Henri Cole + John Koethe
Peter J. Shippy is the author of 3 books, the most recent is How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic (Rose Metal Press). He teaches at Emerson College, in Boston. For poems and updates: www.peterjayshippy.com.
On Monday, November 5 we began our Year in Review series. We're posting selections from each of our guest bloggers. We're sure you will be inspired to look for more work by our contributors and to buy their books as holiday gifts. You can catch up by following the link above. And you can read posts by all of our guest bloggers, from the blog's beginning to the present, here. You will find remarkable work.
Ben Affleck’s Argo opens with the image of the long defunct Warner Brothers logo that the studio used in the 1970s. It was upon seeing this blast from the past that I knew this movie was something neat. Ultimately Argo is a double-layered film: a movie wrapped in a movie. And that is what makes it neat. So much so, in fact, that when I examined it closer and found just how many conventional devices the film employs, my instinct was to overlook them. Argo is neat enough to be forgiven many clichés that might sink an inferior movie.
Argo is based on true events, some infamous and some unknown, kept under lock and key by the CIA for the past thirty years. As the world remembers it, Iranian revolutionaries held fifty-two American Embassy workers hostage for a period of 444 days from November 1979 until January 1981. The image of the blindfolded captives, as broadcast on ABC Nightline every day of the ordeal, remains an icon of helplessness that continues to resonate for Americans today.
The events unknown until recently center on the escape of six embassy workers out a back exit. The six were sheltered for weeks at the Teheran residence of the Canadian ambassador before managing to depart Iran and its reign of terror under the guise of a movie crew scouting locations for a putative science-fiction picture and using false Canadian passports – the whole improbable but effective scheme cooked up by the CIA working with Hollywood. Argo reveals the newly declassified details of this great feat.
The hero of the story, CIA Agent Tony Mendez, as played by actor/director Ben Affleck, comes across as the typical battle-weary troubleshooter with a troubled home life, who can always be counted on as the voice of reason in a room full of indecisive bureaucrats arguing and dithering on how best to provide cover for the extraction of the six Americans (or “ex-fils,” a neologism based the inverse of infiltration). Getting approval for the operation from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is “like talking to the two old fucks on the Muppets,” says Affleck’s CIA superior, played convincingly by Bryan Cranston.
Affleck doesn’t have to reach too far to convey his character’s burnout and lassitude. His sunken-eyed expression says it all. As you might expect, it is his force of will that drives the rescue plan to fruition. At one point, Affleck stares definitively at the fourth wall, as if to say ‘let’s do it.’
Adding a dose of cynicism and black humor are two Hollywood figures, an irreverent make-up artist (John Goodman) and a cantankerous veteran film producer (Alan Arkin). The steadfast Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber) is heroic, as is his young Iranian servant girl, who in one of the movie’s best scenes covers for the houseguests, standing up to questioning by the Iranian secret police, overriding her own conflicted loyalties in the process. The worsening situation tests the resolve of the film’s heroes.
Argo’s genius is in its mosaic of spy intrigue and revolutionary violence and its commentary on Hollywood egotism and the burgeoning popularity of Star Wars-like sci-fi movies. It makes clear that the anti-American demonstrations of the Iranian militants are just as much a type of theater as Hollywood’s overblown science-fiction make-up and movie sets and costumes. At one point a character points to the TV image of the U.S. flag-burning protestors and asks, “you ever think how this is all for the cameras?”
The ever-present stare of the Ayatollah Khomeini, emblem of the repressive regime adorns posters in Teheran. These are similar images to those found (even more threateningly) in 1991’s Not Without My Daughter, also set in the Ayatollah’s Iran. Starring Sally Field (in one of those crusading-mother roles usually assigned to Sally Field, Meryl Streep, or Sissy Spacek), NWMD recounts the true-life tale from the 1980s of an an American woman’s efforts to flee, with her young daughter in tow, Iran and her abusive Iranian husband. Where Affleck in Argo attempts to convey sensitivity toward Iran’s complicated history and its people’s legitimate grievances against the American government NWMD demonizes the Iranian people. In the opening voiceover, Argo is careful to include references to the 1953 U.S.-backed coup d’état against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq and the subsequent backing of the Shah’s oppressive regime. NWMD leaves these matters unmentioned. This is not to say that Argo is not without negative stereotypes, but Affleck is more thorough at balancing them out with his cultural liberalism.
There are elements of pungent irony: for example, a shot of burka-clad Iranian women eating buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Alan Arkin says of film extras in an unrelated picture he is producing in Africa, “They may be cannibals, but they still want health and dental insurance.” Arkin’s favorite catchphrase becomes the movie’s signature line:: “Argo Fuck Yourself!” As gloomy international events continue to air on the nightly news, Arkin mutters, “John Wayne is in the ground six months, and this is what’s left of America!”
