This photo arrived in today's in-box along with the message "10 years ago we met to chat for my Poets on Place book. I'll always be in your debt." W. T. Pfefferle.
Find Poets on Place here.
Thank you W.T.
This photo arrived in today's in-box along with the message "10 years ago we met to chat for my Poets on Place book. I'll always be in your debt." W. T. Pfefferle.
Find Poets on Place here.
Thank you W.T.
Day 1 Intro: Hi. Thanks for having me here. It’s snowing in Chicago right now and my record player is filling my living room with Nina Simone. I want to share with you the journals and poets who have rejuvenated my spirits this year but maybe a little context for this decision would be helpful?:
The last few months have been flooded with Best Books of 2013 lists. Many of the books on the Best Of lists are stacked on my bedside-table unread. And many amazing books that are not on the Best Of lists are also stacked on my bedside-table unread. For me, 2013 was a difficult year to sit down and read a complete book. I spent the first 12 months 1) on the job market 2) adjuncting in Denver 3) working in a university Writing Center 4) acting as the Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly while 5) finishing and then defending my PhD dissertation. Also, 6) playing with my dog and 7) trying to be a decent friend and daughter and sister. I spent the next few months moving to Chicago and then adjusting to teaching new classes after very gratefully being offered a job here. Mainly I have been trolling composition textbooks and grading papers.
In a day divided between teaching, office hours, grading, and class planning on my laptop, one thing I’m grateful for is easy access to the myriad online journals. Peeking at poems during lunch gives me more energy than the dry, crumbly granola bars I keep somehow buying and storing in my desk.
I’ve noticed that journals tend to announce new issues on Facebook (and Twitter) without sending an email or notifying a readership through other mediums. And then contributors in a particular issue circulate their own links. It’s easy to “like” a link on Facebook without actually clicking on it. Or rather, it was easy for me to do that. I told myself, “I’ll ‘like’ it now and then I can come back and read it later when I’m done scarfing down this dry, crumbly granola bar.” Or, “Well, I do ‘like’ the idea that my friend has a poem published in [substitute any hundred journal names], but I don’t have time to read it this second.” So in 2013, my quiet and modest new years resolution was simply to read the poems to which my friends were linking before I clicked “like.” Because ultimately, when I let the Facebook world know that a poem of mine has been published, I hope my friends actually take the time to read it. I don’t necessarily want them to “like” it, right? They can be disturbed, unnerved, prompted to daydream, etc. I want to believe that poems cause some sort of reaction. I want to believe in a community of reciprocal writers who are not just interested in rounding up people to read their work, but are intellectually and creatively engaging the work of others.
I have 5 days to have a conversation with you. Each day my plan is to discuss a journal that rocked me and focus on one particular poem from that issue. Then, I’m going to make up a writing exercise based off of the poem. I welcome you to post your poems in the comment box or email them to me or simply share them with your friends or your strangers
I’m not here to tell you that these are the best issues/journals of 2013. That’s not my intention. I’m here, as a biased and limited human, to tell you that these journals made me feel excited about language. In a year in which I was unable to strike a better balance for myself in terms of thinking and writing creatively, I am humbled, inspired, and disturbed by the work I’ve read. They gave birth to images, syntax, and enjambments that did not previously exist. I want to discuss with you their existence. I want you to react and interact with their existence. I want you to write poems even if you’ve never written one before.
Day 1 Journal: Similar:Peaks::
Similar:Peaks:: publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and interviews. Honestly, so far I have only read the poetry. It’s a relatively new journal and I’m intrigued by the format. It doesn’t publish large issues: “we will feature four posts of new literature every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” I like this because it’s digestible yet persistent. When I glance at the names of their contributors I recognize about half, which is exciting because I can follow the poets I know I already love while also being introduced to ones whose work I’m not yet familiar with.
Day 1 Poetry Spotlight: Amy Lawless
Lawless has 3 poems up at Similar:Peaks::, all titled “The Secret Lives of Deer.” Here is one of them:
The Secret Lives of Deer
When the wolf and the deer look at one another, they both like what they see. The deer is a hearty mirror giving in to his reflection’s every whim. He doesn’t think of consequences. The wolf sees things as they are. When the wolf and the deer fall in love, it’s real. The wolf anticipates her lover’s every need. Some deer are selfish as fuck. But not this one. See: deer love a good narrative, and love taking charge of building one. He loves wooing, preying upon the wolf and also protecting her. The wolf changes shape into any chalice. You know, like a thesis statement. The deer is direct, a hook. The wolf understands and responds to this passion—probably on her back. Jupiter allows this trouble to unfold like a letter inside an envelope inside another envelop inside a bubble mailer. You’ve heard of “rock, paper, scissors”? But this is more like paper, paper, paper because both are writers and would resent all other conclusions.
I have your lending-hand. You have lent me your hand. I have let you have my hand.
Day 1 Brief Thoughts
I love the convoluted relational dynamic of this poem. Two animals (deer/he and wolf/she) love each other and “it’s real.” Okay. But each sentence complicates the one before. Two animals like what they see but by the second sentence the deer/he is a “hearty mirror” so that when we go back to the first sentence (“they both like what they see”) we now know that the relationship is more like Narcissus. Yet, the deer/he is not the reflection of the other’s self but the living object that reflects. But then “The wolf sees things like they are…The wolf anticipates her lover’s every need.” So the wolf is aware that she likes the deer because he mirrors herself? And if the deer is already giving in to the wolf’s “every whim,” how can the wolf predict “her lover’s every need”? My brain starts to scream WHAT KIND OF WEIRD RELATIONSHIP IS THIS? Well, isn’t that the question we should be asking about anything?
Yes, I think so. Because nothing is isolated and everything is weird if we squint at it. If we paw and scrape it. If we let it breathe on us or let it rub our bellies. The wolf and the deer are not static creatures and their relationship drips with variance. The variance is intimate. This poem cultivates the feeling that the closer you inspect, the closer you “know” an object/subject, the more contradictory and multifarious it becomes. It’s playful and scary and here. This is intimacy.
How do we sustain and consume each other? How do we produce each other? As the poem continues the animals become both the elements of an essay (the wolf is the thesis and the deer is the hook) and writers of such texts. I appreciate how the tone sounds like a clairvoyant teenager animatedly evaluating strips of Victorian wallpaper.
The second paragraph of this prose poem is three short sentences, “I have your lending-hand. You have lent me your hand. I have let you have my hand.” I’m not sure if Lawless is speaking for the deer or the wolf or the narrator of the poem or herself. So then I’m not sure who the “you” is either. But I see the intention shifting through these sentences and how syntax holds and releases relationships. Body parts as impermanent gifts, as objects to be loaned and returned, as metaphors for something more internally unseeable. I like how the poem ends in a transitory moment that tricks us briefly into feeling the permanence of “having.”
You can read the rest of the poems by clicking on the link above and/or buy Amy Lawless’ new book, My Death, from Octopus Books.
Day 1 Poetry Exercise: for ‘The Secret Lives of ______”:
1) Think of a friend you have.
2) Make a list of 4 characteristics your friend has. Is she forgiving? Jealous? An insomniac?
3) Make a list of 7 weird actions/behaviors your friend has done since you’ve known her. One sentence or phrase per moment. Does she walk out of all the movies she goes to see? Does she brush her teeth with her eyes closed?
4) Re-appropriate these attributes to an inanimate object or a nonhuman animal. For instance, I would change the above to: The lampshade brushes her teeth with her eyes closed.
5) Write a poem that
A) creates 2 images that embody 2 of the 4 characteristics
B) incorporates 4 of the “weird actions” now attributed to an inanimate object or nonhuman animal
C) describes what happens when you take that inanimate object/nonhuman animal on vacation. Or, describes what happens when you take the inanimate object/nonhuman animal as your guest to a wedding. What transpires? What do you learn through disruption or interaction? How does it affect you? Your relationships? Remember that feelings are always real.
Post your poem in the comments. Or, you can email it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll post it on my blog.
Last February 1 was the New York launch reading for The Incredible Sestina Anthology, held at the beautiful Poets House. Featuring yours truly as the master of ceremonies, we had a host of contributors (or, as I call them, "Sestina Masters"): David Lehman, Sharon Mesmer, Sparrow, Jade Sylvan, Victor Infante, Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Carlin, Sharon Dolin, Scott Edward Anderson, Michael Costello, Jason Schneiderman, Drew Gardner, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Jenna Cardinale, Marilyn Nelson, Brendan Lorber, and Ned Rust.
It was an intense afternoon of sestinas, and I was floating. There was a film crew there--Thomas V. Hartmann, Michael Bodapoti, and Nadine Guerrera. Thomas and a College of Saint Rose MFA student, Juliet Barney, took stills. Here's a selection below, and if you want more, here's a link. And another.
We're in the middle of a tour this month, and hope you can make it out for some all-sestina readings for the ages.
Next Wednesday, February 19, we'll be at the NYU bookstore, with Paul Muldoon, Scott Edward Anderson, Patricia Carlin, Victor D. Infante, Jason Schneiderman, Drew Gardner, Carley Moore, and more.
We'll be in Chicago next Friday, February 21 at The Book Cellar, with Jonah Winter, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Marty McConnell, Kent Johnson, Jenny Boully, Elizabeth Hildreth, Michael Costello, Kathleen Rooney, and more.
And then, in Seattle, the big one: an off-site reading to coincide with AWP, at LUCID Lounge: Patricia Smith, Paul Hoover, Geoff Bouvier, Ravi Shankar, John Hoppenthaler, Sarah Green, Beth Gylys, Sharon Dolin, Nate Marshall, Tomás Q. Morín, Richard Peabody, Tara Betts, Sonya Huber, Aaron Belz, Jade Sylvan, Kiki Petrosino, James Harms, Jeffrey Morgan, Sandra Beasley, Marilyn Nelson, Lynn Kirkpatrick, Jay Snodgrass, and more.
More information, go to IncredibleSestinas.com.
I'm very happy to be with you this week as guest blogger on the Best American Poetry website; many thanks to the trusting souls who invited me…
I’d be remiss not to note here the recent death of Maxine Kumin at 88. Although her passing is a sad occasion, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate her extraordinary life. Ms. Kumin won virtually every important literary honor during her long career, and in 1981–1982 served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (a post which later became Poet Laureate of the United States).
She began teaching at Tufts in 1948, after finishing her masters at Radcliffe. That year she was one of the first two women ever hired by the English department, but she and her colleague were limited to teaching freshman comp to physical education majors and dental technicians. That experience inspired a life-long, passionate advocacy on behalf of women in higher education and publishing. (In 1998 she gave up a seat on the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets to call out the need to include more women and minorities in leadership positions.)
Maxine Kumin was never interested in poetic fads and fashions. Her work was direct and spare, often informed by the beauty of her adopted New England, and she unapologetically described herself as “a story teller.”
Next to poetry her great love was horses. She was an accomplished rider, and for years she and her husband Victor bred Arabian and quarter horses on their New Hampshire farm. But one day in 1998 while in Vermont training for a riding exhibition, she was thrown from her carriage, which the spooked horse then dragged over her. She suffered massive internal injuries, many broken bones and a broken neck, and spent nearly a year in a "halo," a metal cage that immobilized her head and neck.
None of her doctors expected her to live, and assumed that if she did survive she'd spend the rest of her life as a quadriplegic. But she staged a remarkable comeback, and like an alchemist—transforming suffering into beauty—wrote about the experience in a compelling journal: Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery.
In Spring of 2005 I had the great honor of interviewing this giant of twentieth-century letters for Colloquy, the magazine of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. We talked about all the above, as well as many other aspects of her personal and professional journey. During our conversation she offered, with generosity and humor, a glimpse into her restless, inquisitive mind.
You can read that interview here. (It starts on page six.)
Many thanks, Ms. Kumin... and safe passage.
Source: Biography of Pamela Colman Smith.
Among the personal effects of poet and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats was a pack of tarot cards. By most accounts Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn*, an occult secret society that practiced ceremonial magic. As it was, the Hermetic Order considered tarot divination to be one of the foundational studies that the society’s initiates learned (the others being astrology and theurgy).
While other notable members of the Golden Dawn, namely A. E. Waite and illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, were conceiving the tarot deck now known as the Rider-Waite (or Rider-Waite-Smith) deck, it is said that Yeats was an advisor to Pamela Smith on the mystic symbolism to be incorporated into Waite’s new deck. So poetry and poets have influenced the tarot and its symbology as much as the deck of cards has influenced and inspired poets and their poetry.
The title of Yeat’s autobiographical work The Trembling of the Veil hints at the poet’s association with the Rider-Waite tarot. The veil is a notable Hermetic reference, which has also been used by A. E. Waite in his book on tarot The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Part I of the book is titled “The Veil and its Symbols” and Part II, “The Doctrine Behind the Veil.” What’s more, in the Introduction to Pictorial, Waite writes, “The pathology of the poet says the ‘undevout astronomer is mad.’” (He takes the quote from William Herschel, a musician, mathematician and astronomer.) The more one digs, the more patterns are found.
For the poets who look to poetry as evidence, look to Yeats’s “The Tower.”
…Good fellows shuffled cards in an old bawn;
And when that ancient ruffian's turn was on
He so bewitched the cards under his thumb
That all but the one card became
A pack of hounds and not a pack of cards,
And that he changed into a hare.
Hanrahan rose in frenzy there
And followed up those baying creatures towards –
To start, the thematic references to pride and ego throughout are the ascribed meanings to the tarot card Key 16, named The Tower, which is also the title of Yeats’s poem. As for what that “one card” was, I suspect the title offers some indication. The fellow Hanrahan has been interpreted by many to be a representation of The Fool, significant because the progression of the Major Arcana cards in the tarot has been referred to as “the Fool’s journey.”
…Before that ruin came, for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms there were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper's rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.
The foregoing stanza describes The Tower card: the ruin, the rough men-at-arms, narrow stairs, and the general imagery reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, which is often the depiction on The Tower card in tarot. As for the “Great Memory stored,” it could be speculated that it is a reference to the card that follows Key 16, The Tower, which is Key 17, The Star. The Star card is associated with depicting the varying states of human consciousness and the unconscious, with the Great Memory a metaphor for the collective unconscious, which is a concept deeply rooted in ceremonial magic and the traditions of the Golden Dawn, which Yeats was purported to be part of (though the Golden Dawn do not use the actual term “collective unconscious,” and ascribe a different designation for the concept).
T.S. Eliot. Source: Public Domain
Tarot may be one of the lesser known muses of poets past. Take T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” for instance.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
In that stanza, Eliot makes reference to several cards in the tarot deck. Some speculate that the drowned Phoenician Sailor is the Ten of Swords and the Lady of the Rocks is the Queen of Cups. There is then the Three of Wands (“man with the three staves”), The Wheel of Fortune (“the Wheel”), the Six of Pentacles (“the one-eyed merchant”), and The Hanged Man. “Fear death by water,” writes Eliot. The Hanged Man is ruled astrologically by Neptune and is governed by the element Water.
If the tarot cards are to be interpreted, they may suggest pending doom and misfortune, empathy felt for that downfall, a period of waiting and yearning for validation, the karmic turns of the samsara wheel, and the ultimate benevolence--self-sacrifice and prophesy. The tarot reading sets the tone for the progression of Eliot’s poem.
Richard Palmer, a prolific contemporary poet and master tarot practitioner says that in the union of the tarot and poetry, the poetic voice is joined with the voice of the universe, our words with the ancient symbols, which is the language of the cosmic soul. Together, tarot and poetry “weave a song of mystery, meaning, beauty, and love upon the unfolding tapestry of Time,” as he eloquently put it. Palmer’s poetry, some of the most brilliant of his works showcased in The Traveler (Writers Club Press, 2002), among his other collections, demonstrate the richness of poems conceived from a poet-mind that has been influenced by the tarot. Likewise, his tarot books, such as Tarot: Voice of the Inner Light (Custom Book Publishing, 2008) exudes a depth and breadth to tarot interpretive work that surpasses other practitioners, precisely because of his poet-mind approach.
