Baltimore Book Club on Joe Hall
Discussed: The Devotional Poems by Joe Hall
Present: Joseph Young, Amanda McCormick, Tracy Dimond, Caryn Lazzuri, Laura van den Berg, Linda Franklin, Matthew Zingg, Jamie GP, Chris Mason, Dave K, Adam Robinson
Tardy: Megan McShea
Jamie GP: Don’t read anything, don’t read anything about Star Trek, just go see it.
Adam: Chris, I just told everyone we are going to take notes and put them on HTMLGiant like a review, is that okay?
Adam: With all our names.
Joe: All right. Do people like this book? I mean I want to call this guy Joe Hallmark because it’s so sappy.
Dave K: Oh!
Linda: I actually didn’t like it at all. I liked about 8 lines.
Jamie: I thought Blake’s blurb was a hack.
Linda: I just don’t like reading “O Christ” in every poem.
Chris: I really liked the book but I hoped at some point how we would talk about the religious aspect, for probably many of us who aren’t religious.
Jamie: It’s funny, because early on I think he’s playing it to effect. Like, oh here I am in Iowa.
Adam: Does it say Iowa?
Jamie: No, but that’s what you do when you go to Iowa.
Adam: Yeah but he lived in a trailer park.
Jamie: I think he’s playing that up.
Joe: I don’t think it’s about Christ. Like Pigafetta.
Jamie: I thought it was about devotion.
Chris: That’s what I thought too. To me it reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch, about our civilization in that vein.
Matt: I wondered if this was a religious poet. I came to it like they were archetypes.
Linda: To me it was a fakeout, like haha gotcha. I mean I have trouble with poetry anyway, but I don’t understand why you’d devote pages and words to something that doesn’t mean something to you.
Tracy: Reverse psychology?
Joe: I use religious symbology in my writing because it’s so powerful.
Linda: What about the use of “shit” and “fucking.”
Matt: I like the way it counterbalances.
Dave K: I think it’s vulgarity as honesty in a way that kind of works. I didn’t think it was excessive. Those moments came after a huge stream of poetic language.
Matt: Yeah, I was having a—
Linda: Like poop.
Dave: OK pooping, fair enough.
Matt: But you know that song by Jenny Lewis, “when you’re on, you’re fucking on”—that’s what this is like.
Joe: I like it when she swears.
Matt: And here it’s like all he’s left with, “the elemental fuck.”
Tracy: The profanity and religious imagery was bringing it all to the same level. I don’t have a religious background, so using the profanity equalizes the religious language, which I don’t understand.
Linda: Profanity comes from religion.
Jamie: But it gets so sweet by the end. Like “Our Lady of Supreme Happiness.”
Joe: (reads “OLoSH”)
Jamie: If you wrote that for someone, you’ve got them forever.
Linda: But why is that heightened by the stuff in the first 12 pages?
Dave: I think you have to go through all that stuff to get there.
Linda: My favorite is “Post Nativity” on page 13.
Jamie: We have Adam to thank for the fucked up pagination for that.
Amanda: Yeah, look at the Table of Contents.
Linda: That thing looks weird.
Adam: Those were all stanzas.
Linda: When I like something, it’s because it rings a bell in my storehouse, in my memory … burning trees and what a sun looks like behind the trees, all that means something to me … Maybe I liked the book after all, I don’t know.
Adam: My experience reading this book is that it was easy to read fast, but if I read it fast I didn’t get it.
Caryn: It helped me to hear him read.
Adam: He reads a couple of different ways too. Sometimes he reads kind of softly and sometimes he reads like a slam poet. I mean, not like a slam poet, but real loud and moves his arms around [gestures].
Chris: [reads poem on page 4] I like it because it has that Revelations feel, but is so rooted in the everyday.
Amanda: It’s sensual too.
Adam: Is a 25 an actual gun?
Linda: Do they have poetry codes for reading out loud?
Caryn: Like notation.
Jamie: like musical notation? [a little later…] How much can you take before you tune out your life?
Adam: Regarding the idea of putting in notation, I think he does that in the way he composes the poems. I also wanted to ask about that first poem. Didn’t you think the first poem is risky and a clash of symbols to start the book out? Where he describes the guys with the hands on their penises, “waiting for me”?
