Tag Archives: lyric essay

Eagle Spots Dog

The hum of power lines like whistling oblivion. In the middle of a yard. Over there the fields stretch and hump one over the other. An eagle swoops, but I do not stand in awe at the eagle’s majestic wingspan or it’s white head, knife beak. Instead, I run for the little dogs that chase each other in the yard: knit toy, muddied paws, chewing bark. They do not know that eagles have been known to snatch small animals from yards. I imagine the worst. They do not know why I run close and call them with angry voice or with arms flailing and wrap myself around them. The eagle circles above, dipping low, but I am not a small animal and the eagle has kept its course, has passed me over, has spared me. I do not see the eagle. My body has that electric feeling like when you round the corner and see a celebrity in the shoe store or smoking on the corner outside the coffee shop in New York city, that moment when the lights dim, go black, and then, with tremendous force, shoot on to reveal the spectacle of something live, something living. Another bird caws above me, but it is not an eagle, it is a seagull, the rat of the air. My wife, who has never seen a seagull, says, “look at that one. It’s beautiful.” “Did you see the eagle?” “No,” she says, “but I watched you run away.” “Go inside,” I say to the dogs,” go and play and I’ll feed you soon.” We stand and wait. I am waiting for the eagle again. It does not come.

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Contradiction and Community: A Talk with Dan Magers

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The poetic work of Dan Magers is challenging and engaging, beautiful and mysterious. A few weeks ago I wrote a short piece about one of Magers’ poems and, more recently, had the chance to speak with him about poetry, process, and influences to his work. The results of this conversation, printed below, hopefully give some fresh insights while providing us with a context of how a poet works and thinks. I would like to thank Dan Magers for his time and thank you for taking the time to read this conversation.

A TALK WITH DAN MAGERS:

Jamie Grefe: Do you find yourself exploring philosophical ideas through your poetry? Do those two worlds ever overlap in your writing?

Dan Magers: Yes, and no. I sometimes use the language of philosophy a lot in my writing,
but I feel like philosophy and poetry have different aims. There is this quote I heard in grad
school, though I forgot who said it: philosophy and science are about finding contradiction and reconciling it, but poetry and art find the contradiction, but are fine with just leaving it, or even heightening it. But I do think my work is influenced by philosophy.

Grefe: Do you write every day? I’m very interested in your writing habits and how a piece might take form. I know that’s a very open-ended question with many different possible answers, but any insights into your process would be interesting.

Magers: No, I don’t consciously write every day, and particularly right now I’m really busy with work. This used to be something that made me freak out all the time, not being able to have time to write, but I’ve become more relaxed about it in the last few years, understanding that sometimes it’s okay to take breaks. I think about writing and poetry every day. For the last few years, I’ve usually written stuff down in a big Word file of stuff, and then later I’ll start selecting parts that still speak to me, and then try to collage them into poems. That’s how Partyknife was written and that’s how I’ve been writing lately, a little different from my first chapbook Exploitation Poems, which was a little more deliberate, written in unrhymed, metered sonnets, though I’m sure there were lines that became stuck in my head that I would then try to put in the poems, etc.

Grefe: Do you feel your method resonates with the line, “a poem is never finished, only
abandoned,” or do you feel that you get to a point where you can comfortably say, “this
particular piece is where I think it should be.” That is, do you ever feel that some of your older work could be remixed or revised or rewritten? I often have that feeling with my own work, but am not sure how others deal with that feeling.

Magers: I write a lot, but I am very picky about saying when a poem is “done.” I usually will
finish something and then hold onto it for a long time, constantly rereading it, and then usually I’ll keep revising. At some point, I intuitively think that a given piece is done. When I was revising the Partyknife manuscript, I definitely went back and cannibalized old poems, and that’s definitely something that I’m pretty okay with – taking the strongest lines from old stuff and combining that poetic DNA with new strong stuff to make better poems. I don’t publish very prolifically, so I usually have a lot lying around.

Grefe: Do you find yourself reading a lot of poetry?

Magers: Yes, I do read a lot of poetry – I’m surrounded by other poets in NYC, and besides
reading their work, they are always suggesting new stuff, and I’m also just reading stuff I come across too.

Grefe: That must be quite a wonderful thing, to be surrounded by a supportive and engaging community.

Magers: It is really great being surrounded by other poets – it’s one of the great things about living in NYC. There is a big and supportive community of writers.

Grefe: Have you considered or attempted writing fiction or exploring the “poetic” or “lyric”
essay form? (which leads to an underlying question of: why poetry?)

Magers: There was a point in late 2008/early 2009, where I was like “fuck poetry, what’s the point” and I started writing short stories. I wrote three of them: the first two were pretty good conventional stories, and then the third was this more experimental but crappy piece that came out of reading Lydia Davis I guess. I went back to poetry, and actually that third story became the backbone of the narrative that runs throughout Partyknife. and When I was editing the manuscript, I took a ton of stuff from that story. I’m into the idea of the lyric essay, though I guess I don’t think very much about whether my writing is fitting in one genre or not. I’ve been reading and rereading Dana Ward’s first book This Can’t Be Life, and that book is so prose-heavy, and very infused by memoir, and yet I have no problem with calling it poetry. He also thinks of it as poetry, too—the opening poem is partly about just that.

Grefe: That’s, perhaps, one of the beauties of poetry–just how large and encompassing
it is. I taught sonnet writing last year to high school students, which was amazing, but I’m
always interested in how one can gain a sense of writing poetry. So, how do you think one can become a more astute reader/writer of their own work, especially when creating a collection of poems? Also, did you decide the narrative backbone prior to writing Partyknife or did it arise from below and begin to organically seep through?

Magers: I think one of the outcomes of not being a teacher is that I don’t think as much about how to define or talk about writing, since I don’t really have to boil it down for students. I do feel like if one is reading and writing poetry that they see the world a little differently, maybe not as straightforwardly, more okay with living among the contradictions. Maybe that is just me. The narrative for PK I think sort of organically grew probably before even writing the short story I mentioned. The Birds editors edited it very thoroughly and intensively, and when I was revising, a lot of the stuff from the story got used for the book. I also expanded on the characters in the book based on editor suggestions. It’s not a memoir, but I kind of think of the book as the last will and testament of my 20s.

Grefe: Do you have any close readers who you tend to share your unpublished work with
(perhaps, friends or family) or do you tend to keep your work private until released?

Magers: I have about a half dozen close readers of my work, though it’s only been lately that I’ve been showing new work to them. Basically all of 2012 I was just writing and not showing anything to anyone. I felt like I could indulge in that because I had a new book out and the pressure was off to finish anything new. My readers are generally other NYC poets who are my friends.

Grefe: In closing, would you mind sharing some influences with me? I’m an avid reader and I’m sure there are some other readers out there who are interested in exploring influences. Poets? Fiction? Philosophers?

Magers: there are a ton, I don’t even know where to begin. I feel like different influences have come at different times, and some I haven’t returned to in a while. One of my favorite books is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son. The language of that book continues to blow my mind and I reread passages of that book pretty often. I was a huge John Ashbery fan in grad school and he no doubt influenced me, though I don’t really write like him anymore and haven’t read his work lately. I think I was really taken with This Can’t Be Life in 2012, and I’m finishing up a review of it.I was blown away by Ariana Reines’ second book Coeur de Lion when I first read it. I also just love reading stuff on the Internet, like Wikipedia, or doing cursory readings of the technical language of aerospace and civil engineering, which I don’t have training in and don’t really understand, or about ecology and other sciences. Some of those things are maybe not yet that present in my work. I’m fascinated with religious writing, it definitely goes on…and that’s just the literary influences. I’m very influenced also by music and film.

Grefe: Any projects on the horizon?

Magers: I have a few new projects in the works, but I feel like at least some of them will come to nothing. The more I conceptualize projects, the less I tend to write them. I need to look at the drafts I’ve finished in 2012 and early this year to see what I have, try to finish some of those. I have some book project ideas, but it will probably take a while to work through them.

Grefe: Well, I wish you the best with your work. I’m sure those drafts hold many beautiful
poems. Thank you so much for your time.

Magers: Thanks so much for interviewing me.

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America

I am back in America. Trees stretch like paint gobs. The sky is as large as the Walmart that we end up at everyday (to feel stimuli, to be stimulated). You and me. We push the cart past tubs of DVDs, dog food, Milk Bones, baby clothes (bright pink, electric neon), Asian Food (Teriyaki Noodle), Jacked chips, Speedy Checkouts.

We might park by the lake and take a photo to show others how far a lake can be or what clouds look like when we sit in a car and talk. We are in Michigan. I’ll stop at the Doggie Wash where we can wash the dogs ourselves, but when I enter, no one is there: two tubs, insert bills, spray hose, oatmeal bath. Call Joanne for details.

The television shows Boston. The television says no one knows why or who or how many and we mourn. Some are dead. Some are limbless. I hear weeping.

It rained last night, but when I stand in the dusk and walk Butoh steps across the lawn, I feel less wet than the grass tells me I should be.

Our dog limps. She has stepped on too sharp snow. We have two dogs. One of our dogs was dropped off in Detroit, her kennel left abandoned there by Immigration, by a garage door like that whole place is one large warehouse. Our other dog was driven from Chicago, driven to a Days Inn (thirty hours away from us). I spent two days in the Days Inn and had continental breakfast (biscuits and gravy, cereal, a bagel) while the television spoke of Cuba, of tornadoes, of caution.

Yes, I’m back in America and this is the wide sky I jump into as I push a cart from the electronic doors of Walmart, past the feed, past the gigantic automobiles and to the corral. I will listen to Scott Walker on the way home. The way home. I like the way that sounds. The way home. I could say that forever. 

Mystery Hybrid: Further Thoughts on the Lyric Essay

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I did a recent post on an article featuring explanations of the lyric essay and today I would like to open up one more quote, this one, from Judith Kitchen. She writes: 

“…Like a poem, the lyric essay must not only mean, but be. It is a way of seeing the world. A hybrid—a cross between poetry and nonfiction—it must, as Rene Char said of the poet, ‘leave traces of [its] passage, not proof,’ letting mystery into the knowing. Or the knowing to incorporate its mystery. And part of that knowing is through sound—the whisper of soft consonants, the repetition of an elongated vowel that squeaks its way across the page, the chipping away of k-k-k-k, the assonance and consonance of thought attuned to language. The internal rhyme of the mind. “(46)”

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1. The lyric essay must be. I don’t know if I understand this particular angle. I assume it is referring to the shape or path of the piece as it is as an experience, the essence or the spirit of the essay–the presence of it over and above its meaning, the “character” of the piece, perhaps.

2. It is a form of perception (a way of seeing). This is straightforward enough. It allows us to be aware of the frame of the piece and how it is, not only what it stands for. It is not framed only in expressing a logical argument, but in presenting the argument in ways that may seem strange, unusual, unique, or even cinematic. It is an experience in a new way of seeing. 

3. It is a hybrid, leaving traces of its proof. The lyric essay does not seek to demonstrate, but to infiltrate, to linger and fester in the mind of the reader. A fragmented piece, while reading it, might baffle the reader, but upon exit, upon reflection, cracks that went unnoticed might rise to the surface and take a wholly new form.

4. Mystery. The lyric essay is a space for wonder, for curiosity, for smearing and blurring, for making clear (or making messy) and for slicing, dicing, cutting, and weaving. It is a spot of suspense and beauty, a thing-in-itself, and a passage–a corridor.

5. The importance of sound. Like the way a song lingers, the lyric essay should linger as more than “information,” but more as an entrance. One should enjoy or revel in the pleasurable experience of voicing a lyric essay, of reading it aloud, be drawn in by the sound, the music, the poetry. 

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Smile, Villain, for the Wolf is American: On Charles Willeford’s High Priest of California

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The High Priest of California–a “smiling villain:” treacherous, lecherous–a beast (a wolf in a suit). It’s good fun. And, in this way, Willeford’s classic pulp tale of a used car salesman’s exploits, the portrait is painted of a man (Mr. Russell Haxby) in love with the world, a monster of life obsessed by women, by the pursuit of women, well, one particular woman–a tragic woman. Simply stated, this book is the tale of a man bent on destruction for gratification. Haxby wants what he wants and will get what he wants whatever the consequences. No–this is a book about consequences, about how to dodge consequences at all costs in order to preserve one’s solitude. This is not your typical noir, crime, pulp novel–it’s the study of a character and immersion into the mind of a sociopath. Enter the muck.

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Willeford’s poem “Sportsman” reads, “I dipped my finger in love/And found pain./I dipped my Finger in hate/And found pain.” It ends with the lines: “But there was nothing in/Between:/Tonight I’ll go bowling.” This shift from the metaphoric, the power of what is behind (underneath, projected onto, created) to the mundane–the distraction–is how Willeford’s High Priest of California makes sense of things. It reads as something so quick that one must pause to breathe in the layers. In some ways, it is the story of the pursuit of the ideal, the journey toward the end and the disgust that occurs upon reaching the destination. Or, it could be a spin-off on that classic line, “Be careful what you wish for…” But, Haxby is too careful, too conniving. He knows better than to be a victim.

