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

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
a thousand alarms.
I don't hear

the small chimes

or the whisperings
of breath
from my nose.

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.