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3:AM Top 5: Colin Herd

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Colin Herd launches his poetry collection too ok – described by Dennis Cooper as a “treasure trove of razzle-dazzle stylings, superfine wit, charismatic discretion, and a vacuuming tenderness” – at Gay’s The Word next Monday (28 February @ 7pm, details here). To celebrate, Colin shares his Top 5 Poetry Books from 1981:

The late 1970s and early 1980s is my dream-era for poetry. Quite by chance, when looking out favourite poetry titles, trying to narrow down a list from which to pick five for this blog, the first three I picked happened to have been published in 1981, which is why I’ve decided to make this my top 5 poetry books published in the year 1981.

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1) The Brute – Peter Schjeldahl (Little Caesar Press, 1981)
Schjeldahl is better known nowadays as the art-critic for the New Yorker, but from 1964 until the mid-80s he published a number of fantastic books of poetry, including this one from Dennis Cooper‘s Little Caesar Press, which features stunning, chalky, scratchy illustrations by the artist Susan Rothenberg. Schjeldahl’s poems are unlike pretty much anyone else, but to give you an idea I’d say he’s like a bolder, dirtier, more raucous version of Kenneth Koch. For example, there’s a poem ‘On Cocksucking’ that begins: “Now I don’t know much about it / but I can tell you this: I’m tired / of its gross reputation here in California, / tired of the anti-cocksucker jokes that aren’t funny / and even if they were funny I’d hate them / for the scared sexist twirpy macho little-mindedness of them.”

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2) On Women Artists: Poems 1975-1980 – Alexandra Grilikhes (Cleis Press 1981)
Philadelphia-based Alexandra Grilikhes, who died in 2003, was the author of a novel called Yin Fire and a few poetry-collections, including Reveries, and this one On Women artists. It’s a gorgeous and various collection that, as its title suggests, wears its influences on its sleeve. There are poems inspired by a great range of female artists such as the experimental filmmakers Maya Deren and Bette Gordon, the sculptor Louise Nevelson and the dancer Viola Farber. The book is illustrated with evocative, furry paper-sculptures by the artist Jean van Harlingen.

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3) Italy – Donald Britton (Little Caesar Press 1981)
Another great title from Little Caesar, Italy is the only collection ever published by the poet Donald Britton, who died in 1994 of AIDS. Britton’s poems are elegant and witty, strange and subtle. Such as these opening lines from the Turandot-inspired ‘Non piangere, Donald!’: “Weird wind at the window. / Inside-of-pocket sky, close, empty, / cool, cigarette-wrapperish / and shadowless.” Reading those lines I find it hard to believe that Britton is barely known at all now, out-of-print and forgotten by all but a devoted few. The poet Reginald Shepherd was at work on a Collected Poems before his own passing in 2008. The book would have included uncollected work alongside Italy and the unpublished manuscript In the Empire of the Air. It would be an amazing tribute to both Shepherd and Britton if that book could find the light of day.

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4) Pavane – David Trinidad (Sherwood Press 1981)
Pavane is the first book by the poet David Trinidad, who has gone on to publish many extremely well-received collections, including The Late Show and Plasticville. Connected themes of death and dreaming haunt Pavane, in the midst of which a beautiful, funny, sensitive voice emerges. The highlight of the book for me is a poem called ‘The Party’, in which the narrator guides you through a decadent party, remaining on the outside: “Scattered / about the jewel- shaped pool / in tight groups, the well-bred guests / discuss preferable / positions with added interest. Enough beer // has disappeared / from the cases stacked / along the diving-board to permit / flattering passes / gossip / about someone standing within hearing distance.”

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5) Waltzing Matilda – Alice Notley (Kulchur 1981, reissue Faux Press 2003)
An early work by the renowned poet Alice Notley, Waltzing Matilda is also in my opinion one of her best. Free, and colloquial, the poems are an extraordinary mix of passion, whimsy, and intellectual speculation. I usually think of them as intricate, unpredictable maps of thought-processes: “Compassion is pungent / & sharply aromatic. / Small yellow heads in late summer. Love & hatred are / delicate and fragrant.” Faux Press reissued the collection in 2003 and a few poems, including the title-piece appear in ‘Grave of Light’ her New and Selected Poems from 2006.

First posted: Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011.

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