Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"How fragile we are underneath": New Buffalo Poets

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A few months ago, I wrote an article called “Duty Free” for Open Book: Toronto’s Winter Magazine. The article was a salvage project. I wanted to return to Canada’s literary-historical consciousness an event that took place -- if you would believe -- in Buffalo, New York many years ago. In 1980, Robert Creeley, Robert Bertholf, and Victor Coleman organized the four-day Canadian Poetry Festival (http://www.openbooktoronto.com...)

But there’s no reason the Q.E.W. should only accommodate one-way travel.

So, I’m going to introduce Open Book: Toronto readers to some excellent Buffalo-based poets. Think of today’s post as a mini-Buffalo Poetry Festival, happening in a virtual Toronto. Maybe a curator in the city with the right mix of foresight and chutzpah will think to invite these fellas to read in real life sometime soon.

(In addition, think of today’s blog entry as a riposte to Ken Babstock’s jibe at Buffalo poetry in his poem “Think, Pig!” from Airstream Land Yacht. Babstock’s ill-informed claim notwithstanding, these poets have no interest in composing poems based on algorhythmic recombinations of source texts.)

First up is my man Richard Owens, a Jersey-born poet who used to be part of the influential mid-1990s punk outfit Those Unknown. Owens is the author of two collections of poetry: Delaware Memoranda (Buffalo: BlazeVOX, 2008) and, more recently, Embankments (Dallas: Interbirth, 2009). He’s also in the process of composing a whole bunch of rollicking ballads these days, some of which he publishes as beautiful broadsides.

In Delaware Memoranda, Owens tackles some local history -- in particular, that of the Delaware River. The book doesn’t just treat the river water as a deracinated poetic symbol; rather, it’s a living thing that swallows up the lives of many men who labored in or around it. At the same time, the river’s victim to man’s inglorious machinations. The book’s rich in rough-and-tumble vernacular and is further textured by letters and historical documents. Embankments is the timelier book, however. The writing responds to the recent US recession. Here are some great lines from the bitterly ironic and pitch-perfect “Love Song”:

so I might sing a love song

transmit through expansion
genital conditions
of choler & careless spending

tan line likened to liberty
financed jewelry -- barricades. . .

Another great poem from Embankment to entice you, one which displays Owens's great ear and cutting humor (see the tragic punning phrase it ends with). This is “Chanson de Geste”:

We've heard the factories hum
& drone on like a choir of kettle drums
like a Springsteen song gone wrong . . .

Like those Springsteen songs gone
so terriby wrong the next tune draws
slowly upward -- a non-negotiable coda
chanted like the Stations of the Cross:
simple in austerity; soft yet stern. This
one isn't as fun but easy to learn. It goes:

Meet the new boss...

José Felipe Alvergue’s us look up / there red dwells was published in 2008 by Queue Books, a book-publishing side-project of Andrew Rippeon’s P-Queue journal. Alvergue was born in El Salvador and grew up San Ysidro, a bordertown in South San Diego. The book-length poem takes as its jump-off point the death of 18-year-old Alma Gonzalez, hit and killed by an Anglo drunk driver.

Bad Canadian poets (and there’s a lot of ‘em) tend to sensationalize acts of violence, either recklessly situating these acts in aesthetic games played from a comfortable distance or using them as a means of conferring upon oneself a sense of moral advantage (i.e. “gosh, aren’t I good person for writin’ poems about this bad stuff”). Alvergue does neither, a sign of a sharp poetic mind. Instead he presents his elegy as a damaging political critique of the structures -- linguistic, economic, geographic -- that enable the death of Alma Gonzalez to recede from memory and, ultimately, to go unpunished.

They don’t swallow
cities no clean
moments clear
epiphany final or love. It is sloppy
& long, drawn out by
impoverishing disbelief
& a fat slow moving time . . .

Those lines are as good a description of the way power works upon the powerless as I can imagine. It grinds and grinds like Alvergue's interminable last line.

Alvergue mixes languages, translations, newspaper clippings, images, graphs, concrete poetry. The typographic and visual dynamism of the page also serves as a performance score of sorts: when Alvergue reads his work, he moves from whispers to screams; from a speedy delivery to a slow and mannered elocution; from prayer to protest.

