Kind Words from Martin Ott at Writeliving…

…about Ink and love poems and the dangers of commitment.


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Uprising is available for deeply discounted pre-order!

Uprising CoverMost of you already know that Uprising is coming out this fall. October 15, to be precise. And it’s available now for $9.95, which is $5 off the cover price ($5.05, to once again be precise).

So if you were thinking of getting it, now is the time. And if you weren’t thinking of getting it, at this price you should think differently. You’ll get  corrupt politics, secret police, agent provocateurs, and family secrets for the price of a movie.

You can pre-order it on the Black Lawrence Press site. The discount disappears once the book is released, so order it soon. Or order it now.

And if you run a reading series and are looking for some sizzling historical documentation cum novel-in-verse (if verse is more like dramatic monologue), send me an email. I’d love to come attempt my best Hungarian accent for you.

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Who Doesn’t Root for Pluto?

The automated poetry assessor determines the level of “professionalism” of a poem. Everyday Genius decided to spend a month publishing poems that are decidedly amateurish (bad, very bad poems). “Life on Pluto” got a score of -0.0989661016949 — another bit of evidence that those in power have no respect for the little guy.


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The Next Big Thing

By now, you know who or what The Next Big Thing is. I’m here to sloppily assert that it’s me. Thanks to TJ Beitelman and Erika Meitner for tagging me. I would never break the chain.

  1. What is the working title of the book?  Uprising
  2. Where did the idea come from for the book?  My mother, aunt and grandparents were refugees of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets in 1956. My grandfather was freedom fighter. I grew up hearing stories of the old country in my grandparents kitchen. In 1994, in graduate school, I wrote a few of them down. Christopher Funkhouser, who was one of my classmates, told me I should drop out of school, go to Hungary, and write the book. 20 years later, fait accompli.
  3. What genre does your book fall under? Historical narrative. Documentary poetry. Both of which sound rather dry, but it’s a bit like a pulp historical novel. Think  lovechild of The Thorn Birds and your 10th grade history textbook.
  4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?  Jutka, the mother: Hillary Clinton. She’s sort of harried and badass. Jóska, the father: John C. Reilly. More Gangs of New York than Step Brothers.  Erika, the daughter: Quvenzhané Wallis. Have you not seen Beasts of the Southern Wild?
  5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?  Apocrypha behind the Iron Curtain.
  6. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?  About six years. And another six to revise
  7. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  Published by the amazing Black Lawrence Press.
  8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? David Mason’s Ludlow. Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom. Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology.
  9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?  When I started writing this book, I was an idiot. I went to Budapest so intent on verifying one version (the emigrant’s) of a country’s past that I completely ignored the current political environment. The second night I was there, a mob rioted outside the public radio station. It was the 50th anniversary of the revolution, when a mob rioted outside the public radio station and men died. History isn’t isolated to the past.
  10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  Infidelity. Drunkenness. Secret police. Domestic terrorism. Violence. Political intrigue. Lots of endnotes. Lots.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are April Pameticky and Craig Blais (WSU alums in the house) and Serena Chopra.

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All Things Lead to Chaos, From Chaos All Things Emerge: Tim Green’s American Fractal

I wrote a review of Tim Green’s American Fractal a couple of years ago, and then was a bit lackadaisical in shopping it about, so I’m posting it here.  It wants light.

American Fractal
by Timothy Green
Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena, CA 91114
ISBN: 978-1-59709-130-5
2009, 102 pp., $18.95

