Poet Profiles: Aozora Brockman

April 25, 2017

poetEven though National Poetry Month is winding down, we’re not done celebrating here at EPL. This Sunday, April 30 at 4 pm we’re thrilled to welcome poets Aozora Brockman and Anita Olivia Koester as part of the 2017 Evanston Literary Festival. Both will read from their latest collections, and in anticipation, we recently spoke with Brockman via email. Raised on an organic vegetable farm in Central Illinois, Brockman is the author of two chapbooks, The Happiness of Dirt and Memory of a Girl. She is the recipient of the 2015 Jean Meyer Aloe Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and her poems have been published in the Cortland Review, Fifth Wednesday, Reckoning and other journals. She lives, works, and writes in the haven of her family’s farm. You can learn more by visiting her website, and below she discusses her poetic origins and inspirations, her writing process, and her superb poem “Bottomland.” Enjoy!

EPL: Can you tell us a little about your background as a poet? What started you writing poetry? What did you write about when you began, and what do you write about now?

Aozora Brockman: My very first poems emerged as improvised songs when I was young. Some winter evenings, as I went out to feed and water our chickens and goats, the rhythm of my feet crunching on the packed snow set a beat, and my arm swinging my empty egg pail added a counterpoint. When I opened my mouth, words would come tumbling out and follow a melody I made up on the spot.

I am easily overwhelmed by sensations and sounds, so spending whole days cooped up in the house in the winter listening to the constant chatter of public radio made me feel like a helium balloon blown too full. So I loved those rare moments of solitude and silence, when it was just me and the moon and the snow, when all of the words that I had shoved down inside of my throat floated out into the cold air. Most of the time the words were strung together randomly and didn’t make a lot of sense, but at times I found myself singing thoughts and feelings that reflected deeply what I needed right then to express.

I think this is what I love most about writing poetry—sometimes, when you sit down with a pen and paper and allow yourself to write whatever comes into your mind, you discover something deep inside of you that needed to come out into the world. Suddenly something clicks into place, and whatever was vague inside your mind is now concrete, right on the page. I’ve been hooked on that feeling—of empowerment, and joy—since I was young, and that has kept me writing.

But it wasn’t until I took a class with Rachel Jamison Webster through the Creative Writing program at Northwestern that I dared to think of myself as a poet. Growing up, I felt there was a clear difference between poems that I read in school—which oftentimes confounded me—and what I was writing. I used poems as a kind of short-hand for longer essays, and I hardly knew what I was doing with form or enjambment or rhythm. I remember that I was terrified of taking the Reading and Writing Poetry course with Rachel because I thought I would fail at writing “good” poems. Thankfully, I was wrong! Not only did Rachel convince me that I was capable of writing poetry, but she also encouraged me to delve deeper into myself and to write with sensitivity and bravery. She taught me that there was great freedom in writing poetry—that I could be wholly, unabashedly, myself—and that poetry has the power to rupture structures, to heal, and to make people feel tremendous emotion.

The poems I wrote before meeting and learning from Rachel were more reserved and filled with imagery of the vegetable fields of our farm. I still derive inspiration from the beauty of our family farm, but the poems I write now are emotionally open and probing.

EPL: Can you give us a window into your writing process? How do you begin, and what are the essential ingredients of a good poem? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?

AB: Ideas for poems often come to me when I’m weeding or harvesting on our farm. The repetitive movements of swiping a hand hoe around seedlings and brushing dirt up against them, or gathering up a bouquet of pink beauty radish and twirling a twist-tie around them engages my body and mind in such a way that I feel intimately connected to the dirt, bugs, birds and woods that surround me. This meditative space is conducive to poetic inspiration.

Sometimes I see something gorgeous and fall in love—a butterfly emerging from a emerald cocoon or a spider spinning an intricate web—and have to write about it, or sometimes I am digging up sweet potatoes and the joy of it sparks an idea. My father likes to say that when he’s working on the farm, he’s not composing songs or writing the next great American novel, but that his mind is essentially blank, fully concentrated on the task before him. I’m not writing poetry while I’m working either, but something about being completely engaged, on hands and knees in dirt, allows my mind to wander off and settle on an idea. Most of the time I am so busy on the farm that I forget the idea or image during the course of a physically intense work day, but usually it comes back to me again while working in the field and sticks in my memory.

When I sit down to write, I close my eyes and think of an image or scene that struck me. I try to remember how it felt to be in that moment: what I was touching, what I was smelling, what colors I was mesmerized by, what voices or sounds I was hearing. Then, with words, I try to recreate that memory as vividly as possible so that it can enter into someone else’s mind. To do that, I have to translate images and hard to describe feelings into language—which takes a lot of trial and error. But I always want my reader to be right there with me, feeling and seeing and hearing through my eyes and body.

For me, the most essential ingredient to writing a good poem is an openness to, sensitivity towards, and love for the world around me. If I am closed off to the world, or fearful and anxious of what surrounds me, my poems become one-dimensional or forceful. Because I fear something, I want to see the world without depth and ignore the complex chaos just below the surface. This way of seeing and feeling makes my poetry substanceless and devoid of truth. I believe the best poetry does not try to bang the reader over the head with an argument, but rather reflects the world in all of its complexity, even if it reveals something ugly or heartbreaking.

I haven’t always felt that poetry was so connected to love and openness—in fact, I think I’ve just recently come to this conclusion. It has been almost two years since I graduated from college, and for most of that time, I found it very difficult to write poetry. As a young adult facing the realities of climate change, political instability, racism, sexism and everything else, I felt an immense weight on my shoulders, and, filled with terror about my future, I retreated inside myself. But this spring, I finally feel myself opening up again, and love and hope are brimming in my heart. Poetry is brimming in me, too, because for the first time in a long while, I am seeing the world clearly and with care, and I want so much to share what I am seeing and feeling, and to connect with others. Poetry, it seems, is all about wanting to connect, and though I probably knew this on the surface-level before, I know this with conviction now.

EPL: What poets have inspired you? What are you reading right now?

AB: Rachel Webster inspires me immensely. Her poems quicken my heart when I’m reading them, and images and thoughts and feelings grow so big inside of me that I have to put her book down to write a poem myself. I feel very connected to her poetry, and that bond lets me break free from where I am stuck in my mind, and hurtles me into a new realm of thought.

I also love Joy Harjo’s poetry, and Audre Lorde’s poem “Power” is one of my all-time favorites. The work of Anne Sexton, Franny Choi, Nicky Finney and June Jordan fascinate and inspire me.

I am reading Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch right now, which is a joy! My grandpa, Herman, adores Wendell Berry and he and my grandma Marlene gifted all six of their children with a copy of the book this past Christmas. My grandpa, who is an avid lover of poetry, always asks me when I see him if I’ve finished reading the book yet. I’m happy to say I am now halfway through it! As a farmer-poet, Wendell Berry infuses his poems with the cycles of the seasons and laments our destruction of the earth. As my grandpa explains it, instead of going to church on Sundays with his wife, Berry spends his Sabbath walking in woods or sitting on his porch, writing poems. I am inspired by this idea and hope to be a farmer-poet like Berry someday.

EPL: Can you tell us a bit about the poem you chose to share?

AB: “Bottomland” is a love poem to the black loamy dirt of our fields, and to my brothers, Asa and Kazami, who played in the dirt with me when we were still too young to help out on the farm. I found with this poem that it is very difficult to describe how we played with the dirt, and the joy of it, to a reader who isn’t intimately familiar with our farm. I mention a “burdock hole” in the poem, for instance, and I am sure that most people have never even heard of burdock, much less know how it is harvested.

Burdock, called gobo in Japanese, is a long black root that extends up to three feet into the ground. To harvest it, we take spades and shovels and dig out around the three rows of burdock, careful not to cut through the roots in the process. The deep and wide hole that remains after we’ve dug out all of the burdock looks almost like a grave. When my brothers and I were little, we’d be just as tall as the hole, and while my dad—who I call Otōsan—hurled shovel after shovel of dirt out of the hole, we would have nothing to do but immerse ourselves in the soil all around us: feeling it, smelling it, looking at it up close, or even tasting it. (My brother Kazami was infamous for eating handfuls of dirt!)

During one of those burdock harvests, Asa noticed how some of the dirt Otōsan piled up next to the hole came trickling down the side of it, and since the edge of the hole wasn’t perfectly smooth, the streams of dirt would catch on little knobs and ruts on the way down. Asa showed me how to take a handful of dirt and let it run down the side of the hole, then gather it up from the bottom and run it down again and again. We observed how the finest dirt would settle on the knobs and ruts while the coarser dirt would tumble all the way to the bottom of the hole, and something about this process was beautiful and fascinating to us. I loved to touch the dirt that coated the knobs and marvel at its rabbit-fur-like softness.

When Asa read Memory of a Girl, he told me “Bottomland” was his favorite poem and that it made him nostalgic for our childhood. I wrote “Bottomland” to remember and relive the most joyous moments of growing up on our farm, and the poem makes me nostalgic too. What I miss most is being able to derive so much happiness from playing with what surrounded us—dirt. Since not many people grew up playing the way we did, it is easy to feel that what I remember from my childhood is imagined or not real. But “Bottomland” allows me to capture those memories, and live again the days when the bottomland field was my whole world.


Poet Profiles: Anita Olivia Koester

April 14, 2017

April is National Poetry Month, and here at EPL we’re celebrating with a very special poetry event. On Sunday, April 30 at 4 pm we’re excited to welcome poets Anita Olivia Koester and Aozora Brockman as part of the 2017 Evanston Literary Festival.  Both will read from their latest collections, and in anticipation, we recently spoke with Koester via email.  A Chicago poet and editor for the lit journal Duende, Koester is the author of the chapbooks Marco Polo, Apples or Pomegranates (forthcoming), and Arrow Songs which won Paper Nautilus’ Vella Chapbook Contest. She is the recipient of Midwestern Gothic’s Lake Prize, the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Award, and the Bread Loaf Returning Contributors Award, and her poetry is published or forthcoming in Vinyl, Tahoma Literary Review, CALYX Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere.  You can learn more by visiting her website, and below she discusses her poetic origins and inspirations, her writing process, and her excellent poem “Confessions of a Childless Woman.”  Enjoy!

Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as a poet? What started you writing poetry? What did you write about when you began, and what do you write about now?

Anita Olivia Koester: I published my first poem in December 2013, and I would say it was my first or second serious poem. Before that I wrote poems here and there, but had always intended to be a novelist and therefore I read novels. I hardly knew how to read a poem back then, nor had I been exposed to much contemporary poetry. That poem was unlike anything that came after it, mostly because it was written as a fictional poem and from a man’s perspective. I haven’t written a poem from a male’s perspective since. My poems, though often mythical and imaginative, are essentially autobiographical. And I suppose in some ways that first poem was as well, as it was about a husband who cheats on his wife and is experiencing an almost paralytic guilt. Sometimes acquiring empathy for the people who have hurt us can begin the healing process.

Though I had known since childhood that my desire was to become a writer, it wasn’t until I divorced that I was able to start out on the journey to finding my own voice. And many of my poems revisit this theme, the odyssey of a woman in search of her voice, the many beasts she must slay along the way both societal and internal. And for me this journey involves a tremendous amount of loss, and even guilt for leaving one life behind for another. When I first started writing, I was writing fiction, and then I began performing poems at open mics when I lived for a time in Paris. Even though I was always nervous to go up on stage, I loved how immediate the emotional connection could be with other like-minded people. If I read a poem about my father people would come up to me afterwards to tell me about their fathers, and there was a palpable feeling of celebration of emotion and language that I had never known in my life. Nor had I ever felt part of a community before, when I was married I lived an isolated life. I suppose I started writing poetry because of poets, because poets are some of the most welcoming, curious, and interesting people I’ve ever met, and in many ways it felt to me like I had discovered a new family.

book coverEPL: Can you give us a window into your writing process? How do you begin, and what are the essential ingredients of a good poem? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?

