Okay, so I haven’t been here in an age

In part, this was due to a perfectly healthy urge to disengage a bit from the bizzier bits of the po-world and just do what I do, but here I am, nursing a slight hangover, writing about poetry stuff again. I suppose the weather got warmer, and I headed out of the apartment a bit more. But more to the point, the events around town were less dreadful–indeed, it’s been a good time for poetry events.

Aside from the Carmine St. reading (located, despite its name, on Avenue A), I hadn’t really been going too much in the way of public poetry stuff in recent months. One can drown in that crap here, spending day after day going to reading after reading of God knows what… even if one knows the sponsoring organization, magazine, or whatever.

But New York City has actually been living up to its reputation of late. In the first instance, David Yezzi’s Dirty Dan dramatic monologues played to a packed house at the Bowery Poetry Club on St. Patrick’s Day. A series of poems with distinct speakers delivered as if in a bar by a series of actors including Yezzi himself, they were reflections on loss and death that managed to be moving rather than maudlin. I wasn’t wild about the musical interludes, but then prolonged exposure has probably made me allergic to the “indie guy with a guitar” thing. There are probably at least five of them in my building, after all.

Then on the next day, I had my first public reading in a very long time in Brooklyn, organized by poetry impresario Michele Madigan Somerville with a broadly Irish theme. I read some stuff I wrote over there–references to the Corrib River, Phoenix Park, Dublin 4, and the like probably made my reading Hibernian enough despite my German surname, etc., ad nauseam. I generally liked the readers. While I’m not quite sure what the octagon in Michael Sweeney’s poem was supposed to represent, it didn’t keep me from enjoying it, and Barbara O’Dair’s story about her father’s run-in with the law at a local swimming pool was witty, well-drawn, and well-paced, with a killer reveal at the end. Michele herself manages to capture Irish Americana in her poems in a way that isn’t that stilted or cloyingly sentimental.

And then on Sunday, we had Kate Benedict and Anna Evans over at Bar on A for the Carmine St. reading. Attendance was decent by New York standards, and Bar on A, as is its wont, let us drink at happy hour prices.

And then last night, I went to a reading by authors from Red Hen Press–poets Caleb Barber and Ernest Hilbert and novelist David King. Red Hen reminds me in many ways of my own publisher, Seven Towers, in that they organize readings, have a highly eclectic list, and have the funny notion that if you do a bit of fucking promo, you’ll sell more books.

One of the real weaknesses of American poetry is that it tends toward sameness–in part, one can perhaps blame the MFAs, as well as, perhaps, the sheer number of poets out there in the U.S. (What’s the most important thing going on in American poetry at the moment? I haven’t a fucking clue. Nor do you.) But the end result is that we tend to cluster in circle-jerky clots of people whose work is rather similar, really. I certainly resented getting shipped off to the New Formalist ghetto within weeks of returning here in 2008.

The Red Hen lot, to their credit, have a more varied catalog, with many of their authors coming from well outside the usual MFA route to books. Certainly, between Caleb Barber’s almost anecdotal poetry set, as a rule, in small-town Washington State and Hilbert’s far more urbane style, the audience heard a variety uncommon in most poetry readings–and this before King did his bit from a novel based loosely on the Cupid and Psyche story. The end result was an unusually diverse reading (in the bast sense), as well as a consistently high-quality one.

For all of the inevitable griping, this is a good place to be a poet, in spite of everything.

Summer’s on its way

…but naturally, my wardrobe has yet to adjust to new circumstances (I’m wearing a jacket today, for God’s sake!). Having said that, though, some news on the poetry front. As far as my own stuff goes, there was a gratifyingly positive review of my book in the latest Iota, which almost, temporarily makes up for the fact that last year’s roll where the magazines are concerned has not continued this year. Oh, some acceptances here and there, but…

Enough! It’s the same damn story as always.

As far as shitty readings go, on the other hand, there was a launch of a neighborhood literary ‘zine at a bar about four blocks from where I live, and I figured, “How bad can it be?” I’ll confess to drifting out the back about a third of the way in, but let’s just say that a bunch of lineated prose written by bicurious hipsters about their sexual identities isn’t quite my thing. I’m not by any means saying that there’s anything wrong with being bicurious, though there probably is something wrong with being a hipster, but the experience was less confessional than that moment when you sneak a peak at your sister’s diary and realize that she really isn’t up to all that much after all. And they had the microphone right near the door, so with the other hipsters in attendance, slipping out the door was simply impossible. And I had stuff to do the next day, so I couldn’t even deal with being trapped in the worst reading I’ve seen in ages by getting roaring drunk. So I headed to the back patio and got mildly tipsy. Which just wasn’t enough.

I couldn’t help but wonder, though, why such magazines exist. The “publisher” was enlightening in that regard. He was one of those guys who takes a bunch of workshops and wants to be a writer but… never seems to write anything, and, in order to get himself and his friends to write, started a magazine. Unfortunately, however groovy the life of a New York writer might seem, sometimes the lack of inspiration itself is telling you something, that not everyone should write, and if you aren’t feeling the inspiration to do so, trust your instincts.

Well, as this blog isn’t exactly dead, I thought it might be a good idea to check in. After all, I’ve been in New York since August, and you, dear reader(s?) might be vaguely wondering what’s going on with yours truly. On the poetry front…

In one sense, quite a bit is going on. The Raintown lacks only a couple of reviews coming in to get to the printer, and the submissions come in every day. Or at least most days. It’s never quite even. But it does generate a fair bit of work.

My book, Across the Grid of Streets, continues to sell at a trickle. There’s a review in the latest Iota over in Britain that I haven’t read yet. But at least it’s notice, eh?

The thing I anticipated happening more when I came back that hasn’t so much in actual fact would be, well, the readings. I went to a ton of the things in August of 2008. I got to know the underwhelming beer list at the KGB Bar reasonably well, darkened the door of the Bowery Poetry Club a couple of times, spoke briefly to David Lehman once, and generally…

Got bored shitless. The more established poets were, in the main, the generally competent purveyors of McPoetry that you would expect. Okay. Whoopedydoo. Par for the course. And some, to be fair, were actually good. But many of the “younger” poets (which seems to generally mean thirtysomethings like me) running around New York are wankers.

Harsh? Yes. Undeserved? Christ, no!

Let’s assume that a certain degree of callowness and self-centeredness are acceptable vices in the thirtysomething poet. Indeed, from a certain point of view, they aren’t vices at all. One could even argue that these are fairly general characteristics of artsy-fartsy types, but that such words get bandied at the relative young’uns for reasons of lack of gray hair or whatever. Fine. But that’s not really what I’m talking about.

The more “experimental” poets I heard on those late summer evenings fell into two camps. In the first camp were those whose pieces read like class notes from a graduate seminar on Baudrillard or some such. Which might be interesting if you’ve read a bit of linguistic-turn theory but not that much of it. And while I found this a bit dull and flat and bloodless and prosy, it was the other lot who really bugged me.

We’ll call this bunch the overaged stoner bunch (whether they indulge or not). When one is a teenager and into books and writing and so on, one will almost inevitably have that one friend (or maybe several) who will ring one up at some point in a lather of excitement, barking, “Man, you gotta check this out dude! Can you believe I wrote this while tripping balls ON ACID?” And as one looks around in horror to make sure that the parents didn’t hear that last bit (which was yelled), one’s friend launches into it. And it is generally a bunch of pseudo-surrealist vaguely word-associational bullcrap that probably made perfect sense at the time of writing but that sounds, well, like the ravings of a sixteen-year-old ON ACID twenty-four to forty-eight hours later. One does one’s best to say something nice before making an excuse to get off the phone.

Of course, for the sixteen-year-old kid on acid, this is done rather ingenuously. He or she (though usually he) has no grand theories about semiotics or rupturing the linearity of Western thought or what have you. And when you get someone twice that teenager’s age reading something that sounds remarkably similar, you hope to Christ that there is such a theory operating and that you’re not just listening to the psychotropic effusions of a thirty-two-year-old acid-head. Because it would just be too pathetic without a bit of dodgy theory behind it.

