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

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

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.