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A Tonalist Poetry Feature

Laura Moriarty: Introduction

A Tonalist Where (and What) Art Thou?


“What happens to language happens to us,” Standard Schaefer claims in the “Feralist Manifesto” included here as part of this A Tonalist Selection. Perhaps I shouldn’t muddy the waters right away with Feralism but let’s just say that one thing leads to the other, as Jocelyn Saidenberg’s unconnected and yet connected line suggests, “… a delight-less but agreeable wandering, she dwells alone, for having undone her if trouble her, her feral thought.” Standard’s “Feralist Manfesto” comes from a fiction he and I are writing about an imagined poetry scene in a Bay Area, somewhat resembling the actual place, where A Tonalist and Feralist poets contend, as if there was something at stake. If there is something at stake, that something might be how to proceed, how to tell you have been successful in your writing and, finally, why write? A Tonalists might find the reason in the work but then, in spite of what Brent Cunningham says about it being all about me, in his “A Note on the A Tonalist,” I don’t speak for them (or us). However, in an odd twist and because I thought this thing up, I do somehow feel that they speak for me.


One thing you will notice in this selection is that these A Tonalists assert a sense of place. As you read these poems, you can watch as place is found, made, questioned, left and reasserted. This is true of everyone here, if you allow that the body can be a place (but I wouldn’t blame you if you were not willing to do that.) Jesse Seldess writes, “We look at the map of the city.” Norma Cole chimes in, “clouds/ hanging over/ the city.” Jean Daive comments (in Norma Cole’s translation)“The clouds are very low.” Jen Hofer differs, referring to “impeccable skyless cities … ” I didn’t curate this selection thinking of location or the sky but the writers seem to have, in Taylor Brady’s words, “ — found the on-ramp as if by fate.” Roberto Tejada’s work , “Lost Continent,” excerpted here, also revolves around place, specifically the loss of place and finding it again:


Please be patient
as we uncover more
of the lost continent
to share with you


There is also a lot of sex and a huge number of amazing verbs, “Violate choose modify, become generate acquire, enact state actuate” (Patrick Durgin), “dragged like a lake,” (Tyrone Williams). Sometimes both sex and place appear as in Dolores Dorantes “Dear Factory, “Tenderness has never been electric, my scare, sky / you’ve so inhabited my structure.” Or both sex and verbs: “[W]e sink our teats// in the sauce” (Alli Warren). “The peachy peach pit, glowing in her doll-stomach” (Kathleen Miller).“My job is to mop ejaculate,” (Alli again). Someone has to do it.


If these subject matters do not make these poems A Tonalist, what does? Why are they gathered here together? What is A Tonalist? The short answer is that it is in some (uncomfortable) way related to lyric, retaining doubt about the possibility of engaging in and with that vexed genre. What Brent calls irony (in the aforementioned essay) I call doubt (to paraphrase Alan Halsey’s “What you call collage I call thinking,” from Memory Screen (Marginalien).


Julian T. Brolaski wonders, “Who could bear to look really closely at things?” from his“X maybe the artist had bothered about melancholia.” Michael Scharf replies “Still. Stay in your plaça. / Hang.” So it’s dystopic, thoughtful, dark, and strangely permeable. “All de Chirico. Limp glove./ Vaca.” (Scharf again).


You can enter these works and stomp around in them while, as per Tracy Grinnell “affinities animate” and later “loudening illusion/ , fall falsely” which is to say, again, we are in a place of doubt, aware and prepared. Not by chance does the word “armor” come up in both Brady and Grinnell. We are as prepared for negativity as Paul Foster Johnson with his “I shimmy/ toward a ruthless criticism of everything existing.”


And yet, A Tonalists are finally celebratory. Patrick Durgin: “Something preposterously cookie, something preposterously limpid, lugubrious. / Sensitive, mysterious, mysterious lugubrious gaze.” Geraldine Monk: “[A]ll in a fabulous moonless month/ full of fabulous birds and their absence.” It is the absence that makes this piece seem so A Tonalist.


There is an apposite feeling to many of the poems here that is particularly and wonderfully true of Ray DiPalma’s work. It is as each one of his lines rehearses the entire enterprise. Thus when he writes, in in the sixth of the seven poems in “Obloquium,” “Anticlassical, self-determined, ascetic / Docile, earnest — condensed and altered.” I celebrate these A Tonalist adjectives and find it hard to quote, wanting only to rewrite the whole poem with the same words, to write while I read with him (and to remember and remind the reader of the feeling invoked above of stomping around in the poem )


All enabling only a step
sideways and an opportunity to find
a place in line


Is this an A Tonalist line? Are these A Tonalist poets? The only thing you can say for sure is that the writers here have agreed to appear here under this rubric, so in this place at this time, without any question, they are A Tonalists.


For more on this, see my book A Tonalist just out (mid 2010) from Nightboat Books and see also “A Tonalist Set,” a group of poems in Aufgabe #9 with a long explanatory essay by me from the book, or check the blog A Tonalist Notes.

Laura Moriarty

Laura Moriarty

Laura Moriarty is the author of twelve books of poetry including A Tonalist and A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975-2007, as well as the novels Cunning (1999) and Ultravioleta (2006). Recent chapbooks include An Air Force (2008) and Ladybug Laws (2009). Her awards include the Poetry Center Book Award in 1983, a Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation Award in Poetry in 1992, a 1998 New Langton Arts Award in Literature, and a Fund for Poetry grant in 2007. Moriarty is Deputy Director of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California, and has taught at Mills College and Naropa University, among other places. Currently, she is working with Standard Schaefer on a prose and poetry project called the Buddha Box. For more, see the blog A Tonalist Notes.

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