Introducing the Bees’ Knees Book Clubs

For the Love of Craft

The Bees’ Knees will pick a new book about the craft or love of poetry for discussion every three months. Please join in on the discussion and reading fun. Our first book will be:

Tracing Paradise by Dawn Potter

You can order your copy here: Umass

Tracing Paradice is a title found on the amazing “She Writes” blog. Check it out here: She Writes

The Mainstream Book Club

The Bees’ Knees will pick a new book from an established writer for discussion every three months. Please join in on the discussion and reading fun. Our first book will be:

American Hybrid, Edited by Cole Swenson and David St. John

You can order the book here:

The Undercurrent Book Club

The Bees’ Knees will pick a new title from an up-and-coming writer for discussion every three months. Please join our discussion and reading fun. Our first book will be:

Frankenstein My Father, by Cody Todd

You can order the title here:

21 thoughts on “Introducing the Bees’ Knees Book Clubs

  1. Nicelle,

    Glad to see you pick out Cody’s chapbook. It is a wonderful collection. I’m hoping that there are enough copies to go around between Amazon and Proem Press (as per mariegauthier’s link). I fear that Proem might be near the end of their run, but hopefully enough copies are still around. The other chapbooks currently out from Proem (Josie Sigler and Andrew Allport) are also worth checking out. I’m admittedly a biased subject as I know the writers and publisher, but that should not cloud my opinion too much I hope.

    American Hybrid is an interesting book. I have a few posts about it on my site, if you are interested. I particularly recommend checking out the selections from: Molly Bendall, Don Revell, Claudia Keelan, Myung Mi Kim, and John Taggart along with the standards.

    Hope that some good discussion is generated for the above books.

    • Dear Andrew,

      Thank you for your comment. I apologize for not responding sooner; this last semester was my Mount Everest–miles and miles of uphill grading stacks.

      (Please also forgive me for talking about you in the third person)

      I do encourage everyone to visit Andrew’s blog “A Compulsive Reader.” It is a helpful guide in what to read (sort-of like Good Reads…but with a lot more heart).

      Best Wishes,
      Nicelle Davis

  2. Cody Todd’s To Frankenstein My Father

    Initial Reading Notes:

    Cody Todd launches his chapbook with a selection of words from Sylvia Plath’s poem The Hermit at Outermost House. For those of you interested in reading the poem I’ve posted it below.

    The Hermit at Outermost House

    Sky and sea, horizon-hinged
    Tablets of blank blue, couldn’t,
    Clapped shut, flatten this man out.

    The great gods, Stone-Head, Claw-Foot
    Winded by much rock-bumping
    And claw-threat, realized that.

    For what, then, had they endured
    Dourly the long hots and colds,
    Those old despots, if he sat

    Laugh-shaken on his doorsill,
    Backbone unbendable as
    Timbers of his upright hut?

    Hard gods were there, nothing else.
    Still he thumbed out something else.
    Thumbed no stony, horny pot,

    But a certain meaning green.
    He withstood them, that hermit.
    Rock-face, crab-claw verged on green.

    Gulls mulled in the greenest light.

    It wasn’t until I revisited this poem that the structure of Todd’s chapbook began to make sense to me. This collection of poems could be read as a further investigation of Plath’s poem—Todd’s poems elucidating each stanza of “The Hermit at Outermost House” to expose our ordinary monsters. Ordinary monsters are found in the television, signatures, radios, streets, and especially families.

    Because of Todd’s choice in epigraphs, I can’t help but read To Frankenstein, My Father as a work of origin. Plath, Shelly, and Tupac seem to be working as Todd’s confessional mouth pieces—they are his jewel encrusted grills exposing the monstrous in the ordinary.

    Todd’s poems are Picasso’s portraits of a bipolar lover, but in Todd’s case the lover is America. The first poem Narcissus opens with a split in consciousness with the line:

    …Twice, I’ve caught myself
    staring into the white-flamed lens of static.
    Fireflies swoop and linger on the dead pond
    to appease their reflections? When life’s headlong
    onslaughter ends one night, before the crash,
    a face appears, and I can’t help but laugh.

    The split within the individual caries into the world—“life’s headlong onslaughter” is a monster lurking in each of the collection’s poems. Like the monster Frankenstein, the poems are complicated.

    Personal Notes:

    How could I not like Cody Todd’s work? I see my streets in his lines. (Excuse my street for a moment) The book has balls. Cody Todd=Sylvia Plath! Who does that and gets away with it? Only the most sincere can write with mania—and To Frankenstein My Father reads sincere to me.

    Favorite Poems in the Collection:

    Narcissus, To Frankenstein My Father, Sympathetic Music of Moths, Tupac Shakur, The Heart Throb, and Query of a Die
    (Hmmm, maybe I should have just said the whole collection?)

    Notes on Chapbook Construction:

    This is a beautiful chapbook. I am tempted to order the entire collection of Proem Press chapbooks. I like that there is no cover image—it seem so clean and pure. The words are allowed to conjurer their own images.

    • Maybe it’s the invocation of Tupac, Vegas, and graffiti, but this feels to me a very urban collection, and it’s a feeling that persists even when I turn to the title poem, which is spoken in the voice of that “ordinary monster”, an angle of reference very different from the other poems. But maybe it’s not a feeling in response to urban details so much as an urban sensibility. This is a really interesting chapbook, Nicelle, thanks for calling it to my attention!

  3. Lisa Jones says:

    I own this (American Hybrid) and it is a challenging book, but I look forward to sharing insights with folks on this one. I plan to read these first: Donald Revelle, Lynn Emanuel, and Dean Young. Any favorites I should look at?

    • I haven’t finished yet, but Stefanie Marlis & Carol Snow are old favorites of mine, and I find Ralph Angel an interesting inclusion. “Hybrid” is a nicely capacious term, I think, and I like the range of poets in this anthology’s pages.

  4. Dawn Potter’s writing advice taken from Tracing Paradise: Two Year in Harmony with John Milton:

    There’s a fine line between linguistic precision and fear of discovery, and a predilection for haiku or Williams-style compression may have little to do with verbal economy. Who invented that “less is more” catchphrase anyway? Not John Milton. And why do so many writers take it to heart? A lack of ambition or inspiration; the allure of aphoristic tidiness; boredom or dead ends or distraction or exhaustion…Whatever the reason, under the guise of economy, too many poems ax the quest of poetry: to surprise ourselves into saying what we didn’t know we knew. Verbal economy doesn’t mean using the fewest words possible. It means writing everything you need to write as well as you can write it. This doesn’t require honed perfection but relentless attention, and by that definition Milton was the most economical of writers (Potter 102).

    This is the best writing advices I have heard in years. Great poems are not perfect poems.

    Don’t get me wrong, an imperfect line is NOT to be confused with sloppy writing. Please no. But rather, there is something gained from a poet’s failure to completely master language. Language is a rebellious creature—

    I work for hours to find the perfect word—perfect break—perfect image—a perfection that will distinguish my work as noteworthy and “good.” But while I’m busy fussing over the faults I can see—my own and more personal imperfections begin to take root—to grow—to reveal something I never meant to let loose. It isn’t until after a poem is drafted that the poem’s intentions begin to manifest. It isn’t until a I’m ready to let the poem lead me that writing becomes a full fledged adventure.

    So Bees’ Knees Friends–I have a few questions for you…

    What poems do you love for their imperfections?
    (I’m thinking Neruda on this one–that cat gets away with poetic murder–and I love it!)
    What experiences have you had where a poem instructs you on how to write it?
    (I’m hoping to not be the only poet that lets a poem boss her around.)

    Best to All,

  5. Dawn Potter’s Tracing Paradise

    Reading Response:

    It took me longer to finish Dawn Potter’s Tracing Paradise than I had anticipated—mainly because her book made me feel obligated to reread John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I was twenty the first time I read Paradise Lost (and only did so because my college instructor took it off her syllabus claiming that the assignment was “overly ambitious”). I read the poem out of rebellious spite, only to find my instructor was right—reading Milton was one of the most difficult reading challenges I had ever faced. I’m sure if my instructor had kept the poem as a class assignment, I would have read the Cliff Notes and sold the poem back to the college bookstore for a pack of cigarettes. But I wanted to prove I was good enough for Milton, only reading his book had the opposite effect. It took me a year and a half to finish it—and I was glad to be done with it when the time came. I walked away from the book with an overwhelming feeling that I would never be good enough for Milton—or poetry.

    I grew up in Salt Lake City—a place where patriarchy and religion are highly visible. Visibility in my mind equated “better” or at least “preferred.” As a girl, whose greatest desire was to feel “good enough,” Milton was just another voice in the choir of “no you’re not—not enough.” I hated him for his affirmation of my inadequacies. (And I loved him for it too.) For the next five years I carried that same copy of Paradise Lost around with me—mostly reading the sections with Satan, because they were the most interesting. I wanted to understand how I could love a book that seemed to adamantly dislike me. I finally retired the book to storage—moving on to other poems that would equally confuse and delight me.

    When I saw Dawn Potter’s book, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, my old desire to understand Milton flared back up. I thought—now that I’m older—now that I have experience more life and read more books—now that I’ve quit smoking and am a (somewhat) responsible adult—I’ll be able to handle old man Milton. So I cracked open that vault of questions I had about self, religion, and life—and I began to reread Paradise Lost.

    Milton hadn’t really changed much from how I remembered him—stanch in his beliefs—a person to envy for his absolutism and fume over his blatant sexism. But with Dawn Potter as my reading partner, I was also able to name what I loved about Milton—I love his innocence. As Potter explains, “I have a right to laugh at or linger over a poet who would rather be an ignorant artist than an angle. Ignorance may be the opposite of knowledge, but it’s also innocence” (Potter 105). Potter, who openly admits to laughing at passages in Paradise Lost, assured me that I could simultaneously hold this poem to be great and ridiculous.

    What I wanted from Milton was an elder—or mentor. I wanted him to help me understand poetry—I wanted him to guide me in how to believe (believe in anything)—but all he offered was this wacky homemade religion. What I wanted from Milton, I found in Dawn Potter. She offers no answers. She offers no religion. What she offers is a portrait of a woman doing her best to be a wife, mother, and poet.

    If it is possible for a book to listen to its reader, Tracing Paradise seemed to hear my concerns and address them with stories and practical advice. Reading the persona of “Dawn Potter” was like finding the older sister I never had. When Milton bothered me, she’d tell me to leave him alone—to get back to the more important and quit things in life. Where Milton completely ignored me, Potter would address me directly—passages of her book became a collaged voice telling me, Leave God to throw mountains around—there is wood to fetch and goats to feed—your son is growing and you’ll miss it—a marriage won’t tend itself—so get back to work. Her kids are older than mine, her marriage and daily routine more established, and her book knowledge astute and mature—finally I found what I was looking for in Milton—a mentor.

    Many kind regards to Dawn Potter for writing this book.

    Favorite Passages:

    A wedding is a story with lost of characters. A marriage is a story with two. No matter how tightly it intersects with other family divisions—children, parents, cousins, ancestors—marriage itself is a separate world, remote as an island (36).

    Blame the Fall on Satan if you like, but Adam was already predisposed to please his wife. How could paradise be otherwise? Their perfect marriage was its own undoing (40).

    It’s hard to gauge what humanity has lost when a reader can no longer absorb a work of literature in the way in which an author intended. Loss, of course, is endemic to literature because it is endemic to language. Yet we adjust to such losses, partly because we’re so used to linguistic erosions, even in the small span of our own lives (60).

    On the surface, Paradise Lost might have been composed by the least humble of men: no poem is stagier or more ornate, no poet bossier and more self-righteous. Yet its central instruction—do what God says, and don’t ask questions—relies on a conception of deference, of utter submission, that is foreign to nearly all readers, no matter what religious beliefs we embrace or spurn. Even when we long for heavenly instruction and protection, for Gabriel’s “strict watch that to this happy place / No evil thing approach or enter in,” we also desire infinite latitude for error and forgiveness. We want to stand inside the story and outside it as well. We want to be ourselves without responsibility for being ourselves, and in such case Paradise Lost offers us no comfort” (61).

    It might be morally wrong, on a universal scale to ask, “What is the point of nature to me?” But that doesn’t make the question any less valid (70).

    • Dear Dawn and Charlotte,

      Thank you for your comments. I think this is such magic–the book, the writer, and readers occupying the same space.

      It reminds me of the experience of live theater, where all the elements of a creative piece are present–the makers, the watchers, and the sparks that happen between the two–the overlapping of imaginations.

      I think that is another element in Dawn’s book that make it such an amazing read. It is so fulfilling to be “let into” another persons reading experience. I feel richer in many arenas of my life for having read Tracing Paradise.

      Thanks for being a part of this little project. It is moments like these that keep me working on this blog.

      Thanks to all,
      Nicelle Davis

  6. Nicelle–

    I could weep. I make no claims to wisdom or scholarship, and daring to writing about Milton was enormously difficult. I still can barely bring myself to believe that people care that I did this. So you are a gift. Thank you. You don’t know how much I thank you.



  7. American Hybrid
    A few notes from the Introductions:

    I. Cole Swensen: The New (HY)breed

    Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental mode such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which can change dramatically depending on how it is combined with others and the articular role it plays in the composition.

    Hybrid poems often honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry–thereby increasing the epressive potential of language itself–while also remaining committed to the emotional spectra of lived experience. As different as these two goals might seem, they’re both essentially social in nature and recognize a social obligation; and as such, they demonstrate poetry’s continued relevance. Hybrid poetry speaks out, but in ways that avoid echoing the canned speech that has become so prevalent in this age in which fewer and fewer people control more and more of the media. While political issues my or may not be the ostensible subject of hybrid work, the political is always there, inherent in the commitment to use language in new ways that yet remain audible and comprehensible to the population at large (xxi).


    Hybrid writing tolerates a high degree of the restless, the indeterminate, and the uncanny because, like the best writing of any era, it doesn’t seek to reinforce received ideas or social positions as much as it aims to stimulate reflection and to incite thoughts and feelings (xxii).


    Such hybridity is of course in itself no guarantee of excellence, and the decentralizing influences make it harder to achieve consensus or even to maintain stable critical criteria; instead, these factors put more responsibility on individual readers to make their own assessments, which can in turn create stronger readers is that they must become more aware of and refine their own criteria (xxv).


    By creating literature on the most concrete, material, and social level, these writers extend the Rimbaudian “I is an other” beyond the estrangement inherent in committing the first person singular to paper and into a socially creative act–they literally create the society in which they can thrive (xxvi).


    II. David St. John

    I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of all our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again (xxviii).

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