“Wichita Vortex Sutra” and the Valentine’s Day High School Massacre

February 15, 2018

“Language language almost all our language has been taxed by war.”

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems is one of the dozen best first book of poems ever published in the United States. It is rare for a first book to have several poems that end up being frequently anthologized in the half-century following the book’s initial printing, and Ginsberg’s reputation will continue to derive not only from these reprinting, but from the sheer physical presence of his first book. I believe that over a million copies are in circulation, an impressive figure for any book, let alone a volume of poems.

As is the case with musicians, where one’s toughest audience is one’s fellow practitioners, poets often prefer the work of fellow poets that is less known than their most popular work. In Ginsberg’s case, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is often cited as a favorite poem. I remember including a portion of it in an anti-war theatrical presentation I put together at the Burbage Theater in 1974. “WVS” was recently on display in a drawing by Dominic McGill at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. McGill’s conversion of Ginsberg’s text into a labyrinth of lines included a vortex of words pouring from the dark screen of a television set like an insidious transfusion of diabolical plasma. Given the exacerbated use of social media by politicians, especially as regards the obnoxious diplomacy of the White House, Ginsberg’s poem seems more relevant than ever. President Trump seems intent on making the Korean peninsula an even more devastating scene of carnage than Vietnam, and Trump’s use of language continues to tax our patience and the limits of our patriotism.

Trump’s reaction to the Valentine’s Day mass murder at a high school in Florida is an all too typical example of his inability to go beyond an obvious comment.

“”My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school. We are working closely with law enforcement on the terrible Florida school shooting.”

In this three sentence tweet, Trump ends two of them with the phrase “the terrible Florida school shooting.” Does he really believe that we are incapable of assessing the magnitude of this event unless he repeats the word “terrible”?

But of course what is truly terrible is that Trump’s “we” is not working with anyone to change the gun laws. Notice that Trump says nothing in the third sentence about how to make American schools safer. What was needed in his tweet was not a trite reference to the current employees of law enforcement, but a promise to advocate the enforcement of new laws regarding gun control.

Instead, Trump’s budget proposal reduces funds for background checks of those who wish to purchase weapons. He does not care about the safety of children and their teachers as anything other than a public pose.

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-nra-gun-safety-background-checks_us_5a84abdee4b0774f31d1b770?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=__TheMorningEmail__021518&utm_content=__TheMorningEmail__021518+CID_7dd6260a029d436f4995b9d1f79871fc&utm_source=Email%20marketing%20software&utm_term=would%20cut%20millions&ncid=newsltushpmgnews__TheMorningEmail__021518

I started my late afternoon class yesterday by telling students that I’ll never be able to watch Some Like It Hot again in quite the same way. Billy Wilder’s great film opens with a scene that invokes the infamous Valentine’s Day massacre of the Depression-Era gang wars in Chicago. No matter how much love, in the years ahead, comes into the lives of the families that endured Florida’s Valentine’s Day massacre first-hand, the anniversaries of this sentimental celebration will be horrifically imbrued with this memory and its cauterizing loss.

https://www.mlb.com/news/anthony-rizzo-goes-home-after-school-shooting/c-266472200

“There weren’t a lot of poets back then”: A Valentine for Our Muse

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Holly Prado Northup and Harry Northup sent me a link to an interview done with them by Aram Saroyan on the “Poet’s Cafe” show on KPFK. As I listened to it, one of the comments made by Aram Saroyan confirmed what many of us who have been working as poets for a half-century remember as being the case: “There weren’t that many poets back then.”

I don’t think it’s the case that there were only a few hundred poets in the United States back in the late 1940s, as Ron Silliman more than once suggested in his blog; nor do I think that a full census of poets in the mid- to late 1960s would have resulted in a tally only slightly over 2,000. But it is the case that poetry was not a career option between 1960 and 1975, as it appears to be now, for those born since that period. “Baby boomers” born between 1945 and 1955 who found themselves turning 20 years old and proclaiming to one and all that they had decided to commit their lives to poetry were individuals for whom life was so haphazard that nothing else could establish some inner equilibrium.

Yes, I know it will seem like sentimental nostalgia, but I preferred it the old way. And once again, I send the muse who has returned our devotion with her unceasing succor a valentine of profound appreciation.

To hear the interview:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/poetscafe/episodes/2018-02-02T21_58_36-08_00

Mike (The Poet) Sonksen reads from “Poetry Loves Poetry”

