Archive

Tag Archives: Reviews

Louder Than A Bomb is the name of a scholastic slam poetry competition in Chicago. It’s also the title of a new movie from Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, a documentary focusing on teens from four different high schools as they prepare for the annual competition.

The strategy of filming the run up to an academic contest and coupling the building intensity with an up close and personal focus on one or more participants is a well tried motif (e.g. Spellbound, The Great Debaters).

Moreover, slam poetry is not new. First manifest as a phenomenon back in the 1980s, slam rediscovered poetry as living art and simultaneously diverged from nearly all literary conventions. Slam is primarily oral not written. It’s raw and undisciplined, relies on performance, personal charisma and presence more than felicitous language. It arises from youth culture, not the academy, owes more to rap than to Shakespeare. Twenty years later, however, these contrasts no longer have the same shock value.

But despite the familiarities, in fact maybe because of them, Louder Than A Bomb comes off as fresh, vibrant and relevant. Having had time as a “traditional” poet to come to terms with slam’s radical approach, I felt better prepared to accept and consider it as a legitimate form of poetic expression. And having brought to the theater certain expectations with respect to the concept of the “academic contest as film” I found myself all the more surprised at the non-competitive elements that stood out so eloquently in Louder Than A Bomb. That these kids compete not as spellers or debaters but as poets uniquely facilitates their ability to discover each other as human beings. Throughout the film there is an out-loud dimension of enthusiastic a-ha comprehension and support. In a city known for turf battles and gangs, color and class barriers, poetry as a means of drawing children together is amazing stuff.

Just as poignantly, the richly detailed often troubled situations in which many of these teens are growing up directly influences and is interpreted by the poems. When Lamar Jorden, leader of the Steinmenauts team from the West Side of Chicago, in a voiceover at the beginning of the film says, “I was a bit of a troublemaker, and I did some things I regret. I would like damage a lot of things in my house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. First time I made my father cry, was the first time he heard me perform poetry,” one understands the poverty of communication in his life, and the r0le poetry plays in addressing it.

Even for Adam Gottlieb, progeny of nearly perfect circumstances, matriculating at Northside College Prep, one of the nation’s top schools, encouraged by his still married, affectionate middle-class parents, poetry has clearly deepened his sense of himself and of the world. Charismatic in his delivery, he channels the Beats, and his genuine feelings of fraternity for his “opponents” wows them and us. Nova Venerable, half-Indian, half-African American, representing Oak Park/River Forest, is more direct but just as mesmerizing, her voice edgy and wounded as she reveals her pain over an estranged and abusive father, and the threatened loss of a chronically ill brother. Nate Marshall, who represents Whitney Young, lives with his mother, both his parents having struggled with drug addiction, and early on points out for the camera where in the South Side neighborhood park he was “jumped” by assailants. Of all the works we hear, his come closest to rap in their pacing, rhyme-laced, upbeat and full of humor.

Despite the slam slogan, “the point is not the point, it’s the poetry,” I found the interactions outside of the performances complementary and compelling. Here’s verse that functions as a catalyst for understanding between children, and also between children and their parents (and teachers as well) at a critical juncture in their lives. When was the last time “serious” poetry could claim to be this essential? Could the literati be missing something?

Dana Gioia in a recent essay in the Hudson Review writes:

While the new popular poetry has received immense coverage from the electronic media and general press, it has garnered relatively little attention from intellectuals and virtually none from established poetry critics. One can understand the reluctance of academic critics. If they have noticed the new popular poetry at all, they immediately see how little it has in common with the kinds of poetry they have been trained to consider worthy of study.

As Gioia, who favors formal prosody, points out, in contemporary poetics, it’s mostly with rap and slam poetry that formal elements like meter and rhyme find unabashed celebration.

The students’ poetry itself provides the best evidence for both the vitality and sincerity of their interest. Was every poem declaimed worthy of publication in the Norton Anthology? No, of course not. But they did consistently surprise me with their coherence and power, their willingness to tackle thorny subjects. Perhaps given the overdose levels of reality TV currently being injected into our culture, the celebrity contests like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars dominating the small screen, the existence of poetry as a purer ambition for American teens represents desperately welcome iconoclasm. For anyone with an interest in the true wealth and breadth of American poetry, this is a must see film.*


*(In keeping with Louder Than A Bomb’s 10 point system for evaluating its declaimers, I award a score of 9.0).

