Tag Archives: Omnidawn Publishing

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.

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 This Week: Debts & Lessons

30 Oct

DEBTS_and_Lessons
Lynn Xu’s debut collection of poems, Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2013), which is comprised of seven poetic sequences, opens with the lines:

The rustling of form is a sign of voice
though voice is formless, we are overheard
by a liminal chorus and spoken to
as a voice cf. hymn.
When the soul is heard, it can only be spoke of
as the decline of the soul. Profound sadness. (12)

According to the speaker of the book’s first poem, “Say You Will Die For Me,” the “rustling of form,” or the muffled sounds made by its quiet breaking, is a “sign of voice.” These lines, to some extent, speak to particular aesthetic effects that resulted from the of book’s long gestation period.

In a promotional interview for Debts & Lessons, Xu mentions that “a lot of what remain[s]” in the collection “used to be sonnets,” but like all things “sonnets will decay and tear open with time and listening.” Later in the same interview, she states:

Because the book was written over many years, the most exciting parts were met with changes in the measure of my natural breath. The metabolism of one’s body transforms over time, so too the rhythm that one carries and, in some sense, learns to endure.

If, for the purposes of this review, we take “voice” to indicate some poetic manifestation of the writer’s “natural breath” and the “rhythm” that one’s body “carries” into the poem, then the transformation of her voice (i.e. the “changes” in its “measure”) over time necessarily induced the “decay” and “tear[ing] open” of her sonnet forms. In some sense, then, these transformations demonstrate in a rather overt manner that “form is a sign of voice” [my italics].

Whereas the poet finds these alterations to be, in retrospect, the “most exciting parts” of the collection, the speaker of “Say You Will Die For Me” views these changes and the “liminal chorus” they produce with a “Profound sadness.” The difference between poet and speaker, it would seem, is a matter of how one perceives. Stated differently, the poet filters the process of corporeal transformation and its subsequent alterations of voice through a survivor’s need “to endure”; conversely, the speaker of these poems explores these shifts as emblematic of a sorrowful “decline of the soul.”

The recurring invocation of “darkness” that suffuses the collection signals, to my mind, a preoccupation with this “decline” and “sorrow.” For instance, in “Earth Light,” the second sequence in Debts & Lessons, the speaker announces our arrival at a “place where nothing shines” and whose “interiors” are “warm with the nightmare of guests and poetry / And you. Everything darkly.” (23) Whether this “darkly” place is the speaker’s psyche or an external space, we cannot be sure. What we do know, though, is that it is filled with “Decay” (26), “death” (28), and “Terror” (32).

Yet the speaker’s fixation on darkness does not cease with this passage; instead, it proliferates throughout the entirety of the collection, as one can read in the following excerpts:

                                               in
                         Darkness hush
Of words be beggarly, be master and native
                 To the gleaming glade. (37)

The darkness I wipe now

From my nose (48)

                       The darkness in your pocket
Is catching up to me (51)

Darkness spread from person to person. Black hills outstretch the rugged profile of the soil. (59)

Darkness does not come to sing (77)

          summer brings
Lacerations in the brain a shrapnel
Of the dark (79)

The eyes of death did move
the ruffled edges of a dress
The flint and bone-
Silk of its face
Silver and dark (86)

While common sense might urge us to flee this place, the speaker suggests a different approach: “To the west lay darkness. / Speak into it” (25). Yes, instead of flight, she implores us to stay and communicate with it. But why stay in this place? What could communicating with (or immersing oneself in) “darkness” offer beside “sadness” and “decline”?

Indeed, these are pertinent questions for any writer or reader of poetry. One could argue, I suppose, for an affirmation of light as a counterpoise to these “night-effect[s]” (74); but championing unabashed affirmation (and, subsequently, a simple binary) seems to mitigate the opportunity to develop a more complex emotional milieu. Toward the book’s conclusion, the speaker of the Miguel Hernández “Lullaby” articulates these concerns when she says:

                    we are uneasy
Because of the light that bread emits
In your country it seems darkness
Cut away (69)

Yes, an “uneasy” feeling pervades because “light” cuts away at the “darkness.” Rather than seeking the negation of darkness with an affirmation of light, Xu and the speakers of her poems champion a quality within “darkness” as a means to produce a more nuanced psychological, emotional, and poetic register.

To this end, a particular kind of beauty manifests itself within these poems, wherein each “line…passes through a point…in the dark” (13) in order to echo its song of “sublime” and “stirred melodies” (18). While the songs that resonant throughout Debts & Lessons might be songs of darkness and death, they are beautiful because of (not in spite of) this fact. For example, in the third section of the poem “Enemy of the Absolute” reads as follows:

The Mexico we are still young from
Faking our own deaths
As children, shaking our futures
Before your eyes—
How warm the night is
With these feelings you’ve been avoiding.
The summer we spent in Oaxaca
Is at the same time inconceivable
And without eternity. (39)

A pleasant memory of a time passed dies, in that it is “inconceivable / And without eternity”; and this ephemeral quality of a long passed happiness, no doubt, may induce pain in that we no longer have access to a distant moment of joy. But this pain produces a gorgeous song that “warm[s] the night,” and the darkness which envelops us, leaves us in state of ambiguity that is wholly beautiful and poetic. The debt the speaker pays might lacerate her soul, but the lesson learned stirs her with song.

Dossiers: Poetry & Ohio, Sarah Gridley

7 May

For the final installment of the Poets of Ohio reading series on 18 April, Cleveland-native Sarah Gridley read from her new collection Loom (Omnidawn Publishing, 2013). Below is a video clip the event wherein Gridley reads her poem “Charcoal”:

After spending several years away from Ohio (in states such as Massachusetts, Montana, and Maine), Gridley returned to Cleveland a few years ago. In an interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson (which originally appeared in the Denver Quarterly in 2010 and re-published last year in The Volta), Gridley had the following to say about her birth city:

How does one develop what Eliot calls “tender kinship for the face of the earth” when one’s childhood takes place in a part of the earth like Cleveland? This is what’s striking to me about being back here: despite the many ugly things about Cleveland, the severity of its physical and socio-economic decay, I find there is in me a habit of the blood, a sweet habit of the blood, that responds positively and lovingly to being here.

Through the sensory channels of memory, my lived experience at present finds weird communion with my lived experience from childhood. The native things, the snow, the rain, the winds, the thunder boomers and magnolias, the grime, winter’s flat gray light, the boarded up buildings, the ethereal, silver-leaf interior of Severance Hall, towering horse-chestnuts with blooms like candles, gloomy Lake Erie, the gentle Cuyahoga valley, downtown’s meager skyline—the good, the bad, and the ugly all flow through my blood creating a sense of loyalty and obligation that’s difficult to explain.

It is not that Cleveland doesn’t offer places of natural and manmade beauty; it is that you cannot possibly take them for granted. The scars of industry are livid here: they are, you might say, part of the city’s shame and its hope, its catalyst for re-direction and renovation. On a positive note: the Cuyahoga catching on fire did lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the creation of the EPA (today, as cautionary reminder and/or badge of shame penance, Great Lakes Brewing Company makes a pale ale called “Burning River”). Today, there are a number of organizations and institutions working collaboratively to improve both economic and environmental sustainability, most notably, Green City Blue Lake, The Cleveland Foundation, and Cleveland Botanical Gardens.