Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Review of 'Dodging Traffic' and Interview With Poet Jesse Bradley

Jason Cook, at Ampersand Press, seems to like backing readers up against the walls of their own comfort zones and giving them a good solid push. I suspect he’s always curious about whether the wall or the reader will give way first. Dodging Traffic, by Jesse Bradley, is another of his offerings, and here I am, definitely in a space I wouldn’t have entered on my own.

Dodging Traffic is a story of love turned ugly. It’s the bitter dregs of what might have been a sweet drink – you can taste bits of the sweetness in the sticky residue on the sides of the glass – imbibed in the sort of establishment you wouldn’t admit to frequenting. Lines like “Who made your hands stammer/ the first time they cradled a waist/ on the last day of summer?” give us glimpses into a past that has given way to sexual encounters made sordid by language and insults and pain. Many of the poems reek of disappointment and resentment – “You should know I kiss/like a fistful of mistakes” - and they don’t mince words. In “What Makes a Man a Man” he gives us a frank appraisal of his approach –

Chasing butterflies
With automatic weapons.

There are lighter pieces, even some whimsies – The Bride of Dracula’s Gynaecologist on Career Day – but Bradley’s main theme is bitter experience with the death of love. There are several poems in the collections that give (perhaps questionable) advice about love and sex to the young, often to the narrator’s son, but the poetry itself acknowledges the pointlessness of such advice. In ‘Another Poem About China’ he says;

When I finally go to China
I will pollute the Yangtze
With the ghosts of my
unborn children.

I hope a fish swallows
A daughter
So she can teach
all my sons

how to commit
to something
other than suicide.

The wisdom he passes on has the feel, at times, of religious instruction from a priest who’s lost his faith but can’t quite manage to give up hope, in the clear awareness that “the entity known as Hope/ feloniously spread[s] the infection/ known as optimism. It is his ambivalent relationship with hope, I suspect, that lies at the core of the collection. He addresses the problem directly.

Dear Hope...
Thank you for showing
that sometimes you need a lie
to float above the truth.

Love may be dead - “that’s why,” as he says in 'Why There are no more Unicorns, My Child,' “you can’t quite wipe out the aftertaste of extinction,” – but he lives, probably in spite of his better judgement, with a belief in its perpetual resurrection.

An Interview With Jesse Bradley

T.T. The collection as a whole reads like the diary of a very intense relationship on the edge. One side of a love story. Dodging Traffic veers between tremendous physical/sexual/verbal tenderness and violence on all those levels, sometimes in the same poem. It operates outside my comfort zone, which I take to be the point of the exercise. It’s combative. It plays with the old trope ‘the battle of the sexes’ and pushes it in all directions. What do you feel is gained, poetically, by the pushing? Any comments on your philosophy of love? Any other comments?

J.B. Congratulations, you are the first person who gets how I put together Dodging Traffic. It was a love story about my ex-wife and I, the dating and adventures I had before and then while with her. We had a very intense relationship and the poems show that. Now, it's a time capsule of my relationship with her.
The battle of the sexes is an old trope and with old tropes, the challenge is to address them differently. What is gained by pushing poetically is a new pair of eyes that lets you see everything, address everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I love incredibly hard and I also let go incredibly hard, like cutting the limb off before the gangrene spreads. I just had my first amicable break up ever, and it was nice not to have to cut off my arm, for once.

T.T. Many of the poems in Dodging Traffic present bits of a slagging match, perhaps like the African American “playing the dozens” or “signifying,” an artistic hurling of insults with the reader as audience. They share some of the formulaic patterns, the use of rhyme (often subtle in your case), and the shift in speech rhythms away from the natural, of that form. This sort of exchange – assuming it’s meant to be seen as part of an exchange and not just as an assault - is supposed to be a way of harnessing aggression with the constraints of form and language. How do you see your use of it? What is it doing, in the context of relationship story presented in the book?

J.B. I'm not someone who is into saying 'fuck you' directly. There are better ways to say it and, when I want to write a punch, I write it to where you are misdirected and distracted enough until it is too late and you can't dodge the hand coming for your stomach. I only write these sort of poems when provoked. I'm not into starting but I will finish.

In the context of the relationship story, they are kiss-offs to various lovers, people in my life, roadblocks on the way to the destination.

T.T. Simile is the rhetorical device of choice here, often used to add punch to an insult. You look worn, like a youth hostel mattress. Your face looks like a swine flu outbreak in a small town. Like a necrophile the day after Katrina hit New Orleans... He wore his skin like a strop... But they are almost always implicit, leaving the reader to worry about what, exactly, you intended. In a slagging match the poor sod on the receiving end of some of these lines would have to stop and figure out just how offended he/she ought to be. In other words, the poems feel immediate, but are not. They suggest something tossed off, but can’t be taken in as quickly as they’re thrown out, which is part of the point of the contests I mentioned earlier, but in the context of poetry they leave the reader a little unsure of his footing. Comment?

