Thursday, February 26, 2009

What the hell is the point?

So here in my hometown university's erag,
we get some poems that are anagrams of their source text.

Sure, it's cute. I'm sure it's difficult.

But really. What the hell? Why is this front-paged on Silliman?

Who is going to love poetry because someone who couldn't even come up with their own letters (let alone words) jumbled together some text and made "poetry"?

When will we break free from silly academic exercises and write?

If this is the global result of the ubiquity of the MFA we need to shutter all workshops today.

I'll say it again --

workshop exercises are not poems.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Netbooks and poetry

So in this article, the author prattles on, all surprised-like, that folks are buying up netbooks in droves.

It's counterintuitive, he reasons, because PC evolution is supposed to come from the top down -- crazy, overpowered gamer PCs are supposed to ride the wave of Moore's Law on $4,000 systems while the proles wait with baited breath for the next PC that can run SL and WOW at the same time.

Oh bull.

This is the problem when an industry becomes top-heavy with specialists. The writers for a mag like Wired are all gamers. Most of your top designers are gamers. By gamers, I don't mean your gramma that spends eight hours a day playing Freecell. I mean h4rdc0r3, 1337-4$$ gamerzzz that envy the astronut who drove around in diapers because their mom won't let them buy depends (again).

The problem, of course, is blindness to what the consumer actually wants. People are buying netbooks as fast as they can be made (seriously, don't you want to buy me one?) because most people couldn't give two craps about running some game that sucks out their souls and spits out goldfarming techniques.

Most people who use computers just want to check email, make documents, and watch youtube. They want simple, not complex -- moreover, they don't want to have to sift through (or pay for) a bunch of garbage to get what they want.

What's interesting is that notebooks have also pushed innovation -- using flash instead of hard drives (I asked a good friend about boosting memory with flash about 5 years ago; glad to be right), really tight and bright screens, super-boosted wifi, and power-saving wizardry -- all unthinkable in a monster gamerztop or a PC built fur sp33d.

We see this also in poetry. Poetry has been seized by specialists who dandy about the wrinkled duds of the avant-garde flinging terms like flarf and alienating any normal person who might actually be interested in reading some poems.

I say let them build suped-up insanity poems that no one will buy (seriously, there were chapbooks at AWP selling for $40 -- are these people on crack?).

Let's us, however, give the world the netbooks of poetry -- innovative, clear, and what's wanted. Let's write not what can be written (for what clever or vulgar high school poet hasn't proven that) but what wants to be written.

And, perhaps, while we're flying under the radar, we can write poetry that is not only popular but good. Perhaps we can rediscover the tools that make poetry not unique and aloof but intimate and personal.

(cha cha cha)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Review: Azores by David Yezzi

by David Yezzi
2008, Swallow Press

David Yezzi’s Azores is a work of heresy; its Arian narrator sings Gnostic, Manichean poems, splitting life into poets and fathers, the wind and the water, man and monster.

Duality weaves the poems of Azores. The book begins with "Mother Carey's Hen" a poem for the petrel, the bird who flies the middle path between sea and sky, divided always between heaven and the earth. Here we must hear Yezzi echoing Eliot in East Coker:

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.

as Yezzi’s petrel

scales each watery hill
that rises up, adapting to the shape
of each impediment, each low escape
instinct in it, the scope of its flight
fitted to its will.

In the next poem "In the Morning" Yezzi stays with Eliot to narrate a Prufrockian character whose life is full of nearly was and almost-rans, a man who “scans his mail, then reads an item / on the council member who once shook his hand." Waiting for work to begin, and avoiding his wife, he dreams about change through a "well known film star" trying her hand at stage acting, pretending he knows “just what dangerous means.” After he imagines a brush with death that turns out to be a co-worker, he fetishizes getting hit by a bus or committing suicide by scissors, while avoiding the true conflict in his life, the fight with his wife.

From these two poems, Yezzi paints the islands of Azores, a collection of poems balanced between what is and is imagined, between the honest and the ideal.

Built upon this juxtaposition of flesh and spirit Azores’ poems explore the nature of perception and change. From the final clouds of “Very Like a Whale” that slip from sex to nothingness, to the eyes in “Azores” that “spoke candidly to me at first and then / admitted nothing when I looked again," the change dances between the observer and the observed. We cannot pin down where the change happens, only that what was seen is no longer there.

"The Call," included in 2006's Best American Poetry, captures this sentiment in a phone call – an acquaintance, whose presence “always produced a shudder,” has died, and we are left to wonder do we miss the dead or do we merely want to? Though the question may have little bearing on our outward behavior, Yezzi’s poetry is concerned with intention – where does mourning come from? Where does loss reside – in or outside?

As if to complicate the question, "A Brief Scene" gives us two men in a museum. One is a wannabe lover of women whose failed courtings and subsequent pinings pique the interest of a man who is there for the art. The art lover feels the nostalgia of the beautiful, painted women. Indeed, he pines for the women “once glimpsed” what “will not leave you alone,” begging the question -- what is the difference between the desire?

