Have you heard pianist Richard Glazier play Gershwin?
Here's a chance to listen to "
"Embraceable You" --
always a good thing to do.
Two weeks ago I went to Peru for my sister’s wedding. I was there last summer as well, just to visit her, and didn’t know I’d be returning so soon. Last time we traveled around some, and took a (grueling) four-day trek to Machu Picchu. This time we stayed put in the town where my sister lives: Pucallpa. Pucallpa is in eastern Peru, on the Ucayali River in the Amazon. It’s a jungle port town, so men are constantly loading and unloading small boats at the makeshift-looking docks. They run up and down the steep, uneven hill to the river with enormous loads on their backs. My sister takes one of these boats (she pointed out to us the exact one) twelve or so hours up the river and back, since she works with a Shipibo community in the jungle. On those trips she is always sure to keep her main store of money in one place, and a smaller amount tucked elsewhere. The smaller amount is ‘pirate money,’ she says, since sometimes river pirates come on board the boat and you have to give them something so they’ll go away. She told me this very matter-of-factly. (Did I mention this is my little sister?)
The primary way people get around within the town itself is not by car, but by mototaxi, which are small rickshaw-buggies attached to motorbikes. They zip loudly around the streets, weaving between each other unpredictably (unpredictable to me, anyway). There are no seat belts, of course, to keep you from springing into flight. There are also no lanes, but, as my mother pointed out, they mostly manage to move like a crowd of people would, not running each other over, making room as they go. (Still, the no-lanes thing was almost enough to push my dad over the edge…) And maybe it’s partly because many of the roads are dirt-coated, so that there’s a fairly constant cloud of dust suspended in the air, but the scene reminded me a little of a futuristically-tweaked Old West. My sister mentioned (also off-handedly) that it’s best not to take the mototaxis at night because sometimes the driver will hold you up and rob you. But during the day it’s fine, as long as you don’t get a drunk one.
Recently I took a yoga class taught by my mother. The class had been going along in ways we and our bodies didn’t not expect, and we followed along, innocuously enjoying ourselves. My mind was both in the room and not in the room; it sent tried and true emissaries down well-worn paths. (I just heard somewhere that 95% of our thoughts are unoriginal/repetitive in nature.) I’m hungry. I wonder what I’ll have for dinner. I should read that book tonight. Restrain myself from more episodes of Mad Men. I wonder if so-and-so emailed me back. Et cetera. Then my mother asked us to roll our heads around on our necks (how nice for our beleaguered stems); she asked us to circle our hips in big wide circles (a melting in our spines, our haunches – very pleasant). Finally, she asked us to do both of these movements at the same time, but in different directions; if we swirled our heads clock-wise, our hips should turn against the clock, and vice versa. Suddenly there were little bursts of laughter and exclamation all over the room, as we all struggled to move our bodies in this goofy and unfamiliar way. Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about anything else but trying to master this new pattern of movement, though I did make occasional smiling eye-contact with some of the others sharing in this attempt. My mother explained that when we try out unfamiliar movements with our bodies, our central nervous systems are jarred from their dozing. In this moment of surprise, uncertainty, and stimulated focus, often the body’s muscles unwittingly release. They are no longer slogging along the same old tense paths, weeded with the same old tense thoughts, and so the muscles forget to keep their fists up. They let go.
This struck me as a decently good analogy for what it feels like to write a poem – and also for what I most hope to find in others’ poems. When I’m working on a poem, there is always a moment (if the poem is destined to go anywhere past the initial sitting) when my mind lets go. Thoughts and feelings are no longer individual and demarcated, but palpably flow (oh, such an over-used word nowadays, but I’m having trouble replacing it here!) through and between each other. The poem’s field is open and stimulated and spatial, internal and external at once, full of motion. And this state is only possible when I’ve begun to actually (well, metaphorically) look for something – when I’m not just writing about a subject, but have stumbled onto a real question or a hint of beyond-me-ness that I don’t know how to (but want to) approach. In other words, my existence wakes up to itself and to the world. The tight hamster-wheeling stops because I am putting all I have into this energized focus, and the gift, if it comes, is that everything releases into connectivity for a brief but open window. (Boy, the process sounds so euphoric when I describe it this way, you’d think I wouldn’t want to do anything else, ever. And yet… even now I’m in the midst of a dry spell. I suppose it takes initiative on the part of the internal muscles. Action must precede absorption. Focus feels riskier than distraction. Which is precisely why it is more worthwhile. Though, truth be told, Mad Men is a very good show…)
Here's a chance to go behind the scene with the brilliant Bill Hayward, who is often featured here. Bill will be at the Apple Store in NYC's SoHo on August 8th at 7 pm to talk about his many projects. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about what he's been up to and why we love him.
