Monthly Archives: January 2016

Assessing the Unknown (Review) by Dustin Pickering

Assessing the Unknown
Compos Mentis, Rael Xavier Bischoff
Review by Dustin Pickering

Compos Mentis, a recent collection by Canadian poet Rael Xavier Bischoff, presents its readers with a task: to judge the author. This is a reader’s unconscious action while reading literary texts, but what Bischoff succeeds at doing is making this duty conscious. He implores you at the beginning to decide if he is of sound mind, and he reminds you of his request near the end of the collection.

This poetry collection refuses to be despondent. In fact, it is a hopeful announcement in part. There are Zen riddles to contemplate, oddities in point-of-view, and serial confessions. Bischoff battled alcoholism until the illness began chipping at him. He shows us in these poems why he made this turn for the worst. He also bravely exclaims that he would live all the worst and best moments of his life again, passionately.

Rael Xavier Bischoff is truly a Renaissance-styled existentialist, guided by the simple principle of amor fati and a radical understanding of time and beauty. Here is a prophet of the eternal recurrence, as in the poem “Swerve”:

“Even after the collapse of time
the intricate insects will still insist to take
wing, buzz and form swarms with their kin,
spawn larvae, because they have to,
pure, pretty, imaginary machine expressions of being.”
 

Also, in “Glittering Pinnacles”, the presence of the eternal recurrence is again noted:

“…while the Book of Names holds us in Its place.
Feeding, setting us free, all a part of It. I love that it recurs…”

Compos Mentis is informed by Nietzsche’s literary themes, the character of Renaissance art, and the riddles of Zen Buddhism. In the Intermezzo, we are given peeks into the subtlety of Bischoff’s humanism. This section serves to lead the material into his final guilt confession. In the last breaths of the collection, Bischoff sports a brag; the reader is told that the author excelled without trying in academia, and sought to be a Renaissance man who embraced literature, music, and the arts wholeheartedly. The author is taunting you with his own pleas of humility. He is simultaneously laughing at his gifts, and shrugging his shoulders at the necessity of his approach in life.

One notable theme begins the volume. In “Fault Lines”, the author presents a symbolism of self-criticism:

“Such dense foliage of character defects
to work through with my dull machete…
Self criticism is a threat.

Yet, in poems following Bischoff illuminates the necessity of faults and defects.

The author springs for a dual metaphor in “Note”:

“Attenuated,
tone & tone,
how to focus on the nexus,
index of the breast,
sin of the letter, next.”

The brevity of this poem allows it to pack more punch. The title pun (Compos Mentis also means “of sound mind”) is drawn sharper. Poetry is both sound and breath. Here, Bischoff makes the poem a sinful act, a promiscuous folly, and is able to twist the meaning to heighten our awareness of poetry’s religious nature. How like meditation poetry is! Life is celebrated here in full.

In “Cartograph Her”, woman’s body is compared to the earth itself and the lover to a cartographer pleasantly mapping her contours. The feeling is both mental and sensual. Neruda bore such fancies in The Captain’s Verses.

The turning point occurs when we travel with the author into his battle with addiction. The collection becomes an autobiography of the torment of reclaiming oneself after a fierce struggle with alcohol. The author does not stoop to shameful confession. He humbly accepts his fate as part of the machinery of life, and begs to do it again. While Nietzsche was tormented by the eternal recurrence, Bischoff seems amused by it. He is already prepared.

Overall, Compos Mentis is both celebration and lust for adventure. As we witness the author struggle to understand his place in the Book of Names, we are also granted access to his private thoughts in such a manner we may confuse him with ourselves. Reader, you are the jury. The trial is both tribulation and perusal of the question of the author’s sanity. How do you find the defendant…?

____________________________

Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press, an independent poetry publisher based in Houston, Texas. He has been published by Lost Coast Review, Seltzer, di-verse-city 2013 and 2015, and the virgin Muse for Women anthology. He also hosts two separate poetry reading events in south Houston.

Review: Fortune (Alaina Symanovich)

Fortune
Alaina Symanovich
2015
17 pages
Damaged Goods Press
$3.00 (ebook)
$6.00 (Print)
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

 

How do we cope with and recover from the insanity of infatuation? This is the question addressed by the young poet, Alaina Symanovich, in her chapbook, Fortune, edited by Caseyrenée Lopez, publisher of Damaged Goods Press whose website describes it as “a micro-press specializing in queer/trans poetry and flash fiction chapbooks” celebrating the “beauty and terror of queer life.” Queer and lesbian literature have, most commonly been expressed via the genres, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and romance, though queer and lesbian writers are among past and contemporary high-profile poets (for example, Gertrude Stein, Audre Lorde, Maggie Nelson, Eileen Myles, Nikki Giovanni, Mary Oliver). In her fiction, Symanovich has described her early persona as a “boyish girl,” perhaps a precursor to identification as a lesbian, and, in one of her short stories, she mentions her father’s interest in the supernatural, possibly, explaining the author’s fascination with Tarot (Fortune-telling).

Indeed, in attempting to come to terms with a failed relationship, Symanovich organizes her series of poems as a game modeled on a deck of Taro cards. The cover of Fortune represents l’étoile tarot, card CVII (#17) of a deck, associated with Ganymede, a “divine hero” named for Jupiter’s 7th moon. As one of her devices, the author’s final poem appears on page 17, and many hours might be spent researching Tarot numerology in relation to the positions and page numbers of Symanovich’s poems. For example, a Tarot deck comprises four suits and 4 face cards which sum to 14, the number of poems in the author’s book. Symanovich’s text is a verbal and numerical (quantitative?) game that can be analyzed as a whole or in separate pieces. “The Fool” is the trump card in a Tarot deck. The author’s “fool”, a scarecrow described on page 7 in the poem, “Glitter”, is a figure with whom the poem’s female narrator (presumably, the author), identifies. Interestingly, by the end of her text, the narrator appears to triumph over, to “trump,” an abusive object of desire whose gender identification is ambiguous (possibly, a transgender male, a bisexual, a lesbian, or a hetero-normative female). In this poem, and, throughout the book, the narrator’s voice is passive, suggesting that she views herself as a victim, as stated in the poem, “Relief,” on page 8: “I was always in respect, deferential, stepping back/half-lit silhouette./.” Reflecting a concern with inequality, Taro card #8 is “Power.” In the poem, “Retrograde,” on page 9, the narrator acknowledges her subordinance to the unattainable object (“Your reign is stronger.”), another sign of her feelings of powerlessness.

On pages 10 (“Winter”) and 11 (“Quarantine”), the desired object is revealed to manifest a psycho-dermatological pathology, and the infatuation is characterized as crazed. Indeed, the narrator is metaphorically bleeding, possibly, a symbol of physical damage, emotional and spiritual suffering, and/or menstruation (the word “blood” occurs in several poems). On page 12, “Supernatural,” the narrator states, “I dammed away the truth about you.”, referencing the unconscious, a Freudianesque marker of Surrealism, the apparent literary root of Symanovich’s poems. Though a poem should speak for itself, consistent with classical standards, the author’s contrivances seduce, even, require, the reader to play games with her in a search for meaning. These highly lyrical poems threaten to be overwhelmed by their complex structures. However, the narratives in Fortune can be understood as “innovations on the lyric,” as the critic, Linda Russo, has stated about other female poets’ work. Russo points out that lyric allows a writer to examine gender, community, and/or personal intimacies, a fitting concept for Symanovich’s use of the forms in her book. See, for example, the author’s use of last lines to reference first lines of subsequent poems, highlighting images and language for the reader as well as linking poems to one another—intimate acts.

I do not know which female poets have influenced Symanovich’s practice. However, her narratives were reminiscent of Mary Oliver’s, “The Uses Of Sorrow” (Thirst, 2006). Oliver wrote: “(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)/Someone I love once gave me/A box full of darkness./It took me years to understand/That this, too, was a gift./” Similarly, in her final poem, “Fantasy” (page 17), Symanovich “envisioned a new freedom,” though she characterizes herself as being in a dream-state. She, suggests, then, that she remains embedded in myth rather than reality, and one wonders whether the narrator-author has moved beyond victimization or powerlessness. Certainly, Symanovich’s narrator remains self-conscious and full of anxiety. Her poems are personal narratives, and radical feminists and political queers would suggest that her [homo-]normative (binary?) view of relationships requires expansion to the political realm. In future work, for example, Symanovich might consider viewing her themes through the lens of Patriarchy, an institutional arrangement that radical feminists hold accountable for female suffering (e.g., depression, marginalization, power asymmetries). Notwithstanding these reservations, Fortune deserves a wide audience as testimony of one young poet’s attempt to understand intimacy, to recover from pain, and to achieve agency.

_________________________

Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in many venues, and Clara’s collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition, available at amazon.com.

Review: (Set List and others) all by Glen Armstrong

Glen Armstrong
Set List
31 pages
A Talbott-Heindl Experience, LLC Chapbook
2015

Glen Armstrong
The Most Awkward Silence Of All
6 pages
Cruel Garters Press
2015

Glen Armstrong
In Stone
6 pages
Cruel Garters Press
2015

Reviewed by Clara B. Jones*

Glen Armstrong studied at Wayne State University and the University of Massachusetts and currently teaches at Oakland University (MI). In an interview by e-mail, he revealed that he dictated “little rhythmic scraps to my mom before I was able to write—before I knew the word, ‘poet’.” As a writer with an M.F.A., Glen is intimate with the “canon” of poetry; however, major influences on his current work are Nina Simone, Muddy Waters, John Ashbery, as well as, other popular figures and members of The New York School of Poetry, an influential movement of the 1950s and 1960s associated, especially, with New York City and Chicago. Similar to The New York School collaborators, Glen’s early years as a poet in Detroit were influenced by a group of artistic individuals meeting in a bar—“poets musicians, playwrights, and social activists”. Like Ashbery, Glen uses language accessible to the average person; but, unlike many members of The New York School who belonged to privileged elements of society, Glen’s roots are working-class, and he worked as a machinist to finance his education. I asked the poet whether he considers himself an academic poet, and he responded in a characteristically candid and humorous manner: “Declaring myself an ‘academic poet’ is like declaring a major; I’m going to put it off for as long as I can.”

Humor is a recognized characteristic of New York School poetry. Like those writers, Glen’s work is avant garde, surrealistic, imagistic, semi-autobiographical, and modernistic, breaking with conventional forms. Similar to one critic’s description of Ashbery’s poetry, Glen’s writing seeks “to release the creative potential of the unconscious,” often by the “irrational juxtaposition of images.” As his chapbook, Set List, reveals, Glen’s poetry exposes his interest in African-American culture (“She tells me in no uncertain terms:/You can’t title a poem ‘Afro Wig’/…How would you like it if Sam and Dave/wrote a song called ‘The Bald Caucasion?”/), and the rhythm and pitch of jazz permeate the poems in this text. Set List references numerous jazz, blues, and blue-collar figures, and the volume’s poems display a skill for “riffs,” what Fred Moten calls “improvization” as a characteristic of African-American creative writing. I, particularly, like the poems, “Chief Pontiac Digs His Fortress Of Solitude” (“But I am never quite sure/ if the shovel is striking time or not./), “The Last DJ,” (“There was a keepsake inscribed/ by Robert Johnson:/ Stop Breaking Down./), “A Place Under The Bed” (“There was a place under the bed/ for her bass guitar./ A place in Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong/ to wonder about man’s tendencies to mistake/ miracles for business ventures./), and “Requiem For Harry Partch” (“There is a kind of American soldiering/ that is known only to those/ who hear voices,/ who know how to breathe/ life into a shortwave/ radio late at night./). Ben Lerner, poet and novelist, has stated that he weaves fiction and non-fiction throughout his writing; and, when reading the poems in Set List, I needed to resist any impulse to search for precise meaning, similar to The New York School of Poetry but highlighting Glen’s open-ended, musical, individual style.

