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Kristina Marie Darling
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David Trinidad’s newest book is Notes on a Past Life (BlazeVOX [books], 2016). He lives in Chicago, where he is a Professor of Creative Writing/Poetry at Columbia College. KMD: I truly enjoyed your latest collection, Notes on a Past Life, which was just published by BlazeVOX Books. As I read the work, I was reminded of Marianne Moore’s philosophy with regards to poetry. She actually coined the term “conversity” to describe the dialogic nature of the arts, to evoke the idea of the poem as a conversation with other creative practitioners. Similarly, your collection contains references to such writers as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Mark Doty, as well as incisive commentary on the business of poetry. With that in mind, I’d love hear more about your beliefs about contemporary poetry as a dialogue among its practitioners. Which elements of the conversation are you most interested in preserving, and which of these are you most interested in refining, reconstituting, and even discarding? To what extent is your poetry, your participation in this literary conversation, an interventionist gesture, an effort to effect change through narrative, as well as form and technique? DT: I think Moore’s term is apt. I’m always in conversation with other poets. In Notes on a Past Life, I set out to tell the truth about my own experiences in the New York poetry scene. That was all. But as I was writing the book, I realized it was a fairly stringent critique of the poetry business and ambition in general. Prior to starting the book—and while I was writing it, too—I read a number of poets who helped show me the way. I was looking for direction, and for permission, without really knowing it. It wasn’t a completely conscious process; I don’t know that writing, for me, ever is. Or can be. How do you write about unpleasant experiences with real writers, living and dead? How do you reach back, touch those old hurts, reignite them, and transform them into art? Two poems I found helpful were Sylvia Plath’s “The Tour” and Ted Hughes’s “The Literary Life.” Both are about Marianne Moore, actually. Thom Gunn’s “Famous Friends” is a poem I’ve argued with for a long time. Ultimately, I think it’s valuable. Certain poems should trouble you. John Berryman’s Love & Fame showed me many things; I’ve been reading that book on and off for years. There were others. Lorca’s Poet in New York was helpful in terms of structure and pitch. Stylistically, Hilda Morley and A.R. Ammons helped me. James Schuyler and Anne Sexton always help me. The poets I’ve mentioned are all dead, of course. To be honest, I don’t feel that contemporary poetry has very much to tell me. I don’t think very much is actually being said, or said in an interesting way. There’s a sameness, and a safeness, a mundaneness, an eye to getting ahead that deadens the poetry. There are a few voices that seem distinct, concrete. Maybe there always are... Continue reading
Posted Feb 26, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
All too often, writers possess great technical ability, but they lack ambition with respect to the larger ideas that seemingly small choices within a text—a line break, alliteration, and even the visual appearance of the work on the printed page—can communicate. For many practitioners of the literary arts, style remains mere ornamentation, rather than functioning in a more substantive way. And so we are left shivering in a beautifully painted corridor after the performance, with the doors latched all around us. At the same time, three recent texts by women remind us that form, and the behavior of the language itself, can function as an extension of content, opening up possibilities for readerly interpretation that transcend the semantic meaning of the words as they appear on the page. C. Kubasta’s All Beautiful & Useless, Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat, and Anne Tardos’ Nine each present us with subtle technical choices that call our attention to the politics inherent in language, grammar, and the literary forms we have inherited. We are asked to consider language not as a given, but rather, as a set of implicit hierarchies, judgments, and assertions of power. Even more importantly, the reader is reminded that language structures conscious experience, and even the most subtle implications of grammar are internalized by the subject. In these deftly crafted works of poetry and hybrid prose, we watch as each author simultaneously inhabits and revises received structures for thinking and writing, ultimately subverting them from within that familiar and deeply entrenched order. Although somewhat different in style and approach, these innovative texts certainly share an investment in approaching poetic technique as politically charged, the smallest nuances of formal innovation offering opportunities for social justice within the literary landscape, and well beyond its boundaries. What does possibility look like, then? How will we recognize her, and what glittering ammunition does she carry? * * * I did not say this exactly. I said I am alone. I am ashamed. I said I am so thirsty I want