Being a poet who writes primarily confessional poetry I was stoked to come across After Confession, a collection of critical essays discussing the technical, aesthetic, and ethical considerations unique to confessional poetry. With essays by some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry including Alicia Ostricker, Billy Collins, and Louise Gluck, After Confession offers a remarkably well-rounded look at the possibilities and pit falls of the form.
The book is divided into four sections: “Staying News: Critical and Historical Perspectives” looks at autobiographical poetry from antiquity to the present. “Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings ” examines the self within confessional poetry. “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” is self-explanatory. And “Codes of Silence: Women and Autobiography” shines a spotlight on women in confessional poetry.
Sontag’s and Graham’s arrangement of the essays is almost conversational, each one responding to arguments put forth in previous essays. This back and forth makes it feel as though you’re listening in on an active debate rather than reading a book.
Though the book as a whole is incredibly rich, I enjoyed part three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” the most. Ted Kooser’s essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems” in which he lambastes autobiographical poets who stretch the truth and advocates the inclusion of some sort of note or clause at the start of poems indicating whether or not they are true, had me so furious I covered the margins in back talk. I didn’t need to though. In the following essay, “Self-Pity,” Carol Frost highlights the many subtle ways confessional poets use syntax, timing, innuendo, and word choice to indicate what is true and what is false, and basically makes Ted Kooser look like a lazy reader.
In his amusing essay “The Glass Anvil: The Lies of an Autobiographer” Andres Hudgins maps out ten different types of lies ranging from white to red hot, and points out where, why, and how he used each of them in his poetry book The Glass Hammer. And Kimiko Hahn’s “Blunt Instrument: a Zuihitsu” examines the intersection of truth, half-truth, and memory in confessional poetry as a whole through a poetic form that allows one to clearly view each fragment, each thought, by itself and in relation to surrounding truths and untruths.
Each section has its stand out essays. In section four’s “The Voices We Carry” Kimberly Blaeser talks about the social construction of individuality, and how our sense of self is cobbled together through membership to various groups, and relationships to other people. In section two Stanley Plumly’s remarkable “Autobiography and Archetype” makes the argument that archetype is what connects autobiography to something larger than itself, and autobiography is the medium through which archetypes are continually renewed.
No matter how you feel about confessional poetry – whether you love it, hate it, write it, or sneer at it – After Confession should be on your bookshelf. The essays offer ammunition to anyone looking for a way to explain why confessional poetry is awesome or why it sucks, and contains loads of food for thought along the way.
More than anything, the critical ideas and personal views expressed in After Confession reminded me of the possibilities inherent in the poetic form; that a poet can never learn enough, can never stop trying new things, and must never stop pushing the boundaries of poetic expression.
I don’t think it’s too far out to say that most emerging poets have no idea what to take into consideration when putting together a full length or chapbook sized collection of poetry. It’s not a topic most undergraduate or graduate creative writing programs cover. By the time a young poet has enough material to constitute a first collection chances are he or she will still have never met anyone who has published a book. They themselves may have only a vague concept of what they want to say, how they want to say it, or how to draw a particular response out of a reader. Sensing the need for direction in these matters, Susan Grimm asked a number of published poets to write about their experiences putting together collections of poetry. The result, Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, offers insight, suggestions, direction, and the shared camaraderie poets so desperately need when trying to assemble a book.
Ordering the Stormis a quick read. At 97 pages I was able to breeze through it in a day. The eleven essays range from the esoteric to the practical. In the opening essay, “Best Foot Forward: Arranging a Poetry Manuscript,” Bonnie Jacobson examines the themes and structures used to organize books by Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and John Donoghue among others, and how those structures maximize the emotional impact of the manuscript. In “It’s Simple Really: Just Sit Down at the Desk…” Jeff Gundy describes his own circuitous process of putting together a book.
All of the contributors toss out ideas on how to go about arranging a book of poetry. There’s the classic method of fanning all your poems out on the floor, and crawling around on your hands and knees until the pattern of the book begins to take shape. Some suggest grouping poems with similar themes, subjects, images, or turns of phrase into individual sections. Others suggest weaving poems with seemingly disparate tones or subjects together throughout the book. Above all, they remind the reader that no size fits all. Each manuscript is its own entity and will require its own individual tending. What worked for your first book may not work for your second.
