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Posts Tagged ‘America’

I discovered Paul Farley’s poetry in the Graywolf anthology New British Poetry (2004), edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, and immediately fell in love with his work, the seamless integration of natural speech rhythms and hauntingly spare imagery. The anthology influenced me so greatly I wound up attending graduate school in the UK, where I worked with his fellow Liverpudlian Jamie McKendrick, who frequently spoke his praises. I was happy to see The Atlantic Tunnel (Faber & Faber, $25), a selected poems, published my side of the Atlantic, in what I hope will be the first of many contemporary British selecteds to appear in America.

Farley and I corresponded by email, following his New York City reading with Paul Muldoon. His brief emails were characterized by the same intelligence and grace as his poetry.

DS

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Your first book in America just came out. Congratulations. It’s called The Atlantic Tunnel, which is interesting to me because of the great disconnect I often feel between American and British poetry. Tell me your take on the situation.

Thank you, David. We’re getting straight into it here, aren’t we? My take on this would be hopelessly one-sided. Even though I’ve never felt any impedimenta to getting hold of American poetry, the recent and emergent stuff is slightly more difficult to track from this side of the ocean, simply because there’s so much of it. But I had For the Union Dead in my pocket when I was at art school in the nineteen-eighties, and I certainly connected with that: it lit me up. I even called one of my paintings ‘Myopia: a Night’. There’s a connection between Melville and Hawthorne with Liverpool, my hometown, so I’ve this longstanding sense of a link. I grew up in a port. I’m useless at discerning schools and movements, even here in the UK, and compared to here America looks like a sea of poets. I attended Michael Donaghy’s poetry class in London in the early nineteen-nineties, and Michael was Irish American, from New York via Chicago, and so a very important conduit. He’d left the States because (among other reasons) he felt the UK still had an engaged and curious general audience for poetry, something that had become largely institutionalized but decoupled from the broader artistic and intellectual currents in America. I’ve not had the opportunity to truly test this, although one difference that does strike me is the availability of the past here, the way poets draw on the big archive; I don’t know whether that happens so routinely in the States.

It’s interesting to me to see the Americans published in the UK, like Carcanet’s Mark Doty and Jorie Graham, Bloodaxe’s Tony Hoagland and C.K. Williams, and so on. It’s the same this side of the Atlantic, and I’m happy to see Faber Poetry publishing poets like you and Don Paterson here. Tell me, in your opinion, which British poets we need in America.

I guess I’m getting more interested in how English translates into English as it crosses the Atlantic, what nuances in the language or cultural frames of reference are distorted or injured in the process, or amplified. On my most recent trip to the States, I gave a reading in New York with Paul Muldoon, and I found myself explaining what treacle was to the audience; this was just a day after I’d interviewed John Ashbery and at one point we’d talked about how difficult or exotic Dickens or O’Hara might seem in the crossing either way, and how savvy readers are. So, I wonder what happens to all the different versions of, say, England or Wales, and would be interested to see how Kate Clanchy or Hugo Williams or Menna Elfyn would go down. Not quite the same thing as you needing them, I know. But I’ve enjoyed finding California in Robert Hass, or Carbondale in Rodney Jones, or Chicago’s South Side in Gwendolyn Brooks.

Conversely, are there any American poets you need in the UK? Kevin Young is one, I think, to scratch at the exotic sheen of Nagra. And Bob Hicok, definitely.

What tends to happen is, American poets come through and create stirs and eddies and poets here talk about them and pass on their books; you can watch it happen, track them coming through, it’s like bands when you’re very young; you can see them gather momentum, before it’s someone else’s turn. You do often wonder what you might be missing. Because poetry is still ‘a tiny jungle’, as Auden put it, everyone eventually knows everyone in the UK, but Americans can remain distant, rumoured. Who is Chelsey Minnis? I liked Bad Bad a lot even though it’s nothing like what I do; and quite a few of us did, maybe all the more so because we’ve little else to go on but the words, the shape of the book, etc. But that also happens with poets who’ve been around for a long time, like Frederick Seidel, that sense of rediscovery that has surrounded his work here recently.

