Archive for September, 2016

Gaming Poetics: Hexagon, Hexagon Again

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

James Ellenberger: The Settlers of Catan is a resource-management game that requires each player to stake out territory on a lovely, numbered hexagonal landscape. As the game progresses, the players rely on dice rolls (both their own and those of their competitors) to restock their coffers with wool, ore, lumber, grain, and brick so they can build roads, cities, and additional settlements. Players may trade resources, but most are acquired by rolling the dice. The game, then, is a mixture of early board evaluation (i.e., where to settle), luck, and one’s ability to balance personal progress with the progress of others, which is acatan-imageided by trading. You want, in other words, to trade freely until it becomes clear that those trades will result in a loss.

What does any of this mean for poetry? In Catan, each hexagon has a number on it (2–12), reflecting the possible rolls of the dice. A hexagon with a 6 or an 8 will most likely be rolled more frequently in the course of the game. Hexagons with 2 and 12 are rolled rarely, and plots numbered thus are often considered less-than-optimal places to begin your civilization. If we’re to think of this in terms of poetry, there are certain structures and subject matters that have historically fallen into the 6 or 8 category. Nightingales were all the rage in England, an easy 8. Sound poetry isn’t as widely loved, probably putting it around an 11—in Catan terms, something less likely to succeed. But who’s to say what will happen over the course of the game? Who’s to say that in twenty years sound poetry won’t be an 8 as well? As the tides of taste ebb and flow, probabilities fluctuate. One may end up edging out the competition—creating something meaningful to many, something lasting—despite the odds.

Is it more satisfying to play on the margins, shooting for the 11 and 12 tiles, putting one’s faith entirely in lady luck? Or is it more satisfying to use probability to your advantage? Should we follow our brains, our hearts, our histories, or the muse? Poets generally pick and choose among these categories, not opting for one particular mode over another. For example, the sonnet form, a true classic, can be augmented in a way that evokes its history without carbon-copying its classical interests. As poets, we’re always foregoing one form for another, a stark image for something more ghostly, a concrete moment for something invested more in musicality. We weigh our options, assess our resources, and then we begin to build.

toast“Fertility Treatments, Toast,” a poem by Cate Lycurgus in our current issue, does something that I love: It merges two subjects (breakfast and fertility) in a way that makes us look at both differently. If breakfast were a Catan hexagon, I’d give it, say, a 2; I’ve read some poems about breakfast, some stunning ones, but it’s not generally what comes to mind when I think of poetry. Fertility, however, is an 8 for sure. Birth and death are the bread and butter of poetry, with love smeared on, either liberally or sparsely, depending on who you’re asking.

In taking something that we expect from poetry (discussions of birth, of life ongoing—or of life attempted) and linking with something that isn’t immediately identified with art, Lycurgus manages to make the familiar feel fresh and the quotidian really sizzle. Some of my favorite moments here involve the liminal spaces between the lexicons. For example:

if it’s you
clinging well-
oiled or butter’s better
Baby, best
to hash this out

I’m enamored with the double meaning of “Baby.” It’s simultaneously a concrete aspect of this relationship (i.e., a term of endearment) and a kind of negative space, an absence: the idea of a baby rather than the flesh-and-blood thing. In a similar vein, the usage of “hash” speaks toward breakfast and the fragmented nature of this conversation, the difficulty of it, creating an immediately compelling subtext. As a reader, I very much feel “the thing that cannot be said” that lingers around this table.

In Catan, the “scope” of a player’s game begins before luck has a chance to rear its (sometimes ugly) head; the world is, in essence, your oyster. The decision of where to settle is made actively, intentionally. If you choose to put down stakes by the desert, or on plots labeled 2 or 11, then the path of luck is all you’ve got; probability isn’t on your side. “Luck” is relatively intangible, like the muse, inspiration, or however else you’d like to approach it.

