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Book Preview: Sam Taylor's Nude Descending an Empire
Sam Taylor is the author of two books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable/Copper Canyon Press) and Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series, forthcoming), and the recipient of the 2014-2015 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship. He is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Wichita State University. Q: Tell me about your forthcoming book, Nude Descending an Empire. A: It develops the lyrical voice of a citizen-poet engaged with politics, history, and the urgency of our contemporary moment, especially its ecological urgency. I wanted to find a poetic voice that could speak into history, speak publically, imaginatively, and nakedly into being alive right now. Living amid global information—and interconnection, and perpetual crisis—I felt it was important to allow “political” concerns into the work in a way that reflected the extent to which they seemed an integral, even an existential, part of one’s consciousness in being alive now. Q: The title is fascinating, especially because it situates the poems in relation to the artistic revolutions associated with cubism and literary modernism. Do you see the book as an extension (or revision) of the work of modernist poets like Pound, Eliot, etc.? A: No, that’s not really what the title is about for me, although I do love the modernists (and cubism, and surrealism). In some way, in fact, I find contemporary poetry deluded when it considers itself beyond the modernist age. Compared to the monumental originality of Eliot, Apollinaire, W.C. Williams, and Gertrude Stein, the inventions that have happened since seem paltry. The Apollinaire of Calligrammes or the Williams of Spring and All still read as more innovative and fresh today than most contemporary avant-garde work, and so much work seems to recycle what these and other modernists already did a hundred years ago. But, the book is titled Nude Descending an Empire for other reasons, at least as much as “reasons” are what determine any title. Titles usually come to me out of the collective ether, and I say yay or nay, or maybe. My first book had no good title until I did a five-day hermitage in the mountains with that as the express purpose, and on the third day the title came to me (yes, on stone tablets), and I knew it was right—and then for the last two days I just ate almond butter and walked among the elk. Nude Descending an Empire came to me much the same way, although while shuffling through the rooms of my house in Wichita, and it felt right because it seemed to connect all the aspects of the book: the poems of political engagement and empire; the poems of hyper-modernity; the poems of wilderness and ecological crisis; the poems of sexuality and naked intimacy of self. What the allusion does invoke for me, however, is the international character of the book’s sensibility. I have probably been influenced by international poetry as much as by U.S. poetry. Poets like Yehuda Amichai, Garcia Lorca, Yannis Ritsos, and Paul Celan...
Posted Feb 28, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Anthology Review: The Best American Poetry 2013
Guest edited by Denise Duhamel, The Best American Poetry 2013 represents a diverse array of literary styles. Indeed, the poems included in the volume range from numbered lists, couplets, and prose blocks to lyric verse. What's impressive about this volume is the variety of not only poetic forms that are represented, but also the assortment of publications and poets that are included. By culling pieces from web-based publications (The Awl and Plume, for example) as well as from both emerging and established poets, Duhamel has thoroughly contemporized this classic anthology, rendering The Best American Poetry compatible with twenty-first century values and aesthetics. With that in mind, the anthology is at its best when inherited literary forms (couplets, the lyric, etc.) are brought into new syntactic and thematic contexts. Frequently, the work in this anthology places received forms of discourse in dialogue with "circus elephants," "snipers' bullets," and "DVDs." Consider Mark Jarman's piece, "George W. Bush," How much is anyone whose heart speaks for him responsible for what his heart has told him? The occupation of the heart is pumping blood, but for some it is to offer counsel, especially if it has been so changed all that it ways must finally be trusted. What's fascinating about this poem is that Jarman invokes a received form (the lyric) to discuss the contemporary shift from religiosity to scientific inquiry. In many ways, Jarman positions the poet as an observer of these cultural shifts and schisms, suggesting that he or she holds a mirror to culture. I'm intrigued by Jarman's re-envisioning of the lyric "I" as communal, and so the lyric is no longer rooted in individual subjectivity, but rather, it becomes a collective form of address. The Best American Poetry 2013 is filled with poems like this one, which re-envision what is possible within inherited literary forms. Along these lines, the work included in this fine anthology often conflates antiquity with modernity, portraying even the most commonplace experiences as historically sedimented. For many of the poets included, we bear the weight of history with us, even as we traverse a contemporary landscape. Consider Traci Brimhall's "Dear Thanatos," I found the wedding dress unharmed, my baby teeth sewn to the cuff. There's a deer in the woman, a moth in the chimney, a mote in God's one good eye. I'm fascinated by Brimhall's presentation of the wedding dress, which appears as cultural artifact, a tangible vestige of a complex and difficult past. In much the same way that the bride bears her "baby teeth" with her on the "cuff" of her dress, Brimhall suggests that we carry myth, ritual, and history with us in even the most commonplace endeavors. The anthology is filled with poems like this one, which prove as thought-provoking as they are finely crafted. With that in mind, The Best American Poetry 2013 is an engaging, carefully orchestrated, and balanced snapshot of the contemporary literary landscape.
Posted Feb 27, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Book Preview: Emma Bolden's medi(t)ations
Emma Bolden is the author of Maleficae, a book-length series of poems about the witch trials in early modern Europe (GenPop Books, 2013), and medi(t)ations, forthcoming from Noctuary Press. She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry -- How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by Edge, Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife, (Finishing Line Press);The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press);This Is Our Hollywood (in The Chapbook) – and one nonfiction chapbook – Georgraphy V, forthcoming from Winged City Press. Her poetry has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, the Greensboro Review, Redivider, Verse, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, and Copper Nickel. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily’s Web Weekly feature. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University. You can find her online at A Century of Nerve. Earlier this week, I had a chance to ask Emma a few questions about her forthcoming book. Q: Tell me about your new book, medi(t)ations, which is forthcoming from Noctuary Press. How is it different from your first book, Maleficae? How is it similar? Formally, there are a lot of similarities between medi(t)ations and Maleficae. Both are book-length projects: in Maleficae, the poems link together to form a narrative about a woman was both worshipped and persecuted for being a witch; though not exactly narrative, the poems in medi(t)ations also build an arc that follows the out-of-body-like experience of severe illness. I see Maleficae more as a poetic sequence, while I see medi(t)ations more as a book-length poem composed of fragments that can also be read individually. The experience of writing both books felt very similar as well – in both cases, the process of writing felt, for lack of a better word, oracular. It felt as though the language just arrived, in these small little fragmented gifts, which was, I suppose, because the material had been living inside of me for so long. I crafted both books in pieces, allowing the fragments to live in draft formation until other fragments accreted around them. In both cases, it took me a long time to figure out how the poems should inhabit the printed page. I’ve always been a very couplets-and-structured-stanzas-with-no-funny-business-please kind of writer, so I felt very surprised when I found that in order for the poems to work, I had to allow more white space into the poems. I had to allow the white space around and inside the poem, as well as the non-couplets-and-structured-stanzas-funny-business-all-the-way placement of the words, to speak as loudly as the words themselves. At the center of both books lies the idea of silence: the silence of fear and the silencing of women in Maleficae, and the silence of illness, of an inability to articulate the ultimately inarticulable relationship between the bodies we inhabit and the selves that inhabit our bodies, in medi(t)ations. Q: I find it fascinating that the title of the collection, medi(t)ations, lends itself to many...
Posted Feb 26, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
First Book Review: Leah Umansky's Domestic Uncertainties
In Leah Umansky's beautifully written and poignant first book, Domestic Uncertainties, readers will find failed courtships, nineteenth century novels left in ruins, and the "nomenclature for what is left." Presented as an extended sequence of hybrid genre vignettes, which use elements of poetry, flash fiction, and lyric essay, Umansky's finely crafted collection presents a provocative matching of form and content. Frequently invoking Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and other nineteenth century fictions by women, Umansky gracefully situates these female writers within the context of twenty-first century post-genre writing, a thought-provoking gesture that proves at turns reverent and destructive. I find it fascinating that these hybrid genre pieces simultaneously inhabit and revise literary tradition. The work of nineteenth century women writers is no longer forced into male forms of discourse, but rather, Umanksy forges new possibilities for representing and depicting women's lived experience. For instance, Emily Bronte's famed characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, appear in fragmented, elliptical, and thoroughly postmodern prose. These stylistic choices suggest that as Adrienne Rich once argued, women should not write in literary forms that are hostile to them, but rather, should seek out new possibilities for representing their experiences. Consider "What Literature Teaches Us About Love," And after death there is no heart. And after death there is no unknowing for what could've been there is only what is. And there is only what has. And Love. Always Love. I'm intrigued by Umansky's treatment of the poem as a space in which intervention into literary tradition becomes possible. Just as she re-imagines Wuthering Heights from a fragmented, postmodern stylistic standpoint, Umansky presents each poem as a theoretical act, an active engagement with the work that came before her own. Domestic Uncertainties is filled with poems like this one, which read as both conversation with and revision of received wisdom. Along these lines, Umansky's appropriation of received forms of discourse for novel purposes proves to be innovative and engaging as the book unfolds. By presenting the reader with mislaid dictionary definitions, multiple choice questions, and fill in the blanks, Umansky calls upon the reader to assume a more active role, allowing them to participate in the process of creating meaning alongside the poet. In many ways, this also constitutes a radical and thought-provoking revision of the nineteenth century tradition that she has inherited. Umansky writes, Larger than life; epically grand. Just give me the extra mile! If you call it a _________________, it's a __________________. You define what is familiar. Don't the homophones all sound like "you?" Make me: everything. Here Umansky's innovative use of form leaves space for the reader's imagination, allowing them to situate their own experience within the narrative that's being presented. I find it fascinating that Umansky has revised not only the nineteenth century novels she references, but the relationship between artist and audience that these texts embodied. Here the reader appears as collaborator, an idea that not only destabilizes meaning within the text, but affords a wide range of possible interpretations, each one as...
Posted Feb 25, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Book Preview: Richard Siken's War of the Foxes [by Kristina Marie Darling]
Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, a Lambda Literary Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Indiana Review and Forklift, Ohio, as well as in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2000 and Legitimate Dangers. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, a Lannan Foundation residency, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, War of the Foxes, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2015. Q: Tell me about your forthcoming book, War of the Foxes. RS: The poems in War of the Foxes address the problems of representation in three arenas: painting, fable, and math. All three attempt to make languages out of symbols, representations used to describe the world. And all three succeed and fail in different ways. I wanted to explore the Socratic Method of question and answer, the Scientific Method of hypothesis and measurement, and the Poetic Method of association and analogy. Q: Your first book, Crush, was published in 2005, and readers have been eagerly awaiting your second collection. Why was it important to take a long breath between the two books? What does time make possible for the artistic process? RS: For months after I finished Crush, I felt like I had nothing left to say. Or even a way of saying it. I had talked myself out completely. I began painting again, not vey well, but since my paintings were never very good, and there was no hope of making them good, I was liberated from the pressure of an audience. I became silent. I squeezed the tubes and pushed the colors around. I did have more to say, I just couldn’t -- at the time -- say it with words. This was a crystallizing moment, and led to the lines: Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible. Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway. The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful. As for time making things possible, and the long breath between books, I can’t say anything useful. Writing and publishing are different. I write when I want to, I share when I want to. They rarely match up and they have -- for me -- very little relationship to calendar time. I wish I had a better...
Posted Feb 24, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
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