Coming Fall of 2015 from Sibling Rivalry Press -- The Collected & New Collaborative Work of Denise Duhamel & Maureen Seaton. Excitement!
And here are more 2015 titles from SRP, via cue cards & poet extraordinaire Ocean Vuong.
Coming Fall of 2015 from Sibling Rivalry Press -- The Collected & New Collaborative Work of Denise Duhamel & Maureen Seaton. Excitement!
And here are more 2015 titles from SRP, via cue cards & poet extraordinaire Ocean Vuong.
(Ed note: I first read this essay in 1991, when it appeared in The Nation. This essay is as relevant as ever and I'm grateful that Katha has given us permission to post it here. Katha Pollitt's "Subject to Debate" column appears every other week in The Nation. Read her BAP blog posts here. Buy her books of prose and poetry here. You can follow Katha on twitter @KathaPollitt)
For the past couple of years we've all been witness to a furious debate about the literary canon. What books should be assigned to students? What books should critics discuss? What books should the rest of us read, and who are 'we' anyway? Like everyone else, I've given these questions some thought, and when an invitation came my way, I leaped to produce my own manifesto. But to my surprise, when I sat down to write -- in order to discover, as E. M. Forster once said, what I really think -- I found that I agreed with all sides in the debate at once.
Take the conservatives. Now, this rather dour collection of scholars and diatribists -- Allan Bloom, Hilton Kramer, John Silber and so on -- are not a particularly appealing group of people. They are arrogant, they are rude, they are gloomy, they do not suffer fools gladly, and everywhere they look, fools are what they see. All good reasons not to elect them to public office, as Massachusetts voters decided when they rejected Silber's 1990 gubernatorial bid. But what is so terrible, really, about what they are saying? I, too, believe that some books are more profound, more complex, more essential to an understanding of our culture than others; I, too, am appalled to think of students graduating from college not having read Homer, Plato, Virgil, Milton, Tolstoy -- all writers, dead white Western men though they be, whose works have meant a great deal to me. As a teacher of literature and of writing, I too have seen at first hand how ill-educated many students are, and how little aware they are of this important fact about themselves. Last year I taught a graduate seminar in the writing of poetry. None of my students had read more than a smattering of poems by anyone, male or female, published more than ten years ago. Robert Lowell was as far outside their frame of reference as Alexander Pope. When I gently suggested to one student that it might benefit her to read some poetry if she planned to spend her life writing it, she told me that yes, she knew she should read more but when she encountered a really good poem it only made her depressed. That contemporary writing has a history which it profits us to know in some depth, that we ourselves were not born yesterday, seems too obvious even to argue.
But ah, say the liberals, the canon exalted by the conservatives is itself an artifact of history. Sure, some books are more rewarding than others, but why can't we change our minds about which books those are? The canon itself was not always as we know it today: Until the 1920s, Moby-Dick was shelved with the boys' adventure stories. If T. S. Eliot could single-handedly dethrone the Romantic poets in favor of the neglected Metaphysicals and place John Webster alongside Shakespeare, why can't we dip into the sea of stories and fish out Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf? And this position, too, makes a great deal of sense to me. After all, alongside the many good reasons for a book to end up on the required-reading shelf are some rather suspect reasons for its exclusion: because it was written by a woman and therefore presumed to be too slight; because it was written by a black person and therefore presumed to be too unsophisticated or to reflect too special a case. By all means, say the liberals, let's have great books and a shared culture. But let's make sure that all the different kinds of greatness are represented and that the culture we share reflects the true range of human experience.
If we leave the broadening of the canon up to the conservatives, this will never happen, because to them change only means defeat. Look at the recent fuss over the latest edition of the Great Books series published by Encyclopedia Britannica, headed by that old snake-oil salesman Mortimer Adler. Four women have now been added to the series: Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Jane Austen and George Eliot. That's nice, I suppose, but really! Jane Austen has been a certified Great Writer for a hundred years! Lionel Trilling said so! There's something truly absurd about the conservatives earnestly sitting in judgement on the illustrious dead, as though up in Writers' Heaven Jane and George and Willa and Virginia were breathlessly waiting to hear if they'd finally made it into the club, while Henry Fielding, newly dropped from the list, howls in outer darkness and the Brontes, presumably, stamp their feet in frustration and hope for better luck in twenty years, when Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights will suddenly turn out to have qualities of greatness never before detected in their pages. It's like Poets' Corner at Manhattan's Cathedral of St. John theDivine, where mortal men -- and a woman or two -- of letters actually vote on which immortals to honor with a plaque, a process no doubt complete with electoral campaigns, compromise candidates and all the rest of the underside of the literary life. 'No, I'm sorry, I just can't vote for Whitman. I'm a Washington Irving man myself.'
Well, a liberal is not a very exciting thing to be, and so we have the radicals, who attack the concepts of 'greatness', 'shared', 'culture' and 'lists'. (I'm overlooking here the ultraradicals, who attack the 'privileging' of 'texts', as they insist on calling books, and think one might as well spend one's college years deconstructing 'Leave It to Beaver'.) Who is to say, ask the radicals, what is a great book? What's so terrific about complexity, ambiguity, historical centrality and high seriousness? If The Color Purple, say, gets students thinking about their own experience, maybe they ought to read it and forget about ------, and here you can fill in the name of whatever classic work you yourself found dry and tedious and never got around to finishing. For the radicals the notion of a shared culture is a lie, because it means presenting as universally meaningful and politically neutral books that reflect the interests and experiences and values of privileged white men at the expense of those of others -- women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, the working class, whomever. Why not scrap the one-list- for-everyone idea and let people connect with books that are written by people like themselves about people like themselves? It will be a more accurate reflection of a multifaceted and conflict-ridden society, and will do wonders for everyone's self- esteem, except, of course, living white men -- but they have too much self-esteem already.
Now, I have to say that I dislike the radicals' vision intensely. How foolish to argue that Chekhov has nothing to say to a black woman -- or, for that matter, to me -- merely because he is Russian, long dead, a man. The notion that one reads to increase one's self-esteem sounds to me like more snake oil. Literature is not an aerobics class or a session at the therapist's. But then I think of myself as a child, leafing through anthologies of poetry for the names of women. I never would have admitted that I needed a role model, even if that awful term had existed back in the prehistory of which I speak, but why was I so excited to find a female name, even when, as was often the case, it was attached to a poem of no interest to me whatsoever? Anna Laetitia Barbauld, author of 'Life! I know not what thou art / But know that thou and I must part!'; Lady Anne Lindsay, writer of plaintive ballads in incomprehensible Scots dialect, and the other minor female poets included by chivalrous Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in the old Oxford Book of English Verse: I have to admit it, just by their presence in that august volume they did something for me. And although it had not much to do with reading or writing, it was an important thing they did.
Now, what are we to make of this spluttering debate, in which charges of imperialism are met by equally passionate accusations of vandalism, in which each side hates the others, and yet each one seems to have its share of reason? Perhaps what we have here is one of those debates in which the opposing sides, unbeknownst to themselves, share a myopia that will turn out to be the most telling feature of the whole discussion: a debate, for instance, like that of our Founding Fathers over the nature of the franchise. Think of all the energy and passion spent pondering the question of property qualifications or direct versus legislative elections, while all along, unmentioned and unimagined, was the fact -- to us so central -- that women, not to mention slaves, were never considered for any kind of vote.
Something is being overlooked: the state of reading, and books, and literature in our country at this time. Why, ask yourself, is everyone so hot under the collar about what to put on the required-reading shelf? It is because while we have been arguing so fiercely about which books make the best medicine, the patient has been slipping deeper and deeper into a coma.
