29 January 2013

Revisiting Jack Gilbert... by Brian Fanelli

Bedside Table Series: #3
by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli



During my M.F.A. course work at Wilkes University, I plowed through dozens of poetry collections and essays. One of the books on the list was The Great Fires, poems by Jack Gilbert.  At first, his dense lines and hard truths about love and language failed to move me in the same way other works on my list did, probably because I didn’t give the work the attention it requires, since I had so many other books to read in a limited amount of time. Now, a few years later, after Gilbert’s recent passing, I’ve revisited the book, finding much to enjoy, including sprawling similes, deep meditations, fantastic leaps of imagination, and clever references to past literary figures.

What impresses me most about this collection is how much Gilbert had to say about the challenge of language and the difficulty of finding the right word, themes that should appeal to any poet. Gilbert opens the poem “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” with the line,

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean

and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say

God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words

get it wrong.




What poet can’t relate to the frustration and observation Gilbert paints in that opening line? We’ve all wrestled with a draft of a poem where the words don’t quite fit the meaning we’re trying to convey.

Another poem I’ve starred in the book to read again and again is “Dante Dancing,” in which Gilbert draws on the story of Dante and his love for Beatrice, making clear the pains of unrequited love. The first stanza wowed me the most for the extended simile that compares Dante’s love to

a summer rain after drought

like the thin cry of a red-tailed hawk

like an angel

sinking its teeth into our throat.


Like a lot of other poems in the book, the work is punctuated with a heavy and sad tone, when Dante’s love is ultimately unfulfilled. The early simile in the first stanza, especially its last phrase, foreshadows how intoxicating but painful Beatrice’s beauty was to the Italian bard, which is conveyed beautifully in the final stanza’s line,

He dances the romance lost, the love that never was

and the great love missed because of dreaming.


Like a lot of other writers, I rarely sell or trade my books, finding them difficult to part with, and I’m especially grateful that I never rid my bookshelf of The Great Fires. Now that I have the time to enjoy the collection, I’m finding much to appreciate in Gilbert’s challenging work.

Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Red Rock Review, Harpur Palate, Boston Literary Magazine, The Portland Review, and several other journals. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 through Unbound Content. Currently, he teaches creative writing at Keystone College.

19 January 2013

Top of the stack... by Shauna Osborn

Bedside Table Series: #2
by PQ Contributing Editor Shauna Osborn



Full discloser—I do not own a nightstand. What I have instead is a rather large stack of books that live on the floor next to my bed. They stay there until I read my way through them. The books in the stack change, but the stack never disappears completely. Despite my shortcoming on furniture, I am happy to share two items near the top:

1)

The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems by Charles Bukowski was such a wonderful find at a local bookstore this month. Bukowski’s early work is definitely more lyrical than his later poems, but the color of his work is constant and present.

As with all Bukowski, you can smell the cheap liquor and stale cigarette smoke wafting from each page. “O, We Are the Outcasts,” “The Literary Life,” and “Interviewed by a Guggenheim Recipient” feature one of his favorite groups to beat upon in lyrical form—other poets. No one can claim he holds back while slashing through the hypocrisy he envisions amongst his peers, even in his early work. Poems such as these fit solidly with the texture one expects from Bukowski.

Yet, poems like “The Sun Wields Mercy,” “Singing Is Fire,” and “Counsel” wax almost hopeful. The lyrical effects within poems such as these are soft and startling—so much so that after reading certain poems, I had to check the cover of the book again.  I have a lot of affection for these poems—the ones that make me question what I had come to expect of Bukowski. The spots of unfamiliar light and surprising joy are all the stronger surrounded by what would be considered the quintessential grit of Bukowski’s later work.

2)

While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading essay collections written by June Jordan in the past, I must admit I had not read any of her poetry until I found Passion: New Poems a short time ago.  Jordan’s poetic work mirrors the strength and political activism found in her essays without question.

Poems like “Case in Point” and “Rape is Not a Poem” focus on bringing voice to those women silenced by assault. Through her use of short lines and twists in conversation amongst the characters, Jordan pulls the reader into the scene to witness the violence still tormenting the persona.  There are many shocking moments in Jordan’s poems that draw attention to outrageous treatment of her characters or specific political moments.  Even the first poem of the collection “Poem for Nana,” which focuses on an oil spill and Native American issues, sets up the reader for these head jerking moments with its first stanza:

What will we do

when there is nobody left

to kill?

These moments of surprise occur throughout Jordan’s work and I never found myself fully prepared for them. Not a lighthearted collection, Passion serves up 100 pages of truly powerful zeal in poetic form.

Shauna Osborn is a Comanche/German mestiza who works as an instructor, wordsmith,and community organizer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She received her Master of Fine Arts from New Mexico State University in 2005. Shauna has won various awards for her academic research, photography, and poetry. Her first collection of creative nonfiction is currently being considered for publication. 




03 January 2013

January 2013: a new issue and more

Greetings PQ friends!
 
Welcome to 2013 and to a new issue of PQ. Please visit the Current Issue to see our latest content. We have a nice assortment of reviews, interviews, and essays for you this time around. 


We’d also like to congratulate Tasha Cotter for the publication of her chapbook, That Bird Your Heart. Be sure to visit Finishing Line Press to order your copy! Tasha’s full-length book is coming soon as well, so her schedule just got a bit hectic. With that, we’re wishing her well as she heads off into the world of promotions and readings to support her publications this year—and as she steps down as Reviews Coordinator. Thank you, Tasha, for your wonderful work with PQ. We’ll miss you!


That means we have an opening for an editorial position here at Poets’ Quarterly. The Reviews Coordinator responds to incoming review submissions, coordinates between reviewers and publishers, and keeps things organized and up-to-speed with the Editor. If you’re interested in applying for the volunteer position of Reviews Coordinator, please contact Lori at info@poetsquarterly.com for more information.

If you’re interested in writing reviews or other work for PQ, be sure to check out the Guidelines to know where and how to direct your queries and submissions. Remember, we’re always on the hunt for entertaining and insightful blog posts in between issues, so talk to Leslie if you have an idea!

On that note, we’re pleased to introduce a new blog series: “The Bedside Table” series. What books do you keep closest to you? Send Leslie an informal essay for the blog, like our Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael has done in this intro to the series.

Thanks, as always, to our magnificent and generous team here at PQ. Our department and contributing editors volunteer their time to share their reviews, ideas, and questions with you. Enjoy this latest issue and share our links in your social media spheres. We appreciate the word of mouth!

Thanks for your continued interest in Poets’ Quarterly. Like us on Facebook and stay tuned for more great content coming soon. 

Kind regards,
Lori A. May
Founding Editor/Publisher

p.s. If you’d like to make a $3 donation to help us cover our web domain, email provider, and occasional postage costs, we welcome your support. Our contributors and editors are volunteers so we spend very little on PQ, but if you’d like to donate a few bucks to offset office costs, you may now do so through Submittable. Thanks!

Books on the nightstand… by Ann E. Michael

Bedside Table Series: #1
by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael

Wow, where does one begin? Or more accurately, where does it all end?

The books on the nightstand—which, in my case, is a blanket chest—represent a kind of temporary library of interests that may or may not prove influential in my own creative work. For the time being, they offer insights or arguments or information or, as the case may be, avoidance of reality or other less delightful endeavors.

