Saturday, October 10, 2020

Andrew K. Peterson’s Good Game


Andrew K. Peterson’s Good Game, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

In his poem “Ars Poetica,” Archibald Macleish concludes, “A poem should not mean/ But be.” The implication is that the poem—a poem— is an experience unto itself, and not merely a rendering of an idea or set of ideas that could be paraphrased in prose. The experience (or set of experiences) occasioned by my reading of Andrew K. Peterson’s collection of poems, Good Game, is, I must confess, largely unparaphrasable. While the poems in Good Game display pyrotechnical virtuosity in their use of imagery and structure, too often I found my engagement thwarted by tantalizing allusions that hung just out of my reach, by semantic inversions that seemed linked only to themselves, and to scattershot experiments in form that seemed intended as a kind of Rorschach test for the reader’s journey to self-discovery, but which in fact came across as frustratingly solipsistic and opaque puzzles.

Looking for an entry, a point of embarkation, I turn to the collection’s title, and then to the first poem, “The Big Game is Every Night.” Peterson’s last stanza “it’s a big game/ & the big game is every night/ a mountainous rose/ swells of diamond surfers,/ dub sparks on the moon’s hood,/ a wolf at the brim of her kind” creates a hunger that I ache to have satisfied. As vivid as are the images of the rose, the diamond surfers, the sparks on the hood of the moon, and the wolf at the brim, for me, they collide without illuminating. Ever the pragmatist, when faced with weightlessness, I search for an anchor, and, as I have advised countless students over the years, when in doubt, return to the title. What’s to be made of Peterson’s offering up of the phrase “good game”? Seeking to experience Peterson’s work to the fullest, I run through any and all associations I can make. “Good game” is a platitude generally exchanged between competitors at the conclusion of a competition. Is it possible that Peterson has regarded his readers as opponents? Or are we ruminant targets, like rhinos and buffaloes, “big game” to be rendered fit for a museum diorama at the mercy of the poet’s obscurantism? Is Peterson’s title self-congratulatory, intended to describe the collection itself as a challenge that will ultimately benefit the reader? Adjectivally speaking, when I surrender myself to a poem or collections of poems, I like to think of myself as “game”—I am generally willing to suspend or accept, if even temporarily, the epistemological frame the poet is offering through their work. If I can make sense of their rules. But I want to be a participant, not merely an observer, of the poet’s “game.” Watching pyrotechnics for the sake of watching is a two-dimensional experience—it lacks depth.

I search for anchors, for clues: Peterson offers a direction in his opening poem, suggesting that what we’re searching for is “slow going, but it is going.” So there is movement to watch for—but movement to where (and from where), and how do we recognize it? In “Poem on Joan Mitchell’s Birthday,” there is a suggestion after imagery hinting at the singer’s cover art (“wild blueberry/ when I could/in the middle of that blued & purple cinema”) that “form shatters the void/ as a knife slides off her palette.” So it seems that the decision to “make” something, i.e., to impose form, equals “art.” And what then to make of Peterson choosing to refer to Joanie Mitchell as “Joan”? Naming (or renaming) is an aggressive act—a hint of cultural imperialism. I have a brother who intentionally mispronounces the names of French actresses. To what end? To draw attention to himself? To make it clear that he is possessing these personalities in his own, unique way? But what am I to get it out of it? As with Peterson’s poems and many of the forms he chooses for them, my first feeling is that of exclusion.

But I’m in “the game,” and I’m no quitter. And, seriously, I want to play. Reading Peterson’s “Serious Moonlight,” I’m drawn to the last lines: “in the moonlight/ in the serious moonlight/ oh unserious moon.” Peterson here seems to suggest the subjectivity of interpretation—whatever we make of the moon, it exists nakedly; if we turn moonlight into “a monument to memory’s fresh dance clothes set to tremble,” as Peterson does in the poem’s opening line, it is a matter of choice. Yet before I can dive deeply into “Serious Moonlight,” I’m confronted by Peterson’s decision to “i.m.” the poem to David Bowie. A handful of poem’s in the opening section of Good Game are “i.m.-ed” to musicians and writers, all dead. Is an “instant message” a dedication? A declaration of inspiration? A tribute? Deference to or ironic condemnation of a culture lost to social media? (Full disclosure—except for Bowie, I had to Google Peterson’s other “i.m.” reciptients.)

And so the reader is taken out of the immediate experience of the poem itself, connected to (or becoming lost within) a different kind of experience that requires assistance—either we look up Peterson’s allusions, or we defer to the final pages of the volume, which list the poet’s “Notes” on several of his poems. Is the added information these notes supply meant to further our interface with the poem? Are they intended to offer us glimpses into the poet’s notebooks so we can trace the genesis of a work from its birth-idea to its completion? Are they meant to show off Peterson’s wide-ranged exploration of diverse texts? If so, is the “Notes” section intended less as an explanatory connection to the volume’s early poems and more as a separate section in and of itself, in which Peterson noisily stakes his ground as an iconoclast? What is a reader to make of a note such as Peterson’s on his “Poem for a Disappearing Roommate”: “The poem’s form—stanza length, line word count, quotation length and page location of source material—was determined by chance methodology (I-Ching consultation).”

There are several poems in Good Game, particular in an eponymous section, that suggest the movement implied in the also-eponymous introductory poem—poems that “are going.” At least the titles of these guerilla poems (guerilla poetry involves, among other things, placing poems in unusual or unexpected places or circumstances) imply action. They also, perhaps for the only occasions in this volume allow me to place my feet on solid ground for a moment. Among these titles are: “Poem Placed on the Green Monster During Law Enforcement Counterterror Practice Fenway Park June 12th 2016”; “Poem to be Dropped into Encore Boston Harbor Resort and Casino Construction Site (Failed)”; “Poem Placed BU Footbridge Over Storrow Drive Where Santos Laboy was Shot and Killed by Massachusetts State Trooper June 19th 2015”. There is vivid imagery in some of these poems; I struggled however, to connect the language of the poems themselves to the clearly political implications of the titles (especially a long segment in the “Green Monster” poem that tested my lost years of intermediate level Latin.)

Andrew K. Peterson’s poems are a festival of forms, of fecund imagery, of challenging allusiveness. The collection features: the aforementioned descriptions of guerrilla poems (the thrill of participating in such guerilla activity is somewhat neutered by reporting them on paper in conventional form: they become cold history rather than a living statement); collages of meaning presented as a midnight cloudburst; instant messages to dearly departed artists; abstruse notes that do less to illuminate the poem they are connected with than draw attention to their own obscurity. If part of Andrew K. Peterson’s goal with Good Game is to open this reader to fresh thinking by breaking down preconceptions, he has accomplished that end. Is it fair of me to question whether or not the collection hangs together when Peterson’s object might be akin to proving Yeats’s observation in “Second Coming” to be true: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold./ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”? Does Peterson’s collection spring from an impulse parallel to that of Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who believed “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion”? Maybe. I can only report, for good or ill, that experiencing Good Game left me feeling as if I’d been invited to the gym to play ball, but never got picked for a team.

Somerville Poet Mark McKay / Writes a Poem A Day


 I have trouble writing a poem a month, at best. But everyday since 2017, Somerville poet Mark McKay has posted a poem on Instagram, and has developed a large following.  I had a chance to catch up with Mark via the Internet.

You have lived in Somerville for 2.5 years. How has it been for your creative life?

Living in Somerville has really kickstarted my creative life - at the beginning of my concerted efforts to write in 2017, I was living in the suburbs and relying on my own imagination to concoct and coax stories and poems from previous life experience. The vibrant art community and more urban setting in Somerville has changed the way I approach my craft, providing inspiration in everything from organized events, art shows, recognition of artists to the street art and ways that residents feel free to decorate the outside of their homes. Since moving to Somerville, I’ve also enrolled as a student with a painting school (Katherine Martin Widmer School of Painting) - being part of such a welcoming community and the prospect of learning a new way to express myself is one of my very favorite things. It’s so inviting and surprising every day just to walk the streets, community paths and observe the community’s active approach and appreciation of the arts.