Lank, Beak & Bumpy is an intriguing and attractive chapbook freshly out from iota press, which sets a production standard with work this good. The chapbook is elegantly designed and beautifully wrought, handset in Ehrhardt 12 pt. type, & printed on Mohawk Superfine paper with a 1913 C & P supercool foot-powered platen press.

Author Mark Jackley earns his keep as a business writer in the Washington, DC, area. He’s also a thriving poet. His work has appeared in numerous journals in the U.S. as well as overseas and over borders in India, Australia, England, Ireland, and Canada. In addition to Lank, Beak & Bumpy, he is also the author of two previous chapbooks and the full length collection, There Will Be Silence While You Wait (2009, Plain View Press).

Lank, Beak & Bumpy contains seventeen short impressionistic poems which cohere well thematically and emotionally. They feature strong images and a minimalist economy, and often have a haiku-like feel in the sense of breath but an intimate American diction. Jackley’s voice is both informal and musical and I found myself easily drawn in.

The low orange moon
makes the Ohio River shine
like a black pearl
among the hushed sheds
of Catlettsburg, Kentucky.

I am radiant and massive.

(from “Orbits”)

This has that Southern concern for rural space, tainted but still worshipped in an effort to honor the permanence of the observed and felt though fleeting, however subtle or ordinary. Here the poet figures more prominently and less plaintively though and the scene becomes a kind of minor monument in memory, a piece of the life lived. The poem becomes the vehicle.

While he uses the South as a reference frame, Jackley is spare overall in terms of geographical concerns, and his verse often roams indoors, though the materials and themes defy domestic tranquility, or at least complacency:

Like a Shaker bowl
the house contains the silence
of belief, and
like a Navajo basket
containing none of our business
it is keeping quiet

(from “Later On Our Wedding Night, Two Silences In The House”)

Jackley writes primarily from a first person perspective, and often begins in medias res, which creates a natural tension because of the compression demanded by each poem’s brevity. To paraphrase and also invoke Williams, as these poems do, at least for me, so much depends upon a few very tangible and personal details. I think Jackley intends the heritage, as one of his poems is titled, “A Picture Of You In Cut-off Shorts Grinning At The Chickens.”

In contrast to Williams and his red wheelbarrow, Jackley’s attention and connection to detail is decidedly more expressive than mysterious:

is on the bulletin board
but the pinhole’s
in my heart

Jackley writes more knowingly than Williams does, which one must of course in 2010. However, rather than troubled the work more often feels satisfied with itself and with the world, but never smug:

These lines strung out like
a goose hung on a Chinese
market window hook…

…are indelible without
the flame of your attention

(from “Minimalism”)

Verse this brief leaves little room for error as any missteps are painfully obvious and in general unforgiven. The work will crash and burn. Fortunately this does not occur in Lank, Beak & Bumpy. I was impressed with this chapbook, which has much to recommend, both in terms of its physical presentation—a solid well made book to hold and read—and with the precise, realized ambitions of the poems.

Lank, Beak & Bumpy ISBN: 0-9773843-2-2
Iota Press, 925-c Gravenstein Hwy., Sebastopol, CA 95472

Simulposted On We Write Poems

Pamela Johnson Parker is an adjunct professor of composition and creative writing and a medical language specialist in Western Kentucky.  Her poems, flash fiction and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Binnacle, The Other Journal, New Madrid, Pebble Lake Review, Holly Rose Review, Six Sentences, MiPOesias, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and Anti-.  A Walk Through Memory Palace, published by Qarrtsiluni literary magazine as the winner of its 2009 poetry chapbook contest is Parker’s first chapbook or book-length publication, perfect bound with a glossy cover and surreal art by Carrie Ann Baade.

The chapbook title alludes to a mnemonic device developed in antiquity in which the user associates fragments of oratory or other text with physical locations in an effort to facilitate memorization.  The locations considered together form a “memory palace,” derived from Cicero’s story of Simonides, who escaped the gods’ destruction of a banquet hall, and used his recollection of the guests’ seating to identify the dead.

Consisting of ten poems, several of which are longer pieces, the book ranges far in its psychological and narrative geography, while keeping its temporal focus on the past.  In terms of mood, A Walk Through the Memory Palace relies on intimate rather than objective reporting.  So the title feels apt with respect to the poems, providing them a framework where their own interrelationship is less important than diverse connection with the poet as source.

