25 October 2012

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths by Lucia Perillo

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
by Lucia Perillo
Copper Canyon Press. Cloth, $22, 81 pages
ISBN: 978-155659-397-0
To Purchase:  On The Spectrum of Possible Deaths

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster

Lucia Perillo is a storyteller. She is a naturalist, a trained observer, a woman with delightful, sardonic wit. She is also a writer who works in precise imagery, a poet not unwilling to use unflinching candor about what ails her, ails us, all of us — about the highly vulnerable physiognomy of the human condition. 

This is her sixth book of poems and I have to think she has never been sharper. Laced through a body of forty-six poems we find the temporal body in variegated states of disrepair. As the title suggests, people and things have unexpected ways of expiring. Together we will consider some odd and unnecessary passings, often humorous, more often bizarre.

In the poem "Auntie Roach" we learn
             "One day George Washington rides around Mount Vernon
            for five hours on his horse, the next
            he's making his auspicious exodus
            on the spectrum of possible deaths."

The poem continues: "Rasputin was fed cyanide in little cakes / but did not slough his living husk. . . " Rasputin was then shot several times, his more or less dead body tossed into the Neva River, where he finally gave up the ghost to hypothermia. The poet renders the story of the mystic's death that December day, in 1916, more poetically. Perillo adds, "Shakespeare went out drinking, caught a fever, / ding!" If we can't take our own body's ultimate breakdown lightly, who will?

If I had to select one poem in this volume to suggest as representative of the whole it would probably be "After Reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead," where: "The hungry ghosts are ghosts whose throats / stretch for miles, a pinprick wide, / so they can drink and drink and are never sated." / Every grain of sand is gargantuan / and goes down thick as bile." No doubt Lucia Perillo has read the book, studied it, perhaps puzzled some over it, a book musing on perception, death, consciousness, and rebirth, written (we think) in the 8th Century, in verse, where we find that "all phenomena are naturally uncreated." How is that for Buddhist whimsy?

Diverting dear reader from several forms and fashions of death we also are given to consider Great Uncle Stefan in the Assassination Museum, as well as the courtesan Shikabu and her one thousand poems on tasteful sex — one thousand!; and fetchingly we find a young man, who may or may not be Lucia's grandfather, in 1915, sent by the Great Depression down the family stairs, "for lack of other work," to the boiler room, where he will "nurse the chromosomes of sadness / while his words turn in to coal." Social commentary in American poetry is hardly new, but Lucia Perillo handles its prickly edges deftly.

I should emphasize once more that the poet has done no mean job of research into her far ranging subjects, people, and their demises. And not all doom and destruction is human, though the chances are most destruction ties in awfully well to old homo-sapiens. No other poem is more unexpectedly fact-filled and technically accurate as "Lubricating the Void." Here we learn of a space walk in 2008 by U.S. Navy engineer, astronaut, and salvage diver Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. Honest. I looked it up. She lost her tool belt and grease gun while on a repair mission, just outside the space vehicle. Ms Perillo uses this unexpected slice of history to give us a view from space, what images Captain Piper actually caught in her helmet camera: "we see the blue Earth, glowing so lit-up'dly despite the crap / that we've dumped in its oceans, a billion tons of plastic beads, / precursors to the action figures that come with our Happy Meals."

Toward the end of the book her lovely poem "Matins" brings us back home, back to family, for a young woman's love for her dead father, whose long-sleeve shirt, the sleeves unraveling, she wears until it too "falls to ruin."

These are mostly personal poems, poems all of us can relate to. Everyone has lost a dear one. And so these are largely I poems, me and my poems. Perillo does not dissemble, though she is a master at allusion. She declares; she underscores her thesis and does it brilliantly. No hiding from the truth, from the work she has been given to do in this life, whatever remains of it.

She concludes the poem, evidently referring to a drug, "Autothalamium," that opens with her wedding night and concludes with this:

            And no matter what has happened since (she insists)
            the years and the dead,
            the sadness of the bound-to-happen,
            the ecstasy of the fragile moment,
            I know one night I narrowed my gaze
            and attended to my captaining, while the sea
            gave me more serious work than either love or speech.

21 October 2012

The Clock of the Long Now
by Annabelle Moseley
David Robert Books
Paperback, 96 pages
ISBN: 978-1936370573
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Leya Burns

A strange thing may happen to our perception of time after a family member dies. The hours stretch and distend, with past breaking into present and present into future. This experience of time is central to Annabelle Moseley’s first full-length book of poetry, The Clock of the Long Now. Named for a 10,000 year clock that ticks only once a year, soon to be installed in the deserts of the Southwest, Moseley's book vividly demonstrates how loss may transform time, balancing elegy and hope with equal care.

How grief may alter our experience of time is introduced in early on in “The Persistence of Memory” (after the Dali painting of the same name, and the image on a watch her father ordered before his death):

Our house clocks stopped the day my father died—
at three, the very hour that he passed.
No catch of shifting gears, no pulse defied
his absence. Time itself mourned him. The past
and future froze in one long pause…

That “long pause” is the “long now,” one presumes. Here and elsewhere, Moseley maintains a keen awareness of time through narratives shaped by its passage; yet she knows, too, that events and people decades apart often connect unexpectedly. Moseley’s careful sequencing defines her book’s inclusive vision: as one poem follows the next, we see how the past informs the present and influences the future.