Sunday, February 11, 2018

In terms of anthologies of American poets, perhaps no other year in the past century marked the appearance of three distinctively influential volumes, In the American Tree, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, and Poetry Loves Poetry: An Anthology of Los Angeles Poets, all published in 1985. I was the editor and publisher of Poetry Loves Poetry, and I certainly appreciate the attention that Mike (The Poet) Sonksen gives to it in a recent video. In addition to a brief excerpt from my introductory essay, Sonksen reads the poems of several poets who were featured in that anthology: Lewis MacAdams; Michelle T. Clinton; Wanda Coleman; and Michael C. Ford. He also highlights the presence of poets such as Suzanne Lummis and Laurel Ann Bogen in my collection, both of whom were part of the poetry performance troupe, Nearly Fatal Women. In addition to Charles Bukowski, Ron Koertge, Nichola Manning, and Charles Harper Webb as representatives of an emerging “Stand Up” school of poets, other poets I included were James Krusoe, Peter Levitt, Leland Hickman, Holly Prado, Harry Northup, and Eloise Klein Healy, all of whom also appeared in my earlier anthology, The Street Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets. This earlier collection tends to get pushed to the side, as do Paul Vangelisti’s incredibly important collections, Specimen ’73 and An Anthology of L.A. Poets. One cannot fully appreciate Poetry Loves Poetry, however, unless one is familiar with all three of these earlier surveys of various communities of Los Angeles poets. It is worth noting, of course, that poets as well-known as Bert Meyers and Henri Coulette do not appear in any of these collections. The definitive survey of poetry in Los Angeles between 1950 and 2000 has yet to be assembled.

My “re-discovery” of Sam Shepard’s “The Mildew” in 1983

Friday, February 9, 2018

John Brantingham, a poet who teaches at Mount Sac Community College, has announced in a Facebook post that the his college is going to stage Sam Shepard’s first known effort as a playwright. The play, “The Mildew,” was published in the school’s literary magazine, Mosaic, in the early 1960s, when he was still going under the name of Steve Rogers.

I was probably the first person to read the play in many years back in the 1980s, when I stopped by the school and dropped into their library to see if I could find the magazine. I had heard that Shepard had published a play in the school’s magazine back when I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the late 1960s. The theater department was primarily oriented towards turning out set designers, directors, and actors. My emphasis was playwrighting, which I mainly chose because the department didn’t care that much about that particular option. That gave me plenty of time to work on my poetry, which I had an equal passion for. During the summer of 1969, I took a course in “contemporary experimental theater,” and it may have been through that teacher that I heard about the play. I had acted in a production of “Icarus’s Mother” at UCLA in February of 1969 at UCLA and was completely smitten with his work, so hearing about this early play immediately became part of my permanent memory of literary knowledge. I believe the teacher of the course knew someone who knew Shepard when he was a student there seven years earlier, and that person had mentioned the play in the school’s magazine to him. No one else I ever met, including the playwrights I met at Padua Hills (such as Murray Medick and Irene Fornes) in the late 1970s, ever mentioned the play. In point of fact, I kept the knowledge to myself. I hoped someday to do some original research on it.

Early on in the decade, though, I encountered John Brantingham at a poetry readings, and fearing that I might not ever get around to this particular project, told him about the play. He went to the library and told me that it was took some serioue effort to locate the magazine, but indeed it was there. Now I hear that there’s going to be a production, and I am happy to know that the play will now join the “Collected Works” of Shepard.

There is a part of me, of course, (and I confess it’s a selfish part) that wishes I had kept this knowledge to myself and that I had gotten to work on it a couple of years ago. Perhaps if the demands of caring for my mother and fatally ill sister-in-law had been less onerous, I would have found myself being recognized as the person who brought this play to people’s attention well before now.

For those who want to see the play, I will tell you in advance: do not be disappointed when you don’t hear one of those extended monologues that made Shepard’s early one-act plays such memorable theatrical events. In “The Mildew,” he is just beginning to taste what it means to explore the crystalline plasticity that makes theatrical space a poetic environment. Nevertheless, I remember what a thrill it was to read his play as I sat in Mount Sac’s library back in 1983. I confess that I found a photocopy machine back then and made a copy, if only because libraries are not absolutely protected from fire. I had my doubts that Shepard even had a copy of the play himself. I had read an early play of his called “Cowboys #2,” and I believe that title came about because the few copies of the script for the first “Cowboys” had somehow gotten lost or misplaced after its initial production.

I have no idea of who is writing his biography, but I do have a suggestion to pass onto him or her about a possible source of additional material, so if anyone knows a way to contact this person, please put him or her in touch with me.

“The Mildew” – a world premiere of a one-act play by Steve Rogers (Sam Shepard)

Mt. Sac Studio Theater
Tuesday, February 13, 2018; 8 p.m.
Wednesday, February 14, 2014, 8 p.m.
Thursday, February 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

Steve Kowit — Solo Monk

Tuesday morning, February 6

Linda and I went down to San Diego this past weekend to be at the wedding of my youngest nephew, Mitchell. Aimee and he got married outdoors in February, which would have been taking a considerable chance if this had been twenty years ago. I noticed in the late 1990s, however, that rainfall had already begun declining in winter months in Southern California. The years that I spent in San Diego (1997-2004) were fairly dry, and I yearned for more rain then, as much as I do now. Last winter’s rainfall seems to have been an anomaly, and we are back in an even worse drought than before.

If it had rained, Mitchell and Aimee had already arranged for a tent to cover the area of the ceremony and the four dozen chairs for their families and friends. Both of Mitchell’s siblings were there with their spouses. His older sister led a prayer-invocation, and I was very moved by the special touches of Latino customs at marriages, including the lighting of a single candle from the flame of two candles; the lasso’s symbolic joining; and the exchange of coins as a pledge of providing each other the necessities in the course of the contingencies of a life together.

