MARK TWAIN (11/30/1835)
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain.
He lost | his voice, | so can’t | complain.
He spoke | of rea | son to | the Dane.
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain.
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain
Rela | ted how | the King | of Spain
In mad | ness hath | Polo | nius slain.
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain.
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain:
His oc | cupa | tion to | be plain,
In thun | der, light | ning or | in rain.
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain.
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain.
The book | and vol | ume of | my brain!
Ado | nis smiles | as in | disdain.
Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, Mark Twain.
NA: Tell me about Ahsahta Press.
JH: I started editing the press in 2000. Before that, it was a press that concentrated on writers west of the Mississippi River—you can read the history of it at our website, which will also tell you why the press was named “Ahsahta.” The press went from three editors publishing three full-length books a year to one editor publishing (this year) nine full-length books and two chapbooks (though I think I’ve reached my peak!). The university gives me a very small stipend—enough to print three books—and a part-time assistant who fills orders, but is otherwise hands-off; the rest of our budget comes from sales, primarily, and contest fees cover some publication costs.
What I wanted to do with Ahsahta was to move it from a regionalist to a national press, and to take some risks with it in a more literary direction. I also wanted to raise its profile. Because of that small stipend, I have enough of a cushion that the publication choices I make can have more to do with my literary interests than with my idea of what will “sell.” My literary interests are pretty wide-ranging, so I don’t worry about getting in a rut.
NA: Could you say a little more about your wide-ranging interests? I am asking this because I suspect some of the readers of this interview will want to know how they might fit into those interests.
JH: They’ve evolved over the years. I started writing as a formalist, and issues of formality are always interesting to me. We’ve done fairly traditional formal books (Ed Allen’s 67 Mixed Messages, which is also hilarious) as well as a number of books that work with the sonnet form, like Zachary Cotler’s and Noah Eli Gordon’s. I’m extremely interested in ecopoetry and the pastoral since working on The Arcadia Project and seeing all the fascinating directions it can go in. I love poems that foreground sound, both traditionally (like Brian Teare’s work) and more experimentally (like Heidi Lynn Staples’). Books that might be called confessional include Ethan Paquin’s Cloud vs. Cloud and Peggy Hamilton’s Questions for Animals. Recently I’ve taken on books that work with language as a way that reflects aspects of sexuality, particularly transgendered and ambiguous sexualities. Chris Vitiello’s work is unquestionably conceptual, which seems to be a dirty word in some parts! I like prose poems. I love poems that engage politics, like Susan Tichy’s.
But the danger in specifying what I like is that I’m open to things I haven’t seen before. One of the taglines I use in advertising is the single word “surprise.” I love to be surprised when I read a book! If I say, Ahsahta wants X or Y kind of writing, I run a risk of alienating a writer whose work I might just love. I don’t know how you’d explain Kate Greenstreet’s work, for example, but I am enriched and devastated by it and so glad I get to publish it; I wouldn’t want to discourage a Kate Greenstreet!
NA: I read a wonderful review by Djelloul Marbrook of the press, or rather of seven books published by Ahsahta Press, in which Djelloul expresses: “stunned amazement—and delight—that an American press has accepted the intellectual and prosodic challenges these poets represent and has lavished exacting production values on them: luscious paper, sensitive typesetting, striking covers. This is the poetry of which I had despaired. And I haven’t know what to do about it.”
I was wondering if you could respond to this review.
JH: I thought it was a surpassingly generous review, and I was both shocked and grateful to read it. I hadn’t really seen anyone do what he did—read enough of a press’s books to get a sense of what it was trying to do. One of my authors had pointed out a review of Marbrook’s to me and said, “You might want to add him to the reviewers list for Ahsahta,” so I sent him a note through Facebook asking for his address. He demurred because he’d never heard of Ahsahta and he wasn’t a regular reviewer for any publication. I think he asked me what kind of books we published, and I’m always at a loss to describe them. “I’ll send you a few,” I told him, and I actually ended up sending him seven of them that I thought did different things. And then I didn’t hear anything for quite a while. When I did, it was this amazing review of all seven books that also said things about Ahsahta I could never have dreamed (but had certainly hoped!) somebody would say. As an editor, you fly under the radar, and I felt as if someone had finally noticed me and given me some credit for my work.
NA: Do you think Ahsahta Press publishes more intellectually challenging books than the mainstream?
JH: Well, what’s mainstream? I would say that we publish intellectually challenging books, yes. I’d like to think people spend time with them rather than skim through and move on, and that they could reread each one profitably. The word I like is “interactive,” which suggests that the reader is engaged in a process during reading rather than just receiving something more along the lines of entertainment. Nothing against entertainment, but there are plenty of other places to go for it, and I think of poetry as art. What we publish may not go with your couch, so to speak, but it could challenge something you used to think about the world and make you re-think it. It could take your breath away. It could make you fall in love with words as well as with ideas.
NA: I love that ending. “It could make you fall in love with words as well as with ideas.” I think that’s a great description of Ahsahta Press.
JH: Thanks! I think it’s a description of what I want out of a book of poems.
NA: Do you think Ahsahta Press, as Djelloul Marbrook suggests, is the publisher of America’s avant-garde poetry?
JH: I love that he said that. I wouldn’t say we’re publishing “the” avant-garde—of course I wouldn’t. I don’t even really know what to do with that term and there are plenty of good presses making interesting books. But you’re taking his statement out of context; he was saying that we publish work that other presses might blow off because of its arduous formatting or intellectual demands, and I do think he may have a point there. Fortunately, I have more than 35 years of typesetting experience, so I can handle arduous formatting in avant-garde work.
