Saturday, December 17, 2011

Now Available! The Poetics of American Song Lyrics

It has arrived. When I returned home yesterday and saw the box by my door, I knew what it was. And I was a bit hesitant to open it. Inside the box waited the finished, the complete, the bound-and-no-more-edits-allowed The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics is the first collection of academic essays that regards songs as literature and identifies intersections between poems and songs’ literary histories as a way to reveal the two genres’ connections. The contributors in this collection are a stunning group—and the essays they wrote are inspired from years of thought on this subject. They are:

Lamar Alexander

Gordon Ball

Adam Bradley

David Caplan

Wyn Cooper

David Daniel

Stephen M. Deusner

Claudia Emerson

Beth Ann Fennelly

Keith Flynn

Jesse Graves

Peter Guralnick

John Paul Hampstead

Brian Howe

Jill Jones

David Kirby

Robert P. McParland

Pat Pattison

Charlotte Pence

Eric Reimer

Jeffrey Roesner

Tony Tost

Ben Yagoda

and Kevin Young

Here is the beginning of my introduction to the collection that explains how the book came to be:

“Not many editors can pinpoint the exact moment a specific project began, but I can say for certain that it was September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died. I was living in Nashville, teaching composition and poetry writing at Belmont University where twenty-seven percent of the entering freshmen are part of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. The university sits on a hill that hovers at the end of Music Row, those legendary two streets that Nashville record labels and studios call home. When students miss class at Belmont, the reason often involves the words “touring schedule.” Essentially, the music business is an extension of the campus, and there I was teaching poetry and having students ask if they could bring their guitars to class for back-up as they read their “poems” for the class to critique.

I was a bit confused as to how to approach these songwriters in my poetry class who viewed poems and songs as one-in-the-same. It was at this moment of my questioning that Johnny Cash died and one of Tennessee’s senators, Lamar Alexander, gave a speech on the Senate floor about the loss. The speech began as expected by praising Cash, and then suddenly, I was directly implicated. Senator Alexander asked outright why Tennessee English professors, including those at Belmont specifically, were not writing criticism on songs nor teaching songs in literature courses. Immediately, I thought of many reasons why most professors did not do that. How could one discuss song lyrics without the music that was intended to accompany the lyrics? What would be the language of analysis? How was a literature professor qualified to talk about songs? And what criteria was behind this conflation between poetry and songs? I decided to investigate all of this and created a course at Belmont titled the Poetics of Country Music. As I did so, I found I couldn’t quite find the essays that I wanted—ones that discussed poetic form and history and did so in relation to song.”

Finding the essays that I wanted resulted in me asking these fine poets and scholars to write on the subject. Now, the book is in my hands. This might sound odd considering how often I have combed through each essay, but what I want to do now is sit back, read it once again, and savor it—not as the editor, but as a reader.

Friday, September 30, 2011

My First Chapbook is Now Available!

I am happy to announce that my first chapbook, Weaves a Clear Night, is now available from Flying Trout Press. I wrote this chapbook one summer after taking two poetry workshops the previous semester. As gratifying as that was, two workshops at once forced short poems that I could present to others within a week. Once the semester ended, I wanted to write something that required far more than brevity and clarity, but something that scuba diving calls “going into the blue.” That is when you go so deep and far, you don’t see the sun on the water’s surface anymore. Just the vast blue around you.

So, I began work on this chapbook that subverts the myth of Penelope and gives her a good, old-fashioned affair. I wrote a section a day (first draft at least) for a month and required myself to not only use a different form with each section, ranging from open form to blank verse to a very loose cywydd, but to also write in different mental states. This meant that sometimes I set my alarm for 3 A.M. and wrote in that sleepy state. One day, I stayed in San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and stared at Rothko to get ideas for line breaks. Another day, I only read Lorca in Spanish. Does this create “truer art?” Of course not. For me, however, I wanted to allow myself the full indulgence of a long poem.

Here is the book description:

Set in modern-day Appalachia, this chapbook in seven­teen sections imaginatively recasts the myths surrounding Penelope’s fidelity to Odysseus. Lyrical, meditative, and deeply sensual, the poems follow the emotional isolation of a woman poised between two men, neither of whom can be a part of her daily life. The “you” in this collec­tion is a secret love, the “he” is Odysseus, and the “son” is Telemachus. Despite the absence of the lover and the hus­band, their presence surrounds her. The result is a poetic narrative where memory and future fears disrupt the very existence of a physical present. Highly imagistic, Pence’s writing displays precision, structure, and grace along with depth and narrative ambition.

The “poem” is in seventeen sections, so it is a bit difficult to take out one section without the meaning being lost somewhat. I’ll post here the last section about a family taking a hike at summer’s end, which is fitting for the month of September.


The river’s surface stretches out the trees,

blackness where one tree passes

into another. Each branch a lover

to whom wishes are whispered.

Not with words. But by leaning

against each other, then pulling away.

There, across the way in the warbled

river currents, a family streaks out like a sunset:

pink, blue, yellow, and white

t-shirts. The pink streak shrieks,

Don’t push me in,

wanting to be pushed in.

The air stiffens, stops,

right before the release of the splash.

All softens back to black and green shadows

and streaks of too-bright colors

from this family, and another one,

and the next one, too, still on the ridge,

the father holding a blackberry cane aside

to allow the son at the end of this line,

to pass without snagging. The father

remembering another time, another self,

and the red, dashed line of briar skipping across skin.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Review of Things Come On: An Amneoir by Joseph Harrington

I’m a member of The Rumpus online poetry book club. All the books are soon-to-be-released, so this sense of discovery is exciting. We also receive an online visit from the author once during the discussion month. I’ve been doing this for about nine months now, and what I like most is that I would have never discovered some of these books without the group. In fact, my favorite book so far is one that I would have overlooked: Joseph Harrington’s Things Come On: An Amneoir (Wesleyan University Press).

Honestly, I would have passed it up because of my own contrariness. When I first read the book’s concept, which is a combination of memoir and amnesia reflecting on the poet’s mother’s breast cancer and the Watergate scandal, I was suspicious. It sounded like something of reach to de-emphasize the writer, which is very much the fascination right now, something Tony Hoagland refers to as the “unself-importance.” What’s more, the jacket copy posits so much of Language poetry’s tenets in such often used phrases that these philosophies—once posed to resist mainstream Confessional poetry—sound frayed and worn—almost as if Language poetry is now very much part of a system that purports to critique systems.

By page ten, however, I was hooked. Through the mix of documents such as Nixon's transcripts, journal entries, condolence cards, insurance letters, doctors' reports, and so on, a full sense of grief and frustration comes through. And I have to admit something: this is the first poetry book in about ten years that has fished out a tear from me. I wish I could provide a poem to show off what I loved about this book, but the poems are not intended to be stand-alone documents. Each passage is part of the book’s overall narrative arc. What I can do is give a glimpse of how the juxtapositions leave the the reader to experience and create associations and (dis)connections on his own.

On pages twenty-four through twenty-six, we have a variety of documents. The first is a quote from a Nixon aide telling him “that there was a cancer growing in the Presidency and that if the cancer was not removed that the President himself would be killed by it” (24). What follows is a cartoon with the caption: “Kids will know…. Even if they don’t know all the details, they know something’s wrong” (25). The next page provides quotes from the father about how the mother would remain cheerful through all of the treatments, even when she knew she was dying. The father says that she would “get frustrated” but that “would pass” (26). This conversation is then followed by a doctor talking about how “in order to keep [family and friends] from falling apart, the woman tries to keep her chin up and have a smile plastered on her face” (26). All of this is juxtaposed against another’s aid’s opinion that “the President did not seem to understand the implications of what was going on” (26). What follows is more conversation between the father and poet on how the mother’s two sisters had died of breast cancer. Finally, the page ends with the mother’s once again painfully chilling cheerfulness: “June 20—Saw Dr. Fleming. All OK. Increase medication to 3 a day” (26). It is exactly what is not said between these passages that renders such complex meanings.

What is also being omitted in many of these poems is the use of first-person to tell a personal story, which is one of the many strategies used to undercut the writer, or that authorial “I.” Harrington further subverts the authorial “I” through his own admission of fallibility. He does so immediately with the title and early in the collection where the dates of his mother’s cancer are intentionally confused to the point of error. Another strategy to undercut the “I” is to privilege the reader in making meaning—which is, of course, a fundamental tenet of Language poetry. The effect of all of this is one of vibrancy, honesty, and originality.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

At the Colony (And Draft of a New Poem)

This month of July is one of solitude and writing for me. I am in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica, which is home to the David and Julia White artist colony. Here, we are a forty-five minute bus ride away from the capitol in a little town tucked into the jungly mountains. Since the birds and sun are both so loud, I can’t sleep past 6:00. After a bit of resistance to this fact, I gave in, and now will often pack a picnic-breakfast and walk up to the highest point at the colony that overlooks the town. (Picture above.) There, I begin my writing and watch the world, and my poems, slowly stretch and awake into being.

Like the birds and sun, the solitude is both sought and at times resisted. After about four to five hours of writing, it is only eleven, yet I still have a lot of work to do with a mind starting to go cross-eyed. Where is the interruption? The annoying neighbor? The student email? Not here. So, walks are key, building ant trail diversions are key, swimming is key—as is participating in one of my favorite traditions at colonies: the sharing of work. This is when one gets to finally peek into the artists’ studios and look at what they have been doing. And for us type and publish sort of artists, we have readings. Yesterday, Holly Woodward and I read some of our work to the other folks here while looking out at the beautiful tropical gardens of Pat and Willy Piessens, who live here year-round. (There's a photo of all of us here, too.) I am the kind of writer who needs a lot of time to finish a poem, and by time, I mean both time working on the poem and time away from it. To share a new piece of writing with a group is outside of my comfort zone to be sure. Yet, as we all know, going into new territories is not only the point of travel, but of writing. (“Traverse the Earth, Fool,” Mr. T says.)