AOK: I feel like my process is always changing, not necessarily developing, but changing. I don’t allow myself to ever say I can only write in one state, and therefore I can allow writing to happen at any time and in any place. I probably write more often than not at home on my computer, but I compose poems on walks to the park, on trains, on planes, in the morning, just as I’m falling asleep, in the shower, while I’m washing dishes. And many times those poems are never put to paper, they just form within me and drift off or perhaps lay in wait (I doubt it though, since I have a terrible memory). But if the piece strikes an emotional cord with me, eventually I will find my way to my phone or computer to write it down, I wish I could say I still wrote on paper, but it’s become a rare occurrence. Not all of these compositions become poems, and even those that do, do not always get sent off to journals. But, they will stay in my files and when I’m feeling stuck I can look to them for lines, words, or images.

Occasionally I write a poem that never has to be revised or reworked, and often times these are my best poems. But even then they’re usually built off the back of lesser poems, I might write five or ten poems on one subject before I finally write the poem that gets it right. And then there are the poems that go through countless drafts, and that is when poetry is like chipping away at a boulder in order to end up with one good quality nugget. Sometimes the poem can seem so small in comparison to the process of arriving at it.

I couldn’t possibly claim that my poems always have the essential ingredients, but when I read poems, I respond to the emotional quality of them first. I always want to be moved by a poem. Beyond that, it varies. I’m personally fond of lyric poetry, poetry that is concerned with the musical elements of a poem – syntax, alliteration, prosody, assonance, slant rhymes, anaphora, repetition, and such. I like to be transported or enraptured by the language itself even at the expense of meaning. For me, the words should dance, or sing, or at the very least sway and hum. I’ll take those poems over poems of wisdom any day. Knowledge can be rather cold. I’d rather read a person’s messy and scattered thoughts that in the end only culminate in experience than be told anything definitive by a poem.

I think my understanding of poetry and poetics has deepened immeasurably since I started writing poetry, and I still have much to learn. It’s one of the things I love about poetry, the continual discovery of just how many ways there are to write something as common and as oft-written as a love poem. It’s hard to appreciate a poem until you’ve read a thousand of them, but once you’ve read a thousand of them, you can’t wait to read a thousand more and go back and read that first thousand again and again. Poems alter depending on the reader and their engagement of it, where they are in their life and what they are feeling, and in that way the life of a poem – as long as it is being read somewhere by someone – is endless.

EPL: What poets have inspired you? What are you reading right now?

AOK: Oh gosh, I’m always reading 10-30 books at a time. I’m an exceptionally slow reader of poetry, and one reason I love chapbooks is that I can sometimes finish them in a sitting or a few days. Otherwise, I can spend months reading a book of beautiful poems. Each poem is often like a long story compressed, and sometimes I’m so emotionally exhausted after engaging with one knock-out poem that I have to put the book down. (I don’t recommend reading this way at all.) In order to force myself out of this way of reading I sometimes sit at the park and just read a book of poems out loud from cover to cover and let it wash over me without allowing myself to overthink or analyze which I can always do later. We had precious few warm days this winter in Chicago, but on the last warm day I went to the park and read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is a remarkable book for both the gentle quality within the strength of his voice and for how diverse it is formally. Another one of my favorite books that came out this year was Joshua Bennett’s The Sobbing School, which I might be reading for years since each poem is so emotionally intense it’s like a kick to the stomach and yet the poems are also complex and intellectual.

Other books currently on my nightstand include, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Roger Reeve’s King Me, Marianne Boruch’s Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s Hour of the Ox, and Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A. And then there are those poets that my poetic universe revolves around, and those currently are Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, and Larry Levis.

EPL: Can you tell us a bit about the poem you chose to share?

AOK: “Confessions of a Childless Woman” has a rather long history. It began at the first writing residency I ever went to, a magical place tucked away amid the cornfields of Nebraska called Art Farm. Because I had all this time to create and was surrounded by visual artists, I found myself inspired to do a photo shoot with a number of vintage mannequins I found on the property. Some of the torsos were in the trunk of an abandoned Peugeot which smelled rank when I opened the rusted latch to pull them out. It was the kind of place where you might find some odd pile of materials to repurpose, basically a creative person’s ideal setting. And this one mannequin in particular spoke to me because of a crack she had running down her side. That mannequin – and one other with a beautiful though weatherworn face – became the main subjects of a self-portrait series I did in which the mannequins were placed in various roles I’ve lived. I’ve exhibited this series in a few places in Chicago including the public library, and people always remark on how eerily emotional the mannequins seem.

I spent a great deal of time both shooting and editing the series, as well as printing, framing, and exhibiting them, and now since I’m too lazy to find them another home, they decorate my apartment. The crack running down the one mannequin’s rib cage and breast has so occupied my imagination I’m sure I’ve dreamt about it. In some ways it was cathartic to take some of my emotions and place them on these mannequins, and in other ways it left me exposed and vulnerable. It gave a kind of physical shape to my own psychic pain. One of these photos became the cover of my first chapbook, Marco Polo, and other ones have gone on to be published in journals and books, though I never sold one of the prints, I think in part because they can be disturbing, though not to me.

The poem itself explores my deepest personal struggle, one I share with so many women. We are still brought up to think that a woman who doesn’t ever experience pregnancy and childbirth is not a really a woman.  If we cannot have children, we feel shame and perhaps unworthy of love, and if we chose not to have children, or it just never happens along the way, then we feel guilty, like we are perhaps not whole. This places such tremendous pressure on the woman, and so in the poem I pose the question of why can’t the aberration – the deviation from the norm – be beautiful, be celebrated. And what does it mean to be an aberration, how is the word defined? As it turns out the word has such a wide range of definitions – none of them particularly positive – and yet the definitions themselves are beautiful and poetic and have to do with light, images, seeing, and even the movement of celestial bodies.

This poem was published in Tupelo Quarterly along with two of the mannequin photos which I digitally manipulated to engage further with this poem. Visually, the poem mirrors the crack in the mannequin, which creates a duality that further illustrates my own struggle between two possible selves, the one with children, and the one without. The last line becomes a kind of suture – yes, these issues seem to separate women, but they ultimately draw us together on a deeper level. The poem is also about distortion. The first line is deliberately not capitalized in a kind of rebellion against norms. Everyone who looked at this poem – excepted for the editors who published it – was bothered by that, and at times I was too. But that was exactly the point! As a writer I find it important to always be interrogating ideas of normality as well as language, societal structures, rules and laws.  If we are not vigilant, all of them can be used against us.


Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

May 28, 2014

mayang86-year-old poet and activist Maya Angelou died Tuesday at her home in Winston Salem, N.C. Born Marguerite Johnson, she grew up in St. Louis, Mo. and Stamps, Ark. and was first called Maya by her brother. Leaving a troubled childhood and a segregated South, she began a career as both dancer and singer, touring Europe in the 1950s in a production of Porgy and Bess. She also studied dance with Martha Graham and performed with Alvin Ailey. Patrick Henry Bass, an editor at Essence Magazine, talked about her unique voice: “You would hear that voice, and that voice would capture a humanity, and that voice would calm you in so many ways through some of the most significant challenges.” The first of her series of memoirs I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings revealed some of the “scars of her past”. Film director John Singleton who used Ms. Angelou’s poems in his film Poetic Justice said he remembers the effect her poem Still I Rise had on him: “It makes me feel better about myself, or at least made me feel better about myself when I was young.” The poem begins with these lines:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Read the entire articles from NPR and from the NYT here.  And check out the EPL catalog for the many works by this acclaimed author.

Laura


2013 Inaugural Poet Announced

January 9, 2013

09POETjp-articleLargePoet Richard Blanco has been chosen by President Obama to be the 2013 inaugural poet. He will compose an original poem for the swearing-in ceremony to be held on the Capitol steps January 21. The 44-year-old son of Cuban exiles said he felt a “spiritual connection” with Mr. Obama. Latino and gay, Mr. Blanco “said his affinity for Mr. Obama springs from his own feeling of straddling different worlds.” He has published several collections of poetry, including his  first collection City of a Hundred Fires which won a prestigious literary award in 1997, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and Looking for the Gulf Motel. He is the nation’s fifth inaugural poet, and will be writing his poem based on President Obama’s inaugural theme “Our People, Our Future”. Check out this interesting NYT article.

Laura


An Interview with Charlotte Digregorio

April 25, 2011

Poet Charlotte Digregorio

Charlotte Digregorio is an award-winning author, teacher, and poet in the traditional Japanese form of haiku.  Her poetry has been featured in such publications as Modern Haiku, frogpond, The University of Chicago Magazine, bottle rockets, and Shamrock Haiku Journal, and as Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, the Winnetka resident works tirelessly to promote haiku through workshops, conferences, and contests.  On May 7th, you can hear Ms. Digregorio speak about the history of haiku when EPL proudly hosts Haikufest from 1-5:30 p.m. in our 1st Floor Community Meeting Room.  Featuring a writing workshop, haiku contest, book signings, and additional talks by prolific haikuists and artists, Haikufest is a free, HSA-sponsored poetry event that promises to education and inspire haiku lovers both new and old.  To pre-register, simply contact Ms. Digregorio at (847) 881-2664 or EPL at (847) 448-8600.  In anticipation of Haikufest, we recently spoke with Ms. Digregorio via email where she shared some of her haiku and poetic inspirations, discussed her work with HSA, and previewed Haikufest’s exciting line-up of speakers.

Continue reading “An Interview with Charlotte Digregorio”



Five Muslim American poets at Northwestern University

October 19, 2009

When   Monday, October 26, 2009   Time   10:00 AM – 7:00 PM  
Where   Annie May Swift Auditorium 1920 Campus Dr   map it
Audience   – Faculty/Staff – Student – Public
Contact   Jennifer Lynn Britton   j-britton@northwestern.edu
Group   English Department
More Info   http://www.english.northwestern.edu/documents/MuslimAmPoets.pdf

Kazim Ali, Ibtisam Barakat,Raza Ali Hasan,Fady Joudah, and Khaled Mattawa will read from their work and conclude with a symposium, “The Muslim American Poet as Self and Other.”

10:00 – 12:30 Opening Remarks and Readings by Raza Ali Hasan, Ibtisam Barakat, and Fady Joudah

2:00 – 3:15 Readings by Kazim Ali, and Khaled Mattawa

3:30 – 5:30 A Symposium “The Muslim American Poet as Self and Other”

5:30 – 7:00 A reception

http://www.english.northwestern.edu/documents/MuslimAmPoets.pdf


Talking Poetry

April 17, 2009

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In honor of National Poetry Month we asked one of our favorite poets, Dobby Gibson, author of two volumes of poetry (Polar and Skirmish) to tell us about five poems or poets that have disturbed his universe. He spoke with us via email.

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dobby1Dobby Gibson:  What are the five poets or poems that have “most disturbed” my universe? I’m so grateful for the way this question is worded — “most disturbed” rather than “most important,” or (gulp) “best.” Setting aside the haze of canonic formaldehyde or an academic’s chilly jeweler’s loupe, these five poets, poems and books of poems have all torn something open in me and altered or redirected my consciousness in ways that are rich enough to be worth repeating and, in this case, attempting to share.

 

The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Frank O’Hara

ohara3When I was 26, I had yet to attempt to write a poem and had never read a poet more contemporary than T.S. Eliot. I was taught poetry in school only as a way of understanding the past, understanding what people hundreds of years ago in England were thinking about while sitting around in colorful stockings and eating boiled venison. Which is to say, like most Americans, I was taught that poetry was antique.

In 1996, when I was completing an M.F.A. degree in fiction in the middle of Indiana, someone handed me the Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, a book that startled and mesmerized me in a way that none has since. (For one thing, the cover of this particular edition showed a Larry Rivers portrait of O’Hara, standing nude but for a pair of boots, his “flag” majestically raised to half mast.) Inside this book, I was stunned to discover, among other things, that poetry could be a spontaneous act, that its driving logic could be conversational and associational, and that a poem could take as its subject something as immediate as the very act of its own making. These poems captured a ferociously witty downtown world that I desperately wanted to participate in. It’s said of the Velvet Underground that anyone who has listened to one of their records has started a band. The same could be said of O’Hara and poets.

 

The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins

hopkins1I first read this poem in high school, and it was the first poem to get stuck in my head. Hopkins is best known for inventing—or, at least, putting a name to—a form of semi-free verse he called “sprung rhythm,” which this poem employs to dramatic effect. Hopkins, who was a Jesuit priest in Victorian England, was as intoxicated (if not more so) with the sounds of this versifying as he was the subject of his poems, to the point of sometimes inventing words, using complicated compound adjectives or obscuring meaning beneath layers of alliteration. Is there a more immediately contagious poet?

 

 

Actual Air, David Berman

2905052888_a699a767432This is an incredible first book of poems that bears the strange and funny stamp of the poet’s teacher, James Tate, as well as the influence of neo-surrealists such as Russell Edson and Charles Simic, but is nonetheless entirely original in the particularities of its voice, punk humor and mad logic. With the exception of a complementary, if short, review in the New Yorker, Actual Air was largely ignored by American poetry’s power brokers despite having now sold more than 10,000 copies. This may be because Berman, better known for his band, The Silver Jews, exists outside of their academic-industrial system and has publicly expressed a healthy distrust of its claustrophobic forces. Or this may be because Berman appears to have quit writing poems, sadly, at least for the time being.

This book, which has inspired a litany of imitators, was rejected by dozens of small-press contests, now the primary means by which a beginning poet can get his or her book published in America. Reading this book with that knowledge, it’s a wonder how anything halfway decent ever gets published by the system.

 

Cold Pluto, Mary Ruefle

coldpluto2Mary has a ferociously associative mind, and she uses it to push poems into really strange territory. She also uses humor to disarm the reader, often opening the way for intensely daring, bizarre and deeply truthful pronouncements. Her poems are wonderfully lyrical and feverishly imaginative. Part surrealist, part nutty preacher, Mary is the most poety-poet I know, and few poets have been a bigger influence on my own work. I’d throw myself in front of a train to save this book’s life, although this book seems to be throwing itself in front of a train to save my own

 

In a White Light, Michael Burkard

burkardBurkard, a recovering alcoholic who often writes about the effects of the disease, writes resonant, semi-abstract poems that explore the conflicted interiors of the mind, poems that are written in the spirit of Denis Johnson. His poems read as damaged, late-night missives. The power of Burkard’s work, for me, has always lied in its wonderfully inventive syntax, and in the mysterious way his poems can come off as both haunted and joyful.

This particular book was published in 1977 by L’Epervier Press in a rudimentary paperback whose cover is an enormous black-and-white portrait of Burkard with a cigarette dangling from his lip. For years, until I was lucky enough to stumble upon an extremely rare copy in a used bookstore, I carried around this book in Xerox form, a bootleg copy made in the Indiana University Library. I’ve always been more interested in poetry’s private powers than its public obligations, and this is one of those books that I love, in part, because it feels like a privileged secret.