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.
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!
Anyone who subscribes or renews will get to choose two of the wonderful woodblock relief prints created specifically for AWP by artist Billy Simms. Those who subscribe (or renew) for multiple years will receive all four prints. We’ll also be offering copies of our graphic play—MOTH—to those who take advantage of our 3-for-1 deal. Yes, once again we are teaming up with Mid-American Review and Ninth Letter for a conference special: receive a year’s subscription to ALL THREE journals for $33.
We’ll also be unveiling the first planned publication for our new small press, Acre Books. In short, it’s an anthology with a theme, and we’re looking for contributors—in poetry and prose—who’ll put fun and interesting spins on the concept. Stop by our table to learn more and see the names of the writers who’ve already signed up!
We’re grateful for the robust response to our call for comics and other graphic art. We ended up selecting a fun image by Allen Forrest, which will appear in our May issue. We had only one page to fill this time out, but we hope to include more comics in future issues—so if you submitted something and didn’t get selected this time, don’t be surprised if we hit you up in the weeks or months to come. Again, thank you!
We have an unusual situation here—one, in fact, that has never happened before. A poet withdrew her poem after we’d sent the May issue to the typesetter. (Bad form. Very, very, very, VERY bad form.) So now we have proofs. And there’s this poem that needs to be removed from them. Of course, we’d rather not deal with the ripple effect this will have on everything in the issue that follows that poem. . . . so we’re hoping to turn this scenario to our advantage. For a while now, we’ve been meaning to incorporate comics and fun or funky (or fun and funky) line art into CR. This blank page seems like the perfect opportunity. Show us what you’ve got, all you graphic types out there. Send images of work you think would be killer on that blank page to email@example.com. We’ll pay the winning artist $50—and he or she will have copies of the published piece in hand come May!