Asheville Poetry Review informs the world
by Rob Neufeld
“In times like these,” Newton Smith writes in the new issue of Asheville Poetry Review (APR), “when men and women are dying miserably everywhere, and when politicians and nations have lost all dignity and compassion, it is time to turn to poems.”
The 22nd issue of the Asheville-based, internationally read journal comes through again with a representation of what’s vital in the field.
Does poetry fill a critical need, as many of the contributors declare? That’s not an easy argument. Poems do not teach you how to change a tire, though they may teach you how to change tiredness.
Beginning with the fetus
Becky Gould Gibson’s poem, “Heading Home,” 2012 winner of the William Matthews Poetry Prize (given by the APR) takes you on a journey from conception to birth with a world of prayer.
“The jig is up…You’re past blastocyst,” she tells a fetus. Gibson’s at-ease, intelligent voice talks street, science, and spirituality, as in her address to the baby when it’s 12 weeks in the womb: “And where’s original sin?/ Will it show up on your next sonogram?”
Seven months along, Gibson intones: “Stunning how badly we’ve managed Earth. Yet/ you’ll find it stunningly beautiful,/ wrinkled in places like you.” Ultimately, she announces: “Here you come in your craft plaited of reeds/ dragging a seine of bright constellations…Lung/ leaves the ocean of its origin, and/ you take your first breath on land.”
Very like a bat
The second-place winner of the prize is also a magical expression of worldly caring
“The young need the old,” Catherine Carter writes in her poem, “The Young.” “You wouldn’t think it, to see/ them toss their hair silky as the ears/ of vampire bats, eyes not focused on anything/ you can see.”
But “they need your/ time, your ear for their keening,” she continues, “your admiration/ and pity for their brashness/ and tenderness…Your approval, for the like of which many/ an adult still goes thirsty.” So, we may forgive the hunger of the bat-like child, “its dainty fangs, its fingers for wings.”
(See full poem below.)
The late poet William Matthews, in whose honor his son, Asheville poet Sebastian Matthews, established the prize, is the subject of Robert Morgan’s elegy, “In Memory of William Matthews.”
“Bill,/ wherever you are now, I’m sure/ you’re laughing at the way we poets/ take ourselves so seriously./ And I concede the fault, except/ I want to say I took you seriously/ and was not wrong,” Morgan writes.
As he presents his loving memories like bouquets, Morgan hears Matthews snicker and say, “Send/ no flowers, bub, but maybe some good claret might not be unwelcome.”
Like William Matthews, many contemporary poets have abandoned conventional Western lyricism for something that sounds more Eastern: lots of music, but not rhyming or strictly metered; with a freedom to shift voices, almost conversationally, and gifted with suggestive imagery.
Getting beyond human
Sam Hamill translates a poem written by the eighth century Chinese poet, Li Po.
“You ask why I live/ alone in the mountain forest,” the poem begins; and concludes, “I live in the other world,/ one that lies beyond the human.”
One of the reasons that poets can speak to us in such a special way is that they have immersed themselves in lives of reading poetry; and can demonstrate the advantages of a poetic appreciation of life.
“In her collection ‘Covet,’ Lynell Edwards manages to illuminate the small wonders of regular life,” Janice Moore Fuller reveals in her book review (one of 20 by various reviewers in the APR).
Edwards elevates ordinary things to the level of a mythical objects, Fuller writes. “She also throws Wordsworth’s ‘certain coloring of imagination’ over ordinary actions.”
Every rose has its thorn and, as Edwards’ book title suggests, a hunger for beauty brings with it a painful awareness of loss. Is it folly to covet? Or to love?
One answer to those questions is that the poem makes a permanent flower of the dying flower because it comes alive every time you engage with it. For those who love and grieve—and that has to be the most sensitive among us—poetry saves lives.
Saved from disaffection
Poetry saved Sam Hamill, the Li Po translator, and a living stand-out in the boundary-crossing poetry world.
The current issue of APR devotes 52 pages to Hamill, continuing its tradition of shining light on under-celebrated greats; and on representing world poetry as well as local roots (seven of the eight editors, including founder Keith Flynn, are Western North Carolinians; and the eighth is from Oak Ridge).
In the late 1950s, Hamill had been a lost teen on the road in San Francisco when the late great Kenneth Rexroth took him under his wing.
“I spent most of my days sleeping in Golden Gate Park and wandered at night between the Tenderloin and North Beach, searching cars for things to pawn or sell or trade,” Hamill told Lisa Morphew in an interview.
“Then one crisp afternoon, I spent my last couple of bucks to buy ‘Thirty Spanish Poems of Love & Exile,’” Rexroth’s book of translations. “I was standing outside City Lights (bookstore in San Francisco) when Rexroth came around the corner…I told him I wanted to be a great poet like him.”
Rexroth let him stay at his home. Hamill dried out. He read through Rexroth’s library. “It’s not an exaggeration to say,” Hamill says, “he not only shaped, but also saved my life.”
Hamill has gone on to publish 14 volumes of poetry; and many other volumes of translations and essays. He has taught in prisons and worked with battered woman and children.
In 1972, he co-founded Copper Canyon Press, a heralded publisher of new works of poetry.
Then, in 2003, Esteban Moore reports in his essay about Hamill, Hamill began to speak out against the war in Iraq. He founded Poets against War. Major newspapers and TV networks attacked him and “as a consequence, the board and sponsors of the publishing house he had founded asked him to resign his position there for its sake.”
We wonder if and when poetry will assume the popular place it has had in other cultures and times. The APR gives us a window into that effort, including with a good look at a hard-knocks-schooled iconoclast such as Hamill..
“I’m simply not much moved by the stars of what I’ll call ‘workshop poetry,’” he told Morphew. “The avant garde frankly bores me.”
Asheville Poetry Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2012, issue 22, $13. Visit www.ashevillepoetryreview.com.
by Catherine Carter
Second place winner of the William Matthews Poetry Prize, published in Asheville Poetry Review, vol. 19, no. 1
for the new teachers
The young need the old.
You wouldn't think, to see
them toss their hair silky as the ears
of vampire bats, eyes not focused on anything
you can see. You wouldn't think it
from the sound of the giggling
almost too high to hear, offering you less
notice than the cries of hunting
bats. But the young
need you. They need your
time, your ear for their keening
and chiming, even when it means nothing
you know. Your admiration
and pity for their brashness
and tenderness, your abnegation
of what you hoped to do this hour,
which for either of you comes once
only. Your approval, for the like of which many
an adult still goes thirsty, fifty
years on. Your life drained out to feed
their unfocused need. They drink
it like bats too, eternally beautiful for having
bathed in your blood like Bathory
countesses. They do it helplessly,
as you do to your own beloved old,
who forgive you, helplessly
as you'll forgive these, as the weakening
cow forgives the hungry bat,
its dainty fangs, its fingers for wings.