Monday, October 09, 2006

Kiss Me Cold, by Donna Biffar

Just out, Donna Biffar's chapbook, Kiss Me Cold. This is the latest release in the Midwest Women Poets Series from Cherry Pie Press. It's a beautiful collection of poems. I love Donna's work -- it's edgy, brutally honest, and finely crafted. Here's one that sets my teeth on edge:


each morning the same want,
eggs, brown, from a nearby farm,
indiana maybe,
all natural, this need,
clenching the warm yolk
between my teeth, wet
food, muscle, sweat,
what i want, what shudders, breaks,
beneath the shell

She has a keen and sensitive eye for form. She plays with the sonnet form and comes up with something interesting --

Wordless Sonnet

What words are spoken here?
through soft and foreign seasons
the language of flesh, kiss. Now this
landscape of monkey vines and oak,
the one eyed birdhouses,
two poison berries on a tree
we cannot name.

But this is not our garden. Borrowed,
as your body, mine,
beneath a sky we’ve seen
and haven’t seen—soundless
among the frozen moss,
the harsh-barked trees, our words thin
in the hard freeze, budding, even now.

Her poems walk a tightrope between passion and guilt, following two married people drawn into an affair. There's tension in the subject matter and in the syntax and line breaks. The poems are haunted by the attraction and its darker side, and Donna Biffar uncovers loneliness and loss with a deft hand and a direct hit. The language in these poems is powerful and exciting, honed down to its sharpest edge. It has the power to illuminate lust and to acknowledgment its animal heart.

One of the ways I pick chapbooks to publish is to read the poems over, daily, for a week. If they still surprise and excite me at the end of the week, I know the writer's on to something. I never get tired of her sense of sound and her instinct for line breaks. Donna Biffar is definitely on to something. That was evident, in fact, from the first poem in her collection:

When Conversation Thins

Something animal in his hand
when he shifts gears
and we shift
from office talk to flesh.
Our bodies go with it.
Something red in his face
when he thinks of telling
his vegetarian wife, her hard face frosting pink
like the frozen beef discs we see
at the drive-thru window.

He talks about Vietnam, opium,
the organics of LA
he’s left for the Midwest,
where animals become us.
I tell about butchering,
the dead eyes,
the grinding body parts.
It’s what beasts do—
when they cannot eat each other.
We want to taste what keeps us here.
The scent of flesh
gets in, but the brake lights flare.
And the sharp fall air,
the exhaust we’ve ignored
slips through. It’s not summer

anymore. We argue over who pays.
We drive back. He sits at his desk,
and I sit at mine, and fluorescent lights
glare at each of us chewing,
checking what reflects
in the foil wrappers,
the grease shining on our fingers,
residue of what we’ve

Donna Biffar's Kiss Me Cold (ISBN 0-9748468-3-X) is available from Cherry Pie Press. Email for an order form or a list of previous chapbooks in the series.
Click here for a flyer and order form for Kiss Me Cold. Click here for a press release.

Donna Biffar also has chapbooks available through another local press, Snark. Check those out too.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Gilgamesh by Derrek Hines

In bringing the epic of Gilgamesh to us, Derrek Hines says he "added material in an effort to recapture for the modern reader some of the vigour and excitement the original audience must have felt."

By golly he certainly has, and it's wonderful. He's turned what was essentially an oral poem-epic into something crisp that chirrs and whizzes in your ears if you read it aloud, and also sits comfortably and tightly on the page.

Here's how he starts off:

Here is Gilgamesh, king of Uruk:
two-thirds divine, a mummy's boy,
zeppelin ego, cock like a trip-hammer,
and solid chrome, no-prisoners arrogance.

Pulls women like beer rings.
Grunts when puzzled.
A bully. A jock. Perfecto. But in love? --
a moon-calf, and worse, thoughtful.

The words tumble and hop with energy. The language is tight, with turns that alternate between dry humour ("Pulls women like beer rings.") and the strung-out and character-revealing ending to both these stanzas. This Gilgamesh is immediate and fully present, both mythic and real.

