Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I’m nearing the end of an excellent new novel from FSG called Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol. A little review to follow when I finish it. I gather it was a big hit in Europe.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The post below about the quality of soft skull's books (as objects) has caused some controversey--folks from Soft Skull have written in to explain their printing practices (see comments). I don't want to remove it, but I do want to make clear that I think soft skull is doing wonderful work right now and that I'm excited and honored to be able to read and write about the books mentioned here. My anxiety about the quality of the books has much to do with anxiety about the perminance of contemporary poetry, about wanting to make sure that great books by young poets can be taken seriously when put next to books by older poets who've already stood up to the weathering of time, and who, perhaps had someone, or some institution, with a luxuriously fat purse paying for their books. This is a complicated problem for the poetry community, because we love our books more than anything, but our patronage is hardly enough to support the business end of poetry. Something's got to give. Certainly I'd prefer to have poetry in whatever kind of book is economically feasable than not have it at all. The rise of so much online publishing frees poetry from economic contrsaints, but it also deprives us of our beloved books. Somewhere alogn the line it seems we have to settle for the better of a number of evils.

Also, please see the comments for the post about soft skull below for a breakdown by soft skull's publisher of the economics of publishing a poetry collection.
I’ve been reading Charles Bernstein this weekend, his book of essays, interviews, and poems MY WAY. He’s a writer whose work I’ve managed to miss, though I’ve felt it nagging at me for years. And of course when I dip in I’m wholly and suddenly obsessed. In “Revenge of the Poet-Critic,” he says “I like the idea of semi-autonomy as opposed to disjuncture.” That seems to me to be a good way of thinking about how we can have poems that acknowledge the overwhelming and fragmentary nature of contemporary culture that can also contain earnest expressions of emotion—poems composed of almost discreet fragments or clusters of images that are clear objective correlatives for particular emotions or moods, but which resist the idea of simple and obvious coherence.

Thinking about chapbooks too, how I like them, wish I had/read more of them. A 25 page chapbook is a really appropriate format for poetry, which doesn’t bring in money anyway. Since poetry doesn’t have the economic burden of having to repay some company’s investment, and because one of the major factors that separates pieces of poetry from most pieces of prose is that poetry—the complete unit of poetry, a poem—is short and can be read more quickly than an essay or story or novel, a short, inexpensive book is an ideal way to consume it. And groupings of poems often cohere in clusters of 25 pages, hence sections in many full-length collections. But then, of course, there are so many presses making chapbooks, most of them invisible to anyone but the readers in the neighborhood, dorm, house, etc, where the press is based, that one hardly knows where to look. And few bookstores sell the damn things. And so few of the presses are reputable, it seems to me, though I don’t know; few of them seem to be making high-quality books. Poetry should always strive to stick around longer than its author—it should never be disposable, but that doesn’t mean it should be prohibited from being published because no publishing house wants to finance a whole book of the work of a particular poet. Someone should start a website that is a hub for chapbooks, where new books are reviewed and presses linked. Hmmm…sounds like a project.

The lovely long weekend is over. Back to the ole’ orifice tomorrow.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Does anyone know of good chapbook contests other than the Poetry Society of America, Tupelo Press, and Center for Book Arts?

Hope everyone had a good T-giving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

It’s suddenly frickin’ cold in New York. Why? Who’s idea was winter? Can’t we just have it as a metaphor, rather than a real, and endlessly prolonged, season?

• New books for review:

A GRINGO LIKE ME by Jennifer L. Knox
IN THE MIDDLE DISTANCE by Linda Gregg (galley)
GOD’S SILENCE by Franz Wright (galley)

I’m excited to read the Knox. For a long time, as her poems appeared increasingly in journals, I was skeptical. I wondered, “is this poet just being funny for funny’s sake, just to get people to like her and her poems?” But as I continued to read the poems as more and more editors fell for them, I began to think those editors had made a good call. Knox’s persistent, sometimes overabundant silliness is offset by a formal rigor, as if she is fitting banana-shaped pegs into square holes, an accomplishment that turns out to be quite impressive. And the poems are fun as hell, too. I would say this, though, to Soft Skull Press, the publisher of Knox and Pafunda’s books: Over the last couple of years, you’ve built up a compelling and increasingly important list of poets. Please, put a little more money into the books themselves, the objects. They seem rather flimsy, as if they’re not meant to last, and these are your poets’ bids for some time outside of the passage of time. Don’t let their books disintegrate.

