Friday, December 23, 2011

Drew Blanchard, Winter Dogs

I’ve been meaning to write something about Drew Blanchard’s collection Winter Dogs (Salmon Poetry, 2011). I bought this book at Salmon’s off-site AWP reading in D.C. earlier this year, and now that the year is almost over it seems high time to respond. I like Blanchard’s writing; it’s strong. Take a look at “Not Whiskey” (the first poem of any collection always deserves special attention) which nicely sets things up, both in terms of Blanchard’s ethos and his style: the setting is the West or Midwest of America, because there are bison. But the bison are symbols; they become other things, parts of the landscape (“an electric fence”), other animals (“a fox”), abstractions in the speaker’s mind (“a question about crossing the street”), etc. Then they appear elsewhere, in a bar, “witness a son/ bankrupt” there (the “son” must also be the speaker), and suddenly they are not a number of other things (“box knives,” “a soiled sheet,” etc., and finally “not whiskey, not a time-clock”). Why are they some things and not others? It seems arbitrary, but simply to say there are things present and there are absences, and there is a mind, in a bar, drinking whiskey, trying to make sense of it (sometimes whiskey can help in this, sometimes maybe not). Yet this is not Blanchard saying “oh poor me, drunk in a bar” — this is not confessional realism — this is a speaker in a poem working things out through poetry. The bison, again, are symbols, perhaps images (“The bison, alone again in wandering”), rendered in language that is musical, redolent with soundplay, alliteration. This poem is short, and it’s a subtle one, but it’s a perfect statement of Blanchard’s poetics.

Throughout the collection, similar strategies are deployed. Often, what seems initially like a simple first-person or third-person narrative is transmuted into real poetry. Take “Winter Dogs” (the title poem too is of obvious importance), set in the Mayakovskaya stop of the Moscow metro system. There are (presumably) real-life events rendered here — a old woman with five dogs is begging change, there is a disturbance, and a man throws a bottle at her, allowing “two dogs/ [to break] free into the gray night.” The reader pities for the old woman (who is not unlike one of William Carlos Williams’s old women), and the dogs, but I think there are bigger issues at stake. Through the particulars, the universal. Extending the poem outward, we think also about the harsh economic and political situation in Russia, and, even wider still, how we all struggle in the world. Given that the setting is a metro station named after a poet, the ending must take on a deeper significance. What does it mean that these dogs have broken free? Why only two and not the rest? In terror, they have escaped the tie of their leashes but also of certainty. They have their freedom, but we all know what happens to us in the end.

“Mine Own Baudelaire” employs humor to undercut the “grand” poetic musings the reader may have expected from the title. Exploring the theme of the double, someone who looks just like oneself somewhere else in the world, Blanchard wishes for his to be a Baudelaire figure. Instead, in line at the post office, he actually does see his double (and so do the other customers), a criminal on a ‘Wanted’ poster, the reward for whose capture, incidentally, “was larger than my gross/ income for the entire nineteen-nineties.” Many other poems here (good poems) similarly vacillate between the serious and the vaudevillian. “Liddy’s Prayer Card” is a tribute to the late Irish poet James Liddy (who we have in common as a friend) (and for that matter with whom we also share a publisher); it is a rendering of an actual prayer card that Liddy had changed around (a sort of erasure-and-addition poem), crossing out certain words and writing in other ones to create a new, dirty, but affirming prayer to life. Such a balance of “deep” poetic themes, humor, and religious ritual might come in part from Liddy, but, in this first collection, Blanchard sets out his own stall. Winter Dogs is American, descriptive, imagistic, narrative yet surreal, big yet in love with particularity, and well worth the read.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lars von Trier, Melancholia

For a guy who says some pretty stupid things sometimes, Lars von Trier is a pretty great artist. I have loved just about all of his films, going back to the Dogme days and up through his previous work, Antichrist. Melancholia does not disappoint — it too is a spectacular film. But I hope we don’t have another Ezra Pound-like figure on our hands, and that von Trier will give up his fascination with Nazism, no matter how “amazing” their aesthetics may or may not have been. It would be nice to be able to fully embrace such a great artist (and there are many one can), instead of (often) having to constantly make that life/work distinction, you know?

But back to the film. Briefly, Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, one of two sisters, the other being Claire (Charlotte Gainsoburg). In the first half of the film, Justine has just gotten married but can’t seem to fully go along with this state of affairs. The reception, at a lavish country manor house, is a disaster due to family issues and especially due to Justine’s own severe depression, and, even though she and her husband (Alexander Skarsgård) have apparently already tied the knot, he leaves her in the wee hours because she just won’t get it together. “I tried,” she later tells her sister, who is bitterly disappointed in her.

Clearly, none of this is real. I would say that the whole thing is deliberately contrived in order to explore the emotional interactions between people in fraught circumstances. Part two of the film concerns the impending doom of planet Earth, which is about to be swallowed up by a formerly hidden planet called Melancholia — the allegorical aspects here are obvious. Justine, severely depressed to the point of barely being functional, has arrived at the same manor home of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). As Melancholia approaches, Justine’s frame of mind seems to lighten somewhat, while Claire becomes desperate with the anxiety of impending doom.

Such is the plot. I don’t think we are supposed to care very much for any of the characters. If this were meant to be a realistic film, we would probably be exasperated at everyone: Justine (at the very least why not try Prozac or something?), her newlywed husband (he leaves her because she’s having a hard time, and on their wedding night no less?), Claire (yes, the world is about to be swallowed up by a rogue planet, but what can you do?), and John (who commits suicide instead of remaining with his family as the end approaches). However, identification with his characters is not what von Trier is after either.

What von Trier seeks to accomplish, instead, is to instill emotion and wonder in the viewer through the poetic deployment and juxtaposition of his images. And while there is a kind of realism in his Dogme-style use of handheld camerawork throughout, much of Melancholia is composed of surreal imagery that at times is reminiscent of David Lynch or the photography of Gregory Crewdson. Indeed, the opening sequence is a series of still or almost still scenes, and it is one of the most beautiful parts of the film (director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro deserves mention here). Von Trier has called it an “overture,” and it anticipates the motifs of the rest of the film in a brilliant manner. These are a series of moving paintings almost, which, taken on their own, initially seem strange or bizarre, but whose meanings are revealed in the context of the unfolding work.

There are too many dazzling scenes in Melancholia to mention, certainly not only in the opening “overture.” I will note just a few, though, which particularly stand out for me. One is the recurring scene of the manicured lawn/garden of the house with its two rows of trees, one row of which appears to lean in at an awkward angle while the other grows straight. The lawn looks out onto the sea, and when the planet rises there on the horizon, it is quite spectacular. Another is the aerial view of the sisters riding horses together through the grounds of the manor, through mist, through trees. These aerial shots reminded me a bit of certain similar shots in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Finally, as the planet approaches, Justine has disappeared one night and Claire goes off to find her. She comes upon her in the woods, basking naked in the light of the planet, as a witch might do under the full moon — it is as if Justine is reveling in the world’s impending destruction, as if her fatalism somehow redeems and allows her to conversely embrace life, even if only for these brief moments before it ends.

Thankfully, von Trier is smart enough not to give us a twist ending. If everyone had somehow survived, or if the credits came up before the collision, it would have been a huge letdown. However, the earth does indeed end, and we see it, and it is a great filmic moment.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Maurice Scully, A Tour of the Lattice

Veer Books has published a selection of Maurice Scully’s work titled A Tour of the Lattice (Veer Publication 039, ISBN: 978-1-907088-30-8), excerpting portions of Scully’s gigantic poem Things That Happen. I like the book’s spare black-and-white design, and the listing of Veer’s catalogue which comprises the last few pages is a good introduction to this British press which I was not heretofore familiar with. (Scully is, of course, Irish.) Veer describes itself as “publish[ing] a range of unconforming writing in poetry and poetics, including some texts that other publishers might view as experimental.” It looks like it would be worth checking out more of their list in the future.

But, to Scully’s work: Most readers of this blog will know that I’m something of a Scully fan, having written about him many times now. So in a similar spirit to this new “selected” volume, what follows are excerpts from my previous engagements with Scully, which have appeared in a variety of different venues, arranged in the order of the work as it comes in A Tour of the Lattice.

On “Adherence” and “Steps”:

Scully has been called a “Heraclitean” poet, and this description is not off the mark. The ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus is probably best known for his aphorism “All things are in flux,” and Scully’s world is indeed a constant flux — he has been said by Robert Archambeau to write “out of an aversion to the idea of the poem as closed system.” Vast and ambitious, his work is composed of long, ongoing sequences… While his is a huge undertaking, there nonetheless remains the sense in Scully’s work of a singular consciousness, the only possible unifying factor available in such a sprawling corpus. From section C of “Adherence”:
A fly cleaning itself precisely
by the window in the sunlight
forelegs back (rest) head eyes
shadows wings brittle-quick & quite
like writing really. Out there. That.
These lines do not truly attempt to convey an image of a fly in itself. Instead they observe a mind observing a fly, and it is from such a fundamental shift that much of Scully’s poetry proceeds.

There is with Scully too an overt critique of the received tradition. For example, a stanza from “Steps”:
Valleys, villages, coastline. A map
of a stain on the wall. Alive & living,
not a crammed glasshouse of pistillate
verba. Grass bends back. The book
is fat, contains code. The world,
the water planet. The code contained in
this thing in the world, the book, changes
the things, the world....
By retaining a rural subject matter this is a pastoral poem, technically — but a poem that explodes the Heaneyan lyric from the inside. It is only in the consciousness of writing (“the code,” “the book”) that transformation is possible, not in a fossilised way of life or in a represented landscape. In this sense Scully can loosely be called postmodern, the self-reflexivity of the writing being a characteristic of postmodernism. Yet Scully’s work remains utterly vigorous, highly autobiographical, and fully situated in the material world. It is work, in fact, which examines the minutiae of the world (and the human comprehension of it) much more deeply than the romanticising action of the traditional lyric poem can allow. [from Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions, ed. Louis Armand]

On “Tig”:

“Tig” opens with an image of a butterfly migration, an “immense blizzard of wings,” but Scully, as always, wants to get under the surface of the image. It is not only the beautiful forms and colours one sees, but also “...light exuding // over the visible / light intruding...” and there is a comment on the evolution of insect wings, and a rectangle representing a window, “rain on glass to the side of yr face...” Then comes what is more or less the [section]’s central (and recurring) image, a leaf falling from a tree … again seen from a windowpane, a windowpane that is the lens through which the poet sees, at a remove:
different (or) touching a windowpane where
drops gather ( ) difference ( ) &
or different
The window implies a house behind it, which is a central concern here too. A couple of sections have the title “A Place to Stay”: a space where one lives, or from where to engage with the wider world, as in a society, how one approaches society from one’s own space. In Munster Irish, the word tig means “house.” The themes are simple, but the actual process may be complex. The section “Backyard” gives us a crisp picture, “on still pools oakleaf / folded in a muddy crevice” and wonders, “are we just / photographs talking...?” Life is “one elong- / ated crisis (with / modulations)....”

But it is the modulations that are of crucial importance here, otherwise why put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. The falling leaves suggest age; there is an oblique reference or two to death. And modulations in writing. The best thing about Scully, for me, at the moment, is his style, which he’s really honed at this point. It’s got clarity and precision, even the way it looks on the page is made for particular effect, the use of certain marks, and the occasional use of the Irish language and Gaelic literary tradition totally makes it.... Book two opens (nearly) with an observation: “essentially a poem is a flat surface covered in part by groupings of twenty-six quite well-known symbols.” Later an ironic joke:
All that these able writers have said on language has been challenging, provocative, & generally very helpful.

Thank you.
And that’s where it starts to get really good, I mean really turned up a notch. All the images from the first half of the book are reconstituted, repeated, cut up in a sustained burst of energy, like watching a fireworks display, which keeps getting more and more spectacular till the end. [from Fortnight]

On “Prelude”:

Archambeau places particular emphasis on Maurice Scully’s Heraclitean world-view, quoting him as saying, in a paraphrase of the ancient Greek philosopher, “There is nothing static in the world.” Even seemingly impervious stone yields to a vine plant in “Prelude”’s “The Pillar & the Vine”:
the tendril travelling
& the leaf with it
hacks at the

pillar [...]
Most of this piece is written in three-line stanzas, except in two places where the lines break up in disorder, serving to shake the reader out of pattern-induced complacency. “Stone” exhibits an even stronger sense of intentional randomness. “Prelude” is the first book of the five-book Livelihood. Judging by the extract of Book III which appeared in Metre 5 a while back, Livelihood becomes more personal — autobiographical even — than its Book I. Like most of the Wild Honey poets, Scully prefers to work on an epic scale, not only in reflection of the complexity of life, but also, as Archambeau says, “out of an aversion to the idea of the poem as closed system.” [from The Burning Bush]

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Winter Tales (Serving House Books, 2011)

I have an essay (and a couple of poems) in a book collection titled Winter Tales: Men Write about Aging (Serving House Books, 2011), edited by Duff Brenna and Thomas E. Kennedy. The title gives you the basic idea of the subject matter. My essay is called “Paul Tillich Never Took Ativan,” which takes as its starting point Tillich’s assertion that “The fear of death determines the element of anxiety in every fear. Anxiety, if not modified by the fear of an object, anxiety in its nakedness, is always the anxiety of ultimate non-being” — in other words, my take on aging here is in reference to its ultimate outcome, but in a specific rather than an abstract way.

Other contributors include Norman Mailer (interviewed shortly before his death), Mario Vargas Llosa, Robert Pinsky, Steve Kowit, Stephen Dunn, Liam Mac Sheóinín, and many more. I like what the editors have assembled, and I think that Serving House is quite the up-and-coming press. A companion volume of women on aging is planned.

