In Boozo Veritas #37 by Teege Braune
Words and Whiskey
Two of Cups Press’ collection of bourbon-inspired poetry called Small Batch begins with a brief description and history of bourbon followed by this short piece by David S. Atkinson entitled “A Bourbon Poetry Submission,”
I heard this press wanted poems about
This confused me, because I thought
was already a poem.
Bourbon, like poetry, is something that should be savored, enjoyed slowly. A connoisseur will return to her favorite examples over and over again throughout her life. When done well, poetry and bourbon are both highly nuanced with a complexity that requires a meditative examination. Some are of the mindset that bourbon and poetry should both be reserved for special occasions. Others, like John King and myself, see this as blasphemy and consume either as often as is humanly possible. Sour mash and white dog can be seen as the various drafts a distiller has to go through to achieve a signature product, just as a poet must rewrite a piece several times before it’s publishable. If you want to take a more mystical approach, both bourbon and poetry go through a kind of transubstantiation, a handful of unspectacular ingredients that, through craft and perhaps at times sheer luck or divine intervention, become something much greater than the sum of their parts. Poetry is a smattering of symbols with no inherent meaning, arranged in such a manner as to bring forth, inexplicably, image, music, language at its most significant. Bourbon contains the same mystery. It isn’t just the alcohol derived from distillation, a process any chemistry major understands and can duplicate; it is the ineffable quality that comes from aging 51% corn based alcohol in new, charred oak barrels. Alcohol aged in anything else is not bourbon and inferior for that reason. It is why all the best bourbons still come from a small geographical area in northern Kentucky.
But I digress. A distiller must follow strict guidelines to even legally market a whiskey as bourbon. Poetry, on the other hand, is more elusive a term, and the pieces collected in Small Batch exemplify this in their range and diversity. While many of the poems in this collection follow the American free-verse tradition and the confessional tone so popular with the post-MFA crowd, others experiment with voice and style such as Briana Gervat’s “Bourbon Style Green Eggs and Ham,” an amusing, adult-oriented parody of Dr. Seuss’ classic. Not unexpectedly, some of the work goes down like a shot of Old Crow,
harsh, unrefined, a bit painful, the only appeal being that any poetry, like bourbon, is better than no poetry at all, but you’ll be glad you endured these moments when you come to gems like Jeremy Dae Paden’s two poems “Smooth Pour” and “The Story of Uncle Frank,” truly top shelf work reminiscent of that deliciously obscure bottle one pulls out to wow friends at social gatherings. If you are expecting a collection of Bukowski knockoffs, look elsewhere. The Bard of Debauchery shows his influence here and there, winking slyly in Erin Elizabeth Smith’s “Drinking Poem” and Jude C. McPherson’s “Neat.” On the other hand, much of this work stands completely outside of Bukowski’s legacy. This anthology demonstrates that the nexus between bourbon and poetry is much larger than the romanticized notion of an alcoholic writer, though that character has a time and a place as well. As the unifying factor of every poem of this collection, bourbon takes on a myriad of roles: as an aspect of cultural identity in Ellen Hagan’s “Kentucky – You Be,” welcomed antagonist in Peter Fong’s “A Thirsty Man Considers his Future,” poetic muse in Parneshia Jones’ “Ode to Bourbon: A Writer’s Distillery,” and simply one lovely detail amongst many in Annette Spaulding-Convy’s incredible “The Spaulding-Criss-Potter-Craig-Sherer-Smith-Walker Women Ponder the Corrals They’ve Built Inside.”
Small Batch’s introduction invites us to “Pour a shot, open a page, and drink it in.” While the poems are divided into lose sections cleverly titled “drawing confessions,” “crack the wax,” “bourbon-strong fist,” “whatever’s open has to go,” and “this want travels,” nothing compels the reader to read these poems in any particular order. Reading any poetry anthology cover to cover is kind of like sampling from every bottle of a prodigious bourbon collection in a single evening. Discovering something new, returning to an old favorite, these are the twin joys of bourbon and poetry. Scan the shelf, pull off any bottle that strikes you for no good reason; peruse the table of contents, grab a title at random. I, for one, am finishing off the bottle of Elmer T. Lee that my brother gave me for Christmas two years ago while revisiting this delightful collection on a Sunday afternoon, as good a time as any for drinking and poetry. We all have our priorities, and I’m grateful for artists, distillers and poets alike, who take the time to create those things that make life worth living.
Teege Braune (episode 72, episode 75, episode 77, episode 90) is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.