from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG 2009)
from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG 2009)
The birth of a book is a blessed day. The day I interviewed Sudeep Sen in January at his apartment in New Delhi about editing The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, his latest poetry book Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1978-2013 arrived in boxes from Gallerie Publishers. Shelves and shelves of poetry books share top billing with an eclectic collection of visual art, including Sen’s photographs. He took the photo on the cover of the anthology. Behind his desk is a framed draft of a poem by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the prolific Indian writer and later-in-life visual artist.
SS: There’s a confidence in the language, an unabashedness. One or two generations ago English was a post-colonial language. It’s no longer the case. For me, English is an Indian language. It is one of our 26 official languages.
CW: So it’s about owning the language not in reaction to a colonial history of oppression?
SS: No, it’s more than that. English just happens to be one of the tongues they are using very freely as an everyday thing. Take me for instance, I have three mother tongues: English, Bengali and Hindi, that’s how I grew up. It’s very unself-conscious. English is a language I learned from my parents and grandparents who are Indians.
When I travel abroad, people say “oh you speak English very well” and I say “and so do you.” The English language is interesting because there are so many different Englishes. There is Caribbean English, Australian English, American English, English English, Asian English, Indian English.
CW: What did selecting the poets teach you about those Englishes?
SS: That it is complex. Take David Dabydeen in the book, whose work is known as part of Caribbean literature. He’s from Guyana and grew up in the UK, an Indian diaspora poet who writes just fabulous English poetry of the highest order. His ancestors were Indian laborers. He writes about cooking dhal and roti and curry. Some of his poems are very steeped in Western painting, including this fabulous love poem called “Turner” I excerpt in the book.
The Indian diaspora is very complex too. The older diaspora is five or six generations as opposed to Indians in America and the U.K. of just a few generations. Africa, South Africa, Fiji and the Caribbean all have large Indian populations. Those migrations happened as slave ships. They would take an entire village, the priest, the barber, the teacher. Their descendants still sing the songs my great-grandmother sung.
CW: What impact would you like the anthology to have?
SS: I’d like more of these poets to be read in India and abroad. Literally very few are known beyond small poetry circles. There are so many young poets writing and it’s so difficult for them to break into the scene.
CW: That said, does it surprise you then the anthology is getting reviews from mainstream print, radio and television. And that a few months out, it is slated for a reprint.
SS: It has just baffled me the impact, fabulous reviews in places that don’t even touch poetry usually.
SS: I think primarily because 90 percent of the work is unpublished work, which is rare in anthologies. It’s new work that is difficult to access all in one place.
CW: I couldn’t find an online source to purchase with shipping outside of India for either book, including www.harpercollins.co.in. (Readers, please comment below if you know where online.)
SS: U.S. and U.K. rights are still being negotiated for the anthology. It is however available via online portals.
CW: There is a lot of embrace of traditional form among the poets. Why?
SS: I think this is more a generational thing. The younger generation is excited about the language and so comfortable with it that they are actually trying out hard forms like villanelles and sestinas. Many of them are also bringing in classical Indian verse forms. Ghazel in English is a good example. Contemporary writers embracing older forms but still making it contemporary is bound to lead to good things.
If you are going to write free verse, you need to know what classical verse is. You need to know what you’re breaking. You don’t have to stick to any of the old rules as long as you know the rules. So much of the bad name to modern poetry is because you can write a sentence chop it up into five parts and arrange it in a column and call it a poem. That happens all around us.
CW: Do you see any trends of the poets who are not living in India and writing from other places or is it simply a reflection of where they happen to be?
SS: They bring in a certain injection of the local culture. Indian poetry is being written by so many different kinds of Indians and that’s certainly making it richer. Take the Americans. They are writing about very American things that may or may not be understood here. However, many of them are rediscovering Indian roots.
CW: Are readers in India more open to poetry because of the many languages here with different rich poetic traditions?
SS: Yes, because poetry in other languages outside of English has a long, long history. It is very much imbedded in our larger cultural sphere and very much part of our upbringing. For example poetry is integral to the music traditions in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, extremely advanced.
CW: And where is English poetry in the scheme of things?
SS: English poetry is in a smallish circle relative to the bigness of India, a niche audience.
CW: But in a global context, isn’t India the second largest publisher of English in the world?
SS: And will be the second largest in not very long.
It might have started at last year’s AWP conference in Chicago, where a group of poets lectured on the craft of assembling a manuscript. They said you need a room of your own, a space where you can hang poems on walls – live with them, listen to them, rearrange them. New Yorkers in the audience (myself included) laughed out loud as we pictured our studio and one-bedroom apartments with wall-to-wall furniture.
But, wouldn’t it be nice?
Pretty soon, I couldn’t stomach the cranky landlady, hang artwork on other people’s nails, or live with Rental Apartment White on the walls. Quickly and miraculously, my husband and I found a good deal, closed on a home and hired contractors to begin renovations last week.
Every other night, we take three trains to Brooklyn to visit our home. I bring a book and enjoy the anticipation. When we arrive, we swing open the door, turn on the lights and find our space transformed.
On Day 1, the floors were meticulously covered with paper. Day 2, a living room wall disappeared and old brick, wood and piping were exposed. Day 3, brick and wood gave way to gleaming white columns. We order pizza and sit on the floor of our empty apartment, appreciating all of it.
Tomorrow, a light fixture might show up. A countertop might come down. We never see the workers – we never see the work – so it feels as if our home is inventing itself day-by-day, eager to surprise and please. I know it’s the product of sweat and craft, but I like to pretend there’s some magic involved.
I felt the same way watching my parents’ first house rise out of the desert. We would visit the dirt lot to take pictures and appreciate every plank. The stakes with little red flags marking the construction perimeter seemed to grow straight out of the ground.
Perhaps not coincidentally, I’m rediscovering the joys of being a reader as I wait for my home to manifest. Usually, periods of reading but little writing fill me with guilt. I should be making something! I should be knocking down walls and writing lines! Who am I to enjoy another’s hard work without doing my own?
But this week, I’m content to admire other people’s creations – an indulgence we writers sometimes strip from ourselves.
I wonder, when you became a serious writer, did you also become a serious reader? Did you start studying the workmanship of novels and poems, breaking them apart to understand how to put yours together? And did that enhance your appreciation but diminish your ability to get lost in it a little bit? Did you start measuring how your own writing stacked up against everything you read, endlessly calculating the balance?
The beauty of the reader is her ability to open a book, be surprised and imagine that it made itself in an instant, or that it always existed. She almost can forget the creator, the toil – a literary Big Bang.
Prompt: Read something, anything for fun. If you’re looking for a recommendation, might I suggest The Paris Wife, a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley? The author, Paula McLain, earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan and published two poetry collections. It's so enjoyable, I'm actually losing sleep to read it.
My mind feels tired, and so I go for a run to clear it.
Returning - reenergized - I forgo a shower, and power through the remainder of the collected. It takes me all the way through the night and into the early hours of the morning. I read, Mad Angels, the bit of this book I most feared because it’s the bit that contains the previously unpublished work, and therefore, the work I feel the most pressure to discuss in my review. Danielle goes to bed relatively early, and even though she is only in the room next to me, I miss her desperately.
Nearing the end, I am struck by how overtly personal Ceravolo’s poems become. My lack of sleep turns me more emotional than normal and I hold onto his wisdom to youth in poems like “Legacy” (“O young of this ancient world / we leave you / in perpetual danger of the galaxy / of which we have no stroke / but like a tree or an ant / live and die, / and maybe live again”). It is a different tone in “Mad Angels,” of course. It feels as though the poet no longer finds the same pleasures in the word play of his earlier writing, and has now opted for a more direct - often brutally harsh - and honest aesthetic.
It’s early in the morning and I turn on the television. Nothing is on but infomercials and local news. I mute the sound and keep reading. The poems have become unapologetically contemplative, and it’s increasingly difficult for me to read material that presumably grapples with the great poet’s oncoming death.
August 13, 1984
If I left
nothing would happen
to the stars,
flowers would not wither,
sun would not flicker ...
No one sees me. I am just here,
my foot a decoy for compassion
my sympathies and despairs for
another generation to find.
And if in the dichotomy of a
a cough awakes the night
you’ll find I’m not asleep.
The sun rises through the windows in my apartment. It falls across the wooden floor. I can hear Danielle beginning to wake in the bedroom just behind me. I am young. As I read Joseph Ceravolo’s final published poem of his lifetime, I wonder, if he had any idea that the poem would be his last. I wonder: how does great art go unnoticed? I don’t know, but it feels wrong. I go to the refrigerator and eat peanut butter with a spoon and I hope that everyone in the world will read Joseph Ceravolo’s Collected Poems because if they did, the world would be a more beautiful place.
When a spirit comes to me
and the weight on my chest
turns to butterflies into desert lands
and rivers flow through
arms to heart
shepherds and farmers sit to drink
my isolated soul,
but not because I’m away
from you or may never see again
the drunken night
or shaking star’s illusion
that distance is not time
and time not space
but the spirit comes to me
-- Ian Brown
Sitting in TriBeCa, I open my recently received copy of the Joseph Ceravolo Collected Poems. I am here with my beautiful fiancée Danielle who is doing work of her own next to me at the table. Now and again, she pulls at a cup of green tea and, now and again, I do the same. I can feel the caffeine rush more than usual and question if this is the right state of mind to enter into a massive collection of notably dense poetry. I conclude: probably not, but then again, I think, what is the right state of mind to enter into a massive collection of notably dense poetry? Probably none. I wonder. The steam rises in twists from my Michigan State coffee mug and I wonder if it does the same once it’s inside my belly.
I’ve already read the introduction twice. Written by David Lehman, the great champion of American contemporary poetry, I read it once on the subway on my way to a hot yoga class on the upper east side and then again, shamefully, early one morning on the toilet in Bobst library. As I begin it again, I make a note in the left-hand margin, reminding me to only use David’s words as a jumping off point for my own - not to let his introduction complete funnel my review. It reads: *DON’T REWRITE LEHMAN. BE YOUR OWN MAN. However, it’s a difficult task, and my body shakes with anxiety when I hit the end of his very first sentence: “ [Toward an anthology] of unjustly neglected American poets,” Lehman writes, “I was not the only contributor who put in for Joseph Ceravolo, but my hand went up first, and I got to praise this overlooked genius of American poetry.” Fuck, I think, there goes my first line, and I turn to my computer and delete the first sentence in my Text Edit doc. - simply, “Joseph Ceravolo, the unsung genius of American poetry, final gets his due with his newly released (Wesleyan books) Collected Poems, and I am honored to be the first to give it.”
I kiss Danielle and read through David’s introduction again, this time taking notes on some of the key points he brings up in Ceravolo’s work. In my black Moleskin I write down a few bullet points, completely realizing how in-over-my-head I am by trying to write intelligently on poems of this magnitude. Secretly I think, no one should ever write criticism on art this great - art this great should simply be read by everyone alive in the solitude of their days, over and over again, and thus, become woven into the fabric of their cognitive experience by instinctively recalling the poems and then applying them into their daily actions... still, I jotted down some notes:
- Line Breaks - Duality of the line - wordplay - materialization of language - creation of new nouns and, in turn, new experience - imaginative capacity- stark but complex images achieved through few words - conceptual ideas’ ability to open up into larger and more complex mental spaces and, as a result, shoot the mind off into new, interesting rooms.
Transmigration Solo: I read the preface written by Joseph himself in 1978. He states in the end that in the collection, he has created “a brewing of diverse particles into the whole.” With this in mind, I venture onward to poem number one (Lost Words) with the aim of reading the entire Collected in perhaps a single sitting. Yet, to my chagrin, I spend over a half-hour with this poem. “One corner is enough. / There isn’t one / as the field bulbs go out. / Right nearby is a river. / Moon exhaustedness slow (BIG) / slides lawns of earth under.”
My mind goes wild during and after reading the poem. I struggle to make any immediate sense of the three stanzas I’ve just taken in, outside of the traditional “letting the language wash over you” technique that seems so en vogue and acceptable with so many of us. With still over 500 pages to tackle, I refuse not to give each singular poem its due. I read the poem over at least three more times. I break it down. I think of the interchangeable boxes and rooms we as creatures have no choice but to occupy and the walls that potentially define them - the moon (wall one), the ground (wall two), the river (wall three), Sunday (wall four).
I’m proud of my reading, and so I read the poem out loud to Danielle. She is struck by the same notion and comments on a line in the final stanza, “There’s not enough words left, / although it seems enough / like grass inside me: / where the moment / is a terminable river / and bush come home.” She is curious about the representation of space inside the physical body and how it is so similarly held and represented to the space outside the physical body. I agree, and she kisses my neck all the way up to my earlobe.
For the next few hours I read straight through, giving each poem the respect of at least a moment’s contemplation to collect what I have gained from having read it. I read all the way through INRI, arguably my favorite of Ceravolo’s books, and stop to gather my thoughts on the whole. I don’t know what to do next. Next to me, Danielle is still occupied with her studies. I like how the lamp hanging overhead seems to catch inside her red-green-blue diamond-like earrings. I think about Joseph and all the poems in his books that were dedicated to his wife Rosemary. I’m struck at how beautiful a thing it is to be a poet in love and how lucky the world is to have known Joseph Ceravolo in love. I reread a poem from Spring in this World of Poor Mutts and marvel at his ability and bravery to end a poem as he does here:
Pregnant, I Come
I come to you
with the semen
and the babies:
ropes of the born.
