Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Workshop in New Mexico this January

Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center


The Embodied Voice

A week-long poetry writing workshop with
                                  Benjamin Myers

January 16-22, 2012
Abiquiu, New Mexico

From early Gnostic heresies to contemporary misconceptions about Heaven, we have, in Western culture, tended to falsely divide the spiritual from the physical. This is a course in poetry writing that focuses on the way poetry calls us to awareness of ourselves as spiritual and physical beings. Students will participate in writing exercises meant to generate poetry focused on the embodied experience of the material world. These exercises will draw creative attention to the intersection of sensory experience and place, making use of the unique and beautiful setting of Ghost Ranch. We will explore how the spirit lives not just in but also with the body as it interacts with the physical world. This exploration will lead us to consider issues of physical health and environmental justice alongside issues of craft in the composition of poetry.

Call 1-877-804-4678 for more information.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Some Recent Review Work: Bernstein, McLelland, and Hill

You can read my review of Charles Bernstein’s All the Whiskey in Heaven in the current issue of Connotation Press:  here.

Also check out my review of Brad McLelland’s novella Bruisers in the latest issue of the Chiron Review.

And please don't miss my review of Geoffrey Hill’s Clavics in an upcoming issue of World Literature Today.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reading atNeustadt Festival

I’ll be reading Tuesday, Sept. 27th at the Opening Night festivities of the Neustadt Festival of International Literature and Culture, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today. The reading will be at the Depot in Norman, Oklahoma and will start at 7:30 pm. I’ll be reading with a panel of Oklahoman poets: Dorothy Alexander, Joey Brown, Nathan Brown, Ken Hada, and Carol Hamilton.

The Depot is at 200 S. Jones Avenue, in downtown Norman. Refreshments will be served.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review of Dean Rader's Works and Days

Dean Rader, Works and Days (Truman State University Press, 2010)
            Dean Rader’s T.S. Eliot Prize winning book, Works & Days, takes for its title the name of Hesiod’s great epic on labor, and thus Rader asks his reader to consider his work in a tradition longer than that invoked by most contemporary American poets. The title seems to make a claim to epic proportions, but at the same time, in the poet’s choice to echo a previous epic so closely rather than giving himself the room Virgil gives himself with Homer or Dante with Virgil, Rader exhibits the sense of belatedness or reduced possibilities one expects from a postmodern poet. Put another way, Rader manages to seize the epic’s claim to encyclopedic inclusiveness and yet acknowledge the fragmented epistemology of our age. In this way, Works & Days reminds me of Berryman’s Dream Songs. When epic was new, it strove to be, in the words of one admirer of Paradise Lost, “the story of all things.” In the age of growing individualism, we see that encyclopedic urge turned inward in Whitman and Wordsworth: the story of the self as all things (Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes”). With Berryman, and now with Rader, we see a Whitmanian largeness filtered through the legacy of Freud, which is a sense of a divided self. The encyclopedia is now private and random, the epic inclusiveness echoed as unending pastiche.  
            Berryman gives us Henry and the unnamed minstrel as fragments of the self; Rader gives us Frog and Toad, characters from Arnold Lobel’s beloved books for children. Refashioning well-known kiddy characters into instruments of philosophical/lyrical meditation is a risky business; one could easily drift into the facile cleverness of The Tao of Pooh. Rader avoids the pitfall of cuteness through both careful selection of his borrowed characters and disciplined use of Lobel’s material. The choice of Frog and Toad – as opposed to, say, Dora the Explorer – gives Rader the advantage of working with characters that already have, I dare say, a sort of Homeric dignity about them. Frog and Toad as depicted by Lobel are types in bold outline, more like Achilles or Hector than like Hamlet or Emily Bovary. Thus, in Rader’s capable hands, they take on an instantaneous air of symbolic importance, unhampered by psychology and background. Rader furthers this effect by refraining from following Lobel’s storylines. He imports the characters into new contexts rather than bogging down his poems in references to the stories in Lobel’s books. Frog and Toad are free to represent isolated aspects of the self rather than a whole identity. If one considers the characters as treated by Lobel, one might be tempted to posit Toad as id to Frog’s ego, but Rader does not push such an identification.  They could as easily be Yeats’ Hic and Ille as Jung’s “self” and “shadow.” In the first, and best, of the Frog and Toad poems, “Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness,” Rader uses sparse, unrhymed couplets to augment this effect of bold Homeric outline:
                        The sun was hot in the sky
                        like a muffin in a bright blue tin.

