The Best American Poetry blog: A Portfolio of Shorts by Newer Writers selected by Alan Ziegler

[Originally appeared on The Best American Poetry blog.]

Nora Brooks

SOUP OF GLASS AND CHALK-STAINED SKIES

  1. Maybe you own a crockpot. Meals made in them are supposed to be nourishing. Chalky edges of plaster gape open around the hole in the wall next to ours. Crockpots are things mothers give to men newly divorced. Dad can’t feed us pizza and Campbell’s ready-to-serve with mini-sirloin patties anymore. We’ll be yanked back to Auburn, California or wherever Mom’s moving. The new boyfriend’s name is Dick.
  2. Cleave 2-3 lbs. of discount beef into stew chunks. Use a good knife. Dad says his problem with cooking is he’s never had to do it before. Top ramen with lunch meat doesn’t count. My eyes are fixed on his flimsy blade severing tendon and miniature arteries, soaking the cutting board with blood like bruises blooming. There’s another hole in the hallway and one in my bedroom. I don’t understand why we have to wait until we move to patch them.
  3. Quarter 4 medium potatoes and chop an onion roughly. Fish a pound of peas out of the freezer and hope they’re not frost-burnt. He slams the meat chunks into the pot with the vegetables. He sets down his sixth beer. He adds water. It’s supposed to be that easy.
  4. Add seasonings to your taste. Dad has a memory of Mom’s soups, hearty and simple, with a little love nip of pepper. He tosses in a handful from a pre-ground jar like he’s sowing a field. Take it easy, I tell him. It sits for the time it takes him to go on a beer run. Miracle, it’s done. He walked to get the beer. The last thing we need in this family is a DUI, he tells us sisters, slouched over our stools at the dining bar. It’s so full of pepper that it hurts. It’s like swallowing glass. Eat it, he tells us, I don’t want people thinking I can’t take care of you.

Nora

Nora Brooks is a writer whose work has been published in Poets & WritersPopMattersMonkeybicycleRedactions, Alimentum, and The Best American Poetry blog and is forthcoming from H.O.W. Journal. She is an MFA candidate at The New School and lives in the East Village. This piece originally appeared in Redactions. Nora can be found online at norabrooks.org. 

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Nailed Magazine: Four Poems

[As published in Nailed magazine.]

Under a Cloudless Sky, a How-To

1.  Listing from right to left, the salamander drifts like a little golem over the lake. Alastair’s hands trace across my bottom, a knee suddenly jerks mine to the side. I blossom wetness. Grilling steak is simple, there’s almost nothing to it. He tells me these things are basic.

2.  Fat lizard limbs shoot backwards as the salamander breaks the thin tension of the water. On the other side of the bed at night, my ex-husband’s body has not even left an imprint behind. He is so divorced. He is gone. Alastair told me last week that I don’t know who I am. Alastair crushed garlic, that much I know. The smell was all through his kitchen.

3.  The one tricky thing with steak is gauging how well-done the other person likes it. Tell me, Alastair says, I’m observant but some things I can’t guess. The steak will yield under your finger just the right amount for what you want. If you let the steak rest, the juices will flow out naturally from the center. Walking down Sandy at the wrong time of night, alone among women in vinyl and macerated rhinestone, I don’t care if something happens. The lapping echoes of traffic reverberate against the freeway overpass guard, there to prevent suicides.

4.  I could never get it right when I was married. Too charred, or the wrong amount of salt in the parmesan crust. The salamanders turn out to be everywhere, darting after their prey in little hectic whirls of motion, green tails protruding the more I looked. Just like the people suddenly popping up yards from our big rock in the sun. Alastair quickly withdrew his fingers from me. Medium-well, I said, Leave it a long time on the fire, but not too long.

5.  I’d wanted to swim all the way across the lake but was afraid I’d get tired. I had visions of long algae strands licking my ankles and sucking me down. Alastair lifts a fork to my mouth. I chew. Garlic bursting, with a piney hit of rosemary. Alastair smiles, eyes cool grey around a glowing ring. You could have done it, he says, you could have gotten to the other side. I tell him, I know.

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My Husband as a Sensitive Instrument

 

  1. Delicate, quivering, he watches TV with the sound turned down low. If he had antennae, they would be curved and lightly furred. The best insects for Yucatan tacos are jumiles with their strong mint flavor. The first step is to locate the jumiles, to slide your hands between the flat of rocks and pull out the thing you want, its tiny legs scrambling against your palm. The Maya would eat an honored sacrificed one afterwards, wasting nothing of the god-flesh. It’s not that they thought they could predict time, just inhabit it more fully.
  1. When two of our good friends decided to sleep with another two of our good friends and the one who was my old girlhood pal like hips rotating out of the same socket bucked up the nerve to tell me about it, he already knew. You can keep the jumile alive almost indefinitely in the crevices of a leather bag as long as you feed it the right mixture of leaves and grass. The Maya would strip the god costume off the carcass and prepare the honored sacrificed one for the coals. They thought each moment had a personality and that by careful observation, you could know which way the wind was blowing, what was dangerous and safe.
  1. When it is the right time, crush the jumiles in a stone mortar, volcanic. Grind in a little chile, salt, tomato. The mixture will become soupy, corpuscular, time to fleck it with green of chopped cilantro and punch it with lime. The summer I drove in circles across the hot body of the country like an arrow returning to its bow, my husband already knew why. But it’s easy to tell when you’re lying, he said. Maybe no one was ever paying attention before.
  1. Ladle the jumile mixture across just-made tortillas sent from a cupped kneading hand onto the griddle to the plate. It goes well with strips of meat leftover from barbeque, with fermented maize. I had allowed someone else to run the flat of his hand across my back the same way I later ran it across my husband’s, like brushing fingertips across a harp, across the steely inner strings of a piano. Rib stacked above rib, shuddering with wet.

Previously published in Alimentum (under Nora Robertson).


5000 Evenings of Myrrh and Doves

  1. This is a year we are celebrating Chanukah. Sometimes we celebrate Christmas, but it’s latkes we always come back to. For a generous portion, grate approx. 1 russet potato per person. If you’re fancy, go ahead and peel them, or just let the long gold strands stay edged in rough skin. Our family is only my sister, me, and Mom since she doesn’t have a new boyfriend yet, so we need about four. It’s good to have a little extra for later.
  1. Line a bowl with cheesecloth, or a dishtowel if that’s all you have. Twist the grated potato hard inside the cloth like you are wringing out something dirty. Mom tells us the story about how the Maccabee army rebelled against Antiochus Epiphanes, a Greek king who crept across the borders of Israel and grabbed control of the kitchens. Soldiers killed pigs on the Outer Altar of the Temple and forced the Israelis to eat the sacrificed meat. Most of them headed for the hills along the coast. Mom sets down her wineglass and opens a package of chocolate coins. Since we came to Dad’s house, we never get to do anything Jewish. Instead, we mostly keep Dad company in the living room with his Baudelaire and six packs and Rockford Files reruns. There’s a spot on the sliding glass door where he hurled the cat one late evening. The cat looked dazed but ok. Chop up ½ yellow onion very fine, the sharper the knife the better. Onions will make you cry, so get used to it.
  1. Unwrap your dishtowel and see what filmy white paste is left behind. It’s the starch that makes the cakes stick together. Mix in the onion until you don’t tear up anymore. Mom says the Maccabees were the world’s first guerillas. She takes a sip of her third glass of Manishevitz, red hair curling around unfocused aqua eyes. Not even the Greek war elephants could get through the brush. She tells us the Maccabees sliced open the soldier’s bellies with ox goads as if they were butchering an animal, guts spilling onto the ground. When they entered the Temple, they only found one clay jug of sacred oil for the lamps, enough for a day. Somehow the flame kept guttering in the sanctuary for eight long evenings, enough for them to bless enough oil to keep clean.
  1. My sister lights the gas flame under the oil in the pan. Use ½ inch at least, a good quality canola. This is not a time to skimp. Thicken up the mixture with 2 tbsp. flour, 2 beaten eggs, and enough salt and pepper to meld the flavors together. The batter will become firm, unwilling to fall apart. In my house, my sister is the queen of the skillet. She is precise and nearly silent when working. She rolls out each patty quickly between her hands. She raises the brittle crunch along the edges of the latke and leaves the inside moist. My mom says Israel is a nation state of the mind. The Maccabees are gone, but we keep on thinking about the oil lamps over the Outer Altar where offerings of myrrh and white doves burned. In the pan, the oil is hissing. My sister looks up and her eyes retract in the light of the stove, cool dark brown, not letting anything in.

Originally published in Nailed magazine. A video installation based on this poem screened at Katz’ Delicatessen’s 125th anniversary.


“Because I Said So”: Review of Alan Ziegler at The New School Poetry Forum with David Lehman

[Previously published on The Best American Poetry blog.]

Unknown-1Since 1978, when Mark Strand was denied a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his bookThe Monument on the grounds that the poems were not in verseprose poetry has fought a battle—which it has largely won—for legitimacy in the eyes and heart of the reading public. It has won in no small part because prose poetry blurs the boundaries between genres. On April 8 at The New School poetry forum, Alan Zeigler read to us from his new anthology, Short: An International Anthology of five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, the third major anthology of the short prose form. Ziegler has been one of our foremost supporters of the form, both as a writer of prose poetry as well as a professor at Columbia University, where he has long taught his renowned Short Prose Forms class.

As Ziegler commented to moderator David Lehman, there have been two previous “gold standards in this form”: Michael Benedikt’s 1976 The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, and Lehman’s own Great American Prose Poems: from Poe to the Present (2003)Benedikt’s volume “introduced many of us to the form in a way that was not available before.” Both of these volumes have been hugely influential in inspiring new writers of short prose. Ziegler in fact  “could not have put this together without sending the introduction and table of contents to David.”

As Lehman remarked, Short puts forth the perspective of an international collection, allowing the inclusion of many early writers in the form such as Baudelaire’s “Get Drunk” in Lehman’s translation: “On what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice. But get drunk.” Ziegler read this to us as well as another amusing poem translated by Lehman, Henri Michaux’s “My Pastimes” which elucidates the speaker’s love of beating people up.

Another twentieth-century French practitioner was Max Jacob. Ziegler remarked he seemed to have “skipped modernism entirely and went straight to post-modernism,” and read to us John Ashbery’s translation of “The Beggar Woman of Naples.” In fact, many of these older pieces have a contemporary feel, as if written in modern diction and stride. Ziegler noted that one difference with these older pieces is that today there is a place for such work, whereas many of these pieces remained in notebooks until discovered later.

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In All Ways An American Poet: David Lehman’s “New and Selected Poems” at The New School

[Originally published on The Best American Poetry blog.]

Unknown-1A volume of collected work is an opportunity to reflect on the trajectory of a poet’s life and career, and David Lehman’s essential new book, New and Selected Poems(Scribner, 2013), reveals threads of both American and European sensibilities, an array of influences. On the one hand, there’s a way in which Lehman’s work is quintessentially American. At David Lehman’s appearance at the New School poetry forum last Wednesday, moderator Laura Cronk commented that Lehman is “in all ways an American poet,” one who writes truly American love poems such as the effervescent “When a Woman Loves a Man,” which we had the pleasure of hearing him read.  The title echoes the song “When a Man Loves a Woman”—just one instance of how popular American music often weaves its way into his work.  A couple of examples that come to mind from the collection is a recent poem “Sixteen Tons” and a poem from 2002, “Radio” which references a song played by jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.

Another thing that strikes me as particularly American is the current of humor running through his work. Standing at the podium in a natty ‘40s style suit, hair brushed back neatly, Lehman had the audience laughing out loud all through his reading of “One Size Fits All: A Critical Essay,” a comment on the form of the critical essay made entirely through a careful sequence of transition words, and “Rejection Slip,” in which the speaker praises the benefits he is reaping from the pain of rejection, with no small jolt of comedy injected into the verse.

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A Dream of a Common Poetry: Daniel Nester with David Lehman at The New School Poetry Forum

[Previously published on The Best American Poetry blog.]

Daniel NesterThe sestina is both a deeply modern form and a very old one.  First invented by French troubadours 700 years ago and made modern by Ezra Pound with his explosive sestina “Altaforte,” poets from W. H. Auden to Denise Duhamel have written sestinas.  Part of its allure is the challenge.  Each end word in the six lines in the first stanza must be repeated in a prescribed order in the following five stanzas, with a victory lap at the end called the envoi that includes all the end words once again.. It’s the obsessive math genius’ attention to form combined with a total freedom within that structure that perhaps has attracted such a wide assortment of “different teams and badges from poetryland,” asDaniel Nester told David Lehman at the New School Poetry Forum last Tuesday, February 4.

Nester is the editor of the world’s first all-sestina anthology, The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing, 2013), a project ten years in the making.  He was the former assistant editor for Sestinas atMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency where he first encountered many of the poems in the book.  (He is as well an accomplished poet himself and teaches at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.)  One telltale sign of the appeal of the sestina is that three of the poets employed by the School of Writing are included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology: Sharon Mesmer, Laura Cronk, and Best American Poetry’s own series editor, David Lehman.  All three attended last week’s forum (David Lehman moderated) and like a good preacher who knows how to build up the congregation, Nester brought them up one at a time to read their contribution to the crowd.  “This is like church or something,” he quipped, “Come on up!”

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Wayfinding John Ashbery: Remarks from an Evening with AshLab

[Previously published on The Best American Poetry blog. ]

Unknown-2Last fall, I enrolled in a literature seminar in the New School writing program unlike any literature class I’ve ever taken: the AshLab. The project of the class involved contributing to creative and scholarly research documenting John Ashbery‘s poetry as well as his 19th-century Victorian residence in Hudson, New York. The work is intended for a general audience to read on a website.

On Monday, April 8, The New School hosted a presentation by the collective hive mind of faculty and students that over the course of four semesters has produced this new virtual archive, which went live last week. I was honored to be included in this presentation and to share my remarks here in this forum.

I joined the class because I was interested in the relationship between a poet’s environment and a poet’s work. The minute I entered John Ashbery’s house, I got a sense of this connection.

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The outside of his house is grand. There is a rise of stone steps, a bend of stonework supporting a large stained glass window, the kind that makes a cathedral of a fine house. However, the house inside is smaller than these details make it seem. There’s even a fake outside window that suggests more rooms than there are. This is not an accident. The house was built in the 1890’s by a nouveau riche family to create exactly this illusion of a bigger scale.

Which might make it the perfect environment for an illusionist like Ashbery.

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Critical Mass: NBCC Poetry Finalist Denise Duhamel in Conversation with MFA Student Nora Brooks

Thanks to The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2013.

Nora Brooks, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Denise Duhamel about her book Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Poetry, for the 2013 NBCC awards.

From the Publisher: Blowout is both a celebration and mourning of romantic love—the blowout of a party, as well as the sudden rupture of a front tire.

“Brims with Duhamel’s characteristic fixations—language (the British slang of ‘My New Chum’), poor or at least pathetic everyday behavior (losing hundreds between the ATM and her car), pop culture (movies, TV, eBay, pole dancing), unpleasant erotic memories (‘Kindergarten Boyfriend,’ ‘Or Whatever Your Final Destination May Be,’ ‘Victor’)—and still presents the miracle of how serious a life embedded in humdrum and commercialized reality can be. In fact, one poem in particular, ‘Worst Case Scenario’—a solid block of successive personal disasters—negatively apotheosizes just such embeddedness. It takes your breath away.”—Booklist

NB: I was really taken with your phrasing “narrative postconfessional transgressive poetry” in your poem on finding new love, which comes after a divorce.  What was involved for you in making art from such personal material?

DD: A lot of deep breaths, and a lot of letting go.  I used Frank O’Hara as a starting point, a place from which I could build the frame and the anaphora.  O’Hara could write about joy like no other. He knew when to jump up and down, but also when to hold back. In his poem “Having a Coke with You,” he writes about the “the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary,” implying the couple’s privacy is treasured beyond the public display of the love poem.

 

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Best American Poetry blog: NBCC Poetry Finalist Denise Duhamel in Conversation with New School MFA Student Nora Brooks

The National Book Critics Circle awards reading and ceremony is this week and we’re thrilled that Denise Duhamel’s Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press) is among the finalists for an award in poetry. Denise was the guest editor for this year’s Best American Poetry and we have admired her poetry for a long time. This year, The School of Writing at The New School enlisted students to interview finalists for the NBCC blog.  Here’s an excerpt from Nora Brook’s conversation with Denise:

NB: I was really taken with your phrasing “narrative postconfessional transgressive poetry” in your poem on finding new love, which comes after a divorce.  What was involved for you in making art from such personal material?

DD: A lot of deep breaths, and a lot of letting go.  I used Frank O’Hara as a starting point, a place from which I could build the frame and the anaphora.  O’Hara culd write about joy like no other. He knew when to jump up and down, but also when to hold back. In his poem “Having a Coke with You,” he writes about the “the secrecy our smiles take on before peple and statuary,” implying the couple’s privacy is treasured beyond the public display of the love poem.

NB: The title of that poem, “Having A Diet Coke with You,” is a nod to the Frank O’Hara poem of a similar title.  Do you see this book as being in the lineage of the New York School?

DD: Indeed.  I am a lover of the poets of the New York School, its first and also second generations (especially Anne Waldman and Joe Brainard.)  But Frank O’Hara was not locked only into the New York School. He also had many Beat poet friends and made a poetry film The Last Clean Shirt with Alfred Leslie, who also made the film Pull My Daisy, narrated by Jack Kerouac.  Like many other contemporary poets, I see my work as not belonging to just one school.  I am also influenced by the more earnest poems Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux.

 Read the complete interview and find out more about the NBCC awards here.

Buy Blowout from Indiebound.

Originally covered on The Best American Poetry blog.

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