microreview & interview: Zoom by Susan Lewis

review by José Angel Araguz

susan lewis zoom

In a recent conversation about prose poetry, I found myself tasked with defining what makes a prose poem “poetry” exactly. I fell back on my usual starting point, some riffing on Charles Simic’s idea shared in an interview that “[what] makes them poems is that they are self- contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.” What’s great about this quote is that it connects the reading act to the act of rereading, highlighting poetry’s ability to get things said in unique, memorable ways. I say “memorable” here, and feel the need to qualify it as not immediately memorable. That is to say, a phrasing’s distinction comes from the push-pull effect of being familiar enough to make sense, but unique enough to stand out and make us pause.

This movement between familiarity and distinction is one of the driving engines of Susan Lewis’ recent collection, Zoom (The Word Works, 2018). While the collection’s title brings to mind the film technique of zooming in, I find it also applies in terms of speed, in this case, the varying speeds of the reading act. This read on the title is invited, in a way, by the choice of having the individual titles in the collection be the first words of the poems. By having the poem begin with the title, the voice of the poem is engaged from the first words interacted. The opening poem, “Everyone Agreed,” executes this move in a self-revealing way:

Everyone Agreed

this was a thrilling catastrophe. There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons. Octopeds got the jump on the rest of us, but their webs were useless against the suck. Spare fur was exchanged for sexual favors until the water fermented and all hell broke loose. No one remembered to access their 20:20 hindsight until the razor light blinded us with its odor of inferiority. There was anger and danger beyond our wildest dreams, which stopped coming once the humdrum imploded, divesting us of our history & its discontents.

As I mentioned, having the title be the first words of a poem means the voice is there at the start of the reading act. This move creates an immediacy that propels the reader into the “thrilling catastrophe” of the poetic act. This momentum is then interrupted by Lewis’ choices in diction. The phrasing of “There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons,” for example, causes a reader to pause; the sentence is structured as a traditional sentence, but the meaning of “spell-checked swoons” causes one to pause and wonder. Yet, the decision to structure this phrase within a prose poem, which builds off the familiarity of the traditional sentence and paragraph, forces the pause to be brief. Were this poem broken into lines, the reader would be given the handhold of line break and stanza break which invite dwelling. Here, the poem marches on through the sense of a paragraph. One reads the rest of the poem propelled by this push-pull effect.

Depending on the reader, one could say that the poems of this collection are read at the mercy of this push-pull effect. Taking this perspective, however, would be to miss out on the rich difficulty available in this lane of poetry, a poetry whose linguistic ambition is to evoke through active sense-making and unmaking. The American tradition of richly difficult poetry runs from Gertrude Stein’s tender buttons to the contemporary lyrically ambitious work J. Michael Martinez. What Lewis adds to the conversation via Zoom is a sequence of poems whose fragmented sensibility become a ride where one catches glimmers of meaning tinged with gloom.

The poem “Dear Sir” continues this work of moving between familiar and distinct phrasing:

Dear Sir

or Madam, until you lose your head, mother its shred, wrapped in mystery & mead. No levity for this, your skid life. No mercy while you bilk your betters, sent flying to spy on your attempts to rise. Across the deep there are many with nary a hook to hang on. & ever & anon those lads with rainbow limbs snaking through the gloom. Another day another dolor. Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us. & you who wish upon a stare? Where would you turn & fleetly tumble? The Burning Dervish never knows whereof he’d speak, mute as he is, spinning in his vicious circle, boring his whole through our dank & dappled gaps.

Here, idioms are approached and transformed, refreshed in a way that moves away from the typical reproach one finds in poems. Rather than turn a phrase for some argument or rhetorical stance, the transformation is executed with blunt power. For example, “Another day another dolor” is set as its own sentence, able to color both the previous and following sentence, but also standing as its own moment of distinction. This decision to let the new phrasing stand alone allows the original aphorism “Another day another dollar” to ring like an echo in the reader’s mind. Before one can fully unpack that, however, the prose paragraph structure moves the poem on to “Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us,” another set of turns that invite both pause and movement. What is being worked out in this kind of difficulty is a poetry that points elsewhere than itself. The poem’s ending image of a dervish in a trance is telling, evoking a desire for spirituality through activity.

