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Guest Review: 200 Nights and One Day by Margaret Rozga

Some of you have been following the Celebration of Indie and Small Press Month on the blog for sometime now, and you’ll probably recognize today’s guest reviewer, Sara from Wordy Evidence of the Fact, because she reviewed Confederate Streets by Erin Tocknell earlier in the month.

Today, she’s brought us a review of another Benu Press publication, which is poetry, 200 Nights and One Day by Margaret Rozga.  Enjoy.

Title: 200 Nights and One Day

Author: Margaret Rozga

Publisher: Benu Press

Year of Publication: 2009

I received this book from the publisher packaged with the proofs of my friend Erin E. Tocknell’s book Confederate Streets.  I was thrilled to get this unsolicited copy because I love to read poetry, especially new voices.  This collection also had promise because it was from Benu Press, so the thematic material would likely be something I was interested in.  Benu Press is an indie publisher committed to “inspiring and thought-provoking books about the practical dimensions of social justice and equity.” Unfortunately, the one-sentence review of this book is not altogether favorable: I’m glad to have read it, but the poetry was not terribly good.

The life material this collection is based upon is truly inspiring.  These poems revolve around the open housing movement in Milwaukee, WI in the 60s, with particular focus on the events of 1967 and 1968.  Though I consider myself well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, I was ignorant of this strand of protests and found the collection to be informative and revealing.

The collection opens with a foreword from Dick Gregory, which provides a little background.  There is also a chronology of the movement and some fascinating photographs.  I was immediately intrigued by the images of Father James Groppi, the white priest who provided much of the visible leadership for this movement.  The photos show him in sunglasses, holding a bullhorn on a bus hood, in the back of a police wagon.  He is a fascinating character, the very picture of incongruence: rebellion in religious vestments.

The poems tell the story of the movement, fragmented among several voices.  We hear from Pam, Shirley, Curley, Lawrence, Mary, and even the US Supreme Court.  Rozga (known as Peggy) includes only a few poems from her perspective; the rest attempt to channel the voices of her African-American counterparts in the movement.  Let this be said: I do not doubt Rozga’s commitment to the movement, and I admire her willingness to get involved in a difficult fight where she was a member of the racial minority.  However, I take some issue with her poetic rendering of these other voices.  They simply sound too much the same.  Creating memorable characters in a novel or short story is certainly difficult; to do so in a poem is to do the same difficult work on a much smaller scale.  She tries to tell their stories, but when the poems don’t distinguish themselves, when you have to look at the titles to identify the narrator, when you finish the poem and realize it doesn’t matter what name is on the top – these things add up to a amalgam of poems that don’t do justice to the people they are intended to honor.

A few of the poems were lovely.  “City Limits” does a good job of conveying the conflict while doing the work of rendering vivid details about the neighborhood and the neighbors.  I like the image of Mr. Stanisch cutting his grass, “as he did every other day, / alternating with setting out the sprinklers to water the lawn.” The normalcy of tending to the suburban lawn provides a nice contrast to the abnormal conflicts that were broiling in their neighborhoods.  I also thought “On the Bridge” was a strong piece.  Ironically, this poem is the most tangential to the history.  The overlap appears to be merely the celebration to open the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge, so thematically it’s a stretch, but the final two lines carry a thoughtful emotional weight:  “I relish this moment there, there, where time / had space, where boys had hope and almost stood still.”

Too many of the other poems read like first drafts, like she was forcing the history into a form, into a collection that didn’t suit it.  In fact, in the epilogue, Rozga tells the reader that when she got stuck she would turn to a traditional poetic structure (such as sonnet or ballade) to get things moving.  She explains “What the open housing marches did for set territorial boundaries in Milwaukee these poems do with traditional poetic forms.  The old boundaries are questioned, rearranged, expanded, and maybe abandoned.” I want to believe her; however, the poems indicate less intention.  Doing the hard work of making your efforts sing within the structure is what makes the structure so powerful.  When you read a stunning villanelle or sonnet, for example, you are struck by what the form contributes to the poem and how the poem spins within that structure in seemingly effortless fashion.  If your construction of the poem is actually effortless, it won’t spin at all.

Only once does Rozga identify the poetic structure in the title, and it is in that poem where the most egregious disregard for structure lies.  “Vel’s Villanelle” is not in fact a villanelle.  A villanelle is a 19-line poem made up of 5 triplets and 1 quatrain, and there is a beautifully cyclic repetition of line and rhyme that creates a breath-taking effect when done well.  This poem is 25 lines long – it has two additional triplets – and it does not adhere to the repetition or rhyme scheme intended in a villanelle.  Without the repetition, the poem loses the strength as well as the mystery of how the same words can convey such different meanings.  Beyond working within this difficult scheme, the poet must also craft those repeated lines with precision.  They have to do more than some 80’s pop song chorus.  In Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” (a shining example of villanelle), the opening line is “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” That is no casual dashing off of words; that is craft.  And a villanelle demands such a love affair with craft to be successful.  “Vel’s Villanelle” begins “Henry issued a proclamation forbidding marches.”   A direct statement can certainly have a quiet strength, but in this form, these words were inadequately prepared for the job they needed to do.  Rozga’s villanelle indicates to me that her primary purpose was conveying the truth of a history, her secondary purpose was putting together a book, and craft was only a subsidiary to these two goals.  A poem cannot breathe within such a hierarchy.  Or at least, for this reader, it cannot.

All that said, if telling this story was her purpose, Rozga’s book is a success.  I learned about the movement through the book, and I’m glad to have done so.  I was informed about a slice of history that I would not otherwise have known of.  Thanks to Benu Press for representing these voices; and thanks to Serena for the chance to celebrate Benu and their authors this month.  It has been an honor.

Thanks, Sara, for providing a review for the Indie & Small Press Celebration!

Guest Review: Confederate Streets by Erin E. Tocknell

Today’s guest review of Confederate Streets by Erin E. Tocknell comes from a new-to-me blogger, Sara from Wordy Evidence of the Fact.  She was one of the first to respond for my call for guest posts this month, and I’m thrilled to host her and her review.  I hope you enjoy it and visit Sara’s blog soon.

 

Title: Confederate Streets

Author: Erin E. Tocknell

Publisher: Benu Press

Publication Date: 2011

Full disclosure: This book was written by a good friend of mine.  See more below.

We had just started clearing the Thanksgiving dishes when my friend Erin called.  I thought she was just calling to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving or some other friendly formality.  Instead, I hear this: “I’m getting published.  My book won and is going to be published.” You can easily imagine the general jubilance and squealing and hopping that took place.  My family thought I had gone around the bend.  But all of you writers with maybe-someday hopes for publication out there understand just how momentous a first book is.  It is a watershed achievement, and I am proud of my friend.  Now that I’ve had the chance to read it, I can confidently say I am also proud of her book, Confederate Streets.

The competition she entered is held annually by Benu Press.  Benu Press is an independent publisher that focuses on issues of social justice and equity.  They see their work as a means of activism, and those of us who recognize the inherent power of words understand just what a mighty tool for change this work can be.  The award Erin won is called The Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Non-Fiction. As a genre, Creative Nonfiction is most certainly undervalued.  It is different from autobiography, distinct from memoir, and not exactly journalism.  Perhaps it combines elements of all three; done well, it can produce some highly enjoyable and informative work.

Confederate Streets is a collection of interconnected pieces, each exploring Nashville, its history, Tocknell’s family, her past, and the issues of race and class that have so shaped all of these elements.  Tocknell skillfully relates various life experiences without coming across as self-absorbed; she imparts the knowledge gleaned from her research with a seemingly effortless touch, informing and inspiring at the same time; she asks hard questions of herself and of the reader and expects a thoughtful answer; and perhaps most importantly, she entertains.

One of my favorite chapters comes late in the book and is called “Leave the Driving to Us.” In this piece, Tocknell manages to overlap narratives about her tour of UVA (and other colleges) as a prospective student, her travels on a Greyhound bus, and the magnet school system / busing system in her hometown, Nashville, TN.  The highlight of the chapter comes during her brief stay in Norfolk, VA and involves a breakfast with her Uncle David at the Cozy Home Diner.  The details she provides are spot on, and what happens there can only be described as life-changing.  I don’t mean life-changing in the way a death or a birth or even a career change can be; I refer to those still, small moments when you realize that everything you once knew has shifted slightly on its axis.  It is a gift – one she was given, certainly, and one she has now given to each of her readers.  Here are her concluding thoughts on the subject:

    Though I didn’t realize it until later, the Cozy Home Diner also revealed that a great deal of my trip was a sham. I had bounced, blithely and eagerly, between a world full of choices and a world full of limitations.  My bus mates, the men and women in the cafe, the tired faces in the stations and towns along the way – most of them couldn’t decide whether or not they’d like to wear J. Crew and go to a school with a crew team or Honor Code, because that was not an option for them.  I had reveled in the simplicity of bus travel, never considering that was I saw as simple was, for others, either a dead end or an immensely complex web to navigate. (120)

Though it would be easy to dismiss Tocknell as just another privileged White kid coming to terms with her Whiteness, the complexity of her situation should not be ignored.  There was no reason for her to not consider college as the logical next step; there was no reason for her to have considered the Greyhound bus anything but a convenient and inexpensive mode of transportation; she had done nothing wrong.  Yet, an encounter, or the absence of one, in a diner changed her ability to see things so clearly.  It muddied her waters as happens to each of us when we realize that doing “nothing wrong” might also equate simply to doing nothing.  By writing this book, Tocknell has made sure she has done something to speak up about the issues of race and inequity that still exist.  She believes in the power of story to change lives, and she offers us stories that will go on changing lives through her telling of them.

Lest you think I am merely a friend blinded by loyalty, I must offer a word of critique – which Erin has already heard from me.  I believe the final chapter unbalances the collection. “Rowing Through the Ruins” is a gorgeous, award-winning essay on rowing and place and architecture and selfhood; however, it does not provide adequate closure to the lessons and history (personal and regional) she has worked to intertwine so beautifully throughout the rest of the book.

***If you want to read this fascinating book, you can get it as a kindle edition from amazon.com or from the publisher.  If you want to know more about Erin Tocknell and her work, you can read this interview with her on my blog.  And if you’d like enter to win a signed copy of this book, go to the interview, leave a comment, and cross your fingers.  I’ll choose a winner on Friday.***

Thanks, Sara, for providing a review for the Indie & Small Press Celebration! You’ll see more from Sara later in the month.