Tag Archives: Poetry

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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Anatomy Courses: A Few Scribbles Between Lessons

Anatomy Courses Vocabulary List (unit seven): , wallpaper, New Hypermind Deformity Cauldron, cookies, Gilles De Rais, Aztec, newborn, mole, leach, um-um, everready, magicked, life-sac, crunch-rain, Sinatra, lymph, scissors, rap, pajamas, backfire, tinfoil, egg, milk, robe, tea, pork, Xerox, zillion, gravity, barf, beer, tee-tee, axe, Pasolini, exfoliate, languid, Vietnam, swaddle, OK, 33, 3

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I study ANATOMY COURSES the way  one might boil the slime smear of bird skin scattered and scorched on the lawn into etchings yellowed on the teeth of dead rattlesnakes.

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[I may still be somewhere wandering on that lawn, groping for the window] One should suspend the injection of oneself and let the anatomy courses first settle in the mouth. They will dissolve on the tongue. Chew. Swallow. Exhale. Don’t forget her ipecac-laced scalpels for the scrub-down. You may pick those up in the lobby called “Father.”

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Anatomy Courses Vocabulary List (unit two): mastectomy, wart, quarantine, carnation, sheen, tutu, universe, slush, egg, box, gong, Disney, wine, gland, Ambien, mummify, bib, moustache, hysterectomy, filibuster, colostomy, stoma, hematoma, carrion, tummybulb, vortex, puppysong, narcoleptic, prism, eon, lard, keyhole, unstuck, armpit, thorax, flesh, Magic Eye, Andromeda, vanilla, servile, kerosene, temperature, slop-bits, ajar, yeast, vaseline, BBBBurn, sternum, Saturn, B-minor, P-solo, basin, methadone, neo-nursery, doppelganger, lovehandle, pay-per-view, brainstem, mammalian, mudflap, tuna, insulin, chewball, canal, cigarette, grouse, mount, hammy, broom, spit, Taco Bell

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Toward a Definition of the Lyric Essay: Observations on The Seneca Review

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This article is probably more for my own understanding than anything else, but if it helps a few people down the road, then that makes it even more meaningful, magical.

I stumbled across lyric essays a few years ago when reading works by Michael Martone, Brian Oliu, Lia Purpura, John D’Agata and others whose names are slipping at the present moment (feel free to list your favorites in the comments section, esp. links to great online pieces).

It was the way those essays swerved and cut, turned in on themselves or shot out down so many lost highways that pulled me in. It was the focus on how the essay was as opposed to what it was trying to convey. Also, I was a high school English teacher, so most of the essays we did in the classroom were standard five paragraph essays: persuasive, research, comparative, personal narrative. After spending time with the above-mentioned writers and digging a little below the surface, I was taken in by this most gratifying form of the lyric essay and now, some years later, continue to grow, question, fail, write, learn, listen.

From what I can gather, this article from The Seneca Review is a solid entrance into a working definition of the lyric essay. Let’s dig in:

These “poetic essays” or “essayistic poems” give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.

1. The form (artfulness) of the essay takes prevalence over content or traditional introduction-body, conclusion structure. Information is not just conveyed, it is shaped.

1.1. What are specific examples of this artfulness? Failures? Successes?

2. “Idiosyncratic meditation:” the lyric essay is a place to ruminate, to ponder, to wander.

The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

2.1. Form///Density///Shapeliness///Distillation///

7.1. Language///Weight///Engagement///Imaginative///

It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. Generally it is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.

3.2. Associate: apple, red, blood, body, human, word, tongue, Eve, Eva Mendes, mend, stitch, needle, poodle, stick, leap, gorge, gurgle, the way spit sticks to the roof of the mouth.

3.3. Form Notes: Concise, Punchy, Meander, Recombinant, Fiction, Drama, Journalism, Song, Film

Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.

4.0. How does a piece spiral? What does it mean to circle the core? Are we assuming there is a thesis?

4.1. Stalker: Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, Leatherface, Scream

4.-0. How does one express the form of a dance through a piece of writing?

Loyal to that original sense of essay as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language – a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning.

5.5. “Uncharted course,” “Interlocking,” “Circumstance,” “Questioning,” “Quest.”

We turn to the lyric essay – with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language – to give us a fresh way to make music of the world.

666. Music like: Sensational, Danny Brown, Secret Chiefs 3, David Sylvian, Kool Keith, Will Oldham, Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, Fear of God, Pig Destroyer, Scelsi, Harold Budd, Claude Young, The Locust.

“…there are new worlds to be found.”

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Link

A Mysterious Form

I just started in on this interview with Lia Purpura. Seriously good stuff here on the craft of essay writing:

Lia Purpura: The issue of how one discernible genre grows from another is utterly mysterious to me. I’m certain that I’m writing prose, though my essays are called “lyric essays.” In fact, I’ve just written an essay titled “What is a Lyric Essay?” for Seneca Review. In it, I’m making a plea for allowing the form to remain as mysterious as possible. I do mean “mysterious” though in the best way – challenging and magical and able to work on a reader and knit up above the page. I don’t mean at all “unclear” or “sloppy”. The language ought to be as precise as possible in order to affect the most unlikely moves. When I’m writing, an impulse makes itself known as a prose itch or poem-itch. Some failed poems have extended out into prose and found their musculature that way. I don’t think a derailed essay has ever turned itself into a poem.”

As I’m currently re-reading Purpura’s “On Looking” for enjoyment and craft technique, I find passages like this illuminating when itching to craft my own pieces and extend my grasp on how an essay could be. If you have any great examples of lyric essays that move you with their magic and/or that you have written, please drop a comment or two. 

We Are Made of Sisters

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My sisters and I end up at the river. This is the river of blood-water. We swim until there is no more water we have not touched. We are not thirsty. Thirst is not why we dive to the bottom. The bottom is too far down for my sisters and I to touch with our feet. When we place feet in water and melt bodies to water, we are made of blood–my sisters are made of nails that I have lost. I lose my sisters on a day when rain hits the river and we are swimming, too much drinking of blood, too much splashing the weather to shift, rain stones, logs, timber, thunder. I come to the river, my sisters and I, to taste how our parents feel when on nights like this, they wait on the porch for us to crawl like bugs on the lawn and, on hands and knees, beg to be let back in so we can sleep in our beds, rest in our beds until the next day comes. The next day, we swim. It is not normal for rivers to flow blood-water, but this river is not a normal river, it is a mouth and we are the tongue that makes the water speak in ways that the blood does: red, river, red. Sometimes boys come to the river to watch us swim–they say, “blood-girls, we’ll watch,” and those boys don’t get to go home if those boys watch us swim in the river, no, it’s not the way of our mouths keeping. Tongues lipping like oracles lure the boys into the caverns of our mouths. Yes, our mouths are rivers of boys screaming. I feel their nails claw my belly when I swim in the river, my sisters and I, but their nails are like logs and stones made of rain–little, too little. I like the sound. Our parents are gone now. The boys won’t come back and as I raise my head from the blood-water I call to my sisters, I say, “sisters, sisters let’s go home,” but they are floating away, too far away, in a place where the blood-water is no longer what I think it is–it is the inside of my body. 

Words To Paint Lives By

Be like how snow in March makes dogs run circles. Toast friends over liters of Japanese beer, over networks and signals and interfaces for eyes to burn out on. Leave them behind. It’s been four years and at least we have these words–words to paint lives by. The dogs run circles around words down paths where the grass tastes like sun and the wind-tears we wipe on dirtied sleeves somehow make us feel less dirty. So, my island friend, my one of the seat in which I might someday sit once more, may we drink to your health and to the chance you took, no, the chance you gave, for me to be able to write these words to you four years later. It makes life even better–like snow, like running dogs.

On Dan Magers and Jim Wynorski

Dan Magers is a poet whose work I hope to read more of soon. He co-founded and edits Sink Review. His collection, “Party Knife” is on my spring reading list and I’m itching to savor it, to use that knife as gift, as inspiration. This evening I read his poem, “Frat House Massacre,” published in Spooky Boyfriend #4. Since the poem is relatively short and the link has been provided, I will present the poem to you here as it appears in Spooky Boyfriend:

FRAT HOUSE MASSACRE

The abandoned house they pack their buddies in
is perfect, being miles away from cops.
Outside, nothing moves that isn’t blown
by wind. The skinny blondes are represented.
Psychology class created cat fight goes:
“I ain’t talking to a professional,
I’m talking to a slut!” So speaketh Jean.
Inside nothing moves that isn’t blown….

Whoever’s left is in the woods, pursued
while Joey’s drowsy on the floor, last thoughts
about the wonderful times with Conor, Phil,
Ron Forty, Jeff Dog, on the balcony,
where we watched that idiot with the hair,
and kitschy, kitschy Kathy—make us laugh!

Having not read much of his other work, I cannot comment on this piece in the context of what he has already written, so with that in mind, I would like to open up the poem in a way that speaks only to my reading of this single poem.

By the title (the “hook” that drew me in) I conjure images or horror, B-movies, and exploitation films, the most famous being The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, yet Magers does not speak of this “massacre” in gory detail or of any kind of traumatic event as it might be presented were this piece focused on a horror-event or meant to shock or frighten. I do not think this piece is meant to frighten. An event: Something does occur in the piece, some gathering or happening, which I can only speculate is the “massacre,” but our gaze as reader is not there–not slaughtered on the floor at the house in the woods. Our gaze moves inside to the aftermath of something (a party?), to how friendship bubbles slits of memories. Names of friends are listed, spoken by Joey who is currently relishing his “last thoughts,” the thoughts of others, perhaps others from the frat house, and laughter. Yes, this house in the woods is most likely the frat house as per the title.

A fragment of Jean’s speech is spoken, presented formally–antiquated: “So speaketh Jean.” And the others? Have they died? Were they massacred? Forgotten? Were this a traditional slasher, we would be given the details of the killer, but we are not. Not tonight. Not at this party.

The words, “nothing moves that isn’t blown” is repeated twice in the piece. Is Magers speaking of the wind in the second passage, too? Is he speaking of a sexual act of some sort? Is this some kind of drug reference that I don’t understand? Coupled with the “frat house” title and the exploitation genre (if this, indeed, does pay some homage to the genre in some way), I want to read this second line in multiple ways, but I want to feel the wind, be chopped by this wind. I want this all to be metaphor.

The voice shifts at the end of the poem from a third-person POV to a first-person memory as if to conjure the way friendships blur–this move into the interior gives strength to how this poem resonates within me. I feel a quick snapshot quality to the ending (but it is the most potent for me, too), a whimsical detachment, perhaps even in the face of death or, again, how friends change. Simultaneously, I feel something has vanished and it is this vanishing that is lingering within me after reading the poem and writing this piece. That, and the kitsch. That word, “kitsch,” reminds me of a film that also places friends in a house far away from police–Cheerleader Massacre directed by the great Jim Wynorski.

This last winter, steeped in research for an unfinished novella, I partook in a feast of B-movies by Wynorski. The Cheerleader Massacre–much different from Magers’s Frat House Massacre–is a fine piece of Wynorskian exploitation rife with debauchery, a broken down vehicle, a maniacal prowler on the loose, and, of course, cheerleaders. Now, in reflection, I can’t help but think of this poem by Magers up against that cheerleader gorefest, especially in the line, “The skinny blondes are represented.” Yes, they most certainly are. I realize these two pieces of art are worlds apart, but in bridging that gap between poetry and sleaze, I wonder what forms would emerge? I’m sure there are poems out there bridging this gap in more intricate ways than I am able.

Magers’s poem, in my opinion, is the kind of poem that calls for careful reflection, calls for questions. Of course, we can enjoy it quickly, perhaps, if we are competent enough, catch a glimmer of where he is pointing us (as demonstrated by my thought-trail here tonight), but I think this poem is one that could be thought in different ways and my interpretation is not the end all of how this poem is meaningful. I’m quite sure I’m missing something vital, something that would tie the piece together. Or, maybe he doesn’t want it to be tied. There is a beauty in that, too.