Friday, January 1, 2010

Arsenic Lobster: One of the Best Poetry Journals. Period.

I am most happy to spend part of my New Year’s holiday praising up one of my favorite journals, which has just released its December issue. My only trepidation is that my feeble words will fail to offer the swimming panegyric that Arsenic Lobster deserves.

Here you have the most fresh and cutting-edge omnium-gatherum of original wordplay on the Net. You have editors who are raw in their passion and quest, perhaps dangerously so. They soar or plumb, swoon or blanch, exhilarate or crumble into uncertain apathy. In short, these editors are REAL purveyors of the mercurial. They plunge into the unconscious, its Infernos, Elysiums and Phlegethons, to find ghosts with unheard tales, whom they coax or snare into a blunt creativity from urgent throats.

The lifeblood of these bold editors--or their absinthe or Medusa head or philosopher’s stone--is Federico Garcia Lorca’s duende. The elusive duende is the essence of that afflatus which troubles a near insane bard. It is what makes a moment of phrase--when the fractious quarks of ache come together into a stinging curve--“mercurial, sassy, hell-bent--farouche,” to quote Editor Susan Yount from the preface to Issue 17.

The duende is a succubus and savior to those that dare inject it through a needle of words into their eyes. The editors seem to know this more than anyone. They crave a fresh dose of poetry that succeeds in mapping, albeit ephemerally, a glance from the UnderMind’s goblins. The very name “Arsenic Lobster,” comes from a description by Lorca:

“Intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head..."

In the preface to #17, Editor Yount asks herself “Why am I still writing?” and answers: “To turn the burning blood-snarl into art is sometimes all I can do to keep the duende from strangling me.”

Then she goes on to say:

“I write poetry for the same reasons I read poetry; it changes me. It is the challenge of creation that drives me to write—the idea that the poem moves the heart—creates a new and living voice where there was nothing before—records life. Without the voice of poetry, the world would be a lonely place.”

More than any other editor I’ve encountered, these Muse-chasers worship a fraught purpose. And it is true, I worry they will be damaged. How long can a mind ride the tortuous gallop of the duende before being cast off into word salad or jabberwocky?

So far the beast has destroyed only to resurrect. This alone is a magnificent accomplishment. A great strength of the ArseLob team is that they do indeed work in concert. They speak uniquely yet walk together. This is a good moment to mention that Brenda Hammack, stepping in as guest editor, has done a laudable job with her “Prolegomenon” to #21, the current issue. She blends a mighty dose of eloquence, a dash of surrealism, and a pinch of erudite charm into a zestful philtre.

Deserving of special mention far beyond what my failing mind can generate is Poetry Editor Lissa Kiernan. In addition to wading through a shallows of submissions to find a few pearls, she pens a critique every issue of some lucky poet’s book. And when I say lucky, I don’t mean the thrill of being published, but rather the gift of having Kiernan’s uncanny empathic skill reach the flesh of the oeuvre, bare it in a way that can startle and please. Kiernan’s phrases are not kin of the short clipped synopsis. They lavish the reader and relish the review. You will not be mugged by the bogeys of grandiloquence or prolix here, but you will encounter well-wrought language aptly employed. You will see to your bitter delight a writhing sea beastie pulled from the waters of the author’s thoughts, waters that could have seemed fair or unbreachable--until Kiernan parted them with perspicacity.

In a later post, I will discuss the online poetry community, Rooster Moans, which Kiernan created as a literary affiliate of ArseLob.

Time and my mind are both going. Ugh! I hate to stop here, for much more praise is due. My final point is that this journal is well worth supporting and yet, sadly, remains underappreciated. Effectively ignored given its brilliance.

I am reminded of something in Robert Lowell’s preface to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Lowell writes that Plath used to “drop in on my poetry seminar at Boston University.” He goes on to say she shared poems that “later, more or less unchanged, went into her first book, The Colossus” and that these poems were perceived as most excellent in the seminar.

And yet, “Somehow none of it sank very deep into my awareness. I sensed her abashment and distinction, and never guessed her later appalling and triumphant fulfillment.”

What is my point? Simply that greatness can be missed even when fully present to a worthy eye. Plath’s genius never “sank very deep” into the mind of Lowell. Why? What if it had? Would he have gone down and pulled up some lurid yet awesome crustacean?

Other editors at ArseLob include Clarissa Jakobsons, Katherine Blackbird, and George Pinchowsky. As I've said, the synergy created by this team is most rare.

Go check out the journal!


1 comment:

  1. Just say "duende" and I'm there. A good poet, finds duende where it exists and where it doesn't he creates it. This is post I will return to many times to savor the pinch of Lorca's bite. Thank you.