The book’s first half features poems that elegize and reflect on the death of Moseley's father, a tragedy that results also in a very necessary exploration of family history. After his death, the poet discovers that her father was adopted, the son of a priest whom her grandmother excused from fatherhood when she relinquished their son for adoption (“How I Imagine He Proposed”); related poems on this powerful subject are “My Father Is Conceived,” “Cave,” and “The Accidental Is Born.” But whatever their connection with each other, most of Moseley’s poems remain independent entities, whether they span a century or a moment. This is true even in formal sequences, such as “Unearthing Jupiter: a Crown for a Slave” and in the impressive “Lloyd Manor Tesseract” that unfolds the home’s long history in sonnet-shaped glimpses. (Lloyd Manor is an historic eighteenth-century Long Island house whose past residents include Jupiter Hammon, the first published African American poet, enslaved on the original estate.) In Moseley’s sequence, people separated by time are connected by geography—a sort of “time travel,” Moseley calls it in her afterword—from celebrated author Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her famed aviator husband, to Jupiter Hammon, Moseley and her spouse, and even her priest-grandfather:  “I entered Lloyd Manor, the time machine—/…It was a day for decades to break down.” Past and present moments become almost welded to one another, each informing the other and adding significance to the seemingly unrelated.

Immediacy and concision—two important strengths—are ensured by Moseley’s use of and confidence in the sonnet form. Her specialty is the subtle, letting end rhymes fall beneath notice by way of enjambment only to have them suddenly resurface, creating new meaning and correlations. Brief incidents become compelling metaphors, as when Moseley writes, in “The Persistence of Memory,” “One night in childhood I ran/chasing a firefly. Then I let go./That is the way my father died.” Beginning and end become one and the same; the child’s memory of summer fuses with how the adult poet imagines that her father “beheld a distant speck of light,/and lunged, then with a laugh, fell forward.”

Connections between past and future are further heightened in the handful of “mirror sonnets": two-stanza poems in which the second stanza is, with slight modifications of punctuation or syntax, a line-by-line reversal of the first (Moseley herself devised the nonce form). Here, an echo of the familiar inhabits the new stanza, linking past and present moments within the act of reading; cause and effect are blurred, and the inherent circular movement questions the very idea of origin and ending—perfect for a poem such as “The Sea Cave of My Mother,” in which the speaker longs “to burrow down, and sleep/inside my mother’s womb, where I could hide/within my life-source, cradled in the deep.” In these mirror sonnets, distant events lie atop each other as on tracing paper, bringing surprising similarities to light.

Moseley’s very best poems are effortlessly heartbreaking. In the seventh stanza of the final poem, “The Lloyd Manor Tesseract,” Moseley imagines herself and her husband gathering horse chestnuts beside both Jupiter Hammon and Anne Lindbergh. She hears

the scratch/of Jupiter’s quills on parchment, a flow
of tapping keys—the trill of words. Attach
all three poets, our joys and pain—to sound.
That’s how we travel time—our common ground.

Moseley has cracked the sonnet form wide open. Her poems span past, present, and future, neatly contained in only a few lines. The Clock of the Long Now is an apt title, as her poems are surprising and attentive to time’s strange transformations. Dali would be proud. 

10 October 2012

The Commute

by Susan Scutti
Paper Kite Press, 2011
Perfect Binding, 60 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9831606-0-1
To Purchase: The Commute

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas

I am a Jersey girl, born in a port city that lives in the shadows of New York skyscrapers. I grew up being a city-dweller wannabe. Now, every time I drive through the Lincoln Tunnel or across the GW Bridge to deliver my sons to their respective schools, I pledge that someday it will be for me to return home. But, for the near future, I am just an earnest, maybe slightly idealistic, observer and visitor who is drawn to anything related to New York city.  A few months ago, a friend gave The Commute by Susan Scutti a thumbs up on Facebook. When I found out that Scutti was also a New Jersey native who now lives in NYC, and that The Commute was a Paper Kite Press title (I love PKP books), I quickly put it on my to-read list.

This debut full-length poetry collection is brimming with life experiences and snapshots of city living; angst and strength. It isn't dark necessarily; but it isn't bright like the lights of Times Square either. Some of its poems are gritty, sad and resigned. Others are detached, observant; calm and matter-of-fact. It lays out a story, welcomes you to take it all in, but makes no apologies for its characters, its city, or its subjects, such as birth, abortion, sex, disillusionment with work, and family dynamics. I appreciate that Scutti tells the stories in her poems with thoughtfulness, honesty, heart and soul.

For many who haven't lived in New York city, there is a certain mystique surrounding it. We forget the realities - garbage strikes, torrential rain with no empty cab in sight, pet owners that don't carry bags, hot subway platforms crowded with cranky commuters. We forget that city dwellers often yearn for something else, something more, just like everyone does at some point in life. And Scutti captures this need in several poems in the collection.