On May 30, 2008, in this space, Dan Nester posted about an afternoon he and Jonah Winter spent sending up the titles that adorn poetry books. The titles that occurred to them "all seemed so aggressively portentous, imbued with such fawning obsequiousness," Nester wrote. "To exorcise ourselves of the real-life titles we were mentioning, titles that shall not be mentioned here, we played a word association game wherein either Jonah or myself would think of the second word of a two-word poetry book title, which would after after whatever the other participant named as the first." The "after after" in that sentence is hard to parse, perhaps deliberately, but the list of titles that follows clarifies the idea and gives us a window into the lads' minds that day: "Technical Vulva," "Variegated Cock," "Airport Beaver," "Stiff Flowering," "Tremulous Beaver."
The best of the list formed a category of their own: "good bad titles." Such was the thought of Corey Zeller, who approached a bunch of other poets to see whether they would produce self-parodying titles on order. Zeller's objective: "to write a book of serious prose poems" borrowing the deliberately bad titles. That She Could Remember Something Other Than _________, a Nester / Winter nominee, is the working title for Zeller's collection.
Among those who have responded to the summons thus far are Dean Young ("Tears of My Shadow"), Major Jackson ("The Shoeshine Chronicles"), Nin Andrews ("Beta Male Ballads"), Kim Addonizio "What Color is Your Vagina," "What Do Assholes Want?" "My Despair"), Arielle Greenberg ("Four Thousand Short Notes on Heidegger") as well as Joe Wenderoth, Dana Levin, Tim Seibles, Matthew Zapruder, and Joyelle McSweeney. A few conclusions can be drawn. Heidegger, who figures in several titles, handily beats out Descartes as the bad philosopher of choice. Sex, body parts, and bodily function retain their ancient popularity, with Dean Young's "My Mother's Thong" rivaling Dorothy Lasky's "Sitting by Your Mom's Bush in Broad Sunlight" but topped in tastelessness by the simplicity of Peter Markus's "On the Rag."
Here are some of the titles Jim Cummins has punfully proposed:
THE INTERPRETATION OF JEANS
THE LIVES OF A CELLO
ALL THE PRESIDENT'S PERSONS
Jim also suggests some plausible pseudonyms, chosen from the imaginary "tablet of contents" that he has been tinkering with for years. W S Merlot pours well. With Kenneth Joch you wonders how to pronounce the surname: Jock? Joke? Josh?
When I received Stacey Harwood’s gracious invitation to guest blog for Best American Poetry, it came as a surprise, and the surprise came with excitement, stitched by tinsely nerves. I’ve never blogged before, and furthermore have never thought of myself as a ‘blogger’ or as the bloggingtype, exactly. But when faced with the opportunity, there’s no doubt about it: I felt anticipatory, ideas dipping their toes in my mind almost immediately. So why, then, have I held this medium at arm’s length, or thought of myself as outside it? Has it been snootiness? A nostalgic attachment to more “permanent” mediums? Fear I wouldn’t be good at it? Perhaps there is a sliver of truth to each of these possibilities – though, what comes back to me most viscerally when I consider this question is an image of myself at age fourteen, fifteen, sixteen (a foggy amalgamation of these ages).
The image is a cross between dream-shred and photographic still. I am in my high school, and I am standing down the hall from (but within eye-shot of) the classroom where I had (I think) both American History and American Government. (World History with the school football coach happened just around the corner, past a row of mauve lockers.) I’m brimful with feeling and I’m looking at my hands, stretched out in front of me. Suddenly I’m keenly aware of both what they can reach and what they can’t reach. The phrase “at my fingertips” is in my mind, and I can sense that what is at them is this – what surrounds me – what I can know inwardly and outwardly – what I can get close enough to to touch or feel or hold in my hand or mind. What falls beyond the pale of my grasp is clear too, but shamefully so. The classroom with the closed door down the hall holds those things (facts, hard knowledge, geographical boundaries, stark, statue-like opinions) which are too hard for me to hold onto, and dissolve when I look at them, and leave my memory almost immediately because they have nothing to do with my hands or what I can reach.