I rise up
as you go up
in your consciousness.
Are you unhappy
in the source?
The clouds sputter
across the ring.
Do the birds sing?
-- Ian Brown
(The second part of this piece will be posted tomorrow.)
It was something of a surprise to the literary world when William McPherson published his first novel, Testing the Current, in 1984. Not that Bill was exactly an unknown—a former book editor at Morrow in NYC, founding editor of The Washington Post’s Book World section (and later a Post columnist), and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1977, Bill seemed to know everyone on the East Coast who had ever written a noteworthy paragraph. At Book World, he opened the doors to coverage of contemporary poetry and even recruited people like me, Michael Lally, and Doug Lang as frequent reviewers. His creative and generous spirit really set him apart from other members of the literary establishment. Though he’d published some poems in The New Yorker and elsewhere, Testing the Current was to be a turning point in his life. He would, eventually, permanently leave the reviewing stand for the stage itself. (above: William McPherson, 1987. Photo (c) Nancy Crampton)
Maybe if the book had bombed, Bill would have remained primarily a journalist, but Testing the Current was met with the kind of reception writers fantasize about. In my copy of the original, I stuck three of the reviews that greeted the novel’s appearance. Russell Banks, in the NY Times, opens his piece with this: “William McPherson’s first novel is an extraordinarily intelligent, powerful and, I believe, permanent contribution to the literature of family, childhood and memory.” People proclaims that Testing the Current is “a beautiful first novel that provides a sharp, glowing portrait of a Midwestern town on the eve of World War II. McPherson’s loving attention to detail and the ... funny, moving point of view keep the writing constantly fresh and involving.” USA Today says the novel “...is brilliant. In places it is absolutely breathtaking.” Testing the Current tells the story of a boy of around eight years old named Tommy MacAllister. Bill followed up on Tommy’s story three years later with To the Sargasso Sea, also well-received.
Ever the adventurer, Bill headed to Europe in 1989 to witness firsthand the fall of the Communist empire, winding up on and off for most of the next six years in Rumania, where he became something of a national celebrity. While that intriguing and amazing sharp turn resulted in some first-rate reporting for several journals, it left his readers still awaiting the third novel in the MacAllister saga. What’s more, the first two novels had long been out of print. (right: Michael Dirda & William McPherson, Politics & Prose Bookstore, DC, 26 Jan 2012)
But, now, thanks to New York Review Books and D.T. Max (who wrote the Afterword), Testing the Current, originally published by Simon & Schuster, is back in print. And last night at Politics & Prose Bookstore in D.C., a multitude of Bill’s friends and fans turned out for a Q&A between Bill and the eminent writer and critic Michael Dirda, all to mark this significant comeback of an American classic.
Bill McPherson signs a book for DC artist Susan Campbell, Politics & Prose, 26 Jan 2012.
This evening I was reading this post on The Hairpin, all about "low-effort toddler games" like "Do You Like My Hat?" and "Hide Things in Your Clothes," and it reminded me of a passage from the children's book Pinky Pye, wherein a cat types up a list of suggested games:
The very clever cat then goes on to explain more complicated games, which you might enjoy reading (beginning on page 118).
And this led me to thinking of all the games I've played with poet friends, which now I will tell you how to play, in case you find yourself with guests or selves to entertain this weekend.
1. Game of First Lines
This is just like Balderdash, only instead of inventing definitions for obscure words, you invent first lines for titles. Pull a literary journal off the shelf, open to the first poem, read the title aloud, and then have your friends write down a convincing option for a first line, while you write down the actual one. Gather them all together, read them out loud, and have everyone guess which is real. Points to anyone who guesses right, or whose line manages to fool someone. Or don't keep track of points. Then pass the journal to the next person, so you get a chance to invent.
2. Game of Following the Rules of Vasko Popa's Game Poems
I just made this up, but I think it would end in tears. Here is how you play "Seducer"
One caresses the leg of a chair
Until the chair moves
And motions him coyly with her leg
Another kisses the keyhole
Keeps kissing it and how
Until the keyhole returns the kiss
A third one stands to the side
Watches the other two
And shakes and shakes his head
Until his head drops off
3. Game of Not Listening
When you are stuck in an audience listening to someone who is dull or going on for too long, write down words and phrases she says, in order, but very selectively, so that by the time she finishes you have a much better speech she could have made had she only known how to edit herself. Extra points if you arrange her own words into an entirely different subject.
4. Game of Constant Similes
Pretend that every time someone says "like" as filler (of the "um" variety) he is embarking on making a simile it is your job to understand.
5. Game of Stacking Books
This game I borrowed from Matthea Harvey, who borrowed it from the artist Nina Katchadourian. Go to a place full of books. Find titles you'd like to arrange into a poem. Stack them in an order that pleases you. Depending on whether or not you think the place is trying to keep the books in a different order, you might consider leaving them there for someone to discover. Or take a picture.
6. Game of "Life of Game"
Listen to Loren Goodman.
7. Game of Thinking of Something
Think of something. Tell your friends you are thinking of something. See if they can guess what it is. If you are not with friends, try just thinking of something.
Those are all of the games I know. I'm lying. Those are half of them, but I am trying to raise my level of mysteriousness, which is part of a game I'm not telling you about.
When I was about eleven, my job was to grade the eggs with my step-mother when I came home from school. We worked in the basement, grading each egg separately on a small hand scale, brushing the dirty ones by hand with a sandpaper brush. Hilda sat on a low box in front of an upturned crate which held the scale. We both pushed a case of graded eggs away; periodically my father would appear and stack the crates one on top of another, labeling them with his co-op number so that they could be identified and he would get paid. From sitting thus for years, bent over the hand egg scale, my stepmother's shoulders got so round that she appeared to have a hump. One of the last modern machines to come onto our farm was an automatic egg-grader. It was then possible to stand and put dozens of eggs on the scale at the same time. But it was too late for Hilda's back to straighten out.
. . .
All the farm women and girls I knew packed eggs and did other chores on the farm. Some of the women worked right alongside their husbands, cleaning out chicken coops, preparing the outdoor ranges for the chickens, doing the same heavy manual work as the men. These were the women who peopled my world. I looked at them, at their work-worn hands and faces, their rough clothing, indistinguishable from the men's and I resolved never to live on a farm or have anything to do with a farm when I grew up.
-- from The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden State by Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky (University of Alabama Press, 1992)
Luke Hankins, who guest blogged here a few weeks ago, writes to tell us that his anthology, Poems of Devotion, will be released on November 30th and is available for pre-order at 20% off the cover price. You can place your order here.
If you place your order now, you might have your book in time for the launch reading at Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville, NC, on Sunday, Dec. 9, 5:00-6:30 (). Several contributors will be reading, including Richard Jackson, Suzanne Underwood Rhodes, Richard Chess, Morri Creech, Malaika King Albrecht, and Daniel Westover. Reception to follow at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar.
