Tuesday, October 30, 2012

H. Sandy, Inventing Constellations, and a Sickly Speaker Poem at Thrush

44º ~ a quick snap in the air these past two mornings, bright sun, calm winds, and dry, highs mid-60s

First and foremost, as a weather bug, I'm sending all my sympathies to those who have felt the winds and rains and surge and snows of Sandy.  I heard on The Weather Channel last night that in 1821 another hurricane made landfall over New Jersey/New York and caused much the same destruction, albeit to a much smaller population.  I know that it is easy to feel like the forecasters are over-promoting worst case scenarios in the days leading up to events such as this, but I am so thankful they are there, saving as many lives as they can.  Coming from tornado territory, where there might only be a moment's notice and a small portion of geography assaulted, I'm thankful there is so much lead time on hurricanes, even as I'm saddened by the huge path of destruction.

It's a good time to give to the Red Cross if you've got anything left to give.


On a brighter note, yesterday's mail brought my signed copy of good poet-friend Al Maginnes' new book Inventing Constellations (Cherry Grove, 2012).  I was lucky to this book in manuscript form awhile back and let me tell you, it's wonderful.  Al and I share several similarities.  We are both graduates of the MFA program at the University of Arkansas (although several years apart) and we both write poems that may seem at first to be "quiet" or "muted," but that lend themselves to longer, deeper readings.  In contrast, Al is a fan of the longer poem.  He has the strength to sustain his speaker and the situation of the poem over many lines and often over multiple pages.  This is the type of poetry that invites introspection and reflection; no flash in the pan here. 

At the heart of Inventing Constellations is a speaker, close to Al himself, entering fatherhood in late middle-age and confronting all the issues of parenthood alongside his own mortality.  Amidst those poems of fatherhood are poems of science and music, poems of politics and existentialism.  These are poems that observe the world in minute detail and draw on larger truths through the minutia of daily life. 

I've become fond of listing titles in these mini-responses, and here are few from Al.

The Consolation of Endless Universes
Parenthood as Correspondence Course
A Gravity More Forceful
Parenthood as Bad Theology
The Moon as Absence and Desire
The Mute Amnesia of Birds
Asking the Dead to Leave
Prayer for the Imponderables

The opening poem in the collection, "The Definitions," is a collection of prose segments exploring the nature of family and announcing that the speaker has become a father through adoption, which adds yet another layer to the woven fabric of parenthood presented in the book.  Here is one of my favorite excerpts.

A family is a boomtown, the only nest of light for miles, its laws
evolving with each new development.  Shifts work around the clock
saloons never close and the streets fill with stories that mean
nothing to anyone who doesn't live here.

And here is the beginning of "Parenthood as Bad Theology."

I am becoming the sermon I promised
..........I would never deliver, a sackclothed shadow,

caricature wielding the finger of admonition.
..........Smoky entreaties, curly wisps of logic
no cartographer could unwind...


Finally, all thanks to Helen Vitoria for the good work she is doing over at Thrush.  In the November issue, you'll find one of the earliest sickly speaker poems, "You Taught Me Devastation." For those of you interested in the drafting process, here's a link to the day I set down the first draft. (RIP, Lou-Lou, my little muse-kitty.)  The beginning is quite different from where the poem ended up, but that's the work of drafting.  The whole drafting process is so mysterious.  Here are two scans of my journal from the day this poem began.  (Thank the stars for revision!)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Weekly Updates: Predicting the Storm, Hosting Padma Viswanathn, Fellowship Applications, and Reading Submissions

59º ~ a near perfect fall weekend, alas marred by another Razorback loss in War Memorial Stadium (the world is surely turning upside down)

Over the last few days, as with most of the nation, we here at the desk of the Kangaroo have been following the path of Hurricane Sandy and anticipating her merger with the two winter storms over the northeast.  All jokes of my name aside, I'm hoping everyone out east is prepared for the worst even as I'm hoping y'all see the least.


My week of poetry was upended a bit by some work related business and the fact that the Big Rock Reading Series hosted Padma Viswanathan on Thursday night.  Because I'm a bit of an energy wimp, I've learned that I need to sleep in on the morning of the readings (on days when I don't teach), so that I can be "on" that evening.  While this means losing poetry time, it makes life much more bearable for the day after a reading. 

