Staff Picks 2009
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At the intersection of hip and hipster, poem and postmodern, innocence and experience, D.W. Lichtenberg in THE ANCIENT BOOK OF HIP explores
what it means to exist in this era of organic needs and manufactured trappings. The poems in this book read like a coming-of-age manual for anyone who has ever owned or made fun of fixie bikes, gone to dive
bars by choice, or had their heart broken. It starts with a Belle & Sebastian epigram, for Pete's sake. Lichtenberg's use of poetic space is as engaging as his subject matter. In the section entitled;Two
Things; a story map unfolds, using an almost found object; poetics to create found meaning. Never failing to surprise or delight, the threads of poems in this book create a narrative that both explores
the phenomenon of Hip while exposing that which is at its corethe search for authenticity. Adorable and heartbreaking and entertaining, just like your favorite mix tape (or is that playlist?) THE ANCIENT
BOOK OF HIP elicits nostalgia for the now.
Sarah Cooke recommends
Renee Gladman’s To After That (Toaf) is a revelation of the phenomenon of discovering oneself through the creative process. It is at once a eulogy for a novella that never was and a celebration of the insight gained through writing that work. Toaf explores the strange evolution of self as one moves in physical, psychological, and emotional space. Gladman looks back at herself in different moments of time, and recalls for the reader in a way that is immediately familiar the feeling of having experienced different versions of herself. It is as if the individual is recreated and manifested anew in each new city, with each new phase of life. And the process of writing, which follows Gladman through each incarnation, serves as a series of time capsules storing each old self. It is a poignant experience to remember these early versions of oneself. That is, an earlier self who had not yet experienced the unfolding of events that, for a later self looking back, would become memory. Gladman powerfully conveys this process of growth and reflection.
Sarah Cooke recommends
Linh Dinh’s SOME KIND OF CHEESE ORGY is a brilliant unification of hilarity and vulgarity. The unapologetic language and sexual, often crude imagery is biting while suggesting an underlying sense of empathy. The poems range in tone from stylized and conceptual to practically conversational. The collection explores languagesnamely English and Vietnameseand the ways in which they reflect different cultural paradigms. The humor and irony inherent in different employments of language is are clearly central to Dinh’s work. There is a wonderful tension between the traditional and the contemporary. On one hand, Dinh’s work consists of satires of Shakespeare and explorations of the root sources of particular words and phrases. On the other hand, the work questions the role of these traditions in today’s cultural context. Dinh masterfully brings together humor and repugnance, past and presence, to portray the rather ambivalent nature of the contemporary human experience with wonderful insight.
Brent Cunningham recommends
In the last few years a number of younger poets have brought out books evocative of surrealist forerunners, especially of the darker Czech version. Some are tilted to neo-James Tate, others come more directly from Kafka, but even when the writing is impressive it isn't always easy to see why you shouldn't just go back to the forerunners themselves. With that in mind, I'd point to CA Conrad's BOOK OF FRANK as a model for how to take something from that lineage with zero loss of freshness, invention, and originality. If this is surrealism it's been updated, lived, and intensely internalized. The strangeness and black comedy don't come off as mannerisms whatsoeverin Conrad's poetic universe, things really are that off, that black, and the polish and paint flake off in pieces. At the same time, despite CA's fondness for ALL CAPS and transgressive content (that is, despite superficial appearances) I found this to be ultimately a very disciplined, restrained, and succinct poetry. Value for precision may be something Conrad took from his rocky apprenticeship with Cid Corman (see the interview of CA by Eileen Myles on the Poetry Foundation site) but, wherever he got it, I for one admire it a lot, & in fact enjoyed the whole frenzied enchilada.
Sarah Cooke recommends
Stephen Oliver’s HARMONIC is a collection that both speaks to and invokes its cultural and political times in powerful ways. Oliver takes a familiar cultural framework and recasts it, creating entirely new permutations. For example, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck become symbols of government corruption and private disillusionment in “O Say Can You Hear?” Beloved American icons and imagery become gateways to an illuminating and piercingly off-center view of our contemporary society.
Oliver’s tone and language range from almost conversational to highly religious and brutally gritty. The unabashed anger of “Droogs” contrasts with and compliments the eulogy that is “Good Tom, Dead Then?” Oliver captures the fascinating and highly unstable state of a culture that is moving forward socially and politically while still clinging to historical paradigms.
Sean Manzano recommends
“WTF!” Of course it’s my first reaction to K. Silem Mohammad’s THE FRONT. WTF was my first reaction to his previous WTF volumes. In fact, I said WTF on the first day of my postLanguage poetry summer session class at UC Santa Cruz, taught by Kasey. WTF as in da Bomb meets Orpheus. Rather Orpheus wielding the bomb, and not necessarily the F-bomb. So yes I was humored by “Crappy Langpo Poetry.”
