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Dante Distefano
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Dante Di Stefano: How did Eyewear Publishing come into being? Todd Swift: I was approached by two Dutch poets in 2011, after I had read at their festival in Maastricht; they wanted to set up a new English press open to international poetry, based in London, and offered me a small amount of money to start it. I said no, but they insisted. We went out for dinner, and after much wine, I relented. Almost every other UK publisher I consulted told me I was mad to start a small press for poetry. We became a limited company basically six years ago, May 2012. DD: The Sexton Prize, Eyewear’s contest open to American poets, encourages a transatlantic dialogue that is perhaps not always as strong as it could be. Can you talk a bit about this dialogue? TS: We have several other prizes also open to American poets, including The Franz Wright prize, judged this year by Kaveh Akbar. The transatlantic dialogue was at its peak four times in the 20th century, and each time it was connected to a poet-editor I admire – Ezra Pound and Al Alvarez, in particular, made a lot of the importance of British and North American poets reaching each other’s work and sending poets back and forth in terms of reviews and publications. Poetry magazine played a large part in this, and under Don Share, 100 years later, is doing so again. British poetry has always been a bit more insular, and has some rather protectionist traditions in place, whereby some critics defend a so-called English Line, untainted by American diction or themes. Younger poets, from time to time, have been inspired across the pond. Eliot, Plath, Charles Olson and Ginsberg had a huge effect over here in the UK. Auden, Dylan Thomas, FT Prince, Thom Gunn, and Prynne have all had an impact on US poetries. The list is endless. But you still get people in the UK saying Hart Crane is not a real poet, that sort of thing; rather silly. Obviously, the new social media revolution of the past ten years or less has changed things considerably. Suddenly, American poets are being far more widely published in the UK – Eyewear and a few other presses, like Salt, Salmon, Bloodaxe and Carcanet seemed to pave the way. Penguin is back publishing American poets. Of course, there are so many US poets and Canadian poets, and Mexican poets, that most British presses never publish. I think there are maybe only a handful of Canadian poets currently in print in the UK. Maybe a few dozen American poets. I believe it is incredibly important for poets, especially younger poets, to know what is going on in their art and craft, aesthetically, politically, culturally, wherever it is written. I am a big believer in cosmopolitanism and cross-pollination of styles and concerns. DD: What do you think American poets can learn from contemporary British poetry? TS: I think it is probably rather the other way... Continue reading
Posted Apr 6, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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The Riddle of Longing Faisal Mohyuddin Backbone Press, 2017 The Riddle of Longing, Faisal Mohyuddin’s ecstatic, brimming, debut chapbook begins with the lines: “We have always been the displaced children of displaced children, / tethered by distant rivers to abandoned lands, our blood’s history lost.” This stunning couplet sets the tone for a series of poems centered on the family, charged with the exilic energies of a diasporic consciousness, committed to rearticulating home—in vowel and consonant, in the reimagined last breath of a father, in “flame-lipped testimonies,” and in the felled banyan trees populating a nightmare. “Exile,” Mohyuddin tells us, “begins where rivers end,” and this terminus is where his poems also originate: on a strangely beautiful threshold where the cartographers are blind, the theologians, blindfolded, and where a child folds the sky into a winged horse from a thin ribbon of wind. Mohyuddin’s poetry ranges from the Punjab to Arab Andalusia, from Chicago to a space shuttle orbiting Earth, expertly shifting between forms, including the sonnet and the ghazal. In poem after poem, Mohyuddin grounds himself in the terra firma of imagination and empathy, braiding together personal, cultural, and political histories; his rejoinder to loneliness and longing: “Whatever you can give, / while you still have time left / in which to give, / give.” Mohyuddin gives mightily throughout this chapbook, in the tradition of Douglass, DuBois, Ghandi, and Rumi, figures he invokes and emulates. The poem “Faisalabad” perhaps displays the poet’s gifts most distinctly as Mohyuddin weaves together the origin of his own name, the strands of his own familial history, the colonial legacies ghosting through the “Manchester of Pakistan,” the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and a profound mediation on the circuitous exigencies of language and power. The following lines from “Faisalabad” emblematize the gentle ferocity at the center of Mohyuddin’s work: “Heaven, Muslims believe, / lies beneath a mother’s feet. I fall short / of them every moment of my life.” Few contemporary American poets write as lovingly, as winningly, as directly, and as humbly about being a son (or, indeed, about being a father, as Mohyuddin does so movingly in “To Be a Fisherman or a Father, You Must”). The natural radiance of these poems, their foregrounding of the blood harmonies rhapsodized in the idle hours of family life, the tender wisdom of this work renders The Riddle of Longing a must-read. Traveling through this collection is like looking at starlight while paying attention to your own “inner burning, from which a new kind of love is being forged.” Dante Di Stefano is the author of two poetry collections: Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016) and Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, forthcoming 2019). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for the DIALOGIST. Along with María Isabel Alvarez, he is the co-editor of Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America (NYQ Books, 2018). Continue reading
Posted Mar 19, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: How did Shelterbelt Press come into being? AC: Meagan and I were both teaching at the same university and we decided to form a press to be affiliated with the university so our students would have a hands-on experience. We also wanted to focus on a press that would have social justice at its core, so in publishing books, we also want to think about how the work we publish can do something important and valuable in the world. We plan to incorporate ideas of activism into publicity. DD: What have been some of the challenges and rewards of starting a new press? AC: One of the largest challenges is always funding—finding a range of support created some challenges, but the rewards are well worth it. And of course there are many. Primarily, having the chance to read so many different writers is a huge award. Receiving support and guidance from other presses, too, has been especially rewarding. DD: The first book Shelterbelt will publish is the debut collection of an amazing poet, Eloisa Amezcua. Can you tell us a bit about From the Inside Quietly? AC: Eloisa’s book is an amazing debut that explores life and loss, family and identity. As we talked about the collection, it seems the image of reflection comes to the surface. The poems are very direct in their assertions and explore a wide range of ideas, including sorrow alongside joy. We particularly love how the book manages to have a wonderful sense of humor at times. DD: Meagan, your new short story collection, ActivAmerica, is on my reading list for the winter break. As your website notes, this collection explores how we confront (and exert) power and re-imagine ourselves through sports and athletic activities. What draws you to this subject matter? What connections do you see between the writing life and the world of athletics? What did you learn about yourself and American athletic culture through the writing of this book? MC: Thanks for these wonderful questions, Dante, and for putting my book on your list! Sports were a big part of the community in the town where I grew up. I played (and still play) soccer, ran track, figure skated. It was a decade after Title IX was passed, so there was all this rhetoric surrounding “girl power” and athletics: like, through sports girls/women will defeat the patriarchy! Of course, it’s way messier than that. The book helped me understand the ways in which certain unequal power dynamics manifest on fields, rinks, and courts, power dynamics which impacted me and my teammates growing up, often in the form of patriarchal coaches and struggles with body image and eating disorders. I also learned more about how American sports/fitness ideology often masks different forms of injustice. Writing and sports are deeply related for me. They both involve daily practice, humility, and the need to develop both individually and within a broader community. No one writes or story, or kicks a soccer ball, in a... Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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Not Elegy, But Eros Nausheen Eusuf NYQ Books, 2017 Nausheen Eusuf’s protean debut collection, Not Elegy, But Eros, shuttles between elegy and ode, nimbly shifting between formal styles as it memorializes and praises subjects and people ranging from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Northrop Frye. Eusuf bears witness to her own family history and to the political violence and repression in her native Bangladesh. The collection’s title poem delicately honors the life and work of Xulhaz Mannan, an LGBT activist murdered in Bangladesh in 2016: “I fathomed the fall of that abyss, held / only by the thought of one I loved—.” Not Elegy, But Eros also includes poems about selfies, her father shining shoes, riffs on lines from A.R. Ammons and Paul de Man, an “Ode to the Joke,” and an “Ode to Apostrophe.” In lesser hands the leaps between topics and tonalities might seem too jarring, but in Eusuf’s work these leaps appear as the natural outgrowth of a wide-ranging razor-sharp intellect; given this, not surprisingly, the most pronounced influence in Not Elegy, But Eros is Wallace Stevens, who is evoked at every turn, but most directly in “Mind of Winter” and “Nocturne on a Winter Night,” which ends: “if only we could let the seeming be / in love’s endless mise en abîme / until the scraping of shovels at dawn.” Little Climates L.A. Johnson Bull City Press, 2017 L.A. Johnson’s chapbook, Little Climates, takes place at the intersection of fragility and acquiescence, “in a house full of breakable things / and reassuring porcelain we never touch.” In these winter spaces, “foxgloves with their toxic mouths open for us,” and yet, “stars reveal their combustible selves.” Johnson is a poet of passionate inwardness, testing the tensile strength of the silken tethers that bind us to those with whom we live, and fight, and love, and disappoint, in the small strange fickle weathers of our lives. Little Climates holds open its wounds that they might be lustrated by the poems themselves. Johnson’s poems are luminous icicles, dangling on the edge of warmth, want, and danger. Little Climates is a haunting book, full of broken continuums, bi-furcating paths, night passages, and moments of transmutation. L.A. Johnson’s ultimate subject here is impermanence, and its ambiguous blessings: “In the future, this house will become honeycomb / and bees will make clear honey out of all our mistakes.” This is another remarkable chapbook from Bull City Press. Blind Flowers Roberta Senechal de la Roche Arcadia Press, 2018 Blind Flowers ranges from ancient Babylon and Alexandria to the Deep South and back again, blazing forth with elemental, numinous, finely-wrought lyric poems. Roberta Senechal de la Roche writes with a pen of bone, words that “float the world / into the coming tide.” This chapbook recalibrates regret, weaving a requiem to the crowded dirt from a bibliography of absences. From “the floating empire of memory” Senechal de la Roche constructs a “lexicon of old surprise,” wherein, a resting heron becomes “a hieroglyph that conjugates / pond... Continue reading
Posted Feb 19, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: In his introduction to the anthology Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to Present,David Lehman notes: “Writing a prose poem can therefore seem like accepting a dare to be unconventional. It is a form that invites the practitioner to reinvent it.” Using Lehman’s words as a jumping-off point, could you talk about your experience of writing such lovely, brilliant, challenging prose poetry over the years? Why is the prose poem your preferred medium? NA: When I began writing, I wanted to write short stories. I wanted to be the next Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor. I wanted to tell the story of Miss August, even back then, of a transgender boy, growing up in the 1950s and 60s. The title scene of the book: a young girl and boy looking at a Playboy Magazine, flipping open the centerfold of Miss August—was already written in some version or another. In that scene, the girl cringes, just as I did when I was eight or nine years old, and announces, Whatever that is, whatever made that lady into Miss August—that is never, ever, ever happening to me. (I didn’t have too much to worry about, but Miss August gave me nightmares for years.) The boy, gazing at the same centerfold, said one day he’d be Miss August, adding, Just you wait and see. But in my last of year of college, I took a creative writing class with David Lehman in which he taught us the wonders of the prose poem. We read poets like Gertrude Stein, Russell Edson, Henri Michaux, Julio Cortázar, Günter Eich, Tomas Tranströmer, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Max Jacob, Octavio Paz, and so many others. I was smitten. My whole world changed. And I knew I would never be a fiction writer. The prose poem was and is the form I have always felt most at ease with, the form in which I could wear jeans to the literary ball. No more pretenses, no more dressing up in outfits that didn’t fit me. I like to write in smaller units, stanzas or paragraphs, and I have always been enchanted by the magic and music and mystery of poetry. I also love humor and surrealism, as do many of the masters of prose poetry. And I love how prose poetry can mimic other forms and mock one’s expectations and assumptions. Even when lean towards fiction, as I did with Miss August, I want to write each page as a prose poem. I never want to give up that tightness that poetry offers, that jewel-like quality, even if I am writing a novel. DD: In your latest book, Miss August, you draw on your childhood experiences growing up in the south, outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, an area to which you’ve recently moved back. What insights did you gain about yourself and your writing from the imaginative return you made in Miss August, and the actual return you made moving back in real life? What can the South of the... Continue reading
Posted Feb 2, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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Swarm Queen’s Crown Stephanie Adams-Santos Fathom Books, 2016 Stephanie Adams-Santos’ collection of finely-wrought, barbed, numinous lyric poems weaves from “a few warbled jags of wind” a laurel for all searchers enthralled and menaced by the beauty of a world “full of strange experience.” These are poems composed “in the tight sling of the chrysalid,” “belted to the bolt of being,” where every word sounds “lassoed to a bell.” Adams-Santos pitches her poems between chrysalis and swarm, self and world, I and thou, aware “of the secret lathe / now turning in the pulp / of our living.” “Tongue,” a representative poem from the middle of the collection, reads: Loin of the skull who lives in the bell of my bone, little black place of music— If you have vespers, O won’t the toad come? Swarm Queen’s Crown presents for our inspection real gardens with imaginary toads in them, the voluptuous gasp at the center of a thorny prayer. Echolalia in Script: A Collection of Asemic Writing Sam Roxas-Chua Orison Books, 2017 Echolalia in Script gorgeously collects Sam Roxas-Chua’s asemic writings in a gallery of images contextualized by the title poem. The stunning examples of open form writing in this book are “flawed disiderata,” failed cartographies, “troubled cantatas,” “true languages born of beak & exhale.” As Roxas-Chua notes in the introduction, his interest in wordless open semantic forms of writing parallels his work as a poet and stems, in part, from his personal history: “born to Filipino parents, adopted into a Chinese family, and then later immigrating to America resulted in a number of displacements that prevented me from taking claim to country or language.” Echolalia in Script is a book of elemental, angelic, visionary beauty rendered in the illimitable shorthand of the divine, an austere infinite tracery, a singing Forever composed of untranslatable Nows. Porous Borders David Giannini Spuyten Duyvil, 2017 Each poem in David Giannini’s Porous Borders unfolds as “a gymnast who somersaults from a balance beam, but never lands; instead she becomes that somersault.” These, as Giannini calls them, “vertical prosepoems,” spin out from the mundane, through “a place of lyric dissociation,” “smuggling the invisible over the borders of normative prose.” The poetry in this collection is luminous and strange, as if cribbed from a dream of Paul Valery assayed and translated by Russell Edson. With élan and slapstick precision, Gianinni’s poems bristle like porcupines “in an unlit cellar full of inflated balloons. Porous Borders is a particularly vibrant addition to the history of the American prose poem. Our Lady of the Orgasm Nin Andrews MadHat Press, 2016 Nin Andrews’ funny, buoyant, joyous, and deeply intelligent chapbook, Our Lady of the Orgasm, picks up where her collection, The Book of Orgasms, left off when it was published seventeen years ago. Like her two most recent full-length collections, Why God Is a Woman and Miss August, Our Lady provides further proof of Andrews’ mastery of the prose poem. In Andrews’ work, the vocation of the poem and the orgasm... Continue reading
Posted Jan 15, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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One Turn Around the Sun Tim Seibles Etruscan Press, 2017 Tim Seibles’s newest collection, One Turn Around the Sun, examines the chimaeras and constellations of selfhood that make up a life. Seibles ranges from six months after his own conception to his fifty-ninth year, depicting with great nuance the complicated lives of his parents, and meditating on how those lives dovetailed into his own. The interlocking poems of One Turn Around the Sun read more like an autobiographical novella punctuated by villanelles, or a suite of jagged solos played on the bad axe of the self, than as a traditional collection of poetry. Reading this book is like listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: one comes away with the impression of a fully articulated vision of awe at what it means to live, to age, to long, to acknowledge death, and to attain an infinitesimal speck of paradise through music. Seibles aims to cull the quark from the neutrino, to apprehend the bits “of your life straggling / behind you—empty cans / hitched to the newlyweds’ car.” In the title poem, Seibles voices the collection’s central concern: “I believe it is hard to be human, to be these / new animals, hard to say yes to this singular / blood and to the flying world that made us.” For Seibles, it is the flux of personality and the fleetingness of our time on this planet that binds us to one another and allows us to remain partially intelligible despite the difficult bonds that sing us to distance. Seibles constantly navigates and remaps the distances between parent and child, citizen and state, lover and beloved, self and world, poet and reader. Although the details of a life skitter away and memories scuttle, although the stifling sleet of American history rains through these lines, Seibles inveighs with Blakean fluency against the displacements caused “by jobs, by septic religion, ghost-dick capitalism, television—.” Against all that stultifies, Seibles enjoins: Suppose, just once, you saw a middle-aged maniac skating telephone wires like a squirrel, or one glad woman jumping balconies and boulevards as if time were a trampoline—think how gladly you would lose your mind: look what the Takers have taken and the monsters they have made, the tame zombie-playmates they have made of us: smiling, bobbing for the job, trotting along, when we might be trolls under their bridges—billy goats butting their smug asses—when we might re-write the world! What is that restlessness? What is this rage? Proof that the rose still burns in your blood— root and branch, thorn and bloom, proof that your brain is a bucking horse, that your soul remembers and bites the leash; I want such teeth in my mouth. Why can’t we have a world worthy of the wheeling sun? The Earth is a house that flies! Fuck all the powers that be. One Turn Around the Sun is proof the brain is a bucking horse, that we might re-write the world, that time is a trampoline,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 18, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: On your personal website, you have a great quote: “In a perfect world, Audre Lorde and Joseph Campbell would sit down over a few pints of Mudder’s Milk to speak about the way our dreams and magic connect us all, teach us all—the way both are vital to a full and vibrant expression and expansion of culture & self.” Can you start the interview by talking about these artistic forbearers, and what it means to you to run a poetry press in America in 2017? NM: Thank you. No one’s ever asked me about that one before! The book that most affected me in college, still the one I give to friends at any opportunity, is Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. We choose pieces for Sugared Water, our anthologies, and our Porkbelly chapbooks in the place where struggle, speculative work, humor, sure voice, feminism, and the intimate journey converge. Ray Bradbury might call it tipping out the “beautiful stuff” we hold inside of us, or the voices to help “lead [us] through the dark.” Everything, for us, is about the journey, and accompanying the poet or writer along the way. Our staff interests touch everything from hiking to graphic novels, expressionist printmaking to death positivity and queer theory. We bring that to our lit. The majority of our writers are women or female identifying, trans, non-binary, queer folx. We support the work of immigrants and expats, multicultural and intersectional work. We love first books, those starting out, and books by poets and writers well on their way. Our poets range in age from teenage to octogenarian. We look to regional artists when we can, and make a lot of our cover art in house. Running a press in 2017 America is, for us, the work of citizens of the world making way for important voices, marginalized voices—voices we need. DD: How did Porkbelly Press come into being? NM: Sugared Water came first, a market for genre-straddling work, for speculative work, for new writers and experimental writers and established writers trying something new, for humans letting us into their internal landscape. I decided to go with a handmade approach, a callback to years of making zines, using traditional printmaking and bookbinding methods. After a few people sent packets of poems clearly from a series (most of our chapbooks are clusters of poems), and many of those poets had no chapbooks listed in their biographical statement (why not?), I did a lot of thinking about the books I owned and what was missing. I’d read this book is the thought that convinced this artist-writer-printmaker-bookbinder to ask for those poems to make books of them. Some generous, lovely poets (and writers!) took me up on that, and trusted a fledgling press with their book. A handful of our titles still come from poets and writers we find in our Sugared Water queue. DD: Tell us about Sugared Water. NM: Sugared Water is a handbound, limited edition literary magazine. Each cover is printed by... Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Matria Alexandra Lytton Regalado Black Lawrence Press, 2017 Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s debut poetry collection, Matria, examines the prodigies constellated between motherhood and motherland, between English and Spanish, between the United States and El Salvador, between the self and a selfless apprehension of suffering in the world. Regalado’s finely-wrought poems roar in a language haunted equally by “la Carabela de Colon,” “piramide of moreno kewpies / y los hijos de Hernán,” and the cul-de-sacs of the American suburbs where a family becomes “a hallway / of closed doors.” Matria ranges across geographic, cultural, and temporal borders, offering a complicated vision of North and Central American life at the end of one century and at the beginning of another. Like the Lotería cantor’s riddle in “Salvadoran Road Bingo,” Regalado’s words remind us: “Day after day, our fingers in the wounds—here it is, touch it, there is the proof—surviving is what we do best.” Matria, however, is about much more than survival; it is fundamentally a book about how “the body elaborates its ministry” and how ordinary cells might become a vessel of grace, “rooted in / the things unknown but longed for still.” “La Mesa,” perhaps Matria’s central poem, writes through Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” broadening the scope of the original poem to explore the class and power dynamics of Salvadoran life in the post-civil war era. Regalado’s poem begins by addressing and echoing Forché: “Yes, what you’ve written is true.” The poem then pans out, past the sack of severed ears, past the death squads of the 1980s, past the stories of the ex-guerilla leader turned president, through sandbagged streets where divisions are as transparent and unbreakable as the bulletproof glass of an SUV. The bleak reportorial heft of Forché’s poem, strikingly counterbalanced by the lyricism of its prose, is replaced by a simple urgency at the heart of “La Mesa”: a mother trying to explain her homeland, her life, to her son. This relationship between mother and son provides the subject matter for one of the most moving poems in Matria, “The T'ai Chi of Putting a Sleeping Child to Bed,” which reads: In the lull of evening, your son nested in your arms becomes heavier and with a sigh his body sloughs off its weight like an anchor into deep sleep, until his small breath is the only thing that exists. And as you move the slow dance through the dim hall to his bedroom and bow down to deliver his sleeping form, arms parting, each muscle defining its arc and release— you remember the feeling of childhood, traveling beneath a full moon, your mother's unmistakable laugh, a field of wild grass, windows open and the night rushing in as headlights trace wands of light across your face— there was a narrative you were braiding, meanings you wanted to pluck from the air, but the touch of a hand eased it from your brow and with each stroke you waded further into the certainty of knowing your sleeping form... Continue reading
