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Review: Inside The Outside

Tony Lewis-Jones, the UK poet behind Various Artists, a special e-newsletter for poets, commisioned a 500-word review. Here is the review, in full.

Presa Press, 2006
Review by Todd Swift

It is hard to imagine something smaller than “small press” poetry and poets who proudly assert their association to COSMEP (Committee of Small Magazines Publishers & Editors). I recall somewhere hearing that Michael Donaghy used to call experimental poets “ampersands” – well, these would be poets from the firm of Ampersand & Sons. I actually share some of the aims and concerns of this anthology, at least as outlined in the rather brief (two-page) Introduction by editor Roseanne Ritzema.

I certainly agree with much (but not all) of the statement: “The large, commercial publishers, owned & operated by huge communications conglomerates, have published only what is deemed a safe investment, predictably appealing to the average reader.”

This analysis of the current poetry publishing situation is, in fact, incorrect, for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is not radical enough. The truth is worse. The “large, commercial publishers” no longer publish poetry, if they can help it. They certainly have no interest in a poetry consumer, even an “average reader” as numbers simply do not warrant such a polite fiction. There is no average reader for poetry. All poetry readers are exceptions, and therefore somewhat above (or below) average. Most readers read fiction or non-fiction. Full stop. Thus, there is no such thing as a “safe investment” when publishing poetry. The brave, independent, poetry publishers forge ahead, despite the general disinterest in serious poetry, not because they aim to play it safe and make a fortune. True, some presses have made a profit with anthologies such as Staying Alive, but any monies made on such a venture are doubtless used to underwrite less profitable collections.

In fact, because the huge communications conglomerates do not care about poetry, in the least, they have for the most part, when keeping it on, kept it as a boutique sort of imprint of a larger house and leave the poet-editors in charge to pursue their own narrow, rather conservative publishing agendas. This has tended to see an over-emphasis on “mainstream” traditional lyric poetry, which is fairly accessible, imbued with wit, feeling, and connected to experiences of the quotidian world. However, such accidents of late capitalism cannot be entirely blamed on “the old boys of the upper class New England literary mafia” who “turn a cold shoulder toward the children of Whitman, Dickinson & Poe” as Ritzema argues.

Firstly, none of the poets included here are really entitled to trace their genetic heritage back to such greats, anymore than I can claim to be a child of Shakespeare simply because I have read some of his plays, liked them, and also write in the same language. Whitman’s boundless energy and open line is a natural invitation to go Ginsberg, and many have done so. Dickinson, a rare genius, is inimitable, and has never been equalled (in America at least) for her uncanny economy of diction. Poe’s theories of extreme lyricism and artificiality could endorse many a New England formalist as much as any of the odd characters collected in this book.

This book. Indeed. It is a most unfortunate child of inbred parentage. I have never seen an uglier front or back cover. The smudged, grainy photos and oddly-scuffed, off-brown colour (is that a quasi-purple?) and green lettering, make it seem impossible to believe the publication emanates from 2006, not 1976. It bears every resemblance to the smallest of smallest publishing ventures, with “amateur” written all over it. For that reason, alone, it merits a nod of respect. No one involved with this project set out, for one minute, to try and dress up and impress those New England boys. This was always going to be a labour of love. Ugly love.

Readers in England will either be sympathetic to the poetry published here, or they will be instantly repulsed. If one reads Ian Hamilton’s rather dry, witty and dismissive reviews of poets like William Carlos Williams, one can quickly get a feel for the ways a well-educated supercilious Englishman can sneer at the “American grain” and these poems “seek to break through barriers” – the very barriers that, I am afraid, go to defining the very art of poetry for most, such as form, metre, rhyme, and so on. Instead, these self-described “innovators” seek to “explore & experience psychological & emotional mysteries”. The oldest of these detectives was 81 at time of printing. These are not the “Language School” of poets, buoyed by theory and hip addresses in New York, mind you. These poets are marginal even within the margins of their own expressly-stated avant-gardism. As Mark E. Smith once said, “you don’t have to be weird to be wired” but when it comes to this anthology, it surely helps.

The thirteen poets included are (in order of appearance): Stanley Nelson, Hugh Fox, Kirby Congdon, Richard Kostelanetz, Lyn Lifshin, Harry Smith, Eric Greinke, John Keene, Lynne Savitt, A.D. Winans, Doug Holder, Mark Sonnenfeld, and Richard Morris. Not that this means anything, but I had never heard of any of these “active poets” other than Kostelanetz, Lifshin, and, I think, Winans (but I cannot be sure). No average reader acquiring this collection will be cheated of the pleasures of discovery. I am a very open reader, and I found little here to excite or astound me.

Kirby Congdon (1924- ) seems to be avant-garde only by virtue of being completely unknown. Otherwise his poems represent free verse poetry in the grain of William Carlos Williams – accessible, observant and amiable. One modest poem (titled “Shirt Poem”) opens with the line “Even your best shirts are frayed”. Eric Greinke (1948- ) is an abstract lyricist whose poems are intriguing and worth getting to know. The sequence “The Broken Lock” is an example of his tone and style: “Hatchet. A tiny cutlet / Whirls in nude simplicity. Our magnet / Signs the blank, transparent / Mortgage of the jealous cartoon.” Such surreal, playful diction is always a useful corrective.

John Keene (1965- ) explores textual and rhetorical devices to “create jazzlike pieces”. He may not be Miles Davis, but some of his works are visually beautiful (such as “Chamber Cinema” and “Map”) and offer words and lines in refreshingly disrupted contexts – although, naturally, such disruption soon becomes the new normal, and hence begins to lose its sheen of innovation. A.D. Winans (1936- ) offers images “drawn from big city streets, jazz bars & political situations” and reminded me of a good fusion poet. A few of his poems are excellent, in how they render experience immediately, in direct treatment, that is sensual and sharp. “1962” is his best here, where, going to see Miles with a young girl he is “forced to sit in the / teenage section / because she was only / 17 / sipping on a coke / high on the high note / smoke curling around / the room in long lingering / lazy circles / sweet sax / smooth slow gin / tenor / my hand on warm thigh / feeling high”. This is, of its kind, very good writing. Not original, it is nevertheless true to its style and soul, and has an integrity of line that could almost be called Classic American Free Verse. His poem about child prostitutes being abused by GIs, “Panama Memories” is also worth noting, as is “From My Window”.

Doug Holder (1955- ) has a few very good poems, including the hilarious “My First Poetry Reading” which is initiated when “I broke into / my father’s / liquor cabinet”. Richard Morris (1939-2003) has a great little short poem, “Rimbaud”, which bears repeating in full, for review purposes of course:

once quoted

as saying, “Who
my vine?”

Lastly, the best (prose) poem in the collection appears to be from Richard Kostelanetz (1940 - ), titled “from 1001 Opera Libretti”. It is witty and subversive and too long to quote, but seems to be a series of thumbnail sketches of plots for operas, with lines like “A young couple, universally attractive and recently married”. All in all, getting inside this “Outside” (if there is an outside to any book or text) is something any small press poet, or curious reader, might want to try, so long as they know, before plunking down their roughly £15, that what they’ll get is about as far away from District & Circle as a circle is from, well, a square.
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