Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Taking a few minutes away from grading creative writing portfolios to write this. The novel chugs along, but for the past week and a half at semester’s end I’ve been devoting my limited writing time to assembling a new manuscript of poems. It surprises me that I can do this, but I was inspired by Catherine Wagner’s My New Job, one of five interesting (and as always, handsomely designed) titles that the good people at Fence Books have seen fit to send me. These are:

  • Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton. I hadn’t heard of Kearney before this but I love the highly visual language he’s come up with for these poems, especially given their usage of popular rap songs as source material. It’s as if Tom Cruise’s virtual crimesolving screen from Minority Report were being used to track black American culture.
  • Macgregor Card’s Duties of an English Foreign Secretary. I haven’t spent much time yet with this book from one of the former editors of The Germ. But one of the notes in the back caught my eye—it’s apparently a book written in tandem with another poet’s book, a woman whose name escapes me (don’t have the books here). That’s an interesting and tricky way to bring off a collaboration.
  • Laura Sims’ Stranger. Spare, sad lyrics in memoriam for Sims’ mother. Mostly I am struck by how both the haunting Gerhard Richter cover image and the subject matter (the loss of a mother born in the 40s and lost in the 90s) rhyme with that of Selah.
  • Elizabeth Marie Young’s Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize. Playful postmodern prose poems that suck me in with their exuberance (Lyn Hejinian’s blurb claims that they “linguisticate”). Arranged in alphabetical order just like Ashbery’s new book Planisphere (little J.A. needs no links from me). My observation is that this looks great on a table of contents page provided you’ve used most of the letters of the alphabet and if not, not.

Of the bunch it’s Wagner’s that has held my interest most closely—I’ve admired her for a long time for Miss America and Macular Hole (also available from Fence), books which attack the feminist project from a space at once cerebral and visceral. My New Job continues this, taking on female sexuality where Miss America was primarily concerned with images of the feminine and Macular Hole was preoccupied with pregnancy and childbirth (you could say then that the books are published out of order).

My New Job has a savage and sexy wit, but its greatest strength is its formal variety. And when I saw from the notes in the back that it’s actually a compilation of chapbooks, I was newly inspired to see what could be done with my own chapbooks of the past few years, Compos(t)ition Marble and Hope & Anchor. The age has demanded or seemed to demand in the past fifteen years the concept book: poems with a plot, or at least books with some discussable and therefore promotable “hook,” concept, or master form. The poetry collection as such has become antiquated, territory ceded to Quietism.

This is a shame, because as much as I like concept books (as a progressive rock fan from way back I’ve always loved concept albums, rock operas, and other such pretensions: long live Thick as a Brick, long live “Bohemian Rhapsody”!), they do have a tendency to subordinate and overdetermine the poems. That’s why the year-ago workshop on Severance Songs was so valuable to me: my friends convinced me that superimposing a conceptual structure on those poems was suppressing their native energies and alchemies. Removing that superstructure helped me to rediscover the infrastructure that was already there, the real conversation those poems were always having with each other about ethics and aesthetics, love and shame.

My New Job splits the difference in a way by being not a collection of poems but a collection of chapbooks, each of which seems to manifest a degree of conceptual unity but which, as sections, have a relation to each other I can only describe as paratactic. It has inspired me to create a new assemblage of my chapbooks and of chapbook-sized sections of new poems, and though it doesn’t have a title yet I can tell that they fit and resonate with each other in surprising ways. (Surprising at least to me: most surprising is the apparent consistency of my own sensibility—I don’t appear to be anywhere near done with what you might call the ironic baroque.)

It’s a pleasure to be actively working on poetry again and to be thinking about the questions putting a poetry book together asks of me, while simultaneously slowly accreting the bits of narrative that will eventually, I trust, cohere into something I can call a novel. Not the least pleasure now available to me is that of procrastination: if I don’t feel like working on one project I can always fiddle with the other, and go to bed in the evening feeling like I’ve accomplished something no matter what.

Speaking of Severance Songs, Tupelo now tells me it won’t be published until Spring 2011. This is disappointing, but it does mean more time to get things exactly right. And with any luck its publication will coincide with my first sabbatical, so that I can actually take the time to go on the road with the book in a way I’ve never quite done before. Stay tuned.

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