Review of “Greatest Hits + B-Sides” by Ben Heins

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Ben Heins

Greatest Hits + B-Sides

Vagabondage Press  2012 (http://vagabondagebookscom.ipage.com/bookstore/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=3&products_id=52)

Review by

MaryAnn L. Miller

In Ben Heins Greatest Hits+ B-Sides, Ben Heins describes in his poem “A Hallmark Writer,” “—the raw, unmoving movement of a heart.” There is a sensation of one’s heart stopping that recurs throughout this collection of wrenching songs from the throat of a young poet lamenting the losses of his mentor, his friend, a lover, his father’s presence, his niece’s innocence, and the dementia of a beloved grandfather.

The collection is an extended metaphor for an album of single releases written like rock anthems full of anguish, resignation, and finally hope. The baby on the cover holding a 78 vinyl disc almost as big as he is becomes the man in the last poem “What Billy Joel Taught Me” imparting the wisdom gained from attending a concert with “someone…memorable” and experiencing transcendence: “Sing every word you know, and every word you don’t.”

Heins sings.  He wails. In the first poem of the collection “Ben Is” Heins growls and shouts and spurts truncated text talk trying to explain to his mentor, Len Roberts how, “things have changed since you’ve been gone.” One has the distinct sense that Heins is also trying to explain things to himself in this review of life without his treasured friend.  The last two lines settle the anguish into perspective “…just as I reached for you, the oak trees were mere toothpicks in the cosmos.”

“Jessica: The Distance” expresses the intertwined kinship Heins has with his niece who is also experiencing being young in America and surviving. The juxtaposition of Jessica’s imagined sexual adventures with Heins’s similar experiences is on the page as side-by-side poems that might be read separately or straight across like a hemistich or half-line form. The straight across reading blends their lives into a “Sacred distance, you cannot divide, that which was carved out of air, and burned to blood long ago.” The truth of genetic connection is expressed so poignantly as this very physical poem leaps back and forth through family heritage.

The cadence, the repetition, the futility of “Read this Fast” is like a one-person call-and-response as Heins rails against his grandfather’s dementia. He shouts out but the answer he gets is an expansion of his grief coming back at him. We learn about his grandfather’s memories through Heins’s exasperation at the stranger-making condition that has invaded his family. We have the sense that there is no language strong enough for the horror of this loss.

And Heins does use powerful language. In “Twenty-One Guns” a “post-hurricane…” phrase: “…like all we had to do was clean up, and it would be over; like the grass never leaned on the concrete sidewalks, a good lump building in its throat.” Again, from “A Hallmark Writer,”

“The same guy who shopped his poetry chapbook, written in long, curse-ridden lines, for seven years, and was rejected, rejected like an Alaskan hunter, who wanted flame to sprout on a frozen lake.” From “The Cloudrunner (for my mother)” “No thoughts of darkness; no memory of despair—I am forever free. I will run on this air forever because it taught me how to breathe.”

In order to sing, one must know how to breathe. The poet sings, however, you may find yourself holding your breath as you read Ben Heins Greatest Hits.

MaryAnn L. Miller, (maryannlmiller@gmail.com), MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.

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Poetry Round Table Part 2

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Wittle: For me, I have this poem I call “The Diana” poem that seriously haunts me. I’ve been trying to work on it for two years and I can’t hit on the right way to access the poem. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? How did you overcome it?

Heins: I’ve had three poems, specifically, that fell into this “limbo” phase you describe. My “Dianas” have been painstakingly difficult to polish off, and to this day, I still avoid reading them at all costs. However, they are three of my best poems. To pull these poems out of limbo, I had to use a different trick with each piece. One was about my father, and after over a dozen revisions, re-writes, and the like, I’d given up. My father and I have had a very strange, distant relationship these past six years, and the words simply weren’t there. But one day, him and I sat down at a family gathering and lost ourselves in good memories we shared together before those six years hit. Hours later, I was at home, and I started writing. I opened the many old drafts of my “dad poem” and reused the imagery that struck me most. Reconnecting with the actual subject of a piece helps stir the pot, but saving all of those killer images from earlier drafts adds necessary spice.

Another one of the three dealt with an experience that was completely imagined. So, naturally, the reason it remained in limbo was because my imagination wouldn’t let loose the way I hoped it would. Oddly enough, the thing that saved the poem was form – specifically, a terzanelle. It took hours to write, but once it came out, I felt the strongest sense of relief and accomplishment.

Really, Kenny Rogers said it best: you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Save everything, and if something still calls to you, give it space and try shaking it up – it’s worth pursuing.

Miller: Oddly enough, in light of my last answer, I write around it by making a story about it and how I feel about writing it. I try to keep the original inspiration for the poem out of it and let it change itself. Sometimes a list of lines rawly written and then rearranged helps.

Pollack: I have several poem ideas that I just can’t seem to get down in a successful poem.  I’ve heard other poets use a jazz trope to describe this: I don’t have “the chops” to write that poem.  Obviously, I haven’t remedied this inability, but I assume that if I keep writing poems my skills, my “chops” will develop, and I’ll find my way to the language and form necessary to realize those unrequited poems.

