New Review of Barbie Chang

Poets & Artists recently published my review of Victoria Chang’s new poetry collection Barbie Chang, which I enjoyed and admired a great deal.

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We first meet Barbie Chang, the character whose life and thoughts populate most of Victoria Chang’s fourth collection, at a conference, when everyone stands to give the speaker a standing ovation except Barbie, who walks out of the room. It’s a stark image of a woman who “once worked on a street called Wall,” and it’s this act—quiet defiance that isolates her from those around her, a kind of idealism—that will come to define her again and again in these poems.

Read more…

Against Genre

The concept of genre—a defined category of writing, like poetry or novels or plays—isn’t currently fashionable. Many people find such categories too restrictive or fussy. Much of the energy of contemporary literature is in crossing and mixing various genres in single pieces of writing. Yet when it comes to poetry, it can help to think about genre in a more isolated way, at least temporarily, because the question of genre is really a question of purpose: Why did the writer choose a certain type of writing, and how does that choice affect how we should read the work before us?

Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry

I offer this quote from Matthew Zapruder’s book because the concept of genre, for me, is very different, and I wanted to write about the idea of genre from another perspective. My intent in this post isn’t to drag Matthew for his perspective, though I will respectfully disagree with some basic assumptions in his essay (and also note the quote above is just a quick aside and not at all a major point he makes in the essay).

First, I don’t believe genre is a concern for the writer. Genre is a concern of the publisher and the bookseller, and this is because genres are sales categories. Genre indications tell booksellers where to shelve certain books in their store, at the recommendation of the publisher, who has assigned it a genre in order to ensure the book is able to find its most likely readers.

Genre is taught to writers, for sure. These categories have become part and parcel of the writing program, so much so that many programs don’t allow students to take classes outside their genre of admission. I find this troubling. While I agree that deep knowledge of a mode of writing is valuable, exclusive study isn’t necessarily as valuable. But I say this, in part, because my own writing practice was deeply shaped by and informed by film form and film theory, two areas I never would have learned in a poetry workshop but whose ideals—sequence, suture, juxtaposition, narrative, composition and mise-en-scene, persistence of vision—all remain present in my poetic practice. So, yeah, I have a horse in this race.

Zapruder suggests in his essay that “stories and novels create characters and situations and tell stories; journalism communicates information; essays engage in that hard-to-categorize effort to explore, however loosely, a certain idea; editorials and sermons tell us what we should and should not do, and believe; and so on.”

But I would argue a poem, too, can do all these things. That an essay can have characters and situations. That novels can communicate information. That short stories can explore an idea, however loosely. I think very clearly of the Juliana Spahr essay “Spiderwasp, Or Literary Criticism,” a foundational text for me, or any of her books (Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You and thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs in particular).

So if this is the case—if my assumptions about what genres can do is valid, that is—then the categories Zapruder puts forward here become less enforceable.

In 2017, I had a reckoning with my relationship to genre. I had been writing novels, short stories, essays, screenplays, and hybrid pieces that cribbed from all genres for many years, but I noticed I always knew what form a piece of writing would take when I began writing it. I always knew when something would have a line break, or when it was a narrative that would unfold over many pages. I also knew when I would need to stitch together many approaches to discover the story in the interstitial moments it created.

I started to wonder if all writing was poetry, and any further categorization was just describing a mode of poetry.

Poetry is, after all, the oldest or one of the oldest modes of literary expression. Does it not make sense in some way that the novel is offspring of the poem?

I think all of this can stand if we’re thinking about genre from the standpoint of artistic production. Writers, be free to write how you write. Let it be your own.

The complicating factor is, as always, the marketplace.

Few writers have made careers while consistently eschewing genre’s restricting embrace. Mark Z. Danielewski is a writer particularly adept at it, as has Carole Maso, whose own book of writing about writing is called Break Every Rule, an artistic philosophy I endorse. When it comes time for us to move our writing from the desktop to desktop publishing, well, then things do get a bit more sticky and, I agree, they look a lot more like what Zapruder put forward.

This is because book buyers want to have a reasonable understanding of what they’re buying. They want it to meet their expectations. This means a mystery novel should have a mystery at its center, that a horror novel should be terrifying, that literary fiction will likely explore the internal lives of its characters. And that a poem…should have line breaks?

Except prose poems.

And poems with long end-stopped lines, I guess.

And poems in which the poet has decided not to use line breaks.

It’s much easier for me to think of poetry as “not other genres” than of a thing itself, and partly this is because for me, the magic of poetry is its permissiveness. Its inclusion. Its ability to morph and change and invite experimentation and innovation. (Other genres can do this too! I’m not saying they can’t.)

When I approach poetry as a place to invent, I find myself taking much more interesting risks, experiencing more foundational failures, and discovering what literature is capable of.