From the sight rhyme of “anger and danger” and the reference to Freud in the phrase “our history & its discontents” (“Everyone Agreed”), to the riffing and subverting of idiomatic phrasing (“Dear Sir”), what these poems offer is an engaged reading act where meaning is only part of the purpose. If narrative poems keep poetry connected to traditions of storytelling, then richly difficult poems like these keep poetry connected to traditions of the lyric voice, that personal, intimate, and engaged perspective whose presence alone gives it purpose and power.

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Influence Question: What were the origins of this collection?

Susan Lewis: José, thank you so much for your interest in Zoom! The origins of this collection go back to my years-long interest in the prose poem, combined with another interest of mine, which happened to develop at the same time: in poetry as play – which is not, in my mind, inconsistent with addressing dark or serious concerns. One of the things I find interesting is how much play the prose poem allows! I’m drawn to the paradox of this form: poetry that is not lineated, that is, does not advertise itself as poetry. I love the tension this holds – the demand that the reader look beyond the obvious, and engage with what might make poetry be poetry. (A question I think is more important than any particular answer one might suggest). Writing prose poems has only deepened my love for the form: the concentrated punch of a discrete bloc of words floating in a white page; the implication that substantial things come in small packages; the impression these blocs give, of density and compression; the focused attention they ask of the reader.

However, I did not set out, ab initio, to write a book-length project, or suite. It was interesting: after writing some number of what I thought of as free-standing poems, their common concerns started to become apparent, and began guiding the development and features of the rest of the poems in the book. Some of these preoccupations are packed into the title, with its nod towards film technique, as well as velocity. Organized around the substantive and aesthetic potency of point of view, the poems in Zoom borrow from film technique to ‘zoom in’ from the objective/long shot/third person, to the medium shot/second person, to the subjective/close up/first person. All engage the ramifications of subjectivity via bricolage, parataxis, polysemy, and compression. I think of the collection as adding up to a kind of status report for our moment in this world, in which the frame narrows along with the point of view, from the global to the local to the individual. Especially concerned with the need for, and failure of, empathy and decency, as well as with how we perceive and communicate, these poems also amount to a progress report on the state of language itself. The consensus among these poems is that we’re zooming – if not to our doom, than to the brink, where we might still be able to stop ourselves from irreparably despoiling our psyches and our planet.

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Special thanks to Susan Lewis for participating! To learn more about Lewis’ work, check out her site. Copies of Zoom can be purchased from The Word Works.

 

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Susan Lewis (www.susanlewis.net) is the author of Zoom, winner of the Washington Prize, as well as nine other books and chapbooks, including Heisenberg’s Salon and This Visit. Her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including They Said (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), Resist Much, Obey Little (Dispatches Editions, 2017), and Carrying the Branch (Glass Lyre Press, 2018), as well as in journals such as Agni, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Web Conjunctions, Diode, Interim, New American Writing, The New Orleans Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, Verse, VOLT, and Verse Daily. She is the founding editor of Posit (www.positjournal.com).

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remembering W.S. Merwin

MerwinI’ve been absent from this space for about a month now. Lots of good, necessary upheaval in my life. The recent passing of W.S. Merwin has stirred me out of silence, however, not just here but in life. His work always inspires a kind of active silence in me, a listening that’s helped on and off the page.

I have written about Merwin’s work a number of times here. In a previous post I shared these words from a journal entry where I had copied by hand Merwin’s “A Letter to Su T’ung Po”:

I heard Merwin read this poem a week after filing for divorce from my first marriage. Ani was with me , both of us full of questions. This poem is a river in itself. The last line crosses centuries in a gasp, like one stepping away from the face of a river.

Similar to when I wrote these words, my life’s been carried forward on necessary currents – all of which is a fancy way of saying that I’ve accepted an Assistant Professor position at Suffolk University. This new job also has me taking on the role of Editor-in-Chief of Salamander Magazine. Needless to say, I’m shocked at my good fortune and grateful for the opportunity to join the dynamic community at Suffolk and contribute on a number of levels.

As can be imagined, a move like this is bittersweet. I do find myself in a similar place as when I was filing for a divorce, and when I saw Merwin in person. However turbulent life was for me then, hearing Merwin do his thing – his nuanced, metaphysically and emotionally complex thing – afforded me some calm. His example, then and now, braces me for the good work ahead.

