Friday, May 28, 2010
Please purchase Benjamin S. Grossberg's "Sweet Core Orchard" from University of Tampa Press. Here's the link:
Sunday, May 23, 2010
El Dorado (Goodbye, Utah)
Mi amor, I'm surrounded by mountains.
I'm inside their ring, one never to know
a ring finger. I miss the pueblo of our
nakedness. A magnet pulls at me tonight,
the opposite of the Pacific Sea's name.
I tire of burying sunsets in this nuevo west,
of turquoise shops selling the wrong sky,
and of the search for El Dorado dwindling
into a hunt for a high; it's all a bare-bones
version of salvation. This isn't a tequila
letter or an abstract tourniquet. You may
only hear this as an echo, a cartographer's
mumble. Sometimes, I travel too far from
myself and need proof that I've not died.
How I miss your bed's golden myopia.
I'm even without moonlight's silver tonight.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
One of the more enjoyable books of the year is Steven Cordova's "Long Distance." The poems possess the graceful conviction to evaporate as you read them--there's rarely a desperate transition or forced leap in their trajectories. You sense the impact of an Eileen Myles in his work: the poems are unobtrusive, wispy—in a delightful way. Cordova's AIDS poems dissipate; they don’t strain to be remembered. He creates in HIV-impacted narrator who is admirably modest in his desires: he wants to share, from time to time, even entertain, but never with much self-aggrandizement.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Cordova’s well-tempered, necessary re-envisioning of AIDS as the aggressively banal. This is the complete opposite of poets who insist on seeing the illness as never less than dramatic (and often melodramatic).
Cordova’s titles indicate his desire to determinedly, yet calmly investigate the unremarkable : “New Love,” “In Your Defense,” “Old Friend,” “Drinking Buddies.” Here’s one of my favorite poems “Across a Table” in its entirety:
“I’m glad you’re positive.”
“I’m glad you’re positive,
too, though, of course, I wish
you weren’t.” I wish you weren’t
either is the response I expect.
But you say nothing.
And who can blame you?
Not me. I’m not the one
who’ll call you after dinner and a movie.
You’re not the one who’ll call me.
We both know we have
that-what?-that ultimate date
one night to come, one bright morning.
Who can blame us? Not the forks
and not the knives that carry on
and do the heavy lifting now.
Unadorned, the poem speaks to the idea that AIDS has become rather undramatic and at the same no less significant. In its Cavafy-like flatness, the comedy-of-manners contained in the opening lines reflect a dilemma of the now. With the disclosure of HIV so common, how does one still find (or should they find?) a heightened significance in the exchange of statuses?
It’s telling that Cordova uses the word “blame.” Here blame is attributed not in any way to the mode of transmission; it’s connected to a failure in etiquette.
In the poem, Cordova employs two rhetorical question: 1.) “And who can blame you?” regarding his quasi-disappointment that his date doesn’t reciprocate the wish that his companion isn’t HIV-impacted. 2.) “Who can blame us?” – which functions most intriguingly as confirmation that the banality of a failed date is nothing that significant in relation to larger unions like oneself to their own mortality.
The “forks” and “knives”—the props for a dinner date –are more than sufficient to carry through what is the ultimate crisis of the poem: a failed date. The banal subject of AIDS is elided (yet not concealed) in perhaps the most whimsical of poetic devices: personification. This unforced poetic move is one of the now, not of the late 1980 or early to mid 90's.
In a future post, I'll focus on one or two of my other favorites: "Testing Positive," "The Last AIDS Cat," "At the Delacorte" "Old Friend", etc.
Monday, May 10, 2010
On James Allen Hall, Enid Shomer, Michael Walsh, Allen Ginsberg, Mark Doty, the University of Arkansas Press, Paul Zimmer, Ronaldo V. Wilson, etc. etc
First I want to thank you for doing what I consider to be extraordinary work in supporting gay poets--a lot of editors would be very wary of publishing more than one gay poet a year. They wouldn't even dare to admit to themselves that they do have quotas about those sort of things. You have published three gay men. Again, I can't say that about too many editors. I can guess you would say that these were the best manuscripts and you're not interested in the sexuality of the authors, that you just simply want the best work. A lot of editors claim that but most don't practice it. By far, that's the most important thing I'm going to say in this post. You have a great, well-deserved reputation within gay male circles and deserve it. I can't think of too many other mainstream (ie university) presses who would do such a thing, or have.