Anyways, earlier this summer I wrote an author’s bio for a poem I wrote in memory of John Hughes. People who know me will say it’s about Molly Ringwald, and Kasey knows me, rather, he claims meyes we had this conversation who gets claiming rights. So this bio: “blah blah blah…looking for FWB NSA, who knows the difference between metonymy and synecdoche.” I hope Kasey does not get a hold of that bio and think he can get me on a date.
Metonymy and Synecdoche. WTF? Imagine an “Artist Statement” at the visceral and corporeal level, and pop/pulp culture icons are prosthetics. Cognitively, Kasey’s poems remind the cost of our lived experience. Culturally fabricated and manipulated lens determine the rules of engagement. Yes, this has been done before by numerous poets. However, Kasey’s latest blitz makes all cynics, charlatans. Not for the weak hearted. Meaning, if you liked overcoming that feeling of a deer in headlights while reading Dear Head Nation, then, you know what you need to acquire. The anal attention to detail pays homage or warning to how life is metaphorized and made digestable by the data stream. Enter THE FRONT and hold your breath because it’s another Orphic joyride.
Vanessa Flores recommends
Amina Cain’s I GO TO SOME HOLLOW contains all the strange and extraordinary, not to mention the vast and mysterious emptiness one would expect to find inside a black hole. This collection of short stories flirts with the poetic, creating a hybrid place in which Cain’s character’s confront their own space, both internal and external. A majority of Cain’s characters feel quietly dissatisfied, but all are overtly aware of their atmospheres, so much, that they become a part of them. “She felt the thin outline of herself approach and subside. They were not supposed to do that. She was not a body of water, a wave.” In an eerie straightforwardness, Cain’s narrators relate the sometimes immeasurable and unpredictable distance people can feel from one another and from themselves. Cain invites the reader to consider his or her own space, physically and mentally, allowing this collection to be a reflection of the distance (as well as the potential intimacy) between reader and writer and reader and character.
Amy Berkowitz recommends
I’m writing this on my last day at SPD, just in time to still be considered staff and have this book still technically be a staff pick. Tomorrow I’ll start my trip back to Michigan, to the studio I rent in a small salmon-colored apartment house. I think about what I’ll return to theremy neighbors, the traces of themthe foil-wrapped banana bread the woman across the hall once left in my mailbox, the pot smoke that wafts down, the grunting noises (not sure whose) I hear every night at 1 am from upstairs (I think). Neighbors are a weird thing. We know them, but they’re not our friends and family. We open the door, but not all the way. What do we hear through the walls? What don’t we hear? What is that smell. The lobby, the hall. Short conversations. Rachel Levitsky knows that neighbors are a weird thing. In her second collection of poems, a book aptly titled NEIGHBOR, Levitsky confronts the question of the neighbor and offers her exploration of the neighbor as a way to begin a similar exploration (maybe the same exploration) of “the State.” She chips away at the mystery of the neighbor in train-of-thought reflections and overheard conversations. Sentence fragments. Levitsky covers all the bases of talking about neighbors: overheard noises, demographic issues, the age-old question of coveting. And of course, throughout the book, the poems offer tantalizing moments of speculation about her neighbor’s livestheir cigarette smoke, their white fluffy cat gone missing. But Levitsky never tells us the whole storytrue to the nature of neighbors, the door is never open all the way, and part of what we know is what we don’t know.
Carolyn Madeo recommends
In SCAPE, Joshua Harmon explores and creates varied landscapesfrom the peaks of nameless mountains to the asphalt highways of Massachusetts. Harmon’s use of word play and a conversational tone throughout his poems keeps SCAPE both fresh and extremely entertaining. SCAPE is a fluid and often a rather solitary collection of poetry that focuses on the extremely personal, but also often calls upon imagery of the wider natural world; weaving them together into what are memorable, quotable poems. I thoroughly enjoyed SCAPE and would highly recommend it.
Nicholas Mueller recommends
At first the title of Sesshu Foster’s WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK seems oddfootball (soccer), the ancient sport from which the title is derived, seems only to be given a side long glance. The fragmentary, pseudo-travel journal only offers brief pre and post game flashes in which the speaker is far removed from the action of the game. In fact, the “games,” or vignettes, of WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK seem much more concerned with house fires, stolen cars, water-absorbent silicon packets, and Styrofoam coffee cups. Through his kaleidoscopic vignettes Foster generates a portrait of modern life whose violent, dramatic and banal extremes mirror the tumultuous emotional topography of football. However, whether football, over its long history, gradually shed rules and ritual as its primary characteristics and assumed these qualities or whether humanity took on the rhythms and sensations of the game remains unclear. Instead, Foster seems too content to break the boarder between the two and, instead, allows them to mingle in the reader’s mind altering their perception of day-to-day life and the game.
