Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Dan Beachy-Quick

Dan Beachy-Quick was born in Chicago in 1973. I heard him read from his first book, North True South Bright in 2003, when he taught at The Art Institute. Since then he has written four more full-length poetry collections, four chapbooks and a collection of essays. His honors include a Lannan Foundation Residency and he is currently an assistant professor of English at Colorado State University in Boulder.

I did not immediately take to Beachy-Quick's work. I did not care for his reading style. This, coupled with the density of his diction, made the material almost impenetrable. But as I grew as a poet, the ground of Beachy-Quick's terrain began opening up, revealing flowing rivers of lava deep inside his language that rose to the surface and created landscapes previously unknown to me. And, as in the geological process of earth's tectonic plates plowing into themselves, the key to Beachy-Quick's world is the tidal forces created by its own language, working against itself to reshape worlds and create new ones.

Here is the opening to "North/South Composition," with apologies to Dan for the formatting ("..." stands in for triple spacing):

When the falcon rose the falcon
Rose to focus
The whole field into a single blade
of grass the mole did not know not
To move
I would...my song worse...if truer
If truer my song 'falconed'
My eye wide in falcon's eye
If the field narrowed as the angle grew
If the field narrowed as the tapered wing rose
I would...if truer...make my song
The cord the falcon rose upon
The mole's a student of dirt and dark
I would...my song...worse if truer
Sing in two my tongue to snap the cord
Tethering its talon to my tooth
And let the falcon free of chord and cord
Though falcon were more me than me
Was my song a feathered thing?--
How sing the sharp wing unbroken
When my mouth is broken wing?--
Hoe be bird but sing the bird
Truer...than I...sing me
Unless, unless
From talon to tooth the taut cord could bear a
Hand not known to pluck
The taut cord could bear a hand unbidden
To pluck from song
One note which sings us both

Not only is the language syntactically interesting, but it is gorgeous as well--again something I didn't get from Beachy-Quick's own reading. Partly because of the assonance and partly because of the repetition of words and lines, there is a sense of audio unfolding and refolding throughout his poems. Sometimes, as in the following example from "Unworn," the same line is repeated with different punctuation, not simply for syntactical interest, but in order to fully mine the meanings from the raw ore of sound:

Count me among those almonds...your eyes
Count me...among those almonds your eyes
Never opened. Your mouth...on the floor-fallen pear
Never opened...your mouth on the floor-fallen pear
Count among those almonds...floor-fallen, your eyes
Your mouth...on the pear never...opened me

Collaboration is not uncommon among Chicago poets. The following excerpt from Canto, a chapbook by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy (another Chicago poet previously written about on this blog), demonstrates new poetic wine in an old wineskin form of terza rima. Andrew Wessels has described this, as well as the other poems in the chapbook, as using formal structure to suck the reader into a whirlpool, spinning a poetics of eternal motion toward a depthless center. Spiraling is also the origin...a process of being passed back and forth between the two authors, growing into its complete form."


Figure one. The spiral. The one figure
Smithson built of counter-clockwise rock
In the Great Salt Lake. Its coil beggars

Description. Figure two. Same rocks
Unseen in water. Figure three. Tourist
Looks down at map. I made a mistake.

I kept the time. I clocked the miles west.
The car door open like a hurt bird's wing,
She scratches her head, wherein nests a forest

Deep dark down of deduction and thing
Wherein she flies in spiral from tree to ground
To gather the wild grass for her weaving

In which the eggs will sit, pages unbound,
The manuscript on the car seat. Working draft.
Please do not circulate. Return if found

To the following address. The pleasure-craft
Pivot on the spindles of their masts
And motor home. Figure three-and-a-half;

The child in the crow's nest cries and laughs
As the wind carries the origami bird
From his hand, a boy's invention miscast

As real, thrust up among gulls, awkward
Dive into the sea. See? It unfolds
Into Cook's 1811 nautical map of the world,

I have seen some with a ring fixed in the hole
Of the ear, but not hanging to it, also some
With rings made of some elastick substance roled

Up like the Spring of a Watch. Kingdom, come.

Dan Beachy-Quick is a prolific writer--nine books, including his chapbooks and book of essays, in as many years. In all honesty, I have only done a careful reading of one, and a partial reading of another--but that is enough for me to place him in my top ten Chicago poets. It is enough to know that I will continue to allow his work to challenge my
reading and my writing.

Monday, March 26, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Gary Lilley

I met Gary Lilley in Chicago at Nina Corwin's and Al DeGenova's monthly poetry venue at Molly Malone's. (Nina and Al are excellent poets in their own right and deserve mention in the context of Chicago poetry, as well.) I don't remember who was featuring, but it was neither one of us. We were sitting at the same table and each read a poem during the open mic--I believe back to back, but I don't remember for sure. I do remember that we each commented on each other's work in the same way--the treatment of and respect for the line. We both attributed that feature of our poetry to former teachers--Gary first mentioned Keith Wilson I believe. I said something like, "What? Keith Wilson from New Mexico State University?" He's my old college professor who taught me the same thing.

And so we discovered we were brothers in the word, and a friendship was struck that has remained long after we both left Chicago. Gary went on to Port Townsend, WA, where he taught in the schools and became the poet laureate of Port Townsend, publishing four books to date: Alpha Zulu, Black Poem, The Reprehensibles and The Subsequent Blues. Gary is not originally from Chicago, but since I met him there and his terrific work epitomizes the slipperiness of Chicago poetry in not being capable of being pigeonholed, I include him here.

I have said elsewhere that Gary Lilley's poems sound like part Stradivarius, part blues saxophone, and part southern gospel singer--successfully blending virtuosic craftmanship, blues soul, and moral import--something quite unique in the world of non-sequiter, non-consequencial assemblages of lines that sometimes pass for poetry today--until you hear the real thing. And Gary Lilley is the real thing! Listen (read aloud) the following opening poem to his second collection, The Subsequent Blues, and you'll hear what I mean:

Prelude To The Predicament

Ain't you the image, a part of the creator,
when you got love growing in the garden
ain't everything raised in its warmth,
asked the snake.

Thickets grew in the path,
air beneath the trees fouled
and birds shied to the sky.
Wolves howled behind
the red of their teeth,
vultures reversed their spiral
and discovered a taste for death.

Seeping fell like stones.

A saxophone wind, the first low notes,
wailed the story of troubles forever.
They ran, mouths wide open,
eyes pinpointed and seeing nothing
but ground moving backwards
under their flying feet.

Gary grew up in rural North Carolina and spent years in rough parts of Washington, D.C. Later he served in the navy aboard a nuclear submarine. His capacious life finds itself in his poems, and his voice is one that is instantly trusted. Here is the title poem from his first book, Alpha Zulu--monikers for the first and last letters of the military alphabet.

Alpha Zulu

I know more people dead than people alive,
my insomniac answer to self-addressed prayers

is that in the small hours even God drinks alone.
My self-portrait; gray locks in the beard, red eyes

burning back in the mirror, the truths of grooves
and nicks on my face, one missing tooth.

I'm a man who's gathered too many addresses,
too many goodbyes. There's not much money

or time left to keep on subtracting from my life.
Except for needs I can pack everything I have

into my old black sea-bag. To all the bloods
I'll raise a bourbon, plant my elbow on the bar

and drink to the odds that one more shot
won't have me wearing a suit of blues.

I'm so exposed, with you all of me is at risk,
and if that's only one side of being in love

that's the one deep down that proves it.
Here you are sleeping with me, narcotic as night,

naked as an open hand, and the skinny of it is,
what makes you think I am afraid of this

when I once lived in a cave, moss on the cold wall,
all my bones scattered across the floor.

Gary has taught Creative Writing for Warren Wilson’s low-residency M.F.A. program. He has also taught at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference at Centrum, and has been a poet-in-residence at WritersCorps, Young Chicago Authors, and The Poetry Center of Chicago. He currently lives in Port Townsend, Washington, but he'll always be one of my top ten Chicago poets.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Tony Trigilio

I met Tony in Chicago in 2004. He emerged from his office as the director of the undergraduate poetry department at Columbia College Chicago, smiling and listening to us graduate students gathered in the hallway, intent on the movement of our mouths, a little shy, seeming like he might duck back in at any moment to scribble some notes about what he'd heard--he was that intent on each one of us, absorbing what we said into his tongue, his pen. Of course when you read the poetry in his first book, The Lama's English Lessons, you realize he practices this kind of deep listening on everything and everyone, making discoveries that seem so obvious, that no one else ever has: how Jack Lord ("The Longest Continuing Running Policeman"), is related to a mystical experience in the Hawaii Holiday Inn in March of '77, how a table-dancer from New Orleans stacks clothes in a laundromat "like an office worker fastening a chain of paper clips together on the last day of her job," how war can make "the things you're warned against the ones you're best suited to accomplish."

The characters in Trigilio's poems range from the unknown--the homeless man who "touched himself today//a musician studying for/your last dollar bill" and the "old men shirtless/[who] rearrange flowerpots/on windowsills," the WWII soldier knotting his tie for the first time, to the infamous: Jim and Tammy Bakker, Lee Harvey Oswald, Kenneth Starr. The connection between them all is the lens of this poet, the observer who changes the experiment by observing it, the artist who creates by turning his instrument in the direction of what is "there." But the observer is anything but objective, it is exactly his subjectivity that makes it possible for us to relate so well to Trigilio's world. The following section of the prose poem "Special Prosecutor" could be talking about the poet's capacious work, as well as the farm of friends so big for them they had to keep boarders.

from "Special Prosecutor"

I can still remember Diane and Dave's place after all these years.
An elegant sprawling gabled farmhouse. It anchors an acre of south-
ern Ohio corn. It was too big for them so they kept boarders. We
thought about starting a commune. They took good care of the place
but couldn't keep the money straight from the boarders. They came
to me with their problems and I listened. That's what people do, it's
what you're supposed to do. Don't turn away your friends. If you
can't be honest with them, then who are you trying to fool? Diane
and Dave keep their arms around me as we walk through their
empty living room. They want to stay close to me, and for some
reason I speak in low tones fearing eavesdroppers. In that hush I tell
them Ken Starr is staying at their boarding house and I need to go
away. They say nothing, their silence a mystery I'm content to leave
unsolved. Their arms around me, they escort me into the kitchen,
a huge converted gymnasium with rows of picnic tables. Migrant
laborers, mostly men but a few women, squished at every table eating
eggs and toast heaped on every plate. It's clear to me that Diane
and Dave's house serves as a way station, an underground railroad
of sorts. A cell in a network of fake identities, citizenship papers,
resettlement. I look down at the floor as we speak. If someone
sees this, maybe my gaze, downward and focused, can make the con-
versation look casual. It's the secret force of well-being, it glides
past obstacles in dreams and only perches, an unmoved sentry, when
we're awake. "Everyone must see punishment not only as natural, but in
his own interest; everyone myst be able to read in it his own advantage."
The floor is tiled as if someone half-gutted and nearly rehabbed a
turn-of-the-century tenement. I imagine whole families living in
rooms with no privacy but for blankets draped in thresholds where
doors should be. Diane and Dave keep their heads down, too, with
faked ease, vigilance concealed, with business as usual. We'll watch
his movements in the boarding house, we'll watch so he doesn't snuff
out this settlement.

And it's clear to me that Tony Trigilio's poetry serves as a way station, an underground railroad of sorts, where the poet watches the movements of his characters, recording their secret conversations, video-taping their natural actions that seem so unnatural, their aberrations that seem so normal--"whole families living in rooms with no privacy but for blankets draped in thresholds where doors should be."

Replacing doors with blankets draped in thresholds--that's what Trigilio does. Would that we all could do it so well.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Srikanth Reddy

The poems that Srikanth Reddy (Chicu to his friends) writes will hold up longer than most. That's because they create a language with a logic all their own--one that is not antithetical to the rational mind, but rather is reason's clone that went its own way, without any presuppositions of what constitutes categories, definitions, emotions, will, choice. These are authentic quest poems examining everything, including the process of examination. In their wake: beauty. Notice the unobtrusiveness of the poet in the following peek into the world of Facts for Visitors, Reddy's first book, through a poem entitled "Everything":


She was watching the solar eclipse
through a piece of broken bottle

when he left home.
He found a blue kite in the forest

on the day she lay down
with a sailor. When his name changed,

she stitched a cloud to a quilt
made of rags. They did not meet

so they could never be parted.
So he finished her prayer,

& he folded his map of the sea.

Reddy's most ambitious project to date resulted in his second book, Voyager. With its completion, something remarkable is achieved whereby method and content and form have coalesced into art in its fullest sense. Let me explain.

Many of you will remember the name, Kurt Waldheim, the noted Secretary-General of the UN who, after a decade in office, was exposed as having been a Nazi SS officer. Most of you will not remember that his recorded voice of greetings in dozens of languages, along with that of Carl Sagan's, was placed on the Voyager spacecraft, representing the human race to anyone who might find the golden record attached to it that is currently 40 billion miles from earth. Reddy composed the poems in this volume by using the cross-out method, mining Waldheim's memoirs to find his own vocabulary, syntax, lines. He performed this excruciatingly careful and lengthy task in three cycles, resulting in three sets of poems. I had the privilege of hearing Chicu read some of the poems in their early forms as they were being written in 2004-2005. His comments included the observation that the first set of poems seemed to be about the voyage itself, but as the cycles repeated, the poems became more and more about the poet, about himself. Here is the opening poem to this amazing collection:

The world is the world.

To deny it is to break with reason.

Nevertheless it would be reasonable to question the affair.

The speaker studies the world to determine the extent of his troubles.

He studies the night overhead.

He says therefore.

He says venerable art.

To believe in the world, a person has to quiet thinking.

The dead do not cease in the grave.

The world is water falling on stone.

The epilogue to Voyager contains a few pages from Waldheim's memoirs, superimposed with Reddy's cross-out technique. This capstone to the book brings the work full-circle and, like the spacecraft itself, launches out into the next new discovery of our own creation.

Of course, Reddy's educational background and achievements are in keeping with his extraordinary work: BA from Harvard, MFA from Iowa, PhD from Harvard. Fellowships from the Whiting and the Mellon Foundations. Literacy Director for the Mahatma Ghandi Memorial Trust. Professor at the University of Chicago. Husband. Father. Chicago Poet. One of my favorite.

Read him.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Li-Young Lee

Something to do with death...something to do with love--from "This Room and Everything In It" by Li-Young Lee

In an essay posted on Poets.org, A Slightly Qualified Defense of MFA Programs: Six Benefits of Graduate School, Arielle Greenberg lists "to find out what to read" among the reasons. I had never heard of Li-Young Lee before beginning Columbia College Chicago's poetry MFA program. If reading his four volumes of poetry had been the only return on my investment of tuition and time, it would have been worth it, because Li-Young Lee's poems are transformational. It is unlikely that I will say or can say anything new about his body of work, but I want to go on record as being among those who consider it transformational. From the short, highly confessional lyric poems of Rose, through the longer more ambitious poems of longing of his later books, The City In Which I Love You and Book Of My Nights, to his more metaphysical collection, Behind My Eyes, these quest poems are offered to us as sustenance for our writing lives. You can google the poet and read his extensive list of honors and awards for yourself--let's get on to a poem. Listen to "This Room and Everything In It," a gorgeous, haunting study of memory, emblematic of Li-Young Lee's work:

This Room and Everything In It

Lie still now
while I prepare for my future,
certain hard days ahead,
when I’ll need what I know so clearly this moment.

I am making use
of the one thing I learned
of all the things my father tried to teach me:
the art of memory.

I am letting this room
and everything in it
stand for my ideas about love
and its difficulties.

I’ll let your love-cries,
those spacious notes
of a moment ago,
stand for distance.

Your scent,
that scent
of spice and a wound,
I’ll let stand for mystery.

Your sunken belly
is the daily cup
of milk I drank
as a boy before morning prayer.
The sun on the face
of the wall
is God, the face
I can’t see, my soul,

and so on, each thing
standing for a separate idea,
and those ideas forming the constellation
of my greater idea.
And one day, when I need
to tell myself something intelligent
about love,

I’ll close my eyes
and recall this room and everything in it:
My body is estrangement.
This desire, perfection.
Your closed eyes my extinction.
Now I’ve forgotten my
idea. The book
on the windowsill, riffled by wind . . .
the even-numbered pages are
the past, the odd-
numbered pages, the future.
The sun is
God, your body is milk . . .

useless, useless . . .
your cries are song, my body’s not me . . .
no good . . . my idea
has evaporated . . . your hair is time, your thighs are song . . .
it had something to do
with death . . . it had something
to do with love.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Widening The Widening Spell

Editor's Note: At the recent AWP Conference in Chicago, as part of a panel presentation entitled "Connecting with your readers via your website and social media," Matt Bell concluded his list of "Best Practices" with the declaration "Don't let your blog be a closed system." In an effort to widen The Widening Spell, this blogger has decided to publish guest writers on a regular basis. What follows is the first of several such posts.

Music Hath Charms...Poetry Too

Within the kaleidoscopic maelstrom that was AWP 2012, I listened to a number of writers read their work whose ability to evoke a satisfying experience ranged from god-awful to godly. This comes from having the privilege to choose from thousands of wordsmiths of the widest range of skill and talents. One can choose to attend the readings of featured poets, of writers and keynoters with Pulitzers, or first year creative writing students at an off-site Chicago dive who are not exactly sure what a genre is.

One is not necessarily better than the other.

AWP is the town hall of writers’ conferences---democratic and egalitarian--providing your panel gets selected or you book that venue. All are welcome to try their hand at moving us as we listen to what moved them.

There were some commonalities of theme and usage that crossed the lines of proficiency and artfulness. One common element I noticed was that the written work often constellated around death and/or loss of a loved one or family member (that those are not always the same provided some pointed subtexts). This was true for every one of the poets who read in a panel I attended on the craft of narrative poetry: a brother, mother, grandmother, Marlon Brando and a deer all died or were already dead before the poem’s first line.