So, as you can imagine, I feel a bit guilty in critiquing some, if not any, of your decisions or your press. It has brought a lot of important new and emerging authors into the marketplace. At the same time, I think that everything is open up for critique, so this post is not meant as an aggressive attack, but as a way of creating a dialogue. I can tell from your comments on my last post that you may see me as a overdetermined to offer an opinion. While that may be so (my partner of 13 years would definitely side with you), I like to cause a little trouble. Trouble makes people self-conscious, and self-consciousness, I believe, is a good thing. I also think criticism is an act of creation: the ability to unpack words, decisions, catalogues, and so forth. I give you my word, that's my primary intent.
Even more importantly, though, no matter how personal this post may seem, it is not intended as such. I see my extensive critique about your press as a vehicle of talking about larger issues. I sound like someone who teaches freshman composition (which I do): begin with the specific and then the universal will emerge. In other words, the problems I examine are not particular to your press, but mainstream (ie university presses) in general. That is why I am giving myself leeway here.
I also want to make clear that it is upsetting to me that I'm offering a critique of a press that does care about queer authors. Why not attack the ones that don't? Because they don't listen. I'd rather offer opinions to those who do care than waste my time with those who don't. It may be unfair, but that's the best explanation I can offer.
I'm going to try my best in explaining why I think your press may privilege a certain type of gay poet over other types of gay poets. This is a tricky thing to discuss, because one may think on the surface that the poets --James Allen Hall, Eric Leigh, and Michael Walsh may seem like they're different poets. I would like to make the argument that they are not only of more or less of the same aesthetic camp, but also, how they essentially, to a degree, are creating the same poem. This isn't to say that they are good or bad poets (although I do receive by far the most personal pleasure from James Allen Hall and the least from Michael Walsh, but that is irrelevant).
My argument will be two-fold: 1.) articulate an anticipation of reasons why you might argue against them being at all similar and then refute those arguments in a congenial, non-aggressive manner 2.) offer examples of other gay poets who offer alternative aesthetics and contents in contrast to the sort of rhetorical strategies and material you seem to honor the most regularly.
1a.) You might say, "But, Steve, they're all dealing with different subject material: Michael Walsh (the pastoral); James Allen Hall (the melodramatic, and I do mean that descriptively, not critically), and Eric Leigh (AIDS.) On the surface, this might seem true. But if you look deeper, these authors actually employ the same sort of narrative arc in their poems: they always begin with the domestic which pervades all aspects of their books. I think this is particular troublesome in the 21 st century when gay men seem eerily relentless in their attempts to gain tolerance through presenting themselves as domestic creatures, or at least craving such comforts . As if by focusing on the limitations and potentialities of the nuclear family, they are essentially safe and non-threatening. These statements are not an attack against any one particular poet, but a description of a cumulative pattern of poetry in the gay literature scene, a problem that does not belong to one particular press.
1b.) Here's another reason why I find stressing the familiar--mother and father--a problem. It offers a socially deterministic view, a sort of self-pathology of gay men. Why so often to mainstream narrative gay poets feel the need to offer backstory to their lives. Why can't gay men allow themselves to act and feel the way they do because they are gay men. By privileging the domestic arc (here is what happened to me when I was young and this is why I act the way I do when I'm old), gay men are limiting their own agency. Not everything needs to be operating in a psychoanalytic frame work.
1c.) If I should say that the poets personaes' are asexual, and at the very least, non-threatening for the most part, I'm sure you could point to excerpts of the poems that refute this. For example, the use of the word "cum" in Eric Leigh's book. Or perhaps an example of the poem "Wish" from Michael Walsh's The Dirt Riddles: "When I kiss him, weed sour/and tomato green/after hours in this garden,/I taste the darkness/suspended between bone and skin/..." I would make the claim that the queer sexuality is almost always tastefully embedded in the poem, or used as a way to titillate a middle-class reader. The poems are never about or truly deal with what might be perceived as more raw sexuality in general or unconventional sexual practices.