(Winter Tales: Men Write about Aging, 262 pages, ISBN 978-0983828907)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

James Liddy, Selected Poems (Arlen House)

On this night when the Milwaukee Brewers are trying to battle back for the National League pennant, I think of James Liddy. Arlen House has recently published Liddy’s Selected Poems, a new version of which is long overdue. Anyone who’s followed this blog knows that I am a friend of Liddy (now deceased, 2008) and indeed have written much about him, afterwords in a couple of his Arlen House collections, and edited a festschrift to him, and all. I was really happy to see this new book. I love all of James’s work, older and later. The earlier volume A White Thought in a White Shade (1987) was a sort of new and selected poems too, but is long out of print, and his Collected Poems (1994), though more comprehensive, is also really a selected more than a collected. This new Selected, however, is both a great introduction to Liddy’s work for the present day and a worthy retrospect.

For those who may need context, Liddy is a Wexford poet of the late Irish modernist generation who moved to America toward the end of the 60s — well, led a sort of dual existence, going back and forth, but finally based really in Milwaukee, where he taught at UWM until his death. The editor of this volume, John Redmond, makes both a sound selection of his work from the span his career and contributes an insightful introductory essay. Milwaukee poet (and former Liddy student) Tyler Farrell (who is, like me, published with Salmon Poetry) contributes the concluding essay, which is more of a personal view of the poet.

Redmond begins by acknowledging the difficulty of placing Liddy into neat categories — he is perhaps “an early example of the Americanisation of Irish literature,” but, as he points out, “Liddy had an open, multi-angled view of the world,” and so even this transnational lens is limited. What, then, of his form? Redmond notes that “he began in a relatively formal vein and the hard-earned casualness of his later poetry came gradually.” On one occasion, a well-known Irish poet I was in a conversation with suggested to me that Liddy’s poetry was “loose,” so Redmond’s percipience in this regard is well appreciated. Redmond goes further, asserting that the strength of his later work (especially) indeed lies in his “sudden shifts of thought within agreeably unstable forms” and that “in its hybridity and flexibility, its sincere uncertainty and cultivated mystery, Liddy’s writing points toward a possible future for Irish poetry.” I could not agree more.

Farrell, though he takes a different tack (his central theme being an analysis of Liddy’s many self-penned autobiographical notes), largely concurs with Redmond. He quotes a letter that Liddy wrote to him: “There is no final manuscript, only versions of what a poet might become.” He notes that Liddy “constantly evolved” (yes) and puts forward the example of his editorship of a series of literary journals, quoting him: “I have always wanted to exchange new magazines for old, for I know that magazines can alter the shape of a literary landscape.” The true artist must evolve — for me anyway, it is the essential quality of the true artist. Forgive me for sounding pretentious (?), if that’s how it sounds, but so it goes. Liddy embodies this quality of poetic evolution, and both Farrell and Redmond recognize it. I second them and laud Liddy for this.

Taking this idea to its logical extension, both Farrell and Redmond see Liddy’s later work as his best. Redmond claims that “his development was slow,” but although “he did not stop developing…he wrote his best work in his last decade or so…” Farrell asserts that “some of his most realized poetry [was] with Arlen House” (Liddy’s last and maybe most diligent publisher). I really can’t disagree with this. It is true that, for Liddy, an alive writer who never stopped believing in life and poetry, his work was always ascending, moving forward, both becoming “better” (I put quotation marks around this because at the same time I suppose it’s subjective to a degree which part of Liddy’s work is better, partly coming down to personal preferences etc.) and changing. So, as Redmond sets out in his intro, this book is weighted toward the latter half of Liddy’s career. Again, I must concur. I myself as a poet always like my newest writing the best.

As much as I have to agree with Redmond’s choices as editor, this volume still made me miss some of Liddy’s earlier work. For example, I think Corca Bascinn (1977) is one of the greatest long poems ever written, but here we get only two short verses. I also wished for more of A Munster Song of Love and War (1971) — it is hard to find in the original; yet, along with the aforementioned work, it exemplifies a major period in Liddy’s development (the influence of Jack Spicer’s serial poems). And maybe it’s just a subjective thing, again, but since Gold Set Dancing (2000) was some of the first Liddy material I read (besides the poems he sent to me as editor of a literary magazine), I hoped for more of that book than the three poems included. This is quibbling, though, as quibble every reviewer will with a volume of only selected poems. Redmond does an exemplary job as editor, and both he and Farrell scintillate in their essays. This book is both necessary and important, and as necessary as a short selected volume of Liddy is, it provoked in me the further thought, that someday there should be a true Liddy Collected Poems, everything he ever wrote, or at least published, or at least as much as may be possible.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review of Kali’s Tongue

A book I have a piece in, Kali’s Tongue (The Vinyl Press), a poetic response to the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers, has received a very nice review by Matthew C. Mackey on the Buried Letter Press blog. Click this second link, scroll down a bit, and read the review....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


This guy has a really interesting blog: kind of an intersection of Irish stuff, ancient stuff, literature, art, the modern, the postmodern, post-postmodern (?), and punk, always with some arresting images. Kind of like what I do sometimes....

(The image comes from one of his posts about ancient art that seems modern.)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Regarding the recent BlazeVOX controversy

To briefly recap: An aspiring poet named Brett Ortler recently had a manuscript accepted by BlazeVOX Books and was then asked by its publisher to contribute $250 to the publication costs. The author objected and went public with the email exchange, posting it on the Bark blog. The post set off a firestorm of comments to the blog post itself (many worth the long scroll-through), arguments on both sides, and further blog posts on the subject all over the internet. BlazeVOX publisher Geoffrey Gatza first suggested he would cease publishing, but after a wave of support posted a statement saying that “I feel like I should explain a bit further the co-operative nature of our business model. I am not going to change what we do, but I do acknowledge that perhaps I could communicate what we do a little better.” On another page on the press’s site, Gatza writes, “We will rescind this program [of asking writers for funding] immediately and I am sorry for the troubles it has caused.”

Let me state that I once had a couple of poems published in one of BlazeVOX’s annual anthologies. I was not asked to pay, though I believe it was sold as an e-book or pdf only, meaning there were no real printing costs except to the buyer. I have never submitted a book-length manuscript to BlazeVOX and so have no first-hand knowledge of the situation described above. In my brief exchanges with Gatza, he has come across to me as a good guy, and his press publishes a lot of innovative stuff, which I like. The practice of asking for money in this way is something I would not agree with, however. And personally, I doubt that at this point in time I would be able to afford to pay $250 to publish with any press, even if I wanted to, though I have always done my best to support the presses with which I have worked, Salmon Poetry (Ireland) and Six Gallery Press (U.S.), whether through buying as many copies of my own books as I could afford, buying the books of other press-published writers, or supporting various other press activities.

I think this is the right thing to do, and, sure, it’s kind of expected (if you can afford it), if not exactly required. Given the sorry state that sales of poetry books are in right now, we need to support those who support us, if at all possible (for some it may not be, and that should be accepted as okay too). In this case, it seems that Gatza was looking for a more definitive, immediate financial commitment. So yes, he can be faulted for not being explicit about this up front, and in his statements he admits that. As far as I’m concerned, there was a mistake on his part for not being transparent and for being a bit confusing with the figures he used to justify it, but it is a mistake that has now been admitted (and even apologized for). Some of the language some people are using to describe the situation, though (“scam,” “scheme,” “Nigerian style”), is a bit extreme. I hope BlazeVOX continues to publish, as stated — presses of this sort are few and far between, and without some source of external funding they are hard to keep up.

