Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Review of Nota Bene Eiswein, by Eileen R. Tabios (ahadada books, 2009)

Eileen Tabios is a poetic force to be reckoned with.

Since 1996 she has written or edited some 30 poetry, short story, and prose collections. Her own press, Meritage, is continually producing groundbreaking, vital poetry that not only explores new realms of poetic expression, such as the hay(na)ku, which she invented, but brings a multicultural, Diasporic voice to the forefront of modern poetics.

Her latest collection, Nota Bene Eiswein, continues to mine new areas of inspiration, as she “excavates” the writings of the poet Christian Hawkey and the novelist Sara Bird.

The title, translated as “Note Well Ice Wine,” is explained in the Notes to Poems on page 109, as well as the source material and methods Tabios worked from to create the two halves of this collection, titled “Ice: Behind the Eyelet Veil” and “Wine—The Singer and Others—Flamenco Hay(na)ku.”

In “Ice,” Tabios works in a number of forms, using Hawkey’s poetry as a launching point while mixing in additional source material as she works. Examples include everything from randomly opening and then quoting from Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Harvest to lyrics pulled from the 2008 “American Idol” finals. This kind of playfulness and spontaneity in the midst of complex forms and techniques makes Tabios’ poetry accessible in ways that it might otherwise miss.

“Wine” is all about flamenco (“the music of drunkards and prostitutes,” p. 56), opening with a quote from Federico Garcia Lorca and employing its hay(na)ku structure to created a heat-filled, energetic, and whirlwind representation of the spirited dance that is its subject. Within these fiery ink-songs we learn about the Flamenco Ten Commandments (seven of which must not be revealed to outsiders) and such illustrious practitioners as Carmen Amaya, whose talent led her to the big screen as well as to Washington, DC, where she danced for FDR and Harry Truman. The poems “Sangre Negra/Black Blood,” “Dark Freedom,” and “Bait the Dark Angel By” are the highlights of this section.

In reading and reviewing several of Eileen Tabios’ collections, I have often been struck by her ability to take large themes and subjects, such as Diaspora and flamenco, and bring them around to her own vision and mission as a poet and artist. In “The Singer” she writes,

the worst thing
one can

about someone in
flamenco? No

dice nada. He
didn’t say

to me… (pg. 68)

On the facing page, directly opposite, she writes,

you know

would be the
worst thing

about my poetry?
I created

that moved you.

Her passion and efforts for connection with the reader make all the difference here. Although Tabios is coming from a place of High Art, there is nothing ivory tower about her poetics. This is a balance that both the street poets and academics should be seeking if we are to revitalize our worth as poets.

In the poem “As If the Poet Loves Everything and Everyone” the parallels between poetry and flamenco are explored more fully, twisting and turning around the line “So dance me a poem.”

Dance me a poem. Are we as poets—and as readers—able to take that challenge?

“Wine” ends with the beautifully rendered story-poem “La Loca,” a piece that had my mind racing with thoughts of multimedia stagings in a place where spoken words meet music, imagery, shadow and light, in a culmination of what Tabios has explored in previous pages.

Nota Bene Eiswein ends with a two-page exploration of “Tattoo Poetics,” yet another new form that has come out of the creative atmosphere that exists because of Eileen Tabios and her willingness to “excavate” unexplored mines of material and meaning.

Monday, July 20, 2009

“Of Myth and Mary Poppins”: A Review of A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P. L. Travers

edited by Ellen Dooling Draper and Jenny Koralek (Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Society by Larson Publications, 1999,

Everyone knows Disney’s Mary Poppins, but what of Mary’s creator, P. L. Travers? Due to the at-times questionable magic of Walt Disney and company, authors are often separated from their works. Ask most people who authored The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Tarzan and you might just get a blank-faced stare.

In the case of P. L. Travers, this wonderful collection of twenty essays (three by Travers herself) not only reconnects the author with her most famous work, but illuminates the vibrant thoughts, expressive writing, and lifetime of exploration into myths, fairy tales, and folklore that were the true passions of this gifted writer.

A Lively Oracle is divided into six parts (Biographical Notes; Mary Poppins; The Other Books; Themes; Conversations, Lectures, Interviews; and Three Articles by P.L. Travers) book-ended by an Introduction penned by Dooling Draper and an Afterword (Pamela Travers from A–Z) cleverly crafted by Koralek.

Dooling Draper’s Introduction sets the stage, giving the reader glimpses into the breadth and scope of Travers’ life and outlining the vast terrain to be covered. In these few pages we meet a private woman who asked in her will that no biographies be written about her. Instead, the editors have gathered an impressive array of authors, editors, and friends who knew Travers professionally and personally to shed some light on her life.

Part One: Biographical Notes comprises two essays, which are an invaluable resource in understanding Travers’ origins and influences. Born in the Australian outback at the fin de si├Ęcle, she spent some time as a dancer and actress in a traveling theatre company before going to Dublin, where she met such luminaries as A.E., Yeats, and Bernard Shaw. She would later meet the mystic and author G.I. Gurdjieff and receive a secret name from Navajo elders. In 1976 she became involved with Parabola, the Magazine of Myth and Tradition, culminating in the 1988 publication of What the Bee Knows, wherein many of her essays were collected.

