10 Questions for Philip Dacey

Fox Chase Review did this wonderful interview with Poet Philip Dacey.

Fox Chase Review

philip_dacey_at_SSUPhilip Dacey is the author of twelve books of poetry, most recently Gimme Five (2013), the winner of the Blue Light Press Book Award. The recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, two NEA grants, and a Fulbright
lectureship for his poetry,  he has written entire collections of poems  about Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas  Eakins, and New York City. His work has appeared in the Hudson Review, Partisan Review, Poetry, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Esquire, Paris Review, The Nation,
and The American Scholar.  In 2012 he moved from Manhattan’s Upper
West Side to Minneapolis. To learn more about Philip Dacey please visit http://www.philipdacey.com/bio.html

Interview by:  g emil reutter


GER:There has been much debate about the relevance of poetry and poets in recent years. Your career spans decades. Has this been a consistent presence on the poetry scene or a new argument?

PD: I think it’s inevitable that the question is a perennial one since
poetry is conspicuously both a necessary…

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New Year’s Day Poem

I wrote this on New Year’s Day 2013, I think. The day before I’d spent a few hours hiking around Peace Valley Lake in Bucks County, so that’s where some of the imagery began.

New Year’s Day

The woods smell like good dogs

in the rain, walnuts and acorns cracked

and crunching under boots, the kind

of light that comes like notes

in music, rests where it needs,

holding onto bare bushes or

the cracks in fallen trees.

It’s not the rot and rhythm

of woods that’s right,

the lie of snow against water,

a shifted step from stone to stone

and the life he thinks he lives.

The trail is wide and flat

with rocks he names for dogs

he knew, dark hackles raised to the light.

Poetry Reading Q & As

Over at the Potomac Review blog there’s a great post about the etiquette for Q & A sessions following poetry readings. I usually like Q & A sessions better than the open reading sessions following a reading, if the questions are good. Sometimes they’re not, and this post explains a few ways they can go badly.

To that list of don’ts I’d add one more: don’t use your question as a way to show off how much you know (or think you know) about the poet or poetry. Ask a question. Don’t make a speech. Read the Potomac Review post here.

And here are some more of my own thoughts on poetry readings.

Reading List: Stanley Plumly

I’ve had Plumly’s “Boy on the Step” on my bookshelf since about 1990, but it had been years since I gave it much consideration. My own interests and aesthetic tendency’s have changed a lot since then, so I’ve been recently going back to books I’d abandoned long ago. This book has been one of the more rewarding re-discoveries for me.

Consider this last few lines from Fountain Park:

”                                          all kinds of things

pass witness and are true about this last

light of day coming onto winter,

the trees almost transparent in the dark,

the high grass green as lawns in the hereafter.”

And here’s a more recent one published in the New Yorker last summer:


by Stanley Plumly July 12, 2010

Mine, I know, started at a distance

five hundred and twenty light-years away

and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth,

Continue the poem here

And here’s a video of Plumly reading Infidelity, one of the most startling poems in the book.

Now that I’ve gone back to this book, I’ll have to check out his newer works.

Who’s Going to the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival?

In less than a month the biggest poetry event on the east coast, the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, is coming to Newark, NJ (yup, Newark). Ah well, it’ll still be worth the trip. The final schedule of events was just released. You can check out a PDF of it here. Hope to see you there. If you’re going, what will be the main events you plan to attend? I’ve never been so I’m open to suggestions on how to navigate the whole thing.

Here are a few video samples from the 2008 festival:

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More Does Poetry Matter Nonsense

I assume that Anis Shivani was just trying to stir up trouble by his HuffPo post “What is the State of American Poetry.” In it, he questions if poetry in the US has reached a dead end. To answer that daft question he rounded up a handful of reasonably prominent poets and asked for their opinion.  Shivani’s post is a form of link bait as he knows other bloggers will not be able to resist throwing their gauntlets into the ring. So maybe he’s succeeded with me, if only because I think this argument will lead to predictable and boring results. One side will argue that poetry went stagnant after whatever generation they align themselves with, while the other side will claim this is be best time ever for poetry.  Yup. Heard this before.

Here’s a list of the poets who were invited to the fray:  Campbell McGrath, Kevin Prufer, Akilah Oliver, Elaine Equi, Chad Prevost, Cathryn Hankla, Martha Rhodes, Sidney Wade, Ben Lerner, Steve Healey, Alfred Corn, Cynthia Cruz, Julie Carr, Wayne Miller, Anna Rabinowitz, Maxine Chernoff, Claudia Keelan, Rebecca Seiferle, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Shelley Puhak, Raymond McDaniel, Jane Satterfield, Becca Klaver, and Catherine Wagner.

The arguments are being strung out in a series of posts. First up was Claton Eshleman, who seems to think most poets under 60 are boring without offering any evidence to back up his derision. He wants would-be poets to pack up and head abroad and take up translating or criticism.

Next, Annie Finch writes that poetry is at a dead end because modernism pulled it so far away from traditional form and craft that, well, traditional form and craft is seen as a fringe element. OK. Or maybe she’s just saying she doesn’t like a lot of contemporary poetry. Well neither do I (which I’ll go into in more detail in my review of The Best American Poetry 2010 later this week). But that doesn’t mean poetry is at a dead end. It just means she’s fed up with some of the trends.  Also, she makes a big plug for her own writing program.

Here’s a bit of her take on the scene:

It worries me that so little published mainstream poetry is intended to be heard by its readers. As a result, people who encounter a poem on the page tend to think it exists on the page–they don’t hear its patterns resonating aloud inside them. Since repeating language patterns are the core distinguishing feature that demarcates poetry as a genre from any other form of language, there’s a lot at stake.

Finally, Ron Silliman, in recognizing that a genere that claims tens of thousands of active practitioners can’t be dead, asks what I think are more important questions. One being, if everyone and his mother is a poet, than how do you measure success—or how do you distinguish yourself from the rest?

His advice to young poets:

You need to both understand the full field & history of writing and to recognize that we are in the very first moments of whatever the next age in history will be, and that the poetry of the future cannot simply be the past dragged on by habit.

Good advice. And he didn’t mention the School of Quietude even once.

The last poet included in Shivani’s survey is Daniella Pafunda, who overall seems to favor the state of American poetry except for the overabundance of millipedes and the lack of more non white, straight, males in the mix. Depends on where you look I think, but if she’s referring to the top tiers of popular academy po-biz, then yes, she’s got a good point.

Anyway, I’m a bit sick of this question, especially when the question seems to really miss the point. Poetry isn’t a career path. Poetry isn’t a competitive sport. Poetry matters simply because it does. That’s about it. Nothing more.

I was watching the show Hoarders last night and one of the subjects described a feeling of pain and bursting if she didn’t rescue every bit of discarded crap she picked up at yard sales and trash cans. She said she couldn’t stop herself from picking things up and giving them a home. I know that feeling, and it’s not because I’m a pack rat. Anyone who takes their poetry writing seriously knows that aside from some rare, brief and fleeting chances at recognition, cash or career, poetry is something you do for yourself because you’re happier when you’re doing it.

Do I want readers? Hell yes, but getting them is really just a matter of effort (I got you to read this). There are open readings happening every night of the year. Journals, both print and magical, for nearly every sort of poet. And if that fails, I’ve got family that I can abuse with my poems. But that still misses the point. Like fishing or camping—poetry is a kind of work we do because we like the experience. We like what we find when we dig there or we feel badly about ourselves if we ignore the urge too long.

Update: I know a lot of people are reading this, so please add your comments. Am I justified at being annoyed by the nature of Shivani’s questions or not? Did poetry tank 20, 40, 100 … years ago? Is the the web a trash heap of poetry or a Trader Joe’s of delight?

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Interview: Poet Rafey Habib

Last week (or maybe it was longer than that) I posted a review of Rafey Habib’s new book of poems, Shades of Islam. I followed up with him later and convinced him to answer a few questions about his work and other things:

You’ve been writing and translating poetry and writing about literary theory for years, but until now never published your own poetry. How has the process of assembling a book of your poems been different than what you’d done earlier?