1d.) I do not think you could deny in any way that these poets privilege unrepentantly the narrative. Conventional narrative is what matters. This is undeniably partly impacted by Mark Doty. Mary Doty is the driving influence here. Other significant writers like Timothy Liu (his more later work), Dennis Cooper, David Trinidad, Rane Arroyo, John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, Wayne Koestenbaum, James Schuyler, Essex Hemphill, etc etc. and their contemporary influence play no role. Your press seems to privilege almost completely poems that Theodore Roethke could have secretly written. (I think when James Allen Hall uses metaphor and hyperbole he comes closest to doing something new, and that's why I like his work, by far, the best--in his portraits of his mother he simultaneously embraces and parodies the iconic mother figure in his poems. Those poems create a certain amount of envy in me.)
1e.) They are all very earnest poets. Whether it's Leigh's AIDS narratives or Walsh's pastorals about growing up on a farm or Hall's domestic tragedies, I sense that one of the reasons they may have cross over success is that they seem like the type of poet who is having an emotional catharsis on the page--no matter how much they may claim otherwise, or how true that is. People like to feel that they are witnessing the outpouring of a gay man's troubled, triumphant souls. And their aesthetic strategies encourage this reaction from their audience.
1f.) On the back of Michael Walsh's The Dirt Riddles, poet Paul Zimmer says in his blurb: "...Walsh, a poet who concentrates on meaningful particulars and who doesn't try to dazzle us with poetic footwork." Most of these poems for the most part consist of flat, journalistic language, like Theodore Roethke or Mark Doty or Stanley Kunitz. No Wayne Koestenbaum or Ashberry or Ginsberg like influences in this trio.
1g.) The poems are essentially humorless. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and yes, you could claim that there is some wit or the odd toss-away joke in the books. But if you read Michael Wash carefully, he is essentially a Andrew Hudgins ("cute wit" I would define it as)--which again I mean descriptively not critically. What I perceive to be the earnestness of the narratives seems to limit the potentiality for the truly irreverent, the tonally disconcerting, the slapstick, the self-consciously postmodern, the scatological, etc. These poets have a polite, quaint sense of humor. Michael Wash has a bit called "MOOO"--polite, appropriate comedy.
1h.) None of them are explicitly political. I do not like when writers claim that everything is political. If you elasticize a word like political to mean that every poem by its very nature is political, the word means nothing. Of all people, poets should know that. None of them address current events or particular discrimination, federal, state, or local, in any way. At the very least, it seems to me that the poets are way too invested in the ahistorical--which is often the case for gay poets: they're a bit too desperate to appeal to everyone. The problems gay men face, these poets, seem to say, are universal. That isn't the case.
1i.) I do not know if this is true at all, so you may simply want to discount it, and I don't mean this any more than as an observation, at least in this limited conversation, but it must be said: all the gay writers seem to be white.
2.) I'm going to now provide links to gay poets who subscribe to a different aesthetic camp. Rather than retype them, I'm going to provide links. I think you would concede that none of these poets are Theodore Roethke/Mark Doty/Stanley Kunitz influenced poems. You can see the influence of, say, A.R. Ammons, Haryette Mullen, Lorca, Ginsberg, Susan Howe etc. Another way of thinking about it is that they do possess "poetic footwork":
Rolando V. Wilson
Neil de la Flor
And why does Mark Doty always have to be the influence, not someone, say, like Jack Spicer?
There are numerous other poets, such as Eduardo C. Corral and Matthew Hittinger, but I've written them already on my blog. You may want to check them out.
If you choose to look, these poets are doing something very different than the singular sort of aesthetic camp you may be invested in. I do not think there's any way you could argue that they come from a different lineage than the Theordore Roehtke/Mark Doty/Stanley Kunitz one you seem to privilege. Notice also the various contents: a bit more daring and ultimately to some respect creative. There are a zillion more that I've written about or will be. Their books are stacked near my bed: Steven Cordova, Tony Leuzzi, Francisco Aragon, etc etc etc.