something to drink. And I said there are small shells crushed beneath my feet. And I also said one simple thing… Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat provocatively juxtaposes inherited myths with invented forms, which often use the space of the page as a visual field. By presenting her artistic inheritance alongside the wild machinery of her own imagination, Danon ultimately calls our attention to the arbitrary nature of the forms, narratives, and linguistic conventions that circumscribe what is possible within thought itself. Indeed, the cultural imagination from which we all borrow is revealed as the result of chance, and what’s more, it is only one of many possibilities. At the same time, Danon’s graceful retellings of classic myths remind us that these shared narratives, these symbols and motifs that circulate within culture, are necessary for dialogue, artistic exchange, and even community. Danon fully acknowledges the necessity of a repertoire of forms and narratives, and the larger collective consciousness to which they give rise. She... Continue reading
Posted Feb 25, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Matthew Rohrer is the author of 9 books of poems, most recently SURROUNDED BY FRIENDS, published by Wave Books. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at NYU. KMD: Your collaboration with Joshua Beckman, Nice Hat. Thanks., is as lively and engaging as it is thought-provoking. More specifically, I’m intrigued by your approach to collaborative writing as a kind of improvisation. This makes possible a degree of surprise, chance, and wonder that is rare in single-author projects, which tend to be much more deliberative. With that in mind, how does one invite such spontaneity into one’s own writing when working in isolation? Within your own artistic practice, how do you negotiate planning and structuring book manuscripts with the kind of invention and improvisation that we see in your collaborative work? MR: I think for years now I have been approaching all of my own writing as a kind of improvisation. I am very uninterested in planning out a poem, and am not very interested in reading poems that are obviously written like that. I just don't find it interesting to engage in writing that way (I'm not, after all, a novelist) and luckily for me I am pretty prolific -- so if an improvisation doesn't really work, I just toss it out. I write another one. I do think, though, that this came to a head after or while working with Joshua on NICE HAT. THANKS. The freedom and excitement and unalloyed FUN of collaborating with him was so intoxicating that I couldn't imagine going back to my own poems with anything other than the same sense of freedom and improvisation. I got to interview Ron Padgett in 1995 about his Selected Poems and that's something he said then, which I remembered but which I don't think I fully understood until later; he said that after doing so many collaborations with Ted Berrigan, he began to approach his own writing as if it were a collaboration as well. And I think it's that sense of surprise at every turn in his poems that's so amazing, and which I humbly would like to also have in my own. When I think of your recent collaborations with Kristin Giordano -- the GHOSTS OF BIRDS sequence, I'm amazed at how you are able to take these very spare and stark photographs in black and white-- really just bones on a black background -- and find a world or a poetic space in which they can live alongside your new poems. The sea plays a large role in them too -- which makes sense since the photos almost look like bones washed up on a beach. I'm curious about how you approached the making of your poems in terms of these photos --- how you got to that moment of awareness that let you create this space in which the poems and the photos could live together? KMD: That’s a great question. And I definitely agree with you that all of writing is a collaborative... Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Are the rules of language ever enough to maintain the separation between oneself and another? In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James argued for a vision of the subject as essentially relational, actualized by one’s interactions within a larger community. We are made to see self as world, and prompted to take note of the astounding multiplicity housed within each of us. The human voice, then, is not a singular thing, but rather, it is a choir comprised of luminous fragments: a newspaper headline, a botanist’s field guide, the hit song played over and over again on the radio. Three recent books of innovative prose remind us, through their most subtle stylistic choices, that to be human is to be a conversation. Cassandra Smith’s u&i, Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, and Laura Mullen’s Complicated Grief each dismantle the boundaries between self and other with astonishing grace, wit, and stylistic dexterity. Indeed, they ask us to consider the artifice inherent in the divide we often imagine between subject and object, calling our attention to the role of language, its rules, and its implicit hierarchies, in sustaining a poetics of binary distinctions and exclusion. Within each of these collections, seemingly small