Three New Books From Our Poets: Or Why I Am Still a Poetry Editor
One of the most difficult writing assignments I ever take on is to complete a book review. For this reason, I always limit myself to just a few reviews a year, selecting those poets with whom I am already familiar from having published their work in Green Hills Literary Lantern. Each of the three books included here have two poems first published in GHLL among their selections. Instead of the usual close reading of a significant sampling of poems from each writer, though, I've chosen to take a more holistic look at each book, while also sharing some insights into what drives one poetry editor's aesthetic in the difficult task of selecting the best few poems out of thousands offered to me each year for consideration.
All of the many people who are, like me, at once writers, editors and teachers, know that one of the most frustrating things about all three endeavors is that you spend a lot of your time working on and/or reading creative work that isn't as good as it could or should be. I teach creative writing at the college level, and I have many fine students, but I know not to expect any of them will write something as good as what we read in their anthologies, or what I read when I teach a course in American literature. Obviously, most of the people who submit to GHLL are at a different level of skill than most of my students, but the simple fact is that I'm going to reject over ninety percent of the few thousand poems I receive and read each year. More than once I've been tempted to resign my position as poetry editor, leave it to someone younger, so I can limit the hours of these waning years of life that I spend reading writing that isn't the very best ever written. But a few things keep stopping me from pulling that trigger. First of all, I think of myself as a sympathetic reader, one who never sends a rejection without at least a word or two and an actual signature, one who always seeks to encourage writers like myself, who have published and will continue to publish, but who face rejection as a clear commonplace in their daily lives. But probably a bigger reason I stay on is to continue to celebrate the ones who get it right, who brave rejection and anonymity and just write so well that some recognition has to come to them. They often write the same sorts of poems I receive from many others, but they manage somehow to write them better.
I remember my former colleague, the poet Jim Barnes, telling me that one of his basic criteria for considering poems for publication in The Chariton Review was that he avoided any poems that were about family, especially mother or father poems. I always admired what Jim did publish, both his own writing and what he accepted for The Chariton Review, but I never agreed with that aesthetic, maybe in part because I've written plenty about family in my own poetry and fiction. But after a dozen or so years as a poetry editor, I've long since come to understand where his reluctance to read family poems came from. Every year I get countless diatribes against bad parents, usually, but not always, fathers, and just as many about parents who have grown old and are too predictably suffering from Alzheimer's. I dislike the majority of these poems that come my way because most of them seem more about the poet and his/her suffering than about the sad thing that has happened to the parents. I once even wrote and had published a poem entitled "When Senility Comes, Please No Poetry," which includes these lines: "Leave your parents out of your laments/ particularly those you prepare for publication./ Aren't they suffering enough/ not to have to suspect their frail forms/ wander through vain efforts/ to make something out of what they can/ no longer be?"
Writers have to deal honestly with human suffering without being controlled too much by their own disappointment or sentiment. Lisa Alexander Baron's chapbook, Reading The Alphabet of Trees, has only twenty four total poems and ten of them are about her mostly absentee father. Several of the others are about other relatives, making more than half the poems in her little book about family. Yet Baron never tips, on the one hand, towards anger, nor the other, towards sentimentality. In spite of how well received Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" still seems to be, there is something patently unfair about beating up a relative in a poem; it's what's called in rhetoric a "straw man"; it just can't be a fair fight. It isn't like Baron isn't upset and sad about how little her real father was in her life, as most anyone would be. But a poet has to do more than vent; a poet has to try to make some sense of life's sad unfairness and do so with striking words and memorable images. Baron is more than equal to that task.
Right from the opening, title poem, Baron is looking for a way to see in a "white feather/ off the back of a displaced / dove in December" a symbol for peace, the peace she seeks with her father, "so I might/ let your absences go." It won't be easy; she looks at an old "Black and White Photo, 1964" of her father holding her as a baby, and has to feel the poignancy of loss, well captured in her simile of "his fingers splayed/ like the legs of a spider: / a flimsy web/ the baby is caught in-" Even in what might be characterized as her angriest poems, "Ashes To Ashes" and "Dead, Beat" she doesn't settle for insult or recrimination, but instead promises in both poems not to pass her disappointment on to her own children, even though they will "carry our legacy of loss/ in the napes of their necks." Overall, readers get the impression that Baron is deeply affected by her past yet still very much in control of her present, even as she is in steady, artful control of her poetry. Of the poems not directly about family my favorite is "Oranges." In it she compares the "burly orange coat" of the fruit to the past, and the "too sweet/ pulsing sunshine" of the fruit's flesh to the present, helping readers to appreciate the miracle of potential in the commonplace, as in the "four other oranges" which await, "rigid on the white-enamel table,/ unpeeled, unshucked."
James Doyle also writes about family from time to time, but his poems on family never fall into a familiar pattern, whether he is asking us to believe how his Great Aunt Rachel saved her hair ("Rachel's Hair") or how his Aunt Mariah packed the cupboard with eggshells ("Eggshells"). His title poem is a kind of hard-headed, sardonic bow to loss, as he sees all his dead relatives, in his own old age, as part of an ongoing crime ("I Have to Bend Under the Yellow Police Tapes.") Aside from his quirky takes on family, the thing I like best about Doyle's poetry is his ability to allude to well known historical figures or facts and yet bring something new to our understanding or thinking about them. Too many poets use allusion as a way to seem erudite or to make their knowledge of the topic place them at an advantage over their readers. They then disappoint by doing with their subjects about what you would expect. I once actually listened to a well regarded poet read a "double Villanelle" he'd written whose basic theme was that historic figures Tamerlane, Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler were not at all nice people. Yet while more than a quarter of the sixty-two poems in Doyle's volume work with historic figures or artifacts, almost all of them do something a reader could not have seen coming. Take for example what Doyle can do with a Bible story, whether from the Old Testament or New. Rather than impressing us with his knowledge of relatively obscure Bible stories, Doyle goes for two of the best known in "Lot's Wife" and "The Wedding at Cana." But in Doyle's hands the wedding feast becomes a dark journey into Christ's impatience with people's lack of understanding. Doyle takes the one line from the actual Bible story in which Jesus expresses a less than "Christian" regard for His neighbors, (in response to His mother's expressed concern that "they have no wine," He replies: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? John 2:3) and makes it the basis of his whole take on the story. Turning the water into wine, Christ's first "miracle," has almost nothing to do with His concern for others, everything to do with His envisioning what was ahead, seeing the rows of stone jars He had had them fill with water, as a "reservoir/ of power contained and bottled/ for the future." Saving the actual wedding feast itself means nothing to Him: in Doyle's version Christ "turned his back/ abruptly and left the feast" before the transformation had even finished taking place.
"Lot's Wife" has even more of a surprise in store. Most biblical scholars agree that Lot's wife is punished for looking with some regret at leaving behind the life she had in Sodom and Gomorrah. In Doyle's poem Lot's wife chooses to be turned to salt, simply because it is preferable to the "wandering. God was one promise after another/ dragging her family towards Zoar, towards the mountains/ towards a wavering future made in God's own/ restlessness." Her intentionality, her near joy in imagining "herself crystal to strip the wind/ of its future and gloss the aimless desert with a center" explains why "she turned." In Doyle's hands we have a woman tired of just being God's servant, and "Lot's wife"; she makes herself famous forever by choosing oblivion over life with a tyrannical husband and God.
Perhaps the kind of writer I have least patience with is the one who poses, particularly the one who poses as a kind of tough guy, criminal type or bad ass. One of my more recently published poems is entitled "Tough Guys Don't Write" and in it I argued that "there's a reason really tough/ women and men can always pull/ the writer from a line-up/ of purported thugs, scars or sneers notwithstanding." Though no tough guy myself, I did grow up in an often dangerous, working-class neighborhood in Queens, and so have some experience with knowing one when I see one, which is why one look at James Frey's face on the cover of Poets & Writers, gave me a jump start over his many fans in knowing that most of what he was shilling as truth was an obvious lie. Many of us, though, are excited at the prospect of some genuine tough guy or gal really being able to tell us what it's like on the mean streets, or even in prison. And that is why one of my favorite poets of the last several years has been David Lawrence, someone who can talk first hand about violence and prison, but who does so in the most unexpected and often delightful of ways.