I feel this image vividly still, and remember how I lived in real fear of someone quizzing me on my knowledge of geography – about which countries X bordered, or which oceans settled around which continents – because then perhaps I would be exposed for what I was – a person who didn’t know things. To know things, to be in possession of firm, conveyable knowledge or clear-cut opinions, was to participate in a strangely solid element – certainty – when the only way I knew to move through life was by a tentative feeling-out – by uncertain, nerves-on-fire sensing – by thinking through feeling and feeling through thinking.
This week we welcome Jessica Garratt as our guest blogger. Jessica's book Fire Pond won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry and was published by the University of Utah Press in 2009. She earned her PhD at the University of Missouri, and this spring held a visiting teaching appointment at Wichita State University. She has received fellowships from the Carson McCullers Center, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her MFA. Jessica's poems have appeared in journals such as Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, The Missouri Review, Literary Imagination, and new work is forthcoming in Western Humanities Review. This fall she will be a writer-in-residence for three months at ART342 in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she will be working on her second book of poems.
In other news . . .
All poets are overlooked, but perhaps none so consistently as the poet who doubles as a magazine or book editor. People in the same line of endeavor have a natural tendency to compete. The editor resists this impulse and works on behalf of other writers. This is good for the soul, even though an unforunate consequence is that the editor's peers may approach him or her almost solely in relation to their own wants, needs, and aspirations.
Paul Hoover, co-editor of New American Writing for three decades, is a prime example of the poet who can see beyond his immediate self-interest and figure out a useful way to serve the art itself. I am delighted that a wonderful poem by Hoover -- "God's Promises," published in Poetry in 2010 -- was chosen by guest editor Kevin Young for the 2011 edition of Best American Poetry, now just weeks away. David Baker, poetry editor of the Kenyon Review, springs to mind as another example of the breed. You'll find compelling work by Baker ("Outside") in a recent issue of Southern Review.
That venerable magazine out of LSU was edited by the late Jeanne Leiby, who died in an automobile accident on April 19 this year. The magazine's staff honors Leiby in the Summer 2011 issue, which has impressive poems by Jen McClanaghan, Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis, Peter Marcus, and Rebecca Hazelton -- courtesy of poetry editor Jessica Faust-Spitzfaden. Of Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011), we learn that it pleased her to call writers with the news that their work had been accepted for the magazine. "Here's why I call," she explained. "I spend a lot of my life rejecting things -- that's the reality of my job. When I find something that excites me so much I want to put it in print, I'm happy, I'm thrilled. . . .The world of writing and editing is solitary enough. I want to know the writer behind the work."
Elizabeth Powell belongs in this company of exemplary editors. I admire the taste in poetry on display in Green Mountains Review, where Powell is the poetry editor, and I want to call attention to her own poems and prose poems, such as "Jiffy Lube, Byway 17, North Medford, IL," which was posted last month by Zocalo Public Square. Here is an excerpt. -- DL
Knocked up at twenty, after two previous abortions, she hadn’t wanted to test her luck with a Lord she wasn’t totally sure didn’t exist. She had left her local progressive radio station to marry the teaching assistant from her mass communications class. He was the one who had knocked her up. Now, twelve years later, she knew there was indeed a God and his main purpose was to torture her. She knew that seemed self-important to think, but her husband was balding, now overweight, still sleeping with his students. He did it the way many women eat chocolate, compulsively, secretly, with great melt-in-the-mouth relish. He was a connoisseur of Bambis: Young, long legged fawns with blonde hair. What she had been, and if truth be told, still was.
NA: First, how did you come up with the name, Dream Horse Press?
JPDB: The long story short is that my first author had a dream about a white horse carrying his first book. If it hadn’t been for my commitments to that author, I would never have started a press.
NA: What inspired you to start a press? And what advice would you offer to anyone else who might want to own or start a press?
JPDB: I never would have thought to start a press if it hadn’t been for my prior commitment to the author while working as the Managing Editor at a different press which dropped the author’s book after it had been accepted and work begun on production. I felt so bad about it that I resigned from that press and started Dream Horse Press to complete the project.
For anyone wanting to start a press, my advice is to first ask other presses for their advice. Most of us made a lot of mistakes at the beginning and can really help new presses avoid some of the pitfalls. Second, don’t start with an author who has never published a book before--not for the first project. It’s easier for everyone if your first author has some experience. Third, begin with a dialog with an author, not an offer to publish; if it’s a good fit, everyone will know where this is going before a formal offer to publish has been made.
