RSS Feed

Author Archives: tearsinthefence

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Pimp by Ranney Campbell (Arroyo Seco Press)

Ranney Campbell’s Pimp comes out of a direct, narrative, unblinking tradition that includes artists like Kevin Ridgeway, Gerald Locklin, Patti Smith, and Fred Exley. These are poems drawn out of the latest period of Campbell’s life when she decided to change her life by quitting her job and moving to California as a way to break away from the traditions and limitations that she found in St. Louis, Missouri. She has found a way to express herself with a narrative clarity that speaks her truths.
Her work comes often from a memory of exploitation, which she might be angry about, but does not draw her into self-pity. “In Them Days” for example, she recalls a relationship with a man who

owned a Mercedes
dealership, how he loved
his beautiful things

I was most prized
living art
up in Alta Loma

snow
in the foothills

me
in the Jacuzzi

with those high-priced prostitutes
brought to party
when sales was good
any certain day (33).

Her work throughout has the ability to draw a picture and suggest arguments and conclusion with quick images and a couple of perfect words. We are left to ponder the implication of what it means to be a woman who is chosen to party with prostitutes. In “The Boys come,” she draws on a previous time when men simply demanded of her with no thought of reciprocity:

when they came across Gert,
they got lucky.
when they came across me,
they got stitches (12).

This collection is not by any means stuck in her past; it is equally about this new life that she is building for herself and how she came to be where she is. Her move from the Midwest and her longing to get to the West away from its humidity and to the dryness of the deserts is shown in her prose poem “Burn Off.” “Red desert. Tan desert. I don’t care. Can’t stand it here. All the trees and green and weeds and humidity and people so slowed and dull with Midwestern demands on me . . . Sticky thickness manner oppression offends my innards” (35). This reminds me so much of the themes that run through a lot of Locklin’s work. For him the East was a place of pointless oppression, and for Campbell it is Missouri, but both find a freedom to be themselves in California. For both of them, California seems to be the place where they can find the authenticity of their true selves. For Campbell, it has allowed for this book which is an expression of emotions in a style that she did not feel welcome writing in St. Louis.

Campbell’s book is the kind of work that I love to see coming out of Los Angeles. Stylistically it is what I have grown up with without being a kind of imitation of previous work. It is her own work, informed by an MFA from her hometown but innovated through the life she is pursuing in the West.

John Brantingham 3rd March 2021

Tears in the Fence 73 is out

Tears in the Fence 73 is out

Tears in the Fence 73 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, multlilingual poetry, translations, flash fiction and fiction from Mark Russell, Neha Maqsood, Penny Hope, Mandy Pannett, John Freeman, Sandra Galton, Wioletta Greg translated by Maria Jastrzębska & Anna Blasiak, Robert Sheppard, Peter Dent, Alison Lock, Caitlin Stobie, Jeffrey Graessley, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, L. Kiew, Mohammad Razai, Alex Barr, Michael Farrell, Olivia Tuck, Paul Rossiter, John Goodby, Maurice Scully, Tim Allen, Lucy Maxwell Scott, Anna-May Laugher, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Marcia Hindson, Hari Marini, Oliver Dixon, Gwen Sayers, Beth Davyson, Steve Spence, Valerie Bridge, S.J. Litherland, Karen Downs-Barton, Frances Presley, Mark Dickinson, Alison Brackenbury, Phil Williams, Rhea Seren Phillips, Oliver Southall, Sarah Salway and Sarah Watkinson.

The critical section consists of Louise Buchler’s Editorial, Jeremy Hilton on Hart Crane, Jeremy Reed on Denise Riley, Mandy Pannett on Sascha A. Akhtar, Geraldine Clarkson, Robert Hampson on Jeanne Heuving, Andrew Duncan on Molly Vogel, Clark Allison on Robin Fulton Macpherson, Walter Perrie, A.L. Kennedy, Guy Russell on Lesley Harrison, Alejandra Pizarnik, Mark Prendergast on Mercè Rodoreda, Siân Thomas on Susie Campbell, Steve Spence on the Plymouth Poetry Scene, David Caddy on Stephanie Burt’s Callimachus, Richard Scholar’s Émigrés, Ric Hool on Mélisande Fitzsimons, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 8 and Notes on Contributors.

