Bill probably doesn’t remember, but we first met in the late ‘90s at a party in someone’s posh Upper West Side apartment. I don't remember whom the party was for but I do remember feeling a bit lost; I had recently moved to New York City from a small town in upstate New York and I didn’t know anyone at the party other than David Lehman. Somehow Bill and I struck up a conversation. I knew who he was—David had told me about him—but I knew nothing other than that he was a gifted photographer. During the course of our conversation he described his “Portraits of the Collaborative Self” project and told me that he was about to embark on a cross-country trip to take photographs. The fruits of the trip and of many other encounters are included in Act 3.
Here’s how it works: Bill meets with his subject and over the course of a session, some lasting several hours, they talk. At a certain point they’ll detect an emotional spark—a subject, a feeling—that has weight and meaning. The subject will begin to “play,” creating a backdrop using the raw material of a white roll of paper, black paint and a paintbrush. Most of the photographs show the subject in a studio but others were taken in a field, or in a desolate urban center. All are black and white. Unlike Act 2, the subject is clear; there are no grainy background or distortions. The magic is in what the play has yielded. Here’s Willem Defoe before a deKooning-esque painting of a large breasted woman. A mournful firefighter holds a scroll on which he’s written a list of names. One assumes these are the brother-firefighters who died on September 11. Trevor Winkfied stands before a paper filled with glyph-like shapes. Many of the subjects are artists, others are unknown (to me). You wonder what got them to the moment that is captured in the photograph. They’re provocative, humorous, whimsical.
The image above is from subsection entitled “Seventeen Bedrooms: A Spaghetti Western,” a collaboration between Bill and the visual artist Joanne Boldinger. In each image, Boldinger stands before a painting of a bedroom. No two are alike. In some, the bed is the focal point, it others it is a mere slice, glimpsed behind a distant door. Is there a room more charged with emotion than the bedroom?
The first Act in Bill Hayward's stunning Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs is a series of "traditional portraits." While he includes images that one would describe as "traditional," others hint at Bill's impulse toward abstraction and experimentation. President Ronald Reagan, for the cover of Fortune magazine, appears Presidential; on closer examination you can see that Bill has captured--in the tilt of Reagan's head, his slightly raised eyebrow, his lips parted and his arms crossed--the former president's belligerence.There's playfulness in the portraits of dancers, with whom Bill has a unique sympathy that he's nurtured for his entire career. I love the portrait of New York City Ballet's Edward Villella. Only a true dance lover would know to capture Villella when his hands are arranged in the signature Balanchine style; fingers loose and separated so that when the dancer is in motion, the audience sees the entire hand. McCarthy-era attorney Roy Cohn looks appropriately sinister. An aging Milton Berle seated before a painting of cabbage roses reveals the dark side characteristic of so many comedians. Here's someone you know and love; his stance and expression daring you to guess at what he's thinking. What was he thinking?
(Ed note: This week we're featuring photographs from Bill Hayward's Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
Photographer and filmmaker Bill Hayward has just published Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs (Glitterati, September 2015). Uncommon it is, and beautiful, and quite possibly the first of its kind. Bill has agreed to let us share his artistic vision with you by featuring throughout the week images from his extraordinary book.
Chasing Dragons documents in photographs, paintings, and film stills, Bill Hayward’s evolution over five decades from portrait photographer to abstract painter, filmmaker, and multimedia artist. The heart of the book comprises 346 images in five acts that are subdivided into sections, each with a particular focus and accompanied by brief passages of text or poems. These images quicken the imagination with an energy that seems to jump off the page. You can read Douglas Glover’s in-depth review of Chasing Dragons here.
Both David and I have separately had the experience of being photographed by Bill. When I scheduled my session, Bill told me to clear my afternoon of any obligations and he wasn’t kidding. When I arrived at his studio he asked, as a prelude to our session, about the kitchen of my childhood home – my mother’s kitchen. Over the next several hours I built with paper and string and other odd pieces a kitchen table that would be my prop while Bill took pictures. Memories surfaced, some pleasant, some frightening. I left Bill’s studio at dusk feeling both lighter and more vulnerable, the way one might feel after a psychological breakthrough. (The novelist Justin Taylor describes his photo session with Bill here.)
Over the years we’ve often written about or featured Bill Hayward’s work on this blog. If you're a fan, you'll welcome his new book; if you don't know Bill's work, now is your chance to discover this visionary artist.
In this set of affectionate and vibrant fan’s notes, poet and critic Lehman (A Fine Romance) celebrates Ol’ Blue Eyes’s 100th birthday (December 12) with 100 impressionistic reflections on the singer’s successes and shortcomings. He includes mentions of Sinatra’s tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner and his relationships with Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe, among others. Lehman colorfully points out that Sinatra remains a part of the American cultural scene, with his songs playing in commercials, as background music in restaurants, and in opening and closing credits of movies and television shows such as Wall Street and The Sopranos. He also as a signature brand of bourbon named after him. Sinatra stays in the public eye, Lehman observes, not only because of his work as a movie actor and a singer but also because of his nonconformity and his fondness for being a maverick. Sinatra’s vocal range and phrasing were so pure and powerful that he had teenage girls swooning from the moment he stepped on the stage. Lehman describes Sinatra’s friendly rivalry with Bing Crosby, his lifelong friendship with Dean Martin despite their widely disparate personalities (Martin liked to get up early, Sinatra partied late into the night), his perfectionism, and his famous clashes with gossip columnist Rona Barrett. In the end, Lehman’s lively reflections wonderfully celebrate Sinatra’s enduring impact on his own life and on American culture. Publisher's Weekly. (Oct.)
