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Heather J. Macpherson
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Before I continue with the second half of my essay, I would like to thank Managing Editor, Stacy Harwood-Lehman for giving me the opportunity as a guest blogger this week on BAP. I cannot express what pleasure it is to focus on a single poet during the course of a week. Thank you! Also, thank you to Stephanie Brown for spending so much time responding to my interview questions, and giving me permission to reprint “Stacks” in it’s entirety later in this post. Finally, thank you to Dr. Heather Treseler at Worcester State University for recognizing my sincere love of Stephanie’s work. Yesterday I had the opportunity to write my first look at Stephanie Brown’s poem “Stacks”. I began with identifying the anaphoric inversion in her poetic line, which continues throughout her list-style poem from beginning to end and expresses the absolute philosophical resilience revealed in specific social and political situations. Librarians are not mere ‘keepers of books’ but represent a connection to community. The long-standing traditional perception that a librarian is a woman who checks books out at a desk is an antiquated image still conceived by members of the public. A librarian, like any other position, is not identified by gender, nor are they only responsible for printed words; a librarian, of which there are many different positions and roles, is involved with the community both in and outside the doors of Stephanie Brown’s “Ancient house” (line 7). Brown clearly states in her litanical verse the role and provisions of the public library: Place to hide from bullies the Opinion piece the Children meet the Service dog the Fire the Proper and calm welcome the (lines 16-21) The library is a sanctuary, a place “to hide” and a place for conjecture whether others like it or not. It is a place for children to grow and experience programs, usually free, that they may not otherwise experience. It is a congenial atmosphere, sometimes quiet and calm and sometimes not so much when “Angry crazy shirtless the” (line 15). Brown’s poem pays homage to the history to the institution, both current and past. Her reference to “Librarian casanova Philip Larkin the” (line 23) is the longest line in the poem with the anaphoric “the” hanging like a cliff. Much like the determiner as the surface holding the anvil, here, “the” acts as the edge of influence. Larkin was not only recognized for his poetry and novels, but he was employed as a librarian for over forty years. The dedication to the profession and the public is not always recognized the way it should be. Following the Larkin line, Brown takes us on a rhythmic departure: Cemetery plot dug open the Ideas inside the Spine broken the Conversation the Preservation the Interpretation the Empty station the (lines 24-30) The nine-syllable line “Cemetery plot dug open the” has a quiet, simple tone that suddenly breaks into two lines opening with long i vowel sounds, followed by four lines opening with anapestic pentameter... Continue reading
Posted Oct 21, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
The following is part one of my commentary on Stephanie Brown's poem "Stacks." I first encountered Stephanie Brown’s poetry in The Body Electric: America’s Best American Poetry from The American Poetry Review (W.W. Norton, 2001) and I recall so vividly my reaction to two of her poems, “We Librarians are Going to Baja” and “I Was a Phoney Baloney!”. Mind was blown. Period. The level of sarcasm and wit clung to my brain cells. What I cannot tell you is how many times I read and re-read these poems; the voice, style, structure, spoke to me in a way that I had not experienced in my reading life, and of course my (slightly) younger self connected with several themes (sex, identity, class) present in these two pieces. Who am I kidding, my older self continues to connect intimately with these poems as well as the broadening scope of Brown’s oeuvre. At the time I was working on my M.Ed. in Library Media Studies, and I only just recently left behind eighteen plus years of librarianship -although I keep my hand in at a lovely public library on Saturdays as a children’s librarian. It is hard to let go, and Brown's poem reminds us of the "Preservation the / Interpretation the" (lines 28-29) of the self and our greatest institution. In "Stacks," repetition functions as the forging tool. Brown’s anaphoric inversion breaks away from the traditional use of anaphora often applied at the beginning of the poetic line. Instead, Brown places the repetition at the end of the line. Here, the determiner “the” enjambs each brief line enforcing unusual power in a three-letter term we often take for granted in the English language: Democracy is the Library is the Temple of learning the Dangerous the (lines 1-4) “The” not only acts as a modifier, but determines the nature