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Best Thing I’ve Heard This Week – Trains, Brains & Auto-Erotica: An Oral History of the Dingbats

23 Sep

The Dingbats may not be a real band, but Myke Johns really brings their history to full life – with  and with these readings from Nicholas Teckosy, Bobbin Wages, Adam Lowe, Myke Johns himself and Jeremy Maxwell they really come to life. The whole thing can be read in the latest issue of Deer Bear Wolf, but this performance is completely charming to the ear.

And if that tickles your fancy: in addition to his own written achievements and efforts with Write Club Atlanta, Myke Johns puts a lot of effort showcasing and championing the efforts of Atlanta’s literary scene through his podcast, LitCast, at WABE 90.1. There’s a bevy of goodness to be heard. (We Atlantans really owe Myke a lot – so much heartfelt effort goes into these recordings.)

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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):

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 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 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.

Best Thing I’ve Heard This Week: The Big Big Mess (12.21.31)

23 Dec

The Big Big Mess reading series hosted its final event of the calendar year last Saturday evening. For the occasion, out-of-town poets Jeffrey Allen, Stephen Danos, Jessica Poli, and Bronwyn Valentine read from their work. Below are some videos:

Jessica Poli reads her poem “Origin of Self”:

Stephen Danos reads his poem “New Rules for Amplification”:

Jeffrey Allen reads his “Birthday Poem”:

The next Big Big Mess event, which will be the first of 2014, will be 10 Jan and feature the readers Brad Liening, Tara Boswell, Erin Miller, and Danny Caine.