It goes without saying that I am indebted to you. You're invested in bringing a marginalized group of poets out from the shadows. I am sincerely grateful. The three books you have chosen have helped me--they have made me think. Coming across the voice of a new gay poet is always useful.
But I would like if at all possible the way to consider my arguments in which I feel that you and your press may privilege certain aesthetic and certain contents.
With much respect,
P.S. This is all I'm going to say about these three particular poets and the press publicly. Anything else I'd backchannel you.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Here is the link to his dancing during the actual SUNY Brockport reading he gave:
This is the post I wrote about him on March 29, 2009. It is entitled "Writing Joy: The Truly Amazing Poems of Rane Arroyo":
Only the best poets can convey joy. Unabashed, authentic joy. Which is probably the most important feeling to express. In the queer poetry world, victim narratives and reductive identity politic still rule supreme. With the creepy way PoBiz (and the world) operates, how can one find the courage to display an emotion as natural and as generous as joy?
I don’t know.
But I believe that Rane Arroyo’s The Buried Sea, new and selected poems, accomplishes that feat.
There are not too many queer books (and books in general) that I find as ethical, generous, and as artful as his. I can only think of one book last year that gave me as much pleasure: queer poet Tom Savage’s Brainlifts. Both of these books transcend their label as queer literature and can and should have competed as finalists for national, mainstream awards...
Let’s look at these inspired openings from Arroyo’s poems:
You’re dead, but the skies are not.
This Ohio storm makes me think of your
blackening Chilean horizons. What use
is your name now in the not-now
not-here? Neruda. Ne. Ruda. Neru.
Da. It was a wonderful mask, no?…
What I dislike about daylight is its
muscularity. What need to claim
everything, only to release it
at dusk, when man and woman need a
godparent? Do you notice how my
hands seem blue and yet I’m wearing no
sapphire nor do I play the piano?…
(“A Bolero, But Not for Dancing”)
Yet another Puerto Rican
Buddhist. He wants to breathe in
peace while keeping his rice-
and-bean cooking skills, his accent,
his blue jeans from the Santana
years, his wine and rum collections
housed inside his head. Today’s lesson:
fireflies know they’re grasshoppers
You’re still the island of the holy
palm tree. What can I offer to the man
married first to God, and then soon to
the wrong rib?
(“Almost a Revelation for Two in Bed”)
Perhaps a truly significant poet makes you not want to add anything to their words. You know their writing can do all the work. As a critic, you need to shut up.
Here’s an excerpt from yet another poem. From “Salsa Capitalism”:
…I live on a teacher’s
salary but salsa capitalism isn’t about
money or trickle-down theory of
Lorca’s duende. It’s about hearing
music to be spent inside our bodies,
rhythms’ richness, the dancing, our
now foreign tears’ rum, free will that’s
not taxed, kingdom come as crumbs…
And finally, here’s “World Citizen” in its entirety:
Charon doesn’t know a Cuban
from a Puerto Rican.
They are all firewood to deliver.
They’re as dead as everyone else.
Charon throws passports and visas
into the bloodied river.
He strips everyone upon landing;
then they truly disappear into
God’s dark imagination.
Charon rows back to us who,
while waiting for him on shore,
argue as if countries exist.
We’re naked without our flags.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Once I posted my critique of Eric Leigh's book "Harm's Way" I felt that same sort of anxiety. A personal rule of mine: if someone should comment on a post, unless it's an extraordinary circumstance, I don't alter anything I wrote. But I felt a compulsion immediately after I typed that past review to reexamine the book once again. To make sure I had represented my views accurately. And upon reflection I can say that I was right.
It has become a joke, rightly so, in my classes of my use of the word idiosyncratic. In its own way, it is as useless as trotting out the word voice or tone, but I don't care. When students are at a basic level--unable to ask themselves why writing something like "I'm falling down a deep, deep, dark abyss" is maybe not-so-good poetry--you have to be brass tasks: a buzzword isn't a bad thing if it teases out the more peculiar idea within the more generic one.