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

Aimee Medina Carr’s debut novel River of Love follows the lives of indigenous young people in the 1960s and 1970s as they try to live in the Red Canon area of Colorado along the Arkansas River in a region that is dominated by powerful white people. She references and draws on thinkers and writers as diverse as St. Augustine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Eric Clapton, and dozens more, and it seems to me that this is a book that only could be written by someone who has read broadly and brings the associations of a lifetime with her. It is a far reaching book that looks to the experiences of a small group of kids but uses them to talk about our shared experience. What drew me in the most, however, was how Carr was able to use the experience of love for individuals, the natural world, and humanity to give us a path forward through those times and experiences that threaten to destroy us.
There is a level of nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s that a lot of people have for that time. It is placed there, of course, by those who were young then, but I think anyone can identify with it, and so many of us have experienced a period in our lives when we were idealistic and everything seemed possible. Carr makes the point that these are not false memories. We might grow into cynicism, but it is the cynicism that is naive, not the hope. Her characters find a place of natural beauty and revitalization where they can find a space outside the confines of the social world along the Arkansas River, and through this repeated setting, she is able to make an argument as to how the natural world can bring out honesty and directness. It is the way to find love and a place where falseness is stripped away, especially the falseness associated with social convention. This is my favorite aspect of this tremendous novel, and I found myself lingering over these passages that brought me back to hope as a way forward.
The point of the novel, if a novel can be said to have a point, is the exceptional power and need for love. It can be summed up emotionally for me in one paragraph:

Love is the beginning, Love is the middle, and Love is the end, we will be judged only by how much we Loved in our lifetimes. Love gives life its meaning. Life gives us this one chance to Love (292).

Love here and in many parts of the novel is personified or maybe it takes on a god-like role, and that is one of the messages of it. Love is a powerful entity capable of changing us. It is perhaps the only thing that can change us for the better so Carr spends a good deal of time examining the different aspects of love and how they can be played out.
River of Love is not a novel to be rushed. I am a fairly fast reader, and I found myself needing to slow down to allow the emotion of the novel to work through me. I went back over lines and scenes to internalize what she was saying. I love what she is saying, and I agree with it. Nostalgia can be a force for stagnation, but that’s not what this is. She is looking back at a time that was meaningful to give us a way forward.

John Brantingham 18th February 2021

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

Michael Torres is one of the great writers coming out of the Pomona Valley area where notables such as Sam Shepard, Kem Nunn and more lately Matt Sedillo, David Romero, and George Hammons have written from and about. Torres’s debut poetry collection, An Incomplete List of Names from Beacon Press is very much about the experience of coming from this area and how a place can work itself into a person. It’s an exceptional work that is in part about how Pomona colors the way he sees and relates to the world, and the ways that the world relates to him.
Torres has moved out of Pomona and now lives in a college town in Minnesota where he teaches, but he describes the pain and awkwardness of carrying his past and his own expectations for himself with him. He writes:

I’m at a couch at
the professor’s house. And there are two

of me. One sits, cross legged, a glass of wine
in his hand. I don’t know what kind.

He offered and I said, Sure, that’d be
delightful . . .

The other me floats between the professor
and the glass, not wondering what this man

thinks of my use of the word dichotomy (6-7).

He seems to feel a good deal of awkwardness about the place he occupies, at once feeling that he does and should belong and at the same time feeling that he does not and should not. The collection captures so well what it means to grow into a position and to still feel that imposter syndrome that follows so many people through life. Throughout the collection, he is showing that he is doing exceptional work as a poet and a professor, but he still feels like an outsider.
However, that he feels like an outsider is not surprising as this status is enforced and reinforced by the society in which he lives. At a party in Minnesota, he is describing his hometown and friends to a woman: “When I mentioned my homies, she laughed. I stared. She stopped and said, Oh, you’re serious” (53). This collection is full of moments where society is subtly and unsubtly telling him that he just does not belong, which is of course, one of the major problems of the academic world. His nickname from his childhood REMEK that he used while tagging follows him, not that people identify him this way, but he still identifies internally as REMEK. It is a part of him, and it’s not just that Pomona follows him. He wants it to do so.

Before I left, I wanted
to tattoo this town across
my back. I thought POMONA
between my shoulder blades like
a pair of wings for all those
stories I had just in case
the sky asked where I’d been (65).

