Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Chasm

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” The truth of this is rooted in a keen awareness that it isn’t easy to simply say what one means. In fact, it is arguably impossible because there isn’t a one to one relationship between words and reality. There is a frightening chasm between what we say or write and what is. Nietzsche said it simply, “all language is metaphor.” But what is so frightening is that the chasm dividing reality from language can be the cause of everything from simple misunderstandings to declarations of war. Yet it also sizzles with a vitality that gives birth to every poet, is the pregnant potential of all meaning, for it contains all that in the human imagination, in the human psyche, is real but hasn’t been reduced to a single word or phrase. It is every reality we can only hint at.

"Wanderer Above the Sea Fog"
by Caspar David Friedrich
Because of that chasm and its vitality, even the best writing doesn’t say what we mean so much as conjure in another mind an approximation of the reality that is in the writer’s head. Writing, in this way, resembles a kind of magic, a casting of a spell. In spite of its ambiguity, or rather because of it, poetry is the most honest kind of writing; it uses language as it is rather than as we want it to be. Poets take advantage of the inherently ambiguous quality of language to suggest, to conjure, to hint at things rather than simply state them. Emotional honesty requires a subtlety that simple statement often loses under the blade of Occam’s razor. This is also why poets are hesitant to explain their poems. What can be articulated in simple language, can be pinned with a simple meaning, is only what is already known, already explicable in previous terms. Explanation is, in a sense, a turning back from the chasm, while a poem is a stepping forward into it. The poet is building outward into the chasm between language and reality in the hope that he will extend our given landscape a few inches farther into it; shorten the distance between reality and language even if only by a single word or phrase, an image or tone. To then explain a poem is, in a sense, to chart that new extension according to the topography of the ground we have already mapped. It would be like drawing the terrain of the Rocky Mountains and then imposing a map of the Himalayas over it as a way of explaining it.

This is not to say we can’t convey truth in language. Though we may never be able to bridge that chasm, we can, by our choice of words and syntax, move closer to or farther away from reality. William Faulkner said, “Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other.” This too has something to do with that chasm. In many ways, what we say and write has less to do with what is objectively real and more to do with what that reality means to us. It is the nature of perception, for perception is judgment. This is why poetry and art remain as relevant as Schrodinger’s cat. Though we can’t bridge the chasm permanently, all poetry is about bridging the chasm. It is about fostering sympathy by teaching us to make imaginative leaps beyond our daily routines, our mundane expectations, or common perceptions or judgments. In the same creative flash that leads the poet to break through his own clichés, the reader may follow and in a eureka moment be united with the mind of the poet and for that instant, we know what it is like to be together across space, time, and that terrible chasm, we know what it is like to take yesterday’s glasses off and see today as it is now. In the words of Wallace Stevens

We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Interview with Poet Dean Kostos

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Dean, for accepting my invitation for an interview. I’m so happy to have a chance to discuss your poetry.

Your latest collection, Rivering, takes its title from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I wondered if you could comment on how you feel your collection helps define or redefine that word? What does it mean in light of your new collection?

Dean Kostos: You know, when poets discover that we may have a number of poems, approximating a collection, we look for themes and key words--some unifying principle. Well, I noticed bodies of water threading throughout the poems. So, I ransacked every lexicon I could to find the right word, but none seemed right. Then I was walking to work through the tunnel beneath Bryant Park and saw a lovely excerpt from Finnegans Wake (inscribed in mosaic), with a word Joyce had coined, "rivering." I experienced it as both a noun and a verb. It did what a poem must do: It enacted its reality. The word seemed to course like a river; it was alive.

Michael T. Young: Many of the poems in Rivering address issues of memory or history? The poem “Reliquary Room” says, “I bask in the past” and ends with the line “one self among rows of others.” What do you see as the relationship between memory and history and the relationship between self-identity and both of those?

Dean Kostos: As I think you know, I am not a morose person. However, I do think about death. I guess we all do. Deaths define our personal histories and insist that we come to terms with our own mortality and what it is we hope to leave when we die. In addition, that poem focuses on two people. One is my maternal grandmother, with whom I was very close. My love of the surreal comes from her. She used to tell me folk tales from her Greek village, replete with talking almond trees and jealous roses. The other person is my father, who suffered for many years with Parkinson's disease. Even though our relationship had been problematic, he taught me to respect precision in language. He was a lawyer. Sadly, the disease robbed him of the ability to talk.

Michael T. Young: You have said you like a little surrealism in poems and your poems offer twists on perceptions such as “the sun is not a ball of barbed wire, but a bleeding tangle of nerves.” Who do you feel are your most significant influences in this regard? Also, what, for you, is the significance of surrealism in poetry, what’s its function?

Dean Kostos: The surreal poem is, among other things, image-driven. I believe that's part of the allure, but even before I ever read Surrealist poetry, I was writing it. In one of the first workshops I attended, I brought in a poem about shaving and gathering the whiskers and molding them into a vase. Aside from tracing my surrealist roots back to my grandmother, there was my love of the Beatles: "[W]earing the face she keeps in a jar by the door." Along with Hopkins, the Beatles were my first poetry love. The language of surrealism showed me a way to untangle and explore a difficult emotional life.

Michael T. Young: Many of the poems in Rivering deal with historical silences, or unwritten histories or memories. Was there any intentional connection between this and the cover art you chose which depicts a Native-American Indian? If so, what were those connections? How do they relate to the collections themes?

Dean Kostos: I grew up in South Jersey, where the Lenape tribe had lived. I was obsessed by them and used to write stories as the persona Red Feather. That name was magical to me. Of course, the world is full of histories of conquests and invasions where the earlier inhabitants are seen as undesirable. My father's parents were Greek refugees from Asia Minor where Greeks had lived since the time of Homer. Human history is tragic. Hopefully, in studying it, we can become more compassionate toward others.

Michael T. Young: A number of poems in Rivering are ekphrastic and even seem to play a redemptive role. Do you see art as redemptive and if so in what way is it redemptive?

Dean Kostos: Hugely. As a suicidal teen, who spent two years in a mental hospital for my various attempts, it was art, in all its permutations, which became the most real thing to hold onto. It was a vessel into which I could endlessly pour my hurt and grief, finding my emotions transformed. It was an act of alchemy and love. It is one more reason to support the arts in the public schools.

Click image to go to Amazon
and purchase Rivering

Michael T. Young: The poem “Dwarf Pushing Pram” says of the figure “Forsaken, she retreats into being needed.” And the poem “Introducing John L. Sullivan” says of the trainer, “Whatever he wants, he finds intimacy in being useful and accepts his role.” Is usefulness a kind of compensation for the silences or denials the poems disclose? If so, how do you see this played out in our society?

Dean Kostos: You're very perceptive. I hadn't noticed the similarity between those lines until a friend recently pointed them out. On a more personal level, they refer to times when I fell in love and then the relationship ended, because the other person ended it. Realizing that the object of my affection would now only exist as a friend, I decided to make myself into a very devoted friend—a desire to remain connected.

Michael T. Young: In “The Stones of the City,” we read “Dense as complicity, we buttress skyscrapers.” To what extent does our complicity in our world make it harder to redress the silences of history and the oppression of the present?

Dean Kostos: This title is taken from one of the many prompts that Ted Hughes wrote for Sylvia Plath, but for which she never wrote poems. I am a political person, but not a political poet. But here, I am making a political statement. Any number of people—workers of various stripes—who are seen as disposable and of little worth are, ironically, the ones whose labor creates the foundation for the edifice of our society. As an adjunct professor, I empathize with that plight. It is a plight shared by many.

Michael T. Young: The arc of the book seemed to go from confronting historical silences to the freedom to spiritually create a new self. Did you see this as the general arc of the book? If so, to what extent do you see the confrontation with the past as a spiritual exercise? What characterizes that confrontation as a spiritual exercise and not merely a historical one?

Dean Kostos: I have always been mesmerized by history, personal and global. But the arc of the book owes a great deal to advice given to me by my friend, the poet Nicholas Samaras. He suggested that I structure the collection with a novelistic arc: introduction, rising action with conflict, crisis/climax, falling action, resolution. And yes, in the confrontation with hurts and wounds, there is a trajectory toward a more authentic self. It's almost like what Michelangelo said of The David, that he was already in the block of marble; Michelangelo simply needed to chip away everything that wasn't The David. I see our lives as a process of chipping away until we reach a more authentic self.

Michael T. Young: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? Which one is it and what is significant about it for you?

Dean Kostos: It's hard to choose. It would either be "Garden" or “Nostalgia for Now.” "Garden" articulates the outsider status of the poet (perhaps of all artists). For many poets, there was an early sense of not belonging, not fitting in. Precisely that perspective places one at an oblique angle to the world. It allows one to see society through a fiery bevel.

