The Non-Herein, Michael McAloran

Poetry by Michael McAloran The Non-Herein, by Michael Mc Aloran, published by Lapwing Press. Reviewed by Elynn Alexander for Full Of Crow. 

Of the non herein
Ash upon drought as if

It could be uttered
Set to light

Broken cleft absent
In whip of

Spinal affluence
Dragging out the magus

Pulse of futile
Again once again

Till none
Asked of without quarter

(In Abacus)

Michael Mc Aloran’s collection “The Non Herein” from Belfast publisher Lapwing Press invites the reader to anomie and paradox, what lies within is self-negating. His poems mirror back life, (“opiate’s glass” . (Traceless of), “naught of the sheet glass” (Never Once) reflected as decay, vitality that reaches to extinguishing, the “jugular ash”.  (Into Echoing) Continue reading

“Desecrations” by Howie Good

Desecrations, by Howie Good.  Discussed by Elynn Alexander for Crow Reviews, part of Full Of Crow Press. Desecrations was published by Fowlpox Press in 2012, with design and cover by Virgil Kay. ISBN 978-0-9881088-2-0. www.fowlpox.tk

Everyone felt exiled from everyone else.” (RSVP)

The poet begins with distinctions, people and things apart, alienation from minor to extreme degrees. The poet observes, even as he is aware of his own separation:

“I looked for the house while also trying to watch the road.” Continue reading

“The Horizontal Poet” by Jan Steckel

Jan Steckel’s The Horizontal Poet is an award-winning collection of poems published by Zeitgeist Press with cover art by Deborah Vinograd. This review appeared at Litseen, (link) a bay area event and lit site organized by Evan Karp, in October, 2012. Elynn Alexander

The cover of The Horizontal Poet features a supine female form, vulnerable, trusting but not submissive, open but not fully revealed. It is suggestive of a vulnerability shared by choice, not taken. She is at ease with her nakedness, calmly bold. Her hands are at rest, not a figure in waiting but suggesting serenity, contentment.

For these reasons, the cover struck me and became a recurring image throughout the collection, a presence that, like the subjects in the poems—“Wake,” especially—lifts up and transforms the reader. You can’t come away without feeling you’ve experienced something of this woman. Continue reading

On Crow Reviews- Interview By Karen Lillis

Thank you to Karen Lillis for her interview series on reviews in independent press. I was honored to answer some questions about Crow Reviews this week and you can check it out on her site here. In this interview, I had the opportunity to discuss our particular point of view here, what our goals are and what they aren’t, and what we are trying to do. It was a good opportunity to revisit my thinking as this section has evolved, and I hope that it explains (to some extent) what my perspective is on the process.

The conversations that arise from discussions like this have been very helpful to me, informing my thinking, and I appreciate the comments and feedback that I have gotten about it. ~Elynn Alexander (Lynn) 

Here is a copy of the interview, from the link above to the original piece, at Karen’s blog.

 

This is the third in a new interview series, The Art of the Book Review, about writing book reviews in today’s literature world. I’m taking on reviewers of the small press, many of whom are also writers in the small press. Previous interviews have been with fiction author Spencer Dew and poet Barrett Warner.

Today I’m excited to introduce Lynn Alexander, one of the hardest working women in the small press. A writer and a poet, she also co-edits Blink Ink, writes and edits at Red Fez, is involved with the Outsider Writers Collective, and is the producer and editor-in-chief of Full of Crow, a multi-faceted literary engine. Full of Crow produces quarterly reviews of fiction and poetry; publishes chapbooks, ebooks, and zines; hosts a blog, poetry podcasts, interviews, and online book reviews; distributes micro-press books and journals; and generates various other literary projects including periodic readings around the US.

I wanted to include Lynn in this series in part because her review style is unique: It’s often descriptive of what the work is doing and how it is structured, while it shies away from labeling or validating a book as “good vs bad,” “a great read,” “compelling,” etc.

Karen: How do Crow Reviews fit in with the Full of Crow mission?

Lynn: Full Of Crow is over three years old now, and like the people involved, the direction has evolved and changed over time. The reviews section was actually a suggestion that I was resistant to and explaining why will get into some areas of the other questions.

The mission at Crow has always been to create a space for words, because of our sense that these spaces matter. I believe in and support the independent press; I also like the idea of openness and access to all without predetermined ideas about who has legitimacy as a writer and who does not. In the end, it is about the work, which must speak for itself. The idea of a reviews section came from a desire to discuss aspects of work in the independent press, but in particular–work that we enjoyed and did not see represented in well-known publications. As we all know, breaking into any circle is difficult and Crow Reviews was meant to be a place for the appreciation and exploration of what we were reading, whether known or obscure.