There are a lot of things I could say about Ortler’s original post, like is it ethical to publish a private email exchange without (presumably) the other party’s permission? Even if Ortler felt that Gatza had acted unethically, do two wrongs make a right? Further, even after Gatza’s clarification and apology, Ortler seemed intent on rubbing his nose in it, writing in another post, “For all we know, he could be buying pizza and Pepsi” (with the profit Ortler alleges Gatza made from his requests for help with costs, as if he’s rolling in the supposed poetry dough), going on to ask, “Also, is Blazevox really a for-profit company? If so, then what they’ve been doing may be illegal. I’m no lawyer, but might this qualify for deceptive business practices [Ortler’s link] in the state of NY?” Well, I’m no expert on trade practices, but if you read this New York State Consumer Protection “False Advertising and Deceptive Trade Practices” webpage linked here by Ortler, you’ll see it refers to goods sold or “actual damages,” rather than to voluntary donations of the sort Gatza asked for. Ortler was asked for financial help, and he opted to pay nothing. He bought nothing and incurred no “damages” whatsoever. It seems to me, therefore, that Ortler either didn’t read the page he himself linked or is blatantly obfuscating for one reason or another. Or perhaps to give him the benefit of the doubt, he really is just clueless about legal matters (“I’m no lawyer”).

I’ll let you parse through all that’s already been said about this nasty business, in blog comments or elsewhere online, and decide for yourself. But the debate has provoked discussion about some wider issues beyond what Ortler initially wrote, issues about poetry publishing in general, “business models,” the effect of a capitalist economy on poetry, small presses vs. the notion of “vanity presses,” and even the value of MFA programs. I want to comment on each of these, coming from the perspective of my own experience (which of course may be limited and just as subjective as everyone else’s).

To begin, the number of poetry publishers who are able to survive and thrive on sales alone (i.e. without grants, subventions, or other outside sources of funding) are few and far between and dwindling yearly. Some large and long-lived presses may still get by on their back catalogue of major names or their non-poetry bestsellers. If you’re Seamus Heaney or Billy Collins, you sell a lot of books. If you’re not in that category, you probably don’t. We can debate the whys and wherefores of poetry’s marginalization, but that is the economic reality at present. Very few poets can hope to expect a monetary advance or even to have their books on store shelves. Thanks to the internet, at least there are some other outlets (the obvious book-selling websites), but driving people to your links in itself takes a lot of work that the publisher may not be able to do for you. But we all know this, right? If not, we should.

The idea that a poet today can be “discovered” out of obscurity and offered a contract wherein one is treated like a big deal, the idea that the press will be able to afford to pay for everything, the idea that the poet can sit back and watch the sales total up, the interview requests roll in, watch one’s reputation grow accordingly — those days are long gone for most, and for those who still yearn for it, it’s largely a fantasy. Yes, it would be nice not to have to pay anything at all for one’s own book, and sure the lucky few won’t, but for most of us we will pay something one way or the other (usually it’s for copies / postage for mailing review copies). As I said, I personally would not be up for an arrangement such as had been asked for by BlazeVOX, but neither would I be extremely shocked by it. A polite, private demurral might instead have been in order.

The fact that BlazeVOX did ask for help with publishing costs has led some to charge that it is in essence a “vanity press.” At the HTMLGIANT site, Christopher Higgs wrote, “Back in the day, before the internet, there used to be this thing called The Writer’s Market … One of the first rules you would learn by reading The Writer’s Market is that anyone who asks you for money to publish your work should not be trusted … [T]his sort of pay-to-publish policy seriously threatens to diminish the press’s legitimacy in my eyes.” Again, I would have balked at the idea too. But in the current climate of small-press publishing, I cannot say it makes BlazeVOX “illegitimate.” I think Ortler and Higgs would be surprised at the number of writers who have offered or agreed to help out their publishers in the course of history (if the money was there and after already being honestly and impartially accepted). It should not be a condition of acceptance, of course, but these things do occur, at least from what I have heard now and again.

On the other hand, it’s not as if any of this is new. There’s the obvious Whitman example. Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, and George Oppen published themselves, out of their own pockets, with their Objectivist Press. Lawrence Ferlinghetti published his own books with City Lights. Trevor Joyce and Michael Smith published themselves and their friends through New Writers Press. There are numerous other examples. So the ire, the indignation over BlazeVOX asking for something like this strikes me as a bit overblown. Gatza made it clear he is not simply open to all comers who can afford to pay $250; he has an editorial process. Ortler would no doubt be glad to achieve anything close to the repute of Reznikoff or Ferlinghetti (wouldn’t we all?). Indeed, none of the aforementioned poets are stigmatized as “vanity” cases. Mike Meginnis makes some interesting points about this at the Uncanny Valley blog, going so far as to say that poets should actually publish their own books more often (though I would disagree with him when he contends that “If it’s really that bad out there, if publishing must inherently be both exploitative and pointless, then let’s just not do it” — there are other ways of doing it, I would suggest).

The truth is most poetry presses cannot survive without some kind of help. Should they then all fold up shop? No, of course not. If you think they should, if you think that nothing other than the cutthroat capitalist marketplace should dictate whether or not innovative or original poetry books are allowed to see the light of day, then you may as well stop reading this now. Because I don’t. I believe there is a value to poetry beyond what can be quantified monetarily. So aside from those rare profit-making poetry presses mentioned above, the reality is that this whole thing is a gigantic cooperative enterprise (Johannes Göransson has gone into this idea further at Montevidayo). Poets want to be published, obviously, but publishers (many of whom are poets themselves) need to know that the poet is going to do his or her part to support the book where the publisher just cannot. More books, for example, are sold at readings than in bookstores, and these are books that the poet him- or herself has therefore had to purchase from the press (hopefully at a reasonable discount).

The idea is to get our books in print, do our best for them in the present, and hope they resonate someday in the future (how many great writers are recognized in their day, and how many writers once recognized in their day are now considered great?). If there’s no way to do that, if we say that the market forbids us from leaving anything for posterity, then we are sunk. Better to get the books out, granted as “reputably” as possible, than not at all. This might entail something beyond the old model of expecting to be snapped up by a profit-making press. We might criticize Gatza (but let me reiterate that he has rescinded his earlier policy, and apologized!), but we cannot expect our publishers to single-handedly make us stars as we sit on our asses. Most of them are simply unable to. Let us get this through our heads. Equally, it is to be hoped that, if sales were in fact to outweigh costs, the publisher should pay the writer commensurately — this cooperative enterprise is a two-way street, and a contract that spells things out is no bad thing. After acceptance, the writer has the option of agreeing or not agreeing to what is in said contract. Just as Ortler had the option of agreeing or not agreeing to the conditions Gatza put forward after acceptance.

