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Monday, May 23, 2011

Review of David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless

I just finished reading David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (Harper 2011), and for the most part it was an enjoyable read, mainly because Orr, besides knowing a lot about the po-business, has an uncanny ability to cause a reader like me to cackle, guffaw, and, well, LOL. For instance, "there are more transparently veiled personal references in modern poems than there are grits and South Carolina," and the whole bit about poets being part horse and part human (and thus not quite fitting into academia). In the final chapter of his book, "why bother?" he muses on whether it's so bad to play Dice Wars or watch an episode of Top Chef instead of reading or writing poems; it's a valid question, no doubt, but it also helps to put this all into perspective: who in their right might would choose to struggle through complex mathematical theorems when he or she could spend the day bowling, or knitting, or whatever floats your boat. In general I admire the way he pokes fun at poets and their petty squabbles, while at the same time making it resoundingly clear that poetry does matter to thousands of people (though, okay, 50% of them may only be reading Billy Collins).

Orr wastes no time letting us know that his goal is not to help novice poetry readers figure out how to read poems, those strange things they take one look at and go “I have no idea what this is … maybe I don’t like it?” No, no, it’s not going to be Orr’s task to assist the clueless reader with understanding what a sestina or a villanelle is—if you want to know about specific forms and what the heck metrics are, he reminds us you can go ahead and Google all that.

His focus, instead, will be analogous to “sit[ting] in a bar and listen [ing ] as a Georgia fan and a Clemson fan discuss a game they’ve just been to.” Never mind that you have no idea what a wide receiver does, or what it means when there’s a flag on the play. What you will learn while you’re sidled up to the bar with these two fellas will give you a sense of why anyone would love a game you have to play like somebody just hit your mother with a two-by-four.

All good in theory, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that there is no way in hell someone who isn’t acquainted with poetry would bother to read Orr’s book. First of all:

Because we are different things to different people at different times, it’s more helpful to think about combining unlike identities that it is to talk about the ‘I’ of the poem and the “author himself” (who is better thought of as a combination of selves, some of them potentially more personal in particular moments than others.

Does the author seriously think that the typical American non-poet is going to parse that one?

But okay, I give him credit for trying. Then he goes onto start talking about Confessionalism—Lowell, Sexton, Plath, the ones whose poetry depends on the “announcement of personal facts that might be embarrassing, disturbing, or simply the kind of thing usually considered indiscreet.” I’m not so sure about this definition, especially when he shares that Catullus was confessing his heart out back in 50 B.C., calling on the gods to have pity and “pluck out of me my destruction.” Nothing indiscreet or embarrassing same goes for a poem by Ann Sexton titled “In Celebration of My Uterus,” where she is quite discreet and doesn't embarrass herself in the least. In fact, her poem is not disturbing at all. It displays, in fact, much restraint. Sexton is Whitmanesque in vision and scope, and anything but personal in this poem:

There is enough here to please a nation

Many women are singing together of this:

one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine,

one is at the aquarium tending a seal,

one is dull at the wheel of her Ford,

one is at the toll gate collecting,

one is tying the cord of a calf in Arizona,

one is straddling a cello in Russia,

one is shifting pots on the stove in Egypt,

one is painting her bedroom walls moon color,

one is dying but remembering a breakfast,

one is stretching on her mat in Thailand,

one is wiping the ass of her child,

one is staring out the window of a train

in the middle of Wyoming and one is

anywhere and some are everywhere and all

seem to be singing, although some can not

sing a note.

But okay, he messed up with defining Confessionalism, no biggie. I can get past it. Besides, he begs of us, in his introduction, to disagree with him, so really I’m only doing what he's called on me, on all of us, to do.

In the next chapter, “the political," he takes Robert Hass down for writing “pseudo-political poetry,” that is, poems that “put forward no argument, make no revelatory comparison, confront no new audience, engage no misconception in language …” etc., that basically Hass is either talking to himself or to an audience of his peers, all of whom don’t need any convincing about anything, but mostly not about anything to do with the Right, including Bush’s war. Orr scoffs at the notion that all poetry is political, and I applaud him for that (it always sounded like a cop-out to me), and I am glad that he shows us how King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” contains all the essential attributes of a really good political poem, but why doesn’t Orr provide any other examples of political poetry—great political poetry? Even a snippet of Wilfred Owens would do in a pinch, but there are hordes of 20th and 21st century masters of the political poem (Heffernan, Rich, C.K. Williams, Forche Baraka, Dickey, Wagoner, Wrigley, Kizer, Levertov, Komunyakaa, Harper, Levis…), and he’s neglected to cite even ONE of ‘em. In his defense, perhaps he didn’t anticipate that an actual poet would be reading his primer on poets and what they quibble/gossip/obsess about, but still, doesn’t he owe it to the general public to get it RIGHT about the great political poems being written, and not just the ones that were written before 9/11 but seem to be about 9/11? I am so sick of hearing about the chickens coming home to roost and the poem by Auden that’s actually about WW2, especially when we have poems like Roger Bonair Agard’s “All Black Penguin” to add to the conversation of what makes a truly great political poem.

