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Peter Shippy
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Thanks so much to Stacey & David for allowing to me visit. And much thanks to you, for stopping by! For my final poem-as-text for a children’s book, I’ll go back, just a bit. Richard Brautigan’s “A Boat” (The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, Houghton-Mifflin): O beautiful was the werewolf in his evil forest. We took him to the carnival and he started crying when he saw the Ferris wheel. Electric green and red tears flowed down his furry cheeks. He looked like a boat out on the dark water. This poem always breaks my heart—and then I smile—the perfect math. No illustrations—leave the pages blank so our children (or you) can provide their own. Continue reading
Posted May 12, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“The moment one learns English, complications set in.” Felipe Alfau (Chromos) Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary (Univ. of California Press) is one of my favorite books to read, teach, and recommend to children, big and small. The book is genius. Where’s her MacArthur!? Mullen mashes Stein’s huzzah! and Oulipo’s triggering restraints with the deep language of an African-American woman. Also, the poems are deadly funny. That isn’t always apparent to first time readers. Some students mistake her verbal peregrinations for poststructuralist blague or academic obfuscating. One solution? We go to YouTube so they see her read. Once they put her words to a voice, a face in front of fully engaged, joyful audience, they get it. Mullen is singing for them. Really it’s a book of forms and feints: abecedarians, prose poems, acrostics, N + 7s, fractured fairy tales and myths, anagrams, homophonic substitutions, automatic writing, sound poems, found poems, and so on. There are even a few pieces written for children. “Ask Aden” is an acrostic for Mullen’s nephew: Are aardvarks anxious? Do dragons dream? Ever see an eager elephant? Newts are never nervous, are they? In “Any Lit” Mullen extends an African-American courtship dialogue (you are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon) to wuthering heights: You are a ukulele beyond my microphone You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia You are a union beyond my meiosis You are a unicycle beyond my migration You are a universe beyond my mitochondria You are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis What a great wedding poem, huh? But my choice is the book’s title poem: I beg to dicker with my silver-tongued companion, whose lips are ready to read my shining gloss. A versatile partner, conversant and well-versed in the verbal art, the dictionary is not averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader. In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom, turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin sheets, thick with accented syllables—all are exercises in the conscious regimen of dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the work. Any exit from the logic of language might be an entry in a symptomatic dictionary. The alphabetical order of this ample block of knowledge might render a dense lexicon of lucid hallucinations. Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of migratory words. In the rapid eye movement of the poet’s night vision, this dictum can be decoded, like the secret acrostic of a... Continue reading
Posted May 11, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“Undead, undead, undead” (Bauhaus) Recently I’ve been teaching a class that explores fairy takes, new and old. One of our texts is My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin) edited by Kate Bernheimer. At the risk of sounding like a homer—the poets rule this book! The aforementioned Shelley Jackson has a wonderful tale. And a few weeks ago our class had a viscously delightful time performing Joyelle McSweeney’s dramatic, gooey take on “The Town Musicians of Bremen.” But my favorite piece in the collection is Sabrina Orah Mark’s “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This Is What Happened.” Like her poems, her tale is almost impossible to paraphrase, it’s the beautiful lovechild of Maya Deren & Bruno Schulz. Mark’s debut, The Babies (Saturnalia Books), a collection of numinous prose poems, is one of my favorites. Does it pass Seamus Heaney’s jealousy test—that is—do I wish I could have made one of these black feathers—yes, ah yes. Here is “Transylvania, 1919”: “It’s good to be back,” they say, lifting up the trap door and peeking in. It is early, I was not expecting visitors. I slip off my grandfather’s dead lap and smile shyly. Holding hands, they tiptoe down the stairs. Like a long dark draft. Like a century. They are wearing my galoshes. They push their thumbs into my cheeks and pinch my wrists. “Isn’t it romantic?” they hiss, pointing at my grandfather until his mouth opens. They circle him and pull the dark zippered stitching from his arm. Upstairs, Mama is ashamed. Mama is shouting at us to go home. Her glasses are mended with string… which reminds me: I climb the stairs. My grandmother coming loose in my arms. I climb the stairs to where Mama is sweeping the swallows into her large brown skirt. She is very old. I kiss my grandfather and gently place him down. As Mama once had. When I first met her. Among the gravel and the circus trailers. A perfect piece to read to children to prepare them for the visitation of… relations. Illustrator? Kara Walker? Walker is, of course, a big-deal famous artist, and deservedly so. She’s “best known for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes that examine the underbelly of America’s racial and gender tensions.” (Walker Art Center bio.) I remember watching a documentary on Walker where she showed the filmmakers an artist’s book she had constructed. Her book’s silhouettes popped and moved and implored. I wanted it! But, of course, it is, I’m sure, a bit out of a poet’s price range. But if Walker joins with Mark—I’ll have one! I’ll have one. Continue reading
Posted May 10, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
A few weeks ago I finished Geoff Dyer’s Zona—a book about a movie (Tarkovsky’s Stalker) about a room. It’s a book of divine deviations. Toward the middle of the book, Dyer notes that he first saw Stalker as an undergraduate at Oxford, when he was “at that point of maximum aliveness, when my ability to respond to the medium was still so vulnerable and susceptible to being changed by what I was seeing.” Later he writes, “…even if you manage to keep up with the latest things, you realize that these latest things can never be more than that, that they stand almost no chance of being the last word, because you actually heard—or saw or read—your personal last word years earlier.” When I read that I had a strong desire to disagree—but, no. He’s right. With poetry, when I think back to the writers that were my last word as undergraduate, they still have a strong hold on me. Many of my last words were written by James Tate. Here’s an excerpt from a bit I wrote about Tate for The Boston Globe: On Aug. 21, my wife, Charlotte, gave birth to beautiful twin girls, Stella and Beatrix. We had each taken travel bags to the hospital, packed from lists provided by our obstetrician. My list was lean - change of clothes, toothbrush, a flask, and a book. That last item required weeks of anxious deliberation. Should I bring my bootleg copy of Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson's new novel, bought on eBay? Or perhaps a book from my fall classes at Emerson? Charles Simic's Dime-Store Alchemy our new poet laureate's prose poems on Joseph Cornell's magnetic, elusive boxes? Something for my children? Wittgenstein? Beckett? Just kidding. We just moved into a larger home, and for the first time I have a bookcase dedicated to poetry. No more must Robert Desnos rub spines with Don DeLillo! One day as I tried to stare the bookcase into submission, I was struck by the hold James Tate has on my collection. Tate has always meant the cosmos to me. His seminal first collection, The Lost Pilot, was the book that gave me permission to write poetry. These were not grandpa Thomas Stearns's poems. They were fresh, irreverent, heart-broken, and funny. Poems could be funny? At 20, that was news to me. Life-changing news. So, for the hospital, I grabbed his 1997 collection, Shroud of the Gnome (Ecco). The first poem? “Where Babies Come From”: Many are from the Maldives, southwest of India, and must begin collecting shells almost immediately. The larger ones may prefer coconuts. Survivors move from island to island hopping over one another and never looking back. After the typhoons have had their pick, and the birds of prey have finished with theirs, the remaining few must build boats, and in this, of course, they can have no experience, they build their boats of palm leaves and vines. Once the work is completed, they lie down, thoroughly exhausted and... Continue reading
Posted May 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Ladies and Gentlemen, in this corner, wearing the emerald trunks, the woman who made David the 2nd most famous Byrne from RISD, I give you Mairéad, the Dublin Goblin (Pangolin? Javelin? Mescaline?)! Byrne’s no-holds ars (rim-shot) is: If it looks like a poem, it is a poem If it associates with poems, it is a poem If it has even one drop of poetry, it is a poem. If it joins with another genre to form a new genre that genre will be poetry & all its products will be poems. That’s “One Drop” from her most recent book, The Best Of (What’s Left Of) Heaven (Publishing Genius Press). When he was a Head that other Byrne sang, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” His heaven is not her heaven. MB’s heaven is a busy place—over 200-pages of prose poems, verse poems, playlets, list poems, found poems, poems about war, Providence, family, and everyday lunacy. I adore the book’s title, but everyday lunacy, the title of her first section, is an apt definition of its enterprise. Many of the pieces are small—a few lines: PARKING IN FRONT OF SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE After a while it feels like home. girl on a side-street late for school stepping up on a short wall to sway a few steps alone. The great children’s book writer Ruth Krauss (I’ll Be You and You Be Me, illustrated by some cat named Sendak) would have adored those two poems. One of my favorites of Byrne's a prose poem that begins, “If a cow eats a fridge a bulky object is lodged in its neck which is also broad and oblong like a fridge.” Like William James moshing with Russell Edson. But my choice is: SPRING March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March March April There you go. The Waste Land in 32 words. For our kids’ version, one word per page, right? What kind of art? Collage, I think, wind-blown detritus, newspapers and leaves and blossoms and raindrops and bowler hats. Illustrator? The great Sarah Sze. She’s representing America at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Sze is best known for her site-specific sculptures and installations, but this book needs her hand with space and light and the everyday objects that percolate her art. Continue reading
Posted May 8, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Here’s a poem by Jennifer L. Knox (A Gringo Like Me, Bloof Books & Great American Prose Poems: Poe to the Present edited by Mr. Lehman, Scribner): Hot Ass Poem Hey check out the ass on that guy he’s got a really hot ass I’d like to see his ass naked with his hot naked ass Hey check out her hot ass that chick’s got a hot ass she’s a red hot ass chick I want to touch it Hey check out the ass on that old man that’s one hot old man ass look at his ass his ass his old man ass Hey check out that dog’s ass wow that dog’s ass is hot that dog’s got a hot dog ass I want to squeeze that dog’s hot dog ass like a ball but a hot ball a hot ass ball Hey check out the ass on that bird how’s a bird get a hot ass like that that’s one hot ass bird ass I want to put that bird’s hot ass in my mouth and swish it around and around and around Hey check out the ass on that bike damn that bike’s ass is h-o-t you ever see a bike with an ass that hot I want to put my hot ass on that bike’s hot ass and make a double hot ass bike Hey check out that building it’s got a really really really hot ass and the doorman and the ladies in the information booth and the guy in the elevator got themselves a butt load of hot ass I want to wrap my arms around the whole hot ass building and squeeze myself right through its hot ass and out the other side I want to get me a hot ass piece of all 86 floors of hot hot hot hot ass! * * * I know, it’s an obvious choice for a contemporary poem that I’d like to see made into a children’s book! I can just see that enumerator (Hey) lighting up each page in scarlet 48-point Courier. Without punctuation or line breaks Knox needs that interjection to steer the poem. What about that voice? Who is the poem’s emcee? A creepy predator or benign hedonist? When I teach this poem I always play Knox reading it, which often changes my students’ opinion. Instead of hearing Frank from Blue Velvet they hear Jennifer L. Knox and they smile and curl up into little balls… and then she gas them! Gulp. I’ve always heard a Tom Clark/Bolinas vibe. About Clark’s “Whatever Happened to Don Ho” Billy Collins wrote, “… this one dares to be deceptively loose, so druggy, and so American…” (Dark Horses, UIllinois Press). If Beckett employed the “syntax of weakness” in his prose, I’d call Knox’s the syntax of weak knees, weak knees caused by Baudelairean ecstasies caused by wine, poetry, or (lack of) virtue, as you wish. But, a children’s book can’t really use that word! Can it? Won’t... Continue reading
Posted May 7, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
This week, I’ll be your llama. One of the surprising pleasures of becoming a papa to twins almost 5 years ago was discovering the menagerie of kidLit on writers, artists, dancers, and musicians. Who knew? Some of my favorites include Jen Bryant & Melissa Sweet’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan and Robert Andrew Parker’s Action Jackson (Pollock, that is), Maira Kalman’s Rroar: Calder’s Circus, and Chris Raschka’s Charlie Parker Played Be Bop (“Alphabet alphabet, alphabet, alph, / Chickadee, chickadee, chickadee, chick, / Overshoes, overshoes, overshoes, o, / Reeti-footi, reeti-footi, reeti-footi, ree.”). Raschka’s scat is downright Steinian, eh? Which leads us to my favorite tot-tome, Jonah Winter and Calef Brown’s Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude (Atheneum). As you may know, Winter is an outstanding poet (Maine, Slope Editions) so it’s no surprise that his text captures Stein’s glorious artifice, her gewgaw patois: “Pablo Picasso looks so angry but no. / Pablo Picasso is Pablo / Picasso. He just invented Modern art / which is not the same thing as being angry / but then again maybe it is.”). I can’t do justice here to the Brown’s futurist/cubist use of fonts exuberant colors—he’s created a static film. It’s as fun to watch as it is to read. When I teach Stein to my students at Emerson College, I always begin with this book. Even graduate students are frightened of Queen Gertrude! I hope it teaches them it’s okay to laugh at “… the feeling of words doing / as they want to do and as they have to do” (Gertrude Stein). Winter & Brown treat Stein & Toklas’s relationship with honesty, love, and insouciant weirdness. Also, their dog Basket makes an appearance! They do leave out Stein’s support of Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1934. As you may imagine, Raschka’s book comes sans heroin and Action Jackson is quite sober (although they do show the painter at a party with Lee K sipping something deliciously amber). Why not the sex, drugs and Iggy Pop, and deplorable ethics? How else will kids learn about these things if not in a chewable board book? There are kid books that illustrate a single poem, but none that I particularly enjoy. Most are too slavish to a banal interpretation of the poem—there’s a road, it diverges, and a rebellious set of boots takes the greener fork. What contemporary poems should kids read? I’ll use the rest of my time here BAPlandia to nominate 6. Monday: “Hot Ass Poem” by Jennifer L. Knox Tuesday: “Spring” by Mairéad Byrne Wednesday: “Where Do Babies Come From” by James Tate Thursday: “Transylvania, 1919” by Sabrina Orah Mark Friday: “Sleeping with the Dictionary” by Harryette Mullen Saturday: “The Boat” by Richard Brautigan Continue reading
Posted May 6, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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May 4, 2012