Asheville Poetry Review produces 20-year anthology
by Rob Neufeld
Now, 20 years after its locally born inception, editor and founder Keith Flynn has selected some of the best of the best to create an anthology you can put on the shelf beside the ones that “The New Yorker” and “Poetry” magazine have put out.
Moving alphabetically through the contributors and pages, we soon come to Ai, a National Book Award winner, whose poem, “The Cockfighter’s Daughter” was published in the APR in 2010, the year she died.
You know the era of lyrical poetry has been taken aback when you read at the start of Ai’s piece, “I found my father/ face down, in his homemade chili/ and had to hit the bowl/ with a hammer to get it off.”
The poem then moves through biographical insights, such as the narrator’s note, “I was sixteen and I had a mean streak,/ carried a knife/ and wore such tight jeans I could hardly walk.”
If you want to see if and how poetry can provide a persuasive alternative to the hard-life coming-of-age novels you love, here it is.
The very next poem—I’m having a hard time culling favorites—is by the celebrated Spokane Indian author Sherman Alexie.
It’s free verse, like “The Cockfighter’s Daughter,” but Alexie uses repetition to create a cadence, and he keeps the lines relatively the same length.
Alexie titles his poem, “Rise,” invoking his Christian beliefs, and wedding them to Spokane salmon worship and to the ceremony of wedding his wife.
“You surprised me,” he writes about his wife’s Eucharist-like respect for his culture, “by placing salmon on my tongue./ Then I surprised you/ by swallowing it whole.// Amen, amen, amen.”
The APR gives us a sacred poem that acknowledges that religious faiths can merge.
Living in fire
Religion is an important part of poetry, which also seeks deeper meaning, ritual conditioning, pathos, and transcendence.
Joseph Bathanti, our recent past state Poet Laureate, applies this reverence to a gritty subject, growing up in coal country, Pennsylvania, and taking the daughter of a man who disapproves of him to West Virginia, where the drinking age is 18.
“My girl was drunk and singing along—Loretta Lynn,/ Tammy Wynette—though she didn’t know the words,/ the way folks mouth like speaking in tongues/ when the spirit lays hold of them,” Bathanti writes in his poem, “Wheeling.”
The lyricism comes from the charged language, the use of singing vowels and alliterative consonants, and the way lines end on words that deserve halos of significance.
“My dad was a brave man,” Bathanti writes, “He climbed boom cranes with nothing but a span of leather/ fastening him above the smokestacks/ streaming twelve stories of fire into the firmament.”
Talking about his baptism in the church of poetry, Flynn, a poet published in several languages, acknowledges his religious upbringing.
“In the beginning, I was at the mercy of words and the endless variations of sounds,” he says in an interview published in the anthology. “My poetic voice rose out of my singing voice, and since I had grown up in the church, learning to find my voice in the choir, I saw no difference between a poem and a hymn.
Born and raised in Marshall, he came back to Asheville from a sojourn in New York in 1993 to find a renaissance marked in part by plans for the first Asheville Poetry Fest. He was the leader of a popular band called Crystal Zoo, had cash, had friends, and felt a calling.
He included 22 local poets in the first issue of APR, and engaged a local press.
“I brought 500 copies to the Fest,” he told me in a recent interview. “The cover had been silkscreened that morning. The glue wasn’t dry, and the pages were coming apart in my hands.”
He went into a restroom, looked at himself in the mirror, and cried. His dream was dissolving. But he went back out and sold every copy. Later, he got a call from Lowell Allen, a book designer, who said, “The book is great, but you need my help.”
Allen has been the designer from that day to this.
Today, the APR is distributed in the U.S. and Europe. Throughout its tenure, the journal has published almost 2,000 writers from 22 countries. Flynn has diversified the contributions—local and worldwide; poetry, essays, interviews, and book reviews; living and past poets—in order to abet a conversation about an art form he considers critical to a vital society.
Possessed by history
As Ai’s poem shows how poetry can treat a coming-of-age story, “Nameless” by Cullowhee poet and former Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer exemplifies what poetry can do with history.
She begins in a place—“a graveyard called Sunset,” where black convict railroad workers are buried. Her great-grandfather had been a track layer, she reflects, but did not have a record of “petty larcenies...to cast him/ in shackles like those that dragged nineteen men/ down to their deaths in an ice-laden river,/ December of eighteen and eighty-two, drowned/ in the same Tuckaseegee that runs past my driveway.”
Composing an elegy, Byer, in touch with her muse, visits widely related subjects—gold-miners in her family; displaced Cherokees; Trayvon Martin—before returning to the railroad and the “bodies beneath the sod...shackles still fastened round ankles that tried to kick free/ of the ice before being dragged down/
by the weight of so many doomed nameless.”
In a susceptible way, Byer acts not only as a chronicler, but also as a medium for heightened feeling.
More varied voices
Robert Campbell contributes a zombie tale, “Zombie Dialectic,” which evokes homeless disenfranchisement.
The late great Hayden Carruth submitted, in 2006, a sonnet, titled “At His Last Gig,” that reminds me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem about the German city, Cologne (“In Köln, a town of monks and bones/ And pavements fang’d with murderous stones”).
Carruth’s dystopic city visit begins: “At his last gig in horrid Amsterdam—/ City to which Camus consigned the fallen—Ben Webster, Uncle Ben, then on the lam...,” and then proceeds to tell of an obnoxious drunk’s first and last speech to an unloving crowd.
Carruth’s lyricism contrasts with his melancholy, which less lyrical poets counter with a let’s get real frankness.
If you’re looking for the upbeat in the anthology, turn to jazz.
In 2006, in fact, APR came out with a “Jazz” issue; and Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, wrote: “Long before Dizzy,/ high on the rising tower of Babel/ a bearded carpenter turned/ to a stonemason/ (barely able to see him/ through the veil of clouds),/ turned to ask for a wooden nail/ and said something that sounded like/ bop ah dooolyah bop.”
“Best of Asheville Poetry Review, 20th Anniversary Issue, 1994-2014,” edited by Keith Flynn, is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore. Cost: still the original price, $13. Visit www.ashevillepoetryreview.com.
The launch of The Asheville Poetry Review's 20th Anniversary
Edition, is at 7 p.m., Friday,
at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville (254-6734). Keith Flynn hosts; and performs readings along with poets Charlotte
Pence, Catherine Carter, and Luke Hankins, all of whom have work that
is included in the issue.
Book cover, art by Eliza Hafer,
“When the Eagle Flies with the Condor