Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spandrels and Prose-Couplets: Judith Roitman publishes SLACKLINE.

Full disclosure: Judith Roitman is a dear friend who has seen me through divorce and many character flaws and forgiven me. That does not change the fact that she is a poet with a new chapbook Slackline (Arroyo Grande, Cal.: Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2012) with original woodblock print illustrations by Sally F. Piller.
First, the book is almost too pretty. The illustrations are maybe the most apt that I’ve ever seen. The birch trees on the cover have bark designs that look natural but shift into glyphs and back. The fox sniffing snow is engrossed in its own activity, although its tracks leave another text. Colors dance in perfect balance. Six black-and-white woodblock prints intersperse with the rest of the book and make a perfect subtext. I go on about the illustrations because they are remarkable and exactly appropriate to the scale of the half-letter page.

The poems in Slackline, like the images, also hover in suspension. Each is an epistle addressed: “Dear [Initial] — .” (The interior woodblock prints also create this initial in their designs.) This rhetorical situation of addressing a recipient creates an intimacy with the text. I feel like a voyeur as I read someone else’s letters. As a child, this was a great taboo, so that heightens my tension and sense of mystery. The second of the total eighteen poems is one of three that begin “Dear S—

Dear S —

             How come everyone I know seems to have a name that starts with S? Except for the ones that don’t. Anyway, I’d like to return the tape you covered my mouth with, the one with worms and flowers. Every time I said “worms” you said “no, flowers” and you’d point to show me. Everyone was convinced so I capitulated and it seemed like a good thing at the time but you know it wasn’t. You know how spandrels bark, demarcated as they are by leaves and flowers? You knew the fine line in between and how you walked it, a slackline strung between trees, but it was really razor blades. I tried to tell you but there you have it. What is anyone left with after that? I keep putting pictures up but the wind knocks them down.

So the “slackline strung between trees” creates tinges of fear:
(1)   that I will be discovered reading someone else’s mail, a federal crime
(2)   that I will fall on “razor blades,”
(3)   that I will discover, like the narrator, a great void: “What is anyone left with after that?”
Because I live in Kansas, I am not afraid of the final threat, “wind,” but that is a very true experience, everything being knocked down by wind, perhaps tornadoes or just straight-line winds.

Also, I am interested in the ways the lines in this composition re-curve upon themselves. This prose poem is composed of near-couplets, as the poet embeds double-lines in prose. The first two sentences set up this pattern, as an assertion—“How come everyone I know seems to have a name that starts with S?” is countered by its antithesis: “Except for the ones that don’t.”

Sometimes the two-part thought is more-or-less balanced in one compound sentence. One of my favorites of these “couplets” is this one: “You know how spandrels bark, demarcated as they are by leaves and flowers?” “Spandrels” are the negative-space triangular shape between arches and architectural supports. These are common in medieval cathedrals, although they appear in Roman architecture. “Spandrels” are also part of Noam Chomsky’s idea of origins of language as well as Stephen Gould’s theory of biological evolution--“exaptation,” which occurs because of physical exigencies. So “spandrel” is an underlying principle in this text: What ornament can fill in a space left between a salutation and an implied signature? Roitman chooses the historical “leaves and flowers.” “Bark” and “demarcated” comment on each other as well.
Roitman omits any signature at the ends of  all these letters, but the ample blank spaces on the pages leave room for readers to fill in the blanks. Her biography and photograph at the very end of the book create a final author’s presence and signature line.

In Lawrence, Slackline is available at the independent Raven Bookstore, 7th and Mass. Online, copies may be obtained at:  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Some Ways to Make a Good Poem Better

I'm getting ready for my workshop at The Writers Place in Kansas City this morning, and here is my outline:
Workshop: Jewels, Condors, and Cinnamon: Writing Surprises into Poetry
Writers create new ways of looking at the commonplace, so techniques of creating surprises help draw readers into the exploration of a poem.
  • Clarity is a first principle;
  • Consistency is the second: continuity of voice, form, logic
  •       Writing poetry is the opposite of writing clich├ęs
  •       Writing poetry is a form of travel writing, going beyond the ordinary
  •        "Poetry is to language what ballet is to walking." Valery
        Ways to add excitement are
  • topic,
  • vocabulary,
  • narrative,
  • sentence structure,
  • pacing,
  • sound

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Michael Poage publishes 6th book VOICE OVER

At one of the 1990s Associated Writers & Writing Programs conferences I discovered writers who studied under Richard Hugo and Madeline Defrees at the University of Montana. They told the best stories. Then I realized fellow Kansan Michael Poage was one of this group, and he received his MFA in the 1970s. Indeed, he dedicates this book to Hugo and Defrees. He continues the tradition of lyricism joined with narrative in equal parts. This is his most plainspoken book, less concerned with structure than topics. Previous books were syntax macrame with striking images. This book makes first impact with story. His sequences are not always logical, which adds mystery to the work, as in this poem:


Today it is important
to visit the sun.
That means going out of this room
and perhaps seeking people. Then
I will have to make a decision.
Do I cross the street
or face whoever comes
along? Today, in the kitchen,
I heard on the radio
that Voyager 1--originally sent
out by themselves in all that color--
is moving at 39,000 miles per hour
away from us, perhaps toward some other life.
It has a Motown record with it and now
has gone farther than any other object
sent from earth. I feel like that--
I feel like I am between lives
and hope to be
in my new one soon. 

c. Michael Poage

Poage's work in this volume is more journal like--the world around him is as surreal as anything he could construe. The juxtaposition of the Motown record and space travel is as unlikely as the narrator's various identities. This poem is one means of space travel. Previous books by Poage are Abundance (213 Press), BORN and Handbook of Ornament (Black Stone Press), The Gospel of Mary (Woodley Press) and god won't overlook us (Penthe Press).

Voice OverISBN 9781930781757
Available for $15 from 1536 N. Park Pl., Wichita, KS 67203. Photograph by Denise Low.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Laura Kasischke Wins NBCC Poetry Award

Laura Kasischke won the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award, March 8, 2012 in New York City. Her book, Space, in Chains, also won the first annual University of North Texas Rilke Prize. This $10,000 prize recognizes “a book written by a mid-career poet and published in the preceding year that demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision.” Congratulations to Copper Canyon Press, which continues to publish some of the best American literature.
The title poem shows her original, accreted lines of narrative and lyric force. She shifts from snapshots that appear all too mortal—a man collapsing, for example. She focuses on fleeting moments, not a new theme in poetry—tempus fugit. But her voice is completely modern. After reciting a catalogue of life that will die, she declares, “I’m not endorsing it.” Chains here are not only mortality, but also the links from one moment to the next—what continues.
Space, in Chains
Things that are beautiful, and die. Things that fall asleep in the afternoon, in
sun. Things that laugh, then cover their mouths, ashamed of their teeth. A
strong man pouring coffee into a cup. His hands shake, it spills. His wife falls
to her knees when the telephone rings. Hello? Goddammit, hello?

Where is their child?

Hamster, tulips, love, gigantic squid. To live. I'm not endorsing it.

Any single, transcriptional event. The chromosomes of the roses. Flagella,
cilia, all the filaments of touching, of feeling, of running your little hand
hopelessly along the bricks.

Sky, stamped into flesh, bending over the sink to drink the tour de force of

It's all space, in chains—the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm, the steam 
rising off the asphalt, a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping
out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen,
Sweetie, don't be gone too long.

From the book: Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, reprinted from the Copper Canyon “Share” site Poetry Foundation Link University of Michigan link 
Laura Kasischke teaches at the University of Michigan. Besides Space, in Chains, she has published 7 books of poetry: Lilies Without (Ausable Press, 2007); Gardening in the Dark (Ausable Press, 2004); Dance and Disappear (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); What It Wasn't (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2001); Fire & Flower (Alice James Books, 1999); Housekeeping in a Dream (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1995); Wild Brides (New York University Press, 1991). Her poetry has been published in Harper's, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Kenyon Review, Georgia Review, and Pushcart anthologies.
She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Bobst Award for Emerging Writers (NYU Press), Beatrice Hawley Award, Juniper Award (Univ. of Massachusetts Press), Alice Fay DiCastagnola Award (Poetry Society of America). She has also published 8 novels, including The Raising (Harpers, 2011); In a Perfect World (novel, Harpers, 2009); Be Mine (Harcourt, 2007); Boy Heaven(novel for young adults, HarperCollins, 2006); The Life Before Her Eyes (Harcourt, 2002); White Bird in a Blizzard (Hyperion, 1998); and Suspicious River (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).ischke's most recent collection of poems, Lilies Without, was published in 2007 by Ausable Press. She teaches at the University of Michigan. Laura Kasischke's most recent collection of poems, Lilies Without, was published in 2007 by Ausable Press. She teaches at the University of Michigan. Laura Kasischke's most recent collection of poems, Lilies Without, was published in 2007 by Ausable Press. She teaches at the University of Michigan.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kansas City Poet Thomas Zvi Wilson Dies

Wichita poet Michael Poage listens to Thomas Zvi Wilson
Jeanie Wilson let friends know that Thomas Zvi Wilson, her husband, died today at 12:30 pm, March 7, 2012. He influenced many Kansas City area writers as a poet, writing coach, and friend. All of us who knew him continue his life through our memories of him, and through the words he shared. To keep his fire burning, here is one of my favorites of his poems, reprinted with permission from the book The Door into the Dream (The Mid-America Press 2006):

The Winter Dream

is what we must imagine:
Whoever you are, night at last
drops you in its pocket.

In that dark vastness,
every electric bulb that's glimpsed
through  farmhouse window
is a likely star soon to burn out.

From there the roads go
nowhere, or slam into a wall
that refuses what we must imagine:
only seamless night.

For biographical information and another poem:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Follow this link to find the 5 nominated books. My bet: Yusef Komunyakaa, for his 4th dimensional axis that makes his work transcend. We will see what happen soon. Awared are March 8. The Awards Ceremony is free and open to the public.
Reception to follow at Lang Center, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY. Tickets for the reception are $50.

Space in Chains By Laura Kasischke, Copper Canyon Press; Devotions By Bruce Smith, Phoenix Poets; Core Samples from the World By Forrest Gander, New Directions; The Chameleon Couch By Yusef Komunyakaa, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Kingdom Animalia By Aracelis Girmay, BOA Editions, Ltd.