I considered opening this with an in-depth comment on my absence (the last Stanza Break went up half a year ago), but suffice it to say that some personal matters impacted my ability to write. I'm hopeful that on the occasion of this year's northward equinox, I have also reached an equilibrium and can better practice the kind of attention I want to bring to this space. Thank you for your patience. I'm very glad you're alive.
Published in September 2020 by Wayne State University Press, What the Chickadee Knows (Gijigijigaaneshiinh Gikendaan) by Margaret Noodin should have received more recognition than it did. It's impossible to say what might have been different had it not been published in the early months of the pandemic (happy anniversary, by the way), but I remember seeing an announcement about this book in early 2020 and hoping that it might garner some critical recognition. Alas.
I first encountered Noodin's work as a translator through her collaboration on a handful of pieces in Heid E. Erdrich's 2017 book Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media (Michigan State University Press), itself a terrific book. In that book, the poems appear in English by Erdrich, then Anishinaabe by Noodin, and finally English again in Noodin's direct translation:
Published in 2017 by a small publisher called Baobab Press, Line Study of a Motel Clerk went under my radar until recently. These tightly-crafted poems circle themes of labor and immigration, creating a family portrait of Jewish immigrants in the Rust Belt. A line study, in drawing, focuses creating a simple image using strokes of varying weights and angles rather than shading and color. That idea is present throughout the collection. Broad gestures illuminate the characters and voices, but the poems rarely stretch beyond a single page.
I'm drawn to the this book because of its handling of family history as it intersects with culture and class. The book includes a small family tree outlining the characters in the book: great grandparents with ties to Poland, Canada, Greece, and Ohio; four grandparents who are the main figures in the book (The Motel Clerk and his Wife, The Laundryman and his Wife); The Motel Owners' Son and The Laundry Owners' Daughter; and their daughters. The poems are mainly centered in and around the motel, and the paternal line of The Motel Clerk and the Motel Owners' Son are the primary characters throughout, but the family tree contextualizes the migrations that brought these families together.
In fact, the second section of the book is titled "Migrations" and showcases some of Davis's skill in crossing great distances in very few words. The first poem in the section is titled "The Line Moves at the Laundry (Niles, Ohio)" and it opens this way:
This year, two separate anthologies of Russian poetry were published by two independent presses that I admire a great deal. The first, Verses on the Vanguard: Russian Poetry Today, edited by Polina Barskova, was published in February by Deep Vellum; a month later, Two Lines Press published This Is Us Losing Count: Eight Russian Poets as part of their ongoing Calico series. Good anthologies—and both of these are—offer a snapshot of a particular moment and from a particular vantage point. That snapshot is a result both of the content and the editorial stance, and reading these two anthologies together feels like seeing a landscape from two different angles. You may not be able to see the whole field, but there are some notable features that draw the eye and you may be able to imagine a more complete whole based on these two views.
The two anthologies share four poets in common—Aleksandra Tsibulia, Oksana Vasyakina, Ekaterina Simonova, and Nikita Sungatov—and three translators—Catherine Ciepela, Elina Alter, and Valeriya Yermishova. It's notable that only one of these writers, Nikita Sungatov, is a man, indicating that the editors of both anthologies are interested in correcting the male-dominated field of Russophone literature in the English-speaking world. In fact, of the ten Russian poets featured between the two books, only two are men, and much of the work included in both anthologies is explicitly queer. In the last several years, the Russian state has increasingly cracked down on queer, feminist, and generally dissident voices (bolstered by the example of certain other global superpowers), so these two anthologies provide a view of a culture that is more vibrant than official propaganda would have us believe.
For me, Aleksandra Tsibulia's and Oksana Vasyakina's works are the standouts in both books. Tsibulia's pieces, translated by Catherine Ciepela in both collections, are brief and pointed. Here's one from This Is Us Losing Count:
Apologies for not sending a paid subscriber update last month. Shortly after sending my thoughts on Lao Yang's Pee Poems, my grandfather passed away at 95 years old. Here's his obituary, which I got to write. He loved his boat very much and will be much missed.
One of the reasons I decided to write about Diane di Prima's Revolutionary Letters this month is that the book has been inspiring some poems I've been writing. From April 1-June 30 of this year I'm planning to write one section per day of a book-length poem. I did this same experiment in 2017, so this will either be a new version or an addition to that poem. I mentioned in my February paid subscriber update my interest in "durational" works and this project is what sparked that interest.
April-June 2017 I wrote roughly one section per day of a book-length poem called Vagaries & Routines. Every section began with a variation of the same line: "every day i wake up & [. . .]" I ended up writing over 100 sections over those 91 days. I revised it a bit, cut 30 or 40 sections, and then it stalled. Eventually, I shelved it. I thought about it from time to time, wondered about reviving it, but it always felt like it was missing something, though I was never sure what. When I revisited it a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that I could try doing the experiment again in 2022—five years after the first attempt—and put the two versions next to each other to see if there's a spark. I'm curious is there will be anything interesting or surprising in their proximity. Maybe there won't be anything there and no one will ever read it. Maybe that'll be a relief. Maybe the two together will somehow click and add the element that was missing from the first attempt. Maybe I'll keep doing this experiment every five years until I die. I don't really know.
I came to Diane di Prima's poems only recently. I started reading her selected poems, Pieces of a Song (City Lights, 1990) in early-May of 2020, and the poems were both comforting and energizing during the months that followed. Last fall, City Lights Books brought out an expanded 50th anniversary edition of Revolutionary Letters, di Prima's collection of rants, instructions, slogans, and notes (AKA poems), first published by City Lights in 1971. Di Prima oversaw the preparations for this final version of Revolutionary Letters before her death at 86 in October 2020.
Revolutionary Letters opens with one of my favorite di Prima poems, "April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa," a celebration of di Prima's anarchist grandfather Domenico Mallozzi. The poem showcases a lot of things I admire in di Prima's poems: it's built with straightforward and accessible diction, it's political, it's aware of its lineage (personally, politically, poetically), and it even has moments of levity.
Today is your birthday and I have tried writing these things before but now in the gathering madness, I want to thank you
Lao Yang is likely better known outside of the U.S. as an artist whose practice is sound and music based, but with the publication this month of Pee Poems he will likely be better known, at least among U.S. readers, as a poet. Originally from northeastern China, he has created spaces to advocate for experimental music and sound art in Beijing and performed his own work around the world. In their translators' note, Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu describe how they first met Yang in 2012 at a fellowship in Germany. He later stayed at Edwards' and Xu's home in Marfa, Texas while the two were away for work, a time during which Yang composed several of the poems in this book.
Pee Poems is broken into three sections: "Pissing Poems," "This Person," and "This Country." Each sections is subtitled with the number of "verses" included in it—not stanzas, necessarily, but individual sections separated by an asterisk or a page break. In "Pissing Poems" the 36 verses are spread across roughly 24 pages, including four titled poems. In this section, the "verses" range from a single word to four lines making it the most spare of the sections. The second and third sections each contain five titled poems, some of whose verses are as long as eighteen lines and three stanzas, or even a prose block.
Thank you again for your patience as I transitioned Stanza Break to this new platform. It's been on my mind for some time, but I was concerned about how disruptive the process would be. So far, I'm very impressed with Buttondown. On my end, the transition was fairly painless and Justin, the human behind Buttondown, has been incredibly supportive. I'm still learning what this platform can do and how to do it, so I'll continue to make adjustments, but that was true before the switch as well. All Stanza Break archives, including the paid posts, have migrated. Some formatting issues have popped up on those posts, so over the coming weeks I'll be cleaning everything up and, once that's done, shutting down my Substack account. If you run into any issues as readers, please let me know!
Now, here's the regular update:
At the beginning of January I joined a new reading tracking app called StoryGraph, an alternative to the Amazon-owned Goodreads (you knew Amazon owned Goodreads, right?). I've never used an app like this (I have my own reading tracking methods, both analog and digital), so I can't really compare StoryGraph to any others, but I'm enjoying it. I started tracking my reading in 2013, by hand in a notebook, a practice I continue still because it allows me to slow down and assess a little. I write a page of first impressions which helps me wrap my mind around what a book is doing. Every review I've written since 2013 has started from those first impressions, including every Stanza Break piece. In order to get familiar with what StoryGraph can do, I uploaded all of my reading from 2013 to now.
A note before we dive in: this month's dispatch is a bit late because I've spent the last week or so migrating this newsletter from Substack to a platform called Buttondown, where I'm writing from now. I won't get into all of the details, but suffice it to say Substack has doubled-down on hiring writers I find, as they put it, "objectionable." Switching to Buttondown has allowed me to transfer all subscribers and archives with minimal disruption. This includes paid subscriptions because Buttondown shares a payment processor with Substack. There's a slightly different look, but I hope that the reading experience will be as unchanged as possible. Thank you for your patience.
This month’s selection comes via one of my coworkers who lent me Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca, whose work I didn't know until now (thanks, C.!). Jimmy Santiago Baca began writing poems during the roughly six years he was incarcerated. Other inmates encouraged him to send some of those poems to the magazine Mother Jones, where the poet Denise Levertov was editor. Levertov published a handful of Baca’s poems and became an early champion of his work, later writing an introduction to Martín & Meditations on the South Valley (1987). Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems is a 1990 reissue of Baca's first major book, expanded to include poems from smaller publications and chapbooks that weren’t available at the time. The reissue came not long after New Directions published two of Baca’s most renowned books, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley and Black Mesa Poems (1989).
I spent some time at the beginning of the month finalizing my reading tracker for 2021, adding last minute books and taking a look at the data. Here are the quick stats:
60 fiction, 37 poetry, 4 nonfiction
18 books in translation
Just over 25,000 pages
Looking at the 2021 numbers gave me an opportunity to set some goals for 2022, which I always enjoy. I’ve dubbed this year “twenty-twenty-tome,” the year of long books (the name’s a stretch, but I don’t care). I usually prefer short novels (125-150 pages is the sweet spot for me), and struggle to get excited by long novels or nonfiction. So this year, I plan to read four novels that are 600 pages or more:
They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy, translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen (this is the first in a trilogy that appears difficult to find, so I’m linking to the Wikipedia page instead)
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the costs of printing were declining, allowing books to be mass produced relatively cheaply. This led, among other things, to the rise of mass market paperback books (the kind of thing once seen in grocery stores). Additionally, small, easy to use machines like typewriters and mimeograph machines made text and image reproduction fairly accessible. At the same time, second-wave feminism was taking root, calling out patriarchal institutions, including those in art. Women in Concrete Poetry: 1959-1979 covers this pivotal period in 20th Century literature, showcasing 50 writers from around the world whose work explores the boundaries between text and image, language and understanding. It’s a remarkable book, both as object and document, beautifully produced while being academically rigorous.
In their introduction to the book, Alex Balgiu and Mónica de la Torre describe Materializzazione del linguaggio (Materialization of Language), the first exhibition in the Venice Biennale to be devoted to women artists. The 1978 exhibition, curated by Mirella Bentivoglio, featured work that “sought, through a wide range of ‘poetic operations,’ to liberate words from the strictures of syntax and the patriarchy, from the conventions of both genre and gender.” Balgiu and de la Torre “pick up the threads” of Materializzazione, expanding their focus “beyond the European milieus” Bentivoglio featured, including works by artists from Japan, the U.S., Mozambique, and Brazil.
The artists are presented in alphabetical order by surname, removing the need for a thematic arrangement while nodding to the ways the artists featured have found to atomize language all the way down to individual character strokes. As a result, unintended visual rhymes pop up from time to time. The square prose pieces from Susan Howe’s “Hinge Picture” are echoed in “Alone,” the first piece by Ruth Jacoby directly following Howe’s work.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker is perhaps the book that most surprised, moved, challenged, and stayed with me this year, the book that I have spent the most time trying to articulate why I’m drawn to it. That’s what this is, I think: another attempt to describe what I’m seeing in the hopes that you, too, will see it. I included the book in the Wild Rumpus Winter Buyer’s Guide because when I first held it I was stopped cold, completely enthralled by the book as an object combined with the book’s content. It’s the kind of book I want to (and have been able to!) put in the hands of young people, to say, “this is another way of understanding history and you too can be a keeper of history.”
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker not exactly poetry, though it is spare and often poetic. It’s a picture book, though often we think of picture books as having a story, perhaps a moral, a problem that is solved by the end, but I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker doesn’t conform, though there is a narrative in a manner of speaking. The book is a historical document, though it has been re-imagined—or perhaps it’s better to say re-imaged—to be more dynamic, more colorful: it features full-color, glossy pages with a sewn binding. It’s a hardcover book with an image wrapped around the spine. As an object, it is beautifully made.
I Saw a Beautiful Woodpecker is an art object created from a historical document. The document itself is jarring: in summer 1939, an eight-year-old Michał Skibiński, living in Warsaw, Poland, was assigned a handwriting exercise: he had to write a single sentence every day as a condition of moving into the next year of school. Throughout the book, there are facsimiles of Michał’s notebook in Polish, with English translations printed at the bottom of the page. The diary begins on July 15, 1939 and continues through September 15, 1939.
Sometime last fall I began to seriously consider making this newsletter, so even though the first post didn’t go out until March, I feel a little like I’ve been writing it for a year. It’s been a few months since I last sent a supporter-only email, so in the spirit of the season, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you for being here. (If you want to skip the mushy stuff, scroll down below the break.)
Sustaining anything creative without institutional backing can be exhausting, so while this endeavor doesn’t bring in pay-the-bills kind of money, it does keep decent coffee and snacks in the cupboards and gives me some hope in a literary landscape where outlets like Entropy Mag and The Believer are shutting down.
In practice, Stanza Break looks a little different than I imagined it, but I’m excited to expand what I cover in this space. After sending out November’s piece on Migrations by Gloria Gervitz, I received a handful of kind responses from people thanking me for pointing them to the book, or for enlarging their idea of what poetry can do. I’m deeply grateful to the folks who took the time to respond and I hope that anyone who reads that remarkable book as a result of Stanza Break feels like they’re reading alongside others.
In the coming months, I’m hoping to feature some poetry originally written in English and possibly even some fiction, as well as continuing to cover poetry in translation. My hope is to point folks to other books that are worth seeking out and spending time with the way Migrations is. Your support as paid subscribers goes a long way toward making Stanza Break a sustainable project for me.
Gloria Gervitz’s monumental, 260-page poem, Migrations, has no narrative in a traditional sense, though often images or scenes rise up that offer a sense of what the poem is “about”—at least at the time of each reading. Long poems demand time and attention from a reader in a way that short lyrics don’t, meaning that each encounter with a long poem includes more of the reader’s life lived alongside the poem than is typical of, say, a single page lyric poem. Gervitz’s poemis often abstract, so the reader’s circumstances guide, subtly or overtly, what the reader “sees” in the poem. Long poems also demand more time of the writer, which is especially true of Migrations, which has been published in multiple versions and revised numerous times since Gervitz began writing it in 1976. (She says this version is final.) This edition has been superbly translated by Mark Schafer, who also translated some of the earlier versions.
Gervitz’s poem, written over the course of 44 years, is deeply feminine (and feminist), sexually frank, and threaded through with religious and spiritual imagery from across the globe. Most noticeable is the Kaddish, said as part of Jewish mourning rituals. The migrations of the title are manifold: the migration from youth to maturity, from sexual innocence to sexual awakening, from ignorance to self-knowledge (and, further, through knowledge back into uncertainty), and from self-knowledge into knowledge of the Other. They’re migrations of one version of the self to another version of the self. “I am the Word / I am she who is born giving birth to herself,” she writes. More literally, Gervitz traces her family migrations from Europe to Mexico during the Jewish diaspora of the 20th Century.
Despite its length, Migrations often moves swiftly, the pace of its flow changing with the changes in form and text density. There are no section breaks, per se, no titles or epigraphs to mark the movement. Mostly, each page is its own unit, sometimes containing only one, two, or three short lines, other times containing columns of left-justified text, and still others with text scattered across the page. As a result, no matter what form the text takes on the page, the space between words, lines, and stanzas plays a role in the movement of the text. In some ways, the page is like a piece of glass covered in paint: the more text on it, the more paint is scratched off, and the more that can be seen through it. With less text, the image is more abstract or symbolic. Take for example this page near the end of the poem which reads in full:
Two of W. H. Auden’s most famous poems, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan 1939)” and “September 1, 1939,” appear in his 1940 collection Another Time, in the third and final section of the book. Both poems feature famous and controversial lines; in his Yeats elegy we find the line, “For poetry makes nothing happen,” and in “September 1, 1939” is the line “We must love one another or die,” which he later amended to “we must love one another and die,” though he also tried to suppress the poem entirely. Between these two famous poems is another elegy, this one for a German poet, playwright, and revolutionary. The poem, “In Memory of Ernst Toller (d. May 1939),” renders Toller’s death passive, even fated:
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
Allegedly, shortly before his death, Toller told writer Robert Payne, “If ever you read that I committed suicide, I beg you not to believe it.” Auden’s poem implies that Toller was part of something larger than a single life, entreating Toller to “lie shadowless at last among / The other war-horses who existed till they’d done / Something that was an example to the young.”
I read The River in the Belly by Fiston Mwanza Mujila back-to-back with with last month’s Stanza Break selection, Upper Volta by Yanko Gonzalez and want to talk about Mwanza Mujila’s book in that context. This feels a little unfair to Mwanza Mujila’s excellent book, but it does allow me to highlight why it’s successful as a project. Both books use African rivers as their centers of gravity to explore the people and landscapes along the river’s course. Different rivers in different regions with different neighboring cultures, but the image at the heart of each remains the same and the differences in approach are striking. Where Upper Volta is a sociological exploration, a writer and speaker in the role of observer, Mwanza Mujila’s speaker is from The Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result, The River in the Belly has none of Gonzalez’s distance from the subject.
Composed of roughly 100 sections using an invented form, the “solitude,” The River in the Belly operates almost as a book-length poem. The solitude form is flexible, and mostly defined by its ability to hold brief observations. Each section is numbered and titled “Solitude X,” though the pieces are sequenced out of order. The book opens with “Solitude 61:”
a river convulses in my belly
a confounded malingerer, dirty and immense, mournful and malign,
a river in the late stages of dysentery . . .
A short update this month. Thanks for your patience—my piece on Yanko González’s Upper Volta goes into some of why I struggled to get a piece together about the book. It took me longer than I expected to articulate what I thought González was trying to do.
I started this newsletter because I enjoy the form of newsletters: bits of lives and thinking from people I admire that are conveniently delivered to my inbox. One of those newsletters is by the poet and writer Lightsey Darst. It’s called now*ing and is a monthly collection of ing’s that Darst is engaging with. August’s includes raging, reading, dancing, and learning, among others. I’ve been reading it since she started it and I admire how lucid Darst’s thinking and seeing are. It’s the same reason I adore her book Thousands, which is a record of living and loving and moving and so many other gerunds. Thousands is one of those books I read and thought, “oh, I want to write a book like this.”
I mention now*ing because I do admire it deeply, but also, selfishly, because Darst featured a brief response I wrote to one of her emails at the end of this month’s now*ing. You can read the “now. . . living” section I was responding to in her July newsletter here. And my response at the very end of August’s newsletter here. It’s something I’ve been thinking and talking about a lot in the last, oh, year or so—ever since it became obvious that the pandemic would not be “over” in any meaningful way as quickly as we (I) expected when it began. If we’ve had a conversation about the pandemic then I’ve probably said a variation on what I wrote for now*ing.
Every now and then I encounter a book that I can’t quite get a handle on, and this month’s Stanza Break selection, Upper Volta by Yanko González, translated by Stephen Rosenshein, is one of those books. González is a Chilean poet and anthropologist, and Upper Volta takes its title (Alto Volta in Spanish) from the colonial name (French: République de Haute-Volta) of the country now known as Burkina Faso in West Africa. The Republic of Upper Volta was named for the Volta River, itself named by Portuguese traders. Black Volta, one of the main parts of the river (the others are White Volta and Red Volta), forms the border between three African countries, including Burkina Faso, and this connection of history and international borders is perhaps a place to start understanding the poems in Upper Volta.
Voices in these poems speak over one another, sometimes because those speaking are doing so intentionally, and sometimes as if we as readers are hearing multiple conversations simultaneously. This is enacted literally on the page with text, often quotes with attribution, printed in gray literally overlapping the black text of the poems themselves.
In recent years, I have not been consistent about keeping a journal or diary, which I did through my teen years and into undergrad. But since 2013 I have remained consistent in tracking my reading. I track my reading because it’s an opportunity to think deeply and critically about what I’m reading and make sure that I’m reading books by a diverse swath of writers, but my book log has also become a way to track my seasonal moods and obsessions. Looking at my log reminds me of the other things that were going on in my life at the time I encountered a book. It has become a more “secret” diary than I ever could have intentionally created. I don’t write much outside of notes on the books, but my memory supplies the rest, all of the fears and joys and pains and surprises that accompanied my reading of any particular book rising up when I look back at the list.
In the months before I was laid off from the publishing house I worked at, I was stressed and anxious almost all the time. My reading at the time reflects that stress—or rather, I can infer that anxiety when I look at what I was reading at the time: everything was work related, and almost nothing was purely for pleasure. They were manuscripts under consideration, books the publisher had released, books I was reviewing or thinking about reviewing, and books for the Poetry Book Club I was running (these are the only books I remember really enjoying during that time). Books were all responsibilities to attend to, not joyful engagement with language or storytelling.
Then, a couple of weeks before I was laid off, I went to a cabin with my brother and some friends and ended up spending the weekend reading The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy which was on the shelves at the rental. Clancy’s work is pure U.S. military propaganda, but I loved his books and the movie of The Hunt for Red October as a kid. Bizarre choice, sure, but I was fascinated by the political intrigue and the unusual setting aboard submarines (not to mention Sean Connery’s performance in the movie), and so the book occupies a unique place in my reading life. That cabin weekend, something in my brain snapped into “pleasure and comfort” mode and I couldn’t focus on any of the “work” books I’d packed. I got home and re-read another problematic comfort book (Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game—a great book by an awful person), and then managed to read two more books for work.
I want to note before I dig into this month’s dispatch that I have a fairly in-depth essay about my relationship to reading that will go out to paying subscribers next week. I mention it because it’s the kind of thing that only feels possible to write in this kind of setting—I can’t imagine trying to pitch it to any online outlet or expand it into some kind of formal personal essay. Which is also a way of saying, thank you for being here and reading this. There’s a button below if you’d like to subscribe to the paid newsletter.
Moon Bo Young’s English-language debut, Pillar of Books, published in English earlier this spring by Black Ocean Books, won the Kim Soo-young Prize in Korea in 2017. Kim Soo-young was a 20th Century poet known for being part of a group of writers that attempted to move Korean poetry away from some of its more traditional leanings, incorporating more surreal images and gestures and a conversational style to address social and political issues. Pillar of Books is in a clear lineage with Kim’s: Moon Bo Young’s poems are, in Hedgie Choi’s translation, conversational, irreverent, and often strange.
First of all, I want to share that the terrific journal Yalobusha Review published three of my Psalms in their new issue earlier this month. You can read them here. I definitely encourage you to read the rest of the issue as well. Ryo Yamaguchi’s poems are such a delight as a group. I love the way they each begin with one of the three primary colors (and is that a shout-out to Red Balloon Bookshop?). I also enjoyed Sara Lupita Olivares’s poems, which remind me a bit of Marie Howe or Etel Adnan, at least formally.
Psalm 14 is a companion to Psalm 53, which was published in Sink Review a couple of years ago (here). The text of each Psalm in the original is almost identical, but the flavor of each Psalm is a little different. I wanted to honor that in my version—one a bit more melancholy, the other a bit more fire-and-brimstone. Psalm 12 is one of my favorites of the OG Psalms—I love the metaphor of God’s promises being refined like silver—so this group in YR is a lot of fun for me.
As I mentioned in my last dispatch, my reading in the last month has included a steady stream of YA and middle grade books. I feel a little like I’m scrambling to catch up—with publishing trends in young people’s literature, with the reading I want to do for myself, reading for Stanza Break, reading friends work, and so on—that I didn’t actually finish reading much that I’m at liberty to write about here (yet!). But here are my May lists.
In my undergrad theater classes we occasionally read selections from the 1958 Grove Press edition of Antonin Artaud’s book The Theater and Its Double, but there was an unspoken implication that he was not a figure worth further study, and certainly not imitation. I was always intrigued, but never managed to pursue any further reading about him, nor of his work, which I never knew included poetry. A month or so ago, a photo of Artaud the Mômo crossed my timeline and I ordered it immediately out of curiosity. As it turns out, the publisher, Diaphanes, is releasing a series of Artaud’s work and letters, all translated by Clayton Eshleman. Artaud the Mômo is one of five volumes that will be published by the end of this year. All of these volumes contain work from the last part of Artaud’s life, a period that included an almost decade-long incarceration in psychiatric institutions.
Artaud the Mômo was written beginning in 1946 following his release and published shortly before his death in 1948. These are difficult poems, fluctuating between ferocious critiques of the concept of insanity and grounded observations of his own physical perceptions. “‘Mômo’ is Marselles slang for simpleton, or village idiot,” Eshleman writes in his notes, and the character of “Artaud the Mômo” grows out of the ashes of “the old Artaud,” burned away by electroshock. Comprised of five sequences, the poems in Artaud the Mômo are resentful of authority figures, from doctors to god. Here is an aside from the opening pages:
(You lift nothing from it, god,
because it's me.
You never lifted anything of this order from me.
I'm writing it here for the first time,
I'm finding it for the first time.)
This spring continues its theme of being A Lot and I want to thank you for your patience as I was two weeks behind on sending out my May dispatch. I mentioned last month that I was asked to write a review outside of this newsletter and the deadline for that landed at about the same time that I would have been writing this. That review, an in-depth look at Daniel Borzutzky’s books, will be published in Great River Review in late summer.
In addition to that project, I was recently hired as one of the new Events and Communications Coordinators at Wild Rumpus Books, which I am thrilled about. Transitioning from bartending back into the book world is an exciting shift for me and I’m particularly thrilled to be working at a store with a menagerie and catering mostly to young readers. Kid lit is a side of publishing I don’t know much about, so this role should be a fun challenge while still fitting my skills well.
A job at a kid’s bookstore has shifted my reading a bit, too, which I’m sure will become more apparent in the future. I’m exploring audiobooks a bit more and definitely reading a lot more YA and middle grade fiction. I haven’t been tracking picture books in my ongoing reading log because I would spend more time writing notes on the books than actually reading, so you won’t see those reflected in my reading lists, but trust: I’ve been reading a bunch of them.
I grew up in a moderately religious family, and attended a Catholic high school and a Lutheran college, so I suspect I’ll be working to understand my relationship to Christianity for the rest of my life. My relationship to these facts of my life is likely one reason I’m fascinated by the figures of the Christian fringe throughout history—the mystics, monastics, and ascetics who were excommunicated or deemed blasphemous—and by the text of the bible itself (see: my Psalmtranslationproject). And I’m especially drawn to poets with Christian leanings: William Blake, Denise Levertov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante Alighieri, Anne Bradstreet, and many others. (I had a brilliant professor, Richard DuRocher, whose love of Milton was so infectious that I’ve also loved Milton ever since his class.)
All of which is to say that when I saw Milkweed Editions was publishing a new bilingual edition of The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz, translated by María Baranda and Paul Hoover, I wanted to read it. I was only vaguely familiar with de la Cruz’s poem “Dark Night,” so this would be my introduction to his writing. As an introduction, I recommend it highly.
March was appropriately lion-like for me, at least as far as creative projects go. After launching Stanza Break, I took on some editing projects that will take me through the next couple of months, was solicited to write a review outside of this newsletter, and dug back into some writing projects I’ve had stewing. More on all of those as they approach fruition.
I mentioned last month that my reading at the start of the year was slower than usual, but keeping with March’s theme of being A Lot, I churned through more books in March than I had in January and February combined. Here’s my March reading list:
The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin. (The last book in a brilliant, brutal fantasy trilogy)
Prophet | Profit by Patrick Blagrave. (Poems about living under capitalism. The two sonnet sequences are stunning.)
For Work / For TVby Fee Griffin. (More poems about living under capitalism, but funnier.)
A Picture-Feeling by Renee Gladman. (An early book of poetry by Gladman who is now more known for her fiction.)
Morelia by Renee Gladman. (A short, dreamlike mystery thriller of a prose poem.)
The Ravickians by Renee Gladman. (I reread this one, the second in a 4-book series about the fictional city-state of Ravicka. I’m thrilled by the possibilities of Gladman’s version of fantasy fiction.)
Seedlip and Sweet Apple by Arra Lynn Ross. (Poems about Mother Ann Lee and the Shaker community’s origins and emigration to the U.S.)
I saw this tweet while I was reading Miximum Ca’ Canny The Sabotage Manuals by Ida Börjel and it articulated my main gripe with the book: direct action and workplace sabotage are useful tools, but there should be some analysis that leads to choosing a particular target and thought to the impacts of collateral damage. Who is impacted by the sabotage is important, but in Börjel’s book, sabotage becomes indiscriminate.
The book opens with a single-poem section titled “Etymology” which contains some playful sabotage of its own regarding the origin of the word sabotage:
The word is taken from the french sabot,
wood clog, and the French mill workers’
manner of protesting against the new
automatic looms by hurling
their clogs into them. So they removed and
aimed, took off their only pair of shoes and
threw them into the machine’s opening and walked
barefoot through nah
A brief note to invite you to The Clock Tells the Hour next Wednesday, March 31, at 7pm U.S. Eastern (6 CT / 5 MT / 4 PT). I’ll be reading a new piece as part of this event.
The Clock Tells the Hour is a performance to mark keep tell pass the tolling of a year of lockdowns coronavirus shift change loss more than 2.5 million deaths worldwide and also resilience joy solidarity resistance
As I wrote at the end of the first free newsletter I sent a few days ago, I’m thinking of this project as a way of talking to myself about the books I read, especially books that are too old to write about in a traditional review outlet and books in translation, of which there are too few and they’re not talked about nearly enough. American poetry often feels insular, even provincial, and this newsletter is my small way of pushing against that narrowness of thinking, if only as a challenge to myself. I’m interested in creating a poetics that’s larger than what I can learn reading only American poets. And since I am monolingual, this is the best way I can engage in poetry beyond the borders of English.
But why a newsletter? Why not review these books elsewhere (the new ones, anyway)? One reason is energy. It’s a lot of work to keep up with which editors/outlets are accepting pitches and reviews, which outlets cover translated books to begin with, trying to make sure the review comes out around the time the book is released, and so on. Plus, editors sometimes say no, and then you have to start the process over. And that’s all besides actually reading a book and writing about it. I still plan to review elsewhere, when it makes sense, but this newsletter is an opportunity to just… do it, without the exhausting extra steps.
I also believe that creating our own culture and cultural spaces is valuable. We don’t need to constantly be seeking the affirmation or blessing of institutions, whether they’re universities, publishers, arts organizations, and or anything else. I hesitated in creating this newsletter because I wondered who would care before remembering that those who don’t care won’t subscribe and that’s fine. (And also, plenty of people care—you’re here, after all.) But I also hesitated because we’re conditioned to believe that we need to be affiliated with existing institutions in order for our thinking to be valuable, which is false. It’s freeing to remember that we don’t need permission to do something.
The concept of Guillevic’s Geometriesfeels distinctly French to me, combining Beckett’s minimalism, a constraint like those the Oulipo developed, and a light touch of the absurd, though the poems here lean more toward playful than dark or uncanny in the way Surrealism often tends toward. These are generalizations, of course—French literature is not a monolith—but they place Geometries, published in French in 1967,in a lineage.
As translator Richard Sieburth notes in his afterward, the book is arranged “almost like a school textbook,” each poem headed by a Euclidean figure. (The French title is Euclidiennes. Sieburth titled his translation Geometries to distinguish it from an earlier English translation by Teo Savory called Euclidians.) The poems are straightforward and clear, tightly drawn like the shapes they’re inspired by. There are rarely metaphors, only direct comparisons. “Six triangles got together / And erased everything / Except their outer borders” is how “Regular Hexagon” begins.
Welcome to Stanza Break, small dispatches on poetry in translation and books outside of a publicity cycle. The U.S. publishing and publicity cycle is relentless and this newsletter is my very small push against the pressure of the new, as well as my small way of critiquing the hegemony of U.S. poetry. Meaning: I like to read poetry in translation and books that are more than a year or two old. Chances are I’ll write about a new book not in translation now and then, too, if I think there should be more coverage of it.