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‘It’s Not Magic’ certainly is

Jon Sands, a regular performer in the Adirondack poetry scene, has been selected as a National Poetry Series winner. His book “It’s Not Magic” (Beacon Press) is an energetic investigation of youth and maturity, and a beautiful bridge between the worlds of spoken and written poetry.

Jon Sands grew up in Cincinnati and lives in Brooklyn, but has performed often in the Adirondacks since his first reading at Paul Smith’s College nearly a decade ago. Jon has headlined Adirondack Center for Writing workshops, been a resident at the Blue Mountain Center and given readings at coffee shops and bars across the region. His influence has a lot to do with the North Country’s growing performance poetry scene.

For someone who has been writing, publishing and performing with such inspiration and energy for so long, the National Poetry Series award is a much-deserved honor. In his foreword to the collection, Richard Blanco (President Obama’s 2013 inaugural poet) said he chose the work for its “undeniable presence” and that he could “practically hear” Jon’s voice, “see the dazzle in his eyes, follow the gestures of hands conducting the rhythms of his lines.”

For anyone who has witnessed Jon’s magnetic delivery, these descriptions feel spot on. His voice is an undeniable character in the poetic process — the speed of revelation, pathos, cadences and pauses all derive from Jon’s unique vocal choices. In performance, he can be both personal and forthright, conversational, demanding, or delighted.

But it takes more than a wide emotional range to create strong written pieces. Transferred to the page, poems simultaneously hint more but reveal less about themselves. We can tell immediately that a poem is about 14 lines long or that it appears in couplets. The emotional inflection, though, which arrives so instantaneously in performance, appears only through slow and repeated reading.

These differences can keep performance poets and written poets in separate lanes. But “It’s Not Magic” draws strength from both cultures. These poems have all the vital energy of Jon’s performance while still inviting us to read reiteratively, to catch how an effect builds, to glance back and verify its patterns, and to eventually understand the overall object.

Part of Jon’s success with this volume is his awareness of both sound and formal shape. Many of these poems appear as left-justified prose paragraphs whose movement comes from natural speech patterns. Lines like, “Downtown race riots that don’t make morning announcements,” or, “The break of a fist over this wicker box of expectation,” are strongly accented and alliterative, with the variable meter of poetry composed for the voice. They are a pleasure to speak, and the intricate prosody asks us to read alongside Jon, feeling his physical presence in the words.

On the other hand, “It’s Not Magic” makes full use of the page. The lovely, moving poem “Break” uses white space to indicate caesura and aerate the block of text with which it opens. “Check Out” uses alternatively left- and right- justified lines, and the masterful ghazal “Before the Bloom” reaches out to the intuitive repetition and emphasis of Jon’s spoken performance. These poems are deeply conscious of how shape both informs and carries energy.

Thematically, this is the work of a poet articulating his own maturity. In this collection we meet stories of family and Jon’s own childhood (“Origins: 1956” and “1999”), narrative poems describing his adolescence (“The Basement”) and later reckonings with those scenes (“Above Ground”). We have both short and long lyrics that open windows into momentary selves, on their way to becoming the Jon Sands who offers us this collection. This is a deeply revealing work, both glitteringly confident and conversant with shame. As Blanco says in the introduction, the poems ask us to “disappear into another dimension of language where honesty is as beautiful as it is brutal.”

Among the acknowledgements at the end of the book are some to other poets who have joined Jon in the Adirondacks over the years. He also thanks Nathalie Thill and the Adirondack Center for Writing, and “Harriet Barlow, Ben Strader and the staff at the Blue Mountain Center; many of these poems were written under the care of your unmatched hospitality.”

We have, as a region and a community of writers and readers, supported Jon over this long journey to winning the National Poetry Series. We can be proud and thankful for our role in this process. “It’s Not Magic” is a powerful book — one which pushes and reintegrates the conventions of poetry, and which asks us to consider poems as stories, as art and as heartfelt revelation. Now is your chance to pick up the book, read it and look forward to Jon’s next visit.

This collection’s success, then, is in form as well as voice.

As a performance poet, Jon’s poems are composed first for the voice and only secondarily for the page.

All this to say that “It’s Not Magic” accesses the energy and drive of spoken poetry by using formal elements to communicate those energetic states that we understand instantly during performance. This is a delicate balance that Jon remains aware of throughout the collection.

Or the strange and visually surprising poem “Decoded” (also chosen for the Best American Poetry 2014) which cascades across the page in a series of split lines. How do we even read this poem aloud?

This is the work of a poet aware of both sound and shape — a performance poet demonstrating the possibilities of translation between the media.