Chapbook Verse is a new feature of OmniVerse, created and curated by Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel, highlighting one of the many chapbook-only or chapbook-focused small presses in the world of poetry by selecting two or three of their recent releases for review.
In this edition of Chapbook Verse, Gail Aronson reviews two chapbooks from Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs: Ari Banias’ What’s Personal is Being Here with All of You and Stephanie Gray’s I thought you said it was sound / how does that sound. From the Portable Press website:
Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs publishes poetic works: subtle and intense forms of public exchange and autonomous expressions—dynamic in awareness—luminous in form.
Emphasis: diversity and interconnection—social, cultural, environmental and aesthetic.
I wanted to begin reviewing for this series with Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs for a few reasons. First of all, I have to say that I love how the word portable speaks to the literature it distributes, since I’ve always seen the chapbook form as extra-special in its ephemeral nature; its immediacy and intimacy allows the chapbook to be taken with, shared, read again and again. Additionally, I found myself impressed by the emphasis PPYYL places on social connectivity, and how wider cultural concerns relate to personal aesthetic ones, especially inasmuch as there seems a marked interest to represent women and writers who exist outside margins, who perhaps haven’t been heard nearly enough.
With this, I was pretty excited to receive my copies of Ari Banias’ What’s Personal is Being Here with All of You and Stephanie Gray’s I thought you said it was sound / how does that sound, which came with a handwritten note from the editor, Brenda Iijima. The last of my reasons for choosing PPYYL as my first choice press to review should go without saying: I admire and am grateful for the work to be found here. These two chapbooks affirmed this admiration.
I picked up What’s Personal is Being Here with All of You first, and certainly, I could see that much attention has been paid to the physical nature of the book as object, as something to take out into the world. The cover design depicts feathers, their bristles rendered thin and individual – the whole feather forms separate but almost touching. There is a handmade idiosyncratic nature to this design, efficient in its simplicity when coupled with the content to be found within; for if there weren’t lines protruding occasionally over each other, lines of different lengths, if the images appeared machine-made with formal straight edges, it would not have seemed so appropriate here, and as the title suggests, personal.
Not unlike the feathers on the cover, the poems inside present a deep intimacy which becomes expansive: language, point of view, and image synthesizing, often strangely, always charmingly (surely with precise thanks to this strangeness) within these private structures, emoting layers of memory and experience. Banias often pays specific attention to gender, ultimately questioning and in some magical poetic way offering not answers exactly, but greater truths about identity and what it really means to exist as a self: as I, you, he/she, and in turn how this maneuvers itself outward, constantly reaching for a collective we, or us. Sharing is clearly a pervasive theme in What’s Personal, that private often marginalized voice gesturing toward a kind of inclusivity or community. In this way, it is impossible not to see these pieces as markedly political, as commentary on how we might begin nurturing community by laying bare the private, the felt and remembered experiences that have no choice but to be artfully, intimately rendered.
Albeit speaking so emphatically to the interiority of these poems, there is no narrative I in the first poem, “Men,” but an ominous third person telling of a darkly suggestive covert landscape where strange men meet. The enshrouded peculiarity is maintained both by this distant speaker looking in on a secret place and by rhythmic tactile description: “where sand meets soil and root/meets knee meets mouth meets/crotch, disappearing.” The depiction of body mingling with the landscape rather than simply existing within it defies an expectation that people are separate entities from their surroundings. It textures both the separation/togetherness implicated in the unsettling vulgar subject matter of the poem, and the larger thematic scope found throughout, of obscured views questioning individual and public spheres. To this end, from the beginning the language necessitates borders that will come up in varying forms to create indirect or deceptive modes of observation, inviting the reader to consider the notion of story, of memory, and how our subjective experience is and is not exclusively our own.
Reading further into the text, the reader finds that these poems continue to provide footing with tactile language, often subverting our expectation of narration to make surprising and wonderfully quirky connections:
For example, I was once
a sundress on a splintery
swingset in Texas. The world
was made of yellow grass struggling
to live in sand, sand
beyond our fence, across the street,
sand that could have drowned us.
But didn’t. Because it was a border town
there were others so we sort of
The third poem, “Narrative,” possesses that same mingling of body and landscape, but in a much different, even more personal manner. The substances found within these spaces can be achingly delicate, often ignored or pushed-aside material – things that take up space and inform our surroundings which we overlook or would prefer remain unseen: plastic bags, grass, sand, an old toy. These fleeting visceral forms propel urgency: what is swept away, what we may recover and share, and what this says about us: how us is you and me and I and we. This sweeping away, though, doesn’t come off as overly nostalgic or sensationalistic – especially impressive and moving because we find things to hold onto in these specific, intimate rooms – for I think of many small spaces in these pieces as rooms or glimpses into the details which encapsulate our subjectivity, and bestow it with universal meaning.
In a small number of pages, this chapbook takes the reader on a gorgeously rendered, often humorous and always uniquely spoken journey to borders and margins where we experience, feel, and remember. Banias writes with a careful cadence and meaningful narration about these edges and bordered modes of viewing: someone looking in from the outside, a window, an allegorical hole full of objects and memories, a hallway, the woods. These spaces for Banias often remark on gender, getting intimate by gesturing in and out repeatedly, oscillating physical and psychological borders toward a deeply genuine sense of being here with all of you.
Again, the physical presentation of I thought you said it was sound / how does that sound is fitting to the content within. Like the feathers on What’s Personal, the image repeats to fill the cover – a standing figure holding what could be a megaphone or horn up to his mouth. Here, however, this exact same picture is repeated again and again, and has a straight-edged shape that looks more stenciled than handmade. My experience with this chapbook had me fixated with its repetition of exactness, as identical words and phrases are toyed with and reimagined, fundamentally illustrating how we absorb the sensate and filter sounds interiorly.
On the PPYYL website, Gray includes a private ontology for this chapbook, where she offers perspective about how these pieces came to be. For I thought you said it was sound, she shares that her process entailed writing for ten minutes each night before bed, birthing its content in a “state between waking and sleeping.” She then describes her interest to get “into” sound, using the apt analogy of trying to “see” dots resembling stars after closing her eyes in childhood, how she wanted to get into them and time travel through them. In this collection she certainly gets “into” sound every which way, many pieces titled as placements in relation to the sound: under, over, beside, inside, around, besides, near, and more – travelling within that dreamlike reality and allowing the reader to come with, to come inside.
Over the sound was never what we thought it was going to be was, you know like when you were going to win some kind of ribbon at the state fair, and above and beyond everyone who made fun of you disappeared above the air but it didn’t totally make sense because you were
supposed to be going sky high so what it was
you weren’t going above the sky but above the sound which the other way around is totally
different it was going above everyone else’s pitch and tone, something they couldn’t see but
was felt deep underground so much it came out higher than you ever thunk.
At the crux of Gray’s poetics is the colloquial, and indeed her repetitive asserting of language, which both underscores and challenges what came before. In “Over the sound,” Gray places emphasis on was, altering the reader’s view – this disorientation allowing the sense of sound she creates to hover and cascade back down that telling of the scene. The phrasal repetition inserts a significant confusion, making the absorption of that sound all the more dreamlike and haunting.
Her style is meandering and feels inherently collaged, utilizing a repeated piecing and layering of image and subtle rhetoric toward an associative trajectory of ruminations on sound. In her ontology, Gray also speaks of her hearing loss, which surely informs this meandering and angling around in order to ensure that the sound is wholly investigated and understood. Often, Gray uses sight as it relates to sound, slipping into a lovely sense of synesthesia that somehow, perhaps through its stark colloquial repetitiveness, never feels over-mysticized or phony.
In how does that sound, Gray explains her aim to get “an epistemological rock and roll around” sound. Indeed, in her getting around sound as opposed to into it, there are many references to rock music and a rocky (in the best sense) exploration of how we know and understand what we hear. She again speaks openly about her hearing impairment, explaining how she memorizes small phrases, paying particular attention to the piling up of these “throwaway phrases.” There is definitely an atmospheric quality that occurs in this piling up which feels at once expansive and intensely singular – as essentially tied to her experience living with hearing loss.
Formally, how does that sound begins with prose blocks spilling over the edges, filling margins with long-winded jolted orientation of remembered experience. Later in the series lines break down, drawing in and out of her insistent meandering to ensure a rhythmic investigation of the sounds around her.
“Something being so-not-like what this theater critic said: silence is never empty. You didn’t know my eighth grade silence.
I missed all those consonants. There’s a disconnect. How to narrate a disconnect, how to get in the connected, dis-sed. How to how to.”
Here, there is a taste of those small “throwaway” phrases that Gray is talking about: “being so-not-like,” and “all those.” Additionally, this whole chapbook is full of places that feel darkly humorous and utterly sincere. I love that remarking, “you didn’t know my eighth grade silence.” It also becomes apparent here just how much Gray seems to be reaching for connectivity through her sense of revision. In particular this happens where disconnect and how to repeat and change form, this repetition resolutely drawing upon that question of how to narrate, how to tell of that sound.
A sense of connectivity is present throughout the entire chapbook. It is social, personal, and aesthetic, existing in a space of constant rumination and reiteration. Gray’s wonderfully crafted language simply demands to be heard, and similar to Banias despite their stylistic distinction, also reaches out, inviting the reader to question how our subjective experience fits into a wider cultural sphere.
Both of these chapbooks are beautiful and complete, and offer a practicality in their ephemeralness – they are portable, easy to read without a gaping time commitment, and then to read again. Although it is not my intention to romanticize the physicality of books to some ridiculous extent, there is surely something to be said for the consideration of book as object. PPYYL’s excellent catalogue speaks to this with its gorgeous, carefully considered and presented chapbooks – their impermanence is to be savored. Personally, I appreciate and am deeply moved by PPYYL’s commitment to voices who exist in the margins, to voices who reach for a further social connectivity – and will continue looking forward to their future releases.
Click here or on the chapbook’s cover photo for information from Ugly Duckling Presse, including how to order.
I thought you said it was sound / how does that sound
Click here or on the chapbook’s cover photo for information from Ugly Duckling Presse, including how to order.