By miscommunication I ended up at the Poetry Foundation. I didn't realize this until twenty minutes into my visit. I had perused Tony Fitzpatrick's collage-print-drawings of birds, on exhibition until August 31 . Each specimen distinct and yet of its species. I sat down to read/write wondering what was taking the ppl I was supposed to meet so long. More ppl came. None were who I was expecting.
(Bird for the Daughters of Juarez by Tony Fitzpatrick 2011)
Across from me, a man sat down with a small book of poems. Within minutes a woman came up and introduced herself. He sounded gruff when he asked her to repeat her name. They were maybe acquaintances. She spoke of her most brilliant student to date. They talked of Chicago. Both were trying to get out. Both sobered up here. He was from here but began his career in New York. He wrote on politics mostly. She was from New York. She was moving to Guatemala. The man remarked that it was a great destination for bird watching. She excitedly remarked what a coincidence. That she had recently purchased every book there was to own on bird watching in Guatemala. I thought of Jonathan Franzen. She promised to give him a copy. In return he'd give her an etching. She insisted no and he insisted yes. They exchanged contact info. His email was Tony Fitzpatrick something at something dot com. I nose-laughed at the coincidence.
Go see this exhibition while you can! You just might see Fitzpatrick himself.
This Another Chicago Magazine interview is featured in Sapling #207. Sapling was developed by the Black Lawrence Press to "highlight the best of the small press world." For more information on how to subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter, Sapling, click to go to the Black Lawrence Press website.
This week Sapling talks with Caroline Eick, Managing Editor of Another Chicago Magazine.
Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with the work of Another Chicago Magazine?
Another Chicago Magazine: Another Chicago Magazine is a print literary magazine that publishes fiction, nonfiction and poetry by both new and established writers. We’ve been around since 1977, which is such a long time in this space.
S: How did Another Chicago Magazine's name come about? Is there a good story behind it? (or a bad one?)
ACM: I should know this! And I don’t. I’m going to guess that there were lots of Chicago magazines and the founder was being funny. At the release party for our last issue, the owner of the bar made a sign for the door that read "Another Magazine party tonight." I didn’t even notice until I was leaving. I was like, eh, close enough.
I love the name so much. I can’t imagine this publication by any other name.
S: As an editor, what do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?
ACM: The cover letter is important. If you send a long, rambling cover letter, I’m going to assume that your work is long and rambling and I’m not interested in that. No one is. And people who make a note of being happy to work through edits always catch my eye. This isn’t a one and done deal. Our editors love to edit.
I think in general, the best pieces from the previous issue stick with me through reading submissions for the next issue.
S: Where do you imagine Another Chicago Magazine to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?
ACM: There has been a revolving door with the masthead. I am hoping to hang on to everyone we have currently, though we are looking for a new fiction editor. We are also hoping to publish issues more promptly.
We’d like to have a more national presence. I’d also like to establish a reading series that is unlike any other reading series.
S: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?
ACM: Time is not our side. No one is paid for their work on ACM, so we all have day jobs. Carving out free time can be difficult.
The best part is having the opportunity to work with such talented writers and editors.
S: If you were stranded on a desert island with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?
ACM: 1. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham because I will never stop loving that book. 2. The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch because this book deserves to be read several times. 3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace because I think being stranded on a desert island with only three books basically guarantees success.
S: Just for fun (because we like fun, and the number three), if Another Chicago Magazine had a brain, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?
ACM: 1. Fiction 2. Nonfiction 3. Poetry
Caroline Eick is the Managing Editor of Another Chicago Magazine and Book Reviews Editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She lives in Chicago, IL.
As the author of two rejected RateMyProfessor.com educator ratings of Kathleen Rooney, my grasp of her work is impressive and nearly peerless. Rooney was my creative writing professor during my first year of undergrad and is the type of academic cool most commonly found perched atop a desk, rappin’ life with the kids (though she--thankfully--prefers chairs and discussing course materials).
