Sunday, December 4, 2016

Poetry Monday: Women of Words

I have, on occasion, been called a literary activist. I have to admit I’ve never been entirely certain what that is, or whether I really deserve this moniker.  In so far as I feel that art can create a space for positive change, and in so far as I’m always excited about being involved in those efforts, perhaps the label does fit me. On the other hand, I  feel that polemic should remain separate from art, which has its own aesthetic, often far more subtle and complex than politics. That in itself is perhaps a kind of activism: the notion that art can open us up, allowing us to think more deeply, and see one another as utterly connected - so when someone in this world is hurt, we also are hurt.

People like Janette Hoppe and her Papatuanuku Press provide literary activism of the best kind.  The not-for-profit press exists to provide support for indigenous writers, for making silence and pain heard, and as a catalyst for healing.  The press has done all sorts of powerful activities this year including Poetry Bombs, Free Art Fridays, Books on the Rails, and the Women of Words poetry happenings to name a few.  I was lucky enough to participate in Women of Words, and I have to say that the five events were managed superbly, engaging a large number of local poets (boy do we have some talent in this area), and raising over $700 for the Hunter Women’s Centre and the White Ribbon Organisation, both great causes. But wait, there’s more.  One of the outputs from those events was a print book called Women of Words: eat, stray’d, love, a collection of poetry.  The cost of the book is $20, with the profits split equally (and entirely) between The Hunter Women’s Centre and the White Ribbon Organisation.  If you’re looking for a unique, ethical present for someone, this might well be it.  To order a copy, just Paypal $20 to Janette Hoppe at hoponin@bigpond.net.au, or visit her Facebook page and send a direct message if you have questions or special instructions for sending.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Compulsive Reader Newsletter for Dec is out

The December Compulsive Reader newsletter has now been full distributed and if you’re a subscriber, a copy should have already arrived in the inbox.  If for some reason you haven’t gotten it, or are still considering whether to subscribe, you can check it out in the  Compulsive Reader archive.

The newsletter features the usual round-up of literary news, ten fresh reviews, new author interviews, and another great book giveaway.  If you aren’t a subscriber and would like to be, just drop by http://www.compulsivereader.com and sign up - it’s easy!


photo credit: cseeman Kresge Library Collection Transfer - July 8, 2014 via photopin (license)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Poetry Monday: Squeezing language like honey - on Eileen Myles’ "The Honey Bear"

I’ve got Eileen Myles’ I Must be Living Twice by my bedside, and every night before I go to bed, I read a poem from it. This very slow reading allows me to take a bit more time than I usually would over each poem, really delving into them and sometimes giving me interesting dreams.  Someone asked me the other day if I was a speed reader or found myself reading faster the older (and presumably more experienced at reading) I got.  My answer was that I am a slow reader and am getting ever slower.  Slow is good, I think.  It’s not so much speed, but the amount of attention I give to what I read.  I want to really experience the things I read - not merely scan or skim over the surface.  That will often take time, and one reading is often not enough for me, especially with poetry.  I have to mull and then return.  I was particularly happy about the opportunity to go even deeper into one of the poems in Myles’ latest collection, which, by serendipity was on the list of essay topics for the ModPo course I’m doing.  The poem is called “The Honey Bear” and you can read the full text of it here: https://media.sas.upenn.edu/afilreis/ModPo/Writing-Assignments-PDFs/Myles_The-Honey-Bear.pdf

Following is my 500 or so (bit more...) essay.  If you have opinions about the poem, please feel free to comment.  I’d love to open a dialogue on this one.

