Book Review: Brazil, Indiana by Brian Beatty

brazilindianaWhen I dug into Brian Beatty’s new poetry book, Brazil, Indiana, I was in the middle of season 2 of Twin Peaks (I liked season 1 better), so it’s probably no surprise that I spotted some of the same small town surrealism in Beatty’s book-length poem as is found in Peaks. There’s a man who trains moths, a man who half buried an old truck to spend days sitting in it, a town giant and of course a crazy cat lady.

These are some of the characters that populated the Midwest Beatty grew up in, and he’s populated his book with their stories, as well as, presumably, his own stories, in about 100 short 12-line untitled poems. Each poem is a vignette, some just a little more than anecdotes while others read like psychological profiles of people and locations.

I should note before I go further that I’m not an unbiased reader. I knew Beatty from our MFA years in Bowling Green University, and I have a short blurb on the back of his book. I’ve been reading these poems for years as Brian and I emailed our work to each other. In that time I’ve developed a deep admiration for his insight, talent and discipline to the craft.

About that craft–Beatty’s images strike the critical balance of being both familiar (especially if you’ve lived in a small town) and new. There’s the surreal quality I mentioned earlier, though not the surrealism of Breton, but more the surrealism of Simic, where the real world provides enough weirdness that the author doesn’t have to invent it. There’s the examples I mentioned in the beginning of this post, and many others, such as the kid with Tourette’s who slept under the counter at a burger joint, a beauty queen who wielded butcher knives, and a mayor who kept old circus animals. These people and their stories are used as doorways into a shielded world, one where the gears that kept an old town going are slowly disintegrating, and now the inner workings are starting to show through.

And then there’s the insights that will be familiar to every person who’s been around a farming community:

Every barn at some point becomes

nothing more than a metaphor with a roof

and a door straining against

its last hinge, like this old farmer bent

down to repair the truck tire flat in front

of the only world he’s ever known.

As noted earlier, the poems, are all composed of twelve lines, though the line length and number of stanzas varies throughout. A frequent strategy of his is to work the poem like a Jenga puzzle, stacking images together and then pulling out a key piece at the end to undermine or change it. Just as an image or situation is fresh in your mind, he pulls out a piece to dismantle your first impression. The technique has a way of keeping you alert to shifts and changes, like the weather is constantly on the move, which in his Midwest of memory, it probably was.

While each poem is meant to be read as a part of the book-length work, each stands on its own, and many have appeared individually in journals, though it does benefit from being read in order. The poems build on each other, especially as a few of the characters, notably the main speaker and his family, recur throughout the work. The settings and subjects of Brazil, Indiana will appeal to readers from the Midwest or small towns anywhere, while the technique and quality will appeal to any reader who appreciates surprise, manipulation and lyric story telling.

You can find it here on Amazon.

A few poems from the book can be found here, here and here.

Also check out Beatty’s latest chapbook, Coyotes I Couldn’t See here.

Interview with Obama Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco

richard-blanco_bccc_nov2016About two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, poet Richard Blanco came to Bucks County Community College for a reading to kick off the college’s Many Voices, Many Stories writing conference. Before the reading, Blanco and I sat down in a little stone cottage on campus to discuss the role of poetry in society, his own writing process, and some of the challenges facing people who enjoy the craft.  Read the complete interview at Cleaver here.

Politics, Clowns, Poetry, Ug

I’ve had a hard time concentrating on poetry lately and have written almost nothing in six months. This year’s presidential campaign has been a major distraction, ranging from athlete’s foot level irritation to full-on ice pick to the head migraine. I can’t seem to settle down with a book or an idea without some new item popping up on Twitter that wants to make me swallow broken glass. Friend and fellow MCPL Autum Konopka wanted to find a way to use poetry as a salve for the season’s diaper rash, and started a Facebook group called Verse for Votes. There other MCPLs, and anyone else interested, can submit their poems, or recommend someone else’s that inspire them to vote.

I’m not much of a politics writer myself–but this year’s flaming clown car parade eventually got me to write something. You can read my contribution here, and on the site linked above. Also go to the site to see wonderful poems by  Kristina Moriconi, J.C. Todd, Amy Small-McKinneyRyan J. Torres, and others.

Camouflage

Watching the candidates debate,

I thought, I too have a question

and it keeps me up at night.

Outside, deer pass through the orchard.

They pause long enough to taste

the air, look for dangers they

know are there, but not there now.

I have a question, and I keep it to myself.

We go through this again. Fight

the urge to fight, fight the yard signs,

the radio barkers, the fact checkers,

the friends we stop talking to.

I can’t tell the deer to trust me,

though I try to show it, leave

apples on the ground for them.

Tell them everything they fear

about us is true, but not now, or not

today. I do have a question.

I tell it to the deer. Why

do we do this to ourselves? No.

Why do we do it to each other?

In the orchard there’s a man

in camouflage sitting in a tree.

He’s pretending to be something

he’s not. He’s been watching

all night, waiting for the deer

to eat the apples like a trick

in a fairy tale, and every

child reading the story

knows what’s coming.

And now clowns haunt

the woods, and that’s

not funny anymore,

so we keep our children

home, no more stories.

I have a question,

and it keeps me up

at night, keeps rising

like an old injury

every season.

You see, we planted

this orchard.

We let the hunter in.

We know what’s coming too

but pretend we don’t.

 

 

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It’s Poetry Month, So Get Off My Lawn

April always puts me in a mixed mood, and it’s not due to the tax deadline—I take care of that months earlier. It’s National Poetry Month. While, as a practicing poet (that sounds like an admission of guilt or something one says at a 12-step gathering, “Hi, my name is Grant, and I did poetry last night. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help myself,” then everyone hugs and tells their sonnet stories), I should appreciate this opportunity to be part of a nationwide promotion of verse. In April there are more poetry readings, festivals and three-legged poetry races than at any other time. Occasionally TV and radio programs—real ones, not the public access or streamed-from-the-basement sort—get involved too. Book stores dust off their unsold copies of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman (maybe even a Billy Collins—woohoo!) and move them to the front window next to the books on how to grow kale in old Birkenstock boxes. All this should get me excited, even proud, right?

April is also the beginning of trout fishing season, at least it is here in Pennsylvania. In fact, for the past few years the state has started the season on April 1st in the southeast counties to boost the economy for local mealworm vendors while the rest of the state has to wait for the middle of April to drown their bait. As a practicing angler, this should also get me excited, and it does a little, but mostly I just get annoyed.

If you’re still reading, at this point you might wonder how these two things are related—this is where the poetry practice pays off: I get to relate two unrelated things in a metaphorical sort of way. That MFA pays off in weird ways.

Where I live, about 30 miles NE of Philadelphia, most of the waterways the state designates as “approved trout water” couldn’t naturally hold a live trout for more than a couple of months before the temperature, silt and argi-industrial runoff kills it. The only reason there are trout swimming in those streams in April is because the state dumped in thousands of hatchery-bred clones. People line up, pull the shocked and deformed fish out of the streams, then go home leaving behind their empty bait containers, cigarette butts and sandwich wrappers to prove they were sportsmen.

I enjoyed that weirdness as a kid because I didn’t think too much about it. My dad would buy me a couple of new lures (which I’d lose to trees or rocks before the day was out), and I’d wear my fishing hat to school so people knew I was legit.

Poetry month feels a lot like that to me. The Academy doubles down on its Twitter and email campaigns (while trying to get people to buy their mugs and t-shirts). Local poetry groups set up flash verse mobs and encourage random acts of cadence. National Public Radio encourages people to tweet 140 character poems (minus the hashtag of course).

And Oprah publishes a poetry issue of her self-indulgent O magazine. This month, on the web site next to an article called “Trying on Shoes with Sarah Jessica Parker” is a post by actress Mary-Louise Parker about poet Kevin Young. Now I’m a very big fan of Kevin Young, and I’ve nothing against Weeds, but the whole thing seems like pandering to me, as if a celebrity has to endorse it before anyone takes it seriously. Hey look, celebrities like heels and similes.

For one month a year poetry is treated like a charity—and poets are supposed to get excited and thank the rest of the world for noticing.

Poetry doesn’t need saving from obscurity by the mass media or Oprah’s friends. Poetry’s enemies are the poets themselves. There are probably more poetry journals and books of poetry published today than ever before. There are more people studying poetry in BFA and MFA programs than ever before. People who love to write and want to make a go of it will do it without April’s showers.

Still, with all those poets, no one’s making any money or selling many books or subscriptions. Poetry readings are mostly ghost towns. The poetry sections of most book stores have more space taken up by Suzanne Somers than the current U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Two decades of National Poetry Months hasn’t changed that one bit.

Poets are cheap, lazy (in the conventional sense, but often obsessive about writing) and prefer limited company. Poetry month isn’t going to help that. Poetry month doesn’t change the way non-poets or non-poetry readers feel about poetry. It’s not going to get any member of my family or anyone on my street to attend a reading, subscribe to a journal or even spend more than a glancing thought at a poem they accidentally hear on All Things Considered.

Now, since I’ve really lost my train of thought, let’s get back to the trout season metaphor. Opening weekend tends to bring a circus atmosphere to what should be a quiet, focused and solitary activity. The hype, promotion and stocked fish ruin a good thing. The creeks get trashed, the trail flowers get trampled down and the landowners get pissed off at all the trespassers. Sometimes I worry that promoting Poetry Month will result in the same thing for poetry—then I remember it’s poetry, and everyone will forget it ever happened come May.

Need something to do for Poetry Month? Buy my book.

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