"Garden" also plays off of my interest in etymology and religious imagery. For example, the word “stigmata” is the plural of “stigma,” which in Greek literally means "stain." It also clearly has religious connotations, and, more literally, is the central portion of a flower. I like words and images that are overdetermined, allowing for multiple simultaneous meanings. After all, it's a poem about transformations, and it's an elegy. It allows me to write to Daniel Simko, who died before I ever had the chance to know him. His only book, The Arrival, was published posthumously. My stanzas provide windows through which I attempt to make contact with Simko. The "ash" that begins and ends the elegy is a painful remainder of one's physical frailty. Ash is a potent symbol in Hinduism, Christianity and even in Aeschylus' Agamemnon. I would like to point out, however, that the poem is also redemptive, for it begins with brightness and ends with "suns," each of us growing our own.

"Nostalgia for Now" is possibly one of my least linguistically dense poems. A lyric poem, it exists outside of time, enacting vignettes that explore an experience I don't fully understand. The poem makes no attempt to "understand" the phenomenon of recognizing people I have never met before. More than that, I have that emotional tug that one feels upon seeing an old friend, but these people are unknown to me.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Dean Kostos: Absolutely: Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo; Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman; and Nadja, by Andre Breton. Interestingly, each of those novels concerns regret and the loss of time and options. Each of those novels obsessed me, providing a thick, intoxicating atmosphere to live in. I reread each one several times. And, like any great work of art, each rereading yielded more layers.

Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Dean Kostos: I love to get away to a place with lots of trees. Bucks County is where I usually go. It's close to New York, but it's sylvan. It also has the Bucks County Playhouse, where I just saw a revival of Neil Simon's 1963 play Barefoot in the Park. In addition to seeing plays and musicals and frequenting shops that sell homemade chocolates, I like to walk along the river and feed the ducks.

Michael T. Young: Let’s close with one of your favorite poems from the collection, “Nostalgia for Now.”

Sometimes I see people
and feel as if I’ve missed them
even though I may
never have met them before.

Say: the way a woman wears
a plum-colored scarf over an old leather jacket
inspires It’s so good to see her again,
but I have never seen her before.

Or: when I spot a young, unshaven
man for the first time—trundling
an encased cello down the street
on its wobbling wheel—

it’s as though I were peering
through memory with great nostalgia:
this moment in September, this wind,
this peculiar green tinge of light.

Find more information about Dean Kostos or his books at his website: http://deankostos.com/

Friday, July 13, 2012

Interview with Poet David Joel Friedman

Michael T. Young: Thank you, David, for this chance to talk about your poetry.

You seem to write mostly if not exclusively in prose poetry. Were you inspired to write prose poems by someone you admire or did it seem the natural vehicle for your imagination? How did you start down that road?

David Friedman: For many years I wrote linguistically interesting but rather private verse. I was in a rut, and all my poems sounded the same. A friend challenged me to write a personification. It worked. I wrote a prose poem, and I have stayed with that form ever since. It has been liberating. It gives me flexibility to use alliteration and cadence and other music-making devices while achieving more accessible meaning. I also realized that some of the best poetry I ever read was prose poetry: occasionally in Shakespeare; in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Michael T. Young: Your poems seem to move along, often propelled by wordplay and satire. Do you find that in composing you are led by the wordplay, or do you find yourself starting at first with an idea or thought about something?

David Friedman: I rarely begin with an idea or thought. Wordplay and language are most important. When I read a poem, I read the writing first, later the meaning. Thus I focus on the quality of the writing. Anyone can dish out meaning (or meaninglessness) or tell a story in verse. I like to think my poems give pleasures only poetry can give: the joys of language, music, emotional impact.

Michael T. Young: You use the character of the green bear a lot in your poetry. What do you see the green bear as representing or symbolizing?

David Friedman: The green bear (all lower-case) is a character I invented and brought to life to take on the burden of some of my poems. He is not a symbol. I suppose it is significant to say that the bear’s color suggests his specialness as well as an apartness or alienation. Finally, bears are sort of lovable, and there are not a lot of talking green ones out there.

Michael T. Young: The poem, “Time Poem” says, “If I conclude that I am awake, how can I get where I am going without fresh obsessions and delusions?” I had a sense that the movement of time is a personal thing, not merely a measure of change by a watch or atomic clock. Is there something to this and how do you see time and our personal relationship to it?

David Friedman: I think this poem is as much about the fear of multiplicity and about the yearning for perfection as about anything else. It is also, as you say, about the movement of time as a personal thing.

The Welcome. David Joel Friedman.

Winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series, chosen by Stephen Dunn

Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, March 6, 2006. 96 pages, ISBN: 978-0252072925

(click the image to be taken to where you can order The Welcome)


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Interview with Poet Renée Ashley

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Renée, for accepting my invitation for an interview. It’s a real pleasure to have the opportunity.

Your last collection, The Verbs of Desiring, was it conceived and written as a collection from the start or was each poem written individually and then collected into a coherent book? I’m particularly curious about this because of both the linguistic daring and the cohesion of the collection. Could you comment on how you achieved this?

Renée Ashley: It’s interesting that you ask…That is how I write my books: by the book. I usually begin with a title and I’m obsessing about some thematic or craft issue and that becomes the engine that drives the manuscript through to completion. The Verbs of Desiring is really a chapbook, though, and the poems are culled from two unpublished full-length manuscripts: The View from the Body and Because I Am the Shore I Want To Be the Sea. I had a suspicion that those last two manuscripts weren’t as different from one another as my previous books were from each other… That’s so interesting! Because I Am the Shore… is primarily prose poems now. In the larger arc of my work, then, these last two are truly transitional manuscripts. That’s sort of cool! I haven’t done that before—and I certainly didn’t do it consciously this time. I can see such clear distinctions between the earlier books. Salt, the first, is very narrative and lyric, grounded, I’d say, wholly mainstream (except for one prose poem); I was learning what a poem is back then. The Various Reasons of Light is still mainstream, but it was my effort to learn to ground abstract thought. I had these heady-floaty goings-on in my mind and needed to anchor them to the ground. In The Revisionist’s Dream I went back to my Comparative Literature roots and played a bit with Homer and Ovid, trying to take on some of those ideas as my own. Some, quite obviously, remained theirs. My style was still conservative I think. Basic Heart, however, was written after many years of … unrest; I think of it as my nervous breakdown book—which is a bit misleading but close enough to the truth that I won’t back off from it—and that work seems to have manifested itself in a sort of embodied turmoil. That’s the shorthand I use anyway. Perceptions and syntax were shattered. So, the poems in Heart could be called more experimental, I guess, looking at them from the outside. Though writing them felt more like fuck it than experimental. Making them felt like enactment or at least an effort to enact. I wanted the poems to be states of mind rather than to be about states of mind. So, long way around, I guess, the poems in The Verbs of Desiring are poems of adaptation. I’m coming back to a more balanced breath now, I think. A better outlook. That’s not to say there isn’t that breakdown hangover hovering in the newer poems, but I don’t believe they’re as deeply distressed. Let’s just say they’re recovering. It’ll be interesting—to me at least!—to find out where these transition books are taking me. At the moment, I have no idea. I haven’t been working on the new poetry collection; I’ve been pulling together some essays for a book.

Michael T. Young: In reading The Verbs of Desiring, I was struck by the unpredictability of the language. Each poem seemed to shift its linguistic stance so each poem was a readjustment, a reorientation. What was the intention of this?

Renée Ashley: Wow. Once again, I don’t really know! I never thought of them in those terms. Are they really that different from one another? When I write, my intention is always to make the best poem possible with whatever skills I have at the time—I’m after a seamless and sharp-edged poem, a poem that has … balls. Also, a poem that surprises me into a truth, and, if I’m very lucky, pushes a bit beyond the limits of my previous skill set. Of course, I’m not always successful, but that’s the ideal. And I bore easily—so boring myself seems wacky, right? To write a poem that’s crafted well but suffering from such control that it bores the writer as well as the reader? I don’t think so. There’s enough of that stuff out there already; the world doesn’t need any more. But that you, as a reader, had to readjust is possibly good news. If I gave you even footing and just went la-la-la poem to poem through the book, all on the same note or tenor, you’d get bored too. It’d be soporific, right? Something has to rise up and struggle, knock my pins out from under me—and yours from under you—or what’s the point? And I don’t mean that as shock for shock’s sake. I have no interest in that. But more the shock of some discovery—linguistic or life-explaining—made during the act of writing.

Michael T. Young: “Nothing” seems to become a presence in the collection, so that phrases containing the word “nothing” or the phrase “no thing” take on multiple meanings. At one point in my own reading I thought of the Tao Te Ching where the void gives birth to the one and the one to the ten thousand things. What do you see as the significance of “nothing” in the context of this collection?

Renée Ashley: I’m afraid my belief system, if you can call it that—I’m a resentful atheist—gives me a lot of nothing to think about. I would love to be a believer. I’m just not. So I’m constantly banging into some existential door or other which swings back after the initial impact and smacks me a second time with another nothing. I’m not even an optimistic atheist. But, on the positive side, nothing may be the one absolute that I can comprehend. I certainly can’t comprehend infinite. Nor can I get a grasp on forever which of course is party to death. When I was eight, I drowned in a motel swimming pool. I’m pretty sure I drowned and came back. I’ve never lost that experience of nothingness. It’s what I believe death is. Of course, too, there’s my cognitive dissonance of knowing that, once, I saw a ghost and, two other times, things that did not appear in human form but were definitely somethings belonging to the otherly. I confuse even myself, Michael. I’m sorry. But there it is. Contradictions and all. I contain multitudes.

