Saturday, February 28, 2009

Michelle Boisseau

Michelle Boisseau is professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where she also serves as associate editor of BkMk Press.

Her books of poetry include No Private Life (Vanderbilt 1990); Understory, winner of the Morse Prize (Northeastern University Press 1996); Trembling Air (University of Arkansas Press 2003), a PEN USA finalist; and A Sunday in God-Years (University of Arkansas Press 2009).

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
My reading seems so often at odds with most folks, since it often follows what I'm teaching or working on in my writing.

I'm always rereading things I've assigned my students, so I just finished reading Wallace Stevens' book from 1923, Harmonium. I read it within his Collected Poems and in the Library of America edition, and rereading it again I was bathed in its beauty anew. People who don't know what to make of poetry in general and with "difficult" poetry in particular miss out when they don't just plunge in and enjoy the luscious language of poetry the way they enjoy the colors in Matisse or the wit in Paul Klee. Saturating yourself with the poetic imagination of a great poet, to paraphrase Stevens, naturalizes you to the poet's work and you allow it to enter you with its splendors. If you don't understand everything, so what? Stevens didn't understand it all, either!--that's why he had to write poems.

Having finished my class with Stevens, I turned immediately to David Schloss's new book of poems, Group Portrait from Hell; for people who love poems, it's a book that comes from paradise. Schloss is a skilled poet of formal meters, and he uses them with the wit and aplomb of the great Latin poets: to call attention to the foibles, ghastliness, and hilarity of their age, and to do it bravely, for it meant life or death or exile. Schloss speaks as an exile in the strange land where we find ourselves: our times. I also just finished the brand new book by the young poet Randall Mann, Breakfast with Tom Gunn, an outrageous and gorgeous and side-splitting collection of poems. Mann writes exquisite formal poems, and they crackle on the page. If Mann were writing these in prose the authors of Prop 8 in California would figure out a new proposition to hush him up. As is, he flies under the radar, writing poetry that is harrowing, sharp, and for adults.

I'm starting in on Tracy Daugherty's compelling, masterful biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man. Daughetry gives us not only the life of a fascinating American writer but carries us vividly into the world of postwar New York. Images of this era seem to be all over pop culture these days and usually they're just not accurate depictions of the era--Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are entertaining and their style values very fine, but when the culture only has images from pop culture of the era--we lose a sense of how literate and book-oriented the era was, how publishers were interested in great writing and were happy to support it. And of course, there was then a reading public which was substantial, considered, and unafraid of the mind. Daugherty's book is an act of love and a credit to Barthelme, an imperfect man who strove in striving times.
Read more about A Sunday in God-Years, including a sample poem from the collection, "Sandcastle Guarded by a Cicada Shell."

--Marshal Zeringue