The question of MFA programs is kind of an ancillary issue, to my mind, but it is something that has come up elsewhere in this discussion, in blog posts and the other comments. While I strongly agree with Göransson’s vision of small-press poetry publishing as a cooperative, and with his negative view of the elitist “Great Figure” and “Literary Authorities,” I would have to disagree with him when he says of the latter two notions, “I do think this is an incredibly MFA-based idea of the author … I think this is a view definitely reflecting a common MFA pedagogy based on validation of the teacher, the institution.” Ortler has made it a point to mention his MFA credentials (almost as special pleading?), and Gatza in one of his statements has similarly made a point (possibly in response?) of noting that “I am not a teacher or associated with any college or university” (as if there were money in that, ha!). I think that some people have a lot of misconceptions about what an MFA program is and what sort of status it confers on those who earn such a degree, and so it becomes an easy target. Certainly there are MFA programs that promulgate this sort of elitism. But MFA programs as a whole are in no way a monolith; there is in fact no “common MFA pedagogy.” There are lots of different programs out there, some perhaps “based on validation of the teacher, the institution,” but many others whose focus is something other, or even on, say, avant-garde poetics and destabilizing that older idea of the author as an “authority” which Göransson attacks.

If an MFA student thinks that a degree is his or her ticket to publication fame and fortune, then he or she is probably going to be sadly mistaken. In my experience (I have an MFA and have read up on many MFA programs), no program that I know of is marketing itself that way. Ultimately, the value of the degree depends on the writer him- or herself. I took my degree at North Carolina State University and studied with a number of poets, all of whom I respect immensely, but whose work bears little resemblance to my own approach to poetics. This clash was for me quite fruitful. I learned a lot about poetry as a discipline and a practice, and it challenged me to think about my own poetic stance in greater depth. I didn’t want to be merely reinforced in my assumptions, nor did I want to become a carbon copy of my professors. What would be the point of either? Of course, I came into the program at age 40, having had a lot of experience in the “poetry world” myself and something of a “career” of my own already, however modest. And so I felt that I could go through the degree and get what I wanted out of it for my own reasons. In this, I am maybe an exception; there probably are 22-year-old grad students out there who can’t help but be inculcated with the prevailing ethos of their program, be it positive or negative. On the other hand, how long does it take for one to learn to think critically and independently? So I say again, the value of the degree depends on the writer him- or herself.

If it is an illusion that an MFA is a fast track to publication, then what is it worth? Just as there is a glut of poets in the wider, non-academic world seeking publication, so is there now also a glut of MFA graduates who think they’re the next big thing (well, some may think that), and clearly that won’t be happening for all of them. But for the percipient individual, it certainly can be a forum in which one can develop one’s work if not one’s prospects with big publishing houses. I think MFA programs can also help to educate its students in how to read poetry and how to interpret literature in general. Poets need readers now more than ever, and so we should be glad that MFAs exists. Without them, the readership for poetry is even smaller. Part, anyway, of the problem of poetry’s lack of readership can be solved by investing in arts education. As Brian Joseph Davis recently wrote in The Huffington Post, “This is what arts education does better than anything else: it protects traditions from suffering market fluctuations, challenges forms with new traditions and constructs large buildings named after dead people and equipped with ace sound systems, in which to debate and perform.” The attack on arts education, firstly in America but throughout the whole world, and the promulgation of the corporate model of education, to my mind are two of the major reasons why poetry has fallen into such disregard over the last number of decades. Right now, the tide seems to be continuing in that direction, unfortunately. But if we want innovative poetry to continue to exist in the public arena, we need to oppose this.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review of Graham Clifford

I have a review of an English poet named Graham Clifford over at Todd Swift’s blog. Writing this review led me to think about the issue of reviewing friends or acquaintances, but not because Clifford is a friend nor an acquaintance. He’s neither. I’ve never met him and had never heard of him before Swift sent me the chapbook to review. Clifford is someone I probably never would have read otherwise. Lately, though, it sometimes (though certainly not always) has been someone I know or have some connection with who I end up reviewing or writing about (as in my McGrath review below). It is natural that your colleagues or friends will send you their books, and vice-versa. I think it’s also a good thing to have such poetry friends. There are seemingly so few readers of poetry to begin with, and so it’s understandable that you will want some kind of response from somewhere, and usually your literary associates are going to be good readers. We should be thankful to have any readers at all, really. But reviewing someone completely unknown to me again was interesting. Perhaps in retrospect this review is a bit didactic. But decide for yourself if you’ve got the time to click the link.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Niall McGrath, Treasures of the Unconscious & Who I Am

Interestingly, though unexpectedly, both of these collections by Niall McGrath reference me. Treasures of the Unconscious (Scotus Press, 2009) contains a poem titled “To Michael S. Begnal Founding the James Liddy Society of America,” which, though not stated here, I happen to know is written after a poem by Liddy himself titled “To Joan Navarre Founding the Oscar Wilde Society of America.” Thus, McGrath, who had published both Liddy and me in his journal The Black Mountain Review, humorously notes certain poetic connections. Who I Am (Lapwing, 2009) is a poetic treatment of McGrath’s family history, the concept of which, as the author explains in the notes that appear at the end of the volume, “originally…centred around the idea of ‘Ancestor Worship’, but as others (most notably Michael S. Begnal) have used that title, I searched for another.” One poem in the sequence nonetheless retains the “Ancestor Worship” moniker, and if I have in some small way inspired something here, then I am quite pleased for McGrath to run with it.

I have been aware of McGrath since we were both editors of separate Irish literary journals about ten years ago or so now. We appeared in each other’s magazines, and I was included in the anthology Breaking the Skin which McGrath’s Black Mountain Press published. I don’t know if all this means I can still be an “impartial” reviewer, but who cares; let’s just call this something else if need be, a response from a long-time reader and occasional associate. While we probably have certain philosophical differences, McGrath is an interesting poet to me, and I also see certain commonalities. But to these books.

In both of these volumes, McGrath is sure-handed and at home in the tradition of Northern Irish lyric poetry but is more than willing to extend it or to try other things. Much of his work is focused on the crisply observed details of his rural upbringing, as in the title poem of Treasures of the Unconscious, or in “A Farmhouse Kitchen in Country Antrim.” But then he occasionally presents something unexpectedly crazy, like the poem “2012,” a fantastical portrait of the North post-apocalypse. There are deft formal poems, such as “An Ulster Nativity,” alongside funny formal poems, such as “The Prince of Outer Baldonia and the Pepsi-Cola Kid,” alongside the surreal, television-inspired “Diabolical,” alongside elegiac poems of death. The humour and occasional weirdness leavens the often heavy tone of this collection, not that heavy is a bad thing in itself.

One aspect of McGrath’s work that does really interest me is his treatment of political and cultural identity in Ireland. In previous works of his, it appeared to me that identitarian politics was something he wanted to avoid, though the six-county focus could be seen as political in itself. McGrath, though, it often seemed , wished to rise above the fray of the North’s cultural divide. In Treasures of the Unconscious, the Troubles are briefly referenced as “a feud/ that made international headlines” (“Botanic”) (perhaps with an echo of Paddy Kavanagh’s poem “Epic”), while “Elder” justifiably affirms those Protestants who eschewed bigotry, even while their position in Northern society made them seem complicit in it to some. “Covenant,” which appears in both of the two books (in fact several poems occur twice in these overlapping collections) is about a grandmother who signed the Ulster Covenant, yet McGrath complicates the statement that signing the Covenant embodied: “she’d…learn/ other shades of green;/ and that pledges made in the heat/ of the moment don’t always ring true.”

