Category: Poetry

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A stylized snapshot from Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap", where the group performs "Gimme Some Money".

POEM: “Thought Our Film Would Say It All”

THOUGHT OUR FILM WOULD SAY IT ALL

And then some scumbag wanted money for the footage
Of my friend. Well, HIS friend, as a fact
Was a ponderer’s poet, while he cannot

Think. Well, he IS thinking
Of himself, bobbing down a perfect sea
Storm loosened from the surface

Of our lens. Guess which had a brain
Injury and you’d guess wrong. Say CHEESE
Bitch! Or that’s what HE did at any rate

Offered. Not even poets deserve riches. […]

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The manuscript copy of William Stafford's "Traveling Through The Dark", written in long-hand in a notebook.

Improving William Stafford’s “Traveling Through The Dark”

Decades ago, when I first came stateside, & was catching up studying the collected works of mostly great American poets I had only heard about, since I didn’t have access to their books in Zimbabwe, one of the poems I stumbled upon in an anthology, pre-internet, & liked a lot, was William Stafford’s very American Traveling Through The Dark – since all across this nation roads such scenarios are quite numerous. Myself, then, an idealistic, young but naïve poet who had a handful of decent to good poems under my wing – & having written for less than five years, I simply lacked the technical competencies, poetic instincts & wisdom to see the glaring flaws inherent in it.

Now let me be brutally honest – no matter what you’ve read, heard or seen elsewhere this isn’t a great poem, nor is it even near-great! At best it’s a solid &/or good poem but what prevents it from greatness of, say, W.B. Yeat’s Leda And The Swan is its documentary style which, in the hands of a lesser poet, leaves little room to expand on its themes, its clunkiness, repetitive verbosity & William Stafford’s need to explain then overstate instead of trusting the reader to make their own quick connections by just giving us the necessary facts succinctly, efficiently & in the right sequence, so the words heighten each other in their setups into that purview of poetry not prose. Also, there’s no sustained vigor which is a by-product of brevity & being bold with the materials at hand. Yes, as poets we often love words excessively to our own detriment in their use so I’d advise to only love them to the same extent you’re willing to ruthlessly cut them, if need be. While I like the English language – I come to it as a second language so I’ve no qualms editing it rigorously. Tellingly, in this short video Stafford explains how it came about, his not knowing how to finish it, but upon taking it to a writers’ group & noticing their reaction to his reading of it, wisely stuck to his ending, yet unfortunately in the same breath, gave up revising it anymore. Then, he sent it off for publication, into this its famous but overwrought version – I no longer objectively like, at 157 words: […]

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A stylized photo from John Ashbery's dusk jacket for his poetry collection, "Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror". Ashbery is looking at himself in a tall, narrow mirror.

Flames Against Indifference: On John Ashbery’s “Illustration”

So much has been said of John Ashbery, pro and con, regarding the man’s poetic accomplishment, that to go over the details here would be to dither between a number of points better analysts have already raised. Since his death in 2017, there have been and will continue to be many encomiums, and I’m sure a few open critiques, too. I won’t engage in such, here, as I haven’t read enough of Ashbery’s entire oeuvre to launch into full-throated hagiography, and I’m more than happy to let a hardier soul tackle whatever the hell Flow Chart is.

But “Illustration” from his 1956 collection Some Trees is a perfect example of John Ashbery at his best, although less mysterious, and less remarkable, than some of the pieces from, say, 1976’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In this way, however, such sensitivity to frontal analysis lends itself well to younger poets learning the craft who might otherwise be stumped by the later book’s longer, more densely-packed enigmas. […]

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The cover for Moira J. Saucer's poetry collection, "Wiregrass", which features a hand-made cover with a physically decorated yellow flower.

Beautiful Books: On Moira J. Saucer’s “Wiregrass” (Ethel Zine)

Big box bookstores rarely carry small press books, and although some independent bookstores might shelve small press publications, they do not usually offer handmade books. There are also artist-made books, most often a single volume that can be a stunning example of what a book can be: a sublime experience of combined fibers. Books as an art form have been a genre most often seen in either craft shows or esteemed special collections, and can vary from exquisite blank journals to fragile historical treasures. It is not often enough that the ordinary bibliophile will curate handmade books into their collection, even if that personal library includes small press volumes.

