Thursday, November 12, 2009

Oh Noes

So, I agreed, somewhat innocently to write this review of a Glenn Beck book for the Brooklyn Rail. I gave the book the benefit of the doubt, and the review isn't a total pan, but it's also not two thumbs up (and you should buy that book).

But it was a funny experience, reading it. For one, though I carried the thing several times on my long bus trips up to Syracuse and back, I had the hardest time opening it up in public. I generally try not to care what strangers think about me, but it felt like opening up a Glenn Beck book in the middle of a bus station was asking for crazy people to wander up and begin ranting about my choice of reading material. So, mostly, I only read it at home.

Now that I'm done with it, I'm left trying to figure out what to do with the thing. It's not thick enough to help me reach the top shelf, or heavy enough to hold open a door. I'd put it on the curb, but who wants that kind of Karma? Sure, we have a little apartment-style webber, but that brings up too many bad associations. So, it's currently tucked into a corner on my bookshelf, awaiting the moment when I finally decide to sneak out in the middle of the night and huck it into a neighbor's trash can.

But then, the other day I get a notice that a package is waiting for me at the Post Office. A package? I'm not expecting anything. I troop on down, and find a slim little package from Simon & Schuster addressed to "Chris Michel, Reviewer" -- ohhh, I'm on a list! I'm starting to get books unsolicited! What fun! What little prize awaits me? I hustle home and tear open the pull-tabs, to discover, this monstrosity. Oh wait, sorry, no. I mean this monstrosity. Gaaaah! Now what do I do?

Thursday, May 28, 2009


My first reaction on reading this article in the New Yorker, was, "oh, great, gimmick poets." They're twins! And they write poems! And they're twins! Then, a few weeks later, I was at this festival and it turned out that Michael Dickman was going to be on a panel, first, and then reading. The panel, which was decorously called "the audience of the future" seemed designed for mostly uninteresting responses from poets about how the internet has changed everything, and no one knows what to do... but Dickman did a neat thing -- he asked some of the grade-school students he teaches (in Portland?) how people would read poems in the future, and then simply read out the list of answers ("on iphones, on the moon, on iphones"). It was funny, and broke up the sententious mood that seems to naturally draw itself up around both Princeton and any academic poetry event. I liked him.

The next day I heard him read. The NY'er had printed some excerpts of both Matthew and Michael's poems, and neither had much impressed me. But this is the problem with my reading poems most of the time: it feels like "good poetry" is a moving target. Is it innovative? Is it satisfying? Is it world-changing? Does it comfort my afflictions? Does it afflict my comforts? Does it surprise me? It's always easy to dismiss a poem, especially a new poem.

But hearing Michael read gave me a sense -- a sonic sense -- of what he was after. And the poems, which seemed empty and unsurprising, became instead sparse, and filled with an austere reverence. They are not sonic boom boom fireworks, but they are sprinkled with a few words that surprise more than it even seems they should. For instance this, the first section of a poem titled Into the Earth:

The best time was the first time, on the floor of her living room
people walking past the apartment outside
talking loudly

Almost naked
on the carpet

If you take me
into the bedroom
you know
you could fuck me

Streetlight beginning to pile up outside her windows, along the
couch, pooling into her
sunken hips


... what begins as a very typical love poem, or first-sex poem, is turned by those last two words. The image of White Cathedrals seems out of place, and then strangely resonant of the reverence and the grandeur and the beauty of the "best, first time" of making love.

Talking with a friend, he noted that Dickman thanks Franz Wright for his support and friendship, and these poems seem to be heavily influenced by Wright's sparse style (and possibly also subject matter: both poets recount harrowing experiences with violence and drugs). I hadn't read Wright much before, and I've only read a little since. It might be that Dickman is cribbing everything from his mentor. But these poems are not Wright's poems. And to me, at this moment, they feel fresh, and personal, and most importantly, enjoyable to read.

All too often, as a writer reading poetry, I get caught up in the evaluating of another writer's poems. I think about that shifting target of what poems do, and all the many different (sometimes opposite) things I want my own poems to do. I lose sight of the idea that poems are meant to be read and enjoyed. And that, in a certain way, if they're not first and foremost enjoyable, exciting or interesting (even -gasp!- fun) then they're not doing what they need to be doing.

Dickman's first book isn't, maybe groundbreaking. I don't know the ground enough to tell one way or another. But it's lovely, and fun to read, and taken as a whole (not excerpted, as I have done) the poems build well on one-another, so that by the end you feel that you, as the reader, have changed a little, have begun to understand the world a little differently. That seems like enough to justify a book.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Drinking from the firehose

what's your reaction to something like this: Mine is to be somewhat overwhelmed. I'm not sure exactly why, but it doesn't make me want to rush off and read everything. And yet, I'm happy -- sort of -- that it's up there. I'd much rather think that I have access to all of that than that I don't. But I'm not any more inclined, once I know that it's there, to do much about it.

Now, if I had a research paper to write about 18th, 19th or early 20th century american poetry, I'd be off like a shot. I'd dive deep into that archive. But when I'm home, and wanting to curl up with a good read? Forgetting that the computer is hard to curl up with, I'd be overwhelmed by all the options. I don't think I could do it.

And this, I think, is the one thing that the book still has, solidly, over other media. The internet, and its various portals are excellent as a content delivery system. So they work flawlessly for reading that we do for "content" -- news, academic research, classifieds, etc. But that's not the only reason to read. Poetry and fiction are the least content-oriented forms of writing. They are entertainment in a certain sense, but more often I think we conceive of reading a book as an experience. We look to novels and poetry to provide us with a state of being, and that is tied directly to their artifact-ness. It's why so many people like to get books signed. Actually having the thing in your hand is a reminder of a particular experience. And the experience of reading one book is different than the experience of reading another book.

Content delivery portals like the Kindle or my Macbook, are fine for certain types of reading. But for experiential reading, the sense I get is of being overwhelmed. Reading a book still needs to be a unique, special experience. It needs to be a connection, and that can't happen without the object itself.