Pas de Deux: Snider & Phillips

October 21st, 2014

Welcome back to the CR dance-party the hipster kids are calling Pas de Deux, our two-part interview exchange between recent contributors. In this encounter, Bruce Snider asks fellow poet and 11.1 contributor Carl Phillips how his poem “Hold Tight” transitioned from a squiggle on a bev-nap to the polished tour de force we’re proud to feature in our pages. Read on to discover what Phillips thinks about repurposing the sonnet form, juxtaposing different grammatical moods within a single sentence, and the pitfalls of memory.

Bruce Snider: One of the first things I noticed about this poem is that it looks like a sonnet and is, in fact, fourteen lines. Something about the sonnet’s demands for compression often gives it a “gripped” quality, almost fist-like, which seems especially apt for a poem called “Hold Tight.” Your looser interpretation of the form (no iambic pentameter or strict rhyme scheme), however, also seems fitting, since the poem’s content quickly sets “holding tight” against the notion of “letting go.” It seems to me that the poem’s form does both at once. Do you think of “Hold Tight” as a sonnet, or at least intend for it to gesture toward the form and its traditions?

Carl Philips: I don’t know if I intended for the poem to gesture toward the sonnet and its traditions, but I agree with you that it seems to do so. For the last few years, I’ve noticed that so many of my poems have been between twelve and fifteen lines, so there seems to be something in me that wants to hover around that sonnet length—and I agree, it’s just the right length for setting up a kind of tension that can seem like release and restraint at the same time.

BS: Your poems are admired, among other things, for their complex, elongated sentences, and for the way you use lineation to emphasize and disrupt that syntax. Could you talk about your approach to these elements in “Hold Tight”? In particular, I’m curious about your use of an em dash in line 6 to join what could have been two separate sentences (the line could have been punctuated: “I forget to think about it. If I don’t think about it . . .”).

CP: Well, I don’t know if it’s worthy of being admired (!), but I have a fascination with the relationship possibilities between short and long sentences. Though not overly conscious of this when writing, I’m sure I was aware, by revision time, that this poem consisted of five sentences, one of which contains the poem’s only question—I like thinking about the mixing of grammatical moods, as well, a nerdy activity that has turned out to be useful for writing. . . . About that em dash, huh, good question. Maybe the dash is a way of rushing, a way to avoid the pause of a period, which would imply a moment to do the very thinking that the poem wants, anyway, to avoid. That’s how it reads to me, now. Again, though, none of this really occurs to me when I’m writing, it just sort of comes out that way.

BS: There’s such a lovely balance between mind and body in “Hold Tight,” between abstract thinking and image, the sense of a mind actively working through the sensual particulars of the world. I especially admire how the imagery serves to both clarify and complicate that thinking. How consciously do you consider the relationship between abstract thought and concrete sensory language when composing?

CP: You’ve probably figured out that I write pretty much intuitively, without a lot of thinking ahead—it’s as though, if I were to be overly aware of what I was doing, I’d be unable to do it. But having said that, I do know that I have a propensity for abstraction—I’m most interested in wrestling with the big unresolveable subjects, so things like love, death, sex are hard to steer clear of. And yet I also know how many poems address abstraction in ways that can be off-putting; they can sound like philosophical tomes instead of poems. . . . I’ve always been excited about the natural world. I spend a lot of time observing minute details in nature, and I think this has turned out to be an instinctive lens through which to consider abstraction. And it also suggests both a kinship to (or at least a desired one) and tension between the natural world of instinct and our human world of self-consciousness and abstraction. It’s probably related to how the Transcendentalists thought about the natural world, but that’s going back to tenth-grade English, for me, so I don’t trust my memory on that one.