                        The day was just the day.
                        The wind was nothing more

                        than wind, the leaves were leaves
                        and kept on being leaves.
The directness of these lines puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis’ commentary, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, on Homer’s use of stock phrases applied to the natural world:
            Yes; but under all these, like a base so deep as to 
            be scarcely audible, there is something which we 
           might very lamely express by muttering ‘same old sea’
           or ‘same old morning’.  The permanence, the
          indifference, the heartrending or consoling fact that
         whether we laugh or weep the world is what it is, always
         enters into our experience and plays no small part in
        that pressure of reality which is one of the
        differences between life and imagined life.  But in  
         Homer the pressure is there.  The sonorous syllables in
         which he has stereotyped the sea, the gods, the morning,
        or the mountains, make it appear that we are dealing not
        with poetry about the things, but almost with the things
Through Frog and Toad, Rader gives us our own divided psyches as “the things themselves.” Like Yeats in “Ego Dominus Tus” or “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Rader makes of the fragmented modern self a subject both universal enough and, in its own reduced way, heroic enough to be the subject of epic poetry.
            But there is more to this book than Frog and Toad. There is also a fascinating play between the experimental and the lyrical, a sort of dialogue between two poetic strategies that also reflects a sense of the self divided. This division is clearly seen in the collection’s several love poems. There are poems, such as “Love Poem in 5 Couplets + 1 Line” and “Waking Next to You on My 39th Birthday,” which, while imaginative and original, are fairly straightforward in their lyrical appeal. Take for example these lines from the latter poem: “The bed we share is a ship. / You are the captain / in a big blue hat.” The image is compelling, and the blue hat is a surprising and amusing touch. The poem is, however, a standard love poem, based on a metaphor traceable at least as far back as Petrarch. Yet in “Talking Points [Love Poem]” the same lyrical impulse is fragmented into bullet points: “and the way the stars in their wool coats shine inward;” for instance. In “A Genealogy of Unfinished Love Poems” the same fragmented effect is achieved by leaving out words: “Your eyes are so _____.” This poem also approaches the subject of love through the differing perspectives of elegy, comedy, haiku, and epistle, as if any one genre were incapable of capturing the full experience of love. The effect is unsettling, a sense of a self in restless pursuit of a coherence not quite obtainable.
            This same restlessness is evident in the book’s series of self portraits. These poems, scattered throughout but increasing in frequency as the volume draws to a close, offer a glimpse of the poet through a fractured lens, a kaleidoscope effect. “Self Portrait: Rejected Pop Song,” for instance, offers a view of the poet via a more mischievous and baffling version of Billy Collin’s “Litany”:
                        I am not the songbird
                        I am not the devil’s bunghole
                        I am not the oyster in the child’s mouth
                        I am not the shantih, not the shantih[.]
One might object that the reader is left with no idea of what the poet, then, is, but that is perhaps rather the point. Rader draws on postmodern notions of self as unincorporated fragments bound only loosely by the illusion of identity. In this framework, any poem could become a “self portrait,” and thus Rader offers a number of such poems on very diverse topics. As the book races to its conclusion, the self portraits shift into a series of birthday poems, each one less conventionally bound than the last, until we arrive at a final prayer from no one to nobody:
                                    O distance,
                                                O silent measure,
                        drink down the body:
                                    drink down time’s cup.
In the blank space, in the spacious imagery, in the large and empty vowels, these line convey a longing for dissolution of self, the release of the mystic as filtered through Wittgenstein and Derrida.
            Not all of the book’s poems are as obscure. There are charmers as well, like “The Poem You Ordered,” a playfully surreal engagement with the reader – again in the mode of Billy Collins – that takes a darker turn at the end. Another example of Rader in a more playful vein is “While Looking up the Etymology of ‘Country’ in the OED, I come across ‘Cornucopia,” a poem appropriately bountiful in its play with language.
            Works and Days is an engaging book that manages to be both experimental and “accessible,” if by that latter term one doesn’t mean dumbed-down. More than just a conglomeration of poems, it is a book with a subtle architecture, an ironic unity fashioned on the theme of fragmentation. This coherence and sophistication is an outstanding achievement in a first book.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reading This Week at Woody Guthrie Fest

I’ll be reading at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah this Saturday, the 16th of July, along with the other “Woody Guthrie Poets” at 4:00 P.M. at the St. Paul Methodist Church, 3rd & Atlanta Streets (just up the street from the music venues).

Here’s the roster of readers this year: Yvonne Carpenter, Ken Hada, Carol Hamilton, Jessica Isaacs, Abigail Keegan, Jennifer Kidney, Julia McConnell, Tony Mares, Melissa Morphew, John Graves Morris, Benjamin Myers, Steven Schroeder, Michael Snyder, Sandra Soli, Jim Spurr, and Pat Sturm.

And, once again, musical accompaniment will be provided by the great David Amram.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review of Beautiful and Pointless by David Orr

Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr (Harper, 2011)
            It is easy to see why David Orr is one of our preeminent reviewers of poetry. He writes with grace and wit, two attributes necessary to transform a review from something merely serviceable to a form of literary art itself. His new book, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, is, however, perhaps misnamed in the portion of the title a grad-school friend of mine cheekily referred to as the “post-colonic.” The term “guide” suggests some sort of schematic layout, perhaps accompanied by a few charts and graphs, along with a chunky glossary. Orr’s graceful little book is better described as an eloquent conversation, as it draws few of the definitive lines one would expect from a “guide.” Orr clearly prefers musing to mapping.
            The first two chapters muse upon first the place of the “personal” and then of the “political” in contemporary poetry. Orr resists drawing any conclusions about how these aspects of poetry either do or should operate in the contemporary literary world. Instead he shows how the questions raised by poets about their work in relation to the personal and the political animates much contemporary poetry. If one is left feeling that these two chapters never really arrive anywhere, the disappointment is more than compensated for by the delightful company along the way to nowhere, especially by Orr aptness with examples, evidence of his wide familiarity with contemporary poetry.
            More schematic is the chapter on “form,” in which Orr offers three categories under that heading: “metrical form,” “resemblance form,” and “mechanical form.” By the first term, he obviously refers to iambic-pentameter and the like. By the third term, he means artificial rules used to generate poems, such as the games of the L=A=N=U=A=U=G=E Poets, though he also applies the terms to syllabics (which seems odd, as I would categorize syllabics as simply another metrical system). Most useful in this chapter is his introduction of the term, “Resemblance Form,” by which he means received forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, etc. The term is useful for the analogy it draws: “Resemblance has no trouble allowing for degree – just think of how one sibling may strongly have the family ‘look,’ while another sibling may show it only weakly” (81). This analogy, if introduced to writing students at the proper moment in their development, could do much to fight off, on the one hand, a slavish conception of form as mere mechanics, and, on the other hand, a too-common disinterest in form altogether. Orr adds a richer critical dimension to this observation when he observes how such an understanding of form helps us to see a particular poem in a rich tradition of poems with the “family resemblance.” I’ll certainly be incorporating the concept into my writing and poetics courses.
            I do have to quibble with one thing Orr says in his chapter on form. In rightly asserting the aural nature of metrical form, Orr contrasts it with what he calls “other formal structures” but will soon call “resemblance forms,” saying “other formal structures – sonnets for instance – are perceived visually” (76). Let’s leave aside the vague “other formal structures” and focus only on the case of the sonnet. If Orr means to say that the sonnet is also perceived visually, then he is correct. He seems to imply by means of contrast, however, that the sonnet is perceived only visually, an assertion I believe to be incorrect. One is, I believe, perfectly capable of recognizing a sonnet as such through purely aural means, as Shakespeare clearly expects his audience to do in Romeo and Juliet, for instance upon the meeting of the star-crossed lovers in Act One, Scene Five. This is perhaps more true of the English sonnet than of its Italian cousin, as the regularity of the quatrains builds the expectation that the concluding couplet confirms. As evidence, listen to Mark Jarman read some of his Unholy Sonnets.
            The next chapter is devoted to “Ambition,” a topic of some controversy in poetry circles. Orr agrees with Donald Hall and others that contemporary poetry inevitably fails when it lacks “ambition,” but Orr wants to carefully define that term rather than sweepingly invoke it in the usual polemical way. This is, next to his observation on “resemblance form,” the most critically useful point in Beautiful and Pointless. Drawing on examples from Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, and (for contrast) Kay Ryan, Orr skillful leads his reader into a crucial distinction between “ambition” and grand style. Citing other critics, he demonstrates that poets are often praised for their ambition as a reward for a certain grandness of style (perhaps to be associated with the legacy of Milton). He concludes with the very commonsense assertion that true ambition ought to be measured by the desire to produce poems “difficult to forget” (131), regardless of the stylistic approach. Such a distinction could do much to deflate a lot of literary windbags and to redeem the reputation of several plain-spoken poets who have fallen into critical neglect.
            In a chapter titled “The Fishbowl” Orr provides a chatty, maybe even gossipy, look at the “pobiz” world of contests, grants, and controversy (including the ruckus). This chapter, like the first two chapters, is more companionable conversation than critical insight. Like Donald Hall’s entertaining essays on the old poetry circuit, it is good airplane reading.
            More interesting, and a natural culmination for the book, is the final chapter, “Why Bother?” Characteristically, Orr does not answer this question in a positive sense; instead, he offers three failed answers. The most interesting part of this chapter is Orr’s deflation of the argument that poetry is important because it teaches us something about language itself or it epitomizes whatever it is that is special or even miraculous about language. By comparing contemporary poetry with other language instances ranging from a parental “I love you” to King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he shows the case for poetry as uniquely powerful language to have been greatly overstated. This is a refreshingly frank confession from someone who has spent his adult life writing about poetry. Orr then also deflates the argument for poetry as a special form of self-knowledge and as a special form of social knowledge. He does this not by arguing that poetry has no power to tell us about ourselves or our social contexts, but rather by showing that poetry does not uniquely do so. Poems are one way to know thyself; some people obviously find others. Again, this is good commonsense. So why bother, then? Orr ultimately admits that he doesn’t know: “I can’t tell you why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There’s little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident” (179). That such a statement might also be made about, say, fly fishing or running marathons is, I think, a good indication of its truthfulness. When we ask too much of poetry, we set ourselves (and maybe more importantly our students) up for certain disappointment.  Orr follows this point up with a moving story involving his father’s stroke and poetry as speech therapy. This personal anecdote adds dimension to Orr’s assertion about the “abundance of our lives,” supporting the statement in the only way such a statement may be supported: empirically.
            Beautiful and Pointless is a fine book. It is not ground-breaking or even mind-changing. It is something that is perhaps even more rare in contemporary literary publishing: it is good company. In that, it joins a “family resemblance” that reaches back through Samuel Johnson and Francis Bacon to Plato’s Socratic dialogues. If that isn’t grand, it is certainly ambitious.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Where to Read Reviews of Poetry

David Orr occasionally writes something on a few poets for the New York Times. Now and then, there’s something in TLS (more likely a dead poet than a living one) or the New York Review of Books. Also, I can’t help adding that my book and two others recently got some attention in Books and Culture. But, generally speaking, poetry appears as a topic only rarely in the biggest review publications. So, I thought I would recommend a few places, beyond this blog, where one can read on-line reviews of contemporary poetry.

At the top of my list is The Contemporary Poetry Review, a site which amasses an amazing array of top poetic talent to appraise the latest offerings in contemporary poetry. These folks are keeping the great tradition of the poet/critic alive, and they aren’t afraid to write a negative review. This is a smart and highly useful sight.

In a similar vein is The Critical Flame, which reviews many kinds of books but keeps a portion of the site dedicated to verse.

There are some really interesting reviews posted on the website for Rattle Magazine, in a special section called "E-Reviews."

Also, you won’t want to miss the Virtual Artist Collective’sReading Room,” which includes small press books that might be missed by the bigger guys above.

The Boxcar Poetry Review specializes in reviews of first books.

Of course, the Valparaiso Poetry Review is a great resource.

There are also frequently reviews included in The Pedestal Magazine.

Happy Reading.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Review of Ron Wallace's Oklahoma Cantos

Ron Wallace, Oklahoma Cantos (TJMF Publishing, 2011).

            Start throwing a word like cantos around and you raise some big expectations. The term immediately brings to mind not only Ezra Pound’s ponderous modernist project but also Dante’s great medieval allegorical epic. Ron Wallace’s Oklahoma Cantos seems aware of these expectations, beginning with a series of commendatory comments by a number of Okie literary luminaries and an introduction by the great Billie Letts. Wallace even includes his own preface to the work, ala Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he, like Wordsworth, declares a desire to make poetry from the voice of the “common man.” All this would be a bit much were it not for Wallace’s constant humility, which balances all the fanfare with a healthy dose of common sense and plain-spoken wisdom. The result is a book that is ambitious enough to generate poetry that matters but humble enough to generate poetry one actually enjoys reading. This is a delicate balance, but, like Johnny Cash, Wallace is able to walk the line.
            While the title poem would seem to pay tribute to Pound, it really owes much more to William Carlos Williams, or, if Pound, the Pound of “A Station of the Metro” rather than of the Cantos. Wallace’s “Oklahoma Cantos” is a poem of thirty-two (had he added one more he could have reached Dante’s favorite number) quatrains, each focusing on a precise image from the Oklahoma landscape. Many of the quatrains are quite lovely taken even in isolation, such as number sixteen:
                        A winding creek bends under remnants
                        of barbed wire sagging across a shallow gulley,
                        where fireflies appear in flashes, disappear,
                        and reappear in tangled vines above the ravine.
This is vivid and recognizable. But the poem’s effect is symphonic rather than cumulative: the quatrains work together to build one larger image of Oklahoma as Wallace sees it, and it’s the whole picture that is really compelling. This is an innovative and interesting approach, one that requires a painterly patience from the poet and that rewards the time of the reader.
            As interesting as the title poem is, the, mostly narrative, poems which follow it are, in my opinion, the heart of the book. These poems deliver on Wallace’s promise in his preface to depict the world of real Oklahomans. These poems draw on daily life: the cutting of hay, the changeable weather, baseball. This last topic, in fact, dominates much of the collection, with poems about playing catch with his father and with his son, about Mickey Mantle, about buying a glove, about little league. Although baseball is not a new topic in American poetry, Wallace manages to avoid cliché, mainly by focusing more on the place of the game in his own life than on the obvious and familiar trappings of the sport. The poems, in other words, aren’t just about baseball; they are about Ron Wallace’s baseball.
            In fact, Oklahoma Cantos is a very personal book throughout, although not what one would call “confessional” (unless you count open affection for the NY Yankees as confessional), and its most personal aspect is its treatment of the poet’s struggle against passing time. The inevitable loss that comes with time is a major theme throughout the book. The opening poem subtly establishes this theme by enacting the struggle against time in the poet’s imagistic attempt to isolate and preserve brief moments. The theme becomes more overt in poems like “Main Street 1964” which dramatizes the noble but inevitably unsuccessful effort to conquer time through the force of imagination. A similar drama unfold in “Crown and Seven,” as the poet attempts to summon a musical voice from the past but ends up with only “the cold iron wind of February singing through the trees.” In “Moonlight Graham Steps off the Field,” the poet is confronted with “forty years fractured / like a dropped tea glass on a cement porch.” This line both evokes the past in its image of rural Oklahoma summer time and simultaneously mourns its loss. Wallace frequently strikes this elegiac tone, doing what elegy always does: temporary resurrection. Another fine instance of this tone is “In My Father’s Books,” in which the lost father is returned to life by means of marginalia. In a more forceful vein, the short poem “Grey” seems to evoke the tradition of time the devourer in a link between the blank grey sky, the grey hair of the poet, and the grey fur of his cat, who is stalking for the kill a bird as blue as the poem’s always already lost sky. The sum effect of these poems is the keen awareness of how, as he puts it in “One Day you Ride,” “half your life passes like an errant rifle shot.”
            The poem I consider to be the book’s finest is also concerned with time, but in a way more subtle and complex than any other poem in the collection. “Learning to Speak Choctaw,” is simultaneously another elegy for his father, a lament for his lost youth, a tribute to “the greatest generation,” and an reminder of the great past and troubled present of a proud people. Like most of the poems after the title piece, “Learning to Speak Choctaw” is a narrative poem, telling of his policeman father’s relationship with a Choctaw veteran and alcoholic living near Wallace’s boyhood home. It is a profoundly moving poem, ending with the father’s sad and stoic advice to his young son to “just keep thowin’ the ball.”
            Wallace may mean the title, Oklahoma Cantos, as a reference only to the book’s first poem, but, in the etymological sense, all the poems in this book are Oklahoma cantos, or songs of Oklahoma. In the preface and in poem after poem, Wallace unabashedly embraces a regional approach and poetic identity. Paradoxically, it is that willingness to write in a particular place, struggling against a particular time, that gives the poems their universal appeal. Books like Oklahoma Cantos remind us of what it feels like to be from somewhere, whatever particular place we may be from. This is an accomplishment of which to be proud.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Poem in a New Journal

