Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sharon Thesen, The Receiver

Vernon, 1954

He worked for the city & early one spring morning
still dark out, he took me with him
to collect the still-burning oil lamps
from the road construction & put them in the back of the
Still burning? Or extinguished, I don’t recall

— and the privilege I felt, wordless in the front seat,
sitting still, being good
to deserve this honour, to be woken and taken out
so early with no one around but us

as he gathered the heavy sooty lamps
that guarded during the night the still-soft asphalt
of repaired pot-holes and altered curbs.

B.C. poet and editor Sharon Thesen’s latest poetry title The Receiver (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2017), a collection of lyrics and prose-poems, some of which focus on family and memory, reminiscent, slightly, of George Bowering’s Autobiology (Vancouver BC: Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, Vancouver Series #7, 1972), working through how stories are told and retold, and shift in both telling and memory, sometimes deliberately, and often harden into those variations, some of which are very far from the facts. Set in five sections – “The Receiver,” “My Education as a Poet,” “Around then,” “Charles, Frances, Ralph, and Me” and “Book of Motz” – the first three sections evolve from a lyric exploration of family histories to more literary matters, akin to the essay-poems of, say, C.D. Wright (a quote by Wright is one of two that opens the collection) or Anne Carson. Thesen visits and revisits, reexamining her own memories and influences, from family to writers, in poems that write of visiting her mother, recollections of her youth, or the poets Shelley and Anna Akhmatova. Not that any of this is a new thread in Thesen’s work; one might even suggest that these are the foundations upon which Thesen’s work exists, but there is something about her view, perhaps, that is bringing new elements to light here. Particularly curious is the inclusion of the poem “The Pangs of Sunday,” a piece that shares a title with her first volume of selected poems, published in 1990 by McClelland and Stewart (a title that is otherwise unseen throughout the selected). Did it take this long for Thesen to complete the poem?

The Pangs of Sunday

You’d go to Banyen Books on Sunday afternoons,
a searcher after meaning. So much meaning, so
little time! Was it to be mental or physical, your
ailment, in the end. In the end the ailment revolved
around love, mental or physical. Across the road
was the health food store, the herbalist, and the pains
and the ills of real estate & car insurance even though

it was a matter of proximity
and luck, how you arrived anywhere with no one
to witness and adjust, no one to drive the car. I
could get my fortune told in the sweet
cafe of Sunday by the woman with the bangle bracelets
and the low voice and the black, tangled hair – who else
to believe? — you only hoped your tip would be enough
to jumpstart the engine of your happy fate idling
while you got settled with your purse, etc,
and turned up the volume on the radio.

Although this isn’t the most interesting in the collection (my preference remains with the longer prose poems over the shorter lyrics), but it furthers the throwback element that Thesen presents in the book as a whole. Really, Thesen’s The Receiver is an intriguing blend of the past and the present, composing poems that work to revisit and reconsider her history, memory and influences, as opposed to simply repeat or re-hash, as she manages perhaps her strongest collection in quite some time, going back to News and Smoke: Selected Poems (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1999), A pair of scissors (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2000), or even my personal favourite, the intimate smallness of Aurora (Talonbooks, 1995). An interesting direction to the collection emerges through the last two of the five sections, as the fourth is an essay exploring that game of telephone the book’s title suggests, “Charles, Frances, Ralph, and Me,” that begins:

The recent fracas that followed an audience “question” about how Black Mountain College could call itself progressive when it was patriarchal, racist, and white (following a four-part panel discussion at the Black Mountain College exhibit in Los Angeles), as well as my own very recent visit to the exhibit, had precipitated some memories and feelings about my long association with the late Ralph Maud as co-editor of the two editions of the correspondence between Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff. You might say “patriarchy” was the underlying theme, in both theory and practice, not only of the correspondence but also of Ralph’s and my relationship as we slowly transcribed and published the letters. The bickering, the disputes, the discussions centred mostly on how “crazy” Boldereff was (Ralph) or why she may have, legitimately, felt Olson was exploiting her (me), mirroring uncomfortably Ralph’s and my working arrangement.