I’ve got Annie Finch’s recent tome, an MFA in a book, A Poet’s Craft. And I’ve got A Sea of Words, which is a guide to the terms, largely but not entirely nautical, in Patrick O’Brien’s books. Currently, I’m also perusing Elaine Terranova’s selected and new poems, Not To. This collection precedes her latest collection, Dames Rocket, which is a lovely set of poems. In addition, I’ve got Jeanine Hall Gailey’s first book, Becoming the Villainess, by the bed.

Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style sits there to pique my interest in rhetoric and style. And Richard Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms complements Sister Miriam Joseph’s The Trivium. All of these just in case I momentarily forget how closely English writing is connected to philosophy.

As for philosophy, I do read it regularly; my latest foray is Merleau-Ponty’s 1958 book The Penomenology of Perception. I re-read Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological texts frequently; currently, The Poetics of Space is close at hand.

What else? Writer’s Chronicle, The New Yorker, R.S. Gwynn’s Poetry, A Pocket Anthology, and Tom Lux’s New & Selected (1997), both of which are required for the spring semester survey of poetry class I’ll be teaching.

Meanwhile, I await more poetry books to review.


Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist, and educator whose most recent poetry collection is Water-Rites (2012). She lives in eastern PA where she is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her website: www.annemichael.com.

Essay: A Public Poesy

Denice Rovira Hazlett
A Public Poesy
Essay by Denice Rovira Hazlett


*Poesy: [poh-uh-see, -zee] noun, plural po•e•sies. The work or the art of poetic composition.

Sometimes you plan a poetry event, but can't ensure even a modest modicum of success. It helps to be granted a great space, free of charge, to host a beginners' poetry slam competition, to hand-select the very best panel of guest judges, and contact all of the local schools to tell them how fabulous a poetry competition is. It also helps to track down an artist willing to custom-create incredibly funky and highly unique trophies for your winners, secure sponsors to cover the cost of the trophies, offer cash prizes to the winners, and design some sweet posters. If you convince a team of talented nationally-known poets to demonstrate how it's done, you could even get coverage in the local media (working in the local media helps with that a bit) and a few radio spots generously sponsored by a local college. Heck, you might even find a charismatic emcee, maybe a beloved local humor columnist, to entertain and guide the crowd through the evening. If there is a crowd. No matter how much fun it might be, how fabulous and rewarding, that's the part you can't plan.

It was a mild spring afternoon, a lovely day for the very first Poesies Poetry Slam Competition, and I was both excited and completely terrified. My friend Paul Tish and I had been working tirelessly to pull the whole thing together since early February, and the path to May had simultaneously dragged and flown by. I had high hopes for this crazy competition; I had been wanting to attempt something like this for a long time. A really long time. And while I couldn't claim to be an award-winning performance poet, I had made an attempt at a slam or two, including an embarrassing episode where I had been clicked off the stage of the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago. Still, I knew poetry had the power to bring into one room people who wouldn't ordinarily gather together in a quiet, mostly conservative rural town, the power to give people a voice for their feelings, experiences, and convictions. It would be a friendly gathering, a fun few hours, complete with noisemakers and prizes just for participating.

On that temperate Saturday, the fifth of May, 2012, I made my way to Jitters Coffee House on the south end of Millersburg, county seat of Holmes, a sleepy ten-thousand-horse community known for being home to the world's largest Amish settlement. I wasn't sure what kind of turnout we'd have, but we had capped the number of entries at 20, giving each competitor no more than three minutes to woo us with original works. Poets traveled an hour or more, from Columbus and Canton, or from a few blocks away, gathering at Jitters, signing in, seating themselves, nervously rifling through pages of poems. By starting time, seventeen competitors, ranging in age from 9 to 77, had filled the place, some preparing to share for the first time ever, others with years of stage experience. One-by-one, they presented original works in front of a full house and a panel of guest judges, hoping to take home a cash prize and one of the fabulously funky recycled-steel awards, custom-created for the event by local artist Jan Bowden of Bowden Bells & Garden Art. While every competitor gave it their all, only three would walk away as the competition’s first ever award-winners.

I had asked friend and Wooster Daily Record humor columnist John Lorson to host for the evening. He rushed in from a day of mountain biking just in time to introduce the panel of judges, which included poet Nathan Moore, Holmes County District Public Library director Bill Martino, poet and teacher Leslie Nielsen of Canton, Ohio and poet and teacher Peggy Gannon of Hartville, Ohio. These folks had the most difficult job--choosing their three favorite presenters, based both on poem content and presentation.

Lorson drew the competitors’ names at random from a bright purple beach bucket for each of the three rounds, preceded by an enthusiastic “drum roll” from the audience, complete with kazoos, whistles and various noisemakers. If presenters went over their three minute limit, out came the noisemakers again to usher the poet off the stage.  A wide range of styles and abilities were represented as each of the three rounds offered poets an opportunity to present new pieces. Audience member Leslie McKelley of Glenmont, Ohio called the event an evening of “three minute glimpses into teen angst, motherhood, love, fear, darkness and light. With noisemakers!”

One of the primary goals, aside from bringing together a variety of poets and personalities, was to keep the evening moving and interesting. During tabulation, special guest poets presented original works, demonstrating performance poetry at its finest. Rose M. Smith, of Columbus, Ohio left the crowd hushed with her impassioned performances, while Rachel Wiley, of Columbus elicited grins, giggles, and knowing nods with her tender and witty pieces.

“With so much talent, judging the poets was not an easy task,” Gannon said. Moore added that “the amount of enthusiasm for poetry and reading poetry in public was truly inspiring.” In the end, the judges chose three talented poets to place. Third prize and $50 was awarded to author Raymond Buckland of Glenmont, Ohio. Second place and $75 went to Scott Goodland of Millersburg, Ohio. And at first place, a gift basket from Bookworms Cafe in Millersburg and $100 went to crowd favorite Kathy Carr of Canton. All competitors were given $5 Bookworms Cafe gift certificates.

The energy continued as competitors, judges, performance poets and audience members all mingled, people who, under most other circumstances would not gather in the same room. But they did, and for a few hours, shared their differences in a respectful, grandly metered or unmetered manner, blew on kazoos, and felt what it's like to be a part of such a poetic composition.    

Poesies Poetry Slam Competition

Denice Rovira Hazlett writes from Charm, Ohio and has published more than 150 pieces in a variety of publications, won first place in all three categories of the 2011 Wayne College (Ohio) Regional Writing Awards and is currently working on a collection of short stories centered around human beings' regrets, or lack of them. Visit her online at www.denicehazlett.com.

Essay: The Instructional Dose—One Lump or Two?

The Instructional Dose—One Lump or Two?
Essay by Leslie L. Nielsen


We all are taught; some of us are also teachers. Part of instruction is assertion and part of it is redirection. In a creative writing classroom, right and wrong become works and doesn’t work, or strong and weak, or clear and cryptic. Because writing is something one does to get better at it, the students have to do it, and do it wrong/weak/messy a whole lot on the way to right/strong/coherent. That’s the process. All art learning works this way—novice, apprentice, master—lots of waste.

Risk and security need to be balanced in communication about writing-in-progress. Trite praise and righteous-sounding criticism are equally worthless—so are cautious, indifferent niceties. Participants in a workshop who cultivate direct candor and tact have a better experience and everyone’s writing improves if insight is keen. An instructor both facilitates and fills in gaps to push for improvement. So how far should the instructor go toward naming the mess? How much criticism is medicine, how much poison?

During a stint teaching creative writing at a private Christian college, I systematically risked accusations of apostasy from students in suggesting that good poems needed more than the gospel message to be good, that a narrative ending in salvation was not, only on the merits of that deus ex machina maneuver, a good story. Craft counts. And I knew how to teach craft.

Each poetry workshop brought fresh opportunities to review Mary Oliver’s litany of inappropriate language from A Poetry Handbook: avoid Poetic Diction, Cliché, Inversion, and Informational Language.  I’ll bet it’s the same in many undergraduate poetry workshops, but at the time I felt like fondness for both classic and contemporary religious liturgy was working against fresh creative language and structure.

One student in particular spoke in effusive expressions of devotion which were matched by emphatic permutations of the same in her writing. The message was absolutist and repetitive. Theologically, it was in line with the school’s mission statement—and while passion for anything at all can certainly put a burning core at the center of poetry about it, this poet took little interest in craft exercises and suggestions. Vitality of form, novelty of image, compression of language, and curiosity about theme would have enlivened her passion for the reader as well. Once spelling was corrected, however, her art was, she believed, entirely sufficient.

I disagreed, but in short, I gave up. She would not take the medicine. And it was not for me to force the toxic dose, to snug the pillow of craft a little tighter around her point of inspiration.

If I had, however, I would have been in good company. Most know Flannery O’Connor’s comment,
“Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
Before adopting a pedagogy of the snuff-out, it’s worth asking a couple questions. Do we, for instance, know whether or not any aspiring student’s talent (or tenacity) for writing great poetry is apparent when she’s an undergraduate? Given the ratio of enthusiasm to success in literary art, when might an instructor be justified in discouraging firmly?

Early in my career (it wasn’t a career yet) I was stifled (probably not deliberately) by a writing instructor who leaned back, sniffed, and uttered over a marked-up pile of my (perhaps un-magnificent) poems, “Strong emotion makes bad poetry.” Meaning mine. I didn’t stop writing poetry just then, but did stop showing my work to others and excused myself from engagement with the wheels of submission and publication for, oh, about thirty years.

It’s been lovely having that instructor to blame. If I’m being completely honest, though, that teaspoon of indifference percolated inside me for too many years, until maturity helped me to release that poor-poisoned-me narrative. Would I kick him in his emeritus shin now if I could? Well, probably. His dismissive manner stung a lot and taught little.

I’m certainly not the only writer who has encountered real discouragement, though.  A recent installment of The Writers’ Almanac describes the experience of Maxine Kumin,
“In college, an instructor handed back comments on her poetry that read: ‘Say it with flowers, but for God's sake don't try to write poems.’ She was so discouraged that she gave it up until she was in her 30s, in the middle of her third pregnancy.”
Kumin was born in 1925, so her twenties and thirties did not pass during a time particularly kind to women who wanted to write much beyond grocery lists and ladies’ devotionals, certainly not those who’d become mothers. She later reflects, however, that
"The grit of discontent, the acute misery of early and uninformed motherhood worked under my skin to force out the writer."
So what she couldn’t get from the establishment, she found in life experience. The professor who zinged her could not have lived to know that she became Poet Laureate of New Hampshire, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, a job now known as Poet Laureate, as well as winning piles of prizes including the Pulitzer and publishing piles of books including memoir, novels and short stories, more than twenty children's books, five books of essays, and eight of poetry.

She also found what her poetry needed in a close friendship with Anne Sexton. The two poets wrote together and encouraged each other while both were raising children. And while their poems and life stories do not much resemble each other’s, their successes trace back in part to good friendship.

As for strong emotion, Kumin writes plenty of it. But her craft includes rigorous attention to patterns, syllable count, and rhyme as the way to deal best with emotional subjects. She writes with tight lyricism when the subjects are deep issues, and in that, she teaches by example.

“How It Is” (1997) is a poem about Sexton’s suicide. Intense grief and memory become the simple concrete image of a handed-down piece of clothing.
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.

My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.
And at the end,
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.
Enduring sorrow is gently carried in straightforward language. Kumin wrote again in 2005 about the same tragedy in her villanelle, “The Revisionist Dream.” Using a 19th-century given form, Kumin repeats four times the line, “she didn’t kill herself that afternoon.” The compounding effect of repetition moves from wishful to imperative. It’s a terrific lesson in control.

Last week at my local library, I discovered a third self-published book of poetry by the student who had not been ready to receive craft instruction. Theme, trope, and technique replicate those submitted in class and printed in the first two books—they are the same ones sung by heart in contemporary praise and worship services tradition-wide, based on best-loved parts of a most-read Book. Is such adherence to form different from Kumin’s use of prescribed patterns? It is. Simply put, Kumin is the maker: her words and images are her own, not endless repetition from a collective databank, not trite rhyme, not the well-worn expected path.  And yet this former poetry student is, by evidence of duly-catalogued books, a Poet.

So what’s the teacher’s role in nudging the student off gravel and into the undergrowth?  O’Connor sounds tough, but her famous quote pushes the executioner’s role onto the non-specific “they” of “the universities,” so she has no blood on her hands, not really.

There have been others among my students whose post-workshop grumpiness I was content to weather because their attention and effort—and snarls—indicated that, like Kumin, they had something under the skin worth forcing out.  But force needn’t come from the instructor’s hand. If the student’s ready to approach her writing critically, even judiciously-poured sugar water will help her to concoct her own powerful critical medicine.  The choice between Flintstone’s vitamins (Hallmark verse) and an Olympic-strength protein shake with egg whites plus whole food mineral capsules (Jorie Graham league) resides in the writer.

Discouragement is less needed than an instructor who pays attention, lives alongside, and can supplement the students’ messy discoveries with apt analysis of fantastic poetry, and show them how to sharpen their lines with excellent tools of the craft. In either brief or sustained interaction between teacher and student, professor and disciple, mentor and wannabe, human connection is the essential dose. Although—the best teaching by far is to have written much.


Leslie L. Nielsen is the Nonfiction & Blog Editor for Poets’ Quarterly. She is an adjunct instructor of writing at universities around northeast Ohio and has just completed her MFA in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University.

Essay: The Poetry of Comics

The Poetry of Comics
Essay by Dale Mettam


In an attempt to expose (and by expose, I obviously mean force) some culture on my kids, I sat them down in front of a recent PBS broadcast of Wagner's "Ring Cycle"…the whole thing… all 623 hours (with intermissions). I know what you're thinking, but before you report me to Child Protective Services for wanton cruelty you should know something. They loved it.

Granted, that it was sung in German and thus meant the English subtitles sat on the scene a long time, helped. I'm not sure whether to be proud or slightly ashamed that they recognized musical themes and motifs based on my earlier cultural teachings that included "What's Opera, Doc" (which resulted in them singing "Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!" way more than was probably healthy), but again, it helped.

But being a writer-type, I wanted to know why?

There was really no way they SHOULD enjoy it. Grown men, Marines who have faced down enemies on the field of battle, have been reduced to jello by Wagner, so why did it work for a 12, 9 and 6 year old audience?

The answer, I finally realized, was comic books.

Rather than being the brain-rotting, corruption-in-print that some would have you believe, comics had opened the way to opera.

To a comic book geek like myself, this is of no real surprise, the adventures of Thor, Loki, Odin, the amassed residents of Asgard and their adventures here on Midgard were with me growing up, and they have been equally shared with my kids. This allowed them a way in to the adventures of Sigfried and Brunhilder as they battled fate, the gods and the corrupting influence of power.

It may also surprise those who see little value in the four-color storytelling medium to know that poetry (I know you were wondering when we'd get to the poetry part) has appeared in the pages of comics.

Quite recently Walt Simonson wrote a comic "The Demon &The Cat." This featured Catwoman and a somewhat lesser known and yes, (if you're a comic geek like myself, you'll take issue with the "lesser known," but trust me, there are some people who DON'T know this stuff… I know, right?) character called… you guessed it, The Demon.

Technically his name is Etrigan and he was bound to a mortal knight of the Round Table in order to save Camelot. That didn't work out so well, and the net result was a now immortal guy by the name of Jason Blood who, with the utterance of a handy incantation along the lines of
"Now is gone the form of man,
Rise the demon ETRIGAN!"
(The size of lettering increased and there was usually some spikes in the last part of the voice balloon, just so you knew he was really putting his all into that last word.)
would result in where once had stood a dignified English dude with a walking-cane, now you see a hunched, hideous walking muscle of evil, compelled to serve mankind… though admittedly, usually with the maximum amount of carnage possible.

In the past, Etrigan has been written by many writers and they have all chosen different ways to add some extra layers to the character. Often they would simply write Etrigan's dialog in rhyme, though this sometimes came off as less archaic and more leaving the reader wondering when Etrigan would address the adventures of that young woman from Nantucket. Perhaps as a reaction to this, other writers have avoided rhyming and simply use a complete lack of contractions in his speech to indicate a more formal use of language, fitting a character from around the 8th century.

Simonson however, went a different route. In "The Demon & The Cat" Etrigan speaks in iambic pentameter. Yeah, you read that right. Fresh storytelling, aimed at an all age market… INCLUDING kids, written in a form favored by Shakespeare.

And likely this is a major part of why my kids loved the "Ring Cycle." We make no judgments in our house. Comic books are no different from Shakespeare. One is not for kids and the other for stuffy big-brains. Kids can have big brains and stuffy people can act childishly. It all comes down to the storyteller, the ideas, the images and the way these elements are used to engage the audience.

So next time you're flipping through the channels, looking for a way to keep the kids entertained for a couple of hours but feeling slightly guilty that THIS is the medium you're using, consider some opera, or Shakespeare, or something NOT specifically kid-friendly. Your kids might surprise you.

And equally, next time you're sitting in the dentist's office, waiting to go in, and you see a dog-eared copy of Batman, pick it up and have a look, you might just surprise yourself.


Dale Mettam makes things up and shares them at http://dalemettam.com.

Back to the Future: Interview with Mark Jarman

Back to the Future with Mark Jarman
Author Mark Jarman

Interview by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster

Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, the writer Mark Jarman has championed the poetry of New Formalists for several years. We owe him a debt for such work. How and why will be made known, in the interview below. I met Jarman in the "virtual world" though my friend and mentor Sidney Wade, English Professor and Poetry Writing Instructor at the University of Florida.

Jarman is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems (Sarabande, 2011). He also published Epistles (2007); To the Green Man (2004); Unholy Sonnets (2000); and Questions for Ecclesiastes, which won the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His awards include a Joseph Henry Jackson Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Jarman also co-edited with David Mason the volume Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism.

Q: Congratulations, Mark, on having won the 2011 Balcones Poetry Prize (a yearly award of $1,500 given by Austin Community College) for Bone Fires. You are a highly successful poet making a living as an educator. Clearly we don't pay our poets enough, in prizes or honoraria, to only write, read, and publish. Do you find that teaching supports your creative side? Does teaching student writers affect your "output?" Sorry to use such a utilitarian word, but it carries the meaning, I think?

A: A really talented student or even a class with a good esprit de corps can support or inspire my own writing. But the energy I invest in teaching is actually different from the energy that goes into my writing, mainly because I am trying to encourage other writers to learn the craft of their art and to try new things and to develop their talents and habits so that they will continue to write even after the class ends. I have been teaching for nearly 40 years and have yet to see teaching affect the amount of writing I manage to do. I will say that when I first began teaching, if I was working on a poem in my office before class, it could be hard to tear myself away. But I think I’ve learned to keep the two endeavors from conflicting with each other.

Q: I know this one is pretty much standard fare for interviews, but I am curious: who do you think of when the notion of "poet of influence" comes up in conversation? For me it was James Wright. His poem, "A Blessing," was transformational for me, in my junior year of college. I think we all have one. Yours?

A: The first poet I discovered for myself was Theodore Roethke. For many years his poetry, especially the poems in The Lost Son and Other Poems, which include the green house poems, were my inspiration and led me to recognize that the circumstances of my own life, the ground under my feet as it were, were ready subjects for poetry. The poem by Roethke that first grabbed me was “Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz,” about three gardeners in Saginaw, Michigan where he grew up.
Gone the three ancient ladies
Who creaked on the greenhouse ladders,
Reaching up white strings
To wind, to wind
The sweet-pea tendrils, the smilax,
nasturtiums, the climbing
Roses                                                   
(excerpt from “Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz,”)
Since I had three grandmothers when I was growing up, each of whom had her own private magic, I may have seen them reflected in the poem. But it was the phrasing and music of the poem, along with its wonderfully peculiar choice of subject, which captured my imagination. I can look at poems of mine, even recent poems, and see when I’ve written a poem that echoes “Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz.” With Roethke, whom I discovered in high school, the whole world of poetry opened up, and at this time, I often feel that poetry itself is transformational.

Q: You have taken a leading role as an advocate for a growing body of poets identified as "new formalists." You edited an anthology with David Mason, in 1996, published by Story Line Press, titled Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, which I have used in my courses. I see some odd sonnets or triolets now and again, but I do not see much movement toward that predilection in what gets selected by top tier literary magazines. Frankly, I would like to say I do, because I admire such skill. All that said, what kind of influence do these poets, people like Dana Gioia, Mary Jo Salter, and her husband Brad Leithauser, to name only three, have on the contemporary poetry writing scene in the U.S. today? That is to ask; are you optimistic as to their positive impact on young writers?

A: To me the success of what was called the new formalism is to be found in the generation younger than the poets represented in our anthology.  Poets like A. E. Stallings (a recent MacArthur fellow), Joshua Mehigan (recent finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award), and the late Wil Mills, and the presence and popularity of British formalists like Don Paterson and Glyn Maxwell, all attest to an assimilation of traditional verse as an acceptable way of writing poetry.  The new formalism was never, to my way of thinking, only about discrete forms like the sonnet and the triolet, but about writing in measure.  But I also always believed that traditional verse should be available to younger poets who were inclined that way.  It was not when I started writing; it was more or less prohibited.  The poets you mentioned, Gioia, Salter, and Leithauser, have certainly had their effect, but there are many others of equal or greater influence among those represented in Rebel Angels and those who were just a little too old to be included.  Finally, I'm unaware of any top tier literary magazines which will not publish formal verse these days.  You're as likely to see formal poems in APR (American Poetry Review) as in Poetry, in The Yale Review as in Five Points.

Q: Arguably, there are several annual, well-respected workshops that draw student- poets nationally: I am thinking of Sewanee, Breadloaf, Palm Beach Poetry Festival. A few more, no doubt. If you could design your own one-week workshop for poets and staff it with a handful of top-shelf poets, what would you want them to accomplish? What goals would you set?

