by Conor Burke
Garth Greenwell’s moving debut novel, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), details the experiences of an American expat living in Bulgaria as he journeys through his own lust and desire, through the addiction he feels for Mitko—the young, sometimes volatile wanderer whom the novel’s unnamed protagonist meets in the below-ground bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture—and through his exploration of the maze of his own life, an exploration that he seems to hope will lead him toward a fuller understanding of himself and of those other bodies who are, at one time or another, and so often unavoidably so, an essential part of that self.
by Clinton Crockett Peters
Kurt Caswell is an itinerant. He was born in Alaska, but his family quickly moved with their young son to first to Michigan, then Oregon, and later Idaho. From there he backpacked through Europe, spent a year teaching in Hokkaido, Japan, another year teaching on the Navajo Reservation, then later spent time teaching in California and Wyoming. Always intending to make it back to the verdant Pacific Northwest, Caswell has instead made Lubbock (also my home town), known for its parched cotton fields and transcendental monotony, his nest for the last ten years. He still travels widely, often with grant money, to investigate Iceland, climb the four highest peaks in the UK, India, the Philippines, Japan again.
One of the first things Caswell and I ever did together was backpack in the Grand Canyon — awing red rocks, sawing Chuck Noris jokes, and reciting poems. Kurt is a man able to perform both high brow and low, personal and academic. He is, I must admit, the reason I traveled to Japan to teach (and met my wife), why I realized that to be a writer didn’t always mean being wrestled to your desk and thoughts.
I’ve read several dozen travel narratives in search of a writer model besides Kurt, and so far none top In the Sun’s House, Caswell’s frank, direct, and searching memoir of a year spent teaching on the Navajo Rez. The followup to that book, his third, is Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, a book of travel essays in the vein of his first book, An Inside Passage, which won River Teeth's Literary Nonfiction Book Contest in 2008. As Grey Owl’s subtitle suggests, the book is a series of travel essays, which span three decades. Kurt and I talked about the collection and travel, each with coffee, though he in windswept Lubbock, me in recently flooded and tornadoed Denton.
by Robert Haines
Kathleen Graber is the author of two collections of poetry, including The Eternal City which was a finalist for The National Book Award and The National Book Critics Circle Award, and the winner of The Library of Virginia Literary Award for Poetry. She is a recipient of fellowships from The Rona Jaffe Foundation, The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
She has been a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and an Amy Lowell Travelling Scholar. She is the Director of Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. Recent poems have appeared in Best American Poetry (2012, 2014) and The Pushcart Anthology. New work is forthcoming in AGNI and The Literary Review.
The following interview was conducted over email during November and December of 2015.
Robert Haines: One thing I greatly admire about your work is its intertextuality. Each book is marked by your experiences as a reader and the responsibilities those experiences compel. Could you elaborate on the importance of reading to your process?
Kathleen Graber: Fortunately, my own life is fairly simple. Like everyone, I do, of course, have my share of sorrows and joys, but they are hardly extreme examples. For this reason, many of the events in my life are simply events of reading, encounters with texts. Sometimes when I do not know how to begin a poem or how to move forward a poem that has stalled on the page, I simply walk over to a bookshelf and open a book. I read until I catch myself thinking—until I catch my mind wrestling with the mind of someone else—and then I simply write down whatever thought it is that has popped into my head. This is, as you would guess, a pretty good way to begin; it is a less good way to make meaningful advancements. Though, because I believe that each person tends to have a somewhat predictable range of interests, it works out more often than one would think.
I find that reading not only helps me to generate my own thinking in response to texts, but that thinking about the experiences rendered in those texts helps me to place my own thoughts and my own experiences into meaningful contexts. This is true even, or especially, of the newspaper, for my own experiences (which understandably seem to me immense) are reduced considerably in their presumptive significances when placed beside global horrors and concerns. At the same time, I do not want to diminish the urgency of our daily lives, and that tension is often very productive. I am also a very, very slow reader, and I like to think that a part of that methodical pace is at times related to the real pleasure that I take in simply riding along the natural rhythms of the language and to the delight I take in the masterful execution of syntactical pacing. In this way, reading can also be a kind of ear training or retraining. Sometimes when I am tired of my own voice and, what seems to me, its predictable patterns, I intentionally read something I find to be outside my style in an effort to subtly insinuate something that feels different.
RH: One other primary concern of your work is collecting. This concern is evinced in the content—collectors appear: Cornell, Benjamin—as well as the ways in which the poems collect and gather their various vectors of discourse and thematic attention. Could you elaborate on the importance and nature of collecting for your work?
KG: I find the impulse to collect nearly irresistible. In The Eternal City, one of the concerns I hoped to explore was the relationship between the individual’s impulse to accumulate and the powerful political impulse toward empire. I think of Sontag saying of photography that it gives us a way to own the world. Walter Benjamin had a large postcard collection. Mine is much smaller. For my part, I have often only been able to resist the desire to collect the world by virtue of my limited finances and modest storage space.
But I am fascinated by collectors, and, frankly, I often think of certain kinds of lyric essays or some of the poems that I write as essentially curatorial. When I first saw a Joseph Cornell box, I realized that I was seeing a visual analog for the kind of poetry I aspired to write. It is very difficult to articulate exactly why the elements or ingredients in one of his boxes belong together, but they feel right. Sometimes it is a simple matter of shape and structure, but sometimes what is shared below the surface of the objects is also a kind of elusive connotation. Beyond their shared circular shapes, for instance, we probably would not think of the moon as a kind of soap bubble if Cornell did not invite that association by the arrangement of a star chart above a clay pipe, but once we conjure that idea, we may begin to recognize how, even as adults, the sight of an almost impossibly bright full moon still fills us with a childlike wonder that, like a soap bubble or a state of recaptured innocence, sadly cannot be sustained.
Benjamin called this connection between seemingly dislike things non-sensuous similitude, and that is the vein of inquiry that I try to work in my poems. It is not unrelated to psychoanalytic association, and Freud himself had an impressive collection of small antiquities. His approach is rooted in the metaphor of archaeology, the varied strata of experience. I think a contemporary neurologist might say that these vectors are actually synapses. To a certain extent, I may have an unusually ‘leapy’ mind by nature, but I have also tried to practice the kinds of horizontal thinking the poems sometimes enact.
RH: Could you say more about what you mean by “putting into practice the horizontal thinking the poems enact?” That is a very evocative idea.
KG: I think that a certain kind of inattention can be productive sometimes. That is a heavily qualified claim, right? I certainly do not want a surgeon’s mind wandering during a delicate procedure, and, similarly, I think that there are absolutely circumstances in which the only logical option is to roll up one’s sleeves and dig as deeply as possible into a relatively narrow domain of interest. This is the way many scholars work, for instance. But I have found that I will often catch myself thinking or remembering things that surprise me. I actually hear myself asking, “Why am I thinking about this? What train of thought landed me in this ghost town?” And rather than merely shrugging that question off, I have tried to develop a practice of actually attempting to answer it. I attempt to reconnect the dots between the series of impressions and thoughts.
When my mind wanders while I am reading or meditating, I don’t see that as a frustrating weakness but as an opportunity to observe what it is that is actually preoccupying me or to see what it is that the material at hand has called up for me either emotionally or intellectually. I have learned to trust that there is often a meaningful pathway between what I had been reading or thinking a moment ago and what I am suddenly seemingly incongruously thinking now. It is not random, though it may seem to be: there is rather a horizon line along which I am psychologically drifting. There are deep currents that are moving the mind in that direction, and the work of the poem is sometimes to articulate or at least to ponder those often hidden currents.
RH: We've mentioned Benjamin and Cornell, Freud and Sontag. What about poets? Who are the poets, both living and gone, who most nourish your work right now?
KG: I was most deeply influenced when I first started writing poems by Charles Wright and Larry Levis, and I think a reader can see those influences without a whole lot of effort! Levis became a master of the kind of horizontal thinking about which we have been talking, and Charles Wright was the first poet I read who I could see overtly thinking within his poems. There is a deep metaphysical preoccupation to his work. For similar reasons, I have always loved Robert Hass’s poems. I think that David Wojahn, my colleague at VCU, is similarly masterful in both his craft, which is meticulous, and his intellectual exploration. My first teacher was Stephen Dunn, and though his poems appear more contained, they are actually quite shifty in terms of the way they advance their thinking. Levis’s poems are far looser than the poems of any of the others. I love the movement from image to image, idea to idea in the poems of Terrance Hayes, Bob Hicok, Matthew Zapruder. I love the rigor of Linda Gregerson’s poems. But I also deeply admire poets whose work is really different from my own. I love Kevin Young’s poems, which are so smart in the ways they seek to marry joy, or even whimsy, with gravity and sorrow. I love the poems of Jack Gilbert and Jean Valentine.
RH: Recently, the literary world has become increasingly concerned with the politics of race and gender and, correspondingly, with equality of representation in literary magazines. How visible has this shift been to you? Has it impacted your writing or reading in a significant way?
KG: I am shamefully, or maybe fortunately, outside of the loop regarding the buzz of the literary world. You seem to be asking, however, about an issue that is one of the central issues facing the nation now. We are discovering that too much of the progress some of us may have thought that we had made with regard to equality was illusory, and we certainly live in a world that is polarized by fear and hate rather than united by empathy and compassion. I feel that American poetry is proving itself to be a body, a community, a chorus, in which many diverse voices can and do already exist, and this is, of course, what we want. It is the only healthy path forward for us as human beings and the only healthy path for our art. I don’t know any poet who would not praise the expansion of the modes of aesthetic expression as well as the expansion of the urgent experiences being expressed. I haven’t found that my poems are changing in response to this issue in particular. I do find that this current moment on Earth feels more insistent to me in many ways than it did when I was writing the poems that are now in The Eternal City, and, in that way, the pressing concerns of the here and now are more evident in the new poems than they were in the earlier poems.
RH: Alongside one’s response to such insistence and urgency, there is also the unfortunate pressure—especially in academia—to advance one’s career as a writer. How does one maintain perspective when trying to balance the (seemingly) competing demands of (1) one's craft and (2) the imperative to capitalize on one's craft? Any advice for those who find this balancing act troubling?
KG: I think that it is very hard to strike a balance, and I say that as a person who is actually neither interested in nor any good at either self-promotion or networking. The issue is that it is surprisingly costly to live even modestly. I know that for me the desire to become financially secure enough to write without worry has at times ironically resulted in a life in which I did not actually have any time to write at all! And, of course, it is the case that if one has an academic job, there is always an expectation of a certain level of continued literary production. I think that for the most part the writers I know would continue to write regardless, but even the word ‘production’ can sometimes seem like a slippery slope. I wish I had good advice. I wish that I could take the advice I sometimes give! I have heard myself say that it is important to learn to say no to things that seem as though they will consume your time, but that is lousy advice because we so often underestimate how long a task will take us, and we also underestimate our understandable human desire for something like predictable material security. We also have a nearly moral obligation to support other artists in the ways that we ourselves have been supported. Hence, sometimes the failure to achieve a perfect balance is frustrating, but, honestly, to be a poet is to have a wonderful life. It is an amazing and deeply fulfilling way to live.
Robert Haines was educated at Kenyon College and the University of California Irvine. He has received a Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship for his work and is currently a doctoral fellow at the University of North Texas. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Salamander, Spoon River Poetry Review, Faultline, and Poets.org.
