Monday, April 28, 2008

IR Reviewed in New Pages

A special thank you to Camilla S. Medders for her write-up of our 29.2 issue in the March review section of New Pages. If you haven't yet, you should order a copy of 29.2, which is being praised as "a wonderful read" -- "from its whimsical cover to its intelligent book reviews".

And thanks to Rae Paris (29.2 contributor, "The Girl Who Ate Her Own Skin") for the heads up.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review of The Jinn and Other Poems from 29.2

Amira El-Zein, The Jinn and Other Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Arrowsmith, 2006. $10.00 paper, 28 pages.

Reviewed by Roxana Cazan

Amira El-Zein’s 2006 chapbook, The Jinn and Other Poems, follows her other works Bedouin of Hell (1992) and The Book of Palm Trees (1973). Among the attractive features of this book is the fact that El-Zein’s poetic interests find nourishment in her scholarly preoccupation, especially as her book Jinn Among Humans in Classical Islam: The Hidden and the Manifest is forthcoming. Her vision commingles perspectives: from the Qur’anic and Judeo-Christian canons to Greek mythology and Zoroastrianism. Her poems employ exquisite metaphors belonging to the realm of the exotic, bringing into the text local and temporal color, archetypes, and, most importantly, the private self captured at a moment of both spiritual and physical alchemy.

As the title announces, the thematic focus of the collection is anchored in the poet’s attempt to define the jinn. Scholars have debated whether the jinn are vanished souls, invisible creatures endowed with free will, entities with bodies of smokeless fire, good, or evil. Belief in these creatures precedes Islam. In fact, the ancient Semites, probably influenced by Zoroastrianistic doctrines, believed that the spirits of primeval men, the jinn, rummaged the earth at night, bringing disease and madness, and metamorphosing into animals with the first light of dawn. Etymologically, the singular form of the noun comes from the verb root janna, which means “to conceal,” “to hide.” Having the advantage of this connotative richness, one can understand the versatility and elusiveness such creatures afford the poet who places the speaker in a crucial transformative situation. Whether this can be called death or not, the reader may postulate.

The opening poem, “The Jinn,” proposes a symbolical miscellany. References to ceremonies, myths, epics, or totemic representations open the poems to both Eastern and Western audiences. Allusions to a geographical reality with “ecstatic horses,” “tiny boats,” “a Beirut balcony,” the “desert,” etc. establish the setting. Within the setting, the speaker witnesses the arrival of the jinn, a phenomenon that corresponds to some sort of physical transformation. Somber details hint at death: “fish bones / into the water of life,” falling into “a deep pit,” birds drizzling “soft feathers” (which happens when a bird molts or is killed, then plucked). Contrapuntal, the metamorphosis of the body points not to dissolution, but rather to revivification:

my pores break open
and algae bloom on my skin.

Intimations of another type of transmutation suffuse the following poem, where the poet waits to be transformed by the jinn and thus write her verse. This move is not surprising since the early Arabs believed that a poet is inhabited by a spirit at the moment of poetic creation. “I Hear My Ink Spill” does not contain straightforward references to the jinn, but to a totalizing spirit who can be, in a pantheistic or panentheistic mode, an aspect of the divinity. The call of the spirit, made audible in the poem through the usage of refrain and epanalepsis, allows the speaker to travel from a heaven to Hell:

When the spirit called
I descended,
The light flickering,
My oil lamp dying,

When the spirit called
I descended
Toward shapes
Of intact whiteness.

Alchemic phenomena surprise the reader in “The Returning Spirits” as well. The images take a Dali-esque turn: horses vomit stones, tongues gyrate, and the Qur’an’s opening chapter is recited while jazz music plays. The speaker becomes plural and represents a society, and the transformation experienced at death (or birth for that matter) is closely supervised by an unforgiving time, anthropomorphized into a personage whose nature is stern and unbending: “Our sheikh is Time.”

Past and future generations establish contact in these poems even though such contact opposes Judeo-Christian-Muslim teachings. The invocation of these past generations recalls the summoning of the jinn in the preceding poems, which creates a correspondence between men and spirits. In this interaction and interconnection, one can read a continuous and tireless evolution:

note the sunflower’s
blazing mouth, and that foot-basin of rose-petals

What sounds like someone kicking a soccer ball
around the backyard must be that sheikh.

The concluding poem, “Square is Jerusalem,” calls on other poetic traditions. With stanzas of only a few lines and the rhetorical mode of imploration and sigh, this poem is first reminiscent of Sufi poetry. When the rhetoric blooms in images of Bedouin women lamenting over an abandoned campsite, or when the speaker invokes the reader/listener, the poem also recalls the qasida, an Arabic form. In this sense, El-Zein employs several aspects of intertextuality which not only propose an interesting decoding of the text, but also point to a transmutation of form and content in Arab poetry. El-Zein’s technique of interlacing references and symbols transforms her poetry into a beautiful weaving, a carpet with vibrant colors and exquisite details which invites any reader to take a seat.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Review of For Love of Common Words from 29.2

Steve Scafidi, For Love of Common Words. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. $16.95 paper (ISBN-0-8071-3137-7), 72 pages.

Reviewed by Cate Whetzel

The Southern Messenger Poets series has done it again with Steve Scafidi’s exquisitely taut second book of poetry, For Love of Common Words. The collection is an ongoing exercise in defamiliarization, the moment when you wake to an eerie, dark afternoon after a long sleep and cannot decide whether it’s morning or night. Scafidi’s poems exist in a between-place, where any conclusions the sleeper may come to are honest, but essentially wrong. Although several poems in the collection do not practice this sleight-of-hand, preferring the straightforward approach, Scafidi’s skill in this deft switch is like the lion tamer’s and the physician’s: obdurate but coaxing, a bait and a salve. The poems’ narratives balance between two worlds, one of almost magical potential that ignores history and its precedent, and “the given world”—our world with its unbearable shortcomings.

For Love of Common Words pulls us through fantastic landscapes—a well-heeled bear on his way to a wedding; a pitchfork floating tines-up, “iconic as a statue of Mary / in a pilgrim’s mind”; and a murdered boy remembered through another boy trapped inside a pumpkin at the county fair; all are images from what we might call (to steal a title from the book’s remarkable first poem) the “Life Story of the Possible.” Essentially formal, the verse and controlled rhymes guide us across this hilly dream terrain, and the poems themselves tread on uneasy ground, making us ask whether we have inadvertently walked into a requiem or a wake—do we grieve for the sake of grieving, or do we delight in the metaphysical mixed bag of emotions that result from loss?
Through fairytales, the news, natural history, and domesticity, Scafidi wants to show us what it means to have a love of common decency, to recognize and differentiate beauty from illusion, and to hate horror, “that common murderous evil bitch.” Elegiac in tone and often in subject, these poems hope, in spite of themselves, that the universe will deliver better than we suppose. In “For Love of Common Things,” the speaker wishes for the newly departed Czeslaw Milosz a “beautiful / Lithuanian quarter of / heaven where one is allowed to question / and grow doubtful and argue with friends and smoke,” and, in a final turn recalling Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” the poem’s speaker prays:

and if there is a heaven of any kind Oh lord let it be
this city where the poet undresses
tonight and swims
in the river while the mermaid plays
a ukulele and calls to him under the silver trees.

The moments where Scafidi really shines are in his longer poems meditating on awkward moments of beauty, self-conscious lyrics bordering on frustrated narrative. In one of my favorite poems, “To My Infant Child on a Winter Night,” which is certainly doing homage to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the father instructs his infant:

…Child, do this—watch—make a small tight fist
and shake it at the sky. The night is an idiot and blind, bigger
than your mother and I and we defy it with you

and this is really no way to welcome you to the shimmering
lilac of being here but talking like this is all I know.