The opening poem “Job” moves through the mundaneness of an ordinary day from commute to work to home to the next morning, but in “The Blackout of 2003” the daily routine of mundaneness is interrupted by the loss of power. Scutti begins stanza two with “on the spiritless train headed/towards an unembellished office building” and ends it with “penned like veal calves/waiting to be slaughtered/the corporate class/generates hostile hormones/and emits them/into exhaust-filled air.” A beautiful, yet sadly empty image. In stanza four, the narrator is standing in a pay-phone line when a man pulls up in a car billowing with smoke. The stanza ends with the simple grace of humanity in the face of a crisis:

“although all i do is offer
to bring him water -
although he refuses -
I still feel like the
he calls me.”

In “The Dental Assistant”  Francisco describes his loneliness as “a fanged beast,” “an icy blue vapor,” and “suddenly fluid.” This vivid imagery is the foundation of a poem that is the epitome of a person lonely in the midst of millions of people. The first lines of “Night Club” reek of despair and while the reader may initially think he is meeting someone, this will have a happy ending, the poem dives deeper into loneliness and ends with this haunting image:

“With a blanks wall behind her and eyes
that don't seem to blink she looks like a character trapped in a
comic strip, and after, after, he feels nothing as he watches her sleep.”

Scutti navigates life events and feelings like a seasoned New Yorker wends through a throng of tourists snapping pictures of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.  Several family poems exemplify this as well as bringing a sense of the personal into the collection which also often exudes a subtle sense of disconnect. These poems, like “Education” and “Safe,” are poignant and ones that readers can instantly connect with. In “Safe” Scutti recounts how her father wrote three books in his 70s by hand that she wasn't allowed to read until he was 84 and suffering from Alzheimer's. Even then she could only read the only copies in his home where they were “safe” from being lost. The reader feels the mother's frustration when she yells at the dad:

“She likes your book.” When she turns to me
my mother's blue eyes appear glacial. “I told him
years ago that you would be the only one
to appreciate his novels. And now it's too late -
he doesn't remember enough to discuss them with you!”

While I enjoyed every poem, by far my favorite one is the title poem nestled in the center of the collection and spanning just over six pages. It's sub-titled stanzas are vignettes that fit together like puzzle pieces, yet also flow and move as individual entities. These are small gems that once mined deserve to be turned over again and again for images and phrases such as “the clothes worn by each passenger/give off an odor of exhausted concern,” “where sunlight /is leaking from a cloud,” and 

“As the train races through the dark
from the city to my home town,
hurtling from my adult life
backwards into my childhood, I begin
to cry.”

Scutti expertly brings her poems alive with every day, crisp descriptive images that engage the senses. Readers can hear the city breath; see the weight of struggle, feel the pain of difficult decisions, smell a hint of desperation of last call at one bar of thousands in the maze of intersecting city streets; taste the angst of people unsure they are on the right path or that happiness is within reach. Her words are layered with meaning like a richly tiered chocolate cake. The kind of cake you slowly slide your fork into - icing, cake, icing, cake – enjoying the texture,  savoring the effort that went into making it. Have a fork ready when you sit down with Susan Scutti's The Commute.

01 October 2012

The Triggering Tune by Ann E. Michael

The Triggering Tune: Springsteen Songs as “Places” of Inspiration for Poetry
by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael

Possibly the most common question asked of artists is, “What inspires you?” Bruce Springsteen has been queried about inspiration in many an interview; and he usually cites musical predecessors and forms, as in his recent keynote at SXSW in Austin. We do know, however, that at times Springsteen’s songs have been influenced by books he’s read and events, current or historical. Tim McAleenan mentions Flannery O’Connor’s influence on Springsteen’s work, particularly his Nebraska album, and goes so far as to claim “almost every song I hear from him draws some kind of parallel with a great literary work or offers a deep historical allusion of some kind” (McAleenan). McAleenan’s brief essay develops his assertion that Springsteen is Wordsworthian in his ability “to use common language to express emotion through unadorned lyrics,” but he jumps a little too easily to the assumption that Springsteen’s inspiration is “the common man” (McAleenan). It is that assumption I want to examine as

I draw some parallels to the way poets—some poets, myself included—work with so-called inspiration and the ways we might read or interpret Springsteen’s inspirations. One aspect of this assumption with which I take issue is the stereotype of the common man. The phrase is so vague as to be misleading: think about how many Reagan voters were fans of Born in the USA, and just how paradoxical that is. A cliché is seldom an inspiration—though it can become a theme, such themes usually arrive later in the progress of a work or are decided upon by interpreters, not artists. If I were to interview the songwriter, I would approach the question of inspiration in a more specific way. I would ask, as the poet Richard Hugo does in his book The Triggering Town, how does the initial subject evolve into the generated subject when you write? What would you say acts as cause for your work? How does your writing locate your inner life? (Hugo 4).

I will be getting back to Hugo’s text in a few minutes, but here I need to interject that I’ve been thinking about origin and inspiration a great deal lately because I find myself writing about adolescence—a subject I had happily avoided for years. My writing life elided my teen and young adult years right out: for me, memoir-based work was grounded in early childhood only. So it came as some surprise recently when I found myself writing lyrical narrative poems in the personas of teenaged girls of the early 1970s. Poems with rhyme or rhythmic schemes, ballad-like, telling stories of girls I might have known, girls who might have been me. These girls were answering the perspectives of boys of that era, too, and often, they were listening to rock. My own tastes in music leaned, early on, toward the singer-songwriter folk genre; Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. I was devoted to John Donne, William Blake, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Vivaldi, Motown, and opera. Not bad fare for a young person interested in words, but my enthusiasm for their work put me slightly out of step with peers in my working class New Jersey suburb. Springsteen’s first three albums played in the background of my life in the 70s—literally and figuratively. And Springsteen spoke to nerds, too.

