Saturday, March 13, 2010

What I've Been Reading

I haven't devoted a blog post to poetry books in awhile and wanted to take a moment and share some great books I've been reading. I recently made one of my large Amazon purchases of about 8 or 9 poetry books and I've been making my way through them. Most of the ones I bought I got from a friend of mine's syllabus for a course she is taking on documentary poetics in her PhD program. The idea of "documentary poetics" greatly intrigued me and the books have been a great help to me as I've been putting the final touches on a chapbook manuscript called A History of Blood that deals with a real life person and crime. My poetry has always had a huge element of truth to it. I use a lot of own life and experiences in my work and often use current events, pop culture, and history. It was interesting to see the approaches of other poets to depicting something true.

Below are the last four books I've read with just a few thoughts about each one. I highly recommend checking all four out.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland

This is Hoagland's new book, published in January, and it's a great read all the way through. A few months back I devoted a whole blog post to Hoagland and how much I admire his work. His poems are very straightforward, yet leave you pondering this world we inhabit. His poems are very much 21st century poems. He writes about Britney Spears, cell phones, and CNN. This isn't my absolute favorite Hoagland book, but there are some damn fine poems in here. My favorite from the book is one called "Rhythm and Blues," which deals with the death of a friend, but really touches on how we, in this century in America, deal with death. He ends the poem with a beautiful moment of him wearing his friend's shirt and sticking his fingers between the buttons to touch his own skin. It's the kind of poem that makes me have an audible gasp after I'm finished reading it.

Blue Front by Martha Collins

This is one of the books from the documentary poetics course that my friend V is taking and that I'm taking in my head. It's an interesting book that deals with the public hanging by a mob of a black man and a white man in Cairo, Illinois in 1909. The poet's father was just five years old and witnessed the event. Collins has done her research and adds to that research her own imaginings of what it might have been like. The book is presented in a fractured state. There are pieces here and there, broken sentences, and snippets of information. The style of the book is not my personal favorite, but it challenged me to try a less direct narrative approach. In the end, the style adds to the book in that situations like this one are not clear-cut and there aren't simple answers or one narrative at play. There are some beautiful lines and it provides a fascinating look at our racial history. My favorite poem is one about trees and how the hangings weren't done in a tree. She writes, "this / was a modern event, the trees were not involved." This is so simple, yet so telling. I like the emphasis on it being modern. If you do check out this book, I recommend setting aside some time and reading it straight through. It really is one continuous piece.

This Connection of Everyone with Lungs by Juliana Spahr

This is also from my friend's syllabus, but is a very different approach to the idea of documentary poetics. This book is extremely personal, yet incorporates the whole world into it. The book is about connections and about how we can't escape the fact that we are all intertwined. All the poems in the book deal with the time after 9/11 leading up to our invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. This is a tricky subject for poetry and one I was leery about, but Spahr does a fantastic job with it and in the end the book becomes a snapshot of this time period. When I was reading it, I was immediately taken back to those months after 9/11 and then through the next year and half before we invaded Iraq. I could remember all of the news snippets she includes and remember being in college in Southern Indiana and how even there I couldn't escape the events of the world. The poems are set in Hawaii where Spahr lives. Hawaii plays a significant role in the book because of its location and isolation from the rest of the country. The poems are direct narrative and would fit most people's definition of prose poems. The book made me think and made me relive a time in our recent history that now feels so long ago.

One Big Self by C. D. Wright

I've saved this book for last, because it was my favorite and the most useful of the four for my current poetry project. There are moments in my poetic career that I've stumbled upon something at exactly the right moment and this book was one of those moments. I've been working on chapbook manuscript called A History of Blood about a gay porn star who is now in prison in Louisiana. One Big Self is an investigation into prisons in Louisiana. It's a beautifully constructed book that shines a light on our prison system and brings some humanity to prisoners. The book doesn't say what is right or what is wrong, but doesn't let you forget that people are people, no matter what they've done. The book's structure is again fractured. It is pieces of letters, conversations, documents, etc. It is well researched, but also lyrically compelling. It's overwhelming and powerful and everything you could want in a poetry reading experience. I'm indebted to this book because it inspired me to write the last poem of my chapbook and I'm so pleased with that final poem. C. D. Wright will probably never know it, but she gave me my ending.

-Stephen (Reader)

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