Posts Tagged ‘Copper Canyon

31
Jan
13

W. S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius (2008)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 11, which was published circa January 2009.

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W. S. Merwin's – The Shadow of SiriusDoes W. S. Merwin’s newest book, The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press), need a review from me  . . . a mortal? Probably not, but not for the reasons you might think. Quite often in this book I think Merwin transcends time, and he succeeds in actually yoking together his whole life:

   that I would descend some years later
   and recognize it
   there we were all together
   one time                    			
                                             (“Europe,” 28)

The now, the past, and the present become one, not just because he says so, but because you can feel it through his use of verbs. He uses simple verbs like “is,” “was,” and “will be” in a complicated reflective-visionary-staring-into-the-now manner and in an easy to read manner, and those two modes, in part, create this timeless effect.

To a larger extent, Merwin continues to write to the large past and the large future and the large present of poets – he talks to them all simultaneously, which may be even easier than yoking together his life.

Oh, there’s obviously more to this book than time, his time, and humanity’s time. There is his new experimentation with line breaks, which has subtle and interesting effects on the Merwinian tone. This undertaking is much like an older John Coltrane experimenting with bending notes in a Seattle concert, but it is easier on the ears. Yes, there’s much more than time and line breaks, like words:

   apparently we believe
   in the words
   and through them
   but we long beyond them
   for what is unseen
   what remains out of reach
   what is kept covered      		
                                        (“Raiment,” 26-7)

Yes, Merwin is still relevant, strong, and uncovering more great poetry for us.//

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Merwin, W. S. The Shadow of Sirius. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2008.//

29
Jan
13

Interview with Rock & Sling Editor – Thom Caraway

One of my favorite literary journals is Rock & Sling. I remember the women who founded the journal asking me questions about how to start a journal. They asked me circa 2003 when I had only published one or two issues of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. My advice was very limited. I can’t imagine what I could have told them. Now, it is being run out of Whitworth University by Thom Caraway. Under his editorial management, Rock & Sling have been creating journals that are beautiful to hold and putting together journals with the conscientiousness that goes into making a well-designed book. Inside each issue there are also good stories and poems.

On Wednesday, May 16, 2013, during my Publishing class at The University of Southern Mississippi and taught by Angela Ball, I learned that one of my assignments would be to give a presentation about a literary journal of our choice. Rock & Sling was the first journal that came to my mind. I then went home, and asked Caraway if he wanted to participate. He agreed. I quickly typed up questions for him to answer. While these answers came quick, they had lots of thought behind them. Since I now have about 11 years experience in publishing (instead of just one or two), I knew what types of questions to ask. Because I knew Caraway’s love of journals and books and putting them together, I knew what questions to ask him, and I also knew what questions I would want asked of me. So the questions arrived with ease. In addition, I asked questions that would be of more direct concern to the other students in the class and to those who are considering submitting their work to Rock & Sling. I emailed Caraway the questions the same night. One week later, he sent me his responses, which appear below.

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As I recall, Rock & Sling was started by two ladies in Spokane, WA, around 2003. Who were those ladies, how long did they run the journal, and did it have the same focus as the journal currently does?

Susan Cowger, Kris Christenson, and Lori Klein. The journal came to us through Susan, whose daughter had attended Whitworth University. They were “a journal of faith, art, and literature.” Or “literature, art, and faith.” Some combination of those words. It seemed like all of the faithy journals had some combination of those. We simplified to “a journal of witness.” It captured the essence of what we wanted, and I think we’ve stayed true to the original mission, though we probably define “faith” more broadly than Susan did.

What prompted them to turn it over to Whitworth University and when did that happen and were you there when it occurred?

We got it in 2009. It had gone on hiatus in 2008, looking for a stable funding source. It was totally independent, but Susan and the other original group couldn’t subsidize it any more. I came in on the second or third meeting. Our department was generally in favor of it, but they didn’t really know how to make it go. I was the faculty advisor for the school’s undergrad journal, and that fall, I had also pitched a class in editing and book design. So it at least looked like I knew what I was doing. I spent the next couple months convincing various administrators that it was good for the university. That’s an on-going battle.

How did you get involved in becoming the Editor-in-Chief, especially considering that you teach full time and run Sage Hill Press?

It wasn’t going to go if they couldn’t get an editor. None of the other faculty had any experience in running a magazine, and I didn’t either, but I’d done Willow Springs and North Dakota Quarterly during my grad programs, so I kind of convinced them I knew what I was doing. My experience with Sage Hill Press certainly helped. I knew some design, and enough of the marketing and business side to sound reasonably confident. It turned out there was plenty I didn’t know. Teaching the editing and design class really helped, since I could make the business/marketing end of things part of the curriculum and sort of teach myself as I went.

What knowledge did you bring from running a press to running a journal?

It helped to know how a book gets put together (how to pick economical paper and an efficient trim-size, etc.), the printing side of things, and knowing the indie publishing biz. I knew where to go to find things, and had contacts at other presses and journals I could go to for help.

Does the journal help you run the press in any manner? Do you learn things from it that makes your press more effective?

The great thing about a journal is how many authors you can publish at a time. I was used to working with one author at a time, usually for 6-12 months, refining the manuscript, and putting it all together. The journal gave me access to a bigger base of authors. So I’ve solicited some authors we worked with on the journal to submit a book for Sage Hill. It’s also given me a better understanding of marketing and distribution.

On the other hand, the journal takes up much of my non-teaching time, so the press hasn’t maintained the kind of production schedule I’d like.

One of my favorite things about Rock & Sling is the colophon. Not many journals do that. What prompted you to include colophon? And how often do you change the typeface?

TrajanFor me, I can’t really design a book until I know what the type will be. I’ll experiment with type for hours, sometimes days, until I find the right one. It has to fit the book, speak to the personality of the book, become a vessel for the text. But for books, it’s different, because the personality of the text is more unified. It all came from the same author. With the journal, the personality comes from the journal itself, as much as it does from the text. And the text varies wildly, so the type needs to be adaptive and versatile. It needs to speak in a variety of languages. Once I found the right one, and I knew it the minute I’d set any text in it, I wanted to know everything I could about it. The type was Perpetua, the designer Eric Gill. Eric Gill was an interesting dude, and designed a number of persistent types. The colophon itself probably goes back to a design class (which you were in) during my MFA days at Eastern Washington University. Christopher Howell taught that class, and talked at length about type, and the importance of choosing just the right one for books. Or maybe it’s just something I got obsessed about as a designer later. I had the standard palette, I think. Garamond, Palatino, Caslon. I started exploring. I also started to notice colophons, often in Copper Canyon books. It added a depth of meaning to the book. Not only did the writer put a lot of time and life and love into the creation of the manuscript, but the designer was also intentional about how the book was set, which was explained in the colophon. That fascinated me. And like any amateur, I imitated until I understood. For me, Perpetua is the personality of  the journal. It’s beautiful, versatile, and engaging. It creates its own kind of interest, but doesn’t overwhelm the text. The colophon was a way of conveying that, the debt we owed not only to the authors, but to the type designer.

