Archive by Author

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: Brian Teitman

20 Feb

A few weeks ago, the poet Ryan Teitman read some of his poems at The Big Big Mess reading series in Akron, OH. While Teitman has authored a fine collection of poems, Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), he primarily read new material at the event. One of these newer poems was the fabulous “Archipelago,” which originally appeared in issue 26.1 of Gulf Coast. The opening lines of the poem read as follows:

A bird is a kind
of island. In flight,
a flock is called

an archipelago.
At rest, a peninsula.
When two flocks

meet, they are called
a communion.
Used in a sentence:

Two flocks
met and became
a communion.

A bird is an island, and a flock of birds is an archipelago or a peninsula (depending on movement). These transformations continue throughout the entirety of the poem–which can be found at Gulf Coast’s website–and become increasingly more bizarre and beautiful, until we discover that:

Then the body
is a kind of nothing.
A nothing is a kind

of bird

Slipping from image to image and idea to idea, the poem exhibits a protean flux that challenges both ontological and linguistic certainties.

Awful Interview: Jeff Alessandrelli

17 Feb

JABookI’ve written about my friend and poet Jeff Alessandrelli’s work before; but with the release of his new, full-length collection of poetry This Last Time Will Be the First Time (Burnside Review Books, 2014), I thought I’d ask him some in-depth questions about his poetry and writing in preparation for its release. Jeff was kind enough to answer my questions, via email, over the course of the past few week. (Head Voucher Laura Relyea also conducted an Awful Interview with Alessandrelli a couple years ago.) Below are the contents of that exchange:

“People Are Places Are Places Are People” is the opening section of your new book This Last Time Will Be the First Time. The title of each poem in this section either invokes the name of a person (usually an artist or writer), or employs direction quotation by them. I wonder if you could address the use of proper nouns in these titles. Likewise, what is the relationship between people and places? Finally, how do you understand these names creating a continuum or lineage of influence for you as a writer and artist?

With regards to your initial question— most of the poems in This Last Time Will Be The First’s first section were, directly and indirectly, inspired by my interest in history; I’m fascinated by the (often, but not always, traumatic) lives of the writers/artists I most admire— Evel Knievel (who during his lifetime broke 433 bones, a Guinness World Record), Lenny Bruce (who, about his heroin abuse, said I’ll die young but it’s like kissing God), Anne Carson (whose work as a cultural historian for me is as important, if not more so, than her work as a purely creative writer—although the argument could be made that both modes of her writing are essentially one and the same) and Eileen Myles (Eileen Myles rules). That being said, most of the poems in “People Are Places Are Places Are People” are 90% imagination-based, 10% history-based. In my own work the historical is the jumping off point for the creative; I’m not a historian by any common definition of the word.

The relationship between people and places and places and people— like most easy thinking members of society, I often associate people (Gertrude Stein, say) with places (1920’s Paris). But I also think that where one lives—by choice or circumstance—does become who one is; our environments are our identities, whether we relish or hate that fact.

As far as influence, specifically in terms of my own development as a writer/artist – I consider myself a reader first and a writer second. I read all sorts of stuff— fiction and poetry predominantly but also a healthy amount of history (primarily ancient, weird stuff), oral biographies and arcane “factoid” stuff. And have you been on the internet? There’s a grip of stuff stuck in there, some of it even worth reading. All of which is to say that for me influence is something that suffuses every aspect of my writing. I don’t honestly consider myself to be a particularly “original” or “groundbreaking” poet. But what I do think I’m good at is melding different linguistic particles, often found in wildly different places, into one static thing that I subsequently deem a “poem.”

One of my favorite writers is David Markson, who wrote a series of books toward the end of his life that were almost entirely composed of artistic and cultural anecdotes and quotes (i.e. “A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down in the Museum of Modern Art in New York—and left that way for a month and a half;” “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth”—Pablo Picasso). I personally find Markson’s work to be far more interesting (and “original,” to use that word again) than a wholly fictional novel about the emotional complications parental divorce engenders in a 19 year old growing up in rural Indiana or a wholly fictional novel about ketamine addiction or a wholly fictional novel about an overweight Turkish bombardier fighting in World War I. (I’m making all those up, by the way. Although I’m sure they’ve also already been written.)

As a writer I’m far more interested in reading than in writing. But the great writers don’t let you simply read their work. They make you rewrite it.

I like that you mention “identities” in your previous answer because the concept segues nicely into a question about the second section of your book: “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats.” How does the character Jeffrey Roberts align with or diverge from Jeffrey Alessandrelli? I mean, “Roberts” is your middle name, correct? You certainly seem to be toying with the concept of self-identification, autobiography, and confession–but, no doubt, in a off-kilter manner–given a title like “The Semi-biography of Jeffrey Roberts.” Tell me more about the partial identity inherent to the “semi” modifier. How do the poems in this section trouble our notions of selfhood and subjectivity?

Although my middle name is Robert—and, since my last name is so long (13 letters!), Jeffrey Roberts is the name I usually give at restaurants/bars when I’m waiting for a table—the poems in “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats” are only very very loosely related to myself. The only similarities, actually, reside in the fact that both Jeffrey Roberts and I hate job interviews and once also had to work fairly diligently on doctoral dissertations. But re: identity and selfhood, both partial and not, the character (or speaker) Jeffrey Roberts is not a stand-in for the author Jeff Alessandrelli. I don’t consider myself particularly interesting, and in light of that opinion I (rightly or wrongly) rarely write out of direct personal experience. The last poem of the section, “The Same Jeffrey Roberts That Has Been Missing” begins with the line, “I was born with two wings, / one of them broken.” Broken or not, I wish I had been born with wings. Are you familiar with the Nora Ephron directed film Michael (1996)? Playing the Archangel Michael, John Travolta had wings. It wuz tight.

When Stephen Malkmus’ first solo album came out, Magnet did an exposé on him. In that article, the reporter asked Malkmus if he ever wrote songs about himself; he replied:

Not really. I’m always commenting or assuming voices about lives that would be interesting to me. I’m not particularly interested in my own feelings or my own struggles, so I wouldn’t write a song about them. But anything you write is a reflection on you, so if you are into being non-revealing, it shows your personality.

Do you feel similarly? To you mind, what does it say about an artist if he/she avoids their own life as a source of material or inspiration? Likewise, your previous answer also reminds me of when John Keats wrote that:

the poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence because he has no identity he is continually informing and filling some other body.

Again, does this quote reflect, to some extent, your thoughts as well? Generally speaking, what type of relationship does a poet or a poem have with identity and subjectivity?

I do agree/identify with Malkmus’s statement, yes. And I’d also say that identification is less about my writing and more about my personality—regardless of the situation, I don’t much like to talk about myself. (Job interviews are tough.) Which thus means I rarely find myself writing (directly at least) about myself; instead, I’d rather “make things up” or identify fissures in language that I find interesting and then exploit them to my own ends. I’m sure there’s some deep-seated Freudian shit that I should consider finding out re: why I don’t like to write about myself very often, but in the end I’d say I’m simply more engaged in fiction than reality. And I don’t find my personal reality—day in, day out—to be necessarily worthy of poetic effort. There’s more out there and poem after poem I’m hoping to find it out.

As for Keats’ quote, I’d say that I identify with it as well. Although I also find a bit sad— the fact that in order to embody something one has to, to a degree at least, reject their own idiosyncratic existence, gives me a minor case of the willies.