Much has been said on the frenetic pace of modern life, and its consequences. Writers have been glorifying the wonders of simplicity for hundreds of years: “Let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred,” Thoreau advised in Walden. But in the past five to ten years, especially, the art of “slowing down” has garnered a mass-market following. Today, it is “cooler” than it ever was (think Eat Pray Love, Lululemon, and the rising popularity of Buddhist quotes in tattoo parlors).
I found my way recently to meditation out of medical necessity; chronic stress and anxiety had been causing stomach pains and other physical symptoms. I did, of course, what all good writers do before embarking on something new—I procrastinated the actual “doing” of the thing by reading about it first. A lot. In Mindfulness, Meditation, and Mind Fitness, Joel and Michelle Levey ponder how, “In a single day we respond to more information and make more decisions than one of our ancestors faced in a lifetime.” I thought about this as I went through my day: sorting through dozens of emails advertising clothing, facials, and charities; walking a supermarket aisle devoted entirely to cereal; stopping at a popular intersection with four competing drugstores, one on each corner.
I spent a great deal of time preparing my meditation. I downloaded just the right app, found just the right space where I would not be disturbed (a carpeted closet), bought a tray for the occasion to hold a candle, beads and fancy Santa Maria Novella incense papers. It was only weeks later that I gathered enough courage to actually sit down in my closet, close my eyes, and try to think… of nothing. I wasn’t very successful.
I’ve learned since then that it takes at least seven hours of accumulated meditation time before one begins to see an actual difference. But I’ve thought a lot in the past month about what “meditation” means to different people. To some it means sitting in a dark closet; to others it means tai chi, or yoga, or reflexology, or reiki.
But couldn’t it also be poetry? Self-help books don’t really reference this tactic. But I think a lot of people would agree that reading poetry slows down our minds in the best kind of way. For exactly that reason, the faster society goes, the more people tend to say to poets when apologizing for not buying their books, “You know, I don’t really get poetry.”
But if we spend the same amount of time on a page of poetry with sixty words as a page of a novel with four hundred words, we get a whole lot more out of it. William Stafford is one of my favorite twentieth-century “meditative” poets (“There are great gray islands that come for us, / where the dreams are / far as the sky and the light…”) but I also recently discovered a beautiful, slim volume by Richard Wilbur, published in 1947, called The Beautiful Changes: “I’ve been / Down in Virginia at night, I remember an evening door / A table lamp lit; light stretched on the lawn …” The comma he places between “at night” and “I remember” makes two sentences glide into one, and he does this often, stylistically inviting a more meditative reading.
I think the key to a good relaxation practice is getting out of one’s own mind and away from one’s own obsessions, however that is achieved. I love the recordings of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles for this, and PBS’s American Ballet Theater documentary, with all its incredible slow-motion footage of dancers on pointe (it is not lost on me how overly-romanticized this seems, talking of nuns and ballet, but truly, they are very calming). Thoreau said, “If for a moment we make way with our petty selves…what a universe will appear, chrystallized and radiant around us.” I keep looking for it; hopefully—one day—I’ll see it.
The publication was a ‘maelstrom’ whipped up by a ‘dubious stratagem,’ provoking an ‘irredeemable problem,’ we were told by mainstream media. Then, thirty five poets from all corners of the country promptly turned up to celebrate great writing at the New School, New York, in the largest ever launch of an annual volume in the Best American Poetry series.
Editors David Lehman and Sherman Alexie spoke warmly of the contributors (or rather, as David suggested, presidential candidates) and the 400-strong audience were exuberant throughout, with a standing ovation for Aira Dee Matthews’ incisive thought- and form-provoking ‘If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein.'
2015 was another good year for house names as well as rising stars. Saeed Jones, whose debut Prelude to Bruise was published last year, held the audience with a sparse and incisive poem, a 'reflection on the limitations of what we know about our lovers.' Baltimore-born Cody Walker tore the roof off the eighty-four-year-old college auditorium with his exhortation-as-poem ‘Trades I Would Make.’ Although it is quite a lengthy poem, shouts of “read it again” were heard at least once from the audience.
Like Walker’s piece, Dennis Nurkse’s ‘Plutonium’ gained particular resonance read aloud. As with Donald Platt’s also, these multi-page poems were long enough to address an issue of substantial importance (atomic energy, say, or the life of an African American boxer, dead at twenty-five), yet concise enough to hold an audience hearing more than thirty recitations in a ninety-minute period.
American poets are evidently still occupied, as Whitman was, with the body and its relation to the current status of its environment. The voice of Mark Bibbins’ poem confesses “I don’t even know/ who I’m kissing anymore, do you?” while Sarah Arvio’s poem addresses an out-of-time saviour: “You’ve saved my old body from the fatwa."
Such poets are, in their most basic renditions, coy autographers of everyday life, yet this work offers well-grounded claims about the body which extend beyond the personal into an arena of thought usually occupied by discussions of the private citizen and the body politic. Jericho Brown is more directly political on this subject, '[n]obody in this nation feels safe, and I’m still a reason why.'
The ‘who’ and ‘what’ of a walking, talking biology is being assessed lyrically here, and a socialized, public conception of relatedness now meets the tradition of personal expression in text. What does Dana Levin’s speaker propose when, seeing a starfish in the sea and deciding to film it, she memorializes this way: 'I stood and I shot them.' Humans negotiate their personal encounters with the world differently with time, and such poetry reports from the front lines of these shifting borders.
Close listening was needed for the judicious word choice and clinical deployment of text by Terence Winch, Susan Terris, and Monica Youn. Additional spacing and line breaks, as well as numbered sections played an important role in these compact pieces. Such techniques for vocal nuance are not easy to articulate at public readings but were well used in place of the more rigid divisions of comma, period and em-dash. The last of the readers announced that she was 'all that was standing between the audience and a drink,' an insight that brought one final shout of raucous laughter before David Lehman brought the evening to a close.
-- Sam O'Hana
Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves.
Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality.
Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow."
One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words:
"It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them.
Here is another Persian and Sufi poet, Hafiz, reflecting on the centrality of beauty to our well-being:
“The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.”
Beauty, far from being a superficial concern is essential, and can be a turnstile that leads us from the visible to the invisible world. To return to Khayyam, yet again, by admiring the rose — its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we are made finer morally, spiritually even. This is how aesthetics can serve as an ethical code, and prayer is "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul" (Emerson’s definition).
Poets, philosophers and mystics, by their nature, seem especially well-suited to exposing the false divisions between the visible and invisible worlds. While a calling in the life of an artist might be divorced from the strictly religious sense of the word, it still requires similar renunciations, obedience and sacrifice. I can’t say I’ve studied the lives of mystics as closely as I have those of artists, yet the profound similarities seem difficult to dismiss. Time and again, I discover poets and thinkers I respect powerlessly submitting their private lives in the service of intensifying consciousness (out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative). Thus, entire lives are anxiously arranged around the conditions most conducive to the maturity of this elusive faculty.
The artistic-philosophic landscape is teeming with seers of this type. The power and aura of these fiery spirits derives as much from the truths or realities they have revealed as what they’ve had to sacrifice along the way; it is an authority born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered.
What such poets or thinkers have in common is a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds — an uncommon commitment to bear better witness and Be, more fully. To travel to and fro, between the visible and the invisible, required a kind of vanishing act of the traveler, what Foucault called “a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer.”
I held out as long as I could before signing up for an email account. At the time, I viewed the idea of electronic mail as invasive, and unnecessary; far preferring the romance and torture of letter-writing which took days or weeks to compose and send. But at the repeated entreaties of a dear friend (and early adopter of new technologies), I caved in. I remember pressing the “send” button on that first email felt like diving off a cliff —as terrifying, as exhilarating. My threatened, and admittedly precious, terms of agreement in those heady days were that I would not report on my outer life, or any daily activities, but rather share glimpses of my mental diary.
For more or less the same reasons (perhaps, out of a writerly fear of being consumed?) I never owned a mobile phone, until I moved to the US nearly ten years ago. Why willingly carry a tracer, I thought, shrilly interrupting my inner dialogue at any moment? If someone needed to contact me, urgently, they could reach me at home or work. But, the rest of the time was mine: to dream, to escape, to slip between the gaps. Now, I confess, my Iphone serves as a kind of life-support machine, and I suspect I am not alone. I’m still not overly fond of speaking on it, but think of texting as a kind of telepathy and do share, through the pores, on Facebook and Twitter (after, you guessed it, also fighting them off for as long as I could, in hopes social media would go away).
Instead, what does seem to be going away to my dismay, and those of my ilk, is the so-called real world, specifically the print world. As a writer, it fills me with dread to see independent publishers endangered, actual bookstores going out of business, book review sections in esteemed newspapers folding and, subsequently, the newspapers and magazines themselves struggling to maintain a physical presence.
As I put it in a short poem “Shuttered Windows”:
“To speak of the smell and feel / of books, the erotics of the text, / has begun to sound perverse. / One by one, the old places of worship/ become quaint and are vacated/ In their stead a gleaming, ambitious screen”.
Yet, I am beginning to see the error of my ways, and realize the patent folly in being a self-defeating Luddite. I don’t read on Kindle, but four of my books are available, electronically, and I hope that others do! I do read, rabidly, articles, essays, reviews, you name it, on my smart phone and computer, and even wrote my first i-phone poem not too long ago – when forced to check in my bag at New York’s MET museum, and left only with “a gleaming, ambitious screen” to record my impressions.
Which is to say that, as I gingerly enter my fifth (!) decade, I am making a kind of peace with the virtual world. It’s all just wrapping paper, I tell myself, whether paperback or electronic. What matters is the gift inside, the words themselves – that they are read and people connect.
So, it seems that the world itself is now migrating online. Fine, I’ll work with it. Not just for survival’s sake must we stoop to engage with this brave new world, but also because it’s spiritually foolish to condescend. I have friends, writer friends only slightly older than myself, who regard things like Twitter and Facebook as infra dig, insisting that they “mean us harm”. I get it, or a part of me does. But, the other part, doesn’t. It might be virtual, but it’s still real people in real time. Managed judiciously, that is to say with intelligence and care, it’s simply too great a learning experience to pass up.
Wherever people congregate, en masse, for sustenance – such as the great communal wells of social media – we must pay attention. Real friendships are forged in these virtual communities, vital news shared, and that most elusive thing of all, inspiration, sparked from so many souls colliding in wonder and thirst for human contact. And, yes, I remain aware of the many serious dangers: the regrettable narcissism networking engenders, the cluttering of our inner spaces, the real and paradoxical isolation that results from so much online “socializing” as well as the attendant erosion of social skills and, no less importantly, the damage to our attention spans.
Particularly, in regards to how the Internet can detrimentally affect our concentration, meaning our capacity for immersive reading and/or critical thinking, I remember being set alight a few years ago by an Atlantic magazine article (which the author, Nicholas Carr, developed into a fine book). The title of the piece encapsulated all my misgivings, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the internet is doing to our brains”. Shortly after this seminal, but somewhat alarmist, piece, a slew of articles, backed by scientific studies, made a counter argument: Google and the Internet might be making us smarter. True, multi-tasking stands to make memory worse, they suggested, but certain types of memory are improving as search engines reroute our brains.
“Abundance of books makes men less studious” stated a critic of the printing press, Hieronimo Squarciafico, as early as the 15th century. This might well be the case today, too, with the wealth of unsorted, uneven information available at our fingertips. Yet, perhaps this truth also speaks to our innate laziness as a species, rather than the evils of abundance. For those with discipline and curiosity to sift through the buried treasures (as well as the sanity not to entirely live online), the Internet need not be a soul-destroying monster but can be, potentially, a life-enhancing tool.
Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. So, it came as no surprise to me, for example, when our Revolution erupted in 2011 that masses of peaceful protesters chose to express their dissent and dreams in poetry, chanted jubilantly from Tahrir Square. Wit and verse were always sport, and a kind of national pastime, during the three decades I lived in Egypt. Never mind that around 50 percent of the population were actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. “Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks” an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).
Which is to say, proverbs were always our street poetry as well as philosophy. They were our oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insights from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observations. Proverbs can be like coral reef, that way, fossils of ancient philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this type of wisdom literature, as well.
Only recently, am I beginning to fully realize what it means to have been raised in this culture where aphorisms were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, both maternal and paternal who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in such sayings - a string of proverbs, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion. Also, being half-Lebanese myself, meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, popular poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect such matters of stylistic heritage might have been written in blood, since I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet, who passed away long before I was born, yet passed onto me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and aphorism I felt that, for the first time, I was beginning to earn my name.
Lately, in the United States at least, there seems to be an Aphoristic Renaissance - something I would never have imagined when I first started writing them (anachronistically, I felt) over 20 years ago. The practitioners of the contemporary American aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility. This November, I’m pleased to be part of an anthology, Short Flights (Schaffner Press), which draws together the work and musings of 32 leading pioneers of short-form writing. I’m especially proud to be in the company of writers I respect and admire, many of whom have become friends and helped me take my first literary steps, such as: James Richardson, James Geary, Alfred Corn, H.L. Hix - as well as the editors of this exciting project, Alex Stein (with whom I’ve also collaborated on a book of ecstatic conversations, The Artist as Mystic) and James Lough, both fine aphorists in their own right.
(Ed. note: Laurie Ann Guerrero was a guest author here a few weeks ago. She described her experience of writing a crown of sonnets as way to cope with her grief over the death of her grandfather. Here is a thoughtful review of her book. Click through the links at the bottom of the review to read Laurie Ann's BAP blog posts. sdh)
I took to Twitter this weekend after reading Laurie Ann Guerrero’s new book A Crown for Gumecindo (Aztlán Libre Press). I took my time with it, but I read it all in one sitting. When discussing it with a friend earlier this week, I recounted how this book is a work of art from front to back. Tim Z. Hernandez gifts the reader with a devoted study, both technical and artistic, of Guerrero’s writing in this collection:
In this set of affectionate and vibrant fan’s notes, poet and critic Lehman (A Fine Romance) celebrates Ol’ Blue Eyes’s 100th birthday (December 12) with 100 impressionistic reflections on the singer’s successes and shortcomings. He includes mentions of Sinatra’s tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner and his relationships with Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe, among others. Lehman colorfully points out that Sinatra remains a part of the American cultural scene, with his songs playing in commercials, as background music in restaurants, and in opening and closing credits of movies and television shows such as Wall Street and The Sopranos. He also as a signature brand of bourbon named after him. Sinatra stays in the public eye, Lehman observes, not only because of his work as a movie actor and a singer but also because of his nonconformity and his fondness for being a maverick. Sinatra’s vocal range and phrasing were so pure and powerful that he had teenage girls swooning from the moment he stepped on the stage. Lehman describes Sinatra’s friendly rivalry with Bing Crosby, his lifelong friendship with Dean Martin despite their widely disparate personalities (Martin liked to get up early, Sinatra partied late into the night), his perfectionism, and his famous clashes with gossip columnist Rona Barrett. In the end, Lehman’s lively reflections wonderfully celebrate Sinatra’s enduring impact on his own life and on American culture.(Oct.)
As this is my final post as guest author, I would like to cast my net and highlight some of the interesting books that have come across my desk in recent months:
Diane di Prima Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2007)
Forrest Gander, Eiko & Koma (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #8, 2013)
Ferreira Guilar, Dirty Poem (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #18, 2015), translated from the Portuguese by Leland Guyer
Mike DeCapite, Radiant Fog (Sparkle Street Books, 2013)
Thomas Devaney, Calamity Jane (Furniture Press Books, 2014)
Thomas Devaney, Runaway Goat Cart (Hanging Loose Press, 2015)
Elaine Equi, Sentences and Rain (Coffee House Press, 2015)
David Meltzer, No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow Press, 2000)
I have been getting more and more involved in the work of Diane di Prima of late. This summer I taught a course at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program entitled “Theogonies: What Poets Do When They Write Gods.” We examined the role of theogonies in poetry, particularly epic poetry, beginning with Hesiod, looked at Plato’s objections to Hesiod and Homer, and then jumped to the 20th century, where we studied how Charles Olson took epic and the idea of modern mythologies in a completely different direction. We took a careful look at di Prima’s work, in particular her Revolutionary Letters, which attains epic sweep in its role of speaking for the tribe, elucidating its beliefs, and stirring it to action. We also looked at her epic Loba, which embodies a shamanistic, feminist, animist, and animalist worldview.