While I don’t know about the “recent fracas,” the essay is a curious element to the collection; while it fits thematically, it feels an odd inclusion, in that perhaps the essay should be given more prominence for its exploration of Olson scholarship, and Thesen’s long-standing relationship with and work upon same. And yet, the essay fits perfectly, furthering her interest in reconsidering how and what stories are actually told, working to give Frances Boldereff’s relationship and correspondence with Olson the proper exploration and understanding. The final section, “Book of Motz,” is subtitled “Conversations with Frances Boldereff,” and appear to be exactly what they say they are. In this section of short pieces, Thesen herself becomes the receiver, and allows a credit to Boldereff in the best way, one might say, possible: through her own words. It suggests there is far more work to do on Boldereff, and her relationship to Charles Olson and his work. One might hope this is the push required to get that moving.

The Real Theatres of Pittsburgh

“There was this Irish Catholic guy. I begged him to go to bed with me. His father owned all the real theatres in Pittsburgh. Eva Galleon entertained at their elegant house, a limestone mansion. Real black marble floor. The ritzy dog on the front seat beside the chauffeur. The beautiful library upstairs. His little shrinking ascetic mother.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Mark Jarman

Mark Jarman’s [photo credit: Amy Jarman] most recent collection of poetry is The Heronry (Sarabande Books, 2017).  He has also published two books of essays about poetry, The Secret of Poetry and Body and Soul:  Essays on Poetry.  His honors include the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Poets’ Prize, the Balcones Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry.  He is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University where he has taught since 1983.  From 2009 until 2014 he served as an Elector of the American Poets’ Corner at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NewYork City, helping to induct playwright Tennessee Williams, novelists James Baldwin and Katherine Anne Porter, and poets Sylvia Plath and John Berryman.  He makes his home in Nashville with his wife Amy Jarman, head of the Voice Department at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music.  They have two daughters, Claire and Zoe.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, North Sea, which I published 40 years ago when I was 26, included poems that had an effect on my life, if by life you mean career.  The poems in my first book helped to garner me a National Endowment for the Arts grant for poetry, which in turn helped me to quit my onerous teaching job, and with my wife go to live in Europe for a year.  There, in Italy, I wrote my second book, The Rote Walker, and Amy studied singing.  I would say then that my first book changed my life.  But the writing of my first book was life changing, too, since I wrote most of it once I had graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and discovered two distinct sources of poetry for me, my religious background and my childhood in Scotland and California.  I’m still writing about those subjects, though I hope I am writing as James Wright would have said, “the poetry of a grown man.”  I think the difference now is that I can look back at a body of work by someone who increasingly knows what he is doing, yet still wonder if anyone will read it in the future. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I always must have been in the presence of poetry – the poetry of the Bible – since I am a son and grandson of ministers and they loved reading scripture aloud and one of my early memories is of memorizing Psalms.  But the first poem I wrote was in seventh grade, for an English class assignment.  The experience of writing the poem, which unfolded over several days, was--to quote an artist friend of mine--like living in a dream.  I have been writing poetry ever since.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
When I met a teacher in high school who convinced me that simply responding to the spirit was not enough, that you had to commit to practicing daily, I was able to make writing a daily habit.  So though I have been writing since I was 11 or 12, I have been writing daily since I was 16 or 17.  There have certainly been times when a project has gripped me, but my own relationship to the page is a daily one, in which poems slowly take shape.  I keep working until a poem gradually overtakes me and will not leave me and when that happens I enter a period that, though slow, is engrossing.   First drafts can come quickly, but the progress to a final draft is always slow.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I write daily in a notebook that is a combination of diary, journal, commonplace book, and drafting floor.  I also collect phrases that I either put in a small Moleskin notebook I carry with me or in my iPhone Notebook program.  I don’t think I’m much different from other writers in this way.  Short pieces will begin to combine into a larger project, for sure, but when I finally put a book together that process includes a lot of winnowing, often with the help of friends and editors.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have learned to enjoy readings and I think I have gotten better at them.  They are not part of my creative process.  To me they are a form of publication.  I do enjoy them, but it depends on how I am connecting with the audience.  There have been times when I couldn’t wait to stop listening to myself and other times when I was sorry to have to end.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
For a long time I thought that a poem could find its form if it followed a narrative and that a poem was the story of a feeling.  I still think a poem is the story of a feeling, but I don’t put as much faith as I used to in narrative to convey the story.  I think a poem should be clear, whether or not it is in a traditional form like a sonnet or in blank verse.  It should be clear to the reader I imagine, who is someone who wants to read a poem.  For me the questions for quite awhile have been what is the nature of faith and what does my own faith look like as it takes shape in words on the page.  These days the question for me is a harder one, have I loved enough?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The current role of the poet in larger culture is to keep poetry alive.  That has always been the role and it has not changed.  That is what I think the role of the poet should be.  I think the role of any artist is to keep his or her or their art alive.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have been very lucky in editors, particularly my current editors at Sarabande Books, my publisher.  However, fewer and fewer editors of magazines seem capable of conveying clearly what they might want, if they think what you have given them has fallen short in some way.  Most of them simply don’t have time.  There are a couple who are excellent line-by-line critics and I feel lucky to have them.  I do have a circle of friends I show new work to, especially as I collect it into book form, but there are only a couple of editors of my acquaintance who will take the time to help me make a poem better.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
You have to believe in your work, no matter what anyone else says.  That was Donald Justice to me in Iowa City in, I think, 1975.  He was reassuring me that he believed in my work, by the way, but he knew at the time I was going through a profound loss of self-confidence and in that exchange he restored it.  I have never forgotten it.  In case I sound sentimental here, I knew he meant that you’re on your own.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
The critical prose I write I think of mainly as practical criticism, the sort of evaluative thing a reviewer does.  Otherwise I will occasionally write an essay about a larger issue in poetry – repetition, devotional poems, the nature of metaphor – or the work of another poet I admire, like Charles Wright or Mona Van Duyn.  All of that sort of work I see as a service to the art.  It really has nothing to do with the poems I am writing, or so I think.  So it has been easy.  I have been writing reviews and essays at least since high school, when I had an arts column in my high school’s paper.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
In the morning I take out a file of drafts and see if anything there can be nudged into further life.  In the evening, before bed, I’ll try to put something on paper while inhibitions are down.  Often the evening genius is obliterated in the sober morning light.  But that’s my routine.  My habits for writing critical prose are a steady, daily application of getting the pages written.  I write poetry by hand, prose on my computer keyboard, as I am doing now.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My notebook.  The Bible.  An anthology of French poetry I keep nearby (I can read a little French).  Poetry by others, friends and associates, whose books I have on my desk. Music.  Nooks and crannies of memory.  Then back to my notebook.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of eucalyptus.  Sea air.  But also coal smoke, which takes me back to my childhood on the Firth of Forth in Scotland.  I smelled coal smoke this morning as I was running along a greenway here in Nashville. Very odd, yet bracing, especially since I was listening to an NPR piece on the coal industry. 