Megan Taylor recommends
In the title poem of her new collection, HAGIOGRAPHY, Jen Currin suggests: "I thought we should make use/of our bodies. Each murmur/to make us lighter." Currin carries out her careful consideration of the self as bound to language by displaying, with every delightful poem, this urgency for utterance. Currin's present landscape is the afterlife, but rather than long for a life once lived, she anticipates a birth forthcoming. Upon her exploration of this strange state of being, she investigates childhood, adulthood, and the mythic surprises nature strings throughout. Her musicality lives within the continual echo of these themes. This successful collection gains much of its richness in voice from a speaker who is unafraid to reflect upon the self as a singular entity; one that is separate from convention. In this sense, her book is a must-read for its fresh approach to narrative and its unique take on the consciousness we seek.
Paul Ebenkamp recommends
This book is doing things I didn't know about. Reading it, getting sucked into its dynamics, I think of Ashbery's dictum in Self Portrait: the "hand [...]thrust at the viewer/ And swerving easily away, as though to protect/ What it advertises." But it's not even as complicated as that; instead the narrative drive to disclose conceals because disclosure in BRIEF UNDER WATER is all we can see, and the desire to obscure actually clarifies. Where does the brother go? How did we get to sea? Asking questions is how I read BRIEF UNDER WATER because it asks none, loopily confident. The contortions of its prose are lackadaisical, producing interest without anxiety. A rad collagist surface admixtures with wily yet upfront subjectivity. BRIEF UNDER WATER belongs to that rarified category, the non-incomprehensible book-length stochastic prose poem. Cyrus lives in my hometown. There's nothing smutty in it.
Bridget Hayes recommends
BRIEF NUDITY is a book about the process of aging. Thomas Farber takes a lyrical approach to his own mortality, browsing his home for signs of time passing. He unearths some emotional, alluring, and useless bits of information about himself. As a (somewhat morbid) woman nearing my mid-twenties, I found the book very useful and frightening.
Natasha Mori recommends
Poetry. I highly recommend Chris Vitiello’s IRRESPONSIBILITY. It questions, punctuates with deliberate use of space//, at times challenges with lists, number sequences, even sentence diagrams. Ahsahta so rarely disappoints in presenting authors whose works are multi-dimensional, impress both poetically and visually. Vitiello’s second book is no exception.
Zack Tuck recommends
In TOAF, Gladman asks, "Can you even speak of something that has refused to metabolize?" then guides her readers on an engaging tour around a lack.
What's missing? After That: A Novellaa work she never finished or published. There is a chalk outline, but the body has been removed. The whiff of cologne lingers, but the person ahead of you has already turned the corner.
TOAF, however, is more than a simple lament for a stillborn work of artit is an ars poetica, a daybook, a meditation on the process of creation.
Gladman confronts memories, conjuring the cities she was living in, the movies she was watching. In doing so, she gives an impression of the way she spent a day while writing; the radical act of walking down a city street.
For those stuck in fixed idea of genre, TOAF is the perfect antidote. It's a model for what an excellent hybrid can look like, as well as a highly enjoyable journey around the corridors of Renee Gladman's memory.
Kati Knox recommends
Do you ever get that panicky feeling that something is happening, you can feel it happening, but it is nowhere to be found? So then there you are left with your own mind that is so full of ideas of connectivity and community and the radical nature of poetry and the state of the world, of the mind, the poet, the condition of the heart and just when you are having all of these revolutionary ideas you realize; you are alone. Well, you are not alone! War and Peace The Future Vol. 3 is proof that it is all happening around you, not just in your mind but in other’s minds too. This volume features a lovely group of poets including not excluding Rob Halpern, Stephen Ratcliffe, Rae Armantrout, Leslie Scalapino, Jennifer Scappettone, Michael McClure, and Jocelyn Saidenberg just to name a few. Please, do yourself a favor and make this book yours.
Erica Hanson recommends
What can I say? I loved Matthew Dickman’s ALL-AMERICAN POETRY. With lines like “This is the Fourth of July/ and she looks like the end of summer” and poems about using derivatives and Star Trek gang signs to get a nerdy girl into bed, he uses the familiar to describe the most complex of emotions. Dickman proves that poetry is not dependent on esoteric allusions, verbose language, and superfluous descriptions; it can be as accessible as drinking with friends, hearing your neighbor have sex, and French films. In what seems like simple subject matter, the reader finds Dickman describing something more than an individual time or placehe describes the essence of human nature. Dickman finds the song and dance in the ordinary and shows the reader how miraculous it is just to live and be. If nothing else, this book gives you a new perspective on the everyday and truly makes you believe that poetry is everywhere. I hope that you all make it part of your collection!