Wednesday, October 22, 2014

It's always sunny in Poetryville, right?

So I've been working on two manuscripts these days.  I have been trying my best to proof and tighten my book of landscape meditation before things get serious early next year.  I have been tweaking it and questioning my grammatical choices, just like a real poet might.  But I have also been trying to put together and prepare to submit another book of poetry, this one not nearly as quiet, not nearly as introspective.  It's this work of the two manuscripts which is stopping me from writing new poetry on a regular basis.

I have, for all my life as a poet, been plagued with an obsession of completeness and being finished.  I literally cannot move on until I have convinced my brain the job is done.  That in itself is not a bad thing to have.  I may never be considered one of the great poets (and believe me when I say giving up that fantasy was the hardest week I have had in 2014 so far) but that's not the only trait I have when it comes to my writing.  I am also invariably led astray somewhere around the 90%.  What exactly does that mean?  When I get about 90% finished with a manuscript, I lose interest in it and I want to work on other things---other poems and other poem cycles. 

So the position I find myself in right now is both strange and terrifying.  I have over the past decade experienced some amazing success as a poet---four chapbooks, three full length books of poetry published, another accepted for publication, and another in the wings waiting to enter into the submission process.  New poetry?  Not so much.  This is difficult for me because of several things. 

1.  I am a firm believer in the idea: It's not what you have written, but what you are writing.  I am not writing new poems and it has been a long time since I have.
2.  I am 45, and like it or not, I also acknowledge my creativity is not what it used to be.  I am getting better at craft, but I am getting worse at the creative thinking which makes my poems possible. 
3.  The new poems I did write some time ago have been universally rejected time and again.  I don't know why, but it has been another multi-year stretch without any acceptances. 
4.  I have apparently burned a lot of bridges in the poetry community, with my many annoying AS traits.  I desperately want to belong to a community which my personality alienates more with each of my interactions.* 

The only real thread of hope I have in all of this is that I have a habit of not writing for long stretches of time and only really get back into writing new poetry when I have sufficiently panicked.  Well, I think it's safe to say I am panicking. All of the material in the two manuscripts I have mentioned is old, and I want to create something new.  After my landscape meditation manuscript is in book form, there is no guarantee the other manuscript will ever get accepted for publication.  I know that.  It's part of the game, but if it takes another two or three years of doing my best to get it accepted, that is another two or three years I will be convinced I am not ready to write anything new.  That bothers me.  

So I am left with working with two manuscripts---neither of which holds my interest like they should, and each serving as a roadblock to new writing and creativity.  Welcome to my neighborhood.



*  For clarification, I misread a lot of things because of my AS, but I have as of late felt less a part of the poetry community.  Whether that is because of my annoying obsessions and poor communication skills, I do not know, but my feelings are none-the-less genuine on the matter.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book Review: Jon D. Lee These Around Us

These Around Us
Jon D. Lee
96 pp., Aldrich Press
ISBN 13: 978-0692233566
$17.00













Eight years is a long time to wait for a second book of poem from a poet you admire, but most times you can take comfort knowing that the wait will be worth it.   Jon Lee's second collection of poems, These Around Us, certainly delivers on that promise.  It is a well written book of poems dedicated to the domestic life of a young writer and teacher.  The poems are biographical enough to spark the reader's curiosity and honest enough to leave no doubt of their essential truth.

Before I continue, I want to disclose I know Jon in person (outside of the internets).  We were in a summer course (Shakespeare's Histories & Comedies) at the same college a long time ago, and I have on occasion published and even solicited poems from him for Hobble Creek Review.  None-the-less, this review is written because I genuinely love this book of poems on several levels.

The first thing I noticed when reading this new book is Lee's subtle humor.  I mean this book opens with a brilliant landscape meditation, which I will always love, but that's not want I was most looking forward to when I picked up this book.  Lee's poems about fatherhood and the professional life of a teacher and poet are sharp as they come; the undercurrent of humor is spot on every time.  Lee's humor is not broad, nor does it seek out the lowest common denominator.  The humor in this book, and that of his first book, are precise and observational.  Lee doesn't make you labor too much for the joke, but he demands you pay attention.  Take for example "The Parent's Credo" here in its glorious audio, read by Lee himself:




With a structure adapted from Christopher Smart, we are treated to the unique perspective from which Lee sees the world.  This poem works because it takes the sentimentality of parenthood and mashes it with the absurd reality every parent knows to be true.  Lee applies this humor to every facet of his life: His marriage, his work, and his familial relationships. By pointing out the absurd to us, he draws us and lets us know everything will be okay, because we all go through the same things and we all have a much larger common ground than we believed before reading these poems.


The poems here do something else which is of vital importance.  They dispel the idea that family must (or usually does) take a backseat to a poet and his art.  Lee is a poet, but these poems are about his marriage, his family, and his career.  The poems, as they get more personal, become layered and more powerful.  With many other male poets I read, I get the sense they speak of the domestic aspects of their life as merely one facet of their lives, and the information they give us is merely incidental.  In Lee's poems, you do not get that sense.  His poems center around his domestic life because his domesticity is the center core of his being.  That, to me, is the mark of a real poet.  Not that all poets should write about their family, but that a poet should take what is essential, critical, most relevant and make art from that, not feeling it necessary to seek out some artifice or foreign structure to create poetry.  Lee is at home with his daily life, and there is no sideshow to distract you.  Everything you see is everything he is.  Interspersed throughout the book are small, fragmentary poems, dedicated to his wife.  Here is one of my favorites:

For Lynette, With Love (VI)

in the white heart of winter
when even the sugarblood
of tree and bush
cease its languid
spill and thump
I ask only
for the fever of your breath 

One of my favorite poems from the collection, "Newtown," is particularly powerful.  It is powerful because it claims its status as an elegy without once taking a political stance.  It merely (such a misleading term for this poem) focuses on the relationship between father and son.  In fact, it is the lack of politics which forces the reader to interact with the poem and refuses dismissal.  It is a poem I at once love and envy, too. When I first read the poem I immediately read the poem again.

To be honest, I have no idea how to effectively end this mini-review.  I will try to end it with a list of things I know.

1.  I know These Around Us is a fine follow up to Lee's first book, Ode To Brian: the long season---you should get both books to know what I am talking about.

2.  I know more than a few poems in this book are poems I wish I could have written.

3.  The poems in this book offer depth, humor, wonderful insight, and voice.

4.  In Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner's words, these poems are 'disarmingly intimate,' and that is something I both agree with and know we could all use more of in our lives.

5.  I know this is a book I will return to often.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Addendum from Hell

Yesterday as I was writing my little post about how I perceive the literary world through the lens of my AS, I kept cutting myself short because, well because I have an almost compulsory need to explain myself ad nauseum.  So, that I am here this morning talking more about all of this should not be a huge surprise.  I certainly saw it coming.

