Category: Erin Watson

REVIEW: Dark. Sweet. by Linda Hogan

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by Erin Watson

Comprising selections from nearly 40 years of her poetry, Linda Hogan’s collection Dark. Sweet. is a comprehensive introduction to this Chickasaw poet. Hogan’s Native American identity and her work on wildlife rehabilitation shape her poems’ themes: the natural world, motherhood, political resistance, and indigenous identity.

To talk about the politics in this book, which are inextricable from its other themes, it first needs to be said that 2014, the year of Dark. Sweet.’s publication, was a hell of a year, politically, in America. Massive antiracist protests seem to be the only reasonable response to the interlocking systems of oppression that have always dictated the lives and deaths of nonwhite Americans. There’s no time like now to start paying close attention to marginalized voices; to see in their fullness the lives that are easy to ignore from the blinkered comfort of whiteness.

Throughout Hogan’s work, deep and minutely observed connections between human and animal life explode the assumed boundaries between species. In doing so, her poems set up the reminder that all forms of otherness should be questioned. The first poem in the collection, “Turtle,” from Hogan’s 1978 book Calling Myself Home, contains an image of women who are also turtles, traveling back through time:

We should open his soft parts,
pull his shells apart
and wear them on our backs
like old women who can see the years
back through his eyes.

Multiple boundaries dissolve: between the turtle and its “soft parts,” the women and the turtle, the poem’s time and the past. The repeated “back” reinforces the connection between time and the body.

“The Ritual Life of Animals,” a poem from the 1993 collection The Book of Medicines,” returns to these dissolving species borders, opening:

The animal walks beside me,
long-toothed partner
in a sacrificial dance.
It lies down on the land
as I walk upright
And closing:
We lie down
In the long nights of their waking,
the world of animal law,
the house of pelvic truth.
The inversion is clear: the human is still animal, still bound by its law.

While making my way through Dark. Sweet. for this review, I also picked up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Sometimes everything you read seems to be about everything else you read, particularly in this trying, inescapable political landscape. The body moving through space, time, and memory. The body in history. The body of an American woman.

From Rankine:

“You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.”

And from Hogan, in her introduction to the 2012 monologue/poem Indios:

“It is set in the timelessness of our lives. When we say that we crossed over the Trail of Tears, we did. It is in our Native memory. Time is different in the cell structure of bodies created from and on this continent.”

For both of these poetic speakers, time is stored in the body: in the body of the individual and in the collective body.

Indios stood out as the most engaging section of Hogan’s collection, for its hybrid form and for its attention to narrative, mythmaking detail. It retells the Medea story in a prison interview. The introduction announces the poem’s intent to serve both as a performance piece and as a long poem to be read silently or aloud, “to be thought about or wept over.” This dual purpose refuses the typical boundaries placed around poetry as a genre. In its hybridity, Indios also resembles Citizen, a collection that includes essay, art criticism, and cultural commentary despite its subtitle, “An American Lyric.” There is space for American lyrics to challenge these boundaries, and it’s exciting to see contemporary poets of color seizing the opportunities.

Hogan has received a Pulitzer nomination for her fiction, and the narrative thread in Indios compels, even as the thematic content gets somewhat oversold. Lines like “It turns out I am their savage, after all,” along with the repeated image of a house of cards that ends the last two sections of this poem, diminished some of its impact by relying on received metaphors and explanations. More inventive moments, ones that force questions of identity, are much stronger, as when the poem’s speaker tells her interviewer:

I was never a woman.
I was a city.
I was a country,
this ordinary woman you see before you.
I have more freedom in prison
Than when I was a country and still just a girl.

This “and” surprises – it does much more to illustrate the burden of expectation on a Native American girl attempting to assimilate than some of the poem’s more outwardly dramatic moments. To the speaker, there’s no contradiction in being both a country and a girl, but there’s also no freedom in this hybrid identity. (I also found resonant echoes of Sara Woods’ poem “City-Girl” in these lines.)

Hogan’s poetry is most compelling in its refusal: refusing to tell you what you expect, what you want to hear. Her speakers refuse to play to cultural tropes of the “noble savage” and draw the reader’s attention to this refusal.

The new poems in the collection begin strong in this mode of refusal: “If you think I am going to write about someone’s god, / that’s a mistake. I am sitting by wild strawberries…” opens “The Unseen.” But the collection closes by writing about someone’s god, after all, in “After Silence: Return”:

When Buddha went out on his own,
when Jesus remained in the wilderness,
did they learn the living web of the world?

While I always appreciate when a collection of poems concludes with questions, creating space for the reader to consider her own answers, it seemed that the answer here is too strongly implied. It’s clear that the speaker wants us to live more harmoniously in “the living web of the world.”

Throughout Dark. Sweet., I wanted to be trusted as a reader to do more interpretive work. At the same time, I examined my impulse to resist this didactic tone. It’s a resistance connected to the assumption that my way of doing interpretive work is valid for these poems. I challenged myself to read them differently, to be open to what Hogan is saying about her identity and her world.

The new poems are divided into four sections: “The Unseen,” “History,” “Sweetness,“ and “The Remedies.” These sections reinforce themes Hogan has returned to throughout her career, including motherhood and connections to the natural world.

Sweetness is a quality of the natural world, as in the ending of the title poem:

that dark, sweet moment
in the splendid planetary breathing
where I was walking on the path
here, near the water,
that brief time, everything as I said,
Dark. Sweet.

This moment of wildness and darkness is concentrated like a syrup. The poem describes walking in the woods during a total eclipse. Ending with “everything as I said” reminds me of the speaker in Robert Hass’s poem “The Problem of Describing Color” who repeats “if I said” with different ways of showing a color, finally just announcing “Sudden, red.”

There’s a narrative authority in these ending lines to “Dark. Sweet: The Full Eclipse” that’s demonstrated more subtly elsewhere in the collection, as in the speaker who says you’re mistaken to think she’ll write about someone’s god, or other speakers asking questions. “Can you keep me / here? Can you unharm me?” ends “Home in the Woods,” which appears in the “History” section. This variety in tone, from contemplative to instructive, moves the collection along briskly.

Despite my occasional reservations with her work, Hogan has a strong poetic voice, and Dark. Sweet. offers a worthy introduction to her work. Its recurring, evolving themes make it excellent for browsing. Hogan’s work adds a naturalist and often spiritual perspective to the contemporary lyric.

Dark. Sweet. is available from Coffee House Press

Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and on the internet at www.torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in three self-published chapbooks. She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award and one of New City’s best emerging poets in Chicago in 2014.

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REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Maggie Nelson

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(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)

by Erin Watson

For many, Maggie Nelson may be synonymous with her essay-poem Bluets, a series of numbered vignettes on being “in love with a color.” Because I picked up Bluets at a time when I needed to read it (voraciously, all in one afternoon-long gulp, mostly while crying on a blue couch), I looked for scraps of blue throughout Nelson’s chaplet “Something Bright, Then Holes.”

Here the blues are mostly flesh: “O bright snatches of flesh, blue / and pink, blinding in the light” towards the end of the first poem, and “elaborate blue tattoos” on the “soggy and blue” skin of an ice maiden in the second poem. Light and flesh trail each other through the five poems in this chapbook, adding up to an affecting meditation on selfhood and understanding.

The titular poem opens “I used to do this, the self I was / used to do this” like an apology. Then we’re told:

Something bright, then holes is how a newly-sighted girl
once described a hand. The continuum cracks, and now I am
half. A whole half. I see that now, though
I still struggle to see the beauty in front of me
O the blindness of having been born able to see. […]

The self who tells this is unstable and contradictory: cracked into “a whole / half” and blinded by “having been born / able to see.” While these couplets flirt with clichés, reinforced by the perfect end rhyme of “see” / “me”, the next stanzas undermine their unfocused abstraction with violence, with references to September 11th (“the planes flew / into buildings […] people and paper came down / like heavy confetti”) and to a consuming other:

…you wanted to eat through me.
Then fall asleep with your tongue against
an organ, quiet enough to hear it kick.

It’s a poem of being abased; resolving to become something new, being blind to just what that newness will be. That it ends without punctuation suggests that this resolution remains incomplete.

The second and longest poem, “20 Minutes,” continues along the brink of self-annihilation: “I don’t care about self I want out / of my story”, the speaker claims about halfway through, followed a few stanzas later by:

and if the purpose of language

is to generate more language

I am not sure I want it

After rejecting narrative (“I want out / of my story”), the poem holds up this uncertain rejection of the one sure thing poems can do: generate more language.

