Poets David Lehman and Deborah Landau read at the KGB Bar in New York, September 21st, 2015. Photo Credits: Sarah Shatz, Larryfishkorn (flickr)
Poets David Lehman and Deborah Landau read at the KGB Bar in New York, September 21st, 2015. Photo Credits: Sarah Shatz, Larryfishkorn (flickr)
Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves.
Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality.
Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow."
One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words:
"It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them.
Here is another Persian and Sufi poet, Hafiz, reflecting on the centrality of beauty to our well-being:
“The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.”
Beauty, far from being a superficial concern is essential, and can be a turnstile that leads us from the visible to the invisible world. To return to Khayyam, yet again, by admiring the rose — its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we are made finer morally, spiritually even. This is how aesthetics can serve as an ethical code, and prayer is "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul" (Emerson’s definition).
Poets, philosophers and mystics, by their nature, seem especially well-suited to exposing the false divisions between the visible and invisible worlds. While a calling in the life of an artist might be divorced from the strictly religious sense of the word, it still requires similar renunciations, obedience and sacrifice. I can’t say I’ve studied the lives of mystics as closely as I have those of artists, yet the profound similarities seem difficult to dismiss. Time and again, I discover poets and thinkers I respect powerlessly submitting their private lives in the service of intensifying consciousness (out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative). Thus, entire lives are anxiously arranged around the conditions most conducive to the maturity of this elusive faculty.
The artistic-philosophic landscape is teeming with seers of this type. The power and aura of these fiery spirits derives as much from the truths or realities they have revealed as what they’ve had to sacrifice along the way; it is an authority born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered.
What such poets or thinkers have in common is a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds — an uncommon commitment to bear better witness and Be, more fully. To travel to and fro, between the visible and the invisible, required a kind of vanishing act of the traveler, what Foucault called “a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer.”
October 9 at 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
We're pleased to announce the exclusive Seattle book launch for the premier anthology of contemporary American poetry. The 2015 edition marks an exceptional volume guest edited by award-winning novelist and poet Sherman Alexie, who will also host the event. Readers include poets Natalie Diaz, Joan Kane, Ed Skoog, Cody Walker, and Jane Wong. Alexie picked seventy-five poems for the anthology, which highlight the depth and breadth of the American experience.
Find more information here.
I am thinking about time, how it divides and separates. I have been attempting to locate myself in the present, and I think I am getting better at it, but it is hard work. The mind wants to slip back into the past, to glory over supposed triumphs and fret over past defeats — or to pump itself up over things it is looking forward to or cower over things it is apprehensive about. Yeah, you know the drill. But to be in the present, when one can achieve it, is a gift to oneself, and ultimately to everyone else as well. Meditation is a practice for this, and so is going to poetry readings.
I’ll always remember an early poem of Anne Waldman’s called “Things That Make Me Nervous” — and the entire poem reads “Poetry readings. / People. / Dope. / Things I really like.” Which, back in the day, all went together. I looked up the poem and found it in Waldman’s collection Baby Breakdown, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1970. It was in a period when major publishing houses thought it made sense to go with the zeitgeist and try publishing some far-out poetry, almost as though they were record companies, gambling that one of these books could be the Next Big Thing. Others in this class include Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, published by Holt Rinehart and Winston in 1969, and Tom Clark’s Stones, pubished by Harper & Row, also in 1969. These were hardcover publications with dust jackets and very sharp design, seemingly because the decisions were left to the poets. Joe Brainard blanketed Padgett’s book with white stars on a royal blue jacket, cover and endpapers. His hand-lettering of the title and author’s name is exquisite. Clark’s book also has jacket design by Brainard, in this case a large piece of yellow swiss cheese on a black background with the author’s name on the vertical axis. Brainard also contributes a blurb, which begins, “Ron Padgett is a poet. He always has been a poet and he always will be a poet. I don't know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either…” Ted Berrigan’s “liner notes” for Waldman’s book are typically effusive. He starts out casually, “Anne Waldman is easily the most exciting poet of her generation, and Anne and her poems are among the great pleasures of everyone’s generation. Half the population of America is under 25, and Anne Waldman, at the age of 25, is a star. It seems she can do anything, and she has, and does …” Later, he adds something as true today as it was in 1970: “She has altered all our lives for the better simply by her presence, for she is no wielder of power, but simply a presence that permits everybody to be themselves and more often than not their best selves in the world…” He concludes, “This book is an ordinary miracle.” I love that Berrigan dated this blurb, printed on the book’s dustjacket folds, “May 18, 1970.” Baby Breakdown is really a far out book! The half-title and title page are hand-drawn by Waldman, and the inside of the book also features experimental typography and layout.
Tonight I heard two poets reading their poetry, Bobby Byrd, from El Paso, Texas, and Todd Colby, from Brooklyn, and they both, in very different ways brought me back into the sound of a human voice. That seems obvious, but it’s not. Too many times, at readings, there’s a different sense, an overriding thought, usually, of how is this going to come off, what’s my percentage in it, the calculation of a laugh, or a particular point of view that will give the poem, or more to the point, the poet, support. Poetry doesn’t work like that, nor do poets. First of all, it has to be about the poem, or the poetry, not the poet. Not that poets are not glamorous, fascinating, and fun to look at. And not to deny that they are the authors of their work. But there has to be a moment in the reading when you forget all about the poet, who they are, where they live, what they are wearing, who’s that sitting in the back row, and you are left floating, coasting on a wave of words that takes you to a place you simply could not have imagined before you came to the reading.
I am excited to be starting a new season, Fall, my favorite season. It is said that every poet has a favorite month. October was Jack Kerouac’s. For me, it is the season. Even though a friend once said, “Spring is my favorite season, except for Summer,” for me Fall is the season that is filled with new beginnings and renewed buoyancy. It is the season in which classes start again and people migrate back to the city from the country. It is the season of cold evenings and Friday night plans. I actually like the days getting dark earlier and the rhythm of the leaves falling, a dance that will finally end when all the leaves are down, and the trees go to sleep for the winter.
It is also Rosh Hashanah. I feel a resonance with the energies that have to do with understanding among peoples, repentance, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. As described in Wikipedia, today should be, literally, “a day of shouting or raising a noise” or, and this I like even better, a Feast of Trumpets. In addition it cites, “three important stages as the spiritual order of the Ten Days of Repentance (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) unfolds: On Rosh Hashanah Jewish tradition maintains that God opens the books of judgment of creation and all mankind starting from each individual person, so that what is decreed is first written in those books, hence the emphasis on the ‘ketivah’ (‘writing’). The judgment is then pending and prayers and repentance are required. Then on Yom Kippur, the judgment is ‘sealed’ or confirmed (i.e. by the Heavenly Court), hence the emphasis is on the word ‘chatimah’ (‘sealed’). But the Heavenly verdict is still not final because there is still an additional hope that until Sukkot concludes God will deliver a final, merciful judgment, hence the use of ‘gmar’ (‘end’) that is ‘tov’ (‘good’).” In my own interpretation, I take this to mean that the writing that we, as poets, do must be held accountable to the highest judgment and that it must contain within it, not necessarily expressed literally or rationally, our most profound beliefs. Again, in my own interpretation, I take this whole period to mean that, through self-reflection, we must make every attempt to be not simply tolerant but actually open to others, particularly those whose opinions and beliefs may be most alien to us.
And that thought reminds me of someone who embodied those principles. Born the daughter of a rabbi in Kiel, Germany, she immigrated to New York City at the age of three and lived an exemplary life devoted to the arts and freedom of expression and thought. She once told me it was important to engage those on the opposite end of the political spectrum; otherwise, we would never have a chance of convincing them. No one could accuse her, however, of compromising. Her adult life and art practice were devoted to the core principles of Anarchism. I am speaking of Judith Malina, one of the great heroes of contemporary theater and poetry presentation and a remarkable poet herself, whom we lost this year. Judith, first with her husband, Julian Beck, and later with partner Hanon Reznikov, and most recently with Brad Burgess, founded and fired The Living Theatre, legendary not only for its social activism, street theater, audience participation, and full nudity, but also for its productions of poet’s theater, including a 1952 production of John Ashbery’s The Heroes and later productions of plays by Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, as well as for the poetry readings it hosted by such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Gregory Corso, and Ray Bremser, not to mention Charles Mingus with Kenneth Patchen. In the rare Homage To Frank O’Hara (Big Sky 11/12), on page 71, one can find reproduced two photographs of O’Hara. In the first, he sits at a simple wooden table, with a jug of water, reading from a sheaf of papers at a benefit reading for Yugen magaine. In the second, he stands in front of two paintings installed for a reading of writers from Daisy Aldan’s Folder magazine. Both readings took place at the Living Theatre in 1959.
So with that, I begin — the week, the season, and the continual renewal each of us must undertake if we are to aspire to being human in the deepest sense of the word. And make no mistake, poetry is at the core of that effort — for all of us.
6:30 PM - 7:30 PM Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Celebrate the publication of the third Plume Anthology of Poetry as editor Daniel Lawless presents readings from an esteemed slate of contributors: Lloyd Schwartz (whose poem "Nostalgia (The Lake At Night)" we posted here last week, Gail Mazur, Daniel Tobin, Martha Collins, David Rivard, and Marc Vincenz. Plume is a contemporary poetry magazine.
More information here.
Saturday 10:00 a.m.
Caprice: Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton
Decatur First United Methodist Chapel
Saturday 12:00 p.m.
Shifting Perspective: Laura McCullough and William Wright
Decatur City Hall presented by City of Decatur
Saturday 3:00 p.m.
Empathy and the American Dream: Ansel Elkins and John Hoppenthaler Decatur Library presented by WABE
Saturday 5:00 p.m.
Intimate and Complex Connections : Nick Flynn and Charlotte Pence
First Baptist Decatur Carreker Hall presented by MailChimp
Sunday 12:00 p.m.
Exploring Place: Jeffrey Brown and Afaa Michael Weaver
First Baptist Decatur Carreker Hall presented by MailChimp
Sunday 1:00 p.m.
The Light of the World: A Memoir Elizabeth Alexander Decatur Presbyterian Sanctuary presented by Emory University
Sunday 3:00 p.m.
Best American Poetry 2015: Jericho Brown, Denise Duhamel, Laura McCullough, Evie Shockley, and Afaa Michael Weaver
First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary presented by AJC
Sunday 5:00 p.m.
Poetry and the News Jeffrey Brown and Saeed Jones Decatur Presbyterian Sanctuary presented by Emory University
Do not miss:
Sunday at 3:45, Decatur Recreation Center, Studio Kate Tuttle interviews Katha Pollitt about her important book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.
For the complete schedule of AJC Decatur Book Festival Events go here.
For the 14th straight year, the New School Writing Program hosts the launch reading of The Best American Poetry.These poets represented in the 2015 book will take part in an event moderated by series editor David Lehman, poetry coordinator, New School Writing Program, and Sherman Alexie, guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2015.
Sarah Arvio, Melissa Barrett, Mark Bibbins, Emma Bolden, Catherine Bowman, Jericho Brown, Julie Carr, Chen Chen', Danielle DeTiberus, Natalie Diaz, Meredith Hasemann, Saeed Jones, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Laura Kasischke, David Kirby, Dana Levin, Dora Malech, Donna Masini, Airea Dee Matthews, Laura McCullough, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Dennis Nurkse, Alan Michael Parker, Donald Platt, Raphael Rubinstein, Bethany Schultz-Hurst, Evie Shockley,Sandra Simonds, Susan Terris, Michael Tyrell, Sidney Wade, Cody Walker, Afaa Michael Weaver, Terence Winch, Jane Wong, and Monica Youn.
Books will be for sale.
Friday May 15th 7:00pm – 9:00pm
Address: 3620 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Lafayette CA 94549
This just in: Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery is hosting award winning writer, poet Amy Glynn for a reading / talk / degustation. The topic: the apple, its complex symbolism and what it can teach us about human behavior. There will be drinks. There will be snacks. And there will be TAROT READINGS by the lovely Benebell Wen, whose book “Holistic Tarot” is a great resource not only for the card-curious but for writers, philosophers, and anyone interested in the role of archetypes in the human psyche.
What a pairing! THIS WILL BE A FUN ONE!
Posted by Chauncey Mabe in special arrangement with Best American Poetry, April 2015
As all but the most delusional poets know, originality doesn’t really exist. Every writer is beholden to the books he or she has read or the writers whose work he or she admires. That’s the idea behind the “Under the Influence” reading sponsored by The Betsy-South Beach and O, Miami each year during National Poetry Month.
The program originated four years ago. FIU poet Campbell McGrath, O, Miami (and former McGrath student) P. Scott Cunningham, and Daniel Halpern, poet and Ecco Press editor were on hand. Also present via video was Stanley Kunitz, Halpern’s teacher. Kunitz read a poem by Hyam Plutzik, the father of Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik. Kuniz and Plutzik were contemporaries who knew each other’s work well.
“I love this event,” McGrath told the capacity audience at The Betsy’s BBar one recent evening. “It never fails to enhance our understanding of the poets who have influenced us.” He opened with another poem by Plutzik, the humorous Drinking Song.
And, because McGrath and the two poets reading with him are also writing professors, the evening demonstrated how influence is received, transmuted, and passed to the next generation of poets. Julie Marie Wade, also an FIU poet, read “A Jazz Fan Looks Back,” by the late African American poet Jayne Cortez. “We’re told to write what you know,” Wade said in connection to the poem, “but it’s better to write about what you love.” She added, “This poem makes me want to learn more about jazz.”
Daisy Fried opened with Frank O’Hara. A visiting writer-in-residence in The Betsy’s Writer's Room (The Betsy is host hotel for O, Miami during Poetry Month), Fried identified O’Hara for younger members of the audience as “a midcentury New York poet.” She lauded him for always “going for the emotion.” She promised that all three of her influence poems -- the poets also read two of their own -- would be about motherhood, though, she cautioned, “not in the way you might expect.”
McGrath lamented the past year as a bad one for poets. Tomas Transtromer, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish poet died in late March, he noted, He read a poem titled “The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak,” by GalwayKinnell, who died last October. It was a vivid poem of aging and loss, beautifully rendered. McGrath told a story about playing softball against Kinnell when he was a graduate student at Columbia.
Homage was paid to foreign poets, with Fried reading from the works of Cesare Pavese, an Italian writer of the first half of the 20th century, while McGrath read a poem by the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra(who turned 100 last September) in a translation by William Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “In translation a poem is not exactly what was intended,” Fried said. “But influence comes from a variety of directions.”
Late in the evening the poets turned to their own work with an appropriate modesty. “It’s strange to make claims abut your own poetry when you’ve been reading from such great poets,” McGrath said. But he went on to read a long, terrifically visual poem called “Elvis Presley 1957.” Wade, a leading younger lesbian poet, read a charming work, part of a series, in fact, called “Portrait of Jodi Foster As the First of the Movie Girlfriends.”
Wade, a leading younger lesbian poet, read a charming work, part of a series, in fact, called “Portrait of Jodi Foster As the First of the Movie Girlfriends.”
Guest Blogger, Chauncey Mabe is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. This Spring, with funding from The John S. and James L Knight Foundation, The Betsy-South Beach has engaged Mabe in a project to document literary programs from the inside out– sharing the creative viewpoints of wide-ranging writers who connect with Miami’s literary community through residencies in The Betsy’s Writers Room (betsywritersroom.com ) during March, April, and May, 2015.
O, Miami is a poetry festival, with a mission to reach every single person in Miami-Dade County with a poem during the month of April (National Poetry Month). Under The Influence is one of O, Miami’s annual events, held each year at The Betsy Hotel, hosted by MacArthur genius award winner, and Florida poet, Campbell McGrath. (Omiami.org)
On February 11th, over a hundred colleagues, family, friends, former students, and admirers gathered in Wollman Hall at The New School to celebrate the poetry of the late Paul Violi and to launch a posthumous collection of his poems, Selected Poems 1970-2007 (Ginko Press, 2014), edited by Violi’s lifelong friends, authors Charles North and Tony Towle. Violi, who died in April 2011, had published a dozen collections of poetry, including Overnight (Hanging Loose Press, 2007), Breakers: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2000), In Baltic Circles (Kulchur Press, 1973), and Waterworks (Toothpaste Press, 1972). During his lifetime, he had been internationally anthologized and awarded numerous honors and grants, including two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award, and The Morton Dauwen Zabel Award.
Growing up in New York, Violi was not only a prolific writer but versatile in his endeavors. He graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in Art History from Boston University, traveled through Africa, Asia, and Europe during his time in the Peace Corps, worked for television, served as managing editor of The Architectural Forum, organized readings at the Museum of Modern Art while he was the chairman of the Associate Council Poetry Committee, co-founded Swollen Magpie Press, and taught at Sing Sing prison and numerous universities, including The New School’s graduate writing program.
Even before David Lehman, Poetry Coordinator of the Writing Program and co-host took the podium to welcome the guests, Violi’s influence as a poet as well as a beloved professor was evident in the camaraderie that filled the room. The enthusiastic chatter about Violi’s poetry, the experience of working with him and sitting in his classrooms that pervaded Wollman Hall was so great, someone might have expected Violi himself to walk into the room.
Lehman, who had anthologized Violi’s poem “Index” before he met the man of honor, recounts the time a hired driver had gotten him, Violi, Susan Wheeler, Elaine Equi, and Charles North lost in New Jersey, in a “situation perfectly poised between the ridiculous and the reprehensible.” Violi however, “[made] the best of an ignoble situation,” revealing he was just as, if not more entertaining than his poems.
Lehman notes that Violi was not only an accomplished poet, cherished professor, and “a boon companion,” but also “a fine writer and editor [whose] tact and judgment…would have made him a most astute and valuable critic if he had wanted such a career.” In a letter Violi sent Lehman, Violi wrote: “poems are supposed to compete with each other—that’s part of the fun, seeing where and how you try to top yourself.”
Perhaps it was Violi’s self-competing motivation that made his poems accessible, humorous, witty, and satisfying.
“Paul had a genius”—Towle said—“for taking absolutely unpromising prosaic material…and turning it into poetry.”
“All of us at The New School are committed to Paul’s memory”—said Laura Cronk, Associate Director of the Writing Program and co-host of the event—“working to nurture and develop the kind of poets that he did, with kindness, seriousness, good humor, and a vital enthusiasm for the arts.”
Lehman also had a hand in preserving Violi’s work and memory.
“When [Tony Towle] and I first brought the idea of a Paul Violi poetry prize to David [Lehman]”—North said—“he loved it and set it in motion. And when we approached him about a book signing for [Violi's Selected Poems: 1970-2007, he was very eager to do that too and I don’t think either one would have happened without David.”
After Violi’s death in 2011, the New School established the Paul Violi Poetry Prize for second-year poetry students in The New School's graduate program. Plans to expand the prize are already in motion. The proceeds for Selected Poems: 1970-2007, copies of which were donated by Rebel Arts and Ginko Press, will not only perpetuate the Paul Violi Prize but also, as Lehman noted, “attract seed money for an eventual Paul Violi Poetry Fellowship.”
North, Towle, and the four winners of the prize since its inception--Alexandra Bennett, Alex Crowley, Carson Donnelly, and Justin Sherwood--read poems from the book.
“I imagine the pleasure the sight of this group would give to someone gazing from a higher vantage point,” said Cronk. “To quote Paul on his poem, ‘Snorkeling with Captain Bravo,’ ‘be a true seeker and fall forever upward like an angel bloop bloop bloop.’”
Lehman also read from his poem, "Romulus and Remus" which he had written in honor of Violi: “My late friend/ Paul Violi, whom I still see in the street/ Sometimes, walking along at an unhurried pace/ So if I walk fast I will catch up to him at the corner/ Before the light turns green.”
To which Violi, had he been there, might have responded with his poem, “Toward a February Songbook:” “Ah, now February is springtime for gray/ And I’m at my lighthearted best./ Heart as light as a hornet’s nest.”
Hearing Violi’s poems read aloud brought on an air of nostalgia, uproars of laughter, and a feeling of gratification akin to finding a steaming bowl of boeuf bourguignon upon returning home on a windy winter’s night.
Denise Duhamel’s books of poetry include Blowout, Ka-Ching!, Two and Two, Mille et un Sentiments, Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems, and A Star-Spangled Banner, which won the Crab Orchard Award Series for Poetry. She was the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2013.
A professor of English at Florida International University in Miami, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Puffin Foundation, and The Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust for Theater. She has collaborated with numerous poets, composers, and visual artists, and is co-editor (with Maureen Seaton and David Trinidad) of Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry. She has an international following. An off-off-Broadway production of her play How the Sky Fell ran for four performances in 1997.
Moderated by Mark Bibbins, faculty, Writing Program.
Preorder your book for the event HERE
Sponsored by the MFA Creative Writing Program.
Is it possible to know someone you’ve never met, someone who has been completely invisible to you in the flesh but has marked your life in an indelible way? This is my question in regards to the poet Paul Violi, a man I’ve never seen in person but one I’ve come to know through his Selected Poems and the descriptive, warm, and love-inducing stories shared by others who knew him for a long time or perhaps only shared a moment in his presence.
By the time I arrived in New York City, Paul had already passed away. I was studying in The New School’s MFA program, and his name was frequently heard throughout the writing classes and at poetry readings. Mysterious to me then, the goal soon became to figure out who he was as a writer and person, about his teaching style, and the way he viewed the world through an “an ever-widening hour, / where fountains in the rain / half frozen, half music, / shine with a dim dream of the sun.”
Many have written about Paul’s unusual influence; their stories are posted on this blog, and others are embedded in various writings. Memories of Paul circle around themes of gratitude, warmth, and sheer amazement at the poet’s unique capabilities. Those who sat in Paul’s classes tell of his intense focus during conversations, his generosity as both a sincere listener and a speaker who elicited “clarity drawn from darkness / song from thought.” One young man, who knew Paul only through writing, recounts how he reached out to the poet about a possible collaboration. Paul responded to his inquiry and suggested that the two have dinner. He later sent him several of his books, all in the spirit of goodwill and connection. I’m thinking of these lines from “One for the Monk of Montaudon:”
For it’s a pure and simple joy
to eat and drink with those I love,
to stay late and celebrate a few certainties
while confusion and scorn
and a few other crazy, weather-beaten guests
continue to roll across the cold floors
I love this idea of sharing a meal to fight back some of life’s crazy. It seems to be an authentic and real solution, to break bread and enjoy one another’s company amidst all our joys and difficulties. Yet, it also seems to be a rare thing in today’s world.
This was Paul’s mode of operation, though. He found happiness in connecting with others. Earlier in “One for the Monk of Montaudon,” the poet explains:
And I’m glad of a chance to meet people,
like Miss Ohio
(“five foot nine, eyes that shine”),
if for no other reason than the pleasure of shaking hands or the opportunity
of leaning into the distances
while a strand of smoke lingers, and rises,
and turns like an unheard but legible desire.
In these moments we lean into the distances with Paul. We meet others; we meet him. His scenes help us gain a tiny eye and an enlarged heart for what’s going on around us, the people whose lives are intersecting with our own.
Whether on a construction site, in a Nigerian village, or somewhere in his own thoughts, the poet’s life serves as an example of joie de vivre. In another posted tribute (there are dozens), one reader tells about the time Paul ran into the freezing North Sea wearing only his underpants, simply because the water was there and he was alive. This reminds me of his vibrant poems from Harmatan, which relay Paul’s experiences in Nigeria while serving in the Peace Corps.His work, life amongst the people, and keen observations come marching before us, instructing us to hop on the motorcycle behind him as two packs of wild dogs attack from the bush, “leaping over the handlebars, / all fangs and spit flying in strands”. There’s an intense uncertainty here, “alarm still ringing in your head,” and we question how the poet will navigate the rest of our ride.
As we think of poems, like “Index,” we see the writer splurging on language, venturing into what interests him most, things he's appreciating in the moment, the paths he questions, and even items that some of us might initially consider dull. For Paul, all of life was a poem waiting in the wings, a chance to put thoughts to paper, to expand his understanding through iterations and imaginings. Selected Poems is a memorial of the poet’s mind in motion, one that bares its musings – all of the things that can happen in an hour, the loves and losses, the knowable observations, and the darker uncertainties. His lines can bring us back to the surface, as they prompt, “Is life all you know?” Such questions remind us to breathe, to think beyond our ever-present worries. And we need these reminders, especially when we find ourselves disavowing our life’s work three times in the same day (see “Index” again).
Continuing to turn pages in Selected Poems, we see just how seriously Paul took the poetic possibilities within any situation. Poem after poem demonstrate his deep curiosity of small moments in time. It’s as if an idea twitches ever so slightly, and then the poet traces the thread, nourishing additional thoughts and fictional exploration. He takes it into something much larger and more imaginative.
So what has the poet-scholar taught us on our first day of class? If we’re willing participants, we see that there is always something on the other side. Violi left the door open for connection and further questioning. The hour widens as we sit with him, contemplating both light and weighty things, all of which seem weightier by the end of our time together.
Selected Poems will continue to transmit the teacher’s voice. I’m reminded that “it’s a good day / when the wind is pure sensation” and I can stretch out with the writing before me, meeting the poet who hummed each line, breathed each thought. At the beginning of his day, I can almost see Paul stepping out of his house in Putnam Valley, his teacher’s bag full of students’ papers and his comments. It’s early in the morning. He puts one foot past the threshold and calls forth any new or unusual thing. He’s asking someone or something to cross his path, to make itself known in a small or quiet way, and he’s smirking ever so slightly.
This week we celebrate Paul Violi’s life as a friend, poet, and teacher. On behalf of David Lehman and The New School’s Writing Program, we invite you to attend a special night honoring the poet. Please join us this Wednesday, February 11 at 6:30pm at The New School’s Wollman Hall (65 W. 11th Street). Find more information here.
Alex Bennett received her MFA from The New School in 2013. Her work has appeared in the Sosland Journal, The Best American Poetry Blog, the New School Writing Program blog, Insights Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Parsons.
This week we welcome back Kristina Marie Darling as our guest author. Kristina is the author of over twenty books, including Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.
In other news . . .
Save the date: Wednesday, February 11, 2015, 6:30-8:00 PM A book launch and reading of Paul Violi’s Selected Poems: 1970-2007 (Gingko Press), edited by Charles North and Tony Towle.
Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang College
65 West 11th Street Room B500, New York, NY 10003
With David Lehman, faculty, MFA Program, and the winners of the annual Paul Violi Poetry Prize established in Paul’s honor in 2011. Lehman will join Charles North, and Tony Towle, editors of the Selected Poems, in reading from the new book. The winners of the first four Paul Violi poetry competitions -- Alex Crowley, Justin Sherwood, Alexandra Bennett, andCarson Donnelly – will also read.
Paul Violi, one of the major New York School poets of his generation, was celebrated for his inventive wit, his ability to find the poetic resonance of nonpoetic language, and his ability to get serious ideas across without didactic earnestness. An inspiring poet and beloved instructor, he wrote more than a dozen collections of poetry, including Waterworks (1972); In Baltic Circles (1973, 2011); Harmatan (1977), which was based on his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria; the groundbreaking Splurge (1982); Likewise(1988); The Curious Builder (1993); Breakers: Selected Poems (2000); and Overnight (2007).
In 2013, the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa launched a multimedia web gallery with 52 weekly installments of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in 15 languages. Each installment of the poem was supplemented with commentaries from distinguished scholar Ed Folsom, and poet and literary translator Chris Merrill, who is also the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
When I was commissioned to translate this American classic into Persian for the Whitman Web, I knew it was going to be an all-consuming project for the next 52 weeks of my life. When I first read Song of Myself in college, I wished I had read it in translation when I was in school back in Iran. It would have changed my perspective of the United States in a radical way. At the time what I knew of America came through the lens of Hollywood Westerns, dramas, and TV soaps such as the very popular Days of Our Lives.
Here I was now with the means and opportunity to give my fellow Iranians Whitman’s masterpiece. I was excited. I was also terrified. What a daunting, humbling, and at the same time exhilarating project! Translation is re-creation. I knew I had to re-create Whitman’s poem in a language and culture fundamentally different from English and the world within which Whitman lived. And I knew I could not do it alone. So I called my friend, Iranian poet and translator Mohsen Emadi, who lives in exile in Mexico City. He was a poet I trusted and whose work I had translated into English. Together we planned to work on Skype and re-create Song of Myself into Persian. As poets we were united in our approach to literary translation. We both believed that we owed the poem (and Whitman himself) our absolute best to deliver a living, breathing Song of Myself in Persian—a re-creation.
On our first day of collaboration, we spent two hours discussing how to translate the title. We settled on Avaz-e-Kheeshtan. Still ahead were weeks of such discussions and of cutting to the marrow of the poem. Some nights I went to sleep with pages of the sections we were translating scattered on my bed. I studied each section in depth, produced the first draft of the translation, and sent it to Mohsen. He then sent me his draft, after which I responded with mine. We’d then Skype and work on the fourth and fifth drafts together, mouthing the words to compare their music and discussing the use of one word versus another, in terms of implication, historical reference, and musicality.
Whitman sang in my head for those 52 weeks, spoke to me, teased me with lines I thought impossible to translate. This is a poem that is deeply rooted in American culture and expressions—expressions in need of interpretation or complete re-creation, as in the case of such lines as “Endless unfolding of words of ages!” (line 477), “I resume the overstaid fraction” (line 967), and “I am afoot with my vision” (line 716).
Some phrases or expressions that may appear simple and direct in English are quite challenging in Persian. For example, “And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away” (line 147) seems straightforward enough. Yet we spent hours thinking about and discussing the words “around” and “shaken away.” There are multiple ways to translate these words in Persian. We needed to not only communicate the meaning and intention of the poet accurately but also maintain the beauty of expression it demanded.
Another example of the type of challenges we faced is section 35 in its entirety. It is written in a completely different voice than the rest of the poem. How were we to bring to the Iranian reader’s imagination the voice of the American sailor telling his story in such an intimate yet sailorly tone? After a lengthy discussion we decided to employ the diction of a dashee, a tough Iranian street guy—a manner of talking that is readily recognized by Iranians and communicates to them the class and background of the speaker.
Whitman also made up words. The night before Christmas I went to bed thinking about “slough of boot soles” in section 8. I was in regular correspondence with Ed Folsom and Chris Merrill, so, forgetting it was Christmas Eve, I appealed to them for help.
I wrote: My dear Ed and Chris, I don’t know how to translate “sluff of boot-soles” in section 8, particularly if it is a sound. Help!!!
Chris replied: I have the feeling that Whitman's coinage contains the idea of a snake sloughing off its skin, the image of a man shuffling down the street, and the sound of boots scraping the sidewalk. (Hass and Ebenkamp suggest that it is "pure onomatopoetic invention.") Shuffle, shamble, scuff, scrape, soft-shoe, rub, skip, graze... Is it common to coin words in Persian? If so, then this may be such an occasion. Good luck!
Ah, I thought. Good luck to me indeed.
Then came Ed’s answer: I've always heard Whitman's "sluff of bootsoles" as his invention of the sound boots make as they slog through mud. "Sluff" is a phonetic spelling of "slough," which as a noun is a muddy bog, not unlike Manhattan sidewalks and streets in the mid-nineteenth century. As a verb, "slough" is to shed or cast off. So all those boots walking the muddy streets are continually taking on mud and shedding it off, all the while making a distinctive sound that echoes both the noun and the verb—the sluff of bootsoles.
On Christmas day, while kids jumped out of bed excited about presents Santa had left under the tree, I sprang out of bed excited about the idea I had woken up with. Still in my PJs, I dialed Mohsen on Skype. Just out of bed, his salt-and-pepper hair in a tangled mess, he watched his crazy poet friend, namely me, do a crazy dance before the computer camera, yelling: “I got it! I got it! Kelesh Kelesh. Kelesh Kelesh.” That was the precise sound-translation of Whitman’s onomatopoetic invention.
Later, Ed wrote: Sluff Sluff Sluff: I hear it every time I witness someone walking through mud! And now I'll hear kelesh kelesh kelesh as well . . .
(On the website, readers are also able to listen to each section of the poem read aloud in Persian by me. http://iwp.uiowa.edu/whitmanweb/fa/section-1)
It's easy to see why the 19th Century poet, William Cullen Byrant, wrote much of his nature poetry at his Long Island summer home. For just a few hours, you too can be Bryant's guest at a brand new poetry reading series that began this fall. You can take in the harbor views, admire the stained glass windows, and enjoy a reception that follows each reading at Bryant's home and historic landmark, Cedarmere. Located just a short train ride away from Brooklyn and Manhattan, it feels many miles and centuries away.
For registration or other information, visit the American Irish Teachers Association or contact Doris Marie Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-691-2883
7:30 pm. 85 E 4th St, New York, New York 10003
DARA WIER's most recent book is You Good Thing from Wave Books, 2013, a Believer's readers' choice for 2014. Her previous books include Reverse Rapture (Poetry Book of the Year, American Poetry Center, San Francisco St. University, 2009), Remnants of Hannah, Voyages in English, and Blue for the Plough. She writes a sporadic blog for Flying Object, flying-object.org/, a community arts space and project in Hadley, Massachusetts, and she leads workshops and seminars for the University of Massachusetts Amherst MFA for Poets and Writers.
DAVID LEHMAN is the author of many collections of poems, including New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013), Yeshiva Boys (Scriber, 2011), When a Woman Loves a Man (Scribner, 2005), Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (with James Cummins, Soft Skull Press, 2005), and The Evening Sun (2002). Among his books of non-fiction are 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 on the core faculty of the graduate writing programs at the New School and New York University. He lives in New York City and Ithaca, NY
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.