If he is an outsider in Minnesota, there is the feeling that he is being forcibly disconnected from this new academic society, but that he wants to be disconnected at least to some degree to retain that part of himself that he believes to be his authentic self.
There is, of course, more to An Incomplete List of Names than this, but Torres’s sense of self is central to the collection. It is an exceptional collection as social commentary and an autobiographical debut work.

John Brantingham 11th February 2021

John Kinsella speaks in support of Tears in the Fence

Please subscribe and support the magazine:

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Victoria Chang’s collection of mostly prose poetry, Obit, published by Copper Canyon Press, calls on a literary tradition of loss that builds from the poets whom Chang references such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, and I would say more modern poets like Sharon Olds and even Ted Kooser in his discussion of the loss of his father. Chang is a Los Angeles-based poet who has reached that time in her life when she must deal with the death of the previous generation, and Obit is simultaneously about that loss and the strange position those who mourn are put into.

With the gravity of loss, any other concern seems trivial and moving on with one’s life seems wrong. She discusses that emotion most directly in “The Doctors” where she writes, “To yearn for someone’s quick death seems wrong. To go to the hospital cafeteria and hunch over a table of toasts, pots of jam, butter glistening seems wrong. To want to extend someone’s life who is suffering seems wrong” (68). Anyone who has witnessed the process of the death and dying knows what she is capturing so well here. Even acknowledging that one feels awkward seems wrong because that emotion cannot compare to death, so we, like her, are left not knowing how to deal with death because we have no training for it.

Obit also clearly shows us how long the process of dying can be; the narrator’s father suffers from dementia and her mother from pulmonary fibrosis. She has to watch as her mother loses oxygen over months and years. The knowledge of the coming death is overwhelming, and her father’s dementia after a stroke turns a once intelligent mind foggy. In “Language,” she writes, “Letters used to skim my father’s brain before they let go. Now his words are blind. Are pleated” (10). It is a slow burning pain developed throughout the collection, and her poems like the reality of this condition are complex and subtle.

This was a painful book for me to read, but also a necessary one. I read it slowly having to deal with the pain that is in my life as well, but that is not to say I didn’t welcome the process. This is a healing book. Part of the problem with dealing with death is that we do not have a good vocabulary for it, and we feel that there are so many aspects that should not be discussed as though our emotions surrounding death cheapen it. That fact makes the process so much more difficult, but here, Chang is speaking about it out loud. By doing so, she is giving us a vocabulary for mourning.

John Brantingham 3rd February 2021

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Pin Ups by Yi Shun Lai (Little Bound Books)

Yi Shun Lai, author of Not A Self Help Book and weekly columnist in Writer magazine, is a New Yorker who honed her craft writing for the J. Peterman catalog. Yes, that J. Peterman. So, on face value, it might be surprising that her latest book recounts a grueling journey into the world of outdoor adventure sports. However, the brisk, 46 page, Pin Ups is exactly that, a portrait of the author’s sporting experience. It begins with a childhood fascination with BMX racing, progresses through skiing, hiking, and windsurfing, and finally culminates with her love for adventure racing. However, while Yi Shun’s passion for the outdoors radiates from the page, at its core, Pin Ups also presents a more personal and universally relatable story, the quest to discover one’s identity.
The memoir opens with Yi Shun’s childhood where, like many of us, her search for meaning relies upon the emulation of media figures. In her youth, her mother supplied her with copies of Teen magazine in an attempt to sway Yi Shun into more traditionally feminine interests. Instead, she perused them and cut out articles on BMX biking and football, already drawn to outdoor sports, but participating vicariously through the girls on the page.
Later, throughout college and living in Manhattan, she attached her identity to the activities of the men she dated. With each new relationship came a new fascination, from volleyball to windsurfing to mountain biking, each discovery a step further to an understanding of herself. However, none of these pursuits inspired a genuine passion. Still, Yi Shun continued to stay active. In her words, “When you are hungry, you’ll eat anything.”
Her journey comes to a climax when, through camaraderie with other women, she discovers adventure racing. It is a teamwork centric, outdoor sport that involves a variety of activities, including mountain biking, trail running, paddling, and rock climbing. Through adventure racing and the people she meets both on and off the trail, Yi Shun comes to embrace herself as a woman, a minority, and an athlete.
Naturally, finding oneself comes with the acceptance of some ugly truths. Yi Shun experiences a classic, dreaded moment, the oh god, my parents were right. During a trip to Carmel, California, she enjoys the quaint, diverse area and considers moving there. In this moment, Yi Shun is distressed to realize that her mother had been correct. She enjoys the traditionally comfortable, upwardly mobile lifestyle. However, Yi Shun takes this jarring realization in stride, as we all should when moments of sudden development strike. Through work and family, she finds the way to balance her want for comfort with her yearning for the dirt and the danger of the outdoors. Such a response is admirable and should be looked upon as an example of how to embrace the uncomfortable realizations that accompany personal growth.