The “scope” of Lycurgus’s poem, its form and function, is to marry two sets of images and words. In selecting both familiar and unfamiliar poetic subjects, Lycurgus rewards her readers for noticing the subtle, brutally intelligent lines drawn between some relatively common phrases in English. The “luck” behind poems is whether they stay with a readership or not, whether people will find them to be surprising. Once a poem is written and out of your hands, who knows what a readership will do with your work? In choosing to bridge these two subjects, Lycurgus shifts the balance, changes the stakes, and in making us painfully aware of the possibility of loss, wins us to her side.

Why We Like It: “Fourteen Shakes the Baby” by Susann Cokal

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

Chris Collins: Susann Cokal seized me with her first sentence: “The first one is not so bad, hurts, grinding on the sticky floor with the others watching.” And what proceeds is the story of a character known to us only as “Fourteen”—a girl who’s “been a teenager for a year already”—and her brutal night of being repeatedly raped at a party.

As a father with a daughter just a few years younger than Fourteen, I squirmed in my chair and at times had to pause reading to breathe. It’s difficult to write violence; Cokal does it with a delicacy that haunts. The rhythm of her sentences turns the page and the stomach: “She feels the ticklish trickle between her legs and knows she’s puddling on the filthy linoleum.” Although what occurs in the story is pornographic, Cokal’s artistry brings eloquence to the sequence of events, leading the reader through the assaults on both Fourteen’s body and mind.

minor-rape-mainThe story is not a chronological progression but rather a back and forth, giving us interludes of Fourteen’s movements, from her day at the beach with friends, to her sexual assault by surfers on a kitchen floor, then by college students in a shabby apartment, to her pickup by police, to the day of her first court hearing. This remarkable and distressing piece is written with a veracity that mesmerizes. The tragedy captivates—like a car accident from which we cannot look away.

Susann Cokal on “Fourteen Shakes the Baby”: I’ve been told this story is harrowing. It harrowed me; it hurt, but it wouldn’t let me stop writing. I lived with the idea for decades, hearing young girls’ stories both from their own mouths and from the men who lusted for what those mouths might be made to do. It took a long time to find the form that would convey the sense of brokenness that comes after such a violation—the body, mind, memory, and psyche all rearranged.

For a while I lived next door to some of it. A new neighbor popped up on the sex offenders map when he moved in. Somehow a story spread through the neighborhood that the guy was a victim of a scam, that he’d been dating an underage girl who said she was eighteen and then brought him to court to get some of the family money. I did a basic online search and found newspaper articles closer to the truth: A young girl had been raped multiple times one night, then reportedly had consensual sex with the man who was now my neighbor before being raped again by another man. The papers’ bare facts about this case and others melded with personal testimony about survivors’ traumas and a frequent tendency to blame the victim: “She’s oversexed”; “She wanted it”; “She liked it once we got started”; “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! […] I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.” That last claim is from Lolita, a book I love for many reasons but not for this one; the others are typical comments from people outside the experience.

So I lived with the imaginary fourteen-year-old of this piece of fiction as if with a “real” person (she is very real to me), and finally the narrative started coming in staccato, disordered bursts of memory and sensation. I wasn’t sure “Fourteen” would ever find a home, but I needed to write about her, and I’m grateful to the editors for putting her in these pages.

A Visit from Sandra Cisneros

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

cisnerosOur new literary nonfiction editor, Kristen Iversen, is thrilled to welcome Sandra Cisneros to UC for a Q & A and public reading on Wednesday, September 28.

For those with blinders on and earplugs in, Cisneros just won the prestigious PEN Center 2016 Literary Award for her latest book, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life.  (She was asked to be in New York to accept this award on September 28, but recorded a video acceptance so she can be here in Cincinnati that evening.) And if that’s not enough to entice locals and others within driving distance to our humble (actually, it’s quite nice) campus on a Wednesday afternoon and evening, we’ll mention that this popular and critically acclaimed author has just been awarded the National Medal of Arts. President Obama will present this award to Cisneros on September 22. She will join us just a few days later!

Details for the events on September 28 are as follows.

2-3 PM: Q & A with students and faculty, Tangeman University Center 400A

7 PM:  Public reading, Tangeman University Center 220 (Main Street Cinema)

 

 

 

microreview/interview: A. Molotkov’s The Catalog of Broken Things

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by José Angel Araguz

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In my reading of The Catalog of Broken Things (Airlie Press, 2016) by poet and 13.1 contributor A. Molotkov, I found a thematic thread made up of moments within longer lyric sequences where the given speaker of a poem gestures toward a spirit of assessing the nature of “broken things.”

We dive right into the catalog, so to speak, with the poems in the first sequence, “The Catalog of Broken Things,” which approach family narratives with a surrealistic sensibility. The opening poem begins:

I let my dead mother in.
She’s lonely out there on her own.
Her ears are seashells
empty of sea.

Reading these lines, I get a sense of a poetry that feels out the world through images. This aesthetic creates a reading experience where the reader is carried into the meaning-making process through sensation as much as language. The following section is another example of this sensibility at work:

11

My aunt, a shadow without a landing.
In her chest, small
streams fight for the chance to be
called river.
I list her in my catalog under tumors.
She deserves more attention.
We all do, we keep
telling the moon,
but it’s dead. It doesn’t listen.

I listen.

The concept of a catalog implies a sense of order and control; what is being wrestled with here is the lack of both. By proceeding to pit themselves against the image of the moon, who is seen as “dead” and unable to listen, the speaker, and, in a way, the poem, are in the role of providing “more attention.” This is a gesture not of repair but of acknowledgement. Life cannot be controlled and ordered beyond our personal understanding, our “listening.”

This acknowledging/cataloging voice appears again in the later sequence, “The Melting Hourglass.” In this sequence, the reader is presented with the story of Zungvilda and Goombeldt as narrated by a disembodied speaker. This speaker alternates from sounding like a family member, complete with shared memories, to sounding like the voice of the hourglass of the sequence’s title. This variation in voice and narration add to the reading experience; one gets a sensation of the lyrical line as live wire. The following section of the sequence presents the kind of torque available through this imaginative conceit:

Zungvilda shares her thoughts
I have no choice but to listen
after all she lives inside my head

she asks why men are so difficult
don’t generalize I say
but she can’t hear me in there

I’m afraid it’s a monologue
I’m afraid it always is

she wonders why every day seems to start
with wild yanking and smoke
like an old lawn mower
she muses about the interchangeable
questions and answers

she suspects that the new crater
that just formed on the moon
might be her early grave
she remembers the time

when she was a girl
lost in the forest

I remember it too
even though I was
too young to remember

The narrative turns developed in the speaker’s mediation here provide a fruitful disorientation in that the reader has to follow the lyric sense of the line as it develops. In the first two stanzas, the speaker is shown to be privy to Zungvilda’s thoughts while also being at a remove; this tension of intimacy and distance is paralleled in the last two stanzas where one of Zungvilda’s memories begins to take shape, but is quickly turned away from by the speaker.

These two moments are variations of the “broken things” theme of the book. When the speaker states “I’m afraid it’s a monologue / I’m afraid it always is,” a moment rich in metanarrative and self-awareness occurs; the “monologue” here is not only a metaphor for time and existence, but also poetry. In the same way that poetry is able to provide “attention” in the poem discussed above, poetry here is seen as able to acknowledge its limits and “broken” nature. Seen this way, the title of this collection becomes its own mission, writing as a way to catalog the broken things around us.

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interview

amolotkov2J: Were there any challenges in writing these poems, and  if so how did you work through them?

A. M. : The challenges of balance. Once I commit to a longer work, the next question becomes: is it going to be five pages, or fifty? Working with recurring themes and motifs, it’s tempting to keep going. How to choose the length that keeps the tension, helps me avoid repeating myself, and allows for a substantial investigation? Once I settle on an approximate length and write my selections, their order becomes both an opportunity and a challenge. Ultimately, any poem could have emerged in many different ways, but happens to be the way it is, not optimal in any objective sense, but a compromise between intention and the infinity of possibilities. If we consider the many points of view and tastes the readers will bring, it’s easy to see that each word shivers with fear and anticipation for the unlikely connection it may fail to make.

