. Below is an excerpt from my introduction, along with a video clip from the event:

In late-2002, I began actively exploring the world of contemporary poetry. As a way to discover the names of poets, presses, and different aesthetics that interested me, I started reading pretty much any literary journal I could get my hands on. After a few months of scouring the small press and magazine section at Tattered Cover in downtown Denver, I found myself gravitating toward journals such as The Canary, Denver Quarterly, Fence, jubilat, Open City, and Verse.

In one of these magazines, the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of Fence, an article by Rodeny Phillips appeared that was titled “Exotic flowers, decayed gods, and the fall of paganism: The 2003 Poets House Poetry Showcase, an exhibit of poetry books published in 2002.” In addition to providing a comprehensive overview of the showcase, several sidebars located in the article’s margins offered “Best Of” lists: “Best Books of Experimental Poetry” and “Best Debut Collections,” for example. While each list contained a series of names and titles with which I was unfamiliar—but, subsequently, over the years would become intimately familiar—one name caught my attention due to the fact that it found its way onto no less than three of these lists (if my memory serves me correctly): Tyrone Williams and his first book c.c., published by Krupskaya Press.

Given that the Phillips article championed this poet and collection to such a high degree, I went online and ordered a copy. When the book finally arrived and I read through it, I was confronted with a style of poetry that was theretofore unknown to me. The writing in Williams’ first book employed radical notions of form, citation, appropriation, and marginalia, all the while remaining socially, politically, and culturally engaged. This, indeed, was not the type of poetry I had previously encountered (even with exposure to the High Modernists); no, this was something more daring, complex, and exciting. The poems of c.c., such as “Cold Calls,” “I am not Proud to be Black,” and “TAG” were avant-tour de forces that acted as catalysts for my own interest, involvement, and dedication to poetry over the course of the next twelve years.

In 2008, Omnidawn Publishing released Williams’ second book of poetry On Spec, which I would later use for my comprehensive exams as I pursued my doctorate. In a citation of his book that I wrote in 2010, I argued that the collection “explores the confluence of post-Language poetry and African-American poetic tradition” by entwining “diverse aesthetic and ideological lineages” through the use of “different idioms and whose contents are often thought to be at odds with one another.” Moreover, I noted the book’s “conflation of genres,” wherein the poems sought to “question the relationship between theory and poetry,” as well as drama; in doing so, Williams created a “transitional and often nebulous zone.” These “boundary-defying techniques” were further highlighted in his “use of check-boxes, errata and footnotes…mathematical equations, cross-outs, quotation, and liberal use of white space.”

Most recently, his 2011 collection Howell (Atelos Press), which is a reference to Howell, Michigan and conceived in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, is an epic “writing through” of history that extends to nearly 400 pages in length.

For our course this semester, though, we read Williams’ Adventures of Pi: Poems 1980-1990. The collection takes a backward glance at the poet’s work, thus functioning as an interesting prequel in the development of a contemporary, poetic innovator. And although it does serve to flesh out his career trajectory, Adventures of Pi also offers readers engaging moments wherein the poet confronts the racial fissures in then-contemporary America in a straightforward but aesthetically compelling manner. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from his poem “White Noise (Fighting to Wake Up)”:

of a body dreaming two dreams,
only one of which is called
a black man in America,

the other, America
itself (18)

The notion that two dreams and two Americas exist within the speaker echoes, at least to me, the concept of double-consciousness as proposed by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, in which he famously wrote:

One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Furthermore, the form of Williams’ poem suggests an intensification of this “two-ness” through a strategic use of a stanza break between the two instances of “America” within the single, syntactical unit. In this sense, the poem fuses form and content in order to heighten its underlying conceptual framework.

Similarly, racial and cultural issues are addressed and challenged throughout the collection in poems such as “A Black Man Who Wants to be a White Woman” and “How Do I Cross Out the X Malcom.” Within these poems, Williams creates linguistic spaces wherein he’s “Scribabbling” his words into an “estranged language” (34) of neologism and wordplay in order to write a:

       story we make up about the other stories
[Which] Itself is made up of other stories:
Thus the three dimensions of history—plus history,
Remarkable violence (34)

Yes, stories made up of stories compound by other stories, all constructing an American narrative that resonates with the “Remarkable violence” inherent to the history of a country fraught with civil rights’ tensions and complex racial relations. But far from simply being a collection of didactic poems, Williams employs his heightened intellect, aesthetic sensibilities, and ear for the musical phrase in order to compose poems that address the political and social worlds while simultaneously providing aesthetic pleasures. In doing so, the poems challenge both our understanding of contemporary poetry and our concept of race in America today.

