Over at the American Scholar, a group of committed poets have been writing a sestina, week by week, stanza by stanza. Last Tuesday, David Lehman picked a title, thus completing the poem. Here's what he writes about the title and the months-long collaboration:
The title that strikes me as the most elegant, succinct, and pertinent is “Compline,” as proposed by Paul Michelsen. Compline is the Latin name for the night prayer, the final canonical prayer in the Catholic day, following Vespers. Our sestina is a prayer of sorts; it is endowed with religion and the spirit of divine immortality leavened by the occasional jest; and if readers don’t recognize the title, all the better if they hunt it down in the dictionary or are moved to visit W. H. Auden’s vastly underrated sequence of poems “Horae Canonicae.” And if there are traces of “complete” and “complaint” in our title, so be it.
It was not an easy choice—I also liked “Her Hourglass a Prism” (Charise Hoge), “Mary, Singing” (Christine Rhein), “Uncertainty” (Patricia Smith), andLaWanda Walter’s whimsical “How to Dress for Anything.”
To all my thanks, not only for the spirited effort resulting in a truly collaborative endeavor that can, I believe, stand on its own as an anthology piece of the future, but for the contagious enjoyment of the process. I am immensely gratified, too, by the compliments in my direction. If we are a team and I am the coach, well, that metaphor goes right to my head like a perfectly chilled, light-yellow drink consisting of top-shelf bourbon, lemon juice, and honey in equal measures, shaken and served in a rocks glass.
I shall do my best to contrive another contest that will spur the team to heights. But that may take me some time. Meanwhile, I have thought of prompts for the next couple of weeks, and I hope they will prove inspiring.
Song for a Swift
my oldest night
my selfish grief
my hidden path
my weary fist
my only soul
my only soul
Printed by permission of the poet.
John Glenday collects his poems together at long intervals, so a new book – this poem is in a collection due to be published in 2015 – is a treat for his admirers, of whom there are many. His third collection, Grain, was shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2010, and the judges remarked: ‘His highly crafted lyrics are like wrought iron, strong but delicate, with a care for assonance and cadence.’
Glenday lives in the Highlands, on the west shore of Loch Ness (there are city poets in Scotland! They’ll make an appearance). His poems are unhurried but have their own urgent notes, and sometimes their humorous ones; mainly, though, there is the sense that the lines have been held up to the light and tested. The ‘small ballast of the soul shifting’ is something he attends to, and that shift may be caused by the sound of wind, water or bird; by human love, or a voice issuing from who knows where.
Find out more about John Glenday here.
and hear him read and talk on the SPL podcast:
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Not to bask too much in the glow of this venue, but I have always loved these mix tapes David Lehman and Editor give us every year. I started reading as a high school student in 1992 (Charles Simic), and I've sought them out every year since (no worries, I've worked backwards too). 1994 (A.R. Ammons), 1997 (James Tate), 2001 (Robert Hass), and 2011 (Kevin Young) all floored me. Thank you, Terrance Hayes, for Major Jackson, Donald Revell, Cate Marvin, and on and on, this past year (thanks to them too, and the magazines that noticed their poems). I love these books. They put poetry in people's lives, in both populist and subversive ways, and they put the names of magazines and poets and editors in front of people's faces. They're beautifully made books, they feel good in the hand, they're artifacts, and what's more, I want to read them every year. I love it when someone makes me a mix.
So needless to say, this week has been fun for me. And it’s probably time for me to tell you, with all due respect to all the poets and editors over the years, what the BEST poem in the BEST edition of The Best American Poetry is:
“Being Pharaoh" by Beckian Fritz Goldberg, 1995 (Richard Howard)
Because it came to me when I needed it. I picked the book up in a library, flipped to this poem, and thought, well, I need this in my life.
Because it made me learn about Beckian Fritz Goldberg.
Because I feel like it's a breaking-up-with-something poem that's mostly about something else.
Because I kind of feel like the speaker is the you in "Refugee" by Tom Petty. You don't have to live like a refugee, you're just kind of choosing to; no offense.
Because of the medical words and terms and images, the oxygen mask hissing, and because the nature stuff is vague and weirdly put: the feather trees across / the river, the curious shore dog.
Because it taught me about smart line breaks: Tonight I am sick of every man / and his past. And the past is tired of his / request that it love him
Because of that personification of "the past" right there.
Because she describes the soul as gelatinous. Rather, she describes her image of the soul as a child as a glass / wing, fluted, gelatinous, detached / as my voice under water... I understand every single bit of that.
Because of the power trip of being an actual pharaoh, and the fact that no one is actually being a pharaoh. They're just trying.
Because it made me learn about Field.
Because it made me learn about Richard Howard and Richard Howard's poems! Thank you, Richard Howard. The entire 1995 edition is, as previously stated, the official best Best American Poetry. All the Beats and references to them in the poems, your acceptance of "longish" poems, the ending of Nicholas Christopher's poem ("Terminus"), your assertion that "our poetry is the myth by which we live and love and have our seeing." Thank you for Aaron Fogel's "The Printer's Error" from The Stud Duck, thank you for John Koethe and Charles H. Webb and Margaret Atwood. Thanks for it all.
Because it came to me when I needed it. Like the rest of these books. See my dog-eared pages here:
"I wrote this book almost without knowing it . . ."
The acclaimed annual, The Best American Poetry, is the most prestigious showcase of new poetry in the United States and Canada. Each year since the series began in 1988, David Lehman has contributed a foreword, and this has evolved into a sort of state-of-the-art address that surveys new developments and explores various matters facing poets and their readers today. This book collects all twenty-nine forewords (including the two written for the retrospective “Best of the Best” volumes for the tenth and twenty-fifth anniversaries.) Beginning with a new introduction by Lehman and a foreword by poet Denise Duhamel (guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2013), the collection conveys a sense of American poetry in the making, year by year, over the course of a quarter of a century.
Read a selection here.
Order your copy here.
