The Thicket of Context: Brian Teare’s “Companion Grasses”

companion grasses

Brian Teare
Companion Grasses
Omnidawn, 2013
Paperback, $17.95
112 pages

by Kate Partridge

Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses is a book that immediately immerses the reader in the thicket of context surrounding it: webs of language and history both inescapable and formative, each erotic and painful in its own measure. The book pulses hardest on the moments when these webs fuse—when grammar is touch, or the pleasure of naming allows experience to derail time. Here, the press of life against life is present in all its forms, from “a list of possible swallows” to the impossibility of defining a true “subject” in the motion of the city.

As in Teare’s previous books, Pleasure (Ahsahta 2010), Sight Map (U. of California 2009), and The Room Where I Was Born (U. of Wisconsin 2003), Companion Grasses is driven not only by the intersection of systems, but by a particular attention to a fragmenting and swiftly-changing arrangement of language. Teare’s deft metaphor for this use of grammar in “Little Errand” is the quiver: ever-present and skillfully employed at precisely the right moment to bridge the impossible physicality of a moment. At once, this experience is both unbearable and fleeting; each line’s touch is both precise and imbued with gravity as Teare arranges his artfully-placed words alongside a gallery of quotes. Taxonomies, jokes, and poetic theory are sometimes given citation, but also simply part of the shifting landscape. As Teare writes, “context is terrible weight.” Yet in the midst of the ruin, he draws us back again and again to what is left: beauty, stems, desire, sight, the fragile structures that survive through flexibility and mutation. In “Atlas Peak,” he writes:

 

when space shrinks, time
…..expands..:..ten minutes vanish

……….into one flower, less than
…..one square inch of earth.

 

These moments of rhapsodic meditation exist in conversation and collaboration with the voices of many others. For instance, Christophe Girot’s direction to “attempt to imagine a new form of thinking that can integrate the traveling continuum of time and space” is followed by an account of a hike that approximates an answer to that query. At the book’s center are struggles with faith, tradition, death, and fatherhood in all its forms.

“Atlas Peak,” an elegy in movements for Teare’s father, describes its mission as “transcriptive”—the influence of Whitman apparent in the speaker’s notation of grasses and gates, the mind’s inability to maintain all of its stores challenged by the pleasure of cataloguing, the requirement of the acts of sight and description to both forget tradition and collage it in patchwork with the new. Present, too, is Dickinson—of course, in the play of grammar, but also in the urgent attempts to personify the systems being grappled with:

doubt…..entered the field

In his notes, Teare quotes Jed Rasula in presenting the “ecology of the mind” behind these poems; the notes themselves are a wealth of information about the incredible breadth of source material influencing this work, even in the “composted states” that Teare writes entered the final versions. It is truly a privilege to see, beyond what one recognizes in the poems, the density of intellectual history supporting them: field guides, philosophy, letters, journals, biography; writers as varied as Robert Duncan, Susan Howe, Basho, Woolf, and Niedecker. These poems engage with the legacies of transcendentalism, the construction of the elegy, and even musical notation, while challenging and defining the boundaries of these influences. “Transcendental Grammar Crown,” originally published as a chapbook, reminds us of the necessary limitations of memory by context:

of a sudden…..in yellow….–we lie
on our backs….a view….framed by grass

 

In each of the arenas Teare enters, physical or abstract, we are never quite rid of the reminders of eventual ruin; rather, this is a book that profits from its insistence on observing the collapse in all its complication, and identifying the fluctuations in efforts to systematize the inherently mysterious:

your whole life….a pattern of spectacular
aptitudefor disappointment….your
intelligence….a broken wing….a bird
feigns…..to distract the hunt….from kill

 

Kate Partridge’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Colorado Review, BarrelhouseRhinoBloomVerse Daily, and Better. A graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University, she lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

Brooding Men, Bodice-Rippers and Spanking: the Truth About Today’s Romance and Erotica Novels

Editors’ note: For us, inclusive feminism involves sex-positive feminism. Reynolds’ exploration of the complicated relationship between feminism, writing, patriarchal ideals, and romance and erotica novels is fresh, thought-provoking, and probably NSFW. Enjoy!

by Cait Reynolds

I write about sex. I write about sex a lot. I write entire books where the point is to stuff in as many sex scenes as I can.

My novels have boy/boys meet girl, fall in lust/love, have a lot of amazing sex, and decide to live happily ever after together. There’s plot, but I have to be careful to keep it driving toward the next sex scene. There are percentages to adhere to in terms of plot-romance-sex.

