Slouching Toward Iambic Pentameter
Recent Poetry From the Bottom Up
At the last South By Southwest Poetry Show, San Francisco's Manic D Press featured four poets in a show-stopping showcase. The Bay Area duo represented in the round-robin, Oakland's Beth Lisick and San Francisco's Justin Chin, are two of the most dynamic poets on the slam poetry scene, each with distinctive styles and memorable presences, and in releasing their books, Manic D has done a valuable service to slam fans by giving scripts which with they can follow along.
The books are also great reads. Of the two, Lisick's Monkey Girl (Manic D, $11.95, paper) provides the most immediate gratification. Comprised of fast-moving prose pieces and narrative poems, the book is full of savvy observations and smart personal politics from a sharp and sassy writer. One of Lisick's primary strengths is her journalistic ability to get and use great quotes, such as the reprehensible men from her "Man Comes Up to Me in a Bar" series, or from the owner of a San Francisco rock club who says, "I can't bring my ad in. I'm too depressed. Here comes stupid ass fucking Christmas and nobody cares about rock and roll." But Lisick also makes a number of cutting observations on her own, especially in "The Answer Is Plastic," based on her high-school stint as a secretary for a plastic surgeon, and her highly caustic "Skinny," a piece about anorexia that deceptively appears insensitive before revealing itself to be nakedly, transcendently profound.
Bite Hard by Justin Chin (Manic D, paper, $11.95) contains a denser thicket of poetics and language than Lisick's book, and his tattooed punk edginess and gay Asian heritage starts his writing off with a propulsive and combustible inertia which he often takes to extremes. At first read, his barbed tongue and fearless writing style might be unsettling, but it's just that quality of shake-up that makes Chin such a rewarding poet to stick with. Whether it's the metaphysical bedroom politics of "Flesh/Wound," the displacing, normal-world-is-weirder quality of "Sold," or the tumultuous ranting laments of "Pisser," Chin finds beauty in vulgarity and parades it like a peacock. There's a lighter side of Chin, too, as he good-naturedly skewers ex-boyfriends' taste in mood-setting music, the dangers of romping around in the wild ("Nature makes me itchy"), or crass tour guides. But he's at his most powerful and most insightful apogee when he's at his most incendiary.
Speaking of incendiary, and for that matter, performance poetry, there's Verses That Hurt (St. Martin's Griffin, paper, $14.95), an anthology culled from the New York-based Poemfone dial-a-poem project. The project is quite inspired - a rotating group of poets host the line for a month at a time, coming up with a new poem a day - and the resultant anthology includes the pleasing likes of Allen Ginsberg, Hal Sirowitz, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, King Missile singer John S. Hall, and ex-Nuyorican Poets Cafe ringleader Bob Holman, as well as a cadre of assertive, powerful women with less name recognition but with compelling work nonetheless. In reviewing performance poetry anthologies, it's a copout to say some of it just doesn't work on the page. Well, of course not - in this case, it's meant for the phone, and in documentations such as this, it's nice to just have the script in hand. Still, I just have to ask: Might we lose the performance-poem-on-the-page clichés? Such as the ALL CAPITAL LETTERS THROUGHOUT LARGE SECTIONS OF THE POEM or the
dance of phrases
all across the page
that calls much more attention
to the empty space than is
I'm just asking here. Lord knows poets deserve the kind of presentation this book offers, complete with hip photos of each one, although again, this sort of thing just plays into the style over substance thing that plagues performance poetry. We won't even talk about the barbed wire motif running through the book. What I would like to talk about is one of the anthologized, Sparrow. His contributions range from blasé to unpleasant, but he's one of my personal heroes anyway - he's the one who picketed The New Yorker last year with a sign that said, "My poems are as bad as yours." He eventually got published by The New Yorker as a result of the stunt. Here, though, his poems aren't just as bad as yours - they're worse.
Another interesting package of poems that came down the pike in June just in time for Father's Day is Fathers (St. Martin's Press, $16.95, hard), a collection of mostly short pieces from 118 (!) American poets. With a pool this large, it's easy to find familiar names and favorite poets, and pieces from the likes of Li-Young Lee, Maxine Kumin, and Louise Glück are succinct, sharp, and worthy of anthologizing. There's the occasional curveball, too - I specifically say curveball because of the contribution from Dan Quisenberry, known more for his career on the baseball mound than for his career as a poet. The range isn't quite what you'd expect from a group this diverse; although there are some divergences from the central theme of memorial and reflection, a lot of the poems here tend to look back on Dad and smile. Still, as blatant as the very idea of the anthology first appears, if it gets more Dads reading, then more power.
Now, on to some solo works. One of the more consistent, active poets out there right now has just released her 13th volume of poetry, What Are Big Girls Made Of? by Marge Piercy (Knopf, $25, hard). The book is arranged in five sections, starting with the "Brother-less" series, a set of linked poems voiced by a narrator speaking to and about a dead brother. The series starts with a snapshot and ends with an attempt to make a peaceful goodbye, occasionally spinning the touching core of the family relationships around more general issues, like Vietnam and the Sixties Civil Rights movement. From there, Piercy goes from specific incisiveness to pieces that swell to a centered, grounded voluminousness, without ever wasting words or throwing out cheap emotion. Piercy can craft, yet she can also sing. She's definitely worthy of your attention. Les Murray has the most creative title of the stack: Subhuman Redneck Poems (Farrar, Straus Giroux, $18, hard). The title seems to scream "Pick your favorite stereotypical Southern state," but Murray writes from a different kind of Southern state - specifically, New South Wales, Australia - and he's won numerous awards, including the recently awarded T.S. Eliot Prize, a British award for the best new book of poetry in English. Murray's work does a fair amount of language-bending and language-play; lines like "Your burnished rims tilt and rebound/among bristling botany," for instance, shows a sort of mischievous playfulness. But there's plenty of clean lines and sharply expressed sentiments throughout, which Kathryn and Ross Petras peg "a unique and fascinating type of writing." Specifically, they hone in on a number of published poets - many from the 19th century - who bobble rhyme schemes, gum up phrases, and/or write passages as wooden and clunky as a child's first birdhouse. They had much fun at the expense of my own personal favorite bad poet, William McGonagall, who wrote tabloid-esque pieces about falling bridge disasters, replacements for said falling bridges, and disasters at sea. But they only excerpt some of his worst pieces, allowing ample space for the likes of James Whitcomb Riley, whose "The Happy Little Cripple" works the phrase "Curv'ture of the Spine" into as many places as possible, and Julia Moore, whose death and disaster-obsessed poetry led one critic to label her "worse than a Gatling gun." (The total casualty count in one of her books? 21 dead, 9 wounded.) Of course, there's some unfair jabs, such as Wordsworth's "The Thorn," which was a groundbreaking piece even though it might seem clunky or cloying to the modern reader.
The book is actually quite heavy on 19th-century material, which is sort of an easy target, given the ornate tendencies of the time, especially when compared to our more streamlined and direct modern poetry approaches. But still, the book is ultimately a lot of fun, and the editors are attuned enough to know when to wrap up the joke. Still, there's plenty of the 20th century available for skewering, although that selection process could be a little less wry and a little more political. An Even More Bad Poetry? Maybe in the next stack.