March 30, 2012

Review by Anita SullivanFire on Her Tongue

FIRE ON HER TONGUE: An eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry
edited by Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy

Two Sylvias Press
P.O. Box 1524
Kingston, Washington 98346
ISBN: 978-1-937860-24-0
2012, 460 pp., $7.99
www.twosylviaspress.com

How many of us have been totally smitten by a single poem and bought an entire book just to possess it fully? Or a cookbook because of one recipe? Or a collection of short stories, a book of paintings, the complete sonatas of Beethoven for only one movement of one sonata?

And it’s totally worth it, isn’t it? Even after you discover that your sweetheart was (gulp) the best poem in the whole collection, and you probably could have downloaded it from the website where you first read it and saved the price of the book.

But it wouldn’t be the same at all, not at all.

Because in the best collections the poems play off one another like facets in a crystal. Some facets more powerful than others, but all of them need to be present to make the full mystery and magic. Ergo, you need to possess the full body of work (emphasis on “possess” and “full body”).

I can guarantee you, if you buy Fire On Her Tongue: An eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry, you will be smitten by a much larger percentage of poems than most collections you have now on your shelf. Trust me, I’m a poetry-reading curmudgeon of the highest order.

This book is presented by the Seattle-based editors, Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy as “the first electronic collection of poems by women writing today.” That in itself it pretty cool, and one wonders “why not?” and “why did it take so long?” Yes, the formatting technology is definitely up to the task of at least normal free-verse poetry, with its limited variety of line breaks, and that’s a relief. Somebody else has done the pioneering. The book includes 73 poets, some very well known, quite a few not.

I confess, I approached this book with a little trepidation, being the curmudgeonly reader that I am (not jaded–no, no, not that–but seasoned). I confess to the following negative push-button-response categories: female “body parts” poems, poems that whine but don’t really grieve, poems that are built from details of the poet’s daily urban or suburban life, love poems in second person, clever poems, poems that are primarily language-driven at the expense of thought or imagination. That takes in a whole lot of territory; yet while there are some of these in the collection, they are fewer than I had anticipated. My “cringe factor” was blessedly inactive as I scrolled and scrolled, and eventually I just relaxed and enjoyed myself. Hugely.

Nonetheless, my own poetry-rating system was still ticking away as I read, and I kept track as I always do, of my favorites and unfavorites, for future reference. Normally (with books made of paper) as I’m reading I put a penciled check mark in the table of contents beside the poems that I really like, a dash beside the ones that are neutral, and an X beside the ones I don’t like at all. Generally the check marks and Xs balance one another out, and the dashes are by far the most numerous. I do this for a variety of reasons, and always bearing in mind every poem, no matter how many of your buttons it pushes, deserves to be read more than once.

But we also develop our critical skills by this kind of careful reading. And, probably, along the way, we strengthen the imagination, which by some counts is the same as the soul, immortal or otherwise.

Applying my special ad hoc poem-rating system, Fire On Her Tongue racked up a total of 44 check marks, and only two Xs which (for me) is off the charts. “Ergo,” I have to say loud and clear, “This is a fine book. I recommend it!” To call it “Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry” is of course far too ambitious for any book on the planet. Even if it were simply called “Anthology of Women Poets of the Pacific Northwest” the editors would have been wallowing in an impossibility of richnesses (and, understandably enough, the collection does weigh quite heavily with poets from the editors’ home state). But this is merely an observation, not a criticism. Plenty of poets are included from exotic places like New York, Michigan, Vermont, Alaska, Greece, and even New Jersey! All of which goes to show—what? That where a poet lives doesn’t affect the poems she writes? Wrong! That where she lives doesn’t affect the quality of the poems she writes. Right!

In the end, it’s the poems I remember from a book, not the poet(s), and probably that’s a good thing. If you’re a regular reader of poems, you’re likely a secret bird-woman, like me. You have poem-feathers sticking to your body—after awhile, these many feathers become a cloak that follows behind you without exerting any weight or friction, and in fact, (pushing the metaphor way beyond its capacity) your poem-cloak billows and deflects Meaning as it comes galumphing towards you, so that you are more than average reinforced in your path through life.

These–(I thought you’d never ask)–are the poets from Fire On Her Tongue (the title, by the way, seems to have come from the middle of a prose poem by Debra Ager called “Fires on Highway 192”) whose poems got one or more checkmarks from me as outstanding: Kim Addonizio, Deborah Ager, Lana Hechtman Ayers, Dorothy Barresi, Elizabeth Bradfield, Ronda Broatch, Gloria Burgess, Madeline DeFrees, Patricia Fargnoli, Annie Finch, Kathleen Flenniken, Maya Ganesan, Kate Greenstreet, Lola Haskins, Jane Hirshfield, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Luisa A. Igloria, Tina Kelley, Dorianne Laux, Jenifer Browne Lawrence, Erin Malone, Marjorie Manwaring, Frances McCue, Patricia Smith, A.E. Stallings, Molly Tenenbaum, Katrina Vandenberg, Sarah Vap, and Rachael Zucker.

Most of these poets I was totally unfamiliar with before reading this book. If my “top 44” favorites were to suddenly vanish from the collection, I would still like and admire the book for the variety and skill of the remaining poems. This is a book you can trust.

More books like this need to be published. Hooray for Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy for taking this on!

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Anita Sullivan is a poet from Eugene, OR. Her website is: www.seventhdragon.com.