Jeffrey Yang read a haunting elegy for his friend and Mary Rockcastle’s excerpt from her novel, In Caddis Wood, used death and loss in nature as symbolic of a family’s tragedies at the Graywolf reading.

At the 35th anniversary BOA Editions reading, Matthew Shenoda read from his work, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, which is about historical Egypt, references The Tibetan Book of the Dead and “life severed from life.”

Other writers at these readings dwelled on death and loss of people who mattered or touchingly dealt with family problems and suffering. This is, of course, hardly surprising. These are the subjects that pierce and define us, and must be written about.

But along with this focus on loss, there was another common element: the liberal use of song titles and lines from songs from the sixties and seventies. They were sprinkled throughout every reading I attended—some poets used them too much---as a crutch to gain some measure of rhythm and likability.

Some, like Albert Goldbarth, a wholly enjoyable and I think enjoying reader, used them judiciously. His own line, “….davening gloriously at the wailing wall…” evokes “the beat.” D.A. Powell mentioned Bojangles and Funkytown to anchor the time and place of his poem. Kevin Young’s “Planet Rock” song lines and titles fit seamlessly into his bopping cadences and sense. “I’ll take you there,” he tells us, and we believe him. A poet at an off-site reading read a poem entirely filled with old time rock ‘n roll.

In each case, the recognition of those song titles and fragments is a comfort—referencing not the suffering, pain and loss of our lives, but the fun and good times. Since these poets were all of a certain age (otherwise known as “no longer young”), I can only surmise that this plentiful inclusion of the oldies serves as balm for the rigors of the inevitable road trip.

So even though the quality of the writing (and the reading) was mixed, and the usual darkness smoked up the joint, a guy on a guitar got in his licks and the backup singers were as grand and grandiloquent as always, soothing the savage and lamenting among us alike.

As D.A. Powell says, “there is no cause to grieve for the living or the dead as long as there is music in the air.”


Janet Goodman is a psychotherapist in the San Francisco bay area who specializes in treating addiction and understanding the neuroscience of the brain, addiction and emotion. She has a B.A. in English and Linguistics and a secondary teaching credential from UCLA and an M.A. in psychology from Antioch College. Janet lives in Mill Valley, California with her poet partner and cat Boomer, where many fine discussions of the multidimensional universe and line breaks take place.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Arielle Greenberg

I will always think of Arielle Greenberg as a Chicago poet--partly because I first heard her read in Chicago in February of 2004 right after she moved there to teach in the newly formed poetry MFA program at Columbia College. Even though she was born in Columbus, Ohio. Even though before she moved there she lived all over New York state (Niskayuna, Schenectady, Weschester, NYC), and in Haifa, Israel. Even though she was educated at SUNY/Purchase College and Syracuse University, living afterwards outside of Boston until moving to Chicago at age 31. Even now, after having left her tenured teaching position and her assistant directorship of the MFA program (Columbia College) to live a less hectic and more rural life in Maine with her husband and two children, becoming a model for work/life balance issues and non-traditional approaches to teaching poetry. Now after being widely anthologized (including the 2004 and 2005 editions of Best American Poetry), many more books (My Kafka Century, Shake Her, Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials, and Home/Birth: A Poemic), a MacDowell fellowship and numerous other awards, Arielle Greenberg remains, in my mind, a Chicago poet. Not just because that's where I met her, but because she belongs to no school of poetry except the school of virtuosity. Her poetry, in the words of Jean Valentine, is "swift, tender, original--from the first word this poetry can be no other. New consciousnesses shine here in delicate, angry, ecstatic, funny, heartbroken play: the forked lightning of true poetry." I share the first poem I heard Arielle read that gelid Chicago night in 2004.

Tornado at the Dairy Queen

We were there as a reunion. It's no joke,
but an ice cream place in the middle of a nation
in the middle of an era near its ending like a fable
right in the middle of a tornado. All the frosty-freezes and swirl cones.
All the soft serve flurry metaphors intended, right.
Inside the exclamation mark, a fuzz of alumni
wrung the ankles of our new neighbors, kissed, wept,
and the thing that came at us came at us with its white and terrible roar.
It doesn't sound like thunder or a train going past.
They say it but no. Imagine sugar with all those chunks of chemicals
and whipped through a froth-maker. Imagine it. You can't imagine.
The alumni and counter workers and prom-night parents praying
and clutched, just a grip in the dark, in the walk-in,
six adults in a cooler in the middle of a nation
with almost no ears left, and certainly no roof. Barely
walls when we got out. A foot of wall
hardly. Just a mess--paper cups and brick,
that one sobbing girl, scoops, void of wind
where wind was. Thank you. We thought we would
die. We were still wearing the right kind of white hats.
In the midst of it, we saw nothing. The sweetness twisting furious past.