J.B. They aren't all insults. They are different ways of saying things without being explicit because saying you want to ejaculate on someone's face is too obvious and dirty. The context of the poem determines whether the simile is insulting or jaw dropping in its own way. You have to read all of the poem to get the flavor.

T.T. There’s a sub category of poems in Dodging traffic – a group of poems not called “Advice to the young on conducting themselves in life.” “Son, scrotal sweat makes a poor calendar...” “But honest to blog, you’re keeping the baby?” Poems as explicit as “Lesson Plan,” “One day, you will wear hickeys like a varsity jacket.” Obviously they’re all taking the mickey, but perhaps you could comment further.

J.B. The "But honest to blog" line comes from "Juno MacGuff to Bristol Palin", where the main character from Juno addressed an at-the-time pregnant Bristol Palin. The two were very similar and it was appropriate at that time for Juno to address Bristol's pregnancy.
Other than that, there is an advice section and yes, these are things I wish I knew, that my mother and stepfather would have told me.

T.T. You do a lot of performance work. How has that affected the way you write? And has it affected what you write about? The immediacy of your audience and critics must make a difference, the lack of barriers between the poem and the minds receiving it.

J.B. Performance work helps give a better attention to how the poem or story sounds aloud. Originally, when I was neck deep in slam, it affected what I wrote about, trying to write what could win now and again. Now, I write what I want. My flash fiction chapbook The Serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Robot shows an evolution in my style. I think I'm only going to get more interesting.

T.T. In Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of New York City Poetry Slam, by Cristen O’Keefe Aptowicz, poet John S. Hall comments on his first experience with slam poetry. “ ...I hated it. And it made me really uncomfortable and... it was very much like a sport, and I was interested in poetry in large part because it was like the antithesis of sports.... [I]t seemed to me like a very macho, masculine form of poetry and not at all what I was interested in.” There’s something in his observation that relates to the narrator’s attitude in Dodging Traffic. What do you think about what Hall is saying here?

J.B. Slam is a gimmick that uses competition to get people to listen to poetry. It is a feast or famine sport and if you stick with it for awhile, you get better. It's not for everyone because of that and that's ok. I recommend to everyone to try slam a little. It will make you sharper, more human, more aware on how to interact with an audience.

T.T. In her book Ms O’Keefe says of slam, “One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something -- a style, a project, a poet -- will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.” Do you agree with her on the challenge aspect of slam, and maybe of writing poetry in general? Dodging Traffic is no longer a new book. What are you working on now? What directions have the challenges moved you in?

J.B. Aptowicz is absolutely right. Slam is a constantly evolving game. I remember watching in 2007 a two time Individual National Poetry Slam champion sacrifice at a bout with a poem he used in his run to the championship. It got one of the lowest scores of the entire night.
I'm working on a lot. From a book perspective, I'm shopping around a flash fiction/poetry hybrid called We Will Live Like Our Ghosts Will Live, which is a sequel to Dodging Traffic. I'm also writing new stories for a chapbook called The Internet Is A Dangerous Place To Live, my second chapbook coming out through Safety Third Enterprises (http://safetythirdenterprises.com). I'm also working on my first short story collection called We Will Celebrate Our Failures, a linked short story collection about people who use Craigslist to break up their engagements, in a messed up pay-it-forward set up. From an events perspective, I have a new fiction reading series starting here in Orlando in May called There Will Be Words in conjunction with Burrow Press. This last year has pushed me into new and interesting directions that I will continue exploring.

T.T. In Poem seeking Poem for NSA Encounter you wrote “I’ve been very bad and I need a poem that knows how to edit me?” Have you written one you feel manages it?

J.B. Yes. Some of the work I've written post-divorce has made me pause and look deep at myself and it has changed the way I deal with relationships.
This poem was just featured in The Scrambler.

The Astrology of Running Into Your Exes

Cigarette ashes grow
from tongues, curl around
gums and gullets.
As the beer bottle empties,
it will remind you of her hand,
his stare.
When the beer bottle smacks
the wall adjacent to a trash can,
do not study the constellation
of brown glass, do not say
‘It sounds just like you.’

Dodging Traffic by Jesse Bradley is available, with his novel The serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Rapist, from Ampersand Press.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Wordsmithonia Review of The Alchemy of Chance

A lovely review of The Alchemy of Chance.

"I fell in love with them and by the end of the book as I was ecstatic for them and the future that awaited them..."