A while back I got a message from a fellow “Chandlerite” (that’s a resident of Chandler, OK) involved in a start-up literary magazine, wanting to know if I had anything to contribute. Their online journal, Naked Earth, is up now and is very interesting. My contribution is a poem about turtles, my way of talking about paying attention.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review of Steven Schroeder's A DIM SUM OF THE DAY BEFORE

Steven Schroeder, A Dim Sum of the Day Before (Ink Brush Press, 2010).

            At this year’s Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, at East Central University, I had the great pleasure of meeting Steven Schroeder. Schroeder is a tremendously prolific poet and a constant supporter of poetry in his involvement with the “Virtual Artists Collective.” As much as I enjoyed meeting Professor Schroeder, it was perhaps an even greater pleasure getting to know his poetry, including one of his most recent works, A Dim Sum of the Day Before. The book seems to have been composed primarily during one of Schroeder’s sojourns in southern China. It is not, however, a “touristy” book of naïve wonder. Nor is it a book that presumes to speak on behalf of the Chinese people who inhabit its pages. Rather, it is the poetic record of a wanderer in a land that is both familiar and alien to him.
            This sensibility of the wandering outsider often leads Schroeder to compose poems focused on what one might call the “remainders”: that which is over-looked or left out. Stray cats, for instance, can be seeing scurrying about the peripherals of human society throughout the book, as in the opening poem “Mao’s Ghost Wandering,” which begins with “Gray tabby slips under a chair / at the empty table next to mine / silent, waits.” Stray dogs also seem to be frequent companions for Schroeder. In “another dance,” Schroeder says, “Black dog likes the sound / of my feet on paving stone, / picks up the pace,” an image which invites us to consider the stray poet and the stray dog as kindred spirits and temporary traveling companions. In fact, Schroeder often leads the reader to associate the almost invisible animal life of urban China with its human counterparts. Consider the first stanza of the first movement of the poem titled “year of the rat”:
                        the path
                        dogs who
                        take no
                        so early
                        they have
                        no place
                        to go.
The effectiveness and ingenuity of this sentence/stanza is its union of movement of thought with movement of form. The stanza both mentally and typographically draws a line from rat, through dog, to human. This movement is more than a clever trick; it is an impressive act of the sympathetic imagination. As an outsider, Schroeder sees what the person busy with the insider’s business inevitably misses, and what he sees, and shares, invites the reader to enlarge her sensibilities and sympathies, to think about what it means to be a sentient being in the center or at the edge of things.
            These are, clearly, meditative poems, and it is in that reflective quality that they most resemble the great Chinese poetry that necessarily looms over a book project like A Dim Sum of the Day Before. To publish in the west a book of poems about China is to ask the reader to think about Chinese poetry, about Li Po and Tu Fu. Schroeder’s poems, however, rarely directly evoke these great Chinese poets. Rather it is in thematic focus that one hears the voice of literary tradition in this book. Traditional Chinese poetry, to my untutored mind, seems to derive much creative power from the tension between permanence and transience, between the Tao of the Confucians and the Tao of the Taoists. This same philosophical tension animates much of Schroeder’s work. In “a peculiar song” we are reminded of change, and perhaps industrial “progress,” though brief description of a drained pond which was once home to a flock of flamingos. Yet we are also reminded that change leaves ghosts, as a remaining “bird sings the absence / of a pink crowd / always present.” An even more powerful picture of permanence and transience is given in the image of Chinese men writing in water on the sidewalks, a trope used to beautiful effect in both “the calisthenics of rain” and “for the light.” In the former poem “Old men copy ancient poems / passerby know by heart.” The antiquity of the poems and the longevity of the men gives a sense of permanence, which culminates in the following line’s assurance that both the poems and the activity are permanently housed in the consciousness of the “passerby.” Yet in just a few lines we are reminded that the poems written in water “will last until water / turns to air under the influence / of time and sun.” Rather than resolves such a tension, Schroeder leaves it to linger in the mind of the reader, a reminder of the mysterious mixture of eternity and mutability in which we live.
            Similarly, the latter poem states, almost paradoxically, “This text will not last.” The text in question is ostensibly whatever bit of Li Po or Han Shan has been reproduced on the sidewalk, but it also asks us to consider the book we hold in hand, making the this self-referential.  Schroeder wisely and humbly does not consider his own work outside the bounds of time, which may just be one reason we can expect his poems to be with us for a long time to come.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Review in Books and Culture

You can click here to read the first part of a review of my book in the current edition of Books and Culture. Then subscribe to their fine publication and read the rest.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My First Time Reading with Music and Visual Accompaniment

I’ll be reading a love poem for my wife tonight as one small part of the OBU Bisonette Glee Club’s concert, which celebrates national poetry month with a cornucopia of poetry-related music. There will also be a visual-arts element to the concert. If you are in or near Shawnee, you won’t want to miss this concert, which is at 7:30 tonight in the Yarborough Auditorium of the chapel on the OBU campus.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Terror and Transcendence: A Brief Review of Larry D. Thomas’ A Murder of Crows.

Larry D. Thomas, A Murder of Crows. Virtual Artists Collective, 2011.

        A Murder of Crows is a terrible book. To be clear, it is very good poetry: finely crafted, brilliantly imagined, stunningly vivid. It is terrible only, but powerfully, in the true and classical sense of the word: it evokes a sense of terror in the reader, a kind of dark sublime. It is also a book that, like the birds that fill its pages, rises above the mundane. A Murder of Crows is a powerful exploration of violence and art, of terror and transcendence.
      Thomas turns the bird-watcher’s hobby into opportunity for precisely observed instances of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” He signals the frankness of his observation in the book’s opening lines: “By cold, hunger, or the brutal / amusement of a cat, it probably / will die before I do” (“The Sparrow”). The startling combination, made even more forceful by the delaying line-break, of “brutal” and “amusement” is characteristic of Thomas’ tone in this book, which often gives us a vision of bird-life beyond good and evil. A typical example is the gull which descends from a pure sky to “the vile devourment of offal” only “because she wanted to, all / without the slightest twinge of guilt” (“All Because She Wanted To”). A Murder of Crows is a poetic Wild Kingdom narrated by Friedrich Nietzsche, and, like all the best wildlife documentarians, Thomas doesn’t flinch from vividly depicting this amorally violent avian world. Consider this image from “Starlings”:
                                the chunky males
                                will grab
                                baby sparrows

                                by their necks,
                                drag them
                                from a birdhouse,

                                and drop them
                                to burst
                                like ripe figs.
These short lines in groups of three evoke the work of William Carlos Williams and appropriate his emphasis on precision of image, but this certainly isn’t chickens beside a wheelbarrow. Thomas here, as in all the poems of this book, is careful to keep concrete image in the forefront, letting the abstract implications make themselves felt by means of the picture before the mind’s eye. He need not tell us how to feel when he presents us, for instance, with the image of carrion crows pulling their beaks from dead flesh and “stringing it / into bracelets/ of soft, / gleaming rubies”  (“Carrion Crows”). Thomas’ precision of image and concision of language ensures that the terror of each poem is intensely experienced by his reader.

     Yet, there is more to this book than terror; there is also transcendence. Most of the poems are shaped into stanzas of a regular number of lines, thus enacting on the page the struggle of art to master terror. Like great war poets from Homer to Sassoon, Thomas seems driven by the imperative to make poetry from the darkness. The regular stanzas certainly don’t diminish the violence, but they do contain it within boundaries set by the poet. Such an effort to turn terror into art is perhaps the point behind the poem “Red-tailed Hawk,” which describes one of the book’s very few stuffed birds. The taxidermist’s work is described as a “masterpiece,” its “waxen beak” curved “[w]ith the trajectory / of violence.” As in Yann Martel’s recent novel, Beatrice and Virgil, the taxidermist is the poet’s doppelganger, making art from the terror. Thomas makes the point even more explicitly in “Of Five Crows Flying,” in which he makes from the sound of the birds overhead “the dissonant, / interminable sonata / of darkness.” Art never conquers terror in A Murder of Crows, but it also never submits to it. Amidst the blood and guts of “nature red in tooth and claw” art seems triumphant merely by virtue of its ability to exist in the darkness. It transcends by remaining.

     A Murder of Crows is a disturbing and captivating book. In its singularity of subject matter it demonstrates an ambition often lacking in small-press poetry, and the ambition proves appropriate, as Thomas achieves both a unified effect and a philosophical cohesion. This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but true poetry never is. As Thomas admits in the book’s stunning final poem, his true purpose is, after all, to reveal “the ravenous, reeking / psyche of our kind.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Oklahoma Book Award

Elegy for Trains has been awarded the 2011 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry.

This award is given annually by the Oklahoma Center for the Book, a state affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, and honors one book each in five categories (poetry, design/illustration, children/young adult, non-fiction, and fiction) either written by an Oklahoman author or addressing a subject directly relevant to Oklahoma.  
Here are the past winners in poetry:
1990: Wiliam Kistler
1992: Carol Hamilton
1993: Jim Barnes
1994: Carter Revard
1995: Joy Harjo
1996: Francine Ringold
1997: Renata Treitel
1998: Betty Shipley
1999: Mark Cox
2000: N. Scott Momaday
2001: Carolyne Wright
2002: Ivy Dempsey
2003: Joy Harjo
2004: Laura Apol
2005: Francine Ringold
2006: Leanne Howe
2007: Carl Sennhenn
2008: Sandra Soli
2009: Nathan Brown
2010: Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Alan Berecka, Remembering the Body

