Mr. Big Bang and I visit quite a few college campuses on our travels and I love to peruse the campus bookstores. I've decided to start buying books of poetry by college faculty as a way to meet new poets.
I started this project on a trip to New Mexico State in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I picked out two books to review.
Seyburn is actually a California poet but she must have been teaching for a while at New Mexico State. Teachers move around.
This is a New Issues poetry book and I didn't like the cover or the binding. Although it was new, pages seemed a bit loose in my copy and the cover design is kind of flat.
But Seyburn is a whip-smart poet with a very fertile vocabulary. From the ars poetica poem, "The Alphabetizer Speaks"
There is such thing as a calling
though I cannot speak for prophets or martyrs…
I do not want the world a certain way.
The world is that way, and I am a vehicle
or the road of nomenclature. I tend the road.
"There is No Escaping the Inedible" was another good ars poetica piece. Of these two poets, Seyburn is the more intellectual and drier although both poets seemed to be inspired by the university atmosphere. For example, one of my favorite poems by Seyburn was "Pop Quiz. Read the full poem here.
In her own way, she writes about her culture. From "Cassandra in the Suburbs: A Monologue"
My line Jell-O containing cream cheese and mandarin oranges in the Bundt mould emanates like a crop circle; it attracts an repulses. I cannot slice it for fear of repercussions.
She has some creation poems in this book and a set of insomnia poems. The set called "The Emergence of Hilarity" could have been funnier.
She also the co-editor of the LA magazine POOL: https://www.facebook.com/PoolAJournalOfPoetry
When I first opened this book I felt the first poem was uneven and disjointed but then I was loving these poems by the third one. Both realistic and fantastical, Smith works the border of surreal bleakness.
The father poems are particularly good, "Moonrock" and "How It’s Told." She also takes on cultural inheritance (she says "my kind" a lot) and motherhood.
"Dawn Versified" is a great example of her border writing, which is kind of LANGUAGE-y but feels much more accessible. Her great word combos pull you through.
The book is full of great girl powerness. She struck me as being a writer with Anne Carson-like verbal bravery. She deals in vagueness but with definite finite edges.
There are a few series of moth poems. Other good ones, "The Ever" and "Fortune: A Conversation" which ends,
Take this hindsight like a wallet
of cash, exchange it for the local currency, you
endless inversion. You optimist.
She writes amazing end stops. "Eyelash" is very grrrl riot.
…A cavern of aching yen.
I want. I want. I want. It’s got a ring to it. I want the ring.
Her "Solve for N" reminded me of Patty Seburn's "Pop Quiz." You can tell these people have access to classes at a college.
Another good sample from "Why I Left"
Over dinner I asked if he had seen my hairbrush.
Without an answer, he brushed the ghost from my face.
Smith writes with a meaningless that means something. I also liked the book packaging and poem font.
Recently I found this quote in a book about the modern artists of New Mexico, Voices in New Mexico Art published by the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. Famous photographer Paul Strand is quoted in a letter to Sam Kootz in 1931.
"Artists tend either to think out loud about their technical problems…or…frequently erect some romantic philosophy – some elaborate and misleading rationalization. Possibly one reason for this is that the creative process involves a balance between conscious and intuitive elements, and a critical analysis of the artist’s own spirit of himself upsets the balance."
He also says,
"It seems to be the business of the critic, not of the artist, to get through…the artist’s essential attitude, not towards his medium but towards his world—life itself. When I look at a painting, a photograph, hear music, read a book, that is all that interests me—what living meant or means to the person who made the thing—not so much how, but why, they made it."
I've been reading endless amounts of back-and-forth criticism surrounding the infamous poetry wars and depressing debates on what the "role of the poet" should be. Forget about the style and content wars, the very role of the poet is contested.
Should the role of a poet be a witness? Should the poet's role be to challenge the limits of language? Should the poet's role be to explain cultural phenomena? She the poet be a peacemaker or instigator? Should the poet's role be beyond any conceivable role?
The thing is, this debate is based on a false premise. We shouldn't conceive of poetry as a role at all. We should conceive of it as a tool. And a tool that can service many roles: culture critic, language manipulator, witness to world events.