NA: If you were to publish famous poets from the past, poets who might represent the Dream Horse Press aesthetic, who would you publish?
JPDB: I will start by saying, unlike a lot of poetry presses, I really could not care less about poetry ‘schools’ and their politics. If you look at the authors DHP has published, you see that fact first and foremost. To clarify further: I would pick famous books, NOT authors to publish: This Branch Will Not Break by James Wright, Tremble by C.D. Wright, Twice Removed by Ralph Angel, Tamarit Poems by Federico García Lorca, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, The Most of It by Mary Ruefle; Dream Songs by John Berryman—and those are just a few that come to me off the top of my head.
NA: You have many projects including editing The American Poetry Journal, running the Dream Horse Press, and hosting a radio show. How did these projects begin and evolve?
JPDB: The American Poetry Journal came about because I was feeling dissatisfied with a lot of publications I was reading, usually because they were focused on a particular school. To me, schools are NOT what make poetry important or enjoyable; they should not be a main focus. I focus on two major poetic devices in poetry: sound (a poem is meant to be read aloud to enjoy it fully), and image (paint a scene within the mind of the reader/listener). Partly this goes back to something Robert Pinsky has said about the body of the reader being the instrument and the poem being the sheet music; and partly it is the experience of having words build complete images or scenes within the reader’s mind. In the APJ, I enjoy the freedom to present, for example, a surrealist free verse piece next to a lyrical formal piece.
I took over the Out of Our Minds radio program on KKUP when the previous host, Jim Standish, had to move. I’d been a guest on the show several times and Jim knew I had a good network of authors around the country, and that in college I had interned at radio and tv stations and had a communications background. So he asked me several times to take over the show. I refused, because it was a big commitment and I wasn’t sure I wanted to make it. But when he told me that the then 20+ year old program was in danger of being dropped without a solid programmer to host it, I felt compelled to take it on. We are now the second longest, continuous running poetry show on the air and during my eleven years as host have had some of the best contemporary poets grace our airwaves with their work and thoughts. Recently, we began podcasting the show and it is available on iTunes.
NA: What are some recent highlights that feature Dream Horse Press writers? (Feel free to provide links, photos, references, etc.)
JPDB: Lisa Lewis’ poem “Counting Change” from her book Burned House with Swimming Pool was featured on Poetry Daily.
Lisa Lewis’ poem “Coupled” from her book Burned House with Swimming Pool was featured on Verse Daily.
Jason Bredle’s poem “City of Lavender” from his chapbook The Book of Evil was featured on Verse Daily.
Here’s a review of Keith Montesano’s Ghost Lights.
Here’s a review of Kyle McCord’s Galley of the Beloved in Torment.
NA: As a publisher of poetry books, do you ever feel discouraged by our cultural lack of appreciation for poetry? Or are you an optimist, a believer in the future of American poetry?
JPDB: You know, having done the radio show for the past eleven years, I can honestly say that I am an optimist with regards to poetry. Most of my audience are not poets, but have developed a sophisticated palate for poetry of all kinds. From the emails and phone calls I have received over the years, I know poetry has touched people and means something very special to them. As a publisher, I get similar messages about books and poems I’ve published. And as poet, again I have gotten so many letters and emails over the years about how something I’ve written has touched someone’s spirit. How could I not be optimistic about poetry?
J. P. Dancing Bear is the author of nine collections of poetry, most recently, Inner Cities of Gulls (2010, SalmonPoetry). His next two books will be Family of Marsupial Centaurs through Iris Press in 2011, and Fish Singing Foxes through SalmonPoetry in 2012. His poems have been published in Mississippi Review, Third Coast, DIAGRAM, Verse Daily and many other publications. He is editor for the American Poetry Journal and Dream Horse Press. Bear also hosts the weekly hour-long poetry show, Out of Our Minds, on public station, KKUP and available as podcasts.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including ,The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. Follow Nin's blog here.
