I’m in a dorm room in Stalnaker Hall, which looks out over the downtown campus of West Virginia University, lovely today, I think, even though sheathed in mist. As with all things, it’s a matter of perspective, and my joy in being here in a place that has been so special to my life colors even this rainy, humid day lovely in my eyes. I’m in town, once again, as a faculty member at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, pleased to be among old friends and peers and students of all ages who want to learn how to make better stories and poems, who want to reach others in that particularly poignant and alchemic way that creative writing makes possible. I’m in my element.
I’ve spent the last hours reading through the poems that have graced A Poetry Congeries during the past year and this, too, has added to my sense of comfort and well-being as I always find it remarkable and reassuring that so many wonderful poems find their ways into my little assemblage each month. It makes me feel like there’s still some hope in the world, still a sense of community and empathy that exists in these outwardly antagonistic and futile times when we seem destined to suffer a few decades at least of compassionless Corporatocracy or worse. In art I find solace and hope, and so in re-reading these poems I remember not only why I chose them but also why they matter to me and to those gathered here on the WVU campus.
But my job today is an impossible one, to choose a handful of poems from the treasure chest and claim for them notability beyond the others. Impossible yet, on any given day, certain work will strike a specific reader, in a specific situation, in a particular way, and in doing so it reveals itself as a conduit to something akin to communion. On another day, in sunny weather and looking out of a different window, my choices would differ, but this day, these are the poems that attach themselves to my head and heart. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I have, and I hope as well that you will make time to seek out the rest of the wonderful work that dwells this expanding universe of poems I’ve named A Poetry Congeries.
September, 2011: An especially rich and varied congeries, but these offerings from a writer I first became aware of not through his poems but through his criticism, Stephen Burt, strike me as some of the best Burt poems I’ve read, more mature and controlled (in the best sort of way) than poems I’d read from his earlier books. The first of these, particularly, displays a tongue-in-cheek surface that dissolves in places, like a thin sheet of ice, to reveal the more earnest contemplation of urban life below. And Brenda Hillman, always uniquely herself, contributes a poem that speaks to basic humanity, the need to feel and say no matter the cost.
October, 2011: Not only did I finally manage to get poems from Brian Turner, whom I’d hounded for a couple of years, but in the deal I learned of his wife, Ilyse Kusnetz’s, fine poetry and was able to add her work to the mix and interview them jointly. Peter Campion, much like Stephen Burt, I believe to be one of our finest young poet/critics, and the offering here enacts a dance of compassion and voyeurism and helplessness that so “gets” our contemporary situation. I heard Jeffrey McDaniel read some years ago and found his work compelling both on and off the stage and so was thrilled when he sent me these. Funny? Sure. But they’re laced with the underlying vibration of heartbreak.
November, 2012: A Thanksgiving issue indeed. I give thanks for the privilege of publishing the work of Natasha Trethewey once again. I had previously published a long sequence from Natasha’s second book of poems, Bellocq’s Ophelia, during my days as the Poetry Editor for Kestrel, well before the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard and, now, her being named Poet Laureate of the United States. Her eagerly-awaited latest collection, Thrall, should be available anytime now. I’ve admired Oliver De La Paz’s poetry for a good while, and these prose poems thrum with energy and surprise. Stan Plumly I’ve known for a number of years. My advisor, Dave Smith, turned me on to his work during my MFA days at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I was struck by his straight-forward poems that are at turns tender and tough. And I can never say enough about Jim Harms, who was one of my favorite poets from the moment I began to read his work in Modern Ocean. Jim’s poems, one after the other, live right up on that narrow ledge between happiness and despair we tiptoe upon daily.
December, 2012: Jake Adam York is a scholar, an activist, and a helluva poet. One can’t help but feel transported into the world of the last stanza of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” while reading Jake’s “’Round Midnight,” and not merely because of the poem’s early allusion to the famous 5 Spot Jazz Club; there is a breathlessness, a quality of light, a tension. It’s a marvelous poem, Emilia Phillips I met at Virginia Commonwealth University while attending a celebration of the life and work of Larry Levis. I read some of her poems in one journal or another a while after that and was very much taken with them. Here is a young poet who’s poised for flight.
January, 2012: I was invited to be on the faculty at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference last November and was glad to have the company there of an old pal, Nickole Brown, who was likewise on the conference faculty. She read a new poem that blew me away, and I’m grateful that it was available and that Nickole allowed me to bring it to you here. A couple of years ago, at the AWP Conference, I ran into Cyrus Cassells and urged him to send me some poems. After a year or so, he sent me these wonderful translations of Catalan poet Francesc Parcerias. Brian Henry, also a terrific poet and translator, offers three contemplative poems that I read over several times just for the experience, and a very fine younger poet, Shara Lessley, is one you ought to read and watch out for.
February, 2012: It’s been years since his stunning first book; life sometimes gets in the way of a writer’s aspirations, but Greg Donovan is back, writing rich, generous poems that suggest his second book can’t be too far away. I await it anxiously. Rae Armantrout had promised to send me work when a little thing called the Pulitzer Prize intervened. I’m very grateful that she came through at a time when everyone was asking her for poems. If you don’t know Joe Millar’s work, you’re in for a treat. He has, somewhat quietly, become a poet’s poet, a poet that those in the know recognize as one to whom we ought pay attention.
March, 2012: I have a soft spot in my heart for poets who, like me, have emerged a bit later in life. Coming on like gangbusters, Michael Broek is on his way. And get ready for Roger Reeves, too, as his first book is on its way from Copper Canyon in 2013. A young writer who has garnered many awards, read these poems and you’ll know why. Like her dad, Peter, Nicole Cooley is a masterful poet. “Estuarium,” in particular, blows me away.
April, 2012: Not the cruelest month at all, Mr. Eliot, as I was able to publish these gritty and wonderful nature poems by Marie-Elizabeth Mali, poems that do what all great nature poems do: they connect nature to human nature in ways that say what’s what. Regina O’Melveny is a poet I’d almost forgotten about. I’d positively reviewed her first book of poems years ago, having been turned onto it by Michael Waters, who’d selected it as the winner of the Bright Hill Press poetry contest. I ran across that book on my shelves and decided to Google her to see what she’s been up to. As you can tell from these poems, she’s been up to writing fine poems. And she’s a novelist, too! Who knew?
May, 2012: Legendary in West Coast poetry circles, Peter Everwine is still bringing the goods, as these poems demonstrate and, in May, I read at a bookstore in North Carolina with Peter Makuck and Maureen Sherbondy, and Maureen read this moving poem. I was thrilled to learn that it was available. A wonderful piece.
June, 2012: Affrilachian Poet, Hip-Hop Head, and Afro-Punk, Mitchell L.H. Douglas brings the heat with his intense poems. Brian Henry returns in his translator garb with brilliant poems from the Slovenian poet Ales Debeljak: “An urgent matter: whoever loves risks many forms / of astonishment.” And two more rising stars, as I see it, also grace this issue. Kara Candito, who was also featured at Connotation Press in a guest-edited column by Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin, returns with four poems in which I gratefully lost myself. Jamaican-born Ishion Hutchinson, for my money, has joined a group of poets from that Caribbean geography—including Walcott and Shara McCallum—whose work just sings of it.
July, 2012: Again, I am a fan of well-done (that is, not pedantic or artless) political poems, and Adrian Louis writes such poems that capture a cross-section of American life in a way that’s honest and dead on. Denise Duhamel poems always make me smile, even though there’s often the sadness of contemporary dysfunction lurking amidst the humor. I’ve been an admirer of Greg Djanikian poems for a long time, so I’m happy to have finally had the chance to publish some of them, and these are excellent examples of why I’m a fan. Finally, Pam Uschuk brings beautiful, thoughtful poems that are considerate and true; what more can we ask for from poetry?
So, adieu until September. Teaser—Jericho Brown will be in the house. Happy August.