Tag Archives: poetry

A Read of Armstrong’s Orphaned Words

Orphaned Words: Forgotten Poems from a Haphazard Life

By RD Armstrong

247 pages

2018

Lummox Press

Lurched at one end of the barstool-poet spectrum, the Charles Bukowskis rage in blood and booze for all the attention in the room. The John Yamrus-types efficiently go about their business at the other, dissecting experience with lean verse (like the architecture of poetry has been stripped down to a drafting sketch) and spitting their epithets off with tobacco-spite. Closer to the middle whirl the RD Armstrongs, with casual lyricism that captures a fuller internal life, richer tapestry of images, and more contemplative moments.

Armstrong’s verse includes everything from the honest melancholia of ‘Have I Told You About the Rain’, to the blues riffing of ‘Cool Blue Walls’, to more intense meditations like ‘Ignorance,’ where he explores the lost innocence of a whole generation in a compact string of far-reaching stanzas. He even throws in a visit to the ancient Muses (while still cut in his trim contemporary wit) in ‘Odysseus Returned’. His work generally carves slices of insight off the whole gamut of experience (life, love, the pursuit of more resources), but he can also offer quick gems of unexpected imagery that “dart past…like a startled mouse”.

Armstrong’s work is always intense and intimate, even with these “orphans” that were left out of previous collections – and which he has revisited because, as he says in the intro, “you never know what the reader will latch onto, be it your best or your worst”.

And there is plenty of the former to adopt here.

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A Few Snapshots

The most direct and simple poetic forms, like haiku and tanka, offer the means for direct and simple moments to touch the eternal. They combine subjective observation with objective imagery that hooks brief moments into universal, repeating cycles.

The challenge for working with these forms and making them relevant to a modern reader is the quaint view many of us have of their inherent Muse: that is, Nature. Readers are more likely to recognize simple truths through a pop culture meme than the weather on Mount Fuji.

The UK-based Snapshot Press takes this as a challenge, offering explorations of small slices of modern life through compact traditional works, from the haibun to the haiku. Their publishing schedule includes a yearly contest that results in a trove of echapbooks that yield a variety of answers. In the 2017 batch, tanka and haiku offer sharp moments of emotional and/or philosophical revelation. Some of the collections are familiar, grounded in flora, fauna and reflection; others reveal more inward gazes and sombre sighs.

The most markedly contemporary is A Dawn of Ghosts, in which Thomas Powell combines the power and familiarity of the short line with a modern vernacular, as he observes “the darkness beneath/pond skaters” or “the wool and bones/of a passing winter”. His are enriching examples of how language can make form relevant and contemporary.

And all are examples of how to find the eternal in the briefest, most transient snapshots.

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Try a Read of Try Never

Try Never

By Anthony Madrid

50 pages

2017

Canarium Books

Try Never actually tries a little bit of everything in its 50 brief pages. As a result, they are overflowing in poetic styles, allusions, music and imagery. Whether voiced out loud or sung in your head, Anthony Madrid’s collection presents a rhythmically diverse and dynamically alive universe, but one in which consciousness is trying to grasp identity in an ultrafast, cluttered, post-modern existence.

Rhythmic and rhyming (whether internal, end, or otherwise) poetry can easily trip into sing-songy triteness. But Try Never is built on a solid frame of verse that still flexes with enough rhythmic variance to keep up a challenging, sometimes syncopated, beat. 

The stanzas are drum-tight, with rhyme, half-rhyme and alliteration pounding out the syllables. In a poem like ‘Quinacenera’, the rhymes also tumble from one verse into another in a continuous rhythmic cartwheel. The effect can be like listening to a virtuoso guitar player who thrumbs a steady bass-line on the bottom strings with his base digit, while the rest pluck up and down the frets of the four highest ones. 

Think of a truncated Gerard Manley Hopkins mixed over a slighly funkier Tuck Andress.

In content, Try Never is not narratively cohesive. The poems present a multitude of ground-level snapshots of a sort of apocalypse of the mundane: a “Boarded-up shop” faces a “Severe terror rain”; a “basketball held underwater/Wants violently to come up”. You may have to piece meaning together out of the disparate images throughout the poems, but once you do, you get a full view of quiet desperation. 

Try Never delivers a blurrying amount of potential significance in the rush of imagery. But the repetition, rhyme and rhythm keep it all in focus. 

Try it right now, right here

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A Literary Listen to Chaos & Star Records

Beautiful Children With Pet Foxes: The Single, by Jennifer LoveGrove, Christine Fellows and John K. Samson

Rich & Poor: The Single, by Jacob Wren and Andrew Whiteman

Vinyl Recordings/MP3 Files

Chaos & Star Records/BookThug Inc.

2017

Serious artistic collaboration between writers and musicians has a rich history in North American popular culture, reaching back at least to Jack Kerouac riffing his poetry in a spontaneous call-and-response jazz improv with saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. While that musical partnership served to accentuate an existing text, the goal of BookThug’s new recording imprint is to produce condensed, fresh artistic creations (along with a little commodification) through blending the talents of indie music artists with indie literary writers.

The results are more like “So There”, the B-side to Mercury Rev’s 1993 single, “The Hum Is Coming From Her”. The avant-rockers teamed with poet Robert Creeley to build an amusement park soundscape beneath a flume of Creeley’s wandering words, turning the poem (originally published in 1976) into an entirely new dramatic work.

These two 7-inch singles from Chaos & Star (solid samples from its continuing series) are meant not just to excerpt existing works and touch them up with a soundtrack. Rather, the intention is to grow new self-contained pieces, through a words-and-music-mash-up that creates dynamic meaning in the closed space of a pop song time-limit.

But the most immediate reaction the music will evoke is that it isn’t pop. For example, Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes contains excerpts from LoveGrove’s poetry collection of the same name, set to abstract, ambient sounds that morph the poems into dark lullabies. They will not remind you of John K. Samson’s work with The Weakerthans. The sparse undercurrents feature lightly plucked and bowed strings that gently urge LoveGrove’s slow, deliberate delivery forward, knotting music and words into a series of hypnotic tides; or tapped keys that float through and between the words, buffeting, and occasionally coarsening, the poems.

Rich & Poor moves from sparse, classically influenced music, to a bit of Philip Glass, to industrial stamping that fuels the rage inherent in Jacob Wren’s novel about a man plotting to kill a member of the rich elite in a self-styled revolutionary act. The shift of musical genres paints an aural portrait of class difference, ranging from smooth aesthetics to rhythmic, guttural rage. And that’s just the A-side. The flip plays like an extended remix, one that pumps up the industrial angst while more explicitly underscoring the not-so-simmering anger that is inherent in today’s growing economic divide.

In the playlist ecosystem of the contemporary music industry, the single is king. Similarly, in the information world, the bite-sized chunk is the preferred serving for digestion. Chaos & Star Records isn’t trying to transform literature into a series of playlists or twitter-essays. This format offers a bit of a modern choice for the literary and/or music-minded to consume their art in – even if the vinyl option represents a bit of a hipster throwback.

Flip through the new arrivals here.

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A Fix of Coffee and Truth

I’m Antisocial – Coffee Never Lies

By Mallory Smart

96 pages

2016

Bottlecap Press

This (to borrow from Jerry Seinfeld) is Poets in Hyper Urban Settings Getting Coffee.

Okay, more specifically, it’s I’m Antisocial – Coffee Never Lies, in which Mallory Smart takes the well-worn cliché of poet as ‘artist-in-residence of the coffee house’ and plunks it down in a contemporary context where the artist remains fairly anonymous; sometimes by choice, sometimes not so much.

The context is a modern urban café complete with free wifi and a cast of biz suits & hipsters. The point is a bit of drama on the role of the artist in a post-Pandora’s Box society in which everyone is a visionary, but where those visions are mainly myopic.

It’s also a place for Muses and Musers to zone out together in the kind of lounge chair set-up where with “a book, or/headphones, you can usually/avoid the awkwardness/of others.”

The brief narrative that underpins the book’s theme of disconnection is a scene Smart repeats from a number of angles: an anonymous businessman picks up her copy of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun and begins to lecture her on it, despite his obvious lack of familiarity with the novel. This awkward moment illustrates the casual disdain of art and lack of respect for the artist (and maybe for expertise of any kind) in a world that artists are still trying to express some meaning into.

If the setting of the collection is monochromatic, the verse that spins inside is kinetic – a caffeinated mix of short syllables and prose-based bursts in a variety of thick fonts, along with a carnival of cartoon imagery (added by illustrator Joey Grossman) in the margins that accents the playfulness of the text and frustration of the situation. It’s a situation in-line with Smart’s lamentation of a life in which “every morning we would make neither love,/nor war, but coffee./neither would change things/but I still need a fix”.

Which is what those who crave a good dose of lyrical cynicism and brutal truth still search for in poetry. And who can find a nice quick fix here.

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Clean Up Your Reading

Dishwashing Event Part Two: Ontario

By Sacha Archer

20 pages

Puddles of Sky Press


2016


The companion piece to Sacha Archer’s Dishwashing Event Part One: Tianjin, China, this chapbook is a simple and complicated paean to daily physical chores, turning the mindless and the mundane into a thoughtful exposition of language. It’s also the literal transcription of the sounds of Archer’s daily dishwashing, picked up by a voice analysis program and fed into Microsoft Word to produce sound poems that translate both the psychological banality and physical intensity of the act into something like a series of spontaneous literary grunts. A little outside the soap box, maybe, but it works.


The poems are short, and either monosyllabic, prosey and urgent, or stuffed with definite and indefinite articles and stuttered conditional clauses that repeat in increasing frequency and agitation until grammar degenerates into a full-blown riot. The role of the reader is key: the act of reading becomes an attempt to translate the ambiguous signs back into the essential world of the physical act and restore some order: Does this multiple repetition of ‘if’ represent a particularly hard de-scouring of a greased pan?; Does this grinding of grammar into pure onomatopoeia equal the rinse?


The process, technique and results are certainly going to scramble your sense of what a poem should be. But while Dishwashing Event Part Two might sully the coherence of language, it invites you to clean up the mess again.


Get to work here.

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A Read of Kaaterskill Basin Lit Journal (with all the lights on)

​Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal

Issue 1.4 (Fall 2016)

94 pages

Modern horror is less a genre than a feeling: you know what it is when you see or read it, but can’t necessarily describe it (certainly not as traditional eerie suspense). Horror can be a detailed study of the mutability of the flesh – usually into many bloody pieces. It can also be a psychological work, wherein the nature of reality is revealed to be grown from just as delicate tissue as the body. Or a bit of fantasy. Perhaps some speculative fiction as well?

The pages of the Fall 2016 issue of Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, wrapped around a horror theme, are full of all, but focused through subtler, more ‘L’iterary lenses. Such as through verse.

Poetry on horror themes can be tricky. One can easily pit-fall into melodramatic goth, or take too much of a staid, serious and lukewarmly academic approach to generate any chills. While the most easily identifiable mode for poetry of a terror-filled kind is narrative that is derived, forevermore, from Edgar Allen Poe, the best poems in Kaaterskill are crafted from short, condensed stanzas and feature modernist, imagistic flavours. (Think William Carlos Williams producing Saw rather than writing Paterson.) For example, Gayane Haroutyunyan’s “Pain” is the quite sharp, literal dissection of an oddly ‘giving’ relationship. Larry D. Thacker’s “Respect”, where “bones in the yard…float up out of the black dirt” is an ode to the buried history of small town secrets, like what you might see if Stephen King had co-written the lyrics to Nebraska.

The short fiction contains much of the mutability aspect. Both “The Creature from Flathead Lake” by Theodore Carter and “Feeding the Fish” by Bron Treanor illustrate the inner transformations of characters through very similar physical mutations, but with different, though equally grotesque, outcomes. There is also the more cut-and-paste (or hack-and-graft) transformation in “Gin Stitches” by Daniel Lynch, which kicks off with the beautifully deadpan and irony-spattered, “Jack has identity issues” and goes wonderfully off the rails from there. 

The horror includes the more fantastical variety, too. “Mute” by Timothy Day is a dark, sci-fi mind-bender that shares space with some of M. John Harrison’s latter work. “Creeley’s Drop” by Ethan Leonard suggests Kathe Koja-edged Alice Munro; that is, an unsentimental portrait of innocence outlined by existential menace and dread. Leonard’s story in particular demonstrates the other strength of this themed-issue: Kaaterskill isn’t simply interested in delivering hardboiled horror. The theme may be raw genre, but the writing is precisely cooked, as Leonard demonstrates via such passages as the beautifully circular:

“It was easy to keep the bottomless pit a secret. Once a person stood at its edge, there was no way to put it in words. The new girls on the track team came to me, in the locker room, and I saw what they’d seen reflected in their eyes, so I started talking.”

Oh, and it makes for a pretty good set of page-turners, too.

Peek over here, if you dare.

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