Here’s a drink I would never order: an Everybody’s Irish. It calls for despoiling Irish whiskey with green Chartreuse, green crème de menthe, and an olive. Ugh. There are any number of reasons to shun this drink. It tastes awful. The name incites me to resentment. Everybody’s not Irish, and three of the four ingredients in the drink aren’t either, though they are green, which is the only reason they are in the drink. I resent that color, not taste, should determine what goes into a cocktail. Moreover, if you go to Ireland and actually look at it, you quickly realize its dominant hue is emerald gray. Thus the relentless, tired equation of Irishness with bright green is not only a cliché but a lie. I resent the attempt to cash in on the supposedly universal appeal of those wonderful, whacky Celts regaling us with their charming whiskey-drinking ways right out of the pages of Angela’s Ashes. Oh, wait, that book was about abject misery. Whatever. People with last names like mine were raised on sentimentality about The Old Sod. It’s hogwash, of course, but “Everybody’s Irish” not only tells an objectionable lie—that the Irish are fun drunks and people want to be like them—it tells the lie flimsily. It tells a Made in China lie, oversimplified and oddly threatening, with its conformist absolutism. “Everybody’s Irish” should be a curse, not a cocktail. As rhetoric, it resonates with the “You’re all individuals!” bit in Life of Brian. CROWD: “Yes! We’re all individuals!” INDIVIDUAL: “I’m not..”
In David Foster Wallace’s excellent essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he notices that sometime in the 1980s, advertising had shifted away from the appeal of belonging to a group (drink this soda and you can join these happy people) to the appeal of avoiding a group (drink this soda and you’ll stand out from the dull. gray herd). The group became the villain. Everybody’s not Irish. Wallace points out a commercial motive behind this. Salespeople know the lone customer is an easier mark than one who shows up with friends, family or clan in tow. It makes sense for companies to vilify company, in the hope that you’ll go shopping by yourself. But Wallace also rattles off any number of larger sociological explanations for this, including the rise of the political right in the US.
If you think about one group in particular, what we call government, the right is definitely Vilifier in Chief. It makes perfect sense for a party proclaiming itself on the side of the individual. Republicans have been systematic in redefining government as a villain—Big Government, it’s called, never “good government,” and rarely just “government.” Other collective nouns in the right’s diction also get pejorative adjectives: The biased media. The liberal Elite. One-size-fits-all education. Singular words, words for people in groups of one, meanwhile, are mated with other positive words—personal freedom, faith-based initiative, individual liberty.
Why, then, are the freedom-loving folks on the political right so conformist? “We’re all individuals,” they cry in unison, and no one over there ever pipes up, “I’m not.” Of course, Republicans don’t describe themselves as conformist. They are “disciplined,” they are “principled,” they are “sensible.” It’s the left that uses words like “lockstep” to describe the monolithic voting history of the 242 Republicans in the House and 47 in the Senate. Facts support the left’s conformity theory: witness the record-breaking number of filibusters in the Senate back when Republicans had only 39 or 40 Senators. So do GOP practices like litmus tests on abortion, no-tax pledges, and threats of denying leadership positions, which got Olympia Snowe and Chuck Grassley back in line when they showed the rare independence of mind to consider working with Democrats. What’s next in stifling dissent? Reeducation through labor?
I would point out here several disturbing things: First, the GOP, for all its professions of freedom-loving individualism, behaves like a totalitarian regime. Secondly, in a functioning democracy, government is supposed to be the locus where we act out our collective will, but for the right, the political party is the collective locus, not the government as a whole. And third, Democrats are in the majority, so to thwart them at every turn is to thwart the voters who put them there, which in turn is to thwart the fundamental principle of democracy, which is that the majority rules, not an ideologically pure cabal of insiders who think they know better than the voters. Hence blocking the routine business of raising the debt ceiling. “But this is the only leverage we have,” says the minority, forgetting the obvious alternative, that Republicans try standing for ideas and policies that are popular with voters. (BTW, the ones who won in the 2010 mid-term elections, where “The American people have spoken,” did it with 40% of voters participating, hardly the stuff of a representative democracy, and with nearly half of that 40% voting against the winners. Amend that statement to “Two out of ten American people have spoken.”) I have little hope that Republicans will try my small-d democratic suggestion that they be more appealing to voters. It takes too long and would involve what is anathema to The Party: loosening up on the rigid ideology.
What these three trends suggest to me is that the right seeks power, not individual liberty, and certainly not democracy. When they don’t have power, they are willing to trample on principles—including their own—to get it back.
After a visit with my mother a few weeks ago, I came to realize something bizarre: she’s old. As children, if we’re lucky, we never have to think of our parents as impermanent. They seem omnipresent, often overwhelmingly so. Now, I can’t call my parents without thinking of a time when speaking to them will be impossible. It’s a double-edge sword. I appreciate them more now, but everything is tinged with a hint of premature grief over what will come.
Of course, my mother’s age also has obvious implications for how nubile I may still be (or not). According to her, my chances of marriage go down with each passing second, along with the viability of my ova. Surely in biological terms, this is true, although I have to say that pointing it out doesn’t make for pleasant dinner conversation. There must be some biological imperative that sets in when women get to a certain age and realize that their daughters are capable of producing grandchildren without shaming the family. With my mother, it seems to get more intense every year.
In one of those twists of fate that biology throws at you, the childrearing urge that my mother so desperately wants to encourage in me often gets directed right back toward her. That is to say, I find myself treating my mother like a child. I don’t mean to be disrespectful: quite the opposite. It’s just that she seems so fragile, and has trouble with the sorts of things that kids struggle over too—steep stairs and food that’s hard to chew and accepting certain realities of the world that one would prefer to be otherwise. It’s strange to have to help my mother open her umbrella or get on the bus. It’s strange to feel protective of her when she’s spent much of her adult life being protective of me.
Maybe the urge to take care of my mother does have to do in part with my childlessness. Further evidence of redirected energies: the plants in my apartment are so well cared for that I have to be careful not to drown them; my boyfriend complains that I throw out leftovers the instant he puts them in the fridge; and most damningly, I have an impeccably clean bathroom. These are all things that tend to go by the wayside when one has a child, at least judging by the state of the homes of my friends with kids.
And then there is that strange sensation of being part of an endless cycle that no one can opt out of. Looking into my mother face is like looking into one version of my own in thirty-eight years. It’s inescapable, such intimations of death. “Don’t ever grow old,” my dad likes to tell me. “You wouldn’t like it.”
And I don’t know if my mother minds me fussing around her, just like it used to drive me crazy when she did it when I was a kid. It’s a delicate balance between acknowledging the authority she’ll always have over me (“I changed your diapers, don’t forget that!”) and recognizing the changing reality of our comparative capabilities. I don’t like it much, and I don’t think she does either. But if it’s that or having to give up having her around, I’ll choose the nagging for grandkids any day.
After the publication of his early work Childe Harold, Lord Byron (1788--1824) memorably said that he “awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He became, in fact, something of a global superstar, adumbrating the kind of fame later reserved for the likes of Sinatra and Elvis, who weren’t even poets. English lit students will remember his club foot, his incestuous affair with his half sister, his invention of “the Byronic hero,” his death at age 36 while fighting for Greek independence from the Turks. His great masterpiece is, of course, Don Juan, a poem of more than 2,000 stanzas of ottava rima, a nimble 8-line vessel that rhymes abababcc and is borrowed from the Italians. This extraordinary poem, which Byron called an “Epic Satire,” remains funny, biting, and highly readable. The “Fragment” that usually begins texts of the poem includes these lines:
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!
He is, he writes later, “fond of fire, and crickets, and all that,/A lobster salad, and champagne, and chat.”
I loved reading Byron long ago when I was a student, but my impression has been that his fame has waned, his influence abated, in the 187 years since his death. At least that was my feeling until I came upon one of the most impressive and audacious long poems of our time—Elinor Nauen’s So Late into the Night (Rain Mountain Press, NYC), some 625 stanzas of ottava rima containing a poem that is at once a homage to Don Juan and a completely contemporary comic epic in its own right. Like Byron’s, Nauen’s poem is full of acute observations, wry reflections, loves, resentments, and silliness. You will learn about her two romantic obsessions (Derek Jeter and her husband Johnny Stanton), her thoughts on poetry, politics, even cars:
The fastest car I ever drove (versus
The car I drove fastest) must have been Paul
Stallings’ Ferrari. Slowest? The worst is
My ’70 Datsun 510, which qual-
Ified for many unkind curses
Each time it wobbled. Not a car to haul
Ass in! I loved it, though, as I did my
Every vehicle. Till we said goodbye.
...I can’t seem to endorse
A stance on the presence of God or soul.
I’ve resolved to assign whatever force
Is the reason for existence the role
And name “God.” It’s how to live in the presence
Of the mystery that tests my essence.