Such muddying of the waters in regard to Irish identities and even family connections comes to the fore in Who I Am. On one level, this book is intended to solidify poetically the writer’s position in history and genealogy by exploring his family history and personal roots (which comprise both Protestant planters and native Gaelic Irish) — indeed the ancient Gaelic poets were practically obsessed with genealogy, and so this endeavour in itself helps situate McGrath in Irish tradition, if nothing else. However, despite the bold proclamation of the title, Who I Am ultimately seems to me to result in more of a sense of indeterminacy than certainty. One of the poems that perhaps best sums this up is “Name Calling,” wherein the writer, Niall McGrath, a Protestant with a Gaelic name, reflects on “growing up during the Troubles,/ one side suspicious because of the name,/ the other at first open, then clamming up/ on discovering you weren’t ‘one of them’.” But it isn’t even simply a North-South thing or a unionist-nationalist thing — the poem goes on to discuss a sister-in-law from the South whose parish priest refuses to call her by her given name (Deirdre) because it’s too Gaelic and thus pagan-seeming.

In the notes that appear at the back of Who I Am, McGrath states that “the experiences of forebears shape the individual as well as our own experiences.” This is true, I think. Yet, as in my own experience also, it would ultimately appear that assertions of identity can only be partial, contingent on many things beyond ancestors and family lore (as much as these things may touch us, and they do). McGrath himself is aware of this, of course, and this collection sees him opening up to the rest of Ireland, while rejecting the Catholic/Protestant divide that has plagued the country for hundreds of years now (McGrath posits a personal “Vaisnavist perspective”). The final few poems look boldly toward the future. I still couldn’t help but notice an interesting mistake in the text. The title heading on the verso pages of the book reads, “Who Am I,” instead of the intended “Who I Am.” From the author’s perspective this is probably an annoying error, understandably, but the question in a way is maybe just as interesting as the answer.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Poem in The New Yinzer

I have a poem titled “1877 Point Bridge” up at the journal The New Yinzer — right here!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Salmon Poetry raffle

My publisher Salmon Poetry is holding a raffle. The prize is of all Salmon’s 2011 titles, signed by the authors. The draw will take place at Salmon’s 30th Anniversary Celebratory Event at the Unitarian Church, Dublin, on 1st November 2011. This is an opportunity to add considerably to your literary bookshelf with some great titles (it is a pretty good prize, I think — 31 books) and to support Salmon Poetry at the same time. 5 tickets for €5, 12 tickets for €10. For further info, including the list of books to be won, and to order tickets, please go here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Oblivion is a band I was in in Philadelphia from 1984-86, playing drums. The other members of the original lineup were Steve Lukshides on guitar, Marc Fernich on bass, and Todd Cote on vocals. Lukshides had previously played in YDI, and Fernich had been in Kremlin Korps, while Cote was a fanzine editor and a well-known figure in the Philly hardcore scene. My claim to fame was having been in the band Wasted Talent. Oblivion quickly came to prominence in Philly, playing a lot of shows and beginning to record. These recording were never released at the time, but two songs are now available to download from Amazon here (for cheap, and the sound quality is very good).

Cote left the band in 1985 and was replaced by another well-known figure in the Philly scene, Dave Wynter, while a second guitarist, Fil Černý, was added to the lineup. Fil was originally primarily a metal guitarist, and, as a lot of post-hardcore bands at the time were doing, we had added something of a metal sound to the basic feel of punk rock. The recording sessions were finished with the new lineup, and there was some discussion with a well-known West Coast independent record label about doing an album, which all fell through due to an unfortunate set of circumstances.

By the term “post-hardcore” I do not mean that Oblivion had anything in common with the lame Warped Tour type of bands who are often described by that term today, but simply mean to say that we were coming out of the original hardcore punk scene while attempting to do something just a little bit different from it musically. The primary influence, though, was always punk, and I would say that we took some cues from bands like YDI, Ruin, Black Flag, the Stooges, and Motörhead. Oblivion finally ended in late 1986. (Incidentally, a few other bands have used the name Oblivion, either by itself or as part of their name, but I think that we, the Philly band from ’84 to ’86, were the first.)

Below is a video from Oblivion’s first show with our second lineup in October 1985, introduced by roadie and friend of the band Lou Perfidio, who used to announce us as being “from Kensington” (the Philly neighborhood where he and Fil lived and we practiced for a while). Oblivion is the first band in the segment:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

David Stone, The Hogbutcher Poems

Following on from David Stone’s previous chapbook The Bloodhound Works of last fall, Propaganda Press/Alternating Current has released his newest installment, The Hogbutcher Poems. Though Stone is based in Baltimore, both of these collections are set in Chicago where he has spent time, and the title of this latest must certainly be in part a reference to Chicago poet Carl Sandburg, who famously described the city as “Hog Butcher for the World.”

That said, the term “Hogbutcher” here can have other resonances. Where Stone’s previous chapbook dealt with our present economic upheaval, this new one seems to focus on the environment, the food industry, and our alienation from the processes by which we glean our own sustenance, all of it poisoned and redolent of death. In one poem, “The/ incandescent DEAD/ ...splash/ & crispen/ on the oily griddle.” In another, the water supply is full of sulphur, benzene, radioactive waste. In “In Hogbutcher City,” “Odors/ of death/ ...prepare carcasses/ with seasonings/for family picnics...” “Production Scheduling” is perhaps a comment on the factory farming system — baby piglets are slaughtered according to a production model, and, “Wait, one is alive/ and blinking/ OK, I can fix that/ with my tire iron.”

Stone’s vision is often violent and apocalyptic, but it is little details such as these that make us see the connection between the horror and our daily lives. These are not poems for the faint-hearted, but both subject and form (often clipped, prose-like, philosophical iterations of ideas and images) force us to reexamine contemporary society and the wider world in which we live. Highly recommended.

Addendum: Stone’s previous book The Bloodhound Works has been translated into Serbian by Ivan Glišić as Krvožeđe. Further information can be obtained from: ivangl [at]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review of Liam Mac Sheóinín, Mid-Eternity

On this Bloomsday, I am pleased to be able to write a few words about Liam Mac Sheóinín’s novel George W. Bush Buys Coke in Mid-Eternity (Serving House Books, 2011). I know Mac Sheóinín (indeed a brief blurb from me appears on the back cover of the book), so I can’t say this is an impartial review, but my admiration for his work is genuine. As editor of The Burning Bush, I published a couple of excerpts from Mid-Eternity, yet reading it in full book form is quite an amazing experience. Very few people are writing like Mac Sheóinín now. With the ascent of creative non-fiction, memoir, crime fiction, and the like, literary fiction of this sort has largely been shunted to the sidelines. As the Western world’s collective cultural intelligence quotient continues to drop daily, and our universities are turned into degree-printing assembly lines for business majors, fewer and fewer people are being equipped to read a novel such as this. James Joyce himself wrote in Finnegans Wake, “Wipe your glosses with what you know,” but today many people seem to know less and less. All of which is to say that Mac Sheóinín’s Mid-Eternity will not be a bestseller, but nevertheless it is to my mind a welcome addition to the corpus of poetic-prose novels in the mode of Joyce, Pynchon, Nabokov, and Djuna Barnes.