This said, there is a strand of the bucolic, of the country house whose garden offers paths to a nearby pond, which threads a number of the pieces together.  In addition, the poems’ inhabitants and their surroundings tend to be viewed from portrait distance, and the language is well crafted and delicately informed.  Parker’s verse finds its power in gentle irony, quiet onomatopoeia and a lush though domestic lexicon.  The evident structure makes the most of a refined music, primarily brief stanzas and short lines consistent in syllable count, sometimes more formal with respect to meter or rhyme.

The first piece in the book, 78 RPM, demonstrates Parker’s skill at distilling felicity from nostalgia.  Here the second person perspective and a hint at the autobiographical, or at least directly witnessed, allow a sensuous return to the adrenaline and pheromones of adolescence.  The language is a filigree of the precisely observed, a snapshot packed with dynamic tension.

As the heavy arm angles

From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger

Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-

Bleached down of your
Arm, and as you
Start to shake,

Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured

To the top, brimming,

Similarly, in Tattoos, a poem consisting of two parts, the language is a smorgasbord of the exotic, the colorful, and the intricate.  The first part focuses on the materials that compose tattoo ink—

Aisles of densities, textures:
dry dun-colored globes,

the testes of arctic
seals; cicada skins, fingers
of ginseng. Silver

Assam teas, great sacks
of rice, geese screeching from crates.

but ultimately furnishes a male protagonist to give the language an erotic gradient and intensity,

“Good for the kidneys,”

says the clerk — young, stripped
to the waist, a great dragon’s
body rippling across

his back, undulant
as he turns, wrapping spices,
plum wine, packages

in brown kraft

The second part zeroes in on the metaphor of the flesh as canvas for the indelible ink of experience, boosting the erotic mercury level even higher:

I want you
so much it hurts to
breathe, want your voice, telling
me about anchors, hearts, names
like Winona,

or Felecia
(either regional or
seductive); about
needles; about inks
of cinnabar, navy, that
almost piceous

black; about the tattoo
of skin against skin, that
most ephemeral
of canvases…

Breasts, the final poem in the collection, taps into Parker’s other textual expertise as a medical writer, effectively animating the sterile jargon of anatomy and frozen sections by juxtaposing it with a breast cancer patient’s living narrative.  What’s remarkable here is the poet’s emphasis on inspection—visual findings being a key part of diagnosis and medical management.  Parker presents multiple perspectives—that of the woman examining her normal breast, that of a clinically “objective” observer, that of the patient status post mastectomy, that of the pathologist, that of the poet, and that of the poet as affected witness, relative of the afflicted.  The effect, given Parker’s magnifying powers of observation, is striking.

Suturing, suturing,
Interrupted silk. The scar
Crosshatched, diagonal

From shoulder to her
Xiphisternum. Zipper, zipper.
Something’s wrong with this

White leather, this
Epidermis sliced and scraped
And stitched — no nipple,

No tissue, no muscle,
No lilt

Some Yellow Tulips, the one poem in the collection I found unsuccessful, suffered because its subject, the Holocaust, is less easily penetrated by Parker’s intimate tropes.  Genocide brutally resists understanding and even if the survivor-protagonist of the poem stoops to the familiar task of raising tulips, she is not of their world.  Parker relies on aesthetically satisfying comparisons to speak for themselves, and they cannot:

Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,

Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow

Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase

Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)

She often hides with gloves.

Parker also asks the stark rigidity of rhymed couplets to supplement the survivor’s concept of order as a source of security.  But this is more earnest than ironic, and misses the mark. The Holocaust is the ultimate corruption of order.  It is Nazi discipline.  It is dirt. It is bits of bone and ash, not the flowers that grow from them.   The poem does glance against a worthy truth: that the present has its own order against which survival can seem a disturbance, a scar, like the tattooed numbers on an old woman’s arm.  But this revelation appears only as a resolving coda.  Ultimately, it is Mrs. Sonnenkrantz herself who represents the terrible blossoming.  Perhaps she deserves a more harrowing exploration, which in the end must undermine beauty.

However, if Some Yellow Tulips misfires aesthetically, it does so like a dark bulb in a string of outdoor lights, letting the rest shine, their circuit still intact.   Parker has a wonderful palette of language, and good instincts for the memorable.  A Walk Through the Memory Palace richly demonstrates both.