Morgan Lucas Schuldt passed away on January 30 due to complications from cystic fibrosis. I wanted to sketch a portrait of Morgan for this blog, wanted to write about not only his extraordinary life, but the love supreme that his poetry embodied. His death, though, is still too close, and it will take me just a little more time.
I attended his memorial services in Tucson, where he lived for much of the last decade of his life. Like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg before him, Morgan was a thoroughly Jersey boy, but he found a home in Tucson. He found Mark Horosky and Adam Chiles. He found Stephanie Balzer and Barbara Cully. He found Boyer Rickel.
The climate change from Vermont to Arizona—I mean going from unseasonable April warmth in New England to anomalous frosty weather in the Southwest—the mourning at various memorials those few days—as well as the bourbon that occasionally accompanies said grief—fused with passing a year earlier of Paul Violi—another friend and mentor—all this left me tattered. I returned to work at The Bookstore physically twitchy, emotionally worse.
After catching up with Matt on what I’d missed—including a poetry reading by Clampitt House fellow Bruce Snider—I was presented with a stiff manila envelope. Scrawled on the front was a signed note from the poet Barry Sternlieb: “For / Michael Schiavo / a few from the zen master. / (one just a proof, / the other a signed + / numbered edition— / primitive, but still / packing a punch!)”
I slowly unsealed the envelope. After removing one of the cardboard flats, I gently untaped the fine paper therein to reveal broadsides of Michael Gizzi’s “Extreme Elegy” and “Second Extreme Elegy” that Barry had printed in the mid-’80s. At one point, after a few months of employment at The Bookstore, Matt had informed me that I was only the second poet he’s ever hired. The first was Michael Gizzi.
Barry is a wonderful guy. We would talk whenever he’d stop by the store, and I know we talked about Michael Gizzi, but I can’t remember as I ever told him just how much I loved his work, how much it had, at one point, intimidated me, and then later enthused me with its familiarity. I’m sure I never told him that one of my favorite Gizzi books is Continental Harmony. And I’m positive I never told him that “Extreme Elegy” is one of my favorite poems not just in that book, not just of Gizzi’s, but of all time.
What I wonder is if Barry will ever fully understand what he did for me this past spring, even when he reads this. In that one moment, through that unassuming act, those poetic powers that I felt closest to, that I felt were forsaking me through the deaths of those whom I most loved and respected (M. Gizzi himself passed away in 2010), all at once, those powers announced their presence.
Not out of grief, no, but filled—and not of a sudden—with the consolation of the universe.
The Last Rites, man
3 helpings! Extreme
Triadic Unction a -bury
a -port a -ton, troughwater
deathward we glide, our viscera
slung The pitch
of New England the mind of an ear
shockt into blooming a -shire
a -vale a –wick oaken
lid going to sleep
ness of my life—America,
of foliage in voice
beside an axe
Canvas in moonlight an oversight
comin’ up backstream But only
a rheumy cache
of russet spittle
like oaken funk, New England, a tonic
Posted by Michael Schiavo on November 16, 2012 at 06:53 AM in Book Recommendations, Book Stores, Guest Bloggers, Obituaries, Poems, Religion, Science, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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Readers will surmise from the book’s title (taken from a quote by Walter Lippmann) that its content involves a radical theme. It is centered on several coinciding factions of a progressive political movement. The time is 1914. New York City serves as a microcosm of America as a whole. The most prominent factions are the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, represented by William “Big Bill” Haywood and John Reed; and the Anarchists, represented by Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Intertwined, and not without competition, are the liberal, progressive, and socialist factions. These elements converge on the streets of New York, challenging the status quo of class inequality and the oppression of labor. It is a panorama of demonstrations, violence, and reform. Jones succeeds in painting a picture where these forces of change can be viewed from afar as a citywide conflagration, while at the same time highlighting the differences between them. Jones’s sympathies clearly lie with the Anarchist movement. The most radical actors figuring in the book decry the ineffectiveness of mainstream liberals and socialists, and it is not difficult to envision Jones arguing the same points on his own.
Jones is clever in his blending of mainstream political history with the radical alternative. He gives us an overview of domestic social conditions intersecting with international crises. As World War I erupts, tensions mount with Mexico, then in the midst of revolution. Both major political parties have embraced the language of progressive reform. (This is one area where 1914 largely differs from 2012: numerous politicians today have eschewed progressivism for austerity measures.) Both President Woodrow Wilson and New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel have been elected on progressive platforms. The events covered in Dynamite illustrate how radical organizing and street demonstration challenged the grip of these mainstream liberal authorities and of the reactionary forces of such capitalist titans as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Dynamite is not a romantic narrative of World War One-era New York City radicalism in the mold of Allen Churchill’s The Improper Bohemians or the epic 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds. Far from romantic, Dynamite is a close examination of an environment that has become sadly familiar. The title of the second chapter -- “The Jobless Man and the Manless Job” -- sums up the feelings of hardship, hopelessness, and despair that are tangible in the present day Great Recession. We encounter starving families and a city unable to cope with the influx of the homeless and unemployed crowding the streets and overflowing the shelters. In the midst of this turmoil an unsung hero emerges; teenager Frank Tannenbaum, an out-of-work dishwasher and devotee of the IWW cause. Young Tennenbaum’s story is one of countless prisoners of politics and principle. He is arrested for leading a throng of homeless citizens into a church for the purpose of claiming shelter. Charged with incitement to riot, he is railroaded through a trial, denounced for leading a “mob,” and sentenced to a year at the workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Tennenbaum would later graduate from Columbia University to become a distinguished labor historian. In what can only be described as a clear example of historical whitewash, his 1969 New York Times obituary makes scant reference to his radical early life.
There ought to be a name for it, the apprehension we feel before meeting for the first time a poet or writer whose work we’ve long known and loved—what if the wit who’s soothed our deepest anxieties or kept us up laughing all night turns out to be a joyless curmudgeon, a strident piss-ant, in person? Or what if they’re great to everyone else, but they just don’t like you? There should be a term derived from Greek or Latin for this fear: poetametus, maybe, or scriptorconventusphobia. There’s even a kind of event-planner’s shit-list of authors—an informal collection kept up by word of mouth, from reading to reading, of writers who are notorious for their shocking rudeness, bad behavior—people that you only invite to your campus, conference, library, or book store if you’re feeling brave. (You know who/what I mean.)
Earlier this week I wrote about how I learned this anxiety the hard way, by dating the daughter of my then-favorite poet. Today, though, I’d like to turn to Don Share, a poet whose work I’d known and long admired before we met, and who, in person, turned out to be true to his words: funny, generous, witty, well read, well spoken, able to engage virtually anyone in a sincere exchange. Don Share may be the nicest guy in poetry—just ask anyone who’s met him or worked with him as an editor. He’s been around in that capacity for years, logging time as poetry editor at Partisan Review, Literary Imagination, and Harvard Review before becoming senior editor at Poetry in 2008.
