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Legitimate dangers : American poets of the new century by Various (Sarabande Books, 2006)

Our Poetry Library Book Club in October 2014 took place during the London Literature Festival and looked at the work of five American poets who have emerged since 2000. Three of the five poets appear in the anthology Legitimate dangers : American poets of the new century edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin (Sarabande Books, 2006), while two have risen to prominence following this publication.

The five poets we looked at were:

Brenda Shaughnessy
Matthea Harvey
Tao Lin
Timothy Donnelly
Matthew Dickman

A very brief introduction to American poetry:

It's impossible to synopsise the poetic culture of any country but there are a few pointers we can note now before we start exploring the five poets we'll be looking at.
Firstly - we should note that what we're calling American poetry tonight is actually poetry from the United States of America. There are many poetic cultures in the Americas, and many oral traditions which predate the founding of the United States. US poetry does, however, have a broad identity that sets it apart from its continental neighbours (perhaps Canadian poetry is its closest relative) and also its European forebears.
Secondly, there are two voices that tower over U.S. poetry and seem to have set the tone for this identity's manifestation as a separate entity from poetry of the "old world". These are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson - and it's pretty much impossible to look at American poetry without looking at these two voices. Both wrote most of their work in the years before the Poetry Library's collection policy begins (1912) yet the library has all of their work because they have had such an influence on 20th and 21st century US poetics.
Dickinson, barely published in her lifetime, wrote formally experimental, highly idiosyncratic, and psychologically haunting snapshots of her inner world - a world that seems particularly to have an outsider's (possibly a uniquely female) take on human relationships, with an often morbid focus on death and loss.
Whitman, on the other hand, was massively popular during his lifetime, and wrote long epic poems which attempted to embody all the democratic promise and beauty of the new United States. His writing contains an unusual (for its time) emphasis on the physical body and sexuality, and a poetic timbre that is both everyday and yet somehow reflective of the vast and disparate landscape of the country.
Dickinson's experimental adventures coupled with her meticulous self-examination are still resounding in US poetry - we think you'll see that immediately in the poems we look at today - while Whitman's attempt to embody a universal every person underlies the multiple ethnicities and identities of contemporary US poetry and brings us to the very coalface of a politics still being explored, fought over, and negotiated in the multiverse of contemporary US poetry.

Brenda Shaughnessy

Brenda Shaughnessy was born in Okinawa, Japan, in 1970 and grew up in Southern California. She received her BA in literature and women's studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is a graduate of Columbia University's writing program.

She is the author of three collections: Interior with sudden joy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) which was nominated for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, a Lambda Literary Award, and the Norma Farber First Book Award; Human dark with sugar (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and Our Andromeda which was shortlisted for the 2013 International Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award.

She is the poetry editor-at-large at Tin House magazine and is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University.  She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, poet Craig Morgan Teicher, and their son and daughter.  Her son, who was her firstborn child, suffered a major brain injury at birth, and her third collection Our Andromeda includes poems addressed to him and to her younger self.  She came to London last year to read at the Poetry Library's 60th birthday reading in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Critical response to Interior with sudden joy:

"Despite bursts of clarity, Shaughnessy's debut brings to mind the great and difficult voluptuaries of modern verse: like Hart Crane, she invents words for their trilling sonorities ("spifflicated,""cravesty," "slimsy"); like John Ashberry, she feigns a childlike voice that surreally joins odd words into a diction of her own creation. Striking, unyielding, the poems... burst with the ripe images of female sexuality, with her homoerotic kinkiness, and her admitted non-sense, all rendered aslant... Shaughnessy stretches her verses so tight they threaten everywhere to snap, and meaning bounces off them like off a trampoline."
Kirkus Review

We're going to look at a poem from Shaughnessy's first collection Interior with sudden joy (published 1999).

'Project for a Fainting'

1. Do you like the description of rain that starts the poem?
2. Do you think this poem is set in the modern world or a previous age?
3. Is this poem about fainting as the title suggests?
4. In the acknowledgements to this collection Shaughnessy states that it has been informed by the work of artist Dorothea Tanning. This is one of two poems in the book named directly after paintings by Tanning (and the book itself takes its title from the other poem after a painting). Here is the painting:
Does seeing the work of art make you view the poem differently?
5. Shaughnessy has mentioned how important discovering the work of ee cummings was to her as a teenager. Read "somewhere I have never travelled" by ee cummings:
Can you see similarities? Is this poem a reply to the cummings poem?

Matthea Harvey

Matthea Harvey was born in Germany, spent her childhood in England, and moved to Milwaukee with her family when she was eight years old. She is is the author of five books of poetry: If the Tabloids are True What Are You?, Of Lamb (an illustrated erasure with images by Amy Jean Porter), Modern Life (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book, and winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award of $100,000), Sad Little Breathing Machine and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. She has also published two children's books, Cecil the Pet Glacier, illustrated by Giselle Potter and The Little General and the Giant Snowflake.  She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Today we're going to look at her poem 'Inside the good idea' from her award-winning 2007 collection Modern Life.

Listen to Harvey reading 'Inside the Good Idea'

1. The men inside the horse - are they behaving as you would expect?
2. "Black, Dark, The Occasional Star. Then Quiet Footsteps Mixed with Questions" - why do you think the poet uses upper case in this phrase?
3. Does this depiction of the Trojan Horse story leave you satisfied?
4. Is there a Good Idea in this poem? If so, whose idea is it?
5. The message which gets "caught in the throat" - whose throat?

Tao Lin

Tao Lin is a prolific contemporary American writer who is based in New York. Born in 1983, and so aged 31, he has already published 3 novels, a novella, a collection of short stories and 2 collections of poetry, as well as e-books and other online content. His first print publication was the poetry collection you are a little bit happier than I am, which appeared in 2006.  The poem we're going to look at is taken from this collection, and so we can perhaps bear in mind that they represent some of his earliest published work. More recently, it's fair to say that Lin has become better known as a novelist. His novel from 2010 called Richard Yates was the occasion for a career overview in the London Review of Books. His novel from last year Taipei was his first to come out with major publishers and has received a number of high profile and some celebratory reviews.
Lin's poetry, then, is sometimes regarded as juvenilia. Editor of Slate magazine David Haglund writes that his poems "read like the occasional, mostly unrevised thoughts of a smart, self-conscious, possibly depressed young American." 

We looked at "things I wanted to do today"
1. Does this seem like a totally bizarre catalogue of wants, or does Lin capture the specificity, idiosyncrasy and unexpectedness of desire?
2. Do you think this poem is funny? If so, where does the humour come from?
3. Does the list format create any particularly striking effects? Without any resolution to the poem, are we being encouraged to see that these very particular desires will continue to proliferate? Is this consoling, exhausting or neutral?
4. The poem seems to juxtapose desires that seem easy to fulfil with more specific and complex ones. Does this create a levelling effect? All desires are equally valid or equally ridiculous?
5. The poem seems to play on the common idea of a "to-do" list, but do we have a clear sense either way of whether or not any of these desires were fulfilled, whether the things that speaker wanted to do were actually done? Is the feeling of wanting, of desiring, more important to the speaker of this poem?
6.      What is the effect of the repetition in the poem? Does the repetition of "I wanted" make the speaker seem self-centred? Does the repetition contain exasperation at fleeting or unfulfilled desires, or wonder at the wide variety of things one can feel enthused about doing?

Timothy Donnelly

Timothy Donnelly was born in 1969 in Providence, Rhode Island. He is poetry editor at the Boston Review, and has written two collections: Twenty-seven props for a production of Eine Lebenszeit 2003) and The cloud corporation (2010) for which he won the 2011 Kingsley Tufts Award of $100,000. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two daughters. Biographical details are pretty basic so here are some quotes from him:

"As a child, I couldn't put an end to the saying of things, and as an adult, I refuse to."

"Poetry of the highest order [...] may pretend to decorum, to some degree, like Dickinson. It might sit politely in the living room, say, or even help out in the kitchen, but before you know what hit you, it's brought the roof down on your head or set the cat on fire."
(Donnelly, American Poetry Review March/April 2012)
"...our prioritization of  what's intelligible in our discussions of poetry [...] has begat a seemingly endless litter of relatively artless and utterly comprehensible poems about personal experiences, and in counter-response to this, an endless litter of incomprehensible poems about nothing in particular"
(Donnelly (discussing Wallace Stevens)  - Harriet the blog: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/05/quasi-unintelligibility-coda/)

The poem we looked at was "the malady that took the place of thinking" from The cloud corporation.

1. The poem refers to an image of the My Lai Massacre in March 1968 in Vietnam when hundreds of umarmed civilians were abused and murdered by US soldiers.  How do you feel about this event suddenly appearing in the text?
2.The poet John McCulloch when reviewing Donnelly has remarked that "Musicality and phrase-making [... ] ensure his poems delight in the moment, no matter how distant the reader becomes from a conventional understanding".  But is there a danger that the reader becomes emotionally disconnected from this kind of poetry because it is difficult to pinpoint meaning?
3.Is this poem about internet culture?
4.The title references the following poem by Wallace Stevens:
The Poem That Took The Place Of A Mountain:
How do you feel  Donnelly's poem reframes Stevens' poem? 
Matthew Dickman

Born in 1975 in Portland, Oregon, Matthew Dickman was raised by his mother in the suburb of Lents. After studying at the University of Oregon, he earned an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin's Michener Center.
Dickman's first full-length collection, All American Poem (2008), won numerous awards. His second collection Mayakovsky's Revolver was published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 2012 and Dickman has said that the "core of the book is a thirteen-part elegy for my older brother Darin, who committed suicide" in 2007. In addition to writing, Dickman serves as Associate Editor for Tin House magazine. In 2011, despite the success of his first book, he was working in a grocery store. He appeared in the 2002 film Minority Report alongside his twin brother, poet Michael Dickman who has published two poetry collections with Copper Canyon Press.

Critical response to All American poem:
"All-American Poem, Matthew Dickman's first collection, is as American as Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and Women's Suffrage. It is also as American as Pepsi-Cola, companies that manufacture toilet seats, and the ubiquitous Barnes & Noble parking lot. To comment on American culture today, as All-American Poem seems to do, is to concede to the conflict between American history and a current atmosphere of perceived consumption and pettiness. What stands out in this winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize is that the speaker is thoroughly aware of the irreconcilable conflicts of "being American."... These poems are about class and race and suicides, but they're also about sex and parties and cigarettes. It is in this conflict that the reader must at times question the sincerity of the speaker."
Jared Walls Front Porch

We're going to look at a poem from Matthew Dickman's first collection All American Poem called "American Standard".
1. Were you expecting a poem called "American Standard" to be about a toilet?
2. Do you like the speaker of this poem? Would you like to be at this party?
3. What is he trying to say about himself/about America with the end of the poem? (Does the reference to Ethiopia make you uncomfortable?)
4. All the poems have this same layout and they way they are set out reminds me of the work of Stephen Dobyns. (Dobyns has said of his work "If there's a consistency in any of the books, it's the fact that I like a long line . . . [and] use the linebreak to affect the rhythm of the lines, to affect the rhythm of the poem.") What affect do the long lines create in this poem? Do you think Dickman has carefully chosen where he breaks his lines?
5. Does anyone know of any other poems about toilets?

All of the books mentioned are available in the Poetry Library for reference or loan.

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