Saturday, December 24, 2011

Poet Robert K. Johnson: A Smiling Norman Rockwell With A Knife Behind His Back.

Poet Robert K. Johnson: A Smiling Norman Rockwell With A Knife Behind His Back.


Robert K. Johnson is an avuncular presence....but don't be fooled. Behind the folksy voice and courtly manner is a poet with a dagger. Johnson often harks back to wholesome familial memories in his poetry, but behind these benign scenes there are surprises, and some tragic, well... just like... life. Johnson is a retired Suffolk University (Boston, Mass.) professor of English, and is retiring from his 13 year stint as the poetry editor at Somerville's literary journal Ibbetson Street. He is the author of a number of poetry collections, the most recent Choir of the Day ( Ibbetson Street Press). Johnson has also written critical studies of Neil Simon and Francis Ford Coppola, and has been published in countless small press publications. I talked with Johnson on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: After being the Poetry Editor of Ibbetson Street for 13 years you are stepping down.
Any amusing anecdotes?

Robert K. Johnson: It was fun from the start. I do remember that. I recall you giving me folders with submissions wildly cascading--- spilling out. The real adventure back then is different from now. Now the magazine is getting poets like Ted Kooser, X.J. Kennedy, Marge Piercy and the like. But in 1998 the fun was working with poets that nobody knew about. I worked with them. Some I corresponded with. Poets like Ellaraine Lockie and Patricia Hamilton--good poets. It was lively.

Of course in 1998 I was a lot younger, and I was a full time editor. I still have a good amount of energy about not as much. It is a very demanding position. I want to concentrate on my own work now.

: How do you feel about the small press and small literary magazines and journals?

RKJ: I celebrate them all the time... magazines like Ibbetson Street. Sam Cornish, the Boston Poet Laureate, who blurbed my latest collection, attests to my background in the small press.

: You are a student of literary history as you have often told me. You realize that their are trends in poetry but there are always the eternal values.

RKJ: It is always a crap shoot. Nobody knows what is going to linger on as poets of a certain generation fade into the past. The two biggest poets of the 1800's were Emily Dickinson--she was almost totally unknown in her lifetime and of course Walt Whitman. He was printing his own stuff with his vanity press, writing reviews of his own work--all the bigger poets of that day have been forgotten. I mean who reads James Russell Lowell? I say do what you want; write what you want to say; do it because you love it; and let the chips fall where they may.

: If I was to characterize you, as a poet, like a smiling Norman Rockwell with a knife held behind his back--what do you think I would mean?

RKJ: I think you are close. I think a lot of my poems, the endings come out of left field. You don't expect it. So yes there is a smiley thing--then the last two lines--whew!

DH: Yeah-- I remember in one poem in your new collection you have the image of the kid with a baseball mitt--you know that iconic image of the All-American Boy, and then a stanza down or so--he's dead. You celebrate life but there is always that hook at the end.

RKJ: Yeah--I agree. You published a couple of poems of mine in a little volume. It was titled "The Latest News." In that volume I explore how people are surprised by life--they explain it away--and then are invariably surprised again. You know during 9/11 I was a shocked as anyone else. And yet--I wasn't surprised. Because that kind of thing can happen--out of the blue--anywhere. I grew up in New York City and when you went on the subway you never knew who was going to get on. There were some crazies there. You were stuck with them.

: Is a poem really ever finished? Or is it like many a life--in a state of loose ends--many questions unanswered?

: A lot of poems are like you described. If they try to reflect reality they are ambiguous and ambivalent.

: Is your latest collection Choir of Day your defining work?

: I hope it is a good definition of what I've done. Hopefully it is not the last collection I write. I think there is a lot of sameness in this book because my first book was published in 1975 when I was in my early 40's. There hasn't been an immense change of style--like there would be if my first book was published in my 20's. Now I am more concerned with form--but content is still a priority. You honor content by enhancement with stanza breaks, rhyme scheme, etc.. But you don't want to overshadow the content.

DH: I know you try to get to that instinctual moment in your work.

: I love to get down to the bone. I like to get as deep as I possibly can. I go right to the essence. You need to get to the emotions. I remember viewing a river in Colorado--its intensity and drive. That rushing of the water---well, I thought that was a metaphor for me in a way. I had an intuitive feeling about it.

A Matter of Time

I am punched breathless by the fear
a moment from now some country’s first strike
will blow up the street where I live, cracking
the ceiling into flames, crumbling
the walls into heaps of plywood and plaster
my bleeding fingers will fling aside
as I try to reach the twisted leg
of what was once my wife.

---Robert K. Johnson

Friday, December 23, 2011

Emblem By Richard Hoffman


By Richard Hoffman

ISBN: 978-0-9819876-5-1

Barrow Street Press

New York City


Reviewed by Dennis Daly

In his new book, Emblem, Richard Hoffman etches poetic visuals of timeless wisdom and dolorous beauty. His lucid metaphors are burned into each page. The introductory poem, as well as twelve additional poems at the heart of the book, is an emblem inspired by the medieval author Andrae Alciati.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emblems became a wildly popular genre of art and literature; they are made up of three components: a picture, a motto, and a prose or verse epigram. Often the picture came first (ekphrasis [from the Greek—ek meaning out and phrasis meaning to speak] or the attaching of a name to, in this case, a piece of art), sometimes the epigram. Alciati wrote his epigrams first and Hoffman follows that lead.

Hoffman updates Alciati’s Emblem 8, Where the God Directs There One must Go, with the stark image of one of life’s crossroads. He advises the traveler that

the pilgrim’s way is found by wandering:

Every single thing and every relation,

whether plainly seen or only grasped

upon reflection, becomes a metaphor,

and nothing on the path may be disturbed.

This appears not only to be good traveling advice, but also shows the poet’s approach to his raw material.

Emblem 37, On Security, continues to counsel in this vein with a delightful image of a rather unique motley coat,

dress in the furs of the mice from your barn,

from your own small cache of good days.

This poem is actually very close to Alciati, almost a direct adaptation minus some fluff. The poet makes the point through the image and the title alone that wealth, however meager, is best when not flaunted.

The approach used by Hoffman in Emblem 86, Against Misers, is quite the opposite. It is entirely Hoffman’s epigram. He sets up his miser as a caricature of a classic accountant, except that he worries about computer hackers and traces his credits and debits across a spreadsheet,

His dividends down, his assets

losing value, he counts again,

long crooked fingers tracing lines

across and down his spreadsheet.

The poem concludes with a marvelous image, which give the emblem greater depth. The picture is of a talented artist in the form of a rabbit, who does not have the courage to risk everything in the furtherance of his art:

his heart beats like a rabbit

at the edge of an open field

he will never cross, and time

passes, an uncounted loss.

One of the most interesting of the emblem poems is called Against Those Wealthy via Public Mischief. The basic image is adapted from Alciati and Hoffman does this well, but he also deepens the imagery and gives it specific history with his emblematic form. He describes eel fishermen or those on the outside of society, who in order to make their fortune

..must find some way

to roil the placid water and churn the bottom

to be successful. (To stir the muck, religion

makes a good long stick or bogus history

wed to rhetoric.) They know just how.

They have fished for eels a thousand years.

The poet sees his function in this emblem as one of identification. He draws the demagogue. For now that is enough.

Other poems included in this impressive collection show Hoffman’s flexibility of form. In Aphrodisia, one of two villanelles offered, Hoffman introduces a lovely musical piece, which comes together in the end as only the best poems of this type do,

…Speak up! Proclaim you want to say.

It’s easy to imagine you’ve misheard,

hard to admit one sharp as you is stirred.

You need to back off, cool down, act blaze.

Love’s language is hyperbole, but whispered.

It’s easy to imagine you’ve misheard.

On the other end of the form spectrum is a prose poem titled Phototaxis. In one beautifully drawn out metaphor Hoffman juxtaposes unbearable sorrow with the joy of art. The narrator’s wife has died and he has given up the joy of guitar playing for the solitude of silence. Magic happens here:

… He had not gone into the room since she had died, his

solitude already deeper than he could bear. One day , looking

for an old pair of shoes he had somehow mislaid, he entered

the room and switched on the overhead light. As he scanned

the floor for his lost shoes, the guitar, all by itself it seemed,

began to play, soft chords that made the old musician cry out,


Fruit in Season is another poem that deals with thoughtful sorrow and its ghostly burdens. Speaking to his dead brother the narrator says,

.. so I know

how lucky I am and how grateful

I ought to be: Sick for long years,

my brother begrudged me nothing.

I could go on. Get this book for some of the most innovative poetry written today.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

GARGOYLE 57 (2011)

When the U.S.P.S. mail hand-delivers a 600pg book it’s either a novel, or an annual anthology from Arlington VA; this time it's:

GARGOYLE 57 (2011) edited by Christine Ebersole & Richard Peabody.

1-1/8 inches thick by 5 ½ x by 8 ¼,

ISBN 978-0-931181-36-8, 600pp, USD$24.95,

(703) 525-9296.

Review by Bill Costley

Disclosure: My “Byrd fiddles in Purgatory” (quasi-ballad for the 'District' audience), appears on p .93.