"I felt as if I was partaking in every meal, exploring every vista and piece of scenery described, and getting to know every little hamlet that our sojourners visited. I rarely ever get lost in the "setting" of a book, but this is one time that I did..."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review of The French Exit, by Elisa Gabbert

Several times during her adventures in Wonderland, and through the looking glass, Alice is forced to deal with poetry. Once the question is as simple and as complex as “Do you like poetry,” but at least twice the treacherous question of meaning arises. Confronted with ‘Jabberwocky’ she says, “It seems very pretty, but it’s rather hard to understand... Somehow, it fills my head with ideas, only I don’t know what they are.” On hearing the verses read out by the White Rabbit in evidence against the Knave of Hearts, she announces she will give sixpence to any juror who can explain the poem and declares, “I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.” The King, reasonably enough, answers, “If theres’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.” All well and good, except that on examination, he decides: “I seem to see some meaning in them after all.”

We must bear all of this in mind, as we begin our examination of Elisa Gabbert’s new poetry collection. The French Exit opens with a prelude of sorts called ‘Commisssioned,’ or, as Gabbert puts it,
“It starts here, where you begin
remembering. (How else could it begin?)”

You – by which she means you, the reader – find a notebook with pages of your own writing.
“You must know what it says,
But in the dream you can’t read it.”
So the stage is set. You’re in a dream, and in the dream, you’re in a landscape “Supersaturated with meanings. With meaningness,” and because you’re dreaming, everything is at one remove.
You kick a car, and it crumples apart
like a death-hollowed tree.
“Pain” ripples out in a wave.
Pay attention to those quotation marks. Remember your situation.

The French Exit is divided into three parts. Part one opens with a poem called ‘What Happened.’ No punctuation, so it’s unclear whether we’re being asked to assess the situation presented, or just being informed of the facts. That something happened is plain. It involved blood, concussion, “sleeves of glass.” It happened to someone who watches her body wake up, rise, stand ‘in her outline,’ look in a mirror to try and figure it out.
Nobody sees this.
She doesn’t know.
Broke. Or syncope.
Or glow.

It’s a mystery, and the mystery, its dissociation, scars, closeness to death, informs all of part one.
‘Poem With A Threshold’ gives us a few more clues.

In the grip of the NYC sublime
I fell in love out of boredom.

I left the party, through the French exit
to the smaller one inside

where the cake said

Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me

what you really feel now
that you’re incomprehensible, Mr. –

tell me “what for.” I love you
but my arms are full.

I opened my face with the door.

Here we have the stories of two young females weaving in and out of each other, not randomly, but with the disorienting logic of a dream. I know, from a wonderful interview with Gabbert, by Elizabeth Hildred on Bookslut, that the accident alluded to in some of these poems involved a moment of unconsciousness – the syncope, mentioned earlier - which resulted in a fall through a French door and a bad cut caused by the breaking glass, so it doesn’t seem a stretch to associate the narrator, on some level, with the poet.

The facts presented in the poem – and I don’t think the reader would need advance knowledge to notice them – are that during a party in NYC the narrator, on passing through a French door, “opened her face” with it. Once inside, the world is a different place, a place with much in common with the world Alice finds when she falls into Wonderland. That Elisa is a near anagram for Alice, we probably have to put down to a parental whim, but it’s a nice connection anyway.

Both young ladies begin in boredom - Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. – both have “not a moment to think about stopping” themselves before they find themselves falling, and both find themselves in a strange and incomprehensible place. Alice’s cake says,”Eat me,” and doing so makes her grow very tall – part of her serial distortion disorder. The narrator’s cake, however, seems to be stuck in the conversation between Alice and the Hatter, about Time, what he is like, and how little Alice knows of him, and the distortions she, the narrator, suffers from are as much of meaning and reality as of her physical self.

“She’s under sentence of execution,” the rabbit tells Alice, speaking of the Duchess. “What for?” said Alice, but he never quite manages to tell her “what for,” just as the poem never quite manages to tell us. The next time she sees her, the Duchess tells Alice “O, ‘tis love, ‘tis love that makes the world go round.” And round and round till you’re so dizzy you fall in a faint and find yourself in an incomprehensible place. One of the most common occurrences of syncope is the coup de foudre, a violent falling in love. So the poem goes, weaving in and out of the rabbit hole, till we’re brought up short in the real world by the odd inversion of that violent final line, the opening of the narrator’s face by the door, instead of what we might have expected when someone falls face first into a hinged object.

The Alice in Wonderland imagery reappears in several poems, both directly and indirectly. In ‘Camera Obscura’ we find the narrator confined in a “tiny room,” with just a “pinprick of light,” an image very like Tenniel’s drawing of Alice squashed into a tiny room with one window. In ‘Day Trip With Spires’ we find her inside a space so capacious all of her largest emotions are “made small,: and in ‘Must See Movie’ she is “tumbling up the rabbit hole.”

