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I was sent a review copy of this book. Right away, I was fascinated by the beautiful and evocative cover design. This is a well-made book. Good fonts, good paper.
And I enjoyed this book. It’s the type of part-surreal, part-haunted type of poetry I tend to like. Lovely word constructions and almost-but-not-quite rational meanings tipping slightly out of reach. The book is divided into many small sections that, for the most part, play as small little harrowing journeys. Ghosts ripple throughout the book. The obscure poem titles feel very painterly. The poems themselves have surface tension. Subjects ooze with darkness, bone and flesh. The word lifeboat floats through many of the pieces throughout the book. An other-worldliness of death has been created. The pieces are full of loneliness and suffering with often cryptic meanings but still enjoyable (after all, bleak is beautiful). Big concepts are drawn in particular ways that feel almost, but not fully, recognizable. These poems are enigmatic, wandering souls.
This line from one of the poems: "Your daily search for catacombs will end on your front door” immediately reminded me of the current One Story short story named "Catacombs" by Jason Zencka where a preteen boy goes missing in Acapulco and his younger brother suffers through issues of memory, guilt and a spiritual search for redemption in the catacombs of cities around the world.
As an aside, I really enjoy One Story. If a barometer on literary journals is how excited you get when they arrive in the mail, One Story would be my favorite. I have to admit, I never got excited over Poetry's arrival. The bad thing about One Story is how hard it is to get the darn thing. Both of my subscriptions have necessitated emails after months of not getting any issues. The first year there was some odd subscription snafu after my free trial ended and I had actually paid for it. This year, the publishers seemed to be on hiatus while they redesigned themselves. No emails, no heads-up, no setting expectations, no welcome back. If you can deal with these kinds of aggravations, (which are quite unique in the magazine subscription world), there’s much to recommend in their selections.
But back to the poems. Here are some examples:
The little girl tells us
about her hands
and what they cannot do:
“This is how you hold
a thing in your hand
so it will not want
to be let go.”
Then she shows us
her empty palm.
The opening line of "Preface to a Pornographer’s Dirty Book" is also indicative of how almost-sensical the poems can be:
“Love is foreplay waiting to happen”
Her poem “Steady Guide” begins with
“The senseless steering that has led you to believe that all skies are created equal.”
and ends with:
“And just like that bakery boy guzzling sugar when our backs are turned, you make sure that nobody sees you hunched like that, that nobody sees you in pain.”
Surely that must remind you of somebody. This is how it felt reading the whole book.
So I lived in Santa Fe for three years between 2010 and 2013. I've lived in New Mexico for 14 total years on and off. My father’s family homesteaded here and still lives here. I was born here. I have many ties to New Mexico and many visits have brought me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Monsieur Big Bang even worked security there for three years while he was completing his master’s degree nearby at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. So needless to say we have lots of O’Keeffe books. Over the years I’ve also collected a few books of poetry dedicated to her. Three, in fact, solely covering the topic of O’Keeffe, either references to time spent with her or responses to her work.
O'Keeffe Days in a Life by C.S. Merrill, 1995
This book consists of 108 un-named poems that read almost like a journal: O’Keeffe did this; O’Keeffe did that. Carol Merrill, a University of New Mexico graduate poet student, started working for O’Keeffe in the early 1970s cataloging O’Keeffe’s estate library. She worked with O’Keeffe, then 85 years old, for seven years doing personal assistance and secretarial work.
to Miss O'Keeffe
a large piece
of white water color
looked particularly good
with rough surface
and curly edges.
"Yes, it'll never look
is drawn on it."
Literally, these are just slices of life considered to be of some import to Merrill. Sort of illuminating in a biographical sort of way. Enough so that the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum keeps copies of this book in their gift shop.
Christopher Buckley is the son of William F. Buckley, Jr. and these are his 39 pages of poems mostly named after locatiosn and paintings. Some examples:
Red Hills and Bones
No one takes the absence
into account the way I do -
this rind of backbone, the bridge
and scale of its blank articulation,
sustains some perfectly whole
notes of light against the raw
muscle of the land unbound,
the undercurrents surfacing
in concert with the white riffs
of cholla spotting the swales.
