Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, January 20, 2017

Cat exploded? Make good art.

Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for Thaliad

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you are doing is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Do what only you can do best. Make good art.  --Neil Gaiman

Alternatively, spend some time with good art....

Thursday, January 19, 2017

2 at Mezzo Cammin

Two newish poems are up at Mezzo Cammin: the tetrameter "The Soul Considered as a Boat" and "The Thursday of Mysteries," an ekphrastic pentameter poem (after "Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles" by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475.) 

Kim Bridgford, poet and editor and more, with a comment on Facebook: Delighted to share the new issue of Mezzo Cammin! Thrilled to feature so many wonderful poets including Catherine Chandler, Rebekah Curry, Anna M. Evans, Nicole Caruso Garcia, Vernita Hall, Katie Hoerth, Michele Leavitt, Barbara Loots, Joan Cacciatore Mazza, Kathleen McClung, Becca Menon, Diane Moomey, Sally Nacker, Stella Nickerson, Samantha Pious, Monica Raymond, Jennifer Reeser, Jane Schulman, Katherine Barrett Swett, Paula Tatarunis (Featured Poet), Ann Thompson, Jo Vance, Lucy Wainger, Gail White, Cheryl Whitehead, Liza McAlister Williams, Sherraine Williams, and Marly Youmans. The featured visual artist is Alice Mizrachi, whose cover is based on a quote by Russell Goings. Wendy Videlock has written a beautiful essay on the work of Paula Tartarunis, our featured poet. For my own part, I was happy to spend some time with new books by Luann Landon and Alexandra Oliver, both of whom address issues of home. Thanks from the bottom of my heart, as always, to Anna M. Evans for all of her digital time and expertise, and to Pete Duval, my husband, who has provided technical time and support on every issue.

Postscript to "Precipitous slippage"

Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
 for Thaliad
I've really enjoyed the comments here and on Facebook about my "Precipitous slippage" post--the fun including meeting a poet I like and learning a lot more about other writer friends as well. And now look at this fine news about Thaliad, along with a wonderful, hopeful message about poetry from Phoenicia Publishing editor Beth Adams. Breaking the 400-mark was an initial dream goal for me, though it's often impossible for a poetry book. Truth to tell, I wasn't sure anyone would buy a wild, post-apocalyptic, book-length adventure in blank verse! So now I'm dreaming about 500, 600, more....

Beth Adams
Just for the record, sales of Thaliad are well over 400 copies - 425, in fact - and it continues to sell; it was the best seller at Phoenicia among our pre-2016 titles last year. This says to me that formalist poetry has lasting power in our time, and also it is well worthwhile to produce such books as the most beautifully designed and illustrated editions we can while making them affordable for ordinary readers.

Just before Christmas, I gave a copy to a friend who I thought might appreciate it. She ended up buying twelve copies to give to her own friends, and exclaimed over what an extraordinary work it is; she loved the edition and the artwork by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, but what struck her the most was the story Marly Youmans has told in the form of an epic poem for our time.

In other words, beautiful books with carefully wrought words and a timeless message are still sought out by certain readers, and we need to encourage their writing and making, because they will last.
For the hardcover: $26.00, available directly from Phoenicia via PayPal or credit card.
For the paperback: $13.95 US, CANADA
£9.00 UK; €11.40 EUROPE (price may vary slightly by country)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Precipitous slippage

Once upon a time I was a new-made Associate Professor with tenure; my answer to that lovely promotion was to quit academia entirely because I wanted to be a poet and novelist, not an academic poet and novelist. I felt that I would be a stronger, better writer outside the land of ivory towers. What I did not grasp at the time was how completely the academy would take over the world of writing, particularly the realm of poetry, and make it into a near-monolithic enterprise. (Simultaneously, both poetry and literary fiction began to move toward being minor arts--well, poetry was already on the way.) This change has meant that academic writers support one another and give one another various helpful privileges.

Those of us outside the academy are somewhat in the cold, particularly if--as I do--the writer believes that the diminishing returns of Modernism are upon us, and that the way forward is back through tradition and form. Free verse and an obsession with originality (I don't see how that works, given that we're more than a century past modernism's birth--Modernism hasn't been modern for a long time) have become a kind of ideology in our university system. A large number of journals are associated with colleges or are founded by MFA graduates. Most of these are primarily interested in free verse. Meanwhile, I am not primarily interested in free verse, although I do have a recently-finished collection containing poems that derive from a foreign chant tradition that looks free but contains many rhetorical flourishes allied to that tradition.

Do I regret my decision about leaving the academy? No, I don't. I am a better writer because of that choice, and I also had the luxury of having three children, which I probably could not have managed if I had stayed in college settings as a writer and teacher. I find that it is hard to do three major things well, but two--well, you can give up a lot of things that are enjoyable but not essential and so make two big callings work.

I still have a few writer friends who are in the academy and make their living there; I think it's fine that they made the choice to stay in. Most people who gain a perch there do, after all. I just think that I made the right choice for me. What else can we do but try to make right choices? I admire people like poet-professor-mother Luisa Igloria who grasp after mastery in three realms. The late Doris Betts (professor, dean, writer, mother) comes to mind among novelists.

We live in a time when very few poetry books sell in reasonable numbers. I've talked to various editors about sales and found that some poetry books don't break the 50-mark. That's pretty sad, isn't it? I hear that Copper Canyon books sometimes make it to 600; those are the sorts of little numbers a poetry press depends on. (The funny thing about a poetry book is that it can become the sort of book that you return to again and again. So in that way it's a better bargain than most books.)

My picture of how my own poetry books are doing is a bit fuzzy. I know that Thaliad continues to trickle (or seep, maybe!) along in sales for Beth Adams's Phoenicia Publishing and is heading toward the 400-mark in combined paperback/hardcover. [Update: I was pleasantly wrong! 425 copies so far, as of January 19th.] The Foliate Head has sold out its first and second hardcover printings at UK's Stanza Press, though there are still a few copies available on line. I'm don't know the paperback or hardcover numbers at Mercer for The Throne of Psyche. Those are my three books that can be called "in print," though The Foliate Head is technically out of print.

Interior illustration by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for The Foliate Head
If you care about poetry, please consider buying books. While I would like you to support mine, I tend to be pleased when I see anybody buy a good poetry book. And I always remember the quote taped up on the poetry shelves at the Bull's Head Bookshop (UNC-Chapel Hill shop, now defunct) run by novelist Erica Eisdorfer: People who say they love poetry and never buy any are cheap sons of bitches. --Kenneth Rexroth. It's not polite, but it gets at something. I just looked it up online and found a different version that says, I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book. Maybe both are right, as Rexroth didn't hold back and may have been muttering variations on the theme for years!

Yes, poetry is rapidly losing its status. Yes, what was once an important art is now a minor one and in danger of going the way of lacemaking. Times change. Television and internet make inroads; well, that's just how it is, we say. What we add to culture changes culture.

But if you care about poetry, do more. In fact, all of us need to support what we love in a time when what is seen and praised and supported is heavily-marketed, commercially-validated books, film, visual arts, etc. And we need to remind ourselves over and over again that we can choose. We can choose roads less taken. It will make all the difference.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book notes, jig-by-jowl--

Alas for Aquila Rose

Well, I do like this new find! Printed by Benjamin Franklin when he was seventeen... The NYT claims for him "burning ambition and something of a punk-rock visual sensibility," a thought which might or might not have amused him--he was an amusing fellow--but is a silly one. The broadside looks like nothing so much as the slim, arch-topped, skull-and-often-hourglass-surmounted tombstones of early America. Benjamin Franklin doesn't need tarting up as a contemporary of ours, I say.

I love his Autobiography, its contradictions and buried humor. He can be quite grand and ambitious and make me laugh at the same time: "It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection." Of course, he soon finds out that he is incorrigible in a number of areas. Nevertheless, he has a tidy list of desired virtues, ending with "10. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates." Now that's funny. More funny than punk-rock Ben!

