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Books I Didn’t Review But Really Liked

18 Dec

For many, many reasons, I’m unable to review a lot of the books I read. Instead of putting together a “Best of the Year” list, I thought it might be more interesting to create a “Books I Didn’t Review But Really Liked” list. Below, then, are a handful of titles I thoroughly enjoyed, along with an excerpt of a poem that I thought was particularly swell:

Blaser, Robin. The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.

from “Image-Nation I (the fold”

the participation is broken
fished from a sky of fire
the fiery lake pouring itself
to reach here

that matter of language caught
in the fact      so that we
meet in paradise      in such
times, the I consumes itself

the language sticks to
his honey-breath      she is
the path of a tale, a door
to the perishing moonshine,
holes of intelligence
supposed to be in the heart

Gridlley, Sarah. Loom. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2013.

from “Shadows of the World Appear”

It isn’t difficult to remember
how it went.

A wordless world would be a relief
until it expects you to see a horse.

Try to sing and stand where the aspens quiver.
The breeze will always

be almost there. Go back those few steps:
it isn’t difficult to remember:

the wind will always shine as if
it loved its armored riders.

Hall, Joe. The Devotional Poems. Sommerville, MA: Black Ocean, 2013.

from “Trailer Park”
In an algorithm of trees exploding in your face, shaved from soap
in a prison cell, in a pair of yellow finches
alighting from high power lines over all these dudes
lying on their beds, palming their cocks, waiting for me
leached from circuits in a baroque array of evolving graphical
representations of a black economy, cancer, subverting process,
O Beast! O Christ!
in the mother fucking sound and the mother fucking light
the iterations of thunder, the bass so high
it hurls you into the grass, Beast!

Hass, Robert, ed. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa. New York, NY: Ecco, 1994.

from Bashō’s “Learn from the Pine”

Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought.

The basis of art is change in the universe. What’s still has changeless form. Moving things change, and because we cannot put a stop to time, it continues unarrested. To stop a thing would be to halve a sight or sound in our heart.

Wieners, John. Selected Poems: 1958-1984. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1998.

from “Poem for Painters”

                                                    No circles
                           but that two parallels do cross
And carry our soul and bodies
       together as the planets,
                      Showing light on the surface
                              of our skin, knowing
                      that so much of it flows through
                              the veins underneath.
                      Our cheeks puffed with it.
                              The pockets full.

Wilkinson, Joshua Marie. Swap Isthmus. Sommerville, MA: Black Ocean, 2013.

from “Upholsterers’ Moon”

so then the moon
drifting way too close
gets leaky

going through treeline when
a voice in the radio
accidentally says your name

Xu, Wendy. You Are Not Dead. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2013.

from “We Are Both Sure To Die”

Clutching a tiny molten piece
of someone else’s life. I tried sleeping
in a bed made of heavy light. I tried moving
out into the forest where everything
was a deer. Say you will be nothing or
beside me. How best do you correspond
in the darkness of a year? But look the year
rolls over and gives me a new face. Now
you go toward the ocean with a terrible
spirit of discovery. There is getting to know
your body and disowning it. The ocean says you
are not dead. What else did you want
it to announce?

Zukofsky, Louis. “A.” Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978.

from “A-12”

Together men form one sky.
The sky is a man,
You must know this to understand
Why places are different
And things new and old
Why everywhere things are different,
You cannot find out
By looking at skies alone
But from their effects.
One sky is rich in each of us,
Undivided.
When a child is conceived
It gets a sky for a gift.

I would suggest checking out all these books if you already haven’t. Each one will melt your face in their own special way.

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: Toby Altman

10 Dec

bannerWell, The Offending Adam, once again, has put together another terrific profile of a writer’s poetry. This week, which is the 164th installment of the weekly online magazine, features selections from Toby Altman’s Arcadia, Indiana.

In his introduction, TOA edtior Ryan Winet says of Altman’s sonnet-sequence-and-verse-play-hybrid that the excerpts “indulge in the ventriloquist’s joy, in the play of voices, puns, and adopted speech patterns. The very structure of these poems suggests voice and echo, call and response.”

I agree with what Winet has to say and would like to add that “Landscape With Wind” is fucking awesome. Here is the sonnet half of the poem in its entirety:

I find I am a great many people
each one networking with the wind.
I find I am sexed by the scent of things:
severe and stormy–somewhat cheerful.
I find I am fragile as the weather:
weather that weather composes.
I find I am populated by roses,
dusky flesh and bush of leather:
built by thought and thrilled by startled songbirds,
which rising choir I call “brutes,”
I call “exemplary bodies,” call “use,”
since all at work with time, you lunch your words
      at this table of wind and breast,
      which I call “certainty,” call “rest.”

The poem’s anaphora offers a sonic repetition, working through a series of standard poetic tropes. But Altman tweaks those tropes for our contemporary moment, such that the Whitmanesque “I am a great many people” refers to the “networking” of hyper-capitalism and social media. Likewise, the invocation of “weather” becomes tautological, and his “songbird” becomes a mockingbird through the direct quotation in the concluding “call” section.

I would highly recommend reading the verse play half of this poem, as well as the other selections from Arcadia, Indiana. And, while you’re at it, check out this video of Toby reading the poem at Rust Belt Books in Buffalo, NY earlier this year.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Collateral Light

3 Dec

Julia-Jules-Cohen-Collateral-LightSure, it’s easy to read Julia Cohen’s second full-length collection of poetry, Collateral Light (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013), and get lost in the odd, little worlds that it creates in and with language.

If one was so inclined, this would be a relatively easy way to approach the book: as a text that builds itself, its surroundings, and the parameters of those surroundings through bizarre imagery, abrupt non sequiturs, and meta-linguistic statements. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from the title poem:

Pour your wicked
cornstalks over my what

Everyone likes to look
at the moon

Show me mine

Chew a page

Here comes something

**

Play with
the biggest face

Do you get a bee?

