Molly Reid: Lately, I’ve been interested in the way I—and perhaps other non-poets—read poetry. How might a fiction writer look at a poem differently than a poet? What do I seek in a good story, and how might that translate to a poem? (Do I need some kind of narrative arc? Lovely language? Image? Surprise?)
Reading submissions for The Cincinnati Review this semester, I’ve had to confront some of these questions, as we’re required to read both poetry and fiction (as well as nonfiction). Having never taken a poetry class, I was at first really uncomfortable with this. I felt unequipped to judge without the kind of rigorous critical apparatus I have for fiction. But after a few weeks, I settled in a bit. Though I may not always be able to name the form or rhyme scheme the poet is using or even completely understand what the poem is trying to do, I feel confident in saying whether or not a given piece works for me—the same way I can judge a nice brie from a rubbery cheddar. (I let the editorial staff parse the finer details; thank god they’re reading behind me.)
Along these lines, I thought it might be fun to take a look at a poem that spoke to me in the latest issue, Donika Ross Kelly’s “Acheron,” to try and examine the process of fiction-writer-reading-poem. Or ignorant-pleasure-seeking-individual-reading-poem. Not a deep critical analysis but a kind of casual aesthetic anatomy.
“Acheron” begins with the lines “This the season men were turned to trees—/ the formula simpler than we initially imagined.” This is exactly the kind of opening I like in fiction: an imaginative leap, a strangeness, not to mention the compression of language. There’s the obvious hook—men turning into trees—though it’s the “season” here that really wins me over. It indicates a time limit, a particular container, retrospection. Even a nostalgia. Then that second line (“the formula simpler than we initially imagined”). What formula? How could it be simple? Who is “we”? And what (and why) did this we imagine what they imagined?
Such a beginning prompts a string of questions that—were this a story—would most likely get answered in some fashion. In the poem, however, none of these questions is answered (with the exception, maybe, of “the formula”: “The stiffened limb and rooting feet, the slow/ crawl of bark over skin; the god mourning/ a man now hidden.” Well, not answered so much as jerked around a little, like contents under pressure.)
I love this space—it makes me want to use words like liminal and hybridity. Why are we always trying to solve problems in fiction, find answers? It makes me consider how there should be more of poetry’s trouble-making and question-asking in my own fiction. And also, most definitely, more men turning into trees.
A reminder that there will be a live performance of our forthcoming art song this Thursday, April 28, at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center. Composer David Clay Mettens and his ensemble All of the Above will play from 7 to 9 p.m. For our spring issue, Mettens set Mary Kaiser’s poem “He Dreams a Mother,” a beautiful score that’s our most extended art-song offering to date. Admission for the event will be free. For more information, visit cliftonculturalarts.org.
A lovely review of our winter issue by DM O’Connor of New Pages—with shout outs to Dave Mondy, Leslie Pietrzyk, Wendy Call, Irma Pineda, Charles Rafferty, Rion Amilcar Scott, Anne Valente, and Tom Williams.
by José Angel Araguz
“The memory does not exist, you have to create them” (Jürgen Becker)
These words, with their implication of memory as mortal creation, are emblematic of the spirit behind the shorter poems of Jürgen Becker. Reading through Okla Elliott’s translation of Becker’s poems, I was struck by the importance and emphasis placed on everyday occurrences as material for such memory-making. In “Beginning of September,” for example, nuanced observations become vivid actions:
No war. The old woman
draws her head in, because
she hears an apple
crashing through the branches.
Here, Becker’s lyric works both like a diary and a dispatch from the frontlines of everyday life. The juxtaposition of the statement “No war” against the scene that follows evokes the tension of life during war, and how a residual tension exists after.
Becker’s speaker in this and other poems speaks in a personal and direct manner; this approach makes for lyrics able to evoke life with an immediacy similar to Japanese tanka. This immediacy is evident in the poem “What You See”:
The headlights turn briefly
through the curve, and for seconds
the room is bright. Then you see,
on the wall, the shadow of the tree
which stands barren this summer.
Here, the lyric places the reader in the moment not just of noticing but of realization. The pacing of images as well as the resonance developed through pacing and concision bring to mind Octavio Paz’s short lyrics. Where Paz’s emphasis was on the unfolding poem as a mirror to the unfolding self, Becker’s poems emphasize the unfolding moment as possibility for art. As the speaker of “Hell, Sartre Said, Is Other People” states about the “do-it-yourself handyman who makes the mood/for his and my evening” and his drilling into walls late in the day:
. . . In case I see him, I’ll, I’ll
do nothing. Like always, complaints go
in the poem, which makes a large staying noise.