I'm thrilled to report that we had another wonderful evening.  Padma read two stories, "Transitory Cities" and "The Barber Lover," which is an excerpt from her novel The Toss of a Lemon.  We had an audience of 75 people, again with about an 80%/20% split of PTC folks and members of the community.  Based on both the verbal comments after the reading and the written comments on the survey, the audience connected with the stories and with Padma and folks were grateful for her appearance.  If you ever get the chance to hear her read, I highly encourage it!


This morning, I caught up on the loose ends cluttering my desk and was reminded of a fellowship deadline that is right around the corner.  When I began working on it, I thought I'd just take care of one or two bits of the whole and then finish the rest this week, but something overtook me and I spent three hours at the computer, eventually hitting "submit" for the whole thing.  Asking for money is always hard for me, as I know it is for others, but I have to remind myself that the work we do as writers is valuable yet undervalued.  Fellowships are a chance to make up that imbalance.  So, I did my best, tried to be as open and clear about my needs and off it went. 

The good thing is that by the time they make the announcement, I'll have forgotten that I sent it in, which always helps deaden the disappointment.  Of course, like most poets in America, I'm waiting to hear from the NEA...that one fellowship I'm never capable of forgetting for long.  (If anyone has already received word, please put me out of my misery!)


Finally, I wanted to say a few words about Heron Tree.  Many thanks to all of you who have sent encouraging notes about this new poetry journal.  I'm thrilled to be co-editing it with two dear friends.  I know many of you have submitted, and we are grateful for that!  *For those of you who have already submitted, we are notifying as we go.  We appreciate everyone's patience!

As we set out on the journey, my co-editors and I talked a lot about how we wanted the process of selecting poems to work and about being open to revising that process if we needed to.  We decided to attempt to read the poems blind, and so far that is working.  I confess, it takes the pressure off if/when I'm reading poems submitted by a poet-friend. 

One of the techniques we have developed along the way is the "pause list." As we read our packets independently of each other, we note down the ID number of any poem that makes us pause, any poem that we might even barely consider publishing.  These numbers get sent in emails that the others don't open until they've sent their pause list.  Then, when we have our editorial meetings, we only talk about those poems with pauses, even if the poem only received one pause note.  This helps because before the editorial meeting, we can each read through the poems noted in the list and really focus on just those poems, preparing our yay or nay or maybe votes.

I have to say that accepting poems is a huge rush.  When we arrive at that YES, I get a bit giddy and let out a little 'wahoo.'

As this has all unfolded, I'm grateful that I'm working with two other people who are sharp readers of poetry and good friends.  They keep me on my toes and ensure that I don't become so carried away with the beautiful language or images of a poem that I fail to check for a solid foundation underneath.  They remind me that in a joint effort we are working on a collaborative aesthetic.  This is not MY journal, and I think I know now that I wouldn't want to be an editor of one...too much pressure.


This next week looks a bit more conducive to poetry making, although the material needing to be graded floats there, ever at the surface, ever renewing itself.  At least this week there will be Halloween candy to carry me through!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Weekly Updates: A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World, Submissions, and a Dry Spell

77º ~ rising humidity, thin cloud cover, little to no wind, yellow leaves drifting groundward

A week without poetry events and no papers to grade meant a lot of rest here at the Kangaroo.  I've changed around my routine a bit to focus on poetry in the mornings.  How many times must I learn this lesson?  The focus and brainpower required for poetry is different than that for teaching and going about my daily responsibilities.  It must be seen to first, as my few weekday posts prove.


I spent the first part of the week sending out the weather/myth/fairy tale manuscript and being more thankful than ever for electronic submissions.  It simply saves so much time and paper.  I do know that those on the receiving end may print out submissions so I'm not really saving trees, but I'm hopeful that as we go along and people read more and more on the screen that they will be comfortable doing first reads electronically, at least.  (When I read the first few packets for Heron Tree, I printed out each poem; however, I quickly realized that I didn't need the paper version.  Instead, I read them on my iPad with an annotation program...PDFpen...for taking notes.  Long live the Ents and their trees!)


