26 April 2011

All Sorts of New Work: Poems in Print

I thought that I would take a few minutes and update where you can currently see my poems.

I have two poems, "Lyra" and "Hades as Farmhand" in Barnstorm (which you can read for free online).

My poem "Middle Burnt Fork, Good Friday" won the Academy of American Poets prize for the University of Idaho.  You can read a great article about it from the Ravalli Republic (again online and for free) or reprinted on the University of Idaho's web site here.

If you still want more, four of my prose poems "Her Tattoo as a Book of Light," "Torch Song: She Didn't Start the Fire," "Portrait of a Faceless Victim," and "Sending You a Letter I Wrote While Drinking" appeared in Ghost Ocean Magazine #3 (which again, you can read online.)

My poem "Photo Booth" appeared on the blog Ain't Nothin' back in January as well.  

Last but not least,  I have an interview with Elizabeth J. Colen forthcoming on the site Boxcar Poetry Review, a poem "I Can't Remember All the Stories" appearing in Knockout #4, and a long obsessive poem about the actor James Franco "Learning Through Osmosis: Falling Asleep at Columbia University" forthcoming in Assaracus #3 this July.

It's been a great year for seeing my poems in print.  I hope the trend continues!

18 April 2011

A Review of "Men in Groups" by Aaron Smith

Three years ago, I dreamt about a gay poet who lived in NYC.  In the dream, someone told me that I had to read his book of amazing poems.  It doesn’t seem farfetched for one gay poet to be dreaming about another.  I didn’t get the name of the book in the dream, thought I did I remember the poet’s name, a very common one.   Because I am a firm believer in synchronicity, I looked it up.  I found Aaron Smith’s book Blue on Blue Ground and I’ve been a fan since.

I had the opportunity to meet Aaron at AWP in Washington D.C. this winter and hear him speak on a panel called Unembarrassed Poetry.  Again, Mr. Smith was acting as some kind of doppelganger in my life because he was standing in for Richard Siken.  His poems and thoughts did not disappoint.

At the bookfair, I stopped at the table for New Sins Press and was delighted to find a new chapbook by Mr. Smith called Men in Groups.  Perhaps this is the long way around to get to a book review, but I think the story is almost as good as the book.  Because the chapbook is, well I will say it, dreamy…

Mr. Smith opens the chapbook with the poem “Lucky” about how the speaker in the poem was lucky to only be laughed at by a group of boys in a locker room.  The violence in this poem is implicit, lurking just below the surface.  The speaker recites a litany of things done to other kids, but he is “Lucky they never did that.” (to him)

The violence is right up front in many of the other poems in this book from “Psalm (Queer)” to the title poem “Men in Groups” to “Make Him Think You Could Pull a Gun.”  The focus of these poems is what happens when men come together in groups—straight or gay men –and the consequences of these gatherings. 

Smith uses his characteristically deft humor and dark wit to deconstruct daily encounters with urban life.  In the poem “Open Letter,” he uses the anaphora “boring” to create a monotonous incantation which comes back to slap the reader in the face at the end of the poem.

This short, but strong book of poems closes with “After All These Years You Know They Were Wrong About the Sadness of Men Who Love Men.”  Perhaps I am a sucker for a touching ending.  Smith, far from being sentimental or gushy manages to navigate the feeling of triumph that a gay man experiences when he finally finds a home among his chosen family.  “…you want / to remember this.  You’ve waited / your whole life for them to miss you.”  And in a similar way, you will want to encounter Men in Groups, because you have been waiting to read something this good for quite a while.

Aaron Smith’s chapbook is available from Winged City Chapbooks an imprint of New Sins Press.

11 April 2011

Against "A Room of One’s Own"

I have great respect for the writings of Virginia Woolf and her stake in the feminist movement, but the title of her book sprang to mind when I started to think about the writing life. There are innumerable books that discuss the writer’s life, the long and lonely journey on the page, and ultimately the inner turmoil writers go through. One of my favorite is Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life by Bonnie Freedman.

Everyone knows that a guitar can sound good, but that it usually sounds its best when accompanied by drums, bass guitar and vocals. Musicians working in concert with one another are greater than the sum of their parts. (Sorry, I couldn’t pass that pun up.) Although one man may create music for each instrument, it requires several music makers joining to create a complete symphony. My analogy comparing music to writing is not a precise fit, but it will lead the way.

I want to address collaboration between writers. Every time a piece of writing is workshopped in a class or sent to an editor, collaboration is taking place. Let’s move beyond this though. Take the idea one step further…

Two July’s ago at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference, I attended a class lead by author Sam Ligon, who envisioned a collaboration between prose writers and poets. The requirements were that each segment shouldn’t be over 200+ words. In addition, each new section must use a sentence from the previous one as its first line. The pieces layered prose and poetry on top of one another, pulling a line or phrase from somewhere within the preceding section. I was paired with the talented prose writer Elizabeth Thorpe and we completed two separate pieces. As writers, we created a piece of work that neither of us could have envisioned on our own.

In a successful piece, there is a distinct tension between the prose and poetry. Each section not only builds on what has come before, but also adds something new or turns the phrase in a new way. Sometimes a piece like this can tear itself apart when the authors have varied ideas or agendas. And as in all writing, sometimes a piece of writing fails for other reasons. It does not gel as it should. Any writer who has been putting pen to page or font to computer screen knows that not every word sees the light of day. We sometimes give birth to ugly babies.

There are other types of collaboration as well. Since September, the poet John Myers and I have been giving one another writing assignments. They range from the simple to the complex. Make an erasure poem from an online quiz. Write an anti-Betty White poem that features both a vessel of some kind and William Shatner in blank verse. Clearly, we are strange individuals. What these writing prompts have done is taken me out of my familiar tracks—my habitual ways of thinking and writing. Only about a third of the prompts have gone on to be successful poems. These constrictions placed on me by another person have caused me to stretch my writing muscles and rise to the occasion. The things that I learn in writing these exercises come to play in my “serious” work as well.

You can take this further. If you are a prose writer or poet, you can collaborate with another individual on single pieces. My friend John has worked on collaborative poems with others in open source Google documents. Each person can access a poem at any time or even write on it simultaneously—even if they live on the other side of the world. As I have said, not every piece is a successful work of art.

Collaboration takes the artist out of the locked box of his or her head. It broadens the familiar envisioning process of the piece. Put simply, it ups the ante. It is one thing to do work for yourself, but another entirely to work with another person in co-creation. I encourage all writers to try their hand at joining their words with another’s. Take the chance. Risk wrecking what’s working for you to discover an entirely new set of tools.

Most of all have fun!

04 April 2011

A Small Photo Essay from Idaho

This blog has been filled with words, words, words lately.  I am happy to write every week, or get someone else to write every week, but it would also be nice to show off some of the great things I am seeing in Idaho.  Let me take you with me on a mini-road trip through the lesser known parts of the Palouse.

Just past Palouse, WA on Hwy 27 there is a barn that I have watched for most of the year.  This fall, the roof was swaybacked.  This winter, the barn was covered by snow and the roof was drastically lower.  I guess the weight of the snow got to be too much, because now the abandoned barn looks more like a galleon rising from the winter wheat fields.

I am probably going to write some ridiculous pastoral poem about this barn in the future.  It reminds me a great deal of my poem "The Old Payette Barn" that I wrote while attending WWU.  The fictional barn was taken down piece by piece and reconstructed in a city park  I doubt that will happen with this one.

 I think what saddens me the most about these barns is that they will never be built again, anywhere.  No one I know of but the Amish (and perhaps the Hutterites) are constructing these kinds of barns.  What I love is that each barn in the Palouse has unique features.  Modern architecture appears homogenous  to me.

One of my other favorite things about the Palouse is that it is dotted with incredible cemetaries.  I have now been to cemetaries in Dusty, WA; Palouse, WA; Garfield, WA; Farmington, WA; and Moscow, Idaho.    This hand comes from a tombstone outside of Farmington, WA.

The graves in this area are amazingly well preserved.  The earliest headstone that I have found so far dates back to the 1840s. 

The older tombstones fall into three distinct categories based on their symbology: Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and  Woodmen of the World.  (The heart in the hand represents the virtue of charity.)  Before the Palouse was filled with rolling wheat fields, it was forested.  Palouse had a particularly large collection of W.O.W. gravestones.  

I even managed to find a gravemarker from a gentleman who fought in the War of 1812, during which the Brititish marched down from Canada and burned the White House to the ground. (I've never seen an American flag on a tombstone this old.)

 Even modern markers can be unique as is the one below. 

On the way back to Moscow, Idaho I stopped in Palouse to take a picture of the Palouse River which is flooding its banks.  Apparently in 1996, the river flooded the entire town.  Here is the water much higher than I saw it last week.

My favorite part of the trip was stopping at the local animal shelter.  I have been thinking that a new kitten may fix all of my MFA program woes.  Critical papers and poems you say?  No, I am turning in my marmelade cat for a grade.  At the shelter, this is what was also up for adoption.  His name is Harvey.  (Not really, but I appreciate that it just might happen in these parts.)  Welcome to the Palouse, just south of the Inland Empire.  Stay tuned for future reports of what a writing life can look like.


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