Second in a Series
Edited by Miriam R. Haier
Marion Wrenn, Jason Schneiderman and Miriam R. Haier met on July 19, 2013 to discuss recent titles from Alice James Books.
MW: I wanted to talk about the way that a collage-based work still does a kind of world-making. In a narrative collection, the world is available to the reader; you’re stepping into a universe. With collage, it’s harder to manage. In Sudden Dog, there were poems that had amazing lines, but I kept struggling for the world. In Obscenely Yours, it was immediate; there was a world to be in.
JS: My favorite poems in Obscenely Yours were the collage poems. They felt found, coming out of personal ads and things like that. I always felt like I was inside the language. With Sudden Dog, I could never quite find the groove.
MRH: There’s a poem in Sudden Dog called “Self-Portrait as Fisherman.” It ends with, “In that period, I was an asshole.” The poems often dipped into different eras of their speakers’ selves. That project of half-remembrance, half-crazy-trajectory-forward-in-time was disorienting—maybe in a purposeful way, but disorienting.
MW: I have faith that it’s purposeful, but because I couldn’t crack the code, it made me pull back and read this like a poetry anthology instead of a collection. I was cherry-picking poems. But I remember “Self-Portrait as Fisherman” as well. And I like this one, too:
Scarecrow, I’ll Miss You Most of All
Heartland’s beating so fast, Darlings,
it may just pop
out of the amber waves of grain.
We found the children in the garden again,
wild-eyed, digging for roots.
Where are your parents, little ones?
Vacant gaze and open sore,
they’re in the basement stirring iodine
and battery’s sting,
dash of lye and owlet wing
for a charm of powerful trouble,
hellbroth boil and bubble.
Why must you pester us?
A wholesome tongue is a tree of life.
If you are quiet, the Lord will provide.
Front yards littered with steel pots crusted
with crystals like little yellow stained teeth,
and the West Coast pharmacy business is booming.
They can’t keep the shelves stocked.
Take your medicine, little ones, and don’t cry.
It’s only America.
We watch it unravel like a fourth act without direction,
the actors blunder through,
and you are there and you are there and you!
Just stop it.
Stop flirting with the thought of who will come
if you jump, who will clean this twister’s mess.
Remember, my darlings, not to strain yourselves
remember there is an old Spanish proverb: It is not
the burden, but the overburden that kills the beast.
If you only had a brain, you’d know you’re the straw that breaks.
He’s got this wicked sense of humor. To have the line, “If you only had a brain, you’d know you’re the straw that breaks,” in a poem addressed to the Scarecrow is hysterical. The only way to make sense of that is to know The Wizard of Oz. There are also moments in this book when he’s working masterfully with lines and syntax. I can hear an equation working inside these poems, and it feels smart and funny.
JS: To play the math metaphor further, it’s more like a function. Insert Wizard of Oz, insert Kansas, insert magic—you sort of are putting all of these referents into the blender, and then it all comes out. I wanted more of a shaping hand. There’s also something about the ratio of observation to personal experience that I find a little distancing. The voice was often removed from what was going on.
MRH: The made me anxious, when I didn’t know where I was positioned in relation to the speaker’s self. It made me feel like someone was watching me read this poem about someone watching themselves.
MW: That’s a thing to wonder about: When is that anxiety pleasurable or in the service of the book’s project, and when is it just alienating to the reader? But I think “anxiety” is a great word for some of the work here. Can I read this poem, and can you tell me about it?
Try Not to Disturb the Eels
On the docks, men finger their waistbands for flesh or metal and stare hard.
They wait for you to hoist yourself onto the muddy bank.
For a little while, you may feel unsafe but undeterred. Hands pinned beneath shoulders,
knees sliding in wet earth, you are vulnerable.
You shouldn’t walk alone at night beneath the bridge, to the city limits. Out of town,
the service road narrows as the grasses venture farther and farther
into the asphalt isthmus.
Sure, the air is perfect and the view across the river is beautiful. The city lights
suspended like a fete of pixies frozen between ages of myth, but are they
I have forgotten what you know, what it is to look into a man’s eyes and know
he means you harm. To see his shoulder cocked, his arm jerk, his fingers curl
around each other, the sudden thrash.
Do not be afraid. You must go back to the river. You must remove your shoes,
your pants, your shirt.
They are down there, deep in the mud, writing an alphabet of S’s in the bottom.
Splash loudly. They are down there. They will squirm. They will sink
their pencil-tip teeth into your calf, but step hard, they will congregate.
JS: It’s a rape, right? There’s a female character that runs through the second half of the book, and I thought that in this poem she was raped while walking the city at night.
MW: If that’s what happened, then the “you” could be the speaker of the poem addressing some aspect of her former self. It could be a process for dealing with trauma—going back to the moment and reclaiming it in some way, reliving it with some sense of agency.
MRH: It also shows how we misplace fear. When someone is out in the world, there’s a disconnect between what they think they’re afraid of, and what they should be afraid of, and what they’re actually afraid of. Those are all different things that are operating simultaneously.
JS: I thought it was a really tired way of representing the trauma of rape—that the trauma victim is then deadened to other kinds of pains, frustrations, losses, sorrows. I also don’t like being told what I’m feeling. Point of view poems almost never work for me, because all art is unnatural. There are very few POV films. You’ll have moments of point of view within a film, but if you actually do the whole thing, it’s too exhausting.
MW: In film, the first person point of view is reserved for either the killer or the victim. You’re either the man behind the hedges with the shaky hand-held camera or you’re the victim in the closet, peeking through, hoping to be safe. So the first person in film is typically triggering anxiety. But here, the second person is doing that work of resistance.
MRH: It could be a self-defense thing, but in poems, I never take the “you” as though it means me. Maybe the speaker is playing at projection, or maybe there’s some imaginary person sitting next to me. I never imagine that I’m being addressed.
MW: Did you fall in love with any of the books here?
MRH: I want to talk about Murder Ballad, but I’m still recovering from it. I know that so far in this conversation I’ve just talked about anxiety and discomfort, but in this case, I think it was effective.
MW: It felt Southern gothic.
JS: I didn’t read all of Murder Ballad, but there’s this America that we’re all supposed to have come from, and of course this is the place we’ve left. Now we can enjoy our urbane middle-classness. I’m the target audience, the person who didn’t stay in that small town.
MRH: I want to read one of the poems.
Who made the banjo sad & wrong?
Who made the luckless girl & hell bound boy?
Who made the ballad? The one, I mean,
where lovers gallop down mountain brush as though in love—
where hooves break ground to blood earth scent.
Who gave the boy swift words to woo the girl from home
& the girl too pretty to leave alone? He locks one arm
beneath her breasts as they ride on—maybe her apron comes
undone & falls to a ditch of black-eyed susans. Maybe
she dreams the clouds are so much flour spilt on heaven’s table.
I’ve run the dark country of the heart this music comes from—but
I don’t know where to hammer-on or to drop a thumb to the
haunted string that sets the story straight: All night Willie’s dug
on Polly’s grave with a silver spade & every creek they cross
makes one last splash. Though flocks of swallows loom—the one
hung in cedar now will score the girl’s last thrill. Tell
me, why do I love this sawmill-tuned melancholy song
& thud of knuckles darkening the banjo face?
Tell me how to erase the ancient, violent beauty
in the devil of not loving what we love.
I wrote a post about this poem on Facebook, and people responded with YouTube clips of their favorite versions of the song. It started a discussion about murder ballads.
JS: My mother loved murder ballads. That poem was really engaging.
MRH: Springer’s collection won the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James. Also, I looked in the acknowledgments, and she thanks her dad for allowing her to use his stories. She was accessing not only her experiences, but also others’ experiences—and translating those experiences or oral traditions for poetry consumers.
JS: Tantivy is more in the realm of Sudden Dog. The word “tantivy” means to move at a galloping pace. The collection plays with collage and what language can do and create. A lot of the poems are about Victorianism or about different styles or moods. You can walk into a parlor and have a sense that it’s a Victorian parlor because there’s brocade wallpaper or heavy silk drapes or crushed velvet furniture. His language is about mood and scene.
MW: I reread Madame Bovary last week. It is like a lesson in the expressive power of detail to capture class and taste and the universe in which characters live. And it sounds like that’s what you’re saying Tantivy tries to do.
JS: It’s a kind of stripping out—taking the ground of something like Madame Bovary or Lady Chatterly’s Lover and stripping out the narrative and leaving behind a sensibility.
MW: What about Western Practice?
JS: We’re thinking about these collections in terms of press aesthetics, and Stephen Motika is the editor for Nightboat. I was thinking about the Nightboat sensibility, and the difference between people as editors and writers. With him, it’s seamless. There’s that same fascination with the emotional qualities of intellect, or how one communicates the emotional investment that one develops in things that are generally thought of as dry or purely intellectual.
MW: The institutional relationships are interesting. Alice James celebrates their 40th year in 2013. They were founded in 1973, same year as Painted Bride Quarterly. It’s fun to look in the PBQ archive and see the poems that we published early on in a poet’s career that then showed up in books from Alice James. Jason, you brought Angelo Nikolopoulos to us, and now it’s great to see the book on the table. But with Nightboat and Alice James—thinking about that project of describing emotion and intellect—there’s a kind of aesthetic weaving or fabric that’s visible when the books are laid next to each other. And the poems I read in Western Practice struck me as so spacious. They just filled my brain with light and air. Do you want to read one?
Tea Palinode (18th & Sanchez)
In removing sidewalks from San Francisco, I planted trees, oaks and laurel. An arc by bay, I sat in parallel time, scratching the Velcro clasp of revealing and not revealing. Having made amends in a small space, we stepped lakeside, fostered beads and tears. The mist of God fell away, the paralysis instilled; I walked alone, books on fern morphology in hand, until the region of lawns unrolled. Tending to death, this untouched shade, we troubled, uncoupled. Lost to sweep of Queen Anne’s lace and leaflets, our errant grip slips, slack. Wrapped in English, sleep exhumed a theory at map’s edge, cast in ornament, artifice, my tongue an observer.
MW: “My tongue an observer.”
MRH: With that pairing of the books on fern morphology and your tongue—you have to have a sensual experience, but you also have to be carrying tomes. It’s a particular way of walking through the world.
MW: I was just thinking of de Certeau and “Walking in the City.” The practice of walking the city becomes a poetic act, and in that way, “practice” is almost like a yoga term—it’s this continued, embodied experience.
JS: Something you keep doing.
Second in a Series
MW: Something the body keeps doing.
JS: In the title, the multivalency of “western” was nice. It’s both California as the west of America, and western as opposed to eastern. There’s the long poem about Harry Partch, who refused the basic values of western music, the seven-note scale, all of the tones. He invented instruments that could then only be played by beautiful boys in the cloud chambers. It’s more fun to talk about than it is to listen to.
MW: What do you notice about Alice James that’s different from Four Way?
JS: They had a much stronger aesthetic. I had a very clear sense of all of these books as having an Alice James identity to them.
MW: With Four Way, it was a broader constellation. They were connected; it was just harder to see what was holding them. These do feel more strongly proximate to each other. It’s not a cobbled aesthetic, or a single person’s—it’s the press’s vision. And the Alice James board is made up of people who’ve been published by the press, so you become an Alice James poet.
JS: It’s a collective. When your book is selected, you join the collective and serve for a few years.
MW: It’s a great organization. Three cheers for Alice James, and happy 40th anniversary. Here’s to another 40 years.