Author Archives: bbullins

Book Review: House of Deer by Sasha Steensen

2014
Poetry
$15.95; 88 pages
Albany: Fence Books
ISBN: 978-1934200773

 

 

 

 

Knocking at the Door: Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer
Bryce Bullins

Sasha Steensen’s latest poetry offering, House of Deer, is a fascinating exploration of language, family, the self, the other, and connections both internal and external to all of those things. It continues Steensen’s exploration and deconstruction of language to its purest forms and parts, and in doing so establishes an approachable framework for both critical analysis and aesthetic enjoyment.

House of Deer is entrenched in the past. Nostalgia and memories drip from this book like a noxious nectar that beckons the reader to visit moments of time they may have never even lived through. Steensen’s excellent awareness of the line, attention to detail, and tone transport us to rural Ohio circa 1970. From the typeface on both the book cover and the titles of poems, which is reminiscent of the title cards to Little House on The Prairie, the collection makes no qualms about what its intentions or aims are. House of Deer doesn’t expressly stick to this 1970s homage however. For example, the lengthy and prose based “The Girl and the Deer” creates a narrative that dances back and forth from the perspective of deer and girl with aptly named sections “The Girl”, “The Girl and the Deer”, “The Deer”, etc. all while unfolding what reads like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. While there are hints of time contextualization, nothing leads one to believe that this poem is expressly set in a specific time or place. Its narrative is capable of existing at any time. Framed another way, poems like “The Girl and the Deer” and “Fragments” exist in all places at once escaping our dogmatic expressions of time and memory.

At its best moments, House of Deer is frank and sparse. Steensen’s delivery is sharp, poignant, and at times jaw dropping in its ability to express authentic darkness so succinctly. As an example:

1977finds
house of saud’s
daughter stoned to death
&one Burchfield sister (9yrs old)
locked in a closet
while the other (13 yrs old)
aborts her father’s baby

What’s so strange about this from a reading perspective is that her objective tone isn’t anything new or experimental. Rather than write in a manner that intentionally obfuscates and confuses a reader, Steensen grounds her work in a tangible and present way few other poets can achieve. Its beauty lies in its ability to be visceral without feeling affected.

The non-spacing of words adds to House of Deer‘s already rich texture of language. As in “1804woodsmen”:

1804woodsmen &woodswomen &woodschildren
cut a road right before you
&hereinafter
ahistory of Garrettsville, Ohio:

Rather than feeling arbitrary or intentionally confounding, the tightness and closeness of the words represents a quick thought much in the vein of Cummings or of Williams; something that is meant to be read briskly, as much of our own thoughts are when they are finally strung together. In the case of “1804woodsmen” this tightness may refer to the close knit community of Garretsville, Ohio. The word associations and sounds that come out of these connection of seemingly unrelated words opens gateways to new avenues of language we would have never gone down otherwise. The brilliance in this lies in its deceptively simple execution. It’s not enough to simply tie any two words together in such a manner; it’s the deft selection of those words. Language is repetition and so it stands to reason that the poems in House of Deer can be read and re-read a hundred times and each time something new could be gleaned from its pages.

The complexity of language, of reminiscence, of past as present and future as one, commingle and make House of Deer a collection that is as captivating as it is melancholic. It demands a reader’s attention with its noise and subtlety. House of Deer beckons at its closure: “Come forth peril, little pearl in the darkness”. The peril Steensen speaks to is not necessarily a dangerous one, but rather one that is capable of vast illumination. Though it carries a heavy burden with it, its undertaking is essential.

 

Bryce2

Bryce Bullins is a first year graduate student focusing on poetry but has worked previously on the Sierra Nevada Review as an undergraduate student. He received his BA in English with a minor in Music from Sierra Nevada College in 2014.

 

Reading Matthew Sweeney’s Horse Music

By Bryce Bullins

“Naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages, with an earthly vehicle, unearthly horses, old man that I am, I wander astray.” Thus marks the opening page of Matthew Sweeney’s latest collection of poetry, Horse Music (Bloodaxe Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-85224-967-0). It is a quote from Franz Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, and a wholly fitting one, along with quotes from Edward Lear and Walter de la Mare, that serves as a preface to the poetry collected here. It’s the sort of biting, awkwardly funny, self-deprecation that Sweeney’s poetry often evokes. Horse Music has no overall theme per-se, but rather, is a collection of one-off fables about dwarves, recollections of long-dead or still living relatives, and of loves present and former. In a phrase: it is a sweeping exploration of life. Sweeney’s voice is unique in that while combining traditional narrative style poetry (albeit condensed narratives and often in media res) he blends elements of black humor, Kafkaesque territories, and what Sweeney himself calls “alternative realism”, to hook his readers and make Horse Music a pleasure to experience from cover to cover.

Horse-Music-Matthew-Sweeney

The poems in Horse Music don’t stray far from Sweeney’s other work, and rightfully so. After publishing poetry collections since 1981, it is fair to say Sweeney has found his voice. Horse Music may represent the flourishing of his voice, however. Deftly paced and lyric, Horse Music is amalgam of voices from across literary tracts. Influences of Kafka are abundant, unsurprisingly so, given Sweeney’s extensive background in German literature, specifically Kafka, but there is a more subtle craftsmanship at work here. Sweeney deliberately makes strides away from not only the two domineering figures of Irish poetry: W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney (though there is a poem for Seamus Heaney within Horse Music, “The Tunnel”) but his contemporaries, Paul Muldoon and Ian Duhig. Sweeney keeps what the British Council on Literature calls an “inherited Irish interest in narrative”[1] while keeping a keen interest in the themes in the great works of German literature. There is no disrespect toward his fellow Irishmen but rather a nuanced respect that Sweeney builds over their foundations and then takes toward new horizons. Gone are the “well-made-poems” and in their place come byzantine ornamentations in the form of micro-narratives that spread out across ages. If Sweeney’s poems were written in such a way as to ape Yeats or Heaney, they would be nowhere near as enjoyable as they are in their present form.

While Sweeney’s poetry is at times self-referential, it would be remiss to call it “confessional.” Instead, Sweeney obfuscates his poems in ornate tapestries of illusion and black humor. Nowhere is this expressed more than in this reviewer’s favorite poem in the collection, “Waiting”, wherein Sweeny bemoans the perils of always waiting for one thing or another and the doldrums produced therein:

I’d like to knife my partner, the postman,
my publisher, the bank teller, my neighbor.
One day I’ll emigrate to Antarctica
and befriend the penguins there. (9-12)

Sweeney is able to parse words we usually don’t want to consider together to create a new fiction for us to partake in, all the while still grounding us in the present.

It is clear from Sweeney’s writing that he stays away from the heady realm of surrealism and magical realism but rather focuses on connections, subtle and otherwise, in the form of metaphor and fantastic imagery. In “Sausages”, Sweeney makes connections between the “six [of them] inhabiting the same gut… / waiting on the hot pan with spitting oil” (1-3) to his “long-dead grandfather” (6). More grim is that each sausage has within them a meta-piece of said grandfather. Sweeney is able to take something as banal as frying up sausages and is able to trace the lines of interconnectivity in them to an intensely personal plain. Though the image is initially grotesque, it becomes something of an episode of bittersweet memory:

…so my grandfather lights a cigarette,
opens a bottle of Guinness and swigs it,
sitting down at the far end of the table
the table I will sit at when you’re browned,
and I’ll eat you, one by one, with mustard,
raising a black glass to my grandfather. (16-21)

Horse Music is at times morose, but more often than not, heartfelt and warm. The broadness of its scope is well suited to its narratives and its intrigues. It is the everydayness of Sweeney’s poetry that makes it so appealing now and what will make it so enduring for the future. Horse Music is available now via Bloodaxe Books and is distributed in North America by Dufour Editions Inc.

Heavyweight Match: Digital vs. Paper Journals

By Bryce Bullins

There is an increasing shift within literary journal publishers and owners over print vs. electronic media. Some journals, like Superstition Review, staunchly support publishing only electronic editions, as it adheres to their mission as a journal, while others, such as Dirtflask will tarry the line and offer both print and digital, seeking to expand the physical edition with new and fascinating gimmicks or calling cards (Dirtflask sends it’s “print copy” in a literal glass flask of dirt), thus making the physical copy more desirable. In a world where we have access to increasingly cheap and borderline ubiquitous technology, the face of lit mags and journals and their corresponding publishers is changing.

There are understandable arguments on either side. On the electronic front we have a decent reduction of costs. The compiling of a PDF document may very well be only the cost of a designing program such as Adobe’s InDesign®, if there is someone in-house who is able to use it, or the labor cost of commissioning a third-party. There are some hurdles to overcome, such as a digital store, but with the slew of options available to the end-user now, most of said hurdles can be overcome in a matter of days. More pertinently, a digital edition will exist forever in some form, somewhere. Even now we are seeing an ever increasing influx of what were considered out-of-print works being revitalized into digital editions (Project Gutenberg, Archive.org for example) thus making archiving easier for journals who already have a sizable back catalog.