First, I want to thank those who took the time to read yesterday's post and made comment.  It really does put off a lot of the frustration i feel on a regular basis over the idea I might be saying things and being brushed off.  I would also like to thank Shaindel Beers for pointing me in the direction of another writer with AS a few posts earlier.  I wrote to her, and even though I have not heard back (after all, the prospects of dealing with another AS writer is not always a pleasant thought) I am certainly open to the idea of seeking out other writers with AS from time to time to see what's what.

I do not feel at all upset about piggy-backing on my last post so quickly because this will actually begin the discussion of what I said I was going to talk about---my Alexithymia, and how it affects my writing.  But more about that in a later post.  Right now I need to stay on topic and talk about what I started with.

I want to add another number to the list of things I talked about.  I want to go into a little more depth with actual Poetry Business.  What follows are a few examples, illustrations made with the best of my ability, to show you what I feel like when poetry business happens.  And when over 100 of your Facebook friends are poets, you tend to get a lot of this news all of the time.

The Poetry Editor for The New England Review, C. Dale Young, is stepping down after almost 20 years of holding that position.  I know C. Dale in the Facebook way you might know someone.  I have spoken with C. Dale, posted on his thread, e-mailed him a few times regarding certain issues which have come up over the years, and he has been kind enough to take me seriously when things were serious and joke with me when things are funny.  Now, this is not about C. Dale, but he is part of this first example.

When C. Dale made his announcement today who would be replacing him, it wasn't all of a sudden made real for me---I didn't freak out about who or that it was really happening, I freaked out over something entirely different.  I freaked out at how everyone was talking about the announcement, how speculation began with a poet innocently asking if anyone knew who the new editor was and all of the 'knowing' and 'wink wink' talk which ensued.  Are they a secret cabal of poets who, like the Illuminati, are moving towards world domination?  No.  Absolutely not.  But my brain started to review the entire list of reasons why I will never be a real poet and this . . . this latest discussion of who is in the know and who is decidedly not, is just the latest piece to the puzzle of why I cannot get to Poet Island with all of the other poets.

The next example is a result of the North Carolina Governor naming a self-published poet as Poet Laureate.  From everything I read, at least half the anger directed at the governor was not aimed at selecting a poet who was talented enough to properly represent the state, but that he had, in true Neo-Conservative/Tea Party Bully tactics, appointed said poet without consulting the North Carolina Arts Council and picking a poet from their short list.  To me that screams elitism and idiocy.  To me, if the governor of a state has the right to appoint the Poet Laureate all on his own, then you get what you get.  Do I think the poet in question should have been named?  Probably not, but so much of the poetry community's outrage was aimed at the process, leaving the spirit of poetry to choke and gasp.

Finally (well, not really, but this is all I am going to share), my focus, or special interests affect my writing, and when I write, I tend to write about the same thing for extended periods.  I write about something until the wheels fall off.  While this might be a good thing because it helps with my book manuscripts being more than just a gathering of poems, it means editors get really tired of reading what I send them as a matter of course, and what I tend to focus on has usually ended up being, for lack of a better phrase, outside of the general realm of popularity.

Take for example my romp into the realm of ars poetica.  Everyone loves the occasional ars poetica poem, a poem which turns poetry or the poetry world on its ear, and I would get a lot of poems published.  Problem?  Nobody wants to look at an entire manuscript of them.  I was very lucky to get two chapbook manuscripts of them published by Foothills Publishing.  Another problem?  I am about 15 poems away from having enough poetry to make for a really great full length manuscript, but my focus has shifted and I can't for the life of me write another decent ars poetica poem.  It's all landscape meditation and 19th Century Mormon Agrarian poetry, which as you can imagine, wows all of the editors.

* * *

That's quite enough for now.  I sure feel better.  How about you?





Thursday, July 24, 2014

Stupidity

Yesterday I tried to do something really stupid.  I tried to explain to you what the Poetry Business looks and feels like fro someone who has Asperger's Syndrome (AS).  Hubris?  Perhaps.  But I don't think it was stupid because such a thing can't be done, or that you wouldn't be able to see what I was trying to say, but because I knew I would get lost within my own narrative and lose track of what I was trying to say.  And that's exactly what happened.  I kept talking about things which had no bearing (except for me) on the point at hand.  Well, I will try to keep this much shorter and subject specific.

* * *

1.  Everyone but me is cool.  You all have a secret handshake and I will never learn it.  I will always feel like an outsider and that is why a lot of you probably think I am trying way too hard to convince you I belong and that is why I will always try too hard to make you think I belong with all of you.  It is why I will always talk too much and it is why I will only occasionally be able to tell when I am beginning to wear out my welcome with any of you.  The overwhelming perception I have of you is that you are just being nice to the slow kid.  And believe me when I tell you the existence of so many MFA programs causes me no end of grief.  Don't even get me started on AWP.  It's at the point where I just need to go away for 30 days before and 30 days after just to maintain my sanity.

2.  Every time somebody neglects to meet a deadline, I freak out.  I mean every time.  It's not your fault at all, but when someone tells me they will e-mail me by Tuesday with notes or an answer and that doesn't happen, I panic.  I mean, you said you were going to give me a blurb in a month, and that month ended yesterday.  Where is my blurb?  Did you forget?  Are you avoiding me?  Did something terrible happen to you?  The weird thing is when someone says to me, "It will be a while.  I'll get back to you as soon as I can," everything is great.  That will keep me calm for months at a time.  I don't know why that is, but it is.  It's why you have probably received some stupid e-mail from me asking about the status of something you thought wasn't that big of a deal.  Please accept my apology.

3.  I have no idea why you don't share my warped sense of quid pro quo.  Oh, I am sure all of you have some sense of fair play and helping out other poets when you can, but I am genuinely puzzled not a single one of you sees this practice of supporting your fellow artists the EXACT SAME WAY I DO.  I mean, my way is the best and it makes perfect sense, so why aren't you on board.  I am not talking about your specific support of me, either.  I am talking about how you do things differently than me.  It's as simple as that.  You don't support the poets in the writing community the way I do, and that's just weird.  Why don't you review your friends' books on your blog and on your Tumblr pages---even informally?  Why don't you take a picture of all the books of friends you buy and post them on Facebook?  Don't you want your friends to succeed?

* * *

The worst part of this is my AS makes me think irrational thoughts, gets me to  believe you are all consciously doing these things to me.  You know I want to be a part of your world and you are making sure there are too many roadblocks for me to get from where I am to where you are.  Even a year ago I had no idea why I believed that about all of you, but now I do, and I want to apologize for allowing all of those irrational thoughts getting in the way of honest relationships and letting them affect our interactions.

Next time I will talk about my Alexithymia, and how that little slice of heaven plays with my writing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The importance of helping money meet the arts

I want to say something about the nature of art and the importance of supporting art with money.  Most of the people who will read this are either people I know in real life or are poets I know from around the internets.  In either event, I am still talking about how important it is to support art wit money, and this message is for you.


I happen to be fortunate enough to work with a group of guys who are in a rock and roll band.  That band?

 Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts.  


I know.  Awesome, right?  Yeah.  It's extremely cool that they asked me to help write a few songs with them.  It's practically a dream come true.  I say this with all sincerity because I have long been an admirer of musicians and music of all kinds.  So please, when I say these things, please know I am being totally sincere.

The guys from Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts have a wonderful opportunity and need your support. They have secured David J (founding member of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets) to produce their first full length album. Please consider contributing to their Kickstarter project so they can do this thing right. 

Money needs to find its way to art.  More specifically, your money needs to find its way to this art.  Why? Because if you don't fund the arts, much of it will disappear, and in the case of Intra-Venus and the Cosmonauts, it might not get the chance to appear in the first place.  Oh, I know I sound dramatic and I am pushing a little.  You are right to think so because this is my hard sell.  You owe it to yourself to find something you can support with your money and watch it flourish.

I am not trying to imply you don't do this already.  I know as a poet I spend much more of my own money on my life as a poet than I will ever earn, as is true of the majority of poets in the world.  What I am trying to do is get you to do something extra, something outside of yourself and support the arts in a way you might not have normally thought viable.

When we support the arts, and the artists who create that art, we are providing  a wider response to the world in which we live.  We expand and extend the opportunity for people to experience the arts, and in turn, plant seeds of possibility and opportunity for new art to be created.

When we support the arts with money, we lend credibility to the artist.  We announce to the world being an artist is not a waste of time.  We tell the artist and audience alike "This is worthy of consideration" and even if that consideration is momentary, it will have an impact.

No truly great artist is an artist because of money.  Money does not inspire a lifetime of creativity and passion.  However, art does have a monetary price.  There is only so much on can do as an artist without money, and as many of you have, this band, Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts, has reached the point of no return without money.  They either settle on the level of exposure local venues provide, continuing to self-produce the occasional ep, releasing them on the internet, or they step forward, into a much larger world---one where things might start happening on a grand scale.

Yes, I am personally vested.  I am not a neutral observer in this pursuit.  I have written songs with this band, and I have been able to live vicariously through their exploits.  If they succeed I can feel a little of the thrill. Well, I am giving money to their kickstarter, too.  I am going to be giving money just like I know they guys in the band are giving their money, in addition to their blood and sweat..   These guys are authentic, passionate, and talented.  You owe it to yourselves to give money.  Any amount you can give will be appreciated.  Any amount you give will be confirmation of the arts.

I will also say this.  If you give at least $50, I will, in addition to the packages offered by the band, give you a signed copy of my chapbook, Friday in the Republic of Me, OR a signed copy of my book Sailing This Nameless Ship, OR a signed copy of my forthcoming book of landscape meditation poetry.  Get hold of me for the details on that.

Friday, July 4, 2014

My New collection of Landscape Meditations officially accepted for publication

One of the things I never get tired of in this poet life I have been creating for myself for these many years (at least 25 on a conscious level) is getting to share good news with other people regarding the milestones and successes I have experienced.  In this instance, I am so very happy to announce my 4th full length poetry collection has found a home at Aldrich Press.  The book, whose title I am uncharacteristically re-thinking, is slated for publication in Late Spring, 2015. If you find that name familiar, it is because Aldrich Press published my second book of poetry, Hobble Creek Almanac, in 2012.  I will keep you informed and I hope you will consider supporting Aldrich Press by buying a copy of my book when it is released.

For now, I want to thank those involved with the development of this book, both directly and indirectly.  Many of you have been my friends for a long time and some of you only for a short while, but to all of you I extend my eternal gratitude and thanks.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This is not a Confession: Poetry and Autism

A while back I made the announcement to some of you by way of this blog that I was recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.  Well the DSM-5 has reclassified the definitions of how to label autism, and as such, I am at Level 1, which means highly functioning.  Not that has anything to do with what I am talking about other than to give you a little background and insight.  What I am really talking about today is how I interpret the poetry world.  The confession, you ask?  I will get to that pretty quick, but first and foremost I think it's a catchy title.  It's one of the things I focus on and have long fixated upon during my 25+ years of writing poems---both horrid and somewhat acceptable.  Besides, I said this was not a confession, so you will just have to keep reading if you want to see if I was lying.

A few days ago I found out I was not going to be receiving a fellowship from the Nevada Arts Council for poetry in the upcoming FY2015.  I received an honorable mention back in 2008, which was pretty awesome, and I recently received a Jackpot Grant for assistance in publishing my third full length collection through BlazeVOX, Sailing This Nameless Ship.  As the story often goes, I felt a little bit of a sting seeing other people's names listed as the upcoming Arts Fellows for Nevada.  I think I am a pretty decent poet, and I have a considerable amount of pride knowing I send in poetry written for the most part within the year leading up to my submission.  We can submit work up to four years old if we like in Nevada, but I try to keep my work as current as possible as I think it keeps me honest.  I take some comfort in my wife telling me I just don't write what's in fashion, but the truth is my work just isn't good enough.  I personally believe it's a combination.  My work isn't good enough, but I also do not write what is fashionable.

As someone with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), I fixate on my subject matter.  I'm not as bad as William Heyen, but I tend to write about very specific things and once I have a book project I cannot deviate from that topic.  Yeah, so what's different, Justin?  This is what's different:  I cannot write anything new or feel good about myself as a writer until I have closure with my current project and there is no way for me to know what will bring me that closure because it has been something entirely different for every manuscript I have ever written.  More?  I lose interest in every project when I am 90% finished.  So, for any project I create, I become obsessed with it until I am 90% finished, but I cannot move on until I finish it.  For anyone familiar with AS or Autism in general, you know that with the AS individual it's hot or cold.  There is no warm.  It's almost manic.  What is good is really good, and what sucks really sucks.  I am reminded of being on Amitriptyline when I was being initially treated for my headaches which is a part of my Desert Storm Syndrome.  It is a mood altering medication, and I was a real SOB.  In hindsight I now know that drug did a number on my AS and alienated almost everyone in my life.  So what happens?  I get stuck in some kind of limbo, unable to abandon a project, and almost unwilling to complete it.

Add to that, the following I mentioned in the post where I announced my diagnosis:

One of the things I thought was wrong with me and my poetry was not being able to write with what I perceived to be the 'linguistic depth' as other poets.  Now, I realize that one of the common disorders which accompanies Asperger's is something called Alexithymia.  It's the sub-clinical inability to 'identify and describe emotions in the self,' or, at least that's what Wikipedia tells me.  Well, I have it in spades.  When I took the profile questionnaire my numbers weren't off the chart, but they were quite high.  Imagine my astonishment that one of the special interests I had developed (poetry) as people with AS are prone to do, is hampered by an inability to do what said special interests requires.  Simply put, I am a poet who cannot identify or describe his emotions.