Our school bus driver listened to Oldies 98 WOGL out of Philadelphia, and the consensus among us kids was that the music of the 50s and early 60s was hopelessly hokey. Sometimes there’d be a song, though, that was bluesy soul, doo-wop, or Motown—hits that featured a growly, gut-wrenching saxophone totally unlike the school band sax section. Springsteen describes this kind of pop well in his SXSW address when he says:

"[S]ounds of early pop and doo-wop whispered into my young and impressionable ears. Doo-wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA, of wonderful lies being whispered into Tabu-perfumed ears, the sound of smeared lipstick, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered in the still of the night, the high school bleachers and the dark at the YMCA canteen." (Springsteen “SXSW”)

Alright, then. What this passage does is give us images and facts. It offers some triggers, getting back to Hugo, who observes that “the true or valid triggering subject is one in which physical characteristics or details correspond to attitudes the poet has toward the world and himself” (5). If smeared lipstick and tears whispered in the still of the night verge on clichés, they are nonetheless specific and physical and tell us something about the writer and his relation to the world—or worlds, both concrete and imagined. Richard Hugo claims that “the poem has elements of melodrama”  and that with lyric work, “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self” (7). What else features melodrama and skirts dangerously near sentimentality? How about opera—Springsteen’s work has been called operatic by more than a few observers, notably Lawrence Kirsch. David Lefkowitz says, “Bruce Springsteen concerts in the 1970s and 1980s are fondly remembered as near-operatic affairs, four hours in length, emotionally rich and exhaustive, and loaded with wall-to-wall music (and even an occasional recitative)” (Lefkowitz).

Operas are hugely thematic, but they start with a narrative, a story, characters that listeners find themselves wanting to pay attention to. The lyric narrative, posits Brian Boyd, is deeply ingrained in human evolution and the human need to be social via the exciting, attentive exchange of information. Names of cities and streets and lakes—even invented, imaginary places and names—engage human attention. And so does character: “We…have an endless fascination with character information, since it helps us to predict the behavior of those we interact with and remains relatively stable over time” (Boyd 165). Name and character are likely to fire specific inspirations; in Springsteen’s case, the triggers probably are more music-based or character-based, however fictional, than generated around some general idea of the common man. Here is another quote from Springsteen’s keynote, in which he talks about one of his musical influences:

"He sang about the tragic unknowability of women. He was tortured by soft skin, angora sweaters, beauty and death—just like you. But he also sang that he'd been risen to the heights of near unexpressable bliss by these same very things that tortured him. Oh, cruel irony. And for those few moments, he told you that the wreckage, and the ruin and the heartbreak was all worth it." (Springsteen, “SXSW”)

He could be talking about Puccini, Bizet, Rimbaud; but he means Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison and also “the temples of life and mystery in my little hometown” (ibid). 

The initial trigger for my teen-girl-memoir poems was the release of The Promise set. Songs I heard in concerts, songs that took me back to the days in my hometown when my friend Sandy introduced me to Bruce Springsteen’s music. We drove to his concerts in The Pig, a behemoth beige-pink Plymouth sedan with a column stick, almost impossible to park and humiliating to be seen in. The concerts were in places like college gyms and cost about ten bucks a ticket; Clarence Clemons was doo-wop and blues, jazz and Motown, and Springsteen’s lyrics told too-familiar stories that seemed to happen right next door. Brian Boyd reminds us that “story by its nature invites us to shift from our perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another” and that “[i]n fiction the story lives the more…each character seems to exist in his or her own right” (197). That is what we felt at Springsteen concerts and when listening to his albums. We could imagine that street corner as a corner in our hometown; those characters with their high-jinks and their yearnings lived where we lived.

As to Springsteen as lyricist, I think McAleenan is right to suggest, “Springsteen manages to merge poetry and prose together in a highly unique way—he captures and condenses the strong narrative elements of prose by using a disciplined and creative vocabulary” (McAleenan). For me, that’s the vocabulary of hometown. Hugo says that “the poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another” (12). When writing a poem, the poet has to reverse the usual function of language; and place helps the writer to accomplish that tricky task (11). By the “usual” language function, Hugo means that “the relation of words to the subject…is a strong one,” while the relation of the words to the writer is weak (11). Poets have to “switch allegiance” from the initial subject that got them writing to the words that explore the cause of the triggered emotion, even if doing so takes the poet away from the initial subject: there’s the reversal. So you go away from home to write about home; and you may not do this physically—but then again, you may—as Hugo says he did. Most poets have worked on and revised a piece, startled that what the poem’s words ended up saying do not reflect the initial inspiration. That discovery is what makes art of any kind revelatory for the reader, listener, or viewer and for the artist him or herself.