That's my problem with Leigh's "Harm's Way" --I don't feel that I know who Eric Leigh is--and I don't mean that in terms of the offering of autobiographical material. For example, I think the longest poem in the book reveals Leigh's weaknesses. The poem called "The Dark Light of the Spring" is an eight page, five section poem-- which deals ostensibly with his father. With Leigh's choice to use the poem as a finale to the first part of his book, he corroborates how important this poem is to his project. Not to mention his using the phrase "sickness and health"-- a phrase repeated as the title in the final poem of the book.
"The Dark Light of the Spring" is a maudlin poem about a son and his brother who mourn what appears to be their father's suicide. Here's essentially the thesis of the poem:
An old story but one my father loved: Castor and Pollux,
one brother so unable to live without the other
that their father placed them side by side in the sky.
What he didn't share was this: the truth about stars
in the truth about men. Brothers. Us.
All the tropes of the poem mingle here: the motif of the stars and universe, the love triangle between the father-son-brother, the conflation of familial identity, etc. Leigh typically employs an aphorism when he wants to emphasize a point--he needs to tone that down a bit. A few lines down from the above quotation: "Proximity can be a trick of the light, intimacy/an ever- fluxing span..."
The poem is harmless--it's just difficult to tell whether or not Leigh is a poet or not--and I don't mean this as a quip. There's some potentially intriguing thematics in the poem. At one point, the narrator says:
"Horseshoes and hand grenades,"
my father always said, meaning, "close
but no cigar." Cliches were his home
Is this meant as a critique of the narrator's own words? Isn't star imagery as banal as "close but no cigar." Or in a way am I supposed to see the narrator as jealous of the father--one of the best lines in the poem is that "horseshoes and hand grenades" and he has no choice but to attribute it to his father?
Am I supposed to read the final lines in the second section as a straightforward admission of his own writerly anxiety about his own work even though the lines are embedded in his memories of a father's funeral:
those funeral days when strangers
held us close, apologize for our loss,
as they struggled to anchor
letter to letter, word to sentence,
to forge their way like each of us must
to say something, anything, when nothing is enough.
What's curious about this book is that in a lot of ways it's extremely similar (in terms of its strategically flat diction and tragic domestic family themes, its unyielding privileging of narrative) as James Allen Hall's book "Now You're the Enemy"--also from the University of Arkansas Press, edited by Enid Shomer.
No doubt that Hall has found his own idiosyncratic vision, but it does concern me that the editor Enid Shomer seems to championing the same sort of gay poets. Much in the same way as University of Chicago Press. On one hand, we have The Serious Chronicler of Family Tragedy (Hall is best when he isn't serious) and the other Anglophiles.
Do I think this is a bad thing? No. No, I don't. I can't wait to read Hall's new book, and I look forward to seeing what Leigh can create once he moves beyond this more automatic sort of writing.
When I was at AWP, I was genuinely thrilled to see how many gay books there were. But I am concerned that there's not enough self-reflection among editors (in this case Enid Shomer) of how and why gay men seem to be pushed toward certain set of aesthetics and contents in mainstream (for poetry anyway) publishing.
There are some presses that seem to know and appreciate the need for aesthetic diversity between gay poets themselves. Take Martha Rhodes from Four Way Books. No matter what you may think of the books: Tom Healy, C. Dale Young, and Jason Schneiderman are very, very different poets. I hope more editors/publishers follow her example. Rhodes knows what most people deny: diversity is more than cultural, it is also aesthetic.
Anyone who helps publish gay poets is cool by me, but I shouldn't be asked to be so grateful that I can't hold writers and editors responsible for making their arguments known so that we can avoid making the gay poetry scene as monolithic as it sometimes can be.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
* Prize: Fifty author copies.
* Submission deadline: Postmarked between March 1 and May 15 of each year.
* Eligibility: Open to all L/G/B/T/Q poets writing in English (no translations, please).
* Please note: Two manuscripts will be selected as co-winners of the 2010 Robin Becker Chapbook Prize: one by a writer with no previous book or chapbook, and the other by a writer with previous book or chapbook publication.
