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

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


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.