Hugo employs a phrase that works well to describe what occurs when things go well for the writer—or lyricist—when the reversal of language and the sense of the speaker’s place transcend the usual pedestrian, dead-metaphor vagaries even when using common language. He says we then discover the “obsessive musical deed” of the poem (15). And if it risks repetitiveness, if it risks sentimentality, risk is what it’s all about; risk makes the experience feel authentic. Springsteen again: “Dylan, from whom I first heard a version of the place that I lived that felt unvarnished and real to me. If you were young in the '60s and '50s, everything felt false everywhere you turned. But you didn't know how to say it. There was no language for it at the time” (Springsteen “SXSW”). After many years of avoiding my outcast suburban-small-town memories, a few hearings of The Promise got me listening to myself. I got some new language from those hearings. Yet it was old, familiar, long-ago language which had begun to sound like an obsessive musical deed.

Richard Hugo noticed that a certain kind of small town seemed to inspire him to write. Sometimes, even a glimpse of such a place as he drove past was enough to jog loose an image, to evoke a memory or a sensation that was almost tactile, or an emotion. He says that when you’ve found the town, any town that acts as a trigger—or any river, or any school or scent or song—“you must start the poem” (18). That’s what I did; and I found myself writing not just one or two but over 30 poems—a veritable series!—on these girls. Perhaps it was the reappearance of a few high school friends in my life, thanks to Facebook. Perhaps it was East Street Radio, which I listen to in my car.

A combination of inspirations—memory, Bruce before 1981, driving. It occurred to me this series was inspired by triggering tunes. It was time to start the poems; I experimented with allusions, twists, response pieces, character, ballad form, lifts from the originals. I played with the clichés of pop music, with Springsteen tropes and Springsteen metaphors, trying to “funk up the cliché” as poet Kwame Dawes has put it, just to see where the phrases got me. I came dangerously close to copyright infringement.

Poets do this: borrow, steal, funk up, turn back, pay homage and, hopefully, make new. We call our sources “inspiration.” For my recent set of poems, Springsteen’s early albums act as trigger, as source and setting, as background and occasionally as the foreground of memory. Music and musicians have inspired many poets; I could insert a long list here but won’t, and I feel my use of Springsteen’s work follows a time-honored tradition in which he himself is a practitioner. The resulting poems are wholly my own. They have been generated out of my own observation, imagination, and in a few cases, experience.

Here’s a quote from an imaginative chapter called “Assumptions” in Hugo’s book—which was published in 1979—that demonstrates the poetic veracity of the imagined home town. I have no doubt those of you gathered here will immediately make a connection that is, actually, purely coincidental:

There is always a body of water, a sea just out of sight beyond the hill or a river
running through the town. Outside of town a few miles is a lake that has been the
scene of both romance and violence. (25)

I think the best part of art is its ability to enact transference, one soul to another, across often vast expanses of time or space. Shakespeare. Sappho. My individual path can never hope to cross theirs. I am closer to Bruce Springsteen in time and place than I am to Sappho; his path and mine have never crossed, either. But I think we draw creative initiative from similar relations to subjects and the use of words and the obsessive musical deed. The sphere of influence that makes transference possible through artistic inspiration is there in both cases. For which I am grateful. And so are all the barefoot girls.

Works Cited
Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2009.
Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. 1979. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.
Lefkowitz, David. “Will New York be a Lucky Town for New Springsteen Opera Project?” Playbill. 17 Jan. 2002. http://www.playbill.com/news/article/67261-
McAleenan, Timothy. “Yes, Bruce Springsteen Counts as Poetry.” Shenandoah online.
11 April 2012. http://shenandoahliterary.org/snopes/2012/04/11/yes-bruce-
Springsteen, Bruce. “SXSW 2012 Keynote.” NPR. NPR.org. 12 Mar. 2012.

Ann E. Michael presented this essay at a panel on "Springsteen and Inspiration" at the 2012 Glory Days Symposium (and academic conference on the work and influence of Bruce Springsteen). http://www.usi.edu/glory-days

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Creative Writing Classroom by David Wright

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Creative Writing Classroom
by David Wright

"I think of [teaching] as a provocation and a sequence of enthusiasms."
—Poet Dean Young [i]

1) I believe in an excursive approach to creative writing instruction. [ii]
Excursive writing contends that elements of craft are not an end in themselves but a means to equip writers to make the many complicated choices we encounter daily in our work. Poems, stories, and essays grow from excursions into our selves and into the world. Whether a visit to an art museum or approaching a daily ritual as a “sensuous excursion,” I want to encourage writers to develop habits of attending carefully to what they experience, to what they read, and to the worlds they inhabit.  Once challenged to "come to terms" with their experiences, questions of genre and craft become all the more urgent. Poetic imagery, prose style or narrative structures become necessary tools then for writers as we make continual choices in language.

2) I believe in intuitive, unconscious choices in language made conscious for the purpose of making them informed, intuitive and unconscious again. 
Much like learning to sing well or to play a sport, learning to write involves making us more conscious of our intuitive choices, an awkward process that can leave us mute or stumbling across the soccer field.  This process also leads to revelation, but that requires student and instructor patience, an acknowledgement of how awkward such a process can feel, and a giving over of at least contingent trust to the instructor. My goal is to reward this trust by helping writers to name and to build on their various aptitudes, to identify and to develop new skills, and to see this process as recursive and necessary. Much like a musician or athlete's muscle memory, habits of attention and craft can develop and become, once again, unconscious and intuitive.  And then we name them and start again.

