After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham

June 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm (book review, books, essays, literary criticism, literature, nonfiction, poetry, reading)

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.

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Ordering the Storm edited by Susan Grimm

August 25, 2009 at 3:03 pm (chapbooks, essays, nonfiction, poetry, publishing)

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.

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Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey

October 11, 2007 at 7:45 pm (history, poetry)

It’s no wonder Natasha Trethewey’s third book of poetry, Native Guard, won the Pulitzer Prize. With great passion, precision, and technique, these poems take the reader through the heart of the south and the heart of a family.

Rather than summarize the collection, I’d like to examine the title poem. “Native Guard” is the hub of the collection’s wheel, dealing with each and every major theme with grace and reservation.

 Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey“Native Guard” is one of the most breath taking pieces I have read in some time. Half way through I knew it was going to become one of my favorite poems. It begins with an epigraph attributed to Frederick Douglass. It reads, “If this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all that is sacred what shall be remembered?” Douglass is, of course, referring to the Civil War, an event Trethewey re-creates with the harshest clarity. Through ten dated stanzas she channels one member of the Louisiana Native Guards, described in the notes as “the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army.”

“Native Guard” is a rumination on memory, a fact evident from the first line, where, in reference to his life as a slave, the speaker declares, “Truth be told, I do not want to forget.” He explains his decision to join the Native Guards in the simplest terms: “…I thought to carry with me / want of freedom though I had been freed, / remembrance not constant recollection…” This recollection of want pushes him to join the fight in order to preserve his freedom, and that of others. It is the same want that compels him to chronicle his time in the service.

Each stanza begins and ends with a memory, the final line of each becoming the first line of the next. They read like diary entries, each relating a specific occurrence or realization. For instance, in the second stanza the speaker writes;

…We’re called supply units –

not infantry – and so we dig trenches,

haul burdens for the army no less heavy

than before. I heard the Colonel call it

Nigger work…

Lines like these highlight the oft forgotten fact that racism remained rampant even among those fighting to free slaves. They also lay bare the danger of fighting for abolition alone, that freedom does not guarantee equality. The speaker goes on to write about the journal he is keeping all these observations in.

…this journal, near full

with someone else’s words, overlapped now,

crosshatched beneath mine. On every page,

his story intersecting with my own.

This idea of intersection can be extended to the war in general. Even with freedom on the horizon, the white man’s story continues to intersect and even guide that of the black man.

The fifth stanza finds the speaker guarding white confederate war criminals.

…They are cautious, dreading

the sight of us. Some neither read nor write,

are laid too low and have few words to send

but those I give them. Still, they are wary

of a negro writing, taking down letters.

X binds them to the page – a mute symbol

This stanza makes one reflect on the meaning of the words “native guard”. The speaker, a native of the land, born and bred in the south, guards soldiers who consider themselves the only real natives. As the speaker takes dictation and writes letters home to these men’s families, he chronicles their story; the story of those who don’t have the power to tell it themselves.

In the final stanza the Native Guards undergo a name change. They become the Corps D’Afrique. With the exclusion of the word “native” from their title the soldiers are stripped of their humanity, made strangers in their own land. With one simple revision the speaker knows theirs will become the “untold stories of those time will render / mute”.

In Native Guard Trethewey adopts the role of scribe, taking dictation from those history has rendered mute. Broken into three sections, each one gives voice to a particular person or experience. In section one Trethewey eulogizes her black, southern born mother. In section two she depicts racism as experienced during slavery and the Civil War. In the third sections she recounts the experience of growing up bi-racial in the south under Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement. None of these experiences have been properly discussed, examined, or acknowledged within American history, and Trethewey’s refusal to let them remain footnotes is what gives these poems their kick. She has delivered an unquestionably memorable collection of poetry that any lover of history or verse should have on their bookshelf.

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