While I have written about the poem below before, the poem remains a favorite. I also share it because it’s the poem I had in mind while I taught during the teaching portion of my campus visit at Suffolk and I made a passing reference to writing in syllabics and the path forged by Merwin. Looking at this poem now and considering his passing, I’m moved by how the lack of punctuation has me as a reader coming closer to the page. That in itself, bringing another closer to language, is an accomplishment in itself.

Thank you, Merwin, for bringing us closer to words.

Youth – W.S. Merwin

Through all of youth I was looking for you
without knowing what I was looking for

or what to call you I think I did not
even know I was looking how would I

have known you when I saw you as I did
time after time when you appeared to me

as you did naked offering yourself
entirely at that moment and you let

me breathe you touch you taste you knowing
no more than I did and only when I

began to think of losing you did I
recognize you when you were already

part memory part distance remaining
mine in the ways that I learn to miss you

from what we cannot hold the stars are made

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from The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)

poetryamano project: june 2017

This week I’m sharing another installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.

Below are highlights from June 2017. This month found me going further with erasures. Along with continuing to work out of a true crime book, I also did three tarot-themed erasures.

Be sure to check out the previous installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.

Stay tuned next week for more of the usual Influence happenings. For now, enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!

june 2017 1.1

june 2017 1.2

[On the above two pictures: The Hanged Man was the first card I felt connected with in tarot. My wife drew it for me before a trip during a difficult time in my life. I was to be on my own, and the card asked me to ground myself (thaw out) in my writing. It was a powerful experience.]

june 2017 2

june 2017 3

[On the above picture: Found poem made, literally, by hand (my hand’s blocking the rest of the text).]

june 2017 4.1

june 2017 4.2

[On the above two pictures: Continuing with the tarot-themed erasures, here is IX The Hermit. I’m connected to this card in three ways, and its message of being a beacon for others means a lot to me, especially during times where I find myself naturally at a distance from others, or simply not fitting in. My wife took the card photo in answer to the question “Which card would you date?” Bless her for hanging out with me on the mountain. Also: My big ol’ noggin is in caricature in the background of the second pic! ]

june 2017 5.1

june 2017 5.2

[On the above two pictures: Another tarot-themed erasure, this time focusing on the Chariot and the idea of motion in my writing. That each poem is a response to a belief, in the word and myself.]

june 2017 6

june 2017 7

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Happy amano-ing!

José

rereading with Galway Kinnell

One of my favorite things about a reading and writing life is exploring how meaning gathers around words and self when we first read something, and then dwelling on how that changes when we reread things. The shifts between a first read and a rereading – especially when the two experiences are years apart – can be as dramatic as the shifting between tectonic plates, or as subtle as a turn of light as the afternoon grows late.

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This train of thought naturally invites parallels with life, which is where this week’s poem, “Lost Loves” by Galway Kinnell, comes to mind. This poem invokes the idea of its title and then goes into unexpected specifics. First, Kinnell’s apt and inventive phrasing of “I lie baking / the deathward flesh in the sun” evokes a languishing sense of mortality. “Deathward” works both on a philosophical level as well as on an emotional one. The word makes one think about the biological functioning of the human body, about what is inevitable. The image of a door “banging in the wind” then leads to specific street names and poem titles which are, in this context, cast as lost loves.

The second section upends this somber dynamic by hitting different notes. Suddenly, the speaker is able to “rejoice”; suddenly there is change. When we get to the intense, primordial image at the end, life itself has shifted and is reread into something raw and hopeful. Love is not lost then, but recovered in the living.

Lost Loves – Galway Kinnell

I.

On ashes of old volcanoes
I lie baking
the deathward flesh in the sun.

I can hear
a door, far away,
banging in the wind:

Mole Street. Quai-aux-Fleurs. Françoise.
Greta. “After Lunch” by Po Chu-I.
“The Sunflower” by Blake.

II.

And yet I can rejoice
that everything changes, that
we go from life
into life,

and enter ourselves
quaking
like the tadpole, its time come, tumbling toward the slime.

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From Collected Poems

anting with Charles Simic

The_Ant._From_the_Dis_-_sectum_projectA lot of what makes poetry work is accumulation of meaning and possibility. In this week’s poem, “Solitude” by Charles Simic, the meaning begins with the phrase “first crumb” and how a crumb’s insignificance is gestured at before being subverted in the rest of the poem. It’s a move similar to starting zoomed out on something that appears one way from a distance, and turns out to be something completely different when you zoom in. In Simic’s characteristic style, there is both threat and snark in the final image, playing off ideas of solitude in an engaging way.

