Monday, July 20, 2015

Word for Word Poetry Editions with Song Cave Press

We have a collection of very talented guest bloggers to cover the Word for Word Poetry series this summer. They capture a first-hand account of the poetry readings, as well as help to interpret the work of our visiting poets who present at the Bryant Park Reading Room sponsored by HSBC

Joshua Kleinberg for Word for Word Poetry, July 21, 2015

Featuring Song Cave Press

There’s no use resisting it: at some point, someone’s going to submit a PhD dissertation on the American literary landscape of the early 21st century (it’ll probably be written in some kind of emoji-hybrid language). And somewhere between the Alt Lit moment and that year the cicadas were shedding and every manuscript submission included the word “carapace,” I like to think this intrepid scholar-of-the-future will make mention of the special poetry corridor between Northampton, Massachusetts and New York.

With UMass Amherst’s renowned MFA, the annual Juniper Conference, the ubiquitous (and sadly departing) non-profit Flying Object, and a slew of boutique presses churning out some of the prettiest books in the country, Northampton has garnered something of a reputation for being the other place on the east coast that a poet might go. If the poet, for instance, liked trees or reasonable rent.

Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal launched The Song Cave in Northampton in 2009. The non-profit press, which moved this past year to Brooklyn, began as an intermittent chapbook publisher with a stultifyingly cool roster including poets like Dana Ward, Peter Gizzi, Dara Wier, Monica de la Torre, Ben Lerner, Amaranth Borsuk, Geoffrey G. O’Brien and C.D. Wright, to name a few. The imprint’s grown in recent years to publish special edition art prints by the likes of Kim Gordon and Guggenheim fellow Nathaniel Dorsky and full-length poetry collections by authors like Todd J. Colby, Thomas Meyer and Emily Hunt, whose Dark Green was called a “standout debut” as well as “beautiful, funny, painterly, and terrifying” by Publishers Weekly this past April.Hunt was one of three readers at Word for Word Poetry’s Song Cave showcase on July 21st, a windy evening that bulged with the electric touch of a forecasted rain shower that never quite broke. Sharing the stage with Hunt were Song Cave pressmates Hannah Brooks-Motl and Jae Choi. The feeling in the park was decidedly eye-of-the-storm as the breeze rustled patio umbrellas and made shy, sporadic pops in the microphone.

Hannah Brooks- Motl
Brooks-Motl led off with a Bernie Sanders endorsement and the disclaimer that though her poems that evening came from different projects, they all had money as a unifying theme. It’s notoriously hard to talk finance in poem-form (see Pound’s Cantos for some particularly ham-handed policy prescriptions), but Brooks-Motl handled the politics as deftly as any poet I’ve seen, gesturing toward the ugliness of class struggle (“one man’s profit is another man’s harm”), the increasingly capitalist behavior of the American university system (“here on our quad / where I am watching the sources of funding”) and a healthy distrust of post-structural intellectual frameworks (“vast and wrong as Foucault”). To say Brooks-Motl has created a distinct world in these poems would be telling only half the truth. She’s actually created two, and they look disarmingly similar to the two worlds of American inequality: one world of Cointreau and capital, another of servants and discarded soy sauce packets. Brooks-Motl, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, read her work with a steady, good-natured confidence that exposed beneath her wry commentary an undergirding of supreme earnestness. Suzanne Buffam has called Brooks-Motl’s project a “poetics of wild fragmentation” and in her greatest swaths, she nimbly mingled repetition, false-starts and alliterative flourishes to keep the work stuttering along in combustion-engine bursts, kicking up some of the dust of Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette and Kenneth Koch’s “Sleeping with Women” along the way.

Jae Choi
Jae Choi introduced herself by announcing that she hadn’t spoken into a microphone since her last karaoke night. “It’s been a few months,” said the Iowa alum before launching into her piece “The Repositioned Rider,” a poem she wrote at a time when she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a poet. This is the type of doubtful self-analysis that marks so much of my favorite poetry and Choi read it with a demure, morning-coffee chattiness that imparted a subtly ironic ennui to lines like “I heard the rider wrote a prose poem / What was it about / Ordinary women.” In Felsenthal’s introductory remarks, he described Choi’s work as bearing “the watermark of grief, as if an absence hovers slightly off the page between couplets,” but in the midst of the charmingly disaffected deadpan, Choi’s speakers signal toward a reluctant hope. “There is no order,” she read, “that will not have me.” For her final selection, Choi read from her Song Cave chapbook Woman Carrying Thing, an extended riff on Wallace Stevens’s “Man Carrying Thing” which starts with the iconic idea that “[t]he poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully.” Choi’s particulate eruption of the Stevens prompt concerned itself with the possibility of (and society’s fraught relationship to) female self-determination, framed as a litany of commanded resistances and touching on phenomena as vast and perplexing as “hair trigger self-identification / with [one’s] environment,” the “rows of white plastic milk” at the supermarket, “womanish behavior” and “need…needing as a thing in general but / especially with regard to him.”

Emily Hunt
Emily Hunt read only one long poem from Dark Green, titled simply “English,” which scoped between dreary scenes culled in seemingly equal proportion from the capital-P Poetry archives (“A row of trees.” “A horse lying in a forest.”), a wider contemporary landscape (“A teenager in Ohio.” “A wet computer in a bag of rice.”) and some third ulterior space where the latter worlds briefly glance and bounce from each other (“A crackhead asleep at the library.” “A performing leopard.” “An unbelievable amount of bats, in streams of hundreds.”). The poem, which starts as an inventory of such scenes is subtly ruptured throughout with italicized directives and scraps of dialogue before opening a wider emotional rift with the delayed release of its elegiac impulse. “A candle a flame a face on a banner…” Hunt read in an unassuming voice with the slightest speck of quivering turbulence. “A plastic bottle / A perfect piece of toast, he died.” As the poem grapples with the death of a brother, its lines distend with passion, and its organizing principles falter in what feels like an impeccable mimetic reconstruction of the haywire procedures of a brain-on-grief. After the first mention, there are no fewer than ten reconstitutions of the word “dead” in the next fourteen lines, and then, as when a mourner grows sick of talking, the poem breaks into tinier pieces, cordoned into sections by semi-colons, the topics alternating between quotidian and self-flagellating, while snippets of The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” barge in unexpectedly. But the world of loss is the same world responsible for the tender moments that give loss its devastating power over us. It is still a world (unjust though it may be) of “sunny day[s]” and “purple highway[s],” Hunt reminded the audience. “[B]oth are true, believing in the end.”

Joshua Kleinberg
JOSHUA KLEINBERG is an MFA candidate at Columbia University. His poetry was the recipient of the Arthur Rense Prize from the Academy of American Poets and has appeared in Chorus: A Literary Mixtape (2012, MTV Books) and New Poetry from the Midwest (2015, New American).

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