You started a poem project on Instagram , where you have been posting a poem every day since Jan 1, 2017. What was the germ of the idea for this?

I began this project in 2016 in honor of National Poetry Month (April)- titling it “mckaystoryaday”. I have never considered myself to be a “poet” but have always engaged in correspondence and short story writing so wanted to contribute something literary to such an important celebration of the written word. I chose Instagram because I felt that words were not well represented there, that breaking up the format a bit with writing instead of photos would help my writing to be noticed. I have since found that Instagram is home to MANY poets and storytellers, a wonderful vibrant community.

My contributions in 2016 were infrequent, as I had not yet decided to make this a continuing project. Beginning in earnest on January 1, 2017, I vowed to keep it up as long as I could manage, changing my format from a fully formed “story” to conjuring images and feelings, hoping to challenge the reader to use their own imaginations to fill in those gaps...

Your poems are haiku-like--short snippets--that capture a moment in time. I also noticed you have short love poems that seem to be addressing an object of your affection. What poets have influenced you?

I have always loved the haiku form since it was presented to me in grade school English class, and through the years, I feel that reading such masters as Matsuo Basho have influenced me my whole literary life. Occasionally, I will visit and write in the traditional haiku form, I find that I reach for that form when I am in need of a calming influence - there’s just something both natural and mystical about it in my mind… I have since been introduced to many wonderful poets and poems I had missed, but honestly cannot say I have been directly influenced by them - my own words just feel they come from inspiration found reading short stories by my favorite authors like HG Wells, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and John Steinbeck.

As for addressing the object of my affection via the poems, I try to write with universal themes and simple scenarios that anyone can relate to - we all desire to reach the heart of someone with our art, I am no different...

Has writing become more essential to you during the pandemic?

Absolutely essential. Prior to this, I felt that I was sending these missives out as a blanket, hoping they would find a sympathetic reader. Now I feel that they are direct communications - a cry, arms opened to receive those who need, statements of intent & purpose, arrows to the hearts that need it. It also allows me to visit places and people in my mind that are not accessible during these times, a measure of much needed sanity.

You told me you started a fanzine in the 80s and 90s, which will be compiled into a book in 2021. Can you give us more details about it?

I worked in a copy shop in the late ‘80’s and was challenged by a friend to create a fanzine of the collages and short writings I had been doing while there was downtime. It was not intended to be circulated, but just as a fun project to share with the folks in the shop, but it was enjoyed and I was urged to continue. The cut and paste nature of it felt fantastic, and at the time I was discovering abstract art and particularly fascinated with the Dadaist movement from early in the century - such fertile ground! I wanted to contribute and having an outlet totally under my control was such a rush. I was able to create four issues (and many unused pieces) which became more literary-based as I went on and felt better about putting my writing in front of people. I read back over them a few years ago and did not dislike what was created so I decided to compile all the pages and write a book around it, discussing everything from the social climate at the time, my personal experiences and words of explanation for some of the more “esoteric” pieces included. Still a work in progress, but I will indeed self-publish the completed project in 2021.

You were a drummer for a number of years , then you switched to high tech. Was that because it is hard to make the daily nut as a musician?

I was deeply involved in the Boston Punk scene for a few years before deciding that there were not enough drummers to go around, so I bought myself a kit and started to teach myself to keep a beat. Some friends from High School were just breaking up their band, and I had achieved some basic proficiency so we formed a new band called Slapshot in 1985. We were able to keep this running for many years (they are still going, though I am long since retired from performing and playing) and travel extensively throughout the US, Canada and Europe, made several records and sold a few t-shirts. It was never about the money, so we always maintained day jobs to allow us to fund travel and band expenses. I’ve always loved how technology can keep people and ideas flowing, solve problems and connect us, so a career in this field was a natural fit. It’s not my passion, but I have a deep respect for the positive aspects that it can add to daily life.

Have you ever played the drum break for " Funky Drummer" by James Brown?

If you ever have the chance to check out any recordings I made with Slapshot, you will realize that - although I have a deep appreciation for music of ALL sorts - I was NOT built to be a virtuoso on my chosen instrument! So no, have never tried it (but indeed LOVE JB!).

How long will this poetry project go on, or will it never be finished?

Coming up on four years of daily writing is so much more than I hoped to accomplish and I’m driven by the positive feedback from readers which still both boggles my mind and warms my heart. There are times when it feels like a project of this length has run its course, that I have nothing more to say - but then I find a thread deep in my mind or heart that I feel encompasses everything that I am - giving me strength and resolve to continue for another day. I am trying my hand at some longer form writing, but have enjoyed this shorter format and feel very comfortable here… In short, there are no plans to stop.


under dim streetlights, 

hands pushed 

deep into pockets - 

the sting of habit

the absence of purpose...

Monday, October 05, 2020

Somerville's Julia Csekö: A weaver of art and words

Interview by Doug Holder

I am a poet, so I work with my words. My canvas is a computer screen or a blank piece of paper. So I was pleased to find an artist who incorporates words into her art. Cseko, through her murals and other works confronts racism, consumerism and other vital issues head on.

DH: You moved from Brazil to Somerville--quite a contrast.  As an artist-- how has your experience differed?

JC: It is a huge contrast indeed and even though I’ve lived in Somerville for almost 10 years, you never fully get used to it, although you adapt. 

I’m from Rio, so, for starters I didn’t grow up with seasons like we have here. The low temperatures are something I still struggle with every winter. Pretty early on I learned that the Brazilian sense of humor can be a little abrasive to New Englanders and to not kiss my friends on the cheek when I greet them (not that we’d be doing a lot of that now regardless!). I do miss the warmth of my Brazilian friends and family, as well as the general festive and beach-city vibe in Rio. The tropical chic fashion, the stunning views, the late nights and incredibly fun and indescribable experience of Carnaval in the streets. 

On the flip side, Rio is an astoundingly unequal and violent city, where you have to know the no-go zones, have to be informed about ongoing turf wars around the city and have to be very aware of your surroundings all the time. As a white Brazilian I many times was perceived as a gringa, or tourist, which was quite unnerving, and quickly solved by speaking the language in the local Rio slang (and accent). 

Either way the experience of growing up hearing intense firefights near my house and ducking for cover is still vivid in my memory, and I can recognize many different types of firearms by their sound to this day. 

I do love the sense of tranquility and safety I experience living in Somerville. The concentration of higher education organizations is really something, and I never take it for granted. I live right next to Tufts, where I did my MFA, and I love the diverse and fascinating people that are attracted to this area. 

It is much easier to make plans here, perhaps because of the cold? People honor their commitments and I cannot say the same about the cariocas (people from Rio). I love the fall colors, and the flowers in the spring, which “surprise me” each year, and a sense that this is a city with the benefits of a small town and big city all at once, such as museums, concert halls, galleries, public transportation, and an international population, still it is fairly quiet, traffic is bad but not unmanageable, and it is relatively clean. I also appreciate Boston’s skyline, which is beautiful, but not overwhelming. Rio can be overwhelmingly big sometimes, and just going from here to there can be an adventure in terms of traffic and the fast pace.

DH: You incorporate the written word in your art. How do you decide to weave this element in your work?

JC:This started early in my BFA at the Federal University of Rio, probably around 2004, when I was about to graduate. The course was very hands-on and the theory was not addressing the issues I was interested in, so I did my own readings. I was fascinated by Philosophy and Poetry, and was eager to share these ideas with my fellow art majors (and anyone really). How to do that without tapping someone on the shoulder and reading to them? I decided to make paintings that would share the work of these authors on a monumental scale. Using bright colors to lure people’s attention. My desire was to create murals from the very beginning, but making public art does not come easy, so I started making paintings hoping that they would lead to public spaces. I wanted to take literary works that might be too obscure/controversial, or perhaps too dissonant to mainstream consumerist culture to the most public settings possible. Another reason to use text is a desire to let the viewers’ imagination construct their own imagery. I provide ideas, and they can illustrate them and hopefully bring them to fruition within their own internal dialog.

