Monthly Archives: January 2012

Dear Editor

Dear Editor: Poems by Amy Newman

Annotation by: Telaina Eriksen

As a writer who enjoys writing in multiple genres, it is triply hard for me to keep up with reading the work of my contemporaries, the classics, and the wide variety of interesting literary journals in all three areas of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Added to the sheer number of words being published each year are the pesky intricacies of my job, my spouse, two busy children, a home, and trying to remember to floss, to eat right, and to exercise so as not to become crazy and/or morbidly obese.  Not to mention the time spent on my Facebook newsfeed. Or my own writing.

My reading time is protected and feels almost stolen, but it is also a time ripe for distraction. Sometimes I read a book of poetry and my mind will wander. I will have to begin again at the top of the poem because I have no idea what I’ve just read. Did I let the dog back in? Did I grade all my papers for my next class? Does one of my kids need to be picked up? Can we afford laser treatments for this unseemly mustache I seem to be growing at the age of 43? Why is Rick Santorum’s presidential bid being taken seriously? Why did the boy who used to call me a fat bitch in high school attempt to friend me on Facebook?

I have had a long love affair with the prose poem and particularly love to hear ‘experts’ describe what a prose poem is, or isn’t. This is the equivalent to The Super Bowl for a literary geek. When I cracked open Amy Newman’s Dear Editor I flipped through a few pages and nothing but prose poems greeted me.  Additionally, I was intrigued by the title of Newman’s book as well as each poem’s address to an unnamed editor.

Newman’s address to a faceless editor is just one facet of these marvelous poems. My mind didn’t wander here. I sat, riveted in my chair, book tabs clutched in my right hand, marking almost every page as she explored relationships, Catholicism, chess, writing, being an adolescent. The poems she describes in her poems we never see, lending a fascinating sense or yearning on the reader’s part to put herself or himself behind the editor’s desk and see the enclosed poems talked about in the poems.

This struck a chord with me—how many emails, submishmashes, snail mails have I sent off in my life, containing things for  a stranger that I wouldn’t show to my own kin? And then in sending this piece of yourself out you are told by your hardened and wise literary friends to “not take it personally” and “it is just business.” Part of what hooked me into Newman’s book is my own secret longing not to write a professional and puffed-up cover letter to my poems, short stories and essays that I submit, but to send a deep confession to this unseen and unknown person about to take my work into his or her hands. I’ve wanted to send these confessions not for pity or publication necessarily (though hello, publication whore), but for the warm and soothing balm of some sort of understanding from authority. A brief alleviation of the writerly loneliness. Facebook and family aside, writers sit alone and stare at a screen and wonder, “Is this any good? Hasn’t it all been said and done? What if I’m not good enough?”

My heart felt big and open when I read this book, like hearts do when they are in the presence of the very best poetry.  Newman also satisfied my analytical David Shields’ (Reality Hunger) created need for authorial risk and genre-bending. Are these prose poems fiction or nonfiction? They tell a story, so are they even poems?

Newman mixes showing and telling in the best way and her power of observation and clear-thinking blend together in a beautiful soup of language, saint stories, vegetables from grandmother’s dinners, and metaphors of a chessboard offered up in a whole new way. Also, in quite a few poems, she explores the failures of language and the failures of writing instruction and advice. Newman says, “The teacher said, Write what you know, and I thought, if I had to do that, I would cry instead, and miss out on the workshop discussion” (10) and “…an exploration of how wily my grandparents were in raising a tainted child. But if I tell you that, I will not have rendered, which my workshop class says is something that I must do” (38).

Toward the end of the book, the editor Newman addresses remains as silent as God in response to even the most fervent prayer. The vigil Newman’s speaker holds for the return of her SASEs is like the wait and vigil and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And while this comparison is absurd and funny, it is also poignant and touching and points to something that goes even deeper than the gravitas of the saints and Catholicism. It goes to the heart of humanity. For all of our struggles for power, for our love of creature comforts, for our collections of stuff that allegedly will ward off death, for all the noise and bustle that surrounds our lives, don’t we all, even non-writers, hell, even non-believers, pray that someone is listening? That someone, anyone out there, might pick us out to be special and respond to the litany of pain that life has heaped upon us?

The best poetry articulates something about being human that cannot be expressed in any other way. Amy Newman has done that with this fine collection. Newman illustrates here to writers how to elevate prose to prosody. Newman inspires me to continue to use humor in my narrative nonfiction and in my poems…and to continue to take what “workshop” says with a large grain of salt.

Hoodwinked

book by David Hernandez

annotation by Lisa Cheby

David Hernandez’s recent collection, Hoodwinked,  contains deceptively simple poems.  He writes of butterflies, supermarkets, post offices, and David Letterman.   Of this collection, Carol Muske-Dukes writes, “Hernandez is not fooling around, but this book brilliantly fools with our expectations and inability to focus on what’s in front of us.”   Deborah Lechner writes, “David Hernandez writes fearlessly, unapologetically and coherently of the vital subject of inevitable deterioration.”

However, for me, this book is about memory and storytelling, about the fluidity of truth and reality.  He  poses outrageous questions: “Do butterflies have walking dreams?”     And images that make the eye of our brain spin: from “This is how/ every story telephoned from person / to person becomes after each telling / distorted”  leading us to the tunnel of  images reflecting in the barbershop mirrors, “an endless green tunnel” to “Memory is  murky thing/ always changing its mind” from a poem with epigraphs from the murky memoirist, James Frey.  Later, in “Panoramic,” the poem mocks its own memory distilling the 11 stanzas of the first section down to a single stanza filled simply with “something” (really, in two lines he uses the word four times). 

Hernandez achieves this replication of memory’s murkiness and fictionalization through  repetition.  Thus, Hoodwinked, recreates how we speak and remember and retell and, well,  recreate memories that we un-spin and re-spin until we get the story we know or that we want to know.  We see repetition is the books constant return to memory as well as subtle repetition of words and phrases within poems.  The first poem, “Questions About Butterflies,” is a poem of memory from the speaker’s childhood.  In the poem, the phrase “We are” is repeated, as if recreating the memory, affirming the fiction to be truth.  Later, “butterfly” takes over shifting focus from the “We are” to the reality of the memory:  the questions raised by the butterflies.  “Panoramic,” repeats not through direct repetition, but through the evocation of repetition in mocking the inadequacy of memory or retelling, the blurring of details.   Finally, in the last poem, Hernandez leaves us with one last glimpse of repetition, as ghostly as a memory, starting the final poem with “Through a tunnel,” repeating the imagery of the “endless green tunnel” from “Trompe L’Oeil.”

We never really know when the speaker of the poems is telling the truth or asserting desire truth through the assertion of repetition.  Though, as David says in an interview on “How A Poem Happens,” “There’s a presumption that a poem is more meaningful if the poet describes an experience exactly as it happened, and if he were to fiddle with the facts, then the poem is somehow inauthentic. As if simply sticking to the facts will prevent one from sounding disingenuous. I’m more concerned that the poem sounds emotionally true . . . .”   And on that level, there is no attempt to hoodwink his readers.