The result is I have a difficult time writing poems people like more than one or two at a time.  I will (actually I have written) write an entire manuscript of ars poetica poems and I have a great deal of success playing the individual poems, but taken all together, it was a very hard sell.  Now imagine what happened when I became fixated on 19th Century Agrarian Mormon History as what I wanted to write about?  The poems I wrote for Sailing This Nameless Ship were written in a three month period.  I had a great deal of success getting about 40% of the poems accepted for publication.  Then . . . nothing.  I mean nothing.  Everything stopped. I couldn't have had anyone take another poem from that collection of poems if I promised to pay for their kid's college tuition.  

And that's what the last two years have been like.  I have written poems and I have submitted, but I have not had a single taker.  Not a single "close, but maybe some other time." I received one "we respect you" rejection which was nice, but really it was the same thing I have experienced over and over again.  People just don't like what I am writing right now, and my ability to write the poems the way they deserve to be written is possibly at fault, too.  So when I made the decision to stop submitting my poems it really was based in my acknowledgement of not doing what a poet should be doing---making my thoughts and feelings accessible to the reading audience.  I received one message from someone who told me it was/is sour grapes.  I will admit I have sour grapes, but not over being rejected.  I know and accept if my poems aren't good enough, that's how it goes.


No.  My sour grapes is a result of my AS.  Part of my brain is convinced all of you are part of some cabal of poets of which I can never be a part of because I have never received an MFA or PhD, and I do not teach college writing like so many of you do.  I look at all of you and I see you talking to each other in some strange dialect and giving each other secret handshakes.  I have a similar perception of home-ownership, so I know how irrational my feelings are.  I have published more than a hundred poems in dozens of journals; I have had four chapbooks published; three full length collections published; I have blurbed books and have been trusted by quite a few of you to read your manuscripts and offer my thoughts.  Yet I still feel like I am not one of you.  I feel like the slow kid because I do not have the depth of language you do, and I do not have the credentials most of you have.  I got tired of faking it until I make it because it just never seemed to gel for me.  But now I know part of the reason why.  My AS tells me you all know something I don't, but that's not really true.  It's why I am such a pain in the ass so much of the time, and it's why I can go on at length about things long after you have stopped caring.  


So here's this: A Confession.


I am never going to be able to fully accept my role, value, or authenticity as a poet.  I am not okay with that all of the time, and it may come out in strange ways---sometimes frustration, and sometimes by way of jealousy.  Please bear with me.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why I've decided to suspend the poet behavior of submitting my poems

Yes, the title to this post is entirely accurate.  I have decided to forego the process of submitting my poems for the time being.  Not that a lot of you will care why I am doing this, but I want to spell it out as much for myself as for anyone else who might have the urge to ask why they don't see any writer news from me in this department.


1.  It has been more than two years since I have had anything accepted for publication.

Basically I have been either writing the wrong stuff or I have been writing the right stuff nobody is interested in reading.  I would like to think I am writing the right stuff but editors have been of the mind their readers do not want to read what I am writing.  I am sure it's a little bit of both.  I am certain some of my poems were not ready for publication and some were just not to the liking of the editors who have seen my work in the past two (plus) years.  I'm okay with any eventuality in this category.  I am still writing and I am still editing my poems, and lest there be any confusion, I have never had any belief the submitting process is connected to the writing process, except to say if you aren't writing, you probably don't have much to submit.


2.  I am not liking a lot of the poetry I am reading in journals lately.

While I am tempted to say this is an explanation as to why my work is not being accepted, I am going to avoid that pitfall.  Instead I am going to acknowledge a splitting of aesthetics---those of myself and those of everybody else.  If I am not enjoying the poetry I m reading in a lot of the venues I peruse in my wanderings over he internet and a few of the printed journals to which I subscribe, then I have no business wasting the time of those who edit said journals and enjoy reading them.  It would be disingenuous of me to say to any of these publications, I am right and you are wrong, and further, this is how it is supposed to be done by submitting my own poems for consideration.


3.  I do not want to write in the hopes of impressing the wrong people.

While every writer has an immutable list of people he/she wants to impress and would do almost anything to hear a snippet of praise from, very few of those people are poetry editors I know.  Oh, I would love to  be accepted to some poetry journals, but I do not write for any of the editors of those journals and I do not want my writing to start don that path.  By stopping the submission process, I am trying to, in my own way, ensure I will not be changing what little of my poetry is authentically mine for something which might garner favor from these editors---especially the ones I admire.  Precious little of anything I have to say is original, and I want to keep it that way.


* * *

Later, in the Fall, I will have five or so poems coming out in weber---The Contemporary West, and those poems were accepted back in early 2012.  Those poems were from my book, Hobble Creek Almanac, which came out in 2013.   They are the last poems of mine which will be out for a considerable amount of time.  I am also working on a manuscript of landscape meditations, which may or may not ever get published.  The poems I m writing now are short, weird, and terse.  I have no explanation for why they are such, but that's what they are.  I have taken to reading a lot of well established poets I admire and a few new books, but I have restricted my purchases, and will be buying fewer books than I normally would for quite a while.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: Julie Brooks Barbour's Small Chimes

Small Chimes
Julie Brooks Barbour
80 pp., Aldrich Press
ISBN: 13-978-0615993508
$14


Small Chimes, Julie Brooks Barbour's first full length book, is exactly the book which fans of Barbour's poetry want and deserve.  Brooks' ability to communicate the pastoral by way of geography and narrative is exact and delightful.  Barbour's biographical sketches are layered and intrinsically tied to the natural world, which is the perfect platform to discuss the natural progression of a quiet, domestic life.  Much like when an artist creates a portrait by using thousands of different photographs, Barbour's poems stitch together a portrait of her life which reveals itself to be multifaceted and complex.  Barbour is both narrator and subject in the landscape which she composes for the reader.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book for me is how Barbour never allows herself to stray from the natural world.  There is always something elemental at play in her poems.  It is clear the domestic life she has chosen for herself is rooted in her relationships to the natural world.  Whether she is rooting her feet into the earth to hold steady, speaking of past generations, or likening the taste of breast milk to that of honeysuckle, Barbour's narrator never lets the reader forget we are always tethered to the natural world in one way or another. 

