Saturday, March 17, 2007

Interview with poet Michael Graves with Charles Ries

By: Michael Graves
Black Buzzard Press
Price: $15.95
80 Pages/ 9 Poems

ISBN: 0-938872-29-X

Order from:
Michael Graves
The Phoenix Reading Series
P. O. Box 84
Dyker Heights Station
8320 13th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11228

Review/Interview By: Charles P. Ries

Adam and Cain is Michael Graves first full length collection of poetry. He work has been widely published, and well received within academic journal. In 2004 he was the recipient of a grant of $4,500 from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. He has taught full-time for The Pennsylvania State University and been an adjunct for various branches of The City University of New York for fifteen years. Currently, he is an adjunct at New York City Technical College of The City University of New York

When Carol Novack, Editor of the edgy on line literary magazine, Mad Hatters Review ( asked if I would review a new book of poetry by a writer named Michael Graves I was expecting free verse, something crazy and narrative like much of the work I read on her site. I was surprised when the book I got in the mail was (what I have come to consider), academic in style – a style that often leaves me lost, losing interest, and running for my dictionary. In Adam and Cain, Graves uses the original story of sibling rivalry, and turns it into a morality tale that transcends its biblical origins. Using a series of nine long poems Graves tells his version of this story. Here are part #1 and #2 from the forth poem in this collection titled, “Cain to Adam”: “#1 / At first, / There was one, / Adam, the Master, / Unrivalled. / Now, / There are brothers / Who envy their father, / But tremble to show it, / It is not so, / Abel, my brother, / You, whose face I see / When I look for my own / in the still waters of dream? // #2 / I would do anything / To quiet the voice / That argues within. / The unceasing voice / That drives me to fight / With arrogant Adam - / That tyrant! / And rages and quails / At the peacekeeping gestures and words / Of smooth, solicitous Eve! // O, brother, blest is your peace!”

While I have written over one hundred poetry book reviews, I don’t have an MFA. I wondered if I was qualified to review a collection of poems as erudite as this one. Everything I know about poetry has been through my own reading, living in the small press, and talking with (mostly) non-academically trained poets. Maybe I not a fan of formal poetry out ignorance, but I just don’t find it accessible. I think this issue of accessibility is at the core of the debate I often see in the small press between academically trained poets and non-academically trained poets. Some, in the non-academic small press would say poets like Graves have lost contact with the people and common expression; and some in the academic press would say the work of non-academic small press poets is not informed through study, and has not progressed.

So what was I supposed to do? Toss this book or deal with it? I knew certain poetry circles find Michael Graves work to be exceptional, and this made me curious enough to ask Graves if he would help me understand why I should care about his work. He graciously agreed to do so.

CPR: You are an academically trained writer; how does this training color or influence your writing?

MG: I am an academically trained writer, but one of the academics who trained me, James Wright, was a translator of and deeply influenced by twentieth century Spanish language poets such as Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, to mention only two. He also translated Georg Trakl, an important early twentieth century Vienese poet, among other German writers. Wright’s association with Robert Bly is well-known so I think I don’t need to go into it here. The brilliant Joycean Leonard Albert who arranged my introduction to Wright frequently encouraged me to be sure to read “juicy” work not included in the canon.

I think academic should be divided into at least two categories--the academic which honors and celebrates the archetypal, the universal, that approaches its subject rigorously, but humbly, say Socratically, with a genuine sense that basic assumptions and truths might be true but must be tested, explored, presented, etc., over and over and second the dead arrogant, prescriptive only academic. The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life. The arrogant academic would be that which honored only the canon of DWEMs –Dead White European Males, with only token exceptions, and it would assume it always had the final say as to what was worth reading and why. Dictionaries and those who work on them recognize the reality that language is a living thing and that words and meanings and usages phrases enter languages and become accepted, so why shouldn’t academics recognize that poems come into being and gain and deserve recognition, even if they compete with canonical works for attention.

CPR: Adam and Cain is your first full collection of poems; have you done chaps? How come so few books of poetry?

