Books and Music

I’m not sure why books and music are in the same category. It made sense at the time, I guess.

poet bloggers revival tour 2018 A few quotes + links (please click through!) from the Poet Bloggers Revival Tour, plus occasional other poetry bloggers in my feed reader. If you missed last week’s digest, here’s the archive.

This week, bloggers were relatively quiet—perhaps done in by the combination of Valentine’s Day and the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. But I found some lovely book reviews and meditations on reading, writing, revising, archiving, loving, and persevering.

An opening, a hole, a window
A pale stream of greenish fluid
A small boat sinking in horror
Tock-ticking doggedly, forgetting why it’s important
Stricken, awash with grief
Risa Denenberg, Pericardium

*

What has been eliminated can also be illuminated. Here is the task [Tarfia] Faizullah set out for herself, to listen to the voices of the dead, those of these villages, and others, as well as her sister who died in an accident as a child, and to shine a brilliant and searching light on what has been lost as well as what remains. The notion of village here is vital, for this village is not only external but internal. There are villages of silence that must be broken. Villages of ghosts that disturb sleep. Villages of childhood, of memories, of self-doubt. Villages of tenderness and desire, as well as villages that must be renamed after atrocities are committed.
Anita Olivia Koester, Survivors’ Lyrics: Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah

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While focused on a specific state, this book is full of borderlands and hinges: between poetry and photographs, between history and the present, and among races and realities. I’m fascinated by the relationship between word and image here–each poem, untitled, is coupled with a photograph, and the pairings tend to defamiliarize rather than illustrate one another. Next to “He ain’t done right to whistle,” for example, is an image of a ruin. So is the racism that led to Emmett Till’s murder a gutted edifice, still standing but increasingly fragile, doomed to be pulled down by kudzu? If so, what’s a person to do about it?–Look at it, surely. Head-on.
Lesley Wheeler, Poetry at the Border: Ann Fisher-Wirth

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I saw The Post recently and was struck by the tactile nature of old typesetting. At one point the typesetter held the news in his hand, cupped it as each letter jabbed the air with its shape.

It made me yearn to run my fingers over the alphabet of my poems, to feel the jagged space between vowel and consonant, the smoothness of silence. I’ve met bookmakers who use letterpress and have wondered at their oddness and passion. I think I get it now.

I remember as a child liking to feel the raised letters on a book cover, the dimply gold of a Newbery medallion. My fingers rest now on the slippery cradles of my computer keyboard, only a tiny ridge under the F and J to let me know I’m in the proper typing position. Usually when I write, one hand is wrapped around a Bic, its hexagonal planes, but of the letters I feel nothing. Not even the dampness of fresh ink. The letter and the page become one, featureless. It’s my eye only that gives it substance.
Marilyn McCabe, That’s So Touching; or, On the Power of Words

*

The papers print this and that.
I’m tired of reading. Gray. Black
and white is better but no one
is. Brave enough. No one is.
Safe enough. My slug body
is getting. Droopy. Getting.
Smooshy. I’m tired of being.
Here. Here is messy. I want to ring
myself out like a sponge. I want
to make you drink my excess.
Crystal Ignatowski, An Open Poem To Big Men Up In Skies and Big Men Up On Pedestals

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I cut my teeth, academically at least, on the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, difficult and hard stuff really. And Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s poetry shares this kind of hardness for me, sung with her own distinct voice. These are the poets I think I must attend to, a poet where I stop and read perhaps one poem in a book, let it simmer and rest for a day, and then to another poem a few days later. I think they make me stronger for these times.
Jim Brock, Bloodrooting

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One of my favorite things that [Twyla] Tharp does is create a box for every project. “I start every dance with a box,” she writes. “I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of that dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.” The box is her reference, her storage and retrieval system, a place for her research and even a few tchotchkes. You must, writes Tharp, “learn to respect your box’s strange and disorderly ways.” My notebooks are Tharp’s boxes, and yes, they are strange and disorderly, repositories for candy wrappers, stickers, quotes, and words like mammogram, fire, abruptly, downtown, and permanent.
Erica Goss, Dance With Me, Part 1

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Last night while doing some more of that sorting, I stumbled upon a folder mashed into the back of one of my file cabinets that contained printed copies of poems that eventually found their way into Better To Travel. Also in that folder were two handwritten poems – hastily scrawled on the backs of printed poems – that I had totally forgotten about. One of them is sonnet called “The Seer” from a long-ago workshop I took with Cecilia Woloch. The other is called “I believe…” and is an interesting little manifesto that references River Phoenix, Princess Diana and living in London. I also found – and this is the one I’m most intrigued with – a printed poem called “The empty bed,” which, if memory serves, was destined to be part of Better To Travel but was pulled at the last minute. It has a killer closing stanza, but the rest needs some serious revision, which is probably why I pulled it from the book. There’s no date on the poem, but hazy recollection puts it at around 1994 or 1995. Sometimes being a packrat pays off.

