Over on my sister-site Cher Scholar, I've just published a recent interview with the author of a new novel, Sister Golden Hair, about a pre-teen girl named Jesse growing up in the early-to-mid 1970s. I talk to author Darcey Steinke, the daughter of a minister and a beauty queen, about how a celebrity-obsession with Cher works in the narrative and what Cher's "text" means vis-à-vis our struggles with ideals of beauty, role models and holiness. We also talk about the construction of her novel and depicting the trials of a teenager navigating issues of identity.
Last spring I listed The Anthology of Really Important Modern Poetry by Kathryn & Ross Petras on my list of books to check out in the celebrity poetry genre. I was hoping this book was an anthology of poems written by celebrities, poems collected which had never appeared in full-length collections.
It was billed as having "Timeless 'Poems' by Snooki, John Boehner, Kanye West and Other Well-Versed Celebrities." However, this book does not include any poetry written by celebrities. Instead, the authors have culled bad, embarrassing quotes from press interviews and twitter feeds and turned them into faux poems with snarky line breaks. The authors skewer not only celebrities, but political figures and they slay democrats and republicans alike.
On the one hand, I did enjoy the ridiculousness of the quotes and the author’s ruthless mockery of them. But on the other hand, I am nagged by the worry that making fun of ridiculous things celebrities say only encourages more celebrities (and all of us really) to make really idiotic comments in order to score some attention. After all, any spotlight is a good spotlight in modern America.
Highlighting the really ignorant comments of celebrities and politicians does not discourage the behavior, it simply lowers the bar.
I've recently come across this new poetry website: http://poetry.newgreyhair.com/ which promises "Punch in the Face Poetry."
I'm way behind on my trial subscription of Poets & Writers but the July/August 2014 issue (find it at your library) is all about finagling a literary agent (for you novelists) and the magazine continues to occasionally deconstruct and analyze good pitch letters.
There's also a good column inside on writing groups for military veterans and one on the life of teaching poetry in prisons. If you're like me you've probably already read quite a few of these testimonials but this one, by Wendy Bron-Baez, was particularly good.
And I want to give kudos to one in the mass of MFA advertisements inside the same issue. Pine Manor College uses images of the published books of its graduates to say all that needs to be said. Very impressive on many levels.
“Mr. Eliot has shown that he can at moments write real blank verse; but that is all. For the rest he has quoted a great deal, he has parodied and imitated. But the parodies are cheap and the imitations inferior.”
“…it is the finest horses which have the most tender mouths and some unsympathetic tug has sent Mr. Eliot’s gift awry. When he recovers control we shall expect his poetry to have gained in variety and strength from this ambitious experiment.”
Times Literary Supplement
from Rotten Reviews compiled by Bill Henderson
Full disclosure: Ann Cefola and I graduated from the same MFA class at Sarah Lawrence College. Looking back, I’m usually discouraged to find less and less of us are still working as writers.
W. H. Auden once made a prediction about successful writers: not one who has something burning to say, but one who is in love with with language. I find this to be a true measure of my MFA friends. Those who have continued to write are in love with words and sentences. Also, the successful writer is compelled to keep going, compelled to keep writing whenever they can. They don’t make excuses about having no time or inspiration. Their time is sacred to them and they defend it. Ann Cefola has kept going and she has been an inspiration to me. She’s kept working on her poems, on poetry newsletters and blogs. She’s published two chapbooks and now a first collection. Over the 14 years I’ve known her, she’s kept on keepin on and she’s encouraged me to keep on, too.
My reading of her work has evolved over the last 14 years. Her poems are tight and her juxtapositions are advanced. Reading her now I see the art of containment and the order of her constructed phrases. Her poems sometimes feel like incantations in their brevities. The juxtapositions between poems are particularly good in the new collection so that even the older chapbook poems feel new.
I am beginning to see her phrases like very particular paint strokes, cerebral leaps. I have always loved that her poems express a kind of thinking in process.
There are many new, explosive poems in this book...the poem about Picasso's “Demoiselles” being one example, a conversation with the subject of the painting, the women. Full with very smart allusions and juxtapositions, Ann and the divas work through history's responses to the painting. I've recently read about two types of feminism: that which deconstructs and that which reconfigures (or revamps) the situation of being a woman. I feel this poem does both, comparing the Demoiselles to WNBA players and ending with the incredible line, “I am just a girl writing.” This poem blew my head off.