Why We Like It: “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove” by K. E. Duffin

October 17th, 2014

Volunteer Daniel (“Dan”) Groves comes from a long line of Groveses. His father was a Groves, his father’s father was a Groves, his father’s father’s father was a Groves. Naturally, when Dan writes last name, he scribbles “Groves,” but don’t be fooled. On the day he was born, the hospital intern responsible for typing out birth certificates, an avid disco fan, was listening to a cassette on his brand new, ten-pound, $325.00 Sony Walkman. The cassette was a limited edition, fan-club-only album titled Songs You Never Knew the Bee Gees Wrote. The intern received Dan’s info just as the title track from the famed John Travolta/Olivia Newton John film blared through his headphones, and the intern sang along: “Grease is the word, is the word that you heard; it’s got groove, it’s got meaning.” As he sang, he happened to be typing what should have been “Groves.” Instead, he typed “Grooves.” Dan has succeeded in concealing and correcting this blunder for decades, but sadly, he has also internalized it. Unbeknownst to Dan, groove is the criterion that informs his entire aesthetic. Were you to wake him in the middle of the night, when his cognitive filters are disabled, and ask him why he likes such-and-such poem, he’d mumble, “It’s got groove; it’s got meaning.”

Daniel Groves: In K. E. Duffin’s “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove,” the poet observes that “time/ is undone,” and then immediately asks—“but by what mechanism?” One answer could be that time is undone by the mechanism of the poem itself, which seems to invoke ancient artistic practices, with which the poet is aligned, in order to evoke even more ancient—ageless even, by comparison—natural processes. Moving down the page we follow the references as they move, like the sun, from East to West. The title refers to the ancient art of Bonsai, native to Japan, Land of the Rising Sun; the first line’s description of Bonsai Dawn Redwoods as having “many-fingered green hands” alludes, with a playful variation, to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” mnemonic, often used to mark beginnings, and thus to the dawn of the Western poetic tradition; lastly, the poem takes the form of a sonnet, “little song,” a form imported to England from Italy during the Renaissance. Amid these references to cultural heydays, the poet notes that the “green hands” “reach out from the Eocene” (“Eo-” from the Greek for “dawn”—the Eocene being the dawn of modern mammals), but even evolution itself has not had time enough to produce a bird “tiny enough to adorn such feathery fern.”

The poet, however, can “will it there, furtive and unheard,” as a figure for her dawning sense of herself, which is “small on these mossy slopes” but nonetheless serves as a mechanism by which “Eons pass” (this “Eo” a false dawn) and “time is undone” as “the mute bravado of duration elopes with all my smoldering days.”  Though I remain congenitally wary of most groves, K. E. Duffin’s “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove” is a delightful exception.

From Our Winners

October 14th, 2014

We’re on a bonus-material kick, so here’s some good stuff related to our contest—statements from the readers of your many amazing entries and a bit from the winners on their moolah-worthy works.

NOTE on the POETRY: We were impressed with the formal variety of this year’s contest submissions. The things you’ve done with a page!  There were sonnets, of course, and even sestinas (a few!). There were poems about water in very long lines stretched out like rivers. There was a series of LA Haiku. There were prose poems, prose poems with holes to fall (or think) in, lineated proselike poems in which every line was end-stopped. There was a “Poem as a Field of Action.” There were elegies, histories, taxonomies, narratives, and lists. There were tiny, itty-bitty, microscopic lyrics. And the content! There was a poem for Thelma & Louise and one for Charlie Chaplin. There were pomegranates, epidemics, vibrators, and snow. You sent us your most romantic love poems, the finest tributes to your very best friends, your brightest joys, your deepest heartbreaks. And having to choose just one winner, for us, was the biggest heartbreak of all.​

Chelsea Jennings (on her winning poem, “Elegy”): Birds appear often and with great symbolic power in elegies. Watching the birds that perch on the telephone wires outside my window or that have nested in my kitchen vent, I wondered what it might mean to live among these creatures that harbor our losses. I began to imagine every bird as bearing the weight of someone’s grief. “Elegy” is a record of the world created through that perspective—when the feeling of loss collides with the peculiar, everyday magic of birds.

NOTE on the PROSE: It was a pleasure to read so many well-crafted and accomplished stories. We got absurd and surreal stories, like the one featuring absurd postcards from D. H. Lawrence’s trip to Mexico in which Frieda has a prosthetic head. We received imaginative, magical realist stories—one starring a spell-casting farmer creating magical problems for encroaching suburbanites. You sent us meditative and emotionally moving personal essays, telling us (for example) about loving the film Father of the Bride and your conservative father when you eloped into same-sex marriage. We got lyrical and psychologically acute realist stories, like the one where a man has an existential crisis at a bird fair with a much younger girlfriend.  You send us so many wonderful stories that to pick just one winner was downright traumatic. We had to do it, but we’ll never be the same again.

Tom Howard (on his winning story, “The Magnificents”): I started with the little scene in the beginning of the story: a dumbshow in which the character of Death is savagely beaten in front of cheering spectators on someone’s front lawn, as part of an extravagant birthday celebration.  And I imagined this strange middle-aged guy standing and watching, hopelessly out of place—kind of lonely, holding a bottle of meat-flavored champagne, with his head halfway in the clouds. I didn’t think this world had much use for someone like him, someone without any real talent or ambition or ruthlessness. But I liked him. And it became (among other, stranger things) a story about giving him a chance to show what he, or anyone, is really worth.

Moth—bonus material for the bonus material

October 10th, 2014

Graphic designer extraordinaire Gabe Ostley is putting together the story of Moth: The Graphic Play—an anniversary-year project of ours. All subscribers will receive this 56-page, full-color bonus book along with their winter issue (due out in November). Click the following link to see part one of The Making of Moth.

Free Beer . . . Tomorrow

October 7th, 2014

Over the summer our lovely subscribers received, along with issue 11.1 (our TEN-tacular number), a bonus music feature, in which we presented Sarah Hutchings’s score for Jeff Gundy’s “March Ode” (published in 2011). In our excitement, however, we . . . er . . . forgot to post a recording of this boisterous bit of music, playfully retitled by Hutchings (who uses only part of the poem in her piece) “Ode to Free Beer.” As Don Bogen writes in his introduction to the feature, “Sarah’s setting captures [the poem] with wit and grace, from the rhythmic opening figure to the bold refrain. An ode is traditionally a poem of praise—and here’s one that has found a fit subject and a new musical voice.”

Click this link to listen: Ode to Free Beer. And look for yet another music feature—Ellen Ruth Harrison’s score for Jakob Stein’s sequence Sefiros—in issue 11.2, due out in December.

Oblique Elegies: Contributor Comments

October 3rd, 2014

Like many of our friends and colleagues who edit, write, and teach poetry, the CR staff is often asked about the uses of this craft or sullen art. As we hawk our wares at readings, distribute sample copies at neighborhood coffee shops, or even speak with conference-goers at book fairs, readers either curious about poetry or confused about its relevance to their lives shrug and say some version of, “Poetry? But what does it do exactly?”

One possible answer comes from the elegy, one of the oldest subgenres of lyric poetry. Elegies, from the Greek elegeia or “lament,” ask us to enter into the experience of loss, uniting author and reader in shared expressions of grief. Whether praising the life of a deceased public figure or mourning a private loss, elegies, ideally, bring us closer to consolation by giving a form to grief.

Issue 11.1 assembles a number of powerful, moving, and even unlikely elegies that, as Emily Dickinson put it, “tell it slant.” Among these indirect elegies we find a poem that confronts the tragic early death of poet Jake Adam York through the objective correlative of an upright piano destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, as well as an elegy for the dead exhumed from the cemeteries of San Francisco in the 1930s and ’40s, a period in which the city voted to reappropriate this land for other uses. Read on to discover what our contributors have to say on the subject of loss, and how each poet shaped these losses into some of the most mournful, melancholic, and plaintive poems offered in our pages.

Keith Ekiss on “Burial Fragments”: In Buena Vista Park, on the edge of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, if you take the path from Haight Street to the top of the hill, you might notice that the gutters along the walking path are made from marble. It seems rich, this marble, a remnant from another era in which public parks were considered civic treasures. And if you stop and look closely, as a friend once told me to do, you might notice inscriptions, names—or parts of names and dates—and bits of phrases that memorialize the dead. These fragments are the remains of cemetery headstones.

In the 1930s and 1940s, after a series of ballot measures and various proposals, San Franciscans, seeing themselves as short on usable land, started eliminating most of their cemeteries, digging up the graves and building new cemeteries south of the city in Colma. Unclaimed headstones and graveyard statuary (the dead could not object) were broken up and “re-purposed” throughout the city, as seawall by the beach and as gutters in Buena Vista Park. There aren’t many names visible, given all that marble, and I like to think the person who laid the gutters, out of some vestige of respect, tried to hide most of the names. In the back of my mind, I was probably thinking of Richard Hugo’s poem “Graves at Elkhorn,” with its commentary on the way cemeteries reveal cultural values, which ends:

The yard is this far from the town because
when children die the mother should repeat
some form of labor, and a casual glance
would tell you there could be no silver here.

Elton Glaser on “Circuits Open and Closed”: What’s behind this poem never gets into the poem. In April 2011, my wife of forty-two years, apparently in good health, died unexpectedly in her sleep. Ever since then, my own sleep has been erratic. Sometimes I fall asleep at 8:00 and then come awake at midnight, unable to close my eyes again. Variations on that theme make up my nights. This poem probably began with the phrase “my late, abbreviated sleep,” and the images accumulated from that point, prompted by jottings on notecards I’ve kept over the years.  The conclusion of the poems returns to its secret source: “I may have come / To the end of something, but there’s no end to the end.” The poem finds its closure, but the hurt never does.

Christopher Lee Miles on “Battle Tank Truck”: This poem is in memory of my brother. He died young, too young. Rather than label the poem “Elegy” and address him directly, or lament him indirectly, my technical purpose was to melt these common elegiac forms of address into the poem itself. I wanted the images, rather than the voice of the poem, to communicate his absence. I wanted the loss tucked into the very structure of the poem. Did I succeed? I cannot say.

Kevin Simmonds on “Upright”: In 2005, the late poet Jake Adam York traveled to New Orleans. He did so shortly after residents were allowed to return following the breeches of the levees during Hurricane Katrina. I’d asked if he would visit my childhood home and see if my upright piano was still there in my bedroom. He kindly said yes and took several pictures for me to see what was left of it and my home. (I was living in Singapore at the time.) That piano meant a lot to me growing up and I wanted to write a valediction of sorts–not only for the piano but for the other losses the water left in its wake. And I wanted to dedicate it to the memory of a warm-hearted, conscious and talented poet who inspired the poem.

Schiff Award Winners!

October 1st, 2014

The winners of the sixth annual Robert and Adele Schiff Awards are:

Tom Howard, for his story “The Magnificents”

and

Chelsea Jennings, for her poem “Elegy”

This year’s field was particularly distinguished, and it was difficult to choose from among the many quality entries. In addition to the winning pieces, three other contest entries—two poems and one story—will also be published in the prize issue (forthcoming May 2015). We present below a list of finalists and honorable mentions, as well as the editors’ comments on the winning poem and story. Next week look for the winners’ comments on their works.

Don Bogen on “Elegy”: “Elegy” stood out, first of all, for its distinctive music: bold and insistent in its rhythms, subtly lyrical in its sound echoes. The last couplet particularly grabbed me—the insights there and in the eight spare lines before it seemed to deepen with each reading. Anchored in concision, thoughtful repetition, and fresh use of some of the simplest terms, “Elegy” sings its own grief as it captures the sad complexities of human loss.

Michael Griffith on “The Magnificents”: This year’s fiction winner of the Schiff Award belongs to, or perhaps invents, something like a new genre: Dystopian Slapstick. Told in a frenetic shorthand that makes this feel like a short novel rather than a long story, “The Magnificents” combines hilarious black comedy with surprising pathos. Never before have I rooted so hard for a little boy’s garage magic to save someone from euthanasia.

