When I first read the poems of Hannah Bonner, age 9, whose work appears for the first time anywhere in this issue of Oyster Boy Review, some of my first thoughts were of Sei Shonagon, the 8th century lady-in-waiting in the Court of the Japanese Empress, and of her Pillow Book which established her as one of the greatest writers in all of Japanese literature. Her diary entries record court manners and intrigues, sexual and political, and gem-like observations of objects interwoven with astute and opinionated assessments of human frailties and emotions. When Shonagon makes lists of things—Things Squalid ("The back of a piece of embroidery. The inside of a cat's ear . . . Darkness in a place that does not give the impression of being very clean"), Depressing, Elegant ("A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Duck eggs") Presumptuous ("Coughing"), Splendid, Annoying, Shameful or Awkward Things, Things That Make One's Heart Beat Faster, Things That Give a Pathetic Impression ("The expression of a woman plucking her eyebrows"), or when she describes a man moving down a corridor or the floorboards upon which he walks—we move into poetry's nucleus, where what is seen becomes even more visible through what is left out.
This way of perceiving which employs invisible connections between related or un-related things is what most excites me in a poem. It declares a One-ness beyond the Material which is so frequently lost in today's world and is primary to human, conscious evolution. Children, in particular, own this capacity to perceive these relationships without linear clues, at least until our Puritanical society deprives them of it. The poems of young Hannah Bonner still retain it, as do those of Sei Shonagon.
I am not advocating a poetry of diminishing tissues—an excision of content. Long, wordy poems can accomplish this alchemy. I am describing a mode of perception rooted in attention, in peripheral, in X-ray, vision. We live in a fictionalizing society, which is why fiction holds such primacy these days—even to the point where we prefer social and political fictions to the hard realities and solutions really facing us. Poetry, more so than any other literary art, requires seeing what is there. And what is behind there. Even in its most fantastical forms (Surrealism, Nonsense verse, Concrete Poetry) poetry's obsession remains the 360 degree view.
Oyster Boy Review I trust, will continue to respond to freshness—to the unschooled enthusiasm that leads to fresh idioms and subjects—without kowtowing to any camps, mainstream or not, that pull at the editors' weary eyes and ears. Writers must, as guardians of the language and purveyors of image, not only give us the mundane, but the sublime. Not only the beautiful, but the ugly. And give us these contradictory states of being with the precise aim of aimlessness (what has been called "The Force" in popular culture) that poet Robert Francis describes in his poem "Pitcher."
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.
The poems of C. Earl Nelson, in this issue, bring to mind Joel Oppenheimer's work. Joel, one of the great unheralded poets of the last half century, despite his renown as a Village Voice critic and essayist, knew how to put just enough words on the page, always remembering the old adage that a poem with more than one abstraction in it is not a poem (and even sometimes one abstraction is too many). Young poets oftentimes fill their poems with abstraction through no "fault" of their own. Their lives vibrate with the dire and ecstatic destinies these abstractions represent. Death, Eternity, Love—all valid "subjects" for literature and art—are not found in those words themselves but in what Walter Lowenfels called "the amoeba in us," and Jorge Luis Borges called "the lines of his own face." Miguel Hernandez once said "The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together." No great poet from Sappho to W. S. Merwin, from Homer to Lyn Lifshin, ever forgot the lemon tree in his or her garden. I want a poetry of contradictions for life is full of them. I want a poetry of dark humor, with bright tears. I want sorrow to sit with wisdom and blame, and joy to eat from the same bowl on its knees. I want the gross the illuminate the supreme. Our culture is so self-proud and blind, I want a poetry that drops us onto Damascus Road.
When I was in undergraduate school I edited my college literary magazine. This is the first time since then, almost 25 years ago, that I have had a chance to participate through solicitation and accident in bringing these ideas to tangible reality. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do so. The youngest poet in these pages is 9. The oldest, James Broughton, 87. The two rest merrily together. I have high hopes for Oyster Boy and for the new and established voices that will come together in these pages. We will never forsake the new voices. They are the life blood of literature. This takes flexibility and fortitude. Where will you and we find it? Not on the shelves of Wal-Mart where all mediocrity coalesces. Perhaps among the half-washed floors of an animal shelter where creation screams "Variety!" and the barks and mews all have colors.
I am pleased that in this issue there are gay-friendly poems written by straight men (Damion Michael Higbie's "Old Man", Kevin McGowin's David Bowie "dreams"), ungendered poems written by gays and straights and little girls, straight poems written by straight men and women, and gay poems written by gay men (OK, no lesbian poems but the word is getting out). Oyster Boy loves poetry—no brand names, no labels required—although labels are accepted too.
There are haiku-perversions here. And haiku. Jonathan Williams' "metaphors" are haikus from the dream-world. Michael Estabrook's snapshot haikus for one-track minds tweak their noses at the Imagists' and Stevens' ways of looking at blackbirds (both high on my Mt. Olympus of great works). And the classic poems of American master Cid Corman who has lived minimally and written maximally in Japan since the late 1950s.
Then there's Alex McCardell's Apolloniarian poem, "It's so Hard to Tell Whether or Not My Cat is Bored." Scott Baker sings the blues as fit and sad as Coltrane and Ellington and Monk ever did. Larry Griffin recalls Rimbaud and Verlaine. Douglas Chambers and Brad Walton modernize an Ancient who was modern before we were, and will be long after we are gone.
To relate the poems herein to traditions might imply derivation, but it really only accentuates the leaps I find in them. The interrelationships of which I speak are not as sweet as one might think. They are coarser and more splendid, ethereal and more wretched, than our modern sensibilities like to admit. They are much closer to the Hindu elephant God, Ganesh, who explains in Terrence McNally's play, A Perfect Ganesh:
I am happy. Consider. I am a son of Shiva. My mother was Parvati. I am a god. My name is Ganesha. I am also called Vighneshwara, the queller of obstacles, but I prefer Ganesha. To this day, before any venture is undertaken, it is Ganesha who is invoked and whose blessings are sought. Once asked, always granted. I am a good god. Cheerful, giving, often smiling, seldom sad. I am everywhere. I am in your mind and in the thoughts you think, in your heart, whether full or broken, in your face and in the very air you breathe. Inhale, c'est moi, Ganesha. Exhale, yo soy, Ganesha. Ich bin; io sono. Toujours, Ganesha! I am in what you eat and what you evacuate. I am sunlight, moonlight, dawn and dusk. I am stool. I am in your kiss. I am in your cancer. I am in the smallest insect that crawls across your picnic blanket towards the potato salad. I am in your hand that squashes it. I am everywhere. I am happy. I am Ganesha.
The poets here do not fear inspiration, but rather are skeptical of the sweet-bio-poems often seen in contemporary literary magazines. They give us the strange, the illusive, the purgatorial with the paradisiacal. The real with the imagined. Reverberations do not exist without a hillside to echo against. Every rule is breakable, but aren't they also lovely in their pristine order?
A local church, known for pithy soul-searching exclamations, recently emblazoned on its marquee: "Our orderly God loves orderly minds." Only a mind that loves and knows the Divine can understand the lopsidedness of this equation. Our disorderly God also loves disorderly minds. He/She/It/They—I prefer the term "Divinity" myself. I found myself rewriting the whole equation as "Our organized Divinity loves organized minds. Thus. Our orgasmic Divinity loves orgasmic people."
The mix of poems in this Poetry Annual of Oyster Boy (and hulloo—the very name Oyster Boy—at turns playful, puzzling, childlike, idiotic, mystical, gross, offensive, beautiful) range from the simple yet deeply religious poems (religio—devotion, awe, religo—bind, tie) of Hannah Bonner, James Broughton, Thomas Meyer, and Ricky Garni—to Michael Rumaker's monstrously incapacitating poem "For Jeffrey Dahmer."
Well, dear readers, I didn't mean to bombard you with a religious tract. In an interview long ago I said it this way, "Poetry is a religious act which requires the full range of human effort. [Poetry is] 'the doorknob and the room.' It requires honesty, sincerity, seriousness, and play. It requires we give up pretense and mental squalor. It requires love when love is necessary, and destruction when destruction calls. It means touching the doorknob before entering the room." So. Grab hold. We're going in.