Pas de Deux: Phillips & Snider

October 31st, 2014

And now for Part Deux of the exchange between Carl Phillips—on his poem “Hold Tight”—and Bruce Snider—on “Creation Myth”—both published in CR 11.1. Happy reading!

Carl Phillips: Your poem works largely by juxtaposition, the largeness of an Indiana dusk, next to the specificity of Aunt Bev’s crocheted oven mitt, moths beside meth labs, a lynching one moment, aphids on honeysuckle the next. Could you speak to your choice of this strategy and how it works as narrative device?

Bruce Snider: That’s an interesting question, and one I didn’t really consider while composing. It’s definitely true that I’ve always been drawn to narrative, but my own storytelling instincts (shaped, in part, I suspect, by wonderfully bad ’80s television) are very linear. Over the years, I’ve tried to find ways to resist or at least complicate that linearity. I guess juxtaposition is one way for me to do that, especially when paired with anaphora, because the latter allows you to move through time and space quickly and seamlessly, creating the cohesion that in turn allows for the more disruptive effects of the juxtaposed elements. In the end, I suspect the real power of much juxtaposition comes from what’s been left out. Between the “Indiana dusk” and “Aunt Bev’s crocheted oven mitt,” for example, there’s so much that could be included, but the poem doesn’t go there. And one thing I’ve learned is that good storytelling is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.

CP: Given the statement about being a child of form, toward the poem’s end, how does form work for you in this poem? I note, for example, the rhyme that closes the poem, between form and worm, and the way in which it brings to mind the sonic closure of an English sonnet; meanwhile, the poem is also very invested in anaphora as rhetorical device. . . .

BS: I wrote the early drafts of this poem by simply following the sounds of the language as much as I could, letting the textures of sound suggest the textures of image and idea. You can probably see that most clearly in the move from “moths” to “meth,” “honeysuckle” to “yolks flecked,” and at the end when “gasket ring” leads to “disenchanted thing,” etc. The poem’s sonic closure, though, was something I was a bit more conscious of, since from the beginning I think I had some sense that this was a poem about form—bodily, intellectual, historical—though I couldn’t anticipate how that would play out. Of everything in the poem, I most remember writing the final lines, and when “form” led to “worm,” the sonic rightness of the rhyme paired with the unsettling logic of the meaning, and I found myself thinking of Louise Glück’s line, “A love of form is a love of endings.”  In this case, of course, worm suggested the ultimate ending.

CP: Your image of the uncut grass immediately brought to mind Whitman’s description of grass as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”  Was Whitman an influence on this poem, and in what way—or if not, who would you say might be some of the ancestors behind this poem that seems very much to concern ancestry, even as it enacts the creation of a self through its assembling of influences?

BS: I’m sure Whitman is always hovering somewhere over my work. I can certainly see his influence in my use of anaphora, my listing of sensory detail, my indulgence in the textures of place. My “uncut grass” wasn’t a conscious reference to his work, but the grass section from “Song of Myself” is one of my favorite passages in all of poetry. And now that you point it out, I’m suddenly aware of how often grass appears in my poems. But I often envy Whitman his great surrender to excess. I feel bound by what I think of as a more modest midwestern temperament. As much as I’m drawn to the freedom and visionary qualities of Whitman’s work, I’m also drawn to the limiting aspects of form, and the wonderful tensions and discoveries that can result when you see a writer wrestling against it, like Donne in his “Holy Sonnets” (which actually also came to mind when I was reading “Hold Tight”) or Bishop in “Sestina” or “One Art”. In particular, Bishop has that remarkable control and precision, which runs counter to the strengths I associate with Whitman. In some ways, I suppose that in “Creation Myth,” as in much of my work, I felt pulled between those two sensibilities.

Inspired Lines: Bar-Nadav, Hanson, Sunderlin

October 28th, 2014

One of the million cool things about making a magazine is putting various works in conversation with each other. No poem is an island, after all. Or, if a poem is an island, then CR, and poetry in general, really, is an archipelago. And like the flora and fauna that travel from one discrete landmass to its neighbor, common images, melodies, and themes—obvious or otherwise—are bound to arise across any selection of work. Language is funny that way: It travels. It haunts. It is shared and borrowed and adapted and revered.

The poets below are quick to recognize their affinity  for a certain mode or line that has inspired them. Hadara Bar-Nadav “enthusiastically join[s] a tradition of writers who have written about objects,” such as Pablo Neruda and Gertrude Stein. Julie Hanson gets permission from Sappho to “give up the struggle against” writing nature poetry. And Jacob Sunderlin pirates Moby-Dick for a way of venerating his buddy, “enthusiastic wearer of flannels,” Grosso.

Hadara Bar-Nadav on “Door,” “Motel,” and “Spine”: I am currently at work on a poetry manuscript that explores the inner lives of objects (both plastic and bodily). This poetry-based exploration of objects in turn reveals the inner lives of humans who depend on, assign meaning to, and fetishize these objects: a wineglass, motel, and thumb. We fill our days with such matter, such clutter. Objects can seem to disappear inside of their particular (and often very necessary) function. Do we really think of the life of the bedroom door, what she has witnessed? Or the fountain with its sculpture of a boy standing naked in a city square? And what of the spine and its relentless support of our cumbersome and thankless heads?

I enthusiastically join a tradition of writers who have written about objects, and I accept them as companions and sources of collaboration, including Francis Ponge, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Neruda. Like these writers, my poetic investigation of objects through a unique contemporary lens brings to light the visceral and playful potential of our own lives.

Julie Hanson: I can account for the trigger for “It is unconquerable; it has” with surety. I was directed to the subject matter through the words “a vine that grows up trees” (which is, in its entirety, fragment 173 in Anne Carson’s translation of fragments of Sappho, If Not, Winter). Because I know such a vine, and know it well, it might have occurred to me as poetic material much earlier in my life. It didn’t. I suspect that it occurred to me as poetic material at the point of giving in, giving up the struggle against it, at the point, in other words, of my surrender. I suspect, too, that it was in the writing that I was first able to take part in the fun the vine has had with me; before that it was just effort and exasperation and fruitless struggle—which to some extent, of course, remains the case. Nature is bigger than I am. She is the vine, persistent, victorious, and, in this case, creepy!

Jacob Sunderlin on “Grosso”: I used to read Moby-Dick (also written about coincidentally and beautifully in this issue of Cincinnati Review) after getting home from a night job I once had stuffing ads into newspapers, and this passage directly inspired the content and style of the poem: “In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the narwhale. How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.” Where I’m from in Indiana, my friends do things like work in magnet factories and lay brick and do HVAC and start bands called Wabash Trash and they are my royalty. I’ve written several poems about one of them, Grosso—an Ahab in The Pequod called Wednesday—who is introduced here.

The Making of Moth, Part 2

October 23rd, 2014

Comic artiste Gabe Ostley is back with another behind-the-panels look at our upcoming graphic play, Moth. Remember—if you’re a subscriber, we’re simply going to mail it to you with our winter issue. No additional moolah required!

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