technical choices become politically charged, evoking the myriad ways that consciousness is mediated by linguistic conventions that are hostile to it. In other words, language and its implicit binaries, the larger power structures that are enacted within each of its rules, are inevitably internalized, leading us to overlook the constant presence of the other within the self. For Smith, Gerard, and Mullen, the sentence, and the paragraph, for that matter, become a battleground, its most beautiful monuments usurped, interrogated, and subverted from within. While somewhat similar in style and approach, these carefully crafted works of prose offer us three very different ways of conceptualizing a grammar of both alterity and resistance. * * * u&i worried that our bodies were growing differently. u&i clung to each other and after the fire it became very important that we were two who were clinging… In Cassandra Smith’s u&i, we are presented with a poetics that is undoubtedly relational. The speaker of these linked works of lyric prose is at once both subject and object, self and other, viewer and viewed. Moreover, the reader is often unclear as to whether the “u” who is being addressed is external or internal, embodied or imagined. The poem sequence could be read as social interaction and an exchange between parts of the self or parts of consciousness. With that in mind, the narrative is both externally voiced and a manifestation of the speaker’s inherently dialogic imagination. This purposeful ambiguity within the sequence allows meaning and possibility to accumulate. The other is revealed as an ever-present part of the subject, but also, self-knowledge remains possible only through one’s interactions with the other. It is this ongoing dialogue that allows us to see ourselves, our individuality, and our own conscious experience in sharper relief. If the self is essentially... Continue reading
Posted Feb 23, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Heather Fowler is a poet, a librettist, a playwright, a fiction writer, an essayist, and a novelist. She is the author of the debut novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, forthcoming in May of 2016, and the story collections Suspended Heart (2009), People with Holes (2012), This Time, While We're Awake (2013), and Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness (2014). Fowler’s People with Holes was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans in 2015 as well as an MA in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University in 1997. Her collaborative poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale, was the winner of the 2013 TWIN ANTLERS PRIZE FOR COLLABORATIVE POETRY and released in December of 2014. Fowler has published stories and poems online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India, with her work appearing in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more, as well as having been nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award, Sundress Publications Best of the Net, and Pushcart Prizes. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine. KMD: I enjoyed reading your collaboration with Michelle Reale and Meg Tuite, Bare Bulbs Swinging. More specifically, I was fascinated by the book’s structure. Each of the three writers’ contributions to the text are clearly marked, and so too are collectively authored pieces. So much of the time, writers talk about minimizing the individual in collaborative manuscripts. Could you say more about what artistic autonomy makes possible within a project like this? How did you arrive at this structure for your collaboration, and what unique opportunities did it offer? HF: The first thing that must be said is that when I see talented women leaning in to work together and am invited, I often shelve more solitary projects. I had already enjoyed collaborating with visual artists like Elisa Lazo de Valdez (Visioluxus) for a few hybrid texts for The Better Bombshell Project and would soon be working with artist Pablo Vision for my illustrated story collection Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness. When Meg and Michelle wrote me and asked to do a book of poems, they’d already been on my radar as writers I admired. The premise of working together began with: Could we write a collaborative book of poems—three talents trading off and amplifying the themes already present in each poet’s solitary work? It was never an effort to blend, always an effort to stand together and apart. The only poem in the whole book we wrote without designations of who wrote what was the first poem in the book, and we wrote that last. Like that scene in a movie when you see a band of outlaws where each has her own distinctive personality traits, this project let us radiate as individuals as well as those joined in purpose. I loved... Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Kristina Marie Darling: I have always admired the way that your texts exist in spite of, beyond, and against traditional genre categories. Your work has the denseness and lyricism of poetry, with gorgeous and fractured narratives surfacing and resurfacing. In many ways, you question genre boundaries while appropriating the conventions of existing literary genres, a project that's wonderfully ironic and subversive. To what extent do you see genre categories as gendered? Are there larger power structures in the literary community, and in the academy, that dictate genre boundaries? Is writing against them and beyond them a feminist act? Molly Gaudry: I’m wrapping up my coursework now as a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where I’ve been spending a lot of time interrogating everything I thought I knew about genre. Is it multi-genre or mixed genre? Are these different from hybrid texts? Or non-genre texts? Do generic boundaries even exist, and, if so, where do they most rigidly appear and why? Is a crossover an invasion, a breach, a misstep, a test? Is it always transgressive? Or is it an attempt to erase, blur, break down walls? To what extent can the common reader learn to accept and appreciate that these boundaries and borderlines are, and have always been, invisible? I am struggling to answer these questions for myself. I read something interesting recently in an anthropology essay about liminality. “Vermin” was used as a metaphor for boundary crossers. Rats and other critters that sneak into our homes, where they don’t belong, have breached the social contract. They are pests that must be taken care of, must be returned to their place. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to so many invisible boundaries socially constructed around us. The metaphor works for just about any marginalized individual, group, or social structure that attempts to move. I’ve only just begun to wonder about the broad-spectrum potential of what more play in literature might mean, what might come of more widespread generic boundary crossing, because if we can learn to be more willing to allow these shapes and forms to shift and mutate then perhaps we’ll be less rigid in other areas of our lives, too. I’d like to continue to talk about "feminist acts.” When did you first begin to recognize, in your own work, your feminist investments? KMD: I definitely agree that writing against genre embodies many forms of resistance, since it is often those in power who delineate genre categories. And it's frightening how these generic categories shape cultural production and the ways that we inhabit language. I first began to recognize my feminist investments as an M.A. candidate in continental philosophy at the University of Missouri. Many of my colleagues were working within the analytic tradition, and their work drew heavily from logic and the sciences. I was immediately struck by the strict genre conventions that bound their work, and as a result, their thinking, and what was possible within their writing. Research papers always... Continue reading
Posted Feb 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Julie Babcock's stunning first collection of poems, Autoplay, offers spare, carefully crafted lyrics that are as familiar as they are uncanny. By invoking the seemingly tame imagery of Midwestern cities, the poems in this striking collection lull the reader into a sense of complacency, only to skillfully undermine this expectation that they will encounter a familiar narrative. As the book unfolds, Babcock excavates violence, discontent, and enchantment from beneath an unremarkable exterior—marked by "the green hills of the gold course," "baby-sitters," and "breath against the mirror"—restoring a sense of both danger and wonder to everyday life. In doing so, Babock offers the reader a perfect matching of form and content, particularly as her stylistic dexterity illuminates and complicates the content of the work itself. With that in mind, Babcock's use of received literary forms to deliver unexpected content is particularly impressive. She draws a parallel between inherited modes of writing (of which couplets, tercets, and quatrains are only a few examples) and the Midwestern cultural landscape, suggesting that both have been made to seem inhospitable to creative endeavors, but can give rise to stunning imaginative work if we allow them to. She writes in "Ohio Apologia," A twin can never divide her wealth. I planned to go where I'd never melt into a mold of virgin or slut. I wanted to love you to love myself. I crossed the rivers with my bag of stealth my story line revised and trussed, but a twin can never divide her wealth. Here Babcock simultaneously inhabits a traditional literary form and received ideas about femininity, suggesting that one can work within these bits of inherited culture to expand what is possible within them. In much the same way that the speaker herself is "twinned," her story line is "revised and trussed," suggesting the inherent instability of both literary traditions and narratives of identity. Autoplay is filled with beautifully crafted poems like this one, which offer a carefully constructed relationship between style and content. Along these lines, I found Babcock's use of domestic imagery compelling and provocative, especially as she suggest the violence inherent in being confined to a given place. She creates a wonderful tension between the confines of formal poetry and the volatility of the images contained within these formally pristine edifices, suggesting the inevitable discontent with one's origins. Consider "Autoplay," I am the baby-sitter. She is snuggled so close we might be one. We hear a noise and flee the house. "We're safe," I say, as we jump on the outdoor trampoline. Double somersaults of fear... For Babcock, a particular place entails not just mere surroundings, but specific gender roles, modes of communication, and narratives of identity. In much the same way that the speakers' voices are contained within neatly presented tercets, couplets, and pantoums, the violence inherent in narratives of place is also subsumed within these orderly forms. What's fascinating about this tension between style and content is the way that Babcock subtly suggests that conflict, and contradiction, can reside... Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
KMD: I've truly enjoyed reading all three of your books, and was intrigued by the dream-like quality of the poems in Arco Iris. They seem at once ethereal and carefully grounded in concrete imagery, rendering everyday things (like coffee, used electronics, and the sky above) suddenly and wonderfully strange. Along these lines, many of the poems take place in an unnamed tropical location, which for the reader, is both anywhere and nowhere, a tangible place place and a psychological one. With that in mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between travel, the literary arts, and the human psyche. What does travel make possible within your writing practice? And within conscious experience? SV: That's interesting. I don't think of Arco Iris as dreamlike or unspecific. It's actually named a few times as South America-- many regions in South America-- a continent my partner and I traveled for a few months about nine years ago. The book is, in my experience of it and my intentions for it, a kind of anti travel-poetry. Or a rejection of the trope of travel (especially of the white traveler going to a brown place to have a "writing experience" or to buy themselves an authentic transformational experience or etc.). It is a book in which I can't write or think myself out of a scenario in which my movement in the world (as a white American, especially) is not complicit with neoliberal violence and/or globalism and its many layers and types and shades of (economic, racial, political, physical...) violences. I wonder if the ethereal experience you had of it was what I felt to be the spellcasting of capitalism--you try to say something against capitalism, it is immediately appropriated as a product of capitalism (and neutralized?), ad infinitum. But along those lines, after having read your Music for another life and Vow-- I'd love to ask--what do the ethereal, the dreamlike, the bride, and the book mean for you in those collections? And perhaps related, do you understand or do you think through your work on a book-by-book level, or a poem-by-poem level, or as a group of books together, or...? KMD: That's a great question. I've always thought of reading as a kind of travel, in which one is carried from consciousness as we know it into a kind of dream state. For me, the physical object of the book facilitates this transformation, this dreaming as much as the work itself. As much as I hate to admit it, it all begins (for me at least) with the book's cover, as well as its size, texture, the way it feels in the hand. It is for this reason that I love to be very involved in the design of my books. When Max Avi Kaplan and I co-wrote Music for another life, we actually typeset the entire book, designed the cover, and selected the cover image from within the collaboration, presenting it to the publisher as a finished, fully-realized product.... Continue reading
Posted Feb 4, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
John Gallaher's finely crafted poetry collection, In a Landscape, reads as an exercise in blurring boundaries, an effort to challenge the received models of writing, reading, and authorship that we have become accustomed to. Presented as a book-length sequence of linked lyric pieces, which appear in long, Whitman-esque lines, the work in this stunning new book asks the reader to consider the myriad ways that poetry overlaps and intersects with memoir writing, particularly as Gallaher strives to eliminate any distance between the speaker of the poems and the author. In many ways, Gallaher's work gestures at the artifice inherent in the lyric "I," offering instead poems that allow the reader to observe the inner workings of memory and consciousness experience. Gallaher's work is perhaps most impressive in moments when he creates an expectation on the part of the reader that the work will read like prose, then proceeds to undermine that readerly expectation. For instance, the work is presented in long lines that look, at first glance, like prose, leading the reader to expect a linear narrative, filled with exposition, that creates an orderly progression from one event to the next. As the poems unfold, one is surprised and delighted to discover the poems' elliptical and associative logic. By creating this provocative relationship between form and content, Gallaher suggests the artifice of the narratives we create to lend a sense of order to the world around us. He writes, I just forgot how to count Roman numerals, and had to look it up. I used to be good at them, and would always wait for the end of T.V. shows, where I'd get to count the date. The game was: figure out the date before it blinked away... Here Gallaher presents us with lines that look like prose on the page, but remind us that consciousness and memory are inevitably fragmentary, no matter what narratives we construct around them. In many ways, Gallaher prompts the reader to see the beauty inherent in fragmentation, suggesting that these brief episodic narratives and associative leaps remain closer to the truth than the clear linear progression that one finds so often in prose. In a Landscape is filled with poems like this one, which remind the reader of the artifice inherent in the creation of narrative, which offers only an illusion of wholeness and coherence. Along these lines, Gallaher's associative and elliptical narratives suggest that consciousness itself is fragmentary, and memory represents only our efforts to lend a sense of continuity to our experience of the world around us. The poems in this carefully crafted collection frequently use the style of the work to make this ambitious philosophical argument, offering the reader a perfect matching of form and content. Consider this passage, The other night we drove downtown and something was on fire somewhere. We could smell it and see smoke, but we couldn't tell exactly where it was. A little to the east and south of the parking lot, I think? What's most... Continue reading
Posted Feb 3, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Kristina Marie Darling: Your new book, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1, offers readers an extended engagement with 1960s mass culture, exploring the myriad ways that television and radio shape the individual consciousness. This idea that culture determines what is possible within thought, and within the human mind, is gracefully enacted in the content of the poems, which appear as pristine couplets. I'm intrigued, though, by moments when the form is broken, and the poems deviate from the pattern that has been established. As the writer, how do you know when a form should be broken? What does breaking form make possible within the content of your work? Tony Trigilio: Thanks so much for your detailed reading of the book. My hope is that, as you mentioned, readers can identify with the ways mass media and individual consciousness shape each other in the book. As I get deeper into Vol. 2 of the Dark Shadows project (about half-finished with the second volume now), I gain a deeper appreciation of mass media's roots in the verb "to mediate." I realize the connection is obvious: but it's one thing to experience media/mediation intellectually, and an entirely different thing to experience it psychically and viscerally. Like all of us, the development of my own psyche was mediated by electronic communication—for me, it was television and radio, and for folks growing up now, it's digital media. It just so happens that the mediating force for me was a kitschy vampire and all the nightmares he caused me (though I was way too young to understand he was kitschy). As scary as the continual nightmares were, they did introduce me to the power of dream and to the idea that dream-reality is as vital and real as waking-reality. I appreciate your remarks on the symmetry of the couplets, and, perhaps more important, your remarks about those moments when I break the couplets. For me, the breaking of the couplets creates an asymmetry that speaks back to the formal boundaries I've deliberately imposed on the project. The accumulating couplets lead, for me, to a weirdly discontinuous feeling of finality in each segment of stanzas. By "discontinuous," I mean that each segment of couplets sustains itself until eventually reaching a resolution (the one-line stanzas that break the couplets) that is really not a resolution at all, because, ideally, it resists the expectation for continuously symmetrical couplets. It resists the desire for resolution. My hope is that the one-line stanzas lead the reader to the next segment of couplets as part of an ongoing chain of formal buildup and formal collapse. This dance between structure and collapse offers, for me, an ongoing chain of speech (form) and silence (collapse) always mediated by the white space of the page and the horizontal lines that break up each segment of the book. I'm working with the same couplet structure in Book 2, but I'm also starting to feel like I need to break into a different formal... Continue reading
Posted Feb 2, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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... Continue reading
Posted Feb 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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. Continue reading
Posted Feb 27, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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... Continue reading
Posted Feb 26, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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... Continue reading
Posted Feb 25, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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... Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 23, 2014