True confession: I’m not a rabid fan of poetry readings.
On one level this is, of course, fairly rampant hypocrisy, considering that I give readings and hope to give many more (and, someday, to be paid for some of them, but let’s not talk crazy.) But on another level it speaks to some qualities of both twenty-first century poems and poetry readings which are, I think, real enough that many people will recognize them, especially the people who aren’t in the rows of empty chairs at (some) poetry readings.
The Chronology of Water
Hawthorne Books, April 2011
“Little tragedies are difficult to keep straight,” writes Lidia Yuknavitch in The Chronology of Water. “They swell and dive in and out in great sinkholes in the brain.” The loss of her daughter, stillborn, is precisely that kind of tragedy, and launches Yuknavitch’s nonlinear memoir that is at times lyrical, at times conversational, and almost always intense.
Carefully arranged in their nonlinearity, five chapters—Holding Breath, Under Blue, The Wet, Resuscitations, and The Other Side of Drowning—each comprised of shorter titled sections, engage the reader with profound emotions: grief, rage, passion, a desperate need for numbness, and “purity of happiness.” Sometimes Yuknavitch prefaces a difficult moment by telling readers that we’ll get it “straight no chaser”; other times she leads us down a garden path, seducing us with something romanticized, mythic (mythic and epic being two words that repeat throughout the book), only to stop abruptly: “OK that’s a big fat lie,” she’ll write. The story is more complicated, and she doesn’t try to smooth over those complications or make them fit into expectations of mainstream memoir.
We’ve really enjoyed all of the great comments we’ve been receiving through this contest, and this week we’re excited to offer yet another fantastic back issue of Ploughshares to a lucky winner. It’s the all-poetry Spring 1984 issue guest edited by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, and featuring work by Marilyn Hacker, Rita Dove, and many more.
Complete with a view of our lovely office in the background.
For a chance to win, simply comment below explaining why you love Seamus Heaney or any of the contributors featured in this issue. We’ll read through the comments and our managing editor, Andrea Drygas, will choose the winning commenter by noon tomorrow. All we ask from you is a review of the issue within thirty days of receiving it, which we’ll publish online in honor of our fortieth anniversary. Details can be found here.
If you’re interested in hearing about this weekly contest, make sure to fan us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our blog feed, or add us on Tumblr.
UPDATE: I’ve made my selection, and so this posting is now CLOSED. We’ll be doing this every week, so there will be plenty more chances for free issues. Stay tuned!
I am ready to launch my website.
This is not something I’ve undertaken without long consideration. After all, what does a website have to do with my writing? Launching a website isn’t likely to lead me to write more poems – in fact, I spent hours trying to design it when I might have been at my notebook. It won’t provide me with a deeper understanding of the pantoum, or The Dream Songs, or Milton’s enjambment, or the contemporary literary scene in San Francisco. I don’t expect it to confer any sudden respectability upon my work. But what it might do is make my work more available.
And there’s the leap, the projection into the void. Available to whom? Who am I writing for? I know there’s someone out there – but is there anyone out there for my poems?
The Gambler’s Nephew
Etruscan Press, May 2011
Jack Matthews’ first novel, Hanger Stout, Awake!, was published in 1967, and his latest, The Gambler’s Nephew, is already the 23rd in his half-century career. Thankfully it’s never too late to discover a writer this pleasant to read.
Like many of Matthews’ other stories, Gambler’s Nephew is a period piece with regional flair, detailing the local scandals of a river town called Brackenport in the mid-nineteenth century—as if Huck had made his intended turn at the Ohio. Brackenport may masquerade as a quiet, God-fearing place, but don’t be fooled: it is full of scoundrels, murderers, and hypocrites, all of them, strangely, very concerned with morality—and not in a dark, ambiguous, 2011 kind of way, but in a direct, visceral, fate-of-your-soul kind of way.
I return to “Leg,” a short story by Steven Polansky, in large part because I enjoy the way he covers my material—that is to say, the lives of believers in Protestant evangelical communities. This is not to say it isn’t his material, too. We can all write about whatever we want. But I enjoy the way Polansky treats his characters and their beliefs with great delicacy. Aside from that fact that he’s Jewish and Ivy-League educated, I don’t know anything about Polansky’s background; but those two things alone—no offense to anyone, I hope—make him a likely tourist in the strange land of Protestant evangelicalism. But the way he observes these true believers is full of respect, curiosity, and meticulous attention—kind of like the attention with which Nabokov fashions sentences out of his non-native English in Lolita.
Well, here we are again, and I’m sorry to say the blog has not been inundated with teachers explaining in great detail what they expect from their poetry writing seminars (looking at you, my people.) Nor have students written in saying what their own most cherished projected outcomes for such a course might be…though that’s pretty much my fault, because I didn’t ask. (I do ask in class, though. First day. Verbally and in writing. I swear.)
So I’m pretty much stuck with beginning where I ended last time: I’d just concluded that what I wanted my Students to Be Able to Do as a result of this fall’s poetry workshop—what I really, really wanted, more than heartfelt sentiment, or blazing genius, or even students who show their poetic natures by wearing lots of black and staying up all night—was to show that they could write, revise, and submit un-embarrassingly. What’s un-embarrassing? Definitions will of course vary—feel free to add your own—but in the interests of space, I’ll act like a demented poetic dictator and impose my own here: un-embarrassing is when we spell-check and proofread our cover letter and our poems, when our lines don’t make horrible retching sounds unintentionally, and when we know enough about what’s already out there that we don’t have to start from scratch or let other poets’ style devour ours half-digested. (“But why can’t I rhyme love with dove?” some young poets have been known to demand. The answers are legion and lengthy, but getting youthful poets there is one of the reasons to offer this course.) Un-embarrassing is when we callously strike down clichés which would, left to themselves, multiply in our work like tribbles (see, if that simile had contained the bunnies that first came to mind, that would have been embarrassing because of the cliché. As it is, the embarrassment is of another kind.) It’s when we keep good records and avoid simultaneously submitting anything accidentally, if that’s part of our professional ethic. (And if we decide that life is short, and simultaneously submit anyway, that should maybe be a conscious decision and be followed through, like any other, methodically.)
The Ice Trilogy
Vladimir Sorokin (Translated by Jamey Gambrell)
New York Review of Books, March 2011
The Ice Trilogy, a newly translated work of fiction by Vladimir Sorokin, tells the tale of the 20th century’s tragedies and triumphs through the eccentric and abrasive narratives of—to be charitable—a cult of assholes.
At the dawn of the century, a young man is drawn to the site of the Tunguska meteor in Siberia. He communes with the light trapped in the meteor’s ice, which tells him it is a messenger from the universe and that he must find the true people of light on earth. The young man then goes around smashing people in the chest with said ice to see if they contain its inner light, and in turn these people hammer even more people with blocks of ice in order to transform them and “awaken their hearts.” The cult’s ultimate goal? Awaken all 30,000 or so members across the globe, slaughter everyone else, and then merge with the universe. (I told you they were a lot to take.)