Here’s a video clip of Williams reading his poem “Mayhem” from The Hero Project of the Century:

The final event of the semester for the Poets of Ohio reading series will take place on Thursday, 10 April when the poet Larissa Szporluk will visit Case Western Reserve University from Bowling Green, OH.

Best Thing I’ve Heard Today: Bloomfield, Foley, and Xu

20 Mar

Last night the poets Luke Bloomfield, Brian Foley, and Wendy Xu passed through Cleveland, OH on their Moonbucket reading tour in promotion of their books Russian Novels (Factory Hollow Press, 2014), The Constitution (Black Ocean, 2014), and You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2013), respectively. Below are three short video clips of each poet performing at the event, which took place at Guide to Kulchur.

Here’s Luke Bloomfield reading his poem “Fisticuffs”:

Here’s Brian Foley reading his poem “Acumen”:

Here’s Wendy Xu reading here poem “Nocturne”:

Their tour, which has also taken them to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Akron, will continue tonight in Buffalo, NY.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Dave Lucas

19 Mar

WeatherAfter a month-long layoff, the Poets of Ohio reading series resumed, hosting Cleveland-native Dave Lucas. Lucas read and discussed poems from his debut-collection Weather (University of Georgia Press, 2011) to a large, hometown crowd last night at Case Western Reserve University. Below is an excerpt of the introduction I gave for the event:

The history of poetry in and of Cleveland is fraught with complex tensions between poet and city. In a letter dated 15 June 1922, Hart Crane, arguably Cleveland’s most famous poet, wrote to his friend Wilbur Underwood that “Life is awful in Cleveland.” Decades later, d.a. levy, another local yet nationally-known poet, wrote:

cleveland, i gave you
the poems that no one ever
wrote about you
and you gave me
NOTHING

And in the recently published anthology of his writing, the poet Russell Atkins focuses his creative imagination on the “miserabled gone” of Cleveland and its images of the “sick / against [the] broken.”

While, no doubt, it’s easy to promote a narrative of Cleveland within poetry and the arts that is filtered through such a negative lens; there also exists an alternate vision that forwards a place-based poetics which champions the city in all its oxidized glory.

Dave Lucas’ first book, Weather, I think, traffics primarily in this latter category. While the speakers of his poems do acknowledge the “dying arts” (1) and the “muddy unmarked grave[s]” (14) of industrialism, they also articulate a relentless determination by the city and its inhabitants to persevere. For instance, in the poem “River on Fire,” Lucas meditates upon the burning of the Cuyahoga River, concluding with the realization that the “river burned and was not consumed” (15). Yes, it was set aflame several times—13 times, to be exact, from 1868 to 1969—but the river remains. And now, due to recent environmental efforts, the Cuyahoga is cleaner than it has ever been during the past 150 years.

In an interview I conducted with Lucas a little over a year ago, he mentioned that he hoped the poems of Weather would work through the tired narratives of “apocalypse and exodus” that so often dictate conversations about Cleveland in order to “transform” our collective imagination of and about the city. Rather than an urban landscape of decay, the poet wants “both [his] art and [his] city to be…in the present tense”: alive, vibrant, and worthy of praise.

To this extent, then, the poems of Weather mirror rather closely the poet Richard Hugo’s concept of the “triggering town,” wherein the “initiating subject”—in this case, Cleveland—activates the “imagination” in order to yolk intellectual curiosity, emotional resonance, and aesthetic beauty at the site of the poem.

Yes, the poem becomes a place both to embody and honor another place; and this doubling of place within Weather serves as a poetic reminder that Cleveland is not dead. Instead, the city is, indeed, “present” and thrives in our presence; perhaps under a layer of rust, for sure, but it lives and flourishes, exuding a passionate intensity that belies the negative critiques outsiders so often foist upon our city.

Here’s a video of Lucas reading his poem “Midst of a Burning Fiery Furnace” from the event:

This Thursday, 20 March, the poet Daniel Tiffany will deliver a hybrid reading-lecture titled “Is Kitsch Still a Dirty Word?”; and on Thursday, 27 March, the poet Tyrone Williams will read and discuss his poetry. Both events will be held on Case Western Reserve University’s campus.