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My latest book, The Heronry, includes records of a time I was living near a nature preserve and trying to preserve my sanity by keeping a daily naturalist’s journal.  Some of the poems about that time are also included in my previous book, Bone Fires:  New and Selected Poems.  I am an amateur, a very amateur, birder, and have many feeders around my backyard.  My wife is a classical singer and her music, both art songs and opera, has always influenced me, though mainly it is her voice that has done so.  I have more than a few ekphrastic poems in my books, many of them about obscure but to me important pieces of art.  And the language of science has made its way into many of my poems, though there are real poets of science out there and I am not one.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love the masters of the short story, from Maupassant to Hemingway, Chekov to Peter Taylor, Jean Stafford and Alice Walker.  I am a very slow reader, excruciatingly slow, but I try to make my way.  Nabokov’s novels have meant a lot to me, especially Pnin, and I love Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  Actually I think Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace are the trinity of social commentary in the 19th century.  I do love the writing of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald and Sue Grafton and their renderings of the Southern California landscape where I grew up.  Reading Charlotte’s Web to my girls when they were little was an experience that transcended much of what I have read.  I was lucky to study with Raymond Carver when I was in college and love his stories.  The writing that has been important to me, whether in prose or poetry, tends to be writing I can quote.  I travel with an anthology or commonplace book in my head, from books, movies, operas, plays, Bible verses, poems, all sorts of things.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
And probably won’t do?  Write a great children’s book.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would have ended up as a professor of systematic theology in a divinity school.  That’s sort of what my father wanted me to be.  I wouldn’t want to pick any other occupation, though I would say to people who are thinking of teaching that if you are going to teach successfully and happily you have to be called to it.  I was called to writing poetry, but never to teaching.  It has taken me years to learn that this was the occupation for me.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was good at it.  It gave me pleasure.  Some important mentors encouraged me.  Eventually when I saw I was on my own, I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was E. O Wilson’s Half Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight For Life.  I reviewed it for The Hudson Review and I believe that my review can be found online.  It is not a substitute, however, for Wilson’s masterpiece!  The last great film I watched was The Godfather.  I watch parts of it regularly, and all of it at least once a year.  I own four DVD copies of it. I try to have one of them with me when I travel.  I have many favorite lines from the film, but right now it’s Michael Corleone telling a nurse that they have to move his father from his hospital room.  “Do you know my father?  Men are coming here to kill him.  Now, help me, please.”  Otherwise, I think the last great film I saw may have been Argo.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Poems about being with my father when he died.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Happy (fourth) Birthday, Rose!

Our Rose is now four years old, if you can believe it [do you remember that time she got borned?]. Given our basement chaos [see my note on such here], her party is delayed, slightly, but we'll figure it out. One should be very particular about putting together a celebration for a four-year-old...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Marie Buck, Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul


Once I was at an ice-skating birthday party. It was the first time I had ever ice-skated.

I felt joyous but wrong.

I went to the bathroom and was washing my hands. I vomited suddenly and tried to swallow it, as I didn’t want to be sent home, though some of it overflowed my mouth and dripped down my chin into the sink. I rinsed my mouth out. I didn’t want to stop skating so I skated more.

Later my friend’s Italian grandmother made us spaghetti to eat. People’s parents were starting to show up and everyone praised the real Italian spaghetti.

But I was different.

After eating the spaghetti, I went down to the bathroom in the basement and threw it up. An adult came to check on me and stayed there with me in the dark patting my hair and then called my mother.

When I’d recovered a bit they brought me back up to see my friend blow out her candles. The cake showed my friend, Michelle, smiling next to Grox. Michelle didn’t really look like herself, but Grox’s scales and fangs were extremely realistic. “Happy Birthday, Michelle!” the cake said, in white icing.

Marie Buck’s third collection is Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (New York NY: Roof Books, 2017), a book of dark, surreal, neurotic and potentially biographical poems exploring the underbelly of childhood. The poems move back and forth between lyric narratives and prose/memoir-ish poems titled via numbers, existing almost as a Greek-style chorus throughout. As she writes: “This story is a disgusting narrative in which I’m converted / from a person I dislike a little to a person I really hate, who / gets even sadder and more neurotic.” Buck’s Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul exists in a strange dream-state, except more strange for knowing how ordinary so much of what is being described actually is. Composed as both witness and an appeal, crying out in rage and pain and frustration, the poems work to unsettle, in part through their matter-of-factness, and includes poems with titles such as “A Baby Elephant Sees the Ocean for the First Time as It Quietly Dies,” “I Feel Like a Flat Balloon Until I see You and You Inflate Me,” “Water and Lava Inside a Closed Mountain” and “The First Time I Ever Really Felt Safe Was Under the Weight of a Wagon Wheel,” that includes:

The second part of this poem gets a little freakier:

it’s a man commanding another man to rise from the dead.

The dead man feels, he feels a strange tugging.
A long hair from his head is trapped between the cheeks
      of his ass,
and the first feeling he has is the hair shifting slightly,
responding to some imperceptible movement he never made
because he was dead.

A shifting where he didn’t expect it,
which causes awareness.