When is a Polka Like a Ship Deck? On Suzanne Cleary’s Poem “Polka”

I’ll admit it. I’m biased. I love Suzanne Cleary’s poetry. I first heard her read in my second semester in the Converse College Low-residency MFA back in June of 2011. Although it probably didn’t happen exactly this way, in my mind, Suzanne walked up to the miked podium at the front of the crowd in the high ceilinged, many windowed Zimmerli Common Room, smiled, and said, “Sausage Candle.” I just about fell out of my very uncomfortable folding chair. It was the first time I realized that poetry could be damn funny and damn good at the same time. So it was with great anticipation that I went a few weeks ago to hear Suzanne read from her new book Beauty Mark, the winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry published by BkMk Press.

While there is plenty of Suzanne’s distinctive, subtle brand of humor in this collection, it was the poem “Polka” that caught my ear that rainy January night. “Dancing the polka is like walking / on a ship’s deck / during a storm, water flying into the air, / sliding in sheets across the gray / wood” (43). Now, you don’t have to be a polka aficionado to get this. If you’ve heard even one polka played or seen one performed, you understand the image: “Each time the ship / tilts, you take two hop-like / steps in one direction” (43). The poem is accessible, a quality which I admire and for which Suzanne makes no apologies. But this poem also takes risks, something Suzanne encourages in her craft lectures and her critiques of her students’ work, and something that she practices in each and every poem.

The humorous image of people dancing as though trying to regain their balance on the deck of a listing ship becomes something more when “There is someone in your arms, and this is what / makes it a polka, although she or he / does not look into your eyes, and you / do not look either, at your partner,” (43). And more when “to dance the polka is definitely / to think of death, your partner’s shoulder / surprisingly small in your hand” (43). Then there really are two people, not simply dancing, but barely hanging on to some small human contact; two people with a tenuous hold on life but still moving, still keeping in step.

The risk is taken here in “hop-skips.” Once the reader accepts the idea of the polka as keeping balance on a deck at sea, the poem skips to the idea of one’s fleeting connection with other human beings, and the reader must balance. The next skip is to a part of US immigrant history, to learning the polka “from grandparents, whose grandparents / learned it from their grandparents, who left / Petrovavest for Bratislava, Bratislava / for Prague, for ships that took six days / and five nights to cross the ocean. / They never spoke of the crossing, / not even to each other” (43). The reader must again catch her balance.

There is another risk, another hop-skip and rebalance when Suzanne describes the polka this way: “You might as well call the dance / Walking the Ship Deck During a Storm / that Partly –Holy Mother, Forgive Me –/ I Did Not Want to Survive” and then “this dance / that could more succinctly be known as / Long Marriage” (44). This poem that starts off so simply, this poem that hop-skips across the page with its lines alternating between left-justified and tabbed over, maintains its own balance though the “deck” leans more and more until the final line which stops the poem, the reader, and the dance.

“God. You’re beautiful when your hair is wet” (44).

Cleary, Suzanne. Beauty Mark. Kansas-City, MO: BkMk Press, 2013.

The online conundrum and great advice from Writer Unboxed

The online conundrum–build a web presence. Write–don’t worry about a web presence. You need a website. Not all well-known authors have websites.

Argh.

Over at Writer Unboxed, Jane Friedman writes about the social media conundrum: “The Online Presence That’s a Natural Extension of Who You Are And What You Do, (Is It Just A Fantasy?).”

She writes: “I’ve been reading with interest (and sympathy) the comments on Porter Anderson’s Unboxed post last week, where we see the familiar Sturm und Drang of writers grappling with the demands of online marketing—or how to be publicly communicative and chummy when it’s against our nature, perhaps even against our work.

This has remained a problem for a long time now, hasn’t it?”

Read the rest oft her post.

Also read the comment by Donald Maas.

 

 

 

“A Disorienting Place”: On Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”

During my internet ramblings this morning, I came across three things that have stuck together like the lint, hair, and tobacco shake that inevitably find that random piece of restaurant candy deep in the bowels of one’s purse: an article in The Atlantic titled “The Joy of the Memorized Poem” wherein Billy Collins discusses how Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” got him through an MRI, Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” and an article in Vice by James Franco on Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker.

Ok. Go with me on this.

I’m cruising Facebook, click on the Collins article, read it. Collins says that he discovered the Yeats’ poem in college and, after many years of reading and teaching the poem, he made himself memorize it. Of memorization of a poem, Collins writes: “This process—going from deep familiarity to complete mastery—is a challenge and a great pleasure. In repeating different lines, your reading becomes more focused than you’ve ever had before. You become more sensitive to every consonant and vowel.” And I remembered reading “Porphyria’s Lover” in college.

This was the first poem that really stuck with me, and I read it over and over, memorizing the first person dramatic monologue from the point of view of a jealous lover who kills his lady-love by strangling her with her own hair so that she would remain “mine, mine, fair / Perfectly pure and good” (Browning lines 36, 37). Naturally, I then Googled “poems about serial killers.” Which brings me to James Franco.

On September 25, 2014, Vice published Franco’s piece on serial killer Richard Ramirez complete with five blood-and-gore pictures of Franco(?) as Ramirez and four poems by Franco about Ramirez. Without discussing whether or not Franco’s poems work (see this great article in Paper by Gabby Bess for that), I want to say that the whole piece disturbed me, and not just because I was a thirteen-year-old female resident of the Los Angeles area when the fear of the Night Stalker took hold.

In the article, Franco says that he doesn’t want to humanize Ramirez; he wants to understand Ramirez from an actor’s perspective. What would it take to get into that character? (In 2011, Franco was supposedly slated to play the part of Richard Ramirez in a film that, apparently, was never made.) Franco goes so far as to write that he “can relate a little to Ramirez’s feelings” because he, too has felt the “need for power — especially sexual power.”

I recoiled at this. I wanted to dismiss the idea that taking bloodied pictures, that writing poetry was a way to get into a character’s head, and that getting into a character’s head does not humanize him or serve to “celebrate a killer” (Franco). But then there was “Porphyria’s Lover” sitting there in the back of my mind, all dead woman posed so that she would remain “perfect” for the speaker forever. Browning put himself into the speaker’s character, someone who saw nothing wrong with murder, someone who, in fact, believed he was answering his love’s “one wish” (line 57).

About his own writing, Collins says, “I want the poem to be an imaginative thrill. To take the reader to an odd place, or a challenging place, or a disorienting place, but to do that with fairly simple language. I don’t want the language itself to be the trip. I want the imaginative spaces that we’re moving through to be the trip.” The imaginative space in Browning’s poem is a disorienting place, and it is a challenging place. The reader is placed squarely into the mind of a killer in plain language. The reader feels Porphyria’s hair pull tight in the speaker’s hands. The reader sits on a bed, the dead Porphyria’s head on his or her shoulder. It is disturbing at the same time that it feels genuine, and that is what makes this poem work.

I’m not quite sure why “Porphyria’s Lover” was the poem that first stuck. Perhaps Gabby Bess comes close to explaining it in her article on James Franco’s Vice piece, “Now more than ever, there seems to finally be a sense of what can happen when men feel entitled (and that entitlement is culturally reinforced) to something that was never theirs.” Perhaps my college self needed to be disoriented, to be challenged to understand that no one owned me but me.

Bess, Gabby. “Some Observations on James Franco’s Serial Killer Poems.” Paper. Web.        14 Nov. 2014.
Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Collins, Billy. “The Joy of the Memorized Poem.” The Atlantic. 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Nov.      2014.
Franco, James. “Four Poems Inspired by Serial Killer Richard Ramirez.” Vice. 25 Sept.            2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Out from the Swamp: Al Maginnes’ “The World of Whiskey”

by Gabrielle Freeman

Last week while on a five-mile walk on our town’s Greenway, a path that alternates between asphalt and wooden bridge, a path of light filtered through oak and walnut leaves, a path bordered in morning glories and Carolina jasmine, a friend and I tried to figure out just where we had acquired our obsession with dark fantasy, black comedy, and the macabre. Like you do.

After much talk of books, movies, and television shows; of Lecter, Dexter, and Pennywise, we decided it was most likely TV series we had watched as kids that sparked our interest in (and natural bent toward) these genres of the shadows. Darkroom, One Step Beyond, Tales from the Crypt; these are a few of the titles that came up. But my epiphany of the afternoon was that my tastes in literature, tv, and film were directly influenced by the Twilight Zone. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise. Every 4th of July of my childhood was spent watching the Twilight Zone Marathon on LA’s channel 13. Wishing people away into the cornfield, “It’s a cookbook!”, and “My name is Talking Tina, and I don’t like you,” became a part of my vocabulary. It’s just that, for whatever reason, I had never consciously thought of the “dimension of sight and sound” as dark fantasy/ black comedy/ macabre before.

Anyway, it’s safe to say that if a poem offers alternate methods of thinking, if it straddles accepted lines or rips them apart; murky lines of smoke lazing up in a a shadowy bar, lines of light and dark through half-closed slats of window blinds, lines between realms of existence; I’m probably going to want to read it. I was excited to read the latest issue of Shenandoah when it came out last week — the noir issue. A whole issue of intrigue, morality plays, silk stockings, off-screen sex and murder? Sign me up. The poems did not disappoint, but one in particular stood out: Al Maginnes’ “The World of Whiskey.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how this poem fit the theme. It takes its inspiration from the blues lyrics “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck / Might swim to the bottom, never come up.” The imagery in the poem evokes a primordial swamp butted up against an ancient forest, of a creature early on the evolutionary timeline crawling out of the murk on to land: “And as we slipped into / the first fringes of tree-shade, / we found ourselves wanting / to sing for the first time / in a long while” (lines 19-23). 

After reading editor RT Smith’s comments on the issue, I realized that not all of the selections in the issue deal in noir. But after reading the poem several times, I came to understand that part of what I love about this poem, part of what works in this poem, is the juxtaposition of dark fantasy, black comedy, and the macabre; all of which are arguably part of the noir feel. The blues lyrics are humorous. Imagine a drunk duck diving to the bottom over and over again. It’s funny, but literally, the speaker would love to be drowned in whiskey forever. The speaker contemplates escaping his world through alcohol, permanently.

In the poem, the speaker includes the reader in a collective “we” who descend into an underworld, into a world of whiskey “Mired in sand and duckweed” (line 7). This is Lethe,  the limbo where alcohol makes us forget, where we stare “up through ambered layers […] searching the ice-melted memory of the sun” (lines 8-12). We are only pulled from the liquid prison by disembodied voices drifting through the trees and a desire to join them.

Maginnes writes a fantasy world complete with real world horrors. There is a membrane between the worlds of whiskey and, presumably, sobriety that is not easily broken. There is a world beneath where we float (“Down here, we all float,” with all apologies) aimlessly and forget, and there is a world above where we may emerge, dripping, and add our voices to the song of the world.

Read “The World of Whiskey” here, and check out the rest of the Shenandoah noir issue here.

Maginnes, Al. “The World of Whiskey.” Shenandoah. 64.1 (2014). Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Jab, Cross, Uppercut! Humor in Bruce Covey’s Poetry

What would you expect from a poem titled “I’m a Bitty Cupcake”? Some lines about the virtues of buttercream? Maybe a study of sprinkles? Ganache, perhaps? Whatever you might have going on in your head about tiny bits of fluffy wonderful, I bet it wasn’t this: “I’m a Bitty Cupcake But if you fuck with me, I’m gonna kick your fuckin ass, you know what I’m sayin?” (109).

Bruce Covey’s poems are always unexpected, always challenging, and often funny as hell. I know that, from now on, every time I see a cupcake, I’ll snicker inside. Children’s birthday parties will become immensely more entertaining when I envision a dozen cupcakes going off half-cocked. Covey’s humor works. I mean, seriously.

Consider the poem “A True Account of Talking to the Moon in Atlanta, GA.” This is a dialogue between Covey himself and the moon. Like, the moon in the sky at night. He plays with the idea of poets overuse of the moon to hilarious effect. “Look, I don’t know shit about poetry. Fucking poets are always staring at me, talking at / me, writing about me. I’m fucking sick of it. You want inspiration? Use fucking Google, / like the Flarfists do” (83). Covey manages to make poet-readers flinch just a little bit when they think about all the references to la luna that they’ve penned over the years. I started to think about just how many of my own poems involve the moon, and I was a tad embarrassed.