Sarah J. Sloat grew up in New Jersey and has lived in China, Kansas, and Italy.  For the past 16 years she has resided in Frankfurt, Germany, where she works as an editor for a news agency.  Her poems have appeared in West Branch, Juked, Yemassee, Front Porch, and Barrelhouse, among other journals.   In The Voice Of A Minor Saint, published by Tilt Press, is her first chapbook or book-length publication, white and saddle stitched with attractive cover art by Emmanuel Polanco.

The title, shared by a poem in the book, came across as witty self-reference from a writer who sees herself as still emerging and thus less considered, but perhaps still speaking in a voice as yet uncompromised by the temptations which accompany establishment.  Sloat also suggests that one tends to find sacraments among the mundane and overlooked, so that the poet with accurate vision commits her artistic life to dwelling on them:

I keep my hair close cropped
that my face might fit in lockets.

My heart is small, like a love
of buttons or black pepper.

On approach, I notice how
objects grow and contours blear.

That’s what comes of nearness.
I have an ear for the specific…”

(from “In the Voice of a Minor Saint”)

True to this faith in minor things, much of Sloat’s verse concentrates on moments not charged by love or death.  She doesn’t confront us with the inner workings of affliction, the aftermath of passion; she gives us bad hair days:

…Console
yourself: at least the trees
put up their parasols; at least
the orchards you wear as hair
surrender those damn apples.

(from “Humidity”)

Nonetheless one is drawn in by the insinuations, the suburban street that leads finally to mortal decline.  The sedulously observed trifle becomes a door to the abyss in everyday predicaments:

World, I forgive the lack of focus.
I know the knob of sun will turn;
even here, I trust clarity
to honor our appointment.

(from “Humidity”)

While Sloat discovers her inspiration in the ordinary, the poem that results is rarely ordinary.   Her poems thrive on repetitive examination the way one might turn an object over in one’s hands and expose different facets.  Despite this approach, her work is seldom wordy, conjuring like an origami maker a great deal from the plain with a few twists of phrase:

In the folds where I am rolled,
some mornings I have seen the Andes,

strands of wax, and in the stitches
once I made out a line of ants
carrying their minute burdens.

Everything that appears possible
can be turned into something impossible.

(from “Curtains”)

The greater traumas reside in her verse too, subtly implicit, in the underbrush or around a curve, though still available.  Take for instance the sly and masterful “God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline,” where through a kind of abstract metonym the manmade becomes trope for the man, who is in need of absolution.  Here the volatile, the tactile in an unpopulated scene leads by the trail of that nauseating vapor back to a past contaminated by the residue of burning.  The scent of gasoline is urgency itself, the threat of conflagration, a flash of self-immolation.  Here is the oxidized, polluted world the car has created.  Here is napalm:

…God pity the vapors lifting
through the pores of the soil,
loitering near the pumps,

soot that films hair and coats,
that beds in collars,
dark groom of velocity…

Mostly though, Sloat’s poetry avoids indictment, focuses less on relationships and more on self-awareness in time and place.  When she puts aside the magnifying glass and picks up the mirror, the effect she achieves remains that of the reserved witness, of testimony distilled until subjective response becomes solemn, persuasive as facts:

I weary of the season, whitewash
and blind arrows

The sun has come to steal my outline,
come to sort me,
stretch me along its javelin.

Succumb, it says when
already the heat is lurching south
in one long exhalation.

(From “Summer’s End”)

Sloat relies more on her supple voice and impressionistic shifts in image and line structure than on traditional prosody.  Nevertheless she titrates into this collection occasional poems that exploit more formal techniques without any trace of discord.  I would judge both ghazals she includes in the chapbook’s twenty-two poems as worthy representatives of her fine idiosyncrasies as a writer and of ghazals in general, my limitation to English (and rusty Spanish) notwithstanding.

As with any volume, there are stronger poems and weaker ones.  On occasion, Sloat pursues the banal and doesn’t find much more.  But overall, I found In the Voice of a Minor Saint to be compelling and taut.  Its sequence consistently uncovers natural synergies.  Nothing here feels out of place or jarring in tone or theme.  Sloat abstains from approaches that tend to provide for easy access, seldom relying on narrative, and preferring vestal meditation to jocular monologue, and so for the most part her ideas refuse to yield nutmeat to a cursory skim.  Yet in the end the work is highly readable, a simple though hardly trivial measure of quality.  These are poems one wishes to finish, and the same can be said for the book as well.

                                                                                                                    —David Moolten

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 54 other followers