Friday, November 21, 2008

Poet Jason Tandon: From High School English Teacher to Charles Simic and The Paris Review.

Poet Jason Tandon: From High School English Teacher to Charles Simic and The Paris Review.

Jason Tandon was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1975. He is the author of Give Over the Heckler and Everyone Gets Hurt, and the winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Rumble Strip (also from sunnyoutside) and Flight, both of which were nominated for the 2008 Massachusetts Book Award. His poems were twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007 and have appeared in many journals, including New York Quarterly, Notre Dame Review, Columbia Poetry Review, The Laurel Review, Poetry International, Poet Lore, and Fugue. Tandon holds a BA and MA in English from Middlebury College and an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. His recently released the poetry collection: “Wee Hour Martyrdom” (sunnyoutside). I spoke with Tandon on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “ Poet to Poet Writer to Writer”

Doug Holder: You studied with Charles Simic, the former U.S. Poet Laureate at the University of New Hampshire. Describe that experience?

Jason Tandon: Simic was a wealth of information. He’s been around forever. He’s met everyone, every contemporary American poet that you can think of. One thing that he always stressed about the lyrical poem was economy. He wanted you to write something that could be read forty or fifty times, and have it still give you something back each time you read it.

I was very, very excited to work with him, naturally. He was “the poet,” if I could have chosen a poet, to have worked with. He certainly delivered. He was very forthcoming with his time. He is such a global figure in poetry. I was worried that he wouldn’t be approachable or reachable. But his office was always open. He responded to emails very quickly. He had a very distinct style of leading a workshop. He was very critical and very forthcoming—he didn’t hold back. He told me what he liked and what he didn’t like. I really appreciated it.

DH: Was he brutal?

JT: He was brutal for all intents and purposes. But I thought it was great. It balanced well with the other professor there who took a very different approach.

I love Simic’s poetry… I love his style, so for me it worked out very well. I love his economy and compression.

DH: In your poem from your recent collection: “ The Room of Absence,” dedicated to Simic, absence speaks very loudly. Why?

JT: The funny thing is I was reading an interview with Simic from the 70’s. He was talking about absence in his poetry. It was a very complicated passage. He was trying to explain how he felt present in the poem but at the same time absent. I really didn’t understand what he was talking about. So I brought it to him in his office and asked him to explain it to me. He reread it and said, “What the bleep does that mean?” He playfully just cast this passage aside. So this was something he talked about in an interview and he had no idea what it meant. “The Room of Absence” was a phrase he used and the rest I suppose is poetry history. I am not sure what the poem means, but they were a series of images that were kicking around in me.

DH: You have published with “sunnyoutside” a small press headed by Dave McNamara, that was once located in Somerville, but now is located in Buffalo, NY. How did you hook up?

JT: I knew one of Dave’s writers at the University of New Hampshire, Nate Graziano. He is a fiction writer and a poet who publishes with sunnyoutside. I gave Nate a few of my poems. He seemed to like them. When I got my first chapbook manuscript together, I was thinking of how to get it published. I was thinking of sunnyoutside. I wrote them a big, long query letter. I told Dave McNamara what I liked about his authors and how my work might fit in. He told me at the time that he was booked up (which is the case with most publishers), and told me to give him a query back in six months. I wrote down the date and sent him the manuscript. Three months later he said he would do it. I started with a chapbook “Rumble Strip,” later my collection “Wee Hour Martyrdom” came out. I couldn’t be happier with the work David does. He is a great editor too.

DH: You had a stint at “The Paris Review” right?

JT: As soon as Charles Simic became editor, (which was in the summer of 2005), he called me up and asked me if I wanted to be an intern reading through the slush pile. We had a little office in the basement of the English Dept. I read through literally thousands of submissions per issue.

DH: Out of those thousands of poems how many were selected?

JT: Maybe 10 to 15 poems…total. But I submit to journals so I know what it is like to be on the other side. And of course I was reading for The Paris Review that has a significant history and standards. Of course it was not the New York office of The Paris Review. It wasn’t glamorous. The office had a desk, chair, a computer, and a phone that didn’t work.

DH: You grew up in Hartford; Conn. Has that city influenced your work at all?

JT: Actually most of what’s in “Wee Hour…” comes from my time living in Malden and Medford. “Rumble Strip,” was taken from living in rural areas like Vermont. Still, I am very influenced by place and people. I don’t know that Hartford influenced me.

DH: You have a minimalist style. Are you of the school of thought that less says more?

JT: Yes. Absolutely. If you have a phrase or image—if you have a few lines that just open up a variety of doors for the reader, you are doing a good thing. I want people to come in contact with my work with their own ideas. I like this better than narrative…I am trying to trigger the imagination of the reader. If you do too much you overdo it.

DH: You presently teach at Boston University. How does that fit with your writing?

JT: I have always enjoyed teaching. I taught before I really decided to write. I taught junior high right after college. I went back to get my MFA. I teach Contemporary American Poetry so I am constantly thinking about and discussing American poets. The students are great.