Put right, one part of loss
counterpoints the next, leaves us
much to see despite the frank
abrasion of the air, Finally,
this thighbone is every bit
the bright, hard stuff of stars
and against the hills'
rust and clay sets free
a full, long silence here
that as much as anything
sings all my life to me.
Sky Above Clouds
My first memory
is of the brightness of light -
light all around -
a quilt of it, a patchwork
of red and white blossoms on blue
like these clouds down the evening sky,
heir form, their budding lines . . .
My mind holds them
bove the day's cadenza,
hat half hour when the hills
low and lift on a last held note -
t is then that my mind saunters
ver the cool, immaculate squares,
ver the horizon line,
he next hill, where light flowers
across the finite trellis of this world . . .
This is an improvement. At least Buckley is having a personal response and trying in ways to capture the flair of the paintings.
However, neither of these two books manage to capture O’Keeffe on paper. Much of this has to do with the banality of describing her day-to-day life, as the first book tries to do, or attempting to describe the paintings and a visceral response with poetry and failing, as the second book tries to do in surreal yet vague ways.
This book seems much more alive than other two. Although also a response to the artworks, Jacobs is from a younger generation. Much more material about O’Keeffe is now available for scholarship. This book was also written while Jacobs was staying near Ghost Ranch, a location close to one of O’Keeffe’s two homes, writing in self-imposed seclusion and using the O’Keeffe museum research center to spur creative output. In fact, Monsieur Big Bang might have been working at the front desk of the research center when Jacobs came in.
Jacobs poems are both more simplified and yet more detailed, something necessary when writing about paintings. This poems have the “dirt in mouth” quality she describes.
One concern of the museum has been the fact that their visitors tend to skew older, particularly older baby boomer women. I've often wondered, does O’Keeffe translate to younger women? This book tells me that indeed she does. Jacobs 'gets' O’Keeffe’s themes and considers them in her project of self-imposed solitude within the same setting of O’Keeffe’s somewhat self-imposed solitude.
Jacobs tackles love and sexuality, modernism, place, skyscapes, O’Keeffe’s penchant for looking through objects, the cult of celebrity and the religion of nature. Jacobs has studied O’Keeffe correspondence with her husband, Alfred Stiglitz, and the book follows both the chronology of O’Keeffe’s life alongside Jacobs’ own poem-a-day for a month project near Ghost Ranch. The points-of-view switch between O'Keeffe, Stiglitz and Jacobs. Considering the complexity of points of view and the two biological tracks, Jacobs embodies O’Keeffe in truly surprising ways and with recognizable accuracy. For narrative satisfaction, Jacobs even provides a quiet resolution for O’Keeffe and herself.
It would be great to know Georgia O’Keeffe history for this book, but Jacobs provides generous notes for these poems.
In a fragment from “From The Faraway, Nearby” Jacobs tackles the idea of abstraction:
There is no middle
and back collapse
to a single plane.
Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot)
—Georgia O’Keeffe to her friends Anita Pollitzer [Columbia, SC, to New York, NY; 1915]
In the pines, we found a house,
deserted and crawling
with roses. I came back alone—
a night when the moon made
even the underbrush shine.
Close-grown trees chirred
in the breeze. I locked the door,
tacked up the paintings
I’d carted from New York
and stared until each
spoke like the teacher
could see I’d painted it for—
a weak-penciled arm lopped
at the shoulder; Art Nouveau
Virginia lawn; dusky dead rabbit
beside a tarnished red pot—
each painting’s tone more
strident than the last, speaking
in every voice but my own.
Anita, I will have to start over.
No. 8—Special (Palo Duro Canyon with Spiral)
—Georgia O’Keeffe [Canyon, TX; 1917]
After the parceled horizons of Manhattan,
Texas plains are a glassy eternity
laminated by sky. Trapped
between them, I am a too-diluted pigment,
going transparent at the edges.
Which makes Palo Duro a deliverance.
At its rim, I am a sail,
arms outstretched, ready to crow
over the canyon, dive down into it.
