This week we welcome Heather Christle as our guest blogger. Heather is the author of What Is Amazing (Wesleyan, 2012) The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books, 2009), and The Trees The Trees (Octopus, 2011) which won the 2012 Believer Poetry Award. Mark Doty selected her poem BASIC for The Best American Poetry 2012. Heather lives in Northampton, Massachusett, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, and posts things at heatherchristle.tumblr.com.
In other news . . .
Jennifer L.Knox continues to build a Chick Flick stairway to paradise over at Delirious Hem with a new post every day.
Reminder: You can search the entire Best American Poetry archive here.
Cara Benson is the author of two books of poetry: (made) (BookThug, 2010) and Protean Parade (Black Radish Books, 2012). Her chapbook "Quantum Chaos and Poems: A Manifest(o)ation" won the bpNichol Prize. Benson is an active committee member of the PEN Prison Writing Program and teaches poetry in a NY State Prison. Her poem "BANKING" was chosen from the Boston Review by Kevin Young for the 2011 Best American Poetry.
The controversy surrounding Chuck Hagel's proposed appointment as US Secretary of Defense has not been well understood. The Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska senator is a Republican, and yet the Republican establishment has raised doubts about his fitness to serve as chief of the nation's military industrial monopoly. Why? Is it because, initially in favor of the Iraq war in 2003, he realized belatedly that he had been duped and he turned dovish? It is true that his judgment has been questioned; he opposed the "surge" that seems to have been the most successful US military maneuver in the sourly disappointing years following "shock and awe," a phrase that you don't hear much anymore. In other quarters Hagel has caused concern because of his alleged softness on Iran and on violent Islamist outfits such as Hamas and Hezbollah. All this has been duly reported in the newspapers (or the crude electronic successors of that twentieth-century instrument of information control). But what the pundits and the pols have omitted, perhaps disingenuously, is the secret reason for the opposition to the senate's ratification of Obama's choice to head the defense department.
What has been completely overlooked is the relation between Chuck Hagel's philosophy and that of his distinguished ancestor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the most systematic of the post-Kantian idealists in nineteenth-century Germany. In brief, Senator Hagel may be said to subscribe with such zeal to the Hegelian dialectic that the usual Washington big mouths have had to take crash courses in the work of that famously forbidding philosopher of history. Hagel's link to Hegel is such that the Magritte painting "Hegel's Vacation," in which a glass of water stand precariously atop an open umbrella, would apply to either of them. Sources close to the candidate are leaking the rumor that he plans to be sworn in with his hand on The Phenomonology of Spirit rather than the traditional Bible.
A leader of the opposition spoke to me on condition of anonymity. "The simple truth is that a vote for Chuck Hagel is an endorsement of Hegelianism, and that particular ism -- though less scary than the isms of Marx, Lenin, and the Commune -- arouses suspicion if only by association. Everyone knows that Hegel said history repeats itself and Marx revised Hegel to say that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This line is quoted so frequently, and almost always as an admonition, that suspicion attaches to Hegel for being hoodwinked by either Marx or by History." More particularly, Hegel's belief that “Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two” arouses worry among hard-liners because it acknowledges compromise as inevitable. Hegel also has the habit of speaking in different languages, which may simply be one way of disguising his penchant for repeating himself. "Nada de grandioso se faz no mundo sem paixão." "Rien de grand dans le monde ne s'est accomplis sans passion."
Hegel has been attacked for his oracular pronouncements on history. For example, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” or the same sentiment re-stated, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” On the other hand, Hagel could acquit himself by stating unequivocally that the study of history and civics should be mandatory in a democracy.
It could be argued that Hagel's nomination is itself an illustration of the Hegelian dialectic. It is the thesis to which the senate's opposition is the antithesis. And if Hegel taught us anything, it is that mind or spirit realizes itself in the temporary truces in the perpetual conflicts between, say, nature and freedom. Partisans of Hegel point to his ringing endorsement of freedom on the one hand and the sublime on the other at a commencement speech given a few years ago at the US Military Academy. “It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained," he told the cadets at West Point. "The individual who has not staked his or her life may, no doubt, be recognized as a Person; but he or she has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.”My own sense of Hegel is complicated by the fact that every time I think I understand him, I realize that I don't understand him. This, too, the great philosopher anticipated. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn't understand me,” he liked to say, and somehow it didn't sound like a German smart-ass showing off in an Oxford pub. He was a great bullshit artist in an age that prized that activity. Although the era of the World Historical Individual is gone, Hegel's analysis was subtler than people realize. He liked pointing out that world-conquerors were seldom happy. When they succeeded there was nothing left for them to do -- they were "like empty hulls from the kernel." Hegel shrugged. "Alexander died young, Caesar was murdered, and Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena." It was always amusing to see Hegel shrug.
I suggest that the question be put directly to Senator Hagel, who has never been a shilly-shallying sort. Do you believe that "history in general is the development of Spirit in Time, as Nature is the development of the Idea in Space”? And what, sir, did you mean when you said that “America is the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself”? -- DL
hard to love our families a little more
than strangers. We die in particular sick beds
behind the thick stone walls of homes we built
We go. We go like field mice, we go
gently, we go quick or slow, but we all go, in rows
like golden fruit trees, yellow wheat. We go sheet
and hope the night is friendly. We go knowing
that our kin will mow what’s left to mow and this
is also comforting. The world is wide. The world is
than we know. One cannot see the shape
of it from here below, but there are many rivers.
There are roads that must lead somewhere, surely.
grow very tired by nightfall, ride the empty
hay cart down the hill to town in silence. Bullfrogs
crow from pondside hideouts. Vespers bell toll beds
from just around those hills. Some days
we dream of picking up and going for that plume
of smoke — that one on the horizon, wanly rising
blue. Sometimes it is all that gets us through
this grueling scything, trying on the lithe life-suits
of strangers. We go riding off. We leave our work,
husbands, wives still picnicking behind us. Leave
our children filthy, in their play clothes, shrieking
from a green patch. One day — we’d never want away
longer. Still, it’s dangerous. The elders say
they don’t come back that go that way, that wander
in dusk light neglecting reaping. Better to lie down
own mown meadow and be grateful for soft
ground. Far better knowing, going quietly, beloved,
than falling too soon from a sky we do not recognize.
