Posts Tagged ‘writing

26
Apr
17

On How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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How Dare We Write

Use coupon code REDACTIONS and save 30%.

Like most of America, the higher up you go in Academia the whiter it gets. With that comes the white privilege of criticism and writing, whether intentional or not. The vast majority of writing anthologies and handbooks are written by white authors, which reemphasizes certain styles, modes, and approaches. Editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse (Modern History Press, forthcoming May 2017) is a new creative writing anthology by writers of color. Through what are essentially literacy narrative essays, the writers share how they struggled to write in an environment where they “are to listen, be silent, and be awed by the ‘right way’ to tell a story as defined by those in the ruling class going back to Aristotle” (Stark 51). These writers are doing what writers in the past have done: teaching us how to read literature. They educate us, though this education is not on an artistic aesthetic, like Imagism or Vorticism, but for cultural aesthetics. As a white, heteronormative, cis-male who tries to check his privilege, I was often surprised at certain privileges I had that I was not even aware of, such as how “italicizing non-English language contributes to otherizing our tongues” (Gómez R. 87), and more of which I’ll point out below. This book is eye-opening, critical, and personal.

The first essay after the introduction perfectly lays out what is ahead: “the personal is political” (Falcón 9-10) and “[a] need to interrupt the narratives of domination” (10). Kandace Creel Falcón writes as a Chicana (she identifies to “Chicana” as opposed to “Xicana,” which she explains) academic navigating the “cis-male white privilege” (11) embedded in scholarship. She points out “the assumed neutrality of whiteness translates into invisible authorship” (11), an invisible authorship that neutralizes voices that aren’t cis-white males. This privilege was one I was not aware of, and it became an eye-opening moment for me. Falcón then explores how she inserted the “I” back into academic writing and that her “scholarship is rooted in an agenda of liberation [. . . a] liberation for us all” (11). At this point, I reconsidered how I might change my approaches to teaching Composition I and II, among other courses. What new texts will I use and how can I teach a criticism that validates approaches from a variety of identities? How can I emboldened the critic’s “I”?

Jessica Lopez Lyman in the following essays builds on the idea that knowledge can come from an individual, as “we are all producers of knowledge” (17), and there doesn’t need to be preceding archival materials to sift through for validation. As a result, she tries to be heard, to be unerased, to not feel like an impostor, because as she says, “non-existence is the most dangerous violence” (19). This erasure, according to Chris Stark, who identifies as “a mixed Native lesbian” (49), also occurs in the creative writing workshop. She points out that in a piece of fiction she

was criticized for writing about someone similar to me, for writing about myself. Never once, in the MFA workshops or in other writing groups I have been in has a white man been “accused” of writing about himself, even when he clearly is writing about himself and his experiences. (50)

On top of it all, her professor read a story clearly based on his experiences, “but no one said a thing” (51), which highlights the hypocrisy. This makes me hypothesize that this is also true in literary criticism. If a person of color writes fiction that is based on their life events, then it’s critically looked down on as not truly fiction, but when a white male writer does the same thing, rarely is he called out on it. Stark also reveals another type of privilege like an apocalypse (in its etymological sense “to uncover”), where a story needs to have a “climax” to be considered a successful story, whereas native American writers tend to tell “stories in a cyclical fashion [that does not follow the] the checkmark structure [. . .] taught since elementary school” (51). Or as Anya Achtenberg points out in “Notes in Journey from a Writer of the Mix”:

[W]riters of the mix/writers of color, with this high degree of deterritorialization in our language, exhibit high potential for radical and revolutionary work. With language less “representational,” more expressive, marked by intensity; there is “a whole other story vibrating within” the story [. . .]. This critical language speaks of a condition perfectly familiar to me, and offers a way to refute those judging our works within old, biased parameters. (100)

This reasserts a major thesis of this anthology, which Achtenberg synthesizes down into a sentence, that writing “calls for seeking other story structures that work with that consistent level of tension [as opposed to building tension, relieved by “a perfect screaming climax,” and then dissipating in denouement and “comfy resolution”], and open story to the spectrum of experience of life in this tension [. . .]. I must go with story finding its unconventional organic form in motion and constant tension” (99, 103).