But poetry that doesn’t play by genre-based rules may struggle to find a readership, which poetry already struggles to do (for a lot of reasons that will probably be its own blog post later). So, no, I’m not doing Poetry (as a field) any favors with my ideological stance. I’m sorry, Poetry. I’m not doing it to hurt you.

Poetry contains multitudes. It should not be tamed.

 

The New Year

First, this post owes a big debt of gratitude to Kelli Russell Agodon. A few months ago, Kelli tweeted about “the old days” when poets blogged widely and regularly. I, too, missed that spirit of community, and in the tweets that followed from others, a movement took back its shape, and many, many poets committed to returning to blogging in 2018.

So, here I am. Here we are.

My first post in this blog was published on August 31, 2004. I was going into the last semester of my MFA program. I was thinking about poetry community and where I might find it. I was thinking about my writing, and I was thinking about LGBTQ voices in poetry. I was reading widely, voraciously, and I wanted to talk about those books. I was constantly inspired.

Through blogging, I found….everything.

Now, with six chapbooks, a full length collection, and a forthcoming second collection, my writing career is a lot different, but my writing life is the same. I still crave community, to talk with poets and share ideas and discuss books. But having rested in my efforts to challenge myself the last few years (for a variety of personal reasons both publicly known and publicly unknown), I started to fall short. Reading less. Seeking community less. Hiding in my house. Working on poems–sometimes.

There’s something about this format I don’t get on social media, and I miss that thing. I can’t wait to read people’s deep dives into the books they’ve just read and the creative questions they’re asking themselves. I hope this blog ends up inspiring people the way blogs have been such an important resource for me.

Here is my 2018 Literary To Do List. I’m trying to get back into the habit of setting good habits.

  • read 1 book per week
  • write 1 book review per month
  • write at least 1 blog post per week
  • submit to 2 publishers per month
  • attend 1 literary event per month

Maybe it’s too small. Maybe it’s too ambitious.

But here we go.

Ed Madden on his new book Prodigal: Variations

When I was growing up in rural Arkansas, I remember being taught the story of Abraham and Isaac in Sunday school. The whole story is a real soap opera—the patriarch gets the servant pregnant, then his postmenopausal wife, who demands the servant and her kid be kicked out. There’s sex, jealousy, rejection and exile (and that odd subplot about strange men dropping in on their way to the big city, where they nearly get raped before the whole city goes up in flames.) But the central drama is a story about a father and son, a trip up the mountain where Abraham is going to kill his son Isaac because God told him to. Test of faith and all that. Over and over we were taught this story as an exemplum of great faith.

But it’s really pretty creepy, pretty horrifying. Your dad loves his god so much he’s willing to kill you. The poem that opens my second book of poetry, Prodigal: Variations (Lethe Press 2011), takes that story as its impulse, but reimagines it from the point of view of someone like Isaac. (“Sacrifice” also appeared in Best New Poets 2007.)

Sacrifice

When my father bound me, I submitted,

closed my eyes to the lifted knife in his fist.
Even now, the cords still hold my wrists,

rough ropes of love. My chest is bare,
my heart lies open. He loves his god more

than me. I open my eyes, watch my father
raise his fist against a bright and bitter

sky, no angel there to stay his hand.

In many ways, the book is a book about men—not just fathers and sons, but brothers,
friends, lovers. And for me it’s also a book about the stories I grew up with, especially stories from the Bible. In particular, the story of the prodigal son, with its promise of reconciliation, haunts the book. But if the book is haunted by what could have been, it finds its consolations in the here and now, in the rituals and relationships that sustain us.

One poem near the end is both tragic and hilarious. A friend of mine told me that his
mother, who has Alzheimer’s, has forgotten that she’d disowned him years ago for being
gay, and now the woman who rejected him is thrilled to see him.

Solace

Lily, Jack’s yellow lab, leans across the futon to look
at me, the casita’s latest visitor, new neighbor for the week,

then she sighs—the way that dogs resign themselves to something new—
thumps that thick semaphore of tail, and stretches, a back paw

against my leg as she sleeps—the way I fall asleep best,
my foot just touching Bert’s leg beneath the sheets. Meanwhile, the rest

of the world shudders on: sunlight spattering the shady lawn,
sirens pulsing on a nearby street, a cement rabbit pausing

at the back fence. If I speak of solace now, I don’t
mean comfort. At lunch today, Robert said his mother doesn’t

remember that she’d disowned him—the disease weeds the last few years
away. When he visits, she is almost loving, which she never

really was, he says. It’s not her, he says, or maybe it is.

This was a difficult book for me in some ways, grounded as it was in my alienation from
my own father and family and home. Ironically, when the book was launched in April at the Columbia Museum of Art, I was in the midst of a three-month stint at home, helping with my father’s hospice care. It was a big affair, a joint book launch with fellow poet and friend Ray McManus, and bluegrass gospel from a band called, of all things, Total Denial.