The novel’s main character is an Irish-American Jersey Shore coke dealer named Brian Jordan. It is the late 1980s. Jordan is an anomaly as a coke dealer — he is interested in Joyce, philosophy, linguistics (oh, and anal sex), and intersperses much of his speech with obscure (to those around him) literary references. Jordan runs a bar and a strip club with his partner Dentelupo, is seeing the girlfriend (Rachel) of an acquaintance, and spends part of his time in the local library (à la Stephen Dedalus), where at one point he runs into the novelist Martin Amis — or is it Martin Amis the character in Money? Mid-Eternity is sub-titled “A Menippean Satire,” and Amis certainly is satirized — enough to, as was the power of the poets in ancient Ireland, bring boils to his face. Harold Bloom the literary critic also makes an appearance and comes off only slightly less scathed than Amis. The Bushes, both W. and H.W., tend to be described in simian (the former) and sinister (the latter) terms, and the scene from which the book derives its full appellation is hilarious.

Jordan is also given to visionary moments, which may or may not be encouraged by drugs and Jameson, and further he is seemingly abducted by aliens (Zeta Reticulans), who supply the coke he sells. In a parody of the detective novel — or is it in homage? — there is a murder. Such is the plot. The blurbs tend to portray Mid-Eternity as a rollicking, madcap good time, and they are not at all wrong in that. But I think there is something further going on here. Neither Menippean satire nor the modernist / postmodernist novel is really about plot. Mid-Eternity is about character and language, and puts forward ideas in something of a stochastic manner. “The true writer has nothing to say,” conjectures Jordan in one internal monologue, “It’s the fucking way he says it.” This may not be the first time it’s been suggested but it bears reiterating, and while it may sound coarse as presented, it suggests a deeper and possibly mystic sensibility. Clearly, this is a novel that is conscious of a tradition — not just of the 20th century, but going at least as far back as Scotus Eriugena.

Jordan, and Mac Sheónín himself, have actualized “A world where poetry is legal tender.” For Jordan, it may be in the form of his own wishful thinking, but Mac Sheónín really does create for the reader who understands his references a cosmology based on Joyce, poetry, and all of the above. Finnegans Wake, “the eternal book,” is Jordan’s “passport” to “sráid na réaltaí,” the Zeta Reticulans’ Irish-language term for the otherworld (meaning “street of stars”). The aliens have decided to intervene in human affairs because “your race has, largely, rejected Finnegans Wake.” These are wry strokes, but at the same time is this really so off in its sentiment? Mac Sheóinín is (if it is not obvious at this point in the review) an unapologetic Joycean, and Mid-Eternity takes Joyce as a given first premise. It is a work which builds on this premise; it is in dialogue with Joyce. Joyce is the greatest novelist of the 20th century. The literature of the 21st must of course continue to become itself, but I would be happy for it to spring from Joyce (in some way). And so Mac Sheóinín’s book is significant not only as an eminently worthy 252 pages of writing (and reading), but also because it is a marker of one possible direction for contemporary fiction.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Túaille Scanrúil

Is mór an clú atá ar na Pittsburgh Steelers, an fhoireann péile Meiriceánaigh, ar fud an domhain. Comhartha naofa do thacaithe na Steelers is ea an “túaille scanrúil” (an “terrible towel” as Béarla). Feictear an túaille buí seo go flúirseach ag cluichí na foirne agus i ngach áit i mBaile Phitt. Go spéisiúil, tá leagan Gaeilge le feiceáil sa chathair sin anois. Ar an drochuair, tá botún mór déanta air — tá an chomhréir ainmfhocal-aidiacht as ord.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kali’s Tongue (The Vinyl Press)

I am included in a chapbook homage to the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers. The book is called Kali’s Tongue and is published by a new imprint, The Vinyl Press. Each poem responds to a song on the album. My piece, a mixture of poetry and poetic prose, is on “I Got the Blues.”

Editor Justin Kishbaugh has written this explanatory note:
Kali’s Tongue is the first in series of Vinylist texts that offer poetic interpretations of the songs on a particular artist or band’s album — in this case, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. As a text, Kali’s Tongue attempts to build upon the general public’s willingness to apply meaning to music by using it as a bridge to poetry. Ultimately, Kali’s Tongue sutures the wound that exists between the art of poetry and mainstream consciousness, and seizes upon music’s fundamental imprint to create and present a poetic record of a song’s event and the fuller context, or album, within which it exists.
Copies of this sharply-designed little volume can be purchased at the pop-up bookstore Fleeting Pages in Pittsburgh through the first week of June. It can also be ordered for $5.50 postage-paid. For ordering info, email: thevinylpress[at]gmail[dot]com

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

“Manifesto” in TINGE Magazine

My poem “Manifesto” appears in the inaugural issue of TINGE Magazine, the new online literary journal produced by Temple University’s MFA program. TINGE is really well done. My poem is a recent piece. Check it out.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mairéad Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven

Mairéad Byrne sent me her latest book The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven (Publishing Genius, 2010) a while back, and foolishly I let it sit for a long time in the pile of books that I have been letting build up for ages now. Somehow I assumed it would be tough to read, and it is 208 pages, and I’ve just been so busy, etc., etc. Bad choice, and how wrong I was, because I could have been talking about this one, recommending it, rereading it, for so much longer, because it’s that good that you’d want to. On the other hand, I get to right now experience that jolt of discovery, having read the whole thing in a day, and am still in the mode of enthused response.

The poems herein first appeared on Byrne’s blog Heaven (thus the title of the book), and so the question arises, why a book, can’t these poems just all be read online? Well, the reason why a book, or one reason anyway, is because this book is a great little object, an excellently-designed artifact in itself, with a sharp cover (by Stephanie Barber) and layout. On top of that, it has one of the best back cover blurbs ever, supplied by Luke Kennard, who ends by saying, “…it’s a beautiful, angry, generous collection and if you don’t like it you’re a fucking idiot.” Yes indeed.

Personally, I like books better than the internet. I like the feel and smell of them, and am interested in their construction and structures. The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven is divided into sections, rough thematic chapters — “Calendar,” “Everyday Lunacy,” “Found,” “Interviews,” “Numbers,” “War,” etc. Byrne is an experimentalist of sorts, though I realize a term such as this may be restrictive. Her work is actually very wide-ranging, from short imagistic poems like “Fall” (“Now when I come home at night/ I take my pate off/ & watch the gold & auburn trees/ surge & blow”) to imagined interviews with a figure like the poet Charles Reznikoff, to found poems, to political poems (there are a number of anti-war pieces here with titles such as “Rubble,” “Baghdad,” “Headlines”), to the surreal poems of the section “Everything Is Unlikely.”