MG: I have a chapbook Outside St. Jude’s (REM Press, 1990) from an extremely small press that a friend, Remington Murphy published for awhile. It’s been reissued as an e-book by Ram Devineni who publishes Rattapallax. It’s available by going to the Rattapallax site and as a pdf. I also have a chapbook Illegal Border Crosser forthcoming from Gloria Mindock’s Cervena Barva Press

I have about another five to six hundred good or better than good poems on a wide range of subjects. I have one manuscript ready to mail out and the rest are waiting for me to find the time and energy to finish organizing into mss. That work was interrupted by my mother’s death in March, 2006. Gloria Mindock is interested in publishing a full-length collection. Last but not least, this is an opportunity for a good publisher to get some of my work while it’s still available!

CPR: Do you rewrite your poems extensively?

MG: Though I rewrite some poems extensively, in general, the answer is no, but they have long gestation periods. Some are looked at over many years, five, ten, fifteen until I know what to do. They are often not finished when they come, but they are often close. I jot notes for poems all the time. And I have long stretches when I’m thinking about writing on and off all day long. I suppose I’m obsessive and don’t mind thinking about trying to transform my life, especially my inner life, into poetry. However, I know that writers can be extremely unreliable commentators on their own creative processes, like a narrator in a novel.

CPR: In your Cervena Barva Press interview you say, “The book [Adam and Cain] was written slowly over many years. The initial impulse came to be during Leonard Albert’s course Religious Ideas in Modern Fiction, and I think the style of the poems might be indebted to Auerbach’s discussion of Biblical style in Minesis.” You also say, it was written in a ‘non-discursive in a high modernist manner.’ What is Minesis? What is a non-discursive in a high modernist manner?

MG: I started the book with the short story Cain in Exile, originally titled Cain and written for Leonard Albert’s course in the short story, probably sometime in 1976-77. I finished the book in 2005. So, the book took about thirty years to complete. Mimesis is the transliteration of Aristotle’s word for imitation. He writes that art imitates life; mimesis is the representation of life. After that, it gets complicated: we could probably say that any poem or work of fiction imitates life. I think it becomes a question of by what means, in what style, what degree of success, what truth?

By non-discursive high modernist manner I mean that the transitions are left out between the poems and that the reader must think about the relationship of the parts without help from the writer. Also, the reader is not told how to interpret the work. For example, he is not told Adam inflicts a psychic wound on Cain. The rationale is the writer need not tell the obvious to the reader and that the reader gets more pleasure out of participating in the creation of the text, and that the impact of what he gets is more powerful and profound, and that it is modern in a deep sense to give the reader the freedom to determine for himself.

CPR: What audience did you have in mind when you wrote Adam and Cain? Will my neighbors who shop at the Pic’n Save down the street enjoy this book?

MG: Everybody who’s interested in poetry. Everybody who doesn’t say I hate Biblical themes on principle. Everybody who doesn’t say there must be no difficulty in poetry. Everybody who doesn’t say the Bible is the final word and no one can add to or subtract from it. Anybody who hears the music in the poems and imagines the human situation will feel their power. I have already had a wide range of readers buy or praise this book, readers without college degrees, from various ethnic groups, people from various walks of life.

CPR: A few of your metaphors in Adam and Cain were meaningless to me because I am not a biblical scholar; so in a sense these metaphors have not deepened my appreciation of your work, but obscured it. Maybe as we read widely, travel, think, experience life with growing awareness and evolve, our art reflects this insight and complexity of thought that come with our personal and creative growth. For example, we may use metaphors that are common to us, but uncommon to most people. I recently read a New York Times Book Review interview with a noted poetry critic who said she didn’t review poetry collections from writers born after 1950 because she felt so out of touch with some of the cultural images they were using (cartoons characters, TV. shows, cultural events, movies etc) images that were very clear to them, but not clear to her.

MG: Absolutely, there are books I could not do justice to. For one example, I find Allen Mandelbaum's, The Maxioms of Chelm beyond me, I have not found the time and energy to look up the terms I don't know, though I have spent some time looking for critical articles on it, but I love its music. Though I like to think one could sense/perceive that something is interesting, worthwhile, etc., even if one's grasp of it were limited.

CPR: Do you feel elevated or formal language, such as you use in Adam and Cain, looses its audience because it is difficult to grasp?

MG: No. My most important audience is composed of people who can enter and/or accept the book. In one sense, the audience by definition is the people who read the book. I’m not writing for people who won’t look a word up when necessary. I suppose it’s fair to call the language elevated, but I think the better term, which you mention, is formal. It carries no negative or satiric connotations. And there are plenty of poems in the collection that are made of easily understood mono or disyllabic words only.

CPR: You wanted Adam and Cain to be read; yet your writing style will not be accessible to most people. Why publish it?

MG: I’m not worried about being a best seller and I’m not sure my work won’t reach a wide audience. Nonetheless, I am aware that it is quite possible that it won’t. Perhaps this comparison would be helpful: getting to really know someone takes time and effort. Even though there is a place for connections that are immediate and wonderful, all too often, when we connect immediately and “completely” we are sorry later. Most of us would agree that long term relationships need investments of time, energy, willingness, open mindedness, dialogue, etc and we are very used to saying reading a book is a conversation… In addition, I think that Adam and Cain has qualities that a reader could connect with immediately. Sir Philip Sidney settled for, “Fit audience though few.” I want as many fit audience members as possible, and I think a lot of them are out there. Whether or not I’ll reach them…

CPR: What attracted you to this morality tale?

MG: I think the key moment came in Leonard Albert’s class Religious Ideas in Fiction or The Bible as Literature, when he pointed out that God gave no reason for His rejection of Cain’s gift in the King James Bible. To paraphrase, I thought something like “What an amazing thing.” I didn’t have these words but it pointed to God’s nature as Manichean and suggested Gnostic perspectives on Biblical texts were possible. I think there was also something deeply rebellious in me. I had already shown some of my writing to Professor Albert and he had voiced the opinion that I had an argument with God, very unMiltonic I suppose! And I had already discovered my conflicted anger, which might be too mild an expression, at my parents.

CPR: In the same Cervena Barva Press interview you say Jame Joyce is a big influence of yours. The American writer, Max Eastman once asked Joyce why Finnegan’s Wake was written in a very difficult style and Joyce replied, “To keep critic busy for three hundred yeas.” Some critics considered this book a masterpiece, though many readers found it incomprehensible. I guess you don’t find Joyce incomprehensible? How come I do?

MG: I’m willing to read a lot of Joyce criticism and join Joyce reading groups.

CPR: Fair enough, but tell me why you love James Joyce and how has he influenced your writing?

MG: Joyce was one of the very first writers I was exposed to after I returned to school and he represented the triumph of the artist over repression. The first of his works that made a major impact on me was Dubliners. Central to Joyce’s purpose in that collection of stories was the revelation to both the reader and the characters that the characters were trapped and paralyzed in a living death, although the naturalistic surface of stories remained undisturbed. I encountered those stories at a messianic phase in my life and they filled me with enthusiasm.

I have spent many years misreading Joyce in important ways and unable to penetrate much of his work, especially Finnegans Wake, but what was accessible to me was so immediately rewarding, so full of beauty, human importance, respect for art, intellectual interest and excellence, I have been willing to persist in my attempt to read him. It is said of Joyce that one only rereads him. His work has inspired me to explore the sexual content of religious symbols and images, to strive to make theme/form and content inseparable, to explore indeterminacy in narrative sequences, to charge writing with as much meaning as possible.

CPR: Let’s talk about whether or not poetry can not be formal. I believe this term (form) is most often used when referring to academics that choose to write within various forms (sonatas etc). Yes, narrative poetry is a form; but for the most part narrative poetry, of the sort I find throughout the small press and enjoy, does not obscure.