Poetry is not a job description. This is why we get so hung-up about it, why the idea of it attaches itself too precariously to our sense of identity.
And this is what causes all the idiotic mud-wrestling.
In 2011 Oprah aired a show with Maya Angelou called Master Class. I was so enthralled with Angelou's infectious profundities in that episode, I became hooked on the whole series. In honor of her passing, I re-watched the episode last night.
Angelou talks about how much she loves aging. She loved her 70s and was excited about her 80s. She was writing music, poetry and publishing a cookbook. In her lifetime, she published 30 books. She died at age 86.
In the poetry world, I found that you either loved Maya Angelou or you didn't. I often heard critics charge her with simplicity and sentimentality. However, she used poetry not to challenge language but to challenge hatred. She wrote to teach. She wrote to help. She was one of those people with an amazing presence. Oprah said she carried herself with an "unshakable calm and fierce grace."
She spoke 6 languages and worked with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. She was also a singer and a dancer. Although she initially made a living as a singer, she said, "you can only become great at things you're willing to sacrifice for."
She gave the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton. She also recited a poem for the world at the request of The United Nations. She said when she was working on these public poems, she spoke to priests, rabbis and many people. She generously opened the poem up to other ideas beyond her own.
In Master Class, she recited Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 ("When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes") from memory and later said:
"Words are things. I'm convinced....Someday we'll be able to measure the power of words. I think they get in the walls. They get in the wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in the upholstery, in your clothes, and finally into you."
She bravely spoke about humility. Irreplaceable Maya Angelou. She was poem unto herself. She was an ambassador and a blessing.
"Poets and artists are conversant with centuries of their kind, and their visions may address the most pressing need of the epoch: that of saving the biosphere of Earth. Poetry needs no other justification."
Alberto Rios talks about the role of the poet in our culture:
"I would like to use a curious word: surpriser. At their best, poets today do the old work of making the familiar new to us. But what I love is that it works, even now. It works. It is not a trick and I am changed by the ways poems and poets make me constantly re-see everything."
Khaled Mattawa says to the same question:
"Whether writing in traditional forms or exploding the language, taking an ironic stance or an optimistic one, focusing on the personal or the sociopolitical, the poet’s role is to fuse her or his feelings with the world’s ache and to speak in dignity with that doubled timbre."
I also caught up with the latest Copper Canyon Reader. Some favorite lines:
The gleam poured through my pupils
into this small, temporary body,
my wrinkled brain in its eggshell skull
"The ultimate aim of my writing is to create an environment of empathy, something that would allow the miracle of empathy to take place, where human beings can seem to rise out of themselves and extend themselves into others and live within others."
-- Kwame Dawes
“put faith/in making, each poem a breath/nailed to nothing."
“There is no such thing as a final translation.”
It is not the dead who haunt us.
There is no further damage they can do.
We have seem them to death’s door.
It is the not-yet-born
we are up against.
They’ll be the first to forget us.
I'm still catching up on American Poetry Review but I did finish the March/April issue.
Arielle Greenberg has an essay on translation for those following studies on translation.
Stanley Moss uses the phrase "charge d’affaires" in a poem called “What.” This is odd because I had never heard that phrase before, even in years of French class. But I came across it months ago perusing Cher's latest concert program. This is the term she assigns her long-time entourage of girlfriends.
There's a very, very good essay by Martha Collins about why white people hesitate to write about issues of race. She talks about appropriation, issues of invisibility (taking race for granted). She quotes Lynne Thompson who says, “white America has to come to grips with the same legacy as do African Americans.”
Collins says, "Deeper than the fear of appropriation is another fear. If the culture creates a sense that race is somehow not white people’s territory, that sense is reinforced by a fear of “getting it wrong” if we do enter the territory.
There's a good essay by Tony Hogaland (from his upcoming book) on the collage or composite poem. He says,
"Locating the poetry in worldly information, and implanting worldy information inside of poems, might not be easy, but if contemporary poetry is to claim the status of onging relevance it must interest itself in the stuff of mortgage crisis, insurgency sponsorship, and lithium batteries. Pitfalls of using too much or too little in your collage. Pitfalls of many and examples of good ones."
