Thursday, April 30, 2009

End of the season retrospective

It's the end of the 08-09 Spirit Lake Poetry Series. As I had said, very fine poets throughout and the performances were all quite good - so while I may have missed a bit of variety regionally speaking, there was good diversity and high caliber poetry in the readings. Each reading also seemed to draw a slightly different crowd, so it was also interesting to see the variety in audiences who appreciate poetry in the area. It'll be a challenge and opportunity to continue to engage those audiences for 09-10!

As part of the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival Arts Night, Devin McKinnon worked a fine model for reaching out to multiple audiences through his organization of the Poetry Showcase. McKinnon drew a diverse crowd by recruiting diverse poets of varying styles, backgrounds, experience, ages, familiarity, etc. Gothic, Slam, Caribbean, Confessional, Humorous, Psychedelic, Lyrical and even one poem that was rigidly within a rhymed form - a limerick.

Ok, so now that I've pigeonholed some very fine poets, I apologize. There was a sense of desire and urgency - pleading and thanking: for relationships, for chances, for love, for peace, for understanding, for answers. With 13 poets reading for their interpretation of 5-7 minutes, there was a lot of poetry shared, metaphors crafted, f-bombs dropped in clusters, wry jokes levied, stunning images unleashed, voices leveled/raised/hushed, and muses left over-satiated.

Moments of personal note:
Patrick McKinnon's ferocity in his delivery reminding how to embody the poem, not just read it aloud.
Bob Monahan showing how to make small things big and then small again.
Amanda Teague, who I dubbed Ophelia Bohemia, showing that gothic poetry has a definite place, especially in a stellar delivery (made me think of Brock-Broido and further back).
Ben Fleissner's tribute to a poet no longer with us was personal, exquisite and neared the sublime.
Liz Minette used such great images and sense of scene that the audience was drawn into the scene so much that they were startled to find the poem over.
Ben Boylan delivered some delicious psychedelic images and some meta-poetry, excited in the act of language.
Trevor Kaldor delivered slam-styled love poems that swelled with real-life and maturity as well as humor and sincerity.
Paul Lundgren talked about lost underwear in ways that exposed relationships, taboos, and how we create stories by which we judge each other based off of rather trivial pieces of evidence all said and told. It also made me resolve to take better care of my laundry.
Kyle Eldon(sp?) read quietly, quickly and confidently focusing on the inner-resolve negotiating with outer-forces.
Jay Benson, a slam poet not heard from for a while came back in form with an extended piece detailing his experiences for the past few years- gritty, emotional, detailing addiction, poverty and vulnerability.
Devin McKinnon dedicated his reading to his father: very moving in the way he opened his emotions of sadness, anger and confusion. How can we say it's ok when we know it's not?
Sheila Packa drew on both mythology and the ice of the lake for evocative images and left me with one of the phrases that stood out: "is it love if it can't dance?"
And Ellie Schoenfeld rhymed venus in a limerick, spoke of the consumption of dark honey and how we are never far from an accident that could be something miraculous, even if the miracle, a coffee stain is somewhat dubious in its minorness.

Keeping over 50 people in a dark room for over 2hrs to listen to poetry may seem like a sociology experiment that needs an ethics review, but, for me and the majority of the people there, it was a pleasure. Thank you Devin, thank you poets, that you Homegrown, thank you Comic Pit Orchestra (for providing the great music that complimented each poet - showing how adept they are at improvisation by keying in on rhythms and tones almost instantaneously!), and thank you Duluth for setting in which this is all possible.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

in which One Finds a Revitalization Effort and a Bone to Pick

It's been a theme in my life that I do best when I have multiple initiatives in the works all at once until they all collapse (end of the semester grading generally) and I have to slowly pick them up and start juggling again.
Since I don't have the ability right now to take up my poetry or short story just yet, I thought setting some literary thoughts down on the interweb would be a serviceable alternative. Especially when I have a bone to pick, but don't feel it'd be in the spirit of the store blog.

Spirit Lake Poetry Series was started 20ish years ago now. Its aims were(are?) to bring great poets into the area and help to highlight poets and poetry interest in the Twin Ports. I know Louis Jenkins was integral to its creation and long-term success. I'd have a lot more to share about the series if they had a website. I'd even be able to support what I have here if The Reader had a real website since I learned a lot for the Louis Jenkins interview a year or two back. But that's not the case.

And that is part of the problem. It's a great initiative that doesn't seem capable of recognizing how great it is. No one university in the area is large enough to really draw in great poets from across the nation. But between all the writers and educators we have between the 3 universities, 3 community colleges and different writers' groups, there are plenty of connections to wonderful poets across the country and beyond! Spirit Lake Poetry Series offers poets a visit to Duluth to read for an hour, then relax and leave. No classes to teach unless they seek them out. No panels or conferences to prepare for ahead of time. Just a clean reading and a chance to chat with some Duluthians who know and love poetry.