Covey’s Chevy Impala-driving, cigarette-smoking, panhandling moon doesn’t stick to railing against poets and poetry in general, no. She gets personal. “Look, I’ve never heard of you. Bruce, right? Don’t go nuts on me with all of your moon / stereotypes. I don’t give a shit whether you write poems. I just want a fucking cigarette. / Now give me the 5 bucks?” (83). The idea that the moon, something many people dream on, something many people associate with lovers and long moonlit walks on the beach and a way-super-cool light to bathe in, that this moon is indifferent about poetry…well, it makes me laugh. It takes some of the gravity out of the concept of poetry (get it? gravity?).

While not all of Bruce Covey’s poems are this overtly humorous, a good number of them invite the reader to play by playing on words and by playing with concepts. Covey’s sense of joy in language is clear, even while his bitty cupcake throws a mean uppercut to the jaw.

Covey, Bruce. Change Machine. Las Cruces, NM: Noemi Press, 2014.

What writers have on their bedside tables

A fun project from author Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope. It’s called The Bedside Table Project. Below is the description from Shannon’s site:

Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.


Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

 

Read these! Our contributors’ (and then some) work from around the web

Regular contributor Gabrielle Brant Freeman has several poems published around the web:
“The Art of Deception” page 64 in the Minetta Review

“Guess My Name” and “Linen” at CSHS

A short story from Kyler Campbell. You can download a free issue and read his story “Caretta Caretta” & short interview from Driftwood Press. Story starts on page 13.

Travis Burnham is a fellow Converse alumi and his short story “The Bone Washer” is up at Bad Dream Entertainment.

Jeffrey Schrecongost, another Converse grad, whose post was highlighted a few weeks ago, has a short story–“Mouthwash” up at Gadfly.

Poet Melissa Dickson Jackson is the author of Sweet Aegis and Cameo. Another Converse alumni and she has a blog post up at North American Review titled A Poem in Flight: Memory and Truth.

Check out contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson’s children’s book Rocko RocketRocko also has a Twitter account. Lots of good stuff happening here!

Core faculty member and fiction member Leslie Pietrzyk, author of A Year and A Day: A Novel and Pears on A Willow Tree has an interview up at Reader’s Lane. Leslie also has a blog at Work In Progress and edits Redux: A Literary Journal

 

“But what would Robert Johnson say?” Charles Wright’s poem at the Crossroads

It seemed only appropriate to write about Charles Wright’s poetry today, since he has been named the next Poet Laureate of the United States. In a 1998 interview with PBS Newshour‘s Elizabeth Farnsworth, Wright said the following about his work: “I think that the true subject of all poems is a clock, I think, because time is what–time is the great destroyer. Time is what feeds us and takes it away at the same time. Time is what starts us and time is what ends us. We live in time. We would like to live outside of time. But we can’t, of course. And so the clock is what we all write about. Our lives are all about the clock.” My favorite Wright poem is “Poem Almost Wholly In My Own Manner” from the Black Zodiac collection. This poem explores the idea of the clock through the blues and the Bible, through the crossroads and Ezekiel’s burning vision.

The first line reads “Where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog” (Wright 28). The reader knows immediately that this poem will be about the idea of the crossroads, specifically the southern idea of the crossroads. This poem is placed firmly where it can go anywhere, in any of the four directions. This is juxtaposed with Ezekiel’s vision. “Time, like a burning wheel, scorching along by the highway / side, / Reorganizing, relayering, / turning the tenants out” and “Interstices. We live in the cracks. / Under Ezekiel and his prophesies, / under the wheel” (Wright 28, 29). The chariot is drawn by four beings that can be seen as representative of the four directions. In this vision, God can send the chariot in any direction, and Wright puts himself and the reader firmly beneath it, consumed eventually by fire and time. Wright calls upon Robert Johnson and WC Handy, both famous for the use of their own crossroads in their blues: “But what would Robert Johnson say,  / hell-hounded and brimstone-tongued? / What would W. C. Handy say, / Those whom the wheel has overturned, / those whom the fire has, / And the wind has, unstuck and unstrung?” (30).

The reader visualizes the railroad tracks at the crossroads, the lines in the dirt; she hears the rhythm of the train’s wheels on those tracks. This is the sight and sound of the clock hands turning. And here’s the message: “Poetry’s what’s left between the lines” (29). The lines of verse, the lines of song, the lines of a guitar’s strings, the straight lines of railroad tracks crossing. Poetry is what happens in lonely passage, in the rolling destruction of fire. I simply cannot do this poem justice in trying to write a brief analysis. This poem hit me in my gut the first time I read it, and it is one that comes to mind often, and unbidden.

If you’ve never read Charles Wright’s poetry, today’s a good day to start. 

Wright, Charles. Black Zodiac. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1997.

Wright, Charles. “Seasons serve as backdrop to Charles Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection.” By Elizabeth Farnsworth. PBS Newshour. 15 April 1998. Web. 12 June 2014.

 

A Most Excellent Unwanted Dog Sestina, or Why I Heart National Poetry Month

Image Why yes, that is a picture of a picture of Leonard Nimoy and Jimi Hendrix. And what does this have to do with writing? With poetry? I wrote a poem about it, naturally. That’s how I roll. But seriously, I had been wanting to do something with this picture/idea since I first saw it back in January at  coffee shop in Tryon, NC. Nothing came to me until inspiration struck on day 29 of National Poetry Month when two prompts came together from poet Maureen Thorson’s NaPoWriMo site and Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides site. 

NaPoWriMo gave a prompt by Jim Simmerman called “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.” I love list/directions prompts, especially when they have instructions like this “2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous” and this “17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.” This prompt was pretty much irresistible. I came up with lines like this “If you start at my left big toe, you can unpeel my skin like the devil peels a hard-boiled egg.” Yup. For whatever reason, I was thinking about spirals, like the grooves on a record, and then jumped to the image of Robert DeNiro peeling an egg in one, long strip in Angel Heart. Louis Cyphre indeed. Brewer’s prompt was more of a concept – write a magical poem and a realism poem, or a magical realism poem. I think I got a decent draft including both. 

This is the reason I love April. There are hundreds, thousands of poets at all stages of their craft participating in writing and stepping outside of themselves. When these poets post their drafts each day to sites like Brewer’s, to twitter with hashtags like #amwriting and #NaPoWriMo14, or to other social media sites, poetry becomes a shared community. Where else would I have been able to read the sestina “Tricked into a Pet” posted by cindikenn on day 13 at 8:46am with lines that really work like this “With three babies / born in three years and a furry bundle / of peeing wonder bound to be a dog, / lines often blurred between kid and pet”?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I don’t want to write in a vacuum. I don’t want my work to sit on a flashdrive in a drawer. No, I probably won’t be able to publish any of these poems because, to many, they have already been published. But wait! Thanks to NaPoWriMo’s day 28 “featured journal,” I found out about CSHS QuarterlyAnd they just published two of my NaPoWriMo poems. 

Look, this post is not meant to be a yay me! It is meant to show that community is a good thing. We should share our work. We should critique each other, applaud each others’ successes, share journals we find that we enjoy. It’s fun, and it’s part of what being a good literary citizen is all about. 

This is a shout out to Maureen Thorson, Robert Lee Brewer, and all you poets out there who attempted the poem-a-day challenge of this past April. Thanks for participating in the poetry community, and thanks for the inspiration. Write on!

Fifth week roundup

This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.

Starter House–A Ghost Story

Author Interview-Sonja Condit, author of Starter House

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

Cheesecloth Removal: The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

You Live Where? Strange Settings in Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby

Lit Mag Roundup

Just Right Love Poem

Slaughter House Five–Not Just Another War Story

All That was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

North of Hope–A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

The Gift of Focused Power in the First Person Point of View

Marking Time

Punctuate Bodies in Rebecca Thrill’s “Punctuation”

Literary Citizen and Why You Should Be One #litcitizen

What Led Zepplin Teaches Me About Writing

The Night Circus