Meanwhile, we'll be here.
He wrote the whole novel in his head, Sentence by sentence. It took him all day. Then he took out a wide-ruled yellow legal pad . . .
This is the opening of today's "Poem of the Day" at the Academy of American Poets. Continue reading here.
(Ed note: This post originally appeared on March 11, 2008. Read Part I here. Mark Doty is guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2012. You can catch him at the BAP launch reading on September 20. Find out more about Mark Doty here.)
Thinking about what's difficult in poetry makes me want to talk about a book I've been reading with great pleasure, Susan Howe's SOULS OF THE LABADIE TRACT, which New Directions published in 2007.The contexts of these poems are complex ones, but Howe's book artfully establishes the grounds of her inquiry. She begins with two bits of prose, the first describing the Puritan preacher and writer Jonathan Edwards, and how he'd ride through the wild country of Western Massachusetts thinking through his essays and sermons, and scribbling on scraps of paper which he'd pin to his clothes, using their location as a mnemonic device. It's a beautiful figure of the poet, wearing words in the wilderness, clothing the body in fragments of text. Then Howe offers a riveting ars poetica, a description of her research time in the library at Yale, the crumbling books of American language, fragments of history. Such dislocated bits of speech float up even through her prose.
"Often walking alone in the stacks,' she writes, "surrounded by the raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages. This may suggest vampirism because while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath."
The vocalisms and breath of the dead are indeed present in the short poems that follow, each a small rectangle of text in the center of the page composed of six to eight lines. There's a strange and exhilarating feeling of space between words and phrases, as if these fragments had sifted out of those library stacks, out of the gathered words and yellowed books our ancestors have become. Howe's
especially interested in the Labadists, a group of 17th century utopians of whom almost nothing remains, seeking the faint echoes of their presence, and her tracing of a kind of ancestry leads her to the doorstep of none other than Wallace Stevens -- who also was interested in tracing his ancestry, and who seems one of the most potent of the souls that ghost Howe's own poetics. A group of poems that bear Stevens' address as a title have the odd sense of being whispered, half-overheard conversations with spirits of the past. And, as in Stevens' own poems, they try to worry out the nature of beauty. This poem might be spoken by Stevens in his study, or by Howe in her own study, or Howe looking into Wallace Stevens' window on Westerly Terrace in Hartford.
Face to the window I had
to know what ought to be
accomplished by precedecessors
in the same field of labor
because beauty is what is
What is said and what this
it -- it in itself insistent is
Those last three lines are such a ringing esthetic credo. Like all Howe's work, they ask for full engagement, inviting the reader work out the relations between these words and lines, relations which are not fully determined already but contain the possibilities for multiple meanings. But how rewarding this work is, and how startling that such a forceful and intelligent definition of beauty -- that old Romantic problem! -- is made here in 17 words, most of them tiny, and together they make an abstract and irresistible music: "it -- it in itself insistent is" is music for ear and mind.
And these poems, of course, would be impossible without the poet's allegiance to her method:her crabbed, curious, gnomic collecting, her cobbling of order in the detritus of time.
You don't read such a book straight through and be done with it; you don't expect each part to yield meaning right away, and some of it may never come clear. That's what it's like, listening to history: confusion and multiplcity, glimmers of clarity, waves of inscrutable speech. How's book part library, part forest, spaces in which an American woman is walking and thinking with words pinned to all of her clothes.
First stop: the Keynote Address by US Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, August 31, 8 PM at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University.
On Saturday, September 1, from 11:15 am-12:00 pm the Best American Poetry 2012 Series Editor David Lehman, BAP 2011 Guest Editor Kevin Young, and BAP 2012 Guest Editor Mark Doty with celebrate the anthology and share their work along with poems from the current volume. Decatur Presbyterian Sanctuary Stage. A book signing will follow the presentation.
There's a lot going on in Decatur this weekend! Find out all about it here.
Readers will surmise from the book’s title (taken from a quote by Walter Lippmann) that its content involves a radical theme. It is centered on several coinciding factions of a progressive political movement. The time is 1914. New York City serves as a microcosm of America as a whole. The most prominent factions are the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, represented by William “Big Bill” Haywood and John Reed; and the Anarchists, represented by Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Intertwined, and not without competition, are the liberal, progressive, and socialist factions. These elements converge on the streets of New York, challenging the status quo of class inequality and the oppression of labor. It is a panorama of demonstrations, violence, and reform. Jones succeeds in painting a picture where these forces of change can be viewed from afar as a citywide conflagration, while at the same time highlighting the differences between them. Jones’s sympathies clearly lie with the Anarchist movement. The most radical actors figuring in the book decry the ineffectiveness of mainstream liberals and socialists, and it is not difficult to envision Jones arguing the same points on his own.
Jones is clever in his blending of mainstream political history with the radical alternative. He gives us an overview of domestic social conditions intersecting with international crises. As World War I erupts, tensions mount with Mexico, then in the midst of revolution. Both major political parties have embraced the language of progressive reform. (This is one area where 1914 largely differs from 2012: numerous politicians today have eschewed progressivism for austerity measures.) Both President Woodrow Wilson and New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel have been elected on progressive platforms. The events covered in Dynamite illustrate how radical organizing and street demonstration challenged the grip of these mainstream liberal authorities and of the reactionary forces of such capitalist titans as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Dynamite is not a romantic narrative of World War One-era New York City radicalism in the mold of Allen Churchill’s The Improper Bohemians or the epic 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds. Far from romantic, Dynamite is a close examination of an environment that has become sadly familiar. The title of the second chapter -- “The Jobless Man and the Manless Job” -- sums up the feelings of hardship, hopelessness, and despair that are tangible in the present day Great Recession. We encounter starving families and a city unable to cope with the influx of the homeless and unemployed crowding the streets and overflowing the shelters. In the midst of this turmoil an unsung hero emerges; teenager Frank Tannenbaum, an out-of-work dishwasher and devotee of the IWW cause. Young Tennenbaum’s story is one of countless prisoners of politics and principle. He is arrested for leading a throng of homeless citizens into a church for the purpose of claiming shelter. Charged with incitement to riot, he is railroaded through a trial, denounced for leading a “mob,” and sentenced to a year at the workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Tennenbaum would later graduate from Columbia University to become a distinguished labor historian. In what can only be described as a clear example of historical whitewash, his 1969 New York Times obituary makes scant reference to his radical early life.
(Ed note: This post first appeared here on March 10, 2008. Mark Doty is the guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2012. You can catch him at the BAP launch reading on September 20. Find out more about Mark Doty here.)
I've just gotten home from school (I'm a guest teacher at Cornell University in Ithaca this semester)which means I've walked a bike-path through the woods, still ice-coated from this weekend's storm. It's amazing. When the wind blows the trees crackle, with a sound that's a bit like hissing oil in a skillet and a bit like the sound that that the highest lick of seawater makes as the tide comes in and sinks into dry sand. I like this walk and it's a good time to sort through the conversation and events of the workshop I've just taught.
Today we were looking at poems by Terrance Hayes from WIND IN A BOX. My workshop's centered on the poetic sequence, so we're interested in poems composed in groups, or longer poems in sections. I think my students were slightly frazzled by the daylight savings timeshift today, and I was feeling sort of spun-around myself, because right before class I'd been reading an essay by Charles Harper Webb in the current issue of THE WRITERS CHRONICLE. Webb's essay concerns difficulty in poetry, which he thinks there's too much of; I paraphrase here, but he seems to feel that many poets write for an elite group of other poets who appreciate coded gestures and opaque language that may be incomprehensible to the general reader. The thing that startled me about the article was that Webb says that such poetry has turned away from "natural human taste."
Whoa. It's clear that it's in the nature of human beings to make things, but as to calling what we make "natural" or "artificial" -- well, that's a scary business. Webb feels that poems that are readily understood by the general reader (he cites Billy Collins and Sharon Olds as examples) are natural, and that more demanding work isn't; astonishingly, Webb identifies the general reader as someone who'd probably like A Prairie Home Companion.
