Monday, September 28, 2009

Voices from the Hills

This last Saturday I attended an event I had been looking forward to for a very very long time; Voices from the Hills, held at my alma mater, Northern Kentucky University. It was an event focused around the future of Appalachian and Kentucky writing, but more importantly to me, was put together in honor of Danny Miller, the former chair of the English department who passed away very recently, and to raise money for an endowment in his honor.

Danny was an amazing man, who very directly affected the direction of my life. It was through great effort, on his part, that Frank X. Walker was hired as writer-in-residence, which of course directly lead to my induction into the Affrilachian poets, which has had an immeasurable effect on my writing.

I had previously won the under-graduate (at the time of the contest) non-fiction contest for my essay “Folk Traditions as a Conduit for Healing in Gurney Norman’s Kinfolks,” and my family was there to cheer me on as I accepted my award. It marks the first, and possibly only time in my life that I'll be have such a personal investment in an essay. I was writing the essay in a one-on-one class with Danny, who passed away before the essay or the class was complete.

Among the writers at the event were Laura Sutton, Richard Hague, Chris Holbrook, Jeff Mann, Frank X Walker, Marianne Worthington, Gurney Norman (current poet laureate of Kentucky), Crystal Wilkinson, and Wendell Berry. I spent every cent of a check I won for my essay on books at the event, so I'm both inspired and poor.

Story of my life.

In other news, I think I may throw myself into sonnets. Not only because Gary Copeland Lilley, who was suggested to me as someone who I should study, does, but because I've for some time suspected I should study form, specifically something that would force me to think about iambs. I have a side-project tentatively planned about rap and iambic structure, but I have never been very good at it, and I'm not sure I know a single other person in the world who would be interested in both formal poetry structure, and rap.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An orgy of sound, but not poets.

You really should read this Poetry and Popular Culture entry if you're at all interested in the very weirdest side of language. And if you're in a place where you can listen to NSFW (not safe for work) material.

Essentially, the blog links to The 60 Second Anthology of American Poetry, a compilation of the sounds between the words of recorded poetry. The ums, the ahs, the hms, but more intriguingly, the hisses and slurps.

Poetry and Popular culture says the following:

In other words, there are no words in this poetry collection, and this absence provokes some provocative questions: Can poetry exist without its words? If so, what then is poetry?

Now, I'm normally not one to stomp on an idea, because the moment you do that, some upstart shows you what's what. It happens every few generations, within any art form (Rock? It'll never last, it has no staying power. Rap? It can't even be considered music. The Beats? They're not saying anything.)

But come on. Can poetry exist outside of words? No. And I would love to be proven wrong on this. Not because I'm cocky, but because I feel like it'd be something like finding out that there's some 8th color of the rainbow I only need to know about to see. And I'm all about seeing more colors.

What's interesting about the recording is not what it says about poetry at all. Because let's face it, that could be a recording of politicians speaking at Congressional Hearings. It may very well be, as you'll find that Language Removal Services is standing by the very fishy decision not to release the names of any of the poets, citing the personal nature of the poets to the creator of the mp3. And anything rhythmic about this collection would be attributed to the editing process, something like scratching a record.

No, what I find interesting about the Anthology is the erotic-sounding nature of language itself, and I say language and not English, because again, this could be any language. It's a reminder that however passionately we aspire to raise language to the highest planes of thought, however much we, as poets or appreciators of poetry, like to think that words have power, that really what we deal with very often are calculated collections of sounds, some of the same sounds that connect us to our primitive origins. As a people, as a culture, and as a language.

Says P&P:

"Removing language becomes an opportunity to reclaim the physical, erotic pleasure surrounding it. “There is that kinky side to LRS,” says Kubick, “so in a sense, you could hear ‘The 60 Second Anthology’ as an orgy of poets. And I hope, also, that there’s something natural in it, something like the ocean, when you get swallowed by a wave. Swallowed by a sea of saliva.”

When we critically examine a text, we might note that the author uses alliteration, and it achieves this effect. Or that the sound of this word brings to mind some emotion or action. We might ask "Why?" a thousand times in trying to understand how our favorite poet achieves the emotional impact they've garnered in us, but it's important to ask, in a sense, a why of the why. To pull ourselves back to the very beginnings of poetry and language, and to look at what the sounds themselves evoke in us.

Because there's power in that. It is the truest sense of evocation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Read Write Poem Virtual Book Tour: "At Night, The Dead" by Lisa Ciccarello

“At night, the dead,” is a chapbook which concerns itself with the dead, which is literally everywhere, "in our throats when we sing" as well as within the pages of the book itself. But don't mistake what may initially sound like George A. Romero's book of poetry for anything like the gory, shambling dead we have come to expect from our dark media. And thank goodness for that. I have never understood the obsession with zombies and zombie killing. Spilled viscera isn’t scary. It’s disgusting.

Instead, the dead in Lisa Ciccarello's chapbook are more akin to those remembered in the practices of Mexico's Day of the Dead, or in the stories I have heard from Puerto Rican culture. They are everywhere, a part of our every day lives.

"the dead are sitting up in their narrow huts. At night they moan & try to uncross their legs. In the day they pretend they chose this position."

At night, the dead is not so much a story as it is a long running chant or benediction with many repetitions of imagery in its terse lines. Different forms of water, diamonds, salt, things burned, and especially the dead repeat themselves throughout the book.

Fourteen of the sixteen poems share the same title: "At night, the dead:" which serves the dual purpose of giving the poems a connectedness that hints at a single running poem, but separates them from one another, an essential thing for a series with no underlying literal narrative.

These are poems with pressing images, and short lines that give a sense of urgency to getting to the next line. As I've said, it reads to me very much like a sort of protection spell. Ever see the Charmed sisters frantically read a spell as something malevolent comes their way? It's something like that. Except not corny. Perhaps an entirely different example is in order…

In any case, the images themselves, and the mood that such short poems portray—blanketed as they are on the page with whiteness—are what this book seems to be all about. Not with understanding the who/what/when/where/why, but with sharing in a feeling:

"A moon is a plug. Someone stoppers the dark & I was waiting for it.

The moon is a coin on the dead eye of the dead. The dead are dead. Rearrange the letters."

There are many references to primal symbols and words that surely affect us all in similar ways. The word dead immediately sets a mood, and its repetition disallows our escaping that mood. The moon too, and even coins, associated with Chiron on the river Styx, all drive home an idea not of an abject terror, but of a dull one, a constant struggle between acceptance and fear of the dead.

It is not the complete peace of Native-American spirituality. One where ancestors, are welcomed to guide and protect us. Instead, it is a kind encroaching and pervasive dead. A perversion of that innate human feeling that the dead are with us coupled with a modern fear of death, and refusal of acceptance.

I would at first be inclined to say that I don't share these feelings about the dead, but then I realize that perhaps how I deal with the dead is to push them fully out of my mind, to 'move on,' as we might put it, and never spend any time to think of those who have passed, if it can be avoided. Enjoy the memory of them, but never think about them being dead. And this is precisely what the struggle this book seems about.

There are some things that I don’t understand, even coming to terms with the fact that this work is not necessarily a literal narrative. Sometimes Ciccarello writes out the word ‘your,’ and other times abbreviates it as ‘yr.’ There doesn’t seem to be any consistency in that, though, and sometimes both appear in the same poem. The word ‘and,’ on the other hand, is always abbreviated as an ampersand (&), and so it seems as if there is some sort of purposeful choice between ‘your’ and ‘yr.’ One which I was never able to discern. There are also inconsistencies with the capitalization of sentences.

And since the form of this chapbook seems to be used at times to its fullest effect (the decision to run on sentences instead of breaking lines, or to print a single line on an otherwise blank page) it made me wonder if the fact that only the first half of my book’s pages had frayed edges was a conscious decision, a technical necessity, or a mistake. And if it was a conscious decision, if it had anything at all to do with the poetry itself.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys in their poetry mood and imagery above all else, or who likes their dark forays into art properly dark, instead of what passes for dark these days: the gruesome, the startling, and the demented.

