07 September 2010

Something I Like: Mid-American Review's 30th Anniversary Issue

I'd planned to write this mini-review of Mid-American Review Volume XXX, Numbers 1 & 2, last week, but it took me longer than I thought it would to finish reading it. Most of the time, I finish a journal in a day or two, but this one hung around for over a week. First, it's really long: including the contributors' notes, the 30th Anniversary Issue comes in at 432 pages. Second, I found myself reading almost every piece from beginning to end. Unlike with many issues of many magazines--even the really good ones, even the really prestigious ones--I found myself pulled in by just about every poem and story the editors chose to include. Yes, there was a story or two I skimmed, even one I skipped after reading its first few lines. But, for the most part, this issue is filled with compelling poems and stories (not to mention W. Scott Olsen's entertaining personal essay about flying and world records and North Dakota and ego and humility). While there is nothing experimental here, nothing that really pushes against literary boundaries, almost every one of the seventy-something writers represented here takes some risks. On the whole, the volume amply rewards a week of reading. I started at the beginning and just kept going when I had the time; whether or not the editors intended it to be, the issue feels arranged to accommodate just such an experience: read a couple of poems and a story, go to the post office, come back to a story and a few poems, cook some dinner, read a section of translations, take a nap. With the heft (physical and literary) of a novel, the journal fits easily into the chunks of time you find on the subway, in the bathroom, at the dentist's office, in bed. Compelling (and sometimes disquieting) work by good writers: not a bad way to fill the little moments of a week. Plus, many of the pieces published here sent me searching for more work by their authors. In my book, that's always a good thing.

Five things I especially like (alphabetically by author):
  • "No, Thank You," a poem by Becca Barniskis
  • "Having a Diet Coke With You," a poem by Denise Duhamel
  • "Cowboy Up, Sugar," a story by Rebecca Rasmussen
  • "What We Own," a poem by Philip Terman
  • "I'm Going to Bust This Case Wide Open," the featured poetry chapbook by Tony Trigilio

Music at the moment: Mississippi John Hurt, Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings

01 September 2010

Always late to the party

That’s me, late to the party. Very late, as in: I have a hard time squeezing through the door for all of the people rushing out. I don’t know if they’re going home or to some awesome after-party that I don’t know about. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because I’ll only end up late to whatever comes next, so I’ll just sit here and hope there’s still someone hanging around.

Part of the reason I’m so late to this particular party is my suspicion of the whole thing. By which I mean poetry blogs in general, though it’s not necessarily the poetry part I’m suspicious of. No matter how over-the-top dramatic—or how obliviously self-important, or how minutely contentious—these online discussions of poetry and the writing life have become over the past few years, I’ve been following along, reading and thinking. No, what’s bothered me is a good deal more simple: the word itself is just awful. Blog. It’s bad enough for a writer to use blog as a noun for the format, the venue, the thing itself. But when poets—writers capable of doing simply beautiful things with syllables and sentences—begin to describe themselves as bloggers or lament with no sense of shame or irony that they haven’t blogged in a while? Well, that was almost enough to keep me away forever. Of course, I’ve also stayed away because of a deeply felt fear of being uninvited or unwelcome or whatever.

That worry is not gone, of course, but I’ve been reading and writing all summer, trying to find my poems a place in the world, trying to figure out what exactly my place might be in a larger community of poets and writers. With the summer winding down and another academic year about to begin, I decided to crash this party and see what happens. In any case, I’m here and hoping not to be standing in the corner of an empty room talking to myself for too long.

I’ve stolen my title from this well-known passage from Paul Celan: "A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward something."

I don’t know if this space is heartland or not, and I sure can’t promise to contribute much to any larger conversations. I don’t really plan to argue about schools and movements or MFA rankings or paying for electronic submissions or which famous-poets are overrated. Instead, what I see myself doing here: writing about poems and poets and literature in general. Posting the occasional draft. Writing about music and television and sports. Writing about being a father and a teacher. Spreading the word about books and journals and poems I like (including, sometimes, my own). Beyond that, I don’t really know where this space is heading or what it’s making toward.

Music at the moment: The Avett Brothers, Four Thieves Gone