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Adrie Kusserow–”Refuge”–Travel Lyricism Traveling Between Cultures

January 30th, 2014 margento No comments

Challenging political clichés, clashing voices, and employing chameleonic speakers—“No one wants to challenge your story,/ you who never should have left Burma” outrageously says one of them to an émigré (who in her turn actually outwits a system ready to assimilate her with an obtuse if not downright derogatory generosity)—Adrie Kusserow’s latest collection speaks in a both complex and enticing fashion of Africa and Asia, war and the aftermath, traveling and immigrating, and the reshaping of the familial in a globalized world of enmeshed yet infinitely specific locales.

In going through this book, one is impressed with two complementary features—the remarkable variety and, at the same time, the pervading persistence of certain themes and motifs.  “Mud,” for instance, is one of the latter, a recurrent, strong and complex presence in the poems—“he [Arok Deng, a Sudanese hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree] shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands/ sliding into it like a snake” reads the opening poem (“Skull Trees, South Sudan”), a similar image being later on used in a much less threatening context for what happened to the speaker’s son playing in the mud in Vermont—“cold mud sucking his foot into its mouth” (“Mud (Vermont/South Sudan)”) while her daughter gets to know the world “through April’s black mud” in a poem that typically travels between the two places in the US and Africa, while staying urgently familial.  “Mud” also conjures compelling images from the traditional, familial, and political life of South Sudanese communities, as the speaker’s husband’s desperate attempts to save a boy from the cholera decimating a village are put on hold by “tracks large as elephants lying on their sides.”

Other poems fail where “Mud” succeeds though—such as “Borders,” in which the daughter jabbing the son “hard in the ribs” inspires in the speaker an unconvincing repetitive series of cause-effect pairings in which the family scene looks disproportionately irrelevant compared to the (inter/trans)continental one: “[her] anger spilling red down her face and chest.// And it happens again,/ whereby war, […]/ whereby the suffering of Kenya begets Uganda,/ begets my husband/ begets me, begets Ana, begets her brother…// Later in the mudroom, getting ready for school/ I see Will kick our tiny old mutt.”

Still, the latter is an exception, and after just a couple of pages, a totally recovered speaker resumes bombarding the reader with powerful images and figures, as the opening of a secondary school for girls (again, in) a Sudan described as a “post-war nursing home” occasions grim reflections on the women “stirring and tending/ […] their daily cauldrons of meat and blood,/ the war still raw inside them,” and as the ubiquitous mud is equated with being devoured and then birthed again by the foreign land—“whole jaws of road gaping open,/ van rebirthing through mud hole after hole.”

Here, actually, and even more so, in “Milk” and “Young West Meets My East (India)” Kusserow powerfully and convincingly combines the foreign political and cultural, with the most private and familial.  In the former she both stages and suppresses the worries and sometimes even deepest fears about her son and her husband against a Sudanese refugee camp backdrop, where while “Will on my lap, [is] trying to nurse between bumps” with his mother’s hands symbolically protecting him like “a helmet to his bobbing skull,” the locals witness the humanitarian convoys as well as the tragedies of war or the weather; and where she labors behind her “dogged Dutchman” “he afraid of nothing, really, not even his death/ me afraid of everything really, most of all his death.”  Kusserow’s poems are once in a while pierced by such sudden pangs of fear and vulnerability, yet it is their pertinent verisimilitude and confessional genuineness that ensure the credibility of the unrestrained assertions of vitality—and, yes, happiness!—that follow, a tone so rare in our jaded contemporary poetics: “Will’s nursing again […]/ swelling like a tick/ and though I don’t want to love/ […]/ the lush wetlands of our lives/ […]// the fat claw of my heart rises up,/ fertile, lucky, random/ pulsing and hissing its victory song.”

Besides the confessional-testimonial-political tune, Kusserow masterfully plays three other scores in the book—portrayals, allegories, and travel poems in which the speaker (at least apparently) assumes an omniscient narrator’s voice.

All of the above are of course intertwined, as one would expect things to be in a coherent collection; they are all political, to start with, (but then, well, isn’t all poetry political?), particularly in the sense that being deeply familiar with African realities and at the same time keeping a sharp eye on American life (also as in the life of African and Asian immigrants to the US and its myriad of cultural and political implications), the poet is able to drop every now and then brief but acutely perceptive bits of social-cultural critique while mainly focusing on a particular character, event, or image.  Kusserow is in this respected one of the best contemporary illustrations of Simon Cooke’s recent critical assessments regarding cultural self-reflexivity as “a component of, rather than a substitute for, engagement with the other.” (Traveller’s Tales of Wonder, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, p 36)

In fact, not only are these forms and perspectives intertwined, but like in other aspects of Kusserow’s poetry, they are so in the most unexpected and ingenious (and therefore relevant) ways.  In one of the portrayal poems, for instance, “Dinka Bible,” whose epigraph is a reenactment of the empty tomb scene in the Gospels, now in an African context, a Sudanese boy (relevant gender translation of the myrrh-bearers) who finds his parents’ home burnt to the ground, when asked by “two figures in white” (again, relevantly ironic transposition of the angels into [white-coat wearing and/or racially white] relief workers) why he is weeping, replies “[T]hey have taken away my family, and I do not know where they have laid them.”  But unlike the biblical scene, the figures in white remain silent.

In the poem proper, the “lost boy” already has an American host mother who, when powdered doughnuts are offered to the congregation after the church service, “wipes the sugar off his mouth,/ marking him as her own.”  Some “fat ladies smelling like diapers [noticing he’s sweating heavily…] pat his damp skull” making him catapult “out of the land of good intentions/ and throw up outside.”  As is typical of Kusserow’s poetics, the portrayal and the funny-cynical and ridiculous-sad story of Achak’s new life in America equally involves flashes of the quotidian that are so much the more (culturally) pungent since taken through the eyes of a foreigner.

But the poet saves best for the last.  The host mother’s coming outside to check on the vomiting boy triggers in the latter a stunning insight into (some of) the muzungus’ (white people’s) relationship with the landscape, the God of the Gospels, and the other.  As the poem goes full circle and back to the image in the epigraph, the white woman is perceived as typically missing the mystery of the boy’s otherness, along with two other huge (‘familiar’) mysteries, the one of the resurrection, and of the nature around her: maybe even the stone that once rolled away from the door of the holy sepulcher actually just tried to escape the blank eye of certain onlookers…


And he knew how lonely Mary must have felt

when she came upon Jesus’ empty tomb,

this pockmarked country, cold as moon,

the stones rolled back from the muzungu’s eyes,

the black hole everywhere.


In the second genre, her characters are God, the Buddha, and even Mother Theresa, always “looking down” (from heaven) on a Yoga class, on lonely and tormented people still “instinctively opening their mouths/ toward sky” “like small birds,” or on an orphanage in Calcutta.  Just as the portrayals and the travel poems say unexpectedly relevant things about the familiar while focusing on the (cultural, racial, and topographical) other, in these poems the grim or ‘trivial’ reality is both minutely examined and placed in a surprising perspective as the heavenly observers find themselves in the most phantasmagoric situations.  In “Hunger Sutras,” for instance, both God and Buddha look down on the earth from “the hospital for sick, endangered, and arrested gods.”

In another poem, God has spent 300 years in solitary and is now taken to the lethal injection chamber.  When the omniscient “He” comically asks the guardian what happened, she replies (note the relevant gender markers) that “the New Age arrived, the Old Testament stamped out.”  When he is allowed one last look on “the whirling cacophony” of the Earth, he spots a yoga class where “they were all women” which “was no surprise,” given that all women “did was bitch bitch bitch/ toward the end of His rule.”  A shrewd and complex satire, with a humor of rather the absurdist variety, and, of course, harsh (post)feminist criticism of long-expired male-centered mysticism.  The keenest irony though comes at the end of the poem where, right before dying, finally humanized (not through the mystery of incarnation, but by being… turned on) by the fascinating spectacle of the women’s shifting postures and undogmatic religiousness, God begins “to unfurl,” thus escaping his rigid authoritativeness and embracing at last (his?) creation.

Yet, the manifold irony brings about more than just that—what is more impressive than the spectacle God watches, is the very spectacle of God watching, his amazement at the  “sacrotropic” “sea plants” women are, the drama of his own reactions and reflections, as followed by the truly omniscient sensibility of the poet.  The architecture of the satire thus allows Kusserow to indulge in a cosmic visionarism refused nowadays to any ‘orthodox’ Dante or Milton, and the reward for her shrewdness is access to a poetic beauty that most contemporary poetry does not even dream of:


…His mouth would sag when they began to pray,

slow and fluid as underwater ballet,

their bodies like tendrils curling up and out,

deep sea vines reaching, uncurling like fiddleheads in unison.


“No one told Him they would look so graceful” reads a line before the above quoted excerpt.  No one, but the poet who simply has the guts to do it—and just did.

Last but not least, in the third class of poems, Kusserow masterfully describes exotic locales that in the progress of the poem become the stage for multi-leveled cultural interactions.  In “Beneath the Sky, the Longing (Thimphu, Bhutan),” the “lust for the West [that] huddles like fog” is obliquely reciprocated by the “schools of ghostly expats” who cannot helping coming back to the same “density of longing,” but what the locals and Westerners share is also paradoxically what separates them, the “hard kernel of desire where the bulky psyche chips its tooth.”

In “To Market, to Market (Dharamsala, India, Tibetan Government in Exile),” the Himalayan boys turn “the switch of authenticity ‘on’” for the Western girls studying Buddhism, ready to deliver in an exchange in which it is hard to be sure exactly which of the parties is the commodified one, since the girls themselves are also “ready to fling the cramped purse of ‘the self’/ onto the street and give themselves to everything.”  The contemporary condition—as described by Susan Sontag in At the Same Time and by James Buzard as the “meanwhile problem” (both analyzed in Simon Cooke’s above quoted book, 53-54)—is the very substance of such poetry.  As the American girls get home with the “opiate” of their exotic ‘spiritual’ souvenirs, the boys in Dharamsala dream of their own myths (most likely of immigration and success).  The picture is ironical, but not only, as contemporaneity (the complexity of which is rendered, paradoxically, by the time difference as well) involves, along with the teenagers connected across continents through commodification and, therefore, miscommunication, vicariously living in a delusive elsewhere, the contrapuntally simultaneous and elemental image of the Dalai Lama that “rises to meditate at 3 A.M.”

In probably the most accomplished poem in this third category, “Christmas Eve, Kampala, Uganda,” the sordid atmosphere of the god-forsaken celebrating “compost city” brings HIV infected soldiers, abusive husbands, western pop music and muzungus “working off their Western guilt” all together under an anti-post-romantic and postcolonial hungover moon, “creamy and subdued,” inspiring not a poet’s ethereal vision but a drunken man’s masturbation.  Still this all ends with a ceremonial invocation, an almost mystical effusion—and just as in “Milk” we have encountered a direct assertion of optimism and joy, here we have a vibrant invocation infused with praise and prayer, ecstatic and enthusiastic in the etymological sense of the world (‘filled with/thoroughly experiencing the sacred’), again so rare nowadays.  Kusserow’s speakers have actually been in hell, and therefore can uniquely sing paradisiacal chants as well.

The great advantage of such poetry is that while delving into the grisly grimness, chronic dereliction, extreme dangers, and sometimes overwhelming horrors of our contemporary world (conventionally and quotidianly [as the poet puts it somewhere else, on “this glossy CNN planet”] always out there, and afar), it probes and expresses a genuineness that will also afford it a ‘pure’ solemnity otherwise virtually impossible in mainstream lyric poetry.  What one encounters in this verse is posthuman humanity and postpoetic lyricism and hymnalism:


…and the drunken man

sitting in a corner

working his cock into a frenzy

as his groans stretch wide with defeat

into some warm swatch

of the moon’s sweet milk.


Oh holy tenderness of this mute misty planet,

bless the fragile, harried nests

the tired and hungry build.