“20 Minutes” seems haunted by youth. After a description of the dead, cold, tattoo-decorated body of the ice maiden, we’re informed:

they know she was young because of
the squiggly line down her skull, a sign
the skull is still knitting itself together

before 30, the skull is still knitting itself together
the seam moving towards seamlessness

my skull, almost seamless

These repetitions build a sense of inevitability, mixed with dread: seamlessness seems too clear, too singular for the stubbornly multiple speaker here. This section foreshadows the poem’s last few stanzas, which return to youth:

When I was young I dreamt regularly
of purity
but I am no longer
that puritan

you, you stand pure as a tree
the question the ground asks of the sky

who cares now why
there is something
instead of nothing

the question now
is how did we become
earth’s affliction

Here is another self to be examined and rejected, as a part of an affliction.

Reading the poems in this chapbook, I often had the feeling of having your pupils dilated at the optician’s, looking through lenses at the eye chart as it clicks into focus. The third and fourth poems both bear the subtitle “from Jane” and continue this optical metaphor. “The Oracle” ends:

Then wait for morning to bring
the bright sediment of things into focus. It
comes clear.

And “Koan,” the shortest poem, starts out “Not yet,” moving through a series of images and adjustments to end:

A girl in a boat the boat full of holes. Closer.
A slit sky. A slit sky and a bowl. Almost.

“The Oracle” and Koan” are the only poems that end with punctuation, suggesting clarity, or at least an approximation of it. That these poems are “from Jane” suggests a kinship between women as a clarifying force. Elsewhere in the chaplet, everything is holed, slitted, frozen, bloody, and unclear. Then it ends on an opening: “and I speak” is the last line.

Each poem resists a unified interpretation. The collection describes a multiplicity of women and girls’ identities and allows them to be contradictory. This openness and contradiction creates a sense of power. You are your own oracle. You are the “I” that speaks.

“Something Bright, Then Holes” is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*.

Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and online at torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences (2012) and Instax Winter (2014). She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.

Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

indexSonnets are one of the poetic forms that people whose poetry knowledge ends in high school can still name. When a poet employs a commonplace, canonical form across a lengthy sequence, it’s always worth exploring how she expands or subverts its conventions. In her debut collection, Interrobang, Jessica Piazza punctures the typical self-contained essence of the sonnet to address love, fear, and how they inform identity.

“Muchness” kept springing to mind to describe this collection. Piazza’s poems are dense with sound and emotion; there’s a weighty muchness to each one. With the exception of three longer sequences of linked sonnets, all the poems are titled after a phobia or a philia – a fear or a love. This duality resonates with the book’s titular punctuation mark, the combined question mark and an exclamation point that means “an exclamatory rhetorical question” (according to the Merriam-Webster citation at the front of the book). Interrobang’s poems contain their messiness, overflowing with fragmented images, questions, and exclamations. The poems’ speakers often veer between extremes: fighting and fucking, loud and quiet, familiar and strange. A rhythmic undercurrent propels them through these contrasts, as in these gleefully alliterative lines from “People Like Us”:

…I’m already un and raveling;

this scanty hope swan-songing my integrity.

(But maybe also, just a little, reveling?

Piñata pricked, unpilfered? Tamed tsunami swell?

An overflowing loving cup?) Tut, tut! Too cursed. Too much. I won’t allow it. …

Here, “too much” disavows the “un and raveling,” as well as the “overflowing” –demonstrating how form and content counterbalance each other, in another set of contrasts. This balance answers the question “why sonnets?” – the form is a kind of fulcrum supporting each poem, giving it a necessary weight. This weightiness, this verbal density within a compact form, is a common effect in other sonnet collections that tend towards the experimental, like Karen Volkman’s Nomina or Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets. Rather than the received sonnet setup (one train of thought, then a revision of, or commentary on, that beginning angle), experimental sonnets create their own rhetoric. They abandon thoughts midsentence, or pursue them into an unresolved question, or cast them into a Choose Your Own Adventure, or stretch them across successive pages.