Outside of the classroom, Rooney is involved in an absurd number of things (including her role as editor for her non-for-profit Rose Metal Press and the impending release of Robinson Alone, her newest poetry collection), but her recent endeavors as a portable and commissionable poet via poetry-vending collective Poems While You Wait have been way captivating. At the PWYW pop-up booth, Rooney--alongside writers Dave Landsberger and Eric Plattner--will write you a poem on the topic of your choice for the meager suggested fee of $5 (all money going to local lit charities, of course). PWYW has been a charming element of Chicago street fairs and festivals since its incarnation and raises a lot of interesting questions about the relationship between artist and patron.
My facebook-comment probing about the newest set of pictures posted to the PWYW blog led to a discussion with Rooney on the complicated and ever-evolving relationship between art and commerce, the task of writing for an audience (literally), and multimedia’s importance in the poetry world.
CG: After looking at the PWYW tumblr, I'm totally curious about how you're so error-free on a typewriter. Do you start a new sheet if you mess up?
KR: Good question--this answer might be boring, but: my mom made me take a typing class in summer school back when I was about to start high school and that made me a super-fast relatively error-free typist. But! When we *do* mess up, it's part of the charm of the poem-as-one-of-a-kind-made-object. The hand of the craftsperson and all that.
CG: Ah, incredible. I have, like, big dumb 21st century laptop-delete meatfists.
KR: Partly because I'm used to laptops, I do have to go slower on the typewriter, but that is kind of nice too for the composition process since we're very first-thought-best-thought on PWYW--no drafting.
CG: I've also been wondering if you tailor your poems to first impressions of the people you're writing for? Or if you think that's kind of a subconscious element regardless?
KR: I think it's both--an on purpose and an inadvertent/subconscious reaction to the people asking for the poems. Some people, for example, you can tell are going to like a poem with the title "Sorry I Hit You, Asshole," whereas others are going to find that distasteful. So you calibrate your approach accordingly.
CG: Have you ever been completely off-mark about someone? Do you normally get to see people's first reactions when reading the poems?
KR: So far, none of us, not me, not Dave, not Eric, have been embarrassingly/disappointingly off-base, no. At least not to our knowledge. And I'm pretty sure we're correct about that because unlike with page poetry where the reader sees your stuff in a book or journal or on a screen and you are not physically present, we see just about everybody read our poem for them for the first time. I mean, most people are likely too polite to read a piece and tell us "Wow, guys, that sucked," but more often than not, people LOL, or hug us, or read it to themselves and then have us read it to them out loud, ask if they can take a pic with us and their new poem, and even--in the case of elegies, usually, both for humans and pets--cry. The immediacy of all that is one of the reasons I like PWYW--you get to have an audience instantaneously, and the poem becomes an act of interpersonal communication in a way that you can sort of argue a poem always is (or could be), but you get to actually *see* that communication happen in real time.
CG: I think that sort of feedback is what sustains a lot of the internet-centric literary community right now--capacity to comment/respond. A lot of writers depend on it. Do you think this sort of rapid response has notable downsides? I feel like the "ego-boost" of a successful piece has led a lot of the writers I adore into weird places.
KR: Great comparison. And yes, I think sometimes--both in person and online--"interactivity" becomes interruptivity, for better and for worse. Whether it's ego, per se, or just a desire to please/make people happy or make people like "you"/your writing, that immediacy of response can become an obstruction like any other. And that obstruction can be "good" like the obstruction of writing a sonnet, or "bad" like pandering-bad.
CG: Seems to drive a lot of unfortunate imitation in the spirit of what is hip/in fashion, too. Which isn't necessarily unhealthy, but people aren't being allowed proper time to process what they're reading.
KR: True. And I think that's a way that PWYW would differ, somewhat, yet also be similar in that what you're reading is also not fully processed, but what you're reading isn't poems but people.