But enough about that. The next chapter attempts to explain form. Call me dense, but I’ve been studying poetry for thirty-five years, and I have to say I had some trouble wading through some of this chapter (there was this half a page that dealt with this concept called “’X’ that we think (and we think the poet thinks we’re supposed to recognize as being associated with the poem”), but in the end I came out of it with this: one side thinks free verse is the shit, and the other side thinks form is the shit. There will never be any kind of resolution or agreement about this, but hey, some poets like writing in fixed forms, and you, too, should get drunk on the stuff if it’s your cup of whiskey. whatEV. But what got me was the part where he’s talking about a Karen Volkman sonnet, sharing how, according to Christian Bok, the poem is “radicalized,” when actually very akin to Anglo Saxon syllabics, that is, the earliest type of poetry in the English language. How, suddenly, did the kenning and the strong-stress alliterative line with the caesura down the middle suddenly become radical and new? And yet, this is what Bok/Orr tell us is so.

And now we’re onto ambition, and the 10-page explanation of what Great is, and why Lowell seemed like the hottest of the hot while he was alive (because he used words like “decry” and “battle”) whereas Bishop is now viewed as the way more Queen of the Moderns, and hey, so will be Kay Ryan the Grande-Dame of the early aughts. Seriously, the equation that male and white equals Great, though brought obviously to the fray in the ambition chapter, is pretty much apparent from page 1 of this book right through to “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” on the final page. How does Orr get away with alluding to a time when the poetry world was essentially a country club, even alluding to the fact that many (including him?!) still consider it a country club, without coming right out and saying, at least in his insular bubble of a poetry world, it remains a country club, a very white and mostly male one, where anyone with so much as a vowel at the end of his or her name might be refused a post-golf drink? His book is pretty much a white man-fest of the tallest order, and he doesn’t seem to have any problem with that, nor did his publisher. They should be ashamed.

As for why bother reading poetry, by the end of the book I’m sorta asking the same question myself. So you can shoot off your filthy mouth on Foetry? So you can maybe get ten people to read your lame-ass poem about some old poet dying and still being pissed that Mark Strand is a bigger big shot than you are? I mean… it’s enough to make me run in the other direction, and I’ve been in love with poetry for most of my life. Still, I’m a sucker for the stuff, and just like Orr’s dad, I keep coming back to that runcible spoon.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Yarn Bombing, Rocky Balboa Statue, and the City of Brotherly Love

The countdown has started for my Philly trip! I roll into town right as rush-hour hits full swing on Wednesday, May 25. I read twice on Thursday the 26th: Noon at Drexel U, and 6 pm in downtown Philly. I make it to the NYC area about once every 6,752 years (I'm kind of like Haley's Comet), so this would be a great time to hear me read if your home is in PA, NJ, or NY.

I'm looking forward to taking photos of this lovely yarn-bombed statue of Rocky Balboa. Gonna fly now! I'll never forget being fifteen and watching Rocky suck down all those raw eggs. I was at the Forum Theatre in Metuchen. Where did you first hear the famous cries of Adrienne?!!! Adrienne?!!!

The Rocky Theme song was our Metuchen High School track team's Get Psyched! song. We listened to it incessantly on the school bus that chugged us along to our away track meets. I was never a very fast sprinter, but I still get pumped up when I hear this song.

And don't worry, yarn bombers: I will definitely be spending more time inside the museum cozying up with the art then hanging out with good ol' Rocky Balboa.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Barn Owl Review's Susan Grimm Reviews The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception

Martha Silano
The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception

Winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize
Saturnalia, 2011

The title of Martha Silano’s third book of poems is very indicative; it demands thought—“Little” as if we were to deal with trivial matters; “Office” suggesting the rote performance, the mundane. Coupled with this dismissive half-title is the mysterious, spiritual idea of the “Immaculate Conception,” suggesting that what is large and unfathomable can be institutionalized, summed up, reduced to a form.