Perhaps the heart/heat of the anthology lies in Marlina Gonzalez’s “Dancing Between Bamboos or The Rules of Wrong Grammar”:

How does one speak or write or exist, survive or even dare to thrive in an environment rich with diverse cultural perceptions, when our cultures are blind to each other and one culture insists on taking over the dialogue? (67)

The personal and critical essays provide answers to this question and others, such as learning how to claim a place in a “white male dominated (WMD) literary ecosystem” (Vongsay 118).

This anthology can easily be used as a supplementary text in a creative writing workshop environment, especially at the graduate level or upper-level undergraduate courses. Not only are the essays informative and make the reader consider new manners of writing and reading, but each essay is also followed by a writing prompt, so the reader can put a theory to practice. I can even see this anthology being used in a composition class. No matter how it is used, I recommend this book for all writers and those who write about literature, and when you do, be sure to have a lot of sharpened pencils, as there will be a lot of underlining. I know I will be a better teacher of writing because of editor Sherry Quan Lee’s How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Discourse.//

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Lee, Sherry Quan. How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative DiscourseAnn Arbor, MI: Modern History Press, May 2017.

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Use coupon code REDACTIONS and save 30%.//

 

21
Jul
13

Surreal LangPo

All summer I’ve been reading Deep Image poetry and about Deep Image poetry. I’ve focused my concentrations on Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Robert Kelly, and Jerome Rothenberg. I also read Louis Simpson, who is a fine poet, but in the end, is not a Deep Image poet. I excluded many other fine Deep Image poets as I needed to contain my study, at least in the short-term. I decided to study this poetry and these poets because I wanted to come to an understanding with them and with Deep Image poetry. Over the last 20 or so years, I’ve gone back and forth on them – for instance: Bly is okay,  Bly sucks, Bly is awesome, Bly has a tin ear, Bly’s music is tonal, Bly is innovative, Bly is boring, etc.. The older I get the more I like Deep Image poetry, but still I have some concerns: is the language hard enough? is the music interesting enough? is there music? why are there so many stock words like, “snow,” “teeth,” “shadow,” etc.? why the heavy use of “of,” “of the,” and preposition+”the,” etc?

Each of these poets has a different take on Deep Image poetry, especially those poets in the Bly Deep-Image camp and the poets in the Kelly/Rothenberg Deep-Image camp. One thing that is true of all them is that Deep Image has roots in the Surreal. Deep Image poetry, like Surrealism, tries to include the irrational, the unreasonable, and the unconscious in order to create a poem that speaks to the whole of a person, instead of, for instance, just the conscious, rational side of the person. Surrealism also tries to transform what language can do and/or should do, as does Language Poetry but in a different way.

The Sixities Trobar 2

This leads me to the point of what I want to talk about here. The last few days I’ve been writing in a manner or approach that is new to me, though I’m sure others have tried the same approach. (I hope that by writing about it I don’t jinx myself out of continuing this approach.) What I’ve been doing is trying automatic writing (a writing strategy of the Surrealists where, essentially, the person just writes without thinking or stopping to correct a typo or correcting anything) while at the same time trying to avoid meaning making. Avoiding meaning making is the challenge. It’s more than just putting random words together. It’s putting random words together so that someone can’t make sense of them, which is difficult because the human mind likes to make meanings, associations, narratives, etc., in order to understand and/or interpret. So I tried to write so that another person couldn’t impose a meaning, structure, narrative, associations, etc. on top of the poem. That’s what I tried in the first draft. I aimed for meaninglessness. I aimed to put out words that no longer had the linguistic, cultural, and economic impositions of meanings.

Surrealist Manifesto The Language Book (Poetics of the New)

I, however, am a meaning making person. So after the first draft, which looks like something translated from another language through Google’s translator but even less sensical, I begin my own translation. I translate what I have into something that makes sense for the reader and myself.  I try to create a narrative or associations or sensible stanzas of sentences. However, since the origin of the poems is from such an irrational and shaky area, the sentences end up disoriented or disorienting, which is the ideal.

In the end, the poem escapes the predetermined and expected order of perception and language. The poem makes new meanings, new perceptions, and new syntactical arrangements that don’t evade the conscious mind or the unconscious mind – the poem speaks to both. The poem shakes the reader out of the ordinary, I hope/think. The poem because of how it is written and how the final draft appears also speaks to the whole of the person.

This new approach is what I call Surreal LangPo. (I can’t find evidence of this term being used before, so I hope I’m the first.)

One more guideline/rule: the poet must avoid the Surrealist genitive “of.” That is, try to avoid creating possessive constructions that use “of.”

I hope I’ve provided enough guidance to help you approach perceiving, language, and writing poems in a new way. I’d like to give examples, but I’m reluctant. If I put the poems here, then I might influence you too much. I think these general guidelines will allow you to discover a more personal approach to Surreal LangPo.//

15
Jun
13

On Ingrid Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in the future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 17, due out in fall 2013.//

Ingrid Swanberg – Ariadne & Other PoemsIn today’s poetry that is often self-conscious, ironic, clever, ambivalent about its self while trying to be serious about its self, and/or closed off, it’s a pleasure to find poems, “within their greeting song,” the honest and clear experiences of image and language. In Ingrid Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems (Bottom Dog Press, 2013), there are many images. There are images with substance that satisfy the mind and the belly, images moving between intellect and intuition or existing in between, and complex images that stir emotion and thought.

The poem “the body of Dionysos” is an example of images moving between intellect and intuition.

   nowhere have I
   been so shaded

   than bearing your weight

   hidden from the world

The first line indicates the speaker is lost or homeless or without purpose, but in the next line this gets taken away, as the speaker is some place, and it may be a comfortable place as it has shade. The first two lines also move from a possessive and passive construct of being nowhere to a passive construct with the implication that the speaker is somewhere, but the place is the shade, which has no weight or substance. In line three’s active voice, we receive the “weight” with the implication of substance, but that substance is taken away in the concluding line. The experience is moving from things that don’t exist to things that do exist and in between. Additionally, in the last line the reader also realizes another movement. A movement of meaning.  The word “shaded,” the reader will realize, may also come to mean something like “deceived.” She lives under his (Dionysos’) shadow in both protective and deceptive realms. There’s also the movement between myth and today’s world. I personally like to read these poems with a deliberate ignorance of Greek mythology to ensure the poems speak to me today in my now experience, and they do. But with a knowledge of the myths, more meanings are had, new perspectives of the myths are created, and more movement is created.

In the poem “the river is rising,” the reader can experience this bridging of two worlds and experience the complicated image building I mentioned above, as well. The second stanza provides a good starting place to observe this complication:

   the white orchards
   of your city
   where you dream me
   bloom

What’s blooming here is “the white orchards.” Or that’s what at first seems to be blooming. When I leave that stanza, however, I feel overwhelmed because it feels like there’s more that’s blooming. In fact, the city blooms and the “me” blooms. It’s all blooming, which is why “bloom” is on its own line yoking the previous three lines into it. This complication continues into stanza three, which begins: “inside my heart”. Here, “inside my heart” acts as a pivot. It concludes the previous stanza – white orchards, city, and the speaker bloom inside the speaker’s heart – and it begins the third stanza:

   inside my heart
   rain pours neon calligraphy
   onto the night street

Inside the speaker’s heart, rain pours. Inside the speaker’s heart there is city imagery with neon lights and a street at night.  In fact, this poem keeps building like this. It’s able to build because there are only two instances of punctuation (both commas) after the opening line that ends with a period: “I have looked everywhere.” If this were a conventional poem, there would be more punctuation, but the poem limits the use to two commas to indicate time shifts or shifts in thoughts, like leaps. For instance:

   I have searched everywhere
   the syllables and unyielding ciphers of riverbanks,
   your name pressed into the bitter clay
   inside my heart

Here, the speaker’s searching turns directly inward because, perhaps, of the conscious leap into language: “the syllables and unyielding ciphers.” Here the image mixes abstract and concrete. And in the next stanza, the speaker finds the person with another woman:

   o leave her
   turning in her black dress
   where you lie adrift in her arms
   and you dream my
   blue