Let us imagine a country in which reading is a popular voluntary activity. There, parents read books for their own edification and pleasure, and are seen by their children at this silent and mysterious pastime. These parents also read to their children, give them books for presents, talk to them about books and underwrite, with their taxes, a public library system that is open all day, every day. In school -- where an attractive library is invariably to be found -- the children study certain books together but also have an active reading life of their own. Years later it may even be hard for them to remember if they read Jane Eyre at home and Judy Blume in class, or the other way around. In college young people continue to be assigned certain books, but far more important are the books they discover for themselves, browsing in the library, in bookstores, on the shelves of friends, one book leading to another, back and forth in history and across languages and cultures. After graduation they continue to read, and in the fullness of time produce a new generation of readers. Oh, happy land! I wish we all lived there.
In that other country of real readers -- voluntary, active, self-determined readers -- a debate like the current one over the canon would not be taking place. Or if it did, it would be as a kind of parlor game: What books would you take to a desert island? Everyone would know that the top-ten list was merely a tiny fraction of the books one would read in a lifetime. It would not seem racist or sexist or hopelessly hidebound to put Hawthorne on the syllabus and not Toni Morrison. It would be more like putting oatmeal and not noodles on the breakfast menu -- a choice part arbitrary, part a nod to the national past, part, dare one say it, a kind of reverse affirmative action: School might frankly be the place where one read the books that are a little off-putting, that have got a little cold, that you might pass over because they do not address, in reader-friendly contemporary fashion, the issues most immediately at stake in modern life, but that, with a little study, turn out to have a great deal to say. Being on the list wouldn't mean so much. It might even add to a writer's cachet not to be on the list, to be in one way or another too heady, too daring, too exciting to be ground up into institutional fodder for teenagers. Generations of high school students have been spoiled for George Eliot by being forced to read Silas Marner at a tender age. One can imagine a whole new readership for her if grown-ups were left to approach Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda with open minds, at their leisure.
Of course, they rarely do. In America today the assumption underlying the canon debate is that the books on the list are the only books that are going to be read, and if the list is dropped no books are going to be read. Becoming a textbook is a book's only chance; all sides take that for granted. And so all agree not to mention certain things that they themselves, as highly educated people and, one assumes, devoted readers, know perfectly well. For example, that if you read only twenty-five, or fifty, or a hundred books, you can't understand them, however well chosen they are. And that if you don't have an independent reading life -- and very few students do -- you won't like reading the books on the list and will forget them the minute you finish them. And that books have, or should have, lives beyond the syllabus -- thus, the totally misguided attempt to put current literature in the classroom. How strange to think that people need professorial help to read John Updike or Alice Walker, writers people actually do read for fun. But all sides agree: If it isn't taught, it doesn't count.
Let's look at the canon question from another angle. Instead of asking what books we want others to read, let's ask why we read books ourselves. I think the canon debaters are being a little disingenuous here, are suppressing, in the interest of their own agendas, their personal experience of reading. Sure, we read to understand our American culture and history, and we also read to recover neglected masterpieces, and to learn more about the accomplishments of our subgroup and thereby, as I've admitted about myself, increase our self-esteem. But what about reading for the aesthetic pleasures of language, form, image? What about reading to learn something new, to have a vicarious adventure, to follow the workings of an interesting, if possible skewed, narrow and ill-tempered mind? What about reading for the story? For an expanded sense of sheer human variety? There are a thousand reasons why a book might have a claim on our time and attention other than its canonization. I once infuriated an acquaintance by asserting that Trollope, although in many ways a lesser writer than Dickens, possessed some wonderful qualities Dickens lacked: a more realistic view of women, a more skeptical view of good intentions, a subtler sense of humor, a drier vision of life which I myself found congenial. You'd think I'd advocated throwing Dickens out and replacing him with a toaster. Because Dickens is a certified Great Writer, and Trollope is not.
Am I saying anything different from what Randall Jarrell said in his great 1953 essay 'The Age of Criticism'? Not really, so I'll quote him. Speaking of the literary gatherings of the era, Jarrell wrote:
If, at such parties, you wanted to talk about Ulysses or The Castle or The Brothers Karamazov or The Great Gatsby or Graham Greene's last novel -- Important books -- you were at the right place. (Though you weren't so well off if you wanted to talk about Remembrance of Things Past. Important, but too long.) But if you wanted to talk about Turgenev's novelettes, or The House of the Dead, or Lavengro, or Life on the Mississippi, or The Old Wives' Tale, or The Golovlyov Family, or Cunningham-Grahame's stories, or Saint-Simon's memoirs, or Lost Illusions, or The Beggar's Opera, or Eugen Onegin, or Little Dorrit, or the Burnt Njal Saga, or Persuasion, or The Inspector-General, or Oblomov, or Peer Gynt, or Far from the Madding Crowd, or Out of Africa, or the Parallel Lives, or A Dreary Story, or Debits and Credits, or Arabia Deserta, or Elective Affinities, or Schweik, or -- any of a thousand good or interesting but Unimportant books, you couldn't expect a very ready knowledge or sympathy from most of the readers there. They had looked at the big sights, the current sights, hard, with guides and glasses; and those walks in the country, over unfrequented or thrice-familiar territory, all alone -- those walks from which most of the joy and good of reading come -- were walks that they hadn't gone on very often.
I suspect that most canon debaters have taken those solitary rambles, if only out of boredom -- how many times, after all, can you reread the Aeneid, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Cotton Comes to Harlem (to pick one book from each column)? But those walks don't count, because of another assumption all sides hold in common, which is that the purpose of reading is none of the many varied and delicious satisfactions I've mentioned; it's medicinal. The chief end of reading is to produce a desirable kind of person and a desirable kind of society. A respectful, high-minded citizen of a unified society for the conservatives, an up-to-date and flexible sort for the liberals, a subgroup-identified, robustly confident one for the radicals. How pragmatic, how moralistic, how American! The culture debaters turn out to share a secret suspicion of culture itself, as well as the antipornographer's belief that there is a simple, one-to-one correlation between books and behavior. Read the conservatives' list and produce a nation of sexists and racists -- or a nation of philosopher kings. Read the liberals list and produce a nation of spineless relativists -- or a nation of open-minded world citizens. Read the radicals' list and produce a nation of psychobabblers and ancestor-worshippers -- or a nation of stalwart proud-to-be-me pluralists.
But is there any list of a few dozen books that can have such a magical effect, for good or for ill? Of course not. It's like arguing that a perfectly nutritional breakfast cereal is enough food for the whole day. And so the canon debate is really an argument about what books to cram down the resistant throats of a resentful captive populace of students; and the trick is never to mention the fact that, in such circumstances, one book is as good, or as bad, as another. Because, as the debaters know from their own experience as readers, books are not pills that produce health when ingested in measured doses. Books do not shape character in any simple way -- if, indeed, they do so at all -- or the most literate would be the most virtuous instead of just the ordinary run of humanity with larger vocabularies. Books cannot mold a common national purpose when, in fact, people are honestly divided about what kind of country they want -- and are divided, moreover, for very good and practical reasons, as they always have been.
For these burly and strenuous purposes, books are all but useless. The way books affect us is an altogether more subtle, delicate, wayward and individual, not to say private, affair. And that reading is being made to bear such an inappropriate and simplistic burden speaks to the poverty both of culture and of frank political discussion in our time.
On his deathbed, Dr. Johnson -- once canonical, now more admired than read -- is supposed to have said to a friend who was energetically rearranging his bedclothes, 'Thank you, this will do all that a pillow can do'. One might say that the canon debaters are all asking of their handful of chosen books that it do a great deal more than any handful of books can do.
This year's nominees for a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry are Frank Bidart's "Metaphysical Dog," Lucie Brock-Broido's "Stay, Illusion," Denise Duhamel's "Blowout," Bob Hicok's "Elegy Owed" and Carmen Gimenez Smith's "Milk and Filth." Congratulations to all.
We're especially thrilled for Denise Duhamel, one of our favorite poets and the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2013. Here's what David Lehman writes about Denise in his introduction:
Denise Duhamel, who chose the poems for The Best American Poetry 2013, has appeared in the series seven times since Louise Glück and A.R. Ammons picked poems of hers in back-to-back volumes in 1993 and 1994. It would have been eight times if the editor hadn't declined to include herself: her "Ode to the Other Woman's Ass" in Ecotone (and reprinted on The Best American Poetry blog) has the traits--humor, warmth, passion, intelligence, and genuineness--that make her poems irresistible. "Exuberance is beauty," wrote William Blake. "Energy is eternal delight." Denise has as much natural exuberance as anyone practicing the art, with a seemingly unlimited amount of renewable energy. I have known and worked with Denise for many years. When a production of her play How the Sky Fell ran for four performances in an Off-Off-Broadway theater in 1997, I was in the cast. Over the years she and I have spent more than a few afternoons collaborating on a play, poems, or other projects. I knew we'd have fun working together and I suspected that she would have a large appetite for the many kinds of poetry being written at the moment. But I was not prepared for her intesity of focus. No sooner did she receive a magazine than its contents were devoured and considered for an ever-growing list of poems that elicited Denise's enthusiasm. It is always difficult making cuts, but Denise's professionalism ruled the day. In the making of one of these books the production schedule requires more than one deadline. Never before in the twenty-six years of this series did I work with an editor who managed to beat every deadline along the way.
Here's a link to Denise Duhamel's poem How it Will End, which Robert Pinsky included in The Best of the Best American Poetry (April, 2013).
And here's a link to Ode to the Other Woman's Ass.
You can buy Denise's NBCC nominated book Blowout here.
David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man is now available at Amazon as a Chu Hartley Publishers e-book. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani calls the book, "superb" and "fascinating": "It stands as a lucid and fiercely intelligent study of the disturbing implications of deconstruction, and at the same time, as an impassioned argument for a more humane study of literature."
It’s that time of the year when everything is strangely candy-cane scented and glittering with a tourniquet of lights. We are anxious with our lists, with our need to prove our thoughtfulness. We want the “perfect”, unnamable thing to fill up our loved ones hands. Inevitably, we turn to the experts who tell us what is the “best” of this past year: the best album of the year, the best gadget of the year and of course, the best books of the year. Everyone has a list, but like all things in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I’m not sure what it means to be the “Best Book of 2013”. I just know that if you ask me, I can list some great books that I’ve read over this past year. My desk is overflowing with them.
Goodreads has got a list that gets voted on by readers:
Slate.com’s list also includes a list of “Overlooked Books” and “Best Lines of 2013”, to which I say, Bravo!:
Publisher’s Weekly was only able to list 5 best books of poetry this year (let’s hope 2014 is better):
NPR put out a good list of some noteworthy books of 2013 but has placed poetry and short stories together, because they are apparently the same thing:
So, the following is what I’ve read this year that I really liked. The first list of books was published in 2013. The second list is no different as far as wow-factor, they just missed the list because of expiration dates. All of these books are interesting, unique and “perfect”. I’ve calculated that I’ve bought about 18 books of poetry over this past year and I’m hoping for at least 20 in 2014. I figure, I write it, so I should read it.
If you are looking to fill up the hands of the ones you love with something beautiful and thought-provoking, then please consider the following:
Sky Ward, Kazim Ali
Bright Power, Dark Peace, Traci Brimhall & Brynn Saito
X Marks the Dress: A Registry, Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess
Vow, Rebecca Hazelton
The Traps, Louise Mathias
Body Thesaurus, Jennifer Militello
Mezzanines, Matthew Olzmann
To See the Queen, Allison Seay
Incarnadine, Mary Szybist
Antidote, Corey Van Landingham
Small Porcelain Head, Allison Benis White
Below is a list of the poetry books I also bought/read this year—but were published prior to 2013:
The Lost Country of Sight, Neil Aitken
Fair Copy, Rebecca Hazelton
Loveliest Grotesque, Sandra Lim
Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, Erika Meitner
I Was There for Your Somniloquy, Kelli Anne Noftle
Animal Eye, Paisley Rekdal
On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, Lee Ann Roripaugh
Bellocq’s Ophelia: Poems, Natasha Trethewey
Enjoy yourself—read a poem!
The Literary Man writes:
As a counterpoint to the current glut of people blabbing about the same old novels, we would like to say a few words about David Lehman’s NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, our favorite book of poetry published in 2013.
. . .
This is excellent stuff, people. We often talk about enjoying poetry, and yet it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. How does one stay in touch with contemporary poetry? Well, start here: with these NEW AND SELECTED POEMS.
Read the complete review here.
Young writers, working mainly in deep private, even if they are in an MFA program, even if they have found their way to a coterie as some poets do, feel themselves when they are lucky to be conjuring a kind of magic, as if they were shaping liquid phospher, and then the work is done, with whatever psychic magic they've put into it and taken from it, and then what do you do? Looking at the world one of the things they'd see, have seen, is the National Poetry Series--poets reading poets in order to publish new work and keep the art fresh, keep renewing it. Not for the world at large but for those poets, the new ones or the ones with no special connection to the world of publishing, the NPS has been crucial, a flare in the dark, and it needs to be kept alive. -- Robert Hass
For each of the past 35 years, under the stewardship of Daniel Halpern, the National Poetry Series has published five books of poetry. Do the math: that's 175 books of poetry by some of our most promising poets. The winning manuscripts, solicited through an annual Open Competition, are selected by poets of national stature and published in beautiful gift-worthy volumes. The list of winners is impressive. Three NPS poets have gone to win the National Book Award: Mark Doty, Terrance Hayes, and Nathaniel Mackey. Billy Collins, an NPS winner, became Poet Laureate of the United States. Judges have included many of major contemporary poets, including Nobel Prize winners Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, and Pulitzer Prize winners Louise Gluck, Robert Hass, Stephen Dunn and Jorie Graham. Click through the thumbnails below to see the 2012 winners:
Now, for the first time, the National Poetry Series is facing a financial crisis and is asking for our help. You can read more about the Series' financial shortfall in the New York Times.
You can easily make a donation to the National Poetry Series with PayPal. Find the details on the NPS website.
Or you can mail a donation to:
National Poetry Series
57 Mountain Avenue
Princeton, NJ 08540
Consider these testimonials:
Every year I look forward to buying the five books published in the National Poetry Series. It's like having a curator who gathers again and again the most exciting and diverse collections of poetry in the country, selections that continue to represent the breadth of American poetry. Not only is it the most distinguished series, it is also the only one I know of that consistently identifies, at an early stage in their careers, the writers we are likely to be reading for a long time. -- Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United States.
By enabling five new volumes of poetry to appear annually over the past 35 years, the National Poetry Series has radically changed the face of American poetry. A number of poets who are now among our best-known first appeared there as beginners, and might never have been heard from were it not for the publication opportunity the Series offers. It's vital to our literary health as a nation that the work continue. - John Ashbery
How do today's poets, especially lesser-known ones, find an audience? How are readers, or would-be readers, introduced to new poets? Efforts to make this connection come alive deserve our gratitude and support, and the National Poetry Series is one of the most successful and long-lived. If you’re familiar with it, you know the quality and quantity of books it’s brought before the public. If you’re not, take a look at the list of works and poets (not to mention those who’ve served as judges) – and decide for yourself. - Jeffrey Brown, PBS News Hour
We hope you will help keep this necessary series in mind when you make your holiday donations to worthy institutions.