About a third of the poems in Lawrence's Lane Changes are either about his life in prison (he did two years for tax evasion) or about boxing (he became a professional boxer in his 40's and compiled a fairly impressive record; he currently gives boxing lessons at the renowned Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn). Lawrence has also been a Wall Street mogul, a college English instructor (complete with Ph.D.) a rap singer and a movie maker. One look at his mug on the back cover of this latest book of poems tells you that he has been in a few actual fights, rugged good looks notwithstanding. More importantly, Lawrence combines two elements that most tough guy wannabe writers lack, a great, irreverent sense of humor and real poetic talent. I've never seen any prison poet have as much fun writing about his time in the slammer as Lawrence manages. In "Retired" he begins this way: "I gave up sex at forty-six when I went to jail./ I wanted to be able to tell Bubba, 'I'm just not into that shit.'" If that isn't funny enough, he then confesses to us that "Bubba" had no interest in him and it made him wonder, a clichéd line reified in the weirdest of settings: "Hey, what am I, chopped liver?" In "Launderer" he begins about as outrageously, "After I stole fifty thousand dollars in cash/ I went for a walk in the South Street Seaport." By chance during his walk he actually encountered the legendary crime boss, John Gotti, and was tempted to brag to him that he had "more hundred-dollar bills/ In my attache case than he did," but he thinks better of it: "why get competitive with a psychopath."
This is no pose, this is the real tough guy's approach to life as game, as something too funny to keep to himself. Another thing that secures Lawrence as the genuine article is his discussion of violence in his poems. Almost anyone, at some point, might like to hit somebody, but Lawrence, like the toughest guys I grew up with in Queens, can also take a punch, may even like to take a punch. This comes out again and again in the boxing poems, but probably most clearly in "Why I Box." "You hit me. It feels like affection./ My head is numb./ There is nothing in it but a quarry where/ I hear myself cry," the poem begins. It is both funny and sad, like life is to the people who are paying the most attention; Lawrence remembers well the love in his mother's slaps, the intimacy of most kinds of physical contact. We can't tell if he's serious or not when he invites us: "Knock me out. It's a way of getting close to you,/ Of sharing death with another human being." That line might seem profound, might seem silly, certainly is, like almost all of Lawrence, politically incorrect, but the poem has the versatility to end with these lines: "Life and death come and go like rounds./ When you hit the floor/ I'll date the ring card girl."
Lawrence is too busy putting together poems to worry about whether you think like he does. His poetry is brave and genuinely tough, like almost no other poetry I receive here at the University. He's been to the University, he knows the games that go on there too, knows them well, finds them at least as funny, if maybe more pathetic. And he is no one trick pony. He can write about almost anything and bring the same intensity and irreverence, as in his take on "Van Gogh": "I would speak into your ear if you hadn't cut it off/ "Nice paintings, I'd say. I've fallen for hookers too./ But the suicide / That's where you screwed up./ I hurt myself for attention/ When you're dead you don't know who's looking." He's got a point there. I bet if Van Gogh had had a friend like Lawrence he would have maybe postponed suicide at least for a time, or maybe forgotten about it completely. He certainly would have laughed more.
A former lawyer who decided she'd have more fun as a high school teacher (Baron), a retired professor living with his poet wife in Colorado (Doyle) , an ex-millionaire, ex-con, present day boxing instructor in New York City, these are three very different people who I have gotten to meet and appreciate through the one thing they have in common, the ability to write poetry. So long as there are books like these to read and enjoy, I guess I'll stick with this poetry editor gig a little longer.
Joe Benevento has published fiction, poetry and essays in over two hundred different places, including Poets & Writers, Bilingual Review, St. Anthony Messenger and The Formalist. He has three books of poetry, Holding On, Willing To Believe and My Puerto Rican Past, described as follows by Barbara M. Simon, in the Maryland Poetry Review '...amazingly even and accomplished. His poems typify what is best about free verse as it is practiced in America.' He has also written two novels: Plumbing In Harlem and most recently The Odd Squad. He teaches creative writing and literature at Truman State and has served as poetry editor of Green Hills Literary Lantern since 1995.
Some of My Best Friends and Other Fictions, Joe's first collection of short stories, is now available from Lewis-Clark/Sandhills Press.