In the most tender and moving passage, she recalls herself walking through Manhattan on a particularly windy day when she spots the shadow of a woman.
“”(She was) Brisk and efficient, collar popped against the wind, making her way around the corner. “Hm,” I thought to myself, echoes of my father’s sentiment creeping through my brain, “that’s the kind of woman I want to grow up to be.” It was a split second before I realized that the shadow belonged to me.””

Fully realized, brisk in pace, and deep in meaning, Pin Ups is a motivational and thought provoking piece reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Laura Bell’s Claiming Ground. Yi Shun has crafted a book that is essential for anyone who feels a calling for outdoor competition or who has ever wondered what it really means to be themselves in this complicated world.

Little Bound Books has also published work by L.M. Browning, Heidi Barr, and Will Falk.

Andrew Hughes 2nd February 2021

simmering of a declarative void by Robert Kiely (The 87 Press)

simmering of a declarative void by Robert Kiely (The 87 Press)

We poetry fans are well-accustomed to techniques for maximizing indeterminacy: cut-ups; parataxis; minuscules; lacunae; absent or unmatched punctuation; exiguous titling; wide leading to disassociate each line from the next; words used deictically but without their situation-of-utterance; and severely occluded references. To take an example:

my mooring is mist and zoos
and with no sunset i roll on
the sky bends buildings
an asteroid is no clarity

Some readers think such poems don’t like them. Others that they are just shy. This poet, after all, used to self-identify as ‘RK’. Others still will mark the contemporary ambience of disparate and disjointed information. What we are no longer subject to, however, is the elitism of old High Modernism, which once presumed a reader with a lifetime’s ticket to the leisured classes, but nowadays one with fifteen minutes to spare, a search-engine and a love of puzzles. So, the quatrain above – thanks, Internet – is a reworking of an eighth-century Chinese poem by Meng Haoran. And its first line’s unaccountable reference to ‘zoos’, for instance, is a pun on the characters zhŭ (islet) and zhōu (boat). Boom, boom! Besides the genial waggishness, the repeated point is that there’s nothing hermetic at the rainbow’s end; the pleasure is in the process whereby, among other things, you discover some Tang poetry that you’d’ve never gotten around to otherwise.

So far so standard. What makes this stand out, though, among the interesting groups of poets associated with vitrines like Streetcake, Spam, Crater and The 87, whose linguistic innovations encompass cut-ups, parataxis, minuscules, lacunae…? Mostly, in this case, the level of wit. Like judicious gifts, there are moments of scintillating clarity among the riddles. The exhortation to ‘trust nothing especially your own/ implants’. The artwork that becomes sentient and applies for its own funding. The fantasy that turns Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into a ‘pyramidal rubix cube’. The line saying ‘in the beginning were the minutes of the previous meeting’. And a terrific capriccio – too long to quote, unfortunately – that takes the locution ‘burning your bridges’ and explodes it into the realms of hilarity. The poet shows that they could out-entertain the mainstream if they chose. But like those bands that smother cute melodies in feedback, this book’s anxiety about how to write, read and live in the face of terminal crisis to either the planet or the economic system, and its simmering emotions about the current choice being made, means it has a wider objective in view. The approach looks understandable enough. Go undercover. Use a low-capitalised, low barrier-to-entry artform that’s a virtually non-saleable craft product. Ward off the hobgoblins of popularity with deliberate catachresis, recondite vocab and terrible puns, despite your unconcealable talent. And quietly create the new world within the old. I think this book is what revolutionary avant-garde poetics looks like right now, and it’s surely a small sign of hope. This tipster doesn’t recommend a ‘buy’. Certainly not. But definitely – and as the book itself is suggesting – a ‘participate’.

