Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What I'm Reading And Why

So, I've been thinking a lot about the complaints I've been hearing since Time Magazine put Jonathan Frazen on its cover with the title "Great American Novelist."  Essentially, many have complained that Frazen is yet another white male novelist whose face appears on the cover of Time. Fair enough. Time should be putting more non-white, non-male novelists on its covers. Of course, if we're going to be fair, Time should also be putting some poets (male or non, white or non) on its covers, too.

And I've been listening to a number of people compain about James Franco, too. Not so much because of his less-than-stellar performance as co-host of the Oscars (yeah, he was no good, but if you see him in any off-the-cuff interviews, you'll see why -- dude is painfully shy). Mostly because he has had the audacity to get an MFA in Creative Writing and to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing. And this has lead to the release of a collection of his short stories, Palo Alto: Stories. And some MFA/PhD people I know are kind of pissed. (Note: You can read the New York Times book review of Palo Alto here).

I get it, the Jewel factor (no link because I refuse to help anyone learn how to buy that horrible book of poems -- but I did once see a book of poems in response to Jewel's which was hillariously funny. Sadly, I can't remember the title or the author. Anyone who knows it should send me the info). And so there is a reason I haven't looked into Billy Corgan's book of poems, Blinking with Fists, and not just because that's a really stupid title. And not just because everything from The Smashing Pumpkins since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness has been dreadful.

Seriously -- has anyone read Corgan's book? Is it decent enough to pick up from the library?

Yes, Jewel would never have published (and no one would ever have purchased) her book of poems if not for the fact that she is a pop star. Same with Corgan.

Franco might never have gotten into an MFA and then into a PhD program, and his book of short stories wouldn't have been published as easily and quickly, were he not James Franco.

But whatever. Howl was awesome. Freaks & Geeks ruled. Milk was great. And dude played a great Harry Osborn in Spiderman.

None of that is what this is really about. This is really about what we value, which we can show by what we read. And who we read. So here's what I've been reading lately:

Find the Girl by Lightsey Darst (Coffee House Press, 2010).
This is one of the strangest books of poetry I've read in a very long time. It's also one of the best. Darst explores woman-hood, girl-hood, and child-hood, often relying on fairy tales and mythology, but her poetry is that of a CSI investigator. Her poems are not traditional, not necessarilly narrative. They are hard -- hard to read, hard to push through and, at times, hard to understand (in the good way). She uses symbols and signs (backslashes, asterisks, the more-than/less-than symbols) and, honestly, I couldn't begin to explain why. But I know, instinctually, the effect they have on me as I read -- the way they slow me down, force me to focus on her images, force me to reconsider the shape, movement and goals of poetry, hers and others. Darst explores the darker sides of American culture, especially as it relates to women, as in "Billboard," where she opens with "The 2007 peach queens of Clifton County welcome you/ to this stretch of kudzu & jack pine." She ends with "I am not the bas-relief, I/ am not the photogenic swamp.// I am not the good sister.// I am a peach queen, I am welcoming you." Not only is that opening couplet probably the most interesting thing I've read in a damn long time, but the force of the ending shocks me in ways I'm rarely shocked. And in our CSI world, it is difficult to shock.

Ohio Violence by Alison Stine (UNT Press, 2009)
I found this book lost among the many Bukowski and Frost volumes that seem to fill (often in exclusivity) the poetry sections of book stores. I'm not sure how Stine's little book made it on the shelf. Perhaps someone putting together the orders thought, since this is Ohio, a book with the word Ohio in the title might sell. Apparently, that person was right. It got me to pick it up and take a look.

