The second time’s a charm for D.A. Powell (D. is for Douglas, in case you wondered). National Book Critics Circle announced Feb. 28, 2013 that he won their annual poetry award for his fifth collection, from Graywolf Press. NBCC nominated him for Chronic, also from Graywolf, in 2009. Congrats to Graywolf, an independent literary press that keeps the twin cities on the map as a haven for writers.
Powell told Andrew Rahal in Nashville Review that the new book’s title comes from an Antonio Carlos Jobim song title “Useless Landscape.” However, that seemed too “dreary,” by itself. As the collection developed, he added a second theme relating to Boy Scout guides. This second strain, Powell says, is “wry, erotic poems.” Tension between gloom and joie de vivre create lay lines through the book. One of the guidebook poems is “Little Boy Blue”; Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th century image of a foppish boy arises from the title. The fourteen-line poem begins:
He finds himself inside the Sunrise Mall,but not at Waldenbooks. He seeks no solitude.
His second great awakening has started,
subdued interstices between kiosks and stores;
the proximity of skimming eyes, or studious eyes
that read him like a copy of Leaves of Grass….
This collapses time frames, with both Whitman’s epic work and mall culture combined into one event. Homosexual eroticism is hinted at as a “great awakening” and an interstitial occurrence “between kiosks and stores.” Yet this mall is no safe haven. The narrator warns the young man of predators with calculating “eyes,” and he cautions the young man, as part of the guidance project of the title: “Don’t meet those eyes.” Lest the lyric become overly pedantic, the poet ends with imagery: “The arcade’s packed with Pac-Man players in a jiff. / Gobble the cherries. Gobble that consecrated ghost.” The poem ranges from Whitman’s presence to arcade games to real dangers. Powell folds the familiar inside out to create a variation on the love sonnet. Carl Phillips writes of Powell’s recent work how it unites tradition with the present: “Mr. Powell recognizes in the contemporary the latest manifestations of a much older tradition: namely, what it is to be human.” This depth creates layers of verbal play.
Powell further told Rahal that in this new book he incorporates less experiment with form; instead, the long line interests him: ““I’m writing in fairly straightforward sentences and using traditional punctuation and capitalization. I’ve done a few things that are formally new for me in this collection.” He also works with variants of old forms, like this rebuilt sonnet.
Powell is the author of four other collections of poetry: Tea, Lunch, Cocktails, and Chronic. The Writing University writes of Powell’s earlier books that the focus : “revolves around the lives of the people he knew that were affected by the AIDS epidemic by defining them in the context of the places they went and the people they knew. “ His first three books are a trilogy, with experimentation with long lines; his rationale, he writes, is: “by pulling the line longer, stretching it into a longer breath, I was giving a bit more life to some people who had very short lives.” Useless Landscapes, or a Guide for Boys experiments with forms and an overarching, book-long interplay between sexuality and mortality.
© Denise Low 2013
D.A.Powell lives in San Francisco and teaches at the University of San Francisco. Powell’s M.F.A. in Poetry is from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa, and his BA and M.A. are from Sonoma State University in Santa Rosa, California. With T.J. DiFrancesco, he edits Lo-Ball; he also contributes to the Poetry Foundation website. Powell collaborated with poet David Trinidad in the work of prose By Myself: An Autobiography.
Powell has taught at Columbia University, the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop and New England College, as well as serving as Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Poetry at Harvard University. Powell’s honors include recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener Foundation. Awards for his poetry come from Pushcart Prize, the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and the Kingsley Tufts Prize from Claremont University for Chronic.
“The Great Unrest” poem by D.A. Powell from the Occupied Writings site http://occupywriters.com/works/by-d-a-powell
Nashville Review interview by Andrew Rahal: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/english/nashvillereview/archives/2360
Boston Review comments by Carl Phillips: “I admire these poems immensely, for their deftness with craft, their originality of vision, their ability to fuse old and new without devolving to gimmick—and for a dignity as jazzily inventive as it is sheer.” http://bostonreview.net/BR26.5/powell.html
The Writing University website article with quotations from Powell: http://www.writinguniversity.org/writers/da-powell