I’ve had this bumping around in my head for the last few days, ever since Anis Shivani posted his list of “the 17 Most Important Poetry Books of Fall 2010.” That post is what I had in mind when I referred to pomposity in my last post. Seriously? The most important books of a season?
But then I looked at his list, and it brought back last year’s Publisher’s Weekly debacle, where none of their top ten books were written by women, and the rise of WILLA which became VIDA and the whole debate over keeping count of gender in publication. (Aside: Here’s this year’s list breakdown, and while the top ten is evenly split between men and women, the top 100 is decidedly male-heavy again, with the exception of romance–no surprise–and sci fi/fantasy/horror–bit of a surprise.) Why? Because Shivani’s list is 12 men and 5 women. And he’s not alone. Paul Muldoon in The New Yorker (though he only calls his selections “great”) has 8 men and 2 women on his list. Dan Chaisson is marginally better with 7 men and 3 women (actually 8 men, but Ashbery’s book, as he mentions, came out in 2009). Timothy Donnelly, whose The Cloud Corporation is deservedly on a lot of these lists and was a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection, chose five men and one woman when asked to recommend six collections by The Week. One of them was by his editor at Wave Books, Matthew Zapruder.
I don’t have the time or the energy to wade through all of these end-of-the-year lists nailing down counts–the ones I noted above are some of the big ones, which is why I was drawn to them, but they’re not, at first glance anyway, unusual in their construction. The best group of lists, for my money, is at No Tells, where contributors to No Tell Motel are given space to list their favorite books of the year. Some include brief explanations as to why–others just list book titles and their authors. Some of the lists are balanced, some lean toward one gender or the other, but the sheer quantity of lists makes it so there’s no definitive “this is who we are claiming as the best” nature to it. And I like that.
Back to Shivani’s list for a minute. For starters, I almost never link to his pieces at Huffington Post because his pieces tend toward the formulaic, and they’re formulas I don’t like. This column is of the first type–say something ridiculously over the top, like “these are the 17 most important poetry books of fall 2010,” and then beg people to argue over it, thus driving page views. The other is to ask a ridiculously stupid question, like “is American poetry dead or dying,” and drive people ready to argue to the site, thus driving either comments or blog posts/tweets/Facebook notes in response, all of which raises the profile of the original post. The worst thing is that it works. I’m doing it right now, though I’m aware of it and only do it selectively and when I have a larger point to make.
And my point is, look at that list–Seamus Heaney, C. K. Williams, Paul Muldoon, C. D. Wright, Charles Simic, Ezra Pound?–not exactly an adventurous list there. I love me some Seamus, and read his latest, and it’s solid Seamus. But that’s all it is. He’s not breaking much new ground in this book, not doing anything very exciting in it. But he’s a Very Important Poet and so winds up on these end of the year lists, it seems, without much controversy.
Which is why most of these lists suck, at least at the big name places, the ones with all the traffic. There’s precious little chance-taking involved. There’s little reaching into the tiny, obscure presses and lifting out a book that no one had heard of before and championing it. Charles Simic doesn’t need a champion. Neither do at least half the people on Shivani’s list. And I’m a person who wants to champion the unknown rather than the known. I get tons more satisfaction running a review of a first book by a young poet at a small press than I do running one of Paul Muldoon’s latest book. I’m a fan of the under-represented, and I hope I always will be.
I read a lot more poetry this year than I have in years past, due largely to the work I’ve been doing as poetry editor of The Rumpus. I don’t read every book I receive–I don’t have that kind of time–but I read a fair number of them at least in part, and I love being grabbed by them. The books I’m going to talk a little about here aren’t necessarily the “best” books of the year or the “most important” books of the year. I leave those lists to people pompous enough to actually believe that they ought to be tastemakers. No, these are the books I enjoyed the most, the ones that intrigued me enough to keep coming back to them time and time again, the ones that tickled my head in some way. They’re all from writers who are relatively new in their careers; you won’t see Seamus Heaney’s latest on my list, for example (I love Heaney, but this year’s book treads the same ground he’s trod a thousand times).
These are in no particular order, and I may revisit this at some point because I will no doubt forget some.
Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes is a terrific read–I’ve worked my way through it a couple of times already and am still trying to get enough of a handle on it so I’m not too intimidated to interview her for The Rumpus. It’s part creation myth and part multi-cultural extravaganza and all beautiful language, evocative and musical.
I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley is filled with longing and heartache that’s undercut by a wicked wit. It’s hilarious and painful all at the same time. I will read anything she writes for the foreseeable future.