MG: There is no necessary opposition between form and clarity. It could be argued that form is a clarity that emerges from the flux or obscurity of experience or that form is the underlying structure or can be. The sonnet, for example, is based on the statement of a situation or problem in the first eight lines, which reaches its fullest tension about the eighth line and the comment or resolution in the last six. It is a form that is true to the mind’s perception of experience: problem and solution. It is true that some forms, such as the sestina, if followed rigorously, are complicated and difficult. But even so, the content in a form need not be obscure; need not be filled with arcane or specialized facts or allusions. Narratives have formal elements, as I assume you agree—plot, protagonists, narrators, conflicts, symbols, irony, setting, situation, rising action, climax, resolution, images. I think the question is always whether or not they are well used.

CPR: It feels like our poetry worlds are, indeed, worlds apart. Do your students at NY City Technical College relate to your poetry?

MG: Surprisingly, yes, some of the students do relate to my poems. I read them a selection from Adam and Cain and my other work. Of course, some of them have little interest in English and little if any of the course content seems to reach them. It’s not appropriate to read them many of my poems or spend a lot of time on them. I teach remedial writing and freshman composition. And City Tech students are not succeeding at passing the CPE, the Competency Proficiency Exam, so there is great concern to get them ready for the Final exam. I think that teaching poetry could be one way to try to get them enthusiastic about language, but our curriculum doesn’t really include that as much of an option. Our freshman composition course has a required text and there is only one poem in it, but I take a little time near the end of semester to give the students a sense of who I am as a writer, and some of them feel the emotion the poems generate and give –I can’t find the words,--grunts, wows, gasps. Not a whole lot of them, but some. This semester I had a student ask to purchase the book. I asked him to contact me after the semester ended, that is, after final grades went in. Though he asked twice, I haven’t heard from him, so he might have been hoping to influence his grade.

CPR: How old are you? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have children?

MG: I’m 55. I work as an adjunct instructor; technically I believe the term is lecturer for the City University of New York and a reader for a faculty member at New Jersey City University with weak eyes. I’m single and don’t have any children. I still have fantasies, but I’m getting old….

CPR: We are both getting old; but (I pray) immeasurably wiser. Thank you for widening both my vocabulary and my mind with regard formal poetry and narrowing the great divide between academic and non-academic poets.

Graves earlier comment that, “long term relationships need investments of time, energy, willingness, open mindedness and dialogue” has timeless truth to it. How many times have I been surprised to become close with someone who after a first and second meeting I feel no connection with? Yet over time something begins to happen; we begin to be aware of something deeper. Through process of preparing this review I have had to look deeper, think deeper, and read again. Adam and Cain was no fast dance, but I got through it. It was hard work, and I will read it again. After all, we’ve become friends.


If you would like to hear Michael Graves read his “Blatnoy Series go to:

To find Michael Graves interview in Cervena Brava Press go to: (


Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and sixty print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing, and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot ( and Pass Port Journal ( He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore ( in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: .

Friday, March 16, 2007

Review of "The Gardner and the Bees " Helena Minton

Review of The Gardener and the Bees by Helena Minton

$9 plus $2 S&H to March Street Press, 3414 Wilshire, Greensboro, NC27408.> web site address: email address:> _rbixby@earthlink.net_ (

Helen Minton has a new poetry book out called The Gardener and the Bees. Like Emily Dickinson1 and Marianne Moore2, Minton is a modern poet who pays intricate attention to word usage and concrete imagery. In her poems, Minton takes ordinary observations, adds some unusual twists and turns and makes her poetry something special to read. She writes about nature and its influences on human experiences, especially focusing on gardening, flowers, animals, and nature’s relationships with man/woman. She paints with words. Sometimes the tone of a poem is happy; sometimes it’s sad; sometimes it changes from happy to sad; or sometimes it’s simply angry.

And she writes about personal experiences, too, as seen in “The Birch” (p. 26), when the speaker recalled planting a birch with her father and says, “The week before my wedding/how did we find a moment, my father and I, who rarely/worked together with our hands?/During the tissue-paper preparations/it felt urgent that we dig,/heft the compact root ball. Lowered it. Pack in the dirt./Less urgent as we stood back and admired what we’d planted,”(Stanza 1) How more personal can an experience between father and daughter (or son) get?

Or, as read in “Building the Compost” (pp. 16-17), how more personal can a moment be as when the speaker describes a scene where a woman creates a frame for compost upon the request of her husband and Minton writes “Now, he thinks, she will be happy.” and has the woman “…herself moving/toward the thrift/of a woman in wartime,/saving scraps, starting seeds/for a victory garden.” (Stanzas 11-12) Though written in the third person, Minton has the reader appreciate the personal achievement of the woman.

In “The Birch” and “Building the Compost”, Minton has illustrated how the speaker deals with the main masculine figures in her life.

Minton writes with wit and imagination, as viewed in “Wedding Day” (p. 27). She has taken an ordinary, though special, event and changed it into a potentially disastrous one which, through a twist of fate and imagination, everything turns out okay. The speaker says, “Out of the branches, inch-long bodies fell/all afternoon, softly, on the patio,/on the chairs and the tablecloths/as the brown creatures stripped trees of green./My father paid the grandchildren/a penny a bug to collect them.” How unfortunate for the bride and groom and everyone present to experience this act of nature. But, Minton wittingly writes that “The caterpillars don’t appear in any pictures./They never dropped in my hair/or landed on the neck of a guest,/or were caught in David’s Mexican wedding shirt.” So things didn’t turn out as badly as the reader first thought they would. Though Minton’s use of imagery and description and wit, she has captured the reader’s attention and left him/her feeling like the children at the wedding – “…not frightened/as they filled their buckets/strung between the maples limbs,/close to lovely from this distance.” (Stanza 1)

Often she writes with vivid detail and description, as seen in her opening poem “Perennial Bed” (p. 3). The reader can visualize Minton’s bees who “spend hours/on the saucers of rose sedum, their curled legs moving over petals/fleshy as rubber brushes” (Stanza 1) or the lone bee who “lands on a filament/ of coreopsis moonbeam,/floating down, down to the dirt,/then flung back/through the undulating architecture.” (Stanza 2)

Her poetry is often sensual, appealing to the mind and the body, and allows the reader’s mind to look for pleasure3, as read in her poem “The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens”(p. 31), where the speaker “stroll(s) past hibiscus/jacaranda and frangipani,/ through the black shadows of the banyan,/crushed oyster shells underfoot,/in the early morning Florida cold/sharp as a comb across the scalp.” (Stanza 1) The speaker is enjoying herself as she is “trying, as I tried last year,/to learn the difference/between palmate and pinnate, royal and sabal,/and the lower fanned shrubs/which look like palms but are not.” (Stanza 2) The reader is having a pleasant time reading the poem that Minton ends happily questioning, “Who said we should suffer/to study flowers?” (Stanza 4) Minton’s style is sincere, sometimes feminine, sometimes heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking. She doesn’t use traditional stanzas and doesn’t rhyme words, though her sentences flow smoothly, as if the speaker is having a conversation with the reader.

It may take a couple of reads to understand Minton’s inner meanings in her poetry, The Gardener and the Bees is just like the title suggests – a productive, happy yet possibly confrontational experience. As the speaker concludes in “Perennial Bed”,
“Let them sting me,/brash as I am.” (Stanza 3) Minton has written a book of poetry that should be read and enjoyed and discussed by both men and women.
1 “Dickinson, Emily │Introduction: Feminism in Literature”, 2007.
2 “Moore, Marianne │ Introduction: Feminism in Literature”, 2007.
3 John Timpane, Ph.D. with Maureen Watts, Poetry FOR DUMMIES, New York: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2001, p. 31

Pam Rosenblatt/ Ibbetson Update

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Alfred Nicol: From Printer to Award-Winning Poet

Alfred Nicol: From Printer to Award-Winning Poet.

By Doug Holder

Alfred Nicol, a graduate of Dartmouth College, worked as a printer for twenty years. During this time he continued to write poetry and honed his craft. Nicole left his printing business and now concentrates on his writing full time. He is a member of the Powow River Poets of Newburyport, Mass, and edited the critically acclaimed anthology “Powow River Anthology.” He is the recipient of the 2004 Richard Wilbur Award for his first book of poetry “Winter Light.” (University of Evansville Press). His poems have appeared in “Poetry,” “The New England Review,” and many others. I talked with Nicol on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “”Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer”

Doug Holder: You worked as a printer for many years after graduating Dartmouth. Can you talk about this, and why you gave it up to write fulltime?

Alfred Nicol: I began as a pressman. My father had worked in a factory. We take this model of what a man should do. I had the idea if I took this artisan position, then I would have my mind to myself in the evening. But I wound up exhausted at the end of the day. So I tried to get up earlier and earlier before the kids got up so I could write. It didn’t work out that well. Eventually I got the opportunity to give it up.

Doug Holder: What do you do for a living now?

Alfred Nicol: I live the life of Riley. I punch in to my studio and write my poems.

Doug Holder: You are part of the Powow River Poets, and edited their anthology. Can you talk about the group and your involvement?

Alfred Nicol: The Powwow River Poets don’t have a head. Rhina Espalliat brought the group together. There are so many personalities in the group. She is someone who can smooth over the rough edges. She is a great encourager. The Powow River is an absolutely democratic group. There is no one in charge. What I did with this anthology was to honor this diverse group. It has sold well for a poetry book. There are 24 poets represented. Bill Coyle, a distinguished poet from Somerville is included, as well as Len Krisak, Deborah Warren, Richard Wollman and others. There are more formalist poets in this group than there would be in a slice of any other group of poets.

Doug Holder: I am told that you started out as a Free Verse poet but switched to Formalist. What happened?

Alfred Nicol: This is true. I had been writing Beat-influenced verse for over 20 years. The first poem I brought to a workshop, the poet Len Krisak commented “Not bad for Free Verse.” I took offense. I thought: “I’ll show this guy.” So I did. I thought my experience with Formalism would be a hit and run affair, but having done it just once I was so taken with working with meter that I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop playing with it. I haven’t stopped playing with it.

Doug Holder: Rhina Espaillat wrote of your work “Nicol is much more than a poet’s poet, he is also a reader’s poet, and his work, though dazzling, is not intended to simply dazzle but to convey, with charm and profundity, the experience of our common life.” Do you think poetry is “common?”

Alfred Nicol: Well, poetry has to be uncommon no matter where it gets it start. I suppose what Rhina is saying is that if you are writing about your neighbors then you are writing about the common life. But you still better make it poetry if you are going to call it poetry.

Doug Holder: What makes it poetry?

Alfred Nicol: I’m not going to take the easy route; saying you put into verse and make it rhyme. You have to lift away from common speech. It has to urge the reader toward song. As you read it or write it, somehow the work has to be a magnet and take you away from common speech towards song.

Doug Holder; You won the prestigious Richard Wilbur Award for your book “Winter Light.” How would you have handled this when you were younger as opposed to now at 51?

Alfred Nicol: The way it affected me now is it allowed me to publish a book. I waited a long time. I started writing as a high school student. I never thought I was anything but a poet. You don’t need to have the world applaud you to keep on writing, but it sure does help. It helps for someone to acknowledge that it has been worthwhile. It tells you that you haven’t wasted your life.

Doug Holder: Would you have said you wasted your life if you didn’t win the award?

Alfred Nicol: I don’t think I would have. (Laughs.)

Doug Holder: Are you the product of an MFA program, or do you consider yourself part of any school?

Alfred Nicol: No, but I had a lot of good teachers at Dartmouth like Sydney Lea.

In what sense am I nearer to my God
For being here? This priest's a kindly dullard:
His sermon's borrowed, stumbled through slipshod.
These windows are not art, though brightly colored.
The choirmaster's voice is grandiose.
My neighbor in the pew would have me gone.
(Such spinsters clutch the third commandment close.)
The muscles of the neck suppress a yawn.
How many of the men believe as I do,
Who come to waste part of this least of days
Waiting in hope to kindle faith, or try to
Affect the candle's flicker with my gaze,
Or watch, as the communicants parade
Back to their seats, to see the glimmer fade?

Alfred Nicol

Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update