The title of ‘I Even Feel Tired in my Dreams’ picks up the fatigue Alice suffers from throughout her long Wonderland dream, from the moment of sitting by her sister on the bank, through the physical fatigue of trying to reach the key to the garden and swimming in the pool of tears, and the emotional fatigue of being small and all alone. The first three lines -
I have to finish the tennis match but just want to sleep.
Small dogs leap up and latch onto my arms.
I want to lie down, let them have me.
- seem to particularly refer to, and almost invert, the odd scene in which a very small Alice finds herself playing fetch with an enormous puppy, and worrying about whether or not it was likely to eat her up.

We are diverted from the significance of these lines when the idea that the narrator can’t indulge her fatigue as her mother will never forgive her if she dies first, intrudes in the next line. A haunting possibility, every parent’s worst nightmare, and the annihilation of all the dreams that grow with and around a child. The narrator is distracted by the evidence of her heart pounding – presumably because of the tennis match – and by a series of stream of consciousness associations about dreaming and death by heart attack, triggered by the sight of her pulse.

In a further association she notices the duplication of the phrase “right through,” - I can see my pulse pounding right through my skin” and “Can you have one (a heart attack) in your sleep and not die or even start? Just sleep right through.” That observation leads to the line –
Concordance: “right through.” As in trapdoor.

I’m not as observant as the narrator is, and I confess I didn’t notice the repetition, so the phrase, a nice little puzzle, puzzled me. It didn’t stop me, which would have been counterproductive, but it made me go back and wonder, something that happens often in The French Exit. What did she mean? One of the hazards of dealing with poems that play with meaning as effectively as Gabbert’s, is that you begin to see possibilities the writer probably never dreamed of, some legitimate, as cultural connections, and maybe even as subconscious connections, but not necessarily part of the poet's intention. I had all the meanings of concordance in my head; genetic, linguistic, etymological - it's such a great word, the way the meaning is shifted slightly in its various uses - but I wasn't getting a satisfactory result. So I cheated, and asked the poet. She said – “A concordance, in linguistics, can refer to a series of words that commonly appear together (especially in a certain text). in writing the poem, I noticed that I had used the phrase "right through" twice -- "right through the skin" and "sleep right through it" -- and instead of revising it out, I put it in again -- because "right through" then struck me as an important phrase. (now I'm picturing Alice falling right through the rabbit hole, since you've put me in mind of her!) and it's a French exit again! "Right through" sounds so casual, an easy slipping ...”

We don’t all have the benefit of the poet’s elucidations when we come to a line we’re not sure of, so it’s a lucky thing that it doesn’t matter. The line works in its vagueness, in the way it suggests harmony and the concordance of genetic material and the passing on of disease, especially when the trapdoor – further echoes of the original falling into something unexpected, and of Alice’s fall – opens onto a return to her mother’s death.
My mom is going to die.

Of course, all of our mothers are going to die, so we have that one heartbeat between the stress on “die” and the remainder of the line – the word lupus means “wolf.” – to form the comforting thought that it’s a general statement. “Lupus” flattens us immediately. We’re overhearing thoughts about an impending personal disaster, not a general statement about the human condition. The fact that the “wolf” tends to stalk victims in family clusters adds resonance to the earlier “concordance” line, and to the fatigue running through the work, whether the poet had that meaning in mind or not. You never know, when you write, what the reader will bring to the poem. The final line - “Most commonly named wish that is also a fear: to die in one’s sleep.” – turns the whole thing neatly back to the cause of the fall through the door.

Catherine Clement, in her book The Philosophy of Rapture says, “Syncope. Suddenly time falters. First, the head spins, overcome with a slight vertigo. It is nothing; but the spinning world goes wild, the ears start to ring, the earth gives way and disappears, one sinks back, goes away...Where does one go?
Syncope: an absence of self. A “cerebral eclipse,” so similar to death that it is also called “apparent death”; it resembles it model so closely that there is a risk of never recovering from it...When she comes to, her first words will be, :”Where am I?” and because she has come to, “come back,” no one thinks to ask where she has been. The real question would be, rather, “Where was I?” But no, when one returns from syncope it is the real world that suddenly looks strange.”

It is this strangeness that informs The French Exit. The strangeness, and to a certain extent, the connected idea of rapture – the state of being transported by emotion, or a transporting of a person from one place to another, especially (but not necessarily in this case) to heaven. Obsolete French, abduction, carrying off, from rapt, carried away, from Old French rat, from Latin raptus. Another French exit, in other words.

