Undergraduate Responses to e.s.p. by Michael Leong

08/17/11

Purchase e.s.p.by Michael Leong here.

Last week, I visited my colleague Steve’s English 219: Principles of Literary Study class to discuss my book e.s.p. with his group of students. It was a really engaging class and I enjoyed answering everyone’s questions. Additionally, all the class participants had written brief, informal response pieces which I especially appreciated since it’s always nice to get fresh perspectives on one’s work. I’m excerpting some of them below for all of you following at home. I tried to create a balance of general comments and specific ones about individual poems.
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I would like to begin by really stressing the fact that this poetry is different than anything I’ve ever read. The entire book is a collection of poems that I enjoyed, but there were some poems that I did not understand. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I will never get it, it just means that it will take a lot of extra work to do this and it is probably due to my inexperience in poetry. The fact that it was so unique and interesting continued to draw me to the poems and to keep reading.
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I…really enjoyed “In lieu of a poem” because it challenged my idea of what a poem “should” be. Much like our tiny poems unit and Anne Carson’s “Nox,” this poem is unconventional and unique. It is written in almost paragraph form, and it does not contain separated lines or stanzas. I also enjoyed it because it was slightly disturbing.
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When looking over Michael Leong’s poetry it comes off as extremely different from the poetry that we have been studying so far in this course, and actually what I usually see when reading poetry in general. Leong’s sentences, at first, don’t seem to make much sense; it takes a while to think about them and take into consideration what he is writing about. As I do spend time with his poems, however, his words become more clear and touching.
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The two poems that I read from Michael Leong’s poetry book, entitled “e.s.p.”, were named “The Creation Story” and “Se Te Escaparon Los Enanitos Pa’l Bosque”. I picked these two, firstly, because the titles intrigued me. But more importantly, I think they are terrific to compare because they are two poems that differ so radically in form. And yet, somehow their themes both tend toward the mythical as an explanation for reality…What links these two poems together is the theme of “explanation”. One directs its attentions to the genesis of the universe, the other to the genesis of the human mind (Milton would argue there is hardly any difference between the two). By referencing archaic myth and more-than-human entities, the seemingly impenetrable concept of explaining the mind and the universe becomes less daunting and more approachable task. Odd as it sounds, the fake stories of dwarves and the abstract concept of a creation tale make the world more accessible to us, who cannot grasp the sheer enormity of it all. These poems minimize the scope of our enquiries, so we won’t go absolutely nuts when we ponder their origins.
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Leong’s use of big words extremely distracted me from this poem and I got lost in the second half. I had to look up multiple words and I don’t think I am grasping the ending.
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After reading Michael Leong’s poem I found some to be overwhelmingly frustrating yet interesting and appealing. The forms on each of the poems vary from free verse, prose like or even mimic the content of the poem as in “The Signals (2)”. In the poems I found a lot of references to different works, places or concepts, which I needed to research in order to further understand the poems such as “The Tropic of Cancer”, “Nazca Lines”, “Pandora’s Tomb” “omphalos” to name a few…The poems are all quite complex. They show a variety of forms and methods and have a vast amount of worldly knowledge this makes me believe that the poems may be targeted to a different group of people.
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This poem leaves the reader wondering about this mysterious “it” which is leaving “without saying goodbye” and “without leaving a note”. These references could be talking about so many things. The “it” could be referring to a lover or spouse who leaves the relationship quietly and without notice. “It” could refer to time which sometimes seems to scurry away a little too sneakily. “It” could even refer to a disease which has mysteriously disappeared from a patient. It is up to the reader to determine what “it” means to them, which makes the poem so much more attractive to me because it stimulates introspection in the reader.
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Michael Leong’s poem “’i’ before ‘e’” is an extremely interesting work. The poem begins with a quote from [David Lynch’s] Jeffrey Beaumont, which proclaims that there are few opportunities for an individual to gain experience and knowledge. The poem then uses that quote as a reference and states, “Point taken, Jeffrey—if by ‘experience,’/ you mean ‘sneaking into a woman’s apartment/ disguised as an exterminator.’” (1-3). The narrator of this poem takes a quote that is formal and traditional, and compares to a non-traditional, non-formal, and perverse idea. Beaumont’s quote was directed towards making accomplishments in life, taking all the opportunities available to you, but the narrator within this work redirects the meaning of “experience” to be something quite different.
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Estela Lamat’s review of Leong’s work hit the nail on the head in terms of the poem he had written for/about her. Lamat wrote that Leong is a “slap to the gland of boredom and easy poetry, a magician that articulates undomesticated verses with elegance and intelligence”. Leong’s poetry is modern and the style of his writing has a certain elegance to it, which is especially present in this piece.
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One of the first poems that caught my eye was “magnetic poetry.” At first glance it seems like a lot of nonsense strung together and I thought it was funny because that’s usually what magnetic poetry looks like on refrigerators. My friends and I like to rearrange people’s magnets sometimes so they say sentences that make no sense, but still sound like something, like “Eating dog chocolate good tripping you lay orange” or something because we think it’s funny, someone will look at it later and see it was deliberately placed and probably try to figure out what you mean. However this poem was not nonsense, it just looks that way at first. I think it is about writing a poem and trying to get all the style right and making that seem absurd because it’s impossible to do with magnetic poetry…There are many words that have somewhat obscure meanings or you wouldn’t use in everyday language, which is typical of poetry but originally here just seems silly. I had to look up each word I did not understand like “gnomic” and then I actually got a sense of someone writing a poem, or attempting to, in a frustrated medium.
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Thanks to Steve for inviting me and thanks to all the students for their thoughtful comments!





Michael Leong’s poetry career began in the sixth grade when he won his first and only poetry prize in Mr. Harrison’s class for a haiku about a snake. Since then, he has received degrees in English and Creative Writing from Dartmouth College, Sarah Lawrence College, and Rutgers University and has published poems in journals such as Hotel Amerika, jubilat, Lana Turner, Marginalia, Opium Magazine, Pindeldyboz, Tin House, and Verse Daily. He is the author of two volumes of poetry, e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009) and Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions / The Brooklyn Rail, forthcoming), as well as a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All (BlazeVOX [books], 2009). His recently completed manuscript The Philosophy of Decomposition/Re-composition as Explanation was a semifinalist for the 2011 Sentence Book Award and will be published as a limited edition chapbook by Delete Press. He currently lives in New York City.