Friday, June 17, 2005

It's Friday, damnit, and instead of working on my dissertation I'm paging through some literary magazines I've recently received: the new Xantippe, the new Effing, the new The Tiny. Immediate Xantippe standouts: the lyric & quizzical prose poems by Elizabeth Willis, Kirsten Kashock, and Brian Strang; the interview with Elizabeth Robinson; and the reviews of books by Evelyn Reilly, Christine Hume, Liz Waldner, Brian Strang, and others. Given all the talk of reviewing lately (and the lamentable departure of Simon DeDeo's Rhubarb Is Susan project from the scene), it's refreshing to encounter so many long and thoughtful reviews of exciting small press books in a magazine. I like a poetry magazine with enough confidence in its aesthetic-editorial stance to combine poems with interviews and reviews; I'm also grateful for this particular review. Elizabeth Robinson is someone who I've been interested in for a while, but as it were at a distance; this interview will cause me to seek out her books directly. I met her briefly at the Vancouver AWP and from our brief conversation I think we'd have a lot to say to each other, particularly about the vexed/vexing status of spirituality in our poetry. This excerpt from the interview resonated strongly with my own ways of bending:
There's definitely a tension in my psyche regarding form and aesthetics. I like clean lines and clean language, but I am attracted to the messiness of experience, and the way that language can reflect that. For example, I love a lot of the New York School writers. I remember reading O'Hara's work—which in spite of its casual surface is actuually very elegant and formally adept—and thinking to myself, You could just talk to your friends in a poem. And then reading Ted Berrigan's sonnets, which are, you know, about what drugs he's taken, and they're messy and repetitive. I thought, Look what he did, a person could do such a thing! It was a wonderfully shattering experience to see that. So I want to claim that possibility for myself. But then once I get to it formally, I like it to be a little more lyric. I was saying to some friends that I like the exuberance and lyric untidiness of Eleni Sikelianos' work. And they said, But you don't do that. And it's true—I'm always taking out words because they seem cluttery. But I'm attracted to poets who can let things be more sprung across the page.
A useful reminder that we don't have to write like someone to find their work attractive and useful. Effing Magazine contains an interview with Juliana Spahr that is refreshing for its brevity and unpretentiousness, but most of the pages are dedicated to poetry. The first poem on the first page, by Ken Rumble, stopped me in my tracks:
Sic Them

Switch with the stage drive —
she's a hard seat; the sticks are crossed
the snow will fall. Too many, now,
to see the storm rise from the steam pipe —
loose fittings and spending spells a word or two.
Pick this and that — against it there's
hurt or help when the mourning dove takes flight.
Tuesday, the deer arrived dressed,
ready for the ball with marching orders.
She'll have one of the same and said
don't live like a Rudolph and take Sheila,
sheee-laaah, and this real world
sure is a great idea — none of which is true
in the mythological sense. Sketch a path,
blaze it with bows, the wail and moan
of a could four-year-old unwilling to bear
cold feet for a talking sponge. When the spell
wears off, he'll be right as rain
with a tight tummy — salmon and salad,
it'll come off in phases. Twilight, twilight,
it is twilight.
I'm a sucker for any poem with a Spongebob reference, but I love how a peculiar hybrid Frost starts the poem (Frost as NY School poet), then slides into para-rhetorical slyness, then abruptly gives way to the elegiac at the end. Lovely and funnny, a difficult combination. Also leaping out at me: consonantal fireworks from Susan Briante ("Under latent sky, streetlights flame / in ocherous, tar-thick veins; cutaneous roads fleck the feathered night; positivists consent"), the poignancy between the lines of Jim Berhle's pomo patter ("in the burrough there were many delights / say the dumpling of the luncheon special / released into a convincing rainbow"), Hoa Nguyen's domestic sublime ("'What are you doing today?' / 'Writing poems.' 'Right now?' // Old style pop tops embedded in the asphalt"), and Joseph Massey's sharply drawn (sub)urban pastorals, one of which quietly stands a famous Robert Hass poem on its head:

        Pinscher chained to a fence post
barks at fog folding off the bay.
        And pigeons graze garbage
scattered near scrap metal
        rusted orange.

        Dizzied by the weather's syntax
as it swerves between
        these inflected things, I
lean agains the garage --
        blackberry thorns prick my palms.
That "weather's syntax" seems to allude to the strategy of a number of the poems in this issue of Effing: they are mostly acutely self-conscious about the rhetorical strategies and contexts available to them, and choose to foreground them so as to gesture at the negative space where what they really wanted to say lies ready to pounce. Incidentally, this is one of the first times I've read a literary magazine with a sans-serif font that I didn't find hard to read, and the paper feels good to touch—Effing inhabits its saddle-stapled skin with more grace than most. (Conversely while Xantippe has an elegant cover and is perfect bound, the varying type sizes often distracted me, and I don't like having to see the magazine's name reprinted at the bottom of every page; I think such design features are less intrusive at the top.)

Haven't had a chance to spend much time with The Tiny yet, but this list of contributors is very promising, including as it does a fistfull of bloggers—it's almost an anthology of the poetry of the current blog scene, or one swathe of it, anyway. Will have more to say about that later as time permits.

I'd almost rather not mention it, but perhaps you've already seen the LA Times article on that website whose name starts with an F and that ends with "O Tree!" It's far too sympathetic to a man who's clumsily and self-righteously damaged many reputations, not least that of his wife. The contest system is fucked, sure, but scapegoating judges and winners merely drains some of the bile while the system continues unimpeded. I'm particularly saddened to learn that Bin Ramke, a poet whose work and taste I have a lot of respect for, feels he has to leave his job as editor of the Georgia Series because he's been hounded by the vicious and the bitter. It's hard to see how American poetry has benefited from that.

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