Finalists

“The Mountain,” Barret Baumgart

“A Recipe for Mice,” Amy Knox Brown

“Bird Fair,” Katherine Davis

“Real Americans,” Camellia Freeman

“Walls,” Rachel Goldman

“The Nino,” Sarah Gurman

“Sirens,” Stephanie Horvath

“The Neighbors,” Sheri Joseph

“A Bildungsroman,” Mark Labowskie

“Forces of Nature,” Jason Mastaler

“But for Herr Hitler,” Robin McLean

“Judas Cradle,” Robin McLean

“Philip Roth’s Last Hours,” Timothy Parrish

“The Doppelgangers,” Helen Phillips

“Unaccompanied Cello,” Jennifer Acker Shah

“Stay Up with Hugo Best,” Erin Somers

“Tuckernuck,” Melanie Unruh

“Planet Joy,” Misty Urban

“History of Titles,” Jason Whitmarsh

“The World without Nan,” Elise Winn

“Dear Lazarus,” John Woods

Honorable Mentions

“The Greenhouse,” Alex Collins-Shotwell

“Hell,” Jacques Debrot

“Pedazos of a Man,” Daisy Hernandez

“Learning to Swim,” Jennifer Imsande

“M1 Liberty Freedom,” Adrienne Johnson

“Source Code,” Kevin Lavey

“The Deliverist,” Dan Mancilla

“True Carnivores,” Robin McLean

“The Yellow Dress,” David Meischen

“The Erratic,” Christina Milletti

“Split Skin,” Samantha Mitchell

“Sleeping Alone,” Alexander Sorondo

“Trilogy,” Julie Marie Wade

“Paper Boats,” Caroline Wilkinson

Hat-Tipping Time

September 26th, 2014

It’s time for a post commending our small pool of trusted readers, who are in no small way responsible for buoying our literary vessel. These magnificent humans render thoughtful judgments on thousands of submissions each year. They have children to raise, medical conditions that require myriad unguents, rude neighbors who sneak out at night to pee on their lawns—and still they read on. Below are some examples of their considered critiques. Thank you, volunteers and satellite readers, for your generous service.

—I found a lot of things about the premise, character, and form surprising. This one felt fresh, though there were some areas where the language was a little clumsy, and the moment of change seems sudden. I think it could be expanded.

—The writing takes us right up to the point where the story should start. Then it ends.

—Strong, unexpected images. Unique voice. Deserves another read.

—This story is beautifully written; it also has much more of a sense of its own language & the power of that language than it does of the story’s moving parts. As an experiment, it’s engaging, even stirring; as a story, it’s somewhat less. The writer is clearly quite talented, though.

—The poet has the ability to move from outer space to a tight close-up in some of the poems, and when it works, it’s a pretty ride.

—I enjoyed the energy and imagination with which the poet approached her subject matter. There is a tension dug into in these lyrics that evokes what is learned and lost in growing up.

—Complex and moving. I love this one. Engages timely issues with deft handling. The description goes on for awhile, but it’s interesting how the dynamics shift as they go.

—This story is not terribly original, and the beginning and end aren’t quite right, but the writing is good throughout. Perhaps someone to watch?

—A pretty good story here. Quiet. Sensitively envisioned.

—An accomplished poet. Many of these didn’t grab me but were technically sophisticated. They are worth another read.

—Sketches of somewhat stereotypical characters. All in summary and description, no scenes. It doesn’t hold together as a cohesive whole.

Why We Like It: “Classified” by Sarah Burke

September 24th, 2014

New volunteer Matthew Pennock hails from NYC, where he studied, earned a poetry degree, and taught school, but he is mainly known for being the reincarnated Houdini. As a baby, Matthew escaped from his crib nightly, and in the morning his parents would find him stuffed inside his sock drawer or an empty box of Tide. Though he grew larger as he aged, Matthew challenged himself to fit inside, and then escape from, smaller and more oddly shaped containers: the helmet of a suit of armor, a clarinet case, a bottle of Britney Spears’s fragrance Curious (he emerged redolent of Louisiana magnolia, golden Anjou pear, and dewy lotus flower). Considering his past life and accomplishments, we do not find it curious that he chose to write on “Classified” in our current issue.

Matthew Pennock: Sarah Burke had me at line 1. I turned the page to her “Classified” and read “Wanted—shell the mollusk exudes like sweat.” What follows is an immaculately rendered poem in which images work in concert to create a feeling of paranoia and exhaustion all too present in our current cultural climate.

The poem, as the title implies, alludes to the structure of a classified ad, relying twice on the italicized verb “wanted,” which is then followed by a series of images, all of which are variations on one theme, close confinement: “Think glove, not box. Vase,/not tank.” These images, however, do not feel claustrophobic; in fact, they feel like the only safe spaces one may inhabit: “Think womb, think flashlight/burning in a makeshift tent of quilts.” After bearing witness to this cavalcade of tight fits, I couldn’t help but see the title in a new way. “Classified” no longer functions solely as an indicator of structure—the form of a want ad—now it takes on the mantle of government. It is a Secret with a capital S, calling to mind the NSA’s wanton violation of our privacy, the vague terror threats the FBI says they’ve foiled but will never reveal. Whenever I think of all the various undefined ways the world wants to destroy me or what I hold dear, I too want to find the safest, most confined space. I want to crawl into an “anthill chambered as a heart.”

What We’re Reading: Winner of the National Book Award

September 18th, 2014

Don Peteroy: For the last four months, I’ve been reading humorous novels exclusively, trying to unpack how humor works, looking for ways the written medium imposes limitations on a writer’s ability to provoke laughter while also granting opportunities that you wouldn’t get in, say, standup comedy or film. I’m particularly interested in how writers sustain humor throughout a novel; I’ve found that most of the books I’ve read are funny for about fifty pages, and then the humor exhausts itself.

Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award is one of the few books that kept me laughing until the last page.

Hurricane Pandora is about to strike a town in Rhode Island. Dorcas, the local librarian, is hiding in the library. She busies herself with one of the new nonfiction arrivals, In the Driver’s Seat: The Abigail Mather Story. It’s written by Dorcas’s sister Abigail, and Hilda DeVilbiss, Abigail’s friend. Dorcas isn’t happy about this book—it’s a “wife abuse expose” that chronicles Abigail’s sexual deviance and eventual marriage to the venomous writer Conrad Lowe. While abuse narratives aren’t funny, it’s the book-about-a-book—the metafictional distance—that allows Willett to draw humor from the story of Abigail’s traumatic marriage. Dorcas leads us through the book chapter by chapter; she comments, criticizes, exposes Hilda and Abigail’s embellishments, and reveals what’s been left unsaid.

Winner of the National Book Award shows two competing narratives that tell the same story. Dorcas’s corrective rendition is stylistically sophisticated and brutally honest while In the Driver’s Seat’s is bombastic, sentimental, and full of absurd speculations. For instance, Hilda attempts to explain the primary cause of young Abigail’s excessive sexual appetite, relying on inaccurate psychological explanations:

“Abigail Mather’s great sin was, of course, in growing up. Her father, likely out of his own inchoate sense of guilt, precognizant of his own incestuous desires, withheld from Abigail the male approval necessary to her erotic self-esteem. Just when she had the greatest need of him, he declined to validate her sexuality. . . .”

The humor lies in Dorcas’s mockery and refutation of these fanciful “facts,” her resistance to pop-Freudian psychology.

The characters themselves are pitiful, and it’s their awareness and proud embracing of their deplorable natures that makes them so funny. Conrad Lowe hates women. He’s a former gynecologist who’d been attracted to the field only because he wanted to understand what’s inside women. Then he became a novelist who embodies all of the stereotypical pretensions. In an interview with the Journal-Bulletin, he talks about his latest novel, a thriller called Night of the Gorgon, which is “in the Mantis tradition.” The interviewer asks, “Is that, more or less, the Stephen King tradition?” He responds, “No . . . it is exactly in the Stephen King tradition.”

She asks, “And how do you think your work compares with King’s?”

He says, “It’s worse.”

Willett provides a never-ending procession of satire-conducive excerpts of In the Driver’s Seat; new characters provide fresh surprises, embodying stereotypes pushed to the max: we meet a male “feminist” poet who is obviously a sexist in denial, his enabling wife Hilda, and a depressed Unitarian minister undergoing an existential crisis. The humor endures and escalates in direct proportion to the tragedy because there’s always something outrageous happening, always a twist.