Meanwhile, we'll be here.
First stop: the Keynote Address by US Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, August 31, 8 PM at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University.
On Saturday, September 1, from 11:15 am-12:00 pm the Best American Poetry 2012 Series Editor David Lehman, BAP 2011 Guest Editor Kevin Young, and BAP 2012 Guest Editor Mark Doty with celebrate the anthology and share their work along with poems from the current volume. Decatur Presbyterian Sanctuary Stage. A book signing will follow the presentation.
There's a lot going on in Decatur this weekend! Find out all about it here.
Ever since the launch of Mobile Libris in 2005, Sharon Preiss's traveling bookstore has sold thousands of books at hundreds of readings in and around New York City. Mobile Libris is our go-to bookseller when we hold readings in bars, churches, classrooms, libraries, and other locations that don't ordinarily sell books. Preiss (above) or one of her twenty or so employees arrives on time with an attractive book display and, most importantly, a good supply of the author's books for sale. With the fall reading season upon us, Sharon agreed to share her observations about readings: What makes them succeed? What can those who give readings do better? Post your questions for Sharon in the comment section and she’ll answer them.
1. Can you identify the key ingredients that make for a successful reading? That is, what can a reader do that will give his or her audience pleasure and make it more likely that they will want to read (and buy) the author's book?
There are so many variables that can affect a reading, it's just about impossible to guarantee a great one. Even things like technical problems, weather, and the temperature of the room make an impression on the audience. The best thing authors can do, though, is concentrate on thing that matters most — their presentation. Rehearse, know your material, time your talk. The better prepared you are, the more likely it is that you will come across as authoritative and confident. If you're feeling good about what you're about to say, you'll speak clearer, slower, louder, with more ease — you'll be taking care of some of the little things that can turn an audience off. You may not be able to stop the snowplows grinding by the window battling the worst blizzard of the year, but you're going to make sure the people who braved the storm to show up will be glad they did.
Also, some of the best events I've been to are those where authors limit their amount of actual reading from the book but talk about the book instead — some background on the subject, what brought them to it, how they researched, what the writing process was. This background stuff really engages and intrigues the audience, piques their interest in the book and doesn't give too much of it away. But that probably applies more to fiction and non-fiction than poetry. With poetry it's always the poems that matter most. A little bit of between-poem chat is good but I've seen audiences get restless and embarrassed for the poet when the talk becomes too revealing or personal. I recommend that if you're in doubt about what to say between poems, just read the poems.
It helps if the audience knows that books will be for sale. If there’s advance publicity, be sure to mention that books will be available for purchase and that the author will sign them. The event host should make such an announcement at the beginning of the event and at its close. And readers: your audience likes it when you sign their books so plan to stick around.
2. What are some of the most common mistakes you have seen authors make, things one might do to turn the audience off or make them lose interest in an otherwise great book?
Rule # 1-10: DON'T GO ON TOO LONG. Really, it's the worst thing you can do. Even if you're absolutely sure your audience wants to hear more, stop. Let 'em buy the book and get the rest of the story there. Seriously. I can't emphasize this enough. I know you think they're dying to hear more. They're not. They're just dying. Adhere to your time limits or be prepared to make lifelong enemies!
Also, think about the difference between being modest versus being self-denegrating. It's pretty awkward to hear readers say how terrible their work is or make excuses about its quality. Even if your doubts about your work are real, assume that people are there because they want to hear you read. Don't apologize for your writing.
3. You've sold books at poetry, fiction, and non-fiction readings. Which kind of audience is most likely to buy the books? Can you speculate why?
I'm not sure genre has much to do with sales, at least at readings. Really, it seems to have more to do with how special the event or the book feels. Take The Best American Poetry, for example. We've sold BAP for the last three years at the annual September launch reading held at the New School [Thursday, September 20, 2012, 7:00 PM. 66 W.12th Street -- ed] People are excited about the book. It's just been published and many people are seeing it for the first time. It's a special event just for that book. Everyone's focus is on showcasing it, presenting it in its best light. It's like a coming out party for the book. Sales are tremendous. Everyone wants a copy. You feel special walking away with one, and you're going to remember the night you bought it. I guess someone who's more of a business person than a book person would call that marketing, but that sounds really crass. I like to think of it more like giving every book its due moment in the spotlight, even if it's just at a small reading at the corner bar. It takes a lot to write a book, and each one is sort of like its own person, with looks and personality and charm. They deserve to be treated special.
4. What is the craziest/funniest/most outrageous/ thing that has happened at a reading?
Our bookseller, Ben, came back from an event at the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison and 34th and told us a crazy story about what had just happened there. Normally, the library events are pretty small and uneventful. We generally don't expect to sell a lot of books there and it's just a simple in-and-out for the bookseller. On this particular day we were selling Galileo's Gout by Gerald Weissmann, a doctor and researcher at NYU. Nothing special, really. It's a book, like a few others recent ones I can think of, that examines the relationship of science to politics and calls to question some current US government policies.
Well, I'm not sure exactly why, but the room was packed. Middle of the week, middle of the day, but standing room only and turning people away at the door. The librarians had to push people out of the room and actually lock the door to keep all these unruly professors and doctors from storming in. There was shouting. There was cursing. There was gnashing of teeth and raising of blood pressure. They all wanted to hear Dr. Weissmann, but there was no way they were all going to fit in the room. We sold out of books within short order, and Ben made it out of there without any major injuries. It was quite a scene. That PhD crowd! Totally out of control.
For a sneak peek and to pre-order, click on the image and scroll down:
Join Best American Poetry Series Editor David Lehman and Guest Editor Mark Doty as they introduce this year's volume of the acclaimed series. The following contributors will be on hand to read selections from the book: * Heather Christle * Eduardo C. Corral. * Elaine Equi * Kathleen Graber *Amy Glynn Greacen * Richard Howard * Marie Howe *Lawrence Joseph * Noelle Kocot * Joy Katz * Kerrin McCadden* Honor Moore * Michael Morse * Carol Muske-Dukes * Angelo Nikolopoulos * Mary Jo Salter * Lynne Sharon Schwartz * Brenda Shaughnessy * Tracy K. Smith * Mark Strand * Susan Wheeler * David Yezzi. *
The reading will be followed by a book signing. Books will be available for sale.
Here's what Publisher's Weekly has to say about the Best American Poetry 2012 :
Now in its 25th year, the Best American Poetry anthologies have become something of a yearbook for American versifiers. The 2012 volume runs the gamut of styles and positions, from the experimentally mixed registers of Rae Armantrout (“Information describing the fading laser pulse// is stored// is encoded// in the spine states/ of atoms”) to the unrelenting intensity of Frank Bidart (“the burning// fountain is the imagination// within us that ingests and by its/ devouring generates// what is most antithetical to itself”) to an extended meditation on art and family by Paisley Rekdal: “Here is the killer with his handsome face./ Here is Manson, Bundy, Hitler,/ the Terror’s row of heads still spiked on stakes.” Doty, this year’s guest editor, is a populist at heart, who believes poetry is available and useful to all who are willing to seek it out, and so he has chosen poems that take the national pulse in the midst of a tensed political moment (Joy Katz looks to the “Department of Trance/ Department of Dream of Levitation/ Department of White Fathom” for answers) and also look mysteriously inward at a timeless human core as only poetry can: “I keep my distance like the tines/ Of a fork from one another,// Dressing, undressing the fabulous wounds,” writes Noelle Kocot. As usual, there is something for everyone; this is a particularly good volume in this series.
This event is sponsored by Scribner, the New School Writing Program, and the Poetry Society of America. For more information go here.
Poet Alina Gregorian writes to tell us that she's been asked to curate a weekly poetry reading series for the Huffington Post. The first video, featuring poet Paul Legault is now live. Paul Legault is the co-founder of the translation press Telephone Books and the author of three books of poetry: The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn, 2010), The Other Poems (Fence, 2011), and The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney's, 2012) Take a look, it's fantastic. And tune in next week for the ongoing series.
Loss must linger on the minds of the 28 NBA teams not on the court last night when the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Miami Heat in the first game of the championship series. LeBron James of the Heat and Kevin Durant of the Thunder are in their 20s, certain to dazzle for years to come on their way to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But neither superstar is likely to usurp Michael Jordan as the greatest NBA player ever.
So why did Quincy Troupe, poet and former professional basketball player, write a villanelle for the winning shot Jordan sank with six seconds left for his sixth NBA championship as a Chicago Bull in 1998? Doesn’t a form often associated with loss seem a strange fit for the reigning champ of champs?
Troupe offered two excellent explanations at a craft talk this spring at Poet’s House where he compared the Jordan villanelle “Forty-One Seconds on a Sunday in June, in Salt Lake City, Utah” to a free verse poem for Magic Johnson, the improv king of NBA point guards.
To Troupe, the villanelle’s echoing lines matched Jordan, so often returning to the championship to terrorize his opponents. No one who guarded Jordan would need evidence of the link to loss found in these four villanelles by Dylan Thomas, Edward Arlington Robinson, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Troupe also described Jordan as a mechanics player who over and over again literally soared above opponents with a 48-inch vertical leap. Players knew exactly what Jordan was going to do; they just couldn’t stop him. The repetition of a villanelle is precisely that predictable. The resonant image of a Jordan dunk or jump shot is the hang time. The first line of the Troupe villanelle, by form repeated three more times: “rising up in time, michael jordan hangs like an icon, suspended in space.”
In contrast, Troupe’s first basketball poem in 1985 heralded an improv player, Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, an agile and innovative point guard, the epitome of surprise.
Was Troupe an improv or mechanics basketball player? At 72, he still answers with his body as well as his words, as if he is trying to twist around an opponent. He wasn’t a tall point guard so “you’re going to learn improv or you are going to get stuffed.”
Troupe’s segue from basketball to poetry? Jean Paul Sartre and a busted left knee. Seriously.
Troupe joined the Army in the early 1960s and went from boot camp to basketball for Army and All-Army teams in France (nice work if you can get it) and a French pro team. Then he blew out his left knee. So Troupe tried writing “an awesomely bad novel” -- the sexual conquests of a pro athlete touring Europe. A French girlfriend said a family friend might have some advice.
That writer, “a little French guy with glasses,” turned out to be Sartre, who suggested Troupe learn control over language by reading poets.
Practiced control, passionate practice – Troupe already knew from basketball. His competitive juices kicked in too. Just as kids in playgrounds and backyards still want to imitate a Magic Johnson no-look pass, Troupe wanted to make poems like Pablo Neruda or Dylan Thomas. So he taught himself to write in various poetic forms, including the villanelle.
“I found I loved writing just as much as I loved to play basketball,” Troupe said at Poets House. “I could do it all day long, and want more.”
Troupe also already knew much about music, having absorbed lots of jazz, gospel and Latin music during his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. By the time he wrote a break-though poem on John Coltrane, Troupe appreciated that those who soar in improv are building on solid, honed fundamentals, whether in basketball or jazz or poetry.
Flash forward to lots of writing success but still not a poem that satisfied Troupe about basketball. Then he moved from LA to NYC and the sounds of his new city started to alter his line from a long 12-syllable hexameter to something shorter and quicker and more unpredictable. Which led to a start and many revisions to the ode to Magic.
“I wanted a line close to a jazz riff,” said Troupe, who coauthored with jazz musician Miles Davis, “Miles: The Autobiography” in 1989, which won the American Book Award.
Jazz and basketball, like poetry, all offer Troupe a way to express American affinities. “I was hell-bent on establishing an American form, rooted in my own experiences,” he said.
Basketball poems bugged Quincy Troupe for a long time, particularly his own. No poem he’d ever read – or written – captured the speed of basketball, until he wrote an ode to Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr. in 1985.
“They were all just too damn slow,” said Troupe, a former pro basketball player and the first Poet Laureate of California. “Basketball is quick, quick, quick.”
After 20 drafts – the rewriting continued even after A Poem for Magic was published – Troupe finally (maybe) is finished with the poem. Troupe compared versions at a craft talk this spring at Poets House in New York City and read the final version from his 1996 book Avalanche.
My eyes are full of basketball, open and closed, during the March to June stretch of NCAA and NBA finals. (Thanks goodness the WNBA then takes over for the summer.) But Troupe’s reading is the first time my ears have ever been full of basketball. Not just sounds that conjure associations, squeaky sneakers or a bouncing ball. But an earful of the players (or poets) who master the mechanics and then elevate an art to a level where the rest of us mere mortals can only just admire, slack-jawed and inspired.
Troupe’s free verse frenzy of “herk & jerk” captures the rhythm and images of how Johnson “wiled your way to glory” as the point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. Tall, agile and a consummate team player, Johnson was one of the game’s greatest passers as well a potent scorer: “head bobbing everwhichaway/ up & down, you see everything on the court.”
All game long, fans expected surprise from Magic. Highlights of Johnson’s greatest passes capture for me the rare thrill as a poet of suddenly connecting two words in a transcendent way. Those moments are even more impressive to me than Johnson’s five NBA championships and three MVP awards.
Troupe, the author of nine volumes of poetry, literally opens up the spacing of the poem in the last version and adds more enjambments to mirror Magic’s mastery of change of pace. A long indent sets off “a new-style fusion of shake-&-bake/ energy”, with energy enjambed to the next line.
Forty-three lines into “A Poem for Magic,” a “we” suddenly appears for just three lines: "in victory, we suddenly sense your glorious uplift/ your urgent need to be champion/ & so we cheer with you, rejoice with you."
And disappears, just as fast, in the next line, indented so far it almost slides off the page “for this quicksilver, quicksilver, / quicksilver moment of fame.” But that quicksilver moment is just enough connection to keep us coming back, to play or appreciate the arts that elevate.
Return to BAP tomorrow to learn why Troupe decided Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan was a villanelle and what Jean Paul Sartre and a busted left knee has to do with it. Also email me at email@example.com if you’re interested in channeling your inner Phil Jackson and pairing a poem or book of poetry with players in the NBA playoffs (winners and losers) or WNBA players just ramping up their season.
Jackson thoughtfully chose books for his players for long road trips. Whatever they did with the books was their business, but it’s hard to argue the tactics of a coach who won 11 championships, six with the Chicago Bulls and five after with the Los Angeles Lakers. That doesn’t include two with the Knicks as a player in the 1970s. I’ll include the best pairings in a blog this week, and of course credit assists. Explain why and how you’d like to be identified. At present, BAP cannot also offer a sneaker contract.
Ed note: On Thursday, April 26, 2012, at The Corner Bookstore in Manhattan (93rd Street and Madison Avenue), Dana Gioia read from Pity the Beautiful, his most recent volume of poetry. Here is the text of David Lehman's introduction. (sdh):
Most poets lead lives of quiet desperation or perhaps subdued contentment. The example of Dylan Thomas to the contrary notwithstanding, the life of a modern poet is not supposed to be dramatic, exciting, full of unexpected detours and flamboyant adventures. Take a look at the contributors' notes of a poetry anthology and you’ll see the typical profile: the poet has an MFA degree, teaches writing workshops at a university or college, has several publications, has gained some recognition, and lives with spouse plus a pet with a cute name in Tuscaloosa or Kalamazoo, or maybe Iowa City or Ann Arbor.
How different from this paradigm is the life and career of Dana Gioia.
After college at Stanford, Dana studied comparative literature at Harvard, picking up a master’s degree but deciding that the academic life was not for him. In 1975, he returned to Stanford to study business. With his MBA in hand he began working for General Foods in Rye Brook, NY, becoming a vice president of marketing, with responsibilities for such accounts as Jell-O and Kool-Aid. Still later he specialized in mergers-and-acquisitions. This is demanding work, but Dana, whose unflagging energy and stringent work ethic remain an inspiration to his friends, did not put his literary life on hold.
Mindful of the great American poets who toiled not in ivory towers but in insurance companies, medical practices, libraries, journalism, as well as commerce, Gioia was a businessman by day but managed to publish poems and ambitious essays in prestigious magazines such as The Hudson Review and elsewhere. He became a leader of the New Formalism, a movement determined to restore to poetry the importance formerly placed on rhyme and meter. He also translated Montale, wrote touching personal memoirs about Elizabeth Bishop (whom he had come to know while at Harvard) and John Cheever, and in 1991 penned an influential and much-quoted essay for The Atlantic that won him many ardent admirers and a fair share of enemies: “Can Poetry Matter?” Nearly twenty years later, the poetry website called Scarriet posted its “hot 100” list, and there in second place, between Billy Collins (“a poet of wit and popularity”) and David Lehman ("BAP takes the pulse better than prizes/contests do”) you will find Dana Gioia, whose “famous essay still resonates.”
After leaving the business world, Dana gave more time to the literary life – writing poems and essays and opera libretti, editing textbooks, translating Seneca, collaborating with all sorts of folks on all sorts of worthy projects. But he had another surprise in store for us. He became, in 2003, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, in which capacity he served for six years, piloting ambitious programs and managing to sell the arts to congressmen not necessarily disposed to be supportive. It is safe to say that not since Archibald MacLeish headed the Library of Congress has a poet worked so hard, and accomplished so much of value, in so prominent a position in the federal government.
On a purely personal note, I like to remember the day in 2003when Dana came to New York and we had coffee at the Cornelia Street Café. Dana told me about the National Book Festival he was organizing for the fall and he asked me to help him make a presentation of American poetry. There would be a brunch at the White House that my wife, Stacey, and I could attend. I said: My mother – It would mean a lot to her, a holocaust refugee, then 88, to come. Dana took the cell phone out of his pocket and made a call and five minutes later my mother was on the guest list. The day we visited the White House was one of the happiest days in her life, and for that I will always have Dana to thank.
Now Dana is publishing his fourth book of poems, Pity the Beautiful. It is his first collection in more than a decade, and I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date – and surely – in such poems as “Special Treatments Ward” and “Majority” and “Being Happy” and “The Road” -- his most poignant. There’s a poem that appeared in the Hudson Review that’s out of this world: “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet.” These are poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably.
It’s a privilege to present to you this man of letters and of action, the author of Pity the Beautiful, my friend, the poet Dana Gioia.
-- David Lehman
In the New York Botanical Garden in November, Marie Ponsot paused in front of a towering tree. She recalled as a little girl she delighted her mother with the observation that trees are just like big bunches of flowers.
That power of pause, of reflection transformed with language, often with a jolt of joy (or pain), makes Marie Ponsot, 91, an inaugural NYC Literary Legend. She is a poet who sees and seizes the lyric moment in her work and in her life.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the 2012 Literary Honors Thursday. Joining Ponsot, were Walter Dean Myers for children’s literature, Paul Auster for fiction, Roz Chast for humor, Robert Silvers for literary life and Robert Caro for nonfiction.
“The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,” asserts the poem Ponsot read at the Gracie Mansion ceremony. That poem, "This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo," ends with these four lines: “Late at night when my outdoors is/indoors, I picture clouds again:/Come to mind, cloud./Come to cloud, mind.”
Mother to seven, mentor to many, Ponsot writes and teaches with a child’s delight in exploration. But this child reads Latin, translates French and has published numerous poetry collections. The most recent are Easy (2009), Springing (2002) and The Bird Catcher (1998), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among many honors, Ponsot holds the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal for lifetime achievement and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2010.
Professor emerita of English at Queens College, CUNY, Ponsot also has taught in national and international graduate programs. With colleague Rosemary Deen, Ponsot wrote Beat Not the Poor Desk. This revolutionary text for effective writing teaching won the Shaughnessy Medal of the Modern Language Association. Ponsot still teaches at the Unterberg Poetry Center of 92nd Street Y and at The New School.
The city ceremony capped a week of Ponsot appreciation that began Monday at the KGB Bar in the East Village. She first read “TV, Evening News,” a poem that begins with a “screenful of chaos” from the war in Afghanistan.
“I don’t know the languages,” the speaker claims, “I safe screen-watch.” But nevertheless Ponsot connects all of history and humanity in the third, six-line stanza: “Achilles is not there, or Joshua either…/My children are thank God not there/any more or less than you and I are not there.”
As a tank takes out a wall, Ponsot subverts a word of worship: “the house genuflects,” and a woman howls in the dust before the camera cuts to the next shot.
Ponsot is seriously Still Against War, her trademark yellow button and the title of two books of poetry by former students from several decades. Jamie Stern, poet, publisher and lawyer, gathered three dozen students at her Tribeca loft Tuesday to read from Still Against War II. And to take a challenge to describe beyond clichés Ponsot’s bright smile and blue eyes, eyes simultaneously piercing and generous.
“She smiles like she has a secret but one she is happy to let you in,” Michael Bennett said.
“The generosity of the Dalai Lama’s eyes,” offered Elizabeth Coleman.
“Blue laser beams that can zap x-rays or cut glass,” said Jackson Taylor.
In a Ponsot workshop, students do not offer subjective improvements to the poems of others. Instead she draws out rigorous, detailed observations, which inevitably give the poet a notion about what to fix. (I keep on my desk two pithy paragraphs Ponsot wrote about her grandmother’s three-word expression “Mind Yourself Child.” Change the intonation and stress on each word and you too will be thinking about identity in complex ways.)
Still Against War I in 2011 celebrated Ponsot’s 90th birthday and her recovery from a heart attack, stroke and aphasia the year before. Ponsot got critical rapid care because she had a son call poet Scott Hightower, whose partner is an emergency room doctor.
Imagine a life in which her emergency call is to a fellow poet. “She lives poetry on a scale that is just so elemental,” Hightower said. “Not only as a writing mentor but a teaching mentor.”
In the days before she could speak again, Ponsot was taking inventory in her head of language lost, instinctually poking around for passages she knew in more than one language and for a long time. When she couldn’t recall “The Lord’s Prayer” in English, she tried it in French. When that didn’t work, she remembered a Latin manuscript and from visual memory began to translate it back into English.
While Ponsot lay in intensive care, Sapphire, novelist and poet, snuck in to deliver six small notebooks and pen. Once home, a poet posse of students and friends came by to read and talk about poems regularly to help Ponsot regain lexicon and syntax. Her fluency with language restored, Ponsot read new poems as well as published work at Monday’s reading.
As she told a group of high school poetry students in the Bronx in November, even in the hospital she followed the only rule she’s ever made for herself about writing – do it at least 10 minutes every day. “If I could do that with seven children, so can you,” Ponsot said.
Then to their surprise, 15 minutes into the class they’d expected to be a lecture and reading from a master, Ponsot leaned forward and announced “My dears, let’s hear your poems.”
One by one, they read while Ponsot listened as intently as she watches trees and clouds and children and wars and words.
Catherine Woodard wrote “Secret of Tomato” as a tribute to Ponsot and appears in both Still Against War volumes. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. She worked to restore Poetry in Motion to the NYC subways and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia. In 2011, she was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a featured poet at UnshodQuills.com. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from The New School and MS in journalism from Columbia University.
Saturday April 21, 2012, 3:30-5:30 PM: Poetry & Cocktails To celebrate National you-know-what (hint: April), the acclaimed East Village restaurant Back 40 is once again hosting a poetry/cocktail slam, for which it has enlisted some of New York's most inventive chemists to create cocktails inspired by their favorite poetry. The great slam impresario, poet Bob Holman will raise each glass and conjure the poem that inspired its contents. We were there last year, we'll be there this year. For God's sake--hock and soda water!
For more information and to purchase tickets go here.
I know you're probably not local to Los Angeles, but I wish you could come out to hear two of my literary heroes, Sandra M. Gilbert and Ron Carlson read at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena this weekend.
Founded in 1894, Vroman's is Southern California's oldest and largest independent bookseller (two of Vroman's early employees are restacking books in the photo, above).
Here are a few words from Ron Carlson on bewilderment and humility and listening in the act of writing:
"Beginning a story without knowing all the terrain is not a comfortable feeling. It is uncomfortable enough in fact to keep most people away from the keyboard...But there are moments in the process of writing a story when you must tolerate that feeling: you stay alert to everthing that is happening and by listening and watching, you find out where you are going by going there.
"The single largest advantage a veteran writer has over the beginner is this tolerance for not knowing. It's not style, skill, or any other dexterity. An experienced writer has been in those woods before and is willing to be lost; she knows that being lost is necessary for the discoveries to come."
from Ron Carlson Writes a Story (Graywolf Press), page 15
Sandra Gilbert is one of my favorite living writers. She speaks of life as a woman, a daughter, a mother, a thinking person. "You write because you dream a different self into being when you write," Sandra M. Gilbert says in her essay, "Why Do We Write", On Burning Ground: 30 Years of Thinking about Poetry (University of Michigan Press). "You write because you meet a new you in writing, a you you didn't know you had."
Ron Carlson and Sandra Gilbert will be reading at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California on Sunday, April 15, 4p.m.
Ed note: Kevin Young gave wonderful reading on Monday at the 92nd Street Y here in NYC. He read new poems plus selections from his books, which you can buy here. Here's David Lehman's introduction:
Good evening. It gives me enormous pleasure to introduce this reading by Kevin Young, for in addition to admiring his work as an editor, a curator, a writer, and above all a poet, I have been lucky enough to collaborate with him on two very different projects, about which I will leave you in momentary suspense while I list a few of his accomplishments, as is customary on such an occasion.
By his titles you shall know him. Kevin Young is the author of books of poetry entitled Dear Darkness, For the Confederate Dead, Jelly Roll: A Blues, and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels – and as the list suggests the history and culture of black Americans figures very significantly in his creative and professional work. He has a natural flair for the noir in more than one sense. I first encountered Kevin Young when he was writing film noir poems and editing his turn-of-the-century anthology Giant Steps named in honor of a jazz composition by John Coltrane and introducing us to “a cross-section of cutting-edge black writers,” including, among the poets, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Harryette Mullen, Natasha Trethewey. Nothing if nor prolific, Kevin has edited anthologies of jazz poems, blues poems, and a selected edition of John Berryman, the white poet who dared to adopt a persona in blackface for his most original work, The Dream Songs.
Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, Young’s 2011 collection, is characteristically greater than the sum of its parts; it is unified in tone, style, subject matter, and ambition. Young comes at you in the form of a minstrel show in one poem, a hymn in another, proverbs and prayers, diary entries and letters, to look at the 1839 slave-ship mutiny with the multiple perspectives the truth calls for. And at the same time he was writing Ardency he was editing The Art of Losing, an anthology of poems of grief and healing. The elegiac impulse is strong in his own recent poems, such as the brilliant selection chosen by Langdon Hammer for the current issue of The American Scholar. These are poems that deal with that gravest of one-time events in the life of a man, the death of his father. In such a one as “Wintering,” the palpable chill of death makes the poet wish “to be warm -- & worn -- // like the quilt my grandmother / must have made, one side / a patchwork of color -- // blues, green like the underside / of a leaf – the other / an old pattern of the dolls // of the world, never cut out / but sewn whole – if the world / were Scotsmen & sailors // in traditional uniforms.” The quilt as a metonymy for art is what turns metaphor into truth. Mourning “is just / a moment, many, // grief the long betrothal / beyond. Grief what / we wed, ringing us.”
The first time Kevin Young and I collaborated was on January 4, 2007, when we agreed to take part in what Ken Gordon, of Quickmuse.com, called a “special serial agon.” Kevin and I were given four prompts and asked to write poems in response, with a limit of fifteen minutes per prompt, and with each keystroke preserved in real-time. Among the prompts was a quote from the then-recently deceased James Brown: “The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” We wrote poems based on the line, which both of us endorsed, with qualification and elaboration, and I was delighted to hear the quotation once again at a reading Kevin gave from his new award-winning prose book, The Grey Album. On that same day we also wrote poems prompted by quotes from or about three other notables who had just died, Saddam Hussein, Gerald Ford, and Robert Altman. You’ll find it on the net: go to Quickmuse. Our poems also appeared in New American Writing.
In contrast to that improvisatory collaboration of simultaneous verse-making, the second time Kevin and I worked on a project together was the year he made the selections as the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2011, of which we are both I think justly proud. During that period we met, either by plan or serendipitously, at a Boston hotel, a New York art gallery, a London airport, and a café off an Atlanta road named after the fellow who pursued the Fountain of Youth and discovered Florida instead. It was a pleasure to work with him – and to celebrate life and art with this man of extraordinary intelligence, energy, ambition, and a contagious joie de vivre, a particular joy in living that stands behind even the darkest of his elegies.
-- David Lehman
A few notes on poetry readings (gotta make it quick today):
Here is a taste of Lynn Emanuel:
from Dream in Which I Meet Myself
Dear Diary, here in New York City,
the snow descends. The days go on forever.
Hash made my mind from my fingertips stream out.
My brain was tapped, under surveillance
by the eyes of the traffic lights jewelling the foreheads of the avenues.
Inside my red dress I was a sunset.
I lingered and blinked in the gold windows of NEW WORLD FETISH
at the nun in her rubber habit.
I tried on her wimple of lurid beauty and it fit.
Then suddenly back in the cold I was stolen upon
by the voice of an unemployed actor
who was walking me home to my small room, bruised
floorboards, more (blonde) hash, lurk of heat from the snickering
serpentine radiator and I drank six
inches of black Barolo until I didn't have to think
about the hyper-privileged and under-subverted,
until I was too buzzed to be devoured
by these cannibalistic times,
until I became a blizzard of nothingness.
from Noose and Hook (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)
and Martha Rhodes:
I liked sitting in our room
by the early morning window.
I'd watch him stretch his legs
just shy of violent cramp until
he'd wake, the bed's smell
an immense blend of sex so that
I'd rush back to him.
This blank room's smell
is like that, persistent, as I rest
against the wall; I'm merely
passing through, to visit
someone, though I am not
quite sure who, actually, and if
I am to say hello, or goodbye--
from The Beds (Autumn House Press, 2012)
...It will be a good reading.
Hearing the poem or reading the poem
Speaking of poetry readings, in pursuit of an answer to the eternal question, "Why do people go to poetry readings?" (which I explored on this site a couple of years ago), I keep returning to a point my friend and brilliant co-curator/co-host at KGB, poet Matthew Yeager, made about the existence of a poem (or a poet) on two planes: on the page and out loud.
Matt was speaking in the context of the National Book Awards. Every year, the week the awards are presented, a big reading is held for all nominees in all categories, giving them a chance to share some of their work. I attended one year -- it's a bit of a marathon, but it's especially fun to see non-fiction writers get their moment in the sun (i.e., read their words before an appreciative live audience), and the poets kind of kick everyone's ass. The judges of the awards (prominent writers in their genre) get together that week, too, to make their final decision... but they're not allowed to go to the reading, for fear that the performance might sway them. Matt found this ban objectionable in the context of poetry, arguing that often a poem's true existence is out loud, much more so than on the page. The awards, then, are recognizing or privileging any given poet's work on the page... This discloses an implicit definition or philosophy as to what a poem is, and who is more likely to be awarded.
Matt's insight made me realize that a reading is the only place you will get access to the poem incarnated as speech, as breath. There is only that live moment, those minutes of the writer living the words, and then it's done.
(There are videos, but, I am willing to confess, I don't particularly want to watch YouTube videos of poetry readings. I did hear a recording of Berryman reading "The Ball Poem" once that completely changed the poem for me. Maybe audio only is better? Oh hey, I tried to find it (no luck) and came across these audio archives at the Academy of American Poets. Here he is reading the first Dream Song.) A poet whose work changed for me after hearing him read it live is Jeffrey McDaniel. Hearing him read is an emotional experience, he gives each rendition his all.
Informal, accidental poll of American singles who read poetry
* Speaking of Jeffrey McDaniel, in attempting to find one of his poems online couple of days ago, Google spit out an OKCupid page with every single person who had mentioned Jeffrey McDaniel in their personal profile (this was without me having an account or logging in in any way). How quickly one turns from virtuous poem-seeker to creepy creeper looking at people's dating profiles....
This may come as heartening news for those fearing for the future of poetry: a lot of young single people, ranging in ages from 21 to 35, from Hawaii to Missouri to Long Island, like and appreciate the work of Jeffrey McDaniel, and of many other poets (Sharon Olds, Frank O'Hara, Marie Howe, Neruda, Bukowski, Anne Sexton...). They appear to be a healthy, good-looking bunch, with varied interests, and rich internal lives. Maybe they're all creative writing students, or maybe they're all poets, but still, it appears to be a critical mass... I was tempted to see how other contemporary poets fared among Internet daters (that would be interesting metadata to crunch!), but refrained. Although those profiles are public, they also seem intimate in their way. Note to OKCupid users: check your privacy settings!
Well readers, tonight is my last post and I’m writing about writing communities.
I never realized how important having a writing community was until I didn’t have one anymore. I started my MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College right after I graduated from my BA at SUNY Binghamton in 2002. I was 22 and eager to study with one of my favorite poets, Marie Howe.
That fall, I expected to be among many other fresh-faced college grads ready to start their MFA’s, but I wasn’t. To my surprise, most of my classmates were at least 5-10 years older than me, (some even older than that) and I felt like the odd one out. It didn’t make things any better that I had a job three days a week in Manhattan and couldn’t stay late on campus even if I had wanted to. Living at home on Long Island, helped me out financially, but being on campus only two days a week created a disconnect. I didn’t quite realize it until I stood at graduation with my graduating class and realized I barely had anyone to talk to.
I graduated in 2004, and moved out of my parents’ house and into Manhattan. Over the next 4-5 years, I worked full time and did a second Masters in English Education at Hunter College. I was barely writing. When I did I write, It was awful and I just wasn’t motivated. I chose to be out with friends, rather than being alone at my desk. I didn’t even know why I called myself a “poet.” I barely sent poems out to magazines and I barely went to literary readings.
On December 9, Paul Violi's friends, family, and colleagues gathered together at the New School to pay tribute to this marvelous poet by reading his poems to a grateful audience. If you missed the event, you can watch it here. If you don't know Paul's work, you are in for a couple of hours of enormous pleasure.
Yesterday I said I was going to talk about distribution paths for poetry, but mine certainly isn’t any kind of definitive word. We choose how we give and get our poems; we choose which poems we love and hate, both of our own and others. The cultural shift from canonicity to community implies that the notions of “poets anointed” or the “cream of poetry” are merely modes of discourse, rather than something objectively “true.” Editors choose the contents of a journal as forms of self-expression in the voices of like-minded poets from the same poetic community. Best American Poetry is an editor’s expression of a range of voices that sparks conversation about other great poems from the year, and what “best” means for each of us. For me, the most interesting journals and anthologies make loud choices—i.e., are able to recognize the extremes of their chosen aesthetic(s). I count BAP among the best anthologies. I count No Tell Motel, Court Green, LIT, Word For/Word, Jubilat, Jacket, No Posit, Octopus, Columbia Poetry Review, Aufgabe, Denver Quarterly, Anti-, Ping-pong, Tarpaulin Sky, H_NGM_N, 1913, Noo, Glitter Pony, Pank, Lana Turner, RealPoetik, Shampoo, and Weave as just a teeny few of many, many, many awesome journals being published today, in a wide variety of aesthetics (see the forthcoming “links” page on the forthcoming new Coconut for a more extensive listing).
Let’s scare you up some drama. An 18th century peepshow. A typical entertainment of the time period. Take a look. Through this peephole. The dimensions pile on, revealing a poor paint job. There I was, fearless and standing on tables. Now I am something vivid. You are some thing. Seaward. What are whales? Why are whale hunted? In your sleep I start stealing your slow-ish motions. A puddle of pale blue on the floor. The most delicate patch of it. In the city their hands smell of oranges. Soon I will stop. Matching you stroke for stroke. I count the scratches on your back. I name them like ships.
--Lily Ladewig, from “Shadow Boxes,” from the current Word For/Word
The shift from canonicity to community implies that hard-drawn aesthetic “lines in the sand” are outmoded. “Experimental” and “traditional” are meaningless, with form and narrative and epiphanies and visual poetics and Black Mountain influences and lang-po influences all thrown into the same mixing bowl. In a room full of Frank O’Hara disciples one will find 50 radically different poets. Similarly, we need not feel ashamed if our poetic influences include, for instance, John Berryman among a dozen great NY School poets. This isn’t to say that all evaluative categories for poems must be defenestrated; instead, however, I propose that we consider relative value (originality, profundity) within the context of particular, vital poetic communities (or within the context of a single poet’s trajectory) as a more effective measure of greatness.
Once in a while the contents are so varied that one cannot label a drawer. How to categorize the scrap of pulse and ankle length of twine? One begins to fail the crucial moment—pulling out anchors in flight time, wrongfaced watches. When the hinge catches, panic fuels the tug of war; one can only push or pull. The secret stash half exposed, the runner off its track.
--Hanna Andrews, from Slope Move, forthcoming from Coconut Books
The Vida numbers seem particularly devastating for me in this age of community poetics. A vital community should, of course, not only be open to anyone, but should embrace diversity. A vital community doesn’t make assumptions about poetics based on gender or race. A vital community is individuals honoring the poetics and identities of its members through open conversation.
I love hosting a reading series, even if before each event I get nervous that the audience won’t be big enough or that I’ve forgotten the mic. More than anything I want the readers to be happy—to feel like they have a good setting to perform in. I love meeting new poets. I love going to readings. I love giving readings. I love buying and trading books at readings and conferences (avoiding the three-letter conference out of respect for Nin!). I tend to buy books more frequently from poets with whom I’ve had contact. I buy books full of exciting (to me) poems, of course, but I also buy books from poets I like, even if I’m not the perfect audience for their poetics. Poets aren’t poets if we only stand in the corner and don’t join the party, even though, of course, we choose who to talk to and avoid the bullies.
I haven’t met Sawako Nakayasu in person, but we’ve emailed a lot. I love her poems. Her brand new book (Mouth: Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals) just arrived in the mail today. On first glance it seems to question the whole notion of authorship with ("collaborative"? "translated"?) pieces written by or attributed to other poets (Mina Loy, Harry Crosby, Frances Chung). Lines and whole poems in Japanese. A handwritten reproduction. The whole book an intimate conversation, as if everything is translation.
Insects multiplied with the speed of an electric
Lapped up the boils on the earth’s crust.
Turning over its exquisite costume, the urban night
slept like a woman.
Now I hang my shell out to dry.
My scaly skin is cold like metal.
No one knows this secret half-covering my face.
The night makes the bruised woman, freely twirling
her stolen expression, ecstatic.
Tomorrow: more about forthcoming Coconut books.
I was talking with Gina Myers last week about generations of American poets and how quickly everything has changed—that there’s a new group of emerging writers and magazines and reading series that suddenly seems to view “us” as influences and precursors rather than colleagues. This is weird for me, because 1) I never really felt like I was part of a “present” that could have been interpreted as a “past,” and 2) I still think of myself as “emerging.” While I think my feelings are similar to those of lots of other 30ish & 40ish poets, I also think there’s something interesting happening with schools and canons and currency and community that hasn’t happened before.
I was also talking to one of my faculty colleagues at Emory about “generations” of students—how the generation of this year’s students is so radically different than the generation of two years ago, and how that one was so different from the generation five years ago. This rapid turnover of attitudes, social stances, and psyches shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise—every time Apple or Google releases a new product, reality (i.e., cognition) changes. The iPhone 4S generation (people) will be succeeded sometime next year by the iPhone 5 generation, and the two groups’ approaches to the world will be different.
Against the railing we/Against the railing we
Are privy/Are pricey?/Are privy
To time in the for-ever form
Your loving me too long/Your loving me too long
And longingly Jackie pointed her Soul
Gun at my face and breaking habit
With my body I lifted myself from
My carbon copy cunt/My carbon copy cunt
Pulled myself apart
I come in triplicate/I come in triplicate
But delicate as lipstick left out on the dashboard
We caught ourselves feeling too much/
We caught ourselves feeling too much
Of our atmosphere forgotten along
With every oil spill this year
--Christie Ann Reynolds
A couple of weeks ago I read with Emily Kendal Frey at KGB and was introduced by my wonderful hosts—Matt Yeager and John Deming—partially in terms of my past—how Coconut (my poetry magazine and publishing company) had helped to set a new standard for online publishing, was very influential, etc. I was flattered to pieces but also (through no fault of my hosts!) a little scared—had I become a part of the past? Emily’s work is so smart and real and fresh. I like to think/hope that mine is too—the audience seemed to like my reading. & at the Stain series four nights later (Christie Ann, Steven Karl, and Erika Moya, hosts), people again seemed really happy with my poems.
But then, generations—as a means of aesthetic characterization—have been replaced, haven’t they? Currency is the choice to engage, and community—replacing canons and schools—is the lattice one engages. “Movement” still makes sense, but only in the context of community, rather than the hitherto reverse. I’m “present” to the degree that I choose to speak in the (poetic) language of soon-to-be 2012. I’m “emerging” to the degree that I contribute something new. “Influence” is no longer linear or vertical, but multi-vectored.
Our having had
Our having had this opportunity
to be together
is the beginning
of a union
is the beginning of a union
that will last
that will last for many lives
In any case, I like today; there's so much going on. Coconut Books is publishing nine new books over the next 18 months (including Christie Ann's first book, from which the above excerpt is taken); Coconut the magazine is coming back in 2012 with three new Editors (Gina, Kim Gek Lin Short, and Danielle Pafunda) and five Editorial Assistants (Jess Rowan, Lauren Schimming, Ken Jacobs, Hilary Cadigan, and Christeene Fraser); I'm currently in the midst of lots of readings and reading planning (both the ones I host and the ones I give); my own (2011) book Reveal is at the typesetters. This week in this space I'll share all of this stuff going on with me with you.
Thanks, David and Stacy, for this opportunity.
Monday Night Poetry will be back at KGB Bar starting September 26. We're quite proud & unabashedly excited to present our Fall 2011 line-up below. Mark your calendars, & we will see you soon!
Megin Jimenez & Matthew Yeager
My thanks to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me to guest blog for the week. My week of blogging concludes with a brief recommended bibliography of Iranian-American writing. Of course there is much more than this, and I’m sure to regret missing some books as soon as I post. (Fellow Iranian-American writers, please don’t hate me if I leave you out; this is not easy, and keep in mind I’m basically a house husband when I’m not writing, with 2 young boys intent on destroying the house unless supervised). By all means add on in the comments section with other recommendations. Like the content of my brief updates, these selected texts vary in their investment in Iranian and/or American culture, as well as the degree to which they inhabit the formative hyphen between “Iranian” and “American.” Anyway, here it goes:
This was a favorite of both my graduate and undergraduate students in sections of Middle Eastern-American literature I taught last semester in the Queens College English department. It was a New York Times’ Editor’s Choice Award and has won almost too many awards to list here. There are better reviews than I can post, but I mention as a key take away Khakpour’s ability to seamlessly underpin a contemporary post-911 story of an Iranian-American family with Oedipal drama from classical Persian antiquity. It’s also just great storytelling, and the Iranian connection is never forced, meaning it’s integral to the narrative.
This novel, based mostly in Iran but written in English, has also been reviewed so widely and so favorably that it’s especially reductive to offer further acclaim here. The story localizes the harsh political effects of the Islamic Republic of Iran soon after the Islamic revolution by focusing on a Persian Jew imprisoned because of his class and religion. It came as no surprise when I read that the author cited Ha Jin’s Waiting, as an important influence. Though in its own way, Sofer’s novel reads with such great passion and clarity.
There are a lot of great translations of Persian poetry out there, and this is one of them. I cite this particular book, winner of the Lois Roth Persian Translation Award, because it better translates the work of the first real modern feminist poet as poetry than some other more academic attempts. Of this I remain rather opinionated, having read far too many scholars attempting to give life to ancient and modern Persian verse though ultimately settling too much for meaning without sufficient attention to style. Wolpe uses her skills as a poet to bring both together here.
Like translations of Persian poetry, there are a plethora of memoirs by Iranian- Americans. I post this one for two reasons: 1). As ethnic genre, the Iranian-American memoir is almost monopolized by females, and so having a male perspective is worth noting. 2). This one is especially exceptional. Focused on providing a lucid perspective of his childhood in a household defined by communist sensibility, Sayrafiezadeh’s book offers great humor as well as insights into the dynamics of family. The author has recently won a Whiting Award, had a story appear in The New Yorker, etc. If that weren’t enough reason to envy him, all of my female students have crushes on him. (Bastard).
While other Iranian-American anthologies have followed (and even more are on there way), I cite this one because with it these two editors really defined—even founded—what has come to be called “Iranian-American” writing. (Persis Karim is also the founder of The Association of Iranian American Writers, about which I blogged yesterday). The range of genres and voices provides a great perspective on what it can mean to live as an Iranian-American (even the brief forward offers great insight into such a hybrid space).
The Ayatollah's Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, by Hooman Majd
Majd thinks, and writes, like a true intellectual, looking deeper into surface level analysis on the political state of affairs in Iran. He especially excels at making insightful connections of culture, people, and specific events within the Islamic Republic of Iran, such as the last contested presidential election. I daresay if you are looking for one recently published book to understand the current situation of Iran, this is it.
Though she writes in several genres, I especially want to plug the plays and monologues of this Chicago- based author. We read together on a panel at last year’s AWP panel, and she performed a piece about an older Iranian woman struggling with her life as she worked behind a cosmetics counter. This 15 minute monologue had impeccably timed humor and a very authentic voice that consistently emerges in Goushegir’s other work as well.
To blog is to post to a community, so I thought for this penultimate entry as guest blogger I’d start there, with the value of sharing our work and thoughts about writing with others. As authors we obviously presume an audience, even if it’s in our heads. Community, though, is quite different. It involves give and take support among other writers that exists far beyond the mere workshop. I’m sure this sounds obvious to the point of cliché in the age of so many MFA programs made to accommodate and acculturate developing writers to community. Having written very much in isolation and at times oblivion, without an MFA to my credit, I’ve found that for me it’s been almost as new and novel as blogging.
Before teaching in my current MFA program, where I have the privilege of working among accomplished and inspiring colleagues as well as increasingly brilliant student writers and translators, I existed in a kind of void. I was teaching a full load (5/4) at a community college, during the first two years of which I was also finishing a dissertation for a PhD in English. Of course I had little time to write creatively, though I still managed to eke out poems in very small slivers of free time (In this I heeded the advice of my predecessor at Queens College, Marie Ponsot, who in addition to the teaching and publishing demands at a public university raised several children. When students would tell her they didn’t have time to write, she’d reply, “Do you have 15 minutes??!!!”).
More than lacking in time, I lacked a creative outlet beyond submitting to journals and first book contests. Writing of course becomes lonely business regardless of the circumstances, but I almost forgot, at least at times, that my work could potentially matter to anyone. One day when standing in the hallway and complaining to my friend Joe Bisz, a fiction writer colleague, he drew a small circle on the wall. “Roger,” he told me, “more than a next publication, even a next poem at this point, you need a small circle that supports you…where you feel a part of.”
This looked a lot different than an MFA or even a writers' group. First and foremost I needed a community. We ended up sharing a lot of our work with each other, and, perhaps more importantly, our lives (like what we were reading, teaching, writing to or for, etc.). At one point we decided to stage a late night/invitation only gathering in one of our offices, which we decorated like an Indian restaurant on 6th street in Manhattan. We decided to call it “The Intellectual Spectacle” and also turn it into a chocolate tasting and multi-media presentation of post-colonial themes behind Joe’s writng. Only colleagues we felt would understand and appreciate our work, along with a few selected students, were invited. I ended up writing a very different kind of poetry because the only stakes were to showcase our work to those who would “get” our sensibilities. After this transformative reading among community, where I let others experience my work, I started writing what has become a lot closer to my authentic voice.
I’m hardly proposing an end to MFA programs (which at this point would put our best poets out of a job), nor denying the work they do to foster supportive communities (I’m told students in my MFA program at Queens maintain writing groups and hang out years after graduation). More and more it strikes me that MFA programs are doing a fantastic job of nurturing a supportive network as opposed to merely professionalizing young writers. However, I’ve become curious about additional communities of support beyond the creative writing degree. As an Iranian-American writer, in this respect it’s been helpful to experience the old country, Iran, by turning further away from the “product” of an MFA or a work shopped poem and more to a kind of Persian model. On Fridays in Shiraz, the city of the great Persian poets Hafez and Sa’edi, the poets gather in the garden. Rather than critiquing strong and weak language or where the poem interprets too much, they recite, often from memory, some masterful work they all know as well as their own poetry. It’s an idyllic and very romantic setting, insofar as their children and grandchildren play together under citrus trees as water flows around them. More than the mere letter, they come to share in a rich, 2 thousand+ year history of a poetic spirit through their work and their lives.
While I’m hard pressed to find personal gardens so readily available in the tri-state area, it occurs to me that I’ve heard several writer friends get the gist of such benefits from organizations founded upon racial and ethnic identification offering communal support. With so little space left here, I can offer at best a very brief introduction along with a link to a few of them (see also the small section in the current issue of Poets & Writers "Alternate Outposts of a Creative Writing Education"):
1.Cave Canem —Unless you’ve been living in Emily Dickinson’s level of isolation (physically as well as racially out of touch from most of the nation—okay, scholars have revealed she forged connections too, but 1700+ poems and not one really on race relations at a rather significant moment in US history), you already know and remain in awe of this one. As written on their website, “Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded Cave Canem in 1996 with the intuition that African American poets would benefit from having a place of their own in the literary landscape.” A literary landscape, a setting upon which to reflect and write, to become a part of, finding oneself belonging there. They feature contests, residencies, retreats, conversations, and so much more. The writers who have had significant interaction with the organization have won seemingly every conceivable writing award, but that's not the point as much as the consequence of the incredible work organizers and participants have brought to community.
2. Kundiman—Co-founders Joseph Legaspsi and Sarah Gambito (interesting that like Cave Canem, this too was founded in community, meaning not just one go it alone writer) started Kundiman (modeled upon Cave Canem) to give Asian American writers greater access to each other. According to Legaspi, "building community as well as fostering the poetic voices of Asian American poetry is at the heart of Kundiman’s mission. We do this by gathering Asian American poets together and providing them a safe, creative space. Since 2004, Kundiman has sponsored an annual national retreat for Asian American poets. For five summer days, fellows—those who are accepted and attend the Kundiman Retreat—are in residence, immersing themselves in poetry through workshops with renowned Asian American poets, salon readings, talks and, most importantly, writing. It is also important to be with people of the same background. There is an innate sensitivity and immediate understanding of shared histories and cultures. Most fellows frequently express how they don’t have to 'explain themselves' while at the retreat. Many of them come from places and backgrounds where they feel isolated as Asian Americans and/or as poets, so the retreat as a gathering ground becomes even more vital and crucial."
Association of Iranian American Writers (AIAW) was founded in 2008 by poet and editor, Persis Karim, who had had the experience of bringing together writers for two first of their kind anthologies of Iranian American writing. With east coast co-director, Manjijeh Nasrabadi (again an important shared leadership), AIAW, according to Karim, "aims to foster a community of ethnic American writers who have several goals: creating a forum for issues, concerns, and experiences of writers of Iranian heritage; offering support, advice, and organizing readings, workshops, and gatherings; and finally, to create a platform to highlight the work of Iranian American writers by sponsoring a website that features the work of these writers. AIAW is also engaged with organizing regular face-to-face meetings to give each other feedback about writing and to offer suggestions about publishing. The organization now has over 55 members on the West Coast, East Coast and places between. AIAW is concerned with writers who tackle cultural, political and writerly issues that have relevance to English-oriented writers. We also support and host programs to bring awareness about the condition of writers and censorship in Iran."
I include this third organization because I've personally benefited from it. A member from its inception, I've had a chance to fellowship with writers from shared hybrid backgrounds who really understand what it means to grow up and write as "Iranian American." I found new work in various genres I admire here, and I've also come to discover, almost by accident, that my fellow members were in fact an important first audience of my work, an integral circle within which I can both give and receive in the creative process.
After finishing a review of Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati’s new translation of the modern Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri’s long poem Water’s Footfall, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian culture’s long and inventive accommodation of other traditions. Art in the United States from its inception has appropriated traditions so well that at times it seems Americans, myself included, think that they invented the kind of radical intertextuality that so defines our contemporary aesthetic.
I’ll not go deep into Sepehri’s work or the translation of it, but the gist of what I continued to find in revisiting this poem in such a well-done translation is how subtly and smartly Persian modernism absorbed European and far Eastern influences, even while retaining its cultural identity. While much less audacious (and egregious) than Pound's or Eliot’s cutting and pasting foreign traditions into their work, Sepehri fuses his own experience of an Iranian tradition with a wide and interesting range of outside sources.
Ironically, what we’ve come to call “intertextuality” in the parlance of reductive academic post-structuralism, arises from a quotation in response to another text. While Mikhail Bakhtin receives credit for the literary concept, Julia Kristeva’s coinage of the term in her summary of Bakhtin’s writing on dialogism typically gets used to describe it: “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” Taking that mosaic as a kind of Persian carpet, Sepehri’s absorption of other influences links to an Islamic as well as a more specifically Sufi tradition to create something new, a kind of Persian romanticism for the modern era.
Such intertextuality most attracts me to the experience of Iran as a hybrid (Iranian-American) poet and critic in the 21st century. Poetry offers one of many mosaics that reveals how the Persian culture has retained its identity—including its language—despite the conquest and spread of multiple invaders and influences, retaining its pre-Islamic figurative and literal history following the Arab conquest and spread of Islam, for example, through the writing of Ferdowsi’s famous epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings).
When my wife’s cousins picked us up from the airport in Tehran, Radiohead played in the car as we drove passed mosques listening to snippets of calls to prayer on loudspeakers. As far as America goes, which politically positions itself antithetically to the Islamic Republic, friends and relatives in Iran watch the same reality t.v. shows as my wife in the U.S. The cultural interchange of course cuts both ways, (or rather a zillion ways, considering how multimedia has amplified the intertexual crossings among most cultures of the world). I’m told that Ryan Seacrest is soon to host a reality show featuring rich Iranians in Los Angeles.
As much as poetry defines the very character of Iran, a country that names its streets after poets and where even the illiterate can recite Hafez from memory, a multitude of pop culture signifiers reflects and expands upon Sepehri’s revolutionary moves. Music, of course, is a relatively easy to grasp study of cultural interchange and transformation. Iran hosts underground heavy metal bands, which have been covered in the recent movie, No One Knows about Persian Cats and by bands like Angband.
Not only is there a Persian genre of rap/hip hop, but several subgenres. Like Sepehri’s poetry, the rather popular Hich-kas posits a kind of transgression of authority (in the streets as opposed to in nature, like the poet), even as it juxtaposes a certain youthful rebellion with a reverence for God.
Rather than writing with a linear plan, linking and hyperlinking to such intertexual moves in cyberspace allows one to follow trends, outlining and reposting such videos while being led to the many next big things. As I try to stay with music, in answering an email from an Iranian filmmaker friend I’m suddenly watching basketball. Like jazz in the modern and postmodern era, which originated in America and has gone on to morph into many interesting and spectacular kinds of new music while retaining the semblance of key elements like syncopation, phrasing, etc. (which in themselves vary by culture) basketball now more than ever has seriously started to proliferate throughout the world (with a recently retired superstar in Yao opening up the sport to China and a Russian billionaire owning a US team hosting games in his home country).
As I keep writing this blog, two close friends, German-American and Iranian-American filmmakers Till Shrauder and Sarah Nodjoumi have also recently emailed, informing me that they are in the process of finishing a documentary about an African-American basketball player relocating to Shiraz, Iran, to join the country’s “Superleague.” The same rules of the game apply in Iran as in the U.S., and also as in the U.S., Iran features international players. The audience, of course, has changed, with women forbidden from attending the games.
More on this another time, or another blog, but I’ll out myself as an academic who finds amazing poetry in basketball (one thinks of Ed Hirsch’s famous basketball poem, and, going closer to the source, to any number of actual teams and players throughout the history of the game). Though I’ve yet to see a game played live in Iran, I have seen sufficient footage of this forthcoming documentary to find inspiration in the same sport but in a different culture. Reading basketball as a text as I return to the definition of intertextuality as “a mosaic of quotations…the absorption and transformation” of disparate influences, I discover I’m moving, with the postmodern world, toward witnessing a new formation, a “trans-cultural” “trans-formation” of a poetry that refuses to stay in one tradition.
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.