Monday, May 4, 2015

genius doesn't die

Seeing the large, round, beaming black man coming toward me in the Casablanca restaurant in Harvard Square was a thrill—the hug was warm, fiercely close, long and so welcome. We had met at last. This was the poet I had come to admire and love from a distance and in the best way possible for a writer: through his writing—-poems, essays and of course, emails. At that point he hadn't started his blog. In 2001 I was one of two finalists for the Black Warrior Review's chapbook competition, the other was Reginald Shepherd, someone I hadn't heard of. When I looked him up and saw his poems and his publication history, I was immediately impressed and very honored to have been considered a contender of his, even briefly. Did I then write to him and tell him so? No. He wrote to me, to tell me so. What winner bothers to write such gracious things to the loser? This was the quintessential Reginald Shepherd, and thus began our seven years of email correspondance, phone calls and three actual meetings: the first in the Casablanca. By the time we met, his emails had been a life raft and inspiration for me during a catastrophic personal event, I had come to know many details of his life and struggles (as well as joys) and I was eager to meet him at last. We quickly fell into talking—-life, love, poetry—-and the voice and presence I had come to know and rely on in his correspondance—- super-intelligent, aware and empathic—was embodied and unmistakably human. That voice, that presence, remains with me now: vivid, expansive, filled with courage and humor. I talk with him still.

Peace and poetry, Reginald.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Next Big Thing Interview

Fun to be tagged for this interview by my brilliant friend and colleague, Ellen Dore Watson, whose most recent book of poems, Dogged Hearts, is a powerhouse, and whose translation of Brazilian poet Adélia Prado’s stunning work, Ex-Voto, is due out this fall. Both books are from Tupelo Press.

So, being tagged has given me an excuse to fire up my blog and--who knows?--maybe I’ll start jotting some thoughts here again.


What is the working title of your book?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book grew organically from, and is a sequel to, my previous book The Us, wherein Ay is the eldest son of the Us’ leader. In that book, Ay suffers a serious head injury that renders him silent and motionless (“locked-in syndrome”). In this book, he is propped up and worshipped as the group projects divine knowledge onto his stillness. He begins recovery and the development of a self apart from the Us through a series of interior monologues that advances both the plot and the development of his language.

What genre does your book fall under?


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, since it’s poetry, I was going to say “not applicable,” but it’s fun to think about, so here goes: Daniel Day-Lewis or Viggo Mortensen for Ay, Kodi Smit-McGhee for Brae (Ay’s son), Javier Bardem for Greb (Ay’s nemesis) and Tilda Swinton for She (Ay‘s caretaker).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Trauma begets separation; separation begets self-knowledge; self-knowledge begets empathy; empathy begets mercy.

Will your book be self-published or by a press?

It will be published by Tupelo Press later this year (2013).

What other books would you compare this to within your genre?

I wouldn't. Couldn't.

Please share a sample of the writing.

half-sunk in snow, unslept.
Face taken by winter, tight.
Greb never speaks.
From the ashpit
an ember, loaded with light.
From cold, a cold life grows.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

This book is a sequel to The Us, itself a book inspired by many overlapping and converging events, thoughts, feelings, readings, some of which, in no particular order, include: the personal experience of helping a loved one through severe injury and rehabilitation, the doctrine of forgiveness in Catholicism, the history of the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles, preoccupation with true-crime television shows (Forensic Files, Body of Evidence), recovery shows (I Survived, Intervention), readings in the area of psychology (esp. Jungian) and neuropsychology (esp. Iain Gilchrist‘s The Master and His Emissary), interest in the development of language in people isolated from other human beings (“feral“ children), meditations by saints, case studies of awakenings and conversions (esp. William James The Varieties of Religious Experience), the films Persona, The Road, Vertigo, The Ring, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors--and much more. Like most poetry, this poetry accreted over a very long time through many different influences, from life lived and from the life of the imagination.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

That it holds what is human at its center. That it longs to connect its longing. That it strips language in order to free new shoots. That it lives.

You can find more on both Ay and The Us in this extended interview at Boston Review.

I invited several people to be my ”tag-ees” but so far, only one has definitely agreed: Donna Johnson, a terrific new poet whose first book, Selvage, is recently released from Carnegie Mellon Press.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

and we all shine on..(or not)

Coming off a year of teaching in two MFA programs, one private workshop and several Colrain manuscript conference/intensives, I approached Stephen Burt's collection of essays (Close Calls with Nonsense, from Graywolf) in a rather more practical state of mind than I might have a year ago. Knowing how difficult it is for students to find the words to talk about poetry (including, maybe especially, their own), and knowing that the vocabulary necessary to articulate how a poem works or doesn't work takes time to learn, I admire Burt's well-articulated, incisive commentary on each of the poets he's chosen to examine. I especially enjoyed reading his remarks on Rae Armantrout, a poet I've liked—and truly enjoyed—for a long time, but whose "explainers" often seem more concerned with the project of language writing as a whole than with talking about the effects she alone achieves in her poems. For example, I've often laughed out loud reading her work, but not run into anyone who talks about her odd wit. Burt does. And, while he sets her writing in the context of the other language writers, he doesn't leave her reified there. In fact, his movement in each of the essays is from context—of time, place, poetic "school"—to the particularity of each poet, each poem he examines. This seems just right to me, and this is a great book for students of (mostly) contemporary poetry, one I'll certainly assign.

With Burt's essays in mind, I revisited the article by Matthew Zapruder ("Show Your Work!") wondering if Burt's work would satisfy Zapruder's call for a "new kind of criticism." It seems to me that yes, it does. It certainly answers Zapruder's invocation/provocation that critics need to "guide the reader past his or her resistance (to new poems)," or that they need to "write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader." Like Vendler (Burt's former teacher at Harvard), Burt's strategy as a critic in Close Calls is one of guidance and explanation, with the aim of bringing the reader into a state of ability to appreciate. In other words, the critic as teacher. But isn't this what critics have been doing all along (some obviously better than others)? Zapruder's call for something "new" in criticism again strikes me as a call coming from lack of knowledge. Vendler has been doing this for many years. For that matter, hasn't Burt? In fact, revisiting Praising it New—The Best of the New Criticism, a terrific collection of critical essays on and by the New Critics edited by Garrick Davis, reminds me that critics have been doing for decades what Zapruder says he wants done; that is, teaching the reader how to read new poetries. Yet, he's right, I think, in that there is a widening gap between poem and reader.

Maybe the explosion in numbers of those who call themselves poets and the resulting plurality of poetries in the last 10 or so years, while great for those who would be poets, has not been so great for those who would be readers. While Vendler has come round to Ashbery and Burt to Armantrout, for two "outlier" examples from a decade ago (and Burt to several others more recent), the rush of poetry toward less "graspability" is much faster and more widespread than any critic might hope to keep up with. Granted, the rush seen in journals and newly published collections, is mainly one of (to use Burt's term) epigones and not particularly worthy of attention, but—and here is where I differ with the strictly explanatory role of the critic—how can readers possibly know in such an onrush, what is worth paying attention to, if not through the evaluative function of criticism? I suspect that Burt's answer to this is simply that what he pays attention to is by definition, worth paying attention to, and that the critic is not (or should not) be in the "rating" business or, as he says, "placing poets in order of supposed importance, as if criticism were akin to constructing brackets for basketball tournaments, or (worse yet) to judging cases at law." Meanwhile, Zapruder oversimplifies what I see as the evaluative dilemma for critics by stating that "Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader." Aside from the fact that one can opine that something is good or bad and rely not on personality or reputation but on critical thinking to prove the point (no insistence needed), and even if we imagine that anyone who decides to write about poetry has access to all poetry, has read it all, and has no preference for some poetry over others, is utterly "objective" about poetry, what would be the point of writing about one thing over another if not preference? And what is that preference if not a kind of rating?

There are many more books of poetry not noticed than written about negatively, so, obviously, preference comes into play, even when the preference is to negatively spotlight a book. Furthermore, choice is a preference and so in some way also a "rating," albeit a personal one: this book is worth notice, this one, by implication, is not. But if, let's say, something is worth noticing because it's receiving a ton of positive notice that the critic thinks is not justified, why not say so? Rather than avoid overt rating, I think more critical writing should do just that--evaluate. Guidance depends not only on learning how to read what someone says is worth reading, but learning how to see what's not worth reading, how to make distinctions between and among all of the possible things to read we are presented with constantly. I don't see how critics can abandon evaluation, not teach readers how to decide what's good, better, best. If an education in poetry does anything, it seems to me it should at least help poets not only to to say something about poems, but to evaluate them, to make distinctions between and among them and yes, to render a judgment on them. As with any field, there are practioners who are better than others—-more experienced, more talented, original, exciting, and so on. Readers—and students—are not helped by an avoidance of this reality. Learning how to form critical judgments vis a vis poetry isn't helped by simply taking on the opinion of the day, but by understanding how a critic forms his or her opinion. Learning how to think about a poem may lead to appreciation, but it also, necessarily, leads to evaluation. I don't see how these are separate ends, nor that they should be.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Poetry Rapture--Who's In?