As for the mainstreamers (though most younger poets at New York readings tend to like a bit of a patina of “experimentalism” in their work), well, it’s the same old McPoem stuff that’s been boring the hell out of us for thirty years. Just in a bit more of a freewrite form.

And I should note that I’m not talking about the open mic scene here, where things can get far worse… but, in patches, much better, too. I’m talking about the periodic readings by “emerging” writers, frequently under the auspices, directly or indirectly, of the New School or NYU (the Gog and Magog of the New York City literary scene). And yes, perhaps, in a dozen or so readings, I just got unlucky, but the crapola was sufficiently general that aside from an occasional feature of my own and periodic forays to various open mics, I’ve kept a relatively low profile.

Where the hell I’ve been…

Well, in the first place. 4-4 teaching loads take up a great deal of time. In the second place, though, I’ve recently been made the associate editor of the Raintown Review under Anna Evans, who’s one of those annoyingly omicompetent people who can edit a print journal (the Raintown) and an online journal (the Barefoot Muse) and sit on two editorial boards besides that and still get her kids to gymnastics on time. But I’m not quite that omnicompetent. Something had to give, and between work and a few reviews commissioned elsewhere, this blog was the bit that gave.

I’m not giving it up, mind you, but it may, in the future, be more a matter of directing the reader to where my stuff is rather than a depository for said stuff in its own right.


A Review of Time Gentlemen, Please, by Kevin Higgins

When I moved to Galway, Ireland in the summer of 2007 from Dublin, I was informed, by various characters in varying states of sobriety, that the man I should seek out was Kevin Higgins, who, with his wife, Susan Millar DuMars, runs the successful Over the Edge series in Galway. And those folks in Dublin were right. Kevin was one of those guys one wants to know–he and Susan are supportive of local talent without a hint of parochialism and have (along with others, to be sure) done much to make Galway an exciting place to be a poet.

But what does this have to do with Time Gentlemen, Please (Salmon, 2008), Kevin Higgins’s second book? Well, in one sense, relatively little. There are plenty of examples of founders of influential writing groups and important reading series who… well… can’t write for squat. Likewise, there are plenty of very good poets who just can’t seem to get along with the human race at large. The skills required to be an advocate for poetry–its public presence in a given place–are somewhat distinct from the ability to write well. But it certainly doesn’t hurt either skill set if one has both. And Higgins, to his credit, is a good poet as well as being a good organizer and advocate.

Time Gentlemen, Please is, fundamentally, a book about growing older. Sure, there are plenty of those, but what sets Higgins’s work apart is a sense of changing perception of where one stands in relation to history. And much of this flows from his own background on the Trotskyist left as an ex-member of the Militant Tendency. Though there have been plenty of poets with a Marxist background (myself included), I cannot recall a collection that addresses the actual experience of being a left-wing political activist quite so directly. In “My Militant Tendency”, Higgins describes himself as a youth in the early 1980s, flush with revolutionary fervor:

“Instead of masturbation, I find socialism.
While others dream of businessmen bleeding
in basements; I promise to abolish double-chemistry class
the minute I become Commissar…”

But the disillusionment sets in as time goes on. In “The World Socialist Party of Honeysuckle Heights” a branch meeting is “[l]ess the vanguard/of the proletariat, than a dinner party/that kept not happening”, and the protagonist in “The Cause” degenerates from “the campaigner” to “the mad fucker with the sign”.

These poems capture that sense one can get manning a literature table at a demonstration, of being somehow adjacent to history but really not shaping it. Whether it be the late British Trotskyist leader Ted Grant poring over the newspapers while drinking endless cups of tea (“Death of a Revolutionary: Ted Grant”), or the narrator imagining that the guy running a B & B in rural Ireland “is ex-Romanian army” (“The Great Escape”) the poems are haunted by a sense of broad social forces at work, and Higgins’s evolving attitude toward them.