What I’m about to describe is not special just because it exists. Nor is it a novel idea; teachers run programs like our Coffeehouse in schools every day. I didn’t invent it, nor am I especially good at it. I’d describe my role as less mentor, more encourager. I’m the person who supplies the hot chocolate and claps really loud. Another teacher and I run it, we inherited it from teachers of the same mindset, born from our own teachers who sensed the same thing we do: these artsy kids need some space and a venue for their artsy-ness.
Mr. C. and I run an after school Coffeehouse multiple times a year for our students in a 100 seat Little Theatre. That’s it. Students can get up and perform. Whatever. We have some rules (“No swearing” “Five minutes or two poems” “No singing along with songs playing over your headphones while the rest of us can’t hear the music” [NEW rule]). The most important rule (and one that exists in Poetry Slams and similar programs everywhere) is “No apologies.” This rule is designed to prevent shy kids or kids sharing what they’ve made for the first time from standing and stuttering apologies for their five minutes. Sharing something you’ve made is unbelievably difficult. Seriously. Sharing something you’ve made is unbelievably difficult. I salute every person who’s ever done it, especially if you’re 15 years old.
(I also salute my parents and the teachers I had who made it possible for me to do it. Who gave me some space and a venue.)
With all due respect to coaches (wonderful people who care a lot about our kids and spend a lot of time with them), when a kid physically grows big and tall or stays small, coaches have a pretty good idea there might be talent to be cultivated there. A kid talented at making art doesn’t necessarily stand out in a physical way. If artistic talent is to be cultivated and some-of-the-most-important-contributions-humans-have-to-offer-this-otherwise-busted-world, from cave paintings to Da Vinci to students reading their own poems on the stage of a Little Theatre in a high school America in 2015, is to continue to exist, who will see this talent if we don’t give burgeoning artists the space and time to show it?
So basically, Coffeehouse is the basketball practice of art.
There are many singers and musicians. They’re especially good this year. Tony played the theme song from Rocky on the ocarina. Jaidah played her own songs and “Just the Two of Us” by Bill Withers. Josh played “Bankrupt on Selling” by Modest Mouse. Mikeya sang the Sam Smith version of “How Will I Know.” A group of students sang the theme song to Pokemon. Mr. C. played death metal versions of Taylor Swift songs. We kind of hit every genre.
The poets earn my special respect. They read their poems off laptops and phones and out of old school journals. Some of them know their work by heart. Some of them read Slam-style, some of them read with their heads down and not aimed towards the microphone. Their poems can be funny and full of pain. My favorite line this year has been from Michael’s “Self Image, Fame, and Stitches” (and I’m paraphrasing here): I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t even go to Wendy’s anymore
It’s an exercise in listening, I rarely see the poems on the page. I occasionally ask for copies. I asked a former student Colin Pascoe for his work, and they’re some of my favorite poems I’ve ever read. I still have the binder he gave me, his “book,” when he graduated, in which he separated his poetic efforts into high school years. See his chapter page for Freshman year: “Hello I’m Colin and I hate everyone and I don’t title my poems because I hate them too.” His performances at Coffeehouse and at Louder Than a Bomb in Chicago in 2009 were epic.
We lose students sometimes, and we lost Colin in 2010. Colin went away to college with strict instructions from me to keep writing poems, graduate, and apply for MFA school. I feel a deep sense of loss over all the poems he never wrote. And I’m thankful he sought out a space and a venue for his artsy-ness in high school.
I’m thankful for all the kids that do.
With permission, I’m ending with a link to some current student work, Tracy’s great poem “The She System.”
She killed with it at Coffeehouse.
Specifically, this copy of this book.
I had read most of it before, in libraries and at other people’s houses. And I knew a lot about it when I got it. I was at Mercer Street Books in NYC with amazing former contributor Tanya Larkin on October 27, 2007. We both saw it at the same time, but she let me buy it. She's good to me. We talked about the poems a lot.
It’s the first US edition from 1971, and the pages are worn in the best way. You can see it’s a great artifact for someone who likes books as artifacts. I’ve always loved prices on old books, too, and thinking about the cost of milk and meat at the time. $2.95 for all the things inside this book in 1971. After I read it straight through, the $2.95 stuck out at me most for some reason.
It’s a beautiful book.
It’s really not for everybody. It’s full of death and animals and animalistic behavior and God and really specific names of body parts and modern machinery and Oedipus and "a ceremonial Japanese decapitator" and stabbing and battles and wombs. It's a lot.
It can be read in one sitting.
I see it in a lot of other places. I imagine Markus Zusak read it before he wrote his excellent The Book Thief.
I’d be interested to talk to someone who came to it blindly. I can’t describe reading it without some pretty extensive background knowledge of Hughes’ life. I think this made the book more valuable to me, but how the poems exist without the context of him, I don’t know.
I don’t know how the poems exist on their own at all, really. I know my favorites are: Crow’s First Lesson, A Grin, In Laughter, Crow Frowns, Crow Blacker Than Ever…
The agony did not diminish
Man could not be man nor God God.
Crying: “This is my Creation,”
Flying the black flag of himself.
That line. I want to fly the black flag of myself.
It’s not a book I want to leave the house with or return to very often. It’s kind of like the Schindler’s List of violent poetry books. That movie got to me, intensely, but it’s not something I really want to watch again to pass the time. It is not a pass-the-time book.
Examination at the Womb-Door, also a favorite. The act of owning in that poem inspires me. Death owns your still-working lungs, your utility coat of muscles, your questionable brains, but who is stronger than death? Someone about to be born. For the moment.
That might be the best picture to paint of it. It is essentially a book that describes the act of living (waking up and breathing every day) as "owning a utility coat of muscles." Thank you for letting me buy it that day, TL.
