The next time a student complains that Shakespeare is "too hard," I'm going to show him this.
In the old days -- that is, in ancient Greece -- the male citizens of Athens used to gather each year in the amphitheater and, together, recite the Iliad from memory. Poetry was really popular! Well, it's still popular, relatively speaking, as I will now show.
In this video Venezuelan actress Mercedes Brito tells what coming to Hollywood from Caracas has taught her. There are a number of interesting things about Mercedes Brito. First, she's absolutely bilingual, which I always find kind of spooky. Second, she has 250,000 Facebook followers, and whenever she posts anything on her Facebook page at least a thousand people immediately comment on it. So take it away, Mercedes Brito ---->>>
Mercedes Brito is huge, right? Well, not so fast. Most of her fans are probably Venezuelans -- and as Mercedes Brito herself admits, America is a whole new ballgame. That's why, when Mercedes Brito goes against Jorie Graham in a Youtube faceoff, Jorie Graham kicks her ass ----->>>
Yes, at the time of this writing Jorie is beating Mercedes by a score of 2700 views to 640. So I hope I've restored your faith in the public's taste. But let's not get carried away. To provide a bit of perspective, here once again is the all-time most popular kitten video, with 14,000,000 views and counting --->>>
This week we welcome actor, poet, and songwriter Michael O'Keefe as our guest blogger. As an actor, O'Keefe has garnered both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. He's appeared in the films Michael Clayton, Frozen River, The Pledge, Ironweed, The Great Santini and Caddyshack. Television audiences will remember him as "Fred" on Roseanne. Other TV appearances also include The West Wing, Law and Order, House M.D., The Closer, and Brothers and Sisters. He's appeared on Broadway in Reckless, Side Man,The Fifth of July, and Mass Appeal, for which he received a Theater World Award. As a writer his lyrics were in the Grammy winning song, Longing in their Hearts, which was composed and sung by Bonnie Raitt. He's also written with Irish singer songwriter Paul Brady and numerous other composers. His writing has appeared in BOMB, Lake Affect and Chaparral. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Michael O'Keefe's new book of poems is Swimming from Under My Father (Noble Swine Press, 2009). Find out more about Michael here.
In Other News . . .
Jessica Piazza has agreed to spend more time with us as she wraps up her road trip.
Thanks, Jessica and welcome, Michael.
Yesterday, my lovely friend Meaghan took me (along with our friends Bree and Adrian) to the most remarkable place. It’s called “the Cathedral of Junk,” and it lives in a backyard in South Austin.
I can’t explain it. I have pictures, which I’ll post below. If you want to read about it, you can go here: Cathedral of Junk article.
However—while this spectacle is unique, perfectly representative of Austin and, yes, dumbfounding—the reason I’m posting about it here is because it reminded me a little of my last post about where artists get their material. That post, of course, discussed personal material as inspiration.
This one will be about junk.
Or, as some people call it, “found” material. As poets, so many of us use other people’s words while creating our own pieces. Whether beginning with an epigram or including a line from a book, movie, or bit of conversation we overhear into our work, whether using other writers’ lines in a cento or, like some more experimental poets, simply transcribing some other linguistic piece (I’m thinking Ken Goldsmith’s project of transcribing the New York Times, and other such endeavors), “found language” is so common in poetry that I don’t even really think about it much.
But it’s hard not to, sometimes. Poetry has a dismally small audience (I’ve mentioned this before, yes) and sometimes it’s hard to remember that we intend our poems as conversations…with other poems, at the very least, since what came before us informs what we do. But more than that, most of the poets I know are trying to speak not only about, but with, the world around them, asking readers to see everyday things as extraordinary. The fact that some of those everyday things are actual bits of language the people themselves produce, well, that’s a sort of a gift, isn’t it? Here—the act of creating this way seems to say—here’s something you’ve said on the subway, or that exists on your bookshelf, or in a pamphlet, or on a bathroom wall or a graffiti-scrawled train car—here, let me show you how cool it is. Everything, anything, can be wonderful.
That seems to me to be the project of the Cathedral of Junk. It’s a pretty fantastic one, actually. But if you read that article I’ve linked to, you’ll see that neighbors complain. The city tries to shut it down. It’s basically a mess, right, but that doesn’t stop people from coming, climbing, loving, being utterly awed by it. How very, very cool.