That said, I have mixed feelings about the idea of a “review” in the commonly held sense of the word. I acknowledge that I don’t have formal expertise and try to approach reviews from the perspective of a reader, reflective of my experience with the work. On one hand, I think that all people are “qualified” to read and develop thoughts about the work they read and intuitive perception is very valuable. On the other hand, reviews are often seen as a person’s assessment of merit and validity, a process of making a decision and subsequent case for or against work and the value brought to the table.

So I feel that all are qualified and capable to review in some sense and many do, but ironically–I feel that it is a presumptuous undertaking to decide what has merit and what does not. In other words, we are all entitled to our opinions as readers, but I am less inclined to say that our opinions should be asserted in the sense of giving work a thumbs-up or -down, versus an impression. Review, criticism, and literary analysis involve different agendas and I was reluctant to use the term “reviews.” I don’t think it accurately reflects what I hope to accomplish, particularly now. But there are few outlets for “exploratory essays.” Looking back, maybe I would have stuck to my guns and tried to shape the space accordingly.

If there aren’t many outlets for independent or small press “reviews” there are even fewer for the directions that I like to go in.

My preference is to discuss work, write about work, analyze and dissect elements of the work–but I stop short of saying THIS IS VALID.

I have answered to some criticism about this, told that a review is supposed to rate the merit, and whether or not others should buy [the book]. That is a “review.” And I get that. But I can’t seem to see myself in that self-appointed position. Independent Press often involves the interactions of peers, and the review relationship goes against what I hope to see as the ongoing emphasis of Full Of Crow which is an approach of openness and humility and acknowledging that people have different subjective opinions. You might hate what I love, but let’s talk about what speaks to us and why, let’s talk about the work and what we find there. If doing that encourages people to read the work or have a different understanding of the writer’s execution, that is enough for me.

But in the end, I hope that people read what we have to say and then pursue their own experience with the work, whether positive or negative.

If I had to summarize, I would say it comes down to the difference between analysis and judgment. I am more comfortable with analysis and even criticism, judgment is a different beast. Criticism involves study and subsequent evaluation, judgment is the subjective act of telling the world that something sucks because you say so. I want less of that, and more reflection.

Karen. How do you think reviews complement or complicate the community aspect of the small press?

Lynn: “Community” is wonderful and necessary, but we have to be practical about the dynamics of the writer in context of a community. Some are able to support the work of others and embrace the value and need for community while others cannot. Some will look to what the community can do for them, and think little about what they can give. Motive, ego need, and agenda vary widely. Reviews can therefore be a way to encourage interest and thought about the work of others, or they can be currency. Reviews can be thoughtful, reflective experiences or they can be platitudes. Certainly, negative reviews can cause conflict in a community just as positive comments can demonstrate loyalty. All of these complicate community.

My thought is that what complements community is an effort to understand what others are doing, to read the work carefully, and offer up something that suggests sincere interest and engagement in the process and outcome. Even when we get it wrong, I think we need to also advocate for the work of independent writers and publishers by articulating WHY we find the work to be compelling. I’m amazed by what I read, and I think in our “reviews,” however approached, we need to address the criticism that independent/small press is synonymous with failure, or lack of ambition, or lack of quality, or lack of purposeful art–a default region where “anybody” can thrive without effort. If nothing else, I want to show that as a reader, I see the writer’s effort and time.

I think that [approach] complements community more than anything else accomplished by a “review.” It gives proper credit to the talent around us.

Karen: Describe your method of reviewing and how you perceive this to be useful.

Lynn: In a sense, many of us “review” every day when trying to decide on content for a publication. I read hundreds of stories and poems each month between the submissions at Full Of Crow and Red Fez, and part of the editorial process at Red Fez involves providing feedback on submissions. But this involves a different mindset, as we are selecting from a pool of submissions for a limited space and we have to rationalize the decisions somehow. Many of us acknowledge that this is difficult on matters of taste and style.

When writing a review or essay on a book or collection, I often consider the pieces in aggregate and the intended recipient of my review is not necessarily the author, but other readers like myself. I am not filtering potential content, I am coming from the point of view of a reader and try to approach it accordingly. The process is necessarily intense for both cases but with a different objective.

To take an example, I recently wrote about John Swain’s chapbook “White Vases” and I read it cover to cover at least five times. I never write anything after the initial first read, even though that is truly where my emotional response takes shape. I don’t want to focus on my emotional response, so I put it away, and take it out later. I try to identify what I see as common themes and how the structure conveys them–sticking with the text. I try to point to examples and I am not above getting out a dictionary and looking a few things up. I try to answer the primary question- what I think the writer was trying to accomplish, and how they set about doing so.