But this year the majority of the readers are either Duluthians or have read in Duluth in the last year. We do have great writers in Duluth, and I treasure them dearly. But there are plenty of venues and times for them to share their craft in the city. They are close enough that they can run courses and come in to the Universities. There have generally been two events for local/regional poets: St. David's open mic day and a release-type reading from whomever has a book coming out near to the event. Everyone else would be coming in from out of town. It may not be their first time, but they've at least been away and working for several years.

This year the only poet who falls into the category of new, visiting poet is Beth Ann Fennelly. I really do like her work and I'm looking forward to hear her read again, since she's done a lot of work since I last saw her read at Miami University. Everyone else on the slate has read in Duluth within the last year. Great talent, but how is that really serving the poetry/writing community?

Have the connections run dry? Are the resources less? Do we really think that we are so low on local venues that we need to utilize the one that was meant to showcase talent from out of town? I am WAY for localism and community spirit, but a part of that HAS to be awareness and recognition of the larger picture. It's what keeps communities from becoming redundant and solipsistic. I don't think we've crossed those lines yet, but the 2008-09 series does very little to inspire my confidence that we will continue to be a dynamic writing and literary community in the northland.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

North of the Cities

Generally if you are in a bar holding a book of poetry, you catch odd glances, confused stares and the rare gasp of disbelief. That is not the case if you are in Duluth and carrying a copy of Louis Jenkins' new collection of 50 prose poems and a conversation with Garrison Keilor, North of the Cities ($15, Will o' the Wisp Books 2007).

It is the book equivalent of a cute puppy. Stangers will flock to ask you where you got it (here, of course)and will barely pause before recounting personal experiences with Mr. Jenkins and how he was one of the first poets that drew them into an adoration of poetry. So, like a puppy, but literary experiences in place of "ooooheshocutenowisnthe-whosagoodboy?!"

North of the Cities strengthens Jenkins' reputation as an important voice in the prose poem form and the art of understatement. Memory and the persistent need to identify our experiences drive many of the poems... not that Jenkins advocates falling into either of these traps. We take our "Big Brown Pills," contemplate what Art desires (to see a Twins game), and prepare for the black&white realities and hidden memories to strike. Jenkins aids our contemplation and preparation through crafted stories that remind us how very common, and delightful, the unexpected is in daily life.


A Memoir of a Radio Program

Speaking of Faith(Viking Press 2007, $23.95), written by Krista Tippett, creator & host of NPR's Speaking of Faith, has been marketed widely as a memoir. And it is. But it's not exactly Tippett's as much as it is a memoir of the meaningful conversations that she has had on the show. It is a memoir of the show, that she hosts, this time, through relating her travels and forays along the spiritual path.

Here is a quote that leads me to make the distinction:
"Listeners have asked Krista how she came to care about large questions of meaning, the dangers and promises of religion in human life, and how she sees the world differently through her radio conversations. This book is her response." (NPR site)

Tippett sets the tone early that this book is a continuation of her program rather than any inside-scoop of her life. She gives us spiritual themes as chapters and mentions straight away that the majority of the autobiographical information will be contained in Chapter 2, "Remembering Forward." Here, the autobiographical details help us to understand the conditions she encountered, a conservative Christian background and Grandfather, and several years in Germany during the Cold War, involved in study and politics. Certainly enough material for several books, Tippett truncates her experiences, references historical events and personalities and leaves us with a flurry of impressions. More details of her studies, turned towards theology, and her marriage come out, but they are almost always downplayed (she mentions a divorce and depression but does not dwell on the details).

What she does do, consistently and eloquently, is draw from her studies and the conversations she's had to create a chorus of voices that sing of compassion and struggle; community and meditation; and, perhaps most importantly, of empathy and the reservation of judgement.
"As the specter of the fundamentalist religious identity of Al Qaeda has come to overshadow international affairs and identities, Marty has this advice for policymakers and citizens that echoes everything I learn in my life of conversation: Don't lump the faithful and fundamentalists together in any tradion. Don't demonize any group of religious people as an enemy. There is great diversity whenever large numbers of human beings are involved. Do all that you can to help them show their varieties and make it easier for them to be diverse. Make it easier for moderates in all of these movements to be moderates. Marty helps me better understand an important side effect of the work I do" (Tippett 161-162).

Tippett melds the voices of those she has interviewed with those whom she has studied, to promote the open exchanges of beliefs. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Einstein, Karen Armstrong to Elie Wiesel and many, many others, Tippett juxtaposes their experiences - highlighting the similarities of diverse traditions without losing sight of their unique qualities.

