Having only just elected a new President of the United States nineteen or so hours earlier, Ed Ochester reminded us of what it is to be "thoroughly American." As the editor of the Pitt Poetry Series and its anthology American Poetry Now, Ochester knows the American attitude and certainly embodies it in his own work.
Ochester's rough Queens accent took form as our night's post-election professor at The New School Poetry Forum, moderated by David Lehman. There is a lot we can learn from an East Coaster with a hearty laugh and a deep presence of character. In response to a question from Lehman, Ochester said that his "default landscape" to which his mind reverts is not New York City exclusively but also Pittsburgh, and rural Western Pennsylvania, where he lives and which he equated to James Wright's Eastern Ohio, calling it "really America." In his poem, "Working at the Wholesale Curtain Showroom" from his newest book Unreconstructed: Poems Selected and New, we learned that "the great secret of living" is just to "be nice." We could hear the satire in his voice as he acted the part of the not-so-intelligent store manager: "you don't have to know nothin / about curtains, just be nice when people / come through the door…What we need is a nice / educated kid, like you, you'll do fine."
Ochester revealed, in "Fred Astaire," that "[t]he secret of his popularity was / that he looked like a bus driver / who could dance." By the end of the poem, Fred Astaire's seemingly ordinary talent is likened to the Astaire-admiring "Aunt Carrie," who, "like most Americans, / lived on dreams." There was a recognizing nod among the crowd at this point—as Americans, I think we like being told that our dreams are a source of cheap fuel for the proficiency of getting through a day. We are experts on being busy, expecting our dreams to pull us along like a leash. From a man who has both lived the rigorous city life and stopped a moment to rest in the more sparse areas of Pennsylvania, the crowd responded positively to Ochester's humor-laced truths.
When asked in which category of writer Ochester sees himself, he referenced those poets that write every day and said frankly, "I don't do that." However, being engaged with poetry is separate from writing it — being an editor, Ochester reads, critiques, and considers poetry every day, which then informs his own writing at some point. He said that he sometimes goes three or four months only writing notes, then it suddenly "just comes together. I start furiously writing." He found that a person can easily fall into the trap of "being seduced by your own writing," in Lehman's phrase. Ochester offered further advice that he gives to his established poets in the Pitt Poetry Series. He challenges the assumption that the key to success in poetry is to put out a book every two years so as to safeguard your reputation. Ochester instructed the crowd to "take pleasure in your work…It is most important to know that you're writing your best work."
Approaching a publisher, the poet should submit fresh, spirited work with a surprise to it. The manuscript should be coherent as a book—"unified in some legitimate way," as Lehman said. Every writer has a set of principles in the back of his or her head, according to Ochester. It's all then a matter of finding a voice that fits and exploring how it works. It also helps that editors are "overbearing and physically vicious at times," which certainly makes for more refined, accomplished work.
In light of the new President-Elect Barack Obama, Ochester alluded to a notion once held by Walt Whitman — that "the poor and crazy will now be cared for." He told us that tears were almost brought to his eyes while watching the election news on television. Whitman was the true American poet, and I think he would have agreed that we are all a bit crazy. Ochester manifested this for us through the recitation of his wholly honest poems. In "On Frank O'Hara's Birthday, Key West," he emphasized the line "loving the silliness," as we often do and should. He went on: "I'm glad Hemingway punched Wallace Stevens / here, thus minimizing the idea of order;" and, "all they want is pleasure and some memories, / all they want is permanence and / they won't find it."
Ochester left us with a sense of the importance of humor, frivolity, and the collective American mind that values life experience above all things.
-- Lindsay Daigle [11 / 5 / 08]