Blue is a very
good color

You happen

Here

I am watching bees
traverse your jeans

I bit the point
of the strawberry

Off to the left
I’m seeding

The light peels back
a ringing splint (29-30)

Outside of a few images that one can easily visualize (e.g. “I bit the point / of the strawberry”), one finds little within this poem that connects directly to the outside world; rather, the poem is very much in and of the world it creates for itself. In fact, the poem self-reflexively announces this hermetic state of being when the speaker declares: “You happen // Here.” Yes, you, reader, occur, exist, and experience the poem only within the poem: in other words, “Here.”

To this extent, reading Cohen’s poems as self-contained objects dedicated to world construction through linguistic play and a poetics of the absurd would seem all well and good. The following excerpts from the poem “We Clamor We Like The Sound Of It,” and their insistence on inventive language use, reinforce this view:

I took
the word for fireworks
Found my mouth
in the knuckle rhyme (76)

It turns
out language
is the other people

Is another person’s
language (77)

The image is a mortal thing
To dwell, to leaves traces (78)

Are your sounds inside
the paper asylum? (81)

                     We broke

the clasp of the orange
dress acquired through language (82)

Whether conflating words with fireworks, redistributing sound throughout the body, exploring the ontology of images, confusing the speaker of a poem, interrogating the origin of sound, or debunking language myths (i.e. “nothing (half) rhymes with orange”), Cohen’s poems call attention to the manner in which her texts use language poetically.

But, to my mind, a more productive way (or, at least, a more interesting way) to read Collateral Light is through the lens of how the poems challenge their own (and our) emotional formations and registers.

To explain this statement a bit further, take the second section of “Practice By Fire & Doubt.” In this poem, the speaker defines a “poetics of doubt” as follows: “You see something, you feel / something, doubt” (87). Her poetics of doubt, then, requires that we complicate both how we feel–and how a poem induces us to feel–strangely.

Of course, the impetus for this poetics of doubt stems from the speaker’s desire to do something with her feelings, such that she is not simply a passive receptor of them. Indeed, she even mentions that to do nothing with her feelings is untenable: “I can’t just sit here with feelings” (34).

And what does the speaker of these poems do with (her) feelings? Well, sometimes she toys with an unnamed you for the sake, it appears, of spirited play:

But I want to give you a new feeling               one you can’t
get rid of right away
but in the end            it’s just a white bottle
I don’t believe in either (37)

Infusing “you” with a “new feeling” that he/she “can’t / get rid of,” the speaker finally concedes that this feeling was nothing more than a “white bottle” she doesn’t even “believe in.” To this end, the feeling shifts from a persistent or inescapable emotional state to a banal object that cannot be trust: a trick of perception wherein an internal condition mutates into an external form.

At other times, though, the speaker simply acknowledges the fatigue that often corresponds to the need/desire to name and perform our feelings: “It’s exhausting everyone asking to feel alive” (40).

Finally, while categorizing feelings too rigidly would undercut the uncertainty of her poetics of doubt, the speaker comes close to articulating her, our, and the poems’ feelings during the poem “Fill Me With Poison!” In the second section, she works programmatically through negation so as to vaguely define feeling through the process of subtraction:

nobility is not a feeling
cunning is not a feeling
decency is not a feeling

A feeling no an empty space

Here a localized wanting, a text (19)

Of course, she preserves the uncertainty attendant to doubt in that she doesn’t provide us with a conclusive definition or strict parameters for feeling. Instead, we’re informed that it is a “localized wanting” confined to a “text.” In other words, feelings are contextual: shifting responses by/for/of an individual within the limits of a poem and predicated upon what we desire at the moment of encounter. Yes, even the description of feelings remains elusive.

And this, I think, is what makes Cohen’s collection exciting. Instead of reading Collateral Light as book of poems invested in language play and bizarre images (Yawn. What book of poems worth its salt doesn’t?), Cohen asks us to enter into each poem as we would an emotional field wherein our feelings alter and shift from word to word, line to line, and stanza to stanza, recalibrating our psychological and emotional responses as needed.

Therefore, when the speaker of “Fill Me With Poision!” inquires of us “What’s your capacity of mutation,” we can read this interrogative as a veiled imperative that those who wish not to immerse themselves within the poetics of doubt—with its protean emotional registers and ambiguous affective responses—should move on. Yet, if we are prepared for the task at hand, then we can we bath in the glow of an “uncertain moon” (22) and “destabilize / the center of the center” (36) of our feelings.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Chapbooks

18 Nov

chap3chap2chap1chap4During overly hectic periods in my life, it’s sometimes difficult to find the time to invest in a full-length collection of poetry with an intensity that gives due diligence to the aesthetic, emotional, and poetic content of the poems therein. For this reason (among others), I enjoy reading chapbooks. Engaging a poet’s work within the confines of 15-30 pages enables me, as a reader, to spend more time with individual poems, to think about the conceptual framework of the entire collection in a more concentrated manner, and to do so in a relatively truncated time frame.

The past few weeks, for me, have been rather busy and, thus, I’ve not been able to dedicate my time to reading any full-length collections. Luckily for me, though, a stack of recently acquired chapbooks have gathered in my apartment; this was the perfect opportunity to read these little books.

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already aware that there is no dearth of wonderful chapbook presses across the country releasing limited-run titles. Of these, my favorite presses take an artisan approach to constructing their artifacts, creating books that demonstrate a particular type of craftsmanship, attention to aesthetic detail, and a general love of book-making. While I find presses that release chapbooks that embodied a D.I.Y. and/or zine-style approach to their artifacts interesting as well (but for different reasons), I find a certain pleasure in fetishizing a finely-wrought chapbook.

To this end, I would like to offer brief reviews of four chapbooks that are both well-constructed and filled with well-conceived poetry.

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Brown, Lily. The Haptic Cold. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013.