I found many exciting transgressive strokes all through the book. There are poems about identity and making ourselves up, poems about New York City, office spaces, a really unique 9/11 poem, a veritable stroke of a "before."
"A live hand across two world wars
astounded and mourning between lines
your point sharp, your No. 1 pencil so delicate,
so willing to be erased."
From "Express," a poem about taking the train into the city:
"Heavenly bodies, arching above
warm coffee, cinnamon and yeast below.
Stretching doughy muscles and sweet cells,
we like small loaves expand, turn golden, rise."
This time around, I notice Ann's 3-4 word phrases that are very tight and feel like assemblages that build to a mood. Ann also knows and uses the power of punctuation.
"Soul braces, Here we go. No cheers:
Cold city street. People rushing to trains,
What will happen to me? – I don’t know, sweet pea?"
Ann also captures the spirit in the suburbs. Fro the poem "Price Club"
“I want transubstantiation, to be taking up in cornflakes.”
She artfully weaves a phrase through the poem "North by Northwest" and "Anthem" is a lovely meditation on the afterlife of an ant. Time after time, Ann puts herself in wildlife poems.
I highly recommend this first collection by Ann Cefola.
I found this book at my local library recently and thoroughly enjoyed her poems of noticing and mindfulness, which I realize is not for everyone. If you've ever engaged in any Buddhist practice, you might love these poems, too.
Hirshfield has a particular quietness like watching monks chop wood or chop carrots. They are full of small rituals, meditations on choice. She expresses a kind of spiritual movement and stasis.
In structure and tone, her poems remind me of other lyric poems of the 1990s. At one point her sister asks, “Does a poem enlarge the world, or only your idea of the world?”
My favorite poems here deal with existence and changes. Hirshfield's book contains an ant poem, too: “Like an Ant Carrying Her Bits of Leaf or Sand”
"The ant’s work belongs to the ant.
The poem carries love and terror, or it carries nothing.”
From "Red Berries"
"The woman of this morning’s mirror
was a stranger
to the woman of last night’s"
In "The Room" Hirshfield expresses a fear of new love with the act of preparing the house for a new guest to come and then the “shivering hopes” that “follow it in.”
"One takes a bit, then the other.
They do this until it is gone."
This is the work of a spiritual practice. In "Rebus," she talks about the red clay of grief and asks "How can I enter the question the clay (grief) has asked?”
For me, some of the poems in the middle are vague. There are many contemplations of objects: buttons, pillows, carpet, an onion, a rock, clocks, ink. She is exploring thusness.
Dreams and identity are also recurring themes.
The November 2014 issue of The Atlantic has a good article called "Passive Resistance" written by Steven Pinker about how "the active voice isn't always the best choice.
American Poetry Review Sept/Oct 2014 has an article by Jason Schneiderman on the friendship between Agha Shahid Ali and James Merrill and talks about Merill's ouija board book-length poem "The Changing Light at Sandover." This poem is not included in his collected works, by the way. In the same issue there's an essay about the grotesque in poetry by Anna Journey. There's also a special suppplement of poems and commenorations on Stephen Berg, one by David Rivard and one by Edward Hirsch.
And finally the issue has a good overview of the most famous confessional poems and how their writers use pronouns and a retrospective of Pete Seeger.
Poets & Writers Sept/Oct 2014 Issue
This issue has interviews with both Edward Hirsch and Louise Glück. Hirsch says:
"I think to have poetry, you need to have all kinds of different poets. We need poets to write playful, funny poems, poets who write light verse; I don't think we should neglect that. But should that be the defining feature of your poetry? Is that how you want your poetry to be remembered? I guess that's up to people in the culture. But it's also true that we live in a very superficial culture. We live in a culture that's driven by entertainment, by celebrities, so there's plenty in the culture to distract us and lighten us up. People who turn to poetry, I don't think y're looking for something gloomy, but I do think they're looking for something deeper than the superficial exxperiences you get in the culture every day."
Also, three poets discuss keeping a journal. There's a great essay on narcissism and entitlement by Steve Almond and an article on the Savvy Self-Publisher and another one on MFA alternatives that talks about classes in urban areas outside of the college system:
The combination of innovative pedagogy, lower costs, and a focus on the craft of writing can make private writing workshops an attractive alternative to traditional MFA programs.
Just as happened with iTunes, Air B&B and Uber, the high cost and low-return (and greed of executives at the top) of bloated organizations will be driving customers to startup alternatives.
You can check your local library for older issues of these magazines.
I've been sitting on this book, The World of the Ten Thousand Things by Charles Wright, for about 17 years, moving the book from New York to Pennsylvania to California (3x in California alone) to New Mexico (3x there, too). Finally I buckled down to read it and, like many things you put off for so long, you realize you should have read this years ago. But would you have loved the book's ghostly vagueness 17 years ago. Definitely not. So you then realize you've carried this book around so long waiting for the "Wright time" -- as it were -- to read it.
I'm working on a novel about the ghosts of a dying western town so of course this book's poems about the dead attracted me. Years ago I may have found Wright's poems difficult and distant, too much well-readedness on his sleeve, the type of thing Helen Vendler and Hart Crane would like...and my friend Teresa who loved Hart Crane and Jorie Graham and recommended we go to the poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City to see Graham and Wright read. This is where I bought the book long before I was ready for it.
Wright gets at that under-layer of nature poems, the almost gothic, elegiac layer of it...without coming across as completely Southern gothic. The books is also full of poems about artists (Cezanne a favorite), incidents of mysterious beauty. His thoughts flow about seemingly unedited. He experiments with variations: variations of self-portrait experiments, variations of journaling (one poem written over a calendar year). There is a lot of religion here: transfiguration, crosses, sin and plenty of nature's surreality and landscapes that undo us, abstractions of the seasons. In this way the book felt like a giant (and I mean giant) haiku.
The poems fly across the page in indents and with parentheticals. There is plenty of high-culture here too: music, painting, wine. He takes lots of car drives, invokes the act of licking a lot.
True, Wright often gets lumped with the language poets and he admits, "Language can do just so much" but there is plenty of aboutness in his poems, plenty of scene, plenty of voice. There's almost a sense of a man in early 50s midlife crisis here.
I've lost touch with Teresa 15 years ago...but I can still hear her reading excerpts of these poems to me.
From "Composition in Grey and Pink"
The souls of the day's dead fly up like birds, big sister,
The sky shutters and casts loose.
And faster than stars the body goes to the earth.
Head hangs like a mist from the trees.
Butterflies pump through the banked fires of later afternoon.
The rose continues its sure rise to the self.
From "A Journal of True Confessions"
The new line will be like the first line,
spacial and self-contained,
Firm to the touch
But intimate, carved, as though whispered into the ear.
Likewise I loved Adobe Odes by Pat Mora. I found out about Mora from a book on Southwestern literature and art. These odes are done in the spirit of Pablo Neruda (she even includes an ode to him) but they are fabulously about New Mexican subjects. My favorite ones were odes to adobe, guacamole, kitchens, chiles, chocolate, names, the cricket, tea, toes, bees, apples, church bells, and cottonwoods. I also liked some of the idea odes: desire, hope, courage.
Some of the odes wander a bit far from their target (ode to Santa Fe) but Mora knows what it takes to make a good ode, scrumptious and tactile language. I'm going to give this book away as a gift for my friends in New Mexico and my friends who love the state, but live elsewhere.
A few weeks ago I also read Mora's book Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints which is similar but about ode-like explorations of Catholic saints.
Having has so many hard times in New Mexico, I was expecting to like this anthology more than I did. I just don't think Garrison Keillor (the editor) and I have the same rubric for either hard times or good poems.
However, there were enough good poems in here for me to justify keeping this book on hand:
"There Comes the Strangest Moment" by Kate Light
The Carnation Milk poem
"Happiness" by Michael Van Walleghen
"The Rules of Evidence" by Lee Robinson
"Minnesota Thanksgiving" by John Berryman
"High Plains Farming" by William Notter
"In Bed with a Book" by Mona Van Duyn
and some poems that I feel would be very moving at a funeral:
The Everyman's Library of Pocket books puts out these little novelty poetry anthologies that I'm always wanting to buy: ghost poems, Irish poems, jazz poems, comic poems, Christmas poems. There's a ton. The only other one I have is Zen Poems which I did not love. Because I'm working on a novel with a murder in it, an anthology of poems about murder seemed necessary to read. And so I bought Killer Verse, poems of murder and mayhem. Loved it! Sections are divided between family murders, murder ballads, Vers Noir, the inner-workings of murders, psycho killers, victims and meditations on murder. You get both old and new here, from anonymous ballads to Robert Browning to Marie Howe.