Don taught me long ago that editors who write poetry can have it rough: just think of all the people—many of them first-rate poets—you’ve said no to. How excited to read your book are they going to be, and if they do, in what spirit will they read it? I suggest you read Share’s new book, Wishbone, just out from Black Sparrow, with an open mind, sense of humor near to hand. The mixed presence of the elegiac and the comic, in evidence in his new poems, may well be Share’s trademark and unifies the poems of his fine breakout book, Squandermania (2007, Salt Books).
Squandermania has three epigraphs by Isaac Singer, references to Samuel Beckett, Paul Tillich, William James, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, even Gary Becker’s Rotten Kid Theorem, and it’s eponymous poem is subtitled “Falling Asleep Over Delmore Schwarz”; as these allusions suggest, the mood here is equal parts terror and redemptive—or at least extenuating—comedy. “Meaning,” the second poem in the book, begins, “It don’t mean a thing/ if it don’t mean a thing,” and this warning note to self launches Share’s attempt to make meaning or sense—and, alternately, to challenge meaning, risk non-sense—of language, family life, and the politics of a dishonest government perpetually bringing the world to war.
Share is equally adept at the long free-verse poem, the jeremiad, the sonnet, mock-heroic couplets, puns, and epigrams. His lyric hero hasn’t followed Philip Larkin’s commandment in “This Be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”): he has become a father, and now he faces the consequences. “On Court St. I am innocent/ on Highland I take the high road/ on Ames I am aimless again”—all life and all landmarks have become “alike as eternity!” The book progresses backward in time, with Share implicitly comparing his experience as a father and husband to the experience of his parents, the mode of family life in his childhood to his present family life. “Honi soit…” offers a surprising response to his father’s use of corporal punishment and complicates one of the book’s central questions: can we escape the routines and mistakes of our parents, and, better, do we even want to?
My father, the author of the name that stands in ironic counterpoint to my olive-skinned, decidedly Mediterranean face, the Hennessy in all of my colonial and cosmological confusion and a devout non-believer himself, was studying psychology through out my childhood. By the time he got his Ph.D., just as I was leaving for college, my mother had also taken up the couch and eventually they were both studying down in the mines at the New York Psychoanalytical Institute. The complete works of Sigmund Freud, and next to them the complete works of daughter Anna, occupied the most prominent spot in the house, the mantel over a useless fireplace. We all grew up knowing very well how we "felt" about everything—even before we actually felt it. There was no way we could march unconsciously through all of those Oedipal dramas, my four sisters—each an Electra—and I. We were steeped in myth.
Your ancestors may not have spent time on quite the same merry-go-round of religious belief as my Sicilian forebears (see yesterday’s post,The Moody Temple), but we’ve all grown up with Freud on the mantel. Oedipal is prominent in our lexicon.
My favorite character from mythology is Pan, the Falstaff of the ancient world. Despite his great comic timing, you could say that Pan was a bit of an Oedipal wreck. Funny, though, to say that Pan had Oedipal problems: Oedipal, that is, in the contemporary shorthand. But he didn’t want to kill his father, Hermes, and there was no danger of his sleeping with his mother, Dryope—she wouldn’t let him anywhere near her.
Hermes had tricked the mortal shepherdess Dryope into marrying him: after she refused him when he came to her as a god, he transformed himself into a goatherd and seduced her that way. Pan’s “birth-defects,” the goat-legs, wonky ears, and horns, were a cosmic joke—retribution for Hermes’ cunning. Pan had a face that even a mother couldn’t love, and Dryope skipped out, furious at Hermes, disgusted by her son. If nothing else, Hermes had a sense of humor. He found the baby Pan delightful. He gave the boy music lessons and launched his career as a solo artist.
So why call Pan’s problems Oedipal?
According to Freud, “(Oedipus’) destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so” (4:262; Vol. 4 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press). But Freud butchers the myth of Oedipus here. This wasn’t Oedipus’s fate at all. Even my father the Freudian would agree.
About ten years ago he and I had an interesting conversation. I was teaching a class called “Metamorphoses: Myths and Modern Literature” at Boston University; the next day I was going to begin our discussion comparing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Greek, a late-twentieth century revision by the playwright Steven Berkoff. At the end of Berkoff’s version, full of wild and ranting Cockney logomania, Eddy and Wife (Jocasta) decide to stay together. As for blinding and exiling himself, Eddy says, “Bollocks to all that. I’d rather run all the way back and pull back the sheets, witness my golden-bodied wife and climb into her sanctuary, climb all the way in right up to my head…”
Dad clucked at that, calling it the obvious irony.
But for the nihilistic anti-hero Eddy, buzzing and fucking his way through working-class London, that ending is inevitable.
Last week I was wandering around the giant warehouse of a bookstore on the rue de Rennes called the FNAC, and in a fit of nostalgia I found myself face- to-face with the “Literary Criticism” section. It was a sad moment. On a whole floor bursting at the seams with novels from every continent, histories of every century, sociology, religion, political theory, and you-name-it---and in the country that has inspired countless budding literary critics the world around….Literary Criticism got two small book cases. They looked embarrassed, those two minuscule towers wedged between two other bookcases labeled “Biography” and “Literary History” (and literary history turned out to mean textbooks designed to prepare French students for their various state exams). This Literary Criticism section was nothing to shout about. It had some recent editions of Blanchot, a translation of David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction; books by the 17th century scholar Marc Fumaroli, and almost everything by Antoine Compagnon, a brilliant writer, but alone on that shelf in thinking about how criticism has evolved and what it might mean today. Also, mis -shelved but inviting, Eric Fottorino’s exposé of his years as writer and editor in chief at Le Monde: Mon tour du "Monde". Some good books, some great books, some enervating books, but they added up to nothing-- no sense of a movement, no collective energy.
All of which made me reflect on the state of literary criticism in general. The last big thing in France, before cognitive science at least, was called “genetic criticism.” By comparing manuscript variants of masterpieces on their way to being published, genetic critics hoped to discover something really interesting about literary creation. These genetic critics had the following intuition: Maybe what the French theorists meant in the 1970s when they announced the death of the author was not so much that the author was dead but that the book was alive! And if you could get as close as possible to whatever set of choices constituted the making of a book, you would have committed an essential act of criticism—and gone one better than interpretation.
You have to be a pretty serious nerd to love genetic criticism. Whereas Michael Gorra has taken the same insights as the genetic critics, the same scholarly finesse, and created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end. His meditative and deeply pleasurable Portrait of a Novel : Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece cured my melancholy over the state of criticism by page xxiv—and I hadn’t even started the first chapter. I’m reading galleys, and his book is going to be published at the end of August. Dear Reader, order it!
