A NOTE ON DAVID WOJAHN’S AWARD WINNING MYOPIA; CELEBRATING THE LOCAL: LOCAL, LIKE IN THE SAME ROOM HUMPING DANCING; REVIEWS OF TWO BLACK OCEAN BOOKS 

by Joe Hall 

On October 26th, at the handsomely appointed Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, David Wojahn received the annual O.B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Award, which recognizes “a poet’s teaching as well as his art.” Paid a wad of cash by his friends and former students, Wojahn delivered a lecture which pooped on ‘experimental’ poets, younger poets, very specifically Joe Wenderoth and pretty much everyone but himself and his buddies that awarded him said monies.

 

Wojahn’s lecture did a fine job marshalling his intellect to find what is worth celebrating in the work of his peers, but then trotted out a tired equation also heard from folks like Tony Hoagland (Real Sofistikashun): avant-garde poetry = egocentric & disingenuous. The shallowness and complete lack of discrimination in his critique of experimental and younger poets helped remind me of several lacks within the larger poetic community. That is, while there is a super-abundance of poetry being written and a great deal of it being published by an array of small, mid and large size presses with considerably different goals and audiences, there are not enough forums which collate and effectively critique large cross sections of this work and whose readership cuts across these different writing enclaves. And I mean ‘critique’ in the most generous sense of the word.

 

This dialogical vacuum (which leads nationally recognized poets to say radically uninformed things about their peers) is bolstered by or a sister to a lack of physical meeting grounds with significant ties to larger outlying communities (unlike the roving AWP behemoth or the workshops and residencies in scenic vacuums). One of the downsides of MFA programs and the University system in general is their habit of further uprooting poets from their local literary communities in favor of the benefits an evanescent enclave can provide. Poets emerge from their apprenticeship and move to employment centers not community-less, but as part of a diffuse community, one that exists despite the real physical distances between one’s peers. Digital meeting grounds partially bridge that distance—but only in a limited way. The result is that many folks find themselves living a hybrid existence, seeking to both establish and nurture connections to a local literary community while working to establish oneself ‘nationally’ or in communities that transcend geography. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what is troubling is that ‘advancement’—a tenure track position, even a one or two year residency—often means further physical displacement, a remove to another university or college—and that all this mobility, this hyper-mobility, erodes one’s allegiances to places and often prevents poets from seriously engaging with literary communities whose values and output are different from their own. Without roots, it’s very easy for people like David Wojahn to, from the rarified air surrounding the lectern at the Folger Shakespeare Library, crap on those he sees as far, far below him, ignorant of the conditions from which they write, conditions which might make necessary exactly the kind of poetry he finds so distasteful. 

 

Perhaps if Wojahn got himself out to poetry events in Richmond not sponsored by VCU or rubbed shoulders with poets of different aesthetics at coffee shops, prisons and library workshops, slams, etc. and not theatres paid for by coffee barons he wouldn’t see them in such a dismissive light. Then again, Wojahn has every right to completely ignore the work of promising young poets, which he is. But the next time he’s paid 10,000 bucks to deliver a lecture he should stick to what he knows.  It disappoints me to hear so much bile come from the mouth of someone being awarded for the excellence of their teaching. And while Wojahn’s passion is admirable, it makes me fear that this is the legacy a generation of poet-mentors is passing down: write like me and people who write like, deplore and so remain ignorant of everything else.

 

Poets, as a community, and readers of poetry suffer every time overly reductive binaries between experimental and traditional poetry, between Language and Lyric, between young and old are enforced. We need to remember to sometimes pay our respects to the local and those forms of writing which occur not from aesthetic partisanship but from being in dialogue with local conditions, with the human needs of the poet and the needs of their communities. We cannot dismiss major and emerging artistic formations until we confront them on their own terms.  So, dear reader, let’s have a beer and talk about poems and life and all that crap—yr invited too, DW.

 

. 

  BLACK OCEAN  (http://www.blackocean.org/) 

Events, readings, parties, whatever you want to call them, are a part of Black Ocean’s raison d’être. Though their crew is located in multiple cities—Boston, New York, Chicago—they are concerned with the local, with party induced shoulder rubbing or, well, as can happen at such things, genital friction. Their events don’t follow the typically hierarchical literary format of younger poet, older poet, discuss. As far as I can tell, they can get, uh, rowdy, concerned just as much with vintage horror flicks and dancing as with literature.  Democratic, anarchic, puerile: call it what you want, their scope as an organization is admirably wide and for this reason, they deserve attention.

 

Unfortunately, they couldn’t ship Phoebe a party, just 2 books, ¾” of paper.

   A USELESS WINDOW BY CARRIE O. ADAMS

www.blackocean.org/uselesswindow.html

 

This chapbook was one of Black Ocean’s first efforts, put out way back in 2006. Carrie O. Adams is an editor at Black Ocean, so by looking at her work, maybe we can forecast what’s to come.

 

Press materials say Adams’ work “delves deeply into questions of identity,” but, you know, what doesn’t? I found more interesting the moment of departure implied by the first poem where the speaker is packing up her things, stripping a room and, in a sense, her self bare. With spare lines, restrained diction and a refusal to let biography too heavily color the poems, the book proceeds from this space of absence.

 

Frames, boxes, envelopes, rooms, and buildings become especially prominent signifying that which contains and limits. Yet we are also constantly reminded of the contingency of things, the thinness of the envelopes we occupy, as the structures of a city become vulnerable under the gaze of the speaker—

                       

            brown city roof-tops brace themselves for what may fall from the sky.

           

            Plaster crumbles within the wall.

           

            But the building bends under sleep.

 

Just as the landscape of her city buckles, the sense of order enforced by often end-stopped stanzas and lines is nicely disrupted by the ambiguities created by occasional syntactical fragmentation. Adams can neatly turn her poems on their own heads with a wonderful economy. From “Vermillion”:

 

            They are wearing the same scarf

            They crowd the floor in front of the mirror studying their eyes

            Others have appendages out the windows directing wind

            They want to feel what is watching

            What is watching feels them

 

            There is no

            There is

 

This sense contingency is further reinforced by Adam’s habit of prefacing her more startling images/statements with phrases such as “it must mean,” “if,” “I imagine,” “I wonder,” “I wanted,” “she thought,” “we could,” etc. Its headache inducing if one tries to sort out the logic of what is literally there in the world of the poem and what isn’t.  It’s also a sly, effective device in that these subjective fields can allow shocking eruptions of the speaker’s desires into an otherwise mundane landscape—“If waves were to beat the building she would welcome the water” and “On Fridays, one might mistake the maintenance man for God / as he knocks on my door, interrupts me mid-prayer on the couch.”

 

This is the dilemma of perpetual contingency, the cost of high mobility: unpacking and packing from place to place until the features of a landscape lose their meaning because one has no significant relationship to them or under the present landscape is a substrate of past landscapes, a landscape that invites misrecognition.

 

These moments where Adams revises the landscape are often reproached by a voice concerned less with images and more with the mechanics of seeing and imagining—a meta-vision: “Extract and yet signify, / become.” This voice prevents us from fully entering the landscape of the speaker’s sentimental vision—it gives us things in echoes and whispers, distancing us from the autobiographical detail so often implied. This meta-vision reminds us that the process of evacuation/moving is one which upsets the significant frameworks in which we order detail and that this period of disorder has its dangers—“Tucked somewhere underneath the mattress, tight to the box springs, / a currency, a relic, the post before lintel, a landmine.”

 

The articulation of these tensions between the particular and ideal reaches Zen-like proportions in “A Useless Window,” the final section of the book:

 

The commonplace might be miraculous / and never enough.

 

This too may expand into nothingness.

 

Yet this toggling between modes is tricky business. While it adds a necessary level of complication to her “Vermillion” sequence, there are lines in the title sequence, “A Useless Window,” that she can’t tap dance her way out of. Take these, the opening lines: “I could not throw off the wings; / they had to be cut from me.” Beginning like this is a bravura move, but in subsequent poems Adams fails to throw off or satisfactorily tame the connotational baggage of “wings,” which too easily stand in for a spiritually tinged kind of hope or grace. While implying or finding terms for the ineffable seems vital to a sequence also concerned with present limitation, combined with lines like “brilliance of the moment / in which the invisible gleams” this kind of diction seems to undercut (not complicate) a speaker whose way of seeing had been previously much less conventional/sentimental. One sympathizes with Adam’s desire to interrogate, disrupt or event to transcend the stripped rooms frames her speaker exists in but this first line never quite redeems itself. 

 

Though not so different in terms of content and form and interlocking in fruitful ways, “A Useless Window” isn’t what it could be.  “Vermillion” is outstanding and is more than enough reason enough to check out Adams’ chapbook and look forward to her full length collection, Intervening Absence, from Ahsahta Press (http://ahsahtapress.boisestate.edu/).

        UPON ARRIVAL BY PAULA CISEWSKI

www.blackocean.org/upon_arrival.html

  

Paula Cisewski’s first full-length collection of poems is remarkably accessible. The diction is generally simple, the syntax of her lines uncomplicated:  “The clouds fall out of each other. / The weatherman fears for his good suit. / In the rain, my lover works, carving / rivulets into stone, rivulets into stone.” 

 

Like Adams, her method of making is variable, shifting poem to poem. Sometimes we get minor surrealism:

 

In our homes, the lonely fairy

godmother of moths and dust smokes cigarettes,

leans a whiskered cheek on the drapery

as she fingers the frosted sash, gazing out.

 

Other times, we get clear, unadorned images:

 

There is honking

during rush hour.

The tails of a woman’s

overcoat flap against

her calves as she bends

to her bags on the sidewalk.

 

There are prose poems and some brickish, Paul Blackburnian numbers:

 

                                                …I want                       coins plucked

 

                        from my ear, each and every color of canary

                        to escape

                                       your hat

                                                     and feather

                                                                  my heart.

 

                                                                  (What can

 

                                    not surrender does not

                                    surrender but does not

                                    necessarily keep well.)

                                                                   But I believe! 

In terms of the book as a whole, the formal and thematic restlessness tends to make Cisewski’s weaker poems more glaring. When she employs late-WCW’s scoring of the tercet on the page and tone (To sing hush-a-bye / was beautiful / is beautiful, is / not now required), one is not sure if it’s appropriate or imitation.  Further, the loose jointedness and modest disposition of these poems, like those of Paul Blackburn (www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/blackburn/poetry.htm), can lull you into underestimating what Cisewski can do. And it would be a shame to not pay attention to poems like the sonically impeccable “Inside the Memory Works,” a piece which neatly makes the abstract palpable through its finely worked sonic texture. The amphorous opening lines “Whatever has been lost / deteriorated into a word / for itself” coalesce into these curiously exact lines with sparrows:

 

Their slight weights changing

the escapement’s tock

tock

and thereby the entire mechanism

slightly. Sparrows grow older, coo,

and sleep huddled: plumb-bobs

     bereft of syntax, too.

Cisewski has real talent and a winning sense of play. She can also write herself a mean extended metaphor. I found myself enjoying the book most when her line breaks were calling attention to themselves, bringing out her generous wit. However, occasional games between sign and signified seem more out of obligation than in service of showing off her strengths. And while this book isn’t trying to be thematically driven, even for a loose collection of poems it still seems to stretch itself in one too many directions for the book to demand sustained attention. As is, this is a book to browse through, to slip into your pocket before catching the bus or a train.

   DEAR BLACK OCEAN 

I have a crush on you I can’t explain. Maybe all chief editors should not wear shirts and be called Impresarios. Maybe all literary magazines should have Paige Ackerson-Kiely on their editorial staff. Either way, firmly linking literary output to local events and zombie appreciation is an urgent task. But, here’s the thing: Adams’ poems are quiet, spare things, Cisewski’s are genial, and I’m stuck suspecting I’m missing something between a story I heard at AWP two years ago about someone shitting on a porch at one of your events and these two books. What’s the deal? Sure the relationship between small press mission statements and their actual output can often be mystifying, but, BO, you make me want a more coherent package. That’s not such a bad thing. And packaging aside, you’ve brought us two imminently readable, inviting books whose restlessness is, I think, all about defying classification and claiming a space of their own in the always hectic landscape of contemporary poetry.

Anyway, I’m moving near Chicago in a few months.  Maybe I’ll go to an event and connect the dots then.

 

Onward!

  – – –

Joe Hall’s poems are forthcoming or have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Versal, Cimarron Review, Handsome, Face Time: A Cygist Press Anthology and others. Founder of the DC reading series Cheryl’s Gone, Joe currently maintains a guest room for itinerant artists in his West Lafayette, Indiana home.

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