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:

Understandings

“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.

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18 Comments »

  1. Conway, Jack said

    Quincy,

    I read this.

    I felt there was a bit too much “apology” or explanation (whatever) about what a chapbook is or isn’t and how it applies to this writer.

    In fact, overall,it seemed aplogetic,including noting your association to the writer. I just felt there was too much of that.

    Anyone bothering to read this stuff knows pretty much what the score is with self-publishing poetry books and chapbooks and I think it detracts from her and her writing to bring it up.

    There is a tendency these days, not only in poetry but news writing as well, for the author to interject himself into whatever it is they are writing. I feel you have done this far too much in such a short review.

    As far as she goes, I can only say that if I read one more Bennington grad write: “HE, SHE, IT, THEY, THE DOG, A MONKEY, MY LANDLORD — touched my nipple, I think I’ll cut all three of my wrists.

    They must hold a poetry seminar at Bennington called, THE USE OF THE NIPPLE IN YOUR POETRY. They have to.

    Other than that she seems proficient at what she’s chosen to write about and how she writes about it. Not my cup of tea but obviously yours and others.

    I am not sure I see the same image in my crystal ball as you do about her work. There are just too many proficient poets out there to make this jump out at a (this) reader.

    I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before and will no doubt be wrong again. Maybe she’ll win a Pulitzer but there is that first hurdle to overcome: getting your work published by a major publisher so that it can be considered.

    But since I’m not a big fan of this formalist stuff maybe there’s a big, bright, award-winning future for her based on this type of material. I’m not sure I see a lot of it happening but I coud be wrong.

    Good luck to her however.

  2. Quincy Lehr said

    Jack–

    You’ll note that the piece quoted in its entirety is actually free verse. And the collection is not actually a venture in self-publication, though the publisher–as is the case with most chapbook publishers–is very small.

    As for your aesthetic response to the style of the review or the poems under review, you are welcome to them.

    Quincy

  3. Mary Meriam said

    This is one of the most engaging and intelligent reviews I’ve ever read. If I ever get into writing reviews, I’ll use this one as a guide.

  4. Rose said

    Well, I thought it was good, but I would. All reviewers have personalities and personal biases, and pretending to be robotic and “objective” doesn’t change that – it just makes for dull writing (imho). One nit: since this is the Web, you should link to the book. Here’s the URL:

    http://maverickduckpress.angelfire.com/catalog.html

    In theory I suppose it shouldn’t matter, but readers might be interested to know that the price is only $5.00. Yay!

  5. Conway, Jack said

    Quincy,

    Just for clarification purposes I was responding to this: “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.”

    I was also assuming that since Kendall A. Bell and Anna Evens were founders of the Quick and Dirty Poets, and since they published a chapbook through Bell’s Maverick Duck press they were one and the same. Perhaps they are not as closely associated so as to assume the chapbook was self-published as in the founders of one group published one of their own. I could be wrong. I might be mistaken. That is USUALLY the way the chapbook business appears to run. Theer are a few that don’t but theey are hard to come by.

    I was just going on the following information:

    “Welcome to the online home of the Quick and Dirty Poets: Kendall A. Bell, Rachel Bunting, Anna Evans, Andrea Jazwiecki, Don Kloss and Bruce Niedt.

    Our poetry writing group, formed in Spring 2003, meets in the Burlington County area of Southern New Jersey. Our mission statement is:

    To provide encouragement and advice, both poetic and practical, to beginning poets who wish to develop their potential, broaden their knowledge of contemporary poets, and eventually to seek publication for their poems.

    We schedule regular Open Mic events in Mt. Holly, Southern New Jersey. Check our Events listings and bring a poem or two to share!

    In addition to chapbooks of our own work, we edit the literary journal Up & Under. Issue #3 was released in March 2007.

    We released our newest chapbook, 3Verse, in December 2006. It is available for $5 through Maverick Duck Press.

    Essays by Anna Evans and Rachel Bunting containing practical advice for the beginning poet are available from our Resources page.

    Book us for group readings by emailing qndpoets@yahoo.com, or email our members separately: Kendall A. Bell, Rachel Bunting, Anna Evans, Andrea Jazwiecki, Don Kloss and Bruce Niedt to arrange individual appearances”

    It wasn’t about so much the free verse as the content being more charted courses, but once again to ach his own.

    Once again, in my opinion, the apologetic nature of your review detracts from my reading of her work. But to each his own.

  6. Conway, Jack said

    Rose,

    I wasn’t grading it as in “good, fair, subpar.” I was noting my concerns as a reader. I know Quincy didn’t intend this as an exercise in an “American idol” type of review writing. I’m sure we don’t have to call in our votes. So far the responses seem to be about Quncy’s writing of the review and not about the writer. That to me is telling. I think that’s what happens when authors inject themselves in pieces. I find the insertion of the author in a piece about someone else, detracting.

  7. Quincy Lehr said

    Jack–

    Look, you don’t have to like the voice of the review. No one said you did. As for the publishing question, look, with a small chapbook publisher (is there any other kind?), one frequently publishes people on one’s radar screen. It is perfectly normal and not the same as self-publishing.

  8. Rose said

    You have a point — the review certainly shouldn’t be _about_ the reviewer. I didn’t think Q’s went that far, but like you said, to each his own.

  9. Conway, Jack said

    Quincy,

    Look, if the reader doesn’t like the voice of the reviewer then the person being reviewed may as well kiss it goodbye. Exactly what is your point to the review– to promote the author or to promote yourself as some sort of reviewer? If your point is to get people to buy and read people’s work then let me tell you your argumentative behavior defeats its purpose. I sure won’t be buying the chapbook, self–published or otherwise, based on your review as it’s written. There’s not enough about her and too much about you. You jus didn’t seem to do your homework on this one. I have to go looking for where to buy it?m Bad form. She’s been widely published? Where? You haven’t anticipated a single question the reader might be asking nor habe you answerede them and we are still talking about your writing NOT hers. Once againt that has got to tell you something. You don’t have to accept that but since you are touting your goal as a way of enlightening people to a variety of under-appreciated writers, I suggest you consider the reader first and yourself last.

  10. Kendall A. Bell said

    To clarify, Anna had to submit her Swimming manuscript to me as any other poet would have to. I don’t believe in ‘backscratching’ in the po-biz, though it happens all the time. I will be publishing another collection of Anna’s, which was also submitted to me. The QND’s and Maverick Duck are not connected. Anna and I happen to be in the same poetry group. Additionally, it wouldn’t make practical sense for the QND’s to publish a collection of our poems with another press when mine is available to do so. It is simply a convenience factor. As for ‘production values’…Anna chose her artwork for the cover and the photos inside the book. She was pleased with it, so it shouldn’t matter much when the focus should be on the poems. I run a micro-press. I’m not Random House or some other place with thousands of dollars to throw around.

  11. Quincy Lehr said

    Kendall–

    Thanks for the note. I just didn’t want to say things in utter ignorance of any actual relationships–or lack thereof. And having said that, in particular locales of the poetry world, you do get to know people. Sometimes quite well–but that does not mean that publishing them is not on the basis of literary merit. Any comments I made above were purely general.

    As for my comments on production values, as is the case with any review, take it for what it’s worth, just as Anna will, no doubt, take my comments on the poems themselves.

  12. Conway, Jack said

    I sure hope the following doesn’t stir up a hornet’s nest since it would detract from this poet’s review, and God knows small presses and the poets published in them can use all the help possible. But, since the issue was brought up already, as a writer myself, I would like to clarify some points.

    Personally, I don’t see why a small publisher of chapbooks or anything else shouldn’t publish whoever they want to. They can publish themselves or their friends or people in their writing groups — I don’t see why not. Plenty of people do.

    In the big tent of poetry there are hundreds of variations of this, ranging from poetry groups publishing each other in chapbooks or starting small magazines to publish themselves and their friends. All of those sorts of endeavors happen all the time. I’ve seen situations where a poet will publish someone in the magazine they’ve started so that the other poet will publish them in their magazine. I suppose it is a way of getting publication credits on your bio.

    And I’ve seen poetry groups with as few as four people in it ultimately start a small press and then publish half of their group’s membership.

    Once again, I think all that falls under the purview of those involved, either the members of the group or the person starting the magazine or press. Besides, who’s there to stop them? It’s not like they are governed by any universal mission statement or publishing governing tenet ascribed to by some membership, much like reputable literary agents usually have in place. So who’s to stop them?

    Personally, I have long held the belief that this process is not healthy — once again, simply my opinion — since it really doesn’t give the poet/writer a good measure of their literary self-worth (in fact it might just give them an inflated view of their literary self-worth) which may detract from their efforts to become a better poet/writer.

    In a larger, more important arena, I think there is a tendency for certain poets/writers (and in many instances magazine and journal editors) to become suspect of a person’s writing credits when it somehow reflects publication within only a very small circle of influence, whether it‘s a group of poets publishing themselves in a magazine they created or a group of poets publishing their own works in book or chapbook form.

    After a while, I think that circle can become a rut.

    Once again in an effort to head of cries of foul, what and where this writer publishes her work or whether she publishes others work is not any of my concern. It’s simply an observation based on my experiences in this very subjective genre.

    I think overall my personal stance on this is reflected in the adage that, “everyone wants to get to heaven but nobody wants to die.”

    Sometimes we all want to get a book published without really getting a book published.

  13. Anna Evans said

    Hi Jack,

    Perhaps better measures of my literary self-worth:

    Currently a finalist (1 of 10) in the ABZ Press First Book Award. I know no one involved with this press or judging process.

    Two time finalist in the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Contest

    Finalist in the 2007 Willis Barnstone Translation Award

    Published by the Harvard Review, the Atlanta Review, Rattle, the Evansville review, Measure, Light Quarterly and the Formalist, among many others.

    Are you still ‘suspect’ (sic) of my writing credits?

    Cheers,

    Anna

    PS Swimming was published in March 2006. As I did not begin my MFA until January 2006, it should be clear to you that the content of this chapbook is not the product of my time at Bennington, where, I regret to have to tell you, there are no nipple seminars.

  14. Quincy Lehr said

    Jack–

    I just fail to see any evidence that that’s what happened in this case, and Anna has, I think, in a few short comments, demolished the insinuation. I tend to regard, say, claims by New York circuit poets to have “eighteen books” with skepticism (such are generally self-published and of poor quality), here, the case is clearly one of a poet with some credentials going with a local publisher to produce a chapbook to circulate on a modest scale until a full-lengther comes out. I got no whiff of vanity press or local circle-jerk, which the comments from both the publisher and the author have confirmed.

    (And to take it a step further, even publishers of full-length collections have been known to bring out their own collections on their own imprints. In Ireland, Peter Fallon runs Gallery Press, his publisher. Dermot Bolger was published by Raven Arts in his early years, a press he founded. Jessie Lendennie’s books are with her own Salmon Poetry. Seamus Cashman had at least one book with Wolfhound Press, which he ran. These are–or in some cases were–AMONG THE LEADING POETRY PUBLISHERS IN IRELAND. This is not apropos in Anna’s case, as she holds no position with her publisher other than having two manuscripts accepted, but it is to say that EVEN WERE SOME OF YOUR INSINUATIONS AND ASSUMPTIONS TRUE, it would not necessarily detract from either the chapbook’s literary merit or the press itself.)

    So can we drop it?

  15. Conway, Jack said

    That’s nice Anna.

    Keep up the good work.

    Am I still suspect?

    Is that rhetorical?

    If not my answer would be as follows: I am always suspect of witers/poets who run their own magazines and publish their friends. The same applies for those who publish their own books or the books of their friends. For the reasons stated previously — it gives writers/potes a false sense of accomplishment and it is viewed with a somewhat jaundice eye by many editors (or at least those I’ve spoken with.)

    Is it universal?

    Perhaps not.

    Does it apply directy to you?

    Perhaps not.

    The relationship between your enrollment in an MFA program and your chapbook escapes me since to be perfectly honest without somehow insulting to you, I really don’t follow your career that closely. I have no reason to. This is the first I ever even heard of you.

    I know far more Bennington grads with MFAs than you can shake a stick at. Hell, in my neck of the woods we’re falling over MFA and Ph.D.’s.

    Nipple seems to be a poetic buzz word for most. I really haven’t done any lengthy primary research on the subject, but a quick look at some of the Bennington inspired poems I have seen leads me to believe that nipple forms a fairly fundamental aspect for many poems, in a variety of capacities.

    Of course that’s been my experience. Others might have different experiences.One size doesn’t fit all. But I bet there is a “The Significance of the Nipple in Poetry” seminar at Bennington. Perhaps it is simply over enrolled.

  16. Conway, Jack said

    Cool down Quincy there are no accusations merely my perceptions and opinion. You don’t have to agree with them. That’s fine with me. Nor do I have to change them. You wrote the review. I responded. You seem not to like the responses to anything UNLESS it somehow flatters you. Boy are you in for a big surprise out here in the real world.

    I would ask that you try and calm down and stop trying to put words into my mouth. I can tell you this, the words I put into my OWN mouth are far better than any you could possibly dream of putting in mine, so cool your jets.

    What Anna said or didn’t say didn’t “demolish” anything. I am sorry if you don’t appreciate other people’s views. So we should drop t because it doesn’t fit into what you think?

    That’s pretty big of you.

  17. Conway, Jack said

    Lastly this: You can defend this practice all you want. That’s fine with me. I disagree with it. I know others who do as well. We are entitled to our opinions. These are issues that can be debated. There is no document we can all run to where the ANSWER will be given. It will always remain debateable. Just like the genre of poetry itself. Why the overpowering need to stfle debate? That goes directly to what I was speaking about earilier.

  18. Quincy Lehr said

    Well, I’ll respond here–ONCE. Debates over the merit of the work or my assessment are fine. Questions on how something came into print, in the absence of more than circumstantial evidence, gets very tiring and is generally destructive, and I, for one, am not prepared to debate such things, especially after both author and publisher have cleared air that should not have been fouled in the first place. There’s really no point. Basta!

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