I’m not sure if this process is useful, no doubt it sounds tedious, but I think my goal is to move toward more useful reviews that move beyond “this is AWESOME.” If I think a writer brings “the goods” I don’t think you should take my word for it. I think it should be evident by the examples cited, let the text speak for itself.

I don’t claim to be a good “reviewer.” I know that I have to keep working at it, but I think the best way to do that is to keep making the effort to understand why certain pieces resonate.

Karen: Where do you read reviews? What do you hope to find in a review? Do you hope for an engaging essay, or are you seeking a specific type of info or opinion on the book in question?

Lynn: I like to read reviews in independent press publications like Big Bridge and Red Fez, and in some print publications like Rain Taxi. What I hope to find is definitely an engaging essay that demonstrates some level of familiarity with the work and genre, that sense that the reviewer is open to what the writer is trying to do, whether you are partial to the structure or not .

For example, you can’t impose your expectations of traditional writing on an experimental artist, and proceed to rip the work apart as “nonsense”–that seems like a bad fit. The author’s intentions might not match your expectations, and there might be reasons for particular choices that are dismissed when you take a narrow view of what they hoped to achieve.

In the end, like I said, we all have the right to our subjective experience. If something reads as nonsense to you, own that. But don’t hold it up against a rubric of elements that don’t apply.

 

 

“White Vases” by John Swain

“White Vases”, John Swain. Discussed by Elynn Alexander for Full Of Crow Press.

Poets navigate with labels. It is just a part of the deal as people try to make sense of their associations and perhaps figure out their own sub-sects. What we find, however, is that poets surprise us and like all artists, poets evolve. We have to challenge ourselves to suspend the need to define one another because when we do, we stay open to a fuller catalog.

To put Swain’s work into a box (nature) is to minimize what he is doing, what poets do, and doesn’t speak to the question of WHY he brings up nature or birds or anything else.  It ignores the scope of what he accomplishes, and constitutes a cherry picking of themes that is a common practice with poetry and poetic criticism, this pursuit of labels and categorization.  It keeps the reader in periphery, and ultimately leads them away from “White Vases”.

As a reader of John’s work for years now, I would like to encourage people that read his work to resist the temptation to typecast him and to force associations.  I hope that I can at least make the case for the rewards of digging deeper, as there are few poets on my radar that bring me to the point of study the way he does. The beauty of his writing makes me want to sit with his poems; their resonance makes me want to understand why they touch me. Their brevity fools me into thinking that they are simple and then I embark on an experience that becomes more layered with each read and with each book I find myself taking what he is willing to share and adding it to the experience of him, and when you have that relationship with a poet’s work it is an appreciation that is difficult to convey.

I may lack the words to convince you, but I won’t stop trying. Continue reading

“Dinosaur Ditch” by Tim Murray

‘Dinosaur Ditch’ is a new chapbook of poetry from CFDL Press, available now, by Tim Murray. Discussed on the Literary Underground by Elynn Alexander

“Dinosaur Ditch” was the neighborhood lot of the speaker’s childhood, a place where kids played and climbed trees and got away from their houses in a neutral, outdoor space.

“where boys spend summers pissing from trees

In Dinosaur Ditch.”

Many kids can think back to a similar place in childhood and like Tim, have discovered that they now sit beneath suburban homes. (He describes it in the Project U show, give it a listen) Our Dinosaur Ditches were never as big as they seemed in our memories and like those perceptions, much is necessarily left there. We grow up, we move on.

In this way, Dinosaur Ditch is established as the childhood lost when confronting the “real world” tragedies that erode innocence.  Part of us ends up buried under a suburban home as well.

The “real world” is a town in Indiana: “Where the mercury-laced waters of Lake Michigan lap in the north”, a place of industrial accidents, pollution, generations of plant workers, “where Red Cunningham lost his arm to the alligator machinery of industry.” These were not terrible childhoods, this is acknowledged. There were jobs and families had some security, their needs were met. (pork chop dinners, etc.) Continue reading

Watch The Doors As They Close, Karen Lillis

‘Watch The Doors As They Close”, a novella from Spuyten Duyvil, by Karen Lillis. Discussed by Elynn Alexander for Crow Reviews. 2012. 

If you don’t know about Karen Lillis, then let me take a few lines to introduce you because she is somebody that you will want to keep an eye on, and you can do so here at her blog: Karen The Small Press Librarian. 