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: Elizabeth Savage

17 Mar

abrsplashEditor Amber Nelson has once again put together a fantastic installment of alice blue review. Issue twenty-two contains some wonderful poets, such as Alyse Knorr, Vouched Books’ own Tyler Gobble, Sarah Barlett, and several others. I recommend reading through the entire issue (even the prose, lol).

But, as much as I enjoyed the issue as a whole, I keep returning to the two poems by Elizabeth Savage. Here is one of them, “This Bucket of Yours,” in its entirety:

dropped as I carried
                the summer of white
pansies & wild blue
geranium

                lowlife in sunlight

bottomless as the months
                reached
I could not hold
like a world’s filthy hem

The poem—as with her other contribution, titled “Alter Egret”—is a short, image-based nature poem that, for a moment, allows me to forget that I’m in the “bottomless…months” of winter in Cleveland. Repeated readings of these two poems, to my mind, allow me to access the summer’s white “lowlife in sunlight” (at least secondhand), while the temperatures outside hover just below twenty degrees.

Take some time to read both of Savage’s poems and then purchase a copy of her full-length collection Grammar at Furniture Press Books’ website.

Best Thing I’ve Heard This Week: Jennifer Moxley

6 Mar

A couple of weeks ago, the poet Jennifer Moxley flew in from Maine to vist Case Western Reserve University’s campus in Cleveland, OH.

On 20 February, she led a group discussion that focused on her article “A Deeper, Older O: The Oral (Sex) Tradition (in Poetry),” which is forthcoming in the Jeffrey Robinson and Jennifer Carr edited Active Romanticism, (University of Alabama Press, 2014).

The following day, Moxely read poems at an event, performing mostly new material that will appear in her forthcoming collection The Open Secret (Flood Editions, 2014).

Below is a video clip of the poet reading her poem “No Place Like”:

To find more of Moxley’s work, click-through to Flood Edition’s website.

For those in the northeast Ohio area, Dave Lucas (03/18), Daniel Tiffany (03/20), and Tyrone Williams (03/27) will all read at Case later this month.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Abide

3 Mar

YorkFrom 2004-2005, I was a graduate student of Jake Adam York’s at University of Colorado-Denver; I also worked as a poetry editor with him on some early issues of Copper Nickel. Having known Jake personally and being familiar with his dedication to and enthusiasm for all-things poetry, it was heartbreaking to hear of his untimely death just over one year ago.

After recently receiving a copy of his posthumously released Abide (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) in the mail, I was thankful for the opportunity to read new work by him; but that thankfulness was tempered by the sadness of knowing that he is no longer with us.

Abide serves to reinforce these conflicted feelings. On the one hand, the poems demonstrate York’s deft musicality, attention to craft, and adherence to an ethical imperative that originates in the historicity and spirit of the Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, the elegies therein resonant with sadly, prophetic echoes that often times seem to prefigure his own passing.

The poem “Mayflower,” for instance, is an elegy composed for John Earl Reese, who the poem’s dedication mentions was a “sixteen-year-old, shot by Klansmen through the window of a café” on “October 22, 1955.” The opening lines read:

Before the bird’s song
you hear its quiet

which becomes part of the song
and lives on after,

struck notes bright
in silence (17)

While, certainly, one can read the passage on the surface level as a lament for Reese’s passing, it is not difficult—at least for this reader—to read these lines as premonitory: “Before the bird’s song,” or the release of the poems in Abide, all we can “hear” from York is the “quiet” or “silence” following his death. Upon publication, the effects of his death become “part of the song,” at least to the extent that the poet’s absence can be keenly felt (or read) in all of these poems.

As the poem proceeds, the speaker eventually levels an awful truth:

and a young man’s voice

becomes a young man’s
silence, all

he did not say (18)

Yes, in the poems of Abide we hear the “young man’s voice” singing for us once more; but inherent to this music is the realization that the collection will be followed by the “young’s man’s / silence” and “all // he [will] not say.”

And one can only assume that York had much more to say. In the book’s concluding “Foreword to a Subsequent Reading,” Jake writes that his project of creating poetic monuments to the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement was, indeed:

always too big for one book. It is more complicated than a simple serial form, like a trilogy. It is the work of a life, both countless and one; one cannot predict how long it will take, but it will take as long as it will take. Abide continues, advances, event as it contains, as it remains. (79)

While the completion of his project might not have reached full fruition, the four books York released do serve to “elegize” at least some of the “men, women, and children who were martyred between 1954 and 1968 as part of the freedom to struggle” (79) in a beautiful and earnest manner. Such elegies, it would appear, stem from both explicit and implicit prohibitions against articulating and celebrating these victims. Or, as the poem “Letter to be Wrapped around a 12-Inch Disc” states:

                                   We had so much
behind us, the history

               we were told we shouldn’t
name, stir up, remember,
                              so much silence

we needed to break (11)

York’s poems, specifically the elegies, seek to rupture the “silence” by stirring up and remembering those names that others wanted to be left behind and forgotten in the forward march of history.

To this end, York understood the necessary connection between memory and naming bound within breath: “We visit memory sites…but if memory lives on there, it isn’t memory anymore. Memory lives in the breath we breathe, in the air we make together” (80). We should, then, take this to declaration of breath to heart in order to keep both the memory of Civil Rights’ martyrs and York alive.

To do so, though, requires more than a visit to the physical site of a memorial or purchasing a book artifact. Rather, we must sing the names of the deceased through the silences. We must voice the names and recite aloud the poems, such that we begin “reaching / for the sound of some beyond” in order to create a “vibration” (8) that awakens the spirits and brings them to life through the audible word. Doing so will, in the end, reactivate the “Last breaths of the disappeared” (36) at and in the site of the poem. Or, as Jake himself wrote:

Maybe we keep saying
their silences between our words,

the shape of their voices
in ours, in ours

the warmth that haunts
their absent lungs. (34)

And, indeed, by reciting the poems of Abide aloud while reading, the reader shapes York’s voice within their own voice, such that the poet’s memory haunts the lungs of another, imbuing the breath and body with the spirit of the deceased.

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: Best Poems

24 Feb

MKBPWebCover3Recently, Big Lucks (in conjunction with Narrow House Editions) published its first, official release: Mike Krutel’s chapbook Best Poems.

The poems in Krutel’s chapbook (which is, incidentally, his first, official release as well) wander from line to line and image to image in strange, half-lit worlds; or, as the speaker of “Best Picture of Me in a Tub of Rotary Phones” says:

You keep me waiting,
grown man that sleepwalks his
way down a well to linger. Wandering
full of worlds. I don’t know
where to turn or if there’s any
way out of this mirror. (22)

Yes, Best Poems often reads as if it were the secret dream journal of a somnambulist “Wandering” through “worlds” filled with words; and in this world of language, both the speaker and the reader become lost in a playful labyrinth of “mirrors” so that they “don’t know / where to turn” in order to escape.

Of course, why would you want to escape? Because, indeed, getting lost within these poems ends up being a lot of fun. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the collection’s first poem, simply titled “Best”:

Tonight is night of no sleep.
Cannonballs over the playground.
The cat rubs a glass frame off the mantle.
Somewhere there is a woman, comfortably lost
inside a small idea. You are that woman
and above you are your own best guesses.
How the vehicles are doing real things.
How the sun shoots its umbilical light around,
straight into night. There is sound outside.
It could be dandelions screaming
like engines or the causeways between
us. You are a small woman. I am holding
these individually wrapped letters
between the scaffold of my ribcage. All indications
say I should know better by now. (1)

Like the somnambulist before him, the insomniac in the “night of no sleep” encounters an equally strange, half-lit world during the hour of the wolf. Haunted by both the surreal (e.g. “dandelions screaming”) and the mundane (e.g. “The cats rubs a glass frame”), the sleepwalker and the sleepless, the speaker and the reader, all become “comfortably lost / inside a small idea,” a small image, and a small world made up of the “sound outside” ourselves.

While they might concede to (or revel in) their waywardness, the speakers of these poems continually attempt to make sense of their worlds as they are led further astray by the night. And that sense comes by way of internal arrangement or some abstract, organizing principles of the poems; we’re told as much in the following passages:

I am with difficulty
rearranging patterns of static
that ferment around
our little heads. (10)

The moment became always
a reassembly of everything
different from everything, which is was. (21)

Of course, these and other “requirements for adequate reintegration” (14) are, perhaps, a bit of a dodge. For, in fact, if they serve a determinate purpose, it is not actually to access sense or plan an escape; rather, these alternate arrangements serve to ratchet up the playfulness of these poems, which, at night, glow beneath the “ambiguous moon” as it “does its dirty thing” (10).