Here are all the other contributors:

Non-fiction: Claire Blechman, Carolyn Cooke, Carmen Delzell,

Brandel France, Simki Ghebremichael

Poetry: Albert Abondonado, Clayton Adams, Heather Anastasiu, Nin Andrews,

Saadia Ali, JoAnn Balingit, Mary Bargteil, Laurel Bastian, Jeffrey Bean,

Jill Beauchesne, Maria Bennett, Clifford Bernier, Linda Blaskey, Claire Blotter, Dan Brady,

Elissa Braff, Steven Brayak, Philip Calderwood, Michael Casey, Alex Chertok, Katherine Coles, Antionette Constable, Robert Cooperman, Claudia Cortese, Nina Corwin, me, Kelly Coveny, Barbara Crooker, Jim Daniels, Kristina Marie Darling, John Davis, Barbara DeCesare, Liz Dolan, Philip Dozal, Doug Draime, Gabe Durham, Moira Egan, Kristina England, Bair Ewing, Sarene Friedman, Molly Gaudry, Megan Giller, Kimberley Grey, Michael Gushue, Jeff Hardin, David M. Harris, Nowan Hasm, Chris Haven, Kathleen Hellen, David Hernandez, Alison Hicks, Le Hinton, Jean C. Howard, Colette Inez, Fred Joiner, Don Judson, Ann Keefe, Stephen Kessler, Daniel Kharms, Alan King, Benjamin C. Krause, Sarah Layden, A. Loudermilk, Adrian C. Louis, K.E. MacMillan, Anthony Madrid, Stephen Matin, Aoife Mannix, Joyce Mansour, Peter Marcus, Hugh Martin, Frank Matagrano, Steve MccClain, Sjohanna Bruce McCray, Alex McRae, Mark Melincove, Michael Monroe, Nancy Carol Mody,Steve Moran, Mary Morris, Kristine Ong Muslim, Tim Meyers, James Norcliffe, Jay Pabarue, Maria Padhila, Shelley Puhak, Kim Roberts, Ronald Simon Rubin, Tomaz Salamun, Sarah Sarai, Sami Schalk, Eric Paul Shaffer, Michael Shorb, Barry Silesky, Edgar Gabriel Silex, Joan Stepp Smith, Patricia Smith, Robert Spiegel, CarlieSt. George, Marilyn Stabelin, Kurt Steinwand, D.E. Steward, Marc Swan, Adam Tessier,Samantha Tatangco, Meg Thompson, Jim Tolan, Billie Travalini, Meredith Trede, James Valvis,

Mimi Vaquer, DanVera, Kim Vollmer-Lawson, Avni Vyas, Ronald Wallace, Pamela Murray,

Bill Wolak.

Fiction: Forrest Aquirre, Robert Allen, Stephanie Allen, Alexander V. Bach, Jill Birdsall,

Jamie Brown, Rae Bryant, Tom Carson, Kim Chinquee, Susan Cokal, Charles Conley,

Bethe Couture, Ramola D, Jewnmarie Davis, Katrina Denza, Glenn Deutsch, Meghan

Dombrink-Green, Janice Eidus, Saskia Fischer, Thaisa Frank, Scott Garson, Alessandra Gelmi, James Grady, Myronn Hardy, Jessica Hollander, Suzanne Marie Hopcroft, Julie Innis, Robert Kloss, Bettina Lanyi, Nathan Leslie, Peter Tieyras, Ben Loory, Jonathan Mack, Cynthia Newberry Martin, Susan McCarty, Lindsay Merbaum, Cory Mesler, Janet Mitchell, David Morhman, Teresa Burns, Claire Marie Meyers, Susan Smith Nash, ME. Parker, Meg Pokrass, Zena Polin, Meredith Pond, Wena Poon, Pilar Quintana, Michelle Reala, Doug Rice, Ethel Rohan, Gabriella Romeri, Ann K, Ryles, Kris Saknussemm, Robert Cotellaro, Lynda Sexson, Elisabeth Sheffield, Marcia Slatkin, Curtis Smith, Katherine Smith, Amber Sparks, Dawn Sperber, Daniel Stolar, Lee A. Tonuchi, Roz Kuehn Unruh, Judy Viertel, Elisabeth Warren, Paula Whyman, Bess Winter.

Artwork: Marilyn Stabelein, Matthet Kirkpatrick, C, Albert, Bill Wolak,

Contributors’ autobio. notes are on pp. 570-91. You really should read them.

Why did I cite them all? It’s the only way you can possibly experience the thickness of the mag. & the breadth of its contributors in a review like this. Normally I’d cite a single whole poem as a sample, but this would be unfair to all these contributors. Instead, what

if I just cite a single line & tell you to go find it in the mag?

Here it is: All you need to do is write.

(Yes, this is a test.)

- Bill Costley

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