Karen is a writer, of course, but also an advocate and community builder among those who find themselves drawn to the small press. It would take pages to do her efforts justice, and I hope that it is sufficient to say here that Karen represents the kind of inclusive advocacy and defense that we need and her efforts to organize, facilitate, and indeed- make the case for small press- have not gone unnoticed by many of us. We are honored to have her latest novella in our hands here at Full Of Crow and wish only the best for the talented and respected Karen Lillis as she continues on her tour of readings and appearances. This represents another achievement in her writing career, and she has reason to be proud of it. Many of our readers recall that she was nominated for the Pushcart by our editors for her fiction pieces in one of our quarterly publications, Blink Ink.

Watch the Doors as They Close is a new novella from Spuyten Duyvil Press, distributed by Small Press Distribution.

The narrator writes about Anselm, struggling to process not only the experience of being with him in the context of her own expectations and version of love, but in so doing- tells the story of a relationship and that interface where two people with disparate histories attempt to connect. We know that they do connect, but their lives don’t seem to integrate. They spend their time together parallel, unable to push any closer to intimacy, and in the end they part ways rather easily. Or so it seems. The narrator has taken to analysis, assembling facts and observations to more fully understand the relationship, sketching Anselm as subject.

She seems more capable, though appearing nameless and fleeting, even in her own story, recollections less their combined experience and more his past brought full circle to the present where she tries to make sense of the man she meets from her sketch of the man he was. She is like an ethnographer, gathering information to create a context for what she has observed in their time together. It doesn’t come across as sentimental or the fixation of a woman unable to let go, but rather, as the insight of an observer who, through love, has taken the time to transcribe her observations. In a sense, she honors him, and it is a story of “him” far more than “them” in the end.  Continue reading

“Handing The Cask”, by John Swain

“Handing The Cask”, poetry by John Swain, published by erbacce press, UK. Reviewed for Full Of Crow by Elynn Alexander.

I keep saying that John Swain is a poet to watch, and I have published as much of his poetry as I could get my hands on including “Burnt Palmistry” and “The Feathered Masks” as well as including two of his poems when I guest edited the September 2011 issue of Graffiti Kolkata Broadside. His work has been nominated for awards and prizes and has appeared in Red Fez, part of our small press family.

The late Nobius Black of Calliope Nerve stated that John Swain “paints the world in words.” Sandy Benitez of Flutter Press said that “he has only begun to enchant us.” And I couldn’t agree more.

John Swain is a humble, reluctant artist who seems to shy away from the trappings of ambition and persona and somehow remains above all of that. It is this tendency that is part of his charm because it is refreshing, his work speaks for itself, and it reaches you without imposing. You want to let it in. In my opinion, some arrogance would be well deserved- but you won’t find it. When I first started reading his work, I couldn’t help but wonder: where the hell has this guy been? But every poet has their time, and here’s hoping that we continue to hear more from him.  Continue reading

Sunshine In The Valley, by Kyle Muntz

Sunshine In The Valley, CCM (Civil Coping Mechanisms) Press, by Kyle Muntz. Reviewed by Elynn Alexander for Full Of Crow Press.

We were here and we were really here. It kept us breathing.” (7)

It strikes me that they gather beneath the full sun, seeming to celebrate time’s passage rather than indulging in lamentation.

“...always to glorious burning.” (7) This is in contrast to the typical themes of the so-called human condition, creatures tethered to dread, in constant fear of our own mortality and with an often painful awareness of our insignificance. Living with the spectre brings a certain pressure to bear, beings set out to live in ways that maximize perceived “significance”: progeny, legacy, endurance of the corporeal made manifest through enduring actions and accomplishments. How to make one’s mark? How to distinguish one’s small life from an expansive tribe, exponential, a pool that consists of others with the same preoccupations, both present and ancestral? We compete with history. We want to BE something in our own right. We want to be enduring, somehow, different perhaps in the way that Muntz makes a distinction between a story and a legend. We want to be more than a story, we want to be embellished and etched into permanence, to linger. Continue reading

Apostle Rising, by Richard Godwin

Apostle Rising, by Richard Godwin, published by Black Jackal Books. Reviewed for Full Of Crow by Elynn Alexander.

In his first novel Apostle Rising, Richard Godwin emerges as a writer willing to take risks because of his confidence in the reader. He understands that on one level we want to be passively entertained, and that is what sells in a market dominated by vampire clone stories and the prattle of politicians-gone -celebrity. The rubric for success seems to include attention-getting crossover and repetition, feeding the appetite  of the consumer for familiarity and predictability. In putting out a genre work- Godwin is responsive to this. Called both “police procedural” and a “psychological thriller”, there is certainly a niche market in mind. But one characteristic of a good novel is the ability to resonate with others, particularly those who don’t tend to frequent those sections in the book store, a sort of “universality” about the book’s appeal. Continue reading