Review: My Favorite Thing by Michael Ketchek, Bob Lucky & Lucas Stensland

by Michael Ketchek, Bob Lucky & Lucas Stensland
Edited by Stanford M. Forrester
Bottle Rockets Press, 2011

Senryu tells the truth. That’s what first attracted me to haiku’s cousin all those years ago. And what a cousin she is – dangerous, confident, funny and showing just the right amount of cleavage. Whilst haiku commits to the page the essence of a moment in the natural world, senryu manages to lay bare the essence of what it is to be human in any given instance, and the best senryu achieves this by being as honest and, frankly, frank as it can be.

My Favorite Thing presents a selection of senryu from three of the form’s best and most uninhibited practitioners. American poets Michael Ketchek, Bob Lucky and Lucas Stensland should already be familiar names to senryu readers, and, for those who may be just getting to know the form, this pocket-size anthology serves as a suitable introduction. The little book is edited and introduced by Stanford M. Forrester whose Bottle Rockets Press continues to promote the work of short-form poets across the globe.

Whilst all three of the aforementioned writers share a common flair for honest, often candid poetry – lending this anthology its most palpable theme – each of the writers “expose themselves”, as Stanford puts it in his introduction, in a very distinctive way. The anthology opens with Michael Ketchek – perhaps the most unreserved of the bunch:

my easy heart
two drinks
and it’s love

In an anthology that makes mention of Charles Bukowski twice, it is surely Mr Ketchek who succeeds in rousing the spirit of that most honest of writers. His senryu seems to flow from the heart that he wears on his sleeve, appearing to spray off the cuff in a way that would have made Bukowski’s anti-hero, Henry Chinaski, proud:

rocking the baby
at 3AM trying to feel
the joy of fatherhood

Presenting one’s self in a spontaneous, truthful, funny and profound way whilst also arousing a recognition of the reader’s own human nature is the not-so-simple key to being a good writer of senryu. It’s the kind of skill we expect from the most dexterous of stand-up comedians. And, as this anthology plainly exhibits, Michael Ketchek is a master of his art.

Whilst it is possible to compare Michael Ketchek’s work with that of Bukowski and the Beats, Bob Lucky prompts this reviewer to turn to the greats in the field of documentary film-making to seek out an adequate comparison:

rocking train
an old man cradles
a dented thermos

The truth, according to Bob Lucky, is something that can be presented with an uncomplicated, often quiet and uniquely arresting snapshot of a moment. Unlike many senryu writers, Bob explores human nature with a painterly eye, exposing an acute awareness of the presence of ourselves within our surroundings:

an old argument…
scraping the burned rice
out of the pot

Like the Werner Herzog of senryu, Bob Lucky provides this anthology with some of its most visually stark and ultimately revealing portraits of human nature.

Although his section is left until last, Lucas Stensland falls right between Ketchek and Lucky in his handling of this short poetic form. His senryu is, at once, filmic, frank and filled with humour:

watching me pee
on the neighbour’s fence–
the neighbour’s dog

There’s something of a two-way openness when it comes to Stensland’s poems. Like Ketchek and Lucky, Stensland comfortably expresses himself without hesitation, but he also takes a chance on the unlikeliest features of his own landscape. Whilst many contemporary senryu writers often lack the courage it takes to seek out poetry in the strangest of places, Lucas just goes for it:

wondering if
Norman Mailer
would have liked me
all this
Ikea furniture

As My Favorite Thing comes to a close, Lucas reminds us that senryu, however uninhibited, however humorous and however wildly revealing and wound-like in its reality, is, after all, a form of poetry. He proves that the trivialities within our daily lives – Ikea, veggie burgers and complimentary peanuts – are the stuff of deep contemplation. Look around you and you’ll find yourself.

Liam Wilkinson, November 2011

Review: ARMADILLO BASKET by Helen Buckingham

ARMADILLO BASKET by Helen Buckingham
Waterloo Press, 2011

One of the things I most admire about Helen Buckingham’s poetry is its ability to live within the moment of its making, a moment that goes on occurring over and over in the smallest of spaces. It’s a facet of the best haiku and one that, despite its reliance on the fewest words, is the hardest to produce. Take for instance this haiku from her latest collection, Armadillo Basket:

cold call…

Despite its cunning use of alliteration and the exquisite silence in its ellipsis, this poem, in only four words, manages to decorate the reader’s mind with an intensely vivid wallpaper. To embellish this poem further with what Jack Kerouac called “poetic trickery” or fit several extensions, an attic conversion and a conservatory to its modest structure would only fog the image. Good haiku is like a good shot of Scotch and Helen Buckingham has several fine malts in her desk drawer.

And so you’d probably expect Armadillo Basket to serve up another line of poetic shot glasses. Not so. Helen’s latest collection is an all-encompassing jaunt through this British poet’s many forms and styles. Whilst the collection dedicates a section to haiku and another to tanka, it also presents a selection of Helen’s longer poetry, including a couple of beautifully crafted haibun. To this reviewer’s satisfaction, it seems that Helen’s agile handling of short-form poetry extends to her extended works:

The moon is high.

I grapple with
a spiderleg,
a moth or two;
reach for the switch.

This is a snippet from the twelve-line poem, Night Terrors. Like many haiku poets, Helen brings to her longer poetry the essence of haiku. Whilst there is, at times, a narrative to Helen’s longer poetry, it is usually communicated with a somewhat abstract descriptive approach, one that we would associate with micropoetry and the poetry of the haiku-inspired modernists such as William Carlos Williams and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets such as Robert Creeley. In her attempts to convey the image, Helen relies upon her haiku writer’s eye:

soused streets
grief and chips
black ice
gritted lips

Despite using brief, fractured bursts of description, Helen’s longer poems glow with sumptuous imagery. Thanks to this poet’s expertise, Armadillo Basket proves that even the shortest and most modestly expressed lines of poetry can provide the reader with a feast of delicious images.

Helen Buckingham’s senryu has appeared frequently in Prune Juice. Her latest collection of long and short poetry, Armadillo Basket, is forthcoming from Waterloo Press.

Liam Wilkinson, Aug 2011

Book Review : ELVIS IN BLACK LEATHER by Alexis Rotella

by Alexis Rotella

Modern English Tanka Press, 2009
ISBN 978-193539809 -7

One of the great tragedies of my life is that I was born thirty years too late. I’m sure this was some kind of mistake. Since my birth in 1981 it has become dazzlingly clear that I should, in fact, have been born in time to gain first-hand experience of pink Cadillacs, Buddy Holly, James Dean, Abstract Expressionism, Kerouac, Bebop and the DA haircut. Due to what I can only imagine was an unfortunate clerical error, the stork not only made the mistake of delivering me to the wrong year, but also to the wrong country. Instead of taking my first confident steps in 1950s America, I toddled aimlessly into Thatcher’s Britain. And every now and again I glance longingly over my shoulder at an era to which I’ll never, sadly, belong.

Fortunately, for those of us who never shared the planet with such icons as Monroe, Holly and Dean, there are a handful of consolations. One of them is a small diner, not far from my home, called Mojo’s – a retro hangout that looks like a set from American Graffiti. As well as the red-leather booths, jukeboxes and flashing Coke signs, it’s also home to my favourite item of kitsch paraphernalia – an Elvis clock, complete with swinging hips in place of a pendulum. Oft have I ordered my glass of strawberry shake and watched as those immortal legs danced the hours away above the door to the gents’ toilet. There he is – the King of Rock ‘n Roll – still rockin’.

Although my decade of birth deemed it necessary to modify a DeLorean car in order to travel back in time to the fifties, I have found a much less complex alternative, and perhaps a far more enjoyable one. Alexis Rotella’s Elvis in Black Leather provides almost thirty ways to experience the fifties. Amongst its pages you’ll find a strikingly vivid collection of tanka inspired by the King himself:

Love Me Tender
my wanna-be boyfriend sings,
but he’s not Elvis
and he’ll never
be King.

Alexis Rotella’s micropoems, like movies in glorious technicolor, have always succeeded in presenting widescreen panoramas. Like an atomic bomb, they mushroom in one’s mind, taking everything in their wake:

I run home
fast as I can–
on my blue suede shoes.

It’s clear, after only a few pages, that this is not simply a collection of tanka prompted by that great, leather-clad symbol of freedom in fifties America – it’s also a scrapbook of a young girl growing up at a time when growing up was the most exciting thing one could do. It’s the diary of a young girl in love. It’s the photograph album of a young girl with a head full of images. And whilst the image of Elvis swinging his hips has often been lost to the suburbs of taste, ending up above a gents’ toilet in a mock-fifties diner, this pocket-size collection of tanka reminds us why Elvis will always be on our mind. And thanks to Alexis Rotella’s exquisite poetry we, too, can’t help falling in love.

Liam Wilkinson