I’m curious how you, fellow poets and writers, organize your writing life? Do you use a program or an app? Do you print everything up? Keep handwritten drafts in notebooks?
Collin Kelley, Organizing your writing life

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Writing beyond the ending is something I see pretty frequently in poems, usually by younger poets who can’t resist the impulse to just keep walking on down that trail. It’s also something I’m prone to myself, a lot. After I’ve put my first efforts on the page I go back and carefully feel out whether the poem went too far. Usually this requires some time or distance. I need to put it down for a few days, or read someone else in between, so I’m not hung up on my own endorphin rush from writing.
Grant Clauser, Revising is sometimes knowing when to stop writing

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Readers may feel betrayed by the writer. Yes, that happens. It also happens that rather awful human beings have penned soaring, beautiful, compassionate poems, because people are complicated and flawed and society often harms us.

And perhaps writing, in some complicated way, can redeem us. I’m not entirely convinced of that; but I do know that I have written poems that basically construct an experience or type of feeling I can imagine but do not authentically know, and that the work of having written such poems has felt like an enrichment of my own experience.
Ann E. Michael, The poet’s “I”

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Any writer cannot help but have a point of view. It will be determined by our race, our gender, our histories, our family, our sense of place, our faith, our biases. We have a sense of what is right and wrong, what is just or unjust. We are called upon to witness, yes. But are we called upon to try to make a better world just with our writing? Can we imagine our way to a better world? Can journalists, instead of glamorizing a shooter, tell us more about the lives of the victims? Can journalists not shove cameras in the faces of recently-traumatized children? Can we write poems that lead people to think differently about current events? Maybe. I am currently laid up, but I don’t believe I’m completely powerless.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know for sure the answer isn’t to give up, to shrug our shoulders and say “that’s just the way the world is.” That’s the opposite of making anything better. Poetry, visual art, fiction, non-fiction, journalism – all of these are forms that can influence people. We have a responsibility to try to be an influence for a better world. Let’s make a little noise in a dark universe.
Jeannine Hall Gailey, Why We Can’t Be Complacent, or What is My Responsibility as a Writer

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We turn in tight circles,
we are almost formal. No
kissing, no: we dance as if
still only dreaming of each other.

We feel each other’s breathing,
our bodies’ boundaries of warmth.
Slowly we dance without music —
unless we are the music —

How else can I explain
that in such silence we don’t hear
the shot that travels farther and farther
into the past, while we dance.
Oriana, MASS SHOOTINGS: ANGER, NOT MENTAL ILLNESS; WHY WE FALL IN LOVE; THE 2-SANTA GOP STRATEGY; WHO’S AT RISK FOR DOG BITES

Phoenicia Publsihing logoBreaking news this morning from Phoenicia Publishing:

Phoenicia Publishing is delighted to announce that a new book of poems by Luisa A. Igloria, The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-life Crisis, will be published in March 2018. This is a collection of 53 “Buddha poems” that Luisa wrote in early 2016, many of which have appeared online at Via Negativa, where she has posted a new poem every day since November 2010.

The author says these poems began from the premise that “if the Buddha in me can greet the Buddha in you,” then the aspiration to transcendence is a daily work in progress. She writes about the constant seesaw between our appetite for worldly things and the hunger for deeper permanence; about our human imperfections and foibles; and our longing to be touched by grace, if not love and absolution, in this lifetime.

The post goes on to suggest that interested readers subscribe to their email newsletter so they won’t miss the announcement of the pre-order sale, which I guess we can expect sometime in February.

This will be Luisa’s second book with Phoenicia, following Night Willow in 2014, and her first full-length collection since Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press). Both those books, along with two subsequent chapbooks, also consisted mainly of poems first drafted for Luisa’s ongoing poem-a-day practice at Via Negativa. (Visit her website for links to all of her books still in print.)

This year, for the first time, I’ve been compiling all my Pepys erasures into a single document. I’ve just slapped on a title page and converted it to a PDF. Here it is:

The Hidden Poems of Samuel Pepys: 1664

At 394 pages, this is clearly unpublishable in any conventional sense… and it’s just one of what may someday be a ten-volume work. If you’ve been following along all year (thank you!) the main difference you’ll notice is that the blog titles aren’t there, and neither (obviously) are the links back to Phil Gyford’s wonderful site. I’ve always viewed those titles as extrinsic, just there because the blog environment demands them. The digest versions of the poems, however, cannot be excluded, since they do things like conform spellings to modern usage and suggest semantic breaks.

If anyone does download and read through this, please do me a favor in return for the free download: jot down the dates of your favorites and pass them along when you’re done. At some point when the diary is over, I may well put together a selection of favorite erasures.

Just like last year, I thought I’d put out a call to poetry readers to contribute to a favorite poetry books list that doesn’t pay much heed to critical fashions or even date of publication. I asked people to try to select a single favorite book, which I realize is a tough assignment… and not quite everybody managed it. (I allowed a few reviewers to sneak in a second book, as you’ll see.) Unlike last year, I forgot to do this earlier in December so people could use the list for holiday shopping purposes. Oh well. Poetry books do make great Valentine’s Day gifts! And the responses I got are, I think you’ll agree, wonderfully varied, personal and eccentric. Thanks to everyone who took part. —Dave

cover of European HoursI fell happily upon European Hours, collected poems of Anthony Rudolf, published a few months ago by Carcanet. First joy is the cover painting of the poet by his partner, the dazzling Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, and the joys continue through a volume of exquisitely spare, skilled, quirky poems from a long working life as writer, translator (from French, Russian, Hebrew), editor, publisher… Many are abstract and minimalist, but somehow the voice is never less than individual and recognisable. Others evoke lovers, friends, children and places with understated, tender directness. The extended title poem, completed around the time of the Brexit referendum result, praises sights and memories in a long list of European cities. The collection includes just one sonnet, Branca’s Vineyard:

The grapes are drowsy […]
I drink the wine […]
then, for a moment, lingering alone,
wineglass in hand, pen upon this paper,
inhale an ancient oneness which I’d thought
lost for all time, except when I made love
with the woman who has just spoken to me
and broken the spell, as spells are always broken.

So satisfying that I yearned for more, and keep rereading.

Jean Morris

cover of Clinch RiverHere’s the opener to my review of Susan Hankla’s Clinch River, published in the last Hollins Critic: “I doubt that any other reviewer of Susan Hankla’s first full-length book, Clinch River, has had the great good luck of seeing her, a young woman, dance playfully with an enormous rattlesnake skin. Such is my sparkling luck. In Clinch River, though, we all may find good rural luck, freshly dug from Appalachian coal country. Progeny of R. H. W. Dillard’s new Groundhog Press, this handsome collection will lure readers and not disappoint (Roanoke, VA: Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017.)” And here’s the closer: “These sound-loving poems of the Appalachian South give us the truth of place and memory. They tangle coming-of-age stories with hard times in coal country. They juxtapose the girl who cannot leave, clinched by poverty’s snares, with the girl who goes away and can return for the treasure, the gold that lies buried in her childhood: these poems, these golden apples. Take them!”

Marly Youmans

cover of The Amputee's Guide to SexWeise, Jillian. The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2007.

This has been a difficult, painful year. I wanted books around me that helped me to understand and express that pain, words that described being broken and stubborn. Much of what I’ve been seeking has not come from poetry, but from graphic memoirs, mashups of terse words strewn across pages of (usually) dark and limber sketches. I prowled through In Between: The Poetry Comics of Mita Mahato (2017) which was magical, but I wasn’t sure it suited this list, or was the poetry book that I felt resonated most strongly with me right now.

It was actually the day I met Mita, before her book was published, that I found Jillian Weise’s book in the used book section of Left Bank Books in Seattle, at the Fisherman’s Wharf. I was unsettled, having struggled up the steps on crutches to the poetry section, rummaging through the shelves for something, something that fit the strange mood I was in.

I’d already gathered half a dozen when this slim dark book emerged from hiding between several much larger volumes, the title jolting and powerful. The poem titles were similarly potent — “The Scar on Her Neck,” “Body As Cloud,” “Beautiful Freak Show,” “The Body In Pain,” “Incision,” “Ode to Agent Orange,” “Let me be reckless with the word love.” These are reckless, fierce, naked poems, full of dreams and nightmares.

P.F. Anderson

cover of Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown OpenWolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Seuss (University of Massachusetts Press). It’s a few years old — 2010 — but I came to it because a poem from the collection showed up in my email. I forget which poem-a-day source. “Song in my heart” begins:

If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it

Before she’s done she has God shaving with a straight razor, using the Black Sea as a mirror.

I had to check, and no, the poem isn’t an aberration — she manages some neat dance moves with sacred and profane, comic and dead serious. Her voice feels familiar, like the one in the back of my head when I start to write, before I mess things up.

Barbara Young

cover of GarbageI read only a little poetry this year. I think last year I may have nominated Paradise Lost, which I read as part of the “hard-book” reading club I belong to. At the moment we are mid-Karenina, we just finished Nabokov’s Ada, and next will be Gravity’s Rainbow. You see?