What really struck me was how many of the contributors spoke of creating a dramatic arc, building tension, and moving the action along; terms more often heard when speaking of prose. But it makes sense that a poet would have to take those things into consideration when assembling a book. After all you want to keep the reader riveted and you want them to walk away from the book having gained something. It goes to show how green I am that I’d never thought of a book of poetry in those terms before.
Though reading about each contributors individual process gave me ideas of how I might want to approach the puzzle of assembling a collection one day, the essays themselves, their organization and presentation also provided insight into my own preferences. For instance, I found the essays presented in a straight forward and linear fashion the most helpful. I also preferred the essays where contributors talked specifically about their own process to those in which the contributors discussed the process of poets other than themselves. I like personal stories and I like writing that follows a linear path. As I was reading it occurred to me that if I were to assemble a collection of poetry the work would have to be intensely personal and it would have to flow in a linear manner, poem to poem in a kind of narrative that was no interrupted by sections. That would be my preference.
Ordering the Storm is a must have for any poet with aspirations of putting together a book of poetry. It offers poets a number of ways to look at and approach the task of assembling a book; of disassembling, re-arranging, and rebuilding a problematic manuscript. Most of all it provides new poets with a sense of comfort. Knowing that there are other poets in the world, even highly successful ones, who are just as confounded by the task of writing a book as you are makes the green poet feel a little less alone in the struggle.
New Yorkers are extremely possessive of their city. Each and every one of its eight million residents think it belongs to them and them alone. So when some vital aspect of their individual concept of New York changes they feel personally attacked, encroached upon, and above all, scared. I am no different. Having been born and raised in Manhattan I have always walked the streets as though I owned them. New York is the column upon which I’ve built the rest of my identity. And, like most residents over the age of twenty-five, in the last few years I have started bitching about how My City has turned to shit. I’ve ranted about how unnecessary it is to have a Starbucks on every other corner. I’ve railed about the astronomical cost of housing. I’ve wistfully remembered the crack house that was across the street from my elementary school, now replaced by condos. I am not happy about the changes occurring in the city, so when I spotted The Suburbanization of New York, a collection of essays exploring these changes, I purchased it hoping to find empathy, explanation, and a reason for my anger within its pages.
As the title suggests the overarching argument made by the contributors is that New York is becoming economically, socially, and spatially suburban, losing many of the cultural and architectural attributes that make it unique. It begins with a couple of essays vividly recalling the New York the book mourns. In “Love and Loss in New York City” Maggie Wrigley takes the reader on a punk rock and drug fueled tour of the Lower East Side of the 80’s. She describes the many small neighborhoods that exist below 14th Street in detail and captures the feel of the streets perfectly. In “News From Nowheresville” Eric Darton chronicles the rise of 59th Street‘s Time Warner Center through personal journal entries.
Though both present a sharp picture of pre-millennium New YorkI found the tone of both essays troubling. As they go on about the opportunistic developers who have gentrified all the character out of these neighborhoods the writers come off as bitter. The image that popped into my head was that of the crotchety old grandparent rocking in a rocking chair vehemently renouncing all that is modern and romanticizing the past. The arguments put forth by Wrigley and Darton are fueled by emotion rather than fact and are unconvincing for that reason.
Lucy R. Lippard’s “Seven Stops in Lower Manhattan: A Geographic Memoir” is another essay that fails to provide a convincing argument. In it Lippard recalls the many neighborhoods and apartments she has lived in over the past twenty years. She goes on a walking tour of her old stomping grounds to see how much they have changed. Though also emotionally driven Lippard sends out such mixed messages it’s hard to tell exactly what she is trying to say. The tone suggests she is taking the position that gentrification is bad, that it white washes a neighborhood, but the observations she makes on her walking tour don’t exactly back up that hypothesis. For example, when she visits her first apartment over on East 9th and Avenue A she finds the neighborhood to have changed very little. The graffiti, funky boutiques, and run down buildings are exactly as she remembers them. In this case the New York she knew is still intact, and she can’t blame developers for ridding it of its character because they haven’t yet.