My tendency in poetry is to push the text outside my own comfort zone. Often, I end up distanced from the capability to evaluate my own poems. I am in three writers’ groups in order to compensate for my myopia and my personal obsessions. Almost thirty people had their eyes on some or all of the poems in The Catalog and provided a wide variety of suggestions. I’m indebted to them for breathing their reality into my work.

*

The Catalog of Broken Things is available for pre-order from Airlie Press.

Special thanks to A. Molotkov for participating! Check out his poem “Obituary” in issue 13.1.

Find out more about his work at his website.

A Very Angry Baby

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

devilbabyOnly a little over a month left to submit your Very Angry Baby material for our new press’s themed anthology. We’re pretty much full for fiction but still seeking poetry and hybrid forms. Remember: the baby need not be young, need not be small, need not be human. It does need to be angry. VERY. Contributors thus far include Julianna Baggott, Allison Campbell, Brock Clarke, Andrew Hudgins, Margaret Luongo, Erin McGraw, Jamie Quatro, Josh Russell, Changming Yuan, and more. Deadline for submissions (through our Submission Manager—Very Angry Baby category) is the end of October. Send us your brawling bundles, your seething teethers, your diapered devils, your newborns gone nuclear. We can handle it . . . we hope.

The Classics Revisited: Hamby and Kolbe

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

urnSince before Keats got excited about a Grecian urn, poets have been reworking, reimagining, and revolutionizing the classics. One of our issue 13.1 contributors went all the way to Greece to follow in the steps of Odysseus, and found in the modern streets full of shops the tempting decadence, and ultimately empty promise, of material possessions. Though it is not named in the poem, we feel the influence of The Odyssey in the journey of the writer and the objects for sale from all around the world.

Another contributor found the classics much closer to home—inspired by classic rock as she takes a jog—and ponders in her poem how art and context affect one another in a constant feedback loop. Thoughts of Tom Petty songs combine with “hard lines Doric/ at the mouth” to remind us that, like the classics, we are always aging, and, if we are lucky, always changing.

Barbara Hamby on “A Farewell to Shopping”: In Summer 2013 I received a grant from Florida State to follow The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaka. I reread Robert Fagles’s translation just before leaving, and I was using Tim Severin’s book The Ulysses Voyage to plan my trip. Severin built a Bronze Age ship and tried to replicate Odysseus’s voyage. One of Odysseus’s first stops after leaving Troy was pillaging a coastal town. I was in Heraklion, Crete, on my way to the spot where Severin thinks Polyphemus’s cave might have been if the story was based on fact, though it was probably highly fictionalized. In Heraklion I was walking down a street filled with the international shops you see everywhere, and the whole street seemed so tawdry. I thought, “I’m finished with shopping.” I suddenly thought of Odysseus’s pillaging as a shopping stop. The poem started percolating during lunch and I had a draft by the time we arrived in Sougia, where I did find Polyphemus’s cave. And I still go shopping from time to time.

Laura Kolbe: “Classic Rock” started when I took a run on Maine’s first warm day last year. House after house, men and women were putting to rights their porches, lawns, and driveways, while stereos and boom-boxes piped classic rock over their efforts. When I ran past “Purple Haze,” I had to stop and laugh—it seemed so incredible that a sound once deemed revolutionary, even socially dangerous, was now helping retirees maintain their equanimity while dredging gutters. Things often achieve “classic” status for their forceful, violent beauty, but once canonized, they are as rapidly, even comically, domesticated. The poem says this—and more, and better, I hope.

Coming Soon . . . v13n2

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

 

A sneak peek at our Winter 2017 cover (featuring mixed-media art by Leni Newell). The issue is due out this November!

Make the Most of Your Toast

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

Five Senses Icons

Reality often doesn’t feel half as tangible as it should, particularly when—for whatever reason—the writing of poems has become an aspect of that reality. In a world of flashing, palm-sized screens and of experiences summed up in what were once bird calls, it’s easy to lose track of the importance and pleasure of utilizing (and exploring) all of our senses. Some of our contributors for issue 13.1 attribute the genesis of their poems to physical sensations: the “walkability” of New York; a trip of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky; and a filling breakfast, complete with crisp, vocal strips of bacon.

It’s old wisdom, but good: if you’re looking for poetry—or for Papa Walt—try under your boot-soles first. 

Mark Belair: One of the beauties of New York City, for a poet, is its walkability. A stray moment here, another there—and a poem starts to coalesce. The writing of “Shadows” followed that form. The notable shadows of darkened windows, of leaves, of skyscrapers—all encountered separately, on separate summer days—came together when I sought the inviting shade of a garden willow tree. And when, calmed, I returned to the blistering sidewalk, it was the shade I myself cast that I suddenly—and only then—noticed as another contribution to the day’s inescapable variety and confusion. And this quiet poem came together.

Mary Kaiser: This poem began, like many poems in my current collection, with an overnight visit to the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Waking up at dawn in one of the old dwelling houses, I imagined a Shaker elder on a summer morning having an experience that could be a dream, a vision, or just the play of light coming through the big, east-facing windows. I love the way Clay Mettens’s complex, layered musical setting of my poem suggests these liminal possibilities while transforming the speaker’s sharp-angled, off-kilter lyricism into a heart-rending aria.

Cate Lycurgus: “Fertility Treatments, Toast” began as most my poems do—through I line I couldn’t shake. In this case, the line was a joke of sorts—a partner of mine used to say that something would “sizzle his bacon” when he really loved it, and vegetarian me always joked it was proof I really loved him, to fry him bacon. The initial line of this offer continued to surface through morning runs and work and sleepless hours until I realized it might be the start of a poem if I followed where the sound led.

I love the seamless slippage from one word or sound to another, and the connotations it creates. As the vowels and rhymes and homophones continued to morph, I realized the line between together and separate, between new life and new death, one cell taking hold or not, is fine; and comes down to more than desire. The conditional implies refusal, and yet the poem makes a sort of fractured hope, a playful one at that, of union. Of creating something as basic as the morning’s first nourishment—bacon, eggs, toast—and plus, what’s sexier than breakfast?

 

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?: Astrology (Virgo)

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Musings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 4: Astrology (Virgo)

In this second astrology-themed round of this column, I scrutinize my own sign via a tour of quotes from three Virgos of American Poetry: Charles Wright, Kay Ryan, and William Carlos Williams.

Sidney_Hall_-_Urania's_Mirror_-_Virgo

First Stop: Charles Wright

In my previous post, I spoke of Pisces poets as having in their work “a sense of being forgotten, dismissed, and misunderstood, as well as being generally okay with that. Kind of.” Virgo being the polar opposite of Pisces, I want to start this tour by connecting with this previous thought, amending it further for Virgo by saying that the work of poets under this sign is driven by a sense of not wanting to forget, to dismiss, or be misunderstood. I like to think of it in terms of being polite as well as wanting everyone included. In the Virgo poets I admire, this inclusion is done by focusing on indirect clarity and openness of form.

To get a better idea of what I mean by indirect clarity, here’s a quote from an interview with Charles Wright in response to his work being seen as shying away from “straight narrative”:

“It’s simple, really. I can’t tell a story. Only Southerner I know who can’t. And, in truth, I have no real interest in telling one. The point of telling a story is the telling; the story itself is not the point. I always wanted to get to the end and find out what the point was. Still do.”

I often think of this quote when I find myself in conversation, going off on tangent after tangent, unable to tell a story or anecdote in a linear fashion. While this may make for tedious conversation in real life (at least in my case), on the page it translates for Wright into an elastic lyric sensibility, as this excerpt from his poem “The Appalachian Book of the Dead” illustrates:

Something like water ticks on
Just there, beyond the horizon, just there, steady clock . . .

Go in fear of abstractions . . .
                                                      Well, possibly. Meanwhile,

There is a mixing of worlds here; the meditative and the informal live side by side along with the Ezra Pound quote in italics. By juxtaposing these various elements, not only is a singular poetic experience created for the reader, one rich in voices and meaning, but there is also the sense of a conversation being had by the speaker beyond themselves. In approaching the line this way, Wright is able to present Pound himself as well as engage with Pound in the space of the poem.

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Second Stop: Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan’s version of what I term indirect clarity and openness of form occurs on a more intimate, yet still indirect, level. To the question “Why do you avoid the hot emotions that are often associated with confessional poetry,” Ryan, in an interview, responds:

“If you put ice on your skin, your skin turns pink. Your body sends blood there. If you think about that in terms of writing, cool writing draws us, draws our heat.”

A good example of what Ryan means here can be seen in this excerpt from her poem “Surfaces”:

Surfaces serve
their own purposes,
strive to remain
constant (all lives
want that).

Here, there is a transparency at the level of craft that is pleasurable: from the internal (indirect) rhyme of “surfaces” and “purposes” as well as “constant” and “want,” to the use of the short line to let the thought develop at a straightforward pace. The language in many ways charms the ear/eye immediately; the indirect clarity and openness of form come into play then when the purpose of this charm is considered. There is gravity to what is being said in such a musical and engaging manner, and one that could easily weigh the lyric down. The subversion of rhyme’s aural appeal to engage casually with a matter that might not necessarily appeal is one of the ways in which Ryan’s work wins me over. In a short, concise statement, the reader is being asked to consider a specific perspective on mortality (“lives/want that”). The decision to place this in a open tone is part of what keeps the reader included and listening closely.

William_Carlos_Williams_passport_photograph_1921

Final Stop: William Carlos Williams

Building off the idea of keeping the reader included and listening closely, I turn lastly to William Carlos Williams. Williams is famous for championing what he calls the American idiom, which he describes in Paterson as “a language which is not English . . . [with] as much originality as jazz.” While much has been written about how these ideas influenced the work of the Modernists, Imagists, Objectivists, and the Beats, there is work being done currently that explores what the American idiom means for Latin@ poets, both in the US and in the rest of the Americas.

Reading through the work of Julio Marzán* and Jonathan Cohen**, I have been heartened to learn about the role Williams’s Puerto Rican heritage played in his work. He was one of the first American poets I know of to have to decide whether to hide that heritage at the level of author name. The story of his having to choose between W. C. Williams, William C. Williams, or to write under his full name is one familiar to Latin@ poets from various backgrounds. The move to stand with “Carlos,” so to speak, is one of the critical moments of subversion in the history of American poetry. Pound often referred to Williams as having “muddled blood”; that Williams continues to be read today with as much pleasure and interest (if not more) than Pound is a testament to Williams and his work as well as a win over such misguided and problematic institutional prejudices.

Williams also chipped away at these prejudices in his actual poetry, often incorporating Spanish into the titles of books and poems. A good example is “El Hombre”:

It’s a strange courage
you give me ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you play no part.

This short lyric has meant different things to me at various points in my life. When I first read it in my early twenties, I was immediately charmed by the clear logic of the address; it’s the kind of move that nods to the Romantic tradition while being grounded in the Imagist camp. As I grow older, though, the title more and more seems to add another layer, and makes a manifesto out of the four lines. The “Hombre” of the title could easily be the poet, and the courage spoken of could easily be the courage needed to forge ahead in an at times prejudiced literary field, one that bristled at the use of Spanish as much as every day talk in poems.

The arc of Williams and his work is one forged by indirect clarity and openness of form. In his use of Spanish, Williams added to the possibilities and depth of American poetry as well as created a legacy as valuable and influential as his ideas of the variable foot by doing so. I personally connect with this legacy as an American poet with a Latin@ background facing similar decisions on and off the page.

And as a Virgo, I can’t help but see this side of Williams as an innate championing of what would be forgotten, dismissed, or misunderstood.

(* Julio Marzán has written about this aspect of Williams’s work in his book The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams. ** Jonathan Cohen edited the book By Word of Mouth: Poetry from the Spanish by William Carlos Williams, for which Marzán wrote the foreword.)