Aaron Lowinger is the only poet I’m discussing who actually hails from Buffalo. The city is still his home and appropriately plays a big role in his poetry and poetics. Publisher BlazeVOX includes a free pdf of Lowinger’s work on their website (http://www.blazevox.org/BF-SP1...), which I urge you to print up, bind, and read. The selection of poems is The House at 24 Huntington St. The title refers to the house Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley lived in during their stay in Buffalo the summer of 1970 and near where Lowinger grew up. That title poem is an extended prose piece that mixes local history, autobiography, and literary criticism.

I think Lowinger’s commentary on Berrigan is as good a place to start as any when thinking about the former's poetry: “the speed and insanity of a country so drunk with energy and waste that it burns through resources and conflicts.” Like Berrigan, Lowinger’s interested in the ephemera of the everyday, which has a way of re-enchanting the world and -- for a moment -- staving off death:

everything you do
is important
it all counts
towards something

My favourite Lowinger poem is quoted in its entirety below. “Messiah Blues” is illustrative of Lowinger’s “speedy” use of plain talk, which works toward an Emersonian finale that imagines the Great Man, or Poet, as a sublime b-ball star we have yet to imagine. Writes Emerson: “I look in vain for the whom I describe . . . . We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials.” Lowinger proposes those “incomprable materials” may be found in the NBA, and I’d be hard pressed to argue with him:

Some think Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time.
The purists have doubts, say check with Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell first
Other think it's Lebron James, or Kobe Bryant
Lebron James is younger and he's friends with Jay-Z
Kobe is a winner but he is scandalized

I think you're all wrong
the greatest basketball player ever
has never played the game
the greatest basketball player
will be easy to pick out
when he comes
he's the one who won't ever miss a shot

Last, but not least, I turn my attention toward David Hadbawnik who arrived in Buffalo a couple years ago via Texas and San Francisco. He’s the author of three books of poetry, most recently Translations from Creeley (Sardines, 2008) and Ovid in Exile (Interbirth, 2007). He’s the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli as well as the director of Buffalo Poets Theater.

Translations from Creeley is a handbound suite of poems. They are terse poems, “pockets of energy,” punctuated by some ambiguous mix of existential bliss and crisis: an “excess of force / his being alone.” Take, for example, this eight-line epistle:

DEAR S——

It was pure joy
to read your letter;

I have very little
time to write, and suffer.

It’s fine to say
lover, but all I can do

is what we do
when we’re together.

Ovid in Exile (introduced by fine poet Dale Smith) is probably my favourite of Hadbawnik’s three collections. It begins with a section of sonnets in which Hadbawnik imagines a series of colloquies across time with Ovid: “To expend your strength & toil & vigor / on women, this was your crime, & for it / you died not once but hundreds of times / a blind man in a world out of sight.” By contrast, the final half of the book presents a series of monologues by historical figures, including Augustus, Livia, Tiberius, among others. Here’s “Ovid, Sailing,” in which the title character describes his voyage to Tomis, the site of his exile:

. . . the ship moves swiftly
onward groaning with wind
there is no Caesar here
no king. We have
flown outside the sphere
of his influence
into this new
land I think it is
the future. The future
doesn’t matter so much
when you really are a part of it . . .

The monologues allow Hadbawnik to draw subtle parallels between the Roman empire in extremis and the present-day US, without ever disturbing the aesthetic and dramatic integrity of the historical figure he’s voicing:

. . . flutter of eyelashes
stirring up storms that rise
all over town --
Rome is just a town
I’m the mayor of
not some vast empire
stretching out like silly putty
over the earth -- all that’s
just an illusion we keep up
for appearance nobody really knows
how fragile we are underneath

I consider myself lucky that these poets are part of my community, the community I live and write in. And to be frank, reading these dudes inspires me in ways that almost none of my Canadian peers do. (Take from that what you will. If you think it’s a personal slight, it probably is, sucka). The fact is, flip through issues of Arc, Malahat, Fiddlehead, or Grain, or any of the other twaddle we like to call “literary journals” and you’ll find nothing that’s quite as good or comparable in voice or style to this foursome. (Hell, the only person in Canada who could write something like Lowinger’s “Messiah Blues” is probably Pasha Malla.)

Owens, Alvergue, Lowinger, and Hadbawnik present examples of an engaged poetry as far from algorhythms as I can imagine, and one that takes nothing for granted in terms of genre. Everything’s up for grabs. To borrow an especially apt quote from Alvergue, “They risk language” -- and the risk is far more than just rhyming “mortadella” and “nutella,” my friends.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of two collections of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press, and the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey.

Go to Alessandro Porco’s Author Page