It has been an altogether more pleasant process; for one thing, you don’t have to do any research (at least, not of an academic nature); and I feel that I’m attempting to speak in my own voice rather than one borrowed from academia and which is intrinsically adjectival on the work of others. And I feel that this book (of poetry) does not require a specialist audience.

Many of your political poems can be categorized into two groups: those aimed at Muslims who perform injustices (To a Suicide Bomber, Poem for Neda) and those aimed at explaining Muslims to Western readers (The World Does Not Hate America, Home). What reader are you predominantly trying to reach? And what’s the message?

I am trying to address both non-Muslims and Muslims; I want the former to see the beauty, compassion and pathos that inheres in Islam; I want the latter to see themselves in the light of their larger responsibilities in the modern world (such as acquiring and disseminating an accurate knowledge of their religion).

In the poems that deal specifically with the poet’s relationship to religion, themes of otherness, unworthiness and doubt are common. Are those traditional themes in Islamic literature or are they more connected to your own sense of cultural identity (an Indian Muslim, educated in England and living in the United States)?

They are certainly inherent in my own somewhat torn cultural identity as a Muslim, born in India, raised in England, who migrated to the U.S. But these themes of religious struggle also inform writers in Islamic traditions, such as the Medieval Arab poet al-Ma’ari, the thinker al-Ghazzali and the great C20 Pakistani poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal.

Many of the religious poems don’t make specific reference to things readers would easily recognize as Islamic. Is that intentional, and does it suggest commonality among the major religions.

Yes: our religious dilemmas are often the same; and Muslims experience the same emotions, passions and dilemmas as everyone else.

Your two Tsunami poems are written in a more narrative style with more dependence on images than anything else in the book. Why is that? Can you talk more about the experiences the poems are based on?

I stayed with my family in Malaysia for a year; so we had the opportunity to visit a fishing village in Penang that had been struck by the tsunami. The sheer scale of destruction of that event haunted me for a long time, with its implications for the perennial philosophical questions of God’s justice etc. I was appalled by the facile “religious” explanations offered. It seems to me that it is precisely these unintelligble phenomena that the poet must investigate.

Name a few poets, from any tradition, your draw inspiration from? What do you admire in them?

Shelley, of course: his sheer imaginative and verbal genius; I admire poets who are capable of addressing complex philosophical issues, such as Rumi, Hafez, Milton, Donne and Iqbal.

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Review: Shades of Islam by Rafey Habib

Rafey Habib’s reputation in literature is built more in criticism and translations because, until now, he’s been hoarding his own poems to himself. The closest we’ve been able to get to the poetry of Habib is his translations of N.M Rashed, The Dissident Voice. Now in Shades of Islam, he is finally offering up a look at his own work.

First off, I should disclose that Habib was a teacher of mine 20 years ago. I took his Literary Criticism and Non-western Literature classes at Bloomsburg University (he now teaches at Rutgers University). I also credit him (or blame him) for encouraging my own writing back in the day. So while I know Habib as a teacher and friend, it’s a pleasure to get to know him better through these poems.

It would also be disingenuous of me not to comment on the timeliness of this release. As I was reading this book, the furor over Park51 (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”) was (still is) raging. Right-wing news commentators and politicos were scratching lines in the dust and raising the pitch of Islamophobia while I sat in my backyard reading this book. People who a year ago had never heard the word Sharia, knew what an imam was or what actually happened at Cordoba, were suddenly posturing themselves as experts while calling their bigotry patriotism.

Into this fray drops Habib’s book, a seemingly simple book of mostly lyric poems, many of them devotional, some of the political and all of them irenical. One of the intentions of this book is clearly to present to the Western world a more accurate portrayal of the modern Muslim-American culture than can be gleaned from cable news. It does that, but it also portrays an individual Muslim, one with a multi-layered voice, full of conflict, torn between cultures, allegiances, loyalties and loves. There is great grief, longing, passion and hope in these poems, but no rhetoric or cultural clichés. Unfortunately, the people who most need to read these poems are not likely the hands they’ll fall into.

The opening poem, “Islamic Hymn”, is a straight-forward devotional poem, though with suggestions at separateness the poet can’t overcome, something that is emphasized by the grandiose nature of the language.

The pavilions of Night wear Your perfect Form;

From East and West Your lanterns rise:

Light upon light

Well, of course when put that way God is unattainable. He goes on to say, in another poem:

Many have fainted, hearing aloud these sounds.

Yet he wants to faint too. There’s a lot of searching, struggling with conflict in the religious poems. But what about the speaker’s relationship with God causes so much conflict? It’s not until the poem titled “Prayer” in the book’s second section, that we get a clearer sense of what the speaker’s struggles are all about. Finally, he tells us, by way of asking God:

but please focus on me,

Let the universe, with all its laws

And universal order, somewhow, favor

Me. This is our curse, the rising thought

From below, that will not rise

The biggest struggle then, is not a struggle with God, but a struggle with himself—between selfishness and selfless devotion. It’s fitting then that the sections that follow deal with love (of wife, children, parents) and politics.

In Habib’s poems you won’t find much in the way of contemporary American poetry convention. With a few exceptions, these poems do not rely on the tightly wrapped images, stacked similes or ponderously minute anecdotes that populate the work of today’s mainstream poets writing in English. In fact, Habib’s work is more in line with modern Urdo writers like Faiz Ahamad Faiz or N.M. Rashed. The restraint in the poems, a talent considering the magnitude of the subject matter, seems practiced, and its root is even hinted at in the poem Repression:

I am weighted down

Under centuries of

Prohibition, religion,

Repression; I abide by

The laws, I lower my gaze,

He does veer off this triack a few times, most notably, and successfully, in my two favorite poems in the book: “Tsunami I” and “Tsunami II.” These recount the speaker’s experiences watching a tsunami devastate a landscape. From the vantage “from high stories of hotels,” he manages to escape harm, yet internalizes the might and malevolence of the storm: “Now I know,/All of my life I have been hearing you … One day, I know, you will come for me,/ Tsunami.”

In “Tsunami II”, an even more intimate poem, absent the grand landscape of destruction, we find the poet at the shack of a storm survivor a month after the fact, feeling humbled by a family who has lost everything, though still willing to offer the poet the last things they have.

Curiously, those two poems come at the end of the section Recitation and Revelations, which is filled with very spiritual poems of doubt and inadequacy. Those are two themes the poet struggles through continuously in this book. Many of the poems reveal a speaker grappling with his own faith. The poems are filled with references to uncertainty and unworthiness—ideas that Christian readers will be familiar with. In fact, in a different context, many of these poems could just as easily be recast as Christian faith (or Jewish for that matter) poems with only a few word changes. This religiously generic nature may be intentional, a way to show similarity between cultures, or if not, it still has that effect.

It’s likely the most important poems in this book, the ones that have the greatest chance of reverberating with a larger audience outside either a Muslim readership or a typical poetry readership, are the political poems. In the section subtitled Political Musings, Habib gets right down the meaty subjects: suicide bombers, Iranian protesters, Palestine and even the building of a Mosque in Voorhees, New Jersey. In these poems the language is stronger, more direct and assaulting:

from “To a Suicide Bomber”

Because of you, I am reviled;

Because of you, your own people suffer;

Because of you,

Oppression speaks louder.

Because of you, my religion reels in shame.

These are poems that are both seeking empathy and action. In his elegy of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian girl who’s death became a symbol in 2009 when she was shot by the militia during the country’s election, Habib accuses Iran of betraying its people, but he also accuses those

who watch from afar,

In fear, who flirt,

With freedom’s name

Who smile unashamed

As tyrants old or new

Play your card for you.

I’m reminded a bit of the poem “To Those Palestinians Martyred in Foreign” Lands by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

Sweet earth of Palestine,

wherever I went

carrying the burning scars of your humiliation,

nursing in my heart the longing

to make you proud,

your love, your memories went with me,

the fragrance of your orange groves went with me.

Other poems in this section even more directly address the Muslim/American experience. In “The World Does Not Hate America”, “To the Muslims of the Twenty-First Century” and others, Habib tries to both straighten out misconceptions and offer reconciliations to the future. These observation may be a bit overly simplified, but he makes his point that the two different worlds are not really so different.

Here’s a video of Habib reading “To A Suicide Bomber.”

Buy the book here.

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