Pictures follow. But, your question! Which, today, is only partially a question:
Have you tried to work with found language? Maybe you’ll post a little of it here, in these comments, for us to read?
-- Lyn Hejinian
-- Patricia Carlin
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.
The wind blew east: we heard the roar
Of Ocean on his wintry shore,
And felt the strong pulse throbbing there
Beat with low rhythm our inland air.
Meanwhile we did your nightly chores,--
Brought in the wood from out of doors,
Littered the stalls, and from the mows
Raked down the herd's-grass for the cows;
Heard the horse whinnying for his corn;
And, sharply clashing horn on horn,
Impatient down the stanchion rows
The cattle shake their walnut bows;
While, peering from his early perch
Upon the scaffold's pole of birch,
The cock his crested helmet bent
And down his querulous challenge sent.
Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro
Crossed and recrossed the wingèd snow:
And ere the early bed-time came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.
As night drew on, and, from the crest
Of wooded knolls that ridged the west,
The sun, a snow-blown traveller, sank
From sight beneath the smothering bank,
We piled, with care, our nightly stack
Of wood against the chimney-back,--
The oaken log, green, huge, and thick,
And on its top the stout back-stick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art
The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.
The crane and pendent trammels showed,
The Turks' heads on the andirons glowed;
While childish fancy, prompt to tell
The meaning of the miracle,
Whispered the old rhyme: "Under the tree,
When fire outdoors burns merrily,
There the witches are making tea."
The moon above the eastern wood
Shone at its full; the hill-range stood
Transfigured in the silver flood,
Its blown snows flashing cold and keen,
Dead white, save where some sharp ravine
Took shadow, or the somber green
Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black
Against the whiteness at their back.
For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where'er it fell
To make the coldness visible.
In twenty years I’ll write your poem
In twenty years: how can I wait
made of the moment’s trash
I lie down on the floor like a man wiped out.
It’s dark, a night without stars, I’m completely empty.
Crawling through the wreckage, I come closer.
Because he is someone else. The discovery
Has the rose of the people lost its petals
Closer, and a light. Closer, and paintings,
Suddenly the beard stops growing. Telegrams
Now I know we’ve been cut off cold.
But your powerful shade casts off and moves on.
— Carlos Drummond de Andrade (from A Rosa do Povo, 1945)
<< In the raw data of a census, you can see who lived next door to whom, their households with grandchildren, lodgers, slaves; how they are marked as illiterate, what language their parents spoke, how they lived in close density to one another in a Northeastern city, or were among the very few people in a town, named for an animal, on a prairie. The Statistical Abstract of the United States is an historical compilation of census data. In its tables you can see the large trends in our society over time--how people marry or don't, what they die from, how they go to school. We are all something like and unlike the societal changes that we see in statistics. Here is our history.>>
Stephanie Brown, whose poems have appeared in BAP and on this site, and who recently offered an astrological reading of Grace Kelly's career, comments on her poems (such as "The Census: 2010") in the new Ploughshares. Take a look!
Josh and I got into our first heated debate of the trip today. Not a fight—since it was approached in a largely intellectual manner—but certainly it was a passionate discussion containing several points on which we vehemently disagreed.
Here’s how the story goes:
We left Marfa behind us (sadly, determined to get back there someday, and soon), and began the seven(ish)-hour drive to Austin. Josh and I love each other dearly and find each other infinitely fascinating, but after four days of nonstop togetherness we were definitely ready for a conversational lull. Today, we spent much of the drive listening to podcasts of NPR’s This American Life. (Which are so damn good, by the way, so if you ever have a long car or plane trip, think about downloading some. Yay Ira Glass!)
Somewhere around the time the landscape transformed from desolate desert and mountain to a greener, hillier central Texas, we were between podcasts and Josh brought up an interesting point. “You love This American Life because of the stories,” he said. “But your poetry isn’t particularly narrative.” And thus started our long, meandering conversation about the nature of storytelling in poetry.
And This American Life actually fed into it all perfectly. On one episode, we learn about a 52-year-old man (Jerry) who’s exhaustively listed his every daily activity since he was 10-years-old. From the interview, it seemed likely that he was autistic, or in some way challenged, but that wasn’t the focus of the piece. After detailing how his friends and family thought the lists were insane, how they mocked him and/or tried to talk him out of doing it, the reporter eventually wrapped it up with his own opinion, which was that Jerry did it so he could feel like he’s done something with his life. In other words, it was his way of telling his life story.
