All entries for February 2011

February 23, 2011

Review of Fireside Reading with Robin Becker and Cellist Kim Cook.

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Last week, I attended a reading by the poet Robin Becker, who is currently the Penn State laureate. Every year or so, Penn State chooses an artist from amongst its staff to represent the university and to make links with the community. This year teh laureate is Robin Becker, and she was joined at the reading by a previous laureate, the cellist Kim Cook.

Becker opened the event by noting that poetry had its origins in song, and she quoted the Pennsylvania poet J.D. McClatchy who says: “All arts want to have their birth in music”. Music, according to McClatchy, is “the most godly of all the arts”.

Thinking about music and poetry, Becker talked about how both arts are able to bring back reminiscences: the idea of “memoire involuntaire”. As John H. Mace explains, these involuntary memories are “described in modern literature as instances in which memory comes to mind spontaneously, unintentionally, automatically, without effort” (2).

This was Becker’s introduction for Kim Cook who was to play Bach’s ‘Suite in G Major’. Becker also, however, read a poem: ‘Girl with Cello’ by May Sarton . Sarton was new to me; I am ashamed to say that I had not really come across Sarton’ poetry before, but I am really enjoying discovering her. (I was interested, for example, to discover that, like me, Sarton wrote a poem based on the Cluny Tapestries in Paris: ‘You are the lady woven into history. / Imagination is our bridal bed’.)

After the cellist had played, Becker presented some of her own poems, and many of these were about memory, the praise of song and nostalgia, as she indicated in her introduction.

There were many poems that looked back nostalgically (but without sentimentality) on Becker’s Jewish familiy life. ‘The New Egypt’ was a poem about Jewishness and acquisition. The poem is moving in its description of how the Jewish people had to learn difficult lessons in order to survive: the narrator’s inheritance is these lessons. I loved the closing lines where the narrator describes the necessity ‘to plant the self in the desert like an orange tree in the desert and irrigate, irrigate, irrigate.

‘Too Jewish’ was more sinister, as Becker’s narrator described women correcting their noses, which were supposedly too big. Becker concludes: ‘In the name of love, we draw a blade across the beloved’s face.’

Many of Becker’s poems seemed to deal with loss. ‘Repair’ was a 9/11 poem, which fused a nostalgic view of Greenwich Village, New York, with a lost relationship: “our New York of the damaged, the irredeemable, beyond repair”.

This concern with loss extended itself beyond human worlds to the sphere of nature too. In the pantoum, ‘Bird of Prey’, Becker circled around the conflict between nature and building developments in Pennsylvania. Other poems praised nature, such as ‘Meeting the Gaze of the Great Horned Owl’, where Becker admits ‘I wanted that creature’s attention’. Switching for a moment to the gaze of the owl, the bird watches the human observer, seeing ‘something large straining to rise and failing’. Becker describes human failure as compared to the beauty and elegance of nature. Similarly, in ‘In Praise of the Bassett Hound’, Becker admires a sickly but enduring animal and all the ‘mute creatures in their green, dying skin’ (a phrase that recalls Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Fern Hill’).

Friendship in general is an important theme of Becker’s work, and often loss is redeemed by connections to other people, as in ‘Listening to Bach on Route 89’ or ‘Our Best Selves’. The narrators of Becker’s poems are wryly aware too of their failures in making or maintaining relationships. ‘The Roast Chicken’ is extremely moving in this respect, as an isolated narrator contemplates their own loneliness without self-dramatising illusions:

Mace, John H. (2007) ‘Involuntary Memory: Concept and Theory’ in Involuntary Memory, ed. John H. Mace, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 1-19.

February 10, 2011

Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives: Giveaway.

We have recently set up a giveaway for Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives (edited Gunne and Brigley Thompson) on Goodreads. This is to celebrate the book having been published for a year. The essays in this volume discuss narrative strategies employed by international writers when dealing with rape and sexual violence, whether in fiction, poetry, memoir, or drama. In developing these new feminist readings of rape narratives, the contributors aim to incorporate arguments about trauma and resistance in order to establish new dimensions of healing.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives (Routledge Research in ... by Sorcha Gunne

Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives

by Sorcha Gunne

Giveaway ends March 14, 2011.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

February 09, 2011

Talk by the playwright and actor, Susan Russell.

Susan Russell

Last night, I attended Susan Russell’s talk to the local NVWN writers’ group. Russell is Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre at Pennsylvania State University. Talking in an informing and entertaining way, she discussed her experience of writing plays and her career in acting.

Her official bio says the following:

Susan Russell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre at The Pennsylvania State University in State College, PA, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate literature/criticism, Playwriting, and Musical Theatre History. She received her PhD in Theatre Studies from Florida State University’s School of Theatre in 2007, her Master of Arts degree from Florida State University in 2003, and her BA in Theatre from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, NC in 1979. Between her education pursuits, she experienced a twenty-five year career as a professional actor on and off-Broadway as well as a career in regional theatre and opera companies across the country. While performing for five years in Phantom of the Opera, she was an artist/teacher for New York Offstage where she created, developed, and implemented workshops in musical theatre performance and acting for high-school and university students, and was a curriculum creator for New York City Opera, where she created and developed arts based education program designed to meet the specific needs of selected elementary, middle, and high school programs. As a playwright, her works Olympia (1998) and Present Perfect (1999) have been produced by Emerging Artists Theatre in New York City, and in 2000, Lincoln Center selected Present Perfect for its Millennium Living Room Festival at the HERE Theatre in Soho. Her play Severe Clear was a semi-finalist in the 2006 O’Neill Theatre Center Playwriting Competition, and her new play Ecoute: Pieces of Reynaldo Hahn is on a 2009/10 national tour starring Norman Spivey. Dr. Russell is the author of a new book called Body Language: Cultural Conversations Reaching Out and Reaching In, and a new journal called Cultural Conversations: Works in Progress and Writers in the Making.

In her talk, Russell talked about her own struggle as a young writer to negotiate issues like the desire for fame and self-doubt. She expressed her fervent belief that genius is not simply gifted on writers, but must be worked for. Consequently, Russell encourages her writing students to write every day – to maintain their “morning pages”. She was so adamant that I actually sat down and wrote for 15 minutes myself this morning, which is something I haven’t done in a while.

Russell also emphasized that the writer’s life is hollow when s/he is not serving some cause greater than his or her personal or petty concerns. As an example, she mentioned the Pullitzer winning play, Ruined by Lynn Nottage, which focuses on the plight of raped women outcast from their communities in the Congo. This year’s Cultural Conversations drama festival at Penn State is on the theme of violence against women, and the programme looks fantastic. The line-up includes dramatic pieces by Gioia Di Cari, Kimberly Dark, Reagan Copeland, Josh Phan-Gruber, Barbara Korner and Deb Margolin. See more here:

February 08, 2011

The AWP Conference in Washington DC.

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Book Fair AWP

Last week was the AWP conference and it was the first time that I have been able to attend. Thanks to the support of NAWE and my colleague, the poet Carrie Etter, I was able to get down to Washington DC and it certainly was eye-opening.

AWP Stuff

I have never seen a book fair quite like it: four rooms the size of football pitches full of stalls for magazines, writing associations, small presses and festivals. As a British person living in the US, it has taken me a while to work out the landscape of the American literary scene. Going round the book fair gave me a chance to have a good look at some American magazines that I had never come across before. Some of my favourites were “American Poetry Review”, “Camera Obscura”, “Crazy Horse” , “Pleiaides” “Third Coast” “Tin House” and “Rain Taxi”. I had a meagre amount to spend, but I managed to buy a copy of Mary Jo Bang’s latest from Graywolf and a lovely little anthology of Surrealist poems translated by Paul Eluard.

Apart from the book fair, there were readings and discussions by writers all day long. I saw a fantastic panel on Iranian writing and human rights, a reading by Cave Canem poets, Eavan Boland being interviews and a great panel of readings on women, poetry and war.

Review of Poetry Pamphlets: Monk & Annwn, Skoulding & Davidson and McGuinness

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Book front cover
Geraldine Monk and David Annwn, It Means Nothing to Me, West House Books. ZoŽ Skoulding and Ian Davidson, Dark Wires, West House Books. Patrick McGuinness, 19th Century Blues, Smith Doorstop.
Not rated

[Many thanks to The New Welsh Review in which this article first appeared in 2008.]