But the only paths in are cañadas,
steep and rocky, forged and rutted
by hoof prints. Straggles of cattle
watch from above, lines of black lace
against the blanched day. By night,
that thrill is still with me. I stand
with brush to the tight-wefted board
while the cows, now penned,
low for their calves
rhythmic as a Penitente song.
Book Title pic: http://www.georgiaokeeffe.net/pelvis-with-the-distance.jsp
It’s been exactly six years since I’ve been to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Since that time the festival has moved from the UCLA campus to USC. It's always had a reputation for being the biggest book festival in the country and I’ve always found its free lectures and panels highly stimulating and enjoyable. This year, however, the turnout seemed low. This could have been because the comparatively-massive AWP conference was just in town weeks earlier, (my friend Coolia tells me it was much more poet friendly, if not outright revering) or it could have been the unusually drizzly LA weather.
The last conference I attended was in 2010 and was memorable for two reasons. First, I had just purchased my first smart phone and when I forgot to bring paper to the lectures I was happily able to take notes on the iPhone. How fun! Secondly, I experienced my first carpel tunnel attack the following days. Was it all that iPhone typing? Was I carrying around too many heavy books in my big backpack? Was it just bad timing? Who knows but so severe and depressing was the situation and resulting psychological connection, I never looked at those note files again until I returned to the festival last month, six years later.
Actually, the LA Book festival has always felt transformative for me. One panelist there, in fact, convinced me I could learn Smashwords and self-publish certain projects.
This year I immediately walked over to the what I call the poetry pit, (formerly I called it the poetry nook at UCLA) where Ron Kortege was reading to a tiny, tiny crowd (see pic above). There seemed to be even fewer chairs than I remembered at UCLA. And it definitely took more effort to get down into the pit than it did into the nook, (which was near a major thoroughfare). Jorie Graham was scheduled to read next but she was sick and bailed so the pit organizers decided to read her poems during her set. I didn’t stick around for that. I can read aloud my own Jorie Graham poems.
I toured the poetry tents nearby and bought some books at a haiku tent. I learned about the group Haiku North America who will be having their 13th conference in Santa Fe in 2017. A tiny flyer advertised presentations, readings, workshops, demos, art and music for the Sept 13-17 dates at the Hotel Santa Fe. The flyer advertised their website but it has absolutely no information about the conference yet there. I also bought a Poet t-shirt from the Get Lit tent, a teen literacy group sponsored that day by the LA teen slam team. This is their tag line: "Find your voice. Discover your poem. Claim your life."
Next I went to my first panel discussion, a “Conversation with US Poet Laureate Juan-Felipe Herrera.” Herrera told long, drawn out stories. He talked a bit about his family history, anthropology, cultural social spaces in California then and now, and he spoke charmingly about how he uses hotel note paper to write his poems, almost he said like the hotel pads are kind of press imprints. He talked about putting your self into motion. People asked him what the U.S. Poet Laureate job description entailed and he talked about his House of Colors all-language project and his Washington, D.C. office overlooking the White House. People asked him about stereotypes regarding California writers, (which are plenty but he demurred) and unlike Billy Collins, Herrera's attitude was not that there are too many poets. Herrera insisted there is a lot of room in everything. And he said, “Things are only impossible 60% not 100%. Forty percent is possible." He did the Iowa MFA program at 40.
Next up was "The Sacred and the Profane in 21st Century Poetry." Carol Muske-Dukes led the discussion. I’ve seen a few times at book fest. I really like her essays and non-fiction and I just bought a book of her poems at the festival. I loved her book about her husband. But she can be annoying in a panel because she always kvetches about the title of the panel and how meaningless and constraining it is. This time the technology of the mic kept confounding her and she seemed irritated more than amused by it. Finally, another equally annoyed audience member yelled for her to just “hold it” and thankfully that fixed the issue.
Harryette Mullin filled in for the sickiepoo Jorie Graham and was generous and illuminating. Instead of reading her own poems on the topic, (the sacred and the profane), she read "The Pope's Penis" by Sharon Olds and “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” by William Butler Yeats.
Ron Koertge was also on the panel. I’m normally a fan of Koertege and I love the poem "Guide to Refreshing Sleep." But he turned every question around to himself in a somewhat suffocating way. This was jarring when juxtaposed against Mullen self-effacement. I experienced my typical disappoint when I see poets in person that I’m a fan of. This happened with Stephen Dobyns who I saw read grumpily at Sarah Lawrence College and Albert Goldbarth who was on an LA Bookfest years ago and refused to talk craft. Why attend a craft panel then? Anyway, I still read and like those poets. I just wont go see them read again (or see them participate in craft panels).
Dana Gioa was the fourth panel member. So here’s the reverse phenomenon going on. I read Gioa’s essays and am consistently irritated by them but then I always end up liking him better in person. This time I decided his facial expressions remind me of actor George Segal. Anywa, I just took a class in New Mexico art history and learned all about bultos and santos, little carved saints Catholic woodcarvers in New Mexico created in the 17th century for local missions. Gioia talked about his Mexican heritage, (did he say Hispanic? I can’t remember), and read a santos poem. “The Angel with the Broken Wing" which was published in Poetry magazine.
As you can see I took very bad photos with my camera phone. I was amazed at how brazen I had become in six years to even take bad photos.
The panel started with pretentious paper shuffling from the poets, something that fiction panels never do. “We are all doing stuff of import!” They discussed the role of religion in poetry and when and where they might have used something sacred or profane. Carol Muske-Dukes asked, “Is all art in a way religion? Do the sacred and profane come together in poetry?” Ron talked almost exclusively about this own childhood. Dana talked big picture stuff about all of our metaphysical longings, the material versus the divine, and about how people are leaving behind spiritual codes but are still feeling a spiritual hunger. And I can’t help but explicate everything he says in order to determine where the coded politics is bleeding through. He claimed anthropologists have yet to find a culture without poetry. I asked my anthropologist husband about this and he said this sounded like an overstatement and was probably not true. I added that since you can’t really control the definition of what poetry even means, we’ll never be able to verify or disprove such a statement. Dana and Carol Muske-Dukes argued about whether W. H. Auden was religious.
Late in the day Ross Gay gave a reading in the poetry pit and it was lovely and amazing. Smile: check. Working the audience: check. Wearing a Poetry t-shirt similar to the one I just bought: check. Captivating reading: check. He didn’t do a “performance” reading per se. He read. But he read really well. I still haven’t finished his book which I bought on my eReader so I couldn’t get it autographed. Bummers.
The next day I attended “Poetry and the Arts: The Influences of Music, Cinema, and the Visual Arts in Contemporary Poetry.” Hands down, the best LA book fest poetry panel I’ve ever been too. And note to Carol Muske-Dukes, the poets on the panel embraced their topic.
David St. John was funny and said he liked listening to performances, seeing artworks, and was able to make profound connections mostly through film influences. He said he found his voice by watching films.
Elena Karina Byrne’s parents were artists and she was raised on contemporary and conceptual art and these were her early, primitive experiences. Her father was a famous figure drawing teacher to Disney animators. She said all art is a dialogue with the world, the self and history. She quoted Magritte to say "art is a dream for waking minds" and Mark Doty who said "you can cause time to open by looking." She said Mark Strand began as a painter from Yale.
Ralph Angel was an enjoy-the-moment, slow talking guy, wholly present but almost boring he took so long to get to a point. He read a poem by Agnes Martin, a painter I've been studying in my New Mexico art history class. I didn't know she wrote poems but she did, sometimes about her paintings. He referenced John Coltrane a few times and said he was inspired by essays, novels, a walk, film, music...."so many guides."
Fiona Sze-Lorrain was a very interesting Chinese French author/poet/harpist also on the panel. She said that no art exists separately. She said she started with notes before words and appreciated music’s precise syntax and tempo changes. She liked working with an instrument bigger than herself. She talked about the shape of her breath and architecture. Musically she liked Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, and Joni Mitchell. She said poems fail when they start to describe painting, they become autobiographical. Then I wondered if she said Joan Mitchell or Joni Mitchell. Both were painters. She also plays the zither – a rare Chinese instrument, and I was reminded of my favorite Billy Collins poem, Serenade.
At this panel I noticed many more differences between fiction writers and poets. Poets don’t go to each others’ panels like fiction writers do. Does that say something about the poet character? Poets also don’t talk as casually before their panels. There was no talking together before this one and two of them were even friends. Very few people attended these poetry panels, sadly. Someday I hope to compare these panels to AWP poetry panels.
Some notes form the fiction panels I aggended:
My friend and fest-mate had a crush Crush on the new fiction writer Matt Sumell (see pic right) and he did have a charming New York vibe going on. He also looks and talks like Jon Stewart. In this panel the writers talked about unlikable characters, mostly defining what they are. Sumell said "Bad choices make good stories."
In another panel on Creative Storytelling, Tony-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl talked about how plays have shapes that emerge two-thirds of the way into writing them, sometimes real geometric shapes. They don’t always follow the Aristotle arc she said. She also noted that our culture is obsessed with originality to its detriment. John Scaret Young said “Don’t tie up everything” and Mark Haskel Smith said it’s "all about energy so don’t edit as you go."
In the panel Writing the Writer, two writers admitted they were afraid to show the writing samples of accomplished, brilliant characters who were writers, as if they couldn’t live up to their descriptions of the talent. Someone said they wrote about writers because they wanted to explore the life they didn’t have. Another said he wanted to write about someone like himself. Paul Kolsby said to learn how to get out of your own way.
Another thing I noticed this trip: to be a panelist it seems you need to be peddling a recent book. This kind of made the whole thing feel like a publicity event more than an educational one.
Jim Harrison, Poet, Novelist and Essayist, Is Dead at 78 (The New York Times)
A poet who knows it: Bill Murray shares some favorite verse (Press of Atlantic City)
Bill Murray's New Job: Poetry Editor (Rolling Stone)
O Magazine to Publish Bill Murray's Favorite Poetry (The Poetry Foundation)
9 Latino Poets You Should Be Reading (Bustle)
Poet Perfectly Breaks Down The Erasure Of Black People In U.S. History (Huffington Post)
Poet Breaks Down Why Brains And Beauty Are Not Mutually Exclusive (Huffington Post)
The Shakespeare Quiz (The New York Times)
I found out my grandmother's aunt was not only a writer, but she played a crucial role in my grandmother’s life, giving her a place to live after she ran away to put herself and her sister through college. My grandmother's Iowa farmer dad was literally going to keep her from going to school. But my grandmother had spunk and put herself through college in the 1920s! Amazing. Anyway, the aunt who helped her lived in Washington state and she was a writer.
Anyway, I reconstructed a poem erle Kulow Sherrill composed that was printed in her mother's obituary. It's a good, albeit depressing little ballad.
by Merle Kulow Sherrill
Although I ever did my best,
My best was far form good.
Although I failed to reach the goal
I did the best I could.
Long days I toiled 'neath the burning suns
With hand that knew no skill.
Although I strove with might and main,
The place I could not fill,
I longed to write some kindly thought
To cheer my fellow men,
Alas, the words I could not form
Beneath my faltering pen.
I fain would sing a joyous song
To brighten land and sea,
But I alone in all the world
Have heard the melody.
I sought to paint a picture bold
To stem the world's mad rush,
The colors somehow failed to blend
Beneath my faulty brush.
And when there comes the long dark night
That ends my futile day,
And when I stand before the throne
What will the Master say?
Perhaps He'll turn His grieving face
And say "You must depart,"
Or, will He take me to His breast
With understanding heart?
Somehow, I feel He'll say to me,
"You did but little good,
But enter through the Fates of Peace,
You did the best you could."
Also found at: http://www.poetryexplorer.net/poem.php?id=10126803
Despite mostly searching in vain for more information about my mother’s great aunt, we did find some sheet music authored by her, called “Firefly” by Merle Kulow Sherril from Harold Week’s Publisher out of Tacoma, Washington. The cover boasts a possibly northeastern American Indian woman replete with headband and feather, teepees and pine trees in the background, holding her arm out to the name beyond the border of the picture. There are indecipherable pencil notes written on each page.
by Merle Kulow Sherrill
The night winds wing of my lost Firefly.
Sad is the strain of their lullaby.
Birds softly chant in their quiet flight
And call her name in the silent night.
Firefly sleeps at the end of the trail
Under the glow of the starlight pale.
Under the glow of the soft moon light,
Firefly sleeps. My Firefly sleeps.
Shell run no more in the dewy morn,
Nor answer gaily the hunter’s horn.
She’ll sing no more through the golden noon,
Nor dance again ‘neath the harvest moon.
Firefly sleeps at the end of the trail,
Under the glow of the starlight pale.
Under the glow of the soft moon light,
Firefly sleeps. My Firefly sleeps.
Her face I see in each sparkling rill.
Her laughter sounds from hill to hill,
I call her name by the lonely shore,
But Firefly comes to my side no more.
Firefly sleeps at the end of the trail,
Under the glow of the starlight pale.
Under the glow of the soft moon light,
Firefly sleeps. My Firefly sleeps.
Could this be a literal poem about a firefly? Why is Firefly always capitalized. Is the lightning bug symbolic for something else, a love story maybe? Where did she go, this female flight of light? So many questions.
National Poetry Month 2016 is off to a busy start. To the left see this year's Academy of American Poet's poster. I wasn't crazy about it so I didn't purchase one. But you can purchase all their yearly posters.
I'm participating in NaPoWriMo again this year on Hello Poetry but I'll be doing the daily prompts for the first time. My over-arching add-on is that all the poems should be about this year's election cycle. I'm calling it 30 Poems About the Same Thing. It's been challenging to be balanced and take a larger-than-partisan view.
Don't forget that National Poetry Month has a capstone holiday on April 28 which is Great Poetry Reading Day. Some sites that detail the holiday:
To clarify, this is not Crappy Poetry Reading Day so make sure to find something Tony the Tiger would be proud to read.
We're starting off with Port Orford because my mother is from there. Port Orford hosts 10th annual Poet's Roundup (Bandon Western World)
The life of world-famous poet Dylan Thomas on stage (West Briton)
Tantrums of an aristocrat poet: Lord Alfred Douglas (Independent.ie)
Placitas poet consolidates four years of explorations on topics both cosmic and common (my local! Albuquerque Journal)
14 Brilliant Women Poets To Read On World Poetry Day (Huffington Post)
Good Syrian Poet News: Google dedicates doodle to Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (The National)
And Bad Syrian Poet News: IS executes respected Syrian poet and son for 'apostasy'
Mohammed Bashir al-Aani, an opponent of President Assad, was known for his lyrical poetic style (Middle East Eye)
My Cousin, The Cowboy Poet (The New Yorker)
6 Historic Haunts to Visit in NYC (Guest of a Guest)
“A verbal poet merely; empty of thought, empty of sympathy, empty of love for any real thing…he was not human and manly.”
John Burroughs, The Dial
“A village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”
Gertrude Stein (she was probably biased a bit)
from Rotten Reviews compiled by Bill Henderson
Poet Ross Gay is on a roll: He talks gardens and gratitude (The Los Angeles Times)
Third set of Lesbian Poet Trading Cards due out in March (Chicago Tribune)
Katie Holmes on Playing a Bipolar Poet (Wall Street Journal)
Sex trafficking victim is now a famous poet (Asia One)
Bangladeshi woman whose poetry collections were published from India last year after her rescue from a sex racket there and published under the pseudonym Chhaya.
James Franco is not a Queer Poet (City Paper)
What can a poet tell us about the Zika virus? (Washington Post)
New hardcover book on Sappho (W.W. Norton)
Experts to probe death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Yahoo! News)
Will this exhumation ever end??
8 Battlefield Poets of World War I (History.com)
New take on notions of Audre Lorde, 'warrior poet' (Windy City)
Other Interesting Links
When Teamwork Doesn’t Work for Women (New York Times)
Think tenure and co-authorships.
Prison poetry makes it to the outside
At Monsieur Big Bang’s local coffee shop he found a handout of a poem written by a "free man in solitary confinement in KS prison" discussing "corporate masters, born into slavery and taking back, lives, liberties and pursuits of Happiness and redistributing wealth back to the majority.”