Solitude – Charles Simic

There now, where the first crumb
Falls from the table
You think no one hears it
As it hits the floor

But somewhere already
The ants are putting on
Their Quakers’ hats
And setting out to visit you.

news: Oregon Book Award finalist!

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1This week I’d like to share the good news that Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press) has been named as a finalist for the Oregon Book Award in the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry category!

I am extremely honored and grateful to have my work in the running alongside the work of other great writers. The awards ceremony is April 22nd and final decisions will be made public then.

I want to quickly thank everyone who has taken part in celebrating the book into the world, from friends who read early drafts and shared insightful comments, to the reviewers who took the time to sit with the finished product and share their read of it. Special thanks to Jeanetta Calhoun Mish of Mongrel Empire Press for giving my work a chance and giving this project a home!

To celebrate, I’d like to share “Late,” one of the poems in the first section of Until We Are Level Again. In my recent post about running workshops at the Fire Writers Conference, I spoke about the power of naming as a way of seeing. I was excited to have this poem in particular in this book because it makes use of this kind of seeing. Here, I name a restaurant my mother used to work at as well as the street it used to be on; the restaurant has since closed down. Yet, naming gone places in poems gives them another presence, brings the reader closer to the world of the poem.

Late – José Angel Araguz

In the dresses she wore for work,
my mother became the front yard
we went without. Their dense fabric
stitched with bright designs,

flowers and leaves arranged to greet
the customers of Rosita’s on Baldwin,
not there anymore, but I know,
as dense as I’ve become, nothing

matters beyond first impressions:
the apron hanging off the door;
the iron hissing in her hand,
late, but insistent to look good;

my mother’s face bright, steadfast
as light through a threadbare sheet
held over the face of a child
pretending to be asleep.

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Here’s the official list of finalists on the Literary Arts site.

And here’s a press release courtesy of Linfield College.

one more from Sarah McCartt-Jackson

stonelight3In my recent microreview & interview of Stonelight (Airlie Press) by Sarah McCartt-Jackson, I noted how nature is often used as a lens in these poems to engage with human understanding and feeling. In detailing the narrative of Ora and her family, this lens feels natural, a kind of environmental intuition. Much like in poetry writing, the speakers across these poems scratch out meaning from what they have and are left with.

I say “left with” here specifically to imply loss. One of the things Ora has to reconcile to herself is a series of pregnancies which at times lead to miscarriages. In “Ora names her children (before they are born)” (below), one can see how the act of reconciliation plays out in linguistic and metaphorical richness. McCartt-Jackson’s rich facility with language and phrasing is in full display here as the natural and human world are braided in a way that invokes a soul to one and a wildness to the other.

“Naming” her children after elements of the natural world, Ora’s act of reconciliation is also one of reclaiming. She recovers what is not there – not there either through loss (as elsewhere in the book) or through not having arrived (as in this poem) – by bringing it into communion with what is there. The result is a speaker both haunted by and haunting the world around her. With every loss and possibility, Ora emphasizes her presence through this ability to name. The ending here, ultimately, troubles the certainty of this presence in a way that echoes throughout the whole of Stonelight.

Ora names her children (before they are born) – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

unafraid of the shadow that glides up the mountain
approaching the nest. She names them the too-close sound
of a child’s whisper inside her ear. She names them buds
on splintery sycamore limbs and the buds’ curled leaves.
She names them after river clay and lightning shapes,
after songs she hears from the bucket dropped into the well.
She names them turnip and buckeye and leather and bird-feather hat
and tulip and the yellow color of rooms lit by flame.
She names them loneliness that can be rocked to sleep,
rooms haunted by dust that crawls in between the floorboards,
a thunderstorm of starlings crowding out the light. She names
the fingernails, the knees, pale eyelashes, tiny shoes,
caterpillar inching along the branch hung over the roof.
And when her upturned hands pile up with names, she pours
them onto every pinecone fallen empty of seed split through
the staves, every fur tuft stuck to bark, every quill hollow
poked through the pillow. She plants them until they return
stitched to the ridgeline bones. They tell her not to name them.

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Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Be sure to consider entering a manuscript for the Airlie Prize.

To find out more about Sarah McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site.