Yet in Ethel, we have a small press that has consistently produced an impressive catalogue of handmade books. In addition to side sewn bindings that speak to a serious home sewing machine, each cover features collage and sewn elements—obvious work by hand yet done in the sequence of an edition. A recent release from Ethel is Wiregrass by Moira J. Saucer, which is an apparition in yellow, a textual and tactile experience that begins with holding the yet unopened book. The cover image itself has hand painted elements—a leaf, a flower (done is a yellow that is akin enough to the cover’s yellow to give the impression of depth of perception)—and then outlined with some lines sewn onto the cover. Our consideration of the artist-editor painting, then sewing a sequence of covers must pause at this achievement alone; of the hundreds of small presses whose editors consider a manuscript by the effort and reward model of production, Ethel’s commitment to the manuscript includes this level of commitment: handcraft is hours upon hours upon hours. […]

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A stylized photo of poet Pattiann Rogers delivering a lecture on Walt Whitman.

Nature’s Nurture: On Pattiann Rogers’s “The Determinations of the Scene”

I’ve never been deeply interested in discovering some knock-down argument for the question of determinism, hard or soft or what have you. It seems a given that we are thrown into existence equipped with certain capacities, which are, to a degree, non-negotiable; and our choices, going forward, will always be curtailed both by the limits of those capacities as well as the inevitability of outside interference, whether it be from environments or other actors—who are, of course, similarly limited by their own subjectivities.

While this seems to me to be almost boringly obvious, it’s at the same time difficult for me to square away the reality of human freedom. Yes, we’re pre-equipped with a particular physiology, rising out of protein codes and the processes of gestation, and on top of that are blown hither and yon by the previously mentioned exteriors; but it’s also boringly obvious that an essential element of our existence involves the ability to “mind” oneself, to abstract real decisions distinct from biology’s sundry impulsions and the effect of circumstance. While it may (or may not?) be technically possible to draw out a fully elaborated causal chain starting with the origins of the universe all the way down to my choice of sausage or pepperoni for last night’s pizza order, this still tells me nothing whatsoever about the role intentionality plays in this otherwise brute sequence of events. […]

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A stylized shot of West Virginia, where a portion of Don Moss's "Lettered State" takes place.

POEM: Don Moss — “Lettered State”

Lettered State

An hour past dawn, at this clear-road pace,
We’d cross the last county line,
Passing from East to West Virginia.
His plan was masterful. A second D-
W-I, he’d be revoked a full year.
With the foresight a son might inherit,
He’d claimed his wallet stolen
And applied for a duplicate license.

He slid the form under the wide
Bi-focaled face of the counter woman.
Who’d lifted her head to assess him,
Corrected the date, asked of insurance,
Reviewed and stamped his freedom form,
Freedom to drive west, to Phoenix, AZ,
A two-day drive to friend Tom’s,
Take the Arizona test, cowboy a year,
Return to Virginia and petition
The court for reinstatement. Masterful.

His ’73 Continental drove well, but
Father didn’t know what to do
On the right side of the wide front seat,
Forming fists of dependence.
“Son, how fast you going?” […]

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A self-portrait of a young Claude Monet wearing black and sporting a beard, set next to Jessica Schneider's collection of ekphrastic poetry, "Ekphrasm".

Transforming Claude Monet: On Jessica Schneider’s “Theme de Camille” (EKPHRASM, 2022)

Art’s encounter elicits a multiplicity of responses, most of which are perfectly commonplace, barely penetrating superficial acknowledgment. This would be the main method of engagement for most people (including artists) most of the time, since no matter how much one loves or professes to love the arts, no one has enough time in the day to deeply engage with every work of art they come across. Indeed, many works of art don’t bother to ask such from the percipient in the first place, intentions notwithstanding.

Yet there is always the moment of real and lasting engagement. Sometimes this is due to the work’s undeniably high quality, and other times due to whim and circumstance, with works of varying quality. Sometimes, there is only the engager’s want, beneath which the art must break or bend – or transform. Let us consider Jessica Schneider’s poem “Theme de Camille”, from her 2022 collection, “Ekphrasm”. […]