The three extended sonnet sequences in Interrobang, “People Like Us,” “The Prolific,” and “What I Hold,” punctuate and balance the collection. Each of these sequences contains five sonnets, linked to one another by shared words from the last line of one to the first line of the next. Here’s the transition between the third and fourth sonnets in “The Prolific”:

…Instead I found the spot

on 23rd where, when the sun struck clear

glass buildings, streets appeared to multiply.

Then a thousand of me walked away.

A thousand other men could walk away

from me a thousand times, and yet I’d pay

them hardly any mind. The only one

who matters is the one I left. …

The extended length and patterned repetition, along with the layout – fourteen lines to a page – positions each sonnet in these sequences as something in between a standalone poem and a stanza. Their length allows themes and images to develop more richly, forming micro-narratives of a relationship (in “People Like Us” and “The Prolific”) and a personal epiphany (in “What I Hold”). This isn’t to say that the individual sonnets are lacking, but the three sequences are especially accomplished pieces of poetic craft.

The descriptions of colors, glass, and transparency threaded through “The Prolific” give shape to one of the collection’s consistent themes: being visible in a female body. A body moves through a city, seeing and being seen. Elsewhere, mirrors and windows reflect a body’s performances, as in “Eisoptrophobia, Fear of mirrors,” a sonnet in two seven-line reflected pieces that ends “Reflected, I am never at my best.”

A mirror again in “Panophilia, Love of everything” shows another warped reflection of the speaker’s identity:

…So I don’t understand

my drunkenness on scribble scrawled above

the mirror in the ladies’ room: You’re doomed.

Ecstatic that it’s almost true.

Here again is what I mean by muchness, a (traditionally) unladylike excess of it: drunk, scrawling and scribbling, the speaker emphatically embraces a dire almost-truth. Framed this way, it seems brave to be doomed, and to admit “I don’t understand.” There’s some excitement to being beyond understanding in the drunkenness and doom reflected here.

A truth-seeking spirit animates the collection. The choice of Latinate words to name all the poems brings to mind classical philosophy; in particular, Platonic ideals that things have a real, knowable essence. In this vein, “Anablephobia, Fear of looking up” describes roadside memorial signs:

Some read just: THINK. Those mark an accident.

Others: Why Die? And those mean someone did.

One day I heard a man say that his wife

gave up the ghost. But he was like a ghost.

Maybe that’s the truth. We die to leave

the losses that we cannot give away.

Compared to many poems in the collection, “Anablephobia” uses less enjambment and more complete, unfragmented sentences: “Those mark an accident.” The effect is assertive, but it’s tempered by uncertainty and abstraction. “Maybe that’s the truth” tells the reader something about what death could mean, what reality could unite all deaths.

It seems risky and brave to venture such broad ideas in the space of a fourteen-line poem. It’s an appealingly anachronistic approach: rather than privileging a thorough description of subjective individual experiences, as many contemporary poets do, Piazza’s poems grasp for the universal. They dare to move from an “I” to a universal “we.” “Anablephobia” ends with:

We die to tempt the edges that we fear.

We die to rise. We die to travel up.

“To tempt the edges that we fear” is rich with an appealing assonance. It also summarizes the rhetorical aims of some of the most memorable poems in my mental canon: think “Ariel,” or “Howl,” or “The Glass Essay,” all poems positioned on the edge of something fearful, potentially annihilating. Piazza earns her poems’ universal “we” with fierce intelligence and fearless expressions of deep feeling.

Interrobang is available from Red Hen Press.

Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and online at torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences (2012) and Instax Winter (2014). She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.

Complete Minimal Poems by Aram Saroyan

31ygpQIBS+L“These poems are works of great optimism,” Ron Silliman writes in his introduction to the second edition of Complete Minimal Poems by Aram Saroyan. In a quick flip through this book, one might find such poems as:

sky
every
day

– with its orderly, symmetrical structure and its implied reminder to maintain an awareness of something much larger than yourself.

Or the infamously NEA-funded single-word poem

lighght

which Ian Daly in his article at the Poetry Foundation aptly describes as something you see rather than read: a poem at light speed. Like many of the minimal poems, “lighght” blurs the distinction between viewing and reading. These poems share as much with text-based visual art, like Christopher Wool’s large stencils or Ed Ruscha’s OOF painting, as they do with other concrete poems.

Each of Saroyan’s poems confirms Silliman’s assessment of their optimism: why write like this without trusting that even a tiny unit of text can carry great semantic weight? And why write a not-quite-anagram poem like:

My arms are warm
Aram Saroyan

– if you aren’t having fun? Complete Minimal Poems offers a compelling reminder to write poetry playfully, joyfully, and with abiding faith in the tools at your disposal.

Ugly Duckling Presse compiled Saroyan’s poems written between 1964 and 1972, including the contents of four out-of-print volumes and a section of “Short Poems” previously uncollected. Complete Minimal Poems is an ideal addition to UDP’s catalog of lost works and art books. The order of the book is curious: not purely chronological by either publication or composition, with the fine addition of “Short Poems” stuck right in the middle of the five sections. It seems Saroyan and the editors were creating an anagram in the book’s form.

Although more information about this sequencing could helpfully orient the reader to progressions in Saroyan’s minimal styles over time, the collection rewards intermittent browsing. A close reading of poems like “children children,” from the last section in the book, induces semantic satiation – that sensation when you read a word so many times that its sense becomes decoupled from its form. This experience provides new perspective to revisit other poets who lean on concrete poetry and repetition, like Saroyan’s contemporary Hannah Weiner, a favorite of mine.

It’s in the newly published “Short Poems” that the volume reaches its peak. Poems like

A B C
Louder in the dark.

display the unique transcendence in these minimal works. The unwritten is a dark space, where these spare poems speak louder.

Or take the final poem in the “Short Poems” section, which appears under the title (or first line: it can be hard to tell) THE COLLECTED WORKS:

” # $ % _ ‘ ( ) * ! 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 – ¾
Q W E R T Y U I O P ¼ q w e r t y u i o p ½
A S D F G H J K L : @ a s d f g h j k l ; ¢
Z X C V B N M , . ? z x c v b n m , . /

This collection of every key available on his typewriter illustrates Saroyan’s assertion of its primary influence over his poetry:

I write on a typewriter, almost never in hand (I can hardly handwrite, I tend to draw words), and my machine — an obsolete red-top Royal Portable — is the biggest influence on my work.

Seeing “THE COLLECTED WORKS” nearly half a century after “lighght” was first published, now that a typewriter is more of a quaint artifact than a common tool, I wonder whether my iPhone isn’t an important influence on my poetry. And a poem like “waht,” resembling a frequent typo, seems even to prefigure the current practice of adopting online syntax into poetry.

While Complete Minimal Poems is an enjoyable and surprising reference for the smallest poetic forms, Saroyan eventually exhausted this minimalism. Richard Hell’s review suggests he may have exhausted his optimism, too:

[Saroyan has] written, in fact, that the disillusionments of 1968 — Vietnam, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — had a lot to do with why he stopped writing for the subsequent five years, and why he permanently dropped his minimal mode, which he associated with the innocent spirit of pre-’68.

As playful and perception-shifting as the minimal poems may be, this context underscores some other possibilities open to poems. Concrete text-objects like “lighght” or “children children” or “THE COLLECTED WORKS,” with their instantaneous visual availability and their resistance to interpretation, bring to mind the “poetry koans” that Kathleen Rooney cites in her essay at Coldfront on poetry post-Rumsfeld: “The point of a koan, of course, is that it’s unresolvable and leads to contemplation. An unresolvable poetic utterance does no harm, or does it?”

Do optimism and playfulness in poetry undermine its opportunity to be political? Is language play itself a political stance? Reading Complete Minimal Poems in today’s pretty dismal political context is a reminder that poetry offers novel ways of experiencing even the smallest units of text, expanding a reader’s receptivity to unresolvable koans or maddening rhetoric. Or it’s a break from rhetoric, an oasis of pure form. Either way, it’s a volume well worth its space on the shelf.

Complete Minimal Poems is available from Ugly Duckling Presse

Erin Watson is a Southern person in Chicago. She writes poetry slowly and lives online at torridly.org.

Dear Failures by Trey Sager

Screen shot 2014-06-05 at 9.40.04 AMReading Dear Failures, Trey Sager’s chapbook of poems addressed to his failed writing projects, brought to mind a fragment from Eileen Myles’ Inferno. Myles claims: “In a way, poetry really does require failure, because failure produces space. That nobody else wants. Poets as a group hate success.” Dear Failures claims that space that failure produces, describing the cast-off projects and turns of phrase that no one wanted. It’s a wry celebration of failing over and over again.

