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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
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What Are We Not For Tommye Blount Bull City Press, 2016 Tommye Blount’s debut chapbook, What Are We Not For, artfully explores what it means to live inside a black queer body at this particular time in American history. Blount’s sinewy poems are bound together with countless silken ties of desire, fear, and affection for the world in all of its wounding might. Ranging from tightly made free verse, to sonnet, to villanelle, these poems perpetually shrapnel into each other. Each poem shuts its mouth “around the rough ramble of wordlessness” and redirects its gaze to the pulsing lycanthropic chiefdom a body carries within its provinces. In this collection, the mutt of the first poem, “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” who snaps the thin leash of yes, transforms into the werewolf of a later poem, who is beaten “until skin becomes wound/ then scab then hide.” What Susan Howe said of Emily Dickinson could be said of Tommye Blount as well: “Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender.” However, Blount never forgets the whiplash logic of a culture founded on the destruction of black bodies. As the speaker in “The Tongue” notes: “…I have the tongue/ of some endangered animal. No one can understand me.” What Are We Not For retrieves the seams in the seamless transition from scar tissue to carapace. More importantly, this powerful collection celebrates the “sweet body” and the affirmation that buzzes inside the hive of the self at its most sated and at its most insatiable. For Blount, nevertheless, the sweet body is also the site of unspeakable pain. A dog, forever barking, forever muzzled, runs through these poems toward that pain. The figure of Pinocchio, which recurs throughout the poems, foregrounds that pain in his interrogations of realness. “Geppetto’s Lament” begins: “Off to mess with what I made him, the boy/ forgets he is not a boy. Forgets these/ strings and this paddle, shaped like a cross, are/ in my hands.” The pain of Pinocchio, who in the poem, “Pine,” cuts the inside of his thighs with his father’s whittling knife, emblematizes the struggle of anyone who attempts to define the self against normative cultural expectations. Blount deftly questions the surreptitious pacts and the hidden strings that bind son to father, beloved to lover, lynching victim to crowd, body to spirit, spirit to word. As the title poem notes: What Are We Not For but to be broken like the deer resting on the side of the highway, in a bed made of its insides? Isn’t the scene always the same—the rump and legs frozen in one last kick? I, too, have lost my gaze, the grip of the wheel— like the one that plowed into the deer. Wheel, will—it’s all the same. And the ear does fail me at times, as it must have the deer that should have listened better. Francine, on the other end of the line, tells me I’m not listening; to listen to my body or... Continue reading
Posted Dec 18, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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A Night in Duluth Joe Weil NYQ Books, 2016 "…he was booking out in all these tank towns, playing the rotary clubs, the Kiwanis clubs, and the American Legion hall, and he just wasn't making it, but he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows and all these oranges…" —Charles Mingus “The Clown” (as improvised and performed by Jean Shepherd) Joe Weil’s latest poetry collection, A Night in Duluth, owes as much to Charles Mingus, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, Bert Williams, and the Sermon on the Mount, as it does to the many poetic traditions it evokes and overturns (Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams & Modernism, Charles Olson & Objectivism, Frank O’Hara & the New York School, Robert Lowell & Confessionalism, and so on). Weil is a poet in the tradition of Coyote from Native American folklore; his best poems provoke, capsize, unsettle, and upend, even as they keen, rejoice, rage, pray, and elevate. Each poem in A Night in Duluth functions as a miniature vaudeville stage, and like any good vaudeville show, each poem contains a variety of cultural spectacles which can be perceived from a variety of critical vantage points; Weil ranges from the sacred to the profane, from the working class to the neoliberal, from the puritanical to the licentious, from shtick to profundity. The watchword for Weil’s poetry, as it was for any vaudeville act, is variety. From the motley, from the variegated, and from the broken, Weil assembles a space in which he might examine issues of American identity. It is within this true swing state—as Weil shifts between registers, syntaxes, idioms, and dictions—where issues of diversity, tolerance, democracy, and the worth of the individual might be articulated, challenged, erased, elided, and, finally, partially, understood. A Night in Duluth reads as a fractal narrative (as if Samuel Beckett had worked in a factory for twenty years, then sat in an easy chair watching Horse Feathers on an infinite loop, and recorded his thoughts with a