The Black Automaton by Douglas Kearney blew my mind the moment I picked it up. He embraces controversy, and speaks loudly about uncomfortable subjects, most notably race. But he also pushes the boundaries of poetry into the realm of word art–he had a hand in the design of his book and it’s pretty obvious he knows his way around InDesign, which makes his book interesting not only for what the poems say, but in the way they look.
I didn’t think I would love Julie Sheehan’s Bar Book Poems and Otherwise when I first leafed through it. Poems about drinking and relationships and tending bar? Isn’t that clichéd on its face? And yet Sheehan makes it work. The movement between prose and poetry is compelling, and the asides in the footnotes that riddle the text are in some cases hilarious. You can get whiplash reading this book, and that’s a good thing.
The Network by Jena Osman, by the calendar, was the second book I chose for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, but the truth is that I wanted to talk about that book from the second I picked it up. I just got it about 3 months before we could get copies to everyone so I had to wait. It’s one of the most complex books I’ve ever read, and I suspect I’ll be rereading it more in the coming year.
Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Reginald Dwayne Betts is filled with agony and pain and I think the only way I got through the poems was because their formal nature lent them a beauty that made the subject matter bearable. “Fantasy Girl” is one of the most disturbing poems I have ever read.
I haven’t finished reading Fady Joudah’s translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s If I Were Another because every poem deserves an incredible amount of care in the reading. But I’m determined to do it. They are powerful poems and Joudah does an incredible job in bringing them to life in English.
That’s seven for now. I’ll come back with more if I stumble across them in one of my many reading spots. I’d talk a little about my next selection for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, Kristen Kaschock’s A Beautiful Name For a Girl, but that one doesn’t officially come out until next year, and I should save it for next year’s post.
I found myself in a curious position a month or so ago. I had to admit in public that I’m an atheist. Well, “had to” is a bit of a stretch–I was doing a poetry reading, and in the Q&A section afterward, one of the audience members asked me, so I responded. (His question didn’t come out of the blue–I write about losing my faith in my poetry, and had read a couple of those poems.) It was an odd feeling, though, because while I’m very open online about my lack of faith, I hadn’t really said it aloud. This was complicated by the fact that I still had a couple of weeks of classes left, and a number of my students were in the audience. It’s not that I don’t want them to know that I’m an atheist–it’s that I don’t want them feeling uncomfortable in the classroom, especially when we talk about religious imagery in poetry, for example. I have to admit, my throat closed up for a second before I answered, and I gave a somewhat more tepid answer there than I might have in another venue at another time.
But I said it all the same because i’m a firm believer that atheists need to be out about their lack of belief. I like it when atheist groups buy billboard space and ads on busses, especially when, as in Fort Worth, they have messages that basically say “you don’t have to be religious to be a good person.” I like it for the same reason the atheist groups generally put forward, namely that it serves as a statement to other non-believers that they’re not alone and not wrong for their perspective on the universe. The main thing that atheist groups can’t offer that churches can, in my experience, is a sense of conditional acceptance that feels unconditional while you’re in the middle of it. Yes, that’s garbled, but I’ll come back to it in a bit.
My gut tells me that most people don’t care much when atheists advertise unless someone makes a big deal out of it, like these people in Fort Worth are doing. The battle for our attention is so chaotic that it takes something really odd or unusual to penetrate it, especially when we’re in public places. If you’re in a car, whether you’re driving or not, you have multiple things clamoring for your attention–conversations, music and possibly video (hopefully not the driver), possibly a GPS unit, a phone call, text messages (again, hopefully not the driver), not to mention the traffic and other stuff going on outside, assuming you’ve got your head up at all. And if you’re on the street, you’re likely to be bumped into by someone with their head in their phone that you didn’t dodge because you had your head in your phone. (Confession: I might be the one bumping into you.) So if you’re getting agitated about an ad on the outside of a bus, you’re probably having to go out of your way to do it because most of us just don’t notice.
But some people do get agitated about public proclamations of non-belief, especially when they note that belief is not a requirement for moral behavior. That’s what’s been happening in Fort Worth, with some folks going so far as to call the bus ads which say “Millions of people are good without God” hate speech against Christians. One pastor said “To have this at this time come out with a blatant disrespect of our faith, we think is unconscionable.” It’s a stretch worthy of Plasticman to make that ad into a statement of blatant disrespect of that pastor’s Christianity, and I wonder why a person who claims outwardly to be so confident in the power and rightness of his god would lash out so fearfully about an ad. It’s as though he’s not sure his god can handle the competition, or that he’s worried his flock might be led astray by someone pointing out that non-believers (and by extension, differently-believers) can also be good people. If you’re that insecure about your faith, maybe you need to ask yourself why.