But it does leave me just enough time to have waded into Garbage by A. R. Ammons (Norton, 1993). I am enjoying it for its rolling quality — he keeps hammering and yammering on like an Old Testament beard or the EverReady bunny. That is what makes it difficult to quote, without cutting him off in mid thought. But I’ll try:

[…] and here we are at

last, last, probably, behold, we have replaced
the meadows with oilslick: when words have

driven the sludge in billows higher than our
heads—oh, well, by then words will have left

the poor place behind: we’ll be settling
elsewhere or floating interminably, the universe

a deep place to spoil, a dump compaction will
always make room in! I have nothing to say:

what I want to say is saying: I want to be
singing, sort of: I want to be engaged with

the ongoing: but I have no portmanteau filled
with portfolio: still, I am for something:

[…]

Steven Arnerich

cover of The Poetry of Derek WalcottMy favorite poetry book of the year has been The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 (Macmillan, 2014). It’s a big book, and it’s been beside the bed all year, where I’ve dipped into it for an hour or just a few minutes, always finding phrases or metaphors, descriptions and emotions that touch me. Walcott’s background is entirely different from mine, but we share some loves, such as classical literature, European cities, the sea, nature, and watercolor painting. But I’ve been moved the most by his writing about being a black man in a white world, his writing about the American South, and his poems about the Caribbean, where he felt at home. His mastery of our language is astounding and often surprising, but I think this collection has brought me a lot closer to sensing the man behind the poems.

Elizabeth Adams

cover of Saying Your Name Three Times UnderwaterI’d like to recommend a book I just started reading, written by a poet I just met: Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua 姚 (Lithic Press, 2017). This is a startling, beautiful book. With titles like “The Laotian Man Who Offered the Lake a Plate of Turtles” and “The Story That Bit the Butterfly’s Breast,” these are poems of precise, heartbreaking detail. From “Palpate the Third Rib Break It If You Have To,” Roxas-Chua 姚 writes “I miss China – the infant apple of her. / Her mountain bruises singing under rain / / and menthol.” These poems are chewy and dense, like black bread, and just as nourishing.

Erica Goss

cover of The Well Speaks of its Own PoisonThe best book of poems that I read this year was The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Maggie Smith (Tupelo Press, 2015). AMAZING poems. Lots of poems that reference fairy tales in new ways—perhaps they all do? Lots of interesting imagery about the dangers of the world.

It was one of the few books that I read twice this year. When I was waiting for a friend in Panera, and I was going to be loaning her this book, I reread it, and my opinion of it was the same, a month later.

cover of Dark Fields of the RepublicFor a book of older poems that still seems to have so much to say to us, that would be a volume by Adrienne Rich: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (Norton, 1995). Wonderful book. “What Kind of Times Are These” continues to haunt me.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott

cover of Millennial TeethMillennial Teeth by Dan Albergotti (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) is a wonder of a poetry collection. Personal, familial, political, theological, formal, intellectual, and emotional, this book seems by turns severely wrought and effortless in its formal beauty. Albergotti works almost exclusively in strict forms, but he is freer to say what he wants than most who write in free verse. Though we differ theologically, his own heartbreak over the absence of God seems to me a feeling that I share, though strangely I find God to be ever-present and this absence my own shortcoming and blindness. Albergotti uses both a telescope and a microscope (and a keen human eye) to get at an understanding of who we are and the deep paradoxical nature of our lives and the beauty and horror we find in our daily lives and our history. But best of all, he even puts his ear to the viewfinder, to listen surreally to what others hope to see. His “Ghazal for Buildings” is one of the best 9/11 poems ever written. And his own invention, the albergonnet, will force any good poet to try her hand at it. So many good poems.

John Poch

cover of Stereo. Island. Mosaic.Hard to pin it down to only one. But I would like to offer Vincent Toro’s Stereo. Island. Mosaic. (Ahsahta Press, 2016) for its dazzling language and use of form/s, and the exploration of what it means to be a hybridized subject — not just “Sorta Rican” — in the 21st century.

Luisa A. Igloria

cover of Hollywood StarletHollywood Starlet by Ivy Alvarez (2015, dancing girl press).

Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman are just some of the acting legends given a fresh voice by Alvarez, who peels away the studio-manufactured facades to explore their inner thoughts and troubled lives. It’s a chapbook I return to again and again.

Collin Kelley

cover of Calling a Wolf a WolfFor me, it’s a toss-up between a book that was new and an old book that I had never read before.