Posted Nov 20, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Miss August Nin Andrews CavanKerry Press, 2017 Nin Andrews’ newest collection, Miss August, provides further evidence that she is perhaps the most agile practitioner of prose poetry writing today. Written from the alternating perspective of three characters, Sarah Jane Lee, Gil Rhett Simmons, and May Dee, Miss August chronicles the connections that these characters forge at Chinquapin Hill Farm in Lessington, Virginia during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Andrews nimbly shifts between registers and dialects as she moves between the three characters, rendering a lyrical, but plain-spoken and arresting, version of three mid-twentieth century southern voices. The South that Andrews evokes obsessively confronts the legacy of what the locals call, “The War of Northern Aggression,” while denying the full truth of the foundational sin of slavery and the continuous transgressions of Jim Crow. In Lessington, the ghosts all wear confederate gray and “raspberry blight got blamed on General Sherman and the burning of the South.” Miss August ably addresses issues of racial discrimination, child abuse, mental illness, gender inequity, sexual identity, and class differences, in a coming-of-age story that resonates even more deeply in 2017 as the open wounds caused by misogyny and white supremacy continue to suppurate. Andrews explores how her characters’ lives are circumscribed and poisoned by the racist southern worldview that surrounds them. When Sarah Jane asks Gil’s father, Mr. Simmons, an abusive, manipulative, philandering, alcoholic, whose family bloodline “traced back to the Order of the First Families of Virginia,” about lynching, he replies: “You know they only lynched criminals, Sarah Jane. Some white folks were lynched, too. The way I see it: Lynching is a whole lot cheaper than the electric chair. And quicker too.” Mr. Simmons embodies a type of witless equivocation that continues to perpetuate white supremacy on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line in the twenty-first century. Running counter to Mr. Simmons, and all that he represents, are the countless silken ties of affection that Andrews draws between Sarah Jane, Gil, and May Dee; these characters are powerless in Lessington: an illegitimate daughter, a boy struggling with his gender identity, and an African-American servant. The care that these characters show each other mitigates the indignities they suffer. As they gallop across the alien landscapes of the stories they tell each other, they dream of planets where everyone is “destined to be an angel”; as Gil puts it: “At night we slept on our bellies so our wings could grow.” Miss August allows us access to the interior lives of three fully realized characters, who, much like many of us, strive to see past the hummingbird into the honeysuckle bloom. Nin Andrews’ Miss August is a must-read examination of the ways personal and collective histories perpetually rewrite the present. Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 16, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: How did Glass Poetry Press come into being? AF: Glass originally started as the journal, Glass: A Journal of Poetry. It was edited by me and my wife, Holly Burnside, and we released our first issue in March, 2008. It started because we had seen a number of journals start up, release an issue online, and then disappear from the web. We wanted to see if we could create something more permanent. We had no real editing experience and no real plan beyond posting our info on a few sites and hoping people would send us work to consider. When we started, we used a free yahoo email account and a free blogger website and yet, somehow, people sent us their wonderful work. In 2014, though, we had to decide if we could keep Glass going. We were both going through career changes and we were having trouble responding to submissions in a timely manner. We felt we weren’t doing right by our readers and our writers, so we decided to close the journal. We kept the website up, though, and made a commitment to our poets that we would keep the site live on the web for as long as we possibly could. Pretty much as soon as we announced Glass was closing, I started thinking about chapbooks. I love chapbooks. I love their size, their relatively small cost, their variety. I love the idea of working one on one with an author on a finished project. I love the idea of being a completely independent press that can take real risks on work that other presses might not be able to take. And I love the idea of this little book you can hold in your hands and put in your bag or purse and pull out to read, start to finish, during your lunch break. In 2016, I was awarded an Individual Excellence Grant from the Ohio Arts Council and I decided to put a portion of that award towards pursuing my dream of running a chapbook press. I already had the Glass website, and people still remembered Glass: A Journal of Poetry, so calling it Glass Poetry Press made sense. I spent four or five months researching materials and other presses, talking with friends who run presses, and talking with poets who might be interested in letting me publish their chapbooks. And in August, 2016, Glass Poetry Press released Ariel Francisco’s Before Snowfall, After Rain, the first entry in the 2016-2017 Glass Chapbook Series. I screamed when I finished stapling that first copy. And I’m not going to lie – I still scream a little when I finish the first copy of every new title. DD: The motto of your press is Precision, Vision, Inclusion. Could you expound a bit on these aesthetic values and how the chapbooks you’ve published, so far, exemplify them? AF: Those are three elements of glass that I admire most (one nickname for Toledo, Ohio, is The Glass City, because... Continue reading
Posted Sep 1, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Stray Adam Houle Lithic Press, 2017 Adam Houle’s Stray exhibits a technical virtuosity uncommon in a debut collection of poetry. Not only does he demonstrate a mastery of sonnet and couplet, but in poem after poem Houle’s finely wrought lines and exacting syntax “turn their leverage in tight spaces.” The poems in Stray are “checkpoints in the interior,” “scattershot/ into the fractures of fugitive rays” emanating from love, desire, and the difficulties constituted by daily life. Houle constantly revises the rapture upon which he verges, cues up puzzlement, and privileges the “helixed descent” that ends only when ear meets earth. Stray contains loving portraits of a woodworking father and of a studious wife, alongside persona poems from a future timber baron and from a Yellowknife girl. Houle praises equally the lonely bedbug, “tag-a-long armed / with anticoagulant / and an endless gut,” and an armadillo stretching to climb a fence, “a hardback hymnal / opening, taut and self-explained.” Houle’s gift is to present the world in all of its black ice menace, besieged and fissured, yawning against hope, and yet to allow for the consolation that comes in the continued twirl of the Northern Lights, in the last green dance of the day, in the conjugations and declensions mouthed beside a spouse in the dark. Stray abounds with a Frostian darkness and dread; as in Robert Frost’s best work, Houle’s best poems concern themselves with the interstices between grief and reason. Also, like Frost, Houle is fundamentally a poet of married life. His poem, “A Paper Hive Earns No Quarter,” exemplifies Houle’s commitment to the philosophical and to the connubial in the face of all that is fraught, dumb, and stinging. The poem reads in full: It’s hell, I think, to see them flit that way at dusk back to us, swarming our willow where, limb-perched, they flex in shadows. You pray they quit us; I pump the poisoned bellows. Love, things can grow too large for us to love, so let my labor mean. I’m wreathed in smoke, an axe-handle clenched in a leather glove. You cough and gripe. I give the nest a poke then, cocking back, let loose a full-on swing. It all explodes. They’re too smoke-drunk to know it’s me they hate and fail to sink a sting. The job is done. I clasp the bellows closed. Look, wife: dazed on your chipped garden gnome one dumb wasp thinks she drives her stinger home. Smoking out the wasp nest in this sonnet, like the writing of the sonnet itself, initiates a dialogue with the beloved, and in both tasks meaning accrues through a labor that is meant to contain the expansive, the threatening, the random swarm encroaching from the shadows. Here, as everywhere else in Stray, revelation is shared and gestural, the result of a tandem perspective, a communion earned by callouses on wreckful, busy, rosary-wrapped hands. It is with such hands that one might build a strange and grateful home, a small stanza of light... Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: How did Winter Goose come into being? Can you give us a brief history of the press? JK: In 2011 I started WGP from a desire to stay close to the written word as a writer and lover of art. The success of our press came quickly with an overwhelming amount of submissions and support from the writing community. We’ve now published over a hundred books and carry several award-winning authors and titles in our catalog. DD: Tell us a little bit about your poetry catalog. What do Winter Goose books share in common? JK: Our poetry catalog ranges in variety from traditional form poetry to a more extensive catalog of contemporary poetry and poets. Our poetry books are all laced with a genuine heart-felt journey through the eyes of many different perspectives. In that genuineness, we find a common thread for all our poetry catalog. DD: What are you looking for in prospective authors? JK: We are looking for unique and well-designed writing with a strong voice. We publish based on quality more than what the industry may consider marketable material. We appreciate the process of writing, whether fiction or poetry, and are always excited to find the next fresh and talented new voice. DD: You’ve published two of Bill Stratton’s poetry collections. Can you tell us about what you most admire in his poetry? JK: Bill brings a strong sense of self with his writing. He writes from a place that brings you in and keeps you there. It’s genuine, raw, and heartfelt. The power shines brightly through his words and gives him a solid foundation that we honor and appreciate. DD: You grew up in a rural area of upstate New York. Can you talk about how this upbringing influences your writing and how the natural world figures in your work? WS: I don't know if I can say anything I haven't already tried to say in my poems, though what I've tried to say has filled a decent part of two books now, so perhaps I ought to try. Where I am from is central New York, more hills than mountains, more dead farms and dollar stores than mines or mills. It's beautiful and haunting, and within my life I saw the end of a certain way of life and the movement into another; from working on farms and local factories to an economy that never really sees the upswing when the country does well and feels every bit of pain when it does not. Drug addiction and violence have increased, as they have in a lot of places where poverty is a problem. Still, there are amazing people there whose friendship I value greatly and who often appear in my poems. I obviously have a lot of conflicting feelings about where I am from, but I'm also fiercely loyal—my friends from home know that, and to me, that is very important. Of course it's a rural place, and in particular I grew up on... Continue reading
