Friday, December 20, 2013

Here's a poem for the Christmas season. It first appeared in one of my favorite journals, the Iron Horse Literary Review, and then in my latest book, Lapse Americana


They are not native to this place
but have rushed the grassy hill,
an infantry in spiky green.  Go back
a century and the prairie was
unbroken, Donne’s gold to airy thinness beat,
but now the extension man
says we have lost 3 million acres
of our herd’s dominion. 

From my old bedroom window,
I could trace the seeds’ progression,
watch the cedars march
over the pasture and beyond
the barbed wire at its back. 

One December my father
asked the rancher who owned
all the land around us
for permission to cut a few cedars
to sell as Christmas trees. 
The rancher said he wished
we’d take them all, and we took
all we could.  Rising early to a dry,
cold day and a wind like fire
over the prairie, we waded
into a morning tide of scrub oak
and eastern red cedar,
where we took turns with the saw,
one bending to cut, the other straight up
with an arm through the biting green
to steady the trunk
until the stump let it loose. 

We sold enough to make the ride
home merry in the darkening air
and to cheer the little kitchen
where my mother laid ground
meat in a well-greased pan
while my sisters set the table. 

Outside the wind
ripped through the ragged
arms of the cedars,
their red and shaggy roots
deep in alien clay.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Guest Post: Two Books Reviewed by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

 I am delighted to bring to you below a perceptive and eloquent review by poet, publisher, scholar, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish.

Two New Working-class Poetry Collections: A Review by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Bryner,Jeanne. Smoke. Bottom Dog Press, 2012. 92 pages. $16.00. ISBN 978-1-933964-59-1

Umbach, Sandee Gertz. The Pattern Maker’sDaughter. Bottom Dog Press, 2012. 83 pages. $16.00. ISBN 978-1-933964-52-2

Note: Versions of this review were published in the Working-Class Studies Newsletter; the previously published reviews were separated by author and shortened. This version has never been previously published.

The year 2012 was a moment when working class voices were once again heard—and sometimes heeded—around the world. And, if these two collections of poetry, Smoke by Jeanne Bryner and The Pattern Maker's Daughter by Sandee Gertz Umbach, are any indication, 2012 was also an exceptionally good year for working-class literature. Bryner and Gertz offer readers poetry which present working-class lives and peoples in richly-imagined details, evocative metaphor, and mastery of craft.

Smoke is Bryner's fifth book of poetry, and those who have followed her writing career will not be disappointed with this collection, but instead, along with those new to her work, they will find within it phrases, lines, entire poems that will linger in the heart and mind long after the book has been closed. Like Bryner's previous collections, Smoke centers on Bryner's vocation as a registered nurse, but it seems to me that in this collection there are more poems than in earlier collections on Bryner's childhood and her life outside the hospital. No matter the topic, though, the poems in this collection are crafted of finely woven, powerful metaphors that give me the shivers, among them recurring metaphors of the cleansing, healing power of water, of flowers which signal a radically empathetic perspective on beauty, and of birds, alternately figured as signs of emotional freedom or fragility.

The first poem of the collection, "Bed Bath," sets up a collection-wide trope of the sacred within the human realm, proclaiming ". . . it is one of the holiest acts" to give a patient a bath in "the morning's sacred space." Another ritualized bathing takes place in "Violets," written in the voice of a nurse attending to a ". . . girl with enormous / eyes and shoestring hair / who puts razor blades on her tongue, / . . . month after month." The girl's life is "battered as a sparrow," yet, when the nurses wash her bloody body "the way you'd wash a mauled terrier," their ministrations initiate a turn toward redemption, a redemption brought about through a startling evocation of the beauty of flowers:

          And when we close her skin
          with suture, scars blossom pink scrolls

          —rows of azaleas--like nothing
          you can smell or taste, like little girls
          in their eyelet sundresses
          running toward you
          their fists full of violets
          crying, Here, here, love me.

Here, the poet references flowers twice, underscoring the empathetic shift of perspective required to re-value this hurting, battered child. Love is required to give to this girl a sense of her own beauty and worth, and, it seems, the ER nurses are the only font of love—a font of baptismal redemption created by the hands of human workers—in this girl's life.

The idea that redemption and healing are human practices as much as they are God's indulgences is revisited later in the collection, in "Where God Lives," one of the poems arising from Bryner's childhood. The first two lines of the poem read "It is hard to believe in God, even now, / He was always somewhere else. Maybe fishing." God was somewhere else when the speaker and her sister, ages six and eight, were left "alone with my baby brothers" while their father was out drinking. The speaker, the younger sister, went to take her brother off the potty seat and while doing so, "his weenie got caught in a crack / of blue plastic. Blood spurted as if I'd chopped / a hen's neck." Needless to say, the sisters were terrified and, without adult supervision, unsure of what to do. The elder sister "ran," while the younger wrapped her brother's wounded appendage in a wash cloth and prayed. From the speaker's perspective, her prayer was not answered by God, but by two neighbor women her sister had alerted, women who took care of the injured boy, gave the sisters "orange popsicles," and threw the obviously dangerous potty seat in the trash. On that day, the speaker asserts, "God "lived on our street" —a pragmatic, hands-on god, much like the nurses and doctors and caregiving family members in Bryner's work.

Throughout the collection, it seems clear that one constructive response to trauma and tragedy is to contribute to others’ spiritual and physical healing. Bryner's childhood of neglect and abuse and her efforts and wishes to help her siblings survive and overcome that abuse served to prepare her for nursing. In fact, it appears, as Janet Zandy has pointed out about laborers in general, that trauma and illness are prevalent among Bryner's hospital coworkers, and that each person's injuries and fears are both reawakened and partially exorcised in the practice of caregiving. In the poem "Kindness," nurses trade out emotionally-difficult duties with each other: they make plans to cover for one of their coworkers who could not suction tracheotomies without vomiting and for another who whispers "If there's a rape tonight, I don't think I can do it." 

The final poem of the collection, "Retired Nurse: Poetry Reading with My Patients," reveals that practicing hard-won, creative responses to the ugliness of the world is a cyclical gift first given to the speaker from a woman who survived a concentration camp, a woman whose "violet eyes" are "a meadow of forgiveness." The gift is a survivor's imperative: "Do something special with your life." Smoke, as befits a working-class poet, is firmly on the side of a theology of acts: we are saved by the acts of others, therefore we should ourselves work toward forgiveness by engaging in redemptive acts on behalf of others.

In Smoke, God is a working-class neighbor, a nurse, a wife whose husband is dying of cancer, a doctor who saves a young, unmarried woman's life by telling her that her unborn child is not a sin. These angels of mercy are born from tragedy. And, in Jeanne Bryner's case, a poet was also born, a poet whose writing has matured into this collection, a masterwork of craft and emotional integrity.

Where Jeanne Bryner's Smoke is her fifth collection, The Pattern-Maker's Daughter is Sandee Gertz Umbach's first, yet it already shows signs of facility with metaphor—extended metaphor, in particular—, a good sense of line breaks, and a sensibility capable of working within received forms while making the form serve the content.

Similarly to Bryner’s collection, Umbach’s opens with a poem, “The Pattern Makers,” that previews most of the major themes in the collection while at the same time serving as an ars poetica. As the poet’s father and the rest of Johnstown pattern makers knew,
          Not everyone can be a pattern maker
          old men on porches tell me.
          You have to see things no one else sees.

In some ways, then, the poet is following in her father’s footsteps, seeing things in the world others do not see and and making (poeisis) of them the patterned language of poetry. The patterns in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, some of which are similar to those in Smoke, revolve around a set of themes and metaphors: an obsession with water— in Umbach’s writing, water is not benign—, illness, especially the poet’s childhood seizure disorder, and the everyday rhythms and injuries of working-class life.