Linda Gregg sits atop a deep well indeed. Her muscular, clipped sentences spring from a fountain of hard earned wisdom. It doesn’t matter how much we know about how she’s earned her wisdom—the poems are wise and sustaining, and that is enough to know.

Wright’s new book is much like his old books, but much longer—it’s 140 pages! What that means is that there are many tiny, negligible poems, most of which contain a few stunning (and I mean absolutely stunning—one is arrested, stopped) lines. There are also a few major pieces, poems of such penetrant power that, like reverse ants, they can carry countless poems a fraction of their size. I’m not sure, yet, whether there is anything here as momentous as “The Only Animal,” the most important poem in Wright’s last book, which, to my way of thinking, is a poem that will last.

• Recent Book I want but haven’t been able to get my hands on yet:

FORIER SERIES by Joshua Corey

• Forthcoming Books I’m looking forward to:

Joshua Clover’s next book, forthcoming, I believe, from U. of California sometime in the next year or so
AMPUTEE’S GUIDE TO SEX by Jillian Weisse coming next year from Soft Skull

I know this is a lot of yammering on about books, but it saves B and other friends from having to listen to me talk about them all the time. At least you can choose not to read this if you don’t want to; they’re stuck with me.

Monday, November 21, 2005

New Books:

My Kafka Century by Arielle Greenberg
First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin by Richard Bradford
--Isn’t that a great title for a book? I’m so jealous he stole it for a biography. I’d love to steal it for a book of poems.

Are folks out there reading Larkin? He’s one of the poets I keep in my back pocket. I need to know he’s out there. So far the biography’s good, if a bit stuffy. Look for my review in PW in like a month. (I know you won’t look for it, but it’ll be there if you happen to chance upon it.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

My advice: if you’re someone who runs or edits a small press, make sure—and this is as important and choosing high-quality manuscripts—that you can afford to print nice books, nice objects, because there is nothing worse than reading wonderful writing packaged in a shabby book. Books like that do a disservice to their author, the press, and everybody in the whole frickin’ gosh dern world.

Got some review books in the mail today:

PRETTY YOUNG THING by Danielle Pafunda
GLORYLAND by Anne Marie Macari
THE VIOLENCE by Ethan Paquin

I’m especially excited to read the Pafunda—every one of her poems that I’ve read in magazines has made me very happy.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Reading through some poetry slush, a few ideas about my preferences as a poetry reader (and I mean “reader” not as someone who occasionally reads submissions, but as a fan, a recreational reader of poems) occurred to me. To my way of thinking, a poet has two main things to work with: the images they are creating in their readers’ minds, and the language in which those images are rendered. Certainly, that’s oversimplifying, but, to an extent, it’s true. For me, the images are of foremost importance, so I like poems in which those images are interesting, unusual, and set the emotional stakes at a high level; I like the language to be transparent enough that those images are visible. But, of course, the language in which those images are rendered is almost as important to me. I want to be stopped by the surface, to be beckoned to study it before I look, or while I look, at what’s beneath. It seems to me that many contemporary poets, one strain perhaps, is much more concerned with the surface than with what’s beneath it; the surface is opaque. I crave a certain amount of transparency, so I tend to gloss over, lose concentration for, poems with very opaque surfaces. But then there are poets whose language is so transparent that it’s easy to ignore the surface altogether. I tend to liken these poets to James Tate (though what makes the best of his work so compelling is the complexity of tone he is able to muster), and I read their poems quickly and never want to go back to them. The poets that excite me most are the ones who write somewhere in between those two extremes, in whose work the surface is arresting, though it gives way to images fairly easily, though the images may point me back to the surface and vice versa. Cole Swenson, James Galvin, Plath, Berryman, Stevens, Lucie Brock-Broido, C.D. Wright, and D.A. Powell come to mind as a random sampling of the kind of poet that tends to stick with me. Again, these divisions are too simple, but they seem to hold true for the poems I like best.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