of reference. Immediately we are ‘in it’ drenched with political organization and majority because the people are the democracy and the “Library is the/Temple” of the people. The public library is a sovereign nation; it is all things to all people as it represents, dare I say it, the cornerstone of democracy. Conceptually, the opening term is quickly reinforced by “the” and this is the path we are on until we reach the poem’s end. Brown’s anaphora also forces the reader to move from line to line rather quickly, affecting rhythm, tone, and speed and all three of these devices radically position the speaker’s voice: People’s university the Cradle of civilization the Ancient house the Keeping of knowledge the (lines 5-8) Notice the first two lines of the poem end with “is the”. We see an immediate radical shift when “is” disappears after line two and “the” completely takes over; it is the strike on the anvil. “Stacks” does not hesitate or pause, there is no punctuation housing the images of “Bad conduct” and “upskirt photos” (lines 13-14) or “the / Angry crazy shirtless the” (lines 15-16). We are patrons here. We wander... Continue reading
Posted Oct 20, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Part 3 concludes my interview with Stephanie. I look forward to posting commentary on her poem "Stacks" on Thursday and Friday. Another one of your poems from Domestic Interior, "Self-Portrait at the End of the First Half of My Life," maintains a perfect-pitch sardonic wit that considers self-reflective attitudes about societal codes on the body and pregnancy. I wonder if you could talk about how the Ring Lardner references may (or may not) connect to appearance and motherhood? The Ring Lardner reference is really just so much about my personal reading growing up—I was a huge fan of Marshall McLuhan and he mentioned Ring Lardner’s quotation, “Some like ‘em cold,” in The Mechanical Bride. That book influenced a lot of my first thoughts about how bodies are viewed as commodities and as parts rather than a whole. The body is something separate from the life and the individual in it. I know that most of my life I lived with this feeling and belief. In fact, I did not know it was ever questioned until I read that book—and after that I read a lot more of the subject—art history books, costume and fashion books and feminist theory—much of the feminist theory I read echoed my own feelings about the body. Ring Lardner represents also a tough guy writer that I was fond of. I had a big crush and soft spot for those men city writers who were around in the early 20th century and the world of men they described. I think I was in love with them or they were my inspirations/muses.I loved the idea (idealized, of course and not real) of tough newspaper writer/fiction writers/playwrights who were hard drinkers, city-savvy, not innocent, elusive, and not at all domestic. A good example would be the whole world portrayed in the USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos. There is just a male, city, energy—I don’t know how else to explain it—testosterone?—that propels the narrative and I found it very attractive. In painting, the counterparts would be Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. I just love the city of Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. Another big influence on me was Nathanael West. I liked modernist male writers, as an ideal. I never have liked 19th century Romanticism and now that I think of it, I really never liked those kinds of men the poets were; I have been more of an 18th century and 20th century reader and admirer. I do think some men “like’ em cold—cold, distant and not intimate. It is probably very much the case now with a lot of internet porn in people’s lives where sex addiction has a devastating effect on people. The best thing I’ve seen or read on it is the movie Shame with Michael Fassbender. "Time, Waste of" (Domestic Interior) reminds me so much of an earlier poem, "I was a phony baloney" from your first book, Allegory of the Supermarket. It is not the mere use of the term "phony," but... Continue reading
Posted Oct 19, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
If I might backtrack a little to your commentary on feminist concerns: What strikes me the most in "Mommy is a Scary Narcissist" is the concept of looking, whether at the self, others, or being examined, which brilliantly opens the poem in the first line with eyelid reconstruction. Your development of looking carries on throughout the poem as this speaker, much like the woman observed in "Marble Obelisk," falls apart. Do you think we are our own worst enemies in our desire, perhaps through our motherly experiences, to please others? I am curious if the repetition of "Mommy" along with anaphora is consciously used to increase a level of anxiety in the poem for the reader? Are these favorite techniques in your poetry writing? Oh, I really love the connection you made between the eyelid surgery and looking! That is great—not something I consciously chose, but obviously there—so wonderful to have a good reader see that. Thank you. I think the kind of person I’m describing is much more sinister, if you will, than regular types of mothers being our own worst enemies in wanting to please people. That’s definitely there and I was certainly a perfectionist when I was younger and a young mother. But I really, in both poems, was thinking of a culture of narcissism and the kind of women who are the consorts of a type of successful man who is essentially absent in their hearts and minds, as he also is attending to his own image. The “Scary Mommy” would be the mother of the woman in “Marble Obelisk.” In “Scary,” the mother is also sort of in a religious (specifically Catholic) swoon—kind of like a narcissistic Virgin Mary. The “male gaze” is also there. This is a kind of Catholic woman I’ve known, as well. Or really any religious woman—there is often a competition about who is more pious or charitable. It’s also living a life where 95% of your identity is about being looked at and even engaging in a constant performance. I really identify with the idea of living in a constant performance. I believe I have freed myself from this for the most part. The people is these poems are neighbors and/or kin to the people in “The Neighborhood of Successful Marriage.” It’s all business, it’s all the public self. I was trying to make that poems fill someone with anxiety and even revulsion. That is how I felt discovering this person while writing her into existence. People always ask me about using anaphora and I think that it is definitely a technique that heightens the effect of whatever you’re trying to do to affect the reader, but really this is just the way I hear poems in my head. I think perhaps it’s a way for me to remember lines before I write them down. That is just the way they come to me. I usually keep them as they appear and sometimes go back and change drab words to... Continue reading
Posted Oct 18, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Stephanie Brown is by far one of our most fearless contemporary American poets. Her first collection, Allegory of the Supermarket (University of Georgia Press, 1998) explores the dynamic extremes of suburban discord and the self. Her second collection, Domestic Interior (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) continues in a similar vein, just as strong if not stronger than the first, never once veering away from the societal grotesque. Stephanie's recent work has appeared in Connotation Press, Green Mountains Review, and my own press journal with Lea C. Deschenes, Damfino Journal. I am overtly thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview Stephanie about her work. In your interview on Poetry.LA (5/2/2014) with host Mariano Zaro, you discuss moving away from writing long poems to writing shorter poems that focus more on the natural or mystical state of things rather than society. At what point did you decide to make such a dramatic change in both length and topic? I think style and topic naturally evolve over time, and if you look at a writer’s work there will always be a signature or voice in the work that lets you know it’s the same person writing in different styles. I once saw a retrospective of an artist’s work where you could see the person was changing styles as each decade’s fashion changed—just copying leaders in the art form rather than natural evolution—I wanted to avoid that sort of thing. For me I think it’s because that’s what I want to read. I am not really interested in a writer’s process being laid bare in the work—I want the scaffolding to be hidden and I want to read something that really moves me. I think I got bored of the way I write most often, which is a kind of slow warm-up to the point, with good details, but after a while, who cares? I’m thinking of a poem of mine like, “Library.” I don’t want to write that kind of poem anymore. I want to grapple more with the very strong emotions of life: DNA, if you will. That’s what we need artists to do. That’s what I need to read. I like short, clever, pithy poems that reveal a truth about life. A poet’s job is to be a reporter and recorder and also to be a psycho-pomp, seer and mystic; a Pandora and a Cassandra and a spell creator and someone who can stir people deeply and even harm others. I have more moved into this area lately. I tried to make that transition around 2013-2014, I’d say. I’m not sure I really have, but I do feel the need to write in a different way. It’s hard to tell if I have. I have a desire to write shorter poems, but I’m not sure if I have really accomplished that. I think people want to be moved by what they read, hear or see. I want to write that way for them to have that experience. I am interested... Continue reading
Posted Oct 17, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 15, 2016