Thief in the Interior
Phillip B. Williams
Alice James Books, 2016
Phillip B. Williams' debut collection, Thief in the Interior, absconds with luminous witness from the darkest places in our culture: the shadow’s hem, the bull’s corpse, the trash bag full of dismembered body parts, and the spinning noose. In poem after poem, Williams sings in counterpoint to violent anthems composed in the American grain; Williams sings against “one nation coughing up black tongues.” He sings for the vanished, for the haunted, for the tortured, for the lost, for the place on the horizon where the little boat of the human body disappears in a wingdom of unending grace. Thief in the Interior moves gracefully from pastoral through elegy to epithalamion; along the way, Williams deftly vivisects the sonnet and explores the lyric possibilities of forms as disparate as the calligram and the pecha kucha. More importantly, Williams applies his dynamic syntax to an exploration of the buoyant wreckage inside the self, which might allow one to endure “the alluvial earth of grief” and “the hostile enigma” of misogyny, racism, and homophobia confronted daily in these United States.
Williams divides Thief into four sections. The first section begins with the poem, “Bound,” a poem that questions heteronormative cultural expectations and the strictures imposed by others on the self. Williams continues throughout this opening section to elaborate a series of tropes centered on decaying and broken bodies: a rotting bull’s carcass, lynched black bodies, a lacerated wrist. Williams nests these tropes within hallucinatory pastoral imagery. Reading this section is like listening to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” backwards underwater. The second section of the book consists of one long poem, “Witness,” which details the death and dismemberment of a nineteen year old gay black man, named Rashawn Brazell. “Witness” provides a keening meditation on the Brazell case, which both celebrates the life of the victim and ruminates on the broader cultural implications of this murder. As Williams puts it, the poem attempts to “tell how a city phantoms a boy, phantoms all witnesses.” The third and fourth section of the book continue to explore the personal repercussions of this type of phantoming.
In these two concluding sections, Williams shifts back and forth between threnody and serenade. Perhaps the finest poem in Thief occurs in the final section. “Do-rag” reads in full:
O darling, the moon did not disrobe you.
You fell asleep that way, nude
and capsized by our wine, our Bump
‘n’ Grind shenanigans. Blame it
on whatever you like; my bed welcomes
whomever you decide to be: thug-
mistress, poinsettia, John Doe
in the alcove of my dreams. You
can quote verbatim an entire album
of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
with your ass in the air. There’s nothing
wrong with that. They mince syllables
as you call me yours. You don’t
like me but still invite me to your home
when your homies aren’t near
enough to hear us crash into each other
like hours. Some men have killed
their lovers because they loved them
so much in secret that the secret kept
coming out: wife gouging her husband
with suspicion, churches sneering
when an usher enters. Never mind that.
The sickle moon turns the sky into
a man’s mouth slapped sideways
to keep him from spilling what no one would
understand: you call me God when it
gets good though I do not exist to you
outside this room. Be yourself or no one else
here. Your do-rag is camouflage-patterned
and stuffed into my mouth.
In many respects “Do-rag” is emblematic of the collection as a whole. Here, Williams begins by apostrophizing the beloved in a manner at once intimate and chiding. The motion in “Do-rag,” as everywhere else in Thief, is both intensely private and raucously public. We are ushered into a bedroom, into an interior monologue, into a dialogue with a lover, into a conversation with black culture, into a colloquy with American culture as a whole at this very moment, into an endless symposium on the self. Deep inside this nested parleying, Williams’ “fists that bloomed like devotions” signal strength and hope and love.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.
More fantabulous answers by superb poets, including some scary responses... Part III of III... Find Part II here.
Question 9: List five events in your life that mattered to you during the writing of your book.
Max Ritvo: I read the book Ardor by Roberto Calasso, which is about the Indian Vedic tradition. This religious tradition encouraged its devotees to spend their entire lives in ritual dance to commune with the gods, to the extent there was no time left over to build permanent buildings of worship. Which feels to me like a life writing poems. The Vedas spent much of their time addressing the creation of the world and the fundamental ecstasy of desire. They do so using hallucinatory Freud-like myths in which a god has sex with his interior monologue, Speech, only to have the child rip out the womb of Speech itself and force it on his father's head as a turban so he may never impregnate such a potent womb again. This is all I could ever aspire to have my imagination create. It also is a religion that focuses around the guilt and complication of eating meat, and I am a vegetarian. So Ardor's blood runs strong through this book. Grazzi, Roberto! On a less literary note: I got dumped during cancer. I got married to the most wonderful woman in the world. My illness is now terminal. I am in great pain and on many drugs. All of these things made me feel very strong feelings, and so I wrote poems about them. Since my mentation has certain very idiosyncratic features, the poems cohered into a meaningful whole with kind of a narrative around them. And this, my friends, is Four Reincarnations!
Chris Santiago: Akita. I wrote the first draft of the long title poem as I was graduating from Oberlin and moving to Akita, Japan, to teach English. It was a relatively isolated part of the country, with even more snow than my home state of Minnesota. That experience of isolation— living in another language, one I could hardly read or understand—was a gift. It gave me solitude, distance, and perspective.
Manila. From Japan, I was able to backpack around Southeast Asia. At least a few poems came out of this, including “Photograph: Loggers at Kuala Tahan,” which is about getting drunk with some loggers we befriended in the Malaysian rainforest. I also traveled to the Philippines a few times. My uncle Flu put me up and showed me around. He took me on some adventures, introduced me to his network, and regaled me with stories, many of them harrowing.
Los Angeles. After Japan, I lived in LA for fifteen years and worked several odd jobs: I worked in a call center; I read scripts and rolled calls at Miramax; I was a substitute teacher in South LA and Long Beach, and a graveyard shift editor for a wire service. I also dealt with mild depression, and would go one or two years at a stretch without writing a poem. When I met my wife, Yuri, it was, as Karl Ove Knausgaard says about meeting his own wife, like day broke. After we had our first son, the poems started coming again.
Minneapolis. A few weeks after I defended my dissertation—which included an earlier draft of TULA, my mother died unexpectedly. Up until that point, it had been a season of joy: not only had I finished the program at USC, but I had gotten a job teaching literature & creative writing. The job was even back in my hometown, where my mother and father were still living when she died.
I was, of course, devastated. Part of me wanted to set the manuscript aside—it was hard for me to look at it. It became clear to me how much the poems had to do with my mother, how she tried to transmit our family’s history to me, through songs and stories. The fact that I never learned her language is the seed the book grew out of: I never learned it, but when I hear it spoken, it’s like a music and a home.
But my circle—from USC, from St. Thomas, from Kundiman—gently kept the pressure up. After Daniel Slager called me to say that A. Van Jordan had picked TULA for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize, I called Yuri and cried for a long time. I’m grateful that my mother was at least able to read a draft of the manuscript.
Megan Snyder-Camp: Falling in love with the Pacific Northwest coast and wondering about the origin of these bleak place names like “Dismal Nitch” and “Cape Disappointment.” The birth of my daughter. Sitting with writer, Native Studies scholar and enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Elissa Washuta at a bar one night and her rattling off a long list of books I needed to read (she was right). My husband losing his job. Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike with my dad, a trip we used to make all the time but hadn’t in many years. Encountering the term “ruin porn.”
Clint Smith: It’s impossible to disentangle the poems in this collection from the broader racial justice movement that stemmed from the death of Trayvon Martin, and later Michael Brown. These poems are shaped by and responding to the political moment from which they are birthed. These poems are also deeply informed by my work both a teacher and researcher in prisons over the past two years. I teach creative writing at a state prison in Massachusetts and in my doctoral program, I am being trained as a sociologist focusing on the relationship between prisons and education. My proximity to both the people I worked with in the prison as well as an extensive engagement with the social and historical literature outlining how the prison system came to be very much inform my political, and inevitably artistic, commitments.
Tony Trigilio: The Boston Marathon Bombing. Boston, where I lived for ten years before moving to Chicago, already was a big part of the book. The Marathon bombing occurred very early in the composition process, while I was only a few pages into the manuscript. This is a violent book at times, and it has to be, because it documents the politically turbulent year, 1968, when these Dark Shadows episodes first aired, and the painful world we’re living in now. The Marathon bombing is the book’s first violent act. Even when I wasn’t directly writing about Boston, the bombing shadowed just about everything as I wrote the first section of the book.
Gun violence in Chicago. I’ve lived in major urban areas for almost three decades, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The body count we experience every day is heart-wrenching and infuriating. The episodes I watched for this book originally were broadcast in 1968, and I imagined the book would document the global violence of that year (all but ignored in the show’s fictional, soap-escapist seaport town of Collinsport). I just didn’t anticipate how violent my own city, and at times my own neighborhood, would become as I wrote the book.
Posted by Alan Michael Parker on October 03, 2016 at 12:35 PM in Art, Auden, Book Recommendations, Book Stores, Collaborations, Feature, Guest Bloggers, Interviews, Latina/o Poets, Movies, Music, Overheard, Photographs, Poems, Poetry Forums, Poetry Readings, Poetry Society of America, Poets House, Science, Translation | Permalink | Comments (0)
The Best American Poetry Blog is pleased to announce that Resurrection Biology, the first full-length collection by featured blogger Laura Orem, is now available for preorder from Finishing Line Press.
Some words about the collection:
"Maybe if we look deep enough we will see ourselves looking deep at ourselves," Laura Orem writes in Resurrection Biology, and in perfect reply this collection of poetry looks deeply (widely and passionately, too) at both the beauty and terror of living with and battling illness. Weaving together the past and present, politics and music and medicine, Orem's poetry is at once narrative and lyric, formal and explosive, playful and grave. Hers is a vulnerable, brave poetic, and this book is required reading for anyone with a memory, a body and obstacles to overcome.:
Jessica Piazza, author of Interrobang and co-author (with Heather Aimee O'Neill) of Obliterations
Laura Orem’s Resurrection Biology is a close-up glimpse of the world, the one in which we now live and the past, which inhabits us: from the arctic to Gaza; from a woman’s ravaged body to a nameless boy shot and left to die in the snow; from a famous castrato to a feathered man; from the dog, unfed on the porch, to the mammoth still sleeping in icy Neolithic dreams. Look hard at this world. As Orem says,"You can stand it. Stand it some more."
Anne Caston, author of Prodigal, Judah's Lion, and Flying Out with the Wounded
Order your copy today!
DD: Four Way Books began in 1991, as a venture between you and your graduate school friends: Beth Stahlecker, Jane Brox, Dzivinia Orlowsky, and Helen Fremont. How have these friendships influenced the evolution and tenor of the press?
MR: We really began in 1993, with first books in 1995. Brox, Orlowsky and Fremont ceased working for the press early on but have remained treasured friends. And I know that they are hugely proud of Four Way Books and of the time and energy that they contributed to the press. Beth Stahlecker, sadly, passed away in 1991 when the press was but a whisper between us. We published her first book posthumously and established a series in her name, The Stahlecker Series, for first and second books of poetry.
DD: In 2012, Jeremy Glazier wrote an excellent overview of the first twenty years of Four Way Books for the LA Review of Books. Gregory Pardlo’s Digest won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and Four Way Books continues to receive the critical and popular attention it deserves. Since 2012, what have been some of the other highlights in the story of Four Way Books?
MR: I would have to say Reginald Dwayne Betts’ book has been thrilling to work on, both in manuscript form and as a finished book. And I’ve loved working with Karen Brennan on little dark – she’s such a wonderfully eccentric writer, and such a brilliant craftswoman. (We have also just released her book of short fiction, Monsters). I struggle to highlight just these when I am so enthusiastic about the books we publish, all.
DD: Pardlo’s Digest is remarkable for so many reasons. One reason I admire it is for the way the poems dramatize cognition, and yet remain so tied to the heart. Pardlo gives us Deleuze and Guattari along with an aisle in the Fulton Street Foodtown. The work of a father with young children is held in equal esteem with the work of the philosopher and poet. All the poems in this collection feel so timely and timeless and essential. What do you find most compelling about this collection?
MR: I am glad that you appreciate Digest for the terrific collection that it is. I guess what I love about the poems – from the first time I heard them to reading them in manuscript then in book form—is the readability of the poems themselves. Whether lyric poem or poem driven more by narrative, whether he is digging close to his feet or throwing the shovel further out, these are poems that speak plainly about complicated sometimes tangled issues. They touch the heart and light up the brain.
DD: Present day Brooklyn is so palpable in all of its contradictions and nuance in Digest. The story of Four Way Books is inextricably linked with the spiritual topography of New York City. Can you tell us about this link? What does New York mean to you? What does New York mean for poetry?
JFM: I love this city, I truly do. I’m Angeleno by birth and temperament, so living in New York is at least partially anthropological, a study in compression and speed and experiments in stress. The city is unforgiving; it forces choice, and its luxuries are rarely free.