Hines can get beautifully and evocatively lyrical without losing any of the compression and energy that makes this stuff zing. Here is a brief passage between descriptions of two very different sexual encounters.

Soft-mouthed as a gun dog
dark retrieves these few sounds:
a clatter of supper plates,
the dry thresh, like a woman's stockings,
of palm fronds,

the rustle of moonlight, rinsing itself
up to its wrists in the river.

What Hines is so good at is ratcheting up the energy by presenting an image that is intensely palpable ("Soft-mouthed as a gun dog") or visually specific ("zeppelin ego") and then bringing you to a full stop with either a slow-down of the rhythm ("and solid chrome, no-prisoners arrogance.") or an image that, with light repeated vowels, literally immerses itself, but only so far, then stops ("moonlight, rinsing itself / up to its wrists in the river.").

Beautiful stuff.

Gilgamesh, by Derrek Hines

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Colleen McKee featured on Poetry Daily

Colleen McKee, whose title My Hot Little Tomato will be appearing from Cherry Pie Press early next year, is featured on Poetry Daily for September 28, 2006. Congratulations Colleen!
Poetry Daily:
Colleen's poem in the archive:

Monday, September 18, 2006

Poems you gotta read: Frannie Lindsay, Catherine Rankovic

My favorite recent find is Lamb, by Frannie Lindsay. It's just out from Perugia Press, an excellent press with a good track record. I liked one of their earlier books, Red by Melanie Braverman, and I like the breadth of the press's taste, evidenced in the selections they print from year to year. Perugia's books are carefully (and fairly) selected, and beautifully printed. But I digress...

Lamb is deeply elegant, gorgeously crafted, and at once both painful and redeeming. Lindsay's poems about father and daughter and the violation of borders are difficult to read because they are brutally honest -- yes, that is exactly the way it is, yes you do have to look at it. They are compelling -- you can't stop reading -- not because of the subject matter but because they are damned fine poems. Lindsay's special grace is that she doesn't stop at blame and anger, but instead circles round with a hard-won compassion for a father who, finally, is brought down by age and sickness. Instead of forgiveness, there's compassion.

Each poem has a stunning detail or two that made me feel I was holding the poem in my hands, not just reading it.

Drinking Hour

He has trouble getting his fingers to curl
around the stem, for he has not had wine
in over a year, not any, and now
there's a table right here where his glass
can rest between sips of ordinary merlot,
and I have steadied him,
bone by bone, into the family's
oldest chair. And he blinks his lips
the way the skinny kitten, a feral, blinked
its eyes when I gave it the antibiotic and water
through a dropper, one tear at a time.

Most of Lindsay's poems are fully felt, fully rendered, and so multi-faceted in their understanding of the inevitable, the guilty, the loved. Here is the ending to a poem about -- at least on one level -- a horse whose last day has come:

...And the mare,
who stands hour by hour in her stall
like a fire-damaged piano
knows all

about frost on the hay,
the achy barn door that reached
as far as it could every single day
with willingness, leading the same
enormous morning in.

I do love these poems. I hope Frannie Lindsay writes many, many more of them. There is instruction in these poems for what makes us human, and they are rich with love and surprise. I can't resist quoting just one more...


She stood in the tub beside me again
a little slouched over her workaday belly

teaching me how a grown-up girl
must always clean herself:

she made a paw of her washcloth
and rubbed it back and forth inside,

she had me try it too in front of her;
then she helped me climb out

and dried me until I could stop
my shivering; she folded my peach-

colored towel over hers

I leave the poem instructed by where she puts full stops, simple commas, line breaks, enjambments. These are poems I'll go back to many times.

Next on my list of favorites is a writer local to St. Louis. Fierce Consent and Other Poems by Catherine Rankovic (WingSpan Press) is fierce, funny, quirky, and individual. Reading her poems, you walk, jerk-step, through her life and (if you're a writer too) your own. Her poems are not contained easily, and many reach out and grab the reader either through direct address (to the "Reader") or through a no-holds-barred wrestling match in which language and destiny battle it out. (Rest assured, language comes out the winner.)

How many writers will feel themselves caught in the heat-waves of this encounter:

...She went to hear a poet, and afterward went
up to him, said she wrote poetry, too, O
fatal youthful idiocy.
He'd nothing to say to a female
trembling with destiny, underage
and looked it, but "Run along, little girl."
God's good; she never heard nor read his name again.

God, interestingly, makes several appearances in these poems. He's one of the most interesting stage characters yet:

When two people love each other,
God rejoices, and settles back.
This is fun,
this is the kind of thing He works for.
He calls for beer and popcorn,
has tissues there for the tender scene,
cheers for the one who's wrong in the argument,
is amazed what they've made chocolate mean,
and only in their bitterness
or resignation suggests He's there,
but He can never have a kiss, His mom
never made Him wear idiot mittens,
He has no grandfather; His exquisitest
roses stay unboxed exactly where they are.

Rankovic's reach is wide and probing, and crushingly close to the bone when she looks closely at the life around her. Here's this one, witnessing a crowd leaving a bus:

These are God's people also, spilling from the bus,
their pink polyester clothing edged
with dirt as with rust, and bow-legged, bow-backed,
permed unprettily, at home a skirted sink
serving as a vanity, the white-trash hordes
of upstate and outstate as I'm white trash from Wisconsin.
Their hunger, if not literal, is for a crude,
accessible beauty, the protractor's
French curve, the velvet painting, gold-
toned base metals, a caesura in the pain of living ...

My favorite poem, and one that, after the preceding self-mocking fandangoes and delicious belly dances echoing the tone and language of everyone from Berryman to e.e. cummings, succeeds in bringing me to my knees, is The Shadow. It's appropriately placed as the penultimate poem, uncovering a hard-won understanding of the thin and temporary -- and mocking -- victory of the artist's "fierce consent" to achieve something in this world. In this poem, Rankovic knows her shadow well -- but not quite as well as it knows her:

...I am cobalt blue; gray in sunlight;

no one else when knelt to
kneels to you. I am closer than anyone on your pillow

and always you lay your cheek on mine....

Assigned to you, to dog you
with what your body does, to double your crimes, to lie about your figure,

to flatter you and to counterbalance radiance...

These poems are tender, fierce, courageous and well-honed, alternately mad as hell and funny as hell. If this is where poetry is going, we may be ok after all.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Cherry Pie Press - poems you can live on

I love poetry. I read it. I collect it. I write it. Sometimes the form teaches me restraint and force at the same time, and a lesson on how to combine them in daily life, once the poem is left behind on the desk or in the book. Sometimes the words alone give me strong wings, or at least enough courage to make it through another day at the office (my day job...). Occasionally I find a poem that has the power to pick me up off the road, turn me around, set me down again in a slightly different direction.

Finding a poem I love is one of the best feelings I know. There are a few that I go back to over and over -- they mirror a yearning, a sound, a stillness, an unmet reach that is in me, wanting to be better tuned and better strengthened, wanting to recognize and be recognized. The compulsion to go back over a poem that touches me in this way is very like the pull on a divining rod. Surprising, compelling, subtle, and intoxicating in its mystery. A good poem is a friend who can articulate what you need to hear -- not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. It's a pair of shoes you hope you can grow into.

Over the last few years of working with a local writing group, Loosely Identified, I realized many of those writers had given me 'divining rod' poems. I wanted to be able to put them on my shelf and have them available whenever I needed them. This is where the story of Cherry Pie Press begins -- out of my desire to see those poems nicely laid out on fine paper, and always available on my own bookshelf. If there's to be greed in the world, let me direct mine at poems.

And so I started Cherry Pie Press, with the goal of getting those poems into print.

I started with Martha Ficklen's poems, because I have for many years been head over heels in love with her poetic voice, and because she was gracious enough to be my first experiment in print. In 2005, I printed her chapbook, The Palm Leaf Fan.

Next was Nan Sweet's Rotogravure, a collection of poems that touch on feminism, the local history and geography of St. Louis and its neighborhoods, family, and Nan's own beautiful crafting of form and voice, deliciously abstract in its architecture but always on solid ground and filled with memorable objects. Her vision is a fully drawn trajectory across distances of land and time, making history into a personal experience.

Printing Nan's chapbook provided the additional pleasure of fulfilling a partnership -- it was Nan's encouragement and drive that had led our Loosely Identified writing group to self-publish an anthology, and it was that same encouragement that enabled me to see the possibilities of turning that groundwork into an independent small press that could continue the work of getting good poems into print.

The third chapbook is Kiss Me Cold, by Donna Biffar, and it's at the printer right now, available later this month. Donna's deft handling of craft and her awareness of the music of poetry gives me goosebumps, and her voice is as direct as anything on this planet. In her poems, words are knives.

Quick on the heels of Donna's book will be a chapbook by Helen Eisen, and early next year one by Colleen McKee.

Most, but not all, of these writers are from the Loosely Identified group. Eventually I hope to publish beyond that perimeter-- writers with the same strong chutzpah and nerve, the same haunting voices that make me want to read a poem over and over. I like the range of voices I've heard in Loosely Identified, and the Cherry Pie chapbooks will traverse similar terrain -- a radical lesbian poem next to an angry political poem by a senior and seasoned voice next to a saucy gimme-that-man seduction poem. We read 'em, then go out for coffee together.

The goals of Cherry Pie Press include getting good women poets in print, especially women from the midwest. Writers on both coasts seem to have ready outlets, and those outlets tend to be drawn to the sort of voices that arise from the coasts. In my experience, the midwest cultivates a different voice, which I have grown to love deeply. It's hard to characterize but it tends to be a little less flashy but sometimes a little more blunt and brutal. It tends to avoid temporary fads. It tends to avoid falling solidly in line with any particular "school" of poetry. It knows how to value what's local and keep an eye on the vast flat horizon that leads to everywhere else in the world. It's not afraid to moan and howl and to hear that sound willow off over the infinite and flat horizon.

The chapbooks are called, appropriately, the Midwest Women Poets Series. So far geography and that ability to be pungent and direct is the common thread. Each writer has a slightly different audience, and I'm hoping that this will result in readers expanding their interests, and that once they find a poet they like they'll try out other writers in the series.

For years, Nan and I and some of the other women in the Loosely Identified group have had ongoing discussions about poetry editing -- "po biz" as we've come to call it, or the business end of poetry where editing decisions are made and heroes are born. More often than not, it is heroes who are born, and they tend to be male. That's not in itself a bad thing -- a look at the editors of poetry publications in St. Louis (River Styx, Boulevard, Delmar, Margie to name just a few) turns up editors -- exceptionally fine editors -- who are all men. Natural Bridge has different guest editors, and in fact Nan Sweet is editing the upcoming issue #16 with a theme of women writers and their influence on other writers. Sou'wester is co-edited by Alison Funk. So women do turn up in the editorial role, but not by a majority.

Nan and I co-edited the Loosely Identified anthology, Breathing Out, and in doing so paid careful and deep attention to the process we used, and to maintaining the collective involvement of all the writers in the editing and production work of the book. Producing a book with all 21 authors working as full-fledged partners in every aspect of the process is no mean feat. But it is possible, and exhilarating, and exhausting. And it changed forever the lives of some of those writers. That was a very different experience than either Nan or I had in working with male editors in the past. Both types of experience have their valued place in the world, but we realized we'd been a quart low on the female kind. It was nice to balance things out a bit.

From that experience, Cherry Pie Press emerged, with a goal "to fortify and delight." I want to encourage writers who think they might want to publish but don't see a ready outlet, or haven't been able to successfully navigate the editorial world out there. Poems are necessary. When we published Breathing Out, we printed 300 copies and thought that might be overly ambitious. Luckily we were proved wrong. We ended up printing a second run -- another 300 books -- and quickly sold out again. There's an audience with an appetite for the kind of poetry being written here, and Cherry Pie counts on feeding it.