I recently started a subscription to Poets & Writers. TheMarch/April issue included a guide to off-the-beaten-path writing retreats. Aside from having an interesting vacation, I really question the value writing retreats provide considering their steep costs. The retreat lifestyle seems to just divide the haves and the have-nots.
Poets & Writers usually has good articles on international and exiled writers and interviews with agents. In this issue, Nate Pritts defends the sentimental in writing.
The May/June issue features a guide to free writing contests, but of the 96 listed, I qualified for zero.
Some interesting websites were featured:
Benka Banks explains why the Academy of American Poets has re-branded and there's an invaluable piece by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon on the process, pains and pleasures of putting together an anthology including a nice list of Dos and Donts.
This got me to thinking about how I use different kinds these days and which ones are better than others.
The big black one to the left is the copy my dad bought me when I was about 16 years old and needed one for writing poems in high school. Definitely this one is the best and not because it has the most words. I suppose electronic versions probably have 85-95% of the same words.
The book version is better because it forces you to scan over so many other words before you get to the word you're trying to find.
I do some composing in Microsoft Word: essays and quick poems like the ones I've done for NaPoWriMo. In these situations you need a very quick and efficient thesaurus. You don’t have time for the big black book. You are less particular.
When I am looking for something more particular, I'll use the online site Rhyme Zone. I use this site primarily for finding rhymes quickly. But it also has a thesaurus. I'll go here if MS Word fails me.
But the best poems get the big book. This book is musky, dog-eared and pieces of the paperback cover have fallen off. The strength of the book is all about the detour. Using the book slows you down. This gives you time to think more about your missing word. You constantly bump into alternate words. You're quickly judging all the other words in the vicinity.
Great poems are made by detours. The irony of poetry is that poems are not about efficiency. They're about what the detours help you find.
I also now have plenty of thoughts about my Kindle Paperwhite.
I bought a faux-leather cover for mine. It really helps make the book feel tactile. I bend back the cover and run a finger along the edge.
I'm a heavy marginalia-maker and highlighter. It's hard to use an eBook highlighter and note-creator. Notes are connected to the text but saved separately. You access them as one entire list with links back to the text. Slightly cumbersome in that it takes a step or two to connect the two mentally.
Highlighting is kludge. Sometimes you have to try a few times with your index finger to highlight all the words you want. Sometimes it takes 3-4 taps. It makes you appreciate the technological brilliance of a pen rolling its ball over paper. So much easier. And notes on a piece paper are actually easier to access and to read.
However, these issues aren't a deal-breaker for me. The eReader isn't so cumbersome that I'm willing to give up eBook technology. Changes in tools take some time to adjust your habits around. They take a mental switch. eBooks are cheaper and you get them faster and they save paper. I’ll still be using them for poetry books I don’t intend to collect on a shelf or for books I might not otherwise buy due to the expense.
As for the book itself, New Addresses had to grow on me. It was a strange experience of not getting it for the first third of the book. Then I got it suddenly, somewhere around the poem "To Jewishness." All the poems are direct addresses to concepts like Jewishness or the French language or testosterone or driving. Once I got it, I really got it and liked almost every poem.
The poem addressed to all his old address made me want to try this entire scheme next year for my NaPoWriMo project.
Last week I caught up on some poetry podcasts. It really makes the time go quicker but it's difficult to scribble down notes while walking.
Recently (10/29/2013) the PBS NewsHour podcast interviewed Billy Collins. They quoted him as saying, "the problem with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry."
Wow. I'm going to find it harder to defend him now when my other poetry compadres attack him for being a sell-out. I don't think he is but I guess he's a stage hog. Implicit in that comment is the belief that there’s not enough room for the likes of all of us. We're all the “more guppies crowding up the fish tank.” He did have something interesting to say about Alice Fulton’s. He said she put the fun back in profundity.
Recommended: I just subscribed to the podcast of The Missouri Review and listened to the episode interviewing the editors of Electric Literature who also publish a free online journal called "Recommended Reading" that is updated every Wednesday. They talk about the future of online journals and how they compile their recommended list of fiction and what they look for in new work (stories that pop versus preciousness). They say there's and "endless crop of great work" out there.