One of my main goals in life is to complete eradicate my own self-absorption. It’s something that I feel very strongly about. It’s also something that—as a writer at least—I think is impossible pretty much.

I like the idea of “fissures in language,” at least to the extent that is conjures in my mind an image of you (or James Franco) as Aaron Raslton hacking away at your arm with a penknife in order to extricate yourself from a deep and narrow poetry crevice. But something tells me that’s not what you mean. Could you explain a bit further about these linguistic fissures? Likewise, could you talk about some specific examples from your new book?

I simply mean parts of language that we take for granted or perhaps don’t think much about, parts that are thus apt for poetic manipulation. Like how little words are engrained in so many big words— is the art in party the art in heart the art in fart the same art in Stuttgart? Or the ass in crass the same ass in passion the same ass in association? I don’t know—maybe that’s stupid or facile, but I find it kinda interesting. In “(Sharks),” a poem in the 3rd section of This Last Time Will Be The First, I write how “I hope to be creatively satisfied// in the same manner as the windmill/ and jetstream.” Which in and of itself doesn’t say or mean a whole lot probably—but I personally find the whole concept of “creative satisfaction” to be strange. Sexual satisfaction I can understand. I can understand gustatory satisfaction and monetary satisfaction. Maybe even spiritual satisfaction. But “creative satisfaction” is something that I find alien, possibly because to be “creative” in any field means, to me at least, to be continually hungry for more. Cr-eat-ive.

Also, I am not a linguist. Obviously.

The lack of satisfaction you derive from the creative process makes me think about the repetitions in your collections. By that, I mean, there’s a passage in the poem “Simple Question” from your “little book” Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound (Ravenna Press, 2011) that states:

it is only
the imagination

that can resist
the imagination,

it is only
the imagination

that can withstand,
uphold, subvert

and resist
the imagination. (43)

And, in This Last Time Will Be The First, you have a poem titled “Understanding Barbara Guest” that contains the lines:

It is only
the imagination
that can resist
the imagination,

it is only the imagination
that can withstand,
uphold, subvert
and resist

the imagination. (19)

Does the repetition or reuse of these words signal dissatisfaction with the original permutation? Or a dissatisfaction with the context in which it was originally found? If not, can you discuss what the recycling of your own lines means to you? How does returning to your previous poems for content/material affect your poetic sensibilities at both the moment of initial conception and the moment of re-appropriation?

I mean, I derive satisfaction from the creative process, definitely—it’s just that I don’t derive the same type of satisfaction as those other kinds I mentioned, mostly because I think being “creatively satisfied” is somewhat of an oxymoron; if you’re 100% “creatively satisfied” then I think you either have too much confidence in your work or need to move somewhere else pretty quickly. A plethora of satisfaction for writers/artists/thinkers in general is a trap and one that, in my opinion, can beget some potentially boring crap. The short, more readily known title of the song is “Satisfaction” but the longer version is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Sure, they’re mostly talking about sex, but I think if Mick J. and Keith R. had been totally content and “creatively satisfied” that (inarguably iconic) song wouldn’t have come out the way it did musically or lyrically.

As for my own personal poetic repetition/ re-appropriation—something that I do fairly infrequently— it doesn’t signal a dissatisfaction with the original permutation at all; the opposite actually. Years ago my friend Trey told me that the poet Donald Revell has, in wildly different poems, the same exact stanza (identical line breaks and everything) in something like 4 or 5 of his books. And when asked about it he (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) said, “Yeah, I really like that stanza.” I did and do think that’s great. In both of those poems I’m paying homage to the creativity of Erik Satie and Barbara Guest, both of whom, in my opinion, had pretty wild imaginations. I liked the way I said it the first time, so I thought I’d try it again. I love leftovers. I love second (and sometimes even third) helpings.

That all being said, is the recycling of my own lines an example of extreme “creative satisfaction?” I’m not sure. But probably. Forget remembering.

The penultimate section of your new book is a longer poem in parts, titled “It’s Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious of Oneself.” Did you conceive of this poem, initially, as one extend piece, or did you end up putting individual pieces together retroactively? What, for you, does the long/serial/sequential poem offer that a “regular” of “small-sized” poem does not? And, of course, why is it especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself?

I started writing that poem in early 2011 and the earliest version of it appeared in Octopus Magazine later that year; a 2nd, different version of it subsequently appeared in a chapbook entitled Don’t Let Me Forget To Feed The Sharks published in early 2012. And then there’s the version in the book, which is wildly different than the other iterations and really only loosely connected to them. Throughout, though, the main thematic “thread,” as it were, is the poem’s epigraph, which is taken from (as translated by A.C. Graham) The Book of Lieh- tz’u: A Classic of Tao and reads:

There was a man who was born in Yen but grew up in Ch’u, and in old age returned to his native country. While he was passing through the state of Chin his companions played a joke on him. They pointed out a city and told him: “This is the capital of Yen.” He composed himself and looked solemn. Inside the city they pointed out a shrine: “This is the shrine of your quarter.” He breathed a deep sigh. They pointed out a hut: “This was your father’s cottage.” His tears welled up. They pointed out a mound: “This is your father’s tomb.” He could not help weeping aloud. His companions roared with laughter: “We were teasing you. You are still only in Chin.” The man was very embarrassed. When he reached Yen, and really saw the capital of Yen and the shrine of his quarter, really saw his father’s cottage and tomb, he did not feel it so deeply.

Although each is, as mentioned, different, every version of “It Is Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious Of Oneself” takes as its primary feeling the emotionality (half ironic/half solemn and sincere) enveloped in that passage.

As for the serial poem structure, I think it can force a writer to make (imagistic, thematic, emotional, associational, linguistic, etc.) connections in his/her work that singular poems, obviously, don’t allow for. But it’s not my ideal form and in my opinion somewhat overused in contemporary poetry. I personally believe it’s far more difficult to write a long poem with direct/overt threads than it is to write a serial poem with threads only loosely woven together.

It is especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself because the more conscious you are of yourself the less conscious you are of everything and everyone else. “A gambler plays better for tiles than for money, because he does not bother to think; a good swimmer learns to handle a boat quickly, because he does not care if it turns over; a drunken man failing from a cart escapes with his life because, being unconscious, he does not stiffen himself before collision… A woman aware that she is beautiful ceases to be beautiful,” etc. Being too conscious (or aware or engrossed or absorbed) of yourself inevitably means you’re not conscious of what else is out there. Which is a lot. And the title of that poem sums up the way I desire to live and be—something I’m still working on, of course.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Heather Christle

14 Feb

christle_trees-500x699Yesterday evening, the poet Heather Christle drove to Cleveland from Yellow Spring, OH to read and discuss her poems at Case Western Reserve University for the Poets of Ohio reading series. Below is an excerpt of the introduction I gave for the event.

In “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring,” the opening poem of The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), Christle writes: “I want to show you something       I don’t care what       I want you to look where I say” (3). While thinking about how to access her book and the poems therein, I read this passage as a directive.

And where does Christle want us to look? Well, she tells us twice in the title: to the trees, of course.

In looking toward the trees, then, I first revisited some of my favorite tree poems in order to remind myself of what they can offer us as readers. For instance, in “Some Trees,” the poet John Ashbery informs us that:

                      you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

Yes, the trees can function as an analog for ideal human relationships, wherein “their merely being there” teaches us how to “touch” and “love.”