golf course pencil in verse on the back of a Sears and Roebuck parlor guitar), each poem built upon digressions and unfolding in a string of gags, non sequiturs, and associational leaps, not unlike a comic routine. Weil’s poem, “Things I Hate,” provides a good example of how meaning skitters and scuttles into being throughout the collection. The first half of the poem reads: Hate being busy hate others going on and on about being busy hate the business of being busy hate how people in America are even busy being reflective. Hate the schedules of reflection. Hate the fucking schedules hate the lists, the doing of this and the undoing of that hate that I can’t lick the freckle from my nose and swallow it and turn into a field of wild mushrooms hate that no one ever gives me a big waxy turnip and says, “Here pal, here’s a big waxy turnip.” Hate that all the good... Continue reading
Posted Nov 20, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: Susan Howe famously ends her book, My Emily Dickinson, with the lines: “Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender. Poetry is redemption from pessimism. Poetry is affirmation in negation, ammunition in the yellow eye of a gun that an allegorical pilgrim will shoot straight into the quiet of Night's frame.” Using these lines as a point of departure, could you begin by talking about the transformative power of poetry? CM: Every great poem that I’ve read (or any great work of art for the matter) has so deeply engaged me that I have the feeling of being completely separated from myself and fully incorporated into the world of the speaker. I liken it to a religious and mystical out of body experience. I get this way every time I read the work of Theodore Roethke, and hearing him read it work only enhances this experience for me. RG: I’m especially moved by “Poetry is redemption from pessimism,” as I spent much of my younger days mired in unnecessary negativity. I cannot overstate the vital role poetry played in pulling me out it. I think if I’d had a more passionate introduction to poetry earlier in life, I could have saved myself a lot of self-imposed trouble. Big claim, I know, but I think about reading Joe Bolton for the first time. Up to that point, I’d never read anyone that I found more authentic, more familiar. It seemed to me that he tore himself apart attempting to rend meaning from a world that he either didn’t understand, or that he understood all too well, and so the world didn’t get him. That, of course, I realized was a better evaluation of myself than of his work, and that realization proved to be quite the gut-check, as Bolton killed himself when he was just 28. My redemption from pessimism began with Bolton. That’s the transformative power of poetry. DD: How did Arcadia come into being? CM: Arcadia started as a project of some MFA students at the University of Central Oklahoma. I didn’t start the program until a year after the other guys, and I joined them during production of our second issue. I find it funny that a lot of people, including founding editors, sometimes mistake me as being here from beginning. RG: Yes, Arcadia began like I expect many lit mags begin: a small group of writers in a program think they have something to add to the literary conversation. And so it was with us. I can’t speak for the others, but I’m not sure I had the confidence at that time to think I had anything to add, I just really wanted to be a part of it. It was Chase Dearinger’s idea. After a fiction class, he told fellow students what he wanted to do and invited us to participate. I was shy, so I didn’t speak up at the moment, but I hurried home to email him. Man, it’s funny to... Continue reading
Posted Nov 5, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Thief in the Interior Phillip B. Williams Alice James Books, 2016 Phillip B. Williams' debut collection, Thief in the Interior, absconds with luminous witness from the darkest places in our culture: the shadow’s hem, the bull’s corpse, the trash bag full of dismembered body parts, and the spinning noose. In poem after poem, Williams sings in counterpoint to violent anthems composed in the American grain; Williams sings against “one nation coughing up black tongues.” He sings for the vanished, for the haunted, for the tortured, for the lost, for the place on the horizon where the little boat of the human body disappears in a wingdom of unending grace. Thief in the Interior moves gracefully from pastoral through elegy to epithalamion; along the way, Williams deftly vivisects the sonnet and explores the lyric possibilities of forms as disparate as the calligram and the pecha kucha. More importantly, Williams applies his dynamic syntax to an exploration of the buoyant wreckage inside the self, which might allow one to endure “the alluvial earth of grief” and “the hostile enigma” of misogyny, racism, and homophobia confronted daily in these United States. Williams divides Thief into four sections. The first section begins with the poem, “Bound,” a poem that questions heteronormative cultural expectations and the strictures imposed by others on the self. Williams continues throughout this opening section to elaborate a series of tropes centered