CG: (Sorry,my computer keeps crashing because I'm going too hard on eBay and it is--I think--from a year that predates the invention of said website.) That last part would make an excellent and endearing slogan. Do you guys have one already? Capitalism loves slogans. I adore how PWYW is openly a business venture--the commercial spirit of it is kind of fun in a perverse way.
KR: Speaking of capitalism, I hope you win big on all your ebay bids. And yeah, we nakedly embrace the pay-for-poem model. The notion that it's somehow icky to mix money and art seems needlessly high-minded and largely unexamined. Paying for something--an object or an experience--makes that something worth more. It literally ups its worth. So why not up the worth of a poem? Also, fwiw, we donate all the money we make to nonprofits, usually 826 Chicago or Rose Metal Press. So we're not like, taking the money and using it for sports cars or drugs or trips to the Bahamas. Not that that would be "wrong," but we like the charitable component as well. Also? Paying for a poem enhances the poem's intelligibility. By giving people a familiar social script (I give someone money, they give me something I want in return), PWYW also helps get around the pesky but-I-don't-understand-contemporary-poetry concern that a lot of readers feel as though they have.
CG: The mailman just came with a Blake Babies 7" I paid $15 for; capitalism wins. It's kind of strange how much the commercial component of art/media consumption complicates the consumer's experience. I was just reading an Eileen Myles essay the other day where she talks about a "free show" a friend of hers put on (basically, you take what you want from the gallery, and it's all open to the public). She mentioned how everyone has an "it's about time" attitude about that type of thing. Like art owes them something. It's probably interesting to observe how people in the art community respond to paying for something versus people less engaged.
KR: Yeah, it's an endlessly fruitful subject to contemplate for sure. My sister Beth who is a professional photographer, both for "art" and commercial projects, actually got in a tiff with a woman at Whole Foods on the topic the other day. The woman was looking at a food magazine in the checkout line and wanted to possibly buy it and she asked the clerk how much it cost. When the clerk said "$5.99" the woman got all huffy and said "That is entirely too much money!" and Beth said, "Excuse me, ma'am, but it costs that much because they have to test all the recipes to make sure they work out, and to pay the writers for writing the pieces, and to pay the photographers for taking the pictures, so if you think about it, it being less than $6 is really a bargain." The woman remained pissy and implacable, but I am thinking Beth has a point. I'd add that part of this art-owes-me attitude probably stems from the relatively recent development of attention itself into a sort of commodity. Like idiomatically, we have been "paying" attention for quite a while, but these days, people really do seem to think that attention is a form of actual payment and that looking at art, literature, whatever at all ought to be enough. I mostly disagree, though free stuff can be great, too.
CG: That's totally true. Some people are just so used to getting certain things for free, also, that having to pay for them is a strange concept. Literature really seems "free" to some degree--especially in academic settings (where you pay for books beforehand and without associating the fees with the actual books), which is where most people will get their first and only exposure to it. On top of that, online literary magazines, libraries, blogs, and free e-books make paying feel unnecessary in some scenarios. Working with bands--and I think this is something the writing community is starting to explore--a lot of people couldn't care less about owning a physical copy of the music, but are completely enamored with buying things like pins and patches and t-shirts. How do you feel about the way that merchandising and advertising has started to trickle into publishing? I saw the trailer for your new book a couple of weeks ago. Are these obligations or exciting new prospects?
KR: Great analogy to the music community. And the merch mania that is now working its way into the lit community is both, I think, an obligation (the more people do it, the more other people will come to expect it as part of the overall package), and an exciting new prospect. Abby and I were ridiculously psyched about getting a designer to help us make some Rose Metal Press buttons, for instance. Meeting these expectations is probably as affected by attitude as anything else (exercise, cooking, etc.) that can fall along the spectrum of boring chore versus super-fun hobby. Like if one is all "Darn it, I have to make another dullsville book trailer," then making the trailer will be drudgery, but if one is all "Sweet, it's time to make another book trailer!" then it could be fun, artistically fulfilling, etc in addition to necessary and functional.
CG: For me, what has been really exciting about book trailers is the interaction between different types of media. I think one of the best examples of this is the trailer for Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby. It's incredible to see what visuals and music can do to aid writing; it's not that it is necessary for these things to be appealing but that something with an ostensible intellectual barricade can grow into a piece that competes with anti-intellectual media.
KR: Exactly. I've seen a lot of knee-jerk dislike of book trailers (grumble, grumble, why use video to promote reading, etc.) on blogs and websites, but it's a genre like anything else in which some examples of the form are high-quality and compelling and others are less so. Overall, the multimedia possibilities seem full of so much potential and well-worth trying.
CG: Is that something you see becoming a part of your work in the future?
KR: I thiiiiink so. I'm hesitant to publicly make too many promises in that direction. But yes, visual additions to verbal/print projects are intriguing me right now. It might sound barely significant, but Eric, my fellow PWYW-er gave me one of his two busted iPhones (he dropped the one that is now mine over the winter on the ice by Lake Michigan and its screen is semi-smashed) which works only as a camera and I've been having what seems like a disproportionate amount of fun "getting into" photography, for example. What about you? What's on tap?
CG: That is way good to hear; make promises! Some of the best art happens when artists enter new fields, I think. Right now I'm most focused on the beginnings of what will be a hyper-link driven "ASCII art" image/text project that functions kind of like a choose your own adventure book; each character in the ASCII will lead to a different page, so it's more dependent on random chance than linearity. I want to make it a kind of terrible mess--no way to backtrack and lots of "page not found"s. I love writing for "the page" and striving to create things that are powerful without what seems like bells and whistles, but it is--I think--an incredible thing to be able to succeed in a lot of different areas and make things as an "artist" and not just a writer. I have one more question for you regarding PWYW. Have you ever written a line in one of your poems that you've been really hesitant to "give away"? Would you feel comfortable reusing a part of one of the pieces you've written for another piece?
KR: I can't wait to see your new image/text project. And I agree about the entry into unfamiliar artistic fields. I love what can happen when one has a beginner's mind and can make "mistakes" that often turn out to be not-so-mistaken. And to answer that last Q: yes--I have! But I'm also not afraid to plunder my own work. I think repetition can sometimes be annoying, sure, but also, it can be seen as a theme or concern, so reusing something in a new context does not strike me as cheating.
CG: Ooh, I admire your honesty and am so on board with recontextualization. On the note of happy accidents: thank you for answering all my questions!
KR: Aw. You're welcome--thanks for being so inquisitive.
Cassandra Gillig is an honorary member of popular, French Canadian chillwave band Sand in my Sandsandwich.
With AM I COOL (available as free ebook via scribd), Chicago-based musician and writer Heiko Julien has mastered the use of diction-based cultural satire. Rather than--as is common--drawing attention to the absurdity of popular speech patterns, Julien uses universal emotions and experiences to prod readers into taking a step back and assessing their place in the society that fosters this culture. He is not distracted by the task of becoming campy or hilarious (these do happen, though; they're especially inevitable considering his aesthetic goals); all efforts present are invested in the sincere depiction of the "simple" task of life. The language present--the strangely beautiful centerpiece of AM I COOL--is eloquent and naturally dips into a foreign yet necessary intellectual lexicon.
Of course, there is also dad humor, a "dank" spice rack, and an open invitation to hurl shrimp at Julien's corpse. What is most impressive is--unlike most things compiled in such a fashion--each stanza of Julien's poems feels like a natural next step. Though they should be jarring non-sequiturs, lines are invisibly connected through the portrayal of the complicated human mind. Everything is interwoven.
AM I COOL is worth reading because it is entertaining, but worth thinking about because it is written in a way that both satirizes and praises the erratic nature of thought. Julien has created a new standard for writers operating in this particular style and it’s exciting to know that possibilities for this type of pop culture-loving minimalism are nowhere as limited as I've come to expect.