Where one might expect hostility or resentment to follow after this discovery, the poem stays in its passionate tone because, as we soon realize, both the speaker and the other person are in the dream world. They were both looking for each other in their dreams, or at least the speaker was searching for the other person. We then realize the period in the opening line was the end-stop to consciousness. The poem turned inward after that, and at the end it blooms outward from the dreaming world into the conscious world:

   we will ride into the city
   of white blossoming trees
   under the night

This poem is also a modern-day re-rendering of Ariadne’s dream involving Theseus and Dionysos.  The reader should keep the Ariadne and Dionysos myths under consideration when they read many of these poems, especially the “Ariadne’s tomb” section, but the poems are written so well that they speak to two worlds: our world, especially those with limited knowledge of the myths; and the mythic world. The poems in this section exist in both those worlds, and I was caught in the middle like waking from a dream I didn’t want to wake from, but I did wake. When I did wake, there were more poems where I did not need the knowledge of myth but where “the door between worlds / swings open.” And that door is swinging between poem and reader and swinging between poet and poet creating the myth of a self. I enjoyed going in and out of all the worlds in Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems, which often felt like contemporized deep image poems.//

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Swanberg, Ingrid. Ariadne & Other Poems. Huron, OH: Bottom Dog Press, 2013.//

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.//

20
Jan
13

Dan Gerber’s – A Primer on Parallel Lives (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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Dan Gerber's – A Primer on Parallel LivesHoly cow, an American lyricist who’s accessible. What a rare find. And Dan Gerber is a damn good one in A Primer on Parallel Lives (Copper Canyon Press). He can even write narratives. What’s more, Gerber’s got a Spanish soul. A bloody, dusty, old Spanish soul. He’s got Machado, Lorca, and Jiménez all rolled up in him. And when he does the lyric, or the meditative, it speaks to the universe and to us. As for the Spanish soul, what do I mean by that? I mean: he risks the sentimental. He rubs right up against it, but, most important, the language is fresh, the images are new, and the language and images connect us humans and our souls. It’s a poetry that lets everyone in and excludes none. For example:

   Facing North

   Ninety billion galaxies in this one tiny universe –
   a billion seconds make thirty-two years.

   No matter how many ways we conceive it,
   this generous wedge called Ursa Major
   more than fills my sight.

   But now, as I turn to put out the lights
   and give my dog her bedtime cookie,
   my eyes become the handle of the great Milky Way,
   and carry it into the house.

Except for one line, this poem flirts with the sentimental, builds towards the sentimental, then yokes it all together in the final burst of the last line.

Gerber is also what I want to call a “vertical poet.” What do I mean by “vertical poet”? Well, let me divert my attentions for a moment. Vertical has nothing, or very little, to do with content or how the poem moves or with Li-Young Lee’s vertical moment. It has to do with staring while composing. From what I can tell of American poetry (and maybe English poetry in general), most of the older poets – over 50, over 100, six-feet under – wrote with pen or pencil on paper. They stared down at the page. Their eyes staring into the words/page (perhaps beyond). They hovered over what they wrote and revised. The back of their heads faced the universe, gods, and infinity. A conduit was established between the page, the poet’s mind/imagination, and the universe. Of course there are exceptions – Ezra Pound typing in a prison camp near Pisa, William Carlos Williams typing out those triple lines. Pound and Dr. Carlos (as Pound affectionately called W. C. Williams) faced the page and stared with a similar intensity as the pen/pencil poet. Poets like Ez and Dr. Carlos are horizontal poets. The former (the pen/pencil poets) are vertical poets.

