Review of “Breakdown: Banjo Poems” at Switchback

cover of Breakdown: Banjo Poems

The online literary magazine Switchback has just published Robbi Nester’s review of Breakdown: Banjo Poems. Nester draws attention to the serious play at work in the collection, as well as to the questions it raises about American history and culture.

Even divorced from these racial overtones, it may be hard to take this instrument seriously. We might even agree with Bonta’s playful admonition that “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise / than for a man to hear the music of banjos” (“Banjo Proverbs”).

As these poems reveal though, if we take this view of the banjo, we have judged the parody without a clear understanding of its source. By discounting this history, we have further undermined the people the minstrel shows sought to mock.

[…]

Bonta has made a career of revealing the power of other humble implements in his previous work. For example, his book Odes to Tools, published by Phoenician Press in 2010, the poet considers the hammer, plane, and other instruments of labor in a way that will make it impossible for one to regard them with indifference.

Indeed, to read this writer’s poetry, his blogs, and all the other works of his busy hands is to see the world in an entirely new way.

I am not sure I recognize the fabulous writer Nester is describing here, but this review sure makes me want to make his acquaintance! Gosh. (Read the rest.)

Review of “Breakdown: Banjo Poems” at Love During Wartime

Blogger-poet James Collins has just posted a very favorable review of Breakdown: Banjo Poems at his site Love During Wartime. What’s great about the review for me, however, isn’t so much that Collins liked the book (though that was nice), but that he appears to have read it slowly and deeply. It surely helped that he’s Biblically literate as well as conversant with American history and roots music. It was useful to see my own book through the eyes of such a good reader.

I don’t understand authors who claim they never read their reviews. It’s such a great chance to learn what one’s book was really about — because so often, the author is the last to know. Anyway, check it out.

Reading with videos

poetry reading ina bookstore under a sign that reads "foreign language"
Because poetry IS a foreign language (photo by Jason Crane)

I gave my first fully video-accompanied poetry reading last Wednesday at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe in State College, PA. Though I’ve given four readings in recent years with audiovisual components of some sort, this was the first where I experimented with reading along to “karaoke” versions of videopoems. I had a blast! It was organized and very engagingly emceed by Jason Crane, as part of a new monthly reading series.

I have a full report up at Voice Alpha, a site devoted to the art of reading poems for an audience: “Reading poetry with video: some first impressions.”

Tenth banjo videopoem completed. Where do I go from here?

Shackleton's Banjo thumbnail (penguin with ship)With the completion of Shackleton’s Banjo last night, I’m up to ten videopoems for one little chapbook, and a couple of questions naturally arise: Why am I doing this? And how many more videos will there be?

I kind of answered the first question in this morning’s post at VN: I’m doing it because it’s fun and exercises a somewhat different set of mental muscles from those used for writing a page-poem. It’s not mainly about promoting the chap, even though they take the form of book trailers — at least for now. Very shortly I’ll begin work on a new incarnation: an amalgam of all the banjo videos so far without my readings in the soundtrack for karaoke-like public performance. I have a reading coming up at Webster’s in State College next week, and I’m planning to project this amalgamated video on a screen behind me while I read. Obviously it would get pretty repetitive to keep mentioning the author and book information before and after each videopoem in a live performance, so the credits will have to be altered, which will entail additional editing as well, I’m sure. So that’s the short-range goal.

In the long term, I would like to explore making a print-on-demand DVD, and I have definite ideas about how I’d do that. But I don’t look at that as a goal per se, because I don’t want to feel pushed to make videos that are less than inspired. I’m pretty pleased with the quality of what I’ve made so far, which I think happened in part because I was just focusing on making one at a time and enjoying the process.

I do have an intermediate goal: a free-to-download audio chapbook of as many tracks as I can produce for the collection. This will be going out under somebody else’s label, and we have a handshake agreement, but I won’t say anything more about that until plans are finalized. I’ve also been uploading some of the audio tracks to SoundCloud. I’m not hugely active there, but I feel that since I’m using the site I should also be giving back.

As for the presentation of the online videos, I continue to update my Videos page here, and have also just added links to the process notes about each video (including the Swoon videopoems) to make the page more useful. They are also grouped together into a YouTube playlist and a Vimeo album. And they’re all included in the Breakdown series at Via Negativa, which at some point I’ll reorganize so videos follow the texts that prompted them.

New Videos page

I’ve added a top-level page here to display a sampling of videopoems made for my own work, including my on-going series in support of Breakdown: Banjo Poems, and seven films by the Belgian musician and videopoet Swoon (Marc Neys). Given my attitude that the print version of a poem is not necessarily the last word, I think it’s important for my author website to include such a section right next to, and therefore symbolically on a par with, the Books page on the main navigation menu. (Also, I’m damned proud of those Swoon videopoems!)

I’m using a plugin that should re-size the videos to fit whatever screen you’re using. Please let me know if things aren’t displaying correctly.

Breakdown is here (and also expanding into new media)

cover of Breakdown: Banjo PoemsI’ve been remiss in not following up my previous post to announce that Breakdown is indeed out and available for order ($9.00) from Seven Kitchens Press. I’m very pleased with the cover art by Steven Sherrill, whose full-color paintings of off-color subjects keep company with an eclectic assortment of instruments, homemade and otherwise, in his basement. Inspired in part by the lovely book design, the work of publisher Ron Mohring, and in part by the enthusiasm of Steve and other banjo-playing friends, I’m forging ahead with making videopoems for the book, using banjo-accompanied readings for the soundtracks, which may eventually become an album of sorts. But for now, there’s just the growing album of videos. As I said in a recent blog post about one of them, my thinking about these audiopoems and videopoems is that they don’t necessarily drive more sales of the chapbook; if that were my primary reason for making them, I suspect I’d be disappointed. They’re just fun to make, and the publication of the book provides a handy pretext for spending many enjoyable hours exploring SoundCloud and archive.org. Plus, they will give me something else to do during a live reading besides just read from a podium. I do have this notion that audiences at poetry readings deserve first and foremost to be entertained.

And speaking of readings, I’m honored to be kicking off a new, monthly poetry reading series at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe in State College, Pennsylvania on November 6. (See their Events page for details.)

Proof that “Breakdown” is on its way at long last

cover page of proof for Breakdown: Banjo PoemsThis is the uncorrected author proof for my poetry chapbook Breakdown: Banjo Poems, due out soon from Seven Kitchens Press. That was the manuscript I sent off to the Keystone Chapbook Prize in 2011 on a whim, thinking the press could use a donation (my entry fee). Imagine my surprise when mine was one of the two winners that year, selected by Sascha Feinstein. Oops! Well, what can I say — I still think it’s a fun collection, and there are several poems in it which I am very proud to have written. More than that, I couldn’t be happier with Ron Mohring’s design and font choice. I haven’t seen the final cover yet, but I’m really looking forward to it, since it will feature a painting by my friend Steven Sherrill, who is a terrific novelist and poet — not to mention a banjo player.

Breakdown has been a little late in coming, but as Ron says on the website, “We truly appreciate everyone’s patience and good wishes as we relocated—and rebooted—the press.” Stay tuned. I think it will prove to be well worth the wait.

Sharing “Riches”

De purpura y de melancholia

My film for the poem “Riqueza” (“Riches”) by Gabriela Mistral is in the latest issue of Awkword Paper Cut, a “monthly e-magazine” with a weekly podcast. Here’s how it appears in the email newsletter (click to enlarge):

Awkword Paper Cut Newsletter for September 2013

Thanks to the editors for choosing the video, and for doing such a nice job with the layout and accompanying text. To me, the poem says something deep about giving and taking, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the video came together through several acts of generosity: my normally camera-shy friend letting me film her; Nic Sebastian providing a reading for the soundtrack, and Chris Kent letting me use his tin whistle tune. I hope other, more talented filmmakers will consider making videos with Mistral’s work, too. She deserves it.

Anyway, do check out the article and video in APC.

Two reviews and a call for artist(s)

Most poetry chapbooks are lucky to get any reviews, let alone one as kind as this, from long-time blogger Jonah at Love During Wartime in response to Twelve Simple Songs:

Song Two, “My parachute knapsack,” is another example of the dialogue between photo and poem. The poem closes with the lines “That’s what it was like / being alone.” The photograph is of a pair of boots on a red porch, a white wall behind them and white snow bordering the left of the porch. This is possibly the most “illustrative” pairing in the collection, yet I don’t see this as cloyingly obvious. There’s no self-pity on either the verso or recto: both speak of being alone, rather than being lonely. Each offer images devoid of sentimentality.

Do read the whole review… and of course check out the collection if you haven’t already. (And note that I still have some 20%-off coupons available for the print-on-demand version.)

Last weekend, Jonah blogged another review, this one for a collection I haven’t even bothered to publish aside from the series at Via Negativa and accompanying audio recordings: Manual. He wrote, in part:

I read through this brief collection in a few hours. But each poem deserves its own hour. Many of us think of poetry as some code that must be deciphered. These poems are a fine antidote to that fear: they are approachable, friendly (in their imperious way), tender, often whimsical, and sly.

It’s always gratifying when one’s work garners these kinds of close reads (especially of course when the reader has such a favorable reaction!). Both these projects have also sparked unsolicited artistic responses — close readings of a sort — from the Dutch filmmaker Swoon (Marc Neys): a single, seven-and-a-half-minute-long film for Twelve Simple Songs as read by Nic Sebastian, and a series of five films for poems in Manual. What a gift.

I now have a number of cycles of poems like Manual that feel complete and could be made into books. The question is always: Would the effort to design and produce a book be worth it? How does one measure such things if you’re giving your work away? How many downloads and purchases are enough? Or should I submit these collections to other publishers on the chance that they may be able to do a better job reaching readers, even though it means in most cases giving up control over design and the chance to have digital versions? Right now I’m putting most of my effort into an anthology of newly revised work which I may also self-publish; it’s clear to me that this book will offer value to readers simply as an act of curation from my too-voluminous online corpus. And I’m thinking I’d also like to pursue an idea suggested by Jean Morris in a recent comment at Via Negativa: an illustrated version of Bear Medicine.

So here’s the proposal: I’m looking for an artist or artists with an affinity for bears to collaborate on a small book incorporating my Bear Medicine prose poems. I’m thinking woodblock prints, but paintings or other media might work, too. Publication would be digital and print-on-demand under the Via Negativa Press imprint. I can’t afford to pay much. Contact me if you’re interested.

Poems in [Slippage]

[Slippage] magazine[Slippage] is a brand-new magazine devoted to “the confluence of science and art.” I have three poems in the first issue: “Dutchman’s Breeches,” “Kissing Bug” and “Siphonophore.” All three originally appeared at Via Negativa, but much to their credit, the editors do consider work that has been posted to a writer’s or artist’s own blog.

I was also pleased to find myself in some very good company, alongside poets such as Robin Chapman, Bill Knott, William Doreski and Jessamyn Smyth. Check it out. I think their mission to bridge the gap between the the arts and science is an important one.