Linda: It is the same me?
Joe: This is the more visionary me.
Adam: Like an invocation.
Linda: [says something about masturbation and coming]
Dave K: A lot of stuff in the book reminds me of Catholic sermons. I grew up Catholic and most priests are terrible public speakers, they’ll start off with one point and then go off the rails and start saying whatever. In a good way, some of these poems remind me of that. As a reader, it was kind of refreshing to get lost in that.
Adam: Did it remind anyone of Portrait of the Artist?
Vague agreement from group.
Jamie: I’m assuming Joe Hall wasn’t raised Catholic?
Megan: Catholicism is really gory.
Adam: The body is so present in these poems.
Joe: I was comparing this book to yours, Megan. I was saying Joe is a poet with an eye for language and you’re one with an ear for language.
Adam: So he’s conjuring image and Megan’s conjuring sound?
Linda: I had a general question about biography. When Joe and I go to art things, he never reads what the artist has to say about the piece, but I like to.
Matt: Normally in the past I usually go back and brush up on who the poet is … I don’t know why, but I resisted doing that this time.
Megan: I always assume everyone is 30.
Matt: All I know is that he’s reading at Pete’s Candy Store in New York. I saw his bio and he has a beard.
Linda: Does it matter how old the reader is?
Joe: He’s got wings and horns and all that biblical shit.
Tracy: Then you have these really beautiful moments, like on page 38.
Adam texts Joe. He says he was Roman Catholic until he was 16 and then it was just missionary coffee at a gas station yesterday.
Dave K: I still think he’s a snake handler.
Group agrees to read “Post Nativity.”
Joe: You’re Christ, Linda, so you get to go first.
Megan: I’m glad I got the part with the Beck reference.
Dave K: I’m glad I got the part with my name in it.
Megan: Is “nativity” just a religious term or is it any birth?
Jamie: What the fuck’s the point of Mary after she has Jesus? Okay, you fired the gun, so what am I?
Linda: My uterus is the chamber for your cartridge.
Joe: He is referencing Yates. The falcon, the gyre, the turning.
Adam: On one side of the thaumatrope, it’s Christ on the cross. On the other side, it’s I want to be your cell, your lens, your onion skin. Not sure what that is.
Joe: One side of the disc on the thaumatrope is God and the other side is absence.
Amanda: I thought it was referencing the last words of Christ.
Matt: The first last words of Christ.
Adam: One of the turns in the poem is the trailer park. The guy’s in the Chrysler, the cut—
Chris: What is a cut, anyway?
Amanda: Like out in the cut.
Linda: I thought it was like a construction site.
Jamie: Or the worst part of the ghetto.
Adam: And also cut like a wound. This is one of my favorite parts of the poem.
More scintillating conversation. Laura misses a bunch of stuff.
Adam: who will become the first scholar of Joe Hall?
Linda: I wish Justin was here. I would be interested to hear his take.
Jamie: I think if you’re explicating these poems, you’ve gone done the wrong path.
Joe: That’s true of any poem.
Adam: I think it’s good to parse.
Linda: It’s helped me. I like it better now.
Dave K: A part of me was hoping that “O Beast, O Christ” was referencing the fact that Jesus was a werewolf.
Joe: He stole pies. I’m not making that up.
Amanda: And going back to what you were saying about the first poem and thinking about the speaker as a kind of Christ.
Linda: Look at page 61.
Joe: The speaker does identify with the godhead. Whitman-esque.
Chris: I read the refrain as a resonance with Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Linda: I think I have an advantage being older. You’ve read so much, you get a little hints of things.
Adam: There are different kinds of age.
Joe: I think it’s most individual consciousness.
Adam: How many of these are a series? Like can you pick up the book and just read a couple of pages?
Group assessment: no. Laura says something about how we read and then tries to explain it for people who were out of the room and fails.
Joe: Explication is fine, but why write a poem if you can just explicate it?
Adam: Dancing about painting.
Linda: But this is a book club!
Megan: There are things that refer to specific things, specific allusions. As I read it I wondered, is that a reference? So this has been helpful to me.
Dave K: There’s so much information and the pacing is so fast, you’re not going to get everything unless you read it a shitload of times.
Adam: A lot of time it’s effect too, and there’s no point trying to explicate effect. It’s like two turn tables and a microphone.
Adam turns to Dave K and asks if he just dropped a rufi (sp?) in his beer.
Dave: Can we make it clear in the notes that I did not rufi Adam?
Tracy: Even if I wasn’t getting everything as I was reading, I was feeling the effect.
Matt: It’s that feeling when you first read a poem, like oh that kind of flew over my head and then you go back and re-read it and get it some more.
Caryn: With the O Beast, O Christ, the pace is so fast in those poems, I thought it became a kind of pause.
Megan: When I read Christ, I read it as an explicative. I use that as an explicative all the time.
Laura: I remember Joe telling me that there used to be a lot more of the O Beast, O Christ.
Adam: Chris Toll edited a lot out … One of the things I like about this book is its cohesion.
Jamie: It’s almost fiction it’s so cohesive.
Amanda: There’s a lot of fuck-with-yous in here. It’s representative of existence.
Group pauses to listen to possible altercation unfolding in street.
Adam: It’s funny that he has a section called “These Are Devotional Poems.” There’s a lot of jokes in there.
Amanda: It seems like those poems are softer.
Jamie: I want to write every one of those poems.
Matt: Actually that kind of felt to me maybe like … maybe a little forced. But it was nothing that pushed me away.
Linda: How many heads did the beast have in the apocalypse?
Jamie: 7. Everything is 7 or 3.
Amanda: The table of contents is wrong.
Joe: Maybe that mispagination is intentional?
Jamie: I don’t think so.
Joe: All the numbers are fucked up.
Adam: Oh no, it’s not a mistake. Those pages aren’t part of the section. They’re in between.
Matt: Have you ever read a Jesse Ball book before? All those weird fonts and symbols.
Adam: When we did Post Nativity, he didn’t want to do regular page numbers, since it was a single poem. He is a lot about effect for such an academic poet.
Jamie: I love that you called him an academic poet. It seems like you can go two directions after this. One is more studied, one is less studied. I want the less studied.
Chris: Is this a trope? Like found material he’s working through, or is it his vision of America?
Adam: I was processing that too.
Amanda: What about Portrait of the Artist?
Adam: Well, yeah. It’s about a dude trying to be a dude, like this dude, who gets fucked up by a preacher who preaches for 80 pages.
Dave K: You should write the jacket flap for the next edition.
Linda: I don’t mind asking stupid questions, but who is the beloved?
Group consensus: Cheryl.
Joe: I think it’s a psychological working through of the fire and the brimstone and the devotion and the beloved.
Jamie: The identity turmoil.
Megan: Like, can my life be a devoted life when I have been so low?
Linda: I guess I just don’t know who Cheryl is.
Amanda: I don’t think it’s just Cheryl. Also God and life and art. All those things.
Laura: The layering of images, the pacing of the poems—it feels to me like the devotion is supposed to speak to all those things, not just one thing.
Matt: I think the idea of southern gothic is kind of stupid. Has anyone read Wise Blood?
Joe: Of course.
Amanda: The things that we should be the most devoted to, the ones that matter most, aren’t on a pedestal.
Group decides to read “2 Exorcisms.” Joe says something about porn. Adam starts.
Adam: It’s just like “Post Nativity”!
Megan: How so?
Adam: In all ways.
Megan: All the words are different.
Adam: Well, two thirds of the words maybe. But the effect feels the same to me. I loved that image of his friend leaning in a doorway, eating an apple, waiting for whatever.
Matt: Images of people leaning against doorways has always been, for me, well gosh. A throwback to westerns to something.
Dave: Maybe you have an inner ear issue?
Matt: Maybe it was because growing up we never had a porch.
Tracy: It’s something you stop and do and just rest for a second.
Dave K: It’s a way for you to not dance at prom.
Joe starts to sing “Lean On Me.” Dave K leaves to go to work. Chris leaves too. A trend has started, everyone is leaving or going to the bathroom.
Joe: We have the devil’s toilet downstairs.
Group: converses about Beyonce and roller skating.
Joe: I went to the Devil’s Toilet.
Jamie: Great, that means it works.
Adam: When you go down the stairs, the impulse will be to lean forward, but you should lean back.
Megan: Good of you to pass that knowledge on.
Adam: As long as I’m recommending things: don’t go into the basement at all.