In the TV show "To Tell the Truth," there were always three individuals pretending to be the prominent or accomplished figure, an adventurer or a war hero, and the panel had to choose who was the genuine article.
But Cary Grant stumped the panel.
Each of the three individuals named Cary Grant was extraordinarily handsome, suave, charming, and irresistible even though one was named Roger Thornhill, the second was a fast-talking newspaper editor, and the third showed up at the top of the Empire State Building to meet Deborah Kerr but she, though equally eager, gets hit by a car in the street below, and they do not consummate their affair to remember.
Born Archie Leach on January 18, 1904 in Bristol (England), Cary Grant spoke in an accent that is somehow British-sunding and yet is not out of place in any set of circumstances in the US. His verstility extended from the realm of Hitchcock ("Suspicion," "Notorious," "To Catch a Thief," "North by Northwest") to comedies with leading ladies like Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosaline Russell, Ingrid Bergman and later Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and Audrey Hepburn. Possibly the handsomest leading man in the movies, though not the sexiest.
Origin of name: Boring Hollywood legend has it that "Cary" came from his stage role as a guy named Cary in a musical with Fay Wray, and "Grant" was assigned to him by the studio. You and I can do better. "Grant me an hour, and I will carry you over the altar," he said sheepishly.
Marital status: five times, with wife #3 (Betsy Drake) the marriage that lasted longest. He made these comies with Katharine Hepburn.The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday. With Irene Dunne he starred in The Awful Truth. And the same rival, played by Ralph Bellamy, is bested both there and in His Girl Friday.
My candidate for best Hitchcock antagonist is James Mason in North by Northwest with Claude Rains a close second (Notorious). Last romantic hurrah: Charade (with Audrey Hepburn). The Stanley Donen-drected hilm also expoits the talents of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Gene Kelly doing a carefree dance on the banks of the Seine (though filmed on a studio) is lovingly recalled by Miss Hepburn (Mrs Charles Lambert) as the two hold hans under a bridge and a bateau mouche glides by. Miss Hepburn is a perfect latter-day Cary Grant accomplice in the mode of Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint.
Cary Grant took LSD more than 100 times, having been introduced to the narcotic by Betsy Drake. It helped him more than a posse of doctors in confronting his identity. Best quote: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." The plot conceit generating North by Northwest, in which a Madison Avenue ad executive is mistaken for a CIA agent who doesn't exist, is based on an incident in Grant's biography.
A rose is just a rose: "I never had so much fun since Archie Leach died," he says in His Girl Friday. If you watch Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace, you'll see the grave of Archie Leach.
Scandalous posthumous fact that doesn't shock anyone anymore: he may have been bi-sexual (LTR with flatmate Randoph Scott).
Dodger Fan Info: Shared exclusive box seats with Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles. Did not pay very close attention to the games.
Retirement job: Became a director of the Fabergé company and promoted the fragrance firm's products.
Vital stats: Rising sign Libra, moon in Aquarius; Water Cat (Chinese astrology); six feet one and a half inches tall. -- DL
This week we welcome Bob Holman as our guest author. Bob is the author of 16 poetry collections, most recently Sing This One Back to Me (2013), Picasso in Barcelona (2011), and A Couple of Ways of Doing Something (2006), a collaboration with Chuck Close. Holman coedited the collaboration Crossing State Lines: An American Renga (2011, with Carol Muske-Dukes), and Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (1994, with Miguel Algarin). Numerous anthologies have included his work, including Spoken Word Revolution (2003), Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (2001), and Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970 (1988). He cotranslated The Book of Sana’a: Poetry of Abd Al-aziz Al-maqalih (2004, with Sam Liebhaber) and also translated poet Er Zhang’s Carved Water (2003). As an arts administrator, Holman served as coordinator and readings curator at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, original Slammaster and a director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, as well as founder and proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club. His study of hiphop and West African oral traditions led to his current work with endangered languages. He is a co-founder and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance. Find him online at bobholman.com. Follow him on twitter at @BobHolmanPoet.
In other news . . .
Waitressing saved my life. In 1983, I was playing bass in a San Francisco punk band and taking speed to keep going. Most nights I practiced or played in clubs, photographed other bands, or just listened to live music till morning. I lived an hour away in the East Bay, in a house with ten other musicians and strays.
At 11AM each weekday, wearing clothes donated by another waitress, I worked the lunch shift at the Rocking Horse, a medium fancy restaurant in Lafayette. As if I were two completely different people, I pinned up my purple/red hair and put on a uniform with a very straight below the knee skirt to greet customers. Playing hostess while waitressing became my tenuous hold on normalcy. Some days I showed up sleepless from the night before, sucking mints to keep my breath as sweet as I seemed to the regulars.
There were so many regulars (as is the case at most places) that I could really make some cash by remembering their names and which booths they liked and by letting my small town Pennsylvania Dutch accent shine though. Addressing Mr Irwin by name when he walked in with his clients and escorting them (with no reservation) to his favorite booth meant a $50 lunch tip. The restaurant also provided the only healthy meals I ate, with free salad and bread, five days a week.
Can you believe I managed to keep that job through crank dealing boyfriends, all night parties at Mabuhay Gardens, and sometimes no sleep for days? Bands came and went, so did boyfriends, but the restaurant was my rock, my parent, my path to the future. In a tiny bit of my partied out brain, the pride I took in being a good waitress kept me putting one foot in front of the other. I’d leave an apartment in North Beach at dawn and return to my other life, with food and cash and Mr. Irwin expecting me there from 11AM to 3PM.
After leaving the Bay Area in 1984, I never waitressed again. But I can still feel the waitress backbone that kept me going on the West Coast. And I always tip well.
Anna West is a painter and photographer now living in Beacon, New York. Her work has been exhibited in New York City and in Russia, Sweden, and India. Find out more about Anna here.
I'm delighted to announce that today we introduce a new weekly series, "Ready to Serve: Writers and Artists in the Resto Biz." We got the idea after reading that Stephanie Danler had landed a two-book six-figure deal with Knopf while waiting tables in a popular West Village restaurant. One of her regulars was a senior editor for a major publisher; when she mentioned that she had finished her first novel, he invited her to send him the manuscript.
So many of us, myself included, have worked in the restaurant business, and not just in NYC and L.A., where struggling actors support themselves while waiting for a break. We've been waiters and chefs, bussers and bartenders, at every kind of establishment, from rest-stops on super-highways to temples of haute cuisine. I invited you to submit stories of your time in the service biz. We begin posting those stories today. Check back later for Anna West's tribute to her San Francisco waitressing years.
(Watch at 4:20-5:20).
“Now I go wherever / birds are everywhere; / now I go anywhere / birds go, / having gone nowhere / they could not go.”
- from Marvin Bell’s “The Giving In”
There is a small stretch of sidewalk that leads from the East Gym to the Fine Arts building on the Binghamton University campus, and it doesn’t see much foot traffic. It’s wider than a city sidewalk though, and the trees on either side of it are thick with yellow leaves in September. There is a dirty bronze plaque squatting in the brush that describes the area as a preserve.
Last October, on a day when I had miraculously budgeted too much time between my workout and the office, I hunched over and read the entire plaque for the first time. It seemed a little presumptuous, calling the area a “preserve” when I could see a parking garage through one side of it and Fine Arts through the other. The nature preserve on the south end of campus might be more worthy of the title at 182 acres, its resident black bears occasionally roaming just beyond its fringes and onto campus before being shooed back into the wilderness.
I learned, however, that the trees here are truly preserved even in their decay: if they fall, the plaque told me, these trees are not to be touched. They are not to be removed, chipped up, rolled out of the way or repositioned. I looked into the tiny preserve with new eyes and saw that several trees have indeed fallen and are left in various positions of glorious failure. Some are split near the stumps, their twisted ends cracked like broken pencils. Some are upturned by the roots, pulled down in a storm maybe, the soil underneath them wincing in daylight. But most of the trees stand naturally, holding their leaves up near their heads as if not trusting pedestrians with their fiery colors.
This stretch of sidewalk is my favorite part of campus. It is my favorite part of upstate New York. I do my walking meditation here now, on my way to work each day. Behind me, I’ve spent an hour at the gym every morning, running or cranking the arms of an elliptical, and ahead of me, my offices wait: the one where I study and write about WWII poets and contemporary American soldiers’ poetry, the one where I edit poems for Harpur Palate, and the one where I coordinate workshops and instructors in the community for the Binghamton Poetry Project. In these offices, my work is entirely concerned with the future rather than the present moment – what will be published, what needs revision, the grants that need writing and workshops that need scheduling.
Walking meditation is fairly simple: just walk with awareness in the here and now. Bring that awareness to your feet, and accept how they feel as they hold your body up on the earth. Be aware of your shoulders, weighed down by the straps of heavy book bags. Send kindness to your shoulders. Thank them for working. Thank your feet for moving. Breathe deeply. The air is not perfect. There is a road nearby and someone outside the theatre just finished a cigarette. But most of the air is cold and filled with clean space for you. Send kindness to your lungs for working even when you do not think of them.
Notice where your eyes go as you walk. For me, I look every day at the fallen trees in my tiny preserve and admire our restraint in not tampering with them, even as they disappear. These trees are, to me, beautiful because they are not beautiful. And I very much need what is not beautiful in this world: what is present and open but not perfect.
The stumps in this preserve say they could have done better, they could have been stronger, but they didn’t and aren’t. They remind us of the impermanence of the body, and how thankful we are for impermanence! If nothing ended, poetry would not exist. The emotional responses we experience when reading poetry would never crescendo the way they do; there would be no heartbreak and no passion, no tragedy or birth or reunion or discovery. What would drive us forward? Surely not survival, not the legacy of our thoughts and actions.
Without the fallen trees in this preserve, I would not be reminded that anything whole is made up of many parts. Poetry is whole. Poetry is made up of many parts. Poetry is communication. It is an escape, a disguise, a confession, a history. It holds violence and compassion, strength and surrender. And I’m talking about poetry and the practice of poetry, the profession.
There will always be douchebags in poetry, friend, and sometimes, you will be one of them. But most of the time, you will strive to be what is good, what is kind, and you will hold your prettiest leaves up high where the birds go.
Prologue (December 2002)
Feet-fatigued in Paris Christmas week, Erin and I decide to take our rest in a movie theater. Our choices are the new James Bond and something called Ali G Indahouse. We are told that Ali G is a character who does put-on interviews with unsuspecting celebrities for BBC and is hilarious. Unfortunately, the showing is sold-out, so we see Bond. I sleep blissfully through the special effects.
The Seduction (January 2004)
I get a voicemail from Jenny Hunter, who says she is with “a British-based television company called Somerford Brooke, working on a series called The Making of Modern America.” For a segment on creative writing they are looking for a “distinguished teacher in his fifties” (the first clue), and she has heard, “You are the man!”
I may not be the man, but I do indeed fit that bill: I am in my fifties, chair of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program, and author of books on creative writing that have sold fairly well. I call back and say I’ll do it.
Weaving the Web (February 2004)
The idea is for me to teach a mock workshop in a Writing Program classroom. I am to recruit an “older” (second clue) student, who will join the production company’s “presenter” (British for host), whom Jenny describes as “a young, hip-hop kind of guy” (third clue). When I mention that I love British television, Jenny grills me a bit aggressively on which shows I watch. She seems relieved when I mention Monty Python and Benny Hill—shows that people in their fifties tend to watch (fourth clue).
On a subsequent call, Jenny asks for biographical details about the student I have selected, and I mention that she has worked in the film business and will not be fazed by the cameras. A couple of days later Jenny emails to say, “I hate to do this, but I think we’ll be better off to do a one-on-one session with just you and our presenter. I'm a bit concerned that we'll run long if we include another person. Sorry for the change of heart. I just think it makes more sense to keep the setting as intimate as possible” (fifth clue).
Next, we discuss the curriculum. “I've heard of some beginner exercises like ‘describe the room.’ Do you happen to have any exercises like this one that you use, and if so, could you describe them for me?”
The first couple of exercises I propose are too complicated; Jenny prefers something “very simple, as basic as possible.” We settle on one of my favorites, “Who Would March In Your Parade”: Visualize looking out your window and seeing a parade go by. But instead of Thanksgiving or the Rose Bowl, it is “Your Day.” People, objects, places, foods, and words that are meaningful to you march by. Write what you see marching in your parade. What is the band playing?”
The shoot is scheduled for February 11. On February 10, Jenny has another change of heart: “We don't want to bother you with retakes because of audio mishaps, so there’s a chance we may take the interview off campus. We want to avoid as many distractions as possible. We're thinking of booking a nearby location, perhaps a hotel room (sixth clue).
The next morning I am told that I should take a cab (at their expense) to the Wales Hotel on the East Side (confirmation of the sixth clue). I jokingly tell a friend, “If I don’t return, make sure that Law & Order does a good job ripping it from the headlines.”
On the way over, I imagine opening my Writer as Teacher seminar that evening with: “You have to be prepared to teach any extreme; I once did a writing class with 150 college students in an auditorium, and today I taught a workshop with a single hip-hop British broadcaster in a hotel room with cameras rolling.”
Tightening the Web
I get to the Wales Hotel right on time, make my way to the Madison Room, and find myself alone. Just as I start to think that Briscoe and Green might be needed after all, my cell phone rings. Jenny is calling from California to say that due to union lunch rules, they are running late, and I should take a walk and come back in an hour. They will pay for my lunch, and still get me back in time for class. Jenny is insistent that I shouldn’t hang out in the room (seventh clue).
When I return, I am met in the lobby by a field producer, who says we can save time by “taking care of business” now. He hands me two hundred-dollar bills ($150 for my fee, and the rest for expenses) and asks me to sign a standard release. I scan through and notice a sentence promising not to sue if I am made to look foolish (eighth clue). I say, “Well, I’d be rich if I could sue every time I looked foolish.” The producer seems a bit concerned, so I assure him, “Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your segment by looking foolish.” He doesn’t have a copy of the release for me (ninth clue).
The producer escorts me back to the makeshift studio, which is impressively equipped. Somerford Brooke might be a fly-by-night company (I couldn’t find any trace of them), but they are flying first class. We have to wait a bit more because the presenter “went for a walk” (tenth clue). I am led to a chair, where an assistant applies light make-up and tethers me to a microphone.
He enters with a flourish, decked out in a gold jumpsuit, adorned with enough bling to accessorize an entourage. His first word to me, accompanied by a fist-bump, is “Respect!” I feel like I have seen him before.
I start the session by asking the presenter to write a couple of his impressions of New York City. He hunches over a pad and writes quickly. My adrenalin kicks in—this could be fun. But when I read his piece, I recognize the words verbatim from a popular song. I point this out, and he insists that he did exactly what I asked: “I wrote that.” We get into a discussion of what constitutes “writing,” and I remember where I might have seen the presenter before: on the movie poster in Paris.
I doubt my memory because the odds against this seem so enormous, and who am I to warrant such attention? I plow ahead with the “Parade” exercise. “Imagine there’s a parade outside the window,” I start, and he bolts out of his chair and strides to the window overlooking Madison Avenue. “There’s no parade out there!” he announces. I try to explain the concept of "the mind's eye," but he is fixated on the indisputable fact that there is no parade in his honor marching down Madison Avenue .
I am aware that the cameras are rolling and any reaction I have can be edited to make me look "foolish" if indeed this is the guy from the movie. And, if it's not, they'll think I'm a paranoid professor who has become unhinged. I risk calling for a timeout to talk to the producer. He leans over before I can get out of the chair, and explains in a whisper—while the presenter continues searching out the window—that they had high hopes for this guy but might have made a mistake in hiring him, but maybe he’s just nervous and it will get better, so please continue.
I decide the only viable plan is to teach the best workshop I can under the circumstances. We resume, and the presenter has a question for me: “How many letters of the alphabet should a writer use?”
I toss my plan out the window, right onto the unseen parade, and reply firmly: “Six. At first. You start with six, go to seven, then work your way up and eventually you are using the whole alphabet.”
He then asks, “Why the letter Q is in the alphabet?” and I reply, “Actually, you’ll be reading about this soon, but we had a meeting and decided to take the letter Q out of the alphabet.”
“Why are you pissing on my questions?” he says, looking seriously annoyed.
Soon it’s over. The producer tells me there’s a “waiting cab” and hustles me down the stairs.
“Now that you have the footage," I say, “are you going to tell me what just happened?”
The producer sticks to his story, jammering on about how they had done market research and hired this guy thinking he could draw a young audience, but it was a big mistake. He shoos me into the waiting cab. As we pull out, the driver says, “You must be pretty important. They said you're needed at Columbia University. Usually I don’t wait for a fare, but he was such a nice guy.”
I call Jenny and leave a message on her voicemail: “Either that was Ali G or the dumbest guy on earth.”
My phone rings shortly after, and I hope for elaboration and reassurance from my new friend Jenny, but it’s my real friend, asking if she needs to call in Briscoe and Green.
I don’t say anything to my class about my afternoon as the man. When I get home I look up Ali G. Yes, that’s the guy, and he’s brought his show to HBO—American television—where six episodes have already run. I am a jumble of anger and humiliation, concerned about my image in the academic and literary worlds.
The first episode airs in July with Sam Donaldson getting hoodwinked by Sacha Baron Cohen (the brilliant actor behind Ali G and others). No me. And no me week after week, as Pat Buchanan, Christine Todd Whitman, Gore Vidal, and Andy Rooney fall prey.
The closest they get to a segment like mine is a songwriting lesson (in the guise of Borat) with country-music veteran Porter Wagoner. Borat asks, “Please Mr. Wagoner can you teach me how to write country song.”
“I’ll tell you some tips,” Mr. Wagoner replies sweetly. He stays nice throughout the segment; the humor comes from Borat. Now that’s how to play it.
For the first several weeks, I am relieved when I don’t appear. Then I start half-hoping I will, and, when the six-episode series is over, I am damn pissed that I didn’t make the cut. They could have billed it as “Ali G meets his match," and done a follow-up segment with him actually visiting my class at Columbia. Sacha Baron Cohen and I could have become friends.
In July, I write to Jenny: “I would like to chat with you. Can we talk directly or should I go through HBO? Also, could you let me know the disposition of the segment we taped.”
The man gets no response.
“Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.”
It’s important for you to know that I began this post with an entirely different quote and in an entirely different way, with a metaphor about dish-washing and a sort of flimsy discussion about revision. I deleted it.
Then I started over and wrote about epithalamions. How I don’t like being asked to write them, and something about writing under pressure. Also flimsy. Deleted.
The problem with writing and deleting is that the ghosts of your rejected ideas linger, and the more you erase, the more ghosts you have to contend with, making the blank screen twice its size and twice as loud.
Maria Gillan’s crow came bounding down the salted sidewalk outside my perch in Starbucks. It yammered about my difficulty in writing an essay on mindfulness: Maybe it’s because you’re not mindful. Maybe it’s because you’re not actually good at meditation. You’re kind of a jerk. You told someone to fuck off the other day in traffic. Remember? And I did remember. And I felt bad.
Then my essay happened.
A guy about my age wearing a suit and tie sat down across the table from me. “Ah,” he said. “You read Thay Nhat Hanh, do you?” Thay (pronounced tie) means “teacher” and Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tick not hon) goes by Thay with his students.
“Yeah,” I said without looking up. I have two hours until the daycare closes and my daughter will need to be whisked home to her bath and dinner, and holy shit I need to fold that laundry in the basement because I am seriously out of towels, and my internet browser is open behind Microsoft Word and the emails are trickling in with questions about spring workshops…
“Yeah, my college roommate got me into some of his stuff a long time ago. Haven’t read him since. I might still have his book but I’m not sure.”
“Hm.” My Americano is not strong enough.
“Are you meditating?” he asked.
“I’m writing about meditation.” Totally true. I was not meditating. I wasn’t feeling compassionate or mindful or serene at all. I was smiling at the irony of wanting to write about mindfulness while wishing I could calmly hit this guy on the nose. I was annoyed that he was talking to me, and I was even more annoyed at myself for being annoyed. That’s not very mindful.
“Oh, like for your classes?” The tenor of his voice climbed higher here, like he was asking a child where her mother was.
“No, like for a job.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
He introduced himself and we shook hands, but I gradually stopped answering his questions. I began writing those first two beginnings, writing and deleting. Stupid essay, stupid ghosts, stupid guy with his stupid attitude. I yanked my headphones from my ears and closed my laptop, swept it all into my bag and told the chatty man to have a good day. He looked up at me, smiled, and said, “You do the same!”
His eyes were actually quite pretty, a goldish blue. What struck me, however, was the way he responded: with enthusiasm, as if I had offered him equal sincerity and not the half-assed, pissed off haveagoodone I actually delivered. I got in my car and knew what to write, drove to my office and started.
What’s strange is that I don’t think I would’ve said anything differently in that scene at the coffeeshop. The guy was clearly not picking up on my social cues that said please let me focus, and he seemed to think it was cute that I was a writer. I didn’t tell him to fuck off. I was polite. I would have used the same language had he been an elderly woman, a child, a teenager. But behind my words, I was burning. And mindfulness, if anything, is more than a physical display.
I am meditating now. I am focusing my concentration on that interaction and the way it made me feel, and I’m noticing how it relates to the practice of poetry. That man stepping in on my writing time pissed me off; it made me jealous of his audacity – acting as if his time was more valuable than mine. It made me angry when he raised his voice as if talking to a child. It embarrassed me when he smiled happily and said goodbye, probably oblivious to any wrong he’d done, probably smiling just to smile at me.
When I left the coffeeshop, my cheeks were red in the rearview mirror. My stomach was tense. I was breathing slowly but the air only dipped down my neck before my lungs shoved it back outside and grabbed for more. The tiny star of a headache bloomed behind my left eye. I sat down in my office with a mental inventory of all the tense muscles and nerves in my body.
The chatty man may as well have been a manifestation of my writing process, which is probably more similar to yours than it is different – we are all the same in so many ways. Our process doesn’t pick up on social cues but wants to give us something, shows up when you’d like to avoid it but sleeps in when it’s needed, and, of course, it wears a suit.
The only major difference between that man and my writing process is that I abuse my process flagrantly, out loud, in writing and in my thoughts. I’ve earned a good deal of positive attention and awards in my career, though I admit I am typing this now so I can read it tomorrow when I feel, again, like a directionless, fussy, judgmental buffoon. The feeling will come. And it will go.
I recently came really, really close to publishing a research paper in a top tier journal. After working with the editors on some promising revisions, they decided to pass, and just by a hair. They gave me pages of positive feedback, but told me that the piece just didn’t work for them yet.
Having a year’s worth of research writing rejected left me seriously wounded. The rejection wasn’t gradual; it was sudden, in a letter that wasn’t there and then it was, in my hands, and I wasn’t quick enough to be mindful. I lashed out at myself for two months straight until I found myself at the kitchen table one night, writing the same poem (about an Iraqi housedress I have hanging in my closet) over and over and over, deleting everything I wrote, writing and deleting, writing and deleting, the ghosts stacking up like folded sheets. The poem wasn’t uncooperative. My process was doing its job. But the more I berated myself, the more I tacked on the extra weight of annoyance at myself for not showing more compassion.
Even though I’ve been meditating for years, I regularly lurch so far away from mindfulness that I am only capable of self-abuse. It does not stop until I refocus on my breath, send concentration and kindness to my body, and embrace that godawful sting of perceived failure. Get away from abusive thoughts by dropping my awareness into my center. (I have a yoga book for kids that I still read called Sitting Still Like a Frog. I wish I’d had it when I was small. In it, Eline Snel tells us that, when our thoughts are out of control, it is logical to focus instead on our abdomens, the rise and fall of it as we breathe. It makes sense. There are no thoughts in the abdomen.)
I regularly reestablish those boundaries I unknowingly placed around my work when I was a fearless beginner, when I was writing to write. Because my intentions were healthy, so was my practice. In order to write again with courage, I regularly withdraw from wanting so much from the process and all its promises.
In Living Your Yoga, Judith Laseter suggests the meditative exercise of asking “And then what would happen?” after listing all your worst case scenarios in any given situation. Say you don’t publish that paper, that poem, that book. And then what would happen?
Well, your work will have to be sent somewhere else, which will take more time, maybe months or even years including revisions and wait time. And then what would happen?
Actually, you might have more time to improve the work. But it wouldn’t be convenient, because you really want to see it published now. And then what would happen?
You might have to tell people you were rejected. They might feel bad for you or disappointed. They might talk about you with other people. And then what would happen?
I guess you’d get over it.
The quote at the beginning of this essay reminds me that meditation is not evasion but rather the most direct, serene, confident approach to life’s difficulties, including poetry. Is poetry a difficulty? (Are any of you saying no? Liars.) By centering yourself in the midst of so much demanding negativity, you are confronting it with peace. Evasion is a symptom of fear, practiced by ignorance. What if you preferred mindfulness over the concept of success? Well, people might think you’re tackling humanity’s problems all wrong.
And then what would happen?
“Compassion and the abandonment of ego are both essential to art: it is easy to spot a poem…that is self-indulgent or brittle with cruel cleverness.”
- Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
My introduction to poetry was about as exciting as canned biscuits. I didn’t grow up reciting sonnets (to this day, I have failed to memorize any poem except “Two Boxes” by Shel Silverstein. Look it up. I’ll wait.) (It’s perfect, isn’t it?) I grew up with five sisters in a house without a father. Lots of estrogen. Lots of hairstyling products. My sisters were beautiful and talented and I sort of hated them. I was rebellious but not in the same way my peers; I had no lust for drugs or drinking and I remember laughing at my boyfriend one night as he kissed me tenderly in the woods, “Pal, if you think I’m going to sleep with someone from Ferndale, you’re mental.” Real romantic.
No, instead of skipping school with my sisters, I heckled the army recruiters who visited our schools and, for some reason that you must not hold against me because I was an angry teenager, I protested the Veterans Day assembly – I think I thought it was glorifying war. Don’t worry. I paid for my intolerance the first time someone spit on Tom and his friends as they walked to class in their ROTC uniforms. I saw myself in that cruelty. I hadn't spit on any ROTC students but my language had been hateful up until then. If I wanted to write poetry well and make it work with Tom, I needed to approach my feelings about the military with openness and compassion.
Here’s the canned biscuits part. I decided to write poetry because it was the only skill none of my sisters had mastered yet. No compelling eloquence, no way with words. I played violin but Michelle was a natural. I played softball but Tina was stronger. I danced and tried out for plays and barely squeaked by in physics and calculus when Alisa was forced to tutor me at night. But nobody seemed to notice poetry in my house, so I essentially licked its door handle and claimed it as my own.
I was terrible at it. Wretchedly, splendidly terrible. I tossed word salad: angsty mishmashes of imagery and manifestos. A boyfriend wrote me a poem theoretically titled “My Angel” and I returned it to him, wrote “Not your ‘angle’ – learn to spell” in the margin. Sure, I was a dick, but I had finally found something I could play with confidently, even in front of my sisters. Poetry was a blast! It was mine and it was on paper and I used Mr. Steiner’s copy code to print up hundreds of pages of it before the principal got wise. I hoarded poetry and moved to Seattle when I was eighteen to study creative writing at Seattle University, the tiny Jesuit school on Capitol Hill, where my instructors were magic and Sharon Cumberland taught at a senior center at night and I wanted to go too.
By the time I ended up at Pacific for my MFA, I had only published a handful of poems but my desperation was manageable because I had yet to think about what it meant to “succeed” as a poet. I was still having fun. I sent poems to my friends, to Marvin Bell and Peter Sears and David St. John, and when they enjoyed them I was the dog with a waggly tail. This is when I was most successful. This is when I was at my most playful. I had yet to apply to any PhD programs or read articles about the fall of higher education in America and the shifty shadows of the job market. I liked being published but had no sense of possession over my work; it was surprisingly easy to let go of. My need for control had faded since I left home and no longer felt compelled to compete with my sisters or, consequently, anyone else. To be honest, I was more concerned with Tom's deployments than publications.
My poems got better because I read more. Shelley and Wordsworth and the lais of Marie de France, then Amy Lowell and Mary Oliver, Louise Glück, Kay Ryan, William Stafford. (My favorite book of poems is a tattered copy of Raymond Carver's All of Us.) Success in poetry was writing poetry and nothing more. Lost Horse Press published Me and Coyote, my first chapbook, and Robert Peake wrote a touching review. Marvin presented some of my poems at a reading in Oregon. I read and read and read. Carol Muske-Dukes and Carolyn Kizer, Stanley Kunitz and Yusef Komunyakaa. I was successful only because I was fully immersed in what poetry could do when it reached people, and I was mostly unaware of the competition beneath it. Oh, I was still getting rejections in the mail, and I was launched into the poverty wages of adjunct work as soon as I graduated, but I was happy enough to write. That was all.
I struggle with many regrets, but meditation has allowed me to notice some small details I might otherwise miss: I may not have been a poetic prodigy, but instead of lamenting my ordinary nature I can see that I was delightfully fearless as a beginner. My younger self was rarely daunted by the challenges before her and struggled bravely and willingly.
Today, I wonder how that fearlessness and happiness escape me so quickly and with such stealth. Mindfulness allows me to keep up with retrieving them over and over. I think, sometimes, it becomes difficult to identify when we have been most successful in our lives – in poetry as in other fields. We have all experienced success. Maybe not as often as we’ve trudged through failures and mistakes, and we certainly don’t get everything we want, but we have all been high on our work at some point. Even if you can’t admit it now, I know you’ve experienced happiness in poetry; you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you hadn’t (unless you’re my Grandma Kusick, who will read this even though she doesn’t write poetry, and she will tell her friends to read it too because I am her granddaughter). So, let’s identify success through meditation.
I'll start by looking at the other side. To be fair, I can see some practicality in equating happiness with what others have: tenure, security, attention, privilege, charm, awards, seniority, whatever. When we focus on what others have, we become even more aware of what we need, and we do need some amount of material success. I enjoy having health insurance and praise and hot chocolate in my pantry. But it is important for me to think carefully about what fuels my need for the more basic material concepts of success. Why do I need what I need? Is it worthy of the actions and thoughts I produce while I pursue it? How much do I need, and when am I taking just to take? Poetry offers a great deal of “success” in material reward, and the act of slowing down to be aware of it all is crucial. More importantly, I must understand that my need for poetry is beyond material and will remain that way – there is a small cord connecting my self to poetry that cannot be cut or destroyed, not only because I value the happiness it brings me but because poetry is a product of my thoughts.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book Work (an excellent text for those interesting in reading about methods of balancing meditation and professional demands) that we inherit our thoughts and actions, and that is all we inherit. Everyone forfeits their bodies and possessions; our thoughts and actions survive us. They continue in the lives of others. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much we know, but the way we treat others is crucial to our survival.
Consider, too, not only what you need for yourself but how much you need to give to others. We are connected by our humanity, and our actions against one another are actions against ourselves, against God, against the Buddha, against our nature. I need to praise others when they do good work because I am a part of what they need, and their needs are mine. I need strangers to smile at me in the grocery store when I’ve moved to yet another new city. I need someone to crack a joke in the Starbucks line, to hold the elevator, to shovel the driveway just to be nice. When I deprive others of kindness, I deprive myself, and when I give kindness, I receive it. I gain nothing from fear or anger.
To meditate is to be aware of everything that is happening in your body, your mind, and your surroundings. With that awareness, we notice what hurts and what brings us happiness. If we look deeply and allow ourselves to bring understanding to our suffering, to our joy, then we are much more likely to transform the suffering – to get to know our behaviors that cause sadness and anger, and to think about what it is we truly want from our work.
You make yourself vulnerable in your poetry, whether you write about what is real or you work through the imaginary. I learned that I cannot escape myself in my imagination, and that I am present even in my fear of war and how directly it affects my life and the lives of others. I am working to be present in my poems. And I will continue to struggle with feeling satisfied in poetry. The significance of the poems themselves will shrink when I am less aware of myself, my thoughts and my actions, and it will grow when I return through meditation.
I’m asking you to spin a lot of plates here. Tomorrow I want to look into mindfulness as the foundation of a good meditation practice.
“Don’t tell me what the poets are doing. / Don’t tell me that they’re talking tough.”
- from “Poets” by the Tragically Hip
It is impossible (not to mention essentially pointless) to define poetry simply, to equate it to a single concept or function, and for this I am thankful. I understand that poetry, at its most basic level, is communication, which cannot even be confined to language. Some would argue that a daffodil is more poetic than most villanelles, and I see their point. I only remind you of the futility of definitions as a disclaimer for all the room I have here to hypothesize – to make assumptions about poetry based on my experiences with meditation.
I’d like to discuss the crucial though often neglected relationship between compassion and poetry – and I mean all of poetry: the poems, the process, the promotion and publication of, the rejection, the job searches, the teaching. Not all of us publish, nor do we all teach, but I’m coming at this from my position as an instructor, student, and poet with a happy amount of publications under her belt. I am not famous but have enjoyed meeting many new people through poetry. So what the hell does violence have to do with all this? How are poets violent and how might they practice compassion with themselves and others?
Like poetry, violence is also difficult to define. Sometimes it is visible, tangible even, but most often it is quiet, abstract, or subtle. It is always brutal. It is always ugly. As a pacifist, I’ve been interested in the significance of violence for most of my life. As a poet, I have always been fascinated by beauty, what it is, what it isn’t, and why we love it.
Before I married a soldier and began to study violence as it related to war and politics, I assumed it was more directly associated with military endeavors, and my position as a poet somehow made me nonviolent by nature. All my poet friends were hippies, so I assumed they were also peaceful. How cute! Imagine my embarrassment when I began practicing yoga during my first return to graduate school, when I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s essays on the five mindfulness trainings.
The first mindfulness training concerns reverence for life and the way we might care for it most effectively through nonviolence and nonattachment. As poets, we are violently critical of ourselves, often incapable of detaching from the so-called success we crave. We disguise our suffering in arrogance or smother it with addiction. Our poems are beautiful, but the profession of poetry, it seems, has a tendency to bring out the worst in us. We love to write but it’s never enough; we want publications and job offers and book deals and a clearer sense of our own authority. We refuse to forgive ourselves and others. As I contemplate my own struggles with negative self-talk, which is essentially violence to myself and consequently others, I have found that the practice of meditation can, over time, help dissipate a process that has led me further down a path of suffering.
Violence is not limited to the merciless brutality of combat and destruction; it also grows silently and persistently in the arts. I’ve written entire poems and essays while listening to the repeating call of what Maria Gillan would call “my crow,” that voice which sings so exquisitely about my faults, my stupidity and worthlessness, my bland, boring self. What the hell makes me think I can write about meditation when I haven’t been on my yoga mat in over a year? And why do I sound like I’m on some high tower in my field when the truth is I’m a PhD student who resembles a shabby workhorse more than established poet? Without meditation, I can easily cultivate the desire to knock myself down, knock others down when they’ve worked harder or better than I have, when they are given something I feel they don’t deserve, when I feel slighted, when I am fearful of my own poems being ignored or misunderstood, when I’m fed up and pissed off and sad. This kind of violence has the ability to lead me toward more pronounced cruelty, to negative actions against others, to a blind belief in my own way of thinking as right, absolute, or superior. Isn’t this the same path that leads to war?
The bottom line is, while many people believe that poetry is intrinsically compassionate because it is emotionally driven, it is a uniquely human craft that is therefore susceptible to our heartlessness, anger, fear, and greed. Is it possible to separate poetry from the poet? I don’t think so. Poems are only as genuine as the individuals who write them. The longer I meditate, the more mindful I become of how desperately I need compassion in order to write what is true and beautiful.
I have this beat up copy of Judith Laseter’s Living Your Yoga. It used to be white with orange California poppies on the cover but now it’s mostly yellow, the flowers bronze, the inside print a little blurry. Its spine is brittle, and when I lived in Colorado this book was on a shelf constantly exposed to sunlight; its pages are, to me, always warm. In the spirit of sincerity, I admit that I am never not reading this book. It’s seen me through two chapbooks, countless readings, hundreds of rejections, stressful lectures, academic papers, school applications, contest entries, intensive workshops, not to mention years of wondering if Tom was still whole in Iraq and Afghanistan while I was curled under the covers of our bed. In it, Laseter repeats what everyone from Natalie Goldberg to Jesus Christ have stated explicitly or indirectly implied: we must be compassionate with ourselves in order to love others.
I sometimes struggle to remember that compassion does not denote lenience. Compassion is not ‘taking it easy’ on oneself. Compassion is exercise. Compassion is often a test, especially when you first study meditation. Nonviolence is a way of practicing. If you are new to meditation and haven’t read much about compassion, I have a couple suggestions:
1) Read any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I especially like Being Peace, Happiness, Fear, and Good Citizens.
2) If you’re the more academicky type and want more researchish writing about compassion, read Karen Armstrong’s work. She’s a former nun and religious scholar who’s written beautifully crisp prose about compassion and spirituality.
3) If you need to show compassion quickly and want an immediate plan of action, do what I do (and don’t judge me): pretend the person you hate is a shelter dog. I’m serious. That poet who flakes out on you when you need him to follow through, who throws you under the bus, who has opportunities handed to him, who always needs and always takes, who seems full of himself and pretentious and ignorant – he is now a shivering shelter dog. You can’t be a jerk to him. At least for now while this strategy is working.
Think of a poet you really have trouble tolerating. (Come on, I know you have one in mind.) Slow down and consider this person as wholly as possible: her physical presence, her poetry, mannerisms, credentials, the rumors that trail behind her, the sound of her voice if you’ve heard it, what you think she has and all her glaring faults.
I want you to imagine what you don’t know about her. The poems she hasn’t written, the rejections she’s received, the opportunities that have escaped her, the time she was left out or singled out, the way she responds to deep loss. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call her my enemy. She practically makes me itch, but it turns out that her suffering is my own. There are poems I haven’t written because I don’t know how. Poems I’ve written badly. I have been rejected and I have been the victim of bad timing.
The first time Tom called me from Iraq to tell me he had landed safely but could see Baghdad burning from the air, I was standing next to the smashed back window of my car, staring at the beer can that had been thrown through the glass and exploded over the seats. I hope the poet who sees me as her enemy – that poet who finds my happiness undeserved – knows how I cried like a child on the side of the street where my car was parked and have yet to write a poem about it. I hope she shows me compassion. And I hope I can return the favor.
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the concept of success in poetry. What it means to me, what it means in a more general, stereotypical sort of way, and how we might transform our desire for it into a more mindful energy that refocuses us on our poetry, our playfulness, and our need to connect with one another through story.
“Have you murdered anyone in the last day, week, month, year, decade? Probably not. Then don’t worry about it. Give yourself a break. You’re probably a really fine person.”
I sought out meditation under duress. I married young and a couple months after the wedding, Tom left for training in Georgia and was shipped off to Iraq with the rest of the Parachute Infantry Division. This was 2006. I stopped sleeping. When Tom came home for R&R I stopped eating and couldn’t leave the house for fear I’d vomit whatever empty space I had left in my belly. I didn’t want kids. I loved Tom but hated the army, hated the other officers’ wives even more. I wrote garbage. I moved to Alaska, moved to Vancouver, back to Alaska; I worked in a women’s gym, a cat shelter, chiropractic college, bookstore, and a school for children whose severe behavioral issues were treated with medication and two white padded rooms with doorknobs on the outsides only.
Some of Tom’s friends were killed during his first tour, but when Colby hit an IED it was different. Tom flew to Dover to collect Colby’s body and bring him to Pennsylvania, to give his mother a hug. I’ve watched Tom hug people who aren’t me. He’s terrible at it. When he came home he said it could have been worse. Another guy at the hotel bar was waiting to pick up the hand of a guy he’d already buried. Just the hand. In a wooden box with a metal handle.
My mom flew to Alaska one Christmas and asked me if I shouldn’t go back to school and study something I loved. I could list my loves: my violin, my cat, poetry. I’m a decent Suzuki method violin teacher but don’t enjoy performing, and I don’t have the scientific background for veterinary training. So I went to Pacific University for my MFA and worked with Dorianne Laux, Peter Sears, Joe Millar and Marvin Bell. In the two years it took me to complete the degree, I changed my address six times. At lunch one afternoon, beneath the gorgeous oak trees in Forest Grove, Marvin asked me what Tom’s MOS was and I shrugged. “He doesn’t make you know any of this, does he?” Tom makes me know plenty.
Poetry made me feel good, but the more time I spent with poets the more I realized the deep vulnerability we rely on for our craft is kept entirely separate from the way we pursue success. Poems are acts of compassion but poets are often cruel to one another. Our work may reach the most tender or well-hidden emotions of others, but our practice is cutthroat and often embeds our poems in subtle shades of anger and fear that are visible to the observant reader. Meditation has allowed me to practice poetry freely and protect myself from the negative thoughts and behaviors that seem to come with the territory of publishing and academia.
When I began studying poetry in earnest and didn’t know anything about meditation, I decided not to write about what was real because I didn’t want to risk my vulnerability. I read James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys and learned that I could effectively disguise myself in the imaginary. It worked! Pretty well, actually, and it was more fun than writing was real, which left me more directly exposed on the page. I avoided appearing in my own stories and resolutely kept my feet out of the poetry pool. But even this became exhausting and I had to rethink my strategy. I didn’t yet know how to best marry the real and the imaginary in my poems, and I would never have guessed that it involved meditation, a practice outside the basic applications of poetry.
I didn’t want to write about the colonel’s wife, her desperate phone calls to Tom in the middle of the night. I didn’t want to write about the captain’s wife, how her husband smashed a champagne bottle with his sword at a military ball and her wrists caught the tiny green shards of glass. How she giggled when I put bandages on her skinny arms. I didn’t want to write about the forced coffee dates, the required tea parties, the FRG meetings, the wives who called me dyke, the colonel who called me woman, the major who begged to deploy to Afghanistan when his wife got pregnant. Some poet friends marveled at how I tolerated military life, but it is remarkably similar to the academic one. I may write about the ugly side of the army, but selfishness, sexism, opportunism and desperation are hardly foreign to a poet’s experience.
Did I tell you I’m the daughter of a yoga instructor? My mother has been telling me to pay attention to my breath for decades, and she says it more often each time Tom is promoted, when new strings of officers’ wives thread their way into my life. Each time I hear poets cut one another down, rip their poems apart or exclude them, I am told to return to my breath. My mother’s been telling me to be kind, be patient, be mindful. To put myself always in another’s shoes, to understand my critics, to see both sides. As a teenager, it was awful. By the time I was twenty I had meditation completely backwards and questioned the validity of my own “shoes,” degraded my own side, doubted my worth. I thought meditation was oppressive until I got married, until Tom went to war and I couldn’t breathe and poems weren’t enough.
I couldn’t keep working against my mind and the way it sulked and hated, the way it dripped with doubt and regret. Because I could not shake poetry and knew I’d have to live both the creative and professional lives it required in order to forge bonds with other writers and readers, I sought out meditation. I meditate because I know the poets and soldiers who are cruel are also wounded. Eight years ago, I looked at meditation as a last resort before drowning in Tom’s career and mine. Today, a meditative approach is the only way I can rationally embrace poetry – as a writer, instructor, wife, mother, as a PhD student, nonprofit director, editor, violinist.
This week, I’ll be posting a few short essays about some fundamental components of meditation and how they continue to impact my life in poetry (and, I suppose, my life as it indirectly relates to war and the military). I’ll discuss compassion & nonviolence, the concept of success, mindfulness and physical practices. And I am so glad you're here.
This week we welcome Abby E. Murray as our guest author. Abby has moved around the country for the past ten years, working in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, and now New York, where she is a Ph.D. student at Binghamton University. Her second chapbook, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012, and her poems appear or are forthcoming in Rattle, Crab Creek Review, River Styx, and New Ohio Review. She is an editor for Harpur Palate and currently directs the Binghamton Poetry Project, an organization for which she also teaches, offering free poetry workshops to soldiers and veterans in the Southern Tier area of New York. When she isn’t teaching undergraduate courses at Binghamton University or writing, she is teaching Suzuki method violin lessons for kids.
NA: Tell me about Rescue Press. What makes it unique? And what inspired the name?
CP: Rescue Press is an independent small press that publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art experiments, and hybrid work. It is comprised of myself, my co-founder and managing editor Danny Khalastchi, our creative director Sevy Perez, editorial assistants Zach Isom and Alyssa Perry, and our social media and marketing coordinator Rachel White. The name came from my love of rhyme, primarily, although we are fond of the idea of “rescuing” as a generally responsible social action. We are practiced in posting bail, throwing life-rafts, sending a helicopter, patching wounds, picking fights, buying a drink, publishing your book, drying those tears, and babysitting.
NA: I read on your website: “Rescue Press in an independent publisher of chaotic and investigative work.” Could you explain what you mean by “chaotic and investigative”?
CP: By “chaotic and investigative” I mean we are looking for work that—whether implicitly, aggressively, aesthetically, or formally—asks questions or expresses the mind at work on a worry. The word “chaos” is itself a contradiction, contranym. Our common understanding—loss of control, turmoil—is only a sliver of its meaning. Complex chaotic systems not only represent the opposite of order (entirely random, irrational, or incomprehensible states of disarray), but also a subtler, less obvious set of patterns. Populations, fractals, leaky faucets, pendulums. A lens for interpreting tendrils, travel patterns, behavior. You can see how this serves as an apt metaphor for compelling writing. N. Katherine Hayles writes that chaos “is not a passive instrument,” but “active engagement with a vital medium that has its own currents, resistances, subversions, enablings, pathways, blockages” and, I would add, inquiries. For an example of this sort of approach, check out Patricia Rose (Danielle Rosen)’s The Institute for Species Systemization: An Experimental Archive—a hybrid work of science, psychology, linguistics, conceptual art, and performance—or Lauren Haldeman’s Calenday, an astounding book of poetry which investigates grief and birth, trauma and the mysterious origins of energy.
NA: Rescue Press was started in 2009, so it’s new. What inspired you to start a press?
CP: Rescue is turning five as we speak! Let’s eat cake! A few of the things that inspired Rescue’s genesis were a love of form, Ralph Waldo Emerson, feminism, Montessori memories, and a compulsion to make. Rescue was raised in the Midwest (it has lived in Milwaukee, Iowa City, Chicago, and Cleveland) and still calls a water fountain a “bubbler.”
NA: What was the first book you published? And why did you choose it?
CP: Our first book was Marc Rahe’s The Smaller Half, and we’re excited that his second collection of poetry, On Hours, is forthcoming from Rescue this spring. Here are a few wonders from that book.
NA: If you had one line of advice to someone submitting a book to Rescue Press, what would it be?
CP: Be stranger, Stranger.
NA: You publish poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and hybrids. I’d love to hear more about your hybrids. And maybe see a brief excerpt from a hybrid.
CP: The aforementioned Rosen book is a good place to start, as are Andrea Rexilius’ To Be Human Is To Be A Conversation, Zach Savich’s Events Film Cannot Withstand, Anne Germanacos’ Tribute, and Christian TeBordo’s forthcoming Toughlahoma. We’re extremely lucky to work with Hilary Plum and Zach Savich who edit our Open Prose Series, which publishes one work a year of nonfiction, fiction, or sui generis prose and accepts submissions during the month of January. They’ve chosen two extraordinary books so far (Germanacos and TeBordo) that complicate concepts of genre and form in exciting ways. “Hybrid” is one word for this sort of complication, but in general Rescue is fond of experiments with storytelling, framing, music, multimedia, reality, pacing, humor, and wit.
NA: How many poetry books do you publish each year?
CP: Approximately three books of poetry, one or two books of prose.
NA: Do all of your poetry books come from your contest, the Black Box Poetry Prize? Who judges the contest?
CP: Not all come from the contest; at least one does, often two. The others are solicited. Our judges so far have included Sabrina Orah Mark, Zach Savich, Heather Christle, and Maggie Nelson.
NA: Who was the 2014 winner of the Black Box Poetry Prize? Could you say a few words about why this book was selected? And could you post a poem from the book?
CP: This year’s winner was Sara Deniz Akant, whose first collection, Babette, was chosen by Maggie Nelson and will be published next fall. Akant’s work is bizarre and brazen, haunting and mischievous; it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read, I promise. A few poems from the book can be found at Lana Turner. We’ll also be publishing Dot Devota’s The Division of Labor, another extraordinary manuscript we pulled from the prize.
NA: Tell me about some of the highlights of Rescue Press. (Feel free to provide a link or two.)
CP: Danny and I are extremely proud of all of our books, and so I’ll leave you with a link to another fun thing we do, our Safety Book Interview Series in which poets and prose writers describe a book that has changed their life in some magical way, a book they couldn’t possibly live without.
Caryl Pagel is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: Twice Told (H_NG M_N Books, 2014) and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012). She is the co-founder and editor of Rescue Press, a poetry editor at jubilat, and the director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She is an A
ssistant Professor of English at Cleveland State University and teaches in the NEOMFA program in Eastern Ohio.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here. Follow Nin on Twitter here.
On Wednesday I quoted Elizabeth Bishop who, in a letter to Marianne Moore, describes her awareness of insistent, disparate objects. Unhappy with nearly everything she has written, Bishop despairs, but she finds reason to go on in these disconnected things, which might, she intuits, be brought into one: ‘I hardly know why I persist at all…but I have this continuous uncomfortable feeling of “things” in the head…awkwardly shaped pieces of furniture…And I can’t help having the theory that if they are joggled around hard enough and long enough some kind of electricity will occur, just by friction, that will arrange everything.’
Thinking of Bishop’s letter today, I hear an echo of Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway also had a theory; hers was ‘to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known.’ And she, too, felt compelled to bring together the disparate, in her case by throwing a party. In my mind Bishop’s frictional gathering resembles Clarissa Dalloway’s fictional one:
Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?
It is interesting to me that Clarissa can’t initially articulate what or whom her offering is for. She only knows it is important. She eventually concludes that her parties are offerings to life itself. But it is what she is gathering—otherwise disconnected things—that strikes me as the most important element of her offering. William Carlos Williams once said that poetry is powerful when it ‘draws perhaps many broken things into a dance by giving them thus a full being.’ This is true at the level of the individual as well. We are in search of that full being, our own Byzantium, a place that will allow us to bring into one ‘All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.’ 20th-century postwar poetry reflects the broken world, and the broken self, through a broken mirror. It leaves gaps; it breaks the flow of time with broken lineation, syntax and spatiality. We know this. But we also know that Modernism tries to build with what is broken, to draw meaning out of discontinuity. Geoffrey Hill argues that language carries in it the marks of original sin, so the poet-maker is always composing with broken material. But he also writes that ‘the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense – an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony.’ Along these same lines, in his ‘Art Recentered’ manifesto, philosopher Frederick Turner argues that ‘even when it deals, as it often should and must, with the terrifying, tragic, and grotesque, art should help heal the lesions within the self and the rifts in the self’s relation to the world.’
Indeed, I believe this is literature’s raison d’être. There are, of course, literary works that do nothing of the kind. Edward Hirsch calls the postmodern aesthetic ‘a genre of disruption’ that ‘revels in its own incompleteness, its partiality, since all texts are incomplete and all poetic language insufficient.’ Certainly literature can be, and at times must be, disruptive, dissident and even revolutionary. But on the whole, I don’t think poetry or indeed any genre of literature has ever found a fundamental purpose in disruption for its own sake. I am opening myself up to all kinds of counterarguments and exceptions with this gross generalization, but I have no qualms about saying that I believe poetry, indeed all literature, rises from a yearning for wholeness. Writers need the darkness, but again, not for its own sake. To quote Emily Dickinson, ‘We grow accustomed to the Dark / When Light is put away…Either the Darkness alters / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight / And life steps almost straight.’
Elizabeth Bishop wrote her letter to Marianne Moore in September of 1940. Six months later, in March of 1941, Virginia Woolf took her own life. These events are unrelated, and there is no reason that their proximity to each other should mean anything. But it does, to me, today, because every piece of writing, even this blog post from a writer no one has heard of, is an act of bringing things together and seeing what the resulting friction might create. Questions about literature’s ability to effect change, to solve anything, to heal anyone are ancient and abiding, but the fact that we still ask them is itself an answer. For many of us the debate was settled from the moment we picked up a book, and like the great Rilke poem about the torso of Apollo, it whispered to us, You must change your life. For a writer this change comes from making an offering, and it is rather like building an undefined structure when the directions for assembly are not included. But we persist because, like Bishop and like Woolf, we feel an obligation to those un-gathered things.
Woolf originally intended for Mrs. Dalloway to die, and there is a moment near the end of the novel where Clarissa considers taking her own life. But unlike her other half, Septimus Warren Smith, Clarissa finds she is able to rejoin the party, that gathering of previously disconnected individuals that symbolizes Clarissa’s assembled identity. In her journal, Woolf writes, ‘There I am now, at last at the party…It is to be the most complicated spirited solid piece, knitting everything together & ending on three notes…each saying something to sum up Clarissa.’ Clarissa survives by doing what Septimus could not do, was not allowed to do: assemble, connect, bring broken things together and ask them to dance.
The easy rejoinder is that art, in the end, did not save Virginia Woolf’s life. But of course it did. That fact is on every page of her journals. Each work exacted a toll, but it also gave her life: ‘I’ve been battling however so long with The Hours…I want to freshen myself, not deaden myself, so I will say no more. Only I must note this odd symptom: a conviction that I shall go on, see it through, because it interests me to write it.’ For nearly two decades after she wrote that, Woolf found reasons to go on, and thank God she did. How many lives has she healed, even saved, with what came later, including A Room of One’s Own, To The Lighthouse, and Orlando? I count myself among that number. And Clarissa’s transcendental theory has been proven true in her case: ‘the unseen part of us, which spreads wide… might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that.’ Writing is just such a quest to recover and to attach, to bring together this person or that. And while I know it’s incredibly presumptuous of me to speculate, I can’t help wondering if, or rather hoping that, had Woolf known how many lives she might affect, how many broken things she would bring into at-one-ment, she might have walked back to the party one more time on that March day instead of down to the River Ouse.
In his redoubtable essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” I wonder how Eliot might have assessed the work of David Lehman, a poet whose recently published New and Selected Poems demonstrates time and again that one’s ongoing engagement with poets dead or alive need not mask personality or stifle innovation. Whether writing an intimate Haiku sequence to mentor David Shapiro (“L’Shana Tova”), echoing by turns John Donne (“Any Place I Hang My Hat”) and Philip Larkin (“This Be the Bread”), or channeling Kenneth Koch via that poet’s Art of Love phase (“Story of My Life”), the poet draws on an encyclopedic range of sources and influences without ever sacrificing his own distinct voice.
From The Brooklyn Rail. For more, click here.
Yesterday I mentioned Gerard Manley Hopkins’s habit of making word lists, and this has got me thinking about poems that list and poems that are lists. There are, of course, those sweeping, anaphoric, Whitmanic lists (‘And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird, / And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf…’) and, at the spectrum’s other end, imagistic lists (‘petals on a wet, black bough’) and the still, small lists of haiku (‘The ancient pond / a frog jump / the sound of water’).
Lists can give poems an espresso shot of concrete detail, and they can be used to astonishing rhetorical effect. I am often moved to tears when I reach the part of ‘Easter, 1916’ where Yeats chants the names of the fallen (‘MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse’) or Blake’s magnificent list of demands in ‘Jerusalem’(‘Bring me my bow of burning gold! / Bring me my arrows of desire! / Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!’). Even the most mundane things, the kind my mom used to write on her ‘laundry list,’ can take on symbolic power when brought together within the strange alchemy of a poem. A poet I respect very much once told me that too much detail can smother a poem, and I don’t doubt this is so, but these days I’m drawn to poems that go the other way. To misquote Richard Wilbur, ‘Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry lists!’
Now this is probably one of those discoveries that’s painfully obvious to everyone else. (I’m not so good at ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d’, but I’m a master of ‘What oft was known and I just figured out.’) It is a truism that sometimes what is not said in a poem is more powerful than what is said, but what we often forget is that what is not said is still in the poem somewhere, even in absence. The speaker of James Wright’s ‘Lying in a Hammock…’ says, in the poem’s last line, ‘I have wasted my life,’ but what is not said is why or how he has wasted it; those answers are not present, but neither are they wholly absent. I may just be repackaging the old ‘show don’t tell’ / ‘No ideas but in things’ argument, but for me the discovery is that it is the accumulation of showing, a list of things, that gives the poem its power.
Many poems contain some kind of list, but there are also poems that are nothing but lists. (I don’t mean for that ‘nothing but’ to sound pejorative.) We might think of these as ‘strict list’ poems. One of the first assignments I had in a creative writing class was to write this kind of poem, and it’s an exercise I’ve started doing again. I enjoy it because there’s no external rationale or overriding idea determining what belongs and what doesn’t. I don’t want to be thinking too much about any poem when I begin writing it (that comes much later, when I’ve traded my writer hat for my editor hat), and list poems take away the pressure to make sense of what is happening. They remind me that a poem grows out of its own elements, and that if I don’t force the issue, it will let me know what it wants to be. These lists also show me to myself. They are inevitably paired down, and more often than not, what remains represents what matters to me. I don’t necessarily mean in a raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens kind of way (though the idea of poems as lists of favorite things is an intriguing one). Rather, I have in mind something more immediate. Much like a lyric poem rises to answer the demands of a moment, a list poem can reveal the take away, what remains after the moment. In theory, a list poem could be very boring, never adding up to anything. In practice, I rarely find this to be the case. Try it, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
I’ll end with one of my favorite ‘strict list’ poems, ‘South East Wales As Characterized By Its Phone Book,’ by Peter Finch. In a carefully chosen and arranged list, Finch manages to offer a funny, diverse, irreverent, and ultimately hopeful vision of a region of Wales. If you have a favorite list poem (‘strict’ or any other kind), I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
South East Wales As Characterized By Its Phone Book
Aberaman Original Band
Big John’s TV
Baldwin Temporary Health
D. Caesar Jones, Undertakers
Co-operative Funeral Service, Lime Kiln Road
Chavalier Casket Supply
Dial a prayer
Fawlty Towers Motel, Pencoedcae
Gaygirl Separates, Brynmawr
Heavens Heavy Goods
Il Figaro Gents Hrdrs, Y.M.C.A.
Jimmy Kitchen Chinese Take Away
Large Robt, Beddau
Light Relief, The Rising Sun
In 1966, my father buys an Arnold bread route in Astoria. Technically, he is self-employed—he owns the truck and the territory, and he buys the bread from Arnold then resells it to the stores—which means he gets no benefits and has to maintain the truck himself.
The truck doesn’t fit in the garage, so he parks it in the driveway, which turns out to be against Lynbrook Village regulations. One of the neighbors complains (anonymously), and he has to expand the garage roof, which means he can’t afford to replace the broken heater in the truck.
My father goes to an Arnold sales meeting in Connecticut, featuring celebrity spokeswoman Gloria Okon, a local “weather girl.” Mr. Arnold himself rouses the drivers, having them grasp hands and hold them aloft. My father is sheepish as he tells me this, but I can see that he enjoys being part of something bigger than his own territory. He tosses aside his signed glossy photograph from Gloria but leaves it on the kitchen counter, shrugging whenever anyone points it out.
While I’m home from college for Christmas, he asks me to help out on the route for a few of the peak pre-holiday runs. My father rarely asks for help with anything. The romance of starting the day at 4 a.m. in a cold truck appeals to my folk music sensibility. On our way to pick up the bread at the warehouse, I sing to myself, I’ve been doing some hard traveling / I thought you know’d.
As we’re about to enter the warehouse, my father offers me a stocking cap.
“I’m fine,” I say. “One of the advantages of long hair, keeps me warm.”
My father stops, hat in hand.
“Are you ashamed of me?” I ask.
“No, it’s not me, it’s Joe, he runs the place and he’s what you call one of those right wingers. Just do me a favor.”
“But you own the route—what do you care what Joe thinks?”
“Yes, but the faster your truck is loaded, the sooner you get on your route, so you have to stay on Joe’s good side.”
The last time my father gave me a stocking cap was when I was eight with a ringworm infection and he had to shave my head. I owe him one. I take the hat. He brushes his hand against my shoulder.
Joe reminds me of the manager in the movie version of Damn Yankees. He is crusty but friendly, and he seems to give my father a little extra attention because I’m there. But I resent that he intimidates my father into making me cover up who I am.
I keep the hat on throughout the route, unloading boxes for each store and following my father’s instructions as we stuff the shelves. All the managers want fresh bread as early as possible, and my father—like Joe—controls time. So I am surprised that the managers don’t fawn over him the way he does with Joe. In fact they are outright rude, calling him Arnold (“Hey, Arnold, you’re late. Wonder was here an hour ago!") and taking their sweet time signing the receipt.
My father explains it has to do with the amount and the location of shelf space, also the manager’s willingness to accept promotional displays (often with Gloria Okon’s smiling face). “You can’t sell bread that you can’t stock, and some shoppers aren’t going to bend down for the bread on the bottom shelf.”
My father brings a bottle of whiskey to the managers of the biggest stores as a Christmas offering, receiving nothing in return.
Throughout the day, my father proudly introduces me as his “son from college,” and I get increasingly good at shelving the various Arnold products. Between stops, we warm our hands on take-out coffee cups as the sun slowly heats the front seat.
Back home at 2 p.m., we break down the empty bread boxes and stack them in the truck, to be returned to Joe on the next shift.
You probably remember Mallarme’s response when Degas told him he had a great idea for a poem: ‘Alas, my dear, poems are made of words, not ideas.’ Of course there are ideas in poems, but I much prefer it when ideas come after poems. That is, I don’t want my first encounter with a poem to stimulate my intellect. I want that first encounter to be musical and physical and always verbal. R. S. Thomas writes that ‘Poetry / is a spell woven / by consonants and vowels // in the absence of logic’ … ‘Poetry is that / which arrives at the intellect / by way of the heart.’ With all due respect to R. S., I might modify this a little, at least for myself. For me, poetry arrives at the intellect by way of words, as the product of their chemical reaction. For me, a poem’s meaning is its aftermath.
The poets I most admire are more than in command of language. They are also in awe of it, treating words like strange and wondrous pebbles just turned over on a beach. They combine words in unexpected ways. In an essay on Paul Muldoon’s poetry, Seamus Heaney refers to Muldoon’s ‘sleights of word.’ I’m co-opting the term because I think it well describes how words can jostle and shift according to linear placement, syntax, and verbal juxtaposition. They can speak to each other and to the reader not merely as signifiers but as material, sonic objects.
The wordsmith I most admire is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poets, by nature, are obsessed with language, but Hopkins was possessed by it. One of his chief virtues is that he doesn’t view words, even in his own poems, as extensions of himself. He reveres each word’s inscape—its distinctive, exercised identity. And yet, paradoxically, he saw all language as linked. His journals contain lists of words connected by etymology, by sound, or by idiosyncratic association: ‘Crook, crank, kranke, crick, cranky…’ Sometimes these read like wonderful tongue-twisters: ‘slip, slipper, slop, slabby (muddy), slide, perhaps slope, but if slope is thus connected what are we to say of slant?’ He also comments on individual words: ‘Altogether peak is a good word. For sunlight through shutter, locks of hair, rays in brass knobs…Meadows peaked with flowers.’ Word lists are everywhere in the poems, too: ‘Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, vaulty, voluminous…’; ‘swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim…’ Hopkins was a great inventor of words, but he was, more fundamentally, a great re-inventor and re-purposer of words. In the introduction to his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), W. B. Yeats (who knew a thing or two about words) calls Hopkins’s work ‘a last development of poetic diction,’ and he describes the meaning of a Hopkins poem as something that ‘comes out of words, passes to and fro between them, and goes back into words.’ I know of no better definition of poetry than this.
Elizabeth Bishop, herself a great admirer of Hopkins, once wrote, in a letter to Marianne Moore: ‘I have that continuous uncomfortable feeling of “things” in the head like icebergs or rocks or awkwardly-shaped pieces of furniture…and I can’t help having the theory that if they are joggled around hard enough and long enough some kind of electricity will occur, just by friction, that will arrange everything.’ My poem’s are nowhere near as good as Elizabeth Bishop’s, but I know I am composing a true poem when I am not worrying about its meaning. Instead, I am joggling words and looking for the right friction.
Last year, Mark Edmundson whacked a hornet’s nest with his ‘Poetry Slam’ piece in Harper’s, which was an unrelenting jeremiad about the state of contemporary poetry. I disagree with much of what he says, but there is a phrase in his diatribe that does, to my mind, describe a failure in the work of some contemporary poets: ‘Their poetry is not heard but overheard.’ Instead of being in awe of words, they seem to want language to serve their ideas. To paraphrase Degas, they’ve got this great idea for a poem.
I hasten to add that I don’t see this as an epidemic. In fact, every year I discover poets who are writing stunning work. So let me end on a positive note, by recommending three recent books that, at least for me, tick all the boxes: Uncommon Prayer (Persea, 2014) by Kimberly Johnson; Witch (Seren, 2012) by Damian Walford Davies; and Heaven and Earth (Story Line, 2011) by Amit Majmudar.
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.