By beginning the title of each poem in the chapbook with “dear,” Sager displays tenderness towards his failures. He speaks to them in the second person, and their failed traits appear in glimpses.

“Dear Foreign Objects” begins:

You wanted to be a poem about war and xenophobia,
but I know nothing about war or xenophobia.
So I arranged you into a list of nouns, like rings and folding chairs, then called you a
poem because I have an ego problem.

Saying “Dear” in the title and “You” in the first line, the poet addresses his poem as an entity he’s failed to serve, lacking the knowledge to make it what it “wanted to be” but refusing to let it go. The poem failed at being about war and xenophobia; the poet failed at writing that poem, and then failed some more by having an ego problem.

The ragged, uneven line length throughout the chapbook reinforces its conversational tone. Later in “Dear Foreign Objects,” a parenthetical aside displays the self-questioning that recurs throughout:

(I was going to make a joke here, that you’re like a diaper,
but that’s kind of sad, to compare you to a diaper.
Anyway that comparison is wrong, you’d have to be a frequently defecating child
for the simile to work, because the diaper is the shit I’ve thrown away
and not the poem you’re constantly becoming.)

Breaking down the joke he was going to make, Sager overexplains this incorrect simile. The chapbook is deeply self-reflexive, yet rewards even a facile reading with humor. The humor is particularly acute if the reader is a poet: a frequent perpetrator of his or her own failures.

Another overexplanation begins “Dear Orphans:”

You begin with Facing the truculent moonlight.
Truculent means “aggressively or sullenly refusing to accept or do what is asked.”
In other words, moonlight is not truculent.
I like the sound of certain words, sometimes I let the sound drive and put meaning
in the car seat.

The first time I read “In other words, moonlight is not truculent,” I laughed out loud, recognizing my own tendency to “let the sound drive and put meaning in the car seat.” Dear Failures constantly examines the act of making poems. Accordingly, “Dear Orphans” follows the structure of the failure it addresses, ending with

You end with the passengers who tried floating eventually drowned.
That sounds like the fate of everything ever attempted.

Throughout Dear Failures, amused ambivalence meets the questions of fate and existence. It’s as if the chapbook is shrugging in uncertainty, saying “Who knows what anything is really about.” The first and last poems both mention Buddhist ideas of identity and oneness, repeating the circular structure of individual poems on the full chapbook’s scale.

The poems make frequent allusion to canonical writers and artists (Mark Rothko, James Joyce and John Ashbery are just a few) as well as popular culture. These inclusions add an element of pastiche to the collection, assembling Gertrude Stein-esque repetition or a Salman Rushdie quotation into Sager’s own failures. Imitation is a form of failure, but so is the excessive ego required to make something unique. It’s easy to begin wondering what wouldn’t be failed. And maybe failure contains success: “In my beginning is my end,” Sager writes at the end of “Dear Rocket Sea,” appropriating and anagramming from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker.”

While procrastinating on this review, I went to a reading by Jenny Boully and Mary Ruefle. Boully read selections from her own “book of failures,” describing it as “the projects that didn’t finish themselves.” Midway through her reading, Ruefle paused to tell the assembled audience, mostly MFA students: “For those of you who think contemporary American poetry is worth something or means anything… (here she paused a beat) it’s not.”

Poetry is positively gluttonous for failure, even through its most apparently successful, published and recognized avatars. While Dear Failures feeds this failure-hunger, it also surprises and entertains.

Dear Failures is available for free at Ugly Duckling Presse

Erin Watson is a Southern person in Chicago. She writes poetry slowly and lives online at torridly.org.

Joey Yearous-Algozin’s Real Kill List

Screenshot 2014-01-13 at 2.34.24 PMGiven time and relaxed moderation, any internet space will eventually generate trolling. Trolls provoke, whether out of humor, malice, or just boredom. A first reading of Josef Kaplan’s Kill List, a much-discussed chapbook from last year, could have marked it as a troll’s work: for 58 stanzas, it listed poets’ names and whether each was “a rich poet” or “comfortable.”

