Thus far, this column has been a solitary effort: I read and write on my own, and even try to avoid other published reviews of or debates about the books I cover. But for a while now, I've wanted to write about the role that sentiment and sincerity are playing in the poetics of our moment, and I thought do it with my friend Joy Katz, fellow poet and critic, because I know she, too, has been thinking long and hard about this issue. In this column, a conversation between Joy and me, we look at six recent and forthcoming books to consider the role of unabashed feeling in the innovative poetry of our day.
AG: Joy, for several years you and I have been talking privately about our frustration with a poetics that seems to coyly evade emotional transparency. But you've been hashing this out in public spheres as well: you wrote about sentiment/ality in poems of motherhood here in APR, and you moderated a 2010 AWP panel on the topic, a version of which Pleiades published as a symposium in 2012. What ignited you then about this topic, and what ignites you now?
JK: The original impulse was a climax of impatience with a certain glib poetics. A trend of affectlessness. Avoiding sincerity, but not as a clear strategy, and not, as far as I could see, in service of any other aspect of poetry—language or social structures or some other area of interest. There seemed to be a whirlwind of these superficially appealing, low-stakes poems. A few of us started talking and realized we were sick of them. What was going on?
AG: I had the same climax of impatience, partly owing to the poems some of my graduate students were fawning over. I was frightened of veiled irony begetting more veiled irony, especially when there is so much real stuff—political, weighty topics—to talk about in the world. This kind of work seemed to be dodging what matters most.
JK: I also wanted to rescue a certain kind of “cold,” unsentimental poem that does have emotional risk and feeling behind it. Poems by Marianne Moore, Stevens, Ashbery—I wanted to show how they have an emotional stake, even if they don't engage emotion in the way that, say, neo-confessionalists do. These poems were being held up as models for the glib poems, and it wasn't accurate.
It excites me when I can sense passion, investment—even tenderness—in an innovative poem, because it's unexpected. In a way, innovative poetry is is an ideal medium for emotion because of the very ways it resists emotion. Experimental structures and language play are powerful counterweights to sentimentality. They allow a poet to risk deep feeling—even melodrama—because formally, syntactically, they hold the poem back from that edge.
AG: Yes, exactly. The poems I most want to read are those that offer me surprising approaches to structure, procedure, form, language play—but, at the same time, I want to encounter something meaningful, important. Really, this column is an ongoing homage to new and recent books that hit me in this way.
JK: Fred Moten's Little Edges is that kind of book. Sometimes Moten is riding a wave of sound. Other times an intimacy surfaces in the poem: not a relationship that loops in the reader, but something a reader gets to witness. It's like you're walking by a practice room and someone is improvising on a saxophone, lost to the music, and it's so clear and haunting and beautiful, you can't not stop and listen. (Many of the poems in Little Edges are actually in conversation with musicians and/or comment on music.) You can't completely parse the poem or the relationships in it. The poem is not for you, but that doesn't matter. In “aj, this for and underneath your beautiful proof of concept,” Moten asks: “are / we a broken category?” The friendship, with its ongoing, passionate conversation about art, is the point, not who aj is exactly. The poem is “open enough / to not get bothered … by somebody watching.”
AG: I enjoy that sense of one-on-one intimacy, of the specificity of relationship in Little Edges: some of the poems are spoken to someone called “baby” or “little sister.” It’s fascinating that the speaker says “I love the way / you smell,” but that this comes in the middle of a very experimental, language-driven piece riffing off the many notions of the word “project.” As you say, it’s like eavesdropping on a dialogue that is at once public, in the ways in which it addresses the culture, and very private.
JK: I was talking with poet Charles Legere about Moten. Charlie feels that because black poetry doesn’t put up a facade of contentment, it’s taking us to a place that's really vital right now. I feel the same. I'm getting into a thorny area here, because I don't want to essentialize black poetry, and no one has a monopoly on emotionally checked-out poetry, either. But I do perceive that a certain risk-free, affectless American poem seems most often to be by a white poet. And the work I find to be most alive, that I keep picking up and rereading, that has urgency, is so often by poets of color.
AG: Absolutely. Making emotionally and politically risk-free poems denotes a particular kind of privilege: a privilege of not having to look hard, not having to confront what is tough or fraught, not exploring what is nuanced and complicated (or, shall we say, “revelatory and complex”). That poetics of not-looking bores me silly, and the privilege behind it is absolutely tied to race, and also to class, gender, sexuality, ability: all the markers of power.
I am very interested in this idea that perhaps the poem of sentiment and sincerity is the poem of acknowledging discontentment and tension, but I am also interested in poems that move toward ecstasy, bliss or gratitude. Such poems also buck the trend of snark, and I think they can be just as risky. The personal stakes, and the potential for failure and embarrassment, can be just as high as it is in discomforting poems that address injustice.
In Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, I’m bowled over by how Ross Gay reaches again and again toward stating what’s beautiful, what’s sweet, what’s most emotionally moving to him: he is genuinely unabashed. He is definitely interested in the sentimental, but the poems don’t feel remotely treacly to me. They feel bold and wild and weird. This is partly, I think, due to the forms he chooses to play with—forcefully enjambed lines that remind me of Creeley’s—and also because he makes sure to put the gritty and the uncomfortable right next to the pretty. He writes about people who are “gleeful eating out of each other’s hands...in Philadelphia a city like most / which has murdered its own.”
JK: I would not say Gay’s poems are “raw”—they don’t have the jagged feel or nakedness of, say, Rachel Zucker’s or Ariana Reines’ poems, which are deliberately, wonderfully discomforting. These poems have an ease about their vulnerability, although I hesitate to say “ease,” because it sounds like they’re full of ego.
AG: Right: it’s not about ego, because Catalog is most invested in people coming together. There’s a sense of the communal in this work. I think Gay is interested in the politicized aesthetics of the community, in perhaps a Whitman/Ginsberg sort of way?
JK: He’s got something of those poetics, too. Like Ginsberg in Howl, Gay uses a long sentence, but he contains it in relatively short, enjambed lines. The contrast between the wild sentence and the line that controls it turns the poems into a timed-release ecstasy. Gay’s line itself is a unit of meaning. It’s one reason the poems, which fold in a good deal of tender content, don’t feel sentimental. His winding narratives also remind me of Larry Levis’ in The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Where Levis is melancholy, though, Gay is affirming.
AG: Gay’s poems wear their heart on their sleeves at a time when this is an unpopular move, one that flies in the face of convention. The poems are constantly including moments of “failure” and naming them as such.
JK: The moments of doubt help to hold back sentimentality, too. For instance, in “Spoon,” a poem about a beloved friend who is murdered:
I can’t even make a metaphor
of my reflection upside down and barely visible
in the spoon. I wish one single thing made sense.
To which I say: Oh get over yourself.
AG: Gratitude also runs through Shane McCrae’s The Animal Too Big to Kill, which is a book of full-on prayer: literal prayers to Jesus. Many of them are about growing up as a black child in a white Texas family with Nazi sympathies, “wondering what you did and when Lord wrong to /Deserve your skin.” The juxtaposition of spiritual and cruel imagery is powerful, jarring: “Silence the nigger fills the abbey in the trees / on the mountaintop of the mountain.”
Goodness knows there is nothing glib about these poems whatsoever, even though they include irony and humor. I find this book devastating, and so important for our current cultural moment. I am very moved by the last lines of “Claiming Language,” a poem about the problem of using the possessive term “my” to talk about a wife or other human being: “I want a language / like the language Lord / our bodies use to free each other.”
JK: The complication these poems hold is astonishing. In “In Of Body,” the speaker is surveilled and simultaneously self-surveilling. In this prayer—really a confession, in the religious sense of the word—he watches himself as though uncertain of his very nature. Everyone expects him to commit a crime. The security guard, the country, maybe even God. Crushed by all this scrutiny, he finally steals a coat. But then that theft leads to a strange deliverance. In fulfilling the role of thief, the speaker is “freed / finally seeing myself as others saw me.” Becoming the wrongdoer is a release, but also tragic. This is not something I’ve ever read in a poem. And the trap involves a coat, which makes me think of Genesis, Joseph’s coat, the betrayal of blood kin.
AG: “Startling complications” is also an apt way to describe Montana Ray’s (guns & butter).
There's a narrative in her book, but it's a brutally, beautifully complex one. The speaker is pregnant in “spikeheels”; she is in love with her partner, but he's violent and abusive; she acknowledges the privilege of her class and her appearance but she's a disenfranchised single mom; she’s a responsible, loving mother who takes her toddler to a bar and lusts after the waiter; she swears like a sailor and includes actual recipes for banana bread and cocktails. It’s a riveting, unusual depiction of womanhood.
JK: These are concrete poems in the shape of guns. It’s tough to write about guns, let alone make concrete gun poems, without playing off predictable anger about our American gun obsession.
AG: What is more potentially cheesy and treacherous than a concrete poem in this day and age, right? And beyond the concrete shapes, there are so many layers of formal invention—the unusual use of texting conventions and emoji, and parentheticals—that could be gimmicky.
JK: Yes, especially Ray’s parentheticals. Amazingly, they are not fussy. The little encapsulated phrases are like bullets. The poems are actually loaded.