And every day at least one school student in America asks me (or my stand-in, at all the schools lucky enough to have a librarian) for a "good" book. Most days, it’s many students asking. "Good" means something different every time. I have been asked specifically for a "calm" book, a "happy" book, a book with "a whole bunch of drama," a "love" book, that "blue" book, that "book with the guy and the girl in a circle on the cover," that "book where [insert plot detail here]," etc. I have been asked specifically for a "dirty" book. I admire that question, because while many high school students know what they want, few have the wherewithal to ask that way. I don’t love all the books I point out. They don’t love all the books I point out. When I start to rattle off books, the most popular question is, "Miss, have you read every book in this whole library?" The most popular title for random adults in many schools is "Miss" - an approach some adults hate, but I find it sweetly formal. I have not read all the books in this whole library. I can’t. Some of these books are not good. And some of them are not the right fit for me as a reader. But everyone gets to pick, and good librarians (on the public service side of things) haven’t read every book, they just know about books. There’s a difference. I know the books I love.I say “on the public service side of things” because there are many different types of librarians. Some people who get the Masters of Library Science degree are really into organizing information in all its many formats but have no head for public service. And vice versa. I have a good head for public service and a mediocre head for organizing things. I hope the profession seems complex enough to allow for these idiosyncrasies. Libraries do have their devotees. If you're one of them, look around your library the next time you go. Notice what the librarians and library staff do. Ask them. They'll tell you. They like helping.
To be an excellent waitress or bartender, it is good to be physically coordinated and a linear thinker. I am neither of these. I am an unfailingly clumsy and largely disorganized person. It’s okay. I’m good at lots of other things.
I think I glamorized the notion of me as a surly, self-assured bartender long before I actually found myself in the role. Throughout college, I mostly earned a living caring for other people’s children. I had been a camp counselor before that. Sick of my demanding, underage clientele, perhaps I did fantasize about a job that, by its very nature, prevented me from ever having to wait on a child again. I did not realize then that tending bar can be very like babysitting, with only slightly more money and a lot less cuteness to soften the embarrassment of it all.
In the summer of 2010, I had just finished undergrad and was still living in my college town. I was finally working my first post-grad, kid-free job: packing boxes at an embossing plant outside of town. It wasn’t glamorous, but it provided a nice break from the rapidly deteriorating situation with my college boyfriend. It was a seasonal gig with a definite end in sight, and I really liked the people I worked with. That said, it was clear that things were not magically coming together for me despite my shiny new Liberal Arts degree. But I was bearing up, I told myself. I was handling it. Basically, I had to get out.
So I moved home. There was a messy break-up. There was my parents arriving at the glorified flop-house where we lived, and covering their noses like those people on Hoarders, as they helped me gather what remained of my halcyon days, and load it into the car in bundles and piles.
Back in my hometown, a suburb of a slightly larger town, where no one I knew lived anymore, I set about sorting out my life. I applied to a temp agency. I interviewed at the mall. It was all very weird. Then I signed up for bartending school.
I could go on for pages about the various absurdities of my bartending alma mater. Its proprietor was Joanne, a middle-aged mom of two who wore three-inch acrylic fingernails and a waist-length, platinum party mullet. She had run several bars in Atlantic City in the 80s and somehow you just could tell she’d been the life of that particular party. We had textbooks. We took weekly tests. We memorized various acronyms for popular drink recipes, all of them completely ridiculous and incredibly helpful. A Blue Hawaiian is composed of Lite Rum, Blue Curacao, and Pineapple Juice; Hawaii is the Light Blue Pineapple state. Etcetera. The gist was you paid a certain amount of money to drive out to this shady-looking storefront in an unassuming strip mall every day, but once you got inside, the classroom was, for most intents and all purposes, a bar. Liquor bottles were filled with water food-colored to look like the real thing. Liqueurs were harder to replicate with dye, but they made sure that each bottle basically evoked the spirit of the spirit it was meant to represent. The “drinks” we made almost always came out muddy brown.
I wish I could say that I entered into all of this with any sense of irony, but I was pathetically earnest and full of expectation every step of the way. I was looking for anything to which I could hitch my wagon, and this really did seem like a good enough way to pick up a marketable skill. I didn’t learn until later that bartending schools like this one are widely considered to be a joke by reputable restaurants and bars. After three weeks of daily lessons and a grueling practical exam in which I had to prepare twenty “drinks” in fifteen minutes, I received my diploma and was given the option to purchase my own bar kit from the school for thirty-eight dollars. I was told by my instructor that my name would go into a database of trained bartenders-for-hire and she would call me if she heard of any openings.
The call came a few weeks later. The local Elks lodge was looking for someone to manage their clubhouse. I had been passing my days doing chores and watching TLC on the basement television. Joanne gave me the details as I folded my father’s underwear and watched snow gathering in the little crook outside the basement window. It had been almost four months. I told her to schedule the interview.
I suppose I’d expected something akin to a country club. It wasn’t like that. It was more like those rumpus rooms some kids had growing up—large oblong room with cheap paneling, sectional sofas, and a Ping-Pong table. The bar, with its oversized counter and comically cramped service area, reminded me of the one my second cousin had had installed in his McMansion a few years back. The interview was brief, conducted by Andy, an overweight construction foreman who was also chair of the House Committee. “We don’t need you to be perfect. We just like things done a certain way.” I smiled and said I would do my best. I was given a golf pencil to fill out my paperwork.
I was a bartender for the Elks lodge for about seven months, and it wasn’t that bad. There were the regulars—a motley crew of core Elks who came by most weeknights, to hang out, get tipsy like teenagers and, I eventually realized, to be away from their families. Each regular had a preferred beer. We stocked Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Busch, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. These were the choices. It was explained to me right away that I would be expected to have the beer of each Elk’s choice cracked and waiting for them when they approached the bar. Should I mistakenly place a Bud Light before a PBR-drinker, I should understand that I would be committing the most serious of Elks Lodge faux pas. Gun to my head, I could probably list the beer preferences of each and every patron of that bar to this very day. I have brain cells that are currently, actively dedicated to retaining this information.
The core Elks also loved shots. They were on Jaeger Bombs when I started. They liked me to serve them in those little plastic washroom cups, and at the end of the night I’d hit the floodlights and find them littering the patio, slightly crushed, translucent, looking for all the world like deep sea crustaceans as I swept them into piles.
When June came, the seasonal Elks arrived. These were family folks who bought summer memberships so they and their children could make use of the pool. Now, at the far end of the bar, a drive-through window, to which I’d never paid much attention in the winter months, slid and slammed throughout the day. Country music playing over the poolside loudspeakers seeped into my strictly rhythm-and-blues-filled bar. Soccer moms and baseball moms and swimteam moms with their leathery tans and neon string bikinis flocked to the window to order (did I mention that the bar doubled as a snack bar in summertime?) “three corn dogs, two rocket pops, a pretzel… oh! and a strawberry daiquiri with a 151 float, please. Thank you, Chelsea! How’s your Mama?” The tips had never been better, but I was now serving people I knew. The families of kids who’d been bullies to me in my teen years were now singing the praises of my frozen margaritas.
I drove the empty small-town roads back to my parents’ house in early morning and drank beers alone before the glowing basement television.
When I found out I’d been accepted to the New School, I let Andy know I’d be gone by summer’s end. The word spread fast. “Why in the hell would you want to move somewhere like New York when you could live someplace like this?” “Oh honey, be careful. You’re a southerner. Those folks up there are mean.” Etcetera. I smiled and nodded. I cracked beers. I bought them shots. I’d saved the money that would nearly pay for my first year in New York City.
The last night I worked at the Elks Lodge was the annual end-of-summer Jamboree. They had the grill kids and the lifeguards handing out Jell-O Shots and sparklers, and I was three rows deep around the bar all night. I remember hitting my wall that day. I remember being tempted to walk out and light a match to this strange, exiled time in my life. Then, at the end of the night, T.R., one of my favorite Dad-tastic regulars, a core Elk, brought me an upturned baseball cap. It was filled to the brim with fives, tens, and twenties. “We passed this hat around the bar. Just wanted to see you off right. Good luck.”
I know bartenders, and I’m not a bartender. Not really. I don’t think I ever had much talent for it. If I’m not careful, I tend to remember that time in my life as a kind of lacuna. It felt, in the moment, as if my life had somehow jumped the tracks. I had switched onto a different, undesirable course, and was now lashed to a certain, finite list of things I could expect to be and do. I think most people go through something similar, usually after college. It takes a few more years to see things clearly. It was always the same set of tracks I was on—or there are no tracks. The point is, I suppose, that figured that out.
Chelsea Whitton holds an MFA in poetry from The New School. Her poems have appeared in such places as Ilk, Sixth Finch, Bateau, Cimarron Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, among others. She earns her living as a copywriter and lives in Ridgewood, Queens.
My posts this week on The Best American Poetry blog have all been about what it means to build writing communities of difference and writing communities of care. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity. Voices like my own (black, LGBT, Buddhist, and from working poor worlds) are underrepresented in mainstream literary venues. Tonight my friend and fellow author, Kathy Jones, taught me that I am not just a survivor, but an "overcomer" and reading and writing makes me so.
The Best American Poetry community is an intentionally, regularly integrative and inclusive literary institution. Yet, elsewhere, despite notable efforts, we still write and read within very culturally and aesthetically segregated worlds. Not all of our institutions are consistently, demandingly polyvocal, polyvalent, multigenre, cross-style, and inclusive. Moreover, quiet as its kept and difficult as it may be to hear, some perform diverse representation on the surface (through fleeting, occasional tokenism) while seething with toxic power plays underneath that undermine the spirit of true inclusion.
And so, for my final blog post this week, I ask for your help on behalf of a friend who is a remarkable writer. Alexis H. Allen is an elder black Southern writer, an ordained minister, a teacher, and a survivor of domestic violence who is writing a book called In Pew Pain about alienation within spiritual communities. If the quotation from an excerpt from her book piques your interest, then will you please suggest publishing venues for either a longform essay adapted from her book or for the book itself? You may visit my website and email me at the address listed on the righthand side of the homepage. Or you can leave a comment at this post. Here's the excerpt (included here with her permission):
From In Pew Pain by Alexis H. Allen
It was 1980 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was living with my husband, a non-commissioned officer stationed at this military army base. I attended church services at one of the chapel. The service as called the “Fort Knox Gospel Hour.” Wednesday evening Bible Study at the chapel was a highlight of the week. I needed words of inspiration and “some church,” as we say colloquially, to give me a lift until Sunday.
That Wednesday I made certain that the house sparkled and that the best dinner possible was prepared. The family was served, everything was fine and there were no excuses for me to stay home. It was time to go to Bible Study. There were no problems until I started to leave out of the door. As I picked up my Bible and my purse, my husband grabbed me by the arm and quietly but harshly said, “If you go to that church, I am going to come there, drag you out and stomp a mud hole in your ass.”
As I drove off, I trembled so uncontrollably that it seemed that the steering wheel would be rattled from it’s place. My greatest fear was that someday my husband would carry out his threats, attack me unmercifully, or kill me and the children as he said he would.
The acts of domestic violence that occur inside the walls of faith communities are represented by staggering, terrifying statistics. The legendary Christian leader Chuck Colson (1931-2012) once said that, "Tragically, studies reveal that spousal abuse is just as common within the evangelical churches as anywhere else. This means that about 25 percent of Christian homes witness abuse of some kind."
I safely arrived at Bible Study that evening and sat on the front row of the church. I found it hard to concentrate on what was being taught. I saw the Pastor. He gestured for me to come. He asked, “Why are you crying, Sister Allen. It can’t be because of Bible Study.” I told him about the threat that my husband made. He responded with, “Get your purse and your Bible. Go home. Have you seen the size of his feet?”
I appreciate your advice for Alexis H. Allen, and I deeply appreciate your openness and acceptance of my writing at The Best American Poetry blog.
I taught myself to read as a toddler to be close to my momma. My momma loathed me. I was, as she described me, her "sissy child" or the "changeling." Any admiration she had, arose from guilt. She was more business manager, army general, and torturer than momma. Which was worse: her violence against me (verbal, physical, sexual) or the violence that she allowed others (including siblings and my theatrical manager) to exact on me? Still, strangely, I loved her. Most of all, I did not want her to be hurt. I would hide underneath her sewing machine under the castoff cloth when my father would beat her.
One time after he beat her through the window out onto the roof, I holed myself so far under the sewing machine that my hand got caught in what turned out to be a secret compartment where she kept two of her most treasured books: Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck. Both novels are about orphan girls. My grandmother (a ruthless prostitute and madam despite coverups told by some in my family) disowned my momma: my grandmomma placed my momma on a Pullman Porter's car on a train out of Philadelphia and shipped her to live at a private black children's orphanage in Washington, D.C. My momma's favorite novels (and I still have the exact copy of Imperial Woman today) told tales of brutal girlhood and womanhood about which she inimitably understood. By the time I was three, relying foremostly on those novels, I could read.
I was aided by a special ability: eidetic memory. Eidetic memory is the capacity to intensely recall phenomena only seconds or minutes after exposure. The ability actually decreases as a child moves into adulthood. The first book I ever held in my hands was a copy of the King James Version of the Bible. At church, I would hold it open and when the deacon read aloud the passages to which the preacher referred, I connected the text with the orality and remembered entire passages. That's how I came to learn almost all of the Psalms. A brother and I were briefly tutored by a religious couple named the Morgans. Mrs. Morgan was shocked to discover that I could already recite long Biblical passages from memory. She gave me thrift copies of "classic" books and poems to "test" my recall. At three I was also unusual in that I spoke in complete sentences. But, my speech went deeper. My eidetic memory empowered my structural recognition of language. I wanted to know how it all ticked. I began to understand the language that I recalled as vocabularies set within sentences.
My goal was to learn vocabularies and glean the mechanics of sentences. I taught myself vocabularies using the Britannica encyclopedias and thick bound dictionaries in my home. My immediate family was poor, violent, and lacking in college education, but they were intensely literate, especially in Christian texts. I began to understand the weight of simple, independent subject-verb declarative statements when I honed in on Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me in paths of righteousness. I will fear no evil. I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." I reached a milestone when I was able to differentiate between the present tense of "The Lord is my shepherd" and the future tense of "I will fear no evil."
I recognized verb tense by figuring out the intelligibly within the preacher's reference to Psalm 23: the Lord's care of us meant that, in the future, we would be blessed without fear and homelessness. I connected meaning with recalled oral images, and recalled oral images with texts. By the time I tackled Heidi and Imperial Woman, I knew vocabularies and sentences. I then proceeded to move beyond the basics of declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory states from the Bible into a style of expression that seemed limited in that Christian text: descriptive expression. At their best, whether nonfiction or fiction, stories thrive on vivid narrative description. The Bible's religiosity seemed governed by a different order--less storytelling and more rumination, exaltation, questioning, imprecation, vituperation, invigilation, and praise.
Then, just after turning three, I began journaling. I used pieces of paper torn from the legal pads on which my momma wrote out monthly bills, organized chores, and kept track of her menses. My first instinct was to document the systematic burning done to me by a sibling so that I could show my pediatrician, Dr. Margaret Mary Nicholson, a piece of paper that described the atrocities in lieu of speech. My momma beat me and made me swear never to utter what my elder brother was doing to me or anything else in our family. Writing seemed a means to express my struggle without disobeying my momma's commands.
As you may know full well by now, I was no ordinary toddler, and I felt very close to death. I thought that there may surely come a time when my momma or any family member might actually kill me. So I was very conscious of mitigating my behaviors so as not to cross them while still exercising my own will. My eidetic memory posed a threat to my momma. She warned me repeatedly that if I told what I remembered (with the enormous precision and depth that it came to me) that I would be responsible for the break up of my family. "You could go to an orphanage," my momma threatened. "Or we could be homeless." All of these horrors did indeed befall me: soon I would be removed from my mother's care and placed in foster facilities. Soon I would be homeless. Our family would indeed be broken up and it is a testament to my good mental health as a person today that I have moved beyond the castigating guilt that I once felt for simply telling the truth about the violence.
And then it came to pass that my momma discovered my journals. She also discovered that I had been removing, reading and then returning her novels to the secret compartment in her sewing machine. She dragged me into the upstairs hallway by the bathroom and struck me again and again in my face. Then she handed the novels to me and told me to go downstairs and put them on the bookcase shelf in the den because they were obviously no longer a secret. I stood at the top of the steps, collecting myself before descending. She berated me for taking too long at the top of the staircase. Then, with a tap on my back, she pushed me. I tumbled down the steps like a rag doll. I knew I had injured my head as soon as I hit the bottom step. This was the first of a series of concussions that I endured through violence over the course of my childhood. My momma lied to Dr. Nicholson about the true source of my injury from that day. She lied about most of my injuries. As a toddler, I taught myself how to read and write. But at that moment, at the bottom of the steps, I began to cloak my reading and hide my writing. What good were my literary efforts if I was dead?
Are the dead still with us? When the flesh is husk, does the spirit speak? Can a love be everlasting? Can a hurt be overlong? After a predator dies, are his crimes still wrong? When the nightclub closes, do the splintering floors still dance? How many balls are just memory? How many illnesses took lives? I've heard hundreds of eulogies, yet I am not wise. What survives? Why bereft? Spirit-speaking? Spirit-listening? Smoldering ash? Life-theft?
And you, dear Eriq, are you with me? Do you still commentate at spirit-balls? Do you remember the time when we were five years old at Aunt Jackie's house when we first met Mr. Yardley, the predatory man who became our theatrical manager? We were not siblings, but we bled the same blood. AIDS covered you in blisters. You raged through your last hours. "But," you cried through fevers, "I thought I was resistant." Then death was a hiss. Years ago, Mr. Yardley told his new child charges arraigned that day at Aunt Jackie's: the only role that we would truly play as child entertainers was the part of a child. We learned to be cherubic: to smile with our eyes, with our teeth, with our cheeks pinched and puffed. What kind of death attends an abused child who plays innocent for money? What did it mean to perform childhood yet never be a child? Now that you are spirit, Eriq, are you finally a child?