Graduation, a poem published in issue 3 of UP, isn’t weird or surreal or crazy or about Wish Bone — that goddamn dog. For a poem written by someone who goes by Beach Sloth and writes in a weird, surreal way--often examining indie lit from the most abnormal of point-of-views--Graduation is pretty straightforward. Just a piece about a guy and a girl. Go read it, it’s short, we’re going to talk about it in a second.
You done? Good.
For me, it’s the dialogue. Both spots of dialogue (though one isn’t even in quotes) work well here. They're probably the strongest parts of the poem. The parts where "her" voice comes through seem to tie the scenes together, making it easier to see the rain as the narrator walks--despite that message being sent in email--and making it easier to see the narrator’s “efficient” body later in the poem. I mean, come on, “efficient” isn’t exactly a word you describe a person’s body with. A car engine maybe, but not someone you’re about to share a physical embrace with.
When it comes right down to it, we need this dialogue to show off the characters as individuals. Why? Because this is a poem we’ve all written, lived, thought-up in the shower, and read before. We’re all human beings, we’ve all walked around in the rain bummed out about a loved one, so we need to know the narrator’s body is efficient instead of say, soft or warm. We need that little extra somethin’ to allow the piece to stand on its own instead of getting drowned out by, well, everything else like it.
The dialogue is what works. Without it, we not only lose the most distinct parts of the poem—the voice of it—but also any notion of character individuality.
So maybe it’s time for the rest of us who’ve written bad poems to take them out of our hiding places (dresser drawers, hidden under socks and tighty whiteys), and give them another go. Have another go out at the dialogue. As we can see in Graduation, a little bit goes a long way.
I recently sat down with Beach Sloth. It was in a wicker chair--one of those big ones made out of bamboo, so really, I guess it was a bamboo chair--and he sat on my lap answering a few of my questions, slowly falling over as he did so. He smiled the whole time. A slow-witted smile.Full of sunshine. Like the sun, you know, if the sun were mentally disabled.
Mason: What were your favorite parts of the poem?
Beach Sloth: The detailed parts were my favorites. [Sloth burps.] They were also fairly hard as I tend to sort of make everything a little vague. I think this may be one of the more personal things I've shared.
M: What else? What do you think is working here?
BS: What else did I like? I actually worked on this piece a little bit. I enjoy how I split it up into tiny pieces through the word “but.” I have a hard time writing longer pieces so I used the break as a way of extending my ideas and interrupting them.
I wrote most of the piece during one of my periodic “undergrad nostalgia” periods. I've been having more of them lately. That Stereolab song in the beginning sets the tone for me. I can remember it, it was the second track off of one of their less critically acclaimed albums. The rain made me feel sad.
[We move and continue our conversation in a bathroom. He talks, his head turned over his shoulder, as he pisses. I brush my teeth vigorously.]
By the end of the day it was beautiful and sunny. Somehow the weather had transformed so gradually I barely even noticed it. Somebody asked me to go to the bar with them but I was leaving the campus for a very long time.
I visited my old school for a little while. It was in a really beautiful part of the state. Even now I sort of miss it. My current school I doubt I'd have the same feelings for. At my old school I had certain supporters and friends. Here I have that to some degree but there's definitely not the same level of connection. Undergrad feels far kinder, far more gentle, than anything you experience afterwards. I guess that's kind of what I interpret my poem to mean.
Or I could just write another poem describing that. I'm not certain.
M: So you're pro the inclusion of pop media in writing? You make Stereolab sound like an essential part of the voice - true?
BS: Sometimes it is. Sometimes it feels a little like showing off. With most of my writing (creative, stories I haven't shared) I generally use music as a framework for how to mold the plot. I have a hard time describing it. So I'd say true - with some caveats.
M: How are you going to push yourself with your next poem?
BS: I have no idea. There's a rough sketch forming in my brain about a series of interconnected poems forming a chapbook but otherwise that's it.
M: You should go do that.
[Beach Sloth takes my suggestion literally and walks out of the restaurant we’re sitting in, leaving me with an expensive bill, and two mimosas to finish on my own.]
Methodist Hatchet. byKen Babstock . Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2011. 101 pages. $14.95 softcover. ISBN: 978-0-88784-293-1.
Reviews of Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet have been mixed. Most have more or less mentioned the book’s difficulty; that Babstock is “no longer intelligible” and “wilfully obscure” (Shane Neilson); that the poems are at times “so thick with sound it’s difficult for the reader to find a way in” (Abby Paige), and the sense is of “eavesdropping on a conversation of which the reader is no longer part” (Nick Mount). All of these claims are pretty much spot-on. There are some strong moments, though; unfortunately, those moments don’t make up for the book’s deficiencies.
The first poem in the collection, “The Décor,” functions as its central thematic piece, a small-scale version of the book as a whole. The reader’s initially struck by its not-so-subtle critique of conspicuous consumption, and along with that the baggage of style, money, class, and value. While the poem considers the role home décor plays in offering a picture of status and wealth to the public—“a visual/of earned leisure” (2), this concern with style extends beyond this scope to the role of style in poetry. Babstock writes “Nothing now eases the buzzing/suspicion I’m being signaled to from across/a great distance” (1-2), and we feel the same way; but it’s Babstock signaling to us through the “clutter of//the manifest image” (4). However, what he wants is clear: for the reader to
Slide an arm right through
the surface of this picture,
into whatever spatial realm lies
behind the illusion of depth, to hold
the hand of the person
wanting so badly to be seen precisely
as they feel themselves to be (ibid)
One hears John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (“One would like to stick one’s hand/out of the globe, but its dimension,/what carries it, will not allow it”), and Babstock’s interest in the visual arts (Jeff Wall, Jeff Koons and Robert Rauschenberg show up later) is clear. However, where he wants his readers to see “whatever spatial realm lies/behind the illusion of depth,” often all we’re given is that illusion. At one point he asks, “Is this about style?” (3). We worry that’s all it’s about. Throughout the book, the reader peruses the design, which has supplanted the structure itself. Methodist Hatchet is built out of surface material and little else.
Most of Babstock’s strong moments occur in the book’s first half. For example, in “Radio Tower” we read: “Everything’s the colour of rabbits, scissored/from another world and pasted on thin” (37). Or in “Nottawasaga”: “Sky a motif of cowslip in clear ice, /mayflies make moon-dials of the flagstones” (77). And in “As Marginalia in John Clare’s The Rural Muse”, a hospital is the setting for a consideration of ailment, perhaps the same sort Clare suffered while finishing his last collection. Here, Babstock depicts a view:
Hexagonal window, the moon
penned in it, and a segmented swarm sucking
up peonies (5)
The beauty here lies in its simplicity. Where the language is clarified, pared down and precise, Babstock succeeds. That kind of gracefulness is minimal in this collection, its resonance oftentimes drowned out by the buzzing of so much else.Another strong poem is “Caledonia,” a political piece centered on the protests regarding the Grand River land dispute in Ontario in 2006:
Then we came out in numbers. Organized as Canadians
we came out in numbers with flags. With flags aloft
and hooting we stepped out in anger and in numbers. In
numbers as Canadians we came out drunk and threw rocks.
We threw rocks and golf balls as our patience had come to its
natural end. As Canadians we threw rocks past our flags aloft. (10)
Again, where Babstock is strong is where he is able to pare down both language and lineation. Here, the result is a poem in couplets that works on the logic of pattern and variation, whose repetition and circling indicates a kind of futility. “Caledonia” enacts through language the difficulty in affecting political change or social action.
Where the poems are unsuccessful is where they lapse into wordplay (“Que Syria, Syria”), overwrought syntax (“Bathynaut”) or longish narratives with little momentum to carry the reader through (“Coney Burns,” “Russian Doctor”). His poems range in topic (sugar gliders, video games, Lee Atwater) as well as in formal choice (tercets, quatrains, sestets, longer stanzas, end rhyme), but this wild variance slips around the halfway point of the book. As Babstock writes in “The Living Text,” “the slipknot of visuals begins to undo” (20), and at times it’s hard to see why these poems exist in a volume together. At best, Methodist Hatchet is kaleidoscopic; at worst, it’s haphazard.
But what I’m most struck by here is the ambivalence Babstock seems to have regarding his status as a writer, and where he stands among other writers. Many poems cite figures: Theodor Adorno, William James, David Foster Wallace; the Johns Clare and Ashbery. Other writers pop in and out like snippets of conversation: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Antonio Gramsci, Don DeLillo. At times the effect is of name-dropping, and one notices a pattern in those referenced: mostly literary or philosophical figures, and all men. In this book I hear an anxiety of influence—a man trying to understand why he does what he does—but in doing so, he overdoes the poems themselves. The reader is left with “the fuzz of bafflement” (84), surrounded by so much stuff, but with little understanding of the significance of the stuff. I wish I felt this was deliberate on the part of Babstock—that he’s making some comment about how hard it is to live in our bewildering contemporary moment—but the poems don’t resonate beyond their own boundaries. The effect of the book is kaleidoscopic, but there’s no center focus to hold the dazzle together.
Ken Babstock is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Mean (Anansi, 1999), Days into Flatspin (Anansi, 2001), and Airstream Land Yacht (Anansi, 2006), which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. His poems have been anthologized in Canada, the United States, and Ireland and The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature. A former poetry editor at Anansi Press, he lives in Toronto.
Jennifer Mooreis a PhD candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and serves as Poetry Editor for Another Chicago Magazine.
Push. By Ronald F. Smits. Scranton, Pennsylvania: University of Scranton Press, 2009. 78 pages. $10.00 hardcover.
This remarkably nostalgic journey begins with a boy playing with grandpa’s glass eye, citing the guidance of a grandfather and inviting us into a world of boyhood memories laden with jokes, falling in love, and the guilt along the way. Ronald F. Smits immediately lures us into a place where “even the clothespins smell good” and “the creek takes care of its own, / bearing the weight of centuries like a single leaf.” ‘The Water Pistol’ is a poem that typifies the nostalgia and rich language in Push (8). Smits tells of boys armed at school despite constant leaking, shooting each other in the fly and aiming for girls they have crushes on. Smits is strikingly vivid while remaining concise.
He tells us of collecting bottle caps, admiring the body of Venus, and discovering a stick of bubble gum in the wrapper of WWII picture cards. His repetition of words within a poem and occasionally into the next, provide a strong cohesion that benefits the themes of the book. The pushing during birth and pattern of moving from town to town succinctly carry Smits’ choice for language. The alliterative tendencies and infrequent rhyme add to the fun that Smits is clearly having, particularly in the opening poems.
Nevertheless, the heartbreaks of Push do arrive. The speaker loses a pink Spaulding ball in the sewer, sobbing until finding a way to reclaim it, visits a friend at the cemetery, and rides his bike from church to church in hopes of having an unrecognizable voice during confession. Even through these glimpses, Smits somehow pulls the rug from underneath the reader in ‘Bridges’ (27). Walking across bridges close to home, he suddenly is crossing one during the Vietnam War, “where, in the harbor, the wombs / of Victory and Liberty are pregnant with napalm, / the canisters as shiny as the milk cans of the car.”
Shortly after a great fear of water and living in the shadow of an older brother, Smits addresses the quieter moments and a passion for trees. We find him under an elm, startled at breakfast as a doe peers through the window, and simply admiring how rocks settled. By the concluding twenty poems of Push, Whitman comes to mind. Smits’ listing techniques and role as playful observer of the natural and industrial world echoes the bard. Yet Smits proves to be more humorous.
With Push, Ronald F. Smits has revealed his fervor with the lyricism of a musician and the abundant, detailed palette of a painter. Seventy-eight pages just aren’t enough.
Ronald F. Smits retired from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2008. His poems have appeared in College English, Free Lunch, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Poet Lore, Poet and Critic, Poetry East, North American Review, River Styx, The South Carolina Review, The Southern Review, Tar River Poetry and The Texas Observer.
There’s a hand inside your pants and it’s a slow hand. It’s not your hand, but a separate hand. A hand with a history, a hand that has vampiric tendencies. A hard-on hand. It’s a hand without a brain, a clumsy hand. It’s knocking on your skin, trying to get in. It’s a hand overwhelmed with responsibility, gothic in its quest for atmosphere. There’s a hand inside your pants, an unsure hand, a double-take of a hand. Hand chased by a terrible thing. A hand that can’t get away from itself. It is a dark and stormy night in your pants. And there is a phantom-hand on the prowl. It is trying so hard, in your pants, to undo itself from flesh via flesh, hovers like a vandal, sweats. Borrowed hand, tying a knot in your pants. Editorial hand. Bland hand. Hand pickled in its own handiness. Locomotive hand. It has something to say but no voice. For example, with this hand in your pants you are hapless. A where’s-my-worth hand, a cold hand, a beer can of a hand. Meaty hand that wants always to be other than a hand, to traverse being with touch, to feel something . . . anything alive, and in that feeling become more alive, pirate warmth. Feverish ruins. Flu-hand. Panic-hand. Salmon-hand. There’s an ad hoc hand in your pants, and it moves like a cave lizard reading Braille with its translucent body. Cosmically slow hand—in your pants—blindly gazing at you, as others before you. Story-board hand. A hand with a plan. Scavenger hand. Opera hand. It’s a tan hand, a normal hand, a community hand. A hand without accomplices. It’s a hand pleading the fifth. Slowly, slowly it bobs like an astronaut who’s dangling in space but tethered to matter. The birds all flock away. It’s a dark and terrifying resurrection. Well-timed hand. A drowned clown hand. Vacation hand. A clammy hand, a starfish, a vamp. There’s a hand in the forbidding mansion of your pants amid an index of nerve endings . . . but this hand has no nerve for ending, is addicted to fumbling. It’s a hand in touch with its inner ruse. It’s a moving fossil, rubbing residue on you. You are caught between yourself and this hand. Between pants and no pants, dignity and bribery, jinx and ennui. Between the past and a replica of the past, between futility and death. Don’t turn on the lights. Only after a convincing disaster will you squirm, sense there’s no man behind the hand. It’s a straw man hand, and it’s in your pants. There’s no denying it; there’s a slow hand in your pants. And it might just settle in there if you don’t scream.
A poem I love and a photograph I took, presented together, with no further explanation:
Dream Song 14 Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, we ourselves flash and yearn, and moreover my mother told me as a boy (repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored means you have no Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no inner resources, because I am heavy bored. Peoples bore me, literature bores me, especially great literature, Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes as bad as Achilles, who loves people and valiant art, which bores me. And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag and somehow a dog has taken itself & its tail considerably away into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving behind: me, wag.
Check out Alexa Ortega's musings at HTML Giant on the best way to share poetry, and literature in general, with a public that might not necessarily be inclined to attend literary readings. Is poetry actually dead to the mainstream, Ortega wonders. And is it? I think she brings up a good point: maybe writers think so because they often write and read for a handful of critics and then don't necessarily reach beyond that. But in a city like Chicago, poetry hardly seems dead. It seems like every week a new reading series begins and a new literary journal releases its first issue. And with the Internet, "local" and a "larger audience" don't necessarily have to be as different as Ortega describes them. Yes, the Internet lends itself a certain sense of large-scale longing to "make it big." But if local artists can more easily share their work with others, then more power to them. I don't think it detracts from the intimacy of a reading or performance—if anything it can only help generate interest. Because that's what art and writing is all about, really: a way to share something meaningful.