 If Kaplan was trolling his readership, he was eminently successful: the ripples of controversy Kill List generated sprawled through the poetry section of my internet-trawling for weeks. I’ll admit, then, that I felt a paralyzing moment of outrage fatigue upon being asked to review Real Kill List, a response poem by Joey Yearous-Algozin in the form of Facebook posts. Yet Real Kill List transcends ordinary trolling. It documents the nexus of poetry and internet discourse, forcing a more complex consideration of how both those modes operate.

 Yearous-Algozin and his compatriots in the Troll Thread poetry collective have developed an internet-native conceptual poetics. “Conceptual” is loaded: a code word for a set of practices but not a unifying school in itself. What conceptual works share is that the practices used to create them are part of their meaning. In her previous review of Yearous-Algozin’s Zero Dark Thirty in 30 Pt. Font, Janice Sapiago described her reaction to this work as “the half-question half-realization, Seriously?” Conceptual poems have this effect. They demand that readers answer “Seriously?” with “Yeah, we’re doing this. Let’s see what happens.” The interpretive acrobatics that conceptual poems require of their readers can be exciting and taxing at once.

 The thread of Facebook posts that makes up Real Kill List has been stripped of the familiar boxy blue layout. In plain HTML, it becomes a bulleted list of names and comments, punctuated into sections with timestamps, “Like” links, and pixelated profile pictures. Like shoulder-surfing a stranger’s laptop in a coffee shop and noticing mutual acquaintances in their friends list, this creates a curious (or nosy) person’s moral dilemma. I was uneasy with seeing who was rich and who was comfortable in Kill List, and I can’t look away from how a group of poets performs their reactions on one poet’s Facebook wall. Although I’ve read some of their work, I don’t know these poets. Facebook erases how well they know each other. I feel like an intruder. I must not be a FUCKING POET.

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 The erasures of the formatting and my lack of knowledge of these people’s relationships needled me into voyeuristic interest with Real Kill List. At the same time, it echoed the experience of witnessing trolling: the uneasy humor created when it’s unclear who’s saying what they really mean and who is doing whatever it takes to elicit attention. By using these poets’ names and presumably their own words in the Facebook thread, Yearous-Algozin creates a poem with many sub-poems, many voices. It’s a nested conceptual poem not just about Kill List, but about conceptual poetry.

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 At one point, Real Kill List brings into the discussion Kenneth Goldsmith’s distinctions from “Being Dumb“:

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 Real Kill List appears dumb in the way that texts recontextualized as poems are always dumb: the “anybody can do that” sense, the passivity. Goldsmith argues for this type of “smart dumb” art: work that refuses to put its authors’ intention on display. Smart dumb art is open to participation in a way that purely smart things aren’t. Rather than showing off a genius’s virtuosity, smart dumb introduces mistakes and accidents, frustrations and boredom. “Dumb muddies the waters,” Goldsmith writes. Yet he still establishes himself as the arbiter of what’s smart and what’s dumb by virtue of his status as a professor and the first poet laureate at MoMA. Anyone can make smart dumb art, Goldsmith seems to say. If you want to make a living at it, though, you’d better find some form of patronage.

 Similarly, the uneasy relationship between poetry and capitalism, or art and wealth, is a running theme throughout Real Kill List:

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 Real Kill List takes a step to distinguish itself from Goldsmith’s smart-dumb definition, adding in a small intentional act:

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Four comments from the end of the thread as it’s presented, the option to “Like” has changed to “Unlike.” I read this as a knowing shrug. Admitting that someone

else’s point can be taken as is, giving up an argument now several comments deep on this speaker’s part, is an Unlike item in a series of Likes. And it’s this Like that altered my reading: a subtle volta. I got to feel momentarily clever, a smart dumb reader. I got to flatter myself into believing I understood Real Kill List, and that my understanding earned me a vicarious place in its conversation.

 By giving the reader this moment of participation in Real Kill List, Yearous-Algozin opens the question of who gets to be smart enough for poetry. It’s a scary, provocative question, one that touches on the problems inherent in cultural gatekeeping and competition for readers’ attention. For anyone who’s invested in poetry’s vitality, these are questions well worth asking.

Real Kill List is available as a free PDF via Troll Thread or a print-on-demand paperback for $8.56.

Erin Watson is a Southern person in Chicago. She writes poetry slowly and lives online at torridly.org.