Books in April: Beth Ann Fennelly’s Open House

I was encouraged by a friend to seek out this book. It was one of the best pieces of reading advice I’ve been given. I remember poring over this volume when I first got it, enjoying it, and then I hit the central long poem in the book, “From L’Hotel Terminus Notebooks,” and that’s when I was hooked.

I was new to reading long poems then. I had probably read H.D.’s “Trilogy” but not much else, and because I tended to write very short pieces myself, I didn’t fully understand why to write a long poem or what purpose they could serve.

I use the long poem from this book on the first day of any workshop I teach on writing long poems. It’s challenging enough that it raises the curiosity (and sometimes the frustration) of my students, but it tends to collage things together using a folksy, approachable voice (/voices) with which they can identify. This poem is also a good example of a piece that tells its reader how to read it. In the first several pages, Fennelly pastes in quotes, short vignettes, and a dialog between herself and a smarmy voice called Mr. Daylater, all of which go on to be form the narrative spines of the overall work.

Factor into it her approach to four of the main “grand narratives” in long poetry (Love, Sex, Death, and Ambition) and well, it’s a great primer.

Another great piece in terms of thinking about form is “Mother Sends My Poem to Her Sister with Post-Its,” a poem crafted entirely from the marginalia of someone trying to elaborate on the content of a poem that isn’t there.

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