28 January 2013

We Are Pharaoh

Robert Fernandez’s debut collection of poetry We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011) opens with the poem “Polyhedron,” which by definition is a multi-surfaced, three-dimensional object; or, as the poet himself writes, “2,700 intersecting tiles.” As an added twist, though, Fernandez’s polyhedron contains the uncanny ability to emit “cosmic background radiation,” enabling him both to “highlight sound” and “fall back into the life of a painter” (3). To this extent, the polyhedron can be employed as an apt metaphor for the poems in this collection: a series of intersecting and multi-layered tiles that delight both through sound and image. Take, for instance, the following excerpts from the aforementioned poem:
Speed and seeing are the only requisites
to positioning oneself in tradition

or catching rhythm
bare chested, youthful (4)


The eye is present if the rain is out,
threatens to bend not only reeds

but pitch, guitar, eggs of the macaw
Not just the river but the shadow of the river travels (5)


as a pearl Ferrari approximates
the angel of history,
so our mourners shy off
into flatness and ice (12)


tomorrow beauty shifts its name,
swallows landscapes,
rivers—

the seams vanishing across that discourse (13)
These four sections are indicative of the thirty-six sections of the poem: short intersecting tiles that catch a “rhythm” that harnesses “Speed” and “youthful” exuberance, while “seeing” such disparate images as a “guitar, eggs of the macaw,” “a pearl Ferrari,” and the Klee/Benjamin “angel of history.” Of course, Fernandez doesn’t just provide readers with images, such as a “river”; he also offers a more abstract “shadow [that] the river travels.” The poet’s rhythms, then, move the poem furiously through idea, image, sound, and abstraction, such that “beauty shifts its name” in rapid fashion. Indeed, in these light quick movements, the “seams” which demarcate the different “discourse[s],” modes of engagement, and artistry vanish in such a way that make these fragments appear to be a singular whole.

Just like “Polyhedron,” most of the poems found within We Are Pharaoh join “contradictory spontaneities” into functional “bodies” (18) that are “cut with / berserk lines” (32) but built from “a concise logic” (38) greater than the sum of their individual parts. And what is the “concise logic” that Fernandez’s poems employ? The conclusion of the poem “Halo” provides a hint:
                             The center
unravels no more easily

than a stone:
it spreads in leaves,

it erases itself in
strands of brilliance,

it unlocks in florets
through the reflective blackness. (60-61)
“The center / unravels no more easily / than a stone” because the center has “erase[d] itself.” It no longer exists. If such a claim sounds suspiciously familiar, it is due to the fact that the passage contains clear conceptual resonances echoing from Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play.” In his essay, the French philosopher wrote:
From then on it was probably necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being present, that the center had no natural locus, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play… extend[ing] the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.
In other words, Derrida contended that the center (as a guiding, transcendental, or absolute presence) no longer existed and, thus, engenders an infinite series of playful substitutions bound within a finite set. In its place, he proposed a revision of Levi-Strauss’s concept of the bricolage, which he defined as “the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined.” Because the bricoleur borrows “less coherent or ruined” concepts from a variety of sources, themselves which have been formed from other borrowed and ruined sources, the bricolage signals the “abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, [or] to an origin.”

To this extent, then, the Fernandez’s polyhedron (i.e. We Are Pharaoh and the poems therein) functions in a similar manner as Derrida’s adaptation of Levi-Strauss’s bricolage: a mythopoetic hodgepodge of sources formed into an ever-altering construction in an effort to highlight the cosmic radiation emanating forth from the 27,000 tiles used to build his book. Yes, it is the “noise that is pleading to the noise that is listening—[his] insolent varieties of actions bonded together” (96) for a moment in sound, image, abstraction, and rhythm that eventually dissipates into silence.

21 January 2013

Punchline

Nick Courtright is a poet who lives and writes in Austin, TX. In addition to writing poetry, he is the interviews editor for The Austinist and teaches literature and writing courses at several universities in the area. Courtright’s first book Punchline (Gold Wake Press, 2012) explores the confluence of philosophy, art, and life in order to come to terms with “our being and seeking” (75), one poem or “organized plan at a time” (7). The poet graciously took some time via email to answer some questions regarding his work.

Near the conclusion of Punchline, readers will find the poem “Ghosts,” which ends with the line “Being: of all the poems in the world please let just one figure it out” (72). The sentiment of this line, it would appear, is the belief in a singular poem that will clarify ontological problems or issues. Do you believe that such a poem exists? I ask, I suppose, because it would seem to me that the process of writing or reading poems, or perhaps thinking poetically over the course of a lifetime, could be one essence of Being, in and of itself. What are your thoughts on this?

The way I see it, it's less a “belief” in a singular poem that will clarify problems of being, and more a plea: in short, and at first blush, Im highly skeptical that such a poem exists. That, of course, doesnt stop me from hoping that one could exist. Could that poem have been written two thousand years ago? Sure, why not. Could it have been written this week? Yep. But has it been written? I doubt it, and not because I don't think poetry is perhaps the best method for tackling ontological questions. Its more because I recognize that poetry is a human art, and I have grave doubts about human beings ability to know the answers to much of anything, let alone the severest issues of our own existence. But I know that the true skeptic must doubt his doubt, and by such measure, every poem ever written is very very much the absolute and undeniable essence and immanent embodiment of utter Being. Right? What everyone is doing right now is THE TRUTH. Because how couldnt it be?

You divided Punchline into four sections, and each section begins with an epigraph: the first by a physicist (Einstein), the second by an astronomer/entertainer (Sagan), the third by a poet (Lorca), the fourth by a mystic/religious figure (Suzuki). To this extent, you seem to be suggesting a relationship or correspondence between these people and their discourses. Could you speak to how you conceive of the relationship between science, poetry, philosophy, and religion? What are the commonalities? What are the differences?

This is a dangerous question, because answering it is a necessary spoiler for a future text. So, profoundest of plaudits to you, dear interviewer, for asking it. I see a fundamental connection between Philosophy, Science, Religion, and Poetry, and, in fact, those are the four sections of a book I am working on. The basic argument, and answer to your question, is as follows: "Humankind has employed three methods in its search for truth: Philosophy, Science, and Religion. Each of these methods employs a different tactic: Philosophy uses logic, Science uses experiment, Religion uses revelation. The word that means “philosophy + science + religion” is “poetry.” Poetry, using everything, is the art by which the search best speaks." And that little section there in quotes is actually an introduction of sorts for the book I'm working on, tentatively titled The Humors, and not the book that is coming out next year. This whole entangled, complicated thing is, obviously, an audacious claim, and I just began to tackle it in Punchline. I'm excited to push it even further in the future, because I do believe all of these methods of comprehension to be not different elements of existence and its understanding (a la Descartes), but just different manners of looking at the exact same thing (a la Spinoza). And, at its root, I believe that poetry, for better or for worse, is the best way to bring them together.

You have a book coming out next year? Congratulations! Can you talk about the relationship (both the similarities and differences) between this new collection and Punchline? Likewise, tell me a bit more about The Humors. Obviously, based on your previous answer, it engages some of the same ideas as Punchline; but how does it differ? Finally, how would you explain, in general, the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of your poetry (particularly in Punchline) to both someone unfamiliar with poetry and someone deeply entrenched in the discourse/art?