on decaying and broken bodies: a rotting bull’s carcass, lynched black bodies, a lacerated wrist. Williams nests these tropes within hallucinatory pastoral imagery. Reading this section is like listening to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” backwards underwater. The second section of the book consists of one long poem, “Witness,” which details the death and dismemberment of a nineteen year old gay black man, named Rashawn Brazell. “Witness” provides a keening meditation on the Brazell case, which both celebrates the life of the victim and ruminates on the broader cultural implications of this murder. As Williams puts it, the poem attempts to “tell how a city phantoms a boy, phantoms all witnesses.” The third and fourth section of the book continue to explore the personal repercussions of this type of phantoming. In these two concluding sections, Williams shifts back and forth between threnody and serenade. Perhaps the finest poem in Thief occurs in the final section. “Do-rag” reads in full: O darling, the moon did not disrobe you. You fell asleep that way, nude and capsized by our wine, our Bump ‘n’ Grind shenanigans. Blame it on whatever you like; my bed welcomes whomever you decide to be: thug- mistress, poinsettia, John Doe in the alcove of my dreams. You can quote verbatim an entire album of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony with your ass in the air. There’s nothing wrong with that. They mince syllables as you call me yours. You don’t like me but still invite me to your home when your homies aren’t near enough to hear us crash into each other like hours. Some men have killed their lovers... Continue reading
Posted Oct 17, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: Four Way Books began in 1991, as a venture between you and your graduate school friends: Beth Stahlecker, Jane Brox, Dzivinia Orlowsky, and Helen Fremont. How have these friendships influenced the evolution and tenor of the press? MR: We really began in 1993, with first books in 1995. Brox, Orlowsky and Fremont ceased working for the press early on but have remained treasured friends. And I know that they are hugely proud of Four Way Books and of the time and energy that they contributed to the press. Beth Stahlecker, sadly, passed away in 1991 when the press was but a whisper between us. We published her first book posthumously and established a series in her name, The Stahlecker Series, for first and second books of poetry. DD: In 2012, Jeremy Glazier wrote an excellent overview of the first twenty years of Four Way Books for the LA Review of Books. Gregory Pardlo’s Digest won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and Four Way Books continues to receive the critical and popular attention it deserves. Since 2012, what have been some of the other highlights in the story of Four Way Books? MR: I would have to say Reginald Dwayne Betts’ book has been thrilling to work on, both in manuscript form and as a finished book. And I’ve loved working with Karen Brennan on little dark – she’s such a wonderfully eccentric writer, and such a brilliant craftswoman. (We have also just released her book of short fiction, Monsters). I struggle to highlight just these when I am so enthusiastic about the books we publish, all. DD: Pardlo’s Digest is remarkable for so many reasons. One reason I admire it is for the way the poems dramatize cognition, and yet remain so tied to the heart. Pardlo gives us Deleuze and Guattari along with an aisle in the Fulton Street Foodtown. The work of a father with young children is held in equal esteem with the work of the philosopher and poet. All the poems in this collection feel so timely and timeless and essential. What do you find most compelling about this collection? MR: I am glad that you appreciate Digest for the terrific collection that it is. I guess what I love about the poems – from the first time I heard them to reading them in manuscript then in book form—is the readability of the poems themselves. Whether lyric poem or poem driven more by narrative, whether he is digging close to his feet or throwing the shovel further out, these are poems that speak plainly about complicated sometimes tangled issues. They touch the heart and light up the brain. DD: Present day Brooklyn is so palpable in all of its contradictions and nuance in Digest. The story of Four Way Books is inextricably linked with the spiritual topography of New York City. Can you tell us about this link? What does New York mean to you? What does New York mean for poetry? JFM: I love... Continue reading