[Adrie Kusserow. Refuge. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2013]

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

José Antonio Rodríguez—“Backlit Hour”—The Poem Listening To the Community and Speaking with the Voice of Memory

January 12th, 2014 margento No comments

In the opening of Backlit Hour, José Antonio Rodríguez writes an ars poetica, specifically a poem about writing a poem—not any—but that particular poem itself.  The self-reflexivity is not meant here to express postmodernist skepticism and detachment, but quite on the contrary, to voice some of the deepest concerns of the poet and, to quote the title of another poem, his true “allegiances” (family history and communion, the immigrant’s condition, and community’s indelible stories—“I’ve never met the granddaughters,/ but how do you forget stories like those”).  Moreover, the poet follows the poem together with the reader as a performance presented ‘live’ before our eyes—“Anyway, the poem begins with wanting the juicy peaches/ but moves into the way they bruised so easily, how they fell [etc]”—, a work-in-progress.  But again, this does not play out (only) as a demonstration of the inconsistency and ‘unsacredness’ of poetry, which would be old news, but it also (re)defines the poem as a place and state of mind connecting us to “the quiet,” to those beyond ourselves who need to be heard (and who, while being heard within and by the poem, get a voice).  Therefore a poem-performance that rather listens than speaks.

Rodríguez is not afraid of recycling rich traditional (Anglo-American) literary motifs as he actually manages to render them so fresh that an unsuspecting reader may even miss the reference and still enjoy these accomplished poems nevertheless.  In the first section, dedicated to the childhood and early school years, a poem tells the story of a selection of presentations for a science fair (while the title is shrewdly reversed as “Fair Science”) and the speaker remembers coming up with a drawing of a blue whale whose belly the kid would fill with all sort of (impressive) data related to the creature.  But the boy keeps erasing and redrawing the outline trying to get more and more info in till the paper starts to flake off and the sound it thus makes therefore becomes more evocative of the mammal’s actual life than the biological data.  The dialectic of whiteness/erasure and drawing/remapping articulates an apt metaphor for the alternatives (or cycles) of inclusion and minority (or why not, Whitmanesque) ‘untranslatability’ attitudes both on the part of the outsider and the system—the boy is for instance aware that his “drawing” into the activity is “something/ to shore me form the playground/ of ruined homes/ where children shoulder an anger”—while of course it also ‘draws’ not only on the tearing paper but also on Moby Dick and its numinous white (paper) mask(s),  as well as Melville’s encyclopedic and cross-genre inclusiveness, now reinterpreted in a (self)ironical manner: “As if everything worth knowing could be/ chaptered into a bound page.”  The irony is not only literary, but, given the word choice—“chaptered”—political, just as the color of the whale symbolic of the ‘blues’ of somebody lost in the new world ocean, “[t]hrumming/ [their] song to find the other in the dark.”

A more subtle palimpsest is “Figs,” where D.H. Lawrence’s explicitly erotic metaphor is rewritten into an account of sexually coming of age.  Or so the reader would think, up to a point, and starting actually from the very first line which could be very easily read as sexually explicit, charged as it is with the common periphrastic and urgent syncopated syntax—“She told me to do it, said”—but in fact it is not, as it goes on with—“it would look better in the school photo.”  The story of the teacher getting the speaker to take out his undershirt for the school photo is indeed galvanized by an emerging sexual awareness (“I’ll hold it until after school,/ she said, her finger around,// that which had hugged my body”), and the Freudian reference to the mother coming after that would total make sense in the context.  Only that it is not just a passing reference meant to reinforce the erotic crescendo, as Rodriguez actually chooses to stick one more time to the familial and the political.  The long tradition of the fig as an erotic fruit (Lawrence himself draws on Graeco-Roman traditions) is now politically deconstructed becoming “the fruit my mother loved, the fruit/ she never held in her hand// because it wasn’t hers, she said.”

Rodriguez subtly equates the (again, Anglo) literary tradition with a monopoly of the metropolis even over erotica, to which the marginal speaker opposes the family and the community (“we,” “ourselves,” etc) that would paradoxically be dismembered if remembered in the system’s cultural code.  Thus the magic spell of the alluring teacher is cast away when the young “I” (re)discovers the “we” that would be entrapped in an eroticism of domination and registration: “[…] stolen form ourselves/ only to be re-membered into something/ worthy of a camera, all smiles and naked necks.”  All of a sudden, the deceitfully erotic first line of the poem reads, on second thought, more credibly as actually the master’s orders…

The second section seems to consist of most likely older poems, since the voice is not as strong as in the first one anymore, and the purpose far from clear.  Memories from childhood are now interspersed with surreal images, some of them mysterious—like the hen dragging the TV between its legs in “Tethered” or the “throbbing classroom” with its “shivering windows” in “Starving”—others just puzzling or even irrelevant, as the “stars I have stored in my underwear” of a boy who is apparently past the age of wetting the bed.  The mother is evoked in almost all of the poems, but there is hardly any portrayal or any eye-catching detail—except for the “beads of damp dirt pooled// in the crook of your elbow like remnants of a rosary” (“Ant Farm”)—and she is far from triggering the powerful multilayered discourse in the first section.

The sequence is all of a sudden interrupted by the strong gay confession of “Ache of Pupils” where the surreal finally falls into place as it backs up the blurred images and the tense reticence of the narrator shocked by his own outburst.  Within the section, it radiates like an oasis of very good writing, reminding one of Rodríguez’s real potential:


The splinters of the plywood dig into


my fingers until I unhook the latch and scurry,

whisper an apology that I hope reaches

him who stands silent somewhere back there.

Rushing through a hallway with doors half open,


television images flashing, I conjure

an image of light bouncing off clouds,

how it must overwhelm the surface of things,

almost bleach them out of particularity.


When I step out, sunlight floods my pupils

that, for a second, ache.


In the third section, the deconstruction of Anglo-American symbols continue, with sometimes a shift from the literary to the historically-political.  The iconic image of the minuteman becomes a patrol officer cynically pursuing illegal immigrants across the Arizona desert, and Mount Rushmore is seen as a symbol of marginalization for a speaker obtusely labeled as “Ethnic,” and whose “only currency here [is] silence.”  Unfortunately, again, the voice is weaker and significantly less convincing than in the first section, the surreal and introspective effects simply seem mislaid in the context—“his [the minuteman’s] arm a threatening reach,/ hand splayed under a night/ that has turned its face today/ […] all that his mind won’t hold/ won’t utter in the light/ of a star that is also the sun”)—and the bombastic ironies misfire—“all I can think of is the half-million tons/ of rock blasted off [Mount Rushmore] by dynamite—a love/ so overwhelming it broke a mountain.”

Some of the ‘nature’ poems and pastels conjure once in a while passing lines or images of certain interest—“[I] wonder if the song/ of this scorched world comes to them [jackrabbits] as a roar or as a chorus,” “All of them [sunflowers] like halos/ without saints to weigh them down,” etc.—which are most likely accomplished exercises (when not loosely versified everyday jottings) from a poet’s notebook, but rarely anything more than that.

Although it contains only four poems, the fourth section may make up for the shortcomings in the second and the third.  The major themes of the book are revisited here in a strong voice—coming of age as an immigrant in a foreign language, powerful memories from the family’s past, coping with one’s irrepressibly emerging homosexuality and, to a lesser extent than in the first section, the life of the community (within another community).

In “Cows and Bonnie Tyler,” fore instance, the speaker starts out to write something inspired by a “poem about cows” by Matthew Dickman, but something on the car radio—Bonnie Tyler’s “throaty voice/ howling through that orchestra” the way Rodríguez’s voice becomes strongly audible in spite of the American poem he promised to rewrite—makes him remember how he would listen to Tyler’s music in his teenage without getting much of the lyrics and how he watched a video on an “old man’s” TV through the latter’s window, as the man was “[s]ipping beer—up to his lips, then down, then up—/ like an oil well.”  The political critique is there deftly intertwined with both popular culture as well as vivid memories from a young age.

Enter community.  And the local environment!  A masterful shift of focus allows the speaker to zoom out and come up with the overwhelming image of the region in the wake of April’s tornadoes (an ironic echo of Eliot’s “cruelest month”?):


Out by the road is the aftermath of April’s tornadoes

felling a small town.  Would you judge me if I said

the trees pained me the most?

Their twisted limbs damaged past repair.

The pile of lumber—what used to be a house

of already dead wood—making a mockery of them.

And among the debris, the cows mowing away.


[José Antonio Rodríguez. Backlit Hour. Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2013]



Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

Amanda Earl–The Symbiotic Nature of Community and Poetry

January 8th, 2014 margento No comments



Community:  a social unit with common values OR a group of interacting living organisms sharing a populated environment. (definitions paraphrased/cribbed from Wikipedia).

I have several communities: my apartment building; Chinatown, the neighbourhood in which I live; the city of Ottawa; its literary community; Canada; North America; the world; and within all those places, I am also in that literary community.

I imagine a series of globes nesting inside one another like Russian dolls. For me community is symbiotic: its members contribute to one another’s well-being and being in the community contributes to the well-being of its members. This is starting to sound like a palindrome or a Möbius strip.

For the purposes of this note, let’s consider the idea of community as the general public within my city. I am a member of the public, just as all poets are.

In this note, I don’t choose to address in detail a very important aspect of community because I’ve dealt with it elsewhere: that of people helping one another in times of crisis and how such actions bring a community closer together. In 2009 I became very ill. While I was in hospital and near death, members of Ottawa’s close-knit and caring literary community came to my and my husband’s assistance. For more on that experience, please refer to this post entitled “Community” in the “On Writing” series curated by rob mclennan.

How would you define the relationship between (your) poetry and (or poetry in general; as it does or should converge with) communities/the community?

I listen and I look. Wherever I go I am always in receiver mode. My poetry comes from the intersection between what I see and hear around me, interactions with others and my imagination, experiences, memory and knowledge of other literary works, music, art and other cultural works. I filter all this through my brain and somehow neurons fire up. Fortunately I don’t set the page on fire.

I read at readings which the general public can attend. It’s true that not everyone is interested in poetry or has a reason to go to a reading, just as not all of us are interested in hockey. A former lover of mine once said, “if everyone loved oatmeal, there would be a worldwide shortage of oatmeal.”

Audiences who have come to my readings or other readings I have attended are there because they are interested in my work or my fellow writers’ work; because they are friends or family, are also poets reading at the open mic or are enthusiasts of whatever type of literature is being featured. It is lovely when people come up to me after a reading to let me know that they were affected in some way by what I read. At one reading at Café Nostalgica at the University of Ottawa several years ago, a young student told me that my reading had inspired him to pick up a pen and write while I was reading. I thought this was a high compliment. Engaging with audience members is an essential part of my practice.

I run a site called Bywords.ca, which publishes poetry monthly by current and former Ottawa residents, students and workers. The main idea of the site is to foster and nurture community, to give back to the general public at large and to promote Ottawa writers in general and to publish poets. These writers and the visitors to the site are also part of my community, as are the selectors and other members of the Bywords.ca team.

One of the key features of the site is a calendar of literary and spoken word events which take place in Canada’s National Capital Region. Event organizers send me information about their readings, signings, slams, festivals, workshops etc and I post them on the calendar and also send out notices via social media (Twitter (@bywordsdotca) and FaceBook).

My mission is to ensure that nobody who is interested in Ottawa’s literary events misses an event because they don’t know about it. We have been very fortunate to have been funded for the last eleven years by the City of Ottawa so that we can pay contributing poets, musicians and artists. The City also funds other cultural organizations and individual artists to help ensure that the artistic community thrives and is able to provide the public with an enriched and culturally diverse experience. Without such a commitment it would be difficult for such organizations to offer services to the general public.

We also hold at least one fundraising activity a year for local causes, including Cornerstone Housing for Women, which provides emergency housing and support to downtown women and the AIDS/HIV Walk for Life Ottawa, which raises funds for several local organizations that provide care and support to people with AIDS/HIV and their families. I believe that it is one of the roles of any organization working within a community to give back to its residents since we are all part of the community. Poets can be homeless or afflicted with various health issues and financial difficulties too. We are all connected. We need one another.

In addition to the above activities, I run AngelHousePress, which publishes ragged edges, raw talent and rebels. The publishing activity takes the form of limited edition chapbooks, and two on-line magazines: Experiment-O.com and NationalPoetryMonth.ca. We also host an essay series on AngelHousePress.com. These essays are written by working contemporary writers and artists and serve to aid in the continuation of dialogue about creativity, literature and art. I am interested in inspiring dialogue between creative people, just as much as I am in inspiring responses from the reading public. I think both types of response are equally valid and interesting.

I consider AngelHousePress to be another avenue for fostering and nurturing community. Creative work from all over the world is showcased via AngelHouse and accessible to anyone who might be captivated by it. The Internet to me has shrank the world and enlarged the world: the former because now anyone in the world is able to connect with anyone else of similar interest and proclivities; the latter because the World Wide Web is a gargantuan digital repository much like a dump where one can find both treasures and junk. This is why it is helpful to have curators to find the treasure and alert people to it. I consider myself to be a curator.

I also have a literary blog where I let people know about my work, but also tell them about literaria I find interesting, whether it be poetry collections or chapbooks or online magazines or podcasts or even going a wee bit outside the range of literature and including music. I do this because I am always looking for connection, collaboration opportunities and intimacy with like-minded people… to create a community of kindreds.

How do collective energies find their voice in your verse and how do you think your poems (should) reach communal interests/relevance?

I like Margaret Atwood’s answer to Peter Gzowski in a 1968 CBC interview just after she’d won the Governor General’s Award when he asked her what her poems were about. She said that poetry, like any art form, is a form of expression, and that no one asked an artist what his painting was about. So I don’t think about specific interests or relevance, but we’re all human. My poems tend to have an emotional resonance that, all being well, is something readers can empathize with and relate to.

And faced with the onslaught of cases of social injustice, violence, poverty, natural disaster and disease, the illnesses and deaths of those I hold dear, I am as affected as anyone by tragedy and I find that there’s an echo of this  in my work. I always hope that what I write resonates with someone, a fellow lonely person or a whimsical person, someone who can identify with my work. I am a misfit in conventional society, as many of us are. Writing and reading are ways in which I try to find and connect with my fellow misfits. I should point out that many of my long poems or poem series are written in the voice of a historical or imaginary character. I think that such a form can have universal resonance and create empathy in a reader.

Sometimes I will write a poem in support of a cause, such as “The Enpipe Line: 70,000+ kilometres of poetry written in resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines proposal,” (Creekstone Press, March, 2012) or “Air Out/Air In: 21 Poets for the Guatemala Stove Project” (Phafours, 2011).

At various rallies on Parliament Hill, I have encountered a number of my fellow poets protesting or supporting a cause. I believe that poets can be and are often engaged members of a community, as is this case, here in Ottawa. Whether they choose to refer directly to this in their poetry or whether such activism plays a more subtle role is up to them. My priority is always to serve the poem and do whatever is necessary to achieve what is called for within the work.

In this age of globalization and transnational poetries (Jahan Ramazani’s term, but not only) what do you think is the ‘community’ the poet addresses, if any, and what do you think are or may be the premises for emerging virtual and/or trans-national readerships (the “coming community” of theory again—G. Agamben—if you want)?

Here I’d like to give a specific example of a global community I belong to: the visual poetry community. We find out about one another through on-line and print magazines and blogs that publish our work, through FaceBook groups, through sites like Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter where people share links and post work from various visual poets. Through AngelHousePress I have published visual poets from Hungary, Italy, Germany, France, England, Canada, the USA and probably other places. Visual poetry lends itself very well to globalization because it works outside of the context of languages in that you don’t have to understand a particular language to appreciate the work as a piece of art or a form of communication.

When discussing the community the poet addresses, I have to refer to the main thesis of this note: that poets are part of the community. At least that’s how I see myself. I’m writing for myself but also for other misfits and unconventional kindreds. I’m writing for anyone who has ever felt an emotion. This doesn’t change because poetry is able to be read or heard on line throughout the world. In fact, it only makes me more determined to publish online in order to share my work as widely as possible and to connect with other like-minded readers and writers. The question is mainly one of dissemination. I am grateful to translators who make it possible for me to read the works of poets who are writing in languages other than English.

Is there anything nowadays such as communities/schools of poets, in any way relevant to the life of communities around the poets?

Academia continues to attract poets to its programs.  I have a number of poetry pals who have worked toward their MFAs in Creative Writing in Canada of late. This is fairly new in Canada, but  has been a big part of poetry in the USA. I’m not sure if other countries have such programs. The general public consists of students and family of students and their friends. Do parents encourage their children to take MFAs in Creative Writing? Can students afford to do so without having to incur debts the size of a mortgage before they graduate? These programs lead to more poetry books available to be read by the general public and more instructors to teach the general public’s children. It seems like a healthy contribution to me, except for the debt.

I think in Canada there are certain schools, but it isn’t cut in stone. For example, I would say that Cobourg poet, Stuart Ross, a long-time former resident of Toronto, is a mentor for contemporary surrealism and the small press in Canada. He offers poetry boot camps, manuscript editing and has recently published a book called Our Days in Vaudeville through Mansfield Press, that is a collaboration with 29 other poets, which is a terrific example of reaching out to others in the literary community. He was a writer-in-residence at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario a few years ago and mentored several emerging writers, including Michael E. Casteels, who is a small press owner through his chapbook press, Puddles of Sky, in Kingston.

In Ottawa, rob mclennan is an active promoter and publisher of poetry with his small press above/ground press which publishes chapbooks and broadsides he distributes en masse throughout the world. He also curates a series of on line magazines and is co-publisher of Chaudiere Books, with his wife, fellow poet, Christine McNair. Through these presses and publications, he has introduced numerous writers from around the world to each other and has put Ottawa on the map as a happening literary centre. His 12 or 20 questions series with writers and small press publishers is a great initiative that allows readers to learn about the writers and their works in greater detail.

He has also offered workshops and if he’s the mentor for any particular school, I’d call it the contemporary poetry playbox. He introduces budding poets to the works of contemporary poets they might never have heard of and encourages them to play and experiment. I myself took numerous workshops from him and have learned of/been inspired by the works of Nathanël, Erín Moure, Dennis Cooley, Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch, Cole Swensen, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Kate Greenstreet and more, thanks to rob’s efforts at fostering community.

What are the “actual” or fictional/utopian/dystopic communities in your poetry/in poetries you enjoy or are familiar with?

I’m fascinated with the idea of fictional/utopian and dystopic communities. My poetry lives in the world of my whacky imagination. And I can’t help but be influenced by the creative works of others, both living and dead.

When I first began to draft this piece, I was working on (and probably still am) a poetry manuscript which centres around a woman’s belief that she is Saint Ursula. I am fascinated with saints and historical figures, but not so much with what actually happened to them. The fun for me is in extrapolation. The work concerns a homeless woman who has visions. Through it, I’d like to explore the issues of homelessness here in Ottawa and also chronic pain, depression, schizophrenia etc. When I was in hospital in 2009, I had ICU psychosis, causing terrifying delusions that I believed to be real. It made me worry for those who have to experience such delusions in their daily lives. I’ve written of hell based on Dante’s Inferno via these delusions and the pain I endured during my health crisis.

I also write fiction and my characters are generally bad-asses, who don’t really fit in very well with convention. I have written a few stories set in the period leading up to and after an apocalypse where characters are fighting to survive in draconian circumstances. I find it satisfying to write out my fears and as a reader, I find dystopic texts compelling. I guess it’s a bit like being a rubber-necker at an accident: we don’t want to look at scenes of grisly death, but we can’t tear our eyes away. Sometimes it helps to understand that we are all suffering; there’s a camaraderie in that. These tales also serve as morality plays for what might happen if we continue to a) use up all the resources in our environment; b) continue to place a low priority on those less fortunate…

Wouldn’t it be fun to write within the perspective of a Utopian community! My ideal world entails free love, the end to heteronormative monogamy as the dominant culture, the disappearance of gender binaries, solutions to homelessness, poverty, disease and war. In addition I would like a fully funded arts and culture program, and an endless supply of strong coffee and profiteroles please.

Is your poetry/are your poems a community?  In what way(s)?

I typically write long poems and poem series. I think each one of them is a community. Sometimes they are populated with invented or historical characters; other times they are populated with soundscapes (“Sessions from the Dream House Area,” excerpts of which can be found on 17 Seconds Magazine here), metal textures (Me, Medusa, a chapbook published on line by the UK Press, the Red Ceilings Press). Sometimes they interact quite directly with the work of other poets (Ghazals Against the Gradual Demise: chapbook 1 – “Sex First and Then A Sandwich” is in response to Jim Harrison’s ghazals; “The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman” is in response to Robert Kroetsch’s “The Sad Phoenician.”

Could you give us a few considerations on/tentative predictions regarding the future involvement of poetry in the life of communities, or the other way round: the impact of future possible or virtual communities on poetry and their depiction in poetry?

I think we’ll need more curators to guide us in the increasing miasma that is the Internet. As independent bookstores, which used to be the primary hub for readings and author signings, close, we will need other ways to promote and foster a community of readers. In Ottawa in the last few years, we’ve seen the closure of several bookstores, including Collected Works and Mother Tongue Books. Both of which held numerous readings in their stores and sold poetry by local poets.

Sites like GoodReads.com and Canada’s the 49thShelf.com, OpenBookOntario, Lemonhound.com, help to maintain a literary community and inspire readers to purchase books, either on line or in print. There are a number of excellent literary journals on line: DitchPoetry.com, Numero Cinq (a warm place on a cruel web), the Volta, The Conversant, Penn Sound and Jacket2. As postal service is reduced, it is probably true that printed journals will cease to exist, which saddens me immeasurably, but these online hubs, for want of a better term, offer a lot of possibilities that printed journals cannot offer.

I tried to get into Second Life, the virtual reality / role playing game which also seems to have poetry readings somehow. It wasn’t for me, but perhaps others will find this sort of thing a help in fostering community.

I really like the idea of poetry events being broadcast live. The Griffin Poetry Prize for example, always streams the shortlisted readers. I wish the sound quality and video quality was better, but I think that’s coming.

Another cool thing is the book trailer where authors read excerpts from their books which are translated into short films. I think this is exciting, but it has to include an element of feedback, of direct access to the writer, either through social media or e-mail. I know many authors balk at the idea of such direct contact with readers, but for those who enjoy it, we are in a time of great opportunity for interaction between fans and creators. Take a look at the Moving Poems site, which has a huge list of poetry book trailers.

Brick Books, a Canadian publisher, has a slew of audio recordings of its poets and is at the forefront of ensuring all kinds of readers have access to poetry for free through these podcasts.

Two festivals, the Ottawa International Writers Festival and VERSeFest work with local schools to offer programs where authors are invited to schools to read and talk with children. The Ottawa Public Library and local writers organizations also offer similar activities, such as writing contests for young people. These programs seem to be increasing rather than diminishing.

The League of Canadian Poets in collaboration with an advertising company is publishing poems on public buses in a program called “Poetry In Transit.” I have read great poems by poets such as Dionne Brand, P.K. Page and Robert Kroetsch whilst standing on a crowded #95 en route home after a long day in a Byward Market café, penning my own poems and hanging out with fellow poets. Life is rough!

Community radio stations such as Carleton University’s CKCU and the University of Ottawa’s CHUO have programs which feature the arts, particularly poetry on shows such as Friday Special Blend with Susan Johnson, Literary Landscapes with Pearl Pirie, Dave Currie, Kathryn Hunt and Neil Wilson, and Click Here with Mitchell Caplan. The hosts interview poets and publishers on their programs. The CBC through shows such as Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel and The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, also broadcast interviews and highlights literary work, including, on rare occasions, poetry. You can listen to these programs live or as podcasts later on.

I believe all of the above initiatives and activities bring poetry to the community and community to poets. You don’t have to live in the city where a reading is taking place in order to enjoy the work of the poet in the poet’s own voice, for example. And with the help of good curators, this information can be passed on to those new to poetry.

Not to discount the reading as a great opportunity as well. Ottawa is a city full of readings of poetry and fiction. While there’s a tendency for such readings to attract the same old die-hard enthusiasts, there are often at least one or two Ottawa newbies who found out about the reading through a friend or some online resource, such as Bywords.ca.

‘Poetry’?  What kind of poetry, if any?  How does poetry look in that (any?) picture (of the future), if in any way present?  And speaking of virtual, what do you think is or could be the communal relevance of digital/electronic/new media poetry?  Is Marjorie Perloff right when she states in Unoriginal Genius that writing the new century poem (concerning itself not with inventio but with the processing and absorption of the foreign itself, and therefore typically proceeding by [inter/hypertextual] sampling and appropriation] is no easier than it ever was, just different?

I think poetry looks very much the same in many ways with books and chapbooks and online journals but as I said, print journals may go the way of the dodo. I think digital poetry combined with animation will be of interest to some people as it is now and perhaps more so. I can even imagine poetry book trailers beginning a film in a theatre, much like animations do today.

I’m hoping that poetry pioneers such as Christian Bök who combines science with poetry will continue to thrive. I hope that there will be more hybrids and fewer genre labels on types of creativity. I hope that the audience for poetry or for these hybrids will increase.

Do we want to see the end of copyright? How does plunderverse as described by Gregory Betts and other forms of appropriation fit in to what is legal or acceptable when it comes to publishing? Will publishers be willing to risk lawsuits and fines if they publish text recycled from others?

I’d like to be able to play with whatever is available. The Internet has made it easier to cut and paste text. I think of Jonathan Ball who licensed his poetry under Creative Commons so that others would be able to take the text and do what they like with it, including creating new forms of art. Take a look at Gary Barwin’s reversals of parts of Ball’s book, “Clockfire.”

I think that being able to work with existing texts or music or art opens up the possibility for creativity, so I’m all for it, provided people give credit where credit is due. The Internet has made it possible for people from all over the world to contact one another. This has also paved the way for collaborative poetry projects.

The Finnish visual poet Satu Kaikkonen has few blogs where she invites contributors from all over the world to participate. See Time for a Vispo.

Or, even beyond virtual community, in Mark Surman and Darren Wershler-Henry’s terms, what is the place of poetry in the “common space” and in the age of the “power of the collective,” and what kind of poetry could that be?

I hope that poets continue to question the dogma and propaganda that is prevalent in society, thanks to increasing Big Brother presence, censorship and double speak of government and large corporations. The poet is the canary in the coal mine, n’est-ce-pas? I am hoping that grassroots collectives such as the Occupy Movement, Idle No More and other activist groups continue to grow and gain support and that artists and writers who question the dogma are able to thrive, but I worry that Conservative intolerance for unconventional lifestyles, non mainstream thinking and the power and corruption of right-wing forces will keep free thinkers underground. The fact that we have to be concerned with governments monitoring our social media and Internet interactions is very scary to me. It shows there is a need now more than ever to make art and to find ingenious ways to disseminate it, as Diderot did during the creation of L’Encylopédie when he published entries that challenged the status quo under mundane items such as “Souliers” [shoes].

And, if, as a well-known playwright twitted a few months ago and then a Washington Post article elaborated on, “poetry is dead”—which is also the name of an excellent Vancouver based poetry magazine—is there any (chance for a) post-history post-poetry out there, or in here, in your verse?

T.W. Adorno wrote that “After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbaric;”yet we have an impulse to bear witness. I think this is more important than ever today. The Serbian poet Vasko Popa was one of the writers who utilized symbolism and allegory in his work to personalize and portray the horrors of war at a time when literal renderings were censored. Poetry is an ideal and subtle means of articulating the dangers of acceptance of the status quo and a way to question the language of propaganda. I think for this reason alone and there are many other reasons to add, it will survive because it is needed by the reading public to help us translate and convey emotion, tragedy, comedy and life in all its myriad and complicated facets. To create art is to survive and to rebel against convention.

I think poetry will continue to exist, change and adapt as it has always done, and to serve an audience. I have no intention of stopping writing poetry or whatever hybrid I choose to create, even if I had a choice in the matter.  As Mark Twain once said, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”


Amanda Earl is an Ottawa poet, publisher and pornographer. She defends your right to express your creativity in whatever way you please. She is the managing editor of Bywords.ca and the (fallen) angel of AngelHousePress. Her poetry has been published both on line and in print in America, Australia, Canada, England, France and Ireland. Her visual poetry has been exhibited in Russia and Windsor, Ontario. Her most recent poetry chapbook, Sex First & Then A Sandwich is available from above/ground press. For more information, please visit AmandaEarl.com or talk to her on Twitter @KikiFolle.

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

Susan Rich–A Poet Is a Poet Because of Other People

December 19th, 2013 margento No comments



I am lucky. I live in five intersecting rings of poetry. It wasn’t always this way. My poetry life, and therefore my poetry community, has been hard won.

In college, one poetry teacher told our entire class, “Most of you won’t write one word once you reach the age of twenty-six.” Another professor took me aside and whispered, “Perhaps you should concentrate on children’s books.” By the time I had graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, I was without faith — not only drained of belief in my own work, but more importantly, utterly disheartened by the world of academic poetry. The community of poets I had idolized, poets such as Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser as they went off in 1972 to investigate the war in Vietnam had all but disappeared. The famous friendship between Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton had ended with the suicide of Sexton in 1974. The world of poetry didn’t look very promising.

Instead of pursuing poetry, directly after college I joined the Peace Corps. I wanted to travel, to learn from different cultures and experience new ways of living radically different from my own. I knew that if I were ever to have anything to say, it needed to be augmented with an extended worldview.

When I eventually returned to Boston from my two years in the Peace Corps, I found solace in books such as William Stafford’s Swimming the Australian Crawl and You Must Change Your Life. I took classes in the living rooms of poets who needed the extra cash. The casualness and camaraderie of those Thursday nights complete with a cup of tea brought me back to myself. The idea that there might be a way, after all, to be a poet in the world outside of the strictures of others’ beliefs started taking shape in my mind. Ironically, working with a grassroots community is what freed me of the need for acceptance.

After the death of my parents, I took a leap across the country and changed my life, as instructed by Rilke. At age 36, I registered as a student in the MFA program at the University of Oregon. My classmates were a strained group of twelve, representing a diversity of age, race, economic background and global geography.  Really, we were a ragtag bunch and with little more in common than a burning desire to write. And yet, eventually we learned not only to get along, but to rely on one other, and to open our hearts. The program changed us; it made of us more tolerant humans, more aware of how to live in a literary community.

Today I live in Seattle, WA, a city most famous for its coffee connoisseurs and serious readers. My first visit to Seattle left me wondering what these citizens had accomplished in their past lives to be reborn as Seattlites. The Seattle area includes mountain ranges, beautiful bodies of water, and books. Here, more people buy books per capita than in any other U.S. city. This statistic is often followed by a joke about the weather or a line that exaggerates our slate colored skies. But that is only half the story. Seattle overflows with literary organizations – most of them founded by a small group of people sitting somewhere on a sofa and asking, “why not”?



Community of Geography


In Seattle, poets celebrate Open Books: A Poem Emporium, as our physical and spiritual home. Owned by accomplished poets, John Marshall and Christine Deavel, the store schedules readings by nationally and locally famous poets twice each month. Often, there’s a house party following the event with everybody invited.  The focus is to bring new voices into the community, not lock them out. A community focused on inclusion.

The belief that poetry is meant for everyone, that no one holds the magical keys to the lyrical city is echoed in the organizations, residencies, and presses throughout Washington State. A prime example is Floating Bridge Press (FBP). The press has its roots in the basement of poet Peter Pereira’s house. A group of friends clustered together on Peter’s couch naming all the excellent poets they knew who had yet to be published. Why not start a press? Why not?

What inspired me to join the editorial board of FPB — to spend midnight hours reading manuscripts, answering emails, and mailing out journals was the spirit of the editors. Our desire was to discover new writers and give them a voice; to open out the community of writers by organizing readings, paying poets, and publishing new people each year. More than any other organization in Washington, I believe that Floating Bridge Press has created a lasting legacy of generosity among poets. Poets Kelli Russell Agodon, Elizabeth Austen, Allen Braden, Timothy Kelly, and Katherine Whitcomb have all been published by Floating Bridge Press.

But that’s just the beginning. Writing groups, reading groups, and residencies play an integral part in the literary landscape of my home. My Community of Poetry Readers, otherwise known as COPR’s comes together every month to discuss a book of poems and to gift individual poems that we’ve discovered. Anne Carson, Deborah Digges, Mark Doty, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg reflect the diversity of our tastes. We are a group of seven poets and two non-fiction writers who travel across the state one Sunday a month to talk about poems together and to share some aloud. We create a time out of time for each other in a ritual that allows us to be fed by poetry: a communal meal.



Community of Poetry Friends


Here is the secret nobody knows: poets need friends. OK. If you are reading this, you know it, and I know it, and so did Elizabeth Bishop. From Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge this fine morning please come flying. In “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” Elizabeth Bishop celebrates her deep friendship with another woman poet: her mentor and lifelong friend, Marianne Moore.

I know that Bishop and Moore shared poems, went on outings to the zoo together, and when Bishop moved to Brazil in 1951, wrote long letters.

I think if we look close enough, we’ll find that every serious poet who produces work over a lifetime has poets whom they can rely on. We need poets to drink coffee with, to talk craft with and finally (when it’s almost too late) to retell favorite stories of past and future dreams. Maybe because poetry is so far from the mainstream of American life, we need reminders that our hours, days, weeks, spent in seclusion are okay. More than okay.

I know that without my dearest poetry friends: Kelli Russell Agodon and Katherine Flenniken I would not be as brave as a poet. Without my dearest poetry teachers: Madeline DeFrees, Pamela Alexander, Linda Pastan, and Garrett Hongo, I would not be as well trained in the craft  (of course there is always room for improvement). Without my dead mentors: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton, I would not have begun writing at all.



Community of Peace Corps


A long time ago, I was a college drop out. The only thing that convinced me to finish my degree was the possibility of joining the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to see the world and that I wished to write about it. At age 25, I was looking for myself by getting as far away from my own life as I could. Unbelievably, this worked.

And I am not the only one. There are many poets who began their writing lives as Peace Corps Volunteers: Derek Burleson, Sandra Meek, and Anne Neelon are three examples ~ all of them went on to publish poetry collections exploring their tenure in Africa.

But it is not only the other Peace Corps poets that I am drawn to. More important to me are the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, who perhaps find something recognizable in my poems regarding their own Peace Corps experience. My two years in Niger, West Africa, was nothing short of surreal. All I had learned about life to that point was turned upside down and tossed next to a sand dune – soon to be digested by a goat or a camel. Many of us were just out of college, inexperienced in the larger world, and ill prepared for desert life — especially during a drought of biblical proportions.


I stubbornly subscribe to the old fashioned need for my poems to serve others. I know my poems can’t feed the hungry, house the homeless, end wars, or pass a more just stimulus package in Congress, but my job as an artist is to keep myself and others awake.



Community of the Grand Double P ~


Poetry and politics: a subject so often avoided in literary circles in the United States. Is political poetry merely another way of saying a poetry that is engaged in the world?  Are my poems detailing the lives of Bosnians during the war inherently political or are they more humanist? Is humanist a bad word? Does it imply a hedging of bets without wanting to upset anyone? I could write an entire piece on the slippery space the Double P inhabits, but I would remain estranged from a definitive answer. This is by choice. If I write poems that when complete are “about” the inhumanity of state executions here in the United States or the rampant racism Americans exhibited after September 11th, or the inhumanity happening in Palestine right now, that was not explicitly why I wrote the poem.

For the record: I am on the side of political poetry. I believe poets have a responsibility to our society at large.



World Community of Poets


My poems often reflect the people I meet. Since I have lived on three continents, these meetings frequently occur outside the United States. I’ve worked in several cities scattered across the globe – in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Gaza City, Gaza. While in Ljubljana, Slovenia I read on a candlelit stage with a translator by my side and later, outside of Galway, Ireland, I read to the mountains with an Irish friend. My poetry community is not restrained by border crossings. I believe in a global community of poets.




And yet. I am dissatisfied. This listing of people and places seems flaccid next to my vision of what constitutes a community of poets. My mind conjures Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin with their dedicated phone line, their linked handsets perched on the corners of their desks as they worked.  I try to conjure the solidarity of poets who went to prison for their beliefs in South Africa – or anywhere in the world where human rights violations occur. I think of Jeremy Cronin’s poem  — Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang (A Person is a Person Because of Other People) that details the wordless conversation between two prisoners as a guard scrutinizes them. A poet is a poet because of other poets. We need each other. It’s that simple.



Susan Rich (http://susanrich.net & blog) is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently, Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist’s Kitchen, which was a Finalist for the Foreword Prize and the Washington State Book Award. She is the recipient of awards from Artist’s Trust, The Times Literary Supplement of London, Peace Corps Writers and the Fulbright Foundation. Individual poems appear in the Antioch Review, New England Review, Poetry Ireland, and The Southern Review. Along with Brian Turner and Jared Hawkley, she edited the anthology, The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders published by McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation. Susan lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.

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Romanian Poetry Anthology–Of Gentle Wolves

December 19th, 2013 margento No comments


Martin Woodside traveled to Romania on a poetry Fulbright. In the bilingual collection Of Gentle Wolves, he captured a snapshot of the mosaic of trends and confluences that define Romanian poetry of the last few decades. As he suggests in his introduction to the volume, the biggest surprise was the difficulty in categorizing Romanian poets, a reflection of the “tumult and discord that’s characterized the last century of life in Romania, and life after the 1989 revolution” (vi). If anything, the common thread running through the various voices, some decades old, some fresh and pulsing with the blood of the new millennium, is the ambition of being the one to re-invent the poetic form while never severing the bonds with Romania’s literary past.

Yet the volume doesn’t lack unity or a sense of common purpose. There are subtle points of convergence that emerge as one journeys from one poet’s landscape to the next. One witnesses the struggles to place signifying mirrors before a history in the course of finding itself, and one sees the wider and wider spiral that travels away from a nationally defined inner space, and into the larger world of global conversations, only to circle back to the evolving Romanian consciousness, undefeated by half a century of communism, engaged with the present, eager for that ineffable re-definition.

One such thread that one can identify is the need for cultural anchoring—whether it be in the sturdy soil of European tradition, as we see in the poem by Romania’s not so long absconded giant, Marin Sorescu, who attributes to Shakespeare the powers of a Demiurge creating the world in seven days, then “tired to the bone,/He went off to die a little” (5), or the more eclectic allusions in a poem such as “Summa Ethilica” by Radu Vancu, who summons as his drinking buddies the shadows of Thomas Aquinas, Mihai Eminescu (Romania’s staple poet of the 19th century), and even Marx, to derive eternal wisdom from the never obsolete “40 percent liquid hell in iridescent light” (19). In a similar vein, Angela Marinescu sits at an imagined table with “many poets/ Mihai Draghici, Paul Vinicius, Eugen Suciu,/ with novelists Ioan Grosan and Alexandru Vlad/ and with a young woman, beautiful, quiet like a carnivorous plant in repose” (21), an indication that reaching self-awareness is a collective endeavor.

Earlier generation surrealist poet Gellu Naum returns to a mythical past of Romania’s almost unchanged countryside, where Alexander the Great is summoned by a local woman as he “passed one summer in his golden boat reading aloud and making small comments/…/ hey there comrade Alexander the Great she would tell us don’t pretend you can’t hear/ hey there Argonaut I’ll give you my golden fleece that is the law/ I’ll issue a receipt” (7). As if in response to this search through myths in Romania’s millennial soil, crisp-voiced poet Chris Tanasescu finds himself “between stone and stone/ between earth and earth” (57) with a book holding him together as he relives Romania’s myth of the creator’s sacrifice, and the continuous repetition of Genesis as art: “and the book is the only place here/ to enter/ the only place/ to find a way through/maybe this is how the world started/ I say to myself” (59).

It is as if the poets of change seek reassurance in a world that simply is, so that they can glimpse into the possible and venture into a world they can re-imagine. Unsurprisingly, there is also an abundance of references to Romania’s only partially healed wounds of anticommunist and postcommunist struggles. In O. Nimigean’s excerpt from Intermezzo, “ovidean nimigean/ weeps all over the page/ feeling pity/ for this golden age/ ovidean nimigean/ a childish old man/ fills with grief/ for the Romanian” (37), in a voice reminiscent of old ballads but snatching Romania’s old self from the past and dragging it with him into his own, amorphous moment in history. In Radu Vancu’s “Kapital,” the ghost of Marx still haunts the streets of cities and villages, where “in the pubs of Romania,” heavy drinking turns formerly complacent people into anarchists, until “you are already, in all likelihood, a perfect mystic/ with the appropriate set of regrets at hand./ It’s bad not to have guts. And much better, after the first shot of vodka” (17).

It appears that poets are still trying to shake off the shame of inaction that followed the intellectuals of the communist night into the chaos of a democracy still fighting the demons of the past. Chris Tanasescu’s poem “Envoy” reminds Romanians that the ills we bear can take our place if we leave too much room for tolerance of those ills. The lines “Today, tomorrow, she endured/ pitiful girl—shouldn’t be pitied!” (61) reveal the epitome of the fear that is no longer a good excuse.

It appears that many of today’s poets find the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those accustomed with suffering abhorrent, and look elsewhere for redemption. In Gabriel Decuble’s “Crippled Mutt,” the beaten dogs on the street become the city’s guardian angels, a sign that it is, perhaps, time to let the ghosts of oppression leave the country’s crippled body so that it can finally find a way to start anew: “particles rise yelping/ particles limping through the atmosphere/ light slobbered from the fierce staggering over the void/ dispersed/ you don’t hear them you don’t see them/ these microscopic particles in one in all/       damning them not to be damned/ so that they never end” (53).

What’s left after the purging of Romania’s collective sins are “the dead resurrected from rain” (43) in Robert Serban’s poem “I Hide.” In the “nearly empty” village where the sick and old of past generations still wait and watch for something—be it angels or pigeons—in Ioan Moldovan’s poem “In Fact,” and love finds ways to bring the flesh back to the doll-like bodies, in Dan Coman’s “Love Poem.”

It is a bizarre world where people are picking up the pieces after some bewildering cataclysm, but there is much hope in this scattered world. Artists believe in the power of their art to redeem and rebuild, which is why this volume sets itself apart from other contemporary productions as an on-going question whose answer is somewhere under the rubble of history, waiting to be unearthed.

—Liana Andreasen


[Of Gentle Wolves, an Anthology of Romanian Poetry

Translated and edited by Martin Woodside

Calypso Editions, 2011,

68 pages, soft cover, $12]

[A shorter version of this review was initially published in Atticus Review]


Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen is originally from Romania, and currently lives in McAllen, TX where she is an Associate Professor at South Texas College. She holds an MA from Salisbury University and a PhD from Binghamton University. She published academic work in Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic. She published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, Thunderdome, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, and upcoming in Scintilla, Weave Magazine, and Calliope. She received two Pushcart nominations (for fiction and for translation work).

Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

Joanne Dominique Dwyer–”Belle Laide”–If to Love Is to Inhabit

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments



One cannot but love a book that starts this way: “First my father Killing Me Softly with his Roberta Flack album./ Then my son Killing Me Softly with his Fugees CD” especially when those are the opening lines of an ars poetica—actually “Ars Poetica, or Keeper-of-the-Water.”  Contemporary young poets apparently feel a need to start their (first) books with ars poeticas, and some of them do it well.  Joanne Dominique Dwyer is one of those—while providing a relevant imago of the poet at work as being at home, since the metaphor in the title has to do with the frozen birdbath the birds peck on in the cold outside the speaker’s home.  The image gives her the opportunity to interrupt her own speech with a sharp aside in which she both scolds and… scalds herself: “Excuse me un mementino, while I boil/ water to pour on the ice.  Bullshit!/ you’re not going to take time to boil water/ when it scalds right from the tap.”  A quirky discourse of a restless poet who will not take bull from anybody, herself included.  And, like in other recent ars poeticas, she addresses the reader directly, but since other poets unwillingly prove to actually be afraid of the latter, or at least mistrustful, and try to compensate for that by showing off, she off-handedly invites them into her family, her home, her own body (of words), even calling them lover but also warning all the way about the deadly dangers of such togetherness “I can see why lovers commit suicide together./ And why you enter me with such abandon,” as the only one she’s actually afraid of seems to be herself and the cancer-like unstoppable expansion and inclusiveness of her verse : “On my shoulder a carcinoma that will eventually kill me—/ will eat my flesh, as I eat yours.”

But is this a Whitmanesque inclusiveness—not really, not at first at least, rather one centered on or starting from the familial, the interior, the bookish.  “I don’t get out much—socially, for adult pleasure./ But I read a lot” starts a captivating poem that takes us into the speaker’s extensive readings of Turkish harem accounts, and then to the speaker’s daughter’s ceramics class work, a conversation at a wedding party casually and awkwardly switching from horrid jail stories to deluxe breast jobs, and then back again to harems, Islam, ceramics, and a Persian hair removal kit recently that the speaker recently purchased but “has yet to use.”

Dwyer is compared in a back cover presentation with Plath and Sexton, and indeed, her confessionalism and acted childishness every once in a while allows questionable traumas to surface menacingly (“my missing daughter returned by midday muted,/ having been held on a rooftop”), but the general tone is rather relaxed as she enjoys digressing and surfing her own stream of consciousness in more of an O’Harian style.  The ‘wild’ surprises occasioned by language ramifications, by the dark associative power of her unconsciousness, and sometimes by multiple voices (in “Barely a Body Comes Knocking” for instance the deceitful complaint about the lack of visitors veers at a certain point into a fantastic and funny Voodoo curse against possible thieves—“And my assistant ghosts will hex your virility/ And you will sit all your remaining days/ In a rocking chair like a ceramic troll on the porch/ Of the state home in Maine for old and demented alcoholic ship builders/ Because the home for old and alcoholic sailor is full// You think I’m semiserious/ I do my best work when hypnopompic…”—) may also remind one of Ashbery, with the significant difference that Dwyer wants and manages to convey a (multiple but) coherent image of the self that is propped by the consistent pursuit of memories and dreams, and by memorable self-definitions and metaphors, “keeper of the water,” “an encyclopedia salesman,” “ a footless repairer of huaraches and boots,” etc.

The second section persistently and sometimes manically pursues possible ‘definitions’ of love, ranging from “if love is to imagine” to “if love is a door,” “a mezzanine,” “to fall,” “to inhabit,” and eventually “to be thirsty in the night/ un-slacked in the day.”  Such ‘philosophical’ musings are actually as bodily and sensual as could be, and, what is absolutely remarkable in Dwyer compared to other contemporary poets, the erudite references, the mythologies and metaphysics, the asides and the detours do not slacken the passion and the emergency, but quite on the contrary, they keep mercilessly spilling fuel on the fire of the crescendos, while also adding a bite of inquisitiveness, sarcasm, and, of course, self-contradiction:

In the Louvre we saw the carved bit of ass

showing on the Venus of Milo.

Lift my dressing gown over my head,

or take it all the way down.

Look me in the eye when we make love

so I don’t mistake you for a blind man.

Don’t be afraid of my dark,

buy me a bird of my own—

spit on the candle in the corner.

“Request to a Lover”


The breathless 3 or 4-beat-per-line hurried complexities, intimations, and urges, make room at a certain point to a bluesy shorter piece, in which St Augustine (a recurrent reference, or rather character), Billie Holiday, sensuality & grimness, homelessness and glamour, death and a repressed knowledge of the spiritual powerfully converge.

A nagging question and potential problem in writing such poems would be (besides what if love were… [at all]), but how do I end this, and, if after all the deployed artillery I need a simpler or quieter ending, how can I make sure it’s not going to be flat or irrelevant.  Dwyer finds good or not so good answers to this question (among the most unfortunate ones are those that go like “You are intrigued with her/ and I hate her”) until she realizes it would be better to confront and testify for the lack of any solution and the confusion itself rather than improvise single-use surrogates.  That is what she does in the cosmic spectacular finale of “Bent,” the final poem in the second section, where a maddening maenad squeezes the love and… the life out of her lover, and then, a bacchant drunk on his “lake water,” she admits no reciprocity or communion in facing her own deepest uncertainty, and along with that, the demise of the sacred.

I am bent around the darkness of the sun

siphoning salt form your skin,

eating almonds from your cupboards,

drinking the last of the lake water

as the sails come to a halt on the sand.

I will never give back the lake its love!

It’s mine! It’s mine!—Loch Ness monster

or man on the shore carving canoe paddles,

I’m not certain.  It’s so ark without the moon,

difficult to find the far encampment—

the inward holy body.


This last note lingers into the third section, where Dwyer directly addresses her need for a spiritualism of her own and “an instance of devotion” for the sacred madness of maverick figures like Christina Mirabilis, for instance, whom the church has kept out “of the sanctioned canon of saints on the grounds/ that you are not the beau ideal to follow,” and who, spiritually speaking, is therefore an emblematic “beau laide.”

Paradoxically, the intensification of the search for the spiritual brings about more explicit confessional or maybe even autobiographical texture, and along with that, even more popular culture and consumerist ‘flavors’ than before, while pulling back a bit from the earlier grandiose metaphorical imagery and approaching the erotic much more directly.  But is that really paradoxical?  Not for a poet like Dwyer, who, while taking the customary American distance from institutionalized religion is relentlessly in search for an actual experience of the sacred, for the ‘real’ ([un]canonical) thing, which, of course, once reached, cannot but illuminate (through) the profane as well.

Profane in all senses, since in one of the most powerful poems in the collection (“Down-by-the-River”), the speaker takes “a shit behind skinny oaks” and asserts (more than elsewhere) an Irish-Catholic-pagan-Gypsy-outlandish-Mexican (non-)identity (“No Identity Crisis Here” reads another relevant title), fusing a Whitmanesque celebratory union-with-the-cosmos eroticism (“I long for the lightning/ of your ejaculate in my mouth, on my breasts/ between the folds and fabric of my flower./ Call it a pussy or a cunt, or the shores of an eel-infested river”) with her unmistakable sarcasm, fierce political/gender critique and brilliantly ironic associations (“Only do not […] pretend to care about the young girls/ who open their mouths like milking machines on dairy farms,/ or take it in the ass, all to remain immaculate until marriage./ I wiped my ass with dry oak leaves, and yes it scratched.”)

The poet’s deepest and most intense purpose always keeps its promise—and therefore the last poem in the collection is indeed an eschatological poem… “of sorts.”  And not in spite, but actually by means of self-irony as well (yet is this just self-irony?—“J. Dominique is certain that Christ will return soon/ […]/ as a guest at the wedding of two men madly in love/ and turn tap water into bubbly water”), the ardently mystical vibrates ever stronger, so much the more as it is (in the end as well as in the beginning) experienced strictly on a stripped corporeal level.  Listen to this crossover ballad-chant-lease-like ending; there is multifaceted irony here indeed, only that it aims beyond the traditional postmodernist paradigm, while still sounding postmodern (although it is not for the first time in the book that Dwyer euphonically pairs holy and body).  This is probably the greatest merit of this first collection and the major promise that Joanne Dominique Dwyer may represent:

And she’ll be ashamed for her ego-driven desire

to be listed among the holy,

and humbled into a hollow love for her body—

no matter how temporary the occupancy.


[Joanne Dominique Dwyer. Belle Laide. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2013]



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Shane McCrae’s “Blood”–The Unstoppable Epic

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments



“Probably the real story of race in the United States, […] an epic that spans three centuries,” reads Kathleen Ossip’s blurb on the back cover of Shane McCrae’s latest collection.  Terrance Hayes concurs with an accolade that sounds like an intersection of his own language and the author’s: “His disconcerting language tracks the estrangement and strangeness, the severance and severity of a Self seized by history.”

McCrae professes a poetics of capitalization and line breaks, where enjambments are not so much meant to amplify aesthetic quality and meaning-related complexity, but convey subversive messages and ensure survival while telling histories of massacre, abuse, and misfortune.

Some niggers isn’t and they is

Never gonna be and them I known

And I remember best

is niggers I seen dead                       / Remember even

the breaths they was

always breathing

(“Heads”—“2. Captured and Returned to His Master”)


The “niggers” both exist and do not exist, as they (sort of apophatically) are beyond the ‘grammar’ of the establishment and they endure in ways that elude the masters’ control.  The enjambment transforms an auxiliary verb into a main one asserting existence (and they is/ Never gonna be) and then further assertion is hidden behind the capitalized “Never.”  Bad grammar and typography thus renders unexpected value to the language distorted and translated by rebellion and by the gasping breath of the chased slave—ontology (“they is”), knowledge (“I known”) and cultural heritage (“I remember best”) are thus established and fiercely defended under the nose of “the Master” with the latter’s tools.

Slashes also play a shrewd role throughout the book.  In the quote above for instance the slash is placed ‘unnaturally’ far from the line break it feigns to accommodate, and acts like a hideout for the capitalized “Remember,” and for the way in which the slaves get “even” by never forgetting those who “was the breaths” of their culture.

In fact, McCrae accomplishes a lot with very few devices.  There is barely any description in the book yet the images (and the sounds) are unforgettable.  Complexity is reached by ellipsis, by clashing scenes, narratives, and voices, by speech that seems to be drowned out by other speeches, memories, and fears, but then resurfaces even stronger than before.  The poetry flux is a wave encountering particles of matter (of matter that matters, the one of life and death) and thus seems to be obnubilated, but actually nothing blocks it; in fact, it is exactly such brief (and horrific) episodes that render it perceptible.

Ranting, raging, rambling syncopated voices that seem to sound the same, cover in fact an impressive number of forms and styles—satire (“the silver [money] rattled as I ran it sounded like/ a chained dog jumping”), black (or rather cynic-horror) comedy (“he was barefoot in/ Shit when the white men found him     /[author’s slash] He stank so bad/ They couldn’t hang him didn’t want those feet/ over their heads// That’s why they burned him”), prophecy (“Our Savior comes disguised     /[author’s slash] Like a thief in the night/ […] down from the cross/ And he must set the cross on fire”), ballad/blues/farce (in “The Ballad of Cathay Williams William Cathay”), elegy (“Brother it keep us like a pond keep leaves/ from trees on the pond they/ Rotting in the thing they lived on/ […]/ Brother our father me and him / [author’s slash] That’s how it love/ keep us together”), etc, etc.

The fragmentary epic seems to go full circle when in the last poem, the speaker sardonically acknowledges that “I thought// Who do I got to kill/ to get all the way free/ And it was     more people than it was/ alive in the world,” thus echoing as if from the other end of the world (and history) the oppressive image at the beginning of the book, with its ominous enjambment-puns: “The death in us was bigger than the life in us/

except for some of us        it seems like now/ And them the niggers got their heads cut off…”  The massacred rebels are still around (here and) “now,” moreover, they are the (atemporal?) here and now, they have become the matter history is made of (they are beheaded now and… them).  But if the victim, the enslaved, the exterminated want to be free (not to survive…), they’ll have to imagine a holocaust the world is not big enough for.  McCrae goes beyond the victim/victimizer overlap and reaches the negative (capability and) sublime of a poetry that, in order to be true, will have not only to account for but also reenact the endless horrors of his people’s history.

The characters’ confessions are truncated, contorted, distorted, stressed, compressed, pressed for time and space.  If it is an epic it is one of deeply subjective and incoherent voices that have no time or reverence neither for the ample Homeric meter and its circuitous rhetoric—the “niggers’ song” is not meant for ceremony or leisure—nor for the gluttonous Whitmanesque enumerations—since although they crave and recognize democracy (“The Yankees were/ Shaking hands” and calling the slaves by their names) they haven’t really enjoyed any justice or democracy yet.  The vision is not huge, but relentlessly ramified, not gigantic, but unstoppable.  That’s why—it gotta be continued…

[Shane McCrae, Blood, Mesilla Park, NM: Noemi Press, 2013]


Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

A.L. Nielsen–”A Brand New Beggar”–Open Tuning Poetry

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments
A.L. Nielsen’s new book is praised by Evie Shockley in one of the blurbs on the back cover, for the fireworks lit under its language, and the way in which it stitches together places, people, and moments.  Stitching al those things together is actually, in Nielsen’s case, like playing series of chords (with riffing and variation) on a (blues) guitar; only he uses an interesting and quite hard to master technique—open tuning.
“Seven Series,” for instance, is a poem that illustrates Nielsen’s preoccupation with seriality (whence the recurrent motifs of trains, train sets, traveling, slide-shows, etc, and whatever involves sequences or cycles or reformulations), which relates him to Spicer, but it would be a mistake to make of that a pervasive feature, as Nielson is actually related to so many and to nobody in particular.  (Apropos of Spicer, though, “Hidden Lake” is a funny but convoluted reprise of “Concord Hymn.”)  The first one of the seven series stands proof—“An end to all this// Eschatology”—a distich which, pardon my punning, should indeed make history.  Or is, in any way, an opening that promises a lot.  Nielsen chooses ‘not to deliver’ though, and so, what follows sounds (not like Spicer but) more like a sequence of Koch’s blandest surreal (yet metropolitan) jokes—“I have/ To hurry// Here// They close/ The dictionaries/ At seven” (5th series)—and after trying to compensate for the lightness with a ‘hard surrealist’ totally puzzling 6th series, the last one, like a Dadaist farce, confirms the closing of dictionaries “at seven”: the 7th series contains no words.
Many other ‘jokes’ in the book are actually much more relevant than that, such as “41” which is a “series” of mass media and political and everyday clichés in a crescendo where totally probable absurdities (“Continuous/ Breaking developments,” “We ran a touchdown/ And the enemy didn’t show up”) lead to a black humor cynicism that would make Frederick Seidel jealous: “We get more punch per bomb// A struggle to the last child.”
“Higher Math”—higher because it’s about wild geese flying up in the sky, and math because the shape of the flocks is equated with the greater/lesser than symbol in mathematics—describes the phases of a contest between the hunter and his game which reminds one of Charles Simic’s mathematical symbolisms of crows in winter, only now (depleted of the visionary tone and) humorously remixed by a laconic Billy Collins.  Still, Nielsen manages to compress there both ecological concerns and a subtle ars poetica—“I wait unlicensed/ In the caesura of their seasons/ Scrawling with my shotgun in mid-mud.”
After a number of such poems the reader realizes that there are apparently two poets taking turns in this collection (both of them versatile and alluding to quite a deal of contemporary writers, as already stated), one that writes song-like (and most of the times deceitfully) light poems, and another one that specializes in hard to follow, contorted syntax, nagging indeterminacy, and non sequiturs.  The former’s palette ranges from idiosyncratic limericks, “A is for an/ Other/ Part of our/ Name a/ Part…[etc]” (“Anna”), to emphatic blues poems, “Really doesn’t matter/ How hard I sing/ Night still/ Removes everything”) (“Small Song”), to political critique and creed, “Word arrives that Jesse Helms has died/ Tolson’s Africa shakes off a fly” (section IV, the best in the book), and the oracular (and therefore, political) poetry of place “There’s no/ Their there” (section II).  The ‘other poet’ often places his pieces right next to the first, letting the reader decide which poem is a make-up for which, as for instance, right before the above quoted “Small Song”, “Rivers” (meant to also be read as “reverse”?) deals with the same theme, only in a more complicated unnecessarily philosophical (and thus facile) way—“An idea/ Pitched in the rest//Taken up by the rest/ Rests.”  Compare the two finales, “The finite work of morning/ Refrains// Evening/ The score,” and “Really doesn’t matter/ What I might will/ Night/ Still.”
Nielsen sometimes acknowledges the ambivalence (“I hear voices/ From the other’s side/ As if someone wore/ Reading a Poem” (my emphasis)—he puns in a poem involving an ingenious typographical word-play, “Silence of the Iambs,” where the sparse irregular iambs are themselves the silenced… lambs), but the ‘less likable’ ‘other’ breaks loose in the last (and weakest) section, where he over-insists on the trite figure of the slide-show as disparate and sometimes painful or nostalgic memories.  When the jumbled enjambments and rumbling syntax seem to find a way of cohabitation and signification in “Zoo Slide,” the poet drops them altogether and switches to end stops and romance.  Still, the poem concluding the section and the book is an excellent one (and like most of the best poems, an instance of collaboration between the ‘two writers’ in the collection), a blues of strong rhythms, unexpected phrase turns, both sudden rhymes/puns and remote echoes fusing the personal and the political, “This suitcase intends/ A world/ Broke at the clasp/ Grasp// World gone wrong// […] These unintended/ Blues stones/ In my passway/ Cinders rasp/ In my draw/ Rail against the night/ Smokestacks steel strings/ Open tuning…”
Still, the book’s major contribution is its poetry of place.  In section II, “From Kansas,” which is actually just a short preview, and then in the full-throttle section IV, “From Ghana,” Nielsen writes an intriguing, both alluring and aloof, mysterious one-of-a-kind poetry of locality.  The complexity and immensity of a place and culture are made palpable not by erotic immersion or elated enumerations, but by what we gradually sense is being left out—as well as by the speaker’s own puzzlement and wonder.  Yet it is not primarily ellipsis that does the trick in these laconic poems, but the always fresh eye of the observer, and the refusal to categorize or generalize (mainly manifest in the amazing capacity to shift and turn and [still] be inclusive within draconic brevity).  These are poems in which the tools of imagist poetry are used to the opposite ends. As (perhaps) post-post-colonial poetry, such verse not only refuses the stance of the western colonist/traveler/tourist/orientalist, but, without professing the old news of postmodernist disenchantment, does not even consider the option (as it is strongly skeptical of the actual possibility) of description (while being, among other things, once in a while descriptive as well).  The result is a sequence of multifaceted puzzle pieces for us to (re)arrange and approximate the mystery(ies) of both the place and the speaker, and thus participate in the incomprehensible experience of being a contemporary inter-cultural person interacting on different levels with a certain place of wondrous culture and landscape marked by political injustice and tragic history/ies.  Just like in open tuning (a figure so relevantly employed by the poet in the above quoted blues), Nielsen does not bother to ‘fret’ the strings of the reality he encounters, but (apparently) plays them as they come, and the strong effect results from the order, frequency, and rhythm in which he chooses to pick or strike them.
Gratitude for such wary
Signage as
Sings to me
Each morning
Such as this
Muddy Waters pouring
From seaside speakers
Homecoming baptism
The echoes—sing/sign—of the speaker’s personal cultural background present on the public globalized speakers’ playlist represent signage for him to get back home every morning, but (the “gratitude” for) such experience is best expressed by an oxymoron—“homecoming baptism.”  Certain layers of American culture here (the icon of Muddy Waters but also the more recent blues and pop hits with lyrics celebrating being baptized in muddy water) gain unexpected relevance as the speaker, in Ghana, is baptized in the muddy water of his true “home,” African(-American) culture and literature which he has studied and celebrated for decades.
In dialoging with or evoking other major rock culture figures, the poet seems to almost forget about the place he’s supposed to ‘tell us about.’  In a poem referencing “[Frank]” he writes, “The/ Mothers// Of necessity// Sang// Kansas/ Kansas/ do-do-dun to-to// It was/ For them/ An invention,” being as ironic at Zappa just as the latter once was at everybody, but at the same time giving him credit as a major artist (of the ‘necessary’ proportion).  Moreover, the doo wop refrain, if heard as forms of the verb to do, unexpectedly renders the language, the politics (necessary and of “necessity”), and the politics of language… of Kansas (and not only).
Other times, the reader has more dots to connect as (in alluding to Nkrumah’s biography for instance or) in the poem concluding “From Ghana,” where the actor Omar Epps (who, we are not told, but presumably know, starred in Deadly Voyage, playing the part of a sole survivor of a group of stowaways from Ghana) introduces himself to the speaker “in the market” (‘here’, ‘there’?, what difference would it make?) and is “Surprised/ As I am/ To find himself/ Talking to Elvis” (my emphasis).  What we have here in the ways the poet references rock culture is a (long awaited) brilliant sequel to David Wojahn’s rock and roll sonnets (since, after all, both Wojahn and Nielsen share an interest in “mystery,” as well as in… all sorts of “trains”), while also bringing such a different approach and perspective.  And, at last (in the poetry trying to speak of place and history and identities by manipulating symbols of popular music and culture), such a different purpose.
[A.L. Nielsen. A Brand New Beggar. Bolder, CO, and Normal, IL: Steerage Press, 2013]
Categories: Book Reviews Tags:

Oliver de la Paz–Desert Ghosts: On Postcards, Presences, and Poetry Communities

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments





I’ve been working on a series of prose poems for the past five years. The series started through collaborations with poets from the Kundiman retreat. Timothy Yu, one of the fellows from the annual Asian American poetry retreat, presented the idea that all of the fellows and staff members for that particular year send each other poems on postcards for a whole month. So, for the entire month of August I’d write and receive postcards with little poems on them. I wound up continuing a series of prose poems that initially started as small scraps of images but grew into a larger series of epistolary poems. What made the process joyous was that I was writing each postcard for someone I knew. I also knew that they were doing the same for me. Every day of that August, I felt like someone was wrapping a small precious stone in cellophane after having carefully plucked it from a stream and sending it to me.


What’s always been useful to my writing process is envisioning the recipient of the poem–someone who will receive the poem after I’ve written it as though it were a gift. My early understanding of poems and the act of making poetry is that one’s attention must be granted wholeheartedly towards the other person who will be participating in the poem’s creation, whether he or she is aware of their participation or not. That person needn’t be a full flesh-and-blood person in front of you. Rather, that person or those persons could be like the images one sees along an interstate in the distance during the high sun of the summer. The waves of heat creating the illusion that there is someone walking along the road just ahead of you–forever just ahead of you.


Some of the earliest picture postcards in history depicted war emblems. In the 1870′s a picture of armaments adorned the face of one of the first printed postcards to commemorate the Franco-Prussian war. Later, advertising appeared in postcards. Some of the early postcards in the United States were called “penny postcards” and were used as expedient means of communication. And for their size, the postcard is an ideal mode for expediency in communication. The picture does much of the talking. The text can enhance the picture, be enhanced by the picture, or can remain autonomous. There is a distance suggested by the postcard–the sender is somewhere far off. The sender is wishing the recipient were there, but also the sender acknowledges that he or she is in a place that could generate envy in the recipient. “Wish you were here.” “Having a wonderful time.” “I miss you.” The picture is shorthand for the shorthand. There is also the acknowledgment that the distance between recipient and sender is great, and that the sender is in a place where the normal rules of time do not allow him the luxury of a long engagement. The message must be as quick as a synaptic flash.


I’m constantly worried about these new poems.  How they’d be received outside of the immediate poetry community that assisted in their creation. There is something intensely sacred for me about these poems–I feel, in some regards, like they are not poems of my body, but rather, they are poems of a collective. Within each page, the words of some other poet climb out of the margins.


My family moved to the desert of Eastern Oregon when I was a young boy. There were no other Filipino families there. It was the 70′s and the Vietnam War had “ended” three years prior. Many of the soldiers who had returned from the war lived around the periphery of Ontario, Oregon, the town where we settled. I would sometimes see them when I was out with my mother, dressed in torn fatigues, coming into town for tractor parts or for groceries. They would look at us for a minute, as if they were reaching for something that had dropped into a deep and ever narrowing tube. Then they would snap out of their reveries and return to the business at hand. Their expressions always showed a bit of surprise, as if they were discovering something new as they shopped along the cereal aisle or as they filled their trucks with gas. I wanted to know who these men were. I wanted to follow them as they insisted on the ordinariness of the lives that had been returned to them. My concepts of distance and community were formed through these chance glances. I recognized the “othering” glare, but I also recognized that the glare saw something within itself that it did not know had existed.


Each poem of this series begins with a salutation: “Dear Empire”. Am I the ghost of this Empire figure or is the Empire figure the ghost of the poem? Throughout the poems there are ruins. There are ruins atop ruins and there are people who live among the ruins who are real people and not ghosts. My mind has lived among them for five years and I have to be considerate of their needs. A respectful distance cannot be maintained when one lives among the ruins and ghosts. But an understanding can be reached. For example, I know when I must leave the room. I know when the ghosts have been disturbed, when I have torn back the seams.


When I lived in Arizona, I’d frequently get lost. I’d be driving down a long road and everything would look the same. Building after building, the same stucco would rocket past me, blurring into the very landscape as though each wall were a part of the soil. I was always amazed at the sudden oasis of an apartment complex as one would spring up out of the landscape, its manmade lake and geyser issuing forth a burst of water into the air that would immediately evaporate. Some of my “Dear Empire” poems return me to this landscape. The audacity of it. The deep veins of a dry riverbed is always near these structures, the fissures deep and dusty.


I am writing about Empire because I want to understand Empire. Wherever Empire goes, there are many ghosts that follow. When I first began writing the series, he was an innocent enough character. I’m getting to know him. There are places, though, where he has yet to take me. I want to understand Empire’s wake, knowing that I travel in Empire’s wake. Such perspective is difficult to glean within the confines of its very walls. In order to understand a community, you have to leave that community. You have to wander into a different desert.


My son keeps jumping out of his bed during naptime. He is crying. He says that there are ghosts in his room. I scoop him up into my arms and carry him down the long hallway, back into his bed. I assure him that there are no such things as ghosts. That the world is filled with tangible things. That there are no apparitions. No phantoms possibly materializing in his room, the closet, on the other side of the door.


The veteran’s assembly hall was across the street from my Catholic elementary school. During recess, we’d see young men step out of their pick-up trucks and head inside. This happened quite often and in the middle of the day, and I wondered whether any of them worked like my parents. Whether they had any place to be. The world, as far as I knew, was full of duties–the expected places our bodies must go in order to fulfill some larger contract which I did not understand. I wondered what sort of agreement these men had made.


There were early controversies with postcards as a new medium. In some countries, certain images were illegal to send across international  (and even national) borders. For example, there were a series of early seaside postcards that contained images of nude bathers. Such seaside postcards were never received by people in these countries since they violated the country’s morality codes. Every community has its taboos, and every community has its way of skirting them. The postcards poems that I am writing are not themselves taboo, nor are the subjects contained within them taboo. However, I can’t help but feel like I am sharing a secret which I should not be sharing. I can’t help but feel like I’m saying something I shouldn’t say—as though I am breaking the bounds of some decorum.