Coupled with the retreat of great ambitions on the political front is a parallel recognition of the difficulties the personal lives of those around him. In particular, Higgins’s father, described in “Family Dispute” as “the sad man in the caravan/who keeps coming back/at me in poems” is a repeated presence. Just as history can be uncooperative with Marxist theory, likewise the life of an individual is revealed as unconducive to more modest five-year plans.

This should by no means imply grandiosity or stultifying solemnity, though. Higgins’s work is leavened by an ability to laugh, not only at the shortcomings of the world around him, but at himself. “Living Proof”, dedicated to his wife, captures this:

“The poet, who this time twenty years ago was busy
failing English in the Leaving Cert, waits
at the end of the aisle for the woman,
who by dinner time will be his
new American wife; remembers
on this best June day, the night
he boarded the bus at the end of a previous life,
where he was just a throwaway remark
in a kebab shop on West Green Road; living proof
that if you keep not trying eventually
it won’t happen. This best June day.
The sun extravagant, the music starting to play…”

And Higgins, to his credit, may have disavowed some of the ideas of that young messer of a revolutionary on his winding path to the aisle, but he still clearly likes and sympathizes with his former self, and he always stops short of an endorsement of the status quo. Though no longer a revolutionary, he remains a rebel.

On occasion, the book does wobble a bit. One of the problems with having a sense of humor as a poet is that it can lead to a comic rather than poetic closure. Higgins generally avoids this, using the comic to bolster serious points with a great deal of verbal ingenuity. But in a few poems, such as “Keyser Soze Does Not Frighten Me”, one senses the presence of a borscht-belt comedian in the white space of the right-hand margin whispering, “Take my wife–please!” But such moments are rare, and even if they don’t quite match up with the general incisiveness of the book, they do remain funny.

Time Gentlemen, Please is not only a good collection, but it establishes Higgins as a writer who is not only doing something no one else is doing, but who is doing it well and getting away with it. And we should be glad he is.

The Allusion and the Canonical

To add a bit to the recent discussion between Rose and myself… Given that this is a literary blog, certain truths we may hold to be self-evident. Most of us read a lot. Most of us read a lot of literature. Most of us read a lot of literature by authors who were born before 1900. The same can be said if I specify 1800, 1700, etc. That is, we are, relative to the general run of humanity, a pretty canon-savvy bunch. We can rattle off a few lines of Shakespeare, know the name of Petrarch’s unrequited love, and so forth.

But the point really isn’t how smart everyone is (you’re welcome, though). No, it’s that American formalists often don’t show much imagination when interacting with the great works of imagination from the past. As T. S. Eliot put it in “The Sacred Wood,” “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Too often, when reading the formalist journals, one feels the need to add something to the “bad poets” norm, the “unimaginative poets”–or, to be a bit more precise, the unimaginative poem. That is to say, the frequent “update” poem, in which, say, the Furies become rather stereotypically shallow and vindictive mall rats mocking the (poet-surrogate at a younger age) four-eyed narrator, is probably a bad poem, draining the Furies of their terror while the remaining mythical residue around them prevents the story being told to resonate in its own right. But then there’s the unimaginative poem, where the myth is not complicated or really explored, save for filling what the Spinal Tap album cover sleeve refers to as a “much-needed void.” If you’re Tom Stoppard, you can look at Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even as they remain very much Stoppard’s characters. but do we need a sonnet to tell us what Ophelia was thinking, when Shakespeare does a damn fine job of it himself?

The canon, in contemporary metrical poetry, is far too often simply inert, with authors appreciated, myths revered or burlesquely bowdlerized, and blah, blah, blah. Boring. One lacks a sense of the dialectic of allusion, the way in which, done properly, the past and present communicate with one another, the way that Agamemnon comments on the tawdriness of Sweeney’s dinner companions, how Athenian history is harnessed to Mauberley’s lament about the devolution of modern life, the way Shakespeare hovers around Berryman. We need to be more subtle with this stuff, more imaginative than we are now. Far too often, the canon is used as a substitute for the actual alchemy of inspiration.