The fifth annual Paul Violi Prize in Poetry has been awarded to New School MFA in Creative Writing student Mariam Zafar. The second-place winner is Timothy Baker, and honorable mention goes to Zachary Lutz. Each will receive a cash prize and be recognized at the MFA in Creative Writing commencement ceremony.
Mariam Zafar is a Pakistani-American writer pursuing her MFA in Poetry at The New School. A desert dweller at heart, she writes between Miami, Dubai, and New York City. Her poetry is forthcoming in Bird's Thumb and The Ink & Code. When she's not working on her collection of poems, you will find her scavenging for the best cup of chai in town.
Tim Baker is an MFA candidate in Poetry at The New School based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the Coachella Review and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and his prose work has appeared in articles for Newsweek Special Editions, TV Guide, and CBS Watch!, among other publications. He is a graduate of Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Zachary Lutz is a writer in Brooklyn. He is an MFA candidate at The New School and an ex-Ohioan.
(Ed note: This is the final post about poets and poetry in Scotland. You can find all posts in the series here. We thank Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library (in Edinburgh), for so generously introducing us to these fine poets.)
The Australian publisher Ivor Indyk recently wrote a short essay for the Sydney Review of Books on the very different economies of poetry and prose. Along the way he had this to say about the experiences of poets at literary festivals:
Poets are treated as the poor cousins of the book world at writers’ festivals, put on first thing in the morning or later in the evening, when they can be processed in bulk.
Increasingly the answer to this problem – at least in the UK – is the festival dedicated solely to poetry. Sometimes this can be a one-off, as in London’s Poetry Parnassus, attached to the 2012 Olympics, but usually poetry festivals work best as annual events: in England, think Aldeburgh and Ledbury; in Scotland, think StAnza .
That capital A in StAnza gestures towards the festival’s location, St Andrews, a township on the coast about 50 miles north of Edinburgh. St Andrews is an ancient settlement – its cathedral, now a splendid ruin, was built in 1160 – and the modern town is a small town, not a mall town. The permanent population is about 17,000 residents, but this swells considerably with university students, golfers and tourists (“almost 1,000 years of looking after visitors” notes the town’s tourist portal).
St Andrews boasts Scotland’s oldest university, founded in 1413. The English Department there is well supplied with poets – John Burnside, Robert Crawford, Don Paterson, Jacob Polley and, until recently, Douglas Dunn – who make a fine complement to the annual festival. But the university is probably best known as the place where Kate and Wills first met. Royals trump golfers and poets every time.
For me, St Andrews has a personal dimension: it’s where my parents – New Zealand sailor and Scottish schoolteacher – honeymooned towards the end of the Second World War. For a while, I even believed I’d been conceived there.
StAnza itself is a magnificent creation. It started in a low-key way back in 1998, and now each year takes over the town for four or five days in the first week of March. The festival brings in major international figures – this year Caroline Forché, Alice Notley, Paul Durcan, Ilya Kaminsky – and schedules them alongside their UK equivalents: Simon Armitage, Ian Duhig, Glyn Maxwell, Kei Miller, Sinead Morrisey and others. In between there are a whole range of performers, participants and events: writers from Shetland and the Faroes, from Sardinia and New Zealand and Mallorca; poets showcasing journals such as Poetry London and The Wolf; slam poets; an annual lecture (this year from Glyn Maxwell); hands-on workshops with the festival poet in residence; a large public masterclass led by Simon Armitage, where emerging poets submit to being critiqued not only by Armitage but also both by members of a very large audience (the event, like most at StAnza, was sold out).
StAnza is a world of big names and big gestures, of centre-stage events, but also a world where amazing things take place in the nooks and crannies. There were panel sessions over breakfast: one on translations, one on poetry as unfinished business, one on poets and islands. I took part in this last one. It helps if you come from a country where one island is a waka (ocean-going canoe) and the other is a giant fish hauled to the surface by a trickster god who happens to be a passenger in the canoe. (I was born on the waka but live on the fish.)
Then there were small round-table sessions, where poets like Paul Durcan read and talked to a group of no more than 16 participants. (For obvious reasons – intimacy is on the table – these sold out faster than anything else.) There were “past and present” sessions, where for example Caroline Forché talked about Mark Strand and Ilya Kaminsky discussed Paul Celan. There was a busy poetry market – where small presses displayed and sold their wares: all the way from serious and significant publishers like the Mariscat Press to cottage-industry versions of Hallmark Cards. The amazing Scottish Poetry Library had a stall there, and was a presence throughout the festival.
The Emergency Poet was also on hand, ambulance and all, and happy to prescribe appropriate poems to festival-goers in need of therapy.
I suspect quite a few people might have needed the Emergency Poet’s services. StAnza is one of those festivals where the energy levels are high. The centre of town is buzzing with poets and poetry readers. Events are spread across a whole range of smaller venues, complementing the wonderful Byre Theatre where most of the poetry action takes place. In the Byre you can watch short poetry movies, check out installations and exhibitions, or find yourself accosted by strolling players.
You can also eat food or buy a drink in the Byre – hence these beer and coffee coasters.
It’s no wonder then that the plaudits roll in, from festival-goers and from the poets. Andrew Motion, ex UK poet laureate, calls StAnza “one of the most dynamic poetry festivals anywhere in the world”. Mark Strand described it as “a beautifully run festival. All those poets! All those good poems!” The late Alastair Reid used the phrase “generosity of spirit” when describing the festival, and that seems entirely just.
I’ve been to StAnza twice now (once in 2009, and again this year), and have had extraordinary pleasure from it both times. It’s a festival which has significant continuities, yet keeps coming up with surprises. I rather wish I’d been there in 2007 for the surprise that Alastair Reid sprang at the festival close. He read his famous poem “Scotland” to the assembled crowd, then declared that this would be the last time he would ever read it.
“Then,” notes the StAnza archive , “he set fire to it.”
New Zealand poet Bill Manhire was a participant at this year’s StAnza festival.
Hombres Locos [April 25, 2015]
I love your “best lines of the week” conceit for this week’s blog post.
This was my favorite episode of the (SOB!!!) final season so far, due in large part to generous helpings of Sally, Peggy, Joan, and Betty, all my favorite Mad Men femmes. With at least 3 of them involved in sex-related situations or conversations during the episode, life couldn't be better!
(GIANT ASIDE: Speaking of commercials-as-punishment, which you brought up in your opening paragraph: I sometimes end up re-watching Mad Men episodes on the computer. And while grateful that AMC makes them available this way for further study, the strategy for delivering commercials during these online viewings is heinous. Quartets of commercials abruptly interrupt the show, often at key moments (nothing new there). But unlike watching network TV as you described, where you usually get an array of different commercials each break, online you see the same one or two commercials EACH DAMN TIME. During some of the frequent commercial barrages, you see the same single commercial four times back to back. (I turn the sound off so at least I don't have to hear them.) Highly obnoxious. When this indignity occurs, I console myself by leaving the room, to pet dogs, secure snacks, pee, or take a close look at my eyebrows in the bathroom mirror (always edifying, I find. You can tell your future by scrutinizing your eyebrows.) And I keep a list of the products that are advertised in this mind-battering, abusive way, so I will remember NEVER to buy ANY of them. I feel Don Draper would rather be celibate for life than ever allow ads for any product Sterling Cooper represented, be it peanut butter cookies or pantyhose, to bludgeon a poor, lowly computer user in this abusive way. END OF CRANKY ASIDE.)
I love two pairings or doublings in this episode. ONE: we get to see both Joan and Don woken up as the show opens. Don's overslept and his realtor lets herself in to show his on-the-market house, and thus wakes him. On the opposite coast, Joan, on a business trip, is awakened in her hotel room by her annoying mother, who's babysitting her little boy back in New York, calling too early because she just can't keep it straight about the time difference. We get the fun of hearing what Joan orders for breakfast from room service, which is a perfect character description of Joan via food: “A glass of skim milk, a grapefruit, a pot of coffee..............(significant PAUSE) ..........and some French toast.”
The second pairing is a kind of image/dialogue rhyme. When Joan is having sex with Richard for the first time, there's a little jokey pillow talk about how avid he is. He teases, “I just got out of jail.” She smiles and sweetly replies, “And you're acting like it.” When Sally and Betty are dealing with travelers checks for Sally's impending school trip, Betty lamely tries to extract a promise from Sally that she won't launch into teen nymphomaniac mode on the trip: “There are going to be boys everywhere. So I hope you won't act like you were just let out of a cage.” This is an interesting remark on a number of levels, but the image of surging sexual appetite being analogous to being freed from a cage or jail is arresting (ha ha).
The mother/daughter scene with Sally and Betty was excellent. It made me realize that, in many ways, Sally is more sophisticated than Betty. Maybe this is true of most mothers and daughters, once the daughters reach young womanhood? Betty seemed suddenly hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch trying primly to warn Sally about “boys.” As you noted, Sally used the opportunity to land a verbal sucker punch.
This episode contains one of Betty’s finest hours, in my view. She is often the beautiful woman fans love to hate, but in this episode, dealing with the distraught Glenn Bishop who's about to ship off to Vietnam, she actually treats him tenderly, with a mixture of maternal and sexual wisdom we rarely see from her. She is kind to him, and rebuffs his awkward advance (I thought) with real gentleness and concern, her vaunted haughtiness and narcissism nowhere in sight. She knows what he needs to hear at this crucial moment. “You're going to make it, I'm positive!” There has always been chemistry between Betty and this kid, ever since he was a small boy. (I also applaud Mad Men's writers, for being brave enough in early episodes to allow their story line to deal with the sexuality of children, and I admire the way they have pursued that plot thread now in this final season, rather than dropping it, though it is a hot potato topic.) It's been so amazing to watch Glenn and Sally grow up and come of age on this show!
I loved Don and Sally’s terse interchange as she was boarding the school trip bus. She may at times seem more sophisticated than Betty, but her relation to Don is a different story, and of course they are very alike. He's able to take on the chin her rather vicious adolescent attack on his parenting, and his reply is to tell her that while she's beautiful, she could be so much more. For all his Don Juan antics, he takes women seriously, and in some cases tries to get them to take themselves seriously as well.
There's online scuttlebutt about Joan's two divorces...claiming she was married to someone named Scottie prior to her tying the knot with the inept Army surgeon, but I'll have to do further research. Glenn has performed that miracle that adolescents do, turned from a lumpy, funny kid to a wonderful creature, a tall, good looking young man (yuk hairdo, facial hair scraggles and sideburns of the period notwithstanding.)
Since you were speculating, David, about what the closing scenes of Mad Men will be, I wonder if the show's last moments are going somehow to involve Don’s so-called “Gettysburg Address,” the speech about the company's vision and future direction that Roger has sloughed off onto our favorite Lothario? What thinkest thou?
Till the next installment,
Many of the early-career poets that I come across in MFA programs, major publications, conferences, readings are writing in a similar fashion— first person narrative poems, left aligned, less than one page in length, tight language, controlled temperament, image centric, high lyric… Sometimes, I read these poems and spin in their artistic splendor. Sometimes, I read them and feel cold (as if I’m hugging a dead body at the morgue, a lifeless body in its finest cloths). Sometimes, I pray to Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, June Jordan, Essex Hemphill, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, Tatiana de la Tierra, Akilah Oliver, Etheridge Knight and ask for their resurrection, strength.
In writing this post, I want to highlight the work of poets whose words BREATHE, rebel, are fiercely independent and politically centric. I am want to celebrate the (mostly) non-MFA poets who can give you an analysis of the relationship between poetic craft, class privilege, and white supremacy. I want to celebrate the poets who will laugh at me (for posting this article with an organization whose name perpetuates the concept of this settler-state). These are the poets who would more likely spend their money supporting social movement work then submission fees for poetry journals. These are the poets who have been and will be standing at the forefront of the next protests against police brutality. Let’s take a moment to celebrate their fearless independence (& listen to their calls).
