Attention Conservation Notice: Thoughts on the last 10 poems I read for the Just Read Readathon, by people like William Blake, Katie Degentesh, joanne burns, Claire Potter and Patricia Lockwood, and profuse thanks to everyone who helped to raise just shy of $700 for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (1,987 words).
Well this last week of poem-reading-fundraising has been amazing. Up front I should probably admit that I certainly haven’t hit the two-a-day goal that I wanted to, but despite that these last two months have been brilliant in terms of reading more and reading more widely.
I think I’m going to try to keep this level of poem reading up to an extent in my everyday life, something like trying to read a poem a day or at least a few every week. I’ve also discovered some poets to look more deeply into, both canonical and contemporary, which is very nice indeed. So a profitable time from a personal perspective for sure.
And speaking of profitable, I am as humbled as can be by the generosity that both friends and strangers have shown with their donations to the Indigenous Literacy Fund in response to this odd little undertaking. I may be the one reading the poems and rambling about them on this blog, but that’s totally chump change compared to the heroes who stuck their hands in their pockets and handed their readies over so that young Indigenous kids can afford the books and other equipment they need to learn to read, which is sadly actually a thing that needs to be addressed in this frankly pretty fucked up endemically racist country of ours.
So on behalf of the Just Read crew, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and myself I thank you from the bottom of my heart. As of this writing we’ve raised over $650, smashing my goal of $500 in the bestest possible way. And kudos to Jane Rawson in particular for coming up with the idea for a readathon for grownups in the first place, and then making it actually happen.
And if you want to know more about the amazing and important ILF are doing, and other ways you can help out, stay tuned to www.indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au.
But now, before I get too teary, here’s what I thought of the last bunch of poems (which, yes, is once again not enough to hit any two-a-day goal I might have had but there you go).
William Blake – To Spring
I was reading this one on the train on the way home, thinking “well, I better read some Blake, it’ll be good for me but I’m not sure I’m really up for crazy-dense inscrutable religious nuttery this afternoon but let’s have a crack and see” and instead I found myself reading this rather romantic and actually sort of naughty ode to Spring returning to England, thinking “does
…scatter thy pearls
Upon our love-sick land that mourns for thee
mean what I’m thinking it means? Oh my…” and then Spring decks England with its fair fingers and pours kisses on her bosom and England lets down her bound tresses and hello!
Which is nice.
joanne burns – hegemonies
When a prose poem goes over three pages is it still a prose poem? I don’t care because joanne burns is brilliant. This one has a great gotcha moment at the start of it, where it calls bullshit on the arrogance of monolingual people who’ve never had to learn another language out of necessity. From there it explores what it’s like to lack language, from being somewhere that doesn’t even use your alphabet to being unable to read or write your own language, to not being able to speak it in a way that you’re expected to by the powers that be. It’s a strong piece that really made me stop and think about some of the assumptions that came with the education I’ve been lucky enough to receive.
Robert Frost – Mowing
This one never really got its hooks into me really. I mean, it’s a perfectly nice poem about working hard in a sunlit field and the honour and pleasure of manual work, and according to the annotation I read in an attempt to tackle the discomfort I’m feeling about dissing Robert Goddamn Frost, it’s all about how work and reality are enough without needing to rely on fancy or imagination. Which is a great point, but it feels to me like in trying to bed this poem down in the everyday, there’s a mundanity that comes through somehow. Anyhoo – Robert Frost’s “Mowing”? Not for me. YMMV. Moving on!
Patricia Lockwood – Rape Joke
I’ve been a fan of Patricia’s for a long time, but for some reason I never actually sat down and read “Rape Joke“. I read a heap of articles about it and listened to some podcasts about it, but never actually read the poem until now. It’s a good poem that takes its reader on a powerful journey that is all the more upsetting for its familiarity. There’s really no way to remove “the poet” from this poem, and any attempt to do so, or to tackle the poem on a technical level feels kind of cheap, like you’re dismissing the experience that prompted the poem’s creation or the experiences just like the one in this poem that happen every day. Even asking the question “is this what happened? did it happen to her? did it happen like that?” is dicey, and from what I know of Patricia’s confidence, intelligence and capability as a poet, based on reading other poems she’s written, she probably meant it to prompt that reaction. Bottom line: this is a poem that works. Go read it if you haven’t already.
David Prater – Go Seek the Internet of What They Have Looked At
A brand new poem from David Prater, who had been intimating that he’d put poetry behind him, which I’m glad to see is not the case. David’s always been one of my favourite poets to write about the digital world because of his ability to write about it with genuine insight instead of simply aping its forms in service to older themes or using the internet as a metaphor for something else.
This is a playful and scathing political poem, tackling some of the current debates around privacy and government monitoring of personal internet use in the hope that it will help us to “win” “the war on terror” or something because yeah that’s why they want to do it.
Michael Farrell – Long Dull Poem
This single poem was released as a chapbook by SOd Press and is now available free to download as a .pdf. To my mind it’s a more coherent, more narrative work from Michael, whose experimental and (I presume) generative poetry is often pretty damn inscrutable, though my thinking that may mean I’m actually coming at it from the wrong angle, but there you go.
I’ve always presumed a lot of irony in Michael’s work, so I’m guessing it’s ironic that this poem is not particularly long – I mean, yes, it runs over 10 pages, which is longer than Farrell’s output usually is, but compared to something like Aurora Leigh or Gilgamesh it’s not that long really. It’s also not really very dull – at least not to me, not even the three pages of repetitive musical annotation, but perhaps its lyrical, narrative approach is dull to Michael? And this is proof that he and I are just on different wavelengths when it comes to what we want from poetry? Anyway: the title might be a joke maybe.
The poem itself is kind of a surreal travelogue with lots of botanical imagery all the way through it: polenta flowers, passionfruit, maresca plums, periwinkle, apricot trees and daisies all rear their heads as the protagonist, a poem, wanders through some European cobblestoned village. I read this right after an article on the limitations and untapped potential of travel writing, which was an interesting juxtaposition. I liked it, but I wonder whether it would have worked as well if the protagonist wasn’t actually a poem. Just an idle thought.
Claire Potter – Ladies of the Canon
Potter is referencing, or maybe riffing off, Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” here. She’s nicked one of the song’s metaphors and a nifty little repetition device too, but I wonder if she might have cleaved a little closer to Mitchell and formalised the structure a little.
As it is the first verse has a definite rhyme scheme, but the other three verses don’t at all. This could totally be deliberate, given the refrain about “wonder how a bird might cheat”, but that makes me curious about whether drawing on older works for structure &c is really cheating. I don’t think it is, and I would have loved to see the call-and-response repetition/reversal of the central line in the second and third verses:
and bright bouquets standing in her eyes
in her eyes bright bouquets reflecting
which sings songs to men who’ve lost the confidence of birds
birds who’ve lost confidence in men
which are referencing the flip-and-turn structure of Mitchell’s original. This hinting at structure without committing to its use was ultimately distracting, and made me wish that someone had pushed Potter to tighten the structure of this one so that it could embrace its references more openly and allow, smoothing out its structure and letting its intent – discussing the roles and history of women writers – come to the fore.
Dadabase – Kate Fagan
Speaking of Michael Farrell, this poem was dedicated to him as a cento, which if I’m remembering correctly, is a poem made of lines from other poet’s poems, in tribute perhaps? And the defence of the people in that poetry plagiarism scandal a while back was that their allegedly plagiarised work was all undeclared centos? Well this is what a “declared cento” looks like. Not much in the way of coherence per say, but definitely playful and a bit silly, esp. the part where she works a pun into proceedings by writing out the sound of the Star Wars theme, though for my money I would have written it
Da da dadada da da dadada da da dadada daaaaa
Dada dadada dada dadada dada dadada da
Which is neither here nor there. This is a really manic poem that, when it did this:
fishing with artistic lines btrp fretc
rihh cantmmetr asot fipfthtngt
got me wondering if it might actually be flarf. Which led me to…
Mm-hm – Gary Sullivan
The first official flarf poem, written by Gary Sullivan as proof of the obvious insincerity of that US poetry scam that tricks you into paying for your poem to be bound up with a bunch of other people’s poems, regardless of quality, and sold to you as an actual poetry anthology instead of a scam. It’s a deliberately meaningless poem, at least that’s how it was intended, but you know how these things go – there’s meaning there for anyone who wants to look hard enough, and in this case it held enough meaning to inspire a whole pseudo-movement of crazy fucked up “poetry” (insert your take on the whole “is flarf poetry” debate here).
Which brings me to…
RE: Hot Hatred and Hot Business Coital Attire – Katie Degentesh
If an employee is
absent on one or both of these days because of sexual
activity or illicit affairs, the Company reserves the right to
verify the reason before approving unconditional love.
This is a simple cut and paste exercise juxtaposing random inappropriate words into a boilerplate internal email memo, but the results are genius, and very moving to someone like me, who’s staring down the barrel of almost twenty years of working in offices. Degentesh also has a collection of poetry out there called The Anger Scale that’s build out of search results for phrases from psychological personality tests and which goes to prove that there might be some argument to be had against the impersonality of generative poetry, but thoughtful curation of the source material and careful editing of the output can still produce wonders.
Both of these poems are reproduced in full in Sullivan’s “Brief Guide to Flarf Poetry”, which is a pretty cool read even if you’re not jazzed by the poems themselves.
Okay, so there you go. Ten more poems to add to the total, which comes to a not-as-disappointed-as-I-thought-I’d be 63 poems in 61 days. One a day. Pretty happy with that, considering there were weeks that I thought I wouldn’t even get that many poems read.
So thanks again to everyone who donated, to all the poets who wrote the poems I read, and to Jane and the Just Read team for setting things up so we could cumulatively raise an amazing $6662 for the ILF. Great work, everyone. Nicely done.