I'm starting to feel the effects of my dry spell, in terms of drafting new poems.  For the moment, I am a poet without a subject.  The sickly speaker manuscript feels sealed off and done; however, I'm in a bind.  I really think that the weather book needs to come out first because the sickly speaker is such a different beast, and the weather book is really an extension of the motifs in Blood Almanac.  I suppose I do not have the luxury of thinking along these lines and I should be sending both books out at once.  Dilemmas!

Still, I feel adrift and have begun to notice my absence from the journal.  If history is any indication, I'll soon find myself with lines (bad ones) bubbling up and wanting to be written down.  For the first time, I'm trying to be patient through the silent times and let the poems return of their own free will.


This week, along with Terry Wright's chapbooks, I've been digesting Adam Clay's A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World (Milkweed Editions, 2012).  A few weeks back, you might recall, I drove up to Fayetteville to see/hear Adam read.  He and I were at Fayetteville together in the MFA Program, and he's someone whose work I've always admired.  His first book, The Wash, is another one of my favorites.

In Hotel Lobby, Adam weaves a song of longing and uncertainty, but not about love or relationships; instead, these poems are about the ineffable nature of time, language, and memory.  These are ethereal poems weighed down by the objects of the world.

Here are a few titles:

Fragment for an Avoided Disaster
On the Momentum of Memory
For Your Eyelash Anchored to the Sky
As Complete as a Thought Can Be
Thought for a Stalled World
A Memory, Forgotten at the End of a Season
Myth Left in Memory
Reaching for a Lexicon, an Apple No Longer Shining

As I read this book, I couldn't help but think of my tiny, immature grasp on language theory, on signifier and signified.  I don't really think I know enough to use these terms correctly, but it seems to me these poems cover the same ground, questioning the act and power of naming both the concrete world around us and the abstract thoughts in our heads.  There are trains and bricks and rivers and wind, storms, and weather and none of these "reveal / that you are filled with the need / to document something" ("A Memory, Forgotten at the End of a Season").  In "Maybe Motion Will Save Us All," the speaker opens the newspaper "to see how the symbols add up / and where they lead" only to "find nothing."

There is a battle going on within the speaker of these poems, one that feels familiar to me, the battle of the life of the mind versus the life of the body.  The speaker struggles to capture in language the true nature of the world.  In section 14 of "As Complete as a Thought Can Be," he states, "I am beginning / to think a fragment / is as complete as a thought can be."

However, lest you think there are no things in these poems, I'll leave you with my favorite lines from "For the Driftwood I Once Loved."

.......When I think of voice, it is the South
I think of again and again, how the South shed

its rustic laugh for a noble one, how it shed its laugh for streetcar
.......sounds and Memphis weeds in an Arkansas field.

..............Downward sloaping sidewalk.  Hesitation wounds
in the sky.  A crabapple for each one.  A cherry blossom her teeth.  I am listening to my throat click.  I am hearing
..............a ghost long gone.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What I'm Reading: Two Chapbooks by Terry Wright

58º ~ wind advisory in place for most of the region today but calm for now, storms passed through overnight

I've probably mentioned Terry Wright here before.  He's the Grand Poobah of Poetry over at the University of Central Arkansas, having built the foundation over several decades for what is now the newly launched MFA program there.  After I read at the reception for the program, Terry sent me his two latest chapbooks:  Fractal Cut-Ups (Kattywompus Press, 2012) and Graphs (Kairos Editions, 2011).

In Fractal Cut-Ups Terry creates mash-ups to create a series of prose poems.  In each poem, two texts are fed through a virtual cut-up machine and mashed together multiple times.  The result according to Terry in the Notes section are poems that "are semi-found but consciously collaged."  The book contains 22 poems, followed by an extensive Notes section that first lists the two texts used to produce each poem and then "provide[s] mish-mash annotation: part aboveboard end note academic documentation, part gossip and paranoia and truthiness culled from the Web, part avowedly confessional secrets and sound bites from the author."  Each poem, then, lives again in a new way.

Throughout, the idea of fractal properties (self-similarity, theoretical infinity, and chaos theory) provide the underpinning for the book.

Here's an example from the start of "Invasion of the Action Painters."

Letting the world canvas dry to a Just War results in objectness.  The weapon of de Kooning was martyrdom.  The painter, a perceived threat, necessitates subconscious military action.  Only the artist, a sole superpower, envisages proactivity using tangible manifestations.  Attack creations are soon outspoken in every region, and dialogues with adversaries drip on statelessness horizons.

The Notes tell us that the two texts are a "Wikipedia entry on 'action painting'" and a "Wikipedia entry on 'the Bush Doctrine.'"  Did I mention that Terry is decidedly political in his work as well?  

In Graphs Terry works with another mathematical principle, the use of graphs to "abstractly represent a set of objects," according to the Notes section of this chapbook.  Instead of a mathematical, numerical grid, Terry provides "prose diagrams."  There are eight poems here and the same hefty Notes section as the previous book, this time where Terry lets us in on his thinking behind certain phrases in each poem.

Here's an example from the start of "Garbage Graph."

How apropos.  The chorus returns like another holiday.  The family's coming for festival. They're bringing Dionysus, god of wine -- and theater.  There's a cop out in the wings.  The bell rings announcing locker searches.

The Notes tell us that the "chorus" refers to "the bird girls in the musical Seussical -- if the show had been staged on a landfill" and "festival" is "[m]ore like Landru's fete from Star Trek's 'The Return of the Archons' than like Burning Man."  The note for this poem is easily twice the length of the poem itself and rather than over-explaining the poem, it morphs into something different altogether.

Terry's poems in these two collections eschew the traditional ideas of poetry and take us in a new direction of pop culture and political stances.  They contain the best of both comedy and tragedy, and they never take themselves too seriously.  Every time I read something of Terry's I remember that it's a big ol' poetry world and there is room for all the varied voices.

**If you are interested in the idea of a word mash-up, just Google "virtual cut-up machine" and numerous links will pop up.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Unexpected Post: A VIDA Moment

59º ~ mornings deliciously cool, open-windowed sleep
**This post began on Tuesday morning.  I finished it this morning (Wednesday).  Similar conditions.

This morning (Tuesday) I ran across the blog post "Mommy, Where Do Poems Come From?" on Bark. It is attributed to Casey, who I think must be Casey Patrick from the contributors list.  I like Bark a lot as a blog because it offers quite a few different views on writing and the writing life, often from young and emerging writers.

As I started to read Casey's post, I was only half-skimming, liking the new presentation of an old question.  It's hip; it's funny.  But then, gradually, I realized that all of the quotes chosen for the piece came from men, white men (or at least Western men...was Homer white?... who represent the CANON in all of its old standards). This made me wonder, where are the women?  the people of color? the non-Euro-American writers?  And this brought to mind, the VIDA count, the project that takes a look at the diversity or lack of diversity (specifically as to gender) in publishing today.

It seems to me that this post on where poems come from is exactly the kind of thing that demonstrates why the VIDA count matters. Presented as it is, it is hard not to see a clear patriarchal line in literature.  But perhaps I think about these things too much.  I went to an undergrad college where the English department was immersed in cultural diversity and worked actively to break the canon wide open (thank you Mara, Madhu, Mike, Ozzie, Janet, and so many more).  My grad school...not so much.

Reader, let me confess, I feel a bit of fear in writing this.  I'm sure I'm opening myself up to some caustic comments.  Important fact: I do not dispute Casey's right to be inspired by whomever inspires her, be it man or woman, Western or Eastern, religious or atheist, etc.  However, I was curious about her choices.  They seem to display a writing life steeped in the traditionally male canon and that worries me, if it is true. 

Here are a few of my own collected quotes on where poems come from.  I offer them up in conversation with the list on Casey's post, rather than in confrontation to it. 

Emily Dickinson:
"I had a terror -- since September -- I could tell none -- and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground -- because I am afraid"
from a letter to T.W. Higginson, 25 April 1862

Lucille Clifton:
"Poetry for me is not an intellectual exercise. I really think that—to understand my poetry—I don’t think approaching it simply intellectually will help. It has to be a balance, I think, between intellect and intuition. For me, there is a kind of intuitive feeling for the language, for what wishes to be said."