This creation of “a large staying noise” is exactly the ambition behind these poems. For Becker, the material to make this noise comes directly from memory. Through poetry, memories can be created from what we do and do not see, thus clarifying and pointing toward both what does and does not exist. When the poem “Tenth of July” moves from the image of gorse on a postcard into a memory of gorse not being there, an indirect presence is created around the idea of the shrub:
Gorse; with a postcard
from Elba island gorse comes
into the house; it’s Proust’s birthday;
and the memory of gorse
in those years when, along the railway,
the gorse didn’t bloom.
“The decision to focus on [Becker’s] shorter poems,” Elliott shared via email, “was a practical one. He has such a large body of work, and he has done so many longer poems (5 to 50 pages in length) that to simply choose one or two to represent that entire vein of his output seemed like too much of a disservice. His longer poems also have quite a different flavor than his shorter ones, so the two types of poems didn’t seem to live together in a single book very well. I plan to tackle a selection of his longer poems in the future to create a companion volume to Blackbirds in September.”
When asked what influence translating Becker’s poems has had on him, on or off the page, Elliott said:
“Interestingly, Cincinnati Review just published a poem of mine that I consider very much influenced by the lyric logic of Becker’s poems. I think that’s what I learned most from translating his work, his subterranean and unspoken logic. In order to translate someone, you have to become a linguistic mimic of sorts, and by taking on his voice I learned to think like him a bit. Becker will likely forever be an influence on my poetry, even if only in subtle ways that are undetectable in terms of content or phrasing.”
Check out Okla Elliott’s poem “Machine-Minded” in issue 12.2 of The Cincinnati Review.
Blackbirds in September is available for purchase from Black Lawrence Press.
Suzie Vander Vorste: Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction is my current reading companion, and it’s a great one—full of brilliant short creative-nonfiction essays. It’s easy to flip this book open and land on a piece that enlarges one’s understanding of the art of story-telling, the act of self-reflection, and of the different perspectives on what it means to be human. One essay in particular, “Winter Journal: The First Three Pages,” reminds us how something elemental to the human condition can surge through a piece of writing, compelling us to think about what it’s like to live our lives in our bodies.
As you read about Paul Auster’s childhood sensations of cold air felt through a window frame, the tenderness in which he describes the scene may draw you back to the day when, at age six, you tried to sweep up snow with a broom while helping your mother clear the driveway. It may take you back to pulling icy clumps off your mittens while playing outside, or walking to school with numb toes inside heavy winter boots.
Although his essay in some ways evokes a painful desire to turn back the clock, Auster’s work also considers the inevitability of aging, recognizing both that our time does run out, and that a person only has one body to live in. In “Winter Journal,” Auster tells his body’s story, presenting a fragmented narrative that reflects how life itself is a series of sensations and that emphasizes the ways our sense of self is bound to the physical as much as it is to memory. For Auster, the bodily pleasures and pains of life, past and present, are bound together from the beginning. His ability to convey this interplay over the course of a person’s life is remarkable.
Auster reminds us that there are moments we each experience that are unique to our bodies and our selves, moments that allow the reader to disentangle what it means to have lived one’s own life compared to the lives of others.
Although “Winter Journal: The First Three Pages” is brief, Auster digs deep into the sensations of living in his body to reconcile who he is at the age he is—and all while his title quietly insists there is still more life, and writing, to be had.
We’re excited about all the great stuff in our spring issue (due out in May), including an excerpt from the first chapter of Steven Sherrill’s sequel to The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, an amazing novel that threw off sparks all over the world when Picador published it in 2000. CR associate ed. Don Peteroy vows it changed his life.
With The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time (forthcoming this fall), the mythical man-beast returns, seeking surcease from the tedium of modern times through Civil War reenactments and handyman duties at the Judy-Lou Motor Lodge. Get a peek at the first chunk of pages in CR 13.1.
A writer, teacher, artist, and musician, Sherrill has his thumb in pretty much every (cow)pie. To give you an idea of his inexhaustible imagination and energy, we post below a pic of items he sent us last week in an informal press kit: How to Love a Minotaur: An Instruction Manual, a CD of 18 tracks of “minotaur music” called Cluck Old Bull, assorted postcards of intimate scenes from the cursed cross-breed’s domestic life, and a (leather) lanyard advertising his autobiography. For more info on the multitalented artiste and his creations, visit stevensherrill.com.
Our art song feature for the spring issue is an extended score of Mary Kaiser’s poem “He Dreams a Mother” by composer David Clay Mettens. We will, of course, post a recording of the score when our spring issue comes out in May—but we’re excited to offer locals the opportunity for a live listening experience. Mettens’s ensemble All of the Above will perform on Thursday, April 28, at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission will be free. For more information, visit cliftonculturalarts.org. We’ll shoot those interested a reminder as the date draws nigh, but mark your calendars!
Ryan Ruff Smith: Mavis Gallant is one of those realists who, upon close examination, is weirder than anyone. Excepting one ghost story, the material collected in Paris Stories, a retrospective assemblage put together by NYRB Classics in 2002, is strictly grounded in reality. For the most part, this is the reality of post-World War II Europe. (The stories are not set exclusively in Paris, as the title may seem to suggest, but all of them were written there.) What makes Gallant’s writing so odd is less about content than structure. She’s a virtuoso of exposition and summary who doesn’t seem to have any particular regard for scene, that workhorse of most literary realism. It’s not that she can’t write them—there are scenes throughout Paris Stories that are sharp and unforgettable—but Gallant seems to care less about the usual beats of fiction than about sketching the contours of a life, or more precisely, a particular consciousness and sensibility, shown at a slant.
You never get the sense that any of these stories might be about her. They have the feel of train-notebook stories—observational, penetrating, and, within their realistic bounds, wildly imaginative. They are almost all told in close third person, though there is one in first and even one in second, the latter (“Mlle. Dias de Corta”) perhaps the most successful story of its kind that I’ve read. Where Gallant’s own sensibility comes through is in that slant—the sharp but subtle angle of vision from which she views her subjects. Her eye is keen, ironic, and sometimes vindictive. I fear that it’s become something of a cliché to say about a mean but funny writer—someone like Muriel Spark or Flannery O’Connor—that she is acerbic and cruel to her characters and yet also deeply sympathetic and fair. If this commonplace observation can be true, it’s certainly true of Gallant, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that her characterizations are so fully fleshed out, so deeply imagined, that the questions of kindness and fairness become unyoked.
Here she is describing the couple at the center of the collection’s opening story, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”:
“As a private married joke, Peter and Sheilah wear the silk dressing gowns they bought in Hong Kong. Each thinks the other a peacock, rather splendid, but they pretend the dressing gowns are silly and worn in fun.”
And again in “Specks’ Idea,” describing the modest Paris art dealer and gallerist Sandor Speck, an expert at dealing with artists’ widows:
“Sugar was poison to Speck. Henriette [his former second wife] had once reviewed a book that described how refined sugar taken into one’s system turned into a fog of hideous green. Her brief, cool warning, ‘A Marxist Considers Sweets,’ unreeled in Speck’s mind if he was confronted with a cookie.”
What Gallant is having fun with in both passages is the absurdity of characters taking things seriously. Peter and Sheilah pretend to think the dressing gowns are silly in order to enjoy them in earnest. And surely, the preposterous title of Henriette’s review belies the narrator’s insistence on its “briefness” and “coolness”—and yet, the sentence illustrates the perfect seriousness with which Speck regards it.
Satire is too strong a word for what Gallant is up to here—satire in the sense of big targets, didacticism, broad swipes. The exposure of her characters feels less public than private—what Gallant is poking fun at is nothing less personal than their unspoken patterns of thought. This necessitates a sort of intimacy that is impossible without a degree of affection, and it is this strange mixture—biting wit tempered with a sense of warm familiarity—that makes Gallant Gallant. It is also what stands in for traditional drama in these dense and beguiling stories; rather than relying on plot and external event, Gallant builds narrative arcs out of the tension between the dispassion of observation and the vulnerable subjectivity of interior thought.