I’m not sure the type will ever change for the body of the journal. I just love Perpetua. Everything I submit is set in it. Poems. All of my syllabi. Letters of recommendation. Many of my students now use it, and our poetry editor has adopted it as well. For our first four issues, the titles were set in Perpetua Titling, which is an all-caps type. I wasn’t wild about it, but it was consistent with the body. Before laying out 8.1 (our fifth issue), I lost the template from those first four issues on a crashed hard-drive. We reconsidered everything (save the body type), from trim size to title types, page-styles, titles, layout, etc. We’re actually going with a new title type, and a new master-page style (in the footer), as well as a different rule style. When you are in the rhythm of journal production, it seems impossible to consider changing things. I don’t know why that is. Probably because there is so much other stuff going on; it’s too overwhelming to consider a redesign of the whole thing. I also want a consistency in our shelf presentation. If people have several years of our journal on their shelves, I want it to look good. So after all of that reconsideration, we kept the same trim size and spine text. But I’ve changed some of the more extraneous elements. But it took months to arrive at the right balance. We’ve gone with a slab sans-serif title type, League Gothic (from the excellent League of Moveable Type), which works well with Perpetua, set in a half-tone black. I’m pretty happy with it. We’ve also messed with the master-page, the size of it, and what’s in it. For me, the design of the book, being the most consistent personality element given the ever-changing nature of the work we accept, has to be precise, so people know they are reading something good, even before they get to the content. 

Why isn’t there a colophon in the current issue?

It’s expensive to print on the inside of the cover. Also, for that issue, we had space. In coming issues, I’d like to move it to the interior, maybe as the last page of the journal.

What typeface is your favorite and what typeface do you think works best for text pages? for covers? and for online?

Perpetua. It’s just beautiful. The Roman and the italic. I use it for almost everything now. I also like Californian for text. Garamond is a classic, and very versatile. Caslon is elegant, but not suited for all purposes.

TrajanFor covers, I love Trajan, but it’s become very popular. I don’t think you can ruin Trajan through overexposure, but I haven’t used it much lately. It’s one thing if it’s the title type for The West Wing, another entirely if I’m seeing it in terrible flyers posted around campus or in elevators. Perpetua Titling is what we used for the first four issues, and it’s a big, wide-based, solid title type, but it feels a little heavy sometimes, heavy-handed. We used it for titles as well, and have moved away from it for both with the new issue. I used Perpetua lower-case this time around, though we kept the ampersand in Poor Richard. That creates some problems. In the same size as what’s around it, it’s too big, so every time I use it, I have to isolate it and manually change the size and kerning to get it spaced just right. I like doing that kind of stuff though, the kind of stuff only I really notice, like shrinking the kerning, or the font-size of blank spaces.

I’ve been playing around with some gothic sans serif type for covers. I like League Gothic, and Gear, and pretty much anything at Lost Type or the League of Moveable Type. The internet is such a great resource for designers now. You can find pretty much anything, between Dafont and the other warehouse sites, and most of it is free. Still, lots of stuff doesn’t always mean lots of good stuff, so I stick with what I know for the most part. Nothing too showy or flashy. I never want to overwhelm the actual text with the typography.

Online, I appreciate tall, slender sans serif type. I like Gill Sans, and though it’s maybe a little basic, Franklin Gothic is nice, too. And boring old Calibri is a very readable screen type, though I am not a fan of it in print.

Another thing I like about the journal is the covers. They are always so beautiful. Where do you find the artwork and who does the cover design?

I handle cover design, which I love doing, despite my limitations as a designer. I’ve never taken a class in design or anything, so I always feel like I’m missing out on some cool stuff I could be doing. But, I can place art on a page, and move text around, and so far that’s been working.

When we first got started, I couldn’t get any of our overworked art faculty to sign on as art editor. I said I’d do it in the interim, but as it turned out, I didn’t really know any artists. One of my colleagues in the English department, Fred Johnson, kept asking me if I knew such and such artist. After a few of these, I started making a list and checking them out. Turns out he was connected to a lot of artists through his time at Ball State, and they were all fantastic. So I just started emailing them. Some have been hesitant to commit to covers for an ostensibly faith-based journal. Some have said no, for that reason. After the Gala Bent and dan Baltzer covers (6.1 and 6.2), I thought I’d make it look like I was at least trying, so I started asking the artists themselves for recommendations. So dan led me to Jeffrey Youngblood for 7.1, and he recommended Emelie Anskog for 7.2. I’ve been pretty happy with the results.

For this particular issue (volume 7, issue 2), there’s a lot of risk in the design. The logo is right up against the edge of the cover. That’s risk because the exactness of trim is not perfect. Many publishers would have pulled the logo in a bit. And the same for the art work. A lot of risk is taken in putting the picture into the bleed and also in cutting off part of the picture, but I like how the art exceeds the cover? Did you feel you were taking risks when designing this cover? How did you feel about those risks? Do you often take those risks when developing covers? (I also ask because in a previous version of this cover, which is on Facebook, the logo was on the left with a safe distance from the spine and the volume/issue/year information was on the right and vertical and a safe distance from the edge of the cover.)

Rock & Sling 7.2 Final Cover

Rock & Sling Volume Seven Issue Two 2012 Final Cover

Rock & Sling 7.2 Draft

Rock & Sling Volume Seven Issue Two 2012 Draft Cover

I was so scared for 6.1, I did stuff fairly straightforward. I wanted it to look great, and not piss anyone off. After that one came out, a designer friend and I got to talking over beers, and he suggested I start messing with placement. He said, “Try turning the title text box vertical. Move it around.” I’d never thought of that, and I loved it, so tried it for 6.2. Our name isn’t even all the way on the front cover for that issue. I placed it so it’s half on the front and half on the spine. My theory is just to get out of the way of the art. I love the art. I want people to see the art.

So then I started moving the logo and other elements around. I really like the logo bleeding off the page a little, like who we are is incidental to the work we are publishing. It freaks our printers out. They always want me to move it in or up a ¼ inch. The only cover where we lost a bit of the content was 6.2. dan’s work has so much going on in it, and I cut an inch or so off one side to get it to fit vertically on the page. If I’m going to bleed it, I make sure that what is cut is still implied by what remains. And the artists have all been pretty happy (as far as I know) with their covers. I could shrink the art down to fit the cover, and frame it with a solid-color bar or something, but that’s just boring to me. The only reason I can see for that is to make sure people get a good look at the name of the journal. That’s much less important to me.

I think some journals might get a little used to themselves. I worked for North Dakota Quarterly, which has looked the same for forty years. Same size, same gothic type, same white cover and spine, same kind of cover image. That’s great, to have traditions like that, but one thing I love about journals is how responsive they can be, so I’ve been hesitant to make the issues look the same, at least on the outside. If I have to move our issue info to the back to feature the art more effectively, then that’s what I’ll do. If anyone is going to pick up the journal, it will be for the art, not for what issue number it is. So that stuff can go on the back if it needs to. Each issue has its own personality, which starts with the art. I like to think that we are conforming to what we get, rather than conforming or choosing material based on who we are.

As for the text page design. The title of the poem/story is all in caps, below that is a line that extends most of the width of the page, below that is the author’s name in gray, then there is some white space between the author’s name and poem or story. Also in the footers, the page number is black and Rock & Sling is gray. What overall effect do you think that creates?

Similar to my design aesthetic with art and the cover (get out of the way), I think the work is more important than the author. We went back and forth before the first issue. Some designs had the author info on top and bigger than the title info. I just didn’t like it. For me, the shape of the page is big title (“ooooh”), author, in a half-tone (“who’s that, oh, there’s the poem . . .”), and then to the work (“aaaah”). The author’s name is off set, and the title and text align with each other, so a straight line connects them. I wouldn’t mind moving the author’s name elsewhere, but I don’t think authors would like that (as an author, I wouldn’t like that).

With 8.1, I moved to a different type for the titles. Perpetua Titling is an all-caps type, and it just felt too big. So there is more distinction now between title and text, and I changed the rule from a heavy line of left-slashes to a lighter double thin line. The authors are in a small-caps Perpetua, and solid (the titles are half-tone now). We switched from an offset printer to a digital printer, and smaller half-tones (<10 pt) looked like crap (you can tell in 7.2). So the half-tone is on a larger slab sans serif type, and should print better. [For a good article about the difference between offset and digital printing, go here: http://www.printlocal.com/offset-digital-printing.htm.]