The new book is actually a lot different than Punchline, and I'm really excited for it to come out. I've yet to post about it on Facebook so I suppose that means it's not yet real. The new book is called Let There Be Light, and (and this is the first time I'm explaining it in writing) it's built around the first seven days of creation according to Genesis 1:1-2:3. Except in reverse, so Day 7 is the first part of the book, then Day 6, then Day 5 on down to the very beginning; Day 5, for example, is the day fish and birds were created, so that section, obviously, has a lot of fish and birds in it. It's not a religious book by any means, but it is a book that explores what myth can do for us in the real world. The poems are different because they are more, I suppose, traditionally lyrical and self-contained than the ones in Punchline, which tend to spill over from one to the next. I'm terribly thrilled to have this book come out, because it was a long time coming, as it was a tortured wreck for years before it found its present form. As for The Humors, I'm still working on it, but I see it as more of a sequel to Punchline; whereas Punchline was about uncertainty and tolerating what we can't know, The Humors is more about what we can do about it. It's triumphant and tragic, and wouldn't have had a chance to exist without my having survived Punchline.

And how do I explain my aesthetic and conceptual concerns of my poetry? Aesthetically, I like white space and pacing via lineation, as I'm a big advocate of a friendship between the work on the page and the work read aloud. Conceptually, I'd say I'm very influenced by the tradition of poets as wise mysticst—he Rumis and Blakes and Mirabais and Lao-Tzus of the world—and I want to try to tap into that. Not just poetry as entertainment or intellectual plaything, but poetry as guidebook and inspiration-for-epiphany. Whether I get there is highly debatable, but it's what I'm shooting for.

14 January 2013

Weather

Dave Lucas is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at University of Michigan. A native Clevelander, he returned to the area to complete his dissertation remotely and run the Market Garden Brewery Reading Series, which highlights the work of local writers. His first collection Weather (University of Georgia Press, 2011), among other things, examines what it means to be part of Cleveland and, in a broader sense, the Great Lakes region. Over the past month, Lucas took some time to answer a few questions for me over email.

You were born in Cleveland and, after some time away from the city, live there once again. Especially during the first half of your debut collection Weather, with poems such as Midst of a Burning Fiery Furnace, Lake Erie Monster, “At the Cuyahoga Flats,” “River on Fire," and Midwestern Cities,” you engage the idea place and location frequently. Could you address how Cleveland, and the Rust Belt in general, affects both you and your writing.

I should begin by saying, however na├»ve or antique this may sound, that I believe wholeheartedly in the idea of poetry as a language of incantation, of mystery. For me, one of the marvels of poetry is that poetic language can conjure a place as one sees it, remembers it, or even as one wishes it to be. I think of Walt Whitman’s (or Frank O’Hara’s) New York, Derek Walcott’s Caribbean, Alice Oswald’s Devon, Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek.

I feel that I am both from and “of” Cleveland. The Cleveland of Weather is a poeticized, mythologized vision of the real place—whatever “real” might mean. I wasn’t alive to see the river burn, for instance, but the idea strikes me as an image out of Exodus or Revelation. The narrative of the Rust Belt in my lifetime—you hear it in the name itself—has been a story of smaller-scale apocalypse and exodus. I hope that the poems in Weather emerge from that narrative but also serve to transform it.

Finally, I find especially apt the perhaps inevitable analogy between poetry’s reputation as a dying art and Cleveland’s reputation as a dying city. I want the poems in Weather to strike against this idea; I want both the art and the city to be, as they are for me, in the present tense.

With regard to your collection striking against the idea that both poetry and Cleveland are dying, I wonder how you explain some of the lines toward the end of the collection. For instance, in the poem The New Poetry you write:
The new poetry will cough of blood

...

It will eat its own young.
Like an ancient star, it will snuff out
beneath its own density
though we wheel ships by its light. (61)
These lines dont, necessarily, offer images of life; in fact, coughing up blood, eating one's young, and a star whose light has been snuffed out are all rather deathly. How does this excerpt speak to or against the promise of life and living in the present? Do you see a tension between these forces of life and death at work in your collection and in the city itself? Also, Cleveland (and, to a certain extent, the entire Rust Belt are) affects the poems in your collection, but do you think poetry affects the city (or region) in any demonstrable manner? How so?

I suppose I don’t think of those images as exclusively of life or death, but as of some muddier space between the two. I think you locate those images as I think of them quite accurately indeed when you speak of a “tension between these forces.” That’s the animating tension for me, the old “in the midst of life we are in death” that animates not only poetry but just about everything.

That said, the poem you mention was born of a certain wariness of mine of (and weariness with) declarations of the new or next. Death to this and long live that and so on, a kind of poetic junk food (to which I’m as susceptible as anyone else). But the New Thing, when artists declare it, often tends to resemble some recalibrated version of the old thing. My “The New Poetry” is a cheeky answer to Charles Wright’s “The New Poem,” and the lines you quote represent the uneasy tension of earnestness and self-satire from which the poem emerged.

As to whether poetry affects this region in a demonstrable manner I am agnostic. I do think that, as is often the case for those who live in places subject to frequent ridicule or simple indifference, the poetry of popular music gains a particular power to affirm what it might mean to be a Clevelander. I notice an apocalyptic strain in much of the music and lyrics of the region, especially since the decline and fall of the Seventies and the rise of phrases like “Rust Belt” or “Mistake by the Lake.” I see this from Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs to the Pretenders to Trent Reznor to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, all of whose music has reflected and amplified the sense of a world on the brink, in the midst or the aftermath of falling apart.

In general, I am less comfortable with Shelley’s declaration that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world than I am with Oppen’s variation, that poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world. When I say I don’t see poetry—in the Norton Anthology sense of the term anyway—affecting the city or the region in any demonstrable way, it’s the word demonstrable that trips me. I do believe that poetry can change persons. I say “persons” instead of “people” because I think such changes happen slowly, individually, and often enough without our knowledge. That Auden line that poetry makes nothing happen gets thrown around too often without regard for what he writes next, that poetry itself is “a way of happening, a mouth.” Of that I am absolutely confident.

The title of your collection is Weather and, to some extent, the change of seasons appear to dictate (or at least influence) its overall trajectory or rhythm. Could you speak toward the relationship between your book and the natural world (i.e. atmospheric conditions and/or seasonal changes)? How did you decide on the title? How do you see the your current work relating to or veering from these thematic preoccupations?

My editor used to joke with me that in titling a book Weather I was asking for a reviewer to pan me in two words: “Or not.” I’ve avoided that, so far at least.

As you mention, the poems in Weather are concerned with atmospheric conditions and seasonal changes, but I hope they are similarly attentive to the epochal seasons of geological and human history. These are thematic concerns, but they are also the sources of vocabularies that I find irresistibly musical—of meteorology and alchemy, history and myth. So in the title “Weather” I am also thinking of the entropy, decay, wear and tear to which we all are subject, and which the place where I live seems to betray more famously than others might. And that puts the other valence of the word in greater relief—that “to weather,” of course, is to endure. (Which, along with the pun my editor suggested, on “whether,” seems especially apt for a first book, I think.)

My current work is the writing of a doctoral dissertation on contemporary poetry, so it’s difficult to trace the thematic occupations from my first book of poems into this current project. But I have been spending a great deal of time and energy reading and reading about four remarkable contemporary poets—Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand, Derek Walcott, and Charles Wright—so I’m curious to see how they will influence the poems I’ll write next.

07 January 2013

This Can't Be Life

[I went to Buffalo to give a reading a week or two back], the opening piece from Dana Ward’s This Can’t Be Life (Edge Books, 2012), is a narrative about a poetry reading he gave in Buffalo, NY (obviously). Ward concludes his story with the following anecdote:
Anyway, after that part of the reading a man told me my writing wasn’t poetry. That it had formulations within it which were ‘poetic’, the thinking was ‘poetic’ but the writing itself, the long lines, the occasional prosaic sounds, these things had corrupted it completely. Poetry was vertical he said, & compact, & not full of messy articles or haphazard prepositions. (12)
Insofar as Ward writes this piece (along with a considerable portion of the book) in a manner both visually and sonically prosaic, he challenges commonplace notions of a poem's need to be “vertical” and “compact,” etc. A cursory glance through This Can’t Be Life reveals, instead, that Ward composes in a genre that we can't “really name,” or a genre that he “refused to name simply” (11). This desire to write in an unnamable genre, it seems, stems from an anxiety within the poet regarding originality and a fear of churning out just another tired poem; or, in his own words: “See why I’m nervous at the level of production? / Anything can be convention” (20).