Earlier in the day, we had had lunch in Solana Beach with Bill Harding, the publisher of Oak Garden Press, and his poet-wife Penny. Bill has also worked as a musician, and he told us of having collaborated with the late poet Steve Kowit when he read his poem, “Solo Monk.” There is a video available if you do a quick search: Steve Kowit Solo Monk.

Thanks to the nation’s ability to get caught up in a sports event, the traffic back the next day was very light, and we scooted home without having to speed up in the least.

Joe Frank and “The Shape of Water”

Joe Frank — (Aug. 19, 1938 – January 15, 2018)

Back in the days and nights when I worked as a typesetter, it seems as if I had more time for my own writing and for reading and listening to what I was interested in. Among other places where I keyboarded for hours on end on a Compugraphic 7500, I spent ten years at Radio & Records, a trade newspaper for the music industry. In the production department, the radio was on almost constantly, primarily tuned to a station that played a lot of INXS and Depeche Mode, or so it seemed in the years when they were most popular. One shift was particularly long: Tuesdays started at 11 a.m. for typesetters, and went until 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Dinner was catered, and it was usually pizza eaten at one’s work station. One learned how strong a bond could develop when a crisis hit, and it took a 24 hour shift to get the paper to the printer.

Off the job, I could devote my energies to my writing, as well as projects such as the Gasoline Alley Reading Series, which I ran for two years with Phoebe MacAdmans, and Put Your Ears On, a cable-television poetry show I did at Century Cable. I also had far more time to listen to radio programs that I enjoyed than I do these days. One favorite show that I shared with many people who had grown tired of hearing about the eccentricities of the inhabitants of Garrison Keillor’s updated version of Winesburg, Ohio was Joe Frank’s program. In truth, I haven’t thought of Joe Frank for several years now. In fact, I don’t recall having listened to one of his broadcasts in the past twenty years. Back in the last decade of the past century, however, it was a special treat if life found one driving on L.A.’s freeways at night, and suddenly Joe’s voice was on the radio. If you were driving home, for instance, from a good visit with a friend, and it was a long drive, then the distances between friends in Los Angeles weren’t something to regret. One just eased one’s car into a right hand lane and drove at a steady speed, and let Joe’s voice ride shotgun.

A week ago I read the announcement that Joe Frank had died, and I took advantage of my access to search engines and listened to a couple of his programs, which can be found on his website. I picked them out at random, since I didn’t remember any particular titles of shows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qkKFWkCHRc

As is the case with many successful artists and writers, Frank knew that the “secret” is to find the prototype of content and form that can be identified instantly as having your signature. One walks around a corner at a museum and sees a sculpture of a horse made out of sticks and mud. “Deborah Butterfield,” one thinks instantly. Intoned with a resonance befitting the opening notes of a medieval prayer being chanted in a cathedral on the eve of a feast day, Frank’s stories remind me of a comment made by Jean Luc Godard, “Editing is the process by which contingency becomes destiny.” (Thank you, Amy Davis.) One knows that Frank is editing these stories as one listens to them, and yet one doesn’t feel manipulated. One trusts Frank, to a degree that is unusual in the co-dependent world of authors and readers.

In retrospect, thinking of having seen The Shape of Water about a week before Frank’s obituary brought him back to mind, I wish somehow that it had been his voice that had accompanied the opening images of that film. The Shape of Water is, of course, just a re-telling of The Beauty and the Beast, a realization that hit me about a third of the way into the film. Perhaps there is a way in which that binary is also at work in almost all of Frank’s work. Most certainly, the afterglow is just as haunting as that moment in Cocteau’s version, where the arms hold up their lamps in a tunnel of uncertainty.

May eternal sleep be a feast for you, Joe Frank.

Why Is “Best” in Scare Quotes?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Why Is “Best” in Scare Quotes?: Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You and the “Best” Poets

I recently posted a list-in-progress of the “best” books of poetry during the first two decades of this century. Since I am working on a list that will eventually cover a half-century (1970-2020), there are, of course, poets whose work I admire very much who are not in what amounts to the final 40 percent of this period. Garrett Hongo’s books, for instance, will appear in the first half of this list.

For the moment, though, my main question goes like this: why is “Best” in scare quotes?

Is it a sardonic gesture on my part, an immediate way to problematize the legitimacy of my assessment? After all, I have never served as the editor of a volume of “Best Poems of the Year,” nor has my own poetry ever won any kind of award or prize. Am I a distinguished professor at a major R-1 university? No, again. To put it even more bluntly, am I the equal of those whose work I have sorted through? Shouldn’t only those who are at the level of the field they judge have their assessment taken seriously? Perhaps, therefore, the scare quotes should be redoubled.

I have been reading poetry for a half-century, though, with a fair degree of commitment and curiosity; and for over a decade and a half, I worked (if one can call largely unpaid labor “work”) rather assiduously as an editor and publisher of a West Coast independent press. On the whole, I doubt poets who read my list will really care about my qualifications. What it will boil down to is this distinction: if you’re on my list, you will regard my opinion as sound and thoughtful; if your book is not listed, then I am a narrow-minded, semi-literate jerk.