Denise Duhamel picked Kim Addonizio's Divine for The Best American Poetry 2013. On composing Divine, Addonizio writes:
“My brother once commented, ‘Now I get how writers work. You’re magpies.’ Which we both understood to mean: Writers scavenge from wherever they can. In the case of ‘Divine,’ I scavenged from Dante, Plato, the Bible, fairy tales, old vampire movies, whoever said ‘Only trouble is interesting’ is the first rule of fiction, early Christian flagellants, a trip to Australia where I saw bats in a botanical garden, and my then-present emotional state. Which was, essentially: There’s no place like hell for the holidays. When I Googled ‘magpies’ for this statement, I discovered they possess a few more writerly traits: They are clever and often despised, little poètes maudits. The Chinese considered them messengers of joy, but the Scots thought they carried a drop of Satan’s blood under their tongues. They are fond of bright objects. And then this: When confronted with their image in a mirror, they recognize themselves.”
Read Divine in the Best American Poetry 2013.
Guest editor Denise Duhamel picked Nathan Anderson's Stupid Sandwich for the Best American Poetry 2013. Of Stupid Sandwich, Anderson writes:
“This poem started when a few lines (a shadowy echo of what would become the speaker’s voice) surfaced while I was working on another project. As the speaker’s voice developed and the context began to take shape, I became interested in how this particular speaker responds and, more broadly, how all of us respond, when the daily pressures of a life become seemingly unmanageable.”
Read Stupid Sandwich in the Best American Poetry 2013.
Denise Duhamel picked Sherman Alexie's "Pachyderm" for The Best American Poetry 2013. On composing "Pachyderm" Alexie writes:
“Lying in a university town hotel, unable to sleep, I watched a National Geographic documentary about elephants. There was a scene if a mother elephant coming upon a dead elephant’s bones. The mother elephant carefully touched the bones with her trunk. She seemed to be mourning the loss of another elephant.. It was devastating. Then, a few days later, I watched a CNN story about an Iraqi War veteran who’d lost both of his legs to an impro0vised explosive device. He was confident in his ability to rehab successfully, but I also detected an undercurrent of anger. So, while I was working on a novel the mourning elephant and wounded soldier merged in my mind. And that’s where ‘Pachyderm’ had its origins.”
You can read "Pachyderm" in The Best American Poetry 2013.
Earlier this week, I mentioned that Jerry Seinfeld’s series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” inspired my coffee interview series with poets. Each episode shows Jerry Seinfeld driving a notable car to pick up a comedian. He drives them to a coffee shop, and they drink their coffee and chat. Today's post includes an interview with Josh Weiner, who is one of the poets we included in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemorary Jewish American Poetry. By the way, we have a full list of events related to the book. We'd love to see you!
Poets, of course, don’t just drink coffee.
Josh Weiner ordered carrot juice.
Let me be clear here. The carrot juice order gives the person craving chocolate some pause. Does one proceed with the hot chocolate order (yes to whipped cream) or select one of the organic herbal teas made by extremely happy people in another country?
If not for Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, I may well have fallen into ordering something similar to show solidarity. In his book, psychologist and behavioral economist Ariely explains one should be the first to order in a restaurant. Ordering first prevents one from the desire to express individuality by ordering something they do not like in order to be “different” or by expressing solidarity by ordering what someone else orders. The result is often ordering something you don’t like—and being “irrational.” Order first, and these challenges are avoided, my friend.
Despite Josh’s good example—and thanks to Dan Ariely—I kept my original order of hot chocolate with whipped cream. It came with a hair (at no additional charge). Josh said he would not blame me for not wanting to drink bacteria, so I sent it back and got coffee. I ended up with something slightly healthier after all, but the caffeine made me talk a lot.
Our Meeting Place: Busboys and Poets, Hyattsville, MD
Side note: Busboys and Poets is a restaurant named for Langston Hughes. Hughes, if you recall, was a busboy at the Wardman Park (now called the Marriott Wardman Park and a favorite of the AWP and MLA conferences for you English professor/writer types) in Washington, DC. When Vachel Lindsay dined there, Hughes placed his poems in front of the great poet. Lindsay was annoyed, but he picked up the papers and read them. He liked “The Weary Blues" and helped Hughes with his career.
Let’s get to the cars.
Cars Involved: Josh drove a Mini Cooper. I drove a Corolla.
Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry—The World’s Room (2001), From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013)—published by the University of Chicago. He’s received a Whiting Writers Award, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship. In 2014, he’ll be a fellow of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park and is poetry editor at Tikkun. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, the novelist Sarah Blake, and their children.
We started off our conversation talking about topics I was writing about for this week of blogging—Jewish last names, identity, the definition of a Jewish poet or poem.
“I’m not not a Jewish writer,” Josh replied as we talked about Jewish identity. In this, he echoes a number of poets I’ve spoken to about identity. Writers may not use a Jewish label to define themselves, yet their background ends up seeping into their work.
Josh and his family lived in Berlin for a year after he won the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, which awards funds to poets to live outside of the United States for a year.
I mentioned knowing two families who moved to Germany. A third family has expressed interest and might move. I asked him what was the allure of Germany and did he notice a lot of non-Germans living in Berlin?
“A lot of Israelis are buying property in Berlin. Jews are returning to Germany and the “synagogues are reopening,” he said.
I could not help but notice that the synagogues are reopening only now, seventy or so years after the Holocaust. We have so little idea of the full impact of that time in history. Josh pointed out the Holocaust is front and center in Germany, which he says has become a “country of conscience.”
"In Berlin, I sometimes felt like I was living inside a giant Holocaust memorial that turned into a rave party at night," he said.
“If you live in Germany, you can’t escape what the country did to Jews. It’s at the front of everything.”
It’s even in the stones.
A poet I know who moved to Germany posted photos of Holocaust memorial stones on Facebook, so I was slightly familiar with them. Bronze stones have been placed outside the houses and apartments from which people were taken and killed.
“The stones indicate who they were, when they were taken and when they were killed. Might be one person or twelve,” Josh said.
He pointed out the difference between how the United States views slavery and how Germany views the Holocaust: “The US went to war against itself. The Germans had to be defeated by the world, or it would not have stopped. They owe their reformation to the rest of the world. That comes up all the time in Germany.”
In Germany, Josh and his family lived in a prewar walkup, a building with a number of elderly residents. “You walk around and wonder what they [the older people] did [for a living] between 1937 and 1978.”
That gave me a creepy feeling. I get that same creepy feeling driving through Northern Virginia (the land of some creepy spy movies). I wonder how this conscience, how hiding from the past in plain sight, and the guilt of what their country did could affect art.
“What is the poetry like in Germany?” I asked.
“The poetry is forceful. There’s no creative writing industry.”
Josh pointed out that Germans are interested in the idea of workshops and what is done inside one. I joked we could create a million-dollar poetry industry in Germany by offering workshops. (I’m such an American!) Having grown up in a “workshop world” in the U.S., I have trouble imagining a culture and a country where “the workshop” doesn’t exist and, in fact, is a mystery to people.
Using the word “industry” in reference to creative writing programs is an interesting choice, so I asked him about it. Josh has taught at the University of Maryland for twelve years, and he taught before that too. He points out that creative writing programs can help people who want to try to be a writer.
"A program can give aspiring writers access to the expertise of more experienced writers. That's why they are popular. It’s more confusing because more are trying, but that doesn't make it bad," he says.
Right before we left, I asked someone at the hostess stand to take our photo for this blog post. She had us stand in several different places because she found the lighting unsatisfactory. I admired her desire for perfection. Josh and I stood next to each other like people who had just met, because we just had.
“Aren’t you going to put your arms around each other?” she asked. She thought we were a couple, and I had to smile to myself at how hard she was working to make this a good photo. I was amused.
“This is professional!” Josh said with a laugh.
“Our spouses wouldn’t like it,” I added.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And, if not now, when?
The Hillel I reference is Hillel the Elder. He was the leader of the Jewish Supreme Court in the Land of Israel in the early part of the 1st Century CE.
