On December 4th at the New School, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry, Tracy K. Smith, will read from her award-winning Life on Mars (Graywolf Press). She will then sit down with The New School’s Poetry Coordinator, David Lehman, to discuss her work and answer questions from the audience. A former student of Lehman, Smith is the author of two other books of poetry, Duende and The Body’s Question.
The time: 6:30 PM. The place: Lang Cafe, Eugene Lang Building, 65 West 11 Street, ground floor. You can enter there or at 66 West 12 Street.
In addition to her Pulitzer Prize, Smith has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, a 2004 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, a 2008 Essence Literary Award, a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, a fellowship from the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, and a 2005 Whiting Award.
She has taught at the City University of New York, University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University, and is currently assistant professor of creative writing at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. She lives in Brooklyn.
Event moderated by David Lehman, Poetry Coordinator, The School of Writing, The New School for Public Engagement.
This week we welcome Sholeh Wolpé as our guest blogger. Sholeh was born in Tehran, Iran, and has lived in Trinidad, the UK, and the United States. Her publications include Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), Rooftops of Tehran (Red Hen, 2008), The Scar Saloon (2004), and Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (2007) which awarded the 2010 Lois Roth Translation Prize. Find a complete list of titles here. Wolpé is the editor of The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its exiles (Michigan State University Press, 2012), Breaking the Jaws of Silence--Sixty American Poets Speak to the World (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), and a regional editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East (Norton 2010).
Her Persian translation and reading of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (co-translated with Mohsen Emadi) was launched by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in October 2012, in celebration of Whitman’s work. Find out more about Sholeh Wolpé here.
In other news . . .
This week we begin our Year in Review. Beginning Monday, November 5 and continuing through the end of the year we will post selections from each of this year's wonderful guest bloggers. We're sure you will be inspired to look for more work by our contributors and to buy their books as holiday gifts.
Tonight: Thursday, November 8, 7-9 PM Mill Valley Library, Mill Valley, CA: BAP 2012 West Coast Launch with star-studded lineup of readers! Find more information here.
The Oklahoma-born Padgett is a poet, a renowned translator from the French (with versions of Apollinaire, Cendrars, Larbaud et al), a tireless literary collaborator (with such as Ted Berrigan, Jim Dine, Tom Veitch, Trevor Winkfield), an assiduous editor, and the author of affecting memoirs of Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan, and his own bootleg dad. With Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Bernadette Mayer, Michael Brownstein, Maureen Owen, and others, Padgett may be said to have renewed or even reinvented the New
York School of Poetry in the mid-1960s with St. Mark's Church in the Bowery as its center. (See the epilogue of The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets.) He has published more than fourteen books,
including Great Balls of Fire, Toujours L'Amour, Tulsa Kid, How to Be Perfect, and You Never Know.
Padgett studied with Kenneth Koch at Columbia College. He taught poetry writing to schoolchildren and became publications director of Teachers & Writers Collaborative. He was also the edtor-in-chief of Full Court Press, which published Edwin Denby's Collected Poems and Joe Brainard's I Remember. He won a Guggenheim Fellowshiop in 1986. His poetry has been translated into fourteen languages and has appeared in several volumes of The Best American Poetry, Poetry 180, Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, and The Oxford Book of American Poetry. He received the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, he edited The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, which the Library of America published last spring. He lives in New York City and Vermont.
Moderated by David Lehman, Poetry Coordinator at the New School of Writing.
David St. John and Anna Journey stopped on their book tour at the New School on Tuesday, October 9th to read from their respective new books of poetry, The Auroras (Harper) and Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press).
The Auroras is David St. John’s first collection of new poems in eight years, and the book begins with an exploration of the poet’s sensuous, almost brooding relationship with nature. St. John is interested in revisiting the past — indeed he later told moderator David Lehman about his love of discovering new things when re-reading poetry — and in the middle section of the book he looks back at California as it was not too long ago. Most of the poems St. John read on Tuesday night were from this section, and they’re at once dark and curious. This is from "Hungry Ghost":
your own ghost
Had already come
She sat by
you at the small table
& she was so hungry
point she reached over
Reached right inside you
slowly twisted of a moist
Wafer of your hear
In the final section of the book, St. John’s poems turn their attention to death and are best characterized by their ephemeral quality, like a strong but distant note of music.
After her extraordinary debut, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, from which she also read a few poems, Anna Journey strikes a new, strange and harmonious chord with Vulgar Remedies. In one poem, the well-named Journey travels through time via the shapes and textures of the insides of a fistulated cow to unknown and known realms. Her long, intriguing titles pull the listener into the context of the poems, an influence of Beckian Fritz Goldberg, she said. With a strong sense of rhyhtm and clever use of language, Journey builds upon the peculiarity that her titles immediately establish.
The readings were followed by questions from David Lehman as well as from the audience, stimulating much discussion on the musicality of language and the devil. -- Philip Brunst
Laura Cronk will be the guest of honor at the New School Poetry Forum on Tuesday, October 16. Come to room 510 of 66 West 12 Street at 6:30 and hear her read selections from Having Been an Accomplice, her first book. A graduate of the New School's MFA program and former co-director of the famed KGB Monday Night Poetry Reading Series, Cronk has had poems in a number of magazines and been featured in both the 2006 and 2008 editions of The Best American Poetry
Laura Cronk's Having Been an Accomplice won Persea Books’ 2011 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in poetry. She is the associate director of The School of Writing at the New School in New York City.Moderated by Honor Moore, faculty, the School of Writing, The New School for Public Engagement.
On Wednesday, October 3rd, fresh off her reception of the prestigious, 2012 Forward Prize, and in front of an eager, restless, crowded room at the New School, Jorie Graham read, with fervor and fluidity, from her new book Place.
The Poetry Foundation is not alone is regarding the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor as "perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation,” and on Wednesday night one saw (and heard) why. Graham read three fairly long poems from Place, “On the Virtue of the Dead Tree,” “Treadmill,” and “Lapse, Summer Solstice 1983, Iowa City,” the last, a poem about—though “about” is a term she distrusts —the experience and memory of pushing her then-infant daughter on a swing for the first time.
One of the most striking features of Graham’s poems is her use of rhythm. Each poem is harnessed or allowed to run free, gathering at times a seemingly unstoppable momentum. In “On the Virtue of the Dead Tree” hard and soft accents mix the tempo in almost every line. In “Treadmill” the coming, arriving, and waiting of death moves the poem forward with unshakeable urgency, while in “Lapse” the ups and downs are not only in the motion of the swing and the exertion of pushing it, but in the feelings of the young (and then older) mother’s hopes and fears.
After her captivating reading, the poet sat down with moderator and New School faculty member Honor Moore for a Q&A. Graham answered questions from the audience that ranged from the use of memory in writing poetry, the poet’s struggle to get her Harvard students to hear a bird sing on the way to an early-morning class, the difference between the “subject” of a poem and its content, and the challenge writers face to find a thread between the present and the distant future, apart from Hollywood films.
And if you missed the event, or just didn’t get enough, you can always hear some more poems -- Philip Brunst
Jorie Graham -- the guest editor of the 1990 edition of The Best American Poetry -- has been named the winner of the 2012 Forward prize in Great Britain, which is a really big deal over there, so the timing is perfect:
Come to the New School (room 510 of 66 West 12 Street) at 6:30 tomorrow, 3 October 2012, for the poetry forum with Jorie Graham (moderated by Honor Moore, spomsored by the New School Writing Program.
You can read about the Forward Prize and Graham's triumph here. From the Guardian account here are the first grafs:
Jorie Graham has become the first American woman ever to win one of the UK's most prestigious poetry accolades, the Forward prize for best collection, beating Oxford's professor of poetry Geoffrey Hill to take the £10,000 award.
has won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in the US, where the Poetry
Foundation has called her "perhaps the most celebrated poet of the
American post-war generation", but she is perhaps less well-known than
some of her American contemporaries in the UK. The Forward judges
expressed their hope that her win this evening for her 12th collection,
Place, would find her "startling, powerful" poetry a wider readership in the UK.
Poets David St. John and Anna Journey will join moderator David Lehman, for what promises to be a great event on Tuesday, October 9th at the New School. David St. John’s new book The Auroras (Harper) is the first collection of new poems in eight years from the National Book Award finalist, while Anna Journey’s collection, Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press) will be released next year.
David St. John has been honored, over the course of his career, with many of the most significant prizes for poets, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, both the Rome Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the O. B. Hardison Prize (a career award for teaching and poetic achievement) from The Folger Shakespeare Library, and the George Drury Smith Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to The Auroras, David St. John is the author of ten collections of poetry (including Study for the World’s Body, nominated for The National Book Award in Poetry), as well as a volume of essays, interviews, and reviews entitled Where the Angels Come Toward Us. He is the co-editor, with Cole Swensen, of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. He teaches in The Ph. D. Program in Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Southern California and lives in Venice Beach.
If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. She received a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Jorie Graham's most recent book of poems, Place, was published last spring. She is the author of numerous other collections including Sea Change, Overlord, Swarm, and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has also edited two anthologies, Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language and The Best American Poetry (1990). Her many honors include a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She taught for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she also received her MFA in poetry. She is the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. Find out more about Jorie Graham here.
Moderated by Honor Moore, faculty, the School of Writing, The New School for Public Engagement
Somehow, Sunday seems an appropriate day to present this poem by Claire Bateman, a fine and under-recognized poet from Greenville, South Carolina, with six books to her name: Coronology (2009); Leap (2005); Clumsy (2003); Friction (1998); At the Funeral of the Ether (1998); and The Bicycle Slow Race (1991). We often hear the word quirky applied to contemporary poets (just glance at five random blurbs, you’re sure to find quirky), but perhaps no one writing today inhabits the word quite as fully as Bateman. The premises of her poems are apparently beamed into the atmosphere at a slant from another, logically slippery dimension -- yet once you step inside, life there seems more cogent, more comprehensible, more carefully thought out than the one you’re turning her pages in. “Unearthing the Sky” first appeared in New Ohio Review’s third issue, Spring 2008. I love the way Bateman will seize on an idea and pursue it all the way in the most natural, credible terms. The excavation draws all kinds from the woodwork – not just the genetically engineered ants that chew up the undissolved stitches, but the vandals (“long-distance pissers”), artists, evangelists, the full spectrum of fanatics and romantics, and yes, even corporate representatives. She has so thoroughly (I want to say accurately) imagined the literal dilapidation of the sky, the media attention, the complicated restorative procedures and precautions and pitfalls, the responses of onlookers and the aftermath, that we readers almost forget that the broken body of the sky is figuring forth a whole cornucopia of ideals that our civilization has chosen by turns to pillage, smudge, neglect, batter. Almost, I say. What follows is a deft and intelligent poem that may well be our century’s companion poem to Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.”
- - - - - - -
Unearthing the Sky
It was filthy, of course,
with red clay streaks & embedded chips of loam,
as well as boulder-scored, chipped,
and even fractured in places,
a great big glorious suffering thing
by the very means of its rescue,
the violence of pulleys & clamps.
Areas that had been dredged from under water
were warped & bowed
where detonation had been necessary
to dislodge them.
But there it was for everyone to behold.
Toddlers wearing tiny government-issued hard hats
were told, Look, honey, it’s the sky!
Older children were bussed on field trips to the dig site
where yellow tape kept them from the rim
so that the sign could continue to announce,
DROWNINGS AT THIS SITE: 0.
Round-the-clock floodlights discouraged those
who might have attempted to make their mark
on the sky’s broken body --
graffiti artists & would-be inscribers of the Ten Commandments,
corporate representatives & long-distance pissers,
as well as those who longed to plunge into it --
scuba divers, suicides, mystics, & lovers.
Everything was so lit-up, in fact,
that the sky would have been glad
of some darkness,
but it was not yet well enough
to generate nighttime & other weathers.
There had to be years of repair work
with everything from lasers to sandpaper,
tiny camel’s-hair brushes to welding torches.
Millions of stitches, hand-sewn
with microsuturing needles,
zigzagged across the surface
to eventually either dissolve
or be severed by army ants
genetically engineered to find them tasty.
The surgeons injected implants
of liquid mercury, black diamond plasma,
& other substances whose identities
they were not at liberty to disclose.
But at last, the sky was ready.
After all it had been through,
was it still the sky it had once been?
Not exactly, but were not the people
historically damaged as well --
and wasn’t there the matter
So the various bolts, pegs, & screws
releasing the sky at last
into its own silence.
Everyone watched as it rose,
a little shaky at first, but soon,
nearly as translucent, dizzying,
dimensionless, disturbing, etc.
as they’d anticipated.
When asked why she wept,
one woman could say only,
For something so heavy, it seemed
almost painfully light.
Abandoned, the work site still yawns
like the morning after Christmas.
- - - - - - -
Claire Bateman – remember the name! See you next week. (JAR)
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.
This week we welcome back Jennifer L. Knox as our guest blogger. Jennifer’s latest book of poems, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, is available from Bloof Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and four times in The Best American Poetry series. She is working on her first novel. Find out more about Jennifer here and follow her on twitter @jenniferlknox.
In other news . . .
April 3, 2012 6:30 p.m.: Poetry Forum with Jill Alexander Essbaum
The New School
66 West 12th Street, room 510, New York, NY
Jill Alexander Essbaum is author of numerous books of poetry, including The Devastation, Necropolis, Oh Forbidden, Harlot, and Heaven, which won the 1999 Bakeless Prize. She is a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has served as an editor for the online journal ANTI- and for the Nanopress Project.
Moderated by David Lehman, poetry coordinator of the School of Writing.
More information here.
Since I was not able to see High School Confidential until my early thirties, the image of the poet influenced me via my mother's interpretation: What she found pertinent became my experience. But now I giggle when I read the poem from the film and wonder how many teenagers took it to heart.
More recently, in Billy Bob Thornton's film Sling Blade (1996), the character Morris writes lyrics for a song that seem to be descended from beatnik genes. In the scene, redneck Morris and his band are drinking when they begin to discuss their future as musicians:
Of course, Thornton intends the men in the band to be laughable, but I wonder how many viewers might find that the image is an accurate portrayal of a poet.
For Christmas, a good friend gave me a Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure. On the cover of the box in neon orange letters is stamped the question “How many cats do you have?” Five, I answered to myself and smiled knowing that instead of an impersonal gift card, my friend had put some thought into the gift: I'm special, I thought. Initially, I couldn’t wait to tear open the package and arrange my new little family on my desk at work. There are six varieties of felines, ranging from the menacing solid-black to the primarily white Siamese. And of course, there is their mistress, the Crazy Cat Lady, donned in her military green bathrobe with matching headband, blue plaid pajama bottoms, and forest green house slippers. Did she just get out of bed? Yes and no. She never leaves the house. But wait! What is that poking out of her robe pocket? Out both sides of her shoulder length hair? Cats. So, she has eight, not six. I adore cats. I always have loved them. And once in awhile, I joke with friends that one day I will indeed become Crazy Cat Lady. I think it’s safe to assume she needs no introductions, but in case there is the one soul reading this who is clueless to the Crazy Cat Lady’s existence, I will briefly summarize a typical day in the life of this unique woman. She wakes, feeds cats, brushes cats, strokes cats, talks to cats, watches cats, plays with cats, sings to cats, and oh, cleans litter boxes. In return, this mighty species provides her with companionship and occasional entertainment, on its terms, naturally.
But let’s move on to my fascination with the Crazy Cat Lady. Earlier, I wrote that I jokingly predict I will assume the identity of the Crazy Cat Lady. Yes, I love cats. I have five cats. Presently, my elderly mother lives me, a Crazy Cat Lady living condition I previously failed to mention. But I really don’t spend all of my time with my cats or any felines. When I am home, all of my cats are home, so needless to say, sharing the same space does make us rather intimate. There is a dog on the premises, which I think goes against the Crazy Cat Lady creed: nothing before or after cats shall I know. And I love my dog. I do leave my house, every damn day. And by god I do change out of my military green bathrobe every day as well. So, what’s the problem? I should be happy with my gift. I am. I cherish my gift. Find it funny. Endearing. And I'll admit, while holiday shopping, I saw the Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure in my local independent bookstore and almost bought one for myself. But it’s different when someone else buys you this gift. At least it was a friend and not the neighbor who recently moved in next door and knows nothing of you except that you own a military green bathrobe and five cats. But I am most decidedly not the Crazy Cat Lady, now or ever. To quote Edie Beale, "Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring. I mean for too long a time."
Then why all the thought about her?
A few nights ago I watched for the first time the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens by cinéma vérité artists Albert and David Maysles. I had some idea of what I was getting into, but after the viewing, I had to be alone, to process the images and to tease out all I was feeling. Grey Gardens of East Hampton was home to Edith Bouvier Beale, a.k.a. Big Edie, and her daughter, Little Edie. If the name Bouvier sounds familiar, it should; the two women were aunt and cousin to Jackie O. In a desperate state of disrepair, the 28-room mansion was close to being condemned in 1973 due to Suffolk County Health Department codes violations when Jackie O hired industrial cleaners to tidy up the place. The Edies lived in seclusion for over 20 years until the elder Edie died in 1977. Little Edie passed in 2002. While they were alive, mother and daughter spent almost every waking moment together, cooking corn on the cob in Big Eddie’s bedroom and subsisting mainly on ice cream and pate. Until reporters began stalking her, Little Edie spent time on the beach, sunning and swimming. Otherwise, the ladies lived together in the past, Little Edie rehearsing her dance moves, and both ladies singing tunes from their days as socialites in New York of the 1930s, reminiscing over old photographs of themselves. Both women had dreams of starring on stage. And of course, there were the cats. Cats coming and going when they pleased, using the home as they pleased, being served luncheon by Little Edie at the behest of her mother. Wall to wall cats, reproducing at their pleasure.
Both women were drop dead gorgeous; Little Edie’s beauty far surpassed that of Jackie O’s. And they were freaks. That’s why I like them. Their men betrayed them early on. Although, the legend is that Little Edie in her twenties set her hair on fire to ensure no man would ever want to marry her. They were talented, intelligent, creative women who could act every part except that which their aristocratic family wanted them to master. As Little Edie once said, "They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.” Their inheritance was denied. In later years, when both women were appreciated by artists such as Andy Warhol, many regarded Little Edie as a fashion icon and philosopher, a court jester of sorts.
After allowing these women to live in me for a week, I feel protective of them. I imagine many familiar with the Beale's story judge the women and work hard to pinpoint their pathology. Dysfunctional, co-dependent, and all of those other psycho-diagnostic terms often used to “understand” people. But even in their fragmented world, I see Big and Little Edie not only as survivors but as creators; who in this world is perfectly adjusted? Perhaps to be complete is to be inhuman.
Why my fascination? To me, the story sounds perhaps a little familiar, which accounts for my attraction and repulsion, but overwhelmingly attraction. My great aunt Dorothy was often compared to Faulkner’s Miss Emily, although the body in my great aunt’s house was never found. Actually, she ran him off in 1930 when her prayers could not dry him out. For a few years, Dorothy had her own radio show in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She played a beautiful Chopin as well as “acceptable” selections from popular music. When her mother became ill, she told her brothers she would continue to live at home as she always had and nurse their mother. In the late 1950s, Dorothy was an air traffic controller until the stress of the job led to a final meltdown, and she never left the Duane Avenue family mansion again. The past was always alive for her through her music, her photographs, her memories. A past that remained beautiful in her mind.
My family history is rich with the mother-daughter dynamic, but it hasn’t ruined any of us. In 1964, after my father belted her across the face for the last time, my 19 year old mother came home and stayed home. My grandmother threatened to shoot my father if he even came near the block where they lived. She loved as she wanted, lived as she wanted, and although I have always resented her for the ways her lifestyle impacted me, I also admire her and accept that at the time, she had to find some way to breathe. Even with memories of a very often painful and frustrating life, my mother's conversation of late consists of one part present and nine parts past.
As Grey Gardens opens, we see Little Edie on what barely passes as the front lawn of the mansion. She glances into the lens, then away, and back again. Half smiling she reflects, “There is a fine line between the past and the present.” Who decided there are rules for what sustains us? Eccentric, schizophrenic, bi-polar, creative. It might not be so bad to flirt with being the Crazy Cat Lady, at least now and then.
Poetry is a serious subject. But I am not a serious poet. I am not a poet at all. I am a reader of poetry. Don’t get me wrong: I studied poetry and wrote poetry. Alan Shapiro was once my mentor, and he wrote on a poem, “Brian, this is a foolish piece of work; you have the attention span of a hyperkinetic three year old.” I have cobbled this assessment into a career.
But what I lack in seriousness, I make up for with enthusiasm, and this is what my blog intends to address. We must, all of us, as writers, attend to the form we’ve learned and also try to surpass it, break it. We must try to surprise and delight. I talk with other writers about all the rules, grammatical, structural, and legal. The rule of 3’s, Robert’s Rules of Order, the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. About the gun on the stage and how it has to go off, about splitting infinitives, about how too much enjambment will only look like free verse. Avoid—or embrace—the subjunctive mood. A sem icolon is as ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. Eat your beets. Don't feed wild animals marshmallows the way birds feed their young.
Santayana once said, “A great work of art must strive toward perfection.” And then he wrote, “And it must fail.” Perhaps you’ll be appalled to know that I want to speak about poetry in this way. Victorian writer John Ruskin, in his six tenets of good architecture, interpreted this striving as “Savageness”—a love of rudeness and imperfection.
“The demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” Ruskin believed very much in the exploratory and playful aspects of art. He believed in something we cannot quantify or map, really, in writing: Enthusiasm. Which is weird, because every time I see a picture of him, he looks like he just said, “You kids get off my lawn.”
“Enthusiasm” derives from the Greek “enthousiasmos”, that state of inspiration, of being filled or possessed by the god, for which artists might be praised or chastised. In a more secular application we can still speak of enthusiasm as the condition which combines an artist’s concentration, preoccupation, attentiveness, and excitability. In social life it is usually called “intensity”, as in, “Damn, he’s so intense.” It’s a vaguely accusatory description of an artist’s extreme and discomforting alertness. Ruskin was intense.
Enthusiasm does not excuse lack of talent and craft. But it has to be present in great writing. E.M. Forster had something to say about enthusiasm, or rather, his characters had something to say, the one who waltz happily, then sadly, through Italy in Where Angels Fear to Tread. One evening, the British tourists of that novel decide to go to an amateur opera in the fictional town of Monteriano. “There was a drop scene, wherein sported many a lady lightly clad, and two more ladies lay along the top of the proscenium to steady a large and pallid clock. So rich and so appalling was the effect… There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence. This tiny theater spraddled and swaggered with the best of them, and these ladies with their clock would have nodded to the young men on the ceiling of the Sistine."
This is just the sort of enthusiasm and confidence that seem out of favor in this day and age. "Enthusiasm", like "amateur" and "fail", is a four-letter word. But maybe that's because I am shackled in the ivory tower, where amateur is hard to assess or quantify. So follow me to Ruskin's and Forster's Sistine Chapel with me, which, if not beautiful, attains to beauty's cofidence. Also, we can look at wild animal attacks and boobies and suchwhat. In church. I'll explain later (but look over there. BOOBIES. In church. And I think that's the chick from Starbuck's.)
Bob Holman has been dubbed a member of the “poetry pantheon” by the New York Times Magazine, “ringmaster of the spoken word” by the New York Daily News, and “poetry czar” by the Village Voice. The San Francisco Poetry Flash calls him “the best MC in the USA” and “our generation’s Ezra Pound.” His last collection of poems, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, a collaboration with Chuck Close, was exhibited at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum during the Venice Biennale and published by Aperture. Holman ran the infamous poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café from 1988 to 1996. In 1995, he founded Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records, the first-ever major spoken word label. The United States of Poetry, a TV series he produced for PBS, won the 1996 INPUT (International Public Television) Award. Holman is Visiting Professor of Writing at Columbia School of the Arts, founder and proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, and artistic director of Study Abroad on the Bowery, a certificate program in applied poetics.
Moderated by David Lehman, poetry coordinator at the School of Writing.
Star Black (pictured here with Michael Quattrone) will be the featured guest at a poetry forum at the New School on Wednesday, 19 October. It promises to be a great event.
Star has done exceptional things with the sonnet form that have led critics to link her to Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer among other celebrated modern practitioners. John Ashbery has written,"Like a set of études, Star Black's sonnets ...fluently and gracefully, chart the amazing course of the quotidian." Star Black is also an acclaimed collagist, who has enjoyed a number of one-woman shows and been included in important group exhibitions of poets who are also visual artists.
In February 1997 Star Black and I initiated the Monday night KGB Bar poetry reading series. She and I were co-directors of the series for its first seven years and co-editors of The KGB Bar Book of Poems.
Star's books of sonnets include Balefire (Painted Leaf Press) and Ghostwood (Melville House) She is the author also of Double Time (a book of double sestinas), Waterworn, and October for Idas. She has collaborated with the poet Bill Knott on a book of poems and collages, Stigmata Errata Etcetera (Saturnalia Books, 2007). The forum is in room 510 of 66 West 12 Street. It will begin at 6:30 PM. -- DL
For four recent poems by Star Black, each consisting of four quatrains, click here. Black's sonnet "Twilit" appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of The Paris Review. Here is one of Star Black's sonnets from Balefire:
Are, as Kingsley Amis said, women much nicer
than men? Well, I am, I'm much nicer than you,
rat fink, plunderer, at least, in this mooing
prophesy, I am supposed to be. You said, not I,
you talk about women all the time, how nice
they are, how much you hate their guts, their
nice guts, how much you'd wish they'd just shut
up and lie down, quit frazzling the equilibrium
with disarming questions when, lo, the made
bed may be unmade, maidly. But, deep down,
you know I'm nice. You wouldn't want me for
a wife, but I'm still nice, right? a homebody
type, one prays, will marry someone else and
be happy. Oh lord, alas, I pass, yet, yet, sadly.
A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,
A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground.
Oh he said: 'If you lay off the crumpet
I'll see you alright in the end.
Just hang on until the last trumpet.
Have faith in me, chum-I'm your friend.'
But if you remind him, he'll tell you:
'I'm sorry, I must have been pissed-
Though your name rings a sort of a bell. You
Should have guessed that I do not exist.
'I didn't exist at Creation,
I didn't exist at the Flood,
And I won't be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud-
'Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.
'You're a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You're a drawing-pin caught in my sock.
You're the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I'd have thought would be firm as a rock,
'You're a serious mistake in a nightie,
You're a grave disappointment all round-
That's all you are, ' says th'Almighty,
'And that's all that you'll be underground.'
-- James Fenton (1983)
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.
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.