Identity and language are considered in fruitful and demanding ways in a number of recent chapbooks. The most challenging of these recent pamphlets is Geraldine Monk’s and David Annwn’s It Means Nothing to Me, which, as the title suggests, plays with the idea of meaning and experiments with language in a style parallel to that of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys a clear, obvious message in a personal, anecdotal style, then this poetry will seem difficult. If you are interested in how the structures of language define and control human beings, however, then this pamphlet-long poem is for you, because Monk and Annwn challenge all of our assumptions about language:

deep ina
lingo place
forgotten speech

Throwing out ordinary syntax and rejecting the need to make sense, Monk and Annwn create a bricolage which tests narrative and meaning in the same way that a “far out” piece of jazz tests melody and tunefulness. The repetition of the title, It Means Nothing to Me, might indicate that the compound words, obscure lexis and nonsensical style are simply an indication of the meaninglessness and inadequacies of language in an arbitrary world. There is some sense, however, in the nonsense of this poetry. Monk and Annwn create a new language intimately bound up with mystery and the refusal to reduce everything to the familiar:

the mystery
the mystery
something to

This is challenging poetry that makes the reader work hard in a quest for understanding, but it also offers rich rewards in making the reader a part of creating the poem’s meaning.

Dark Wires, a pamphlet from Zoë Skoulding and Ian Davidson, the editors of Skald, also experiments with language. Like It Means Nothing to Me, Dark Wires is written by two poets, but while Monk and Annwn spiral away from any obvious personal voice, Dark Wires does seem to have a unified poetic speaker. This unity is interesting simply for the fact that it challenges the all-too-common assumption that the poet and the speaker are one and the same.

Dark Wires rejects a powerful or commanding voice, and takes the detritus of everyday life as its subject: the swollen matter of the garden, the kitchen’s paraphernalia, the mouldering basement and the bric-a-brac of living. In all of these locations, mundane objects are levers for the poetic experience:

chemical reactions of gypsum plaster formed a hard skin over the
work a wall does the way it holds up the roof and how the joists tie
in beneath the disturbed meniscus of boiling water spring greens

The language in this ‘Kitchen poem’ is full of resonance in phrases like ‘chemical reactions of gypsum plaster’ and ‘the disturbed meniscus of boiling water’. What is experimental is how it challenges grammar and syntax so that one clause runs into another and the lack of punctuation means that words can be read as part of one sentence or another. There is also a sense of the interconnectedness of the human body and the external world in the comparisons of plaster and skin, the cartilage of the meniscus and the surface tension of water. In this kind of poetry, boundaries blur between the inside and outside, between the human body and the external world. ‘Abasement Garden’ describes how the narrator ‘pushed out every shoot / a spring wound; ‘Shoals’ offers ‘a forest of blood’; and in ‘Skin and Bone’, the narrator describes how ‘something got under my skin maybe / a few short barbs breaking out into tissue’. The emphasis recalls Kristeva’s development of the term “abject” as a way to explain human anxiety about the boundedness of the body and threats to its wholeness. Skoulding’s and Davidson’s poetry embraces the body’s vulnerability and admits that human beings are not hermetically sealed units.

While Dark Wires reclaims an interconnectedness for human beings, Patrick McGuinness’ 19th Century Blues seems to be looking back to a period before isolating modernity truly began. McGuinness reframes the traumatic breakdown of nineteenth-century grand narratives through contemporary concerns. The couplet, ‘Déjà-Vu’, which opens the pamphlet (and closes it in a reversed form) represents McGuinness’ poetic project:

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:
forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

McGuinness’ tone is riddling; it suggests questions. Which two tenses are grappling? Is this a reference to the reconciliation of the past and present? Or does it refer to prolepsis and a sense of the future in the present moment? The predicament of McGuinness’ poetic speaker is rather like that of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history caught between the past and the future, between remembering and forgetting. Like the angel of history, the speaker would like to ‘stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed’ but ‘a storm propels him into the future’.

Consequently, subjects for McGuinness’ poems are emptiness, loss and the obliteration of the self. In this poetics, silence and nothingness become a powerful mode of communication, so that, in ‘The Age of the Empty Chair’, the lack in the chair suggests change ‘the way a sail suggests the wind, the way a shell holds / a recording of the waves’. There are some remarkable descriptions in this pamphlet that record the power of the diminutive, the minor and the obscure: the quality of dust in ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’; the ‘Black Box’ that records a marriage; and the ‘long white knotted cry’ of snow in ‘The Thaw’.

This preoccupation with the transitory and the fleeting returns to the question of language, even if it is a more subtle probing of how the arbitrary meaning of words defines human culture. The speaker in ‘Montréal’ studies the airport Arrivals Board and watches as

Montreal collapses into London and returns
as Montréal;
as if the French passed through
a fording of English to find itself more French.


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