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.
event organized by Mike Geffner, http://inspiredwordnyc.blogspot.com/
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.