Poets Live featuring Joshua Edwards, Michelle Noteboom, Lynn Xu
Review by Paul Stephenson.
Joshua Edwards began with poems from his new book ‘Architecture for Travelers’, which will be published next year. Residing in Stuttgart with Lynn, they got to know a whole host of different people, from chess players to sociologists. These encounters gave them the idea for a new project – a series of poems that would culminate in the building of a house, with the vital help of Josh’s Dad, a carpenter. They set about sending him poems and vignettes to inspire him in his sketches and plans for the new home. Thus, in ‘Notes for a Preliminary Drawing’ elegance is frigid and a candle praises the sun, and the couple will be needing a window for moon viewing and a corridor, pleasant but shallow – but at the end of the day, a plan is just a sort of ‘conspiracy theory of walls’.
A trip to Cadaqués, Spain – the hang-out of Salvador Dalí and John Cage, among others – inspired a series of short poems in which Josh paints the landscape from a moving train, where in the dark he makes out ‘abstracts of grammar’ and where ‘wine is a kind of time’. The ‘warm and pleasurable journey shapes their philosophies into new equipage’. While in his parables in ‘Imperial Nostalgias’ (Ugly Sucking, 2013), we wonder whom the poet is referring to when he asserts ‘you are more real when you are asleep than awake’.
Josh has a straightforward story-telling style with which he documents his and Lynn’s shared life over the last six years. At the same time he explores big ideas of being and understanding with a sense of boy’s innocence and awe, in his exploration of both himself and others. Awe, for example, on discovering a small sculpture of a head from 800 B.C. in the Neues Museum, Berlin, which inspires explorative digging in his own poem, and which takes him from display case to TV screen, and from past to present, eventually finding himself bemused in a hotel room watching Indiana Jones dubbed in German.
From Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to Simon Armitage, walking is an important pursuit for poets. In this vain, Josh is planning to walk from his birthplaces in Galveston, Texas, to his new to-be built home on Galveston Street, Marfa, Texas, a journey of some 1000 kilometres that will take him a month to complete, but constitute a rite of passage, connecting up the geographies of child and adult, young man to loving partner. Clearly a romantic, he duly ended with a poem dedicated to Lynn – she is always away and travelling, during which time he consoles himself by watching moves – and a short piece by one of his favourite poets, Dorothy Wordsworth.
Michelle Noteboom, who has been in Paris for over 20 years, read poems from her new book ‘Roadkill’ (Corrupt Press, 2013). Her poems are unstoppable, often bombastic and tangential monologues that ‘say out loud’ what the narrator is thinking with immediacy, wit and, at times, seeking to justify strange or irrational behaviour. But then strange things happen in Michelle’s world, with the trunk of a car getting filled with a swarm of bees that soon managed to invade the rest of the car. And at least Michelle doesn’t clean cat puke in her dreams! But don’t worry, because she uses the homemade rabbit recipe to keep her morals clean. People should be free to create their own scrap heap. So ask not what the cockroach can do for you but what you can do for the cockroach. Michelle has never met a lichen she doesn’t like, and while we’re on the subject, unsphinctered puffins rhyme with English muffins, but beware of the genital-eating jellyfish with ho-hum-hymen eyes. She’ll accept all of this and more, but ended her first set with a plea: ‘Just don’t let me die in Disneyland’.
There is great alliteration, repetition and momentum in Michelle’s poems, and a sense of linguistic urgency, which she showed off in her sequences ‘Rhapsody in Roadkill’ and ‘Roadkill Readymades’. But even roadkill sometimes gets the existential blues, dreams of being reincarnated as spam. She confesses: ‘My love is like a red red roadkill, fermented formulaic forgetting, a spatula referendum’. There’s roadkill and then there’s overkill and then there’s Betty Crocker, famous for her cakes. When it comes to roadkill, Michelle tells Betty, ‘The game’s up!’ Honestly, what would Betty do with roadkill?
Unlike many contemporary poets who adhere to a limited and sparse lexicon, keep their phrasing and vocabulary simple and prosaic, Michelle is unafraid of folding in ingredients from contemporary culture, and American speech as you really hear it. She gets a thrill from creating a concentrate of thick word broth, deliciously flavoured with roadkill.
Lynn Xu’s poems were melodious and song-like, some feeling like love prayer, others like physics experiment. ‘I am not asking you to die for me?’, she says, then contradicts herself: ‘Say you will die for me!’. For Lynn, all language is a language of paper without sleep. She read many elegies – poems to/after Frank O’Hara, Paul Celan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jules Laforgue and Charles Baudelaire. She seeks to ‘survey the Senate of our minds’, where ‘the sky so blue upon the water sings’. With references to the environment and the elements, she ‘walks in the pageantry of nature’s woods’ where the floor is covered with ‘lace upon the lililocks’, and she openly admits wanting to ‘zip myself into the flower suit’.
Though referencing poets of the past, Lynn manages to bring in contemporary concerns such as asylum, the Occupy movement, and student protests, as if perhaps she is turning to these great literary figures of the past to contemplate what they would think or say, how they might respond to these movements and incidents in the present day.
I really enjoyed the texture of her ‘Nightfalls’ series of poems in Chinese, embroidered with occasional English words. And in the ‘Debts’ sequence, written to Marcus Aurelius, the poems are rich and sensuous, perfumed with napalm and sulphur, hibiscus and saliva, valentine and roseblush. In considering the art and act of crying, she sees how the ‘hyacinth from our eyes leaves entrails of sky, but wonders, ‘If we weep for fortune’ she asks, ‘must we also take her eyes?’
Joshua Edwards was born in Galveston, Texas. He directs Canarium Books, is the author of Imperial Nostalgias (Ugly Duckling, 2013) and Campeche (Noemi, 2011), and translated Mexican poet María Baranda’s Ficticia (Shearsman, 2010). He currently lives in Stuttgart, Germany, where he’s a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude. His third collection, Architecture for Travelers, will be published in late 2014 by Edition Solitude and is part of a collaboration with Alan Worn, Lynn Xu, and others that will also involve the design and construction of a home, a series of photographs, and a 700-mile walk across Texas. More information can be found at www.architecturefortravelers.org
A native of Michigan, Michelle Noteboom is the author of the newly released collection Roadkill (Corrupt Press, 2013), which will be launched at the Poets Live reading. Her other collections are: The Chia Letters (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009), Edging (Cracked Slab Books, 2006) which won the 2006 Heartland Poetry Prize, and Hors-cage in French translation by Frédéric Forte (Editions de l’Attente, 2010). She has lived in Paris since 1991, where she co-founded and helped curate the bilingual reading series Ivy Writers Paris for several years.
Lynn Xu [in cover photo] is the author of Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn, 2013) and a chapbook, June (Corollary, 2006). Her poems have also appeared in Best American Poetry 2008, Boston Review, Critical Quarterly, Zoland Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s a co-editor of Canarium Books and a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Born in Shanghai and raised in Chicago, she now lives in Stuttgart, Germany and will soon be moving to Marfa, Texas.