Saturday, December 07, 2019

REVIEW: Phillip Arnold’s The Natural History of a Blade Dos Madres, 2019

REVIEW: Phillip Arnold’s The Natural History of a Blade
Dos Madres, 2019

Two important things about Philip Arnold’s poems: they are faithfully attentive to etymology, and intently focused on the natural world while not self- consciously showing off his considerable knowledge. His plain subjects—earth and leaves, changing light and shadow, the fall of snow, the death of everything, suggest with exquisite sensitivity our parallel human experience, our struggle, even as his poems enrich the mind with gladness and ease. They do these things with so little showiness that one can easily miss the deep moments as they pass by in modest expression. 
By my sights, Mr Arnold is a poet to watch for—or better, to listen for—as time goes by. His future poems may leave behind some of their delightful but occasionally distracting linguistic eccentricities, stuff that sounds really good or obscure, but that can baffle the earnest reader or cause her to lose her pace or place, or progress. But there will be a Casino Real payoff.  For all of us.
Arnold’s interest in etymology is one of the quiet pleasures of this collection. We learn immediately that the word blade is derived from Middle English, German, and Old English and that it can denote (or suggest) a leaf, a blossom, a blade (knife, spade). It can also bring to mind the voices of other great poets. When we read a single line like “at night/ we become the delicate tongues of bees” and have a sweet sense of Walt Whitman who sits nearby, contemplating “a blade of grass” at the beginning of Leaves of Grass. Or we may be surprised with one of Thomas Hardy’s fine tetrameters rhythms that feels almost uncanny and which is not copying Hardy in the least, but instead riffing on rhythms that conjure his genius. Arnold is on firm, familiar, rich ground in these poems, and he knows it. I take that as a sign of good courage as he grows as an artist.

The title piece of the collection, “The Natural History of a Blade,” is an example of a poem with an original voice and something important to say.  Without ever sounding astonished Arnold astonishes:
The scored sapwood opens the mouth
Of the forest: brown petals open

In a dream of thirst, a throat as wide
As the mid-winter sky.

In “The Appalachian Character for Death,” with its revelation of ravishing, frightening brevity:

“spell out nature’s shorthand /across wet branches” in “winter ink” for the sign of death. Before long, after some thoughtful consideration the poet settles into a Keatsian/Hemingway/Camus musing with:
It isn’t how a life will be erased
That unsettles me, but how hunger grows
While the dying are now on our time.

Our time

In “Black Mountain Point” where the poem’s speaker remembers “to isolate the details / of your silence” (just try it), you have a hint of Arnold’s considerable linguistic powers under the cover of understatement and ambiguity.  Whose silence, we don’t know; and the mental impossibility of isolating the details of a silence?  There are many examples of such skill and innuendo. At the end of this poem his speaker says only “Nothing is sudden.” (Was it Freud who said, “all change is incremental”?)
Of the several remarkable poems in this collection, there is nothing to criticize except perhaps a tendency. Arnold can be thrilling, provocative, and insightful in bringing together the reality of a living nature and the catastrophe of living, for all creatures. At times the level at which he unearths showy or strange uses of language can distract; it can sap the flow of meaning from his more predominant and expression of humble suggestion and modesty.
I believe he has the makings of a great poet.

--Marcia Ross

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Robin Stratton brings a lot to the table with Big Table Publishing

Robin Stratton

Robin Stratton is a dynamo in small press publishing.  But this founder of Big Table Publishing  extends beyond publishing quality books of fiction and poetry. Now based in San Francisco--she remains a big presence in the Boston area literary community. I caught up with Stratton recently to talk about her release of two volumes of  The Very best of Big Table Publishing.

Stratton is the author of four novels, including one which was a National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist (On Air, Mustang Press, 2011), two collections of poetry and short fiction, and a writing guide. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she has been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, Pig in a Poke, Chick Flicks, Up the Staircase, Shoots and Vines, and many others. Since 2004 she has been Acquisitions Editor for Big Table Publishing Company, Senior Editor of Boston Literary Magazine since 2009, and she was Director of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center until she moved from Boston to San Francisco in 2018. Now she lead the popular "Six Feet of Poetry" and "Fiction by the Foot" series. 

You just released the two volumes of  The Very Best of Big Table Publishing. There are a lot of wonderful poets and writers included. Was it hard to narrow it down?

It was, yes. In many case, it was easy to select chapter one of a book, or the Intro… but for the poets, especially, I had to keep choosing which of their poems was not just a favorite, but captured a sense of the poet him or herself, since the hope is that people will read the anthology, fall in love with some of the writing, and then buy a book from that author or poet. Some poets, especially those we worked with on more than one book, had a lot of poems that would be perfect, so I had to go through, say ten… then whittle it down to five… and then down to one or two. Sometimes that was painful, but I obviously had to make room for everyone.