-- Chelsea Whitton
I first fell in love with Cy Twombly’s paintings when I saw Fifty Days at Iliam at the Philadelphia Museum of Art about 15 years ago. The ten large starkly white canvases flame with a narrative of the Trojan War, mixing abstracted image, brilliant swaths of color, and scribblings of text. “Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It” (pictured left) remains one of my favorite paintings, and I’ve had the privilege of spending a good deal of time with Twombly’s work on two trips to the DeMenil gallery in Houston that houses a permanent collection of his canvases and sculptures, as well several exhibits that have hung here in New York.
I was not, however, hot to see the exhibit of his paintings that Gagosian Gallery had this past November and December. Perhaps because the show was called Last Paintings, and it’s hard for me to bear the thought there will be no new work now, no more brilliant surprises from this singular artist, but moreover because the image used on the gallery website to announce the show seemed such a disappointment. The reds and greens seemed muted and dull – not at all the vibrancy I’ve come to love in Twombly’s work. And the painting itself seemed a sort of regression back to his early days of his signature repeated squiggle -- a row of constantly looping eeeeeeeeee that reminds me of grammar school cursive writing practice. Not my favorite work from him. Yes, I see these works as part of the magic cryptography of sign and symbol that draws me to most of his other work, and yes, I see the abstraction of… well, something. But what generally blows me away about Twombly is that amazing use of color -- especially because it is so carefully and sparingly doled out -- and his abstracted allusions to recognizable objects – flowers, boats, the shore, the sea.
I did want to see the photographs, though, so off to the gallery to pay my last respects on one of the last weekends of the show. So many flowers! And so lovely to see how he how he used the photos – often blurred tight shots – as studies for the images in his previous paintings, whether they remained as flowers or explosions or just beautiful blobs of paint. The photos did not disappoint. I’m not sure what process or lens or filter he used to achieve the muted colors and soft edges displayed on the prints, but the muting promts the viewer to understand that these are not necessarily rows and rows of tulips we are looking at, but an inconsistent and lovely repetition of shape and coloring that Twombly clearly found more compelling than the idea of “flower” itself.
And so, after looking at these lovely forms with their soft coloring that lulls the viewer into blissful reverence, on to the paintings in the gallery above.
But wait, what’s this? These six large canvases with their repeating eeeeeeeeee are not dull green and red at all. The gallery announcement’s photo reproduction has done them no justice. These are Twombly’s last paintings and they are the strongest and brightest use of overall color on the canvas I have seen in his work. The green is almost neon. The red, a brilliant tomato. And the yellow, somewhere between school bus and canary and singing. And what’s this? Oh my – the eeeeees are no longer letters, god bless us, they’re tulips!
Thank you, Cy, thank you.
Sharon Preiss is the owner of Mobile Libris, a NYC-based book-selling service that specializes in selling books at author events. She earned an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College and has taught literature, creative writing and composition classes at various institutions. Her poetry and prose have been published in PIF Magazine, Massachusetts Review, 5AM, The Tucson Weekly, CoverMag, and the Albany Times-Union.
If the subscription list of this magazine approximated the yearly inflow of manuscripts – the editors would hire a long string of assistants, have cut flowers replenished daily on their desks, and be less harassed generally. Even then, however, the impossibility of answering personally each letter that reaches the office would be equally manifest. What is one to do about such a condition?
Those sentences were not written by any living editor of a literary magazine, nor ever blogged (except by me), but were written by Alice Corbin Henderson and published in Poetry – way back in July 1916. You can read the whole piece here. I’ve been noticing the theme of rejection that runs through some of the comments on my posts here this week, and thought I'd address them briefly before I melt away. (I call this "Secrets of the Editing Trade, Part 1," but will probably only have time for a part 2. There aren't really any secrets, despite what people seem to imagine.)
I guess the first thing to mention is that both Chris Wiman and I are writers who get rejections all the time just like everyone else. This is true of most of the folks who read submissions at magazines and websites that publish poetry. In fact, the only time I'd ever been in contact with Chris before I came to work at Poetry was via a rejection letter from him sent not long before I came! And I speak to you as one of those recent Paris Review de-acceptancees. No need to feel sorry for me, but I'm just sayin'...
Is this a tired subject? Probably not. Lots has been written about it already, though there's little need to state the obvious. But it remains an important subject for most of us – it's not going to go away; heck, there’s even a whole Rejection Wiki these days. Well, of all that's been written on the subject, I recommend Ada Limón’s “Response Burger: A Story of Rejection.” It’s heartening to see Ada’s strong and salutary response to her having received those mortifying rejection slips we all get: “I really believe that all those rejections made me better.”
Understandably, not everyone feels that way.
For those who haven’t “made friends” with their rejections as Ada has done, it’s worth noting that Henderson’s piece is not a complaint. Like all of Poetry‘s editors from Harriet Monroe on, Alice was grateful to those who take the time and trouble to send their work, without which the magazine would simply not exist. Instead – and as are the present editors and Harriet herself – Alice was a poet too, and well understood the experience of rejection as “brutal and dispiriting.” But, she asked, what sort of rejection would not be those things?
What she offered in solace to those whose work was turned away was the assurance that “All the verse that has come into this office up-to date has been read by the editors.” Despite the large number of submissions we get (about which I remarked earlier in the week) and the small number of staff here at the magazine, every submission is read with care and respect by the people on the masthead. Our Consulting Editor, the poet Christina Pugh, and I, between us, read everything that comes in (as it happens we have no interns or students), and compose written comments on submissions that I then discuss back and forth for many days at a time with Chris.
I don't know how things will be under the next editor, but these past few years Chris Wiman and I have gone back and forth about submissions in what has become a continuous, illuminating, and humbling conversation. I have never ever heard the world "slush" used here. Our names go on the thing, so we take it very seriously. And we all know we can be as wrong as Col. Higginson was in our judgments. When we find work to accept, we feel real pleasure, knowing what publication means for a poet; when we turn things away, we both know how it feels, and we sincerely hope everyone will keep trying us, entrusting us, with their work.
Henderson put it memorably all those years ago:
“The poet knows that he is a genius; and the editor still hopes to discover that he is in each manuscript examined. The editor has a hundred sorrows for the poet’s one. The poet may swear at the editor, and rather adds to his dignity in doing so; but the editor, in addressing the poet, has to assume the polite demeanor of the dancing master.”
So, let’s dance, shall we? It’s our share of what Ada nicely calls “the necessary work.”
Coda: A word about the photo above. To celebrate his 15th poem in Poetry magazine, appearing earlier this year, it was taken by Todd Boss and posted on Facebook with the caption:
“12 rejections before they ever took one. Don’t give up, friends. Never give up.”
-- Don Share
An alien crowd of nurses, residents, attending physicians, and machines and carts careened and hummed everywhere around his wife. If she had needed her husband during her labor, if she had hopes of counting on him, well, as usual, he was completely useless. Oh, he’d taken the birthing classes, worried himself crazy, and had tried to be attentive for months. It was no use. In the end, apart from a few ice chips he fed her on cue, she was on her own again, struggling with absolute physical and spiritual courage, getting things done because nobody else was going to do them.
Watching helplessly and unhelpfully as she went through her labor, he kept thinking of those urban legends in which a mother finds, miraculously, the strength to lift an automobile to get her child out of danger. And so, thanks to this kind of courageousness, their only child was born, from strength and sheer resolve. Somehow in all the uncomfortable maze, glare, and welter, a nurse found him cowering in the corner by a cart. Everything was moving fast; he found it hard to keep up with what was going on, with what he was even thinking. Above all, he was crying, crying a lot, something he had really never done before. It surprised him almost as much as the unfathomable process of childbirth. A nurse took him by the crook of the arm. She stuck the odd, unbalanced eyes of a sleek, gleaming surgical pair of scissors into his shaking, damp hand without even looking to see where his fingers were and said, no doubt having said it many, many times before, “Dad? You want to cut the umbilical cord?” And this is what he answered:
If the word “sure” has anything to do with certainty, it’s a funny business that a man can say it when he’s least certain.
One of my favorite poets is Delmore Schwartz, and one of my favorite poems by him is a sonnet, “The Beautiful American Word, Sure.”
The beautiful American word, Sure,
As I have come into a room, and touch
The lamp’s button, and the light blooms with such
Certainty where the darkness loomed before,
As I care for what I do not know, and care
Knowing for little she might not have been,
And for how little she would be unseen,
The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear.
Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever’s near,
And hope for day when the whole world has that grace:
For what assures her present every year?
In dark accidents the mind’s sufficient grace.
There can be no doubt but that at the instant of the cutting, the brand-new dad in my vignette had a feeling exactly like what Delmore describes in the first stanza of his poem: something would have switched on in him, after which light bloomed. After all the months of uncertainty during our couple's pregnancy—the worry and stress—there was now, and maybe just for now, certainty.
The second stanza is too complex to manhandle, and too delicately built for the crudities of armchair lit-crit. Yet that gorgeous line, “The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear,” occurs just past the poem’s midpoint. And it leads to a place where life gets shorter, to a place in the poem in which the quatrains rush into tercets because time is going to run out, something all parents feel keenly. Nevertheless, it’s a place “where the light is, and each thing clear,/separate from all others, standing in its place. . . .” One of the many chaotic things that happen during a birth is an alternation of the sense of time. On the one hand, waiting, and plenty of it; on the other, things go by so fast, you scarcely feel present in any moment. You take in what you can take in: “I drink the time and touch whatever’s near . . . ”—your wife, your new baby, your in-laws arriving just late enough to have missed the crowning—“And hope for the day when the whole world has that face,” the innocent, wanting face of a baby.
It is often, if not usually the case, that a man has never had “sufficient grace” until he sees a woman give birth, and meets his son or daughter for the first time, under the certain and steadying guidance of a stronger presence. Readers of poetry are very blessed this way. Even at the other end of our lives, we can fortify ourselves by recalling Dante's guide, Virgil, and then his beloved Beatrice, ferrying him into a new life, a new world. Each langauge, each poetry has its own beauty and wisdom. But I don’t know what word exists in other languages for the assent and faith, right in the heart of doubt, that is spelled out in the beautiful American word, sure.
Ours is a word rhymed, in Delmore Schwartz’s poem, with these kindred words: care, dear, clear, near, year. No dictionary of any language in the world will tell me (and believe me, I’ve searched) all the things that “sure” can possibly mean. But a poem, with its family of rhymes and little nervous miracles, gives a reader just about everything he needs to be more sure of himself, and of those around him.
-- Don Share
Pictured: Delmore Schwartz and Mr. and Mrs. James Agee, on their way!
It wasn't pretty. The decision was made by people who probably didn't read or look at it. It had been around for decades, surviving literary, cultural, cold, and military wars. It was killed by university administrators. The deciders aren't even there anymore. And I never hear its name mentioned nowadays.
Yet for almost seventy years, Partisan Review was one of the nation's most important literary magazines, and the fresh-faced fellow pictured above had, somewhat improbably, become its poetry editor, following in the footsteps of such folks as Delmore Schwartz and Rosanna Warren. That fellow was me.
When the magazine was killed off, the New York Times headline read: "Journal's Closing Spells End Of an Era," and the article remarked that
... the magazine is unlikely to be forgotten. From its inaugural issue as an independent journal, in 1937, which included Delmore Schwartz's short story ''In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,'' a poem by Wallace Stevens and contributions by Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook and Edmund Wilson, to its heyday in the 1940's and 50's, the journal published an astonishing range of landmark work. For many Americans, Partisan Review was their introduction to Abstract Expressionism, existentialism, New Criticism and the voices of talented young writers like Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag.
The list of contributors is so impressive - PR ran everything from "Avant Garde and Kitsch" to "Notes on Culture" to "Skunk Hour" - that I could fill this blogpost with nothing but names, so I'll just add that, lest we forget, Anglo-American literary culture was truly shaped by the mag. To give just one example, between 1941 and 1946 Orwell wrote fifteen "London Letters" for PR, after which, iIn 1949, the journal awarded him £357 for the year's most significant contribution to literature, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
At its peak, PR had about 15,000 subscribers. When I met Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, he told me he was a reader. So was my podiatrist. Nobody talked much about "audience" in those days, probably because litmags did have an audience back then. And though chronologically, PR was shut down less than ten years ago, it's ancient history, in literary terms. Back then turns out to be way, way back.
I was at PR for eighteen years, starting as a go-fer. Naively, I went to the office one day and asked if I could work there for free. After an initial scolding, an editorial assistant took pity on me, and gave me a few things to do, providing that I made myself invisible to the editors, didn't use the bathroom in the office, and pledged not to steal, or even touch, review copies of books. Everything felt sacred. The offices were extremely quiet, except when the Editor was in town, during which visits a fair amount of yelling could be heard. (Once, the Editor chased somebody out onto the street, calling whoever it was "stoopid - with two o's!") I was reasonably intimidated. But I wanted to learn how literary magazines were made and produced. And gradually, I was given more honorable tasks until at some point, I was allowed to read incoming manuscripts, and even answer the phone. Philip Roth called one time, and hearing my voice asked, "Are you somebody?" (I had to say: no.) James Dickey used to call, and I ended up spending many lovely hours chatting with him: he was quite happy to talk to a nobody. (I should add that when I attended PR's cranky sixtieth anniversary party in New York, I happily laid eyes on such fascinating folks as Diana Trilling and... BAP's own David Lehman, for the first time!)
There was a tiered system of manuscript readers. First, second, third... I was at the very bottom of the ladder for a long time, needless to say. The idea was to pass along work that looked promising, along with a typed, well-composed note explaining why a manuscript was being imposed upon the reader above me, who could send it farther up the ladder. In some rare cases, the real editors would get things, and make big decisions; you did not want to send along too much, because that would incur the wrath of everyone up the line - but if you sent nothing along, it would be suspected that you weren't doing anything. It was a bit trickky to negotiate all this, but there could be no prouder moment than when a ms. a reader sent forward appeared in the magazine - and better yet, won some kind of award later. But mostly, I was writing up appraisals of submissions that were going to be rejected, and trying to do so with dignity and intelligence.
After a few years of this, I started saying what I really thought about manuscripts. At this point, I was reading almost all poetry. Partly, I wrote up my mini-essays to please myself: in a way, to avoid boredom or going stale. And then, too, I had the idea that nobody was really reading my comments. About the latter I was wrong, for one day the Editor called me into his office. We had never spoken before, and I was positive I'd be hurtling down the stairs before long: stoopid with two o's. But no!
"We've been reading your reports for years, you know." Uh oh. "You seem to know something about poetry..."
They kept me on, and so I stayed for the better part of two decades, learning every aspect of editorial and production work. I had one particularly wonderful mentor, who later became my teacher, and then a friend: Rosanna Warren, who was Poetry Editor there for many good years. I typed RW's letters, day after day, week after week, and in the process, learned a great deal about tactfulness, kindness, generosity, empathy, and other qualities the very best editors cultivate. It was a large and crystal-clear window on the everyday world of working writers.
I've had lots of jobs, as I've written elsewhere: busboy, van driver for a junior college, librarian... Though I earned no money at PR, my apprenticeship at a literary magazine was the best job someone like me could possibly imagine. And working my ass off on behalf of other writers, setting my own work aside along the way, I became Contributing Editor and the magazine's last-ever Poetry Editor. I know it sounds pious and pompous, but I've felt that work as a calling.
Though it was hard to believe that such an important magazine could be shut down, the truth is that it had lost its way for a very long time. And it's natural enough, really: literary magazines die for all sorts of reasons: lack of money, lack of vision, lack of readership... When they go, they are not much lamented, though some have left their mark. (Take a look, for instance, at this amazing list on Wikipedia of "Defunct American Literary Magazines." Wow.)
I blogged yesterday about my own unflagging enthusiasm for reading submissions. I've been reading them now for almost half my life. It has been a privilege to do so, and I've tried to give writers the kind of encouragement I suppose I wanted to receive myself. More importantly, what I've learned from being at one of those dead magazines and then at one that has lasted over a century is amazingly simple: there is work that lasts and lasts, and survives the fraught and lonely manner of its birth.
-- Don Share
Such serendipity! Just as Don Share begins his week of blogging here, an interview with him appears over at the terrific journal The Common. You can find it here.
I've been amused - bemused, more accurately - by the continuing discussion, among American poets, of an apparent "glut" of poetry. Poetry must be one of the very few things Americans feel there is too much of, but there are days when I sympathize with the argument, however nebulous, that there are too many poets, too many poems. That's only because for the past few years I've been blessed with a job in which I am entrusted to read many thousands of newly-written poems. At Poetry magazine, we now get about 120,000 individual poems to read in a year's time. No matter how you feel about quantity, that's a big number. As things stand these days, we are able to publish about 300 of those submissions each year.
Is 300 a lot, too much, not enough? Can anyone really know? No less than W. B. Yeats raised a version of the numbers question:
I remember saying one night at the Cheshire Cheese, when more poets than usual had come, "None of us can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many."
That was easy for him to say, I suppose!
Poets and editors alike have to wonder how much of what they publish will stand the test of time; on both ends, the record can be a bit shaky. For all that, the numbers aren't a problem, as far as I'm concerned, but rather an opportunity. And if I ever tired of reading poems, it would then become clear that I'm in the wrong line of work. Fact is, I can't wait to read more poems, and it's something I do day and night.
Here's another number: 100.
As many readers here will know, Poetry magazine just turned one hundred years old. Finding ourselves on the magazine's editorial staff upon the occasion of its centennial has meant many things, almost all celebratory. It also meant that we needed to take stock of what came before. Christian Wiman, Poetry's Editor, and I were given the task of reading every poem published in our pages in order to assemble an anthology to put it all in perspective. And so, for a period of several months Chris and I read more poems than anybody would have cause to do under normal conditions. All in all, between us we read about 40,000 poems. As pictured above, we worked quietly and alone in a rented conference room, winding our way through piles of poems until we were down to one hundred poems - not one for each year, and nothing in chronological or any other kind of logical order. Instead, we assembled a kind of grand sequence, punctuated occasionally by pithy prose quotations we also discovered in our sojourn.
The result is The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of POETRY, published by the University of Chicago Press. The idea is that you can read it straight through, or dip into it; that the book would be a pleasure to read whether you were a poetry expert or someone just finding the way. Chris has articulated a great deal of what we learned, and what can be learned, from reading so many poems in an essay so quotable that I'd end up quoting the whole thing if I tried to quote from it here. You can read it online, however, and it's called - ready for one more number? - "Mastery and Mystery: Twenty-One Ways to Read a Century."
That twenty-one one-ups Wallace Stevens's famous thirteen, you could say...
It only occurred to me well after all our work on the book was through that we might have earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for reading all the poems we did. As it happens, there are guidelines for such things, and they're posted on an official "Is It a Record?" website.
All it says about poetry is that they cannot "consider claims for longest or shortest poem," and all it says about reading is: "We do not accept claims for silent reading."
Before I came to Poetry five or six years ago, I was working at something I loved very much. And I did not expect, though I did dream of it, that I would ever be offered the chance to work at the magazine. I had never met Christian Wiman, or any of the other staff, but during my interviews I realized what incredibly devoted and singularly talented folks they are: I knew that I wanted to work with them more than anything in the world. Yet at some point along the way, I must have looked surprised, or shown some fleeting hesitation about uprooting my life to come to Chicago. Chris gently took me by the crook of the arm and quietly said: "It's good to shake things up once in a while." From that moment on, the man has been an inspiration to me.
