Today I woke up and stretched for a bit while listening to a dharma talk on pain. How boring. Sometimes I wonder how to write these posts. Maybe that’s a way of saying sometimes I wonder if I have a right to write these posts. I’m suspicious of memoir but then I think maybe that’s more about my own lack of self-confidence and my own long term commitment to silencing myself, which I think is something a lot of us do. Or maybe it’s that it seems so long ago. Or like no time at all.
It’s less than a month until the twenty-sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. For a long time I would have said: It’s less than a month until the twenty-sixth anniversary of my mother’s suicide. This year I’m trying to think of it in a different way. Suicide or not, the fact is my mother’s been gone for twenty-six years. It’s awful and common no matter how I cut it. Twenty-six years ago this February day I wasn’t talking to my mother. Or, I had just started talking to her after a year or more of silence. I thought it was just a year but then a woman she’d been in the hospital with found me online and sent a letter saying she’d read my work and it seemed like my mother and I had reconnected and were back in touch at the time of her death. She made it sound like it had been a lot longer than a year.
I mean, I know time is funny that way. I had a friend who would say, “How long has it been since we’ve talked? It’s been forever.” when, in reality, it had been at most a few weeks that didn’t seem like much time at all to me. But then another friend would have the audacity not to be in touch for four or five days and I’d assume the friendship was over. All this is to say I’m hardly a reliable narrator and also that so much depends on where one is standing.
In February of 1988 I was in 8th grade at McGee Middle School. All I can think of as I write that is the hallway near my locker and the Social Studies room I was sitting in when my mother died. That feels like no time ago or maybe a better way to put it is there feels like no physical distance between me and the girl sitting in the classroom, who will find out when she gets home that her mother died at ten o’clock that morning.
Yes, I can be right back there in a moment to the day my mother died. To say she killed herself is both true and somehow easier to bear, at least today. I spent so much time thinking about my mother killing herself that I hardly thought about her dying.
At first it was because I couldn’t say she killed herself. The day after my mother died, Sandy walked up to me in the hall and said, “What did you do last night?” I said, “My crazy aunt killed herself.” Which let me say it and not say it all at once. It let me test it out. I don’t remember what she did when I told her that. We were walking past the lunchroom, which was just past my Social Studies classroom. I can feel that room waiting for me to go in it but I won’t. Not now. I know I said the word, “Pills.” That must mean that she asked how she did it.
Why didn’t I say my mother killed herself? Why didn’t I say, at least, my mother died? Nobody in that school knew my mother. I felt embarrassed about all sorts of things and maybe that was one? Who was I to say that she died and get their pity or their sympathy? Especially since we had only started talking again after how, after how many years? That last part’s from the Bishop poem, “Santarem” and the lines are totally different. It’s about remembering things wrong. Actually it’s about remembering everything right and still being wrong. Actually, it’s about someone asking about a wasp’s nest a million years after the fact.
Of course I may be remembering it all wrong.
In February of 1988 I’d just started speaking to my mother again after what I believe was a year and a half at most of not speaking. This was after a visit where she told me I’d be happy if she died of cancer and then told me she was going to go cry and I probably should too. I remember sitting in the living room while she sobbed in her bedroom with the door all the way open. And then some things happened and I went home and we didn’t talk for almost eighteen months. And then we did talk. And then she killed herself.
Died, rather. She died. That’s the lasting effect on both of us. All this talk of ethics and selfishness and murder. It’s the wrong stone thrown into the pond.
“How did she die?”
“She killed herself.”
“She took a bottle of pills.”
“She was really poor and not in good health.”
“She lost hope.
“Is your mother still living?”
“No. She died.”
Stop all the clocks. Or set them all to the same time all over the world and through years so when the hour strikes we can’t make sense of anything through the horror of the clanging.
Some people you miss after a few weeks and some you wish would call you all the time. Some things you want to last forever and sometimes they do and mostly they don’t. It’s February 2014 or February 1988 and I haven’t spoken to my mother in too long. It kills me and it probably did back then too. Who cares?
I think she did. I do.
Source: Biography of Pamela Colman Smith.
Among the personal effects of poet and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats was a pack of tarot cards. By most accounts Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn*, an occult secret society that practiced ceremonial magic. As it was, the Hermetic Order considered tarot divination to be one of the foundational studies that the society’s initiates learned (the others being astrology and theurgy).
While other notable members of the Golden Dawn, namely A. E. Waite and illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, were conceiving the tarot deck now known as the Rider-Waite (or Rider-Waite-Smith) deck, it is said that Yeats was an advisor to Pamela Smith on the mystic symbolism to be incorporated into Waite’s new deck. So poetry and poets have influenced the tarot and its symbology as much as the deck of cards has influenced and inspired poets and their poetry.
The title of Yeat’s autobiographical work The Trembling of the Veil hints at the poet’s association with the Rider-Waite tarot. The veil is a notable Hermetic reference, which has also been used by A. E. Waite in his book on tarot The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Part I of the book is titled “The Veil and its Symbols” and Part II, “The Doctrine Behind the Veil.” What’s more, in the Introduction to Pictorial, Waite writes, “The pathology of the poet says the ‘undevout astronomer is mad.’” (He takes the quote from William Herschel, a musician, mathematician and astronomer.) The more one digs, the more patterns are found.
For the poets who look to poetry as evidence, look to Yeats’s “The Tower.”
…Good fellows shuffled cards in an old bawn;
And when that ancient ruffian's turn was on
He so bewitched the cards under his thumb
That all but the one card became
A pack of hounds and not a pack of cards,
And that he changed into a hare.
Hanrahan rose in frenzy there
And followed up those baying creatures towards –
To start, the thematic references to pride and ego throughout are the ascribed meanings to the tarot card Key 16, named The Tower, which is also the title of Yeats’s poem. As for what that “one card” was, I suspect the title offers some indication. The fellow Hanrahan has been interpreted by many to be a representation of The Fool, significant because the progression of the Major Arcana cards in the tarot has been referred to as “the Fool’s journey.”
…Before that ruin came, for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms there were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper's rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.
The foregoing stanza describes The Tower card: the ruin, the rough men-at-arms, narrow stairs, and the general imagery reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, which is often the depiction on The Tower card in tarot. As for the “Great Memory stored,” it could be speculated that it is a reference to the card that follows Key 16, The Tower, which is Key 17, The Star. The Star card is associated with depicting the varying states of human consciousness and the unconscious, with the Great Memory a metaphor for the collective unconscious, which is a concept deeply rooted in ceremonial magic and the traditions of the Golden Dawn, which Yeats was purported to be part of (though the Golden Dawn do not use the actual term “collective unconscious,” and ascribe a different designation for the concept).
T.S. Eliot. Source: Public Domain
Tarot may be one of the lesser known muses of poets past. Take T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” for instance.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
In that stanza, Eliot makes reference to several cards in the tarot deck. Some speculate that the drowned Phoenician Sailor is the Ten of Swords and the Lady of the Rocks is the Queen of Cups. There is then the Three of Wands (“man with the three staves”), The Wheel of Fortune (“the Wheel”), the Six of Pentacles (“the one-eyed merchant”), and The Hanged Man. “Fear death by water,” writes Eliot. The Hanged Man is ruled astrologically by Neptune and is governed by the element Water.
If the tarot cards are to be interpreted, they may suggest pending doom and misfortune, empathy felt for that downfall, a period of waiting and yearning for validation, the karmic turns of the samsara wheel, and the ultimate benevolence--self-sacrifice and prophesy. The tarot reading sets the tone for the progression of Eliot’s poem.
Richard Palmer, a prolific contemporary poet and master tarot practitioner says that in the union of the tarot and poetry, the poetic voice is joined with the voice of the universe, our words with the ancient symbols, which is the language of the cosmic soul. Together, tarot and poetry “weave a song of mystery, meaning, beauty, and love upon the unfolding tapestry of Time,” as he eloquently put it. Palmer’s poetry, some of the most brilliant of his works showcased in The Traveler (Writers Club Press, 2002), among his other collections, demonstrate the richness of poems conceived from a poet-mind that has been influenced by the tarot. Likewise, his tarot books, such as Tarot: Voice of the Inner Light (Custom Book Publishing, 2008) exudes a depth and breadth to tarot interpretive work that surpasses other practitioners, precisely because of his poet-mind approach.
It is no surprise that poets might gravitate toward the tarot for inspiration. Poetry calls upon our mythologies as metaphors of otherwise hidden truths, and the notion of revealing what has been hidden is a fascination of, I dare say, all poets. And what is the occult? The occult is but the study of that which has been hidden from view. So it would be of little surprise that poets and occult secret societies might be bedfellows. Tomorrow, I hope to explore the idea of mythology and metaphor further, in particular how the tarot is itself a book of poetry, and even more significantly, poetry for poets.
* Notwithstanding Yeats, other acclaimed poets and writers that were known members of the Golden Dawn were Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, Sax Rohmer, author of the ever lovely Fu Manchu series, Scottish poet and writer William Sharp, who also wrote under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod, writer Arthur Machen, who Stephen King has called perhaps the best writer of horror in the English language, Arnold Bennett, Algernon Blackwood, Gustav Meyrink, John Todhunter, Violet Tweedale, and Charles Williams, to name a few.
Adderall pills George Henry obtained
From Russian doctor in a strip mall
Thirty milligrams swallowing one of
Those babies and the baby goosing him
On Third Street Promenade entering
Sur le Table store of all kitchen stuff,
Blenders, knives, pots and pans, aprons,
Toques, merciless espresso machines.
His brain pleasantly accelerating: memories,
Conversations of fifty years ago, old movies,
Song lyrics, literary references, neologisms,
Witticisms, a tingling in neck, legs, arms,
Awe at the universe in its vastness but
Sudden pitbull-like aggressive inclination
Toward espresso machine monsters.
“You’re all a bunch of phonies!” he cried.
Outside again he bet ten million dollars
On the Super Bowl, he got the Nobel Prize,
In a peculiar gait he ran to the street corner
And back, he peed in a Starbucks toilet,
At high volume he recited misquoted
Line from the old Carl Sandburg poem --
Chicago is the world’s greatest hog butcher.
“I’m originally from Chicago!” he screamed.
Ed. Note: We have been interviewing poets who are ex-virgins about how they lost theirs. Our inspiration: this poem by Terence Winch from his new book "This Way Out" (Hanging Loose Press, 2014). Keep those anecdotes coming.
How I Lost My Virginity
I cannot tell you how I lost my virginity.
It’s a secret that to some extent depends
upon the meaning of virginity. When I go out
at night, as I did tonight, and I wander these
beautiful 19th-century rooms, which is what
I did, and I speak to very smart people about
art and books, and who might run for president
next time around, I do not tell any of them how
I lost my virginity. No. Instead, I tell them one
of my many pig jokes, and they are very amused,
as they should be, for these jokes of mine
about pigs are very funny and I’m pretty good
at delivering the punch line.
Later, in the car on the way home, I sit
in the back and we have an intense discussion
about some very serious fallings-out among
our erstwhile friends. One of our old friends,
it turns out, is a child molester, but a lot of people
are unaware of that about him. Even I, for many
years, compartmentalized this information
and remained his friend until it slowly
began to dawn on me: this guy’s a child
molester. Until it happens to you with
someone you care about, you won’t
really understand what I’m talking about.
So don’t judge. As for my virginity, I lost it
a thousand times, once in an apartment,
and once outdoors at the beach, with a
full moon above, the two of us pretending
to be in love. And on one other occasion,
I never lost my virginity at all,
as far as I can recall.
-- Terence Winch
Since it's inception in 2008, we here at the Best American Poetry blog have cheered on Bill Cohen, one of our favorite bloggers, as he has assembled an array of tattooed poets for Tattoosday's annual tribute to National Poetry Month. We are once again thrilled to spread the word to inked poets everywhere. Bill would like to post an image of your tattoo on Tattoosday every day during April. Tattoos need not be literary in nature to qualify. If your ink is featured, Bill hopes to give a little history of your tattoo, some background about you and your poetry, and he'll include links to your own website, books, and poems. With your permission, he'll even post a poem.
In addition, you'd be joining the ranks of over a hundred and fifty poets, several of them BAP contributors, who have participated in years past. You can see who's been cool enough to join the ranks here .
For more details and to express your interest,please contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week we welcome Benebell Wen as our guest author. Benebell Wen is the pseudonym for a certain literary journal editor, writer, corporate lawyer, and fashion designer. Benebell is also a professional tarot reader and has been a practitioner for over 15 years. Her book, Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Tarot for Personal Growth will be coming out Fall, 2014 from North Atlantic Books. She is a mentor and senior reader with the American Tarot Association. Read more about her work at www.benebellwen.com. When she is not practicing tarot or dabbling in any of the other areas of interest, she is a feng shui practitioner and student of the I Ching. She resides in Oakland, California.
If you’d like to be notified when Holistic Tarot is released, please e-mail email@example.com.
If every day is the anniversary of something stupid, or evil, or just a big downer
like the day the Surgeon General declared that cigarettes were bad for you
fifty years ago, then each day is an opportunity for a documentary about
who killed Kennedy, the ascension of Cassius Marcellus Clay to the title,
the arrival of the Beatles, the Gulf of Tonquin Resolution, and the notorious
"Daisy" ad, shown only once. Fifty years ago the boys and girls at Berkeley
said America was a machine that made them so sick at heart that they
couldn't take part. Fifty years ago the future of the Republican Party
was an old lady in white tennis shoes. Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing,
"Hello, Dolly," "Helly, Lyndon." The Cardinals beat the Yanks in the series.
There was no such thing as the Super Bowl. Everybody Loves Somebody
Sometime. In your heart you knew he was right. Fifty years ago.
-- David Lehman
take my head
place it on your
lap leave it there
let my hairblend
watch how they fall
leave my wounds
for papa he knows
-- Raven Jackson
NA: When I think of Drunken Boat, I think first of Arthur Rimbaud, and second of this wonderful International web-magazine, which just released its 18th issue. I thought maybe we could start with you saying a few words about your online magazine.
RS: Well Rimbaud and Le Bateau Ivre, with its furious lashing of the tides, mystic horrors and future Vigor was in part the inspiration for the inception of the journal in 1999, because of the synesthetic way that the French poet combined the visual and the verbal in his work. Similarly at Drunken Boat, we strive to create a curatorial space where many genres can collide and converse. This year, we will be celebrating our 15th anniversary and it has been tempestuous and fulfilling journey at sea, and I’m always perpetually amazed at how we have attracted such a talented and dedicated staff, and really all of our successes over the years are directly attributable to them, from our genre editors to our readers around the world.
With respect to our mission, we have always striven to publish the best of more traditional forms of representation such as poetry, prose and translation and works of art endemic to the medium of the web, such as hypertext, digital animation, web art, video and sound art. We are excited by the possibilities that publishing online presents, from the egalitarian distribution of the arts to the vast international audience we can and do reach; from the potential for new forms of artworks that incorporate multimedia and interactivity to ways to revivify the extant genres by including, say, audio with a printed poem or hyperlinks with a work of fiction; finally, we are continually invested in creating an exhibition space of cross-pollination and so at our live events, we may have a sound artist, a filmmaker and a poet all performing, or a fiction writer, a hapa haole bricolage artist and a performance artist. Those juxtapositions, and conversations, between genres, between emerging and established writers and artists, are what genuinely excite and motivate us to continue.
NA: What are some of the highlights of editing Drunken Boat?
RS: It’s hard to choose just a few, but I’ll try. First, I should say that working with such extraordinary individuals has always been the highlight; Drunken Boat is a true arts collective and were it not for the shared energy of all the folks who come together in just such an unique and spectacular way, the journal would not be possible. Our new Managing Editor, Erica Mena, Assistant Managing Editor, Emily Vizzo, and Director of Outreach, Mary-Kim Arnold have revitalized our publishing process and Drunken Boat owes great debts of gratitude to everyone who works on the magazine. It would take too long to thank them all individually, but I encourage folks to go check out the Masthead, just to see how many dedicated people, many of them exceptional working artists and writers themselves, work on the journal.
Other highlights include from our appealingly low-fi first issue, published in 2000, the fact that a handful of established writers and artists took a chance on publishing something in an utterly unknown enterprise. These include Alfred Corn, Rachel Hadas, David Humphries and Leslie Scalapino. Here’s a poem from the late Scalapino, whose inclusion in that first issue gave us some of our forward momentum and the direction that our journal would take.
A validation of our entire endeavor happened with the publication of Drunken Boat#3, our issue dedicated to ethnopoetics. The issue, which you can see here, has an alternate map navigation and includes contributors from 20 different countries, establishing us as an international journal of arts. Putting this issue together was fulfilling on a number of levels; first corresponding with and reprinting Jerome Rothenberg, the godfather of Ethnopoetics, was a lot of fun; next, publishing work from Eritrean poet Reesom Haile in an endangered language, Tigrinya, and being able to listen to and read the script of the beautiful, dying language, thereby taking full advantage of our new publishing medium; finally spending time with street poet Donald Green, whom we would often see hanging outside of Washington wearing a sandwich board that proclaimed he would recite poems for money. We hung out with him for a few afternoons, sharing bagels and hearing his stories about how he had been a janitor at Columbia University when Langston Hughes was there and cobbled together an education by reading what had been left behind on professors’ blackboards. We discovered and published him before the The New York Times and The Village Voice did features on him. We also included work from a number of writers who were in the midst of or would go on to spectacular careers, including Alice Fulton, Heather McHugh, Eugene Gloria, Zoe Beloff, Julie Sheehan, Peter Orner and Carole Maso. For all of our hard work on this issue, we were nominated for and named a finalist for a South-by-Southwest Web Award, and got to go out to the famed Austin festival to experience the Interactive portion of the proceedings, admittedly the ugly stepchild to the Film and Music festival back then, but a great honor and thrill nonetheless.
There is a field where my ancestors have pitched their tents. Maybe it’s like the squalid tent cities that housed the destitute during the Great Depression. But I can’t get a sense of those ancestors or what they need from me. The dead in my mother’s lineage are a tight-lipped bunch, zipped away from view. But I see the field in my mind’s eye, just as I saw Pueblo Bonito one recent evening while walking in the park.
I had been working that day on a memoir of sorts about my mother’s father, a man named Harry, whom I never met. In order to write my way toward Harry I’d written about the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, a national park in northwestern New Mexico. I first visited Chaco in 1984, about a year after I moved to Albuquerque. Pueblo Bonito is the remains of what had at one time been a five-story complex housing hundreds. I touched the rough-hewn sandstone bricks and the pine of the lintels and floorboards, still visible in places, that originated from trees hauled over 70 miles. The ruins bear some remarkably intact evidence of an advanced civilization: signs of government, art, religion, agriculture, war, gambling, cuisine. But no one can say exactly why the Anasazi abruptly abandoned Chaco and other similarly elaborate dwellings in the late 13th century. Was it climate change? Battle with a nomadic tribe? Internal political strife?
The riddle has captured my imagination, just as Harry has. Sometimes, while writing about him and his parents, who abandoned him when he was very young, I feel like a voyeur, listening in on a conversation I have no part in. Ghosts in their tents, barely audible. But they’re my ghosts.
After a hike that day in 1984, I drove my Corolla into the campground where vacationing families had already parked their RVs and left immediately. I spread my sleeping bag on a barren rock shelf. I had never felt so alone. Or maybe for the first time I realized that I always had felt that way. As the sun set, a vertical bolt flashed at the horizon—“lightning’s jointed road,” as Dickinson put it—and everything my eye fell on divulged its hidden sanctity. I grabbed a hunk of yellow sandstone formed by millennia of wind and rain into a classic Madonna shape. I kept it for years.
After writing about Harry and the Anasazi recently, 29 years after my Chaco visit, I walked with my dog at dusk in the park. I noticed the lights of a nearby apartment building shining in rows through the branches of nearly bare trees, and I saw it—Pueblo Bonito, resurrected, its civilization suddenly alight inside stone walls, its people spectacularly unaware of the ruination to come.
And I knew: I have to find Harry’s grave.
Poetry and football – a natural marriage, right? I know it’s a hard sell. “Let’s have Terrance Hayes do the halftime show,” said no NFL executive, ever. And yet, the more I watch professional football, the more I have realized how much there is in it for poets to love. This Super Bowl, which pits the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos, offers even more compelling stories than the usual match-up.
Obviously the topics available to poets are limitless, but for the sake of this post, I’ve broken our interests down into categories that I feel are relatively universal.
FIRST QUARTER: IMAGERY AND SYMBOLISM
Or: There are already a lot of really great poems that use football as a metaphor.
(Quoted below: James Wrights’s, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”; Stacie Cassarino’s “In the Kitchen” twice; Denis Johnson’s, “Why I Might Go To The Next Football Game”; and Louis Jenkins’s “Football.”)
We are poets. We believe that “in the Shreve High football stadium” we will see young men “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies” because there’s no way to watch this game and not see the celebration of youth and immense physical prowess, along with the possibility of suffering by each others’ hands, and the inevitability of old age and death. We look at a game and understand that it calls into question human resilience. We believe “four chances/is enough to get there,” to get it right. But football also allows us to test this theory, to see how much the human body can withhold and withstand. We “want to say harder/[we] can take it, but/there’s no proof [we] can.” In some ways, it’s safer to be poets than players, to be the “old, breathing/man wrapped in a great coat in the stands, who/remains standing after each play, who knows/something.” But sometimes it’s almost as dangerous to be a poet. We know, for example, that “one has certain responsibilities,/one has to make choices. This isn't right and I'm not going/to throw it.” And then sometimes, because we’re romantics, because we believe in fate-defying leaps, and last second turns, we throw the ball.
TIME OUT: FATE V. HUMAN WILL, PART I
Or: Is Peyton Manning, the Denver Bronco’s quarterback, destined to win this Super Bowl?
Over the course of his lengthy career, Peyton Manning has amassed 55 regular and post-season records (including one set this year for throwing more touchdown passes in a season than anyone else), and is considered one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game. However, for all of Peyton’s successes, his post season record is an even 11-11. At 37, having recovered from four neck surgeries, it’s unclear how many more seasons he will play. Peyton’s most recent neck injury left him on the brink of irrelevance. Thinking Peyton’s playing days were over, his former team (the Indianapolis Colts) cut him to make room for a new, young quarterback. Peyton’s current record-setting season with the Denver Bronco’s is missing one final piece to complete his redemption narrative, a victory in the Super Bowl. Many argue that it’s Peyton’s time, that he deserves, and is destined, to win.
The Incredible Ubiquitous Sestina
“Our first poetry forum of the season
is scheduled for Tuesday. The guest
is Dan Nester, editor of The Incredible
Sestina Anthology, and the program
will be devoted to this exotic and appealing
form, the sestina. Please come.”
Did you know a sestina can make you come?
It’s true. Try one of mine. The silly season
is upon us; over there, that appealing
blonde woman looks like a hot guest
on “My Favorite Dames,” a program
I always turn on after watching The Incredible
Mr. Limpet, with Don Knotts. He’s incredible
himself: Sheriff Andy always waiting for him to come
around? I could see him trying to program
a computer, if the series had lasted, oh, forty seasons
longer. They say a TV show is like a guest:
the longer it hangs around the less appealing
are the same traits you used to find so appealing
in its heyday. Floyd the Barber was incredible,
too, but in reruns he looks like an unwanted guest.
Forget about waiting for your turn to come—
get a better head job down the street! Like seasons
of shows, we come and go; it’s God’s program.
(Or Boy George’s? I never got with any program,
so what do I know?) I’m appealing
to you, Reader! I’m an old vet—season-
ed, ripe. Overripe. Have you seen The Incredibles?
Funnier than Limpet. You’re incredulous—“Oh come
on!”—but it’s true! Aarrgh. Back on topic: The Guest;
Or, The Sestina. A sestina can be an unwanted guest,
too—it drops out of its step program,
knowing it can always come
over to your house—drunk, high, appealing
to your better nature. “You’re incredible,”
you grumble crossly. “There is a season …”
it comes out with, trying to be appealing. “Just incredible!
… Ma!” Your mother’s watching her programs—
Breaking Bad, fifth season. “Ma, an unwonted guest!”
-- James Cummins
Seema Reza is a poet who coordinates recreational arts activities at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where she works with veterans and active duty service members in the Washington, DC, area. I met Seema last fall at a conference of the Transformative Language Arts Network, a gathering of writers, musicians, health care professionals, and others using language for personal and social change. Seema, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, will turn 33 next week. She has two sons, ages 13 and seven, and holds a bachelor’s in fine arts from Goddard College, where she is set to begin the master’s program in Transformative Language Arts. I talked with her by phone this week about her work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript. And please make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page for a poem by a combat veteran participating in the arts program, Joe Merritt.
You’re about to enter Goddard’s master’s program in Transformative Language Arts (TLA). Why as a poet did you decide to pursue that degree?
When I got my BFA, they were really kind to me at Goddard. They let me play with different forms of creative writing, essays and telling the stories of what I was experiencing. And then my father passed away, and I couldn’t bring myself to write complete sentences. He drowned while on vacation. It was very sudden, very far away. Our relationship was rocky. I was going through a divorce at the time, and hadn’t talked to my father in a while. It was a devastating loss. When you lose a parent, suddenly you feel a generation older, a little closer to that generation holding up the sky. It was a big identity shift. I decided at Goddard to learn the rules of poetry so I could reject them. I found in working with fixed-form poetry that the poems are not necessarily where I want to end, but I am able to discover things using fixed forms. I have to force myself to find the syllables and words and phrases, and I will go back to it often to try to figure out what I am trying to say.
So you were discovering as you wrote what you needed to say.
At Goddard I was exploring the relationship between form and content and how that connects with the primal brain. And to connect with an audience, to hit an emotional place, you have to go deep. With fixed form it’s harder to hide from the difficult stuff.
Could you give an example?
I had written this villanelle. I believe the refrain was, “Now we separate, divide, remove the groom, reclaim the bride.” I thought it would be a poem about the fierceness of reclaiming myself. But you’re reusing these lines, and the meaning is changing. You have to keep addressing it to find words that rhyme. And then you say “Oh, shit, that is not the poem I thought I was going to write.” The final poem was not something I loved, but I had to confront my mixed feelings, take some responsibility for my part.
Do you see a division between creating a work of art and the “transformative” aspects of writing? Why get a master’s degree in TLA?
I have mixed feelings about how expensive higher education is and how it changes the playing field. It changes the bar to things other than accomplishment, skill, and grit. This program in particular is based on the idea of building community and using the arts to do that. It’s a simple concept but it’s overlooked. Art therapy is a field that has its own beauty and importance in the continuum of care. But ultimately, the benefit of finding your voice and having your words validated by your peers or by a larger community is something you can’t do alone. You might want to say it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you, but that is not how humans are built. You have to have this opportunity to put yourself out there and see that no one runs away, to gather people together who say, Yes, I hear your story, I appreciate your truth, and I am still here.
When I attended the TLA conference last year I came away thinking about “radical acceptance” and how life changing that can be.
Radical acceptance is such a beautiful phrase. It is life changing. It causes me to have less patience for some of the more surface interactions that we tend to fill our lives with. It’s hard to come back from one of those experiences and say let’s go to happy hour.
Is the TLA study important to your career?
It is, in the sense that I hope to find the methods and language to answer: How do we survive in this work? I spend my day listening to some really rough stories. That’s my job. The goal is to create more people who are doing this work, especially veterans. There are stories that veterans tell other veterans that in some cases they wouldn’t tell me. So how do we maintain our own creative practice? That is an important part of the TLA program. When I’m working with veterans there’s mutual growth. We are together, both of us growing. How do we support the facilitators of this work, particularly when they have traumas of their own? It’s the kind of thing we need people all over the world doing, and they have to have safe outlets for processing it. Artists and veterans are leading these community-building workshops, and I’m interested in seeing that people are staying sane.
How is writing central to that?
Writing is what I believe in most of all. I paint as well. But I am able to hide more with painting than writing. At least two of the people who are a part of the research project I hope to do at Goddard are primarily visual artists and they bring some narrative to it as well. When I was burying my father, it took a long time to bring his body from India to Bangladesh. I was there before he arrived. It was traumatic, to say the least, the most difficult time in my life. I kept trying to write it and only could when I went to a writing retreat in Utah. I thought, if I break here I’ll be safe. I wrote the story in a workshop with Steve Almond. I use those words I wrote to speak about what I felt and saw. I tell it to people not because I want to tell this traumatic story but because it is who I am. I have to tell people who I am and why I am the way I am. The barrier created by the experience crumbles.
Why aren’t there more people taking about using writing in this way?
I am in a field where I feel a lot of people are talking about it—narration from a therapeutic perspective. But I think also it’s scary to do this work on yourself and with others. It’s super scary to take all the pieces of you and put them on the table and say I’m going to confront this. It’s hard work. People don’t know how to start. People don’t know how to enter into their story. I come across it a lot in people who don’t identify as writers and their experience in high school English does not prepare them.
What do you do as an arts coordinator at Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir?
The program has three major components. First, we have the in-treatment groups, which are part of two intensive, partial-hospitalization programs. They’re in treatment for psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and it’s required that they participate in their recreational afternoon time. They have to be there whether they like it or not—and they do not at first, but eventually they do. There are between eight and 16 people in the room. We read a piece of writing and respond to it. I give them really specific directives, almost like Mad Libs. I give them the phrases they’re going to use. Free writing can be terrifying, especially to people used to being given orders. We do some visual arts groups within these populations.
Over the Eight Bar / 594 Union Ave, New York, NY 11211
"Reading Dickinson in French is a kind of antidote to the agitation, beauty, and confusion so brilliantly aroused by, and housed in, her poems." Catherine Barnett writes beautifully on her discovery over at the Poetry Society .
Grace Cavalieri continues her monthly poetry roundup for the Washington Independent Review of Books. This month she shines her generous light on books by Ava Leavell Haymon, Stephen Dunn, Tom Kirlin, Mark Tredinnick, and Diane Wakoski, among others.
The Boston Review publishes Sandra Simond's Notes on Nursery Rhymes.
Cave Canem hosts an old-fashioned rent party in Brooklyn's Dumbo. Go. Contribute. Dance.
Here's where we highlight two of our favorite multi-taskers: Grace Cavalieri interviews Linda Lee Bukowski, restored and published for the first time by Didi Menendez.
(Have a highlight? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org )
A good friend and I sometimes exchange writing prompts. Last summer, as she began a sabbatical to begin a prose memoir, she asked for some prompts and I sent her a small envelope of words, fragments of poems, dictionary definitions and etymologies, quotations. Earlier this month, as she prepared to take a look at my prompts, she reread my letter and fashioned a passel of prompts for me. I received the small envelope this week. Today I offer a few jottings based on those prompts, each drawn at random, one at a time. (The prompts are in italics.)
It is strange and so human to be waiting for someone’s dying. I have written for years about my mother. In my younger poems she was not the overt subject but now that she’s gone I can see her there, in those old phrases, or the shape of her, in the words. That was my work, exhausting as it was, writing for years toward her without quite realizing it. And then she got sick. Dementia conveyed a barbed gift—disinhibition is the clinical term—restoring her to me for a time. It is strange (and so human?) to express gratitude for an illness that caused her such suffering and killed her so swiftly. We talked in those few years as we never had before, some painful facts about our shared past, and about her years that preceded me.
Dementia seemed to absolve her of bitterness and revealed her, like an eye freed of its cataract. About nine months before she died in 2005 I asked her on the phone how she felt about her illness. “I am so lucky,” she said. By that time she had lost the ability to write, though she could still read. She could no longer paint but sometimes took up a brush and dabbed some shaky color onto her old work. She was about a month away from the wheelchair; she’d been incontinent of bowel and bladder, both in bed and in public; she suffered from intractable psychosis. And yet when I asked how she felt about being ill? Fortunate. I hadn’t known I was waiting for her to get degeneratively sick. I couldn’t have wished it on her. But when she died I saw what luck we’d had, good and bad. I’m sorry, not sorry. Both are true.
The sameness of trees beside each driveway. Most of my adult life I’ve lived urban or rural, brownstone or goat path, but not landed in the comforts of the suburbs. The last house I lived in with my parents, in New Hampshire, was a split-level in a row of four across from a school. Dad put up a low cedar fence and trimmed the maple in the front yard. They labored every summer in the vegetable and flower gardens I had no interest in: perennials, annuals, pounds and pounds of tomatoes. I am at work on a series of poems I’m calling “The Granite State.” New Hampshire, my native state, was named after a hard amalgam of stones, feldspar and quartz and others. It is hard to sing of granite, my hard hard home. Relentlessly, a mockingbird is making his case. Sing, he persuades, sing in he manner of others; the voice is the thing and if used right it never gets exhausted. To write about mother seems a simple thing, not aggressive and loud like the mockingbird, but specific, a trickle of mountain runoff. But have I avoided my story in hers? I’m not sure they’re separable. The mockingbird says to sing her song as my own. Is that a form of hiding or way of being true to instinct? She sang in letters (I have a couple hundred, a fraction of her output), in paintings (I have two, my sister four, my father two; perhaps that is all that survives), as well as in sketchbooks and books and journals. If the song of her life survives, in me, I have a daily choice as though my consciousness were split-level. Walk in the front door and decide, will I go downstairs, where we keep so many of the old things, the useless and the cherished, the forgotten, the frightening? Or will I go up, open the drapes, flood the place with light and make a sandwich, listen to a record or two, have an afternoon nap? Relentlessly, the mockingbird is making his case for the basement.
Can you imagine all my redeemable bottles … without you touching those unseen doors? What can’t be touched or seen can still be redeemed, I believe, in poems. Grab the work of a lyric poet—Dickinson, Hopkins, Hugo, Sze, Kutchins, Doty are all close at hand to me today—and you might find that, as Richard Hugo wrote, “when you look back / no one is waving. They kept no record / of your suffering.” What a relief! Relieved of the burden of record-keeping I can drain the old bottles of their untellable contents, turn them in for a nickel apiece, buy a new pencil, scratch out a daughter’s quatrain. But what can be seen, I think, must be touched, in prose. As my mother lay dying I asked her for the courage, as though somehow her death could give me that, to do her life justice in my writing. It’s been eight years. I stare in her direction and see no doors. But there’s hope. I have enrolled in a memoir-writing class to be taught by a lyric poet.
Join Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman and poet and editor Dan Nester as they read and delve into the mysteries of the sestina, a 700 year old poetic form that continues to beguile poets and poetry lovers with its arcane rules and rigid structure. Nester is the editor of The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing), a volume that gathers more than 100 sestinas by poets from Sherman Alexie to Louis Zukovsky and includes classics as well as modern masterpieces.
The sestina comprises six six-line stanzas plus a final three line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are repeated throughout in a prescribed order andagain in the final three lines.
Nester will read selections from the anthology to demonstrate how what might seem like a dry set of rules becomes a lively, engaging poem. Following the reading he will field questions from David Lehman and the audience.
BOOKS WILL BE FOR SALE BEFORE AND AFTER THE FORUM
DANIEL NESTER is a poet, journalist, and essayist. His work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Morning News, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, N+1, on the Poetry Foundation website and elsewhere. His poetry has been published in many magazines and journals including Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, jubilat, Crazyhorse, Open City, Slope, Spoon River Poetry Review His work has been anthologized in such collections as Third Rail: the Poetry of Rock and Roll, The Best Creative Nonfiction and The Best American Poetry. Dan is an associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, where he teaches creative nonfiction and poetry and is on the core faculty of their MFA program in creative writing.
DAVID LEHMAN is the author of many collections of poems, including most recently New and Selected Poems (Scriber, 2013). Among his books of non-fiction include A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Shocken Books, 2009) and The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), which was named a “Book to Remember 1999” by the New York Public Library. He edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), and is the series editor of The Best American Poetry. He is the poetry coordinator of the graduate writing programs at the New School.
He sends his regrets in the form of a sestina. . .
Silly Sestina for Dan and the Sestina Masters at Poets House
"This Saturday we will have the launch reading
for The Incredible Sestina Anthology! Spread
the word and please come if you can.
There will be lots of incredible sestinas
read and sestina masters in the house.
Would love to see you there."
Ah, it would be so great to be there --
"where all the barrel hoops are knit" -- a reading
after my own heart. And in the House
of Poetry itself! Some places you can spread
yourself too thin, but not there, where sestinas
flaunt their ankles like the French Can-Can.
You remember whispering, "I think I can ..."
back then, opening your notebook. "They're
the toughest poems to write, sestinas ..."
You needed models, eagerly reading
as farm implements and rutabagas spread
like a prairie fire through your little house,
warmed by a Marvel Stove. Like Poets House
itself--where you can sit your can
down in a comfy chair all day, spread
your mind out wide--they love it there,
the sight of anybody reading--
as Mark Strand ate poetry: sestinas
running from your mouth! You are the House
now, you've become its Reading
Monster, poking out of a garbage can
on a 'Sesame Street' by Denise Duhamel--& there
is Morgan Freeman intoning the point spread
for the Super Bowl--& Ma Barker's bedspread--
& Newt Gingrich--all inhabiting sestinas
you wish--oh how you wish!--you could be there
for. Alas, we play by the rules of the opposite 'house'
and as Larry Joseph says, you do what you can.
So I won't be able to make the reading,
but my heart spreads wide, thinking of friends reading
their 'can-do' poems that I love, in Poets House!
I'll be there in spirit. Go now, you silly sestina!
-- Jim Cummins
The event that Jim can't attend is at Poets House at 3 PM on Saturday February 1. Moderated by Daniel Nester, editor of the Incredible Sestina Anthology, with contributors David Lehman, Sharon Mesmer, Iam Sparrow, Jade Sylvan, Victor Infante, Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Carlin, Sharon Dolin, Scott Edward Anderson, Michael Costello, Jason Schneiderman, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Jenna Cardinale, Brendan Lorber, Ned Rust, and others TBA! Poets House is at Ten River Terrace (at Murray Street), New York, NY 10282. Subway: 1, 2, 3, A or C lines to Chambers Street Station.
For almost a century, Pete Seeger walked the walk and embraced the possible. He was a man who understood the power of art and the dignity and worth of each human being; who risked imprisonment and endured the blacklist for refusing to compromise either his principles or the Bill of Rights; and who worked locally to change the world globally and globally to change the world locally. But mostly, he was a man who never forgot that singing is joy and all of us are singers.
He sang with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Cisco Houston. He saved old American songs from obscurity and gave them new life in a contemporary context ("We Shall Overcome"). He collected folk music from all over the world and brought it to a new audience in America ("Wimoweh," "Guantanamera"). His "Rainbow Quest" television show of the early 1960s was a barebones production that featured as guests some of the most important folk, country, and blues musicians of the 20th century: Mississippi John Hurt, Richard and Mimi Farina, the Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem, Johnny Cash, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Hedy West, Judy Collins, Malvina Reynolds, Jean Redpath, Bessie Jones, and more. His 1967 anti-war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was censored out of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" as too critical of the President (it was later reinstated after fans of the show objected vociferously). In his later years, he devoted himself to saving and restoring his beloved Hudson River through the Hudson River Clearwater Foundation. He toured with Arlo Guthrie, his good friend Woody's son, to whom he acted as a surrogate father, for many years. In January 2009, he sang "This Land is Your Land" (all the verses!) at President Obama's bitterly cold Inaugural Concert (what a vindication that must have felt like!). Into very old age, he was still fighting for the rights and diginity of all people, once showing up unexpectedly to give encouragement to and sing some songs with the Occupy Wall Street protestors.
The song we all sang at camp, "If I Had a Hammer," was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in response to the government's charging the Communist Party of America with attempting to overthrow the government. In 1955, Pete himself was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In his testimony, Pete refused to answer the committee's questions, condemning their unconstitutional disregard for the First Amendment. He was found in contempt of Congress and sentenced to one year in jail (the conviction was finally overturned in 1962). Later, "If I Had a Hammer" became one of the great anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. The last time Pete sang it in public was at this past year's Farm Aid concert.
Rest in peace, Pete. We sure are gonna miss you.
Rent parties began in Harlem in the 1920s when cash-strapped Uptown residents devised creative ways to pay discriminatory rental rates on low salaries. Party hosts opened their homes, and in exchange for a small cover charge, prepared food and provided live entertainment. Together, party goers defeated eviction while eating, drinking, dancing and socializing for much less than what they’d pay for a night on the town. Everybody won! Cave Canem’s Rent Parties revive the Harlem-style rent party with poetry at the core!
Find out more about Cave Canem here.
Coming Fall of 2015 from Sibling Rivalry Press -- The Collected & New Collaborative Work of Denise Duhamel & Maureen Seaton. Excitement!
And here are more 2015 titles from SRP, via cue cards & poet extraordinaire Ocean Vuong.
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
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.