Part Two contains two essays on Mary Poppins by co-editor Jenny Koralek and Brian Sibley, respectively. Koralek’s piece looks at the six books in the series and their relationship to the Disney film. In a broader sense, the essay explores the mythic/shamanic underpinnings of Poppins and her creator. Those who love the Mary Poppins stories will no doubt want to go back and revisit them after reading this illuminating piece.

Brian Sibley’s contribution elaborates on the Disney adaptation and Travers’ role in the journey. Sibley is in a unique position to discuss this intriguing tale of artistic wills—he worked with Travers on a script for a never-produced sequel to the film. Having won six Oscars and the hearts of millions of children and adults, with a memorable set of songs and charming performances by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, the film version of Mary Poppins is, in and of itself, one of the best movie musicals ever made. What is of interest here is just how different the film is from the intent of the author. Travers, who served as a consultant on the film (in title, at least), resisted relinquishing the rights for a full decade after meeting Walt Disney, and Sibley details “many tempestuous meetings” between Travers and the production staff, although she seems to have been quite fond of Julie Andrews.

Part Three, entitled “Other Books,” considers, respectively, Friend Monkey (about the Indian Monkey King Hanuman), About the Sleeping Beauty, and The Fox at the Manger. The authors of these essays do a wonderful job of providing analysis not so much for its own academic sake but rather intrinsically linked to the influences and themes buzzing around Travers.

The fourth part, entitled “Themes,” expands on Travers’ fascination with the world of myth. The first essay, by co-editor Dooling Draper, looks back on Travers’ contributions to Parabola. Over the course of 15 years she contributed over 40 articles and stories. From the point of view of the essential elements of myths and why they are so vital to a fully lived life, this essay is a highlight of the book. The third essay in this section is an extended culinary metaphor called “A Writer Worth Her Salt” by the aptly named Rob Baker that illuminates Travers’ editorial relationship and input with the Parabola staff. This essay is a rich companion to Sibley’s on the Disney version of Mary Poppins because Travers always had plenty to say about how things were done and was not always gracious when ignored. It was interesting to read that despite her long and ongoing relationship with Parabola, half a dozen of her potential contributions were rejected and also that as protective as she was of her own writing style and word choice, she was not one to edit others’ writing. She instead chose to focus on the overall vision and direction of the journal. The essays by Trebbe Johnson and Feenie Ziner that conclude the “Themes” section are equally entertaining and enlightening.

Part Five serves as a bridge between others writing about P.L. Travers and the final section, which presents some of her works. The three contributors to this section share their excerpts of conversations and interviews with Travers with an unmitigated joy and respect that truly brings home the tremendous impact that she had on so many people. Jonathan Cotts’ reminiscences about her garden I found particularly touching.

The three articles chosen to represent Travers’ writing in Part Six (beyond the cornucopia of excerpts that were used to this point) give the reader a chance to become immersed in a gifted, giving mind. The first, “I Never Wrote for Children,” is essential reading for writers who produce materials—picture books, films, plays, etc.—for younger audiences. As a playwright and novelist, I found myself in agreement with all that Travers’ had to say. “Myth, Symbol, and Tradition,” a transcription of a Travers lecture at the Far West Institute and “The Fairy-Tale as Teacher” rank with the best essays of Campbell, Eliade, Bettelheim, Bly and other perhaps better-known thinkers and writers.
For the writer and reader who goes daily swimming in the depths of myth, fair-tale, and folklore, this collection—and the broad range of works by its intriguing subject—will be a resource gone back to again and again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Review of Michaela Sefler’s Gems

(2009, Baltimore: Publish America,

by Joey Madia

The subtitle of Michaela Sefler’s most recent collection (she is the author of almost a dozen books of poems) is “Metaphysical Poetry,” a genre which has long held interest for me.

The poems read as though they were channeled by the author in a somewhat altered state—certainly a place of openness and peace—derived either through meditation or deep breathing, allowing the words to flow like a calm, tranquil river. There are no politically or socially jarring works here. Everything is Prayer. They have titles such as “Yellow Jasper,” “The Magician,” and “Equinox.”

The poems are all set center-spaced, marking a landscape wherein the author takes us on numerous journeys as we follow several nameless questers on their paths of enlightenment.

Referred to only as “he” and “she” or “him” and “her,” these individuals operate on the level of the warrior seeking sartori, bushido, or the knighthood. The tales of the Grail Quest often come to mind. Recurring themes include: archangels, the central pillar, synergy, the Elements and Cardinal Directions, tarot, matter/spirit, the hierophant, royalty, and meditation.

I was somewhat surprised to find the following disclaimer on the copyright page: “PublishAmerica has allowed this work to remain exactly as the author
intended, verbatim, without editorial input” While this is somewhat understandable given the spiritual nature of the poems—the author no doubt feeling as though the slightest change would alter the (depth of) meaning—it was a bit frustrating to find several obvious typos (such as a double comma and a poem entitled “Attainting” that should have been “Attaining”). Having an editor read the manuscript for mechanical errors such as these would have been a benefit.

I also found it odd that there was no author biography. I would have liked to know where her no doubt broad-based and numerous influences and inspirations came from.