First, Kaveh Akbar’s book Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) deserves all the accolades it is receiving — rich and original language, and despite it being hailed as a book about addiction and recovery, to me it was more a book about desire — physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual — and how we seek always something greater, especially in the face of adversity.

cover of The Book of QuestionsSecond, I had read Neruda’s odes and love songs as well as Residence on Earth, but I read El libro de las preguntas (The Book of Questions) for the first time this spring (both in Spanish, then in the English translation by William O’Daly from Copper Canyon Press since my Spanish is rusty) before visiting Chile this summer. It was one of the eight unpublished manuscripts he left behind when he died and it is both child-like and profound in its wonder. I keep going back to lines like:

And what did the rubies say
standing before the juice of pomegranates?

Why doesn’t Thursday talk itself
into coming after Friday?

Donna Vorreyer

cover of The Blomidon LogsThe Blomidon Logs, by Deirdre Dwyer (ECW Press, 2016).

The Blomidon Logs came to me when it was most needed. I had been away from my home in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia for many months when it arrived like a starfish thrown out of the waves on a beach. Would anyone other than me think it special? Perhaps you will need to know of this place by the Bay of Fundy, or have spent summers at your family cottage in the 1960s. Maybe you should have grown up around farmers, and loggers, cattle and farm dogs with “pink, spoon-shaped tongues” or slept in your “sleeping bag lined from head to toe with cowboys / repeating their lassos and campfire songs.” Have you wondered how the local brook got its name, or pondered over how your birding field guide might describe a macramé cottage owl? Deirdre Dwyer’s collection of 148 poems builds upon the contents of six logbooks her parents kept of her family’s summers in Cape Blomidon. However, they are just a jumping-off point — field notes from which to draw imagery and much speculation. While the subject matter may seem tame, the delivery is anything but.

Bev Wigney

cover of Self-Portrait as Wikipedia EntryMy favorite poetry book this year: Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

I found it smart and moving, and his mastery of sound always makes me want to read the poems out loud. Also, great use of space on the page, fun titles, and the poems converse with each other across the pages.

Lisken Van Pelt Dus

cover of WesternsWesterns by Richard Dankleff (Oregon State University Press, 1984). When I read a description of Dankleff’s Westerns in another book, Erik Muller’s excellent Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets, I realized that I had a copy of Westerns tucked away on a shelf and had never read it. So I pulled it down, cracked it open — and ended up in one of those literary epiphanies that I wanted to tell all my friends about, spending the next three nights engrossed in that book, reading and rereading each poem and reciting them out loud to my sleepy cat. Dankleff’s approach — crafting into poems the historical accounts, diaries, and journals of Old West settlers, trappers, Native Americans, explorers, and journalists — could have been trite or patronizing in the wrong hands. But Dankleff, who died in 2010, was a hell of a poet, deftly moving between lyricism, narrative, and visceral punches depicting the more disturbing aspects of the Westward Expansion. He shows true genius in the small intimacies—a ranch hand alone with his beloved horses, the dreams of a gaunt buffalo, or a haunted roadside in modern-day Kansas. From the shockingly violent cover photo to the meticulous and entertaining endnotes (which made me want to read every historical book he cites), Westerns made me constantly wonder why Dankleff isn’t a better-known poet.

Amy Miller

cover of Night Sky With Exit WoundsThe book that touched my heart most deeply in 2017 is Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). His voice is lyrical, intimate, yet measured. The poem in the collection that floors me with its mastery is “Aubade With Burning City.” Hearing him read the poem is an intense experience. The reader is in the room with the two lovers as ash floats outside their hotel room, ashes like snow falling in the lyrics of White Christmas that played over the loudspeakers during the Fall of Saigon. All of Ocean Vuong’s poems are highly imagistic—clear, yet complex.

Christine Swint

cover of The Drowning BookI’d like to recommend Cristina J. Baptista’s The Drowning Book (Finishing Line Press, 2017). I do know Cristina (virtually), although we’ve never met in person. I know her well enough to ask her to sign my copy of her book for me. I like the book well enough that I haven’t been willing to part with it long enough to mail it to her and wait for it to come back. It’s a powerful collection of poems… they demand my full presence and attention whenever I sit down with them, and I read only a few at a time, and those stay with me for days after.

Laura M Kaminski

cover of SilageBethany W. Pope’s Silage (Indigo Dreams, 2017) hums with tension. Two forces pull on the string that threads this work. At one end of the string, there is a dire need to tell an extremely traumatic story and to tell it well. The other end leads to a tiger, waiting at the bottom of a pit, ravening, ready to drag the speaker down. So to keep the tiger at bay, the speaker recounts her story, as flatly as possible. It works, mostly. But then again, there are scars. There is blood.

Ivy Alvarez

cover of Ice MountainDave Bonta’s Ice Mountain (Phoenicia Publishing, 2017) is my favourite collection read this year. The book takes us for a walk comprised of many walks, through changing seasons in woods near to Dave’s home. Each step is well grounded. Each poem consists of three-by-three lines, a formal repetition I found satisfying as a frame for the writing of each day. I admire the discipline of Dave’s multi-faceted creativity, which includes publishing, video making, writing and photography. His dedication and long experience pays off in the refined simplicity, keen observations, intellect and emotion of this collection. I chime in various ways with Dave’s views of the world and the creatures in it, including human. On this level, Ice Mountain reads to me as an elegy for the land, and for life on earth.

My disclosure of personal connection to Dave is as one of his many friends over the net over the past few years (as long as I’ve been involved with video poetry, he was instrumental in getting me started). We have corresponded by email occasionally and he’s published some of my videos in Moving Poems. Because Dave publishes his poems on a Creative Commons license, I have been free to make a few videos from his writing, including two from poems in Ice Mountain. My connection with Dave is an extension of my respect for him as a key creative artist in the field of contemporary poetry, as I experience it.

Marie Craven

OK, that’s embarrassing. Thanks, Marie! Here’s to online collaboration and community. I will resist the urge to insert a self-deprecating remark and move swiftly on to my own review.

cover of Void StudiesRachael Boast’s Void Studies (Picador, 2016) is the book I kept re-reading this summer. I found it in a London bookshop, opened it at random, read a couple of poems and was hooked. I guess I’ve always been a sucker for poems that exhibit negative capability… and as you might be able to gather from the title, this book has negative capability out the wazoo. The premise derives from something Arthur Rimbaud had B.S.ed about but never gotten around to doing himself: a collection of poems written more or less along the lines of musical etudes, which “would not convey any direct message, but instead summon the abstract spirit of the subject” as the back cover description puts it. So Boast took up the challenge, and while apparently the results aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (3.33 out of 5 stars on Goodreads?!) if you like poems that pulsate with magic and dwell in possibility, Void Studies is as close to a perfect collection of poetry as you’re ever likely to find. And it only works because the poems are full of keenly observed particulars; the “void” of the title is no airy emptiness, but something closer to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā, in which the absence of any intrinsic nature or essence enables a direct apprehension of reality. I mean, check out this spot-on description of a murmuration of starlings in “The Call”:

Stepping through the last of the sky
held by half-asleep mirrors

of the rain storm along the path
by the river where over

the other side the trees uphold
a language picking away

the fabric of reality, the woods
rising with everything to say

at once, with black wings,
with sound shuffling the air.

I just remembered how much fun it was last year around this time to pull together a crowd-sourced list of favorite poetry books for Via Negativa. Anyone interested in helping me do the same thing for 2017? Here are the guidelines:

What was the best book of poetry you read in 2017, and what did you like about it? It doesn’t have to be a book published this year, or a book you’ve never read before, just a book that you read in its entirety this year and found exceptional. You don’t have to be a poet yourself; anyone who loves poetry and regularly reads it for pleasure is welcome to take part. Please EMAIL ME (bontasaurus at yahoo dot com) with “Best poetry book” in the subject line.

I’m asking for EMAILS RATHER THAN COMMENTS TO THIS POST because A) I think it makes people more thoughtful; B) it means respondents won’t be influencing each other; and C) the resulting list will be a fun surprise. Will certain books get more than one vote? Will old favorites prevail over new titles? Let’s find out! (Note that if you prefer to use Facebook Messenger, that’s fine, but if we’re not friends, I may not see your message.)

You can write anything from one sentence to a few paragraphs extolling the book. Only one book, please—no ties! It can be a book of any length (including chapbooks and pamphlets), with single or multiple authors, up to and including anthologies. Please disclose if you have a close relationship to the author(s). Translations are fine, as are books in languages other than English. If you include the full title and author’s name I can probably find a link on the publisher’s website, or elsewhere if it’s out of print, but if you have a blog or website that you’d like me to link to, please include that URL in your email. Let’s make the deadline next Saturday, December 23, and I’ll publish the post sometime between Christmas and New Year.

For one week only, my book Ice Mountain: An Elegy is $3.00 off from the publisher. See Phoenicia Publishing’s holiday newsletter, which also features poetry books by my friends and fellow bloggers Marly Youmans and Rachel Barenblat.

Also available from Phoenicia is Luisa’s 2014 collection of prose poems, Night Willow. And Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser, selected by Mark Doty for the May Swenson Poetry Award Series from Utah State University Press, is also still in print. As are many of Luisa’s other books. Collect them all!

It started as a series of poems here on Via Negativa, was turned into a book by my artist-friend Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing, and now has been turned into an album by another brilliant artist-friend, Marc Neys. If you’ve been wondering when the summer heat will abate, the answer is: the moment you put on headphones and start listening to Ice Mountain. And if you’ve already purchased a copy of the book, send Marc a photo of yourself holding the book and he’ll email you the download for free.

I’ve posted a mini review on my author site, but I should perhaps emphasize that one of the best things about this, as a poetry + music collection, is that you don’t just have to listen to my voice. Marc also worked in readings by both my parents, Bruce and Marcia Bonta, as well as the young daughter of some friends, and she kind of stole the show in my opinion. So there’s this great multi-vocal, multi-generational dimension.

Speaking of reviews, by the way, the online art and poetry journal Escape Into Life published a wonderful review of Ice Mountain (the book) a few weeks back. Reviewer Kathleen Kirk concluded:

As we laze or doze during the dog days of summer, it’s good to recall that “huge natural refrigerator” [the Allegheny Front] and let it remind us to do what we can do to counter global warming, lest all our windmills become flowers for the dead.

Australian singer and artist Marie Craven is one of my favorite makers of poetry videos, so I was flattered and pleased last month when she surprised me with a video based on one of the first poems in Ice Mountain:

Watch on Vimeo.

She used some of my own still photos for a slideshow-style video with the text in subtitles and an instrumental track by Josh Woodward. It all hangs together rather well, I think. Then today she released another video based on the book:

Watch on Vimeo.

This time, she collaborated with her composer friend Paul Dementio to turn my words into a song, and built the video around it using stock footage. Here’s the text:

7 March

paper birch trees can only bend
so far before they break
under the weight of freezing rain

rhododendron leaves
tough as old scrolls are stripped
by starving deer

but some always resprout from the roots
having who knows how many
lifetimes of practice

It’s always such an honor to have one’s words incorporated into other artists’ work. Thanks, Marie and Paul!

Visit Phoenicia Publishing for more about the book, and to order.

Belgian artist and musician Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon is one of the most original makers of videopoetry (AKA poetry film) in the world, and when he offered to make a book trailer for Ice Mountain, I was thrilled. However, I think you’ll agree that the video he produced is much more than a mere trailer — it’s an original creation in its own right. I supplied most of the footage, but the choice of what to use and how to mix it was all his. He asked me to record a montage of lines and stanzas from the book, which he let me pick, then chose additional lines to display as text-on-screen. The music, which he composed first (and asked me to comment on before finalizing) guided the composition of the video.

Ice Mountain: An Elegy is due out on January 25. If you missed my earlier post, here’s the back-story. And if you’d like a further sample of the contents, I’ve posted a section at DaveBonta.com. (I still feel faintly ridiculous typing that URL!)

Ice Mountain coverIce Mountain by Dave Bonta
132 pgs, 6″ x 9″, paperback, publication date January 25, 2016
Pre-order at $13.50 (reg. $14.95)

10% of all proceeds will benefit local and regional conservation efforts in central Pennsylvania.

Holiday Note: We don’t expect to be able to ship books until mid- to late January, but if you’d like to give this book as a gift, we’ll send you a file with a printable card of the book cover to give the recipient.

Some text from the book’s page at Phoenicia Publishing, where you can order if you have a mind to. Want to read a selection before you make up your mind? Here you go. And if a printed card doesn’t seem quite enough to constitute a Christmas present, you could combine it with one of the already-published books from Phoenicia Publishing as long as you’re quick about it.

But you all know how much I favor web publication. Why pursue publication of a print book at all in this digital age? Well, as you probably gathered from Wednesday’s crowd-sourced list of poetry books, many of us poetry lovers still fetishize dead-tree media. In my case, that’s not an affection that extends to magazines, which are essentially disposable and should all be electronic in my opinion. But a good book is something designed to be kept forever — and barring fire, flood, insects, and high-acid paper, books can survive almost indefinitely if properly cared for. Not only that, a printed book is highly portable and hard to beat technologically for random access to content and general ease of user interface.

And let’s face it, digital-only publication fuels a certain reductionist mindset. A book is much more than just its textual content. When Beth Adams asked me last spring if I might have a manuscript she could look at, it came at a very opportune time: I had just finished a complete re-write of a collection of poems originally published here as a poetic diary from January to May 2014. After a further month of editing, I sent it off and was thrilled when she said she wanted to publish it, because Beth is a true artist and a gifted designer of print publications, and I knew she’d be able to add real value to the collection — to make it something that even people who don’t normally buy new books of poetry might want to own. (And frankly, because of the local content, including the use of a local toponym for the title, Ice Mountain will likely sell some copies outside the usual poetry circles.)

So the book isn’t just mine anymore; it’s Beth’s, too. I am always willing to meet an audience part-way, and I didn’t think it really compromised the purity of my vision too much to break up the text with original linocut illustrations when Beth offered that as a possibility. “Sure! Why not use linocuts as dividers between months?” I said. And a couple of weeks later, she produced this lovely linocut of a wood frog to show me the sort of thing she had in mind.