I met Lisa Vihos when David and I visited Lakeland College in Wisconsin last October. We were in a workshop together and I loved her poems. Later we talked about food and cooking and I was thrilled when she agreed to contribute a recipe. Lisa's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Free Verse, Lakefire, Wisconson People and Ideas, Seems, and Big Muddy. She loves to cook for family and friends (see how happy she is in the photo above, with her sister and dad?). Lisa maintains a weekly poetry blog here. And here's what she has to say about this week's recipe for spinach pie:
It helps immensely to properly follow the thawing instructions as written on the box. Take it out of the freezer two hours before you will use it, just like it says. Do not try putting the phyllo in direct sunlight for a 20-minute speed thaw. Plan ahead!
Have all the ingredients mixed and ready before you open the phyllo package. Don’t be leaving your phyllo exposed to the air while you are melting butter or mixing spinach or anything like that. If you must leave your phyllo unattended to go to the bathroom, answer the phone, or help a child tie a shoe, make sure to cover the sheets with a clean, dry dish towel to protect them from the air.
Work quickly and stay calm. A few sheets may stick together. A few sheets may end up in shreds. No matter. If you keep your wits about you and just keep pushing on, you will end up with a spinach pie. I have made a whole pie from shreds and a few well-placed sheets that kept their shape! Remember, butter is your friend and can be used to glue everything together if need be.
In the making of spinach pie, as in life, there are no mistakes! Only reminders to pay closer attention to detail next time. Be quick, but not sloppy. Mend when mending is required. Do not skimp on butter. Stay calm. Be kind and gentle. Do not tear into fragile things. Share. Spinach pie tastes best when eaten with friends. Yasoo!Lisa’s Yaya’s Spinach Pie
1 lb. package frozen phyllo dough
3 10 oz. packages frozen chopped spinach
8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
24 oz.. container small curd cottage cheese (sometimes, I only use ¾ of it and I eat the rest for lunch)
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1.5 sticks of butter, melted (approximately - if anything you will need more)
3 Tbls chopped fresh dill (optional)
Remove phyllo from freezer at least two hours before you will be making your spinach pie and leave it on the kitchen counter to thaw. (Read the instructions on the box. They know what they are talking about! See “A Note About Phyllo” above.) Preheat the oven to 375. Melt 1.5 sticks of butter on low heat and keep it melted but watch so it doesn’t burn.
We’re still in Marfa, though we made a quick zip over to Ft. Davis, which was a great little town. We stopped at a rattlesnake museum. And the fort itself, an old military post from the mid-1800s, was incredible. There was an elderly couple who worked there as volunteers for a few months, hiking and covering the fort museum, while on a cross-country RV journey. (Josh named them Earl and Sherry, because we didn't catch their names but, man, did they totally look like an Earl and Sherry.) Also, there was a really interesting, nice guy named Doug who breeds and trains camels, and brought three of them to the fort for a kid’s event they’d had earlier. I’m in love with camels.
Before the fort, we took the early half of the Chinati Foundation tour, where we saw a bunch of installations of Donald Judd’s art, along with other artists’s work permanently installed in the buildings on the foundation’s property.
Partially because of these great sights, this post will be mostly photographs…but also partially because I’m exhausted and I want to take a nap before we eat dinner. Josh's blog will probably cover some more crucial details eventually, plus is just an interesting read generally.
However, I will say that seeing the art this morning reminded me of a conversation we had over drinks with Tim and Caitlin last night. (Who really are awesome, by the way. We had a great time with them.) Tim’s interested in concrete poems, which are rather out of vogue these days. But some of his poems are political, and concrete or more art-based poems can be interesting, I think, in terms of “poetry as monument.” The artifact of the poem becomes a testimonial the same way a memorial statue or a plaque might. And funny enough, Tim has had plenty of his poems shown at art shows, even when literary journals might not be as responsive.
It’s a question, then,
whether visual artists are simply more open-minded to mixing genres without
re-labeling the work. Because,
sure, we poets often collaborate with artists, but for some reason I feel like
we don’t generally call these collaborations “poems,” where an artist might more
easily call them “artworks.”
It’s a question, then, whether visual artists are simply more open-minded to mixing genres without re-labeling the work. Because, sure, we poets often collaborate with artists, but for some reason I feel like we don’t generally call these collaborations “poems,” where an artist might more easily call them “artworks.”
So, pictures. But first, your question for today:
What’s your favorite piece of writing about art? Or animals? Or forts, for that matter?
And more below....
As the lunch hour drew to the close, we asked Auden what he liked best about New York, and he said Jewish jokes. He asked if we knew any. I said I was from Los Angeles and couldn't really do a good accent, but my aunt from Brooklyn and my father told some good jokes. He laughed at the couple I told him, and then he told one of his favorites. A man from the Upper West Side goes to his psychiatrist. The doctor listens and tells him he is depressed and hostile. The doctor suggests a hobby or a pet, something to bring him out of it. The man says he lives in a small apartment; it would be difficult. The doctor says even a small pet would do. After several weeks, the doctor noted improvement and asked if the man had bought a pet. "Yes," the man said. "What kind?" "Bees," he replied. "Bees?" the doctor said, puzzled. "I thought you said you had a small apartment. Where do you keep them?" "In a cigar box," said the patient. "But how do they breathe?" the doctor asked.
"How do they breathe?" said the patient. "Fuck 'em."
from "Lunching on Olympus" by Steven L. Isenberg [The American Scholar, Winter 2009]
Monday night’s reading marked the concluding Poetry Forum of the semester, and though ordinarily preoccupied with finals, MFA students were strong in number. Mark Doty was no disappointment. His most recent book, Fire to Fire, won the National Book Award in 2008; he has received numerous awards both nationally and abroad. Doty began the evening with poems he considered fitting for writers. One poem surveyed the inevitable interaction between reader and text: in this instance, a previously owned version of Song of Myself, complete with marginal notations. Whitman offers, “What is the grass?” And Doty ponders the question noted by a student: “Isn’t it grass?” In another poem for writers, titled “Pipistrelle” Doty recounts his experience spotting a bat in
Doty’s poem can be found here:
Click here for Bennett’s poem.
Doty discussed his “Theories and Apparitions” from Fire to Fire, confiding in the audience: “I made a theory and a couple of days later I thought, well, that seems incomplete.” He read one such “Theory of Beauty,” in which he invented names for bird cries. Consider these examples of the grackle: “Fire crackers with a break report” and “Imperious impure singing.” Doty’s “Apparitions” are inspired by moments when “poets of the past intrude into the present.” “Apparition (Favorite Poem),” published in The Best American Poetry 2009, is based on a young man’s recitation of a Shelley poem. For the living poet, these lines are chilling: “He makes the poem his own/ even as he becomes a vessel/ for its reluctance to disappear.” This poem inherently questions the value of poetry, moving the reader (listener) to go home and commit her favorite poem to memory. Other apparitions include the likes of John Berryman, Homer, and Darwin.
Doty is inspired not only by other writers, but also by images and found text. One such poem began with a photo in “National Geographic” of a frozen baby mammoth, the first-ever poem from this perspective: “I am still one month old and forty thousand years without my mother.” Magazines are a mine for Doty, and he shared a found poem from “The Iris Catalog,” featuring a menacing flower called the “Anvil of Darkness.” Doty inquired, “Can you imagine growing something called the “Anvil of Darkness?”
Following the reading was an engaging Q & A, which began with ruminations on Wordsworth and Whitman. David Lehman, the moderator and Poetry Coordinator of The New School MFA program, asked if Doty was aligned with Whitman. Doty responded, “Whitman is a tutelary spirit,” and explained the appeal of Whitman’s “warmth of embrace,” as opposed to Wordsworth’s analytical approach, which often forgoes a direct address. In considering the traditions of these great mentors, Doty reflected on his own work: “I want things to be located in particular relationships and periods of time.”
The moderator asked how the word “theory” fit into Doty’s practice. Was it a synonym for poetry? Doty connects theories to observation: “one looks at experience and comes to understanding based on a study of the evidence the world provides.” Comparing theories to apparitions, Doty noted, “We as a species are theory-makers… What is it that contradicts us but an apparition? An apparition confounds a theory.” Doty also considered the haunting moments when an admired poet enters your life: “When you know someone’s work it becomes a lens through which you see your experience — for example, I’m in a John Ashbery poem!”