The men are tall, strong, devilishly good-looking, and usually hiding some desperate secret. The women are feisty, smart, beautiful, and secretly vulnerable. There are funny best friends, tertiary characters, a villain, and a quest.

Endings have sex, villains vanquished (at least until the next book), pressing emotional issues resolved, sex, references to inside jokes between the characters, explanation, sex, and the granting of care, love and protection from the alpha male hero/heroes to the heroine.

Cue feminist-eye rolling at self-defeating propagation of the patriarchal model’s agenda.

Cue feminist guilt at having several such novels discreetly tucked away on her phone/Kindle/Nook/iPad where the covers can’t be seen.

Cue counter-feminist feminist argument that women have a right to whatever fantasies they want, which means including the traditional fantasies of male dominance in relationships, economic roles and the bedroom.

Cue feminist counter-feminist-feminist reasoning that while yes, feminists should accept other women’s fantasies as their right, shouldn’t we be using mainstream media to inculcate changes in values, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality and the role of women’s sexuality in society?

Enter Vassar-certified feminist mass-market romance and erotica writer with a pointy point of reality and ready to pop some balloons of pretentiousness.

Have you read romance novels lately? Raise your hand if you remember Jude Devereaux or Victoria Holt…or even Barbara Cartland. How many of us got our first glimpse of sex through Harlequin or mom’s stash of paperbacks from the lending library? Danielle Steel took the market by storm with heroines who weren’t fainting virgins ravished by the cruel yet arrogantly handsome man they had been just married to in order to save the manor house/father’s reputation/sister’s secret affair/brother’s gambling debts/etc.

Back then you had the following major sub-genres: historical, regency, Wild West, modern young office girl. Yes, there were others, but think back to what you saw in the greeting card/magazine/paperback aisle in the grocery store. That’s the blunt reality of what sold the most and the best.

Today, the Internet and e-book formats have opened up a world of accessibility not just for “alternative” and LGBT genres (which have their own platoon of sub-genres that mirror straight sub-genres including vampires, werewolves, BDSM, ménage a trois/quatre/more, cowboy, interracial, plus size, sci-fi, fantasy, dark fantasy, etc.), but also for mainstream female readers.

Fifty Shades of Grey would not have known the commercial success it has if it had not already been for a large, vibrant, and high profitable market of just erotica novels. Ellora’s Cave, Siren Publishing and several others jumped into the market early and produced both volume and a design to meet specific market needs. Quite honestly, the traditional romance publishers were late to the e-book game, and worse, they’re still barely dipping their toes into the more explicit sub-genre of erotica.

While traditional “sweet romance” still sells, the hottest category for growth is female-oriented erotica. The reasons for this are pretty astounding when you really stop to think about them. Maybe nobody has really laid it out there yet in any kind of double-blind, peer-reviewed study, but from the trenches, I can tell this shift toward explicit sex in romance novels is an incredibly powerful economic force and hopefully an indicator of some grassroots gradual change in society.

Keep in mind that the full reach of the female readership of these novels is vast and diverse. The readership also includes gay, straight, bi and trans men, but truthfully, that percentage is dwarfed by female readers (and I use “female” as a shortcut for female-identifying straight, lesbian, bi and trans women, just like I use “male” that way).

The majority of these female readers, however, are from the various strata of the middle-class. They are not wide-ranging readers. They will not read Blacke and Blue by Fiona Blackthorne (small self-serving plug because Baby’s gotta move some volume in the business) from Siren Publishing and then easily browse around and pick up Paul Coelho’s latest. They read for pleasure, but not the kind of pleasure literary-minded readers identify with.

Reading romance and erotica books is a pleasure because it tranquilizing, escapist, and fulfilling in ways that real life cannot provide. It’s therapy without the co-pay and the medication. It’s a coping mechanism that allows for humor and orgasms, often at the same time. It’s a genuine pleasure and hobby because who really wants to make shit out of mason jars in their spare time?

Just bear with me and stay with these generalizations for a bit longer. These books provide fluff, froth and fantasy, the daydreams we have as we drift off to sleep. They offer a refuge from reality, and a safe place for dreams and hope to reside. Like all human beings, women require hope to survive. Forget Maslow. Hope is the primary primordial driver that makes us seek water, food, shelter and reproduction.

If hope and the dreams it engenders are that crucial, then it’s worth taking a closer look at the subtle-but-changed nature of romance novels and erotica. It’s worth respecting the hope that is represented by these stories and acknowledging their value as a positive tool for everyday living.

All right, stepping off the soapbox for a moment here and acknowledging that while romance and erotica novels have their hearts in the right place, the vast majority of the writing is dismal, repetitive, trite and poorly done. It’s frankly painful to have to read many of the mechanical sex scenes, and I wince at the bathetic, predictable characters and naively engineered, inadequately researched plots.

I’m at fault for this, as well, to a degree. Writing these novels requires you to play within the rules, as I said earlier, and to create a product that is satisfying to its market, I must tailor my stories to include the ‘expected’ characteristics.

But I’ve come to respect the ‘expected.’ Writing it day in and day out has given me a new and deeper understanding of what the tropes actually mean. Writing extremely explicit sex because it sells to women is a big neon sign spelling out in blazing letters that women are not afraid to identify themselves with highly sexual, highly sexually adventurous, and highly sexually satisfied characters.

The traditional components of a romance novel are also sending out a message, one that has the steady drumbeat of centuries behind it, calling for women to be cherished by men as much as they cherish their men. The word ‘cherish’ is in the wedding vows of many cultures and religions, and the concept is even more universal than that.

If you look at the concept of cherishing another person, it really isn’t about dominance. Cherishing someone is about sacrifice and humility for yourself as you put the other person first. Mutually cherishing each other in a relationship means equal sacrifice and love. Cultural contexts may define the modes of behavior used to express each gender role’s way of cherishing, but the end result is the same. Literally, the same. Equal love for equally loving partners.

Also, nowadays, not every romance begins and ends with the socio-economic Cinderella ploy. Many heroines are wealthy, independent business owners or executives. Many heroes are artists or not particularly associated with wealth. The ‘Cinderella Rescue’ scenario remains attractive because, frankly, who hasn’t stared at a stack of bills in a mild panic and wished that someone would just sweep you off your feet and pay your bills so you didn’t have to worry any more? The ‘Cinderella Rescue’ also has its place in LGBT and other sub-genres, so maybe we’re looking at a cultural pressure-release valve about financial worries instead of just a victim-savior model defined by gender.

The easy-to-swallow capsule of good-looking characters, predictable plot twists and comic relief sidekicks makes these books just that: easy-to-swallow. Pun fully intended when it comes to erotica novels. If you look at romance and erotica as a tool for sustaining hope and a coping mechanism for real-world stress, then a book that forces the reader to work at achieving the escapism she needs is not going to sell to her. Nor should it have to.

If art is subjective, then everyone’s subjectivity has a right to be respected, even the crappy trite pieces of art that please collectors of velvet Elvis paintings and those who wear three-wolf-moon t-shirts because it’s beautiful art. Put mass-produced bubblegum romances in the mix, and you still have to respect someone’s desire to appreciate it or consume it.

If art exists to meet existential needs (among other raisons d’etre to be discussed in my next dissertation), then art should not be valued based on whether it meets your needs if you are not choosing to appreciate or consume it.

The romance novel has a rightful place in the literary landscape, and before it is dismissed as worthwhile literature, remember there are some real stinkers of books in the traditional literature section, too. Bad writing is genre-less.

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The Scientific Method of Storytelling: Thalia Field’s “Bird Lovers, Backyard”

birdloversbackyard

Thalia Field
Bird Lovers, Backyard
New Directions, 2010
Paperback, $16.95
144 pages

by Chelsey Clammer

 

“Given all the paper in the world to write on, what would we really have to say?” Thalia Field asks in the last few pages of Bird Lovers, Backyard. As I read her collection of essays, I often had to ask myself this question. As in, what is Field trying to say? There is the theme of time apparent in some of her essays (“Apparatus for the Inscription of a Falling Body” and “This Crime Has a Name”), as well as how we figure out language and meaning (“This Crime Has a Name,” “Exposition: He Told Animal Stories” and “Development: Another Case for Television”). Aside from these two themes, however, I found myself constantly trying to figure what, with all of this paper she has given herself to write on, she really has to say. And even though there were moments in which I could not figure out exactly what Field was trying to say, this eventually became unimportant  because I was so immersed in how she said these things, drifted along with the poetic language that the real meaning of the text became more about creating a poetic reading experience rather than one full of a clear-cut meaning.

Perhaps the best approach to this text, therefore, is to dive into Field’s examples and wonderings about language and meaning. Beginning with “I don’t want to write this at all, not in English, not in any language, and anyway, it’s already been written” (31), Field enters into a space in which language might be insufficient for trying to convey not just our thoughts, but the emotions behind them. She continues, “Nobody can understand what I’m saying…if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him. I don’t understand this, but it feels right” (31).

