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Alison C. Rollins' debut collection, Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), is one of the most spectacular first books I have ever read. The first poem I read from her, "Why Is We Americans," was published in Poetry magazine several years ago. The poem can be found in full here. The following is an entry from a reading notebook that I keep, in which I respond to poems and passages of prose. Here is what I wrote about "Why Is We Americans" several years ago. If this interests you, pick up a copy of her amazing first book and prepare to be amazed. Alison C. Rollins’ “Why Is We Americans” begins as a riff on a line (and title) from the late work of Amiri Baraka; Rollins extrapolates the Baraka line into an anaphora-patterned meditation on notions of national belonging particular to the African American experience. The poet interweaves images from canonical western literature (“Walden pond,” “Jesus,” “Whitman,” “Orpheus,” “Darwin”) with images from the African American church (“the Pastor’s chattering chicklets,” “Psalm 23,” “mouths / washed out with the blood of the lamb”), and allusions to jazz music (“Roach and Mingus at Birdland,” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamned,” and the concluding couplet, which references Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and raises the specter of lynching in a powerful way). The poem is as triumphant as it is incantatory, elevating sometimes mundane and sometimes extraordinary tropes into a profound celebration of Blackness. The vibrant surprising diction and the regular deployment of AAVE syntax imbue the poem with an astonishing energy at every turn: “We is clubbin’ woolly mammoths/ upside the head, jammin’ fingers in / Darwin’s white beard”; lines like these drive the poem forward with their sonic textures while continuing a critique of the exploitative and oppressive practices that vertebrae American life and American history. I love this poem. I feel like I could live in it forever—the explosive musicality of it, the joy of it, the strangeness of it. It is everything I look for in a poem: it is canny and subversive in its metapoetic view of American literature and culture, and it is infused with a hard earned duende that renders it unforgettable. Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
I have been the poetry editor at DIALOGIST since 2016. Working with Michael Loruss, the founder and managing editor, over the past several years has been one of the great lights in my life in poetry. Together, we have published and promoted many challenging, beautiful, wild, and necessary poems. I love every poem we publish, and I am always amazed by the quality of the submissions we receive. We’ve been publishing a poem a week since 2019. Here are links to 10 poems I can’t live without (listed in no particular order). Below each poem, I’ve provided a short note on what I love about it. An audio recording by the poet accompanies most of the poems. Check these poems out and look at our archives here. To all the poets we’ve published over the last five years, thank you for sending us such brilliant work. 1) “Brazo” by Darren Donate Note: The poem includes some disturbing photographic images of an injury (the poem is about the poet’s father, whose arm was injured doing factory work). It's such an amazing poem, reminiscent of Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of, in some aspects of its concrete/visual grammar. It’s an incredible poem about immigration, labor, family, and notions of national belonging. 2) “[Circumcise my heart, o genderqueer God.]” by Elana Lev Friedland This heady sonnet, in direct dialogue with poems by John Donne and Meg Day, completely rends me every time I read it. This poem maps all types of kinships and identifications with a fluidity and grace that is unforgettable. I can’t wait until Friedland has a full-length collection. 3) “Your Quaint Conceit” by Alina Stefanescu Roethke woke to sleep and took his waking slow. Stefanescu begins this poem: “I wake to cheap ontology.” What follows exhilarates and challenges. I’ve read Stefanescu’s poetry in other journals and when I see her name, I always know I’m going to love the poem I’m about to read. Consider the fifth stanza: “To appease is not apostrophe / but a rich bisque of climax, the cauldron / of yearn kept stirred.” See what I mean. 4) “Grief box” by Katie Richards This long ambitious poem about motherhood, suburbia, and suicidal ideation, is imbued with the spirit of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. “Grief box” is a tour de force, a virtuoso performance that will haunt you. 5) “sermon” by Shaina Phenix In this poem, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye collides with The Gospel According to Matthew to spectacular effect. Phenix explores the intersections between race, misogyny, and religion with great intelligence and with profound lyricism. 6) “POEM WRITTEN ON FATHER’S DAY” by Grace Q. Song Song’s poem, equal parts thorn and salt, is a father-daughter poem I would put side by side with “Poem For My Father” by Toi Derricotte, “How Many Times” by Marie Howe, and “In Honor Of David Anderson Brooks, My Father” by Gwendolyn Brooks. When I think of father-daughter poems, I often think of Jason Shinder’s great anthology More Light: Father... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
When a poet dies there is a vast caesura, a field of lilacs interrupted by wing beats and heartbeats and aches and aches and: snugly in the ampersand at the end of a life, they shine there, an em dash, a last ellipsis, a lovely lock of gray hair on the wrist of a daughter—…& Last week, two wonderful poets died within a day of each other: Daneen Wardrop and Laura Boss. I didn’t know Daneen (except through her poetry), but I was reading an advance copy of her latest book when I heard from the publisher we share about her passing. Wardrop’s newest collection, Endless Body, is part of a three-book-in-one collection called Trio, which also features books by Diane Raptosh and Karen Donovan, due out this summer. I had read her book, Silk Road, last year and was impressed by its virtuosic technique, it’s intense interiority, and the imaginative heft of the collection’s central persona (Donata Polo, Marco’s wife). Wardrop, a noted Dickinson scholar, imbibed and alchemized the inebriate air at the epicenter of Emily’s poems. Wardrop’s poems, especially those in her forthcoming collection, were transformative, transcendent, elegant, precise. Reading them I could not help but be amazed and reassured by the poet’s immensely intelligent, deeply loving, and wildly original presence. She is one of many many poets whose work deserves a wider readership and whose life in poetry has enriched us all. Here are links to some of Daneen Wardrop’s books: Trio: Planet Parable, Run: A Verse-History of Victoria Woodhull, and Endless Body (Etruscan Books, 2021) Silk Road (Etruscan Press, 2018) Cyclorama (Fordham University Press, 2015) Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009) Here is a link to Wardrop’s poem, “name,” on the Academy of American Poets website. I first met Laura Boss sometime around 2012 at a reading at the PCCC Poetry Center in Paterson, New Jersey. Laura came up to me after the reading, said some kind words about a poem I had read, and quoted back a few lines that she admired. The handful of times I read in Paterson after that first occasion, I would always look for her in the crowd, usually sitting next to her longtime friend and Poetry Center director, Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Maria and Laura were alike in their enthusiasm for poets and for poetry, in their deep listening to the music around them, and in their fierce support of fellow poets. Laura Boss founded Lips poetry magazine in 1981. She published Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Ruth Stone, David Ignatow, Marge Piercy, Michael Benedikt, Anne Waldman, Ishmael Reed, Gregory Corso, Ted Berrigan, Toi Derricotte, Alice Notley, Hal Sirowitz, Alicia Ostriker, Molly Peacock, and many more. She wrote an accessible autobiographical poetry, straightforward, rich, searching, and wild. She lived an amazing life in poetry. The next time I read in Paterson I’ll still look for her in the crowd. Here are links to some of Laura Boss’s books: The Best Lover (NYQ Books, 2017)... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Philip Brady's The Elsewhere: Poems & Poetics is a collection aimed at eternity. Brady's new and selected provides an unabashedly bardic synthesis of the smoking girders and brickwork that make a life in poetry. Ranging from Queens to West Cork, from Youngstown to Lagos, The Elsewhere negotiates the landscape between recollection and release, between art and life, between impulse and sudden song: "I dreamt of holding fast to all I knew. / But memory's a muscle letting go." The essays on poetry, and the poetry itself, are Homeric in scope, Yeatsian in intensity, networked in a riot of wine-dark vectors and turning in a phantasmagorical gyre of allusion and erudition that spirals out into the enormous embrace of the music underwriting the everyday. The Elsewhere is everywhere ambitious, but more importantly, its poems and prose dwell in a kind of singing that begins in the forever that is right here. This is the perfect book to pick up during national poetry month; it makes me wish there were more New and Selected collections that featured essays on poetics alongside the poetry. I'd like to see the same kind of book from contemporary poets who write incisive prose (like Paisley Rekdal, Mary Ruefle, Rachel Zucker, Tracy K. Smith, Nin Andrews, Martín Espada, David Lehman, Terrance Hayes, William Heyen, H.L. Hix, and on and on and on...). In the meantime, I am happy to recommend whole-heartedly Brady's ambitious poetry and erudite prose. ~DD Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: The poems in Crooked Smiling Light meditate on complicated family relationships. What are the advantages and the challenges of foregrounding the domestic and the autobiographical in your writing? Alan King: The advantages to this approach is that the stories come off as being authentic since I’m pulling from my own experiences. These are opportunities to connect with readers on a real level because everyone has complicated relationships with a loved one. The challenge is if my parents read my work, they’ll read it out of context and wonder why I’m “embarrassing” the family. My father and I made a lot of progress from those tense moments. There’s a chance he sees some of these poems and our relationship deteriorates, with all the work we did to get to where we are for nothing. So, there’s that. DD: Much of this chapbook concerns itself with fatherhood. The book begins with complicated father-son relationship explored in “In Your Dream” and “Counter Punching” unfolds in dialogue with the father-daughter relationship explored in a poem like “The Land of Innocence.” Can you talk about the trope of fatherhood in your own work? Are there any father-son, father-daughter poems written by other poets that you find particularly compelling and instructive? AK: Tim Seibles’s poems about his dad in his recent collection, One Turn Around the Sun, had a nuance that was lacking in my own poems. His poem, Ode To Your Father, really showed me how to humanize my dad while being critical of him at the same time. He tells the story of his dad that made me feel like I had a full picture of him. That’s what I wanted to start doing in my work. DD: Who are your favorite poets? AK: Aw man. That list changes, but the consistent ones are Tim Seibles, Destiny Birdsong, Kelly Harris DeBerry, John Murillo, Asha French, Jan Beatty, Kim Addonizio, Dorianne Laux, and Stephen Dobyns. Those are a few who come to mind. DD: Like many contemporary love poems, “Gluttony” upends the notion of an idealized and exclusive beloved, meditating as it does on extramarital desire within a committed relationship. Why approach the love poem in this way? AK: I felt the approach had to be real. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you stop seeing attractive people besides your spouse or partner. Those feelings are natural, and the urges are what makes us human. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having those feelings. It’s up to the person on whether they will act on those cravings. DD: The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement directly and indirectly provide a context for Crooked Smiling Light. Could you talk about how recent events have shaped your writing life? AK: I think Steven Leyva explained this well in his “Nerd Volta” column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, when he said that my earlier poems “were always tempered…with a kind of whimsy.” In light of recent events, “the... Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: Tupelo Press just released the anthology Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic. Could you tell us a bit about this anthology and its genesis? Kristina Marie Darling: I had the privilege of co-editing Four Quartets with Tupelo Press’s Publisher & Artistic Director, Jeffrey Levine. When curating the anthology, we wanted to showcase the many different styles and aesthetic approaches that writers have taken in depicting what is essentially a shared experience. To that end, we chose sixteen chapbook-length folios, including two collaborative folios; a folio in translation from the original Korean; innovative folios like Dora Malech’s postmodern lyrics and Mary Jo Bang’s captivating hybrid text; and folios that honor tradition and reframe it for a thoroughly contemporary cultural moment, like Jon Davis’s Pandemia and Maggie Queeney’s The Patient. Though some of the work was specially commissioned for the anthology, we felt it was important to also hold an open call. In the end, we were humbled by not only the sheer volume of submissions, but the artistic vision and the quality of the writing. This open call enabled us to present twelve established voices alongside four exciting new ones. And because we received so many outstanding submissions, we featured many of the poets in Tupelo Quarterly’s most recent issue, TQ22. DD: Four Quartets, as you note in the introduction to the anthology, bears witness to life during the pandemic. It is timebound, historic, and (what Carolyn Forché has called) evidentiary in ways that other anthologies are not. Stephanie Strickland’s poem “Time-Capsule Contents” underscores, in its title, the preservative impulse of the anthology. There was also a very quick turn-around from conception to publication for this book. Could you talk about how these factors influenced your editorial work on this project? KMD: To help deliver such a timely book at the right moment, so that readers see their lived experience reflected in the poetry, was an honor and a privilege. In this moment of pandemic, protest, upheaval, and isolation, we felt it was important to present a project that cultivates community through the literary arts. We at Tupelo Press have been thrilled to see Four Quartets achieving this goal, our recent zoom launch being one example. It was heartening to see over eighty enthusiastic guests who came out to celebrate poetry—which has been, truly, a light in dark times. Let me just say that the completion of this timely anthology would not have been possible without Tupelo Press’s gifted staff, which includes Allison O’Keefe & Jacob Valenti, Operations Administrators; David Rossitter, Managing Editor; Kirsten Miles, Director of the 30/30 Project; Alan Berolzheimer, Consulting Editor; & Emily Bruenig, Fulfillment Coordinator. They were instrumental in designing the anthology, sending out proofs, and gathering materials such as author bios and photos, but also fulfilling the donor rewards for the Kickstarter campaign that made the book possible. DD: There are two collaborative section in this book, the excerpts from a long poem by Yusef Komunyakaa and Laren McClung and the poems co-written... Continue reading
Posted Jan 1, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
