Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Sunday Poet: Judy Katz-Levine

Judy Katz-Levine

Judy Katz-Levine is an internationally published poet who has authored two full-length collections - Ocarina (SARU) and When The Arms Of Our Dreams Embrace (SARU). Her most recent chapbook is When Performers Swim, The Dice Are Cast (Ahadada). Her poems have appeared recently in Blue Unicorn, Ibbetson St., and Salamander.

 Mississippi John Hurt

I would desire the hands of Mississippi John Hurt, the fingers
just slightly bent and with a touch of arthritis, though he
has spent a life-time caressing that gentle guitar, calling
to his folks you got to travel that lonesome road all by yourself
and the humbleness of his voice, just a touch of a rasp, eyes
that know far more than the eyes of a scholar, glancing up at the
now and then only now and then, it isn't really trains one hears
in the blues guitar, it may be a walk with a grandchild down
by the river, or the grace bestowed after singing “Amazing Grace”
in the church near the homes of cousins getting ready to go out
and toss a baseball to the sky. I would desire, as I age, the fingers
of Mississippi John Hurt, which symbolize a life lived without
greed, without any malice whatsoever, any grab to power, and the
unearthly gentleness in his voice, yes, I would desire that.

- Judy Katz-Levine,

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Thin Wall. Martha Rhodes.

Martha Rhodes

The Thin Wall Martha Rhodes. University of Pittsburg Press 53 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6453-7.


Nicholas Kristof, the liberal columnist for the New York Times, ran a poetry contest recently asking for poems about President Trump. He then printed the winners.
Here is one he chose: “If God has made men in his image/Please explain our new President’s visage.” The poem continues with the rest of the limerick. Apparently clever, rhymed limericks is what Mr. Kristof thinks of as good poetry and Mr. Kristof is a well-educated person.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, a well-meaning English teacher laments the fact that he doesn’t teach poetry in his classes; he would like to if only he had time. I taught high school for a number of years and I was surprised to learn that few of my colleagues taught poetry in their classes. They confessed they didn’t understand the poetry in The New Yorker and didn’t know what made poetry good anymore. Instead they read novels and memoirs and drama in their classes and on their own.

I bring this up to point out that poetry today is kind of a mess. There isn’t much agreement on what poetry is. Instead there are many different types of poetry or schools of poetry, created by universities and academics and beyond those schools, there is poetry outside the academy and beyond that, there is poetry that is popular with readers and fans. There is also rap, and spoken word. There are sites like “Hello Poetry” where people post poetry that is shared. “I love poetry/ an easy way to express/ my innermost thoughts.” Then there are rhymed religious poems read by funeral directors and poems written by best men at weddings. That is, there is an immense range, and quite a divide between what the public thinks of as good poetry and what the academy considers good poetry. The latest trend of blackout or erasure poetry is, on the one hand kind of interesting, on the other, a sign of creative bankruptcy.

In the last twenty years MFA Programs have surged and multiplied (hundreds of programs and thousands of yearly grads) and have become more academic. In fact, many writers who get MFAs now go on to get PhDs. In any case, academics, when they can, aim to control and define the arts. This happened with fiction back in the 1970s and 80s, but by the 90s, the public got fed up with all those post-modern pseudo-intellectual novels full of narrators talking about the novel and novels with multiple endings or with no endings at all and fiction returned to what it does best: telling stories that are well-written because those are the stories that sell and get made into movies.

Unfortunately, poetry doesn’t sell and doesn’t get made into movies. Poetry is more like painting and sculpture except it doesn’t look so good on your wall or in le jardin. But since there are so many MFA Programs, publishers figured out that they could sell books of poems to all those MFA grads. At the same time publishing and printing have evolved so that publishers can print on demand and no longer have to invest in a few thousand copies of a book before putting it on sale so that it is much easier now to get a book published by a small, independent press or even to publish it yourself. The result is that we have thousands of books flooding the market. Yet there are few critics of poetry who have been able to define the poetry of our age. In fact, for the most part, no one even criticizes poetry. Instead, people just write positive reviews of poetry that they like. This creates an odd situation where there are a number of poets who write prose that is merely broken into lines. And there are poets whose poetry really is aimed at an academic audience. The T.S. Eliot’s of our day.

Martha Rhodes is a prominent figure in the landscape of contemporary poetry. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence and in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College; she is the Director of Four Way Books in New York. Her new book, The Thin Wall, has been published by Pittsburg Press. It is a slim volume of 53 pages divided into three sections, each with a number of poems, usually one to a page, with no titles. The sections are: (Burden of Inheritance), (Yard Fire), and (Looking Down). Those section titles are in parentheses. Why are they in parentheses? It seems a bit self-conscious, doesn’t it? Here is the first poem:

There are apples,
buckets of
and heads wet from the dunking.
A witch ‘round every corner.
Jury and judge.
A pond of bodies bobbing, condemned.
And nineteen nooses wait.
That seven-gabled house.
Girls run the streets accusing
the accused. In Salem Village,
Goody Proctor bears her child in jail.
Our party pays to tour the next grey house.

This is the most successful poem in the first section. This is our inheritance here in New England: the witchcraft and the hangings. Throw them in the pond to see if they float and if they do, they must be witches! The narrator sees this in her mind as she is on a tour. There’s wit in the last line—that we should pay to see this past of ours. And the self-conscious use of language shows up again. Why “buckets of” as a separate line rather than: There are buckets of apples. The off-rhyme with judge is there either way. Why isn’t it titled “That seven-gabled house” rather than insinuating that line in the middle of the poem awkwardly just to set up the last line?

Other poems in the first section are not so resonant. One poem begins: “The air was heavy with blood. /The boys washed off in the Merrimack.” That’s a little too heavy handed. So too another poem that begins: “Both of us under one boy or another./That’s how we spent our senior year.” That sounds like the beginning of a Chelsea Manning confession in Vogue. I don’t actually believe that anyone spent her senior year under one boy or another. Here’s how another poem begins: “Boys, girls, some of them siblings,/spawning in bathtubs all over town./ Drown them?” It sounds like The Beans of Egypt Maine where kids crawled under the porches and no one knew to whom they belonged. There’s a kind of condescension at work here, assuming personas that do not ring true.

The second section is called (Yard Fire). It is about relationships. The first poem is about loss:

A crow at my mouth.
The bread from me

it stole. I felt
like a flour sack,

pecked, consumed,
scattered. Enough dust

to dust. You, just gone.

That certainly captures the feeling of devastation when someone dies—the hour of lead, Emily Dickenson called it. Of course Emily’s poems were written before God died. Now there is no recourse. Nice sequence at the end of the poem with all that assonance.

The last section is called (Looking Down). In a couple of poems the narrator is in fact looking down at another or another’s body. There’s humor in this section. One poem begins: “Your dog’s dinner. /What you feed the chickens. /The mud at the bottom of the Charles. /I’m what washes up on the Merrimack’s shore.” The poet is personifying all that’s rejected and cast off. “I’m everyone’s former friend. /I’m his former wife.”

In the final poem of the book, the title comes up: “Nothing is the thin wall of glass (as thin as skin)/ just over there…nothing grabs us all, good or bad, boy/girl popular, un-, you…” So, when you read that, you might agree, Yes! It really does. Or you might not. Apparently, the publishers at Pittsburg Press think, Yes! “Nothing” separates and gets to us all. But can the word “nothing” when used as the subject of a sentence have agency? “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Frost said and maybe Rhodes is playing off the Frost line.
There’s clearly an aesthetic and a worldview at work in these poems and if you identify with her sensibility, you will enjoy them. Martha Rhodes is widely published and, by just about any measure, quite successful as a poet. The fact that University of Pittsburg Press and a number of highly respected magazines publish her work is testimony to a particular type of poetry, “furious and viral,” Susan Wheeler calls it although I don’t know where these poems would ever go viral. There’s a psychic distance between the poet and her subjects that undermines her authenticity. Rick Barot says, “demanding as they are beautiful.” Beauty, and the appreciation of it, seems pretty rare in this collection.
In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Ben Lerner talks about a problem he sees as endemic to poetry.
The main demand associated with lyric poetry is that an individual poet can or must produce both a song that’s irreducibly individual—it’s the expression of their specific humanity, because it’s this intense, internal experience—and that is also shareable by everyone, because it can be intelligible to all social persons, so it can unite a community in its difference. And that demand… is impossible.

Of course it is not impossible. It is difficult, particularly today in our fragmented world. Whitman said, “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.”