The urge to feed nostalgia. Is this different from nostalgia itself? Impulse versus aftermath. A temptation, but devoid of ecstasy. The impulse tells us we might live again—an uncanny resemblance—and if we live again, will it really be us there, or will we skulk along the periphery with half-clenched fists? Like a voyeur in the mirror. A narcissist, but no one looks back. They look continually past—past doubt, past what-if, past the day you left, left them bereft, on the brink, slightly bemused. We can see us there—we know what we’d like to think. But from where to think it? The arc of nostalgia never begins in an emotional present. We catch it en route, already worn down to the metal and glistening. Therein lies a brute navigation.
Lean and mean, our fathers said, without a referent.
Our greatest living novelist is hanging up his spikes. He has been mulling it over for two years, he told Charles McGrath of the New York Times. “I didn’t say anything about it because I wanted to be sure it was true,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, don’t announce your retirement and then come out of it.’ I’m not Frank Sinatra. So I didn’t say anything to anyone, just to see if it was so.” Here's a link to what Roth calls his last interview, and here's a little more about how he came to his decision.
“I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s over, maybe it’s over,’ ” he said. “I gave myself a dose of fictional juice by rereading writers I hadn’t read in 50 years and who had meant quite a lot when I read them. I read Dostoevsky, I read Conrad — two or three books by each. I read Turgenev, two of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘First Love’ and ‘The Torrents of Spring.’ ” He also reread Faulkner and Hemingway.
“And then I decided to reread my own books,” Mr. Roth went on, “and I began from the last book forward, casting a cold eye. And I thought, ‘You did all right.’ But when I got to ‘Portnoy’ ” — “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969 — “I had lost interest, and I didn’t read the first four books.”
“So I read all that great stuff,” he added, “and then I read my own and I
knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to
slave over it.”
On his blog,, the indefatigable Tom Clark salutes Terence Winch today.
to both these gentlemen
on the occasion of this post.
To the question above, the answer is
a) sin, b), gin, c) the din in your local gin, d) a win-win situation.
"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine." -- DL
At the AWP conference in Chicago, I attended a panel--the first panel of the first morning--on contemporary Jewish poetry. There was a lot of genius at that table, and an adorable baby in the audience about whom the moderator said, "Don't be angry at that baby. We like that baby." A very happy little panel. Of all the things in that room I found to like, I left there utterly taken with the work of young Hasidic poet, Yehoshua November.
Here is the poem he read that morning, from his first book, God's Optimism (Main Street Rag, 2010).
Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah
Sometimes you see them
in the dressing area
of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning
their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers,
until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos
of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg,
an eagle whose feathery wing span
spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman
other than one's wife.
Then, holding only a towel,
they begin, once more, the walk
past the others in the dressing room:
the rabbi they will soon sit before
in Talmud class,
men with the last names
of the first Chasidic families
devout since birth.
And with each step,
they curse the poverty
that keeps the dark ink
etched in their skin,
until, finally, they descend the stairs
of the purifying water,
and, beneath the translucent liquid,
appear, once again,
like the next man,
who, in all this days,
has probably never made a sacrifice
as endearing to God.
If you take a look, and want to do so with my eyes, here are a few things to keep in mind...(1) "Baal Teshuvas" are people who come into an observant, full-life religious practice from a secular life, (2) religious Judaism does not permit tattoos, so anyone who has one would be displaying something of their pre-observant life, and proving that their holy observance has not been life-long; there would be shame in that, in the past clinging to the present, and a sign of not being syntonic with the present, (3) the mikvah is a ritual bath...think spa, if you need to imagine the setting here.
Lastly, try reading this as it came out at that panel--as an act of sound, of pacing-in-linear-time. Think--before you read the title, what does the silence feel like. After you read it, what image is in your head. And then the first line. How could it have been different, and if it was, how would that have changed the reader's relationship to the story in the poem? The reader's relationship to the speaker of the poem? Also, notice how the first stanza (all one sentence) strip-teases, drawing out the undressing. And keep an eye on shame. On where it begins (in the poem). On how it gives off its uncomfortable aroma. And then--final stanza--how it turns, how the shame becomes a humbling, perfect and holy, restored.
Whether or not one believes in some traditional version of God, or in an engaged inner-self, or in community, or in something entirely other, or nothing at all, I found this poem remarkable in its treatment of shame, humiliation, and dignity. And in how the reader has to be inveigled to enter into the process of shaming and redeeming. "Sometimes you see them". He doesn't summarize here. He makes us walk through the bath itself. Hearing this poem, and then reading the poems in this book, I felt palpably how restorative it is to travel with a poet who finds something whole and holy-making in the smallest and most broken places.
November spoke on the panel about "God in the Lower Realms"--namely our own realm, this life, the earth. But also, I heard through it, about the transcendent presence in the quietest most fragile and broken spots inside a self. These "lower realms" supposedly are brought into being every minute by sacred conscious effort, so that God (or spirit or the authentic self, or...I leave this metaphorically wide enough for you, Reader, to engage as you wish with it) could have a home and a place to be-at-home. And--November pointed out--when we ourselves are at home, we are not assertive and asserting ourselves, and taking action. We are kicking back, putting on our slippers, being so intimate and close and authentic and true as to be almost invisible. Intangible. To be almost "not there".
In one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, Oliver describes the poet Walt Whitman as "slipping through the sleeve of ego". As I journey on through reading and writing, every day I value more the virtue of being lost. Of being little. Of being less. Of being in the lower realms.
In this season of renewal--April, Easter, Passover (which ends, I might add, tomorrow--and my whole household will be thrilled to return to leavened bread)--I have this to say. Sometimes it's nice to rise. Other times, it's just fine to wander for a very long time and go no distance at all.
NA: I would love to begin with a brief description of Serving House Books. How would you best describe the press? How did it begin? What is your mission?
WC: Here is the way we identify ourselves on our website: “Serving House Books is an imprint dedicated to selecting memorable poetry, fiction, and essays from throughout the world. Most of our authors already have significant publishing histories, winning many grants and awards. At the same time, we take pride in introducing new writers at the start of careers that will be equally successful.”
We exist to provide a service to authors and books that deserve publication, volunteering our editorial and formatting time and seeking no income or profit. That’s a luxury we don’t expect others to emulate. Thomas E. Kennedy, my co-publisher, and I are both retired, surviving on pensions and a bit of MFA teaching. Over the years, we’ve both benefitted from the work of many editors and publishers who have made our work available, and we empathize with the frustrations of those whose books deserve an audience during a time of reduced outlets for creative writers. Tom and I and others who help as editors feel a debt for the gratifications of our writing lives. Serving House Books is our way of repaying what we owe.
SHB began in 2009 when I discovered the existence of CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary that offers print-on-demand and availability on Amazon.com. During many of my twenty years as editor of The Literary Review when I read submissions by so many excellent writers, I had dreamed of publishing books devoted to individuals but was confounded by the logistics of stocking and distribution. CreateSpace solves those problems, with our books available though outlets beyond Amazon and through major distributors. We now have more than thirty titles available.
NA: What are some of the best and worst aspects of running an independent press?
WC: Best is seeing a book take shape as it evolves from a Word file, though InDesign and Photoshop, to proofs and finally publications and sales. That’s a real source of satisfaction, as are the reviews and recognition received by many of our books. Worst in the sense of frustration is getting the word out and letting the world know the books are available.
NA: Serving House Books is described as an International Press. Do you publish translations?
WC: While most of our authors are from the U.S., we have works by writers in the UK and Denmark, with a few in translation. These include Irish-born Thomas McCarthy’s novel of IRA intrigue, The Coast of Death (http://www.servinghousebooks.com/mccarthy.html), Danish author Lars Rasmussen’s collection of tales, Come Raw, and his emulations of the legendary Doaist-Zen poet Han-Shan in What Can Buddha Teach the Rain (http://www.servinghousebooks.com/rasmussen.html), along with the story of the Center for Research and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (RCT), The Meeting with Evil: Inge Genefke's Fight Against Torture (http://www.servinghousebooks.com/evil.html).
We certainly are open to more.
NA: How did you come up with the name, Serving House Books?
WC: The name was inspired by Thomas E. Kennedy’s novel Kerrigan in Copenhagen to be re-released by Bloomsbury in 2013. The story is told through a series of visits to dozens of bars in that city, where they are known as serving houses. As sources of socialization and communal pleasure they struck us as being an appropriate designation for works that readers would share and enjoy.
NA: How many poetry books do you publish per year?
WC: While we don’t think in terms of genre quotas, approximately one-third of our titles are poetry collections.
NA: How do you find your poets?
WC:As with most of our books, their work is by invitation. We seek collections by poets we admire or, in some cases, recommended by people whose judgment we respect.
NA: I first heard Serving House Books when I learned that you had accepted Claire Bateman’s newest book, Locals. I absolutely love that book. It is very unique. I also love the cover you have chosen for the book. Would you be willing to post a poem from that book and say a few words about Claire Bateman?
WC: Our very first publication was a Claire Bateman chapbook called Coronology, which was later included in a full-length collection of that title from Etruscan Press. We were struck by the vision behind those poems and the strength of their delivery. When we learned that Locals was available, we grabbed it with great pride in having it appear under our imprint. Claire’s intelligence and imagination is very special. Her work consistently surprises and illuminates. It takes us to places far beyond our imaginings. Information about her books with us may be found at http://www.servinghousebooks.com/bateman.html.
Here’s one example:
In this realm, every newborn is given a name of many syllables set to musical tones, which then shrinks by a tone or two a year to honor the fact that the more deeply one knows a person, the more mysterious he or she becomes. Thus, the longest intimacies are acknowledged by songs composed of the most luxuriant silence.
NA: I would love to hear about some of your new or forthcoming books. Feel free to provide links to interviews, reviews, etc.
WC: A recent collection of poems and photographs is Mark Hillringhouse’s Between Frames. He is both a widely published and award-winning poet as well as a professional photographer with many works exhibited, including one in the National Park Services’s 2013 calendar. Gerald Stern said of the work; “The absolute sadness of America is in these poems and these photographs; and the old hopes and dreams--and the rage--scattered throughout. And the amazing courage and kindness of the one who is both poet and photographer.”
Another poetry collection just out is David Memmott’s Lost Transmissions. He is the author of six books of poetry, a novel, and a story collection. David Alexrod, author of What Next, Old Knife?” said, “David Memmott uncovers the ‘dignity of survival’ in lives lost to history or otherwise ignored.
NA: What are some of the happiest moments for the press?
WC: Each new book is a happy moment. It’s difficult to pick a favorite. But I’ll provide some examples of recognition that have given us special satisfaction: a long, detailed essay review of Gladys Swan’s The Tiger’s Eye: New and Selection Stories in Southern Humanities Review”; praise for Lars Rasmussen’s What Can Buddha Teach the Rain? from several of the leading translators of Chinese and Zen poetry; Elisabeth Murawski going on after her chapbook with us, Out-patients, to win the May Swenson award for Zorba’s Daughter. These and other affirmations increase our pride in the authors we publish.
NA: I would like to close the interview with a poem from one of your new poetry collections.
Mark Hillinghouse, from Between Frames:
I can still
hear the phone ring
then silence, then the phone again.
I’m up and out of bed at 5 am, my brother
on the other end, “Dad passed away.”
I can still see my brother
in the lobby waiting for me.
I can still see my father’s body:
pale, gray, wooden.
It’s a strange kind of birth
being born out of the body,
that cold, eerie stillness—
I am snowed in; it snowed all night,
snowed all morning, all day into evening.
My father made it snow,
his spirit in the upper atmosphere
got swept up in a storm.
There is a Hopi legend
that the spirit returns as moisture,
and now he’s snowing all around me,
his spirit melting into the cold air,
melting into the earth,
in snowflakes melting into streams,
melting into underground rivers.
Walter Cummins has published five short story collections—Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, The End of the Circle, and The Lost Ones. Another, Habitat, is pending. More than 100 of his stories, as well as memoirs, essays, and reviews, have appeared in magazines such as Kansas Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Under the Sun, Confrontation, Bellevue Literary Review, Connecticut Review, The Laurel Review, Other Voices, Georgetown Review, Contrary, Sonora Review, Abiko Quarterly, Weber Studies, Midwest Quarterly, West Branch, South Carolina Review, Cross For more than twenty years, he was editor of The Literary Review. He teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.
Thomas E. Kennedy was born in New York. He has lived in Copenhagen for over two decades, and has worked, among other things, as a translator for Copenhagen's Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims. He is the author of eight novels, as well as several collections of short stories and essays, and has won numerous awards including the Eric Hoffer Award, the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Prize and the National Magazine Award. He teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and is the father of two grown children who live in Denmark.
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 was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here.
the immobile moment hovers in the air before
the thunder rumbles, and that moment of slackening
before the catastrophe lasts for millennia
until the frail wick of hope goes out.
bodies perform impeded motions
as though under water, yearn for love and blood,
under a savagely clear sky, the final sky.
like fish on the sea-floor, doomed generations
are born and die already before the anger
in the promise of catastrophe.
в обещании катастрофы
есть долгий миг, когда замирают люди
как, остановленное Навином, солнце в стекле небоскрёбов.
атомы и молекулы, вирусы и амёбы
словно поставили в карты на «веришь – не веришь».
медленный миг повисает в воздухе
чем гром прогремит, и этот миг замедленья
пред катастрофой длится тысячелетья,
пока не погаснет чахлый фитиль надежды.
как под водой, замедленные движенья
совершают тела, жаждут любви и крови,
под небом жестоко ясным, последним небом.
как рыбы на дне, обречённые поколенья
успевают родиться и умереть до гнева,
в обещании катастрофы.
-- Alla Gorbunova [trans. John Narins]
This is one of the poems Ms. Gorbunova read at the "warm peace" reading celebrating young Russian and American poets. The reading took place oin October 15, 2012, at the midtown branch of the New York Public Library. Following the reading and discussion, the celebrants concluded the evening with navy grogs and vodka martinis at the Algonquin.
suicide trip –
unique vacation –
by David Lehman (from When A Woman Loves a Man, Scribner 2005)
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.)
“I lost two cities once, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent,
I miss them. But it wasn’t a disaster.”
(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!)
“Gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.”
(A video in a classroom, not sure which class. His voice, powerful, cutting, rich, and angry. The image of the lion, the rhythm, the seemingly awkward phrases turned into a new song.)
“From my five arms, and all my hands
from all my white sins forgiven, they feed.”
(College at the University of Washington, a print out, this is the first line of the poem, I got a physical shiver down my spine. This is true. This is true. This is true.)
“The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy.
I refuse to explain.”
(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.)
“In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.”
(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. "So long away from their tools." This one was hard and cruel. Prison and pain. I would have liked to deny it, but it was fierce and new and mean and then there was a hope, too.)
“as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,”
(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.)
“I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.”
There are so many more, but that's my original lock-box of lingerers. My storage unit of lines that's there for good. I'm so very happy I've saved them.Ada Limón grew up in Glen Ellen and Sonoma, California. A graduate of New York University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, she has received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and won the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines including, The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Poetry Daily. She is the author of three books of poetry, Lucky Wreck (Autumn House Press, 2006), This Big Fake World (Pearl Editions, 2007), and Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions, 2010). She is currently at work on a novel, a book of essays, and a new collection of poems. Find out more about Ada here. Follow Ada on Twitter @adalimon
Morgan Lucas Schuldt passed away on January 30 due to complications from cystic fibrosis. I wanted to sketch a portrait of Morgan for this blog, wanted to write about not only his extraordinary life, but the love supreme that his poetry embodied. His death, though, is still too close, and it will take me just a little more time.
I attended his memorial services in Tucson, where he lived for much of the last decade of his life. Like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg before him, Morgan was a thoroughly Jersey boy, but he found a home in Tucson. He found Mark Horosky and Adam Chiles. He found Stephanie Balzer and Barbara Cully. He found Boyer Rickel.
The climate change from Vermont to Arizona—I mean going from unseasonable April warmth in New England to anomalous frosty weather in the Southwest—the mourning at various memorials those few days—as well as the bourbon that occasionally accompanies said grief—fused with passing a year earlier of Paul Violi—another friend and mentor—all this left me tattered. I returned to work at The Bookstore physically twitchy, emotionally worse.
After catching up with Matt on what I’d missed—including a poetry reading by Clampitt House fellow Bruce Snider—I was presented with a stiff manila envelope. Scrawled on the front was a signed note from the poet Barry Sternlieb: “For / Michael Schiavo / a few from the zen master. / (one just a proof, / the other a signed + / numbered edition— / primitive, but still / packing a punch!)”
I slowly unsealed the envelope. After removing one of the cardboard flats, I gently untaped the fine paper therein to reveal broadsides of Michael Gizzi’s “Extreme Elegy” and “Second Extreme Elegy” that Barry had printed in the mid-’80s. At one point, after a few months of employment at The Bookstore, Matt had informed me that I was only the second poet he’s ever hired. The first was Michael Gizzi.
Barry is a wonderful guy. We would talk whenever he’d stop by the store, and I know we talked about Michael Gizzi, but I can’t remember as I ever told him just how much I loved his work, how much it had, at one point, intimidated me, and then later enthused me with its familiarity. I’m sure I never told him that one of my favorite Gizzi books is Continental Harmony. And I’m positive I never told him that “Extreme Elegy” is one of my favorite poems not just in that book, not just of Gizzi’s, but of all time.
What I wonder is if Barry will ever fully understand what he did for me this past spring, even when he reads this. In that one moment, through that unassuming act, those poetic powers that I felt closest to, that I felt were forsaking me through the deaths of those whom I most loved and respected (M. Gizzi himself passed away in 2010), all at once, those powers announced their presence.
Not out of grief, no, but filled—and not of a sudden—with the consolation of the universe.
The Last Rites, man
3 helpings! Extreme
Triadic Unction a -bury
a -port a -ton, troughwater
deathward we glide, our viscera
slung The pitch
of New England the mind of an ear
shockt into blooming a -shire
a -vale a –wick oaken
lid going to sleep
ness of my life—America,
of foliage in voice
beside an axe
Canvas in moonlight an oversight
comin’ up backstream But only
a rheumy cache
of russet spittle
like oaken funk, New England, a tonic
Posted by Michael Schiavo on November 16, 2012 at 06:53 AM in Book Recommendations, Book Stores, Guest Bloggers, Obituaries, Poems, Religion, Science, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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The format of the evening was to have each poet introduce the next by responding to his or her poem in the anthology instead of by reciting awards and bona fides. These responses were personal, respectful, and insightful. Kay Ryan revealed her admiration for what Rae Armantrout leaves out of a poem as much as for what she keeps in; Brenda Hillman singled out the spiritual notes in Jane Hirshfield’s work. Dean Rader noted that he finds himself placed between Robert Pinsky and Kay Ryan in the anthology, and I think we all understood his trepidation introducing the great Kay Ryan, though he did so with humor and aplomb. This format for introductions, unique in my experience, was Anji Brenner's idea. It worked beautifully and I'd like to see other coordinators try it.
The library reference desk had been turned into a bar. I am a librarian and was on something of a busman’s holiday, so I made conversation with one of the bartending staff members when I sighted the Haines Criss-Cross Directory behind her. Do we still get requests for Haines Criss Cross? she asked. "No," I said but our segue into talk about the conversion of reference books to electronic format was interrupted by the clamor of the entire audience lining up for more wine. The wine flowed generously all night, free of charge and happily shared by the library staff. The audience stayed for over two hours, and was as engaged at the end of the night as they were at the beginning. When Brenda Hillman asked for a show of hands, we discovered that many in the audience had traveled from San Francisco and the East Bay and from as far away as Sacramento. Driving around the Bay Area is not easy, so when people make a long drive to come to an event, it means they were committed to being there.
As a library manager as well as a poet, I contend with the changing notion of the public library (they ask: “Who needs a library in the age of Google?”). The Best American Poetry 2012 West Coach launch at the Mill Valley Public Library is an example of the public library at its best: a place for storage and retrieval of information, a place for contemplation, but also a welcoming space for cultural and community gatherings. This night in November for The Best American Poetry 2012 brought a community of readers into the public library because of poets and poetry. Not only do people read poetry, they come out in large numbers to hear it. This pleases me no end.
-- Stephanie Brown
don’t know where he hung his hat
but am sure it was well placed—as we hung
on his every word, gracefully placed,
as he graced you, which was needed by me, and us
for a reading that otherwise would be lonely
as he explained at the bookstore, telling me he loved me,
although he actually said you and probably meant “you.”
also don’t know what or where “time’s cellar” was,
but felt sure I wanted to be a buyer
of this, or that, in fact, of whatever he was selling.
Nor do I know what woman loved him, but
I think it was the one he asked
whether to read to us this poem, or that.
grace he spoke to us, me and you, of what is needed
to get on his bus, which drove like a three/one count with men on base
through poignant moments, on occasion beautiful --
on demand sublime -- and you sensed some poems
he may have written while imagining himself
a young boy in Ithaca, New York, in an orange cap and green shorts
cutting out from a writers’ workshop—cutting away
from the sawdust of lathes cutting out adverbs and
stones polished over rocks he could make chuckle,
eating ripe apples and not wiping his chin when he snuck outside
as the sun crept
just far enough
across the lawn.
evening Mr. Lehman was loved by you, a woman, and us,
but I don’t know where he hung his hat.
-- Robert B. Miller
Editor's note: Denise Duhamel, undoubtedly one "you" in this poem, introduced David Lehman at a poetry reading in the bookstore of Florida International University in October. In response to the reading, Robert B. Miller wrote this poem, which makes allusions to many of the poems Lehman read that evening -- including "Why I Love 'You'," "When a Woman Loves a Man," "Anywhere I Hang My Hat," "Story of My Life," "The Count," and "On the Beautiful and Sublime."
Writing poetry to get laughs is like becoming a nun to get laid: it’s absolutely the wrong way to go about it. Young people start writing poems to convey their loneliness. But when they ask to read their poems to friends, that loneliness only gets worse, so they write more poems, and the vicious cycle continues.
We poets have a reputation of taking ourselves [cough] fairly seriously. We experience life, feel things, then write poems about it. If we didn’t take the feelings seriously—didn’t value them in some way—we would let them disappear like coins into the dark water at the bottom of a wishing well. Some poets believe that, because they write poetry, they’re somehow authorized, more qualified, to describe feelings than other people. Which reminds me of something Gerald Stern said in a workshop: “Everyone has the exact same feelings. Fear, love, grief, passion: we all feel these things. Hitler was a vegetarian who loved his dogs. In other words, he cared deeply about the sanctity of life. You’re making a work of art—that’s bigger than feelings.”The funny poet questions the sanctity of our medium’s most revered trope: gravity. The graver the poem, the more important. Does the just plain stupid, irrational, ashamed, or lazy have any place in a poem? Never ever? I feel those feelings all the time. In his essay, “Cut the Comedy,” the funny Charles Simic wrote, “The vainglorious want the world to tiptoe around them and draw near only to gaze at them in wordless admiration. The whole notion of hierarchy and its various supporting institutions depends on the absence of humor.”
Because funny poets get people to laugh at—or near—them, they indict the validity of the Poet as an Authority, and of Authority as inherent to the Poet identity. In response, the language poets said, “The notion of ‘Authority’ is egotistical bullshit, and to prove it, I’m going to write 100 tankas using letters on a Boggle board, take all the vowels out, then create 100 poems in a new four-line form I invented called a Fizzette, in which each line begins with a word that correspond to the first letter of every line in the Speedy Alka Seltzer jingle. Authorize that.”
It’s the notion of authority that sends young poets scrambling to find their own authoritative, “true voice.” I once asked RuPaul at a Grosse Point garden party if she’d ever found her “true voice,” to which she replied, “Hunh?”
The very funny poets Barbara Hamby and David Kirby’s introduction to the anthology, Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, death, Religion. Art. Politics, Sex, and Everything Else, notes that poetic humor works best when “in contrast with a darker mood….the humor in these poems can glow with a starry sheen, but often that’s because there’s a black sky behind it.” As Mark Twain put it, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in heaven.”
In life, no tone is constant, the line of thought always interrupted—the crucial by mundane, shame by egocentrism, peace by chaos. One moment, you’re sobbing in your living room, the next, remembering there’s a sale at the Gap. When John Cage establishes a mood by playing a set of notes over and over, it’s the contrast, or shift, or the anticipation of a shift, from the known that excites. Few good poems sustain funny as long as sadness because funny is bouncier, and louder—the molecular structure more erratic. In a poem’s sea of violins, bassoons, and flutes, funny is a Theramin, tuba or whatever made that bwomp! sound in the theme from “What’s Happening.”
Truly brilliant comedians who can deliver hour-long sets are dubbed geniuses because they can wire a slow burning fuse to their manic, nitroglycerine-filled brains. But comics eat poets’ dark dust. We don’t have chairs to fill, or a two drink minimum. Name one comic who’s darker than a poet? Lenny Bruce? Please. Dana Levin could whip Lenny Bruce in a cage match of darkness before she’s had her coffee, and with both hands cuffed behind her back.
Always being funny is a kind of lie—not to mention annoying. But does that make the adverse true? That unwaveringly serious poems are also a kind of lie of constancy—that the poet’s ignoring constant shifts in tone with a kind of morbid deafness? Simic said, “If you seek true seriousness, you must make room for both the comic and tragic vision.” Then again, saying that there’s no truth in unwavering seriousness reminds me of something else Gerald Stern said: “Tell that to the Jew hanging on the pole at Auschwitz.” Gerald Stern is a very funny poet. Ah, contradictions.
The incongruity theory states, “humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.” We use the incongruity theory in story telling and poems all the time, but it’s not always funny. Like that urban legend about the couple who brings the little dog home from Mexico and finds out it’s a giant rat. That bit of unfunny is your incongruity theory dollars at work. And get this: the first formulation of the incongruity theory is attributed to the Scottish poet, James Beattie. A poet! How cool is that? I love Wikipedia.
Some people/poets just aren’t funny. Some people/poets don’t want to be funny. Hopefully the ones who aren’t, don’t want to be, because that would be tragic.
Over several improvised cocktails made from stale Xmas candy-infused green apple vodka over diet raspberry Fanta (we named it “The Hee-Haw), one of the funniest women I know, Jaime Corbacho, explained to me the tragedy of Keanu Reeves. Keanu Reeves yearns to be a brilliant actor. But nobody wants Keanu Reeves to be a brilliant actor. They want him to be an action star. Keanu Reeves is, in a reality, a terrible actor. But he keeps trying, taking roles in tiny movies where he gets to talk—which looks like a dog trying to talk—along with parts in billion $ Hollywood blockbusters. This, said Jaime, is what makes him a Willy Loman–caliber tragic figure. “Maybe knowing that would make him a better actor! We should email him!” I slurred, sloshing my drink. “I already have. Several times,” Jaime assured me, then fell off the arm of the couch.
What’s the point? Are there no funny poets, or should more poets be funny…er? No, there are tons of funny poets, but not as many as the other kind. For every ten million deaths in American poems every year, fewer than 50 farts. In a genre where the primary colors are sadness, grief, and longing, funny is metallic opalescence. Are funny poets, like funny people, compensating for an ability to be intimate? Er, I don’t really feel comfortable answering such personal questions, but as a wise man once said, “If I can’t be the love of your life, I’ll be the life of your party.”
Every day this week, I’ll be interviewing a very funny woman poet. And by funny, I’m talking about a broad who dives for the joke like a professional beach volleyball player, wipes out, pops back up with a bloody split lip, thrusts a victorious fist in the air, and roars, “YESSSSSS!” A poet who lets a joke loose even though it makes her look stupid, and totally unf*ckable. A poet who can make you wet your pants, and enjoy the long walk home afterwards. Tomorrow: Amy Lawless.
I’ll also be conversating with Kazim Ali, who believes, in his jasmine-scented, lyric-loving hearts, that funny poems are invalid.
Have fun, but you won’t want to be there when the laughter stops [sob].
Clown painting: John Wayne GacyJennifer L. Knox's latest book of poems,The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, is available from Bloof Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and four times in The Best American Poetry series. She is working on her first novel. Find out more about Jennifer here and follow her on twitter @jenniferlknox.
Sam Amadon and I have known each other for over a decade. We have much in common, particularly Connecticut. I had a few questions for Sam about his second collection, The Hartford Book, published this spring by Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Sam is also the author of Like a Sea, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010. His poems have appeared recently in American Poetry Review, Better, The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Ploughshares. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of South Carolina. We conducted this interview via email from our respective homes in Vermont and South Carolina.
What was the process of composition for The Hartford Book? How did it relate to your first book, Like a Sea?
I wrote the bulk of the poems that now make up The Hartford Book in 2004. It was my first semester at Columbia and I was working with Richard Howard. About once a week, I’d go to his apartment in the Village and I’d bring him three or four of these poems. He really showed me how to write them, but more than that he showed me that I could write them. I had thought of poetry as something careful and cool, and my poems didn’t sound anything like me (as in the “me” sitting in the diner opposite you). Richard changed all that. He was so excited by these poems; it was a motivation to write them. We’re obviously quite different people, Richard and I, and I think this was part of his fascination—it was like I was bringing him the news.
Anyway, I found a method for the poems: long, funny circles of talk that make shifts via association, and continually find their sad way back to where they started. That line also works as a fair description of most of my friends from Hartford. That’s part of what I was after: to bring out this way of being that feels local to the place, to the people, to me. After a long process of weeding out (I cut the book in half over seven years) and changing forms, I think I got some of that. In Like a Sea, I was trying to do everything but write The Hartford Book, not because “I wanted to get away from it,” but because I wanted to see how different I could be and still sound the same. Even the procedural poems in that book, like “Foghorns” which is drawn entirely from A Long Days Journey Into Night, feel to me as if they fit in a wide circle drawn around The Hartford Book.
Like almost everybody, I get really frustrated with the idea that half of poetry is off-limits. Or with the idea that you don’t have to read my poem, you just have to figure out which column it falls into on your aesthetic spreadsheet. So to some extent, I was happy to be publishing The Hartford Book after Like a Sea just to confuse matters. The best thing that came out of it, I think, is what it did to Andy Axel’s brain, evidenced here. With readers like him, I don’t think we have to be quite so afraid of the future.
How has Hartford/Connecticut as a landscape/place affect your development as a poet and the language in your work?
Well, Michael, as you might recall, it can be incredibly lonely. That’s partly what I think of when I think of Hartford. Driving in circles through empty streets and listening to the radio. Sitting by myself at the coffee place. Big empty parks. I didn’t do a lot of writing there, and I didn’t do a lot of reading. But for the part of being a poet that is about being alone, Hartford taught me how to do that. It’s not surprising that I grew up four or five blocks away from Stevens.
Tom and I had been searching for a way to do something collaborative together for a long time, but whatever we’d come up with seemed half as good as what we could’ve written on our own. In Controversy, we figured out the trick was coming up with a project that needed two authors, that couldn’t have been done by one person alone. Essentially what we did is a blind erasure. One of us would provide the other with sentences from a text that the other would erase, but we never told each other what they were erasing. And we added other constraints: if I took a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on my fifth bookshelf for Tom to erase, then Tom would take a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on his fifth bookshelf for me to erase. We picked the sentences ourselves, but chance had a role in choosing the pages. I really like how it turned out. It’s like a box of broadsides. Which is something I don’t think either one of us would’ve made on our own.
Does that process fall anywhere in what’s
been dubbed the Conceptual poetry spectrum?
I don’t know if I would call it conceptual exactly. I tend to think of conceptual writing as work that plays out a meaning that’s made off the page. Like Jackson Mac Low’s “Ridiculous in Piccadilly.” When you run through that poem, you “be poor always and unkempt”; you “be ridiculous in Piccadilly.” I don’t think that’s the case with what we did. I’d file Controversy under Procedural Epistolary. Because we were really erasing as a way to write to each other.
Do you consider the Hartford Whalers to be the 2006 Stanley Cup winner even though they won it as the “Carolina Hurricanes”?
No. But I did watch some footage of the end of the last Whalers game the other week, and wept a bit while looking for my dad and me in the crowd. Look I know that teams get moved, and the Whalers going to Durham is nothing like the Dodgers and Giants going to California or anything, but it has to be one of the stupidest and most wasteful thing’s that’s ever happened to a franchise. Rowland thought he’d move the Patriots to Hartford, so he let the Whalers go, and years later I drove by him walking his dogs on the street (when he was getting impeached) and shouted, “Governor, you’re an asshole.” If I saw Bob Kraft, I’d do the same thing.
We can both reconcile poets like John Berryman and Gertrude Stein in our own work, even though some consider them to represent disparate branches of poetry. Do you see these distinctions becoming more and more unnecessary for others?
Well it’s easy for me to do that with Berryman and Stein because we have so much in common—the three of us can’t shut up. Really, I think the idea of “disparate branches” is more to blame than the differences between any two poets. That’s the deception: all the long-drawn lineages. There’s no master plan that we’ll finally figure out, thank god. I don’t to mean to say that conflicts and influence, schools and rivalries don’t offer us anything, but that can’t keep us from reading these individual poems by these individual poets. We have to try to keep remembering that. Anyway I don’t think you reconcile Stein and Berryman—I think you put them in the same room and let the sparks fly.
What was it like to be published in The New Yorker for the first time?
Not to say that poetry hasn’t given me a lot, but it did feel pretty good to pay the last part of that month’s credit card bill with “the money from my poem.” It was unexpected. I sent into the slush for years. Turns out they actually read it.
Tell me a little bit about your current manuscript, Tourism.
With Tourism, I tried to play against myself section to section. Most immediately, this is visible in formal changes. There are poems in rigid syllabic patterns without punctuation. There are poems in received forms: Petrarchan sonnets and heroic couplets. But I also created difference by taking on subject matter that doesn’t quite fit with who I am. I never knew about the original Penn Station, the one they blew up to build MSG. And when I read about, I thought there’s a certain kind of poet who does research on something like this and then writes about it. Then I tried to do that myself, and by the end, I dropped the “there’s a certain kind of poet” part. The manuscript’s a departure from the first two—the word “Hartford” never appears—but inside, it’s full of these departures from itself.
You recently received your PhD from the University of Houston and are now teaching at the University of South Carolina. How have you found the experience?
I think if the MFA students I’m teaching weren’t generous and kind people who write interesting and daring poems that it would be a lot harder. For that I feel really lucky (beyond how lucky you have to feel just to have gotten a job.) I felt ready to make the move. I’m writing new poems now, after a bit of a drought, and I think teaching has a lot to do with that. Doing the PhD really gives you a chance to figure out what you think about workshop. You see how you think it should run, how you don’t think it should run. To my mind, it’s about being the best audience for the work. The idea that having someone waiting to read it—to really read it—has a lot to do with it getting written.
Failing and Flying
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
-- Jack Gilbert
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.