Section two of the book presents a series of blogpoems, a term coined by Gabbert for a “tossed off” poem, one written “quickly, with minimal revision, in a burst of energy, and ...appropriate to the blog format/setting -- pretty short, and relatively light and digestible.” (For more on her use of the word see her interview, below.) There is much wit, and a chattiness to the tone of many of these pieces, a lightness, as she says, but it often masks, or sugar coats serious material. The title of one of the poems is ‘Blogpoems Are Ideas,’ and that’s as good a definition as “tossed off.” The two are probably related. The poems are ideas - explorations of, play with, but not necessarily the final word on.
In ‘Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin’ the speaker addresses someone (you) about the reproduction of works of art.
Every time you reproduce a piece of art
you remove some of its aura and that’s why
your mix tape didn’t impress me much,
it was so fucking aura-less
but in the film
version of the novelization of this poem
I play myself but have fantastic breasts
and there are probably some blood baths

and also when my fangy tooth catches
on my lip men everywhere crumple
w/ the ecstasy and agony of it and really

who need aura in your movie when
you’re so hot it breaks people’s knees.

Benjamin takes the distinctive, invisible, intangible emanation or radiation around a thing or person we ordinarily think of as ‘aura’ and uses it as a way of seeing he calls the ‘auratic gaze,’ “a mystical interplay of closeness and distance, contemplation and identification” which articulates “forgotten bonds between the realms of civilisation and nature, between the unanimated and the animated. Grounded in circular rather than chronological time, auratic gazes remind us of the human in nature and the natural in humanity.” Reading even that much of Benjamin’s idea of aura makes the connection between his thinking and Gabbert’s poetry plain, and provides enough background to appreciate the verbal and imaginative fireworks going off here. Specifically, Gabbert is flirting with Benjamin’s ideas about mechanical reproduction: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” That she does so with such flippancy and humour is impressive.

The humour in The French Exit is pervasive, but not always obvious. In the Benjamin blogpoem it comes from a deliberate flouting of expectation, the dry statement opening what seems to be a discussion of aesthetics, giving way, first to a mix tape, and then degenerating, very suddenly, into that lovely fricative F word. Not ‘film,’ The one before that. After which it moves into a fairly juvenile fantasy about the film based on the novelisation of the poem, that returns to the idea of ‘art’ with a brief and backwards allusion to Michelangelo via a film made of the novelisation of the great artist’s conflict with Pope Julius II over the painting of the Sistine Chapel. I’ve never seen ‘The Agony and the Ecstacy’ but based on the stills I’d venture to say there’ isn’t anyone in it “so hot it breaks people’s knees,” a line I found particularly funny. But maybe that’s just me.

Often the element of surprise is compounded, one following another so closely the reader has no time to regain his footing in between. In ‘Blogpoems are Ideas’ for instance, the portentous “And yet, as far as we’ve come, technology still lags behind our desires,” is followed by the unexpected “for instance, science hasn’t solved the problem of weather.” You could make the adjustment, given a moment to consider the number of ruined outings and spoiled vacations you’d had because of the weather, failures of the world to fall in with your desires, but you’re confronted too quickly with the end of the thought: “how much of it there is, and how it is literally everywhere.”

Here’s a problem for the Humour Theorists. Aristotle claimed humour was the result of surprise. Peter Marteinson says it’s “a reaction to a cognitive impasse, a momentary epistemological difficulty.” He goes on to say other things, probably irrelevant and possibly wrong, but that little bit seems like a fine starting point, and in agreement, more or less, with Aristotle. Consider ‘Ornithological Blogpoem,’ in which Gabbert gives us a short prose passage about, obviously, birds. “You will be woken by the chirping of the birds, which is the sound of their egos escaping from their bodies in loud and irregular streams... The birds have PhDs. They chirp out chapters from their dissertations. The birds do not agree that irony is dead...The birds are control freaks...One of the birds has assumed a leadership role. Another bird is plotting to assassinate it...If you are lucky one morning the birds may chirp selections from your favourite opera. The birds are especially fond of Wagner. What would you like to hear? They have a very long waiting list and are nepotistic. Do not be afraid of angering the birds. What angers the birds is fear.” That’s just part of it. The humour works on many levels, on the absurdity of the personification, on the details chosen, on the mental images of the sorts of people described and the bird caricatures that best capture them, and so on. However, if the reader is observant, he will have noticed the book was published by Birds LLC, giving the humour a new dimension. He will know, at that point, just what sort of people the poem is having fun with, and will bring his own ideas of publishers to the page. Some of his less friendly suspicions will be confirmed, and some of the pain caused by their rejection eased. Cathartic humour. The poor reader has no way of knowing the poem was written some years before the poet ever heard of Birds LLC, and indeed, before such an organisation existed. A cognitive impasse, for us, the informed few, a momentary epistemological difficulty. Which should certainly make us laugh. Where it leaves the poor bloke who doesn’t know any better I haven’t figured out.