Eileen Myles’ “The Honey Bear” presents what appears to be a straightforward narrative.  A twenty nine year old woman is standing in the kitchen on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, smoking her last cigarette before quitting, making a cup of herbal tea, and sweetening it with honey from a plastic bear dispenser.  On the radio, first we hear Ivy Anderson and then Billie Holiday – both torchy jazz singers.  The scene is suffused with a sense of time passing, both in terms of growing older and with the progression of the clock as the evening moves towards the next day.  The use of the continual present tense, and the prosaic and domestic activity depicted calls to mind the New York School of poetry.  It’s clear by the bathtub being in the kitchen that this is an older style New York City apartment, and the darkness of the music, the tea and the surroundings is offset by the brightness of the artificial lights.  
 It’s impossible to read a poem that follows this sort of progression and urban sensibility while referencing Billie Holiday, without thinking of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”.  O’Hara’s seminal New York School poem becomes a touchstone for this one, evoking the slow sensual pleasure of immediate sensation, from the combination of the music, the scented tea, the honey, and the tactile grooves of the bear’s face.  We know that tomorrow is the speaker’s birthday, that the speaker is alone and using the sensual aspects of the scene to offset the melancholy.  These elements, and even in the little pun in the repetition of the letter O all provide a homage to O’Hara.
 The poem, however, is suffused with rhythm and repetitions that are more stylized, musical and less prosaic than you’d usually find in The New York School. The repeated use of the present participle of verbs like hanging, smoking, singing, squeezing, standing, dripping, starting combines with the assonance of the O sound in Holiday, radio, smoking, odd, suppose, older, and the O in “O it’s very quiet”, “O very sad and sweet”, and “O honey”. Though the poem is only one stanza, about mid-way through it turns at “I’m not a bad looking woman”, interrupting the voices of the jazz singers and changing the form.  Though the scene doesn’t change, there is a progression from the clipped line breaks in the first half of the poem, to the looser structure of the second.  The O sound creates a sense of longing that progresses to sexual desire, intensified by the noodle of honey dripping down the bear’s face.  From this point onward, the poem begins to flow, opening out with mid-sentence spaces that creates a more dramatic, breathless energy: “I suppose     O it’s very quiet” or “in my kitchen tonight      I’m squeezing”.  Other words also repeat: older, sweet, odd, honey, late, kitchen, as the words drop down the page like the honey into the tea.  This dissolution breaks the narrative quality of the first half, becoming more surreal as it zeros in on the nexus of desire, the room’s silence, and the intensity of the moment in which all of these separate senses come together to the final climax of “I’m staring at the honey bear’s face.”  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Compulsive Reader Newsletter for November is out

The Compulsive Reader newsletter for November has now gone out to all subscribers.  This latest issue contains two new book giveaways, ten fresh reviews, and a lot of literary news.  If you haven’t received your copy, you can grab a copy from the archive here: Compulsive Reader Archive.  If you aren’t a subscriber and would like to be (it’s a very nice worldwide community of book lovers!), just drop by Compulsive Reader: http://www.compulsivereader.com and sign up.  It’s free - just one email a month and plenty of free books.  Enjoy!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Poetry Monday: Joseph Massey and “Polar Low"

As I’m sure anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m in the midst of a 10 week (annual!) poetry course being held at the UPenn on Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.  One of the many things I like about the course is how different it is each year.  This year is particularly fresh, with a lot of material I haven’t come across before, including, to my delight, the work of Joseph Massey, whose book Illocality is on its way to me now from the US.  The poem that really got to me was "Polar Low”, and rather than try to summarise it, I’ve put the text of my essay on this poem below, not only because it covers what I want to say about the sparse complexity of this poem, but also because it provides an example of a close reading of a poem - the sort of thing I tend to do when reviewing a book (and why I’m continually drawn to reviewing, and the way it forces me to take time).

I've found a full text version of of this lovely poem here: http://robmclennan.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/joseph-massey-illocality.html.  More on Joe Massey can be found at his website.


The nothing that is: approaching nirvana in Joseph Massey’s "Polar Low”

There’s a precision in Joseph Massey’s “Polar Low,” that owes much to the Imagist tradition.  For one thing, Massey’s “direct treatment” of the trailer is described with stark clarity. The poem could be a painting, with its single image of a “yellow double-wide trailer”.  There is “nothing else”, aside from setting: the winter sun, the snow, and the sparse vegetation. The singularity of this observation and the absence of an ‘observing self’ is pure Imagism. The contrast of the colours between the yellow trailer and the white snow becomes luxurious in such a desolate scene, calling to mind William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  However, there is much in this work that takes it outside of the Imagist tradition.

The colours themselves are more than what they seem. The yellow of the trailer mirrors the yellow of the winter sun, which has been anthropomorphised into amnesia, while the morning becomes inarticulate.  Suddenly the reader becomes conscious of a human presence, whose suffering (coldness/poverty), and inarticulate amnesia is suffused into the scene by reversal of the pathetic fallacy, as if the human were transforming into the sun and morning rather than the other way around.  The white of the ice sheathing the trailer mirrors, both literally in terms of the light being reflected, and metaphorically in terms of matching, the white of the snow and the implied white of emptiness (the dimming scene as the piece progresses), and perhaps the white of an unwritten page. These “variations” also contrast with the green/brown of the winter thicket, a dying remnant of spring.

