one more from Susan Lewis

susan lewis zoomIn my recent microreview & interview of Zoom (The Word Works, 2018) by Susan Lewis, I discussed Lewis’ deftness with the prose poem as working through a push-pull between familiarity and distinction. The traditional structures of sentence and paragraph are subverted in the poems of Zoom with non-traditional phrasing and concepts.

In the case of “In Praise of Attention,” (below), the familiar phrasing of “in praise of” is subverted by a poem whose goal seems to be an interrogation of attention as a distinct act. Attention is first described as “that stiff upper chamber of another bloody pump,” implying a physicality to what we call attention, one that is similar to the physical heart. Yet, the poem immediately pushes against this logic by turning from the phrase “bloody pump” to “upper cut. Or cut to the quick & the dead.” In this phrasing, conceptual logic gives way to a logic of sounds, three syllable phrase replaced by another three syllable phrase, which is then further interrupted by a riff on the word “cut,” which in turns leads to a movie reference. The lyrical momentum of these lines would be inaccessible were it not for the self-awareness that runs the speaker of this and other poems in the collection.

Because the speaker shows themselves as aware of the frustrating yet fruitful fluidity of language, the reader’s own awareness of this fluidity, felt at turns as difficulty and fascination, can be grounded in faith. Faith in language as reckoning ground, as meeting place and place of obfuscation. The ending line, building off the italicized quote from physicist Werner Heisenberg, becomes a telling description of not only the prose poem form as exhibited here but of poetry itself.

In Praise of Attention,

that stiff upper chamber of another bloody pump. Or upper cut. Or cut to the quick & the dead, to be blunt, to be smooth as an animal in the grass, shooting the breeze with its salutary moods, its whispering timbre. Not so much chasing facsimilar euphoria as synthesizing with the generative wisdom of chlorophyll. Attending, nursing plus paying out my bottomless cache, that recirculating pump begging to be trimmed to droplets of uncertainty, those nemeses of finitude. That what we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Words grasping boldly at the known grasping boldly at what is.

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from Zoom (The Word Works)

to learn more about Susan Lewis’ work, visit her site

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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).

fallacying with susan lewis

lewis hsIn my recent microreview & interview of Susan Lewis’ Heisenberg’s Salon (BlazeVox [books]), I discuss the ways in which the poems in the collection engage with the uncertainty principle and its take on the relation between position and momentum. My own crude, working definition of the concept takes me back to my reading into Zen, ideas like how we are always in motion; how all we have is the present; and the contradictory thought that there is no now because the now that is now…is different from the now now.

Luckily, Lewis’ book delivers insights via strong prose poems and not half-remembered readings 🙂

In this week’s poem, Lewis engages the concept of pathetic fallacy, which occurs when we attribute human feelings and responses to nature and inanimate objects. With this term as the premise, the poem quickly develops a narrative in which humans talk to nature, only to find nature talking back. Here, the position of humans as the ones doing the addressing is made uncertain by the momentum of some rather chatty flora. What develops is a scenario that pushes back on the pathetic fallacy that is the premise of the poem. By the end, the humans are revealed by the suddenly-more-humanlike flora to be not less human, but more, at least in their eagerness to turn “a deaf ear” and place distance between themselves and their new found partners in conversation.

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Pathetic Fallacy (III) – Susan Lewis

Having fled their native urban clamor, the newcomers greeted the residents of their rural refuge with indiscriminate geniality. To everything living they offered a smile & a friendly word. To the astonishment of the locals, first to respond to this promiscuous bonhomie were the birches. Then why, a farmer asked a grove whose dappled shade he had often preferred to his own domestic complications, did you never speak up before? & why, replied the tree with the stoutest trunk, didn’t you? When the farmer took the question in silent stride, the rest of the grove rustled, their judgment confirmed. Before long, the attention of the new residents was met with a flurry of expression from the long-repressed vegetation. At first it was enough for the naive humans to attend respectfully to the widespread resentment of the thistles, the meandering narratives of the frost grapes, the magisterial pronouncements of the oaks — turning for respite to the sweet & supportive maples, with their generous supply of sap. Soon they permitted themselves to be probed by the delicate tendrils of the man-root — until offspring were generated, giving the lie to the insuperable separation of the phyla. In time, the proud but challenged bipedal parents were overwhelmed by their intimates’ new-found urge to connect. Desperate for peace & quiet, they retreated to the urban jungle, where they felt less guilty turning a deaf ear to that other onslaught of revelations & demands.

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Happy fallacying!

José

microreview & interview: Susan Lewis’ Heisenberg’s Salon

lewis hs

review by José Angel Araguz

Drawing inspiration from German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which “states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa,” Susan Lewis’ latest collection, Heisenberg’s Salon (BlazeVOX [books]), presents a prose poem collection that evokes the form’s surrealist traditions while expanding on its logic-making means.

One can see this idea of position and momentum reformulated in poetic terms in these lines from the title poem:

Every time she turned her back, the apartment rearranged itself. Each version created a home for another way of life.

From there, the reader follows the main character adapting to her constantly rearranging apartment, curling up and reading Victorian fiction when she “[discovers] the couch under the picture window,” and setting the next meal when “the dining table was there instead.” In a similar manner, the reader of this collection adapts to each poem’s engagement with and rearrangement of familiar linguistic territory. The aptly named “Indeterminacy” is a good example of adapting to rearrangement:

Indeterminacy

It was time for something, although she could not for the life of her imagine what. So she assumed her post on the stoop & waited for the future to declare itself. A tattered bird of dubious provenance landed on the banister & inspected her with his ancient gaze. She exhaled with emphasis, but otherwise managed to keep her preconceptions to herself. The old fellow cocked his head & screeched. Terrific, she said. How am I supposed to know if you’re the one I’m waiting for? Terrific, he squawked. How am I supposed to know if you’re the one I’m waiting for? I get it, she said, bravely extending her arm. I get it, he echoed, latching on with admirable decision. It was the last conversation they ever had.