Yet Ray points the menacing-yet-erotic gun cliché straight at a reader’s face: “(u’re driving) (how kind) (would you like a blowjob)”. Is she getting off on this? It’s uncomfortable to read. Is it funny or serious? What’s the power relationship in the car? The poems succeed because there aren’t clear answers to those kind of questions. The speaker rides along, “(thinking of Stokely’s cool / kids campaigning) (in the pitch of night).” She’s pregnant, “(my body is an insane cornucopia)” — isn’t that a fantastic image? — and the poem lands on what may be the most critical complication of the book:
to standup for the Brother)
(who holds my head down)
AG: I wanted to talk about the same exact passage. So much going on here—personally, politically, culturally, historically—at the intersection of oppressions. And the question asked goes unanswered, which is the only honest option, as far as I can see.
I’m similarly grateful for how everyone in the poem “(tequila)”—the speaker, the girls at the party with her, the men, capitalism, the government—is complicit in the immature behavior described. Everyone is responsible, and no one is portrayed as a victim or a hero or a villain:
(like the night I vomited on my shoulder) (watching the girl I was
in <3 w/) (salsa) (w/ the girl she thought she was) (in <3 w/) (like
a man) (but hotter)
(o, unfun girls night
out?) (did we all just <3 her brother?) (@
the after-party he called me) (a capitalist)
(I cried) (& he held me) (I <3
JK: (guns & butter) is feminist and femme. It’s interesting that Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and My Feelings, Nick Flynn’s new book, are by men. I wonder if a press would have embraced those “soft” titles if the poets were female.
AG: It’s a bizarre happenstance that we ended up with only one book by a woman in this roundup. There were others we considered, but for various reasons—including having recently written about some of those books elsewhere, and not finding just the right, recent book in time to begin our conversation (which was continually interrupted by children home for snow days!)—we ended up with this man-heavy list.
JK: Yes, but I wonder whether it’s riskier for a woman poet to position herself, via something as grand and legible as a title, as “grateful.” As a feminist, I feel my soul pushing back a little at the idea. I remember a (female) mentor advising me never to sign off on a letter “Gratefully,” especially when writing to a man. She thought it was subservient. Can’t you imagine an editor telling a woman poet that that title is too emotionally transparent?
AG: It would be fun to talk more about that another time. As a feminist, I find gratitude to be one of my primary motivations in writing. For me, gratitude is a spiritual practice and an act of rebellion, not a sign of subservience. But I agree that the representation of intimacy and interdependence can be especially risky for a woman writer. I enjoy seeing that risk in poems.
JK: Me too. I immediately think of Noelle Kocot along these lines.
AG: I think also of Jenny Browne, Sarah Vap, and Jennifer Tamayo, all of whom, in different ways, work with this register.
Getting back to dissonance, though, there are many fantastic recent books by women that are sincere and full of feeling but also discomforting: the recent collections by Claudia Rankine, Rachel Zucker and Olena Kalytiak Davis, for example, all of whom I wrote about in my last column.
I read Farid Matuk’s chapbook My Daughter La Chola as a book of terror and despair, too, but the kind of achingly intimate terror and despair that comes from viewing the world as a parent, one who must shield the child in a dangerous landscape. In “My Daughter Commoner Garden,” Matuk writes, “just like this mountain it’s the same speed / somewhere death is all time coming.” Much of My Daughter La Chola feels to me like it only has one speed: the speed of someone who feels hunted.
JK: I actually find Matuk’s long lines calming. Almost meditative. And there is outright lyric beauty everywhere. Check out “My Daughter In From Shore:”
turtle choke on our plastic turkeys as two horses touch muzzles across a fence
middle school dance dark thick around them around us
a shoulder remembers itself from its
impressions in the archive grass then air then Coloma then unspecified then us
sweat straw smell
Here we are in the realm of ecopoetics. The poem does not exclude ruin, but it also does not indict it. I love the romantic impression of the shoulder in the grass. I sense James Wright in those two horses!
AG: You’ve told me you find this book deeply moving, but I imagine a lot of readers would not know how to enter these manic, roiling works of political-pop pastiche. What do you see as this work’s relationship to the sentimental?
JK: My Daughter La Chola is grounded in the real from the very first line: “Abdul from Kenya is real.” These poems are rich with details about people close to the speaker (a child) or close by historical association (Martina Espinoza, a figure from lynching history).
AG: In this way, the work is like Moten’s, right? Even though it’s pulling from all these disparate sources, the poems are pulling the strands in, holding them close to the body. The overheard, the postmodern chaos, becomes the intimate soundtrack of a daily existence.
JK: Yes. A few other poets operate this way: Hoa Nguyen, for example. Her poems are like little centrifuges. The force holding their many disparate images and ideas together is her voice. In Matuk, you may not sense immediately who is speaking—sometimes it’s one person, other times several. In “Pantertanter,” a few parents are talking as their kids play soccer. The dialogue ranges from the serious to the light—addictions, going to mosque, which Golden Girl would you be (from the TV show). But the poem resolves around safety and dignity. “The kids are safe,” someone ventures. But danger, as you note, is very present in the book. Especially if your son is black, Kenyan, and Muslim in Plano, Tex. I find much at stake in these poems.