Posted Sep 30, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Wild Hundreds Nate Marshall University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015 In the year or so since Wild Hundreds first appeared in print, Nate Marshall’s award winning debut poetry collection feels even more necessary in the wake of the historic wave of gun violence that has rocked Chicago in 2016. Marshall’s raucous, vivid, and relentless love letter to the hundreds neighborhood on Chicago’s south side provides an apt rejoinder to the 522 homicides that have occurred in the city as of mid-September. Wild Hundreds jukes between elegy and epithalamion as it celebrates a place where “each street day is unanswered prayer for peace,” and where, for some politicians, bureaucrats, and public school administrators “every kid that’s killed is one less free lunch,/ a fiscal coup.” With exquisite care, Marshall renders the denizens of his beloved hometown in all of their vibrant complexity, from the eighth grade graduate with his Sox hat askew, skipping stones in a pond at a public park, to his own Granddaddy, “all leisure suits & peppermint,” “all birthday money & slurry speech.” In this place, where the brilliant colors in a bouquet resemble a gang war, the colors of a Grandma’s rosebush reiterate the shade of a Vice Lord’s do-rag, and the dandelions wear Latin King gold, Marshall summons his own rage so that he can remix it into a percussive imperative to thrive amidst the beautiful struggle, and, more simply, to love. Although Marshall’s collection rightly errs on the side of the laudatory, the poet incisively critiques Chicago’s failures. Throughout Wild Hundreds, Marshall scatters “Chicago high school love letters,” poems that are poignant and heartbreaking, realistically depicting teenage desire against the backdrop of urban violence and neglect. The winter break poems read: 131. i would airbrush you on a t-shirt. 156. i would fight for you like my shoes or my boys or any excuse for contact. Later in the book, Marshall notes that the numbers in these poems represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year. Marshall learned early on in life, while living in the predominantly white Mount Greenwood neighborhood, the amnesia and intimacy attendant on violence. In the poem, “Alzheimer’s,” Marshall notes: this is where i came from. whitefolk violence isn’t hypothetical to me. it’s not historical or systemic. its elementary school like Pokémon or sleepovers. The Chicago that Nate Marshall evokes in Wild Hundreds is more than the sum of its shames and griefs and anxieties and break beats and scraped knuckles and smoking gun barrels and wild forgettings. It’s the windows rolled down on a Saturday evening in August. It’s that sweet old Curtis Mayfield Impressions song you hear out the window of a passing car, telling you to keep on pushing and it’s all right. Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner,... Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: In her essay, “When We Dead Awaken,” Adrienne Rich writes: “For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be so sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.” Could you begin by talking about poetry as imaginative transformation and writing as renaming? MS: There's no doubt that Adrienne Rich is right. Epistemologically, writing is always a transformation — an active transformation, to rephrase Rich. And in the action of it, one hears the Greek sense of the word: Poets are makers; writers are makers. May Swenson often referred to making her poems, as opposed to writing them. And, as I think any poet might agree, this work is not finished in a single poem. The task is really to rename and remake the world. That’s why Mary Oliver points out that one doesn't exactly achieve closure at the end of the poem, even when it's is an especially good poem. The making of poetry is a long-term commitment. In Oliver's world, happiness does not arise from “a job well done, but good work ongoing.” DD: For the past twenty years, Utah State University Press has published poetry through the May Swenson Poetry Award competition. Patricia Colleen Murphy’s collection, Hemming Flames, is the latest and final book in this series. University Press of Colorado will continue to publish poetry books through the Colorado Prize for Poetry (open to all poets) and the Mountain West Poetry Series (open to poets living in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, & Wyoming). Can you give us some highlights from the history of the May Swenson Poetry Award? MS: The original idea for the series emerged from a conversation I had over burgers and coffee at a local restaurant here in Logan, Utah, with Kenneth Brewer, a poetry professor at Utah State University. Ken would later become poet laureate of Utah. After we talked our way through a possible structure for the competition, I took the idea to R.R. (Zan) Knudson, who was the executor for the literary estate of May Swenson and May’s partner for the last 20 or so years of her life. Zan was well connected, especially in the New York poetry scene, and she provided introductions for me to the long... Continue reading
Posted Sep 2, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Vivas to Those Who Have Failed Martín Espada W.W. Norton, 2016 Martín Espada’s newest collection of poetry, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, fuses elegy to activism with the barbaric yawp of a Boricua Whitman whose utmost imperative is to celebrate “the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.” The heroic figure of Frank Espada, the poet’s recently deceased father—a community organizer and civil rights activist—provides the animating spirit informing his son’s survey of our democratic vistas, past and present. In poem after poem, Martín Espada’s stentorian voice seeks to praise and to remember, and, in so doing, to “heal the cracks in the bell of the world.” This timely collection includes poems about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the beheading by ISIS of the journalist, Jim Foley, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder. Once again, Espada brings to the republic of poetry, along with the angels and curve balls of his Brooklyn childhood and the straw fedoras and red plumage of his grandfather’s Puerto Rico, the stalwart commitment to social justice that has been the hallmark of his poetic career. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed begins with the title poem, a five sonnet sequence on the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. The poem evokes both Walt Whitman whose “Song of Myself” contains the title phrase, and William Carlos Williams who also wrote a poem about the 1913 strike. The sonnet sequence begins with an unnamed worker raising his dyed-red hand in protest, continues by detailing the actions of anarchist strikers such as Carlo Tresca and Modestino Valentino, the reportage of John Reed, and the exploits of iconic IWW figures, such as Big Bill Haywood and Hannah Silverman. The poem concludes by invoking the actions, twenty years after the strike, of a labor organizer, named Arturo Mazziotti, whose struggle recapitulates the earlier struggle and anticipates the successes of future generations. The last poem in the sequence ends: “Mazziotti’s son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet./ Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.” By implication, Trayvon Martin, Jim Foley, the victims in Newtown, Connecticut, and so many more have become part of the river, as ever-present and unseen as Frank Espada, not simply passed, but passing through us all. Espada’s Vivas achieves an added poignancy in light of the highly publicized shootings, murders, and terrorist attacks at home and abroad in 2016. In the poem, “How Could We have Lived or Died This Way,” Espada echoes Whitman’s twin dictum of insurrection and loyalty by couching this recent violence in historical terms that America’s most expansive bard would undoubtedly and vehemently bemoan. Espada ends the poem with the following two stanzas: I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking, words buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see the next Black man, fleeing as... Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Can I Finish, Please? Catherine Bowman Four Way Books, 2016 Catherine Bowman’s newest collection, Can I Finish, Please?, continues to deliver the wicked, opulent, dazzling, and savory poems that have been the hallmark of her first four books. Throughout Can I Finish, Please?, Bowman fashions the makeshift apparatus of desire from unfurling alfalfa and orchard grass song, from wild ancient apple trees, tethered forepaws, and never ending rivers, from tamarind, fennel, mole negro, chicory, coriander, and bouquets of unimaginable flowers. Bowman articulates, in poem after poem, a ravenous desire to know and to be known, to be the swimmer who drifts and drowns and resuscitates herself even as she distils the ocean in a drop of rain. These poems coast over lacustrine wetlands, prairies, spiritual geographies and sediments, leading us to “what was never lost/ where the future becomes the past.” For Bowman, the eternal present of the lyric provides the irrevocable dwelling place where future braids together with past. Can I Finish, Please? divides its eternal present into three sections. The long poem, “Beds,” dominates the first section with its lush exploration of amorous relationships and physical states of being. Beds, in this poem, are holsters, altars, chasms, cradles, mandalas, primal thrones, conjuror’s tables. The poem consists of an aphoristic barrage of exquisite imagery. For example, Bowman enumerates: This peephole. This lifeboat. This tented field. Aperture. Soaked by lunar vendetta, bare-ankled, bare-chested, bare-throated, unshod, bare-backed, this breeding ground, this Venus spread, this birthing rack you die into each night. This job. This hatchery. This giant cypress, a rookery for tears, for joy. This forcing bed for hard labor, playtime, the work of dreams. Bed of geraniums and lily and owls, proud owls. Where you are always called back— this wallow of red clover to foal and cast out spirits. This urine- and rose-soaked heptachord. This seawall for the mother of all-consuming storms. Here, as everywhere in this collection, Bowman’s finely calibrated, ornate, diction creates an experience that is at once ethereal and earthy, simultaneously peephole and tented field, a rookery for tears and joy. If the first section of this book concerns itself, primarily, with social and linguistic couplings and uncoupling, then the second section concerns itself with exploring the intertwining of the feminine and the imagination. The section begins with “The Frida Kahlo Tree: A Fable,” in which the artist transforms into a tree, whose magnifying-glass heart burns free her wandering selves, allowing her to feel, after work and at home, intermittent perpetual blossoms. Bowman rounds out this section with an aubade, another fable, and the remarkable, “For the Lost Women in Prisons: A Texas Two-Step.” Some of the most interesting poems in this section, however, are Bowman’s flower poems: “Twat Flower,” “Gag Flower,” “Hobo Flower,” “Thumbscrew Flower,” “Dog Flower,” et cetera. “Slit Flower” provides a characteristic example: self writ lo wife trolls wells for it slower lift wolf liter fowl tower While not all of the flower poems consist entirely of anagrams, all of these poems share... Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: In her famous essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” Audre Lorde writes: “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Can you begin by talking about how the chapbooks at Backbone Press embody this kind of bridge? CS: I love the genre of poetry because of its closeness. A poem can be a single moment or span across a 100 years. And, poems are the author’s personal experience and truth, so as Lorde states, poetry can serve as an agent of change. Choosing to focus on poets of color meant, for me, our press would be considered political. In Tara Betts' 7x7 kwansabas, she deftly writes 25 celebratory poems about historic and iconic Black Americans, resurrecting and introducing many who are lesser known to the world. The form kwansaba, created by Eugene Redmond, consist of seven words to a line, each word no more than seven letters in seven lines of poetry, no easy feat. Additionally, Dariel Saurez’s chapbook, In the Land of Tropical Martyrs, consists of free verse, personal testaments of his Cuban heritage. The narratives are about family elders and universal suffering. I would say both of these titles are necessary bridges across generational and racial lines. Backbone hopes to publish many more titles that engage these broader cultural conversations. DD: As you’ve just noted, Backbone Press publishes poets of color, and seeks work that is “political, invocative, social, gritty, personal, and poignant.” Can you talk about this mission and how it fits in with current cultural and political events? CS: It’s important to note when I say poets of color this includes poets of all diverse backgrounds: Asian, Latino, Native American and so on. Our niche is cultural writing, not just poetry, by African American writers. We need more venues and spaces focusing on diversity. Not to say there aren’t prominent poets of color publishing and winning poetry contests; there’s quite a few. The publishing world, however, is pretty slanted and while most people (publishers) believe in diversity, they don’t always practice it. As for the terms listed in our mission, we wanted to attract a variety of styles, not a focus necessarily on form or technique, but the different ways we can define poetry with regards to culture: social influences, connecting differences, the various diasporas. Is the author writing across cultures? Is the use of language distinct, that of a vernacular tongue? Lastly, our publications often draw parallels with current political culture. For example, Eric Tran’s chapbook, Affairs with Men in Suits shines a brilliant and essential contra-light on North Carolina’s HB2, a law passed in the state that has been described as the most anti-LGBT legislation in the country. One might infer from Tran’s title that it is simply a collection of LBGTQ poetry, but the poems themselves explore complex issues of masculinity, insecurities, and the lust... Continue reading
Posted Jul 1, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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The Big Book of Exit Strategies Jamaal May Alice James Books, 2016 Jamaal May’s second collection of poetry, The Big Book of Exit Strategies, continues the bighearted, artful, dialogue with his phobias and his hopes begun in his first collection, Hum. Once again, Detroit ghosts through his lines, as May’s poems reconnoiter the culture of violence that circumscribes American life and U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. While May’s debut collection writhed to life through the motif of the mechanistic purr, the hum of the god-engine in his second book takes the form of fire and ruin. Amidst images of burning and breaking things, May’s poems turn inward, charting his own way of being in a hostile world, in order to extend outward as an embrace. Despite the hostility he probes, in open-mouthed requiem, May commits himself to the hard work of healing psychic ruptures and toppling crumbled walls. In the poem, “The Tendencies of Walls,” May notes: “My nostalgia is a pyromaniac/ I follow into a condemned barn.” Here, as everywhere in this book, May seeks egress from the paralyzing fears that come from living in a nation so schizophrenically privileged and impoverished, so beaconed and so broken, so hell-bent on following the way of the gun even as it anthems itself in hymns. Throughout The Big Book of Exit Strategies, May resists the urge to draw easy parallels between injustices emblematized by a city like Detroit and repressions occurring overseas; in fact, a poem such as “There are Birds Here,” emphasizes the corrosive danger of emblematizing injustice, and the difficulty of transcending cliché: The birds are here to root around for bread the girl’s hands tear and toss like confetti. No, I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton, I said confetti, and no not the confetti a tank can make out of a building. I mean the confetti a boy can’t stop smiling about and no his smile isn’t much like a skeleton at all. And no his neighborhood is not like a war zone. The stutter-step negations in these lines accrue into an aural subtext where confetti and cotton, skeleton and smiling boy, neighborhood and warzone, tank and building, bread and bird and girl, resolve themselves into taut uneasy correspondences. These correspondences ultimately buckle and splinter like “the grown man growing out/ of a splintering boy’s body.” Splintered words yearn for a wholeness of utterance uniquely restored through poetry. The overriding impulse in all of Jamaal May’s work is the restorative utterance. For all of the shards and the shrapnel embedded in his poems, May primarily admires uplift, albeit with a jagged edge. The end of the poem, “Conducting Ivy with the Girl Down the Street,” provides a characteristic example of the poet’s affinities: I break into a broken little beatbox but she covers my mouth kisses the back of her hand and begins to articulate the green that just keeps rising out of us. The belief in unremitting green springing from a child’s... Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: James Longenbach has written: “Wonder is the reinvention of humility, the means by which we fall in love with the world.” The poems you’ve published as the founding editor of SHARKPACK Annual oftentimes resist the intelligence almost successfully, as Stevens would say, and in so doing, throw us into a deeper kind of wonder. Could you begin by talking about the poetic value of difficulty and its attendant wonders? JS: I wasn’t familiar with the Longenbach quote at all. It rings very true. Thank you. Navigating this idea of ‘difficulty’ can be a dodgy business. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is difficult, but not for ideas the poem itself contains; it utterly fails to be a compound searching art object; it is, in my opinion, the worst kind of bourgeois pastiche; it’s ‘difficult’ because it demands homework. Do you remember the gravitas with which a professor in your past handed-out the Eliot Addenda Packet? Aha, aha, his PhD at sudden good material work. This sort of ‘difficulty’ doesn’t interest me, obviously. I translate your mention of difficulty to a pretty ubiquitous term at fathombooks.org and sharkpackpoetry.com: ‘estrangement.’ I’m in debt to Paul Valéry’s “Poetry and Abstract Thought” here, his concept of poetry as the opposite of ‘utilitarian language’—that language used ‘to express my design, my desire, my command, my opinion; this language, when it has served its purpose,’ Valéry continues, ‘evaporates almost as it has heard.’ Difficult poetry reinvests the read word with its latent symbology, with language’s own native object-power. The words and phrases give up their being marbles and become, once again, nasty caltrops. To read them is to wake to the alien, anti-disappearance of that word, that phrase. No level of ‘understanding’ compromises such writing. And that’s wonder: to see the twisting power beneath the glyphs in your grocery list. Those very words, in the hands of the true poet, come to gross life. DD: On Fathom Books’ website you explain the genesis of this publishing endeavor: ‘Fathom began with a sense of unrest that found friends. More specifically: “Fathom was driven into being by a belief that much gnostic, searching, profound verse is buried by the prevalence of contemporary talk-poetries and the politicking of certain pobiz ‘powers.’” Can you elaborate further on the problems of talk-poetries and politicking in contemporary American poetry? JS: Reading my explanation of ‘estrangement’ likely makes clear all I oppose in talk-poetry. (And I oppose all of it.) I won’t rail on. You’ve stuck me to the wall on the ‘politicking’ charge, and I’ve got to thank you—your question has brought a relatively amorphous disgust into clear terms. I mean, largely, ‘pobiz’—that reprehensible businessy custodianship that policies awards, the little dick-sucking institutional circles that reinscribe each other’s decisions so as to bolster their repellant custodianship machine (awards-before-poems; how quickly the winner of a ‘major’ poetry prize ends up in residence at the Radcliffe Institute; the foregone conclusion of final interviews for professorships at AWP, as if there’s something to be lauded, or... Continue reading
Posted Jun 3, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: In her poem, “Ennui,” Stella Vinitchi Radulescu refers to Rainer Maria Rilke as her “father up / in the sky.” If there is any poet who embodies the mission of Orison Books it would be Rilke, a man who strove to write from inside the most terrifying angels. There is that famous passage from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that begins: “…Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences.” Could you begin by channeling Rilke and speaking about the poems you have published at Orison Books as experiences? LH: “Sit down, angel,” Radulescu also writes, “I am desperately alive” (“heart heart heart”). Like Rilke, Radulescu’s intimation of the danger and sublimity of the divine does not prevent her from speaking with and to it on the most familiar of terms—asserting a spiritual equality (and equivalence?) with even the highest manifestation of being. And, as with Rilke, Radulescu’s poems ought to be considered “spiritual” not primarily because of their subject matter, but rather because of their ability to suggest and embody a mode of being that is outside the ordinary. Her work is deeply experiential in this way. Contemplating a broken ancient sculpture of Apollo, Rilke concludes, “You must change your life.” The greatest spiritual art is that which offers us an aesthetic experience that leaves us irrevocably changed. Orison Books’ goal is to discover and champion this kind of literature. One of our latest books, Jordan Rice’s Constellarium, is a fine example of this. Rice’s poems sometimes delve into explicitly religious and spiritual subject matter—often from a critical standpoint, in fact—but that’s not what makes her poems “spiritual,” in my mind. The spiritual aspect of her poetry is that it, as Fatimah Asghar has so insightfully noted, makes us contemplate “the body inside”—the fundamental and mysterious grounds of being rather than the superficial and readily apparent ones. DD: In an interview with Asheville Grit, you note: “The mission of Orison Books is to publish spiritually engaged poetry, fiction, and non-fiction books of exceptional literary merit, and to promote cultural conversation around the intersections of spirituality and literature.” Can you explain how Orison Books came into being and how the cultural conversation that you mention has unfolded in the year or so that the press has existed? LH: I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, and while I struggled deeply and persistently with that ideology from a young age, I only evolved away from it relatively late in life—in my mid-twenties. In the intervening years I’ve come to see fundamentalist ideologies of all kinds as pernicious and dangerous, whether they’re religious, political, or philosophical. I remain unwilling, however,... Continue reading
Posted May 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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DD: Walter Benjamin tells us that all great literature either disso lves a genre or invents one. Your own poetry, Carrie, and much of the poetry in the Black Ocean catalogue, either dissolves a genre or occurs in the interstices of genre. What draws you to these spaces? What is the value of being aesthetically in-between (prose and poetry, high and low, clinical and colloquial, et cetera)? COA: I often think I’m a poet by accident, rather than by intention. I’m someone who always wants to be someone else, or at least is very curious about the idea of being someone else. Why not a filmmaker? A diplomat? Spy? Why not be all those things at once? Life’s a lot more compelling when it’s unlimited. And so is poetry, literature, art. The space in between is where all the energy is. The freedom. The play. The frisson. The experimentation. It’s where everything can rub up against each other. Choosing one path or another, immediately negates. But when you start out thinking about a poem, without thinking about how poet or poem should think, it opens the world. No form is off limits. No language is off limits. And then the poem can truly represent life and the life of the mind. It can be a living, organic thing. Isn’t that the most value of all? DD: Black Ocean Press celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Congratulations on a successful first decade! In the past ten years, you have published 36 poetry collections, including one anthology. Although the authors that you publish cross continents and range from Julie Doxsee to Michael Zapruder, your catalogue presents a remarkably unified poetic vision. What makes a Black Ocean book? COA: We definitely take pride in the idea that you immediately know a Black Ocean book when you see it. There’s a design sense and style you can’t help but recognize. And I feel the same way about the poems inside those awesome packages. When I’m reading submissions, I know I’ve found a book that will be a Black Ocean book when it changes how I think or how I see the world. It suddenly offers me a vision of something overlooked or something I never knew had a name. The poems give words to sensations or ideas that I’ve always wanted to describe or never realized needed describing. It fondles an itch in the mind. It wakes me up. It has to feel essential and purposeful. Not in a manipulative way, but in that the poems have a reason and now you can’t imagine a world in which you did not have that phrase. DD: You met Black Ocean’s founder, Janaka Stucky, in a workshop as part of the M.F.A. Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Can you tell us about him and explain how the press came into being? COA: Janaka is the most charismatic person I’ve ever known. He could be a guru. People will follow him. Black Ocean seemed... Continue reading
Posted Apr 9, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 1, 2016