Amid these moments of ardent hope and great scenery comes absurdity, exaggerated into poems fueled by fury and an uncommon decency, one in which Scafidi simultaneously expresses gratitude and disappointment in the world and, perhaps, the poet’s role in it. Here, grief becomes both moral luxury and a personal necessity. But these poems double back on themselves, making way for the possibility of a happy ending as in “The Boy Inside the Pumpkin,” where the title character is discovered inside the smashed remains of a blue ribbon pumpkin. Scafidi wants us to know that we live in a wild world where “these things never happen. They happen everyday.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Indiana Review 1/2 K Prize - 2008

Full guidelines for our 1/2 K Prize prize are now up here on our website. We're interested in any prose poems, flash fiction, microfiction, short shorts, or whatever you want to call them that are under 500 words with no line breaks.

Russell Edson is the final judge.

We look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bluecast: Variations on Funk

In this edition of the Bluecast we've got a heavy dose of funk! Editor de funk, Abdel Shakur, reads from the funk feature editor note, Ross Gay gives a dazzling introduction, and then the real show begins: Aracelis Girmay, Tyehimba Jess (who knew he was so good on harmonica!?), Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Patrick Rosal rip it. You got to hear this. Much of the work performed at the reading will be featured in our upcoming funk feature. Make sure you pre-order your copy today!

And here's a link to some mo' pictures

Monday, April 14, 2008


My friend Steven and I were talking in the office last week about the upcoming Indiana Writers Conference, and I gushed about how exciting it is that Karen Joy Fowler will be one of the guest workshop instructors. Steven brought to my attention about the reading series that tech company Google has called Authors@Google -- tapings of which you can view on YouTube -- which happens to have a dual feature of Fowler with Kelly Link (love her too!).

Junot Diaz, Anthony Bourdain, Aimee Bender, and George Saunders are just a few of the many other writers that have been showcased at this wonderful reading series. Now, mind you, I grew up in the Silicon Valley and have many friends who are in the tech industry. My friend Meling, a self-proclaimed nerd, works for Yahoo! back in California; even she gets so bogged down with her work that she has to vent about how dry and boring it is to live daily with words like 'html' and 'code' and all that jazz. So bless you Google for bringing the literary arts to the cubicle moles that make our increasingly technology-dependent world go round!


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Congratulations to G.C. Waldrep!

He was just announced as the winner of Tupelo Press's Dorset Prize. He has some sweet prose poems coming out in Indiana Review 30.1 - our summer issue (you know, that book with the funk feature we keep talking about?) Anyway, good news for him, and hope you enjoy checking out his work here and there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bluecast: Miles Waggener

In this edition, Miles Waggener reads from his lyric essay, "Creosote," featured in our 29.2 summer issue. Remember, if you'd like to hear previous entries (from Sherman Alexie, Stuart Dybek, Wendy Rawlings, and others) , just press "posts" and select the entry you want.

Monday, April 7, 2008


Why? Because it's Monday and you need some Sly Stone in your life.

Also, here's a great review of the Variations on Funk reading. The people have spoken and we shall post audio of the reading immeeggeately, if not sooner. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

We brought the funk... the John Waldron Arts Center last night. And wow. It was electrifying. Aracelis Girmay, Tyehimba Jess, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Patrick Rosal read to a packed house and brought it down, with harmonicas, hyena-voices, and a whole heck of a lot more crazy stuff.

We're grateful to all the people who put this reading together, including Ross Gay, Cathy Bowman and the rest of the IU Creative Writing department. It was just so great to be a part of this amazing event. Some photos below...and more to come...

Abdel and Danny check out some books before the show.

Abdel explains how our funk got to be so funky.

Aracelis Girmay kicks it off with a funk poem for Sly and the Family Stone.

Tyehimba Jess takes a break from the harmonica.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil explains what happens to an octopus when it gets scared.

Patrick Rosal closes out the set with an excerpt from his new work in progress, a novel in verse.