Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Third Packet

Photo credit: Nilufer Nilufer Gadgieva Flickr, CC 2.0

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the third packet.

Dear Kevin:

As you pointed out, the critical work in my last packet was a little thin. I hope I’ve redeemed myself with this one. It’s always possible to do more with grad school work, but I feel confident that I’ve given sufficient time and attention to James Wright’s and D.A. Powell’s work. I read your essay on Powell, and am glad that I did so after finishing my own paper. It can be difficult for me to approach a text with any kind of original thinking after reading another’s interpretation. I think you managed to say with more perspective and eloquence some of the things I was trying to say in my own paper. I especially appreciated the parallels the death-dancing German painting and Powell’s exuberant music. I hadn’t really paid attention to Powell’s exploration of spiritual redemption in Cocktails – especially in the Bibliography section – but can see it clearly in hindsight.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Third Packet”

Ross Gay’s Wild and Sensual Poems

Ross Gay’s poetry is lush with sensual pleasure. He uses strong imagery, musical language, and an unusual approach to poetic line to achieve this lushness. He eschews punctuation in many of his poems, relying almost entirely on white space and line breaks to achieve his phrasing. I’ve tried doing some similar with my own work, but Gay commits himself entirely to this technique, forcing it to do the work of commas, periods, capitalization, dashes. In “to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” —the first in his latest collection, catalog of unabashed gratitude— his short lines stutter down the page, slowing the eye at points both expected and unexpected. With no punctuation and no capital letters, he relies on the reader to suss out where one sentence ends and the next begins. This elision works both in concert with and counterpoint to his line breaks. The opening lines rush forth with enjambment through three separate thoughts:

… probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom…

Continue reading “Ross Gay’s Wild and Sensual Poems”

Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry.

————-

I’ve been approaching this semester with an alternating focus on the lyrical and narrative modes of poetry. But how exactly does one differentiate between the two? And is it even a valid dichotomy? As with the prose-poetry divide, the more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes. In an essay published in 2006, Tony Hoagland writes about “a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.” He also acknowledges the difficulty of defining the term: “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”

Published in 2004, Rachel Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative certainly demonstrates the zeitgeist Hoagland describes. At first pass, the title seems like a joke on the reader. Zucker’s language is disruptive, fragmented. It uses not only syntax but white space and idiosyncratic punctuation – all to skillful effect, but hardly the definition of what most people would call a clear narrative.

Continue reading “Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative”

December 2019 and January 2020 Poetry Readings in Boston and Environs

Shop local this holiday season and buy your loved ones books of poetry from the many poets reading in an around Boston this year. There’s a real wealth of them this month and next. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for compiling the bulk of these listings.

Of special note:

    • Fellow Lesley alum Eileen Cleary in Newton this Friday, Dec 6
    • Martha Collins, Frannie Lindsay, and Fred Marchant at the Old Manse in Concord that same evening
    • Jenn Martelli at Arts at the Armory Sunday, Dec 8
    • Ilya Kaminsky at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge Monday, Dec 9
    • Danielle Legros Georges and friends at Grolier Thursday, Dec 12
    • Solidarity Salon in Cambridge Saturday, Dec 14
    • Beloved Lesley professor Kevin Prufer at Grolier on Tuesday, Jan 7
    • Lisa deSiro and Eileen Cleary in Cambridge Wednesday, Jan 15
    • Cape Cod Poetry Review in Wellfleet Thursday, Jan 23

Continue reading “December 2019 and January 2020 Poetry Readings in Boston and Environs”

Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke: A Meta-Narrative

Historically, narrative poetry meant epics like the Odyssey or Beowulf – or, in later centuries, poems such as Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The narrative mode stood in contrast to the lyric mode: short, musical poems evoking an internal emotional state. But at some point in the 20th century, the scope of narrative poetry began to narrow from the public to the private sphere.[i] As Dante Di Stefano puts it, “In much high Modernist, and in most romantic poetry, the sources of inspiration for a poem (the psychic wound, the secret trauma, whatever guilt or shame or bliss drove a poet to write) remained at least partially hidden: [with confessionalism], the source became the poem.” The line between poet and speaker blurred. And with it, the line between external narrative and internal lyric blurred as well.

In a 2006 essay for Poetry Magazine called “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland considers the current disdain for what Di Stefano calls lyric narrative poetry.  “It seems likely,” he writes, “that narrative poetry in America has been tainted by … the inadvertent sentimentality and narcissism of many [badly executed confessional] poems. Our vision of narrative possibilities has been narrowed by so many first person autobiographical stories, then drowned in a flood of pathos poems.” He also posits a second explanation: “many persons think that ours is simply not a narrative age; that contemporary experience is too multitracked, too visual, too manifold and simultaneous to be confined to the linearity of narrative, no matter how well done.”

Aaron Smith also challenges the current aesthetic, asking, “[Why] do I feel pressure from peers to remove the narrative ‘I’ from poems?” he asks. “Why can’t ‘I’ be imagined on the page? Is the reader afraid to be gay for a little while (to be black for a little while, to be a woman)?”

With The Big Smoke, his third and strongest book, Adrian Matejka neatly sidesteps the question of the autobiographical “I”. The subject of his book is not Matejka himself, but Jack Johnson, a black man and heavyweight boxing champion who defied the laws and customs of the Jim Crow era. Matejka builds the narrative of Jack Johnson’s life with a series of poems that have both lyric and narrative qualities. In the fragmented, multitracked spirit of the age, the poems speak not only with the voice of Jack Johnson, but also his shadow-boxing self, the white women who love him, and the racist newspapers who cover him. These voices work together so skillfully that I zipped through the entire book in little more than an hour. Johnson speaks easily and plainly of the brutality of the time. In the opening “Battle Royale,” he considers the roots of prize-fighting in America: Continue reading “Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke: A Meta-Narrative”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Second Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the second packet.

Dear Kevin:

For some reason, finishing this packet was very difficult. I’ve been suffering under the specter of self-doubt – both with the craft annotations and with the original work. I hope you don’t mind that the Zucker annotation runs a bit over. She uses a lot of white space, and word placement and white space are integral to the meaning of her poems. So quoting her meant that I had less space than usual for the actual annotation. I feel like I was able to delve into the text of Zucker’s work, but am less sure about the annotation on Matejka’s book. I found myself fascinated with the conversation about “lyric narrative” poetry in the essays I cite in the Matejka annotation, and I’m afraid it took over the paper a bit. But these meta-issues were important for me to consider: the legacy of Confessionalism, the narrative “I,” and the current literary trends toward language-focused work and away from narrative. One of the thing that I liked best about Dante Di Stefano’s piece was the way that he put into context the arc of poetry in the 20th century, from Imagism to High Modernism to Confessionalism, and beyond.[1] When I studied poetry as an undergrad, the latter half of those shifts were still underway. I didn’t have the perspective to consider them from Di Stefano’s point of view. Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Second Packet”

Small Press Love in Massachusetts

Erica Charis-Molling at Mass Poetry has published a wonderful series of interviews with local small presses that publish poetry. Small presses are the lifeblood of the poetry world, and poets who publish with them often receive more support and creative control than with nationally known publishing houses. Also, buying local is good for so many reasons. Follow the links below to read about these vibrant, innovative organizations.

Perugia Press
Editor and Director Rebecca Hart Olander

Human Error Publishing
Founder Paul Richmond

Aforementioned
Co-founder Randolph Pfaff

Rose Metal Press
Co-founders Abigail Beckel (Publisher) and Kathleen Rooney (Editor)

Ibbetson Street Press
Director Doug Holder

Central Square Press
Editor Enzo Silon Surin

Grid Books
Editor Elizabeth Murphy

Broadsided Press
Editor Elizabeth Bradfield

Cervena Barva Press
Founder and Editor Gloria Mindock

October, November, and December 2019 Poetry Readings in Boston and Environs

Poetry and all that jazz

From the height of leaf season all the way to the winter holiday of your choice, we’ve got you covered with poetry readings in and around Boston. Thanks to Daniel Bouchard for compiling these listings.

Thursday, October 24, 4:30 pm
Faculty Poetry Reading
Heineman Ecumenical Center
Framingham State University
Worcester, MA

Thursday, October 24, 5:30 pm
Adrianna Kalopoulou
Brown University
McCormack Family Theater
70 Brown St.
Providence, RI
free and open to the public

Thursday, October 24, 7:30-9:30 pm
Nadia Colburn
reading and book launch
The Lilypad, Inman square
1353 Cambridge St.
Cambridge, MA

Continue reading “October, November, and December 2019 Poetry Readings in Boston and Environs”

UPDATED: September and October 2019 Poetry Readings in Boston and Environs

Signs of autumn: the first orange leaf on the sidewalk, the first apple off the tree, the post-Labor-Day traffic jam. And the return of Daniel Bouchard’s poetry listings. See below for a multitude of free or close-to-free events. Of special note: Charles Coe and Sandee Story at the Old Manse tomorrow night; Terrance Hayes at Smith College Sept 24; Martha Collins at Old Cambridge Baptist Church Sept 22; and Danielle Legros Georges at the Frugal Bookstore in Dudley Square Sept 21. Also on the Boston side of the Charles, the return of Rozzie Reads, featuring Mignon Ariel King and William Orem Sept 26.

Friday, September 6
Charles Coe, Danielle Fontaine, and Sandee Storey
Old Manse in Concord
Concord, MA

Friday, September 6, 7 pm
Cervena Barva Press Poetry Translation Roundtable Series
Arts at the Armory
191 Highland Avenue
Somerville, MA

Sunday, September 8, 1 – 3 pm
Alix Anne Shaw and Lawrence Kassenich
Poetry: The Art Of Words
Plymouth Public Library/Otto Fehlow Room
132 South St
Plymouth, MA

Thursday, September 12, 7 pm
Bert Stern & Frannie Lindsay
Cervena Barva Press Reading Series
Arts at the Armory
191 Highland Avenue
Somerville, MA
$5

Saturday, September 14, 3 pm
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell & Rhina P. Espaillat
Powow River Poets Reading Series
Newburyport Public Library
92 State Street
Newburyport, MA
Continue reading “UPDATED: September and October 2019 Poetry Readings in Boston and Environs”