Tablets and e-readers are a becoming an increasingly popular way to consume all forms of media. Photo courtesy of Melenita2012 via Flickr for use under CC License

Tablets and e-readers are a becoming an increasingly popular way to consume all forms of media. Photo courtesy of Melenita2012 via Flickr for use under CC License

       On the print front, many simply prefer the feel of a book in their hand, something palpable rather than a glowing screen staring back at you. The very text has texture, as it were. The costs are higher but there is another, and admittedly more profitable, angle. Most serials departments at universities and colleges across the country, moreover the world, utilize print editions to stock their shelves. These subscriptions cost and thus the publisher can recoup some of its printing costs. Some libraries will fluff their shelves with check-out digital editions but by and large most periodicals found in libraries are in print form. The print cost is higher but there are several highly competitive printers out there that will print 100+ books for roughly $4.95 a book. A “book” in this case being defined as roughly 48 to 800+ pages, at least by Dog Ear Publishing standards.

There is a trend for smaller journals to tend toward electronic publications for various reasons: financial, environmental, experimental, etc. I interviewed Trish Coleen Murphy, founding editor of Superstition Review, Arizona State University’s online-only literary journal to ask her about why they elected that route:

BB:  Superstition Review seems to have taken a firm root in electronic only publishing. What was the biggest draw for producing a digital only literary journal?

TCM: I started the magazine in 2008 as a teaching tool for our undergraduate students. We are a polytechnic campus, so our focus is on the intersection of humanities and technology. My students gain knowledge about the literary and arts community. They also learn how to use Drupal, WordPress, Photoshop, InDesign, Vertical Response, and other tools that will become even more important to them when they enter the job market. I designed the magazine the way that I did because I have an MFA in poetry, but I also have extensive tech and web design skills from years of online teaching. I also have a strong commitment to sustainability and have been teaching paperless classes since 1998.

BB:  Superstition has a social media presence on basically every social media network in existence. Do you feel it is necessary for a journal to be present on so many sites? Also, do you find that in doing so your reader base has increased by a large amount?

TCM: I don’t think it’s necessary for a journal to be present on so many networks—lit mags have diverse missions.

We are active on 9 networks: Facebook, Google+, Goodreads, iTunes U, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube (we also maintain a blog). For my magazine, using social networks is a way to train students to learn more about the contemporary literary and arts community while also giving them valuable skills in technology.

Part of why we’re on so many networks is because there ARE thriving literary and arts communities on each one. My students learn by reading Tweets and status updates by other lit mags and by authors and artists who are working right now all over the world. I feel very strongly that my students need to learn about contemporary trends in writing and publishing. Social Networks offer a real-time reflection of those trends, written by the people who are leaders in the field.

Also, one of my main goals is to mentor my students. I’ve had several students attain competitive positions at social marketing firms after graduation. One student who ran our Twitter feed for a semester got an amazing job running social networks for celebrities. Many of the networks we maintain were student driven: Our Tumblr, Pinterest, and iTunes U channel were started by students who came to me and said, “I think I can use this tool to enhance the content we’re offering our audience.” And I said, “go ahead and try it.” And I feel strongly that each of those networks has greatly enhanced what we offer.

Our networks allow us to offer a lot of supplemental content, which is important since we only publish issues twice a year. And it has increased our readership exponentially. It has also given us wonderful opportunities: we organized a reading by Franz Wright after he contacted us on Facebook, and we conducted an interview with David Shields after he tweeted us to ask if we would do so.

BB: As the digital trend continues to flourish do you see other journals going to a digital only subscription if enough smaller presses and independent journals do so as well?

TCM: Some lit mags are print and will stay that way. Some lit mags are online and will stay that way. Some print mags will go online because it’s cheaper and saves trees and is an easy and current model.

After hearing Trish’s ideas on digital media, the future looks to be grounded there. While there may always still be print-only journals, I don’t foresee this current digital revolution stalling or falling by the wayside any time soon. In fact I only see it flourishing even more as time moves forwards. Physical journals, much like Dirtflask mentioned earlier, will need to find innovative ways to keep customers consuming a physical product. At the end of the day, innovation on both fronts really isn’t a bad way to go. No winners, no losers, just a flux of words and the ways they are revealed to us, the readers.