Michael T. Young: I especially like the poem “Oh Yes Tomorrow Expect the Ordinary.” It seems to say that the ordinary is a kind of nonbeing out of which we create ourselves. It reminded me of something the philosopher Unamuno said, “To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be.” Do you find this to be true? If so, what do you think helps us to rise out of that common nonbeing into a true identity?

Renée Ashley: Unamuno’s theory is interesting, and I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but in my experience it’s backwards. In habit I know I am, I have time and therefore opportunity to assess the state of me, to see just how variant I’m being within that matrix. When I’m in a state of panic or experiencing an unusually sharpened awareness at some godawful horror or newness it’s as though my molecules come unglued, fly apart, and are spun off, each separately, but all in a single burst, into the ether and I become panic or alertness rather than who I believe myself to be, the me I know when my reptile brain isn’t blowing me up and scattering me out into the solar system. I do get what Unamuno’s saying, I understand the trope, and I can see that in the abstract it can be true, and that some folks feel it must be true. I know people who feel that way. But to me it feels like a literary statement rather than a phenomenological one. Abstraction is a sort of generalization and my experience—as I experience it—isn’t in the least general or abstract. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be argumentative; I’m trying to work it out. But I just don’t feel Unamuno-ish. I don’t believe the ordinary is some vast tureen of soup in which we are denuded of our individuality. Ordinariness is just funny! It cracks me up. We’re such a bunch of lunkheads! We occupy Quiddity Central. Think about it—this is an over-made argument but I still subscribe: our parents, most anyway, tell us we’re special, our early teachers tell us we’re each special in our own way, and the parameters of special keep growing smaller and smaller and thinner and weaker. I think it’s hooey. We work so hard to separate ourselves from the crowd—but we are the crowd. Good grief. Emergence theory, etc. Hell, if you listen to those voices in bulk, being special is ordinary. I just don’t understand the hooha about it. We ought to be investigating the ordinary if we want to find out about ourselves! What was the old cartoon strip that said, “We have found the enemy and he is us”? Pogo! It was Pogo! Well, same goes for the ordinary: We are it. But you have to understand, and in this may reside the difference between Unamuno and me: I have no adventurer in me at all. I’m a coward. I play everything safe. I keep my world small. I follow the rules as they are dictated to me by authority. I’m really, shall I say, infinitely timid, infinitely ordinary. I find comfort in habit. Habit of the body, habit of the place, habit allows me to function in an almost autonomic mode; it allows my head to do the serious wandering. However, that head’s such a tightly sealed vessel that I do, periodically, get claustrophobic. But escaping to some degree—exercise (which I detest), a short trip (if I can drive), a longer trip over large bodies of water (shoot me), or a change of focus of some sort—lets my head off the hook. I have to deal with the traversing and the new place or thing, figure it out, make my way; I have to focus on something outside my head. I don’t know… Is my monkey mind a “true identity”? Perhaps I’m simply not advanced enough to be able to consider something like true identity, I’m so busy grappling with the apparent one. It’s entirely likely I have no idea what true identity might be. Or maybe it’s like all the American poetries: there’s a whole slew of true identities for each of us. I just don’t know.

Michael T. Young: The collection also seems to suggest that our efforts toward creating an identity are never clean, that the chaotic mess we rise from is part of us, as in the line “No one’s endearment//is tidy.” Or in the poem “Simple” where it says,

. . .The whole white sky descends a grain
at a time – I with it and the threshold dis-

appearing. That we can find ourselves
in this.

Do you find this true? If so, how do you think that untidiness influences what we make of ourselves?

Renée Ashley: Absolutely true! Hail the human midden! First of all, there’s nothing tidy about language because no matter how precise we are we can never know if our listener/reader understands it exactly as we meant it. It’s that sealed vessel again. It’s our own private bell jar. The Alexandria Quartet changed my life at a very young age. The Roshomon effect. Literal point of view. Futility. And there’s an Einstein thing, right? about depending on the observer’s position in relation to the moving train, the train’s moving at different speeds? That always baffled the hell out of me until I drew the parallel between that and the language problem. So, is there really a right answer? Slickery, as I see it. And on top of that, supporting or perhaps sponsoring the idea of untidiness, I’m a slob. I don’t think I used to be a slob—I remember telling a friend when I was in my twenties, “If you can’t find it you might as well not own it!” Very smug in an unpretty, uncompromising way. That was a lifetime ago. (And I was way too old to be such a prig.) Now I can’t find a thing: the filing I haven’t filed for the last decade, my prescription, my watch, my keys, one of the books I need for class, my other shoe, my good black pants—and that’s just last week. My walls are literally covered with paper and pictures, art and scraps, my office door is layers-deep with cartoons and quips and a great bumper sticker my best friend, the insanely good narrative poet Catherine Doty, gave me (which I keep digging out and taping to the top layer again): I’m not myself today. Maybe I’m you. And my desk! Oy. But it’s all a mirror of what’s going on in my head. Sometimes I get all the crap momentarily cleared away and my thinking clears up, my posture gets better, my priorities clearer, my strategizing becomes more orderly, etc. It’s bliss—for a very short while until entropy strong-arms me again. I know there are people who are not slobs and whose thinking is precise and whose articulations are beyond exact, but even before I became a slob I wasn’t one of those. My friend and colleague Harvey Hix (H.L. Hix) is one of the exact ones. He is fastidious in every way imaginable. He’s always fresh-out-of-the-box brand-new-looking and articulating with the utmost clarity. But of course I can’t get inside his head; there could be a trash heap in there that would unstarch me—but he has clearly found a method of orderliness. I find him miraculous. But whatever he’s got, I don’t have it. It seems that in this second half of my life I’m centrifugal. So with that and the way I see people interact and my observations of the physical, outside-of-my-head world and what we do to it, hell, yes we’re a mess! Things flying outward every which way. Untidy is the least of it. I have found the untidy and it is us. At best, I think, we as a species are approximate, though there are exceptions, certainly, like Harvey and you, Michael—your demeanor and presentation when we met and your method and articulation in this interview were and are divinely clean, crisp, logical, and tightly ordered—who seem to have gotten some dispensation for this. But overall we’re a sloppy tribe and most often our attentions are perfunctory and/or wrong-headed. Bottom line? As I said, I’m not an optimist.

Michael T. Young: Dogs seem to appear in your poems frequently. Outside perhaps a love of dogs, what significance do they have for you in your poetry? What do they symbolize for you?

Renée Ashley: Dogs ground me. There’s nothing approximate about a dog except, maybe, his aim. They contend with what’s in front of them. They’re immediate. And they do not have the kind of language that strikes me as … slippery. And, of course, they’re dependent. They need us. I have no children and have no literal family except my husband and my one-hundred-and-one-year-old mother who lives a continent away. Dogs let me love them. And they’re perfect ballast; they hold a poem to the earth.

Michael T. Young: You seem like a poet that is deeply stimulated by ideas, by philosophy. Do you read philosophy? Do you have a particular branch of philosophy or group of philosophers that you like and that inspire you?

Renée Ashley: Oh, I wish I could read philosophy! I’ve never taken a philosophy class and I’ve tried to read some ultra-simple stuff a couple of times, but, well, let me put it this way: there seem to be no dogs in it. It appears harrowingly difficult as well as abstract. My mind wanders off. I can’t hold all the increments of an argument in my head at one time. It’s probably too orderly for me. My monkey mind won’t let me linger. But two of my favorite poets/writers have degrees in philosophy: Kathleen Graber and the aforementioned H.L. Hix. My attraction to their work probably comes from the fact that they render their ideas concretely rather than articulating them blatantly. (And they both have dogs.) I think you have to be way smarter than I am to read philosophy with any success. I’m one of those Oh, look! Ooooh, shiny! people. Or like in the movie Up! when the dogs yell Squirrel!!! in the midst of their serious business (shouldn’t seriosity be a word?) and go berserk, their reptile brains snatching up their minds and bodies like … well, snatchers. I’m distracted at the drop of the proverbial hat. I lose my train of thought often when I’m speaking, as well as those keys and pants I mentioned before. And my coffee cup. I’m always losing my coffee cup. With my coffee in it. And I probably have twenty pair of reading glasses and never have a pair at hand either. Along with half a dozen open cans of Diet Coke sprinkled around the house. Here’s the gist: it’s the order/chaos thing. I seem to fall on the side of chaos. Too chaotic to be able to grasp philosophy per se. But writing, you see, allows me to render something that’s swirling inside me and put it in some sort of order on the outside of me—and along a different avenue of speaking than philosophy takes. It’s such a relief to see something you feel out there, for it to be still and sharp. It takes a load off, it really does.

Michael T. Young: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? Which one is it and what is significant about it for you?