Gathering material for an anthology and spending hours on the book requires attention to detail, the willingness to cheer for others, and a small dose of insanity.
When it came time to write these blog posts, Hillel’s quote kept popping into my head. What is he saying here, and why do I keep thinking about it in relation to the Jewish poetry anthology Matthew Silverman and I edited?
In case you are not familiar with the quote, he’s telling us that we need to be for ourselves. Be nice to yourself. Take care of yourself. Think through what you are doing and how you spend time and revisit whether the actions you are taking are still good choices. However, you can’t only be concerned with yourself. You have to help others, too.
As other writers and editors before me, I wasn't content to be only for myself. Roughly ten years ago, I took on the challenge of founding a journal called 32 Poems Magazine. Becoming a publisher allowed me to find good work and bring it to a place where others could read it. I took particular joy and pride in finding work by writers (unknown and well known alike) and introducing it to the audience we nurtured. Editing an anthology is a similar process.
The same thought process drew me to work on The Bloomsbury Anthology to Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, which we called The New Promised Land back then, with Matthew Silverman.
The power of being for something greater than you is that others will be for the greater experience too. I’ve been impressed and amazed at the outpouring of support for this book. Thanks to the contributors of this anthology, work from the book will be shared at the Center for Jewish History (thank you, Jason Schneiderman) and Poet’s House in New York. Other contributors—Lucille Lang Day, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, Peter Serchuk, and Susan Cohen—have organized readings in California. Yvette Neisser Moreno helped a reading happen in Maryland. Kim Roberts and others I can't recall right now also helped with contacts and suggestions. Without their generosity of time and their desire to be for others, these readings would not have happened or they would have taken longer to happen.
Generosity did not end at arranging readings and panels. When Matthew asked contributors to answer specific questions, they responded with brief essays. In one essay, Marcela Sulak writes about the importance of listening through our poetry. I share it here because it echoes the sentiment that Hillel shares above and that's so integral to Jewish writings—treat people well. Sulak writes:
For if we have no stable single place from which to view the world, we have the ability and the responsibility of multiple perspectives and the moral imperative that comes with each. While it is important to speak on behalf of the voiceless, it is equally important not to rob anyone of a voice. It is important to listen.
Carly Sachs writes about how the act of writing creates connection between people.
Through writing about identity, struggle, liberation, we come closer to each other. A poem for me breaks down walls between hearts. And in our society, the more that we are able to connect in a way that is real and beyond any adjective or label, whether Jewish, Christian, black, white, omnivore, vegan, gay, straight, young, old---we get to a place that is universal through a specific path. It’s kind of a paradox, right? That no matter which road you take, you’ll eventually get there.
I can’t read what Carly wrote without hearing Hillel asking who we are if we’re only for ourselves.
What follows is the question Matthew Silverman asked of the contributors to our anthology and two of the responses. Today, I will leave you with these essays.
With the role of modern poetry today the way it is, how does Jewish American poetry fit into this?
Carly Sachs responds:
One of my earliest memories of poetry comes from a lesson in Hebrew school. We were studying the Holocaust and the teacher brought in these lines from the paratrooper/poet Hannah Szenes who was only in her earlier twenties when she was captured, tortured, and eventually killed by the Nazis.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
What I learned is how important it is to stand up for what one believes in both on and off the page. I recently heard Dorianne Laux read and she brought up the idea that one cannot separate him or herself from the time in which he or she was writing. For me, that is an intrinsically Jewish value. Szenes did just that with not only her art, but her life. Szenes became part of the resistance movement and all through her time in prison, she kept her spirits up by singing and writing, which she also used to boost the morale among the other prisoners.
This taught me that the job of the poet is to bear witness, but not just to tragedy, but to great beauty, to the limitless potential that exists within all of us. As poets, we are constantly aware of the world and a good poem will blur the lines between micro and macrocosm; a poem builds a bridge between not understanding and understanding, between one person to another, between humans and nature, between suffering and joy. The line between the sacred and the profane is thin and as poets, we bring people to awareness of the human condition through language. While I learned this value through my Jewish upbringing, I would argue that it is a humanist value that translates across all religious and cultural identities. Through writing about identity, struggle, liberation, we come closer to each other. A poem for me breaks down walls between hearts. And in our society, the more that we are able to connect in a way that is real and beyond any adjective or label, whether Jewish, Christian, black, white, omnivore, vegan, gay, straight, young, old---we get to a place that is universal through a specific path. It’s kind of a paradox right? That no matter which road you take, you’ll eventually get there. I would say that all poems in this way are love poems to ourselves and to each other. At the center of any person or poem is love and as poets it’s our job to remind the world of this one simultaneously small and large truth.
Marcela Sulak responds:
The very phrase Jewish American declares a doubleness of identity and perspective. When the label Jewish is applied to an American poet, the poet is doubled and halved at the same time. A Jewish poet may never speak for herself as a private individual only, though an American poet is mostly seen as autonomous. This doubleness is undoubtedly a generic affect of the hyphenated label. But there are very particular and specific Jewish dimensions as well: Jews have traditionally developed and nurtured the discourse of exile until it has become one of the most salient and defining features (think Passover). To many Jews, America will always be exile, at least ideologically—any place outside of eretz israel, the land of Israel will be. One would hope that “Jewish-American” might imply an ethics and a poetics of empathy with the exile and the most vulnerable members of society (“you are to remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt”).
The generic fact of doubleness is also a contemporary poetic condition (with internet, we are always in two places at once, to reduce it to the most banal) and I think it accounts for the growing emphasis on poetry of witness and documentary poetry. For if we have no stable single place from which to view the world, we have the ability and the responsibility of multiple perspectives and the moral imperative that comes with each. While it is important to speak on behalf of the voiceless, it is equally important not to rob anyone of a voice. It is important to listen. I’ve noticed with gratitude that poetry is seldom written anymore with the expectation of a single, integrated and authoritative “I” as the unifying voice of the poem, when the poem has a speaker. The contemporary poetic I so often includes the other, allows itself to be othered, portrays the way it is splintering, at odds with itself. Or it is increasingly the immigrant, the racial/ethnic/religious minority, the woman who, broken by the birth of a child, will never return to the person she once was. I love this about contemporary poetry.
Months ago, I stumbled upon “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In each episode, Jerry Seinfeld drives a notable car to pick up a comedian. He drives them to a coffee shop, and they drink their coffee and talk. In the episode with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld drives a 1995 Volvo station wagon with a racing engine installed by Paul Newman. A Volvo with a racing engine? Even Paul Newman has a sense of humor.
Since this blog post is not sponsored by a luxury car maker, I was not able to procure a Lamborghini—or even a Vespa for that matter—for my coffee date with poet Kim Roberts. To meet her, I took Metro, which has provided me many free lessons regarding self-defense during rush hour.
I am not sure what car she drove.
Our meeting point: The Wydown Coffee Bar, 1320 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009.
Our plan: To have coffee and talk poetry.
Reason: I interviewed her for this week of blogging about Jewish poetry, because we published her work in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.
About Kim: Kim Roberts is the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the anthology Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington DC (Plan B Press, 2010), and she has written three books of poems. She’s received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the DC Commission on the Arts, and the Humanities Council of Washington.
Her research on Walt Whitman’s ten years as a resident of Washington, DC has been published in The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, as well as being featured in articles in The Washington Post and The Washington Times, on radio programs on WAMU and WFPW, and in panel presentations at Rutgers University, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and at the annual Washington Historical Studies Conference. She coordinated a citywide festival in 2005, "DC Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass."
We both drank tea from large white cups. The coffee shop worker kept opening the front door, and we withstood blasts of icy air while discussing the significance of Jewish last names.
Kim pointed out her last name doesn’t sound Jewish, because her family changed it upon coming to the U.S.
“I was left without a Jewish name and with a record of antisemitism in the family,” she said.
I asked her to explain.
“They came to the U.S. and pretended not to be Jewish,” she said. “As a result, I did not practice Judaism until college.”
“Which branch did you join?”
“Conservative, because I wanted to learn the ropes.”
I wrote her an email a few days after our conversation to ask her to expand on what we’d discussed during our conversation. She replied:
Although both my parents are Jewish, I was not raised with any strong religious identity. My parents were atheists who saw religion as a kind of personal weakness–a crutch…I came to Judaism late–it wasn't until I was in college that I started reading books about Jewish history and celebrating holidays. My last name was changed by my grandparents when they immigrated to the US–both sides changed their names. At various times I actually considered changing it back since “Roberts” strikes me as nothing less than a record of my family's internalized antisemitism. But in the end I couldn't change it–it's the name I've always been known by, and anything else feels fake. I guess I'm stuck with it.
Immigrants, already outsiders, had their names removed and modified for convenience. The name, whether kept or changed, labeled those immigrants as outsiders due to the fact that the keeping or changing of a name was raised at all. In an essay about American Jewish poetry, John Hollander suggests the idea that both poets and Jews are outsiders while, at the same time, carrying a greater burden: “It is not merely that modern poets and Jews are outsiders, it is more that both carry the burden of an absolutely inexplicable sense of their own identity and history.”
It’s the burden of every artist to carry a sense of identity and history. Have you felt that burden before? Identity and history weigh a lot. They take time. They are not the sorts of suitcase with rollers. They have to be dragged through crowds at the airport. The relationship to them is physical and often involves struggle. I have wrestled with them and asked them to go away. In the end, I am glad they have not disappeared. I’m drawn to them. What would I do without them and their burden? I, like all writers, have carried them so long that I do not know another way.
With American Jewish poetry, the poet balances art and non-art lives, Jewish and American identities and histories, geographical dysphoria between where they are and Israel. To be a Jewish poet is to carry all of this and still have the ability to document, to witness, and to explore.
The role of Jews in contemporary American poetry simply underscores the role of all poets—to speak the unspoken and the unspeakable, as beautifully as possible. As perpetual outsiders, Jewish poets may be especially well suited to the task. It seems so to me, based on the work in this anthology. —Liz Rosenberg
The question Matthew Silverman and I grappled with when putting together The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry was about what constituted a Jewish poem. The poets we solicited for poems wondered, too. A good number of poets wrote us to say they did not write on “Jewish themes.” We reassured them that this was fine.
In the essay “The Question of American Jewish Poetry,” John Hollander asks the same question:
The first hard question is: “Well, do these Jewish American poets write Jewish American poetry?” But that question is itself misleading. And matters are not made clearer by rephrasing it in the apparently sophisticated literary language . . . “Which poems reflect Jewish experience?” Such terms . . . mean little to poets, and perhaps even less to serious and inquiring literary critics. After all, can anything a Jew experiences—even apostasy—not be “Jewish experience”?
Matthew and I were at times no more certain than John Hollander. In a reflection that appears in the back of the anthology, Philip Terman states, “Judaism provides a good deal of the structures and tropes with which my personality is constituted and to which I’m drawn when I sit down to write. My childhood was guided by two calendars, my poetic education by two traditions. Every good poem transcends any one category.” We agree. Good poems go “beyond”—beyond Jewishness, beyond any single tradition—to explore, document, and reflect upon human experience.
After much discussion, we decided to include anyone who considered themselves Jewish, because we thought—and still do—that any American Jewish poet who writes poetry is writing both American and Jewish poetry even if they do not declare this outright. That said, we did not check ID cards. As editors, we decided to trust how others identified themselves.
Our job as poets is to make new what may be old and unoriginal. We do that each day we sit down at the desk to write. We recognize that words are screens—that, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” that we’re here to make art and not check every fact. Hollander points out that if someone asks—naively, Hollander stresses—how American Jewish poetry reflects American Jewish experience, then that person is referring to a fictional book called “Experience” written by Modernism. We know that the writer must make new what’s old and can “steal” as long as the theft turns into original work. If, as Hollander says, “the true text of the world is always fresh and always renewing itself,” then every poem in this book aims to do the same whether or not it refers overtly to Judaism.
It's been a big week for David Lehman. His New and Selected Poems launched, representing four decades of his poetry. We're over the moon. Here are a few highlights:
Interview with NPR's Camila Domonoske (November 2, 2013)
Garrison Keilor highlights David Lehman's "Radio" on the Writer's Almanac (November 7, 2013)
And that's not all . . .
David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man is now available at Amazon as a Chu Hartley Publishers e-book. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called the book, "superb" and "fascinating": "It stands as a lucid and fiercely intelligent study of the disturbing implications of deconstruction, and at the same time, as an impassioned argument for a more humane study of literature."
And there's more!
Read about the festival here:
In Whitman’s Backyard, a Salute to Poetry By Aileen Jacobson (The New York Times, November 1, 2013)
Huntington holds Walt Whitman poetry fest by Stacey Altherr (Newsday, November 1, 2013)
I had the happy chance to review Ron Padgett's Collected Poems (Coffee House Press) for Publishers Weekly. Here are my first two grafs and a link to the rest. -- DL
Long a mainstay of the New York School’s second generation, Ron Padgett—the self-styled “Tulsa Kid,” as the title of one of his books has it—left Oklahoma to attend Columbia University and become a big city poet. He studied with Kenneth Koch, met Frank O’Hara, made the pilgrimage to Paris, read and translated Reverdy, Apollinaire, Cendrars. From the start his poems had a joyous nonchalance about them—the Renaissance term for it is sprezzatura. Five decades fuel his Collected Poems, a tome teeming with Padgett’s trademark traits: comic energy, good humor, alert intelligence, constant curiosity, and the determination to put it all into poems.
is prolific, buoyant, confident that the day will yield its poem,
nothing forced. He has written affecting memoirs of Ted Berrigan and Joe
Brainard, two close friends from Tulsa days. His Collected highlights
an array of New York School
strategies. But though he mentions his wife and friends in poems, even
ending a poem with the phone number of one of them (Larry Fagin),
Padgett’s poems are not crowded with people and events in the O’Hara
manner. If there is a consistency of purpose it is Padgett’s devotion to
an esthetic path, his trust in the imagination and the associative
logic that powers it. In “My Room” the logic leads quite naturally (and
hilariously) from a lamp that Ted Berrigan once took from a hotel room
to the value of studying Latin.
Just a reminder:
This Thursday, the Poetry Foundation will host two gifted Latino poets at its HQ for a reading, book signing, and reception: Dan Vera -- author of Speaking Wiri Wiri, which won the inaugural Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press prize -- and Orlando Ricardo Menes, who judged the contest and whose newest collection, Fetish, won last year's Prairie Schooner Book Prize.
Thursday, Oct 24, 7:00PM
61 West Superior Street
And here's a preview.
Overdrawn, repoed Grand Prix, workshop in hock
To the dogs, Papá mends houses of refugees
Who niggle over how much grout to squeeze
Into a crack, who bathe in their girdles and socks
To skimp on Fab. Checks bounce, taxmen hound, the truck's
Muffler shot, Papá scouts groomed lawns for settes,
Divans, chaises meant for Goodwill, windfall antiques
To fix with mallet, strainer, needle, twine, & chalk.
"Waste is for gringos," he'd say, tapping brass nails
That wiggle on warped pine or straining buckram
On a crippled carcass, my hands dull as I shear
Chintz for skirts, though Papá, reverent with details,
Irons burlap, measures the tweed sleeves & trim
In metrics, smoothes out horsehairs to cashmere.
--from Fetish (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), by Orlando Ricardo Menes
-- Learn more about the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press Poetry Prize here.
-- Visit the Letras Latinas blog here.
“Inventive and often winningly sincere…Lehman is candid as well as ironic—sometimes, both at once. He generates a maniacal, irreverent, fast-thinking range of references to movies, poems, history.” —Robert Pinsky, Washington Post Book World
“Lehman uses many conveyances—including the prose poem, the sestina, and curt rhymes—to travel across the writing life of a poet whose instinctive romanticism is always bracing and tough-minded, brimming with a rare generosity.” —Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly
Scribner is pleased to release a new collection from David Lehman, the editor of The Best American Poetry. Lehman’s extraordinary generosity and love for the genre, and his stature among writers, are well-known: the Poetry Foundation describes Lehman as “one of the foremost editors, literary critics, and anthologists of contemporary American literature,” as well as “one of its most accomplished poets.” Crowning these accomplishments is Lehman’s latest collection of poetry, NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (Scribner; November 5; 978-1-4767-3187-2).
Drawing from a wealth of material produced over the course of more than forty years, this collection opens with a gathering of stunning new poems, prose poems, and translations of Goethe and Apollinaire. Selections from Lehman’s seven published collections—including Yeshiva Boys, When a Woman Loves a Man, and The Daily Mirror—follow and are capped off by a coda of important early and previously uncollected works.
"Lehman’s poems are often described as at once witty, inventive, romantic, ironic, and brainy," writes Gwyneth Stansfield. "This collection is certainly all of those things and more. My own favorite poem,"Yours the Moon," displays a tough sincerity I find especially evocative and lovely":
the sky, distant,
endless, wears her
necklace of stars
over her dress
under my scarf
that she wears
against the cold
NEW AND SELECTED POEMS is David Lehman at his best―a collection that displays the full range of his poetic genius.
New York, NY November 6 / 6pm
New York University Bookstore (Broadway and Waverly Place, NYC)
Reading followed by conversation w/ Ken Tucker
Long Island, NY November 8-9
Best of the Best American Poetry Festival
In collaboration with the Walt Whitman Birthplace and the Book Revue
Next week, the Poetry Foundation will host two gifted Latino poets at its HQ in Chicago for a reading, book signing, and reception: Dan Vera -- author of Speaking Wiri Wiri, which won the inaugural Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press prize -- and Orlando Ricardo Menes, who judged the contest and whose newest collection, Fetish, won last year's Prairie Schooner Book Prize.
Poetry Off the Shelf: Orlando Ricardo Menes & Dan Vera
Thursday, Oct 24, 7:00PM
61 West Superior Street
And here's a poem from Vera's winning collection. Next week, before the reading, we'll offer one from Menes' book as well.
I tease you about the dog's affections.
You have his eye when you're in the room
and when you walk away his ears keep pace
in case his feet must follow.
He wants for you so dearly when you've departed.
I tell you, What am I, chopped liver?
But you are his beef bourguignon.
You are the steak tartare of his every dream.
but the truth is, he is my clearest mirror.
If I lived in the lovetime of a dog
and thought that every time you left
you might not make it back
wouldn't I climb the chair near the window?
wouldn't I pace the floors in deep distress?
--from Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press, 2013), by Dan Vera
-- Learn more about the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press Poetry Prize here.
-- Visit the Letras Latinas blog here.
Dan Nester's Incredible Sestina Anthology will soon hit the shelves. He tells us about the book here. Check out the awesome table of contents. "When the readings happen, when the poets who were generous enough to allow me to include their work in this book get together and read their sestinas in front of people, and with a stack of those books sitting on a table nearby, I’m going to be teary-eyed," Dan reports. "Verklempt. Misty. I’ll be grateful and proud and a little overwhelmed." Furthermore, he is "going to look like Michael Landon toward the end of an episode of Little House on the Prairie."
What the eye sees and what the mind remembers has changed with the takeover that technology has meant in our lives but we, as 21st century humans, are nothing if not persistent. As the pace of life seems to quicken, each moment takes on a seeming greater importance as the flickers of our existence speed up. Technology has closed gaps but also created a new abyss.
The original daft punks, poets have traditionally held as one of their roles gatekeeper for collective memory, although poetry also obviously provides pleasure and has no need to be useful in a strict sense. Andrei Codrescu's poetry serves several unique functions in addition to providing pleasure. It's an invaluable record of what the writing life of this poet became, which is transformative, as well as the details of how life on planet earth has changed in the past few generations as our 21st century lives become more complex. All of these facets are preserved here. Yet
memory disregards context
it is an enemy of experience
therefore unreliable and since
basic memory is a condition of survival
i assume that we survive
in spite of experience
when one forgets as a philosophy
each forgotten thing is raised to the status
of a god (i.e. objective condition)
and makes everyone else remember<
things that they haven't experienced
some memories bring with them brand new
from the original contexts in which they occurred
and thus set up the conditions
for brand new memories
most things endowed with memory die
prenatal memory is common property
but it is not
words and pictures are the only
things one can forget at leisure
and look up later
His underlying worldview always seems a bit more Buddhist and less Freudian. Codrescu emigrated to the United States in 1966 from Romania and his time here has sharpened his eye rather than dulling it. If he sometimes seems like the canary in the coal mine of our consumer driven society, he performs that operation with much humor, although of the black variety.
a petite histoire of red fascism
are made by energy.
The inert masses
know nobody & not
themselves. Nobody &
Not Self are well worth
knowing but connecting
them takes energy
so they are known
only by their masks
of inert proletarian
statues. The people
with the most energy
to know the statues.
The statues are well-known
by the inert masses.
The people with just
a little less energy
are then employed
to interrogate the inert
proletariat. One energy
grade below, the police &
energize the inert mass
which is now for the
first time broken up
Breaking it up releases
to respond to questioning.
The police level then ex-
tract a primitive narra-
tive from the recently
inert & this narrative
generates enough energy
& excitement to produce
a two-level discourse which
makes sense to the upper
energy level. New
energy is created & soon
the top echelons are
introduced to the dis-
courses of Nobody &
Not Self. Together,
the brass & the mass
envision the statues:
the energy of the mass
will henceforth be em-
ployed to make statues
of the brass.
It's this production, procreation, which provides the only new energy, which provides fresh resources to serve as grist to be thrown back into the mill of the system. In a sort-of circle jerk of meaningless repetitive political motion, the masses exist only to validate the worthless existences of the rulers. This cycle of manipulation is commemorated by the observance of hollow statues but in a complete breakdown of life over time the manufacture of these simulacra has become the only occupation. Life is a pursuit of energy, an increasingly rare commodity, and happiness no longer figures into anything. Not a poet to ignore the absurdities of American life, Codrescu at least gives us a laugh, while diagnosing some of the maladies of our current social condition.
Codrescu has always been able to quickly slip into and out of various personae. His first book was written in 1970 in fact from the perspective of a persona of his own invention, Julio Hernandez, a Puerto Rican living on the Lower East Side of New York. As an immigrant himself, it's no surprise that he writes that Hernandez "hovers saintly on the edge of all my action." Codrescu uses the persona of Hernandez to navigate what he calls "prison reality."
(p. 101)from a trilogy of birds
in birds is our stolen being, from summer to summer
they carry on my destruction, more obvious
as i get closer to death.
in the kitchen powerful lights stay on at night
watching the summer passage of birds.
the sea contains
their thick excrement, our longing to fly,
the sea changes color.
weak ships over the water.
i am seasonal.
i offer poisoned lights to passing birds
through the guarded door of the kitchen.
it suddenly opens.
i catch the sea when it is taken away
by disciplined clouds of birds.
In this world of new identities it makes sense that birds symbolize our desire and longing for some indefinable escape. If Codrescu's poetry has represented to some extent a mordant or ironic paen of the schizophrene, this observer has loved it. By providing this illogical logic, often using a surrealist lens, Codrescu illumines just how fractured our lives have become. He does so with a deft painterly touch. In his poems, image and metaphor usually figure large. As with Artaud there is a grand gesture at play.
I have been altered like a suit
to accommodate a much larger man.
Dedication & appalling motives support this enlargement
like crossbeams in a simple church in Transylvania.
I have gone against nature
and now I have fur.
I am the most ruthlessly hunted
but the most ecologically abundant animal.
My name is victory over mother and father.
In the transformation that Codrescu assumes, to the extent we are able to bear it, may be recognized, if anything, a suit of mirrors. Although in this poem the implication is that a Romantic victory over the pitfalls of the preceding generation involves a feat that might look similar to lycanthropy. The poet is tasked with a dangerous role and she may even be metaphorically hunted for it.
An epigraph by Romanian poet Mircea Cărtărescu to a later poem (p. 393) called "Walnuts," reads "I don't like the substances from which poetry is made… you have to consume your own self too much… the truer prose writer consumes others." If Americans seem to like writing poetry but not reading it, this epigraph may hint at the reason. Codrescu provides the kind of self-analysis in his poetry that recreational readers of best seller lists would find repellent.
Codrescu, in his poem "Epitaph" (p. 222) hints of a poetry that doesn't exist to placate the masses.
he was a young guy with surrealist connections.
this tombstone does not lie
it merely stands imbedded in the sweet dark stew
waiting for the connoisseur
...in 1913, a jewish boy
fresh out of the ghetto of moineşti in the kingdom of romania
bursts into a concentrated violence of guffaws before the swiss
releasing centuries of repression and fear combined with a strict
alphabet that until now left no airy gap for youth's springtime
and he does so in public, the war be damned and propriety, too.
he is staring at the nude legs of a mannequin bei in a shop window
and it's cracking him up: her beige ceramic ankles signal
the death of his required ancestral gloom.
lenin gives him a look as he ambles toward the library.
death is suddenly upset and sets her minions to work.
we must recover tzara's laugh! we know what happened later.
Other than humor and prescience, Codrescu has always excelled at producing some of the most memorable imagery of any living poet.
toltec submarine with dragonfly wings
mating with two or three of your kind on the wet ass
of the beloved floating downstream on a frog floatie
He's able to diagnose our maladies on the grandest of scales but the bedrock of his dark, yet amiable, agenda is a talent for the razor sharp one-liner:
I had a youth once
I was very good at it
At their best, Codrescu's poems carry a sublime disorder that can seem simultaneously elegant and grotesque. In his poem "intention" for the poet Tom Clark he writes
Poems be not intended
therefore I be always writin
is to order which is why
it is important to make
without a plan. Intention
lands one in bed with cliché,
which is somebody's old plan
to bed somebody else's old
In Codrescu's bendable world we are all allowed to try on his insouciant thoughts and walk around in them for awhile. If you find his clothes out of fashion, it may be that he's always been a few steps ahead. He is one of the most well-known poets in the world but seems most at home in those liminal spaces that defy description, but this is a poet whose gags are quite serious. In this new and selected book of poems, Codrescu is still one of our most skilled interlocutors and he sings above the abyss skillfully, reminding us that:
There is only one subject: the abyss between theory and practice
The abyss is interesting: both theory and practice suck.
I first “met” Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking with Men, in a most unusual and literary way. Damiano and I had just finished up our “Poetry & Translation Song & Dance Routine,” as we call it, for this past spring’s group of University of Washington Rome Center students. One of them came up to me and said, “I really liked your poem that was on that podcast.” “What podcast?!?” I hadn’t known.
So when I got home, the first thing I did was google it, and this is what I found. Have a listen if you want to hear a smart and interesting discussion of poems more or less related to drinking and bars. I was delighted to be in such august company (Shakespeare, Gary Snyder, Heather McHugh) and to hear Curtis Fox's very interesting take on Mr. Shakes’s “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” I was also delighted to hear how deeply and completely Ms. Schaap “got” my poem.
I then did what any grateful poet in the 21st century would do: I found her email address and wrote her a thank-you message. And I told her I was going to be giving a reading in Brooklyn in June. And, on the appointed Sunday, there she was, in the audience at the Lunar Walk Reading at the Two Moon Café.
In the meantime, I’d gotten hold of a copy of her terrific memoir, Drinking with Men, which I began to devour. How could anyone not love a book that mentions, in the very Introduction, one of the great classics of urban single life: Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis. This is a book that I own and tongue-in-cheekily cherish, a manual for the single career gal living the 1930s city life, which instructs on such useful topics as Necessary Kitchen Equipment. You might think she’s going to tout that then-newish invention, the electric toaster, but no, she’s more concerned that every single woman have a proper set of martini-mixing equipment for entertaining purposes. Gal after my own heart.
And Rosie’s is a book after my own heart. There are so many, many memoirs out there, as you know, and some of them make me want to cry – with boredom. I have discovered, in my recent years of memoir reading, that the ones I really like use as their foundation something like an objective correlative (yes, I’m a poet). They focus on a very specific theme or image, and present the life viewed through that particular lens. Peter Trachtenberg’s Seven Tattoos was maybe the first one that I read of this sub-genre: a lyrical yet fiercely intelligent meditation with each chapter focused, quite like a poem, on one of the author’s (then) seven tattoos.
Drinking with Men is a smart and beautifully written memoir organized around the search for the perfect bar. Journeying from the bar car on Metro North, where our protagonist whips out her tarot cards to do readings in exchange for beers, to various bars and pubs in Ireland, Montreal, Massachusetts, and New York (of course), we are given significant glimpses into a lyrical, wide-ranging, and ever-exploring psyche. Though I felt a real kinship at many points with this “narrator,” you don’t need to have an Irish soul – real or imagined – to be moved by the various poetic and personal journeys that she takes us on.
At a couple of points (for example, while I was on the bus to and from New York for the visit during which I would Meet the Author in Person, at her Bar), I just had to stop reading in public because I get very pink and misty when I start to cry. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn some wonderful things – about martinis, metaphors, and making a life on your own terms.
A coda: When I visited Rosie at the wonderful little neighborhood joint where she tends bar of a Tuesday evening, I got to be an honorary “regular.” This was a real thrill, as, on that podcast, she’d so brilliantly situated my “Bar Napkin Sonnet #11” within the problematic context of “regularhood” and being a woman. Not to mention it was so much fun to meet the real regulars.
I knew that Rosie would “pull” a good Guinness, and she did, but I also got to experience some things at her bar that, well, we just don’t have so readily in Italy. For one, and I hope I’m writing it correctly, an Oliver Twist martini – yes, with olives and a twist. A real treat. Then, and the Italian readers of this blog should probably go elsewhere right now, a most amazing concoction: a grilled cheese sandwich with kielbasa, and grape jelly on top. Salty, sweet, smoky: it was perfect. Thank you, Rosie, and thank you, Regulars.
Rosie Schaap writes the “Drink” column for the New York Times, and is the author of Drinking with Men, a memoir that will make for great late-summer reading.
As series editor of The Best American Poetry, I get to have a say, sometimes a large say, in the cover art we use each year. As I love looking at pictures, the need to produce a new cover each year has given me an extra reason to frequent galleries and museums. It is fun to be constantly on the lookout. It can change the way you look at a painting, a photograph, or a collage, adding a new dimension to the experience. Choosing cover art is not a unilateral process: My editor at Scribner, others at Scribner, including the art director and the publisher, and my literary agent (Glen Hartley), are among those whose opinions matter. Here are the covers we have run. We hope you will weigh in, too. View the slide show in full screen and select the "show info" option to see the names of the artists and titles of the art work. -- DL
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.