As for the footer elements, those are different now, too. I love the design of Versal, and they have massive page numbers in the footer, so I beefed up ours a little (18 pt League Gothic), and switched out “Rock & Sling” for just the Poor Richard ampersand. It looks maybe too contemporary, and probably will only last a few issues before I start to feel self-conscious about it.

CLMPI see you are member of CLMP. What does this do for the journal?

CLMP is a good resource for marketing and administrative information, plus it gets us on their lists and makes us look like a legitimate journal. It doesn’t cost much, and the resources are really useful, as are the list-servs. There’s lots of experience to draw from, which, given my lack of knowledge at the outset, was really important.

On the copyright page, it reads:

The editors of Rock & Sling believe that the act of writing and of reading literature is a way of witnessing to the truth of experience, drilling down to the core of language’s vitality, and accepting an understanding of artistic language as a kind of testimony. The word “Witness” means to testify: to tell the truth. The demands of the word are bracing in its charge to the writer to understand that his and her work matters not just as expressions of experiences and responses but as an active language engaged morally as well as aesthetically. To tell the truth is an act of responsibility as well as an expression of hope. To testify is an act of responsibility as well as an expression of faith.

Why do you have this theme? How is it different than, say, Image.

That definition was written by our poetry editor, Laurie Lamon, when we took over the journal. We use it as a framework for understanding our mission as a “Christian” journal. We publish a lot of work that isn’t overtly faith-based, at least in Christian terms. (I think specifically of your Paleolithic poems). But that work engages ideas of faith, or of something bigger than itself. Whatever you call it, that’s faith, which means it involves God, or god, or divinity.

As far as how we are different than a journal like Image, I’d say that on the surface, we really aren’t  We’re probably the AAA ball-club for Image, and that’s fine. But I think we are also perhaps more responsive to what Christian or faith-based literature could be or is headed toward. Image has a tradition. Every issue looks the same, and generally, every issue sounds the same. It’s a good sound, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to be publishing Pattianne Rogers, Gregory Orr, and B. H. Fairchild. They get great writers. But I think we are better able to take risks, because we don’t have much of a reputation at stake. And things are going on, especially in the evangelical church, that art will need to respond to, that won’t look or sound like traditional mainline Christian art. And that’s kind of where I want us to live.

With such a religious theme, what type of submissions do you receive and how do you decide what to publish?

Laurie and I agreed at the outset that our final consideration for taking a piece of any kind was “Does it demand to be published.” We get a lot of poems called “Psalm.” Lots of retellings or rehashings of familiar Bible stories. Poems or stories from Judas’ POV, or Lazarus’. Lots of annunciation poems. A lot of what you’d expect for a Christian journal. But the best pieces are those that are comfortable with ambiguity, those that acknowledge that doubt is a facet of faith, that in fact, one is meaningless without the other. That’s the central tension of most of the work we publish, I think, though it takes many forms. In that way, I don’t think we’re that different than any lit journal. Is it beautiful? Does it move me in some way? Beauty, even terrible beauty, is an expression of faith. I guess that seems apologetic of sorts. For me, beauty implies aesthetics, and aesthetics requires a big, pure, perfect Something. We call that God, but you don’t have to, and we like work that inhabits some space in between.

Part of my mission as the editor of a Christian literary journal is to show people what Christian lit can be. It isn’t all easy answers, Scripture, and parables. Lived faith is never easy, and the art that comes from it shouldn’t be either.

I’m an atheist with hope, and you’ve published me. Do you think you’ve published other atheists? Do you recognize a difference in poetry between atheists and those who believe in something other?

God, I hope we’ve published other atheists. I was an atheist when I took over the journal, or at least a hopeful agnostic. We don’t have a Shibboleth or anything. The work speaks for itself, and using your poems (or Jeff Dodd’s “Dear Russel Nakagawa” poems in 8.1) as an example, the work demonstrates a kind of faith, regardless of the writer’s beliefs. My favorite pieces we’ve published aren’t explicitly Christian. But as Jonathan Johnson always said, “You’re subconscious is smarter than you are.”

How do you generate submissions?

I have no idea. People knew us from before we took over, and we still get submissions from them, though we probably publish fewer of those folks now. So there is some previous name recognition. Mainly, I think it’s having a good-looking book and taking it to AWP. Our submissions always spike after AWP. We typically get 250-300 submissions a month. Ad swaps with other journals help, I think. We swap with folks like Sugar House Review and Weave Magazine, and some bigger journals, like Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, and Willow Springs. That gets our name out there. Probably half of our website hits come off of searches for “Christian literary journal.” So being a kind of niche helps. We get somewhat higher submissions from places where I know we are selling the journal in stores, or have it in libraries. But we get stuff from all over the world, which is awesome. I really wish I understood how people knew about us, or why they submit work. I hope it’s because the journal looks great, and the work is awesome, and people want to be a part of that.

What do you look for in a submission? That is, do you want a cover letter? What do you want in the cover letter? What’s a perfect submission for you, aside from quality poems and stories?

Ah, cover letters. I train my interns not to read them. I always read them. I like parsing the bullshit. I remember one author, when I was poetry editor at Willow Springs, with a full page of publishing credits. I had never heard of 10% of them. So I started looking them up. Maybe they were so local or small that they had no web presence or even Google hits. But most of them were made up. I kind of loved that. So I have a pretty cavalier attitude about cover letters. I’d rather a cover letter told me a good joke then tried to convince me that I should publish something because The Kenyon Review or Tin House published them. At the same time, I’ll probably read something a little closer if they’ve been published in The Kenyon Review or Tin House.

A perfect submission follows the guidelines (upload each poem separately, not as one doc with five pages), has a three-sentence cover letter (“You guys are awesome. Love the design. Hope you like these poems/this piece.”), and blows me away from the first sentence or line of the submission.

Are you pro or con Submittable.com? If you use it, what benefits does it have over email?

I admit to some nostalgia for the days of snail mail submissions, and writing comments on the envelopes, the arguments for various sizes of envelope. But I love Submittable. We got on board when we started up (after having met Michael FitzGerald at AWP), when they were still Submishmash and cheeky. It has built-in organization, which I lack entirely. It catalogs and archives efficiently, it tracks information I’d be too lazy to input, and it makes it easy to get work out to lots of readers, and to comment on that work. I’ve never used Submission Manager, but I don’t see any reason I would switch. And beyond that, it’s still free. That’s amazing, considering the service.

Do you take postal submissions? Why or why not?

No. I lose them, or forget to respond.

The journal has an Editor-in-Chief, which is you, and a poetry editor, prose editor, web editor, managing editor, assistant editor, and assistant prose editors. What do these roles do? How many are students, professors, and contractors?

The poetry editor is faculty. The nonfiction editor is staff, a senior editor in University Communications. (She has an MFA, and serves as the craft essay editor for Brevity, a terrific online creative nonfiction journal, probably the best there is.) Our prose editor is currently an alum, and three-year assistant, a terrific writer and editor. The managing editor is the English department program assistant (Annie Stillar, the daughter of my middle school shop teacher, and she is amazing. The journal wouldn’t happen without her), and she manages the budget, invoices, mailings, booking travel, and all of the many detail things that would kill me. The assistant editors are students who have been around a while, or who have taken my editing and design class. They manage their genre’s submissions, recommend stuff for editorial meetings or for rejection. I do that, too, to help clear out backlogs, but they handle a lot of it. The editorial assistants are all students. They read the work the assistant editors cull from Submittable. If it gets approved in the meeting, it goes up to the genre editors for final approval. I’m kind of in each of those steps, nudging. I’ve bypassed the readers on occasion, and passed stuff up that they didn’t like. It’s all a learning process for them. They are really sophisticated readers, but still not always paying enough attention.