Rhythm is created by repetition of sound and structure, with short couplets that don’t necessarily couple up.  The first stanza has two hyphenated constructions, which are semantically opposite—half-sheathed versus double-wide—as well as being metrically and syllabically reversed.  The word “mirrors” also becomes a connector linking the trailer with the much more abstract morning – disparate images equated.  Massey uses punctuation between stanzas to slow the reading down and force a pause for reflection at each full stop.  We stop after morning as almost a shudder in our movement across the scene, and then again after sun, so that the two phrases, “The inarticulate morning” and “The amnesiac sun” are paralleled rhythmically and semantically, creating a breathlike quality to the reading.

The next sentence begins with the conjunction “And”, the point at which the poem begins to move, the trailer receding. The repetition of sound becomes stronger here, taking on a more regular rhythm that doesn’t pause until we reach (the) “perimeter”, creating a meditative effect.  This is further heightened by the soft rhymes of thin, dim, perim-eter.  Alliteration throughout the poem also adds to the deepening of breath, with the m sound in “mirrors", “morning", “amnesiac"; the s sound in “else", “contrast", “these"; the k sound in “thicket" and “choked"; the o sound in “other" and “over"; and the n sound in “noun” and “frozen".  These sonic connections give the poem a deep unity that not only creates motion in the stillness of the scene, but also draws the reader into the inarticulateness - a meaning beyond semantics, as if all we could see is white and all we can hear is our own heartbeat. At this point, the entire poem transforms the present moment itself, rather than the trailer, into its subject, and the dissolving of those names (or “nouns”) into a kind of mindful emptiness or the realisation of non-self, and both the reader and writer’s union with the scene, as the denouement.  

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Charity:water Project Completed (final update)

It has been two years since my Charity:Water 50th Birthday campaign and I’m very happy to report that the project is now completed.  Together, we raised $1,670 to help drill a well so a community of 360 people in a village in The Republic of Mali, West Africa, could have access to clean water (something I have plenty of and tend to take for granted).  Every penny of what we raised went to this project (no admin fees!), the total cost of which was just under $14,000 (lots of other generous donors got involved some matching what people raised).  I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present, and the value of this gift continues to provide value throughout the community, especially the women and children who used to have to walk up to two hours to collect water, which often wasn’t safe and made people sick.  It’s very gratifying to see a project through to its completion and to see how many people came together to make this project a success.  If you’d like to see more specifically how you helped, who else got involved, and where the project is located on a map, you can visit the project page here:  Tomikoro F2 Community Water Project.  Thanks so much to all of you and if you decide to do some similar kind of fundraising project, do please feel free to hit me up.



Sunday, October 9, 2016

Poetry Monday (Sunday): Michele Seminara’s Engraft

I have no idea who decides on days-of-the-week things like Throwback Thurs
or Poetry Sunday.  I had just assumed it was some kind of alliterative thing, though there’s no real alliteration in Poetry Sunday.  Operating across geographical boundaries does means you can kind of double up - celebrate your birth twice without growing older, have a Poetry Sunday on Monday, and basically break any semantical rule you want on the grounds that they do it differently somewhere else.  If any day of the week is in need of a poetry injection, it’s Monday which is often sadly devoid of poetry.  So herewith is Poetry Sunday which I’ll continue to do on my Monday but which is most definitely Sunday somewhere else in the world (North America for example).

I've been immersed in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for ModPo, and have been loving it as always, but reading Stein is never relaxing for me.  I always have to work with it.  It’s tiring.  Michele Seminara’s Engraft is beautifully written poetry, smart, elegant and in many ways post-modern, conceptualist and rich, but it’s not hard work.  The poems are immediately familiar to me in terms of their landscapes, and the domestic sensibility of their concerns: love, loss, aging, death, illness, motherhood, and literary intertextuality all presented lightly, and sometimes with humour, even at its darkest.  I have only read through the book once, and usually read through several times before writing a full review, but by way of a taster, here’s a snippet of one of the poems that hit me immediately:
How is it that we came to be locked
in these bodies, lives ossifying
not rights of fat, rigidity and suffering?That man was once a boy
light as a dandelion, the body
barely given thought. 
Now it’s a trap, and death the escape.
The doctor says my oestrogen is low.
She prescribes hormone to alter
the cruelty of my vision. (“Zhuang Zhou Dreams in Pink”)
Full review will follow at Compulsive Reader soon, but if you can’t wait, the book can be purchased in both hard copy and ebook form at Michele Seminara’s blog here: https://micheleseminara.wordpress.com
or from the publisher here: http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or at Michele Seminara’s blog: