4.30.2010

The Salt Ecstasies

Could not find a book cover, but perhaps because it is about to be rereleased by Graywolf as part of Mark Doty's RE/view series that has republished so many great volumes of poetry.

I love books by Minneapolis poets. I do not know why. I love them when the poems are set in Minneapolis. It is a city unlike any other. In my memory, it is the only city. It is the city I go back to when I convince myself there will never be another winter. It is a city of people I love, people I loved, people I wanted to love.

And there was this book, which is so full of longing and yearning that you almost have to tear it in half as you read. It's almost too much. It's almost so dark and depressing you want to rush into it and shake him and say "GOOD GOD MAN IT CAN'T BE THAT BAD."

But it is that bad. But it wasn't always that bad, and that's why this book sings. It remembers.

And that memory lingers like a curse.

4.29.2010

Powerless



How odd, to have googled for an image of this book cover and discovered a photo of myself ca. 2006 among the results.

At first I thought this was like a designer imposter version of Frank O'Hara ("If you love O'Hara, you'll LOVE Tim Dlugos!"). The flighty arrogance, the irreverence, the slight snobbery of knowing a lot about art in a society that prides itself on disregarding art. The flirtatiousness that is played both for comedy and for sting.

But Dlugos is more than that, becomes more than that through the course of this book. Disarmingly so. He writes the true thing, the awkward thing, the real thing that is so real it makes everyone in the room a little uncomfortable.

The poems are often lush, overfull, voluminous. They are litanies of the every day. And you know now how much I love a litany.

4.28.2010

Kinky



I can still remember reading this book on the airplane back from an AWP conference. It might be because I wasn't above playing Barbies with my girl friends when I was a kid that this book really appeals to me. I don't think it's limited to the Barbie experience, though--even my G. I. Joe action figures had complicated relationships and rich imagined lives, and took frequent and long-term exotic vacations together.

I love this book for its obsession. It relentlessly reinvents Barbie again and again.

Read one way, it's stand up comedy.

Read a little more deeply, it's a tender and touching tribute.

Read even further, it's a smart and biting social critique, not just of Barbie or of the man's world or standards placed upon women, but of the culture that is both blind to this fact and completely beholden to it.

Plus, the brilliance of all the invented Barbies--Mormon Barbie, Sister Barbie, Apocalyptic Barbie, Bisexual Barbie, just to name a few.

4.27.2010

The Changing Light at Sandover



A book with a Ouija in it. Who knew you could have Ouija in a poem?

An abecedarian book. Then, numbers.

I love the way the two men in the book are so domestic and loving of each other. It gave me hope for this at a time when I had none. I also love how simply it is expressed--there is no grand outing. Their love is so clear it is not mentioned as such, but is evidenced as such.

The playfulness of messages from the beyond. This book feels like it was started as a lark, but then the lark became an eagle.

4.26.2010

Fuck You — Aloha — I Love You



Here is a book I read that was intellectually interesting, emotionally compelling, and formally distinct from other work I'd been reading. Here is a book that I would consider poetry of rhetoric more than poetry of imagery, although the image of the Hawaiian punk rock singer screaming the title of the book stays with me. Here is a book that uses language like a chant. Language like a meditation. Here is a book that masquerades as an essay. It is a book about Hawaii, which I have come to love. It is a book about inside/outside, about native/intrusion, about culture/society. There are gymnasts in this book who make shapes with their bodies and the body, in this book, is a meaningful symbol like language. From this book I learned to be obsessive about the content of my work, to not just know it but to live it, but not to mistake what I live for the content of what I write.

4.25.2010

Darker



I love how crazy this book is, how schizophrenic and obsessive and paranoid.

I admire small poems, their bravery and simplicity.

I praise the declarative sentence. I sometimes (as I do here) support end-stopped lines.

I acknowledge anaphora ("Giving Back") and its effect.

I love list poems, poems that steal a form from outside poetry, and poems that make fun of the poetry life ("The New Poetry Handbook").

I support litany.

I popularize and democratize gross overstatements that are ridiculous or paradoxical in nature ("The future is not what it used to be.")

I am invested in poetry that is both funny and deadly serious, because my experience of the world is that it is simultaneously absurd and tragic.

I am a fan of simple titles.

If short lines were a Page on Facebook, I would "like" it.

I appreciate these poems are serious, but do not take themselves too seriously. I think this is an important distinction between sincerity and sentimentality.

I believe whenever there is a darkness, it hides a light. But that the light is still there.

4.24.2010

Ariel



Before MM's iconic book, there was this one, the book she left behind, stacked neatly on her desk in manuscript form. In school I once heard a lecture in which my teacher positioned Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath as opposing elemental forces. While most of the vernacular escapes me now (aside from one of them being the "dada whoosh"), the crux was that Sexton was the structured, orderly, intellectual impulse, while Plath was the emotional, uncontrolled, innate impulse. The description has stuck with me.

While the poems in Ariel are very structured, they feel almost uncontained to me. Like "Lady Lazarus," the way it brims over with energy, or "Daddy," with its goosestomped rhythm that threatens to silence to poem outright. Alongside quieter poems like "The Moon and the Yew Tree" and "Blackberrying," the collection vibrates at different frequencies--it is truly uncontrolled, inconsistent, alive, animal.

And throughout, the silhouette of Plath herself flickers as if behind a scrim. The story around the book is as iconic as the book itself, and difficult to separate. But the poems endure and remain to mentor us on the ability of poetry to resonate at emotional levels far beyond the simplicity of its language.

4.23.2010

The Country Between Us



Is anyone in my generation not indebted to "The Colonel"? If not indebted, can any of us write without acknowledging it or understanding its importance?

At its core, this is a book about exile: physical exile abroad--the kind of displacement of vision that burnishes a poet's perspective both on the world and on one's own vision of the world.

Emotional exile--the separation from what one sees and what one feels about what one sees, and then the ability to write it down without qualifying it.

Intellectual exile--the be in the body and to be confronted with death, violence, fear. To continue on.

These exiles are necessary. To be a poet we must not be ourselves. This book is evidence that a collective voice can have one body, can speak for many, can speak for those who cannot or will not speak, is necessary. It's evidence that a solitary voice can be heard by many.

4.22.2010

100 Selected Poems



Why is he not more widely discussed now? It's a curiosity to me. I remember my classmate in grad school who, breath a fog of whiskey, insisted he was the greatest poet of the last century. I remembered this book, that it had encouraged me to write when I was younger, I remembered reading "Buffalo Bill's defunct" in high school, thinking "What the F is this??" and then reading it again, and then reading more, reading "l(a"
and thinking it was brilliant and oversimplified--ostentatious and docile.

Why isn't he more widely read? Or is he read in secret? Those secret sonnets of his, all broken to pieces and decapitalized. I love form. I love to receive form. I love to explore form. This was his lesson to me, that form is both apparent (external) and inherent (internal). But form is always. If you do not establish the form, the form creates itself. Often poorly.

4.21.2010

Tea



A book you read sideways.

A book with lines full of caesura like pot holes.

With disco lyrics, classical allusion, secret gay slang.

A book that is two books.

A book full of boys dead or dying.

A book of spirituals, of a kind.

A book without titles.

A book with the detail of gossip, the burden of grief, the permanence of love.

A book in which the speaker looks bad as he realizes he has made mistakes.

A book in which the speaker accuses other people, perhaps in order to ultimately forgive them.

A book that believes in heaven.

4.20.2010

Trilogy



More echo of myth. Although I never thought this was my thing until I sat down to do this, and now I see, looking backwards: breadcrumbs. H.D. made films. Not many people know this, but it was one of the things I like about her, that she put into practice what I have only considered, that film images and poetic images have affinity. That the unraveling of a poem line by line is an unspooling. That poetry, like celluloid, should be exceptionally flammable.

Trilogy was the first long poem I ever read--or long sequence. I loved the pacing of it, the patient couplets making evenly measured steps forward. I have always loved her for "Oread" and this was like "Oread" on Red Bull. It went on forever. It forbade the war from winning, and yet it is a book of the war. It is unsentimental and it will not stop caring. There are a lot of contradictions inside.

It made me love the couplet.

Meadowlands



I think I read this book right before or right after a painful romantic split. The ex-lovers in this book are harsh but fair, honest, unrelenting, and the mythic overlay of the story of Odysseus are brilliant.

Circe's Power: "I never turned anyone into a pig. / Some people are pigs; I just make them / look like pigs."

And then, further: "I'm sick of your world / that lets the outside disguise the inside."

Or this: "I became a criminal when I fell in love. / Before that I was a waitress." (Siren)

But it's probably Telemachus whose voice I know best. The far off rumble of divorce. Who are these people who raised me? Strangers to each other and to me. My story had a happier end than this, maybe. We had no Meadlowlands. But the book, like a memory, keeps that time for me, remembers it so I don't have to.

4.19.2010

The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara



He was the first poet I read exhaustively. He was like my first poet love in that way. He was strange and unknowable and I was excited by his sudden confessions, which seemed improper, too intimate for our level of familiarity.

I met him in a college poetry class. My teacher Jennifer Willoughby brought in "The Day Lady Died" and encouraged us to write something "immediate," something in the moment, something of the day-to-day. It engulfed me, that assignment, and became the way I interacted with poems for a long, long time.

At a used bookstore near campus, I found this book. It was $18.95, or almost 10 packs of cigarettes. I bought it. I carried it around with me for years, and then while I was in grad school it followed me around some more. Once, a boy I liked read pieces from it to me, and I read some back. I made steady progress through it and Frank became like an obsession for me. Obsession's not the right word. He became a kind of dream for me.

I still love him. I still think of him. I still go back to this book from time to time. I still dream.

4.18.2010

Crush



I love this book because it does not let go--of its concerns, of the reader.

I love this book because it tells the same story any number of times and each iteration is unique, horrifying, ruining.

I love this book because it tries to be sexy sometimes when it thinks you're looking at it.

I love this book because, ultimately, it chides itself for its sexiness, for wanting to think it is seen by you when it thinks you are looking.

I love this book for its multitude of striking lines and juxtapositions, for its liberal use of the page and for its concern with a physical kind of unraveling, for its attempt to be structured but then more loose in association and narrative.

I love this book for the dream about the Safeway when the speaker is sure there will be a hold up, when the lover teases him for it, when someone suddenly shouts "Nobody move!" and the speaker whispers "I told you so" because it is precisely the thing I would do in such a situation. Because the book knows that even though we like to think ourselves valiant, at heart we succumb to our most basic needs and instincts.

I love this book because it runs on instinct.

Because it is a giant sequence and not at all a sequence.

Because its title means both "to smash" and "to love."

4.17.2010

Diving Into the Wreck



I was already a fan of Adrienne Rich when I read this book, but it became the book that, for me, solidified my connection to her. Reading it some thirty years after it was written, I felt like I could see some of the work in it, some of the intentions, some of the politics, but that the poems, as pieces, and the collection, as a whole, still stood.

I think of "Diving Into the Wreck," the title piece, as a kind of ars poetica. In the poem, the speaker--guess what?--dives into a sunken wreck and examines the detritus there. For me, the act of writing poetry is just this kind of explorations. We go in with expectations and curiosity, develop questions, and leave, hopefully, having answered some of them, or found something wholly new there.

The poems of this volume are plain-spoken, somewhat stark even, lacking some of the more formal structures and considerations in Rich's later (and earlier) work, so reading her books backwards in time makes this volume feel wild, unstructured, and fearless. But like many of the books that speak to me, it is haunted, it is shadowed, it is aware that despite the poems, the world is full of shadows, full of wrecks, full of questions.

4.16.2010

Lie Awake Lake



Another grief sequence today, but this one is somewhat different. While mourning the loss of a father, the speaker of these poems turns to the natural world, where memories of animal encounters and dreams of animal encounter abound, as well as subtle explorations of flowers and plants, all leading toward a zen understanding of the universe's quest for balance.

This is a book of memory, where the mind is always in the act of remembering, about to remember, or craving memory. What is familiar is mistaken for echo rather than suggestion.

There are two poems from this book that follow me. "Wren" includes the sudden memory of dipping a hand into a pool to fish out a small bird stranded there, recognizing as it shudders with fear despite the salvation the hand brings. "Dogwalk Triptych," near the end of the book, brings to mind every time I've seen a dog play on a beach. The images throughout the book are startling and memorable, but what truly sings is the language, which is luscious, erotic, and cropped all at the same time.

4.15.2010

Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced



This collection will destroy you. It is such a finely wrought, spot-on exploration of grief--grief over the death of children, two of them, which is always unimaginable, if you've ever loved a child. In a steady sequence of brief, lyric poems, Catherine Barnett reifies this grief through objects, dreams, tableaus.

The tableau is actually such an essential part of this book, now that I think of it. There are many stilled images that echo the loss of the girls. The most enduring are the white ribbons tied to a fence at the school, the girls' rooms unchanged, their clothes.

The smart move is that the tragedy does not occur in the book, making these poems a kind of V-shape, like a boat wake, slowly widening out, just as the experience and understanding of grief begins with a sharp stab and dulls outward back into the world, where it comes mixed with the work of living.

This is a great example of narrative sequence, where each poem is a lyric component of a larger narrative, particularly one that moves emotionally rather than with causality.

4.14.2010

Angle of Yaw



This book has stayed with me since I read it. Ben Lerner's extended prose and verse sequences are strange, interesting. They dazzle with wit and then clobber with heavy truth.

Some of the prose pieces are smart microessays on culture, and the book as a whole takes a critical stance to our post 9/11 American practice. It moves from the realm of near-Dada to near-propaganda and back again, demonstrating how similar the two impulses really are.

4.13.2010

My Alexandria



I think Mark Doty's collection was one of the first books I read by a gay poet as a gay literary work. As in, I didn't read it and find out later he was gay, and I felt like the poems were constructed in and because of a gay identity.

It came into my life at an important moment, although I wouldn't understand its significance for some time--probably not until I read Cavafy, who Doty references with this title (and who I also love). I was feeling isolated then, and feeling like I had to present queer poems to my mostly heterosexual peers in such a way that they were nonthreatening and, well, kind of funny. (Not their issue; it was clearly my own internalized stuff.)

This book felt then like a kind of artifact, and I don't mean that disparagingly, in that it was old or outmoded. It felt like something that contained a great deal of knowledge and value, something that needed discovery. It's really the last section that I continue to inhabit now, even as I have gone on and explored the ways in which gay perspectives and experience can be included in my work.

4.12.2010

Sleeping with the Dictionary



This is one of my favorite books to come back to and read again and again because I feel like I always find new things in it, and the pleasure of the poems' sounds never decreases. It always feels new, interesting, unique.

But what I really love about Harryette Mullen's collection is that while there is extensive language play and music in the poems, there is also some biting social critique. To overlay these two aspects--perhaps inserting the critique into the work in such a way that the critiqued might be fooled or overlook it--is, perhaps, the ultimate form of rebellion because it allows oppressive forces to participate in their own mocking.

The book is a giant abecedarian, the poems elapsing alphabetically by title, which also makes me think about the importance of--and purpose of--structure. As this is a book about language, the rules of language both apply and are subverted with equal aplomb.

Delicious.

4.11.2010

The Branch Will Not Break



I read this book when I thought the Midwest had no poets.

I grew up in a place where writing poetry--because it involved no stock cars, no beer cans (or so they thought!), and no women in bikinis--was considered a feminine pursuit. For a long time I thought poets only lived in coffins, and a few in big cities. When I read James Wright, I realized there were poets who understood where I came from, and that our home was something that could be poetic.

I was also drawn to the plainness of the poems, their stark admissions and bold statements. "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" was a poem that shook me awake--this anesthetizing catalog of nature punctuated with the sudden confession, "I have wasted my life."

James Wright taught me how to earn things in poems. How to earn the right for the speaker to say something as bare and burdened as "I have wasted my life," for example.

The brief, contained poems here are overlaid with the dark veil of depression, and, for me, interestingly so. The volatile nature of the mood of the poems moves all over the place throughout the book, from the aforementioned piece to "Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me" to "Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas, 1960." The former example proves that some experiences are timeless.

Also present in Wright's work is a thread of social justice, which also spoke to me and continues to be a guiding principle for me. To call for justice and to move people to act are two different impulses. Wright knows this, and shows rather than tells.

4.10.2010

Radi Os



What happens when you take "Paradise Lost" and cross out all the boring parts?

Ronald Johnson's Radi Os (Get it? Paradise Lost.) I had never read a book like this when I had read it, and it encouraged me to experiment with erasures. I know many other poets have done this and done this well, but erasures, I think, are a great exercise for everyone. I talked about this with Jeremy Halinen, who interviewed me for Knockout this issue. When I was doing research for my Matthew Shepard poems--and I did a lot of research, for weeks on end, reading the most horrifying things you can imagine--I felt the sudden need to become surgical, the excise, the carve. I could no longer write new. It had been beaten from me.

So I took paragraphs from Vanity Fair, from Newsweek, from online reporting sources, and I cut into them. I tried to make the paragraphs go from devastating to something beautiful, something redemptive. Ultimately, I couldn't support this in my own work, but that's not what Johnson is doing with Radi Os, which is why it's such an important work. He plies the language more interestingly, pulls out strange collisions and fractures from the source text, and doesn't comment on it as much as he illuminates it.

4.09.2010

The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day

I can't post this book's cover because I think it is out of print, which is horrifying.

Speaking of innovation and formal experimentation and the "I" voice and cultural subversion and having balls, there's Jim Elledge's book, which was the first I'd read by him after one of my classmates told me about his work. If you know the Frank O'Hara Chapbook Award, you know that Jim is the one who has kept this opportunity alive for GLBT poets--and thank God for that. But what you don't know is how talented and bold Jim is in his own right.

The book is concerned with a domestic relationship between two men, elapsing over a series of poems that include the phrase "the Man I Love" in the title. "Elbow-deep in Dishwater, I Tell the Man I Love a Secret," "The Man I Love Has a Bad Hair Day," "14 Reasons Why I Mention Mario Lanza to the Man I Love Every Chance I Get," "Billie Holliday, Our Rottweiler Puppy, Turns the Table on Me, the Beta Parent, as the Man I Love, the Alpha Parent, Said She Would Someday." It is a book grounded in the reality of living in love, but the book is built on the back of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which houses rites and rituals for guiding the souls of the dead to the afterlife. This is a book about the now, the here.

Two formally daring sections take root amid the domesticity. One, a section of poems constructed from footnotes to blank pages, pushes action and meditation into the same marginalized space. The other elevates the text across the top of the page like a stock ticker, one line elapsing over page after page after page. The book has three fields: the body of the page, its underworld, and its heaven.

I just reread the back of the book where it says this is a novel. For me, it is poems. It is the way novelists should learn to write. It's a book that proved all bets could be off and you could still win.

4.08.2010

Power Politics



Margaret Atwood's Power Politics reads a little bit like a relic of second-wave feminism now, but that doesn't mean it isn't still valuable.

Picture me, my sixteen-year-old high school self. I had floppy hair and wore oversized t-shirts. In my private imagination I was a poet, although I disliked most poetry we were taught in school because it was boring, had nothing to do with the current world, seemed trapped in the kind of paintings you'd find in a stuffy museum.

Then we read a tiny four line poem:

"you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye"


And I was totally in love with Margaret Atwood after that. It's ballsy! It's simple! It's a little gross! Of course, I didn't understand the context of the poem then, but years later I stumbled upon Power Politics and saw that this four-line snippet opens the book.

