October 31, 2007

October Drafting

(This will exist for less than a day.)

Cast of Thousands


October 30, 2007

From the Mixed-Up Files of Basil E.

Last night's Burlesque Poetry Hour reading was fantastic. Funny readers, good pacing, a lot of hanging out afterwards. I mean, really: I went home with three books, a new understanding of a dictator's moustache, AND Michael Schiavo's underwear.

For some reason this poem--an old one--popped to mind as I was walking to work this morning. Maybe it can be rescued from the slush pile of memory and added to a manuscript...


The blind man down the counter works his meal like an abacus. Tap tap of fork in eggs. Tap tap of toast subtracted. I do not have it so hard. Tonight I am in like with you. Lullaby like, blackjack deal like, rickshaw trammeling down the avenue like, lit cherrybomb like, bigger boy pummeling smaller boy like, marshmallow like, black dress like, name one of the Great Lakes like, straight up like, dumb like, like eggs yielding to my ready eyes and fingers. Over. Easy. The man working the frying pan has a nametag. Flynn, it says, and I love him in. I am in like with you. I am letting myself like it.

October 29, 2007

Just Another Manic Monday

We pause for this design loveliness, dedicated to Cornshake:

These snapshots--and the extensive tour HERE--are of a San Francisco store called The Curiosity Shoppe, just down the road from the 826 Valencia Writing Center (run by the McSweeney's crew). This is one of those stores that is, in and of itself, a work of art. Beautiful color coordination, custom wood display shelving, and hey--porcelain peanuts! Did you know you even needed those? Just one more reminder that I must go to San Francisco, ideally with a pocket full of money. Thanks to Design*Sponge for making a Monday morning a little more bearable with these distractions.

October 26, 2007

How We Categorize

I've been thinking about how we categorize poetry: surrealist, modernist, beat, experimental, romantic, Oulipo, confessional. It seems odd that we apply these labels to the poets, rather than on a poem-by-poem basis. That's certainly easier to keep track of, but we're settling for 80% accuracy at best; and worse yet, perhaps hobbling poets from writing outside the "school" that's given them the most success and acceptance. Jessica Smith, more than once, has said on her blog that--despite being primarily known for experimental works such as Organic Furniture Cellar--she has a lyric/biographical impulse at heart. She always sounds a little apologetic, but what's wrong with having an accessible narrative or two in your back pocket?

I remember, back when I was doing my MFA work--workshops with Henry Taylor, the Medea sonnets, my circus sequence--someone casually called a formal poet. It totally brought me up short, even though it was meant as a compliment. I wasn't ready to be "schooled," though it might have had certain professional advantages--I could have built up affiliations to journals, editor, presses, narrowed my focus on what to read and where to aim. Instead, I rebelled. = ) Now I'm reconciled to the fact that my first book will probably invite a "confessional" label, because many of the poems draw on autobiography. But I've rebelled again, and the work I'm doing now is probably surrealist, more than anything else.

Do I have MPPD (multiple poet-personality disorder)? Worst case scenario, I'm an embodiment of the concern that a natural voice can be thrown off-track by too many workshop influences. But honestly, the categories of poetry that interest me most (for now) are these:

-poems based on a personal reality
-poems based on a historical reality
-poems creating a philosophical reality

I find these categories really helpful in understanding what I read, why I like it (or don't like it), and what I can push myself to do that I haven't done before. But one migrates between these categories, on a poem-by-poem basis, in a way that tramples the boundaries between agreed-upon schools. Some outside examples might be the leap that Nick Flynn from Some Ether to Blind Huber. Rita Dove casually uses a formal approach all the time in her books, but I don't find it useful to label her a "formal" poet. I find it much more useful to think about whether she's writing from a personal narrative (poems in Thomas and Beulah), or a historical reference point (her Hattie McDaniel poem), etc., and the intrinsic challenges of each, the shifts in tone.

I'm not crazy about Ron Silliman's "School of Quietude" label, because it has a built-in denigration factor, but I do admire that he wasn't afraid of naming a new, intuitive category based on his perception of what's out there. If it helps you navigate the poetry world, so be it.

What are the ways you think about poetry? Not the roster of agreed-upon academic categories--anyone with an MFA can probably identify the textbook difference between a post-modernist and a neoformalist. But what are the divisions that really mean something to you and your work? How do you measure when something has shifted?

UPDATE - Alice Blue is back! Use the link at your leisure.
P.S. - As Deb pointed out to me, the link below to the Alice Blue Review has gone wonky--perhaps they have not renewed their domain? I'll see if I can get the poem text from Mr. Schomburg himself...in the meantime, you'll just have to take my word for its glory. Sorry about that.

October 25, 2007

One Loud Gulp

Last night I went to hear Rose Solari read at Riverby Books. I like her work, and I particularly like her reading style--clear voice, engaging intros, and never going over time. She read a Dionysus poem I enjoyed, and later found in the Innisfree Poetry Journal:


Dionysus would slap you silly
if he could see you now--sniffing
and twirling and sipping and, dear god,
spitting it out. What mortal arrogance,
the mess you've made of his gift. Now,

let's start over. Throw back your head
and drain this puny glass with one loud gulp.
Then send--no, roar--for a cup carved
out of animal horn, deep enough that
when you reach the bottom, you'll see

two horns, two hands, two mouths. Then
you'll be worthy to grab the woman
on your left--who feels, as you do, now,
the rush of sweet blood to the brain and to
the thighs--and put your grape-stained mouth

to hers. We are, all of us, nothing more
than empty vessels that the god can fill
with his heart-made, heart-poured wine. Drink,
you fool, and love. Become divine.

-Rose Solari


I just had word that my title poem from the book, "Theories of Falling," will appear in the Winter issue of the incomparable journal Barrow Street. Hooray! They also took "August," which is on the last page. Funny how those orphan poems nag at you--I'm very grateful they found a good home at last.

October 24, 2007

California is Burning

It's awful, these wildfires. I had never been to California until two years ago, when I took an October road trip with my father--driving from San Diego to Los Angeles in yellow Mustang convertible. The pictures of those landscapes now flattened by ash goes beyond devastation; it's sacrilege, damn it.

So I've been trying to write about fire. But today I found a poem at Alice Blue Seven called "The Fire Cycle," by Zachary Schomburg (and courtesy of Tony Tost). And I thought: yes.

I don't need to write a fire poem. It's been written--and written really damn well. That's a high compliment (embedded with arrogance, I know). You should go read all of Mr. Schomburg's stuff--"The Ghost Age is also amazing. Go on! Get out of here!

October 18, 2007

My Neighborhood

Timeliness be damned, I've been walking a slightly different route to work each day, trying to see new parts of my neighborhood. So far: a power plant, a jungle gym, a swimming pool, the design store "And Beige" (rumored but never before spotted), an entirely cylindrical house, a pottery studio, and a couple of side streets where (fingers crossed) I could dream of living in a little one-bedroom.

Also took a field trip all the way down to Congressional Cemetery, which is the resting place of many prominent gay figures. I didn't find Peter Doyle's headstone (a local tram operator, and Whitman's lover), but I did see the grave of a gay Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovitch ("They gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one") and J. Edgar Hoover. Clyde Tolson, Hoover's associate director of the FBI and "close friend" (ahem) lies only a few yards away. I was down there with my editor, who is working on a book project on Mathew Brady, the famed (and hetero) Civil War photographer and another cemetery resident.

What all of this has to do with writing, I don't know. = ) Except that, while I'm engaged in the not-writing of poetry, I've been writing short (750 word) essays on life in DC. Which has me thinking of the meaning of "home"...and Washington seems to be home a little more with each day.