If there were a poetry Rapture today and only the "best" poets were plucked out and taken up, would anyone notice? First, would there be more than say, five? And what would the criteria be for their plucking? Second, even if there were hundreds, I don't think their absence would make even the smallest dent in the current poet-population which, according to poet Seth Abramson, has swelled to nearly 50,000 practicing (writing and publishing) poets in the US due to the prevalence of MFA programs. This is a staggering number of people at least trying to be poets (and by that I mean published poets) and aside from the obvious question—-why are people aspiring to be poets, given that most will go into debt for a degree in poetry, a debt unlikely to be paid back by practicing or teaching it), and given that they are not exactly welcomed by our society or held in much esteem, and especially given that, according to a recent article in Newsweek, poetry readers are declining nearly as fast as the poets are being minted--I wonder about the role of poetry critic as evaluator. I think that a big part of what a critic (and I include book reviewer in that designation) should do is to at least state their opinion, at most make a considered evaluation of the work they want to write about. Just as an editor must finally decide on a poem or a manuscript for publication and have reasons backing up his or her decision that can be articulated (the basis of the Colrain poetry manuscript conferences), I think a critic should also engage not only in explication, but evaluation. This does not seem to be a widely-held view.

I attended the Harvard-sponsored (actually, sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room, newly headed by Christina Davis, who is doing an amazing job there) "Critical Contexts" last Monday evening, a discussion of poetry by critics Adam Kirsch, Stephen Burt and Maureen McLane. The critics sat in easy chairs, facing the audience and engaged in an open discussion of single poems first, then moved to more general discussion about the state of poetry and its criticism in America. Each presented a poem that they admired. Kirsch read Joshua Mehigan's "Spectacle" from The Optimist, an unrhymed sonnet, a moving and precisely rendered account of a fire sans sentimentalism or melodrama. Burt read a poem by Allan Peterson from his Juniper Prize winning book All the Lavish in Common, and Maureen McLane read two poems: "Mockingbird" by Devin Johnston, and a long poem by Okeana Kalytiak Davis The Lyric "I" Drives to Pick Up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfesssional Mode. Each critic then went on to describe why they chose their poems and what they liked about them. I appreciated Kirsch's very clear explication of, and considered remarks about, "Spectacle" and, though I'm not drawn to formalists as a rule, I made a note to get that book. I am already a fan of Allan Peterson (published him years ago in Perihelion and have followed his work) and Burt's description of why Peterson's poem worked for him also worked for me. I had serious doubts about both of McLane's choices which seemed to be calculated to show that she wasn't only into the post-avant-ish poem by Davis, but could also like a more traditional sort of poem by Johnston. I wasn't impressed by either poem on first reading/hearing and was glad she passed out copies of each so we could spend a little more time with them. Since I liked Davis' And Her Soul Out of Nothing very much, and have liked much of her work since, I was disappointed to see this kind of pointless and frankly, self-indulgent, kind of poem from her. It went on and on and ON and then went on some more, and after the third page of a list of banal declarative statements beginning with "I" ("i" thinks love is what wrong./"i" feels elizabeth bishop reprimanding "i"./.."i" thinks jude law probably doesn't know how to read."/"i" knows that no lover can be her "objective correlative", still/..) "I" felt pretty bored with the silliness of it all. Yet another of "those" poems designed to show how clever the poet is, how in-the-know about the usual poetic techniques and devices, how ironic it all is. So, as much as McLane wanted to maintain that even if Davis was merely "activating the language field" (whatever that meant) she thought it was a worthwhile, even entertaining, poem. Meanwhile, I was thinking that for every moment spent on such a transparent and self-indulgent exercise in "intellectualism," a moment was lost for some other, worthier, more exciting and interesting, poem. In fact, I felt rather like I was being subjected to something, not, as she may have hoped, opened up to a new way of perceiving. But what did she hope to gain by bringing us that poem? Maybe it was simply designed to get a conversation going in the audience. First questioner was Dan Pritchard, from The Wooden Spoon (and I was looking for him, hearing he would be there, and being an admirer of his blog, and not knowing he would be so young—and he was looking for me—maybe not thinking I would be so old ;-)— and, as it turned out we were practically sitting next to each other). Dan asked a question bearing on my own, as yet, unasked question: his was about the use of words "in some poems" that were not intended to "mean" anything—how did the critics apprehend and respond to such work, where words were mainly "aritifacts" and not meant to convey meaning or communicate? (i.e. Langpo and its spawn). All talked about intentionality, post-modernism, etc. (in other words, went, and very quickly, to LitCrit theory). My question was related, but a little broader—I wondered how they could evaluate poems (e.g. Davis'), either in relation to others using the same or similar strategies (Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe et al.) or in relation to a poet doing something altogether different (Mehigan, Peterson, Johnston, e.g.). I would take either one—I really just wanted to know how they dealt with the problem of evaluation. How do you determine when something is better or worse than something else when you don't know what "it" is? And if you can't evaluate, what are you doing as a critic? Burt's response was basically, the "dead mouse" school of criticism ("It's like when my cat brings a dead mouse and drops it on my doorstep—here, a gift for you, I hope you like it! That's how I feel about finding a poem to talk about and presenting it to you.") Ok. Thanks. I don't really like dead mice though. And are you bringing me one that, in your expert opinion, is better—-meatier, prettier, more intact—-than some other dead mouse? McLane claimed that "The proof is in the thing." But not this thing (Davis' "poem"), not for me. Kirsch was the only one who recognized what the question entailed and spoke a little about the problem of evaluation and the critic's responsibility—-was it, in fact, a responsibility of the critic? It hadn't occurred to me that it might not be. Clearly, though, not everyone who writes about a book of poems, e.g., feels a responsibility to evaluate it. Then what is the purpose? An extended endorsement? That's something I'm still thinking about.

Meanwhile, and coincidentally, a blog eruption on the same subject (sort of) occurred over at the Poetry Foundation web site. A poet (Matthew Zapruder) posted some comments about poetry criticism, and a lot of heat was generated there, including some from me. Mostly, it's the same sort of argument, with people like Michael Robbins and Kent Johnson (an inveterate poetry activist, seems to have a bigger view of all this, along with a sense of humor) along with some others, all lining up: we-like-a-poem-we-can-understand(the benighted literal-minded philistines) vs. we-like-a poem-that-we-can't-understand (the in-the-know, we are hip and you're not, "believers"). Every time I try to get to the actual kind of poem I'm talking about, you know, the kind that you can't read, and post it, everyone scatters away then returns with a theory in their mouths. Nobody wants to tell me what they think of the actual poem, only point to all the sources I haven't read re: post-modernism and its discontents. Oh well. I thought we were talking about poems, but it turns out that's never the case, and if I try to do it again, well. I don't know what will happen. I can hardly wait to find out.

Friday, November 28, 2008

origin of the pieces

What's broken commands attention. Glass shatters and there is surprise, danger, sharp edges, and the scattered pieces reflect light in unexpected ways. A disturbance of wholeness and immediately we are provoked to wonder: what was it before it broke? The contemporary poem has been decisively shattered by various techniques such as fragmentation, juxtaposition, collage, ellipsis and manipulation of space on the page. Ashbery and Graham have been using these techniques for many years, as have a host of newer poets including D.A. Powell, Joshua Clover, Dan Beachy-Quick, Matthea Harvey, Karen Volkman, Andrew Zawacki, Noah Eli Gordon and many more—in fact, so many more that the trajectory of contemporary American poetry is decisively aimed toward non-linerarity and fragmentation (of idea or image, or both) and away from the (still) prevailing mode of narrative, confessional, lyric and meditative"I"-based poems. Of course, there have always been poetries operating apart from the I- driven narrative and lyric, and a healthy crosstalk has been going on among and between all current and past styles for many years, as, for example, between lyric-I, narrative, and Language Writing, or between poems and other types of writing such as essay, discourse, fiction, journalism and speech—everyday idiom or heightened rhetoric.

As with fragments from an archeological dig—pot shard, parchment piece, splinter of bone—we are provoked into imagining the whole from which they came. Engaging us in that imaginative act gives the broken poem interest, as well as intellectual or emotional traction, a handrail however shaky or newly constructed at every step. I was interested to see this described in another way in the article Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise . An excellent and visual example of provocative fragmenting is Mary Ruefelle's A Little White Shadow (Wave Books)—a small, lovely book that is itself an art object, each page seemingly smeared with white-out, allowing only glimpses of phrase, image, line, that tantalize into imagined sequences and narratives, a possible world, a back story now invisible but informing the surface.

The reading of shattered poems is inevitably accompanied by the question: what was it before it broke? Is there a hint of story to be reconstructed? An identifiable emotional center? A tradition, a form, an historical construct of any kind? Any sense of a wholeness that shadows a poem, whether it is only hinted at (the ongoing sense of prayer haunting DA Powell's Cocktails) or obvious (the sonnet form broken and reassembled by Volkman in Nomina) is, it seems to me, what gives the poem's brokenness its power.