What am I thinking tonight:

The progression of Ani Difranco’s early career

Good thoughts about B

The progression of my “early career”

The pile of books I have to review
(Andra Baker, Sarah Arvio, Franz Wright, Brett Lott)

The lovely birthday party I just went to where a boy wrote and orchestrated an entire play involving everyone at the party for his beloved, whose birthday it was

Another friend’s birthday party to which I did not go

The fact that there is still one more day left of the weekend

The fact that when I see lines of text that are different lengths, I think it’s a poem

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I'm all excited about Dalkey Archive Press, publishers of much out of the way, unusual, and translated fiction. I'm reading one of their new titles, Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic. They also published Ben Marcus's first book, The Age of Wire and String, among many other wonderful things. If you're up for some an unusual, though not necessarily mind-boggling (though they've got that too), anything from them comes highly recommended.

Check out the new Harvard Review, issue 29, for my review of Thomas Sayers Ellis's first book, The Maverick Room.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Anonymous blog comments are lame.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Saw Rachel Zucker and DA Powell read on Wednesday at Fordham U’s Lincoln Center campus as part of the Poets Out Loud series. An extraordinary reading—they each read for about 35 minutes, which could be a long time, but they had us all rapt. Zucker’s poems about motherhood just keep getting better. And Powell read from Cocktails, a few poems from each of the three sections. By the end, when he read I think the last of the biblical poems, we all felt awed.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Some Thoughts on Dark Brandon

Is Dark Brandon the book Ashbery would write if he were Brandon Downing's age?

Downing is a very clear Ashbery disciple; he incorporates whatever's in the air--in his case, images and associations called up by movies--into the stream of consciousness of the poems.

Unlike Ashbery, however, Downing's poems are motored by a palpable outrage at what's going on around (Bush, the apathy built into our culture) and within (his own apathy and flippancy) him. That outrage and anger is one of the book's most compelling features.

I don't feel the need to read the whole book. The whole thing seems to be cut from the same cloth, in pieces of different shapes and sizes, but it's all the same substance.

Of course, I would get more out of individual poems if I were more familiar with all the movies that are referenced.

Intentional grammatical errors and colloquial language figure that apathy and flippancy.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

“Richard Siken’s Crush…represents a common and very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry that treats as incidental both the lay reader and the world beyond the poem.”
-Michael Hansen from Speakeasy Poetry Series

This is an argument about contemporary poetry that annoys the crap out of me. The quote above is taken from the reviews section of the website for an important and popular NYC reading series. Siken, to whom the quote refers, is the most recent Yale winner. Never mind that I love his book. Never mind the fact that it seems pretty straightforward to me—it’s about the self-consciousness and inner isolation that comes, very naturally, with being misunderstood by other people—in the case of Siken’s speakers, the cause of misunderstanding is often homosexuality, but the feeling of being misunderstood portrayed in the book applies broadly—and which can be fostered by language. What is the root of this notion that poetry, or literature in general (see Ban Marcus’s recent article in Harper’s in which he, albeit unfairly, trashes Jonathan Franzen for advocating only accessible literature), should be careful not to alienate anyone by being challenging? One of the best things about contemporary poetry, because it has proliferated in so many different directions, is that it caters to a wide variety of tastes and needs, from those who want poetry that neatly and obviously refers to the world at hand, to those who want poetry that requires intimate and esoteric knowledge of the culture of poetry before it makes any sense. To call Siken’s book representative of a “very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry” (and let me stress that I think this is a misreading of Siken’s book in particular—it’s not that weird) is to confess a fear of difficulty in general. We don’t come to poetry for the same pleasures we expect from TV and Sci-Fi novels. We come to it for a challenge, for its capacity to portray less familiar emotional states, and for empathy with our own experiences of those unfamiliar, but no less real, emotional states. To deny that in favor of poetry that is easily accessible to “the lay reader” is to miss the point entirely. We should work hard to understand some things—poetry is an exclusive club, but we each have the capacity to initiate ourselves through patient apprenticeship. Most of us spent our high school and college years in our rooms curled up with books gratefully struggling for understanding. Certainly, for me, those years paid off.