Breakfast in My Twenties

I'd brew coffee from a can of TV blend,
pull my radio from the wall as far
as it could go, and tune in blues or strings
with luck, that luminous refrain and echo.
Crawl onto my roof, light a smoke and sit
for five or ten to watch a violet cannon or
a carpet gray unroll, while Baba prepared
for the lunch rush in his deli below.
Grilled tahini chicken, falafel and kebob,
I'd bury my nose in my clothes—
O smoke that poured from the vent!
My lungs breathed blood, raw, fresh, my teeth gleamed white.
I could've run five miles each day,
but there was too much to do and see at night.

--Jason Tandon

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Container Gardening. Ellen Steinbaum.

Container Gardening. Ellen Steinbaum. ( Custom Words PO BOX 541106 Cincinnati, Ohio 45254)

Ellen Steinbaum’s poetry collection “Container Gardening” infuses meaning into all the things we carry in this life. It is a long and lyrical grocery list that evokes a late, beloved aunt, the seminal years of the poet’s mother, and the way time creeps up on a person with a flick of an eye. In her poem “Time Travel” Steinbaum weeds through the trappings of the Philadelphia apartment of a recently deceased aunt, and in turn weeds through her own history:

“I am leaving Philadelphia behind:
an apartment closed, silent,
empty, some furniture
given to Goodwill: the last
chairs from the last apartment
of the last of my three aunts.
I am the owner now
Of paintings I know by heart,
china from family dinners in old photographs.
Scarves that fill my drawers
once dressed my dolls.”

And in the poem “Order” Steinbaum compares the painstaking order of her current life—to the wild and joyous disorder of a life with a husband and kids in close proximity:

“I always know where
the tape measure is now,
a pen, a safety pin, my keys.
Not like the years when
shoes tumbled uncoupled
on the floor and every closet
could spill secrets.

Now each day is folded,
neatly stacked in silent drawers
and nothing moves an inch
to left or right.
in an instant I can find
the tape measure.”

Ellen Steinbaum writes a popular column about writers and the writing life in The Boston Globe. In this book she is the subject, and her life yields rich rewards.

Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Don Winter Reviews "The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel" by Doug Holder

( This Review appears in the current issue of "Fight These Bastards" literary magazine founded by Don Winter)

THE MAN IN THE BOOTH IN THE MIDTOWN TUNNEL. By Doug Holder. 2008. 63 pages. $13 Cervena Barva Press. POBOX 440357 W. Somerville, Mass. 02144-3222

Reviewed by Don Winter

Rather than puzzle poems the reader must pick to find meaning, Doug Holder presents crystal portraits filled with small details that resonate more and more with repeated readings:

Postal Worker

The supervisor
Counts the seconds
As you wipe
The Crumbs from your
Face and return
To your post.

Your hands
Callused, pedestrian
You feed
A rapid
Stream of letters
To a ravenous federal machine.

Your eyes dimmed
For years
From the sea of manila
The bland white face
Of the mail
Faces scarred
With zips.

You feel
Ready to
Be returned to
Your sender.

Holder often aligns himself with those emblematic and beneath notice, voicing experience as a tollbooth attendant, a heroin addict, and a psychiatric patient. And often the poetry is the response to the desolation and the ominous surroundings that engulf characters. When characters aren’t anticipating some form of anxiety (“You felt/It press/Again/In your/Stomach”), they are displaced, or home retreats. “She could never run that way again,” a voice admits in “For Sarah,” and in “The Family Portrait” we are told, “Nothing will last.”

But while this is book is about loss and anguish and darkness, it is also about hope:
“A daily ritual
Of decrepit defiance
Walking the ground
That will own them.”

(Cambridge, Mass: Two Old Women,” p.26)

What may in fact be best about this book is the way the poetry oscillates between the chaotic and the organized, the terrifying and the peaceful. Holder’s is a voice both comfortable and uncomfortable with itself, a voice that allows both the catastrophic and beautiful to co-exist harmoniously. As the speaker in “The Last Hotdog,” suggests, bad things are happening, with worse on the way, but we can find small moments of (mitigated) joy even where hope is no longer possible:

She brought it
To his sick bed,
He bit through
The red casing
The familiar orgasm of juice
Hitting the roof
Of his mouth
In some facsimile
Of his youth.

Holder takes the grit of everyday life and transforms it into elegant, generous and personal poems, as easy to read as a pop novel, as fulfilling as a hearty meal. “The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel,” is the type of book that might bridge the aesthetic gap between popular culture, which often does not acknowledge the existence of the fine arts, and the usually snobbish intelligentsia, which rarely acknowledges the existence of popular culture.

----Don Winter’s work has appeared in the: New York Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, 5 AM, Passages North, Slipstream, Portland Review, Chiron Review, Sycamore Review, Pearl, and close to 500 other journals in the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, Switzerland, Scotland and Ireland. His work has been nominated for twelve Pushcarts. His first collection, Things About to Disappear, is the best seller at Bone World Publishing and in New York Quarterly’s on-line store. He is co-founder of Platonic 3Way Press, home of Fight These Bastards