Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Word for Word #15 and the question of “political” poetry

(Photo: Tom Hibbard at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee)

Word for Word #15 is now online, with its four sections defined as poetry, visual poetry, “political” poetry (quotation marks from the issue), and essays and notes. Jonathan Minton has been edited Word for Word for awhile now, and each issue is always fun and insightful, combining a wide range of experimental and underground writers.

Several of my poems can be found in the “political” poetry section edited by Tom Hibbard, a section which also features work by some of my favorite poets, like Buck Downs and Michael Baskinsi. I’m not sure how many people in the world of poetry know Tom. I’ve been reading and learning from his poems for more than a decade. My favorite book of Tom’s is The Songs of Divine Love, a limited, perhaps now impossible to find (and probably never very possible) edition of poems of clipped lines and fascinating reflections and images, a combination of stark understatement, political commentary, and philosophical grandeur. The Songs of Divine Love had a powerful effect on me when I first read it in the 1990s and was a central influence on my own collection Belief Is Impossible, a manuscript that has never been published as a book while almost all the poems in it have appeared in some magazine or other.

Here’s the first poem in Tom’s The Songs of Divine Love:


On top a hill is someone’s house.
Trees brush the hot grass of a battlefield.
Your word destroys the walls of the monarchs.
To deliver up refers to publicly giving
False evidence against what is worthwhile.
No one’s arms hold the dead body.
The sky is a picturesque, powdery blue.

Tom is one of those writers whose work reminds me that the higher profile echelons of the world of poetry are by no means necessarily the place where the best poems are coming from. Poetry is never restricted to the context of poets who are most broadly known as poets.

Tom has written reviews of my work in the past, like his review of my book Haze in the online journal Jacket. While he and I have slightly different takes on what we’re looking for out of books of contemporary literature, his ideas are always thought-provoking. My many interactions with him regarding poetry have been worthwhile and intriguing, although he and I have never met in person.

I hope you’ll take a look at Tom's brief introductory discussion of the concept of political poetry. I’m not sure I agree with Tom’s way of defining the political poem as “uncovering the real problems of real people.” I remain uncomfortable with the simultaneous flexibility and inflexibility of the term “real” when applied to people and problems—flexible because of the way it includes everyone (we’re all real) and inflexible because of the implication of excluding them (why say “real person” except to distinguish it from just plain “person,” so that there’s an opposite “unreal person,” and who exactly would that be? Wealthy anti-health care reform Republicans? Aren’t such people all too real?). Still, “uncovering the problems of people” seems one way of talking about what it means to write a political poem.

I once wrote a taxonomy describing various kinds of political poems, and I see Tom’s ideas as operating within a range of poems that can be said to be political in some of their elements. The poems gathered as “political” in Word for Word #15 are quite a surprising group and overall offer a good challenge to the idea that the political in poetry can ever be defined as existing only within a narrow range of practices.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Summer Reading Quick Takes (part two)

Rob Halpern, Disaster Suites. If you don’t think it’s possible to write poems that provide a precise materialist analysis of contemporary social conditions while also being filled with an overwhelming (and often quite blunt) lyric longing, you need to read this book. Halpern has showed in earlier work that he’s an extremely sophisticated, politically and theoretically insightful poet. This new book sacrifices none of that while amping up the sheer rawness of the wound and never being less than utterly convincing. I’m not sure there’s anybody right now who’s doing anything like this or could. Tremendous.

Stephen Collis, The Commons. I enjoyed, and often found very insightful, these poems investigating the history of the concept of the commons and various people of importance (like poet John Clare) to it. A strong understanding of the interrelationship between the land and human struggles to divide up and control the land and each other. I usually like books of poems that do Susan Howe-like investigations of history, and Collis handles this mode well. The sense of line was calming and even, maybe the result of there being almost no (literally no?) caesuras in the book, although Collis still manages significant rhythmic variation without them.

Rodney Koenecke, Rules for Drinking Forties. I didn’t realize west coast guys knew anything about front stoop beer etiquette. But these are flarf poems, okay? They go where other poems won’t. Vulgar, vital, funny, quick shifting, sometimes brutal but also somehow always large-hearted. Not afraid to spill a few King Cobras on their way to perdition. Take your hands off my beer, pal, you got that? I gotta down this sucker before I go to the Department of Monday staff meeting.

Susan Briante, Pioneers in the Study of Motion. These poems are a little more conventionally narrative high lyrical than usually matches my own biased preferences, but they’re consistently well-written, moving, and insightful in that mode. Plus the political and cultural elements of Tex-Mex border culture make them far more than simply expressions of lyric subjectivity. There’s a world here, and it’s keenly seen.

Sawako Nakayasu, Hurry Home Honey. This was another book whose tone took me awhile to catch onto, perhaps because the poems are subtler than I am. Or maybe because they’re so often about the unfamiliar. Once I tapped into the mix of understatement, irony, and loneliness, the eye for social oddity and the sharp, maybe-you-just-missed-it humor, I could more easily let the constantly defamiliarized environments of these poems bend, twist, and nick me in the way they were designed to do.

Mark Cunningham, 80 Beetles. Rod Smith, who blurbed this book, suggested I get a copy and I wasn’t disappointed. Wry ironies of a contemporary New York School style poetry that’s more anxious and cutting than precursors, with a sharp paratactic edge. I actually don’t know whether Cunningham is a New Yorker. All these poems are titled with the names of actual beetles, and guess what? They have more interesting names than people do, and for all I and Cunningham know, maybe more interesting lives.

More reviews on the way in upcoming weeks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Summer Reading Quick Takes (part one)

Now that my summer reading time has crashed and burned, I thought I’d provide just a few brief thoughts about some of the books I read this summer. Look for this series to continue over the next several weeks, if I have time. And I have more than a few books that I picked up this summer that I haven’t yet had the chance to read. I hope I get to them soon but I’m not counting on it.

Contemporary Poetry

Sina Queryas, Expressway. One of the books of contemporary poetry that I most enjoyed this summer, the poems in Expressway have a smart, up-to-the minute geopolitics with a fine combination of irony and intensity. The sense of line was consistently energetic. In particular I was persuaded by the interactions these poems detail between human material construction, environmental problems, and stifling social limitations, all on a world scale that nonetheless always precisely reflects the specifics of locality. A truly translocal poetics.

I also enjoyed reading this summer Queryas’ earlier book Lemon Hound, with intriguing repetition and variation in its sentences, and subject matter moving between the possibilities, sadness and ironies of human interaction and an inventive, knowing pastoralism. An impressive updating of how nature poems can be made to work in a way that doesn’t seem old-fashioned.

Michelle Notebook, Uncaged. This 2009 book of English poems by Michelle Noteboom, resident of Paris, with facing translations by her husband, Oulipo poet Frederic Forte, felt a little overly loose to me at the start but gripped me more and more as the book went on and I absorbed the tone more thoroughly. By the time I finished, I was a big fan. To me the lines and poems were often most effective when most cutting, but there was also a genuine, significant sense of loss that came through even when the poems went most on the attack.

Judith Goldman, The Dispossessions. This 20-some pages chapbook was relentless, beautifully written, brutal and eye-opening. The energy, determination, and frustration, along with the jagged shifts of the lines, make this a totally unforgettable small group of poems. There have to be other people out there besides me who know how good a poet Judith Goldman is, right? Help me out here.

Joshua Harmon, Scape. A powerful sense of mood and place. A sense of desire in isolation too—a different relation to desire and the world than I usually take up even when I'm working with melancholy, but Harmon manages to make it vivid, not so much simply through images but in a feel created by a combination of tone, perspective, and detail. The tightly twisted yet still crackling language may be the thing that made it all work so well. The lines had tension and bounce so that the moodiness never came across as flat. It was especially curious to read this book on the beach in southern California--I think that contrast highlighted for me the regionality of the scapes. It really was a different "world" and I could feel myself in it.

Tim Atkins, Horace. Is anybody right now writing poems wittier than these? Hard to imagine. These free-range “translations” of Horace are sexy, hilarious, and informed, and their playful classicism is somehow utterly contemporary. The sense of line and the consistently inventive line breaks are astonishingly tight.

Johannes Görannson, Pilot (“Johan the Carousel Horse”). Especially noteworthy about these crafty and slippery little poems is how they are placed next to their translations in a way that defamiliarizes the usual poem/facing page translation dichotomy. Neither the Swedish or English versions in this book become in any clear way the dominant or subservient ones. Both seem translations of each other, that is, interactions with each other. Gone here then is the idea that a translation constitutes a second-order poem. There’s also a pleasant bit of creepy gooeyness to add to the bodily instability that these poems often address.

More poetry reviews coming next week.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Maintaining Quality of Education in California’s Public Universities

Those of you who work in education in California might already have seen these things, but I wanted to provide the following links for others interested in following or becoming involved in the struggle to maintain a quality education for California students enrolled at state universities.

Here’s the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statement calling for resistance to furloughs, salary cuts, freezes, and modifications of work arrangements for professors in California state universities:


For those who think professors won’t take off the gloves and fight back against unfair, anti-education editorials, check out this stupid editorial in the Sacramento Bee and the many comments showing what’s wrong with it:


On September 24, in solidarity with University of California staff and students, faculty from all divisions and campuses throughout the UC system (just FYI, I don’t work for this system but for the California State University (CSU) system), will walk out in defense of public education. This page is dedicated to offering information, updates, and organizational coordination for anyone who supports this collective action.

To read the walkout letter signed by professors throughout the UC system, and already endorsed by hundreds of UC faculty, visit:


Those of you interested in supporting University of California faculty in their efforts to maintain educational quality and their planned September 24 walkout should contact and join the Facebook group University of California Faculty Walkout, 9/24 (I believe you probably need a Facebook account to join):


You can also support them by doing the following: Support the walkout by sending your name and UC affiliation to ucfacultywalkout@gmail.com

George Lakoff’s take on these issues can be found at the Keep California’s Promise blog:


If anybody has any websites, blogs, or other links that you think are relevant to this struggle, please let me know and I’ll add them to this post. And please help me correct any errors in this information.