Anyone familiar with the history of Johnstown, PA will understand immediately why water would not be a benign presence in Umbach’s collection, and for those who don’t, Umbach supplies notes to the first two poems in the section that treats the 1977 Johnstown Flood. The Flood poems are of two types, one narrative and the other narrative-lyric hybrids that sometimes linger in the surreal, a combination that is very popular in today’s poetics, but is not always as well executed as it is in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter. As an example of the narrative-lyric poem in the collection, here is a selection from “Stationary Front”:

          the storm unable to escape the pull of valley air—
          like all of us unable to lift up and fly over those ridges—
          though thousands of us drove our Chevy’s down Rt. 56
          to D.C., Maryland, Virginia Beach;, thinking we’d lift it behind,

          the shelter of green hills, the stories of our fathers’ lucky strikes. The voices
          of those who stayed and those who came back, uncertain as the lilting
          speech at the end of statements that sound more like questions we could never
          quite answer—in silence when friends returned to the diner.

The first line of the first stanza reproduced here is the last line of a mostly narrative account of how the Flood began; at this line, and for the next several stanzas, the poem turns to a meditative consideration of the people of Johnstown and how the topography of the area has affected its human inhabitants and the town’s propensity for inundation, both of the emotional and meteorological kind. Moreover, the next stanza’s opening lines reveal one of this collections’ most significant themes, and they also reference Umbach’s most remarkable recurring metaphor:

          Folded into the crevice of those mountains, we are remote and hidden,
          yet the storms keep finding us, our city’s history a collective memory,

Our city’s history a collective memory. More than anything else, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter an unveiling of the patterns of collective memory, of History and of history, personal, family, community. To figure collective memory, History, and history, Umbach taps a formidable metaphor not utilized for this purpose, so far as I know, since Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead: she uses geological terms and concepts as recurrent, extended metaphors for the working-class culture and history and poet-speaker’s place within them.What might be surprising from an early-career poet is that Umbach wields her geological metaphors and references with great skill, in large part because she is obviously knowledgable (enough) about the geological structures and materials of Western Pennsylvania to use them.

Not only does Umbach put the geological metaphors to work, she is capable of creating the  prophetic tone found in Rukeyser’s book and the great, communal “I am” of Whitman’s work—both of which depend on concrete imagery as a launching point, and both of which are difficult to do without sounding ridiculous.
Witness this section from “Part of this Earth”:

          I am shale, common and conglomerate,
          (the dirty inside of a purse, caked over lipstick
          torn receipts and dried gum) skeletons
          of organisms drifting. I am rapidly moving streams.
          Carbon rich, organic, coal, compressed.

In addition to their use in the more philosophical poems in the collection,  I found it delightful that Umbach’s geological metaphors and language appear in unexpected places, and in doing so, solidify the metaphorical relationship between the working-class people of Johnstown and the geology around and beneath them—the analogy runs all the way through, like a vein of ore. It appears in “Milltown Girls in Flight,” a poem recalling how the girl-children of Johnstown would hold their Barbies up in the air to make it appear they were walking “atop the crevice of Allegheny mountain gap”; it sings in the colloquial in a poem title, “Schist N’At.” The geological ghost rises in two poems about the speaker’s seizure disorder, one entitled “Headward Erosion” and the other “Fissile Flickerings”—the title geological terms are metaphors active through the entirety of both poems.

There are many more delights to be found in The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, among them a series of work poems (using Jim Daniel’s categories of “work” poems and “working-class” poems), several coming-of-age poems, and a scattering of poems in form: a sonnet, rhyming stanzas in iambic pentameter. The collection ends with the title poem which makes explicit the implicit connections between the father’s and the daughter’s “makings,” bringing it full circle from “The Pattern Makers” at the beginning of the book. The poet makes her patterns by gathering “the random points I connect in poems that tie me to this earth.” Sandee Gertz Umbach has created an extraordinary set of patterns in this collection, and we are fortunate that she has shared them, so we, too, can be tied to this earth and its people.