All Things Lead to Chaos, From Chaos All Things Emerge

 I don’t know much about chaos theory, but I do know that a chaotic system is one in which a miniscule, almost undetectable deviation in initial conditions creates unpredictable, large-scale change.  Take, for example, two identical universes.  They’ve been exactly the same for millions of years.  Then, one day, in the first universe, a butterfly flutters its wings.   A million years later, those two identical universes are completely different.  What happened is that the first universe became chaotic.  That teeny, tiny change created a deviation in the complex patterns of the universe’s system. Some systems turn chaotic if you let them run long enough, even those that appear absolutely ordered, such as fractals, those talismans of pattern, repetition and self-replication from inception to infinity.  Think of a snowflake.  Think of rock crystals.  Think of grains of sand along a coastline making up the coastline.  We find them attractive in part because they appeal to our innate desire to locate order, to be able to predict, to keep ourselves safe by knowing what comes next if we know what came before.  But that sense of order is illusory.  Hidden in the fractal is that undetectable chaotic deviation that will eventually spin it out of control.  So some of us cling tightly to order and the sense we make of it because order is often temporary: one stage of chaos’ progression mistaken for cohesion.[*]

Timothy Green, in his collection American Fractal, plays with this tension between chaos and order, and it is fitting that he titled his collection American Fractal and not, say,  American Chaos for two reasons.  The first is that he is working primarily from the need to make order, to find the cause, to make sense of our histories and conditions and relationships.  The second is that even though fractals can be expressed through mathematical equations, they are most often experienced visually and expressed through form, and form is a crucial element of Green’s poems.

The initial poem of the collection, “The Body,” introduces Green’s main theme, that chaos underlies what we perceive to be ordered, knowable wholes.  The poem depicts a dream packed with juxtaposed images and memories that weave in and out of each other, building connections between abstract ideas (like hope) and objects fixed in the unconscious (in this case, a cave):

starspecks in the foxglove       her hair is blue grass      & the first thing

I think of are the wet walls of howe caverns          that tourist trap back

east             the pipe organ             the bridal altar             the river styx (8-10)
This isn’t disconcerting.  Readers expect dreams to be associative and chaotic, to be fraught with a sequencing that doesn’t make sense.  What is unnerving is the destabilizing cohesion that Green creates by titling the poem “The Body” and then ending the poem with “& the wind that follows / a second later    to wake the body        from its only available dream” (36-7).  The poem, Green indicates with the title, is not about the dream, but about the body.  Bodies are the subject of biology, anatomy, medicine – sciences that place the subject of the body solidly in the realm of the comprehensible.  But Green insists that the body possesses and is possessed by the dream it inhabits when it is sleeping.  The body is permeated with disorder.  It is just as hectic as its dream.  That the dream is the “only available” one complicates Green’s message beyond the easy metaphor of body/order and dream/chaos.  The theory of chaos isn’t a theory of randomness.  It is a theory of unpredictability.  The dream isn’t one that is randomly conjured.  It is the direct consequence of teeny deviation in the past.  It is the only dream “the body” can possess, but the body couldn’t have predicted it because the body cannot pinpoint its source.

“The Body” is a long poem, consisting of long, fully-justified, double-spaced lines with random spaces between words and phrases.  Its form does an excellent job conveying disorder masquerading as order.  The fully-justified lines present a block of text that moves up and down, from left to right, mimicking the orderliness of a page, the solidity of its four corners.  Within the lines, however, the poem meanders.  It leaps.  It fills the page greedily, taking up all the space it is permitted.  Upon first encounter with the form, I was taken in.  I was ready to meander and leap through a whole book written like this.  But Green has transferred the concept of the fractal – along with its complex patterning and repetitions – to the book as a whole.

Disrupting my anticipation, the next poem is written in staggered couplets.  The next, in right-justified couplets.  Two poems later, and most surprisingly, I encounter a traditional sonnet that scans perfectly.  Skip a poem, and I find one that seems to take the form of a fractal, tercets that repeat the structure of long line / short line / medium line, with the final tercet incomplete, suggesting that the poem’s form will self-replicate ad infinitum. While I embrace formal variety in a collection, the movement between Green’s forms seems almost schizophrenic, at least initially.  As the collection progresses, the long lines repeat, the staggering repeats, the sonnet repeats, the fractal-like tercets repeat.  There’s no telling when one particular form will appear again; like a chaotic system, the pattern is too complex to be discernible, appearing as if there is no pattern at all.  Yet the unpredictable repetition of form would be nothing but a cheap trick if was simply a template into which the poems must fit.  In order for the book to be its own fractal, the repetition of form must be generated by its initial conditions: the content and language.