AG: I am glad for the ways they circumnavigate the globe—literally, in the various continents that are mentioned and discussed, and metaphorically. Matuk “brings it home.”
JK: I am also struck by the phrase “my daughter,” which recurs throughout the book. The poems connect with parenthood: ”my daughter reservoir of poses,” “my daughter caddisflies.” But they make violence and history intimate, too. “My daughter” is both the poet’s own daughter and, for instance, La Chola Martina, the woman linked (through a lie) with the murders of Hispanic men in the 19th century.
AG: I think “my daughter” also stands for anyone vulnerable, endangered, beloved, and worried over. That kind of anxiety is also at play in Ray’s poems about motherhood and in Nick Flynn’s My Feelings.
It’s odd to me that Graywolf felt the need to put an editor’s note—a kind of caveat—at the front of My Feelings, as if this highly respected small press was worried that they’d come off as somehow laughable or compromising their avant-garde principles by publishing a book with that title.
JK: It seems defensive: ‘Warning: This book contains emotion.’ Yet the book is also dedicated to the editor who wrote the note, Jeffery Shotts. In many ways, it’s a book about friendship. I can imagine conversations these two, Flynn and Shotts, might have about feelings and poetry.
Flynn’s first book, Some Ether, was praised for its “emotional authority.” It was partly about his mother’s suicide. My Feelings takes on the long aftermath of that trauma, among other things.
AG: The Dickinson epigraph Flynn chose for this book is perfect: “You cannot fold a Flood-- / And put it in a Drawer--”. The inability to contain grief, longing, or anxiety is a throughline in My Feelings. In “The When & The How,” adjectives that evince the speaker’s internal state literally interrupt the narrative, right from the opening lines:
A few days into it extravagant subterranean
mystifying as we walked from the L back to
my apartment inappropriate dormant
complicated I asked you about your family
These same adjectives come back as the crossed-out “feelings”—shameful, crushing, wounded, shallow and entitled—listed at the end of the titular poem later in the book, which is about the end of the relationship that’s just beginning in “The When & The How.” You see Flynn resisting feelings in the cross-outs, and also in the places where he inserts blanks in place of words, or asks questions that cast doubt on previous statements.
JK: I think these titles, My Feelings and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, might in and of themselves be a reaction to the current climate. The ubiquitous glib poem counts on a flat tone to undercut sentimental content—childhood, sex, romance—the poet brings in. But to me the formula of these poems, flatness + romance, is starting to seem programmatic. (Interesting that this “new flatness”--which has some overlap with what gets called New Sincerity--has coincided with film director Wes Anderson’s aesthetic, which brilliantly mixes visual sweetness, emotion, and a kind of clipped, affectless delivery.)
AG: Yes, I see the current glib mode as a formula of slacker/adolescent/flat affect + surrealist imagery + coyly dropped hints at urgent lived experience + banal expression. Flynn’s and Gay’s titles say “to hell with that, I’m going to tell you exactly what’s going on, I want you to know that the emotional register here is absolutely on the level and of utmost importance.”
JK: It makes me realize that I don’t so much dislike the anti-sincere poems for being oblivious to their own privilege, although that is a clear problem. What’s worse is their lack of vulnerability. To sustain vulnerability, poems need to trust—themselves? a reader? The glib poems don’t trust me. They are guarded, or they are scared of me, or they judge me for wanting more from them.
AG: I’d wager that the poems don’t trust their speaker, either. Such poems don’t allow the speaker to wade into the murkiest waters, the hardest truths.
JK: All poems have some relationship with sentiment. If the relationship is simply one of withholding, that’s pretty thin.
AG: I find this kind of emotional withholding as unpleasant and false in poems as I do in real-life relationships. More so, perhaps, because to make a art is a purposeful and intentional act. Why come to it holding so much back? I understand that we live in a cynical age, an age of acronym and emoji standing in for complex expression, but shouldn’t literature do more than just reflect that? When Ray writes “<3”, she critiques and explodes emotional shorthand.
JK: Yes, even as she embraces it. That’s the trick—undermining superficiality while simultaneously using its codes. In one way or another, all of these poets take what has become ubiquitous, disquieting, or cerebral language and open it up to hold emotional truths.
Books Discussed in This Column:
My Feelings, Nick Flynn, Graywolf, 2015
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
My Daughter La Chola, Farid Matuk, Ahsahta Press, 2013
The Animal Too Big to Kill, Shane McCrae, Persea, 2015
The Little Edges, Fred Moten, Wesleyan, 2014
(guns & butter), Montana Ray, Argos Books, 2015