What Field is getting at here is that while we may understand the actual words—the surface layer, one could say—of a thought, the actual personal meaning and emotions that exist underneath the surface layer of letters and words and sentences cannot be understood by anyone other than the person experiencing the sentiment behind those sentences. And even as I state this, I, too, am unsure whether I understand this. But it feels right.

As she ventures into an essay about science and analogy—an essay I am deeply interested in, as I was advised in college to drop my Pre-Med major and stay in English classes due to the fact that all of my lab reports were filled with “unnecessary metaphors”—Field shows that while metaphors in science acknowledge “an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars,” an analogy is more correct as it “implies equality in function….Where metaphors overreach, analogy occurs frequently” (62).

Here, Field illuminates how we understand each other and the world around us, because we are only able to relate one experience or concept to another one that we have also experienced. That we can have a scientific method in which we try to relate to the world—the rules and functions and meanings we implement in order to bring an order to everything around us—but that in the end, “storytelling [is our] scientific method” (64). Without bringing analogy and storytelling into our conceptions of the world, we experience the world without meaning—the sentiments behind our sentences become deflated and the meaning held within a concept becomes, well, meaningless.

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Thanks for a great AWP!

Thanks to everyone who made our AWP so much fun this year!  We had a great time talking to you at our table, at your table, and everywhere in between.

In case you missed it, we had signed broadsides by Meg Day, winner of the 2013 chapbook contest, and signed miniatures by Sandy Longhorn, runner-up of the 2013 chapbook contest.  We also launched two beautiful new miniatures by Erin Costello and j/j hastain. If you didn’t pick up your miniatures at the conference, have no fear–the 2012 and 2013 series will be added to our catalogue soon.

The winner of our raffle is Lesley Owens, who will receive a custom GGP tote bag full of books, miniatures, and and a voucher to submit to our 2014 contest (now open until June 1!!!) for free.  Check us out in Minneapolis in 2015 for another raffle!

In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for our mailing list, just email gazinggrainpress@gmail.com and let us know–we’ll make sure you don’t miss any news about all the great feminist writing resources we keep track of for you.

Hope to read your work in this year’s poetry and hybrid contest!  Details on the Guidelines page–we’re open until June 1!

2014 contest open!

dawn-lundy-martin-2We’re now open to submissions for the 2014 Gazing Grain Press Chapbook Contest, sponsored by the Fall for the Book literary festival!

We’re accepting submissions of poetry and hybrid chapbook manuscripts from now until June 1, 2014.  Dawn Lundy Martin is this year’s contest judge.

You can find full details about this year’s contest, including info on our 2014 discounted submissions fees, here at our Guidelines page.

The winner of our contest receives 10% of the print run in contributor copies as well as a special featured book launch event at the 2014 Fall for the Book literary festival, including free lodging and travel within the continental United States.  Finalists for our contests are often published in our Gazing Grain Press Miniature Series, a collection of handmade, beautiful book objects.

With recent write-ups in The Writer’s Chronicle and Poets and Writers, we get a lot of good attention for the work we–and YOU–do.  We work hard for our authors and want to share your work with the world.

So send us your feminism!  Send us your poetry!  We can’t wait to read it.

Visit us at AWP Seattle!

Dear feminist friends,

We hope you’ll visit us at the bookfair next week at AWP Seattle!!  We’ll be in booth #211 with our fellow George Mason publications, Phoebe and So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art. We’ll have some great goodies to offer–fantastic sales as well as very cool freebies.

We’ll be giving away gorgeous free miniatures every day of the bookfair:

Our chapbooks will be on sale for $6 each or two for $10. We’ll have our 2013 title, We Can’t Read This by Meg Day, as well as our 2012 chapbook, The Busy Life by Laura Neuman.

We’ll also have beautiful broadsides signed by Meg Day for $1 each, or free with purchase of a chap.

You also won’t want to miss our conference raffle–just sign up for our mailing list at the bookfair and we’ll enter you in a raffle to win a custom Gazing Grain Press tote bag containing:

  • the 2012 and 2013 chaps, plus a promise to mail you the 2014 chap once it’s published
  • both the 2014 miniatures
  • a gorgeous broadside signed by Meg Day
  • a voucher to submit to our 2014 chapbook contest for free!

If you’re a socially conscious press and you’d like us to stop by your table, email us at gazinggrainpress@gmail.com and we’ll come by and bring you some free swag!

2012 Miniature Series

2012 Miniature Series

The Busy Life by Laura Neuman (2012)

The Busy Life by Laura Neuman (2012)

We Can't Read This by Meg Day (2013)

We Can’t Read This by Meg Day (2013)