Once the postcard prose poems were removed from the Kundiman community that assisted in their creation, they became longer pieces, as though I were writing to an audience who did not understand their context. In some ways, more exposition crept in which I would later cut. I sometimes wonder what it takes to have someone understand my poems. What words need to fit? How can I show you? If I show you, will you still be here? Therein lies the value of a community—you don’t have to explain yourself, your context. You can just be. The planes that define your body’s outline line-up with the community’s understanding of what it means to be. Your histories can remain your histories without any justification. Without any back story.


One of my favorite postcards that I received is that of a young Japanese schoolgirl looking out the window of a bullet train in Tokyo as the city’s light reflects in the glass. It looks as though her body is slowly dematerializing, the molecules of her dress, her skin, slowly twirling away from her as the train pushes forward through the evening air. In the photograph, she looks distracted, as though she is talking over her shoulder to someone holding on to a pole to keep themselves steady. It’s as though she too feels she is talking to someone who is slowly disappearing.


My son is slowly sinking into the sheets as I read him a story. There are pictures of our family in the Philippines, lining his shelf: his cousins, his aunts and uncles, their images rest atop a turquoise-painted bookshelf. It’s as though the sea were between them.


I remember when the director of my graduate school first met with all of the new creative writing graduate students for orientation. She looked at each one of us earnestly and urged us to embrace our time together and that our time together was finite. That we’d all be slowly moving away from each other like galaxies.


In the desert, you can hear things. If you are quiet, you can hear the skirt of sand pass over the rocks with a small gust. You can hear the feet of the lizards pad across the rocks. There are so many palpable ghosts in the desert–the little threads of sweat twisting their way through the cloth. The rodents tucked under the roots of a saguaro. I came to the desert years ago to find a writing community, but more importantly, I came to the desert to understand my ghosts. I needed to find a place where I could hear them. A place where I could give them my full attention.


Little postcards are lining up along my wall, and I am running out of room for them, so I begin taking photographs of the front and the back and then tucking them away in a shoe box. A postcard is such a useful thing–it doesn’t have the length of a letter, so there are details that get left off. So much of the language in a postcard can be substituted by the image on the front of the postcard. There is the expectation that the recipient will understand the image and, when coupled with the few words on the back, perhaps an understanding can be reached. Maybe envy. Maybe loss. What’s also useful is that the postcard takes up space. It is, itself, a body. It is not the same as an e-mail note–rather, because the postcard is a body, it occupies an area the size of its height and its width. I, myself, have no more room for all these selves, so I must put them away. My office is littered with presences.


In the local Phoenix news, a horse and rider had somehow ascended Camelback Mountain but had no way of descending the mountain. So the newscasters were constantly talking over the footage of a helicopter carrying a horse in a harness, dangling from a cable over the city of Phoenix as the purplish dusks of the desert eased their way into the lenses. The horse’s head was slumped down–it was obviously sedated, and the apparitions of the city’s lights veered this way and that as the camera’s tried to steady their shots.


I have written over 100 “Dear Empire” poems and see no end to them. They fill my hard drive. I write them with a strange ease, as though someone were controlling my hand. As though someone were cradling my arm in a harness and dragging my limp wrists over the keyboard. They are easy for me to write because they are ongoing conversations. And while that conversation was initially prompted in the midst of a community of Asian American poets, I’ve maintained that conversation. I am having that conversation with my son, telling him about the painted rocks, the little gems of postcards arriving in the mail. I’m telling him about the desert monsoons. The way water so quickly vanishes before it touches the ground.


I was driving from New Mexico. The rocks there were like the veins on the back of the hands; there was a near-fibrous quality to them. The colors streaming out of them like ribbons around a gift. The road was clear, except for the yellow dashes of the highway divider, blurring into a single line with my car’s speed. I was leaving Arizona for my first job, carrying behind me all my books, my clothes, furniture. I could feel the weight of it all drag the U-Haul down a bit, especially as I drove up the hills. It was August in the desert, which was a terrible and unpredictable time in the Southwest. Not only was it hot, but there was also the possibility of flash flood. In my side mirrors, I could see the thick-headed thunder clouds bearing up on me. The desert can play tricks like that–clouds suddenly appear and disappear as you turn your head, or squint. Up ahead, the apparitions of figures arc and dance off the blacktop.


My poetic process has continued to be a dialogic one. Even before the postcard project with my Kundiman cohorts, I wrote poems for someone or for the idea of someone. For the longest time, my private poems were written for an unrequited love, my father, mother, for me. The act of writing a poem has to be one of the most compassionate things someone can do, for within that act, you are ultimately declaring you are here before a ready listener, preparing to say something that will reveal an emotional state–yours, regardless of the illusion of distance. And in that emotional state, we as speaker and listener are vulnerable.


The truth is, when I decided to go to Arizona State University for graduate study in creative writing, I wanted to return to the desert because it was the closest thing to a home landscape that I had ever had. And though I never felt that I had established a community within the desert landscape, I felt a sureness walking on the ground within that landscape. Certain ideas of home are difficult for me to process, since I have had many homes–while I lived in the desert of Eastern Oregon for the longest duration of my life, I never felt I was a part of that place. Once, during a break from college, I purchased postcards from a local mini-mart. The postcards had pictures of cowboys, jackalopes, pheasants, and dusty covered wagons bouncing along the trails. Some of the postcards celebrated the pioneering spirit of the West. Some of them mocked the “redneck” lifestyle. I sent these postcards to friends in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, aware that they’d find novelty in the cards. I imagine the postcards pinned to someone’s refrigerator with a brightly colored magnet. The image of a cowboy rising up with the arch of a horse’s back as it attempts to kick its rider, lifted high above the kitchen tiles and faded pictures of cousins and uncles.


I’m writing these “Dear Empire” poems because I’m trying to define my community in them. They also depict my struggle to identify myself within a community. There are ghosts throughout their sentences. Whole paragraphs can be heard without bodies attached to them. They pass through walls. There are spaces that are embodied within the words. There are gaps within the prose poems’ narrative memories. I am writing many of these poems because I am searching for something that a single prose poem cannot find. The act of writing these pieces is the act of driving through the desert–the veterans’ facilities, the strip malls, the saguaro and the sage brush all blur by in my mind’s search for something, a single locus that I can call here. That I can call home. Somewhere, high above the skyline, I imagine the body of a horse being lifted from a mountain, dangling from a harness above the cityscape. Its legs hang limply and it looks like a spent rag, heavy with the wet weight at its tips.


This is a postcard for you. I am here at my desk and the world is behind the door. The world is outside, lining up toy cars and trains.  Sound parts the barrier. He is sorting colors and shapes and I can hear his mother talk calmly to him as his voice rises with the high excitement of young joy. There are so many other things to tell you–the sun has come out, finally. The cedars flat needles turn silver in the shine. I am about to open my door. I am about to walk down the hall past the portraits of my family and friends, far away from this place. I am about to step out into the brightness of the afternoon.


Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry: NAMES ABOVE HOUSES, FURIOUS LULLABY, REQUIEM FOR THE ORCHARD, and the forthcoming POST SUBJECT: A FABLE, which is a collection of epistolary prose poems. He is the co-editor of A FACE TO MEET THE FACES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY PERSONA POETRY, and the co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. He is the music editor for AT LENGTH and teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

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Peter Joseph Gloviczki—From Contorted Ars Poeticas to the Funny Banal and Back

December 2nd, 2013 margento No comments


“And what will the ricochet/ of my ankle be worth […] this bony puzzle/ in the window doubling,/ now, as a mirror: the person/ I was before I kicked gravity/ hard in the abdomen.  Laugh,/ babe, that’s what you told me […]

… those taller/ versions of yourself when they/ appear between the boundaries/ of what that old architect let in/ when he said: Put it here,/ yes, that’s it, now we’re home.”

These are excerpts from the intriguing opening poem, “Door,” from Peter Joseph Gloviczki’s Kicking Gravity.  The architecture of the poem (and of the book) is thus laid down by an “old” architect—most likely of form and tradition that draws boundaries and gives directions—in this poem.  He’s not the only character in the poem though—“babe/you” is another one who actually speaks when we think the speaker does, since when half way through the poem, when we believe we just heard the (indeed) contorted lyrical confession of the speaker, we find out it (or at least part of it) is actually what that “you” answered the speaker when the latter asked for advice regarding dealing with the former’s “taller versions”.  This is self-referential and it develops an (at least apparently) complex allegory of the writing of a poem involving deceitful rhetoric, recurrent indeterminacy (“what will it be worth,” “what you told me,” “what the architect let in,” etc.) and masterful enjambment.

The few following prose poems that follow are far from being that complicated though.  It is as if after expelling the “taller versions [expectations?]” of the reader, the poet relaxed and started telling anecdotes from his childhood, about an aunt “we” like to call “Lefty,” and soft-surrealist Simickian mixes of blurry memories, oneiric fears or eroticism, and submerged personal mythologies—

Sara taught me where all the doors where; I loved the ones inside her elbows.  I learned how to open those first; how they connected to other openings in her body, wired one to another like a burglar alarm (“Wired”),

but unlike the Serbian-American master, he either overdoes it by adding unnecessary ‘strong surprises’, or dismisses any possible richer meaning by settling either for a sentimental conclusion or a joke.

The prose poems in the first section are interrupted by a funny and captivating “Sonnet for Anne” written after Stephen Dobyn’s “How to Like It”—

… to make Anne

blush.  Her cheeks become cherries: fresh, ripe Bing,

the kind that would have been painted by Rembrandt.

Anne turns that cold Pepsi to sweet Riesling.

She sends Catholic school girls into a jealous rant.


One would picture the poet’s imaginary audience hollering and asking for more, but Gloviczki prefers to go back to the less appealing puzzling prose pieces.

The second section seems to start off the same kind of scenario as the first one, a first rather twisted abstract poem, a possible ars poetica (“(i) can’t stand” “the mechanisms which facilitate hands opening and closing […]” etc) followed by a couple of seemingly biographical notations, but then a couple of sparse poems with scattered short lines fortunately change the pace.  “The Tornado Sequence” captures well the experience of potentially devastating weather by stitching together apparently unrelated fragments, thus suggestive of the effects of a tornado—“the guy whose tractor/ trapped him,/ the woman thrown against her fence./ I bought a lottery ticket, he [the speaker’s brother] says,/ on my drive home” which unfortunately the author chooses to spoil (in this one once again?) with a flat joke: “I’ve been fooled by light before,/ never by wind—/ even my best chair failed me” (as above, the poet’s emphasis here as well).

Gloviczki’s travel poems, which are praised in one of the blurbs for their “listening with a journalist’s ear” are not travel poems.  But unlike in A.L. Nielsen’s Ghana or Kansas sequences where there is no ‘travel poetry’ because the genre along with certain capital assumptions in modern poetics are challenged and reshaped in remarkably relevant ways, here what we get is scenes and/or reflections that hardly have any relevance or efficacy in describing (let alone enacting) a relationship between a problematic speaker and the elusive alterity of a place or community.  The bad English of a cab driver, for instance, who takes a circuitous route most likely in order to rip off a speaker who doesn’t resist because of his stomach flu hardly tells us anything interesting about the latter’s experience of visiting Budapest.

In the third section, some more family poems draw a few good sketchy portraits or scenes, while certain images successfully circumscribe unclear but persistently haunting events from the past.  In “Breakfast,” for instance, the speaker’s mother apparently thinks the former could have but did not prevent somebody’s death.  She then sets a knife on the table and starts spinning it “with a sure hand.”  A number of ‘advice’ or ‘instruction’ poems are both funny and convincing.  In one addressed to (or spoken by?) a groundskeeper, the various thoughts, pieces of advice, and everyday tidbits make room, at a certain point, to the surprise of a couple of very good lines taking some unexpected turns: “Sure,/ the evening light always visits and windy doors know to slam shut./ Love, write my number on your hand./ Call me with my digits against your flesh.”

[Peter Joseph Gloviczki. Kicking Gravity. Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2013]


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