In the sonnet sequence “Azores,” like in “A Brief Scene,” the problem is knowing who changes: the observer or what is being observed? Are the eyes that “spoke candidly. . . at first and then / admitted nothing when I looked again" what caused the speaker’s pain or did he imagine the spark of interest, like the young man in the museum, only to see, in truth, that nothing was there?

Or perhaps it is the nature of duality that creates the unknowable locus of change. In storms of section five of “Azores,” we are confronted with “two canceling passions” that give us this glimpse of life “at war”:

the name --
like poison -- on my lips no longer the same
one I conjured with before the weather came.

The prosopopic eyes now have a silent name that is accused again of changing or perhaps the name is changed, as the final section of "Azores" is the most dependent on division “the madness” of weathering the storms is brought on by “a habit we can't unlearn. . . this lust for water, fidelity to land.” By these last lines of “Azores,” it’s clear that the division Yezzi is concerned with is not the self and the other, but the divisions within the self and how they create, and indeed are, perception – the entire conflict of the eyes and the names and the hearts in “Azores” is understood by the pull of lust and fidelity – “Azores” final lines tell us like Bono sings:

Between the horses of love and lust
we are trampled underfoot.

In the first poem of part II, “The Visitor,” employs the notion that division must be self and other, refuting it to reinforce that the important division is not external but internal -- as he paints a picture of a man, a husband and father who is overcome by darkness.

“The Visitor” is followed by “333 East 68th Street,” a poem that is almost about divorce – except, just as Yezzi’s poems have turned division inward, we learn that breaking does not always equal brokenness, and that “forsaking that makes the memory.” Change, for once in Azores is not mutable and slippery but the catalyst for growth and the only producer of knowledge.

The speaker’s father appears in "The Ghost Seer," an excerpt from the verse play On the Rocks. It appears he too suffers from the speaker’s obsession with duality: a fine gesture becomes " his way of saying he approved / well, not approved, he never really did," and we are left wondering if the father is showing approval or the son is imagining its absence.

“The Ghost Seer” also serves as a foil for "The Call" in which we must pretend to miss the dead. Instead of pretending to mourn, the narrator struggles to give himself permission to not mourn his father, to live his life “without feeling that sad he's not around.”

After the neurotic “Ghost Seer,” “A Dog's Life” and “Befana, a Bedtime Story” recall Jesus’ declaration that we are more important than lilies -- that so much of our worrying is for naught. Once the narrator has given himself permission not to care he can open these beautiful little poems.

Azores, of course, is not perfect. There is a "bequeath" in the poems that should not be.
The poems after “The Ghost Seer” are lighter in tone than the rest of the volume. “Lenten Retreat” and “Dead Letters” echo both “Daddy” and Eliot's Sweeney poems (in trimeter and not tetrameter). It’s not that the poems lack in quality, just that they do not fit as well with the volume as a whole (though their inclusion after “The Ghost Seer” is perhaps intended to fix this) until the final poem: “Very Like a Whale,” where change returns in clouds that melt from nymphs to nothing. Eliot returns as well, in Yezzi’s “a force without a form. . . a brooding leviathan / breaching as the rain begins again.”

It is this breeching, this inability to exist in one mode that makes Azores such a valuable collection of work. Not content to merely model our divided humanity, the structure of Yezzi’s poems is amphibious – this is a formal collection that doesn’t read formally. If you hear David Yezzi read, he’ll sound nothing so much like an actor tossing out his latest monologue. These poems read true. That was what I enjoyed most about reading them – I could hear the plain voice in my head; I could hear these poems being read, speaking to me from the page.

Buy this book, read these poems, and let them ask you where change lives. Wrestle with their words for the answer.

Seven things I learned at AWP

So I was at AWP this weekend.

It was pretty awesome. You should certainly come next year.

I learned seven things, a complete number:

7: Paul Muldoon is a very thoughtful person: Marie Ponsot was giving a speech on the role of a poet at AWP when she started coughing (she is not young, you know). PM produced a quick glass of water, handing it to her at the podium. Writing it now, it doesn't seem like much, but it was nice at the time.

6: There is this thing, called the West Chester Poetry Conference, that's gone on for 15 years without me knowing about it. They're focused on narrative and form. David Mason goes there. From now on, I will too. Oh, and all the poets hang out late at night and play the white-man's blues. Can I get a w00t w00t?

5: David Yezzi (also a West Chester person, and the editor of The New Criterion) preaches the awesomeness of Tom Disch (he's right -- see here -- "I have decided I'm devine").

4: Speaking of West Chester folk (and David Mason), DM has already read my review of Ludlow on this blog (that's where the link above goes to -- BUY HIS BOOK!). Woooo!

3: One last WC person, Kim Addonizio is a harmonica-playing rock star surrounded by groupies. I didn't know poets had groupies. Rock.

2: Drinking is far, far more important than any panel. I mean networking.

1: Everything is free in the final hour of the bookfair (no one wants to pack up that stuff and cart it home).