I think I’m looking at both form and subject when I select a book, and I tend to like things that push the envelope. Because I teach in an MFA program, I’m reading a lot of new books, looking for things to use in class, and there are a lot of books out there that are perfectly fine but that stick to a kind of pattern, to any of many patterns. There’s still a lot of influence from mid-20th-century writers, for example.
NA: I just read one of your recent books, Dragon Logic, by Stephanie Strickland, a book which defies description and is utterly magical. How did you come across Stephanie’s work?
JH: I first read a chapbook of Stephanie’s that was put out by State Street Press, the press that also published my first chapbook. I got to meet her at an AWP lunch that Judith Kitchen of State Street Press set up. Not long after that, Stephanie’s True North and my The Green Tuxedo were selected together for the Ernest Sandeen prize at University of Notre Dame Press. I saw her subsequently at an AWP and we got to talking about digital poetry. I ended up working with her on a digital version of her poem “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,” which took about a year to complete, long-distance. I’ve always admired her science-driven work (well, all her work!), and asked her to send me something. It isn’t always easy to find a publisher for these books that defy description! The first book of hers I published was Zone : Zero, which had an interactive CD in it.
NA: I thought maybe I would ask Stephanie to talk about Dragon Logic. Stephanie, if you were to describe this collection, how would you begin?
SS: Dragon Logic wonders . . . where have we gone . . . as our face-to-face world threatened from so many directions slips into potentially infinite virtual spaces. The slippage happened suddenly, worldwide, and we don't know whether it makes us irrelevant, provides an escape from apocalyptic problems, or could be welcomed as a new direction for human life. These poems are where I wrangle this increasingly invisible dragon-in-the-room.
NA: What is the “dragon in the room?” And why dragons?
SS: Dragons are mythical and abstract—mythic embodiments of abstract power, from the snake in Eden, to devouring sea monsters, to the latest special FX apocalyptic creation from Hollywood. The dragon hunt that matters for me is tracking the beast as it slips, dizzyingly, from real to configurational (electronically generated) space, always aware that where we live, in either case, is the belly of this beast.
NA: Could you provide an excerpt from the book?
Burning Briar Scanning Tunnel
there is a zombie at the wheel
who finds acceptable all risk
( his flesh looks like mine )
a crinkle monkey in the swamp
mind tricky and brisk
( his moves feel like mine )
headless mannequin draped
white print snakeskin dress
( pale fakery filling me with dread )
a boneless man used up
by apparatchik juggernaut
( scrivener like me )
the one who hoped to poach
cockroach strategy adrift
( like me time-amnesic overreaching )
cord-cut all beyond the call
to heal or heel fold molt
( wormhole crush crash course )
Copyright © 2013 by Stephanie Strickland
NA: Do you have a link with your reading schedule? I would love to hear you read!
NA: How/why did you choose Ahsahta Press?
SS: Janet does beautiful book design and page design. She is as particular as I am about the minutest details of text appearance. Her instincts about poems are superb. Many of the poems in Dragon Logic, and in my prior Ahsahta book, Zone : Zero, are challenging to set, so I wanted them to be in Janet’s hands. Long ago we worked together on an electronic poem, Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot.
NA: Janet, could you talk a bit about that process?
JH: I was very interested in hypertext, and had begun experimenting with a program called Storyspace from Eastgate Systems. Stephanie had written a poem intended as a hypertext and was also very interested in Storyspace, but we got into talking about how the short lifespan of operating systems and browsers and software made it difficult to write a hypertext that people might actually be able to read a few years down the line. I offered to make a hypertext in HTML that would work with any browser & operating system, and we got to work on the project almost without realizing how big it was going to be! I remember one Thanksgiving morning talking for hours with Stephanie about the number of ways a person could read through the materials. The poem is still available here, and it still looks the way it did back then, so I’d say we succeeded.
NA: How do you find your writers? Are they mostly contest winners? Do you solicit submissions?
JH: I find many writers through the Sawtooth Poetry Prize contest—the winners, of course, but also other manuscripts that I may have fallen in love with during reading that don’t get selected by the contest judge. I’ve gotten some manuscripts (like Dan Beachy-Quick’s Spell and Kate Greenstreet’s case sensitive) “over the transom,” submitted unsolicited. And I’ve solicited books, too, like Stephanie’s. Once I’ve published an author, I like to be open to doing more of that author’s books, but some of these people are so prolific I can’t possibly keep up with them! In May, Ahsahta had an open reading period, but I got so many manuscripts it took until nearly September to choose one; I can’t do that every year by myself: I’m also a professor and a poet, and I need creative time. Right now, I’m not taking new books except through the Sawtooth contest, which opens in January.
Contests put writers in front of me whose work I’ve never seen before, and I am always glad when we get a winner whose first book it is. (Karen Rigby’s Chinoiserie was one; Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s In No One’s Land was one; David Bartone’s first book, Practice on Mountains, won this year’s contest and will be out in January 2014.) People don’t like submitting to contests, I know, but it’s the only way I know of to get writers completely unknown to me to submit. But I think nobody should enter a contest if they don’t really love what the press does, so that the entry fee won’t seem wasted. I like to think that all the entrants to our contest would be proud to be published by us.
NA: An accomplished poet, you clearly have such a passion for editing, and the books you publish are so beautiful. How do you balance your editorial interests with your teaching and writing life?
JH: Not very well, I’m afraid. Editorial work—reading submissions, editing the books (which takes different amounts of time depending upon the nature of the project), proofreading—is only the tip of the iceberg. I have some grad students during spring semester help me out with reading the contest manuscripts in a class set up to teach them about small presses, but grad students are in school to write their own work, not work for the press. I have to do the rest of it if it’s going to get done—the website, the catalog copy, promotional pieces, designing ads, all of that. I also typeset and design the books, and take care of the financial aspects of the press. It’s a labor of love. I have tended to feel that my obligation to my authors should take precedence over my own writing, which is why I’m happy to be on sabbatical now, getting to give a bit of attention to my own work. Usually I am also teaching workshops and literature courses.
