Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Plethora of Poetry Books

I found this list of Spring 2010 poetry books and was both heartened to see the sheer number of books published (and this is not a complete list), but simultaneously horrified at how many of these books I had never heard of and had never read.  I wonder if we poets create too much work or too much work is published and there are simply not enough people (or people with time) to read all of these books!  I read a lot of books but still cannot keep up.  Here's the list:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Craig Morgan Teicher's Cradle Book Micro Review

I've been reading Craig Morgan Teicher's Cradle Book, and so far it's really enjoyable.  The author is married to the superb poet, Brenda Shaughnessy, so I learned just recently.  I know Shaughnessy's work better than Morgan Teicher's in truth, but I was curious about this little book of fables that are part poems, part little stories and now am interested to go back and read his other book, Brenda is in the Room, now that I know who he is referring to in the title.

I had no idea what to expect when I opened the book, and gradually discovered, I really like this little book.  I have a problem with fiction--I simply have no patience to read it and have no patience to write it.  If I do read it, I read it in one sitting at a rapid fire pace literally reading entire pages at one glance.  But the Cradle Book is perfect for me.  I can read these 1 to 2 page stories in a few minutes and then move onto another box of suprises.  These actually read like little prose poems.  The language isn't necessarily poetic, though.  Neither is the rhythm of the language.  I guess the frame of thinking, the philosophical mindset is clearly the mind of a poet, however.  Occasionally, especially toward the end of these pieces, some of the poet in Morgan Teicher did come out, though as in "The Virtue of Birds" which ends: "The clamor closed in like a gloved hand slowly tightening its fingers."  And the "The Line" which ends: "I will follow that line until there is no next thing."

The cover of the book says: "Stories & Fables" and fables are meant to make a moral point through animals, nature, etc.  Morgan Teicher has sort of modernized the fables and these have become more poetic and more sophisticated, as well as more modern and philosophical.  The lessons themselves are even more sophisticated.  In the end, I liked this book because it's a little different from the other work that I've been reading lately.  I also admired the author's desire and conviction to write what comes to him, versus creating some sort of packaged product that some publisher might like or some product that he knows the readers might be interested in.  Here are two poems I found online, but there are much more involved and interesting ones in the book.  Definitely worth picking up and reading.

The Wolves     
Wolves rule these woods. They have overthrown the old rulers, conquered all the creatures, and now these woods belong to them.  But do not be afraid if you pass this way. There is nothing here that can harm you, because, of course, the wolves are made of something less than air. Their bite is like a breeze. When they run a few leaves shake. Perhaps a flower bends when they howl. Pass through the woods whenever you like. What you have to fear is not in the woods.  

The Prisoner

I am telling the truth, though that is of little consequence to my captors. It is not the truth that they hope to force from my lips. And they will get what they want—certainly they will, for I can only endure so much, like anyone—but not yet. For now, I still have the will to withhold it from them.  First, I will make them abandon all dignity, pride and restraint as they torture me. By remaining silent, I will make them do the unthinkable, even if the price to pay is that I must suffer it.  For I have already told them the truth: that we are all capable of anything, any merciless act. They did not believe me. Once they prove I am right, I will tell them the lie they want to hear: that there are some things we will not do.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tony Hoagland's Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty Micro Review

I've been unable to put down Hoagland's latest book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty and I've been trying to figure out why.  I think the things I don't like about the book, in the end, are also what I love about the book.  And it's precisely this sort of ambivalence that makes me respect Hoagland not so much as a poet, but as a human being.  What I mean by this is that I find Hoagland's speakers to be so honest, unabashed, unafraid of expressing how they feel that the speakers make me feel very uncomfortable and it is this teetering on the edge of something, or risk-taking that I ultimately respect and admire.

I very much disliked the first poem in the book called "Food Court", which talks about (presumably) a Chinese American owner of a food court establishment called "Jimmy's Wok" who has "practical black eyes."  Of course Chinese people are stereotypically described as being "practical", but I found the word "practical" to be a bit unfair.  It's like describing every Caucasian man from the Midwest as having a red neck.  On the other hand, I gave Hoagland credit for saying what he feels or what his speaker feels and observes.  Hoagland pushes the envelope between what is often said in private and what is said in public.  And if I think about the people I like most in real life, it's those exact types of people, not the staid, professional, or political people, but I'm attracted to those unafraid to rock the boat, to cause trouble, to say something important.

Many of the poems have a very powerful tone, a very masculine tone.  I visualize an orator, standing on a podium, speaking his mind about any topic, whether that being love, Britney Spears, or "small rectangles of food" they serve at parties (I could be biased because I've seen him deliver lectures, read his poetry, and banter strongly back and forth with poets like Dean Young and Reginald Shepard at Warren Wilson many many times).  I almost saw all the poems as actually being prose commentaries or prose Letter to the Editors.  I felt like they could actually benefit from such a construct, almost in the way Wenderoth's Letter to Wendy's used the fast food comment cards as a sort of overarching structure.

I found many of the poems simultaneously tragic and funny, and I liked the tragic honest self-reflective poems best.  Like the poem "Hostess", which talks about the speaker attending some event that starts with the description of the black dress of the hostess, that gradually moves into the dress as a trope for failure and ends like this:  "And that, by the end of the evening,/I had found my disappointment,/which I hoped no one else had seen."  It's moments like these, where the speaker dares to let himself be human and real, vulnerable, that I really liked.

What would be great to see in the future from Hoagland is more of a play on form, or formlessness, like the prose poem because I did wonder why his poems needed line breaks at all.  It'd also be great to see him work with the longer poem, even a book-length sequence on some subject he feels strongly about.  Or to reverse what he does so well--that oration-type of poem, to write poems that don't try to express any opinions, poems that almost seem to exist without a speaker behind them.  But then again, who am I to give Tony Hoagland opinions on what he should be working on!

At the end of the day, one of my poetry teachers once emphasized the need for poems (and books) to be "memorable" and I can't get this book out of my head, which tells me that Hoagland has succeeded.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Male vs. Female

I've been reading some books of poetry lately, just started to, at least.  I've been so busy lately.  One thing that struck me is that some poets feel, smell, sound so, well, "Male".  And other poets so "Female".  Just like stereotypically, certain men like watching certain television shows and certain females like watching certain television shows, I wondered whether I prefer certain styles or certain tones that skew a certain gender?  There are so many poets that break these conventions of course.  But if I were to scale certain poetry books certain ways, would that be deathly sexist?  For example, I think Ben Lerner feels very "Male" to me, but then again, so does Mary Jo Bang.  So does Dean Young and Tony Hoagland and Matt Hart and one of the Dickman brothers, I can't remember which one.  I feel slightly uncomfortable with these arbitrary labels, but this is how I feel when I read certain poets.  Then there are others like Alison Benis White (my favorite) and Rick Barot (also my favorite) who feel more Female.  Some of Haas' early work feels more female to me too and I love his early work.  This is strange and dangerous stereotypical territory to tread in, but in truth, I am not implying that Male poetry is more cerebral or intellectual at all.  It has something to do with tone.

I'm reading:

Terrance Hayes Lighthead
Timothy Donnelly The Cloud Corporation
Rachel Zucker The Bad Wife Handbook (again)
Tony Hoagland Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty
John Gallaher Map of the Folded World
Craig Morgan Teicher Cradle Book
Ange Minko Shoulder Season

Back soon with some micro reviews, hopefully.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Back from Fishing

It's been a while since I posted here but I'm back from fishing and didn't catch any fish.  I do have some empty hooks and a beaten up boat, though.  I plan to get all of my coffee chats back online here soon and plan to do more.  And to keep these posts short since I am time-starved.

Been thinking about creativity and originality (again).  My thoughts are this--to have a truly extraordinary book, a manuscript needs to

1) Write about the same subject matter (that other people have) in a truly different way
2) Write about different subject matter (that other people have) in a truly different way
3) Write about different subject matter (that other people have) in the same way, but that same way must be really really good

I was thinking about my favorite books and why I liked them so much and found that a lot of them, at least superficially, fit into one of these categories.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Coffee Chat #3: Ben Lerner

I'm a huge fan of Ben Lerner's work.  I think this is because he appeals to another side of my brain--the philosophical and thinking part of my brain.  Yet Lerner also is a lyric poet in some ways too.  I love his humor, his aphorisms.  I think also his work resists the personal or approaches the personal in different ways.  His work is ultimately very refreshing to me in many ways.  I've been thinking a lot about poets and suffering and whether poets need to suffer (at least in the way that I've seen a lot of books focus on a loss or a death) and I'll post more on this later, but Lerner proves that you don't, at least for me.  I really think reading his books is essential for any poet.  His books are The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path.  I would recommend going backwards in order to support his latest book, Mean Free Path.  And Angle of Yaw was a finalist for the National Book Award.  My interview with him is below, but what a fascinating set of responses.


VC: I'm interested to learn about your writing process.  Can you talk about that? Do you approach poems as part of larger projects-your books seem to be thematic in focus, do you approach your work that way?

BL: I don’t really understand the process. And I’m not sure if I’m stuck with the process I have or if might change. I suppose I have a territory of thematic concern in advance of finding a form, but it’s pretty inchoate. For instance “night vision green” was a phrase/phenomenon I was interested in working with as a motif—the militarization of vision, of a color, and not just any color: the “green world” of pastoral. And I knew I wanted to write something for Ariana, to include her in the poems. But I don’t know how I get from those desires to the specific form in question. I play around with language until some kind of pattern emerges that I feel like I can elaborate, that isn’t exhausted in its first iteration. Eventually I feel like a form has emerged, and then I often re-describe the form I’ve discovered as a rule, so that then I have something to struggle with, a generative restraint. That sense that Wittgenstein describes in the Philosophical Investigations—that sense of sequence characterized by the expression “Now I can go on”—that’s an important compositional intuition for me. As I go I discover what’s sayable in a particular form. And discover what the procedures have to say.

Actually, maybe this is only an accurate description of the last book.

VC: How do you feel about writing--is it an easy process for you or is it tortuous or none of the above?

BL: If you polled the people closest to me and my writing—the people who observe and are involved in the process—I’m guessing they would say tortuous.

VC: You don't seem to be a "personal" poet in the traditional sense (writing about childhood, death of people around you, etc.); you seem more of a macro poet, someone who is a larger thinker, philosophical thinker, a cultural observer.  Would you agree with that?  And if so, why?  If not, why not?

BL: I sometimes write specifically about childhood, death, etc., but I don’t think of “aboutness” in the sense of narrating experience as the primary way in which poetry communicates. Poems are objects to be experienced, not just accounts of experience, and, say, the formal disposition of text on a page is as important a component of expression as its paraphrasable content.

How could one not write about childhood and death? What don’t those forces shape, I mean. Rosmarie Waldrop in “Thinking as Follows”: “I turned to collage early, to get away from writing poems about my overwhelming mother. I felt I needed to do something ‘objective’ that would get me out of myself. I took books off the shelf, selected maybe one word from every page or a phrase every tenth page, and tried to work these into structures. Some worked, some didn't. But when I looked at them a while later: they were still about my mother.” 

One thing I think poetry can do is dramatize how the “personal” crystallizes out of and dissolves back into larger systems. I don’t mean that it tracks these processes with ironic detachment. The sense that my “I” is constructed/polyvocal/complicit/imperial and so on can be an intensely felt first person state. So you’re right I’m interested in the macro, but largely because that forms and deforms persons.

VC: How did the project of your latest book, Mean Free Path come about? There's more love in this poem than in your previous books, it seems.  Can you talk about that?   

BL: I think to a certain extent I construct the genesis of a book retrospectively, as a fiction, so I probably shouldn’t be trusted, but I believe the project arose out of my wanting to stage failures of expression that were themselves expressive—to make hesitation and fragmentation and recombination communicate an emotion that exceeds description. I mean this is the set of concerns I discovered as I went. In this sense Creeley’s “For Love” was an important poem for me, a poem I learned to read while writing this book. And “Mean Free Path” is largely a love poem, and a chronicle of the difficulty of writing such a poem with such a language. 

I suppose I was reacting against a kind of self-congratulatory diagnostic tendency in my work and in the work of some of the poets I read—a kind of stylized despair at the state of the culture. Because that’s just as easy and ultimately boring as the prefab lyric it ostensibly opposes, right? I wanted direct modal statements of affection and the murderous absurdity of our empire to interact in the poem as they interact in the world. 

VC: How did you compose that book? How does punctuation play (or not play into this work)?

BL: The absence of end line punctuation (excepting the dedicatory poem) is crucial in the book because it helps create the sense that there is more than one possible order of lines within a particular stanza—that a given right margin can link up with a variety of previous or subsequent left margins. In the “Doppler Elegies,” sentences often restart or change directions at left margin, an effect that also requires that the nature of the syntactic unit isn’t resolved at the right margin. The second suite of “Doppler Elegies” very much depends upon the comma as a mark internal to the line—especially the way it can be difficult or impossible to decide if a comma indicates series or apposition, what’s sequential and what’s qualification, etc. So the absence of punctuation at end line and the use of ambiguous punctuation internal to the line are part of the re-combinatory machinery of the poems, part of what keeps them from stabilizing into a definitive, exclusive order.

VC: What are some poets that you are interested in these days?

BL: Great books on my desk this instant by: Alice Notley, Aaron Kunin, James Schuyler, Graham Foust, Erin Moure, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Rae Armantrout, Tan Lin, Cyrus Console.

VC: What are your biggest concerns about the state of poetry in contemporary life?  Or are you not concerned? 

BL: It’s not necessarily a problem for me that poetry is comparatively marginalized in contemporary life—most (but by no means all) of the people and practices I love are marginal relative to the dominant economic forces of the day. I can’t imagine the poetry I care about being popular in the sense that a pop star or sitcom is popular (which is not to say I hate all pop stars and sitcoms). I mean, to imagine a substantial poetry that can compete in the so-called “cultural marketplace” is to imagine an entirely different world, maybe a world without such markets. But I think that’s part of the appeal of the lament—when we say poetry is dead or dying, when we scold the masses for not caring about poetry, or poets for not caring about the masses, it’s an expression, often unconscious, of a desire for alterity, some other organization of societal forces. So sometimes worrying about the state of poetry in contemporary life is just one of many ways of expressing our worries about contemporary life in general. I’m certainly concerned about the state of contemporary life.

Part of what’s interesting about “the state of poetry,” about the word “poetry,” is how—without anybody having any stable idea about what it is (does it need to rhyme or scan? or have lines? express feelings? be beautiful? etc)—it provokes so many strong responses.  Did you see that George Packer thing on the New Yorker blog about Obama’s decision to have a poem read at his inauguration? Packer says it’s a mistake to include a poem because: “For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings.” One could say a lot about Packer’s post, but in a way the most interesting thing about it is that he felt compelled to write it at all. I mean, let’s say poetry is dead, empty, etc.—you think it’s the only empty ritual attending a presidential inauguration? Strange to even have time to be pissed off about such a thing when you have Rick Warren delivering the invocation. And who is the poet Packer’s nostalgic for—who had the language, rhythm. etc., to move large numbers of people in large public settings? And move them to what? A poetic ideal, however vague, is being posited negatively, as if he’s trying to protect Poetry from actual poems. This hatred of contemporary poetry—which apparently does not require actually knowing anything about contemporary poetry—is quite mainstream. I can’t help feeling it’s a sign of the art’s nagging relevance.