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: