Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, a Lambda Literary Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Indiana Review and Forklift, Ohio, as well as in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2000 and Legitimate Dangers. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, a Lannan Foundation residency, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, War of the Foxes, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2015.
Q: Tell me about your forthcoming book, War of the Foxes.
RS: The poems in War of the Foxes address the problems of representation in three arenas: painting, fable, and math. All three attempt to make languages out of symbols, representations used to describe the world. And all three succeed and fail in different ways. I wanted to explore the Socratic Method of question and answer, the Scientific Method of hypothesis and measurement, and the Poetic Method of association and analogy.
Q: Your first book, Crush, was published in 2005, and readers have been eagerly awaiting your second collection. Why was it important to take a long breath between the two books? What does time make possible for the artistic process?
RS: For months after I finished Crush, I felt like I had nothing left to say. Or even a way of saying it. I had talked myself out completely. I began painting again, not vey well, but since my paintings were never very good, and there was no hope of making them good, I was liberated from the pressure of an audience. I became silent. I squeezed the tubes and pushed the colors around. I did have more to say, I just couldn’t -- at the time -- say it with words. This was a crystallizing moment, and led to the lines:
Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.
Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.
The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful.
As for time making things possible, and the long breath between books, I can’t say anything useful. Writing and publishing are different. I write when I want to, I share when I want to. They rarely match up and they have -- for me -- very little relationship to calendar time. I wish I had a better answer. I thought these poems were worth reading and I was ready to share them.
Q: What drew you to the prose poem as a literary form when writing this collection? What’s possible for you in prose that’s not possible in lineated verse?
RS: In Crush, I used the second person extensively, in an attempt to make the reader complicit in the situations of the poems. I didn’t want to repeat that strategy, so I was left with first- and third-person: I and He. The fables are in the third-person. They have characters doing actions. They have multiple speakers. It was too confusing to break the lines as well.
There are many reasons to break a line. For me, a line break makes a friction between the unit of a line and the unit of the sentence. The fables had enough friction and complexity. When the earlier drafts were lineated, is was an layer of distraction that added nothing interesting. I think -- I hope -- that the fables use enough of the other strategies of poetry to satisfy.
There are lineated poems in the book as well. Since they move forward with a single lyric “I” instead of multiple voices, I found that the line breaks were useful to pace the thinking and the saying.
Q: How did your life as a reader inform this new collection? Would you situate War of the Foxes in the context of different literary influences than you would your first book?Why or why not?
RS: That question would take years to answer. I like theories and criticism and schools and influences -- and it’s important to know if you’re on a branch of art that bears fruit -- but really I don’t want to know the answer regarding my own work. I can talk seriously and with investment about anyone else’s work, but I’d rather someone else place mine in a larger context. The Pre-Raphaelite painters, god bless ‘em, didn’t know that Raphael would come along and they would be named and placed in history retroactively. There’s a charm to the injustice of it. How astouunding it would be, to be considered something that lead forward into innovation and greatness, rather than being a rung in a predictable ladder. It sounds grandiose, of course, but why not shoot the moon? Especially if the idea gets you out of bed when nothing else will.
Q: What else should readers know about your forthcoming book? What do they have to look forward to?
Oooof. Another impossible question. So, a story instead:
Several years ago my father’s health began to rapidly and then his wife died. We had been estranged for over 25 years, even though we live in the same town. I was faced with a problem: did I want the opportunity to punish him or did I want the opportunity to keep striving to be the man I want to be. I ended up moving in with him and giving him daily care. Was he my enemy? No. What was he? My opponent. We disagreed, we argued, we held our ground stubbornly. And so, another crystallizing moment:
You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes.
And yes, even years later and I was still really really deeply angry. He was an awful person and he taught me how to be awful person. But everyone has problematic relations with their parents. I couldn’t produce, or even imagine a first-person lyric “I” that would able to sing this or talk about it in any interesting way. So I turned to strategies of fable:
The hunter sinks his arrows into the trees and then paints the targets around them. The trees imagine they are deer. The deer imagine they are safe. The arrows: they have no imagination.
All night the wind blows through the trees. It makes a sound.
The hunter’s son watches the hunter. The hunter paints more rings on his glasses. Everything is a target, says the hunter. No matter where you look. The hunter’s son says nothing, and closes his eyes.
This week we welcome Kristina Marie Darling as our guest author. Kristina is the author of seventeen books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and a forthcoming hybrid genre collection called Fortress (Sundress Publications, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is working toward a Ph.D. in Poetics at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo. Visit her online at http://kristinamariedarling.com/
My thanks to Stacey Harwood and David Lehman for inviting me to blog my thoughts from time to time. . . . . I am proudly contrarian. You tell me the conventional wisdom and I will instinctively take the opposite position. . .For example I believe that a good cover story is "Can Men Have it All?". . and the next time I hear the words "double standard" I am going to say "how come elite schools like Wellesley and Bryn Mawr can stay single sex?". . .The new SI swimsuit issue is on the stands, fans. . .I love porn... In a New York elevator the other day I heard a woman, in her young 20s, say to a slightly older woman "Thanks for femsplaining that" and then both of them laughed as if I wasn't there . .I spent an hour trying to rhyme that line and came up with "Do these jeans make my ass look fat?" . . .If you were the NY Review of Books and your cover announces an essay on "The New Populism," would you illustrate it with (1) a caricature of a bespectacled Harvard professor who became a US Senator from Massachusetts, or (2) a young black man in a hoodie, or (3) a couple of guys pulling on a beer at a truck stop, or (4) Taylor Swift? . . .I believe that a true intellectual prefers John Ford to Jean-Luc Godard . . . A fake intellectual attacks Woody Allen for not making movies about black people. . .I like the line in a movie where a pompous executive apologizes to the employeees he is firing and asks them what else he can do and somebody answers, "You can die". . . I don't remember which movie. . . Maybe some reader will know . .Fuck the Olympics. -- Walter Carey
So good to talk to you again! Much have I traveled in the realms of gold - though not overland, nor by sea. Just Brooklyn and the realms of gold. Still, many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
A coupla times I felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
So yeah, sorry I've been a little silent, was on the peak in Darien. I'm bragging and much ashamed for it, but I have been using thinking to thwart actual deaths, and am moved by it. Still broke, if anyone's counting, as I've bitched about here over many a hitch, but happy anyway.
Have a look at my new website and some fascinating, moving responses to my new book against suicide, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. (Maybe peek at my new poetry book too: Who Said, Copper Canyon.)
Anyway, was reading a great newish poet, Anthony Madrid and felt like I had to rush to share some with you:
I TOO HAVE BEEN TO CANDYLAND
I TOO have been to Candyland, but I found myself missing the death cult.
I missed the spectacle of the wounded bones being opened and instrumented.
Bill Varner, when he was still just a boy, wrote a stunning line of Arabic verse.
He wrote: “The crescent moon is a scimitar; the sun, a severed head.”
¡Gran cantar! and this, when he still had to keep his books in a locker!
And he’d never even held hands with a girl—God! Penn State in the 1980s!
In those days, we all sat at the feet of a pig poet, deaf in one ear. One of these
Dreadful “white-haired lovers”—oh, but he knew how to touch fire to fuse!
That little stick of fire apt to launch a poetic career! But what is it now?
Merely a billowing cloud of humidity floating out of a tree.
Every turtle, snake, and bird is “born again”—oh, isn’t that so? The first time,
Out the fêted cloaca—and the next, through the top of the shell.
The “I” is Greek, the “it” Italian, and Dickinson is our Ghalib. But that
Ridiculous piece of dirt you’re kissing on can never be anything but.
Shut your eyes to what a worm he is, concentrate on his caress—but know
Every half-truth is bound to call up its suppressed synoptic double.
Close your eyes and moan softly, your head full of packed cotton—but know
Every hidden camera’s cockpit must one day be delivered of its black box.
This is from Anthony Madrid's 2012 first book, I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say. The whole book's great.
Love to you all, even the mean one. I can almost hear the thaw! Soon we will be miserable, but warmer! And perhaps intermittently delighted by the sun. Don't kill yourself and I shall return to encourage you again.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on February 22, 2014 at 11:58 AM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (1)
(Ed note: In a file of rejected letters to the editor from 2011, this epistle emerged. It was never published, perhaps because of the editors’ not unreasonable suspicion that the undersigned was either a pseudonym, a hoax, or a stand-in for the wounded performer.) -- DL
To the Editor,
I am writing in response to today’s front-page article asking when the time is right for an old geezer past his prime to get off the stage. The piece begins with a scathing account of a recent concert by Bob Dylan. You illustrated it with a cartoon of Dylan with a prune juice bottle at his elbow.
My first reaction was yeah. I was at that concert. I’ll never pay to hear him anymore. And it was expensive. The cost to pleasure ratio was way out of whack. However, then I considered the unexamined premise behind the piece, which is that age brings infirmity and loss of prowess without a compensatory gift, in this case the beautiful nobility of Mr. Dylan’s professional presence. I’d rather have a croaking Bob Dylan than 90% of what’s out there.
And how typically inconsistent for the Wall Street Journal to say in one breath that Dylan at 69 is too old to perform and in the next breath that we should extend the retirement age to 69.
As a free-market capitalist I feel that Dylan should retire when the market says he should.
(signed) R. Zimmerman
This is my last day with you! And it’s already late afternoon. I’ve been in meetings and then working on a syllabus for Experiments in Literature for the CCC system here. Sorry. There is so much to get to. I’m going to warble. I’m going to make a bird’s nest out of bobby pins.
Here is one thing about objects I feel vulnerable to admit:
I have joint-custody of my dog (this is not the embarrassing part, this is the part of genuine love). He lives in Denver right now, where he gets to go to the mountains and hang out at friends’ houses. Here is a little proof:
In Chicago, he’d be inside all day by himself and wouldn’t have that many houses to visit. His paws would be so cold. So I will go collect him in July when the city will be a sunny adventure for him. I think that without him, I started to grow attached to weird objects. For example, this badger stuffed animal:
That snout is just asking to be petted. Am I right?
Eh, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.
Before this, it was a TempurPedic pillow. I spent 4 months living alone in Chicago while my furniture and all of my books were still in storage in Denver. I slept on a hard futon on the floor in an empty apartment. My bureau was a cardboard box. I bummed wifi from my downstairs neighbors for $20 a month. I ate weird meals, like bags of Indian food you buy at the grocery store and then boil??
I focused on teaching. I’d come home, eat, watch something trashy like an episode of Gossip Girl, and then get back to work. Which meant it was me, a hard futon, and a TempurPedic pillow. This pillow was the only giving thing in my apartment. I didn’t name it or anything entirely screwy, but I started to feel a weird affection for it. Like, a step below a pet fish or how people care for a certain houseplant. I didn’t do anything with it, obviously, other than rest my head when I slept or lean on it when I worked. But there was this strange part of my brain that started to feel like this pillow was looking out for me. It was comforting me. This pillow had my back, physically and figuratively.
In an empty apartment, I had the space to think about objects. I had so many in storage. Occasionally I missed them, but despite my slightly abysmal descriptions above, I actually liked the emptiness. There were no distractions. I could focus more intensely. I could see the entire wall. The entire floor. I paid attention to the light. To the few pencils scattered around my bed. To the bobby pins.
In retrospect, I wonder if it allowed me to focus too intensively. I was more anxious, more obsessive in my thinking patterns. So now that I have all my possessions out of storage, I’ve been wondering about their almost unconscious interactions with my brain. Most of the items I own are strange and nostalgic. A chunk of aqua glass I picked up on a road trip after graduating college. A ceramic duck from my grandma’s house. Their sole value I suppose is to trigger memories, feelings. I think it keeps my brain more a-temporal. I guess what I mean is, I find myself deliberately cultivating living habitats that, when I look up from typing a sentence on my computer and plotting my lesson plan for tomorrow, almost immediately take me out of the present moment. In those wanderings through familiar yet slightly altered memories, new images are able to shake loose, as these memories slide into the current surroundings.
I haven't abandoned my train of thought about objects but: I began this week by bringing up Facebook. Let’s come full-circle, shall we? First, I want to emphasize that I wished people “shared” (and I need to do this too) other people’s links to their published work more often. I began by saying that I only “like” something if I actually read it. But I want to suggest, since so many magazines are “released” on Facebook, that we make more of an effort to not just “like” but to “share” the work when we think the issue or a particular piece is worth it. Or, re-tweet something instead of starring it. Because people moan about limited audiences, etc etc, but simply “sharing” something with your different community on FB might help widen the audience. I’m sure there is plenty of overlap, but who cares. So I want to encourage myself along with everyone else, to take the time to circulate work you genuinely respond to. This is a babystep, but a step toward and in support of others.
I like when I finally meet in person someone whose work (and public personality) I’ve been following for years on Facebook. It’s a weird sense of familiarity smashed up against the realization that you get to know someone in an entirely different, long-conversation-realface-go-to-poetry-readings-together-kind-of-way. A huge part of the awesomeness of moving to Chicago has been meeting poets who, geographically, I’ve only been able to admire and communicate with from afar. One such poet is Daniela Oslzewska. Her work appears in the online journal Alice Blue Review and I particularly like this one poem that animates objects and drags them into the relationship.
Day 5 Journal: Alice Blue Review
This review is on its 22nd issue! That’s awesome. Prose and poetry: a simple, easy to navigate layout. Click on the names. Archived issues are also easy to find. This .org also publishes chapbooks, which you can find here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/alicebluebooks
Day 5 Poetry Spotlight: Daniela Oslzewska
actually, neither of us deserves the certificate of completion
i am an emotion-
corset-tight in beaded cow
bodice + the awards hall
is filled w/potted
ferns that are probably
agents w/spot-poison darts
for our weather
to get inclement again.
i pocket a tangerine
+ gold-leafed ashtray anyways—
who cares if they take me
out when you can’t
even meet my bare minimum
of wearing a cummerbund
well + not only loving me
back in real-time,
but loving me enough
to claim it in front
of the presidential security
cameras, on a tuesday night,
w/the whole nation
watching all slack-jawed?
I love that the title inculcates the reader in a failure to complete an unknown certificate class. There is nothing incomplete about this poem, yet it maintains an energy that’s rushed, breathy, calamitous in lower case. Simultaneously accusatory and exuberant. I love that the speaker’s contact with all the objects in this poem seems uncomfortable, delusional, or sensuous. I love the tanginess of the tangerine with the acrid angularity of the ashtray. And how the shape of the tangerine, regardless of its harsh and zinging name, seems to roll with the bustiness of the cummerbund. I love the privacy of accusations and desires in relation to the lost opportunity for public exhibitionism.
You can find her full-length book, from horse less press, here: http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9780982989630/default.aspx.
Day 5 Poetry Exercise:
Write a poem in which you
1) Have no lines that are longer than 5-6 words
2) Invent 3 compound words, like “corset-tight” and “twitch-quicking”
3) Create 3 images based off of the objects in the photos below (taken from around my house)
4) Accuse the “you” in your poem of something for which you have to decide whether he/she can or cannot be forgiven
Thanks for having me.
There seems to be a trend and maybe it will hit the tipping point and something good will happen for the poets out there bouncing from one adjunct position to another, getting by without job security or health insurance. First there was this plea to the Poetry Foundation for a financial commitments to poets. Last week guest author Charles Coe posted this open letter to poetry presenters suggesting that poets have a right to expect financial compensation when they share their work. Now comes a proposal from poet Joe Weil, which he posted on facebook. He agreed to let me share it here and urged me to let it be known that he's interested in improvements that might take his proposal from idea to reality:
I want to start an alliance of non-tenured poets. I'd need a lawyer to handle the incorporation pro bono (there are poet/lawyers) and I'd need members. It would work as follows: dues would be 20 bucks a month. Three quarters of that would go to reading series who agree to host only ANTP members for at least half their reading season. They could use our funding only on ANTP members. The rest of the funds would be invested into a retirement home. If a member became tenured, they could remain in the alliance by agreeing to pay extra dues of 40 dollars a month. Otherwise, they would withdraw as a member in good standing. At a thousand members strong such a union would be a powerful force for the following:
1. Fostering a funding system outside the power structures which have shown themselves to be closer to the 1 percent than to any true spirit of egalitarianism.
2. Assuring that poets could travel and read with at least a modicum of dignity and remuneration for their troubles.
3. Setting an example for America that cooperative actions by-passing the corparia are still possible.
4. Letting the Academy know, especially the NEA and the Poetry Foundation that they have fallen down on the job and have failed miserably to fund anything but their cronies.
Criteria for being admitted in ANTP:
1. Either a book or chap book published by a press during the past six years or
2. A resume showing one has featured in at least ten readings over the last three years.
3. A day job, or a non-tenured teaching position or retirement status with proof of regular support of readings, and at least six features over the years.
4. In liue of a book or chap book, publication in at least four literary magazines over the last three years, and at least ten featured readings.
ANTP will promote ANTP readings where possible, and defend our right to assure the union prospers as an agency of independent funding for those who otherwise would receive little to no honorarium for their troubles.
Let me know if you're interested. I would not be president. I would nominate someone with administrative and labor experience as president and seek a pro-bono lawyer willing to handle us. Let me know if anyone out there has these qualifications and would be willing to take on the responsibility. THis is a good idea. It will probably be ruined by poet's tendencies to kiss up and enforce elitist structures, but I just thought I'd put it out there. I was asked to go to AWP. I refused. I reufsed for political reasons. I don't like what I am seeing in poetry, and I want all readings and series to be funded-- if not by the big shots, than by a poet's union.
What do you think? Please share your ideas in the comment field.
By the time she arrived at The New School, Jen Benka, MFA '07, had five years of experience as Managing Director of Poets & Writers, and a published book of poetry, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers, behind her. Since graduating, Benka has published another collection of poetry, Pinko, and now serves as the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets. Justin Sherwood, MFA '12, interviewed her at her office in lower Manhattan to ask about what brought her to The New School, her vision of poetry and politics, and what she's been up to at The Academy.
Justin Sherwood: You began your academic career with a BA in Journalism from Marquette University. Does your interest in journalism persist, and have you found a journalistic impulse emerging as you write poetry?
Jen Benka: While journalistic investigation isn’t expressly what I do in my own work, I am personally interested in the possibility of poetry as a means to explore contemporary issues. I’m interested, for example, in the work of Muriel Rukeyser, who could be described as a poet-journalist. She wrote an important piece in 1938 about her journey with a photographer friend to Appalachia to document a trial involving several miners who were dying from lung disease. In the poem she weaved together primary source texts including trial documents, and her own interviews with people at the time. It’s called The Book of the Dead, and is part of her volume U.S. 1. I’m also interested in the work of Carolyn Forché, who thinks about poetry as a way of documenting atrocity. Forché has recently published another groundbreaking anthology called the Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2011.
JS: I noticed on Twitter that you identify as “A Midwesterner in Brooklyn.” What brought you to New York City?
JB: I had always wanted to live in New York. I grew up in the Midwest, and my family moved in what I think of as a kind of Bermuda Triangle—I was born in Milwaukee, then we lived for a while outside of Madison, Wisconsin, in a small farm town that was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad, called Milton Junction. Then we moved outside of Chicago, and I eventually made it back to Milwaukee. Ultimately, I was able to move to New York because I was offered the position of Managing Director at Poets & Writers.
JS: When you enrolled in the MFA program at The New School in 2005, you were already five years into your service at Poets & Writers, and had recently published your first book of poems, A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers. Why did you decide to get an MFA?JB: It had long been a personal goal to obtain an MFA degree. I come from a family of teachers, and higher education is something that had always been stressed. And, I was looking at turning 40 in a couple of years. I knew that if I didn’t follow through on my dream of obtaining an advanced degree by the time I hit that milestone, I probably never would. I was excited about the possibility of studying at The New School.
JS: Why did you choose The New School for your MFA?
JB: I had a great job in the literary field, so I wasn’t willing to relocate from New York City. When I researched other programs it seemed that The New School was the most open to someone like me—someone who was older and working fulltime. Being able to keep my job while attending a graduate program was essential for me financially and important to me philosophically. And, of course, The New School has excellent poets teaching and a terrific reputation as one of the leading programs in the country. I was thrilled to have the chance to work with so many poets whose poems I had long admired.
JS: Have you remained in contact with your classmates from The New School?
JB: You know, when I started the program I planned on being singularly focused on my studies because I had a demanding job. But I had a wonderful classmate who second semester reminded me that meet-ups after workshops were part of the experience. Thanks to him, I established meaningful connections with an incredible cohort of student poets at The New School, and I’ll say that that’s another defining characteristic of the program. The New School MFA program genuinely fosters a non-competitive, generative sense of community among students. I’ve remained in touch with a number of my fellow students, and many have gone on to be innovators in the poetry field. They’ve won Fulbrights, launched readings series and publications like the Agriculture Reader and Coldfront, started new poetry organizations like the Poetry Society of New York, and published books with wonderful small presses. I believe the success I’ve seen from my fellow classmates is due in part to the supportive energy and community that the program facilitates. Continue reading here.
For more information about The New School MFA program, go here.
(Ed note: Today we begin a monthly series of posts by the editors and contributors to The Widow's Handbook, which we first learned about when Bruce Kawin joined us a guest author. The first post comes from the volumes co-editor and contributor Lise Menn. Lise is professor emerita of linguistics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Psycholinguistics: Introduction and Applications (2010) as well as a lifetime's worth of research articles on language development and on aphasia. Earlier poems appeared in anthologies of poems by linguists. In 2007, she began writing about the loss of her husband, linguist William Bright, encouraged since 2008 by her new partner, poet and film historian Bruce F. Kawin. Subsequent posts will appear on the third Friday of the month. -- sdh)
I haven’t sweated over enough words to deserve the title of ‘poet’; I’ve made my living as a linguistics professor, raised two kids (with help from partners, not the feat of single motherhood). Not much time for anything else. But just the other day one of the poems I wrote made a man cry, so maybe I’m not an impostor. Anyway, how The Widows’ Handbook happened was that my husband whom I had loved passionately for twenty years died six months after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I felt like the still-standing half of a tree split by lightning, raw heartwood blasted open, looking down at my other half lying on the ground. Friends took care of me. Eventually, I realized that I might get seriously ill if I couldn’t start eating again; I asked my way to a good shrink, went on anti-depressants, went to his office every week and soaked handkerchiefs. The sense of being robbed of love and joy, and of not knowing what I was supposed to be, how I was supposed to be, was overwhelming. There’s no handbook! I wailed at him one day. He nodded.
Words started coming. I’d write one, two, three poems every week or so; I’d hand them to him when I walked in. Here, read these, it’ll save time, then we can talk. Like this:
The days getting longer, suddenly booted by daylight savings time,
Makes me sadder this year. I want to hide in the darkness,
Close the blinds, light the lamps, bury my heart under my work.
Suddenly it’s almost dinner time and the sun is bright,
The crocuses are out there, and the tulip spear-tips,
Purple-edged against the brown mud.
I am supposed to be feeling stronger and happier and all that,
But the long beautiful evenings that used to be ours
Stretch ahead of me desolate.
Darkness was better.
We talked. It helped. So did Time.
Two years later, off meds and out of treatment, dating a good man (poet, English prof; bitterly divorced, encouraging). Mostly done with crying, but not with mourning. Took my poems with me to visit my classmate Jacqueline Lapidus, who’d spent her life in the publishing world. Also widowed, also someone who’d written poems all her life. Struck by what we had together, she proposed putting out a call for submissions and creating an anthology of writing about widowhood by widows. What would I know about that? I say. Anyway, I’m in the middle of a big project with the publisher breathing down my neck. Leave it to me, she says. A year later, I find myself helping her choose the 200-odd that we can’t possibly turn down from about 450 poems and short prose pieces.
Why am I telling you this? Because of what I learned; about poetry, and about putting together a collection of poetry. What I knew before starting to work with Jacqueline was only this: Some words are beautiful; some words evoke beauty, some lines have it both ways. Thou art more lovely, and more temperate.
What I learned: some words have another kind of - is it beauty? Maybe. Forget that debate for now. Truth is what they have, intense, hard, no bullshit. No fat on them, and not much in the way of clothes. Like this one, by Ruth S. Rothstein:
If I could, I would
crawl in under the dirt and
cuddle up with you.
Here are excerpts from The Golem, from Jessica de Koninck:
…desiring, as I do, to recreate you from clay,
dry grass, beach glass and sand,
wood shavings, graphite, the earth
around your plain pine box. Anything,
to bring you back.
…. I would sit beside you.Breathless,
we would drive away. In our silence
I might forget, golem do not speak,
cannot differentiate the living
from the dead and out of ignorance
do harm. No one in this room
has risen from the dead. No one’s
kiss tastes of maggots and ash,
The Widows’ Handbook has a purpose: to tell the truths of widows’ experiences; no waste, no clichés, no recipes.
As Jacqueline and I considered the submissions, along with published work by widowed writers that we might request permission to reprint (Tess Gallagher, Sandra Gilbert, Mary Oliver, Patricia Fargnoli…), dozens of individual experiences emerged. There were widows with young children; women who had lost lovers, female and male; widows whose husbands died slowly, whose husbands died suddenly, whose husbands had killed themselves, selfishly or generously. Widows snubbed by old friends, widows surrounded by idiotic well-wishers, widows whose grown children moved out or (messily) back in, widows annoyed by matchmaking friends.
Here’s Jacqueline’s fury:
With friends like these . . .
She says I don’t know what to say, as if
she’d been raised in the woods by
wolves. Did he leave you anything?
Now he’s at rest, he’s with God, I’ll
pray for him. He wouldn’t want you to
feel miserable, why are you wearing
black? Here, have a drink, it’ll cheer
you up. You’re lucky he didn’t linger.
Can we talk about something else?
Memories sustain and drain.
From Patricia Savage’s ‘Departing’:
I miss your feel,
your flat hand
on my back,
then folded over
my own hand
while we sink
into the sofa.
Longing becomes a kind of presence.
From Jane Hayman’s ‘Cross-Country Lines’:
I wish I could
play with the wires
and put back the sound
you sing in my sleep
From Ann McGovern’s “Maybe you are here”
...here in San Miguel, church bells
ring your name from dawn to deep night
You are the courtyard treasures
hiding behind carved doors
The bed becomes the emblem of loss:
“an empty hollow/in the wide bed/they shared,” (Helen Ruggieri); “i wander the house/in the darkest hour of night/staring out blackened windows/onto wet pavement,/wind-whipped leaves./there is still/ a big hole/in the bed” (Carolyn Stephens); “It seems like forever/since you’ve slept in our bed,/but our mattress remembers./It saves your place,/a long, narrow trench./Like a grave (Pat Parnell).
Objects left behind become powerful, totems.
From Holly Zeeb’s ‘Shoes’:
two lumpy bags into the trunk
for the Salvation Army.
A furtive mission,
this disposal of effects.
Hunching over, eyes averted
as if I’m guilty of something,
I hear you protest—Wait!
I might need those again.
Some widows dream, like Tess Gallagher (from ‘Dream Doughnuts’)
I tell them how I read Ray’s
book of poems cover to cover until he entered
my dream as through some side-door in the jazz club,
some loophole in time.
I’m so glad to see you again, I say.
He’s carrying a bag of powdered doughnuts
and two paper cups of black coffee.
Was I gone too long? he asks, fresh from the bakery.
Too long is if you don’t come back at all, I say.
Time is funny, he says, biting into the doughnut
so the hole breaks open to the entire air supply
of the planet.
But some dreams, like Sandra M. Gilbert’s (from ‘Anniversary Waltz Again’), make things worse:
Three nights now since we met in sleep,
and I told you sorrowfully
that you were dead--
three nights since you wept in rage,
lifted your handsome shadowy head and howled.
Most of us eventually find a sense of humor again, sometimes grim:
From Jessica de Koninck’s ‘Pillow Talk’:
At the burial I worried.
Perhaps you will not like the Rosenfields.
After all, we never met them.
Even if they do not argue
there is so little room.
If only you would dig yourself up,
walk back home, all bone,
a bit of flesh,
a tuft or two of hair or beard,
and talk to me.
We change, and in different ways.
From Katherine J. Williams’ Still Life:
… I set the table for seven,
specialize in the anthropology of three.
I’m an accidental citizen of a country
where things stay put; where I sleep
Some of us want partners again, some find them.
Here’s some of Phyllis Wax’s The Young Widow Revives
I find myself moving the ring
to my right hand,
eying male faces.
The indolence of winter
drops away. Birds gather twigs
and build, start over each day.
Buds loosen, dogs race
and play. I think I’ll shave my legs.
The shape of the book (Part I: Bereft, Mourning; Part II: Memories, Ghosts, Dreams; Part III: Coping (more or less); Part IV: A Different Life) grew from the piles Jacqueline sorted the poems into. Each poem tells a different true thing. That’s the work of this book: to show many truths, so that readers can see there are this many and therefore surely many more. Its work is to help widows find their own ways out of stereotypes, out of bewilderment about how they are supposed to feel. And, maybe, to put a bookmark at the piece that gets it right so they can shove it at their dolt of a son-in-law or their clumsily well-meaning cousin and say “Read this”.
From my ‘Tar’:
Your buried grief seeps to the surface,
Like oil under tar sands.
Let it go. It’s the rich black residue of the past,
Dead life become this stuff that sticks to the soles of your feet
Welling up when it damned well pleases.
Let it go.
There’s a season for delighting in words that are games and celebrations, that tell tall tales, sagas, and stories rich with digressions. But not in this book. Its beauty is in the work that the contributors’ words do and how they move in doing it.
 A creature of Jewish medieval folklore, a golem is a figure made into the form of a human and given life.
“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of
entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and
an ethics…. It cracks open the dialectic and sees myriads all at once.”
My grandmother, Sydelle, died yesterday at 4am. So I am going to write about her for a little bit, if that’s okay with you? I’ve never met anyone else named Sydelle. She was not given a middle name. Since she fell in love with her husband at 19, she has been called Spook. He told her, I love you so much it spooks me. It stuck.
As a young child, Spook contracted polio, leaving her left leg dwindled and her foot much smaller than her right. One day she went swimming and when she came out of the water she collapsed. Polio. When I was a kid, I misunderstood the story and I thought you could catch polio in lakes. When I swam back to the shore, I would place my feet on the pebbles and push off against them to make sure I could still walk. She had a profound love for Jonas Salk because he was able to spare others what she went through and lived with every day. A body that was constantly rebelling against her, a body that, as she grew into middle and then old age, kept her bound to a chair while her mind travelled. It was almost impossible to get her to talk about bodily pain because until last week, it never stopped her from finding ways to feel like she was fully participating.
She was the first woman in her neighborhood to wear pants. Her favorite color was always brown. Brown. She read the NYT cover to cover every day with a towel spread over her lap so as not to cover her in ink. She would call me and surreptitiously quiz me about current events, what my favorite New Yorker article was this week. She told me how grateful she was to live long enough to vote for a black president. When I was a child, she took me to The Met at every opportunity and walked me through the Impressionists. Those were her rooms. And if you went with her, they became your rooms, too. My childhood bedroom had Matisse and Magritte posters because she made me feel like I couldn’t leave the museum (or live—I was histrionic) without versions of my own.
She loved the crust of bagels but not the doughy middle, and would scoop the bread out of the bagel and pile it on the side of her plate for the birds or, if we were visiting, the grandchildren. Outside of every window at which she sat were numerous birdfeeders. She would write letters about the different finches and blue jays, the turkeys that slept in the tree. The snowdrops that popped up in spring to signal the thaw. The single, mangled peach tree that was eventually struck by lightning.
While she wasn’t a poet herself, she shaped my poetics. Since I can remember, she’s told me, “I’ve never been bored a day in my life.” She meant this as a philosophy toward embracing the world. If you’re really engaging your senses, then how could anything ever be dull? Lyn Hejinian writes, “Poetry comes to know that things are. But this is not knowledge in the strictest sense; it is rather, acknowledgement--and that constitutes a sort of unknowing. To know that things are is not to know what they are, and to know that without what is to know otherness. Poetry undertakes acknowledgment as a preservation of otherness.” Spook taught me this well before my amazing college professors introduced me to Hejinian. While grounded in a chair, she continued to live a life of activation. Stein writes, “words have the liveliness of being constantly chosen,” and I believe that Spook applied that to everything she encountered.
And everyone was invited. Most of my closest friends have met her because she always wanted to talk to everyone, to host. As a child, I’d crouch in the garden with friends eating warm cherry tomatoes or explore on our hands and knees attic crawl spaces. Then we’d return to Spook and relive the adventures. In my twenties, she even hosted a poetry reading for my friends at her house, on the back porch. She constantly asked if you had everything you needed. Her last words were, coming out of unconsciousness for the last time, “Has everyone had enough to eat?” Yes.
The Poetry Exercise I ask you to participate in today is simple:
1) Write a brief letter to someone who has shaped your poetics/philosophic view.
2) Send it.
At the bottom of this post, I am including links to a few elegiac pieces that have been published in online journals, which will hopefully introduce you to more poets and publications. I’m going to post below a poem by the New York School poet, James Schuyler, who wrote many poems sitting in a chair, looking out the window. I think it captures the wonderment:
A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can't see
making a bit of pink
I can't quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can't remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we'd gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN Building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They're just
going over the hill.
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can't get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She's so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It's getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It's the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It's the shape of a tulip.
It's the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It's a day like any other.
James Schuyler, from Freely Espousing
Steven Karl, “& I Dragged My Sister’s Feeble Body Up The Mountain”
Suzanne Scanlon, “Desire: An Elegy”
Sarah Blake, “Sometimes I Think I’m Finished”
Brian Foley, “Sixteen Moments of Silence”
In a house of so many first-floor windows, I was afraid someone was outside looking in. When I went upstairs at night, I would run past the foyer windows as fast as I could.
My bedroom had one bifold closet. At night, I was afraid that the two visible wheels on tracks I saw peeking out of the top were the ossicones of a terrible and possessed giraffe.
When I read Dahl’s The Witches, I was afraid I would end up living my entire life trapped in a painting in my own living room while my parents wondered how/where I disappeared.
When I read King’s It (at age 11: that was a mistake), I spent my entire time in the shower making sure blood wasn’t gurgling up out of the drain.
I did not like being the last one awake in my household, but that was hard to avoid with these fears keeping me up. My parents tried everything. They bought a special seat for me to read in, so that I would associate an active brain with a different part of my room instead of my bed. They had an extra mattress under their own bed that I could pull out and sleep on if my fears overwhelmed me. I saw a shrink who played Jenga with me and watched me doodle.
My irrational fears no longer keep me up, but they haven’t disappeared all together. They seem to only appear in the dark when I’m alone. Enveloped in blackness, it’s incredibly hard for me not to imagine the strange and impossible creatures that are lurking in it with me. When someone else is with me, it keeps them in check. I loved sleepovers when I was a kid because I knew I wouldn’t have the same problem falling asleep.
Mostly, now I have rational fears: global warming; dying bees; how many non-decomposable products I use; how my students who don’t own computers will ever pass my classes, etc. But I’ve been thinking about irrational fear and creativity. I feel at peace with my darker, embarrassing fears because I think that the wild leaps my brain takes to create these scenarios manifest in a more associative and grounded way in my poetry. To imagine environments and movements and questions that break the world open into new images and moods. The roaming imagination has brought many sleepless nights to my childhood, but a variation of this imagination allows me to feel that mercy is like the orange fringe of a newspaper or to ask myself, what if I fold myself into a leaf?
I am wondering, did you, BAP readers, also have serious irrational fears when you were kids? Do you feel like they connect somehow to the creativity you bring to your poetry now?
In a second, I want to introduce you to Better Magazine and the poet Lisa Ciccarello. It’s her work that’s made me think about terror, because in her poems, the terror seems to materialize from the lack of hiding spaces. There is no darkness, closets, or busy cities to hide within, only the terror of constant confrontation. There are serious moments of activation in this terror that I want us to consider.
Day 3 Journal: Better Magazine
Better Magazine just released its fourth issue this morning. It features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art. Each contributor’s photo is available so you meet the author’s face before you meet the writing or art. The website somehow presents as both corporate and inviting. In strolling through the last two issues, I appreciate that they publish more women than men. I also appreciate that there is a recording of most authors reading their work along with the printed piece.
Day 3 Poetry Spotlight: Lisa Ciccarello
Ciccarello has two poems up at Better Magazine in issue #3 and here is one of them:
We are not hostages so much as we have been tasked to hold up this wall forever
We want for humor to be our general
but our last general betrayed us
He is our enemy whose face is the clay of the dead
Whose eye is the eye of loss
Whose eye if it is placed in the tower will mean all is lost
Every wall is a bridge
What kept us apart connected us
It was an empty love
It was a curse we placed on the fire of our own bodies
A curse is a wall made of the burning dead
I find my body in the wall of the past
The wall is an altar & an army
I find my hand in the falling dust
A curse is a dagger that is placed inside you when you hear it
This dagger was my husband & the body of my love
This dagger was a daughter I raised to be a soldier
Why did the army of the wall not remain
the wall our enemy could not cross?
They went out to fight him one by one
My heart was an army & an altar
I could bring my husband back in body but not in flesh
I could bring my husband back in body
at the cost of my own body
I could not hope to live forever but I lived forever
I lived to guard what I could not keep him from
To stand guard at the tomb of your enemy
is the definition of eternity
I lived until I pushed the blade through my body to possess the blade
This was not the revenge I had dreamed of
I tried to crawl across the sand
The sand became a jade comb
The sand became my weeping daughter
The sand became a clay body
I folded my body inside
The sand burned until I did not understand what was the fire
& what was my own curse
I forgot to tell you the eternal was gone
You were waiting for me to stay a dragon
You were waiting for me to be younger than you
I went on without you
though I could pretend I didn’t
Day 3 Brief Thoughts
How do you protect someone with the residue of betrayal? How do you pursue someone when your hands are gulls-eyes and your face is a curse? How do you avenge someone else when the only thing you accept is the instability of the human form, in a landscape that offers no oasis for the eye? Ciccarello’s poems walk into environments and resist the urge to scramble for set meaning in strange occasions: animals pool at the bottoms of glasses, fingers are white roads, and armies are everywhere. They question the concept of the quest and reread it as lonely yet relentless footprints twisting around objects blinking in and out of visibility. Her poems remind me that to rescue is to unfurl, it is an accident or a milky option, it is a comb that asks for agency. I’ve been reading Ciccarello’s poetry for years and am excited to write about a recent piece here. It has been a long day of emphasized formality and structure in my English 101 class (see Feb 17 blog post) so if it’s okay with you, I’m just going to free-associate my way through the poem:
Land(e)scape: The desert does not give anyone much to hide behind. It does not give much to distraction. For scenery, we have the dusty air around the altar; a wall and tombstone jutting in the sand. In an embattled environment, there is little manifested to fight over, few demarcations of cultivated territory. The war, the quest, seem motivated not by the desire to conquer land but by the ruthlessness embedded in confronting those who negatively shaped one’s personal history. This physical exposure seems both vulnerable and confrontational.
There is an awe and rawness to the transformations in this poem. As well as an assertiveness in claiming the ability to morph from human to weapon to utterance. Or to observe and accept the mutations that transpire through the act of repetition. The verb “to be” bridges these shifts and builds the self-assurance in the speaker even as the shifts themselves seem to indicate unspoken loss, “This dagger was my husband & the body of my love / This dagger was a daughter I raised to be a soldier.” Each change is anchored and seeping with emotion. This seems brave as opposed to evasive.
A tension pulsing through this piece stems from: 1) these constant slippages in form and relationality that allow for movement with 2) the obligations of an unknown source that seem to commit people to eternal stasis. For instance, the title, “We are not hostages so much as we have been tasked to hold up this wall forever” implies an agreement to follow through with an impossible command. Yet, the wall becomes a bridge, an alter, an army, and the speaker’s own body. Ciccarello writes, “To stand guard at the tomb of your enemy is the definition of eternity.” I couldn’t agree more. Protecting the dead body of one’s enemy translates temporality into a crushing emotion. But an emotion to which slippage may allow an escape.
Revenge is tenacious. It can empower, it can thrust us forward with unparallel determination. It calls for a set interpretation of the past and an exacting pursuit of a calculated future outcome. Yet, it’s also trapped in Zeno’s dichotomy paradox: the conception of revenge will never reach the intended destination. The speaker admits, “This was not the revenge I had dreamed of.”
In such a biblical landscape, the atmosphere seems decidedly in the human relational realm. There are curses and altars, but they seem to appear and disappear through the whim of the speaker’s mind. For instance, eternity is “gone;” it was a feeling and it has been felt. The eerie magic, the mystical elements, they spring from personal interpretation. As the last couplet terrifyingly points out, “I went on without you / though I could pretend I didn’t.” Even if revenge can never arrive via the form of its original conception, the imagination lives within transformation.
In this poem, the pronouns shift from a we/us mentality that cooperatively pushes against the “they” to an I/you dynamic that seem to break down. Without this pretending, the poem ends with the “you” left behind. I am left to wonder about the side of imagination that alienates us, that drives us away, and the side that collaborates.
You can find Lisa Ciccarello at her blog: http://punchinglittlebirdsintheface.blogspot.com/. She has numerous chapbooks available, her latest is almost out of print at Greying Ghost Press. Grab a copy before they’re gone.
Day 3 Poetry Exercise:
In Ciccarello’s poem repetition is essential for transformation.
1) Pick 2 abstractions you care about. This poem uses “eternity” and “enemy” multiple times. Maybe you spend a lot of time thinking about jealousy? Or faith? Or fluidity?
2) Write 2 lines; both lines should use your first abstraction. These lines should not introduce any other abstractions into your poem.
3) Write 2 lines; both lines should use your second abstraction. These lines should not introduce any other abstractions into your poem.
4) Pick two concrete nouns. This poem uses “sand” and "dagger” numerous times.
5) Write 3 lines using your first concrete noun.
6) Write 3 lines using your second concrete noun.
7) In your final line, use both abstractions and both concrete nouns. You can unite them, as in “the enemy’s sand.” Or, “the sand’s faith in daggers.” See what happens when they collide.
8) Keep #7 as your last line, but mix all the other lines up until they feel like they’re building toward something you’re excited about.
9) Think about landscape. What time of day? What location? Add in details (whole lines if you want to) that create a certain mood through the landscape.
From the February issue of The Brooklyn Rail comes this review of David Lehman's New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013):
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.
Urbane, candid, and sometimes vulnerable, that voice sounds clear as a foghorn no matter what form or tone it assumes. In fact, Lehman’s most celebrated quality may be his unapologetic eclecticism. As the author himself admitted in an interview with the Cortland Review: “I write in a lot of different styles and forms on the theory that the poems all sound like me in the end, so why not make them as different from one another as possible, at least in outward appearance?” This might seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Lehman understands that voice is the persistent thru-line of any writer’s work, despite ruptures and convolutions in style or approach. What is more, many of Lehman’s earliest poems—like the title sestina from Operation Memory (1990) and “The Master of Ceremonies” from An Alternative to Speech (1986)—evince the same confidence and maturity one finds in his most recent work, thus providing the ostensibly varied and various New and Selected Poems with a consistency that is worth savoring.
Read the complete review over at The Brooklyn Rail.
Look, I’m a multi-generational Northern California native. I have taken a ten year old to see a shaman. (She wanted to know more about her past lives. What was I supposed to do, say no?) I don’t think craniosacral therapy is weird or that cosmology is a pseudoscience. And I never use the word “different” as a vague insult, as in “Well, that’s different,” or more horrifyingly in the grammatical context used by a boy from Minnesota I dated when I was a whelp (“I like San Francisco. It’s more different than other places.”) Mike: dude I’m sorry but the word is weird or, you know, diverse. Still love ya, hon.
And while I do not pick friends according to their birth charts or do my grocery shopping based on my daily horoscope, I am always up for a psychic going over. So when Stacey Harwood put out a call for a poet to submit to the occult ministrations of Benebell Wen, a master tarot reader planning a week of blog posts about tarot and writing, I jumped at the chance to have my book read.
No, not “read.” Read. As in, do not send me the manuscript, it will cloud my intuition, just tell me the title and I will take it from there.
Anyone who missed Ms. Wen’s post of 2/6 can check it out here. On my honor, the woman knew the title of the manuscript, my name and birthday, and that I was playing with multiple senses of the phrase “Romance Language.”
Your likely question: well, did she “get” it?
Big time. If the finished book is understood that clearly by half its readers I will consider myself a raging success.
How did she do it? I’m damned if I know.
Is it going to “help” me write the book? Hell yes. This manuscript is outlined, with about a quarter of its poems actually written in some recognizable form, and placeholder notes for most of the rest. Oddly, and I did not mention this to Benebell, it takes its structural cues from James Merrill’s Ouija Board epic The Changing Light at Sandover, about which I have written here before, so the concept of the occult, and oblique psychic messaging, are already embedded in it (she unerringly went straight for the Knight of Cups, a card associated with prophecy and, as she points out, a character who wears winged head-and-footwear (she did not know the book opens with an invocation to Hermes or Mercury, god of oratory, messaging, thievery, deception, wit and line-crossing, and the only member of the Pantheon who can walk in and out of Hades at will). This book is, in many ways, about walking in and out of Hades (whether at will is debatable) and it is most certainly about boundaries and boundary-breaking, touching on subjects ranging from physiology to metaphysics, infidelity to unrequited love, mythology to morphology.
“This project bleeds with pain,” she wrote. I don’t think I’m committing an awful spoiler if I note that her comments on “Marriage gone awry” and “new beginnings” are all too literal; also bleeding comes up in medical contexts more than once. Thin boundaries between the living and dead and between universes and dimensions are a theme (I was so bad at math and physics in school that I feel utterly at liberty to corrupt and torque the beautiful elegant work of luminaries like Nils Bohr, Max Planck, Heisenberg and Ramanjujan; I’m outrageously glib with quantum entanglement and weak and strong forces, for example, and that thing about the outcome of an experiment being changed by whether it is observed or not? On it).
The Devil, where the lovers are chained… yeah. Let’s just say, yeah. And that Star card? Let’s just say I’ve had a weird feeling that I’m going to have some kind of breakthrough in how I think about writing before this thing is over.
Actually, there wasn’t a card that didn’t resonate.
Benebell called it a potential “roadmap” and I think it can definitely be exactly that. It was a bizarre (and amazing) experience to feel instantly understood (as she points out in my reading, that Nine of Pentacles speaks to an often unfulfilled longing to be understood, or, given that birds are singers, “heard,”) by a force that seemed to know more about me than I did. I know that I can actually look at this spread when I’m stuck, and find symbols and layers of significance in it that will propel the project forward. Even if the project didn’t happen to draw on metaphysics and the occult as much as it does, even if this were a series of poems about sparrows or social unrest or The Rainforest, I’m pretty sure The Cards would have caught on. After all, the symbols are always already out there. Sometimes we just need them pointed out to us. The outcome of an experiment does, in a statistically meaningful way, change based on whether it is observed – and not only that, but also whether it is observed with focused intention on a particular result.
Empiricism = nil. Tarot = 1.
Thank you for this. What a wonderful new lens to look through.
(Ed note: Find all of Benebell Wen's BAP tarot posts here. Read more about her work here. Amy Glynn's work appears widely in journals and anthologies (including The Best American Poetry 2010 and 2012). Her book A Modern Herbal was released by Measure Press in November 2013. -- sdh)
of Archie Ammons’s Garbage
out loud, twice, in an empty room.
Then listened in embarrassment
to hear if anyone was listening.
I’d bought the book so many years ago
and carried it with me to New York
the only time I’d ever meet him.
I’m not one for book signings, autographs;
I always figured if what I had left
at the end of life is a bunch
of signatures I’d be very sad;
so rely on my imperfect memory,
that rarely jogs or kicks in
to recover what is lost;
like what is lost from that evening,
me, standing, sweating coldly, empty,
waiting to read, the fixed rictus grin
what those around me fled from,
including Archie; and then he couldn’t
stay after because his wife was ill,
so was gone before I could get up
enough nerve to ask him
to sign my Garbage. At the late
dinner, I sat between two women
who were interested in me
up to a point, and then that point
was reached; and I sat for a while longer,
listening to some lunatic who later
became a professional poker player,
or perhaps already was one;
and then it was time to go.
I went back to the hotel alone—
I always do, the rictus, you know—
thinking death is an interesting display,
and maybe I’m caught in the grip
of a final illusion—that the light
reaching me on a given day is truly
the light of that day—and maybe
I still exist for now in an infinity
that will be revealed as an illusion,
when the countdown to death begins,
when hope is replaced by a number,
the number of days. So I walk out
each morning under many different suns,
some causing my shirt to stick
to my skin, some covering the park
in an antebellum light I sometimes feel
in certain parts of Kentucky. First,
Archie died, then that good man's love,
Phyllis, and I was never known
to him, nor he to me, except in “Part Ten”
of Garbage; and in his face as he stood
on the stage and introduced me,
and I got up and pretended my poems
were a reality as real as morning light,
or the willfulness of dinner-speak,
or the light a true poet’s face can have
as he stands in a spotlight looking
at his watch, wondering at the illusion
he has set in motion, but only
with a sidelong glance, as it were,
while he gazes beyond it, helpless,
to the numbered days, and feels
the need to get home quickly, quickly.
-- Jim Cummins
Hi. It’s Tuesday as you read this but I’m writing on Monday. I’ve eaten 1.5 English muffins and drank countless cups of ginger tea. Rusty water sputtered out of my kitchen tap on Thursday and then I spent most of the weekend dehydrated, avoiding the scary orange water, Sochi Olympics style. Boiling it for tea somehow seemed like a compromise today. Since it’s President’s Day I’ve been curled on my couch, prepping for my English 101 classes this week while glancing out the window, watching the snow blot out the buildings.
I’ve been writing a sample introductory paragraph and body paragraph for my students to identify the structural elements and model them in their own essays. I spend a lot of time conveying to them that I’m never looking for correct answers, that interpretation is various, and that I hope to learn from them in each class. But then I also have to make sure they can organize their paragraphs to coherently convey their arguments. Which means I don’t make it mandatory that they use templates, but I strongly encourage it for their first few papers. And my hope in making these sample paragraphs—which relate to a recent article they read but not the one they’re currently writing about—is that we can walk through them together and discuss what each sentence contributes and how the order affects the reader. And they can start to build more fluidity and connective tissue in their paragraphs. To substantiate the ideas I hope they genuinely care about.
So much of teaching poetry seems to be about enabling students to break down and reconfigure language in new ways. To dissolve templates and restrictive formulas that expectations of language can trap us in. How to embrace ambiguity. In teaching English 101, I’ve struggled philosophically with how to encourage specific structures and not feel like I’m facilitating the architecture of those very traps. Through this struggle, I think I’ve actually become less angry at language’s potential to silence. I work with these students to understand for the first time the difference between a thesis statement and a personal opinion; why a specific example is more persuasive than a list of hypothetical generalizations. My students tend to come to English 101 not yet feeling like intellectual citizens. And when they pass English 101, I think it’s important that they not only feel more connected to the critical process of reading and the potential to clearly express themselves, but that they can continue to question these articulations. In a sense, that revision is a mode of being in the world. And perpetually questioning and revising one’s thoughts is not a sign of weakness (of being “incorrect”), but of openness.
This might be a good example for my students of digression. Let’s get to it:
Day 2 Journal: inter|rupture
inter|rupture: publishes poetry 3 times a year. The current issue features 1-2 poems per contributor. On the one hand, it leaves you wanting more. On the other, it’s a good sampling and bios can direct you to more of their work if you like what you read. The format is crisp and easy to navigate and the poems seem short, though eclectic. Just from quickly clicking from poem to poem, you can see the varied line lengths and stanza formations, not to mention content. Go explore.
Day 2 Poetry Spotlight: Tina Brown Celona
Celona has one poem titled “He Had Never Had a Fine Time of Anything.” Here it is:
He Had Never Had a Fine Time of Anything
I have space around me
but inside it is a screaming wind tunnel
of bluish babies
and zinc counters
with candied squash seeds
in small square dishes
I try not to notice
that my hair is growing white
before I have learned to walk
the allure of the nineteenth century
of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries
of the early twentieth century
the appeal of the 1920s
the objective method in the novel
all these are relevant
I haven’t got a theory
structure imposed on a medium
a chalkboard and the periodic table
the Musee des Beaux-Arts
the Victorian couple on holiday
the architect slipping
away through the fog
under carriage wheels
and horses hooves trampled
Day 2 Brief Thoughts
Celona’s poems work through the history of literature and theory via her own body and her personal history of anxiety and love. Her books, The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems and Snip! Snip! heave with the very acts of these knowledge acquisitions. Her poems generate meta-didactic meditations that reveal a level of vulnerability and candidness I admire, that I can hardly attain in my daily life. And these reveals are coupled with an incessant questioning that never allows us to rest. She asks, “Where is the lie? in the poem / or in behavior.” So now on to her new poem:
The first two lines create boundaries that immediately seem confused. The speaker claims there is space—but what kind? Space for what? This external room is interrupted: “but inside it is a screaming wind tunnel.” Inside what? The speaker’s house? Brain? Whatever this inside is, it’s loud and cluttered. Haunting images of bluish babies spin around with typical domestic items that could be found on a kitchen or coffee table. This stanza unnerves me because it captures how easily we misperceive a calmness in the cleanliness or ordered objects when we enter someone else’s house. Or the misperception of stability we assume when we see someone who presents as put together. Delicately placed offerings like candied squash seeds rocked by emotional tremors. That screaming wind tunnel, that is the internal monologue that envelopes us, which we can never fully share. The messages we send ourselves that turn our hair white or the ways in which we distract and obsess ourselves to circumvent the “notice.” A metaphor for subjectivity.
The verb tense of the second stanza also jars me, “before I have learned to walk.” I expect the “have” to be “had,” in that I assumed the speaker can currently walk. The “have” throws the poem into perpetual learning, which juxtaposes the following list of quarantined literary eras: “the allure of the nineteenth century /of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries / of the early twentieth century / the appeal of the 1920s / the objective method in the novel.” These are sectioned off, contained for easy reference in school and in criticism. Arbitrary historical designations superimposed on the messiness of life. And the suggestion of the overwhelmingness and weight of all that history and tradition making it challenging to confidently “walk.”
In this poem, though, nothing can be sectioned off for long— categorization and hierarchy are replaced by a feeling without a theory, “all these are relevant / I haven’t got a theory.” With the “got,” the last line is candid, colloquial. Yet, there is always something slightly detached or unknowable even when the “I” manifests. For instance, while the I opens up, we’re still left to wonder how or why these literary periods are “relevant.” And since relevance changes person to person (or lyric I to lyric I), maybe the theory shouldn’t be static. Instead, these eras can be felt, they can be got, without a theory.
Temporal organization of literature segues into the physical. The third stanza begins with “structure imposed on a medium” and the drops us into “a chalkboard and the periodic table.” Slate and a tabular arrangement of chemical elements remind us of the convenient yet often arbitrarily organization of that the way we see and use things. Like this poem’s structure is an chance 8-line stanza repeated; the form determines the way the content will be apprehended, and—to some degree—what the content will be; like subjectivity determines the experience and thus, the poem.
At the same time, through Celona’s poem, which references John Galsworthy’s novel titled The Man of Property (1906), the structure of the novel is itself collapsed and re-appropriated in another medium. In this last stanza, the very constitution of a man implodes along with expected syntax as the architect (someone who typically imposes structure on a medium) slips into the fog (a medium blotting out everything) is mangled under a carriage, “and horses hooves trampled.” The syntax allows us to read it as the horse hooves, too, are being trampled along with the man. In a way, this mash of bodies and movements becomes the frenetic wind tunnel and the follicle of white hair. Nothing is calm. And why should it be?
Day 2 Poetry Exercise:
1) Find the oldest non-poetry book on your shelf. Open to a random page and select a line. This will be the title of your poem.
2) Select 5 items in your house that interest you. Write them down. Then, translate them into loose metaphors. For instance, I could select a black bobby pin as my item and then translate it into “a lost mustache” or “a black matchstick.” Cross off the original items and keep the metaphors/new images.
3) Make a list of 5 things you “try not to notice” or think about.
4) Re-open the book. Open to a random page and select 5 words from that page of your choosing.
5) Weave these metaphors/images, lists, and words into a poem. Think about how you it relates to the title. You are welcome to add whatever additional phrases you want in order or this poem to feel complete. Share it with me!
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another's being mingle--
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdain'd its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea--
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
Who wrote it?
A) Mary Shelley
B) Percy Bysshe Shelley
D) Mary Wollstonecraft
E) Shelley Winters
The picture of John Keats at the top of this post was chosen deliberately to deceive.
For bonus points, identify the poem's title. The first person who posts the right answer or the best imaginative alternative will be declared the winner by our panel of distinguished and disinterested (as opposed to uninterested) judges. Members of the Lehman family, especially disgraced brothers, are ineligible. Other rules may apply.
This photo arrived in today's in-box along with the message "10 years ago we met to chat for my Poets on Place book. I'll always be in your debt." W. T. Pfefferle.
Find Poets on Place here.
Thank you W.T.
KGB Monday Night Poetry is pleased to present...
Tony Towle + Michael McDonough
Monday, Feb. 17, 2014
Hosted by John Deming and Matthew Yeager
Series founded in 1997 by Star Black and David Lehman
Doors open at 7:00 pm
Reading starts at 7:30pm
Admission is FREE
85 East 4th Street * New York, NY
Tony Towle began writing poetry in 1960 and became associated with the New York School of Poetry three years later, when he took poetry workshops with Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. His first major collection, North, was the Frank O’Hara Award for 1970 and published by Columbia University Press. (See Publications for a complete list of books.) He is the author of fifteen volumes of poetry, and he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Poets Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, among other prizes and honors.
Michael McDonough has published poems in Off the Coast, The Agriculture Reader, pax americana, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Poetry from The New School and a BA in American Studies from Bard College. He is the author of Radiocartography (Straw Gate Books, 2013), as well as three chapbooks and an audio CD.
Day 1 Intro: Hi. Thanks for having me here. It’s snowing in Chicago right now and my record player is filling my living room with Nina Simone. I want to share with you the journals and poets who have rejuvenated my spirits this year but maybe a little context for this decision would be helpful?:
The last few months have been flooded with Best Books of 2013 lists. Many of the books on the Best Of lists are stacked on my bedside-table unread. And many amazing books that are not on the Best Of lists are also stacked on my bedside-table unread. For me, 2013 was a difficult year to sit down and read a complete book. I spent the first 12 months 1) on the job market 2) adjuncting in Denver 3) working in a university Writing Center 4) acting as the Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly while 5) finishing and then defending my PhD dissertation. Also, 6) playing with my dog and 7) trying to be a decent friend and daughter and sister. I spent the next few months moving to Chicago and then adjusting to teaching new classes after very gratefully being offered a job here. Mainly I have been trolling composition textbooks and grading papers.
In a day divided between teaching, office hours, grading, and class planning on my laptop, one thing I’m grateful for is easy access to the myriad online journals. Peeking at poems during lunch gives me more energy than the dry, crumbly granola bars I keep somehow buying and storing in my desk.
I’ve noticed that journals tend to announce new issues on Facebook (and Twitter) without sending an email or notifying a readership through other mediums. And then contributors in a particular issue circulate their own links. It’s easy to “like” a link on Facebook without actually clicking on it. Or rather, it was easy for me to do that. I told myself, “I’ll ‘like’ it now and then I can come back and read it later when I’m done scarfing down this dry, crumbly granola bar.” Or, “Well, I do ‘like’ the idea that my friend has a poem published in [substitute any hundred journal names], but I don’t have time to read it this second.” So in 2013, my quiet and modest new years resolution was simply to read the poems to which my friends were linking before I clicked “like.” Because ultimately, when I let the Facebook world know that a poem of mine has been published, I hope my friends actually take the time to read it. I don’t necessarily want them to “like” it, right? They can be disturbed, unnerved, prompted to daydream, etc. I want to believe that poems cause some sort of reaction. I want to believe in a community of reciprocal writers who are not just interested in rounding up people to read their work, but are intellectually and creatively engaging the work of others.
I have 5 days to have a conversation with you. Each day my plan is to discuss a journal that rocked me and focus on one particular poem from that issue. Then, I’m going to make up a writing exercise based off of the poem. I welcome you to post your poems in the comment box or email them to me or simply share them with your friends or your strangers
I’m not here to tell you that these are the best issues/journals of 2013. That’s not my intention. I’m here, as a biased and limited human, to tell you that these journals made me feel excited about language. In a year in which I was unable to strike a better balance for myself in terms of thinking and writing creatively, I am humbled, inspired, and disturbed by the work I’ve read. They gave birth to images, syntax, and enjambments that did not previously exist. I want to discuss with you their existence. I want you to react and interact with their existence. I want you to write poems even if you’ve never written one before.
Day 1 Journal: Similar:Peaks::
Similar:Peaks:: publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and interviews. Honestly, so far I have only read the poetry. It’s a relatively new journal and I’m intrigued by the format. It doesn’t publish large issues: “we will feature four posts of new literature every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” I like this because it’s digestible yet persistent. When I glance at the names of their contributors I recognize about half, which is exciting because I can follow the poets I know I already love while also being introduced to ones whose work I’m not yet familiar with.
Day 1 Poetry Spotlight: Amy Lawless
Lawless has 3 poems up at Similar:Peaks::, all titled “The Secret Lives of Deer.” Here is one of them:
The Secret Lives of Deer
When the wolf and the deer look at one another, they both like what they see. The deer is a hearty mirror giving in to his reflection’s every whim. He doesn’t think of consequences. The wolf sees things as they are. When the wolf and the deer fall in love, it’s real. The wolf anticipates her lover’s every need. Some deer are selfish as fuck. But not this one. See: deer love a good narrative, and love taking charge of building one. He loves wooing, preying upon the wolf and also protecting her. The wolf changes shape into any chalice. You know, like a thesis statement. The deer is direct, a hook. The wolf understands and responds to this passion—probably on her back. Jupiter allows this trouble to unfold like a letter inside an envelope inside another envelop inside a bubble mailer. You’ve heard of “rock, paper, scissors”? But this is more like paper, paper, paper because both are writers and would resent all other conclusions.
I have your lending-hand. You have lent me your hand. I have let you have my hand.
Day 1 Brief Thoughts
I love the convoluted relational dynamic of this poem. Two animals (deer/he and wolf/she) love each other and “it’s real.” Okay. But each sentence complicates the one before. Two animals like what they see but by the second sentence the deer/he is a “hearty mirror” so that when we go back to the first sentence (“they both like what they see”) we now know that the relationship is more like Narcissus. Yet, the deer/he is not the reflection of the other’s self but the living object that reflects. But then “The wolf sees things like they are…The wolf anticipates her lover’s every need.” So the wolf is aware that she likes the deer because he mirrors herself? And if the deer is already giving in to the wolf’s “every whim,” how can the wolf predict “her lover’s every need”? My brain starts to scream WHAT KIND OF WEIRD RELATIONSHIP IS THIS? Well, isn’t that the question we should be asking about anything?
Yes, I think so. Because nothing is isolated and everything is weird if we squint at it. If we paw and scrape it. If we let it breathe on us or let it rub our bellies. The wolf and the deer are not static creatures and their relationship drips with variance. The variance is intimate. This poem cultivates the feeling that the closer you inspect, the closer you “know” an object/subject, the more contradictory and multifarious it becomes. It’s playful and scary and here. This is intimacy.
How do we sustain and consume each other? How do we produce each other? As the poem continues the animals become both the elements of an essay (the wolf is the thesis and the deer is the hook) and writers of such texts. I appreciate how the tone sounds like a clairvoyant teenager animatedly evaluating strips of Victorian wallpaper.
The second paragraph of this prose poem is three short sentences, “I have your lending-hand. You have lent me your hand. I have let you have my hand.” I’m not sure if Lawless is speaking for the deer or the wolf or the narrator of the poem or herself. So then I’m not sure who the “you” is either. But I see the intention shifting through these sentences and how syntax holds and releases relationships. Body parts as impermanent gifts, as objects to be loaned and returned, as metaphors for something more internally unseeable. I like how the poem ends in a transitory moment that tricks us briefly into feeling the permanence of “having.”
You can read the rest of the poems by clicking on the link above and/or buy Amy Lawless’ new book, My Death, from Octopus Books.
Day 1 Poetry Exercise: for ‘The Secret Lives of ______”:
1) Think of a friend you have.
2) Make a list of 4 characteristics your friend has. Is she forgiving? Jealous? An insomniac?
3) Make a list of 7 weird actions/behaviors your friend has done since you’ve known her. One sentence or phrase per moment. Does she walk out of all the movies she goes to see? Does she brush her teeth with her eyes closed?
4) Re-appropriate these attributes to an inanimate object or a nonhuman animal. For instance, I would change the above to: The lampshade brushes her teeth with her eyes closed.
5) Write a poem that
A) creates 2 images that embody 2 of the 4 characteristics
B) incorporates 4 of the “weird actions” now attributed to an inanimate object or nonhuman animal
C) describes what happens when you take that inanimate object/nonhuman animal on vacation. Or, describes what happens when you take the inanimate object/nonhuman animal as your guest to a wedding. What transpires? What do you learn through disruption or interaction? How does it affect you? Your relationships? Remember that feelings are always real.
Post your poem in the comments. Or, you can email it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll post it on my blog.
(Ed note: Charles Coe's final post of last week, In Praise of Imperfection, reminds me of this poem by Aaron Fogel from The Printer's Error, 2001 Miami University Press, Oxford, Ohio Copyright 2001. Richard Howard selected this poem for The Best American Poetry 1995. sdh)
I, Chief Printer
having worked fifty-
seven years at my trade,
and served five years
of the Holliston
being of sound mind
though near death,
leave this testimonial
concerning the nature
of printers' errors.
First: I hold that all books
and all printed
errors, obvious or no,
and that these are their
most significant moments,
not to be tampered with
by the vanity and folly
of ignorant, academic
Second: I hold that there are
three types of errors, in ascending
order of importance:
One: chance errors
of the printer's trembling hand
not to be corrected incautiously
by foolish professors
and other such rabble
because trembling is part
of divine creation itself.
Two: silent, cool sabotage
by the printer,
the manual laborer
have at times taken this
not to be corrected
censoriously by the hand
of the second and far
more ignorant saboteur,
the textual editor.
from the touch of God,
divine and often
of whole books by
nearly unnoticed changes
of single letters
sometimes meaningful but
about which the less said
by preemptive commentary
Third: I hold that all three
sorts of error,
errors by chance,
errors by workers' protest,
and errors by
are in practice the
same and indistinguishable.
for thirty-seven years,
and cooperative Master
of the Holliston Guild
being of sound mind and body
though near death
urge the abolition
of all editorial work
from all textual editing
to leave what was
as it was, and
as it became,
except insofar as editing
is itself an error, and
therefore also divine.
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.