I would hope, however, that you would give my list as much respectful attention as I have given Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You, which by sheer coincidence I picked up at the college library and began to peruse as I was putting the finishing touches on yet another iteration. Let me start by praising Burt’s writing itself. His sentences and paragraphs are a pleasure to read, regardless of the poet he is writing about. The quality of Burt’s prose is very much the factor that keeps me reading, in fact, for I am not particularly interested in the majority of the poets he has selected as examples of compelling poetry.

One of the things that almost stunned me about The Poem Is You was how little correlation there was between his “list” and mine. If his table of content and my list were to be arranged as a Venn diagram, one would only see a sliver of shaded-in commonality. One might attribute this to the variety that oscillates, wobbles and cavorts through the proliferating scenes that make up contemporary poetry in this country, but I don’t think that’s the case. Our divergence in emphasis comes out of a fundamental disagreement about the actual evolution of contemporary poetry.

Nevertheless, there are a dozen or so featured poets in The Poem Is You whose work I am mutually intrigued by, and I have to give Professor Burt considerable credit for surprising me in a few instances. I never expected him to include Robert Grenier and Carla Harryman as poets worth discussion. In addition, his writing has gotten me interested in a few poets (such as Robyn Schiff and dg nanouk okpik) whose work I was not familiar with at all. Finally, it should be noted that even when there is overlap between our lists, an extended discussion would reveal my substantial reservations about the work of poets such as Albert Goldbarth, whose poems generate a surface dazzle, but rarely achieve the transmission of wisdom that would qualify them as worthy of translation. In other words, I want to emphasize again that a poet’s appearance in my list is not an unqualified endorsement.

The kind of book that Burt has produced is gaining in popularity. Both Edward Hirsch and Camille Paglia have produced similar surveys and commentaries, and I hope the success of these volumes encourages other such efforts.

Here, for the record, is Burt’s list of poets most deserving of attention now:

Tato Laviera
Lucille Clifton
Carla Harryman
John Hollander
Carl Dennis
Liam Rector
Czeslaw Milosz
Robert Grenier
Rita Dove
A.R. Ammons
Yusef Komunyakaa
Diane Glancy
Lucie Brock-Broido
Killarney Clary
John Yau
Robert Creeley
Charles Wright
Allen Grossman
Adrienne Rich
Louise Gluck
James Merrill
Linda Gregerson
Kay Ryan
Albert Goldbarth
Harryette Mullen
Stanley Kunitz
Michael Palmer
Robert Hass
C.D. Wright
Juan Felipe Herrera
Carter Revard
Allan Peterson
Rae Armantrout
Elizabeth Alexander
Liz Waldner
kari edwards
Agha Shahid Ali
D.A. Powell
Angie Estes
W.S. Merwin
Bernadette Mayer
Donald Revell
Terrance Hayes
Jorie Graham
Laura Kasischke
Frank Bidart
Robyn Schiff
Mary Jo Bang
Lucia Perillo
Melissa Range
Joseph Massey
dg nanouk okpik
Rosa Alcala
Gabby Bess
Brenda Shaughnessy
Claudia Rankin
Brandon Som
Ross Gay

“Best” U.S. Poetry Books, 2000 – 2020 (a list in progress)

“Best” U.S. Books of Poetry, 2000 – 2020 (a list in progress)

I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems – by Bill Knott (edited by Thomas Lux) (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2017) – NOTE: My choice for the best book of the year. All genres.

Imperfect Pastorals — Gail Wronsky What Books, 2017

Calligraphy / Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

So Where Are We? — Lawrence Joseph (FSG, 2017)

The Trumpiad — Cody Walker (Waywiser Press, 2017)

Waiting for the Light — Alicia Ostriker University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017

Enter Here — Alexis Rhone Fancher (KYSO Flash, 2017)

The Stars of Earth: New and Selected Poems — Emily Grosholz (Able Muse Press/Word Galaxy, 2017)

Whereas — Layli Longsoldier (Graywolf Press. 2017)

I Will Not Be A Butcher For The Wealthy — Anthony Seidman (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)

Moonglow á Go-Go: New and Selected Poems — Joan Jobe Smith (NYQ Books, 2017)

Quickening Fields – Pattiann Rogers (Penguin Books, 2017)

Star Journal — Christopher Buckley (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)

Thousand Star Hotel — Bao Phi (Coffeehouse Press. 2017)

The Darkening Trapeze — Larry Levis, edited by David St. John (Graywolf, 2016)
NOTE: One of the extraordinary collections of the decade. A must-read.

Psychosis in the Produce Department — Laurel Ann Bogen (Red Hen Press, 2016)

Olio – Tyehimba Jess (Wave, 2016)

Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences — Barrett Watten (University of Iowa Press, 2016)
(NOTE: This book should be read simultaneously with any book on this list that you choose to sit down or stretch out with.)

Squander – Elena Karina Byrne (Omnidawn, 2016)

Porridge — Richard Garcia (Press 53, 2016)

Night Sky with Exit Wounds – Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon, 2016)

Last Train to the Missing Planet — Kim Dower (Red Hen Press, 2016)

Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems — Kevin Opstedal (Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse; 2016)

Wide Road to the Edge of the World — Jack Grapes (Bombshelter Press, 2016; Second Edition, 2017)

The City Keeps: Selected and New Poems 1966-2014 — John Godfrey — 2016

Border Music — Paul Vangelisti (Talisman House, 2016)

The Age of Reasons: Uncollected Poems 1969-1982 — Ted Greenwald; edited by Miles Champion (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)

The Couple Who Fell to Earth — Michelle Bitting. (C&R Press, 2016).

Partly: New & Selected Poems 2001-2015 — Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)

Sober Cooking — Lynn McGee (Spuyen Duyvil Press, 2016)

The Missing Museum — Amy King (Tarpaulin Sky, 2016)

A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed — Anthony Seidman (Eyewear Publishing. 2016)

In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton — Donald Britton (Nightboat Books, 2016)

Ask Me about My Poetry — Julien Poirier (City Lights, 2016)

The Swimmer — John Koethe (FSG, 2016)

Coastal Zone — Joe Safdie (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016)

Poems Hidden in Plain View — Hank Lazar (Presses Universities de Rouen, 2016)

Antidote for Night — Marsha de la O (Boa Editions, 2015)

Canto Hondo / Deep Song — Francisco X. Alarcon (University of Arizona Press, 2015)

The Official Language of Yes — Scott Wannberg (Perceval Press, 2015)

What Snakes Want — Kita Shantiris (Mayapple Press, 2015)

Sea-Level Nerve (Book Two) (Prose Poems) — James Grabill (LeGrande, Oregon: Wordcraft, 2015)

The Yellow Door — Amy Uyematsu (Red Hen, 2015)

Twin Extra — Doren Robbins (Wild Ocean Press, 2015)

How to Be Drawn — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2015)

As Luck Would Have It — Mark Weiss (Shearsman Books, 2015)

All You Ask For Is Longing: New & Selected Poems — Sean Thomas Dougherty (Boa Editions, 2014)

Conraband of Hoopoe — Ewa Chrusciel (Omnidawn, 2014)

The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven — Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press, 2015)

Earth — Cecilia Woloch (Two Sylvias Press, 2015)

Scattered at Sea — Amy Gerstler (Penguin, 2015)

The Voyage of the Sable Venus — Robin Coste Lewis (Knopf, 2015)

The Chronicles — Ramon Garcia (What Books, 2015)

Against Conceptual Poetry — Ron Silliman (Counterpath Press, 2014)

Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century Forrest Gander, Editor & Translator (Otis Books/ Seismicity Editions, 2014)

The Chair — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2014)

The Other Odyssey – Richard Garcia (Dream Horse Press, 2014)

Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas (New Selected Poems & Reader), edited by Christopher Buckley and Jon Veinburg. (Tebot Bach, 2014)

Open 24 Hours — Suzanne Lummis (Lynx House Press, 2014)

Towards the Primeval Lightning Field — Will Alexander (Litmus Press, 2014)

Like a Beggar — Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon, 2014)

I Want a Job — Carol Ellis (Finishing Line Press, 2014)

Ice Children — Edward Harkness (Split Lip Press, 2014)

Borderless Butterflies: Earth Haikus and Other Poems / Mariposas sin fronteras: Haikus terrenales y otros poemas — Francisco X. Alarcon (Poetic Matrix Press, 2014)

The Magicians Union — James Cushing (Cahuenga Press, 2014)

Revising the Storm — Geffrey Davis (Boa Editions, 2014)

Patter — Douglas Kearney (Red Hen Press, 2014)

Oh, Salt/Oh Desiring Hand — Holly Prado (Cahuenga Press, 2013)

Lightning Dialogues — Michael Kincaid (Nemesis, 2013)

Imaginary Burdens: Selected Poems — Michael Hannon (Word Temple Press, 2013)

Vital Signs — Juan Delgado (with photographs by Thomas McGovern) (Heyday/Inlandia, 2013)

Our Obsidian Tongues — David Shook (Eyewear Publishing; 2013).

A Wild Surmise: New & Selected Poems & Recordinss — Eloise Klein Healy (Red Hen Press, 2013)

Start with a Small Guitar — Lynne Thompson (What Books, 2013)

Bleed Through: New and Selected Poems — Michael Davidson (Coffeehouse, 2013)

Varieties of Religious Experience — Christopher Buckley (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013)

Spiral Trace — Jack Marshall (Coffeehouse, 2013)

The Story of My Accident Is Ours — Rachel Levitsky (Futurepoem Books, 2013)

Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary — Harryette Mullen Greywolf Press, 2013.

Deep Meanings: Selected Poems 2008-2013 — Gerald Locklin (Presa Press, 2013)

Plume — Kathleen Flenniken (University of Washington Press, 2013)

The Cineaste — A. Van Jordan (Norton, 2013)

Even So: New and Selected Poems — Gary Young (White Pine, 2012)

Collected Poems — Ron Padgett (Coffeehouse, 2013)

Revelator — Ron Silliman (BookThug, 2013)

Spectrum of Possible Deaths — Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon, 2013)

This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 — Michael Heller (Nightboat Books, 2012)

Life on Mars — Tracy K. Smith (Greywolf Press, 2012)
(NOTE: This book was translated and published, in its entirety, in Mexico.)

