August 24, 2016

Picking Poetry Back Up

Good afternoon. Today I’d like to talk about poetry.

I was a creative writing major in undergrad. For some reason I drifted to writing poetry. I think it was in part because I didn’t read a lot of poetry at the time outside of the giant Norton's that I didn’t really have any of that anxiety of influence - sitting in front of the computer, trying to not sound like Vonnegut or Nabokov or those other guys that was reading (and yes, they were pretty much exclusively men). I could write with my own voice and put some stuff together and talk about it in class. It gave me plenty of time to live the life of a writer. Basically I was drinking heavily when I was not at work or at school. And then sometimes even then.’

But I have circled back around. I feel I am in a good place professionally with a nice title. I initially went to grad school after WVU and did two years there without doing the last bit to give me a master’s degree. Not that the master’s degree was what I needed or would it have helped much since I wasn’t going on in academia nor was adjuncting appealing to me. I have my MBA of all things and fostered an interest in economics after the great financial crisis.

And then I graduated from my MBA in May after four years of business classes pretty much nonstop. I have a mental space that calls for filling with a creative endeavor. I’m volunteering at the library, but I made a very deliberate move to get back into poetry. To do so, I thought I would have a look at the poetry books that I had bought over the years but had not actually read. Not sure why that happened. Most poetry books are less than a hundred pages, and those pages aren’t spilled to the margins with text.

First up is Comet Scar by James Harms. James was one of my first professional mentors, as he was the primary poetry professor at WVU. I have read some of his work before, the book the “Joy Addict”. That book was grounded in the LA of Jim’s youth. This piece is more mature, but what strikes me about Harms’ work is how grounded in place it is. He can evoke an area that I know and I can see the map in my head as well as he can evoke a place I’ve never seen. They are personal and concrete with a bit of melancholy in the mix. I haven’t talked to him in years, but I’ll never forget buying this book from him at the MLA conference: as he signed the front piece, he joked that his entire readership was in that room. That’s the melancholy that seeps into the poems, but mixed with joy and love.

I also picked up off my shelf a couple books by Dennis Etzel, Jr. The author was a colleague of mine at Kansas State. Dennis is a proud Kansas-based poet where two of the books of poems I have really reflect how his childhood in the 80s shaped the man who he is today. IN “Robinson MIddle Sham,” the poet reflects on the places of his middle school, the poems in this slim volume detailing a journey through the places he walked in the past. “My Secret Wars of 1984” is a much more stylistically adventurous composition, melding together disparate sources to tell the story of the year as Hejinian tells the story of her life. It is less accessible than the earlier work, but more polished and a greater realization of the author’s vision.  

Finally there is Waking Dreams by Donna L. Potts. Potts was a professor of mine and my wife’s at Kansas State. This volume is actually signed to her and not me as they had many classes together. Potts writes with a playfulness that shows her love and ease with the language. But though the writing is playful, it is not always reflected in the subject matter of the poem, as they are sexually frank and reflective of potential and realized violence a woman faces in society. Light with the dark brings attention to the both through the contrast.

There are some books of poems, though, That I’m not sure how I cam across it. One I have is “The Imperfect” by George Tysh. Tysh writes here these spare beautiful things that play with common form and structure but use the page as part of an artistic composition in itself while allowing the words to carry meaning. I have a number of pages dog-eared while I read through it. I like “The Black Silk Sonnet” (p. 64) which uses sonnet structure in lines of one or two words. I also highlighted the lines in “Related” (p. 35) which just spoke to me for some reason: “pork chops from a corpse depends on shadows / barking with dogs inseparable from darkness.”

I had finished all of the poetry books I had, except for this one doorstop anthology, and I went down to the local bookstore. Now the fact that there is a local independent bookstore and that it opened up recently and that it carries poetry is a thing in itself I shouldn’t be mad about. But there was not much space dedicated the form, so I can’t complain.

I did drop some money at this bookstore since just liking the d=idea of a local bookstore is not enough. You actually need to spend some money there.

So I recently bought Mary Oliver’s “A Thousand Mornings”. I wasn’t really that impressed by Oliver. It was like a book of poems that you might get for your mom or girlfriend if she had expressed some interest in poetry and you didn’t know what to pick up for her - this would not be offensive to those sensibilities. Excepting one of the last poems “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy,” nothing really stuck with me or really moved me in that sort of purging pity and fear way Aristotle tells you a good poem must do.

I also picked up “My Wicked Wicked Ways” by Sandra Cisneros. I liked her “House on Mango Street” for it’s portrayal of growing up and I liked that as a chicagoan that the house was in our city. I once was turned away from an overcapacity reading of hers. I also have to share that the address she gives for the house was a Jiffy Lube franchise the time I looked. It may be something different now. This isn’t about that book, but it sort of is. The book was poetry in itself, so it is hard to see this book as something really different from Mango Street. The poems are still slice of life, but she’s writing as an adult about being an adult and the book isn’t too focused on one place. Even though the book has a copyright of almost 30 years ago, it still feels pretty fresh.

I also picked up “Rome” by Dorothea Lasky. I really liked this title, if only for the meta moment in one of the poems not called Rome that she mentions that she was going to name the collection Rome. There’s not as much about Rome as I thought there would be though, Bit of false advertising, I’d say. What there is is a bunch of fun poems that really show the poet as someone you’d want to hang out with and have a few drinks. I’ll definitely be looking for her name on more works.

Finally, I picked up “The Hatred of Poetry” by Ben Lerner. This book is not poems, but an essay about how to enjoy (and not enjoy) the experience of poetry. I don’t dislike it, and I would have liked to see this as a performance or a class as much as an essay. There were a lot of moments I wanted to interact with the writer as I would a teacher, looking for enlargement or explanation or just to quarrell, but reading removes you from that possibility. What this title also did for me was bring the author to my attention as someone else I should follow as they grow and print more stuff.

That’s it for now. I’m not done, but once I finish the last couple I have, I might need more as I work my back into the field.