Yes, anything quickly can become “convention,” and, to Ward's mind, such a drive toward convention undermines the purpose of a poem. The poet, instead, intends to create an undefinable space that defies aesthetic distinctions. Likewise, in the manner he conflates memoir with poetry, it “wouldn’t be wrong to…call” the space he creates “life. Nor would it be wrong to call it poetry” (12). The mixture of life and art, prose and poetic “formulations,” then, “makes the space awkward” so that “even the words seems to drain us of speech” (128) and their ability to name and provide formal designations.

To this extent, the draining-effect of Ward’s first book can be understood as an interrogation of and affront to poems and poetic sensibilities. But it’s not just the poem and its aesthetic traits that he questions; in fact, he problematizes the very notion of what it means to be a poet. In his epically-conceived “Typing ‘Wild Speech’,” Ward writes:
Take for instance the notion of ‘poet’. I’ve allowed a lot of myth to hold sway over how I perform that for myself…[I] make a deep claim on the mantle & with varying critiques & complicating models re-fit that space & thus [my] life. I used to see ‘being a poet’ as an intoxicating costume that was just over there & if I could inch ever closer to it I’d be contaminated fully & mixed with its essence forever. Often times I have nothing to add to this confusion beyond the lightning storm of my own political depravations, for which my poetry is an endless sea of waiting metal rods. So there’s the face of part of my trouble. (66)
To his mind, the term “poet” is at once a “myth,” a “contamination,” and a state of “confusion” that one must “perform”; but not without offering various “critiques & complicating models” that “re-fit” the complex space containing both art and life. Yes, to be a poet is to be in a state of “confusion” wherein one must “commit crimes against the position” so as to “open up…value” (68), which itself is complication. To be a poet is to destroy one's own ontology, then re-build oneself with different parameters.

But for Ward, the confusions and complications that create value in the space of the poem and the poet extend to the broader communities, institutions, industries, and worlds of poetry as well. In “The End of the Far West,” he writes:
What institutional worlds am I of, & asked singly, by me, does the question really matter or is it grounded finally in collective intuitions about the fate of poetry broadly, its myriad relational tensions scaffolding over some pulsing unknown?


I kept hearing in my head a voice that said “I just don’t care”, & I resented this voice for being cavalier. I was certain its intent was to trick me; to render institutional complicity invisible by shrugging like a beautiful teenager, a voice that had no clue its attitude was in some ways a production, an effect, of the institution’s power to establish itself as a point of relational departure. (107-108)
The poet begins by asking “What institutional world am I of,” all the while aware that the “myriad relational tensions scaffolding over some pulsing unknown” render the answer to this question more foggily intuitive than systematically definitive. Of course, to respond apathetically to the fogginess with “I just don’t care” does not absolve the poet of assessing his or her place in the broader poetic community. In fact, apathy can be understood as a “production, an effect, of the institution’s power to establish itself as a point of relational departure.” In other words, if one self-identifies as a poet, locating oneself in the complex continuum of aesthetics, personalities, and beliefs is, perhaps, a necessary task.

After all the questioning and interrogations, though, This Can’t Be Life succeeds because it is heart-felt, humorous, honest, and intelligent. Whether eulogizing a deceased friend, joking about the origins of flamethrowers, working through theoretical and philosophical positions, dropping an unattributed quote from Old School, or sharing the most intimate of personal moments, Ward constructs a complicated and awkward space that allows his unique and unnamable poetry to flourish.