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.

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