While at AWP last spring, I picked up two pamphlets from the new New Directions series. At 85, Ferreira Guilar continues to be an important figure in contemporary Brazilian poetry. He started out an ally of Concrete Poets (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari, among others), who were based in São Paulo. Guilar, who was living in Rio, branched off on his own path of neo-concretism, embracing the Communist Party after the military coup of 1964 and pursuing poetry of a humanist bent, while reveling in informality of style and language. Many Brazilian artists had to flee the dictatorship, and Guilar wrote his remarkable poem while in exile in Buenos Aires in 1975. In it, he attempts to return to the city of his youth and to re-create all he experienced then:
we wake up early and stay
in bed musing through
the early-morning process:
the first steps in the street
sounds in the kitchen
until from rooster to rooster
(in the backyard)
and the tap of the laundry tub
opens to gush the morning
Forrest Gander’s contribution to the ND pamphlet series is a group of texts that work around the Japanese dance duo Eiko and Koma, who have been performing their spectacular, primal, work for over four decades now. Gander uses a constantly shifting poetic approach to come to terms with their timeless, yet highly physical, performances, in which they often perform completely naked in slow, writhing, movements that suddenly explode into new situations. In “Entanglement,” Gander writes:
This as love story. His hand,
his hand feeling for her.
Face, emphatically angular. Her in-bent
arms spread like a cormorant’s.
He wobbles toward her spasmodic,
through invisible web…
Mike DeCapite writes in prose, yet I think of him as a poet, as he is constantly working through moods and situations, rather than in narratives per se. He is, on the other hand, not like William Burroughs, intentionally exploding narrative through the disruption of cut-up technique. Rather, DeCapite takes the reader on unexpected rides through unfamiliar (at least to most readers I would wager) places. In the Preface to Radiant Fog, he explains how he earned a nickname from a boxing coach in San Francisco, who had known guys in Brooklyn with names like Frankie Bats and Joey Braciol’:
Once, he said, “You’re always outside, sitting on a bench, out walking around, looking at the puddles, looking at the leaves. I’m gonna give you the name Mikey Outside.”
I said, “What, because I go for a walk? That’s so bizarre to you it earns me a nickname?
“Mikey Outside,” he said.
And of course Outside has more than one meaning; perhaps the coach was something of a literary critic himself, as he divined the essential nature that makes DeCapite a poet.
As to the other poets on my list — Thomas Devaney, Elaine Equi, and David Meltzer — in their quite different ways, one could say they form a troika of the pinnacles of contemporary poetic practice. Devaney’s Calamity Jane came into being as a libretto for performance artist Jeanine Oleson, and the book contains a cogent foreword by Brenda Coultas. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book, apart from the Western ambience that strangely, because of its dislocation, reminds me of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger in places, is that the poems are in the voice of Jane, that is, Tom writing as Jane. As Coultas points out, Jane herself was gender-obscuring. And strangely, too, at times one begins to hear Tom through the voice of Jane:
Whatever I might look like, wherever
I might be — it wasn’t in my eyes,
it was the whole me — a burning nag
with a heart. All mettle.
Never not wild.
Write that down.
Elaine Equi is our poet laureate, no matter what anyone says. She will be. She speaks for everyone, out of a particular space and language that is hers alone. How she does that will likely remain a mystery. At this point, her lines shimmer with the ecstasy of being right, every time. Not that you would know that from asking her. Her self-deprecating humor would never allow her to take the mantle. Fortunately, for us, it is already a given. Her newest book notches up that mastery. Her sense of history, as well as the immediate moment, is unerring. In “Zukofsky Revision,” she writes:
If I wish to convey this accurately,
I must choose not the exact right word,
but rather the right inexact word
that allows for a similar amount
of vagueness and ambiguity.
David Meltzer is uniquely positioned to craft a meditation on jazz legend Lester Young. A musician himself, who grew up amid the jazz worlds of New York and Los Angeles, Meltzer is also a poet of the most refined subtlety. He is the ultimate outsider, who is simultaneously caretaker of a vast knowledge of alternative pathways, poetic, musical, spiritual. His book-length work, No Eyes: Lester Young, published in 2000, was based on a photograph taken during Young’s last year, when he was staying at the Arvin hotel and would look out the window to chart the activity of the clubs across the street:
clear moon slice
what a night for death
streetlight eye pain
beserk neons down Broadway
they stand in doorways coffins
deal & hustle it’s all good
& done & I’m still chorusing
naming not blaming
no retreat merely returning
Over the past 5 years, Tom Clark has been quietly publishing some of the best work of his life (which is saying a lot). I identify the following books of poems:
Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Something in the Air (Shearsman, 2010)
At the Fair (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Canyonesque (BlazeVOX, 2011)
Distance (BlazeVOX, 2012)
The Truth Game (BlazeVOX, 2013)
Evening Train (BlazeVOX, 2014)
There may be others. These seven books account for some six hundred plus pages of poetry that see Clark deeply investing his earliest poetics with a hard-hitting concision in the facture, combined with a wistful yet ultimately optimistic sense of observation. This observation can take place in the poet’s immediate neighborhood, the changing fabric of north Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, Angelica, or it can travel the universe, via Clark’s omnivorous reading and wide-ranging research. He uses his knowledge knowingly, that is, specific details are marshaled in the service of a deeper message, delivered with wit and sophistication.
There is much that is elegiac in the tone of these poems, but the emphasis on the mind thinking and the eloquence with which these tonalities are orchestrated add up to an experience that is terrifically energizing. The way Clark uses line-endings and continuations is unerringly precise. We know we are in the presence of a master. Here is an example, the poem “To a Certain Friend,” from Something in the Air:
Presence comes before everything, even before being
The you to whom everything once belonged
If by everything one means the fullness of nature’s beauty
You must remember now that much has been taken from you
Grief too will go from you as from sorrowing songs
Sorrow goes, leaving nothing for you after a while
But the memory of the melody, some old familiar tune
That’s lingered on long past the moment you first sailed
Gracefully into the room, as if all the modern languages
Were coming down to me so that I could say these things
Then there are poems that are haiku-like in their brevity, American takes on the immediate and the passing, such as “Fame” from At the Fair:
A hot dog paper blows across
the infield, passing into
shadows near third base.
Other poems register, in language that becomes surprisingly activated, a particular scene observed. One such poem is “Full Moon through Clouds” from Canyonesque:
the brief deep blue middle
of the night window
between the third
and fourth in a series
of cold Pacific storms
through an opening
in the flotilla of big
low rain saturated
city light pink underside
a brilliant full moon
Some of Clark’s observations take place on the web, and those familiar with his blog Beyond the Pale can attest to his acuity in combining words with carefully researched images. Here’s one example, a poem embedded within a series of images, Clark’s usual posting technique. This time, the poem comes from painter Jim Dine:
And Clark himself adds a comment:
“In case it doesn't totally go without saying, there are a lot of poems in this giant poem of Jim's, and a lot of meanings, Jim's, yours, mine — and he's open to all of them, of course.
Sometimes an incorrect educated guess is the only thing that will get you through the night.
Had stubbornly thought maybe somebody would get up the nerve to pip a squeak about the poem, think it's great, hate it, have a feeling, one way or another, as in — whatever, like, don't like, am confused by, but — dream on, old timer.
Pretty obvious that at least the hosts here (okay, boring old people, but we get to think things too, nothing so smart as the thoughts of the idiot young, but still) were impressed, honoured, grateful.
The psychogeographic mapping power, gestural energy and emotional drive of the thing, remarkable.
To entertain the weird idea that poems should mean or say anything at all about anything real, or have anything at all real buried within them, or should deserve and earn and receive actual serious attention, before being filed under whatever idle categorical predisposition, is, of itself, a sort of violation of the current way of things — too demanding, like. To be serious, to mean something, to admit to and attempt to honestly articulate strong feeling — total no-no's nowadays, ask any ambitious junior professor anywhere.
Tonight I went up to Columbia for the opening of “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books” at the Kempner Gallery Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Butler Library. It is worth the trip! Curated by Sarah Arkebauer and Karla Nielsen, the exhibition includes about one third of the astounding 164 books Granary (proprietor, Steve Clay) has published since beginning operations in 1985. Some of the earliest Granary publications seemed to pick up from the tradition of Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Books, which got its start in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, at the instigation of Charles Olson, who told Williams, “Don’t ever be intimidated by the disdain or the disinterest of the world. Get yourself some type, get yourself some paper, and print it.” This statement could serve as the motto for the Mimeo Revolution that flourished in the 1960s and ‘70s and was a mainstay for the dissemination of poetry that had small but passionate followings. In its early days, Granary published books by Williams, Fielding Dawson, and John Cage, all of them with BMC credentials. Granary is also devoted to the Mimeo Revolution itself, as anyone who saw the inspiring 1998 exhibition at the New York Public Library will remember. Clay and Rodney Phillips, a curator at the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, organized the exhibition, and they co-edited the accompanying book, published by Granary: A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980, which documents many of the poetry zines of that era and the poets and artists who created them. This book should be required reading, and it probably is in the most advanced literature classes around the country and beyond.
As time went on, Granary’s interests expanded to include such artists and writers as (and this is only a selection!) (in roughly chronological order) Johanna Drucker, Buzz Spector, Susan Bee, Lewis Warsh, Jerome Rothenberg, Kimberly Lyons, Robert Creeley, Alex Katz, Charles Bernstein, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, George Schneeman, Joe Elliot, Julie Harrison, Carolee Schneemann, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian, Emilie Clark, Pierre Joris, Larry Fagin, Trevor Winkfield, William Corbett, Clark Coolidge, Keith Waldrop, Kenward Elmslie, Alison Knowles, Joe Brainard, Susan Howe, David Antin, Emily McVarish, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Simon Pettet, Duncan Hannah, Leslie Scalapino, Marina Adams, Anne Tardos, Ron Padgett, Maureen Owen, Yvonne Jacquette, John Yau, Archie Rand, Bob Perelman, Francie Shaw, Norma Cole, Alice Notley, Alan Halsey, Steve McCaffery, Marjorie Welish, James Siena, Jen Bervin, John Ashbery, Kiki Smith, Kathleen Fraser, Hermine Ford, Ceclia Vicuña, Edward Sanders, Raphael Rubinstein.
(Page from Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee's A Girl's Life, Granary Books, 2002)
Granary’s books are remarkable because each one is unique in design. Clay has a sixth sense for knowing which approach — whether trade edition or limited edition artist’s book — is appropriate for each outing, and he knows exactly how to achieve the end he and his collaborators have in mind. Often, these structures are teasing what can conceivably be considered a book, and yet they are all books. Above all, the central character is complicity. This is a tradition of people working outside the mainstream, banding together to make poetry books in exactly the form, size, and quantity they desire. The installation is exquisite. The three dimensional and tactile qualities are exposed for all to see, to examine, to admire, to enjoy, and to learn from. Take a trip to Columbia. Your senses will be energized.
I am thinking about time, how it divides and separates. I have been attempting to locate myself in the present, and I think I am getting better at it, but it is hard work. The mind wants to slip back into the past, to glory over supposed triumphs and fret over past defeats — or to pump itself up over things it is looking forward to or cower over things it is apprehensive about. Yeah, you know the drill. But to be in the present, when one can achieve it, is a gift to oneself, and ultimately to everyone else as well. Meditation is a practice for this, and so is going to poetry readings.
I’ll always remember an early poem of Anne Waldman’s called “Things That Make Me Nervous” — and the entire poem reads “Poetry readings. / People. / Dope. / Things I really like.” Which, back in the day, all went together. I looked up the poem and found it in Waldman’s collection Baby Breakdown, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1970. It was in a period when major publishing houses thought it made sense to go with the zeitgeist and try publishing some far-out poetry, almost as though they were record companies, gambling that one of these books could be the Next Big Thing. Others in this class include Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, published by Holt Rinehart and Winston in 1969, and Tom Clark’s Stones, pubished by Harper & Row, also in 1969. These were hardcover publications with dust jackets and very sharp design, seemingly because the decisions were left to the poets. Joe Brainard blanketed Padgett’s book with white stars on a royal blue jacket, cover and endpapers. His hand-lettering of the title and author’s name is exquisite. Clark’s book also has jacket design by Brainard, in this case a large piece of yellow swiss cheese on a black background with the author’s name on the vertical axis. Brainard also contributes a blurb, which begins, “Ron Padgett is a poet. He always has been a poet and he always will be a poet. I don't know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either…” Ted Berrigan’s “liner notes” for Waldman’s book are typically effusive. He starts out casually, “Anne Waldman is easily the most exciting poet of her generation, and Anne and her poems are among the great pleasures of everyone’s generation. Half the population of America is under 25, and Anne Waldman, at the age of 25, is a star. It seems she can do anything, and she has, and does …” Later, he adds something as true today as it was in 1970: “She has altered all our lives for the better simply by her presence, for she is no wielder of power, but simply a presence that permits everybody to be themselves and more often than not their best selves in the world…” He concludes, “This book is an ordinary miracle.” I love that Berrigan dated this blurb, printed on the book’s dustjacket folds, “May 18, 1970.” Baby Breakdown is really a far out book! The half-title and title page are hand-drawn by Waldman, and the inside of the book also features experimental typography and layout.
Tonight I heard two poets reading their poetry, Bobby Byrd, from El Paso, Texas, and Todd Colby, from Brooklyn, and they both, in very different ways brought me back into the sound of a human voice. That seems obvious, but it’s not. Too many times, at readings, there’s a different sense, an overriding thought, usually, of how is this going to come off, what’s my percentage in it, the calculation of a laugh, or a particular point of view that will give the poem, or more to the point, the poet, support. Poetry doesn’t work like that, nor do poets. First of all, it has to be about the poem, or the poetry, not the poet. Not that poets are not glamorous, fascinating, and fun to look at. And not to deny that they are the authors of their work. But there has to be a moment in the reading when you forget all about the poet, who they are, where they live, what they are wearing, who’s that sitting in the back row, and you are left floating, coasting on a wave of words that takes you to a place you simply could not have imagined before you came to the reading.
Harvard professor Stephen Burt (pictured left) has named his ten favorite poems from "The Best American Poetry 2015." Take a look here.
Is his list the same as yours? Let us know your picks in the comments field.
For Burt's favorites, click here:
Victoria Kelly has an impressive educational itinerary. She studied at Harvard, Iowa, Dublin. Her poems and stories have begun to appear in the best places. But what is unique about her is that, in addition to the subject matter that everyone has by virtue of being alive, she writes from a rare vantage point. Her husband is a US Navy fighter pilot who has been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this and related circumstances allow her to address all manner of things usually ignored in contemporary poetry.
Red Smith would never have predicted that the illustrious Library of America would collect the columns he typed on short deadlines for the New York Herald Tribune, publish them lovingly, and dub him "America's greatest sportswriter." The involvement of the Library of America -- which has published two volumes by A. J. Liebling, including The Sweet Science, his masterly book on boxing -- reflects the growing recognition of sportswriting as a craft and Smith's elevated standing in the scribe's fraternity.