Todd: Why not see an unfinished poem as a step toward a poem that will be realized?  Writing is a process. I am always writing what I can’t figure out how to write yet. If I’m not writing ahead of myself, how can a poem be a discovery, or as Denise Levertov proposed in her poem “Overland to the Islands,” “. . . every step an arrival”? But if the poem is too far beyond my ken, then I have the experience you’re having. I can feel something that I can’t access. If that feeling lingers, sometimes I’ll go in search of a painting or a piece of music that may carry me closer to the tone or color that I can’t reach in the poem. Other times, fresh air is needed, as Kenneth Koch reminded us in his foresightful poem. Then I’ll go for a walk in the city or a ramble in the woods to clear the thicket of tangled images and wrong turns through which I’ve lost my way to the poem. But often, the poem is unsolvable and unresolvable, and I put it away. I may revisit it intermittently or forget it for months or years or forever. It’s dormant and I’m dormant to it unless it pushes up when I am more ready to understand it. For the most part, poems that get put away for more than a few months are not survivors but they lead to poems that do take life.

 

Wittle: What advice have you been given with regards to writing and publishing you would like to pass on to another writer?

Heins: The best bits of writing advice I can give would be to learn the ropes in poetry, read the authors that move you most, and finally, let it rip. If you ever feel comfortable in your voice, or you feel like you’ve mastered some aspect of poetry, take a left and do something new.

For publishing, you should first seek other poets that can help you refine your work. Then, purchase Poet’s Market. Take an afternoon and a highlighter and pick publications in that book that you think would enjoy reading your work. Submit relentlessly and never fear rejection. As you build publication credits, consider creating a manuscript, and then shop that until a publisher picks it up. Always do readings when time allows. Rinse, repeat.

But the fact is, all poets have different processes. The one thing no one told me when I was starting out was that a poet must learn his or her own process and embrace it. If one of your friends writes every single day at 8 a.m., facing southeast, and does yoga afterward don’t think that you have to follow suit.

Also, it is important for the poet to accept the fact that his or her process may change over time. The poet must stay in touch with the self, or else the act of creation will be unnatural.

Miller: Read other people’s work, take a publishing class if you can, e-publishing in particular.

Go to events to get to know the range of the publishing world near you and begin to make connections. It surprises me to discover what a small world it is.

Pollack: I heard George Saunders advise, in effect, to trust the market.  I vehemently disagreed at the time because the literary market seems so fickle.  However, in the process of putting together Spit Back a Boy, I noticed that I went from receiving rejections, to polite rejections, to encouraging rejections, to encouragement until I was named a finalist for a contest and then won the Cave Canem Prize.  At each rejection or encouragement, I went back to the desk and revised the manuscript and made the poems stronger.  The market was telling me that the collection wasn’t ready.  That said, I’m still not sure I entirely trust what seems the bias and capriciousness of the market, but perhaps I just don’t understand it.

Todd: My mentors have given simple advice on writing that I pass along to my students.

Keep at it. Daily, if possible. At the same time each day, if possible. If you show up to write every day, the writing will show up too and you’ll be there to receive it.

Read deeply: slow down, even read aloud the work of writers you admire.

Read shallowly: skim what interests you, graze whatever the subject or form or footnote catches your attention for the sweet nugget you didn’t know you needed until you read it.

Draft or revise a few poems at a time. Allow them to trigger each other. When one bores you or stumps you, turn to another.

Writing a poem is practicing an art. Publishing is practicing a career. Each has its value. It’s best not to confuse them.

 

I would just like to thank the four poets for allowing me to pick their brains about my questions. I admire all your work and am truly grateful you could take the time to do this for me. All the best-MM

Poet’s Bios:

Ben Heins is the author of the electronic chapbook, Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press (www.vagabondagepress.com), set to be released this spring.”

MaryAnn L. Miller, MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.

Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poetry, Spit Back a Boy (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize.  Previously, his work had appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo.  Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and poetry at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.

J. C. Todd’s most recent volume of poems is What Space This Body. Poems have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program at Rosemont College. Awards include a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and two Leeway Awards.

A colloquium on poetry and visual art at Bryn Mawr College was held on Wednesday, March 23,

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By Mary Ann L. Miller

Jane Hedley, co-editor of In the Frame Women’s Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne

Moore to Susan Wheeler moderated the panel of three critics who commented extensively on the

work of Jorie Graham, Rachel Hadas, and Susan Wheeler. The critic, Willard Spiegelman, who

frequently writes about Graham commented on how unusual it was to speak to an audience about

a poet who was actually present in that audience. He said that “Graham had always been a

looker,” meaning that she was a writer who had keen visual perception and, thus, it was

understandable that she would write poems about art.

One of the most interesting moments, of many, was when Jorie Graham talked about her

response to one of the paintings, Quentin Metsys’s “The Moneylender and His Wife.” She said a

poem was beginning to form within her as a result of looking at and hearing about the painting.

It was exciting to witness Graham’s initial inspiration and to hear the inception of her process.

Susan Wheeler has written a long poem titled “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror” based

on Metsys’s painting, that can be read at www.bostonreview.net. It is an example of a complex

painting illuminated by an equally complex poem that alternates between the setting in the

painting and New York City where the writer lives.

Another interesting moment was when the critic Nick Halpern presented excerpts of his

chapter from In the Frame about Louise Glueck’s oppositional response to being told what to

look at, namely, paintings. Simply put, her protestations have the effect of focusing attention

even more fully on the visual art she is avoiding.

The colloquium was akin to a three-dimensional living copy of In the Frame, a

performance of its pages and the poets who inspired them.