Lippard also falls into the trap of romanticizing aspects of her old neighborhoods that weren’t very great. On page 82 she writes “In the 1960s, when I took [my son] to the playground [in Tompkins Square Park], I had to sift broken glass and hypodermic needles out of the sandbox. Now the play equipment is new and shiny, a list of rules is posted…but in the middle of the day, the playground was firmly locked.” My first thought upon reading this was “The playground has been made safe for children…and this is a bad thing?” Not to mention that keeping it locked during the day when all the neighborhood children are probably in school or day care probably helps keep it clean and safe. I could not understand why she failed to see these improvements as positive changes that were actually good for the community.
I realize I fall into this same trap every time I remind people that the part of the Upper West Side where I grew up used to be considered the ghetto or mourn the loss of the aforementioned crack house across from my old elementary school. But, honestly? The last few years when I’ve walked over to the school to cast my vote in elections, I’ve felt way safer than I ever did walking there as a youngster. The decrease in crime is good. The eradication of substandard housing is good. I like the positive changes that have been made to my old neighborhood. And what’s good about the Upper West Side is since the area has always been residential there are more tenants living in rent controlled apartments then there are in areas like TriBeCa or Soho so many long time residents can stay in the neighborhood and enjoy the improvements.
Why have so many New Yorkers slipped into the habit of pining for the things they once railed against? There a line from Denis Leary’s classic stand up comedy special No Cure For Cancer that sums it up for me: ” …[P]eople who live in New York, we wear that fact like a badge right on our sleeve because we know that fact impresses everybody. ‘I was in Vietnam.’ ‘So what? I live in New York!’ ” What the authors of the more emotionally driven essays are afraid of losing isn’t the City’s diversity or old economy but the gritty image that has always conveyed a degree of street cred upon all who live within its limits. They are terrified that gentrification will erase New York’s tough image, and by doing so turn them into regular people like those residing in any other gated community; bland, safe, suburban. Surviving in the New York their essays recall made them special. If the challenges that made them special suddenly disappear or are replaced by a new set of challenges they lose a unique form of social capital.
What makes this fear amusing is that the grit hasn’t disappeared at all, it has just relocated. All of the outer boroughs still contain their share of drug, crime, and poverty ridden neighborhoods, as well as distinctive cultural enclaves. I live within walking distance of a few of them. Manhattan even contains the odd pocket here and there. Lippard herself even admits that her old neighborhoods aren’t entirely dead yet when she implores the reader to “Spend a day walking through lower Manhattan. The energy is still there, and it’s still seductive, even contagious.” The rhythm, the attitude, the surprise all three eulogize is still alive and well, just not in the places where they live.
I may have spent the last seven or eight paragraphs voicing complaints about the essays found in this volume but let me assure you The Suburbanization of New York does contain some really outstanding work. The essays that truly dazzle are those with a focus. For example, in “From Peddler to Panini: The Anatomy of Orchard Street” Amy Zimmer examines the evolution of commerce on the lower east side by looking at how the economic climate on Orchard Street has changed through the years. For over 80 years Zimmer’s family ran a whole sale store on Orchard, H. Eckstein’s & Sons, and her analysis is given a human quality as she recalls how each cultural and economic change effected the store and lead to its eventual demise.
Suzanne Wasserman’s “The Triumph of Commerce Over Community” is a highly informative read that explain how and why the City’s once unique, community run street and crafts fairs have become so disappointingly uniform, all selling the exact same novelty shirts and mass produced jewelry. Robert Neuwirth in “In the City of Perpetual Arrival” presents a convincing argument that it’s not gentrification that has revitalized New York, but an increase in immigration.
By seeking to answer very specific questions these writers are able to tease the big picture out of the details. They realize that we can’t blame the astronomical rents, loss of cultural and economic diversity, and influx of large chain stores that put mom and pop shops out of business solely on abstract concepts like “corporate greed.” Citizens are just as responsible for economic, and by extension, cultural shifts as the companies we put the blame on. We are the people who go to Barnes & Noble rather than Shakespeare & Company, to Olive Garden instead of Carmine’s. We buy clothes at K-Mart because they are cheaper than some of the thrift stores in the East Village. But the low prices that generate tons of traffic and profits for the big guys also steal business from smaller shops that then have to raise prices to survive. New Yorkers know this and yet they still complain about the loss of unique retail while browsing the clearance rack at The Gap. As much as we deny it, we want the chains. They save us money. Government wants the chains. They create jobs and can lead to corporate alliances that literally pay off at election time. If we are really so unhappy with the latest version of New York then it is up to us and our elected officials to change it. You can’t start with the corporations. You have to start with yourself. And if we are not willing to do the work required to push for more affordable housing, keep chain stores out of the city, and make the city safe and welcoming for newcomers then we need to quit complaining immediately.
Reading this book forced me to ask myself why I complain about the things I complain about, and why I feel the need to do so. It made me wonder if I was really upset about all the changes I’ve seen. In the preface, the Hammetts’ write “Today New York is on its way to becoming a “theme-park city,” where people can get the illusion of the urban experience without the diversity, spontaneity, and unpredictability that have always been its hallmarks.” Well, how do we define the term “urban experience?” There is no singular definition. There are as many unique urban experiences as there are city dwellers. And I’m not just talking about current residents, but past and future residents. You can’t say the urban experience is in danger of disappearing because change is the only constant in urban settings. The “negative” changes that we rage against now will be the next generation’s fond memories, just as our fond memories were someone else’s symbols of decay.
I started this book expecting it to confirm that New York is going to Hell in a tour bus, but I finished it convinced that the situation isn’t as dire as we all tell ourselves it is. The city is changing, but that’s what cities do. It’s what keeps them alluring. People do not flock here for one thing. They flock for tons of reasons and those desires sculpt the city. Sometimes it is the rich whose dreams are made reality, other times the poor. The New York we live in now is just one New York among many. It too shall change.
But would I recommend that you read The Suburbanization of New York, that’s what you really want to know especially after having made it through another one of my “reviews” that is really an essay. If you are a New Yorker concerned with issues of gentrification or simply interested in urban planning, yes. This is a collection that gives you a lot to reflect on. It was actually the essays that I disliked the most that got me thinking about and clarifying my own position. As hot and cold as I run on it, it sort of opened my mind. Go ahead and let it open yours.
In January 2006 acclaimed author Walter Kirn began writing a serial web novel for Slate.com. Almost a year later the complete work has finally been printed, bound in an eye catching orange cover with the title The Unbinding splashed across the front, and made available in hard copy.
When I ran across this slim volume in Borders several weeks ago I was rather surprised. Kirn is easily one of my top ten favorite authors in existence. How could I not have known he’d been writing a serial web novel? I had to give myself a slap on the wrist for being a bad fan girl. Even though I wasn’t particularly fond of Kirn’s last two novels he had yet to satisfy all the criteria necessary to make me stop purchasing his work all together. My criteria is entirely subjective; if an author I admire writes two novels in a row that fail to bring me pleasure I quit buying their books. Since Kirn has only written 1 1/2 novels that fit the bill when I plucked The Unbinding down in front of the cash register I did so with the knowledge that this book would either make of break my relationship with Kirn. To my great relief Kirn managed to whip up a story of suspense and intrigue that renewed my faith in him.
It is told by three different characters: Kent Selkirk, the reclusive paintball enthusiast who works for Aidsat, a company described on the back cover as “an omnipresent subscriber service ready to answer, solve, and assist with the client’s every problem.” Kent tells his side of the story through personal blog entries. Sabrina Grant is the sweet and emotionally unstable young woman Kent has his eye on, whose story is heard through letters and telephone conversations. And Rob Robinson is the mysterious man who just shows up one day and begins acting all chummy with Kent and Sabrina. Soon after he starts sending reports on them back to his employers. His side of the story comes through a series of office memos. This format gives the reader the sense that he or she is spying on this trio of neighbors, perhaps even flipping through a top secret file of their questionably acquired communications.
The novel sets a lofty goal for itself by attempting to look at the ways national security, celebrity, consumerism, and information technology intersect. Kirn finds a perfect tool for such examination in the act of gazing. On page 4, Kent declares that “everyone is interesting enough to be watched.” This statement proves true as we observe the many ways Kent, Sabrina, and Rob watch one another.
As Kent and Sabrina prepare for their first date they each spend an enormous amount of time and energy gathering information about the other. Since Sabrina is an Aidsat subscriber Kent is able to access tons of personal information on her; everything from her work history, educational background, and previous addresses to her vital signs which are constantly being monitored by Aidsat. Though not as well connected as Kent, Sabrina is able to cull a load of information about Kent by calling in a favor from a friend, as well as tracking his electronic paper trail on the Internet. By the time they finally go out they both already know everything there is to know each other. So, when Sabrina tries to make herself sound more worldly by telling Kent she is divorced, Kent knows she was actually granted an annulment on the grounds of non-consummation. And when Kent tells Sabrina he went to college at Berkeley, she knows the school has no records that he ever attended.
With such extensive personal information available to anyone with a computer and a healthy amount of curiosity there is no reason for Sabrina and Kent to trust each other, not when they can run home and double check the accuracy of each assertion the other makes. And with no trust there is no reason to be honest since they both know the other will tease out the truth without them ever having to say it. As their relationship progresses the reader is forced to reflect on the necessity of trust in forming attachments, without which there can be no intimacy or depth.
The relationship between Kent and Sabrina illustrates a desire to both gaze and be gazed at. They both actively watch and monitor each others lives through their research, and they each continue to lie about their pasts knowing the falsehoods will ensure that the other continues to gaze at them. In this way they participate in each others lives without actually participating in each others lives.
On page 29, Kent muses about how great it is “to gaze ungazed upon.” He goes on to say “It sounds depressing, but when you think about it, it’s the same deal the creator gave himself, and the creator had all the deals to choose from.” It would sound good if the assumption weren’t so incorrect. As Kent himself observes, everyone is interesting enough to be watched, and God is perhaps the most scrutinized of all celebrities. Not even the creator can remove himself from the gaze of those he created.
The very act of gazing isn’t even as passive as it first seems. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “Gaze” as to fix the eyes in a steady intent look often with eagerness or studious attention. To gaze is to study with intent, and study requires undivided attention and focus. Such focus denotes intense involvement with the subject. On page 74 Rob Robinson states in one of his memos that “to observe is to disturb,” hinting at the way gazing can create change in the subject. We see this change everyday as the hot young starlet of the moment poses, dresses, and postures herself for the barrage of media observing her every move. People who are not subjected to such scrutiny aren’t as self-conscious. Furthermore, the act of gazing effects those who gaze. Rob also observes on page 20 that “[t]he more of yourself you show off to the wrong people, the more they eventually demand to see.” The more involved the gazer becomes in their subject, the more they want to know about them; the more they feel they have the right to know. And in this way the gazer and the subject of the gaze feed off of one another, both knowingly and unknowingly shaping the life of the person they hold in thrall.
As the story unfolds the reader learns that none of the characters can escape being gazed at. Not only is gazing a predictable result of having eyes, it is an inescapable part of life. No one can avoid the gaze of family, friends, and with the explosion of user created Internet content, even total strangers. As they scrutinize our looks and behavior so do we manipulate the image we project in order to present ourselves in the best possible light. All three characters come to this realization in their own way.
The novel is fast paced and, thanks to Kirn’s engaging style of writing, a fast and easy read. I breezed through it in four days and spent the next several weeks analyzing it. It is thought provoking, and while I’ve only focused on a single aspect in this review/make shift essay there are enough threads running through this novel to spawn dozens of essays.
In the introduction, Kirn mentions that because the story was written for the web it originally contained pictures and interactive content. Sprinkled throughout the text are words and phrases printed in bold lettering. In the original online text these words were links to other web pages that Kirn used to enhance the text. Not wanting to completely throw out all the content that made this novel a web novel, readers can go to Walter Kirn’s website and find a chapter by chapter index of all the bold words leading to their original links. Kirn recommends “performing the labor” of looking at the links, and I must admit, doing so greatly enhances the text. There are alternate themes running through the articles, videos, and pictures Kirn links to that are not even hinted at in the text itself. I’m not saying you have to remain tied to your computer in order to enjoy this book, I certainly didn’t. I tend to do the bulk of my reading on the subway going to and from work. Unable to access the web content while I was actually reading, at the end of the day I would go to Kirn’s site and click all the links up to where I’d read. It was well worth the effort and I don’t think I would have entirely understood the final chapters of The Unbinding without the help of those links.
An ambitious work, The Unbinding shows off Kirn at his punchy, ruminative, quit-witted best as he engages the reader to actively unravel this intricately laced work.
I have been a full fledged Buffy fanatic ever since the first episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer aired way back in 1997. Like so many other teens and twenty-somethings I connected with Buffy and the Scoobie Gang because I saw aspects of my own life reflected in their travails. Not only do I love watching the show, I love reading about it as well. As the academic area known as Buffy Studies grew, spawning conferences and the online literary magazine Slayage, I devoured any and all academic material I could find relating to Buffy. Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show had been on my wish list for some time, so when I got it for Christmas I dove in with glee.
Unfortunately, it wound up being one of those mixed bags I so often find myself writing about. There were only a handful or really stand out essays. Roxanne Longstreet Conrad’s essay “Is That Your Final Answer…” takes the form of a long essay question on a young demon’s midterm. The question? Identify and prove the identity of the most powerful individual force for good in Sunnydale. What makes this essay really interesting, aside from the inventive frame, is the respondent’s thoughtful answer that Xander Harris is the most powerful force for good. In “A Slayer Comes to Town” Scott Westerfield interprets Buffy through his own theoretical framework, identifying the central themes that Buffy has in common with several other science fiction and fantasy oriented shows. And in “Unseen Horrors & Shadowy Manipulations” Kevin Andrew Murphy looks at how the demands of censors and studio executives shaped the series.
However, most of the essays were disappointing. In “A Buffy Confession” Justine Larbalestier spends thirteen pages lambasting people who constantly whine that the show was better last season, and then turns into one of those people in the last page of the essay. Sherrilyn Kenyon puts forth the absurd argument that Buffy is really a psychic vampire who feeds off the testosterone of all the men in her life in “The Search for Spike’s Balls.” It would be interesting if she actually used evidence from the show to back up her thesis.
One of the problems with this collection is the editor has chosen to include several essays on the same topic, all of which eventually come to the same conclusion. There were a number of essays about Buffy’s love life, or that specifically cited it as an example to illustrate another point. Yet, there was almost no variation in the interpretations. They all concluded that Buffy and the Scoobies have had almost uniformly horrible love lives. Tell me something I don’t know! With so many different essays on the same topic, I would expect each to present a different view on the issue. Reading so many authors come to the same conclusion was not only redundant but a massive waste of my time as a reader.
And that, as I said, isn’t the fault of the essayists, but of editor Glenn Yaffeth. It wasn’t until after I’d placed Seven Seasons of Buffy on my bookshelf that I realized I’d had a bad experience with his work in the past. He also edited a collection of essays on The Matrix called Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosphy, and Religion in The Matrix that I was less than dazzled by.
I also had Five Seasons of Angel, a book of essays in the same vein and also edited by Yaffeth, on my wish list for a while. After reading Seven Seasons of Buffy it came off. I have come to the realization that Yaffeth and I simply do not mix. The five or six good essays are worth the read if you are a hardcore Buffy fan, but don’t spend money on the whole thing. Borrow the book from a friend or read through it at the library or in Barnes and Noble. If a truly stellar collection of academic Buffy writings is what you’re looking for I highly recommend Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Philosophy edited by James South. Or if you’re specifically interested in what the series has to say about religion, check out What Would Buffy Do by Jana Riess.