Conversely, in Philip Larkin’s poem “The Trees,” our arboreal counterparts remind us of our own mortality, such that “Their greenness is a kind of grief” when we realize that, unlike the trees in spring, our bodies do not regenerate with the seasons; rather, they simply decay.

Or, apropos of the weather this winter, Wallace Stevens considers the “pine-trees crusted with snow” and the “junipers shagged with ice” in his poem “The Snow Man,” so as to arrive at a zen-like “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Armed with these mediations on trees, I returned to Chirstle’s book with one basic question: “How does the poet show us trees and their mere being?” What I gathered is that showing us trees is a bit of a conjuring act, in that, yes, there are “trees…all around us,” but they “move themselves across the planet in wide invisible lines” (46); to see them, then, is to see something that is invisible, ethereal: the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” It is the poet’s duty, perhaps, to show us that nothing; to feel that nothing; to experience that nothing; to be that nothing.

Luckily for us, the invisible nothing of trees finds fertile ground “to in live” in each little “rectangle” (18), which are the prose poems of Christle’s book. And as the trees grow within these rectangles, the speakers of the poems “hang upside down” (56) from them, “fall back up into” (51) them, and are the “noisy” singers who remind us that, yes, the trees do indeed love us (59); because, without the voice of the poet telling us otherwise, we might not know this to be true.

Christle’s collection of poems welcomes us into “a tree-based society” where “women and…men all live in trees” (42), appreciating the “greenness” not as grief, but as a place to “Begin,” as Larkin wrote, “afresh, afresh, afresh.” And although Larkin was correct in acknowledging that we cannot repair our bodies, Christle comforts us in the knowledge that, in this freshness, we can repair our “ruined” souls (57) as we “move faster” through our lives “toward that tree which does not care” (55) because it simply exists in its mere being.

Here is a video clip of Christle reading her poem “Je M’Appelle Ivan” from The Trees The Trees during the event:

The next Poets of Ohio event will take place on Tuesday, 18 March with Dave Lucas, followed by a 27 March event with Tyrone Williams. This semester’s series will conclude with a 10 April reading and discussion by Larissa Szpourluk.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Matt Hart

7 Feb

debacle_partialYesterday, Matt Hart traveled from Cincinnati to Cleveland in order to read and discuss his poems for the second installment of the Poets of Ohio reading series at Case Western Reserve University. In my introduction to the event, I wrote the following with regard to his fifth full-length collection of poetry, Debacle Debacle (H_NGM_N Books, 2013):

In a review I wrote of Matt Hart’s book Debacle Debacle at the beginning of last June, I noted how the poems both mediate and meditate upon the “complex emotional circumstances of our daily lives,” ratcheting up the tension between “excitement” and “irritation” in order to generate productive forces that harness a certain poetic energy formed at the confluence of these competing emotional and psychic states. Or, as the speaker of the book’s title poem says:

                          Essential it is to struggle, but struggle’s

merely tension, and tension can be a thing of balance
or irritation, confusion or song. I’m singing in tension
with the not singing. I’m living in tension with the forces

out to kill me. We’re living in tension because we’re
different human beings, and living in excitement
that we’re so much the same. (15)

While I still believe this “tension” is a central concern of Debacle Debacle, my re-reading of the collection during the past two weeks has offered me a new conceptual framework through which to think about these poems.

As a side note—before I explain the new framework further—poetry’s ability to provide multiple interpretations and experiences when our contexts shift happens to be one of it’s many characteristics of which I am enamored. While, certainly, this trait is not exclusive to poetry, the genre seems to thrive on the potential of its texts to open up to an assortment of readings, interpretations, and possibilities.

And what is this new understanding of Hart’s collection that I experienced of late? Well, when re-engaging the book, I was keenly aware of the manner in which the poems name their historic and aesthetic communities. Beginning with the collection’s opening epigraph—which is Breton’s admonition that “A poem must be a debacle of the intellect”—as well as a slew of touchstones throughout the book that reference Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Berrigan, Pound, and Whitman; and, finally, to the concluding poem’s Wallace Stevens’ epigraph, Hart creates and names a lineage of influence that shapes the contours of these poems.

Debacle Debacle, though, does more than just outline Hart’s aesthetic and historic communities; it also sings the praise of his contemporary communities, by which I mean his friends, family, and poetry peers. For instance, he thanks “the sky for [the contemporary poet] Adam Fell” (39), he reminisces about his friend “Jane” who recently became “entrenched / in Brooklyn” (49), he references his friend, poet, and publisher Nate Pritts who drives “his auto on automatic pilot feeling ebullient” (63), and he composes a poem to his then four year old daughter in order to “tell [her] some things” while he’s “in perfect alignment” (72).

Yes, this is a social book, at least to the extent that the poems therein declare to and for whom they belong. But if Hart does not name you or me or someone else for that matter, this does not mean that we are not welcome to participate in the poems. In fact, Debacle Debacle can be read as an invitation to those who share like-minded poetics and sensibilities. Yes, “everybody’s on fire beside” (5) him, not just his close confidantes; indeed, Hart sings in a “common language” (80) where “Every single one / of us [is] a hymn” to the weird, to the wired, to anyone willing to “open our books” (74) and join in this “marvelous” human “predicament” (75).

Below is a video of Hart reading his poem “Upon Seeing Again the Thriving” from the event:

The next event for the Poets of Ohio reading series will take place on Thursday, 13 February when the Yellow Springs, OH poet Heather Christle will join us for an evening of poetry and discussion. For more details, please visit the Poets of Ohio website.

Best Thing I’ve Heard/Read This Week: Catherine Wing

31 Jan
wingenter winggin

Catherine Wing kicked-off the second season of the Poets of Ohio reading series at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH last night, performing selections from her books Enter Invisible (2005) and Gin & Bleach (2012), both of which were published by Sarabande Books. In my introduction to the event, I wrote the following about Wing’s most recent collection of poetry:

In “How It All Fell Out,” the final poem of Gin & Bleach—Catherine Wing’s second full-length collection of poetry—the speaker observes how the “mouths” of an unspecified “they”: “stretched as if to say open, they were outspoken, they let the light pour through, and the air pour through, and that which was neither light nor air they were open to” (57).

This passage, I think, provides a productive way to conceptualize Wing’s poems: open mouths that consume the world around them, whether it be in the form of “light” or “air” or that which is “neither,” in order to, later, articulate that aforementioned world in an “outspoken” fashion. In other words, the poems function similar to breath, wherein the speaker inhales her surroundings so as to exhale them. The exhalations find their form, most notably, in song. Yes, everywhere there is song: the “song of oyster-shell,” the “song of sifted flour,” the “song of meadowlark” (47), the “Song sung of a splash” (26) by a tadpole, the “Cobbled Song,” the “Death” song, the “Night Song,” and any number of the “Counting Songs” found throughout Gin & Bleach.

The songs that we hear “swinging on a string of sound” (23) within Gin & Bleach are more than just pleasant music—though they are that as well; but, indeed, they also search or strive for something more, which is ineffable, ethereal, and protean. Stated differently, these poems are “searching the lexicon // for a soul” (28): something to guide and direct us, however vague or amorphous that concept may be.

This, of course, is no easy task, because “Language,” as Wing writes, “is, at best, a guessing game” (15) wherein we can only really know “somewhat what” (14) we think we mean to write. Which, I take to mean, we never really know what we mean to write, even if we mean something that we think we mean; which, yes, could mean that we mean nothing at all.