You’re working on another radio drama for the BBC, this one about Frank O’Hara. Tell me about that project and about other projects you’ve worked on for radio—I think you did a program on Larkin, too, right?

This one’s a feature on O’Hara, using Lunch Poems as its centre. I like making programmes where I get to exercise my own interests, but where there’s room to discover things. I think that’s the thing that comes across in a broadcast, your own sense of excitement and discovery. Auden wrote a feature for American Vogue – imagine this happening now – in 1954, called ‘England: Six Unexpected Days’, where he suggests a kind of alternative itinerary for adventurous Americans newly arrived into Heathrow: martinis in Uttoxeter, Crewe Junction, Swaledale and right up onto the North Pennine limestone, his ‘significant earth.’ So we followed the same route and made a feature of that. The Larkin programme was more conventionally timetabled, following his rail routes, the train journeys that got into his poems. I suppose in this O’Hara programme I’ve been trying to talk about how much the fabric and speed and shape of the city is embodied in the poetry, especially the ‘I do this, I do that’ variety; O’Hara as a kind of human junction box through which all kinds of currents flowed.

What are you working on, now that you’ve conquered America? More poems? Australia?

More poems, yes, hopefully. I’ll settle for that.

June 2010

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In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams. (New Directions) $13.95

This collection of essays is an experiment to tell the story of American history through poetic prose impressions rather than facts and dates. There is no pretense to non-fiction, though Williams and his wife Flossie conducted voluminous research for this work. Each stylized essay, from “Red Eric” to “Abraham Lincoln,” is an attempt to distill the story into a drop of the life force driving the event.

There is no plain speech in this book, instead there is a cacophony of voices and styles. It sometimes feels more like looking at a painting than reading an essay. “Red Eric” is constructed of quick, sharp sentences, the stark style creating an impressionistic view of the harsh environs and personalities who make up the story. So stark in fact that the essay covers the lives of four generations in less than six pages. “The Destruction of Tenochtitlan” contains lists and lists of riches and foods, all of the things that so impressed Cortez. The language is lush, heavy with resources and religion. You see and feel the abundance before you read about it.

Because the modernist imagism is so overwhelming, the entire collection leans toward abstraction, and at times can be tedious to read. The visual imagery and the way things sound coming off the tongue very often feels gratuitous to the point of hindering the tale rather than working as an aid in the telling. As a reader I find myself wondering where I fit in.

With “Voyage of the Mayflower” the Puritans make their entrance, and they rear their ugly, covered heads very often after that. Williams seems somewhat obsessed with Puritan oppression and what he deems to be the resulting repression of touch in America. This lack of touch is mentioned in several pieces but he goes into far more detail about it in “Jacataqua”:

What is the result? The result is the thing that results, of course.

After navigating through 180 pages, patiently reflecting on these somewhat puzzling and chaotic essays, I want to know the result. I understand the overt sarcasm in “The Founding of Quebec” as a device to further illustrate the pompous foolishness of Champlain and his single-minded mission to create a colony for France without taking the land or native people into consideration. It was annoying, but at least I saw the reason for it. In “Jacataqua” most of America is abused, including his readers, and most especially women. After the above question and its smart-ass answer, he goes on:

Anyhow, it’s curious to pick up results, you’ll find tail ends of New England families—all burnt out; charming people; an old man marries a girl; male sons aplenty who sew and wash and make pies; embroider, select their mother’s hats and dress fabrics—and paint pictures: long skinny men with emotional wits who have smelt losses. A bastard aristocracy. Men who, when their friends disappoint them, grow nervous and cry all night. It is because there are no women. These men are more out of place in pushing young America than a Chinaman—or a Tibetan.

Williams proceeds with a fairly long diatribe on the uselessness of American women due to the repression imposed on them by the Puritans. The result of that inheritance: women and violence, the violence that women bring upon themselves by withholding from men what they need in order to properly run the world. Williams quotes Dr. Gaskins: “The ideal woman should end at the eyebrows and have the rest filled in with hair.” While he does admit that it is a cynical sentiment, he believes it is the practical answer to the immediate American need. In essence, women would be far more useful if they took a more pragmatic view of opening their legs for men and then allowing the men to go on their way.