Today in American poetry there seems to be more horizontal writers – and many of them write on the computer screen, as I am doing now. (Perhaps we should call them “neo-horizontal poets” as they use the screen instead of a piece of paper curling in front of them.) The neo-horizontal poet stares into the screen. The neo-horizontal poet tends to neglect the universe. And from what I’ve noticed, the lyric is dying (at least the comprehensible, non-ellipitcal lyric), and there is a predominance of the narrative, especially the narrative about the individual. There is nothing wrong with any of this, except the universe is being neglected and the lyric is disappearing. (The lyric is our oldest form of poetry, no?) With the neo-horizontal poets, there is more dedication to time instead of the obliteration of time. I mean, don’t all us poets want to obliterate time? When are we at our happiest? When we are writing. When we come out of our half-unconscious, mostly hypnagogic state, and realize that hours have gone by, when it only felt like 10, 20, or 30 minutes. The lyric poem best destroys time.

I’m not saying the vertical poet can’t be personal and narrative. They have been. But they are more often in both veins lyrical and narrative. (I’m including meditative poetry under lyrical poetry, by the way). But with the rise of the neo-horizontal poet has come the decline of the lyrical poem and the connection with the universe.

And as I said, Gerber is vertical. His poetry connects the universe. I’ll leave you this as an example:

   Six Miles Up

   The shadow of a hand brushes over the mountains,
   as if smoothing rumpled sheets.
   And now I see that the mountains are clouds.

   In my dreams,
   I search for what I won’t remember in the morning,
   but I do remember the searching.

   In Venice I ate cuttlefish, steamed
   in its own black ink,
   and now it’s coming out of my fingers.

   Across the aisle in a window seat,
   a man like me is
   reading a book in which words appear,
   tracing an indelible line
   through the invisible sky
   while the pilot’s skill keeps us flying.

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Gerber, Dan. A Primer on Parallel Lives. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.//

18
Jan
13

Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (2006)

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 8/9, which was published circa April 2007.

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Li-Young Lee's – Breaking the Alabaster Jar“Hey folks, there is a cosmic consciousness,” said Allen Ginsberg during a SUNY Brockport Writers Forum interview. I think he was right, and now I further agree after reading Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions), Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll.

Within the collected interviews, there are many recurring themes: Lee’s father, The Bible, alienation, being an Asian-American poet, & the interconnectedness of the universe – especially through its vibrations, as everything vibrates.

But first let me get to how I trust Lee. In the first interview from 1987 with William Heyen and Stan Rubin, Heyen and Rubin ask Lee some strong questions, which almost seem like an initiation ritual into entering the world of poets, which are questions that only one committed/seduced/given to poetry could answer. Lee answers, but he says something startling. His answer is unexpected to me. It’s an answer that only someone truthful could give. His answer, “I have, in fact, a handful of readers that I think about. . . . Oh, if so-and-so sees this, then they’ll really think I’m a poet. I always have this feeling I want to prove I’m a poet myself to a handful of people” (p 27). Do all us poets, especially young ones, have this secret urge within us? Lee also adds that he writes for soul-awaking, too, but it’s the first answer that sucks me into believing him.

The interviews that follow are all interesting. All have new angles (slants of light), even when he similarly responds to similar answers. And each interview, each question and answer, accrue and inform the following interviews. Each interview has Lee thinking more.

During Tod Marhsall’s interview, my way of thinking about poetry changed. Marshall asks Lee the right question with the right words, and Lee responds. Here’s how it goes:

Marshall: I feel those poems as moving vertically, down the page with a push. The movement in the memoir – we’re pushed along in a similar way, but the pace is much slower.

Lee: Even now, in the poems I’m writing, although they have longer line breaks, I can see now that the sentence is my concern. I like the idea that the line breaks make notation for the mind actually thinking. I like that. But it’s ultimately the sentence that I’m writing. Not the grammatical sentence, the measure.

[. . .]

Marshall: So you don’t see yourself as ultimately despairing that you can’t capture this litany.

Lee: [. . . ] I started to entertain some of the “stuff” that’s in the canon; I forgot for a little bit that that was the horizontal, the cultural, and that wasn’t the richest mode for me. If you look at the earliest poems in Rose, you’ll see the vertical assumption. The assumption that vertical reality was the primary reality and all of this was fading away, just “stuff” spinning off on that more important reality. The change was just in the realization. (p 138-39)

So what I realized after reading this and reading what had preceded is that the horizontal movement is when the poem talks to culture. (I had believed that poems intentionally talk to other poems & poets.) The vertical moment, however, talks to the self and the universe. This changed my thinking of writing. Instead of writing for other poets & poems, I should be writing for the depths of my self while simultaneously shooting up to speak to the universe. If you do that, do it well, do it with honesty, then you’ll catch the vibrations of the universe & your soul, and then necessarily/accidentally, the poems will have horizontal movement and talk to poems and poets naturally. To write is to write lines (“a literary activity”), which is vertically neglectful. But to write vertically (as if creating a conduit between you & the universe) – well, if you make the connection with the universe, then reverberations will happen, and it will vibrate up & down & horizontally.

As for Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee as a whole, the interviews inform through accretion and the thinking poet – though he thinks of himself as a body poet – but that’s another theme you should read about in these interviews.//

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Lee, Li-Young. Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2006.//

17
Jan
13

George Looney’s The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (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 8/9, which was published circa April 2007.

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George Looney's – The Precarious Rhetoric of AngelsSometimes you find a good book of poems, one that is enjoyable to read and one that you can learn writing from. The poems in George Looney’s The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (White Pines Press) do both. This book is enjoyable to read. The surface story of each poem makes sense and flows well, and all the layers below the surface create meanings. And in this book, the meanings revolve around loss, or as he says, “Meaning alludes to something lost.” These poems also understand the tension between syntax and the line, and that’s what I’m concerned with right now.

Let’s look at these lines from “Faced with a Mosque in a Field of Wheat”:

                    Not even sex
   can disguise the flatness of place
   topographical maps turn gray
   and the sky blurs, anonymous.

Note how the pauses (the line breaks) cause a tension against the movement of the syntax. Note how that tension forces the reader to slow down to pay attention so as to not overlook, to not anticipate, and to not lose the meaning of what is going on. See and hear how a line makes sense and then is redefined by the next line and the next.

Or consider the opening lines from “A Vague Memory of Fish and Sun”:

   Some rivers bend from sight or burn down
   to nothing but fossils and dust.

Now some of us may have written:

   Some rivers bend from sight
   or burn down to nothing
   but fossils and dust.

But with Looney’s poem, a different tension arises with the syntactical pause after “nothing,” which seems to complete the thought (which is why I made a line break after “nothing”) and seems to complete the line above. In fact, it sounds like it almost is part of the first line, but that’s just what the grammar ear wants. The first line is doing two things. First, it is saying “Some rivers bend from sight,” that is, they disappear. Then we read the “or”, which seems to indicate something contrary will happen. So we anticipate, when we read “or burn down,” that something will remain. This is where the second thing happens, the line has countered the reader’s expectations. So instead of burning down into a pile of ashes, or something, it “burns down / to nothing.” Now here’s the big pause where syntax and line have finally come to agreement – it’s a mental sigh of relief as we get what is going on in the lines, we get our bearings. But now it’s the syntax’s turn to have its way. And it has its way with “but.” Here “but” is acting similar to the “or” except it is also working against what the lines have already done. The “but” doesn’t slow down the movement of the poem but rather propels it forward. Now what was lost when we read “nothing” is now recovered with “fossils and dust.” These lines mimic a vague memory (as the title suggests), and they play with the theme of loss.

Here’s another example of the line-syntax tension:

   nothing. Loss is
   elitist and forgetting is best
   done in layers.
                                (“The History of Signification”)

You see how each line can create its own independent meaning with “nothing” and “loss” balancing and reinforcing each other, and the line almost reads like a definition (if Yoda were reading it). The next line behaves similar with “elitist” and “best” balancing each other, and there is a definition of sorts in there with “forgetting is best.” But here, as is often the case in the poems, the line is working a tension against syntax. The status of “forgetting is best” becomes a how-to on the line break. “How best to forget?” and the third line responds, “Forgetting is best done in layers.”

This back and forth between line and syntax is one of many likeable aspects of The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels. I like how it provides movement in the reading and shiftings in the readings. I like that the book moves as the poems move. I like how I must read precariously.//

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Looney, George. The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels. Buffalo, NY: White Pines Press, 2005.//




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