Friday, March 9, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Ed Roberson

#2: Ed Roberson. "I'm not trying to create a new language," said Roberson in a 2006 interview, "I'm just trying to un-white out the one we've got." I never took a workshop under Ed, but I trudged with him more than once through the soft moguls of Wabash Street before Chicago's mini-snow plows cleared the sidewalks. And on those walks he told me the story of a poet reinventing himself in his sixties, a successful writer coming to Chicago from Pittsburg after surviving terminal illness, creating a new life, creating new work, teaching young poets--inspiring me to force the white page to yield to my pen. After a half dozen books and more awards to his credit than could fit on the back cover of most books, City Eclogue was born in 2006. Since then, The New Wing of the Labyrinth and To See the Earth Before the End of the World have appeared, along with the Lila Wallace Writers' Award and the 2008 Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. In a recent panel entitled "Chicago as Literary Birthplace" Roberson discussed how he was captured by Chicago--almost against his will--how he gave in to the city whose poetry had seduced him from his youth, driving from Pittsburg to Cleveland to spend food money on books published by local Chicago black presses that eventually became mainstream: Broadside, Third World, Lotus. Listen to what poet and critic Michael Palmer has called "one of the most deeply innovative and critically acute voices of our time" in the following poem from City Eclogue:

Urban Nature

Neither New Hampshire nor Midwestern farm,
nor the summer home in some Hamptons garden
thing, not that Nature, not a satori
-al leisure come to terms peel by peel, not that core
whiff of beauty as the spirit. Just a street
pocket park, clean of any smells, simple quiet--
simple quiet not the same as no birds sing,
definitely not the dead of no birds sing:

The bus stop posture in the interval
of nothing coming, a not quite here running
sound underground, sidewalk's grate vibrationless
in open voice, sweet berries ripen in the street
hawk's kiosks. The orange is being flown in
this very moment picked of its origin.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Suzanne Buffam

While in Chicago for AWP, having dinner with a poet friend of mine, I learned that she hadn't read a poet recently that she was excited about. I suggested the name of a Chicago poet to whom I always turn whenever I need inspiration. It fired from one of my synapses quicker than a 9mm Luger cartridge because I maintain an arsenal of loaded poets ready to defend me from the enemies of daily writing: mind numbing, soul-deadening day jobs, family drama, the common writer's block--you name it, and I have the right word-Smith & Wesson to put down anything that gets between me and the ecstasy of poetry: reading it, writing it. During the panel presentation, Chicago as Literary Birthplace, I jotted down the Chicago poets that I regularly read. I share them here with you, as antidote, as inspiration, as the core of Chicago poetry as I know it--a school of poetry that defines itself by not defining itself, except by adhering to its delightful divergency and multi-faceted excellence. Here then are My Top Ten Chicago Poets.

#1: Suzanne Buffam. I met Suzanne when she was a visiting poet at Columbia College Chicago. She was quite young but not without accomplishment--neither in scholarship, nor with her poems. She had two master's degrees (MA in English Literature from Concordia University in Montreal and MFA from Iowa Writers' Workshop), gave the most brilliant lectures in her classes, and had already (at age 24) won the 1998 Canadian Literary Award for Poetry--without a published book. In 2005 her Past Imperfect won the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry published in Canada, and in 2010 her second book, The Irrationalist (reviewed in an earlier post on this blog), was a finalist (one of only three) for the acclaimed Griffin Prize. Suzanne now teaches at The University of Chicago. But, as Michael Waters joked about himself after a glowing introduction at AWP, is she any good? Judge for yourself. Here is "The New Experience," from The Irrationalist:

The New Experience

I was ready for a new experience.
All the old ones had burned out.

They lay in little ashy heaps along the roadside
And blew in drifts across the fairgrounds and fields.

From a distance some appeared to be smoldering
But when I approached with my hat in my hands

They let out small puffs of smoke and expired.
Through the windows of houses I saw lives lit up

With the otherworldly glow of TV
And these were smoking a little bit too.

I flew to Rome. I flew to Greece.
I sat on a rock in the shade of the Acropolis

And conjured dusky columns in the clouds.
I watched waves lap the crumbling coast.

I heard wind strip the woods.
I saw the last living snow leopard.

Pacing in the dirt. Experience taught me
That nothing worth doing is worth doing

For the sake of experience alone.
I bit into an apple that tasted sweetly of time.

The sun came out. It was the old sun
With only a few billion years left to shine.