Both Bryner’s Smoke and Umbach’s The Pattern Makers Daughter are must-haves for any serious reader of poetry, and particularly for those who are interested in working-class literature. Larry Smith’s Bottom Dog Press has been publishing quality working-class writing for a long time, but, in my estimation at least, 2012 was a banner year for the Press, a year that saw the publication of these two fine collections of poetry. 

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet and prose writer. Her 2009 poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible won the Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, and the Oklahoma Book Award. Mish’s chapbook, Tongue Tied Woman, won the national Edda Poetry Chapbook for Women contest sponsored by Soulspeak Press. Her writings have been recently published or are upcoming in Fiddleback, Cybersoleil, Naugatuck Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Concho River Review and Blast Furnace. Jeanetta is Editor of award-winning Mongrel Empire Press, and contributing editor to the literary journal Sugar Mule and to Oklahoma Today. She is Director of and a faculty mentor for the Red Earth Creative Writing MFA Program at Oklahoma City University. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"The Genius of the Shore": Why Local Poetry Matters

           I have friends who are into the “local food” movement, refusing to eat anything not grown within a small radius of their home. I have other, and some of the same, friends who are into local music, rejecting the corporate world of big labels in favor of bands they can follow at local clubs. I know one person who “dresses local,” refusing to use any material in her clothing not generated within a short journey from her home. Local is the big thing now, and with good reason. I wonder, however, if in this rush to embrace our inner Wendell Berry we haven’t overlooked one very import category of the local: the local poet. I think it is often assumed that “local poetry” is amateur poetry, and only the poet of national reputation matters. This certainly seems to be the attitude of most MFA programs, which, with a few notable exceptions, rarely encourage their students or faculty to get involved in the coffee house readings, critique groups, or small journals and presses of local poetry scenes. So, let me outline some of the reasons why local poetry is worth investing one’s time, and even one’s money, in.
            All good poetry is rooted in some particular place, and a local poetry scene helps to keep poetry rooted and particular. Think about how much television has done to flatten out the rich variety of American dialects and accents. If we think of American literature as only significant on the national level, then we are in danger of flattening out the rich variety of American poems, reaching only for some nationally acceptable standard: the flat non-accent of the nightly news anchor. Honestly, I sometimes think we are already on the verge of a literary culture in which every poem takes place in some unidentifiable and uniform suburbia. A thriving local poetry scene encourages a poetry of particular place, images and topics grounded in the shared experience of the local audience. Rather than creating an insular poetry, this opens up avenues to the universal through the particular. Think of Robert Frost’s or Jane Kenyon’s New England or Christian Wiman’s Texas. Like food, poetry that seems substantial, that seems real and nourishing, comes from someplace identifiable. The poetry that best embodies real experience and real particulars is not produced purely for export. It speaks into a place first and then through it to the wider world.
            If local poets in the smaller places of this country aren’t so focused on exporting their poems, they are free to focus on building literary community where they are. Local poetry scenes provide a support group for practicing poets. For poets who have graduated from MFA programs, the local scene can be a place to continue the camaraderie and support they have come to rely upon. Perhaps more importantly, the local scene provides encouragement, support, and feedback for poets who are outside the MFA system for cultural, financial, or other reasons. Long before the rise of the Iowa workshops, developing writers were nourished by rich local scenes: think of Ben Jonson and associates gathered at the Mermaid tavern or of American expats in the cafes of Paris. It is only the success that time has brought them which keeps us from thinking of these writers as “local.”