Second Empire. Richie Hofmann. Alice James Books. Farmington, ME. 2015. Soft cover. 100 pages. 15.95
By Matt Morton
The virtue of quietness is not in vogue in much of the poetry of our moment. The majority of poems I read by young writers—and I am one of them—are more concerned with associative movement than with clarity; more interested in bounding over psychological terrain than in establishing single, distinct impressions. These poems are loud, unruly, and brimming over with energy. They tend to wear their hearts (or lack thereof) on their sleeves.
In nearly every way, the poems in Second Empire, Richie Hofmann’s debut collection, run counter to these trends. Like the Psalms that they reference, Hofmann’s poems are hushed and measured. Recalling in equal parts the work of Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, Carl Phillips and Henri Cole, these poems nevertheless stand apart from their influences, painting with delicate strokes, simultaneously concealing and revealing their concerns.
“Sea Interlude: Dawn,” which opens the collection, is representative of Hofmann’s typical approach. It begins with several lines of relatively straightforward description:
Smoke green mist leans into the rocks,
where fishermen whistle and mend their nets,
practicing rituals of brotherhood
before the luster of sky and sun,
which flashes against the pale horizon
with the oily turbulence of a swarm
This first sentence, which makes up half of the poem, sets the stage for the delayed turn—the entrance of Hoffman’s speaker in line 10: “Standing at the water’s edge, I watch myself / loosen into a brief exquisite blur.” The speaker finally compares himself to Antinoüs, “turning away from love / toward what he knows, even then, is loss.” “Sea Interlude: Dawn” introduces many of the themes that will be taken up elsewhere in the collection: the speaker’s conflicted relationship to, and fascination with, history; the problem of coming to terms with one’s identity; the possibility of loss that lurks on the margins of every apparently innocuous experience.
Like “Sea Interlude: Dawn,” the poems that follow also display Hofmann’s attention to form. While many of the poems resemble sonnets, others make use of less familiar formal constraints. “Three Cranes” comprises three sections, each of which references a different “crane” (the bird, the construction machine, and the poet Hart Crane). “Mirror” is made up of a single stanza of alternating rhyming pairs, the first line of which is loose iambic pentameter, the second a short line of two syllables:
You’d expect a certain view from such a mirror--
than one that hangs in the entry and decays.
past my reflection toward other things:
burnt gold upon blue, which decorate the wall
those objects collected from travels . . .
Similarly, in “Night Ferry” we find four long sections of irregular-length rhyming couplets:
Tonight, distantly, the cold air
comes off the square,
where all those people, bundled in winter coats,
line up to buy tickets for the boats.
Everywhere the city disguises
them from each other. The black ferry moves. The water rises
in the dark.
The people disembark.
These poems exhibit a careful construction that makes them feel oracular and at times disembodied, even inhuman. They are characterized by hitches in otherwise unassuming surfaces, moments of surprise which often take the form of wonderfully strange and precise verbs. In “Description,” Hofmann’s speaker recalls,
And snow shawled the branches.
And you took the keys from your pocket. And snow feathered the grass
which was mine to remember and forget.
“Antique Book” finds the sky “crazed with swallows;” “Bats tacked blackness / to the sky” in “The Surround.” Hofmann’s poems resemble Cole’s in their texturing of light, airy sentences with sharp, precise diction. They are at once minimal and forceful, authoritative and reserved.
Because these poems are so quiet, they demand to be read slowly if they are to be deeply felt. The attentive reader, however, is rewarded with a moving narrative arc. Through a series of hints, memories, and subtle impressions, Second Empire presents the story of a relationship in peril and the speaker’s simultaneous struggles to come to terms with himself and his place in history. As in much Classical writing, what is omitted in these poems is as important as what is on the page. Take the short poem “Purple,” for example, printed here in its entirety:
From the Phoenicians, they learned to extract
the color from shells.
When their dogs ate sea snails along the coast,
their dog-teeth were dyed purple—that’s how the Phoenicians knew.