The pamphlet, The Most Awkward Silence Of All, includes six poems demonstrating Glen’s playful curiosity (“We were all there for a reason,/ and it wasn’t to solve the mystery/ of why we were there./), his attempts to figure life out (“A missionary, unsure/ of my position./), irony (“…and we all agreed that screaming/ was the most awkward silence of all./), and humor (“This is espionage,/ not particle physics,/ a poster on the wall reminds/ me./”). Despite his obvious interest in lighter aspects of life, Glen mixes this feature with seriousness, awe, and awareness of daily contradictions (“I have felt as small./ As removed from this world./ As toothless as a ghost/ a clock being eaten,/ I desire you more./ Than ever.”/). Glen privileges inanimate objects as well as the human domain, highlighted in his thoughtful, interesting poem, “The Bedside Book Of Evil Knievel” (“It wonders for a moment/ where it left its keys/ before realizing there/ is nowhere left./ The key’s point of view/ is our only point….”/). The poems in this pamphlet are surrealistic, sometimes plaintive, and very successful.

In my opinion, poems in the pamphlet, In Stone, are more studied than in the previous texts, seeming to be more manipulated than spontaneous. Also, I detected a style that appeared more narrative than in the other two collections (e.g., the poem, “Centennial”), though these poems are not pretentious, exhibiting Glen’s characteristic musical style (“Flowers In Stone” is an exquisite piece). I was, particularly, aware of repetition (“stone;” “night”), alliteration (“while the bugle blares”; “the mentor of myth”), as well as, a few non-binary sexual references (e.g., the poem, “Androgynous”). The poem, “Toy Boat,” departs from Glen’s typically avant garde style with a more clearly narrative voice than in the other works (“We’ve been talking all night/ about the night and how the night/ leaves us just enough to say,…”). In this pamphlet, Glen combines free-form poems with poems in a more conventional style, continuing his penchant to play with technique and composition. Glen highlights his respect for The New York School in the poem, “Flowers In Stone,” by dedicating this piece to Paul Klee, an artist representing Modernism and Expressionism.

I think any reviewer would conclude by expressing great satisfaction with Glen Armstrong’s poems. He deserves to be widely known, a writer whose work can compete with poets having a higher profile. One of his comments to me was that he “aspire[s] to being something like a really smart entertainer,” though a reader will observe that Glen is, as well as a skilled “entertainer,” a serious practitioner of poetry producing thoughtful work. Some academics have criticized The New York School poets for producing “arbitrary” poems; but, the three chapbooks under review reveal that Glen is dedicated to craft as well as spontaneity. I would like to suggest that Glen might consider combining the poems in The Most Awkward Silence Of All and In Stone with a set of new poems to produce a full-length chapbook that could be available from Amazon. Others appreciating fine poetry should have access to Glen’s work, and I look forward to reading his future collections.

*Unless stated otherwise, all quotes in this review are by Glen Armstrong.

____________________________________

Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in many venues, and Clara’s collection,Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition, available at amazon.com.

Interview with Logen Cure

I had the honor of interviewing Logen after reading her chapbook, Letters To Petrarch.   Do you remember your first love? The one who simultaneously felt like forever and also like it would crumble at any minute?  This chapbook is the poetical equivalent of that agony.

Logen earned her MFA in Poetry from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press 2015), and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008).  She’s on board to be Yellow Chair Review’s Chapbook contest judge for 2016.   We are huge fans.

-Sarah Moran, founder/editor

__________________________________

SM: Writers are frequently asked, when did you start writing? I’m more interested in when writing became important to you? Was it always important or did that feeling grow over time?

LC: I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. I grew up surrounded by people who love to read. My family has always been super supportive so it’s always been important. When I was young, I tried out different genres. I was probably a junior or so in college when I decided poetry is really it for me. It’s hard to explain. Poetry is just magical. It’s what I enjoy most as a reader. Language is powerful; it’s how we connect with everything around us. Poetry is the most distilled version of that power.

SM: How has your writing changed from that point of importance to present day?

LC: Okay, so now that I think about it, I’ve been through a lot since then. Also about that time, I started getting on stage and performing my poetry. Performance gave me the gift of not having to imagine my audience; I got to be present for whatever connection people made to my work. That practice made me more aware of the aural quality of my poems.

I started writing Letters to Petrarch my senior year of college. I went straight to Greensboro, NC for my MFA after I graduated, still working on the project. My MFA was two years; Letters to Petrarch was both the first thing I worked on and the last thing I completed in those years. I stopped performing during my MFA. I just had a different focus then. I had never been in a poetry workshop prior to grad school, so it was a pretty intense adjustment. I read a lot and I wrote more than ever, including a semester writing formal verse. I feel good about what I did there. After it was over, I burned out for two years.

I’ve been working on a full-length manuscript about my hometown since the burn-out ended. It’s a queer coming of age narrative enveloped in a natural and cultural history of my West Texas birthplace. I’m writing poems about the desert, plants, weather, animals, historical events, all the things that shape the town. The common thread is survival in a harsh environment. I’ve always been a story-teller type, so the narrative is my wheelhouse. The nature and historical poetry is totally new to me. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge. I don’t want to be just one kind of poet.

SM: Letters To Petrarch is agonizingly beautiful. As I read through it I experienced those same emotions of first love and first loss; the bittersweet. Was the process of writing it a personal journey or simply a way to connect with Petrarch?

LC: It was both. It’s definitely taken from my own loss. Petrarch’s work is also agonizing, so I identified with that at the time. I think framing the story as letters to him helped me to approach the heartbreak.

SM: I’ll be honest. I had zero idea who Petrarch was prior to reading Letters To Petrarch. I’ve been doing all this research and am fascinated but I wonder what drew you to him? How directly important was his work to the work done in Letters?

LC: I learned about Petrarch in a British Lit class in college. He’s an Italian poet from the 14th century. He popularized the sonnet and romantic love poetry as we know it. Guys like Shakespeare were imitating his poems. His major poetic work is The Canzionere, written entirely for a woman named Laura. The story goes Petrarch met Laura maybe once, maybe from across a room. Maybe she was a figment of his imagination. If she was real, she was married to someone else. So here’s a guy who changed everything for a woman he didn’t know. I thought that story was fascinating, so when I came up with the idea to write letters to him, I arranged to take an independent study to learn more about him. I spent a semester reading The Canzionere, which is 366 poems, as well as Petrarch’s letters and other works.

The Canzionere is beautiful and difficult, written over decades. Petrarch is both totally in love and absolutely furious. He celebrates Laura and blames her, praises and curses her. I think everyone has a Laura, a big, intense, probably-doomed love. When I lost my own Laura, I was surprised how much I identified with his work. I was like, how could he possibly have all the feelings I have if he never knew her? And then I thought, oh damn, how much does anyone know anyone? What does that even mean? So those questions lead me to write him letters telling him what it was like to spend a single day with Laura. I use language to signal to him that I’m talking about the same woman. I refer to things that figure prominently in The Canzionere like her lovely eyes, the sun, worship, and dreams. But it’s not stylistic imitation by any means. My poems are free verse and spare.

SM: Why the form of canonical hours ?

LC: I wanted to tell the story of a single day. I started out with digital time stamps, actually, but then I realized Petrarch would conceptualize time differently. The canonical hours are prayers said at particular times of day. Petrarch was deeply religious, so the canonical hours would definitely be meaningful to him. In Letters to Petrarch, they offer the literal structure of the day, just like a time stamp, but I also think of those poems as prayers. So the day unfolds through the lens of the meaning of the prayers. It helped me maintain focus and added another layer to the project.

SM: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about?

LC: I’m excited about the desert poetry I’m working on. It’s still very much in progress, but I’ve had some luck placing some pieces in journals.

I’m also a teacher at Tarrant County Community College. This spring I’m leading a course where students edit the campus literary magazine. This is my second year to teach it; last year was the first-ever student editorial staff. In the past, volunteer English faculty members edited the publication. I’m super excited to help students put together the 30th anniversary edition this year.

SM: Tell us some of your favorite books/authors of 2015:

LC: Villains by JeFF Stumpo. I really enjoy Stevie Edwards; her book Humanly came out this year. I picked up Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn when I met her at a reading in Dallas. She was lovely and I think the book is great. Published last year, but I got Instant Winner by Carrie Fountain in 2015. It’s been a fantastic year.

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To purchase any of Logen’s chapbooks (and we highly recommend you do) please follow the link:

Logen Cure – Publications

How To Make A New Year’s Resolution by Kai Coggin

Video: How To Make a New Year’s Resolution

The eve is here,
the cusp of a new beginning,
between the letting go and the taking in,
between the old habits and the new shaping,
the eve is here,
the time for New Year’s resolutions…
lose weight,
exercise more,
budget your budget,
get that better job,
quit this, quit that,
change this about yourself,
work those hips, that shape, that physique
because you are not your best self right now,
or at least
that’s what
you are made to believe.

Go ahead.
Make your New Year’s resolution,
but I know that these cycles are just promises
we make to the breaking,
to the open chasms
of our hearts
waiting to be filled with light.
This year,
I will not resolve
to lose weight,
because the only time I really did lose weight
was not all the years
that I hated my body,
hated the reflection of stretched out skin
and folds of unexplored softness, no,
the only time I really lost weight was when
I believed someone
who told me I was beautiful,
when I saw that
I AM Beautiful.
When you love yourself,
the beauty of your own higher self fills in the cracks,
fills in the empty.

Go ahead.
Make your New Year’s resolution.
If you want to exercise,
exercise your RIGHTS,
exercise your FREEDOMS
and stand for
the freedom of others,
exercise your VOICE,
speak up for the silenced,
hold a protest sign
high in the air
that proclaims your own individual song into the night,
the buildings
and windows
and trees
and sky
will ring in a brotherhood of repercussive chanting,
spirals of sound
filling a chamber
with human solidarity,
exercise your TOLERANCE for one humanity,
exercise HARMONY and COMPASSION,
flex these muscles in the gym of your own growing Spirit,
infinite mirrors that reflect
the weight of your Soul,
exercise your Spirit,
exercise the muscles in your face that create a smile,
that shape laughter,
exercise hugs,
exercise PEACE.

You want to budget?
Budget quality time,
it’s the only currency that matters, the exchange rate
is reciprocation.

You want to quit something?
Quit judging yourself.
Quit judging others,
quit hate and separation,
quit building walls
and start breaking them,
quit quitting on yourself
and do something that
brings you joy,
when you have joy, share it,
quit keeping
all the joy for yourself,
quit the people
who bring you down,
quit accepting less
than what you are worth,
you are golden,
quit forgetting that.

YOU
ARE
GOLDEN.

This New Year’s Eve,
make a wish upon the star
of your own beating heart,
hear the echo
of that wish bounce
off the sun and
back into your bones,
let’s make this a
New Year’s Revolution,
let’s make promises that serve others,
not just ourselves,
let’s bring in the New Year
knowing everything is an open door,
a chance,
a blessing,
a teacher,
a moment of decision,
a mirror reflecting Infinity.

Happy New Year.
__________________________
Kai Coggin is a full-time poet and author born in Bangkok, Thailand, raised in Southwest Houston, and currently a blip in the 3 million acre Ouachita National Forest in Hot Springs, AR. She holds a BA in Poetry and Creative Writing from Texas A&M University. She writes poems of feminism, love, spirituality, injustice, metaphysics, and beauty. Kai’s poetry has been published in Split This Rock, Elephant Journal, Cliterature, ITWOW, The Manila Envelope, [empath] quarterly, Catching Calliope, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and anthologized in several publications including Journey of the Heart and Journeys Along the Silk Road.

Her first full-length book of poetry PERISCOPE HEART was published by Swimming with Elephants Publications in September 2014, and has quickly become the best selling book on the press. She is also a Teaching Artist with the Arkansas Arts Council, specializing in bringing poetry and creative writing to classrooms around the state.