Alan Berecka, Remembering the Body. Mongrel Empire Press, 2011. $15.00.        
               “Finding your voice” is a writing cliché second in prominence perhaps only to “write what you know.” Yet, as a reader, one does look for poetry that in some way distinguishes itself from the crowd of contemporary voices. Alan Berecka’s new book does just that, moving beyond a distinct “voice” to offer something even more rare: a discernible poetic personality. Berecka’s poems seem, to borrow a metaphor from Montaigne, consubstantial with the poet, displaying a unique mind and distinct viewpoint on the world. The personality enlivening Remembering the Body is witty and clear-sighted yet also conflicted and, above all, empathetic.
                Sadly neglected in recent poetry, wit had its heyday as a literary value from the early seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, but, through ceaselessly rewarding word-play, Berecka makes a good case for its comeback. In “Rewriting a State Motto,” for instance, the possibility of bird-watching in New Jersey leads to a string of images caught between the literal and the half-dead metaphor: “odd ducks / jail birds, dirty birds and flipped birds.” This is witty in the contemporary sense of being funny, but it also exhibits wit in the literary sense of the term: it is apropos, evidence of a lively mind making unexpected connections that, once made, seem inevitable.  This quality is also evident in Berecka’s use of line breaks. Consider his appropriation of Shakespeare’s Caliban, whom we are first led to see in his familiar bestial state, perhaps breaking some small animal over the rocks for his brutal meal, before Berecka, through a clever break, wittily revises our image of the famous beast: “Caliban cracks the spine / of each volume of his new OED and consumes / each word” (“Vollard Fails Caliban”). True wit in a poet enlivens the wit of the reader, takes the mind for a rewarding ride, as Berecka does repeatedly in Remembering the Body.
                Berecka’s wit sometimes manifests itself in extended metaphor (what an earlier age called “conceit”). The best example of this tendency may be “The Theology of Dodge Ball,” which considers the coastal residents’ prayers in hurricane season in terms of a cosmic version of that hated gym-class ordeal. The poem raises classic questions about the justice of God by examining the troubling correspondence between “the jock” who “stands armed / on his side of the court” and “the God of mercy / and compassion.” The end result of the metaphor is a powerful bewilderment: “The spared will  heap praise / on a loving God, as a stained ball / slowly rolls back across a gym floor.” This is deadly serious wit.
            “The Theology of Dodge Ball” is also a great example of the conflicted side of Berecka’s poetic personality. Many poems in Remembering the Body, especially in the second part of the book, take up the problematic nature of faith in the contemporary world. Berecka seems drawn to believe and yet rejects the too easy pietism that often infects contemporary Christianity in the form of Joel-Osteen-like optimism or anti-body neo-Gnosticism. In “Shopping for Miracles: Lourdes, 1979,” the poet seems to counter naïve optimism by suggesting that real faith is modeled not by pilgrims seeking miraculous deliverance from the holy water of Lourdes but rather by his mother who “remained / bedridden and continued to say the rosary / through her pain every day until she died.” In response to the undying heresy of the Gnostics, Berecka offers the collection’s title poem, which first flirts with paganism as an alternative to disembodied Christianity before returning to an orthodoxy strengthened by doubt:
                                Once grace with this glimmer of Christ
                                freed from Gnostic beliefs, I return
                                to give thanks  for the creed
                                which states that Christ rose
                                to reign forever, his body restored –
                                a bright, blood-filled vessel – molded
                                in the image of the Creator, as are we.
Berecka calls us to remember that the faith of the Christian is faith in a man who, like us, inhabits a physical body, both glorious and capable of suffering. In fact, the glory and the suffering are as intertwined in Berecka’ poetics as they are in Christian theology and tradition. In poems such as “Easter Art” and “The Price of Art,” Berecka suggests that beauty comes from pain (Not that Berecka’s counter-Gnosticism is always morbid: consider the delightfully fleshy “My Bone of Contention with Roethke,” in which the poet declares in response to Roethke’s famous line about lovely bones, “I know a woman lovely, / and I mean lovely, in her flesh”).
                Such a theory of art born out of pain must put a great emphasis on empathy, on art as consolation in a fallen world. Berecka accordingly has filled his book with narrative poems in sympathy with a poetic type one might best describe as the “noble loser,” a figure who seems, in some way, to represent essential humanity. Narrative verse is, we are told constantly, a distinctly unfashionable choice, despite the fact that it is utilized by many of the best contemporary poets, including David Mason and B.H. Fairchild, to whom Berecka pays tribute in one poem in the book. Berecka, however, bodly defies fashion to offer, instead, poems that satisfy the reader with a fullness of imagination. In fact, the poem “In Defense of the Narrative” pits the narrative poet’s work ethic –describe in terms of a pinball game: “Ignoring / the lights and playing the game” – against the perhaps flashier poetics of the Imagists and their imitators. Such hard work pays off in stories of troublingly beautiful outsiders, like the “Litvak” champion of flatulence in “The Assimilation of Vita Perkunas,” a character unlikable in a number of ways but whom Berecka manages to stir up empathy for regardless. Sometimes in Remembering the Body, the story seems to originate closer to home, as in “the Prophet,” which tells the tale of the poet’s uncle hiding in the cellar and drunkenly praying for mercy in fear that Neal Armstrong would knock the moon from orbit. The scenario provides easy laughs early in the poem, but by the end Berecka has brought us around to see the truth in his uncle’s fear. Watching “a production line where robots / spot weld cars” and thinking, perhaps, of his own hard-working immigrant forbearers, Berecka realizes how fragile is the gravity that holds all our worlds in orbit, how suddenly a known universe of the personal sort may be obliterated. Many such characters inhabit Remembering the Body – Aunt Helen who talks to cows, Santos the drunk who talks to Jesus – and each one teaches us something about being human.
                There are many more stand-out poems in this thoughtful, engaging volume. Both “Sins of the Father” and “Flashes,” for instance, are masterful blends of narrative and personal lyric, finely paced and vividly imagined. Though he may occasionally count himself among his own “noble losers,” as in his tribute to Fairchild, in which he calls himself “a minor league poet,” Berecka has written a winningly witty and humane book indeed. Remembering the Body is clearly a major league accomplishment.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Scissortail Authors

I had a wonderful time at Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, at East Central University in Ada. Even taking time out to teach my Friday classes, I managed to hear twenty-five poets, novelists, short-story writers, and essayists. Here’s a list, with a few notes and links, of authors I heard over the course of the three day festival:

1. Shirley Hall
2. George McCormick (reading an absolutely brilliant short story).
3. Ken Hada (reading from Spare Parts, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award).
4.Alan Barecka (reading from Remembering the Body).
5. Rilla Askew (first chapter of a new novel!)
6. The one and only Jim Spurr, of Shawnee
7. Jason Poudrier (Jason is an Iraq War veteran, whose poetry offers a powerfully affecting view on the war).
8. J. Don Cook
9. Me (reading from Elegy for Trains).
10. Jane Vincent Taylor (a smart and engaging poet)
11. Jeanne Dunbar-Green
12. Arn Henderson
13. Carol Hamilton (reading from Umberto Eco Lost His Gun, another finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award).
14.  E.K. Mortenson (reading from The Fifteenth Station, a very powerful cycle of poems).
15. Mark Walling
16. Larry Thomas (former poet laureate of Texas and author of, A Murder of Crows and many other books).
17.  Nathan Brown (reading from Letters to the One-Armed Poet).
18.  James Brubaker
19. Sarah Webb
20. Patrick Ocampo (who has a new book out from Mongrel Empire Press).
21. Tara Hembrough
22. Dan Wilcox (all the way from Albany, NY.)
23. Dean Rader (reading from Works and Days).
24. Ron Wallace (reading from Oklahoma Cantos, yet another finalist for the Oklahoma Book Awards).
25. And the grand finale: Billie Letts.

I also picked up a number of new books I hope to review on this blog soon.

What a great festival!