Recently I was at a talk with Ben Lerner on his new book The Hatred of Poetry and he mentioned that so much about what people hate about poets is tied up in that Whitman phrase “I loaf and invite my soul”. That whatever Whitman's intentions, there is an image in the broader pop culture of poets as indolent, self-indulgent sponges. Perhaps that is true of poets who do not live here; certainly I have met people who write with a casual ease, and I genuinely respect that as a way of working. But the poets that I know writing in New York now do not treat poetry lightly; they write under that same pressure and drive. Each word accounts for itself on the page. The poem pays its own rent.
MR: As for myself, I moved here from the Boston area. It was my intention to forego college and move to Washington Square Park where I knew I would become best friends with the poets there. “Over my dead body,” cried my father. I went to NYU, on the border of the park, and then transferred to the New School. I devoured poetry. I’d self-identified as a poet at 12 and I read, wrote, read and wrote around the clock. NYC, it seemed to me, was the only place to live. I went to readings every night, and all day and night on weekends. Over time, I’ve become more reclusive and the city has less importance to me as a writer. Having run 3 reading series for decades, along with other activities, I’m a bit burned out, in truth and place = NYC—plays less of a role in my poetry life. At least I think it does. I might be very wrong about that. And certainly, when I listened to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” every spring overlooking the Hudson, I think of Whitman and his beloved NY and look at the river, and then down my own street in Manhattan and think this is one hell of a back yard to pull from. Yet, New England is what really runs through my blood – its fields, sea, rivers, lakes, mountains. The hot, steamy summers, stilled town commons, white, green or black shuttered homes, lemonade mid-afternoon, quiet, easy. I don’t live there now, but do my best to be in New England whenever I can.
So, my relationship to NYC has changed as I’ve grown up in the poetry world – it seems less urgent a relationship than it used to. For poetry? I couldn’t venture to say.
DD: Cynthia Cruz’s newest collection, How the End Begins, startled and disarmed me. The poems are like tiny dioramas of wild longing and mortal desperation, like Emily Dickinson wielding Kafka’s ice-axe. One characteristic couplet from her poem, “Budapest,” comes to mind: “And who said I couldn’t/ die inside the warm balm of a lullaby.” Can you talk about this collection and how it continues the conversation begun in the other collections of Cruz published by Four Way Books: Wunderkammer (2014) and The Glimmering Room (2012)?
RM: Cruz's poems are shockingly hot in the way that only something very cold can be. She is a precise writer and what we see over the span of Cruz's recent collections with Four Way Books is an effort to continually renew and expand language—Cruz's articulation and exploration of the themes she is passionate about. The Glimmering Room uses dramatic personae, monologues, and characters. Wunderkammer, as the title implies, is a cabinet of wonders, filled with precious (often troubling) miniatures. How the End Begins stretches its address, embracing beginnings and endings at once, as evidenced in the title (also a sequence of poems), and everything in between (“The Birthday Ceremony”.) Her voice, her inventiveness, and her dexterity create poems as harrowing as they are beautiful.
DD: Four Way Books has cultivated relationships with many poets. You’ve published several notable collections by C. Dale Young and Kevin Prufer, for example. How does the editorial process change when you are working with an author over the course of several collections?
MR: C. Dale Young has published three poetry collections with us and one, his first, with Northwestern. We are now working on his debut fiction collection, The Affliction, which comprised of linked stories, you might even call it a novel in stories. C. Dale delivers nearly finished books, the editing that I do for him really addresses stylistic issues and I always defer to him, as any good editor does.
While I look at ordering decisions he’s made, and also look to see if there are poems yet to be written or poems that just aren’t needed in the books, I know that C. Dale has brought his manuscript through the wringer before submitting it to me. Same with his fiction collection, which I am editing now. While we’ve had a few discussions about the characters themselves, their motivations, conflicts, etc., the stories, I find, are beautifully crafted and realized. With CDY, I really challenge some stylistic decisions, which is an important job in itself.
Other authors turn in less realized manuscripts and the job then is to work with them over time, looking at multiple drafts, thinking about inclusion and exclusion of poems and stories, challenging the content and the ordering of material. A manuscript might go through revision, back and forth with me, over a year or more. It’s a thrilling experience for me, and I trust for them, to see fine collections become fully explored and turned on their sides to stand upright and even stronger for the work we do together.
SB: Kevin and I have worked together on four books now: we have a deep sense of each other as writers and readers, and probably anticipate each other's thoughts and reactions pretty well. A shift for me has been that I can't help but see poems and collections in relation to each other, so whereas with National Anthem and In a Beautiful Country we spent a lot of time talking about order and particular poetic strategies (the section breaks mid-sentence, the role of rhyme, tone in general--) now I am most interested in the ways his new ms., How He Loved Them, shows us a mind we haven't seen before, or a way of working and thinking and reckoning with the world that feels Pruferian and familiar and also new. I really trust Kevin and the ways he pushes himself. I think (I hope!) he feels something similar about the way I read the poems. They are utterly his and I love them, and then in addition, it feels like a collaborative and valuable endeavor to work together on how best to present them as a body to the world.
DD: Martha, you are a talented poet yourself. Your collection Mother Quiet (Zoo Press, 2004) has been a favorite of mine for several years. Anyone who has lost a parent will gather much solace and strength from this remarkable book. Your poems “My Brain was Enormous” and the title poem, “Mother, Quiet,” are particular favorites of mine. You explore the contours of grief and loss throughout this collection bluntly, but also in a fragmented fashion. Thank you for writing this book. What did you learn about loss, grief, yourself, your mother, and poetry throughout the writing of Mother Quiet?
MR: I am not sure that I learned about loss or grief from writing this book per se. What I learned, and continue to learn, is that presenting an emotional narrative, based in a life or imagined, is always challenging. I did not set out to write about my/a mother or loss of mind to disease, or, or, or. My books tend to become poetic sequences, and I kind of see all of them running into each other – At the Gate moves into Perfect Disappearance which moves into Mother Quiet which moves into the Beds. My 5th collection, The Thin Wall, forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017, is a departure from the others, a sequence of sorts too, but less autobiographical in nature (by that I mean that autobiographical and not, my other collections read as autobiography to a reader, I am aware of this, and may be in part or not, that’s for me to know!) Anyway, this work is more eccentric, I would say, and the narrative threads of the highly lyric poems are even more disrupted than in past books. I would say, though, that with the other books, there are strong tethers that run through, poem to poem. Back to your question about grief and loss – I don’t deal with either well in my life – I am a thin-skinned person when out of my emotional comfort zone. But action – of any kind – writing, reading, socializing, working – reminds me that what ails does not take up 100 per cent of my brain and heart – ever. There is more to the life than the problem the life faces at a given moment. So the act of writing, it seems to me, for me, makes me healthier at that moment. I am doing what I need to be doing. I am doing something that no one else can touch. I hope that makes sense to you!
DD: How has your work as an editor and book publisher influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial and publishing work?
MR: My work as a teacher has influenced my work as a writer much more than my work as an editor / publisher. Four Way Books, though it is my life’s work, is my job. I love my job. I love the books we produce, the staff, the board of directors, and the projects we engage in on a daily basis. But it is my job. Teaching, a job too, reminds me each day of what we need to do as writers. It reminds me to practice what I preach. As an editor, this can happen too, of course! But when I work with students on poems, I am really working with myself as well. I’ve carefully chosen my career – as publisher / editor and as teacher to feed into my work as a writer. The complaint I have, of course, is the sheer amount of work I face and how it eats into my time as a writer. I work a twelve month year. No sabbaticals to look forward to. That’s hard and wearing.
DD: You’ve taught at many universities and colleges. How has the creative writing classroom changed for you over the years?
MR: In truth, it NEVER occurred to me that I would a) publish a book and b) teach. I did not go to grad school to do either. I went to grad school to learn more about writing, and to get feedback on my poems. The mission was simple and pure. I taught because I was asked to teach. I published because I was encouraged to do so. Without those prompts, I’d be writing poems but I doubt I’d be teaching or publishing books. It was one of my teachers who said, “You are writing your first book.” This statement was the first time it occurred to me that maybe I, too, could write a book. Another teacher said, after graduation, “Send it out.” And then ambition for the work really kicked in. I wanted to be seen, read. Now, it seems to me, many students see the prize before they’ve done the work. This isn’t a criticism on my part. It’s just an answer to your question. The climate has become much more career-oriented and that, I believe, informs the weather of the workshop.
DD: In 2010, you took over the directorship of Frost Place Conference on Poetry in Franconia, NH. Can you tell us about the work you do there?
MR: I am one of several conference directors. I am not on staff there but am contracted to run one of their conferences – the Conference on Poetry – that takes place during the summer. I’ve modeled it after the best conferences / residencies I know – Bread Loaf and the residency at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Faculty deliver classes during the week, run workshops, and give readings. There’s 15 hours of workshop during the week and 6 hours of classes. Time for discussion, writing, revising, and dancing. It’s a week in heavenly NH, overlooking the White Mountains.
DD: In a New York Times profile on Four Way Books, you mention Robert Frost’s North of Boston as one of your favorite books. Can you tell us about Frost’s influence on your writing life?
MR: I like the psychological complexity that Frost achieves in his best poems, through daily speech, music, form and structure. I am character driven in my own writing, so I enjoy his sense of the dramatic and how he achieves drama on the page. Just look at these four entry lines to Frost’s poem, “The Fear”:
A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Nearby, all dark in every glossy window
He is a master of setting, of positioning and illuminating, getting us to focus on people, situations, through location and re-location.
DD: What have been the most significant changes in the poetry publishing world since you began Four Way Books in 1991?
MR: Ha and Shhh… I knew next to nothing when Four Way Books began. I learned day-by-day. And still do.
Publishers open their doors to a wider range of work these days and are more inclusive as they curate their lists. It’s certainly not as much of a club as it was, though there are many camps. The publishers I respect are becoming familiar with the camps. The pool as a result is larger and more vibrant than ever before.
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
MR: Readership. Buyers of books.
DD: What are some of the collections at Four Way Books that haven’t received as much attention as they should? Which poets have you published who deserve more recognition than they have received so far?
MR: I don’t think any of our books have gotten the attention they should, or writers the recognition they deserve. I think that’s true across the board for poetry and literary fiction. I truly believe that all of our writers – absolutely all – deserve more attention, wider readership – their books (not just a poem) deserve to be course adopted.
DD: Four Way Books prides itself on publishing an extremely aesthetically diverse catalogue. In so doing, you have sidestepped some of the counterproductive sectarian squabbles of the poetry world. Can you talk about this commitment to stylistic plurality?
MR: The commitment comes from our hope that everyone feels that they can submit to Four Way Books – established or emerging, MFA or no MFA, part of a literary community or not, narrative writer or intensely lyric. We aspire toward inclusiveness.
DD: What forthcoming titles are you most excited about?
MR: I am excited about all, and look forward to the debut collection SCALE by Nathan McClain whose poems I’ve followed for a long time. It will be out in 2017. I am delighted that we are following our poets Andrea Cohen, Cynthia Cruz, Sara London, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Kevin Prufer, Daniel Tobin with new work in the near future.
MR: One of our poets, Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, passed away this year, at a very young age, succumbing to a lung infection. She lived and worked in Houston (with a PhD from the University of Houston) and her first book, Shadow Mountain, won our Intro Prize, selected by Kimiko Hahn. Her second book, Bear, Diamonds and Crane was also published by Four Way Books. This poem is from Shadow Mountain and is a section from the title sequence.
ONE QUESTION, SEVERAL ANSWERS by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan
Where did your father live?
House on Federal, City of Angels.
Where did your father live?
Horse stall at a racetrack.
Where did your father live?
Near the aqueduct, in a man-made desert.
Where did your father live?
By a pear tree.
With pears, ripe pears from that tree.
Where did your father live?
Where did your father live?
With thin strips of tarpaper.
Pot under his straw mattress.
Where did your father live?
Waiting in line to use the latrines.
Waiting in line at the mess hall.
Waiting for his parents.
Where did your father live?
The Desert Chapel.
Where did your father live?
With his brothers,
Where did your father live?
In his mother’s heart.
Where did your father live?
Barrack 12, Unit 3.
Where did your father live?
With 5 strand barbs.
With windstorms and bitterbrush.
With years of snowmelt, glacial erasure.
From SHADOW MOUNTAIN © 2008 by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
Martha Rhodes is a founding editor and the director of Four Way Books. She holds degrees from New School University (BA) and from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College (MFA). She is the author of four collections of poetry: The Beds (Autumn House, 2012), Mother Quiet (University of Nebraska Press / Zoo, 2004), Perfect Disappearance (2000 Green Rose Prize, New Issues Press), and At the Gate (Provincetown Arts, 1995). She has taught at Emerson College, New School University, and University of California, Irvine. She currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She also has taught at The Frost Place, Third Coast Writer’s Conference, Bucknell University’s June Seminar for Younger Writers, and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is a frequent panelist at universities and conferences around the country. She is the current director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry. She lives in NYC.
James Fujinami Moore, editorial and publicity assistant at Four Way Books, received his MFA in poetry from Hunter College in 2016. Prior to that he majored in English and dance at Middlebury College. He is from Los Angeles.
Ryan Murphy, Associate Director at Four Way Books, is the author of The Redcoats and Down with the Ship. He has received grants and awards from the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Chelsea Magazine, The Fund For Poetry, and The New York State Foundation for the Arts.
Sally Ball, Associate Director at Four Way Books, is the author of two books of poems, Wreck Me (Barrow Street, 2013) and Annus Mirabilis (Barrow Street, 2005). In addition to her work with Four Way Books, she is an assistant professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Yale Review, and other journals, as well as online at The Awl, Narrative, and Slate.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.
In June, 2016, Terrance Hayes visited Florida to read and teach in the University of Tampa low-residency M.F.A. program. In the course of his presentation, he made a comment about syntax and sound that struck me as important, and worth exploring. Despite our both being distracted by the seventh game of the N.B.A. Finals later that evening—a game to ruin any Davidson College professor’s mood—we agreed to correspond via email, and this conversation ensued.
Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015. His honors include a 2010 National Book Award, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. His website is terrancehayes.com.
AMP: Welcome to the non-place of email. Let's dive in, over our heads.... If I understood correctly, sometime in your artisitic development, you began to associate the extension of syntax with the production of a different kind of music within the poem. Is that an identifiable moment? Would you care to elaborate?
TH: I was drawn to syntax early in my reading life. It was the feeling something beyond words was being communicated in the bones of poems. Certainly that was my experience of Keats’ “To Autumn”— specially that first stanza. When I first read it in college, I didn’t associate its power (mellow, carnal oozing power) with the fact it was a single over brimming sentence:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
The same feeling came in certain passages of prose. I remember a college professor beginning to sob as he read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes in Ulysses. It’s one of the longest sentences in the English language (4391 words according to Wikipedia). I must have associated the sentence’s breathless charge with his emotional reaction. There were no periods—he couldn’t take a breath to collect himself. I’m still trying to create that sense of charge and “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in my work.
AMP: I love your description of the “o’er-brimm’d”: that’s a great ambition. In that passage, Keats also holds it together contrapuntally, via end-rhyme and those almost-parallel caesuras in lines 7-9, which lead us to read backwards into memory as we move forward in the sentence. Is that something you do too? Or, rather, what’s your way of managing the length and breath of such a charged sentence?
TH: I see “contrapuntal” and “caesuras” and get a tad nervous. Especially when thinking about my early drafts of a poem. I mostly follow something closer to what Frost called “the sound of sense”:
“Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.”
I am trying to find the sense in a sentence: its sense of rhythm, its sense of verbs and nouns, its sense of thought and sound. I work in units of sentences as often as I work in units of line and image.
AMP: Cool, those connections that you draw between a sentence’s musical properties and its meanings....
“Rhythm” is a term that I tend to fudge when I’m discussing sound and sense; it’s such a difficult concept. Maybe I can ask you to consider an example from Frost, and talk a little more about rhythm.
In “West-Running Brook,” Frost observes of the water:
It has this throwing backward on itself
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
I think that one way to read these lines is as a discussion of rhythm, the riffles in the water “contraries,” as Frost calls them elsewhere in the poem. Would such a metaphor be consistent with your use of “rhythm”? Or are you thinking of the rhythm of a sentence in another way? Could you elaborate upon your use of the term?
TH: The word “rhythm" is fluid. Sometimes I’m thinking about varying the length and speed of a sentence. As in the first poem in my collection Wind In A Box. (Is it self-important to refer to one my own poems?) That’s sort of an exercise in staccato sentences. And in the ways punctuation impact a sentence. A series of periods, some slashes, a dash:
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet—. This cry. This mud.
But most times I’m thinking of rhythm as a kind of pattern. As in the ways subordinate clauses and repetition can expand a sentence. Especially the way lists can expand a sentence. The catalogues of Whitman and his Beat progeny, for example. Ginsberg spins wildly creating a fog of image that first long, elastic sentence of “Howl.” That first sentence is one of the most technically dazzling dimensions of “Howl.” I don’t know if that answers your question. I agree rhythm is a difficult concept. Because it is such a personal/intuitive concept.
AMP: Now that we’re talking about sentences in your work expressly, I’d love to hear you comment upon one or more of the poems in your latest book, How To Be Drawn. In light of this conversation, I’m especially interested in the formal play in “Who Are The Tribes," the “Portrait of Etheridge Knight…," and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh”—all of which use words inside boxes and/or charts. Care to dig in a bit?
TH: The notion of “formal play” is on the mark. What it suggests is I’m just playing—or trying to play outside my given tendencies. Since sentences are my default inclination, the poems you mentioned are instances of trying something different. Of trying to shift my focus. They are genuine, intimate experiments. Meaning I don’t see them as natural extensions of the sentence. Though you’ll find maybe some syntactical play, the attention is given to form. Not that I’m Jordan—I’m no Jordan, but it’s akin to asking Jordan the relationship between his dunks and his work on his jumper or his defense. He was, when he developed his jumper and defensive prowess, only trying to broaden his skills…
AMP: So what’s next, in terms of formal play? Is there a kind of poem you’re working on, that you haven’t been able to write?
TH: Great question. I’m mostly/usually concerned with the last poem and the next poem. The last poem was accompanied with drawings. The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape. The poems of late have been pretty long. The poem before the last poem was over 1200 words. So I’ve been trying to work my way back to compression via sonnets lately. But I don’t know. I don’t mind not knowing.
AMP: I’m going to highlight a phrase from your latest excellent response, and take the conversation in a slightly different direction.
You write, “The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape.” Do you think this is true—that phrases, or scraps, or oddments, are “waiting to find a shape”? Maybe the shape is yours, and you have certain shapes internalized that wait for the scraps you collect by writing? Or… maybe there are shapes waiting to find scraps… in the culture? Care to comment?
TH: Yes, I mean scraps waiting to find a shape. As in what I suspect happens in quilt making. I’m just gathering bright bits of thoughts and conversations, imagery in my notebook. Waiting to stitch/thread something compelling together. Usually the brightest bit becomes the poem’s heart, its engine.
AMP: You mention your notebook. Could you talk a bit about how your process might elucidate the quest for “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in the syntax? How do you handle, literally, the writing, so as to facilitate in the composition process the ambitions you identified earlier?
TH: I have to talk about basketball again here. I can’t say I’m handling the writing so much as continuously practicing with it. I am trying to broaden my facility with it. I am practicing form, of course, but I am also practicing thinking and feeling. It’s all practice. That’s what Thelonius Monk says. For me, poetry is all practice. Occasionally practice pauses for a game—which is to say, some of my poems get published— but my habit is practice. I’m practicing to sustain my strengths while strengthening my weaknesses. I like a long sentence, for example. So I have to push myself towards new challenges with long sentences. One of my challenges/experiments in How to Be Drawn was to push myself into longer poems. These days I’m trying to work my way back to the sonnet. It all takes practice. One can fail in practice. One can experiment and scrimmage. There is intimacy and measure. Practice is a laboratory, a workhouse, a habit. For me, poetry is the practice of language. —June-September, 2016
More wonderful answers by super poets... Part II of III... a follow-up post to...
Question 6: Which poem in your book arrived mostly whole?
Elizabeth Colen: Quite a few of the poems in What Weaponry arrived mostly whole, in a sense.
While I rarely have moments where one perfect sentence follows another perfect sentence and so on, what I do have sometimes is a few focused hours of obsessiveness. In this, I write a line, read it out loud, and rewrite and read out loud until the line is perfect, move on to the next line and repeat, until I feel something is capital-D Done. Sometimes this takes an hour, sometimes five or six or eight. But the poem is complete after this. And more than half of these poems were written like this.
I wrote 90% of the first draft while traveling by train one summer several years ago. I had long stretches of time of the landscape rushing by and the sound of the train cocooning me. This combination of continuous forward motion and white noise ended up being an incredibly productive whole-poem space.
“Burnside,” for example came about after I learned the word “undersound” and a poem fell nearly whole out of that idea.
Carolina Ebeid: “Epithalamium for Alejandra & Wojtek” came to me in one swoop. This rarely happens to me. I want to believe other poems will arrive like that; I’d leave the porch light on for them. I usually work from the images/words/lines I collect in my notebooks, so that I am often building the poems through collage. On the golden occasion, I sit and write a full poem beginning to end. This kind of poem seems like a telepathic massage received, like I didn’t write it, I only acted as scribe. These poems tend to be short.
Max Ritvo: “Poem to My Litter” arrived word-for-word as a whole. I just needed to cut a sappy line at the end, and Paul Muldoon at the New Yorker made me see the light of that very quickly. “Poem to My Litter” has so many beautiful and tragic life facts in it—it's a poem about real life mice that had my real life tumors cloned into them so that we could test different chemotherapy poisons out on them. It didn't need the rather erratic help of my image-making faculties, it just needed a calm and compassionate and loving tone, with the right dose of self-awareness, to bring out the truth of my life in it. But I must say, its initial lineation was miserable—the poem was all scattered, droopy, ragged, ugly stanzas. I needed to whip it into beauty, and I needed the help of my genius editor and best friend Elizabeth Metzger to make me understand that long couplets were the best and most merciless way to expose the world.
Chris Santiago: “[Island of Fault Lines]” came about in the middle of a wicked thunderstorm. I was in a budget hotel on the island of Palawan, it was muggy as hell, and the power kept flickering on and off. I was cranky. Most of my anger, though, came from research: I’d been spending the last week hitting archives and museums, and doing interviews for a fiction project about the Philippine-American War. Few people talk about this war, although estimates for the civilian death toll range from 200,000 to 1,000,000. But my research took me beyond it, into the countless other misfortunes endured by Filipinos, on both sides of the Pacific. The anger had been building steadily, and developing its own logic; it became this poem, which, except for the ending, spoke itself onto the page in a single sitting.
Lee Sharkey: “Lashing the body from the bones” came all of a piece and quickly. Essentially a found poem, it is a distillation of the transcripts of the poet Peretz Markish’s testimony at his trial for crimes against the state in the last months of the Stalinist era, as published in Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov’s Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Markish was a Yiddish-language poet widely acclaimed in the early years of the Soviet Union but later executed along with twelve other prominent Jewish writers and intellectuals on what has become known as The Night of the Murdered Poets. My contribution to the poem consists entirely of my excisions. The testimony is so Kafkaesque it bore no emendation or commentary.
Clint Smith: The poem, For the Taxi Cabs that Pass me in Harvard Square, was written largely in a single sitting. It, like much of my collection, was written in a sociopolitical moment when conversations around racism were at the forefront of our country’s collective discourse. The problem is not that we weren’t talking about issues of race, but that we were largely talking about it in the wrong way. The average American’s conception of racism is that it is a violent interpersonal confrontation, and thus racism is imagined as singularly performative—something that only exist if it can be easily witnessed or observed. Additionally, much of the discourse centered around how the victims of racist acts—police violence or otherwise—would not have experienced such violence if they were better educated, or behaved with a different sort of decorum. This poem came to me during a winter evening in which several friends and I were attempting to hail a cab near Harvard, where I attend graduate school, to go to dinner in the city. Cabs continued to pass us until a white friend stepped to the curb of the street and was able to hail one on his first attempt. It is moments like those that disabuse me of the notion the race won’t matter once you attain a certain level of education, credentials, or prestige. Blackness remains the coat you can’t take off.
Tony Trigilio: Because it’s a book-length poem, I’ll focus on one segment that came to me almost whole, and required very little revision: the three pages written about a trip my wife, Liz, and I took to Madison, Wisconsin, right after a two-week cancer scare in summer 2015. This segment of the book, written about a crowd of people and ducks on a Saturday night at Madison’s Lake Mendota pier, came in one rush about a week after we returned to Chicago. I couldn’t get the physicality of the ducks out of my mind—couldn’t stop thinking about how these ducks were so unselfconsciously living through their bodies. The people lounging on the pier that evening, just before twilight, seemed to be living in much the same way, stuffing bratwurst sandwiches in their mouths and guzzling beer in midsummer Saturday twilight. Even without the cancer scare, we would’ve experienced the evening much like the people around us at the pier did—minus the bratwurst—but this night our bodies were lightened by the sheer, primal gratitude that we were simply alive.
Question 7: What are you doing formally in this book that’s new for you?
Elizabeth Colen: Well, it’s a novel in prose poems, which is either not really a thing, or it is a hybrid genre, or it is an ambitious pile of poems, or it is a novel that can’t sit still. I took two characters from a poem I had written years before (“Fifty Miles of Shoulder” from Money for Sunsets) and decided to give them more life and a fuller history, really get to know them. Because for all their effed-up-edness, I really liked and wanted to spend more time with them. So the concept itself was new, shaping a pile of poems into a cohesive narrative arc when I’m not generally a “narrative” poet. Within the text of the book also exists an erasure—words bolded throughout, which creates another layer of the narrative when read in isolation.
