I won’t bore you with the details of all the sessions that I attended at AWP. Suffice it to say, I sat through discussions of what’s being published in literary magazines today and what kind of online poetry communities are being established.
I spent a lovely 90 minutes at the William Stafford session, where a new book of never-before published work was launched. Fred Marchant – a wonderful poet himself and one of my instructors at the Frost Place many moons ago – moderated the panel, which included William Stafford’s son, Kim. I recommend the book to you: Another World: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947 (Graywolf Press).
More than a collection
One session I do want to describe in more detail was titled “More Than a Collection: Imagining and Realizing Thematic Poetry Projects.” Jon Tribble, the managing editor of the Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by Southern Illinois University Press, was the moderator. But the poets on the panel were by no means Midwest-centric. Two were from the West, one from the Pacific Northwest and the remaining two from Wisconsin.
This was the best-run session I attended at AWP. Rather than start by reading the panelist bios, Jon passed out a single sheet of paper. It contained everyone’s bios on one side and an “opening statement” on the other. Brilliant! Why did no one else do this? We wasted 5-10 minutes in every session listening to a litany of “Bob Smith is the author of amazing poetry collection A” and “Jane Doe teaches creative writing at the University of B.” Yeah. I got it. I trust that if this person is giving a presentation at AWP, they’ve got some sort of credentials. Let’s move on.
Each poet gave a brief talk on how they happened to create a thematic poetry project. Some poets deliberately set out to write a body of work on a specific topic. Others found themselves returning to a theme over and over without any conscious intention. Yet another sat down to assemble a collection and found that she had a theme running through her work that she hadn’t noticed; she had only to write a few pieces to fill in the gaps.
In his opening statement, Jon writes:
These five poets have authored books that realize the promise a thematic poetry project can represent – a unique reward where the productive obsession of the artist re-imagines the narrative possibilities of childhood, adolescence, or aging and disease; where documentary and witness revisit cultural and political history, troubling the questions between the known and unknown to reveal the shifting spaces between knowledge and truth; and where the possibility of language, voice, and symbol reshape the fabric of understanding that can deepen in a body of work that truly is an organic and unified whole.
The five poets on the panel and a brief note about their collections:
Oliver de Paz
Names Above Houses began as a long epic poem while Paz was in graduate school. Upon showing it to his mentor, he was told that it was interesting, but there was no peril, no reason to care. Paz turned to his heritage and Filipino folk songs to create a mythology for his character and break his long epic into a series of prose poems.
In this next book, Paz wanted to stop writing prose poems and do something different. He wrote short and austere pieces that became Furious Lullaby, which was a fine collection, according to his publisher, but it had no “fury.” Paz decided he needed an antagonist, so he used the figure of the devil to provide a foil in his poems.
Jesse Lee Kercheval
Jesse stumbled into her theme due to her husband’s work in film making. He taught a silent film course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in which the students created their own silent films using old equipment found stored in a university basement. They decided to enter the films in the annual Cinema Muto film festival in Italy. Upon arriving at the festival, they discovered that they were the only living filmmakers to attend. All the others are dead! Of course! Silent film making not being a “living” art… Kercheval began writing about their experiences and found that she had become obsessed. The result is Cinema Muto.
Persephone in America is her collection centered, as you might guess, on the Persephone myth. She was in the middle of a different project when a “voice” began to emerge in her writing. She wrote a bunch of Persephone poems set in the ancient world that didn’t work. Then she decided to bring the character into the present day and began asking questions. Why is Persephone silent? What is she silent about? How can I use that to talk about women’s issues in contemporary America?
In Oblivio Gate, Sean writes about a man’s descent into Alzheimer’s. It was not planned as a collection. He found himself returning to the topic over and over, even when he thought he was done with it. He would show poems to his wife, and she would say, “I thought you were done writing about Alzheimer’s?” He would say, “I am. This poem isn’t about that.” But it was. He began to worry that he couldn’t write anything else! But he seems to have made his peace with it. He says now that he is “writing from” a place rather than “writing about” something.
Jake Adam York
A Murmuration of Starlings is his collection of “bio poems” about slain civil rights leaders. He has been working on this project for years, and he anticipates continuing for another five years. He published a previous collection – Murder Ballads – in which he used a metonymic device to tie each poem to the next. This time, he found that the image of starlings was recurring, so he began to consciously work to include the birds in every poem. He found it was a way to discuss racism as pollution. Oh, and he’s white, by the way, writing about black martyrs of the civil rights movement.
Of these five poets, I am most interested in reading Kercheval’s Cinema Muto and Nevin’s Oblivio Gate. Although they were sold out at the publisher’s booth, I ordered them post-AWP using the conference discount. You can do the same by visiting www.siu.edu/~siupress and using promotion code AWP09 when you check out. Each book was about $10 after the discount.
Because we are speaking of thematic collections, I have to take this opportunity to plug a couple of my favorites. And there is an AWP connection. A. Van Jordan read on Saturday night (along with Frank Bidart, Paul Muldoon and others) at a special Valentine’s Day “Love on the Line” event at the School of the Art Institute’s Sullivan Galleries (in the old Carson Pirie Scott building).
If you haven’t read any of Van Jordan’s work, I recommend any of his three books:
- Quantum Lyrics
Rise is a traditional collection, but the last two are strong thematic projects. M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A recounts the story of the first African-American spelling bee champion and Quantum Lyrics intermingles science and comics and the image of black men in America in remarkable ways. (I had no idea that Einstein had spoken out about racism.) Jordan taught for several years at UT-Austin, but just this past fall joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. I eagerly await his next collection.