Renée Ashley: I do have a couple of favorites, though I must add that they’re emotional favorites. I think the title poem is hilarious! The Verbs of Desiring. Nobody ever laughs, so I lamely try to explain it to people, and my friends think I’m horrible when I bust myself up because I think I’m so funny (it is shameful)—but I do knock myself out on that one. “The verbs of desiring” is a phrase used to describe the subjunctive—and the poem is a poem of desiring and ends on the subjunctive. But even when I explain it nobody cracks up—they laugh, but they’re laughing at me, the woman standing there whose cheeks hurt from cracking up at her own joke, rather than laughing at the play in the poem. And I get it. It’s OK. I love that weird sort of disjunct. It just makes the whole thing even funnier. I like “Mostly There Is Mostly I Do” too. I’m mother-phobic in many ways. And “An Art Like Any Other,” which is a prose poem and, though I haven’t checked the dates, may be one of the first of the prose poems that ended up being in Because I Am the Shore I Want To Be the Sea. I’d been wanting to write prose poems for a very long time before that one found me.

Michael T. Young: You’re an editor at The Literary Review. What do you see as the state of contemporary American poetry? Do you find it vital or sterile? Are there any young poets you find especially exciting to read and to watch out for in the coming years?

Renée Ashley: Oh, I don’t think I could even guess at the state of poetry from TLR submissions! The submissions vary, of course, from fabulous to ultra-way-too-premature-what-could-they-have-been-thinking. I don’t think of “contemporary American poetry” as a single thing—it’s many varied things and some of those things are vital and some sterile, and a mind-numbing percentage exists in between. We have so many different poetries! And I think my taste is pretty catholic as far as styles/schools/aesthetics go. Probably less broad regarding agendas. If the agenda is more prominent than the art I’m not going to be interested. I’m interested in poems, not propaganda. I do want a poem to let me in, and I want it to have teeth. I want it to surprise me with language and/or elegance and/or image or angle of approach …. I want a sort of tensile strength in it. The poem, for me, has to rise up off the page, has to be bigger than the poet, has to have some sort of torque and fire. I don’t necessarily have to like a poem to admire it though. But to come across, in the slush pile, some vital, crisp, surprising work by a writer I’m not familiar with is so exciting! If I start naming names, I’ll leave someone out and feel terrible … but Weston Cutter is one that comes to mind immediately. And Steve Heighton, a Canadian writer—though I should have known his work. He’s widely published in several genres in Canada. Let’s see… Lisa Ortiz, Scott Withiam, Mariana Toscas. Those names were all new to me. And, the folks I am familiar with … well, let me just say I think we publish absolutely, excruciatingly, extravagantly good poems. So the state of American poetry? There are so many fantastic poets working now! I buy their books the way the dogs in Up! chase and bark at squirrels. It’s a good time for poetry. A good state to have real estate in even if it’s only the tiniest of pied-à-terres.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Renée Ashley: Of course everything I’ve ever read has in one way or another influenced me and therefore my work as a poet and writer. I can only work through what I am. I’m the product of everything I’ve experienced including what I’ve read. Certainly John Briggs’s Fire in the Crucible had a big effect on me. He articulated for me the idea of themata, the themes a writer will work in over and over during the trajectory that is her life’s work. To acknowledge my obsessions as a part of art-process—even though I’m sometimes surprised by them—has been an enormous help. When I was in grad school, my professors were Jungians, and much of what we read and pondered and listened to (though I walked out of class the day Dr. Wiseman played Wagner’s Tristan—it nearly pulled my heart up and out through my throat!). Oh, and The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks! Joyce’s Ulysses. I still have the little bar of lemon soap that Dr. Bratset gave me! I did gain a strong sense of pattern and archetype, and though I do think pattern I rarely consciously think archetype except in critical mode. And as I said earlier, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet changed the way I see language, but I was very young when I read that. The lesson stuck though. I tried to read Justine again recently and couldn’t get through it. It seemed so … purple. I was devastated—I’d lost access to the source of something terribly important in my life. I’ll try again someday. Certainly David Foster Wallace. And I’m reading Gaddis’s The Recognitions right now and it’s tying in so much with the poetics of information that I’ve been thinking about since some colleague’s gave a workshop on it last year. I read a lot on creativity and creative process; I rarely remember facts of brain science—and I never remember statistics—but I do come away with a sense of having had something familiar articulated or sourced for me and that’s heartening and strengthening. I read novels, memoirs, nonfiction. Don Quixote! Madam Bovary! And of course verse: Ovid and Homer. My poor mind boggles at everything I’m not acknowledging… How could any of it not influence me?

Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Renée Ashley: Watch TV, alas. I watch way too much TV. NCIS, Bones, Rizzoli & Isles. The Big Bang Theory! British mysteries. And I’m a cartoon addict: lots of noise and bright colors moving … I’m there. Though I’m burned out on Spongebob Squarepants. He just irritates me now. I still like Phineas and Ferb and Aaaaaah!! Real Monsters. Fraggle Rock was genius, absolute genius. I’ve got every episode. I loved The A-Team, the TV series, not the movie (which was fine but faux). Howling Mad Murdock! Wembly Fraggle, oh my. Jim Henson was a god. Is still a god. And Elmo. Oh I love Elmo! Though I never watched Sesame Street; it had way too many humans. I have to admit I even was fascinated by the Teletubbies and they were really weird. I had a friend who wouldn’t eat tomatoes because she said they hadn’t made up their mind whether they were a fruit or a vegetable. The teletubbies were like that—what the hell were they? Somewhat unformed and seductive and possibly menacing—underground hideouts and Big Brothery loudspeakers! I couldn’t take my eyes off them. However I absolutely hated that real baby that gurgled in the sun. That was nasty. Creepy beyond just normal creepy. Really, seriously icky. My job is teaching writing, I edit the writing of others, my art is writing. What isn’t linked to the work? I do read a lot: poetry, criticism, creative nonfiction, novels, essays… But reading is so closely related to writing they’re almost the same thing, another form of the same thing anyway. I do have an opera subscription with a friend, though—does that count? Sorry… I, too, sometimes wish I were more interesting.

Michael T. Young: On the contrary, Renée. You are quite interesting and I truly thank you for a wonderful interview. Let’s close with one of your favorite poems the collection.

The Verbs of Desiring

How tired the self is of the self, its earth twirling in the air and
not-air and I know a woman who ate only bread until
…………………………......................………………………………she died
of bread. Oh the where-is-she-now. Which is not a question.
Which is a noun of circumstance.
…………………………………...............And disquietude: lovely
word. And hairsbreadth. Stupor mundi. Kettle-of-fish-that-
………….........…………You are returning from an alphabet ran-
sacked by thirst, by the gamut of implication neatly sung:
a tongue that speaks
…………….........……….body. A punctuated earth. You who are
resolute of hungry brutes and fooled by the beggar’s bowl of
moon, tide of scat, of pellet and flop
………………………………............………and the body’s dead-
end is an assured apostrophe.
………………………….............……There are more way to mean
than you can make note of.
……………………………Look! Something is pretty in the sky
– it might just be the sky – though installation’s been askant.
Or what it sits upon is opposed to the level eye.
……………….....................…………………………………A panoply of
possibilities –
…………......…..all those bears pirouetting in your penthouse!
Oh if it or they were only.
………………………............….Or if you. And, or if I.

Find more information about Renée Ashley or her books at her website: http://reneeashleyatwork.com/

Review of The Verbs of Desiring

The Verbs of Desiring. Renée Ashley.
Fort Collins, CO: New American Press, January 14, 2010. 42 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9817802-5-2

(click the image to be taken to where you can order The Verbs of Desiring)

The Verbs of Desiring is Renée Ashley’s sixth collection of poems. It won the 2009 New American Press chapbook contest. This is a collection that stretches in multiple directions at once. It reminded me of other poets like Edgar Bowers and George Oppen who not only address their topic but create a language that embodies the complexities they find in the world.

The opening poem, which is the title poem, declares, “How tired the self is of the self, its earth twirling in the air and/not-air.” It is an appropriate opening to a collection that not only explores desire, but finds the self blurred in a simultaneous becoming and unbecoming state. That is, identity is a verb and not a noun. We tend to think of the self as a fixed object, something that means one and only one thing in our head but “There are more ways to mean/than you can make note of.” So there are “A panoply/of possibilities.” Even the absurdity of “all those bears pirouetting in your penthouse!” But it is all transition, nothing actually is, everything fluctuates as potential. So the poem concludes, “Oh if it or they were only./Or if you. And, or if I.” It is a magnificent linguistic concentration of all that wishes to be by playing on the fact that “were” is both a form of the verb “be” and is the subjunctive mood.

Ashley allows for some humorous consequences in exploring how “this is becomes unbecoming.” For instance, one poem opens “I cannot put my mother in the freezer and neither can I store her in the attic.” This is not literal, of course, because the poem is about thinking or reflection as the title is “I Have a Theory About Reflection.” The double-entendre clearly falls on “reflection,” because it is about the atavistic rise of our parents or ancestors in how we think. So Ashley declares of her mother:

“I am a match and every time we speak – and sometimes when we do not – she strikes me Even in the bend of a spoon I can see her reaching”

In every place and in every way the primordial soup out of which the creation rose is still very much with us, every place you find “the single/imperfect discourse of an unfinished world.”