            I might add that it is in these local communities, and certainly not in the academy, that the great developments in poetics have taken place. In reading David Lehman’s fantastic account of the “New York School of Poets,” The Last Avant Garde, I was recently struck by just how local these poets were. Ashbery, O’Hara, Schyluer, and Koch may be very cosmopolitan in their outlook, but it was their proximity to each other (with the exception of Ashbery’s time in France), their appearances at the same parties and the same bars, the same galleries and the same readings, that gave them the opportunity to develop together approaches so needed to freshen up American poetry at mid-century. One may counter that these sorts of incubating communities can now occur nationally via the internet or through the gathering of prominent poets onto campuses, but I would argue that internet versions – unlike the communal life, the shared-experience – are always more plastic and contrived, more about abstract ideas than about literary passions and tend to fizzle out quickly, fossilized forever on abandoned websites. As for the campus as a place for new poetics to emerge through creative community, one might point out that such artistic cross-fertilization is often nipped in the bud by the alarming vagrancy, the nomadic spirit, of the typical creative-writing faculty. When it isn’t, when one finds a core group of writers working side by side on a campus year after year, then what one has is, in fact, simply a very solid, relatively well-paid version of the local poetry scene, at its best often interacting with local poets off campus as well. Sadly, though, even poets long established on a particular university can focus all their literary energies at the “national level,” neglecting the literary world just past the edges of the campus, especially if they happen to be located somewhere outside the traditional centers of literary activity on the east coast. When local poets, on campus and off, interact, however, one gets the variety of influences and pressures, of poetics and approaches,  that fosters innovative thinking. Contrary to what snobbery would dictate, poets grouped nationally are much more isolated aesthetically than the poets at the local coffee shop reading, where one might hear a language poet reciting a string of punctuation marks one minute and a neo-confessional poet detailing his latest break up or break down the next.
            Perhaps less obviously, the local poetry scene gives poets a chance to define artistic and career success in terms that are both more realistic and more meaningful. Accordingto Seth Abramson there are 45000 poets graduating from MFA programs every decade and 20000 books of poetry published every ten years in the U.S. If, as Ecclesiastes put it “there is no end to the making of books, then the deciding factor on who “makes it big” and who doesn’t – out of the pool of the thousands of most talented, ambitious, and determined poets— is more often than not, simple luck. The smaller, local poetry community, however, provides an arena in which a poet can build a meaningful reputation based more on accomplishment than luck or connection. Before you dismiss this notion as simply settling for the minor leagues consider that when Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne were building their great reputations during the Renaissance, the combined population of England and Wales was about four million, which is not significantly more than the current population of Oklahoma. London, the real home of literary reputation in the age of Shakespeare, was itself significantly less populated than Oklahoma City today. Dante made his great reputation as the national poet of a country a good bit smaller than the state of California. If you figure in the lower rates of literacy in the past, it becomes even more apparent that a contemporary American writer aiming for national importance is up against numbers unfathomable in any precursor literary community. A local poetry scene, with established readings, journals, and presses, gives a poet a more reasonable measure of her success. There is great honor in being one of the best of where you are, wherever that may be.
            We’ve recently gone through another perennial round of hand-wringing over the supposedly dwindling audience for poetry, the ever-present “Can Poetry Matter?” debate.  Over at the Huffington Post Seth Abramson posted a list of 200 “national figures” who will make you care about poetry.  As much as I admire the people on the list, and as grateful as I am for their large-scale investment in the art of poetry, I couldn’t help thinking that local poets can do a heck of a lot more than any “national figure” to revive the public’s appetite for the art of poetry. The uninitiated into the marvels of poetry are much more likely to wander into a coffee shop reading than into a large lecture hall to hear a national poet. Local poetry can spread a love for the art from person to person, neighbor to neighbor, at the “grassroots” level. This is why states have poet laureates.
            So, if you care about poetry at all, support your local poets. Go to readings (heck, you could even host a house-reading at your place). Buy books. Subscribe to the journals that live where you live. You don’t have to stop paying attention to the big, nationally-known poets. Just try to save some of your support and encouragement for the poet whose kid goes to school with yours, or who sits in the pew behind you at church, or who teaches at your local community college. And if you are a local poet, wear the mantle proudly.