Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Denise Low, Walter Bargen, Luci Tapahonso, Jon Davis, & Michael Glaser to read Sun. Nov. 3 at I.A.I.A.

Red Mountain Press and the New Mexico State Poetry Society are launching an initiative to establish a state poet laureate in New Mexico. To further this effort and to celebrate the laureates already among us, we are planning an event on Sunday, November 3, 2013, at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, 1 pm, with reception to follow. Santa Fe poet laureate, Jon Davis, will read his poem to open the program. Four poet laureates, Walter Bargen (Missouri), Michael Glaser (Maryland), Denise Low (Kansas), and Luci Tapahonso (Navajo Nation), will discuss the merits of instituting a poet laureate position for the state of New Mexico. The panel discussion will be followed by the laureates reading from their own works and a social hour of conversation and book signing. Come and help New Mexico join forty-six other states that recognize the literary arts through an official poet laureate program. See Red Mountain Press for details and browse their books:

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Several years ago, on a gloomy winter evening, I went to the local public library rather than staring into dark windows or watching reality TV.   I leafed through the poetry section, not expecting much, when I ran across a Graywolf Press book with a snazzy cover. I opened it and found a poem about a Topeka bar, Jeremiah Bullfrog. I thought it must be a coincidence, one of many bars named J.B., but as I read more, Topeka place names jumped out at me, juxtaposed with super heroes. Wow. Bear in mind that downriver from Topeka, in Lawrence where I live, we have awe and fear for our neighboring metropolis of high crime rates, conservative legislators, and an inexplicably talented poet pool (Kevin Young, Ben Lerner, Cyrus Console, Ronald Johnson, Ed Skoog, Eric McHenry, Amy Fleury, more). I had missed Gary Jackson as he went through the Washburn University’s undergraduate program and then the MFA program at the University of New Mexico. Currently, he is assistant professor at College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. His work is accessible, funny, and strong. Here are some recent links:
Jennifer Chang features Gary Jackson in her Poetry Society “New American Poets” column this week. She begins with a discussion of his first book, which won the Cave Canem prize:
“Reading Gary Jackson's Missing You, Metropolis returned me to my one experience with comic books: reading Archie in the sad cacophony of a music school waiting room, I'd pass the time rolling my eyes at Betty and Veronica, revering the easy indifference of Jughead, and wishing I were older so that I'd never have to take another piano lesson again. But, for Jackson, comic books are not merely a lifeline for weird kids; otherwise this would not be as good a book as it is. Comic books—their constellated mythologies and fantastical alter egos—evince human complexities, the difficult ugly truths about ourselves that we'd rather ignore, and they school the book's speaker in the bravery of connecting to others and, thus, to ‘the whole goddamn world.’" For more, follow this link:
A play adapted from the book was produced in Topeka, Feb. 2013: http://cjonline.com/news/2013-02-15/superheroes-populate-poetry-based-play
NPR featured a poem from Metropolis:
Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink By Gary Jackson

You're staring, jaw-dropped at my tail. And yes,
it's a good twenty inches long and moves

like a serpent in heat. Touch it. I'm no devil, honey,
I don't got no souls, just the smoothest, bluest fur
you've ever seen. Don't mind my buddy here, he looks angry
all the time, and he's got eyes for the bottle of Jameson

and the short-haired blonde playing pool near the gorillas.
What do we do? Over a few drinks I could tell you about the time

we traveled to the blue side of the moon or when we fought
the Juggernaut right here in this bar. Yeah, the fangs are real.

Rub your finger over them, touch the deviled tongue.
Caress my fur with your skin, let me keep your body warm

in the dark. It's your night, honey. Show me a woman not afraid
of a mutant man. Let me mix into your bloodline.

Gary Jackson links:
Link to book Missing You Metropolis on Graywolf website : https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/missing-you-metropolis
Washburn University map of Kansas literature: http://www.washburn.edu/reference/cks/mapping/jackson/ 
YouTube poetry reading, 2008, U of New Mexico, 10 min.
2012 Interview in Political Fiber

Sunday, October 6, 2013

See KC Star Review of 4 Books of Poetry about War: Parada Ayala, Russell, Bargen, Rathburn

Sept. 10, 2013
La Luz De La Tormenta/The Light of the Storm by Carlos Parada Ayala (112 pages, Zozobra Publishing, $12.00)
The Year of What Now by Brian Russell (96 pages, Graywolf Press, $15.00)
Trouble behind Glass Doors: Poems by Walter Bargen (103 pages, BkMk Press, $13.95)
A Raft of Grief: Poems by Chelsea Rathburn (72 pages, Autumn House Press, $17.95)