Oh. This is one stop of many on the Read Write Poem Virtual Book Tour. Check out some of the others, if you get a chance.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Gyspy Poetry Slam

Just got home from Gypsy Poetry Slam in Victorian Square (Lexington, KY), which is an event within the Kentucky Women's Writer's Conference, now in its 30th year. It was organized and emceed by fellow Appalachian Poet and good friend of mine, Bianca Spriggs (And now I will see if mentioning her name will draw her to my blog via Google Alerts. Haha).

It was awesome. Really, any female poet living in or around Kentucky has absolutely no excuse not to attend at least one of these events. I mean, I was able to make it, and I'm a guy. One of like 10 guys in the giant crowd, actually. And I'd tell you just how many people were there, but I am an astoundingly miserable estimator. Somewhere between 100 and a million people were there. Give or take.

I was there to support Lisa Cabaret, a friend I invited to compete, and she did great. She didn't win, but she beat me (and won!) at the Covington City Lights poetry slam a while back, so she's got that under her belt. Now she just needs a website. Or a blog.

One of my favorite things about this event, besides the talent itself, was the range of topics. From time to time I go to a local poetry event in Cincinnati which sometimes ends up being made up predominantly of women in their mid-twenties, and it becomes a man-bash. I can deal with that. But tonight, it was nice to see poetry that seemed simultaneously to embrace and 'transcend' its gender. Women writers have enough obstacles to deal with than to feel forced to write about their sexuality or motherhood, even if they ultimately choose to write about those things.

Afterwards, I ate dinner (hamburger, fries, and fried banana peppers!!) with some of the poets, including the feature performer, and Def Poet Rachel McKibbens, who was absolutely hilarious. I think she won the "things I did when I was poor" contest. Not with the "ate ramen noodles out of an upside down Frisbee," but I think I will forever consider Frisbees as bowls from now on.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Big book seller poetry selections suck. The oldest tale in a poet's book.

My Aunt Shawn read me much of my first poetry. And she didn't pull any punches. It wasn't Shel Silverstein, (which is good stuff, don't get me wrong). It was the poetry that she was still interested in as an adult.

She read, and still reads, better than almost anyone I know, and that is extremely important when introducing poetry to a skeptical or impatient audience. I can't say that the first time I heard Gunga Din that I understood with certainty what the story was about, but I felt the rhythm, and I was entranced by the exotic-sounding turns of phrases. And I'd go back to read it again.

So when my Aunt Shawn told me she had sent my poetry to a friend, and that she trusted this friend who had in return sent a list of poets I should read, I immediately wrote the names down, and drove to the bookstore.

Claudia Rankine, A. Van Jordan, Gary Lilley, and Sherwin Bitsui. And I have read A. Van Jordan, loaned to me by Frank X. Walker, but maybe not with discerning enough eye.

The closest bookstore to where I live is a Barnes and Noble. It's a decent sized bookstore, not the smallest one around these parts, but not one of the bigger ones either; it's just one floor. I spent some time scouring the two book shelves confusedly before realizing that the store had apparently given Poetry slightly more significance than essays, and had allowed them to run well into the Essay shelf as well.

But it didn't matter. They didn't have any of my four poets, not a single book by any of them. I wasn't surprised by Sherwin Bitsui, who is a Native-American author, and one I suspected might be easier to find in Arizona, where my Aunt Shawn is from, than here in Northern Kentucky. But I hadn't given up. On to the newer, bigger, bookstore: Borders.

Borders was a huge disappointment. A single row of shelves for poetry, and when you fill up the space with the inevitable poetry reads such as The Aenid, Edgar Allan Poe, and Langston Hughes, that leaves very little room for anything else. But here, the rest of the space was filled with anthologies of poetry.

Where would we be, those small tribes of us wandering around in the dark reading our poetry, without the advent of the internet? There is only one more bookstore that is within a reasonable distance to where I live. I really don't think that A. Van Jordan is so obscure as to be so difficult to find.

I understand that I can order these books at any of the bookstores I visited, but that's also asking quite a bit of commitment from a patron, isn't it? I happen to be interested in buying these books, but with nothing new on the shelf that isn't by a US Poet Laureate, how am I to decide if I want to drop 15-25 dollars on a book that isn't even 100 pages long?