Posted Aug 5, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Louder than Hearts Zeina Hashem Beck Bauhan Publishing, 2017 Zeina Hashem Beck’s second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, begins with the lines: “I write in English the way I roam foreign cities—full of street light/ & betrayal, until I find a coffee shop that speaks Arabic.” The poems in Louder than Hearts range across Tripoli, Mosul, Syria, Beirut, London, Paris, and New York, illuminating what is simultaneously most foreign and familiar in those places: the fundamental human drive to connect with others through language and the complexities of doing so in a world divided by cultural, religious, linguistic, and political boundaries. Hashem Beck writes from a certainty in the consolations of the written word. For her, a poem is “a tree without roots/ a street with enormous wings”; each line here both defies uprooting and takes flight, suddenly and assuredly. As the title poem notes, the motions and avowals in Hashem Beck’s work are bound but not beholden to tradition: “The woman in me is thousands/ of years old, her voice louder/ than hearts and derbakkehs.” The ancient tattoo of drumbeat and bloodline cross corridors, balconies, playgrounds, land-mine fields, broken houses, wastelands, continents, oceans, and ideologies. Louder than Hearts bears witness to the scarred and to the disconsolate, to the war-ravaged and to the displaced, to the strange interior countries one must survey and commit to memory if one is to understand the reality of human suffering. Above all else, Zeina Hashem Beck’s work attempts to translate her particular understanding of human suffering into a poetics of radical empathy. Her poem, “Body,” emblematizes the elegiac uplift and heartache at the center of this collection. The poem reads: Body For Hassan Rabeh, young dancer displaced from Syria, who killed himself by jumping from a seventh-floor balcony in Beirut, Wednesday, June 22, 2016 & perhaps you flew. I read the news, how you plunged from the seventh floor, a Beirut balcony, & I am filled with a sound of sirens, a need to be alone. This war this theater this city this. & I was at a Da Vinci exhibit at the museum this morning. & what a blessing, to say I was at a Da Vinci exhibit this morning. & he was a pacifist who designed killing machines, for money always comes from warlords. & he, who like no other knew of the divine proportions of the body, & he who preferred to trace limbs & ligaments & the glide of bat wings in the air, he who preferred the theater, & the projector, & the drum, & bridges, imagined the machine gun & the submarine, & the tank, sculpted a bullet with a more precise dance. & oh how the mind bends & how light & shadows fall. & you, young dancer, tell me, what do you know of the flight of birds, & of the difference between theatricality & war, dissection & witchcraft, dance & death? & were you searching for your Palestine in Damascus, for your Damascus in... Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: I’d like to start by quoting the last five lines from Jim Harrison’s poem, “Books,” published posthumously in Dead Man’s Float: I must sell these books, some quite rare, or exchange them for good food and the wine I can no longer afford. I used to look at pages 33, 77, 153 for the secrets of the world and never find them but still continue trying. Could you use these lines as a jumping off point for discussing the good work you do as a publicist at Copper Canyon Press? KF: Ha! What a great line from Harrison to start our conversation. I am the Director of Publicity for Copper Canyon, which means that I work to get our authors and their books print and broadcast media coverage. Because Copper Canyon is a nonprofit, part of my job also involves working to increase the visibility of our donor campaigns and reader engagement programming. EG: As Copper Canyon’s Associate Publicist, I manage the press’s digital footprint — primarily on social media. Social media serves to amplify press coverage for our books and authors, support the press’s development initiatives, and help build relationships with our community of readers and the literary community at large. The digital landscape is always changing and it’s my job to keep up, so there’s a lot of answer-seeking and not-finding and then continuing-to-try; that’s part of the fun. DD: Jim Harrison’s Dead Man’s Float and C.D. Wright’s ShallCross are both amazing books, capstones to admirable lives in poetry and the arts. Do you see the marketing of these books differently than other books? Could you say that your work as a publicist in these cases is also to elegize and to praise? KF: My role as a literary publicist is to advocate for poetry, and to shout from the rooftops when we get a beautiful collection in our hands. Both of these books are capstones, and that is an important quality that I took into consideration when we developed the publicity campaigns. They were handled with care, and both went out to reviewers with Letters from the Editor, contextualizing the work and honoring the legacies of the poets. The coverage they received was predominantly focused on the poetry itself, with remembrances and retrospectives woven in. EG: Elegizing both Jim and C.D. felt in the wake of their passing more like an organic, communal act of which the press is only a part. Spending as much of my time plugged into online conversation as I do, it was incredible to witness the chorus of so many voices — writers, readers, academics, students, family, friends — sharing with the digital world the impact these poets had on their lives and their work. ShallCross and Dead Man’s Float naturally became important touchstones for this collective eulogizing. Ongoing eulogizing, really; I don’t know that the world will run out of things to say about either of these poets any time soon. DD: What do poets most need to know about... Continue reading
Posted Jul 1, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Filthy Labors Lauren Marie Schmidt Curbstone Books, 2017 Lauren Marie Schmidt’s newest collection of poetry, Filthy Labors, roars with boundless defiant empathy on every page. For Schmidt, poetry is earned communion, restorative utterance, the expression of a belief in a secular, music-bound, Eucharistic reality underwriting daily life, an affirmation of the fact that our mutual individual brokenness, made manifest in the word, is what constitutes true communion. The poems in Filthy Labors draw their inspiration from Schmidt’s work as a poetry instructor at The Haven House for Homeless Women and Children; Schmidt also draws on her personal family history, exploring the difficult affections and the dense connective tissues that bind generations together, and often tear us apart inside. Schmidt arranges the poems in Filthy Labors around six of the seven Catholic sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders; she leaves out Marriage, an omission that felicitously underscores the collection’s commitment to gender equity and female agency in the face of a rabidly misogynistic culture. Each poem in this collection works as an outward sign of an inward grace (the grace is love, emblazoned with the hard-fought duende of Schmidt’s tremendous heart). Filthy Labors posits a sacramental view of the world, unmoored from the false trappings and mystifications of organized religion. Schmidt’s only prophet and priest is Whitman, with his call and response: “Why should I wish to see God better than this day?/ I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,/ In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass.” Filthy Labors sees clearly the face of a young father running for miles after his daughter’s errant kite, the neck of a homeless mother with “Justice” tattooed on it, the face of a man changing his elderly father’s soiled underwear, a woman named Milagros breathing Spanish in her daughter’s ear, the faces of mothers blooming on the eternal verge of struggle, pain, fear, defiance, rebirth. Schmidt evokes the wounds and truths of the many worlds she has passed through. She deftly moves between forms and registers, exploring the limits of the ghazal and the pantoum, unafraid to shift from the vernacular to the vatic. Schmidt also bravely explores her own privilege and blindness, as she poignantly does in “The English Teacher Gets a Lesson in Inference,” You got any kids? Dionna asks. No, I say, I don’t have any kids. You ever been pregnant? I don’t have any kids, so… That ain’t the question that I asked you, she says. Then she folds her arms across her chest and waits for me to answer. Schmidt’s poetry, here and everywhere else in this collection, calls us into radical sympathy with others, grounded in the conviction that poetry might shine and quench and slip its tongue between our lips and pray. Filthy Labors is the product of far more than mere astute observation fused to talent and training. Lauren Marie Schmidt’s work... Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Heisenberg’s Salon Susan Lewis BlazeVox Books, 2017 Susan Lewis’s new collection of prose poems engages the complex routines and the constantly shifting contours of daily life in the twenty-first century with great humor, terror, anger, and insight. Like Kafka, like Borges, Lewis explores the uncertainties that underwrite a life, and that linger in the margins of the page; from such uncertainties, and from the chaos embroidered into the antimacassars of the quotidian, Lewis’s prose poems present themselves as an endless gallery of rooms wherein one might dwell on the raging absurdities and the gentle profundities of existence. In these poems, Lewis introduces a man overwhelmed by the complexity of most things, refugees from the native urban clatter, a god of guilt trying to sharpen the curvatures of space-time, a girl who knows her waking life is an illusion, figures sidling into their lives like shy crabs, motivations stunted, discourses un-tongued, the logic of the stutter-step and the sucker punch, the language of bureaucracy colliding with medusa-headed vernaculars and scientific lexicons. Lewis’s ultimate subject, however, is the protean, indeterminate, baffling conundrum of the self, the mystery and multiplicity of our own individual discrete interior worlds. For Susan Lewis, the prose poem provides a frame within which passionate inwardness and exteriority might overlap, exchange places, negate each other, and continue their distinct pinprick shinings. These poems take form in the interstices of desire, “caught between reciprocity & the cutting edge,” providing glimpses of a “braided interior, veiled though it remained by a haze of evasion.” At their best, the poems startle and skitter, nimbly shifting stances between sentences, darting between parable and parabola—acidic, exquisite, and surreal in the way that only the waking world can be surreal. The poem, “A Variable Equation,” is characteristic in its method; the poem reads, in full: "This one had a weeping cat. In fact, he was a cat himself, when the notion struck him. He could leap from pool to pool like raindrops. When the pair of them cried, the earth beneath them shuddered, from pleasure or impatience. One day the cat’s tears dried up. It lay still becoming something else. Its man never found out who had ordered the new body, but he knew then & there he must get one like it. You could say he lorded it over his pet, but it was the cat become moonbeam which nurtured him before he had a self to speak of." Like a cat become moonbeam it is impermanence that nurtures these poems and moves them rapidly outward. Heisenberg’s Salon offers poems that are by turns cosmopolitan and sage, wry and idiosyncratic, eccentric and expertly executed. Each poem here creates a home for another—newer, stranger, older, atomized—way of life. Susan Lewis exposes the flux within the habitual, the unruliness of the very molecules within the customary; these outlandish internal geometries vanish and reappear as the ever-shifting furniture of the self. Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books,... Continue reading
Posted May 15, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: How did Lithic Press come into being? DR: Before Lithic I was a geologist, an astronomer, and a teacher of earth and space science. Lithic means, pertaining to stone. Long before I became a geologist, my Dad was the poet of the family, so the possibility of poetry has always been about. I wrote a poem in second grade that gave me a good feeling. I wrote a poem in 1992, another in 1994, then they started coming more frequently. About 12 or 15 years ago, I became close with Jack Mueller, a lifelong constant poet-maker with deep knowledge and strong presence. He is a prolific trickster. As Hank Stamper might say, he'll “never give a inch.” Jack was a fixture in San Francisco in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, with Ginsberg, Corso, Doyle, Hirschman, Cherkovski, and the ongoing gang. He is a mountain (in the house at the top of the hill at the end of the road.) Thousands of 3X5 cards and bar napkins with rapidly sketched cartoons, sharpened by fast comment, piled on the dining room table. They captivated me. “Let's make a book of these napkins!” That became, Whacking the Punch Line, and that was the beginning of the Lith. Lithic Press started taking off about two years ago when I hired Kyle Harvey to do design and layout work. Kyle is a beautiful human: multi-talented, motivated, poet-musician-artist, and a brilliant designer! It is amazing to work with him! Lithic would not be what it is without him. DD: Tell us about your catalog. What do Lithic poets share in common? DR: Our catalog has about 30 titles from 20 writers. A little more than half are chappies, the others, perfect-bound longer collections. With the idea of creating rare books, we've done a couple of cloth-bound, numbered, Limited Editions (Jack Mueller's, The Gate, and Kierstin Bridger's, Demimonde.) There is one anthology, Going Down Grand, Poems from the Canyon, that includes poems from more than 50 writers, and a couple of cartoon books, collections of Jack’s, compression sketches, along with, Whacking..., there is, Who Said Hawaii? I can imagine publishing books on Natural History or really anything that becomes obvious to make. As far as I know, all Lithic writers put their pants on one leg at a time. I’m attracted to writers who pay attention to language in addition to any feelings, destinations, or particular sympathies. In all our books, I find some essence of existence, some insight, some play that makes the journey more stimulating. An overriding thought that Mueller has ground into me and his many minions is, Obey Emerging Form, which comes to him directly from his acquaintance with Robert Duncan, and the importance he gave Olson’s thoughts on projective verse. The idea has grown in me, transcends my writing, leads me to drill, bolt and hang rocks from ceilings and trees... led me to open a bookstore. I look for manuscripts that obey emerging form. DD: Can you talk about the... Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Poems in the Manner Of David Lehman Scribner Poetry, 2017 What Blooms in Winter Maria Mazziotti Gillan NYQ Books, 2016 At first glance, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s new collection of poetry, What Blooms in Winter, has little in common with David Lehman’s recently published Poems in the Manner Of. Mazziotti Gillan’s collection maintains the thematic and aesthetic continuity that runs throughout her body of work; Mazziotti Gillan, here, as everywhere else in her work, earnestly relates the life story of a working class daughter of immigrants, growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, who made a place for herself in the poetry world. Lehman’s newest collection, on the other hand, catalogs the poet’s influences and enthusiasms, providing a series of nimble homages to the writers who have been fellow travelers on the road from An Alternative to Speech to The Best American Poetry 2017. While Lehman’s protean cosmopolitanism might jangle against Mazziotti Gillan’s homespun emotional éclat, both What Blooms in Winter and Poems in the Manner Of share the distinction of being finely wrought collections by poets whose contributions to the nation as teachers, organizers, anthologists, and supporters of the arts are inestimably great. In many respects, David Lehman’s Poems in the Manner Of serves as a companion volume to his recently published The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry 1988-2014. If The State of the Art scans, with tremendous discernment, the bright stars and the penumbras of the contemporary American poetry scene, then Poems in the Manner Of directs a similarly acuminous gaze at the poet’s own personal canon. The poems in Poems are more than mere stylistic imitations of poets that Lehman admires; Poems in the Manner Of reads as the compendium of affections and predilections that have steered a life in poetry. In a sense that runs parallel to the lyric narrative chronicling of a lifetime unfolding in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s work, Poems functions as a spiritual autobiography, a grand map of misreading, a pheasant disappearing in the brush, a search for the inexplicable, a renovation of experience, a purging of the world’s poverty and change and evil and death. Lehman frames the poems in this collection with prose that often further illuminates the intimate resonances carried in the lines. For example, Lehman prefaces “Goethe’s Nightsong” with the following remarks: “My father, who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Hiter’s Germany, used to recite this German poem by heart with an uncanny gleam in his eyes. It has often been translated but never, to my mind, satisfactorily.” The poem, a translation of “Wandrers Nachtlied,” reads: Over the hills Comes the quiet. Across the treetops No breeze blows. Not a sound: even the small Birds in the woods are quiet. Just wait: soon you Will be quiet, too. Lehman includes several other translations in Poems, of Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Mayakovsky, and (loosely, but most entertainingly) Max Jacobs. Each translation signals a deep encounter with the poem in question, a further implicit elaboration of Lehman’s aesthetic... Continue reading
