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.

God(dess) Talk–My Response

First off, if I go on about the Goddesses more than their male counterparts, it is because I just tend to see more of Persephone than Hephaestus in poems nowadays. But him, too.

Secondly, I am by no means saying that mythological material is inappropriate, nor direct engagement with authors of earlier eras. And I thought the myths were cool when I was a kid. I still do. It’s just that… with very few exceptions, the poems I see retelling them are terrible. It’s not that they’re obscure. It’s that they’re bad canon poem crap that makes one long for the source material fiercely. And it’s not the fault of the myths. Because they can be used brilliantly in contemporary poetry. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a fantastic example of this. Dig:

APENECK SWEENEY spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;

The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;

The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;

She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;

The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.

That last quatrain just sends the poem into a whole different level. I have read this poem so many times that I should be bored with it, but am not. Agamemnon’s death becomes an ironic comment on what came before, and… well, there’s plenty of criticism already.

What gets me about the way most contemporary formalist poems dealing with Greco-Roman myth is this–it’s not their use of Classical themes, but that they come across, generally, either as rather pale homages to cracking source material or, worse, as something that someone wrote down when he/she had no ideas of his/her own. And the pieces are flat, unrevealing, and just dull as hell, in contradistinction to the source material. There are, naturally, exceptions, but it is my general impression.

But, by God, I hope I did not give the impression that I dislike the use of mythological source material per se or poems set in other historical eras or the like. Such is not the case, and, to my recollection, has never been the case. And you’re misreading me a bit more broadly, Rose. I do not propose what I do as a template for anyone else, and a fair bit of my work, indeed, is implicitly set in the Oklahoman, yes, suburb where I grew up. The comments you are thinking of (presumably from the Evans review) were a reference to the lifestyle of a given poet rather than to a particular subject of poetry. And they were, moreover, semi-jocular, a bit of a jab at a sort of Baudelairean notion of what “the Poet” should be like.

Hope this clarifies a few things.

God(dess) Talk–Rose Kelleher Weighs In

First, a bit from Rose Kelleher:

A response to Quincy’s constant ranting about Greek goddesses

First of all, a question: do the Greek gods piss you off as much as the goddesses do? Elsewhere you’ve even mentioned their diaphanous robes. What about horsehair-crested helmets?

Those Greek goddesses were pretty tough gals, for the most part. I’d be especially wary of badmouthing Athena if I were you.

Seriously, though, I used to grumble about classical allusions, but I had the excuse that I wasn’t familiar with them. I was a slacker in high school, then went to UMass Boston, which is (or was, at that time) just a notch above “Batshit Community College” — the college you use in “Selling Your Book” as an example of the kind we-poets-in-the-know did not attend. I mention this because, for a change, it’s actually a qualification to say what I’m about to say. If A. E. Stallings were to say it, she’d undoubtedly say it better, but you could dismiss her as a scholar who’s out of touch with the common folk. I, on the other hand, may be weird, but I’m still common.

The myths are not some secret handshake for Ivy Leaguers. They’re out there on Wikipedia for anyone to read. After a few years of grumbling, one day I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and bought a book: “Classical Mythology” (Oxford Univ. Press). The book is nice to have because everything’s all together, and there are lots of pictures.

What really did it for me, though, was reading the Iliad. I had been assigned to read a few chapters of it in high school, and hated it. It was probably a bad translation (the Fagles translation is the one I enjoyed) but mostly I just wasn’t ready then. I think you have to have lived a little to appreciate Homer: lost a few loved ones, been in love, been dumped, been married and divorced once or twice, been to a strange country, been poor, been well off, been poor again, been conceited, been taken down a peg, seen a few really bad car wrecks, and seen men go off to war, beautiful men who, at your age, look awfully, awfully young.

After that it was the Odyssey – which, believe it or not, I didn’t like as much as the Iliad, though everyone’s always saying the opposite. Monsters are nice and all, but what really killed me were scenes like the one where Hector says goodbye to his wife and baby before going off to fight, and the baby starts crying because he doesn’t recognize his father in that big scary helmet, so Hector takes it off. Whew. Ouch. Way to humanize a character before you kill him off! Or the way Homer would write a paragraph about each soldier — a hunter, a shipwright, a priest — telling us how skilled the man was at his trade, how brave he was in battle, giving us a little of his family history, making him seem real to us, just before telling us exactly how he was killed:

“The famous spearman struck behind his skull, just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue– he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze.”

That’s much more real and immediate than those high-school-yearbook-style photo layouts you see in the Washington Post, where they tell you the soldier’s name, age, and rank, and nothing more. When a soldier is killed in Iraq, who appreciates his suffering? Or take that scene where Achilles finds out Patroclus is dead, and he’s so overcome with grief that he ends up rolling around on the ground, bawling his eyes out and rubbing dirt on his face. Wow. There’s nothing esoteric about this stuff. On the contrary, it’s way more visceral than the detached, oblique poetry you read in magazines today. Love, loss, grief, jealousy, vengeance. Maybe people today don’t roll around on the ground bawling their eyes out; maybe we should. God knows we’ve all wanted to at some point. These are timeless scenes that anyone can identify with.

After re-discovering Homer I re-discovered Euripedes, and Sophocles, and the Aeneid… that’s as far as I’ve gotten. The point is, these “2,000-year-old stories” you’re so quick to dismiss are not so far removed from our lives, if you look past the particulars. (And you’re a poet, Quincy, you should be able to do that!) They’re like contemporary stories, but submerged in a pool. All you have to do is look down through the water. There are some ripples, and some weeds waving around that get in the way, but at the bottom you can see your own life. Everybody’s life. It’s all in there.

In fact, the ripples and the weeds may make it clearer, in a way. When a poet like Stallings, for example, uses a Greek myth, the fact that the emotions are able to come through, despite the antiquity of the story, calls attention to the timelessness and universality of what’s underneath. Using an ancient myth can help you go straight to the heart of things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you write poems that are firmly grounded in contemporary urban life. But if it’s true, as you seem to be saying, that readers can only relate to poetry that’s set in their own time and place, then your own poetry is irrelevant to anyone who lives in the suburbs or the country or even a different city from you, or anyone who reads your poetry twenty years from now. If we can’t look past the superficial trappings off culture and idiom, then we might as well just screw poetry altogether and watch TV.

Finally, it is my firm conviction that a poet should write about whatever he or she is moved to write about. You may think writing about Greek goddesses makes for bad poetry. But what could be worse than selfconsciously trying to be hip and contemporary? Is that what poetry is all about – a high school popularity contest? Can you imagine the bad poetry that would result if we all started competing to see who’s the most tapped in to popular culture? Think of the cringingly embarrassing poems you’ve read by aging nerds who tried to use slang that didn’t come naturally? Think of the exploitative poems you’ve read by well-to-do, highly-educated poets who’ve thoughtlessly used other people’s poverty or misfortune just so they could score another poem, and stick another feather in their cap.

It’s far better for those of us who are nerds to accept, even embrace, our nerdiness. I say be true to yourself, and write about Greek goddesses if that’s what moves you to write, and write about Petrarch and Laura if you want to (I personally find Petrarch rather hot, the way he was so obsessed with Laura and never stopped loving her even though she didn’t love him; remember, just as breasts can be a turnon for men, fidelity can be a turnon for women) and if some people don’t like that, well, they don’t have to read it. In fact, most of what’s available, not just in poetry, but TV, movies, novels, etc., caters to people who don’t give a damn about Homer or Petrarch – so for those who do, why begrudge them their little crumb? You don’t have to like it, but you don’t have to eradicate it from the face of the earth, either. Live and let live.

Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid

I wanted to like this book more than I do. Let me explain that. Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser, 2007) should be precisely the sort of collection that would reinvigorate American metrical poetry that, with the gone but not forgotten Formalist in the background, has become–with some important exceptions–white, polite, often rather conservative, and inhabited by too many poems where Greek Goddesses discuss Petrarch’s unrequited love for Laura. She has absolute scads of talent, a different swing to her metrics than any other contemporary metrical poet I have encountered, and evidence of a clearly fruitful engagement with that strange beast called “performance poetry”. In short, there is more energy here than in the vast majority of collections–metrical or free verse–one encounters. Take the opening of “Chocolate Thunder”

I was born, Mom says, dancer-
Physiqued, lean leg or arm, or, hand
For five down low, born You the Manned,
Go Girled, and Dad’s wrong Answer

To dead ball dreams. I tore
Shit up, handled the no-look pass
And a jig. Somebody slap my ass.
Now who’s your daddy? Score.

There’s an exuberance one doesn’t see very often… unless you know where to look. And therein lies, I think, one of the great strengths–and weaknesses–of Big-Eyed Afraid. Dawson is drawing on a stream of poetry generally unknown to many “formalist” poets, mostly because they can’t be bothered to go to a few open mics in an urban area in the United States. Dawson’s skill with the demotic, at times crossed with the highly literate reference, as well as her narrators frequently calling attention to their sexiness, backgrounds, and racial history, would not be unfamiliar to aficionados of “performance poetry”. Likewise, many of her tricks in rhyming, notably her frequent rhymes in the middle of a word, would not be terribly out of place.

And so far so good. But too often, the point of Dawson’s poems is that the narrator (who seems to resemble Dawson herself as a general rule), never really gets beyond talking about herself, whether in church as a kid or in the midst of an orgasm as an adult. And while most readers would give up a kidney to have as good a body image as an Erica Dawson poem, the effect, for all the verbal ingenuity of the work, becomes a bit monotonous. While this is, I suppose, “empowering”, with the self being discovered and accepted and loved and all that, by the time the reader hits page 98, he or she is ready for something else. Not Greek Goddesses recapitulating 2,000-year-old stories, necessarily, but maybe something about someone other than her.

But for all of the collection’s self-absorption, it’s good that it exists–and hopefully, it will resonate among the “formalist” audience who constitute much of Waywiser’s American audience. While Dawson does tend to go myopic, the object of study is sensual and vibrant, and her influences from more than one stream of American poetry should be instructive. While Big-Eyed Afraid does not entirely deliver on its potential, its author, in subsequent work, may well do so.

Selling Your Book

One hears, with some regularity, about how poets would sell an assload of books if they just got off their asses and went out there to move a few tens of thousands of copies. Now, one does not hear this from publishers, nor from the general public. Sadly, it is poets themselves who entertain such notions–maybe not to quite this extent, and often in inverse proportion to the amount of stuff they’ve gotten into print. But still. As this is a literary blog, I shall assume that most of the readers of this essay are, in fact, poets, so, I will address this to you.

No science was involved in the writing of this essay; nor was there any systematic process of interviews. No, this is based on firm anecdotal evidence, told to me by various poets in various stages of sobriety over the course of several years, as well as my own experiences. If you get a book deal you’ll be in for something like what I’m about to describe.

Among many poets, there seems to be the idea that if the right work is selected, the accolades and public recognition will come. Bullshit. Unless you’ve got a full-time publicist (and most small presses don’t have one of those, let alone individual poets), it’s a slog. Have a new book out? Get on the radio. Not the top forty station, mind you. The local programming show they run at 10 AM on a Sunday morning on that local station that plays all those godawful pop songs from the 1980s during the week. Someone’s listening, sure. Not a whole mess of people. Maybe one or two will buy your book after hearing you read some pieces on the air. Maybe not. Possibly even probably not. Though they may swing by the local independent bookstore where you dropped off some copies of your book and sort of remember hearing you on the radio and maybe buy a copy. Maybe. In a few cases.

Or you can get yourself booked into a reading as a feature. And they may ask you to do it again. Maybe. A year-and-a-half-from now, because it’s a monthly reading and the venue owner likes to have them booked well in advance. And a few people will probably buy a copy of your book. Well, maybe they will. And if you’re at a reading whose host has some connections, and you hit it off really well, he or she might suggest your name to the local literary festival. Though not for the main slot. They’re flying over Carol Ann Duffy for that, because people have heard of her. No, you’re reading with five other people on Sunday afternoon, a bit after the radio show you appeared on five months before airs. And two of your fellow readers liked your book enough to offer to swap. And perhaps a nice young woman (or nice young man, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) in the audience likes your reading, too, and she (or he, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) might buy the book, and there’s even an outside chance of getting laid, but you’re still talking low sales. (Of the books you swapped, you read the first third of one when you come down with a cold three weeks later, and two years on, you’ll be “meaning to get around to” the other one.) And possibly, someone a bit higher up the food chain, possibly even Ms. Duffy herself, will wander in. Could happen. She’ll tell you she liked your reading and ask you your name, but she was only able to change a ten-pound note in Heathrow and only has a dollar left from the cab ride and can’t buy the book, and besides, she really has to talk to the organizers about something.

And you might even get a review in a prestigious journal. The journal has a subscription base of 2,500 people, of whom 200 subscribed because they’d heard the thing was highbrow but give it a desultory look-over. Five subscribed online while high. Another 250 are shipped out to university libraries. Some 600 are subscriptions from former and would-be contributors largely looking to see what work of theirs might be appropriate to send in, given what’s been running lately. Thirty subscribers graduated from the same creative writing program as the editor, while another ten are undergraduate chums. Then there are the thirty or so contributors of poems, fiction, and critical articles. The reviewer of your book won’t buy a copy; she has the review copy. The editor might, except that the magazine reviews sixteen or so books of poetry a year, and he knows five of those under review, who take priority. Most of the poets look at the issue to check for typos. Ditto the fiction writers. Of the seven contributors who read the review, one buys the book reviewed immediately after yours; two decide that your book doesn’t sound like their thing at all, four think they may well buy the book some day, and one actually buys it when you’re booked for a double-feature together nine months later. The subscribers, of the 400 who make it to the review in the back of the magazine, skim the review as a rule, noting the kind of poetry it is. Of these 156 decide they might be interested, and 16 actually buy it (out of the 27 who decided they should), one of whom because he lives in the same town as your publisher’s second cousin, who owns a bookstore and actually has your book on the shelf.

The launch went well, though, with ten area poets showing up, as well as your sister-in-law who happened to be in town on business. Then there were the seven people who made it from your place of work, as well as fifteen or so people you know socially. You gave away a copy of the book to a local novelist of your acquaintance who launched the book, of course. As well as two representatives from your publisher. Of the 38 people who showed, a whopping twenty bought books, while five others pleaded poverty and said they’d get back to you–and one of them even does.

Announcements on Eratosphere, Sonnet Central, the Gazebo, the Critical Poet, PFFA, Poet & Critic, and Dr. Whup-Ass’s Bitch-Ass Poetry Round-Up net you eighty-six messages of congratulation–and about twenty actual sales. Of course, some of that is because on the Sphere, that fuckwit Cantor posts that message about Rhina Espaillat reading somewhere or another in Toronto, and everyone piles on to congratulate her (even though no one congratulating her lives anywhere near Toronto or plans to go there for her reading), and then some newbie trying to get to fifteen posts by whatever means necessary posts a “Wish I could of made it” message on a month-old Carmine Metrics reading announcement, and within two hours of posting, the goddamn thing is halfway down the page with no responses and two hits, which were you checking for typos and Tim Murphy trying to click on the Rhina link but opening your announcement by accident instead, and you have to bump it back up yourself. Which is embarrassing.

And then, of course, there’s the university reading. Which doesn’t take place in the swank old college downtown, where you went some years ago and a couple members of faculty vaguely remember you. No, you’ve got a friend on the English Faculty of Batshit Community College, an upgraded technical school, half of whose students speak Lithuanian as their first language. But it’s a reading, and you haven’t done very many readings recently—which is why you’ve only sold one book over the past month, and that to an ex-girlfriend (or ex-boyfriend, depending on your gender/sexual orientation) who found you on MySpace when she searched for old flames a few days after she found her husband schtupping her younger sister (switch around pronouns and nouns according to gender/sexual orientation). Though you don’t know about that last bit.

At any rate, the night of the reading arrives, and it’s the first poetry reading ever held at Batshit Community College. So the dean is there, and your friend and two other members of the English faculty are there (the fourth member is at his daughter’s school play), and five students show up. Because your friend has offered his remedial English class (of 45) extra credit for turning up. So you do the reading and ask if there are any questions. There are. Or is. A student asks you why you use so many big words. You say you aren’t sure. The students are poor, as are the faculty, so no one buys a book, though you give one to the dean as a goodwill gesture. Your reading is the last poetry reading ever held at Batshit Community College.

There are, of course, book store readings, generally booked at one of the shrinking number of independent book stores in your area. Most of your friends can’t make it because it’s in the middle of the day, and they have work. Which is fair enough, really. But as you read to an initial crowd of five, some folks do stop and listen. You might sell three or four books.

As for open mikes, they are frequent in the bigger cities… but showing up at an open mike is, to a great degree, self-promotion on the part of each reader—which is to say the overwhelming majority of the audience.. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But the role of the featured reader (you) is significantly de-emphasized. And as a consequence, the book may sell a few copies if you’re a regular, but don’t expect masses of sales. There may well be none. Open mikes aren’t designed to sell books.

And then, of course, there are the poetry conferences. So, you spend a crapload of money to get to West Chester, Pennsylvania for the big do. You get your books placed in the bookstore… and are promptly astounded by how many fellow poets of your acquaintance have books and chapbooks. You spend your allotted $50 in one day and from there, swap four or five books with folks who heard you have a new book out (though it’s been nearly a year now). Maybe four sell in the book store.

The point is not to give up hope, but to realize what you’re in for early rather than late, and, perhaps, to be a little less scornful of seemingly low sales among one’s peers. This is not the kind of market that produces blockbusters. Poetry can sell, and indeed does, but the process is generally incremental, if often rewarding.

A Review of Anna Evans’s “Swimming”*

There is a great variety when it comes to chapbooks. I’m not talking just about the inevitable range of quality between them, but in terms of why they exist. A few of the more common reasons are (not necessarily mutually exclusive):

1. The author is a regular on some poetry scene and puts one out, generally self-published, in order to have something to sell at readings.

2. The author is a good poet but not particularly interested in the military campaign that is getting to the first book. The chapbook stands in lieu of a book in this case.

3. The author “shows promise”, but somehow just isn’t quite ready for a full-lengther. The chapbook offers practice in how to assemble and promote the thing.

4. The author, being fairly well-established, is using the chapbook for a group of poems (or maybe a longer poem and sequence) that doesn’t quite fit in with the previous or next collection.

5. An accomplished author, established or “emerging”, uses a chapbook as a sort of “sneak preview” of a coming book. In the case of the “emerging” writer, it’s a sort of promissory note of what’s to come until the powers that be cop on to how great he or she is.

And Anna Evans falls into this last category. A recipient of an MFA from Bennington, on the editorial board of The Raintown Review, editor of The Barefoot Muse, and a frequent contributor to well-reputed literary journals, Evans is in that strange limbo where you’re by no means unknown, but just haven’t gotten the collection out. And until she wins a major contest or some editor gets wise to her work, we have Swimming (Maverick Duck Press, 2006).

When one is a poet living in a major urban area, is single, drinks a lot, smokes a lot, and has a personal life marked by a degree of instability, one tends to have a certain rant, with individual variations. Namely, that these self-satisfied suburbanites with their fancy gardens and big cars with GPS systems and kids and careers sure do write some boring-ass poetry. And in many cases, this is true. Of course, anyone who has ever been subjected to some restraining order waiting to happen “keeping it real” at a New York City open mic can attest that “living on the edge” in the big city is hardly a guarantee one will be any good, either.

I raise this because Anna Evans’s poems are very much poems of the suburbs, though with, perhaps, a glimpse back to the city and to single life. This is most noticeable in her poem, “The Lal Jomi”, about an Indian restaurant she and her husband used to frequent “…before the children thinned your hair/and thickened me”, in which the narrator recalls headier days of closing down the pub and filling up on tikka and shish kebab. The poem ends on a rueful note:

“Oh love, remember when the meal was done
how we would press the hot towels to our faces,
suck oranges, spit out the pips for fun,
and split, so keen for bed we’d always run?
These days we dine in ritzy four star places
but love, you know I really miss that one.”

Nostalgic? Sure, but a poet should be allowed nostalgic moments, especially when a sense of place is so thoroughly evoked, the taste of “…coriander, pungent spice/burning on our tongues like the advice/ we swapped in drunken voices”. And most of Evans’s poems are not set in her youth, but in her suburban present.

And by and large they work. The opening poem, a free-verse lyric, called “The Lap Swimmer”, probably spends a bit too much time negotiating a fairly straightforward trope, and then there’s “Suburban Housewives In Their Forties”, about women sipping wine, watching their kids, tending their gardens, and realizing that they “are emptying/our minds; all of us have given up/visions of freelance photography…” and let’s hop to the end:

“We meet at the house with the screen
porch, bringing bottles of Pinot
and Chardonnay. Filling glasses
with pale yellow liquid, we see
right through ourselves as we empty them.”

Which is, of course, a boffo final image, but here, as, on occasion, elsewhere, one wonders if the poem is taking a drink or the drink taking the poem. The periodic sense of suburban ennui, through Evans’s very success at evoking it, teeters on becoming a bit overpowering in places.

However, any such tendencies in the chapbook (and they are far from overwhelming) are balanced by a surprising number of erotic poems. And they aren’t the sort of erotic poems one’s afraid of (alternately lineated porn or so elliptical that one has to ask, “That’s about fucking, right?”). Let me quote “Understandings” in full:


“When his fingers sneak
over my skin, tweak a nipple,
I offer no more resistance
than the curve of my back,
the splay of my shoulders.
Then, with the oldest women’s
movement–I turn and let him in.

“Inside me dwells a Parisienne
from the last War–welcoming,
but full of tricks. I concentrate
on that spot in the parking lot
where I first orgasmed, or the front row
of the porn movie I pretended
to watch for the plot.

“Eyes closed in the dark,
I make believe I am getting
what I want, give back
what it takes to satisfy him
that he has a dutiful wife. He pays
the bills, doesn’t ask how I spend
the rest of my life.”

And this poem plays to one of Evans’s strengths–she is very good at conveying coping, making do, not as an act of cowardice, but as an act of necessity. Because her narrators like the man about the house. They like their neighbors and kids. They recognize that life can be boring or disappointing, but they get on with it. And in that sense, the book is rather more optimistic than it might appear.

Now I feel almost churlish making this last point, but I feel it must be said. “Chapbook” need not mean “low production values”. A grainy design on the cover, cheap paper, an ugly font, and a lack of an ISBN number work against the author. Desktop publishing has gotten to a level where one can come out with something that looks quite good even with pretty basic software. For all its smaller size and the saddle-stapled binding, a chapbook is a book–a collection with an author’s name on the front and often an author’s first, and production is a key part of that.

But whatever the problems with presentation, these are poems well worth reading by a poet who will be going places, even if she remains beside the pool in her New Jersey suburb. And I hope the water’s at a good temperature and isn’t overchlorinated.

*A personal disclosure–I’ve been reviewed by Anna, have had poems in both journals with which she is involved editorially, and I know her in person. So sue me.