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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Guest Review: Nathan Thompson On American Poetry With An Accent

Nathan Thompson reviews
Stranger At Home: American Poetry With An Accent
edited by Andrey Gritsman, Roger Weingarten, Kurt Brown and Carmen Firan


 You hear a lot at the moment, especially in respect of place-oriented poetry, about authority and who does or does not have the authority to write about a certain place or site/community-specific topic.  The consensus seems to be that the viewpoint of an indigenous or established person is intrinsically more valuable than that of a traveller, visitor or detached observer.  I find this strange: such a viewpoint is merely one among many.  And it’s particularly odd given that in an increasingly globalised society the character of a place, the communities within it, its traditions and demographics, are in a state of constant flux.  At what point do a place’s distinct characteristics become fixed, and who decides who has the expertise to write about it with ‘authority’?

It’s also odd, and weirdly reactionary, that ideas of necessary ‘authority’ should permeate innovative/experimental/ post-avant poetries’ approach(es) to place and space, given those poetries’ often stated, or at least often implied, aim of undermining authoritative/hierarchical use of language.  Of course, such a reactionary position is not universal, and there are many experimental writers who do not fit this mould, but the necessity of adequate authority does seem to be a subtext to the work of a number of poets influenced by Iain Sinclair’s idiosyncratic brand of psychogeography (though I don’t imagine that such a brilliant magpie as Sinclair himself would have any such hang-ups about authorial ‘authority’ himself).

A reactionary stance in respect of cultural space is also central to the implicit parochialism of the ‘write what you know’ school - in fact it’s integral to the reader-writer pact of much mainstream lyric poetry: the poet tells the reader something specific, and the reader takes away a warmly bequeathed quasi-mystical sense of wider belonging as a result of identifying with that something specific.  There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but the consequent lowest-common-denominator spiritual connections highlighted by such an approach necessarily become banal in all but the most skilful hands – for example Heaney’s burring peat bogs, Walcott’s casuarina-swayed sea-shores and Lumsden’s skewiff domesticisms.  I guess the implication is that readers feel the need to trust a writer’s expertise – even a poets’ expertise, which should surely be aesthetic rather than content-specific – and it’s interesting that such concerns cross experimental/mainstream borders. 

Anyway, to summarise, the book that sent me off in this direction, Stranger at Home: American Poetry with an Accent, is an anthology of poetry in English (no translations allowed) written by non-native English speakers in America, for whom English is not their first language. As you’ve probably guessed, for this reader it highlights questions of authorial authority in respect of place-and-culture-focussed poetry.  But there’s enough exciting and intriguing work in it to send any reader scurrying off to explore in any number of directions. 

Getting down to the specifics, for me, the introductory essay by Andrey Gritsman contained rather too many assertions in respect of what poetry ‘is’ or ‘should be’.  It’s all a bit didactic, and sometimes leaves you tearing out your hair in a the-poetry-in-here-is-pretty-damn-good-so-why-write-this-crazy-stuff-in-the-intro-and-spoil-it? kind of way:

‘Who can judge this most subjective form of the arts – poetry?  The only measure is biblical.  It happened in the Garden of Eden at the moment of sweet seduction.  Therefore an artist, an especially sensitive creature, intuitively knows the difference between a real, good, poem, this sounding crystal, echo of the soul, based on a unique pre-language phenomenon, from the product of culture, skilful imitation, and an overheard truth.’
And a reader, not necessarily an especially sensitive creature, instinctively knows the difference between a real, good, paragraph and clichéd bullshit.  I do wish sometimes that anthologies came without introductions.  The title of this anthology tells you everything you need to know, and the introduction (as so often) detracts from the book as a whole – the poetry doesn’t benefit from this kind of pseudo-profundity.  And it’s a shame because the editorial decisions made in respect of ethos and content are otherwise admirable.

The writing itself is wide ranging.  There are poets here who have seemingly fully ingested American traditions, and others who write specifically about their experiences of an alien culture, or about their identity as an immigrant.  There are well-known names and less familiar names.  There are poets from Russia, Romania, China, Italy, Nigeria, Argentina, Lebanon etc.  There are poets who use the space of the page as a visual space (a minority), poets who flirt with prose (more) and poets who stick with good old left-justified margins (a majority).  There’s rhyme, there’s metre, and there’s free verse.  There’s something for everyone really, and it’s interesting to feel it all jostle for your attention when you flick through the book at random.   
Because of this bewildering variety you’d be hard-pressed to say that the book has an over-all feel to it, and that’s one of its strengths.  It’s exciting that individuality is apparently seen by the editors to be a strength, that writing-styles don’t seem to have been curbed to fit a particular editorial template (ok – we need you to quit the prose poetry and double-justified crap and only submit stuff that looks like everybody else’s – you’ve seen my work? – well just send in something that reminds you of me, something non-threatening) and that, apart from the introduction, you don’t feel like you’re being bludgeoned into agreeing with an editor’s idiosyncratic or narrow-minded personal choices.  The editors’ palates really do seem to be broad: I can’t imagine an anthology of British poetry this eclectic finding a publisher in the UK. 

Of course there are things in here I don’t like – some of the more anecdotal, nostalgic, longing for/berating the homeland poems are a bit samey, though I don’t doubt such work’s sincerity or affective appeal.  But I kind of like that I don’t like everything.  It’s healthy.  And it’s good that the range of the anthology is wide enough to encourage debate, and provides exposure to writing  styles (as well as cultural perspectives) that readers entrenched in particular camps, e.g. experimental versus mainstream, might not actively seek out.

It’s impossible to offer representative poems from such a wide-ranging book, so I’m just going to cherry-pick a few personal favourites.   A highlight for me was the darkly humorous prose poetry of Sawako Nakayasu, which combines absurdism with a sense of fear and out-of-placeness.  Her ‘Girl Talk’ encapsulates this perfectly:

We are sitting around the table eating and drinking and exchanging stories about flashers, gropers, underwear thieves, your general assortment of urban perverts.  When I tell the story about the man who came up to me and opened his bag and offered me one of a teeming million wiggling ants in his bag, the whole table goes silent and I am reminded all over again how hard it is to get along with the women in this country.

I also loved the word-play and transposed Russian folk-surrealism of Eugene Ostashevsky, whose verbal gymnastics are shown off in ‘Ballad’:

                ‘... I was attached to a rock like a limpet
                around me ran waters limpid

                I could not move and even limping
                I became Eleatic and Olympic

                I could not C
                I could not D
                I could not E
                I could not F...’

The poem goes on to play with word/letter-associations from scuba to Scooby Doo, via Special K, before arriving at the statement ‘my name was Jennifer’, which somehow seems strangely logical because you’re so thoroughly immersed in the poet’s tricksy transformations.

Then there’s the mysterious and dense lyricism of Chris Tysh, whose ‘Ivy, Idiomatically Speaking’ was possibly my favourite thing here:

                ‘...a lull in the surf, her body’s darker home
                white casbah its own cage awakes
                to insolent text, vast patch of lies

               
                evening dalliance with fear scrubs us clean’

She explains in a brief introduction to her work that ‘what I lose by abandoning the mother tongue, I gain by transforming English (by deforming it, really) into my “patois, my own third world, my own desert,” to borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s singular metaphors’.  The initial disorienting, hypnotic, almost distancing effect that this approach produces on a reader is paradoxically transformed into the shared intimacy of a private language after just a couple of readings, and becomes personal and meaningful as well as breathtakingly beautiful. 

Chris Tysh’s work is a world away from the deftly rhyming verses of Alexei Tsvetkov, and it’s fascinating to see them side by side in the same anthology.  The witty ‘Sonnet to Snoopy’ is an example of serious form wedded perfectly to cartoon content to produce a quirkily mock-serious (it’s-a-dog’s-life) parable:

                ‘...or else the dog may watch the universe
                warp from its weight while supine on the roof
                come summer I will attempt of course
                to separate the cosmic warp from woof’

You can’t help smiling at something like that, while simultaneously delighting in the chewy sound of it.

Or, if you’ve still not found something you like, you could try the New York free-style of Andrei Codrescu, whose tumbling images and narrative forward-motion hook you and reel you in with unarticulated questions piled on unarticulated questions:

                ‘the dancers we are about to meet
                are fourteen thousand and twenty thousand years old
                but look fourteen in their frayed satin slippers no hips round eyes
                they have danced a number of universes some of which have exploded
                and tender others just being powered for use by life forms like ours
                they visit us because we are one of their earlier creations
                they don’t use the door they come in at the window
                or like last time through a crack in the roof... ‘

                [From ‘Visitors from the Dancing World’]

There’s a great deal to enjoy in this book, for readers across the poetry-buying spectrum, and it deserves to be a success.  The tangential, the half-understood, pushing at the boundaries of language from out-or-inside, and a need for understanding, communication and acceptance or (re)definition informs much of the writing here, and reminded me that these things are surely the impetus for the reading and writing of the majority of poetry (whether it’s highlighted in the text or not).  Most of us, except possibly Donald Rumsfeld or Margaret Thatcher, inhabit a world of constant major or minor bewilderment and uncertainty, of inarticulateness in the face of the undoable or unsayable.  If you feel this might apply to you, and you’re interested in expanding your reading-horizons to boot, I’d say Stranger at Home is pretty well a must.

Nathan Thompson is a British poet.
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