Sometimes Ashley will twist a familiar phrase as in “thrown to the away” rather than “thrown away.” There are parentheticals as in, “She’s not ready to swap (she’s lying) the slender skill of being alive” or “Here/is the hand that knows subtraction. (Cut it off.).” Or a poem will have no punctuation. These are not simply acrobatics, mere dazzling displays but rather efforts toward a kind of fluidity, simultaneity, permeability in how we often, in our desires, contain paradoxes, assertions and their denials. There may be moments these unusual shifts confuse, but working through them to the kernel of her work is rewarding, for Ashley is not just pulling us along in a display of language but she is giving us a language of the phenomenological, and I mean that in the philosophical sense that Husserl put forth. That is, we are looking at consciousness and the structures that appear in it. Thus the poem “Bodies in Increments Bodies in Wholes” concludes “observation dilutes images It must I can do nothing more than this We are the indefinite article.” Here the lack of punctuation heightens the connection between observer, observed and the act of observing.

The nice clean boundaries we like to define our world by become porous, with bits of us mingling with bits of the things around us as we look on the world. This is a poetry that is simultaneously in tune with the physics of our time and the Buddhist doctrine of the Visuddhimagga. The former in more recent times defines atoms as mathematical probabilities in time and space and even says that we literally share atoms with the things and people around us. And the Visuddhimagga says,

Suffering alone exists, none who suffer;
The deed there is, but no doer thereof;
Nirvana is, but no one seeking it;
The Path there is, but none who travel it."

In such a world of dancing atoms and permeable selves, the movement of the universe in concert is the only reality. It is no wonder that the last poem, “Wine Not Water Fish Not Frogs” concludes itself and the collection with this wisdom, “I’ve/learned not to find truth in a world. I’m trying to go on.”

Notice this says “a world” not “the world.” The world or any world is the creation of our mind, our desire and all worlds are passing away because the dance doesn’t stop. As the poem prior to this asserts, “You are building the mountain you fall from.” The only way to live is not to construct a world but simply “to go on.”

This is a collection for those who find wrestling with complexities and subtleties a pleasure, the kind of challenge that is fun. It is full of intelligence and wisdom, music and quirky revelation. It is a kind of dance. Let yourself glide across the top of these poems, rapid as a stone skipping along a surface of water, a philosophically insightful surface of water. Dance and mingle with the images and ideas, enter and emerge and you will find after that plunge, you feel reminded of so much it seems you once knew long ago.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Local Time by Stephen Dunn

I first read Stephen Dunn’s Different Hours and then his Selected Poems 1974 - 1994. Since then, I’ve gone back to read other collections in full. One such collection is Local Time. Reading poems in the context of their original collection it is interesting to see the grouping and the general development the poet creates.

In the first section Dunn uses the body as that which imposes distances between us, especially between men and women. In “Letter Home” a woman says,

Shall we admit
that because of our bodies
your story can never be mine,
mine never yours?”

This is the disclosure in the first section: the story we tell, the philosophy we adopt, is imposed by the body. There are vague moments its boundaries blur, as in the half waking state at dawn in the poem “Halves,” or there can be commiseration over the body’s “little ailments and aches.” But physiology determines philosophy. The poem, “Under the Black Oaks,” in the concluding section, reasserts this by opening,

Because the mind will defend anything
it has found the body doing.

It is a central theme of the collection.

The middle section shows how we struggle to stretch out from the body. It’s called “Stories” and shows how the mind tries to control or invent its psyche independently of biological necessities. For instance, the opening poem is called “Parable of the Fictionist” and opens saying

He wanted to own his own past,
be able to manage it more than it managed him.

But the contradiction of this control of the past is that it makes it a kind of lonely stasis, a palace of disillusionment, which is only escaped by the imposition of something beyond control. This poem concludes,

he sometimes longed
for what he’d dare not alter,
or couldn’t, something immutable
or so lovely he might be changed
by it, nameless but with a name
he feared waits until you’re worthy,
then chooses you.

That is the current of this whole section: the stories we tell about ourselves compete with the stories imposed on us by others, by biology, by accident and the section gradually moves toward accepting the stories imposed on us, of embracing them, as in the final poem, “The Return,” where the voices of the dead come back but instead of needing to assert the self against them, the speaker can

say father and be small
and mean it again.

My favorite section is the final section where the sense of what is mystical or spiritual is identifiable in small terms, in “local time.” But Dunn also penetrates into the absences we endure, how he says of the soul that it’s something he most notices when it’s gone. I particularly love “Under the Black Oaks.” It’s one of my favorite Dunn poems. My mind hears echoes with Frost’s poem “Come In,” with that poem’s defiance, though Dunn’s poem doesn’t confront death, but the need to justify action. In a way, there is something Nietzschean about this poem and the whole last section. That is, it asserts the mind’s reasons as forms of physiological self-defense. The disappointment in the poem “Completion,” the acquiescence leading to embrace in “Living with Hornets” — in all of these there is an “amor fati.” However, all of them also reveal the danger of the outside world pitted against the safety of the enclosed private world, though that private world is also full of disillusionment. The poems say that risk is necessary for joy and creativity. The final image in the title poem shows a dog in a house aware of some lurking danger outside while birds, said to be no less foolish or wise, return to the lawn and begin to sing. The implication is that it is better to be outside singing with the birds in the midst of danger than inside with the dog whimpering over it. And this is better not because of some philosophical posturing but because that is the way to live joyfully. It is, at best biological necessity, at worst, simply accident.

There is an irony in the title of the collection in that the small world of local time collapses in on itself, becomes so self-protective it is contaminated with disappointment, hesitation, and fear, the kind of resentments that linger in marital silences. He conjures this very pain in a poem where the couple cuts down the top of a tree for better TV reception because watching sports or an hour-long show is their escape from each other, their way of finding transcendence or the expected conclusion.

It is this struggle between inner and outer worlds, negotiating and navigating the dangers in each that defines the movements of the collection as a whole. It is the implied amor fati that supplies its dignity and power. As in all his work, these poems show Dunn's ability to simultaneously embrace and defy. Here as in his other collections he has the quality of a good Edward Hopper painting.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Interview with Diane Lockward

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Diane, for accepting my invitation for an interview. I’ve admired your work for a long time and am glad to have a chance to discuss it with you.

Something that struck me about Temptation by Water and your previous collection, What Feeds Us, is how very well organized the collections are. The poems work individually, of course, but then there is a very strong sense of themes developing as the collections progress. I wondered if you needed to rework poems or write new ones to get this kind of cohesion or if it comes together naturally for you as you gather individual poems you’ve written. What is your technique for assembling a collection?

Diane Lockward: The process has varied. For my first two books I pulled together 50-60 poems that I thought were book-worthy. I read the poems repeatedly, looking for an overriding idea, some kind of umbrella under which the poems could fit. Once I had that, I looked for a constellation of related motifs, weeded out some poems, and mapped out a game plan. I took notes on a yellow legal pad, made piles of poems which became sections, and laid them out on the floor to check movement from one poem to the next and one section to the next. Of course, my plan changed multiple times.

For Temptation by Water I had the controlling idea early on. Then I wrote poems towards that idea. This latter method was, of course, much more efficient. Whether that will happen for the next book remains to be seen. The organization of a book of poetry is, I think, immensely challenging but exciting. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. As for revising poems to make them fit into the book, I have made very minor changes for that reason, for example, a title change or a word change. If I felt that one poem was too similar to its predecessor, I found a different placement for it.

Michael T. Young: In Temptation by Water there is a quiet motherly presence, as in the poems “My Mother Turns Her Back,” the ending of “If Only Humpty Dumpty Had Been a Cookie” and “It Runs This Deep.” I wondered what you saw as the significance of this presence in the collection. What is its role?

Diane Lockward: These poems have to do with brokenness, I think. I’m saying “I think” because I don’t analyze these things in my own work the way a critic does. I sometimes do that kind of analysis with another poet’s work, but not with my own. However, now that you’ve pointed this out, I think you’re onto something. I didn’t plan that a mother would appear and reappear, but there she is. When I wrote the poems, they each stood alone; now they do seem part of a pattern. I’m sure that during the organization of the collection I must have noticed the presence of the mother and scattered her throughout the sections. But I still haven’t figured out the significance. Probably means I’m messed up in some serious way.

Michael T. Young: Your poem “Spying on My New Neighbors” shows a young couple abandoning their gardening to go off for a little fun in the bedroom. It concludes by comparing their sexual activity to plants nurtured, flowering and growing and that consequently, “long tender roots shoot down, strong enough for any storm.” It suggests that their sexual passion for each other plants emotional roots that will help them weather future difficulties. What do you see as the relationship between sexual passion and emotional attachment and endurance?

Diane Lockward: This poem fits in with the mother idea you referred to. There’s something lovely about the innocence of the unrestrained passion of the young couple. Witnessing their kissing, the speaker is reminded of her own younger self. The making out and the love-making scenes are joyful, but I couldn’t help feeling that the speaker sees what the couple does not, that is, what their future will be, and it’s not all roses. I felt that poem come alive in the line break “nothing bad has happened / yet.” Now there’s a snake in the garden, sorrow ahead. Perhaps the roots the husband and wife are shooting down now will be strong enough to support that sorrow, which I suspect will have something to do with their boy.

