Safety Book #20 (Joyelle McSweeney)

1. A Book I love and Why: I love The Fast by Hannah Weiner because it’s alarmed, alarming, and sounds the alarm.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

I believe that for knowledge of The Fast I am indebted to Patrick Durgin, who has been doing so much to make Hannah Weiner’s work available both online and with the Selected he edited a few years back, Hannah Weiner’s Open House. By exposure to her writings, performance documents and recordings, photos, interviews, and other texts, I feel that I’ve become like an interactive surface or playback device for Hannah Weiner, I feel linked to her server, to switch metaphors, totally wired in. And of course she herself was a relaying device, totally wired in to her silent teachers who relayed text to her by making it visible on the air and on her body and on the world around her. She then translated this revealed language into reproducible text by really ingenious use of typewriters and early word processors, using typefaces to capture the different ‘voices’ of her spirit teachers. When I went and tracked down The Fast, which is her account of the fast which marked the inception of her clairvoyance, I was really amazed that such a slim book could make such a rupture in the world. It was like Augustine: Open the Book and Read. A cascade of linked possessions and revelations. Since then I’ve bought and lost several copies (that’s the only drawback to such a slim volume! Too easy to lose!).

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

This and the rest of Weiner’s work split me open and remade my thinking about art and literature. I now think of the artist as a medium for media, saturated by media, possessed by media. Since then I’ve felt totally penetrated by Art, its presence and its pressure, its need to rework and improve and sometimes damage my surfaces to better serve its transmissions and productions and spectacles and prerogatives. The recent Eurovision Song of the Year contest in Baku might be a good analog for my ideas about Art: live, scrambled, loud, long, spectacular, kitschy, polyglot, ridiculous, rife with expenditure, pouring out streamers, twins, costumes, applause, wasting money, running on occult currents of politics and violence which sometimes push through the surface, rupturing the torso of some pirate-styled Turkish boy-band member with its bloody head to address the audience in writhing semaphore.

4. Give us a line etc.

Two paragraphs from the first pages of The Fast:

I had an “at home” experience and spent 3 weeks in the kitchen sink. Partly I spent 3 weeks in the kitchen sink because I had no bathtub and partly because I became sensitive, magnetic to metal, and couldn’t take a shower in my metal enclosed shower. A lot of water relieved the pain that I experienced. I lived in a loft, about 1000 sq. feet, trickle shower, gas heater, etc. The north end faced the trafficked street and the south end the dark backs of factories. At the south end, with the shower and double sink, was a blue nylon rug on top of brown jute mat wall to wall. I am electrically antithetical to nylon carpeting—it pains my bad knee and my bad right groin and hip. So on

Monday FAST DAY 1, Oct. 26, 1970, Kevin came to take up and take home the blue nylon carpet. We sat having tea at the narrow counter that extends out from the double sink. “What is that terrible smell” said Kevin. “That is from the exterminator” said I “who came early this morning and exterminated for roaches and rats. Last week a rat ran over my hand in my very own bed.” So we sat drinking tea. It was then I noticed a bright green triangular feather shape coming out of his right eye, a bright green feather shape with red and yellow streaks. It is remarkable to me now that I did not question the bright green feather shape. I simply got up and went shopping at the health food store. I bought Tiger’s Milk, eyebright, fennel, fenugreek, rose hip teas, cashew nut butter, blueberry syrup and a little plastic bear full of honey. I had a large shopping bag full. What I didn’t buy was a large bottle of thick pink liquid shampoo which I could have used later to help the pain. I had in my refrigerator four gallons of spring waterr and goats milk. I had two vivid dreams about pollution that night.

I quote at length here so you can see the infectious agent that is Weiner’s prose. The short phrases in the long sentences addict the reader; you become just as feverish and worked up for each next phrase’s revelation as Weiner. Meanwhile the sentences are also hilarious—by phrasal turns totally quotidian or cosmic. I love the grousing about the exterminator, followed by a spectral vision of her friend’s eyes extruding feathers, followed by a matter of fact trip to the health food store. HW is a prophet who did a lot of shopping! Her accounting is really an accounting, a record of expenditures, consumptions, damages, impressions, favors, gestures, maneuvers, recoveries, witty remarks, revelations, and what each of these things cost her, in terms of pain, illness, solitude, assaults of the senses, etc.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I sent this book to my dear friend, the writer Kate Bernheimer, the author of a gorgeous and vertiginous  and luminous and devastating trilogy, The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, and The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold.  Kate’s writing process is the most exacting I know of among contemporary writers; she spent years crafting and recrafting the first book in the trilogy, which is barely two hundred pages long. She then used these sentences as the models for the sentences in the subsequent books in the trilogy. This painstaking pursuit of Beauty, the solitude and even imprisonment in Time required of it, recopies the themes, motifs, and engines of the fairy tales of which she is a scholar; this current of writing as vocation, ordeal, and quest, runs back and forth between Weiner and Bernheimer, even though the genres in which they work is so different. I firmly believe that there is a true occult insurgency running across and through this writing, across and through time periods, materials, authors, languages, and genres, bubbling up in black and radiant and cosmic materials like The Fast.