Then one of the two people I asked to read the manuscript and consider writing some promotional copy for it, the environmental activist Laura Jackson, wondered why I couldn’t turn the afterword into a foreword, and Beth agreed that this would make the book more user-friendly, so again I thought, why the heck not? My own preference to read the poems in a book on their own first is certainly not everyone’s, and besides, it has never bothered me to have to skip a foreword, preface or introduction in order to do so.

facing down a porcupine
A free and frank exchange of views

The compromise went both ways. Beth has agreed to let me keep my standard Creative Commons license for all my text, though her illustrations and the book as a product will remain under standard copyright protection. This will allow anyone to translate or remix poems into music, film, dance, etc., which I see as a net gain for the poems even if the interpretations aren’t to my personal liking. It is, among other things, free distribution. But more than that, poetry,  like code, wants to be free — free as in speech, not as in beer.

Which brings up economic considerations. There will be a digital version of the book, but don’t assume that’s going to provide a super low-cost option for those too cheap to buy the print version. Beth has poured many, many hours into this project, and it’s not fair to expect her to just donate her time to the cause. I bring this up because I think it encapsulates the peculiar situation of poetry under capitalism: on the one hand, sales of poetry books continue to decline, and virtually no one is able to make a living from it. On the other hand, giant corporations like Levi’s, Volvo, and HSBC love to incorporate poetry into advertising, precisely because (as I wrote in an essay at Moving Poems Magazine) they crave the authenticity of something that is seen as so completely outside the marketplace. Meanwhile, among da yoot, I’m told that poetry has more caché than ever. Go figure.

If poetry in Anglo-American culture every becomes as popular as it is in, say, Arabic countries, the whole dynamic will change. But I think we’re safe from such a scenario for at least another generation. We’re also not seeing the wholesale replacement of print books by digital, something that’s been predicted many times but has yet to happen. What’s more likely, I fear, is that as attention spans continue to shrink and fracture, fewer and fewer people will read books in any form, and only poets who are able to make the transition to audio or video will have a chance at being heard. But even then, I’m sure there will be a small market for beautifully made books, just as the small number of vinyl records that are still produced these days are more lust-worthy than ever.

the porcupine treeAnd what about the trees? Paper really doesn’t need to be make from tree pulp at all, of course. But I want to say a few words about the tree that inspired Beth’s linocut for the cover of Ice Mountain, which she titled “Porcupine Tree.” It’s an ancient, ridge-top chestnut oak that stands just over the property line with one of our neighbors. A series of porcupines have denned in it over the years, and their regular snacking on its twigs during winter months gave it a semi-pollarded appearance. Beth knew of my fondness for porcupines — I kind of identify with them as largely solitary, prickly, toothy tree-huggers — and I assume that influenced her choice of cover art, together with the tree’s mournful appearance, so fitting for a book-length elegy to winter.

The porcupine tree now looks even more mournful. It was close to death when the neighbor did some logging around it three years ago, exposing it to the full force of the winds. In October, it had its rendezvous with death when a storm brought powerful gusts through the area in the wake of torrential rains. Our neighbor Paula was driving down the hollow at the time, and her truck’s windshield was smashed by a falling limb, while my brother Mark’s car was nearly blown off the highway. And up on the ridgetop, the entire crown of the porcupine tree snapped off.

hollow oak with all its limbs snapped offOr so I am guessing. I hadn’t been over there for a while, so I just discovered the damage the other day. Regardless of how or when it happened, though, this tree has gone the way of most of its species: succumbing to bole-snap rather than a full uprooting, which means that it will probably have several more decades of service to wildlife, as a den tree as well as a food source. (My beetle-collecting brother Steve once told me that rotting oaks are the best, most nutritious food for larvae and thus support more biodiversity than any other group of trees on the mountain, especially when you factor in all the mast crops they produce while still alive.)

But it may or may not continue to be a den for porcupines. Since I wrote the poems that became Ice Mountain in 2014, the number of porcupines on the mountain has continued to decline, and we’re assuming that’s related to the fact that one of their few natural predators, the large weasel relatives known as fishers, are becoming ever more common. Two of our hunter friends saw fishers from their tree stands earlier this month, in fact, and my mother saw fisher tracks and scat at the Far Field — 100 yards away from the porcupine tree.

This is probably good news for the trees, though at a low population level I don’t think porcupines cause any more damage than any other natural disturbance, including high winds. I’m not saying I won’t still write elegies about porcupines — indeed, a dead one appears in Ice Mountain — but my sorrow won’t rise to the level of my despair at the anthropogenic extinction crisis, or global warming. Or the political direction of this country, which I think would be better served by a porcupine as president than the soon-to-be huckster-in-chief. But that probably goes without saying.