Similar to when “birds unlace their songs” (4) into the atmosphere around us, we think less about what their songs mean, and, rather, simply enjoy the beauty of their music. To this extent, what I enjoy most about Wing’s collection is the ability of the poems therein to straddle that line between meaning and non-meaning, sense and nonsense, all in service of the song.

Below, watch Wing read her poem “The Evil Hypnotist Plans His Next Session” from the event:

Upcoming events for the Poets of Ohio reading series include Matt Hart (02.06), Heather Christle (02.13), Dave Lucas (03.18), Tyrone Williams (03.27), and Larissa Szporluk (04.10) For more information on these events, check out the following Internet Web-Page.

Awful Interview: Trey Moody

20 Jan

ttnmoodyRecently, Sarabande Books released Trey Moody’s debut, full-length collection of poems, Thought That Nature; the book explores  our relationship with nature through a deeply meditative and musically-charged poetics.

In her forward to Thought That Nature, Cole Swenson, who selected his manuscript as the winner of the 2012 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, argues that Moody’s poems imbue the concept of nature with a “tension” replete with a “historical dimension” (vii) that challenges us to more thoroughly consider what nature actually is and how we respond to it. To this end, she claims that the poems in Moody’s book exhume the “subtleties” of nature that, ultimately, “shape our lives” (ix).

I was lucky enough to meet and become acquainted with Trey Moody in autumn of 2009 when he first arrived in Lincoln, NE. As earlier as my first encounters with him and his writing, I was struck by the deft craftsmanship and simple beauty of his poems, his unpretentious intellectualism, and his generosity as a person. For these reasons and more, I’m glad to call him a friend

Trey Moody lives in San Marcos, TX where he is remotely completing his Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from University of Nebraska.In addition to Thought That Nature, he is author of the chapbooks Climate Reply (New Michigan Press, 2010), Once A Weather (Greying Ghost Press, 2011) and the collaborative collection How We Remake the World: A Concise History of Everything (Slope Editions, 2012), which he wrote with some other knuckle-head.

Last week, Moody was kind enough to answer some questions for me–via email–about his new book.

Your first collection of poetry, Thought That Nature, borrows its title from the opening line of Emily Dickinson’s poem “472 (1286).” I wonder if you could speak about the relationship between your book and that poem. Feel free to answer in any way you’d like, but I’d also be curious to hear how these poems, perhaps, address the dichotomy that Dickinson forwards between “nature” and “Human nature.”

Well, the way I read Dickinson’s poem, she’s poking fun at how problematic the word “nature” is, a notion that speaks to all the poems in my book. I’ve always thought it funny when someone (me included, at various times of my life) says something like, “I love going out into nature”; it’s not that our word choice is incorrect, necessarily, but this stance assumes that nature is something over there, not here, into which we, separate from it, must enter. I think Dickinson was having fun with people’s conceptions of these types of artificial dichotomies, preferring instead to maintain that humans—even the things they make and their spiritual inventions—were merely small parts embedded into the grand entity of nature. Of course this concept isn’t anything new—I’m thinking of some canonical haiku, Virgil, etc.—but what is interesting is how still (in 2014!) some folks resist this stance, even considering it threatening.

I like how your reading of the Dickinson poem undermines the notion that “nature is something over there, not here, into which we, separate from it, must enter”; to this extent, it imbues your use of Lewis and Clark quotes in “Lancaster Country Notebook”—which is Thought that Nature’s second section—with a certain amount of irony, at least to the extent that these were adventurers heading West to explore the wilderness. Could you describe how you stumbled upon their journals? Why did you decide to work with them? What was your process of reading and writing through their work? How do you see their journals engaging the poems in your collection?

That’s true, I think there is a certain amount of irony that goes along with including them in the context of Dickinson’s poem. Those journals are amazing, but as you read them you see how their writers’ lack of understanding their unexplored environs leads them to projecting themselves more and more upon the land and its organisms. But I love the raw earnestness in their language, steeped in (I think) a fear of the unknown, isolation, etc. There’s something energetic in imagining each explorer scribbling down his notes after an arduous day, not knowing what the next will bring, seeing where his mind drifts. And I enjoy the authenticity of their journals, especially with their preserved misspellings (you quickly learn that Lewis was a much better speller than Clark). I first started reading them in a Great Plains Lit course at the University of Nebraska, after I had been living there for about a year and a half, still learning my way around, so I think I was comforted by the writings of others as they were exploring the uncharted version of the region I was living in and trying to understand. I wanted to get even closer to their language, so during that spring, whenever I wrote a poem I grafted language from the corresponding date’s entry in 1805 into my writing. I had never really borrowed language before, perhaps for fear of some kind of exploitation, but in this case I felt like I was exploiting fellow exploiters, which seemed permissible, though maybe it’s not.

You’ve interspersed a suite of prose poems, each titled “A Weather,” throughout the collection. The first sentence of the first permutation straightforwardly inquires: “Why a” (6). This interrogation of the indefinite article reminds me a bit of Zukofsky’s claim that a poet should give “some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve.” So, my question to you, then, is why “a”? Additionally, I’m curious about how you understand the relationship between organized sound patterns and weather. I mean, the “A Weather” pieces are so intensely musical that the form of expression seems to tacitly suggest a deep or meaningful relationship between them.

Why a? I’ll tell you why a. If not for a, it’d be the weather, and we all know how unspecific and unrelenting that can be. But in all seriousness, I do find it interesting that we say “the weather,” as if it’s experienced exactly the same way by each individual. To my mind, “a weather” feels more intimate to how a specific individual experiences climate conditions. I like that Zukofsky essay a lot, and in a different essay he speaks to how the sounds of words themselves can’t not carry a kind of meaning: “It is this musical horizon of poetry […] that permits anybody who does not know Greek to listen and get something out of the poetry of Homer: to ‘tune in’ to the human tradition, to its voice which has developed among the sounds of natural things, and thus escape the confines of a time and place.” This sort of meaning is certainly less semantic, though as the poet Ralph Angel said in an interview, “there are different kinds and levels of understanding.” So in the “A Weather” sequence, I wanted to largely abandon semantics to (hopefully) produce swells of other kinds of meaning, sometime random and associative and sometimes repetitive, just as one might experience weather.

OK, then, what does one achieve (as a writer and/or a reader) from accessing meaning that avoids semantics in favor of randomness or associative patterns, particularly within a poetic context? Moreover, I’m curious as to how you understand the poem (or your poems) as an engagement with a broader, public context. In Thought That Nature’s introduction, Cole Swensen suggests that your book implicitly addresses issues of environmentalism and global community-formation. Do you agree with her assessments? Do you believe in pragmatic, political, or efficacious poetry? Why or why not? Do your thoughts on poetry in the public sphere agree with or contradict your thoughts on the non-semantic value of poetry?

I think what one can achieve (as writer or reader) is the opportunity to receive language differently than the ways we have been trained to consume it in school, advertising, and politics. Of course, stripping the kind of meaning to which we are accustomed from words makes for an uncomfortable reading (and writing) experience, but such discomfort seems necessary in being able to earnestly revise our language—how we use it and how we are used by it. But poetry mustn’t always be so extreme in its stripping of semantics to accomplish this goal. To this extent, I think all poetry is, as you say, “pragmatic, political, efficacious,” though in differing ways and to different levels of effectiveness. In 2014 America, just the decision to write a poem—as opposed to an essay or Facebook post—is political. And regarding the poems in Thought That Nature, I do agree with Swensen’s assessment because things like the environment and global consciousness are important to me, so I would expect them to come up in my writing; however, I didn’t necessarily intend those things to be at the forefront of these poems at the time I was writing them. Basically, I see the poems as attempts of trying to understand the world, which is impossible and thus must include many failures along the way.

I like the notion that poems are sites of failure that act as catalysts for an impossible understanding of the world around us. Could you elaborate a bit more on this idea and, perhaps, provide some specific examples from Thought That Nature? Also, on a somewhat similar note, it seems as though the poems in your book reach for that same understanding through negation; I’m thinking specifically of lines such as “You cannot remember what your body does // but you believe your body’s not a tree, a tree not a body” (13) and “I am not the moon, nor am I the tree” (68). Could you address how, to your mind, negation functions within your poems?

I guess what I’m thinking is that poems—the ones I write and the ones I like to read—embrace the world as this giant thing filled with many smaller things, yet they also embrace how terrifying and mysterious the connections between, the sources of, and the fates for these things are. Like, as humans we experience the world by way of our senses, which may seem accurate to us, but these same senses are just such giant failures. In a section of “Backyard,” I write, “Wind blows— // I can’t make sense / of it, even” (64). Of course language itself is similar to sensorial experience, in that it feels like some kind of truth but is only another series of failures. For example, in the book’s opening poem, “We Use Spoons Mostly,” I call myself out for relying on a somewhat cliché simile.

One way to think about negation in my poems, perhaps, is as a kind of avoidance, as a kind of laziness in confronting the poems’ subject(s). Recently I’ve grown more wary of negation for this reason. But I hope that such avoidance isn’t the case in these poems, especially the ones you’ve quoted from here, whose negation of things actually implies a desire to be those things by the act of simply naming them. When I write, “I am not the moon, nor am I the tree,” I may not be saying what I am, but what I wanted and tried to say was, “I am the moon, and I am the tree,” but just wasn’t able to. The very last poem in the book, “Dear—,” addresses this as well in its opening sentence: “I said Ghost because I couldn’t / say anything better” (73).

Several poems throughout Thought That Nature reference specific locations, such as the poems “Salina, Kansas” and “Chatter,” the latter of which states: “There was once a glacier / here. How it has become / Nebraska” (11). Could you discuss how place affects your writing and/or your writing-process? How attentive are you to your geographic surroundings when you compose a poem? Generally speaking, what is your relationship to place?

Place is very important to me. When I was younger, thinking about places—their geographies, histories, weather patterns—helped satisfy some kind of anxiety I had about wanting to grasp or understand places, which to me were frightening because they seemed so enigmatic. Well, older now, I’m not any wiser (probably less so, even) but I’ve at least admitted a sort of defeat. I’ve realized that it’s pretty much impossible to figure out places, even small towns or neighborhood parks. About the park, for example, if you stop to think about it—where all the gravel was harvested from, who all was involved with the harvesting and then distributing, who drove the trucks, where each tiny part of the swings came from, how each part was made, what kind of flora and fauna frequent the park and how the seasons or even occasionally high air pollution levels affect these nonhuman visitors’ presence, the zoning and bureaucratic histories of establishing and maintaining this park, the vast history of what preceded the park at its specific geographic location, etc.—you see how no one can possibly know all of this. Yet for me (and many others, thankfully) it’s important and rewarding to think about these things.

As I compose poems, I do think about these things as well, but less steadfastly. I tend to focus on language when I begin writing, but when my attention wavers in the act of composition, I try to rely on my senses—however faulty they are—for any kind of data that might serve as a trigger, like the wind blowing tree limbs into the window or the smell the heater makes the first time it’s turned on for winter. And the heater example might make my mind wander into thinking about industry, energy policy, isolation. I imagine most poets and writers do this, too, because it’s really the most convenient way to gather material. Plus, it helps me feel more present, which doesn’t happen often enough during days filled with responsibilities.

Finally, tell me a bit about the writing you’ve been doing recently. How does it relate to the poems in Thought That Nature? Are they in a similar aesthetic mold, or have you altered your writing style or interests in any manner?

The newer poems I’ve been working on feel quite different from those in Thought That Nature. For one, there’s often much less white space in my newer poems, many of which are single stanzas or strophes with longer lines. Also, they feel quite a bit more personal—not in a Confessional sense or anything—but so far these newer poems seem to have a closer relationship to the body than those found in Thought That Nature. They’re definitely still concerned with place, but probably in much less obvious ways. But these are still so new, which makes me a little nervous to talk any more about them!

Awful Interview: Elisa Gabbert

14 Jan

SelfUnstable_low_resElisa Gabbert lives and writes in Denver, CO. Recently, Black Ocean released her second book, The Self UnstableBirds LLC published her first book, The French Exitfour years ago. She is an avid blogger, tweeter (Is that a word? IDFK.), and contributor to Open Letters Monthly.

Although The Self Unstable was published mere weeks ago, it’s already garnered much critical praise. The New Yorker listed the collection as one of their Best Book of 2013, calling it one of “the most intelligent and most intriguing” releases of the calendar year. Likewise, it has appeared on various “Year’s Best” lists at The Poetry Foundation, HTMLGiant, and elsewhere.

Last week, Gabbert agreed to answer some questions  for me–via email–about her new book.

The marketing copy for your second book, The Self Unstable, calls the writing in this collection “lyric essays.” I hoped you could address the concept of genre designation: what makes the texts in The Self Unstable “lyric essays,” as opposed to prose poems, or just plain-old “poems” for that matter? To your mind, what is the purpose of genre designations? What benefits and disadvantages does labeling a piece of writing in this manner provide for both the writer and the reader? Does categorizing The Self Unstable as a collection of “lyric essays” demand that the audience approach the book differently? How so?

I think in the case of The Self Unstable the genre distinction is almost arbitrary. You could call them prose poems or just poems if you wanted to and I wouldn’t say you were wrong, but I do think it’s pretty clearly a hybrid text. In some ways the pieces are like essays and in some ways they’re like poems. They touch on other genres too – Zen koans, aphorism, etc. So I guess you could say the genre is unstable.

From the outset, Black Ocean was interested in marketing the book as prose, and there are a couple of reasons that I agreed to that. One, Bluets by Maggie Nelson is one of the books that inspired me to write a book like this, and Wave calls Bluets lyric essay even though they’re primarily a poetry press. Two, I was interested to see if the prose designation would widen the readership and/or, as you say, change the way people read it. I think it’s too early to say if it has or will.

Regardless of where it’s shelved at the library, I expect some readers to say, “What the hell, these aren’t essays” or “What the hell, these aren’t poems.” My hope is that readers either don’t worry about that too much, or are interested in engaging with how the form “subverts” or “interrogates” the idea of the lyric poem or the idea of the lyric essay. I hope it works on both levels.

I’m glad you mention “Zen koans” in your previous answer because your book concludes with a prose block that states: “Koans are used to provoke ‘the great doubt’” (83). The internet tells me that a koan derives from the practice of Zen Buddhism and is “a brief paradoxical statement or question used a discipline in meditation.” It would appear that the writing in The Self Unstable embodies or appropriates these characteristics. Could you tell me a bit about how you originally encountered this form; likewise, what compelled you to employ it in your own writing? How did the use of it alter your writing or challenge you to re-conceive the manner in which you compose and/or think? In your own words, what is “the great doubt” of our contemporary era?

My college boyfriend used to have a book of Zen koans, which he found more amusing than profound I think, and it was our bathroom reading for a while. I am not a Buddhist, and I went many years without thinking of koans at all, but as I was working on the pieces in this book, I found I wanted them to function as koans, meaning that they are designed to provoke contemplation, not to be taken as absolute truths in themselves. And further I found (this is probably weird) that I wanted to structure the book so that it would make good bathroom reading. In other words, I wanted it to be the kind of book that you can pick up, open at random, and read a few pages, then go back to whatever you were doing. You don’t have to read them in order, and they’re easily re-readable. Like a book to be read in interludes, a little lite pseudo-philosophy. (All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy.)

That line you quote is, if I remember correctly, lifted verbatim from the Wikipedia page on koans, which of course may be different now. I have no idea what “the great doubt” is in Buddhist terms but what a great fucking phrase. For me, “the great doubt” is what happens when you suddenly stop playing the game – all the little rules we need to follow to exist in society, all the logistical distractions of contemporary life – and say, “Wait … WHAT IS THE POINT of all this?” Why anyone would want to encourage more confrontations with the absurd, I don’t know, but I suppose that’s what I’m doing here. Or if not provoking those moments, at least thinking about them.

You open The Self Unstable with the question: “What is the self?” Then, you offer a concept of the self that aligns itself with constructivist thought: “You wanted a life of cause, but it was all effects”; moments later, you forward a proposition that promotes essentialism: “Luck is a skill, as is beauty, intelligence–all things you’re born with” (3). As both a person and a writer, how do you negotiate these ideas of the self that appear to be in opposition to one another? What are your expectations—or, at least, desires—for a reader when they encounter such a paradox in your writing?

I remember reading recently that cognitive dissonance is overstated as a phenomenon, that people can hold all kinds of contradictory beliefs and experience no dissonance whatsoever. Certainly I think it’s almost impossible, if not completely impossible, to have a coherent experience of the self, considering that you have to use your selfhood to form that concept – it’s like trying to look at your own eye or taste your own tongue. Here’s another analogy – you know when people take a bunch of different photos of the Eiffel Tower from different angles and then use it to build a collage that depicts the whole tower, because when you’re close to the tower, you can’t get it all in one frame? A book about the self is similar, in that you can’t get a complete picture of it in one view or from one angle. I think that’s part of why it makes sense to label The Self Unstable as an essay – which of course etymologically means “attempt.” This is an attempt to get a grasp on the ungraspable. And I suppose I assume readers will be intimately familiar with the paradox because they are selves themselves.

In the opening prose block of the “Transcending the Body” section of The Self Unstable, you write: “Transcending the body sounds a little ’80s to me, not to mention flaky and paranormal. Even avatars have gender” (19). The statement got me thinking about a recent post at Harriet by the poet Tyrone Williams that’s subtitled “Posthumanism and Poetry.” He begins his article by referencing N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of the posthuman, which is “the disappearance of the liberal humanist subject to the distribution of human desire and will through digital technology.” As poet who tweets and blogs frequently (i.e. uses “digital technology”), how has your online presence/persona altered or informed the ways in which you approach the concepts of self and subjectivity, as well as the “poet” moniker?

I used to think a lot about post-humanism. For years I truly believed that within our lifetimes we’d hit the so-called “singularity” and become immortal via digitization. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not that I don’t think it’s theoretically possible to upload the self (in fact I think it’s possible that we’re all already living in some kind of digital simulation); it’s that I’m less confident we’ll get there before we all blow each other up or die off in some kind of mass plague.

But getting to your question: I think it’s interesting that having an online presence (in my case, on my blog and Twitter in particular) creates an automatic archive of both your experience and your own description of that experience. And what’s continually surprising to me, when I dig back through that archive and re-read things I’ve written in the past, is how consistent it feels. So either my true self is more consistent from the outside than it feels from the inside, or the online persona I’ve unknowingly crafted through language is very consistent. So I’ll read something that I wrote four years ago and be struck that I could have easily said the same thing yesterday. Another early line in the book: “The self regenerates every five or six days.” This is a reference to cell regeneration, the idea that after some amount of time your body literally does not consist of any of the same cells that it used to, but somehow your selfhood persists. For me, my digital traces are a very concrete illustration of that persistence, much more so than, say, photographs, because my body seems to change more over the years than my personality.

The notion that The Self Unstable is a “collage” pieced together by different perspectives and “angles” reminds me a bit of Benjamin and Adorno’s concept of the “constellation.” But it seems as though statements such as “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” and “Whatever you do, don’t start thinking about thinking” (10) express a certain antagonism toward—or at least skepticism about—philosophy. Given that large portions of The Self Unstable obliquely (or directly, depending on your viewpoint) engage ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology, I hoped you could a speak to what seems to be your (or your book’s) conflicted relationship with/to that discourse.  

It’s not true antagonism – I actually love philosophy and think poetry and philosophy are deeply entwined. In fact I’ve blogged about how philosophical poets tend to be my favorite poets. When I say something like “All philosophy is pseudo-philosophy” or “All philosophers are armchair philosophers” I mean that you don’t really need accreditation to be a philosopher. It’s like being a poet in that way, all you have to do to qualify is sit down and write some poetry. And a lot of philosophy turns out to be bullshit, but for that matter, most “science” historically has turned out to be bullshit. It’s still interesting, in that philosophy shows you the history of thinking. I’d love to be placed in a continuum with Benjamin and Adorno as opposed to, say, Stevens and Berryman. Why not?

Returning to one of your previous answers, I like that you think of The Self Unstable as a possible bathroom read, as I’m a strident advocate of them, generally speaking. Of course, my bathroom reads tend to be “Collected” poetry books; this way I can engage with a specific poet every day over the course of 6-8 months. What are some of your favorite and/or current bathroom reads? Why?

We subscribe to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and Harper’s, and those tend to end up in the bathroom, but I don’t spend enough time in there to really get into long articles like that. For me a poem is about the right size for a bathroom session, so I throw literary journals in there, in particular contributor’s copies, because otherwise I never seem to get around to reading them. Currently you’d find issues of Crazyhorse and Denver Quarterly in among the other periodicals. I also sometimes use this space to peruse catalogues, like Dean and Deluca, and that can be pleasantly meditative.

Speaking of continuum, how do you think The Self Unstable engages, speaks, or reacts to your first collection The French Exit; likewise, how does it relate to whatever you’re writing nowadays? This second part of the question, obviously, begs the question: what are you currently working on?

I think writers tend to have a few subjects they obsess over, and my big subjects are present in both The French Exit and The Self Unstable – stuff like time and memory and meaning and death. But the form/approach is very different in The Self Unstable; aside from the fact that it’s organized into untitled prose blocks, versus titled, lineated verse poems, it’s also more idea-driven, whereas The French Exit is, I think, basically driven by emotion. That change is probably a result of the way my life has changed since I wrote the poems in my first book; I spend more of my waking hours working (at my day job) so I need to impose more structure in order to get meaningful amounts of creative writing done. When I was younger I was more naturally prolific, but now it helps me to contribute slowly and in small chunks to a longer “project.” Also, my life (ironically) got more stable so I think the move to more contemplative reflection is a result of having fewer spikes of intense emotion.

All that said I’m back to writing in lineated verse. I recently acted in a production of The Designated Mourner, a play by Wallace Shawn, and I’m currently writing a series of poems in the voice of Judy, the character I portrayed. It’s really too early to say how they relate to the other books but I’m sure my usual obsessions will find their way in, despite the filter of the character.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Beyond the Chainlink

7 Jan

BeyondTheChainlinkIn the supporting author’s statement for Rusty Morrison’s most recent collection of poems, Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta Press, 2014), the poet mentions that her new book attempts:

to be honest about my dishonesties—the unreality in my truths and the truth of my unreality. I want to trust the useful disarray of dis-believing what I am sure of—to examine the ways I’m in two places at once.

While I’m unsure of what the poet means by being “honest,” the quote does act as a incitement for working through binary thought in such a manner that it dissolves partitioned concepts by employing chiasmic modes of engagement.

To this end, the title’s invocation of both the words “Beyond” and “Chainlink” is important. As she notes in the aforementioned author’s statement, the word “beyond” highlights or brings attention to “both here and not here,” while “chainlink”–which most frequently appears as a modifier for the word “fence”–signals a limit or a divide separating two areas or states. In this sense, the title engages the idea or desire to disassemble reductive, either/or (i.e. binary) patterns in service of something more complex.

Not coincidentally, then, the incipient poem of Beyond the Chainlink, “History of Sleep,” opens and closes with the following stanzas:

The ivy across our back fence tangles gray
into a green evening light. (3)

Years later, the spine of our backyard
appears to have always been crooked. (4)

The delimiting fence that separates the speaker’s backyard from what lies beyond it, paradoxically, is by its very nature uncertain and permeable: it “tangles” the colors “gray” and “green” into a strange light that permeates the evening. This initial image eventually leads the speaker to an understanding that her fence, “the spine of our backyard,” has “always been crooked.” In other words, the fence never cleanly or clearly demarcated; instead, it always confused and blended boundaries, whether the speaker noticed or not.

A recurring trope throughout the book that functions as a site of boundary confusion and crossing is the body. The second permutation of the poem “Sensework” reads in its entirety:

I lean

on my body, hard enough to feel its resins crack.

I court the cracks.

Squeeze every breach.

What leaks is, at its end, stifling and sweet. Patience, patience. The dead-animal

smell will be the last trailing hem

of outbreath. The body is a cosmos

of hidden atmospheres—each with its own ravage

to erupt. Every loss

is my accomplice. (15)

Why does the speaker “court the cracks”? Because when she does, out “leaks” something of her that is both “stifling and sweet.” This, of course, is not just a moment of loss of the self or something internal; with a little “patience,” she realizes that while she might lose something of herself, she’ll also gain something from the world outside of her to replace what has escaped. Yes, it could be the “dead-animal / smell,” which is the “outbreath” of road-kill; but it could also be something more glorious. Good or bad, we can’t be sure; but it is through the grand permeation of the self into the world that we become one with the world.

The body communing with the world and the world communing with the body, no doubt, sounds vaguely Whitmanian; and, moments later, the speaker offers a more telling gesture that acknowledges the egalitarian poetics of the gray-bearded poet when she says: “The body is a cosmos.” Indeed, this claim echoes Whitman’s own statement in the preface to the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass that “the attributes of the poets of the kosmos concentre in the real body and soul.” Yes, the cosmos concentrates itself within the “real body” of the poet; when the body cracks, the cosmos leaks into the world around it.

Toward the conclusion of the book, the final permutation of the poem “Backward Rowing” corroborates the idea of transubstantiation with our surroundings all the more:

Words are such thickness.

Stranding us between too much and too much.

I want to hear our body
of silence, not my speaking voice,

not read form the book we’ve built,

which obscures the inner story—
its continuous firmament

displacement.

As a listener, I won’t retain
by absorbing, but by being absorbed.

Being

sucked through. (71-72)

The body transforms from the corporeal vessel of a singular subject to a universal entity through the plural-possessive modifier “our,” highlighting the interconnectedness of all beings. And it is this interconnectedness that “obscures the inner story” of the individual, championing instead a “continuous… // displacement” of the self through absorption of our surroundings. Yes, the inside becomes the outside and the outside becomes the inside, tying these concepts—traditionally conceived of as binary opposites—into a tight chiasmic knot formed, at least in Beyond the Chainlink, in a “thickness” of “Words.”

And in this thickness of words and language, Morrison “displace[s] the subject // with objects” (21) by acknowledging the fact that “You” has “always been / I,” as well as its reciprocal: that “I” has “always been you” (75). In doing so, she echoes the age old song of herself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Meetze and Lee

30 Dec
DArt Pmoth

Recently, I stumbled upon two amazing, little books: James Meetze’s Dark Art I-XII (Manor House, 2013) and Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s A Primary Mother (Least Weasel, 2012). Both contain strong writing predicated upon extended meditations of subject matter simultaneously extraordinary and mundane; yet, each collection does so in its own unique manner.

Meetze’s monograph is the inaugural release for Manor House, which is an extension of the journal Manor House Quarterly. No “purchase page” exists for this collection as of yet, but I would encourage you to buy it as soon as one goes live. While Dark Art explores several themes and concepts, these poems foreground a meta-critical examination of poetry, which is “the darkest art” (14). Take, for instance, the following excerpts:

The story grows darker with the forest,
the poem in the space between trees. (11)

A realer cold gathering in the touch
of dreams of real people
as ghosts, saying words that won’t ever return.
The words have not unfinished business.
They are magicked into being
in our throats, our mouths, in air, to say
“where language fails, poetry begins.” (12)

I wanted to say without distortion:
language is just a tool.
Warped, it becomes a poem.
The order of the poem is arbitrary
like constellations are; the recipient
of it draws a line from here to here.
So we see a line.
Anyone can make a god out of it. (15)

These three passages provide a fairly accurate representation of the content of Dark Art, and, I think, offer some terrific insights into the nature of poetry.

In the first excerpt, the speaker understands the “poem” to be the “space between the trees”; in other words, we discover poetry in the negative space around an object, not within the object itself. To some extent, invoking the notion of negative space echoes Keats’ concept of negative capability, which is the ability of an artist to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The second passage conflates the world of “real people” and their “dreams” in such a manner that poetry becomes an extension or product of the necessary (and, therefore, paradoxically affirmative) failure of language to accurately reflect this in-between space. To this end, the excerpt resonates with Wallace Stevens’ admonition in his “Adagia” that: “In poetry at the least the imagination must not detach itself from reality.” Such a melding of the real and imagined provides both the writer and reader of poetry with a glorious failure that enables us to access otherwise unattainable emotional and intellectual spaces with the aid of poetry.

The final passage offers two separate but equally compelling ideas about poetry. First, the speaker of this poems appears to engage—in a round-about manner—the purpose of poetry. Often times, critics (cultural, poetic, or otherwise) bemoan the fact that contemporary poetry is too insular and affects a flaccid l’art pour l’art stance; on the other side of the spectrum, there are complaints about utilitarian or “accessible” poetry succumbing to market demands and the lowest common denominators of nostalgia and sentimentality. Dark Art suggests that, instead, that we think of poetry as a “Warped” tool that creates a bent, melted, and distorted utilitarianism, such that it produces an ethics of happiness and suffering wherein the resulting outcomes are too convoluted to comprehend (but there are outcomes nonetheless): in effect, splitting the difference between the reductive binary. The second idea this passage forwards is that of the poem as constellation: an open text predicated upon both arbitrary and constructivist modes of reading.