October 10, 2007


Saturday: Drove to Syracuse. Wine. Sunday: New York Times, vegan pancakes (!), apple-picking. More wine. Monday: Coffee in a college coffeeshop (back at UVA, we called ours "Depresso Corner") with my lovely hostess for the weekend. Then a looong drive home, but the leaves were beautiful.

Tuesday: Josh Ritter in concert at the 9:30 Club...you can hear it streamed in full from this NPR website. My friend Austin has gotten picked up to play guitar on this tour, which added a thrill. (Nice hat, Austin!) NPR's music page is just a ridiculously useful way to speed an office day along...the Neko Case, Rilo Kiley, and Iron & Wine shows are all keepers.

How did I come to join this club? I'm...honored. The poetry beat has been dormant for the last few weeks--I've been distracted by, well, life--but I'll be back soon enough. Promise.

October 05, 2007

I've been Harriet-ed!

Many thanks to Anne for pointing out this rather nice mention on Stephen Burt's blog entry for Harriet.

Elsewhere in poetry: This is a really memorable, intimate portrait (and elegy) for Liam Rector...in Newsweek, of all places.

This weekend: driving to Syracuse, New York, to stay with a dear friend from college. There will be apple picking. There will be red wine drinking. There will be watching the leaves turn and fall.

October 04, 2007

Upcoming Events at the Writer's Center

Just a few events to look forward to next week at the Writer's Center:

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 9: Poetry reading
by Nin Andrews and Richard Peabody

Nin Andrews' third book Why They Grow Wings won the Gerald Cable Award and was published by Silverfish review Press in 2001. Andrews is also the author of The Book of Orgasms and Spontaneous Breasts, winner of the 1998 Pearl Chapbook contest.

(C'mon, who could resist titles like those?)

Richard Peabody is the founder of Gargoyle magazine and the editor of fourteen anthologies including Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, and Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix.

(Anyone in DC knows that Richard is a mainstay of the our publishing world--and definitely one of the people who first welcomed me to the city. He's also an excellent poet in his own right.)


7:30 p.m., Friday, October 12: Richard Thompson

The Writer’s Center presents an evening with Washington Post cartoonist Richard Thompson, whose strip "Cul-de-Sac" appears in the Washington Post Magazine, and "Richard's Poor Almanac" in the Style section. Thompson, who is going into national syndication, will talk about how he finds and develops ideas and will share samples of work in process.

(This is a chance to talk with a very funny cartoonist--a genre of artist that is a little more hermetic than the rest.)

The Writer’s Center is at 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD. There's always a reception afterwards, and admission is free.

October 03, 2007

Wednesday Confession

(Inspired, in part, by Nate)

You know, I'm not crazy about novels anymore. That hasn't always been the case. I was that kid who maxed out the public library's 50-book limit. I grew up on everything from L.M. Montgomery to Vladimir Nabokov to Stephen King to Mary Higgins Clark to Ray Bradbury to Willa Cather: I read anything that landed in front of me, including cereal boxes and the Sports section of the Post.

Nowadays it is short stories, I love, especially hodgepodge anthologies where I discover new authors. And nonfiction books, I have finally developed a taste for. Two devoured recently: The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson, and The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (a perk of being in the review business--I got to read each as galleys, months before they came out).

But novels? Never read Love in the Time of Cholera. Never read The Master and Margherita (despite receiving a very nice gift of it). Never read The Memory Keeper's Daughter, or The Lovely Bones, or The Red Tent. Never read Pride and Predjudice. Never read War and Peace.

And damn it, it's okay if I never do. Just this morning a friend referred to these books as "the type that people like us read," and I was too embarassed to contradict him. But my life is overflowing with words: magazines, poetry collections, essays, and blogs. I can live without having read Les Miserables.

So if you've added me to your GoodReads list, or any other comunity bookshelf, please don't be offended if my account stays inactive. I accepted the invitation because I know and like you, and it seemed rude not to. But the truth is: I'm not looking for more books to read.

I'm looking for more time to read the books I already know about.