Not Recommended: I tried listening to an episode of a podcast called The Broad Pod but I didn’t like it. This is mostly readings of science fiction by women.
Highly Recommended: Indie Feed continues to please. The 4/28 episode interviews British poet Anthony Anaxagorou. View his site: http://anthonyanaxagorou.com/
Recommended: The 1/19 episode of PBS NewsHours podcast was about physicians who embrace poetry. This reminded me of the Scottish Poetry Library's project to provide poets to doctors. This podcast interviewed a doctor in Boston and doctor/poet Raphael Compo about his new book, Alternative Medicine. View his site at: http://www.rafaelcampo.com/
They talk about how metaphorical language is used by both poets and doctors who need to communicate complicated issues with patients. Doctors also use poetry to reconnect with the feelings of their clients.
I love any discussion of poetry being used for practical purposes, such as helping doctors reconnect with their own practice.
Is it me or is Gertrude Stein the doppelganger of Spencer Tracy?
Bird By Bird with Annie Lamott (1999) is a great documentary, whether or not you've read the book Bird by Bird. Like the book, the joys of this movie experience are indescribable. Lamott is a generous and smart teacher and this movie captures her unique and painful life story.
The DVD even includes a full lecture from a writing festival and is packed with good advice.
I continue to be inspired by her and her way of conceptualizing the work of writing.
I also caught the 2012 HBO movie Hemmingway & Gelhorn. What a huge cast: Clive Owen, Nicole Kidman, Tony Shalhoub, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, Robert Duvall, Parker Posey, David Strathairn, Peter Coyote, and Jeffrey Jones (unaccredited).
Monsieur Big Bang is always distressed to witness our never-ending fascination with the pig-tempered Ernest Hemmingway. So I had to watch this movie alone. This even though we both loved the book A Moveable Feast because we stayed in the neighborhood of Paris in 2007 where the events took place. We each even bought our own copy. I also enjoyed the novel about the same relationship, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.
Hemmingway is always good for some controversial declarations about writers. Clive Owen does a good job with him. They even show many scenes of Hemmingway typing his novels and reports from Spain standing instead of sitting. He gives Gelhorn advice like “sit down at your typewriter and bleed” and “get in the ring and throw some punches for what you believe in.” and “the best writers are liars” and “there are no sides; there’s only the past and the future.”
The fake Hemmingway & Gelhorn; the real Hemmingway & Gelhorn
One of my new favorite shows is USA's Playing House. The show is billed as similar to the movie Bridesmaids. Like the movie, the show portrays the complicated relationship between best girlfriends. Unlike the movie, these girls are former "mean girls" making amends in their adult lives.
The episode "Unfinished Business," (watch the full episode at: http://www.hulu.com/watch/632109#i0,p0,d0), has some very funny scenes around poets and poetry.
One of the girls is having issues with her mother, played by Jane Kaczmarek. She finds out her mom has been giving poetry readings and she attends one at the local bookstore. The audience gives "snaps for the creators" instead of applause. The mother reads her poetry under the pseudonym of Phylicia Rashad without knowing this is the name of the actress from The Cosby Show.
She's given the introduction that she makes "William Butler Yeats sound like a bent-over simpleton." Her reading of "Chinese Dumpling That Has Left the Bowl" is hilariously dramatic. In retaliation her daughter joins the poetry workshop under the name of Tempestt Bledsoe and gives her own slam-delievered response poem. One workshop attendee comments that her "delivery stole focus from her words" and we see how hard it is for her to hear criticisms.
In the final scene, their workshop leader reads a poem under the name of Malcolm-Jamal warner. He gives a German-experimental/slam reading for the two girlfriends. He declares, "It’s not done" when one of them tries to snap too early. She says she'd rather eat a man eating another man’s face off than endure any more of the experimental poetry.
The hotel's concierge is played by Ralph Fiennes and the character loves romantic-era poetry and recites it throughout the film. He even bequeaths his collection of books to his protégée. Although he’s a typically quirky Wes Anderson character, he and his protégée are the films unquestionable heroes and reciting poetry for them is part of their hilarious and heroic journey.
