Held to the Letter by Dana Lisa Young and John Lowther is a series of 52 poems written while both of us were “on the clock” at our respective jobs, passing lines and stanzas back and forth, instead of updating spreadsheets or monitoring conference calls. The poems track the differing vexations of our days, dreams, needs, desires, refracted through a phrases and images, and passing, always passing back and passing forth, until one of us said, “Maybe that one’s done now?” & that was that— until the next one, the next day, the next collection of feelings one didn’t know the other’d felt (if differently, distinctly) till we’d spelt them out. That’s close enough to how it happened. Neither one of us wrote Held to the Letter, even if we both are.
Held to the Letter is forthcoming from Lavender Ink in 2015. None of the poems have been published elsewhere.
Here are a few comments about the book by poets you might know —
“Poem as sting operation.” The goal of many poetic collaborations seems to be a blending—a pre-assumption of common ground. Not so Held to the Letter, which is both conversation and metaconversation—its connections & disconnections, tensions & mutual debts, immediacy & longing, desire often unfulfilled. “contrast thrust upon us. / to moment or to speak as to an acute unveiling.” Engaged in the relationship between literal & implied, “interrogative, insinuative,” this book investigates itself—each author the other—in sparkling, sharp lines: “whatever gets / you last should be like the false echo of sky written / into dialogue you never heard me say to you / on opening tonight and you a drama critic / who’s sure the script has been corrupted / if only you could get your hands on proof.” Listen in.
— Bruce Covey
In a deft and sustained gesture of engagement Lowther and Young reveal, then bridge, the distance between voices of thought that find their way to gravity that does not settle. Very plural discoveries feel earned, rather than skimmed. The surfaces remain symptoms, and the pairing of these perceptual engines is decidedly greater than its sum.
— Sheila E. Murphy
“our story begins along a long block of pre-war apartment houses / where each doorway hides its own admission of the desire to know.” Or does it? In Lowther and Young’s collaborative poems, narrative and syntax are “folded together to be pulled apart” amid “all ways of flashback or hindsight foreshadows.” Pasts and futures real and imagined bleed into one another in these poems, creating and then dissolving “possible worlds and the one that got away.” Each of these elusive poems creates a new entrance every time it is read, and these “different rivers” will haunt the reader until they are, inevitably, waded into again.
— Chris McCreary
Held to the Letter blends two distinct voices into a singular discourse that is less a conversation or collage, and more of an exploration of the striated spaces and pressure points in our commonplaces and the language that constructs them. This is not an idealized space, but a space where their language warps and weaves in “a looped measure.” As the opening poem asserts, “reference as reversal. the line is straight / and never found.” The language that evolves throughout these poems is disruptive, but the fissures in this richly textured work prove that “’verb’ isn’t what you think,” but is instead the embodiment of our language and the social interactions that are enacted in it: “one hand talks / with the other, a slight unraveling. or is it / revealing.”
— Jonathan Minton
No, this is not the end, this is not even the triumph of inertia. “forget your dis-ease,” and hold tight in a dance. The lyric is not dead. It dances in the hands, feet, arms, legs, torsos, voices of John Lowther and Dana Lisa Young, as they pull out the pins, rip through the fabric and find a whole / a hole in which we enter. You, reader, enter, and I don’t think you’ll be able to help yourself. After all, the room is empty, with “a slight gap in the wallpaper,” and if the book in the room is incomprehensible, it is only thus to let its lines slip out and enter the air, our air. “I move through this one too” and we move here, too, not just the listeners, but the counterweights, the interactors, the interlocutors, for there are not just two here, but three or three thousand, or more, all of us, for we live in “pollex to hallux or all points between,” and we’re constantly going “around the mulberry bush.” Dear Reader, you may find that you already know this work, but you go there as for the first time, and ready yourself for the word as a “blunt instrument,” sharp as ice, hot as lead. “This transcript stands you up.” What do you want? “Tell me about it,” wearing “stretch pink and slinky clogs,” or save your report until we meet in some “meanwhile, back on the horizon.” What are you looking for, are you looking for, “I wasn’t looking for, you,” but “there you are,” and the sight may “shatter the farce that binds us.” This is the beginning. Read it. This is the lyric. Dance with it. Lowther and Young have given us a crooked path to a necessary place. Walk it. Held to the Letter is an astonishment not to be missed.
— Charles Alexander
Held to the Letter’s table of contents reads like the menu of a bijou restaurant in a faraway part of town serving up a cuisine never before invented. The ingredients are high and low, the mix an explosive reminder of what a very luscious language English is. What do you call a phrasal neologism? There are two chefs. First you think one is better. Then the other. Both are damned good. The dishes are delivered at speed, relentless and precise. Eye, ear and brain are rattled and purged. The torrent seems unstoppable. Then it stops. In the restaurant a guttering candle and Lowther, Joyce and Young, playing Cluedo until dawn ….
— Mairéad Byrne
Lovely interstices. A mash-up (best). How to articulate anew? This work is a start, the little engine that could, would, should.
— Catherine Daly
John Lowther & Dana Lisa Young’s Held to the Letter holds out to the reader not just the writers’ delight with words but also their great ability to together put them together, to make the most of them. The joy of & in them, their similar sounds, yet the different meanings held within, waiting to be cracked open. Words paused, parsed, passed participle. Participation from within. Without. foie gras / but not faux pas.
It is rare to find collaborations with such a single voice, such trust. Blindfolded, open-eyed.
hold my wrist.
tell me what you see bumped into after all this
sweat has done and said.
One leads, the other follows. Or vice versa. Walking together. The synergy / a new voice.
One for the prize of two.
— Mark Young, editor of Otoliths
Stuck at the office, what better to do than write a poem? The poems in Held to the Letter, compiled from lines the authors sent each other during their work days, show the value of stealing a poem away from a world that’s tried to steal poetry away. There’s resistance here to the easily said, to easy comforts, to money and power, yet resilience too, a determination to keep saying what needs to be said, across loss, across inevitable miscommunication. There are questions here more than answers, doubts more than certainties. Lacan once noted that a letter always reaches its destination. Held to the Letter shows that no one quite knows, until they try to find out, what destinations might be out there.
— Mark Wallace