To darken it,
the Romans added black, which came from scorched wood,
which abounded, one imagines, in an empire.
The economy of language here is stunning on its own, as is Hofmann’s ability to punctuate his sentences with bizarre diction like “dog-teeth.” However, when read in the context of the other poems and the fear of loss that haunts them, “Purple” takes on even greater significance: it simultaneously points toward the violence that must be at the foundation of any civilization and asks to be read as an allegory revealing the speaker’s fear that what he loves most is at risk of being destroyed—a fear so great that he can only acknowledge it indirectly, through a historical lens.
The fear of destroying what one loves permeates Second Empire. Nowhere is this fear more evident than in the final section of “Night Ferry,” the most ambitious—and, for me, the most moving—poem in the collection. “Section IV. Serenity” opens with the speaker passively observing how “The city cleaved things: together / and apart.” But by the end of the section, it is the speaker who has become culpable for the separation of things. The rudder of the speaker’s boat
cut its dark path through the water,
pushing wake to either side, as if sorting testimonies of love
from jealousy: from above,
it must have looked like the black canal was rent
apart, halved, no matter where I went.
In these lines, which close Second Empire’s third section, Hofmann’s speaker finally experiences the moment of epiphany toward which each of the preceding poems has been building: he is confronted by an understanding of his capacity to harm, to sever what seemed indivisible.
The book’s fourth section explores the speaker’s reactions to this understanding, and it is not until the final poems of the collection that we observe how
When the sun broke up the thunderheads,
and dissonance was consigned
to its proper place, the world was at once foreign
and known to me. That was shame
leaving the body.
In this way, Second Empire ends not in dissolution, but in reconciliation. The final poem, “Imperial City,” suggests that Hofmann’s speaker has begun to find a way forward by looking, once again, into the past. The poem, which takes the form of a nearly unpunctuated memory, closes with the boy speaker listening to a tour guide discuss
the child like me whose father the Peaceful
having already produced an heir by his first marriage
could marry for love.
Here Hofmann turns away from loss toward love, a decision that ends the collection on a note of hopeful uncertainty—a clarity in which exists the possibility of reunited lovers and a unified self. This is as loud a moment as any in the book, a moment of triumph; for this reason, it is a finale worthy of all that precedes it. With these remarkable poems, Hofmann truly transcends the “debut” label.
Local News from Someplace Else. Marjorie Maddox. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Eugene, OR. 2013. Soft cover. 92 pages. $14.00.
I know no better way to read a poem than as a traveler, the poem being a one-way ticket out of my home-place, my comfort zone. There is no return, for that comfort zone disappears behind me. Instead, I have the poem and the ability to journey with it into a reality that is vaguely similar to the world I have relinquished. This new world is accessible only through poetry’s unique sensory acuity, a clarity born out of the poet’s distillation of experience. Through a poem we recognize things for what they truly are, which may seem paradoxical, given the figurative character of its language. Yet, poetry is not about linguistic somersaults; it is about a journey into the heart of reality: people, things, life, the intersection of time and space where humans abide. And so, whenever I read poetry—especially a new collection—I do so with the hope of being handed this singular ticket for a journey into reality. In Maddox’s compelling work about place, with her voice securely in place, I was not to be disappointed.
The “someplace else” in Marjorie Maddox's new collection would be inaccessible without poetry, without the lucidity that results from watching the “ordinariness of a day,” equally attentive to its “extraordinary rhythms” (“June 1st Liturgy”). We would never arrive at that “someplace” weighted down by linguistic baggage or verbal excess. Maddox knows that we travel farthest and most genuinely when we travel unencumbered, and to this end she unencumbers her poems. Their conciseness allows the reader to reach, without distraction, meta-geographic realms beyond cities noted on a map. We sense this will be the case already from the early pages of the book: “I’m waiting to hear from Madrid, / from Tokyo, and Madagascar, / where loss, I’ve read, flies fastest / in the smallest of words” (“The Postcard”).
