L. Lee Lowe was born in Manhattan and grew up on Long Island. She has spent most of her adult life overseas, including 18 years in Zimbabwe, and now lives in the hills above the Rhine, near Bonn and Cologne. She has been writing bits and pieces all her life but only tackled her first novel after her five children began to leave home. Lee's young-adult fantasy novel Mortal Ghost is available to read online. Though she once had a UK agent and the desire to publish conventionally, she has since become a keen advocate of 'open-source' culture and therefore publishes online, making her work freely available. She is now revising her second young-adult novel, entitled Corvus. Lee blogs at Lowebrow. Below, she writes about Ron Slate's poetry.
L. Lee Lowe on The Incentive of the Maggot by Ron Slate
In the last few days I've walked round the house regarding my bookshelves with something like stupefaction. Probably all of you reading this post know the feeling: what am I doing with so many books? The question, however, has a special resonance for someone like me, an indie writer committed to online, i.e. paperless, publication. That I collected all those science fiction and Nero Wolfe paperbacks as a teen isn't surprising; perhaps I should even admit to an early addiction to Nancy Drew mysteries, one of which inspired my very first 'publication' in primary school, a play. (Today I'd probably be branded a plagiarist, since it was actually performed in public, though I can't recall that any money changed hands.) After a weepy moment of nostalgia, followed by the still-rankling recollection that my younger sister managed to cop our entire childhood library, I pulled Chinese, Russian, and Provençal grammars from the shelf, dusty artefacts of a late adolescent conviction that a 'serious' writer needs other languages and other literatures. These volumes are shelved not far from my Ezra Pound. No, they wouldn't do. Maybe I should pick one of the books from my twenties, a jumble of 19th century classics, poetry (Yeats, Eliot, Plath, Bishop, Rilke, and many, many more), laconic Americans, the Gods (Proust, Nabokov, Joyce), and earnest litcrit. But then came Zimbabwe, and all the African writers – why not Coetzee or Marechera? The African years soon became family years, when it was often young-adult novels and Georgette Heyers and light reading which kept me from strangling one or another of my five children: you can't get more important than that! Or the books I've bought en masse since returning to Germany, and still keep buying, though I know I'll never read a fraction - OK, most - of them.
There are too many books.
So my selection is not a book at all, but a blog, though in fact it's led me to a book. The blog is Ron Slate's On the Seawall; and the book, his slender but exhilarating collection of poems The Incentive of the Maggot. There are a number of wonderful, quirky blogs which I read first thing every morning for the idiosyncratic voice, the richness of language, the madcap interests, the sheer exuberance, but Slate's is not one of them. If you have any doubts that literary discourse is moving online, I suggest you have a good look at his posts. Here, for example, is an excerpt from his recent review of Joanna Klink's new volume of poetry, Circadian (and I wonder whether there's an element of self-criticism in his assessment):
March brings the new tide of books in time for April poetry month. The latest group behavior is to leap from public to private and back, add a spasm of chic bitterness, and speak with a stress fracture (or be goofy, be strange). But Klink, single-minded and original, accepts an old-fashioned responsibility: getting at the relationship between reality and the imagination, and creating the sound of its discovery.Ron Slate has got all the 'right' qualifications: an MA degree in creative writing from Stanford, once published in journals like Antaeus, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review and Poetry Northwest, 15 years as founder-editor of the poetry magazine The Chowder Review, and even the corporate experience of an American poet like Wallace Stevens. What initially drew me to Slate, however, was the fact that for 20 years he hadn't written any poetry at all; a wordless hiatus, and now this: the Bakeless Prize in 2004 and nomination for 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. What drew me was what tormented me as well - my own years of silence, and what silence means for a writer.
But regardless of the length or depth of the silences, one still must decide, that is, if the impulse to write remains, if you're going to be a poet who'll wait until you have something critical to say. The silences have a way of reminding you that a poem needs to sound necessary, to have the deliberateness and dynamics of a rescue. How many poems achieve this? Not many. The silences, confronting you with stolid reality, suggest the obverse of that world, the one thing that all poets in all ages have in common - Octavio Paz pointed this out - "the perception of the other side of reality." Poets have always been the ones to admit to chaos - personally, politically, in all ways - and to position poetic form as a way to create worlds out of chaos. Our silences, seemingly so threatening to our progress as writers, are chaotic in that regard. And so, they may be necessary, and this may be why we must act in complicity with them by waiting for what's necessary.(Read the full interview here.)
Slate's poetry is dense with those years of silence, as if all the voices he's stored up are clamouring - in the best possible way - to be heard: a Zen master, the Shah's daughter dying of an overdose, Holocaust survivors, a museum security guard, nurses faced with their first case of gangrene, a terrorist. Slate has travelled widely, worked globally, and without cant or cliché moves between the personal and the political; transitions which are not seamless but abrupt, disconcerting, and entirely forceful. Many of his poems, in their compression, remind me of distilled short stories. Though they are not precisely narratives, they carry a great deal of dramatic weight. The title poem 'The Incentive of the Maggot', for example, transforms gangrenous rot into the fodder of greenfly maggots, which cure some of the afflicted soldiers - a reversal typical of Slate.
Not long ago I sat with a clairvoyant;When glancing over the archives of this Writer's Choice series, I was surprised to find so little poetry represented - only Dante's Divine Comedy, unless I've overlooked something. Before beginning my morning's work, I always read some poetry. When everything feels stale - and things often feel stale - I read some poetry. If fiction is a scented and sensuous bath (and sometimes an invigorating hot tub), then poetry is the first cloudburst after a long drought.
she said in my past life
I was slain on an English battlefield.
But others were saved by green blowflies,
their larvae made a soup in the gashes and rips,
dressed the wounds and farmed our flesh.
The survivors lay in a drowse of pain.
Timelessly they stirred, rose up, staggered in boots
and quickened their steps, as if they had discarded
the dead parts of themselves.
Poets will also talk about their responsibility to the language, to refresh it through one's discoveries and experiments. In the end, poetry is a mythic force, fickle and proud, selfish and irrepressible, evasive and sexy - and probably mainly responsible to itself.Writers are not necessarily the best literary critics. I might belong in the first category - if you're generous enough to concede that a writer is defined by their work, not their form of publication - but definitely not in the second. Often I'm forced to rely on a simple test: does this metaphor, this phrase, this stanza make my hair stand on end? Ron Slate's strange and wonderful poems do just that, and more.
There may be too many books, but I will always make room on my shelves for one of Slate's.