A: Well, I've taught at some of these writers conferences and others, but I have no idea how I would design a one-week workshop! When I teach a workshop for a week or two, I'm usually working with already accomplished poets who are interested in responses to their recent work. My aim, if I'm the workshop leader, is to have a discussion that will give the poet an honest appraisal and possibly digress into larger issues of poetry.

Q: Finally, what are you working now?

A: I'm feeling my way from poem to poem, waiting to see if something as unified as a new collection emerges. I'm also trying not to repeat myself, which is harder to do than you would think. The way God steps into history, past and present, continues to be a compelling interest. But so does the simple presence of the sacred in everyday life.

***

In closing, I might share a little of what Jarman is doing to locate and celebrate in his work "the sacred in everyday life." His volume, Epistles, published by Sarabande books, in 2007, includes many insights. His poem #13, titled "If we drive to the meeting with the speakers blasting" concludes thusly: "Why does Love comfort? Why is God like an addiction? Because we / want them inside us. And they are inside us."


Arthur McMaster's poems and short fiction have appeared in such journals as North American Review, Poetry East, Southwest Review, Rhino, Wisconsin Review, and Subtropics, with one Pushcart nomination. He has two published chapbooks, the first having been selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission's Poetry Initiative, in 2008. McMaster holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida and teaches creative writing (poetry and fiction) and Twentieth Century American literature, at Converse College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is a poetry editor and reader for Emrys Journal.

Shouters and Whisperers: An interview with Mary Ruefle

Author Mary Ruefle
Shouters and Whisperers:
An interview with Mary Ruefle


Interview by Georgia Jones-Davis

Mary Ruefle is the author of Madness, Rack and Honey: Collected Lectures (Wave Books, 2012) and Collected Poems (Wave Books, 2010). She has published ten books of poetry, a book of prose (The Most of It, Wave Books, 2008), and a comic book, Go Home and Go to Bed (Pilot Books/Orange Table Comics 2007); she is also an erasure artist, whose treatments of nineteenth- century texts have been exhibited in museums and galleries, and published in A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006). Ruefle is the recipient of numerous honors, including the William Carlos Williams award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She lives in Bennington, Vermont, and teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College.

Q: What drives a poet to hear in the silence what speaks behind the silence? In other words, in a recent interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW, you talked about listening for the voice of the inanimate in the world. Why would one want to do that sort of thing? Do poets (or all artists for that matter) hear (or see) in rocks or trees and bins of abandoned teddy bears at Good Will what most of the world remains deaf to?

A: If you think of voice as existence rather than something produced by a larynx--existence as a kind of noise unto itself--then everything that is has a voice, and we hear it if we pay attention, but attention is very often difficult in a world (ours) with a very loud bass.

A poet who looks deeply at a thing and describes it so others can see it is listening to the voice of that thing--she doesn’t have to go so far as anthropomorphism; others, of course, will go that far. Anthropomorphism suffered a very bad reputation for a very long time, but it is making a come back. All things come into and go out of fashion; an artist must ignore such tides.

Q: In your newly published and wonderful collection of lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey, you write about James Fenton’s theory that poetry is about raising one’s voice and you propose that poetry also is what happens when one lowers the voice, when someone wants to be heard “beneath the din.” Some shouters immediately came to mind-- Lord Byron, Sharon Olds, Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton. And I thought of the whisperers, the tellers of secrets as you describe-- John Keats, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Kenyon, Rilke, Denise Levertov.

Poets in the beginning were the medicine men, priests, storytellers, orators… lyrical Sappho seems like the first recorded voice beneath the din. Would you talk about gender and decibel in poetry? Does a poet choose to primarily shout or whisper most of the time? Is it even a choice?


A: There are shouters and whisperers spread among both genders and no, I don’t think one chooses. I think one has an innate and intuitive sense of what a poem wants, for a poet may shout in one poem and whisper in another.

That said, I do think that women very often had to shout to be heard. I mean, for a very long time no one listened to them, so what could they do? Continue whispering among themselves? I suppose I am thinking of Plath and Sexton, but then there are poets like Bishop, who, it seems to me, neither shouts nor whispers, but speaks in a marvelously middle register, to great effect. To great, great effect.

Q: What is your writing day or writing night like? Do you have a routine or sacred practice that you have developed over the years that has contributed to your success--or failure?

A: No, I don’t have a routine that I can describe to you. Some days I don’t write at all. Other days I may write three poems. It’s very haphazard, I couldn’t explain it if I tried; there is no explanation for it. I do have a sacred ritual though: I work on erasures for two or three hours every morning. There are days and weeks when I can’t, owing to other responsibilities, and I am always miserable during these periods.

Q: How might sitting down to write poetry frighten you?

A: Sitting down to write a poem may frighten me the way we sometimes get nervous before taking a trip--what if something goes wrong? Sometimes you get to the border and realize you’ve forgotten your passport! Disasters do happen, and then, at other times, total strangers give you a lift and you don’t miss that plane after all. Anything can happen, and when anything can happen, we usually get a little nervous. Still, artists seem to like that state, the state where anything can happen; maybe that’s why so many of them are nervous types.

Q: You quote from so many sources in your collection of lectures and essays--from John Clare and Jung to authors Venturi, Brown and Izenour's “Learning From Las Vegas." Please name the most influential or important books a poet writing in English, in our time, should read. Why do you feel that the dead might be equipped to teach us more than the living? What information does a poet need?

A: It would be presumptuous of me to tell anyone what to read. Everyone reading the same book at the same time is the beginning of the end. A reading life is a private and individual journey, books come to different people at different times, and usually they come at the right time, I’ve noticed that. Many times you wander in a bookstore looking for one book and find another--that other one is why you walked through the door, but you didn’t know it at first.  You know it when you leave.

As for information, a poet needs only the information that his senses provide, and even then he doesn’t need all of his senses, if some are missing that will only enhance the ones that are left. I am talking about using the ones you have.

Q: Poetry is about the compression of language. So is texting, for example. It seems everything now is a compressed sound bite-- look at  election slogans, advertisements, the back and forth in a screenplay--Cloud Atlas, for example--moving plot to plot, constantly shifting with much more rapidity than David Mitchell’s balanced novel. Much new literature almost reads like treatments for a script, moved far away from the word storms of Saul Bellow and Dickens.  How does the new literary anorexia influence the kind of poetry we want to write?

A: I suppose you either want to jump on the bandwagon or stay as far away as possible! Style, like voice, is multifarious and should be. I love spare poems and I love word storms, as you call them. The last I looked, there was room for everyone, and this has been of the more positive influences of postmodernism--you can live in Duluth and eat sausages and read what you want and write what you want, or you can live on an island off the coast of Washington and eat seaweed to the same end. Why do people like being told what to do? That is the real question.

Q: You write that you completed a book of poems when you were nine years old and even submitted it to the publisher of your favorite book. Most of us grow up in environments that we think of as the antithesis of what is considered “poetic.” (What if Wordsworth lived in Cleveland instead of Lake Windermere?) What were you writing about at that age? What was it about your world that woke up the poet in you at such a young age? I love how you describe your “aha moment” when you wrote your first metaphor, “the cracked earth is a map.”

A: At nine I was writing about things that interest a nine year old--spring, summer, fall and winter. And I had a poem about baseball, which was really about Mickey Mantle, who was a huge celebrity at that time. I didn’t really like baseball, or know much about it, but obviously I had not yet learned to turn the TV off. In this poem there were the lines: “Mickey Mantle is up to bat/watch him sweat beneath his hat.” That’s all I remember.

What was it about my world that woke up the poet in me? I guess it was the fact that I felt like a freak, I felt no one understood me, or liked me, and that I would die before I made a true friend of like mind--and then I opened a book, and there were all the friends one could ever want!

Q: You write that there is no greater accusatory poem (in English anyway) than Keats’s “This Living Hand,” which you celebrate as great marginalia as well as a poem with a real central problem--“Who is you?” Most poets sit in the margin and hold out a living hand every time they write a poem. (Think of all the poems never published.) Why the compulsion to keep writing what will never make most of us rich or famous, what most people would rather die than have to read? Compulsive behavior can be a sign of madness.

A: The compulsion to keep writing comes from within us. It is a very powerful and mysterious driving force, one which overrides every other consideration. If you can imagine life without it, then you will probably live life without it, but for those who can’t, it is a presence--this inner stress--that can’t be ignored. Sure, it is a little mad, but what’s not? It is a privilege to be in the presence of such a madness.


Georgia Jones-Davis
grew up in Northern New Mexico and Southern California. She worked as a literary journalist for over twenty years and was one of the founding editors of the Herald Examiner Book Review and an Assistant Book Editor at The Los Angeles Times. Her critical essays have appeared in The Washington Post, New York Newsday, The Chicago Tribune, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2010, she was honored as a Newer Poet by the Los Angeles Poetry Festival/Beyond Baroque and the Los Angeles County ALOUD Series. She is the author of Blue Poodle, a collection of poems from Finishing Line Press.

Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke

Space, in Chains
by Laura Kasischke

Copper Canyon Press, 2011
paper, 110 pages, $16                               
Purchase Link

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster

Michigan poet Laura Kasischke's latest volume, her eighth, won the National Book Critic's Circle Award for Poetry last year. There is great risk in these poems. There is also an unusual kind of brilliance for the effort. They succeed in redefining what poems might look like—or even should look like—how they build upon on another, how they speak.

Readers who come to Space, in Chains expecting conventional lyricism or attention to form may need to work diligently, as has the poet, for the narrative. It is there, most certainly, and once we learn how to travel into and through the space of her poetry the reward is bountiful. The late Donald Justice, for one, said that all poems are about loss. No doubt there is room to argue for a more expansive definition, but that observation tells us something about grief, love, joy, and what befalls the body over time. Donald Hall is arguably one if our best known and skillful practitioners of this kind of work today. Ms. Kasischke positions herself nearby, a kindred sprit, perhaps, but she reinvents the delivery of that theme. She creates her own space.

In the title poem we find what comprises our quotidian lives, constrained by invisible chains. Inevitably the subject is family: "Things that are beautiful, and die. Things that fall asleep in the afternoon, in/ the sun. Things that laugh, then cover their mouths, ashamed of their teeth. . . ." We look for the child. For his or her security, safety—the bosom wherein familial love resides. We find, now that we have signed on to the trope, that "It's all space, in chains—the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm. . . a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping / out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen." Stepping out.  And what do we say, how do we universally speak to the boy, anxious about his well-being? "Sweetie, don't be gone too long." Perhaps just there, in that moment, is the first measure of loss.

Let's look at another poem, a work perhaps the spar or the keel of the volume, titled, "We watch my father try to put on his shirt." It is a remarkable moment. "He cannot do it. The shirt / slips to the floor. There is / dancing and laughter in hell, an angel weeping openly on a park bench in heaven." The imagery is as clear as it is wrought with the ineffable. The poet speaks fluently throughout her book in the voice of a child, of a wife and mother, and of the daughter desperate to keep her failing father alive just a bit longer, salvaging memory.
 

While many of the poems are laid out in a hybrid prose poem manner, we also have several that make conventional use of white space. They complement the poems that force us to concentrate on the inner bone and gristle. I particularly like this one and offer it, in full, as representative of both Kasischke's theme and the artistry of the volume. It is titled, "Your last day."
So we found ourselves in an ancient place, the very
air around us bound by chains. There was
stagnant water in which lightning
was reflected, like desperations,
in a dying eye. Like science. Like
a dull rock plummeting through space, tossing
off flowers and veils, like a bride. And

also the subway.
Speed under ground.
And the way each body in the room appeared to be
a jar of wasps and flies that day—but, enchanted,
like frightened children's laughter.


Arthur McMaster's poems have appeared in such journals as North American Review, Poetry East, Southwest Review, Rhino, and Subtropics, with one Pushcart nomination. He has two published chapbooks, the first having been selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission's Poetry Initiative. Arthur teaches creative writing (poetry and fiction) and American literature, at Converse College, in Spartanburg.

She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey

She Returns to the Floating World
by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Kitsune Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9827409-2-7
Purchase Link 


Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael

 

When a writer chooses to call upon myth and folktales in her work, readers generally feel comfortable—most readers like myths and fairytales and are accustomed to poets who borrow, subvert, update, retell, reframe and combine age-old narratives and wisdom tales. What’s the purpose behind such borrowings, though? Reader appeal? Familiarity, or the opportunity to twist the familiar? Or does myth serve to involve the subconscious, opening doorways into dream? When a writer chooses to employ the folktales of a culture other than her own, there’s even more to question, such as the significance of that culture to the writer or to the reader, and the possibility of comparison or the specter of alienation. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s collection She Returns to the Floating World enjoins the reader to entertain various possibilities for myth’s value in the poem and suggests that even folktales that may be foreign to the reader—or the writer—offer human insights that span centuries and cultures. These narratives can be seen as codes, specialized for each community, reminding human beings of the social order, the risk of outlying, the need for moral behavior such as loyalty and keeping one’s vows.

Hall Gailey’s poems revolve largely around Japanese myths, particularly the kitsune story of the fox-wife who must abandon her husband if he learns her true origin. The sorrowful animal-wife voices anger, apologies, and secrets she cannot reveal to her spouse. She finds herself spirited into other forms, other worlds, not always returning to this one:

I’m sorry I didn’t turn out
like you expected
sorry the last sight you’ll see is the flash of silver in the sky and that
is it
a flurry of leaves and dust…
I wanted to be sturdy I wanted more I wanted you
but instead I have the transitive the shift the loss the goodbye
farewell goodnight…
In other poems, the wife returns, perhaps in a different form, and wants what is most basic: “a hut of mud where we never see the stars,” for example, or children to raise, even though she admits that she is the kind to “tear things apart.” This urge develops in different ways, most notably as a metaphor of a this-worldly image in “She Likes to Pull Things Apart,” where the woman studies biology: “She dissected pigs/loved cracking the jaw” and in “The Animal Heart: She Warns Him” when the speaker reminds her lover that even though she’s shed her animal shape she retains “the desire to crack bones between delicate teeth.” Alienation, isolation, ghosts, all signal haunting by women who straddle two environs. The edges between the floating world and the spirit world, or the spirit world and the “real world,” or between cultures are all examined here, most often through employing Japanese symbols or literary and mythological tropes.

Some of the collection’s most moving or terrifying pieces deal with the inability to produce viable offspring in the biological and in the metaphorical sense, a snarling of the code that Gailey references in many ways (DNA, C++, language, culture). Gailey introduces and explores such themes in “Half-Life,” “Why We Cannot Have Children,” “What Was Lost,” and “When the Bush Warbler Returns” (the last one particularly beautiful). The unrealized offspring are often potential monsters, however. Motherhood seems as mythical as dragons—perhaps more so—and unattainable. The insubstantial character of the fox-wife, who is partly spirit, keeps her from completing the environmental, Jungian, yin/yang code of fertility and fruition, life and death, in the “expected” manner of human beings. The “failed” outcome illustrates another painful byproduct of the kitsune’s straddling of the human and spirit worlds.

Another example of Gailey’s tension between worlds or expectations is her use of several loose forms for these poems. Some of them employ haibun-like forms, short prose paired with haiku, although her interpretation of haibun is her own invention.  Others, such as “An American Love Letter…” use the tercet stanza in syllabics—a 5-7-5 verse that evokes haiku (without closely following the other formal aspects of classic haiku), and Gailey’s use of Japanese and occasionally Chinese literary and painting imagery also strengthens the leaning-against of cultures and of “worlds.”

The reader unfamiliar with Japanese folk tales won’t be stopped by that lack of background because these poems inform us of the originals while pushing their legendary qualities into a more contemporary place. What Jeannine Hall Gailey does with this collection of myths makes the poems as a collection relevant to our times, complex and culturally-diverse as they are. A line from the title series of poems encapsulates the experience: “You have to be more than human to begin with.” You have to be human and spirit, human and animal, human and legend.


Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist, and educator whose most recent poetry collection is Water-Rites (2012). She lives in eastern PA where she is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her website: www.annemichael.com.

Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust

Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust
Paintings by Lori Schreiner, Poems by Theresa Senato Edwards

Unbound Content
Paperback, 58 pages
ISBN: 9781936373277
Purchase Link  


Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli

Too often, history is reduced to names and dates in textbooks, or long-winded lectures by teachers, but in Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust, painter Lori Schreiner and poet Theresa Senato Edwards give color, life, and stories to children that were victims of the Holocaust. Their collaborative collection is gut-wrenching, and more so than any war movie or History Channel show, it serves as a stark reminder of the atrocities committed during World War II. It is history written from the victim’s point of view.

According to the introduction written by Schreiner, the idea for the collection occurred when she read an article in the New York Daily News about Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish political prisoner who survived Auschwitz and was assigned to take pictures of concentration camp prisoners, including biracial children, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholics, Gypsies, Jews, and other groups. The article included a strip of Brasse’s photographs that were of Czeslawa Kwoka, a 14-year-old Polish Catholic girl. Schreiner was inspired to do a series of paintings based on the photos, and eventually she found more photos through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Throughout the collection, the photos are copied on one page, with Schreiner’s artwork on the next page, creating a chilling juxtaposition. The photos are all black and white, but Schreiner’s color, textures, and layers reanimate the depictions of the children. Below each photo, the artist and writer included a blurb about each child, allowing the dead to come to life even more.

Edwards’ poems are just as impressive and moving as the artwork. The poet works in varied forms, including lyric poetry and the prose poem. The voice and conversation shifts from poem to poem. Some of the work is a dialogue between the painter and the poet, while other poems describe what is seen in the painting or photo. Edwards also adopts the voice of the children, including in “I will die at night,” which is about Deliana Rademakers, a Jehovah Witness who died at Auschwitz in 1942. Edwards writes, “no. I will try to speak/my voice cold as roots/I try to speak in camp/soldiers tug at stripes-what does that mean to me?” She writes a few lines later, “I want to speak but will have no mouth, night catches voice, holds it till/morning.” Edwards successfully gave Deliana a voice through the poem and allowed her to speak years after her horrific fate.

In other poems, Edwards depicts the effect the paintings had on her. She writes in the prose poem “Deliana,” “When I saw your painting in the studio, I saw scars in colors like/fruit. I felt scars, my fingers embedded in hardened edges of grief you came out of my palm.”

The poem that anchors the book is also the name of the collection, “Painting Czeslawa Kwoka.” Edwards perfectly captures what Schreiner’s paintings do, how they resurrect the dead. She addresses the deceased child in the poem:

What does color bring to you?
In color you move through our minds.

In color you are a movie star: Mia Farrow—
slightly protruding upper lip, swollen bottom
forms a dense shadow to your chin.

In color you are a young woman
bleeding from within: pale skin
filters red to pink. This is the
girl you are at Auschwitz, Czeslawa.

You are not a criminal.
Several of Edwards’ metaphors are just as well-crafted as Schriener’s portraits, and several of them are based in nature imagery. In “Zigmond Alder,” she compares the child’s eyes to “muted moons.” In another poem, “Because of Paint,” she compare’s a girl’s face to “a stagnant pond,” “yellow-green with algae.” These images are just as vibrant as the array of color in the paintings.

Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust is a book that should be taught in history, literature, and creative writing classes. It is a compelling collaborative effort that brings to life through photos, paintings, and poetry the stories of the children of the Holocaust. Those that never had a voice, that had no control over their gruesome fate, are finally given the chance to speak.


Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Red Rock Review, Harpur Palate, Third Wednesday, Boston Literary Magazine, The Portland Review, Rockhurst Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing), and his first full-length collection is forthcoming through Unbound Content. Find him online at www.brianfanelli.com.

A (short) history of l. by rob mclennan

A (short) history of l.
by rob mclennan

BuschekBooks
Perfect Bound, 95 pages
ISBN: 978-1-894543-69-9
Purchase Link

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Elizabeth Kate Switaj

T.S. Eliot’s observation that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” has become something of a critical cliché. Nonetheless, rob mclennan’s A (short) history of l., a collection ghazal-based poems in three sections or sequences, brings this idea to the fore and transforms it. These poems communicate not only before they are completely understood but also, in large part, because they cannot fully be understood. Moreover, through a marked intertextuality, they make clear that such communication is not unique to this collection.

The title of the collection frames the whole work with uncertainty. What precisely is “l”? A proliferation of poems titled “a (short) history of l.” or “another (short) history of l.” suggest the impossibility of answering this question once and for all. The opening line of the first poem that shares its title with the book suggests lyric poetry: “I am interested in how lyricism / bonds itself to our molecules.” On the other hand, the opening of the first “another (short) history of l.” gives us “limitation.” The two poems also entitled “another (short) history of l.” that follow from there contain no “l” words, but the way the speaker addresses the “you” would seem to suggest “love”:

I am the cold climate warmed
on your Mediterranean.
I am homesick today
for wherever you are.
That “wherever” indicates another uncertainty in these pieces. Just who is this beloved, where and who is the “you”? What kind of lover has the ability to have “held out your eyes, / between thumb & sliver, forefinger”? Or “bleed ancient cities & Sanskrit, / razor scar on your leg”? The poems communicate the nature of the relationship between the “I” and the “you” not before we can understand who “you” are but precisely because we cannot understand who this person is. Only love lets one see the remnants of civilizations in the remnants of a shaving mishap; the reader, outside this love, cannot see beloved so much as the poet’s feelings for the beloved.

Even if we know that much about the relationship between “I” and “you,” the “l” still remains unresolvable. The letter stands for the lyricism of these poems, for the love of the “I” for the you, for the limits of both love and the lyric, and for any number of l-words a reader may find between the covers of the collection. The “l” is all these things and less, as it is, literally, merely a letter. If the letter could be reduced to a single concept, though the title could then be understood, it would no longer communicate. This collection is not a history of love or limits or the lyric poem but, rather, a (short) history that includes all those ideas while being, like the letter itself, smaller than they are.

This need to be just beyond understanding in order to communicate becomes a commentary on poetry in general, rather than merely a characteristic of the collection, because these poems constantly comment on poetry in general and on their own relationships with other poets’ work. Remarks on poems appear throughout the first sequence, which shares its title with that of the collection. The very first poem, “if you are almond I am almond too” (which never even begins to explain what being almond would mean) opens with the couplet: “thirteen ways of describing anything has become the archetype / for the worst kind of poem.” Later, in “the fallacy of prose,” we get “in a poem the moon / always means something more”—the something being the impossible-to-understand meaning that poetry communicates and without which “the church at the top of the hill [is] / just a building.” Further along, “blindness” opens with “if you were to write a poem on blindness, / how would it look.” It takes the form of a question, but the full-stop turns it into a statement and, in doing so, suggests that, like so many of the questions raised in this collection, it cannot be answered adequately; this is a limit to the poetic form.

The middle section of the book, “if I am being dismantled,” does more to emphasize intertextuality. Like the other two parts, it begins with epigrams from other poets. Unlike them, it opens with poems that state their relationship with the work of the poets thus named. Thus, the first three poems are: “how it is I am not married / (after Paige Ackerson-Kiely,” “what paper eats away / (after Nina Berkhout,” and “I want to sleep in the runcible spoon / (after Michael Redhill.” Each of these titles is repeated several times throughout this second section. These poems can be read as interwoven sequences, with the reappearing titles marking distinct threads or as discrete pieces—an ambiguity made possible by the rapid leaps between images and ideas which characterize mclennan’s style. No matter which way they are read, however, the repetition of “after” emphasizes that this collection is in many ways about its relationships with other poems and so about poetry in general.

The final sequence of the book “a short history of electrical fields” suggests another alternative meaning for the “l” of the books title, since the first morpheme of “electrical” is pronounced like the name of the letter. Here, too, the examination given to poetry in general in the first two sections seems to turn inward, with all but two poems containing the phrase “short history” (with or without parentheses around “short”). These are very short histories: twelve lines on the electric car, eighteen on the digital camera. The latter comments on itself in the end: “a luxury of narrative discord.” The histories bring in the “you” and the “I” far more often than a prose history would. They play with the idea of what it means to be a history, and so become both the most inward-looking and most outward-looking part of the book.
The difference between navel-gazing and looking out at the universe implodes, and we are left with the final lines: “what this afterlife implies / , all the time in the world” which is, indeed, what remains at the end of any book.

A (short) history of l. is a book of love poems and a book about (lyric) poetry. It is a book with limits that are stretched to their fullest where ambiguity and uncertainty makes those limits difficult to place. In making communication without full understanding a major theme of this work, mclennan comments not only on poetry but also, perhaps, on the nature of all human communication. To speak or to write is, after all, only necessary where understanding does not exist. Two people, even lovers, cannot understand each other entirely, but that is something to celebrate since it creates the space in which communication happens and in which poems are made.


Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s first poetry collection, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. She has also published a chapbook, The Broken Sanctuary: Nature Poems, with Ypolita Press. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Irish Pages and a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. Her website is www.elizabethkateswitaj.net.

Vermont Exit Ramps by Neil Shepard

Vermont Exit Ramps
by Neil Shepard

Big Table Publishing
Paperback, 44 pages
ISBN: 9780984956760
Purchase link


Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli

Anyone who has ever hopped in the car for a cross-state or cross-country road trip will find familiarity in the images in Neil Shepard’s latest effort, Vermont Exit Ramps. The poems feature rumbling construction vehicles, ATMs, quaint art galleries, and other staples of small town America. However, what moves the poems beyond the familiar is thepersonal and state history Shepard included. Like a passenger riding shotgun, the reader is invited along for a wonderful ride that is engaging, informative, and entertaining.

Set along the I-89 and I-91 exit ramps in Vermont, Shepard’s poems take several surprising and interesting turns, often veering into the state’s rich history.In the poem “I-89 Stowe/Waterbury (Exit 10:Route 100),” the poet begins with common highway images, including noisy construction machines and sun-drained road workers whose sweat “drips into hot tar.” But a few lines later, the reader is confronted with images of history, including the Summit House, built at the beginning of the Civil War, and the Big Hotel, which burned in 1899. These references serve as a fine reminder of what existed long before construction ever began on the Best Western Café Grill, Blush Hill Country Club, and theStowe Street Emporiummentioned in the poem’s final lines.

In another poem, “I-89 South Barre (Exit 6: Routes 63 to 14),”Shepard digs deep by referencing the town’s granite industry and history of travel. The historical references are triggered by the image of a flatbed hauling away an old stagecoach, which causes the speaker to recall the year 1810, when everyone was poor and labored in the saw mill, grist mill, when everything moved by wagon, until a full century passed and the railroad allowed granite to be shipped faster from the town, lessening the starvation and poverty. Like much of the book, the poem successfully begins in the present, before shifting to the past to illustrate how the past shaped the community’s present condition.

In another poem, “Turn in Guilford,” the speaker moves to personal history, recalling an incident from his hippie youth in which his VW Bug “lifted a boy off his feet/rolled him over my yellow hood/bumped him against/the glass, and launched him fifty feet in flight.” The poem is at first jolting to the reader, but then takes a sudden turn when the speaker encounters the boy’s mother, who is surprisingly forgiving and invites him over for dinner. He writes:

And I’m there on a day of atonement,
the boy with his mending arm in a sling, the mother
cooking and humming, and all of us gracious
at dinner, counting the blessings, recounting
the tale again, I saying the boy must have felt
a white jolt of pain, the boy saying no, the shock
blocked it, and his mother must have suffered more,
and she saying, no, no, turning to me and saying
it was the driver who must have suffered most.
The mother’s graciousness, kindness, and love resemble Robert Hayden’s much-anthologized poem “Those Winter Sundays,” which depicts a father’s love for his son. Shepard even repeats Hayden’s second to last line in the poem, “what did I know, what did I know,” a point in both poems where the speakers finally understand a parent’s love.

Like the content of the poems, the form changes throughout the collection. At some points, Shepard employs short stanzas, tight lines, and frequent enjambment, while a few pages later he uses long rhythms and lines that echo Ginsberg or Whitman, two poets that were just as comfortable addressing the notion of American progress, or lack of it. Furthermore, Shepard’s frequent references to American consumerism, including ATMs, Best Westerns, and fast food restaurants, reminded me of Ginsberg’s frequent critique of consumerism, especially in his most well-known poem, “Howl.” Sheparddoes make several references to nature’s striking beauty, however, despite the highways and buildings we’ve constructed through much of the country.

By the end of the book, the reader has a greater sense of Vermont’s rich history. The poet’s research paid off because it makes the collection layered and rich in detail. Like any good road trip, Vermont Exit Ramps leaves the reader feeling fulfilled and enlightened.


Brian Fanelli’s poems have most recently appeared in Red Rock Review, Harpur Palate, Inkwell, Boston Literary Magazine, Portland Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of one chapbook, Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 through Unbound Content. Currently, he lives in Pennsylvania and teaches at Keystone College.