Gorra has invented a genre that ought to catch on among literary critics in search of a method: the biography of the novel. It’s not obvious what the biography of a novel should entail, but the first thing Gorra does is to show us James’ Portrait of a Lady as it has always been for him—a living, breathing miracle. There are the essential things, beautifully done…. Where James was when he wrote Portrait of a Lady, his state of mind, his family and friendships, the places he traveled and how they expanded his vision, his drive, his talent, his limits and his secrets. He revisits the trampled ground of James’ “sources,” rejecting the literal-minded source hunting that made people like Barthes and Blanchot want to kill off author studies in the first place.
Here’s one of a thousand sentences I love in Portrait of a Novel; it’s about the way James channels his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Venice suicide into a rush of short stories-- “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Jolly Corner, and “The Friends of the Friends.” :
A solitary man, a sympathetic woman: it’s as though James were shaking the dice of character, and rolling them again and again; different combinations of the same two pieces, chronicles of could-haves and should-haves and even second chances.
Gorra has found a tantalizing structure that allows him to go back and forth between James’ life, the scenes of his writing, and the development of his characters-- especially Isabel, the centerpiece--who all emerge here as they should: more real than their sources. There are places in Portrait of a Novel where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel—a masterpiece of critical imagination.
Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. 384 pages. W.W. Norton. August 2012.
If Olympic medals were awarded for anthology making, this year's gold would surely go to Mark Ford, whose London: A History in Verse (Harvard University Press) has hit UK bookstores and will soon be available in the US.
Here's what The Economist says:
NO OTHER city so inspires and infuriates poets like London. For Percy Bysshe Shelley, an early 19th-century romantic, “Hell is a city much like London.” A century before, Alexander Pope was similarly grim, writing from the safety of leafy Twickenham: “Dear, damned, distracting town, farewell!” William Wordsworth once marvelled of the view from Westminster Bridge, “Earth has not anything to show more fair.” But he was also baffled that in London “next-door neighbours” can be “yet still/Strangers, and knowing not each other’s names.”
Despite such complaints, London hooks the imagination, as can be seen in “London: A History in Verse”. Spanning seven centuries, this fascinating new collection features Wordsworth and Pope alongside lesser-known and even anonymous poets, all of them moved by the city’s labyrinthine streets and smells, sounds and textures. The volume includes an outbreak of plague, the Great Fire, the deposition of Charles I, the crowning of Charles II, two world wars and the introduction of the London Underground, all of it conveyed through the prism of poetry. It makes for a thrilling read. Continue reading here.
Read Mark Ford's BAP blog posts here.
Find out more about and order London: A History in Verse here.
From The Art of the Possible, by Kenneth Koch
George Bernard Shaw famously remarked that dancing is "the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music." For proof, just watch this Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers scene from the 1934 film "Night and Day."
I love Toni Bentley's analysis of this dance in her New York Times review of Kathleen Riley's The Astaires: Fred & Adele (OUP): "Put down the Kama Sutra and its impossible acrobatics," writes Bentley. "Rent The Gay Divorcee and watch Astaire seduce a resistant Rogers, transforming her from a feisty, fast-talking, fast-walking, too-good-for-you dame into a dewy-eyed ingénue, slowed and silenced by love." She continues:
In the Cole Porter number “Night and Day,” Astaire pursues her about the dance floor with the wit of changing rhythms, sometimes syncopated, sometimes right on the beat, sometimes pausing to breathe the moment. He chases her, coaxes her, mirrors her, challenges her and goes hip to hip with her. He even spoons her, vertically. She isn’t sure, she turns away, she reconsiders, gives a little, gives a little more, then, overcome, bends backward and surrenders completely to the rhythm, the moment and the man. He flips her around, catches her, sends her off spinning alone only to meet her, unexpectedly, when she slows, pulls her in tight and takes her into a thrilling crescendo, then to a fantastically casual ending, as if to say, “That? Oh, that was nothing,” his modesty after brilliance his most disarming charm . . . As “Night and Day” closes, Astaire lands Rogers gently on a steep incline — she’s mesmerized by the magician who just took her on the ride of her life — bends over her suggestively, pulls back and says, “Cigarette?”
Todd Swift and KIm Lockwood have edited a volume devoted to young British poets -- young defined as born since 1970. The book has just been published and may be ordered on this link. Here is the foreword David Lehman contributed to the book:
Preamble to the New British Poetry
The new British poetry, as represented in this volume, is – to borrow from the poems – “buxom, brazen” (Tiffany Todnut) and “jazzed up” (Simon Turner). It can be “deft and elegant’ (Joanne Limberg), “buttoned-down / in tweed and scarved” on the Mersey (Evan Jones) but is more likely to arrive “unshaven and barefoot, as if on a pilgrimage” (Andre Naffis-Sahley). It spends time “in downtown dives” (Anna Johnson), on “nuclear nights in London” and other cities (Siddharta Bose), “at those dangerous margins / of sleep where anything can be true” (Alexander Freer), raging “against this priggish darkness” (Melanie Challenger).
The poets worry that “we’ll never find a common tongue” (Anne Welsh); they have been “applauded for [their] no-nonsense take on the infantilism of [their] generation” (Luke Kennard); they lust for “the vague, ecstatic kisses / Of a mad mind flushed to profligate invention” (Abigail Parry). The objects of their contemplation include the “odd regatta” of coloured hosiery in the spun cycle (Heather Phillipson), the resemblance between a French kiss and the taking of communion (Loraine Mariner), and the mysterious “third person standing at the foot of the bed, / watching us sleep” and inspiring the poet to undertake a villanelle (Sophie Mackintosh).
Not long ago the line of the English poetic tradition was narrowly defined. You would regularly encounter poems too saturated in their antecedents: poems about the class struggle, bad lovemaking with a carbuncular person, the need to have a piss in the middle of the night, chance meetings on rural roads with decrepit old men who display impressively sturdy minds.
The influences on the new British poets are as varied as globalisation and wide demographics allow. You still get your Eliot and your Marvell. Emily Critchley’s clever take on “To His Coy Mistress” switches gender identities on us: “were I a man, / For whom love studied & love unattained / Were less vivid, resounded less than the real thing; / I’d sit & think & walk & pass my days / With you in true mutual bliss.” There are further twists: the poet complains that Marvell’s “amorous bird of prey” has turned acquiescent, “the tamed grown tamer,” and so self-pleasure appears to be the speaker’s preferred option.
You get your dose of T. S. Eliot in Caleb Klaices’s “Plastic holy,” which begins with a child’s untutored image of “the Berlin Wall” (“as thick as my house / and hollowed out like a baguette”) and ends with an ironic echo of the “Marie” lines in the first stanza of “The Waste Land.”