And you, dear Jimmy, are you with me? Do you still dance at the spirit-Show Palace in a ghost-Times Square? Do you still run your hands across your litheness, lick your teeth, blink your eyes, cooing, "Everybody wishes they could have this puertorriqueño skin, this puertorriqueño hair." You were Apollo when you burlesque-danced at the Show Palace, and I was just the nightshift domestic who cleaned the wall-to-wall mirrors (and an occasional fill-in dancer, shockingly homely, weak in gathering tips). Do you remember the night you hauled me to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx while you scored Gutter Glitter from your supplier? I told you that I would never, ever let anyone put me in danger like that again. You replied, eyes dancing with Zip: "If not for Baysay, I would love you." Does the deathplace have Weasel Dust and Bubble Gum and Brooklyn Pearl and DC-Dust? Nothing was free, right? After I asked to crash at your tiny sublet and told you I had no money, you still demanded I write a poem for you each day. Of course, I complied. "Life is about something for something," was what you would say. So, then, what is death? And do you still read Apollo poems in the sprit-night?
And you too, Woody, the standout former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer. Long legs, terrific ballon, alert mind, warm-hearted, off stage and on: a black crane, a swan in human lace. We met at the Paradise Garage. I was sitting in the corner on the floor and you urged me to dance. Then you took me to the round-walled Better Days on West 49th and the cramped Buttermilk Bottom on Franklin Street. And when you came to D.C., we went to the Bachelor's Mill where the cunning catch dates in their fists. And just before you started teaching as a dance professor in Texas, we talk on the phone and you sigh: "What's fame, what's money, what's life without love?" And, oh, you adored the metaphysical poets and house music and gospel songs and soft-spokeness and warm ocean waves. In the 80s, your favorite group was Ten City--you let me listen to their song "Devotion" on your Sony Walkman. "Don't come to Texas, baby," you told me when you were dying, "I don't want you to see me like this. I'm so weak." Are they still singing, "I wanna give you devotion?" Or, "When you're short on cash/I've got your length/when you're weak/I'll be your strength"?
Serious writers must sometimes explain that writing is not a hobby, not a leisure pursuit, and not a luxury. Rather, it is the most essential practice of our lives. Audre Lorde said it best: "Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," one of my dearest former poetry students said to me many years ago. "But what do you really mean when you say that writing is not a luxury?" It was just a few weeks after the beginning of my poetry class. He could not understand the notion that some serious writers' very survival depends on writing. It all seemed like romantic claptrap: for him, writing was a luxurious choice, not an austere calling. He was a wealthy white student at a small, private liberal arts college who had always dreamed of being a famous, award-winning, bestselling writer. But, as he shared on the first day of class when we all introduced ourselves, if he did not achieve his ambition, he was going to be okay because he could rely on being comfortable. Then he said, "After all, writing is just something that I do on the side."
During a conference in the middle of the semester, he told me that he did not know what he was going to do after the first week of my class because he had never had a black teacher before, much less an LGBT Buddhist teacher. I affirmed my former student that day in our conference and I affirmed him every other day throughout our rapport in the years to come. (And I have received his permission to write about him with the understanding that I not reveal his name.) His honesty was one of many starting places for true learning between us. True learning is frequently uncomfortable: we must break to reveal. If you think that I was in the slightest bit upset with him for his honesty, then you may need to read my thoughts about bias. In fact, he was doing everything right: he was trying to work-through the influence of his upbringing as he came to terms with my searing, discomfiting poetry lessons.
I sensed that he was covering up pain. The tragedies of my own life helped me to see a darkness engulfing him, a darkness so encompassing that he could not fathom its encroachment upon him. I suspected that my former student was a drug addict a month after meeting him. Unlike most teachers at the school, I have lived through the harshness of the streets and I know its struggles. I have never been an addict. But, some of my dearest friends have struggled with addiction. My office at the time was on the far, backside of the campus in a dorm. When I was working late, I would often see him when he was high: stumbling, nodding with a glazed, deadened gaze and an ashen pallor about his skin.
One day his drug supplier came on to campus to drop off a shipment. Yes, along with being an addict, he was a dealer. I saw them conversing furtively behind the dining hall as I made my way to the bus stop late at night to go home: the white young man of privilege and the black young man of disadvantage connecting through drugs. Then they both turned to look at me, the black LGBT Buddhist teacher from the working poor world of the streets and I broke the spell of their secret, painful rapport by calling out, "Be safe! I'll see you in class next week!"
Soon my former student's substance abuse and drug dealing came to the attention of the authorities at school. An incident occurred about which I still do not know the details. He stopped coming to class. It would not be long before his problems would force him leave the school. But, while he did not formally complete my poetry class, he continued his education with me.
One night I received a call from him at 3 a.m. in the morning. "Please," he weeped, "Come help me. I think I am in Druid Hill Park. I don't know where to turn." Without hesitation, I hopped on a bus and then walked past the abandoned buildings and trash strewn thoroughfare to the cross streets where he said that I would find him huddled under a street light. He was shivering. He seemed to have lost some of his clothes. He wore only one shoe. I gave him my jacket. "Aren't we going to hop a cab?" he asked and I told him, "Absolutely not. We are going to catch a bus." As long as I did not alert his parents or the school, he agreed to let me help him.
He fell asleep on the bus without asking where we were going. It was only when we arrived at a 7 a.m. meeting of Narcotics Anonymous that he understood my designs. I lived blocks away from the venue where that early morning Narcotics Anonymous meeting took place. When I walked to the bus stop in the mornings, I passed by the meeting folk lingering outside, smoking cigarettes. That morning after the meeting, over breakfast at the Paper Moon diner in Baltimore, I suggested that it was time for him to rewrite his life. And so began my former students' true writing education.
Five years later, the poems started coming: vital, brutal, brilliant poems about being a rich kid on Woo-Woo (heroin laced marijuana smoked in a cigarette), Belushi (heroin laced with cocaine), and Cheese (heroin laced with cold medicine). He once told me, "I'm an asshole." I then encouraged him to "write like an asshole until you come to a place in your life when you can cover up your behind."
Ten years later, I am pleased to say that he has rewritten his life and, whatever happens, he has the tools to keep doing so. His very life depends on writing. I told my former student who is now my friend that I was blogging this week and I wanted to feature one of his poems to introduce his artistry to the world. At first he agreed, but then, just before midnight, he called to say that he was not ready. Instead, he suggested that I link to an old hymn called "It Is Well With My Soul" that I once sang to him over the phone five years ago that begins: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,/When sorrows like sea billows roll;/Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,/It is well, it is well, with my soul."
It is Saturday July 28, 1990 at the now defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on West 96th Street in New York City. I am at a middle school children's writing workshop. Improbably, I am the teacher. The night before the workshop I cloister myself in the bathroom. Nervous stomach. Clammy hands. Head spinning. A writing teacher? Me?
Earlier that year I taught a few tap dance classes to children as a substitute at the Hot Feet studios in the nation's capitol. I also taught buffon clowning at a weekend workshop for children at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But teaching writing? How do I do that? Oh, I knew it could be done. I was molded by superb reading, writing, and performing educators. One such mentor was Samuel H. Wilson, Jr., a founder of the Arena Players, the oldest, continuously operating African American community theatre in the United States of America. Mr. Wilson recommended that I replace him for the Saturday children's writing workshop in 1990. Fred Hudson, the artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, readily agreed.
I had known both men since I was a child entertainer. Mr. Wilson and I had also led anti-gang violence workshops at public schools in the Mid-Atlantic states throughout the 1980s using techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Mr. Wilson was a giant in my world because he genuinely cared about my welfare. "What are you working on?" he always asked, and whatever I told him, he was invariably encouraging. In 1990, Mr. Wilson was occasionally sick. He would have only five more years to live before dying of pneumonia in 1995. It is now 2015: twenty years since his death and I still miss him deeply.
That Friday in July of 1990 before my first workshop the next day as a writing teacher, I call Mr. Wilson on the telephone for help. He asks me to think back to what he told me about writing many years before when I was a child. "Writing," Mr. Wilson always told me, "is just another way of caring about other people." He also said that, "Editing is just another way of caring about writing" and "Reading is just another way of changing the world." Then Mr. Wilson told me that if any of these things are true, then teaching is just another way of sharing this good news. At the core of his reflections was a vision of writing as relationship-building, as affection, and as care.
Over the phone Mr. Wilson suggests that I get the children talking to each other, sharing their own stories, and looking into each others' eyes. "It's not always page-bound," he says to me. "Don't be afraid to use your theatre technique to teach writing," Mr. Wilson bellows into the phone. That Saturday, after we warm-up by running around the room and vocalizing, the children and I create characters based on the real life denizens that occupy our neighborhoods. Then we fashion scenes in which the characters work through conflicts. We move in and out of writing, talking, and performing. And I am pretty sure that I learn far more than anyone else in the room.
For all of my life, Mr. Wilson's reflections about writing, editing, and reading have lit my way through the sometimes dark world of literary fortune. Even today I often begin and end my writing classes with his reflections. His ideas have taught me to be a generous writer, reader, and supporter of others. I see beyond the frequent provincialism of cliques, schools, clubs, and canons. I try to find a way to care about a diversity of writing around me. Rather than focusing on how the writing fits my own predilections, or the fame of the author, or the assumed cachet of the publishing venue, or the friends associated with the author, or even whether the work is narrowly "good" or "bad"--rather than focusing on any of these things, I try to care about the work by understanding the structural principles that seem to govern its design.
Let me close today's entry with just such an exercise of care about a recent poem published by Mary Meriam in the Winter issue of American Arts Quarterly. "It Gets Very Dark until the Moon Rises" is more than a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a poem that seethes forth from the central verb statement in its first line: "darkness drives her pick-up truck." Everything thereafter in the poem structures itself around this remarkable conceit. And then we (the reader) are off on the journey of this hard-living, smart, unlucky woman through the dark of Highway 86 until the turn in the poem when the moon shows the woman's face, and I'll leave the rest, dear reader, to you.
Old she-bear, pent
in her rocky den,
gnaws a footpad
dry as dust,
solitary rakes in sticks
and scratches the scar
that marks a hunter’s
Shaking the ice
off her frozen fur, she licks
the snow and huffs
out clouds of steam.
There is the language of waiting tables:
Deuce, ticket, 86, walk-in, six-top, app, dupe, fire, monkey dish, expedite, station, set-up, on the board, in the weeds, all set?
The preciousness with which insignificant items are imbued:
I would flat out refuse to let anyone touch my wine key, and on the rare occasions that I took pity, I’d watch my co-worker do so, never letting the generic piece of black plastic and twist of steel out of my sight.
The two separate apron pockets were to differentiate the blue Bic pens I’d indiscriminately hand out to customers to sign credit slips from the click pens, carefully guarded, which I would use to write out my own tickets.
From books, to clean rags, to trays, it was cutthroat competition with fellow servers. On arrival, the first thing would be to grab a black book. Vinyl with clear plastic pockets. It was the configuration of those pockets that determined which was the best, and once the correct configuration had been procured, ease of folding over, least ragged, and clean and dry were all factored in to get the most desirable. On a full night, the last person in would end up with half a book, the plastic torn, as useful as a scrap of cardboard.
A server learned how many clean rags they could get away with carrying on their person at the start of the night, and where to stash a few extras. Those most senior would know where others kept their hoard, and the obscure protocol to follow in a raid.
There was no real way to mark a tray as yours except in the moment it was laden with your tables’ food, or hoisted onto your shoulder. I once took a smaller, dirtier tray, and slammed it on the pick-up line in front of an extremely lovely woman I’d worked with for years because I’d felt she’d taken a larger, cleaner tray I felt I had rightfully claimed as mine, in mid-use. We didn’t speak for a week, and I don’t think our friendly camaraderie ever recovered.
The menu was unchanging. It had come straight from the 1950s. It was a set menu. To call it prix fixe would be to be putting on airs, but each entrée came with appetizer, beverage, salad, potato and dessert. Here were the appetizer choices: New England clam chowder, baked stuffed quahog, bluefish pate, fruit cup (a little glass dish of sliced melon, orange and grapes), and cranberry cocktail (a small tumbler filled with Ocean Spray, served on a saucer, along with a slice of lime if someone was feeling particularly inspired). Some people would ask about these items, others would laugh, and others would order unquestioning, as some of them had been doing for no less than half a century. It was offered without irony, just as the most ambitious menu item, speaking in culinary terms, featured Ritz crackers as a star ingredient (baked scallops). There was one aspect of the menu that changed, and it had changed a lot since the ‘50s. The prices. At the time I stopped working there, and moved up the hill to fine dining and a proper prix fixe, a plate of chicken fingers would set you back $26. On the menu they were referred to as chicken tenderloins, though they did come with an app, choice of beverage, salad (“garden,” pasta or cole slaw) and a slice of pie.
Then there was the repetition. Up the hill, with a French trained chef at the helm, there was always a long list of specials that needed repeating each night. But there, the kitchen had a creative flair for language. I used the term quenelle for a month without understanding what it really meant. It really does not mean much. One night a piece of fish would be served with a coulis, the next with a pistou, yet both nights the dishes were exactly the same. Down the hill, in the Basin, everything had a consistency that rivaled McDonald’s. Everything that went out of the kitchen was the same night after night, except for the rare occasions there’d be a special cut of beef (a cowboy steak) or an overstock of swordfish odd cuts (swordfish casserole). For seven years I was listing off the same four flavors of pie: blueberry, chocolate cream, key lime and pecan. I always said them in that order. I was unable to say them in a different order. If I did not begin with blueberry I wouldn’t be able to arrive at pecan. And only when I did arrive at pecan, would I allow myself the slightest variation, alternating between a northern and southern accent in the pronunciation of that funny little nut. Peh-cawn pie or pee-kan. And I’d look up at my table of strangers and flash them my broadest grin. Their meal was drawing to a close, as was my performance for them.
Yes, waiting tables is hard, and it’s hot, and it’s dirty, and you’re running. You’re on your feet, hustling to make a buck, lifting groaning bus buckets of dirty dishes and balancing a six-top’s dinners on one shoulder. Yet that’s not what makes it hard. The expression waiting tables comes from the serving and attending meaning of the word wait. But it is the other meaning that is the greatest challenge to a waiter. At the beginning of the night, or on a slow night, when you’re waiting for someone to come in, for something to do, that’s the hard part. When you’re station is full, and you’re going full on, it’s certainly not easy, and as physically demanding as it is, and as emotionally demeaning as it can sometimes become, it is not hard. So long as you’re busy, you’re never bored. While if you lose a step, forget a table, mishear an order, it can feel like the end of the world, there is just one thing your racing against: keeping someone else from waiting. That’s it. You don’t want the kitchen waiting on you to pick up dinners, you don’t want the management waiting on you to turn in your last check and most of all you don’t want your customers waiting for their food. And there are those moments, going full throttle, when no one is waiting. You’re right there on the line to pick up table two, table nine’s check is back to the cashier, table reset, and you’ve poured table six’s wine and are standing at the ready to take their order right when they are ready to give it to you. In those moments there is a transcendence of language. You are speaking to people, describing the difference between the broiled and baked stuffed shrimp, but all your explanations are rote. Paprika, butter, lemon are words falling from your tongue, but to you they are flavorless, only sounds you’ve repeated so many times before, and will so many times again. These are specific people, sitting in specific seats ordering specific foods off of a menu. But your pen moves, and the people in seats are numbered spaces on a ticket, moving clockwise, the foods they want is transformed into BS Shrimp, LOB bk, Single HB (bk), ½ + ½ no pot. Returning to table two, the words out are the management preferred “is everything to your liking?” There is liberation in that release from the multitude of meanings of language, freedom from thought. In that moment that you walk back towards the kitchen, tearing the thin carbon-paper dupe from your ticket, “order in!” grab a small tray and begin assembling apps, you live inside of an order of operations. Just as the little slip of carbon paper moves straight across the board, signs and symbols are joined to meaning by simple parallel signs. Equal signs are the only relevant punctuation marks. Soon enough table six will transform again, as you drop the much thicker half of the ticket, distilled into a single numeric value, cash or credit.
Alexandra Mendez-Diez was born in Boston and moved to Brooklyn, New York from Martha's Vineyard in 2004. She chose to live in Brooklyn because she liked how the buildings were lower, and the sky was so visible, but then they re‐zoned. She spent the 2009-2010 academic year in Granada as a Fulbright Scholar in creative writing. There are far too many things about New York City, and especially Brooklyn, which she missed desperately while away to list in a short biography, but tall buildings were not one of them. She has recently begun a blog at livesinbrooklyn.com. Alexandra curates Poets At The Yard reading series.
Since its inception in 2008, we have cheered on Bill Cohen, one of our favorite bloggers, as he has assembled an array of tattooed poets for Tattoosday's annual tribute to National Poetry Month. We are once again happy to spread the word to inked poets everywhere. Bill would like to post an image of your tattoo on Tattoosday every day during April. Tattoos need not be literary in nature to qualify. If your ink is featured, Bill hopes to give a little history of your tattoo, some background about you and your poetry, and he'll include links to your own website, books, and poems. With your permission, he'll even post a poem.
In addition, you'd be joining the ranks of over two hundred poets, many of them BAP contributors, who have participated in years past. You can see who's been cool enough to join the ranks here .
For more details and to express your interest,please contact Bill at email@example.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.