I could talk about what I disagree with in this position for several weeks worth of blogging, but suffice to say that the presumption inherent in calling any kind of art "natural" is unnerving, because of course it implies that whatever the critic doesn't care for will go tumbling into the abyss of the other category. "Natural" has a long history of ugly usage. There are plenty of states remaining where I could be arrested, if the authorities so desired, for my private practice of "unnatural acts," and one doesn't have to look far back in time to find the ways in which what was presumed to be "natural" for women or for people of color was in fact simply an expression of the prejudices of the moment. "Natural," as they say, pushes my buttons.
I can only be grateful that poets refuse to take such a position seriously. The two greatest of American poets were, of course, practioners of disparate poetics practically incomprehensible in their own time; how long did it take Whitman and Dickinson to find their audience? Should they have attempted to speak to the "general reader"? (Whitman, of course, did so, as time went on, and not always with very happy results. His great poems are the demanding, uncompromising ones.)
What looks difficult to us is often merely different, and isn't it a pleasure to encounter what we don't know how to read yet? There ought to be room in the huge house of American poetry for all sorts of practice, from the plainspoken to the highly wrought, from the direct to the encoded, from the open to the secretive. And besides, if what we strive for is to be "natural" -- well, which to prefer, the artifice of the spider or of the bee, the termite or the paper wasp, all makers of intricate systems? I am not convinced that nature is all that plainspoken.
Okay, enough rant. I was thinking about my class, and about how my dear and earnest Cornell students, who dwell in a culture that places great value upon intellectual achievement, on working hard
to find correct answers, seemed to struggle with finding their way in Terrance's poems. What I understood, after we talked about two pieces, was that they weren't quite hearing his tone; they hadn't found access to the voice that informs the work, the over-riding or indwelling current of feeling.
For them, the poems were emotionally difficult - which presents another, more interesting dimension
to Webb's argument. There are many sorts of difficulty, after all, and what "difficult" is depends on who's doing the reading.
Ever since the launch of Mobile Libris in 2005, Sharon Preiss's traveling bookstore has sold thousands of books at hundreds of readings in and around New York City. Mobile Libris is our go-to bookseller when we hold readings in bars, churches, classrooms, libraries, and other locations that don't ordinarily sell books. Preiss (above) or one of her twenty or so employees arrives on time with an attractive book display and, most importantly, a good supply of the author's books for sale. With the fall reading season upon us, Sharon agreed to share her observations about readings: What makes them succeed? What can those who give readings do better? Post your questions for Sharon in the comment section and she’ll answer them.
1. Can you identify the key ingredients that make for a successful reading? That is, what can a reader do that will give his or her audience pleasure and make it more likely that they will want to read (and buy) the author's book?
There are so many variables that can affect a reading, it's just about impossible to guarantee a great one. Even things like technical problems, weather, and the temperature of the room make an impression on the audience. The best thing authors can do, though, is concentrate on thing that matters most — their presentation. Rehearse, know your material, time your talk. The better prepared you are, the more likely it is that you will come across as authoritative and confident. If you're feeling good about what you're about to say, you'll speak clearer, slower, louder, with more ease — you'll be taking care of some of the little things that can turn an audience off. You may not be able to stop the snowplows grinding by the window battling the worst blizzard of the year, but you're going to make sure the people who braved the storm to show up will be glad they did.
Also, some of the best events I've been to are those where authors limit their amount of actual reading from the book but talk about the book instead — some background on the subject, what brought them to it, how they researched, what the writing process was. This background stuff really engages and intrigues the audience, piques their interest in the book and doesn't give too much of it away. But that probably applies more to fiction and non-fiction than poetry. With poetry it's always the poems that matter most. A little bit of between-poem chat is good but I've seen audiences get restless and embarrassed for the poet when the talk becomes too revealing or personal. I recommend that if you're in doubt about what to say between poems, just read the poems.
It helps if the audience knows that books will be for sale. If there’s advance publicity, be sure to mention that books will be available for purchase and that the author will sign them. The event host should make such an announcement at the beginning of the event and at its close. And readers: your audience likes it when you sign their books so plan to stick around.
2. What are some of the most common mistakes you have seen authors make, things one might do to turn the audience off or make them lose interest in an otherwise great book?
Rule # 1-10: DON'T GO ON TOO LONG. Really, it's the worst thing you can do. Even if you're absolutely sure your audience wants to hear more, stop. Let 'em buy the book and get the rest of the story there. Seriously. I can't emphasize this enough. I know you think they're dying to hear more. They're not. They're just dying. Adhere to your time limits or be prepared to make lifelong enemies!
