“Bringing the Poem Back to the Actual”: An Interview with David J. Daniels

rural-jurorDavid J. Daniels writes poems that sneak up on you. Smart and worldly, emotional and funny, they convey a sense of life-as-it’s-lived: culture both high and low, our strivings and failings, the countless ways we let each other down and hold each other up. Because of the immediacy of voice and freshness of language, you might not realize at first that his poems also often rhyme and come to life in sophisticated formal structures. David’s first book, Clean, received the Four Way Books Intro Prize and was recently named a finalist for the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency, both from Seven Kitchens Press. He teaches at the University of Denver.

Matthew Thorburn: Two poems in Clean have postscripts – “Public Indecency” is followed by “The Casserole: a Postscript” and “Letter to Curtis, Dead at Twenty-Four” is followed by “Postscript to Curtis.” I love the idea of a poem having a sequel. Could you talk about how these poems came to be? Did you finish a poem and then feel there really was more to say?

David J. Daniels: Thom Gunn has two adjacent poems in his collection Boss Cupid, “In the Post Office” and “Postscript: The Panel.” The first is an elegy, delivered in second person to the dead, and the second begins fairly directly in prose form: “Reciprocation from the dead. Having finished the post office poem, I decide to take a look at the stained-glass panel it refers to, which Charlie made I would say two years before he died.” There’s a lot I’ve learned from Thom Gunn – his attention to rhyme and syllabics, his mix of high and low dictions, his use of asides – and these poems have lingered with me, the latter providing a commentary and new mode of interior inquiry into the former. I love that! Continue Reading

Between Optimism and Pessimism: How to Set Our Baby Monitors?

Adolf_Hiremy-Hirschl,_Die_Seelen_des_AcheronPessimism is not particularly hard. I thought of this last month when I spent an hour in my brother’s kitchen near the baby monitor through which I could hear my poor twenty-two-month-old niece hacking up phlegm. After an hour I began to mistake this noise for the wind, or for my own thoughts. Moments of quiet could only mean she had stopped breathing. This might as well have been the soundtrack to pessimism, or perhaps a microcosm of how it overtakes anyone who has lived long enough.

Colum McCann knew this well before and more keenly than I ever did (and better-scarfed). In his masterpiece Let the Great World Spin, the preacher at young Jazzlyn’s funeral declared that “goodness was more difficult than evil.” Goodness “had to be fought for.” And the fight is difficult, indeed—it took a funeral preacher to speak the words.

Let’s face it: there’s not a single day that the flag of any sensible adult should be above half-mast. Which is why I think being called optimistic is a gentler way of being asked, “So are there just no newspapers where you live?” McCann tells Nathan Englander in their postscript conversation: “The cynics of this world—the politicians, the corporations, the squinty-eyed critics—seem to think that . . . it’s cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there’s some sort of moral heft in cynicism.”Continue Reading

“It’s All About the Panic”: An Interview with Mary Biddinger

Akron_PostcardMary Biddinger’s poems are poignant, playful, a little mysterious, in love with language, and full of surprising connections: between music and meaning, between memory and imagination, between nostalgia and a yearning for what’s next. I’ve read and admired her poems since we were in the same undergraduate workshops at the University of Michigan twenty years ago. She is now the author of four collections of poetry—most recently A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (2014) and O Holy Insurgency (2013), both from Black Lawrence Press. She teaches at the University of Akron and in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. She also edits the independent literary magazine Barn Owl Review, which she founded in 2007.

Matthew Thorburn: Deadpan, comic, rueful, weary but maybe a touch hopeful too—there’s a particular tone of voice that makes A Sunny Place with Adequate Water a very cohesive collection. You hear it from the start, with that “adequate water.” Is this something you worked towards as you wrote the poems?

Mary Biddinger: I wouldn’t be exaggerating by saying that tone is everything to me. I remember using a particular manner of voice as a kid, and being told to watch my tone. At that point I realized that words could mean different things, depending on their neighbors, and their inflection. About ten years ago I realized that it was okay for poems to be playful. I’m a naturally goofy person who enjoys pleasant sarcasm. I hope that comes through in my poems. The book is also very much about dualities, and doubling, both the good and wicked versions of ourselves, and voice contributes to this.Continue Reading

Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Black and White Business of Confronting Racism in Literature

eric garner protests nyc

Like most Americans, I’ve been stunned the last few months by the verdicts in Ferguson and New York. Tens of thousands of protestors, black, white and brown, have taken to the streets and to social media to voice their protest and outrage at the implicit message received from these verdicts that black lives don’t matter—but who is putting pen to paper in attempts to record such moments in literature?