Here, the first half of the poem positions two characters in places of waiting. There is a push and pull between interiority and meaning at work; because “she could not for the life of her imagine what” it was time for (keyword here being imagine, an act of interiority), she is forced to look outside herself. Thus positioned, the conversation that takes place in the second half of the poem works as momentum, giving the scene the urgency of question and response. The phrasing of a “tattered bird” also leaves things ambiguous; one can envision a parrot playing out the conversation that follows, merely echoing the other character. And yet, the choice to not be specific about the kind of bird it is leaves room for the fantastical. From this uncertainty, the imagining the other character was incapable of on her own becomes an outer moment of imagination via this “conversation” with the bird.

This transformation via uncertainty plays out for the reader much like the conversation plays out for the characters, strictly in the moment, in the rush as the pieces of the poem come together. There is a thrill in this kind of poetry that speaks of a sensibility awake to the materials at the core a poem, how to get the “tattered bird” of familiar language to say something new. As plot requires conflict, these poems point to lyricism as its pulse.

One of the ambitions of this collection is learning how to be awake to this lyric pulse. The reading act is itself a combination of position and momentum, holding words still in the mind while moving towards the sense implied. In a way, the reader of Heisenberg’s Salon is in the same position as the boy of “One Day” (below) who finds himself literally embodying change, watching the world evolve as the poem develops. Certainty and uncertainty, this collection posits, both happen suddenly and simultaneously. As in the uncertainty principle, one is reckoning with ideas of position and momentum in these poems. Yet, because they are poems – poems whose essence can only be located within the act of reading and being heard, thus, in motion – the interplay leads the reader to a fruitful uncertainty, and, one could say, a lyric certainty.

One Day

grass started growing form the young man’s chest. Everybody changes, said his mother, surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes. But the boy, who was wise beyond his years, felt delicate roots tickling his sternum & knew it was a matter of time before they’d probe his lungs & entwine his heart, crowding the space it needed to expand & contract in its steadfast commitment to preserving his options. As the weeks passed, graceful green strands sprung from his armpits, between his legs, & even, in the finest possible wisps, from his upper lip. One morning he awoke from a luxurious dream of water glossing boulders as smooth & warm as flesh to find a starry sprinkle of tiny yellow blossoms adorning his burgeoning tufts. He had only to be still & tiger swallowtails floated around him, sipping his nectar. Unable to deny the inexorable slowing of his breath, he was content to observe himself contemplate the ramifications of his personal evolution without emitting a watt of excess heat or other sign of agitation.

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Susan-LewisInfluence Question: How does this collection reflect your relationships/history with the prose poem? What writers have influenced your sense of sentence and story?

Susan Lewis: I love the prose poem! Brevity and density are its challenge and its promise. To paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes — like the power to embrace or eschew narrative, meter, syntax, and even the sentence itself.

I began working with the more narratively driven poems in Heisenberg’s Salon as a kind of emotional and intellectual R & R after being immersed in another collection of prose poems (currently called Zoom) which are far more abstract, fragmented, and entangled on the lexical meta-level. This was not my first time exploring this sub-genre: my book, How to be Another, gathered a group of tale-like creatures in the section called e.g. (reflecting my notion that narrative proffers examples, rather than, say, arguments, restatements, or prescriptions — like the other poems assembled under the headings vis, i.e., and Rx).

The rhythms, architecture, and verbal texture of these poems, however, are quite different than those earlier pieces. And my critique of categories, boundaries, and borders has intensified (in the geopolitical context as well). A fish confined to a small container stays a small fish. The same can be said for a psyche. Any insistence on us vs them deprives ‘us’ of the (sometimes challenging) benefit of ‘their’ company and perspective. For this book, I found a kind of metaphorical support for this principle of inclusivity in quantum indeterminacy.

My love of the prose poem dates back to my introduction (thanks to my friend and mentor Chuck Wachtel) to Julio Cortázar’s seminal The Lines of the Hand, and Russell Edson’s Dinner Time, both of which can be relied upon, in a pinch, as complete guides to writing of any kind — be it short story, novel, or poem. (Which is to inveigh, once again, against the unhelpful constraints of such categories).

Cortázar’s other very short works, like many in Cronopios and Famas, and all of Edson’s oeuvre, have wormed their way into my sense of timing and ‘turn.’ Their compressed journeys draw an arc from premise, to ramification and extrapolation, to conclusion — which in different pieces might be more or less conclusive, and more or less shocking, or absurd. They model a kind of imaginative and investigatory digging — deeper, absolutely, but also laterally, towards new terrain — which ends up yielding a skewed and oddly clearer view of their starting positions.

The poems in Heisenberg are also deeply indebted to the work of Lydia Davis and James Tate, both of whom transform the ordinary into the extraordinary by penetrating, judicious, and genuinely inspired elisions, containments, and departures. And Kafka looms over all of us who touch on the surreal in the hope of exposing the tragic absurdity of the real.

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Special thanks to Susan Lewis for participating! Find out more about her work at her siteHeisenberg’s Salon can be purchased from BlazeVOX [books].

* new review at The Volta Blog!

this-visit-295Just a quick note to share the publication of my review of This Visit by Susan Lewis. Check it out at The Volta Blog!

Here’s a link to “Dear Dear” (published at Ink Node) a poem from the second section of This Visit.

To find out more about Susan’s work, check out the poet’s site.

Happy Dear-ing!

José