Dec 28, 2013


(This post was initially published on the Margento UOttawa website HERE)


I am lucky. I live in five intersecting rings of poetry. It wasn’t always this way. My poetry life, and therefore my poetry community, has been hard won.

In college, one poetry teacher told our entire class, “Most of you won’t write one word once you reach the age of twenty-six.” Another professor took me aside and whispered, “Perhaps you should concentrate on children’s books.” By the time I had graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, I was without faith — not only drained of belief in my own work, but more importantly, utterly disheartened by the world of academic poetry. The community of poets I had idolized, poets such as Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser as they went off in 1972 to investigate the war in Vietnam had all but disappeared. The famous friendship between Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton had ended with the suicide of Sexton in 1974. The world of poetry didn’t look very promising.

Instead of pursuing poetry, directly after college I joined the Peace Corps. I wanted to travel, to learn from different cultures and experience new ways of living radically different from my own. I knew that if I were ever to have anything to say, it needed to be augmented with an extended worldview.

When I eventually returned to Boston from my two years in the Peace Corps, I found solace in books such as William Stafford’s Swimming the Australian Crawl and You Must Change Your Life. I took classes in the living rooms of poets who needed the extra cash. The casualness and camaraderie of those Thursday nights complete with a cup of tea brought me back to myself. The idea that there might be a way, after all, to be a poet in the world outside of the strictures of others’ beliefs started taking shape in my mind. Ironically, working with a grassroots community is what freed me of the need for acceptance.

After the death of my parents, I took a leap across the country and changed my life, as instructed by Rilke. At age 36, I registered as a student in the MFA program at the University of Oregon. My classmates were a strained group of twelve, representing a diversity of age, race, economic background and global geography.  Really, we were a ragtag bunch and with little more in common than a burning desire to write. And yet, eventually we learned not only to get along, but to rely on one other, and to open our hearts. The program changed us; it made of us more tolerant humans, more aware of how to live in a literary community.

Today I live in Seattle, WA, a city most famous for its coffee connoisseurs and serious readers. My first visit to Seattle left me wondering what these citizens had accomplished in their past lives to be reborn as Seattlites. The Seattle area includes mountain ranges, beautiful bodies of water, and books. Here, more people buy books per capita than in any other U.S. city. This statistic is often followed by a joke about the weather or a line that exaggerates our slate colored skies. But that is only half the story. Seattle overflows with literary organizations – most of them founded by a small group of people sitting somewhere on a sofa and asking, “why not”?

Community of Geography

In Seattle, poets celebrate Open Books: A Poem Emporium, as our physical and spiritual home. Owned by accomplished poets, John Marshall and Christine Deavel, the store schedules readings by nationally and locally famous poets twice each month. Often, there’s a house party following the event with everybody invited.  The focus is to bring new voices into the community, not lock them out. A community focused on inclusion.

The belief that poetry is meant for everyone, that no one holds the magical keys to the lyrical city is echoed in the organizations, residencies, and presses throughout Washington State. A prime example is Floating Bridge Press (FBP). The press has its roots in the basement of poet Peter Pereira’s house. A group of friends clustered together on Peter’s couch naming all the excellent poets they knew who had yet to be published. Why not start a press? Why not?

What inspired me to join the editorial board of FPB — to spend midnight hours reading manuscripts, answering emails, and mailing out journals was the spirit of the editors. Our desire was to discover new writers and give them a voice; to open out the community of writers by organizing readings, paying poets, and publishing new people each year. More than any other organization in Washington, I believe that Floating Bridge Press has created a lasting legacy of generosity among poets. Poets Kelli Russell Agodon, Elizabeth Austen, Allen Braden, Timothy Kelly, and Katherine Whitcomb have all been published by Floating Bridge Press.

But that’s just the beginning. Writing groups, reading groups, and residencies play an integral part in the literary landscape of my home. My Community of Poetry Readers, otherwise known as COPR’s comes together every month to discuss a book of poems and to gift individual poems that we’ve discovered. Anne Carson, Deborah Digges, Mark Doty, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg reflect the diversity of our tastes. We are a group of seven poets and two non-fiction writers who travel across the state one Sunday a month to talk about poems together and to share some aloud. We create a time out of time for each other in a ritual that allows us to be fed by poetry: a communal meal.

Community of Poetry Friends

Here is the secret nobody knows: poets need friends. OK. If you are reading this, you know it, and I know it, and so did Elizabeth Bishop. From Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge this fine morning please come flying. In “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” Elizabeth Bishop celebrates her deep friendship with another woman poet: her mentor and lifelong friend, Marianne Moore.

I know that Bishop and Moore shared poems, went on outings to the zoo together, and when Bishop moved to Brazil in 1951, wrote long letters.

I think if we look close enough, we’ll find that every serious poet who produces work over a lifetime has poets whom they can rely on. We need poets to drink coffee with, to talk craft with and finally (when it’s almost too late) to retell favorite stories of past and future dreams. Maybe because poetry is so far from the mainstream of American life, we need reminders that our hours, days, weeks, spent in seclusion are okay. More than okay.

I know that without my dearest poetry friends: Kelli Russell Agodon and Katherine Flenniken I would not be as brave as a poet. Without my dearest poetry teachers: Madeline DeFrees, Pamela Alexander, Linda Pastan, and Garrett Hongo, I would not be as well trained in the craft  (of course there is always room for improvement). Without my dead mentors: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton, I would not have begun writing at all.

Community of Peace Corps

A long time ago, I was a college drop out. The only thing that convinced me to finish my degree was the possibility of joining the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to see the world and that I wished to write about it. At age 25, I was looking for myself by getting as far away from my own life as I could. Unbelievably, this worked.

And I am not the only one. There are many poets who began their writing lives as Peace Corps Volunteers: Derek Burleson, Sandra Meek, and Anne Neelon are three examples ~ all of them went on to publish poetry collections exploring their tenure in Africa.

But it is not only the other Peace Corps poets that I am drawn to. More important to me are the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, who perhaps find something recognizable in my poems regarding their own Peace Corps experience. My two years in Niger, West Africa, was nothing short of surreal. All I had learned about life to that point was turned upside down and tossed next to a sand dune – soon to be digested by a goat or a camel. Many of us were just out of college, inexperienced in the larger world, and ill prepared for desert life — especially during a drought of biblical proportions.

I stubbornly subscribe to the old fashioned need for my poems to serve others. I know my poems can’t feed the hungry, house the homeless, end wars, or pass a more just stimulus package in Congress, but my job as an artist is to keep myself and others awake.

Community of the Grand Double P ~

Poetry and politics: a subject so often avoided in literary circles in the United States. Is political poetry merely another way of saying a poetry that is engaged in the world?  Are my poems detailing the lives of Bosnians during the war inherently political or are they more humanist? Is humanist a bad word? Does it imply a hedging of bets without wanting to upset anyone? I could write an entire piece on the slippery space the Double P inhabits, but I would remain estranged from a definitive answer. This is by choice. If I write poems that when complete are “about” the inhumanity of state executions here in the United States or the rampant racism Americans exhibited after September 11th, or the inhumanity happening in Palestine right now, that was not explicitly why I wrote the poem.

For the record: I am on the side of political poetry. I believe poets have a responsibility to our society at large.

World Community of Poets

My poems often reflect the people I meet. Since I have lived on three continents, these meetings frequently occur outside the United States. I’ve worked in several cities scattered across the globe – in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Gaza City, Gaza. While in Ljubljana, Slovenia I read on a candlelit stage with a translator by my side and later, outside of Galway, Ireland, I read to the mountains with an Irish friend. My poetry community is not restrained by border crossings. I believe in a global community of poets.


And yet. I am dissatisfied. This listing of people and places seems flaccid next to my vision of what constitutes a community of poets. My mind conjures Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin with their dedicated phone line, their linked handsets perched on the corners of their desks as they worked.  I try to conjure the solidarity of poets who went to prison for their beliefs in South Africa – or anywhere in the world where human rights violations occur. I think of Jeremy Cronin’s poem  — Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang (A Person is a Person Because of Other People) that details the wordless conversation between two prisoners as a guard scrutinizes them. A poet is a poet because of other poets. We need each other. It’s that simple.

Susan Rich ( & blog) is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently, Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist’s Kitchen, which was a Finalist for the Foreword Prize and the Washington State Book Award. She is the recipient of awards from Artist’s Trust, The Times Literary Supplement of London, Peace Corps Writers and the Fulbright Foundation. Individual poems appear in the Antioch Review, New England Review, Poetry Ireland, and The Southern Review. Along with Brian Turner and Jared Hawkley, she edited the anthology, The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders published by McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation. Susan lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.

Dec 21, 2013


(Initially Published on MARGENTO's UOttawa Website HERE)

Martin Woodside traveled to Romania on a poetry Fulbright. In the bilingual collection Of Gentle Wolves, he captured a snapshot of the mosaic of trends and confluences that define Romanian poetry of the last few decades. As he suggests in his introduction to the volume, the biggest surprise was the difficulty in categorizing Romanian poets, a reflection of the “tumult and discord that’s characterized the last century of life in Romania, and life after the 1989 revolution” (vi). If anything, the common thread running through the various voices, some decades old, some fresh and pulsing with the blood of the new millennium, is the ambition of being the one to re-invent the poetic form while never severing the bonds with Romania’s literary past.

Yet the volume doesn’t lack unity or a sense of common purpose. There are subtle points of convergence that emerge as one journeys from one poet’s landscape to the next. One witnesses the struggles to place signifying mirrors before a history in the course of finding itself, and one sees the wider and wider spiral that travels away from a nationally defined inner space, and into the larger world of global conversations, only to circle back to the evolving Romanian consciousness, undefeated by half a century of communism, engaged with the present, eager for that ineffable re-definition.

One such thread that one can identify is the need for cultural anchoring—whether it be in the sturdy soil of European tradition, as we see in the poem by Romania’s not so long absconded giant, Marin Sorescu, who attributes to Shakespeare the powers of a Demiurge creating the world in seven days, then “tired to the bone,/He went off to die a little” (5), or the more eclectic allusions in a poem such as “Summa Ethilica” by Radu Vancu, who summons as his drinking buddies the shadows of Thomas Aquinas, Mihai Eminescu (Romania’s staple poet of the 19th century), and even Marx, to derive eternal wisdom from the never obsolete “40 percent liquid hell in iridescent light” (19). In a similar vein, Angela Marinescu sits at an imagined table with “many poets/ Mihai Draghici, Paul Vinicius, Eugen Suciu,/ with novelists Ioan Grosan and Alexandru Vlad/ and with a young woman, beautiful, quiet like a carnivorous plant in repose” (21), an indication that reaching self-awareness is a collective endeavor.

Earlier generation surrealist poet Gellu Naum returns to a mythical past of Romania’s almost unchanged countryside, where Alexander the Great is summoned by a local woman as he “passed one summer in his golden boat reading aloud and making small comments/…/ hey there comrade Alexander the Great she would tell us don’t pretend you can’t hear/ hey there Argonaut I’ll give you my golden fleece that is the law/ I’ll issue a receipt” (7). As if in response to this search through myths in Romania’s millennial soil, crisp-voiced poet Chris Tanasescu finds himself “between stone and stone/ between earth and earth” (57) with a book holding him together as he relives Romania’s myth of the creator’s sacrifice, and the continuous repetition of Genesis as art: “and the book is the only place here/ to enter/ the only place/ to find a way through/maybe this is how the world started/ I say to myself” (59).

It is as if the poets of change seek reassurance in a world that simply is, so that they can glimpse into the possible and venture into a world they can re-imagine. Unsurprisingly, there is also an abundance of references to Romania’s only partially healed wounds of anticommunist and postcommunist struggles. In O. Nimigean’s excerpt from Intermezzo, “ovidean nimigean/ weeps all over the page/ feeling pity/ for this golden age/ ovidean nimigean/ a childish old man/ fills with grief/ for the Romanian” (37), in a voice reminiscent of old ballads but snatching Romania’s old self from the past and dragging it with him into his own, amorphous moment in history. In Radu Vancu’s “Kapital,” the ghost of Marx still haunts the streets of cities and villages, where “in the pubs of Romania,” heavy drinking turns formerly complacent people into anarchists, until “you are already, in all likelihood, a perfect mystic/ with the appropriate set of regrets at hand./ It’s bad not to have guts. And much better, after the first shot of vodka” (17).

It appears that poets are still trying to shake off the shame of inaction that followed the intellectuals of the communist night into the chaos of a democracy still fighting the demons of the past. Chris Tanasescu’s poem “Envoy” reminds Romanians that the ills we bear can take our place if we leave too much room for tolerance of those ills. The lines “Today, tomorrow, she endured/ pitiful girl—shouldn’t be pitied!” (61) reveal the epitome of the fear that is no longer a good excuse.

It appears that many of today’s poets find the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those accustomed with suffering abhorrent, and look elsewhere for redemption. In Gabriel Decuble’s “Crippled Mutt,” the beaten dogs on the street become the city’s guardian angels, a sign that it is, perhaps, time to let the ghosts of oppression leave the country’s crippled body so that it can finally find a way to start anew: “particles rise yelping/ particles limping through the atmosphere/ light slobbered from the fierce staggering over the void/ dispersed/ you don’t hear them you don’t see them/ these microscopic particles in one in all/       damning them not to be damned/ so that they never end” (53).

What’s left after the purging of Romania’s collective sins are “the dead resurrected from rain” (43) in Robert Serban’s poem “I Hide.” In the “nearly empty” village where the sick and old of past generations still wait and watch for something—be it angels or pigeons—in Ioan Moldovan’s poem “In Fact,” and love finds ways to bring the flesh back to the doll-like bodies, in Dan Coman’s “Love Poem.”

It is a bizarre world where people are picking up the pieces after some bewildering cataclysm, but there is much hope in this scattered world. Artists believe in the power of their art to redeem and rebuild, which is why this volume sets itself apart from other contemporary productions as an on-going question whose answer is somewhere under the rubble of history, waiting to be unearthed.
                                                                                                                           —Liana Andreasen

[Of Gentle Wolves, an Anthology of Romanian Poetry
Translated and edited by Martin Woodside
Calypso Editions, 2011,
68 pages, soft cover, $12]
[A shorter version of this review was initially published in Atticus Review]
Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen is originally from Romania, and currently lives in McAllen, TX where she is an Associate Professor at South Texas College. She holds an MA from Salisbury University and a PhD from Binghamton University. She published academic work in Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic. She published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, Thunderdome, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, and upcoming in Scintilla, Weave Magazine, and Calliope. She received two Pushcart nominations (for fiction and for translation work).

Dec 2, 2013


[Joanne Dominique Dwyer. Belle Laide. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2013]

Joanne Dominique Dwyer—Belle Laide—If to Love Is to Inhabit
(Initially published on the uOttawa website here)

One cannot but love a book that starts this way: “First my father Killing Me Softly with his Roberta Flack album./ Then my son Killing Me Softly with his Fugees CD” especially when those are the opening lines of an ars poetica—actually “Ars Poetica, or Keeper-of-the-Water.”  Contemporary young poets apparently feel a need to start their (first) books with ars poeticas, and some of them do it well.  Joanne Dominique Dwyer is one of those—while providing a relevant imago of the poet at work as being at home, since the metaphor in the title has to do with the frozen birdbath the birds peck on in the cold outside the speaker’s home.  The image gives her the opportunity to interrupt her own speech with a sharp aside in which she both scolds and… scalds herself: “Excuse me un mementino, while I boil/ water to pour on the ice.  Bullshit!/ you’re not going to take time to boil water/ when it scalds right from the tap.”  A quirky discourse of a restless poet who will not take bull from anybody, herself included.  And, like in other recent ars poeticas, she addresses the reader directly, but since other poets unwillingly prove to actually be afraid of the latter, or at least mistrustful, and try to compensate for that by showing off, she off-handedly invites them into her family, her home, her own body (of words), even calling them lover but also warning all the way about the deadly dangers of such togetherness “I can see why lovers commit suicide together./ And why you enter me with such abandon,” as the only one she’s actually afraid of seems to be herself and the cancer-like unstoppable expansion and inclusiveness of her verse : “On my shoulder a carcinoma that will eventually kill me—/ will eat my flesh, as I eat yours.”

            But is this a Whitmanesque inclusiveness—not really, not at first at least, rather one centered on or starting from the familial, the interior, the bookish.  “I don’t get out much—socially, for adult pleasure./ But I read a lot” starts a captivating poem that takes us into the speaker’s extensive readings of Turkish harem accounts, and then to the speaker’s daughter’s ceramics class work, a conversation at a wedding party casually and awkwardly switching from horrid jail stories to deluxe breast jobs, and then back again to harems, Islam, ceramics, and a Persian hair removal kit recently that the speaker recently purchased but “has yet to use.”  

            Dwyer is compared in a back cover presentation with Plath and Sexton, and indeed, her confessionalism and acted childishness every once in a while allows questionable traumas to surface menacingly (“my missing daughter returned by midday muted,/ having been held on a rooftop”), but the general tone is rather relaxed as she enjoys digressing and surfing her own stream of consciousness in more of an O’Harian style.  The ‘wild’ surprises occasioned by language ramifications, by the dark associative power of her unconsciousness, and sometimes by multiple voices (in “Barely a Body Comes Knocking” for instance the deceitful complaint about the lack of visitors veers at a certain point into a fantastic and funny Voodoo curse against possible thieves—“And my assistant ghosts will hex your virility/ And you will sit all your remaining days/ In a rocking chair like a ceramic troll on the porch/ Of the state home in Maine for old and demented alcoholic ship builders/ Because the home for old and alcoholic sailor is full// You think I’m semiserious/ I do my best work when hypnopompic…”—) may also remind one of Ashbery, with the significant difference that Dwyer wants and manages to convey a (multiple but) coherent image of the self that is propped by the consistent pursuit of memories and dreams, and by memorable self-definitions and metaphors, “keeper of the water,” “an encyclopedia salesman,” “ a footless repairer of huaraches and boots,” etc. 

            The second section persistently and sometimes manically pursues possible ‘definitions’ of love, ranging from “if love is to imagine” to “if love is a door,” “a mezzanine,” “to fall,” “to inhabit,” and eventually “to be thirsty in the night/ un-slacked in the day.”  Such ‘philosophical’ musings are actually as bodily and sensual as could be, and, what is absolutely remarkable in Dwyer compared to other contemporary poets, the erudite references, the mythologies and metaphysics, the asides and the detours do not slacken the passion and the emergency, but quite on the contrary, they keep mercilessly spilling fuel on the fire of the crescendos, while also adding a bite of inquisitiveness, sarcasm, and, of course, self-contradiction:

In the Louvre we saw the carved bit of ass
showing on the Venus of Milo.
Lift my dressing gown over my head,
               or take it all the way down.
               Look me in the eye when we make love
               so I don’t mistake you for a blind man.
               Don’t be afraid of my dark,
               buy me a bird of my own—
               spit on the candle in the corner.
                                                                           “Request to a Lover”

The breathless 3 or 4-beat-per-line hurried complexities, intimations, and urges, make room at a certain point to a bluesy shorter piece, in which St Augustine (a recurrent reference, or rather character), Billie Holiday, sensuality & grimness, homelessness and glamour, death and a repressed knowledge of the spiritual powerfully converge.  

            A nagging question and potential problem in writing such poems would be (besides what if love were… [at all]), but how do I end this, and, if after all the deployed artillery I need a simpler or quieter ending, how can I make sure it’s not going to be flat or irrelevant.  Dwyer finds good or not so good answers to this question (among the most unfortunate ones are those that go like “You are intrigued with her/ and I hate her”) until she realizes it would be better to confront and testify for the lack of any solution and the confusion itself rather than improvise single-use surrogates.  That is what she does in the cosmic spectacular finale of “Bent,” the final poem in the second section, where a maddening maenad squeezes the love and… the life out of her lover, and then, a bacchant drunk on his “lake water,” she admits no reciprocity or communion in facing her own deepest uncertainty, and along with that, the demise of the sacred.

            I am bent around the darkness of the sun
               siphoning salt form your skin,
               eating almonds from your cupboards,
               drinking the last of the lake water
               as the sails come to a halt on the sand.
               I will never give back the lake its love!
               It’s mine! It’s mine!—Loch Ness monster
               or man on the shore carving canoe paddles,
               I’m not certain.  It’s so ark without the moon,
               difficult to find the far encampment—
               the inward holy body.

This last note lingers into the third section, where Dwyer directly addresses her need for a spiritualism of her own and “an instance of devotion” for the sacred madness of maverick figures like Christina Mirabilis, for instance, whom the church has kept out “of the sanctioned canon of saints on the grounds/ that you are not the beau ideal to follow,” and who, spiritually speaking, is therefore an emblematic “beau laide.”  

            Paradoxically, the intensification of the search for the spiritual brings about more explicit confessional or maybe even autobiographical texture, and along with that, even more popular culture and consumerist ‘flavors’ than before, while pulling back a bit from the earlier grandiose metaphorical imagery and approaching the erotic much more directly.  But is that really paradoxical?  Not for a poet like Dwyer, who, while taking the customary American distance from institutionalized religion is relentlessly in search for an actual experience of the sacred, for the ‘real’ ([un]canonical) thing, which, of course, once reached, cannot but illuminate (through) the profane as well.  

            Profane in all senses, since in one of the most powerful poems in the collection (“Down-by-the-River”), the speaker takes “a shit behind skinny oaks” and asserts (more than elsewhere) an Irish-Catholic-pagan-Gypsy-outlandish-Mexican (non-)identity (“No Identity Crisis Here” reads another relevant title), fusing a Whitmanesque celebratory union-with-the-cosmos eroticism (“I long for the lightning/ of your ejaculate in my mouth, on my breasts/ between the folds and fabric of my flower./ Call it a pussy or a cunt, or the shores of an eel-infested river”) with her unmistakable sarcasm, fierce political/gender critique and brilliantly ironic associations (“Only do not […] pretend to care about the young girls/ who open their mouths like milking machines on dairy farms,/ or take it in the ass, all to remain immaculate until marriage./ I wiped my ass with dry oak leaves, and yes it scratched.”) 

            The poet’s deepest and most intense purpose always keeps its promise—and therefore the last poem in the collection is indeed an eschatological poem… “of sorts.”  And not in spite, but actually by means of self-irony as well (yet is this just self-irony?—“J. Dominique is certain that Christ will return soon/ […]/ as a guest at the wedding of two men madly in love/ and turn tap water into bubbly water”), the ardently mystical vibrates ever stronger, so much the more as it is (in the end as well as in the beginning) experienced strictly on a stripped corporeal level.  Listen to this crossover ballad-chant-lease-like ending; there is multifaceted irony here indeed, only that it aims beyond the traditional postmodernist paradigm, while still sounding postmodern (although it is not for the first time in the book that Dwyer euphonically pairs holy and body).  This is probably the greatest merit of this first collection and the major promise that Joanne Dominique Dwyer may represent:

            And she’ll be ashamed for her ego-driven desire
               to be listed among the holy,
               and humbled into a hollow love for her body—
               no matter how temporary the occupancy.


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