But the poets also give you Cavafy, a named influence in two of the poems, and they assimilate Beckett, the art of translation, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, booze, Ecstasy, robotics, the ruins of Coventry, American dreams, British movies of the 1940s. They derive more of their energy from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five or the bluesy voice of Ray Charles than from Berlioz or Debussy, though the latter float in and are welcome when they do. Rhyme is scarce. The word jazz shows up here and there undefined and stripped of an immediate musical context -- as in John Challis’s “Jazz Maggot” -- as if the term itself constituted a kind of speakeasy code that will admit you to the club.
Simon Turner’s “Brumaggen Jazz” sounds the book’s keynote: “What a feeling, to step out of the musty / twilight bookshop air with a collection / of poetry under your arm & run smack / into a bleach-blonde brassy bellow of a day.” Claire Askew lingers at the bookshop, generating metaphors from the physical objects we are in danger of losing in our electronic age. “I like to bend them to my will -- / turn their spines inverse like gymnasts,” Askew writes in “Books.” The books wait for her “on bookstore shelves, / asleep, stiff as exclamation marks -- / and my fingers itch to break in every one.”
In “Three Strikes,” Caroline Bird beguiles this Yank with her English intonation when she borrows the style of Gertrude Stein and applies it to America’s national pastime: “I lost one and then I lost the other. / I lost one to keep the other / but the other didn’t want to be kept, / not like that, not as an accidental / second catch of the baseball match / with your palm outstretched to feel for rain.” Though I have followed baseball closely all my life, I do not know what “an accidental / second catch” can possibly mean, but that is not to the detriment of the poem.
The subject of lust – as a deadly sin but an irresistible one -- provokes Tiffany Todnut’s “Way of Wanton” with its tidy closing rhyme: “I burn / for you, your / deadly wick. / You give me / a fever, a rash / I want to lick.” Of the first lines in the book, the one that seems to be echoing the longest in my brain is Sophie Mayer’s “Today is the day of the smashing of dishes.” But I would close this preamble with my joy in Sophie Hannah’s conjoining of the new and the old in a poem whose end words include “litter,” “Gary Glitter,” “quitter,” and “bitter”: “I am following the Dalai Lama on Twitter / But the Dalai Lama is not following me.”
-- David Lehman (28 September 2011)
The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity is an anthology of 20 essays that, according to its co-editor Blas Falconer, aims to counter a narrow perspective of Latino/a writers and honor their diversity. In his own essay, Falconer writes, "When Spanish enters the poem, it is often done because it is part of the memory, not because it is the language of the reader or of the audience."
This idea of how Spanish is mysteriously fused to the neurons of Latino writers resonated with me, and I wanted to hear more from Blas. He and co-editor Lorraine Lopez will present the book this Thursday, April 26, at noon, as part of the Books and Beyond series at the Library of Congress in partnership with Letras Latinas and the University of Arizona Press. At 6:30 p.m., both Falconer and Lopez will read selections from their own work. For details, visit here.
ET: What was the source of inspiration for this anthology, for the idea that Latino writers are more than a globbed together demographic or a brightly colored (I'm guessing red) wedge in a pie graph?
BF: The book began, in part, as a presentation on an AWP panel I wrote in 2008. The acquisitions editor from University of Arizona Press was in the audience and came up to me afterwards and suggested we do a whole book. I told her I was thinking the exact same thing. We wanted to open it up beyond the Latino identity that's been seen through a small lens.
The book also originated from the fact that I didn't really understand my own relationship to the Latino community or to Puerto Rico. I had traveled there a lot when I was younger, but after my grandmother passed away I stopped going. I also knew that there was this rich Puerto Rican community in New York that I didn't feel quite in sync with because I grew up in Northern Virginia, and there just weren't a lot of Puerto Ricans there. As a writer, I kept asking myself, ‘Am I Latino?’ ‘What does it mean to be Latino?’ I have a white father and a Latina mother, but I have an estranged relationship to Puerto Rico. What does this mean? Then I realized that I saw two of my dearest friends as Latinas - Lisa Chavez, a Chicana from Alaska, and Helena Mesa, who is Cuban and grew up in Pittsburgh - even though they too felt disconnected. I thought, ‘Let's explore this.’ I realized that many writers were challenging the term of Latino in various ways, and I thought reading about their experiences might be interesting.
Another source of inspiration is that sometimes I just don't want to write. I'm on empty. But I'm still fueled by great poetry or writing, so I want to be involved somehow. Editing kind of satisfies that need. Seeing how different people write, how their work or books come together. It's inspiring.
BF: The press asked me to widen the scope to include fiction writers, and I asked Lorraine Lopez to be my co-editor. We started thinking about the Latino experience and the Latino identity, and we wanted writers that subverted stereotypical topics -- food, grandmothers, estrangement and exile, urban life. We wanted to push beyond this and see what was next. (at right, Blas Falconer)
ET: What's funny is that all those topics are in the book!
BF: It's totally true. But Lisa Chavez, who's from Alaska, isn't writing about the expected Chicana experience. In his essay, Steven Cordova basically says, ‘I'm Latino, but I'm HIV positive and gay, and it doesn't mean I'm not Latino or addressing issues of otherness, but I'm doing that through this other aspect of my identity, through this other narrative.'
In terms of aesthetics, Carmen Gimenez Smith and Gabe Gomez call on Latino poets to explore what might be considered experimental methods of articulating the Latino experience, which often relies heavily on narrative. So those topics are there, but they’re approached in many different ways.
ET: As an editor, do you find it challenging to reject work?
BF: I do. To be honest, we did have to pass on a few essays because there were a couple of times where they were redundant in subject matter. Another one was more for an academic journal in terms of what the press wanted for our imagined reader. No one submitted a bad essay, but some of them just didn't fit. It was hard because we didn't invite anyone to submit that we didn't really admire as writers.
ET: The tone of the essays in this book varies widely: "Latina Enough," by Stephanie Elizondo Griest is witty as well as reflective. In "When We Were Spanish," your co-editor Lorraine Lopez offers a kind of personalized scholarship. Did you both deliberately attempt to include a gamut of styles or did it just turn out that way?
BF: It kind of did just turn out that way. We were interested in not only the ideas in the essays but also in their craft. And we weren't just asking anyone to contribute; we were asking writers. So we encouraged them to write in the manner they felt best addressed their subjects. Gina Franco's essay is much more lyric, for example. It's a stunning essay and very complex in the way she addresses issues of identity.. Some were more academic, such as Peter Ramos’ essay, which had more of a rooting in the American cannon, more of an academic slant. And that was good too.
ET: In "Coyotes," Alex Espinoza writes about speaking at community colleges and remembering how he also sat at a workshop, at University of California, Irvine, and at the same table as Gary Soto and Helena Viramontes. What is the role mentorship plays in understanding identity?
BF: In my own essay, I kind of address this. When I started reading Rane Arroyo and Judith Ortiz Cofer, I thought, ‘Oh these writers are like me in some way.’ But they were able to find their own voices and incorporate their cultural influences. They were doing what I wanted to do, and I saw them as legitimate Latino writers. It was a way in for me. I realized I am also a part of this community. In that sense I saw them as models.
When my first book came out, I felt an incredibly nurturing response from the Latino community that I had never expected. Even today, five years after my first book was published, I still feel welcome and there's no question I'm part of this community. It made me feel as if my own experience was legitimate, and it's resolved this kind of conflict of estrangement I've had. I’m grateful to the Latino community for embracing diversity within itself.
ET: How do you as a Puerto Rican and Latino poet feel or do not feel marginalized?
BF: You know, I don't feel marginalized. I feel like everyone has had that experience of being "the other." I don't care if you're a straight white man; you've felt that sense of otherness. I don't feel any more marginalized than other people do at different times in their lives. I don't think I'm going to be denied a job or not be published or be dismissed because I'm a Latino writer. I don't think I'm going to be ignored. Maybe it's a testament to the strides the Latino writing community has made in publishing. Of course, I've experienced bigotry in my life as a gay man and as a Latino, but I'm not looking over my shoulder or waiting for the next person to shut a door in my face. But other people have had, and still do have, that experience, and I know that it happens.
“April is the cruellest month,” for a basketball fan. No more college March Madness until next year. Not until May will the NBA playoffs get serious or the WNBA season begin. To continue the quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”
However, if you are a poet and basketball fan, Michigan State University Press has an April antidote: a recently released collection of essays, fast break to line break poets on the art of basketball. The 25 contributors were asked to reflect how the love of basketball influences their poems and their lives as writers. Editor Todd Davis, the author of four books of poems, makes a strong argument that “if baseball is the sport of elegant prose, basketball may be the sport of verse.”
Part of his evidence comes from a poet couple, Margaret Gibson and David McKain, who met at a Yaddo residency. He infected her with his love of basketball. Her subsequent comparison: “Learning the craft in order to be, without self-consciousness, freed into a new rhythm, a heart-leaping, line-breaking fluidity I find only in poetry when I consider language and only in basketball when I consider sport.”
Or Two Things You Need Balls to Do, says Natalie Diaz in her poem in the First Quarter section. (Diaz, a former professional basketball player turned poet, is a recent BAP interview.)
Davis is after “the liminal space where art and body are fused” on the court and on the page. With a few exceptions most of the essays are new; Basketball and Poetry: The Two Riches by Stephen Dunn is reprinted from one of this books. The topics range from basketball obsessions to serious poetry craft talk. Quincy Troupe, also a former professional player, offers both in a detailed analysis of the multiple drafts required to have the words, images and rhythmic speed of the poem For Magic reflect the improvisational wizardry of one of greatest ever point guards, Magic Johnson.
Of course there is the expected bemoaning of aging body parts by the middle-aged with tacit appreciation that poetry is not hard on the knees. “I have been blessed by elbows,” writes Ross Gay who refers to young hoopsters as kangaroos. His point, echoed by several other writers, is the thrill of surprise; elbow “as a kind of bold poetic line….Elbow as possibility. Elbow as dream.”
One of my favorites, in a section labeled Halftime, are the observations of Debra Marquart, a former high school cheerleader. She argues a poem or a game of basketball can be defined identically: “a closed and finite experiment designed to test the mettle and training, the natural talents and improvisational skills of its participants.”
From her vantage on the sidelines, she compares the “acoustic landscape of a basketball game” to poetry and pre-poetry: "Before poems and prayers, there were spells and charms – carefully arranged words selected not only for their figurative and literal meanings, but also for their acoustic value, arranged and vocalized in specific, ritualized ways, so that they would travel as acoustic values through the waves of the world and effect change on the material plane.”
Which is why Eliot filled the then-largest collegiate basketball arena in the country on April 30, 1956. His post-season lecture at Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis drew more than 13,000 cheering poetry fans.
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pick-up basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was the featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.
I know you're probably not local to Los Angeles, but I wish you could come out to hear two of my literary heroes, Sandra M. Gilbert and Ron Carlson read at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena this weekend.
Founded in 1894, Vroman's is Southern California's oldest and largest independent bookseller (two of Vroman's early employees are restacking books in the photo, above).
Here are a few words from Ron Carlson on bewilderment and humility and listening in the act of writing:
"Beginning a story without knowing all the terrain is not a comfortable feeling. It is uncomfortable enough in fact to keep most people away from the keyboard...But there are moments in the process of writing a story when you must tolerate that feeling: you stay alert to everthing that is happening and by listening and watching, you find out where you are going by going there.
"The single largest advantage a veteran writer has over the beginner is this tolerance for not knowing. It's not style, skill, or any other dexterity. An experienced writer has been in those woods before and is willing to be lost; she knows that being lost is necessary for the discoveries to come."
from Ron Carlson Writes a Story (Graywolf Press), page 15
Sandra Gilbert is one of my favorite living writers. She speaks of life as a woman, a daughter, a mother, a thinking person. "You write because you dream a different self into being when you write," Sandra M. Gilbert says in her essay, "Why Do We Write", On Burning Ground: 30 Years of Thinking about Poetry (University of Michigan Press). "You write because you meet a new you in writing, a you you didn't know you had."
Ron Carlson and Sandra Gilbert will be reading at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California on Sunday, April 15, 4p.m.
At the AWP conference in Chicago, I attended a panel--the first panel of the first morning--on contemporary Jewish poetry. There was a lot of genius at that table, and an adorable baby in the audience about whom the moderator said, "Don't be angry at that baby. We like that baby." A very happy little panel. Of all the things in that room I found to like, I left there utterly taken with the work of young Hasidic poet, Yehoshua November.
Here is the poem he read that morning, from his first book, God's Optimism (Main Street Rag, 2010).
Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah
Sometimes you see them
in the dressing area
of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning
their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers,
until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos
of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg,
an eagle whose feathery wing span
spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman
other than one's wife.
If you've been following this blog, you've read Nin Andrews' Meet the Press feature for which she interviews the unsung editors of small pressses. But if that's all you know of Nin, you are in for a major treat: she's one of the funniest, most original poets around and she is also attracting a large following for her hilarious parodies and cartoons, many of which can be found on her blog here. Click on the cover image above or here to buy her book.
On Saturday, April 28th at 7 PM, join Nin Andrews, Robert Miltner, Karen Schubert, and Eric Anderson from Kattywompus Press for an evening of poetry, books, and footsteps overhead at Mac’s Backs, 1820 Coventry Road, Cleveland, OH 44106. More information here.
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.