[3 Book Recommendations by Dante Di Stefano] The Last Orgasm Nin Andrews Etruscan Press, 2020 In her own words, Nin Andrews’s new collection is a “book of poems of gratitude, admiration, memories, grief, and love.” The Last Orgasm accomplishes what Andrews has accomplished throughout her body of work: to consistently write a poetry of complex intelligence, empathy, and humor; no one else in American poetry combines quite so seamlessly the metapoetic, the allusive, and the mirthful. Andrews displays an ecstasy of influence everywhere in The Last Orgasm, as she evokes, honors, and queries the likes of John Ashbery, Jorge Luis Borges, Denise Duhamel, Antonio Machado, Maureen Seaton, Tim Seibles, Walt Whitman, and many more. This is a book to be read and reread for its delights, for its wisdom, and for its acknowledgement that poetry (and the poetry of a self-unfolding-in-time) is far more heady and far more elusive and far more omnipresent and far more fleeting than any definition of it might imply. The first stanza of the poem “Last Night” conveys some of the beauty and strangeness to be found in these pages: Last night I dreamt that the bees—the many golden bees that hum inside my heart— were leaving, one by one, flying through a hole in the screen and into the night. Every page of The Last Orgasm hums with such mystery, such sweet lack, such release. Naming the Lifeboat Justin Gardiner Main Street Rag, 2020 In his essay on Robert Frost, W.H. Auden invokes Samuel Johnson to explain the aims and impetus of Frostian poetics: “The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.” Justin Gardiner’s debut poetry collection, Naming the Lifeboat, recalls Auden’s Frost-by-way-of-the-good-doctor. Gardiner, who has lived in Antarctica and travelled through many remote wildernesses, writes the kind of poetry that has everything to do with joy and survival. The poems in Naming the Lifeboat traverse the South Pole, the high seas, Laos, Bolivia, the suburbs, the small towns, and the remotest regions of the United States. Gardiner explores the interior landscapes of grief, love, and pain, detailing family mental illness, romantic relationships, and everything in between. These are poems of pilgrimage, poems where a finely-calibrated wisdom leans into deep longing: “Given the traveler’s lot, / all arrival is invitation / to future loss—.” If you want to read the kind of poetry where epidermis meets bark and the mind loves the heart, this is the book for you. Bone Chalk Jim Reese Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2019 Poet Jim Reese’s nonfiction debut, Bone Chalk, contains two dozen essays filled with the careful attention to detail and the emotional intelligence that characterizes his poetry. Reese draws his subject matter from a lifetime in the Great Plains and he assays the people and the landscape of this region with clarity and nuance. Formally, Reese variegates his approach to the essay, providing straightforward narrative memoirs, braided narrative essays, short lyrics, and incorporating epistolary elements;... Continue reading
Posted Dec 21, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano's "Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen" was chosen by Dana Gioia for The Best American Poetry 2018. "Exodus," the second poem here, is of the same vintage. -- DL Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen In those days, my dreams always changed titles before they were finished and I wanted only to love in that insane tortured way of poor dear Dmitri Karamazov. Suddenly, I was speaking the language of lapdog and samovar. This is the ballroom, the barracks, the firing squad. This is the old monk with the beard of bees. This is the orange lullaby the moon [of the moon] will sing you when it’s grieving. This is the province you escape by train, fleeing heavy snow and eternal elk. This is the part where I take your hand in my hand and I tell you we are burning. Exodus It takes a lifetime’s blindness to see one’s father. —Cid Corman My father mumbled forth his violated commandments for half my life. I inscribed them on incense and holy water and when I drank them they tasted like cigarette ashes in a coca cola can. There were no tablets save the pills he didn’t take. Like Moses stuttering to the stones and scrub brush, his dictates turned me into a desperate Aaron, bewildered, dutifully translating the fire raging in a reed thicket into the voice of God. He slept for days on end, dreaming apple orchards. He believed the smell of college elevator steel was sacred. Once he pronounced the stars memory-less pickpockets. He decried windows. He expounded upon the intractability of silverware. I fought him twice and both times he had the strength of the archangel ascending into heaven, swooping down the mountain. Birds were not his emissaries. Canaan, he would have us all know, was a broken dinner plate and asparagus-spattered walls. From the edge of his hospital bed, I finally saw him unfolding in time and I could almost see him. Last night, as he nodded in his recliner, weak from the new medicine he’s taking, I knew no staff would split this rock. Continue reading
Posted Dec 18, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: How did Big Hammer and Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books come into being? Dave Roskos: Big Hammer & the press began in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I moved to New Brunswick on July 4, 1986. Eliot Katz was the first New Brunswick poet I met. He was stapling posters around town for an upcoming poetry reading at The Court Tavern featuring Andy Clausen and the Lunar Bear Ensemble. He gave me a poster & encouraged me to come to the show & read in the open reading, which I did. There was no on-going poetry reading series in town at this time. The Roxy series from the early 80s had run its course and was history. I used to ask Eliot when the next poetry reading was every time I saw him. He must’ve gotten tired of me wanting to know when the next reading was all the time, because he encouraged me to start a reading series myself and then he told me how to do it. I co-founded The Proletkult Poetry Circus at The Court Tavern in March of 1987, with fellow poet Chris Aubry. Bob Rixon was the first featured poet, followed by an open reading. The magazine grew out of the reading series & several other series in NJ, Philly & NYC including: POETSWEDNESDAY at The Barron Arts Center, founded & run by Edie Eustice (earlier on with Sofran Crotty, later with Joe Weil), Liza Pille’s Tuesday night series at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, Jacko Monahan’s ongoing-for-decades series at The Brighton Bar in Long Branch, Frank Finale’s Without Halos readings in Ocean County, Betsy Robin Schwartz’s series at The Metuchen Public Library, Dave Lancet’s series at The Pipe Line & The Fringe in Newark, Lamont Steptoe’s series at The Painted Bride Arts Center in Philly, Barbara Holland’s series at The Speak Easy in Greenwich Village, Enid Dame & Donald Lev’s Home Planet News readings at The Cedar Tavern, Yictove’s series at The Knitting Factory, etc. The magazine included poets I had met through these various scenes, as well as poets from around the country who I only knew through the mail. Big Hammer #1 was published in 1988. I typed it up with a typewriter onto sheets of 11 by 17 inch paper, double-sided, & had it photocopied at a local print shop. Ken Greenley and I used the MACS at The Roost, a free computer lab at Rutgers University, to type up “camera-ready” pages for the chapbooks and magazines. The Roost was open 24 hours, comfortable enough & conducive for stoned & even tripping poets typing up poems at 3 am. I typed Big Hammer # 2 & several chapbooks at The Roost. Big Hammer #2 was printed by my friend Tom Pulhamus, a poet (& later an editor at Long Shot) who worked as an off-set printer at Mike Cote’s Ploughshares Press. Mike let Tom print the magazine on his off-hours for the cost of materials. An enormous labor of love. Ken Greenley used... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
sur vie Youna Kwak Fathom Books, 2020 Youna Kwak’s debut collection, sur vie, calls for a brazen ear to hear its Precambrian limbic music. Kwak’s poetry is like nothing being written today, rife with “black ruminations, creaking / musculature,” “warm jubilance,” “crowbar bones,” “fish-thick / skin” and other opaque, but strangely tactile luminous fluxes. To enter into a poem in sur vie is to be etherized, atomized, and transfigured, to experience something at once coolly mystical and hotly mammalian; as Kwak puts it in her poem, “Racoon”: where you are is incompleteness, blurred enchantment in the center of the dance, where eyes all wallow, socket-hungry. Here, as elsewhere in sur vie, Kwak’s poetry scavenges and scans the lonely unknowing at the heart of human experience, overlaying the instinctual, the habitual, and the ultimately unnamable with intellection and lyric fire. Kwak’s lyric fire unfolds in dialogue with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet she directly invokes in the poem “Season of Bells’ Distant Flowering,” and whose presence shines like shook foil almost everywhere in this collection, as evidenced in the following stanza from “Waiting in the Garden”: Were you smote to stillness by the object or did desire strike first? Fixing later on its locus, sudden gleam of light amongst the brambles. The fat plum, lazy dangle. Interestingly, Kwak’s poetry reverses the inscape of the objects in the world it apprehends, unmooring those objects from their particularity and, in the process, unselving speaker and listener alike (blurred enchantment in the center of the dance). Everywhere in this poetry, the image comes first, but the image is “an image of ardor / unchecked, spilling / vines from the cabinet.” This spillage, this lyric enactment of the fungibility of all things, leads inevitably back to a contemplation of the body (what Hopkins called “mortal trash”) as corpse and container of a corpus of language (The Word made flesh—the What that will fall to the residuary worm). In some of the most memorable lines from sur vie, Kwak writes: “My mouth is cut to the likeness of / God, and instructs the newborn / in me.” Ultimately, though, sur vie contemplates survival, this life we live and try in vain to make sense of, in all its estranging detachment and its thrumming intimacies. Youna Kwak’s poetry, “moonbitten, lit, a tatter of telegrams,” counters what Pound called “the tyranny of the unimaginative.” sur vie deserves to be widely read because it enacts the curious balm of a deeper knowledge in a time (like any other time) of so many superficial ways of knowing. Assuredly, despite a wider uncertainty, Kwak holds out her hand to us and sings: “In appreciation I will persist with you.” Continue reading