I have to admit that I’m glad for at least one public response to those ads. The article begins with this description:
Stand on a corner in this city and you might get a case of theological whiplash.
A public bus rolls by with an atheist message on its side: “Millions of people are good without God.” Seconds later, a van follows bearing a riposte: “I still love you. — God,” with another line that says, “2.1 billion Christians are good with God.”
It’s not the message on the van that tickles me–that’s actually a little obnoxious. What tickles me, in a good way, is the fact that there are people so upset by this claim that they’re willing to sacrifice their time and resources to try to present what they see as an opposing message. It’s not an opposing message, not really–they’re attacking a straw-atheist with that van–but they see it as one and what’s more, feel it’s necessary to stand in resistance to it. In a world where sending a strongly-worded and badly-spelled email is considered activism, spending time and money chasing a city bus around in a van is an unusual level of dedication. Sure, the church could probably spend the time and money feeding the poor or providing shelter to the homeless, or even renting a camel for their nativity scene, but hey, they’re doing something more than sitting at a computer venting into the air.
The irony of this protest is that it’s brought more attention to these ads than the ads ever would have gotten on their own, and it may just help some of those non-believers get some of that community that churches can be, if nothing else, great at providing. See churches, especially small ones with insular congregations (more fundamentalist ones), offer a sense of unconditional acceptance while you’re a member of them. That’s what I had as a Jehovah’s Witness–this sense that no matter where I went in the country, in the world, I could find Witnesses and they’d help me out, they’d look out for me, and I would do the same for any I came across. It feels unconditional when you’re in it, because you really get the feeling that these people are family you just haven’t met yet.
The trick is that there is a condition, and it’s a big one–you have to stay part of the family. If you question the family, you get tossed out, and that’s a really lonely feeling. It’s the reason why many times the people who leave closed communities eventually find their way back into one, because there’s no way to replicate it in the wider world.
These ads, to the extent that they do anything, offer at least the sense that there might be a place where a non-believer can recreate that feeling of community, of acceptance, of family. That’s a good thing. Everyone needs to feel like part of something larger. I’ve found community among writers and among co-workers, but that’s me. For those who need or even just want that kind of connection based on non-belief, I’m glad these groups exist, and that they’re making themselves known to the wider world.
Many many thanks to Jack Bedell, my publisher and friend, to Judith Berk-King for the cover image, a photo of her plate titled “Temptation,” to Gabrielle Calvocoressi, T. R. Hummer, and Davis McCombs for their generous blurbs.
And especially to Amy Letter for designing the cover and for being generally the most awesome person on the planet, and for loving me.
We’re looking at a mid to late January release date for the book. I should have copies for the AWP convention in February, where you’ll be able to find me at The Rumpus table if nowhere else, and I’ll be selling signed copies via this website and at readings. And if you’d like to invite me to read, just drop me a line. I’m open to nearly anything.
Ron Santo died this morning. I never saw him play, so far as I can recall. He retired in 1973, which would have made me 4 and a half years old. I didn’t really know who he was until I started listening to Cubs games semi-regularly about ten years ago, and I really got to know his voice, his exuberance, and his complete inability to make a radio commercial conversation sound like a regular one just a couple of years ago. Ron Santo wasn’t the best color guy out there, but he never pretended to be (unlike say, Joe Morgan), which gave him a sort of charm. At least it felt like that if you were a fan of the team.
Ron Santo’s voice is scattered through the project I did last summer, a series of information overload poems centered around a half-inning of every game the Cubs played last season. Santo wasn’t traveling as much then–I can’t recall exactly if he stopped going on the road at the beginning of the season or partway through–but he was on the air for nearly every home game, and his exclamations of pain or joy (more of the former this season) were part of nearly every game I listened to, even if they didn’t always make their ways into the poems I built.
The poem I’ve put below ends with one of Santo’s signature happy yells at a great defensive stop turned into a double play. It’s from a game in mid-July when the Cubs weren’t really playing badly, but they couldn’t seem to get any traction. They were well below .500 and way back in the division, but there was still some hope that if they could just put a winning streak together, the other teams in the division would come back to them. It didn’t happen. The Cubs finished July with a record of 12-14 and then the bottom fell out in August.
I built this poem during the bottom of the 4th inning. I can’t even begin to tell you where most of the snippets come from though they seem to read like bits of tweets, mainly from snarky political types to me, with some bits of the game and news stories thrown in. That’s the nature of these poems–there’s no way to remember just where the pieces came from and little way to make sense of them all.
4th in division
11 games back
Tuesday July 6, Chicago Cubs at Arizona Diamondbacks, Bottom of the 4th, 10:29 p.m.
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