What feminism teaches me is something I've struggled to put into words. On the one hand, I feel unable to access the feminist impulse in poetry because of the privilege I can't escape as a man. But I am forced uncomfortably into a feminine box, at times, because I am gay (although I do not consider much about gay identity to be feminine, but agree that it can be defined as "not masculine," if masculinity is all about beer farts, belching, ESPN, suckerpunches, and shit like that).

But I have tried to write from a place that recognizes power exists. That power seeks to occupy. That power, ultimately, fails to do so unless we allow it to occupy. I want to say the thing everyone knows but refuses to acknowledge.

4.07.2010

The Room Where I Was Born



Brian Teare's first collection was recommended to me by one of my MFA teachers who knew him.

There are two overwhelming impulses in the way the poems are crafted: sound and form.

Brian is a poet who creates forms anew when he writes. He pushes the boundary of form and calls into question whether form is a limitation or a liberation. It is difficult to walk that line, but he does it in almost every piece in this book and even further in his second book Sight Map.

The Room Where I Was Born is a dark book. There is something sinister lurking just past where the shadows being, and night is falling or just about to fall. The world of the poems is highly sensualized and sexualized, full of curious power dynamics. The form and the sound reinforce this.

It is a book that reinvented poetry for me.

4.06.2010

Don't Let Me Be Lonely



D. A. Powell recommended this book when Sarah Vap and I interviewed him a few years ago. I had seen it around, you know, but I hadn't really known what to make of it.

I read it--I remember this so clearly--on a flight to my friend Katie's wedding in Minneapolis. I read it cover to cover in under two hours because I just couldn't put it down. That rarely happens to me when I read, especially on a plane. But there I was, completely sucked into this new and strange and confessional and cultural work that was making my brain explode.

In the book, Claudia Rankine merges the speaker's story of personal, intimate grief and depression with an overall analysis of American culture and norms. Over and over in the book, she explains (to the reader and to people the speaker encounters): "I am writing a book about the liver." The function of the liver is to absorb all of the toxins in the body and break them down so they are no longer harmful. What's brilliant about this book is that Rankine does the same thing with our culture: Don't Let Me Be Lonely captures all of our toxic events and values and, through meditation and critique, breaks them down. Racism, consumerism, the pharmaceutical industry, television, violence, politics--all of it is absorbed here.

But don't be mistaken--this is first and foremost a personal book. Even while digesting culture, the book maintains a close connection to its voice. It becomes hypnotic.

This book showed me why writers must take risks.

4.05.2010

Exercises in Style



I'm pretty sure this book floated into my life when I first arrived at graduate school, recommended reading for the Magical Realism course I took in my first term. I'm sure I didn't track it down until some time later, but when I did, I was glad to have remembered the recommendation.

Raymond Queneau recounts the same simple event 99 times in this book, appropriating various traditions, perspectives, forms, and voices to do so. A man is pushed on a bus; he complains that the push was deliberate. The alleged pusher jumps into an open seat. Later, the speaker observes the same man being advised by his friend to sew a new button onto his coat.

Some stylistic choices:

You know
"Well, you know, the bus arrived, so, you know, I got on. Then I saw, you know, a citizen who, you know, caught my eye, sort of."

Logical analysis
"Bus.
Platform.
Bus platform. That's the place.
Midday.
About.
About midday. That's the time."

This book taught me the importance of storytelling over story. It isn't what happens in the poem, but all the considerations that go into making the poem work that truly affect the reader. It also encouraged me to start experimenting with different means of storytelling, which led me directly into the kind of work I put into my book.

So, I suppose I owe Raymond some thanks. And here it is.

Also, today is my birthday.

4.04.2010

Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century



When this anthology came out, it caused quite a stir. People expressed appreciation, anger, anxiety, even confusion--and I think this anthology itself caused a lot of other groups, movements, and publications to develop into succinct efforts.

Every anthology is a failure--to someone, for some reason. The job of the editor is a difficult and often thankless one, and this volume is a great example of that. Rather than simply critcize any perceived shortcomings of Legitimate Dangers, though, it's more effective to identify and discuss them. Everyone will feel that not enough ______ poets were included. This is not unfounded. Not enough _______ poets were included. Perhaps even too many _________ poets were included at the sacrifice of other voices. It's true. But, the job of the editor is a difficult one. Many voices must be excluded. A book can only be so big. (And I imagine if space were made for all the excluded voices, the anthology would be so watered down that people would then complain about that as well).

I don't think Legitimate Dangers is perfect, but I do think it's important, both because it had this huge impact on the dialog about editorial responsibility and inclusion/exclusion, and also because it is just a good anthology of a new generation of poets. There are full plates served of each poet included so that readers get a sense of the breadth and depth of each writer's work, and it's organized democratically in alphabetical order.

My friend Stephanie and I spent almost a year choosing two poets to read from this anthology, an experience we dubbed the "Legitimate Dangers Death Match," and each week we'd meet for coffee and talk about our responses to the work. For me, this was the true value of the book, those meetings. We often had divergent points of view, and both because of the book and because of Stephanie I gave chances to poets I probably would have otherwise overlooked or not even found. Some of those Death Match conversations are immortalized on this blog, and some were left behind in that little Tempe coffee shop. But the book lives on and continues to provide an interesting and provocative snapshot.

4.03.2010

Books in April: Beth Ann Fennelly's Open House



I was encouraged by a friend to seek out this book. It was one of the best pieces of reading advice I've been given. I remember poring over this volume when I first got it, enjoying it, and then I hit the central long poem in the book, "From L'Hotel Terminus Notebooks," and that's when I was hooked.

I was new to reading long poems then. I had probably read H.D.'s "Trilogy" but not much else, and because I tended to write very short pieces myself, I didn't fully understand why to write a long poem or what purpose they could serve.

I use the long poem from this book on the first day of any workshop I teach on writing long poems. It's challenging enough that it raises the curiosity (and sometimes the frustration) of my students, but it tends to collage things together using a folksy, approachable voice (/voices) with which they can identify. This poem is also a good example of a piece that tells its reader how to read it. In the first several pages, Fennelly pastes in quotes, short vignettes, and a dialog between herself and a smarmy voice called Mr. Daylater, all of which go on to be form the narrative spines of the overall work.

Factor into it her approach to four of the main "grand narratives" in long poetry (Love, Sex, Death, and Ambition) and well, it's a great primer.

Another great piece in terms of thinking about form is "Mother Sends My Poem to Her Sister with Post-Its," a poem crafted entirely from the marginalia of someone trying to elaborate on the content of a poem that isn't there.

4.02.2010

Books of April: Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler



Helpless and horrified, the readers of Blood Dazzler can do nothing to stop the impending trauma and destruction of Hurricane Katrina as she sets her one clear eye on the city of New Orleans. We know the ending of the story, which makes the retelling so much more terrifying: hospital patients abandoned, a sports facility putrefies with rot and human misery, a President flies over to survey the flood, a lone dog fights to survive the storm, and everyone, people die or nearly die.

While the scope of Blood Dazzler is almost Biblical in theme, this tightly-constructed sequence of poems is a good primer for writing long-form poems (both long poems and narratives that elapse over several shorter pieces). Blood Dazzler is narrated in persona by first-person witnesses, be they pets, people, buildings, or the storm itself. Amid these threads, Smith--with both unflinching honesty and relentless regularity--knots a universal story of grief, misery, and anger that indicts those who did not act, and memorializes those who did.

4.01.2010

For April: A Book A Day

This month, rather than writing a poem every day, I'm going to blog about a book of poetry that has been important to me, or that I've really admired.

First up: Mathias Svalina's Destruction Myth, a brilliant sequence of poems that continually rewrite "Creation Myth"s, finished off with one big, cataclysmic "Destruction Myth."

A longer review of this book is forthcoming elsewhere, so I won't say much more, except to say how much I admire Mathias's use of an interplay between absurdity and sincerity.