My Top Ten Chicago Poets will be continued...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Back To The Future Of Narrative Poetry

Yesterday I was privileged to be on a panel at AWP entitled "Storytelling in Poetry: Crafting the Narrative Poem." Many who attended have asked for a copy of my presentation. It is printed below. In the next few days there will be additional posts--some from me, some from other writers--about the Chicago AWP experience.

Back To The Future Of Narrative Poetry

It was Aristotle, of course, who first divided story into protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe: the beginning, the middle, and the ending. In modern times, Gustav Freytag expanded these three sections to five: commonly known as introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution or denouement. This narrative formula is so ingrained in most fiction writers that most or all of the five stages can be traced in their work with practically no effort. Narrative poets, however, do not always follow this dramatic arc. I believe that those who do have a better chance for their poems to work—in part, because the prosodic devices used are capable of modifying and contributing to the success of each stage of the story along the way, and when properly laid out, each step of the narrative arc can magnify the effect of the poetic devices, thus creating a synergistic effect among all of the elements, adding to the power of the poem.

One such poet is Philip Levine. Time and time again Levine’s narrative poems succeed because of the way their typographical, sonic, sensory and ideational elements support the dramatic arc, as well as mediate an interaction between these parts to orchestrate a pleasing whole. See below for “The Miracle,” and look for the five stages. Then I’ll examine some poetic devices that Levine uses to amplify and balance this narrative trajectory in the same way that a sound technician with an equalizer mixes lyrics, melody, harmony and rhythm, with a result that is virtuosic.

The Miracle

A man staring into the fire
sees his dead brother sleeping,

The falling flames go yellow and red
but it is him, unmistakable.

He goes to the phone and calls
his mother. Howard is asleep,

he tells her. Yes, she says,
Howard is asleep. She does not cry.

In her Los Angeles apartment
with its small color tv

humming now unobserved,
she sees Howard rocking

alone beneath the waves
of an ocean she cannot name.

Howard is asleep, she says
to the drapes drawn on the night.

That night she dreams
a house alive with flames, their

old house, and her son sleeping
peacefully in the kingdom of agony.

She wakens near morning,
the dream more real

than the clock luminous beside her
or the gray light rising slowly

above the huddled town, more real
than the groan of the first car.

She calls her son who has risen
for work and tells him,

Howard is warm and at peace.
He sees the crusted snows of March

draining the cold light of a day
already old, he sees himself

unlocking the front door of his shop,
letting the office help in, letting

Eugene and Andy, the grease men
step before him out of the snow.

When she hangs up he looks out
on the back yard, the garbage cans

collapsing like sacks of air, the fence
holding a few gray sparrows,

he looks out on the world he always sees
and thinks, it’s a miracle.

There is some room for interpretation, but I hope all of you divided the narrative something like this:

1) Introduction (lines 1-4): A man in an early stage of the grief process watches his dead brother being cremated until the flames die down.

2) Rising Action (lines 5-26): Advancing the grief process, the man calls his mother and tells her that Howard is asleep. She has a vision of Howard. Then she has a dream about Howard. The next morning the dream has become more real than anything else.

3) Climax (lines 27-29): The mother reconciles the death of Howard, calls her son and tells him that “Howard is warm and at peace.”

4) Falling Action (lines 30-42): Life returns to normal with the man seeing “the crusted snows of march,” “seeing himself unlock[ing] the front door of his shop, letting the office help in.” After hanging up, he watches “the garbage cans collapsing,” “the fence holding a few grey sparrows.”

5) Resolution (lines 43-44): “The man looks out on the world he always sees/and thinks, it’s a miracle.”

Without being dogmatic about this exact division, let’s look at how Levine supports the dramatic arc in the following categories: in the sonic level with his use of rhythm, in the sensory level with his use of description and image and with his choice of diction, and in the ideational level with his repetition of the theme and key words. All of this is delivered through a simple typography of couplets, echoing the dialogue between the man and his brother, the man and his mother, and the internal negotiation between the incomprehensibility and the acceptance of death.

1) Use of Meter (Rhythm)

Scanning “The Miracle,” one immediately discovers the ternary rhythms (both dactyl and anapest) present in many lines that work against their loose iambic pattern. This lends a classical, weighty feel to the entire poem. It is not too far of a stretch, e.g., from “into the fire,” “dead brother sleeping,” “yellow and red” and “it is him, unmistakable,” to “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks” or to meter used by Homer and Virgil. This is quite appropriate to the subject of death. Furthermore, by varying the frequency of these triple rhythms throughout the poem and the number of triple-beats per line, Levine modulates the weight and intensity of the story according to where he is in the dramatic arc. Thus, in the early part of the rising action the triplets are sparse: a “goes to the phone” here, a “color tv” there. But when the action cranks up with the mother dreaming, we get “peacefully,” “kingdom of agony,” and “she wakens near morning” (5 triplets in 2 lines). These triad rhythms come in waves and so after a trough with very few triplets, we are presented with a crest that culminates in the climax: “Howard is warm and at peace,”—another multiple triplet line.

If I were writing this poem, I would probably then gradually back off of the use of triplets with the falling action and be rid of them by the denouement. But Levine is a genius and subverts our expectations by keeping the rhythmic intensity high with “draining the cold light of day,” the “door of his shop,” the “office help in,” “Any, the grease men,” “out of the snow,” and “garbage cans” until he gets to the two most powerful triple rhythms yet: the final rhythm in the penultimate couplet: “few, gray sparrows” (a molossus), and the final rhythm in the ultimate couplet: “miracle.” The effect of adding the greatest amount of rhythmic weight in the falling action and resolution enacts the message that the miracle is not found in some otherworldly reality for his brother, but in the pedestrian acts of unlocking his shop, letting his office help in, looking at the same view he sees every day—the garbage cans and a few sparrows sitting on the fence.

2) Repetition of Diction and Theme (Melody)

Repetition of language is to poetry what melody is to music. The theme of death (main melody) is repeated throughout the poem: first in the man’s voice with “dead brother sleeping,” in line 2. He repeats it with “Howard is asleep,/he tells her” (line 6) and then the mother voices it in line 7 with “Yes, she says,/Howard is asleep.” The melody is altered in line 12 (“she sees Howard rocking”), and culminates in line 29 (the climax) with “Howard is warm and at peace.”). This movement of the melody back and forth from son to mother, as well as its modifications of diction and rhythm, contributes to the rising action in the same way that the melody of a song becomes more powerful as it moves from one singer to the other, as it modulates into other keys and expresses itself in other time signatures.

3) Amplified Description and Imagery (Harmony)

In the first two couplets, Levine introduces a man, his dead brother, and the fire in which he is “sleeping.” He introduces a fourth image (his mother) in a separate setting (her Los Angeles apartment), in the next couplet, and then spends the rest of the poem amplifying these images to lend support to the rising and falling action, the climax and the denouement, through his choice of descriptive words and phrases, changing their colors, their shapes, their temperatures, (etc.), to match these various stages of the narrative. Although we could trace the evolution of several of these images, due to time constraints, let’s examine how Levine parallels the rising and falling action to his image of “fire.”

“The fire” in line 1 becomes falling flames that are yellow and red in line 3. In line 10, the mother’s small color tv is an echo of the colored flames. In lines 13-14, we see “waves of an ocean” which are the same shape as the flames, and beneath which Howard is rocking alone, just as he was in the red and yellow flames. In lines 17-18, the mother dreams the entire house alive with flames, thus expanding not only the fire, but the concept of “alive” to include where her family members lived. The reality of this fire burns more real than the clock beside her with its luminosity (caused by its ability to reflect light or fire), the source of the “gray light rising slowly” (the fire of the sun), and more real than the groan of the first car (a car attempting to start by igniting gasoline with a spark of fire). Like a magnifying glass focusing scattered beams of sunshine into a smaller and hotter point, Levine burns his way toward the climax of the mother calling the son back and declaring: “Howard is warm and at peace.” Immediately the temperature changes. Instead of flames we see “crusted snow” and “cold light” (lines 30-31), “the snow” out of which the grease men step (lines 35-36), the garbage cans that collapse like sacks of air (lines 38-39), and instead of a house alive with flames, a fence comfortable enough for the perching of a few gray sparrows (line 40). All of this falling action is a natural consequence of the image of fire turning to ice without one single cliché.

Levine’s poem begins with a man looking into a fire and seeing death and ends with the man looking out on the world and seeing a miracle. In between is a progressive structure of classic storytelling, supported by and revealed through poetic devices—some time-honored, some out of vogue, some unique to this work—all brilliantly adding to the power of the story and to the power of the language that tells it. This power is enhanced by the poem’s sensitivity to where these poetic devices are located on the narrative/dramatic arc. Our own narrative poems would benefit from a negotiation between their underlying structures and Freytag’s five stages, not simply in using them as a template (although that might be appropriate at times), but more often by riffing on them in ways that are uniquely ours and in amplifying them with poetic devices in ways that enhance each individual narrative arc according to what it wants to do. Thus, we will have a hand in the evolution of the narrative poem, rather than watch it become extinct—or worse yet, contribute to its ossification into a dead form walking. And like the man in Levine’s poem, we can find new meaning in the world we see every day and the stories that spring from it—perhaps not miracles, but very close!