In a post to come, I'll talk about what it was like to be present for the death of a literary magazine: I was the last man standing at the old Partisan Review, which was about 70 years old when it was killed off; among other things, its editor had stayed on way too long. True to his vision of shaking things up, by contrast, Chris is, as readers now know, leaving his post as editor of Poetry. So here's one last number: 10.
Chris has been at the magazine for ten years. It's hard to believe that his tenure comprises a tenth of the magazine's history. Change is good, as we all say, and change there will be. Well, not everything is, or should be, about numbers. But I'm certain that when it's all accounted for, these past ten years of poetry - upper and lower-case P, as we often say around the office - will be seen as wonderful ones.
Off I go to read more poems.
Pictured above: Chris reading piles poems for the anthology.
-- Don Share
I'm going to begin the week by reprising a piece a version of which I once ran on my own blog; it's the best opening salvo I can think of for a few days of rumination. In the days to come, I'll muse on such subjects as secrets of the editing trade, favorite words, what the heck is going on at Poetry magazine (or maybe not!). But I find myself repeating the substance of what follows in many conversations, so I hope you'll forgive me for kicking off with it now.
You see the phrase, “poetry makes nothing happen” trotted out over and over again, attributed to W.H. Auden as some sort of evidence for the reductiveness and hermetic inutility of poetry. There's no Fifth Amendment that prevents an art from testifying against itself, of course... And yet…
The fact is that the phrase occurs in a POEM – one, moreover, that eulogizes a poet who made things happen (being a politician and activist, as well as a writer), W.B. Yeats. And in context – only part of that context, since I can’t legally quote the entire poem, and that context is absolutely enormous – the poem actually says:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
I’m not practicing literary criticism here, by the way; I’m reading exactly what it says on the page: poetry survives: it is a way of happening, a mouth.
Even if, as some argue, by the time of the poem’s publication Auden had lost his belief in poetry as an agent of political change, he would not, as Jon Stallworthy points out, have dared say the words “poetry makes nothing happen” to the living Yeats, no sir.
As it happens, the origin of the phrase is Auden’s Partisan Review essay of about the same time (1939), “The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats,” in which he imagines putting Yeats on trial for his belief in fairies and other “mumbo-jumbo.” As the British poet Angela Leighton remarks, “in the imaginary court case to which he brings the poet, the defence lights on a phrase which will yield its own poetic riches.” In Auden’s courtroom “the case for the prosecution [of Yeats] rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.” When this gets reworked into the famous “makes nothing happen” bit, Leighton observes, the phrase “turns, by a tiny inflection, a redistribution of its stresses, into its opposite: ‘poetry makes nothing HAPPEN.’ By this accentual difference, ‘nothing’ shades into a subject, and happens. This is an event, and its ‘happening’ sums up the ways of poetry. Intransitive and tautological, nothing is neither a thing, nor no thing, but a continuous event.” So for Auden, the job of the poet is not to be what he called, at about this time, a “crusader” – but to make poems happen.
Poetry, that is, "survives / in the valley of its making…”
Is it romantic to imagine poetry accomplishing anything in a world of happenings? Maybe so, with a big R; as A.F. Moritz says in an essay, “What Man Has Made of Man,” in Poetry magazine:
“Poetry is not at all what it’s often said to be, the indulgence, development, and expression of private inward life. This is one of those half-truths that is the worst error, even a lie. Poetry is inward self-development plus the insistence that this must have a principal place in the public forum plus a third thing, a conclusion that flows from the first two. Everyone must be allowed full personal development, and everyone must be allowed full participation, since only full participation leads to full personal development, and in turn a proper society can only be produced by full development of each member. Poetry is, above every other human endeavor, the place where person and society are not merely joined but revealed in their original unity. Poetry is the place where the strange, painful division we have created between person and society is suffered, despaired over, denounced, subjected to comparison with memories and dreams and myths of better times, and given the gift of a prophecy: that the proper unity still and always persists, and that it can become the world we actually live in, not just in verse, but on both sides of our front door.”
And Moritz traces this view back to Wordsworth, who came up with
“the famous phrase ‘what man has made of man’ … in a time of war: the French Revolutionary Wars of 1792 to 1802, which after 1800 merged into the Napoleonic Wars that lasted to 1815: twenty-three years of almost unbroken international violence. Let’s recall the history of this phrase in such a way as to underline its meaning and continuing relevance. It occurs in the poem ‘Lines Written in Early Spring,’ which Wordsworth composed and published in 1798, in the aftermath of great disappointment. Wordsworth had been in France at the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. At first he was an eager partisan of the Revolution. It seemed to promise that the world would suddenly be made new in the shape of justice, that people everywhere would shake off chains. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ he wrote, ‘But to be young was very heaven!’ Soon, though, the Revolution descended into ruthless violence, partisan exterminations, then war by France against neighbors, and Wordsworth renounced it. But he was in despair because his hope had been destroyed, and he felt he did not know who he was or what he should try to make of himself. His beloved England had opposed the new freedom, and then the new freedom had turned into cruelty and tyranny. Was there hope of freedom anywhere in the world? Was there any way of living that did not mean joining in a worldwide status quo of injustice: being given influence if you serve oppressive regimes, being let alone if you acquiesce in them, receiving poverty if you happen to occupy a lower rung, and oppression, even death, if you resist? Could any of this be called communion? Wasn’t the whole landscape nothing but isolation, because even if you agreed and participated, you really were denying yourself, falsifying yourself? In this desolate situation, which was equal parts political and personal, Wordsworth set out to rebuild hope and a vision of possibility for a transformed society.”
In the end, Wordsworth drew inward; society transformed itself in ways he hadn’t dreamed of, and he lived out his life writing lots of dull late-period poems few enjoy much now. But the hope and vision persist, and Moritz traces them up through our own recent history by way of Juan Ramón Jiménez and Czeslaw Milosz.
The question of hope and vision remains timely. There’s explosive political and economic turmoil around the world every single day of our lives. Can poetry matter... for us? Claude Lévi-Strauss, who lived to be 100 years old, and saw lots of the world, wrote in his classic Tristes Tropiques:
“Man is not alone in the universe, any more than the individual is alone in the group, or any one society among other societies. Even if the rainbow of human cultures should go down for ever into the abyss which we are so insanely creating, there will still remain open to us — provided we are alive and the world is in existence — a precarious arch that points toward the inaccessible. The road which it indicates to us is the one that leads directly away from our present serfdom: and even if we cannot set off along it, merely to contemplate it will procure us the only grace that we know how to deserve. The grace to call a halt, that is to say: to check the impulse which prompts Man always to block up, one after another, such fissures as may open up in the blank wall of necessity and to round off his achievement by slamming shut the doors of his own prison. This is the grace for which every society longs, irrespective of its beliefs, its political regime, its level of civilization. It stands, in every case, for leisure, and recreation, and freedom, and peace of body and mind. On this opportunity, the chance of for once detaching oneself from the implacable process, life itself depends.
Farewell to savages, then, farewell to journeying! And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.”
To grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is: this is at once political, personal… and poetical.
Michael Wood writes, in his book, Yeats & Violence: "Of course many provisos and restrictions leap to mind. If a poem isn't any good, nothing will happen. Even if a poem is a masterpiece, nothing will happen if we don't allow it to. And most important of all, it is characteristic of this sort of happening that we find it very hard to say what has happened - that is why it sometimes seems as if nothing has happened."
Actually, much of our lives pass by during which nothing happens. Auden's poem, though he was a great poet of the quotidian as well as of history, flies a bit higher than might suit most of us. He's writing, after all, about another great poet, Yeats. W.B. was "silly like the rest of us," Auden says - though it seems to me that Yeats was silly in his own peculiar way; at any rate, "his gift survived it all," and that's not promised to mere mortals. The fact is that most of us who are poets risk having our work consigned to oblivion, or at least to the recycle bin. This leaves a fair number of us saddened.
And so I'll end with Jack Spicer's "Golem," which can be read as a direct - and also witty, and down-to-earth - response to the elegy for Yeats; here's the concluding section:
He died from killing himself.
His public mask was broken
He no longer had a public mask.
People retrieved his poems
from wastebaskets. They had
Oh, what a pain and shame was
People returned to their
business somewhat saddened.
Pictured: a valley, perhaps of our saying
-- Don Share
This week we welcome Don Share as our first guest blogger of 2013. Don is Senior Editor of Poetry. His books include Squandermania (Salt Publishing), Union (Zoo Press), Seneca in English (Penguin Classics), and most recently a new book of poems, Wishbone (Black Sparrow) and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions), a 2012 Guardian Book of the Year and Paris Review Editors’ Choice selection. His translations of Miguel Hernández, collected in I Have Lots of Heart (Bloodaxe Books) were awarded the Times Literary Supplement / Society of Authors Translation Prize and Premio Valle Inclán, and will appear this year in a revised edition from New York Review Books. He co-edited The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine (University of Chicago Press) with Christian Wiman. Find out more about Don Share here. Follow Don on Twitter @Don_Share
In other news . . .
Delirious Hem continues its Chick Flick series, edited by Jennifer L. Knox and with a new post every day. What is chick flick anyway?
From Bowie to Bessie: Catch up with Coldfront's "Song of the Week" series, with contributions from some of our great contibutors!
LTD: Yes, I founded Aqueduct Press explicitly to publish feminist science fiction. For me, though, “feminist science fiction” is a broad term that includes science fiction, fantasy, and fantastic literature written from a feminist perspective. All of these are contested terms, open to interpretation, and “feminist” covers a broad spectrum. For this reason, Aqueduct’s authors are not all entirely comfortable with one another. And admittedly, one of our authors couldn’t be called (or even considered) a feminist by any stretch of the imaginations. But categorizations don't much interest me. I’m actually more interested in what I call the “grand conversation” of feminist science fiction—viz., the way the work Aqueduct publishes is in conversation with other work of feminist science fiction. (An essay of mine, available for download from my website < http://ltimmel.home.mindspring.com/genealogy.html> as well as in the slim volume titled The Grand Conversation, explains this notion in depth.)
NA: Why sci fi feminism?
LTD: Oh, for several reasons. First, feminist science fiction has played an important role in helping me think about feminist issues and theory, and I’ve adored reading it since I first discovered it in the late 1970s. Second, it’s what I write myself. Third, there was a nasty rumor going around in the late 90s that feminist science fiction was over. I wanted to show that feminist sf was not only still breathing, but even thriving and developing. And fourth, I saw a need that wasn’t being met by twenty-first-century publishers, who in their changed corporate circumstances now find a good deal of very fine work not commercially viable.
NA: Who are some of the science fiction poets you publish?
LTD: Our largest poetry collection, The Moment of Change edited by Rose Lemberg, a feminist speculative anthology with an unusually diverse selection of poets, includes work by well-known writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Delia Sherman, Theodora Goss, Amal El-Mohtar, Vandana Singh, Nisi Shawl, Greer Gilman, Sonya Taaffe, Athena Andreadis, Jo Walton, and Catherynne M. Valente, as well as a couple dozen lesser-known poets. We’ve also published another smaller anthology, edited by Theodora Goss, Voices from Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner that comprises poems by those three writers, fascinating essays by Dora Goss about each of these poets’ work, and poems by Dora responding to that work. We’ve also published an epic poem by Anne Sheldon (The Adventures of the Faithful Counselor) and single-author collections by Liz Henry (Unruly Islands), Lesley Wheeler (The Receptionist and Other Tales), and Anne Sheldon (The Bone Spindle). Some of the small single-author short fiction collections we’ve published have included poetry in addition to prose stories (by Eleanor Arnason, Kim Antieau Sheree Renee Thomas, Rachel Swirsky). Poetry, like science fiction, has always been an important genre for feminists, and feminism in the 1970s and 80s would have been impoverished without the poetry of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, and June Jordan, to mention just four poets that helped sustained me throughout those decades.
NA: How many books do you publish each year?
LTD: It varies a bit from year to year, but something in the neighborhood of ten (including our small books).
NA: I am a fan of one of your authors, Chris Barzack, whose new book, Birds and Birthdays, is just out from Aqueduct. I think Barzack walks a line somewhere between sci-fi and fiction. I guess I think of him more as a magical realist. Do you agree? Or am I defining sci fi too narrowly?
LTD: The issue you raise is complicated and could be addressed from a number of angles. Like many writers in the genre that is often referred to as “sf/f/h” in order to include titles identifiable as science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Chris writes beautiful and interesting prose. I’ve noticed that some readers (particularly those who seldom read sf/f/h) believe that beautiful and interesting prose can’t possibly be sf/f/h, and that for them, a respectable literary term like "magical realist" might help them get around the contradiction in their thinking. In fact, Chris’s work fits very comfortably into a region of the genre known as “fantasy.” (One of the most widely-respected authors currently inhabiting that region is Kelly Link.) Magical realism is a pretty well-defined style of writing that I don't believe Chris’s work can be pigeon-holed into. My own sense is that the stories in Birds and Birthdays resemble the fantastic work of Angela Carter (who also wrote science fiction), while some of his other stories make me think variously of Carol Emshwiller, Shirley Jackson, and sometimes Kelly Link.
Perhaps I should add that there are basically two different ways authors come to be identified as sf/f/h genre writers. One way has to do how they are positioned institutionally—by publishers, booksellers, and critics—into a marketing category. X is “literary,” Y is “sf/f/h.” Since Chris’s short fiction tends to appear in genre publications (often distinguished by its prose quality) and his novels are published as genre YA, he’s been institutionally categorized as a sf/f/h writer. The second way authors come to be identified as sf/f/h genre writers is through their use of and engagement with the narrative conventions and tropes of sf/f/h. Chris’s work can definitely be identified as sf/f/h because of the way it converses with other work of sf/f/h.
NA: I see on your website, there is a literary magazine called Cascadia Subduction Zone. Is that published by Aqueduct? Could you say a few words about that?
LTD: Yes, Aqueduct publishes the CSZ four times a year. We have just completed our second year of publication. Issues are available in both print and electronic editions, and we make all our back issues available for free download six months after initial publication.
I had two reasons for starting the CSZ. First, I felt a burning need to address the gender imbalance that women writers face. Just as literary review publications severely underrepresent work by women (as shown by the recent VIDA studies), so do sf/f/h review publications. Reviews of fiction tend to be of work published by men. N(iall Harrison, the Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons, has produced some revealing graphics that show just how underrepresented work by women is in sf/f/h review publications.) The CSZ’s policy is to review work by both men and women—only reversing the usual priority that tacitly considers work by men of greater importance and interest than work by women. Similarly, our reviews and essays and creative work are by both men and women—but again, with priority given to pieces written from a feminist point of view, which makes sense to us because all of the magazine’s editors are feminists. In this way, we hope to begin to redress the problem of gender imbalance and draw attention to work that is not getting the attention it deserves.
Second, I adore essays, particularly long essays, and I wanted to create more space for them in the world. I sometimes think I love essays almost as much as I love fiction.
I’d like to add here that although Aqueduct publishes the CSZ and I’m the publisher of Aqueduct Press, I’m just one of four editors of the CSZ and thus just part of the collective, consensus-driven process in producing it. Aqueduct simply handles the business side of it (which at this point also includes partially subsidizing it, in order to keep subscriber costs down).
NA: And there is also The Aqueduct Gazette? And a blog?
LTD: The Aqueduct Gazette is currently in hiatus. I'd like to bring it back, but I'd need some volunteer help to manage that. The Gazette is basically a newsletter that combines news about Aqueduct's books and authors and some independent content-- a mix of promotion of Aqueduct's books and serving the broader interests of Aqueduct's audience. The blog is a larger version of that—but a version that I hope encourages the development of community. Many of those who regularly visit the blog are people who attend WisCon, the splendid feminist science fiction convention held in Madison, WI every Memorial Day weekend. Some are people who love Aqueduct's books and authors. Still others are sf/f fans who tend to be politically progressive and sympathetic to feminist values.
NA: Could you describe some of the happiest or proudest moments for the press? Feel free to provide links to reviews, events, awards, readings, etc.
LTD: I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many such moments. Several of our books have won major awards or been nominated for them. The second book we published, Gwyneth Jones’s novel Life, won the Philip K. Dick Award (which I had the honor of accepting in her stead at the awards ceremony) and was short-listed for the James Tiptree Award, which recognizes fiction that seeks to expand and explore our understanding of gender. Ursula Le Guin’s Cheek By Jowl won the Locus Award; Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal won the William Atheling Award and was short-listed for both the Hugo and—despite its being nonfiction— Tiptree Awards. Nisi Shawl’s Filter House won the Tiptree Award. Vandana Singh’s Distances won the Carl Brandon Society’s Kindred Award and was also short-listed for the Tiptree. Andrea Hairston’s novel Mindscape won the Carl Brandon Society Kindred Award and was short-listed for both the Dick and Tiptree Awards, and her novel Redwood and Wildfire won the Tiptree Award. Perhaps my proudest moment was seeing Andrea wearing the Tiptree Award tiara while delivering her Guest of Honor speech at WisCon last May. (WisCon is a fabulous feminist science fiction convention. A photo of Andrea wearing the Tiptree tiara can be found on the front page of the Jame Tiptree, Jr. Award website <tiptree.org>.)
A more private proud moment occurred during a panel at Readercon last summer, when Andrea Hairston, Brit Mandelo, and I discussed Joanna Russ’s classic How to Suprress Women’s Writing, with considerable audience participation. One of Russ’s chapters talks about how the seeming anomalousness of women’s writing contributes to the dismissal of work by women—an anomalousness that stems from the lack of institutional memory, which persuades each new generation of women that they are pioneers and loners, mere voices crying in the wilderness. One of my goals for Aqueduct is to emphasize the continuity of feminist sf—to insist on an immense context within which new writing needs to be understood to be fully appreciated. As I mentioned earlier, many people, some of them critics, had in the 1990s asserted the death of feminist sf. Aqueduct defies that assertion. We publish new feminist sf every year—work that is in lively, sometimes contentious conversation with what is now a large body of work. None of us needs to reinvent the wheel this time around.
NA: What aspects of publishing and editing do you enjoy most? Least?
LTD: I most enjoy editing and editorial conversations with the authors. It is a joy to me to help authors make their work the best it can be, and a deep pleasure to bring attention to work that would otherwise not be noticed. I also enjoy writing royalty checks. The aspects of publishing I least like is writing and sending rejections and drafting contracts. (I can’t think of anything more tedious than writing contracts.) I do these unpleasant tasks as conscientiously as I can, because they must be done, but without pleasure. The end result—beautiful books launched into the world—makes even the most tedious moments of drafting contracts worth it.
NA: I would love to close with a poem from one of your authors.
LTD: For this, I’ve selected Liz Henry’s “Mother Frankenstein,” from her collection, Unruly Islands:
Mother Frankenstein swollen lightning
stitching needles where my lips kiss
in your smoke-ghost skull where axons
open fire with past love letters electric
little histories of the alphabet gathered
in your pathetic apron's outwash plain,
Wars and arrows, night-knives, night blind star
nights of murdered poets unburied
scars stitching scars on your skin my lips kiss
plague-fury, forced survivors of a shipwreck
end of the world lost word lined up singers
sad stitch and mouth raw mothers of sorrow
More than sorrow or grief - exhaustion,
roseblown the words of dead friends cuneiform
Mother Frankenstein your full lighthouse tower -
flash in the raincloud from the empty tower -
masts cut away from the arc of your rainbow cut sailropes,
worm finger death curve of the wreckage of fists
cleared for later deciphering by a panel of experts,
tireless antmouth of your computers' calculation,
machinetooled fingers swollen from salt tangled
dishwater tears working writing battery
beyond the power of life to give charge
Child grown in there still in the ricket trap
daring to carry iron famine's rusty womb quilt scraps,
scuttling beetle limb bicycling in the full belly
knees life machine shipwreck piston
under your apron, under the crying breasts
longing for the knife-child who will empty the grey tower
emerging like the prow of a ship through fog,
painted wavemilk churn in the oiled gearteeth,
gun-child descending the stairs to the flaming torches,
memory's oilstained workbench and the thigh-vise grip of birth,
the moon's handfuls of nothing throwing craters of light in our faces
Your hand stitched to mine pulled me to the trenchmouth
buried in cataracts caliche bulldozed by tanks
and the blind hand dowsing artesian graves
found its original wrist: I can't see
the stone in my own eye, enough burial for forever,
Trumpet call of lightning to reanimate millions,
bring back those soldiers so they could kill, and kill, and go home
to their wives and mothers who are now ready to kill in turn
until the earth's scabbed graves are clean of soldiers and there are only
handfuls of nothing and craters of nothing cradling skeletons
with guitars, the ghosts of machine guns, ghost song,
Well of the dead, I would take you into my belly
Athena Diomedes would be with me clutching an embryonic boulder
to swallow the dead and bring them shining whole into all time,
stitches straining to burst with the bowling ball weight of the guilt
of futile miscarriages tumbling in cataracts in a stochastic tapestry,
I would leap into the night, iridium flash, verso of the meteor's flight,
unintentional handful of nothing and words and the workbench of memory,
Mary mother of Frankenstein you give me your blackened tooth's unwatched star,
your handfuls of stigmata, your soldier ants slicing the moon's andalusian eye,
your body's machinery in the bonefrost of lost desire and a kiss of loving betrayal,
the memory of your pellucid eggshell trembling in the corpus luteum of my fists
-- Liz Henry
L. Timmel Duchamp, familiarly known as “Timmi,” is best known as the author of the five-volume Marq’ssan Cycle (which won special recognition from the James Tiptree Award jury), consisting of Alanya to Alanya (2005), Renegade ( 2006), Tsunami (2007), Blood in the Fruit (2007), and Stretto (2008) and the founder and publisher of Aqueduct Press. She is the author of two collections of short fiction: Love's Body, Dancing in Time (2004), which was shortlisted for the Tiptree, and Never at Home (2011), and co-author, with Maureen McHugh, of a mini-collection, Plugged In (2008, published in conjunction with the authors’ being GoHs at WisCon). She has also edited several anthologies and has published a good deal of reviews and criticism. Some of her short fiction and essays are available on her website .
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.
Don’t meet. Don’t meet my. Don’t meet my eyes. Don’t eye me in my mine. Don’t make. Don’t make me meet you. Don’t we meet that day you made me. Don’t we make something mean. Don’t make it mean more. Don’t mess. Don’t mess me. Don’t mess with mine.
Mine is a small white moment in the middle of a blizzard when and if I scoop bitten hands around a round of ice and offer it up to you and say mine, mine, this was mine but here, here, for you.
For you I would have worn only high heels and lace aprons to dinner. For you I would have licked every bit of grime from your skin and left – in that clean swipe – a message. For you I would have lain little and skilled at the center of the bed and clicked my black eyelashes like claws.
Claws. Nails. Jawlines. Dances. The silt at the bottom of my glass. Amber bits in my plastic hair. I’m your moon-faced lady. I’m your marionette. The thrill of the thought. Records on loop and hearing his breath in the between. School. Morning. Glare. Skirts. The lockbox I labeled for you.
For you I would have. For you. For you I have. For the you that asked if I would do things. For the everything I did. For I did. For doing. For done. For having done you wrong. For having done wrong. For the wrong you. For the you I done. For the have. For the you I have..
-- Jess Smith
We need to recall the elemental importance and urgency of poetry, the subtle nurture and the profound grace it allows in our otherwise rudimentary and often punishing lives. And, as Christina says, we need to remember how lucky we all are to able to do what we do, to bring to language -- the language of our poems -- the complexities of thought and passion, the tastes of words, and the rhythmic verbal seductions of ideas and hopes. I know, a little rapturous, but deal with it.
Since I began teaching more than thiry years ago, an identical event has happend to me each year, often two or three times in any given year. What happens is this: someone who has called from the outside, meaning outside whatever school I am teaching at (this has happened to me at Oberlin College, The Johns Hopkins University, and at USC, where I presently teach), has been routed to me because they have a poetry question, and I am the poet at hand. The person asks me to help them try to locate a particular poem they once read in high school or an early survey class in college, often many years ago.These are not people who normally read poetry, or even much literature at all, it often seems. They don't know the author or the title of the poem, but they tell me what they do remember and, because anthologies tend to replicate themselves like space aliens, I can often tell them exactly the poem they are looking for.
After this happened half a dozen times to me during my first year at Oberlin, I began asking the callers why they were looking for their particular poem, and the answer was always the same. They had recently lost someone close to them -- a parent, a sibling, a daughter, a son -- and they felt they needed to find this poem, this particular poem that they rememebered from their past, often from a time deep in their past. Now, it's important to remember that these poems that they were looking for often had nothing to do with death. Yet in every case the callers had this memory of having had a profound connection with a particular poem, with the way the power and the language of the poem reflected for them some exceptional experience, or emotion, or illumination within them.
What became clear to me was that these callers all recognized that, at that present moment when they were calling me, they had no language that was commensurate with their own grief, no words with which to express not only to others but also to themselves the dimensions of their own loss and suffering. They semed to believe that if they could only read again this one particular poem that had so touched them, that had released in them such powerful connections years before, that perhaps now they might once again be able to connect some words, some language to the riot of grieving they were experiencing. I don't even think this was a truly conscious recognition of this fact; I always feel (and it continues to happen to me) that these callers are intuitively seeking out what must be for many of them one of the few times that they had been able to see and feel language forged against experience.
It is at times like those, talking to those callers, that I remember what a lucky thing it is to be a poet. It is something we need to remind each other, as Christina reminded me today, as well as ourselves.
(ed note: this post first appeared here on May 9, 2009 -- sdh)
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.