Consider for example, the two poems that incorporate the fractal-like tercets: “Midnight Mass” and “Beach Scene.”  “Midnight Mass” takes as its subject the speaker’s memory of finding a stray dog while walking home from church with his mother.  This is the poem in which the final tercet is incomplete, and it, like “The Body,” explores the relationship between memory and the present, particularly how memory informs the present.  The form does its best work at the end of the poem, after the pattern has been set with no apparent deviation.  In the depicted memory, the mother tells the speaker that they couldn’t take the stray dog home, and the speaker asks his mother “Would Mary tell Jesus / no?” (30-1).  The speaker continues,

[…] I was a brat.  A spoiled prince, enthroned.

But when I close

my eyes I see that mutt in

the manger.  Starving, lonely and cold.  Wisemen

around him stuffed

with straw, unmoving.  My

mother making sense.  One footprint falling

into the next. (31-8)
The poem finishes with movement, a footprint falling into the next.  The lines are blurred between the mother’s footprint and the child’s footprint, and as they move, the footprints conflate, suggesting possible understanding of the mother, or perhaps passive complacence.  Yet the poem doesn’t “end” in either its narrative or its form.  The child and mother never reach their destination; they are caught mid-journey, and the reader is left to project what happens the next. The form, too, is unfinished, giving the reader permission and space to continue the poem, to move it forward into the future.  Because this poem is a fractal, however, and because the pattern of a fractal can, at some point, become unstable, the ending is not predictable either in form or narrative.  A reader’s innate quest for order would suggest a neat ending, a medium length line offering closure.  But both endings (formal and narrative) cannot be certain.

“Beach Scene” is an ekphrastic poem after a painting, presumably of the same title, by Philip C. Curtis.  Recognizing the form, I entered the poem anticipating it would progress similarly to “Midnight Mass,” which would justify the repeated use of the form.  However, “Beach Scene” doesn’t explore memory and the present.  It doesn’t ask us to guess at the future using what we know of the past.  “Beach Scene” is encapsulated; its beginning and end are solid, capturing an observed scene.  How then, is the form justified in this poem?  Consider the following stanzas from the middle of the poem:

[…] One thing is always
mistaken for
another, as if accident were

the fundamental attribute of life – lightning strikes
a rock, the rock
becomes a heart, the heart

fits perfectly inside the hollow tomb of your chest
as you watch
their clothes come off, stitch by

painful stitch. (7-16)

Green uses the fractal-like form to explore another aspect of the fractal, that of self-replication.  Yet the replication in this fractal is chaotic based on an “accident,” a change in the initial conditions: a lightning strike.  As a consequence, the rock duplicates but changes into the heart.  Still, the heart “fits” the pattern, which is unpredictably complex. And it is possible, Green suggests, that we may mistake the rock for a heart, a heart for a rock.  He is craftily implying that the deviation in the pattern may not be discernible at all.

Despite my focus on Green’s smart and strategic craft, this collection is filled with stunningly beautiful moments that have nothing to do with fractals or chaos.  Much of this is due to Green’s finely-tuned ear, with which he creates surprising sonic moments. For example, in a poem about “Pluots and Apriums,” Green writes

What is touched

must then

be tasted.

What is bred

must then

be named. (16-21)
The repetition of rhythm and structure begs to be intoned as if prayer.  The alliteration between “touched” and “tasted” isn’t overdone.  The assonances of then/bred and tasted/named along with the consonance of “then” and “named” weaves the poem tightly, providing an aural coherence that is stronger and more memorable than the coherence of narrative.

At times, Green is a little heavy-handed with sound.  In “Thanksgiving Was Over,” the alliteration in the following two couplets had me counting H’s:

it barely buzzed, half-hibernating, his hand unstung

forever always, he assured the bee

dreaming itself somewhere else – the heart

of a hive, perhaps, at the height of the summer’s heat. (3-6)
The poem “Old Mother Tarantula” is gorgeous with slanted end rhymes, only to become aurally pat with the ending true rhyme of hat/that.  Overall, however, Green exercises an artist’s self-restraint, and most of his moments of aural loveliness are subtlely achieved.

Finally, Green shows much strength as a closer.  A few poems that I thought were perhaps of lesser quality than the rest were saved by the last two lines. The turn in “To Montevideo” was especially satisfying, and I won’t ruin it by describing it here.  Green closes the collection, too, in a fine manner: apocalyptically.  As we near the end, Green presents the darker side of chaos: corruption, idolatry, hauntings, destruction, violence, murder, suicide.  Yet Green knows that all beginnings start in chaos, and his final poem reflects that, ending on a note of hope.

[*] In the spirit of scientific accuracy, my friendly neighborhood scientist claims that this first paragraph, in which I try to explain chaos theory, is, in his words, “Crazy from beginning to end.”

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Poetry and the Common Life

“Still, the fact remains that human life, in all its depth and variety and reality, is the province of everyone’s thought, not just that of literary specialists.  And human speech and awareness, rich in their idiom and range, are the lovely stuff of poetry. […] I have no sentimental notion that all poetry can or should be readily understood by everyone at once.  Nor do I think that the stubborn mass indifference to it will change very soon.  Nevertheless, it is here for anyone’s asking. […] Poets are the verbal antennae of the people.  The awareness they distill and convert into the dynamics of language is somehow present in the populace at large.  We neglect it at our peril.” (xvii)

— M. L. Rosenthal, Poetry and the Common Life 

I think it was Barry Wallenstein who gave me my copy of Rosenthal’s book.  When he handed it to me at the City’s 2007 Annual Spring Poetry Festival at the City College of New York – a festival he founded at a college he had taught at for over forty years – I figured that it would join the stack of books about poetry that always get neglected and passed over for the books of poetry themselves.  But I started reading it on the subway home, and Rosenthal’s words struck a deep and lasting chord.

Rosenthal’s premise is that the sources of poetry can be found in the daily occurrence of our lives, in common speech, and in the shared consciousness of humanity that the poet takes part in.  Rosenthal argues that not only does the populace has access to poetry, but that they will recognize themselves in poetry because the stuff of poetry and the stuff of the people is the same stuff.

And I think about today in my classroom, how my students again and again say that they have trouble interpreting poems, that they don’t understand poetry because it is too hard.  Because symbols can mean so many things.  Because they are afraid of being wrong.  Because all of a sudden they have a very rigid understanding of language.  And I wish that I had this at hand to share with them:

“When people say they do not “get” poetry, it is because they think of language as a factual description and the explanation of ideas.  They forget the other ways in which they themselves use it — for social cordiality, for cold rejection or irritation, for outcries of pain and excitement, for joking or “manly” obscenity or “feminine” hyperbole.  Language is like color or space or pure sound.  Its realm is both conscious thought and subconscious reaction to life: the touch of other personalities, for instance, and a myriad other sensations and fears and desires.” (4)

And I think about the time I met my friend Rory Golden up at the Blue Mountain Center.*  I had arrived late to the residency because of medical issues, and in the ten or so days that I missed, the artists and writers there had already formed a strong community, and I felt like a bit of an interloper.  I had also missed Rory’s studio tour, and in an attempt to gently squeeze myself into the community, I came by his studio one afternoon and asked for a tour.  Rory showed me portrait after portrait of men of color done on tar paper.  As I think back, it reminded me of the Fauvists – bold and wild and raw – but back then, I was struck mute looking at the paintings.  Rory asked me a a couple of times what I thought, and I replied that I felt like I lacked the vocabulary or the knowledge or the expertise to comment.  He was patient with my hemming and hawing, but after a while he said – not looking at me but looking at the paintings – that there is no right vocabulary, and there is no correct response to a painting.  That each person’s response and relationship to a painting is valid, and the language they use to express that response and relationship is valid.

Which of course makes a ton of sense.  He reiterated something that I knew (and know) cognitively but don’t always embrace, especially when in the company of those I think know more, are denizens of that territory, can sniff out an imposter (as if they exist!)  immediately.  But Rory was also saying something else as he looked at the paintings with me and quietly encouraged me to privilege my own experience.  He was saying that not only was my relationship with the painting a valid one, but that it was an important one to the painting.  That the painting depended on me to understand and articulate my response to it.  Rory’s creation of the art was one experience.  My reception of the art was another one.  The art existed in a space between the two experiences, and its existence would be meager if its reception was limited to only the specialists.

And so where I began one month ago is where I end.  With an assertion that poetry, like all art, depends on the commons and cannot exist without it.  And those of us who spend our days and nights in the commons neglect it at our peril.

*a community that offers writer and artist residencies for individuals working with themes of social justice and ecology and that privileges the cultural commons.

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The Tipping Point

It isn’t lost on me that I am failing in my quest to blog meaningfully every day during National Poetry Month about working-class poetry and poetics.  I haven’t posted (I mean really posted) in a week.  I knew, in advance, that this week would be difficult, so I recruited the help of my two amazing guest bloggers who have enriched the discussion with their perspectives and thoughts.  But I thought I’d be able to manage at least a couple blog posts that consisted of more than just short lists or links or cut and pasted poetry.  But I couldn’t, and here’s why: I work two jobs in the three days a week I’m not parenting my four-year old son.  But that’s not why.  What happened is that the extra burden of grading papers (68 at about 15 minutes each  = an additional 17 hours of work, though it feel longer) coincided with becoming over-extended at my second job (fundraiser for a national school lunch reform organization).  But I’m not pointing this out because it’s a big deal.  It’s a tiny deal.  I got busy and I couldn’t blog, but here’s the point I’m making.

No matter how much I identify as working-class (how much I value my blue-collar roots, how often I feel like the uncouth ragamuffin who somehow stumbled into the party/meeting/event, how disenfranchised I feel from opportunities I see afforded to peers who were blessed enough to have certain financial, cultural and educational advantages) I am not working -class.  One of my jobs is teaching literature as part of a Ph.D. program for chrissake.  The other job pays a very fair wage commensurate with my experience.  I have the luxury of excellent, affordable, dependable daycare three days a week (and I use the word “luxury” ironically), and I have parenting support from my son’s father.  I am able to stay home two of the five work days with my child.  I buy him seaweed snacks.  Seaweed snacks!  I have a car and red cowboy boots.  I travel with my son by plane to see my parents in Florida twice a year.  I just purchased new drip pans for my stove top.  Not at all working-class.

And yet, something as small as a confluence of an uptick in work commitments threw me completely off-track for a full week (that’s a full 25% of my commitment to blog).   This is one of the reason’s why I value working-class poetry so goddamn much.  If I can lose 25% of my writing time as a result of some additional work commitments, what about the subsistence laborer?  The single working mom making minimum wage? The factory worker who is also a father who is also an active union member?  What is their tipping point that makes it impossible for them to write?  For many of them, it’s the basic functioning of their lives.  For many working-class poets and would-be poets, the idea of having time or the energy to write is laughable.  The idea of taking two or three years off from a job to attend an MFA program is a fantasy.  And how many poems can a factory worker produce when compared to an industrious MFA student whose main charge, main responsibility at that point in their career is to write poems?

Does contextualization count when reading a poem?  No.  And yes.  A poem must move me despite the conditions of its creation.  But to know a poem was produced by a person who has to struggle for any time at all to write, who has to write past the physical and mental exhaustion  that minimum wage labor, or repetitive factory labor, or manual labor brings, who writes without any support or encouragement, to know this affects the way I feel about the poem.  The way I feel the poem.  The materiality of the poem is affected by the conditions of the poem’s producer.  Carhartt, not Brooks Brothers.  And the certain recognizable weave of the former is the one my hands enjoy the most.  Because it was created from labor for labor.

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