Monday, December 04, 2006

Independent and Small Press Book Fair

During last weekend, I attended the Fair held at the Small Press Center. The Center is a member of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, a society whose quaint anachronism pleases me. The Fair itself was of a good size, with exhibitors in multiple rooms on four different floors. When I say "exhibitor," I really mean one table displaying the press's publications, ranging from one to, perhaps, twenty.

I picked up a number of poetry books at a good discount: The Good Thief by Marie Howe, Sakura Park by Rachel Wetzsteon, Cinder by Bruce Bond, Poems of Nazim Hikmet translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, and Open Field: Thirty Contemporary Canadian Poets edited by Sina Queyras.

I also bought H. L. Hix's Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation. In Hix's project, thirty-three poets contributed one of their poems, which was then sent, without the poet's name, to six other poets for their comments. Besides the poem, the commentators got to read the comments written by the poets before them. The poems are published with the poet named, but the commentaries are anonymous. The resulting read is like a high-level poetry workshop, with many provocative insights into the nature and the craft of poetry.

Of A. E. Stallings' "Amateur Iconography: Resurrection," one poet praises it thus:

On first reading, I found this poem very attractive; its ambition--both thematically and formally--is immediately impressive and sets it apart from most contemporary poems I see...

before landing the punch:

While attempting to write a loosely iambic, rhyming poem and therefore to give the poem a formal dress to wear to its formal occasion, the poet, I believe, has overlooked more important formal concerns: there isn't a moment of syntactic drama or of linguistic excitement that remotely complements the narrative drama of the poem. In fact, the writing is very loose, careless even; the dead-as-leeks simile, for instance of line2--a lovely image wonderfully amplified and vivified by "the wispy hair" in line 3--becomes "like bulbs" in line 4. But leeks are bulbs, aren't they? Couldn't the "like" have been dropped from the line to create both greater precision and concision? Yes, of course. And so could most of the prepositional phrases be dropped and condensed, thereby energizing the language, but the poet let an ill-conceived notion of form get the better of her or him, and the lack of precision that followed undermines the poem.

One does not have to agree with the comments to learn from them. In fact, the more provocative comments compel me to re-examine the poem to see if any counter-arguments can be mounted. Or to appreciate more deeply the justice of the remarks.

Of a Charles Bernstein poem that begins: "every lake has a house/ & every house has a stove/ & every stove has a pot" and wends its unchanging way back to the lake: "& every house has a lake," one poet writes (justly, in my thinking):

I wonder why the poet didn't just write this poem, realize that he or she had something very artificial and slight here, and let it be unpublished. Sure, we could talk about it for hours, make stories of it, find import in our ingenious professional ways. But what has this to do with the art of high seriousness to which we've devoted our lives?

A remark like this reminds me why I want to be a poet, to join that company of cracked craftsmen, that verve of vain visionaries.

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