Guy Russell 31st January 2021

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Faber & Faber)

Much has been written and said about Natalie Diaz’s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. It is an extraordinary and complex book that discusses among many other things the long history of oppression in the United States of the Mojave people and the legacy of that oppression. As a nature poet however, I would like to focus on its power as a collection of nature poetry. Diaz discusses the function and power of water in California in a way that I have never seen it done before, directly addressing its importance to the person and the community and the casual way that we in the United States treat it.

            I live in an area called the Inland Empire just to the east and north of Los Angeles that is much warmer and drier than Los Angeles itself. My friend who works for the water district tells me that typically a drop of water that lands in the mountains near my house will pass through three people before it reaches the ocean. It must be processed and reprocessed if we are to keep up with water supply demands. Diaz lives even farther inland where there is much less water.

            There are people in inland California that treat water casually and do not understand its importance, and Diaz’s poetry illuminates the threats to it and its importance. In “The First Water Is the Body,” She writes, “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States — also, it is a part of my body . . . We carry the river, its body of water, in our body” (46-47). Here, she illustrates the connection of river and person. In a real way, the two are not just interconnected. They are one. A river is not just the riverbed, but the entire watershed of a region, and humans, who carry that water are a part of the watershed, so much so, that the water district considered the people in the Inland Empire are considered a resevoir themselves. We often forget this, but here and throughout the collection, draws our attention to the fact again and again.

            Having established the importance of all rivers to human existence and experience, Diaz then demonstrates how badly Americans treat all of their rivers. Perhaps, she does this most powerfully in “exhibits from The American Water Museum ” when she discusses the tragedy of Flint, Michigan where ill-conceived cost-saving measures ended up with lead being introduced into the drinking water. Though this happened years ago, the lead levels have been diminishing at a frustratingly slow pace, and people are not sure what effect this will have on the children of the area. Diaz uses the callous treatment of the people who live there as emblematic of the way water is treated throughout the United States. She writes of those children as she imagines a diorama in her Water Museum, “Now the children lie flat on the floor of the diorama, like they are sleeping, open-eyed to the sight, to what they have seen through their mouths” (65).

            Diaz’s insight into the way the United States is destroying itself is tied to her postcolonial perspective. It is, of course, the marginalized communities who suffer most from environmental degredation because there is a false sense that some communities are in some way divorced from the natural world. Diaz illustrates how wrong and dangerous this notion is.

John Brantingham 26th January 2021

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Dennis Callaci’s Five Ghost Stories is a book that I think could only have been written in quarantine. In five very short stories, Callaci explores the way that so many people’s interior worlds, or at least mine, have changed. This kind of exploration might have felt overwhelming. After all, we are still in the midst of the lockdown. However, it was refreshing. Fiction has the ability to let us know what we are not alone in the world, and that our pains and joys are shared. Callaci’s book did this for me.

I find myself often going into an interior space these days where I replay odd memories of my youth, meditating on things that I had forgotten but had a strange power when I was young. Callaci does so as well, developing a kind of David Sedaris approach to memory albeit intentionally without humor. So, in one of the stories, he writes a story of memory, two brothers putting together a model, the emotions of two children bent on finishing a project becoming all consuming. And that memory becomes powerful to the author and reader in the moment, reminding us that while the passions of youth might seem silly and strange now, when they were happening, they truly did matter to us. They were important and part of our formation. He discusses these early relationships with family members in all their complexity, laying out vignette memories and allowing us to draw out meaning for ourselves.

In ‘The Cemetery Calendar of Days,’ he creates a kind of alternative universe where a creeping disease and its political impact has created a world of tension where communities feel that they have to patrol to keep themselves apart from others. In doing so, he captures this current alienation that I am feeling as well. It’s not just that the characters in the story are self-isolating; it’s that they are creating a social climate that divides them even farther. This sense of alienation spills into the next story where the main character tries to help a woman the way his father used to help people. Her car has a flat tire, and he wants to change it for her, but she does not speak English, and he does not speak her language. She does not even roll down her windows for him though because our world is often terrifying, and she is frightened of him.

Five Ghost Stories reminded me often of the work of Meg Pokrass, flash fiction pieces that capture a moment in time and the emotion of it, and like Pokrass’s work, Callaci’s draws us into those moments to show us that what seems mundane truly does matter. 

John Brantingham 18th January 2021

%d bloggers like this: