Friday, February 02, 2018

My Race Sees Me: On African-American Poetry

The latest Hudson Review has dropped into my mailbox, and along with writing by William H. Pritchard, Zara Raab, David Mason, and others, there's an essay called "My Race Sees Me," in which I talk about three African-American poets: Marcus Wicker, Cameron Barnett, and Evie Shockley.  It begins like this:

I once attended a debate between two distinguished poets, both women, who were to dispute whether one wrote as a woman poet, or as a poet who happened to be a woman.  I don’t recall who won, but perhaps that’s less important than the fact of the debate itself: it indicates how, if one is not from a dominant group, the question of identity can’t be taken for granted: even if one wants to shunt it aside and write of other things, one often feels compelled to make a case for doing so.  If that can be true of women, even several generations into feminism’s transformation of the world, it is even truer for African-American writers—especially in a time when police violence against black people in America has become more visible than ever.  2017 may have been an especially difficult year for people of color in America, but, as recent books by Evie Shockley, Marcus Wicker, and Cameron Barnett make plain, it has also been an outstanding year for African-American poetry.
Evie Shockley’s third book of poetry, semiautomatic, certainly addresses issues of African-American identity and the racially charged political urgencies of our time, even as the poems refuse to be limited to such issues.  The book is notable not only for the way it navigates questions of identity and politics, but for the variety and virtuosity of its use of form.  Form, for Shockley, begins with music.  How couldn’t it? The daughter of a jazz musician, she grew up in Nashville, in a part of town where, she says, there were “churches on two out of every four corners” and where one could come to believe that “any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime.” “My relation to poetry was shaped,” she says, “by the jump-rope and hand-game songs the girls in my neighborhood sang.”  These sounds, along with Mother Goose and Ogden Nash, worked their way into the deep recesses of her mind, and find their way into her poetry, even as she explores a wide range of formal possibilities.  In semiautomatic we find poems that show considerable agility with traditional forms like the Spenserian stanza, as well as innovations with rhymes and refrains, such as “a-lyrical ballad (or, how America reminds us of the value of family),” which tells the story of race-based murder in America from the days of midcentury lynchings through the deaths of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and various victims of contemporary police violence.  It opens with three stanzas on Emmett Till, the form of which (rhymes of xAA//xx//BB) repeats throughout the poem, along with the insistent refrain italicized refrain that ends each section:

he was a boy from chicago, in mississippi heat,
being as bad as a good boy could be,
whistling his eyeful of an off-limits she,

            and her menfolk dragged him out of bed, beat him to death, tied
            a cotton gin to his body, and sank him in the tallahatchie river.

it was three days before the remains were retrieved.
and the family grieved ~ o ~ the black family grieved

Such grieving, Shockley implies, is the harsh and lamentable method by which our country has taught, and continues to teach African-Americans the value of family.

The full text is available here. 

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Erotic Paul Verlaine

Rejoice! The latest issue of American Book Review has hit the streets, guest-edited by Anthony Madrid and focused on erotic poetry.  I wrote a little something called "A Feminine Canaan," about Paul Verlaine's erotic poetry.  If you want to see how many kinks there were in that guy's rope, check it out.  It begins like this:
Early on in his literary career, Paul Verlaine swore off most of the traditional sources of poetic ecstasy. "Nature, nothing about you moves me," he writes in the poem "Anxiety," adding "I scoff at Art, and mankind too." Verlaine throws Classical Greek civilization—the source of quickening heart rates for many a European writer from Winkelmann to Rilke, from Pater to Cavafy—into the dustbin of the uninspiring. Out, too go the monuments of Christianity, and God himself, and even love. Well, maybe not love, or at least not all forms of love. Agape he can do without, but in the absence of so many sources of delirious exaltation, Verlaine leaves himself one: the realm of the erotic. 
You'd be forgiven if you hadn't noticed. For one thing, the most explicit parts of Verlaine's erotic oeuvre were long repressed. Les Amies (1867), a little book of poems about fantasy lesbians luxuriating for the male gaze, was published illicitly in Belgium and smuggled into France. A later book, Femmes (1890), in which Verlaine recounts in great detail his encounters with Parisian prostitutes, was a similarly underground document, and its companion volume about men, Hombres (1891), wasn't published until after Verlaine died. The erotic poems have had a checkered publication history since: they didn't even find their way into the otherwise comprehensive and canonical Pléiade edition until a special supplement was issued in 1989. But once you dial into Paul Verlaine's particular erotic frequency—which was less about male or female bodies than about genderless surrender, less about penetrating or being penetrated than about a kind of soul-shattering act of submission, you find that his kind of erotic ecstasy had been hiding in plain sight since the beginning of his poetic career.
You can read the whole essay now at Project Muse, or, if you don't have access to that, you might check from time to time to see when it comes up at the ABR site.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

2018 Plonsker Prize at Lake Forest College: $10,000, Residency & Book Publication, Judged by Lida Yukanavitch

It's time, fiction writers, to submit your manuscript for the 2018 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize.  The image above depicts the Glen Rowan House, where the winner will be in residence.  Other details below!


Judge: Lidia Yukanavitch

Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books is open to submissions on January 1st for the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize from fiction writers under the age of forty who have not yet published a full-length book.

The winning writer receives $10,000, three weeks of residency at Glen Rowan House on the campus of Lake Forest College, and publication of her or his book by Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books, with distribution by Northwestern University Press.

To enter: Submit (here!) a thirty-page sample of a book-length work in progress, along with a one-page statement of plans for completion. We cap submissions at 200. Submissions close on March 1, 2018. Submissions will not be accepted before January 1, 2018.

For more information on the Plonsker Prize, click here.

Past winners and judges

2017 Winner (Poetry)
Christine Larusso, Los Angeles, CA: MAR (forthcoming, 2018)
Judge: Carmen Giménez Smith

2016 Winner (Prose):
Meg Whiteford, author of An Ordered World, a novel (forthcoming, 2018)
Judge: Brian Evenson

2015 Winner (Prose):
Christopher Perez, author of gaugin’s notebook, a poetic narrative (2017)
Judge: Eleni Sikelianos

2014 Winner (Prose):
Matthew Nye, author of Pike and Bloom, a novel (2016)
Judge: Anne-Laure Tissut

2013 Winner (Poetry):
Cecilia K. Corrigan, author of Titanic, a book of poems (2014)
Judge: Lisa Roberston

2012 Winner (Prose):
Elizabeth Gentry, author of Housebound, a novel (2013)
Judge: Kate Bernheimer

2011 Winner (Poetry):
José Perez Beduya, Throng, a book of poems (2012)
Judge: Jennifer Moxley

2010 Winner (Prose):
Gretchen Henderson, Galerie de Difformité, a hybrid narrative (2011)

2009 Winner (Poetry):
Jessica Savitz, Hunting is Painting, a book of poems (2010)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Revolutions in Manchester!

I am, apparently, at the height of my powers—at least according to Ian Pople at The Manchester Review, where he discusses several books by John Matthias, including Revolutions: A Collaboration, in which my commentaries mingle with Matthias' poems and artwork by Jean Dibble. I'm kind of hoping being at this dizzying height doesn't mean it's all downhill from here...

Here are a few remarks on Revolutions from near the end of Pople's review:

If the methods of composing the poems are semi-aleatory, Archambeau goes on to remark that a central influence on Matthias’ poetry is Modernism, ‘Not only is his work written in accord with a thousand Modernist techniques…it constantly invokes the Modernists themselves: the poets, the artists and especially the composers.’ One particular Modernist spirit invoked throughout the poetry is that of the Russian Modernists, not only Mandestam , but also the others in Akhmatova’s ‘four’; Akhmatova, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva. Archambeau claims that another Modernist spirit for Matthias’ is his refusal to compromise. 
In part, that invocation of Russian modernism occurs from the moment you pick up the book with its rather Soviet-style cover of hammers swung in the pattern of sickles, and the book’s title. The collaborative nature of the book might also be seen as ‘revolutionary’. Matthias’ poems hint at a subdued ‘Russian’ narrative; they contain lexical gestures towards that narrative: ‘hussars’, ‘steppe’, ‘vodka’, ‘tsar’ all occur in the first two poems. The poems also contain ‘characters’ who are engaged in an often surreal narrative in which the lexical gestures help to both pin down the action and also move it centrifugally away from possible narrow concerns.   Archambeau riffs off all this with his own centrifugal commentaries. ‘Onomastic’, for instance, stimulates Archambeau to mention the ‘Oulipo’ movement and George Perec’s La disparition, a novel length book written without the use of ‘e’. Archambeau also mentions another modernist ancestor, in Gertrude Stein. 
Overall, what this book offers is something which is not quite revolutionary. There have, after all, been many books of poems with illustrations, and Archambeau’s lively, focussed criticism is not the only time such poems as Matthias’ have been put under the microscope. But what this book offers, that is new, is a sense that these are three artists who, each in their own way, are operating at the height of their powers, to bring this collaboration to a uniquely satisfying whole.
The whole review can be found here.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues: Now Online!

Not long ago the latest issue of the Hudson Review hit the streets, with a little survey of new poetry I wrote inside.  It's called "From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues," and takes a look at new books by X.J. Kennedy, Charles Simic, and Julian Talamantez Brolaski, along with very strong debut volumes by Alan Felstenthal and Airea D. Matthews.  Now, thanks to the good people at Ugly Duckling Presse, you can read it online here!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Karl Pilkington and Reggie Watts Wrestle in Heaven: Now Online!

Hey hey! The good people at Copper Nickel have posted an essay I wrote for their print edition online.  It's called "Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington Wrestle in Heaven," and it's about comedy, identity, and, in a roundabout way, our perilous political state.  You can find it here.

Monday, October 30, 2017

From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues: X.J. Kennedy, Charles Simic, Alan Felsenthal, Airea D. Matthews, & Julian Talamantez Brolaski

Rejoice! The new Hudson Review has dropped with a satisfying clunk into the mailboxes of subscribers and onto the magazine racks of the more self-respecting sort of bookstores! As always, there are many fine things—including, this time out, Mark Jarman on postmodern poetry, A.E. Stallings on the literature of the sea, and much else.  I've contributed a "poetry chronicle" feature, a round-up of recent books I've found impressive in various ways.  It's called "From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues" and covers a range from formalism through Surrealism to deeply experimental works. The poets are X.J. Kennedy, Charles Simic, Alan Felsenthal, Airea D. Matthews, & Julian Talamantez Brolaski.  Here's a small taste from what I have to say about each...

X.J. Kennedy isn’t just a poet—he’s a poet emeritus, or so claimed R.S. Gwynn, holding a laurel wreath aloft over Kennedy’s head at the 2017 West Chester Poetry conference. With dozens of poetry collections, textbooks, edited works and volumes of light and children’s verse behind him, Kennedy has certainly earned the title—and nowhere does he seem more emeritus than in the poems of That Swing.  Here, in Kennedy’s signature combination of storytelling, formal nimbleness, and comic moments mixed with reverie and melancholy, we find the poet assessing the past and looking out on a future beyond his own lifetime...

Unlike X.J. Kennedy, whose That Swing peers into the dark with uncharacteristic frequency, Charles Simic is the kind of poet who has long since set up housekeeping in the dark existential abyss.  His latest collection, Scribbled in the Dark, contains poems in his established idiom: short, eerie pieces rich with image and stingy with discursive explanation—poems in which the world appears uncanny and, for the most part, vaguely menacing.  The images are typical of Simic: injured flies, threadbare gypsies, bare light bulbs hanging over rooms equally bare, an actor “unable to recall his lines/At the end of some tragic farce.”

One could be forgiven for thinking that some of the poems in Alan Felsenthal’s confident debut collection, Lowly, belong in a book like Scribbled in the Dark.  Were one to meet Felsenthal’s “El Dorado” running wild in the deserts of Arabia, one might instantly scream out “Simic!”:
A firefly committed to the orphanage
the night I graduated
and prayed for the petite kindness
unknown to an aiming hand
inside a shoe.

The imagery, the tone, the darkly comic sense of a violent world devoid of divine justice: it all seems to come out of the Simic playbook. But this sort of poetry doesn’t represent the heart of Felsenthal’s book, which is in essence an extended rumination, over many poems, on the theme of connecting with one’s ancestors through rituals connected with death and remembrance...
If Felsenthal fears distraction and forgetting, Airea D. Matthews fears self-deception—or so we can gather from her debut collection, the Yale Younger Poets Prize-winning Simulacra. The book—a contender for strongest debut collection of the year—is formally audacious. Matthews packs it with lyric poetry, prose poems, and closet drama, as well as epistolary poems and their contemporary analog, poems composed of fictitious text messages. The poems of Simulacra treat the theme of addiction—not from the addict’s point of view, but from the point of view of the addict’s family. The poems are particularly powerful in revealing a well-meaning family’s complicity. They cast light on the willingness of families to enable destructive behavior and, especially, the urge to cover up violence and disorder, to put up a false front so as to convince the world, and themselves, that everything is somehow okay when it most decidedly is not.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski is, I say with some confidence, the only half-Native American, trans-male, country music singing student of Renaissance poetry writing today; and Of Mongrelitude, his third collection, is as idiosyncratic as his background might suggest.  It is a stylistically bold book, with debts to popular culture, Native American mythology, and the classics of English literature, as well as to the experimental tradition in American poetry. Like Brolaski’s previous collection, Advice for Lovers, it is also an emotionally engaging book, provided one is willing to dial into the formally challenging frequency in which it broadcasts.

I do hope you get a chance to pick up an issue and read the whole chronicle... or better yet, get your hands on the books themselves—they number among the best of the season.