In “I Tie Down My Fill, Close the Sky,” the opening poem of Brown’s newly released The Haptic Cold, the speaker says:

When I went outside and spoke, metal
was coming out of my skin.
I spoke backwards and others
rotated the phrases back for me.

However strange we need to be to get there.
The skin’s scales speak of failure
to do something. Easy to fail all day,
then use the word to show
a state of non-achievement.

The speaker attempts to articulate herself, but she voices her phrases “backwards” and in a “rotated” manner, thus obfuscating her desired meaning or intent. Moreover, her speech, instead of communicating a message, effects some strange bodily transformation wherein metal comes out of her skin.

To this end, “I Tie Down My Fill,” and The Haptic Cold, in general, address a particular “failure” of language to do “something” which its speaker intends. But this “state of non-achievement” becomes an achievement in and of itself–at least to the extent that these poems disorient their readers, situating them in a linguistic field marked not by utilitarian ends, but by its ability to disrupt understanding through the “violence of artifact” and artifice.

As such, when we encounter strange passages, such the following lines from “Taxonomic”:

I swallowed the doorjamb’s

shine. The threshold
breaks off as I use it.
The water has a breeze

says the dog-eared lady
who owns both.

we need not so much worry about the poem’s discernible logic; but, rather, we should focus on the haptic effects that such linguistic and cognitive dislocations render within and upon our bodies.

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Falck, Noah. Celebrity Dream Poems. Portland, OR: Poor Claudia, 2013.

Falck’s chapbook Celebrity Dream Poems consists of twenty poems, each composed of four couplets that he titled after the name of a famous person.

The poet prefaces his collection an excerpt from Berryman’s “Dream Song 14,” which simply reads: “Peoples bore me.” While, no doubt, the epigraph acknowledges the vacuous nature of celebrity culture, these absurdist poems do not work in service of reinforcing this claim; rather, Falck’s poems enliven the celebrity machine by infusing it with quirky humor through a re-orientation of context. Take, for instance, the poem “Lebron James”:

There is a lake on the moon on fire.
I hold your hand and try to explain

everything as if it were written by
Dr. Seuss. I will not lose anymore

not in the dark, not in the park, Sammy.
Though, I will win seven rings in Miami!

Your tears came out as small green hams. You stood
near a window pointing to the fire on the moon.

Similar to the gossip and entertainment magazines found in the checkout lanes at the grocery store, the poem provides a brief engagement with a celebrity figure. But unlike those magazines—which frame their subject as person who is “Just Like Us” through images and captions of him/her performing banal tasks—Falck’s poem creates a little, surreal world for us to lose ourselves in momentarily.

And that world, populated by burning lakes on the moon, tears composed of miniature green hams, and an impromptu Dr. Seuss adaptation, is decidedly nothing like the one in which we normally find Lebron James. Instead, this world effects a bizarre yet enjoyable milieu, wherein an NBA superstar is a rhyming astronomer who watches the moon burn impossibly.

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Fortin, Jennifer H. Give or Take. Salem, MA: Greying Ghost Press, 2013.

Give or Take is a series of fifteen prose poems that, more often than not, offer reflective meditations on a particular subject matter. For example, the collection’s first poem “Hawaii” begins:

My work is to point out the inescapability of neglect and call for a slower, deeper interaction with it. As we reached the end of our inaugural experience of neglect, our attention returned to skin, the sonic sibling of skim. Neglect just means you don’t pick something up, and you don’t or can’t handle it.

While the poem’s title references the island state of Hawaii, Hawaii is never addressed throughout the course of the poem. Hawaii becomes the neglected object through non-engagement. Rather, the speaker presents us with other subjects, such as skin, skim, apples, doorknobs, and forks. Most importantly, though, she addresses the concept of neglect itself. To this end, the title of the poem is a “cheap kind of attention”: in other words, invoking a term for the explicit sake of non-engagement.

The subject matter of each prose meditation alters quite a bit from piece to piece. One of my favorite reflections occurs during the collection’s title poem:

There’s a “you”—probably now a me—described that morphs from character into concept via the inappropriate. The absolute is all over the place. “You” is all over the place. When it comes to assessing you’s emotions, it gets very serious. And anytime there are big feelings involved, tender complexity is not far away.

In this passage, the speaker of the poem investigates the protean nature of pronouns and the manner in which the second-person pronoun can sometimes refer to the first-person through a morphing of character. Moreover, these alterations in antecedents usually correspond to some “serious” emotional states that tend to involve a “tender complexity.” Just like pronouns and the emotional states affixed to them, Fortin’s prose poems are both tender and complex in concept and delivery.

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Kaminski, Megan. Gemology. Houston, TX: Little Red Leaves, 2012.

Megan Kaminski’s chapbook Gemology works through a troika of tropes: the word, the flesh, and the city. The collection, in many ways, seeks to collapse these three distinctive terms so as to render their differences unintelligible. Take, for instance, the following excerpts:

                                    Name me perception
                                    name me economy
rows of turnstops
lanes of traffic
halls cubicles queues
                 order number and sign
                 away my body
                 one department or another (4)

We implore you exhale city smoke and invite us
within garneted sanctuary damp cavern
architectures making way songs and bodies
rending walls porous to sound silken soiled (5)

Vowels roll drip down thighs
conjunctions across backs

I put on my city

city built line on line body on body
alphabet buried beneath street
concrete-riverbed-city
cross-sectioned-fluid-fattened (7)

Yes, the poet builds the “city” from “line on line” in the poem, but also of “body on body.” But these bodies themselves are made of language, such that “Vowels roll…down thighs” and one can find “conjunctions across backs.” The city, likewise, becomes a body, at the least to the extent that the speaker claims that she can “put on my city” as if it were a detachable skin. Furthermore, the city is language, wherein one can “exhale” it through articulation, capturing its “architectures” in “song.”

No longer can we tell where one entity begins and another ends. Instead, all three are enwrapped in a tri-folded chiasmus such that they are indistinguishable from one another.

Indie Lit Classics: Matt DeBenedictis

13 Nov

Matt

 

Man, look at Matt DeBenedictis. What a rad dude. Not only is he the brains behind chapbook champ Safety Third Enterprises, he’s a hell of a writer himself, and the author of Congratulations! There’s No Last Place If Everyone’s Dead He’s reading at the Letters Festival tomorrow night. You should go hear him!

Sometime ago, around the time Matt read for us at Vouched Presents in Atlanta, we conducted an Awful Interview with him. He said wonderful, memorable things to us like this thing about hugging bears.

I think the whole world would be a better place if we could hug bears. I know I’d be happy if I could wrap my arms around a rotund bear and just feel the earth hidden in its fur. But we can’t, they’ll eat us and turn us into poop. No bueno.”

and also this, about why he writes.

“Simply put it’s hearing and telling a good story. I spent a good chunk of my early 20s on tour, some by way of a band and some by way of being a preacher, and my favorite moments were always hanging out at a bar after the night’s events were done. Strangers coming together to find ways to no longer have a strangeness between them. You broke the ice telling stories, whether fun tales from touring or a humorous one from being a preacher, you had to say something interesting.

When I quit being on the road with bands and I decided I was no longer a man of religious faith I missed those story times. So I began to write.”

Sometime later he said equally indelible things about Greying Ghost Press and why they should be considered an Indie Lit Classic.

Well guess what, Matt? We’re throwing you in that canon, too.

Best Thing I’ve Heard This Week: Geoffrey G. O’Brien

8 Nov

Yesterday afternoon, the poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien read at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH to promote his recently released collection of poems People on Sunday (Wave Books, 2013). Below is a video of O’Brien reading his poem “Distraction,” which explores etymology, literary history, and criticism through verse form. At the 0:23 mark, chimes from the Church of the Covenant next door begin sounding, creating an unintentionally poetic moment:

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: Caroline Crew

6 Nov

logo_darker_color_trimIssue 9 of Phantom Limb, one of my favorite online journals, went live the other day. Caroline Crew, co-editor of another one my favorite online journals, ILK, has a wonderful little poem in the new issue titled “Plastic Sonnet 4.” I would suggest clicking-through to read the entire issue, but here is Crew’s piece in its entirety:

PLASTIC SONNET FOUR

high on your breastbone footing
you are waking me up

hello

the morning is stretched
these walls their full proportions

& if the light is to be believed
the city is making its way in

if singing in the shower
is a prayer against encroachment

you are doing a fine job

the mammal tongue is an adaptable
instrument but not as a weapon

it is okay to fall
it is okay

outside the city
is already totally drunk on your skin

I enjoy the manner in which, midway through the poem, the outside world enters this intimate bedroom scene, causing an interior space and exterior space (i.e. “the city”) to collapse into one another so as to be “totally drunk on your skin.” Good stuff.

Awful Interview: Joe Hall

4 Nov

Goodness gracious, Joe Hall’s second book, The Devotional Poems, is one rip-roaring collection of ditties that grasp/gasp out from the cloudy parts into/for the light. I read this book after moving out of Indiana for the first time and interviewed Joe in the few weeks leading up to shoulder surgery. Read on and you’ll find out why that’s important to know. Read these poems and you’ll learn something about trying to be whole.

Here we go, your second book, The Devotional Poems, has been unleashed, again from that Black Ocean press. I love what that wild/wise man, Blake Butler, said in that blurb of his, he said your book is “[d]evoted, yes, to terror, but true too to the gorgeous black underbelly of how we’re all at once somehow together possessed.” Consistency and trustworthiness are the misconstructed pieces of poetry that often ail me with boredom, assuming wholeness and “real world” logic as their backbones, but no, no, no, the beauty comes in what happens when the spirit that speaks is broken, other, downright wild. And that’s what I loved so much about these poems: they seem apologetically ferocious because they don’t know how to say sorry for being so brutal and fucked up, they just are. Where does this voice rumble from? How did Joe Hall’s poetry get their legs?devotional_poems_web_cover

I’m with you, Tyler. Poets that do the same thing book over the course of several books lose my interest. They don’t change? The world doesn’t change? Can I live in that bunker? Can I eat that canned food? Some people, on the other hand, perfect what they’re doing. Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse is that, I think. She commits to the narrative structures that had been lurking in Hounds of No & Maximum Gaga and just utterly kills it.

But I do want my poetry, book to book, poem to poem, to betray you–and me. To falter and rise. And to ride whatever I have access to as fiercely as possible. In my first book I was in love with Cheryl, high modernism, and a New York school that included Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka. Because I was writing it in school, there was the intensity of being in love but also cool seas of libraries, post-colonial theory, and uncluttered days. And that’s what you got, sort of. In The Devotional Poems, I had just turned down a great job with benefits to move to Indiana to be with Cheryl and at the exact same time found out I’d ruined my neck and back as signaled by excruciating nerve pain. I wasn’t sleeping. I was taking pain pills. I was walking around the woods a lot, with its moldering and hatching, working it out. Later, I ended up in a trailer park in a place with no insulation. The heat was at 45 during the winter to keep from going broke. Everything was fucked.

But this is not a story all about my pain. It was in this phase that I became infested with voices that were not mine but had been orbiting around me for a long time. For years I’d written sucky poems about the people I’d worked with in shipping plants, plant nurseries, and industrial printing presses. I never got them right. Having to grind away when everything was fucked, when you’d blown your chances, when you were considered waste, human trash–their voices started pounding away through me. We speaking together and against each other. And with Herbert and Hopkins and Edward Taylor and all the other dead prayers for change in poetry. It’s unstable. That was the moment of those poems.

Now I am a brain again, an intellect in school, writing things I’m studying. Which include incest and beheading. But I am not committing incest or beheading anything. My personal life is running away from these poems, so who knows what will happen.

That right there, the “ride whatever I have access to as fiercely as possible,” should be (is?) the new “write what you know,” the treacherous lull. And working through things, for you these broken times and staggering voices, is exactly why these poems achieve something, their unrelenting battling forth.

Yeah, “write what you know” is a little too simple because it doesn’t ask you to reevaluate what you know and how you know it, which alertness to the present might help you do. Heriberto Yépez says “Wisdom forgets,” so, you know….

One section is called “Two Exorcisms,” though it’s made of three poems, and the final section calls out to the book’s title, as “These Are Devotional Poems.” An exorcism is a way, that old-timey way, of getting rid of the demons, real and imagined, understood and baffling. But so, too, might we say prayers and devotions and even poems are ways to get rid of the demons, or at the very least get them to back off. How do you view these parts in the book–the exorcisms, the devotional poems, the poem poems–as mechanisms to having gotten rid of those voices? Did it work? 

It doesn’t work at all, getting rid of voices, totally, to find your voice—insert Derrida. But you can talk them to their limit, I think, as a way to open up by way of exhaustion room for other voices or ways of speaking. This may seem like I’m contradicting myself when I say, “Wisdom forgets.” Perhaps this is as close to forgetting as I can get.

For instance, the poem “I Was Living…” engages with at least two voices. One of pathetic complaint and submission, the child in pain, who needs relief and mastery, who needs to submit. The other of the man who is sorry, who claims to be suffering in that sorry-ness, who wants the other to understand “where he is coming from.”

I’ve hurt some people, that’s for sure, trying
a terrifying love though never mugged, fucked, or called out for it
crying between the rows of my leased garden, my good
arm broken, weeds choking the mustard
Tell me what’s right—the horn in the leaves
the first wildflower of the season
pushing aside party streamers like fingers and tongues, waterfalls
of newspapers, and these words decay too
placed on your stone like a lettuce wreath
asking forgiveness for being stupid and weak
Forgive me for being stupid and weak
I will offer what is healed O Christ! O Beast!
Forgive me for asking to heal

Sarah Fox puts it brilliantly–the limits of the masculine need for forgiveness in her poem–“Transitional Object”:

…It was as if
he could not stop dragging me around, he simply
could not let me out of the cage made of the bones
of my mother, until I had accepted his apology
for hauling me everywhere inside the cage
made of the bones of my mother.

The first poem, “Trailer Park,” comes from the fuck everything anger I’d heard from my father and also from the most down and out people I met working at an industrial printing press and similar places, contending also with an impulse to combine with everything by any means, sexually, violently, etc. & an end of days AM radio far right republican mentality. Basically, I cannot write “cool” poems or poems that calculate among the things they know. I do not possess that kind of firmness and lucidity. But I am also not interested in writing a systems poem that tries to account for everything. There are limits to what one can or should encompass:

You cannot
All enter me, my little body tells me

It cannot take that you are many
And changing (from “Locating”)

I am instead interested in what happens when the familiar is stretched and distorted, in the moment of its metamorphosis, and when speaking itself points to that which is below speaking, animating it.

That first one you plopped is my favorite poem in the book (whatever that means/is worth), that hefty (both in pow and in title) beast that starts the section “2 Exorcisms,” that “I Was Living in a Boarded-Up House Without Heat. I Was Still Sick and had Unpaid Medical Bills. The Record He Gave Me Was GOOD OLD COUNTRY GOSPEL.” It’s like a hapless journal entry found in a lonely, winter-beaten Midwestern woods, taken home, unfolded, typed back out—the words, but also somehow the musty stench and the hisses and the blistering wind it has brought back too—and here unleashed (and a particularly apt representation of the book as a whole). This poems transacts in that meditative way, talking beyond oneself, beyond the dangerous rubble and treacherous lulls of life and bring forth a new meaning to staggering and a new breath, somehow, to the broken self.

And this, like many other dimensions and parts of this book, borrows (or maybe it is pure adhering to) religious symbols and mechanisms for this exorcism. Even when it’s not religious, these poems use religion as a guide, spiritual symbolism and structure as a brace. How do you see spirituality and religion being needed and played here? Is it the secular sipping the holy?  Or is it a broken secularism that’s unable to escape the religious roots?

O boy. This is the music and I’m facing it. A dear friend asked me a version of this question and my answer disappointed her. Echoing back this funny refrain which contains a paradox: “This book is crazy and intense but its actually religious” (wonk wonk).

I am not writing for America because America doesn’t care about poetry. But I am writing from one American place (not the American place) of many, and in it is a half evacuated Christian religiosity, its material rituals–kneel, stand, speak, sing, drink, taste–and its impossible symbols–the sacrifice, the suffering for. Obviously there is something troubled and fundamentally wrong with these structures. But so, also, there is something wrong with a totally free floating and adaptable (and assimilating) secular skepticism that is better at using the most readily available fancy talk to justify DECLAIMING SO & SO STRAWMAN in the name of a particular formation of social justice after the fact than letting an ethical stance guide one (and one’s we) through the weather, to guide one’s (and one’s we) symbolic AND material practices (not that I do much better).

Without structures of ritual (material, symbolic)–however flexible and broad–to go crazy in, we risk being boringly sane or professional confessors of a limited insanity. This book is about the play of casting off, playing in, and surrendering to half rotten structures–one of them being my received Roman Catholicism–as that surrenders to the book, pumping each others’ tissues with mercury and lavender, becoming but not being, becoming but not being amphibian, slime electrified. It’s a first step, a hard first step.

If we find traces of Radical Alterity in the compass of the material world we loop through:

If ritual is defined not as the reproduction of meaning or catechism but a meaning making process which has the capacity to be shaped by each participant (as opposed to being monological):

If our altars are built every time we visit them from what we each carry to them on the way:

Then religion can be progressive and these are sincere poems searching towards the grounds for a vernacular spiritual practice by surrendering one’s claim to know and desire for information i.e. I am stupid and weak; I do not want to be stupid and weak; I should not want to not be stupid and weak. I need to simply attend to the being I am able to and the outward care that can sustain. I need to forget everything except the ritual which creates the space for being and new subjects to announce their coming into being to enter into relationships of care. We give ourselves away too much to stupid, abusive institutions and structures. Why not remystify those habits, relationships, communities, and counter institutions that sustain us and allow for right action? That’s the vector along which this book tries to travel. Obviously it starts in a fucked up place. I’ve been characterizing that place as a trailer park. That’s true.

Oh boy, that answer sure satisfies me! Thank you.

The album mentioned in the title, “Good Old Country Gospel,” is that a real album? What is on it?good old gospel

“GOOD OLD COUNTRY GOSPEL” is the name of the record and it’s a real record (1975 MCA Records, Inc).

Country as in the country that is honky-tonk. When I lived in that house that was half boarded up in a trailer park in Southern Maryland, I’d play this and James Brown. Memphis and somewhere in the sea is probably where we’ll all meet.

You mention Indiana. What part of Indiana? I grew up in central Indiana, a little hiccup called Elwood, 45 minutes north of Indianapolis, and until five weeks ago, I lived on the edge of my grandpa’s cornfield for most of that time. Indiana, for all its goodness, especially for a new (and debilitated) citizen, can get mundane and too open-ended with the fields and the flatness. Can you talk more about how the physical landscape affected these poems (and in turn, your ridding yourself of these demons/voices)?

Man, well, you can probably speak with more authority to what kind of screw that topos turns in the brain.

As for me, I was fifteen minutes west of West Lafayette, Indiana. We were on a twenty acre property that had a small stream, woods, and a tiny swatch of maybe what prairie looks like. Beyond that it was all corn and soy. On one hand, that property felt miraculous among what you’re describing–fields and fields of feed plants. The woods were a point of fascination that I’d circle around and deeper, more carefully, into. I found mushrooms, burdock, and walnuts and ate them. The bugs ate me. Things were circulating.

It also felt extremely precarious and artificial, as in the woods had been carved into a box called “the property.” Going to its edges at those cornfields was almost like stepping out of the house in Beetlejuice: all you can see is desert, death in the same, a negative vision of eternity. That edge is the place of these poems perhaps. Or the gap between the long, loud, outward poems and the short, quiet, introspective ones.

If there was nowhere to go but a border, there was also no getting rid of these voices, just a sitting down at the table with them.

So here you are, “an intellect in school,” again, life on the upswing, getting better it seems. Where are you going to school now? How has academia affected your recent poems? Has O’Hara and Baraka and high modernism returned?

I’m at SUNY Buffalo. It has an enormous archive of American poetry. Mostly all of it. O’Hara and Baraka and high modernism are still there. So is all this other junk, and I’m compiling more. This past semester I wrote a long paper on representations of waste flows into, through, and among Palestinian settlements. It was basically a paper about shit, excess, and choked circulations. Doing this made me want to make sure the way I made poems wasn’t one in which I was hording fragments, voices, or whatever you want to call them. My big goal right now is to figure out how to make relationships and how I make relationships with others find their way into how poems are made and what those poems deal with. Part of this has been trying to read without accumulating in my book destroying project. It’s been recording interviews with members of my family. It’s been trashing hundreds of pages of material. It’s been looking at how communities work in studying literary and historic Utopias. It’s also been doing things for people not on an exchange but a gift basis (because I love it)–editing journal issues, commenting on manuscripts. And it’s been trying to make my scholarly practice one of talking to people, having conversations. I’m not exactly succeeding, but these are my goals and academia has made these my goals because all it wants you to do is to sit in a room by yourself taking notes while taking breaks to type clever things into social media platforms. I do a lot of that too.

This past summer you went on a big hunk of a reading tour. What did those experiences–seeing those literary communities, having exchanges with new folks, building relationships on the road–teach you about real world relationship building and conversation having?

When I told people I was going on this road trip–20+ readings over 5 weeks, sleeping on couches mostly–people had one of two reactions: “Sounds FUN” or “That sounds horrible. Don’t die.” It was fun and horrible and fun. If I were careful, I would say it was just great all around, everyone was awesome, blah blah blah. The fact is, there were communities that I clicked with immediately, people who, within minutes, I knew I wanted to stay in touch with, to learn with, and do art in correspondence with. There were a lot of points where it broke my heart to leave a city, because what was going on there was good. There were other points where I was exhausted and the pace I’d set pre-empted me from having interesting exchanges with people. There were still other points where I found a scene boring, and, I’m sure, they in turn were bored by me. That just happens. I had a guy walk out of my reading at UC Irvine TWICE. My work isn’t for everyone or every community. That’s fine. To think that it should be is gross. Now I have a better sense of who I want to stay in touch with and where I want to come back to. I guess what I’m saying is, I learned that there’s no point in trying to be “friends” or “liked” by everyone, and no sense in pretending. Anyway, by trying to win everyone over, you’re spreading yourself too thin and missing the opportunity to have deeper relationships, more challenging ones. That’s what I learned. The whole experience left me feeling a little naked and nervy. I’m holing up in Buffalo right now. Slowing down, contracting. Working on picking up just a few of the many loose ends the tour created and figuring out how I can be a responsible, generous member of the local and online communities I’m a part of.

In an old interview with the Paris Review, Anne Carson’s describing her more personal poetry as failing, especially to amend or mend anything in herself, though it might work for others, reminded me of this talk about your voices. If (attempted) exorcising demons impacts readers, but leaves the poet in the same (or worse) spot, is that okay? Necessary? Even, good?

This is a question of who poems can be for. Carson, I think, is avoiding the stink of poems as catharsis or self therapy. This is a false dichotomy. Carson isn’t making it necessarily–she goes on the say her thinking is never settled and that writing doesn’t bring her to closure or solutions. Either way, I think writing a poem can and should be for the writer and that denying this is a product of a puritanical fear of self indulgence in favor of a larger, more universal utility.

What are some of C.A. Conrad’s somatic experiments (sticking something in your butt, jerking off in a museum) other than an effort at widening one’s sensory thresholds to a verge where pleasure and something else–panic? fear? a sense of the absurd?–meet at the thresholds of art in order to revise the ground from which art is produced and received–the grounds on which artistic community resides. This doesn’t necessarily speak to how I wrote TDP, but I think that through attention to the social and material practices of art making, art can be decisively for oneself and one’s readership, community, etc in legible, beyond symbolic ways.

I wrote Pigafetta to both understand the context of love, love, an ethical grounds for it. And for my fiance–a proof of my love she could hold. It was for us. I wrote TDP to think about keeping faith, masculinity, violence, sexuality, and I’ve heard back from people that the book has helped them think about what it can mean to be considered a “man,” to make that condition visible to themselves (and not just an invisible or silent and so immutable given)–to understand desires, as a man, to be mastered and penetrated. Anyway, I’m not as elegant and intentional as I’d like to be in the processes of writing and the relationship of writing processes with community. Here are some people that are: Kaia Sand, Mark Nowak, Laura Elrick, Brandon Shimoda, James Yeary.

So, like Carson, I don’t write to solve or settle, but I think saying that one doesn’t write to “improve” (as loaded and awful as that term is—maybe, simply, “change”?) one’s self in relation to others either denies any link between writing and the pressure it places on the self (how its processes re-inscribe a version of being).

The other day that big-time big thinker Junot Diaz came to Austin to speak and read and the line wrapped around the building an hour before the gig. He said something like WOW and then stood on a bench in the courtyard reading some words and then doing a Q&A for all the folks that couldn’t squeeze into the fancier box. (I applauded extra for this gracious move.)

Anyhow, I’m not particularly in-tune with Diaz’s work and aesthetic and such (of course, the stories in the important anthologies and occasional passing), but he struck me with some brain thumper thoughts that are still following me (not to mention the somehow calming fact he said “motherfucker” often.).

Where is this going? This is going back to your book, no worries. He said this thing that keeps coming up when I approach your book and this interview. He said, loosely retelling it here, that of course feminist writing and writing by/about people of color and other marginalized groups and folks is super necessary, but also, writers of masculinity, writing out of masculinity, is necessary, too, as it’s just how I can’t write from a feminine place or as a racial minority, it’s a mechanism for giving others a particular experience and perspective.

Gracious, I hope I said that right. For some reason, the quote from the fragmented sections that start your book part called The Abyss Has Nine Names And I Have Shown You Three, “building a ghost from/a body.” In that previous answer up there, you mention masculinity, and this section of the book triggers that for me—sports and violence, how to touch another and what to make of the elements, from a masculine perspective.

Like:

I want to touch you with the rough tombs of your fathers
with the wild flowering blood and wire
or a pear, rotting fish, almonds, the dock breeze
blown pixilation, thickets the eye eats

Or like later:

I believe in the Cowboys, the Yankees, and the Holy Ghost
I belong to the father, the son
Through this logo I deny the devil in Christ, God
Behind a heavy door, I etch myself in the image
of you on a promontory, a recluse collecting records
of the shape of the world, where we walk hand in hand
in a field of heather, letters scrolling up out
of theater darkness, taking turns on a one hitter
getting loose, kind of stupid

 The dealing here, with those voices and the environment, rings of a particular masculine pressure and escape mechanism, to rise out of certain influences, indulge others, and ultimately, walk on “getting loose, kind of stupid” with what one’s let the world feed you. And it ends, this little run of untitled, “How it is the stone dies.”

How do you view the poems in The Devotional Poems as “masculine poems?” What makes a masculine poem? And what’s even the point?

That’s great and gracious, what Junot Diaz did. Anyway.

Genitality.

I’m taken with Erin Moure’s idear or representation of Grosz’ idea that “lability of meaning means sexual organs might be invested in or migrate to any region of the body.” These are ideals—mights—as they propose a situational fluidity and relationality of being, a self that becomes the ideal self to participate in the erotic pleasure of the moment, to be sensitive and organized toward it. Gender, sexuality, momentary conditions in which they multiply.

Yet, yet.

When someone swings a wrench at my head, this proposes that I am a man. When I am punched in the face it is proposed that I am a man (and punchable in the face). When I was first looking for jobs as a teenager and starting on the string of idiotic working situations—industrial printing presses, portable sawmills, plant nursery hand—that would wreck my neck and back, my mother proposed that I work at a place called The Dutch Plant Farm and they started me not watering flowers but slinging heavy bags of mulch and shit and rocks into cars. A whole series of assumptions and sortings. There was and is a part of me complicit in these arrangements, that desired them, that habitually played and plays with pleasure the role of man-dude.

So that is part of what TDP does—it sets out from a marginal-prophetic-trailer-park-y-fuck-fuck-fuck masculine place: “in the motherfucking sound and mother fucking light / the iterations of thunder, the bass so high / it hurls you into the grass, Beast!”. It’s the inherited grounds of my relationships with others and self—“I want to touch you with the rough tombs of your fathers”—from which the book moves. The book wants blood. It also wants to be tender as a lamb. It wants to care, tenderly, for the lamb. It wants to inhabit wants gently.

“What Makes a Masculine Poem”

I think the ideal ‘masculine’ poem is one which is self-aware of its own masculine position so that it can swim away from and back to this position, infecting it—so it’s not working from a monological place—“I belong to the father, the son.” If a poem is of this social world, it has to see, at points, its own gender or the multiple framework by which gender is seen.

As much as I loved Phil Levine in my dumb jobs phase, his poems represent a kind of witless “masculine” poem. They try to recreate a world of oppressed and exhausted male laborers and find lyricism in those places but can’t bring them into relationship with anything else. It’s tidy and nostalgic. It lets us identify with the condition of “dad,” as if that is the most authentic position.

“Write what you know” is horseshit if you don’t use what you know to drive into your blindness.

“What’s even the Point?”

Right? I don’t write poems to make conclusive statements about gender or masculinity. I engage explicitly with masculine tropes and referents and baggage and anger as a way to open up questions of how we relate to ourselves and others and what the relationship between these two kinds of relating can become. I admire poetry that unsettles categories. I admire poetry that recognizes the in process nature of being and its own being as in progress. This doesn’t mean I don’t like procedural poetry (or conceptual poetry), because procedures and concepts certainly do structure our world and will live like saints forever in things like styrofoam. But they’re still like everything else—still caught up in the weather.

So, we’ve chatted a lot about being broken, about the attempted exorcisms and reconciliations that your poems tussle on. To end this, let’s think a bit more on how these poems got here, these particular ones.

I read your book at the same time I was reading Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon. That hefty chunk of words is preoccupied with the whys and the hows of religion permeating our modern world. Why we fucking care about our god. Why the particular stories trickled down. How we deal with the “truth” we’re told (and in essence have created). How we force our religious will on ourselves and others.

Yet we all fail, break, die, perish. “How it was the stone died” is how the little fragments mentioned before from “The Abyss Has Nine Names And I Have Shown You Three” begins. “How it is the stone dies” is the last of these. The pieces of the world that are supposed to last, be eternal—the wind, the stones, the god, our souls—sometimes they do fail, or do die, or do disappear, are somehow gone.

However, in this absence, still the stories trickle down, the poems run their course. How did these particular stories, these fragments and pieces of your particular gospel, make it here? How do you know when a poem (and further, a book) is done? What does that feel like?

Now that we’re at the end, I should say you’ve given me a lot to think about, Tyler, in these questions, because I share them. So thank you. What do we do about dying? What’s the point of holding onto anything if we’ve received most everything through happenstance? I don’t know. The threads for the book I picked up from enough different places to make listing them not interesting. But here’s one: In 2005 I was in a used bookstore in Wheaton, Maryland getting a bunch of books rung up. I didn’t know what anything was then. I just bought stacks of used poetry. In my stack was copy of Daniel Berrigan’s The World for Wedding Ring. The guy at the register asked me if I knew Daniel. I didn’t. He said he used to hang out with him. He asked me if I’d heard of the Catonsville Nine. I hadn’t. I got Vallejo there, before they closed, and Hernadez, Cha, Edward Taylor, Borges, Auster. It was some kind of book store.

I have a hard time finishing poems. I like to play in them, find different orders, rearrange. I enjoy it, so when should I stop? It’s like when you are drinking and you realize you’ve had enough and you better stop. You are that drunk. You better be careful already.

Finishing a book is altogether different. It’s a process of exhaustion. I think of Chuang Tzu lecturing a skull on the side of the road: “When he finished speaking he dragged the skull over and, using it for a pillow, lay down to sleep.” He sleeps until the skull starts speaking back to him.

Interview With a Vicerine

24 Oct

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Our very own Featherweight Champion of independent literature, Laura Relyea, sat down with me to discuss her debut chapbook, All Glitter, Everything. Check out the interview at BURNAWAY! 

Don’t miss the release reading tonight at the Highland Ballroom (8:00 PM)!

 

New Love: Natalie Eilbert

18 Oct

I got embarrassed a recent morning, waking up to a small flood, waking up to this new love Natalie Eilbert. I read two of her poems in this fabulous new issue of Sink Review (below below!) and got twelve (or more!) kinds of shocked as I dug deeper into her work. How had I not perked to this stuff, canvassed in my favorite journals? How does this gal shine so darkly?  “Assembled the ashes like they were a thing/in need of assembly.” That’s one way to put it. In Guernica, she hints at her way of reckoning, carrying the machine, hoisting the flag, creating this new etymology (and further, the new country), with pained story and images of the so cruel is so beautiful variety (i.e. “I carried my machine still//to a bog. Dumped it there the way a bullet/enters say an elephant’s heart.//When the elephant’s heart won’t quit/and we fail again at mercy//this means my country, the sinking/of its metal a new form of prayer.”) In Smoking Glue Gun comes her honest reminder to love the trash of this world, the piles we’d rather not see again, as “like it you didn’t ask to be made.” Or what about in Diagram, did you see that? How she made the anguished ugly blotch roll off your tongue into another portion of the lit world so charismatically, rhythmically, somehow calm.

As if there is need for an alibi,
Say home, mean house. As if neither could burn.
Say fallen, as if it were a branch already
Mulched and turned. (You’re boasted, detached)

Man, I’m pumped at this new love. Natalie Eilbert, I do declare, rocks the poetic boat right with her snapping of plastic forks, daring you to dig into this muck with her, so dangerously enchanting, until like her poem at Sixth Finch begins, “I keep thinking about the sorceress.”

Until I’m back where it started, in the mystifying mist of her poems in Sink Review:

And did it occur to you in all these years that I could speak for myself. You’re a good girl, N, you stick to your books. Let us say I’ve moved on, I’ve rented the city for one year’s time and will not stop fucking these scared little boys. There is a fog over the towers, they hover and putrefy in Ozymandian disgrace. Pastries clog the gutters and I’ve never had such a fat ass fat breasts fat hands, this fat my beautiful beautiful. I’ve gone dizzy with drink, The Philadelphia Story won’t stop playing and I won’t ever get over the bored portrait of godhood in Katharine Hepburn’s waistline. There will never be enough milkshakes so far as I’m concerned.