For years I've loved the segment of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour where Sonny & Cher sang called "Stagger Lee" (famously done by The Grateful Dead) and in this book I came across the poem from which is was based: "Stackalee."
Last summer, for my family reunion in Bandon, Oregon, I took this poem, "On the Oregon Coast," to read during talent show night. I didn't end up reading it as the poem was too long, the crowd was too restless, and the text was slightly political. (Our reunion banned anything political.) I did however give the poem to my mother before the reuinion was over.
The first book of poetry I ever read was Powers of Congress by Alice Fulton but I didn't get that book so it doesn't count. I'm planning to re-read it since I recently enjoyed Palladium so much. In any case, I consider the first book of poetry I ever read to be the first one I ever fully understood. That book was Galway Kinnel's The Book of Nightmares.
In other news...
I 've been reading the collected poems of Carl Sandburg (the book has 800 freaking pages!) looking for New Mexico poems for a project I'm doing. I found this poem in his book Slabs of the Sunburnt West, "Tentative (First Model) Definitions of Poetry." It's a list of metaphors for what poetry is. I like some of them like “Poetry is an art practiced with the terribly plastic material of human language" and "Poetry is the tracing of the trajectories of a finite sound to the infinite points of its echoes."
Others are redundant and some make me scratch my head like "Poetry is a packsack of invisible keepsakes" and "Poetry is a shuffling of boxes of illusions buckled with a strap of facts."
I went to see a lecture last month give by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum called "Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line." The talk dealt with his connection to the Alfred Stiglitz circle, how he learned through the making and drawing of maps, about his friendships with Duchamp, Diego Rivera and Andre Breton. The talk defended caricature as abstraction.
Covarrubias did a series for Vanity Fair Magazine called Impossible Interviews. Here's one with Freud and Jean Harlow and another with Sally Rand and Martha Graham.
I just found new versions of Impossible Interviews by David Kamp with ones like Russel Brand and Vladamir Putin and Kim Jong-Un with Anthony Bourdain.
Interesting idea for a series of poems.
Last year I went through the Geencine library and marked for my que about 20 art and poetry documentaries. The Life & Times of Allen Ginsberg (1993) is pretty basic. No fancy editing or music. It's no Searching for Sugarman. But enjoyed it nonetheless and learned much about Allen Ginsberg, mostly from interview footage of Ginsberg made specifically for the documentary.
Luckily, I saw Allen Ginsberg read twice in New York City before he died in 1997. Both times he performed "Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke)" which was a very funny poem as I recall it. But I have to tell you, I wouldn’t have gone to see Ginsberg read if my friend Julie hadn’t arranged it. Julie went to as many concerts, readings and events in New York City as she could and she often counteracted my shut-in-tendencies.
I don't know why I've never been much of a Ginsberg fan. Watching this video I surmised my hurdle must have been his buck teeth and fat lips, a pretty shallow reason indeed. I also think I assumed, as the king of all hippies, he was going to be untouchable and maybe somewhat spaced-out. The movie showed me he was neither out-of-it or full of himself.
The film chronicles his life with his own photos and in his own words with important interviews from his brother and step-mother. We also see footage of appearances at rallies and on TV shows like William Buckley's and later Dick Cavett's.
Watching William Buckley's obvious distaste for Ginsberg, it occurred to me we've traded someone like Buckley for Rush Limbaugh. At least Buckley didn't echew intellectualism. We were better off with Buckley.
Ginsberg talks at length about his mother’s mental illness and how it affected him, how this produced his sympathy for "people in trouble." He says he inherited a kind of "poetic paranoia." We also learn about his father, poet and teacher Louis Ginsberg, how close they were and how his father influenced his poetry. We see footage of a poetry reading they did together.
The film also covers interviews with the other Beat writers William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke. Jack Keroac and Neal Cassidy are discussed. Ginsberg talks about what they all contributed to the group, how they would meet at Foster’s Cafeteria.
Throughout, Ginsberg seems concerned with the social aspects of being a poet and writer. We can see how this would evolve into social protest. In this film, he's called a cosmic social worker or cosmic public defender.
There are also interview clips with Abbie Hoffman, Joan Baez (who called Ginsberg colorful but serious), Ken Kessey and Tim Leary. We learn when Ginsberg met Dylan and how he ended up in the movie Don’t Look Back.