Mary Oliver:
Poetry is "the wish to demonstrate a joie."

Quincy Troupe:
"All you’ve got are words and space and silence. You’re pulling these words out of this void."

Virginia Woolf:
"The first--killing the Angel in the House--I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet."

I do notice that some of these do not fit easily into the "Poetry is..." framework.  That interests me as well.  Now, I have a need to do more research on this.  I hope the conversation will continue (and I'm thickening my skin for any caustic comments). 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Weekly Update: The Road to Happiness, The Museum of Americana, and a Shout Out

70º ~ a brief return to the 80s for the weekend with a bit of rain here and there, all in all pleasant days, windows are open

Of my mighty list of literary events in the area that I mentioned last weekend, I only made it to one.  The energies spread quite thin at this point in the semester, and by Friday I came down with a fever/cold, meaning I missed the launch of UALR's latest issue of their lit mag, Equinox.  Next time, y'all!


On Thursday night, I did get to attend the reception for two major Arkansas literary awards: The Booker Worthen Literary Prize and the Porter Fund Literary Prize.  For those U of A grads out there, the Porter Fund was established in 1984 to honor Dr. Ben Kimpel; however, he specified that the prize be named for his mother, Gladys Crane Kimpel Porter.  The Porter Prize goes to an Arkansas writer who has accomplished a substantial and impressive body of work.  The Booker Worthen is a prize established in 1999 to honor William Booker Worthen, who was a longtime supporter of the Central Arkansas Library System.  That prize goes to the best book published by an author residing in the CALS service area at the time of publication.  A book is eligible for selection for up to three years after its release.

On Thursday, David Welky received the 14th annual Booker Worthen Prize for his book The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937 and Margaret Jones Bolsterli received the 28th annual Porter Prize for her body of nonfiction work, including her most recent book During Wind and Rain: The Jones Family Farm in the Arkansas Delta 1848 - 2006


Shout out to Ms. Jobe, who was working at the event Thursday night and representing the first class of grad students in the UCA Arkansas Writers Workshop.  I met Jobe in August at my reading and was delighted to see her again.  She let me know that she and her peers have been reading the blog, so a huge THANK YOU to y'all!  Along with this shout out comes a request.  If you have any questions or curiosities about the writing world that you'd like me to address on the blog, please leave a comment or send me an email!

(Jobe: apologies if this isn't how you spell your name!) 


This week, fellow poet-friend Justin Hamm and his posse of amazing editors launched the museum of Americana, a new online journal of prose, poetry, and art.  According to its mission statement, the editors hope the journal "revives or repurposes the old, the dying, the forgotten, or the almost entirely unknown aspects of Americana. It is published purely out of fascination with the big, weird, wildly contradictory collage that is our nation’s cultural history."

There is some seriously great poetry there, including poems by poet-friends Kathleen Kirk and Karen Weyant, and some awesome art.  I haven't had a chance to dig into the prose yet, but I'm sure it will rise to the same level. 


Finally, we come to the book I read this week: Johnathon Williams' The Road to Happiness, recently published by Antilever Press.  On top of the poems, the reader gets an amazing introduction written by stellar poet and fellow U of A MFAer, Katrina Vendenberg.  Readers from last week will know that I attended a reading in Fayetteville recently and got to hear Johnathon knock a few of these poems out of the park.  I'm thrilled that he will be reading for the Big Rock Reading Series in April!

To understand my reaction to this book, you must know something about me personally.  I am addicted to true country music.  Let me be clear.  I do not mean that fluff that plays on the standard radio stations.  I mean the dark, soul-exposing music written by the great singer/songwriters stretching back to Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash and reaching up to Lucinda William, Gillian Welch, and Marie Gauthier.  Johnathon's book left me feeling wrung out and laid bare in the way of those musicians and their songs.

This is a book that tells the truth about the speaker's life growing up a country boy near Mena, AR, always on the edge of poverty and never far from the reach of religion.  These are poems so firmly rooted in place that there is no question about their authenticity.  We follow the speaker as he reaches adulthood, marries as is expected, and buries his father, all the while questioning his life and yearning for something more, something bigger.

If you like your poems laced through with the dust and grit picked up and hurled by the wind, or brazenly honest about the real work of marriage and parenthood, or packed full of the debris accumulated on a family farm as the speaker tries to educate himself up out of a life on the edge of prosperity, then this is the book for you.  Here are a few titles to tempt you.

"Trespassing in My Childhood Home"
"Soliloquy to the Peephole of Apartment 9"
"White Trash Ghazal"
"Head of Household"
"Pentecostal Girls"
"Notes on the Zombie Apocalypse"
"The Christian Motorcycle Association Arrives for Its Annual Rally Outside Mena, AR"

I'll leave you with a little bit from "Camping in the Ouachita National Forest."

Midnight, and my father's God can't see
in the dark.  Coyotes do unto others
by the tinctures of blood, their panting

like the whispered chansons of saints.
Nightcrawlers know a kind of scripture
driven to air on the ballasting dew.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Weekly Update: Natalie Diaz' When My Brother Was an Aztec and More

50º ~ light grayish skies, a small breeze knocking about in the branches, precursors to fall

Another intense week under the belt of the semester, nearing the snug fit of midterms before we let loose and move to the next notch as we fatten toward finals.

This week, I fulfilled my goal again and read one book, this time a book of poetry.  I will be forever indebted to Traci Brimhall for sending me a copy of Natalie Diaz' When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon, 2012).  This is a stout book, weighing in at 102 pages of solid poems, many of them at least a solid page in length, but more often two or three pages.  This is Diaz' first collection and it knocked me out.  She writes of the modern day Native American experience in the southwest, and the book brought out echoes of Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, Wendy Rose, Simon Ortiz, and so many others. 

In the collection, the speaker traverses the dangerous territory of not only being a minority but also being a minority on the rez.  Her brother has succumbed to a meth addiction, after serving in Iraq, and his addiction tears the family apart. And while the brother haunts the entire book, Diaz does not allow that to become the sole focus.  Her speaker lives a full life as sister, daughter, woman, and lover.  Woven throughout the poems are both tribal traditions and references to Western figures. 

This may end up being my favorite book from 2012, as I've dog-eared so many pages, the top corner of the book bulges. Here's just a taste of what Diaz has to offer from "Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation."

Angels don't come to the reservation.
Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.
Coyotes, too.  They all mean the same thing--
death.  And death
eats angels, I guess, because I haven't seen an angel
fly through this valley ever.
Gabriel?  Never heard of him.  Know a guy named Gabe though--

As anyone who has ever tried to write one knows, pulling off an abecedarian with lines that flow smoothly the one into the other without calling undue attention to the form is hard to do.  Diaz knocks it out of the park.  The rest of the collection is expertly crafted and the lines sing, all the time drilling straight down into the heart, the meat of the matter.


In more poetry news, last night I drove up to Fayetteville to attend one of Matt Henriksen's Burning Chair Readings.  This one featured Johnathon Williams, Jessica Baran, Keith Newton, and Adam Clay.  Adam and I were at the U of A together, and it was wonderful to be able to hear him read in that magical city again.  I loved Adam's first book, The Wash, and have been eagerly waiting for his second book, The Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World, out this year from Milkweed.  Also, Johnathon is slated to come down to PTC in April for the Big Rock Reading Series to read from his book, The Road to Happiness, so the trip doubled as a chance to get a preview of what's to come.  Can't wait to hear him read again. 


This coming week is going to be slammed, and I've got three night time literary events on the calendar!  Oh me, oh my, oh!  Tuesday night is the launch party for Escape Velocity, a collection of Charles Portis writings edited by Little Rock's own Jay Jennings, and Thursday night is the awards ceremony for Arkansas' two major literary awards the Porter Prize and the Booker Worthen Prize.  Finally, on Friday night UALR's literary magazine, Equinox, holds their launch party.  Whew.  I'm going to try to make as many of these as I can, but make no promises, given the burgeoning to-do list at PTC. 


In the meantime, the work of reading submissions has begun at Heron Tree, adding a whole new texture to my poetry life.  These are busy days, but I couldn't be happier!