Posted Aug 17, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: How did Free-Grace Press come into being? Clifford Jackman: Free-Grace Press was created because we wanted to publish books that are about using the readers imagination. Our books are sculpted art / a kinetic sculpture that you can carry around – an Artist's Book. We desire to recreate the joy of looking, feeling, reading, and using one’s imagination. At our physical foundation is the genderless and often anonymous Pamphleteer publisher that was born slowly after the invention of the printing press for the masses. From Jane Anger (1589) to Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin (1776) we adore the brutal honesty and high art of Pamphleteering. We believe those Pamphleteer times and today’s Internet (self-publishing) times are very similar. The internet’s abandon and freedom is similar in spirit to the free-for-all that Pamphleteering was, and/or, is. Another brick in our foundation is the Artist’s Book championed most recently by William Blake (1757-1872). His combination of drawings and paintings with text was groundbreaking. Since then artists and writers have carried on the tradition of an Artist’s Book through Dadaism, Surrealism, and Conceptualism. The respect Blake had for literary prose did not make it through to Conceptualism (1970’s). And that’s when aesthetics and philosophy dominated the Artist’s Book design so there were very few literary stories – just visual, conceptual, and philosophical stories. So at Free-Grace Press we aim to continue this tradition of the Artist’s Book. DD: Tell us about the first book Free-Grace has published, The Worming of America by Autumn Leaf. CJ: Well literally it’s an answer to another Pamphlet published in 1615. We published The Worming of America as a rebuttal to Joseph Swetnam’s pamphlet / novel published in 1615 titled, The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Forward, and Unconstant Women: or the Vanity of Them, Choose you Whether: With a Commendation of Wise, Virtuous and Honest Women: Pleasant for Married Men, Profitable for Young men, and Hurtful to None. Genre-wise, it’s a blend of historical fiction, alternative history, and literary fiction. It’s a post-modern study or play on questions of femininity, debt, sin, and freedom. The story is told by a first person narrator - Autumn Leaf (aka Susan Hutchinson), and it transports readers to Colonial Boston(1650) where The Worming of America (WoA) explores oppression in a Puritanical time as seen through the eyes of Anne Hutchinson’s daughter. Autumn throughout her day investigates / debates, the English Civil War (royalty and/or white slavery), the Free-Grace Controversy, and how America unified for a militaristic revolution. DD: Tell us about the books you’ve slated for publication in the next few years. CJ: The second book Free-Grace Press is publishing in 2021 is, Mother’s Day in the Empire State, Or, An Answer to the Arraignment of Women. Mother’s Day, again is written in modern day prose. It’s about motherhood in contemporary Appalachian society. The author is a 50-year-old woman - Constance or Connie Munda - she is a single Mom in upstate New York and a Child Protection Services... Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai Ha Jin Pantheon Books, 2019 Ha Jin’s biography of Li Bai (formerly known as Li Po and Rihaku in the west) provides a vivid survey of the great poet’s life. Bai (701-762 A.D), a legendary figure in Chinese poetry, is said to have drowned while drunkenly chasing the reflection of the moon in a river. The Banished Immortal, although constantly taking account of the myths clustered around Li Bai, focuses more intensely on the verifiable aspects of the poet’s life and work. Ha Jin’s compelling prose not only renders a highly readable overview of Bai’s life, but also provides an interesting gloss of Tang dynasty bureaucracy. Bai’s wanderlust, his political aspirations, his poetic skill (often employed in service to his political ambitions), his setbacks, his literary friendships, his Daoist spirituality, his naivete when negotiating court intrigues, and his gregarious heart make this biography read like a novel. Ha Jin brings Li Bai alive in his writing; he also conjures a world where poetry held a central place by providing interesting digression about Tang poetry devotees like Ge Qing, a street policeman in Jing Prefecture who was “so devoted to the poet Bai Juyi that he tattooed more than thirty of Juyi’s poems on his body, as well as drawings inspired by his verses” and was called “Bai Juyi’s Walking Poems and Pictures.” The world that Li Bai moved through bears little in common with our own, but American poets might find inspiration in the naked ambition of this itinerant immortal. Playlist David Lehman University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019 In a 1996 Paris Review interview with A.R. Ammons, David Lehman said that Ammons’ long poems: “seem in some ways deliberately imperfect—casual, expansive, all-inclusive, loose.” The same could be said for Playlist, which is a direct homage to Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year. Like many of Ammons’ long poems, Playlist unfolds in increments, held in place by the calendar and given momentum by the playlists on Sirius radio and by the enthusiasms of the poet—jazz, poetry, cinema, the great American songbook, and crooners like Sinatra. There’s a cosmopolitan sprezzatura to Lehman’s long-poem, a spritely dailiness, surprisingly intimate and lush, as open to chance as a turn of the stereo’s dial, efflorescing in descriptive passages such as: after I step out of the car and onto my favorite perch above Cayuga’s waters, the porch where majestic trees devoid of leaves stand like scarecrows the sky a deeper hue an orange and blue blaze dipping below the horizon In Playlist, Lehman has succeeded in doing something that hasn’t been done much since the passing of Ammons, viz., he’s written a book-length poem that is propulsive in its readability. Playlist is a testament to a literary friendship of the highest caliber, and an artifact from a life lived in a studied circadian dialogue with art, literature, and music. Anyone who lives poetry, and loves it, should read this book. Helping the Village Idiot Feed... Continue reading
Posted Apr 20, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
[A Review by Dante Di Stefano] The Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems Nickole Brown Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020 Nickole Brown’s new chapbook, The Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems, continues the project she initiated in her chapbook To Those Who Were Our First Gods (Rattle, 2018); this project, as the poet herself articulates it, proposes to build an antipastoral bestiary comprised of poems spoken in “a queer Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature: beautiful, damaged, dangerous and in desperate need of saving.” As did To Those Who Were Our First Gods, The Donkey Elegies explores the profound links between human beings and our animal kin. Brown draws on her experiences working with donkeys in several animal sanctuaries and overlays those experiences with a complex array of personal, cultural, historical, and linguistic associations connected to this humble and hearty mammal. The Donkey Elegies does what any good essay does: it assays (it tests and examines, but it also attempts), it suggests (rather than expounds), it spirals outward while tethering the attention to one unparaphrasable idea; the essay, as form or genre, is, after all, the donkey of literature: sinewy, indefatigable, often overlooked. Like her central subject in this book, Brown’s