The disastrous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago is addressed and Ginsberg describes how it turned to violence. He calls the event a liberal failure and says the blood resulting from the remaining years of the Vietnam War are on the hands of the right and the left (due to how this event resulted in the election of Richard Nixon).
We see Ginsberg doing Buddhist chanting and learn about his involvement with Naropa University and his study with Chögyam Trungpa and how Ginsberg started (with Anne Waldman) the Jack Keroac school of poetry where students study "spontaneous babbling."
Ginsberg also talks about his personal relationship with Peter Orlofsky and the lessons he had to learn about co-dependency. He talks about the death of his parents.
His Stepmother expresses amazement that Ginsberg can write about his life as it happens, as if he’s releasing his feelings "along the way." She says his father was very proud of him and that he was a good son.
It's good to note here that this book was produced under the banner of Flutter Press whose website insists they are not a vanity press but that they use Print-On-Demand technology, in their case, they print through Lulu. This puts them in between a small press and a self-publishing co-op. They choose authors to help through the process of POD and give them a logo to print under. In their mind, they see themselves as a small press
But whether you provide POD services or publish yourself, it's imperative that you appear professional...especially if you're using POD. The fact that the press feels the need to defend itself tells you there's a stigma out there about POD. You have to counter that with a perfect product.
There were some tell-tale signs of amateur POD with this book.
If your publisher isn’t going to stringently proof your book, you need to pay for someone do it. Your reputation is the only one that counts.
All these rules of publishing should be learned even if you work with this kind of small, POD press such as this. Maybe in this case this author didn’t want to risk the self-publishing stigma, but the result is a book that looks self-published.
There’s a small press in Santa Fe that charges you to publish your work, in the line of about $3,000. Amazingly, they offer no services with that. Their editor told me himself, "Poets hate to be edited." Meanwhile their books are full of typos and grammatical errors. I know a prominent local academic who published with this press and received a bad cover and a book full of layout errors. It's embarrassing and it shouldn’t happen.
CreateSpace is free but if you truly need help navigating publication or you don’t like Amazon, there are other legitimate options. The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine evaluates all POD publishers, including Lulu.
Or read Self-Printed, The Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing by Catherine Ryan Howard to learn about publishing yourself. You research to buy a car, research your POD publisher. Lulu tends to be expensive and their price-points are high. Thankfully the price point for this book is $7 for 33 actual pages of poetry which is actually okay.
You need to care about your price point, the quality, and the professional presentation of your book. And if you are running a POD press, make sure you know what you're doing.
Control your own book and you can control many problems. The good news for this book is that all these issues are fixable with POD. To learn more: http://www.bigbangpoetry.com/2012/07/self-publishing-poetry-first-things-first.html
This is actually Ally Sheedy’s second book. When she was a tween, she published a successful children’s book, She Was Nice to Mice. Turns out her mom is a publicist and there's a literary agency in her family, Charlotte Sheedy.
There's also a long list of thank-you’s in the front of the book that includes plenty of brat-pack names from her 1980s-era movie peak.
All that insider stuff aside, this was a pretty raw and interesting book. Sure, there are some cliches employed, including the typical "hanging by a thread," once when we were literally talking about a doll’s eye, later figuratively.
But what Sheedy did well was to capture the gamut of drama in a young teen girl’s life...and not the squeaky-clean kind of teen: all the tears, mysterious love, intense drama of feeling, bulimia, sexuality, loneliness, rehab (that poem even rhymes), imitations, ideals, mother conflict, the murder of a friend, abortion…all the serious teen issues are here.
Talking about friendship with other women in a poem called "A Man’s World" was a strong moment and the poem "Amends" was clever.
Her search for magical womanliness reminded me of the discussion on Texas Chicana writers in the book The Desert is No Lady, Chicana writers who have Aztec goddesses at their disposal, a heritage anglo women do not have.
Sheedy also provides snapshots of Hollywood circa the early 1980s, experiences with rock and rollers. Could Paris Hilton have written this at her age. I don’t think so.
Sheedy even rewrites herself. This is a teen's obsession with her coming out into complicated worlds of womanhood and love. And through it, I remembered all my 16/17 year old melodramatic self. This are poems in typical teen languages but what you get is literally a rite of passage in action. I don’t know why we don’t honor this.
Poets with Sexy Hair