Posted Apr 17, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: In an interview you did with Poets & Writers Magazine, you discuss working on William Stafford’s The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems during your first years at Graywolf Press. This was the first Graywolf Press book that I ever purchased and remains one of my favorites. In reading through interviews you’ve done over the years, it strikes me that much of your thoughts as an editor parallel many of Stafford’s insights as a poet. Could you begin by discussing what Stafford’s work has meant to you as a reader and an editor? JS: Thank you, and I’m glad to think of our experiences of the Graywolf poetry list as running side by side and starting with Stafford. I grew up in the middle of Kansas, not far from Hutchinson, Kansas, where Stafford grew up. My high school English teacher, the terrific Carole Ferguson, noted my interest in poetry, and mentioned Stafford and gave me a copy of “Traveling through the Dark.” It was the first time, really, I considered poetry as an ongoing art, and a poet as a living person, and someone who suddenly seemed proximate, when all else were wheatfields and churches. So Stafford’s very being changed everything. I share with him, very much still, a sense of landscape and severe austerity, and a shame at what our country perpetrates against so many, including our own citizens, as well as ourselves. DD: Stafford also wrote: “We may be surrounded by a system of talking and writing that falsifies event after event, decision after decision, relation after relation. Tangled in this system, we perpetuate it. Like porpoises in a drift net, the harder we try, the more we are entangled…When a writer works he is like someone who sets himself in a closed room and then invents new exits.” These words, published in the early 1990s, seem even more apt in 2017. In the spirit of these words and in this era of “alternative facts,” what is the place of poetry? JS: I agree with Stafford’s statement, that we are entangled and complicit in our entanglement, as long as we emphasize, as he does, that it is worth trying to escape, even in the most futile of times, perhaps like these, where our language is under assault, if not our sanity. We can’t always free ourselves, but we can sometimes loosen the nets and snares that are tightening around others. I think poetry is a force for recognizing the positions of other people who may be like us or who may be little like us, but for the duration of a poem, and the echoing after, we speak in and with another person’s voice. That’s a truth, or at least it can put us in relation to a truth, for which there is no “alternative fact.” I think the poetry that we need right now shows us, sometimes unbearably, the failures of power and of language and of political leadership and the consequences of our collective... Continue reading
Posted Mar 31, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance Edited by Michael Boughn, John Bradley, Brenda Cardenas, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Kass Fleisher, Roberto Harrison, Kent Johnson, Andrew Levy, Nathaniel Mackey, Ruben Medina, Philip Metres, Nita Noveno, Julie Patton, Margaret Randall, Michael Rothenberg, Chris Stroffolino, Anne Waldman, Marjorie Welish, Tyrone Williams Dispatches Editions, 2017 At a hefty 740 pages, the new anthology Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance symbolically and actually enacts the oppositional imperatives embedded in its title. 50% of the proceeds from the volume are being donated to Planned Parenthood. The assembling of the anthology itself, spearheaded by Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson, represents a model for activism and mobility in a time of political emergency. Boughn and Johnson brought together eighteen other editors from diverse aesthetic and cultural backgrounds to solicit and to curate the work of more than 350 poets in roughly two months. As Boughn and Johnson note in their incisive introduction, “Poetry and Resistance,” the book “is not intended as an offering of unique, sophisticated “creative writing.” It is first and foremost, a collective, insurgent call that is part and parcel of a sovereign people’s challenge to a narcissistic oligarch and his lackeys, who smirk now from their temporary perches of power. Its pages are bound in direct, literal ways, to the historic worldwide marches of January 22nd—and they stand as evidence that the vast majority of American poets (and artists and writers of all kind) revile the new reactionary dispensation.” In addition to enumerating succinctly the premises underwriting Resist Much, Boughn and Johnson’s introduction trenchantly explores the limits and potentials of poetry as resistance. The anthology is worth purchasing for the introduction alone, which sounds a hopeful note for the many thousands of practicing writers in the United States today who will register dissent “in the embattled commons, and not just in journals, personal collections, or anthologies like this one.” The anthology begins and ends with poems registering dissent beyond the narrow scope of the 45th President’s election and inauguration. Lorenzo Thomas’s poem, “Inauguration” initiates the anthology, by recalling the Reagan and Kennedy administrations, and by summoning the ghost of Robert Frost in order to evoke a counternarrative to the Manifest Destiny both lauded and complicated in Frost’s work. In “Inauguration,” Thomas rewrites the famous first line of Frost’s “The Gift Outright”; Frost’s “The land was ours before we were the land’s” becomes Thomas’s “The land was there before us / Was the land.” Thomas’s version radically re-envisions historical notions of ownership, privilege, and class, while halving, enjambing, and subverting Frostian blank verse on the syntactical level. By beginning the anthology with this revolutionary inversion of a poem Frost claimed as a commentary on the Revolutionary War, Boughn, Johnson, and company, inaugurate Resist Much as an anthology concerned with troubling superficial ways of seeing and articulating; Lorenzo Thomas’s poem moves its readers backward and forward in time, opening a dialogue between literary tradition and the mechanisms of empire. Likewise opening... Continue reading
Posted Mar 20, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Portrait of the Alcoholic Kaveh Akbar Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017 In his essay, “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” Lewis Hyde notes: “as a person becomes alcoholic he turns more and more into the drug and its demands. He is like a fossil leaf that mimics the living but is really stone.” Kaveh Akbar’s debut chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, initiates a reverse fossilization that catalogs the hungers, atomizes the absences, and amplifies the dailiness of 21st century American life. Akbar’s fierce unfettered intelligence roams from the sublunary to the interstellar. One moment, Akbar’s poems view the world from the perspective of sand watching silt dance in the Nile River. The next moment, Akbar’s poems look on, from the other side of the stars, past the astronaut dangling from the umbilicus of the space shuttle, to the earth itself “wilding around us” in “a severe sort of miraculousness.” Akbar knows the language of riptide and rogue comet; in these poems, “eternity looms / in the corner like a home invader saying don’t mind me I’m just here to watch you nap.” The self in Akbar’s poems is a shifting palimpsest of insatiable desires, mystic visions, exilic energies, and adhesive love. As Akbar puts it in “Every Drunk Wants to Die Sober It’s How We Beat the Game”: “I have always been a tangle of tongue and pretty / want.” Akbar’s “tangle of tongue and pretty want” is Whitmanesque in its scope, evoking the visionary tradition of English language poetry from Christopher Smart and Thomas Traherne through Gerard Manley Hopkins and Allen Ginsberg to present, and reformulating that tradition within the framework of an Islamic cultural background with its own distinct visionary poetic tradition, ranging from Rabia Basri and Fariduddin Attar, through Jalaluddin Rumi, to Mian Muhammad Baksh. In “An Apology,” for example, Akbar writes: As a boy I tore out the one-hundred-and-nine pages about Hell in my first Qur’an. Bountiful bloomscattering Lord, I could feel you behind my eyes and under my tongue, shocking me nightly like an old battery. The transgressive act of tearing pages from the Qur’an recalls Fariduddin Attar’s poem “I Have Broken My Vows,” in which the speaker enjoins: “Throw me out of the mosque, / As I went there drunk last night.” In fact, Akbar’s poetry ingeniously inverts the trope of drunkenness found in Islamic mystical poetry. In Portrait of the Alcoholic, sobriety, not inebriation, becomes a metaphor for the intoxicating nature of communion with the divine. The divine, in these poems, can be found equally in the ordinary housefly and in the dilated pupils of a beloved. In “Eager,” Akbar affirms: “I like the life/ I have now free as an unhinged jaw but still I visit my corpse.” Here, as everywhere else in his poetry, Kaveh Akbar chooses astonishment instead of despair, joy instead of mere survival, gratitude for the alchemical body, and its ancient hungers, become a mound of jewels. Portrait of the Alcoholic must surely presage a bountiful,... Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: Dispatches Editions grew out of Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of both the website and the press? MB: They Jes’ Grew. I was going to leave it there, but Kent told me I have to say more. Jes’ Grew, for those who don’t know, is the epidemic at the center of Ishmael Reed’s hilarious prophetic noir, Mumbo Jumbo. It’s hard to put your finger on Jes’ Grew because it doesn’t stay still long enough. It’s related to Emerson’s whim but it’s got more rhythm which I like to think Emerson would have enjoyed. If it’s dance – and it is dance – it’s also a freedom of mind that can look like dance. Or sound like it. It’s a “psychic epidemic.” Things Jes’ Grew when all of a sudden you start moving and not only can’t you stop, you don’t want to stop. Inspiration is a sad Atonist imitation of Jes’ Grew. Jes’ Grew takes the top off. Jes’ Grew is a mortal threat to civilization and its discontents – as Ishmael Reed said, it belongs under some ancient Demonic Theory of Disease. Right now we can see Jes’ Grew starting to spread again, infecting millions with its laughter and its anger and its passion and its movement. Swaying its hips and marching down the middle of the street. The mass movement is moving and Jes’ Grew is its feverish disease, its Nkulu Kulu of the Zulu, a locomotive with red green and black python entwined in its face, Johnny Canoeing up the tracks. Dispatches Jes’ Grew in a crucible of talk and mind and laughter and anger where all good things grow. Boom. Then there it was, dancing. Kent saw that and took it up several notches. We started off slow and picked up steam one day at a time and Jes’ Grew. KJ: Though Mike and I are quite aware that posting on the Dispatches site has been considerably slowed the past number of weeks… We’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the work on the Resist Much/Obey Little anthology, soon to be released by Dispatches Editions. 350+ poets and 740 pages. (Actually, Tennessee Reed, Ishmael’s daughter, is in it, so there’s that chance growth to Mike’s reference, I suppose.) But we’ll get back to our usual cranky senior-citizen selves. Dispatches from the Poetry Wars will keep advancing by projective force of institutional critique, one unsuspected accretion leading instanter onto another, as someone else more or less once memorably put it… Of course, most of what we do is totally by the seat of our pants, as you might imagine. Dancing sitting down, etc. It is how we’ve done it, how we like it, and how we’ll keep rolling. And strange that we’ve been doing it only for nine months, that it’s developed this much and attracted such a readership in this initial gestation, our audience consistently growing. One gratifying thing has been getting lots of communications from folks (some... Continue reading
Posted Feb 20, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: How did DIALOGIST come into being? Can you give us a brief history of the quarterly? ML: DIALOGIST’s inception was a response to a self-perceived divide between well-wrought, meaningful, and challenging content and a hierarchical, often censorship-based publishing structure. The latter being the direct, literal sense, as well as the industry’s smattering of personal/house editorial aesthetic that follows the adage for framing all media, that what’s included is just as important as what’s left out. Thereby, and too often, creative voices are segregated into two primary groups: rising and established. Because creative value does not exist along a continuum, so much as within a malleable framework of dialogue, it was a necessary experiment to provide a more open, shared venue for this broad gradient of experience to interact—ideally leading to new, personal explorations of consideration and creation for both readers and contributors. DD: Can you discuss the dialogue between the visual arts and poetry that is so essential to this journal? ML: I’ll defer to Jennifer’s take on this one. JP: Visual Arts and Poetry have dialogue together in the journal by balancing the creative input of the contributors. This allows the readers to experience a diverse range of creative outputs and creates an insightful look into the creative fields. The communication between visual arts and poetry in the journal creates a rhythm for the audience to experience when viewing the journal and creates visual imagery to compliment the written word. DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor? ML: Submissions review is an inherently intimate process, wherein a certain trust is exchanged between a poem, its speaker, the poet (or however it’s carried out), and an editor. Returning to your first question, not only is my capacity one of a reader, it’s also a necessary burden to serve as a gatekeeper of sorts. Assuming that a submitter is familiar with the content that we put out, that someone has found value in the journal as a collective space is always quite humbling. Although it makes me uneasy to turn away most poems, I feel a unique elation the moment that our team decides to accept a poet’s work. With that work we’re expanding the conversation, and this is a responsibility that I feel our whole team takes very personally. DD: What is the most encouraging development you’ve witnessed in contemporary poetry? ML: Contemporary poetry knows itself quite well by now, so we might ask what’s yet to be done. Because I didn’t come at the “poetry game” with any formal experience, aside from some time in an MFA, I’m admittedly ignorant to the tastes, forms, and schools of thought that have led us here. So for me it’s more a question of what’s left to be said, and noting the present U.S. political cum human rights climate, in conjunction with persisting social, environmental, economic, etc. issues worldwide, there are urgent conversations that we need to be having. Furthermore, important declarations that we need... Continue reading
Posted Feb 3, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Rapture Sjohnna McCray Graywolf Press, 2016 Sjohnna McCray’s debut collection, Rapture, celebrates the lives fountaining through a single life and transmutes the eddies of those lives into an aria. Like the blossoms seen falling through a kitchen window in McCray’s poem, “The Pear Tree,” the poems in Rapture helicopter to earth, “suicidal brides plummeting.” These poems skitter on the edge of adoration, limned with want, cankered with loss, honeyed with the sweet fearful immensities of the strange thisness shuttling between the heart and the mind. Many voices vertebrae the poems in this book in registers of devotion, passion, ire, sorrow, and jubilation. McCray draws on the details of his birth: his father was a soldier and his mother was a “comfort woman.” In “Bedtime Story # 1” McCray describes his parents after they had first met: “they could stroll the lane like an ordinary couple:/ the unassuming black and the Korean whore/ in the middle of the Vietnam War.” From these details, McCray explores the complicated notions of Americanness that his life embodies, implies, and challenges: “an extravagance of small pauses,/ / many caesuras.” However, McCray’s work as a whole concerns itself with recreating the infinitesimal moments in a life, situated on the threshold of song, when past, present, and future overlap and we are most ourselves. McCray’s lines are most themselves when Eros and Thanatos equally inhabit them. In the last lines of the book, McCray redefines “rapture” as the moment before an orgasm, “an old LP, a needle tracing static,/ a record ready to drop.” Meanwhile, outside, walnuts smack on the roof, a cardinal shakes on the line, and “still we refuse to yield/ back into being singular.” For McCray the refusal to be anywhere else but in the posture of eternal embrace constitutes the very groundwork of existence; we are always dying into each other, into our pasts and futures, into our ghosts and regrets. Throughout Rapture, McCray opens a dialogue with his father, whose life and legacy constantly swans into the poems. The poem “Portrait of My Father as a Young Black Man,” for example, reads: Rage is the language of men, layers of particulates fused. Rage is the wine father pours to the ground for men whose time has passed. Rage is gripped in the hands like the neck of a broom held tight. Rage gets stuck in the throat, suppressed. Rage is a promise kept. Although rage is part of the vocabulary Rapture sorts through, the real language of this poem and every other poem in this book is love. Whether commemorating the lives of his parents, hailing his beloved, burning down the suburbia of his own adolescence, or elegizing the tragic life and death of the poet, Reetika Vazirani, Sjohnna McCray is driven to the page out of love. Rapture is a reminder that we are at our best when we refuse to yield back into being singular, a timely and timeless collection to laud on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2017. Dante... Continue reading
Posted Jan 16, 2017 at The Best American Poetry