What constitutes for you a " Best Of"' piece of writing?

Over the years, many of the poems, short stories, prologues, or intro chapters have stayed with me, either on an emotional level, because I could totally relate to the theme or character, or because I so admired the literary skill; sometimes I read a poem or micro fiction piece that is a million times better than anything I could ever write, and I find myself wondering if I could ever even come close. When we did Every Day There is Something About Elephants with Timothy Gager, I loved so many of the pieces that I felt like never writing again! At the launch I asked him if he would allow me to read one of them (“Jack” appears in Volume Two) because I was so head over heels in love with (and jealous of) it. So those pieces were where I began, and as I went through all our titles, so many of them made me think, Oh yeah, I forgot how brilliant this is! and I’d grab those, too. And before I knew it, I had two full volumes that represented almost all of our authors. Almost no one got left out, and only one author didn’t want her piece to be included. 

It has been noted that you like writers who are not ashamed to show their vulnerabilities.  Do you think there is a lack of that in contemporary writing?

I try not to judge “contemporary writing” because I understand how society shapes literature and art, and it’s just part of human nature, so if there is a lack of vulnerability out there, I don’t think I would particularly notice. On the other hand, yes, if it’s there, I am drawn to it. Our hottest seller of all time is Fat Girl, Skinny, by Amye Archer, a blazingly raw account of how her self esteem issues and food addiction led to really bad life choices. She didn’t hold back at all, and I found myself admiring her so much for having reached a point in her life where she could just say Here’s what I did, but here’s why I did it, and now that I understand that, I’m not going to do it as much. It’s not as if she now has a talk show where she teaches other people how to live in a constant state of bliss – she still struggles. But in addition to being a fabulous writer, she is a very sweet human who wins you over. She inspired me to start writing poems that exposed my own vulnerabilities… my own serious, crippling self-esteem issues. She made me see that putting that stuff out there doesn’t make it go away – but it empowers you because you found the guts to put it out there. She is my hero. The Prologue to Fat Girl, Skinny kicks off Volume Two.

I also loved the book we did with you, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Poseur, because the whole thing was brilliant, amazing you now making fun of dreamy, idealistic you then… I loved how you told us that when your apartment was excavated because of a fire, you “ran down the stairs in my blue corduroy sports jacket—a slightly irregular affair—from the depths of Filene’s Basement… padded shoulders to bolster my narrow ones and a frail ego—a waxed mustache—with a red scarf around my skinny neck—like a poor man’s ascot” and heard the reporter Kirby Perkins say to someone,  “Look at this fuckin’ character.” Your “271 Newbury Street” was the first piece I chose for the anthology, and it appears in Volume Two.  

I feel you have achieved a real community of writers at Big Table Publishing. How was that brought about?

Thank you for saying that, it’s one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of. When I see on Facebook how many of our Big Table authors have become friends with other Big Table authors, it just makes me feel so good! I think all literary communities naturally come together when they discover that there are others out there who feel the same way about the importance of writing and creating, and have a place to gather. You and I both know how many literary events are not about selling books, but are about sharing our own writing and encouraging others. I feel so fortunate to be part of that, because that is a HUGE thing to be part of. Now more than ever.

There is real sense of eclecticism in the works presented. It can range from the high holy, the rarefied, and the down and dirty.  So you don't favor any school of writing?

Thank you for noticing! Yes, one thing about Big Table is that we’ll consider just about any genre, and I think writers appreciate that. Volume One includes the four Prologues to Still Here Thinking About You (which was our hottest seller before Fat Girl, Skinny.) This book is a compilation of four incredibly talented women writing about their troubling relationships with their mothers, and is told in a loving, tender, powerful way. I always say, “If there is a better Mother’s Day gift than this book, I don’t know about it.” Volume One also includes some macabre from Phil Temples (from Helltown Chronicles) and Michael Keith (a real favorite of mine, “The Smoking Olympics”) a chapter from The Flaws that Bind, Rebecca Leo’s fictionalized autobiography of spousal abuse, and closes with one of my favorites from Richard Fox, the sweetly-sentimental “To Katrina, Wherever You Are xoxo.”

What's in the works?

So glad you asked! We are bringing back Boston Literary Magazine in January, 2020 – in a new format. Instead of making you wait three months for each new issue, we’ll be posting a monthly issue on line, and at the end of each year, our favorites will be compiled into a print volume. Check out our submission guidelines at! We are so excited to be back!