* Please read the guidelines carefully; the complete guidelines are posted on the Seven Kitchens site and we are not responsible for other versions of the guidelines that may be posted, in whole or in part, elsewhere.
* Anyone who identifies as L/G/B/T/Q is eligible to submit to the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize.
* The manuscript itself need not address L/G/B/T/Q themes, though such work is welcome.
* The final judge for this year's series is Eloise Klein Healy.
Submit a paginated manuscript of 16-24 pages (not including front matter).
* Include two cover pages: one with the manuscript title, author name, address, e-mail and phone number; the second cover page should have the manuscript title only.
* Include a table of contents page, if appropriate.
* The collection may contain a series of poems or one single chapbook-length poem.
* Include, if applicable, an acknowledgments page for work previously published.
* Please include, on a separate page, a brief (100-150 words) biographical note, including a statement of any previous or pending book or chapbook publication.
The author's name must not appear in the manuscript.
* Collaborative works are accepted. Should a winning manuscript be collaboratively written, the author copies will be shared equally.
* All manuscripts will be blind judged, meaning all identifying material will be separated from the manuscripts as they are logged in.
* Manuscript titles and their log numbers will be posted on the web site [http:// sevenkitchens dot blogspot dot com] as they are received.
Simultaneous submissions are accepted, but please notify us promptly if your manuscript is accepted elsewhere.
* Submissions must be posted between March 1 and May 15, 2010.
* The winning manuscripts will be announced on or before October 15, 2010.
* Manuscript finalists will also be announced, and may be eligible for publication.
Manuscripts will not be returned. E-mailed submission is preferred, but you may send via regular mail.
* If you are sending by mail, do not staple or bind your manuscript; please use a binder clip and mail flat in an 8.5 x 11 envelope.
* Please do not use expedited delivery services; your postmark date is sufficient to ensure your entry qualification, and we will allow 7-10 days for receipt of all mailed entries. Please use First Class Mail and consider spending the money you've saved on a chapbook from an independent press!
* If you are sending by e-mail, please send one document in Microsoft Word format (.doc, .docx or .rtf files are ideal); you must include the words “Robin Becker Chapbook” in the subject line of your e-mail.
* Include a $12 reading fee with each manuscript you submit (multiple submissions are welcome). Checks should be made payable to Ron Mohring, NOT to Seven Kitchens. Online payment may be made via PayPal to sevenkitchens at yahoo dot com.
* Each entrant will receive one copy of either winning chapbook, to be published during the winter of 2010-11. Please let us know if you change your e-mail or mailing address!
* Each co-winner will receive fifty copies of her or his chapbook. Additionally, the publisher will distribute ten review copies and will solicit online reviews of each chapbook.
Send your manuscript:
~by e-mail, as a Microsoft Word attachment, to: sevenkitchens at yahoo dot com; or
~by mail to Ron Mohring, Publisher; PO Box 668; Lewisburg PA 17837.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Initiated in 2008, this chapbook series honors Robin Becker, whose continuing accomplishments as a poet, professor, and mentor of lesbian and gay writers deserve wider acclaim. Becker serves as poetry editor for the Women's Review of Books and is a professor of English and Women's Studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of six collections of poems, including Giacometti's Dog (1990), All-American Girl (1996), The Horse Fair (2000), and Domain of Perfect Affection (2006), all from the University of Pittsburgh Press, and of the chapbook Venetian Blue (Frick Art & Historical Center, 2002).
Titles in this series include Lost Lands by Judith Barrington, Postcards from P-town by Steven Riel, (2008), Inland Sea by Erin Bertram, and Scavenge by RJ Gibson. All titles are kept in print and are available for $7 each; please add $1 for shipping.
ABOUT THE JUDGE: Eloise Klein Healy is the author of six books of poetry, including Ordinary Wisdom, Artemis in Echo Park, Passing, and The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho. Healy's work has been widely anthologized in collections including The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave and Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. Her imprint with Red Hen Press, Arktoi Books, established in 2006, specializes in publishing the work of lesbian authors.