If you’ve read only one piece of Frost’s prose, it’s probably his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.” And if you remember only one thing about it, it’s probably that it’s studded with indelible metaphors (all right, similes): that poets don’t come by knowledge systematically, as scholars do, but rather pick up bits of it like the sticking of “burrs when they walk in the fields;” that a poem’s meaning should unfold as it’s being written the way “a piece of ice on a hot stove…ride[s] its own melting;” that even if you read such a poem a hundred times, it will retain its freshness of surprise forever, “as a metal keeps its fragrance” (this last sometimes seen with the catastrophic misprint of “petal” instead of “metal”). This essay is also where Frost famously says that the clarification at the end of such a poem will not be a great one “such as sects and cults are founded on,” but “a momentary stay against confusion.” (As well-stocked with gems as the piece is, it's not entirely free of the borderline asininity that can mar the prose—and sometimes the poetry—of Frost as self-anointed sage: the tone of someone settling the world from his bar—or milking—stool.)
I’ve been quoting from the main portion of Frost’s essay, one whose principal business is a paean to the poem as “a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.” But this poriton is preceded by an opening foray that’s less often remembered: in part because it's less memorable, but also, perhaps, because its burden is sterner. It's mostly about the importance of subjects in poetry. Its key stretch begins with the serious crack that “the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other,” and that “the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, metre are not enough. We need the help of context—meaning—subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety.” This need leaves us “back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say.”
A view of subject matter as fundamental to poetry might be resisted, if not dismissed, by the growing number of poets whose discontinuities Stephen Burt was the first to term “elliptical.” The approach of these poets can seem innately inhospitable to subjects. And in fact you can read any number of their poems without finding one in which a subject provides Frost’s “help of context.”
I think this is unfortunate. I think there’s a lot—still—to be said for subjects in poetry, and I’m going to devote my week on this blog to trying to find some ways of saying it.
KGB Monday Night Poetry is pleased to present...
Richard Howard + Julie Sheehan
Monday, Sept 22, 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
Richard Howard is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, including Trappings: New Poems (Turtle Point Press, 1999); Selected Poems (Penguin, 1991); No Traveller (Knopf, 1989); Findings (Atheneum, 1971) and Untitled Subjects (Atheneum, 1969), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. His newest volume A Progressive Education will be out in October, 2014 from Turtle Point Press. He has published more than 150 translations from the French, including works by André Gide, Jean Giraudoux, Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Charles de Gaulle, André Breton, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roland Barthes, Emil Cioran, Claude Simon, and Stendhal, as well as Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, for which he received the 1983 American Book Award for translation....Howard's honors include the Levinson Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Literary Award, the Ordre National du Mérite from the French government, and the PEN Translation Medal, as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. He is a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and lives in New York City, where he teaches in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts, Columbia University.
Julie Sheehan's three poetry collections are Bar Book, Orient Point and Thaw. Her honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award and NYFA Fellowship in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, most recently POOL, Pleiades, Raritan and The New Yorker. She teaches in and directs the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.
Upcoming, Fall 2014
Sept 29 Erin Belieu + Josh Bell
Oct 6 Camille Rankine + Rusty Morrison
Oct 13 Matthea Harvey + Brett Fletcher Lauer
Oct 20 Star Black + James Richardson
Oct 27 David Lehman + Dara Wier
Nov 3 William Wenthe + Steven Karl + Lisa Jarnot
Nov 10 An Evening of Agriculture Reader's Poets: Jeremy Schmall + Justin Taylor + More
Nov 17 Annual National Book Award Judges Reading:
Robert Polito + Eileen Myles + Katie Peterson + Rowan Ricardo Phillips Nov 24 Timothy Liu + Justin Marks
Dec 1 Patricia Spears Jones + Shanna Compton
Dec 8 Mark Doty + Vijay Seshadri + Season Finale Party!
Four poems from 'Puna Wai Korero--an anthology of Maori poetry in English'
The launching in Auckland this week of a major anthology of Maori poetry (in English) is cause for celebration and, hopefully, vigorous discussion. In their 400 page compendium, editors Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan have surveyed a rich, wide-ranging, lyrical, often politicised and much mythologised poetic landscape. Purposeful, sometimes argumentative, and nearly always bedrocked in immediate experience, Maori poetry--as portrayed here--keeps returning to fundamental relationships: between individuals, family, community, tribe and nation. The book contains laments and valedictions, ancestral meditations, conversations with mythical figures and, tellingly, a number of poems addressing the greatest Maori poet to date, Hone Tuwhare (1922--2008). 'Through language and ideas, through stories and shared experiences, we discover and rediscover what it is to be Maori,' the editors state in their introduction. 'Te korero te kai a te rangatira---and may we continue to be well fed.'
come rain hail
(Hone Tuwhare, 1970)
Restoring the ancestral house
Old walls creak
amid masonbee hum
through cracked timbers
sun splinters ricochet from
the one good eye
of the tekoteko
supine upon the floor
And I . . .
hand poised tentatively
to trace aged scrolls
of clays blueblack and white and kōkōwai
adornments on the ribs of
the ancestral house
let the master craftsman return
from the loosened tukutuku panel
to guide the untutored hand
The shadows move
and the house is full
grey mounds humped upon the whāriki
a child slurps upon his mother’s nipple
in the corner
muffled lover shufflings
and the old men snoring
But only spiders
people the house
and the marauding masonbee
are the spinners of tales
and the long night singing
and the old men stare
morose in their warped frames
drunk against the wall
And I . . .
and shiny acrylic
and cement for the dry rot
in the tekoteko’s back.
(Katerina Mataira, 1996)
For my father in prison, 1965
my father would have needed time to do this
To build a table
made from matchsticks, our only family heirloom
matchstick held together with some kind of glue
Just like the
brick building which held him
Yes, that’s it
stone upon black stone which kept him captive
He entered through
the heavily bolted steel door they held open
And when he emerged
he had a matchstick table and was very quiet
represented a fragment of his life
was there outside him, set in a glue and he was a shell
(Michael O'Leary, 1985)
Today I surrendered the life
of my Honda City
to a wrecker in Penrose for $30.
I bought it seven years ago for $6000.
It has rust in the lower sills,
rust around the side windows –
on the WOF inspection sheet it says:
‘this car has bad and a lot of rust . . .’
That car took me to Uncle Pat’s tangi in Bluff.
We stopped and gazed at Moeraki,
the dream sky, on the way.
A friend followed us in it on the way
to National Women’s for Temuera’s birth
(we were in her huge Citroen).
We went to Ōtaki, and Wellington,
in the Honda to visit family.
The Honda took me to Library School
perched next to Victoria Uni.
I drove Grandad across the creek in the Honda
at night after the family reunion bash.
Temuera’s first car seat was in the Honda.
That Honda has seen a high percentage
of my poetry.
Now I have left it behind.
(Robert Sullivan, from the sequence 'Star Waka', 1999)
Puna Wai Korero is published by Auckland University Press. Details and further poems from the anthology: http://www.press.auckland.ac.nz/en/browse-books/all-books/books-2014/puna-wai-k_rero--an-anthology-of-mori-poetry-in-english.html
This week we welcome Daniel Brown as our guest author. Daniel's poems have appeared in Poetry, Partisan Review, PN Review, Parnassus, The New Criterionand other journals, as well as a number of anthologies including Poetry 180 (ed. Billy Collins) and Fathers (ed. David Ray). His work has been awarded a Pushcart prize, and his collection Taking the Occasion won the New Criterion Poetry Prize. A new collection, What More?, is forthcoming from Orchises Press in January. Brown’s criticism of poets and poetry has appeared in The Harvard Book Review, The New Criterion, and the onlineContemporary Poetry Review. His Why Bach? is an online appreciation of the composer. Brown grew up and lives on Long Island. He studied musical composition and musicology at Cornell University, holds a Masters in Musicology from Cornell, and taught music history and theory at Cornell and Dartmouth College. A growing interest in computers led him to the IT field, where he has worked at IBM and other companies in a variety of technical, marketing, and management positions. Brown's website is www.daniel-brown-poet.com.
In other news . . .
The American Scholar continues its popular Next Line, Please crowd sourced poetry contest with David Lehman as judge. This time, readers are writing an acrostic, based on an epigraph taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance. Find the details and enter your line here.
JGO: Cave Canem was formed in 1996. What was the inspiration for creating “a home for black poetry?”
AM: Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady recognized that African American poets were profoundly under-represented in the literary canon, academia, workshops, the world of publishing and literary awards, and elsewhere. Though the Dark Room Collective, founded in 1988, made a historic impact, in 1996, most African American poets were still writing in isolation. In her introduction to The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, editor Nikky Finney writes, “Derricotte and Eady wanted to bring Black poets of all ages, abilities and backgrounds together under a planned and organized umbrella. They were clear that Black poets needed to lay eye and ear on each other.” Thanks to volunteer services from several key individuals, including faculty members Elizabeth Alexander and Afaa M. Weaver, Toi and Cornelius’s first effort, a week-long writing retreat with 26 participants, was successful. The retreat inaugurated Cave Canem’s fellowship and community-building model, and also demonstrated the critical need for such a program. Today, the retreat remains our flagship program.
JGO: You’ve been with Cave Canem since September 2006. How did you come to be a part of this organization?
AM: Before joining Cave Canem, for over six years I served as Poetry Director and Director of Marketing & Communications at Hill-Stead Museum, CT. As gratifying as it was to deliver the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, a national chapbook competition, poetry on public radio, and education-through-the-arts initiatives for youth, eventually I felt that working for a literary organization would better match my experience, temperament and goals. Leading Cave Canem presented itself as an opportunity, and after strong urging from my good friend Kate Rushin, a Cave Canem fellow, I applied for the position of executive director. While at Hill-Stead, I’d curated festival readings featuring Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tim Seibles, Major Jackson and Kate Rushin; and Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Smith and Lucille Clifton had read in the series before my tenure. I was already aware of the extraordinary community of poets that Cave Canem attracted and nurtured.
JGO: How did Cave Canem get its name?
AM: When Toi shared with Cornelius and his wife Sarah Micklem her vision of starting a writing retreat for African American poets, the three agreed to work together to make the dream a reality. While vacationing in Pompeii, they discovered a fitting symbol for the safe space they planned to create—the mosaic of a dog guarding the entry to the House of the Tragic Poet, with the inscription, "Cave Canem" (Beware of the Dog). In designing Cave Canem’s logo, Sarah introduced a visual metaphor by breaking the dog's chain. Since inception, Cave Canem’s name and logo have stood for the culture-shaping role that the organization plays: a protection for poets and a catalyst for unleashing vital, new voices into the literary world. Again, Nikky Finney: “What these brilliant, passionate poet-teachers pushed out, via Pompeii, was a new planet; but what they also touched was an heirloom."
JGO: For me, the weeklong retreat was a source of strength as an emerging black poet. What’s been your experience putting it together year after year? Also, how many fellows have been a part of the weeklong retreat?
AM: Many functional aspects of the retreat stay fairly constant, such as arrangements with the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg’s Conference Services—routines that reduce everyone’s labor over time. For me, the excitement year to year is the unique brilliance of participants, from fellows to faculty members, to guest poets, to staff. The poetry saturation I experience at readings and fellow-led workshops re-energize me for the rest of the year. The program has benefitted from Amanda Johnston’s leadership as Retreat Coordinator and Dante Micheaux’s as Interim Retreat Coordinator, and from the terrific work of retreat staff. Nicole Sealey’s contributions as Programs Director as of June 2014 is allowing me to focus less on nuts-and-bolts. So my role has evolved over time, as has the role of fellows, currently numbering 379. Now, very many see themselves not only as fellows and Cave Canem community members, but also as stewards of the organization.
JGO: Tell me about the book prizes?
AM: With 13 individual volumes in print, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize has jump-started the careers of such poets as former U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, and Major Jackson, a Whiting Writers’ Award winner. This first-book award for African American poets continues to expand the portfolio of American literature and helps disrupt received notions of what makes a poem valuable. Rotational publication by Graywolf Press, the University of Pittsburgh Press and The University of Georgia Press propels each winning collection into the field with the highest imprimatur, ensuring a robust readership. We’re excited that F. Douglas Brown’s Zero to Three will be released later this year and Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thornin 2015.
The Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize is a second-book award for African American poets, offered every other year. The award celebrates and publishes works of lasting cultural value and literary excellence. Launched in 2009, three books have been published to date, with Jonathan Moody’s Olympic Butter Gold forthcoming in 2015.
In addition to publication, both competitions confer a $1,000 cash prize and a feature reading.
JGO: At the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I heard co-founder Cornelius Eady describe Cave Canem as a foundation. Could you elaborate on the foundation aspect?
AM: A 501-c-3 non-profit, Cave Canem is a literary service organization. Unlike such foundations as Jerome and Lannan, which award direct monetary grants, Cave Canem serves Black poets and poets of color by delivering a robust program of services intended to advance their artistic and professional growth. A key secondary goal is permanently inflecting the literary landscape, so that space for all writers and all literatures will continually expand.
JGO What have been the milestones in Cave Canem’s history? (Feel free to include links.)
- Cave Canem Poetry Prize established.
- Carolyn Micklem hired as Director.
- 10th Anniversary Celebration held in New York City.
- Alison Meyers hired as Executive Director (as of August 28).
- Lannan Foundation awards three-year grant of $150,000 for general operating support.
- Poets on Craft series inaugurated at The New School.
- Cave Canem moves administrative headquarters and establishes programming space in Brooklyn, NY.
- Cave Canem becomes a Literary Sponsor at the 2010 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair.
- Cave Canem becomes a Program Partner at Brooklyn (NY) Book Festival.
- University of Pittsburgh renews $140,000, five-year grant in support of the retreat.
- Graduate fellows’ class gift: record-breaking 100% participation and $3,795 raised over 12 months.
- Graduate fellows’ class gift: 100% participation and $5,000 pledged.
- Yale University’s Beinecke Library acquires Cave Canem Foundation organizational papers, 1996-2012.
JGO: What do you think is the biggest challenge for Cave Canem in the future?
AM: Resource development. The funding environment grows increasingly competitive and challenging with every year that passes, especially impacting our efforts to secure new sources of foundation, corporate and government support. Sustainability over the long term is Cave Canem’s key priority.
JGO: And the flip side of the question—what do you think is the organization’s biggest opportunity moving forward?
AM: Resource development! There is good potential for growth in individual giving among Cave Canem’s expanding community of fellows, workshop poets, friends and supporters. Fellows’ many significant accomplishments, including major awards and fellowships, continually raise the organization’s visibility and enhance our ability to attract new audiences and donors.
Alison Meyers is a poet and fiction writer, twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Executive Director of Cave Canem Foundation , NY, previously she served as Poetry Director and Director of Marketing & Communications at Hill-Stead Museum, CT. www.alisonmeyers.com
January Gill O’Neil is the author of Misery Islands (fall 2014) and Underlife (2009), both published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (masspoetry.org) and an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. January blogs at poetmom.blogspot.com.
In Union Square: Cantaloupes
Confused by weather
The woman on the subway
Wears socks and sandals.
Turning a corner,
Into Sixth Avenue wind,
The man holds his hat.
At Gonzo cafe
On Thirteenth, outdoor tables
Are empty by eight.
Looking up, nothing.
On the horizon, two lights
Grow brighter, then dim.
(from the New York Times, October 4, 2004)
Last night was the 2014 Best American Poetry launch reading, and I surely wish I could have teleported myself to New York to be with you all. I trust you had a great evening. Since this is my last day on the BAP blog, I want to share some random thoughts that I’d hoped would find their way into my posts, but did not:
Did you know:
That Saturday, September 27 is the fourth annual 100 Thousand Poets for Change world-wide poetry day, happening at a location near you? In 600 cities in 100 countries, poets, musicians, mimes, and artists are working together to promote peace, justice, and sustainability. Go here for an event in your area. Attend. You will be happy you did.
Did you know:
That in the future, there will be no colleges, no banks, and no factories? Furthermore, in the future, there will be 3-D printers that can print actual things, like a guitar that you can use and then recycle. Same for clothes. They will fit you perfectly because they will be digitally mastered to fit your body. Then, you can delete them and make new ones the next day. (These are predictions by Jaron Lanier in his book Who Owns the Future?)
Did you know:
That in the future, things will be less linear and more fragmented? Lanier writes: “From here on out the human story will no longer unfold in a sensible way. We are said to be entering into a fate that will resist interpretation. Narrative arcs will no longer apply.” Lanier goes on to say that in the world of software development, there is still a dominant narrative, but the problem is that humans aren’t the heroes. He wants to make sure that humans remain players. Let’s stay in the game, people. Okay?
Did you know:
There is wonderful e-zine called Brain Pickings. Go here, to read a fascinating post on how to survive the information revolution. Writer Maria Popova posits that the hope for the future is in the storytellers, the ones who take information and make wisdom from it. In this age of information overload, we need storytellers to keep finding meaning. Hear that people? We need storytellers. Go!
Did you know:
That eons ago, the mammoths rubbed up against rocks along the coast of Northern California to groom themselves? They rubbed so much that the rocks became shiny. Talk about leaving a legacy.
Did you know:
A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. (Robert Frost said this.)
Did you know:
Now that everything is happening in the Cloud, there is a word for the world before the Cloud? The word is: antenimbosia. I want this word.
Did you know:
That not all Muses are female? Mine, for example, is male. I know this goes against centuries of mythology, but hey. Talk to the Muse.
If I had to say there was one thread for me this week, it was my awareness of the fragility and preciousness of existence, and the sheer beauty of words as they live in poetry. It all goes very quickly, this thing we call Life. Sometimes, too quickly. Whatever we do while we are here, let’s make it good.
And look at this. At last, I have finally stayed well within my ideal word count for a blog post, coming in at 561 words. I will close with a poem by Maxine Kumin:
Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief
Blue landing lights make
nail holes in the dark.
A fine snow falls. We sit
on the tarmac taking on
the mail, quick freight,
trays of laboratory mice,
coffee and Danish for
Wherever we’re going
is Monday morning.
Wherever we’re coming from
is Mother’s lap.
On the cloud-pack above, strewn
as loosely as parsnip
or celery seeds, lie
the souls of the unborn:
my children’s children’s
children and their father.
We gather speed for the last run
and lift off into the weather.
In memory of DMW
* From Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief: New and Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 1989)
(Ed note: Lisa's father is very much with us this week so I thought I would bring back this post from 2009.-- sdh)
I met Lisa Vihos when David and I visited Lakeland College in Wisconsin last October. We were in a workshop together and I loved her poems. Later we talked about food and cooking and I was thrilled when she agreed to contribute a recipe. Lisa's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Free Verse, Lakefire, Wisconson People and Ideas, Seems, and Big Muddy. She loves to cook for family and friends (see how happy she is in the photo above, with her sister and dad?). Lisa maintains a weekly poetry blog here. And here's what she has to say about this week's recipe for spinach pie:
I learned how to make spinach pie from my paternal grandmother, Irene Vihos, who was born on the island of Melos and came to America in 1932 as a young woman with a small daughter and very limited English. My grandfather was already here, slinging hash in a Greek diner in Detroit. My father was not yet born. When I knew my Yaya, she lived on Avery Street in a dark house filled with old things. The bright spot in all this darkness was the kitchen, where she served nose-tickling Vernor’s ginger ale in colored metal tumblers and cooked up dandelion greens she had picked along the roadside, drizzled with olive oil and lemon. In the bright kitchen in the dark house, my Yaya taught me to make a puff pastry for spinach pie. She did not teach me to roll individual thin sheets of phyllo dough, though recipes for this can be found on the Internet. I am told there is one bakery in New York that still makes fresh phyllo. I switched to frozen phyllo in my twenties and never turned back. I like Athens brand, available in any grocery store.
Phyllo can be one of the most maddening substances on earth. After making many dozens of spinach pies in my life, here is what I have learned about it: Like a recalcitrant child, the phyllo dough will constantly be telling you, “you are not the boss of me!” And just as you would do with a child, you must lovingly push onward and let it know in the kindest of ways that in fact, you are the boss, and it is going to have to do your bidding.
It helps immensely to properly follow the thawing instructions as written on the box. Take it out of the freezer two hours before you will use it, just like it says. Do not try putting the phyllo in direct sunlight for a 20-minute speed thaw. Plan ahead!
Have all the ingredients mixed and ready before you open the phyllo package. Don’t be leaving your phyllo exposed to the air while you are melting butter or mixing spinach or anything like that. If you must leave your phyllo unattended to go to the bathroom, answer the phone, or help a child tie a shoe, make sure to cover the sheets with a clean, dry dish towel to protect them from the air.
Work quickly and stay calm. A few sheets may stick together. A few sheets may end up in shreds. No matter. If you keep your wits about you and just keep pushing on, you will end up with a spinach pie. I have made a whole pie from shreds and a few well-placed sheets that kept their shape! Remember, butter is your friend and can be used to glue everything together if need be.
In the making of spinach pie, as in life, there are no mistakes! Only reminders to pay closer attention to detail next time. Be quick, but not sloppy. Mend when mending is required. Do not skimp on butter. Stay calm. Be kind and gentle. Do not tear into fragile things. Share. Spinach pie tastes best when eaten with friends. Yasoo!
1 lb. package frozen phyllo dough
3 10 oz. packages frozen chopped spinach
8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
24 oz.. container small curd cottage cheese (sometimes, I only use ¾ of it and I eat the rest for lunch)
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1.5 sticks of butter, melted (approximately - if anything you will need more)
3 Tbls chopped fresh dill (optional)
Remove phyllo from freezer at least two hours before you will be making your spinach pie and leave it on the kitchen counter to thaw. (Read the instructions on the box. They know what they are talking about! See “A Note About Phyllo” above.) Preheat the oven to 375. Melt 1.5 sticks of butter on low heat and keep it melted but watch so it doesn’t burn.
Here it is Day 4, a Thursday. In my blog, Frying the Onion, Thursday is significant because it is the day of the week that my dad died. Soon after this happened, a friend told me that the Tibetans have a tradition of remembrance. The day of the week on which the person died becomes sacred, a day to do things in that person’s honor: enact a kind deed, give to charity, or start a new venture. Then, after seven weeks, the deceased’s soul will have decided its next move, and off it goes. Those left behind can relax, trusting that the soul has found its next bardo, or level. So we hope.
For me, Thursday has remained full of meaning, and a year later, is still frought with grief. On top of this, it seems that everywhere I turn, a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or acquaintance is battling cancer or some other life-threatening illness. And I don't mean the terminal illness called Life. I mean something serious. Something that changes how a person does things.
Last week, when I visited California, I made a five-hour detour off my main purpose (which was to visit friends in the Bay Area), and drove down to the San Fernando Valley to say goodbye to a friend in hospice in her home. I last saw Diane in January, 2014, and before that, in the summer of 2010 when she came to Wisconsin for a visit. She was sick, but pretty high functioning then. Friends were giving her and her husband trips to Paris and London and the use of their homes in these romantic places. At the time, she said, "I should die more often."
Diane is my age, and was my colleague when I worked at the Getty Museum. She was the writer/editor in the Education Department and later an editor at the Getty Research Institute. A good portion of our friendship developed through email after I left Los Angeles and came to Wisconsin. She was a great correspondent and had the most wonderful dry sense of humor in her writing. When I saw her last week, she was barely awake, though her doctor said she would probably hang on for a couple weeks yet. She said "It's unfair," and I said "I know." She said, "It's unfair that you will get to see the next season of Downton Abbey and I won't." We laughed. At one point, she looked me right in the eye and said, "Good things are going to happen!" I would like to believe this, but without her in the world? I'm not convinced. I’m so glad I made the effort to get to her and hold her hands and cry. She is an excellent writer, editor, and friend. I miss her already.
Then, in Berkeley, I attended a poetry reading on the UC campus in honor of someone I did not know, had never met: the poet Hillary Gravendyk. Hillary died on May 10 of this year, age 35. Five years ago, she had a double lung transplant. She was a young professor at Pomona College, much loved by her students. She had done her dissertation at Berkeley, and her colleagues there clearly loved her, too. They spoke of her exuberant energy, her support of other writers, her strength, her words. Several people shared how she had collaborated with them. I love that. I love when poets join forces. We should do this more often, you know?
The reading began when her husband, I think not a poet himself, graciously—and with a wry smile—said he was starting off, “to set the bar low.” He was followed by a veritable pantheon of poets who read Hillary’s poems to the gathering of about forty people. The readers included Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, and many others. There were tears, pregnant pauses, and a bit of laughter too.
What can I say? Everywhere, death. It is one thing for someone who has lived a long life to go. It is another thing entirely when someone dies too young. It is autumn now and the year itself is dying. It comes back, I know. But still.
What are we going to do about all this death? Is this why I write? So I won’t be forgotten? So I will touch some person faraway in a future I can’t see, won’t see? One of Hillary’s prose poems from her collection, Harm, struck me in connection with this topic of using words to reach out across boundaries:
A blurry rope you throw me. Familiar. The color of air, doubled. The hand
imprecise as a stilled wand. I surface. I submerge. The wink of meaning
fleeing the scene. A letter clasped between the finger and the eye. We add
them up and they equal troubling dreams. Worry buried in the folds. Ex-
tended across a simple language, there is a confusion of longing. Techni-
color handprint, clasping at need. Absent clarity, I waiver in the harsh light.
But beloved error: a long braid of signs, given. Everyone is glowing with
listening. Little syllabic string. Little tether. Line cast into a blacker sea.*
I hang onto my dad through the tether of his work. His imagery was abstract, but called forth birds and feathers, butterflies, sailboats, and things that loft upon the air. There is a storage room full of art work that I am in charge of, executor of the estate. It is a task, believe me. There are inventories and values to be assigned. There is probate, still not completed. There are claims against him—artists go into debt, you know?—and no fluid cash at the moment. Just art.
Each person leaves a legacy. Some leave paintings and drawings, some leave poems, and some just leave the love they gave, the wisdom they shared. All the living have to do, on a Thursday or any other day of the week for that matter, is cherish and remember.
Today’s final words go to Gerard Manley Hopkins. (I have a feeling I might have posted this poem the last time I blogged for BAP. I guess it means a lot to me. Its sentiments bear repeating as fall approaches.)
Spring and Fall, to a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins
Me in front of a mixed-media collage/drawing by
my dad, Georg Vihos, in the collection of Betty Smith,
hanging in her dining room in Corralitos, California
*From Harm, (Omnidawn Publishing, 2011). The text of the poem should be left and right justified, but I can’t make my computer do this. My apologies to the poet for the improper formatting.
excerpted from Based on a True Life: A Memoir in Flashes (work in perpetual progress)
Home during Christmas break from college in 1968, I go with my mother to see her father, Charlie Popowsky, in East New York (Brooklyn). We climb the wooden stairs in the musty tenement, old people’s hallways. A door on the third floor peeps open for an instant as eyes behind chains check out who is approaching. My mother smiles, and the door closes.
On the fourth floor my mother knocks. “Pa, it’s me.”
“Nu?” my grandfather says as he opens the door. My mother once told me it means “So?” and when I said that sounded rude, she explained, “No, it’s ‘So what’s going on?’”
She gives him a peck on the cheek, and I follow with a handshake, his loose grip, craftman's hands. Until a few years ago, he had a shoe repair store not far from where we used to live. I’d go there sometimes after school, making sure to peek into the back workspace, where he always had a “girlie calendar” on the wall from some supplier.
After we moved to Lynbrook in 1955, Grandpa Popowsky accompanied my mother and me to the Green Acres mall, where I shopped for my first baseball glove. I picked one with Hank Aaron’s printed autograph (they didn’t have Willie Mays). He looked over the stitching, easing his fingers across the leather. “It’s good,” he declared, and my mother bought it.
He lives with Leah, who won the competition among the widows of the neighborhood to take care of him after my grandmother died. And he did need taking care of: once, my mother walked in on him as he was struggling to open a can of tuna fish, a task he had never had to do.
Over the mantle is a village of old photographs: children dressed like adults for formal portraits, couples in wedding clothes, vacation candids at a lake.
“Who are they?” I ask my mother, and my grandfather walks out of the living room.
“They’re Leah’s relatives, all were killed in the camps,” my mother says softly and leads me to the kitchen, where my grandfather serves tea in glasses.
My grandfather is impressed that I am in college. “What do you want to do with your education?”
“Lawyer. Anti-poverty, civil rights.”
He smiles, impressed. “Lawyer, that’s good. I don’t know why, but that is good. Maybe you’ll be famous.”
A year later, I call home and my father answers the phone, which he only does if my mother isn’t there. “Where’s mommy?”
“I was going to call you," he says, barely above a whisper. "She’s in Brooklyn. Your grandfather passed away today. Heart attack.”
Many years later, I learn some details of Charlie Popowsky’s early life. In 1914 Warsaw, Charlie, age 26 with a wife and a baby daughter (my aunt Ethel), was conscripted into the Russian Army. Jews were being sent to the front line, and few would come back. If he perished, these stories would never have begun.
Charlie Popowsky decided to risk his life by deserting; at least he would have a non-fighting chance. The plan was to get to America, establish himself, and send for his family. Somehow he made his way to Paris, where he lingered for six months until he could arrange passage to America. Six years later, his wife and daughter joined him, and my mother was born.
I squandered any opportunity to talk to him about this—and so much else—when I had the chance; opportunity is wasted on the young. He was just my immigrant grandfather, so easily impressed by the word lawyer; the word callow comes to mind.
The stories in this collection are “based on a true life,” but what follows has no basis in truth, only in my wish for it to be so:
One day in 1914, Guillaume Apollinaire—wearing English wool and a too-small hat, with an unlit pipe in his mouth—comes across a young man huddled in a corner of the Galerie Choiseul. A handwritten sign says, Chaussures reparees ou construites. Apollinaire’s soles are wearing thin, and the stranger with the Polish accent, who speaks very limited French, fixes his shoes with care and grace. His name is Charlie, and Apollinaire can tell that he has not been eating well, so he invites him to lunch. “My friends might even ask you to make shoes for them.”
Apollinaire introduces Charlie to Pablo Picasso and Max Jacob and says, “I wish Atget could have photographed him fixing my shoes." They are all charmed by Charlie Popowsky’s cherubic sincerity, his deep longing for his family, and his passion for shoes.
Charlie says he wants to see the Mona Lisa. At the mention of the painting, Picasso, Apollinaire, and Jacob exchange looks, then burst out laughing. Apollinaire explains that the Mona Lisa was stolen three years ago on August 21, and he was arrested in connection with the theft, spending five days in jail before being exonerated. At the mention of the date, Charlie feels a strange chill, and an intense reinforcement of his desire to get to America. Perhaps it’s a premonition that the writer of these stories will be born on an August 21.
Max Jacob walks with Charlie back to the Galerie Choiseul, talking in French about his struggles with Judaism and his visions of Christ. Charlie Popowsky tries to pick up what he can, but all he can say in response is: “Nu?”
Max, thinking he said “New,” smiles and says, “Oui oui! Moderniste!”
A few days later, Apollinaire, Pablo, and Max show Charlie Popowsky around the city. Charlie keeps looking at their feet, determining where they each need support, sketching new shoes in his mind.
They all order a pair and are delighted with Charlie's work. Their payments get Charlie closer to a ticket across the ocean.
Charlie Popowsky will make it to America (his wife and daughter will follow and my mother will be born), Apollinaire will die in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Max will convert to Catholicism (with Picasso standing up for him) but still die at the hands of the Nazis in 1944 because you can’t convert blood, Picasso will go on and on. And for all of them, there will be many times during the shortages of the Great War that someone will say to them, “Belles chaussures!”
(Coming next Thursday, a portfolio of short prose featuring Erin Morgenstern, Dylan Nice, Valerie O’Riordan, Max Ritvo, and Lauren Spohrer.)
From the time I was nine or ten, old enough to wander around on my own, if I wasn’t at the local movie house for the creature double feature you’d find me at the library. I could stroll in for free, spend the day with nose buried in books, and then wobble to the desk with an armful to take home. Then I’d bring that pile back a couple of weeks later and do it all over again. I never understood why there weren’t lines around the block.
For the most part I was an ordinary kid. I played basketball and softball. I watched a lot of TV. I rode my bike. I looked for creative ways to annoy my big sister (an important part of a little brother’s job description). But then as now, the big draw for me was reading. I caught the bug from my parents, who constantly had their faces stuck in books. With Dad it was westerns and mysteries, while Mom devoured historical novels and the kinds of hospital romances that later gave way to TV soap operas.
There was no better place to scratch that itch than the public library. I could wander the place and check out anything that caught my eye. There were no parents, no teachers to say, “No, I think that’s probably for when you’re a little older.” Sometimes I’d sit at the table with a book and put it back in just a few minutes. But then there were times like the day I stumbled over the wonderfully terrifying work of H.P. Lovecraft.
Another time I grabbed at random a book by Pearl Buck. (I thought she had an interesting name.) It was “The Good Earth,” the quietly profound, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that showed China’s transition from ancient to modern times through the lens of one farm family’s life. I read the whole book sitting in a chair at in the library, mesmerized. I checked it out, took it home, and read it again. It was after reading that novel I realized that someday, somehow, I wanted to be a story teller.
It’s more important than ever that those of us who love libraries do what we can to help them survive and thrive. In many towns the local mall’s replaced the town square and sometimes the library’s the only democratic, accessible public space left for people to gather. We have to tell our elected officials clearly and forcefully that as voters we support our libraries. If our local systems have “friends of the library” associations we need to look for ways to get involved.
We all know that the role of the library is changing rapidly. Libraries are learning to adapt, with their banks of computers and increased focus on offering readings and other community events. Even so, with the Internet and the emergence of eBooks some people consider the traditional library model outdated. A few American high school libraries have gone so far as to do away with hard copy books. Obviously, print books have to “share the road” with new technologies, but I believe (at least, I hope) that there’ll always be room for books and the libraries that preserve and present them.
According to legend a reporter once asked John Dillinger why he robbed banks. He replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Thirty years from now, if you ask a teenager at the check-out desk, “Why do you hang out in libraries,” I hope she responds, “Because that’s where the books are.”
Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. A short film based on his poem “Fortress” is currently in production by filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He has been selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” His novella, "Spin Cycles," will be published in October by Gemma Media. Is program officer for the Massachusetts Cultural Council and oversees general operating support grants for cultural organizations in the state.
This just in: Terrance Hayes, guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2014, has been named a MacArthur fellow.
Terrance Hayes, a nationally renowned poet and a University of Pittsburgh writing professor, was in a Highland Park coffee shop a little more than a week ago when he got the call of a lifetime.
Stunned, he turned to his wife, Yona Harvey, likewise a poet and Pitt professor, and shared the incredible news — he had been named one of 21 recipients of the prestigious MacArthur fellowships awarded to individuals “who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.”
In announcing the fellowships today, the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation said Mr. Hayes, 42, “is a poet who reflects on race, gender, and family in works marked by formal dexterity and a reverence for history and the artistry of crafting verse. … In creating works that seamlessly and meaningfully encompass both the historical and the personal, Hayes is extending the possibilities of language and pushing the art of poetry toward places altogether new.”
I was telling you yesterday about my first poetry teacher, Nancy Willard. I pulled a book she wrote off my shelf over the weekend, in preparation for blogging here. I found some really good stuff in it, just in the first essay alone. That is as far as I’ve gotten. I’m slow, sometimes.
I acquired this book many years ago, but never read it. Perhaps you can relate to this habit of buying books that often go unread until many years after their purchase. Is this a common problem among writers? There is so much to absorb. Better to buy the book then to have it go missing.
The book of Nancy’s I am referring to is Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors, and Stories and it is a book of essays on the craft of writing. It is exactly what I need right now as I find myself dangling on a limb of my own making, as far as my writing goes. I have slowed on poetry a bit, trying my hand at prose with that hovering memoir that I described on Day 1, as well as a novel that is crawling all over itself attempting to find its story. And don’t forget blogging.
The first piece in Nancy’s book is called “How Poetry Came into the World and Why God Doesn’t Write It.” Interestingly enough, it starts with the writer recounting a tale about being in a book store and seeing a book called The Lost Books of Eden, which she considered buying, but decided against. She left the store and went down the block, but the book called her back.Unfortunately, within those few minutes, the book had been purchased by someone else. The knowledge was gone. (This is why you should always buy a book without thinking twice.)
So, in the wake of this loss, the writer imagined what The Lost Books of Eden would have said. The text told of Adam and Eve finding the words for things, finding them in a well in the garden. The serpent says, “What God calls knowledge, I call ignorance…What God calls ignorance, I call story. Help yourself to an apple from the tree that stands in the center of the garden.”
And once they had eaten the fruit and were thus forced to leave Eden, Adam knew that what they would miss the most was not eternal life, but the well from which all their words had floated up, effortlessly. The angel escorted them out of the garden, saying:
“God doesn’t want the well. What use is it to God? So he’s letting you take it with you.”
“Where is it?” [asked Adam.]
“The well is inside you,” replied the angel. “Much more convenient to carry it that way. Of course, it’s not going to be as easy to find as it was in the garden, where you could just lean over and take a drink. Sometimes you’ll forget the words you’re looking for, or you’ll call and the wrong ones will answer. Sometimes they’ll be a long time coming. But everything the well gave you it will give you again. Or if not you, your children. Or your great-great-great-great-grandchildren. And since God created you in his image, you have His dream power. By the grace of dreams we may meet again, blown together by an emerald wind. And I hope you’ll remember me with metaphors and make a lovely web of words about me. I hope you’ll make some marvelous—what do you call it?”
[Adam said the first word that came into his head.] “Poetry.”
Last May, I took the train from Grand Central Station to Poughkeepsie and I visited Nancy and her husband the photographer, Eric Lindbloom. They took me out for a delicious lunch at the Culinary Institute of America and then we went back to the house. I sat with Nancy in her curious, lovely den, in her most curious and lovely treasure-trove of a home, filled with wonderful hybrid objects that she has made over the years and all manner of assembled chotchkes and painted furniture.
I confided to her that I have recently eased up on poetry and that for some unknown reason, I am attempting to write a novel. She was extremely encouraging, and told me to keep exploring my story, whatever it was, and that the words would come. Thinking back, I am sure she was admonishing me to locate my well.
While we were together, I asked her to read her poem, “How to Stuff a Pepper.” I wanted to capture her on video to send this as a gift to Stacey Harwood, our fearless leader here at BAP digital. Stacey had told me that she liked this poem very much. Unfortunately, my iPhone was new to me at the time and I did not know how to shift the camera from photo to video mode. (Imagine that, a Smart phone, smarter than its user!) All it takes is a flick of the finger, but I did not know.
Nancy began reading and I missed the opportunity to record her. I did, however, accidentally snap this telling picture of the poet’s hands.The mind may do the thinking, but the hands must do the writing.
As I promised yesterday, here is the poem, “How to Stuff a Pepper,” a small treat this Wednesday for Stacey Harwood.
How to Stuff a Pepper
Now, said the cook, I will teach you
how to stuff a pepper with rice.
Take your pepper green, and gently,
for peppers are shy. No matter which side
you approach, it's always the backside.
Perched on her green buttocks, the pepper sleeps.
In its silk tights, it dreams
of somersaults and parsley,
of the days when the sexes were one.
Slash open the sleeve
as if you were cutting into a paper lantern,
and enter a moon, spilled like a melon,
a fever of pearls,
a conversation of glaciers.
It is a temple built to the worship
of morning light.
I have sat under the great globe
of seeds on the roof of that chamber,
too dazzled to gather the taste I came for.
I have taken the pepper in hand,
smooth and blind, a runt in the rich
evolution of roses and ferns.
You say I have not yet taught you
to stuff a pepper?
Cooking takes time.
Next time we'll consider the rice.
Writing, like cooking, takes time. Let’s go to the well and let’s sit a while. Let’s consider the rice, the onions, the garlic, the peppers. Let’s sprinkle some cinnamon, some almond dust. Let’s invent a recipe. Together, we’ll make a fine meal.
I will begin by letting you in on a little trade secret of the blogging business. At least, it is my secret. Maybe not all bloggers operate this way, but I do. Here’s the thing. A blog post should be fresh, immediate, and timely. It should address some occurrence of the day and it should sound like the writer just woke up that morning and conjured up all sorts of wisdoms about the Universe and consciousness as we know it. It should ramble aimlessly for a while. Then, with a few jolts of humor or sarcasm, it should crescendo to a humdinger of an ending that brings the reader back around to whatever was the essential question that opened up the discussion and BLAM! You have a blog post, (preferably under 650 words) and it really should sound like the writer barely gave any of it a second thought.
Hardly. Here's the secret. This is not how it happens at all. Generally speaking, when I blog, I have to start writing the night before the intended post, if not sooner. Not only are there segues and interludes and thematic structures to think about, but my God, there is the literal act of posting which can cause a fair amount of hemming and hawing and re-dos, especially when the writer is trying to add in some useful links and interesting images to make the whole thing—words and pictures—come together in some sort of interesting and seamless OM-osity. Let me just say this: it takes longer than it appears.
Okay, now that I have gotten that off my chest, I can tell you that it is Tuesday, Day 2, but I am really writing this on Monday night. All day long, I was thinking about what I want to tell you. Or rather, what I want to ask you. I have all these questions about poetry: who writes it and why, where does it come from, and who reads it for heaven’s sake, besides other poets? I mean, seriously. Does anyone read poetry who will never write a single verse? I think not. Novels can be devoured by total non-writers, and certainly gobs of people listen to music who wouldn’t recognize a treble clef from a bass clef if it hit them over the head on a summer day. But poetry? I don’t know. I’m not convinced that non-poets read it. I am open to counterpoint on this, however. Enlighten me. Please.
My own introduction to poetry began in the hinterlands of my childhood with the collected works of Dr. Seuss. I loved that man, and I loved his wackadoodle characters and straight-up rhymes. Some of my favorites were The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, Horton Hears a Who, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, and The Sneetches. Not only did these books teach me about rhyme and meter, (not to mention kindness and tolerance) they basically taught me how to read. The repetition was extremely helpful, because of the opportunity to see how words are related: fall, wall, all, ball. And what child in their right child mind can resist the admonition found at the end of One fish two fish red fish blue fish:
Today is gone. Today was fun.
Tomorrow is another one.
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.
It is all still so true, is it not? There are indeed funny things everywhere and maybe this is something to write poems about. Then, anyone who appreciates "funny" things will want to read them, whether they write poems themselves or not. Maybe in the reading, the poem is written, or re-written, in the mind of the reader. Maybe.
I am now about to go over my ideal word limit for a blog post here, but before I close today, I want to say that the other great inspiration of my (later) youth was my poetry teacher at Vassar, Nancy Willard. I was her student my senior year, 1980-81. Nancy taught me to look with a child’s eyes at everything. She taught me to ask questions, to embrace magic, and to mix up the world and all its parts like a three-dimensional collage, an assemblage of the soul. I will tell you in Wednesday’s post about a visit I had with her in Poughkeepsie this past May. That is my plan, anyway. (I hope I had the wherewithal to start writing that post last night.)
I will close with a poem by Nancy that strikes me as related to this topic of finding the right words for that “unseen reader” that I was pondering above. This is from her latest collection, The Sea at Truro (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), which she gave me when we were last together:
Learning by Heart
The teacher who made us learn a poem
each week by the poet of our choice
also told us Cicero’s secret
for perfect memory. Invent a house,
and furnish it. Let the settee
be clothes in a line of your poem.
Let the clocks keep its time.
Let the chairs speak as one,
a collective noun, poetry.
Now walk through the house
of its only guest, the poem
on which you may spy
like a new mother, rising at night
to check on her smallest sleeper.
You are also walking
through the body of the poem,
reading its vital signs.
If the poem could be speechless,
it would stand amazed, seeing
itself everywhere unraveled
yet appraising itself,
marveling at this love
unlooked for, this care
for its breaks
and its breath, this faith
in the right word
and its unseen reader.
Tomorrow, we will learn how to stuff a pepper.
It is hard to believe
that six years
have passed since
the day Lehman’s
their desks into
banker’s boxes and
triggered the Great
Recession the worst
threat to our banking
system since the runs
on banks in 1933,
the worst crisis
of credit and confidence
with bad debts, loans
irresponsibly made, credit
swaps, the use of derivatives
so complicated it makes
options trading look like
checkers in Fort Tryon Park,
and on this unhappy
anniversary you may wonder
whether mind-sets have
changed in risk management?
I look around and see a lot
balance sheets, and as
a survivor of that grim day
when Lehman went under,
I ask myself and my brothers:
what have we learned
from Lehman’s collapse?
9 / 15/ 14
Greetings, poetic earthlings. I’m pleased and honored to be on deck once again in the BAP blogosphere. It has been a while since I’ve written here and a lot has happened since my previous gig. The last time I blogged for BAP was in the fall of 2011. I remember this time frame because it coincided with my brief stint as a grad student in the Masters of Counseling program at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
At that time, I was employed as the college’s alumni director (even though I am not an alumna of Lakeland). Now I’m the grant writer there, but no matter what one does at Lakeland, staff gets to take classes for free. Back then I thought, “What am I waiting for? Get a new master’s degree for heaven’s sake. It costs nothing!” A person can only go so far in life with a master’s degree in art history. (In a previous life, I had gone pretty far, though: 20 years as an art museum educator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Getty Museum, and then the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. But I digress.)
Art educator, alumni director, therapist? What was I thinking? As much as I relished learning about pathologies, the ethics of counseling, and how to be sensitive to humans of all stripes, I realized that at my advanced age, becoming a therapist was not a stellar idea. I had this notion that I wanted to blend poetry and therapy to help people become more self-aware, more emotionally healthy. But I realized that, like they admonish on the airplane, I needed to secure my own air mask first. If anyone was going to get healed by writing poetry, it was going to be me. Selfish, but true.
So, I dropped out of the program after two semesters in order to focus on my writing. (I must digress again to say that after a strong start at Vassar in 1980 under the tutelage of Nancy Willard and Brett Singer, I slowed to a complete halt and did not start writing poetry again seriously until age 48. So to say I determined I had to focus on my writing means something particular in this context. I was choosing not to let my writing get stifled again. How could there be time for poetry if I was launching a new career? Better to stay in the career in which I found myself and allow poetry to grow up around it. Right?)
What happened next was I had some health issues that required surgeries and extended hospital stays and bed rest. I was off work for eight weeks, during which time I thought it would be a good idea to try my hand at memoir. (I read two at that time that inspired me, Peggy Shumaker’s Just Breathe Normally and John Daniel’s Looking After.) I veered off poetry a bit to tell the story of my life. I wrote over a hundred pages, but the memoir remains unfinished. I don’t know which arc of my life is the focus of the tale, so the text lies dormant for now, dangling, or maybe I should say, hovering.
I recovered from my health woes, but on the heels of that fiasco, my father fell ill at the end of 2012. Georg Vihos had just moved from Hamtramck, Michigan to Hallandale, Florida, to establish a “winter studio” for his art, when all his systems began failing. My sister and I went down to retrieve him and convinced him to move to Sheboygan. My next nine months were spent fretting over my dad, who endured a lot of pain and hardship as he shut down.
He passed on September 26, 2013. Soon after he died, I started a blog in his honor called Frying the Onion. I named it this because dad once told me that if he ever felt out of sorts or sad, he would fry up an onion and pretty soon, the smell would fill the house and make him feel calm and cheerful again. I used the blog as a field in which to exercise my grief. It helped. If nothing else, friends could follow me and comment and mourn with me. My words had meaning, not just for me, but for others. That is what every writer hopes for, isn’t it? To touch unseen readers.
The days leading up to Georg’s death were the saddest days of my life. As I approach the first anniversary of his leaving, many of the same feelings are rearing their ugly, grief-stricken heads. I am grateful to have the opportunity to blog for you during this trying time. Like frying an onion, writing gives me a chance to peel back layers and reveal what is hidden, stirring it into something buttery and carmelized, something therapeutic, an aromatic gift that makes me weep. I put on my air mask, keep breathing. I write, I share, I heal.
In the coming week on this blog, I look forward to examining with you some lessons learned from a variety of teachers, some poets, some not, some who arrived in unexpected packages. For today, I close with a poem on the power of the onion, by Lakeland colleague, friend, and mentor, Karl Elder:
Apple of Lucifer,
So long you’ve
Remained your own translucent
And am off-center
Having invaded your
Against my wishes,
Against the grain,
Any way I slice you
On the cutting board,
Rendering a map
Of your world,
In spots I’ve fumbled
The dull paring knife,
I cannot now
Nor ever put
You together again
Though you fall
In piles of perfect
Treasure of Proserpine,
Poem in Many Parts,
Favorite of Mine,
Gives you cause
Extending long after your death,
Reek of your anguish,
For I have known
Known all the onions—
I weep for
Your radiant pain.
“Onion” appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Salt Fork Review and was posted on November 1, 2013 on Frying the Onion.
Lisa Vihos' poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Big Muddy, Forge, Main Street Rag, Red Cedar, Red Fez, Seems, The Camel Saloon, Verse Wisconsin, and Wisconsin People and Ideas.Her poems appear in two anthologies,Villanelles (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets) and Echolocations (Cowfeather Press) and she has published two chapbooks,A Brief History of Mail(Pebblebrook Press) andThe Accidental PresentShe has twice been nominated for a Pushcart prize and has had two previous stints as guest blogger here. By day she is a grant writer at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Lisa is the poetry and arts editor for Stoneboat literary journal, an organizer for 100 Thousand Poets for Change,and a member of the board of directors of the Council of Wisconsin Writers. She also keeps a blog, Frying the Onion.
Welcome back Lisa.
In other news . . .
The Best American Poetry 2014 launch reading: September 18 at 7:00 pm at the New School (66 W. 12th Street, NY NY). Join David Lehman and contributors to the 2014 volume of the Best American Poetry for the annual launch reading. Details here.
Series editor and School of Writing professor David Lehman joins contributors to The Best American Poetry 2014 to launch the 27th edition of this acclaimed annual anthology.
Readers will include Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Doty, Joel Dias-Porter, Natalie Diaz, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Cornelius Eady, Ross Gay, Le Hinton, Major Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Hailey Leithauser, Frannie Lindsay, Cate Marvin, Shara McCallum, Valzhyna Mort, Eileen Myles, D. Nurkse, Sharon Olds, Greg Pardlo, Roger Reeves, Patrick Rosal, Jon Sands, Jane Springer, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Rachel Zucker.
Sponsored by the School of Writing.
Books will be for sale.
Free, no tickets required.
poems of landscape
Dark’s falling. Stand
on the corner of the verandah
in the glass cold clear
night, looking out
to emerald and ruby harbour
too sharp to stay
enough just to
greet the bones lying
on the moon
and two fishing boats
Cilla McQueen (from Homing In, 1982; Axis,poems and drawings, 2001)
meditation on blue
sudden spears of
blue on grey
with the violence of
love in a
Joanna Margaret Paul (from like love poems / selected poems, 2006)
Hitching alone for the first time
I took a bus to the outskirts of the town
I grew up in. It was so flat. The Southern Alps
blared at me like a car radio.
It was drizzling but auspicious.
Five rides and three hours to get seventy kilometres.
But I got dropped at the corner, things
bounding in me like rabbits. And there, there
was Sarah, on the daffodil farm. All that space.
Hours yet of daylight. How well I would live.
Maria McMillan (from Tree Space, 2014)
Jungle Be Gentle
Nothing decipherable under the bath-blue lights
of the office building
Nothing to eat at the Thai Cuban fusion lunch bar
No one to tell about the sadness
of late evening meetings
or the bus driver’s rage at the door that won’t shut
We have not all been thinking about tigers
but today I heard someone say
‘I think I would give my life for a tiger’
I would give my life for tigers
Therese Lloyd (from Other Animals, 2013)
Light and shade
On one side of the tree
Lightning never struck.
Ancient birds sat in the branches
No wind could lift their feathers.
On the other side
Black leaves smoked.
Birds flew close, perched
Then fell to the ground like fruit.
Frances Samuel (from Sleeping on Horseback, 2014)
if her hemline is too long
her silk skirt too light
her colours too lovely
a lyric is like water and water
is walked alongside, and loved.
Dinah Hawken (from Water, Leaves, Stones, 1995)
Kahlei: My Beloved
deep within the Tonga Trench
I hear you whisper
for blood ties us back
where our ola shells
in the black lacquered
of your eyes
Leilani Tamu (from The Art of Excavation, 2014)
Acknowledgements and thanks to the publishers of the books from which these poems were taken: Victoria University Press, John McIndoe/Otago University Press and Anahera. The drawing is by the editor.)
Good morning again.
I have so many poets I wanted to interview that I’m going to have to scramble to get them all in. Too many worthy subjects…
(Update: the kind wizard behind the curtain at Best American Poetry just extended my week blogging to get to them all. Thank you, Benevolent Wizard!).
Today is Cate Marvin.
I can’t remember exactly when I met Cate: a misty recollection--something about us sitting on a bar banquette maybe 12 years ago, with Kevin Prufer as a vaguely alarmed buffer wedged between. I do remember deciding I was going to actively befriend Cate in the most full contact way possible. I loved her attitude. I loved her sunglasses and her “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. In the face of my determination, her resistance was futile.
But before the person, I loved the poems: Cate’s dense, sinuously interwoven stanza structures. The precise, often formal syntax pushed up against subjects full of surprise, startling observations, and dramatic energy. I loved the changeling tension between her poems’ black humor and vulnerability.
Cate’s first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, announced one of those voices you feel is suddenly thrust upon you fully formed, like a late 20th century Athena popped up whole from Zeus’s brain-splitting headache. Cate’s forthcoming collection, Oracle, due from Norton in early 2015, takes that undeniable quality of voice and sends it into hyper drive. Can’t wait to have it in hand.
The following was done in the moments between trying to finish the long lists of things we’re both on deadline for. Cate and I share the attention disorder of habitual over-committers:
Cate, you are known in the poetry world for what some have called “The Marvin Death Stare.” I know your daughter Lucia has inherited this, too. Actually, Lucia’s death stare is even more intense than yours, which is a disconcerting thing to see on the face of an adorable kindergartner.
Where does the death stare come from? How many generations of death-starers are there in your family?
What you refer to as “The Marvin Death Stare” is actually descended from the VanKirk family line. My daughter and I got it from my mother, who can freeze you out with a single look that’ll make your very blood cells tremble. She used to shoot it at me when I was a kid to let me know I'd fucked up. After a while I began to think it was funny. When she tries to use it on me now, I just laugh.
But now that I think about it, my father is capable of giving a pretty evil stare himself. And that makes me recall the very appalling and deadly stare of his mother, which I'd later see in the eyes of my cousin's daughter. So I guess it is in fact genetic.
Half the time, I’m not even aware I'm giving the death stare. I'm probably just in a state of concentration, trying to remember which groceries I need to get. I guess my face takes on that look when I'm concentrating, even when dwelling on the mundane.
It comes in handy, however, if I want to kill someone with a look, someone I deeply despise, and the latest someone was a kid at a birthday party my daughter went to. She was watching my daughter (who was admittedly acting like a total freak) and turned to her friend to mutter, "She's WEIRD." Overhearing this, I focused hard on this child and tried to pour molten lava over her through beaming rays of hate from my eyes. The kid did end up looking a little uncomfortable.
It became apparent that my daughter had inherited the death stare before the age of two. She gave one of her daycare teachers THE LOOK, and then actually rolled her eyes. Total stink-eye. I couldn't believe it. I would have been embarrassed if I hadn’t felt so proud.
This takes me to another thing I wanted to ask you about, i.e. intensity—there’s a dude who a few years back admonished both you and me for turning what he saw as Plath’s influence in our work into a kind of (insert sneer) competency. He was using us an example of writers whose work is promoted by the MFA universe, which is apparently populated by zombies. I got the sneaky feeling he doesn’t like our poems.
As for myself, whatever else anyone may fairly say sucks about my work, stylistically, thematically, I don’t have much in common with Plath, other than having been born with the same set of parts, a willingness to own anger as a thing human beings feel occasionally, and a female subject position that is sometimes apparent in my work. I’m gonna say it’s a superficial comparison.
But you, Cate Marvin, do recognize Plath’s influence, especially in your forthcoming book Oracle (due from Norton is 2015). You’re definitely having a chat with Sylvia in this next book.
Beyond irritation, how do you respond to the suggestion that we’re both boiled-down Plath made safe for academia?
You know I think that being compared to Plath is a compliment, and I think she would have admired the certain stringency in your work. But you're too pokey and too interested in the daily to be readily compared to Plath. It's funny to find you and me (and Plath!) boiled down in a statement, because this is just the sort of thing you see happen all the time to Sexton and Plath. (Though I am proud to boiled down with you, Erin, in any literary pot, and perhaps this is a recipe Carl could attempt one of these days.)
Now, if you are going to make those kinds of statements, you might just want to sit down and read the work, and maybe think a little bit harder, because it is straight-up obvious that while Plath and Sexton are working some similar angles (along with the other Confessionals) they are VERY DIFFERENT writers. They both get slammed. Plath "strong-arms" the reader. Sexton is "indecent." Basically, these ladies are not very lady-like, and so it seems their work somehow doesn't deserve to be read outside the context of their lives and/or gets thrown into some kind of moral stink-tank where people get their knickers in a twist because someone's writing toward a newness some don't wish to recognize or comprehend.
But I never read the piece you're quoting from. It doesn't actually bother me a whole lot, if at all. I mean: who cares? I guess I have to admit I'm not interested in defending myself from what I guess is maybe an attack, and this is not due to laziness, but rather because I ALWAYS find the whole MFA PROGRAM = BAD conversation really pointless. This is what I think of MFA programs: THANK GOD THEY EXIST. I was a secretary for a year and a half after college, had zero time to write, and was so grateful after that to spend a few years in a place that valued my work and existed as a space specifically created to nurture writers.
I think the term "confessional" is lobbed against women writers in a very predictable manner. If you write something "personal" and it happens to be from a female perspective, it's somehow not "art." Go read Sexton's amazing poem "For John, Who Begs Me Not to Inquire Further." She makes a clean argument, and levels the ground: "My kitchen, your kitchen."
I wasn't aware I'd been boiling down Plath into a "competency." Maybe I have been! All I know if I'm trying to write the best poems I can write. They're not all going to be good. I mean, come on. I'm doing my best here! And I hope my work will continue to test itself and transform over the next few decades as I finish out this here life. I think the thing a poet can most hope for is to be challenged by his/her/their work. I try to be open to what comes, and not worry about the fashions and criticisms that surround me (the living, breathing me)-- as such, I read mostly dead poets. Which may be why I did not know this guy cared about me so much as to detest me. Le sigh.
The truth is I’ve held off from reading Plath deeply over the past decade or more because I’ve recognized that she’s an all too substantial influence on my work. However, there are poems in my forthcoming book, Oracle, that pay homage to her. Some of this is due to a congruence of events that occurred over the past couple of years. First, I went to a Plath Symposium of the U of Indiana in the fall of 2012, and it was thrilling. I felt very connected to her, and to those who love her work. Second, I was teaching her work during the time the Steubenville rape case was so prominent. It then so happened I was asked by the Academy of American Poets to write a poem for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death. I had a lot of mixed feelings about doing this. But in the end I came to (I hope!) weave together her narrative with the Steubenville case, because I think the scene in The Bell Jar in which Esther is nearly raped feels very contemporary. Oracle also houses a suicide, that of a girl who has been sexually compromised (though this narrative very much lurks at the baseline of the book). Finally, there are poems in the book that I like to think would have cracked Sylvia Plath up. She was one funny motherfucker.
Leaving aside the fact that you just referred to my poems as “pokey,” (LEAVING THIS ASIDE, CATE), I imagine he would say his critique wasn’t intended to be personal. But it does hit me as lazy, in that too many critics feel comfortable having a frame of reference for all of about five to ten women poets throughout history in total. And to actually know Cate Marvin is to like Cate Marvin, of this I feel certain.
Though, it is true, when we first met back in the day, it was me who hit you amiss. (I won’t bring up the touchy subject of the AWP sternum jabbing incident again, though I have Mark Bibbins as a witness if it comes to a deposition). You definitely found me to be an acquired taste.
I find a number of my good female friendships in poetry have started with this thankfully short-lived but wary dynamic. Do you think the business of poetry and publishing pits women against one another? Why or why not?
For the record, I never poked you. You and Bibbins made that shit up. I was raised as way too much of a WASP to even consider touching a stranger, much less poke them in the sternum. (Even while drunk at a bar at AWP.)
But it is true I did not care for you at one time. And that's because people told me you didn't like me! And I was threatened by you, saw you as a rival after you got a job over me, and I really needed to get over myself to recognize that you and I actually had quite a bit in common.
I suspect women can be inclined to hate one another in the manner they hate themselves. I mean, is it not obvious that we are trained to hate ourselves? I used to have the luxury of time to spend a great deal of it depressed, and I would solemnly slog over to Walgreens to buy a stack of women's magazines and a pack of smokes. Then I'd spend the evening reading through these magazines and feel even worse about myself and my entire fucking life. I stopped reading these mags at some point, mostly because they no longer published good articles (it used to be you could find great articles by super smart women on topics like skin creams-- I always loved to see language artfully weave itself around these seemingly inconsequential matters).
So, even prior to having my baby, I opted out. I had this reckoning with myself as a woman in her thirties, and I made myself come to grips with the fact that vanity would not serve me well into my future as an older woman. It had come time for me to recognize I would no longer be the __________ -iest woman in the room. And when women compete with one another we do not serve to improve our situation.
When I had my kid, I was forced to give up my customary evenings of indulgent melancholy. And it was at that time that I saw myself in a larger context, and that context was WOMEN. I saw I had way more in common with women, everywhere I went, as they too were dealing with trying to get the goddamned car-seat snapped into the stroller, they too were sleepless and raccoon-eyed and covered with spit-up . . . and I got over myself. I recognized that the female poets I was most threatened by were exactly the ones with whom I wanted to be in conversation. So, yeah, in that way, I guess, I came to love other women because I finally made peace with myself. I no longer had the time or energy to inwardly project the deep-seated loathing that’s continually funneled through all of us by the media.
Yet I think we're now living and writing in a time in which women just are not as interested in bringing one another down. That we recognize we all have to deal with the same shit, and that by sticking together and talking about it we have a real shot at making the changes we want to see actually happen.
Speaking of women’s magazines, despite you having chucked in the patriarchy's gym towel, you really are the most idiosyncratically stylish woman I know. With the sparkle clogs and boots and the leather jackets and the hyper animated socks paired with really excellent jewelry.
How do you square this with your feminism? Why don’t you do as many other women intellectuals in academia and buy boxy, faux Guatemalan jackets at Chico’s that make your hips look disproportionately wide and be done with it?
Are you, to use the phrase of the moment, a bad feminist?
One of the nice things about being a “woman” is the fact we have so many options available to us as far as fashion is concerned. It’s for this reason I love having a daughter. She really has fun expressing herself through her clothes. And she is an outrageous dresser.
It is part of my feminism – on a purely personal level – that makes me uncomfortable with the idea of wearing skirts, dresses, and any clothes that are “revealing.” I don’t want my body on display. It makes me uncomfortable to attract attention that way. Like I said, that’s just me.
[*Heteronormative Statement Warning*] My boyfriend recently told me he’d like to see me in something other than jeans. Later, he made a suggestion that implied he’d like to see me wear a skirt. And I reacted kind of violently, telling him (true to our times, in a text message): “Okay, I need you to understand something. I don't wear skirts because I don't like them. I don't like wearing them. I don't own any. I don't want to own any. If it's my legs you want to see, you can see them whenever you like in private.”
Then I realized I was being really unnecessarily cranky, so I followed up by saying: “Okay, why don't you show me what you have in mind? I'll try to be open to your ideas.”
And here’s why I love this guy. He says in response: “I don't give a shit what you wear. More teasing than anything. I'll wear the skirt if I can find a nice one.”
I can’t help but appreciate a man who refuses to take his “masculinity” too seriously.
Now, Erin, you’re going to think I’m cranky (and you know how I tend to get cranky about these matters) when I say it is in fact bad feminism to criticize women for shopping at Chico’s. My mom likes to shop there, and there are tons of super badass female academics I know who rock those clothes. So I won’t lower myself, Erin, by taking a cheap shot at that particular genre of fashion, especially because I rather admire it. Wearing clothes that don’t aggressively flatter the body in the way that’s expected strikes me as quite a natural choice. Plus, I’ve been known to shop at Chico’s.
There. I said it.
But there have been times when I have thought that I might want to consider dressing differently, as if it might be in my best interest to consider donning a sort of disguise, so as to be more respected in the workplace. Because I tend to wear a pretty “young” look (jeans, and more jeans): because, yeah, these are the clothes in which I feel most like myself.
The fact is, I’m not terribly imaginative when it comes to fashion. A friend of mine once opened my closet and, on seeing about twenty pairs of matching black clogs, said, “I’m worried about you.” I say, figure out what works for you and buy twenty pairs of it. Buy it in varying shades so no one suspects that you just can’t be bothered to do your laundry.
Simplicity is the key. My first fashion idol was Batgirl. She of the black suit and red hair. All covered up, but shapely, and not to be messed with. Nothing frivolous about her.
Though one thing I love about poets is despite how serious they are about their words, they love THINGS. Show me a poet who doesn’t have some odd collection of brik-a-brac, whether it’s books, jewelry, or furniture. Poets are all about thingyness. We love most the details. And I love that about us.
As for being “good” or “bad”—don’t binaries suck? What’s so goddamn great about Literature is that it resists such categories, as does humanity, inherently.
Feminism? I think one is strongest in their sense of FEMINISM when s/h/ze allows his/her/their idea of it to take different shapes, that is, is willing to allow it to be redefined in conversation with others. The meaning must be shared and, thus, continually altered, to retain meaning. That’s what keeps it alive and necessary for me as just another person trying to navigate this fucked up world on a day-to-day basis.
Wow. That is an incredibly smart, nuanced response, Cate. The only thing I can say at this point is:
HAHAAHAHA, YOU SHOP AT CHICOS!!!
Thank you, Cate Marvin; this has been a very edifying conversation.
I don’t even know who’s up tomorrow. I think Dana Levin. So please tune in because Dana always has a lot of interesting opinions to share.
So I took this photo the first time I met Erin. It was shortly after I had moved to New York City and I was quite nervous. We were at David's Greenwich Village apartment, about to go to Quantum Leap for lunch. Erin let me try on her gloves, which were made out of Polar Fleece and lined with Thinsulate. They were extremely warm and confirmed that Erin was up on the latest in cold weather fashion.
In case you're wondering about the title of this post, for some reason this song popped into my head so I went with it:
A café can also go under the name diner, coffee house, coffee shop, or bistro. My mother turned a Woolworths lunch counter into a café. She knew what the people liked and how they liked it (extra lettuce for the woman who tipped her a quarter). A remote table at McDonald’s can be more café than a posh patisserie. The back corner seat on a bus, with a take-out cup, can be a café. It’s all in the attitude.
I don’t want to feel at home in a café. I don’t want everyone to know my name. I want a café to be a like a park, where I can be with others if I choose, or merely among others. In the café you have servants. You nod and they appear, you ask and they bring. Tip well and you will feel welcomed when you enter, your needs will be monitored with extra glances, and you won’t feel rushed when you linger. This is not a dehumanizing cash transaction; in a café it is quite human, and quite sweet.
We would have coffee every morning in the same café on 72nd and Columbus. The clock at the bank across the street was stuck on 10:18. “How did it get so late,” we might say at 9:30, or “We’ve got plenty of time” at 11.
When I am at Les Deux Magots, on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, there is no where else. When I am at di Simo on Via Filungo in Lucca, there is no where else. When I am at Kleine’s in Vienna, there is no where else. When I am at Brad’s or Joe’s or Max’s in New York, there is no where else. When I am in the back corner seat on the M4 bus, there is no where else. And it is always 10:18.
Hemingway wrote in the Closerie de Lilas in Paris, equipped with bluebacked notebooks, pencils, and a pencil sharpener on a marble-topped table; he carried a horse chestnut and a real rabbit’s foot in his right pocket for luck. Peter Altenberg wrote at Café Central in Vienna, which he used as his mailing address; his presence continues to be felt—and seen—in the form of a dapper statue seated at a table. In the 1920s, Borges spent Saturday evenings at tertulias hosted by Macedonio Fernández at Café Perla in Buenos Aires.
My first writing café was The Balcony on the east side of Broadway and 107th Street, with a lifesize mannequin of Genet’s Madam Irma on the balcony above the bar. Another writer was almost always there when I arrived and still there when I left. The French waiter would fill my coffee at the exact right intervals. After about six months, the other writer nodded hello. After about a year, he asked me what I was working on.
At 1 a.m. we have given up on the coffee we ordered ten minutes ago. Who can blame the waiter so close to closing to have forgotten (or ignored) our latest in a long night of requests, and why would he risk waking up the likes of us. He appears with steaming mugs: “Here you go, it was stale I made a fresh pot.”
A frigid night in a strange town, warmed by the sight of neon squiggles steaming from a cup. Many coffee shops claim they make the World’s Best Coffee. And they do.
My second writing café was Au Petit Buerre (later Au Grenier) on the west side of Broadway and 107th Street. If my check was for $8.30, the proprietor—who always manned the cash register—would say, “That will be eight hundred and thirty dollars,” and I would ask, “Do you have change for a thousand?”
When my cup is almost empty, the waitress comes over with the pot, raises her eyebrows, and I nod—slight movements, lovers’ signals. As she pours, the aroma of the coffee mingles with the scent of her skin. “I’m going to give you the check now— it’s the end of my shift—but you can stay as long as you like. Someone else will take care of you if you need anything else.
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.