When asked how he jumpstarts his imagination, Doty discussed his reading preferences: “I read stimulating texts that are not poems, such as art history. I am reading Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Colasso. It just makes me want to sit down and start scribbling a poem. Music can do that. Gardening can do that.” Doty touched upon the different ways in which he approaches prose and poetry, explaining that his poems have a longer life span, or remain in the works for a good deal of time, whereas prose requires his committed concentration. When writing prose Doty does not write poems, but works diligently to complete a draft.
Instead of leaving the audience with an assignment or writing exercise Doty encouraged students to read as artists: “look for what you can appropriate.” The dexterous student might practice such appropriation by turning to the pages of Fire to Fire.
Plans have changed. Negotiations have been made. Hill country has been eschewed, and Marfa is now, officially, our favorite place ever. We’re staying an extra night here. Also, maybe we’re never leaving. After the morning we had, who would have thought today would have turned out so great? Not us, I tell you.
At the cold, dawn-dark Days Inn in Van Horn, TX—after a breakfast of egg-like disks on stale mini-bagels and NO WAFFLES because some mean lady took the last one and, adding insult to injury, said “too bad because these are so good— we almost got busted for not reporting our pet to the front desk. (Yes, we lied. But Special is so good! He would never cause any damage!) Anyway, by then we were certainly enthused to speed our way merrily along Highway 90 toward better, artsier days. “Speed” being the pivotal word there, as somewhere down the road we got pulled over for going 84 in a 75 mph zone. (Really? I mean, that’s not that fast.) Thankfully, I have a system for getting out of speeding tickets, especially in Texas. I banter. You think this wouldn’t work, but it does. The guy (aviators, five o’clock shadow first thing in the morning, pure Texas Highway Patrol) looked at my New York license and my Cali plates and asked “where exactly ARE you from, anyway?” From the way he said it, neither answer was better—obnoxious Yank or ditzy LA rich girl—so I just told the truth, which is that I'm from both places.
I then went on to make a fool of myself. “But I went to school at UT, so I’d never root for the Trojans, I’m all ‘hook ‘em, Horns!’ you know!” “I hate UT,” he deadpanned. Josh couldn’t help it. He snorted. Quietly, but still. Anyway, the point is, he may hate the Longhorns (and I may have been lying, since I care about football a lot less than, say, getting a waffle at the free breakfast bar at a bad motel), we still got off with a warning only. Which was fabulous. We drove away (at a reasonable speed), blasting Wu-Tang (the cop would have loved that, I bet) and giggling.
Shortly after, we reached Prada Marfa, an art installation just on the border of Valentine, TX. For those of you who don’t know it, Prada Marfa is an art installation, a free-standing building on the side of the highway, lit from the inside and surrounded only by desert, where several Prada bags and (all right foot) shoes are starkly displayed. It’s pretty incredible. The rumor is it’s partially funded by Prada and that they select the merchandise for display themselves, but I haven’t found confirmation of that.
Either way, it’s funny, since the whole affair is a fairly stark commentary on the ridiculousness of consumerism and “luxury” when juxtaposed with nature (the beauty of it, but also the desolation) and the everyday lives of ordinary Americans.
I don’t think it matters that we forget so much. There was a stage of about a year wherein the little boy lined things up: a collection of thread spools would be coaxed out of crowd formation and aligned in drill-squad. A year of the surprise of order behind every turn, like a line of cds stretching their rainbowed mirrors from the kitchen through the dining room, right to the mouth of the living room television. Then at some point the boy stopped lining things up. We still talked about it for a while, describing to friends the frequency of this linear art. Then at some point we stopped mentioning it, and now when we see photographs of stickers placed like a stocking-line neatly up the mother’s leg, or any other elongation of a theme, it’s a surprise reunion with another time. Oh, yeah, remember all those lines? The boy who had a face of gentle beauty and serious intent, surveying the job, is gone now, is now a small man who knows what television shows he wants to watch and what time they’re on. These losses are immense and yet they are the least of our poetic problems.
The most of our poetic problems is the will to persist. Behind every action of great courage is a delusion. The delusion is not exactly false, but neither is it quite true. You may believe that if you get the words all in the right order some kind of invisible confetti will descend and the actual attention of your father will turn towards you the way your wintery little town slowly but inarguably rolls its face towards the sun. Or you may feel that some inner wrongness in your outer organs, some mismatch of mental valves, could be laparoscopically corrected were you only able to get the text precise and perhaps win a prize for it. Sanity has something to do with recognizing reality, but the connection is loose, because reality bears out that this delusion of purpose is a delusion. When something comes true, something indeed comes true, but not the part we meant or even thought of. The part that comes true comes true without bringing anything else into being.
In high clarity is despair. How could it be otherwise? To be able to be in the world requires delusion, so the temporary displacement of delusion is a time out of ability. You are in a time out of the world.
Better to seek the delusionless delusion, the delusion that is no delusion? Or the delusion that knows it is a delusion? Not best is the deluded delusion because part of you always knows better, either deeply, in wisdom, or on the surface, vaguely noting that small tests of the delusion keep oddly failing. And that piles up and piles up until the whole thing comes down.
For many people the whole thing eventually comes down. For others nothing ever went up in the first place. For those who do not yet know what I am talking about, perhaps keep this as a caution in the back of your mind. If you ever find yourself lost and bereft of delusion, without even enough delusion to sit at the desk, and you think you are a mountain among mountains but suddenly crumbling, remember that it has been suggested that the mountains around you are ocean waves and you are only crashing because crashing is what waves do.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on December 16, 2009 at 05:14 PM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
I think that Alexandra Anderson-Spivy is a little too severe on this particular collage, which she sees as derivative of Max Ernst: "Goddess. . . because. . . because from 1954, his version of the three graces, those handmaidens of Venus who personify beauty in classical mythology, simply layered cutouts of models in evening gowns against a sylvan landscape. Instead of the legendary apple, one of them holds a roll of toilet paper, the artist’s wry product placement signifying the debasement of modern culture (and his pun on the sanitary napkin ad)."
Your opinion, gentle reader?
Hi travel pal!
It’s almost six p.m., and daytime is only a glowing line of bright yellow clinging to the black hills of West Texas. We just rolled through border patrol, where a very nice female officer inquired about our citizenship. “USA,” we said, and she snickered. Me with my Apple laptop plugged via converter into the car charger, and the GPS system suction-cupped to the windshield telling us it’s “recalculating.” When she asked where we’re going and we said Marfa we got yet another eye-roll, my crazy-looking dog turning around in his doggie-booster seat and Josh flashing a charming smile behind his aviators and hipster-fisherman’s cap. Small artists’ community in the desert? Umm, obviously.
In this case, we were exactly what the officer expected. But during the trip today, with nothing—and I mean nothing—but scrub brush and the occasional metal pre-fab shed for a hundred miles at a time (what’s in those things, anyway?), Josh and I started talking about a particular unexpected phenomenon we sometimes witness: the terribly good or wonderfully bad poetry reading.
It all started because, between This American Life podcasts and naps, I sat in the passenger seat and read aloud each of the poems from the “56 Days” section of Kate Greenstreet's latest book “The Last 4 Things.” For those of you who know Greenstreet’s absolutely wonderful poems, they’re an eerie, disjunctive lot, full of recurring lines, reappearing characters and settings, random bits of dialogue between unknown persons and scarce little linear storytelling. Which, honestly, isn’t such an easy read out loud (though she does quite the job herself, as anyone who’s heard her knows). “The eye fills in what it knows,” she writes in one poem, but so does the ear. Surrealistic and leaping, the listener of these poems can never really anticipate what might come next, so the speaker has to slow down, stay focused, and, ultimately, use the voice to convey some of the emotional import and changes in mood the text attempts. I did my best.
I think this difficulty rings true for much non-narrative poetry, but also for any poetry read in public to an audience. And that’s where I declared a major problem I have with graduate poetry-writing programs in general: the lack of focus on public reading skills, as though those weren’t integral to our work as professional poets. As a PhD student, I’m not required (nor even encouraged) to take public speaking or drama courses. Nowhere in the curricula is it acknowledged that, because we poets have a devastatingly small audience matched by terrible underrepresentation in book stores, most of us will sell the majority of our books (if we’re lucky enough to publish some) at poetry readings. Shouldn’t that fact be considered when deciding what professional poets should learn in school?
My favorite movie scene is the one where the detective and his wife are sound asleep and the phone rings on the night table. The detective quickly awakens, picks up the phone, and says, "I'll be right over" or "I'm on my way!" I feel really safe and secure whenever I watch a scene like that. It's so very familiar, like an old shoe. Versions of it have been in lots of movies but never enough for me.
Along the same lines, sometimes when I'm stuck in a a traffic jam (happens every day) I listen to call in shows on the NPR station. Often a caller will complain that the attention wasted on celebrity gossip or other drivel should be devoted to serious topics like health care or climate change. Whenever I hear that I get the same warm, reassuring feeling that comes with the scene of the detective waking up. I feel the same way when somebody says that lots of other people were killed in car crashes like Princess Diana but there were no newspaper articles about those people. I love it!
So if you feel so inclined, please "make my day" by inveighing against the two video clips below. The first one appeared just yesterday. It's a nice long "Today Show" interview with Tiger Woods' girlfriend Cori Rist -- and it couldn't be more wonderful! I love everything about this interview and I've watched it many times. I really don't think any detail has escaped me. And yes, yes, I should be watching interviews with Joe Lieberman, which makes it even better. In fact, just thinking about Joe Lieberman (or Paul Krugman, if you prefer) in conjunction with this video gives me a tremendous rush of Mr. Snoid-like pleasure. Lawrence Summers and Cori Rist! Timothy Geithner! OMG!
But that's not all. How about a "cute kitten" video that has gotten almost twelve million views?! Think of it! The cute kitten video is 17 seconds long. Multiply 17 seconds by twelve million and you've got a lot of time that could have been devoted to Joe Lieberman, Paul Krugman, or climate change. Where's the phone? I've got to call NPR!
I could go on and on. But without further ado I
offer these two masterpieces for your pleasure or annoyance, as the
case may be.
Okay, I forgot. Don't take it personally, please - I'm up to my eyeballs in papers to grade, and I also forgot to buy dog food and do the laundry. Give me a break - it's the holiday season. Happy Chrismahanukwanzaakah!
Now that I've got the "bah, humbug" out of the way, here's a gift. It's one you know, almost a cliche, but look at it again. There's a reason it's a chestnut - because it's the almost-perfect little poem. It uses language to capture silence, and there isn't an imprecise word or even an extra syllable in it. It steps just up to the door of sentimentality, but never walks through it - and that takes courage and skill. It's simply lovely - like an old glass Christmas ornament refracting light.
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Greetings, fellow traveler…
Congratulations on making it this far! It’s been a full day of adventures, and as the sun finishes its descent, purpling the hills over lovely Phoenix, AZ, and Josh hums along to Arcade Fire behind the wheel while Special the Dog snores loudly in the backseat, I’m happy to take this time to reflect on what we’ve learned today.
So what did we learn, exactly? Well, let’s rewind to this morning—after we spent a good half hour at the Tetris-style game of trunk packing and were finally situated—to the moment we turned on the car radio. Or, tried to turn on the radio, to be exact…only to face an LCD radio screen as scarily blank as the first page of a new writing notebook. “Dead, dead, deadsky,” as Beetlejuice would say, which is clearly not acceptable for a several day drive. (Even if you’re Josh and Jess, yappers extraordinaire.)
So there we were, cruising toward Volksgolf Repair Shop in Culver City, where we eventually learned that it was just a weird radio code thing, easily fixed in a half hour by Luis, my car guy who must moonlight as a rock star, he’s that awesome. But, still. Being detoured before we even got started wasn’t the best of all signs, some might say.
As annoying as that was, though, it sort of fit in to the conversation Josh and I had been carrying on since he arrived last night. We’ve been discussing the uses and benefits of doubt, especially in terms of our writing careers.
See, as thrilled as I am to be sharing this journey with you, my new BFFs at Best American Poetry, lingering in the back of my mind is the knowledge that most of the bloggers here have at least one, if not many, books. I don’t, and neither does Josh, and we’re both writing up a storm and reading everything we can, talking about poetry all the time and sending manuscripts to publishers and contests.
Somewhere in the middle of the country, desert and rock formation and green hill and wind farm—so much to see, but not yet where we’re going—both of us are feeling the metaphor. We’re in that limbo between publishing a lot and having a book, the moment of truth where the industry declares, yes, you’re welcome here, you’re, dare I say it, potentially employable (that dirty, dirty word.)
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.