Krista Tippett is a refreshing voice of humility in a market and topic often cluttered with bravado and sensationalism. She shows that one need not be provocative in order to provoke thought, reflection, and (hopefully) action.
This book is Tippett's response to her listener's questions. It is not full of intimate details and definitive conclusions. It is a furthering of the dialogues about faith. It is a reflection on experiences. It is a call for empathy. It exposes our human vulnerabilities and human strengths of spirit.

How much more intimate could one get?

So, if you're looking for direct answers or the gooey details, I'm afraid you'll have to keep looking. If you're interested in the multiplicity of voices negotiating the path of spirituality, Speaking of Faith is definitely worth a read.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Poetry Month List

Well, we're a week into National Poetry Month. Duluth has already had one major reading involving three local titans of verse with several more events on the horizon. After asking around, I put together a meager list to help start people off on their celebrations of poetry. Please add your favorites and any poets or titles that I've missed!

Poets on Poetry:

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield. I think Hirshfield does one of the best jobs of accounting for the mystical experience and discipline involved in the creation of poetry without loosing sight of the matters of form and craft.

Poetry Anthology:

Rainbow Darkness ed. Keith Tuma. I am particularly attracted to this collection because I was at the Marjorie Cook Conference on Diversity in African American Poetry. This collection captures the spirit and energy of that week and is a wonderful sampler for those interested contemporary African American poets.

Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century ed. Michael Dumanis & Cate Marvin. If you want to know who the next big names in poetry are going to be, I suggest that you page through this anthology. It is just over a year old and several of the poets are already adding to their success. Each poet is amply represented with a picture, bio and several pages of poetry giving the reader a good feel for the poet’s works and directions to discover more (without paging to the back and searching through small print).

Poets (an incomplete list in no particular order):

James Wright. Ok, he’s listed first on my list because he is my most consistent favorite. I love how he is able to combine imagery with epiphany without coming off as overly romantic. “A Blessing” and “Jerome in Solitude” are two of my favorite poems of all time.

Pablo Neruda. If you’re looking to introduce someone to the power of poetry, Neruda is a very good poet to go to first. Simple, beautiful images, the respect and reflection of ode, the complexity of turbulent politics… each reading will reward the reader with new insight. If you’re interested in Spanish-language poets, I also highly recommend Octavio Paz and Federico Garcia Lorca.

Marianne Moore. Moore is one of the most influential women in poetry. She is most famous for her numerous poems on natural subjects, but the value of her poems goes much further into the heightened attention to details, image, meter and specific word choices (which sometimes necessitate a dictionary on hand, but more than worth the extra effort).

Terrance Hayes. A younger poet now teaching in Pittsburgh, Hayes has great breadth to his work – relationships, racial experience, humor, sensuality… he’s very much at home no matter the specific form or topic he’s covering. Wind in a Box is one of the best collections of poetry I’ve read this last year.

Robert Creeley. Not a beatnik, not anti-beatnik. Creeley has wonderful sense of voice in his poems and a very unique and sparse rhythm. His poems are experiences; confessions that call us to care more about the act of confession that the confessor. Recently departed and greatly missed for his continuous contributions to the greater poetry community.

Richard Siken. A poet whose works are very influenced by visual media, his poems are fast paced, visceral and always searching loves stories. Crush was the Yale Series of Younger Poets 2004 winner.

Harryette Mullen. Mullen is a great poet for every language lover out there. Not a “language poet” per se, Mullen is very experimental and her word play is fascinating as well as compelling. Recyclopedia compiles several of her books and is a wonderful introduction to her work.

Russell Edson and Louis Jenkins. If you are at all interested in the world of prose poetry, you owe it to yourself to check out both of these poets who specialize in the form. Witty, absurd, unexpectedly cathartic and always entertaining – Edson and Jenkins will both open new doors for those interested in poetry, story telling and the possibilities of the imagination.

Recommended by My Poetry Friends

Denise Levertov, Mark Yakich, Tony Hoagland, John Berryman, Dean Young, Shel Silverstein, Richard Brautigan, Fanny Howe, W.S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Wislawa Szymborska, Edward Hirsch, Geoffrey Squires, Nathaniel Mackey, Juliana Spahr, Jennifer Knox, and many others. (Not all of these poets are currently available, but they are all worth tracking down!)

I apologize for the utter inadequacy of this list but hope that one recommendation may help lead you to a poet who will impact your day, week, life as much as these (and many more) have done for me.

Remember to support your local poets as they help keep the energy of language and art alive and vibrant. This list only mentions one local poet, due to his work in an underappreciated form. The Twin Ports, and the greater MN/WI region, boasts many highly skilled, creative, attentive wordsmiths.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Tower of Books is Gone

It fell. It's much more egalitarian this way. No strange sense of heirarchy. Reviews after St. Patrick's Day!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Short Review of Books I Constantly Pick Up and Peruse in the Store but Have Yet to Buy (in no particular order)

The Joy of Cooking
Rombauer, et al.

I keep promising myself that I’ll buy it and use it as my new food bible. Next paycheck. Next paycheck arrives and I realize that I don’t get all that into cooking for just myself and don’t have anyone else to cook for/with right now. But maybe next paycheck. Because the beauty of The Joy is that the recipes are fantastic templates for anything you want to eventually create. Right now, I’m afraid that it would gather dust with my vegetarian cookbook as I continue to make rice and beans and Indian food out of a box.

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time
Mark Haddon

I actually read this one all the way through in the store. A feat I realized (in retrospect, of course) that is probably not something to brag about when discussions shift to store productivity at a staff meeting. If you have not yet read this book (in the store or elsewhere) grab a copy. If for nothing else than the narrative voice, it is a compelling novel of trepidation and a great outsider’s viewpoint of how relationships and societal conventions fall apart. And the chapters are prime numbers.

This Is Not A Novel
David Markson

“Realizing idly that every artist in history – until Writer’s own century – rode horseback.” Markson rejects narrative and offers a long string of interesting (true?) tidbits about the lives and (more so) the deaths of literary and artistic figures. And some etymology. And history about famous works. The juxtapositions, and new (again, true?) awareness are very enjoyable, especially when the Writer interrupts (interjects, since there is no actual story). It’s an experiment that serves to comment on art and readership as we create our own stories and meaning as we page through the seemingly random quotes and factoids.
I’ll probably wind up owning this one since I keep picking up and enjoying it. Maybe next paycheck.

Rainbow Darkness
Keith Tuma (ed.)

This is the resulting anthology of African-American poetry from the Diversity in African American Poetry Conference held at Miami University in 2003. A conference that was a week of excitement for myself and everyone else in the poetry program during that semester. One of the only reasons I have yet to buy this one is that I keep trying to let other people know about it when they ask for my recommendations. It’s a fantastic collection: Lorenzo Thomas, Harryette Mullen, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Wanda Coleman… wonderful, powerful and creative voices in American writing. This collection does recreates the experience of that week – by reading through the poems and essays, you feel the different opinions and passions that were shared; you discover new poets who have been operating below national recognition and you see the reasons why they are right next to the poets who garner a lot of attention. I will buy this book. It’s just a matter of how many people I’ll sell it to first.

Upcoming reviews- The Tent by Atwood, Icelander by Long, and Speaking of Faith by Tippett.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Snow by Orhan Pamuk has received an extraordinary amount of praise. So, I hesitate to add my meager opinion to the eloquent appraisals already out there. But, it's proven itself to be a cornerstone of the tower of books awaiting some passing comment, so here I meagerly go.

is about Ka, a Turkish poet, looking to fall in love with a girl from his youth in a town he visited in his youth. He's spent the last years in Germany and comes under the guise of investigating a recent string of suicides. The small town gets snowed in, a coup is staged, he deals with fervent Islamists and fervent Secularists, he writes poems based on lightening inspirations, and he falls in love. A love, that we're told by our narrator from the start, doomed to failure.

I love situational reading, and this novel seemed tailored to my circumstances. Ka is snowed in; we get a couple feet of snow in a week. Ka is searching for something to aspire towards: love, religion, politics, art... but he's kept back by his own senses of skepticism that is split between doubt of the authenticity of those around him, and his own questioning of his own intentions. I can relate. Ka hasn't written poems in years. I've only written a few that I like recently. Ka starts writing furiously to describe his circumstances and those of the small town he's in. I so want to do that.

Ok, so it's not all as direct of correlations as the snow happened to be.

Orhan's narrative voice is splendid. It ebbs and flows, inviting the reader to become very involved with the action and the characters, then reigning back with an objective reminder that this is all a tragedy and then heightening our desire by announcing points of no return "the last time he would see her." It matches the story of Ka in this place, Kars, that continually tempts and rejects him. He is a guest, and the narration shows how tenuous that position is between involvement and exclusion... especially when the place is familiar and part of one's own history.

I was nervous about the flashes of inspiration that Ka received for his poetry and how each poem came out just right on the first draft. But Ka shows equal disbelief and begins to surrender himself to the process. He is called a Dervish several times. It is a good commentary on writing- that there needs to be that doubt and work ethic, but there also has to be a devotion to being open and receiving the flashes of
inspiration when they occur.

Orhan Pamuk keeps the uneasiness and excitement of writing, of not belonging, of falling in love, of politics, alive throughout the novel by never resting too long at any point. It keeps us wondering, wanting to identify the characters and place them archetypically in our appreciation of Turkey. And it keeps showing that we won't be able to succeed at that.