Monday, October 31, 2005

I got hold of Dan Chiasson’s new book today, a book which I think will be very much in the minds of poetry-folks for a little while. I was skeptical, filled with a tinge of bitterness about why Chaisson gets to come to the forefront of his generation by publishing a book with Knopf. I read Josh Corey’s blog posting about it, and the correspondence alluded to there, which encouraged me. I should admit that I prefer to like a book than not to like it—poetry is more useful to me if it makes me want to write or read more poetry. So I like Chiasson’s book. In fact, I think it’s pretty damn great. There are some major poems in it. Look at this wonderful stanza:

When you ran towards me, I said, Stop there,
stop now, you’ll end up
in a stranger’s life; and when you ran away
I said the same words over again, louder.

There are many moments which are that accessible, that plain, that full of truth about an experienced phenomenon. What’s more true of love than that? It reminds me of the scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July) in which she labels her shoes “Me” and “You” and films them approaching each other and backing away. So Chiasson accomplishes many things like that. but there are also many moments of highly self-aware language, moments when we are reminded that we are constructing our world through words, in which multi-layered speakers describe language and experience simultaneously, as in this snippet from “The Elephant”:

We elephants are images of humility, as when we
undertake our melancholy migrations to die.

Did you know, though, that elephants were taught
to write the Greek alphabet with their hooves?

Worn out by suffering, we lie on our great backs,
tossing grass up to heaven—as a distraction, not a prayer.

That’s not humility you see on our long final journeys:
it’s procrastination. It hurts my heavy body to lie down.

(blogger won't do it for some reason, but the second line of each stanza should be indented)

The proposition that we should accept this serious speech from an elephant is ridiculous, which the poem acknowledges with silly details—which are silly even if they’re true—such as the second stanza quoted above. And yet, it’s also rendered with such gravity (“as a distraction, not a prayer”) that we can’t help but superimpose the poem into our own human voice. The serious, human language, a combination of carefully modulated tone, vaguely timeless vocabulary, and dark subject matter, creates a speaker who is simultaneously poking fun at humanity and also deeply empathizing with human suffering. The elephant is heroic in its denial of death, but also pathetic, too lazy to die, too lazy (and too afraid) to face that its time is over. It’s very subtle and masterfully done. And, of course, it’s more accessible than the work of many other younger poets, hence a good vehicle for bringing contemporary concerns about the lack of faith in language as a tool of communication to a broader audience.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Not much to report on the poetry front. Haven’t had time to read any poetry this weekend. Still slowly and vaguely working my way through Sarah Arvio, which doesn’t seem to be of much interest to anyone out there. It’s not the new thing, but everything can’t be. There has to be a place in this hip, young poetry world for things that aren’t so young and hip. It’s important to make use of more straightforward work. Not that Arvio’s so straightforward.

B and I just watched Me and you and everyone we know, a feature length film by Miranda July. It’s pretty damn brilliant. About people who are unable to connect head on, who are too scared, who have to go at each other sideways. But they end up finding each other, thank god.

So I’ve decided to try something new. I’m going to pre-type my blog entries in word first, then cut and paste them into the blog page. I bet everyone else thought of that forever ago. Ron Silliman was blogging about the software he uses to write his blog, so why shouldn’t I, I am thinking to myself. I’m late to tune in to every blogging game, but a hell of a blog Mr. Silliman’s got. But it makes sense to me in terms of how I think of blogging: when my loved ones and friends can’t stand to hear me yammering on anymore about poetry, I know you, who choose to read this and can choose not to, can stand me. Blogging is good for overactive minds.

And thank you Mr. Thorburn for you kind birthday wishes.

My Longest Birthday Ever

So it's 2:30 in the morning, but a few minutes ago it was 3:30. Today, October 30th, is my birthday. I was born 26 years ago, making me not too old and not too young. I get to have a 25 hour birthday this year, which is good.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Has anyone read Sarah Arvio? She's 51, and Knopf published her first book, Visits From The Seventh, in 2002. If you haven't read it, you've probably noticed the book in stores--it's the lovely light blue one with the bubbles--and thought, "that's some random fancy Knopf book, of no interest to me." That's what I thought, anyway. Her second book is coming out early next year, again from Knopf. I'm reading it along with the first one, and you know what? she's a really good poet. She's a poet of doubt and confusion, of being overwhelmed. Wordplay heads off clear insight at the crucial moment. Her voice, which figures the above mentioned qualities with its frantic playfulness, is more central to the meaning of the work than her content. Here's are some typical lines from the first book:

Well, the night is blooming. Death may not be
(as the atheists would have it) nothing
at all, but rather (think many of us
who've abandoned god for a sense of god)

a moment to move through, on the other
side of which to find, no one knows, but more
than worms and darkness.


And here is something from the forthcoming book:

...and did I know I'd have a host;

no, a line of sheets is never a bed,
a gaggle of hosts is never a love,
a host is never as good as a home,

a ghost as good as a dog or a god.
But I had my heart, always had my heart
for a god and a home as much as it hurt.


Her style doesn't change much between the two books, but we've got a bit of Fanny Howe's doubt-filled faith, an intentionally thwarted striving toward Gluck's clarity, and a touch of the lyrical play of Lucie Brock-Broido. The frantic energy is hers. She may not be 25 and the next big thing, but there's certainly something here I can use.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Thoughts on Book Reviewing

Never a person to keep anyone waiting, I’m going to say a bit—at the suggestion of Matthew Thorburn (and, yes, I suggest you start w/ BB, then move on to Live at the Filmore East)—about book reviewing. Over the last couple of years, I’ve written a heap of reviews, and though there are many, many young poets whose critical writing I respect a hell of a lot more than mine, I think I’ve done enough of this stuff to say something about it.

I dunno, I guess I got started because my poems were too undergrown to make their way into journals, but my enthusiasm was too big to keep to myself, and I wanted to be involved somehow with the bigger little po-biz game. Then, of course, there was the part of me that always loved writing long critical papers in college and didn’t want to give it up. That’s pretty much how I’ve always thought of it—how can I engage with this book such that my favorite college prof. would give me an A? Also, there is the desire to open or join a conversation with the people in the contemporary poetry scene, to place new books in relation to old books and other new books, to try and establish the mini-cannons that go in each pocket of the contemporary poetry pants. So, too, there’s an element of trying to speak in such a way as to evade the comprehension, at least a little, of the old folks whose poems bore me. Still, I also want to impress them and make them realize that young poems are way cooler than theirs.

Striking that delicate balance, juggling all those balls, seems very difficult to me. Stephen Burt is very good at it; he tends to lean toward the accessible side of things, making himself something of a popularizer. But anyone excited about popularizing D.A. Powell is doing good work in my book. On the other end, you have someone like Cal Bedient, whose critical writing is full of gadgets and sneaky tricks, can be nearly as inaccessible as his poems, meaning he often goes for flair over fair, but is thrilling to read. Lots of young reviewers write reviews that are so far in their head—and often too full of praise (without a healthy dose of skepticism, which, granted, can sometimes be hard to muster, criticism doesn’t matter)—that they don’t really make any sense. Then other young writers have too little flash, and are boring (I think I tend to lean more toward this kind of writing).

A big problem with the reviews in many literary magazines is a lack of editing. For whatever reason—whether because book review editors, like most other little mag editors, are not being paid, or because young editors don’t want to seem presumptuous to young writers—many book review editors do very little actual editing. Really being challenged, poked, and prodded by an editor is amazing. It’s hard, but great, to be called on the holes in your argument, to be made to fill them, and to feel like someone else in the world gives a shit about your prose and whether or not you’re saying anything. My best experiences with really engaged editors have been with Christina Thompson at Harvard Review, Timothy Donnelly at Boston Review, Kevin Prufer at Pleiades, and Mike Scharf at Publishers Weekly. All of them have sent back reviews with massive red lines through my paragraphs (Harvard even rejected an entire review before accepting my next one), and the final published piece in each case is still work I’m proud of. Anyone interested in reviewing should pick a mag, find out who the review editor is, and send ‘em a query. Editors are always looking for new reviewers, and chances are they’ll send you a book.
How do folks feel about 70's miles davis? It's taken me years of playing Bitches Brew over and over to really get my head around it and get really into it. The thing that strikes me as most outstanding about those albums--B's Brew, Silent Way, Live Evil, Big Fun, Live at the Filmore, etc--is how spooky they are. Miles plays these sparse, haunting melodies over his band, which is playing some kind of murkey, insistant pulse. The music borrows from rock, but it's much darker than any of the artists who influenced jazz fusion, and really much darker than what fusion became in the mid 70's.

Hey, check out the review of the new Louise Gluck book in Publishers Weekly. I don't know if I'm supposed to say, but I wrote it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bill Knott sent me a trove of his self-published books. He may be bitter and feel alienated, but, like fiction writer Stephen Dixon, he's one of my models for how to handle the writing obsession. It seems clear to me that Knott is deeply compelled to write, that writing is, as Dixon says, his "great satisfaction." I hope, no matter what happens with my publishing carreer, that I never lose sight of that for myself.

Also reading Chris Ware's new Acme Novelty Library collection. Neverminding how good and dark the stories are, just looking at the pages, how Ware bounces colors and shapes off of each other, is enough to keep me occupied for hours.

B and I went to meet with the Rabbi who is going to marry us today. He's asked us, since we are not both Jewish, to undergo a bit of Jewish education, and to commit to making Judaism the only religion practiced in our home. He is not asking B to convert, and both B and I feel that this is an opportunity to examine our relationship to each other and to our conception of the world in general. We are going to take an intro to Judaism class. I'm excited about it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Books I'm reading right now:

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (enjoying it very much, wanting to slowly settle in to the lives of a bunch of characters I'll live with for a couple of weeks)
U.S.! by Chris Bachelder (forthcoming--I'm reviewing it)
The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck (it's time for a revisitation)
The Cuckoo by Peter Streckfus (I'd been meaning to pick it up since it came out, and I'm finding myself 2/3 seduced)
Dark Brandon by Brandon Downing (still working my way in; I'll report again on this one later)

B and I had a little dinner party tonight for two friends. We made sukiyaki in our new sukiyaki pot.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

So I bought two books this evening: Dark Brandon by Brandon Downing and The Cuckoo by Peter Strekfus. I read a couple o' poems in Downing's book, and maybe I behind the times or closed-minded or something, but I'm not sure about it yet. Somebody sell me on this book. I want to get into it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

everyone loves a list

Lots of responses to my list posting of two days ago. I have to get this Dark Brandon book. I absolutely love the idea of a poet naming his book after himself. That's so good and up my ally. I'll begin my search for it tomorrow.
God jesus damn I'm stressed. Why am I so stressed? Why do I get so stressed? It's not because of anything stressful happening, it's because I have a lifelong prediliction for stress. Wow. It's time to cool off. Cooool.

You know when you have all kinds of little things to do--you have a heap of crap to do at work, but them when you get home, you have another heap of crap to do for your life...that's what I hate. But who can you complain to? The irony is, I'd be miserable as hell if I had nothing at all to do. Trust me, I've been there.

Top 5 Things 10/18/05

1. My new copy of On Beauty by Zadie Smith
2. Sesame Sticks
3. Tobacco
4. Jazz piano with jazz drums
5. Happy Puppy

Bill Knott, one of the poets on the list below, posted a comment on the list below. I hope he knows how much people love his work.

Sending the ole' manny out to contests again. Aren't we all? I've got 4 out so far, to Alice James, Yale, Walt Whitman, and New Issues. And a few more on my list to go. The ms. is significantly revised since last year, but who knows if anyone will notice it. But that's not why we send out manuscripts. We send out manuscripts to practice sending out manuscripts, so that we'll be good at it later, when it counts. I wish everyone luck and hope we all win.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Randomly Ordered List of Poets Who Are Important To Me, Over 40 Or Dead

1. Frost
2. Stevens
3. William Carlos Williams
4. Louise Gluck
5. Richard Hugo
6. Bin Ramke
7. Ashbery
8. Keats
9. James Galvin
10. Randall Jarrell
11. Michael Palmer
12. Richard Howard
13. Jorie Graham
14. Larkin
15. James Tate
16. Ted Hughes
17. Allen Grossman
18. Frank Bidart
19. Bridget Pegeen Kelly
20. Bishop
21. Eliot
22. Bill Knott

Similar List of Younger Poets and their books that have blown my mind

1. Shrikanth Reddy: Facts for Visitors
2. Rachel Zucker: The Last Clear Narrative
3. Timothy Donnelly: 27 Props...
4. D.A. Powell: Cocktails
5. Andrew Zawacki: Anabranch
6. Karen Volkman: Spar
7. Brenda Shaughnessy: Interior With Sudden Joy
8. Matthea Harvey: Sad Little Breathing Machine
9. Mark Bibbins: Sky Lounge
10. Oni Buchanon: What Animal
11. Richard Siken: Crush
12. Dan Beachy-Quick: North True South Bright
13. Maurice Manning: A Companion for Owls
14. Joshua Clover: Madonna ano Domini
15. Mary Szybist: Given

No big surprises here, I suppose, but compiling such a list kills time and it's wicked fun.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

I've done a piss-poor job of keeping this blogspot fresh of late. B's family was staying with us, including her hilarious niece and nephew, which necessarily put the computer a bit out of bounds. But I'm back and all is well, despite a creeping cold.

I'm giving a reading this Wednesday at Black and White at 8, so come if you haven't had an earfull.

In my last post, I was trying to say I'm not sure how I'm feeling about the new Cole Swenson book, The Book of a Hundred Hands, and I'm still not sure. But I'll let you know.

Now I'm off to read poems, weep into my hands, and later I'll post a picture of the tears.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Has anyone seen the new book by Cole Swensen,

Monday, October 03, 2005

Not wanting to get into anything else, I'll talk a bit about books.

Read the pre-pub galley of Louise Gluck's forthcoming book Averno (next March). Hold on to your seats, folks, it's her best book since The Wild Iris, and, I think, the most important of her career. Gluck is still among the most vital of our living major poets.

I have a short essay on Simon Armitage coming out in the next Pleiades. Hopefully they'll put it on their website, and I can link it.

Met Stephen Dixon, who I interviewed for PW, at the Great Read in Bryant Park. He was very sweet, and I was very grateful to meet a writer I respect so much and whose work I've been able to do something to promote. If you get his new book, Phone Rings, look at the blurbs on the back. I wrote the PW one. Also saw my new friend Owen King read. You should buy his book of stories--it's wonderful, funny, disturbing.