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E.M. Cioran often discusses “lucidity” as that moment when meaning is stripped from things and one perceives things in a way that transforms that thing from what it means to a sense of what it is (or is not–the thing shattered). An example would be perceiving the corpse inherent in a living person, the corpse that one will eventually become. Another example would be to conjure a goal and imagine it through to the end and, in doing so, choose not to act in any way (to resign oneself to the bed, to the horizontal). Cioran’s “lucidity” or “dose of lucidity” is apt when we look at High Priest of California. Haxby, like Cioran, suffers from this dose–comes to perceive things in a way that alters his entire malicious plan in a new direction. He maunders onward.

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“Tonight I’ll go bowling.” Yes, there is the spirit of America in this book, a gritty, yet Technicolor America of the 1950s (or thereabouts)–the American man at his lowest. It is sharp suits, hats, hearty breakfasts, American cars, Italian food, dancing, smoking cigarettes, slugging gin, or a hot towel on the face to sink into the abyss. It is a nice entrance into the world of Charles Willeford, novelist supreme, a nice entrance into a spiral of madness.

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Smearing the Silver Film

I have not read anything by Katey Schultz. I have, however, thanks to the wonders of Google, come across a post she wrote, which features a handful of quotations on the lyric essay. Thank you, Katey Schultz. 

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One quotation she provides is by Brenda Miller who writes:

“The lyric essay doesn’t look too long at itself in the mirror. It is not ‘self-reflective,’ in that it does not really reflect the self who scribbles it down. Rather, it is the mirror, the silver film reflecting whatever passes its way…And that’s how the lyric essay happens: When there’s no bothersome self to get in the way. When the writing finds its own core. When it finds the language it needs on its own…What I’m trying to say is: The lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken.” (23-25)

I have just read the first two sentences (now, in revision mode, the whole piece). Thoughts: How can an essay “not really reflect the self who scribbles it down?” If whatever passes our way must be made meaningful in whatever ways we bring to bear (our capacities for making meaning), then isn’t the lyric essay still reflective of the writer who writes it, even if “I” don’t get in the way? Even if it is “the mirror, the silver film reflecting whatever passes its way …” it can still capture (or describe) the self that is doing the writing.  Perhaps, that last sentence should be reworded into a question. It slips my mind, but there is the quotation of “whatever the self describes, describes the self” and is she speaking to this quotation? To a different angle that I am unable to grasp?

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“When the writing finds its own core.” Is this the moment of writing when we are not conscious of ourselves as writing, when thought peaks to match the tempo of the typing and the words just flow onto the page–thought uninterrupted (spewing words)? Is it how after reading a piece of your own writing, you surprise yourself by finding that the voice on the page is somehow different–or better–than your own, but it is your own? How do we let a piece “find the language it needs on its own?” I ask this honestly and humbly…

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Gaps: If the lyric essay “happens in the gaps,” then how can be deepen and extend our own gaps? Are our “gaps” graspable? What are some methods for shoveling, for digging, for sinking into the gaps of our own depths? Or, is Miller speaking more of style, of the way a lyric essay takes off, rambles, shambles, maunders in a world of its own making (i.e. the gaps as anti-traditional structure)? 

Link

Ander Monson:: Essay as Hack

Ander Monson gives so much to think about I find myself too jittery to type, too ready to stand up and walk around just to let myself think about my own essays, what they mean, how they mean, what they are, how they are, and how they could be/need to be laid down, thought upon, digested, dissected.

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I hope to return to this link for some future posts, but for now, let’s add it to the lyric essay links we are building here and let Monson’s wisdom stir around in our glasses of afternoon air–breathe: the air is good here, unhealthy, but good for essayistic lungs:

And what about the lyric essay? Have we forgotten it? It proceeds in chunks, disconnected fragments. It pauses, tacks around the subject or dead-end through white space.

In some ways the lyric essay is the most essay sort of essay.

Our lyric variety of the essay is a polyglot. It is pansexual. If the essay is a ball, the lyric essay is a super sticky power ball. But calling the essay lyric doesn’t add all that much. It specifies, I guess, that this essay is a lyric one. It closes down some of the dimensions through which essay might move.

Essay itself is already polymorphic. It is oversexed in its potential union with anything: polemic, story, treatise, argument, fact, fiction, lyric.

But lyric has freshened up the essay world, it seems, so we should be grateful.