Poem of the Day

My poem “Poem in which Words Have Been Left Out” is the Poem-of-the-Day today at Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets!

It’s based on the “Miranda Rights,” the set of rote statements officers of the law must recite when taking someone into custody.  This practice came out of a U.S. Supreme Court case that originated in Arizona.

Click below to visit the poem:

Poem in which Words Have Been Left Out

You have the right to remain
anything you can and will be.

Meet Me at The Collagist

Thank you to Matt Bell and Matthew Olzmann for including three new poems in the latest issue of The Collagist!

Letters to the Editor

Dear Drivers of Suburban Maryland,
my life is in your hands. My life in your hands
is an unpinned grenade.

Prospero’s Confession

What wreckage, I forgot. What
courage to sail, forgot. What
ocean? Forgot.

Poem Beginning with a Line Falsely Attributed to Voltaire

Night arrived with smears across its face

so that I’d know it was coming to me from
someone else. So I’d know I didn’t own the night—

that the night, with unpredictable arrivals,
owned me.

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.

The Curse of the Anthologist

It’s difficult to do anything in the world these days without a) someone complaining, b) someone else rushing to the defense of the maligned, and c) twenty or thirty unrelated parties commenting on why all the dramz is relevant/irrelevant/fascinating/ridiculous.

File this under c).

I’ve been looking through the Vendler/Dove disagreement with some surprise. But this won’t be a blog post that questions Dove’s editorial decisions or one that approves of/disqualifies Vendler’s response. My personal take on the anthology and the review of it don’t really matter; after all, who am I? I thought you’d agree.

But what I am invested in is the value system that created this conflict. It’s situations like these, I think, that make the work of the anthologist a thorny venture. I think back to the days when Legitimate Dangers was first released–2006–and I recall many of the same arguments made. This isn’t to say the arguments, such as issues relating to representation of diversity of race, gender, and other marginalized identities, are not essential ones; I’m just saying, “People, we’re still having the same conversations.” And that’s a problem.

The anthologist carries the unnatural burden (it has been so proven) of satisfying everyone. This is a task Sisyphusian in scope. In fact, the only person the anthologist is sure to satisfy is him or herself–but even now, with Dove’s situation, we see that, too, is not necessarily the case.

Vendler’s perspective on the issue connects to a larger community of writer and critique who believe less is more. Fewer poets in the canon means closer scrutiny merited by only the absolute best poets of our time. This is an excellent perspective to adopt. If only we could establish, once and for all, the objective criteria of what is “the best.”

Dove’s perspective (if I may intuit it from her response) is that there are more poets whose work bears inclusion. I don’t believe Dove sought to speak on behalf of The Canon. But in adopting the work of the anthologist, she is perceived (by some or all) to have done so.

Partly, I think this is because her anthology’s title stakes a claim as an important evaluation of the work of the last century. These are big shoes to fill in a world where there are long standing assumptions about who those poets are.

My lingering question is: “Why do we bother to publish new anthologies if they will only include the usual suspects, whose work has been anthologized previously in other books?”

If that was the only goal of the anthology, we could all congratulate Norton on a job well done and leave it at that.

But many of us writing now, I believe, see value in adding to–not replacing, not supplanting, not necessarily criticizing–the established anthology gang. Vendler, in her review, allowed that some readers, especially young ones (!), might feel electrified by some of the work Dove included that isn’t commonly found in other anthologies. But Vendler didn’t believe this was a criterion that permitted the exclusion (purposeful or not) of the poets she (and others like her) expected to see.

It’s that expectation that troubles me, and that has troubled me in all of the responses I’ve read to this particular anthology. And to every anthology ever produced. Especially when the expectation is voiced as “I expected to see X poet instead of someone like Y poet.” If you felt this way, I’d hazard it’s because you’ve seen X poet in other anthologies with a scope like Dove’s.

But I’d also hazard you hadn’t seen Dove’s anthology before.

I believe it is the job of the anthologist to show us something new. Those poets who are regularly anthologized? Their work is taking care of itself. It will endure. The people who want it (expect it) can find it in any number of places. But the work on the brink of extinction–those poets not commonly anthologized, those poets Dove, as anthologist, feels need a second look–those are the pieces I’m most interested in.

I may not like them. I may not believe they are really worthy of inclusion in an anthology that, by its title, suggests it is a comprehensive look at a century of writing.

But I will value the opportunity to have made that decision for myself, rather than to have experienced, yet again, the same book with a slightly different title, a different editor, and some new cover art.

And if I disagree with Dove’s choices, or another editor’s choices, I won’t disparage her or suggest she failed in her endeavor. I am, after all, but one person (see above: who am I?).

I will close the book, place it on a shelf, and wait for the next editor’s unique perspective on poetry, to see what can be found there.

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.”

LOCUSPOINT: Maine, August 31, 2011

Of her region, editor Dawn Potter wrote, “Maine is an enormous state, and also a lonely one. Our largest city, Portland, is a blip on the cities-of-the-world map, last metropolitan outpost of the Northeast Corridor, an urbane seaside burg that is liable, among airport baggage handlers, to be confused with Oregon. Yet Portland lies in far southern Maine. Above it looms the bulk of our craggy, thin-soiled, brief-summered land mass, jutting awkwardly toward the seas of Greenland, toiling into the Canadian wilderness—few people and fewer roads and as cold as a rat’s ass for eight months of the year.”

In the weeks since her edition went live, Dawn noted, “The Maine edition hasn’t been out for very long yet, but already I’ve received many responses from other Maine readers and writers. Most seem to be excited about the edition, but I’ve also heard a few of them express reservations about the ‘darkness’ of my curated poems. This interests me, not only because I feel that the poems are far more ambiguously moody than the word ‘darkness’ implies but also because the image of an ideal Maine is so powerful, even in the minds of long-time Mainers. For writers, it can be hard, very hard, to balance deep love for a place with a simultaneous need to admit its flaws and travesties. But then again, isn’t that struggle exactly what we face with all of our long-time loves?”

She selected this poem by Leonore Hildebrandt, “Field Notes,” for this retrospective:

Field Notes

Wind soured with silage: on the hill
north of town, a farmer keeps Black Angus cows.
Wooden barn tilts on the right of the road,
New England farm house sprawls to the left—
and the black calves have a clear view
of green meadows, the hills, and the town’s distant glint
from the small pen
where they live in brown-black morass,
where they feed on limp roughage, patiently,
their ears poised for answers.

Sun! The meadow is dressed in light and moisture.
Old apple trees, three or four below the barn,
still hold on to yellow, shrunken fruit.
A Family Farm, the sign says.
Perhaps it is a matter of scope. Or voracity.
So that the middleman who wages price tags
and contracts can squeeze them
into the bite-sized lot.
The middleman never sleeps nearby.

The grass has been mowed, hauled off,
packed and sealed under plastic.
Now it rains in the hills,
black calves crowding at the rack.
Movement is habitual:
how to lie down on a muddy slope.