Sensing the existence of an integrity behind even the most apparently broken poem, a reader uses that sense to navigate and cohere small islands of linearity, similarity or mood within the poem. How far apart the islands lie, how much of a leap from one to the next is required by the reader, and whether or not the reader senses a wholeness shadowing the display of dispararities has, I believe, a lot to do with the success of such a poem.

Monday, August 11, 2008

not mere rhetoric

What does it mean to be a poetry critic? Should a poetry critic also be a poet? Aren't all poets critics by necessity? After all, poets think about their work, how to best revise it, how it might work differently and so forth. Even when proceeding by pure experimentation, poets will figure out what they've done once they've done it. Many, if not most, poets are also teachers. How do they teach poetry without analyzing, comparing, discussing and evaluating, then articulating their thoughts to an audience? Some poets are also editors, requiring them to make judgments of work submitted to them. How is this done if not by thinking critically about poetry, seeing the poem as an aesthetic object and attempting to understand and articulate, if only to oneself, how and what it is doing?

At the Harriet Blog, DA Powell sees a separation between poet and critic while Reginald Shepherd argues for their natural, if not inescapable, coupling. I agree with Reginald. Books get reviewed, submissions accepted or rejected, and seminars and poetry workshops conducted all on the basis of thinking critically about poetry. There is hardly a way to be a poet and avoid teaching it, writing about it, talking about it, blogging about it, etc. Everyone's a critic as they say, and nowhere is this more obvious than in poetry. But isn't poetry criticism a separate field of knowledge? What constitutes poetry criticism as a discipline, where and how is it studied, and where does it fit in the field of poetry? What training should a poetry critic have? These questions are being provoked as I read the terrific Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism, a newly-published anthology of the writings of the New Critics edited by Garrick Davis. I am struck by the intellectual depth, rigor and commitment to poetry and truth these critics had.

After another, related, reading, "The Shakespeared Brain", an article by Phillip Davis, I did some research on rhetoric, its history and terminology. Useful in writing and also in criticism, the study of rhetoric seems to have gone the way of studying grammar. Perhaps the brain studies described by Davis will inspire more study of the way language usage affects thinking, and rhetoric will return as a hot new field of study. A few years ago I proposed an alternative course of study for an MFA in poetry that doesn't include writing a poetry "thesis" or taking workshops, but instead would be an MFA in Poetry Criticism—comprising the reading of and thinking critically about, poetry, with a minor focus on writing your own (and maybe a major focus on rhetoric!).

Monday, June 16, 2008

boredom as concept

Coming of age in the warhol-inspired, electric-kool-aid-acid-test, krapp's last tape, happenings, conceptual/ performance/installation art, open/visual/concrete poetry era, the discussion of "conceptual poetry" taking place on the poetry foundation blog in Kenneth Goldsmith's entries, seems very familiar, even retro, to me, but I know I must be careful not to conflate what happened then with what's happening now, however similar they may seem (how aggravating it is to hear "oh, that's nothing new"!). And besides, so what if the concept of "conceptual poetry" is not new? Maybe it's time to revisit it and enjoy it again. It's got some new elements, has expanded to include more "art-y" and "performance-y" bits (open poetry meets conceptual art) and has overall new energies and confident practitioneers which give it a nice new shiny look and feel. The problem for me is not that it's been done but that I didn't enjoy it the first time around. For one thing, the people who were "into it" were pretentious and full of inflated rhetoric and insubstantial ideas all wrapped up and presented as intellectual daring. I admit I sat through the whole of Warhol's film of a man sleeping* trying to be as avant-garde as my hippie friends, but even then, I had nagging doubts. Why wasn't I seeing a Bergman film, or some other cutting edge film like "Jules and Jim," or "8 1/2" -- something that had substance and meaning or joy and daring, something that I could enjoy and savor or at least not be bored by? Why deliberately subject myself to something boring, especially after the enforced boredom of a classroom? Raising these questions only got the response: "Ah-ha! That's how you're supposed to react. You're supposed to get bored and ask why you're bored. The boredom itself is the experience!." Well. I was already plenty bored, why ask for more? The only way to watch it, really, was to be stoned, the way we all read Ashbery then. Maybe that's the answer re: "conceptual poetry"—-Caution: Do Not Enter Without Drugs.

* Sleep is described thus: "Andy Warhol used a fixed camera position in his 1963 film titled Sleep. The film shows a complete night’s rest over eight hours. Much like the man in the movie, the viewer is tempted to drift off indecisively into unconsciousness. Like in a dream, you don’t have the forethought to know how long you will be in this altered state, and what awaits you after it ends."