How do you raise money?

Badly.

How many subscribers do you have? How many are people, libraries, swaps with other journals?

Around 100 subscribers. Another dozen libraries, and a half-dozen journal swaps.

What is your print run?

Now, it’s 400. We started at 1000, hoping to get picked up by Ingram (which demands 400 copies just for them). That hasn’t happened, alas. 1000 is enough to get onto an offset printer, and the quality is so much better. So that’s my aim, to get the subscriber base high enough to justify the expense. (Though it really is more cost effective on an offset printer, 2.05/copy vs. 3.25+/copy with a digital printer.)

What is the best form(s) of publicity? Do advertisements in other journals work?

The journal itself is our best publicity, followed by the authors. I try to design the book so that when people see it, they must pick it up. And I like it when our authors get excited about it, and start telling their friends about it. A great table at AWP doesn’t hurt.

Ads with other journals do work. I’ve seen it in cover letters. “I saw your ad in Redactions, and was intrigued …”. (I’ve really seen that.)

What’s the most enjoyable part of the journal for you?

I’m happy that I still get to do the design. If I had to choose between being the editor or being the designer, I’d probably pick designer.

Also, putting the journal together, once all the work is accepted. The interns have a big hand in that, and I just love watching them reason through an order. We place a big emphasis on the opening and closing sections, and they do a good job of helping see the entire arc of the issue.

Do you ever get lost in doing layout as you would when writing?

Absolutely.

How many times do you proofread the journal before sending it out?

Probably five times. After that, I have to stop. It could go on forever.

Do you proofread the proofs or do you just thumb through to make sure there are no glaring errors?

The latter. Widows and orphans, typos, and that’s it.

When you get the final product, do you look through it or are you too scared and already involved with this next issue?

The latter, again.

By the time the final copies arrive, are you bored with that issue already?

I wouldn’t say bored, but I’m already thinking about the shape of the next issue. But when it arrives, I’ve never sat down and read it. I know the work. I know it’s good.

What does your journal provide that other journals don’t or what do you do that other journals don’t?

I think one thing we do that not many other journals do is focusing so much on aesthetics. I want the entire experience of the journal to be beautiful, down to how it looks when we mail it out, where the shipping labels go. I can think of a number of journals who publish really great stuff, but just look like crap. Nobody has paid any attention to what the thing looks like, from the paper to the type to the margins. So I think we build a beautiful container.

I think our specifically faith-focused mission is also somewhat rare. There’s less than a dozen journals with our kind of mission. And of those, I think we are putting out some of the best work, and certainly the most aesthetically appealing journal. My goal with the journal is to reach a wider audience, to get into the hands of the “regular” lit journal audience. The work holds up. I want to teach people that Christian art, or art made by Christians and non-Christians doesn’t have to trite or cliché or boring.

The UPC is on the back cover. Typically, journals put that on the front cover. (I think it’s a law or something.) Why did you put it on the back cover? Why do you even have an UPC?

I put it on the back because it’s ugly, and mucks up the front. I’ve worked in bookstores, and it’s just as easy to scan a bar code on the front as it is on the back. We have the UPC to make it easier to sell to bookstores, which are reluctant to sell anything without a bar code of some sort. It helps them track inventory.

Do you have distribution? Who distributes for you? Where does the journal get sold?

We have distribution through Ubiquity, who specializes in selling journals to indie bookstores, which are more likely to carry a selection of literary journals. Ingram has turned us down twice for distribution, and I think that is largely a function of our longevity (they want to make sure we’ll be around for a while) and the decline of the big-box bookstore.

We’ve also started handling some of our own distribution, which is a bit labor and time intensive, but allows us to track copies more effectively. Ubiquity doesn’t provide any reporting on where the copies are going, which sucks. But I’ll get emails or texts from friends saying, “Hey, I saw the new issue at a store in Houston, looks great!” So I know they are out there. We also see occasional spikes in submissions and subscriptions from particular regions or towns, so I suspect that stores have copies thereabouts.

What part of working on the journal do you like least?

Budget stuff. At least once a year, I have to defend, usually in written form, the journal as a printed thing. “Why not just have it online? That’s free.” Administrators, trustees. People concerned with the bottom line, which I understand. My first response (which I have to restrain) is, “We cost under ten thousand dollars a year. How much to baseball uniforms cost? How much do these ridiculous university-emblazoned water bottles cost?” But there’s a significant value to the students who help staff the journal, and it’s hard for some folks to see past the economic argument, which isn’t even true.

Do you pay authors? What do you pay them?

Two copies. Someday, I’d like to pay money, but that will take some doing. If we can get some big donations and establish an endowment . . .

Do you think it is unethical to not pay authors in money or contributor copies?

Yes. All journals should at least be able to afford to pay in copies. The work is valuable; it’s what makes the journal what it is. Copies are at least a nod in that direction.

Thank you so much.

//

For the downloadable Rock & Sling Tip Sheet I made for the presentation, click Rock & Sling Tip Sheet.

28
Jan
13

Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics ) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.

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Christian Wiman's – Ambition and SurvivalChristian Wiman’s voice is strong & powerful in Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press), and if I were younger, before I knew who I was, before I knew my writing ways & its limits & its strengths, this book would have influenced my writing, as much as Ezra Pound’s essays did. Instead, Wiman is just influencing my thinking.

An early challenge of this book, a challenge that is discussed throughout the book in various ways, is a response to form. Wiman notes the argument of the critics that since:

our experience of the world is chaotic and fragmented, and because we’ve lost our faith not only in those abstractions by means of which men and women of the past ordered their lives but also in language itself, it would be naive to think that we could have such order in our art. (p 94-5)

Wiman responds to this argument:

What I am interested in, and what I want to focus on here, is a kind of closure that compromises itself, a poetry whose order is contested, even undermined, by its consciousness of the disorder that it at once repels and recognizes. (p 95)

And what underlies Wiman’s response are two thoughts. One, Wiman wants us to confront our conventions & forms. From that I extrapolate, we are the new generation, and this is our obligation. Wiman is shouting for my generation.

The second thought and what underlies much the book is the conflict that many poets/artists have – the separation of art and life. Should there be a split? Wiman thinks not. He wants more life in poetry. More experience in poetry. But he doesn’t want a life that is lived for an experience to put into poetry. He realizes that we live in a universe of a large-order through which we flounder in our own chaos and there is an inability to express that perfectly. So, is the poem “more authentic if rough and unfinished,” as critics would suggest? It’s a theme that keeps me thinking throughout the book.

Another theme is silence – the silence between the finished poem & the beginning of writing the next poem, and how the poet handles that silence. Wiman is quick to realize that all of us poets don’t write a poem a day (& I wonder how many of us younger poets actually do write a poem a day). For those who don’t write every day, there is much silence to fill. Wiman tells us why some poets drink – drinking fills the horrible silence (or perhaps quiets the screaming anxieties of not writing, either way there is silence that needs to be dealt with). Wiman, however, suggests writing prose, which is not the same as writing poetry, but it does rid the silence and the prose will have lots of attachments to the poet’s poetry. This theme of silence is explored with more intimacy and details throughout the book, though not directly.

Now, I want to talk about that Poundian voice I mentioned earlier. It comes through loud and clear in “Fourteen Fragments in Lieu of a Review.” Here’s the opening fragment from what was supposed to be a review of an anthology of sonnets.

There isn’t much literature there couldn’t well be less of. A four-hundred-page anthology of sonnets? It takes a real aberration of will to read straight through such a thing. Another man might win an egg eating contest, with similar feelings, I would imagine, of mild shock, equivocal accomplishment  obliterated taste.

Before I get further into the Pound voice, I need to side track for a moment. Anyone who wants to learn about sonnets, what sonnets should do, how they should behave, and how they work in larger view than iambic pentameter, voltas, etc., needs to read this essay. It’s a damn fine discussion that won’t be heard in the classroom, and he presents arguments/ideas, again, that make me think. New arguments and ideas. Now, returning to the Pound voice. Yes, Wiman is like my generation’s Pound. Both worked for Poetry magazine. Pound as Poetry’s foreign correspondent and Wiman as Poetry’s editor. Both are smart & influential. However, Wiman doesn’t come across as authoritative as Pound, in tone that is. Wiman is authoritative, but his authority comes across different. His tone is like what Pascal says and that Wiman quotes, though not in reference to himself. “One must have deeper motives and judge everything accordingly, but go on talking like an ordinary person.” This is what I like about Wiman. He talks smart, but he also talks ordinary. Yeah, I could have drink in a bar with this guy and have a good time chatting, whether it be about poetry or something else.

There’s much more to be said about this book, but not the room to do it. So now I must end this celebratory review, and I have three ways to end it, but I don’t know which way to choose, so here are my three endings.

One. I’ll leave you with these three out-of-context quotes that underscore the themes of Ambition and Survival.

[A] poem that is not in some inexplicable way beyond the will of the poet, is not a poem. (p 123)

There are varying depths of this internalization, though varying degrees to which a poet will inhabit, bridge, endure, ignore, enact (the verb will vary depending on the poet) the separation between experience and form, process and product, life and art, and one can see a sort of rift in literary history between what I’ll call, for simplicity’s sake, poets of observation and poets of culmination. (p 134).

I’m increasingly convinced that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the poem and the the poet’s capacity for suffering. (p 136)

Two. Ambition and Survival is really a search for this: how “[m]ore and more I want an art that is tied to life more directly” (p 23).

Three. I recommend Ambition and Survival to two types of people. One, those who write poetry. Two, those who write poetry & who are two to three years out of college & who now have to create their own writing energies in the absence of the energies a college created and radiated out, & who, in the absence of energy, are starting to question the significance of poetry in their life or the need to write it.//

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Wiman, Christian. Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.//

08
Jan
13

W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New & Selected Poems (2005)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.

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W. S. Merwin's – MigrationAt last, I have found it. I have found the one book that I want with me on the deserted island where I am stranded forever — W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press). Migration, singular, because, as Merwin wrote on postcard to me, “each of us is alone.”

But why this book for the deserted island? Because, in part, this selection of poems has substance. In fact, the selections are such that a reader can actually get a genuine, though not complete, feel of each book from which the poems were pulled. You can almost sense Merwin in his entirety. For me, I can, for my life time on the deserted island, be enamored by the poems giving something that is present, but that may not actually be there, or by the noting of the presence of an absence. I can feel the breathless continuation of intimate detail, not unlike book two of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Merwin also translated.

I can read & re-read “The Mountain,” which is what I want to talk about here. This is my favorite poem that has not failed to stimulate me in my numerous readings & listenings to it. (And if you are lucky enough to find W. S. Merwin: Reading a Selection of His Poetry (a CD from Copper Canyon Press), get it. You will hear more clearly & crisply the pauses, the tonal shifts, and the syntax of Merwin’s mind.)

And it is in “The Mountain,” a poem from very early in Merwin’s career, where I can hear Merwin begin to develop. It is from this poem where I can find a base for Merwin’s perceptions & thinkings – that is, either we can perceive a part of something from close proximity, or we can perceive the whole but only from a distance too far away, where we cannot see it. Consider these lines from “The Mountain”:

                  It is believed that if one could see it 
   Whole, its shape might make this clearer, but that 
   Is impossible, for at the distance at which in theory 
   One could see it all, it would be out of sight.

And notice the interjection – “at which in theory / One could see it all” – delays the completion of the thought, but not without regard to the thought, for here the momentum slows, the tone lowers, & Merwin produces another moment, where none could be anticipated, a momentary stay against confusion within the momentary stay. And he gives us the possibility of seeing the Mountain in its fullness but only to realize that one could not see the mountain, for it would lose its “slope,” its dignity from the point at which one could see it all.

And then consider this line from later in “The Mountain,” “Shadows are not without substance.” Can you hear what poem that is calling up? Merwin’s “The Last One” (among others, I suppose). Can you hear how it presents the thing without matter & gives it matter — a substantiality? And its from here I can make a leap into the understanding of a maturer Merwin, who does not use punctuation. He has said he does not use punctuation because “the mind does not think in punctuation.” For Merwin, it seems, the poem is never more than an extension of syntax. But the syntax is there, despite its absence – you can hear it, you breathe it. By not using punctuation, by the use of caesuras & line breaks, he creates a punctuation we readily understand. I think, for Merwin, that punctuation puts an anchor on the imagination. (I know it does for me.) The punctuation limits the presentation of the whole, limits the imagination in intimate connection. The punctuation creates a relationship that is either too close or too far; without the punctuation, the imagination can wrap around what it perceives — at least more fully. It can bend language into perception instead of compromising perception for language. But consider these punctuated lines from “The Mountain.”

   Only on the rarest of occasions, when the blue air, 
   Though clear, is not too blinding (as, say 
   For a particular moment just at dusk in autumn) 
   Or if the clouds should part suddenly 
   Between freshets in spring, can one trace the rising 
   Slopes high enough to call them contours; and even 
   More rarely see above the tree line. Then 
   It is with almost a shock that one recognizes 
   What supposedly one had known always: 
   That it is, in fact, a mountain, not merely 
   This restrictive sense of nothing level, of never 
   Being able to go anywhere 
   But up or down, until is seems probable 
   Sometimes that the slope, to be so elusive 
   And yet so inescapable, must be nothing 
   But ourselves; that we have grown with one 
   Foot shorter than the other, and would deform 
   The levelest habitat to our misshapen 
   Condition.

Read “punctuation” or “standard-English syntax” in place of “clouds”, then perhaps you will see what I am suggesting above. Now consider:

                        Of course to each of us 
   Privately, its chief difference from its peers 
   Rests not even in its centrality, but its 
   Strangeness composed of our own intimacy 
   With a part of it, our necessary 
   Ignorance of its limits, and diurnal pretense 
   That what we see of it is all.

(Notice that beautiful pause between “its” & “Strangeness”.) I think it is in this poem that Merwin begins to break through, & is telling himself on some level that he can’t see it all unless he cleanses his lens of perception from standard-English syntax. But Merwin can see it all (or at least more than us) – he can be intimate, & you can be intimate with Merwin in your alone reading of Migration: New & Selected Poems – an experience of meeting Merwin when he is not there, even though he is. //

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Merwin, W. S. Migration: New & Selected Poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.//

06
Jan
13

Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (2005)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.

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Gregory Orr's – Concerning the BookThis book should be on every poet’s bedside like a bible. It’s a bible of poetry. It’s a bible of what poetry is, what love is, & how to live. And it’s beautiful. And it’s tones are so caring & sincere & helping – filled with care & love. And the poems are short, mostly a page long, for each poem is a burst of understanding & vision, but they move slow when I read them, but seem to have only taken a brief moment to have read when I’ve finished, & then a dizziness arrives wondering if I just read one poem or two or three poems. The poems obliterate time, & sing humanity & love. The book is a bible for poets because it reminds us of what poetry is & does, & shows us that there is no separation between persons, love, & poetry, for they are all in unison, all one – hence the title of Gregory Orr’s book Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press).

But instead of talking about the content, I’m going to talk about how Concerning makes the content work. The tone of the poems arrives early: from early lines in Concerning’s prefatory poem — “Resurrection of the body of the beloved, / Which is the world. / […] / That death not be oblivion.”; from lines in the opening poem —

   The beloved is dead. Limbs 
   And all the body’s 
   Miraculous parts 
   Scattered [...] 

   We must find them, gather 
   Them together, bring them 
   Into a single place [...] 

                           a book 
   Which is the body of the beloved, 
   Which is the world.

And in the third stanza from the following poem on page 10:

   The shape of the Book 
   Is the door to the grave, 
   Is the shape of the stone 
   Closed over us, so that 
   We may know terror 
   Is what we pass through 
   To reach hope, and courage 
   Is our necessary companion.

And a few more lines in the next poem beginning “When I open the Book” (p 11) & lines from the poem “Sadness is there, too” (p 13).

(Note: these poems do not have titles.) And the tones of sadness with hope are carried in waves throughout Concerning & ride the other tonal waves – harmonic tonalities, but I’ll get to that later.

So we’ve got our tonal bases, now. What else is in the poet’s bible for us poets to learn or be reminded of? We are reminded from where poems arise. We know they arise from our experiences, but when we write we call up other poems, or rather, what other poems do. (All poems talk to each other.) Consider these lines from this poem:

   When Sappho wrote: 
   “Whatever one loves most 
   Is beautiful,” [...] 

   Everything in the Book 
   Flows from that single poem 
   Or the countless others 
   That say the same thing 
   In other words, other ways. 
                                              (p 25)

A bit later in Concerning, in the poem starting “To feel, to feel, to feel,” consider the lines:

   Poem after poem, song 
   Upon song. And all 
   With the same chorus: 
   “Wake up, you’re alive.” 
                                        (p 45)

Isn’t this what all poems do? Don’t they all sing & confirm love, beauty, & life — humanity? Or better put:

   Which is to say: 
   Composing poems 
   And melodious songs 
   That celebrate the world. 
                                          (p 190)

We can continue with this thinking of what every poem does. Robert Bly said something like, “Every poem is an anti-war poem.” And in Ernesto Cardenal’s Cosmic Canticle, after about 100 pages of the beauty of the universe & its creation & its growth, Cardenal steps in to remind us that it is the responsibility of the Latin-American poet to write political poems, & then he does. Concerning realizes Bly & Cardenal. And there are a few political poems, but I just want to note one for what it does – it turns a war poem into a love poem.

   July sun on the green leaves 
   Of that chestnut tree, 
   Intense as when ancient armies 
   Beat their swords on their shields. 

   The beloved marches toward us, 
   Cannot be resisted. 
   Throw down our weapons 
   And beg for mercy. 
   This much love defeats us. 
                                             (p 105)

But there is more because what is said is being done with the harmony of the long E. The first stanza has 6 long Es, & all the lines in the stanza rhyme the long E. Also note that the first two lines create a setting of beauty with long-E words “green,” “leaves,” & “tree.” But it’s not beauty; it’s oppressive heat. So the poem provides a harmonic contrast in the next two lines of violence & war with “armies,” “beat,” & “shields.” Then the long E is dropped, like the weapons, until the last two lines with “mercy” & “defeat,” which harmonize but do not rhyme for the violence is defeated with love & mercy.

There is also a larger harmony in Concerning, reminiscent of Pound’s harmonic tonalities in The Cantos. Concerning’s large harmony rests in the B-words of “book,” “body,” & “beloved,” as they are repeated frequently throughout. But there’s more, & I’ll show it this way. Robert Duncan claimed in each poem there is one syllable that is more stressed than any other syllable in the poem. We can agree or not with Duncan, but the idea applies to Concerning because the words that resonate most in the book are the words that make the important theme in Concerning, which is the connection of book-body-beloved, so these words that receive the most stress throughout. I’ll illustrate with the poem beginning “In the spring swamp.”

   In the spring swamp 
   The red-winged blackbird 
   Perched on a cattail stalk: 
   Have you heard its song? 
   If you have, no need of heaven. 
   No need of divine resurrection. 

   It’s one of those birdsongs 
   That hold a spot in the Book, 
   Saving that space until 
   A human song comes along 
   Worthy to replace 
   All that wordless love. 
                                     (p 99)

You can hear how “Book” receives more stress than the other syllables. So one might think, “But this undermines the poem’s important message of love.” But the poem resolves this conflicted interest between the major theme of Concerning & the major theme of love in the poem. The poem does it like this. You can hear in this poem many stressed syllables, which are often next to each other for two syllables, like “spring swamp,” or three stressed syllables, like “cattail stalk” or “those birdsongs,” or even for four stressed syllables, like “red-winged blackbird.” All those heavily grouped syllables coupled with the rhythm push into the last line’s “All” & give it more stress than it might normally have & it definitely increases its duration, which will then be balanced by “love,” which has more accent because of rhythm & because of the long duration of the “v”. Plus, being at the end of the line, “love” reverberates off into eternity, or heaven – or so it feels. And by adding eternal duration & more stress to “love” (that clichéd word, in that clichéd position as the poem’s last word), the poem overcomes, & love overcomes the clichés & gains impact & profundity, & it resonates. And thus it emphasizes the theme without detracting from the “Book.” But I have a little more to say. This poem also does what it says. The poem’s rhythms & stresses have filled “love” with meaning, & thus, usurped its clichédness. And the usurping is like the human song replacing “All that wordless love.”

But wait, you’re saying, of course, “love” at the end of a poem is going to resonate with the V-sound. But consider this poem:

   Saying the word 
   Is seizing the world. 
   Not by the scruff, 
   Not roughly, 
   But still fervent, 
   Still the fierce hug of love. 
                                            (p 115)

In this poem, the short-U sounds in “scruff,” “roughly,” “hug,” & “love” usurp the clichéd meaning “love” like the stresses in the poem just mentioned. But here love is pronounced different. It is cut off short because the emphasis is on the short-U sound – it steals the resonance of the V-sound, pulls it back. And again the poem is doing what it says. The speaker seizes love – hugs, holds love in place – & keeps it from drifting away, just like the sound of “love” doesn’t drift off at the poem’s end. A better way of saying all this is:

   The heart uttering its hurt 
   And its happiness: syllables 
   Whose rhythm captures 
   The pulse of sorrow or joy, 
   The slow ache or throb of it. 
                                              (p 23)

Yes, the poems in Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved are “melodious songs / That celebrate the world.” At the same time, this book is really one long poem, & we learn to breathe, or gasp, at the end of each poem making up the whole big poem. The gasping is the book’s rhythm, it stresses the joy of each poem,

   And when joy 
   Arrives – hard 
   To read at all. 
   Blinking at Page-dazzle; 
   The words Breaking apart 
   Into letters, 
   Dancing there, 
   Unable to calm down. 
                          (p 73)

And I have been unable to calm down.//

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Orr, Gregory. Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.//

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You can read my other review here: Amazon Review. (Look for “Thomas Holmes ‘Redactions’.”)//

07
Jul
12

On Michael McGriff’s Home Burial

A version (and a better edited version) of this review may appear in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 16, due out in early 2013.

Michael McGriff Home BurialWhen I read the epigraph to Michael McGriff’s Home Burial (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), “. . .  here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaw . . . – Jason Molina,” I knew I was about to enter something I would enjoy. After the first four poems, my neck hurt because I had been jabbed so many times by the rich images. Each time I read an image, my head snapped back in awe and a quiet “wow” escaped my lips. After reading the fourth poem “Catfish,” I had to stop and reflect. This isn’t a book that you can read from beginning to end and then reread. No, this book is a book you have to read a little, stop, recover and reflect, and then go back in for some more rope-a-dope poems.