The itinerary that binds the poems in Maddox’s latest book is the itinerary of daily newscasts: poems about place punctuated by others with journalistic headings, each one becoming a necessary stopover in our journey. We cannot escape the news they bring, as we cannot escape our daily papers and shows, blogs and media alerts. It is a world that first arrived in our living rooms, not so distantly, through the rabbit-eared television sets of the ‘60s. Maddox tells us how it was, in “Seventeen-Inch Black-And-White:” “…we’re there, each of us, two-stepping between / craters, bouncing into wild blue possibility far beyond / 1969 and our three-channel, living-room imagination, / desperately dreaming of soaring beyond what we / already know of beyond.” Yet what began, almost innocently in those early days of television, as access to an exciting “beyond” led, all too soon, to the near-impossibility of our internalizing that “beyond,” those myriad worlds. Ruefully and in half-jest, we might echo the remark of the weary traveler in Mel Stuart’s movie, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. But humor aside, the loss is a serious one. If we cannot internalize, if we do not have the time or the energy to assume those myriad worlds to which we also belong, we will lose our own personal sense of place. In the absence of context, we live adrift. This is the reason a collection such as Maddox’s is so vital. The poet—like Dante’s Virgil—is uniquely positioned to take the outward journey, into ports of tragedy if need be, because she remains tethered to the essential word, the word that is common to all of us, the one that keeps us from losing sight of who we are and how we connect.
But how might such a journey be fulfilled? How does the author of Local News from Someplace Else achieve this redeeming journey? First, Maddox accepts the loss; she ventures as far as she needs to, apparently willing to relinquish her home-place, her own comfort zone, as she reveals in these lines: “No matter / what channel we pay, / there is still no news from home” (“Local News from Someplace Else”). Or these, from “Pennsylvania September: The Witnesses,” “Beyond the woods, the scorched crater / swallowing who I was.” And these from “Fatal Shock Mystery” (based on a horrific news story about an electrocution): “Not even the scientific / explanation to fall back on or crawl through / just the body after the jolt / with no hope of knowing where / it came from. The unknown why...” Anything less than an embrace of tragedy, wherever tragedy might occur, would lead only to a facile and illusory hope.
The second part of the equation—the salvific one, which parallels this dare-the-loss approach—is a sense of permanence, a durability of spirit that infuses Maddox’s ultimately liberating book. It is latent in such verses as: “…the tap-tap-tapping / of what is left of our breath / hungry for spirit—that canary not yet dead / in our damp labyrinth” (“Nine Alive”). Here, as elsewhere, poetry surpasses its own narrative to point toward the urgent hunger of our spiritual pulse. Listen to the sounds of these lines from “Cancer Diagnosis:” “O / that this too too sullied flesh / would melt, thaw / and resolve itself into dew.” How caringly the poet leads us to the poem’s closing affirmation: “in the heat of forgiveness / this strange healing that peels / skin from soul, sanctifying what rots / and is rotten in the state / of who we are.” Maddox is a poet of faith, and her personal voice, present throughout the book, rings true: “And so I crave even the low rumbling / of our longest-forming sorrows” (“Meteorology”). Belief in redemption assumes a trust that all “predictions [move] past / updraft to downburst to calm.” It allows Maddox to express her hospitality to grief.
Perhaps the best way to describe the feeling that settled in me, at last, after reading Local News from Someplace Else was that of a holy, uncanny calm. I had travelled to a host of places, but I had not lost home. The journey had taken me to the “someplace else” of grief and loss, of bizarre tragedy and daily salvation. Through her entire book, Maddox kept telling me: if it is human, it is yours; embrace it. For it is only through our embrace of humanity that we can finally save what is profoundly ours, what gives meaning to both individual and communal truth: “all of our lives / … planted deep” (“Settled”).
Sofia M. Starnes
Reviews & Interviews
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Kristina Marie Darling
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