poetry hauls steadily onward, tender and tough, lit with the knowledge that holiness dwells in the common, the low-life, the baseborn. Throughout the collection, the lowly donkey becomes a metonym for the oppressed “who carried us from that squat existence of flint strike to entire cities,” and “who blistered and tore, who blew their knees and threw their vertebrae hauling the stone and laying the tracks, plowing one field and then the next.” Here, Brown not only alludes to slavery from the ancient world to the antebellum South, but also surveys the exploitation of laborers like her “illiterate, hammer-swinging grandfather,” and the coal miners and tenant farmers of her native Kentucky. Those laborers are the same as all the ones who are continually “made draft, made compulsory, forced into conscription, like all those boys in my mama’s class that won that twisted lottery and came home from Vietnam unable to tell the slam of a screen door from a land mine.” The unassuming and eminently tractable donkey rehearses, in its very plodding, the survival strategies of those whose extrinsic worth has been bound to their work, and whose ongoing struggle has been to resist the erasures that their worth-bearing work necessarily entailed. For Nickole Brown, however, the donkey’s symbolic resonances remain deeply personal, tied as she is to generations of laborers and survivors. These personal connections begin with the idioms of Brown’s Kentucky childhood. Brown notes these idiomatic roots in the fourteenth section: “the church ladies would say they hadn’t seen me in a donkey’s years even if I had missed only a few Sundays, and all us kids knew to avoid Uncle Leon because the man could talk the hind legs off a donkey and that telling grandfather what to do was about as good as putting a steering... Continue reading
Posted Mar 23, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
[N.B. The following interview with editor, Alexander Pepple, and poet, Susan de Sola, was conducted by Dante Di Stefano.] Alexander, could you say a few words about Susan de Sola’s new collection Frozen Charlotte? Alexander Pepple: Susan is someone I was quite familiar with, a long while earlier, through her participation at Eratosphere—Able Muse’s online literary workshop—where I was always impressed with the quality of the poems she posted, and her incisive critiques, not to mention the stream of accolades and publication credits she continued to garner. Along the way, she also became a fine assistant poetry editor at the literary journal, Able Muse, print edition. Even with that level of acquaintance of her and her craft, I was stunned by the range of talent she displayed in the Frozen Charlotte manuscript when she eventually submitted it to the press. It’s a richly diverse collection of the serious and the light, the personal and the universal, of landscapes and people and animals, of heartbreak and ecstasy, of the sensual and the tragic. And I could on. One of the astounding aspects of the book is how well she was able to fuse all these elements into a cohesive and engaging wholeness—in the progression, the tension, the surprises, and the fun. And I haven’t even broached the technical prowess on display in the many poetic styles from free verse to blank verse, to sonnets, shape poems, ghazals, list poems, nonce forms, and more. It’s gratifying that several reviewers from journals such as Agni (“Lucidity unites the book’s poems”), Light (“This book will change with the light each time you read it. There is humor in the monumentally sad poems and pointed meaning in the funny ones”), Art Fuse (“In Frozen Charlotte, Susan de Sola provides readers with enough aesthetic pleasure and thoughtful commentary about today’s world to remind us of just how good—and necessary—poetry can be”), and other reviews have recognized and praised elements of Frozen Charlotte that won me over in accepting and publishing it. Frozen Charlotte not only enchants and enlightens, but also entertains. Susan de Sola Susan, how has living in Europe affected your poetry (besides proving the setting for several of the poems in Frozen Charlotte)? Susan de Sola: Living abroad alters your perception of America. The changes seem more startling—you are removed from the gradualism of everyday life. You miss out on local action, and also local political satire and its therapeutic effects. I find myself writing and publishing topical verse in response to events at home. Daily life in the medium of another language changes your relationship to English. It estranges and intensifies it. But not hearing your native language also impedes certain avenues of memory. Sometimes I encounter a word I haven’t heard used in many years, and it fairly resounds in my ears. “gubernatorial, tush, deciduous”… to just name a few. In this collection, you have a beautiful poem about North by Northwest, another about Bringing Up Baby, and a third that references... Continue reading
Posted Jan 5, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
[A Book Recommendation by Dante Di Stefano] What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump Ed. Martín Espada Curbstone Books, 2019 In his essay, “Filthy Presidentiad: Walt Whitman in the Age of Trump,” published in the November issue of Poetry magazine, three time Best American Poetry contributor Martín Espada argues that in “the bicentennial of democracy’s bard,” Whitman’s democratic vision might provide Americans of the twenty-first century with a means to navigate the murk of a demagogic presidency and a twenty-four hour news cycle. Espada underscores that Whitman’s vision of democracy involved radical openness (“Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs”), empathy (“Whoever degrades another degrades me”), and polyvocality (“Through me many long dumb voices”). “Filthy Presidentiad” also juxtaposes Leaves of Grass against the current border crisis and examines Whitman’s legacy in Latin America and the Caribbean from José Martí to the aftermath of Hurricane María. Espada ends with a discussion of his own poem “Letter to My Father,” itself a reminder to “resist much / obey little,” a sentiment that would have resonated with the poem’s subject, Frank Espada, noted community activist, photographer, and creator of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project. In short, “Filthy Presidentiad” is required reading for anyone who loves poetry, justice, courage, and freedom. “Filthy Presidentiad” provides a clarifying lens through which to view Espada’s recent projects as poet and anthologist. Like “Letter to My Father,” Espada’s recent poem, “Floaters,” (published in the November issue of Poetry magazine) owes something to Whitman in its formal structure; more importantly, “Floaters” enacts Whitman’s injunction to poets of the future “to dauntlessly confront…injustice” and to “counteract dangers, immensest ones, already looming in America.” “Floaters” reflects on the deaths of twenty-five-year-old Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his twenty-three-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos, Salvadoran migrants whose corpses were found and photographed face down after drowning in the Río Grande. The poem also examines the callous rhetoric of the “I’m10-15” Border Patrol Facebook group in response to the viral images of the tragedy. A few days ago, a far-right white supremacist website published an essay attacking Espada’s poem, “Floaters” and his essay, “Filthy Presidentiad.” At first glance, it might seem odd that such an attack would even happen, but, on further consideration, Espada’s poem, and his essay, represent an existential threat any group whose continuance depends on foisting indignities and silence onto those it deems its enemies. As with Whitman, the threads that connect the stars in Espada’s “Floaters” (and in “Filthy Presidentiad”) are the moral filaments of a great unbridled wildly diffuse imaginative sympathy. Every poem in Martín Espada’s new anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (Curbstone Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press), expresses and embodies a similar form of imaginative sympathy. As Espada notes in his preface: “This is an anthology of poems in the Age of Trump—and much more than Trump. To be sure, there are poems about Trump and his pathological demagoguery,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 16, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: How did Press 53 come into being? Kevin Morgan Watson: Up until 9/11, I was a writer of short fiction and some poetry, and was having some success publishing my work. After 9/11, the stress of being a full-time student—finally earning my BA in English—and being a full-time employee in the airline industry, with a wife and three small children at home, writing became impossible. To find peace, I began editing for other writers and teaching workshops. I found that I enjoyed this process and that I was pretty good at it, so after I lost my job in March 2004, I decided to start a small publishing company to have something creative to do until I found a real job. I opened Press 53 in October 2005 and by March 2006 it was clear that publishing was my real job. DD: What changes in poetry publishing have been most notable for you since the press began in 2005? KMW: I talked with my poetry series editor, Tom Lombardo, about this recently. Around the turn of the century (2000), there were only ten low-residency MFA programs, and today there are close to fifty, so there are a lot more poets with advanced degrees looking for work and looking to be published. Also, online journals were few and not taken seriously by many writers. The poetry community was vast but places to publish were limited. Today, almost every literary journal and magazine has an online presence. Places to submit poetry have grown wildly, and most magazines now accept simultaneous submissions. At our quarterly online journal, Prime Number Magazine, our submission periods run quarterly and we’ll easily receive more than 400 submissions for poetry. If our guest editors aren’t quick to read and respond, they can miss out on fifty to seventy poems that were accepted by other magazines or journals. As for publishing poetry books, we can’t publish all the fine collections that come our way, and where we used to publish five or six poetry collections a year, we are now publishing ten to twelve. That could be attributed to our growth at Press 53, but it is also an indication of how many people are writing and reading poetry. DD: What do Press 53 poetry collections have in common? KMW: We have eclectic tastes but one common thread is that the poetry we publish is accessible. We stay away from abstract, experimental poetry and anything overtly religious or political. An occasional poem in the collection crossing these lines is fine, but stay too long and you won’t make the cut. DD: There’s an interesting line in your bio: “Kevin has earned awards for his own writing in both short fiction and poetry, but he no longer writes for publication.” How has the decision not to write for publication affected your writing life and your work as a publisher? KMW: My decision to no longer write for publication came by default. I tend to run on one... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: You have an exquisite poem called “My Body is a Library” published in Diode, that ends with the following stanza: I’ve renamed every flower For the women who came before me I’ve rewired the plane, redrawn the key And untied the ribbon from my neck Without dropping my head at my feet. If all it takes to lose myself is burning the history that Brought me here, then hand me the match. A story beginning with self-immolation Doesn’t always end in ashes. Reading these lines, I was struck by how they parallel the PANK mission to publish poetry from “a place inhabited by contradiction, quirk and startling anomaly, where the known is made and unmade, and where unimagined futures are born.” Could you begin the interview by riffing on that mission and your own words? Jessica Fischoff: I think PANK’s mission statement really encapsulates itself. I’m not sure I could phrase it any better, but I can say the raw spaces writers allow themselves to access when creating is the place I aim to put myself in with my own work. DD: How did PANK Books come into being? JF: In 2016 John Gosslee started PANK Books to publish diverse and important full and short length books that deserved attention. In conceptualizing the press aspect of PANK it was important to him that all books the press published had the full support of all of the editors regardless of which editor brought the book to the press. As of 2019, Chris Campanioni, Maya Marshal, and Ashley M. Jones have all chosen books for publication alongside John Gosslee. DD: Tell us about the books in the PANK catalog. JF: PANK Books has a very strong eight title catalog of little and big books that range in orientation, voice, craft, and genre. The main thread of our books is that they are inclusive in their support of all marginalized voices. We’ve published new writers, veteran writers, and in 2019 we published a book by a writer who had never published a creative work. We’re always reading, we’re always interested in publishing work we know is important to read. DD: What are some of the unique opportunities and challenges for women-run presses? JF: I’d like to answer with questions I ask myself, and that any editor and writer should ask themselves at least once. How does the curation of a publication change amongst editors of different genders and backgrounds? Do women editors read differently than editors who are not women? Do different topics and styles of writing resonate with me differently than non-female editor counterparts, or does it come down to my personal taste? How do I know whether what I’m publishing and how I’m managing as an editor is because I am a woman, or because I’m drawn to certain writing styles and management techniques? How much of the writing I’m drawn to is because I am a woman and how much is because I am myself? At the... Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
To Those Who Were Our First Gods Nickole Brown Rattle, 2018 Nickole Brown’s To Those Who Were Our First Gods explores the profound links between human beings and our animal kin. In language both colloquial and lyrically charged, Brown examines how predation and kindness play out on “this whole stubborn, / beautiful, fucked-up planet,” which is spinning toward ecological doom, pocked (at least, in America) by chain-stores and fostering “this clocked-in, bottled, florescent-lit existence.” In “A Prayer to Talk to Animals” Brown articulates the central impulse of the chapbook: …Oh, forgive me, Lord, how human I’ve become, busy clicking what I like, busy pushing my cuticles back and back to expose all ten pale, useless moons. Would you let me tell your creatures how sorry I am, let them know exactly what we’ve done? Am I not an animal too? If so, Lord, make me one again. Give me back my dirty claws and blood-warm horns, braid back those long- frayed endings of every nerve tingling with all I thought I had to do today. To Those Who Were Our First Gods focuses on more than what we’ve lost by estranging ourselves from the natural world; it upholds and elegizes “that iridescent song,” “the soft and liquid cathedral” of the animal’s body, which, more often than not, ends up wrapped in a black bag and thrown away. Reading Brown’s poetry reminds one that to be an animal is to be alive in desire and suffering. Traveling Cluster: Poems in Italy David Giannini New Feral Press, 2018 Traveling Cluster, David Giannini’s latest chapbook, is an incandescent travelogue, an homage to Italian culture, a love note to Italy itself. Giannini details his travels through Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, Umbria and elsewhere, while paying tribute to the likes of Michelangelo, Dante Alighieri, and Federico Fellini. Giannini’s masterful craftmanship, his humor, and his varied formal approaches make this chapbook a journey as enjoyable as the one the poet took himself. Traveling Cluster always remains cognizant of the English fascination with Italia; Byron, Shelley, and Shakespeare all receive mentions. “In Verona” affords one such instance: As if Shakespeare could turn in his grave after Giampiero our guide tells of Juliet’s balcony and her statue removed from the courtyard because thousands of tourist hands cracked its bronze breasts by rubbing them “for luck in love” and I wonder does anybody care who now visits her perch and house walls fucked by graffiti. Giannini quotes Anna Akhmatova early on in this chapbook: “Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” How fortunate that the poems in Traveling Cluster allow one an immediate return to such a dream. The Body as Passage Nathan C. Lipps Open Palm Print, 2019 Reading Nathan Lipps’s The Body as Passage calls to mind lines from Robert Bly’s translation of Goethe’s “The Holy Longing”: “I praise what’s truly alive, / What longs to be burned to death.” Lipps stacks and splinters images in a devotional poetry that seethes... Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