Clive's Hansel and Gretel, a picture book

In other news, I have my Clive Hicks-Jenkins Hansel and Gretel, and you should too. The graphics are strong (for that matter, Gretel grows strong!) and wondrous, full of cunning details and bursting with bold images that--by some peculiar Clivean spell--manage to charm and delight while also grasping for what is cruel and grotesque in the Grimms' tale. The lively color-separation pictures, including four fold-outs, are propulsive and thrust the story forward. It's not a book for a little child, but it does pay lovely homage to the tradition of the European children's picture book.

Buy it here. It is worth every little coin you might spend, and would make a fine present for anyone who loves story and powerful and beautiful images. To see more images, scroll down through Clive's posts on the making of the book. They'll give you a dose of respect for the labor behind the making of the book, too.

And the secret novel

And now I am going back to the abandoned-for-a-time novel (sometimes too many other demands happen--that's our life, of course), which I am reading and remembering and starting to write again. A curious thing I have learned this week so far: It is now thought that the Wampanoag Nation was decimated (before the arrival of the Mayflower) by rat-borne leptospirosis complicated by Weil's Syndrome, rather than by smallpox, bubonic plague, etc. Squanto or Tisquantum appears to have been a later victim of the disease. I'm impressed by how much European activity there was along the coast in the sixteenth century--fishermen and whalers and fur traders. Leptospirosis still afflicts people in various parts of the world, and it doesn't take much in the way of rat urine to make a person ill.

And I've discovered the word nabbity, applied to a small but full-grown woman. I myself am rather nabbity, having lost more than an inch of late. I also like ruttling, to make a harsh or rough sound in breathing. I am reading Robert Forby's The Vocabulary of East Anglia. Unfortunately, I have only the second volume... That was not clear when I ordered it. So I shall have to find the first. Oh, and jig-by-jowl? Close together.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Reading Doña Quixote

Courtesy of Päivi Tiittanen,
"Catacombs in Suomenlinna"
Yesterday and this morning I read Leena Krohn's Doña Quixote and Other Citizens. Portrait: Tales of the citizens of an usual city, and this is what I have been for some hours: a room through which the narrator and Doña Quixote (the woman who is like a tree that murmurs and sometimes drops shriveled leaves proclaiming death, the woman who is a poet) come and go, talking of many things, and sometimes of what the shriveled leaves proclaim. And in those hours, the city is mine and in me with its green-shining towers of telephone booths and its moving rooms, and I am also a room that holds many objects whose meaning sometimes is profound and secret and sometimes falls away and is lost. In and out of the room of me come figures who are rooms also and who connect with me and whose connection then falls away unaccountably, perhaps to recur, perhaps to drift through the gate built in water and be lost or bob away across the sea and perhaps return to me, for there are many deaths in a life, many passings-away and sometimes returns.

Into the room of me comes Doña Quixote with the poetry of herself and the strange wisdom that makes me know, and her melancholy that is also a fabric in the room of me, that matches something in me. Like a trick chalice, I fill up, and then at once everything I have drains away. All things go. All rooms are pendulums, moving toward a time when they will be no more. In all the city of interlocking and moving rooms (some a lit bus with the moving figures inside), I am found, I am lost, as Doña Quixote is found and lost also.

And now and then I am arrested by the knowing of this: the most important thing about a thing is that it is beautiful, whether it is a mysterious narrow gate in the sea, a gorgeous, filmy-tailed goldfish, a dancer like a flower's corolla, or a silken peacock that trembles, unfurling its mighty fan of eyes while the snowflakes sift down before and behind and onto its glistening green and blue.

But even that knowing cannot be grasped and held until it always lights the room of me or the room that is Doña Quixote but drains away. The loss and passing of that knowledge of beauty is like a death, like passing through a gate built in water. "One doesn't get used to living."

And now I have shut the book, though the sense of myself as a room--a room filled with strange objects that do not give up their secrets--remains. And the sense of beauty also, for the book is still open beside me. And that I have written (carelessly? wisely?) that the book is both shut and open seems entirely right.  10 January 2017

"Peacock feather"
Courtesy of Sean Okihiro,
You may read this short novel (or is it an interrelated collection?), Doña Quixote and Other Citizens. Portrait: Tales of the citizens of an usual city, in that gigantic volume, Leena Krohn's Collected Fictions: A Career-Spanning Selection from Finland's Most Iconic Writer. (What long titles! And I wonder what Leena Krohn thinks about being iconic. I'm not even sure what they mean with that choice. Revered? Painted on a wooden surface? Semiotic-iconic? Flowering from tradition? All of these?)  I do, however, feel quite sure it is a publication from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Cheeky Frawg Books (Tallahassee, FL, 2015.) Doña Quixote is translated by Hildi Hawkins.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Re-reading The Whitsun Weddings

Creative Commons, Wikipedia. Chichester Cathedral.
Monument to Richard Fitzalan III, 10th Earl of Arundel (c.1307-1376)
and Eleanor of Lancaster (d. 1372.) Unusual for the linked hands
and the wife's crossed legs and turn toward her husband.
By Nabokov at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
I do not love Philip Larkin; instead, I am fond of Charles Causley, the Cornish poet Larkin admired (as did Ted Hughes and Siegried Sassoon and many others, though he is still not as well known in the states as he ought to be.) Causley was a clerk, a playwright, a seasick sailor in war-time, an organist and all-round musician, a teacher of children, and more. I believe that I am fond of him as a person, not just a poet. They are related, Causley and Larkin, two sides of a coin, but I love Causley and am still trying to love Larkin.

Larkin, Larkin, what a trouble you are to me! I don't like the way you write about women, especially women "in specs," but I'll ignore all that for the sake of your lovely moments. But if I do, I still don't like the way you talk about the ordinary impulses toward more life--children and marriage, particularly, and the way you often see strangers in a rather loveless way. I am afraid that I picture you at dreary work with the in-box and "loaf-haired" secretary.

And yet, and yet... I see so many lines to admire, and it is no small thing to write a poem with a single moment worth remembering. I like "Sporting-house girls like circus tigers" and "spend all our life on imprecisions, / That when we start to die / Have no idea why" and "A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain." Listen to the sound of "dark-clothed children at play / Called after kings and queens" and "An immense slackening ache, / As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps, / Spreads slowly through them" and "dark towns heap up on the horizon." The "sudden scuttle on the drum" pleases me, and the billboard scene, where "A glass of milk stands in a meadow." Clive James describes the poet's "privileged duty" as "to be concerned with everything, in the hope of producing something--a poem, a stanza, even a single line--that will live on its own, in its own time" (Poetry Notebook, p. 77.) Larkin has plenty of special moments.

Larkin also has a good instinct for metrics. The line, "The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went" is a great example, starting with three strong iambic feet but in the last two feet giving us a reversed foot (so that it dwindles) and a dwindled monosyllabic foot. Or take a look at the thicket of accents in "And dark towns heap up on the horizon." Or try this line: "And the widening river's slow presence." It's almost as neat a combination of metrics and sense as Pope's "Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain, / Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main." Those smooth iambic combined with "o'er" and "th'unbending" are speedy.) "And the widening river's slow presence" appears in the midst of established iambic pentameter lines but varies from them by giving us a ten-syllable tetrameter line, essentially widening out the expected first three feet by substituting extra slack syllables with two anapestic feet. That last trochaic foot is the perfect word for a river that is widening and slowing: no motion but merely presence.

See credits above.
When I come to the last poem in the book, there are tears in my eyes as I read of the earl and countess in stone fidelity on their Arundel tomb, their absurd little dogs at their feet (his is actually a small lion), while all the world whirls on and the people change around them. Time happens: "Snow fell, undated. Light / Each summer thronged the glass. A bright / Litter of birdcalls strewed the same / Bone-riddled ground...." Then I realize that the reason the poem moves me is that I identify not so much with the changed world of "endless altered people" but with Larkin's image of the faithful, clasped stone hands of the dead "to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love."

And think on this: in our time, doesn't Larkin's poem belong to that older world--the world where grace caught in iambic tetrameter meter and an abbcac rhyme scheme could be considered achievement? Julian Stannard writes, "Post-1945, English poetry, thanks to Larkin and the Movement and Philip Hobsbaum and the Group, distanced itself from international modernism, re-establishing the English line and privileging form and meaning." Nevertheless, we are neck deep in the diminishing rear-guard returns of Modernism (perhaps truly free verse can only be written by those who have experienced the shackles of form, as in early Modernism), where line and form and meaning are in abeyance. Do I need to say I don't object to free verse? I don't. I object to slackness and to being bored (that goes for my own poems, too, though sometimes I don't dislike them until they are already circulating, which is annoying.) Clive James calls our own time one in which "almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem" (Poetry Notebook, p. 66.)

All the same, the poem's little dogs at the feet of Richard and Eleanor make me think of Causley's "Eden Rock" portrait of his parents waiting for him on the other side of the Jordan with the little terrier Jack trembling at their feet, while the sky whitens as if from the light of three suns. "They beckon to me from the other bank; / I hear them call, See where the stream-path is! / Crossing is not as hard as you might think." Here comes a stanza break and then the final line: "I had not thought that it would be like this."

Ah, well, maybe I love Causley a lot but Larkin a little after all....

Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Ditherings (in lieu of New Year's resolutions)

Detail from one of Kim Vanderheiden's pieces
for a poem in The Book of the Red King. It's interesting to have
an as-yet-unpublished book that already has art made
for some of its contents by several artists.
I don't think that has ever happened to me before.

I seem to be full of ditherings rather than resolutions, so I thought that I would make a list of my dithers.

Dither no. 1: I have broken with all novel-writing tradition (all of mine, that is) and stopped writing a novel on p. 145. For months! Usually I am a raging maniac until I finish. (Quietly a maniac, though. I keep it to myself. Also the related dithering. I'm still a good wife and mother and All That.) But. What is going on? Am I caught in a dither-quagmire? Do I even remember what the book was about?

Dither no. 2: That zany y. a. book I wrote years ago for my youngest, the one that needed about a two-week polish. Why don't I get back to it and spend two weeks? Or should I?

Dither no. 2: What on earth should I talk about at the Buechner Workshops at Fuller? I have come up with a remarkable number of topics, all highly ditherable and even dirigible in a few cases.

Dither no. 3: What is going on with The Book of the Red King? Is it accepted or not? (This is not my dithering, but there is dithering--or at least methodical tortoiseosity--involved.)

Dithers no. 4-5: Where should I send Rave, the collection of unleashed praise poems? Where should I send the new manuscript of formal poems? Dither, dither, dither... To my surprise, I have sent each to a contest (how resolute and surprising and anti-dither), but that's just spitting in the dark along with a thousand other poets, so what's the point?

Dither no. 6: Should I do something with my tiny stories? Should I not bother?

Dithers no. 7-8: What about the short stories? And the ones for teens? Yes? No? DITHER!

Dither no. 9: Should I bother to go back to having an agent? Yes, probably! No, I simply hate doing things like looking for an agent, and my first two (one deceased, one parted-from-amicably) just fell into my lap (in the usual manner of hackneyed speaking--nothing literal there) so really I don't hate looking for an agent because I have never done it. But I have heard rumors. Dark rumors. Nasty rumors. Rumors of woe and discouragement and despair. And so forth. Also on the no side: I am too agreeable. Too easily persuaded. Too n-i-c-e.

Dither no. 10: I've turned down some reprint offers and want to do my own reprints for a few books for which I hold rights reversions. However, this involves a good deal of research and work, and as a result, a mountain of dithering about many little decisions. Nevertheless, dithering surely will not last forever, right? Lemme dither about that a minute.

About dithering.... Do I dare to eat a peach? Yes, I do, thank you, Mr. Eliot, and I'm fine with mermaid songs. What I'm not good at is quarrying time, marketing, keeping my writing room tidy, and juggling-and-balancing all the demands of motherhood, wifehood, cleaning-the-house-hood, and all other relevant and irrelevant but needed hoods on the very tippy-tip of my nose.

And this is the end (or is it?) of the Dithers.