3) I believe the practice of writing turns us into more receptive readers and better critical readers.
To read a sonnet after trying to make one can generate a reader's respect for the craft and can sharpen her critical engagement with a poem. My own reading and teaching of literature have been transformed by the experiences of teaching creative writing and by writing poems and essays.

4) I believe words carry with them the places where they've been. [iii]
No writer gets to own the language. No poet can ignore the connotative, allusive resonance that accumulates around her choices of diction. No novelist invents story as story. We inherit narrative forms and must do something in and against them. In other words, we begin somewhere. Far from being a paralyzing insight, I want writers to feel this recognition as hopeful.  Think of it as improvisation. The blues or jazz musician knows the tradition, the chord progressions. Because he knows the changes, he can change the changes.[iv][v]

5) I believe in the "imagination's tongue."
"Art," writes Wendell Berry, "like sexual love, is of the body. Like sexual love, art is of the mind and spirit also, but it is made with the body and it appeals to the senses."[vi] Poems in particular can marry the activities of mind, spirit and body, what Denise Levertov calls "all that lives / to the imagination's tongue."[vii] For writers, this means discovering and including sensuous particulars in our poems; it means putting language in our mouths as well on a page; it means learning how lineation and poetic rhythm can be so intimate that they put the writer's breath into the body of another.[viii]

6) I believe in taking students seriously.
As novelist A. S. Byatt expresses it in Babel Tower, a teacher is "not a therapist, and her students are not sick. They are intelligent people who need to think hard and deep, and don't get the opportunity."[ix] Offering opportunity for sustained attention to the details of thinking and writing makes up the bulk of my work as a teacher. Practically, I read students' work in progress and tell them the truth about what I read; I listen to and answer their questions; I have as many individual conferences as I can fit into a semester; I give them books; I act as if everything they have written is offered up in seriousness, even if I suspect it isn't.

7) I believe in disorientation. 
Once we establish trust and a general direction of hopefulness in a writing classroom, the best thing we can do is get a little lost. To be disoriented inside an excursion, reading, or draft is to be, quite possibly, on the edge of surprising oneself as a writer. It provides impetus to reach towards new technique, tradition or insight because what we have at our disposal proves inadequate.  Poet G. C.  Waldrep likes "to use Surrealist parlor games in the classroom" because they can " trick students into discovering, or at least suspicioning, that their 'authentic' selves lie deeper, and more strangely, than they had hitherto imagined, and that language, if employed within a critically conscious framework, can afford them access to these selves, if they will be adventurous."[x] I think he is right. I think I would trust him.

8) I believe I teach best when I am also writing.
I like to think of Robert Frost's comment: "Practice of an art is more salutary than talk about it. There is nothing more composing than composition."[xi] When I am generating new work and revising drafts of earlier material, I find myself both more sympathetic towards and tougher on my students. I also find that their work becomes generative for my own writing.  Poet Scott Cairns argues that far from being the collecting of a finished experiences, the "poetic . . . is something else: it is an occasion of immediate and observed — which is to say, present — presence; it is an occasion of ongoing, generative agency." Teaching (like poetry) is most exciting when it is generative of new experience. Making new work along with students keeps my teaching and my writing from being an exercise in anecdotal transmission. 

9) I believe I write and teach better when I am reading.
Returning to familiar, model poems that "teach well" tempts me often.  I have a shtick about "My Papa's Waltz" or "The Fish" that never fails to explain imagery to beginning poets. However, re-reading Bishop, Whitman, Stevens, Roethke or Millay keeps me open to something more than a proof-texted lesson. Such engagement reminds me of all the ways poems mean, and how image never fully separates from form, sound, allusion, etc. And discovering Olena Kalytiak Davis, Terrance Hayes or Dean Young confirms that new work is possible:" You are in your pajamas / eating cold pizza / when you decide to make a coyote. / Now all you need is a pregnant coyote." [xii]

10) I believe imitation matters, but I believe sometimes you must tear up sunflowers.
Imitation forms one of the oldest traditions of artistic apprenticeship. Mimic the masters in the museum. Write a Shakespearian sonnet or copy out a passage from Fitzgerald. Imitate and perhaps you will have inside you the rhythms and understandings that led the master to make the masterpiece. I sometimes ask writers do poetic cross-dressing: write a T. S. Eliot poem in the voice of Gwendolyn Brooks or rewrite Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" in the style of Jorie Graham. The results often impress right away. I do these exercises myself when I am creatively stuck.

Ten years ago I told Marvin Bartel, a retired art professor, that my daughter's teachers had helped her paint a really good imitation of Van Gogh's sunflowers. I was going to have it framed. "That's bullshit," Marvin said.  "Imitation is how people teach themselves. Her teachers should have taken her into a field of sunflowers, let her spit out sunflower seeds, tear apart petals, and, then, have her paint them. After a week or so, when they showed her Van Gogh she would've seen him as another artist trying to do what she was doing." For Marvin, imitation was too often a shortcut to product, a quick way to get frameable art from kids, and a pedagogical crutch for teachers.  I have not abandoned imitation, but I try as often as possible to tear up sunflowers and write about them before we look at Van Gogh or O'Keefe.