In the American Grain loses it’s value when Williams veers from his original goal. If he had continued the essays as they began, as literary sketches that capture the spirit of American events and persons, I think it would be an important book. It feels very much as if he lost sight of that and got caught up in his own passions rather than the passions of the characters he was attempting to portray.

The question as to why this book was not well accepted when it was first published in 1925 seems easily answered to me. The real question is why it has had such a long run.

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Joanne Baines is the founder of and event coordinator for the PondWater Society, a poetry salon based in the San Gabriel Valley. She is also largely responsible for the mostly irresponsible entries on HedonistReview.com.

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Because of The Haunted House, The Gifts of the Body, and The End of Youth, Rebecca Brown’s writings have been regarded by many as some of the greatest contributions to contemporary gay and lesbian literature.
An activist, teacher and community organizer, Brown has used a variety of mediums to project her voice, including composing the libretto for the dance opera The Onion Twins, working with painter Nancy Kiefer on a book Woman in Ill Fitting Wig, and developing the original two-act play The Toaster. In her most recent work, American ROMANCES, Brown presents a collection of unusual essays that explore the idea of what it means to be American.
At moments reading the American ROMANCES can seem disorienting. Brown intertwines pop culture, autobiography, literary and cinematic history, drawing upon everything from John Wayne’s personal life to Gertrude Stein’s infatuation with the Oreo to the author’s own adolescent struggle with Christian faith to illustrate her ideas. Yet, while using a hybrid of genres, she always manages to connect her histories/memories/stories to a larger idea of what makes America the way it is. The result of Brown’s work is an entertaining journey into seeing in unlikely places how:
American mainstream culture derives from these sources: England (our official language and laws); race warfare (killing the Natives to take the land; building an entire economy on slave labor); and religious fanaticism (the Puritans and everything created in opposition to them, such rock ‘n’ roll, feminism, sex for anything other than babies):  and the public confession by which we try to both explain everything and explain everything else away.
An intense read, Brown’s activist voice does leaks out in certain places. As when, after describing Ellison’s Invisible Man, Brown states “How many times do we have to go through this invisiblilizng of others?  When are we vermin going to get that we’re all here, we’re all queer (or colored or weird or different) and just get used to it”. However, throughout the essays, Brown maintains a mostly playful tone while she makes interesting historical connections and often dips into her deeply personal past.
For example, she draws comparisons between author Nathanial Hawthorne and beach boy musician Brian Wilson (who grew up in the California suburb of Hawthorne) as a springboard for exploring some thoughts on what constitutes the American spirit.
Viewing Nathaniel Hawthorne as a symbol of East Coast Puritanism, she retells how the Puritans came to new soil as an act of defiance, to set up a new way of life, “Oh, the sins of the fathers! Oh, the visitations upon the sons! The dream of America! The nightmare, the horror, the hope.” The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson then stands as an icon of West Coast Hedonism. While the culture of the West Coast has in many ways formed as a reaction against Puritanism, ultimately both share a common spirit of rebellion and exploration. “The Puritans dreamt of the City on the Hill and came to the New World to build it. Then when it went to hell their sons and sons of sons went west, and daughters, too… And so, to California they went”.
Later, when recounting her early years as a fundamentalist Christian and her break from faith, Brown recognizes that her own life has, at times embodied both Puritanism and the West Coast spirit.  She describes how by the time college came she had rejected her religious past, but that at the same time she also felt that “Part of me also missed it. I missed having faith in something and believing things could turn out right over time”. Here, Brown draws up another important thread that runs throughout American ROMANCES: how nostalgia, an idealized romance of the past, and a rejection of history has all shaped American into what it is.
Whether she’s being tragic or funny—and she sometimes is both simultaneously—Brown always points her essays back to poignant conclusions. Describing her fundamentalist past she writes, “Now I think that words can be a way to point toward God, and a story, like the Christian one, can tell, in a way I understand, about encountering a God who always was and is and does not need our telling.”
Throughout the rest of the collection, Brown writes in a variety of registers, from informal conversation to the detailed scholarly history to something near poetry. This helps keep the piece engaging and fresh.

Ultimately, American ROMANCES offers bold reflection on the complicated question of trying to figure out just what is and isn’t American. Rebecca Brown has written a fun and powerful book that balances its insight with entertainment.

Ameri

American ROMANCES, Rebecca Brown. (City Lights) $16.95

aroman

Because of The Haunted House, The Gifts of the Body, and The End of Youth, Rebecca Brown’s writings have been regarded by many as some of the greatest contributions to contemporary gay and lesbian literature.

An activist, teacher and community organizer, Brown has used a variety of mediums to project her voice, including composing the libretto for the dance opera The Onion Twins, working with painter Nancy Kiefer on a book Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig, and developing the original two-act play The Toaster. In her most recent work, American ROMANCES, Brown presents a collection of unusual essays that explore the idea of what it means to be American.

At moments reading the American ROMANCES can seem disorienting. Brown intertwines pop culture, autobiography, literary and cinematic history, drawing upon everything from John Wayne’s personal life to Gertrude Stein’s infatuation with the Oreo to the author’s own adolescent struggle with Christian faith to illustrate her ideas. Yet, while using a hybrid of genres, she always manages to connect her histories/memories/stories to a larger idea of what makes America the way it is. The result of Brown’s work is an entertaining journey into seeing in unlikely places how:

American mainstream culture derives from these sources: England (our official language and laws); race warfare (killing the Natives to take the land; building an entire economy on slave labor); and religious fanaticism (the Puritans and everything created in opposition to them, such rock ‘n’ roll, feminism, sex for anything other than babies):  and the public confession by which we try to both explain everything and explain everything else away.

An intense read, Brown’s activist voice does leaks out in certain places. As when, after describing Ellison’s Invisible Man, Brown states “How many times do we have to go through this invisiblilizng of others?  When are we vermin going to get that we’re all here, we’re all queer (or colored or weird or different) and just get used to it”. However, throughout the essays, Brown maintains a mostly playful tone while she makes interesting historical connections and often dips into her deeply personal past.

For example, she draws comparisons between author Nathanial Hawthorne and beach boy musician Brian Wilson (who grew up in the California suburb of Hawthorne) as a springboard for exploring some thoughts on what constitutes the American spirit.

Viewing Nathaniel Hawthorne as a symbol of East Coast Puritanism, she retells how the Puritans came to new soil as an act of defiance, to set up a new way of life, “Oh, the sins of the fathers! Oh, the visitations upon the sons! The dream of America! The nightmare, the horror, the hope.” The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson then stands as an icon of West Coast Hedonism. While the culture of the West Coast has in many ways formed as a reaction against Puritanism, ultimately both share a common spirit of rebellion and exploration. “The Puritans dreamt of the City on the Hill and came to the New World to build it. Then when it went to hell their sons and sons of sons went west, and daughters, too… And so, to California they went”.

Later, when recounting her early years as a fundamentalist Christian and her break from faith, Brown recognizes that her own life has, at times embodied both Puritanism and the West Coast spirit.  She describes how by the time college came she had rejected her religious past, but that at the same time she also felt that “Part of me also missed it. I missed having faith in something and believing things could turn out right over time”. Here, Brown draws up another important thread that runs throughout American ROMANCES: how nostalgia, an idealized romance of the past, and a rejection of history has all shaped America into what it is.

Whether she’s being tragic or funny—and she sometimes is both simultaneously—Brown always points her essays back to poignant conclusions. Describing her fundamentalist past she writes, “Now I think that words can be a way to point toward God, and a story, like the Christian one, can tell, in a way I understand, about encountering a God who always was and is and does not need our telling.”

Throughout the rest of the collection, Brown writes in a variety of registers, from informal conversation to the detailed scholarly history to something near poetry. This helps keep the piece engaging and fresh.

Ultimately, American ROMANCES offers bold reflection on the complicated question of trying to figure out just what is and isn’t American. Rebecca Brown has written a fun and powerful book that balances its insight with entertainment.

Ted English is a teacher of first-year composition and a graduate student of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Oklahoma

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