*Also, please know that there is much overlap, nuance, amongst the two “camps” of poets that were just described. (It gets really complex when trying to distinguish collectives of poets from one another stylistically and politically). This post is not intended to be an analysis of poetic movements, rather I hope that it serves as a starting point for people interested in contemporary poets who also mobilize politically.
1. Alok Vaid-Menon is a transfeminine South Asian writer, performance artist, and community organizer based in NYC. For the past six years they have organized in solidarity with racial, economic, and gender justice movements in the US, South Africa, India, and Palestine. Their creative and political work grapples with questions of power, trauma, diaspora, race, and desire. Alok currently works at The Audre Lorde Project and is on tour with DarkMatter, a trans South Asian art collaboration with Janani Balasubramanian.
Excerpt from girls wear blue; boys wear pinkwashing
“how many words does it take to dismantle a bomb?
how many words does it take to erase a border?
how many words does it take bring back the dead?”
2. Juliana Huxtable was born and raised in College Station, Texas and currently lives in New York, NY. From 2010 to 2012, Huxtable worked as a legal assistant for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. She is a co-founder of a queer weekly party in New York City called SHOCK VALUE and she is a member of the House of Ladosha. In 2015 Huxtable had a sculpture of her, photographs of her, and poems of hers featured in the New Museum Triennial. Huxtable regularly includes her poetry into her DJ sets and has also has recorded poetry on the song "Blood Oranges" by Le1f. Her poetry was also included in the runway soundtrack for the Hood by Air in New York Fashion Week.
Excerpt from Real Doll
“THEY HAD DEVELOPED THE MOST ADVANCED
SYSTEMS FOR MAPPING DESIRE KNOWN TO MEN
(LITERALLY). THEY ALL SEEMED SATISFIED TO
LIVE IN A WORLD OF TOPS/BOTTOMS MASC/
FEMMS DIVIDED INTO VARIOUS SIZE, SHAPE, HAIR
LEVEL, ETC AFFILIATIONS. IT WAS LESS A RESULT
OF SEXUAL EXPLORATION THAN A MARKET PLACE
THAT MIMICKED THE ARTIFICIAL VOLITION OF-
FERED BY A SHOPPING MALL. THE COMPLEXI-
TIES OF DESIRE WERE DENIED PRIMA FACIA, IN
LIEU OF THE EASY, GREASY, SLEAZY AND CHEAP
ALTERNATIVE. FUCKING OR GETTING FUCKED
FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY… POSSIBLY MORE IF YOU
COULD TOLERATE HIS BREATH…”
3. Jackie Wang is a writer, poet, musician, and academic whose writing has been published by Lies Journal, Semiotext(e), HTML Giant, BOMBlog, along with numerous zines. Her essay “Against Innocence” provides insightful analysis on penal systems and race theory. She’s currently writing a book for Semiotext(e). Originally from New Port Richey, Florida – “people call it New Port Nowhere” – Jackie moved to Cambridge, MA this fall to start a PhD program in African and African-American Studies and History at Harvard University.
Excerpt from LONELY WOLVES ON THE FLOOR OF THE WORLD
“In ‘Teinte Ban’ Bhanu Kapil writes, ‘I
wanted to write a novel but instead I wrote
this.’ She wanted to write the race riot
from the perspective of the brown girl on
the floor of the world but instead she writes
the luminous edges of the girl’s inverted
body. Ante-narrative told in color. A
delirious study of the body at the expense,
as she writes, of the event.”
4. Alan Pelaez Lopez is an AfroLatin@ that grew up in Boston via La Ciudad de Mexico, documenting his existence as an undocuqueer poet, jewelry designer, and bubble tea addict. Alan currently works at the Dream Resource Center in Los Angeles, which is a project of the UCLA Labor Center. He is a member of Familia: Trans*, Queer Liberation Movement.
Excerpt from Speak
“Open your mouth
Go ahead, I give you permission to call me a jota
And a faggot
Tell me I’ll never be like you
Call me ese negro pendejo
Teach me to beg my mom to get me contacts
But not clear contacts
You know, those that’ll keep me safe from harassment
The blue ones”
5. Stephen Boyer is the author of Parasite (2013), Ghosts (2010), and was a lead compiler of the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology. Currently, they're diligently working on a series of nature-related poems. Their work can be found online, in many zines and an assortment of publications.
Excerpt from In my past lives I must have met everybody
“wandering around Strand Bookstore in a miniskirt flirting with staff
yes I’ll have sex for money
I thought for sure I had been a renegade 1960’s visionary gay pornstar
or Frank O’Hara or Sylvia Plath sans husband
but Ariel keeps suggesting my interpretations are self involved
that I was a girl, then a boy that died alone of AIDs”
6. Jos Charles is a white, genderqueer, femme, queer, dyadic, able bodied, neurodivergent, thin, natural born US citizen, native english speaker, lower middle class person, with access to education, piece of shit. Jos Charles is the founding / editor of THEM (a trans literary journal). Jos Charles has published poetry with BLOOM, Denver Quarterly, Feminist Wire, and more.
Excerpt from I INTERNALIZED UR MISOGYNY AND THEY CALL ME DYSPHORIC
“male flesh: a fiction we can’t afford
and yet i swallow.”
7. Lara Lorenzo is a poet and human services worker based in Brooklyn. In her writing and political work, she explores connections between misery, interpersonal violence, and systemic violence, with the aim of developing strategies for resisting and dismantling all three. Her writing has appeared in Nepantla, Toe Good Poetry, October, and Third Text, among other places. Follow her on Twitter @babaylanti.
Excerpt from WHAT CAN I DO TO DESTROY AMERIKA?
“a big god voice boomed false start!
& maybe it was but i wasn’t sorry
we had no other way to begin
under empire a person is always
choosing to be wrong
go to hell said the god voice
history chimed, its blue mind rhyming
across a field of wild energy & i prayed
let us not be deceived by what passes
for life in this place”
8. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer black troublemaker, a black feminist love evangelist, a prayer poet priestess and has a PhD in English, African and African-American Studies, and Women and Gender Studies from Duke University. Alexis was the first scholar to research the Audre Lorde Papers at Spelman College, the June Jordan Papers at Harvard University, and the Lucille Clifton Papers at Emory University, and she is currently on tour with her interactive oracle project “The Lorde Concordance,” a series of ritual mobilizing the life and work of Audre Lorde as a dynamic sacred text. She has several books in progress including a book of poems, Good Hair Gone Forever. Alexis was named one of UTNE Reader’s 50 Visionaries Transforming the World in 2009, was awarded a Too Sexy for 501-C3 trophy in 2011, and is one of the Advocate’s top 40 under 40 features in 2012.
Excerpt from Prophecy Poem (impermanence after Phillis)*
“black bodies disappearing into death, state-sanctioned choke-holds.
it will not always be this way
the impossibility of breathing.
it will not always be this way.
I listen to my ancestors when they say
it will not always be this way
to steady my steps I have to pray
it will not always be this way
it cannot always be this way
it will not always be this way
it will not always be this way,
i will continue to say”
* Poem was written collectively at Bright Black Webinar Series for Brilliance Remastered.
9. Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (Hawai’i Dub Machine, 2011), and author of three collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008), from unincorporated territory [saina](Omnidawn Publishing, 2010), and from unincorporated territory [guma'] (Omnidawn Publishing, 2014). He is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific literature and creative writing. Perez’s poetry focuses on themes of Pacific life, immigration, ancestry, colonialism, and diaspora.
Excerpt from understory
10. Margaret Rhee is a feminist poet, new media artist, and scholar. Her research focuses on technology, and intersections with feminist, queer, and ethnic studies. She has a special interest on digital participatory action research and pedagogy. Her scholarship has been published at Amerasia Journal, Information Society, and Sexuality Research and Social Policy. As a digital activist and new media artist she is co-lead and conceptualist of From the Center a feminist HIV/AIDS digital storytelling education project implemented in San Francisco prisons. As a poet, her chapbook Yellow was published by Tinfish Press/University of Hawaii. She co-edited the collections Here is a Pen: An Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press) and an online anthology Glitter Tongue: Queer and Trans Love Poems.
Excerpt from I love Juana
“Is there a queer of color Jesus? Is there a queer of color Queen?
And a queer of color Bible titled disidentifications?”
I always wanted to be a sad white girl. I wanted to be sad like Lana Del Rey. I wanted a sadness that could be so universal, that it’d move everyone to tears. A sadness that everyone could relate to. “I want a summertime, summertime sadness.” … Yes, I’ve experienced that before. I know where that’s coming from.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the contextualization of POC sadness. My sadness is viewed in terms of all that is surrounding it. My sadness is about domestic violence, homelessness, queerness, gender dysphoria, intergenerational trauma passed down from the Salvadorean civil war, etc., ETC…My sadness is something to observe, consume, sympathize with BUT NOT EMPATHIZE WITH (not to mobilize for). Most people do not know how to interact with my sadness. My sadness is so multifaceted, it speaks twenty languages.
This past year, Citizen by Claudia Rankine was released and white people all across the literary world discovered racism. The sadness in Claudia Rankine’s book was eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinnertime. Everyone was talking about Citizen and micro-agressions and feelings. But I didn’t see any of the white people in my MFA program marching next to me when Mike Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, when Erica Garner was killed by NYPD. I didn’t see any of them working to dismantle the systems of oppression which created my sadness / my community’s sadness. Yet everyone raved about how revolutionary that book was. REVOLUTIONARY FOR WHOM???!!!
There was this article that I was reading a while ago (which I cannot currently find) which discussed sadness in terms of the medical industrial complex. The article was talking about the over-diagnosis of depression in the United States and ways that other parts of the world interact with deep sadness… Thinking about sadness in terms of regional / systematic pain faced by particular groups of people. For example, PTSD faced by the communities attacked by US imperialism… Okay, I don’t want to stray too far from topic.
Here’s what I want to say… I want people to act, I want people to mobilize around POC sadness. Don’t just feel bad about our stories, consume us, and spit us out… I don’t care if my stories make you feel bad about queer youth homelessness. I don’t care if you read my work and talk about it with your friends at brunch. That doesn’t matter. I want you to give your money to the Ali Forney Center and make the problems stop. I want you to donate your money to Black & Pink to support queer folks in prisons.
Right now, everyone knows that brown folks are killing it in the poetry scene. It feels like the mid 90’s when Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and Shakira were all on MTV. And white girls were getting spray tans all over the country. It was a moment of Latino pop splendor that had seldom been seen before… Felt like that moment was going to last forever (but it didn’t). This is what happened—white people got tired of publicizing us and found a newer trend. They got tired of consuming us.
This is what I’m scared about— Lately, I’ve been working on this UNDOCUPOETS CAMPAIGN (with Javier Zamora and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo). We were protesting first book discrimination against undocumented poets (who were not allowed to apply to contests without proof of US citizenship)… In mobilizing for this contest, we noticed one reoccurent theme— WHITENESS (11 out of the 12 publishers that we worked with were white). This says a lot about why the nationalistic guidelines were there in the first place. This also should be something to worry about, for the sake of POC poetry.
If all of the publishers are white, then it doesn’t matter how many brown judges get appointed / how many brown poets those judges choose to publish (because we are still operating under a white-supremacist system). Our stories and our lives are underneath a white hand, and white people get to decide when and how our sadness, our trauma, our narrative poetry comes into / out of fashion. White people get to decide how our sadness is treated. “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde). If white people actually care about POC poetry then they need to do at least two things- one mobilize politically against the white supremacist power structures that are murdering our communities. Two, mobilize for our leadership in their publishing houses and support us throughout all realms of the poetry community.
A BROWN BOY GETS SHOT BY A WHITE COP. A BROWN BOY WRITES POEMS ABOUT HIS OWN DEATH. A WHITE MAN BUYS AND SELLS THE STORIES FROM THIS BROWN BOY. THE BROWN BOY SITS AT WHITE FEET AND WAITS FOR A PAYCHECK. (THE BROWN BOY GETS PAID FOR NARRATING HIS OWN DEATH TO WHITE PEOPLE). I will not write narrative poems for white people. I will not write narrative poems for white people. I will not write narrative poems for white people. I will not write narrative poems for white people. I will not write narrative poems for white people. I will not write narrative poems for white people. I WILL NOT ALLOW MY NARRATIVE / MY HURT / MY SADNESS / MY LIFE TO BE BOUGHT /SOLD /CONSUMED / SHAT OUT (& never actually addressed). I will not allow it!
(I’m such a hypocrite).
In my dream poetry-world there would be more POC leading poetry publishing houses. And there would be more support for the existing POC publishers (such as Noemi Press, Tia Chucha, and Cypher Books). There would also be no submission fees for anything. Oh, and artists would get paid for their work. Yes, artists would get paid for participating in conferences, and readings, and retreats, and everything… Damn, that’d be such a nice world… I’d be living like a KWEEN, glamorous like Lana Del Rey.
I wanted to do a fun / campy post where some of my queer poet friends could celebrate the people who have helped them develop as writers and humans. (Where we could celebrate the people who let us imagine a world outside of corporate slumber and heteronormative family models). Quickly, I’d like to thank some of my mentors- Griselda Suarez, Eduardo C Corral, William Johnson. Love you so much! For letting me know that I could be brown, queer, a poet, and FIERCE and surrounded / affirmed by community. For guiding me and holding me and feeding me and laughing with/at me and creating opportunities for me. HOLY SHIT, Ive been a messy-gurl in this life. And y'all have supported me through all of it. Yayayyy!!! ... And now, the rest of the LOVE PARADE---
Dodie Bellamy came into my life at a critical time, I was straddling the worlds of university and night life, a day job and porn, yet still broke, barely surviving, depressed, and full of dreams. My advisor at USF, the poet D.A. Powell, knew I was miserable and after reading my work suggested I meet Dodie and apply to the weekly, private workshop she offered as a way of getting out of the trappings of the institution and enter the queer San Francisco I ran away, seeking. At the time, I wanted to be making art and writing but it seemed impossible to go from notes to actualized work, everyone seemed so cool and connected and then I met Dodie who showed me the shit covering all the “cool people’s” faces as she refocused my energies on craft, form, politics, experimentation, and most importantly–continually demonstrated the strength necessary to remain yourself in this apocalyptic world.
DARREL ALEJANDRO HOLNES
I cherish my semesters spent slipping poems under Mark Doty's door, picking up his comments on my poems in his mailbox, and meeting occasionally throughout the semesters when he was my undergraduate thesis advisor at the University of Houston. My getting feedback from the poet who wrote "Charlie Howard's Descent", the first poem to ever make me cry, a poem Jericho Brown introduced to me while we sat in the Gulf Coast Magazine office and talked about poetry and our crushes, made me fearless when confessing and questioning my queerness through poetry, an exercise that in many ways saved my life. I am eternally grateful. Mark Doty, I celebrate you.
Hello Loma thanks for asking me about this! At my age the mentors I could name are mostly passed on now. Allen Ginsberg, Thom Gunn, Robin Blaser, Harold Norse, James Schuyler, from each I learned something about how to proceed in the world. A trio of friends made me the writer I am today, the New Narrative group of Steve Abbott, Bob Gluck and Bruce Boone. The poets of my generation were shot down by AIDS, so we lost Essex Hemphill, Sam D'Allesandro, Reinaldo Arenas, Tim Dlugos, David Wojnarowicz; from each I took resolve to keep alive and to get out a message. And in recent years my queer mentors have become young, so bright and smart and able to see things more clearly than I ever could, my models in many senses: Andrew Durbin, Lucas de Lima, Evan Kennedy, Brian Teare, Stephen Boyer, dozens more. You, Loma, I've looked up to you, bizarre as that might seem to you :-) xxx Kevin K.
When I think of mentors and community-building, I think of Eduardo C. Corral. Eduardo makes it possible for so many of us. I think it’s important, even necessary, to see poem-making as something akin to person-making, an act where life and art not only informs each other, but are strengthened and enriched through a fluid and seamless dialogue. This is what Eduardo exemplifies for younger writers like myself: a way to move forward on the page—but also with our bodies, bodies that are so often under threat from a world bent on extinguishing its most vital voices. Eduardo teaches me that to be scared is never to be weak. That to love and care for something—and to express it freely and openly is the most radical act of self-preservation. For that, I am grateful.
Peppy thought of me as her protégé when I was 19. We called her Queen of the New Age Drag Queens and she taught me to read tarot through the zodiac, a template I still find to be one of the most reliable and vivid forms to harness. Other boys were in mechanic school but I was in tarot class spread naked on the bed where Peppy and I spent most of our time studying one card at a time. When I would visibly merge with a card, when I would finally GET IT, Peppy would lean over and start to kiss me. She would say, “Time to reward you for learning and time to reward myself for teaching.”
Adrienne Rich always read my poems and once, when I was having a sad life in Cambridge in the '90's and wondering if I should let poetry go, she told me to never give it up--to stay with it because she believed in what I was doing and had always believed in what I was doing--way more than I ever did, and way more than more people around me did. And she always told me the truth. About everything, and especially about my poems. Of course, we loved each other. I'd known her most of my life, but as it is with many great writers, she loved the writing more than she loved me, so she went to the heart of the poetry and saw where it was being too self-referential or--her most common criticism--being made with too many words. My second book, "then, we were still living" was dedicated to Adrienne, who e-mailed me, after reading it: "This is the only book that has ever been dedicated to me, and the only one I need."
I made a film-poem called "We Will Not Be Moved: a Story of Oakland Chinatown" in a workshop taught by Madeleine Lim, who runs the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP), a community organization which provides free film workshops to queer women of color. It was an ambitious project to finish our films within the time of the workshop (16 weeks!), especially for most of us who came into the workshop with little to no film experience, but Mad expected it of us and I wanted to do it and prove her right. The last night of our workshop when we were showing our films to the class, my film crashed and would not load! Mad looked at me and said, you could either get back to work and re-create it while it's still fresh in your mind -- or you could wait (but when you get far from it, you might not get back to it) so why not just do it now? I heard her and committed to re-creating it for our showcase in the next week because Mad called me to be true to my best sense of myself and this is still a lesson I keep practicing and learning to this day.
James Schuyler being the big one because he always made it clear that life was the problem, poetry wasn't. He put things in the right order. Michelle Tea for her knock out generosity & reminding me that poetry was a place. It was still outside of me, like an explosion of queer brilliance meeting. Also Amiri Baraka who taught me how to fight back in public. His resistance to lesbian poetry being "revolutionary" struck me as really queer and provocative in a way that wound up being affirming and in the end friendly. He was a great poet that taught me that contradictions always belong.
Avery R Young thank you for teaching me to always been my trillest self to every piece of art, to bring in all things black & new and black & old and every bit of sugar or blunt or song necessary to make the work werk. The bravery, urgency, and ingenuity you create with has taught so many of us. I remember handing you my chapbook for some notes and you handed me back myself, better. Your work and your lessons teach us how to create art that is intelligent, of the heart, and transformative for artist and audience alike. And you know we be fixin’ ham sandwiches after we be doin it. Be Lean On Me get these kids to do the right thing blk!
Pamela Sneed taught me how to read. It sounds so simple, but knowing what yr saying and what you have to say can be frustratingly unclear. Especially if you've been raised to believe yr perspective and experience has no value. Through her guidance and by her example, Pamela showed me how to pay attention to myself, to the words that build the lines that build the stanzas that build the poems that guide the voice--and in that way to value not only my work but also myself. I have no freaking clue what I would have done without her, but thankfully I don't have to wonder!
Nikky Finney, Thank you for reflecting back to me that sometimes you feel like a write “with a stiff collar on.” I needed to hear that, to figure out why I yoked my voice, what was holding me back from getting into the natural groove of my own prosody. I was afraid to be too black, to be too woman, to reveal all those marginalized identities in my work, and as a result I gave up my “natural swimming style.” I can say, I’m not just dead-man floating, I’m breaststroking, I’m putting some butterfly in it, too. Getting my hair wet, I’m not afraid to do.
If it wasn't for Mark Bibbins I would be something other than myself. It's his fault. His poetry, kindness, and intelligence has shown many of us the way to survival in an unfriendly world. We can't help but be better for knowing him.
Kazim Ali, You were the first poet I ever read who dared to be both Muslim & Queer. Your book sat like a nightlight by my bed, a wandering I could sink my feet into. I have only met you once, but thank you for teaching me patience in your line breaks. Your words make me feel less lonely, strong enough to begin building my own home. May all us queer muslim poets leave our words as smoke signals to each other, a gentle way to find each other.
We owe letters to each other, poet Norma Elia Cantú and I; I'm writing this now while visiting my family in La Frontera, which is not unlike Norma's Frontera in Canícula, and remembering that somewhere back in my apartment in New York is an addressed envelope stuffed with paper awaiting. Norma is a poet you write to when off-season on the Gulf Coast, with the wind ripping at the wet-sand-stained pages, the seagulls chasing the shadows of your pen. This is the letter I should be beginning, one humid night, my head heavy with the blunt sun of overcast skies, but somewhere Norma is wrapped in her shawl, singing that we met, we've already begun, the tide, the tide rolling in, within the tide we speak the distances we both have crossed since.
JUSTIN PHILLIP REED
Gahd loves me so much that she lay down one long micro-braid the size of the Mississippi for me to follow and find the poet Phillip B. Williams, who has, in two short years, shown me the friendship, kinship, and unordinary love over which Homer’s Greeks dragged each other. Where would I be without Phillip? Not here, not with this coconut oil in my hair and these relentless endeavors on the pages at my right and these gender-queer friends in my inbox and all this Black love in my heart. He has guided me toward Ceremonies and “Crispy Business", Nina Simone and Sharaya J, the MetroLink and The Amen Corner, right through the terza rima sonnet, and even called my momma when I was in jail. Phillip—who insists that I read wider, write harder, dig deeper, and love (myself, even) bigger—is a blessing, and I can’t sit down and stop testifying.
Glenda Jackson's performance as Gudrun Brangwen in the film Women in Love, based on the D.H. Lawrence novel, taught me everything I know about poetry.
JOEY DE JESUS
I am always hesitant about contributing to a list of writers, especially a list of writers on other writers but I want to contribute to this to celebrate two writers who have been mentors to me in different capacities, not that I matter. And while I love my mentors, it is just as important to celebrate my unlearning their wisdoms in order to construct some sort of semblance of myself. The first is Kazim Ali, under whom I studied for years at Oberlin College. In the classroom Kazim measured my breath, he tempered my tude, he let me off the hook and off the leash. Outside, in the wild, he has seen me hurricane into madness, and was there when I found myself on the other side. I think his craft must have instructed him in some kind of patience--the utilities of silence, this what I've learned from him. The second mentor of mine is Doug Powell, who has taught me to celebrate my fortitude. He, too, has been there for me in doomy hours... Doug once told me about his long-time fear of the full-stop period, why he avoided writing in sentences; he viewed them as analogous with a death. I think of all my tiny deaths.
L. LAMAR WILSON
I am Nikki Giovanni's son. She called me this, first, a few months after she advocated for me to come to Virginia Tech, where I completed my MFA with her help & that of Erika Meitner, Lucinda Roy, Fred D'Aguiar, Ed Falco, Jeff Mann, & Bob Hicok. You see, Nikki is shockingly generous. I mean, after our first conversation, in which I was interviewing her for my employer at the time, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she told me I was a poet, sounded like one, both in cadence & in tenor. At her behest, I sent poems to Tech, where she's been giving of her time & unabashed hope for nearly three decades. My first year there, I wrote poorly. I was hiding behind, not writing through, persona & then, in a meeting, she said to me advice I carry today: "If you don't start writing for yourself first & saying what you have to say, you're not going to be a very good writer, & you have what it takes to be one, Lamar. Just tell your stories." The next day, I wrote "Ars Poetica: Nov. 7, 2008." I shared it with her during our next independent study session on what has been canonized as the Black Arts Movement, which Nikki's work has helped define. Reading it, she beamed as only she can, & I felt like a poet. Finally. Weeks later, I found out she was going to publish this poem, one of my first private successes, in her anthology The 100 Best African American Poems, that she was placing it after "leroy," a powerhouse by my namesake Amiri Baraka. (He was born Everett Leroy Jones., I Leroy Lamar Wilson.) That's what mamas do. That's what mentors do. I am blessed to be one of the many, many Nikki Giovanni has claimed & catapulted. Just look at Kwame Alexander & Nikky Finney to see others doing wildly successful things. But I have to say it: I've been prodigal, too. I've been disobedient, made a mess of things, did it my way. & yet, after a bit of quiet repose, Nikki has always assured that I can come home. & I always, always will.
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“Duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive… The duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation” Federico García Lorca.
By the age of 16, I had more dead friends & relatives than I wanted to count. Rory killed himself, James overdosed on meth, Ashley died in her sleep, Grant was hit by a car, Arif was shot, Tio Tonio overdosed on cocaine, Abuelo Papo had a heart attack, Abuelita Ana was just old, the list goes on… I lost too many people in my life, too young.
When starting grad school at NYU, I told my professor that I could not write poems like all the other students. I told her that I came from a death culture- a place where death was always lingering, where time felt like scarcity.
The other students would spend weeks, months, meditating over their poems, contemplating the smallest revisions. But not me. I always wrote as if I were next to disappear, as if I would be gone, mid-sentence… And that’s how I held my poems, as if they were in the process of disappearing... And that’s how I held my lovers, as if we were in the process of disappearing… As if they would be in my arms one second and then gone in the next. And for me, so much of my writing, feels like one big sloppy shout—an attempt at telling you, “I’m here! We’re here! And we’re dying!” Fuck.
I think about some of the viejas that I met, who refuse to cry. They would attend funeral after funeral, and keep their jaws clenched tight. They had no space to shed another tear for death. I think about the moment (at age 16) when my dog died and I began to laugh. I thought that God was playing a joke on me… God had already taken away all of the people that I love and all I had left was this mangy dog. Dead dog. Stupid joke.
There is this poem that I wrote called “DEATH NEVER GETS EASIER JUST MORE EXPECTED.” I threw it away. Nothing good lasts... I’m sorry but my mind is starting to spiral... Let me tell you a bit more about death culture, as it pertains to poetry.
When I speak of death culture, I am not talking about docupoets-- poets of documentation who reference artifacts and attempt to record various histories. When I speak of death culture, I am speaking about A FRAME OF MIND, a sense of one’s mortality, and NO this does not accompany some sweet feeling of relief or freedom. Death culture produces a deep and silent pain, a feeling of injustice (cuz we should not be dying like this, so easily). Death culture is not the state of disenfranchisement, it is a byproduct of disenfranchisement. Death culture makes poets produce in a survivalistic frenzy... Death culture is not my current state, I have gotten much older and more privileged now. I have food, safe housing, a college degree, and no funerals to attend. (Death culture is something that I am slowly slipping away from). Hopefully.
Death culture means that the expected trajectory for your life is much shorter, that you do not have the privilege of meditating on “craft” or its exportation. Your poems are not attempting to be timeless. Your poems are visceral, vital, dying as you produce them. Your poems are one big sloppy shout. You understand that each person is built from a million dead stories. Each poem is built from a million dead words. In death culture, you are never given the chance to live. You die so that others can live, beautifully, and write beautiful poetry. You die in the empty bullring so that their performance has an element of risk. Your poems are shitty so that theirs can be “well-crafted.”
Death culture informed the work that Silla wrote, after her brother died, after her other brother got incarcerated, and her father got sick. Death culture informed the work that my friend Gezi wrote, in all those years that he feared deportation, all the times that his mother would not let him go outside (because she feared immigration officers would take him away)... These poets, and other people living in death culture, are not in most literary cannons. They never had the opportunity.
When I think of death culture, in relation to duende, I am talking about two separate but interacting entities. For me, I think of duende as a spirit and I think of death culture as a FRAME OF MIND. I believe that people who live in death culture are more vulnerable to experiencing duende. (Death culture surrounds people with constant rupture, vulnerability, and exposes them to duende)... Yet, people who live outside of death culture can still have a relationship to duende, they can still experience death (without being entrapped by it).
For me, duende is contingent upon its relationship to survival. Duende is only beautiful because the artist can taste death, can barely elude death. Duende is beautiful when death makes itself most present, when the artist appears to be on the verge of breaking. But who gets to survive? Whose survival gets celebrated? Not death culture. That miserable FRAME OF MIND (the incessant pain). That poet, who holds everything frail and undervalued. That poet who lives, day to day, one moment away from their own disappearance.
Alternatively Titled: Liberal Victories, Radical Failures
In January of 2015, Javier Zamora, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and I started the Undocupoets Petition to protest first book contest discrimination. We launched an article online with Apogee Journal, displaying the names of 400+ poets, publishers, academics (who stand in solidarity with us). We stood up to ask that submission guidelines no longer read “proof of US citizenship or permanent residency.” Many people opened their ears and hearts. Many people supported us in this endeavor.
The Lambda Literary Foundation launched an interview with Wo Chan, VIDA launched an interview with Cristian Flores Garcia, and Fusion News interviewed Marcelo, Javier, and me. The news of these articles was covered thoroughly by the Poetry Foundation, Coldfront Magazine, and others (such as this wonderful blog post by Miguel Morales)… We were also inspired by the outreach of poets such as Jennifer Tamayo (who is currently working on another article about Undocupoets) and the words of Janine Joseph in her recent article Undocumented, and Riding Shotgun. Also, worthy of mention is the Undocupoets Petition Reading which was hosted at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop and drew a large audience. A lot of media was produced by, with, and for Undocupoets in these past few months.
In the coming months, I will also be helping to edit an issue of the Southern Humanities Review, dedicated to Undocumented Writers. We (as a collective of poets) are also submitting some panel proposals for various conferences at the moment. This is all to say–
All of the articles, activities, voices helped contribute to some major changes within the poetry community. Here are all of the publishers / organizations which have responded to the Undocupoets campaign–
CHANGES PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED
Letras Latinas(Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, Red Hen Poetry Prize): Manuscripts must be of original poetry, in English, by one poet who resides in the United States.
Yale University Press (Yale Series of Younger Poets): The competition is open to emerging poets who have not previously published a book of poetry and who reside in the United States.
Poetry Foundation (Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships): Applicants must reside in the U.S.
Persea Books (Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry): U.S. Citizen and/or currently residing in the United States.
Crab Orchard: All unpublished, original collections of poems written in English by a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or person who has DACA/TPS status are eligible.
BOA Editions (A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize): Entrants must be a legal resident of the U.S. or have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), or Legal Permanent Status (LPS).
Academy of American Poets (Walt Whitman, etc.): U.S. Citizen / resident of the United States for a ten-year period prior to the submission deadline or January 1 of the prize year for those awards that have no application process, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Legal Permanent Status (LPS), or any subsequent categories designated by the U.S. authorities as conferring similar enhanced status upon non-citizens living in the United States.
CHANGES PRIVATELY ANNOUNCED
Sarabande Books (The Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry): Sarah Gorham stated that all Undocupoets will be able to apply for subsequent contests. The new guideline wording will be announced when the next submission season opens.
Poetry Society of America (Chapbook Fellowship): Brett Fletcher Lauer stated that the guidelines for this contest would change from “US Resident” to “US citizens or any person currently residing within the US” during the summer of 2015; when new chapbook submissions are opened.
American Poetry Review (Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry): Elizabeth Escanlon stated that all Undocupoets will be able to apply for the subsequent contests. The language agreed upon is “Applicants must reside in US.” This announcement will be made public when the new call for submissions is announced.
National Poetry Series: Stephanie Stio stated that the organization will be making changes to their guidelines in consideration to undocumented poets shortly (within the next couple of weeks). The wording of these changes has not been decided yet.
The submission guidelines of many contests are more open than they used to be. We want to celebrate the work that our community has accomplished. We want to rejoice at the resilience and strength of all Undocupoets. We also want to acknowledge that the new guidelines are still not completely inclusive.
Marcelo, Javier, and I are fighting (in solidarity with our community) for the complete inclusion of all Undocupoets. We will not forget about our friends who have been deported from the US and are finding their ways back into the country. We will not forget about our friends who are living in the U.S. (without DACA, TPS, LPS). We are constantly thinking about all of the poets, people who are coming and will continue to come into this country undocumented. Our long-term goal for this project is still to completely eliminate any documentation check in poetry, asking for forms of government identification.
We want all Undocupoets to know that your words and thoughts are valuable. We want all Undocupoets to know that your struggle is seen, acknowledged. We want all Undocupoets to know that, if you are able to submit to one of these contests (or any other contest) then do so. We will fight with you, for you, if ever feel that you’re being silenced. Seriously. You are not alone. We are yours in this struggle. We celebrate your resistance and perseverance, above all else. We thank all of the Undocupoets who helped us make these HUGE changes in the poetry community. And we thank all of the publishers who have worked to make more inclusive guidelines. Gracias Gracias Gracias.
This is the last blog in the series, and I thought it would be appropriate to end with rain – which won’t be as dismal as it may sound! Scotland, especially the west coast where I live (in Glasgow), is a rain-swept country. There are lots of expressive Scots words attached to weather: ‘haar’ for the mist off the sea; ‘dreich’ for dismal days (Liz Lochhead uses that word in her poem in this blog series); ‘smirr’ for a fine rain; ‘droukit’ when you’re drenched…
The late and much-missed Alastair Reid, who used to write for the New Yorker and was a brilliant translator of Borges and Neruda, wrote a poem called ‘Scotland’ (https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/scotland-1) in which beautiful weather prompts a Calvinist response: […] ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'
Some thirty years or so after Reid published that poem, Don Paterson published his sixth collection, Rain (London: Faber & Faber, 2009). Paterson, twice winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize and Queen’s Gold medallist for Poetry, is the most prominent of the poets of his gifted generation. He teaches creative writing at the University of St Andrews, is the poetry editor for Picador, and a musician. He has a Calvinist streak himself, and writes poems that are ‘Dynamic, interrogative and unsettling; crafted yet open-ended; fiercely smart, savage and stirring’ as the Guardian reviewer remarked on the publication of Paterson’s Selected Poems (2012 – there is an earlier Selected available from Graywolf, garlanded with praise from Zadie Smith and Charles Simic). In the title poem, ‘Rain’, Paterson begins: ‘I love all films that start with rain’, and no matter how ‘bad or overlong / such a film can do no wrong’:
I think to when we opened cold
on a starlit gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign…
Despite the weather, he’s not in Scotland here – but he is in a city, and we haven’t seen much of city life in this series. Paterson has an early poem that’s distinctly urban, about sunshine and also about a father-son relationship: the title, ‘Heliographer’, wrong-foots the reader, who expects a very different poem to follow. The double-take is a frequent reader reaction to Paterson’s poems, so is the pleasure that comes from his energy of rhythm and intellect.
I thought we were sitting in the sky.
My father decoded the world beneath:
our tenement, the rival football grounds,
the long bridges slung out across the river.
Then I gave myself a fright
with the lemonade bottle. […]
from Nil Nil (London: Faber & Faber, 1993)
Paterson has also made versions of poems by Machado (The Eyes) and Rilke (Orpheus); in an interview with Attila Dosa he disagreed with Reid’s view of translating poetry – while admiring his work – and took issue, too, with Edwin Morgan’s view that everything is translatable, while admitting affectionately that ‘Eddie is your perfect translator’.
I’m going to end with a poem by Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), Scotland’s first poet laureate, who has been such an influence on Scottish poetry in the late twentieth century and beyond: a generous encourager of younger poets, a brilliant translator from several languages, and an endlessly inventive poet whose motto was ‘change rules’. His rain poem is much loved by Scottish readers and I hope you’ll enjoy it.
There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storm wash the plates
from Edwin Morgan, New Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2000)
Find out more about Alastair Reid (and how he burnt ‘Scotland’) here:https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/alastair-reid
and hear him read
Find out more about Don Paterson https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/don-paterson
and for the interview:http://www.donpaterson.com/files/Interview%20with%20Atilla%20Dosa.pdf
To hear him read his work:
Find out more about Edwin Morgan here:
and hear him read his poems
Others have probably observed that Don Draper’s “born again” moment – the moment when he took on the identity of a deceased officer in a Korean War battle – is an identical repetition of what shirtless Bill Holden has done in the POW camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai. But though poor Bill comes to an unhappy end in that remarkable movie, it is not what I foresee for Don when Mad Men reaches April 1970, Nixon moves against Cambodia, and four Kent State students die at the hands of the National Guard. Unlike the literalists who believe that the falling-man motif in the opening credits must control what happens at the very end, I feel that the aptest concluding sequence would have Don alone at the bar of a cocktail lounge, approached by a woman (or that woman’s friend) – with the implication that nothing is terminal. . . that Don will continue to be Don, a true Don though not in the Corleone sense. . . and that “some things that happen for the first time / [will] seem to be happening again. . .”
Don’t go all moral on us, Matt Weiner. We did not identify ourselves with Don Draper because we disapprove of him (though we may well disapprove of a lot of the things he does).
It surprises me that Megan is so bitter. And that her mother would clean out Don of his furniture. And that Don, headstrong though he is, would go all-in on Diana, the waitress from Racine, Wisconsin.
It doesn't surprise me that, thanks to Marie Calvait, Don's apartment is devoid of furniture, and he stands in it, disconcerted, surrounded by emptiness.
It doesn’t surprise me that media maven Harry Crane should so sleazily and brazenly hit on Megan when lunching with her ostensibly to discuss her agent and her career . . .although I am surprised that Harry, whose fashion taste has always been erratic at best, is wearing a nice suit and tie when entering Don’s office. Don’s navy suit and tie are, to be sure, three times nicer.
It doesn’t surprise me, but it disappoints me, that Harry covers his ass so shamelessly in Don’s office, telling him that Megan is “unstable” and will say “crazy things.”
It surprises me that Don writes out a million dollar check to give to Megan while their divorce attorneys behave like attorneys and prolong the negotiations. “Nothing about you is real,” she tells Don and gives him back the engagement ring that came from Don Draper’s real wife and widow. “You’re nothing but a liar – an aging, sloppy, selfish liar,” Megan says. Well, OK, but she deserves better lines. . . and the point about Don has been made and need not be emphasized at such moments.
It surprised me that art director Stan’s girlfriend Elaine is so loving and so adventurous, willing to pose in the nude for his photographic portfolio.He turns out to be a nice guy -- after such an unpromising start. . . .
It surprised me that Megan has a sister. Can’t see the advantage of introducing her now, but who knows?
It doesn’t surprise me that Megan’s mother would call on Roger Sterling to do a service for her. . .a service combining money (Marie needs him to pay $180 to Megan’s movers) and desire (“please take advantage of me,” she says breathily),
It surprised me to encounter hustler Pima, the photographer with the great reputation, who will do anything with either Peggy or Stan or both to get a lucrative assignment . . I don’t see a future for her, but I’m not plotting the show.
If I were, well, I am missing Sally, hoping for a reprise of Dr. Faye Miller, maybe a flashback of art director Sal or crazy Krishna Paul, and a return to the office of Michael Ginsberg.
If they asked me I’d want a major advertising crisis – the need to satisfy a well-heeled but hopelessly resistant client, an ingenious solution to a thorny problem.
If it were up to me. . . but it isn’t. Who, by the way, is singing “C’est Si Bon” over the closing credits? Henri Betti?
What did you make of the episode?
Speaking of being born again: Betty scared the bejesus out of me in that opening scene where Don was babysitting at Henry and Betty's house, making chocolate milkshakes for his and Betty's little boys. How did she terrify me? By declaring that she was going back to school for a master's degree in psychology, aiming to re-invent herself as some kind of counselor or therapist. Can you imagine having a shrink who looks like Grace Kelly, only aggressively sexier, and who has the poor impulse control and unchecked, rabid narcissism of a sulky four year old?
David, I heartily second your plea to the admired Matt Weiner: "DON"T GO ALL MORAL ON US" Don't "punish" Don for being Don in concluding Mad Men. That would be an expected, tidy exit strategy unworthy of that character, the series or your audience.
This episode's color scheme seemed to be warm earth tones, hovering around the red, orange, red-brown and rust part of the spectrum. Remember Pete's hilarious tomato red golf sweater, Don's dark red shirt in the initial milkshake scene, and Betty's peach print gown in that same scene? Stan and Harry are clad mostly in brown this episode, Peggy 2/3rds of the time in orange, and rust red (and once in green to disrupt my scheme); Meredith in buttercup yellow, and then an orange jumper. Pima carries a bright red umbrella in the scene where she tries to seduce Peggy. Megan wears a very fetching rust colored dress in the fancy hotel room she and her sister and mother occupy in Manhattan, in contrast to her sister's dowdier (by comparison) brown frock. Don's bedroom is deep red. Stan and Pima presumably have sex in the weird red light of the darkroom. Sultry waitress Diana's now has a brown-red uniform (matching the color scheme of the more upscale steakhouse she seems to have graduated to from the coffee shop.) The walls of her crummy hotel room are red orange, complete with red bedspread, in the scene where the episode grimly ends.
Speaking of Diana, this hot bit of speculation just in from tenured professor of Mad Men studies Denise Duhamel:
A friend obsessed with the show said that there is a theory that Diana, the waitress, could be Don's DAUGHTER!
Remember when he was raped in the whorehouse?
I really doubt that would be the case, but why would Mad Men bring her Diana in and drop her, when all I want is more Peggy, Joan, Betty, and especially SALLY?
Indeed, the question on everyone's lips is "Whither Sally???" And thanks, learned colleague Denise Duhamel (who shares initials with Don Draper! Could this be one of the factors that initially drew professor Duhamel to this important field of research, in which she has so distinguished herself in recent years? If waitress Diana is indeed Don's Daughter, then one version of her maiden name would be Diana Draper, another set of nicely alliterative initials to monogram her leather luggage with, should she ever have enough dough to buy any.)
Favorite line of the episode: probably the one delivered by Harry Crane in the squirm- worthy scene you referred to, David, where Harry tries, with the suaveness of Sasquatch, to put the old casting couch make on Megan. Never has poor Harry acted like more of a cad (perhaps he was still smarting from being referred to as "Mr. Potato Head" by an unkind client in last week's installment.) Reeling from how gorgeous Megan looks when she joins him for lunch at a snazzy hotel restaurant, he gapes and gasps: "You're like Ali McGraw and Brigit Bardot had a baby!" (Perfect description of actress Jessica Pare in this part.)
Things I loved about this episode:
1. Roger's code for the clients who are "blotto after lunch:" N.A.C. NO AFTERNOON CALLS.
2. When Don is nuzzling Diana, he murmurs, "You smell incredible. What is that?" and she replies dryly, though also a bit dreamily, as Don's nose is gently snuffling her hair, "shampoo." (She continues after that, talking about how it's Avon shampoo, remarking "I bought it in my living room," perhaps setting us up for door to door sales of cosmetics as a business model Don's agency may take an interest in?)
3. In Pima's photo shoot for a Vermouth commercial, all the models seem to be dressed like sexy witches.
4. Stan's ultra-cool, pot-smoking, cute wife Elaine, whose nurse uniform and hat seem to rhyme with Diana's waitress uniform and very similar starched white cap.
This episode is not unique in featuring lying as theme. One might even say that to the cynical among us, lying is a foundational concern of the show, as all advertising could be viewed as a form of lying. Diana fibs to Don about being childless, then later confesses "I lied to you." Don responds wonderfully, with a tender, quizzical "Already?" When Peggy tells Stan that Pima made a pass at her, too, and that she's a hustler, he growls "I don't believe you." Peggy looks him in the eye and says, "Which part?" When Roger asks Megan's mother if Don really agreed to Megan taking every stick of furniture from their formerly shared apartment and ship it to California, she says he did. Stan's wife asks how Pima liked his cheesecake photos of her, and he responds, "She loved them." As you noted, when finalizing their divorce, Megan calls Don an aging, sloppy, selfish liar, when actually, he's probably the least dissembling main character featured in this episode.
Till next week
In my first post, I admitted that I’m not a poet—poetry has always felt, and still feels, like a hobby to me, even though I work professionally as a poetry editor. I’m probably not alone in that coming to this place, working in support of the arts, involved an existential dilemma. I genuinely love sitting in front of the blinking cursor in an empty word document at 3 a.m. and surprising myself with the leaps of imagination that flow out of my hands, as if the cells of my fingers magically know more about the world than I do. How do I justify that life, though? How is that anything other than self-absorption?
I’ve never really talked about this, but school always came so easy to me, and I’ve felt guilty about it for as long as I can remember. At 10 years old, I’d stay up past midnight reading Stephen King, and then sleep through classes that bored the hell out of me. I practiced postures that made it seem like I was awake, but hid my eyes, and I’d be day-dreaming or deep asleep. And still I never not got an A. We had “effort” grades in my school 1 – 5, and my goal throughout was always the A1: an A, but with an insulting lack of effort. I told my friends I knew answers through osmosis; I could tell what to choose on a multiple choice exam just by the wording of the options—and I still can. I told them I was psychic, that my family was a clandestine sect of precognitive magicians. My little brother had, what, 99.7% the same genome as me, and he had trouble reading Goosebumps. This was so unfair; I’ve never had to work at anything in my life, and I think that’s why I work so hard, just to make up for how I don’t have to.
The first thing I wanted to be was an architect, designing buildings and bridges to handle the largest load with the least materials. I loved drafting class, detailing the mind’s eye in a way that someone else could make real. But who cares about buildings and bridges? The Romans built bridges; bridges will be without me.
Somehow I got it in my head that molecular biology was the future—and it is the future … once we harness the power of cellular machines and molecular computers, we’re going to be living forever, rendering so many philosophical and practical questions moot. Guilt told me this was what I had to do, so I did it right: scholarship to a research university, work-study job in an mRNA lab setting up experiments. I was only an undergrad, I didn’t contribute anything, but I sat through all the meetings, and I remember clearly one day when the results came in and it worked: The lab had successfully predicted the three-dimensional structure of a protein strand. The post-doc presented the results, and it was high-fives all around, and I pretended, but I just didn’t care in the way that they cared, and I couldn’t fool myself.
Meanwhile, I was writing poems for James Longenbach in an elective poetry class, and I found the process so fascinating. I wrote a poem about fishing with my uncle at their cabin on the Finger Lakes—my hook had swung on the line and lodged itself in my nose, and that was exactly my family. A fish-hook in the skin doesn’t bleed until you yank it out. Where did metaphor come from? Did I always know it? I loved that question, and still love that question.
But I couldn’t give up science for something so ephemeral. I had to cure cancer or death or something else important enough to justify how lazy I felt.
And then I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on a random walk through the library stacks, and a single sentence changed my life. If I were a real poet, I’d have that line memorized by now, or at least a copy of the book on my shelf with a post-it note pasted to the page it appears. I’m not a real poet, though, so I don’t even own a copy and will have to paraphrase. It said something like, “All over the world, scientists are working to extend our lives, but none of them are asking why.” And that was me—Robert Pirsig wrote that sentence for me.
What is the point of life, but to explore it, and study it, and feel it? In that one moment it became clear, and it remains clear: Poetry is all that matters.
A poem is the moment’s zenith. It’s the bird’s eye view of all that is and all that might be. A poem is pratityasamutpada, the interdependently arising phenomena—the speaker becoming the listener, the listener becoming the speaker.
To put it less cryptically: Poems are the songs of our interconnectedness as human beings. They are simple empathy machines. They let us experience life more fully, let us understand each other more clearly, and put us in tune with our truest selves. A world full of poets is a world without war. It’s a world of understanding and imagination. Poetry is one of the great bulwarks resisting the apathy, the homogenization, and the self-segregation of consumerist technology. Poetry is the medium of reflection and introspection, a balm against the pace of modern life. I imagine a world with 7 billion poets, and it’s a better world.
Is there any practice more worth working for?
I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for reading these five days. Thanks to Stacey Harwood for having me here, and a special shout out to Abby E. Murray for convincing me to do it.
If you aren't familiar with these terms, there are two ways of looking at grammar, often at odds with one another. Descriptivists are interested in the way a language is actually used by native speakers—what are the forms of speech, what purposes do they serve, how are they evolving, and why. Prescriptivists, instead, are concerned with the way a language should be used—what is the "correct" way to say something?
For an example, consider the "singular they": The English language doesn't have a gender-neutral singular pronoun, no word that means "he or she," and that makes certain sentence constructions feel awkward. To compensate, we often use the word "they" as a substitute. So if I were to say, "Every editor must pick their side in this debate," you would know exactly what I meant. A descriptive grammarian would find that interesting, and explain how it came to be, and which dialects and registers most often use it. A prescriptive grammarian would argue that the proper sentence would be, "Every editor must pick his or her side in this debate."
"Ain't," "y'all," "yous," double negatives, and split infinitives are some other points of disagreement.
Neither side is right or wrong. Linguists are descriptivists, studying and describing they way a language changes over time. English teachers and copyeditors are prescriptivists, prescribing rules to try to keep a language from changing, though change is ultimately inevitable. Many of the rules prescriptivists try to enforce are arbitrary and elitist, and the fight is ultimately futile, so I tend to prefer descriptivism myself—but presciptivism slows our drift away from the language of Shakespeare, and how can you argue with that?
I'd like to propose these two grammars as an analog for literary editing. This would put us into two camps: prescriptive editors, who become proponents of a certain aesthetic or school of writing, and descriptive editors, who try to explore and reflect the literary landscape as it happens to be. As is the case with grammar, neither side is right or wrong, but I think it's useful to be aware of this distinction.
In yesterday's post, I mentioned that one of the purposes of a literary magazine is to provide a chronicle of literary development and cultural ideas—that role is important to me, and so I prefer a descriptive editorialism. When choosing poems for Rattle, I don't want to favor my own personal poetic tastes, I want to publish the strongest representative sample of the submissions that we receive—both in style and content. This is almost a journalist's view of editing: I'm trying to blend into the background, describing the scene as it happens to be, and calling attention to details that seem worthy of highlight.
If you read Rattle, you might think that we—it's myself, Alan Fox, and Megan O'Reilly Green selecting the poems—were in love with narrative free verse, but that isn't the case. My own tastes align much more with new formalism and lyrical poetry—I want close attention to sound and music: poets like Wendy Videlock and Gregory Orr. It's tempting to try to push that view into the magazine, but in the end I find it much more interesting to let the writing take its own shape, mapping it like a cartographer. For some reason that's what's thrilling to me.
That's why I try to tell poets not to read Rattle in hopes of decoding what will please us—send what pleases you, so I can keep it on the map I'm working to build. The most difficult and rewarding thing to do, as an editor selecting poems, I think, is to find those that certain segments of your readership will enjoy more than you do.
I think most poets and poetry readers, and probably most poetry editors, too, are prescriptivists in nature—and likely that's how it should be. This is art, and we should be passionate about our art. But descriptivism shouldn't be ignored.
AND NOW A TOP 10
When I asked our readers on Facebook what I should write about while guest-blogging here, several suggested that I highlight some of the poets we publish who I think deserve more attention. The laziest way to do that would be a top 10 list, and it's late, so here are the top 10 poets ranked by number of appearances in Rattle:
1. Lynne Knight - 12
2. Erik Campbell - 12
3. Patricia Smith - 10
4. Lyn Lifshin - 10
5. Tony Gloeggler - 9
6. Lynne Thompson - 8
7. Ed Galing - 8
8. Mike White - 7
9. Mather Schneider - 7
10. Courtney Kampa, Gregory Orr - 6
Obviously Patricia Smith, Gregory Orr, and Lyn Lifshin are well-known, but if you haven't read Lynne Knight or Erik Campbell, run to find their books—both have important things to say, and beautiful ways of saying them. Two of my favorite poets writing today, so it's no coincidence they're at the top. My favorite samples: "To the Young Man Who Cried Out…" and "Great Caesar's Ghost." Tony Gloeggler is a down-to-earth and honest NYC poet who's been with us from the start. Read his "1969," which is one of the most popular poems we've ever published. Lynne Thompson is an LA treasure. Ed Galing died a few years ago, a great late-life poet of the Greatest Generation. Mike White writes the tightest and most memorable little lyrics. Mather Schneider is a gritty cab driver in Tucson who knows how to turn a story and never runs out of them. Courtney Kampa is the youngest on our list—she was a finalist for our Rattle Poetry Prize as an undergrad, and won the Readers' Choice Award last year. All of them deserve more attention in this humble editor's opinion. Just missing the list was Francesca Bell, who is also worth a mention. Her poem "How I Long to Hold the Poetry Editor's Penis in My Hand" is sure to delight.
After publishing my first book of poems, I stopped writing. I couldn’t stomach self-promotion, but felt a duty to my publisher to self-promote. It was like eating my own vomit every day, and for a few years, whenever I sat down to write, I could see the future of the potential poem before me blooming and wilting in a time-lapsed montage of death: If I actually liked whatever I was about to write, I’d have to submit it to a magazine, then put it in a book, then give readings and beg for blurbs and reviews and post about it on my stupid blog and my stupid Facebook page and my stupid Twitter feed to 1,000 other poets trapped in the same nauseating self-promotional pie-eating contest.
The only way I could get back to the part that I loved—getting lost in an image and shuffling words around a page—was to promise myself that I wouldn’t publish anything. And then actually not publish anything.
I didn’t publish or submit any of my own poetry for about five years, even when solicited for projects that sounded exciting. Only recently I’ve gotten over this childishness—it really is childish—and have started dipping my toes back into the ice-cold—
Wait ... submission fees are acceptable now?!
I can't believe this has normalized. I know I’m going to upset a lot of publishers when I say this, but so be it: Reading fees are unethical, and the practice should be shamed out of existence.
If an agent charged audition fees only to turn down 99% of those potential clients, we would call him a con-artist. In other fields, just the process of submitting completed materials for consideration, or "working on spec," is considered unethical—even without submission fees! We're already skating on thin ice by paying so little (if anything at all) for the work that we publish, for tying up that work for 3 months to a year and then having the gall to say NO SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and for making it seem like the "exposure" of appearing in a magazine reward enough. But now we also want submitters to pay for the privilege of being rejected?
What is the purpose of a literary magazine? Don’t forget that we’re all non-profits in one way or another. Don’t forget that the average circulation of a print journal is 500 copies, that the average Alexa ranking of an online journal is about 5 million, and that most of the people reading them are also submitting to them. So what is the purpose of a literary magazine? Who do we serve and why should we exist?
If you think literary magazines exist to bolster the prestige of the editors and the institutions that produce them, then submission fees make a lot of sense: They raise some money, and they cut down on that nasty “slush pile” we all have to wade through to get to our desks in the morning. Submission fees generate a few thousand dollars, while cutting submissions by 50% or more—and who wants to read all that junk, right?
But to me, and I think to the rest of the community, literary magazines exist in the service of literature—they bring new writing to a wider audience, foster artistic dialogue, jumpstart careers, and provide a historical chronicle of literary development. I often wonder how many Emily Dickinsons there have been throughout history, who weren’t lucky enough to have a Lavinia, whose siblings found a trunk full of poems and left them in the attic. Literary magazines exist to keep that work alive, and to encourage the continuing participation and development of the art.
Submission fees are anathema to that purpose—they’re exploitative and exclusionary and stifling. Having read submissions for a decade, I know: the majority of submissions have no chance at ever finding publication, even on a fair playing field. Editors sift for diamonds in the rough, and it’s mostly rough, and we all know it. Charging money for nothing more than the 30-second skim it takes to see the obvious, when that small effort is simply the social good that you’re supposed to be providing anyway, is egregious.
And that’s not even considering the practice of solicitation—a large percentage of the work that’s published in most magazines doesn’t come with a fee, because the editors asked for it directly. There’s a reason why unsolicited submissions are derided as “slush.” When you take this into account, the experience starts to feel less like a literary service, and more like a rigged game at a carnival. We’ll pretend you have a genuine chance as long as you keep laying your dollar down.
I know you know that it’s true; you feel that it’s true in your gut every time you think about it. I also know the arguments used to justify the practice, but none of them stand up to scrutiny.
Magazines need the money.
Literary magazines are very expensive. The established magazines, with circulations of a few thousand, cost between $150,000 and $500,000 annually to produce (non-profit tax returns are public record, by law, so you can check for yourself). 15% - 50% of that is made back through sales and subscriptions and advertising, but all of the rest is red—to be filled in with ever-dwindling grants and donations. It’s a truly precarious financial situation, and anything that provides a small degree of stability is a blessing.
But this is such a small degree. As far as I know, Rattle receives more submissions than any other literary magazine, besides Poetry. In 2014, it was 22,000 packets of up to four poems each. If we charged a reading fee of $3 per submission, that seems like a lot of money—$66,000! But we wouldn’t get all that money, though.
Submittable takes a cut for service fees, and the banks take an even larger cut for credit card processing, and with that, we’re down to about $40,000. But if we added the pay wall, submissions would be cut in half, at least—$20,000, which is enough to print and ship an issue or two. That’s the extremely optimistic number, though, because few literary magazines have ever received as many submissions as we do. Realistically, for the more established journals, we’re talking about maybe $5,000 of income on average. This, against and deficit of $100,000 or more—it’s a drop in a leaky bucket, not a step toward sustainability. And it’s an ethically expensive drop, too, that is paid for by the silencing of voices who can't afford the fees, or can't live with the embarrassment of paying for their own rejection.
But what about small magazines that don’t have any funding?
For newer, smaller magazines, submission fees generate even less revenue, because they receive far fewer submissions. Moreover, an established magazine has the prestige to survive a submission fee and still receive submissions, but how is a small magazine ever going to become established if it’s insulting both its potential authors and its potential audience? The growth of a magazine comes through building a community of support around it, and that community won’t grow if it isn’t respected. For a small magazine, the potential rewards are greater by percentage, but so are the negative consequences.
Poets used to have to pay for paper and envelopes and stamps; a $3 reading fee is less than it would cost then, now we’re getting the money instead of the USPS.
And people used to pay to have blocks of salt carved out of desert basins and hauled hundreds of miles on the backs of camels, so they could preserve food and not starve to death. Isn’t technology great? Next.
Submittable costs money to use, so we have to charge for submissions to pay for Submittable.
Submittable is a wonderful service run by hard-working people who make our lives as editors much easier, saving time, which is money, which completely justifies the cost of using Submittable. Rattle needs the highest package that they offer, and it's worth ever penny to us.
And if it doesn’t save enough time to justify the cost, then don’t use it. For nine out of ten years, I handled a larger volume of submissions than most, with nothing more than a free Gmail account. New submissions went in a folder called “To Read.” Once read, they were moved to other folders called, “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe.” After that, it’s easy to harvest addresses and mail-merge replies, or just paste in boilerplates by hand. It’s really not that hard.
But some magazines use the submission fees to pay their authors, and isn't paying authors a good thing?
Of course, paying authors is wonderful, but not at the expense of all the other poets who never had a chance and never even knew it, sorry.
So, if submission fees are unethical, how else am I supposed to raise funds to keep the magazine afloat? Isn’t existing with reading fees better than going under?
There are plenty of ways to generate revenue without taking advantage of those you should be supporting—ways to generate revenue that actually build a sense of community, rather than destroy it. Buy-in contests work great—enter by ordering an issue or subscribing, so you’re actually receiving something in return, even if you don’t win. Sell merchandise, sell ads, sell real feedback or fast-tracks on submissions. Kickstart each issue, and only publish it once you’ve reached the fundraising goal—use that to remind your community that they really care about reading the magazine. If that doesn't work, trim the fat.
And if none of that works, yes, consider going under. If I had to steal from my customers to keep my hot dog stand in business, I’d find another business. Strong words, I know, but I feel strongly about this.
If you disagree, though, let’s debate it in the comments. I’m out of space here, but I have plenty more to say and welcome further discussion.
I’d planned on following yesterday’s post with the good news, but that line about not actually liking poetry feels like a rusty nail—so let’s hammer it down before we move on to “We Are All Poets” later in the week.
First, a caveat: I read and think about poetry all day, but I’m not an academic. I don’t read poetry scholarship, other than to see if anyone else argues for the same opinions as mine, but then usually I get bored and give up looking. I don’t even know what to call “poetry scholarship”; there’s probably some word for it, poesiametalalalology, or something like that, but I don’t know it. I received not one but three review copies of Edward Hirsh’s A Poet’s Glossary—I gave two away at our open mic night, and the hardcover is sitting unopened on my bookshelf, looking stately. All this to say: I don’t know if what I’m about to write is obvious, or redundant, or ignorant. If so, just let me have it in the comments.
The problem of poetry’s place in contemporary American culture is unavoidable, no matter how little you pay attention to the gossip. There’s been a “new” article published on the subject at least once a month for the last two decades, I’m sure. I could link to a few but why bother? Just google “why no one reads poetry” or “only poets read poetry” or “is poetry dead?” and take your pick. There are just as many articles about how these articles about the death of poetry need to die, because look at all these poet laureates, or submissions, or MFA programs, or slams, etc.
Poetry really does have a problem—it isn’t dying, though, just adapting to the destructive forces of modern life, like everything else on the planet. Poetry is the urban coyote of the art world, or maybe an apocalyptic cockroach: It lives a different life now, but it lives and will live on.
For thousands, probably tens of thousands of years, poetry served a very clear and important role as the only way to fix language. Poetry pinned the wings of narrative, and helped oral stories and rituals leap from one generation to the next mostly unaltered. Musical rhythms and repetitions embedded in speech were a matter of life and death—rituals brought the herds and the rains and appeased the gods; stories shared warnings and told of our place in the cosmos. For that reason, I think poetry is, maybe not in our DNA, but a part of our epigenetic heritage, let’s say. And it worked—see the striking similarities in the global flood myths as evidence. Or the universal power of a passionate speech. Poetry matters, and has mattered, for a very long time.
But this use of poetry has also been under assault for a long time—every piece of technology, from the earliest cuneiform texts to the iPhone video camera, has chipped away at poetry’s original source of value, to the point none of that value is left. The idea of using poetry for communication or commemoration is anachronistic, to say the least.
The unindoctrinated, the “people” who don’t (yet) read poetry (as opposed to the “poets” who do) are still stuck with the ancient idea of how poetry is used—and so they find no use for it. Story lives in movies, music in the mp3s, memory in the digital camera. How can poetry compete with any of that?
As almost everyone reading this knows, poetry evolves, and has been evolving for centuries—real modern poetry has very little to do with storytelling or record keeping. Instead, it taps into that subconscious, structural, cognitive, inherited, epigenetic (whatever you want to call it) deep history of human culture—from a nursery rhymes’ role in language acquisition to a liturgical play of emotion—and becomes a brief but direct connection from mind to mind. The art of poetry has evolved into the transformative injection of another’s mental state into your own being.
I’ve used this analogy many times, but another way to put it is that poetry is magic. A poem is a spell, cast—a string of sounds that, when recited correctly, changes consciousness from one position to another. It’s abracadabra hocus pocusing Bugs Bunny into a bat.
I can sense the skepticism from here, 12 hours or days or weeks in the past, so a few examples.
In our contributor notes of our current issue, Deborah P. Kolodji explains why she loves haiku:
The words of Bashō pop into my head—translated by Lucien Stryk, ‘summer grasses/ all that remains/ of a warrior’s dreams’—and I start to cry. The sadness of the earth, the memories of the fallen, and the words of a seventeenth century poet in Japan all come together in a moment of connection. Separated by centuries and thousands of miles, Bashō and I are in the same place. This is why I love haiku.
Just saying those words takes her there, to Bashō’s hut and the grasses, and brings real tears. Poetry can be a mantra, a touchstone. When I’m feeling down, I recite to myself E.E. Cumming’s “Into the Strenuous Briefness”—thinking of the “i do,world” and life as a strenuous briefness, always seems to inspire a strangely joyous resolve.
Poetry does this in many ways, though, and it’s always through voice—poetry is the music of speech, but is unique in that the reader is the artist’s instrument. When I read a poem by Robert Frost—even silently to myself—it’s Frost regulating my own breath like a conductor from the grave. When I read a poem about an experience that I don’t know, or maybe even can’t know, suddenly I can, in a way that would never be conveyed outside of art, and never as directly as through the art of poetry.
My favorite feature we at Rattle is probably Poets Respond, where we publish a poem every Sunday morning about the news. Every week I read a hundred often powerful reactions to the world around us.
As a white man, I have no idea what it’s like—what it really feels like—to be a Muslim woman on the campus of NCSU the day after three other Muslim students were shot. I have no idea what it’s like to be a black man and watch the video of Walter Scott shot in the back. Or to be a mother after the Michael Brown court decision. Just as you don’t know what it’s like to be a 30-something guy reading 250 poems a day and then writing this blog post at 1AM. But maybe you would, for a moment, if I wrote a great poem about it … When I read those poems, I'm given a new experience and am changed.
The reason why I don’t like most poetry is that I’m only interested in this magic. I don’t care about sound or metaphor or beauty or wit, or any of those elements, unless they work in the service of the magic of the poem. All else is exercise. All else is masturbation. If a poem isn’t transformative, then it has no use for me—and I don’t know why it would have a use for any modern audience.
Transformation is hard, though, and most of even what’s published doesn’t really work. Magic is magical; it’s mysterious. An incantation can fail for the slightest and most indeterminate of reasons. Moreover, it’s subjective—we all know art is subjective, but this is why it’s subjective. Even the best of spells won’t work on every demon—but that doesn’t mean we should stop casting them, or exposing their power to those who haven’t experienced the magic yet.
So I don’t like most poetry—and I’m sure, if you were being honest, you’d say you don’t like most poetry either. We can admit it; it’s all right.
Lehman, David. Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World. Harper. Oct. 2015. 224p. ISBN 9780061780066. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062408822. BIOGRAPHY
This book offers 100 brief meditations on Sinatra and his music. Lots of fans out there could write 100 mash notes, but what makes this book so special is that the fan in question is distinguished poet Lehman, editor of the “Best American Poetry” series and the Oxford Book of American Poetry. So expect elegant writing and creative insight along with the outpouring of affection. (from Library Journal, April 6, 2015).
I was about to parenthetically aside that those two facts are unrelated, but as I sit here at midnight, on his 66th birthday of all days, 15 years later, it occurs to me for the first time that they may be quite possibly not entirely unrelated after all. Hmm.
Anyway, it was spring break of my freshman year at college, and I was definitely not a poet—I was a molecular biology major who happened to be taking a poetry class as part of a required mini-minor in the humanities (these were called “clusters,” I think). Undergrads had to take a sequence of five classes outside of their major discipline, and creative writing sounded more fun than any of the other options.
I’d taken up creative writing as a hobby the year before, for equally dubious reasons: It was easy extra credit, a weekly poem or short story for a bonus point on your final grade in AP English. I figured I could write a few words with line breaks on a piece of paper once a week, and then half-ass the essays, which I truly hated writing. Haiku were my favorite, for obvious reasons, but I wrote the forms and followed the prompts. Along the way I felt for the first time that strange combination of stimulation and relaxation that comes from making art, and ever since I’ve written against insomnia in the quiet hours of the night, for the pleasure and peace of it. It felt like I was scamming the system at the time, but Mr. Ruggeri knew what he was doing.
Still—not a poet. It was spring break, early March, which meant a foot of snow in Western New York. When I pulled into the driveway my dad was on the back patio in a bathrobe, three sheets to the wind, grilling meat. “Here comes the Poet Laureate of East Bumfuck!” my dad shouted to his equally drunk friend, Crazy Larry. That was his legal name; he’d had it changed to Crazy Larry, though I never knew if it was supposed to be serious or ironic—he always seemed sane enough to me. My whole life, up to that point, felt sane enough to me.
My father was, or is, I imagine, a pathological liar with a temper. Nothing too serious—just the occasional smashed TV, or a plate of pasta dripping down the wall. And then slurred 3AM stories of his own imaginary grandeur.
I probably blushed as I walked past them, into the house, up to my room. I didn’t say anything, as I never said anything. But for some reason, later that night, for the one and only time in my life, and on a topic even more innocuous than poetry, I did say something. Muttered, maybe—but expressed an opposition to one of his lies: “That’s not true.” Three words and it almost came to blows. I left and we haven’t spoken since.
I didn’t mean to tell this story, but suddenly I’m wondering: Was the poet comment what really upset me that night?
And still, when a stranger asks me what I do:
“I edit a magazine.”
“Oh really? What kind of magazine?”
“A literary magazine.”
“What’s a literary magazine, like stories and stuff?”
“Yeah, people send us their stories and we publish them.”
I don’t say it’s a poetry magazine. Why not? Is it because I don’t want to become the Poet Laureate of East Bumfuck?
Well, here I am, 15 years later, writing to you, somehow, as Poet Laureate of East Bumfuck. It turns out that was the truest thing my father ever said to me. For the last decade I’ve been editor of one of the largest poetry magazines in the world. I read 100,000 poems a year as submissions, and I have a book of poems, and an MFA (sort of), and I’m still not a poet. I don’t even like most poetry. I love what I love, of course, but it isn’t much, and the rest …
Halfway through college and a year into estrangement I realized that the thrill of a lab bench wasn’t a thrill for me, and that “cluster” in creative writing turned into a last-minute B.A. I worked for a while as the night-shift clonazepam-dispenser at a halfway house for schizophrenic adults, still writing to pass the time, and then was offered this job for no reason I can comprehend. It was like being pulled out of the stands and asked to coach an NFL football team, because the owner saw I was good at diagramming plays. What fan would say no to that?
But Rattle itself was borne of the same haphazard principles. Alan Fox, the founding editor, is a real estate entrepreneur, a lawyer, and an account first, and a poet fifth. He met a teacher on a cruise, who talked him into taking a class, and a class chapbook turned into Rattle #1. He’s written several books of non-fiction, but none of poetry. The only real poet on the masthead is my wife and assistant editor, Megan O’Reilly Green—she was designed to be a poet; language structures her brain in a way that seems magical to me—and she doesn’t even bother publishing.
So we aren’t poets, and I'm not just being humble. We’re the Island of Misfit Toys when it comes to literary magazines, but I think that’s exactly what makes it work. I never wanted to be a poet; I don’t care if I never publish another book or win another award or read at another AWP. I have no personal investment in poetry—but I still think poetry itself is worth investing in. I still write it for the private joy that it offers, and I still work my laurel bumfuck off sharing the best poetry I can find with as many people as possible, because I honestly think it’s one of the most important things that I can contribute to the world.
I’ll use this week as guest blogger to explain why that is, and to offer some thoughts from the perspective of a non-poet poetry editor who is fully immersed in the literary world, and also set mostly apart from it. Thanks for reading.
[Photo: Me, still not a poet, at the Long Beach Poetry Festival, by Brendan Constantine]
OK, let’s get our bearings. The more things stay the same, the more they change – on the surface at least. Peggy Lee sings “Is That All There Is?” while Peggy Olsen’s midriff expands; hem lines are going up and these boots were made for walking; the tension between Peggy and Joan gets more intense; the transformation of Ken Cosgrove from nice guy with level head to one-eyed sourpuss continues apace; and the guys usher in the dawn of the worst decade of male fashion with ugly mustaches – Roger’s white stache in the Rollie Fingers mode; even worse, perhaps, Ted’s big brown concession to the Zeitgeist.
The trio of oversexed McCann ad men who can’t get enough of Joan’s panties, hose, and bra: did we (men) really behave that crudely back then? (Don’t answer.) And if, onomastically, Harry Crane echoes Hart Crane, and Dick Whitman evokes Walt, and Michael Ginsberg recalls Allen, then meek John Mathis in the flesh, who reports to Peggy and matches her up with his brother-in-law, will disappoint all of us who made out to Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” in suburban cellars prepping for the high school prom in 1966. I have never before used the word onomastically in a sentence.
Things have changed on the Semitism front at least. The dark-haired waitress waiting on Don, Roger, and three female accomplices in a diner – the waitress named Di – reminds our boy of Rachel Katz, nee Menken, and the first of the last episodes of “Mad Men” go right back to episode one of season one when the heiress of Menken’s department stores gets treated rudely by Don and company in the then-judenrein firm of Sterling and Cooper. In a dream Rachel is one of the models auditioning for the chinchilla ad that the agency is planning. In the most memorable dialogue of the week, she tells Don “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight” and he replies with the over-sincerity of a commercial: “Rachel, you’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth.”
Rachel Menken has died of leukemia. It happened just a week ago. Don is stunned; he pays a shiva visit to Rachel’s sister Barbara, who needs not explain what this seven-day period of mourning entails. Don knows. He has, he says, lived in New York for a long time. Barbara’s husband: “We need one more for a minyan.” Don: “I’ll be glad to help.” Barbara: “He can’t. He’s not Jewish.” The men doven while he stands in the vestibule looking on. You think of the Jews we have met since Nixon and Kennedy faced off in series one: Jane Siegel, who marries Roger; Jane’s pint-sized cousin, butt of jokes, mocked incessantly by Roger until he deftly aims a punch at Roger’s solar plexus; Abe who loves Peggy; Ginsberg, crazy as a loon but right up there with Don and Peggy in the copywriting department; foul-mouthed comedian Jimmy Barrett and his wife, Bobbie. Don has slept with Bobbie, he has slept with Rachel, and it could be that the antidote to anti-Semitism is good sex. As Ava Gardner put it, when accounting for why she and Sinatra fought constantly yet played their romance through to its end, “If a man’s good in the feathers, you can forgive a lot.”
Meanwhile, Don remains the Lothario de ses jours, shtupping the waitress in an alley and topping a midnight visitor on a wine-stained carpet. In the immortal words of every TV critic in America, Does he know who he is? Will he ever find out? And how will it end? Will he jump? Will he fall? The last two questions reveal too literal a reading of the opening credits and should be disregarded. To the first two questions: Sure. He’s the guy who radiates confidence when he sells you a Mercedes. “The best – or nothing.”
TN: Trio House Press is an independent publisher of American poets. The poets we publish are from around the country, as are our editors. Dorinda Wegener is in New York; Terry Lucas is in San Francisco; Sara Lefsyk and I are in Colorado; and Issa Lewis is in Michigan. We are a collective, so some of the poets we publish serve as editors as well. We published Matt Mauch's book, If You're Lucky Is a Theory of Mine, in 2012, and he's been on board with us for some time now. Typically, a poet is published and then serves on the THP collective for two years post-publication. We've just been fortunate Matt is still helping with the whole editing process.
I mention all of our editors because they are the ones who work so closely with our poets in order to make those gorgeous books happen. It's no small undertaking to walk with a poet through publication, and our editors do it out of a deep belief in the poet's work. We want their work out there just as much as the poet. It's actually pretty amazing, really, given our geographical distance, that we're able to work with one another. It's the miracle of email, Skype, and telephone. Even our online submissions system streamlines the whole process of poets getting their work into our hands.
KS: Five editors in four geographic locations (coast to coast!) sounds challenging. Did you set out to be that far apart, or is that something that happened along the way?
TL: We were living on all points of the compass when we met during our MFA years. All of the original editors met in the New England College MFA program founded by Gerald Stern and Maxine Kumin. After we graduated, we kept up with one another through monthly exchanges of poems and critiques, as well as reviews of what we were reading, giving one another the same kind of workshop experience we had shared for the previous two years. We were all madly trying to get our own manuscripts published, and became aware of how many excellent poets are passed over because of how few publishers of poetry there were, as well as how few books poetry presses can afford to publish. All of us were working poets first, editors/publishers second. That was what united us across the miles—and still does.
TN: When Dorinda and I first began brainstorming about THP, I was in Florida and she was in New York. So, yes, from the get-go it's always been a distance sort of affair. The distance is challenging only in that when we are in process working with one another; it would be nice at the end of the day to prop up our feet together and get a drink, or something. But, again, technology really allows us to feel as if we're working in the same room with each other and the poet. When I work with a poet who lives in an entirely different state, I do my best to be accessible by phone and email. It's a volley of sorts. First, after working with a supporting editor, since two editors thoroughly read the work and make editing notes, I send the feedback to the poet who then reviews the notes and makes edits. From there, I comb through the work again and work closely with the poet until their vision of the manuscript is as closely aligned as possible with the final draft of the book that goes to print. All the THP editors work like this with our poets. We aren't just a print-em up press. We want our poets' books to be as strong as possible, so we edit.
KS: Does the press support any full-time staff members?
TN: Now, we're all part-timers at THP. Our first two years of establishing the press, Dorinda and I put in full-time hours. There was so much to do outside of the editing on the business side, and establishing a non-profit is a whole other animal. Everything is weighed, measured, and accounted for. Federal and state filings are time consuming. But, if you want it badly enough, what seems daunting and unscalable, it's just hoops. There are a lot of hoops. So, we jump through them because the poetry is important enough to put in this effort. I think the effort it takes isn't ever fully understood until you do it, sort of like being a parent. You can never fully understand how utterly intense parenting is until those children are in your arms. It was the same with Trio House. Once we'd incorporated, something was born than needed constant feeding. What we did anticipate was that we'd eventually share the workload. This was the whole idea behind the collective. Folks come on to the press and take on tasks, anything from Marketing to Editing. Now that we've been at this for a number of years and so many of us share the tasks of press, part-time hours are feasible, which is important since we're all working poets as well. All of the editors write, submit, and work hard at their own craft. And, so many of us have other day-jobs, too.
TL: And I would add that THP is a non-profit press. It doesn’t “support” anyone in the traditional sense—although we’ve received tremendous support from our advisory board, which was initially comprised of our former MFA mentors and other colleagues—like Joan Houlihan, Ilya Kaminsky, Issa Lewis, and Michael Waters. In addition, poets like Peter Campion and Terry Ehret joined our advisory board later. Without this larger community, THP could not have become what it is in the three and one-half short years of its existence. And, hopefully, we support our poets in the ways we want to be supported as poets—not just during the production process, but in the post-production marketing and distribution of their work, including awards nominations and the continued building of community among our collective. We, as writers, need one another. We believe that’s doubly so for poets, and that we, as a press, have a responsibility to foster genuine community among our poets and their readers.
KS: I’m not asking you to choose a favorite child, I promise; but you can give us a few examples of Trio House books and tell us what is the kind of work you’re seeking?
TN: We're seeking strong poetry. Bottom-line. Our editors' tastes are so diverse and they're also the people who forward manuscripts to our judges. Regarding the Trio Award and the Louise Bogan Award, the judges who come on board with us for that year's reading period are the ones who significantly shape our press. We admire our judges and their work, so entrusting them with two of our three books keeps our press from becoming stagnated or leaning in one direction only with regard to aesthetic.
For instance, if you look at the work of Iris Dunkle in her book, Gold Passage, you'll see that she's quite the lyrical poet. Her work is compressed, precise, mysterious, and clearly rhythmic. Each word is chiseled and hewn. It's gorgeous in its own right. Her work is so very different from Steven Riel's Fellow Odd Fellow, which is just as gorgeous and so very spacious. There is effortlessness to his long lines, his cheeky-tone that appears so suddenly after lines of such somber imagery. These two collections are so very different, yet each is so amazingly crafted. In our books, attentiveness to crafting is unmistakable no matter the leaning. In essence, our poets have a clarity surrounding their own relationship to their craft, whatever crafting approach they take when getting that poem down onto the page.
TL: Tayve is right. And I think that diversity of tastes has resulted in the only common denominator in all of THP’s books: quality. All three of those first books published in 2012 immediately received excellent reviews. And if sales and awards are any indication, then the readers and critics of those books agree with that assessment—all three went into reprint their first year, and one book, Clay by David Groff, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
KS: What is Trio House’s connection to Louise Bogan or her work that led to naming an award after her?
TN: I adore Bogan. While I was working on my MFA I was able to really delve into her work and the more I read, the more surprised I was at just how marginalized she was, at least in comparison to so many other poets of her same generation. She was hardly mentioned, and her body of work— gorgeous. Not only is her work powerful in its lyricism, and its carefully crafted sound, but also she was a fine critic. It's no small feat to have had a career as she did for so many years with The New Yorker. It just made no sense to me that her work was sidestepped. But, much about the poetry world often eludes me and it's difficult for me to make sense of it. In actuality, I get it—the whole sales-driven, supply and demand thing, but the small press isn’t necessarily about supply and demand. The larger publishing houses—yes. Trio House Press? No. That 's one of the driving forces as to why we founded Trio House—to assist those whose work is marginalized but needs to be published and read. Since Bogan had no award named after her, it was an honor to be able to do so. She was a quiet giant.
KS: What is your publication schedule?
TL: We publish at least three books per year—two as a result of contests judged by well-known poets. The submission period for both of these is November 1 through April 31. Then in July we have an open reading period from which the editors make a selection. All three books are published in time for the next year’s AWP. Depending upon the press’s workload and the number of quality manuscripts available, the press may, from time to time, solicit additional manuscripts for publication. The release date of these books varies.
KS: Will we see you at AWP?
TL: Yes—all of us—every THP editor, collective member, and poet. Every year we have an offsite reading where our new poets read, as well as the judges for that year. This year’s reading is Thursday, April 9, 7:00 p.m. at the Historic Wesley Center of Minneapolis. Poets Sandy Longhorn and Bradford Tice will be reading from their new books, as well as judges Peter Campion and Carol Frost. In addition, all of our poets have book signings scheduled in the book fair (table # 240), which can be found in the AWP Catalogue. We love meeting our readers, as much as we love introducing our poets to the world, so please stop by and say “Hi.”
Tayve Neese's work has appeared in literary journals including Fourteen Hills, The Paris Review (daily online edition), MiPOesias, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and others. She is the Executive Editor of Trio House Press, an independent press publishing distinct and innovative voices of emerging and established American poets. Her book, Blood to Fruit, is available from David Robert Books, an imprint of WordTech Communications. She serves on the Advisory Board for the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts, and currently resides in Colorado.
Terry Lucas’s most recent poetry chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the Copperdome Chapbook Award from Southeast Missouri State University Press, and his full-length collection, In This Room,is forthcoming in 2016 from CW Books. He was the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Featured Poet, and his work has appeared in Best New Poets 2012, Great River Review, Green Mountains Review, and many other publications. Terry grew up in New Mexico and lives in Mill Valley, California, where he is a full-time poet, editor, and free-lance writing consultant. www.terrylucas.com
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.