Also, think about the difference between being modest versus being self-denegrating. It's pretty awkward to hear readers say how terrible their work is or make excuses about its quality. Even if your doubts about your work are real, assume that people are there because they want to hear you read. Don't apologize for your writing.
3. You've sold books at poetry, fiction, and non-fiction readings. Which kind of audience is most likely to buy the books? Can you speculate why?
I'm not sure genre has much to do with sales, at least at readings. Really, it seems to have more to do with how special the event or the book feels. Take The Best American Poetry, for example. We've sold BAP for the last three years at the annual September launch reading held at the New School [Thursday, September 20, 2012, 7:00 PM. 66 W.12th Street -- ed] People are excited about the book. It's just been published and many people are seeing it for the first time. It's a special event just for that book. Everyone's focus is on showcasing it, presenting it in its best light. It's like a coming out party for the book. Sales are tremendous. Everyone wants a copy. You feel special walking away with one, and you're going to remember the night you bought it. I guess someone who's more of a business person than a book person would call that marketing, but that sounds really crass. I like to think of it more like giving every book its due moment in the spotlight, even if it's just at a small reading at the corner bar. It takes a lot to write a book, and each one is sort of like its own person, with looks and personality and charm. They deserve to be treated special.
4. What is the craziest/funniest/most outrageous/ thing that has happened at a reading?
Our bookseller, Ben, came back from an event at the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison and 34th and told us a crazy story about what had just happened there. Normally, the library events are pretty small and uneventful. We generally don't expect to sell a lot of books there and it's just a simple in-and-out for the bookseller. On this particular day we were selling Galileo's Gout by Gerald Weissmann, a doctor and researcher at NYU. Nothing special, really. It's a book, like a few others recent ones I can think of, that examines the relationship of science to politics and calls to question some current US government policies.
Well, I'm not sure exactly why, but the room was packed. Middle of the week, middle of the day, but standing room only and turning people away at the door. The librarians had to push people out of the room and actually lock the door to keep all these unruly professors and doctors from storming in. There was shouting. There was cursing. There was gnashing of teeth and raising of blood pressure. They all wanted to hear Dr. Weissmann, but there was no way they were all going to fit in the room. We sold out of books within short order, and Ben made it out of there without any major injuries. It was quite a scene. That PhD crowd! Totally out of control.
The best New Yorker sentences of the summer appeared in John McPhee's piece "Editors & Publisher" (July 2, 2012).
Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative -- that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New Yorker -- Vogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors' habit of replacing an author's title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist's head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong.
I chose this passage for the wonderful outlandish simile that nails it down and because I agree with McPhee in principle. He is certainly right about editors' sense of entitlement, to use the apt word. When I wrote for Newsweek, I rarely got to title any of my pieces, though I must admit that my senior editor very often improved on whatever I had proposed. The late Ken Auchincloss was especially gifted at headlines. And these are important. I have called headlines and captions the haiku of journalism, and I remember being pleased (though some associates grumbled) when Ken ordered writers to write the captions under photos illustrating their articles. (I forget what embarrassment provoked this change.) Among my favorite headlines: the sublime "Rose is a Red" (which was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when Pete Rose returned to Cincinnati in the 1980s). The Newsweek caption I enjoyed writing most was "Laurels for Mr. Warren's Profession" when Robert Penn Warren was named the nation's first official poet laureate in 1986 (if memory serves).
That takes care of the good. As for the bad, well, sometimes the bad is so bad it's good ("Though a strapping five-nine today -- closer to five-nine and a half, really -- in the prepubescent days of my love affair with sports I was a shrimp"), or it's bad on purpose ("A little history is always useful"), or it's just bad when stripped out of its context when that context consists of banal word-clusters (e.g., "in a world characterized mainly by mobility, change, and uncertainty"). The quotes come from Louis Menand's pre-Olympics navel-gazer, "Glory Days," in the issue of August 6. The last is followed immediately by this:
No matter what happens to us next year, there will be a Super Bowl.
The statement, while not nearly as funny in context as out of it, should have an admonitory effect on writers who value their sentences as much as their paragraphs. Perhaps the magazine might use "there will always be a Super Bowl" as a tag for odd witticisms on the order of "there will always be an England." Was it the same author who, in an earlier piece, characterized his father as a snob on the grounds that he favored good grammar and correct usage? -- DL
A poem by my writer friend of many years -->>
The Big Bang
This took place when they were half asleep
The way you look when you roll over and say Huh?
Dead brained, dream soaked
While engaged in making a baby
Neither spoke much
Or cared much what the other might say
With the exception of what you wouldn’t exactly call
Like: Oh fuck, Oh Jesus, and the like.
They were eighteen.
Collectively, thirty six
Breath, sweat, skin, whatnot
Mingled like Japanese cars after a collision
Limp airbags littering
The tv howling away
Someone banging on the ceiling or wall.
Nine months later
Sandor Fox arrived
His name a presumptive chariot
Air for a helium zeppelin
A city map
(Instead of a City)
Sprawled on a kitchen table
Or was it a restaurant booth
Amidst red formica dots
Photographs of eggs.
He cried his little lungs out
To be born an American
At the end of
The age of glory
The age America made up
Looking in its mirror that said
Made in Japan,
Crying like a little sewing machine
A cloister, a swift
A piece of damp angel food cake
An overcarobonated 7 up.
Born under a pile of bills
Believing in food
Believing in doctors, clergymen
Thinking about five to four
Supreme Court decisions,
Consumed by a need to assert himself
On the next available nipple.
The road not taken
Running through his new house,
Sprouting strange life between velour couch cushions
And he, Sandor, a cyclone
Whirling inside the mirror of his parents eyes
The family has cloistered itself in re-sold ideas
Shoveling its past into plastic bags
Confronting its future with Glade.
Sandor. Sandor. What should we do with you?
Hope of our hope.
Destroyer of nakedness.
Curer of dreams.
What should we do when you wake crying at 2 am
With your parents silently growing in their beds?
When you scream at four am,
The hour dreams are packed up for the night.
When your own tiny brain revolves in your skull
Like the dawn sky, emptying itself of stars?
What should we think about you?
What should we do?
We’ll meet on the street
And I’ll say, Sandor,
Do you realize what we have in common?
We both come from the Big Bang.
No, Silly, not that one,
Not that wet tumbling and rumbling
And fighting and slithering
And skidding, evulsing and sliming:
The other one.
-- Nevin Schreiner
Okay, face it: the academic year is about to begin. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around. Put away the sunscreen, dump all those plans you had for the Summer of Continuous Industry and Focus out back with the compost. For many of us reading this blog, the creative writing workshop is heading straight at us, whether we’ll be teaching or taking one. So I can think of no more appropriate poem to post today than this beauty by Rodney Jones, the tongue-in-cheek raconteur I am always eager to read, because just as you start to think you’re having way too much fun to be reading a serious poem, he plunges into the depths of something. “The Ante” first appeared in New Ohio Review 10, Fall 2011.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A few sonnets about nature and the Greek gods.
Many free-verse poems in all lowercase letters.
Huey wrote of madness, Maddox of possums.
John played the sadness of empty stadiums.
Two berets, one silver-tipped cane, tweedy blazers.
In most Natalie poems, she took off her clothes.
The year of the Tet offensive. Wallace in Montgomery.
We read James Wright, Richard Wilbur, Anne Sexton.
One Friday an ex-guidance counselor from Jasper
leapt through the window of a cafeteria, shouting
“I am the son of Jesus Christ! Behold the rapture!”
But nothing much happened in Poetry Writing 301
until Walter C. Avery wrote that a black swan,
born in the infralapsarian brain of a garbage dump,
would crack the codes of the Southern Baptists.
And for this jack-surreal, mildly apocalyptic truffle
was taken for near genius material, practically
a second Edgar Allan Poe, until Sam Maisel
submitted his “Poem for The Worksheet Typist,”
which made everyone consider how scandalous
it must have seemed for her, a local woman,
a seamstress, and mother of Christian athletes,
to run across “I know you think you’ve seen it all before,
but this is duck rape, feathered love.” And some
in the critique afterward, praised the line-endings;
one person even mentioned “The Second Coming,”
which, admittedly, made me blanch with envy,
so I had wanted to say something about how
sometimes the subject is not what you think
or the ones you imagine you are talking about
stand abruptly and begin to talk back to you,
but spring was bearing down on the workshop,
ripping out pages, grinding the opinions to nubs.
So much energy in the streets—demonstrations,
happenings, awakenings—so many instances
of sudden and involuntary enlightenment,
though mostly my friends and I spent our nights
on Sixth Street drinking beer at The Chukkar
or crouched in a huddle around a record player.
By the time I thought of Sam’s duck again,
May had slipped into June and June into July,
and what is poetry in a copper tubing factory?
A cloud would fan out around the tubes
as the crane lifted them from the soaping vats
after they had softened in the furnace.
My job was to crimp a point on each of them.
Then the next man would carefully run them
through a die. Down the line I could see
the process repeating: the furnace, the point,
the die—the tubes and men diminishing.
All night the saws screeched and whined.
The pointers clattered. The press roared.
That was the beauty of it. You could sing.
No one would hear. You could say anything.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Some forty-five years later, the workshop Jones describes sounds very familiar, though I don’t see many berets these days. The idea of poetry, “the beauty of it,” and I think Whitman would agree, is supposed to be our liberation from the phrase “supposed to be.” You’re supposed to be freed of all those rules – social, idiomatic, topical – enough to say what you need to say. Yet if we’re not careful the creative writing workshop becomes like any organized group of people, fraught with sidelong looks, with political and aesthetic pressures. Is he allowed to say that? Can she get away with that metaphor? Self-consciousness naturally interferes with pure expression, and writers can be pigeonholed even if only one or two of their poems memorably mentioned possums or nakedness. Well, what is poetry in a copper tubing factory? For the speaker in this poem, at this moment, perhaps it’s a relief to be away from people grouped about a table civilizing, judging, taming each other and imposing their views on what’s important to him. We write in order to be read, sure. But also, and maybe foremost, to sound our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Rodney Jones has published nine books of poetry, the most recent being Imaginary Logic, which appeared last fall from Houghton Mifflin. He has been the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Harper Lee Award, and the Kingsley-Tufts Award. He is a professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed -- thanks for the opportunity, David! -- presenting these poems from New Ohio Review all summer long, and I hope you’ll seek out the other good poems we publish. Meet you up on the roof.
Happy birthday, Lenny (1918-1990), genius and amazing musician (with a surprisingly weak singing voice). My favorite of your songs. WIth words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. -- DL
(Ed note: I came across this essay by following a twitter link posted by @pete_wells and since I know so many readers of this blog share my passion for cooking and for writing about food, want to recommend it here. Please do let me know what you think. Do you have an annotated cookbook of your own or of a loved one? -- sdh)
As a historian of food and nutrition, I’ve amassed a substantial collection of cookbooks, old and new, over the years. But one cookbook I often find myself coming back to amidst the hundred plus dusty volumes cluttering my office is a 1930 edition of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Meals Tested, Tasted and Approved: Favorite Recipes and Menus From Our Kitchens to Yours. I purchased it for $12 from a Toronto vintage shop and consider it one of my favourite purchases to date.
On the surface, at least, the cookbook seems unremarkable. Good Housekeeping cookbooks from the period are common enough, and like many others in my collection it’s well worn and smells vaguely of mildew and decades-old flour. Its spine is broken and held together with clear tape. Its pages are stuffed with dozens of handwritten recipes on cards as well as a number of others cut from newspapers and magazines. These include a fading recipe for Dandelion Wine written in pencil on a piece of scrap paper and a Campbell’s Soup can label with a recipe for Oven Glazed Chicken. In other words, it’s a cookbook like hundreds of others that could be found in kitchen cupboards in households across the country, and my personal collection includes its own fair share of similarly well-worn, well-loved volumes.
But what makes this particular cookbook remarkable – to me at least – is the inscription in the front cover left by its original owner, Jean Stephenson.
We're big fans of Joe Brainard and have written about him several times, most recently here. We were delighted to get an e-mail telling us of a new film about this singular artist and writer whom, we're happy to say, seems to be gaining in popularity. The film was directed by Matt Wolf and is built around archival recordings of Brainard reading from his famous memoir-poem "I Remember."
Here's what Matt Wolf has to say about his film:
I've always been a huge fan of Joe Brainard's art and writing, especially "I Remember," which is probably my favorite poem ever. When I found archival audio recordings of Joe reading the text on the online archive PennSound, I knew that I wanted to make something— to bring to life the poem, but also to tell Joe's story. I approached his best friend, the poet Ron Padgett, after reading his very moving book Joe: A Memoir, and he connected me to great photos, films, and materials to tell the story. I also interviewed Ron about his lifelong friendship with Joe from elementary school in Tulsa, Oklahoma up until Joe's death. When I was editing the film, I wanted to create a kind of conversation between Ron's recollections of Joe, and Joe's memories from the poem. I started to realize that the film wasn't just a tribute to Joe, but a film about deep friendship, and the unique bonds artists form with each other.
Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have isn't permanent.
-- Mignon McLaughlin
The Neurotic's Notebook, 1960
via The American Scholar (Summer, 2008)
So, I was contemplating my reading to celebrate the publication of my new chapbook, The Accidental Present (Finishing Line Press, 2012). The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to hear myself go on for a half hour or more, as much as I like my poems. It occurred to me that many of them might be done better justice if read by other people, some of them not necessarily poets, just friends, coworkers, and neighbors who have good voices and strong characters. Imagine that!
And so was born the idea for my "poetic happening," a "community poetry read" in which the majority of my poems would be read by others. There are 22 poems in the chapbook, and I had fifteen readers each read one poem. I read three, one of which was the title poem. We went through the poems in the order that they appear, skipping a couple along the way. Hearing them read aloud that way, I discovered I had put them in an order for a reason. More surprises.
I had assigned the poems in the two weeks prior to the reading, so that my designated readers had a chance to familiarize themselves with the words. I did not "test" anyone before the reading. I just trusted them to do the best they could, even though some of them told me they were nervous. Some were afraid that they would not do the particular poem justice.
Let me say right here, not a single person disappointed me. In the moments when the readers were on stage, I was blown away by the care with which each person read. I could tell that each person had clearly practiced, and had thought about giving the assigned poem some personal power from his or her own inner repertoire of thought and emotion.
For me, it was as though all the voices in my head that I cannot actually speak the way I hear them came to life during that 45 minutes. There was the voice of the angry woman, the loving man, and the anguished poet. Janet, who is in her 80s, read a poem in defiance of getting old. Lynn, who is seeking to grow and evolve, read a poem about just that. Ed, who had some training in the monastery many eons ago, read a poem with scriptural references, and Al, who has the slightest southern drawl and an occasional stammer, read a poem in which God invites us to stop complaining and join him for a shot of tequila.
If I may say, the effect was quite mesmerizing.
It was something theatrical, layered, magical. Yes, they are "my" poems, but I like to think that they belong to the world, and hearing others read them made that real for a short while. Lest you would question the sanity of a poet not reading her own work, please read more about the evening from the perspective of an observer, essayist and Stoneboat associate editor, Signe Jorgenson, who witnessed the whole thing:
And, if you need to treat yourself to something really enriching one of these days, get your friends to read your poems for you at your next reading. You will be amazed at how wonderful you sound when it is not the sound of your own voice you hear.
Over breakfast in Tijuana in 2010, the two sides of me came face to face. I was there, a Mexican-American poet visiting from Brooklyn, with the novelist Cristina Rivera Garza, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. It was my first trip to the area, so we were sightseeing across the border. Cristina, a double agent of sorts, keeps two cell phones, two wallets, and homes in both cities. We were overnighting at her house on the Tijuana coast.
Back in June we posted about the July weekend writing retreat for nurses, sponsored by the Center for Health Media & Policy at Hunter College in New York City. The retreat was part of the CHMP’s program in Narrative Writing for Health Care Professionals, and was cosponsored with the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.
I asked Jim Stubenrauch, who along with Joy Jacobson leads the retreat, to keep us posted and I'm pleased to report that it was an enormous success, so much so that its likely that they'll be run once a quarter. Follow this link to read Jim's take on the weekend and this one to read about it from the perspective of Patricia Wagner Dodson, one of the participants.
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.