Stine won the 2008 Vassar Miller Prize for Ohio Violence and rightly so. Much like Darst, Stine is interested in the stories of American women and girls and, much like Find the Girl, Ohio Violence pulls no punches. The poems are tragically haunting. They are violent, deadly, and a bit scary. They are also incredibly beautiful. Stine knows how to write a poem. She knows how to construct an image. She knows how to put everything together, to take you on a journey and then, once you're pretty sure you know where you're going, she takes you down a dirt path you didn't know was there. Personally, I think Ohio Violence is worth the $13 cover charge for the poem "Moon Lake Electric" alone (luckily, we get 62 pages of poems just as good as "Moon Lake Electric"). "We know our way by stars or smell,"  Stine writes in "Moon Lake Electric" and from there she takes us on a trip through her world, watching for "the eye spark of deer or dog/ along the drive." She shows us the power lines that kill the birds, their bodies strewn along the ground, the power company paying for each dead raptor. Then she writes, "and they [Moon Lake Electric] don't know what to do with them [the dead birds],/ as I don't know what to do with you."  Halfway through, and she shifts so suddenly, so dramatically, it's as if a deer did jump in front of the car and she had to swerve the poem into a totally new direction. Stine does this over and over again, in poem after poem, building brutal image upon brutal movement. And in the end, where she takes us is to that place we go when we've seen the horrors and somehow come out alive. Are we stronger? Are we smarter? Are we safer? Maybe. Maybe not. But we're different. As she writes in "In the Limbo of Lost Toys," "all of it changed under new snow,/.../ the first grass rolling out/.../wet and curled from inside/ your eyes, which are wider now/ but not surprised."

Anatomy of a Shape-Shifter by Stacia M. Fleegal (Word Press, 2010).
Again, a book about woman-hood, girl-hood, child-hood. A book that is brutally honest. A book that refuses to pull punches or, as Fleegal recently wrote on her website, to shut up.

Fleegal's book is different from Stine's and Darst's. There is a more formal nature to Anatomy that certainly isn't found in Find the Girl and that is only found in the semi-consistant line lengths and stanza styles of Ohio Violence. Fleegal is much more willing to experiment with rhyme, internal and end-stopped, and to use, alter and invent poetic forms. Much like Stine, Fleegal is interested in narrative, but like Darst she isn't wedded to only writing narrative verse (Ohio Violence is pretty much just narrative poems).

Fleegal's narratives are strong and powerful ("Discovering Dickinson at Age 11" and "Every Saturday" are just two examples of killer narratives) but Fleegal is at her best when she gets a little random, and little associative, a little experimental. The opening poem, "Shape-Shifter," is a perfect example. It opens with, "When a woman puts on a disguise,/ will you say she is or isn't/ who she was before it?" If you've spent any time in a poetry workshop, then you probably know where the poem will go next: a series of strong, concrete images of women putting on disguises and how those disguises change the way we look at the woman. But you'd be wrong. The poem refuses to go there. It refuses to slow down, to be forced into a concrete box. Instead, it stays big, bold and defiant. It doesn't simply rant in an abstract polemic way. Instead, it mediates on the underlying idea of the masks women wear (are forced to wear) and it does so in a way that relies on intellect and sound -- in ways that remind me of Neruda or Li-Young Lee when they're at they're best.

Over and over, Fleegal is able to use sound, intellect and image to pull us through these poems. "The Diplomacy of Doors," "Taurus," "Qadishtu" and so many others that will knock you on the floor.

*     *     *

These aren't the only books I've been reading lately, but they're three I've wanted to write about for a while. They're three new books by three young female poets. All three are first books. All three represent the starts of very promising careers. But who wants to take bets on whether Darst, Stine or Fleegal will end up on the cover of Time any time soon?

Other books I've been reading: The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds (it's time I went through and re-read everything by her, something I do every few years). Amplitude: New & Selected Poems by Tess Gallagher. Otherwise: New & Selected Poems by Jane Kenyon. Lost and Found, the second novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (and I'm eager to read her third novel, The Nobodies Album). The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

What's the point? I don't know. I'm rambling. I do that.

Read more women writers.

And yes, I am aware that two of the books listed under "Books Currently in My Work Truck" are by men. I read a lot of books at once.

You should still read more women writers.

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An effort at full disclosure:
Stacia M. Fleegal is a friend of mine and is also co-founder and co-editor of Imaginary Friend Press, which published my chapbook, Paper Guillotines.

Lightsey Darst is not a friend of mine but she was published in the first issue of Glass: A Journal of Poetry, of which I am the co-founder and co-editor.

I have no connection to Alison Stine. I just happened upon her book in a local Barnes and Noble and was pleased to see anything that wasn't written by Bukowski.

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