A Year in Reading: Dorothea Lasky

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I read some really wonderful books this year. Here are just a few recommendations from reading I did that you might like to do yourself.

1. The first is a book that came out this year from Wave Books. It is Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems. I first fell in love with Mary Ruefle’s work around nine years ago, reading Cold Pluto after a friend’s recommendation. I wrote her a poem after called “Love for Mary Ruefle” and it’s about just that. Well, that and the soul. There is a quiet amount of soul in Selected and I am glad about it. Ruefle is a master and this book will be a classic for a very long time, I know. What I love most about Ruefle is her generosity. From “Kiss of the Sun”:

If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant’s tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you

2. Another book that came to my attention this year was one I found while browsing around Open Books in Seattle. The wonderful owners of the store recommended the book and of course, I listened to them because they know everything there is to know about poetry. The book is by Laura Jensen and it is called Memory. I have become very interested lately in time and memory, the ways in which memory can expand time. Scientists say that time is a biocentric concept (heavens forbid, of course) that forces us to have a linear understanding of the way time progresses. Memories seem to cut into that, create circular packets of time expansion (kind of like air pockets when you are flying, I always wonder “Where am I in time?”). Anyway, in these poems, Jensen elegantly create moments of time expansion in a series of memories, where people and things fall together as essentials symbols of endless time and space, creating disorienting re-envisionings of existence. In one poem, the annoying make-up saleswomen at a department store are seen in a infinite line of lips and eyes, where “The lips/ of the women are red like alleys/ of cardinals, eyes are green/ like alleys of bamboo.” In another poem, mundane objects are seen in their entire potentiality: “Seven eggs in a metal pan,/ seven lives stopped still to feed me.” In the poem, “In the War with Death,” the phrase “I am bitterly sorry” is repeated like a mantra, as if to show that regret, pain, love, and all feeling exist in the moments where life is just so much summed up.

3. The third book to mention is The Fast by Hannah Weiner. Written in 1970, the printing I read was from 1992 by United Artists Books. In the book, Weiner experiments with how what one inputs into the body relates to the output. She goes through a progression of seeing language and things in more of their essence and begins to see their energies, a whole world of common elements, thematically arranged by color. So much of what she writes in the book relates to the creative process in general (which is a constant source of interest to me), but the book itself is a journal, a re-telling of a process of seeing an alternate world (that might be more real than the one we know through our current human conceptions of time and space, as above). As she explains to us, “After I turned green Tuesday afternoon I turned a clear pale blue. I washed my eyes with Eyebright tea and saw the same clear blue water and the same clear blue sky and many sailed schooner that I had seen in a dream the night before.” Another time she describes as “being knocked out by streaks of that yellow and black and purple. It’s like being hit in the face and pushed back in the body.” I know exactly what she means, don’t you? Color punches you in the face. Why it does (and how this relates to language and communication) is the question we must ask and constantly ponder. There is continual pain throughout, which seems intrinsic to her seeing. As she describes, “It was a day of horror because I knew there was something worse than the bright green pain—it was the purple pain and I had let it into my house.” Truly (truly!) she becomes a person on a spiritual quest, although I have a feeling she might disagree with my use of spirit here. Language becomes the sensual output, most connected with her bodily feeling, and this is something to actually feel as a reader. That too, is what I most like about the book—its immediacy, its unwillingness to let language be an idea. Language becomes a circular mediary between her, her reader, and the experience. What is left is that we feel her pain and joy. We see the world the way she sees it and so, maybe at least one of the ways it is supposed to be seen. To all you writers and artists out there, I really hope you will read this book, if you haven’t already.

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National Poetry Month: Dorothea Lasky

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Dorothea Lasky is the author of AWE and the forthcoming Black Life. Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, American Poetry Review, The Laurel Review, Fou, Columbia Poetry Review, A Public Space, and Absent, among other places. Currently, she studies creativity and education at the University of Pennsylvania. Videos of her reading her poems can be found on www.birdinsnow.com.A line of poetry by Dorothea: “There is no poem that will bring back the dead”The Poetic “Project” (And Other Poetry-Associated Terms I Hate)It seems that many poets these days often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a “project.” I remember once hearing a poet friend of mine use the term “project” as he introduced another poet at a reading. He went on and on: “Her project echoes Dickinson’s project blah blah…” etc. The comparison seemed fine, but I wasn’t really sure the poet in question really had a “project” per se. I don’t think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and the mind and work from the ground up. That is to say, I think a poet intuits a poem and a scientist conducts a “project.” I don’t know. That seems wrong, too. But I do think there is a distinction.I really do hate this term, “project.” The crux of my problem with it comes from fundamental questions of creativity. Questions like, “Where does the creation of a poem come from: the outside of a person or the inside?” The line between the two is fuzzy, especially in a poem. I can say that I don’t think that Dickinson had a project, nor did the contemporary poet my friend was referring to. Emily Dickinson was a pretty tough woman who wrote poems because that’s what she was meant to do. I don’t think her reality included the idea of poems as fitting into a “project.” The word constricts the immense body of work that she has left us. I get it. The term “project” comes from the visual art world. And other worlds too, like science, business, and education. But especially from the visual art world. And if there is one thing that poets would like to be today, it’s visual artists. Why? Because visual artists have all the money. But that’s another discussion for another post. Still, having a project (and naming it) is a powerful tool. A poet with a project (who can name his project and talk about it) shows that everything was all set before he even started. A poet with a nameable project seems wise, and better than other poets with an unnameable one. But this kind of thinking strikes me as BS, because I don’t believe that’s how poetry works. When I mentioned “intuit” above – that poets intuit poems – I really meant that to create something (like a poem) means that the outside world of a poet and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it, at every point of a poet’s career. I would argue that a poet who has a project that he can lucidly discuss is a pretty boring poet, at best. I would argue that a poet with a project might not be a poet at all. Or at least a baby poet, not a great one. (And yes, there are great poets alive today, David Orr. Sheesh.) I would argue that a poet who says he has a project probably has no sense of the idea of habitus and its intersection with the act of creation. Yeah. I think the term “project” has nothing to do with poetry.The notion of a poetic “project” may actually be very toxic to poetry. The term seems to suggest to young poets that a poet can set about his life path knowing what he is doing at all times. And to tell a young poet that is to make him feel like he has to know how to create both a project and a poem. It’s hard enough to create a poem. If he is destined to be a great poet, he will never know what his project really was, no matter what he says it is, was, or what he might imagine it could be.I am sure that many might argue with me about this idea, especially on a surface level. (And I know this very idea sits on a public website, so no doubt there will be at least a few people who will get all up in arms about some superficial slant to this idea.) But I have a project, you nimwit! some people might say. Oh, and the origin of the term “project” in the context of poetry happened around the time that DADA…[snooze]But as poets, we need our own terms. New terms. How do we go about our business of writing? What is it like? Let’s write about that. A lot. Let’s pool our ideas together and figure out what consistencies there are among us in terms of practice. Maybe we will find a meta-act in creation that is much like a “project” in the way many of us use that term. But let it be a subtle distinction, one that is characteristic to the way we create, for real. Let’s be special for once. In the context of bankers, lawyers, scientists, painters, musicians, we’re poets. Let’s have a little pride. And let’s be gentle when describing our skills to the outside world, so that they can understand us better and we can give each other what we need.This is probably not the place to say this, but I hate certain other words when used today in the discussion of poetry as well. Like “project,” I get kind of turned off when poets refer to groups of poets collaborating together as “communities.” In 2009, a “poetry community” usually means a bunch of people who hardly know each other communicating on a listserve or blog. That’s great, but that’s not a community. That’s some other term, yet to be determined. A community is a bunch of people living around each other, helping each other out with their living. As in actually helping each other out. A community is a family, a big regional, reciprocal one. And family, even in our internet age, really does mean more than g-chatting. It means cooking and loving and providing for, in real living ways.I guess some might argue that the times when I hear the word community used in the context of poetry today, people are actually referring to a bunch of poets living near each other doing these things and so, the term community is actually the correct term. I guess that’s okay then. But then, isn’t that a “scene?” I hate the word “scene,” too, but less than I did in my youth. As I get older, I realize the value in that word. As I get older, and the practical realities of life set in, I want more and more to be with a group of people in a bookstore somewhere, acting cool. I long for those days. The sunglasses, the lunches, The Golden Book of Words. The ironic way we thought we knew we were better than everyone else in the whole world. We were poets after all. Now those are the days I long for.More National Poetry Month at The Millions