For instance, in the second stanza of “Catfish,” the speaker describes the river in his youth and at all times:

     The dare growing up:
     to swim down with pliers
     for the license plates,
     corpse bones, a little chrome . . .
     But even on the clearest days,
     even when the river runs low and clean,
     you can’t see it,
     though you can often nearly see
     the movement of hair.

After I read that, I felt like I was in the corner of an imagistic boxing ring and was about to receive a bunch of body-blow images. And then near the poem’s end came the blow that set up the knock-out punch. At this point in the poem, the speaker describes how the car may have ended up at the bottom of the river after an accident. In the description, the speaker compares the driver’s pocket watch to “the obvious moon / that bobs near the lip of the eddy.” Then the speaker describes the magic of the pocket watch:

     Wind the hands in one direction
     and see into the exact moment of your death.

     Wind them the other way
     and see all the tiny ways
     you’ve already died –

Oh, that was a body blow that lifted me off the canvas, and I was going to go down into two more short stanzas. After that, the bell rang because I put the book down to recover and reflect. When I picked it up again, I was sitting on a stool with the tone of the poems massaging my arms like a cutman limbering me up for the next round of poems. When I returned, I was again overwhelmed with more neck-snapping images. Soon I was again sitting in the corner, and the cutman was cutting open my eyes that were swollen with images of living and dying:

     It’s finally late enough
     that all sounds
     are the sounds of water

     If you die tonight
     I’ll wash your feet

     I’ll remove the batteries
     from the clocks

     And the two moths
     that drown in the lakes
     of your eyes
     will manage the rest.

                         (“Invocation,” ll 64-74)

I’m sure I’ve carried this boxing metaphor too far. It might, in fact, make this collection of poems seem violent or aggressive, when it’s not. It’s quite the opposite. Think of the caring, slow, and perceptive tones of Merwin, and you’ll be part way there. For how the book moves, think of the concluding stanza from “The Residence of the Night”:

     The tractor, of course,
     is filled with it.
     It won’t start
     until you summon
     the lampblack
     in the river of your blood,
     where the sturgeon
     are decimal points
     moving upstream
     zero by zero.

Think of the translations of some dead Spanish-writing poet who wasn’t afraid to use “soul” or “love” and you’ll get closer. (These poems often do feel like they are brilliant translations of non-English poems. Other than the language, they don’t feel American to me.) Think of someone who has died and been reborn writing poems about living and dying, and you’ll be almost all the way there. Think of McGriff as being:

     reborn as a bird
     who claws its way
     from the throat
     of a man

                         (“Against My Will,” l 2-5)

You’ll be so close. Think of reading Michael McGriff’s Home Burial to fill all the empty spaces of doubt and fear of death in you, and then you’ll be all the way there . . . and whole.

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NB
I just read McGriff’s bio in the back of the book. “His books include Dismantling the Hills; To Build My Shadow a Fire: The Poetry and Translations of David Wevill; and co-translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. [. . .] He is the founding editor of Tavern Books, a publishing house devoted to poetry in translation and the reviving of out-of-print books.” No wonder his poems feel translated and feel to transcend language into something more, something cross-cultural, something human.

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NBB

I just remembered recently reading McGriff’s co-translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. I didn’t realize they were the same person until I looked up the book, which was good, too. So now you have two books to read. //

04
May
12

On Marjorie Perloff’s “Reinventing the Lyric”

Marjorie PerloffWhenever I see a new essay from Marjorie Perloff, I get so excited. I think the younger kids call this excitement getting “geeked out.” I geek out to Perloff.

I thoroughly enjoy Perloff’s observations on poetry. She’s so astute that I wonder if she’s a poet. I’ve never seen her poetry, but perhaps I haven’t looked in the right places. Her book The Dance of the Intellect was one of those great books of criticism that significantly affected me. It’s brilliant. Another book that significantly impacted me was a book of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s essays on poetry that I used to read a lot as an undergrad. I felt like stealing if from the SUNY Oneonta Milne Library since it became so important to me and since no one else had ever checked it out since the 1970s. I felt I could ethically and morally appropriate it from the library. Who would know? And who would give the book more love than me? Other important books of criticism to me are Ezra Pound’s The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (which I own), Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (which I own), and Roy Harvey Pearce’s The Continuity of American Poetry (which I own), especially the stuff about T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Those books are huge in my literary growth, and Perloff’s books (which I own) are a big deal in my life. (And now it probably sounds like I’m going to undermine or attack her, but I’m not. If you’re expecting an attack, it won’t happen.)

Her newest essay, “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” appears in the Boston Review. In this essay (which you should read else this essay might feel wobbly to you), it’s like Perloff is a curator or tour guide in The Contemporary American Museum (Lyric Branch). In this branch of the museum, she walks around and points out things and comments on them. She starts by pointing to the general gist of today’s poetry:

The poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain . . . .

The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American PoetryThat seems about right to me. Perloff then moves into Rita Dove‘s new anthology from Penguin Books: Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Now, we can all quibble with any anthology of poetry, as Jonas Mekas did: http://jonasmekasfilms.com/diary/?p=1447#. (You really should watch this. It’s delightful.) But in this case, Perloff makes valid and legitimate points:

[. . .] but what about the copyright issue Dove raises at the close of her introduction? Evidently, she wanted to include Allen Ginsberg (Howl gets a prominent mention) and Sylvia Plath, but the reproduction costs were prohibitive. [. . .] Clearly concerned about the omission of these important poets, Dove asks her readers to “cut me some slack” and reminds us that Ginsberg and Plath are readily available “in your local public library.”

[. . .]

But if the anthology is to have any sort of validity as a textbook or a selection for the general reader, this copyright caveat is unacceptable, and the fault is primarily the publisher’s. How could a leading publisher such as Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a book’s purpose? [. . .]

Indeed, what Penguin’s editorial team seems to be saying is that the value of Dove’s anthology’s depends [. . .] on the prestige of its editor.

That’s true, and it makes me feel really sad for Dove. She probably entered this whole arrangement with the idea that she would put together a significant anthology of poetry. She was going to be the poet, not critic, who was going to frame a whole century’s worth of poetry for later generations to read. This was going to be huge and important to her and us. But she was manipulated by the big bad publisher of profits. I mean, if the publisher was really concerned with creating an anthology, those little costs wouldn’t matter. Those costs can be recouped. But Penguin was going on the cheap and quick. And as a result, Dove’s reputation suffers and Penguin’s profits go up. (Bah. I don’t even like Penguin anyway. I don’t even like the cheap paper they use and the layout of their books is hasty and difficult on the eye. This anthology should have been left to a place like Copper Canyon, Graywolf, BOA, or someone with the love of poetry in them instead of profits. But I digress. I want to get some important items.)

What is the state of the lyric? I think it has almost vanished from the poetry scene, which is why there was the “What Happened to the Lyric” issue 12 of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, which quickly sold out but I’ve made it available online here: http://issuu.com/thelinebreak/docs/redactions_issue_12. First, however, I think we need a definition of lyric poetry. A lot of people think a lyric poem is poem that is musical or sounds good. That is partially right, but it’s not a full definition. All poetry should be musical or sound good, which is something Perloff notes is often missing in today’s poetry. But a lyric poem is more. Before I get to my definition of it, let’s get to the definition of narrative poem and then the definitions of the three other types of poetry. A narrative poem is a poem that moves through time, and it usually moves in a linear, causal fashion. It progresses through time much like a typical story. A lyric poem, however, stands outside of time or is a moment in time. Meditative poetry is similar to lyric poetry, but the poem is inside the poet’s mind and can often be philosophical. And then there’s dramatic poetry, which is like a poetry play or play written as poetry, such as William Butler Yeats’ “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” or Robert Frost’s “The Witch of Coös.” With that in mind, what’s the most prevalent type of poetry in contemporary American poetry? That’s right – narrative poetry. When Perloff says, “the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation – triggering memory – insight) ubiquitous in the Dove anthology” (and elsewhere), I think she means “narrative” instead of “lyric.” If that’s the case, I completely agree with her, especially if she adds “first-person” before narrative. I’ve been noticing this for years. The implication of this is that we need something new. But what is the new thing we need?

Mary Ruelfe poem from _A Little White Shadow_ (Wave Books, 2006)One of Perloff’s suggestions is Erasure poetry. In Erasure poetry, you take a big chunk of text, such as a novel or long poem, and then begin erasing words from the text or using Wite Out to paint over words. The words that remain then make for a poem. But you can’t just use any text, as some poets do. No, you need a significant text, and then by erasing words, you find something like a secret meaning to the poem or text your are erasing from or “discover something like poetry hidden within [a] book.” John Cage did this with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but he added a twist. With the unerased words, he made an anagram: ALLEN GINSBERG. (See Perloff’s essay for the example.) As a result:

Without deploying a single word of his own, Cage subtly turns the language of Howl against itself so as to make a plea for restraint and quietude as alternatives to the violence at the heart of Ginsberg’s poem.

So the text you choose is important. Cage’s poem won’t make much sense or will lose most of its experience and meaning if you don’t know he is erasing from Howl. The same will hold true for Srikanth Reddy’s book Voyager, which is an erasure poem from Kurt Waldheim’s In the Eye of the StormVoyager, according to Perloff, is “one of the few really notable political poems of recent years.” However, its politics can only exist if you know the primary text or the author of the primary text. Who is Kurt Waldheim? If you know, awesome! I didn’t, so boo. Even Perloff had to point out who he was. Waldheim was:

Secretary-general of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981 and president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, Waldheim was exposed, in the mid-’80s, as having served in the Nazi Wehrmacht during World War II and quite possibly having committed major war crimes. The president, who had carefully covered his tracks for years, continued to claim he was innocent, and many of his fellow Austrians defended him, even when the evidence became overwhelming. His political and diplomatic success – he was allowed to finish out his term as president – has become a symbol for the hypocrisy and mendacity of the postwar era in an Austria that had strongly supported Hitler in the war years, before it received occupied-nation status in 1945. Avoiding the fate of its Iron Curtain neighbors Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Austria quickly became a prosperous nation.

If you don’t know this information, you lose out on the majority of the meanings and experiences of the poem or poems. This will be the effect of an Erasure poem. The text the poet erases from matters, but if the reader doesn’t know the text, then the resulting poem will fail. And knowing the original text really isn’t enough either. One will have to have read the original text “to get the poem” that arrived from erasing. Erasure poetry, then becomes not only elliptical but exclusive, just like it’s actions in making the poem. It excludes certain words to create a meaning, and it excludes readers not familiar with the original text. (This also assumes that you wouldn’t just erase from some random book or chunk of text, because then what would be the point? You might as well randomly pick words from a dictionary. The text that is being erased from matters.)

Additionally, Erasure poetry has the same feel as an acrostic poem that our Puritan ancestors wrote.

“The Puritan elegist might well believe that in a man’s name God had inserted evidence of his nature and his fate” (Pearce, 31).

As fun as an acrostic is to write, we know the above Purtian elegist’s belief is not true. The secret evidence of a person’s nature or fate can’t be extracted from the person’s name even if laid out as an acrostic. And as fun as it is to create an Erasure poem, as much fun as refrigerator poetry, this is no way to find a new meaning in a text or in an author. It’s just play. And there’s nothing wrong with play. And poetry should be play, but it should be a play that resonates. Play that resonates and impacts. Erasure poetry doesn’t resonate or impact, unless the reader is “in the know” of the primary text, and even then how much can it resonate or impact? So I don’t think this is the new direction lyric poetry should take.

But it’s this other idea of borrowing or appropriation that is intriguing. This is when the poet, such as Susan Howe in That This, “combines cited material with her own prose and verse.” (I think Cid Corman was the first, or one of the first, to do this.) I assume that somewhere in Howe’s book there is a “Works Cited” page that indicates where each cited text came from. If not, then she’s appropriating, which has ethical dilemmas . . . but maybe not. (That Swinburne book should be mine!) But for now let’s assume all the works Howe borrows from are cited. This borrowing of other texts seems like a terrific idea to me. I mean, who isn’t just an amalgam of every person they’ve met, every book they’ve read, every song they’ve heard, every movie or concert or play or football game they’ve seen, etc. For instance, I once read so much Emerson with so much intensity that I can no longer separate him from me. I often don’t know if the thoughts I have are mine or if they were originally his. We have become one. So why not use fragments from other texts we have read to help us better express what needs to be expressed? Especially if it follows the associative path of how the poet thinks, as did Howe when reflecting on her husband’s passing when she cites Sarah Edwards (Jonathan Edwards wife):

“O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” On April 3, 1758, Sarah Edwards wrote this in a letter to her daughter Esther Edwards Burr when she heard of Jonathan’s sudden death in Princeton. For Sarah all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion. I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.

What’s wrong with including this if it gets the poet closer to how he or she feels? The mind flows in its own thoughts and is invaded by the thoughts of others and others’ experiences. And if you are believer in Philip Whalen’s “Poetry is a graph of the mind moving,” as I am, then this borrowing seems an appropriate fit, a natural form of expression. Or does it? I’ll get back to this.

What if Howe didn’t cite where the borrowed text came from, which often seems to be the case, though not necessarily with Howe? I’m thinking of Flarf poetry and poets here, at least as I understand Flarf poetry. In this case, the poet appropriates the text and makes it his or hers. Those poets appropriate much in the manner that I wanted to appropriate that Swinburne book from SUNY Oneonta’s Milne Library. That book meant a lot to me, and it didn’t seem relevant to anyone else, at least since the 70s. So why shouldn’t I have it? It’s part of me. I should just steal it. Aha. “Appropriate” is just camouflage for “steal.” And it’s not good stealing like the stealing T. S. Eliot meant. It’s theft of words that aren’t yours, even if they appropriately express what you feel or want to say. But then, if it appropriately expresses what you feel and want to say, then are our your thoughts and feelings original? Original enough for a poem? A new poem? A new lyric poem?

This ties back to Howe borrowing from Sarah Edwards. Is Howe really expressing her grief by borrowing another person’s words? Isn’t the job of a poet to get closer to their own bone of experience? Or is Howe using other text as a trigger and much in the same manner that Perloff and I are bored of: “the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation—triggering memory—insight).” Howe’s observation is the painful passing of her husband, which triggers a memory of Sarah Edward’s words, which then leads to insight. Now, this doesn’t seem so bad does it? Especially if it helps the poet deal with and express his or her grief, which is really the important thing, at least and especially for Howe. The only difference with Howe’s presentation is the memory is of text instead of a physical experience.

So where are we now? What are the differences? What newness has the lyric poem experienced? How is using your own past experiences to lead to an insight better/different/less effective than borrowing from a text? How is bricolage different from the tapestry of your experiences? I don’t see the differences or how one method is more successful than the other.

Still it would be nice to find a new lyrical pattern to weave to help us get closer to the bone of experience we want to express. But I wonder what that pattern is. I’ve been searching now for at least five years. If anyone knows, please share.

Perloff, I’m so glad you wrote this essay. I hope these reinvention attempts continue. I hope every poet also continues to reinvent. Let’s make it new. Let’s get closer to the bone of experience.

//

Works Cited

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poety. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1987.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric.” Boston Review. Boston Review, May/June 2012. Web. 3 May 2012. <http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.3/marjorie_perloff_poetry_lyric_reinvention.php>.

//




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