Post Subject: A Fable

Post-Subject-a-FableLast weekend, I read with Oliver de la Paz and picked up a copy of his new collection, Post Subject: A Fable, from The University of Akron Press. I went home to a quiet house and immediately entered the realm of these epistolary prose poems addressed to an Empire that sometimes seems like a dictator and sometimes an entire dominion. A place with battlefields and docks and meadows and salt flats and asylums and processions–a vast world, peopled with aerialists and bondsmen, idolaters and phantoms, and the recurring images of the artist, her son, the dancer, and the jellyfish. A world that is imaginary and yet not. A feeling that this is altogether familiar, that all of it has happened somewhere, sometime, and is going on right now.

Evoking Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which Oliver mentioned during the reading), these are poems of witness, poems of regret–each in a  detached voice, with occasional twinges, as though the speaker does not want to directly expose his emotions, but sometimes they escape.

Several of these poems are online, although I recommend the sweeping scope, the immersion, of the full collection. For a start, here is Dear Empire, [These are your salt flats].

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This past week, I read Laura Donnelly’s Watershed, from Cider Press Review. Immediately, I was struck by these poems’ quiet confidence. Gone are the edgy extremes. Gone, the words with sharp corners. Instead, each  poem leads you in calmly, vividly, and then stuns you, or allows you to uncover a treasure. Musical themselves, many of the poems refer to music, and to birds, and water, all weaving throughout. If you enjoy the work of Jennifer K. Sweeney, who wrote a blurb for this book, you will find Watershed a wonderful, restorative poetry journey.

For a preview, you can read two at DMQ Review.

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In Wingbeats II, Melissa Kwasny says, “I am interested in the borderlands between poetry and traditional prose. I like to read the cross-breeds, the hybrids, the genres that do not respect traditional boundaries.”

I do, too. That draws me to Cole Swenson’s work as well as to Anne Carson’s. This week’s poetry pick, The Albertine Workout, is a poetry pamphlet from New Directions. I guess that makes it poetry–but it delightfully bends the genre. Reading it, I was reminded of both Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, as well as Carson’s Plainwater, which included similar prose blocks, or essays, of meditation, reflection, and inquiry.

This collection of essays (with 16 pages of appendices numbered 4-59–enjoy that math!) delves into the character Albertine in volume 5 of Marcel Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu and her connection to the real life Alfred Agostinelli, who was Proust’s chauffeur. I confess, with embarrassment, that I have not read any of Proust’s novel, but it is always a great pleasure to glimpse Ms. Carson’s mind at work and to travel at that borderland where ideas are freed from more usual forms and their expectations.

I feel a bit bad doing this, but you can read the poem here (without the appendices). However, I recommend picking up a copy of the pamphlet so you can enjoy the full text as well as the pause and its reverberation that a turning page provides.

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Jeannine Hall Gailey has a wonderful post about what’s expected of a poet–in terms of finding your audience, setting up readings, doing promotional emails or invitations. It’s a good question: When you finally have that book in your hands, how do you get it into other people’s hands?

I was especially struck by her quote from Tim Green, of Rattle: “In five years, Red Hen Press has sold 105 copies of my book. This doesn’t include my own copies that I’ve sold at readings, around 200, but still—105 copies, despite the fact that it’s a fairly good book, and that I have a fairly large “platform” within the poetry community.” (For the rest of the quote, see Jeannine’s post.)

If someone is going to publish my book, I need to support that effort and investment by setting up readings and otherwise letting people know about the book. (Plus, I want to get my poems out into the world. If I didn’t think they were worth reading, why would I be trying to get them published?)

It’s also important to support your poetry community–get out to readings and book launches by people you know, poets whose work you enjoy, to celebrate their successes, or even to host a reading series. (True confession: I am not great about getting out at night, but I am working on that. Once I achieve escape velocity from the gravity of the house, it’s always invigorating and inspiring.)

My first chapbook, A Steady Longing for Flight, had a entrance. In the first year, the first run of 300 copies sold out. A second run of 200 copies eventually sold out. So I thought poetry books sold pretty well. Back to regular Earth with my second chapbook, Weathered Steps, from Rose Alley Press (David D. Horowitz, the publisher, has been steadfastly supportive, setting up many readings over the years).

Later, I thought that Into the Rumored Spring would do pretty well, because it has a happy ending and I’m donating author proceeds to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. And now I’m taking both it and In Both Hands into the poetry community.

In our family, we say that it can be hard to sell wine–but it’s harder to sell poetry.

So if you see those emails or invitations from me, and see links to my books on every page of this website, please know that I’m not trying to be annoying, but I am trying to support my publishers (and I hope that you will enjoy the poems). That said, I’ll put in another plug for my reading with Oliver de la Paz on September 14, at 3:00 pm, at The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

And at the tasting room, we have wine and poetry.

How do you promote your books or your readings or any other projects? What are your expectations?

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What’s at stake?

That’s what Lorna Dee Cervantes asked at her LiTFUSE master class in 2008. In that workshop, we looked at music, image, and ideas. (Lorna will be teaching at LiTFUSE again this year.)

The other day I was walking the creek loop at work and thinking about this manuscript I’ve been worrying, and I realized maybe that’s my problem: I’m not sure what’s at stake for this book. Certainly music. And I have themes–relationships, wishing I were an artist, had that kind of vision, place, loss, and time (which is so closely linked to loss), always the underpinning of time and the lack of time. But now when I’m thinking about what’s at stake, I’m asking why.

I wrote Into the Rumored Spring because I wanted to, needed to do something for a friend. It was imperative. I wrote In Both Hands because it was the book I wanted to read (and because I was playing around with some fun forms and processes that were new to me). But why am I writing this book? (Shouldn’t every book be the book you want to read?) I’ve worked with some more made-up forms, getting into metrics (my personal scansion), and now I’ve put in the measurement poems, so it’s all together, but I don’t yet have a purpose, a sense of what this book brings into the world.

It’s a good question for me to unravel, and I imagine it taking years. Then I feel anxious, and I need to get over that. On car trips, I am not a good traveler. I want to get there. But a book is a different journey. I need to stop, look around, check out the roadside attractions, let the itinerary change, switch out the map. Who knows where this will take me? I’ve discarded many of the original poems already, and I’ll probably discard more. Or it will go back to being two separate projects. Maybe I do need to pull out my charcoal and get my fingers dirty for a while (I tried that last fall–so disheartening–but I didn’t try for very long). But I think I need to understand the why before I can figure out how it can come together.

What makes a book of poems a book? Why?

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