Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Poetry, White Space, and the Letters of the Alphabet

I've been thinking, lately, about those elements of poetry we tend to ignore: the actual letters used to write the words, and the white space that surrounds a poem on the page or screen.  I wrote a little something about the first of these some months ago, and another piece, on poetry and white space, has just appeared in the most recent issue of Plume.

The piece on letters and alphabets appeared in Ilanot Review.  Here's a sample:
In the kingdom of poetry, the letters, like many immigrants, tried hard not to draw attention to themselves.  They were, in a sense, invisible, at least most of the time, and were resented if they asserted themselves—a situation that continues even now. The other day, for example, I spoke to my publisher, Marc, who complained about another writer he published. “He’s impossible!” Marc said, “he spends hours asking us to try new fonts, or to make them a point larger, a half a point smaller. It’s driving me mad!” Letters aren’t supposed to be that important in a poem. Indeed, while a poem translated into a different language is only the same poem in some qualified, limited sense, a poem in a different font, a different typeface, a poem written out in cursive script or printed on a page, is always considered to be the same poem. The letters do the work of making the poem appear, but they, themselves, are unimportant, interchangeable.  They’re like the seamstresses whose nimble fingers make possible the fashion collections we see on the runway, people we pay no attention to whatsoever as we clap at the name of Ralph Lauren or Vera Wang. 
Letters. Can we imagine poetry without them? Even the spoken word poets draft with letters. But we usually see right past the letters, ignore their shapes, let them be invisible.  Humble and happy just to be in such glamorous company, the letters don’t complain. They ask for little, demand no attention. 
Except for when they do.
The whole essay can be found here.

Here's a sample of the companion piece to the essay on letters, the essay on white space or, perhaps more properly, on the semiotics of white space:
White space comes first, for the poet and the reader.  I don’t mean anything as interesting as the idea that poetry exists primarily in the space of whiteness, conceived as a racial identity, as a field dominated (at least in these United States) by white people, white norms, the white past, and white structures of power and privilege.  That’s certainly the topic for an essay, and an essay more substantial than this one—a topic for a book, really, or more: a topic for a field of academic study.  If it were a book, perhaps it could begin with a meditation on how very easy it is for someone like me, ensconced in the citadel of my whiteness, to brush the question of poetry and white identity aside and proceed to another, more literal idea of whiteness: the white space beyond the margins of the text, the white space that physically surrounds the poem. 
There may well still be poets who still compose the way Wordsworth did—without paper, without pencil or keyboard, trudging the gravel trails of Cumberland, “Scattering to the heedless winds/ The vocal raptures of fresh poesy.” I imagine they feel as proud of this ancient practice as any writer of beautiful longhand feels about the letters he self-consciously seals into envelopes and hauls to the post office—letters unreadable to the young, whose thumbs type faster, and with more immediate consequence, than anyone can wield a pen to write in cursive script.  All honor to these holdouts and their ancient ways.  But the poets I know all begin with the white space of the blank Word document or the white space of the unmarked Moleskine page.  White space comes first for them, and comes first, too, for the reader of poetry—or for the reader who, seeing by the presence of white space around the lines on the page that she is confronting a poem turns hastily away.  It is by the space surrounding the lines, after all—by the margin of whiteness—that we know at first glance, even from a distance, that the words before us constitute a poem.
The whole essay (quite short) can be found here. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ezra Pound in the Bughouse: New in Chicago Review

Rejoice! The latest issue of Chicago Review has dropped, and in it you'll find new writing about Fernando Pessoa, FLARF, and Basil Bunting, as well as an essay by Peter Middleton, Donna Stonecipher's translations of Friederike Mayröcker, and much more, including a little something I wrote about Daniel Swift's book The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound.

Here's how it starts:

There’s an old black-and-white photo from the 1965 poetry festival in Spoleto, Italy, in which we can see Ezra Pound surrounded by younger poets: Bill Berkson is there, along with John Wieners, Desmond O’Grady, Charles Olson—so large he looks like he’s been sloppily photoshopped into the scene—and a partially obscured John Ashbery. The scene is significant, I think, for how it projects two moments yet to come in Pound’s posterity: the Olson-led renaissance of his reputation in the late 1960s, and his eclipse as a model for younger poets after the rise, a decade later, of Ashbery’s star.  Pound had already been in and out of vogue many times: in the 1910s, he was at the center of a creative vortex, and an influence on the shape of poetry on both sides of the Atlantic.  By the late 1930s, he was largely an outsider, and at the end of the Second World War he hit his nadir, politically disgraced and caged like an animal by the American army occupying Italy. 

Our own moment should be a propitious one for another look at Pound.  He isn’t currently a model for many poets (Nathanial Tarn and John Peck are the most significant talents carrying a torch for Ole Ez), but we do live in times that seem uncannily Poundian: times of public madness, resurgent fascism, and crackpot economic theories.  Perhaps it’s not a great time for a young poet to take her cues from the author of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, but it’s certainly a good moment to examine Pound as a phenomenon, if not a model.  The 1959 anthology A Casebook on Ezra Pound provided excellent fuel for the reevaluation of the poet after his release from St. Elizabeths Hospital, when, as Donald Davie put it, Pound’s politics had “made it impossible for any one any longer to exalt the poet into a seer.”  We would welcome another book capable of opening up a new discussion of the meaning and significance of Pound, and Daniel Swift’s study of Pound’s dozen years in St. Elizabeths Hospital, The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, promises to be just such a book.  The topic—and, especially, the subtitle—lead one to hope for a study packed with insight into the moral and aesthetic conundrum that is Pound.  Is he to be held responsible for his fascism? Does his mental health exculpate him? How do madness and politics bear on the poetry itself? One opens the pages of Swift’s book eager to find out. 
The Bughouse, alas, does not live up to its topic, or its moment, when the issues of Pound’s politics have an alarming currency...
The rest of the piece can be found in the the spring issue.  Ordering info and selected content available here. 

Monday, March 05, 2018

I Think of Myself as a Kind of Shaman, You Know: Reading the Syndicate of Water and Light

If there is an international man of mystery in contemporary poetry, Marc Vincenz is it: British but also Swiss and in some meaningful sense Hong Kong Chinese, multilingual, with an unplaceable accent, a past featuring stints as an Island Records musician, a high-level industrialist, a Chinese fantasy novelist, and Icelandic hermit, not to mention an interval as assistant to legendary poet-novelist Reynolds Price, he is the walking definition of an interesting man.  And, in a time when most of us on Planet Poetry can easily be filed away in a dusty folder labeled "professors of English," his is a refreshing profile.  He's prolific, too, and his latest book, a kind of ecological Divine Comedy called The Syndicate of Water and Light, is just now out from Station Hill.

I've written an afterword, and it begins like this:
“I think of myself as a kind of shaman, you know,” Marc Vincenz once said to me, “communicating with the other side.”  I didn’t quite know what he meant then, and probably mumbled something about Claude Levi-Strauss or Jerome Rothenberg, but reading The Syndicate of Water & Light, I think I finally understand.  And I think, too, that it’s appropriate that Vincenz made the revelation when we were in a dingy, black-walled Manhattan bar down below street level, where we went to wait out a heat wave that had engulfed the city. The place—dim and somehow squalid—had the feel of a kind of underworld, and it was of journeys to the underworld that Vincenz referred.  This book is exactly such a journey, a voyage to another reality beneath our quotidian world, and, in the end, a journey back: a communication with the other side.
            It is tempting, if one knows something about Vincenz’s peripatetic and multilingual life, to trace an autobiographical story in The Syndicate of Water & Light: those teeming cities and markets ringing with exotic languages, surrounded by burgeoning industry, seem like the China where he spent a good portion of his life.  And the pristine land of windblown grass, mountains, and sea could easily represent Iceland, where Vincenz retreated after a harrowing experience of venal modern Chinese klepto-capitalism. The sections dealing with Christianity, and a struggle to move beyond its formality to a more open view of the spirit, seem as though they may have come from his education in a Swiss monastery school, but I am cautioned against too autobiographical a reading here by Vincenz’s statement that he arrived in the monastery an agnostic child and emerged a confirmed teenage atheist. Vincenz’s life is present, here—how could it not be?—but it is refracted as if through a kaleidoscope, distorted and reformed into new patterns and symmetries.
            The primary pattern is that of the expedition: the poem’s presiding spirits, Ulysses and Dante, are both inveterate explorers.  Significantly, they are not merely explorers of physical space, but seekers after knowledge—Dante’s is a spiritual quest figured as geographic travel, and Vincenz’ Ulysses is Tennyson’s Ulysses, more than Homer’s: the old mariner follows knowledge like a sinking star, sailing on to the shores of Mount Purgatory. Vincenz is an optimist, when it comes to journeys. The Syndicate of Water and Light opens with a sense that we can grow in knowledge and that we can change—if not, perhaps, the world, then at least ourselves...

The rest is in the book itself, which can be ordered here.  The official launch will be at the AWP, where Marc himself will be adding some much-needed extra-academic zest to the proceedings.



Friday, February 02, 2018

My Race Sees Me: On African-American Poetry

The latest Hudson Review has dropped into my mailbox, and along with writing by William H. Pritchard, Zara Raab, David Mason, and others, there's an essay called "My Race Sees Me," in which I talk about three African-American poets: Marcus Wicker, Cameron Barnett, and Evie Shockley.  It begins like this:

I once attended a debate between two distinguished poets, both women, who were to dispute whether one wrote as a woman poet, or as a poet who happened to be a woman.  I don’t recall who won, but perhaps that’s less important than the fact of the debate itself: it indicates how, if one is not from a dominant group, the question of identity can’t be taken for granted: even if one wants to shunt it aside and write of other things, one often feels compelled to make a case for doing so.  If that can be true of women, even several generations into feminism’s transformation of the world, it is even truer for African-American writers—especially in a time when police violence against black people in America has become more visible than ever.  2017 may have been an especially difficult year for people of color in America, but, as recent books by Evie Shockley, Marcus Wicker, and Cameron Barnett make plain, it has also been an outstanding year for African-American poetry.
Evie Shockley’s third book of poetry, semiautomatic, certainly addresses issues of African-American identity and the racially charged political urgencies of our time, even as the poems refuse to be limited to such issues.  The book is notable not only for the way it navigates questions of identity and politics, but for the variety and virtuosity of its use of form.  Form, for Shockley, begins with music.  How couldn’t it? The daughter of a jazz musician, she grew up in Nashville, in a part of town where, she says, there were “churches on two out of every four corners” and where one could come to believe that “any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime.” “My relation to poetry was shaped,” she says, “by the jump-rope and hand-game songs the girls in my neighborhood sang.”  These sounds, along with Mother Goose and Ogden Nash, worked their way into the deep recesses of her mind, and find their way into her poetry, even as she explores a wide range of formal possibilities.  In semiautomatic we find poems that show considerable agility with traditional forms like the Spenserian stanza, as well as innovations with rhymes and refrains, such as “a-lyrical ballad (or, how America reminds us of the value of family),” which tells the story of race-based murder in America from the days of midcentury lynchings through the deaths of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and various victims of contemporary police violence.  It opens with three stanzas on Emmett Till, the form of which (rhymes of xAA//xx//BB) repeats throughout the poem, along with the insistent refrain italicized refrain that ends each section:

he was a boy from chicago, in mississippi heat,
being as bad as a good boy could be,
whistling his eyeful of an off-limits she,

            and her menfolk dragged him out of bed, beat him to death, tied
            a cotton gin to his body, and sank him in the tallahatchie river.

it was three days before the remains were retrieved.
and the family grieved ~ o ~ the black family grieved

Such grieving, Shockley implies, is the harsh and lamentable method by which our country has taught, and continues to teach African-Americans the value of family.

The full text is available here.