This seeming contradiction or haystack of oppositions continues throughout the book where daily life, especially with small children, is tumbled together as if in a cyclotron with galaxies and aliens and space ships:

I’m thinking today of how we hold it together,
arrive on time with the bottle of Zinfandel, a six-pack

of Scuttlebutt beer, how we cover our wrinkles
with Visible Lift, shove the mashed winter squash

into the baby’s mouth, how we hold it all together
despite clogged rain gutters, cracked

transmissions, a new explanation for gravity’s
half-hearted hold. . . . (p. 40)

Why unite domestic life and the cosmos? Perhaps because we spend so much time feeling alien ourselves. Or perhaps because the skies give us distance and depth—we attain perspective. Or perhaps because each accommodates the absence in the other—the tender care of minutiae, the possibility and openness of space or the neediness of minutiae and the vast uncaring of space.

Silano writes a poetry of accumulation, in part because inundation is an issue, the microscopic necessaries covering us like a rug so deep and wide even the galaxy cannot accommodate it. Silano calls it “the behemoth of things needing doing.” (p. 77)

How can you juggle all the particles? The speed of Silano’s packed lines give it a try. There’s a lot to take in, and that’s the point. Silano boosts you out of your chair and pushes you to run whether she’s being petulant or luminous:

My vowels hate you
My adverbs hate you. The backyard

hates you. (p. 46)


seamlessly with sides of potato of carrot of corn
seamlessly while each door handle sings its own song

while giant cicadas ricochet off cycads and jellyfish sting
a gravy like the ether they swore the planets swam through

luminiferous millions of times less dense than air
ubiquitous impossible to define (p. 89)

Silano likes repetition and wordplay, setting up music in the ear and delighted gyration in the brain. She’s tonally diverse—aghast, but half-laughing. There’s a kind of ars poetica in “How to Sew.” And a few poems successfully flirt with non-sense—“That Spring A Room Appeared” or “You’re Like the Mean Man.”

Like all the best poets, she observes unflinchingly whether attuned to “Venus and Jupiter, low in the western sky” (p. 28) or the troubling, desperate love of the ordinary mother:

No matches, no lighter, no blanket. Just the cold air—
you, me, and the moon has no eyes so it can’t be waked up, my toadflax,

my stubborn thistle who wants not only to catch the fish but to remind it
how to breathe again in water. (p. 60)

--Susan Grimm

Susan Grimm is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. Her poems have appeared inWest Branch, Poetry East, The Journal, and other publications. In 1996, she was awarded an Individual Artists Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council. Her chapbook, Almost Home, was published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 1997. Her book of poems, Lake Erie Blue,was published by BkMk Press in 2004. She also edited Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems which waspublished by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 2006. Recently, she won the inauguralCopper Nickel Poetry Prize. Her chapbook Roughed Up by the Sun’s Mothering Tongue is due out in July, 2011. She is a poetry editor for Barn Owl Review.

Also by Susan Grimm:

Review of Dick of the Dead by Rachel Loden.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hot off the Press Review of Dorothea Lasky's Black Life

I’ve been slowly reading Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life for the last six or so weeks, looking forward to the time each night just before bed when I crawl into bed, & turn on the night-light to lap up a few of her poems before the book falls onto my face, and I turn into sleep. Sometimes I am lying there next to my husband, and I will be giggling, or saying I can’t believe she did that or holy shit, and my husband will say, okay, let me read it, so I will pass him her book and point to the poem titled “Mike I had an Affair,” which begins

Mike, I had an affair

With Jakob Tushinea, the poet

and goes on with

I peered into his crevices

And upon his bed I peered into more

Like the kind of things that the monsters make.

He was a monster, no

He was not a monster, Mike

His skin was soft and wild

And when he smiled

I was a bit on fire

and my husband goes, wow, that’s pretty funny, and I go, but listen to this, I don’t know what to make of it. Is she serious? & recite from “It Feels Like Love”:

When he and I are together, it just feels like love

And when we are talking and laughing together

It feels like love …

And his eyes on me and the way he looks

And what he says and the way I feel

I mean, if one of my students turned this in, I would give him or her un petite impromptu lecture-ette on specific nouns and verbs, on getting past banal generalities, but maybe that’s Lasky’s gift: she sticks a poem like this in her book, and suddenly we remember being in high school, being a newbie poet, and writing this kind of drivel, and it reminds us (okay, sorry, ME) of Richard Brautigan’s The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, those lovely (sappy but also kookie/quirky) love poems of his.

I love this book because one minute Lasky’s speaker is plainly and flatly jotting down her high-school-diary-entry retorts (“Atheists are all over the world and they are such idiots”) and the next she is Sappho, Neruda, O’Hara, and Breton all wrapped up into one (“Like a carrot I will be everything God can’t see). I also love that this is a speaker who goes down on her boss, loves a mathematician, and because she writes, in “Poem to My Ex-Husband,”

Dear husband, I tried to write you an email

But I didn’t have the right address

My husband, I love you so much

Will you be mine forever

I know you are married now

Does that matter

I can still remember holding hands

I bought a purse …

And then we got a car together

And then it was over

My sweet baby you were always there

You always

Loved me, in the shower you would bathe me

And feed me later in bed spaghetti or something else…

That “or something else” is what gives her away, along with the spaghetti, of course. This is how we know she is not truly an awful poet writing drivel, writing a treacle-tart- wielding hack, but a smart chick who has studied her Sapphics and those sweet Chilean odes, as in, later on in this poem:

I will haunt you even when I am dead

I will wear plastic horseshoes on my ghostly suit …

Your gesture will be my gesture …

I place your moving mouth next to a red drill

And together we got to someplace like a beach

Where they give us things we need, like life.

Again, note: someplace like a beach. Yet another giveaway Lasky’s playing with the notion of the love-sick teenager writing her first poems about unrequited loves and how she will stroll down with her beloved to watch a sunset on the pier, but in this case the gig’s up as we’re not given a beach but a stock image that could or might be a beach, but could also be a mountain sunset, or any other number of “likes” listed in a profile.

Black Life is about, among other things, death (her father has died), love lack, impermanence, being eaten by flames, the search for identity and acceptance of one’s past selves (“I was once so sexless in the midst of love / When I was young / And was not sticky with a thousand men”), the sun, rotting, and whether the speaker is rotting or water, “a watery nymph that is hot and wet / Like a wetted beast”—whether she is the sun, God is the sun, or god is a black bird—and it is also a great poem of the bragging poet who says

You are reading the work of a great poet, possi-

bly one of the greatest ones of your time.

But don’t read this book for what it is about. Read it for the cool, cool ways she juxtaposes the mundane with the miraculous, heightened language with the flattest of flatland (southern Nebraska?) prose/bad, bad poetry you can’t even call poetry because it could have been written by a ninny like your own 15-year old self, such as

I am just so very sad

such as

But a nightmare you can’t get out of because it is the night

That is all encompassing

I get all encompassed by the night every day

such as (has Lasky’s speaker ever heard of Louis Armstrong? Has she ever heard Tony Bennett and k.d. laing do their tear-inducing rendition of “What a Wonderful World?”)

There are children playing around you. They know more than you will ever know.

I haven’t gotten this stuck on a book of poetry since, let me see, probably Natasha Saje’s Red Under the Skin or Aimee Nezhukamatathil’s Miracle Fruit. I mean, I am some kind of smitten. In fact, I find myself wanting to make a table of flat lines and o so incredibly leaping, surprising, high-wire act lines, so please let me indulge myself:



I like to think / About things that are nice / And Pretty

My heart belongs to a lion / I love his pelt and covet his heart.

What people don’t understand about being a genius is / Is that it is hard

Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal

The sunshine on your face and neck

Because I know the inside of your face

I have been a lot of places / Most of them in my mind

Mathematical laundress / of the forgotten egret

I am sick of feeling

When you are in the grave all that you will be able to say is mommy.

Maybe it’s fascination tinged with nostalgia. Reading these poems, we are twelve and peeking into our sister’s diary. She is fourteen. We do not even know men have erections. She is having sex with her boyfriend in her bedroom closet. We read, feel guilty, read some more, our eyes wide, our mouths not hanging open (because most of us don’t actually gape, do we?), but internally a kind of permanent gaping-wound sunburn, burned by her words, by that knowledge, which is the kind of black, black burning Black Life is all about.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Nat'l Poetry Month Sweepstakes Winner, a Tad Belated

Congratulations to Kathleen Gunton, winner of a copy of my book, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception. To obtain your copy, please contact me at your earliest convenience with your mailing address. Thanks to all who participated in the 2011 National Poetry Month Giveaway.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Poetry Presentations!

My favorite two days of the quarter have come and gone once again, and this quarter was no exception: after class I had to run to my car, get myself home, and start boiling a big vat of water for a huge plate of linguine to smother with tomato sauce and fresh grated parmesan. Why, why, why would I want to run home and eat a huge plate of pasta?

Because of Diane Lockward's poem, Linguine, of course-- how well my students presented this hunger-inducing poem, sharing with us the smell and tastes of not only linguine but of fresh basil, "oregano rubbed between our palms," of what it means to "enjoy it, like lovers, every way we could . . . briskly boiled, lighted oiled." Ah, yes, and all that "pulling and sucking." Lockward's poem is nothing less than a feast of the senses--it reminds me, each time my students present it, of the best things in life: passionate love and garlic-laden, oily strands of Al Dente pasta.

Yes, it's true. As their food-themed English 101 instructor, every quarter I rally my students' to create Power Point poetry presentations using work by Diane Lockward, Aimee Nezhukamatathil, Li Young-Lee, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Campbell McGrath, and Juan Felipe Herrera, yielding unexpected surprises--moments where students help me to "get" at an aspect in a poem I might not have considered--the significance of a certain image, the alliterative power of a specific phrase--and this time around was no different, except I wasn't expecting four of my students, the ones assigned "World Unity Salsa" by Juan Felipe Herrera, to contact Mr. Herrera and ask him furnish them with a personal greeting to all of Bellevue College in general , and specifically to their instructor, Martha Silano. I mean, I thought they were joking when they began their presentation with "we contacted him, and ...", but they were serious. Herrera not only replied back to them: he sent them an incredible, not-available-on-You-Tube recitation of their assigned poem, which we all listened to in class today with great amazement.

When we were discussing the poem last week, the Herrera poem group confided in me that they felt squeamish (or just plain stupid) about getting up in front of the room and reading their assigned poem (let's face it--it has a lot of repetition, and it is a little over the top, especially when it gets to the "Breathe baby breath" part), so I told them to see if they could find a recording of the poet reading his own silly poem.

I never dreamed they'd actually take the time to track down Herrera's email address and ask him for just that.

Hearing Herrera talking to all of us as we sat in our little stuffy classroom in C-140. Hearing him pronounce my name and thank me for using his poem in my class. Now that was sure something!

The best part was when Simon shared, in the conclusion, how when they'd met to work on their presentation, each brought along their favorite jar of salsa and a bag of corn chips, and afterwards they all hung out and watched a game together.

Now that's what I call World Unity Salsa!

Thanks so much to Simon, Jake, Tristan, and Joe for spicing up our class today with their in-depth analysis and A+ audio-visuals. But even more importantly, for teaching this veteran instructor to never, ever underestimate the abilities and motivations of even the most anti-poetry-seeming students.

And thanks too, to Juan Felipe Herrera, for responding to their request for a first-hand rendition of his poem. You knocked this instructor's socks off!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Revving Up for my Far-Flung Philly Book Tour

On May 26, I'll be reading at 6:30 pm with Dorothea Lasky & Star Black at The Athenaeum in the City of Brotherly Love. I am so excited to share the stage once again with Ms. Black, and to meet and read with Ms. Lasky, whose Black Life I've been reading and reveling in these past few weeks (I've been enjoying it so much I decided to buy her earlier collection, Awe.)

I will also be reading on May 26 at Drexel University during the noon hour.

Between all this and on Friday and Saturday, I will be touring around Philly, visiting the Mutter Museum, which I anticipate is going to be very intense because it deals with medical curiosities, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which will offer comic relief in the form of an exhibition titled The Peacock Male: Exuberance and Extremes in Masculine Dress.

Needless to say, I can hardly wait to board my plane!

If you live anywhere near Philly, or in Philly proper, it would be great to see you at one or both of these readings.

Monday, May 2, 2011

One More Fan of The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception

Thanks to Kristin Abraham and New for reviewing my new collection, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception.

Abraham writes "these poems are quirky and playful," with "wonderful moments of play with language, rhythm and sound . . . [they] take the "awe" away from prayer and religion in order to ground it in the immediately real, the more understandable--but still reverent."

She also calls it "a constantly surprising little treasure to return to often."