What better time to do the Spring Poetry Roundup than National Poetry month? And I’ll have two installments covering eleven chapbooks and/or regular releases between this week and next. Note that these works may or may not have been released recently, but I’ve only just gotten to them. My apologies to the poets and the publishers, but a mention is a mention, no matter when it comes. I’m always astounded at the quality of poetry I see coming from every corner of the community, and I think you’ll find an astonishing variety in the next couple of weeks.
Jameson Currier and Chelsea Station continues to impress with this volume with some very familiar names as well as poets I haven’t read before. The theme of this collection is the relationships between men–gay men and their lovers, spouses, exes, families, and friends. The breadth of this collection is astonishing, from tricks with sailors (David-Matthew Barnes’s “Blue Navy”) to the pangs of settling down (Jeff Mann’s “The Perils of Tres Leches Cake”) to indomitable grandfathers (Peter LeBerge’s “Breaking Open). With some entries heartfelt, some humorous, some hopeful, and some heartily homespun, this overview works best as a sampler of new poets as well as those who have been around a while. Dig in, and maybe you’ll discover a chapbook or two to order.
Divided into three sections: “My First Ten Plague Years,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sodomite,” and “This Life Now,” this slim book from Lawrence Schimel’s A Midsummer Night’s Press packs quite the punch. Unlike much poetry about AIDS and the plague, this is not elegiac. It delves into the personal instead, sacrificing the broader points for a much sharper and individualistic perspective. The impact of the first section (as exemplified by the harsh “Tony Poem” and the blunt “Days of 1999”) are somewhat offset by the pre-disease personal history of the second, but the third is the most fully realized, as in the ingenious “Cases,” which examines our relationship to the natural world through a grammatical construct: “Nominative, locus of being;/the river rises, the river falls/The genitive’s whole, that of which one is part,/as the river’s breath that sweetens us/To the dative we abject ourselves,/as to the river we bring what we love.” Playful yet powerful, This Life Now is a thinking man’s ride.
Walter Beck is one of my favorite young poets, as much for his attitude as his work. His Hoosier reactionary gonzo alcohol and vitriol fueled raves and rants strike deeply at the core of this old hippie’s soul. Beck may wear his pop culture influences on his sleeve, but he has internalized their lessons, and it’s always a joy to hear where he’s coming from. In this chapbook, Beck has been working for his Wild Turkey and brings us his view of life behind the counter of a gas station convenience store. The titles tell much of the story: “The Ten Commandments For Gas Station Customers,” “Pacing the Cage in #8030,” “The Register’s Shadow,” “Learning to Smile While I Sell You Cigarettes,” “Customer Portrait #3:Eyes of a Killer.” Beck’s work has a plainspoken, Midwestern directness whose underground underpinnings are reactionary and refreshing. If, at times, he sounds beaten down, carving out your own niche is hard work. As he asks in the closing of “Sales Floor Killing Blues”: “A sixty-hour stretch/In a shiny new black shirt/Is it all worth it?/Is it worth growing old and cold/under those fluorescent lights?/Is it worth holding that plastic smile/Until it turns into a scowl?/Is it worth it/To watch your world close in?” We know the answer, and in these days when selling out’s de rigueur, it’s good to know that someone else does too.
Evan Peterson is another of my favorite young poets. Deeply and wonderfully warped by horror/slasher films, Peterson wallows in the genre’s camp and culture and finds heart, soul, and meaning in what others dismiss as mindless. His latest, The Midnight Channel, sharpens (hehehehe) and refines his approach. From the opening piece, “Laurie Strode/Halloween” to the closer, “Ellen Ripley/Alien,” Peterson explores these slasher onslaughts with witty and pointed (okay, I’ll stop now) insight with brief–albeit violent–stopovers in other genres. Among my favorites were “Lucy Harbin/Straight-Jacket,” “Sergeant Neil Howie/The Wicker Man” and “Why I Want to Fuck Norman Bates.” Why would you want to fuck Norman Bates? Well, “He eats candy corn out of a paper bag/He knows how to sew a bird shut and doesn’t mind the sawdust/Even cute when he’s lying/He changes the sheets every week, whether they’ve been slept in or not/He knows how to clean up his own messes/He’s clever.” And, indeed, so is Peterson.
This collection from Julie Marie Wade illustrates some fundamental truths about the coming out process. Divided into “Before” and “After” sections, the “Before” poems are all variations on “When I Was Straight,” while the “After” poems focus on various people who “Learn I Am a Lesbian.” The insights are certainly not news to anyone in the audience, but their expression is so genuine and wide-eyed, that those feelings of difference and inadequecy and hurt come rushing back. As Wade says, “When I Was Straight/It was like a game of Red Rover &/someone was always being sent over,/flung out into the field of un-belonging/& struggling to break back in/The team that called you didn’t want/you & the team that had you/couldn’t keep you. No one was/content to run or stay put.” As emotional as this is, the “After” poems are almost giddy in their excitement, honesty and irony, as in “When the Whole Office Learns I Am A Lesbian”: “Have you ever been to Provincetown?”/”How did you like ‘Brokeback Mountain’?”/”Do your parents know?”/”My cousin is gay and lives in West Virginia.”/”Was it hard for you in high school?”/”I want you to know I voted for Al Gore.” No matter what changes and how much, some reactions still remain, unfortunately, the same. And Wade has documented them admirably.
Next week, we will be looking at Daniel Nathan Terry’s Waxwings, Robert Siek’s Purpose and Devil Piss, the latest issue of Assaracus and other goodies. Until then, please make an effort to seek out some of these books and chapbooks. Keep gay poetry alive and well.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler