The format of the evening was to have each poet introduce the next by responding to his or her poem in the anthology instead of by reciting awards and bona fides. These responses were personal, respectful, and insightful. Kay Ryan revealed her admiration for what Rae Armantrout leaves out of a poem as much as for what she keeps in; Brenda Hillman singled out the spiritual notes in Jane Hirshfield’s work. Dean Rader noted that he finds himself placed between Robert Pinsky and Kay Ryan in the anthology, and I think we all understood his trepidation introducing the great Kay Ryan, though he did so with humor and aplomb. This format for introductions, unique in my experience, was Anji Brenner's idea. It worked beautifully and I'd like to see other coordinators try it.
The library reference desk had been turned into a bar. I am a librarian and was on something of a busman’s holiday, so I made conversation with one of the bartending staff members when I sighted the Haines Criss-Cross Directory behind her. Do we still get requests for Haines Criss Cross? she asked. "No," I said but our segue into talk about the conversion of reference books to electronic format was interrupted by the clamor of the entire audience lining up for more wine. The wine flowed generously all night, free of charge and happily shared by the library staff. The audience stayed for over two hours, and was as engaged at the end of the night as they were at the beginning. When Brenda Hillman asked for a show of hands, we discovered that many in the audience had traveled from San Francisco and the East Bay and from as far away as Sacramento. Driving around the Bay Area is not easy, so when people make a long drive to come to an event, it means they were committed to being there.
As a library manager as well as a poet, I contend with the changing notion of the public library (they ask: “Who needs a library in the age of Google?”). The Best American Poetry 2012 West Coach launch at the Mill Valley Public Library is an example of the public library at its best: a place for storage and retrieval of information, a place for contemplation, but also a welcoming space for cultural and community gatherings. This night in November for The Best American Poetry 2012 brought a community of readers into the public library because of poets and poetry. Not only do people read poetry, they come out in large numbers to hear it. This pleases me no end.
-- Stephanie Brown
Like millions of other people in the NYC area, Elaine (my wife) and I
spent most of last week in the cold dark, without light or heat. We did have cold running water, and the toilets flushed, so we were
luckier than many.
We live downtown, and by Wednesday we learned that there were pockets of power up by 26th and 6th. So, to get out of the apartment, we'd trek up each evening about twenty blocks in the dark to find a restaurant.
The journey from our apartment to the land of light was other-worldly. It brought to mind images I've encountered over the years about the afterlife. You might think the pitch black streets would be empty, but they were loaded with other pilgrims scrounging around like us for food, warmth and whatever household supplies they were lucky enough to discover in the rare store that was open.
Many of us carried flashlights in our hands to guide our way; some wore
them on their foreheads like miners. Others strolled without light at
all, as if they had night vision.
Walking these streets made you feel like you were part of an army of shadows -- one of the shades of the classical underworld. And the military reference is more than just an analogy. As we strolled back and forth to our destination, we'd periodically notice the men and women of the National Guard walking along side us in camouflage attire, gently laughing and joking into the night.
Continue reading over at Jerome's blog espresso bongo . . .
The wait to vote was only about an hour this morning, not too bad on a brisk sunny day. My polling place is an NYU building a few blocks away and as I approached I could see that the line extended from inside the building into the street. I was prepared to settle in for a long wait but after about five minutes a helpful young man called for voters in my district. “I can get you in right away,” he said, something I would expect to hear while waiting to enter a hot new club, not a polling place.
I soon learned that what he meant by “get you in” was that he could get me into the building, where the line for my district was still quite long, though shorter than the lines for other districts. We all stood patiently in a crowded hallway as the lines crept along. From time to time we cleared a path down the middle to allow an elderly man or woman to come through on the way to or from voting. A blind elderly man made his way confidently. When he passed, my neighbor, a tall striking young woman whom I assumed was either a model or an aspiring actress (there are many in these parts), looked at me and shook her head. “Amazing,” she said. “When do you ever see such determination?”
From there we started a conversation that made the remaining wait go by too quickly. We traded Sandy stories and agreed that it was strange to be in Manhattan, where things seemed to have returned to normal when just a short distance away so many were suffering.
She was originally from Albania, and has lived in the US for
fifteen years. (I had detected a slight accent.) “This is home,” she said.
She’s in her first of four years of graduate studies at the National
Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, nearby on 13th Street. When she completes her studies,
which require 750 supervised hours of treating patients plus classroom work and
her own thrice-weekly sessions with a psychoanalyst, an experience she
described as life-changing, she hopes to treat children and young adult victims of sexual abuse. I asked if before she began her studies she
considered herself to be a happy well-adjusted person. She seized upon “happy.” “What
does it mean to be happy?" she wondered. "Isn’t that the big question?” Well, yes.
We decided to use the word “satisfied” instead but after batting that
about came up with “leading a well-integrated life with intimate relationships
and satisfying work,” a much less satisfying phrase than the simple “happy.” I never did get her answer, but she seemed
like a happy person to me, at least during the time we were together.
As I approached the sign-in desk, I was disappointed to learn that we were using paper ballots that we would fill out in a “privacy booth” and scan on site to be delivered to . . . where? The Board of Elections? I had always looked forward to the private moments in the voting both, concealed from view by the grey curtain, when I moved the little red nob to indicate my vote and the check mark appeared in the box next to my candidate. And, having made my selections, I liked to believe that when I shifted the big lever from left to right and the curtain swung open, I was connected with millions of Americans who were doing the same thing.
My mother and her sisters were born in Ishqabad, “the city of love,” in Turkmenistan. She was educated in Cypress as a nurse, speaking both Turkish and Greek. She then went to Tehran, met my father and married him. This is how I came to be born in Iran. And what a country! A place where in every home you almost always find a copy of poems of the revered Iranian poet, Hafez; a country where even the illiterate can recite a line or two from the poems of Rumi, Hafez, Saʿdī or any other classic poet to make his or her point in a conversation. It’s a country where an amusing children’s game—and I played this as a twelve-year-old with much gusto—is moshaereh, a game of poetry and memory where using poems learned by heart, one child recites a line of a poem, and the other child using the last letter of the poem must recite another poem that begins with that letter. For example:
Child one: A seasoned traveler on the road to love’s door
Your blood leaves its mark on every step [i]
Child two: Prophets of words! You pen-wielding idols.
If your message was the Truth, why did it crash
like waves at the shores of degradation? [ii]
Child one: Not for the sake of forests or for the sea
but for a leaf, for a drop brighter than your eyes. [iii]
… and so on. There was so much poetry stored in our little heads that we sometimes kept the game going for as long as a half hour.
For Iranians, as for people living in many parts of the world, poets occupy a lofty position and to them poetry is like bread, air, and colors. It is in this way that poets wield power, and at the same time set trembling the hearts of politicians, dictators, and even religious leaders. Indeed from Damascus, to Beijing to Tehran in every revolution or uprising, poets are among the first to be jailed. But the voice of the poet cannot be arrested, and that makes them dangerous to oppressive regimes such as Iran and China.
As an Iranian-American poet, I have always been a great advocate of literature in translation. As a poet who writes in English and saddles two languages and cultures, I have made it my duty to spend a portion of my time translating the poetry of Iranian poets. Not having access to the literature of a culture, movies like Argo and Not Without My Daughter, and news reports from sources such as Fox network bring to focus a whole nation through a single, and sometimes distorted, lens. I consider this kind of one-sided distorted presentation of any story dangerous, unfair, and in opposition to the peaceful direction towards which most human beings in this world wish to move.
In a country like Iran, a great number of laws are passed just so that injustice can be carried out legally. In many cases poets bearing witness to injustices and atrocities are guardians against lies and half-truths perpetrated by the lawmakers and fanatic religious leaders. These poets are harassed, jailed, or forced to flee. It is imperative that their poems are translated into other languages, and that it is done so in a caring manner: as living poems translated by poets who are fluent in both languages and cultures. Carolyn Forché in her groundbreaking anthology Against Forgetting writes, “One of the things that I believe happens when poets bear witness to historical events is that everyone they tell also becomes responsible for what they have heard and what they now know.”[iv] In my opinion, taking on this responsibility is crucial to our progress towards a harmonious and tolerant world society because to know the poetry of a nation means a closer look at its soul. Kenyan novelist and essayist, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who has always urged dialogue between nations through culture writes:
Culture is a product of a people’s history. But it also reflects that history and embodies a whole set of values by which a people view themselves and their place in time and space. Cultural contact can therefore play a great part in bringing about mutual understanding between peoples of different nations. Instead of armaments and nuclear weapons, instead of imposing one’s own version of democracy on tiny islands and continents through Rapid or Low Deployment Forces, let people of the world dialogue together through culture.[v]
Presently, only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. Yet, literature in translation is a tool necessary in building bridges that connect people of different cultures and religious persuasions. When there is a bridge, there will be foot traffic; and when we cross and engage with other cultures, through poetry, novels, and plays, we are that much closer to understanding them. That, I believe as a poet and a woman, is a good solid stride towards peace.
[ii] A Homily on Leaving by Nader Naderpour, translated by Sholeh Wolpé and Sahba Shayani. From The Forbidden: Poems From Iran and Its Exiles, edited by Sholeh Wolpé, Michigan State University Press, 2012.
[v] Moving the Center: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o; Heinmann Portsmouth, NH; EAEP, Nairobi; and James Curry Oxford, 1993.
Instead of all that, I get to sit here and ignore deadlines, maybe take my umbrella to the park across the street. There's a hawk that lives there. We named him Joseph, after a bygone mayor of the little city where we live. This summer, Joseph has been observed grooming his wings, lunching on the small and feathered (his beak makes fine cutlery), and terrorizing the mockingbirds who also live in the park but are not so afraid of him that they won't dive-bomb his head in protest. Sometimes I walk through the park listening to the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, my summer anthem album, a gospel record, really, if you think about it. I sing "You Can Get It If You Really Want" and "Many Rivers to Cross." I hum "Sitting in Limbo." Sometimes I stand beneath the canopy of a royal poinciana, which, when in bloom, hazes the space beneath it to a watery and pale red. This summer, I've been working and looking for work, doing and waiting, thinking maybe I should worry more, or less. There's no silencing the reel. I've been keeping modest lists: Go to bank. Call doctor. Hawk, storm, faith, here.
(Ed note: This post originally appeared on July 14, 2012)
Our friend Michael Lally, who describes himself as "just another ex-jazz-musician/proto-rapper/Jersey-Irish-poet-actor/print-junkie/film-raptor/beat-hipster-"white Negro"-rhapsodizer/ex-hippie-punk-'60s-radical-organizer's take on all things cultural, political, spiritual & aggrandizing," put up this post about the aftermath of Sandy:
Sandy is still wreaking havoc in its wake. First of all the death toll keeps rising. In some places nearby and not so nearby there are people still trapped by flood waters. Hoboken is the primary nearby example. People in the first floors of apartment buildings were told to evacuate but those on the higher floors not. The authorities assumed any flood waters would rapidly recede.
None of these have anything to do with tax policy. Or regulation. Instead, they have to do with the existence of customers—i.e., people.
So if you’re talking about “creating jobs” or “helping the middle class,” you ought to be thinking about people. Why did the rabbi and the priest walk into a bar? They both had enough money in their pockets to splurge on a cocktail or pitcher of beer or glass of Bordeaux or whatever it is clergy order when they’re in a joke. And that money came from a job, in their case, a job with an organization that pays no taxes.
The tattered idea that lowering tax rates for business will increase hiring is absurd. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia pays $0 in tax, and yet closed St. Mary of the Assumption, along with some smaller parishes and many schools, this past summer. That means not only an out-of-work pastor, but teachers, secretaries, janitors, clerks and administrators all losing their jobs. The Roman Catholic Church’s taxes couldn’t get any lower; what the enterprise lacked was parishioners—i.e., customers—i.e., people.
And regulation? Well, The Catholic Church, along with other religious institutions, is exempt from many regulations, particularly the ones that promote equality and fairness by forbidding discrimination. For example, in Iowa, a business is not allowed to hire or fire someone “on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, or disability,” unless it is "[a]ny bona fide religious institution or its educational facility, association, corporation or society.”
But most regulation exists to keep people from harm, not from injustice. Rules against serving toxic food or dumping slag in the drinking water or selling cars that don’t have functional braking systems are good for people—i.e., customers—and, indirectly, for businesses, because they keep customers—i.e., people—alive. The reason bars have to get liquor licenses is to protect those customers—i.e., people—from a substance that can be very dangerous if not properly handled. A dead customer will not boost revenues. A dead customer won’t enhance that hip vibe. A dead customer won’t bring his friends in next April, when the Yankees’ chances look pretty good again.
O burdensome regulations! O burdensome taxes! In Mitt Romney’s Bar & Grill, he’s pouring a secret jobs potion that’s going to jump-start our economy without even a sideways glance at the actual human beings behind economic transactions like ordering a Fuzzy Navel. The only people in his post-Citizens United wo rldview are corporations, who will pay less tax and follow fewer rules. To make up for that generous gift, he’ll slash “wasteful” government spending on such whatchacallems as:
Prepare to get fired, bureaucratic slackers, at which point, you’ll cease to be a customer—i.e., person. But don’t worry, that small business called St. Mary’s, just down the block from your out-of-work ass is sure to use its windfall tax break and freedom from regulation to hire more priests and nuns, folks who don’t need the contraception not covered in their health insurance. Ask your parents to send you to Divinity School. You’ll clean up in that libertarian dreamscape, that model of trickle-down economics, that no-tax, low-regulation utopia where the secret jobs potion flows freely through every empty pew.
My first impressions on approaching the New Jersey Performing Arts Center were of contrasts. 4,000 high school students attended the festival’s events on Friday, and most of them were piling into their buses out front, a few speaking excitedly about the day’s session on “Poetry and Survival,” another bemoaning having to miss Jane Hirshfield. The first festival goers I met were comparing this year’s to the previous four they had attended, one speaking wistfully of Waterloo Village, while another praised the City of Newark for partnering in making this one happen. A white exhibition tent in front of Prudential Hall was filled with table after table of poetry books, arranged alphabetically by author, at which people stood quietly reading, turning pages, almost to the one silent, next to tables laden with festival logo-emblazoned tee shirts and coffee mugs, water bottles and posters, around which there was chatter, laughter, and quick swapping of opinions on size, color, and number. Between events, people compared sessions they had attended earlier in the day, distances driven to get to the festival, books recently read, poems used in teaching, and conversations with Natasha Trethewey and Amiri Baraka.
I chose two sequences of events – one conversation and one performance -- and in the first, Eavan Boland and Henri Cole. The large performance hall was comfortably full and the discourse instantly different from what we had left outside. Eavan Boland pointed the audience to Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and the moment of realization that the speaker was the ringmaster. Henri Cole read in almost one breath Sylvia Plath’s “Balloons,” saying after how from beginning to end, he had the sense of holding a bare live wire. These were responses to a request from the audience that the poets share an exemplary simile or metaphor that worked profoundly for them. Revision and rereading, difficult versus obscure poems, love poems and politics surfaced in other questions.
Later, the performance started with jazz and continued with Terrance Hayes, Fanny Howe, Thomas Lux, and more. Terrance Hayes read new poems, including “Barber-ism”, with haircuts, men, and mind static; his introductions offered stories that ran beneath and gave rise to verse. Fanny Howe, praising Hayes’s work and almost apologizing that hers would be “more delicate,” read lines of shimmering beauty, poetry performed center stage. Thomas Lux caught the audience laughing and understanding and disturbed, often at once, playing mind games that refused to remain just that.
On the train back into the city, the difference of the day’s discourse stayed with me as I read poems of the poets I had heard speak and read. Among them were words about words and more.
Mostly people talk to people, standing
Round to jibber-jabber in the blue hours
Of weekdays. You see them meandering
Words while the calendar tilts and pours
Its steady juice of minutes…
Everything ignored in the name of Weather,
Of somebody’s business & “Howyoubeens.”
I too am guilty. Chattling after strangers.
Wasting it. Dumb. Bitching about the wind.
-- Terrance Hayes
“Gravity and Center”
I don’t want words to sever me from reality.
I don’t want to need them. I want nothing
to reveal feeling but feeling – as in freedom,
or the knowledge of peace in a realm beyond,
or the sound of water poured in a bowl.
-- Henri Cole
Madge McKeithen teaches writing at the New School, is at work on her second book, and writes online at www.madgemckeithen.com
When I was an undergrad at a fancy university, I remember being criticized on several occasions for not being “discriminating”—it was suggested I should be more exacting in whom I accepted as friends; it was said also that, as a Midwesterner by birth, I was “too nice.” Nice, Midwestern, not discriminating—those were euphemisms for consorting with the wrong sort of person, for an unseemly lack of contempt. In truth, I could be plenty contemptuous when faced with a bad argument, but when faced with a human being, I took all comers, high and low.
Not bad training for tending bar. Maybe I wasn’t discriminating enough when I donned my apron (sans heels, btw), but I needed the money and, besides, I was proud to hold this difficult, demanding, and weirdly powerful position.
Bars are experiments in democracy, in that anyone, with a few exceptions, can walk in. Like voters, bar patrons have to be a certain age. And like convicted felons in some states, certain patrons, patrons with prior convictions, can be banned from participating, usually because they wrote bad checks or ran out on tabs. Fraud is not tolerated; the punishment is to be 86ed—permanently exiled. Drinking too much, on the other hand, even if the result is disorderly behavior, gets pa trons only temporary suspensions—and jocularity upon their having slept it off and returned. After all, people who drink too much spend a lot doing it, which is good for business. So in my bar, I served hundreds of people every week, thousands over the course of months, and while I carded assiduously to keep youngsters out, I had to consult the 86 list of banned patrons but once. The number of patrons on that list? Two.
Fraud was not a big issue in that particular democracy, nor is it in our national democracy, and yet, our 86 list is about to get really long, thanks to a Republican-led wave of voter suppression laws across the United (not) States. Absent from that list will be people who wrote bad checks—who turned out to be impersonating a dead guy or who say they’re citizens but aren’t really—in short, people who have actually committed acts of fraud. Instead it’ll be full of people who are the “wrong sort,” like the ones I was supposed to shun in college. Black people, brown people, poor people, disabled people, those are the ones Republicans are systematically trying to weed out of the polling booth, where they stand in the way of “taking back America.”
Republicans need a long-term strategy for shrinking the electorate because where they want to take America back to—Jim Crow? 1919, before women got the vote? the 1950s?—isn’t popular with the electorate we have now. And it’ll only get less popular, as America’s skin color gets browner. But popularity is the factory of democracy. Or, as the distinguished senator from South Carolina, Republican Lindsey Graham, has it, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business.”
Hence the anti-democratic voter suppression of a party already prone to a tyranny of the minority, filibustering a record number of bills that would otherwise pass the Senate with majorities and putting one-person secret holds on routine appointments and overwhelmingly popular bills. Oh, and let’s not forget holding the credit rating of the nation hostage to such kind-hearted agendas as gutting health care programs and putting a squeeze on food stamps for poor people who persist in their bad habit of eating meals.
It’s kind of a mystery to me why bars work. You jam a bunch of strangers into a small space, give them mind-altering substances, then unleash them into the night, long after the sober people have gone to bed. On paper, that’s a terrible idea. Likewise with democracy, the nutty idea that all sorts—rich or poor, male or female, strait or gay, black or white, cranky or kind, better or worse—can step into a booth and drink the draught of their choice. There’s no “wrong sort.” There’s only the wrong of sorting.