August 18, 2019

Tony Hoagland Thinking about Poetry

Tony Hoagland's poetic voice was distinctive. He once said, "I discovered that identity was composed of a lot of other things besides familial trauma; it included race and money and being American and technology and historical currents." His topics were exquisitely presented with titles like Donkey Gospel, What Narcissism Means to Me, and Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. He's a poet that touches the funny bone, but also he makes you think.  The Art of the Voice provides much insight into his technique and the craft of poetry. I recommend it. It contains his teacherly thoughts about voice in poetry as well as several writing prompts to help a student develop an interesting poetic voice. 

Also, I've found some wonderful essays online, definitely worth a read!
http://gulfcoastmag.org/journal/27.1/things-i-know-about-the-life-of-poetry/

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/68489/fear-of-narrative-and-the-skittery-poem-of-our-moment

https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/513/the-cure-for-racism-is-cancer

Interview:
https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/conversation-tony-hoagland-on-poems-that-could-save-america

Biography & Critique:
https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-2009-10/about-tony-hoagland


August 14, 2019

Joy Harjo: Carrying Over a Thousand Names

For years, the poetry of Joy Harjo has always been arresting for its beautiful imagery and figurative language, its connection to the body and the earth, and its music.  She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and A Map to the Next World are among my favorite books of poetry, ever.

In this new collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she extends her reach to provide a poetic engagement with the problems in the world. She a master poet, and she is teaching the readers her spiritual wisdom.  In previous work, she began this work. I'm thinking of an earlier poem, "Insomnia and the Seven Steps to Grace." I would not call her impulse didactic. It is a deeper knowledge that she shares.

This is a wide ranging journey from Oklahoma to Paris to New York City to Alaska to Hawaii. Part One: How It Came to Be addresses the reader directly. It is a singing of creation stories, contemporary stories, and music.  The poetry does not ignore or exist outside of contemporary politics, but it meets it head on. "The politics of politics makes a tricky beast. It destroys either side with equal hand. It has a hunger that never seems to end."  It is politically engaged, but in a spiritual way.  It is spiritual without being preachy. "Nez found God then forgot where she had left him." It is speaks to cultural genocide and murder, to name it, and at the same time, goes forward and brings all of us into the same fold.  "Let us not shame our eyes for seeing. Instead, thank them for their bravery."

The rabbit is an important figure in many tribal stories. He is fearful, impulsive, and does not consider the consequences. This is perhaps offset by his speed and ability to leap so far that his tracks are not easily found.  In "Rabbit Is Up to Tricks," Harjo writes:

And once that clay man started he could not stop.
Once he took that chicken he wanted all the chickens.
And once we took that corn he wanted all the corn.
And once he took that wife, he wanted all the wives.
...

Locating human behavior in a story of rabbit is a profoundly wise thing to do.  Considering another character, we can see the problem as well as empathize. It's also the same for us; we have insight. Empathy is an important quality, as it prevents the cycle of blame and othering. It is a key to conflict resolution.  Harjo speaks from her own tradition of Muskogee knowledge, and she weaves in other Native stories and Biblical stories. She speaks to all people, whether of not they have her heritage.

Part Two: The Wanderer and Part Three: Visions and Monsters speaks to all the ways that humans have become lost in violence, greed, and forgetfulness. In "The First Day Without a Mother," the color blue is significant. It is more than the eye can see. It is more than blue; it is a spiritual color, the color of sky, and the color of a raging fire. It is the blues music. "I keep looking back."

This book offers a formula for conflict resolution in the title poem, and it calls us back to listen to others and our own spirits. Throughout the book, she uses the metaphor of jazz as a symbol of how to survive the insurmountable obstacles. The horn, the song, and the dance are sacred ways to remember.  They renew us as well as teach us how to improvise, to continue, and to make something beautiful.  Harjo writes,"You cannot legislate music to lockstep...."  and "We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding together."  This is a wise metaphor for survival. 

Part Four: The World begins with the poem, "You Can Change the Story...," reminds us how our expectations can shift the outcomes.  By taking control of one's own thoughts, fears, and actions and by allying ourselves others in love and tenderness, we can experience the power that we do have. There is a story of a walrus hunter who murders a woman; the poet slips into the murdered woman and speaks. The poet returns from death and speaks the story to the community. A well told story rings with the truth; all people can understand it.  In this story, the murderer is brought to justice. The articulation and shaping of our narratives are the reasons we must have art, music, stories, and poetry.

In the terminal of stopped time I went unsteady to the beat,
Driven by a hungry spirit who is drunk with words and songs.
What can I do?
I have to take care of it.
The famished spirit eats fire, poetry, and pain; it only wants love.

The famished spirit who only wants love is an endearing being. The aim is noble. Her failures are forgivable.  This book at first appears fragmented, however the inscriptions, section headings and "proems" are as necessary as the poems. This is a heartening piece of work, a ceremony, a dance, a deep gift from Joy Harjo. It has done in beauty.


Book Review:
https://www.kenyonreview.org/reviews/conflict-resolution-for-holy-beings-by-on-joy-harjo-738439/

July 27, 2019

Octavio Paz

See his reading and thoughts about poetry

Octavio Paz, 18 October 1988 from Lannan Foundation on Vimeo.


Proem
Octavio Paz - 1914-1998


At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death;
the walk with eyes closed along the edge of the cliff, and the verbena in submarine gardens;
the laughter that sets on fire the rules and the holy commandments;
the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page;
the despair that boards a paper boat and crosses,
for forty nights and forty days, the night-sorrow sea and the day-sorrow desert;
the idolatry of the self and the desecration of the self and the dissipation of the self;
the beheading of epithets, the burial of mirrors; the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl;
the flute solo on the terrace of memory and the dance of flames in the cave of thought;
the migrations of millions of verbs, wings and claws, seeds and hands;
the nouns, bony and full of roots, planted on the waves of language;
the love unseen and the love unheard and the love unsaid: the love in love.
Syllables seeds.

July 13, 2019

The Sublime


Rilke's poem has remained in my memory for a long time. It's one of my favorites. This is from Orchards by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

The sublime is a departure.
Instead of following,
something in us starts to go its own way
and getting used to heavens.  
Is not art’s extreme encounter
the sweetest farewell?
And music: that last glance
that we ourselves throw back at us! 

The Latin word sublimis means "looking up from."  Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, defines the sublime as a quality of art or experience that "excites the ideas of pain and danger" that produces "the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling" (302) and that causes "astonishment...horror, terror;...the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect." The Romantic poets tried to create this emotion.  Kant defined sublime as "that is beyond all comparison (that is absolutely) great, either mathematically in terms of limitless magnitude, or dynamically in terms of limitless power."

I rather like Rilke's definition. In my thinking, as a poet and writer, the sublime occurs when one lets go of the material and allows it to develop on its own. The art leads the artist.  Because of pure attention and deep listening,  the artist is able to break away from the usual and achieve new ground.  He says, "be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you. What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love..."  (Letters to a Young Poet)



July 12, 2019

Brigit Pegeen Kelly - Prose Poem




It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish, but maybe God misheard my request, maybe God thought I said not "some sort of fish," but a "scorpion fish," a request he would surely have granted, being a goodly God, but then he forgot the "fish" attached to the "scorpion" (because God, too, forgets, everything forgets); so instead of an edible fish, any small fish, sweet or sour, or even the grotesque buffoonery of the striped scorpion fish, crowned with spines and followed by many tails, a veritable sideshow of a fish; instead of these, I was given an insect, a peculiar prehistoric creature, part lobster, part spider, part bell-ringer, part son of a fallen star, something like a disfigured armored dog, not a thing you can eat, or even take on a meaningful walk, so ugly is it, so stiffly does it step, as if on ice, freezing again and again in mid-air like a listening ear, and then scuttling backwards or leaping madly forward, its deadly tail doing a St. Vitus jig. God gave me a scorpion, a venomous creature, to be sure, a bug with the bite of Cleopatra's asp, but not, as I soon found out, despite the dark gossip, a lover of violence or a hater of men. In truth, it is shy, the scorpion, a creature with eight eyes and almost no sight, who shuns the daylight, and is driven mad by fire, who favors the lonely spot, and feeds on nothing much, and only throws out its poison barb when backed against a wall -- a thing like me, but not the thing I asked for, a thing, by accident or design, I am now attached to. And so I draw the curtains, and so I lay out strange dishes, and so I step softly, and so I do not speak, and only twice, in many years, have I been stung, both times because, unthinking, I let in the terrible light. And sometimes now, when I watch the scorpion sleep, I see how fine he is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal Book because of his strange organs of breath. His lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged like the pages of a book -- imagine that! And when the holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood that circles through them touches the air, and by this bath of air the blood is made pure . . . He is a house of books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the perishable manuscripts -- a little mirror of the library at Alexandria, which burned.
Brigit Pegeen Kelly is the author, most recently, of "Orchard."
Published in NYTIMES at https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/31/opinion/closing-time-iskandariya.html

July 9, 2019

Tom Sleigh: Traces of the Journey


The Poetry Book Club at Zenith Bookstore meets on the second Wednesday of each month at 5:30 pm. On July 10, 2019, the selection is Tom Sleigh's House of Fact, House of Ruin.  

Book Review:

Poetry is always political. Even if it is not about a political event, the political is expressed in the word choice, perspective, and land that it arises from.  Once I attended a workshop taught by the Irish poet Eavan Boland. She says land is always inseparable from politics. But she also criticized poets who use political events, especially traumatic events such as the Holocaust, as a type of "political tourism." She underlined poetry's ability to recreate a moment, and she cautioned poets against re-traumatizing others. I knew what she meant by this.

Tom Sleigh's poetry reflects his journeys in places of violent combat. His latest book House of Fact, House of Ruin was published in 2018 by Graywolf Press with a companion book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees.  His work is the effort to witness and bring the hard facts into literature. In Iraq, Lebanon, Mogadishu, Dadaab (a large refugee camp) and other places, he has met and talked with military personnel, Red Cross workers, and civilians. His work is also a poetry of witness but also of form (images, figurative language, and sound patterns). Many of these poems are sonnet forms with a subtler rhyme.  It's effective. It honors the tradition while at the same time playing with sound in way that suits contemporary times. This attention to craft and his sensitivity create very good poems.  He says: 
political emotions are always complex, and deeply troubled. So the accurate expression of mixed emotion seems to me to be at the core of the poetry I most care about. Yeats said it in a somewhat more rhetorical way when he wrote that the purpose of art was to hold reality and justice in a single thought.
It would be wrong for poetry to ignore the reality of our world: the wars, the suffering, and the stories of survival. He describes the influence of the poet Bashō on his own work. Sleigh's earlier book uses the haibun form, and this book reflects the "color."  The journey was to Iraq.  The titles are direct but when it comes to the content, the poems have a similar imagistic, evocative, and haunting quality.

In the 1600s, Japanese poet Bashō (1600s) wrote Narrow Road to the Interior:
The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
The text collects the images and observations Bashō found in his wanderings.  The journey was through the landscape of Japan, and it was also an inner journey. As a scholar of Buddha and Confucius (among others), he created a literary art that held the vivid images of place, detachment from things, and passing of all things including the self. An important term is the Japanese concept of aware. Ivan Morris describes it as "the pathos inherent in the beauty of the other world, a beauty that is inexorably fated to disappear together with the observer."  Also important were the "pillow word" (referring to the double entendre or word that evokes many meanings) and the "pivot." This turn is very important in haiku. It creates an ambiguity that deepens the meaning.

In an essay on Poets.org, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes:
the form is thinking of haibun as highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful murmur of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem.
She goes on to list the important elements of the haibun form
  • detachment from the self (no personal pronouns)
  • concentrated use of sensory detail
  • the use of a seasonal word or one that alludes to the season
  • a turn or pivot in the 3rd line of the prose section
  • haiku at the end with approximately the 5-7-5 syllables in the three lines. 
Tom Sleigh writes about the importance of Bashō's work to his own: 
…this quality that I find most galvanizing in Bashō’s work—not the Buddhist trappings, or the delicate melancholy, or his sensitivity to flowers and mist; but his submersion of self in the world as he finds it, a world that is always every moment fighting to restore its equilibrium, but only as a way of losing it.
I like Sleigh's work here in this book. Some of his early poems are not among my favorites, as they feel more cocky and less attentive. This is not the case here. Even when Sleigh is not writing haibun, he is using the elements of this form. It feels right. 

