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Archive for December, 2013


The current issue of The Missouri Review features three poets. Rose McLarney begins with “How History Would Have It” describing the break-up of a relationship using the over-arching distance of a discussion of history: “So let us / describe this evening in a constructive style.” It’s an interesting attempt to create distance as though to alleviate the pain. “It was gray / outside, cold, and the friend went away.” With her next poem, “Redemption,” she examines the intersection of bear and human: “A skinned bear looks like a human.” “That skinned body, / limbs spread…can I say now it looks…ready for an angel’s flight?” More discursive than incantatory, the poems more shift their view of things as they go along, rather than building to some big conclusion. Interesting.

James Davis May also keeps his distance in his poems. In “A Lasting Sickness” the narrator addresses a child who is sick — we gain the impression the child was the narrator many years ago: “Five nights into fever, you lie in bed / as your parents, urgent, move about you…” Such distance at the end allows him to ask of the child who he is to be, after all these others have cared for him. His next poem is “Portrait Of the Self as Skunk Cabbage” which is pretty fun. “Maybe it’s like those hard red rubbery spathes / that…create their own heat / and halo themselves / with soil wet / from the snow they melt.” Now there’s an ambitious line. I like how we’re pointed at the skunk cabbage with the concreteness of the image, but we’re still also getting a soul “haloing” itself. And it’s not all skunk cabbage, the self pops in: “Dumb from winter’s boredom / my brother and I…” Note how boredom there becomes dumb through the resonant sound. Very nice. And both of these poems end very skillfully.

Lastly, Claudia Emerson gives us “Infusion Suite,” a series of linked poems (or one poem of multiple sections) exploring again the identity of the self, this time in a hospital context: “She asks / again for me to verify name, date of birth…” With a brief glimpse of something else: “The trees outside…still full with summer, crows’ flight — more / like drunken tumbling…” These themes tug at each other through the next section: “she says / to the screen of her computer that my blood / numbers are good…” “Hour after hour we watch birds circle…” and the hairs start rising on the back of my neck. Then as we proceed through the suite, the attention turns outward, to others in the cancer ward: “his specialty the under- / carriage of a car after a wreck…” Such a subtle metaphor. Then a revisitation of the trees, and the last section devoted to “The old woman next to me does not speak / all day, not even to the young girl…” Wow. What a powerful working of images in and out. Easy to see why she won the Pulitzer. Easy to see she deserved it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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So I’m reading the poems in the Missouri Review when I notice an interview with Dorothea Lasky. I say, hey, maybe she’ll say something interesting, and flip through it. And there it is. The secret to American poetry over the last thirty (or so) years. Oh, I suspected it…we all suspected it. It had to be, right? The poems we’ve been reading in The New Yorker and Poetry Magazine (among so many others) whose purpose (and success) are completely opaque to us. The stuff that seems almost simplistic jingos, published in some of the biggest mags in the land. And we’ve wondered, what IS it about this poetry that makes otherwise brilliant (seeming) editors buy it? When it seems like ragin’ crap? I say us because I have surely learned in the years of writing this blog I am not alone in this point of view. The ‘what-am-I-missing-here’ feeling of being on the outside of the inner sanctum.

Well folks, Dorothea explains it all to us:

Interviewer: “In ‘Poetry Is Not A Project’ you write…There’s a lot…to do…to make our world better for poets. Let’s start…by valuing poems over projects…How do you differentiate between a poem and a project?”

(And I’m like, what’s a project? What’s the academic “in” joke here?) Lasky answers:

“I saw the idea of a project as being something that shut out particular people who might not know that term, or…how…to construct thair work in a particular form. Some people took this as an attack on conceptualism…”

(Are you with me on wondering what the heck conceptualism is? Cuz I never took an English degree, folks.)

“It was more about an elitist use of…’project’ when you can say, I’m writing a project about…jewels in the ocean or whatever…articulate it in such a way, it’s easier to get a grant or get a job…in contrast to somebody who is…authentically writing their poems.”

Interviewer: “Are too many people overly obsessed with ‘projects,’ and is that a negative aspect of academia, and all the pressure to get jobs and grants?”

Lasky: “This is a problem because it’s shutting out poets from the conversation who don’t…know how to articulate their ‘project.'”

Oh bless you, Dorothea Lasky. Bless you, Jason Koo (the interviewer). Here for the first time I, at least, learn of the evil secret underbelly of American poetry. That poets (many poets) now create projects. Centered on a theme. And this project is written up in a grant proposal. And this grant (when obtained) leads to validation for a poetry publisher (likely academic) taking on the book that results. So a pile of poems, let’s say fifty to eighty or so, are written around this theme. And we can assume these poems find favor in the journals after the poets mention their project in their cover letters, and all is glowing happiness on their part. And, excuse my cynicism, the quality of the resulting poetry ain’t the primary standard. What grant committee would have confidence in their ability to pick out good poems from bad? As versus properly politically correct poems, for instance?

Personally, I haven’t much of a chance in this game, because when I write poems to a conscious theme I write…lesser poems, shall we say. Crap, even. And I don’t want to write crap. So I write my poems my way, and (with luck and blessings from a higher power) publish them widely, but when it comes time to publish a book, gosh, I have fifty, seventy, a hundred published poems I string together, many published in respectable journals, but they don’t follow any neat little theme. There’s no ‘project.’ And so, no sale. Sound familiar to any of you all?

Wow.

Anyway, the interview also mentioned another new movement in poetry, “The New Sincerity,” which — since many of us write little poetry with the ironic twist so beloved by the old school — may actually give us all hope for the future world of poetry.

Or at least something to research a bit. Along with the other revelations above. Good luck to all of you struggling to break through, and may this help some in giving guidance.

Oh — and buy the mag for the interview, at least! ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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C.K. Williams is a poet I approach only on tip-toes, my hand on the throttle of the jet-pack. When he’s good, I find myself delighted. Otherwise, I’m somewhere out in orbit, blasting. I imagine this reaction doesn’t bother Mr. Williams too much. ;->

In this week’s New Yorker, he gives us “The Economy Rescued By My Mother Returning To Shop.” It commences: “I sleep as always these dark days aquiver I awake atremble…” So, it’s a comedy. The financial world is collapsing — fortunately, there is Dear Old Ma, spending us back from the brink. The many Latinate words give the whole work a faux weight, the archaic constructions add even more garrulous gravitas “with a vigilance keen and serene and hands entities sentient and shrewd cunningly separate / from her // evolved to analyze things’ intrinsic or better overlooked worth…” Note the internal rhyming as well. It all adds up to an amusing work — more evidence Paul Muldoon likes to hire his poetry funny.

The other poem this week was Maya Janson’s “Pushing The Dead Chevy.” “I’m trying to remember the name of the mountain / where the monkeys lived…” A riff on Chinese influences with a couple anyway references to Bob Dylan. “Dylan’s bootlegged sessions complete / with barking dog.” It’s not a straightforward poem: she shifts around a bit — e.g. the barking dog came on a Dylan demo of “Forever Young,” while the Queen Anne’s Lace that shows up later references his song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” (An Awful Truth about your reviewer — I didn’t have to look either of those references up. Sad, but true!) The latter song seems more to the point, as the poem is in part about remembrances — “Whatever happened to…” is repeated a couple times. I kinda liked this poem though — the loose flow of images let my imagination wander a bit, and the ending has a cool enough image and metaphor to make the whole poem worth the price of entry.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Nimrod’s Fall/Winter issue has some fine poetry — it’s the Awards issue, but this year it seems many more awarded poems have been selected for publication. Just a sense I have.

I much enjoyed Melanie McCabe’s “What the Neighbors Know.” A complex poem: “What the neighbors know is so small it might fit in my mailbox.” What they know about what? The poet has fun leaving that unexplained for a bit: “We have a piece of your life that we plan to torture / into something we recognize.” So it’s about not fitting in, not knowing each other.

Doug Ramspeck’s poem “Crow Sight” is about seeing: “When my uncle was going blind, hunters were uncertain shapes beyond the trees, / even with orange vests. He believed…in the uncertainty of things…” Again not a simple poem. But with an excellent ending.

C. White gives us a great poem in “Communion” — “I envy crows their looks — / sitting shiva on power lines…” crows as mediators of grief. Short and strong.

Katherine Bode-Lang’s poems are very much worth reading. From “My Father’s Fastball” — “I’ve always known my father with a scar on his knee.” About her father’s ability to pitch, and what is lost over time, and what is held onto: “The real prize at the fair was out-pitching // the younger guys.”

I loved Earl Reineman’s ode to his father: “Dirty Laundry.” Such a clear impression of a rogue: “A certain charm about my father.” He’s good-looking, evidently: “women’s eyes up and down, / then up and down again.” A fun companion for a young boy. But with some hard truths behind it all: “Mom had seen through him long ago– / kicked him out– divorced him…”

Lots more worthy work in here, by Bonnie Wailee Kwong and Sarah Crossland, among others, but Nimrod is a big magazine, and there’s never room to discuss it all.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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