If Meetze’s Dark Art explores the concept of poetry and the manner in which it avoids reification through protean definitions and explanations, then Lee’s A Primary Mother accomplishes a similar task with the idea of light. In fact, the poet prefaces the second half of her chapbook with an epigraph from Book III of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which asks: “May I express thee unblam’d?”

For this reader, though, the Milton quote acts as a provocation for a series of questions more central to this collection, such as: Are we even able to express light through language? And, if so, can we do so directly? To my mind, A Primary Mother answers both of these questions: Yes, we can express light through language, but only in the indirect, warped, and failed manner in which poetry affords; or, as Lee writes, “the sound that fails” (5).

The first half of Lee’s chapbook, which is a series of seven, semi-related prose poems, opens with the declaration that:

Sunblindedness is no longer an epiphenomenon, an attendant attitude of danger buried under mounds of quiet. As a roving brilliance, those caught in it truly reckon how the meanest light defends you. (4)

This passages suggests that “Sunblindedness is no longer” just an effect of starring into the sun; rather, it allows for one not only to stare into the sun, but functions as the cause for doing so. To this end, the poem posits a reorientation of cause-and-effect relationships, and, to some extent, the relationship between language and the world.

And everywhere throughout the first section, the poems beg the question: Does light create the language we use to describe it, or does language itself create light as we know it? The poems, seemingly, never answer the question; but it is the process of continual linguistic displacement and re-orientation of light that, in fact, propels these poems forward:

If brightness is a quantity while oceans writhe and heave around it (4)

It is beautiful to remember pastels after sunsets (5)

This romanticism is a voracious shape between us, reminding us to stare upwards into the negative space that once stood for light. (7)

The inconclusiveness of feelings that arise move with a heat and dynamism analogous to the surface of the sun. (10)

Like Meetze’s poems, which address the negative space between the trees, Lee’s poems call attention to the “negative space that once stood for light” by measuring the ocean through “brightness,” or the remembrance of a beautiful sunset. By using language to provide secondhand definitions of light, these poems generate a sense of “inconclusiveness” about their subject matter because of its “dynamism” and ever-shifting nature.

Lee brings this elusiveness into greater focus during the chapbook’s second half, titled “On Light.” The opening section reads in its entirety:

Add light to light and you have darkness.
Add light to light and you have expanse.
Add light to light and you have memory.
Add light to light and you have light. (13)

Employing the synactical structure of mathematics, the poem is at once contradictory, tautological, noetic, inscrutable, and absurd. How can “light” become “darkness” through addition? How can one add more light to light? Can light be augmented, or is it simply a static state of being? What is the relationship between light and spatial (i.e. “expanse”) and temporal (i.e. “memory”) constraints?

The strength, I believe, of Lee’s poems is that they do not answer these question out-right or in a definitive manner; instead, they continually alter our understanding of light until we realize that it “is more complicated” (18) than we heretofore expected or thought. We might never crack the “cipher” of light’s “myriad message” (22), but in this there is no shame. It is simply enough to “Announce” and “Speak” (22) of light through the warped language of poetry.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Manual of Woody Plants

24 Dec

Manual2 With a title like Manual of Woody Plants (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), one might reasonably expect–before reading the book–that Phil Cordelli’s first full-length collection of poetry might be some sort of verse field guide describing trees and shrubs, etc. Although in some instances true, this would be a reductive manner in which to conceptualize the book as a whole.

For, indeed, Cordelli’s poems move through many modes and styles, creating a multivalent experience that forces the reader to continually alter their interpretative strategies. At times, like in Manual’s opening piece “Larch (Tamarack),” the poem predicates itself primarily upon a brief image:

each winter needles
on the edge of the pond
keep the regular form
by dark swells (11)

At other times, such as in the book’s closing piece “Lonicera hispidula (Pink honeysuckle),” there are fragmented personal narratives:

as I approach, no longer believable
in my suit of sweat and my curdled pompadour
a casualty of the civil war

of dry brick and sullen heaving
and crimped hair of woman, glassy-eyed
outside the bar

My Brother’s Place
Chicopee, MA
May 9 (178)

And, occasionally, the poems forward meta-critical investigations about the nature of language and the purpose of the poems:

Suddenly the country is old, no longer forming
we need to learn strange languages, like math

littering or lining pages with number and letter
connected or separated by line (56)

             Language is a rude ruler
the world is contracting rapidly (118)

                    of the line

set in space, upon the vast page
laid out as in or on
a table (160)

                       from

you only words come
you do not create even eat
what you make shit you just sit

at least until the world ends (171)

These, of course, are only three modes that the poems work through; rest assured, Manual of Woody Plants contains many more (for example, there are textual ruptures throughout the collection wherein the poet includes visual images, diagrams, and formally inventive use of text and typography). With the wide range of styles, registers, and rhetorical strategies that these poems employ, one might be curious as to what binds these various poems together.

To this end, the poems contain a superficial resonance with regard to their titles: each is the Latin name for a particular woody plant (with common names in parenthesis), nominally demonstrating how “families are based on generic names” (33). But these titles do not intend, necessarily, to identify; instead, these names are a “doubled language, like metaphor” (33) through which the writer attends to the subject matter of a poem indirectly. In this sense, the “antecedent” of each poem’s title (i.e. the woody plant) “will have long / since ceased” (44) to be the sole focus of the poem. These titles, rather, are evasions that, through their indirection, recognize how “Difficult [it is] to look at anything directly” (74) and, thus, allow for us to “forget / the title” (107) in order to access something else entirely.

And what is its that these poems enable us to access? Cordelli best explains in the poem “P. acerifolia (London plane)” when he writes:

I had intended to get out of the planted bed
lose discretion but this wide and searching tree drew me
much as this drawing may be actual or factual to some
sense of likeness or form it does not interest me any longer
much as it is beautiful in its way its language or marks
which closed upon the bound pulp will enter a sort
of sleep and begin another objection upon the folds
and wires in more or less stable form
until both body and impression are disarranged
there is not a dome but more or less knit elements
of finite variety of which will live on and recombine
having perhaps an impression of their once combination
into tree or pulp of tree which carried an inked impression
or hand which impressed thus or eye which saw or mind
which intervening guided thus the hand
and thought for a moment could form (82)

This excerpt would seem to indicate that what these poems offer will exceed mere description of the perennials’ “planted bed.” Instead, Cordelli disarranges the world around him, then knits the disparate elements back together into strange little poems. By recombining elements of the aesthetic, intellectual, and natural worlds, he creates new and compelling combinations “inked” upon the page into verse “form.” Yes, despite their best efforts to escape the “planted bed,” these poems end up entwined within the foliage, thriving within a symbiotic relationship wherein all the elements flourish.

Echoing these sentiments in the acknowledgments section, Cordelli mentions that he wanted his poems:

to be fixed, to stop growing
and have cut them back accordingly,
but these here present have returned

perennially. I’ve twined them ‘round myself,
I’ve grown into them, into relative pulp, into slices of the same. (180)

The urge to create resolute poems of a “fixed” nature that have ceased to grow—at least in the creative sense—gives way to an understanding that the writing included therein, in fact, returns like a perennial: dying with each winter, only to return once again during the spring to renew itself. Yes, these poems might have temporarily ceased to grow after their moment of conception, but they return once more with their publication in book form. Moreover, the poet himself has “grown into them,” signaling a double flourishing wherein word and flesh are “twined” together as one.