Western Practice — Stephen Motika (Alice James, 2012)

Thrall — Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

The Naked Eye: New and Selected poems, 1987-2012 — Jack Grapes (Bombshelter Press, 2012)

Gaze — Christopher Howell (Milkweed Editions, 2012)

Tomorrow, Yvonne: Poetry & Prose for Suicidal Egotists — Yvonne de la Vega (Foreword by Ray Manzarek) (Punk Hostage Press, 2012)

Olives — A.E. Stallings (Triquarterly, 2012)

Walking Across a Field We Are Focused on at This Time Now — Sara Wintz (ugly duckling press (2012)

notes from irrelevance — Anselm Berrigan (Wave, 2011)

Music for the Black Room – Sarah Maclay (What Books, 2011)

Invisible Strings — James Moore (Graywolf, 2011)

Steady, My Gaze — Marie-Elizabeth Mali (Tebot Bach, 2011)

Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems — Michael McClure (edited, and with an introduction by Leslie Scalapino) (University of California Press, 2011)

THE GRAND PIANO: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography (Parts 1 – 10) — Rae Armantrout; Steve Benson; Carla Harryman; Lyn Hejinian; Tom Mandel; Ted Pearson; Bob Perelman; Kit Robinson; Ron Silliman; Barrett Watten (Mode A/This Press, 2010)

Two — Paul Vangelisti (Talisman House, 2010)

Mean Free Path — Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon, 2010)
(This book owes more than has been generally acknowledged to Barrett Watten’s poetry. Whether Lerner has read him or not, he’s absorbed much of the implications of Watten’s formidable and inspiring writing. The dispersal of a poet’s influence often leads casual commentary into overlooking the commitment required by those who prepared the way.)

Lighthead — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2010)

So Quick Bright Things — Gail Wronsky (What Books, 2010)

Usher — B.H. Fairchild (Norton, 2010)

The Judy Grahn Reader — Judy Grahn (Aunt Lute Books, 2009)

Odalisque — Mark Salerno (Salt, 2009)
(This book deserved a major prize.)

Styrofoam — Evelyn Reilly (Roof Books, 2009)

Lucifer at the Starlight — Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009)

Easy — Marie Ponsot (Knopf. 2009)

Under the Quick — Molly Bendall (Parlor Press)

Upgraded to Serious — Heather McHugh (Copper Canyon, 2009)

TIRESIAS: Collected Poems — Leland Hickman (edited by Stephen Motika; afterword by Bill Mohr) (Nightboat/Seismicity Editions, 2009)

Hammers and Hearts of the Gods — Fred Voss (Bloodaxe, 2009)

Hilarity — Patty Seyburn (New Issues Pres, 2009)

Indigo — Ron Koertge (Red Hen, 2009)

The White Bride — Sarah Maclay (University of Tampa Press, 2009)

Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

Half the World In Light: New and Selected Poems — Juan Felipe Herrera (University of Arizona Press, 2008)

It’s Go in Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006 — Leslie Scalapino (University of California Pres, 2008)

My Piece of the Puzzle — Doren Robbins (Eastern Washington University, 2008)

The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1951-1993 — Charles Bukowski (Ecco, 2008)

God Particles — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

The Alphabet — Ron Silliman (University of Alabama Press, 2008)

The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems — Kit Robinson (Adventures in Poetry, 2008)

187 Reasons Mexicanoes Can’t Cross the Border —Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights, 2007)

Desire — Lyn Lifshin (World Parade Books, 2008)

Backscatter: New and Selected Poems — John Olson (Black Widow, 2008)

The Age of Huts (Compleat) — Ron Silliman (Futurepoem, 2007)

Murmur — Laura Mullen (Futurepoem, 2007)

Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 — Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

All that Is Not Given Is Lost! — Greg Kuzma (Backwaters Press, 2007)

Elegy — Mary Jo Bang (Greywolf, 2007)

Vertigo — Martha Ronk (Coffee House, 2007)

Beg No Pardon — Lynne Thompson (Perugia Press, 2007)

The Wind-Up Gods — Stefi Weisburd (Black Lawrence Press, 2007)

The Pleasures of the Damned — Charles Bukowski (edited by John Martin) (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972-2007 — Albert Goldbarth (Greywolf, 2007)

DRIVE: The First Quartet (1980-2005) — Lorna Dee Cervantes (Wings, 2006)

City Eclogue — Ed Roberson (Atelos, 2006)

Facts About the Moon — Dorianne Laux (Norton, 2006)

The Persistence of Objects — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2006)

Toward the Winter Solstice — Timothy Steele. (Ohio University Press/Swallow, 2006

The Good City — Sharon Olinka (Marsh Hawk Press, 2006)

Red Snow Fence — Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2006)

Days By Themselves — Brooks Roddan (Blue Earth Press, 2006)

Blue Guide — Stephen Yenser (University of Chicago, 2006)

A Wreath for Emmett Till — Marilyn Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

A Room in California — Laurence Goldstein (Northwestern University Press, 2005)

A Word Like Fire — Dick Barnes (Handsel, 2005)

My Nature Is Hunger: New and Selected Poems — Luis J. Rodriguez (Curbstone, 2005)

Ostinato Vamps — Wanda Coleman (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

Poems for Infidels — Gail Wronsky (Red Hen Press, 2004)

The Face: A Novella in Verse — David St. John (Harper, 2004)