N.B. The following responses by Mary Meriam are a kind of tonal cento in the spirit of Nicole Santalucia’s newest chapbook, Spoiled Meat. To read a more forthright appraisal of Santalucia’s new work, look at the generous recommendation Meriam offered on the February 2019 Reading List over at Poetry’s Harriet blog. Also, check out Santalucia’s chapbook here. While you’re there, you might acquaint yourself with the many finely written chapbooks available in the Headmistress catalog. ~Dante Di Stefano How did Headmistress Press come into being? Some bitch like me sets the fire, cranks the heat, makes an online journal of lesbian poetry and art, Lavender Review, swallows the flare. The flower pots and lesbian poems blaze one little fire at a time. Books sprout from Headmistress Press, thanks to some bitch Risa Denenberg taking care of the practical side. Could you talk a bit about your catalog? What do Headmistress books have in common? Yellow fires and red fires and cover art by lesbian artists, 52 books that are on fire. Pick the best chicken hut, make the best gas station, send them through the post office, and the readers: all on fire. Tell us about your Lesbian Poet Trading Cards. When the train passes through this neighborhood of flames, Rita Mae Reese knocks over the bitch who lit the first match. Her fire burns in the Chicago Tribune. Pretty soon Kathleen Rooney swirls in flames: Call attention to lacunae in the traditional literary canon and the clouds shrivel up. Dry out and put a face on the absences that exist in many readers’ knowledge. Drop like dog shit and provide another strategy to fight the invisibility that is often all too prevalent in the assembly of both anthologies of past writers and the tables of contents of current literary journals, as when editors say things to the effect of “we wanted to publish more work by (insert under-represented group here), we just couldn't find any.” You’ve published two books under the Sally Jane Books imprint. Could you tell us about these titles? To the sides of the streets and highways, where heroin addicts are left for dead, we start a wild and free imprint, where farmers grow lettuce, we trade sheep, text and art in exciting, fun, and innovative shoelaces and guns. What else is on the horizon for Headmistress Press? 2019 AWP Book Fair in Portland. What is one thing American poetry needs more of, in your opinion? Some bitch like me. Nicole Santalucia’s Spoiled Meat won your most recent Charlotte Mew chapbook contest. Would you tell us about the contest and about Santalucia’s book? Spoiled Meat is a foul-mouthed rural fantasy, allegory, satire. It’s rage against the world’s waste, sickness, horror, corruption, injustice. It’s a witch’s hell-call for change. Some bitch Santalucia recounts the apocalypse with authority, takes the blame, makes the change. Could you end the interview with a poem from Spoiled Meat? Here’s the bitch-action I nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pennsylvania on Fire Some... Continue reading
Posted Mar 1, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Bad Zoo Joseph Spece Fathom Books, 2018 Joseph Spece’s new collection of poetry, Bad Zoo, questions, with barbed vehemence, the knowability of any self; the poems in this odd bestiary writhe with uncanny personae bent on articulating the extraordinary. Spece’s aesthetic lies far outside the mainstream of contemporary American poetry, in line with Fathom Books’ mission to publish texts “fit to meet—or be—the Gorgon: avant-garde, neo-gnostic, queer, monstrous, dire, Other.” In Bad Zoo, Spece positions “a nasty, Queer, alterity; willfully ugly” against the malaise of the easy and the mundane. Even the presentation of the text, with artwork by Darren Hopes and design by Eric Westerlind, defies the conventional. Bad Zoo concerns itself less with the precincts of memory and the autobiographical lyric and more with the provinces of alienation, alteration, and embodiment, wherein ordinary words might be forged into “a pinwheel of runes // like shivs in hot gold.” The poetry in Bad Zoo is difficult and disorienting: the subject matter desultory, the approach off-kilter, wracked, scuttling. Spece engages figures as diverse as Herculine Barbin and Jason Vorhees, Matthew Shepard and Spider-Woman. The debts the author acknowledges in the endnotes are telling: “to Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Bennett’s Pond, Vince’s THE ADRIFT OF SAMUS ARAN, Adams-Santos’ Swarm Queen’s Crown, Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H., Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and the video games Silent Hill 2 (2001) and Parasite Eve (1997).” Throughout the many erasures and blackouts in this collection, one perceives that Spece is a poet near to the wild heart of life, despite his penchant for misdirection and his aggressively eldritch style. There are also moments of unchecked beauty and quietude here, as in “Cherry Heirloom”: — / I must write / the story of / absolute doe.” For these moments alone, Bad Zoo is worth the price of admission. This is certainly not a book for every reader, but if you are interested in reading ambitious, truly outré poetry, then Bad Zoo is a must-read for you. As Spece notes in “Lovely Colloquy”: “Transforming what’s strange is transforming.” Bad Zoo is transforming and transformative from start to finish. 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, 2019). 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 Jan 21, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1988 John Ashbery wrote: “there is not much ‘political’ poetry that I like for the reason that the political sentiments reiterated in it are usually the exact ones I harbor, and I would rather learn something new.” Considering the efflorescence of political poetry right now, and your own background as a union organizer involved in direct political action, could you begin the interview by riffing on Ashbery’s quote and its relevance to the political poetry being written in the Trump Era? Joe Weil: I think a lot of political poetry preaches to the already converted, but in that sense it is as vital a trope as carpe diem is, or as vital as an elegy for a recently deceased poem might be. That might make political poetry seem dangerously close to a conventional form or rather formula (lots of rhetorical devices including anaphora, lots of listing and enumerating, the use of invective, the inserting of a We and a Them, and so on). But when Political poetry fails, like when most poetry fails, it fails in the way its puts lines and nouns and verbs together. It does not fail intrinsically because it is political poetry. There is nothing innately wrong or inferior about political poetry. Much of the world’s best poetry is political... Blake’s Chimney Sweeper poem (the one in the Experience section) succeeds both as a political poem, but also as a powerful poem about the suffering of child laborers. Its words are so well chosen and so chilling. It is as great a poem as Goya’s “Saturn Eating his Children” is a painting. Most of the poems we love by the romantics were deeply political. Time has blurred the causes, but left the images and the main ideas of freedom and newness vivid. Political poetry might be considered tacky or obvious, but it surprises me Ashbery didn’t take to it, since he often liked traipsing the thin line between the sublime and the tacky, the lyrical and the obvious (he loved playing with cliché) . One of his poems ends with: “Rivers of wings surround us and vast tribulations.” That ominous declaration rings politically true at this moment in time though the poem was written in the 1950’s. Political poetry, when it is good, continues to have many lives and uses. It transcends its moment and exceeds its own cause. Done well, it is both anciently sudden and suddenly ancient. It does not date DD: In the “Pre-Rambles,” or introductory essays, to the first two issues of Shrew you lay out some guidelines for the magazine. I’m most interested in your idea of a “pre-standard” aesthetic, a concept that I think connects to another idea you’ve written about, a “Eucharistic vision” of poetry and the world. Could you unpack these concepts for us? JW: If you start with “Standards” you’re already publishing poems that fit a mold. The mold may not be precise or even visible,... Continue reading
Posted Nov 30, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City Philip Brady The University of Tennessee Press, 2019 Philip Brady’s new collection of essays, Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City, assays the enthusiasms and hidden architectures of a lifetime spent in academia and in poetry. Brady, poet, professor, basketball player, editor, and book publisher, brings tremendous erudition and empathy to bear on topics ranging from the wrath of Achilles to the flat earth theories of Kyrie Irving. Phantom Signs offers dispatches from the interstices between middle age and old age; the essays in this volume derive their momentum from the competing imperatives of the poet and the editor. As Brady notes in the introduction, “this book emerges from the tension between these two modes of being in the world: the writer’s dark, the editor’s light.” Brady’s subject matter is multifarious, vertiginous, constantly overlapping; the approach of the essays themselves are by turns Borgesian, Deleuzian, and Dionysian. Brady is not afraid to stutter step, to sucker punch, to jackknife, to parry, to juke, to barrel down the lane, to take a charge, to lay out, to confess, to faux-disclose, to retrace, to praise, and to re-envision himself and his ideas through a kaleidoscopic array of experiences—from his childhood in Queens, through his Peace Corps days in Zaire, to his years teaching at Youngstown State University in Ohio. Phantom Signs skitters playfully between memoir and criticism, impelled forward by the inspired imaginary chirography of luminary figures—real and fictitious, heroic and infamous—beginning with Chinua Achebe, Achilles, and Aeneas, and ending with Zarathustra, Robert Allen Zimmerman, and Louis Zukovsky. Brady recounts love affairs, travel, aging, a late marriage, recollections from early childhood, the innerworkings of a small poetry press, the insights gleaned from a life wed to great literature. Along the way there are notable observations, such as: “Poems are so enigmatic. Each emerges from some private darkness which publication does not entirely dispel. No one wants to be taken in by a false poem. An accidental verse.” Here, as everywhere else in Phantom Signs, Brady emphasizes the mysterious, the atomized substance of words charged with the ambition of enduring. In an essay that served as a commencement speech for the Wilkes University MFA Class of 2016, Brady writes: “When I say that writing begins with failure, I mean only that it begins there—what happens next is what counts. Most people give up. I think that those who make writing a life’s vocation aren’t necessarily the most talented; they are merely the most willing to experience profound and continuous defeat.” For those of us who love poetry, it is lucky that Philip Brady is one of those who haven’t given up. 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). Along with María Isabel Alvarez, he is the co-editor of Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America (NYQ Books, 2018). All proceeds from this anthology go directly to... Continue reading
Posted Nov 19, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Dante Di Stefano: How did Green Writers Press come into being? James Crews: Green Writers Press, an independent, Vermont-based publishing company, founded on Earth Day in 2014, is dedicated to spreading environmental awareness and social justice by publishing authors who promulgate messages of hope and renewal through place-based writing and environmental activism. Former Little, Brown book designer, Dede Cummings, founded the press out of her home office in southern Vermont with the mission to spread a message of hope and renewal through the words and images we publish. Throughout we will adhere to our commitment to preserving and protecting the natural resources of the earth. To that end, a percentage of our proceeds will be donated to environmental activist groups and social justice organizations. Our list has expanded significantly, publishing such authors as Julia Alvarez, David Budbill, Chard deNiord, John Elder, Dr. M Jackson, former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin, Raquel Vasquez Gilliland, and Clarence Major. DD: Can you talk a bit about the “localvore” approach of the press, combining environmental activism with the work of publishing? Dede Cummings: One reason we started Green Writers Press was to print our books sustainably, and use eBooks and audiobooks to reduce our fossil fuel use. We are excited to be publishing our own authors, and we welcome your support to help us spread the word. In today’s world of social media and online transactions, here are GWP, we remember that your head and your heart need nourishment from the natural world. With that as our credo, we embark on a journey to bring the beauty of the published book as a tactile object, into the homes and hands of our readers, and we also embrace the technology of tablet and eBook publishing. Our vision is that, collectively, our printed and eBooks will become a chorus of voices of writers and readers, artists and photographers, who care about the fate of the earth and want to do something about it. Though we believe our books will be interesting to Vermont residents, Green Writers Press has national distribution and we hope to have a broad reach and impact. Our voices need to be heard, which is why we refer to our press as a global press. We are—we all are connected on this planet we love. It is our hope that we can create a community around our press and the books we publish. DD: Using the anthology Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poetry as a point of departure, could you talk a bit about the poetic significance of Vermont? How has this place influenced you as a poet and editor? What, if anything, links Vermont poets as widely disparate as Major Jackson and the late Ruth Stone, for example? From editor and former Vermont state poet laureate, Sydney Lea: While even as I make one, I myself feel somewhat impelled to challenge any generality regarding so wide-ranging a group of poets as those in our anthology. Indeed, the “Vermontiness” of this collection may reside particularly... Continue reading
Posted Nov 2, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks so much, David. Kate's responses are really great. ~DD
Vita Readings: Lit from the Basement, the new poetry podcast from poet, Danielle Cadena Deulen, and her husband, Max Stinson, offers entertainment and edification for general readers of poetry and for experts alike. The premise of the weekly podcast, as articulated by Deulen, is as follows: "We’re a married couple who discuss poetry in our basement while our children are sleeping as a way to reconnect with each other, think about broader world issues, and remember our lives before having children (when we had more than an hour a night to ourselves). Our format is pretty simple. I’m an author and professor. Max isn’t. I introduce Max to a poem, he asks questions about it, then we use it as a conversational prompt to discuss stories from our lives or issues we care about: love, literature, family, politics, parenting, spirituality, etc. The topics we cover are wide-ranging. Every so often, we have guests on the show who talk about a poem that is personally resonant for them." Over the course of the first fifteen episodes, which come out once a week on Mondays, Deulen and Stinson (and guests) have discussed poems from poets, including Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Tracy K. Smith, Robert Hayden, Denis Johnson, Lisa Fay Coutley, Shara Lessley, Samiya Bashir, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jennifer Chang, Lindsay Bernal, and Richard Siken. Deulen generally begins the podcast by explaining the reason why a given poem was chosen for discussion; she then offers a close reading, which Stinson nuances by interposing questions from the perspective of a nonpoet. As with most podcasts, the average episode, which runs about fifty minutes long, contains enough digressions to keep Tristram Shandy happy. These digressions often layer the close reading by introducing personal stories from the podcasters’ lives. The alternation between anecdote and scholarly analysis propels each episode forward with élan and buoyancy. Listening to Deulen and Stinson discuss poetry is a great joy; Deulen’s love for poetry is as contagious as it is deep. Stinson’s smart commentary deflates and demystifies even as it opens a space for Deulen to gather paradise about a given poem. The couple’s love for each other and for their children provides an unusual, but welcome, backdrop for their particular brand of poetry criticism. It is an honor to be welcomed into the home of two such fine people. Spend some time listening to Vita Readings. You will not regret it. 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). Along with María Isabel Alvarez, he is the co-editor of Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America (NYQ Books, 2018). All proceeds from this anthology go directly to the National Immigration Law Center. Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2018 at The Best American Poetry