Review: Jennifer Tseng’s Not So Dear Jenny

Not so dear Jenny
Jennifer Tseng
Bateau Press (February 2017)

 

Bateau Press’s latest prize-winning chapbook arrived in the mail and it’s a humdinger. Jennifer Tseng’s Not so dear Jenny incorporates some of my favorite elements: found text, intense attention to music, and really long titles.

The titles, like “If I lose in Superior Court, I will appeal myself” and “Do NOT try any sleeping pills under any circumstances,” are witty and chatty (often) sentences that make me want to hear the speaker’s life story. Many of the titles are taken from letters to the poet from her father, which, she says in an essay, are full of phrasing that initially seems to be slightly grammatically off, but which, as stand alone sentences, hold exquisite poetic nuance. Take, for example, “Good medicine tastes bitter. You should not feel hurt. You should feel being deeply loved.” The last sentence in the title is not ungrammatical, it just isn’t the way most English speakers would express that idea. The insertion of “being” technicolors the sentence, conveying the sense of an ongoing action. Rather than using the perfect tense, the “you” in this sentence is in an continual state of reception. It’s an ever-filling cup, that sentence: “being loved.”

When Tseng talks about these non-native English moments in “Dearest Jenny: Reading My Chinese Father’s English Letters,” she notes that these formulations “are the opposite of immigrants, they make more sense outside their native context. They make sense as islands unto themselves.” In translation, folks often talk about what cannot carry over from the original language, but here the author’s talking about the inverse. Rather than a translational subtraction, in her father’s sentences we get a surplus of meaning. Second language learning creates an abundance. Again, an ever-filling cup.

The book is full of striking language from her father and those subtle, deeply poetic word choices are heightened by Tseng’s lyrical ear. In “ If I lose in Superior Court, I will appeal myself,” the speaker ends the poem with

The part which is sacrificed
Floats like an orange on the water.
Which part of me pines away?
Which flayed swimmer?
The swimmers’ hunger is unified.
If you win, where will you begin?

The repetition of the question mark creates an inflectional epistrophe. The anaphora and repetition of “part” (in this section but also further up in the poem) create a sound pattern. Then the iambic last line, with its mid-line and end rhymes, disrupts that pattern, thereby signaling the end of the poem. This chapbook is full of similarly tight, skillful songs that are by turns funny, mysterious, and flush with familial love.

What Is Gezellige Poëzie?

I’m writing a column—called “Gezellige Poëzie”—over at the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s blog. The column will cover poetry communities in Europe and the introductory post talks about the Dutch word “gezellig,” the concept of the untranslatable, and that time I hugged everyone in Laura Kasischke’s poetry workshop. Check out the first article here: http://poetry.arizona.edu/blog/what-gezellige-po%C3%ABzie

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram Interview at The Rumpus

Read the interview here.

In 2016, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s writing won the Narrative Poetry Contest. Bertram’s work is formally and thematically expansive and this sampling, called “Facts About Deer and Other Poems,” showcases her incredible range. In the poem “They were armed with long guns”—a poem written in ten parts—the sections move between lists, plain declarations like, “You know // where this / is going. This is // America,” and Bertram’s characteristically stunning descriptions, like when she says about the slant of light in a classroom, “It is fall // and the light from these windows behaves as / you’d expect: it rushes in. It strangles.”

Bertram teaches at The University of Massachusetts in Boston. Her first book, But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012), was selected by Claudia Rankine for the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award. Personal Science, her third book of poems, was just released from Tupelo Press. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. We caught up over email to talk about her new book, mentoring creative writing students, and the impact the NEA has had on her writing.

Mapping Antonin Artaud

The very last installment in my commentary series for Jacket2 is a Google Map that includes photos and videos embedded in the plot points of Artaud’s biography, his performances, and his legacy. You can check it out here: http://jacket2.org/commentary/mapping-antonin-artaud.

Thanks to all the kind people at Jacket2 & especially Jessica Lowenthal. I’ll miss working on this project & it’s an honor to be a part of the Jacket2 tribe. This has been one of my dream publications for a long time. I’m so happy to have gotten to work with these folks.