Dora Malech: Poetic Influence and Poetic Constraint, Ex Post Facto

MalechThe last question in W. S. Merwin’s gnomic Q & A poem “Some Last Questions” is “Who are the compatriots.” In the process of writing my most recent collection, Stet: Poems (Princeton University Press, 2018), I found that question—who are the compatriots—running through my head again and again. I had embarked on a project of constrained poetry (poems engaged with form outside of the traditional parameters of rhyme and meter, in my case, through procedures of erasure, lipogram, and anagram in particular) without any clear sense of why I was drawn to these processes. It began intuitively, a “lonely impulse of delight” drawing my attention to the limited and recombinant, but I soon felt the seemingly arbitrary becoming necessary, even revelatory, for me. The more I reflected on my process, the more these forms directly spoke to and enacted the individual context out of which they arose—the change in my own life (interpersonal, geographical, embodied, and so on) a function not of the impossible “fresh start,” but of my metaphorical and literal pre-existing conditions. I could only write myself new by acknowledging what and who and where I already was; to that end, I begin the collection with an epigraph from Henri Cole’s poem “Anagram”: “Scrawling the letters of my name, I found and changed what I became.”

The collection foregrounds its influences (Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Unica Zürn’s Hexentexte, for example)—writers and writings I sought out as I processed my process, attempting to find precedents and context for my formal constraints—but lately, I’ve been struck by the way in which the “project” of a book doesn’t end when the book itself ends. There’s some element of frequency illusion at play, sure, but now, in the wake of Stet, I find my compatriots everywhere—other contemporary poets working with anagrams, lipograms, abecedaries, and so on. Each time I read new (or new to me) contemporary work engaged with constrained form, I find myself attending to the why of form anew, and finding different answers in each poet’s work. Here at the end of poetry month, I wanted to celebrate the work of my compatriots, drawing up a short list of those who are keeping me company.

If you’re looking for contemporary anagrams, check out Mike Smith’s Multiverse, published by BlazeVOX books in 2010, and Kevin McFadden’s Hardscrabble, published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008. Both of these collections use the anagram to explore the making of identity, particularly focused on embedded lineage and American literary identity. Then there’s K. Silem Mohammad’s Sonnagrams 1-20, published by Slack Buddha Press in 2009. While these anagrams of Shakespeare’s sonnets seem to resist being taken too seriously, presenting themselves as more conceptual than lyric, I can’t help but find the actual language strangely compelling. The print version of the sonnagrams is now hard to access, but there are still plenty of individual sonnagrams floating around on the internet, which, while frustrating, seems a fitting fate for poems that came out of the Flarf movement. Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border (Sarabande Books, 2009), its title an anagram of “Robert Redford,” uses this titular anagram as a kind of enactment of the imagining and reimagining (including the imagining and reimagining of an imagined relationship with “Robert Redford”) to be found therein. The use of the anagram in Jeffrey Pethybridge’s Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press, 2013) fascinates me in its ambivalence. In an interview with The Rumpus, he says:

[With] the anagrams, I think of them as a kind of linguistic materialism which works with the book’s engagement with the materialist psychology in contemporary psychiatry (brain chemistry) and the early modern materials psychology of humoral theory, so the poem refracts those ways of conceiving of human affect and cognition. And also, as a writer, the constraints and strictures sponsor creativity for me / they help me make the poem . . .

And one of the first pieces i made was “The New Humors(1),” which started when I was reading the word serotonin in the dictionary and saw the anagram no tin rose, which then immediately recalled Stein’s a rose is a rose is a rose. And then I was launched into a poem.

When asked to speak more about the connection between materialist psychology and anagrams, he writes:

[They] are two different intensifications of material: anagrams are a linguistic materialism—making a poem mostly out of the letters of a given word; and the focus on brain chemistry is a focus on the material body as the cause of suicide rather than in the mind, the psychological drama.

I’m fascinated by this uneasy relationship the book has with the reductive nature of the anagram – Pethybridge interrogates that reduction in terms of lived experience, while also letting its poetic constraints prove paradoxically productive.

Terrance Hayes’s “A Gram of &s” series in Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002) uses a kind of end-“rhyme” anagram form, based on a word game found in newspaper puzzles. Using the game’s specific constraints, each end word re-works letters of the poem’s title into new words, “Stupor” becoming “sour,” “sport,” and so on. This form interests me because it manages to foreground transpositions of sound alongside the visual.

I haven’t noted every single anagrammarian out there, but it should give some sense of who’s working with alphabetic transposition in poetry, and why. I’d love to move on to the lipogrammarians and the poets working with erasure and redaction now (Marwa Helal! Solmaz Sharif! Kristi Maxwell!), but I’ll adhere to the constraint of a blog post and wrap this celebration up before I hit 1000 words. I feel lucky to have found the compatriots on the page, and luckier still that I’m still discovering new ones. Happy reading, and Happy Poetry Month.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New YorkerPoetryThe Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Poetry Editor Anne Savarese Celebrates National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month is the perfect occasion for us to celebrate the many poets we have been lucky enough to publish through the years in our two poetry series, both of which began in the early 1970s, and to spread the word about recent and forthcoming poetry collections.    

The Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently edited by Susan Stewart, is dedicated to publishing the best work of today’s emerging and established poets. Originality is one of its hallmarks, and its recent titles represent a range of forms and perspectives: Austin Smith’s reflections on the rural Midwest and contemporary America in Flyover Country; Dora Malech’s innovative wordplay in Stet; Myronn Hardy’s variety of voices and locales in Radioactive Starlings; and Miller Oberman’s combination of new work and Old English translations in The Unstill Ones.

Coming soon in the series are two books from established poets: Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017, by Eleanor Wilner, who received the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry from the Poetry Society of America on April 18th, and The River Twice by Kathleen Graber, the first volume in nearly a decade from the author of The Eternal City (2010), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

Another poetry series at the Press, the Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, provides a forum for first-rate literary work by translators of various backgrounds, working in a variety of modes. The series is deliberately eclectic, with notable titles ranging from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sharrard’s now-classic translations of George Seferis and C. P. Cavafy, to Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, to Peter Cole’s anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492.

The most recent book in the series, Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010, by the late Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély, translated by the award-winning Ottilie Mulzet, is the first selection of the three current series editors, Peter Cole, Richard Sieburth, and Rosanna Warren. This fall we will publish Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, translated from the Italian by Taije Silverman with Marina Della Putta Johnston, and we look forward to new translations under way of poetry in Arabic, ancient Greek, and medieval Galician-Portuguese, among others.

We also salute the many venues that help poetry come alive on and off the page, from the Monday Night Poetry series at KGB Bar in New York’s East Village to The Slowdown podcast with Tracy K. Smith. Outstanding poets and translations await your discovery, in April and throughout the year.

 

National Poetry Month: Featured reading from Jessica Greenbaum

the two yvonnes greenbaum jacketTo celebrate National Poetry Month, Princeton University Press will be featuring weekly audio readings from some of our most popular poets. Today Jessica Greenbaum, author of The Two Yvonnes, reads from her collection. Moving from 1960s Long Island, to 1980s Houston, to today’s Brooklyn, the poems range in subject from the pages of the Talmud, to a sick daughter, to a squirrel trapped in a kitchen. As always, Greenbaum’s poetry displays a keen discussion of human vulnerability.

Greenbaum is essential reading, particularly throughout a month dedicated to the wider appreciation of poetry, because of her accessibility. Written in “plain American that cats and dogs can read,” as Marianne Moore once put it, the book asks: how does life present itself to us, and how do we create value from our delights and losses? Listen to Greenbaum’s passionate reading of The Two Yvonnes.

 

jessica greenbaumJessica Greenbaum is the author of The Two Yvonnes, one of Library Journal’s Best Books in Poetry for 2012.