We seem to be in a transition period for poetry. Here’s hoping that the recent popularity of writing, reading and performing poetry leads to a better sense of what good poetry is and what it is good for. Literary magazines call for poetry that pushes the boundaries; we would be better off with poetry that makes connections with tradition but reflects our age. Too much of what appears in our literary magazines today works too hard to break with traditional poetry and results in either not being poetry at all or in being self-conscious and awkward under the auspices of the experimental. Maybe a few great poets will create great audiences.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

April 2017 -- Poet Bert Stern Receives the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award

( Harris Gardner (left)  Bert Stern)

Bert Stern received the Ibbetson Street Press-- Lifetime Achievement Award last Sunday at the Boston National Poetry Festival founded by Harris Gardner left. Past recipients include, Afaa Michael Weaver, David Godine, Louisa Solano, Sam Cornish, Gloria Mindock, Jack Powers, Robert Pinsky, Robert K. Johnson, Steve Glines, Harris Gardner, and others...

Monday, April 10, 2017

Interview with Amy Small-McKinney by Susan Tepper

Interview with Amy Small-McKinney by Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper: Your new poetry collection ‘Walking Toward Cranes’ (Glass Lyre Press) involves a personal illness and what it took to walk away from that segment of your life. Because our lives are, in a way, crafted like novels. Did you start these poems during the illness stage or after?

Amy Small-McKinney: Thank you Susan for this question. Before answering, your assertion that our lives, in a way, are crafted like novels, fascinates me because I am not a novel writer, though I love reading them. I would have no idea where to begin! And I suspect if I did try to write a novel, it would jump in and out of the present to other times because my brain, especially while writing poems, works that way. I believe that I don’t know how to write a linear narrative; it is not how my mind works. Having said that, while putting ‘Walking Toward Cranes’ together, I did begin to see the pattern and the sections. In other words, they emerged after the poems were gathered and organized.

ST: Also being a poet, myself, I understand what you are saying here. It’s almost an organic thing, the way the life organizes the work without our conscious approval.

ASM: I wrote many of the poems from diagnosis through treatment and then recovery from treatment. They began the day of my suspicious mammogram and ultrasound. The poem, Flying Low, was written on the ride home. I remember driving close to my home when a flock of tiny birds swooped in front of my car. I remember pulling over and a poem was emerging. I remember rushing home and writing the poem. I knew it was about the suspected breast cancer. From then on, I wrote and wrote, Susan, with no thoughts of publishing or a book. I wrote for my life. During the chemotherapy, there was a very dark period when I didn’t write much, but even then, when able, I would let anything that needed to be said, just be said. I never thought these would become a book. The other poems were written shortly before or shortly after treatment and seemed to fit.

ST: Flying Low is indeed a poem that foreshadowed an overwhelming event in your life.
You wrote: “…One tried to talk to me. / If I listened, I would know he is tired. / Inside of me, there is a swarm, / surplus only heat will destroy. / …”
Of all the types of writing, it’s my belief that poetry lives closest to the soul or heart or whatever term people use to explain their deepest core selves.

ASM: I agree, but also hesitate to agree because I imagine all writers tap into something below the surface to unearth their stories or poems. I had a friend, a novelist, a mystery writer, who talked to me often about her process and how painful it was for her to find out her characters, no matter how different they seemed, at first blush, from her, ended up having so much of her in them, including things she preferred not to think about. It is what honest writing is about. I tell my students that they can write about a tree or a car or a blueberry, and there will be something of themselves lurking in that tree, car, or blueberry, something that needs to be said. But for me, poetry is everything. I know that sounds corny, but poetry is where I find out what I am feeling and thinking. It is the safest place in the world for me, despite the fear of what might be said. I just finished reading a book by the poet, May Swenson, and so many of her poems were about nature, but also about wanting to be “naked” in poems as she could not be in life. But, yes, poetry does come from that part of myself I could not otherwise hear. I listen hard to it.

ST: That is the ultimate way to write, whether it’s poetry or novel or stories. Close to the bone without the awareness. I can’t imagine story-boarding a novel though many successful novelists do just that. For me it would take away the joy of the journey. Will there be clouds? Will we reach an ocean? Once you’re locked in, the art goes out. You’re walled into structure.
Your poem Being Something Else begins: “A window sheeted in plastic and tape, / draped in nothingness like lace. / A window that dreads winter, snow closing us in. / …”
There is much more here than the literal interpretation, though that in itself is almost lush despite the intention of the poem. You notice I say intention of the poem (not the poet).

Being Something Else #2 follows in the book and is vastly different. A much more optimistic view of things despite the illness still present. It begins: “Fruit carried to our daughter. / Bananas, green. / When brown with pointlessness, / they are rich with tumor necrosis factors. / …”

ASM: Susan, you selected two poems I have difficulty talking about! You rascal! Of course, I have difficulty talking about most of my poems. I can talk at length about poetry by others, but sometimes I feel as though my own work is a mystery to me. Or perhaps, I keep them a secret even from myself. & yes, I do notice the “intention of the poem.” Thanks.

The poem’s intent, I think, is to talk about isolation, fear of loss, and the need to return to the world. I can tell you that I recognize the details. For twenty-five years, we lived in an old and drafty house before moving into an apartment. We lived in that house during my cancer. My chemo treatment was smack in the middle of the worst winter in years; even the clinic needed to close for a few days. At some point, my husband was also ill and I was afraid, I am sure. I remember taking a train to the city on a clear day and feeling a freedom I hadn’t felt during my treatment and during that winter. Apparently, it was not possible to write that as a narrative poem. 
Being Something Else # 2 came about, in part, because a dear poet friend of mine suggested I write a series. It never became a series, but it created this second poem. I remember seeing someone on a train (I live beside a train and love trains) carrying fruit. I imagined carrying fruit to our daughter, again. I read somewhere that those brown bananas I don’t eat have a component, tumor necrosis factor, and that tumor necrosis factor might prevent or fight cancer. I don’t know, but it seems that the poem is trying to talk about a kind of acceptance, maybe acquiescence, but a return to life. But there is something else. The speaker moves along the same track as the tumor necrosis factors, but also as the train where there are morning glories nearby with their mouths opened, almost in song. This is life, isn’t it? We cannot do anything but move along.

 Susan Tepper, an award-winning writer, has been at it for twenty years. Six books of her fiction and poetry have been published, with a seventh book, a novella, forthcoming in the fall of 2017. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, is sporadically ongoing these past nine years.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Sunday Poet: Helen Bar- Lev

Helen Bar Lev
Helen Bar-Lev was born in New York in 1942.   She holds a B.A. in Anthropology, has lived in Israel for 46 years and has held nearly 100 exhibitions of her landscape paintings, 33 of which were one-woman shows.  Her poems and artwork have appeared in numerous online and print anthologies.  Six poetry collections, all illustrated by Helen.  She is the Amy Kitchener senior poet laureate, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2013 and is the recipient of the Homer European Medal for Poetry and Art 2016.  Helen is Assistant to the President of Voices Israel. She lives in Metulla, Israel.

Great Synagogue, Rome

Also a Full Moon

Here in Spain
there is also a full moon
and the hotel
celebrates our exodus
from the holyland
five long days ago
with dishes of calamari
and other sea fruit delicacies;
flamenco dancing
is an after-dinner delight

The full moon and I
eye each other,
he chastises me –
what you doing here
when you should be home
in your Jerusalem
and not in Spanish exile –
don’t you realize
how difficult it was
for the Lord to get you
out of Egypt,
that it was not easy
to move the earth
and the heavens,
to part waters,
and you in your gratitude
flee to Spain,
from which you were forced to exodus
five centuries ago,
to which your kin
were forbidden to return
by rabbinical proclamation,
and this whole land
screams it,
its history
repeats its stupidity
ad infinitum,
and to this country you come
for the convenience
of ignoring
the commemoration
of that other evil exodus
from Egypt
five centuries
plus three thousand
years ago,
before the fact of Jesus
entered any
contemporary imagination,
before Queen Isabella
raped the Americas,
expelled you Jews?  

You know this,
every molecule of you senses it
it has entered your blood stream,
your collective Jewish memory,
it explodes your emotions,
pellets your conscience
and here you thought
you would find
a peaceful vacation,
in this nation alien?

Go home! 
says the full moon,
I say,

© 4.2006 Helen Bar-Lev)
(A Poet's Haggadah, 2008)