Gerald England's New Hope International poetry review site posts a review of Breathing Out:

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Finding Jane Kenyon at last

Finding Jane Kenyon at last

Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. Jane Kenyon, Graywolf. 1996.

I avoided Jane Kenyon for a long time, and it wasn't her fault. I skirted the nearly cultish admiration that followed her death, mistrusting it. There's so much baggage there -- cancer, early death, marriage to Donald Hall, a great poet in his own right. What hope was there for the poems, standing alone without all that context? It doesn't take more than a few personal losses and a few experienced or observed illnesses to drive a reader to madness, either obsessively seeking out or obsessively avoiding those little pockets of the poetry world that feed on the same.

Well, it's been over ten years, time enough for me to get over it. No point in rejecting outright, without examination, someone's entire body of work simply because I'm worn out (who isn't?) with a world of sickness and death.

And so, dear Reader, I read the poems. Like the fabled plums in the refrigerator, consumed in the privacy of a dark and empty kitchen, they were delicious.

It's too bad they're surrounded by that circumference of death and admiration. This collection even has a lovely and respectful afterword by Donald Hall, tying a knot in that string. It's good to have the information about how the poems were pulled together, and how much of the arrangement was Jane Kenyon's own doing. And it is a beautiful thing to see so intimately inside a marriage of both minds and hearts -- how difficult is it to weather a marriage where both people have the same ambitions and the arena is small, and how much more difficult to weather the losses of this physical life. The baggage is beautiful, and fine leather, but still it is . . . baggage. I may be overly sensitive to the idea of attaching such baggage to women's poetry. Lots of excellent men poets have their own baggage that is well known and forms some kind of circle around their work -- the world of poetry has its share of illness, bad marriages, suicides. But usually with men poets, the work stands alone in terms of how it is published. The myths and suitcases accompany, but in separate containers. Why is it that Berryman, for example, can be suicidal and clinically depressed and his poems are great (nonetheless) but with Plath, Sexton and now Kenyon one is left wondering if the poems depend on the baggage? (They shouldn't -- the poems are absolutely able to stand on their own. The fact that we won't let them says more about how women are read than about how women write.) It's hard to find Plath-Sexton-Kenyon published without some reference to the baggage accompanying, in the same vehicle (foreword, afterword, etc.).

Willa Cather was right to order all her letters burned. If she was depressed or distraught, we'll never know, and we'll read her as gladly as ever.

So, I'm sorry to have avoided Jane Kenyon all this time, but I had good reason. And I'm glad to have gotten over it, because her poems are very good.

She has a lovely sense of structure, with sounds and near-rhymes accumulating. She uses structures that I can tell she's crafted carefully, but that usually are not a "traditional" or received structure. The positioning of the near-rhymes and line breaks is carefully different, except in rare cases where the end rhymes fall happily in tow, usually at the end of a stanza. The poems read beautifully aloud.

Drink, Eat, Sleep

I never drink from his blue tin cup
speckled with white
without thinking of stars on a clear,
cold night -- of Venus blazing low
over the leafless trees; and Canis
great and small -- dogs without flesh,
fur, blood, or bone . . . dogs made of light,
apparitions of cold light, with black
and trackless spaces in between. . . .
The angel gave a little book
to the prophet, telling him to eat --
eat and tell of the end of time.
Strange food, infinitely strange,
but the pages were like honey
to his tongue. . . .

At the Summer Solstice

Noon heat. And later, hotter still. . . .
The neighbor's son rides up and down the field
turning the hay -- turning it with flourishes.

The tractor dips into the low clovery place
where melt from the mountain
comes down in the spring, and wild
lupine grows. Only the boy's blond head
can be seen; but then he comes smartly
up again -- to whirl, deft, around
the pear tree near the barn. Brave . . .

bravissimo. The tall grass lies -- cut,
turned, raked, and dry. Later his father
comes down the lane with the baler. I hear
the steady thumping all afternoon.