Part of the narrative of So Late into the Night involves a road trip, but, really, the language of the entire poem has unrelenting drive and acceleration, a rollicking momentum that gets you home right before the poetry curfew kicks in. Byron and ottava rima, Nauen says in her introduction, gave her the means to “contain, shape and propel everything I could possibly want to say—narration, social commentary, description—in a persona I could both reinvent and stay true to. I knew I would discover more and more ways to live inside this form.” She has certainly succeeded. Next thing you know, she’s going to wake up famous.
Louis Armstrong was born on July 4, 1900 if you believe him or August 4, 1901 if you believe your lying eyes. Let's assume the latter as astrologically valid. A Leo, then, with Aries rising, Aries in his moon, New Orleans as his native city, and a lot of moon in his chart, and what you get is a born performer and, with significant celestial activity in Capricorn to keep him grounded, an entertainer who will never lose his popularity because he know his public and regards himself as an instrument through which the Lord expresses his moody blues and swinging jazz. Music is supreme in his soul and his rejection of be-bop must be understood in this context. He shares a birthday with Shelley. Whom did you think that poet was evoking when he wrote, "Be through my lips to unawakened earth / The trumpet of a prophecy"? Not Dizzy or Miles, I can tell you that, but the old cornet player from the Back O' Town section (Jane Alley) in N.O. Also born on August 4 was Barack Obama. Make of that what you will.
Satchmo should be on anyone's list of great Philo-semites. Just read 'Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family," the keynote piece in Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words, Satch's selected writings (edited by well-named Duke professor Thomas Brothers and published in 1999 by Oxford UP). Others on the list of great Philo-semites are Nabokov and Emile Zola and. . . somebody please help me complete this sentence.
Louis loved the Karnofsky family that gave him his first job and encouraged his study of music. "I had a long time admiration for the Jewish People. Especially with their long time of courage, takin So Much Abuse for so long. I was only Seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for." Notice the idiosyncratic and very deliberate use of italics and caps, his favorite emphasizers. Louis was a writer; he took his punctuation seriously, he took his typewriter wherever he went, and he was always going; he loved typing even more than swimming. He also loved Jewish food, including matzos. The Karnofskys operated a mobile rag and bone shop, and Louis played a little tin horn on the junk wagon. "When I reached the age of eleven I began to realize it was the Jewish family who instilled in me Singing from the heart." He wore a star of David around his neck.
The blues came naturally to him. The best recording of the Arlen and Koehler standard, "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," is Armstrong's, with voice and with trumpet. Listen to "West End Blues," "St Louis Blues," "St James's Informary," "Basin Street Blues" as performed by the Hot Five with Earl "Fatha" Hines on piano.You listen and you know why "saint" is in the title of so many blues. At the same time -- and here's where Louis's Leo stands up and takes a bow -- he (voice, trumpet) makes happiness real. And after embodying Jazz as a style, a phenomenon, and a musical idiom in the 1920s -- I mean "Cornet Chop Suey," "Potato Head Blues," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" with Lil Hardin on piano, and "Knockin' a Jug" with Jack Teagarden on trombone -- Louis went on to swing the American Songbook: "On the Sunny Side of the Street." "Jeepers Creepers," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the amazing sides with Ella. The meaning of swing is in the lovelight burning in his heart. In 1967 he concludes a heartfelt letter to a jazz-loving Marine in Vietnam by typing out Hammerstein's lyric for "You'll Never Walk Alone." I once heard Louis recite the words of this song from Carousel, not sing them, just recite them, with the melody playing softly in the background, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
He loved gage and smoked it every day. He thought "gage," "Muta," "pot," or "some of that good shit," were better names for the heavenly stuff than marijuana. It was, he said, "a thousand times better than whiskey." He could write a whole book about it, he added. A day without Gage was a meal without wine. He also spoke eloquently of "the Genuineness of Asses." He loved his wife's (Lucille "Always had the Choicest Ass of them all") but didn't see the point of denying himself the pleasure of "whaling" on the road. "Kissing will lead to fucking every time." One time at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas he "Grined" a lady he called "Sweets" -- "Struck Oil" -- and "planted a cute little baby." Jazz meant sex. Man, he felt alive. He was performing 100% of the time. But the horn redeemed the world. "I Can tolerate Anything, as long as it doesn't interfere with my trumpet."
Now I will play "Stardust," "Pennies from Heaven," "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Cutting up with Crosby on the set of High Society. Mixing with Sinatra on TV, "The Birth of the Blues." And then back to the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of "Weary Blues," "Potato Head Blues," "No (Papa, No)," "Tight Like This," "Weather Bird."
Like Phillip Larkin, Armstrong detested be-bop: "Mistakes, that's all rebop is. . . .New York and 52nd Street -- that's what messed up Jazz. Them cats play too much -- a whole lot of notes, weird notes." He saw it clearly, Jazz reduced to a form of chamber music that the devout would listen to breathlessly if uncomprehendingly in darkened shrines. "You've got to carry the melody," he insisted.
During the Little Rock crisis in 1957 he sent a telegram to Eisenhower urging the president to send in troops to assure the safety of the "little negro children" at Central High School. He called Ike "Daddy" and said that if he "personally" came "along with your marvellous troops please take me along. O God it would be such a great pleasure I assure you." Should the president wish to respond, he was advised that he could do so through Satch's "personnel manager," Joe Glaser, in New York. He signed off "Am Swiss Krissly Yours Louis Satchmo Armstrong."
There was no way you could dislike Louis Armstrong. Now close your eyes and pretend it's the first time you're hearing the opening cadenza of "West End Blues." -- DL
From Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schyster, 2005), p. 131. This sentence appears after the author has presented several rival versions of an incident during the 1968 presidential election campaign:
"Where does the truth in fact lie?"
What Paul de Man could do with this sentence! A perfect example of two antithetical meanings: "What is the truth [of the matter]?" versus "Where [in what circumstances] does the truth become a lie thanks, perhaps, to the agency of fact, that seemingly hard but notably elastic thing [or word]?" Or are there inviisible hyphens linking the words tuth-in-fact? And what then?
And I think the author deserves the credit whatever his intentions. -- DL
If you’ve spent any time in China, it’s easy to slam the Chinatowns of America. They’re just a lot of red lanterns and restaurants with Americanized Chinese food. Yeah, there are Chinese people around, but people don’t really live there. It’s all for tourists and people who want to pretend to be somewhere exotic.
I admit that this was my attitude toward Boston’s Chinatown, the third largest in the country, at least until this past Saturday, when I spent half a day just walking around the neighborhood. As someone involved in translation and the Chinese community in general, I thought I knew the area pretty well. I mean, I’ve eaten hundreds of meals there, hung out in the square by the gate where the old men gather to gossip and play chess, bought DVDs in the sketchy basement stores, even gone to the travel agency where the agents only speak Chinese and can get you surprising discounts on plane tickets to Shanghai.
But this was different. I was there to participate in a charity event for the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, a very valuable organization that helps recent immigrants adjust to life in the States. They teach English language skills, how to apply for government programs, and how to deal with that strange beast called American culture. The event involved a scavenger hunt through the neighborhood, and it took me to places I’d never before thought to go, like through the surprising housing developments that are hidden entirely by mangy office buildings. And dirty alleyways that reminded me vividly of the sort that used to be everywhere in Beijing and have mostly disappeared. And the grocery stores in hidden storefronts that you mostly find by the peculiar smell of fish that floats out from the doors, where you can buy fresh fruit for seventy-five cents a pound. Here was (and how Chinese!) a hidden city, layered behind the storefronts that, yes, are meant for tourists.
Most of all, I was fascinated by all the associations of uncertain purpose (The Chinese Progressive Association, The Wong Family Association, The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association), each of which sports a plaque over its door that springs into view only once you know to look for it. On a Saturday morning, the steps to many of these buildings were busy with parents and children, groups of men smoking their first cigarettes of the day, and venders peddling fresh fruit or water. This is where the life of the neighborhood happens, yet even for someone with a curious eye, it’s easy to walk past without noticing.
And then there was this, one of the nicest surprises of the morning, a little concrete park between buildings with a mural taking center stage:
It imitates a traditional shanshui painting, in this case in Qing dynasty style, with its pointed peaks, arched bridges, and wispy pine trees. I’ve walked down that block more times than I can count and never noticed it. It turns out that even in touristy Chinatown, as everywhere, there are treasures to discover if you just pay attention.
Where are you going I said
and she said I’m going
to look for a book
and I said what kind
of book? A book on
she said and I said
make sure you get
the right one—
which brought forth
such perfect laughter
from her perfect heart.
John Brehm is the author of Sea of Faith, which won the 2004 Brittingham Prize. His book Help Is On the Way is forthcoming from University of Wisconsin Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Read more about John Brehm here.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
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.