The stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler once wrote, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”
The stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler once wrote, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”
This week we welcome Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-American, as our guest author. Yahia is the author of five books in four genres. His sixth book, Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015) is forthcoming from Press 53, Silver Concho Poetry Series, Spring of 2016. In November of 2015, Lababidi will be featured in a new aphorism anthology, Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers, available for pre-order, here. You can follow him on Twitter @YahiaLababidi and visit his SoundCloud page to hear him read favorite poems: https://soundcloud.com/yahia-lababidi
I like when he says With no lovin’ in our souls and no money in our coats.
I like when they say Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels.
I like when she says I know you’ve heard it all before so I don’t say it anymore. I just stand by and let you fight your secret war.
I like when he says I still owe money to the money to the money I owe. I never thought about love when I thought about home.
I like when he says Started from the bottom, now we here.
I like when he says If you feel like mud, you’ll end up gold. If you feel like lost, you’ll end up found, so amigos lay them raises down.
I like when he says Ain’t you had enough of this stuff? Ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes.
I like when she says When I walk in, sit up straight. I don’t give a f**k if I was late.
I like when he says Well if you want a friend, feed any animal.
I like when he says You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine.
I like when he says Brooklyn, New York City where they paint murals of Biggie.
And I really really really like when he says I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost for wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.
I worried that confessing to still having an in-my-head version of my teenaged notebooks of song lyrics would seem less than adult or academic. Even worse, I worried that it would seem girlish.
Girlish. And some of the attendant adjectives that might accompany that word in your head: emotional, messy, sensitive, vulnerable, too much, just too much.
Then I saw Amy (2015) the excellent documentary by Asif Kapadia. It’s been written about much more eloquently and in depth around the internet this summer, including here and here. I liked it more than Anthony Lane, but it left me troubled for some of the same reasons. My favorite part of the movie ended up being something I hated initially. You see Amy Winehouse scribbling out her lyrics in her own notebooks. She writes and rewrites, crosses out and erases, even records “Back to Black” reading from her notebook. But Kapadia chose to float the lyrics over the screen while songs are being performed or played, and as I sat in the theater, my initial reaction was negative- it seemed so girlish.
As if girlishness somehow diminished the bright and beautiful art that Amy Winehouse made.
So we are history, the shadow covers me, the sky above a blaze that only lovers see...
There is nothing wrong with the girlish notebook of song lyrics that produced those lines.
In fact, thank goodness she had the notebook with her to begin with (the documentary produced so much obsessive revisiting for me, “Back to Black” is now firmly on my Top Ten albums list).
And thank goodness for emotions, messiness, sensitivity, and vulnerability. They are not traits one needs to apologize for. They have produced much greatness in this world. And girls and women don’t need to do any more apologizing than they already do.
And thank goodness for my own notebooks of song lyrics and poem fragments and the happiness they brought me. The sky above a blaze that only lovers see...
Sometimes it’s the whole story of song that gets me. See “Tom Ames’ Prayer” by Steve Earle on Train a Comin’ (1995).
It's a supreme argument for the existence of God, or not.
If you like Rio Bravo or Deadwood or Lonesome Dove (book or miniseries), you will love the lyrics and delivery of it.
Lyrically, it’s part narrative, part actual prayer. The narrative and prayer of a non-believer and thief whose luck has run out, trapped in an alley in Abilene with all but four shells spent. A non-believer who really doesn’t even know how to pray: You know I ain’t never prayed before but it always seemed to me that if prayin’s the same as beggin’, Lord, I don’t take no charity.
And he calls out God for his own badness: Well it ain't the first close call I ever had, I'm sure you already know, I had some help from you Lord and the devil himself.
The devil and God only existing in opposition to each other and because of each other. His temptation towards evil existing only because of a generic temptation towards good. One he doesn’t possess.
So he prays, like many non-believers do, in his time of need, but he doesn’t ask for anything big: I ain’t asking for a miracle, Lord, just a little bit of luck will do.
And maybe God delivers. The preacher comes to his prison cell. And the preacher, by mistake or divine intervention, turns his back for just one second. And Tom Ames puts a homemade blade to that golden throat.
He doesn’t expect anything from God. You don’t owe me nothin’ and as far as I know, Lord, I don’t owe nothin’ to you.
All the opportunities possibly afforded by God don’t make up for his solitude at the end, though. Who in the hell am I talkin’ to? There ain’t no one here but me. Before he cocks both his pistols and spits in the dirt and walks out to certain death.
A feeling of loneliness even believers must have, praying, sometimes. Even in times of less dire need. Am I just talking to myself? How do I know?
But still. He wasn’t asking for a miracle. And then that preacher came. Who turned his back at just the right time. Just a little bit of luck.
As the prayer goes, it’s been strictly touch and go.
“It’s a very moving violent song, because that’s how I feel about the whole thing.”
Nina Simone has been with me. For at least 20 years now. If she’s been with you, you know what I mean. Her songs have made you feel all of the things one can possibly feel. Her “Trouble in Mind” and this live rendition of it might be the saddest song ever. The drummer is so on point with the ride cymbal, and her piano is, as always, classical. I like to pretend that that “Oh boy” towards the end isn’t just a signal to the band to wrap up the song; she actually MADE herself sad enough to utter it in that way... her tone going lower and lower on “’Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday” until it’s just: “Oh boy."
My explanation of my love for her flails in the face of you just listening to this, this, and this, but I’d say it started on the basest level: with me just loving to sing along with her by myself a long time ago. Singing along with her own songs, jazz standards, protest songs, spirituals, her own songs, Bob Dylan and Bee Gees covers. No one really knows it but me, but she and I sing very well together. And loving a singer in that way means loving him or her in a way very few people (except maybe those who ride in your car with you) know about. My love for her is not just about her piano playing, her voice, her anger, and her dedication. It’s about how I sound when I sing with her. It’s a very selfish sort of identification (maybe identity is all selfish). I am not any of the singers I love singing along with (Tom Petty included), but it is a very personal thing. I am not Nina Simone, I did not live through what she lived through, but I feel this way too (sad about love, angry about injustice, in love with music). And she clearly feels this way. Let us sing together.
So as a less than casual fan, my obsessive reading about her began before one could just do that on one’s phone. And my excitement when I finally watched the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? earlier this summer knew no bounds. The movie made me revisit “Mississippi Goddam”, a song I knew and loved and thought I had already felt all the appropriate feelings (disgust and dismay) about... but real disgust and dismay got realer having watched the movie this summer, post-Charleston and post-Sandra-Bland. And watching Nina Simone talk about her own disgust and dismay over so many things that had built up and are still building up (“When the kids got killed in that church, that did it. First, you get depressed, and after that you get mad,” she says), felt so sad and prescient. And then there is the sometimes unfortunate fact that a piece of art can be revisited and the same conclusion can be drawn ad infinitum. See Hamlet. See The Diary of Anne Frank. See The Things They Carried. See Citizen. See man’s inhumanity towards man. Forever.
But then then also, how thankful I am for the actual art itself, outside of the circumstances of its creation. How much art can echo. And how the act of echoing can be a tiny comfort in the face of huge hurt.
If you’re a fan like me, you’ve probably already watched it. If you’re new to her, your mouth will hang open in amazement the whole time she’s on screen. She is imperfect perfection. She swears excellently (“I was a goddamned good mother”). Her eyes are wild and bright. She is clearly troubled by the extremeness of her emotions. And her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly speaks lovingly and frankly throughout, which must have been incredibly difficult (“If you ask me, they were both nuts,” she says of her parents, a line that might be uttered about all parents everywhere).
But the framing of that song within the documentary is what got me in my own disgust and dismay this summer. After it had already gotten me 20 years ago. My favorite part of the song has always been the little small plainspoken part of the chorus: “Tennessee made me lose my rest.” She’s calling out the news stories that people would have known about Tennessee in the early 1960s, obviously, but just the quiet notion of some thing making one lose one’s rest, and her precisely southern phrasing of it: made me lose my rest.
A feeling that sounds so tame compared to the historical circumstances that created it. A sad sad echo
(Ed. note: Laurie Ann Guerrero was a guest author here a few weeks ago. She described her experience of writing a crown of sonnets as way to cope with her grief over the death of her grandfather. Here is a thoughtful review of her book. Click through the links at the bottom of the review to read Laurie Ann's BAP blog posts. sdh)
I took to Twitter this weekend after reading Laurie Ann Guerrero’s new book A Crown for Gumecindo (Aztlán Libre Press). I took my time with it, but I read it all in one sitting. When discussing it with a friend earlier this week, I recounted how this book is a work of art from front to back. Tim Z. Hernandez gifts the reader with a devoted study, both technical and artistic, of Guerrero’s writing in this collection:
I started thinking about this because of “Up to Me”, which I know from the box set Biograph (1985), but was apparently meant for Blood on the Tracks (1975). It’s not even like my fifth favorite Bob Dylan song, but it has been in heavy rotation for a few years now, leaving me wondering:
A) about my relationships with artists that I’ve “known” for a long time and how those relationships change as I change, and
It’s just a little Greatest Hits book, published in 1988 by Contemporary Books, Inc. I was most struck by “Song from Maud” by Tennyson and the Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. It has Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, a bunch of Ballads by unknown singers, Christina Rossetti, and the Song of Solomon. It contains a lot of poems you know, even if you think you don’t know poems, and with a few misses, I’d say it basically lives up to its promise regarding the “classic” quality of the love poems. And I was reading it just as I was reading the lyrics to all the songs on Born to Run. Reading for feelings, not comprehension; feelings both ancient and presently felt. Come into the garden, Maud. We're out here casing the Promised Land. I filled notebook after notebook with snippets of songs and poems; lines I liked, lines that caught me, lines I noticed.
Obviously, there is empowerment in this kind of adolescent noticing. I picked the music (and books and movies, for that matter) I listened to, and I liked it all for reasons specific to me, thus continuing the development of a biological “self”, an ego; one that we all know exists but can be hard to scientifically quantify for outside viewers. Why do you like the stuff you like, and what does it mean about you?
Song lyrics have been poems for me ever since. I like a poem in the way I like a song, and I like a song in the way I like a poem. I explain them to myself in the same way. So. Again. “Up to Me” by Bob Dylan.
I've only got me one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume.
You looked a little burned out, my friend, I thought it might be up to me.
And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for 'ya free. No one else could play that tune. You knew it was up to me.
He's right. The harmonica that follows is pretty much perfect. A few more lyrics for your consideration to follow this week. And for the record, (if you're a keeper of lists of your own, you'll understand the compulsion to get this on the record), my first favorite Bob Dylan song is the Them cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” followed very closely by this one.
In this set of affectionate and vibrant fan’s notes, poet and critic Lehman (A Fine Romance) celebrates Ol’ Blue Eyes’s 100th birthday (December 12) with 100 impressionistic reflections on the singer’s successes and shortcomings. He includes mentions of Sinatra’s tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner and his relationships with Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe, among others. Lehman colorfully points out that Sinatra remains a part of the American cultural scene, with his songs playing in commercials, as background music in restaurants, and in opening and closing credits of movies and television shows such as Wall Street and The Sopranos. He also as a signature brand of bourbon named after him. Sinatra stays in the public eye, Lehman observes, not only because of his work as a movie actor and a singer but also because of his nonconformity and his fondness for being a maverick. Sinatra’s vocal range and phrasing were so pure and powerful that he had teenage girls swooning from the moment he stepped on the stage. Lehman describes Sinatra’s friendly rivalry with Bing Crosby, his lifelong friendship with Dean Martin despite their widely disparate personalities (Martin liked to get up early, Sinatra partied late into the night), his perfectionism, and his famous clashes with gossip columnist Rona Barrett. In the end, Lehman’s lively reflections wonderfully celebrate Sinatra’s enduring impact on his own life and on American culture.(Oct.)
As this is my final post as guest author, I would like to cast my net and highlight some of the interesting books that have come across my desk in recent months:
Diane di Prima Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2007)
Forrest Gander, Eiko & Koma (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #8, 2013)
Ferreira Guilar, Dirty Poem (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #18, 2015), translated from the Portuguese by Leland Guyer
Mike DeCapite, Radiant Fog (Sparkle Street Books, 2013)
Thomas Devaney, Calamity Jane (Furniture Press Books, 2014)
Thomas Devaney, Runaway Goat Cart (Hanging Loose Press, 2015)
Elaine Equi, Sentences and Rain (Coffee House Press, 2015)
David Meltzer, No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow Press, 2000)
I have been getting more and more involved in the work of Diane di Prima of late. This summer I taught a course at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program entitled “Theogonies: What Poets Do When They Write Gods.” We examined the role of theogonies in poetry, particularly epic poetry, beginning with Hesiod, looked at Plato’s objections to Hesiod and Homer, and then jumped to the 20th century, where we studied how Charles Olson took epic and the idea of modern mythologies in a completely different direction. We took a careful look at di Prima’s work, in particular her Revolutionary Letters, which attains epic sweep in its role of speaking for the tribe, elucidating its beliefs, and stirring it to action. We also looked at her epic Loba, which embodies a shamanistic, feminist, animist, and animalist worldview.
While at AWP last spring, I picked up two pamphlets from the new New Directions series. At 85, Ferreira Guilar continues to be an important figure in contemporary Brazilian poetry. He started out an ally of Concrete Poets (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari, among others), who were based in São Paulo. Guilar, who was living in Rio, branched off on his own path of neo-concretism, embracing the Communist Party after the military coup of 1964 and pursuing poetry of a humanist bent, while reveling in informality of style and language. Many Brazilian artists had to flee the dictatorship, and Guilar wrote his remarkable poem while in exile in Buenos Aires in 1975. In it, he attempts to return to the city of his youth and to re-create all he experienced then:
we wake up early and stay
in bed musing through
the early-morning process:
the first steps in the street
sounds in the kitchen
until from rooster to rooster
(in the backyard)
and the tap of the laundry tub
opens to gush the morning
Forrest Gander’s contribution to the ND pamphlet series is a group of texts that work around the Japanese dance duo Eiko and Koma, who have been performing their spectacular, primal, work for over four decades now. Gander uses a constantly shifting poetic approach to come to terms with their timeless, yet highly physical, performances, in which they often perform completely naked in slow, writhing, movements that suddenly explode into new situations. In “Entanglement,” Gander writes:
This as love story. His hand,
his hand feeling for her.
Face, emphatically angular. Her in-bent
arms spread like a cormorant’s.
He wobbles toward her spasmodic,
through invisible web…
Mike DeCapite writes in prose, yet I think of him as a poet, as he is constantly working through moods and situations, rather than in narratives per se. He is, on the other hand, not like William Burroughs, intentionally exploding narrative through the disruption of cut-up technique. Rather, DeCapite takes the reader on unexpected rides through unfamiliar (at least to most readers I would wager) places. In the Preface to Radiant Fog, he explains how he earned a nickname from a boxing coach in San Francisco, who had known guys in Brooklyn with names like Frankie Bats and Joey Braciol’:
Once, he said, “You’re always outside, sitting on a bench, out walking around, looking at the puddles, looking at the leaves. I’m gonna give you the name Mikey Outside.”
I said, “What, because I go for a walk? That’s so bizarre to you it earns me a nickname?
“Mikey Outside,” he said.
And of course Outside has more than one meaning; perhaps the coach was something of a literary critic himself, as he divined the essential nature that makes DeCapite a poet.
As to the other poets on my list — Thomas Devaney, Elaine Equi, and David Meltzer — in their quite different ways, one could say they form a troika of the pinnacles of contemporary poetic practice. Devaney’s Calamity Jane came into being as a libretto for performance artist Jeanine Oleson, and the book contains a cogent foreword by Brenda Coultas. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book, apart from the Western ambience that strangely, because of its dislocation, reminds me of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger in places, is that the poems are in the voice of Jane, that is, Tom writing as Jane. As Coultas points out, Jane herself was gender-obscuring. And strangely, too, at times one begins to hear Tom through the voice of Jane:
Whatever I might look like, wherever
I might be — it wasn’t in my eyes,
it was the whole me — a burning nag
with a heart. All mettle.
Never not wild.
Write that down.
Elaine Equi is our poet laureate, no matter what anyone says. She will be. She speaks for everyone, out of a particular space and language that is hers alone. How she does that will likely remain a mystery. At this point, her lines shimmer with the ecstasy of being right, every time. Not that you would know that from asking her. Her self-deprecating humor would never allow her to take the mantle. Fortunately, for us, it is already a given. Her newest book notches up that mastery. Her sense of history, as well as the immediate moment, is unerring. In “Zukofsky Revision,” she writes:
If I wish to convey this accurately,
I must choose not the exact right word,
but rather the right inexact word
that allows for a similar amount
of vagueness and ambiguity.
David Meltzer is uniquely positioned to craft a meditation on jazz legend Lester Young. A musician himself, who grew up amid the jazz worlds of New York and Los Angeles, Meltzer is also a poet of the most refined subtlety. He is the ultimate outsider, who is simultaneously caretaker of a vast knowledge of alternative pathways, poetic, musical, spiritual. His book-length work, No Eyes: Lester Young, published in 2000, was based on a photograph taken during Young’s last year, when he was staying at the Arvin hotel and would look out the window to chart the activity of the clubs across the street:
clear moon slice
what a night for death
streetlight eye pain
beserk neons down Broadway
they stand in doorways coffins
deal & hustle it’s all good
& done & I’m still chorusing
naming not blaming
no retreat merely returning
Over the past 5 years, Tom Clark has been quietly publishing some of the best work of his life (which is saying a lot). I identify the following books of poems:
Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Something in the Air (Shearsman, 2010)
At the Fair (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Canyonesque (BlazeVOX, 2011)
Distance (BlazeVOX, 2012)
The Truth Game (BlazeVOX, 2013)
Evening Train (BlazeVOX, 2014)
There may be others. These seven books account for some six hundred plus pages of poetry that see Clark deeply investing his earliest poetics with a hard-hitting concision in the facture, combined with a wistful yet ultimately optimistic sense of observation. This observation can take place in the poet’s immediate neighborhood, the changing fabric of north Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, Angelica, or it can travel the universe, via Clark’s omnivorous reading and wide-ranging research. He uses his knowledge knowingly, that is, specific details are marshaled in the service of a deeper message, delivered with wit and sophistication.
There is much that is elegiac in the tone of these poems, but the emphasis on the mind thinking and the eloquence with which these tonalities are orchestrated add up to an experience that is terrifically energizing. The way Clark uses line-endings and continuations is unerringly precise. We know we are in the presence of a master. Here is an example, the poem “To a Certain Friend,” from Something in the Air:
Presence comes before everything, even before being
The you to whom everything once belonged
If by everything one means the fullness of nature’s beauty
You must remember now that much has been taken from you
Grief too will go from you as from sorrowing songs
Sorrow goes, leaving nothing for you after a while
But the memory of the melody, some old familiar tune
That’s lingered on long past the moment you first sailed
Gracefully into the room, as if all the modern languages
Were coming down to me so that I could say these things
Then there are poems that are haiku-like in their brevity, American takes on the immediate and the passing, such as “Fame” from At the Fair:
A hot dog paper blows across
the infield, passing into
shadows near third base.
Other poems register, in language that becomes surprisingly activated, a particular scene observed. One such poem is “Full Moon through Clouds” from Canyonesque:
the brief deep blue middle
of the night window
between the third
and fourth in a series
of cold Pacific storms
through an opening
in the flotilla of big
low rain saturated
city light pink underside
a brilliant full moon
Some of Clark’s observations take place on the web, and those familiar with his blog Beyond the Pale can attest to his acuity in combining words with carefully researched images. Here’s one example, a poem embedded within a series of images, Clark’s usual posting technique. This time, the poem comes from painter Jim Dine:
And Clark himself adds a comment:
“In case it doesn't totally go without saying, there are a lot of poems in this giant poem of Jim's, and a lot of meanings, Jim's, yours, mine — and he's open to all of them, of course.
Sometimes an incorrect educated guess is the only thing that will get you through the night.
Had stubbornly thought maybe somebody would get up the nerve to pip a squeak about the poem, think it's great, hate it, have a feeling, one way or another, as in — whatever, like, don't like, am confused by, but — dream on, old timer.
Pretty obvious that at least the hosts here (okay, boring old people, but we get to think things too, nothing so smart as the thoughts of the idiot young, but still) were impressed, honoured, grateful.
The psychogeographic mapping power, gestural energy and emotional drive of the thing, remarkable.
To entertain the weird idea that poems should mean or say anything at all about anything real, or have anything at all real buried within them, or should deserve and earn and receive actual serious attention, before being filed under whatever idle categorical predisposition, is, of itself, a sort of violation of the current way of things — too demanding, like. To be serious, to mean something, to admit to and attempt to honestly articulate strong feeling — total no-no's nowadays, ask any ambitious junior professor anywhere.
Tonight I went up to Columbia for the opening of “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books” at the Kempner Gallery Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Butler Library. It is worth the trip! Curated by Sarah Arkebauer and Karla Nielsen, the exhibition includes about one third of the astounding 164 books Granary (proprietor, Steve Clay) has published since beginning operations in 1985. Some of the earliest Granary publications seemed to pick up from the tradition of Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Books, which got its start in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, at the instigation of Charles Olson, who told Williams, “Don’t ever be intimidated by the disdain or the disinterest of the world. Get yourself some type, get yourself some paper, and print it.” This statement could serve as the motto for the Mimeo Revolution that flourished in the 1960s and ‘70s and was a mainstay for the dissemination of poetry that had small but passionate followings. In its early days, Granary published books by Williams, Fielding Dawson, and John Cage, all of them with BMC credentials. Granary is also devoted to the Mimeo Revolution itself, as anyone who saw the inspiring 1998 exhibition at the New York Public Library will remember. Clay and Rodney Phillips, a curator at the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, organized the exhibition, and they co-edited the accompanying book, published by Granary: A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980, which documents many of the poetry zines of that era and the poets and artists who created them. This book should be required reading, and it probably is in the most advanced literature classes around the country and beyond.
As time went on, Granary’s interests expanded to include such artists and writers as (and this is only a selection!) (in roughly chronological order) Johanna Drucker, Buzz Spector, Susan Bee, Lewis Warsh, Jerome Rothenberg, Kimberly Lyons, Robert Creeley, Alex Katz, Charles Bernstein, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, George Schneeman, Joe Elliot, Julie Harrison, Carolee Schneemann, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian, Emilie Clark, Pierre Joris, Larry Fagin, Trevor Winkfield, William Corbett, Clark Coolidge, Keith Waldrop, Kenward Elmslie, Alison Knowles, Joe Brainard, Susan Howe, David Antin, Emily McVarish, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Simon Pettet, Duncan Hannah, Leslie Scalapino, Marina Adams, Anne Tardos, Ron Padgett, Maureen Owen, Yvonne Jacquette, John Yau, Archie Rand, Bob Perelman, Francie Shaw, Norma Cole, Alice Notley, Alan Halsey, Steve McCaffery, Marjorie Welish, James Siena, Jen Bervin, John Ashbery, Kiki Smith, Kathleen Fraser, Hermine Ford, Ceclia Vicuña, Edward Sanders, Raphael Rubinstein.
(Page from Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee's A Girl's Life, Granary Books, 2002)
Granary’s books are remarkable because each one is unique in design. Clay has a sixth sense for knowing which approach — whether trade edition or limited edition artist’s book — is appropriate for each outing, and he knows exactly how to achieve the end he and his collaborators have in mind. Often, these structures are teasing what can conceivably be considered a book, and yet they are all books. Above all, the central character is complicity. This is a tradition of people working outside the mainstream, banding together to make poetry books in exactly the form, size, and quantity they desire. The installation is exquisite. The three dimensional and tactile qualities are exposed for all to see, to examine, to admire, to enjoy, and to learn from. Take a trip to Columbia. Your senses will be energized.
I am excited to be starting a new season, Fall, my favorite season. It is said that every poet has a favorite month. October was Jack Kerouac’s. For me, it is the season. Even though a friend once said, “Spring is my favorite season, except for Summer,” for me Fall is the season that is filled with new beginnings and renewed buoyancy. It is the season in which classes start again and people migrate back to the city from the country. It is the season of cold evenings and Friday night plans. I actually like the days getting dark earlier and the rhythm of the leaves falling, a dance that will finally end when all the leaves are down, and the trees go to sleep for the winter.
It is also Rosh Hashanah. I feel a resonance with the energies that have to do with understanding among peoples, repentance, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. As described in Wikipedia, today should be, literally, “a day of shouting or raising a noise” or, and this I like even better, a Feast of Trumpets. In addition it cites, “three important stages as the spiritual order of the Ten Days of Repentance (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) unfolds: On Rosh Hashanah Jewish tradition maintains that God opens the books of judgment of creation and all mankind starting from each individual person, so that what is decreed is first written in those books, hence the emphasis on the ‘ketivah’ (‘writing’). The judgment is then pending and prayers and repentance are required. Then on Yom Kippur, the judgment is ‘sealed’ or confirmed (i.e. by the Heavenly Court), hence the emphasis is on the word ‘chatimah’ (‘sealed’). But the Heavenly verdict is still not final because there is still an additional hope that until Sukkot concludes God will deliver a final, merciful judgment, hence the use of ‘gmar’ (‘end’) that is ‘tov’ (‘good’).” In my own interpretation, I take this to mean that the writing that we, as poets, do must be held accountable to the highest judgment and that it must contain within it, not necessarily expressed literally or rationally, our most profound beliefs. Again, in my own interpretation, I take this whole period to mean that, through self-reflection, we must make every attempt to be not simply tolerant but actually open to others, particularly those whose opinions and beliefs may be most alien to us.
And that thought reminds me of someone who embodied those principles. Born the daughter of a rabbi in Kiel, Germany, she immigrated to New York City at the age of three and lived an exemplary life devoted to the arts and freedom of expression and thought. She once told me it was important to engage those on the opposite end of the political spectrum; otherwise, we would never have a chance of convincing them. No one could accuse her, however, of compromising. Her adult life and art practice were devoted to the core principles of Anarchism. I am speaking of Judith Malina, one of the great heroes of contemporary theater and poetry presentation and a remarkable poet herself, whom we lost this year. Judith, first with her husband, Julian Beck, and later with partner Hanon Reznikov, and most recently with Brad Burgess, founded and fired The Living Theatre, legendary not only for its social activism, street theater, audience participation, and full nudity, but also for its productions of poet’s theater, including a 1952 production of John Ashbery’s The Heroes and later productions of plays by Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, as well as for the poetry readings it hosted by such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Gregory Corso, and Ray Bremser, not to mention Charles Mingus with Kenneth Patchen. In the rare Homage To Frank O’Hara (Big Sky 11/12), on page 71, one can find reproduced two photographs of O’Hara. In the first, he sits at a simple wooden table, with a jug of water, reading from a sheaf of papers at a benefit reading for Yugen magaine. In the second, he stands in front of two paintings installed for a reading of writers from Daisy Aldan’s Folder magazine. Both readings took place at the Living Theatre in 1959.
So with that, I begin — the week, the season, and the continual renewal each of us must undertake if we are to aspire to being human in the deepest sense of the word. And make no mistake, poetry is at the core of that effort — for all of us.
In graduate school, my professor assigned us the task of reading the newspaper and responding to something found there, an assignment I found maddeningly difficult, but appreciable for its exercise of palpating that place between the personal and public, the unbright line between the intimate and civic. Then in my the final semester, in the fall of 2001, as I was cobbling together my thesis in a refurbished horse stall--a quiet place, two miles from my attic apartment above a busy doctor’s office, an event occurred of such magnitude, that its ashes continue rain down into everything I’ve read or written since.
I may have been one of the last people to learn of the World Trade Center attacks because in the horse stall, I was alone save for the sound of skittering in the walls.The office didn't have a proper bathroom so when I drove back to town to for lunch, a store cashier began to narrate all the unfathomable events, one by one, in sentence form, so that her words struck my mind once, and then again, then her words collapsed one certainty, and then another. What I also remember was, at the end of that day, Galway Kinnell read his poems at the Galaxy Book Shop.
In the years following graduation, I fumbled forward in search of that lucky intersection of life and art. I was working in dairy barns and flower fields, in food service and eldercare, in tutoring and teaching, ever-scanning the want ads of the local paper in search of something else, something more.
In 2005 I landed a dream job as a writing instructor at a small college, where I was obliged to offer a course called “Writing and Speaking to the Issues,” wherein I coaxed students to find the nexus between their interests and the world around them. As we spent class after class steeped in source material and case studies and persuasive arguments, I longed to include another form of expression. Perhaps as an outlet, or as the culmination of wanting to unite verse with the age-old forum of public discourse, I pitched a monthly poetry column to my local newspaper, the Chronicle.
What if the men who died miserably for lack of what is found there, (as goes Williams Carlos Williams oft quoted ‘Asphodel That Greeny Flower’) could be saved instead, or perhaps die less miserably for having found a poem by a Vermont author like Julia Alvarez, Major Jackson or Ruth Stone in newsprint? For five years I conducted this news + poems experiment, introducing a poem pertaining to season and place by a Vermont writer, and by the end, I’d found if I’d saved anyone, it was only myself, as I veered my back toward newspaper work, this time entering by front door, to write about issues affecting neighbors and friends, to find myself daily treading that tricky place where the personal and public mingle. I’ve got printer’s ink on my hands, again.
Can you breathe this air,
this thickening air?
The ashes of people are in our nostrils.
Can you hear this silence?
this screaming silence?
The ashes of people are in our throats.
Can you see this city,
through the cloud of dust:
hieroglyphs of destruction?
The ashes of people are in our eyes.
No bodies were found.
The hospitals remained empty
with doctors and nurses
waiting for patients.
The ashes of people are in our blood.
This silent cry has no answer.
The ashes of people are in our guts.
We will never be the same.
The dead grow their roots in our hearts.
- by Lera Auerbach
Over a decade ago, I moved to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, an area composed of three sparsely populated counties in the topmost rightside portion of this long skinny state. I lived alone. I went to work and drove home on lonesome dirt roads passing more woods and fields than houses. I wondered who my neighbors were. So, I subscribed to the local paper, The Barton Chronicle, and little by little, week after week, I boned up on the characters and issues of this interesting outpost. As time went on and I met actual people--those whose letters to the editor I’d read, and those who’d episodes had merited brief mentions in the court report. Then I started to become curious about the people behind the news. Not just the school boards and town selectmen, the politicians and athletes, the alleged burglars and billionaire developers, I was curious about the people who were doggedly going out, asking questions and issuing their findings in the paper itself. Once, after inviting a local reporter to come speak to my college freshman about writing, she reciprocated, inviting me to come visit the Chronicle’s office where I met a handful of good-natured, middle-aged people in a basement room people all staring at computer screens at their individual but unanimously chaotic desks.
The Chronicle is almost as old as I am. The original plates from the first issue are screwed to the wall in a far corner of the office known as the mailing room: March 28, 1974. “Whatever happened to Spring?” reads the caption under a photograph from the front page of the papers debut.
Started by Chris and Ellen Braithwaite, a husband and wife team, quasi-back- to- the-landers who relocated from California and Canada to ensconce themselves in the Kingdom at a farm called Entropy Acres, The Chronicle was born in large part out of the hopeful idea, (akin to build it and they will come) print it and they will read.
They did, and forty years later, Reader, they still do. I just picked up this week’s edition: Brownington needs a new road foreman; Lake Region’s well is going dry; Sidelined rail cars worry neighbors.
Back when I interviewed Chris Braithwaite on the occasion of the paper’s 35th birthday, he described the essential paradox of what makes a local newspaper necessary and at times exceedingly difficult to produce. “News stories aren’t necessarily easy stories,” he told me, “because they are about or involve friends…People aren’t just subjects. And that is perhaps one of the major differences between community journalism and ‘the Biggies.’”
A few years late I pressed Mr. Braithwaite again on the dividing line between reporter and reported, between informer and advocate. I emailed him in November 2009 to ask: How do you train in objectivity? You must have an opinion on some of the things you report because some of these things will affect you?
Braithwaite replied tersely (but gamely) the next day with, “Proposed experiment: Read the page 1 story about the proposed Lowell wind turbines (Wind friends, foes focus on Lowell Mt. by Chris Braithwaite November 4, 2009,) then decide whether the Chronicle favors or opposes wind power in general. Then read the editorial. Did you get it right?”
I got it wrong.
He continued, “The reporter’s job is to understand the interests involved and lay them out coherently, like a good sports writer advancing a world series game. You can’t do that well if you let your misguided affection for the Yankees color your assessment…so you learn not to.”
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, he too lived and wrote from pastoral precincts not unlike the Northeast Kingdom. He too heard the news, and noted his neighbors fissuring over issues. In his case, it wasn’t the same sex marriages and the mountain top turbines, but passionate property squabbles. In his poem ‘Epic’ he writes, “I have lived in important places, times/When great events were decided, who owned/That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land/Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims…”
And I love, I treasure his conclusion: contemplating the significance of local matters in light of the larger world’s stories, he’s tempted to dismiss the provincial fuss,
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
Here in the relatively minute state of Vermont, where it is not uncommon to bump into your local legislator at the hardware store or gynecologist's office, where the first Tuesday in March is reserved for all 251 towns to hold their annual governance meeting, and where, arguably, there are more small, independently owned newspapers per capita than any other state--it is possible to have a voice, and for someone to hear it.
Even though social media increasingly provides an electronic soapbox, among these green mountains and valleys of a state that came late to electrification and still lags behind much of the planet in internet and cellphone service, the good old Letter to the Editor is still the number one place to take a stand.
So who better to speak about the theory and practice of this ancient forum than a veteran editor, especially one who found herself on the receiving end of these missives when she was just 24.
Last night as we walked our dogs along a dirt road in a exceptionally rural province of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom, Bethany Dunbar, whose 35 year career (until recently) was exclusively focused in local journalism, recounted what it was like to take over the helm of a newspaper whose founder was headed off to California on a Knight Fellowship.
She recalled the moment in 1982, just before her boss set off for his year-long departure. Although he'd prepared her, going over the newspaper's procedures and best practices and schedules and policies, right as he was about to leave for the airport, she called out, "Wait, what about the letters to the editor? How do I handle them?"
"You'll figure it out," he replied.
And so each day thereafter, when the mail came, there they were. The Letters. Sometimes typed, sometimes handwritten, sometimes illustrated, sometimes sixty pages, sometimes on index cards in cryptic fragments, sometimes written in four different colored inks--opinions, opinions, opinions.
Calling it "the most challenging and the most fascinating past of my job" she told me, "You never knew what topic was going to spark the imagination."
Whereas one might assume it's going to be a fracas about budget cuts, instead it was the plan to remove sky-lights in the high school that inspired students and teachers to vociferate.
"There's public issues and private concerns, and there's not always a bright line between them," Bethany said. Sometimes people would call her at the newspaper and complain that they couldn't read their electric bill. It was as if her position was a hybrid of 411 and 911, her role as editor sometimes unwittingly turning into arbiter or translator. She used to receive letters from a man with Alzheimer's who sent in his expressions on little scraps of paper. Is it a poem? she wondered.She printed it as a poem and he was pleased.
Another frequent writer was a woman who had relocated to Vermont after become ill working in a factory with formaldehyde. Her multiple chemical sensitivity was so acute she could only write with a pencil. "She was so sick, her ability to express herself was not that good," Bethany said, often working with her to help clarify her letters.
Other times Bethany called the authors to confirm their alleged identity and to ask if they were actually wanted to run their vitriolic piece. Oft times they replied, Nah. Their feelings had cooled, no need to print it.
One policy Bethany invented in the owner's absentia: no hateful language, and no personal attacks.
But as Vermont began engaging the debate over civil unions, (eventually becoming one of the first states to legalize same sex marriage), the letters to the editor she fielded were some of the most difficult she'd ever read and was obliged to publish. People should have a voice and be heard Bethany insists, even if what they think is totally wrong. She stated, "Whether they were crazy or whether I disagreed, I tried hard to appreciate and understand where people were coming from."
Sometimes the letters were decorated. Like the time a plumber who was certain that putting fluoride in the water was a conspiracy to kill us. He illustrated his point with the picture of a rat, flat on its back, dead.
She grins at me, remembering the letter, "It's interesting how people express themselves."
At any given moment there may be as many people walking, working, eating and talking in the vicinity of Broadway in Manhattan as there are in the whole state of Vermont. Only Wyoming has a slimmer population than this outlier, which, after shirking territory claims from both New York and New Hampshire, formed its own republic for more than a decade before deigning to become the fourteenth state.
Vermont's very first press, by which I mean the actual, physical printing press, was brought over from England in 1638. Hauled from one place to another, it was installed in a shop in Westminster in 1781 where it promptly spat out the first issue of The Vermont Gazette or Green Mountain Post Boy whose prolix, poetic motto was: Pliant as Reeds, where Streams of Freedom glide; firm as the Hills, to stem Oppression's Tide.
A century later, literally hundreds of newspapers had sprung from the firm hills of Vermont--the Morning Ray, Farmer's Library, Tablet of the Times, even one called The Scourge of Aristocracy-- many as ephemeral as the news itself, expiring in a matter of months. Yet 225+ years on, Vermont still hosts about fifty independently owned newspapers, which, for the price of 75 cents to one dollar, will reveal to any visitor or resident the content of its community's character.
Inordinately curious, voracious for information, a sucker if there ever was one for the lure of the local-- I have read at least 25 of my adopted state's array of newspapers, and at times I've subscribed to papers based in towns three hours away from mine. I guess this makes me a busy body, a nosy parker, but here are some gleanings from the court report from Stowe Reporter, and tell me if your imagination is immune to hints of larger scripts provided by summaries such as:
"July 27 at 5:25 p.m., police helped rescue a set of car keys from a storm drain"
"July 27 at 8:48 p.m., a suspicious-looking person was skulking about the Swimming Hole on Weeks Hill Road"
I want to know everything about the key dropper-- what had her day been like up until the moment her keys slipped from her grasp and were swallowed (glug) by the storm drain. And the suspicious person? What errand brought him to Weeks Hill Road? What was he hoping for at that moment someone noticed him? And where was he by morning?
"August 8 at 8:55 p.m., a sharp-eyed officer walking the Main Street beat noticed a door on the Akeley Memorial Building was ajar, and he turned it into a closed door."
This detail, I'm pretty sure, is the beginning of a crime novel I am not inclined to write lacking both talent and stamina for the genre, but nevertheless enjoy for its evocative banality.
Yet lest you think Stowe is Mayberry, allow me to disabuse you with a final juicy (albeit concerning) entry:
"July 30 at 4:04p.m., a man who felt slighted by a Stowe Reporter article called 911 to say the newspaper's staff had threatened him. The call was made after the man lambasted the reporter for more than twenty minutes on his cellphone; he then visited the newspaper's office and yelled at the publisher"
Thanks to portable electronic devices we can instantly tap into stories that, back in the 1700s, took months to travel into this territory, yet more often, maybe? it's the local newspaper, oft times published just once a week, that gets right up in our kool aide, ahem, burrows into the strange terrain of our most intimate issues.
When I first moved to Vermont in 1997, I read the local paper as a means to understand where I lived, what went on in my new neighborhood, over time I grew more interested in this intersection of First Amendments rights with flawed human life, the logical meeting and serving the emotional, the stories and reports--this beautiful endeavor ever complicated by the fact that often times publishers, editors and writers are inextricably bound up in their communities they serve.
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.