Thursday, August 30, 2007



The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets Edited by Dominic Lumford
(McSweeney’s Books, 2007)

Back in the days before Internet, I was susceptible to a type of chain letter. I would participate, if it meant I would get something in return by way of the U.S. Mail. I quickly learned that I usually wouldn’t get much money, although it was fun to see where the mail came from. My favorite chain letter was the one that left me with several dish towels. I loved piecing together the connections of which people knew which friends, and which connections yielded the most interesting responses.

The same principle works in the book, The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets (McSweeney’s Books, 2007). The editors of the book chose ten poems from ten different poets. Each poet was asked to contribute another one of their poems, as well as to choose a poem written by a different poet. Then that new poet was asked to contribute an additional poem that they had written, as well as a poem by someone else.

The resulting book has ten poetry chains, one hundred poems in all. This approach creates a reading experience not like any other I’ve had. At first, I read through the chains, looking for links and obvious influences. Even though there are two different types of introductions to the book, I wanted more information about how each poet came to choose the next poem. That pondering led me to wonder, if I had to choose just one poem of someone else’s to contribute to a book, how on earth would I choose.

Some of the poems have obvious links. For example, Harryette Mullen's “Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name” has subtle links to “Little Slave Narrative #1: Master,” the poem that comes after it and written by Elizabeth Alexander (the next poet in the chain). In ““Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name,” Mullen uses varying images of America in all of its corporate, Capitalist glory to paint a portrait of modern life. The speaker in the poem drives to Family Dollar for supplies for the Fourth of July picnic, and all sort of associations ensue: “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of Lipton instant tea,” and “Oh beautiful, those spacious aisles stacked high with seasonal interest.” The last lines show the husband grilling while the son plays with his World Peacekeepers Patriot Soldier, “a twelve-inch fully posable action figure that plays the national anthem.”

Alexander's “Little Slave Narrative #!: Master” reminds us of a grim side of American history, with its depiction of a cruel slave master, who “would order the women to pull up their clothes, / ‘in Alabama style,’ as he called it.” He puts ads in the paper to try to retrieve his runaway slaves, ads which mentions their disfigurements. It’s a darker look at the Capitalist system that roots itself in the oppression of many for the gains of a few. Upon reading the two poems together, both intent on dissecting a piece of Americana, I saw subtle connections that I would never have seen if the book hadn’t presented these poems as part of a poetry chain.

In the end, it was most fun to just dip in and out of the book, delighting in the connections that I saw, not spending too much time in analysis of the chain itself. The book offers a multitude of fascinating poets and their poems, a variety of forms, something for everyone. For those wanting more, there’s a list of publication credits that tells where each poem originally appeared, as well as contributor’s notes and a flow chart, for those inclined to the fun of the chase of the chain.


Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, where she has just been promoted to Assistant Chair of the General Education department.


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