Chapbook, shmapbook. The Happy Booker doesn't know a lot about poetry. Frankly, we can't tell the difference between a sestina and a villanelle. Sure, we went to a writing program that had C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, Eric Pankey, and Peter Klappert on faculty. And yes, we once wrote an award winning paper on the notion of beauty in the work of H.D. and then spent two semesters immersed in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Keats. But when it comes to contemporary poetry we readily admit we don't know jack shit.
That's why we're thrilled that our new friend and neighbor, Reb Livingston, will be dropping by the blog once a month to moonlight as our poetry gal. Reb, a respected poet and editrix of No Tell Motel, would probably balk at being described as our poesy pen pal, but she's out of town and were posting her column for her today, so let's just keep that our little secret...
Crucial Rooster: A Poetry Column by Reb Livingston
In my fourth grade class at Liberty Elementary there was a rambunctious little boy named Gastone. Gastone was from Argentina, but lived in Pittsburgh for several years and like most children immersed in a new language, he picked up English quickly and spoke it with great proficiency, or let's just say pretty darn good proficiency. As proficient as any other fourth grader.
Last night my husband mentioned that someone he works with was trying to bring back the word boss from childhood slang. This co-worker would repeat "That's really boss!" around the office in hopes it would catch on and be the next big retro thing. Apparently in some childhood circles boss was another word for cool. I had never heard it used that way, but it reminded me of Gastone. Adorable, wonderful, Gastone. Gastone brought a new word into our fourth grade vernacular. Gastone introduced us to crucial, a marvelously fun and powerful word that he used any chance he got and so did we. We used it with glee.
We also used it incorrectly. Mrs. Strong would assign homework we'd cry, " Aw man, thats crucial!" The principal would cut recess short, yep, you guessed it, that was crucial too. Anything unjust, unfair or cruel was crucial. Teachers and parents tried to disabuse us of this. It was too late. We defined it for ourselves.
This is the part where I explain why I'm telling you all of this and how it relates to poetry, the world, Maya Angelou and you. First, no disrespect to Angelou, but that's the only time I'm going to mention her name. Likewise, there won't be much talk of Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Robert Bly, Rita Dove and so on. I won't be yammering on about Pulitzers or major trade houses publishing poemies by celebrities. This is not a diss. It's just an acknowledgment that there's already a lot being written about such things and because I too am a poet, I want to write about different things. There's a lot of poetry going on out there and if you're not a poet yourself, it's easy to miss. Which is a shame because there's a lot great stuff you're probably missing.
I'm going to try to avoid using words and phrases like "alternative" and "little known" and "out of the mainstream" because pairing poetry with words and phrases like that may make even an intelligent reader like yourself a little antsy. Maybe you're one of those people who professes not to understand poetry. Maybe the last poem you read was one forced on you by a teacher and when you read it you didn't know what it meant. Well, so what? Gastone didnt know what crucial meant and I loved him.
What I didn't love from childhood was that I spoke with an embarrassing lisp. I couldn't pronounce my r's which if you think about it, is pretty awful for a girl named Wabec, er, Rebecca. Every week my speech therapist would make me practice my r sound by imitating a rooster, er er er er er errrrr. 100 times per session. I hated it. It felt repetitive and demeaning when another child walked past the classroom and heard my crowing. But you know what? It was important that I learned, even if it didn't come easy for me. There was a payoff for my struggle: I no longer sound like Elmer Fudd.
That's the reason for naming this column Crucial Rooster which I got to by way of poet Anthony Robinson. He's one of those poets whose work you haven't read, but should. I ran my original column name by him, Poetry Less Traveled and I'm glad I did because he rightly pointed out that it sucked. Anthony said if he were writing a poetry column he'd call it "Mutual Panther". Of course, I panicked because I thought I was missing a major literary reference, but he explained, "mutual panther" is simply two tough words that sound good together.
Isn't that what poetry is all about? Well, it's about a little more than that, but it's a good place to start and the perfect segue into discussing one of the best little presses in Texas. You haven't heard of it, it's called Effing Press, tha'ts right, as in "that's effing awesome!" Now aren't you glad you've heard of it?
Effing Press is run by poet Scott Pierce in a back room of a 100 year old house in downtown Austin. Up until now it has only published chapbooks, but Scott informs me that there will be a perfect bound Effing book out later this year. If you don't know, a chapbook is a small and inexpensive publication with a limited print run (usually anywhere from 50 to 500 copies). If you're interested, you can find more information on the history of chapbooks, here. Chapbooks are the perfect purchase for a reader introducing herself to an unfamiliar poet (think of it as coffee date instead of dinner and a movie) or for a devoted reader who wants to have everything ever published by a particular poet. Aw heck, chapbooks are just wonderful in general.
Unlike big commercial presses that chose manuscripts based on projected sales, Scott, like most small press editors, chooses manuscripts because he loves them. He better love them, because he spends his own money and time making these books. Thats right, he makes the books too. He considers the press part of the do-it-yourself movement (yes, theres a movement, now run along and lock away your daughters before they catch wind of it and start doing lord knows what themselves).
The DIY movement has served Scott and Effing Press well. The chapbooks, mostly poetry (although he has published prose and expects to also publish visual art in the future), are more than collectable, they're beautiful and rare with gorgeously designed covers and endpapers. Fitting presentations of the distinguished verse contained.
I have the three most recent chaps prominently on my coffee table in my writing studio. Tomorrow evening I'm having over a new poet friend and not only do I want to show off my latest acquisitions (cause these really are gorgeous books), I want to discuss with her what's in them. For instance, I want to share the sparse and deceivingly simple landscape poems in Eureka Slough (by Joseph Massey, 5 x 7, 32 pages, w/ jet black endpapers, cover art by Wendy Heldmann, $5.00) . Why am I so unsettled by the lines: Sunflowers border/the half-way house,/arched over the hedge/that darkens the lawn. How do I keep discovering new images re-reading such precise poems?
Red Juice (by Hoa Nguyen, 6.5 x 7.5, 36 pages, with poppy red endpapers, cover art by Josh Rios, $5.00) is a "walk softly, carry a big stick" experience. First appearances can be deceiving and underneath the apparent domesticity is ferocity. When Nguyen writes "Ground deer/meatballs mixed/in my mutt hands", she's not giving recipe hints. These memorable poems contrast creation and destruction by mingling the ordinary with chaos.
Each line in Artificial Lure (by Clayton A. Couch, 7 x 8, 44 pages, with baby blue endpapers, cover art by Janice Bostok, $5.00) is a poem unto itself. Like turtles sunning their shells on a log in the lake,we let the dead cool conversation, not knowing an out. This is a collection of smart, curious pieces that span contemporary culture, politics and, of course, love.
Love is a good place to end. I just met Effing Press and these three poets and instead of being greedy I decided to share the love with you. Dont squander it! Treat yourself to one (or more) of these addictive chapbooks. Tell them Web, er Reb sent ya.