26 September 2012


Popular culture, whether contemporary or antiquated, tends to frame Satan as the epitome of evil: sometimes as an external force ruling from a fiery underworld, and other times as an internal force residing within the hearts and minds of man. But poets, on the contrary, have long revered Satan as a champion of the humanistic cause. Take, for instance, the following excerpt from Book I of Milton’s canonical Paradise Lost:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
In this passage Satan speaks to his demonic henchman Beelzebub, offering some insight into how he perceives the world around him. His argument is simple: our lives are not composed of preordain essences; instead, the mind, which “is its own place,” interprets the world surrounding it and develops a set of ideas, beliefs, and values that assist us in navigating  life. Thus, there is nothing intrinsically good about “Heaven” or bad about “Hell.” One can, if left to their own devices “make a Heaven of Hell, [and] a Hell of Heaven.” Ironically enough, Satan claims that humanity believes god and heaven are sources of goodness because “thunder hath made [them] greater.” In other words, religious institutions employ fear induced by loud noises (e.g. the bluster of brimstone pastors at the pulpit) to attain subservience from their followers. By championing the mind and human spirit, Milton’s Satan creates a liberatory space wherein “We shall be free” from the tyranny of religious indoctrination, fear mongering, the god who accompanies them. Satan, then, is emblematic of creativity, whereas god is emblematic of oppressive dogma. To this extent, it is “Better reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”

While the landscape of poetry has changed much during the three hundred and forty five years since Milton’s blank verse retelling of Genesis, some aspects remain the same. In Dorothea Lasky’s Thunderbird (Wave Books, 2012), her third full-length collection, Satan still rules the world of poetry. Toward the conclusion of “The Insurrection of Satan as Thunderbird,” the speaker of the poem tells us:
Satan is a flat orange snake
I hang him on my wall
And pray to him for forgiveness
But Satan knows no mercy
Satan, you know no mercy (55)
Satan, in his classic representation as a snake, hangs on the speaker’s wall as she prays to him for forgiveness. But, of course, the dark prince “knows no mercy” because “mercy” is part of god’s doctrine of thunder: an abstract concept built to keep subjects on their knees, docile and weeping. Satan knows only freedom.

Indeed, Lasky and (most) of her speakers already know this to be true. The freedom Satan offers is not attained by worshiping an idol pinned to the wall; Satan lives within the poet and her work. Near the beginning of the collection, readers discover in “It Is Murder” that:
I make hell
Where it already is
In this poem (8)
Hell, the playground of invention, artistry, and poetry, is made by the poet and locates itself within the poem. There is no need to search for the underworld: for the poet, hell is within her; for the reader, it is on the page. Yes, poet, “keeping you in place” in the poem “is the devil” (16).

True, Lasky’s poems occasionally present the image of Hell (and Satan) through a more standard cultural lens (i.e. externally). Take, for instance, the poem “Why Go In Cars.” The poet writes:
Let’s sit in a sea of flames
And I will never put the fire
Out of you (24)
But more often than not, she fashions her demonic tropes as internal creative forces that burn so fiercely they consume the body from the inside out. For example, “You Are Beautiful” closes with the lines:
I will be so full of fire that they won’t be able to extinguish me
Before the beauty comes I want to be so full of fire
That they can’t tell me from you, my wretched angel (36)
Engulfed in self-ignited flames from within her own body, no one can tell the difference between the poem’s speaker and her “wretched angel” Satan.

Lasky is well aware, certainly, that her preoccupations with Satan and Hell will no doubt be misinterpreted by others who are less nuanced in their reception of literary tropes and the championing of the world as a humanistic endeavor. She articulates this concern several times throughout Thunderbird. In the self-consciously titled poem “Why It Is A Black Life,” the speaker says:
Because I say things
In the simplest way possible
And am constantly misunderstood (14)
But Lasky won’t suffer fools who misunderstand her Satanism as indebtedness to some deviant black cult that revels in pain, destruction, and hatred. If that’s the case, to heaven with them! No, Lasky, instead, wants to confound these critics all the more. As the opening of the poem “What Poets Should Do” argues:
Poets should get back to saying crazy shit
All of the time
I am sick of academics and businesspeople telling poets
What we should do (47)
Indeed, Ms. Lasky, let's say some crazy shit. Hail Satan!

20 September 2012

Abu Ghraib Arias

When photographs documenting the torture and abuse of Iraqi soldiers and civilians at the hands of American military personal stationed at Abu Ghraib surfaced in 2004, the international community received confirmation of what it long suspected: the so-called moral compass of the United States was not just off, but completely functionless. Domestically, all but the most adamant hawks questioned the government’s mission and its treatment of Iraqi prisoners. Although it’s doubtful that it consoled the victims’ pain, even Donald Rumsfeld, at one point, conceded:
I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't do that. That was wrong. To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation.
Any goodwill the nation experienced in its relations with the global community evaporated overnight. Political pressure began to mount against the Bush administration, and even members of his own Republican Party voiced their lack of confidence in and disdain for the unchecked warmongering and human rights violations.

Using this shameful moment in American history as a backdrop for his most recent chapbook, Phil Metres explores “the vertiginous sense of being named but silenced as an Arab American” (25) in Abu Ghraib Arias (Flying Guillotine Press, 2012). Collaging language from sources as disparate as the testimonies of Abu Ghraib torture victims, a Standard Operating Procedure manual for Camp Echo at Guantanamo Bay, the Bible, and various news stories, Metres creates a harrowing linguistic account of violence, erasure, and what it means to be both Arabic and an Arab-American in a post-9/11 world.

The opening stanza of “The Blues of Lance McCotter,” which is the collection’s first poem, reads:
four Iraqis at the gate
all of them missing
their hands or their
blank text not story (1)
To begin with, Metres creates a direct connection between the dismembered body and the silenced story. In other words, for someone to erase someone else’s narrative functions in the same manner as chopping off another’s hands. Both are acts of violence committed toward an individual in order to make them, literally, less human. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that the dehumanization of certain races, ethnicities, or cultures acts as a justification for violence upon them and, in the most extreme cases, the foundational doctrines of genocide.

Formally, Metres uses black boxes to obscure text to intensify the suppression of voices, but these opqaue swathes of color also gesture toward the hoods placed over the heads of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in many of the now infamous photographs. Likewise, this visual technique calls to mind the government’s tactics of classifying both embarrassing and incriminating information under the guise of national security.

As Abu Ghraib Arias progresses, the silencing of voices increases in its intensity and scope. By the concluding permutation of the poem “(echo /ex/),” all that remains are trace elements of a narrative: quotation marks, apostrophes, and brackets. The text, literally, cannot be vocalized. Although the chapbook appears to conclude on a pessimistic note, Metres’ desire to provide a voice for a silenced population has resonated beyond the confines of his text. Not only did the chapbook win this year’s Arab American Book Award, but Flying Guillotine Press recently published a second-edition of Abu Ghraib Arias after the first-edition sold out. With any hope, such exposure will remind readers of what happens when a government (American or otherwise) abuses its power, and its people passively accept its draconian laws and imperialist platforms, while simultaneously offering an outlet for the poignant song of both the Arabic and Arab-American voice in a post-9/11 world.

13 September 2012

The Runaway Note

Tyrone Jaeger lives in Conway, AR and teaches at Hendrix college. His first book, The Runaway Note (Shakespeare & Co, Toad Suck, 2012) was released in July of this year. The book follows the exploits of a boy named Tyro and a cast of his strange companions. In some ways, the following passage speaks to the overall tone and aesthetic of the book:
Life tasted of two rocks to one dirt, a bitter ratio tempered by the soft teats of a cow, warm milk, and steaming shit. Days tasted of glue made from flour and cement used to bury the living with the dead. Boys wear sailor suits, and even in black and white, we recognize royal blue and yellow hair. We recognize the dead among the living. Here, this, is ghost, and this is living, little girl. (7)
Jaeger roots his story in a northeastern, rural landscape composed of dirt, rocks, and steaming shit; and hes always concerned with the thin scrim between life, death, and the ghosts that pass between it. Jaeger graciously took some time to answer a few questions about his book for me via email.

The Runaway Note opens with Tyro, the protagonist, “writing a runaway note on [his] red typewriter” (1); but soon thereafter, his mother says: “That's no runaway note, that's his memoirs” (2). At least to the extent that the same tropes, settings, and characters recur throughout the entirety of the collection, Tyro seems unable to escape his past, which lends credence to his mother's interpretation. How does both the note and the concept of flight function in your book? As an author, do you believe that one can flee their past by writing about it, or does the act writing give that past a second, thus inescapable, life?

I'll tackle the second question first. The Runaway Note was born of equal parts memories, dreams, and flights of imagination, so the writing did indeed give the past a second life. That second life, however, is warped and re-visioned as some nightmare or terrible adventure. The notion of second life intrigues me.  “Scissors, Paste, & the Dead” is a piece that was written about this old photograph that my mother has of her mother's family. My great-grandmother snipped out pictures of her dead son and her dead parents and then glued these onto a picture of the living members of the family. Someone then took a picture of this picture. On one hand, this is a beautiful art act, on the other it's like conjuring a ghost or giving the past a second life. That said, when I write from my memories, I'm not trying to flee the past as much as I'm poking at them with a stick and seeing if there's any life left.

The runaway note in the book functions on a similar level: a runaway note is fueled by the competing desires to escape and to remain. Runaway notes are a wonderful combination of threat and love letter. In so far as Tyro is my cartoonish doppelganger, the book acts as a love letter to the Catskills, which I moved away from twenty-six years ago. While the action in the book is all about flight—or fleeing—the writing act itself was a fleeing-into, rather than a fleeing from.

It's interesting to me that you call The Runaway Note a “second life” that is a “warped and re-visioned...nightmare” because, as I read your book, I sensed an indebtedness to a dark brand of surrealism or magical realism, etc. In fact, many of the blurbs on the back cover reference hallucinations, dreams, and nightmares. To your mind, what kind of relationship does your book have to the dream world? Are there any other books, surreal or otherwise, that serve as aesthetic touchstones or fore bearers for The Runaway Note?

Some of the episodes and characters are drawn through warped memory. Others, like “Letter to You, During This Our New Reincarnation” and “Specter,” arrived almost fully-formed from dreams. For a while I was having all these Civil War dreams, odd considering that I've never been a Civil War buff. I was writing down my dreams first thing every morning.

These pieces were written over a long period of time, so the influences are pretty far flung. When I moved to Arkansas, I was introduced to Frank Stanfords The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. The voice Stanford achieves via Francis—its ability to go navigate high and low dictions, dream and reality, humor and darkness—gave me a lot of freedom to experiment. The dreams and the warped memories in TRN are told through varying filters, including some that I copped from American folk tales. So I'm drawing from tale tales, boasts, yarns. More specifically, the “Little Morisa” pieces—10 extremely short pieces that act as a darkly comic interlude in the middle of the book—were influenced by Little Audrey, a folk-lore character whose exploits are humorous and ironic catastrophes. I've long loved Bob Dylans lyrics (and his book Tarantula) and Barry Hannahs stories, and both these are writers are not afraid to spin a wild yarn. Maybe, folk tales and the like are surrealism told to be true.

I like that you list Battlefield as an influence. In the same way that Stanford employs narrative and longer lines in order to create a poem that sometimes feels like prose, you wrote much of The Runaway Note in short, musically-charged blocks that read, at times, like poetry. In fact, while reading your book, I often wondered if it could be categorized as a lyric novella. As a writer, do you find genre classifications of any use? When you first began writing material for what would become The Runaway Note, did you consciously strive for that prose poem (or rhythmic flash fiction) aesthetic, or did that happen organically?

Not too long ago, I did a reading with Zach Schomburg and Janaka Stucky, and we were introduced as three poets, and I felt completely uncomfortable because my poetry chops are pretty bush league. Since The Runaway Note has been published, I’ve had friends and fellow writers call it a novel, and this too makes me squirm. I’ve written a few novels, but for me this book is something different. I've grappled with what to call it, and like a coward I go with “book.” But I like lyric novella—it takes some of the pressure of plot expectations and puts it on the language. That's what I'm calling it from now on: lyric novella.

The first pieces I wrote for The Runaway Note were written as prose poems or flash fictions, not necessarily as pieces that were part of the same series, but as I kept writing a conversation evolved to the point where it became obvious that they were all part of the same manuscript. I knew when I sat down that I was going to write something short. For example, some of the epistolary pieces (the “dead letters” as I think of them) seemed best suited for these short bursts of prose as they were messages from the dead. Historically, the dead may be bothersome, but rarely are they long-winded.

And by calling the book a lyric novella, it sounds as if, at least nominally, you’ve created a new genre! That being said, what are you writing now and does it engage, either formally or thematically, the concerns of The Runaway Note? What did the writing of The Runaway Note teach you on the level of aesthetics or craft? Are you still working on those older novels, or have you moved on from them?

The novel I’m working on is called Radio Eldorado. It's set in ‘69-70 in Colorado and follows an activist turned revolutionary and her intimate relationship with the members of a proto-punk rock band called the Wound Tights. The novel is more complex from a plot standpoint, and it's much much longer. I had been moving back and forth between the two projects for some time, with The Runaway Note offering me the occasional reprieve from the novel. With Radio Eldorado, I feel like I'm working in a much more controlled and intentional manner, and less from dream logic. While both books embrace chaos, The Runaway Note embraces a structural chaos that I don't think would work for this particular novel. On the craft level what I learned from The Runaway Note was that I run with my subconscious and let it speak, perhaps in a way that I never had before. It gets messy at times, but that's part of the fun.

Both projects, like most of my work, engage with outsiders, subcultures, those things bubbling at the fringes. I hope to get back to those other novels, but it will really depend on where my head is once I finish the current project.

04 September 2012

Tuned Droves

The opening sentence of Eric Baus’s second collection Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2008) reads: “When a boy’s mouth collapses into itself, tiny flames release from his limbs” (3). In some ways, the sentence captures the book’s central concern with the complex correspondence between voice and body. In this first instance, the inward collapse of a boy’s mouth produces flames that shoot from his appendages: a surreal cause-and-effect relationship, indeed. Of course, the image raises more questions than it answers, such as: What does it mean for a mouth to collapse into itself? Likewise, what are the effects on one’s voice after such a collapse occurs?

Readers can debate whether or not Tuned Droves answers these questions, but the collection certainly provides many examples of such collapses. Take, for instance, the prose poem “The Tranquilized Tongue,” wherein Baus writes:
What I could see of him was wrapped in steam. His head seemed fastened under his chin. He opened his outer wrapper, which appeared to me large enough to put my arm down deep inside. His eyelids do not wake him. His reflection enlarges as it enters his eyes. Here, he lies down with a voice. Compared with his name, which exhausts itself, the fluid of the tranquilized tongue remains enclosed within a perfect circuit, and his troubled body opens without destroying the organs of address. (19)
In this excerpt, the speaker sees a body “wrapped in steam,” partially obscuring it from view. What can be seen, though, is a body rendered foreign by a displacement of parts that allows for the head to be fastened under the chin. Moreover, this “troubled body opens” so much so that it is “large enough to put [an] arm down deep inside.” Unlike the mouth’s collapse in the opening sentence, the “tranquilized tongue remains enclosed within a perfect circuit” and escapes the cleaving violence the body experiences.

While neither one of these examples place mouth and body in explicit opposition to one another, they do suggest an ontological divide. But near the conclusion of Tuned Droves, Baus undermines this proposition as well when he writes: “His voice corresponds with the body it extends” (67): the voice, which emanates from the mouth, is both an extension of and “corresponds with” the body. Of course, just pages before, the speaker of “A Ding and Its Echo” claims that “My voice is a reference to almost nothing” (65) Does the speaker contradict himself, or are we to assume that the body is “almost nothing”? In fact, both of these statements, at least within the world of Tuned Droves, are true; the contradiction’s resolution resides in “An Echoed Exoskeleton”: “These sacrificial words form a feigned body which evades him during sleep” (62). The voice refers to almost nothing because the body, which is “feigned” and evasive, is almost nothing; hence, the voice is an extension of that nothingness.

But in that “almost nothing,” a remainder exists: a second tongue hidden within a fragmented nothing-body that escapes sense-making systems; or, as the poem “This Is A Film About Real Toy Trains” says: “Inside any good, real tongue there is another, beautifully cast” (21). Yes, within utilitarian “good, real” tongues hide “other, beautifully cast” tongues that “survive as obstacles to grammar and song” (42). To this extent, hidden tongues speak in voices that confuse because they adhere to non-normative grammatical practices and sing unique, thus difficult to understand, songs. But the voices of hidden tongues are not foreign; they are, merely, unheard because most do not listen for them. In fact, this hidden, “double-tongued music emerges” (61) from the same source as predecessor: it is “not another language,” but a different “treatment of the same tongue” (62) whose “performance culminates in the production of an irregularly shaped vowel” (66). And just like a hidden tongue, Tuned Droves is “irregularly shaped,” but “beautifully cast.”