The Temperature of This Water — Isle Yi Park (Kaya Books, 2004)

Sparrow: Poems — Carol Muske-Dukes (Random House, 2004)

Abracadabra — Eric Priestley (foreword by Quincy Troupe) (Heat Press, 2004)

The Urban Poems — David Hernandez (Fractal Edge Press, 2004)

The Subsequent Blues — Gary Copeland Lilley (Four Way Books, 2004)

Million Poems Journal — Jordan Davis (Faux Press, 2003)

Call Me Ishmael Tonight — Agha Shahid Ali (Norton, 2003)

Late — Cecilia Wolch (Boa Editions, 2003)

Collected Works — Lorine Niedecker (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (University of California Press, 2002)

Memoirs of a Street Poet — Frank T. Rios (Sawbone/Temple of Man, 2002)

The Splinter Factory — Jeffrey McDaniel (Manic D Press, 2002)
(It is worth noting that he is one of the few poets on this list to have a substantial number of poems translated into another language and published in a stand-alone volume in that language. Tom Lux is another such poet, as are Ben Lerner, Tracy Smith and Cecilia Woloch.)

Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry — Alan Dugan (Seven Stories, 2002)

walking barefoot in the glassblowers museum — ellyn maybe (manic d press, 2002)
NOTE: One of the best titles for a book of poems since Stephen Keller’s The Nostalgia of the Fortune Teller.)

Hip Logic — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2002)

Tsigan, The Gypsy Poem — Cecilia Woloch (Cahuenga Press, 2002)

Freud by Other Means — Gene Frumkin (La Alameda Press, 2002)

Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 — Paul Vangelisti (Marsilio/Agincourt, 2001)

The Unraveling Strangeness — Bruce Weigel (Grove, 2002)

The Laugh We Make When We Fall — Susan Firer (The Backwaters Press, 2001)

The Street of Clocks — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Mercurochrome — Wanda Coleman (Black Sparrow, 2001)

Sonnets to Madness and Other Misfortunes — Francisco X. Alarcon (Creative Arts Book Co., 2001)

Rancho Notorious — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2001)

Dying for Beauty — Gail Wronsky (Copper Canyon, 2000)

“Notes from Irrelevance” and “Revelator”

Friday, December 12, 2018

I have withheld two books from the list of “best” books of the current decade until this point so that they can receive a special note of commendation. It’s all too easy for a list to mute the distinctiveness of a particular item, and today I want to call attention to a pair of books that are each a single poem. From first line to last, each book is in the mid-sixties in terms of page length; these are books, therefore, that can be read at a single sitting, in the same way that one could listen to a double-album. You’ll want to have some liquid refreshment close by, though reading these books may well absorb you so thoroughly that you will neglect that sip of tea or ice water in favor of scribbling a note to yourself about your favorite lines. Of course, you might also find yourself wishing you had a manual typewriter, so that you could sit and type up a copy of the poem for yourself, slowing down your “impression” of the poem by imagining how each word arrived, unexpectedly, to the poem’s realm.

Notes from Irrelevance — Anselm Berrigan (Wave Books, 2011)

Revelator — Ron Silliman (BookThug, 2013)

(For those who know of my work as an editor and publisher, my interest in and preference for “long” poems will come as no surprise.)

BACKLIST (Best poetry books 2000-2010)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 — A follow-up list of best poetry books from the preceding decade

Lid Three

Several days ago, I posted a list of books worth looking at if you want to be part of a complicated discussion involving contemporary poetry. A few of the books I listed would probably be regarded as belonging to the category known as “difficult” poetry, which no doubt left some people wondering exactly where I stand. Like some people’s relationship, it’s “complicated.”

I know some poets don’t like “difficult” poetry, but I don’t hold that against them. Some of these poets have written work I truly admire. The late Steve Kowit, for instance, is one of those whose poems I often savor and reread, but he was still haplessly beating a dead horse the last time he read at the Long Beach poetry festival, in mocking the influence of critical theory on contemporary poetry. I had heard it years before, and it really wasn’t that funny then. To lambast the alleged deleterious effects of theory on contemporary poetry in this decade came across like a comedian in 1969 telling jokes about beatniks. Anachronistic humor is so tedious. (Fortunately, the best poems of Steve Kowit will be work that endures, in part because the emotions that these poems summon end up being difficult ones to think about.)

I often wonder how academic poets, especially those whose primary job is training aspiring poets in MFA programs, expect discussions about poetry not to be difficult. I’m not just referring to the acolytes of Billy Collins, by the way, whose anecdotal, mildly humorous verse has worn all too thin, all too quickly. Metrical verse can be “difficult,” too, and poets who espouse avant-garde poetics often flounder when they encounter metrical verse. For that matter, all too many MFA teachers seem to have no idea of what a caesura in a line of metrical verse actually does. I am not, under any circumstances, defer to the massive and inexcusable ignorance that seems to be acceptable at the university level right now. If you can’t hear the poem, then you haven’t read it. Then, too, if you’re one of these purists who has to have it one way or the other, then take your homogeneity elsewhere and clone away, baby, clone yourself away into insipidity. I intend to have the best of both ways.

I’ve been fine-tuning the list for the current decade, and in the process discovered that I had mistakenly assigned one book to the “backlist” of the previous decade’s “Best of.” Ultimately, by 2020, what I aspire to compile is a list of books that will intrigue those who read contemporary poetry enough to make them want to investigate the unfamiliar titles. As a brief installment of books that will certainly be substantial contenders for that final list, and which appeared in the first decade of the century, here goes:

Mean Free Path — Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon, 2010)
(This book owes more than has been generally acknowledged to Barrett Watten’s poetry. Whether Lerner has read him or not, he’s absorbed much of the implications of Watten’s formidable and inspiring writing. The dispersal of a poet’s influence often leads casual commentary into overlooking the commitment required by those who prepared the way.)

Lighthead — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2010)

Odalisque — Mark Salerno (Salt, 2009)
(This book deserved a major prize.)

Lucifer at the Starlight — Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009)

Easy — Marie Ponsot (Knopf. 2009)

TIRESIAS: Collected Poems — Leland Hickman (edited by Stephen Motika; afterword by Bill Mohr) (Nightboat/Seismicity Editions, 2009)

Hilarity — Patty Seyburn (New Issues Pres, 2009)

Indigo — Ron Koertge (Red Hen, 2009)

It’s Go in Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006 — Leslie Scalapino (University of California Pres, 2008)

The White Bride — Sarah Maclay (University of Tampa Press, 2009)

Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

Half the World In Light: New and Selected Poems — Juan Felipe Herrera (University of Arizona Press, 2008)

My Piece of the Puzzle — Doren Robbins (Eastern Washington University, 2008)

God Particles — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Backscatter: New and Selected Poems — John Olson (Black Widow, 2008)

The Alphabet — Ron Silliman (University of Alabama Press, 2008)

The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems — Kit Robinson (Adventures in Poetry, 2008)

187 Reasons Mexicanoes Can’t Cross the Border —Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights, 2007)

The Age of Huts (Compleat) — Ron Silliman (Futurepoem, 2007)

Murmur — Laura Mullen (Futurepoem, 2007)

Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 — Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

All that Is Not given Is Lost! — Greg Kozma (Backwaters Press, 2007)

Elegy — Mary Jo Bang (Greywolf, 2007)

Vertigo — Martha Ronk (Coffee House, 2007)

The Wind-Up Gods — Stefi Weisburd (Black Lawrence Press, 2007)

The Pleasures of the Damned — Charles Bukowski (edited by John Martin) (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

DRIVE: The First Quartet (1980-2005) — Lorna Dee Cervantes (Wings, 2006)

Facts About the Moon — Dorianne Laux (Norton, 2006)

The Persistence of Objects — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2006)

Toward the Winter Solstice Timothy Steele. (Ohio University Press/Swallow, 2006)

Red Snow Fence — Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2006)

A Wreath for Emmett Till — Marilyn Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

A Word Like Fire — Dick Barnes (Handsel, 2005)

Ostinato Vamps — Wanda Coleman (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

The Face: A Novella in Verse — David St. John (Harper, 2004)

The Temperature of This Water — Isle Yi Park (Kaya Books, 2004)

Sparrow: Poems — Carol Muske-Dukes (Random House, 2004)

Late — Cecilia Woloch (Boa Editions, 2003)

Collected Works — Lorine Niedecker (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (University of California Press, 2002)

Memoirs of a Street Poet — Frank T. Rios (Sawbone/Temple of Man, 2002)

The Splinter Factory — Jeffrey McDaniel (Manic D Press, 2002)
(It is worth noting that he is one of the few poets on this list to have a substantial number of poems translated into another language and published in a stand-alone volume in that language. Tom Lux is another such poet, as are Ben Lerner, Tracy Smith and Cecilia Woloch.)

Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry — Alan Dugan (Seven Stories, 2002)

walking barefoot in the glassblowers museum — ellyn maybe (manic d press, 2002)
NOTE: One of the best titles for a book of poems since Stephen Keller’s The Nostalgia of the Fortune Teller.)

Hip Logic — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2002)

Tsigan, The Gypsy Poem — Cecilia Woloch (Cahuenga Press, 2002)

Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 — Paul Vangelisti (Marsilio/Agincourt, 2001)

The Laugh We Make When We Fall — Susan Firer (The Backwaters Press, 2001)

The Street of Clocks — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Mercurochrome — Wanda Coleman (Black Sparrow, 2001)

Rancho Notorious — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2001)

No one should think, by the way, that having a book just listed means that everything he or she has written deserves equal attention. Past success is not a reliable indicator of future success, at least in art. In sports, past success can be useful in creating gambling odds (for bettors) and WAR (“Win above replacement”) statistics (for coaches). In poetry, past success more typically is a source of bewilderment. How did a poet who wrote many very fine poems (among some of the best of his generation, in fact) in Shadow Ball turn out such a mediocre collection of poems in Brain Camp? One can only hope that it was a temporary lapse, and that his next book will mark him as comeback poet of the decade. This falling off, however, should not efface the level of accomplishment in Shadow Ball. With the exception of a few poets, Webb’s poetry is far better than the bulk of the work published by Tupelo Press, for instance. I will have more to say about that press in a future post. In the meantime, rest assured that the absence of its books from my list is not an accident.