Another triumph in Small Chimes is Barbour's refusal to allow the narrator's domesticity become an enclosed apparatus.  It's refreshing because Barbour doesn't defend or celebrate this aspect of her life; she demonstrates how it is the air she breathes.  These poems are not a put-on or manufactured for the reader's benefit; they are the natural conveyance of the world Barbour knows and lives.  Take for example these closing lines from "Because the days are not always filled with light":


because there is honesty and redemption beyond office towers,
because a child welcomes me back home;

remind me of duty, remind me who it is I love




Small Chimes is evidence of the examined life.   And even though she refuses her world to be defined by her gender, Barbour as wife and mother understands the air which she breaths, comprehends her place is as precarious as any other woman's.  Devoting an entire section of the book to the birth and early years of her daughter does not sum up this reality, either. Each moment in this book takes the reader closer to this realization.  Even in the inability to assess herself in "A Thousand Alarms" (the poem from which the books title is taken) Barbour reveals she is ever present in her vigilance.  The first three stanzas read:

A Thousand Bells
clang,
a thousand alarms.
I don't hear


the small chimes

or the whisperings
of breath
from my nose.

Tight
from neck
to ankles,
I wait for disaster:


The end result of Small Chimes is a declaration made by the poet: There is a life we are given, and there is a life we choose four ourselves, and each one of us gets to tell the world how we perceive it.  Each poem filled with geography, topography, and biography points the reader to something specific and unique.  We learn from these stories and we learn how to reject the tiny boxes the world at large would like us to make allowances for. Julie Brooks Barbour accepted the life she was given and through her poems shows us the world she made for herself--- the one she wanted, and it is not a world familiar with the concept of acquiescence.  Opening this book of poems will bring you an opportunity to learn how to do the same with your life.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Trouble with Poetry

Now that NaPoWriMo is done (and I wrote no more poems than I might have during any given month) I want to say a few things regarding problems with poetry in the contemporary world.  Or, rather, problems I see with the contemporary state of poetry.  You will of course indulge me because this is my blog---in itself a dying medium of which there is less and less relevance every day.  However, it is still a medium for such expressions of ideas, and I, sir and or madam, will ride this pony long after it is dead.



1.  The Trouble with Poetry is the reader.  Yes, I said it.  The trouble is those people who read poetry and do not take it seriously think that poetry just happens like spontaneous combustion.  They do not acknowledge the work which goes into a poem.  I am not talking about the spark of imagination, nor am I talking about the wonderfully marvelous line or phrase which appears in the poet's head, forcing a cessation of all other activities in order to feverishly write it down before it is lost.  I am talking about the real work of a poet---the one which begins after the drafting has been completed.  You know, revision and crafting.

Never once have I thought a professional athlete was not worth his or her salary.  I am okay wherever  negotiations end up.  I know a few Latin phrases, and I am well versed in the principles of The Constitution, and I have argued the virtues of the various rights contained within The Bill of Rights, but that doesn't make me a lawyer.  But far too often I am denied the opportunity to feel good about writing poetry because too many (non-writer) readers make it clear every chance they get, to tell me my efforts and devotion to the writing of poetry isn't something to respect.  All this while not understanding the writing process themselves.  Now, I know enough about football and baseball so I don't look like an idiot when I am forced to watch a game, but the last thing I do is try to tell anyone who is devoted to the game, whether they be player or fan, their passion is a waste of time or that there is nothing to it.  So why then is poetry such an easy target for dismissal?

And to be clear, it's poetry.  You never see a reader deride Steven King or Stephanie Meyers on the act of writing.  Quality? Maybe.  Preference? Most certainly.  But you will never hear a writer say novelists are wasting their time writing.  Is it the money?  I guess there is a great deal of money to be made as novelists, but the ratio of successful (popular) novelist to those who are not successful (make enough money to write exclusively) is not particularly encouraging.  So, money is a factor, but it can't be the only thing.

This leads me to number two on my list.

2.  The Trouble with Poetry is the teacher.  Teachers are responsible for the negative perceptions many people have regarding poetry.  No doubt about it.  Teachers teach poetry wrong, and they have been teaching it wrong since at least the mid to late 1960's.  how do I know?  Because many of my teachers did a poor job of teaching poetry and I was in school from the mid-1970's through the mid 1980's (I graduated high school in 1987) and they had to have been taught wrong if they turned around and taught it wrong themselves.  And now you are thinking, 'They must have done something right, Justin, if you are a poet.  What about that?'  Well, I won't deny I had teachers who taught me how to read, and read well.  I have always been able to comprehend and infer very well.  However, when it came to poetry, it was avoided like the plague except in honors or advanced placement classes.  It was made very clear to me and my classmates poetry was probably beyond our abilities and that was that.  I can't stand that.  I am a populist (some might say socialist) and I think poetry is for everyone in that there is a poet and poetry for everyone.

Where my teachers failed me, and where I see teachers failing students still, is presenting poetry as something which falls into one of two unfortunate stereotypes:  Gimmicks like acrostics or haiku (I am not saying these are gimmicks in themselves, but that they are presented as gimmicks by teachers) written according to by some per-determined set of arbitrary rules; or, that of being immensely difficult and inscrutable.  As such, poetry is in the minds of far too many readers to either be wholly simplistic or obscure for obscurity's sake.  No wonder too many people have no respect for poetry and those who write it.  Most people generally assume poetry is akin to a set of directions assisting in the assembly of Ikea furniture.  Quite simply, poetry is not to be trusted.  Either the poem is entirely rote, or it is the product of a poet bent on confusing the reader.  

In part, Teachers fail because they never think to tell their students poets rarely, if ever, have the intent of confusing the reader when writing the poem.  In fact, I don't even think you could have that intent on any poet---not even the Moderns.  Teachers fail to teach their students about how poetry, in the act of creation, is not a gimmick.  Teachers fail to teach their students that the best poets are rarely concerned about whether the poem becomes popular.  The teacher fails to teach that poetry for the most part is matter of taste and not something which is really meant to be graded or evaluated.  These are sins of omission, and because teachers allow students to have this view of poetry, the reader does not feel as if poetry or the poet can be trusted.   

Do I know how poetry should be taught to high school students?  Not entirely.  What I do know is how it should not be taught.  Poetry should not be presented as something to be decoded because the process of decoding implies poetry is something foreign or separate. I know poetry should not be evaluated beyond the poems ability to make a connection with the reader.  I know popularity in poetry is not the same as enduring and none of that matters when considering whether or not a poem has communicated something essential.  I know for every poem by a poet in an anthology which a teacher directs students to 'evaluate,' there are probably dozens (if not hundreds) of so-called 'failed poems' that same poet would claim to be just as beautiful.

3. The Trouble with Poetry is the poet.    Oh, don't act surprised.  You knew this was coming.  The trouble with poetry is the poet but it's complicated.  Simply put, there isn't enough space in the entirety of blogdom to properly discuss why poets are what's wrong with poetry, but I will do a little summing up here of those particular segments of the issue which peeve me most.

a.  Poets are too competitive.  Oh, most poets talk a good game, but few poets are genuinely happy for another poet's success.  Quite a few poets  feel threatened by other poets' success.  After all, the resources our culture allocates for poetry are extremely limited.  This attitude probably comes from young poets and takes a while to fade from the mind.  Here I am mostly speaking of younger poets (not by age but by how long a person has been putting serious effort into writing poetry) who have not yet discovered the truth about poetry---that poetry is not analogous to other endeavors.  Poetry is in some ways quite binary.  There is being a poet and not being a poet.  There is writing a poem or not writing a poem.  The end result of writing a poem brings joy or it does not bring joy.  Unfortunately, from the outside looking in, many young poets think there is some sort of ranking system similar to quarterly earnings on a spreadsheet.  That is not the case.

b.  Poets don't play well with others.  In fact, most writers don't, but we are talking about poets. I think by our very nature, poets are reluctant to share our process.  I mean, it takes probably ten years to approach competence, and that is a difficult decade.  It probably takes those ten years to even begin to understand how it is we do what we do, and it feels pretty awkward trying to explain it at sometimes.  Hence, what seems to be mysterious to non poets remains mysterious because poets on some level don't want to over-think their art by exploiting it for what they assume will be to no profitable end.  Even today, when I teach creative writing, I run back to Richard Hugo, who saved my teaching life by saying that he could only speak to what works for him.

c.  Poets argue about poetry too much.  One of the reasons teachers do not teach poetry well is because they get the impression poets argue about poetry way too much and there is no sense in teaching something which causes so much debate.  and it does, too.  Unfortunately teachers don't feel comfortable with not having a definitive answer about meaning or underlying tone, or other stupid things like that.  No, meaning and tone are not stupid.  Of course I am exaggerating.  I say those things are stupid because one does not need to have an answer to those questions in order to have a conversation.  It's stupid to think someone has to have an answer to those things going into a conversation.  So, how is this about poets and not teachers?  Because poets are the ones who give the impression to other people answers are essential to having these conversations.  Of course meaning is important, and of course there are correct and incorrect answers when discussing meaning.  You are not allowed to say a poem can mean anything you want because there is no 'right or wrong' answer to what a poem means.  Nor can you ask, 'How do you know?  You weren't there!' and really be taken seriously.  That is, however, the plague of any field of study and not limited to poetry.  Some things are simply more apparent than others. Poets miss their mark when they do not let people know it's okay to begin a conversation about poetry and/or specific poems with no answer in mind.   More importantly it's okay to get to the end of that conversation and still not have any answers.  Ironically, poets need to let people know it's okay to not take poetry so seriously.  Poets need to demand that they as poets be taken seriously, but the poetry itself needs no such designation of being right or wrong, good or bad, or, god forbid . . . important.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Bully Pulpit: Buy some damned books, already!

This is re-hash of my last "buy books" rant along with some added thoughts.  If you think I am being rude or you just don't want to hear it again, then go away.



I know I begin to sound like a broken record when it comes to this, but I really am getting tired of people who don't buy books and then complain that nobody buys books any more.  Since I buy books, I get to talk about this and if you don't like it, that's too bad.  Her are a few rules to consider.


1.  If you know a poet, you need to buy poetry books in some of these ways.  If you are a poet, you should be willing to buy poetry books in all these ways:

Buy books your friends write.

Buy books from the presses who publish you and your friends.

Buy the books you read about on Facebook.

Buy Books from Amazon's Hot 100 List. (Yes, they are evil, so look up the books on Amazon and then buy the book directly from the press.)

Find small presses and buy year long subscriptions for all of their chapbooks.

Gift books you don't like to other poets.

Buy Books for all of your gifts.  Your nieces and nephews don't like poetry?  To hell with them.  Buy them more poetry.

Buy books and sneak them into Doctors' offices.

Spend your damned money!



2.  If you don't follow rule number 1, then you don't get to whine about nobody buying books.

That's the ball game.  If you don't think other people's books are worth your money, you don't get to be my friend and you don't get to tell me how messed up everything is.  And this isn't just for NaPoMo, either.  It's for everything. 


3.  If you don't "sell" poetry, you don't get to complain how nobody "gets" your poetry.

You have to spread the gospel of poetry.

You have to teach people to love poetry.

You have to encourage other people to write poetry.

You have to make people believe poetry can change their lives.


* * *

Another way to promote poetry is to give poetry away.  Like the above rule 1 suggests, if you have books of poetry you don't like or will no longer really go back to (admit it, you all have a few) then give them away.  I am not taking part in the Big Poetry Giveaway this year, but I have already given away at least ten books of poetry this year, so I don't feel guilty about skipping out. 


Monday, March 31, 2014

No offense, but . . .

I will not be taking part in most of the hoopla associated with National Poetry Month.

Don't get me wrong, I like you people.  I really do, but I just can't bring myself to participate in all of the festivities.

NaPoWriMo?  Opting out.

The Big Poetry Giveaway?  I really don't think so.

Poem in My Pocket?  Nope.  I'm probably just happy to see you.

* * *

Now for the hard part---telling all of you why I won't be playing any of the reindeer games with all of you, even though I have for years and have been happy to do so in the past.

I will not be trying to write a poem a day for the month of April because I have a new manuscript to work on.  Oh, I love Robert Brewer and his month long running blog of writing prompts, which has evolved into a chapbook competition, but I just can't do it.  I just can't commit to the rigor of trying to write a new poems every day while I try to edit my manuscript ( a book of landscape meditation) and get it into shape for submitting.  I am submitting it to exactly two presses and two presses only.  If neither of them wants it, I am fully prepared to go through Amazon myself and self publish it.  For me to feel remotely good about that option, I need to know what I have is the absolute best manuscript possible.  That means no cute poetry bullshit, which NaPoWriMo is for me.  It's fun and games, and well, screw that.  I've got to work.

I will not be participating in the Big Poetry Giveaway because I have already been giving a lot of books away.  My books (both ones I have written and just ones I own) have been flying off my shelves for quite a while.  I have given away over 50 copies of my latest book, Sailing This Nameless Ship, and at least a dozen other books written by other people in just the last several months.  If I might be honest for a moment, my postage budget is stretched thin and I feel I have given enough for this year.  Too thin?  Too selfish? Well, that's okay if you think so.

I teach high school, and by this time of the school year, I have crammed so much poetry into my students, me carrying a poem in my pocket, or having my students do so, would just be more hassle than it's worth.  I mean that.  Trying to get my students to carry a pom in their pocket and read it at the drop of a hat is a task not worth wages.  I would much rather let it slide altogether.  My students know I am  poet and some know I have had relative success getting my poems out into the world, and not a fuck has ever been given.  I have been preaching the gospel of poetry for 15 years at my school, through bad times and good, and nobody there really cares.  Every now and then I have a conversation with a faculty member, but really, that's just small talk on the way to other things, and I am not so sure it should ever be anything more.

So, I'm out.  I am supportive of you participating, but it just isn't for me.  I will not miss it, and I don't think I will be missed, either.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Coming Clean. Well, sort of . . .

It's Friday in this part of the world and that doesn't mean all that much to most people, but it's as good a day as any to talk about a recent development which has been the center of my life for several weeks.  For those of you who know me in person, you may or may not be surprised about this revelation, but I bet you some people will will be saying to themselves it makes a lot of sense.  For those of you who do not know me in person but have had e-mail interactions with me will probably react in much the same way.  If you don't happen to know me, well, no big deal, right?

Recently, I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.  Yes, that Asperger's Syndrome, which rests on the autism spectrum.  The recent edition of the DSM (I forget whether its number 5 or 6) removed AS from its list of disorders and placed in simply within the boundaries of Autism.  It doesn't maker a big difference to me where it is placed because no matter where I am on that spectrum, I am still me, and I still have to deal with all of the same crap. 

A little while ago, my wife wrote a blog post about my diagnosis and some of the difficulties in dealing with being married to someone who is identified with AS.  I think she was incredibly generous considering all of the stupidity and frustrations she has put up with over the past 20+ years of being married to me.  If you have the time, you should go to her blog and read her take on the subject.  As for mine, I am still trying to figure a few things out, but I have a few things I want to say now.

I am not really comfortable talking about how this revelation has made me look back and re-examine my marital life, so my first thoughts are going to be about my life as a poet.  I have been serious about poetry for quite a while.  I started writing when I was 15 or so, and I got serious about it when I was about 20.  One of the things I thought was wrong with me and my poetry was not being able to write with what I perceived to be the 'linguistic depth' as other poets.  Now, I realize that one of the common disorders which accompanies Asperger's is something called Alexithymia.  It's the sub-clinical inability to 'identify and describe emotions in the self,' or, at least that's what Wikipedia tells me.  Well, I have it in spades.  When I took the profile questionnaire my numbers weren't off the chart, but they were quite high.  Imagine my astonishment that one of the special interests I had developed (poetry) as people with AS are prone to do, is hampered by an inability to do what said special interests requires.  Simply put, I am a poet who cannot identify or describe his emotions.

Suddenly everything became clear.  My poetry tends to focus on place (landscape meditation in particular) because I have an inability to express my own emotional status.  My descriptions remain clinical and disembodied from my psyche because I cannot express how those natural landscapes affect me on an emotional level.  My poetry, if not landscape/place oriented alternates between simple description and direct and blunt trauma because I cannot interweave emotional complexity into the language.  I think it's why my poetry publication has a history of being hot or cold, on or off. My poetry is either showing up in all sorts of places or it is playing the hermit.  Even more telling than my publication history is my patterns of writing themselves.  I think I hit a vein of subject matter, much like William Heyen in certain ways, and I write like mad, sometimes drafting an entire manuscript's worth of poems in a two month period from beginning to end.  Between those periods, poems are rare as hens' teeth, if they come at all.  It is not uncommon for me to not write a poem for a year or even longer, yet here I am once again with 50 pages of poetry towards another complete manuscript of poetry only months after my most recent book was published---and that the end part of a four year streak of book publications.

Please don't think I am bragging.  I look back and I am thrilled I have come so far with what I can only guess at being a severe deficiency when it comes to writing poetry (a guess because I really have no way of comparing with the alternative) and I can't help but think what might have been if I was not saddled with AS and/or Alexithymia.  I look at all the poems I have wanted to write but couldn't, knowing now part of the reason was I cannot express my own emotions in a way which makes sense.  I look back at those poems and mourn their loss, remembering how I agonized at my inability to write poems with the craft and depth with which they deserved to be written.

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to everyone (not just the poets I know) who has had to bear the brunt of my callous and rude behavior.  I look back and see all of the time I spent dominating conversations and being so self-centered when it came to sharing this life in poetry.  I also see how my behavior caused some people to walk away from our friendship in frustration, having tried everything reasonable before jumping ship.

Finally, to my wife, Becky I would like to state again and for the record how deeply humbled I am that you would put up with me for so long, especially since most of that time there was no diagnosis to explain so much of my bad behavior.  If ever there was a person on this earth deserving of all the good graces and good fortune emanating from the universe, you are that person.  I love you and thank you for everything you have done for me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Manuscript Update: March 5, 2014

I have a title for my book, or at least I think I do.  I am not one for a lot of tinkering with titles, so when I get a title I like, I tend to stick with it---sometimes to my embarrassment.  When I named my book, Hobble Creek Almanac, this was some time after I had heard of and read the marvelous book, Blood Almanac, by Sandy Longhorn.  The strange part was that this was the title.  It felt right.  It was and is right.  Still, I feel a little sheepish because I am certain the idea of an almanac came to me from an unrelated  direction but I know people are going to say, "yeah, right."  It happened to me before.  Another friend and another book.  I thought I had a great title and when my friend reminded me of her book title and how close mine was to hers, I immediately changed mine.  I was embarrassed to say the least.

This new book is going to be called:



Lake of Fire:


Landscape Meditation Poems

from the Great Basin Deserts of Nevada


I have approximately 45-50 pages complete, and the poems I am writing for the book now, are coming slowly, more methodically.  This is what usually happens to me towards the end of a manuscript.  

I have to make one final declaration before this goes a lot further.  About half of the poems from this manuscript, so far, are reclaimed poems---one offs I have been writing for quite a while.  Some were already ready to go when I found them again, but many have had to be re-tooled, re-imagined for what I have in mind for this book.  

I am also considering what good an introduction to the book might be, whether it will come off as an earnest attempt to say something about the book or an exercise in ego.  I am writing an introduction right now, but I do not know whether it will stick around or be gutted from the final edit of this book.  Who knows?  It may find its way in and out throughout the remainder of the process depending on my mood. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It's time . . .

I think it's time I start to make a comeback onto my blog---a comeback of sorts.  I am starting to write a new manuscript of landscape meditation.  I have long since given up on the question of whether it is bad luck to talk about a manuscript before it is finished.  What I have accepted about myself is that once I have decided what my next manuscript is going to be, there is very little I can do to change course.  Win, lose, or draw, my mind will zero in on what it thinks I should be working on and keep dragging me back to it until it is finished.  I may write other poems over the course of writing the manuscript, but I may as well just submit to the facts.

Like I said, this new book I am working on (I have about 20 pages) is primarily landscape meditation, and it is about the geography of where I have been living for the past 14 years---the Nevada/Utah border.  I live in a small town on the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, and I started writing a few poems here and there about the landscape almost as soon as I moved here.  However, it has only been in the past several years where I have seen marked improvement in the poems I have been writing about this place.  That has become my new focus.  I know the poems will be a difficult sell (I understand more about the why of that almost every day) but I have moved past my urge/need to rush myself.  With all of my wonderful good fortune in the realm of publishing over the past nine years I do not worry so much about what is going to come next.  This manuscript has no deadline, and I am beginning to learn how to let things come to me instead of frantically searching for them.

It's also time for me to move on in other ways.  Not too many people read this blog, so I am at ease with telling you all this next issue of Hobble Creek Review will be the last.  This next issue will be the journal's 20th issue and that feels like a good place to bring things to an end.  There are a lot of reasons I could give to you regarding my decision, but all you really need to know is I am not enjoying myself enough to keep it going.  It was a noble experiment and a teaching tool for me when I needed it, but that time has past and that's all there is to it.

The revival of this blog will hopefully mean a more frequent posting schedule.  I plan to write more about a whole host of topics and be a better guide in the writing an publishing process than I was for Hobble Creek Almanac.  While this new manuscript is not new territory in terms of subject matter and voice, I do feel it is different this time around because I am both composing new poems and I am resurrecting old fragments and discarded poems to see what new life can be breathed into them.  Some efforts have been successful and others not so much, and I want to be able to talk about all of this with you.

Enough for now.  I am going to try and start posting again at least three times a week.  I can handle that, and I hope you can, too.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: Kelli Russell Agodon's Hourglass Museum

Hourglass Museum
Kelli Russell Agodon
120 pp., White Pine Press
ISBN: 978-1-935210-51-1
$16.00

In Kelli Russell Agodon’s latest book, Hourglass Museum (2014, White Pine Press), the reader is immediately immersed in the fragmentary mind and reality of the struggling artist.  The book’s narrator struggles to move beyond the appreciation of art and live a life in art.  Beginning with the observation and ekphrasis expressions of other, predominantly visual artists, Agodon uses her narrator to first try and contextualize herself (the narrator and quite possibly Agodon herself) with art itself, and then moves both narrator and reader to the expression of a life in art through poetry.

Broken into several sections, the early poems in the book are fragmentary, highly metaphoric, and simply stunning.  Here we see Agodon’s narrator asking questions (both literal and rhetorical) of artists, trying to learn how to create a life in art.  It’s a painful series of questions on some level.  Not the heartbreaking pain of survival and moving past tragedy, but painful in the sense that as one’s yearning to be an artist grows, so does our frustration.  I mean: How do you exactly start to be an artist? How do you defend your devotion to art when others expect something different from you? Take for example these images even from the poem, “The Broken Column” which opens the first section:


Tell me how you suffer―

in brushstrokes or synonyms,
cigarettes or sickbeds.

*


I think we all love something we don’t talk about.


*
 Soon enough, in poems like “A Moment Ago, Everything Was Beautiful” and “Portrait of a Couple on a Cliff After Twenty Years Together” the reader is swept into the feminine difficulties of domestic life, reminding us without beating us over the head what difficulties face those (mostly women) who have chosen to try and balance a life in art with a life in the home.  The poems are not anti-male, nor do they seek to punish the male perspective.  They simply and quite elegantly remind the reader that a woman’s life in art has the added complications of expectations and gender roles which are even today, still biased and stereotypical.

The fragmentation of the first section, poems which seem to defy structure and not allow the reader to settle into any consistency, are in my way of thinking, an extended metaphor for lacking the ability to exert control over the many realms upon which an artist must exist.  However that in itself is a misnomer.  Agodon’s poems in the first section are well crafted and organized, as to enhance the mounting frustration of confident self-expression in art.  Beginning with “Line Forms Here,” Agodon confesses secrets to the reader, and after providing us with this information, she demands even more from us.  The poems which follow, specifically “Frida Kahlo Tattoo,” “How to Make a Picasso Cocktail,” and, “Drowning Girl: A Waterloggled Ars Poetica” the anxiety of the artist is addressed head on, with a directness which is both delightful and stunning.

The second section is called Sketchbook of Nudes,  It consists, depending on how you want to read it, one long poem, or a series of untitled fragmentary poems.  Here, Agodon’s narrator takes the leap of faith very much described by Kierkegaard.  As artists, we have to trust there is an audience for our work.  As artists, we need to express ourselves regardless of what comes next.  As is often the case, I suspect Agodon has fictionalized part of her real-world dynamics to use as material for her poetry.  Early on the second section, Agodon states:


I asked if this would all work out

Yes
you said as if you were lying

*


and then later:

show me the escape route for artists

*


and later still:

we are the stories we tell ourselves

*
Without titles, this long poem, or series of shorter poem pulls the reader beneath the surface alongside of the poet.  She is beneath the water’s surface and we struggle to breath as we swim within this sketchbook.  Why?  Agodon, in this section, forces us to go along for the ride with no signposts to mark our way.  There is an urgency which reminds me of labor and birth.  Well, the birth of self as an artist if not the literal birth of a child.  Here we travel with the poet in-utero, where there is no stopping.

If  the second section is the birth, then the third is almost certainly an education, a step by step accounting of how the narrator is becoming the artist, from the development of craft and technique through aesthetic (expressed primarily through the color blue), and the projection of the artist life for one’s self and those who surround the artist.  The poems here reject sadness and shut out regret for the decisions made.  Here we see the poet building up reasons to be the artist, justifying the poet’s life and reject the urge to apologize for making room in her life for poetry.

Something’s shifted here (her), too.  Poetry is a talisman against the bad things which happen to us.  Poetry becomes the channel through which grief and confusion can flow, and a context by which the poet may frame a life.  It is no longer simply a means to an end, but also a place to inhabit.

By the time the third section has completed, the reader is anxious to see the artist in all her glory and powers.  Poetry is no longer the thing outside of the artist; it is the world she inhabits.  The final section is a recounting of the artist’s triumph---how to live a life rooted in art while living all of the other lives either thrust upon her or taken on my choice.  We read of marital bliss and the realization that living a life in art has made a better life possible, even with all of the complications which the artist must endure.  Where earlier poems were fragmented, the unity and cohesion of the poems in the final section reveal the secret the poet was trying so hard to discover in the first section.  Art is not a distraction or a radical element.  It is art which steadies the artist’s life.  We practice art so our lives will make sense.


The poetry in Hourglass Museum is worth ten times what you will pay for it.  There are so many wonderful metaphors in this book I hesitate to share them with you because each is so masterfully woven into the very fabric of this book I would be quoting pages at a time.  You deserve to read the book in its entirety.  Hourglass Museum is the first book of poems in quite a while that makes me want to tell all my friends about it, even if they already own a copy.  Kelli Russell Agodon has proven yet again how devoted she is to the art of poetry and how integral it is to her life.