Other writing by Tom Sleigh, available online: https://www.vqronline.org/people/tom-sleigh




June 29, 2019

Prose Poem or Microfiction?

It doesn't matter, does it, whether a piece of writing is labeled a prose poem or a flash or microfiction? Is it the same, apples to apples?  Or is it apples to oranges?

Russell Edson said, “A good prose poem is a statement that seeks sanity whilst its author teeters on the edge of the abyss.”  

As for me, I haven't yet decided. Is there a difference in compression? in the predominance of figurative language? in the music of the language?  Yes. No. 

No end words: 

Poetry yields as many end words as there are lines in the poem. End words are particularly important in poetry. They are usually very important: nouns or verbs. They can be used skillfully to develop enjambment and to increase meaning through a line break and ambiguity. Prose poems have but one end word. This may allow a poet to give the emphasis to the word that ends the prose poem. In microfiction or flash fiction, not much attention is paid to the end word of a paragraph.  Maybe not enough attention.  

Stanzas or paragraphs

Stanzas are poetry's paragraphs. Turns occur between stanzas. Leaps can be made in time and space. In prose, there are transitions, associations, and leaps but the paragraph might be barely noticed. It is easy to conclude that form is less important in prose. One still can use music, rhyme, rhythm, and sound patterns. They are "buried' inside the paragraph.  

Form 

The form of a poem might be considered a container. Poetic forms have history, patterns, associations: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, quatrains, etc.  Prose forms are more loose and flexible. A poem or a prose might be a letter, a list, a story. Content is perhaps more important in prose. The intention might be to entertain, investigate, or illuminate. 

Audience

Perhaps the answer resides in which audience one wants. Naming the genre or using a genre form sets up an expectation. In prose, genres are sci-fi, fantasy, murder mystery, romance, western, or nonfiction. Poetry is a genre.  Prose poetry might be blend of genres, a hybrid form. Of course writers of both poetry and prose explore and widen the boundaries.  There is plenty of genre-bending. 

Definitions:

According the Poetry Foundation, "A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See the prose poem,"Information" by David Ignatow: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43416/information-56d222285400c

Perrazo and Dal wrote an academic paper examining the differences and similarities between these two forms. They identify criteria: brevity, fragments, ambiguity, and pivots. Either the prose poem or the flash fiction (or microfiction) could be narrative. The difference might be that the microfiction suggests a larger story or is a pivotal moment in a larger story. 

Writers:

Amy Hempel has written brief fiction.  "Sing To It," in the book of that title, is less than half a page.  Of her writing, Amy Hempel said, “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story." In a review of Hempel's work, Ruth Franklin said, "For Hempel, a story often takes place not at the moment of crisis but in its aftermath." Hempel recalls a writing class with Gordon Lish.  For his students’ first assignment, Gordon Lish instructed them to write about their worst secret: the thing they had done that, as he put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.”  

Lydia Davis is a master of short fictions. "Letter to a Funeral Parlor" is simply that, a brief and amusing (and poignant) demand for an explanation of the use of the word "cremains."  Davis cites the influence of Russell Edson. She is interested in stories, and she is interested in etymology. In her work, they often come together in ways that are comic and profound.

Diane Williams writes very brief narratives. They are elliptical, associational, and sometimes even musical.  See https://lithub.com/bang-bang-on-the-stair/ and https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mvx79p/five-very-short-stories-0000667-v22n6, plus http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/diane-williams-two-stories-and-an-interview/

Peter Orner dislikes the term flash fiction. This form is not new, he says. "How many lines are in the story of Adam and Eve?" he asks. Well, I looked it up. Chapter 3 of Genesis is less than 700 words. Electric Literature has samples of flash fiction.  https://electricliterature.com/7-flash-fiction-stories-that-are-worth-a-tiny-amount-of-your-time/

Nick Ripatrozone wrote an essay examining this question. He says, "...genres are not spouses. Monogamy has no place here: the writer should–and must–be flexible to genre. Genre, mode, form: these considerations are contextual and situational." 


June 12, 2019

Danez Smith: Crowning




The poetry book club meets at Zenith Books June 12 at 5:30 pm.  Come and join us! 

Book Review

The opening poem in Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead sings with music. Figurative language vaults the images into myth.  His subject goes right to the heart. There's grief and rage and America right now: violence, race, HIV, gay men. Danez confronts and is confronted by fear, and he uses it for new vision. This is done with a mastery of language and metaphor.

summer, somewhere

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise

-blue water to fly, as least tide, at least
spit back a father or two….”


Poetry is physical and connected to the breath.  In language, adept use of sound creates powerful and moving effects.  In contemporary poetry, the music and rhythm has more movement and freedom.  In Danez's work, an examination of this short excerpt reveals a very interesting rhythm that surprises and pleases the reader.

Traditional ways of analyzing poetic lines involve 'scansion,' or scanning the lines to look at the accented syllables.  In poetry, each unit of metric rhythm is called a "foot." This poem has a wonderful combination of rhythms.  Iambic is a heart beat rhythm ( x / ) with the accented syllable second. Trochaic is the opposite with the accented syllable first.  Dactyl and spondee are the names of three syllable feet (dactyl: (/ x x) and spondee (x x /). However, meter is not the only determination of sound. The actual rhythm might de-emphasize metrics or emphasize some syllables more. 

The language choices are superb: "a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)" and "sprinkler dancer, i can't tell if I'm crying / or i'm the sky..."  Curious, those interesting shifts from the lower case to the upper case pronoun i/I.  "...fingers always/ dusted cheeto gold..."  The poems vibrate with energy.  Images of birth are combined with death. Images of sex are combined with death.  Images of death are combined with re-birth.  Danez skillfully uses vernacular and language of myth: "if we dream the old world/ we wake up hands up...."

              ...say the word
I can make any black boy a savior//
make him a flock of ravens
his body burst into ebon seraphs.

Danez takes these images and moves them ever higher from metaphor to myth:  "the forest is a flock of boys/ who never got to grow up // blooming into forever / afros like maple crowns."   And once again, a capitalized letter creates a shift in meaning because the word goes from a noun to a name: "  "...watch/ Forest run in the rain, branches // melting into paper-soft curls, duck under the mountain for shelter.  watch// the Mountain & Forest playing..."

If you are reading this book, are you uncomfortable? If you are white, you should be. If you are straight, you should be. This mirror shows us America. Danez's poems reveal a person who is willing to be vulnerable.  Gay sex is visceral in this collection. The poet has been diagnosed with HIV. He's talking about blood.  Blood connects to racial violence in America. He's created a documentation of several incidents of racial violence, lynching and death at the hands of the police.   "crown" is a crown sonnet, a series of sonnets that are linked by a repeated image in last line and first lines. The title also evokes the first moment of birth, crowning. 

The striking thing for me about his collection is the claiming/ naming/ breaking through. The last poems are a prayer and a dream about every black person is standing by the ocean.  The last lines:  "& then one woman, skin dark as all of us / walks to the water's lip, shouts Emmett, spits// & surely, a boy begins/ crawling his way to shore"

The water's lip certainly connects the ocean to the body. Spit, another body fluid, and bit of magic that brings us around from fear of HIV to intimacy. This boy might be Emmett Till, bringing us around from violence to regeneration.  Or this boy might be another, a swimmer and a survivor.  He is being born, crowning, about to emerge.

---

Read "a poem where I be and you just might" and an excerpt of Danez's thoughts about this poem:
 https://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/own_words/Danez_Smith/

Granta Magazine:  "crown" https://granta.com/crown-smith/

Publisher, Graywolf Press: https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/dont-call-us-dead




May 22, 2019

Walt Whitman at 200


Come join us! Friday, May 31 at 7 pm.  “Walt Whitman at 200: A Birthday Party with Poetry Readings, Presentations, and Cake” will take place at the Hartley Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Ave., Duluth. 

The event will feature readings by Duluth Poets Laureate Bart Sutter, Deborah Cooper, Sheila Packa, Ellie Schoenfeld, and Gary Boelhower; presentations by Mara Hart, Professor John D. Schwetman, and Professor Chris Johnson; and book sales of recently published anthologies by Holy Cow! Press.