There are puns – the ability to “defenestrate anything except for the window” - sexual innuendos, ambiguous little throwaways– “I’m this close to deforestation porn – the trees aground, all around my hole self”, for instance, with a French wax and a couple of French exits in the same poem, word plays, visual jokes. I won’t go on. It’s all in the mind of the beholder. You have to read it to get it.

To return to Alice for a moment, I’m afraid the Duchess would have made a poor poet. At one point she says, “take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves,” advice Gabbert has plainly disregarded. However clever and multifarious her meanings, however quick, or sly or surprising her humour, the sound of the poems has never been overlooked. Her control over the aural experience provided by her poetry is impressive.

The French Exit closes with a poem called “The Word Fuseki,” a piece that drives home the incredible range of emotion in the collection. It’s a poignant, heartbreaking poem, and it manages to be that without ever letting the reader know exactly what’s going on, either in the narrator’s mind or in the situation.
In that I think of my brother,
his serious face while gaming –

the serious frown, crook between
his caterpillar eyebrows –

and then Allen, the counterintuitive
move – “It’s not ‘interesting’!” –

getting up to fuck around
on the marimba,

Charlie Brown and Debussy.
I now hate the word interesting.

The structure of the poem is complex and interesting. We’re presented with a series of open ended premises, in the form of “in that” statements, in some cases with a group of observations that may or may not offer support for a conclusion the poem may or may not deliver.
In that I once tied my brother at chess;
In that it’s not called a tie. The word

Endgame. In that I almost won
at ping pong, then Robinson asked him

why he was playing left handed.
The word cannot, in that my brother,

Asked to use the word cannot in a sentence,
Wrote; “I don’t like cannots.’

The form is familiar enough. There’s an example of it nagging around the edges of my brain that I can’t put my finger on, but the ones that come to mind will do. The writer of the book of Ezekiel uses it, sometimes inverting statement and conclusion. I’ve changed the order of clauses, to make the parallel clear.

Ezekiel 39 – 28 In that I caused them to go into captivity among the nations, and have gathered them unto their own land; and I will leave none of them any more there; they shall know that I am Jehovah their God.

Thomas Watson uses it to wonderful effect in part of The Ekatompathia.
In that I thirst for such a Goddesse grace
As wantes remorse, like Tantalus I die...
In that I ryse through hope, and fall againe
By feare, like Sisyphus I labour still.

It is perhaps helpful to think of the statements in terms of inductive reasoning. The premises suggest the truth but do not ensure it.

Also involved in the structure are three games. The word “fuseki,” refers to the whole board opening or pattern of play in the Chinese game called “Go.” We also have the calculations and strategies of chess, specifically the closing moves, or the endgame, and a reference to a tied result. Around these careful manoeuvres we have the radical element of the ping pong ball, bouncing off this and that at angles difficult to calculate or control. The mind of the narrator as she moves around thoughts of her brother is at least attempting to be rational, but something, perhaps her emotional state, insists on throwing up more difficult material. The final lines, another open “in that” statement, include a bracketed observation that changes our experience and understanding of everything that has come before.
In that
I always say my brother.

(If he’s mine,
Why can’t I keep him?)

‘The Word Fuseki’ could easily stand in for The French Exit as a whole. Between the statement and the conclusion, the world throws up any number of free radicals. It is the syncope we began with – an eclipse, interval, absence, followed by a new departure.

The French Exit is available from Birds, LLC

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Alchemy of Chance, - Review by John Hayes at Robert Frost's Banjo

A short quote from a really wonderful review of The Alchemy of Chance, over at Robert Frost's Banjo. John Hayes is a formidable poet and a musician and does the sensuality of Peter's book justice. Do your winter reading list a favour and check it out.

"Aurélie stood up and stepped forward, discarding the bow, which she thrust down her waistband, and the dark glasses, which she stuffed down her white Indian shirt inside her bra. Her legs slightly apart, her knees slightly bent, a towering six-footer on the edge of the stage in a flowing white gypsy skirt, plucking a four-foot bright white cello strapped around her neck like a guitar, she led the band into a spine-tingling intermediate cadence, minor to major….She moved her left foot forward to tease up the pedals and slowed her playing right down, this time bending the notes like a jazz sax-player. Long and high, they soared across the room above the audience’s heads, echoed round ceiling corners and wall joints, returning to pierce the backs of their necks and shiver their spines. Then she made a quarter-turn in the direction of the bass-player, with a silent invitation to fill some empty spaces."

I quoted this at length not only because I believe it’s a fine example of Mr Brooks’ descriptive abilities, but also because it shows his belief in the power of transformation; not only does Aurélie’s improvisation transform the audience, it transforms her & the very space they all inhabit. But—& this is a crucial point in the novel—this transformation isn’t effected by Aurélie alone, but by her working in concert with the other band members. In the same way, the disparate lives come together in the narrative as a whole with transformative power.

John Hayes Robert Frost's Banjo.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll - Lines from Elisa Gabbert's Poem With A Theshold

In honour of Lewis Carroll's birthday - January 27th, 1832 - and in anticipation of my upcoming review of Elisa Gabbert's 'The French Exit' - a few lines playing with Alice in Wonderland, from her "Poem With A Threshold."

I left the party through the French exit
to the smaller one inside

where the cake said

Look into my image
distortion disorder and tell me

what you really feel...

I'll be thinking aloud about Elisa's poems in a few days, and will even provide the rest of the words to this one. In the meantime, check out the interview below, for some insight into the way she thinks about her work.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The French Exit - An Interview with Elisa Gabbert

TT - The editing process at Birds sounds really interesting. Can you talk a little about the practicalities of it, as far as French Exit was concerned?

E.G. - Birds assigns a lead editor to each book they accept for publication. My editor was Sampson Starkweather. We've been friends and mutual fans for a long time, and he always had lots of free-floating ideas about my poetry and nothing to do with them. This was a chance for us to funnel those ideas into something, namely, making my book better. I was having a really hard time editing the manuscript on my own – I didn't know how to order it, I didn't know which poems to take out and which to put in. I desperately wanted someone who knew my work to step in and tell me what to do. Sam was that person! It was a great working relationship because I trusted his judgment completely, but he always made it clear that every decision was ultimately up to me. I took almost all of his suggestions. We had long phone calls every few weeks over the course of several months, during which time we finalized cuts and settled on the sections. I also did major revisions of a few key poems. All the editors had good suggestions for the manuscript, but they were mostly filtered through Sam so I never felt too overwhelmed. We were all pretty invested in it, since it's my first book and one of their first books too.

TT - Many of the pieces in the book are called “blogpoems,” a new word to me. Can you give us a definition?

E.G - The "blogpoem" concept grew out of NaPoWriMo, which is the poetry version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month); my friend Maureen Thorson is generally credited with "inventing" NaPoWriMo. This was back around 2006; I knew a number of poets who were writing a poem a day that April and posting the drafts to their blogs. At the time, I didn't have a blog, but my good friend Chris Tonelli did. I semi-joked that I should send him tossed off, throwaway poems to post on his blog, and he challenged me to do it. The first one I wrote was "Blogpoem for April" – like I said, it was originally kind of a joke; I was making fun of the idea that you would write a poem so quickly. The trouble was, it turned out to be a good poem! So then I decided to take the project seriously – I wrote each poem quickly, with minimal revision, in a burst of energy, and I tried to make them all appropriate to the blog format/setting – pretty short, and relatively light and digestible. Suitable for Internet reading. It turned to be a lot of fun, and because I had to write one every day, they are often built out of trivial or inane ideas, because you can't write about something profound every single day. Turning those little thoughts and lines into decent poems was part of the challenge.

TT - Many of your poems are funny, on one or several levels. Aristotle claimed humour was a matter of surprise, and that’s often the case here, although which bit of which poem will surprise any given reader may be a surprise in itself. How do you think of humour in relation to your poetry? What is its place? What are you using it for?

E.G. - Humor is so important to me – my conversational style revolves around banter and jokes, and I gravitate toward people who are always joking, to the point that it's kind of hard for me to connect with people who aren't that way. That filter of wit, sarcasm, levity, it just colors my whole worldview. Similarly I gravitate toward poetry with a sense of humor, though I'm not really satisfied with poems that are content to be simply funny. My favorite poems (songs, people) are usually wry, funny-sad, funny but vulnerable. I like a kind of intelligence that knows the world is tawdry but carries on anyway, making the most of it. That's how I want humor to function in my poems, as comedy brushing against tragedy. And that may be where the surprise comes from – not expecting the two to bump up together.

TT - These are poems of ideas, and you play with various philosophical positions in the texts. Which philosophers have been an influence? Any ideas that have had more impact than others?

E.G. - Great question. The philosopher with the most influence has probably been Daniel Dennett (who, like Benjamin, gets his own blogpoem). I'm drawn to a kind of bullet-biting, hyperrational philosophy of mind/science (Eliezer Yudkowsky would be another example of this): no souls, no free will, no one, coherent world – that kind of thing. The trick is to accept this lack of magic or "spirituality" in the world and still find room for happiness, which is entirely possible. I don't cotton at all to the theory that if you have no sense of God or some great unknowable unknown, there's no reason to live. A lot of what I'm doing in my poetry, I think, is playing with that space where we forget we have no control over anything and that nothing ultimately matters – that's where we live our lives, in that forgetting. However smart or rational we are, it's our nature to forget it.

TT - In my review, I’ve written about “Blogpoem After Walter Benjamin.” In that poem you mention aura – and allude to Benjamin’s belief that the acceleration of life in the modern city is responsible for its disintegration. You also play with the problem of mechanical reproductions and the way they cut our connection to the uniqueness of reality. The blogpoem is a clever, compressed discussion of auratic perception. Do you believe modern urban life has fundamentally changed the way we see reality? If yes – and the answer, based on your poems, seems to be yes – in what way? What does the change mean to art, which, if nothing else, is bound up in “aural perception’s” interplay of closeness and distance and in the uniqueness of existence.

E.G. - I think yes, our perception of reality is fundamentally different, though it's been different my whole life, so it's hard for me to compare my perception to that of a frontier woman or a caveman. In regards to art, I was thinking specifically of this tendency for things not to feel "special" – which says nothing about how good or bad they are as art. When we read a book of poems, what we appreciate is the information, not the actual instance of the book. (OK, design wonks go on and on about the physical object of a book, but that's really beside the point to the poetry. It's a copy. The book is not THE BOOK, the pure idea. If all extant copies were burned, we could print more books, etc.) And this is kind of the norm now, what with everything being digitized, to receive things as information, wherein the form/format is pretty incidental. The medium is not the message. Because people want to be able to choose their own medium (like, hey, from now on I will receive all messages via my iPhone; you, as the messenger, can no longer control the medium).

This is not to say that I think everything was better in the past, or anything like that. Though I do wish Hollywood would stop with the remakes already.

TT - Walter Benjamin plays with time, Lewis Carroll plays with time in Alice in Wonderland, syncopes play with time, you play with the way they play with time, and you play with time on your own terms. What’s going on with that?

E.G. - Time is the great enemy. On the micro scale it moves too slowly, on the macro scale it moves too fast. Days are long, years are short. I don't see how anyone can be alive and aware and not obsess about time, all the time. Who said all poems are about death? All poems are also about time, since death is ultimately about time.

TT - Syncope is a fascinating and frightening thing/concept/occurrence, in all its various meanings and permutations. I talk about some of them and the way you use them as a connecting metaphor, in my review, but I wonder if you have anything you’d like to say about your use of it.

E.G. - I'm not sure I could add anything to your present understanding of it. I think you see how it's working in the book at least as well as I do! Certainly I was exploring the scariness of a brush with death as a reminder that anyone could die at any time. In a way I think it's weird that we fear our own deaths. So what if I die – I won't be around to miss me. What's really scary is the thought of everyone else dying.

TT - The French Exit – It’s a syncope, it’s a party left without notice, it’s a French window, it’s coitus interruptus, happiness, interest, brothers, lovers gone awol, life ended abruptly and without warning. How did you arrive at such a wide ranging metaphor?

E.G. - You've nailed it, it's all those things. It wasn't at first; first it was just a phrase I liked, which I learned from a guy I had a crush on, who was particularly adept at it. So I put it in a poem. Later on, unrelatedly, I had a syncopal episode and fell into a French door. The "French exit" ended up in another poem. The phrase just bloomed for me somehow; I realized slowly how it was functioning on all these different levels in my poems, and it ended up governing the structure of the book. The phrase has taken on new weight and I can't just use it in casual conversation anymore. It feels almost mystical now, like some portal to another dimension.

TT - “The Word Fuseki” is a terribly poignant, painful poem. I talk about it at some length in my review but I wonder if you would address the two lines in brackets halfway through – (I wanted to keep that. Why did I give it away?) There’s always a giving away in poetry, and it’s often a giving away of something the poet might have preferred to keep. What can you tell us about that tendency/necessity/compulsion/gift?

E.G. - I think every writer has things they need to write about – and they're the very subjects we tend to avoid, because people tell us to, because it's so hard to get it right. I tried to write that particular poem several times over the course of a couple of years. I couldn't get it right. Even a successful poem is a failure in some way – you feel you've spent that subject, that's it, you'll never write another good poem again. But again, we have to. For me, the poetry that really tears me up and stays with me has to take that huge risk of showing the reader its weakness. It has to play its hand.

The French Exit is available from BirdsLLC

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On Choosing Poetry - Birds LLC

A very interesting interview with the editors of Birds LLC on their unconventional but obviously effective editorial process. How do you put a poetry collection together? What about unity and/or diverity in the aesthetics of the editors? One voice or many? It's all here.