NA: You have a Fulbright in Hungary coming up?
JH: Yes, I’ll be in Budapest for four months. I’m looking forward to it very much. I’m working with Hungarian writing students in an American Studies program there.
NA: What are some of the happiest moments for the press? Feel free to provide links.
JH: The Marbrook article you quoted above, because it was such a bolt from the blue. Getting our first NEA grant, which was to support publication of The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. Editing & designing Tony Trigilio’s book of Elise Cowen’s poetry has been so great—it comes out in March 2014. Rusty Morrison's Laughlin Award for the true keeps calm biding its story and Brian Teare's Lambda Award for Pleasure were two wonderful moments. Every year during the Sawtooth contest, we have a day of reckoning when everyone presents their favorite manuscript and champions it—that’s a really exciting and happy time.
NA: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
JH: I wish poets were less eager to condemn each other’s poetry and aesthetics, the whole “poetry wars” thing. Poet-critics can seem intent on denigrating the work of others who don’t conform to their predilections, as if that would make their own work more important somehow. It’s self-serving. I have a vision of what I want to publish at Ahsahta, but that’s different from decreeing that nobody else is doing anything good. I would never say that. I think there’s a lot more to celebrate than to complain about.
NA: I’d love to close with a selection from one of your books.
This is from Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling.
Plate 6: It Was a Time of Visions.
“and what have you that you did not receive?”
She never doubts she can see what is hidden, lost.
Breath on the glass. Spent fuel.
Calls it the ghost.
In the beginning, I came to live.
Still in sight of the mirror,
It’s the one room I can’t leave.
What else was happening that day,
or how did it get buried? Now he’s a different boy.
Called, identified, drafted, named.
I thought, then, I would marry a soldier.
But I don’t use the streets.
Meeting in a field? In real life, who knows.
Things that happen, things that don’t happen.
Why a girl might wish to hear certain words.
The building is designed to make you look to heaven.
Two years after he disappeared, I woke, having dreamed of him.
Not a kind person.
Like the rope that breaks.
Could be surprisingly decent
Interested in music.
“I’d like to talk about loneliness. I don’t believe it exists.”
the first truth
The exact reason
she kneels. Unbrittle,
I’ve felt like that—you understand? We had to go back.
To some town . . . or maybe a road . . .
I like her. I remember her.
I remember that—her running up the stairs.
Later, she dives into the leafy pool.
The dream of art.
The dream of the body.
Is there another dream?
Not much has changed in the future.
are not invented. People started teaching me Spanish.
come to him. The life behind the life.
Ella es un cuarto para ellos.
Copyright © 2013 by Kate Greenstreet
Janet Holmes is author of five books, most recently The ms of my kin. She is director and editor of Boise State University’s Ahsahta Press (ahsahtapress.org), editing and publishing seven to ten books of poetry per year, and is a professor in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Twice included in the Best American Poetry series, she has had fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Fondation Ledig-Rowholt (Switzerland), and Fundación Valparaíso (Spain). In 2014, she will be in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright.
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. Follow Nin on Twitter here.
*I* have had just about all I can take
Happy birthday, William Blake
Planing and sawing before I’m awake
Happy birthday, William Blake
The God of our Fathers is still on the make
Happy birthday, William Blake
Though I worry that it sometimes veers into corniness, gratitude practice can be a lovely and helpful thing. I know that when my mood has swung very low, no sweet chariots in sight, I start to think about the things for which I am grateful. Though I live in a city that often drives me crazy, I am grateful that it's a beautiful city (and that you can't beat the food and the wine here). I am grateful that it seems that the Italian Parliament has finally voted to kick Berlusconi out. (Long time coming, but still.) I am grateful that my husband loves me despite the aforementioned mood swings, low and high, sweet chariot. And I am extremely grateful for the surprise of a 2013 book of poems that, well, if it doesn't exactly celebrate the mood swings, it certainly talks about 'em: thank you, Passager Books, for the really beautiful objet that you made out of my Hot Flash Sonnets.
I am grateful for the extraordinary friendship that Damiano and I have struck up with the guys of Osteria di Monteverde -- the restaurant that always tops our list of answers to the oft-asked question "where should we go to eat in Rome?" And I am grateful that we got to start our Thanksgiving week by cooking dinner for them. (Scary to cook for such accomplished restaurateurs? Hell Yeah!)
I am so grateful that I found the little plastic hoojie that allows our ancient food processor to work, so that I was able to make the tricolore hummus specialty of the house, I mean, this house. It's plain old, cuminy hummus, cilantro hummus, and chipotle hummus. I am grateful that I have discovered where I can find cilantro and chipotle in this town.
Yes, I'm grateful for our nearby "exotic food store," where I can find cranberry sauce and maple syrup for times such as these. They're there alongside the other exotic things: coconut milk, tahini, ginger pickle, oatmeal. When that cranberry sauce starts to move off the shelves in mid-November, the shopkeepers begin to get a sense that that American holiday is coming up soon. "Ah, si', il vostro giorno del ringraziamento. Auguri!" they say, and I say, "Grazie."
But still, it's a weird feeling to be celebrating this day when no one around you even knows it's a holiday. If you managed to forget something for the evening's meal, well, all the shops are open: that's an advantage. But it feels as if you're walking around in a holiday nostalgia bubble, quite alone, as the normal Thursday people and the loud traffic whirl by, all unawares.
Italians often ask me: But don't you miss your family? Of course I miss them, and on days like today, walking around in my holiday nostalgia bubble, I feel it very keenly. And though I'm grateful for my friends here, I very much miss the folks I left behind (you know who you are).
Finally, I am extremely grateful that tonight I won't be cooking. Instead, we will be joining the ranks of numerous adults and children with various North American ties, all celebrating this day of Thanksgiving, coming together into one big holiday nostalgia bubble in a dining room in the middle of Rome.
Happy Thanksgiving to all, and let the wild spatchcocking rumpus start!
In 1946, a British-born resident of Manhattan, who happened to be one of the major poets of the twentieth century, came to the New School to give a series of lectures on Shakespeare. The lecture series proved tremendously popular. Several people took such obsessive notes that the lectures could later be re-constructed for publication.
W. H. Auden is the poet in question, and the world's foremost Auden scholar, Edward Mendelson addressed Auden's life and works in his New School poetry forum with David Lehman on November 20. Mendelson, Auden's literary executor and the editor of all standard editions of the poet's work, has expressed the view that Auden was "the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century and the first to understand its special temptations."
A lean figure with reddish hair and a stirring delivery, Mendelson read to us and commented on a series of Auden poems that demonstrated the arc of Auden’s work—a poetics frequently transformed by Auden’s political and ethical concerns. Leaning over the podium, Mendelson remarked that a fundamental aspect of Auden’s work was that he often addressed his reader directly, using the pronoun “you.” This was an inclusive impulse: the reader could be anyone or everyone. Auden did not want to speak from puplit or stage but intimately to an individual person.
Auden was egalitarian when it came to diction. Mendelson and Lehman commented on Auden’s wide-ranging use of styles and vocabulary, from cockney rhyming slang, on one extreme, to well-wrought sestinas on the other. In a low passionate voice, Mendelson read the well-loved ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening” with its opening lines: “As I walked out one evening/ Walking down Bristol Street / The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat.” Auden said profound things in an accessible way. "We all know what happens to harvest wheat," Mendelson said.
In the same poem Auden writes, "You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” This maxim or command forms a beating core to Auden’s artistic project. Auden came to think that the Biblical commandment to love thy neighbor had to be heeded although (or possibly because) it is the most unnatural thing in the world. He made this recognition at the time he turned away from Marxism and towards the moral imperatives of Christianity. He switched his belief from huge abstractions (such as History with a capital H) to the existential individual. "History does not have a moral core," as Lehman remarked to Mendelson before the reading.
Mendelson explained a concern for "the other" was integral to much of Auden’s work. Auden illuminates love for the other in what is agruably the most joyful of Auden’s poems, “The Willow That Ran up the Stair.” A poem about a bad poet, it takes the ideological position that lack of literary skill is not the measure of a man's value as a human being. The language of this bad poet may be all wrong, but his ideas are right.
Auden famously revised his view and his poems. His tendency to revise or disown poems that he no longer believed in has caused controversy. The last part of "In Memory of Wiilliam Butler Yeats" is a prime example. Three stanzas were cut. According to these stanzas, time "pardons" writers such as Kipling, Claudel, or Yeats -- writers who articulated the wrong political ideas -- because they wrote well. Auden dropped the stanzas because this struck him as an immoral position.
Mendelson put a different spin on the revision. He said that when Auden wrote the poem -- in early 1939 -- he held that Kipling and Yeats were guilty because of their fascist sympathies. He contended that Auden remained a leftist all his life but that his early stance of condemnation became morally repugnant to him, and that this was why he dropped the three stanzas from his famous elegy for Yeats.
The habit of making changes in his poems can be quite a challenge for the editor, as Lehman pointed out. In the end, Auden’s veering away from his early role as a political poet followed from his feeling that a poet might be the wrong person to act as a political leader.
Auden's own work. separated from his intention, has been used for deceptive political purposes. During the the Q & A section, Lehman recollected Lyndon Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" re-election commercial -- one of the most famous TV commercials ever shown -- which uses Auden’s line “we must love one another or die” from “September 1, 1939.” The commercial depicted a nuclear war and suggested that Johnson's opponent for president, Barry Goldwater, was a reckless warmonger. The commerical was a chilling misuse of Auden’s words that painted Johnson as a peacemaker. A year later Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam.
There’s a telling anecdote Mendelson related about a letter Auden wrote after an appearance at a political meeting early in his life: “I found I could do it. I could speak at a political meeting and bring everyone to their feet.” Mendelson recounted Auden’s words in a deadpan tone. “It was exciting and degrading. I never want to speak at a political meeting again.” Even in a strictly poetic endeavor -- composing “Sebastian’s Sestina” for The Sea and the Mirror -- Auden vered from orthodoxy. He did not follow the sestina form exactly. According to Mendelson, flipping certain stanzas from their natural order (as Lehman demonstrated in the q & a session) conveyed more efficiently the message of forgiveness central to the sesina, a plea for meaning over aesthetics. Always, what mattered to Auden most—Mendelson brought home to us throughout the evening—was what was psychologically and morally true.
EDWARD MENDELSON is the Lionel Trilling Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and the literary executor of the estate of W. H. Auden. His Early Auden and Later Auden, among other volumes, can be purchased on Amazon.
-- Nora Robertson
Later, after dinner, we examine your uncle’s photos
of trees, flowers, waterfalls, birds
until I just can’t stand it another second.
I am not at one with nature. Never was.
Some of the people can be fooled all of the time,
even when you yawn right in their faces.
Guests, or ghosts, have taken over the house,
lounging in the living room, watching t.v.
Ugly images of war and politics are all I see.
Cancel the rest of the holidays, please, until this
-- Terence Winch
Boxed in, Blue Humorous and Bleary Eyed (Bildungsroman Holiday by Jessica Piazza), (2010)
It's a Very Appalachian Hanukkah by Erica Meitner (2010)
"Put on your Yarmulka" by Erica Meitner (2010)
We first met Ross Martin through his poetry and have been thrilled to watch his career take off. Ross is an Executive Vice President at Viacom Media Networks and runs Scratch, a creative swat team driving innovation across the company. Just recently, Ross was included in Fortune Magazine's "40 Under 40" list of rising business leaders. Clearly, he's gained wisdom over the years. Here's a sampling from a recent post on his blog Something Burning: I used to say all the time that one of my biggest goals was to bring creativity and innovation to every area of an organization. Problem is, that kind of hubris presumes creativity and innovation aren't already present in those areas, and that I'm somehow the one who can bring it. Read the full post here.
With a courtly nod to the work of the Academy of American Poets, Rauan Klassnic over at HTML Giant, has begun posting what he calls a complementary series of poems that might not fit in those highlighted by the Academy. Most recently his, Academy of American Lunatics posted Your Conscript, by Danielle Pafunda (Natural History Rape Museum, bloof, December 2013). Check it out.
Gift buying time. We feel you. If you want something unique, like the linocut of Philip K. Dick pictured above for example, Reb Livingston comes to the rescue with a Pinterest board for inquisitive readers.
Sherman Alexie talks poetry, booksellers and Kobe on KUOW.org. Kobe beef or Bryant? Listen and tell.
Got something for Hump Day Highlights? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(ed note: Gabrielle Calvocoressi's posts last week reminded me of this post, by Jeff Oaks, from 2009.)
David Lehman's post last week about suicide prompted this comment from Jeff Oaks, Managing Director of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. It's worth highlighting here because it illustrates how a seemingly small gesture by a caring teacher can have a transformative -- possibly life saving -- impact on an impressionable student. In addition to being a fine teacher, Milton Kessler (1930-2000) published several volumes of poetry, including The Grand Concourse. His poem, "Comma of God," was chosen by Heather McHugh, for The Best American Poetry 2007.
"I had a a great teacher, Milt Kessler (left), at SUNY Binghamton who was reading poems I had given him in hope of being let into his poetry workshop. He couldn't understand, he said to me, why everything was always fading away at the end of my poems. I didn't have an answer then, but it was because my vision, such as it was then, was tied into the recognition of mortality, which both sweetened everything around me, and made it impossible to ever feel like I could have happiness. His answer was to get up from his desk, look out his window, which then looked out over a large field of wildflowers. Then he said, Come here. I stood up next to him at the window. He took my hand in his, which really freaked me out, and said, Look at all that life. Isn't it wonderful? Just look at it. And we stood looking at that field for a minute or so, holding hands. Then he let my hand go. We went back to where we'd been sitting. I honestly don't remember what we talked about after that. I was still buzzing with life.That was a transformational moment for me who'd grown up among a lot of unhappy adults; I'd imagined that unhappiness was all I had to look forward to, and maybe even unconsciously had begun to create a poetry that would prepare me for that inevitability. Milt worked so hard to get us to fight against simple closures in poetry, to embrace what was difficult to say and feel, and to bear the weight of those things as a privilege, as a responsibility. To be angry as hell in a poem. Not to just feel nostalgic or blue because that was the fashion. To not give up. I wish someone would write the book of writing assignments that encourage that!" -- Jeff Oaks
Thank you, Jeff, for this moving anecdote.
Office holders and political people,
Bush, Obama, Cheney, Old Man Bush,
Michelle, Hilary, Bill, Condoleezza Rice,
The living and dead, Nixon, Kennedy,
Dwight Eisenhower, all had bedbugs
But they neither saw nor suspected
That bedbugs were biting them.
At the Stanhope Hotel, at the Pierre,
At the Mirage Hotel of Beverly Hills
In the early morning silence bedbugs
Awaken as heedless we slumber,
As we bathe, as we have intercourse
Bedbugs peer from their hiding places
And we are oblivious of the bedbugs.
A stunning woman of fashion
On Fifth Avenue – for the bedbugs
In her iPhone it is a simple matter
Amid her chat and gab to ear-enter
Her like some harebrained marketing
Jingle and then deep within her
The bedbugs pitch their palaces.
Likewise the poor have bedbugs.
Egalitarians, equal opportunity
Enjoyers, true democrats are
The bedbugs for whom not
Solomon in all his glory enticed
Like a homeless man asleep in
A doorway or on a subway grate.
What can be done about bedbugs?
Go Google bedbug poisons or
How to kill bedbugs or natural enemies
Of bedbugs and you will find sprays,
Ointments, and simple inexpensive
Home remedies like dish soap that
Annoy bedbugs but not to death.
Much then can be done about bedbugs
But (really) nothing can be done about
Them. We slather ourselves with soap,
We fumigate, we fuss and fulminate,
We literally get down on our knees and
Pray to God and in that same hour we
Get bitten, we get dozens of bites.
Still by all means let us spray and
Slather, let us turn up the thermostats
In our apartments because bedbugs
Hate heat, let us leave no stone unturned
And the end of all our slathering and
Thermostating will be to know the
Futility of slathering and of thermostats.
Then let that knowing inspire all
Humankind to a frenzied piling up
Of mattresses in the world’s cities,
Towns, and fields – pillows, bedclothes
Piled high and burned by huge mobs
Fed up with bedbugs, joyful at mattresses
Burning if the bedbugs are also burning.
Let a crazed energy as in the poet’s
Vision of how Pandemonium was built
Grip all humanity and from that energy
Let bitter knowledge emerge that burning
Mattresses, pillows, and bedclothes is not
Enough for complete and total bedbug
Extermination because everything must burn!
Then onto the flaming mattresses let gold
Jewelry be flung, MacBooks, Big Bird t-shirts,
Watches and handbags, ATM cards, bras,
You name it, let even hundred dollar
Bills eagerly be flung lest bedbug eggs
Adhere to the hundred dollar bills
To say nothing of the twenties or tens.
Shrieking women tearing off their blouses,
Men – husbands, sons, lovers – flinging
Accoutrements of masculinity such as
Barn coats, beer cans, cowboy boots,
Baseball mitts and football jerseys
Into the flames to deny a refuge
To even one goddamned bedbug!
Yet as hand in hand the mobs dance
Naked around the fires in a hurly-burly
Unprecedented historically by pyramids
Or potlatches another grim awareness
Must dawn: no need have bedbugs for
The things of men when men themselves
Are so safe, succulent, and stupid.
At this a silence descends, befuddlement,
Despair, and mere surrender to the notion
Of bedbugs in the crevices of one’s own
Corpus finding room and blood until
Suddenly with a war whoop someone
Whose name will never be known
Flings himself or herself into the flames!
Then without hesitation and even with relief
Here a Hottentot, there a hedge fund manager,
Here a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet
Immolate themselves and their differences go
Up in smoke. What a spectacle but what irony
That the grander it becomes, the fewer are left
To admire it and I will be the last of all.
For like Captain Snuffy Shemengenopolous --
What was his name, the guy who crashed
His plane in the river? -- I will usher others
Out and then as Nixon did when last he
Ascended into his helicopter, waving my arms
I will address the barren landscape, I will cry,
“Bedbugs! You can have it! It’s all yours!”
KGB Monday Night Poetry is pleased to present...
Sophie Cabot Black + Lisa Olstein
Monday, Nov. 25, 2013
Hosted by John Deming and Matthew Yeager
Series founded in 1997 by Star Black and David Lehman
Doors open at 7:00 pm
Reading starts at 7:30pm
Admission is FREE
85 East 4th Street * New York, NY
Sophie Cabot Black was raised on a small farm in New England. Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including the Atlantic, Fence, the New Yorker, Bomb, the Paris Review, Poetry and the New Republic. Her work has also appeared in various anthologies, among them Best American Poetry, ed: Louise Gluck, Doggerel and Fatherhood, both poetry anthologies from the Everyman’s Library Series. Her first poetry collection, The Misunderstanding of Nature, received the Norma Farber Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her second, The Descent, received the 2005 Connecticut Book Award and was subsequently chosen as a hot pick on MSNBC’s program Topic A With Tina Brown. She has been awarded several fellowships, including at the Fine Arts Work Center, Macdowell Colony, and the Radcliffe Institute. She teaches at Columbia University.
Lisa Olstein is the author of Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (Copper Canyon Press, 2006), winner of the Hayden Carruth Award, and Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), named one of the nine best poetry books of 2009 by Library Journal, and Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). Cold Satellite, an album of songs based on her poems and lyrics, was released by singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault in fall 2010 and was ranked #1 on Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top Ten list in The Believer (February 2011). A new album, Cavalcade, was released in April 2013. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council and Centrum. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals including The Nation, The Iowa Review, American Letters & Commentary, Denver Quarterly, and Glitterpony. She is a contributing editor of jubilat. She co-founded and co-directs the Juniper Initiative for Literary Arts & Action at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is Associate Director of the MFA Program and Director of the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. In the fall of 2013, she will join the faculty of the New Writers Project, the MFA program in the Department of English at the University of Texas Austin.
Upcoming, Fall 2013
Dec 2 David Lehman + Kim Addonizio + Season Finale Party
When I come back to this garden after my death
will the black walnut tree have been cut down,
the brick-and-galvo studio made over into flats
reflecting what will have happened all over town?
I wonder just what my airy after-self will find
that the present me could even recognize
roughly, as being something we lived amid;
what will confront my hypothetical eyes
and spiritual vision? Will the bluestone paving
be there, tangled vines and archaic gingko tree?
I wonder how my grandkids’ generation
will be getting along: at all familiarly?
If a posthumous person can view things with horror
will my airy unself shrink back from the tacky way
fashion can rot the linework of certitude,
making more of a mess from townscape every day?
Will the blackbird’s descendent still be pecking, though,
at our patchy lawn? Parrots will squeal overhead,
I’m sure. The hedge may still murmur hints of us
or the corrugated tanks.
But I’ll be dead.
In Chris Wallace-Crabbe (1934-) the urbane can still reside in the vernacular, the vernacular can still possess urbanity. Had his career been North American he would have joined such craftsmen of the academy as Hollander, Howard, Hecht and Hine, and not a bad thing too.
Not Guilty. Full of Light.
Every night before I fall asleep I say, “Goodnight, God. I love you. Sleep well.” I don’t say it out loud because it’s just between us. I realized the other day that I began saying it after my mother killed herself. I’d always prayed. Or, I’d always talked to God. Nothing big really. I didn’t ask for things so much as talk about my day or sometimes I’d ask questions. I mean, sometimes I’d beg. When I was getting bullied in middle school I remember asking God to please help me because I didn’t think I could take it any more. I have such a clear vision of sitting in our narrow stairway in the late afternoon saying, “Please. Just please.” And then the phone rang and there was some boy on the other end of the line saying he was going to kill me when I came to school the next day.
I didn’t think to hold it against God. Even before my mother killed herself it never occurred to me to blame God for the lousy things that went on in my world. The boys who tripped me in the hallway were the boys who tripped me in the hallway. I was pretty sure most of their parents would trip me too if given the chance in a room where no one was looking. As far as I was concerned, God was good company. I didn’t go to church in the very religious town I grew up in, I just walked through the cornfield talking to him. I did say “him,” it’s true. Now I think of God as a kind of deep pressure and gong inside me that echoes into the world but back then that felt male to me. Anyway. God was who I talked to in a life where I didn’t have lots of folks to talk to. Walking through the fields, waiting for the bus, sitting in the living room in Vermont when my mother’s third husband brought a homeless man back from the liquor store and we all sat there as they got drunker and drunker. And later that night after my mother played a game with me where we got her husband up to bed and then asked him outlandish questions that he answered in his sleep. “Are you stupid?” “Are you stupid?” “What does a monkey sound like?” I lay in bed and talked it through: how weird it was and how I felt kind of bad for Jimmy, lying there with my mother laughing and getting him to answer one question after another. And I admitted I’d liked laughing with her, that I’d kept laughing just to keep being near her.
And yet, I did stop talking to God for awhile. In those first months after my mother died I don’t think I checked in at all. I’m not sure where I was really, or who I talked to. Those months are a blank for me. I remember I went to school the day after she died. I remember her mother calling me on the phone and saying I’d killed her daughter, how I could hear the television in our living room as if the voices were coming from somewhere very far off. And then she said, “It will happen to you too. I can see it in your handwriting. You’re very sick.” I could have used God then but I wasn’t sleeping so maybe that’s why I didn’t confide in him. I don’t think so, though. I think I felt she was right and that if that was true then I didn’t deserve to talk to anyone. Who was I to have a gong inside me? Who was I to sound it?
I don’t know how I came back. I just know that I did and sometime around then I began saying, “Goodnight” and “I love you. Sleep well.” I would think of the whole world, I’d picture the planet with all its blues and greens and then I’d imagine all these voices saying “It’s your fault” “It’s your fault.” How crazy is that? But it helped somehow. I’d imagine God getting to sleep and be at peace for awhile and then I’d fall asleep. First I’d make my whole body get as tight as it could until I was almost electric and then I’d shake all the tension out of me. Or like I was a gong ringing and ringing until I became the deep silence of nobody blaming me.
Tonight it’s Shabbat. We lit the fire for the first time in our little house here in Carrboro. We ate Brussel’s greens with coconut oil and garlic. We ate mung bean pasta and drank some red wine. I thanked God, which was like the twentieth time I checked in today. Is it praying? I don’t know. I saw the most beautiful burgundy leaves on the way home from my walk and said, “Look at that” to the pressure inside me. My student did the coolest thing with syllabics and I said, “There you go!” and it sounded the gong in my torso and then I was endless. I thought of how to explain what it was to be shaking on the BART all those years ago and how Robin would sit on the phone with me until I got home. How I’d say, “I am so crazy.” and she would say, “Honey, we’re all crazy.” and how I’d talk to God about it that night, about how great Robin was and I’d thank God for Robin and Brian and Julie and Ryan and Jen and always Angeline and I’d keep listing with the gong sounding until I’d fall asleep.
Another day I’ll talk about blame. About who and what I do blame. But not tonight. I will say I don’t blame my mother. And I don’t blame my God. And most days (though not all days) I don’t blame myself. The fire’s still smoldering and the crickets are making a ruckus even though it’s deep into November. Everything is so alive tonight. Including me.
JFK in Ireland
Like many people my age, I have never shaken off the horrible shock of JFK’s murder fifty years ago. His abrupt removal from American life—in so bloody and surreal a fashion—was a loss felt with special intensity by Irish Catholics. Hard to process, as we say today. The photo below was taken on 22 November 1963. In suit jacket and skinny tie, I am exiting the chapel on the campus of Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. Students were streaming in and out of the chapel that day in a frenzy of stunned bereavement. I was in my first semester of college and it was brutally clear to me that life in these United States would never be the same. I pick at the what-ifs in my mind all the time, as I’m sure is true of many others who remember that day.
I have been three kinds of dog: Border
Collie, Wolfhound, Black Mouth Cur. I remain
talented at herding and hunting. I have also been
an owl, a raccoon, a rat, and a monkey.
There’s so much history inside my head it’s hard
to keep it straight. The Barbarians at the Gate,
the False Popes, Hammurabi’s Code,
the Potato Famine, the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
I even saw Victor Mature kill a lion barehanded.
These days I travel mostly by time machine, though
I have a really bad sense of direction. I crash into
the past, careen into the future. It’s so confusing.
I tried to warn President John Fitzgerald Kennedy
not to go to Dallas on November 22nd, 1963.
But I got off at the wrong exit. Not that he would
have listened. I saw him once, in Manhattan, in 1962.
It was the Columbus Day Parade and he drove by
in a convertible, beautiful, tan, godlike. “Don’t go
to Dallas next year on November 22nd!” I shouted.
But he just waved, smiled, and drove on.
[from Malpais Review, Spring 2013]
The day that Kennedy was killed
Was the day before the Stuyvesant-Clinton football game.
There was a rally in the auditorium
And our coach who was from Texas or Oklahoma said slowly, carefully,
“There isn’t a horse that can’t be bucked.”
Meanwhile half the school was marching along
Fifteenth Street to Union Square and then up to
Forty Second Street and Fifth Avenue and some got up to
Fifty Ninth, and they were parading,
Yelling, “De Witt eats shit” until they were stopped by policemen.
I didn’t go. I stayed in school.
That day I almost got into a fight
With a fellow twice my size on the stairway
And he laughed at me. A friend of mine broke it up.
In English the head of the Physics Department walked
Into the room. He said, “I think you are old enough
To understand this. The President was shot today in Texas.”
I stand up. I do not understand. I say, “What”
And I think, the President was shocked today in Texas.
He leaves the room. I am sorry.
I leave early. The Clinton game is called off,
And the series has since been discontinued.
My French teacher is waiting for me. Smiling shuffling his legs
Touching his teeth with his tongue looking at me
He says, “There is a rumor that Kennedy was shot.
Do you know anything about that?”
A week later I go to my cousin’s bar mitzvah
Out in Long Island, and I bring a catalog with me
From the Bernard Baruch School of City College.
I want to be a stockbroker.
It is windy outside and we walk a mile or more
To get to the bar mitzvah
And as I walk I talk to my mother
And I think carefully of what I am to say
And I narrow my eyes.
It is a cold and windy three days after Thanksgiving
And I point my thumb to my stomach and chest
And I brush my scarf against my face
And I say, “I too want to become President.”
-- David Lehman
from "The Presidential Years" in The Paris Review, #43, Summer 1968. Reprinted in New and Selected Poems by David Lehman (Scribner, 2013).
I sat in Miss Reynolds’s biology class
the day we all remember what we were doing.
I seem to recollect dissecting a fetal pig;
but perhaps, like Vardaman, I only conflated
physical and metaphysical horror
in one obliterating flash. More likely,
recalling myself as student and young man,
I sat there quietly, watching the others
poke, carve, discover. But at 1:30,
when the intercom coughed without preamble,
and we listened in growing fear to what
resembled a phone conversation broken into
by mistake (ellipses of questioning; sobs;
once, a loud shout) turn slowly into
the focused statement that went through
each of us like a bullet—that he had, in fact,
been murdered—we all sat up and still
then, the radiant pigs forgotten forever.
Who can explain the oracular impulse?
That day, they told us to “vacate the premises”;
no shoulder to cry on in those spare times; no counsel.
The Phys Ed teachers and the coaches, who would pull boys
from the hallway scrum, and slam their backs against
the walls to make a point, stood there sullen, sour,
as we filed past, silent, not even allowed
to use the phones—but then, who would we have called?
There was a strip mall off the high school lot;
we’d meet there at the bakery before class,
the rich kids in a restaurant nearby.
That day we wandered aimlessly along the storefronts;
what I remember most is our stunned silence.
In a television store I saw
a woman clerk who looked the way
I felt. I blurted out, “We’ll never get past this”—
I could feel the fear distort my voice,
as if I knew. She stared at me, as if I knew.
Miss Reynolds had good bones, as the connoisseurs
of beauty say, but wore so much make-up she seemed
a mannequin or doll. Or Lady Elaine Fairchilde,
on Fred Rogers’ TV show, or Punch’s wife, Judy—
an alabaster reach of flesh in which soft
eyes seemed trapped. I’ve often wondered since
if she were the first transsexual I’d known,
her perfect over-lipsticked lips a truth some
lonely man pined for in his own mirror.
I was fifteen: desire needed no abyss.
Even wrinkled old Mrs. Benedict—
even hoary old Mrs. B.—would writhe beneath me
in my bed at night, while I sucked her ancient
leathery nipples, and groaned aloud.
I wasn’t rich or president;
the Beatles had yet to play on Ed Sullivan;
RFK was still alive, like me.
And everywhere I looked desire fused with death.
When President Kennedy was assassinated, the world stopped, then shifted. In the way we now talk about September 11, for those who were alive and aware that November day fifty years ago, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard” is a touchstone of personal history. Virginia Woolf called these instances “moments of being,” when the difference between before and after is burned into memory by our hyper-awareness of the extraordinary. We have precise and perfect recall of the smell of classroom chalk when the principal’s choked voice came over the loudspeaker, the polka-dot scarf our neighbor was wearing when she ran weeping across the grass, the birds singing in the leafless apple tree as the radio blared the news, because these surrounding events and images, however quotidian, suddenly stand in sharp relief against unspeakable tragedy.
But even if we have no personal memory of that day, whether because we were too young in 1963 or we are of more recent generations for whom the assassination is history, we still live with its reverberations. Kennedy’s murder shaped the second half of the 20th century, and in turn is shaping the beginnings of the 21st.
An exercise in probability and possibility:
If Kennedy had not been killed, it is likely we would have gotten out of Vietnam by 1965. Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, wrote that the President had been working on a troop withdrawal strategy when he died. Would Johnson have then run for President in 1968? Would Robert F. Kennedy have entered the 1968 race if Johnson had run? RFK’s platform was to end the Vietnam War. If he didn’t run, would he still have been assassinated? How about Martin Luther King, Jr. – would he have been murdered as well? That’s harder to say, but even so would the nationwide civil unrest that followed these assassinations erupted in such a terrible way? A lot of the anger was fueled by the endless war and the feeling that the Johnson administration was leading us to disaster. So perhaps the violence and rage would have been tempered. It is possible.
If the unrest was contained and limited, we can also ask, would Richard Nixon been elected? His platform was restoring law-and-order to a country seemingly run amok with crime. And if no Nixon, no Watergate. If no Jimmy Carter as an antidote to Nixon, then no Ronald Reagan in response to Jimmy Carter? We can carry this on and on. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We don’t even have to reach back to find it.
Did you miss the anniversary of The Gettysburg Address?
Two Poems for Gettysburg by Catherine Woodard
Jennifer Michael Hecht's Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It is in bookstores and receiving well deserved notice:
Against Suicide: Interview with Jennifer on To the Best of Our Knowledge.
In "Stay" writer makes a case against suicide. Jim Higgins review in the Journal Sentinel
"If you’ve ever known someone who committed suicide, or have contemplated it yourself, or have admired a personal hero who died by his or her own hand, please oh please read this." Maria Popova's in-depth review on Brain Pickings.
ps. Help me come up with a better title for this weekly series. I don't like "Hump Day."
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.