Michael T. Young: The poem “You Offer Lychee to Your American Friends,” says, “Learn to love what is decadent, / what grows in other gardens.” In a collection of poems that is often about the double-edged sword of desire, this statement is very interesting. What do you see as the importance of this kind of adventurousness, of learning to love what is decadent and grows in other gardens?

Diane Lockward: This poem resulted from an article I wrote for Red Room, an online site for authors. It was a piece about my obsession with food, specifically, fruit. One of the other authors on the site, Belle Yang, wrote me a note about her fondness for lychee and her American friends’ refusal to eat it. They wanted chocolate which she disdained. “Who doesn’t love chocolate?” I thought incredulously. So the poem came out of that conversation. It’s one of several that makes reference to gardens. Perhaps chocolate is another version of the snake? Certainly, I believe it’s important to be adventurous, to tackle the snake, but I do that much more in my poetry than I do in my real life.

Michael T. Young: Related to this, the poem “Implosion” speaks of the “destruction of what’s not needed” and compares it to “the way a heart melts,” “the collapse inside.” Do you think the heart sometimes needs some emotional spring cleaning, a kind of demolition of outdated feelings? If so, how does this relate to the emotional roots put down as suggested by the poem “Spying on My New Neighbors”?

Diane Lockward: I really don’t have a theory about the heart. I was pursuing a metaphor after watching a building being imploded on a TV news story. It just seemed to me a good expression of how a heart falls apart sometimes, not noisily but quietly, a kind of inward melting. From there, it was appealing to exploit that metaphor—the body as an empty building once the heart’s gone. There’s no saving this building, no light in this poem as there is in “Spying on My New Neighbors.”

Michael T. Young: I find your poems very seductive, even erotic. One of my favorites is “Orchids” from the collection What Feeds Us. But even in Temptation by Water, there is “Love Song with Plum,” “The Very Smell of Him,” and, of course, “Spying on My New Neighbors.” Much of this eroticism centers on food or flowers. Do you find the sensuality of food and gardening to naturally relate to sexuality? What, if any, do you see as the connection?

Diane Lockward: Yes, yes, and yes. Food and flowers are irresistibly sexy. We touch, smell, taste. Our senses come alive. Both food and flowers are so rich with sensuous and sensual possibilities. I’m not the first to find this connection intoxicating. Think of Georgia O’Keefe’s sexual flowers. Think of the movie Tom Jones with its amazing eating scene in a country inn, the voracious eating an obvious prelude to sex. I saw that movie in 1963 and it had a lasting impact on me.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Prunis Persica” is a kind of homage to the peach and seduction and ends saying “face flushed with indulgence of peach, / blushed all winter in memory of peach.” And the poem “The Desolation of Wood” ends saying “Wood houses a past and rots at the heart.” What do you see as the importance of memory and the past in the collection? How does it relate to desire and the heart?

Diane Lockward: The pleasure for me in writing “Prunis Persica” was the wordplay. I wanted words as luscious as the peach. My hard work was primarily directed towards revising the language. The last line came out of nowhere, one of those lines that surprises you when you write it and leaves you thinking, “Where’d that come from?” I wasn’t thinking about the importance of memory but about how much I’d be missing peaches in winter. A number of the poems in this book look into the past; memory is a rich source for most poets, but I have no penetrating theory about it or its connection to desire and the heart. I’m sure there is a connection, but I’m not clever enough to articulate it. One of the exciting things about writing poetry is that we are free to write about subjects we don’t fully understand.

Michael T. Young: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Capturing the Image.” I love the movement from inner world to outer world, how the speaker, not trusting her own heart, turns to fix on beauty outside in the natural world and finds a kind of cleansing in this. What do you see as the importance of beauty and our ability to appreciate it? Does it have a cleansing or renewing effect?

Diane Lockward: That one began during a poetry retreat I took in Ocean Grove, NJ. My room overlooked the ocean. One morning I woke up very early and looked out the window. The sky was a gorgeous pink. I wanted to capture that, so I grabbed my camera and snapped a picture. As I wrote about that, the literal moved to the metaphorical. I thought about Astrophel and Stella and the Renaissance notion that the beloved’s face was imprinted on the heart and that came into the poem, as did Othello’s foul cistern when his heart was consumed by jealousy. Certainly, beauty is important to poetry, to my poetry, to this poem, though I’ll tell you that I’m more attracted to the foul cistern than I am to beauty and renewal.

Michael T. Young: Which poem in this collection is your favorite? What in particular about it is meaningful to you?

Diane Lockward: I’m not sure I have a single favorite but among my favorites is “A Murmuration of Starlings.” I like the form of it—American Sentences, an invention of Allen Ginsberg. I liked the challenge of achieving the 17-syllable sentences. I also like the turn this poem takes. I’m not much of a social or political commentator in my poetry, but something of that snuck its way into the end of the poem. I like the departure I took in the poem.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Diane Lockward: I have always been a reader. I think that my poetry has probably been affected in some way by everything I’ve read—from Nancy Drew mysteries to Madame Bovary. As a high school English teacher, I used to regularly read aloud passages from novels such as Heart of Darkness. As I read Conrad’s words, I could feel their beautiful, horrible music. I remember one student who told me that she hadn’t liked that novel until she heard me read those passages aloud. I remember, too, reading a particular sentence and then commenting on its various syntactical feats. I concluded with “I love this sentence!” Imagine my puzzlement when my class burst into laughter! I asked what they were laughing about. One student spoke up and said she’d never heard anyone get so enthusiastic over a sentence.

Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Diane Lockward: Everything I think of seems to in some way relate to poetry. I like to bake, especially desserts, but food is grist for my metaphor mill. I like to walk, but it’s on my walks that I often find the word or line that eluded me back at the house. I love computer work, but much of the work relates to my poetry, e.g., making a video of a poem, doing my monthly poetry newsletter, blogging at my poetry blog, sending out submissions, and so on.

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Diane. Let’s close with one of your poems, your favorite from the collection.

A Murmuration of Starlings

. . . . . . It was raining dead birds.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .—Mayor Brian Levine, The Star-Ledger, 1/27/09

Starlings dropped from the sky,
mid-flight, like balloons suddenly deflated.

No time to spread their wings and glide on air,
and, synchronized, to soar and dive.

No time to close their wings, to wrap
themselves in shrouds of feathers, and sleep.

They fell like water balloons tossed blindly
from dormitory windows.

They fell like rocks dumped from the unlatched
rear end of a construction truck.

They fell like bombs, like stars, like fallen angels,
they fell like dead starlings.

Hundreds plummeted from the sky
on cars, porches, and snow-covered lawns.

They’d taken the poisoned bait
and, headfirst, dreamed one last time of England.

Birds who’d once disturbed a king’s sleep
with cries of Mortimer, Mortimer.

Memento mori, forcing us to contemplate
unexpected death.

Do we not already think of the fallen,
earth’s fields littered with corpses?

Dark vision made real,
their glistening bodies, silent now and still.

Birds who’d sung their own song
and wooed their mates with lavender and thistle.

Find more information about Diane Lockward or her books at her website or blog:Diane Lockward’s website: http://www.dianelockward.com/
Diane Lockward’s blog: http://www.dianelockward.blogspot.com/

Reivew of Temptation by Water

Temptation by Water. Diane Lockward.
Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, May 15. 2011. 90 pages,
ISBN: 978-1-936138-12-8

Temptation by Water is Diane Lockward’s fourth collection of poems and as I did with her previous book, I marveled at how well she puts a collection together. Better than any other poet I can think of, her collections are balanced between the power of each individual poem to stand on its own and the way the poems work together to develop related themes. Temptation by Water focuses not only on the heart and the disappointment or fulfillment of its desires but also embodies a struggle toward remaining vulnerable, to braving loss and pain so as to still be willing to take the risks of truly living. Throughout the collection self-exposure and self-preservation ebb and flow like water, the heart pulses with reaching out toward beauty and the world, then pulls back into itself, elements of passion crystalizing inside it while others are discarded in the wake of new influxes. It is a complex collection of subtly explored emotions, penned with humor and wit, craft and experimentation.

In these poems technical skill and playfulness combine into a subtle yet casual voice. For instance, in the poem “Pleasure” she concludes with an uncommon rhyme called an amphisbaenic rhyme. This is a type of slant rhyme where the words are reversed. Lockward rhymes “sleep” and “peels.” She also creates this rhyme phonetically with “slurp” and “pearls.” Only a truly deft writer could create such pyrotechnics in a poem that sounds completely at ease in its tone, which Lockward does not only in the poem “Pleasure,” but in the other poems throughout Temptation by Water.

The opening poem and the title poem of the collection “Temptation by Water,” prepares us for the difficult and daring world we are about to enter. In it a woman wades into Henri Matisse’s painting “The Open Window” where there is

. . . here and there a splash
of black, like shadows foreboding something
she cannot name.

She floats inside the frame,
like Alice free-falling down the hole, enters this
other world. . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The sea
like liquid emeralds, a kind of paradise, not one
human in sight, not one person she can name.

This is a kind of paradise, but not paradise. We are about to enter a world of poems that is similar to Alice’s Wonderland, a place that has dangers, a place that is not static but where hard lessons are learned and growth is a little frightening. The rabbit hole here is the human heart, its desires, its realizations and disappointments and all it does in response to both. The first poem in the first section, “Weather Report” closes with

. . . a slip of the tongue can change
desire into disaster, how desire and water
can sweep us away, and how we are all
looking for someone to push back
the waves, to grab hold of us, and keep us
here, pressed to the earth.

Of course, that desire to hold back mortality is impossible. No matter who we love, they too are mortal. That fact is confirmed 2 poems later in “Leaving in Pieces,” which is a humorous poem with a serious theme. The speaker’s husband loses his hair, the very thing the speaker says she married him for. Over the course of the poem, she kicks her husband out of their bed and replaces him with a dog, “his liquid eyes, his lustrous hair.” But the reason for it is that the husband’s bald head was always there

forcing me to contemplate
weighty subjects I preferred to ignore,
like my own mortality.

Love and desire in these poems is not just intimacy and acquisition but a battle with death. But that can’t be conquered and it comes “in pieces” or a little at a time: an aging mother’s ever stooping figure, winter taking over a garden, a lover lost. These reminders of mortality intimidate the heart that wants to do nothing more than withdraw into itself. So there’s the centipede who is a

Lucky little arthropod,
without our human flaws.
He has no poetry, no art, no songs,
but knows no fear when darkness enters a room.
. . . . . .(“What He Doesn’t Know”)

It’s a double-edged sword or a tongue-in-cheek conclusion, but either way it’s a metaphor by which the heart can guard itself. In another instance, a woman is “done now with ripeness, the mess of juice.” Or again, Humpty Dumpty is imagined as a cookie among others

. . . baked by his mother,
his grandmother, a procession of women in aprons,

their slippers padding into the kitchen,
women greasing pans, pre-heating ovens,

their hands dipped in flour,
fingers kneading butter, sugar, and eggs,

women filling and enfolding him,
bringing him home, wrapped
in the unbreakable dough of their arms.

These are examples of the heart contracting into itself to avoid the breakable world. But no real living is done there either and it slowly must find a way out of its lifeless securities. Sometimes it’s in taking a photo of natural beauty, as in “Capturing the Image.” Or, as is often the case with a Lockward poem, it’s a moment of the sensual pleasure in food as in “Onion,” or “Love Song with Plum” where the speaker takes the plum offered and concludes by confessing

. . . I want to stand at the perimeter
of this plum-luscious
earth, sink a plumb
line for balance, then plummet
like a bird on fire, placate
all my desires, my implacable
hunger for the ripeness of my sweetheart’s plum.

This is the renewal of the heart after the poem “Woman with Fruit” earlier in the collection declared the speaker “done now with ripeness, the mess of juice.” The collection affirms the growth of the heart’s struggle to risk living fully, and to accept the pains and loss that come with passion and love, with growth in a life that is fully lived. The final poem in the collection, “Seventh-Grade Science Project” affirms the risk of a girl catching butterflies and how it was worth it:

. . . . . . . . . . . . The pin-pricked fingers, wasp

. . . . . . . . . . . . stings, and blood on my arms
. . . . . . were what I paid for my first
A in science. All that summer

I ran like something wild and left
. . . . . . my multi-colored fingerprints
. . . . . . . . . . . . on everything I touched.

To go for that A, to live life passionately, requires accepting the bruises and losses, the “blood on my arms,” it is to be marked by the world and in turn to leave a mark. Temptation by Water is an affirmation not only of the temptation to plunge into the changing tide of life but a seduction, a masterful collection of poems you will not soon put down or soon forget.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Savoring: Why I Write

Nearly every writer at some point considers why he engages in this peculiarly difficult activity of writing. Many great writers have penned stunning essays on the topic, such as George Orwell and Joan Didion. The question suggests itself every time the writer puts pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Why am I doing this? Perhaps it’s different every time. The poem written today has a different reason for being written than the poem written yesterday.

Thomas Hardy said, “The mission of poetry is to record impressions, not convictions.” When I write a poem, I am not usually trying to convince anyone of the rightness or wrongness of a point of view, I am usually trying to recreate a moment, an observation, a sensation. Sometimes those sensations imply a point of view, but the perspective is only important in so far as it conveys the sensations, in remaking the moment in the mind of the reader. What I want them to come away with is an experience for their own contemplation, not a principle of moral conduct.

Writing is a way of finding meaning or creating meaning. Life and existence aren’t implicitly meaningful. The sun doesn’t mean anything by itself, it simply is. A life doesn’t mean anything in itself, it simply is. But to me, the sun or a leaf or a life, can mean something because of associations, of similarities or contrasts with other things. I see how, whenever I take a walk, I always end where I began, and realize this is like blood circulating through the body and this, in turn, is like being born and dying. Seeing such connections between disparate things and bringing them together in a poem or other work of art gives life cohesion and that cohesion is meaningful.

Writing is an act of discovery. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Many writers do not sit down with a particular idea to convey or some point to make. In fact, writing, and especially writing poetry, is not about making a point, it’s about discovering a point.

Writing is a way of seizing the day, of approaching something with full attention. Even if one doesn’t live in the fast pace of city life, life goes by quickly because we don’t pay attention to everything, especially the small moments of simple beauty or insight. In fact, we can’t. Work, chores, bills, all the daily responsibilities take up our attention. Writing is a way of slowing down the flow and reflecting on what has passed.

“Savor” is one of my favorite words. It literally means “to taste.” But it is also used to mean “to value” or “to fully enjoy.” There are things we do, moments that pass, events we participate in without valuing them, or “tasting” them. Like medicines, we swallow them without chewing, without savoring. But we should savor life, that is, fully taste the moments and events we are in, fully value them. Writing is a way of doing that. It’s a way of getting to the bottom of a feeling, a hunch, a moment. Writing is a way of tasting and valuing the depth of the day.

In good poetry and good prose there is some indescribable sensation conveyed, some kind of ethereal hunger satisfied. It is something more than the ideas, the theme and subject, the plot or characters. Sometimes I think it is the consequence of the physical aspects of language, that language elicits a physical response. It is as if the sensibility, that vague organ which registers aesthetic appreciation, were something between a tongue and a stomach. Like eating a meal of quality food prepared by an expert cook, it registers a kind of pleasure but also satisfies a kind of hunger. Something is digested that nourishes another, more rarified system, and is noticed not in better eye sight, but in sharper perception, not in clearer skin but in greater sensitivity to the moment and to the world. Because of this, a good poem may not teach us to be moral people but we are better people for reading a good poem.

Bertolt Brecht said, “First comes food then comes morality.” It is very hard to be a good person or care about being a good person when one is starving. Brecht was right, but it is also true that when this aesthetic hunger is satisfied, it is easier to be kind and care about being kind. The world is a better place in light of a good poem. Because in its afterglow, sunlight passing through the maples appears thicker, greener and more golden, as if color settled on the skin like gauze. It is warm and comforting. That is, the light becomes tangible. The aroma of a season becomes pungent with significance and the darkest view distills to a surprising clarity. In that clarity, there may not be an articulated principle or moral dictum, but there is a desire to continue that clarity and significance, a reason to be kind, a motive for not spreading darkness.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Interview with Paul Hostovsky

Michael T. Young: Thank you for agreeing to an interview. I’ve admired your work for a little while now and it’s quite a pleasure to have this chance to talk. You’ve been asked in other interviews who your influences are, but your poetry has such a playful, acrobatic voice, I’m curious if you see any particular influences in developing that voice. How did you develop a voice that so dances with words and ideas?

Paul Hostovsky: Thank you. I’m not sure where the voice comes from. Sometimes I think I found it in the boys’ room back in junior high. It has a lot of bathroom humor mixed with a little of the sacred. A lot of the profane and a little of the unnamable. Sure, I love to play. And I love certain playful poems by Tony Hoagland, Mark Halliday, Denise Duhamel, Thomas Lux, Jeffrey Harrison, Stephen Dobyns, Stephen Dunn, Gary Miranda, William Matthews, May Swenson, Frost, and others of course. There are so many. I think all poets want to play. Writing is playing. It’s a serious kind of play, but it’s play nonetheless. And then there are those poets who you find standing a little stiffly, a little self-consciously, on the edge of the playground, outside of the game, and their poems often feel like work, not play. Of course, I don’t like to play all the time. Too much play can start to feel tiresome, glib, frivolous, stupid. I also want to be a serious poet. Just not too damn serious.

Michael T. Young: In your interview for the newsletter of the Embassy of the Czech Republic, your response to a question is the majority of the text of your poem “Prague” in A Little in Love a Lot. Were you quoting the poem in that interview, or did the poem come from your response to the question in the interview?

Paul Hostovsky: I think the poem came first. I think I was working on the poem at the time, and I sort of tried it out in the interview, in prose, because it seemed to answer the question. I often do that with poems I’m working on, i.e., take parts of them and try them out in letters, in emails, in conversations with people out there in the world. Why should we incarcerate our poems inside the poems? Let’s set them free, let’s get them out there into the world.

Michael T. Young: There are a lot of polarities in A Little in Love a Lot: East and West, open and closed, orgasm and agony. I had a sense of a kind of dialectical play. What do you see as the significance of extremes in this new collection? How does it function within the book’s overall theme?

Paul Hostovsky: Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I am an all-or-nothing kind of guy. For better or worse. I mean there’s life. And there’s death. Not much in between. I do like to laugh. But I like a good cry even better. And sex is great. Love is great. Death is also great, they say. And I’m usually thinking about one or the other. La mort, or la petite mort. But now that you mention it, yes, I suppose I am about extremes. I’m always jumping to my death. It’s been that way all my life. When I get sick, I jump to my death. When I fall in love, I say she is so beautiful I want to die. Go figure.

Michael T. Young: So many of the poems in the collection are about love and sex, did you set out to write a collection about these subjects or did the collection just come together after having written a number of independent poems?

Paul Hostovsky: I have never set out to write a collection. Putting a book of poems together, for me, is as Ted Kooser described it in an interview I once read: he talked about sitting down with all the poems he’d written over the last few years and trying to make a poem out of those poems. And yeah, a lot of these poems are about love and sex. My friend the poet John Lee Clark said he noticed the phrase “a little in love” came up frequently in my poems (not so much in this book, but in previous books). “You’re a little in love a lot,” he said to me. Boom! I’d been playing around with various titles for the book, and when he said that to me, well, I just knew I’d found the right title. I asked him if I could use it, and he said be my guest.

Michael T. Young: Occasionally a poem in one section seems to play off a poem in another section. For instance, the ending of “Hand Cream” seems to throw one back to the poem “Love and Death” with its talk of the illusion of sickness, pain, and death. Another are the two poems called “Open.” Was this kind of echo across the sections intended and what did you see as its significance?

Paul Hostovsky: I’m not sure what the significance is. I do repeat myself a lot. It can be annoying, I know: Did I tell you this before? Yeah, you did. I do sometimes use the same or similar lines in more than one poem. Some might say you shouldn’t do that. But it’s not intentional. I mean I don’t plan it that way. And yes, there are two poems called “Open” because it seemed a good title for the first one, and then it seemed a good title for the second one, too. It did occur to me that I already had a poem called “Open” and that maybe I should try to think of a different title. But then I thought, why not two? Where is it written? And anyway, Louise Gluck has at least seven poems called “Matins” and ten called “Vespers” in one of her books. But that was probably intentional. After all, she is a very serious poet. Though she does play nicely here and there, now and then.

Michael T. Young: Again, looking at the two poems, “Hand Cream” and “Love and Death” I was curious about the assertion that death is an illusion. Is this something you believe or was it an idea you were toying with in the development of the poems?

Paul Hostovsky: Well, both, really. Do I believe that death is an illusion? Helen Schucman said this about A Course in Miracles: “I know it’s true, I just don’t believe it.” That’s what I would say about death being an illusion. And, for that matter, life. There’s actually a lot of the Course in my poems. Or, rather, a lot of my poems are a reaction to the Course. I’ve studied it, on and off, for years. It says a lot of things, often very beautifully, but to sum it up, yes, it’s all one vast illusion. And then there’s Whitman: “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death…/ All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/ And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”

Michael T. Young: Two of my favorite poems in the collection are “Orgasms in Autumn” and “Battling the Wind and Everything Else.” Both seem to imply an acceptance of the chaotic beauty of the falling leaves of autumn. In “Battling the Wind” it’s called a party. Do you see the acceptance of that disorder, embracing it, as a key to happiness or a celebration of beauty or both?

Paul Hostovsky: Yeah, both, I guess. Fall is my favorite season, and winter is a close second. Frost’s poem “My November Guest” says it all. As a kid I wasn’t exactly a swinger of birches—I wasn’t that boy too far from town to learn baseball—but I was somewhat solitary and I do remember spending hours alone on blustery autumn days just running around and trying to catch the leaves as they fell, without letting them hit the ground. I didn’t actually do anything with the leaves—I didn’t collect them, or make something out of them—I just caught them and let them go. So all these years later, I made a poem out of that. As for “Battling the Wind,” I have this neighbor with a perfect lawn, and I hate him a little for that because my lawn is the picture of chaos and old age, with a big bald spot in the middle. He’s always out there with his lawnmower or leaf-blower or sprinkler or lime-spreader. I mean doesn’t this guy have anything better to do than work on his lawn? I mean if it were a poem, I could see that. But it’s not a poem. Or is it?

Michael T. Young: The earlier poem “Open” in the collection reminded me of a line from Paradise Lost where Adam says to Eve, “Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more.” It seemed to me your poem said, as Adam was saying, that love must always remain a free choice. What do you see as the relationship between love and freedom?

Paul Hostovsky: Well, that poem is sort of about a woman I dated who had the annoying habit of leaving everything open—doors, drawers, cabinets, the little cap on the tube of toothpaste—and it kind of drove me crazy. Nevertheless, I loved her a lot. She did not, however, want our relationship to be open, in the modern sense. But neither did I. I just put that in the poem to make it more interesting. I’m a little in love a lot in my poems, but I’m hopelessly monogamous in my life; in my life I’m about as sexy as John Milton wearing a wig and brandishing a feather quill, standing and waiting, for the turn in the poem.

Michael T. Young: The poems “ARS P.O.” and “If Not for Stephen Dunn,” talk about the power of poems, seeming to say they are even dangerous. What do you see as the power of poetry in American society? Do you see it as having any political force, social force? How would you characterize that power?

Paul Hostovsky: Jeez, I dunno. I like ars poetica poems. But I think poets can be very annoying people. If not for the poetry, I don’t think I’d have anything to do with us. And as for the poems, well, I could probably do without ninety percent of them. If not for the ten percent that I love, I don’t think I’d have anything to do with poetry. That being said, I don’t think I have much more to say about the power of poetry, except, maybe, that people who love poetry are like the people who love the rain: we’re in the minority. And sometimes it isn’t raining exactly, but sort of spitting, or misting, or sleeting. It’s kind of like that with poetry. Not exactly. But sort of.

Michael T. Young: Which poem in this collection is your favorite? What in particular about it is meaningful to you?

Paul Hostovsky: It’s hard to pick one, I mean I love them all (ha ha). And I hate them all, too. I guess “Miracles”, the first poem in the final section, is among my favorites. It’s one of those poems, as I’ve mentioned, that is a reaction to A Course in Miracles. I like the poem’s balance of humor and seriousness, playfulness and death. And the way it both resists and embraces the teachings of the Course. And I like the fact that you don’t have to know anything about the Course to get the poem. I like the poem’s physicality, its clear straightforward speaking voice, and its simple difficulty, or difficult simplicity, and how it refers to itself (writing teachers will tell you not to do that), how it uses itself as an example in the poem, to make its point. I wasn’t sure if that would work, and I’m still not sure it does. Some days it seems to. Other days not. Anyway, most days I like it.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Paul Hostovsky: Well, I read mostly fiction. I snack on poetry, but I live on fiction. Which may help to explain why my poems are so hopelessly narrative. But the fiction writers I like to read are the ones who use all the devices of poetry, except for the line break. Intelligent, gorgeous, humorous, heartbreaking, amazing prose. For example, Julia Glass, Margot Livesey, Michael Cunningham, Ian McEwan, T.C. Boyle. And many, many others. But who has the time? I’m a slow reader. I savor, I reread, whole paragraphs, whole pages. Recently, when I got to the last page of Ian McEwan’s little book, On Chesil Beach, I went back to the first page, and started over. And read it all over again. Because it was that good.

Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Paul Hostovsky: I like to whittle. I like to cut out a ball-in-a-cage, a chain-and-anchor, an acanthus leaf, out of a single block of wood. Yeah, I like to make these small, useless, intricate, beautiful things. Nothing like poetry. Wink, wink.

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Mr. Hostovsky. Let’s close with one of your poems, your favorite from the collection.


Spiritual texts are the most boring books in the world.
None of them mentions a bicycle
or a Ferris wheel, or baseball, or sea lions, or ice cream.
They just lump them all together into “the world.”
The “world of appearances.” The “world of illusions.”
You can walk through this world and not
believe it for a minute. You can get to the end of it
and not believe that either. The miracle is seeing
right through the world to another
world that’s right here, right now.
But you have to let go of everything.
You have to let go of everything—you can
start by letting go of these words, just let them
go. Let them fall through the air, skim
your knee, spill to the floor. How to read these words
when they’re lying on the floor face-down
like bodies? That is the seeming difficulty.
You can sit in a small room all alone with your body
and not believe it for a minute. You can
don the humble johnny that closes in the back,
and when the doctor comes in with his numbers
which are your numbers, you can
not believe that either. You can let them fall from his lips,
skim your ear, pool on the floor where your eyes
and his eyes have fallen. He won’t
mention the bicycle, or the Ferris wheel which is
taking up a lot of room right now in the little
examining room where a sea lion has clambered up
onto the table and is barking, and the baseballs are flying,
and the vendors are hawking ice cream—because he can’t
see them. He can’t perform a miracle.

Find more of Paul Hostovsky's books and poetry, and other information about him at his website: http://www.paulhostovsky.com/