***

Joyelle McSweeney is the author of five books, including THE COMMANDRINE AND OTHER POEMS (Fence Books, 2004), FLET: A NOVEL (Fence Books, 2007), NYLUND, THE SARCOPHAGER (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007) and PERCUSSION GRENADE: POEMS & PLAYS (Fence Books, 2012). Her book THE RED BIRD (Fence Books, 2002) was chosen by Allen Grossman to inaugurate the Fence Modern Poets Series in 2001. McSweeney is a co- founder of Action Books and Action, Yes, a press and web-quarterly for international writing and hybrid forms, and a contributing editor of the culture blog montevidayo.com. She holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and is an associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of Notre Dame.

Melissa Dickey (Safety Book #18)

I'm going to cheat here. My book has no name. It looks like this: I began writing and reading in it in June, 1999. A gift from my high school boyfriend, it is not a journal, but rather a sort of “copy book” as my friend Jay and I have always referred to it. This is a log of loved poems.

I really got serious about it in 2003. Before then, I'd used it for copying snippets of whatever I was reading, mixed with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Velvet Underground lyrics—all the usual stuff for age 17. By 2004, my first year of grad school, I'd filled it up with whole poems copied out mostly by hand. For me, it's a record of another time, of a sort of naïve faith I had in poems and myself and the world. (I was to win the Yale Younger by 21! Be fluent in many languages and translate for a living! Win a Stegner, a Fulbright, and a Guggenheim! Study at the Academy in Rome! Etc. etc. etc.)

Herein lie the usual suspects for a young and passionate reader of poems: e.e. cummings, Dickinson. Also a whole lot of Hopkins, Yeats, and Auden. I don't think I write anything like Hopkins, Yeats, or Auden. But there it is. There they are. Right beside this weird poem by Laura Jensen:

Bad Boats

They are like women because they sway. They are like men because they swagger. They are like lions because they are king here. They walk on the sea. The drifting logs are good: they are taking their punishment. But the bad boats are ready to be bad, to overturn in water, to demolish the swagger and the sway. They are bad boats because they cannot wind their own rope or guide themselves neatly close to the wharf. In their egomania they are glad for the burden of the storm the men are shirking when they go for their coffee and yawn. They are bad boats and they hate their anchors.

…..

I love this book because when I am completely fed up with poetry and feel certain it will never again speak to me, a poem in here will. When all modes seem tired and there are too many books, poets are assholes, teaching is misguided, and art is self-indulgent and useless, I can flip through this book, reluctantly, and some phrase will jump out: “Beyond all this, the wish to be alone” (Larkin); “In a dark time, the eye begins to see” (Roethke); “so many languages have fallen” (Clifton). Poems I used to know by heart, or nearly. Lines imprinted on some neurological path of mine and, certainly, in the minds of others.

This book influences my writing because these poems have a life in my brain. Have clarified my life, my brain. Probably the rhythms of the language more than anything else—what I've taken in subconsciously, what I've relied on to remember them.

I think it was Linda Bierds, in a workshop at the University of Washington in 2001 or 2, who turned me on, in her sweet wisdom, to this idea. I don't think it's an amazingly original one, though I do wonder how many poets my age (I'm 30) are copying their favorite poems out by hand these days.

I don't do this anymore. Now I keep a separate notebook in which I write about every book I read—quotes, whole poems, thoughts, publication data. It doesn't serve the same purpose or have the same effect as this one does. It's more orderly, formal. Driven less by urgency and more by habit. Like an adult.

And I don't love all these poems anymore, either. I'm not, after all, such a huge fan of Anthony Hecht or Denise Levertov or Randall Jarrell. But, re-reading what's here, I remember what I loved, or learned. They clarify what I want or do not want, what I value. I still love “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” anyway.

Also, this book is not politically correct. Women and minorities are grossly under- and mis-represented. Many of the poets have been dead for a hundred years. And that's just the point. When I read these poems and let myself be moved, I can let go of my own expectations, criteria, and notions of what it's acceptable to love, what it's all right to like. What a gift, to be divested of those.

Rescue Press published Melissa Dickey's first book of poems, The Lily Will, in October, 2011. She lives, teaches, writes, makes stuff, and mothers in New Orleans, LA, with her husband Andy and their two small children.

Rebecca Lehmann (Safety Book #17)

1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?

Selected Poems, Unabridged (Dover Thrift Editions) by Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson is the mother of American verse, but when I bought this book, I didn’t know that; I was a fourteen-year-old kid (see next question). Why do I love this book? I don’t know how you can be a poet and NOT love Emily Dickinson. I think if you don’t there might be something wrong with the language/music receptors in your ears and you may want to consider a career as a meter maid (side note: in the small town of Marshall, Michigan, the parking meters accept pennies; they make a delicious sound as they fall into the meter’s metal bank). Susan Howe, in her book My Emily Dickinson, says that not only is Dickinson the mother of American verse, but that she’s also the mother of experimental verse, because of her use the dash, her fragmented grammar, her capitalizations, her wild use of symbol. How can you argue with that? But, like I said, when I bought this book I was fourteen, so I also wasn’t thinking about the origins of experimental verse.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

I got this book at a really crappy bookstore in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1995 when I was fourteen. I think the bookstore was called something like The Little Professor. It carried mostly romance novels, thrillers, and books about fairies or babies dressed as fairies. The whole store was the size of a small kitchen, or a large closet. In the front of the store, by the register, there was a wire rack with a number of Dover Thrift Editions. The book cost $1.00, brand new. This was the first book of poetry I owned, or, for that matter, read.

When I bought this book, my family had recently moved to an extremely rural part of the state, and I felt lonely and isolated. At night, I would lie in my bed listening to the never-ending chirps of crickets, and the loud, long moos of cows in heat. The air smelled like manure and decomposing hay. It drove me crazy. I was struggling with depression and an eating disorder, and not getting good care or treatment for either problem. Reading Dickinson’s poems made me feel like somebody was reaching out through time and space, speaking directly to me, in a special language that only I could understand.

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

Absolutely. I started writing poetry after (and probably because of) reading this book. Whenever I am feeling stuck or lost in my own poetics, there are a couple of books I return to to help un-stick myself. This is one of them (others include Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, and Joshua Clover’s Madonna anno domini). My own writing can at times be rather baroque and raucous. Reading Dickinson reminds me of the minimalist possibilities of language.

4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…

Of Dickinson’s poems represented in this collection, I’m drawn to the morbid. The poem that begins “I died for beauty, but was scarce / Adjusted in the tomb, / When one who died for truth was lain / In an adjoining room” (the Dover Thrift Edition does not include numbers for any of Dickinson’s poems) ends with a stanza that really disturbs me: “And so, as kinsmen met a night, / We talked between the rooms, / Until the moss had reached our lips, / And covered up our names.” I love how creepy this final image is! The moss not only covers up the two corpses’ mouths (a chilling reminder of mortality, the silence of death, and decay), but it also obliterates the names on their grave markers (representing a final annihilation). Furthermore, as the two people, representing Truth and Beauty (PAGING JOHN KEATS), decompose and are consumed by nature (the moss) and ultimately forgotten, so are the lofty ideals of Truth and Beauty. To me, this is a much truer representation of aesthetics than “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” which I doubt even Keats believed.

Another favorite is this poem:

I felt a funeral in my brain, And mourners, to and fro, Kept treading, treading, till it seemed, That sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated, A service like a drum Kept beating, beating, till I thought My mind was going numb.

And then I heard them lift a box, And creak across my soul With those same boots of lead, again. Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell, And Being but an ear, And I and silence some strange race, Wrecked, solitary, here.

This poem expresses a lot of the same existential angst that much of Dickinson’s work does. To me, the most haunting lines are the last five. When I teach this poem, I spend a good amount of time unpacking that final image/metaphor, and exploring the representation of final nothingness. It’s lonely, and beautiful, and weird, and supernatural. Space is tolling like a bell! A bell!

I don’t know why I am now or was at fourteen drawn to these poems. At fourteen, I should have been wearing too much flannel, smoking pot, and planning my wedding to Eddie Vedder (all of which I did at a later date), not pouring over depressing poetry alone in my bedroom.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I haven’t sent this book to anyone. It’s one of my most prized possessions, and I’m not sharing it. Of course, all of the poets I know have read Dickinson’s poems. If you’re not a poet, or if you haven’t read Dickinson’s poems, go get your own copy. For Christ’s sake, it only costs a dollar!

***

Bio: Rebecca Lehmann is the author of Between the Crackups (Salt Modern Poets 2011), which won the Crashaw Prize. Her poems have been published in Tin House, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, and other journals. She lives with her husband in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where she teaches creative writing and literature.

SAFETY BOOK

Rescue Press is curious about those moments in time when a book in the world has made a profound impact on a single reader. We are interested in the specific, unutterable, and occasionally unrepeatable euphoria that occurs when ONE reader falls in love with ONE book, and how that falling, like all great falling, is influenced by a time in one’s life, a cultural moment, an aesthetic, a politic, an excitement, a seduction, a song, or an impulse. We are interested in the ways in which a single book might contain memories more real than our own, language that directs our thinking, or images that we are bound to seek forever after. To this end, we’ve asked a series of readers to comment on a specific book that they love—one that has influenced their work or thinking, surprised or disrupted their day, lent them strength, made them laugh, given them pause, illuminated a vision, or possibly even changed their life. We then ask our readers to send a copy of this book to someone else who might enjoy it.

We will post these mini-interviews/essays/responses on this blog.