There's already a website dedicated to how poetry is used in the film. It's called "What Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel can teach us about poetry: http://ricochetmag.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/wes-anderson-poetry/
It’s how Anderson uses poetry in this film that tells us something about how poetry functions...Incidentally, all of the poems in the film – which are admittedly parodic, though often quite arresting – were scripted by Anderson himself.
Early in the film, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) – concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel – catalogues his meager possessions: “a set of ivory-backed hair brushes and my library of romantic poetry”. In fact, the library of romantic poetry is so dear to him that he seems to have committed the whole lot to memory, and takes great pleasure indulging in its recital despite it often falling on deaf ears and rolled eyes. This part of the film is filled with all the decadence and complacency of any first act – but drama is only around the corner. The function of poetry in these early scenes is fairly simple. Some small event happens and M. Gustave is reminded of a verse, which sets him off wistfully into recital – the way certain grandparents might launch into The Man from Snowy River if you don’t tread lightly. The words don’t seem to have much living meaning for M. Gustave, except that he seems to remember a time when they did, and revisits them for nostalgia’s sake.
But soon – and without giving anything away – M. Gustave and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), are thrust (as you might expect) into a plot. And here M. Gustave’s poetry begins to serve a different function. As the characters progress through a series of escalating plot arcs, certain lines from his favourite poems surface. In brief moments of introspective calm, M. Gustave takes stock of his dire situation, is reminded of a verse, and begins again to recite out loud. However, the lines are now delivered with more intensity. The relationship between the on-screen drama and the words is palpable. Some cataclysmic event, an injustice or an act of violence, brings these words to mind, and he recites them not with a sense of nostalgia, but in total awe. This is the film’s first lesson in poetics: poems are things that make order out of chaos. They are a way of making sense. A poem read in slippers is not the same as when recited on the permafrost of some desolate wasteland. A poem read in the bath is not the same as one recalled in the face of injustice, brutality or war.
These moments of epiphany don’t last long. M. Gustave is doomed never to finish a poem because every time he pauses to reflect on the events that have led him to some brief moment of respite, some other catastrophe catches up with the pair, and the frenzied pace of the adventure resumes. The very act of pausing to make room for poetry allows the plot to catch up with its protagonists, and thrusts them back into the fray. This device is used to such great effect that the introduction of poetry into a scene takes on a role usually fulfilled by foreboding music – the audience learns that poetry spells trouble. This is the second lesson: poems are words so precisely chosen that they can provoke the hand of fate. Poems dare events to happen. In giving shape to past experience, they also disrupt the flow of future events, or at least the way they are perceived and the way we react to this perception. They are epochal in the truest sense of the word, and also transitory. And this provides us also with the third and final lesson: that poems are as relevant today as they ever were. Reflecting on M. Gustave, Zero as an old man describes him as being from a time that was over before he was born – the imputation being that Gustave’s world of poems and words and ivory-backed hair brushes was anachronistic even in the first half of the twentieth century. But these words shouldn’t be taken at face value, because here we are, talking about Wes Anderson’s use of poetry as a diegetic film device. The function of poetry is always changing, always finding new ways to filter experience. I don’t think anyone has used it quite like this before.
Episode 4/27/14 – The Kids Run Away (watch it on Hulu)
Louise (in rabbit ears, left) runs away from the dentist office and seeks refuge at Aunt Gall (played by Megan Mullally). Her mother hopes Aunt Gall will drive them nuts (and thus home) with her invented board games and poetry readings.
The nerdy aunt wears a fanny pack all day among other idiosyncrasies and her boobs hang down to her waist (see below).
On the show she reads the following poems:
Happy Things We Should Send Into Space
A jar of mayo
magazine clippings of Scott Baio
that song that starts with Day-O
And another poem goes like this:
Little cat, you’re just like me
you go outside and squat to pee
SQUAT! SQUAT! SQUAT! SQUAT! SQUAT!
I’m not done.
SQUAT! SQUAT! SQUAT!
Louise then asks to read the rest of her poems in private so she won't disturb any one when she says,
They're making fun of poetry readings. And it was a great episode.
Poets with Sexy Hair