Rochelle Hurt: There is something to be said for writing against or away from received traditions and natural proclivities. Often, the result is a kind of verve and vigor we may not otherwise access. Several contributors to CR 12.2 describe their process as that of writing against the grain, whether by challenging predecessors, staking out marginal territory, or disavowing process altogether. In thinking about this, I also noticed that many 12.2 contributors formed their pieces out of difficult or negative experiences—not by turning away from them in search of comfort, but by turning toward them. This is an interesting and indirect counter to the idea of writing against. Perhaps sometimes the same kind of verve attained through writing from aversion can also be attained through writing from adversity. In other words, try the darker path.
David Mohan: “Semblance” explores how a lover treats with time, and the psychological temporality of a relationship. My key trigger would have to be John Donne’s “The Sunne Rising,” one of the great poems about love and the passage of time, but it should be pointed out that I was inspired to write against that poem, and explore something similar to a counterpoint to Donne’s playful conceit. I love the idea in Donne’s poem that it might be possible, within the exalted temporality of being in love, to control time, but I was more interested in how someone in love has a more pronounced sense of how transient any form of human contact is. If the lovers in Donne’s poem are at the center of the universe—according to the poet, at least—the lovers in “Semblance” are rendered close to anonymous when viewed in the context of moment-by-moment flux and change.
Charles Rafferty on “Leisure,” “Antique,” and “Because He Had Been Crying”: I used to have an aversion to prose poems. I thought of them as mules—sterile hybrids. Now, I see the prose poem as a euglena—that cutthroat survivor with a foot in two kingdoms.
Allison Campbell on “Necessity”: I think I can safely say this is the first poem I’ve written via food poisoning. Maybe this is an argument for how much intelligence is in the gut, rather than the brain. I don’t know. But after a turkey sandwich from a questionable, smoothie-making-health-food-like joint, I was up all night and in incredible pain. To pass the dark hours and try to ease the discomfort, I listened to a meditation podcast. The woman’s almost unnervingly calm voice kept calling for space, to create space. And I noticed that when I could breathe around the areas of my body that felt distressed the space that breathing created opened room for some relaxation and relief. I started thinking about how the heart needed similar space, similar opening. Now, I say I started thinking about the heart—but in truth, I didn’t think, I just started writing the poem. In place of the meditation, I used the lines of the poem I was writing to pass the night. I repeated them and added to them and wrote my first draft of the poem the next day. Life’s gifts come in strange packages, right?
Dana Koster on “Endeavour”: There is ineloquence in grief, in that heart-ripped-out feeling that happens when you lose someone. You feel gutted. But you can’t write that your heart feels ripped out or that you feel gutted because those descriptions are cliché. So at a time when it’s difficult to come up with the name of a food that sounds appetizing, you’re left searching for new words to describe the oldest form of sadness. “Endeavour” came out of such a time. In the weeks after my friend Rick T. Jones died suddenly in 2014, I came across a photo of the Space Shuttle Endeavour before it was retired: its stark silhouette set against the huge and vibrant ombré of Earth’s atmosphere. It struck me how profoundly alone it was and it reminded me of Rick—both his wanderlust and the lonely manner of his death. In its way, the poem is an elegy for them both.
Colin Fleming on “Old Pyke”: I see a lot of accounts of how people came to write something where their grandfather had a talisman that was passed down with an accompanying tale through generations, or they labored for years with this idea they fictionalized from a newspaper story. I don’t really work that way. Sometimes stories come to me while I’m asleep, other times they just come to me, sometimes I write them in my head in full on my ten mile walks and I type them out later, and other times I just sit at the computer and say, “okay, time to go, let’s do a story, who do you want in it, what do you want to happen.” And I make it up. For me, it’s just about being myself. I suck at a lot of things—a huge, huge, embarrassing amount of things—but writing is not hard for me. By being myself I don’t mean looking around my life at things that have happened to me, but just doing what I do and knowing that doing that is going to carry the day, find the end point I want. I’m a storyteller. I think we fetishize process nowadays, because many writers like to talk more about writing than actually doing the writing. They sometimes live in fear of trying to make the white page black. So with “Old Pyke,” I’d never been to any of those places, I didn’t base the characters on anyone, and I did it in a couple hours. I had other things to write. You’re not supposed to say that anymore, right? But that’s also how it always was for the people whose work I esteem, across a range of mediums. When the imagination is in place, plus the understanding of what I’ll call human truths, and you can just be yourself, it’s about keeping the line moving and doing the next one. Because if that’s really who you are, they kind of write themselves anyway.