I know I retell stories obsessively. No version is the last one. Now the book is haunted by three months of something I could never have imagined, haunted by the possibility of all the book denies—-as in the title poem:

A man watches the road.
He will see me coming.

Even a great way off, he will see me coming.

Andrew Demcak on his new book Night Chant

My newest poetry collection, Night Chant (Lethe Press 2011), began with the leftover poems that didn’t fit in with the tone of my first collection, Catching Tigers in Red Weather (Three Candles Press, 2007). Around 2009, I became interested in the idea of “hidden,” which logically leads to the idea of “discovery.” I was still experimenting with poetic voice and narrative in my work, (e.g. who is the speaker, to whom is the poem addressed, etc.) and playing around with burying poetic forms within line breaks. The poems in Night Chant all have very formal metrical structures and/or rhyme schemes, but the forms are embedded in the line breaks to conceal them. Once the true line is discovered, the reader can see that these poems are in the tradition of French syllabic verse. For example, here is the poem “Announcement” with its “true” lines revealed:

A baby’s pink squeal for the tit, its hunger*
insolvent, obstinate country. Or
the snarl of sated fox, the expunger,
after its banquet of rabbit femur.
Mountains open upon their dependents
a volcanic outrage. Magma aglow
like the mind’s light, orange-red, resplendent.
Over lifeless men, the screech of sea birds,
the fins of mermaids the drowning have heard.

*my sloppy division of syllables (count 11, the next line 9 = 20 for the two lines.)

The end rhymes are more noticeable this way and the ten-syllable lines become apparent. So began Night Chant.

One of the memorable poem sections of Night Chant (besides all the raw sex poems) is what I’ve been calling the “Dead Baby” section. These poems came as a reaction to the state of Florida announcing that it was illegal now for LGBTQI2-S couples to adopt children there. My kneejerk response was “If we can’t have our own children, then neither can they,” and I began to imagine all the social permutations and complications of birth.

I wanted to include my two longest poems, both e-chapbooks, Pink Narcissus (GOSS 183/Casa Menendez Press, 2009) and 672 Hours (Gold Wake Press, 2008) here, the former from what is considered the first gay art film, and the latter about my 28-day stay in a drug and alcohol rehab. Both of these poems for me relate to the “hidden” in the gay experience.

And because this whole book was shaping up to be a literary catharsis for me, I decided to base the title on the nine-day, Navajo healing ceremony, the Night Chant. The title worked perfectly: it meant “the hidden expression.”

Blame this mess

Due to all my madness, transition, and inability to maintain a clean and orderly house this year, I left off two very important titles from my No Tell Motel List of Best Books of 2010:

Suzanne Frischkorn’s Girl on a Bridge
This book turns away from the idyllic landscape of Frischkorn’s previous book and explores the past and our memory of it with grace and without sentimentality.

Montgomery Maxton’s This Beautiful Bizarre
Maxton’s collection is formally varied, urgent, and tense with both sexual danger and an emotional longing for what’s been lost.

My love to both poets!

Newborn.

A book manuscript I thought I was only half done writing suddenly came together into a draft. A draft that runs…maybe a little on the long side. I’d thought the book was so far from being done that I had started flirting with another manuscript I saw coming together, even though those poems feel more troubled to me, need more work.

I had been working/revising with a paper draft of the (good) poems, loosely thrown together in a haphazard order, when, while driving from Detroit to DC, the appropriate structure for the book struck me. For a month I kept that idea at a low boil in my head, and earlier this week I started putting the plan into action.

I retyped them into a new document page by page. It took about four hours. (Naturally, in the midst of this I had to eat dinner, play my guitar, etc, so it wasn’t four constant hours. But close.)

The exercise–retyping drafts–is one that I’ve come to find essential. I retype my poems from scratch several times throughout my writing process now. It helps me shake off any unnecessary words or phrases, like how transplanting a potted plant allows you to shake loose the old, unhealthy soil.

And when I feel cringe-y when typing something, I just cut it from the draft, even if it means putting myself on the spot to rewrite the ending or come up with something new for the piece.

There is something about working with the manuscript holistically, from the start to finish, that means the arc of the book is preserved and the language and diction remain fairly consistent. Of course, it also means I sometimes grasp at straws and throw in something that’s all wrong–but generally, it’s better than what was there and it’s closer to what it should be.

I printed the manuscript off and, for the last few days, I’ve felt like I’ve been in that aura of having-just-met-someone-you-really-like. I steal glances at the stack of pages on my desk. I flip through it gently, marveling at my turns of genius. I want to call people I know and say, “I think I’ve met the one!”

All of this, but I know after some time, the newness will wear off. We will slip back into our routines and, while we will still care for each other, it won’t ever be so perfect. I’m good with that. When the aura wears off, I can tinker with the poems again.

But for now, I’m enjoying the glow.