Poets still fall in love, but some also live in war zones and report on those conflicts. Carlos Parada Ayala writes of Central American wars, while Brian Russell’s battlefield is the oncology department. Walter Bargen and Chelsea Rathburn turn to domestic sites of tragedy.
Poems in Carlos Parada Ayala’s first book “La Luz De La Tormenta/The Light of the Storm” demand attention. His slashes of color create unforgettable images, like his comparison of love to “a bloody crucifix/on a bishop’s chest” (“Pulse”). Parada Ayala presents important topics that match his dramatic language. As an El Salvador native, he was witness to the 1970s to 1980s civil wars. This tragedy is the backdrop for this bilingual Spanish and English collection.
His poem “Whale” presents apocalyptic visions of destruction: “Palm trees crumble/like spent matchsticks” and “The sky explodes and shatters.” These images are both  memories and continuing  nightmares for the narrator, who awakens to find himself adrift in peacetime. What remains as he stands in the market is “an endless and vile melancholy.” Memories keep the war alive, years into the future.
The book illustrates war and, finally, recoveries. “Day of the Dead” is a poem that begins with despair but ends with optimism. Parada Ayala writes: “I carried my country on my back like a sack/full of ill-fated chapters.” He laments the common graves and “quetzal birds extinguished.” But the last stanza asserts: “Now I rise with my head held high,/carrying my country in the deepest part of my chest, a sanctuary for my people.” In a “Letras Latinas Blog” interview, the poet writes: “‘Day of the Dead’ is my prayer to keep up the hope.”
Parada Ayala shows how the effects of war last a lifetime, an important lesson as military initiatives continue across the globe.
Another kind of war is one within bodies, in the form of disease. Brian Russell’s first book “The Year of What Now” recounts a battle with cancer. The book explains how the measured world of medical violence is as unsettling as any other. The narrator watches in horror as painful procedures become routine. Anyone touched by ravages of cancer treatment can relate to this sequence.
Russell shows how the hospital world has its own rules of engagement. In “Tepid” the narrator states, “I still can’t bring myself to watch/them stick the needle in your back.” He compares the patient to “the tortured trunk of a wind ravaged tree” with “ashen limbs.”
Russell’s book, nonetheless, is not dreary. The caretaker elicits admiration. Gallows humor eases pain. The narrator compares cafeteria dining with a chain restaurant down the road, “where the food is equally inedible,” and the jab at institutional food is an easy joke. Also, the normalcy of “wonderfully obnoxious” families is unexpected  respite from slow grief.
To spoil the ending, the treatments are successful. In “You’re Welcome” the narrator writes, “you’re not dying/faster than the rest of us,” and so the book’s narrative shifts from crisis to commentary about everyone’s eventual death.
A further spoiler: the narrative is contrived, not autobiography, despite the eye-witness perspective. In an interview with Graywolf Press editor Jeff Shotts, Russell describes his inspiration: “I see the husband and wife as homages to people in my life who have been altered by serious illness. While many poems draw from lived experience, the work as a whole is one of the imagination.” Russell’s inventiveness and his heart make him a poet  to remember.
“Trouble behind Glass Doors” is Walter Bargen’s sixteenth book of poetry. He excels at anecdotal verse, where incidents that could be coffee group stories expand into larger moments. The most arresting of these poems are masterpieces about crimes and other domestic wars experienced as daily news.  
“Neighbors” is one of the most chilling. It begins “When a neighbor shows up at his door/Wearing a black ski mask, carrying something large /And automatic . . . .” The rest of the story can be extrapolated from a newspaper front page. In this particular story, one faction imprisons the other in a nightmarish replay of the Holocaust.
In Bargen’s poem “Overdose,” he notes how “hardly anyone/bothers to look up from their newspapers,” as a drug user creates a scene in a mall. Bargen shows how a perfectly ordinary setting can turn sinister. In this public square, jaded crowds avoid engagement.
Bargen is Missouri’s first poet laureate, and the volume includes some autobiographical poems from that experience. In “Poet as Grand Marshall of the Fall Parade,” the unathletic poet contrasts his odd public role with that of a celebrity sports figure. He considers adding football pads to his suit. Even such lighter poems have an edge of social critique, as Bargen shows how banal Midwestern communities have misplaced values. These accompany a culture of violence.
Chelsea Rathburn, in “A Raft of Grief,” finds personal struggles can be stark, inner battles as she writes about alcoholism and divorce. The poet uses many tricks of poetic language to create safe distance from anguish.
“Sweet Nothings” is about women telling tales on past lovers. They find “the old wounds feel a little softer/with a laugh track, so the stories keep coming.” Reminiscences about “Italian lingerie,” pillow talk, and a dominatrix role entertain the group.  The humor evaporates, however, as one notes: “‘he said he owned/me for the hour—they only play at giving up control.’” The see-saw of Rathburn’s poetic lines emphasizes the dramatic momentum of anger.
The poet uses a “laugh track” again in “This Poem Has Had Too Much to Drink.” At first, the extended comparison is slapstick: “This poem can’t talk to strangers/until after the third gin and tonic” and “This one fell into a bush at the party.” Finally, as the narrative arc reaches conclusion, the problems continue in new form: “This poem is in recovery and can’t stop talking about it.” This is one of many inventive, fresh approaches in the book.
One of the last poems, “The Mother of Beauty, Etc.,” has a striking image that recapitulates the dangers of amour. A couple kiss in the woods, until they realize a nearby “white shape watching” is a deer’s skull. Life and death intertwine, as they find themselves “studying the bones” rather than each other.
Rathburn has a sure voice, one that will continue to be heard, like those of these other poets who look beyond confections of simple love poems.  

Denise Low, Kansas City Star