Smith sat in the press box and, in his phrase, "opened a vein" when it came time to stare at the typewriter. Barely minutes had gone by since Bobby Thomson won the 1951 pennant for the Giants ("Reality has strangled invention"), or Rocky Marciano knocked out Archie Moore (Rocky threw "a left that made him curtsy like a convent girl"), or Secretariat pulled away from the field at Belmont on my birthday in 1973 ("It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths," the horse's owner said), or the Yankees beat the Dodgers for their fifth World Championship in a row twenty years earlier. The title of the last piece mentioned, a quote pulled from the piece (and not, alas, the original headline), is a beauty: "Like Rooting for U. S Steel." And I wondered whether the Godfather auteurs remembered this line about the New York Yankees and their fans when they had Hyman Roth -- celebrating his birthday in Cuba -- say "Michael, we're bigger than U. S. Steel."
It has been a long time since U. S. Steel was the measure of power, size, and importance, and American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith (edited by Daniel Okrent) comes from that time as remote from us and filled with nostalgic glamour as the early seasons of Mad Men. You could, if you were a lazier columnist than Smith, call it the golden age of American sport; certainly it might have seemed that way to a New Yorker spoiled by having three major league teams within subway distance. Joe DiMaggio patrolled center field for the Yankees, and when he stepped down, Mickey Mantle came along to take his place. Willie Mays played center for the Giants, who, with Leo Durocher at the helm ("a controversial guy, and that may be the the understatement of the decade"), were the unlikely victors of a four-game World Series sweep in 1954. Sugar Ray Robinson, the best fighter "pound for pound" in any weight class, performed regularly at the Garden. Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, made West Point a college football powerhouse. Between 1949 and 1960, Casey Stengel managed the Yankees to ten pennants in twelve years. In 1947, Branch Rickey ("the greatest of all double-talk monologists") put a Dodger uniform on Jackie Robinson and revolutionized baseball.
Smith made an art of deadline sportwriting. He was especially handy with a simile. When Sugar Ray was past his prime, in one of the Carmen Basilio bouts, Smith conjectures: "Maybe, like an aging shortstop, he can no longer go to his right." Or consider these sentences from his piece about the 1947 World Series game in which the Dodgers' Cookie Lavagetto ruined the Yankees' Floyd Bevens's no-hit bid with a bottom-of-the-ninth game-winning two-out double. "In the third [inning] Johnny Lindell caught Jackie Robinson's foul fly like Doc Blanchard hitting the Notre Dame line and came to his feet unbruised. In the fourth Joe DiMaggio caught Gene Hermanski's monstrous drive like a well-fed banquet guest picking his teeth." In the same game, Tommy Henrich of the Yankees took a hit away from Hermanski: "Henrich backed against the board and leaped either four or fourteen feet into the air. He stayed aloft so long he looked like an empty uniform hanging in its locker. When he came down he had the ball."
To write for a newspaper requires a strict brevity of means. It takes artistry to write in short paragraphs, as in this one about Brooklyn southpaw Carl Erskine, hero of game five of the 1952 World Series: "Erskine is an agreeable young man with good habits and an equally good overhand cure. He does not drink, does not smoke, and does not choke in the clutch. On out-of-town business trips, while his playmates sit in the hotel lobby waiting for somebody to discard a newspaper, he visits art museums." There is wit in Smith's parallel structures. but what I like most is this glimpse into road-trip life, circa 1952.
Smith has his sour moments. He is down on Jersey Joe Walcott (for being old) and Ted Williams (for spitting his displeasure with the fans), He is right to voice a city's frustration and anguish when the Dodgers and Giants left for the West Coast at the end of the 1957 season. Their departure from New York "is an unrelieved calamity, a grievous loss to the city and to baseball, a shattering blow to the prestige of the National League, an indictment of the men operating the culbs and the men governing the city." Two years later, a certain amount of revisionism has taken hold. Baseball's West Coast expansion "was a development long overdue and greatly to be desired, but effected in an atmosphere of deceitful contriving which left the game wearing the dollar sign like a brand."
American Pastimes has been edited, and is introduced, with exemplary intelligence by Daniel Okrent. There is one error, the product of an oversight, that should be fixed in the next printing: In an October 1966 piece recollecting Fridays in previous decades at Madison Square Garden, Smith would never have referred to "Rocky Marciano's three wars with Tony Zale." It was a completely different Rocky, Graziano, a middleweight, who did battle with Zale. I make a point of it because Rocky Graziano was the first prize-fighter to take my fancy: I was eight years old and saw "Somebody Up There Lies Me" with my parents and sisters at a drive-in movie. Paul Newman played Graziano.
The sportswriter's occupational risk is hyperbole, and Smith is not exempt. Of Whirlaway, winner of the racing's Triple Crown the 1941, Smith writes, the colt "was Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones -- not just a champion but" -- you finish the sentence. The remarkable thing is how few lapses there are in such a long career.
Like Liebling, Red Smith writes with particular verve about Marciano. The undefeated heavyweight champion was "victorious, invincible, indestructible." But it is DiMaggio who best fits Smith's idea of the heroic athlete, the demigod who does everything with majesty and grace -- and is therefore the proper model for a prose stylist, doing his job with consistency and great skill and without ostentation or temperament. In a game against the Red Sox in 1950, Bobby Doerr hit what looked to be a sure double when "Joe raced in on a long angle to his left, thrust out his glove, palm up like a landlord taking a payoff under the table." When Joe retired in October 1951: "the simple, flat fact [is] that the greatest ballplayer of our day and one of the greatest of any day quit baseball yesterday." The last sentence in the last column Smith ever wrote was something he told himself when he felt disappointed with the current crop of ballplayers: "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."
-- David Lehman
[This post appeared originally on our blog in 2013]
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.