In some ways it’s vital for me to feel I’m doing something entirely new with each book, formally and in terms of content. Because otherwise, why bother? I suppose it might be different if I made a living off my books. You know, would I hit that bar to get the cheese each time? But as it is I’m just being accountable to the obsessions and allowing whatever form emerges.
Dana Levin: The composition of “En Route” took the longest, was the most fraught and foreign to me, and I still worry about whether it, y’know, works. I loved working in such short fragments, working with overheard speech, finding, finally, an overall conception that felt like it could orchestrate the parts into something a little more than ephemeral. Book-wise, bringing in our engagement with the Digiverse, from social media to on-line scrabble to taking selfies: this was new material to figure out tonally, since it’s so banal and intense and fun and significant and ridiculous, and pervades us all.
Lee Sharkey: Like many poets I see my work as being in conversation with the poetry that has informed it. That sense was particularly acute when I was working on this book, where I was engaged in retrieving fragments of what was almost lost, particularly in the case of Markish and Abraham Sutzkever, condemned to present-day obscurity as a consequence of writing in a tongue largely annihilated by genocide. In poems such as “Old World,” “Lyric,” and “Something we might give” I conceived the page as a simultaneous present where poets whose voices were inflected by the Shoah and I might engage in intimate exchange—a risky enterprise but one I felt impelled to. Integrating words from their poems directly into my own gave me the sense that they were speaking through my mouth, a way of ceding space to them, an act of homage in which reading and writing, listening and speaking and, it seemed, self and other, merged.
Clint Smith: To be honest, the act of writing a book itself was a new formal process for me. My relationship to poetry was born out of performance. One of the first times I felt viscerally moved by art was as a college student at a Friday night poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café. It is impossible for me to write a poem without considering how the poem will sound aloud. I want to hear the music of the lines, the way the mouth is rendered a different instrument by every stanza. The entire tradition of poetry comes not from the page, but from the tongue – the griots, Homer, Shakespeare. Still, translating that music to the page has been a new and wonderful artistic endeavor for me. To think about how a poem will be received when I no longer own the sound has been so fascinating to work through.
Megan Snyder-Camp: The three sequences that make up Wintering were initially composed as haibun, which fit the travelogue arc of the book and offered a way to shuttle between research and daylight. A few years into my research, I came across unpublished archival materials involving “Couch’s Ned,” an enslaved man prosecuted for destroying the “Indian vocabularies” Lewis and Clark collected. The urgency I felt in sharing this story, and particularly the parts of this story that had been missing for the past 200 years, was tempered by the responsibility I felt, as a white writer, to proceed slowly and with clarity. This gas-and-brake shaped the work formally (hopefully not into a figure 8 train race). I needed a between-form, a both-form: interrupted, dropped, doubling-back. One day I came up with what I call stanzagraphs: six(ish)-line text units that are both right and left-justified, with a volta between stanzagraphs.
It proved a strict and generative form, and a bane to later editors and formatters. Each press had their own font and spacing, prompting significant changes in content each time the piece was to be printed. I like that these sequences must shift depending on where they appear, each specifically shaped by the limits of the field in which it appears, each version equally final and yet built from the others.
Tony Trigilio: Like the first volume, this book is written entirely in couplets. Book 2 swallows forms that aren’t conventionally suitable to the couplet. In this book, I’m often creating formal challenges for myself, including a sestina written in couplets—which eventually became a two-and-one-half page, nineteen-couplet sestina (with one hanging final line). I felt like I was persuading the couplet to admit a form it’s not usually comfortable with. I noticed the couplet-sestina is sneakier than a conventional sestina. I mean, a traditional sestina just announces itself to you—loudly, unabashedly—with its six blocked-out, six-line stanzas and the deceptive finality of its three-line refrain. Of course, I love this about the conventional sestina. But a couplet-sestina is furtive; it seems to unfold on the page like any other set of couplet pairs, but it does so in a stealthy way—repeating its end words almost shyly at first, even as the obsessive repetitions start to accumulate. It defies our expectations for the couplet and the sestina, creating a clandestine sestina, which, I hope, actually heightens the tension that comes from the cyclical logic of the conventional sestina form.
I also wrote the longest ghazal of my life for this book: a three-and-one-half page monster that’s actually part of a longer four-and-one-half page sentence. One page into the sentence, the poem shifts into a ghazal, just as I’m beginning to summarize the show’s interminable sixty-episode “dream-curse” plotline. The ghazal suddenly insinuates itself into the sentence—just as, for the Dark Shadows viewer, the dream-curse abruptly takes over the show’s narrative arc. A sentence that begins with an account of a trip my wife Liz and I took to Seattle drifts backward in time to a memory of a farcical lost-luggage encounter I had with USAir in the 1990s, then lands back at the Seattle Sheraton in late-2014, with the sun coming through our hotel window as the two of us watched Dark Shadows; and then, without warning, the dream-curse ghazal begins, eventually unfolding in such a way that the ghazal mimics a recurring dream (fitting, since the “dream-curse” was itself an entire plotline built around a supernatural recurring dream passed on like a loopy, psychic contagion from one character to the next).
Monica Youn: I’ve always been pulled toward the minimal, to extreme compression, to cutting things down to their hinges. But in this book I was consciously trying to resist that impulse, to go for the long sustain. I wanted to push how long I could stay immersed in a particular image, a particular syntactical unit, long past the time at which I would normally have moved on. It’s an effort for me to resist the urge to cut away, to think in terms of integral wholeness rather than exquisite fragments, to opt for the slow build rather than the jump-cut. I wanted to give an image and/or the argument time to develop enough materiality that it could push back against my authorial control. I wanted to give the poem time to find its own shape, form its own strata.
Also, it seems important that this is the first book I’ve written since I’ve stopped being a lawyer in 2013. One of the side effects of legal practice is that it changes your perception of time. When I was in private practice, I billed my time in six-minute increments; once I moved into public interest election law, I often had to respond to 400 emails per day. That sort of pace changes the texture of your thoughts. Since I stopped practicing law, I can feel a slow unclenching, the occasional mind-cramp. I think of my work in longer forms as, in part, a long-overdue stretching practice, a necessary corrective to years spent living in intensified snippets.
Red Smith would never have predicted that the illustrious Library of America would collect the columns he typed on short deadlines for the New York Herald Tribune, publish them lovingly, and dub him "America's greatest sportswriter." The involvement of the Library of America -- which has published two volumes by A. J. Liebling, including The Sweet Science, his masterly book on boxing -- reflects the growing recognition of sportswriting as a craft and Smith's elevated standing in the scribe's fraternity.
Smith sat in the press box and, in his phrase, "opened a vein" when it came time to stare at the typewriter. Barely minutes had gone by since Bobby Thomson won the 1951 pennant for the Giants ("Reality has strangled invention"), or Rocky Marciano knocked out Archie Moore (Rocky threw "a left that made him curtsy like a convent girl"), or Secretariat pulled away from the field at Belmont on my birthday in 1973 ("It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths," the horse's owner said), or the Yankees beat the Dodgers for their fifth World Championship in a row twenty years earlier. The title of the last piece mentioned, a quote pulled from the piece (and not, alas, the original headline), is a beauty: "Like Rooting for U. S Steel." And I wondered whether the Godfather auteurs remembered this line about the New York Yankees and their fans when they had Hyman Roth -- celebrating his birthday in Cuba -- say "Michael, we're bigger than U. S. Steel."
It has been a long time since U. S. Steel was the measure of power, size, and importance, and American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith (edited by Daniel Okrent) comes from that time as remote from us and filled with nostalgic glamour as the early seasons of Mad Men. You could, if you were a lazier columnist than Smith, call it the golden age of American sport; certainly it might have seemed that way to a New Yorker spoiled by having three major league teams within subway distance. Joe DiMaggio patrolled center field for the Yankees, and when he stepped down, Mickey Mantle came along to take his place. Willie Mays played center for the Giants, who, with Leo Durocher at the helm ("a controversial guy, and that may be the the understatement of the decade"), were the unlikely victors of a four-game World Series sweep of Cleveland in 1954. Sugar Ray Robinson, the best fighter "pound for pound" in any weight class, performed regularly at the Garden. Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, made West Point a college football powerhouse. Between 1949 and 1960, Casey Stengel managed the Yankees to ten pennants in twelve years. In 1947, Branch Rickey ("the greatest of all double-talk monologists") put a Dodger uniform on Jackie Robinson and revolutionized baseball.
Smith made an art of deadline sportswriting. He was especially handy with a simile. When Sugar Ray was past his prime, in one of the Carmen Basilio bouts, Smith conjectures: "Maybe, like an aging shortstop, he can no longer go to his right." Or consider these sentences from his piece about the 1947 World Series game in which the Dodgers' Cookie Lavagetto ruined the Yankees' Floyd Bevens's no-hit bid with a bottom-of-the-ninth game-winning two-out double. "In the third [inning] Johnny Lindell caught Jackie Robinson's foul fly like Doc Blanchard hitting the Notre Dame line and came to his feet unbruised. In the fourth Joe DiMaggio caught Gene Hermanski's monstrous drive like a well-fed banquet guest picking his teeth." In the same game, Tommy Henrich of the Yankees took a hit away from Hermanski: "Henrich backed against the board and leaped either four or fourteen feet into the air. He stayed aloft so long he looked like an empty uniform hanging in its locker. When he came down he had the ball."
To write for a newspaper requires a strict brevity of means. It takes artistry to write in short paragraphs, as in this one about Brooklyn southpaw Carl Erskine, hero of game five of the 1952 World Series: "Erskine is an agreeable young man with good habits and an equally good overhand cure. He does not drink, does not smoke, and does not choke in the clutch. On out-of-town business trips, while his playmates sit in the hotel lobby waiting for somebody to discard a newspaper, he visits art museums." There is wit in Smith's parallel structures. but what I like most is this glimpse into road-trip life, circa 1952.
Smith has his sour moments. He is down on Jersey Joe Walcott (for being old) and Ted Williams (for spitting his displeasure with the fans), He is right to voice a city's frustration and anguish when the Dodgers and Giants left for the West Coast at the end of the 1957 season. Their departure from New York "is an unrelieved calamity, a grievous loss to the city and to baseball, a shattering blow to the prestige of the National League, an indictment of the men operating the clubs and the men governing the city." Two years later, a certain amount of revisionism has taken hold. Baseball's West Coast expansion "was a development long overdue and greatly to be desired, but effected in an atmosphere of deceitful contriving which left the game wearing the dollar sign like a brand."
American Pastimes has been edited, and is introduced, with exemplary intelligence by Daniel Okrent. There is one error, the product of an oversight, that should be fixed in the next printing: In an October 1966 piece recollecting Fridays in previous decades at Madison Square Garden, Smith would never have referred to "Rocky Marciano's three wars with Tony Zale." It was a completely different Rocky, Graziano, a middleweight, who did battle with Zale. I make a point of it because Rocky Graziano was the first prize-fighter to take my fancy: I was eight years old and saw "Somebody Up There Likes Me" with my parents and sisters at a drive-in movie. Paul Newman played Graziano.
The sportswriter's occupational risk is hyperbole, and Smith is not exempt. Of Whirlaway, winner of the racing's Triple Crown the 1941, Smith writes, the colt "was Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones -- not just a champion but" -- you finish the sentence. The remarkable thing is how few lapses there are in such a long career.
Like Liebling, Red Smith writes with particular verve about Marciano. The undefeated heavyweight champion was "victorious, invincible, indestructible." But it is DiMaggio who best fits Smith's idea of the heroic athlete, the demigod who does everything with majesty and grace -- and is therefore the proper model for a prose stylist, doing his job with consistency and great skill and without ostentation or temperament. In a game against the Red Sox in 1950, Bobby Doerr hit what looked to be a sure double when "Joe raced in on a long angle to his left, thrust out his glove, palm up like a landlord taking a payoff under the table." When Joe retired in October 1951: "the simple, flat fact [is] that the greatest ballplayer of our day and one of the greatest of any day quit baseball yesterday." The last sentence in the last column Smith ever wrote was something he told himself whenever he felt disappointed with the current crop of ballplayers: "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."
-- David Lehman
[This post appeared originally on our blog in 2013]
The comics of novelist and cartoonist Lydia Conklin bristle with wondrous unfillable silences, à la Samuel Beckett, and wacky pointedness worthy of Roz Chast. Conklin’s especially terrific at the stare-down. But it’s her timing most of all that I love, how funny she is... wait for it... and funnier yet.
Here is a comic from her Lesbian Cattle Dogs series, expressly commissioned for this blog.
Lydia Conklin is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in fiction at Emory University. She has received a Pushcart Prize, work-study scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Brush Creek, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Caldera, the Sitka Center, and Harvard University, among others, and grants and awards from the Astraea Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Alliance of Artists Communities, and the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, New Letters, The New Orleans Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. She has drawn graphic fiction for Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tags: cartoon, comic, comics, dogs, drawing, drawn, gesture, humor, ink, lesbian, personification, poem, poets, romantic, unsaid, wry
In the year or so since Wild Hundreds first appeared in print, Nate Marshall’s award winning debut poetry collection feels even more necessary in the wake of the historic wave of gun violence that has rocked Chicago in 2016. Marshall’s raucous, vivid, and relentless love letter to the hundreds neighborhood on Chicago’s south side provides an apt rejoinder to the 522 homicides that have occurred in the city as of mid-September. Wild Hundreds jukes between elegy and epithalamion as it celebrates a place where “each street day is unanswered prayer for peace,” and where, for some politicians, bureaucrats, and public school administrators “every kid that’s killed is one less free lunch,/ a fiscal coup.” With exquisite care, Marshall renders the denizens of his beloved hometown in all of their vibrant complexity, from the eighth grade graduate with his Sox hat askew, skipping stones in a pond at a public park, to his own Granddaddy, “all leisure suits & peppermint,” “all birthday money & slurry speech.” In this place, where the brilliant colors in a bouquet resemble a gang war, the colors of a Grandma’s rosebush reiterate the shade of a Vice Lord’s do-rag, and the dandelions wear Latin King gold, Marshall summons his own rage so that he can remix it into a percussive imperative to thrive amidst the beautiful struggle, and, more simply, to love.
Although Marshall’s collection rightly errs on the side of the laudatory, the poet incisively critiques Chicago’s failures. Throughout Wild Hundreds, Marshall scatters “Chicago high school love letters,” poems that are poignant and heartbreaking, realistically depicting teenage desire against the backdrop of urban violence and neglect. The winter break poems read:
i would fight for you
like my shoes or my
boys or any excuse
Later in the book, Marshall notes that the numbers in these poems represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year. Marshall learned early on in life, while living in the predominantly white Mount Greenwood neighborhood, the amnesia and intimacy attendant on violence. In the poem, “Alzheimer’s,” Marshall notes:
this is where i came from. whitefolk
violence isn’t hypothetical to me. it’s not historical
or systemic. its elementary school
like Pokémon or sleepovers.
The Chicago that Nate Marshall evokes in Wild Hundreds is more than the sum of its shames and griefs and anxieties and break beats and scraped knuckles and smoking gun barrels and wild forgettings. It’s the windows rolled down on a Saturday evening in August. It’s that sweet old Curtis Mayfield Impressions song you hear out the window of a passing car, telling you to keep on pushing and it’s all right.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.
When offered a guest appearance on the Best American Poetry blog, I decided not only to write a couple of articles that I’ve been mulling over, but also to celebrate new books of poems coming out this fall. I put out a call via Facebook and Twitter, and had such a strong response I was made to choose among submissions. I did so: I read the galleys and selected eleven poets to interview. (And I apologize to those this feature could not accommodate.) So, on July 2, eleven poets received the following charge:
Please answer five of the questions below. Elaborate upon your replies—that is, please explain your thinking, and explore the examples you’re citing—and nonetheless limit each answer to a paragraph or two. Concise, substantive responses would be preferred.
One sad note: as many of you know, the poet Max Ritvo died this summer at the age of twenty-five. We are fortunate to have his poems, and also fortunate that even in his decline he was able to contribute sparkling responses to the interview questions. My condolences to his family and friends.
And in case you’re wondering, Eleven Questions for Eleven Poets took 143 emails.
Now the poets and their answers, a sampling of some of the brilliance we find in poetry today: Elizabeth Colen, Carolina Ebeid, Dana Levin, Max Ritvo, David Rivard, Chris Santiago, Lee Sharkey, Clint Smith, Megan Snyder-Camp, Tony Trigilio, Monica Youn.
Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration Your Sick. She teaches at Western Washington University.
Carolina Ebeid is a the author of You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press, Fall 2016). She is a student in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Denver, and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She has won fellowships and prizes from CantoMundo, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Stadler Center for Poetry, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work appears widely in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, and more recent work appears in Linebreak, Bennington Review, jubilat, and in the inaugural Ruth Stone House Reader.
Dana Levin's new book of poetry is Banana Palace, out this October from Copper Canyon Press. A grateful recipient of fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Rona Jaffe Foundations, Levin serves each fall as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Photo by Anne Staveley]
Max Ritvo (1990–2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. He was also the author of the chapbook AEONS, chosen by Jean Valentine to receive the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2014. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, and the Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Divedapper, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
David Rivard’s most recent book, Standoff, was published by Graywolf in August. He is the author of five other books: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Among Rivard’s awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, and the NEA, as well as two Shestack Prizes from American Poetry Review and the O.B. Hardison Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of New Hampshire, and lives in Cambridge. News & reviews of Standoff can be found at his website: www.davidrivard.net.
Chris Santiago is the author of TULA, winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, selected by A. Van Jordan. His poems, fiction, and criticism have appeared in FIELD, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and the Asian American Literary Review. He holds degrees in creative writing and music from Oberlin College and received his PhD in English from the University of Southern California. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, Santiago is also a percussionist and amateur jazz pianist. He teaches literature, sound culture, and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas. He lives in Minnesota.
Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards will appear momentarily from Tupelo Press. Her earlier collections comprise Calendars of Fire (Tupelo, 2013), A Darker, Sweeter String (Off the Grid, 2008), and eight other full-length poetry books and chapbooks. Her work has been published in Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, FIELD, Kenyon Review, Nimrod, Pleiades, Seattle Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the Abraham Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, the Maine Arts Commission’s Fellowship in Literary Arts, the RHINO Editor’s Prize, the Shadowgraph Poetry Prize, and Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. A lifelong writer, editor, and teacher, she leads a creative writing workshop for adults recovering from mental illness and serves as Senior Editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. [Photo by Al Bersbach]
Clint Smith is a writer and doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Counting Descent (2016) and was born and raised in New Orleans. More of his work can be found at www.clintsmithiii.com. Counting Descent is available for purchase here.
Tony Trigilio’s most recent collection of poetry is Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2 (BlazeVOX [books], 2016). He is the editor of the chapbook Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney (Essay Press, 2016), a collection of interviews from his poetry podcast Radio Free Albion. His other books include, most recently, White Noise (Apostrophe Books, 2013), and, as editor, Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (Ahsahta, 2014). He plays in the band Pet Theories and teaches poetry at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Interim Chair of the Creative Writing Department. [Photo by Kevin Nance]
Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre (Graywolf Press 2016), which is currently on the longlist for the 2016 National Book Award, Ignatz (Four Way Books 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Barter (Graywolf Press 2003). Her poems have been published in Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Lana Turner, The Paris Review, and The Best American Poetry. She currently teaches at Princeton University and in the Warren Wilson and Sarah Lawrence MFA programs. A former lawyer, she lives in New York.
Part I: Questions 1-5
Question 1: Which of these poems predicts your future?
Carolina Ebeid: The closing poem of the book “M, Marina” predicts a kind of future. In fact, the poem was supposed to be part of the next work. I decided to include it in You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior precisely because it didn't fit perfectly, to my mind. Therefore the book itself doesn’t actually feel shut. Rather, the poem acts as a leading to the next book. In formal ways, “M, Marina” also describes my present. It is written in serial form, made up of short, variegated pieces. While the poem centers around Marina Tsvetaeva, the serial poem is a form open enough to allow many observations into its orbit. Both this poem and “Veronicas of a Matador” function in the same way formally; much of the work I am writing presently relies on the same methods of seriality.
Dana Levin: “At the End of My Hours,” of course!
But seriously: I don’t think I’d ever survive civilization’s collapse. I’m over fifty, not in apocalypse-withstanding shape, and trained to teach poetry. My only hope would be to convince a rag-tag band of survivors that they needed a shaman bard crone woman.
Max Ritvo: All the ones that predict my imminent death due to Ewing's Sarcoma. I'm pretty sure they're hitting the nail on the head. And by "the head" I mean my head.
Lee Sharkey: Allow me to subvert the question to talk about a dream that led me on a journey. In the early summer of 2011 I woke in the middle of the night hearing the words “Tonight I am walking backwards”; I scribbled them in my journal before falling back to sleep. The sentence had the peculiar quality of utterance that has led me over the years to germinal poems, yet I had no idea what it might refer to. In a month I was to fly to Vilnius for an SLS seminar, an opportunity for me to explore the Jewish history and culture of a city that had witnessed both their heights and their depths, but I made no conscious connection between the trip and the image of walking backwards.
In Vilnius, I lived in the garret of an old building on one of the seven streets that had constituted the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Between 1941 and 1943, over 35,000 people were confined there; almost all would die at the hands of their captors, the majority by execution in the nearby killing fields of Ponar. I literally walked in their footsteps as I traveled the cobbled streets and as I climbed four flights of crumbling stairs to a room some number of them had crowded into and tried to sleep. By chance or fate I found myself “walking backwards” into the vexed history I claim as my inheritance. Night by night in that haunted room, in the company of the poetry of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, I listened to the silence as the poem of walking backwards grew into “In the capital of a small republic.”
Clint Smith: It’s difficult to say which poem predicts my future, but I know which poem speaks to the future I hope to live in: No More Elegies Today. The book, as a whole, is exploring the marathon of cognitive dissonance with regard to coming of age as a young black man in America. How does one reconcile ever-present tension between belonging to a community and family that celebrates them, and a larger world that dehumanizes them? What I want, for all of us, is a world in which that tension no longer exists. A world where the violence dissipates and black children grow up with the humanity left uncompromised, a childhood not shaped by its relationship to violence. As a writer, I think, I have a responsibility to both reflect the world as it is and then imagine the world as it can be. The role of the art is to operate in that imaginative space, to push beyond the boundaries of what we see. The violence black people experience is a part of our reality, but it is not our only reality. We are and always have been more than that which kills us.
Question 2: What two moments in the volume, or two images from the poems, would you like your reader to remember?
Did you know that in college Richard Howard was known as Dick Howard? Or that Robert Gottlieb, one of the great names in American book publishing, got his first job (at Simon & Schuster) by writing, when asked to state why he wanted to work in publishing, that he found the task impossible "since it has never occurred to me to be in anything else"? These are among the facts and anecdotes that enliven every page of "Avid Reader," Robert Gottlieb's memoir of a life spent in publishing, which was published this week (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).
Though I feel like this book's ideal reader -- because, like the author, I went to Columbia, spent two post-graduate years in Cambridge (England), and have devoted my life to books -- I can recommend "Avid Reader" to anyone who would understand publishing as a profession and a business in the second half of the twentieth century and since. At S & S, Gottlieb was the wunderkind who revitalized the firm. He published a varied list ranging from William Shirer's monumental "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" to "Calories Don't Count." His great achievement was the publication of "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller, which was originally entitled "Catch 18" but had to be renamed because Leon Uris had come out with "Mila 18" about the Warsaw Ghetto. Gottlieb believes that Heller's "Something Happened," which disappointed the world, is even better than "Catch 22," so I promise to look for it next week at the Strand.
At Knopf, Gottlieb directed the list of the most prestigious (and "literary") of all New York houses, and for five years, he was at the helm of The New Yorker, succeeding William Shawn
If there is a moral to Gottlieb's memoir, it is that "personal conviction" is the most important thing that an editor brings to a book. The editor's job is not just to recognize the quality of the manuscript and to improve it but also to champion it, promote it, to share the good news. This is something that Gottlieb and his colleagues grasped before others did. But the anecdotes beat the morals.
Gottlieb has written on ballet and is co-editor of a volume of American songbook lyrics that I find indispensable. You will enjoy reading about "Dick" Howard, Lionel Trilling (whose generosity to the author was extraordinary),and Andrew Chiappe at Columbia; about F. R. Leavis and the Cambridge theatre scene in the 1950s; about "Mad Men" era New York; and about all the other arts in which Gotttlieb has a cultivated interest,.(His favorite things include plastic handbags from the 1950s.) There are a lot of pointers that everyone in publishing ought to have: "Titles and covers can make all the difference." For an editor nothing is more important than "personal conviction."
I loved learning that Bob Gottlieb liked reading till all hours and couldn't be bothered to attend morning lectures. I feel the same way. This is a sweet book.
-- David Lehman
DD: In her essay, “When We Dead Awaken,” Adrienne Rich writes: “For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be so sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.” Could you begin by talking about poetry as imaginative transformation and writing as renaming?
MS: There's no doubt that Adrienne Rich is right. Epistemologically, writing is always a transformation — an active transformation, to rephrase Rich. And in the action of it, one hears the Greek sense of the word: Poets are makers; writers are makers. May Swenson often referred to making her poems, as opposed to writing them. And, as I think any poet might agree, this work is not finished in a single poem. The task is really to rename and remake the world. That’s why Mary Oliver points out that one doesn't exactly achieve closure at the end of the poem, even when it's is an especially good poem. The making of poetry is a long-term commitment. In Oliver's world, happiness does not arise from “a job well done, but good work ongoing.”
DD: For the past twenty years, Utah State University Press has published poetry through the May Swenson Poetry Award competition. Patricia Colleen Murphy’s collection, Hemming Flames, is the latest and final book in this series. University Press of Colorado will continue to publish poetry books through the Colorado Prize for Poetry (open to all poets) and the Mountain West Poetry Series (open to poets living in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, & Wyoming). Can you give us some highlights from the history of the May Swenson Poetry Award?
MS: The original idea for the series emerged from a conversation I had over burgers and coffee at a local restaurant here in Logan, Utah, with Kenneth Brewer, a poetry professor at Utah State University. Ken would later become poet laureate of Utah. After we talked our way through a possible structure for the competition, I took the idea to R.R. (Zan) Knudson, who was the executor for the literary estate of May Swenson and May’s partner for the last 20 or so years of her life. Zan was well connected, especially in the New York poetry scene, and she provided introductions for me to the long list of first-tier poets and critics whom we invited to judge our competition over the years. It was important to me as director of the press that the competition not drain resources from the academic books we publish. Financing poetry is always chancy; except for the work of a handful of poets on the national scene, poetry generally could not be described as a serious profit center for any publisher that I'm aware of. We didn’t need it to turn a profit, but I wanted the competition to be self-supporting, and fortunately, it has been. Between the response of our contestants, the charity of our panel of readers, and the willingness of our judges to lend their names and labor out of love for May, we were able to build a series and make it last for 20 years.
DD: What titles do you most admire in the Utah State University Press catalog?
MS: Ha! You can't really ask an acquisitions guy to make choices among his authors. We have published many hundreds of books that I admire across several different disciplines, including poetry. I see them all as worthy.
DD: Tell us about Patricia Colleen Murphy’s debut collection.
MS: Stephen Dunn, who selected this book, calls it “wonderfully disturbing,” and I don't think I could put it better than that. One thing that works for me especially well is Trish’s sense of the body – how concrete the body is, how inarticulate. She says in one poem that it lacks language any more complex than thirst. She calls it a dog, and this reminds me very much of May Swenson's famous line "body my house, my horse, my hound.” This embodied sensibility, I think, is somehow important to the whole collection. Because thirst, if we're still thinking like Adrienne Rich, is one way to rename “sensation” or “urge” or “pain.” And there is plenty of all of these in Hemming Flames, as Trish unspools the inarticulate and animal language of the body. Wonderfully disturbing, indeed.
DD: Trish, you are currently working on a memoir that deals with much of the same source material as your poetry. Can you talk about the differences between writing in prose and poetry?
PCM: I’m trained as a poet, so the prose does not come as easily to me. I find it really difficult to work with the longer form. I keep repeating things on page 5 and page 205. Even to re-enter the work after a time away requires a six to eight hour commitment to re-read the entire piece. The reason I started the memoir in the first place, though, is there are so many details I don’t have room for in poems. Lots of facts, too, that fall flat when narrated in a poem. So the memoir really takes what you already see in Hemming Flames, and embodies it in scenes.
The memoir is pretty close. I really just have some glue work to do, and a small amount of generative work on a later chapter. I hope to have a clean draft by the end of the semester.
DD: In the world of reality television, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the boundaries of the personal and the private have blurred. The forms of confession practiced in contemporary social media are staged and superficial, contingent upon spectacle, less concerned with discovering truths than they are with generating celebrity. Shocking confessions may abound in social media today, but little retains the power either to shock or to foment meaningful change. The poems in Hemming Flames, however, are electric. You cannot read them without being changed. Can you talk about writing in the confessional mode today?
PCM: I would argue that all contemporary poetry is confessional. The details of my life happen to be pretty spectacular. I could write some pretty poems about the wind and love and puppy dogs and creosote. But that would leave quite an elephant in the room.
DD: How has your work as an editor of Superstition Review influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial work?
PCM: Being an editor has been so fulfilling; such a gift. I worked really, really hard to create a magazine with a national reputation because I wanted my students to have a professional experience that meant something on MFA and PhD applications, and in job interviews.
Being an editor has made me more thick-skinned as a writer for sure. I’ve been submitting to major literary magazines, and only top tier mags, I must say—my own standards for submissions are very stringent—since 1990. I have hard copy rejections from those years that I used to re-read and organize and catalog. Being an editor has shown me that sometimes choices are arbitrary. Like I might get three great poems about toads, and I can’t have three toad poems in one issue.
I also have become a better curator of my work. You’d be surprised how many submissions we get with five poems that seem like they were written by different people. And I would rather see a submission with three strong poems than one with three strong and two weak poems. I’ve learned that including poems that aren’t ready make the strong poems seem weaker.
Reading poetry submissions and discussing them with editors (and I read every single submission to SR) has helped me to better understand when a poem is doing surprising and delightful work that a reader will connect with. I love the feeling of reading a submission, and feeling progressively more excited with each strong line or phrase. Due to the volume of submissions, we are often reading towards a “no,” meaning we are waiting for the poem to fail at some point. We only accept something like 1% of poetry submissions, so we know most submissions are going to have a “no” moment. So when we get to a sub that is “Yes!” it is really exciting. So as a writer, I find myself writing towards that “Yes!”
My writing life affects my editing work this way. I hop into my Submittable account, and I look at the work I have out in the universe, and how I treat editors, and I expect a similar amount of respect from our authors. I also know how meaningful it is to get a little bit of love and support from an editor, so we work very hard to support our contributors even years after they have appeared in the magazine. We offer guest blog post spots, we share good news on our networks, and we’re always looking for new publications by our contributors to review on Goodreads or discuss online.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor and a poet?
PCM: Well, at SR we get a lot of fan mail. I have a folder of it and I love to read through it from time to time to remind myself of best practices and best ways to focus our time and energy. As a poet, I’ve had so many encouraging moments it’s hard to pick just one. Every publication is an encouragement, since it means I have at least one reader who gets what I’m doing. I’ve been publishing very consistently since I was young.
DD: What is the most encouraging development you’ve witnessed in contemporary poetry?
PCM: I would have to say Literary Citizenship. I see a lot of poets being kind and supportive to other poets.
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
PCM: Readers. And teachers. I would love to see a movement to change the poetry curriculum in middle schools and high schools. Many young people would be more interested in poetry if the course readings included poets who are alive. There is so much good contemporary poetry, and it’s a lively field, but too many students aren’t even introduced to it at all.
DD: If you could only read and say and remember one poem (written by someone else) for the rest of your life, what poem would it be?
PCM: Oh my goodness! That is such a hard question. May I list 100 please? Okay. It’s too much pressure. I’m going to say “Dream Song 4” by John Berryman.
DD: You have several other writing projects either underway or completed. I mentioned the memoir above. Can you tell us about these projects? What does the future hold for your writing life?
PCM: Yes, I have the memoir, and that’s the big one. I’ve been working on it for years and am finally really pretty happy with it and just need some final finishing hours.
I have two additional poetry manuscripts currently in circulation. One, titled Bully Love, examines the intersections of culture and capitalism in the desert southwest. It’s personal but focuses a lot on my experiences as a transplant to Arizona from the Midwest. The second is called Rot and it does have some highly personal moments, but with a lot more leaning towards surrealism.
I might not be in the same hurry as other academics, simply because I have such a great position and I’m not chasing the job market the way some emerging writers are. I chuckle because a writer friend and I were talking about “the machine” that is an emerging writer trying to get a job or get tenure. I get it completely. But I’m glad I don’t have to do a lot of those gymnastics.
In the next decade my life is going to change a lot because I am going to retire and move abroad. So let’s see. What’s my ten year plan? I would love to write some really good poems. Publish the memoir and the two other poetry ms’s. I’d also like to do lots of travel writing. I teach Travel Writing for ASU Online, and I’m teaching it as a study abroad in Cuba in summer 2017. It would be nice to have travel writing as a freelance gig after I’m finished with my teaching career.
DD: We’ll end with a poem from Hemming Flames. Could you pick one out and introduce it?
PCM: Sure! I’m picking a poem that I wrote after my parents both passed away five months apart in 2009. My mother dropped dead of a heart attack on June 2 of that year, and then my father became very ill with cancer but decided not to treat it and not to tell me he was sick. I called him on a Wednesday in the end of October and he couldn’t talk. He told me he had a cold. I flew to see him the next day. He weighed about 100 pounds and had baseball sized tumors on his eye and on his chest. He was dead within the week. I was so disoriented and shocked and sad and devastated and alone. I had trouble processing language and simple concepts. So I wrote this poem about a shirt. And really, if you think about a shirt for an hour or two, it’s a ridiculous and confusing object.
On Being Orphaned
I find a shirt in my hand but can’t remember
the word for shirt or hand. Or how to put it on?
Something about its four holes and my four limbs.
It’s too colorful. It’s too angular. Hold it up to the
light and it’s too threadbare. It’s a heap but somehow
it is supposed to encompass my body? Should I cut it,
then tie it back together? Or burn it and spread the ash?
I find a shirt in my hand but it might be a saucer
for my cup. It might be code for a special type of humor.
It might be music. Or an elephant’s ear or a stingray.
I find a shirt in my hand and it could be political.
It could be asleep and will wake if I shake it. Will it
break if I drop it? Or will it bounce? I find a shirt
in my hand. I think my shadow should wear it.
For a review of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s Hemming Flames, go here.
For an audio interview of Patricia Colleen Murphy, go here.
For an essay on lyric narrative poetry and the legacy of Confessionalism, go here.
Founding editor of the May Swenson Poetry Award, Michael Spooner is associate director of the University Press of Colorado consortium. His published scholarly work has addressed such topics as collaboration in writing, the poetry of May Swenson, editorial response, and the role of publish-or-perish in academe. He has worked in scholarly publishing since 1984. Michael is also the author of three novels for middle grade readers.
Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book of poems, Hemming Flames, won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award and was published in 2016 by Utah State University Press. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and American Poetry Review, and most recently in Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry.
No self-respecting Dodger fan will want to overlook Michael Leahy's The Last Innocents:The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers (HarperCollins).Independent of the Dodger fan base, students of baseball history will find much to enlighten them here about such subjects as the glory days of Sandy Koufax, the ailments (physical and mental) that plague big-time ballplayers, and the relations of management versus labor when Walter O'Malley owned the Dodgers.
There are terrific anecdotes based on interviews the author conducted with Sandy Koufax ("simply the best," as the Yankees advance scout noted in 1963), Maury Wills (who stole 104 bases in 1962), Wes Parker (maybe the slickest fielding first-baseman ever), Lou Johnson (hitting hero of the 1965 World Series), second-baseman Dick Tracewski, catcher Jeff Torberg, the underrated Ron Fairly,and others.The only thing I am not crazy about is the book's title, and the author may not have liked it either. The book is at its weakest when trying to correlate the fortunes of the Dodgers as a team and as a group of individuals with the "turbulent" decade of war, riots, assassinations, uprisings and political movements.
The most compelling pages are on Koufax, a ferocious competitor who was the key to the Dodgers' two World Championships and three National League pennants in the four-year stretch from 1963 through 1966. A hero to the Jewish community for his principled refusal to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, Koufax is enigmatic to the extent that his modesty, shyness, and reticence seem to indicate hidden depths of complexity. Like the "no trespassing" sign that begins and ends Citizen Kane, Koufax's avoidance of publicity is an invitation to let speculation and multiple points of view determine our sense of the man.
The other Dodgers interviewed for the book speak of Sandy with respect bordering on reverence. I didn't know that there was an anti-Semitic strain in some newspaper articles in the mid-60s. "Some skeptics suggested [that] perhaps Koufax was less a ballplayer than a budding businessman and bon vivant." Moreover, "some stories cast him as a closet intellectual, always grounds for suspicion in professional stories." The stories may have been planted by management hoping to improve their bargaining position or their public image. Koufax was underpaid not only in comparison to today's players but by any criterion of the time. And as Leahy says, "there can be no reasonable doubt" that anti-Semitism lay behind the stereotypes provoked by "newspaper references to Koufax's supposed business shrewdness and inferences that Koufax might be less committed to the Dodgers than to getting more money."
By staging a joint holdout in 1966, Koufax and Don Drysdale got the raises they deserved -- and helped pave the way for the free-agency revolution that Marvin Miller was about to engineer. It was never a secret that Koufax pitched despite intense pain from arthritis; that he had to prepare elaborately for each game, and that he quit baseball at the height of his fame, age 30, because he was told that if he continued to pitch, he may ultimately lose the arm. He is the primary hero of this book, and we see him only through others' eyes, because he agreed to speak with Leahy only about his old friend Maury Wills.
Wills suffered from old-fashioned racism. Fierce in his play on the field, someone whose commitment to winning was absolute (in the manner of Chase Utley or Hunter Pence), he felt manipulated by Dodger management, and disrespected. Part of the problem was Vero Beach, Florida, where the Dodgers held their spring training for many years.The town's hostility to blacks was palpable. But management treated the star shortstop with contempt during contract negotiations. Remembering Dodger games in which the only offense was provided by Wills (who would beat out a bunt, steal second, steal third, and come home on a fly ball), I agree with those who contend that he belongs in baseball's Hall of Fame. Wills revolutionized baseball. He brought back the stolen base as a weapon. His career prefigured those of Lou Brock, Ricky Henderson, and Davey Lopes.
One thing I did not know about Wills is that he apparently dated Doris Day.
There must be a technical term for the degree of insecurity that plagued Wes Parker. Lou Johnson's story is that of the veteran minor-leaguer who is about to hang up his spikes when he gets one last chance and makes the most of it.Johnson hit the decisive home run when Koufax shut out the Minnesota Twins in game seven of the 1965 World Series. The game was played in Minnesota. "You could hear a cat pissin' on cotton after I hit it," Johnson recalls. As for Parker, the affable Tim McCarver says that Parker made "the best play I ever saw made by a first baseman in a game I was ever in."
Michael Leahy's affection for the team is evident and understandable. He was a teenage kid at Dodger Stadium when Koufax pitched his perfect game in 1965. That game was, Leahy says, "the apotheosis of Koufax" and it must have felt magical to be in the stadium. As Leahy suggests, Koufax stood in relation to the Dodgers of the 1960s as Joe DiMaggio stood in relation to the Yankees twenty years earlier.
Among the many other things I learned from "The Last Innocents," I'll leave you with a few. One is that Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers' general manager, was not entirely the jovial guy I had imagined. He was a tough negotiator and employed a variety of tricks to fool a player into signing a lowball contract. In 1964 Ron Fairly came in for his contract meeting. Bavasi said he had good news. Tommy Davis had just signed. The contract is on the desk. Then Bavasi invented an excuse to leave the room. Fairly took a look at the contract on the desk -- a bogus document -- gulped and lowered his financial expectations accordingly. (The GM bragged about the tactic to newspapermen.) Buzzie did have a jovial side, and some players speak of him with warmth. But first of all he was O'Malley's henchman at a time when ownership routinely exploited the players. It is a business now. It was a business then.
With rosters changing as rapidly as they do, and with management and labor so often at odds, one has to wonder about fan loyalty to teams. In Philosophy 101 the professor asks you whether it's still the same hammer if you replace the handle. Is it still the same hammer if you replace not only the handle but the metal head? It is the same with a team. The Dodgers of 2015 are completely different from the Dodgers of 1956 -- different owners, a different city, different personnel, Yet the fans are unwavering. They are the only constant. And one is a little nostalgic for the time when certain players -- DiMaggo and Mante with the Yankees, Koufax with the Dodgers, Ted Williams with the Red Sox, Stan Musial with the Cardinals -- played their whole career with just one team. And yes, I am still furious with the Mets for trading Tom Seaver to the Reds for what Ira Gershwin would call "plenty of nuthin," and nearly forty years gone by since that ugly day. Seaver should have worn no other uniform than that of the Mets.
With just three exceptions (Koufax, Drysdale, and rookie pitcher Don Sutton, who was nursing a sore arm), O'Malley insisted that all Dodger players go to Japan for a few weeks of games with Japanese teams following the 1966 season. The players were exhausted and many did not want to go. They had played 162 regular season games plus four in the post-season. Leahy's dry comment: O'Malley "found it hard to imagine why anyone would wish to pass on a chance to see Japan, especially when he was paying each player $4,000 in addition to their travel expenses." Players who rebelled, as Wills did, got traded. So much for management's loyalty to the players who defined the team.
When manager Walt Alston was asked who would pitch the seventh game of the 1965 World Series, Drysdale, whose regular turn it was, or Koufax on two-days' rest, Alston said, "the lefthander." Make of that what you will.
I was also glad to acquire the answer to the question "who moved Burright?" This refers to the calamitous ninth inning of the third playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants in 1962. Had Larry Burright, the team's rookie second baseman, stood at his usual place, the team may have made a double play that would stop the Giants' rally. According to Leahy, it was Leo Durocher, then the team's third base coach, who gave the disastrous signal that moved Burright out of position. But, then, Leahy does't really approve of Leo the Lip ("Nice Guys Finish Last"). In any case it's hypothetical. The Giants won the game and took the Yankees to the ninth inning of game seven of that year's World Series before expiring while Tony Bennett sang the hit of that fall, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
If Koufax fascinates you, if you're curious about the game in which Giants' pitcher Juan Marichal used a bat to clobber Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro's head, or if you just want to relive the crucial contests of 1963 and 1965, this is the place to go.
-- David Lehman
Martín Espada’s newest collection of poetry, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, fuses elegy to activism with the barbaric yawp of a Boricua Whitman whose utmost imperative is to celebrate “the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.” The heroic figure of Frank Espada, the poet’s recently deceased father—a community organizer and civil rights activist—provides the animating spirit informing his son’s survey of our democratic vistas, past and present. In poem after poem, Martín Espada’s stentorian voice seeks to praise and to remember, and, in so doing, to “heal the cracks in the bell of the world.” This timely collection includes poems about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the beheading by ISIS of the journalist, Jim Foley, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder. Once again, Espada brings to the republic of poetry, along with the angels and curve balls of his Brooklyn childhood and the straw fedoras and red plumage of his grandfather’s Puerto Rico, the stalwart commitment to social justice that has been the hallmark of his poetic career.
Vivas to Those Who Have Failed begins with the title poem, a five sonnet sequence on the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. The poem evokes both Walt Whitman whose “Song of Myself” contains the title phrase, and William Carlos Williams who also wrote a poem about the 1913 strike. The sonnet sequence begins with an unnamed worker raising his dyed-red hand in protest, continues by detailing the actions of anarchist strikers such as Carlo Tresca and Modestino Valentino, the reportage of John Reed, and the exploits of iconic IWW figures, such as Big Bill Haywood and Hannah Silverman. The poem concludes by invoking the actions, twenty years after the strike, of a labor organizer, named Arturo Mazziotti, whose struggle recapitulates the earlier struggle and anticipates the successes of future generations. The last poem in the sequence ends: “Mazziotti’s son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet./ Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.” By implication, Trayvon Martin, Jim Foley, the victims in Newtown, Connecticut, and so many more have become part of the river, as ever-present and unseen as Frank Espada, not simply passed, but passing through us all.
Espada’s Vivas achieves an added poignancy in light of the highly publicized shootings, murders, and terrorist attacks at home and abroad in 2016. In the poem, “How Could We have Lived or Died This Way,” Espada echoes Whitman’s twin dictum of insurrection and loyalty by couching this recent violence in historical terms that America’s most expansive bard would undoubtedly and vehemently bemoan. Espada ends the poem with the following two stanzas:
I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing
into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking, words
buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see
the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,
shot in the back for a broken tail light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.
I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.
Reading Martín Espada here, as everywhere in his body of work, we come a little closer to a future where the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave-catchers have intermingled to the point that they have become indistinguishable, where everyday insurrections of equity ensure our fidelity to ordinary justice, and where we no longer awaken with the blood of the dead sweating from every pore. The threads that connect our stars are like the words that connect Espada to his father, and like the countless silken ties of affection that connect each of us to one another across this earth even when we cannot see the truth of our essential interdependence.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he was the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and the Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry.
David Lehman’s The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014 collects the introductions he’s written to introduce the individual volumes of The Best American Poetry series over the last twenty-five years. Taken together, these brief essays—for they are much more broadly conceived than the word “introduction” would indicate—trace the controversies and other points of attention within the American poetry world over the last quarter century. Often as I read, I thought, oh, I’m glad we’re through that phase—the theory wars that not only pitted scholars against each other but also unnecessarily pitted scholars against creative writers (as if many of us don’t fill both roles), the flurry of trash-talking reviews by William Logan, the perennial complaint that there’s too much bad poetry because of MFA programs or slam poetry events or the ease of online publishing (a discussion we’re, alas, not yet through having). More often, though, I found myself glad to be a poet in our time when there’s so much vibrant poetry being written by so many different writers, and when there’s such energetic conversation occurring in libraries and cafes and bars and, yes, universities, about our art.
Too often, introductions to anthologies are written as if they are formal necessities or polite niceties that no one actually reads. Continue reading . . .
Catherine Bowman’s newest collection, Can I Finish, Please?, continues to deliver the wicked, opulent, dazzling, and savory poems that have been the hallmark of her first four books. Throughout Can I Finish, Please?, Bowman fashions the makeshift apparatus of desire from unfurling alfalfa and orchard grass song, from wild ancient apple trees, tethered forepaws, and never ending rivers, from tamarind, fennel, mole negro, chicory, coriander, and bouquets of unimaginable flowers. Bowman articulates, in poem after poem, a ravenous desire to know and to be known, to be the swimmer who drifts and drowns and resuscitates herself even as she distils the ocean in a drop of rain. These poems coast over lacustrine wetlands, prairies, spiritual geographies and sediments, leading us to “what was never lost/ where the future becomes the past.” For Bowman, the eternal present of the lyric provides the irrevocable dwelling place where future braids together with past.
Can I Finish, Please? divides its eternal present into three sections. The long poem, “Beds,” dominates the first section with its lush exploration of amorous relationships and physical states of being. Beds, in this poem, are holsters, altars, chasms, cradles, mandalas, primal thrones, conjuror’s tables. The poem consists of an aphoristic barrage of exquisite imagery. For example, Bowman enumerates:
This peephole. This lifeboat.
This tented field.
Soaked by lunar vendetta,
this breeding ground,
this Venus spread,
this birthing rack
you die into each night.
This giant cypress,
a rookery for tears,
for joy. This forcing bed
for hard labor, playtime,
the work of dreams.
Bed of geraniums and lily
and owls, proud owls.
Where you are always called back—
this wallow of red clover
to foal and cast
This urine- and rose-soaked
heptachord. This seawall
for the mother
of all-consuming storms.
Here, as everywhere in this collection, Bowman’s finely calibrated, ornate, diction creates an experience that is at once ethereal and earthy, simultaneously peephole and tented field, a rookery for tears and joy. If the first section of this book concerns itself, primarily, with social and linguistic couplings and uncoupling, then the second section concerns itself with exploring the intertwining of the feminine and the imagination. The section begins with “The Frida Kahlo Tree: A Fable,” in which the artist transforms into a tree, whose magnifying-glass heart burns free her wandering selves, allowing her to feel, after work and at home, intermittent perpetual blossoms. Bowman rounds out this section with an aubade, another fable, and the remarkable, “For the Lost Women in Prisons: A Texas Two-Step.” Some of the most interesting poems in this section, however, are Bowman’s flower poems: “Twat Flower,” “Gag Flower,” “Hobo Flower,” “Thumbscrew Flower,” “Dog Flower,” et cetera. “Slit Flower” provides a characteristic example:
self writ lo
wells for it
While not all of the flower poems consist entirely of anagrams, all of these poems share with “Slit Flower” a cheeky exuberance.
The final section of Can I Finish, Please? manifests the same exuberance as the previous two sections, but the poems here have a more narrative bent. The poem, “June 30, 2013” towers in the midst of this last group of poems. In this poem, Bowman details a ferry ride to Provincetown, Massachusetts; her poem, of course, directly addresses James Schuyler’s “June 30, 1974,” boldly starting with the same lines: “Let me tell you/ that this weekend Sunday morning…” Bowman pays homage to Schuyler while also delivering a wry and loving portrait of this minor voyage, where “all is possibility/ past and present merge.” Like the flowers at the end of her poem “The Arrangement,” each of Catherine Bowman’s poems in Can I Finish, Please? are: “stuck in their aphrodisiacal nomenclature, all spread open—/their unbearable fragility, their excruciating/ brilliance revealed, exposed.” This aphrodisiacal nomenclature reminds one of Blake’s famous statement: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” Catherine Bowman sees the world both ways and renders it in all of its dumb greenness, in all of its unbearable fragility, and in all of its excruciating brilliance.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere.
It could be because I have read the work of too many self-absorbed novelists who favor such sentences as these: "The next day I got up early and shut myself in the bathroom. I took a long shower. I dried my hair carefully, worrying that the hotel hair dryer, which blew violently, would give it the wrong wave." If this is the sort of thing you hate, read on for a recommended alternative.
Michel Houellebecq's new novel Submission, translated from the French by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and officially published this week by Farrar Straus and Giroux, comes as refreshment because it is about the great world outside and beyond the self -- the world of history in the making, as Hobbes might depict it if he were around. It is a world of wars and surrogates or warnings of war: threats, pronouncements, failed diplomacy, mob behavior, and murderous violence of an infinitely greater magnitude than that of a hotel hair dryer.
A moment ago I said that Submission came as refreshment to one who is tired of memoirs by individuals who have never done anything memorable. But while refreshing in this sense, the new novel is terrifying. It is a vision of the future that defies the policemen of political correctness. It dares to spin out a plausible scenario extrapolated from the acts and proclamations of ISIS, Al Queda, the Ayatollah, and terrorist entities whether organized or consisting of indoctrinated loners.
Some novels are like the needless elaboration of a Facebook entry. Not Houellebecq's. Submission is a work of invention and speculation. What happens if, in the next decade, the political alignments in France evolve to the point that the nominee of a Muslim political party wins the presidency? Is "Eurabia" the future of Europe? The vision of "submission" that is central to Islam informs this first-person narrative in which, inevitably, a proud people submits to fanatic religious dogma, women submit to men, and "submission" represents an impulse and a drive that would have merited Freud's attention. It is a fact sometimes neglected by commentators that Sharia represents a triumphant form of patriarchy -- a fact Houellebecq goes to town with.
Francois, the narrator, is a tenured professor, a scholar whose lifework centers upon J. K. Huymans, the late nineteenth-century author of A Rebours, a book that has been aptly called the "breviary of the Decadence." The conduct of university administrators, professors, and intellectuals is expertly skewered by the skeptical, world-weary Francois: "Over the course of the twentieth century, plenty of intellectuals had supported Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot and had never been taken to task. For the French, an intellectual didn't have to be responsible. That wasn't his job."
The prose, always good enough to sustain the reader's attention, sometimes rises to eloquence: "We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we've lived there; whether we live well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace."
Effortlessly provocative, informed as much by resignation as by ire, Submission may just be the most important novel published in the United States this year.. -- David Lehman [originally posted 10/23/15]
Jamaal May’s second collection of poetry, The Big Book of Exit Strategies, continues the bighearted, artful, dialogue with his phobias and his hopes begun in his first collection, Hum. Once again, Detroit ghosts through his lines, as May’s poems reconnoiter the culture of violence that circumscribes American life and U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. While May’s debut collection writhed to life through the motif of the mechanistic purr, the hum of the god-engine in his second book takes the form of fire and ruin. Amidst images of burning and breaking things, May’s poems turn inward, charting his own way of being in a hostile world, in order to extend outward as an embrace. Despite the hostility he probes, in open-mouthed requiem, May commits himself to the hard work of healing psychic ruptures and toppling crumbled walls. In the poem, “The Tendencies of Walls,” May notes: “My nostalgia is a pyromaniac/ I follow into a condemned barn.” Here, as everywhere in this book, May seeks egress from the paralyzing fears that come from living in a nation so schizophrenically privileged and impoverished, so beaconed and so broken, so hell-bent on following the way of the gun even as it anthems itself in hymns.
Throughout The Big Book of Exit Strategies, May resists the urge to draw easy parallels between injustices emblematized by a city like Detroit and repressions occurring overseas; in fact, a poem such as “There are Birds Here,” emphasizes the corrosive danger of emblematizing injustice, and the difficulty of transcending cliché:
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make out of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like
a war zone.
The stutter-step negations in these lines accrue into an aural subtext where confetti and cotton, skeleton and smiling boy, neighborhood and warzone, tank and building, bread and bird and girl, resolve themselves into taut uneasy correspondences. These correspondences ultimately buckle and splinter like “the grown man growing out/ of a splintering boy’s body.” Splintered words yearn for a wholeness of utterance uniquely restored through poetry.
The overriding impulse in all of Jamaal May’s work is the restorative utterance. For all of the shards and the shrapnel embedded in his poems, May primarily admires uplift, albeit with a jagged edge. The end of the poem, “Conducting Ivy with the Girl Down the Street,” provides a characteristic example of the poet’s affinities:
into a broken
but she covers my mouth
kisses the back of her hand
that just keeps rising out of us.
The belief in unremitting green springing from a child’s gesture of acceptance might be the only rejoinder to exit wound and torn cartilage. May chooses avowal over despair, the shape of the mouth kissing over a cupped formlessness. The formal range of the poems in The Big Book of Exit Strategies is impressive; May leaps seamlessly from elegy to ode, from the interview in “FBI Questioning During the 2009 Presidential Inauguration” to a partial crown of sonnets in “The Whetting of Teeth.” More impressive, however, is May’s fidelity to the simple truth that: “what matters most/ is not where I bend/ but where I am growing.” What matters most is not the grackle falling through smoke, not the house built from the skinny letters of your own name, not the “fire to stoke like rage and fill the sky with human remains.” Reading Jamaal May’s poetry you might find a map out of yourself, into the pistol-full avenues where love poems compose themselves on the precarious cliffs of the loveliest collarbones.
Dante Di Stefano's collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere.
KMD: I truly enjoyed your latest collection, Notes on a Past Life, which was just published by BlazeVOX Books. As I read the work, I was reminded of Marianne Moore’s philosophy with regards to poetry. She actually coined the term “conversity” to describe the dialogic nature of the arts, to evoke the idea of the poem as a conversation with other creative practitioners. Similarly, your collection contains references to such writers as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Mark Doty, as well as incisive commentary on the business of poetry. With that in mind, I’d love hear more about your beliefs about contemporary poetry as a dialogue among its practitioners. Which elements of the conversation are you most interested in preserving, and which of these are you most interested in refining, reconstituting, and even discarding? To what extent is your poetry, your participation in this literary conversation, an interventionist gesture, an effort to effect change through narrative, as well as form and technique?
DT: I think Moore’s term is apt. I’m always in conversation with other poets. In Notes on a Past Life, I set out to tell the truth about my own experiences in the New York poetry scene. That was all. But as I was writing the book, I realized it was a fairly stringent critique of the poetry business and ambition in general. Prior to starting the book—and while I was writing it, too—I read a number of poets who helped show me the way. I was looking for direction, and for permission, without really knowing it. It wasn’t a completely conscious process; I don’t know that writing, for me, ever is. Or can be. How do you write about unpleasant experiences with real writers, living and dead? How do you reach back, touch those old hurts, reignite them, and transform them into art?
Two poems I found helpful were Sylvia Plath’s “The Tour” and Ted Hughes’s “The Literary Life.” Both are about Marianne Moore, actually. Thom Gunn’s “Famous Friends” is a poem I’ve argued with for a long time. Ultimately, I think it’s valuable. Certain poems should trouble you. John Berryman’s Love & Fame showed me many things; I’ve been reading that book on and off for years. There were others. Lorca’s Poet in New York was helpful in terms of structure and pitch. Stylistically, Hilda Morley and A.R. Ammons helped me. James Schuyler and Anne Sexton always help me. The poets I’ve mentioned are all dead, of course.
To be honest, I don’t feel that contemporary poetry has very much to tell me.
I don’t think very much is actually being said, or said in an interesting way. There’s a sameness, and a safeness, a mundaneness, an eye to getting ahead that deadens the poetry. There are a few voices that seem distinct, concrete. Maybe there always are just a few. They stand out, but how many hear them? I think of what Elizabeth Bishop said about one of Marianne Moore’s books. She praised “the wonderful ALONE quality of it all—like the piano alone in the middle of the concerto.” I guess that’s what I’m always listening for, that solitary—and brave—individual in the midst of the rabble.
I’m curious to know what you find valuable in contemporary poetry. Does it nurture or inspire you? Who are the living poets you’re in conversation with? Who are the dead poets you talk to?
KMD: I certainly agree with your discussion of the “safeness” of much of contemporary poetry. I think part of this problem of homogenization comes from the increasingly corporate nature of the universities in which creative writing programs are housed. So many contemporary poets write towards what they perceive as the markers of legitimacy, rather than writing from a place of urgency, honesty, or risk. Yet there are so many contemporary writers whose work I return to again and again. For me, the most exciting work in contemporary literature is taking place at the very periphery of what we consider to be poetry, happening at the interstices of poetry and other genres and mediums: lyric essay, short fiction, literary criticism, even photography and the visual arts.
I spent some time at Yaddo in 2011, and remember having a conversation with the poet Sam Taylor, who said that the great frontier in contemporary poetry is not finding new ways to innovate or experiment. Rather, it is integrating tradition and innovation, placing the literary tradition we’ve inherited in new and provocative contexts. The most exciting contemporary texts often arise from the dialogue between the poetry, its tradition, and its artistic resources, and other modes of representation. Recently, I was moved by a collaboration between Sandy Florian and a visual artist, Alexis Anne Mackenzie, who works with collage. The juxtaposition of text with images gave the collection a generative quality, allowing each poem to open out into more imaginative work, more possibilities for readerly interpretation. Similarly, Keith Waldrop’s Several Gravities contains magnificent collages that act as kind of field guide, instructing the reader as to how to understand and appreciate the architecture of the poems. The work of Allison Titus, Julie Marie Wade, Emma Bolden, and Jenny Boully, particularly their experiments in lyric essay, has also been of paramount importance to my thinking about what is possible within contemporary poetry.
And so you’ve probably guessed that the dead poets I talk to include mostly female modernists—H.D., Mina Loy, and Marianne Moore in particular. They really began this undertaking of exploring the possibilities for dialogue between poetry and other disciplines. I’m particularly interested in the ways they placed the literary arts in dialogue with the work of philosophers of the time period—Charles Saunders Peirce, William James, and especially Sigmund Freud. They really showed me that the smallest stylistic choices can convey powerful assertions about philosophy, literary theory, and psychology. And even these seemingly small stylistic choices are often politically charged. They remind me that poetry contains a unique repertoire of artistic resources, which can illuminate and complicate work from other fields of enquiry.
I’d love to hear more about what poetry made possible for you in telling the truth about your experiences in the New York scene. This collection could have arguably taken a much different form—anything from a roman à clef to a memoir. Why did you turn to poetry as a vehicle for representing these experiences? What did the vast range of poetic forms in the book make possible within the narrative, within your own thinking about the past, and within your conceptualization of time?
DT: That’s quite a trilogy of influences—H.D., Loy, and Moore. All troubling figures, in their own way. Eccentrics. I love that Loy described poetry as “prose bewitched.” Not long ago I reread H.D.’s Sea Garden, which I first read when I was in college in the ‘70s. I remembered liking the shorter pieces focused on a single subject, like a flower or tree. But this time I responded to the longer poems, such as “Pursuit” or “Prisoners,” where she gives just a snippet of a larger plot, like a scene from a movie, yet an entire narrative seems to rise up and blossom around it. Something similar happens when I read your poems. They’re full of details—ornate, romantic, and (dare I say) “feminine” objects. Lockets, silver charms, a velvet curtain with “silk tassels and lavish golden trim,” bone china “rimmed with tiny black crocuses.” There are chalets and opera houses and nightingales and chandeliers. Things gleam and glitter. The word “luminous” shows up again and again. It feels as if we’re situated in another time, as if a Victorian novel, or a whole universe of Victorian novels, haunts every page. At the heart is a sense of mourning, desire, the mystery of human experience. I can see your affinity with Jenny Boully, especially in your “footnote” pieces. Though the story itself is intentionally withheld, it’s interesting how much pours in around the “ornaments” and “embellishments,” around a mere gesture or single moment. As with H.D., there’s the suggestion of a narrative, or the trace of one, that gives the writing a ghostly or disquieting quality.
It was only natural that I would write about my New York years in poems, since poems are what I write. Poetry has always been, for me, a place where one can be absolutely truthful. More than in a novel, say, as fiction isn’t real. I guess in my mind that makes it less truthful. Less raw. And in a memoir I would have felt bound by narrative and facts. I’d have to spell everything out, make it all make sense. Notes on a Past Life is, more than anything, an experiment in memory. Often a poem would start with a color or object; images and feelings would begin to swirl around it and the memory would come forth and take shape, as language. A looser and more honest language than I was used to, which I found surprising and exhilarating. I was amazed how much I was able to remember, how much came back.
I outlined the book fairly early on, knew in advance which people and experiences I wanted to write about. Still, it felt, in the two years it took to write the book, like I was retrieving, putting the puzzle pieces of my history back together. To make sense of it. To understand what it was that I actually went through. So in some ways it was a fragmentary process. This allowed me to pull in passages from old notebooks, quotes from writers who were important to me in the past, even old discarded poems. I’m talking about decades-old poems. There was a kind of redemption in being able to include poems I had once considered failures. Or being able to rework some of them into the fabric of the new poems. So they were salvaged, finally of use. No effort is wasted or irrelevant. Or completely abandoned.
By the way, I thought of two more poems that were important signposts for me. Both by May Swenson. One, “March 4, 1965,” is about being a judge for the National Book Award in Poetry and feeling guilty that she played it safe by giving the award to dead Theodore Roethke instead of Galway Kinnell, whose book she preferred. The other, “At the Poetry Reading,” is about being bored at a reading by “stodgy” James Merrill: “The hour seems an age.” These poems were published in a journal after Swenson’s death, but not included in her collected poems. Why? Too honest?
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.