I bought Oprah’s O Magazine in March — my first — after learning it had 24 glossy pages to honor (or degrade, depending on how you look at it) National Poetry Month. In the issue, among other things, was a photo spread of eight female poets modeling the latest spring fashion. “Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets” was one of those rare occasions when mainstream culture and poetry awkwardly attend the same party. It’s the kind of thing that makes poets and scholars blink in disbelief and send heavy sighs over the Internet. One of the poets featured in O was Anna Moschovakis: the author of two books of poems, a translator, and an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. (Moschovakis, who lives between Brooklyn and Delaware County, NY, reads at San Francisco's Meridian Gallery Sat/29.) She was modeling a pink Candela dress ($359) and an Haute Hippie jacket ($995).
It started something of an Internet brawl.
David Orr for the New York Times: “It’s impossible to say what Moschovakis was thinking during this shoot — I certainly hope one of her thoughts was ‘I better get to keep this damn jacket’.”
Jessica Winter for Slate Magazine: “How have eight lady poets and their outfits managed to put Orr in such a despondent frame of mind?”
Orr’s criticism of Moschovakis was warranted in some respects. Her latest book of poems, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake (Coffee House Press 2011), which was awarded the 2011 James Laughlin Poetry Prize, is a critique of gluttonous contemporary culture — a culture she arguably sold into.
So, naturally, you do wonder what she was thinking. In the stark, analytical poems that make up You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Moschovakis assualts materialism, waste, and the internet and repossesses elements of that culture in her poems — Craigslist ads, Wikipedia articles, and MySpace posts — in such a way that proves how demoralizing it can all be. Her style is somewhat similar to Rae Armantrout's. Both poets are infinitely curious, and not only do they approach each poem with a question, but they often end the poem with a question. There’s rarely a straight answer. Nonetheless, the poems manage to tear down our comfortable preconceptions anyway. Here's an excerpt from “The Tragedy of Waste”:
First the necklace of bone
then the shift of leather
tea, tobacco, and gambling
in other words
Ten men could live on the corn
where only one can live on the beef
Emily Warn, writing for the Poetry Foundation blog, called Moschovakis to ask her about the feature in O Magazine and to see whether Moschovakis could resolve her “cognitive dissonance.”
Warn writes: “[Moschovakis] asks whether ‘cognitive dissonance’ — mine or Orr’s — is necessarily a bad thing, if it might lead us to be more critical of our assumptions.” In essence, this is what Moschovakis’ poems do: challenge our assumptions. A quote from the poet by her photo in O reads: “Poems allow us to hold two ideas that don’t hold up.”
Perhaps this doesn’t resolve the overwhelming question. I myself cannot say for certain what Moschovakis was thinking. But I enjoy and appreciate her philosophically bent poetry, her austere use of language, and the sense of violence that charges her poems. She is always second-guessing herself and I like that, too. Besides, dark times call for a dark poet like Moschovakis.
With John Sakkis
Sat/29, 7:30 p.m., $10
535 Powell, SF
(415) 398 7229