11) I believe in community and in generous, attendant readers (but not so much in workshops). 
Writers need one another. We can be one another's most helpful and difficult readers when we learn to attend to one another's work with care. So, I work to build a classroom vocabulary and a reciprocal atmosphere that allows for practical conversation and challenge between writers. We take a trip to the Art Institute together. We chat. We sometimes eat. We read work aloud and we exchange drafts via email or google docs. We fill out critique sheets. But I dislike and deemphasize the term workshop. It implies "fixing" a piece of writing—both in terms of repair and reification—and can easily turn into an exchange of formulae or tricks to make a poem "work." Instead, I want the class to be comprised of generous, attendant and honest readers who can name and describe what they see rather than offer "fixes." I think individual conferences, group critique, and master classes succeed best not merely when the writer leaves with suggestions but when she returns to her own work aware of a constellation of artistic and linguistic choices she had not before seen.

12) I believe in faithful writing.
To be a faithful writer is to contend with so many forces tugging on our fidelities. We can be faithful to experience, to language, to communities, to audiences, to the self, to forms, to traditions, to innovation, to family, to moral, political or spiritual convictions. But more often than we'd like, we cannot keep all these faiths at once.  In the process, most writers reach serious moments of crisis and exhaustion, convinced that poetry or fiction is not only a challenge but also a waste of time. "After all," we might say, "It's only a poem." And we would be right.
But writing can also, I think, be its own faithful act, even an act of faith. At some point, as Christian Wiman writes, "[O]ne has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. This is true of poetry, too: I do not think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent." [xiii] Teaching writing offers a way to move faithfully past silence, in inadequate yet faithful forms.

13) I believe writing can be taught. I know this because I have learned to write and I am not a genius. 
It's popular to assert that the proliferation of creative writing programs, conferences, or little journals forecasts a literary apocalypse, and that, as a creative writing teacher, I am part of the problem.  Of course I have heard (and repeated) the apocryphal story about Flannery O'Connor. Once asked if creative writing workshops discouraged young writers, she is supposed to have said "Not enough of them

However, becoming a writer is not a zero-sum game. When a new writer begins to work, an older writer doesn't have to quit (or die). I wouldn't mind fewer poets competing for jobs and grants and publications, but the art of writing doesn't suffer because more writers want to take it seriously. Writing (and the teaching of it) is not primarily about being ushered into a profession. It is about being opened to the pleasures and difficulties of living faithfully in the world though language.  As William Stafford puts it, in the end, writers do not need to be "special—sensitive or talented in any usual sense. They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all have. .  .  . [W]riting itself is one of the great, free human activities . . . Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more space than space and time can offer."[xiv] The classroom is an extension of that space, a season of that time.

David Wright teaches in the English department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Before teaching at UIUC, he taught for nine years at Wheaton College (Illinois). His poems have appeared in Image, Ecotone, Poetry East, and Artful Dodge, among many others. In 2003, he was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for poetry. His most recent poetry collection is A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia, 2003). He intermittently updates at sweatervestboy.tumblr.com

Our Lady of The Ruins by Traci Brimhall

Our Lady of The Ruins
By Traci Brimhall
W.W. Norton & Co.
Paperback, 96 pages
ISBN: 9780393086430
To Purchase: Our Lady of The Ruins

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Russell

In timely fashion, on the eve the world’s complete annihilation, comes Traci Brimhall’s new collection of poetry Our Lady of the Ruins. It begins: “Imagine half the world ends and the other half continues / in a city made holy by pilgrims who wander to it.” Lucky for us, Brimhall has done all the imagination work for us in her second book, selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize. What follows is an extended dream (or, arguably, nightmare) sequence in which Brimhall guides us through the wreckage of the fallen world, a place of broken cathedrals, promises, people. Reading Brimhall’s new collection, I had the acute sense of being an anthropologist who was witness to increasingly disturbing scenes of a landscape and species both alien and entirely familiar: a coroner discovers “minnows swimming in a drowned girls lungs;” a blind beekeeper whose “apiaries are empty except for dead queens, and he sits // on his quiet boxes humming as he licks honey from the bodies / of drones;” and “angels crawl the walls of the cathedral / trying to get back in.”

It is tempting to read this collection as a prophetic vision of what’s to come. Though one finds little evidence to support such a reading. If anything, these poems seem to set their gaze backwards, as if to suggest that our present day is the outgrowth of Brimhall’s half-ruined world. Noticeably absent from these poems are any relics of contemporary society—no burnt-out cars, abandoned skyscrapers, or national monuments turned over on their sides. Nothing we might expect to find in a vision of the post-apocalyptic future.

Instead these are poems forged from a primal lexicon. The book is peopled by butchers and blacksmiths, knights and pharaohs, witches and pilgrims. We are led through graveyards, past gallows, and into dark forests and darker caves.  One can almost imagine these poems as translated from an ancient dead language—the word “fire” appears 18 times. Such primitive imagery figures prominently throughout.

From “The Cities That Sleep”:

We want to ride the horse of the past backward
through time to first wounds, laughter and milk,
but instead we drink from the beginnings of rivers.

The collection as a whole is incredibly consistent. With the exception of a few misfires, each poem is individually strong. It’s not surprising that much of the book was first published in a long list of journals. Though, at roughly the book’s midpoint I began to feel that the poems were treading the same ground, that in my attempt to work my way out of the forest I found myself inexplicably back where I started. What is startling and affecting in the beginning—“A pregnant woman drowns herself in a well. No one drinks from it now”—rings hollow towards the end—“I have eaten the eyes of the eyes of the enemy, and I am the enemy.” While the language feels immediately, if paradoxically, new, at times certain lines tend to read like a medieval Mad Libs: “We found half / of her bones and buried her // uneaten heart in a dead cub’s rib cage.” I wish, too, that the book developed its themes more fully from beginning to end. The book’s movement mimics an extended establishing shot, though one that is expertly executed to be sure. At times I’m left asking, then what?

Despite a few missed opportunities, this is an impressive collection from a poet whom I feel fortunate to have discovered early in her career, which I plan eagerly to follow. More than once I came upon moments that were so affecting I had to put the book down and gather myself. Here’s one, from “To Poison the Lion:” “I poisoned myself / to poison the lion, but when I arrived, it was dead.”

Brimhall situates us so firmly in her world that instances like this are utterly devastating. While the setting of the book, and some of the particular circumstances, may seem foreign to contemporary readers, the motivations and tensions of these people do not. Their struggle for survival and the necessary resourcefulness and selfishness therein is immediately recognizable: “Only when I hurt her do I know she will stay.” They struggle to find a reason for faith in God when confronted with such overwhelming evidence to the contrary: “bread is still mistaken for a missing body, / and a missing body is still mistaken for a miracle.”

For a book so permeated with death, it’s rather surprising how full of life these poems are. In complete darkness, one sees more clearly the brightness of what odd moments of beauty remain.  The end of “Envoi:”

Yesterday I cleaned the bones out of the boat

and met a child on shore. He made a gun
out of his hand. No one taught him this.

He raised his arm, fingers leveled
at my heart. You said I could contain it,

this gift. The boy told me I could keep
the boat. The bones were his.

At a time when so many poems (and poets) turn their backs on the world in which they and their art exist, it is refreshing to read a book so firmly rooted in the dirt of living.

Phyla of Joy by Karen An-Hwei Lee

Phyla of Joy
by Karen An-Hwei Lee
Tupelo Press, 2012
Paperback, 63 pp.
ISBN 978-1-932195-14-9
To Purchase: Phyla of Joy

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael

The poems in Karen An-Hwei Lee’s collection Phyla of Joy cross several boundaries, yet what stays in this reader’s mind is the consistency of her tone. Often, an unwavering tone leads to monotony. Lee’s eclectic vocabulary and stylistic variations demand attention, however, a demand that does not unbalance the steadiness of the whole. Reading Phyla of Joy is akin to listening to the reverberations of a singing bowl: first, one is attracted to the struck note, but the diminishing vibrations last a long time, compelling a continuing reflection.

I want to call these poems lyrical, though seems somehow incorrect. The “I” behind the work is frequently diffused by images that command more notice. Readers who prefer a strong sense of character-as-speaker in poetry will not find one immediately. These poems seem to be spoken by a less personal voice, one that acts as guide yet does not completely abandon a sense of intimacy with the reader. Lee’s poetry has been called “meditative,” an appropriate modifier. One can imagine these poems being read by a calm voice softly urging the listener to relax into awareness:

A woman sees a poem grow like a melon.
How does a melon grow? After soft rains,
on a vine, it bows under a knife.
A poem says its flesh sweetens sun…

A consistent tone is not the same as a consistent mood, and Lee’s work is riskier than the contemplative tone suggests. She breaks linguistic, syntactical, and cultural rules and writes of famine, war, and other disasters. While she often uses fairly traditional free-verse stanzaic structures, she is not afraid to experiment. A few of her prose poems are fragmented blocks punctuated with periods, resulting in a fusion of images that build a mood rather than a narrative (from “Feminaries”):

wings . I recite . names of moths . phyla of happiness . she
remembers . alpha . imperial . pale green luna . or mourning
cloak . not Lepidoptera . feminaries . hand-bound . string . what

Lee also employs a reverse poem form (which she calls “cycle poem”)[i] most effectively in “Sunday Is,” where the reversed lines come to a pleasing closure.

Another risk Lee takes involves vocabulary. While she intersperses some of her poems with Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, her use of terms from biology, geology, and physics is risky because readers who are not interested in science may feel frustrated with epeiric seas, indehiscence, seed carpels, or words like hydrophanous, Lee’s inventive use of scientific and marginally obsolete vocabulary generally works well. This is partly because the poems can be read for sound, flow, and tone; and they are beautiful. If the reader has to re-read, think, work a little with the poem—isn’t that part of the enjoyment of reading? The marvelous pitch of the work is worth listening for even if lyrical meaning does not yield itself easily.

In a review this brief, there is no room to analyze Lee’s themes and recurring images, which include biblical and Asian allusions, blindness and sightedness, womanhood, extinction, flowers and flesh. It is noteworthy that even when Lee’s language startles, there is a sustaining, calm reflectiveness in the fluid surfaces of these poems that invites contemplation. Contemplation, and re-reading: two things we readers should make more time for in our busy lives.

 Note: An interview with Karen An-Hwei Lee appears at Small Press Spotlight.