To push me just a bit more outside of my typical process, I thought I would do something a little different on this blog and post a new poem here. Granted, this is NOT a finished poem. In fact, it is only a week old, entirely conceived and drafted here. I might have to take it down later as I actually finish it and start sending it out, but for now, I’ll test its wobbly legs with you, Gentle Reader.

The Architecture of the Veil

Islamic architecture often adorns the interior spaces as opposed to the exterior, commonly known as the architecture of the veil, to represent the nature of the infinite. –Dr. R. E. Souser

All afternoon, the hotel roof went on being a windowsill

as if the city below could be understood by echo, by leaning out

over prayer calls, car horns, hot spoons scraping woks of nasi goreng,

by looking down on pishtaqs, minarets, canons fashioned into water fountains.

All through the afternoon, the faithful went on being faithful.

The faithless, faithless. Each chasing piety with sticks and sugar,

even when piety tripped the running feet with a simple man’s

crutch, and the crippled devil kicked his child’s gut until

green-flanked smog shifted directions, sweated the clouds

into crumbs, into evening, into this thing called hidden or infinite.

The architecture here secludes its beauty

to the inner spaces, to what cannot be seen from the street

where a costumed macaque flees under a soup stall,

his frustration blooming into sequined soapsuds rushing the gutter,

where a woman from the roof above irritates her palm’s sweat into stone,

while a walker below, worries his molar’s crown into a sip of mercury,

all of which chemically occur whenever the adulterous, man

or moon, vow themselves to just one bed. No one’s fate is determined,

despite how sometimes it is. The mosaics repeat and spin their cobalt

patterns until the moon quivers one day to the left—and no one notices,

except two mangoes rot hanging green on the tree. All the while,

the prophets’ daughters strut in their highest heels, busy

poking the sun back into the pieces it really is. This brokenness,

we suspect, is true about our own selves, despite the fluid strides

we make from city block to city block. We walk among sweet-smelling

sulfur, wondering what we cannot see, wondering which feast or fast

is behind which house’s wall. In each of us, a stray dog forgets to ask

for home; a pack of roving hounds guards the door.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review of "Levi Johnston's Blues" by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby

Last week, I assigned writing a persona poem to my beginning poetry class, which is always an interesting way to explore new material. To help give them a sense of a persona poem, I assigned the classic Browning poem, “My Last Duchess,” a few by Ai, Eminem’s “Without Me,” and a couple of songs off of Ben Folds and Nick Hornby’s latest album, Lonely Avenue, that is all persona songs. We looked at “Levi Johnston’s Blues” in particularly, which is one of my favorites.

Here’s a link where you can listen to the song and read the lyrics:

One of the many aspects about this song that interests me is how the media in the song serve as a modern version of those ancient Greek choruses that warn characters what will be their fates. Famous Briston-Palin-ex-fiancĂ© walks out of his house one morning and is surprised to find “three thousand cameras” pointing at him. The media then explain their presence and say, “Well, you’ve knocked up the VP nominee’s daughter.” And this is when Levi begins his lesson—which begins with a feeble attempt to take control: “So, I tell him, No, you got it wrong, Mister. / Already got a girl and her name’s Bristol. / They all laugh and say, where you been, Sonny. / Your mother-in-law’s a heartbeat from the presidency.”

Right after this verse the music becomes a bit more melancholy as Levi then attempts feeble assertion number two: “I say, Mother-in-law? No. We ain’t getting married. / They say, you will be soon, Boy, she just announced it.” The music at this section is a little quiet, almost elegiac as it’s clear this “Boy” is getting schooled—and fast. Here the media are aware of their power; if something is announced, even if untrue, it can be the truth. And in Levi’s case, his actions are no longer simply his. So, when we come to the chorus with a bleacher foot-stop beat, it sounds assertive, but it’s actually a feeble attempt to take control and sounds like what it is: a teenager telling an adult who he is and the adult shrugging it off, knowing that’s more wishful thinking than reality. I think this is why I don’t find the chorus mocking Levi, but asserting a dream of an independent, can-make-his-own-choices sort of guy: “I’m a fucking redneck, I live to hang out with the boys / Play some hockey, do some fishing, kill some moose. / I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin’, I guess / you fuck with me and I’ll kick your ass.” The last two lines are especially all bluff and bravado, especially considering what comes later: “And when I try to tell them I’m eighteen years old / they say, Levi, it’s too late. You gotta do as you’re told.”