One of the jobs required of me during this week in Sonoma, according to my stepfather, was to go through what he refers to as MY storage unit. I wasn’t required to get rid of it all, I was only required to look at it, to know what was there, and to decide if I still wanted it. Boxes and boxes. Stuffed animals and costumes, bolo ties and cat eye glasses, Swatches and Casios, a yellow Walkman, a pin striped suit, books, and letters. Letters, so many, many letters. Notes I wrote, notes that were written to me, pictures, and postcards, and so many words on paper that my brain was full up on ink by the end.
I managed to throw away 7 boxes of “stuff,” and also to rescue some things back to the living: My old hiking boots I bought in Prague in 1993, my elementary school jacket that still boasts the “Dunbar Demons” mascot, even though they are now the much tamer, less controversial, Dunbar Dolphins.
What struck me was how important some of the items still seemed. I expected to be put off by how much unnecessary crap I had saved, but mostly, I was thrilled to see it again. The way you return to something, a place, a person, a poem, and are reminded of both the life you lived then, and where it launched you. I thought about how as writers, we have this storage unit in our heads and hearts, a place where whole poems, or sometimes just single lines, stay waiting for the right time to return to us. When we need them, we go back into the dark old room of our first loves, take out the dust-covered angel wings and the pooh bear, and find the first words that lit the candle sticks of our inexplicable careers. Come comrades, into the battle again, we require your services.
At the risk of revealing all my secrets, I thought I'd open my own box of some of the very first lines I remember memorizing in high school and undergrad, memorizing without even being aware of it. The lines that somehow stuck with me through the many blurry stoney days of creek walking and confusion. Many of them come from poems that were taught to me ("One Art," was even on a TEST, and it's still my favorite poem), and of course I've since fallen in love with millions more words and word-crafters, but here's the box I can remember the most, the time capsule, the footlocker, the firsts. Of course, when you find the old shoulder-padded jackets and pictures in storage you have to hold them up, and try them on, oh and you must reminisce.
(Sitting in Mrs. Lale's class reading it for the first time. Sunny outside. Oh the rhyming! The ache at the end, the form! It was so painful, this poem. Losing and losing that will go on forever. It's still my favorite. I was fifteen.)
(Mrs. Cole's class. We were supposed to be doing something else, I found this poem in an anthology on the shelf, oh my god, it's about penises! Oh my god, you can write about SEX! I want to be a poet and also, I want to have sex!)
(High school. This line in my head for a week, "the women come and go, talking..." over and over, the rhyme the image. "Let us go then, you and I." I couldn't escape it. I thought he was writing at the same time I was alive. It seemed so of the now, of the here. I remember I hated the title, it didn't seem to fit. I'm not sure why I thought that now.)
(College. Oh the BEAR. The devouring nature of this poem. The woods it eats up. I heard later a story of a bunch of poets with Kinnell at a bar. They made Kinnell recite this poem. When it was done, there was silence, then they all yelled, "AGAIN!" I feel that way about this poem.)
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?”
(College. My first apartment on my own. I had a box set of CD's of the beat poets. I'd play it all the time. I'd make my friends listen to it. Over and over. This poem, the whole recording, stuck with me deeply. It still comes to me when I sit down to write. "America...")
“When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”
(College. The anaphoras. Simple. "He said" and then, "I remember." And even though the repetitions were simple, they added this amazing power, and this poem was feminism, and song. It's one of the few I can still recite.)
Imagination takes precedence over intellect for Bob Dylan. David Dalton tries to trace the career of that remarkable imagination in his book Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan (Hyperion) which is being published today. Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, originally titled his work Bob's Brain. I suppose he did this because he wanted to attempt the impossible: a provide a written MRI of the creator of what some people claim to be the best songs ever written.
Bob Dylan's identity is, to understate the point laughably, elusive, starting with his Jewishness. Karl Shapiro, in his work In Defense of Ignorance, wrote: "The European Jew was always a visitor...But in America everybody is a visitor. In the United States the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness." But the Jewish writer has a more complex identity than other American writers. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow noted that "As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow you are not." That was Dylan's status. He was an outsider as a Jew in America, but doubly so in Hibbing, Minnesota. As a rural Jew, he was, in Dalton's phrase, "an outsider in a community of outsiders."
This status led him to be free to invent a self while simultaneously feeling outside of any genuine self. In one sense he had no identity at all. In 1976 Allen Ginsberg said about Dylan: "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self."
Dylan rebelled against his birth self in every possible way. He changed his name. He changed where he lived. He believed he had been born into the wrong family. He looked for a direction to his real self and could not find it. Robert Zimmerman had a profound sense of disquiet. And so, when he got to New York, he invented stories to everyone who would listen. He was an orphan, a circus performer, a Native American. He was anybody but a small town son of a Jewish appliance dealer.
But accompanying this all--inclusive self-rejection was an intense belief in himself, a sense that Fate had cleared a path in life for him that would lead to his being the most important singer in America. For me, this juxtaposition provides an approach to Dylan's identity: to look at the rapport and the rancor between his private and public selves. To do this, I think it's useful to consider Dylan as an actor. Lies are the truth for an actor. The world has facts, but for Dylan those facts didn't explain inner turmoil, the ever-moving, ever-changing, often closely-related feelings of desire and loathing, the ways that words and sounds just came to him, often when prompted by a song that moved him. He loved those songs, and then stole them, and then made them his own, inevitably vastly improving them.
Actors are frequently alienated from themselves. (The best book I know about this is Simon Callow's Being An Actor). They often can't find a real self. That was Ginsberg's point about Dylan. To overcome these dreadful feelings, actors have to think the thoughts of others, in their cases the imaginative characters created by dramatists and screenwriters. Dylan absorbed the imaginative characters of American popular music. He was the hobo and the troubadour, the endless traveler and the misunderstood artist. As with actors, he was far more comfortable on stage than off. But unlike actors he didn't have a Shakespeare who had written for him. He tried. He had Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie and the whole of American popular music. But eventually he discovered he needed to sing songs that didn't yet exist. Eventually he became his own dramatist and screenwriter and created the songs and then acted them out on stage. He was the writer, the actor, and the director. And, some say, he became his own Shakespeare.
The drinks at the 2nd Poetry & Cocktail Slam at Back Forty were designed to have a bite, to sneak up on partakers – like the seven paired poems, like any good poem.
Drink in hand, Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club read each poem in front of the NYC bar or restaurant alchemist who invented the cocktail. Poet and performer, Holman read with his own magic: softly, slowly for “Somewhere I Never Traveled” by E. E. Cummings or booming for “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The benefit for the Academy of American Poets was hosted by Peter Hoffman at his East Village restaurant with tasty treats from his kitchen. This year’s cocktail recipes and some of the poems will join the inaugural ones at www.poets.org/cocktails.
Tom Macy from Clover Club in Carroll Gardens paired his berried and bubbly drink Clever Girl with the Emily Dickinson poem that begins "NATURE rarer uses yellow." Like many a Dickinson poem that lulls by surface sublime from the natural world, Macy floated a yellow pansy in the drink. All the better to heighten the punch.
“Just like me,” said Jessica Knevals ordering a Clever Girl, wearing yellow heels as bright as the flowers.
“I’d be lying if I said you were the first person to say that,” Macy replied.
Bar banter fueled by alcohol is likely more interesting to the bar patrons than the bartender. But pack in poetry lovers on a sunny spring Saturday afternoon and a drink based on Dorothy Parker Gin from the New York Distilling Company prompts replies to Holman in full Parker poems.
The longest Parker recitation was from Christopher Michel, also the only living poet on the menu at this year’s slam. His Poem in which I am an asshole as a poorly behaved poet guest inspired a rye drink with the longest lines of the afternoon, A drink which can make you an asshole, mixed by Tom Richter of the Beagle. “Because it will sneak up on you,” Richter said. Holman and Michel read the poem together while the Beagle owner covered his eyes.
”They truly are mixologists,” Holman praised those to mix, shake and pour the libations. "And they make more money than poets.”
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pickup basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was a featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.
I am in your kitchen photographing the noon light on your Ivory soap bottle and the lone spoon in the dish strainer. You’ve lined up various kinds of honey in front of a boom box, and we can hear you breathing heavy with the physical therapist upstairs. We are here to document your life while you are living, though everyone refers to you in the past,
as if you were a ghost banished to the second floor to do calisthenics forevermore. I note the die in your little leaf vase, and persuade the archivist to open the sheet music. You never play it anymore. When a person goes, the archived mind goes kaput. The best place to eat ravioli in Hudson? The neighbor who broke the piano? The sculptor
who cast the dead-eyed gittern player in the foyer? I am a voyeur peeling back your flimsy white curtains to see how you spy on the world, notice a chandelier bead hidden behind the damsel’s bust. A safety pin holds together the rug. My mismatched socks look bad against your Persian prints, so I photograph them and all the mirrors I am in as if to say “I was here!”
sharing some fibers with greatness. But I see myself in none of it, John, the Parisian silk, the shock art hung crooked over the chaise, the nutcracker with little fake nuts. And I am sorry for the mismatched socks, really I am, but your rug looked so lovely against my feet. We are here to preserve your things
“You ask of my Companions. Hills – sir – and the Sundown, and a Dog large as myself." Emily Dickinson
You can’t spell poet without the word pet. This is the terrible first line I’ve been trying to avoid all morning, apparently to no avail. Somehow, amidst all the big ideas that I keep hoping to talk about here in my wee week at the BAP blog, the very small idea of pets keeps biting my ankles and begging to be taken out. (Perhaps this is because my dog is doing that very same thing at the moment.)
Let me begin by saying that up until last month, I never knew Emily Dickinson had a dog and for some reason that seemingly innocuous bit of information changed me. We have this idea of her, Ms. Dickinson, sitting alone in a small room rearranging words and stowing them away in the pocket of her stark white dress, while the much less common image is of a woman walking far out into the wild meadows of Amherst with her large dog, Carlo, bounding happily next to her. What changed me when I learned this? My first thought was, “Oh, she wasn’t alone at all!” It gave me a palpable thrill.
As writers, we often spend many seemingly selfish hours in one place living inside the mind trying to shut out outside stimulation. This can sometimes wreak havoc on our social lives, our relationships, even, at times, our humanity. However, as a much-needed antidote to that required solitude, many of us have turned to one of the universe’s most generous offerings…animals. They work, and this is no small feat, to return us to the real world again and again, showing us our own animal-selves, softening our cruel self-judgments, bringing us outside of our own egos, and unraveling the day into something more tangible and take-able.
I think of my dear friend Jennifer L. Knox, whose lovely first bird, Ichi the Killer, flew the coup of the living this weekend, and how instrumental he was to her life as a writer, how much joy such a small-winged thing offered her in the hours she worked hard to finish her new novel. It’s difficult to show just how much gratitude we have to the animals in our lives, our muses, and necessary distractions. I tell you, my dog makes me get up and go outside and walk among the living, even when I desperately don’t want to. As Emily Dickinson’s dog must have. “Interact with the living!” they say. "Play with me! Play with life!" And we, being their servants, do as we are told, and so we suffer less, and live a little more.
Check out this site here with all these lovely writers and their furry foils. As Billy Collin's tells his students (I'm paraphrasing), "Put a dog in your poems, it'll be a bright break from your own self absorbtion."
And so, in honor of Ichi the Killer, ("'Hope' is the thing with feathers - that perches in the soul") and to all our pets past and present, this post is only to show a small kernel of gratitude for how our animals, who may not always make us better writers, at least try to make us better animals alive in the world.
Laura Cronk's first book of poems, Having Been an Accomplice, won the 2011 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and is forthcoming from Persea Books. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies such as Barrow Street, Ecotone, WSQ, McSweeney’s, The Best American Poetry, and The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel. She is currently on the faculty of the Riggio Honors Program: Writing for Democracy at The New School.
Marie Ponsot has published numerous poetry collections, including Easy (2009), Springing (2002),The Bird Catcher (1998), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Green Dark (1988), Admit Impediment (1981), and True Minds(1957). Ponsot, who also translates books from the French, has taught in graduate programs at Queens College, Beijing United University and New York University. Among her awards are a creative writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize, and the Shaughnessy Medal of the Modern Language Association. She teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University in New York City, and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2010.
Think of tonight's episode,the best of the 5th season so far, as the Four Twenty Edition of Mad Men with a bummed out Peggy playing hooky smoking a joint with some horny stranger in a dark movie theater watching "Born Free" (I think that's what it was). . . Roger Sterling goes on an acid trip with his wife, Jane, who, it turns out, speaks Yiddish when she is high (Roger thinks it's German). No sooner has Roger announced that LSD ("your product, Mr Leary") is "boring" than he opens a vodka bottle and hears mighty Russian chorale music. You can hear it every time the bottle is uncapped -- and as long as the bottle remains uncapped. The cigarette in Roger's mouth shrinks. In the mirror he sees himself with half his hair gray, the other half black, as in a magazine ad and Don Draper appears over his shoulder and tells him everything will turn out okay now go back to your wife and he does and she says things like "How can a few numbers contain all of time?" In the cab Bert Cooper's face appears on the five-dollar bill. And her epiphany is that he doesn't like her. And his epiphany is that it's going to be easier to get out of this marriage than he thought. "It'll be expensive," she tells him, but he doesn't care, he's free, it's gonna be a great day. . .And Ginsberg, who needs no drugs to establish his extraterrestrial bona fides, finds a witty way to tell Peggy he was born in a concentration camp. And Peggy is smoking more and drinking more Canadian Club and she resembles no one more than Don when she tells off the guy from Heinz who rejects her "Home is where the Heinz is" campaign, though it's, well, awesome ("the fire is primal. . .and it's the beans that brought them together on the cold night at the end of the summer") and she gets taken off the account and that is why she is bummed out enough to go to the movies and get high and fall asleep in Don's office and later she gets a weird brusque phone call from Don, "Did you get any calls? Has anyone called you?" which makes no sense until we go over the same stretch of time from the point of view of Mr Draper himself, who is driving to a HoJo Motor Lodge with Megan (in beautiful orange-striped sweater that goes perfectly with the decor) where they have a blowout fight which ends when he loses his temper and bolts. "Don't you dare pull away. I'm talking to you," she says helplessly as he pulls out and drives off without her. Cooling off, he goes back and looks everywhere for her including the ladies' room. (She took the bus back, furious.) No pot, no acid, but a sleepless Don smoking cigarettes in a period sedan and having odd flashbacks to composite car trips is enough of a high to end on. A brilliant episode. 1966! -- DL
Random thoughts . . . Tom Clark maintains his blog with rare dedication. Check out today's, devoted to a Joe Brainard prose piece and the drawings of Hans Holbein. . . We were talking about religion-substitutes recently. I nominated "art" and "politics." My friends volunteered "pornography" and "drugs." They won. . . I've been reading Auden writing in the Byronic manner:
<<< I hate pompositas and all authority; Its air of injured rightness also sends Me shuddering from the cultured smug minority. 'Perpetual revolution,' left-wing friends Tell me, 'in counter-revolution ends. Your fate will be to linger on outcast A selfish pink old Liberal to the last.' >>>
Twenty-two has long been one of my favorite numbers because of that Twilight Zone episode, "Room for One More, Honey," where the morgue was down in the basement: room 22. And today's NaPoWriMo finds do my beloved #22 justice.
Today's prompt on the NaPoWriMo site blew my mind. In honor of Earth Day, the prompt is to write a poem about a plant. OK, fine, sure, I like plants. But then Maureen dropped the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary bomb. Do you all know about this? Seriously, it blew my face off.