I suspect that Reznikoff is important for Byrne, because the found poem is to the fore in this collection (as has been the case in other of her books). In this regard, I also see an affinity to the work of Caroline Bergvall, not only in the manipulation of found texts (be it through erasure, addition, collage, cut-up), but in Byrne’s similar interest in the interplay of languages and cultures. “An Educated Heart” is a play on the poem’s title phrase in several different languages (I can see Spanish, Irish, German, French, and Chinese, but I think there are others), sometimes rendered phonetically. “Mount Pleasant” celebrates the neighborhood of the same name in Providence, Rhode Island, which seems to be the location of a number of Latino businesses (e.g. Tiende y Panaderia Guatemalteca) existing alongside places like Family Dollar and Print-It Plus. Byrne herself is Irish, having immigrated to the United States “for poetry,” as her bio note at the end of the book proclaims.

As I stated above, I was initially under the mistaken assumption that this would somehow be a difficult book. And in fact I do happen to like difficult poetry, so that would have been just grand too. As it happens, this collection is quite substantial and by no means trivial, but there’s a whimsicality to it, a conversational feel, which allows the reader to enter into Byrne’s poetry with ease. Her work includes much in the way of personal detail, yet it is not “confessional.” It is humorous but never trite. It is experimental but not hermetic. It is of the world, of life. Byrne’s poem “Donald Hall Would Hate Me” is a sort of manifesto, an ars poetica, and articulates her own approach to poetry better than I can at the moment:
Donald Hall Would Hate Me

if he knew me
I don’t want to be great

it takes me 10 minutes
to write a poem

& then

I want to whisper or
shout it about

My poems are usually brief
they resemble each other
they are anecdotal
they do not extend themselves
they make no great claims
they connect small things to other small things


I just want to kick the leaves
& have done

Part of me in a way feels like I should be doing a more in-depth, disciplined “criticism” of this collection — I don’t want to give this short shrift — but right now I really just want to say how much I liked it. And you probably will too.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Alan Jude Moore review in JSTOR

Here is another of my book reviews in Poetry Ireland Review, through the JSTOR database. This one is on Alan Jude Moore’s first collection, Black State Cars (Salmon Poetry, 2004). The review appeared in PIR No. 82 (2005). PIR was then edited by Peter Sirr.

If you have a JSTOR log-in, you can read the whole thing at the first link, above.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Begnal in Pittsburgh Magazine

The April 2011 edition of Pittsburgh Magazine features an article about a recent New Yinzer poetry reading I was part of at ModernFormations Gallery in that city, along with Alan Jude Moore and others.

While I’m not mentioned in the online version, the print version features a photo of me reading on the night. For those with good eyesight, though, I am also in the audience in the photo that accompanies the online article (photo by Jim Judkis, reproduced above) (Kevin Finn is the reader here). In any case, if you’re in the Pittsburgh area, do go out and pick up a hard copy. The article, by Kris Collins, is an interesting overview of the present state of Pittsburgh’s literary scene.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Reading at Duquesne University, Fri. 3/18

I will be wowing audiences — or at least an audience should hopefully be present — this Friday night, reading poetry as part of the Duquesne University English Department’s graduate Echoes Conference. Also on the bill are John Fried (fiction), Craig Bernier (fiction) and Christina Rawls (poetry). The proceedings begin at 7:00pm at the Duquesne Union Africa Room.

Interestingly, I just found out that Duquesne’s campus includes a building (Mellon Hall, pictured) designed by the great architect Mies van der Rohe. It’s right across from the Union, where the reading takes place.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Begnal i bhFoinse an tseachtain seo

Chuir an nuachtán Foinse agallamh orm mar chuid dalt a fhoilseofar Dé Céadaoin faoi Ghaeilgeoirí atá thar lear. Tá cóipeanna ar fáil saor in aisce i bpáirtíocht leis an Irish Independent gach Céadaoin. Mar sin, pioc suas é!

The Irish-language newspaper Foinse will publish an article about Irish-speakers across the world in this Wednesday’s edition. I will be part of this, having been interviewed for the piece a few days ago. Copies are distributed free with each Wednesday’s Irish Independent, so if you’re in Ireland pick one up!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Review of Somhairle MacGill-Eain et al. in JSTOR

Another old(ish) review of mine in Poetry Ireland Review, this one being from No. 75 (Winter, 2002/2003) — and its online through JSTOR. This one is of three books: Dàin do Eimhir by modernist Scots Gaelic poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain (a.k.a. Sorley MacLean), ed. Christopher Whyte, Furnace of Love: A Selection from the Religious Poetry of Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin (the somewhat earlier Irish Gaelic poet), trans. Pádraig J. Daly, and the collection Mis by contemporary Irish-language poet Biddy Jenkinson.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review of Catherine Walsh, Optic Verve

I have written a review of Irish experimental poet Catherine Walshs most recent book, Optic Verve (Shearsman 2009), now online at Todd Swifts blog site Eyewear. The review suggests that, rather than engaging in wordplay for wordplays sake, Walsh actively critiques the way in which language may be employed in the service of dominant hierarchies, and that the pressures that cause language loss and even media censorship are, as Walsh notes, “a crucial determining factor in how people choose to interact socially, what they aspire to attain. Perhaps, though, Walsh also explores (enacts?) possible ways around such language oppression. But there’s much more to this, so swing over to the review itself (linked above) and check it out.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mac Lochlainn review in JSTOR

Tá mo léirmheas de Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues le Gearóid Mac Lochlainn (in Éigse Éireann Uimh. 73, Samhradh 2002) ar fáil tríd an bunachar sonraí JSTOR anois.

My review of Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues by Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, in Poetry Ireland Review No. 73 (Summer 2002), is now available through the JSTOR database. The full review is available to anyone with a JSTOR log-in.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Salmon’s Off-Site Reading at AWP 2011

I will be taking part in Salmon Poetry’s off-site AWP reading in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this great press. It takes place on Friday, Feb. 4th, at 8pm, at Pigment Art Studio, 1848 Columbia Rd. NW, Washington, D.C.

This is a blockbuster reading, also including the launch of 10 new poetry collections by Andrea Cohen, Christoher Locke, Allan Peterson, Philip Fried, Drew Blanchard, Drucilla Wall, Simmons Buntin, John Fitzgerald, Alan Jude Moore, and Patrick Chapman.

As well as the above, readers include Kevin Higgins, Susan Millar DuMars, Stephen Powers, Patrick Hicks, Eamonn Wall, Helene Cardona, Devon McNamara, William Pitt Root, J.D. Smith, Pam Uschuk, Adam Tavel, Irene McKinney, Jeanne Wagner, and, as I mentioned, myself.

The event is supported by Culture Ireland. Hope to see you there....

Oh, and Salmon will also have a table at the AWP Bookfair. Its location is Table E26, Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Exhibition Level. My book Ancestor Worship will be on sale, as well as Salmon’s other books, so please stop by. The Bookfair runs every day during the conference.