I ask this question as a young white poet at UNC Wilmington—a city that is no stranger to racial tension and violence. This semester, I took a graduate-level poetry workshop called “Gazing In, Gazing Out” where we discussed poetry under two lenses: that which speaks more confessionally and personally versus that which speaks more politically and socially consciously. The essential question that arose from that class—from, I couldn’t help but notice, a room full of young, white writers—was this: How can our art be political without being preachy? Rhetorical without turning into a rant? Sensitive to identities other than those we were born with?

But after reading a series of articles in the news lately about art and our current times, I can’t help but ask now: Who else has the luxury of debating this but white artists? And who else has more of a responsibility to step up to the challenge now more than ever?Continue Reading

Iguala, Ayotzinapa, and Why Carolyn Forché is More Relevant Than Ever

Carolyn_ForcheI went to Mexico City to write about it. But also to read a lot too. To slough off the rust of my own ignorance about this country my family came from. You can never read enough. Such is the shame of academia. But the beauty of being young and dumb is that there’s always something new you haven’t read yet, seen yet, heard yet. Do you remember the first time you heard the Beatles? Elvis? Everything new is exciting. Everything new feels connected if only by association: I learned about this stuff around the same time. But once in a while, there’s something oogie-boogie that happens when things we learn, when new things we’re exposed to, aren’t only connected but resonating with the moment we’re living in. That’s more or less how I found Carolyn Forché’s poetry just as the Mexican moment found me.Continue Reading

Review: The Infinitesimals

lauraThe Infinitesimals
Laura Kasischke
Copper Canyon Press, July 2014
100 pages
$16.00

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Imagine a strange land where tumors that resemble “terrible frogs,” a man with an “unbuttoned” face, and an ever-returning sea beast dwell, and where motherhood is a “grand opera staged in a cave.” This is The Infinitesimals by author Laura Kasischke, her ninth poetry collection (in addition to nine novels), which was published by Copper Canyon Press (July 2014). Here, illness and mortality assume anthropomorphic contours, wherein the loss of Kasischke’s mother, for instance, becomes “birds on the other side of . . . binoculars” who stare her (and us) down.

As with Space, In Chains (2011), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Kasischke’s latest collection, tight with her distinguishing concision and strong lyricism, continues to invent and explore new terrains. Never over-the-top with her surrealism, Kasischke aims to excavate the “infinitesimal” in this collection, which seventeenth century philosopher George Berkley, in the epigraph, defines as “the ghosts of departed quantities.” Put in another way, she challenges us to consider what we cannot see, explain, or portend.Continue Reading

Picasso’s Tears

untitled-1Picasso’s Tears
Wong May
Octopus Books, June 2014
323 Pages
$24

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Few books of poetry this year will have a more interesting back story than this one. Born in China in 1944 and raised in Singapore, Wong May came to the United States in the 1960s to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Between 1969 and 1978, she published three collections of poetry with Harcourt Brace. Then, rather abruptly, no further books.

Poet Zachary Schomburg came across Wong May’s first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, in an Akron public library and was sufficiently intrigued to investigate. It turned out than Wong May had married an Irish physicist, moved to Dublin, and raised two sons. Although she published virtually nothing, she had continued to write poetry. Since Schomburg is one of the many contemporary poets who has a sideline as an independent publisher, we now have Picasso’s Tears, a handsomely-designed (by Drew Scott Swenhaugen) hardbound volume, 286 pages of poetry and an interview (more precisely, a 12-page answer to the question, “How has your relationship to poetry changed since 1978?”).Continue Reading

Talkativeness

Talkativeness_for_website_grandeTalkativeness
Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2014
104 pages
$18.00

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If you were among those persuaded by Thin Kimono (2010) that Michael Earl Craig was a poet to watch, you may consider your intuitions confirmed. Talkativeness dwells a little more deeply in the voice of that earlier volume, becoming more at home in it, but still capable of surprise.

Craig’s territory is contiguous to the domains of Ashbery, Tate, and Dean Young, but a little further off the interstate, a little lonelier. The natives are kindly but unlikely to offer help unless asked. For that matter, you might get further by simply paying closer attention.

The book’s epigraph, from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, states, “No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant.” But—the following volume seems to ask—how confident can we be that any remark is irrelevant, when it may connect intimately to the topic at hand by unguessable, labyrinthine subterranean channels? How do we know that the apparently tangential is not, in fact, the royal highway to the real?Continue Reading