DH: Your works often deal with racism. In fact a mural of yours at Emerson College--
incorporated the words of the late civil rights activist John Lewis. Why did you take the words of Lewis--as there are many other texts you could have used?

JC:Whenever I work in a public space or receive a commission, my work becomes a collaborative effort. In this particular case, the work was responding to a very specific event. Earlier this year (2020) the Emerson Administration found anti-semitic and white supremacist graffiti at the Piano Row campus. They were quick to engage their community in a conversation, asking the student body how they would like to respond to the incident. The idea emerged to create a piece of art in response to the event. The Emerson Contemporary Gallery curator Leonie Bradbury put together a student advisory board and a conversation began between myself and the group to decide what text would be a good response to the hateful graffiti found on campus. I originally proposed working with a woman Jewish author, and Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism was close to being the selected text. However, on July 30th 2020, the very day we were to decide the author, Leonie sent me the essay written by John Lewis published that same morning on the NYT, on the occasion of his passing. We were both in awe, it was beautiful, it was uplifting, it was incredibly hopeful and it was a historical moment that we were witnessing. We took the essay to the student advisory board and after a brief discussion we all agreed that John Lewis was speaking loud and clear against white supremacy and all forms of bigotry as he did his whole life. It was a way to honor him and his memory, and to respond to the desire of the student body to use a text that showed hope and conveyed a message to guide us into a better future, more just, more equal, more peaceful. 

DH: The mural is titled " The Coney Island of the Mind." That's also the title of the great beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetry collection. Were you influenced by Ferlinghetti?  Any other poets?

JC: Oh, Ferlinghetti definitely inspired the title of this series, I love his work. There is something about the beat generation poets that viscerally attracts me, a certain spontaneity, an ability to criticize openly, to think critically, look for alternatives and to perhaps search for ways to course correct, or just admit fault, admit fallibility and vulnerability. I love their call to be less rigid, more in touch with our needs, instincts and desires. We live in a time that is so conflicting. People in power are allowed to essentially behave like buffoons and criminals in the public sphere for anyone to see, while people who live paycheck to paychecks are expected to fall in line and behave. Wealth accumulation has never been so absurdly unequal globally. As a pacifist, I don’t condone looting or rioting, but I am surprised that it doesn’t happen all the time these days; people can only take so much abuse before snapping. 

Either we get to a point where we are all accountable for our actions and words, or we will get to a point when no one will be accountable. I believe that words have meaning and power, and that they should not be used lightly. We see so many words lose their meaning these days. We need to reclaim the power and meaning of words, and hold our leaders accountable to what they say. We need leaders that walk like they talk. We may be far from this right now, but I believe in course correction. It will be a long process and it starts with taking education way more seriously. We can’t form people to be a workforce, we need to form people to be citizens. We can’t expect people to vote or make good decisions when voting without having a good education. For that to happen we need social equality to sweep in simultaneously, since if you are living below the poverty line, survival becomes prioritized over education. This is a complex conversation, and we are just scratching the surface here. I hope that my work will contribute even if in the slightest way for course correction, to reclaim the power and meaning of words. I read and admire many poets, but ironically, I am back to the beats, and I am just starting to work with Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. I realized I need more women authors in this series. After 16 years making these paintings in a non-linear way I want to be more intentional about representing a more diverse selection of authors, less Eurocentric and less patriarchal. I was shocked recently to look at my bookshelf and discover the much lower number of women/queer writers and artists on there. 

DH:Why should people view your work?

JC: I hope folks will become curious about the ideas and authors I share; I hope they will share my excitement in these ideas. As an artist I find that one of my roles is to educate myself continuously in hopes to be able to educate others. As an educator I believe that I learn from my students in the same measure that I teach them. I am hopeful that we will reach a point where the vision of Brazilian Philosopher and Educator Paulo Freire will be common sense, and that critical pedagogy will clear the way for an education and communication based in dialogue and diversity, freeing our minds and bodies from oppression.