So hot, so hot today. . . . I will stay in our room
with the shades drawn, waiting for you
to come with sleepy eyes, and pass your fingers
lightly, lightly up my thighs.

This is just the first two stanzas from Twilight: After Haying

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

P.J. Tracy, Mystery Writer!

Mysteries by P.J. Tracy

I like a good mystery, especially if the writing is knockout-quality. I recently read Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy and was pleasantly impressed. The characters are vivid, the writing is great, and the structure is astoundingly tight for a first novel. To complicate, P.J. Tracy is a mother-daughter team, writing from two different states (Minneapolis and California). I'd love to know how they coordinated the writing effort so well. The book is nearly seamless, and most of the chapter endings have a little twist and lift that will make it impossible for you to put this book down.

My sole criticism is that the characters are very close to that border between vivid and cartoonish. Monkeewrench is a software development company and its members are each unique and compelling, and their physical and psychic individualities are the sort that work well in a novel but fall just short of translating into characters who could live in the physical world. That's a minor criticism, and I was interested to see how the characters would be protrayed in subsequent books.

I read the second in the series, Live Bait, and it is really really good. The Monkeewrench characters are there, but they are secondary characters and that role suits them well. A pair of detectives who played a central part in Monkeewrench take the foreground in Live Bait. Magozzi, the dominant character of the pair, is a strong personality with a compelling set of strengths and human frailties. He has sharp instincts and is willing to trust them as much as the trusts the hard facts. His partner is a good foil, often talking through possible and impossible scenarios, even ridiculous ones, often providing these as fodder for Magozzi's instincts and intellect to struggle through. The partner is very earthy and physical, and unashamedly and charmingly in love with his wife. That's a good counterpoint to Magozzi, who sticks to a spartan and healthy diet (occasionally succumbing to the partner's offers of rich and wonderful foods) and goes home to an empty and emptied house, which he has left in the condition it was in when his ex- left him.

Live Bait is based on a series of murders in Minneapolis that show some obvious linkages but there are enough anomolies that the reader knows a solution won't be forthcoming. Senior citizens are murdered, one by one, and it soon becomes clear that most are Jews who spent time in the World War II concentration camps. But they weren't all in the same camp, and one senior citizen is Lutheran with no apparent link to the others.

As the detectives struggle to put the pieces together, racing to prevent more murders, since they are happening with an alarming regularity, some of the cops and detectives seem to be struggling with their own private dilemmas. One cop is related to a murder victim and has left the police force after the murder of his wife; his world is collapsing on him and when we first meet him he is interrupted in an attempted suicide. Another is wondering if he's a good cop or not, struggling with something he did and what his motives might have been. Another character, the estranged son of one of the murder victims, plays the role of a hopeless drunk but is clearly caught up in his own struggle with an internal moral compass.

The mystery unfolds, and once you think you've got it figured out it takes a twist again -- I don't think any reader will successfully outguess P.J. Tracy, and that's the way it should be. The twists are compelling and, once revealed, believable. But as the mystery is solved, the secondary plot line about all those moral compasses is the part that captured me. You can read this as a simple mystery and enjoy it a lot, but you can also read it as a mini-philosophy on the question of what it means to be a good person, and whether it is possible to be good in the midst of overwhelming evil. Each character resolves his or her own struggle with what it means to be a good cop, or to be a good person. I felt very connected to the characters as this all played out, and by the time the true "heroes" are identified -- those who remain "good" despite all pulling to the contrary -- they are the sort that really are the heroes of real life. They're not the primary characters, and not the ones you'd pick out as shiny. One of them is nowhere close to perfect. But they have understood, and held on at all costs, to what it means to be a good human being.

That, and the excellent writing and fully-honed characters, make Live Bait a must-read. You'd do well to start with Monkeewrench, but if you only have time for one, make it Live Bait.

Here's the official P.J. Tracy website: