NA: This is such a beautiful book, and a welcome gift in this dark time. But before we talk about it, I wanted to ask you about the anthology you are putting together in response to Trump’s presidency.
DD: Thanks for the kind words, Nin! I am working on this anthology titled: Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America. I’m looking for poetry (previously published and unpublished) that bears witness against the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and downright fascism that has always surrounded us, but is incarnated in the president elect. The poems need not be directly about Donald Trump, but should address any of the various complex social ills of which his election is a symptom. Poets interested in submitting work should send 3-5 poems in a word document by February 20, 2017 to email@example.com.
My dream would be that this anthology would be a means to raise funds for groups and causes that may find themselves steamrolled under the new administration. I also hope this work would in some small way galvanize opposition against the encroaching autocracy, jingoism, anti-intellectualism, and hate of a Trump White House.
NA: Your poetry really does speak of the ability to make light out of darkness, whether you are writing about chemotherapy, your mother’s tears, or your father’s death. I wondered if we could start with a poem from the book, maybe “Field Trip”?
DD: This is a poem I wrote a few years before my father died, after he had first undergone surgery for what was initially thought to be a routine form of thyroid cancer. I should also add that the staff at Sloan-Kettering, as anyone who has been there knows, is the most amazing medical staff in the world, from the orderlies on up.
On a day my father almost died,
I watched middle school children parade
by the window of the cab I sat in
as we waited for the light to turn
and York Avenue opened up like his sutures,
poorly stitched. I watched them walk on tiptoes,
woodwinds under their arms, necks free
of lacerations, tracheae intact.
I saw them disappear down 68th Street
and thought of the orchids that surround
all the waiting rooms in Sloan-Kettering,
how their heads dip downward, as if heaven
were a hollow beneath the earth.
NA: Who are some of the writers who have helped and inspired you?
DD: I have had wonderful poets who taught me at Binghamton University: Karen Terebessey, Paul-William Burch, Liz Rosenberg, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Joe Weil.
I admire poets like David Lehman, for whom scholarship and serious study of various poetic traditions is as important as their creative work. I particularly admire Philip Metres, Martín Espada, and Sascha Feinstein; all three of these men embody values of total empathy, committed social engagement, commendable scholarly rigor, and uncompromising artistic integrity.
I’m very grateful for my friendship with the novelist, Tom Bouman, who is one of the most honorable and intelligent men I know. I am grateful for my friendship with Nicole Santalucia, who is like a sister to me, and who introduced me to you, Nin. I am also lucky to count two talented poets and former guest bloggers at BAP as friends: Abby E. Murray and Tara Betts.
Two contemporary poets who died too young and whose work I continually reread are Jason Shinder and Joe Salerno.
Some younger contemporary poets I admire include: Patricia Colleen Murphy, Jen Levitt, Grace Bonner, and drea brown.
Recently, I’ve been reading through and loving The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.
In fiction, I love Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Borges, Twain, Kafka, and Cervantes. I have reread Don Quixote many times, and each time is better than the last.
The poets I return to again and again are the same poets I have been reading since I first fell in love with poetry at eighteen years old: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke, William Blake, Christopher Smart, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Russell Edson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Bly’s Miguel Hernandez, and various translations of Federico García Lorca.
There are so many poets I love and admire! I could go on for hours. Even when I quarrel with a poem, I feel like it is helping me in some hard-to-define sense.
NA: You also teach high school? What a gift you must be to those students! Tell me,
What is the most challenging part of teaching poetry?
DD: I try not to teach it. I try to make poetry the center of my classroom. I try to model my engagement with poetry, which is more essential than academic. I begin the school year by reciting Robert Pinsky’s “Samurai Song,” which begins: “When I had no roof/ I made audacity my roof.” On the door to my classroom, I have the Ezra Pound poem, “Commission,” which begins “Go, my songs, to the lonely and the unsatisfied.” Most of my career as a public high school teacher has been spent teaching students with learning disabilities in a general education setting. Despite the fact that many of my students are reluctant readers, I’ve been able to expose hundreds of students over the years to the work of poets as various as T.S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, Rodrigo Toscano, Eileen Myles, Wanda Coleman, Christina Rossetti, Kay Ryan, Reginald Dwayne Betts, H.D., Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rae Armantrout, Robert Lowell, and so on. And the wonderful thing about working with kids is that they meet these poets and their poems with none of the prejudices that an experienced reader might…for these kids, a poem is a poem is a poem. A poem by Natalie Diaz enters the air of the classroom with the same bona fides as the best lines of Tennyson. Many of the students I teach will go no further than community college, many will wind up working in retail, most, it’s safe to assume, will never seek out a book of poetry in their adult lives. However, in tenth grade they will have swam with me and Melville and the Maldive shark.
Last year, my wife and I were in a local clothing store and when we went up to the counter, the girl at the register was one of my former students. I hadn’t seen her since she graduated about seven years previously and, honestly, I did not remember her at all. When she saw me, however, she very excitedly rolled up her sleeves and held out her wrists to show me the words “Nothing Gold” on the left, and “Can Stay” on the right, tattooed in beautiful green and yellow cursive. Then, she thanked me for introducing her to the poem. I’d like to think of this former student’s tattoos as a metaphor for what I hope to accomplish as a teacher. You never know what few words might be carried at the wrist through much suffering, might offer a calligraphy of hope, might overwrite a racing pulse.
NA: I am always interested in titles. When did you know that this was your title?
DD: The line is adapted from a line in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. I have been in love with Paterson and WCW since I was an undergraduate in Liz Rosenberg’s advanced poetry workshop. Liz encouraged me to write my own Paterson about Binghamton, NY, my hometown. I spent years writing mostly bad poems about this place. Years later, thanks to my teachers, the New Jersey poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Joe Weil, I became acquainted with the real Paterson, New Jersey, and Williams’ work gained added nuance for me.
After my father died (he had a rare form of thyroid cancer along with bile duct cancer), I returned to Paterson. The sprawl and beauty of Williams’ failed epic gained poignancy when I read it against the profound suffering and degradation I witnessed firsthand as I took care of my father throughout his final illness. Poetry at its finest affirms the dignity of human life, a dignity which fountains through even the worst degradation and the most profound suffering.
NA: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this book?
Just that this book chronicles my enthusiasms and loves. In addition to poems about my family and my hometown, there are poems about my heroes: Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Don Cherry, Professor Longhair, Muddy Waters, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Mississippi John Hurt, and Junior Kimbrough.
I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and the book includes many poems that explore issues related to faith (in the Kierkegaardian sense—as a process of infinite becoming).
The book also explores the limits and backwaters of American empire.
I try to write from what the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh called the parochial perspective. The provincial poet, Kavanagh argues, “does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis—towards which his eyes are turned—has to say on the subject.” The parochial poet, on the other hand, never doubts the artistic and social validity inherent in his home turf. My home turf is as much the music and art that I love as it is upstate New York, my family, and my Catholicism.
For all the flaws in this first book, I’m proud of it. If there is anything good in it, the merit belongs to the excellent teachers that I have had over the years and to the people whom I love, especially to my wife, Christina.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.
by Carolilna Ebeid
Owing to the general scarcity
of books in the post-Soviet city,
this particular population of library
dwellers, which included the intellectuals,
playwrights, poets, homosexuals,
would pass the same borrowed copy
of the novel among them, the hardback
becoming a familiar / familial
object, they would mark words
with imperative asterisks, underscore
whole paragraphs, each reader insinuating
himself & herself in the coordinates of here
& here in faintest graphite, creasing
the corners of pages where one,
anyone of them, should return.
For this week of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d say a few words of thanks to David and Stacey Lehman for all they do for poets and poetry--and especially for this blog. Like so many poets, I love stopping by here, and I am so grateful to Stacey for keeping it going through good and difficult times.
I also wanted to thank David for his many books and anthologies. Today, as on many days, I’ve been flipping through his Oxford Book of American Poetry—an all-time favorite of mine.
Now, let me first confess (a bit sheepishly) that I am not a natural fan of anthologies. I especially don’t care for the thin-paged Norton’s that make me feel as if I am in a chilly and distant room full of discordant strangers who have little to say to another and even less to me. (I tend to think that there’s something about the nature of poets, both on the page and in the body, that likes to be seen as the one and only.) But Lehman’s Oxford anthology breaks that distance down, first with its wonderful selection of poems (so I know immediately I am in good company), and second, by its informative and fun introductions to each poet. I particularly love thinking about how and why poets write--comparing and contrasting their visions.
About A. R. Ammons, Lehman points out that “he writes in the American idiom, switches rapidly from low to high diction, and in one mood may remind his readers that “magnificent” in North Carolina comes out ‘Maggie-went-a-fishing.’ But his sly wit does not obscure the visionary nature of his poetry, the aim to affirm the magnificence of creation, however lowly in appearance and dark in design. Asked what moved him to write poetry, Ammons commented ‘anxiety.’”
Charles Simic, on the other hand, wrote once that “Awe is my religion, and mystery is my church.” And he compared poets to six-legged dogs.
Berryman, not surprisingly had a less amusing idea of the life of the poet. Lehman quotes him saying that the “artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”
Sharon Olds commented that it was easier to write poetry than not to write poetry. And Jean Garrigue “described her work as a ‘dialogue of self with soul, the quarrel of self with world.’”
And I love this excerpt from the introduction to Robert Creeley:
“Hall observes that if you took a sentence from a late Henry James novel like The Ambassadors and arranged it in two-word lines, you would ‘have a Creeely poem worrying out its self-consciousness.’ Creeley seems often to substitute speech rhythms for imagery as the engine of the poem.”
I could keep going, but I think every poet should own her own copy of this anthology. I cannot imagine how long it must have taken to select the poems for this book and write all these wonderful introductions. But as a result, the book promises its readers as many hours of pleasure.
Host Dan Crane tells the story of two strangers in the night, a bag full of cash, and a ship full of weapons bound for the fledgling state of Israel, in this special episode dedicated to Frank Sinatra’s Jewish activism. Guests: Anthony Summers, David Lehman, Shalom Goldman, Paul Karolyi, and Tony Michaels.
Frome the Archives (November 8, 2012):
About a year ago, the Chicago based theater artist Erica Barnes approached David Lehman for permission to adapt his poem "Mythologies" for the stage as a dance performance piece. According to Erica, she was in the midst of a somewhat fallow period when on a whim she visited the Poetry Foundation website, clicked on the "Poem of the Day" and "fell in love." David's sequence of thirty sonnets "Mythologies," first published in the Paris Review issue 106 (1988) and awarded the Bernard F. Connors prize, was the Foundation's featured poem. Erica has this to say about David's poem:
We need new myths. Our old heroes are too unattainable, too perfect, too… heroic. David Lehman’s poem ‘Mythologies’ tells the story of a man struggling to construct new myths in the wake of the disintegration of his expectations. Blending the language of poetry with the ritual of theatre, ‘Mythologies’ searches for the answer to the age-old question -- what is it to be human?
David granted permission and over the next several months Erica dispatched periodic updates of her work- in-progress. She secured funding, hired a full cast and crew, found performance space, and held rehearsals. On November 1, "Mythologies" opened at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater in Chicago. "It was a success," writes Erica, and her excitement is palpable. She sends along this preview video, which makes us wish we could put the production on the road:
Erica promises to send more photos of the performance, which we will share here. Meanwhile, you can find out more about "Mythologies" in Chicago by visiting the dedicated website. You will find Erica's interview with David here.
"Mythologies" will be included in David Lehman's forthcoming New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013).
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)
This post first appeared on Thanksgiving 2011
Hysterical Literature is a video art series by NYC-based photographer and filmmaker Clayton Cubitt. It explores feminism, mind/body dualism, distraction portraiture, and the contrast between culture and sexuality. Each video features a woman sitting at a table reading aloud from a book of her choosing. However, under the table, there is an unseen person equipped with a vibrator who is assigned to distract the reader as she reads.(These are really fun to watch.) --sdh
From Marne: "For my appearance in Hysterical Literature I chose to read “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, the long form poem by John Ashbery, which is not sexy per se, but is aesthetically “hot” to me in its many layers of perception on vision, art, self-portraiture, reflection, abstract poetry, time and space. It is a gorgeous text that requires considerable focus and a love of deconstructed, yet lyrical words.The poem refers to the 16th century painter Francesco Parmigianino’s painting "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," and is also the title of Ashbery’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of poems. John Ashbery has a long history of involvement with the arts; he was an arts writer and collaborated with many artists. Ashbery said "I have perhaps been more influenced by modern painting and music than by poetry." It seemed right as rain to me, to read a poem about a painting of an artist’s self-portrait, read by an artist who makes artist portraits and self-portraits in mirrors, while having an orgasm!"
"Thank you John Ashbery and thank you Clayton Cubitt for an interesting addition of my life cycle, to the stars and back again…"
Find more Hysterical Literature here.
"…he was booking out in all these tank towns, playing the rotary clubs, the Kiwanis clubs, and the American Legion hall, and he just wasn't making it, but he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows and all these oranges…"
—Charles Mingus “The Clown” (as improvised and performed by Jean Shepherd)
Joe Weil’s latest poetry collection, A Night in Duluth, owes as much to Charles Mingus, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, Bert Williams, and the Sermon on the Mount, as it does to the many poetic traditions it evokes and overturns (Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams & Modernism, Charles Olson & Objectivism, Frank O’Hara & the New York School, Robert Lowell & Confessionalism, and so on). Weil is a poet in the tradition of Coyote from Native American folklore; his best poems provoke, capsize, unsettle, and upend, even as they keen, rejoice, rage, pray, and elevate. Each poem in A Night in Duluth functions as a miniature vaudeville stage, and like any good vaudeville show, each poem contains a variety of cultural spectacles which can be perceived from a variety of critical vantage points; Weil ranges from the sacred to the profane, from the working class to the neoliberal, from the puritanical to the licentious, from shtick to profundity. The watchword for Weil’s poetry, as it was for any vaudeville act, is variety. From the motley, from the variegated, and from the broken, Weil assembles a space in which he might examine issues of American identity. It is within this true swing state—as Weil shifts between registers, syntaxes, idioms, and dictions—where issues of diversity, tolerance, democracy, and the worth of the individual might be articulated, challenged, erased, elided, and, finally, partially, understood.
A Night in Duluth reads as a fractal narrative (as if Samuel Beckett had worked in a factory for twenty years, then sat in an easy chair watching Horse Feathers on an infinite loop, and recorded his thoughts with a golf course pencil in verse on the back of a Sears and Roebuck parlor guitar), each poem built upon digressions and unfolding in a string of gags, non sequiturs, and associational leaps, not unlike a comic routine. Weil’s poem, “Things I Hate,” provides a good example of how meaning skitters and scuttles into being throughout the collection. The first half of the poem reads:
Hate being busy
hate others going on and on about being busy
hate the business of being busy
hate how people in America are even busy
Hate the schedules of reflection.
Hate the fucking schedules
hate the lists, the doing of this
and the undoing of that
hate that I can’t lick the freckle from my nose
and swallow it and turn into a field of wild mushrooms
hate that no one ever gives me a big waxy turnip
and says, “Here pal, here’s a big
Hate that all the good surprises
in my life lie behind me like so many
run over squirrels—their fluffy tails
combed by the wind, crushed by
an 18 wheeler driven by an asthmatic who
has a pair of lucky sunglasses
(which he just lost)
hate that some positive thinker might
stand in the middle of this poem and say:
“How do you know all the good surprises
in your life lie behind you?”
This fractal lyric embodies the strategies and preoccupations of Weil’s work as a whole. “Things I Hate” exemplifies the incantatory momentum present everywhere in A Night in Duluth, propelled by the anaphora of ideation as much as by anaphora itself. Weil loafs and invites his soul to philosophize with a hammer, to inveigh against “the schedules of reflection” you might scroll through on Facebook and reaffirm on Twitter. Weil’s most apparent concern in “Things I Hate,” and everywhere else in this collection, is to overturn pieties, to lob a metapoetic Looney Tunes turnip into the clockwork of his own words, to perform a Duck Soup mirror dance between the Joe Weil who worked as a toolmaker and shop steward for twenty years in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the Joe Weil who works as a University professor today in upstate New York. However, Weil’s ulterior, omnipresent, and most pressing concern is to articulate his vision of a Eucharistic reality in which the lowly, the unsought, the downtrodden, and the wrecked are uplifted in the hard-fought duende and earned communion of poetry.
For all of the searing and diffuse cultural critiques found in A Night in Duluth, the collection reveals itself constantly in its deep intimacy and vulnerability. Time and again throughout the book, poems slough off their glossolalia, and shed any ironic (or conventional, or sophisticated) conception of “voice,” as Weil steps forth. Weil writes as a father and husband, confronting mortality, attempting to explain himself, his love, and his existence, to his wife and to his young children. As Weil notes in “Farewell (Again)”:
I came into the world to be—
to be slaughtered, but I forgot
to be childless, to be expendable.
I write this poem so that my children
will understand. I loved them. It
is nothing incredible. It is
a bowl of sugar encircled by bees
in a diner where the food
may not have been very good, and the service
stank. I spent my life in such places.
These are the insights of a man who has pursued his enthusiasms through an odyssey of dead end jobs and nightshifts, who fell in love with poetry because he was already in love with the world, who wants only to tell the sky that it has been handcuffed to a rose, and who announces in every line: “Yes, I am an origin of lilac.” These are also the insights of a perpetual outsider, a man who knows, as the poet Joe Salerno did, that “poetry is the art of not succeeding.”
Notwithstanding his insights as an outsider, Weil is a consummate showman, for whom a virtuoso performance might equally come either from reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich or from contemplating a line of bad poetry written by an undergraduate student. Weil, the showman, understands, along with P.T. Barnum, that the foundation of all American show business is the practical joke. The hunger for the implausible—the charm in “charms,” the romance of the unreal—drives us to the sideshow. As our convictions break apart like Pangea, Weil encourages us to dial the light and to see beyond the pixel, to gather paradise in arnica, eyebright, ragweed, and the Queen Anne ’s lace bouquet of unromantic daily love. In “Fire Birds” Weil warns:
Soon they will come for
me with peace cleavers
and serenity axes
their yoga pants outlawed
They will say, “You’re not
They will cut my throat
Here, Weil places in dialogue the avatars of white middle class liberalism with the fascism of the far right. In a culture where “everyone wants something new,” and no one can agree on the facts, Weil embraces old umbers and magentas the color of rain water; he argues for the sound of gas from a burner flicking on in a memory of a place you once called home. A Night in Duluth is full of such simple pleasures, and, as William Carlos Williams was fond of remarking at poetry readings: “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t poetry.” With Joe Weil, it’s always a pleasure and it’s always poetry.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.
On May 2, 2013, CNN proleptically ran a news segment in which Henry Kissinger advised Hillary Clinton on the life she may expect to lead after serving as secretary of state. It is an amusing piece not only because of the jokes he and she made but also because of a book published almost secretly in 1974 entitled President Kissinger, a satirical piece of political fiction that I found riveting atthe time. Somehow the poet Andrei Codrescu got hold of some advance copies of the book, in mass-market paperback form, and he gave me two of them.
As I recall the plot, a constutional amendment makes it possible for Kissinger -- born in Germany and therefore ineligible to become president -- to overcome the rule that eliminating foreign-born citiens fom pursung the White House. Teddy Kennedy is Kissinger's vice-president, in charge of domestic affairs, and Kissinger ends up as President of the World, certified as such by the UN General Assembly. The writing of the book is quite ordinary and it depends for its effects entirely on a scenaro that seemed far-fetched but oddly in line with where the nation was in August 1974, the month Richard Nixon resigned as president. I pitched a piece on the book and even interviewed its publisher, Maurice Girodias, but New York magazine, which wanted me to write for them, nixed the idea because of Girodias's chequered career as a sensationalist. It is a pity because as a publishing stunt -- though by no neas as an artistic achievement and as a vision of political paranoia President Kissinger was effective in the way of Oliver Stones's brilliant Oliver Stones's JFK, though nowhere near the artisic success that Stone achieved in the film. -- DL
<<< Washington (CNN) – Former Secy. of State Henry Kissinger gave a very public nod Wednesday night to a 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign – saying that secretaries of state have a good track record of moving into the highest office in the land.
“At least four secretaries of state became president,” the foreign-born Kissinger joked during remarks at the annual Atlantic Council awards dinner in Washington. “And that sort of started focusing my mind even though there was a constitutional provision that prevented me from doing it. I thought up all kinds of schemes to get around that.”
Then, adopting a more serious tone, he continued. “I want to tell Hillary that when she misses the office, when she looks at the histories of secretaries of state, there might be hope for a fulfilling life afterwards.”
Kissinger, himself a former secretary of state, was presenting Clinton with a Distinguished Leadership Award.
for more, inckuding Clinton's response, click here
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.
Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.
Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.
Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
I shall buy a silver boat.
I shall be its captain.
It shall be a bark and I upon its poop. At the helm,
Commander of the ocean’s broad rage.
Commander of the fury of the waves.
My silver bark shall skip, jump, cannon, fly.
For I shall pass over eagles under Yahweh’s restless eye,
For I shall steer above the dizzying globe.
For I shall spin the wheel,
This way, then that.
Cracking, snapping, billowing sails shall carry me beyond.
And breathless, above,
Over the world’s worsening wickedness.
For, as I buy,
no snaggle-tooth shoemaker shall have dominion over me,
For, as I command,
no seller of hats nor haberdasher shall have dominion over me,
For, as I steer,
no fire-breathing philosopher nor rabbi shall have dominion over me.
I, I, I am deathless;
I shall have no name to be forgotten nor recalled.
I stopped and turned back with a smile. “Gimme a shot. What are you looking for?”
"We’re trying to find some beer” one said, giving the store the evil eye, “but we don’t know this ‘hood.” They were very appreciative when I told them about a package store a couple blocks away.
“So, are you a college professor?” the other asked. I told him no, but I’m a writer and poet and teach part time. “A poet, huh”? he said, then took a breath, straightened up and let loose with the following, without hitch or hesitation:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.'
His friend and I listened in amazement, and he finished with a grin. “Didn’t expect that, didja?”
No, I didn’t. He breathed life into the cliché, “Never judge a book by its cover.” And he reminded me once again that no matter how bleak the world might look sometimes, there are wonders all around if we just stop, look, and listen…
Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. He is author of "Spin Cycles," a novella published by Gemma Media and is included in "Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers Searching for the Muse," published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. “Peach Pie,” A short film by Roberto Mighty based on his poem “Fortress” was featured in the 2016 Los Angeles Short Film Festival. He was selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2013,” is a Fellow at Boston’s St. Botolph Club, a Boston institution that supports the arts and humanities, and is a 2016/17 Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston.
Forgive the political nature of this comic--I like to think of this blog as a sacred space where we all breathe more easily. But all week I have been thinking of this Edward Lear poem. And how as a girl, whenever my mother read it, I would complain that you can't possibly go to sea in a sieve--
to which she answered:
Why, there's nothing to worry about! Because you can always sleep in a crockery-jar with your feet wrapped in pinky paper, all folded neat, and fastened with a pin.
I think that's my favorite stanza of the poem:
The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
King David was Leonard Cohen’s most influential artistic ancestor. As the supposed author of the Book of Psalms, David wrote poetry that was meant to be sung. And not just any poetry, but poetry that commingled two sorts of deep longing, one for women and one for God. Leonard Cohen saw King David as the first and most important model of what he wanted to do. Leonard Cohen, that is, is best understood as a psalmist.
It is no wonder then that Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah,” begins with David playing his secret chord to God. David’s is a Biblical story of lust leading the King (in the Bible, though not in the song) to arrange for the death of the husband of the woman he desires. Cohen’s song combines a praise of God with very explicit sexual references.
If we think of Cohen as a psalmist like David, we can understand his focus on both the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the sexual, in his songs. And we also understand the impetus to get the words exactly right. Cohen reportedly sometimes took years to get every word and phrase the way he wanted it. As a psalmist, he was writing for and to God and so offhand efforts were blasphemous. (There were also practical reasons for such precision: he was proud of his language and he knew he would have to sing the song for a long while and wanted to feel it was the best he could do).
The practical side of him was important. Cohen was no fool. He worked and wanted success in an industry feeding on an audience’s endless hunger for songs about desire, true love, romantic longing, and painful loss. It made no sense to isolate questions of spirituality. His songs use the spiritual as a flavoring, but the focus, for the audience at least, was most frequently on the romantic. He kept his own spiritual experiences and beliefs private.
And yet the spiritual resources he drew upon for his songs were plentiful. He found in Jewish, Christian, Sufi, and Buddhist traditions, among others, an enriching way of understanding a path to embracing the transcendent. It should be emphasized that Cohen didn’t shed one religion for another. Even as he stayed in a Rinzai Zen monastery, he continued to identify as a Jew.
He was a Jew who tried on different spiritual garments. He drew from a variety of different Jewish sources. Some songs, such as “The Story of Isaac,” come from the Bible. Some songs come from Jewish liturgy. “Who By Fire” is adapted from Unetanneh Tokef, the central prayer of the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Dance Me to the End of Love” was inspired by a story Cohen read about involving Jewish concentration camp inmates who continued to play music despite the horrors of their lives. Cohen wrote “Lover, Lover, Lover” (also known as “Lover Come Back to Me”) when he performed for Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. After that war, Cohen said, “I’ve never disguised the fact that I’m Jewish, and in any crisis in Israel I would be there. I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.”
He absorbed a desperation from Jewish history, but a hope as well, a belief, as he put it, that there was a crack even in despair and in that crack some light could enter. He wrote until the end. His last album, only the fourteenth of his career, was titled “You Want it Darker.” It was an album of resignation in both senses of the word. He was ready to resign from life, but he was resigned to his fate. “Hineni” [in English "here I am"] he calls out to God. He announces his readiness to meet the Almighty.
The Bible records 150 psalms by King David. And now we have Leonard Cohen’s psalms in the Tower of Song. Both sets of psalms bring us peace, beauty, a sense that we will survive through the pain, and that we can, if we wish, hear the still, small voice of God.
Born yesterday, November 11, 1821, in Moscow, Fyodor Dostoyevski was haunted all his life by an overwhelming burden of sin, its temporary relief, and its hyperbolic return in the catastrophic sequence of events that led to the second World War. He suspected that the evil that men do lives after them while their good is oft interred with their bones. There was no remedy other than a centralized government within which the church was universally respected. "Only God can save us now," he said when he saw rioters in the streets and foresaw the Russian Revolution and the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, which amounted to ruthless totalitarianism comparable to that of the Nazis.
On the basis of his novels, The Brothers Karamaziov and Crime and Punishment in particular, it is possible to mount the argument that the great writer knew in his bones that on his birthday ninety-seven years later, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year, the War to End All Wars would end -- with the seeds of a new global conflagration already planted.
Asked to provide a head note on the great writer for a new edition of the Astrological Dictionary of Artistic Greatness, Walter Lehmann wrote:
<<< Dostoyesvki suffered from epilelptic fits (see The Idiot) but did well in his examinations though he loathed mathematics. On April 23, 1849, the twenty-seven-year-old Dostoyevski was arrested for belonging to a group of crazy liberal loudmouth intellectuals. He was sent to Siberia, was sentenced to be executed, and faced a firing squad in the freezing rain. But it turned out to be a mock execution and Dostoyevski went back to his cell the shape and size of a coffin convinced that it is better and wiser to be a saintly fool in Siberia than to pimp in St. Petersburg. Released in 1854, he wrote Crime and Punishment in a hurry because he needed the money to cover his gambling debts. He was a compulsive gambler. Confronted by Sartre on the matter of his anti-Semitism, he reminded the other that he was not alone in this particular vice, naming Ezra Pound and Edgar Degas as similarly stupid on the subject of Jews.
From analyzing Dostoevski's astrological profile, you can safely arrive at several conclusions. His favorite songs would have been “I Fall in Love Too Easily” (Sinatra version, late 1940s) and “He's a Rebel” (from the early 1960s). The prophetic nature of his writings, including The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground, doom him to be a Cassandra without honor in his native land. He believed that his novels constituted irrefutable proof that politics implies either madness or betrayal or both; that the sensual man can win absolution while the intellectual who has demolished god will face eternity alone; and that a beggar woman in the street with her children can out-argue all the philosophers and police inspectors in Saint Petersburg. Much of what he wrote was difficult for the Russian people to accept. Yet his fame eclipses that of all other Russian authors with one exception. His chart predicts him to die in his sixtieth year, and this indeed he did on February 9, 1881.
Dostoyevski's birth pattern -- a full house, with only one empty chamber -- is replicated exactly on the second day of August 1914. Had this fact been understood correctly, World War I might have been averted. The celestial mechanics of Saturn, Neptune, and Pluto intimate that Dostoyevski would die on the same day as the end of the war, and indeed, the armistice was signed on the novelist's ninety-seventh birthday. The sweet release would have come more than four years earlier if in the prison of his days the free man had learned to praise. The German minister smoked a Turkish cigarette in a jade holder. "Nothing ever happens in Brussels," he shrugged.
On November 11, 1918 – Dusty’s birthday – in graveyards in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, in Latvia and Estonia, school children in tatters stood shouting, "Hooray for Karamazov!"
A few years ago I wrote a piece for The American Scholar employing the Raymond Roussel method of composition that obliges the author to commence with one word or phrase and end with a meaning derived from a homonym of the initial word or phrase. Noir became No R. Here's how:
Kaminsky got on the noir bandwagon early on.
At Wesleyan he majored in French, spent his junior year in Paris, went to the Cinémathèque Française at the Palais de Chaillot, and watched American movies with French subtitles as a way to learn the language. Many of the films were classic noir efforts of the 1940s and early ’50s. He saw Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall, and The Killing with Sterling Hayden organizing a racetrack heist, and The Lady from Shanghai with Anita Ellis’s voice coming out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth singing “Please Don’t Kiss Me” and meaning the exact opposite, and Pickup on South Street with Richard Widmark as an experienced pickpocket who lifts a woman’s wallet in the subway and the wallet happens to have strips of microfilm that the Communists crave, and Widmark lives on a houseboat under the Brooklyn Bridge and Thelma Ritter gets offed and Jean Peters gets beaten up like you wouldn’t believe, and Cry Danger and The Woman in the Window and Laura and The Asphalt Jungle and the dozens of other notable movies that feature fatal females, mixed-up males with mixed motives, robberies and insurance scams that go wrong, greed that turns lusty, lust that turns deadly.
The dialogue is snappy, witty in the hard-boiled manner. Even cabdrivers crack wise. The fare is a private eye, and the cabbie says sympathetically, “Tough racket.” “Maybe so,” the dick replies, “but cabdrivers don’t live forever.” “Maybe not,” the cabbie concedes. “All the same it’ll come as a surprise to me if I don’t.” In another part of town, Ann Sheridan of the magnificent mane kills a burglar in self-defense, or so she claims. The dame-in-distress sobs to the police: “I’ve told you all I know.” Husband Zachary Scott of the mustachioed sneer knits his brows, but can’t help looking bitchy: “There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of.” Both are lying. But the true noir note is sounded by Eve Arden as Paula, a secondary character, officiating at a party for the suspects, witnesses, and extras. When she has everyone’s attention, she admits to having committed a crime against society some years ago. I “married a man,” she announces. Later the busty broad deadpans that “practically everything” she has is real. “It’s a shame to waste two perfectly good mouths on you,” she remarks when a pair of gossiping girlfriends get on her nerves. Later, still: “Don’t show me out, I know the way. I always look for an exit in case of a raid.”
“Some things that happen for the first time / seem to be happening again”: Lorenz Hart’s definition of déjà vu (from his lyric for “Where or When”) applies with a vengeance to noir. Accidents seem predetermined; events occur as if repetitions of themselves. The gang leader has a heart-to-heart with his dead Ma in the back yard after dark, and the brains of the operation feeds nickels into the jukebox so he can watch a nubile girl jitterbug with a boy her own age. Exhibitionists in gaudy undergarments perform for laid-up photographers across the courtyard. The surgeon with a cigarette dangling from his lips gives the escaped con a new face, and if there’s a knock on the door, the chances are that a man with a gun will enter the room and shoot first, ask questions later. What do you want me to do, count to three like they do in the movies?
A thug throws a pot of hot coffee at a moll’s face or, giggling, rolls an old lady’s wheelchair down a flight of stairs and the wrong man is arrested. The prizefighter refuses to throw the bout and gets beaten in the alley. There's a scheme to do away with one angle of the triangular three, sit pretty, and collect the insurance. bit it doesn't quite work out as planned. The pampered invalid has a panic attack, picks up the phone, and dials the emergency number she has been given. A voice answers, “City Morgue.” The dead return to life. A beautiful murder victim walks into her own living room wondering what the hell the gumshoe asleep in an armchair is doing there. A small-town notary goes to San Francisco, has a drink, feels funny, and spends the next week—that is, the rest of his life—trying to solve the mystery of his own murder before he expires of a slow-working poison. In one scene at a club, a girl singer does a swinging version of “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.” We go to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Reno, Mexico, the state penitentiary, a lost highway or two, but for some reason we keep returning to San Francisco. There is also a valise stuffed with $20 bills, a crooked cop, a cuckolded husband, a pair of lethal scissors on the desk, a sensitive black man played by James Edwards, a stick-up in the parking lot, a confusing plot, a lot of rain, and a lot of cigarettes.
It was an easy genre to like. The French were crazy about it.
But that's just the noir portion. How do we get from here to "no R"?
Click here to find out.
From "No R" by David Lehman in The American Scholar. Click here for the rest of the piece. [Originally posted 2015.]
I was searching through my electronic calendar to see what was coming up on my personal agenda. Without my asking, it reminded me that November 13th has been proclaimed a Day of Mourning – a year to the day since some crazy bastards hopped up on religion and righteousness massacred more than 200, mostly young, people as they ate and drank, danced, chatted and flirted.
My concerns were more immediate than thinking about the moribund past. The past? The inconsequential past is what Today’s Winners say it is. Yes?
Anyhow, Karine and I like the romantic singer song-writer sweet-voiced Katie Melua. Last Spring, I saw she was coming to town in November and, acting on a newly-acquired principle of “acting now is always right action,” bought tickets.
What could possibly go wrong with such long-term planning of a little handholding to songs like “Just like heaven” and “Thank you, Stars” at the gorgeous, famous Olympia concert hall in downtown Paris?
But needs must sometimes; I had forgotten to mention it to Karine until a week before the day, only to discover she was out of town – tickets bought, arrangements made, paying customers waiting.
Since I can barely survive being alone the time of a single night’s sleep and I’d rather lose the money than go to the trouble of re-selling a paid-for ticket, I had to hunt for somebody free to come and who likes mushy music.
At four days and counting, no takers; I’d even asked a nodding acquaintance from the gym!
At this point, Fifi, Karine’s frangine, as they say, naturally came to mind. ‘Though her cultural tastes run to the Velvet Underground, Goth, Heavy Metal and Frida Kahlo, she’s very easily imposed upon.
I called and left a self-pitying message outlining the service she could render, not neglecting to point out how much better something always is when done with a pretty woman.
Mourning? Remembrance of a massacre?
Remembering, let alone talking or writing about the substantial marrow of the November 13th serial mass murders in Paris makes me feel powerlessly angry: I am quite sure that such anger somehow puts me in the power of the murderers and their handlers.
That can’t be good and must be bad for the heart in all senses.
I have no idea of writing about murder or remembering murderers.
I will say, though, that, apart from stirring fear & hatred and anger & cloudy, blood-eyed thoughts, the enduring evil of murder, political or personal, is the un-mendable hole it tears out of the tapestry of daily life: the instrument maker known only by sight, the shy young woman once permanently, silently, perched at the far end of the bar, the roller-skating companion, the nodding-acquaintance, Myriam's neighbor's cousin’s brother-in-law’s sister, their former neighbors...
Gustavo Barrera Calderón.
As many of us process the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election with anger and sadness, I hope that Gustavo Barrera Calderón's words might be a small source of light and strength. When I read his response for the first time yesterday, I was deeply moved and heartened by the grace and fortitude of this man who spent his entire childhood living under Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. (His poetry is remarkable, too.)
The text in Spanish is posted below. Thanks for being with me this week. I wish you well--
Gustavo Barrera Calderón (Santiago de Chile, 1975) has published eight books of poems, and received fellowship support from the Neruda Foundation, among others. I am currently translating his 2010 verse novel, Cuerpo perforado es una casa [Punctured Body Is a Home], which I first encountered while visiting Santiago in 2014, when I was struck by the direct, unadorned beauty of his poems, the way the seemingly straightforward language of Calderón's lines reveal much deeper emotional, familial, and political complexities. Excerpts from his book in my translation have been published in Issue 13 of SAND, and are forthcoming in the Issue 26 of Two Lines. This week we exchanged emails to discuss identity and the process of generating poetic material.
KH: You've mentioned to me before that, while working with Gabriela Mistral's manuscripts in the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, you came across many letters from the Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz to Gabriela, which always began with “Cara Poetisa,” “Dear Poetess.” Although the poems in Punctured Body stand on their own, the book reads as a verse novel as well, since the arc of what's recounted is as important as the individual poems. There's also an epistolary quality to the book, written as it is in conversation with Dulce María's Jardín, that lends it an intimate, tender tone, as though the reader were listening in on a private exchange. You even lifted a handful of lines from her book as a way structuring your own. Could you tell us a bit more about how Punctured Body […] grew out of your engagement with Dulce María's voice, and how you arrived at the poetic voice of your book?
GBC: As you say, I became familiar with Dulce María’s work thanks to her letters to Gabriela Mistral. I found the formalities and way in which she began her correspondence amusing: ‘Cara poetisa’ is already a dated expression, the word cara having been supplanted by querida or ‘estimada’; and ‘poetisa’—in Chile, at least—fell out of use at the request of female poets in the 1980s, who considered it a pejorative term. They felt that the word ‘poeta,’ ‘poet,’ should apply equally to both men and women, because language—especially in Spanish, which assigns all nouns a gender—is where discrimination and omissions originate (collective plurals in Spanish are all masculine—for example the word ‘children,’ ‘niños,’ refers to both niños and niñas). In my writing, I look to neutral forms, as I’m interested in having the text remain situated in an ambiguous, indeterminate territory that allows for multiple meanings. This is also my approach to literary genres: my poetry traverses the narrative and my prose the lyric, in many of my texts characters appear and begin to speak, and there are even descriptions of dramatic scenes; it could be called, perhaps, a literary trans-genre.
Returning to the connection with Dulce María Loynaz, I was stunned by her novel Jardín (Garden) and her poem “Últimos días de una casa” (“A home’s last days”). I’ve always been interested in the relationship between bodies and spaces, of lives lived in spaces, and earned a degree in architecture motivated by this interest. In both texts by Loynaz, the passing of time and the spatial dimensions of a crumbling, dilapidated historic building left me with a kind of epiphany about the echoes or resonances that I had with my own experience, especially with my childhood. The first house I lived in, until I was nine years old, was a palatial neoclassical building with marble floors located right in the middle of El Golf district, which was one of the most expensive districts in Santiago and next to a golf club. The house was only about three hundred meters from Augusto Pinochet’s home, and a few years earlier it had been the ambassador to the Soviet Union’s residence. When the military coup happened, the house was under the protection of the Indian Embassy, and my grandmother, who was close to the Russians—although they never gave me a clear explanation as to why—wound up in charge of the building's care. We were a big family, my mother, my aunt, my great-grandmother, all of us lived there, but the house was so vast that it was very difficult to come across anyone. The building was rundown but still beautiful. The first floor was empty and there were two rooms underground, part of a bunker that the Russians had left half-built. The people in the neighborhood hated us, to them we were Communists, weirdos, an affliction. I was the only child in the house, and playtime consisted of exploring these spaces: discovering objects left behind by former inhabitants, observing plants, insects, animals, mirrors, images, and scenes on TV, as well as the rain and the way the sun came in through the windowpanes.
The writing of Punctured Body is a Home happened over three days, in a flood of images that I wanted to get down simply to show myself what I'd observed, heard, and dreamt during my childhood years; to make it evident. Without issuing any judgement or commentary from my present situation or mental condition, I wanted to convey the same sense of surprise I felt when confronting these phenomena in their original state. The only subsequent intervention came precisely from the reading of Jardín unlocking this flood of images. For me, writing is always a dialogue; in this case, the dialogue became more explicit by incorporating traces of the text that acted as a catalyst for this process.
KH: Given that you're still at the National Library, I'm curious to know more about the work you do there, and whether it informs your current writing process. What are your projects at the moment, poetic or otherwise?
GBC: I’m currently working in the Writer’s Archives, which is a section of the National Library where they keep literary manuscripts, letters, and photographs of Chilean writers—Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, among them. Oftentimes, I’ll find multiple versions of the same poem, narrative or dramatic texts with marginalia, erasures, and edits, as though the texts were still in the process of being created, or letters that refer to the past in the present tense, every day is like a small trip through time. I find it hard to make sense of the contrast when I leave the National Library’s historic building, which I imagine as a kind of boat washed up on the shore of space and time, which doesn’t have any windows facing the street, only beams of indirect light and days that all seem to run together. Right now I’m working on a dramatic anthology of Joaquín Edwards Bello’s work based on his unpublished writings, many of them unfinished, written on slips of paper, and in some of the plays entire scenes are missing. My work feels like that of a pattern-cutter and seamstress. Edwards Bello is a writer I admire, primarily because he was an terrific reporter. He also wrote novels full of autobiographical elements that were fiercely critical of Chilean society, but that were, at the same time, light and funny. Besides that, I’m working on a book of poems entitled “La familia chilena es peligrosa” (“Chilean families are dangerous”), which investigates the peculiar nature of these interpersonal dynamics that I’ve lived so intensely. Unlike in other parts of the world, where each person is guided by his or her own interests and affinities, in Chile, whether out of economic necessity or because of something deeply culturally ingrained, families never separate, children never truly leave their parents’ homes, and grandparents, uncles, cousins, all sorts of relatives are deeply bound to each other physically and sociologically, which can result in unimaginable pathologies stemming from a fear of ‘what will people say,’ a fear of poverty, loneliness, or of sexual repression due to religious fears or superstitions. The impulse to write these texts arose two years ago, coinciding with the death of various people close to me: my grandmother, my grandfather, my cousin (who was like a sister to me), and two poet friends of my generation. These deaths all happened in the span of one month and in each instance, their respective families were involved or, from my point of view, they hastened these outcomes.
KH: This is a fraught question, but I'd like to know how you view identity in relationship to your work—in part because I have conflicted feelings about this topic myself. As a woman born and raised in New Orleans, I'm wary of labels such as “Southern Author” or “Woman Writer,” which can carry connotations of condescending reductionism when used within traditional power structures, as though writers marked by such labels haven't earned the right to simply be called a “writers,” full stop. In the U.S., Knausgård and Ferrante notwithstanding, books in translation are often treated similarly, as pet projects for special audiences, marked by their 'difference.' As such, part (most?) of me wants to resist such categorical distinctions and let texts, in all their complexity, speak for themselves. At the same time, my gender and geography (and ethnicity and class, for that matter) inform the place from which I write, and I certainly don't want to deny or gloss this over. Especially since, politically speaking, marking 'difference' allows us to recognize historically marginalized voices, and have conversations about the conditions precipitating their marginalization. Garth Greenwell, in embracing the label "gay writer," speaks beautifully to this (and oh how I adored his novel What Belongs to You).
Maybe it's a matter of shifting the framework, of inviting readers to see the different/universal as a false dichotomy. I wonder if the last lines of your book, addressed as they are to Dulce María, offer a possible response: “Distinguida poetisa: / Cuando yo muera, ¿usted y yo seremos una misma cosa?” “Esteemed poetess: / When I die, will you and I be one and the same?”
I've been thinking about this, too, in light of what you told me recently about your friend, the Cuban journalist Álvaro Álvarez, who is a nephew of Dulce María Loynaz and lives in Chile. Álvaro’s nephew, who is also related to Dulce María, died tragically earlier this year at only eighteen years of age in the Orlando nightclub shooting. Clearly, these issues aren't abstractions, since people who promote hatred and violence in the world based on ideological notions of 'difference' obligate us to contend with these ideas independent of how we view ourselves. All of which is to say: as a queer Chilean writer who came of age under Pinochet's dictatorship, how do you feel about labels that mark you by your nationality, sexuality, or otherwise? Do you embrace them? Resist them? Both?
GBC: It’s a difficult question; I believe that our objective as a culture is to try to move beyond labels of ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation, but I don’t think that we can arrive at that point without first making difference, and the injustice and violence that’s been perpetrated in the name of difference, visible. In Chile I think things have changed considerably in recent years. No one spoke of homosexuality during or before Pinochet’s dictatorship: for the conservative and Catholic right is was a mortal sin, and for the supposedly-revolutionary left, there was no thought given to the subject. The Left circumscribed things same as the right, though the justification was different: homosexuality was called one of many perversions of man created by the corrupting influence of capitalism. My entire childhood was spent under Pinochet’s regime; I thought he was in charge of everything: the mountains, the cities, and people. I received a military education. At school we had to line up before going to class and sing the national anthem, and it was considered more important to have your hair properly cut and shoes properly shined than it was to know about math or literature. In Spanish, which is now called Language and Communication, we had to memorize the maritime, aeronautic, police, and military hymns. Men were expected to act and look masculine and women to act and look feminine in accordance with strict codes. It was said that the way to get a fag to stop being a fag was to beat it out of him—and, if that didn’t work, to beat him to death; and that for trees born crooked you had to fix them while they were small. This was accepted at every level of society, by all adults, and teachers allowed this corrective violence to happen without stepping in to stop it. I was constantly attacked; to the point, I think, of discovering that I had a very high tolerance for pain, and that's when I stopped being afraid. I discovered, with my own body, that pain doesn’t hurt. Fear does. I think this realization came to many people who were marginalized in Chile—to women, to the indigenous peoples, and to the poor, because Chilean society is extremely classist. Repeated assault and injury only served to make us stronger. Those who didn’t die or go mad were left with a kind of armor, in possession of a strength that many people don’t have; it created a paradox of sorts: those of us who were discriminated against for being the weakest and for having delicate tastes became the strongest. Our strength lies precisely in having formed a solid identity and concept of being and belonging, which in contemporary culture is becoming increasingly widespread.
In my earliest books of poems I didn’t work from a place of gender identity because I was interested in other topics: death, mass media, spatiality and the human condition as it unfolds over space and time; how common it seems and how surprising it actually is. It was only when I wrote about love, eroticism, or my personal experience that my label appeared, imposed by others, of being a gay poet; before, I didn’t have it. I believe that art, poetry included, is a space of freedom and exploration, not a field for political battles or social recognition; these are matters that don’t exist outside of poetic creation, but aren’t its final aim.
I believe that strength, which is something worthy of striving toward, should never become hardness. It makes no sense to respond to violence with hardness, stones, or bitterness, because if we do we convert ourselves into weapons and nothing more. The key, I think, is to never lose our capacity for tenderness, for affection, delicacy, and laughter; all of our soft parts, which aren’t synonymous with weakness, but rather are human traits necessary for understanding others, for being able to communicate deeply and meaningfully, and, as in the poem you mentioned, for realizing that we already are and always have been one and the same.
Thinking about the case of my friend Álvaro and his nephew Alejandro (the one who died in the Orlando attacks), I was moved by the way in which Álvaro, for an entire week, posted different family photos of the two of them together on Facebook—singing, celebrating someone’s birthday, laughing, dancing at party, kissing a friend on the cheek—and his words made reference to conversations, trips, jokes, and meals that they’d enjoyed together. There wasn’t a single word devoted to hatred, fear, or death.
Interview responses translated from the Spanish by Kathleen Heil
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.