Tag Archives: poetry

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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Ringing Out the Bones

Ring out the bones of the old year with the medullan melodies of Rob Plath’s Skeleton Sutras (40 pages, Epic Rites Press, 2016), a wickedly entertaining series of grim anti-fairy tales/parables. One of the sharpest collections you should have read all year, Skeleton Sutras pulls beauty from ruin in blunt, finely carved prose poems in which Plath chisels language (excuse us) right to the bone.

Start the New off with the Old.

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A Read (and re-read) of re/translate

​re/translate

By Stephen Hines

40 pages

Bottle of Smoke Press

2015

Let’s say that language is an abstract, subjective system of signs, with different languages built in different systems. Let’s add that poetry may involve a warmer, more musical system, but one that is still built in an equally subjective way atop the first set of signs. The act of translating verse from one language into another, then, can be like arranging a whole new song in a completely new genre. Or, at least, giving the original an extensive remix.

At first read, re/translate isn’t quite that musically inclined. Poet Stephen Hines suggests he is working in the spirit of the time-honoured kids’ game of “Pass it On”, where a phrase repeated at one end of a line-up comes out the other end processed into linguistic hamburger by the giggly minds of early learners. But playing this game with poetry offers a bit more adventure than spitting a phrase along from one ear to the next can.

Here, the phrase is a full-grown piece of literature, and the processor, an on-line translation system. Hines’ rather unpoetic technique is to run the text of a previously-published poem of his (“revision”) through a translation algorithm numerous times, from English to, say, Russian, then back to English. He reveals the transformation, then moves on to the next language, and the return to English, and the further remix.

Although Hines claims not to have tinkered with or edited the translations, the results have a surprising flow. Through the accretion of idiosyncrasies from each language, the words gather additional meaning from translation to translation, like a well-worn piece of luggage building up a facade of travel stickers. 

And it’s a battered piece. For Hines, language is an almost physical medium, and reading his work becomes a visceral experience. The text takes an anoraphic pounding, such as when, in the initial poem, “these words [become] raw from rereading/raised bloodred from rereading”. Hines’ style is prosaic, direct and merciless.

Translation, though, rips the poem from his grasp. When, a few versions in, the poem returns to English from German, it has been tuned more lyrical: “Rereading these words makes swollen/saturated beads, raw red raised/wounds.” By the time the last version is reached, landing from Bengali as “Format”, the text is a minimalist knot of potential meaning that seems exhausted by all the efforts, gradually collapsing at the end into the infinity of a hanging conjunction:

“Words,

For

Or”

Of course, there are other variables at work in this literary experiment (which translator is used?; which languages are chosen and in which order? etc.). But the satisfaction from the results, the way in which the collection actually hangs together as a piece of literature rather than just the raw products of an experiment, comes from the dramatization of language as a constantly mutable system. Here, meaning is as much layered on as also dug up, with the reader rearranging their approach to the poem with each fresh presentation: a remix and a new genre from each mouth to each ear.

Go to the front of the line.

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A Read of Fante Bukowski

Fante Bukowski
By Noah Van Sciver
Graphic Novella
80 pgs
Fantagraphics Books
2015

The most direct leap to satire is through the cartoon frame. Take a figurative blowhard, morph him or her into a literal one through exaggeration of specific physical traits, push ’em out et voilà: instant ridicule.

In Fante Bukowski, Noah Van Sciver blows the parodic target of a struggling, self-centered, and self-stylized writer up into a bearded buffoon with all the pretension and faux-suffering accoutrements – albeit a genuinely earnest one who still retains some soul.

Twenty-three year-old would-be poet Fante Bukowski (née Kelly Perkins) presents a figure familiar to anyone who has been driven to pen/pencil and/or typewriter/keyboard by the existential need to express themselves, but with no real idea of what that self is, past a template of their favourite writer. The protagonist here is, obviously, going for the stylized Skidrow Bard image his namesake, the poet Charles Bukowski, created for himself, with a little John Fante-spice on top. However, this Bukowski lacks the actual talent and, having just (perhaps ill-advisedly) quit his dad’s lawfirm, actual experience of living a back-alley existence.

Narcissistic would-be artists aren’t exactly slippery targets. But Van Sciver isn’t interested in barn-broadside shooting practice. His characters, while flaunting the requisite exaggerated traits, and despite being literally two-dimensional in this graphic novella form, also show more depth than stooges in a drawing room farce. Van Sciver is more interested in exploring the growth of the artist figure, rather than in excoriating artists.

“[H]ighly-respected” literary agent Ralph Bigsburg is played partly for pretension but also as an honest (if hyperbolically) exasperated foil for runaway, untamed and untrained enthusiasm. Fante’s new girlfriend, Audrey, is a writer with an actual publication track record and alternative press image (razored-bald head and razor attitude) but reacts to his primitive approach to literary rebellion with delighted amusement rather than scorn. Fante himself, who beer-sweats the same youthful naievte as anyone who has first cracked the spine of a Black Sparrow Press book, is more sympathetic symbol than simple strawman. And Fante’s main barroom companion, an utterly banal example of someone whose simple dreams have let him down, meets an utterly banal but tragic end, in a scene that punctures any pretension and lets the dirty realism whistle sharply in.

As satires go, Fante Bukowski is more gentle Horatian than barking Juvenalian. Van Sciver uses stark, simple drawings and a very earthy colour palette. These subtle tools ease the reader into Fante’s abrupt awakening to a more expansive existence after his failures in the artistic urban jungle quickly grind him down. An ending which marks, perhaps, his real beginning, as both artist and individual.

Read more on Fante Bukowski (and more from Fante Bukowski).

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A Flash of Unbroken: A Journal of Prose

Unbroken: A Journal of Prose (Jan/Feb 2016 issue)

So simple and straightforward, but still substantial, Unbroken connects a rich read in brief stories, flips of imagery, and quick hits of literary vandalism. A mix of pictures and prose laid along short, sharp arcs of narrative and verse, with the concrete poured in-between. The collection seems to sort out its own internal rhythm: word into word; sentence through sentence; paragraph and paragraph. Or, you could just scatter them all over, and pick up each one on its own.

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