It is no surprise that poets might gravitate toward the tarot for inspiration. Poetry calls upon our mythologies as metaphors of otherwise hidden truths, and the notion of revealing what has been hidden is a fascination of, I dare say, all poets. And what is the occult? The occult is but the study of that which has been hidden from view. So it would be of little surprise that poets and occult secret societies might be bedfellows. Tomorrow, I hope to explore the idea of mythology and metaphor further, in particular how the tarot is itself a book of poetry, and even more significantly, poetry for poets.
* Notwithstanding Yeats, other acclaimed poets and writers that were known members of the Golden Dawn were Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, Sax Rohmer, author of the ever lovely Fu Manchu series, Scottish poet and writer William Sharp, who also wrote under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod, writer Arthur Machen, who Stephen King has called perhaps the best writer of horror in the English language, Arnold Bennett, Algernon Blackwood, Gustav Meyrink, John Todhunter, Violet Tweedale, and Charles Williams, to name a few.
(Juan Sánchez Peláez at his home in Caracas in 1979, by Vasco Szinetar)
One of the reasons I became a translator of Venezuelan literature into English is because I discovered the poetry of Juan Sánchez Peláez (Altagracia de Orituco, 1922 - Caracas, 2003). Sánchez Peláez published seven collections of poetry between 1951 and 1989 and had a profound influence on his contemporaries and several subsequent generations of writers in Venezuela. Although he was an International Writing Program Fellow at the University of Iowa in 1969 and lived in New York City in the early 1970s, Sánchez Peláez’s work remains unknown in the United States. I hope that in the near future my translations will lead American readers to Sánchez Peláez’s poetry.
In The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition (2012), the Venezuelan scholar Luis Miguel Isava devotes an entire paragraph to Sánchez Peláez in the entry for “Poetry of Venezuela”:
A herald of the Generación de los 60 (Generation of the 1960s), Juan Sánchez Peláez (1922-2003) is considered the most revolutionary, complex, and stimulating Venezuelan poet of the 20th c. His poetry bore some thematic resemblance to previous poets (José Antonio Ramos Sucre, Vicente Gerbasi), but distinguished itself by a revolutionary lang. that combined the grammatical transgressions of the avant-garde with a singular and tender intimacy, recognizable even in his first book Elena y los elementos (Elena and the Elements, 1951). The publication of his Animal de costumbre (The Usual Animal, 1959)—notably in the same year as the downfall of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez—marked the beginning of a new era of poetic experimentation. The Generación de los 60 enjoyed the newfound creative liberty enabled by Sánchez Peláez.
When Sánchez Peláez died, the only North American publication to mention the news was the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald. The article was an essay by his close friend the Cuban poet Lorenzo García Vega (Jagüey Grande, 1926 - Miami, 2012). García Vega was the youngest member of the famous Orígenes group of poets, which included José Lezama Lima and Fina García Marruz. After García Vega left Cuba in the late 1960s, he lived in Caracas for a time before eventually settling in Miami or as he called it, Playa Albina.
I’d like to finish this week as guest author at the Best American Poetry blog with my translation of Lorenzo García Vega's appreciation of Juan Sánchez Peláez.
Thank you to Stacey Harwood for the invitation to participate in this blog and thank you, dear readers.
The One Who Threw Burning Grapes
Lorenzo García Vega, Miami, El Nuevo Herald, 26 January 2004
The one who threw burning grapes into hard bays? Who knew how to say it? Only a poet, of course, only my friend Juan Sánchez Peláez knew how. But because it ends up being painful for me to say he’s no longer here, I’ll take a leap that will lead me to a cinema from my youth. How’s this?
Some of us poets or men of letters, or whatever term one might use, who erupted onto the Latin American scene encompassed between the years 1940 and 1955, saw certain pathetic newsreels in the cinemas where a broadcaster with a “serious” voice explained what we were seeing: an atomic explosion over some Japanese cities. It was an entirely new Chapter in History (just like that, with capitals or with a capital voice, was how the newscaster said it) that was going to change everything, or take everything apart. This is how existential anguish became a daily occurrence. An existential anguish dyed with Surrealism’s good fires.
That’s exactly how it was. We made our entrance beneath an atomic explosion narrated by a newscaster and we hid ourselves, however we could, beneath Surrealism’s final shots. So that those of us who were young in those times—a few young people who had proposed among ourselves to hide beneath the metaphorical disorder of the avant-garde—, and who lived amid the isolation of an island, nourished ourselves in any way we could with what reached us from the outside world through the bookstores in Havana. And this, while on the mainland, in other words on the continent, a Venezuelan we didn’t know, Juan Sánchez Peláez, was making his way to Chile to gather the legacy of that Surrealist magazine, Mandrágora, where, according to a critic: “The Mandragoristas opened a path with elbow jabs, savagely breaking with everything; screams, improprieties, insults against the medium with no concern for good manners.” And this, so that afterwards, on a journey by velocipede, as Juan confessed in one of his poems, he ended up in that Paris where he met Péret, and where he assimilated such things as “the deep and long night of my age,” pointed out by Éluard.
It was an anguish, then, which arrived with an atomic explosion that, transformed into shadows of film, settled in the Havana neighborhood cinema we went to. Or it was a Surrealism with a night of astonishing harlequins, or with a scream that warned: Into the water with Apollinaire!, but where isolation was the only thing that existed. An isolation where the Surrealist automatism we tried to plunge into ended up being an empty gesture. A gesture that was merely surrounded by the solitude of an island where the surreal was seen out of the corner of an eye by a glance that, even in its best expression, Gongoresque, attained the quality of the Beautiful with a capital. In other words, the Beautiful with a Roman God, which couldn’t help being, with its lamentable connection to the ritualistic, the manifestation of the cassock and the cathedral.
And, how sad then!, as we walked out of those cinemas where the atomic bomb exploded, that we young people, who lived surrounded by water on all sides, couldn’t fully connect with the great Latin American Surrealist shadows who wandered on the mainland: César Moro, Enrique Molina, or Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, or…
In the end, many things had to occur and, among these, departing the island in a stampede, so as to be able to encounter, after a few years, the surrealist, friend and contemporary, Juan Sánchez Peláez, whom we should have encountered sooner, much sooner. But, finally…We were destined to meet, and the Laws of Cosmic Necessity (laws that could have been dictated by that Gurdief that Juan was reading the last time I saw him) led the poet Octavio Armand to put me in contact with Juan (and, of course, with his companion Malena), during a New York night in the 1970s.
And who was Juan, the Venezuelan poet born in 1922 in Altagracia de Orituco, in the sate of Guárico, and who died in Caracas last November? Who was that Juan, with a turtleneck and Picassian eyes, whom I met one night in New York? Well, looking through a window now in January, through a window that, I don’t know how, puts me in direct contact with the old gold – alchemical? – of a light, this, with nothing else whatsoever but to face the weight of his absence. My friend the poet, who knew how to define himself so well in this manner: “And I know of my limits / I possess a dwelling, my dwelling is / the irony, / a living owl, no / embalmed / the owl that's in the well of the / moon / at the very lonely first hour of / dawn.”
Or I remember once, when emerging from the room that was in the hallucinatory patio of his house in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Juan arrived on the terrace were I sat to say to me suddenly, but not emphatically: “The words sound like gold animals.” And then—I can guarantee it happened this way – I hallucinated when I heard Juan say those words, since, in a way I wouldn’t know how to explain now, I understood what my poet friend was saying was not one of his verses, but just that, gold animals, which he seemed to know how to weigh in his hands, while he spied on the brilliance as though he were a child.
Or Juan, how would I know how to say it?, with his deafness, in his slow, very slow walks that he took, where he was like a Zen figure whose cane, which in actuality he never used, had just been taken away. Very slow walks, I repeat. And above all I remember one, paradigmatic, which we took around the Paseo de los Chorros in Caracas, and where I thought to say to Juan that at any moment we could very well come across an apparition of José Antonio Ramos Sucre, that Venezuelan poet so close to us, arm in arm with Empress Charlotte. I thought to say this to him, and my friend Juan, poet without a cane, advanced a few steps, as he tended to do during his walks; and he backed up one step, as he immediately tended to do; and this so as to, as always, conclude by opening his eyes, or covering his mouth, just like a gracious character in a silent film who knew how to say it all without having to use a single sound. Although, yes, a silent character, who in certain moments knew how to sing “Júrame” for us, that song composed by María Greber in 1926, which he loved so much (“I’m certain – he once told me – if the old Surrealists had heard it, it would have been one of their favorite songs”).
Or Juan, at the end, who knew like no one else how to evoke César Moro, a figure Latin American Surrealism can identify with, and he did this with words that can also serve to say goodbye to him in this brief essay:
César Moro, beautiful and humbled,
playing a harp in the outskirts of Lima
said to me: come into my house, poet
always ask for air, clear sky
because we have to die some day, it’s understood
we have to be born, and you are already dead
the floor will always be here, wide and mute
but dying from the same family is to have been born.
(Juan Sánchez Peláez, “Air On the Air: III”)
In the fall of 2014, the Mexican poets Dolores Dorantes (Córdoba, Veracruz, 1973) and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez (Mexico City, 1977) will be publishing a collaborative book of poems entitled, Intervene/Intervenir (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014, forthcoming). The English translation of the collection (which hasn't been published in Spanish yet) is by the North American poet and translator Jen Hofer (San Francisco, 1971). Jen Hofer is, by far, the most important North American translator working with Mexican poetry today. Her many publications include the groundbreaking Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women Writers (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), and most recently she co-translated Heriberto Yépez's critical study of Charles Olson's travels and research in Mexico, The Empire of Neomemory (Oakland/Philadelphia: Chain Links, 2013).
I was introduced to the work of Dolores in 2003 via the network of Mexican poetry blogs, which emerged at the same time as many experimental North American poets took to the blogosphere. Dolores still maintains a blog today (Dolores Dorantes) and for over a decade her online writing and her books of poetry have been essential to me. North American readers can find her work in the volume sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre: A Bilingual Edition of Books Two and Three from Dolores Dorantes, translated by Jen Hofer (Denver: Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions, 2007). Dolores lived for many years in Ciudad Juárez and today resides in Los Angeles, CA.
Through correspondence with Dolores I arrived at Rodrigo's poetry, via his second collection Estimado cliente (Toluca: Bonobos Editores, 2007). Rodrigo himself is a translator who has brought Jack Spicer and Muriel Rukeyser into Spanish. He lives in Mexico City and Intervene/Intervenir will be his first book to appear in English. I spoke with Dolores and Rodrigo via e-mail regarding their upcoming book with Ugly Duckling Presse. I have translated their responses into English. If anyone would like to read our conversation in Spanish, I've posted it at my blog Venepoetics.
I get the impression that Intervene emerges, partly, from the friendship between you two. How did you decide to collaborate on this book?
Dolores Dorantes: Intervene came about from an invitation to collaborate with the magazine Kaurab Online. The poet Aryanil Mukherjee wrote to me when he was editing an issue for the magazine with texts created in collaboration. Aryanil wanted three pages from each pair of collaborators and I invited Rodrigo to do something together. For me, the experience of collaborating was so new and getting to know Rodrigo's creative process made such an impact on me (this was my first time collaborating with someone): it was like discovering the mechanism that makes a flower open up, or something like that, so I didn't want to stop. I had already decided to abandon writing poetry in a formal manner, to give up writing verses, but working with Rodrigo made me see the formula for writing poetry in a different manner, I began to break many of my own rules, with great trepidation, I took up verses once again (something I haven't done since then). And likewise, with great trepidation I opened up my creative process to another writer in order to collaborate. That was fantastic.
Rodrigo Flores Sánchez: Lola and I have been friends for a while now. She proposed to me that we collaborate on something for a magazine; so we wrote two or three poems together, without any specific topic. Those poems came out in one or two days. In other words, Lola would send me a couple verses, I'd send her back a couple more, that's how the first texts were created. Then the strategy changed: each one of us wrote complete poems and we responded to each other with new texts. That small group of poems soon became a multitude.
Could you describe the process of composition for the book? Did you collaborate in person or via e-mail?
DD: For me it was a euphoric process of exchanging Word documents that we'd send back and forth via e-mail. A complete immersion. Afterwards, I can't remember specific dates, but Rodrigo might, I travelled to Mexico City and we met in the neighborhood of Coyoacán to decide what poems we'd keep for the book, and of those what other poems might survive the revision process. I think that's how it happened, but in these cases the process can always be seen differently by each person, it's like the same story told by different grandparents, there'll always be details that I carry with emotion and preference and that Rodrigo might see in a much more precise manner, he always looks at things in a more precise and organized manner than I do.
RFS: For me the process was very stimulating and disconcerting at the same time. In the case of Intervene, I hadn't ever participated in a collaborative writing project without the elements I mentioned above. You have to keep in mind that Lola was in Ciudad Juárez and I was in Chilango [Mexico City]. Lola and I have actually only met in person a few times, but I feel a great deal of affection, admiration and empathy for her. I think that without those elements I wouldn't be able to participate in a project like Intervene. I read everything Lola publishes and we've been writing to each other for years. In fact, after Intervene we began to write letters to each other for another project. For me the development of a gradual immersion in the other was quite dense. This process was a radical questioning of what identity means and of the "style" of a piece of writing. The process is the inverse of Ariadne's thread. The intention wasn't to leave the labyrinth but rather to go further in, to get lost in the questions, recurrences and stylistic marks of the other. In the end I think the writing, at least this writing, is a line, a glance toward signs that have been obstructed ahead of time, that belong to Nobody, that is, to a Cyclops, a blind man, a blindfolded man. What I mean is that you don't have any clues for deciphering a trajectory or definite a path. The only thing you can do is to thread the territory with questions.
At a reading you gave together in Mexico City in 2009 that can be seen on YouTube, the voice of the poet Jorge Solís Arenazas is heard reading a few fragments offstage from the audience. Is it safe to say that Intervene is a book that seeks out interventions from its readers?
DD: The reading that's up on YouTube was recorded during the presentation of a chapbook that we gave away for free where we printed a fragment from Intervene. The entire event was a total party. Without thinking about it or openly deciding to do it in that way, yes there were several interventions: the intervention of the poets Karen Plata and Inti García Santamaría, who made the chapbook. The intervention of the poet Laura Solórzano who read right before the two of us intervened that space: the house of the poet Jorge Solís Arenazas, who helped us out by presenting his voice for the performance, and the intervention of Producciones Autismo, who recorded the reading. Everything happened at the “Casa Vacía” [Empty House] (that's what Jorge would call his home each time he organized a reading) on Avenue Álvaro Obregón in the Colonia Roma neighborhood, and many of the things and situations that happened there were accidents. Decisions we made only minutes before reading.
RFS: The meaning of the title and the book for me has to do with two things. First, historically Mexico is a country that's been and is now intervened by different forces, armies, countries, police, etc. Before 1519, the constitution of Mesoamerica has to do with the intervention of different cultures and clans. The territory that's known as Mexico today and includes parts of the United States was intervened by the Spanish empire for three centuries. Afterwards, Mexico was intervened twice by France and twice by the United States. The Mexican territory was diminished due to North American annexations and the independence of Central American countries. In this sense, it really catches my attention that while the history and politics of Mexico can be read and tracked by following the history of its interventions, it's official policy has been the Estrada Doctrine: that is, non-intervention. In Freudian terms, it's a social projection that has been cured by a cliché and by an impossibility that isn't merely historical but also epistemic: to not intervene. In my case, I was interested in making that traumatic word visible, a word that today remains quite relevant. On the other hand, in the book, the intervention is represented by over-writing. Let's just say I believe that the social simile is subjectified in the map that is this book: a territory full of addendums, suppressions, typographical hierarchies, voices, questions, none of which belong to an authorship but instead merely make the authorial banishment evident. I really enjoyed the experience of that first public reading of the book (which so far has been the only one we've done together). Because we were able to do it in a “choral” manner, Jorge, Lola and I would read different typographical marks. It was a big inspiration to me, for instance, when I came across audio recordings of readings by Hannah Weiner, whose work, by the way, I got to know thanks to Lola. They're incredible.
What was the process of Jen Hofer's translation into English like? Did you collaborate with her in the translation?
DD: Well, I think Jen's processes are always very careful and creative. It's a process that hasn't finished yet and that I'd like to know more about, from Jen Hofer herself. Collaborations with Jen Hofer never take place merely on the plane of an interpretation and reinterpretation of a text. Jen always looks beyond, and she asks her questions. But, like I say, it's a process that isn't over yet because the bilingual edition of the book will be published at the end of 2014.
RFS: I enjoyed the translation process a great deal, Jen is an excellent conductor of texts. Besides being interested in the literality of the translation, she pays close attention to understanding the text in its context and to moving beyond that first level, I mean the literal one. In that sense, on her part there was always an open dialogue with Lola and myself, in which she contributed questions, uncertainties and observations. It was a very enriching experience for me.
It seems to me that the English translation of the book offers new possibilities for presenting the book in public, for creating a dialogue between the two languages. Do you plan on presenting the book in the United States when it's published here?
DD: Of course, we have to present the book in the United States. That's the way publishing houses promote their books and ensure the text will have a bigger impact on the reading public, especially when it's a case of poets who write in another language. How could the publishing house justify its reasons for publishing Mexican poetry if not through the authors themselves? Publishing poetry in itself is already a risk, and publishing poetry in another language, with authors from the closest country to the United States isn't precisely high on the list of priorities of white North American intellectuals, so we have to make ourselves visible, and have fun while we do it. Years ago, I read part of Intervene at a museum in Detroit, along with the poets Patrick Durgin, Laura Solórzano and Jen Hofer, who with their voices sustained a discourse that was different from the ones that appear in the upcoming Intervene (Intervene is a book in which more than three discourses are interwoven). That gave it an interesting theatrical dimension. I don't know how we'll have fun this time, and when exactly, but I'm sure it'll be something pretty crazy, because of Rodrigo's presence, (whew!) he's from another planet.
RFS: I'd love for Intervene to be presented in the United States.
One of the best poetry readings I’ve ever attended took place in a comfortable living room with a dozen people listening to the English poet Tom Raworth read at his signature breakneck speed. The night —which began with the raw and powerful folk music of Ben Collier and concluded with everyone chatting amiably throughout the house— was part of the Bonfire Reading Series here in Pittsburgh, PA. The readings always follow a simple but effective format: an invited musician, the featured poet, and an informal gathering afterwards with potluck snacks and drinks. The series has been running since 2012 and is curated by a collective of poets that includes Emily Carlson, Sten Carlson, Robin Clarke, R/B Mertz and Joshua Zelesnick.
The members of the collective met while they were poetry MFA students at the University of Pittsburgh several years ago. The idea for a reading series emerged as a natural extension of their friendship, as well as their belief in poetry as an essential part of their everyday lives. As Sten told me recently, when I interviewed him about the reading series: “We wanted to create poetic events that meant something to us.” The series is a reflection of their desire as poets to “create an eventful life together, as opposed to discrete, private acts of writing.”
All of the group members are educators and Sten also works as the Managing Director for the University of Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series. My wife Dayana and I moved to Pittsburgh in 2012 from Durham, NC, and befriending this group of poets is one of the reasons we love this city so much. Since we're neighbors, Sten and I tend to meet a couple times a month to talk about poetry at the nearby Kelly's Bar & Lounge in the East Liberty neighborhood. During one of those get-togethers recently (I half-jokingly call them our “poetry work meetings”), I took notes while Sten talked about the Bonfire Reading Series. I also e-mailed several questions to the group members. Between our conversation that night and various group e-mails, the following responses emerged.
You all met while studying at the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh. When and how did the idea for the Bonfire Reading Series emerge? Were there any models that inspired you?
Joshua Zelesnick: I think one of the contributing factors to starting the Bonfire series came from the Occupy Movement—and the activism we’ve all been part of in some way. Yes, Pitt made it possible for all of us to meet, but the reading series was not as much informed by our Pitt experience (at least I would say). I remember R/B Mertz reading from her amazing book, Leaves of Money at the kick—off march towards People’s Park here in Pittsburgh (Mellon Green: the Occupy Pittsburgh camp site). Every week we would go to the campsite and read poems—anybody could read. It seemed to always boost morale, and so many people read. I remember meeting down in the T (subway) and gathering in a circle. Someone would just get up and read for a few minutes, then someone else. One time we read on the subway train. You can ride for free downtown for a few stops. I remember reading my poem, “Capitalism Poem #1.” A few strangers even clapped after I finished reading it. Of course, some people just seemed to be embarrassed for me.
In December of 2013, after a reading one night, I happened to be around when you had a discussion about possible future readings. I was so impressed by the informal yet thorough and democratic way that you made decisions. How do you all decide on what poets and musicians to invite?
R/B Mertz: I think the important thing is that everyone really respects each other and each others’ work and aesthetics, and we trust each others’ taste, I think, or are at least always open and genuinely interested about anyone someone else is interested in, or really anyone who is producing good art or interesting art, of whatever sort; so it’s been fairly haphazard—who is in town when, who knows a musician that someone might pair up with the poet; it’s very spontaneous and improvisational; but I think that’s why it’s great.
There's a magical atmosphere at your readings, whether they're held outside in the garden or indoors in your living room. What are some essential components of your reading series?
R/B Mertz: The fact that the readings take place in or around a home is really essential to me, maybe because when I think of the tradition of poetry I first encountered as a reader-- I first read about people reading poems or reciting them stiffly and formally, in British novels and stuff like that, where some ladies would read aloud or recite in drawing rooms to their families or suitors or whoever—reading these private lyrical things, Romantic poems, probably, in a private space, which was somehow made public by the communication across time and space between the poet and the reciter or reader, and the audience, and the author of the novel, and me...so to me, poetry was this thing that was created in absolute privacy, confessional, etc; and yet always accessed in this way that’s really removed from the author, and read aloud or performed (un-like a novel), which goes back to Homer reciting his stuff around the fire or wherever, or the village gathering in the theater or square…I find all the layers of this public/private stuff really fascinating, especially because we’re in this monumental phase of human communication, where publishing and authorship and all of these things are being re-defined, and of course viewing and audience-ship and reading and listening are all being re-defined, there’s something both ancient and radical about opening your home/private space to strangers, and to The Stranger that poetry is, or the poet is, and the strangeness of all that converging around live art vs. the recorded art of the television or the radio or the internet.
Is there a particular highlight from the readings that you'd like to tell us about?
Robin Clarke: During a particularly serious and important poetry reading (LOL I mean me! when I had the chance to read at our series) our fellow planners' 1-1/2 year-old, Jules, took a big dump in his portable potty training potty, which was discreetly located right there in the reading space! As I recall he must not have peed, because the toilet produces music when you pee. But generally the presence of children at these readings is amazing. When Tom Raworth read, he read a crazily fast poem about his kids in honor of this same potty-training child, who he'd been hanging out with the day of the reading. Poetry should not ever be a space for decorum, and the anarchic children just about clear us of that temptation. I'm told I was literally saying the word "embarrassed" when the dump was dropped. Lately I've been thinking poets have to be willing to risk humiliation at all times. Jules helped me learn that.
R/B Mertz: When Tom Raworth came, that was so special. Particularly because when we were in grad school, taking a class with Ben Lerner, who we admired a lot, Tom Raworth came to town for the first time. When Ben heard that Tom was going to be in town, he and Sten organized a reading for Tom in about a week. And I think Ben was kind of appalled that no one else was doing it, and he had just gotten to Pittsburgh and didn’t know the venues or anything yet, but they had the reading at a hookah bar, with people burbling the whole time. So, Ben at one point gave this speech about how we should go to every reading, everywhere, and if we heard a poet was going to be in town, we should host them; so when Tom Raworth was in town again, it was really special to be able to have him with us, and to know that we had put this thing in place that was ready to receive him, which was also a tribute to Ben, for me, in that moment, like we were completing the ultimate homework assignment from our teacher. Also, Tom Raworth is a fucking rockstar and can drink and smoke like one, and write and perform times better than one, which I found really inspiring.
Also, when gt rabbit read outside last summer, that was probably the most personally special for me; he had just returned from two years in South Korea, so it was like a reunion, and he did this really electronic sound art outside, which also messed with this public/private/house stuff I’m interested in, because gt rabbit read alongside his sound art, and sort of played the sound art “live” –like technology or electricity or the computer or the internet were exploding outside, right in the garden, and what they were exploding into was poetry for friends, for an audience, the poet, etc; gt rabbit used this great recording of a Robert Creeley reading (“The Plan is the Body” on Pennsound) where Creeley is really high or drunk or both, and he’s losing his place and debating a heckler, but also giving one of the best readings ever; so it was like all these electronic devices and recorded voices of history were emerging so clearly as a result of this one body, who collected and “read” them; this one lyric/poet moment which was happening outside, where you think all those electronic things aren’t really supposed to be.
Do you have any specific plans or goals for the reading series that you might share with us?
Sten Carlson: I think that as poets we need to invent a life outside the university. We'd like to keep building these collaborative elements, to invite horizontal —not hierarchical— collaboration. We'd also like to start our own press in the future. We see this reading series as a way of practicing a politics that we aspire to live on a daily basis.
“the plan is the body.
Who can read it.”
“Looming with the legends”
I've never met the San Francisco-based poets Micah Ballard (Baton Rouge, 1975) and Sunnylyn Thibodeaux (New Orleans, 1975) in person, but we’ve been corresponding via letters, e-mail and telephone since 2007. I was aware of their work before that through our friend in common, the poet Cedar Sigo. Aside from being writers whose work I deeply admire, Micah and Sunnylyn are also the editors of a small publishing venture that goes by the names Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions (depending on what type of project they’re working on at the time).
Auguste Press/Lew Gallery Editions are not sold anywhere, the only way to find them is to contact the editors directly. Each of their publications is made by hand and printed in limited editions that are sent out to their mailing list of friends and contacts across the country. While their operation is very much inspired by the long tradition of avant-garde poetry in the Bay Area throughout the 20th century, their publications have a loyal following all over the United States.
I recently interviewed Sunnylyn and Micah via e-mail, asking them to discuss their publishing venture that’s now in its 14th year. Finding August Press/Lew Gallery Editions books might be difficult but it’s worth the effort. So is their own poetry, which includes Micah’s collection Waifs and Strays (City Lights Books, 2011) and Sunnylyn’s Palm to Pine (Bootstrap Press, 2011), along with a slew of chapbooks, broadsides and limited edition pamphlets. What follows are their unedited responses to five questions I sent them.
Could you talk about when and how the idea of Auguste Press emerged? Are there any particular small presses that inspired you?
Sunnylyn Thibodeaux: We started in 2000. At New College of California there was a great small press bookstore, Blue Books. I was in awe of the hundreds of stapled selections by poets I’d never heard of and those I had. I wanted to do it too. We could make books and print our friends. Why not? Why not print my work and the work of our friends, come up with a cover, and hand it out to the people we respected. We called it Auguste Press because, well, my birthday’s in August and because I was so enthralled with the work of Lew Welch. We share the Leo status. He’s the 16th and I’m the 17th. It’s embarrassingly that simple.
Friends had little presses as well and we learned what we liked and didn’t like through the variety of chaps that Blue Books had. They had these rotary book displays that you could spend hours spinning and pulling out new voices in some new design from someone in New York or Santa Cruz or Boulder. Mike Price & Kevin Opstedal’s Blue Press was highly influential as well as Noel Black’s Angry Dog Press. The community on and off the page through Blue Books, not to mention New College’s Poetics Program, was a total game changer for me.
Micah Ballard: By the time we arrived in San Francisco our favorite poets had, in a sense, already led us to various printers. Dave Haselwood of Auerhahn Press always comes to mind first because of John Wieners’ The Hotel Wentley Poems. And naturally one follows the press and gets turned on to other writers. Philip Lamantia’s Narcotica and Philip Whalen’s Memoirs of an Interglacial Age among others. And Wallace Berman’s Semina and the circle of friends there, all interacting and living together.
I’ve still never held an issue of Semina so that’s just me romanticizing it. Like I do Bob Creeley’s Divers Press, Ted Berrigan’s C Press, or Joe Dunn and Graham Mackintosh’s White Rabbit press. Of course there are photocopies of certain rare books passed down which serve as great little pirate editions. By now I’ve convinced myself that our photocopies of books are really first editions.
There are so many others, especially journals and magazines that are influential. Lately we’ve found issues of Diane DiPrima’s and LeRoi Jones’ The Floating Bear, Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar, Bill Berkson’s Big Sky, and Duncan McNaughton’s Fathar. For my birthday years back Sunnylyn gave me a copy of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. It was issue number 5, volume 6, April/May 1964. I can’t think of anything more luxurious right now than holding it and reading Frank O’Hara’s “Un Chant d’amour” (after Jean Genet) on crumbling pink construction paper typed on an old typewriter.
The publications of Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions are beautiful, hand-made objects in and of themselves. Where did you learn how to make books and could you describe your process as bookmakers?
MB: Thanks. Our books are really simple, both in their design and production. Most of them are obvious throwbacks from the mimeograph books/zines of the 60’s and 70’s. So it’s not like we’re Holbrook Teter and Michael Myers setting type and making linoleum cuts all night. But it does take a long time to make them. One of the main reasons is because we type most manuscripts on an old Remington typewriter, which I like to refer to as the “ghetto letterpress.” If we’re going to print a book by the simplest means, we might as well spend a lot of time with it to make it as alluring and elegant as possible. We try to make books that look like art objects, or little talismans that want to be picked up and experienced. We often keep our favorite “small press” books out, or propped up on the bookshelf because they’re entrancing to look at and they can really charm a room as much as a painting on the wall. Especially if you really dig the poems. It’s like having the poet in the room with you. What better company is there?
ST: Funny, I’ve never thought about how we learned. I feel like we haven’t in some sense. People these days use programs for this stuff and we’re all about scissors and tape. But I remember in high school working on yearbook and having to eye copy and art and work with the layout to fit things always thinking for a balance of aesthetic. So maybe there are some lessons that lingered. But I always feel like the poems dictate this more than anything. As of late we’ve been sticking with 8 ½ x 11 but that’s not always the case. Some things want to be saddle-stapled, some trimmed. We learn something new every time we print a book. Nothing’s set in stone and there’re often things we toy with from spray painting staples (which wore off) to embossing the Auguste Press symbol (which curled the paper.) It’s a full-blown art project— trying to put the poetry we love and respect into a physical representation that follows through to be a thing of beauty. That’s our hope anyway.
MB: And however or whatever we do, there’s always a hiccup, especially since we’re just mainly using photocopy machines. We’ve always strayed away from bright white paper because it’s just not kind on the eyes and to me that effects the reading experience. I mean hell, if the poem’s magical it’s gonna stay magical, written in blood or printed on thousand count Egyptian cotton sheets. So we’re always looking for natural, or “off white” paper, mostly 60 or 70 lb., and a heavier card stock that’s not too thick. Then we try to find a good copy machine with a fresh toner that makes dark, clean copies.
If the poems allow it, we’ll oftentimes shrink the font down when photocopying so we can manipulate the size of the book. It’s lovely to see a smaller font, as if we used some rare typewriter. We’ll then ask a friend who’s a visual artist to make a piece for the cover. When Will Yackulic lived in SF I’d just show up to his house with a six-pack and he’d make the cover on the spot. Sunnylyn’s also made a few covers and I taught myself how to use an old proof press to letterpress the cover of our one-shot magazine, Morning Train.
What made you decide to transition from publishing larger books with Auguste Press to smaller ones with Lew Gallery Editions?
ST: I’ll let MB take this one.
MB: With Auguste Press we usually print one book a year because that’s all we can afford and it’s difficult to find the time what with having a full-time job, a 3-year old, etc. I’ve never thought of myself (or us) as publishers. Being a poet and writing poems is primary so that will always come first. We wind up printing books when the poems are slowing down for one of us. It’s a good way to keep the flame burning and also get one out of a lull.
Lew Gallery was an accident. Our good friend Charlie is a professional skateboarder and has travelled nonstop for quite some time. He’s not a writer per say, but like many, keeps a little notebook and jots things down while he’s on the road. He let me borrow his journal and I wound up making poems out of his entries. I then made a small book, 50 copies, and typed Lew Gallery on the back and sent him the books with a note that said, “welcome to the encrypted order.” Not that it matters, but the name Lew Gallery comes from the gallery I did out of my office at New College before they shut down. So, it’s just a way to extend that high-vaulted space into a book format. I hope one day we can put them all together and make an anthology, so that each book will serve like someone’s section in a zine.
As someone who has published with your press and who avidly reads every new publication of yours, I deeply appreciate the sense of community your project has created among poets spread out across the United States. Are there any particular highlights of your experience with Auguste Press/Lew Gallery editions that you’d care to mention?
ST: For me, the highlights are probably the books that challenged me in some form or another. The whole process of putting together a book is like an orchestration and some parts can take a wrestling but the breakthrough—oh boy! It isn’t done by me, but more so the muse and I am just a conduit. It’s a fantastic charge. With that said, Mascara, is my favorite book by experience. Will Skinker slipped a chunk of poems under Micah’s door at NCOC and MB brought it home months later. I started to read through them and was all over it. I spread that work all over the floor and kazam! It was as if they ordered themselves through sparks from the energy of the poems to my fingertips. I’ll never forget how that book formed itself.
The cover took the longest because I wanted the same magic to happen, but I couldn’t force it. Will would draw something, I’d collage something, but it’d just not feel right and then one night Micah said “here it is” and he showed me a collage that I had made a year earlier as a gift for Joanne Kyger but I never went to Bolinas to give it to her. I guess that piece knew it had another role.
MB: I totally forgot about that. I do remember typing “Mascara” and Will’s name and pasting it on the collage though. On another note, for me, the main pleasure is in typing a manuscript, because after a while you start feeling like you’re writing the poems. And there’s the nerve-racking feeling of trying not to make a mistake. Which is kind of a rush, like when you’re six poems deep and haven’t made a typo and it feels like light is coming out of your fingertips while you’re banging away on this heavy machine. It’s very corporeal and euphonic. You can learn a lot about writing by typing someone else’s poems.
I also enjoy watching the manuscript form. Some friends write towards a book, others already have one, and some want us to choose what poems will go in. Oh, and another highlight is of course the collating party. It’s a large collaboration and we’re all assisting in the alchemy.
What future plans do you have as editors/publishers/bookmakers?
MB: I think we’ll just keep doing the same thing, printing one or two Auguste Press books a year, making random Lew Gallery books, and continue giving them all out. We’re all part of this bi-coastal poetry community and everyone’s creating great work so we’ll definitely just keep printing little books to share. One aspect of Lew Gallery Editions that I really dig is that we’ve printed friends whose primary medium isn’t poetry; they’re interested in it of course but they’re usually busy painting or making music.
ST: I’m so excited to have another AP in the works. Everything has slowed down since we’ve had Lorca. We used to have multiple things brewing, now we’re even more selective and un-timely (sigh). The cost slows us down, but having a 3 yr old tear up the place and want to help is more so a distraction.
But, we are working on a collection from Duncan McNaughton. I am so over-the-top about this project as I admire his work tremendously. He is a dear friend and will forever be a teacher, an absolute master poet. We are just getting our feet wet with this manuscript so there’s not much more I can divulge. It’s set to be called Tiny Windows and it will be out this year. I’d love to get to another magazine as well. This has been on the back burner for a handful of years though. After McNaughton, my hope is to print a Bay Area poet that I admire but I haven’t approached her yet and I haven’t talked to Micah yet. Micah—did you know this?
MB: I never know.
On Monday, November 11, an overflow crowd gathered in Cooper Union's Great Hall to honor the great poet Seamus Heaney, who died last August. In opening the evening of readings from Heaney's work, Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America noted Heaney's "scrupulous generosity and grace, his infinite kindness and warmth, and his miraculous art." As the evening progressed, the stage and auditorium filled with words and music from the uillean pipes of Ivan Goff and the harp of Marta Cook. In the audience, we listened to Heaney's reminiscences of his childhood in County Derry when he was "as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence. But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too." (1995 Nobel Lecture, "Crediting Poetry")
As his poems were read aloud by distinguished poets who continue to write, teach, and publish, and were listened to and appreciated by an audience including many more poets and scholars, lifelong readers and new converts, Seamus Heaney's wide legacy was evident. In giving sound and voice to his work and life, poetry was credited; it flourished and proved itself, as he had proclaimed eighteen years earlier of Yeats. Since his Nobel prize and the deeply resonant lecture he gave on that occasion, another half-generation of poets have been nourished by what he continued to turn over and turn up, to make and to make known.
Among the lines from poems of Seamus Heaney read aloud Monday night were these (links at each poet's name are provided to suggest in part the reach of Seamus Heaney's influence and inspiration):
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes. -- from "Exposure" read by Frank Bidart.
My father is a barefoot boy with news,
Running at eye-level with weeds and stokes
On the afternoon of his own father's death.
I feel his legs and quick heels far away
And strange as my own -- when he will piggyback me
At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,
Like a witless elder rescued from the fire. -- from "Man and Boy" read by Sven Birkerts
They loved music and swam in for a singer
who might stand at the end of summer
in the mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed,
his shoulder to the jamb, his song
a rowboat far out in evening. -- from ""The Singer's House" read by Eavan Boland
My poor scapegoat,
I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence. -- from "Punishment" read by Lucie Brock-Broido
A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life. -- from "The Guttural Muse" read by Greg Delanty
In February 1977, the alluring and gifted Jamie MacInnis came to Washington DC from New York to read with Doug Lang in one of the earliest of the legendary readings at Folio Books in Dupont Circle. This reading series was, in fact, organized by Doug. But when I called him recently to check on Jamie’s historic, though brief, visit to DC, he thought she had read with me, not with him. Neither of us has any convincing memory of the event.
It would be hard, however, not to remember Jamie herself. She was about 35 at the time. Her one and only full-length book of poems, Practicing (Tombouctou, 1980), was still a few years in the future, but Hand Shadows, published by Larry Fagin’s Adventures in Poetry press, came out in the mid-1970s, filled with her characteristic witty, unpretentious work:
Jazz to Spare
A voice tells me there’s
jazz to spare. I don’t
know, it must be my own
“There’s jazz to spare,”
it says, but when I listen
to the music I worry that
there’s not enough to go
In December 1978, Fagin, who had a long-time on-and-off relationship with MacInnis, also published an edition of his magazine Un Poco Loco devoted to Jamie’s poems. The writing in Hand Shadows and Un Poco Loco make up most of what wound up in Practicing. Jamie and I connected, shall we say, during her visit to DC and wrote to each other for about a year. I have a dozen or so wonderfully smart, funny, unguarded letters from her. One of them included a poem (“for Terry, obviously/from Jamie, obviously/ 6/77”) that later appeared in Practicing:
The train starts by accident
leaving Washington D.C.
A flowered kimono lies wrinkled in my canvas bag.
The rays go dim as I travel east
out of your frequency.
You are like me
You admire people who like you.
I read your book
The Beautiful Indifference
looking for clues.
The train starts by accident
stopping in Newark.
Here, there’s a neighborhood,
where people have grape arbors in their yards
next to ivy-walled factories.
A man with a banjo sits in a chair.
The train starts by accident.
A businessman tells me his story.
The train tells its story of people
having a drink at 80 miles per hour.
The factories go by telling their stories
in billboards and a hundred tiny windows
talking at once.
The letters stopped in early 1978, and I don’t believe I ever again heard from her. So when she came to mind a few weeks ago, I did what we all do now—I went to Google in search of any information about her. Two findings surprised me: one, that there was so little trace of her, not even a photo; and two, the one source I did find that mentions her at length (a book entitled Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian) reveals her vivid and dramatic role, previously unknown to me, as a 20-year-old beauty in Jack Spicer’s circle in the early 1960s:
“The daughter of a legendary trial lawyer, MacInnis was a woman of deep poise, moving with ease between the worlds of the upper class and the bohemian Beat. Among the habitués of Gino & Carlo’s, she stood out: her shining young health, beautiful bone structure, precise speech, and fine skin were a reproach to the pasty male drinkers she mixed with. She was stylish, outspoken, and lovely. ...She was extravagantly talented as a poet.”
My favorite anecdote from this book involves an encounter she had with one of her detractors among Spicer’s set who said to her, “How would you like it if we took you out in the alley and gang-raped you?” Jamie’s response: “Oh, dear, do you really consider yourselves a gang?” That come-back would take some poise.
Larry Fagin alerted me to an uncaptioned photo of Jamie from a 1964 book called Our San Francisco, which appears above in this post; in addition, he sent me a scan of this ca.1970 fresco of Jamie by the late George Schneeman:
Some sleuthing by Arlo Quint of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project suggests that Jamie, now around 71, may be living in San Francisco.
Jamie MacInnis was also an addict. In the poem "Science," she writes: “Heroin gives you its dreams/and takes yours away...”
[Update, Jan. 19, 2014: I made a PDF of Practicing, which Charles Bernstein has added to the Electronic Poetry Center . See this link. Some of the poems were slightly truncated in the scanning process, which I didn’t realize until too late. Apologies.]
John Hollander died this past Saturday, at the age of 83. Many people, who knew him far better than I, have written and will write about John, his accomplishments and contributions to the world of arts and letters, in deeper and wiser ways than I ever could. So I'm going to skip that, offering instead a small story about shooting donkeys for rhetorical purposes. And about how John accidentally taught me what art is.
I've written here before about my first encounter with John at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in 2005. Having come from a rather argument-forward family myself (some of us were lawyers. Some of us were dedicated Black Sheep. Some of us were just Danish.) I was used to "argument" and known for being able to hold my own, but nothing could have truly prepared me for John.
John Hollander was a know-it-all. Literally. I mean, the man knew everything. About everything. He was passionate about knowing things, about truth, about connection -- and woe betide you if you weren't and ended up seated next to him at dinner. Though our acquaintence was short, I'm guessing that most people who knew him would confirm that that he was strongly disinclined to ever let drop an opportunity to enlighten someone. On any subject. At any time. He was relentless, and could be combative. Being wrong in front of John didn't feel good. I'm neither uneducated nor a shrinking violet. But running into Hollander on campus usually set off alarm bells in my vasovagal area. I knew I was about to be told how utterly wrong I was about something. I knew I was going to be found wanting for the poems I had never read, the terminology I didn't know, the languages I couldn't speak. Any encounter with him was likely to turn into a chess game in which he was Bobby Fischer and the best I could do was note that the therm "checkmate" came from the Persian "Shah mat" -- "The King Is Dead." And by the way... he knew that already.
John talked a lot. He was as witty as he was argumentative, tenacious to a degree that would cause a pit bull to hang its head in shame. He had a great gift for oratory and rhetoric and a steel-trap memory. He delighted in a good debate, especially the part where he got to mop the floor with you.
Okay, in a poetry workshop this can be.... counterproductive, as it can limit multi-voice discourse and occasionally causes someone to snap their pen in half and leave in tears. He frustrated several conferees in our group -- outraged a fair few, in fact. He did not care. There was KNOWING SOMETHING on the line and John was Knowing Something's personal Knight Templar.
When one of my own poems came up at the workshop table, I just braced for impact. Only that morning I'd made John despair for my soul because I'd been unable to recite Frost's "Design" on the spot when we'd been walking across a lawn and he'd delightedly noticed a mourning cloak butterfly on a morning glory and gone off on a rhapsody about solecism and trope. I meekly volunteered that morning glories were heliotropes, but that wasn't John's point. Anyway, the poem on the table was on the baroque side and I suspected a thrashing was iminent. And indeed, one of my fellow poets immediately set to complaining about how my clumsy syllabics caused the poem to feel hopelessly overwritten.
I tried to make myself as physically small as possible. John got halfway out of his seat and looked over his glasses at her, frowning. I waited for the "EXACTLY," followed by a long and detailed bemoaning of the ignorance my piece displayed.
Instead, he roared: "Syllabics?! Young lady, these are PERFECT alexandrines!"
Wait. They were? (Note to self: look up "alexandrine" before dinner.)
She valiantly tried to stand her ground but John wouldn't have it, and the floor of the Torian Room was duly polished. By the time we moved on I think several people were breaking out in a sweat -- I know I was.
Later that evening at a cocktail event I found myself nose to nose with him over a bowl of artichoke dip and, struggling for words, said something dumb to the effect of "Thanks for getting my back in there today."
"I mean -- I appreciated that you... defended me."
John backed up a step, drew himself up and poked an index finger vigorously at the air near his ear. "AHA! No. You see, I did not defend you. I defended your POSITION. Which I am certain you would agree is superior."
If you know me in person you'll appreciate the magnitude of the fact that I was at a complete loss for words. I couldn't even thank the man without getting corrected? Did he EVER give it a rest? I stared at him, my mouth opening and closing in an unfortunately carp-like manner, and then something about the expression in his eyes just stopped me. It was -- and I don't think I am imagining this -- a pleading look. I suddenly saw that this man wasn't trying to be tough on anyone or show off his admittedly formidable mental faculties. It was a very keen desire to be precisely heard and precisely understood, to get other people to love truth and accuracy as much as he did. Ironically it sometimes made him difficult to listen to. But he had chosen Knowing Stuff and Making Sure Other People Knew It over diplomacy, over being socially facile -- over everything. It struck me that that could probably be a rough neighborhood to live in. I mean, a person could get really stuck in there.
No wonder he wrote the way he did, with such formidable intellectual and technical precision. I mean, what if HE got something wrong? Failed to grok the reference? Missed the joke? Mistook a trope for a solecism or an argument for a tautology? What then?
We stared at each other for a minute, during which I found myself thinking, out of nowhere, "Wait. To the extent that poetry, or art generally, can really be defined, couldn't one... argue... that art is siezed opportunity arising from constraint? And if that's the case... well basically, this man is the embodiment of constraint, as everyone realizes the second they try to finish a sentence in workshop. And for this we are incredibly fortunate. He is an immense opportunity."
John Hollander refused to simply say "you're welcome" when I said "thank you," and it redefined my understanding of how and why I write, why I am doggedly attached to form and rhyme and prosidic frippery no matter how unhip it is. John was generous with me -- he gave wonderful critiques, sound advice, offered to read and vet the accuracy of historical details in a novel I was writing that was set in 1950s New York -- and left me with a horrible visual of donkeys being shot in a lengthy and vigorous rhetorical spelunking expedition into the terribly-misunderstood but critical difference between "accident" and "error."
But that moment, the one where he finally just got on my last nerve because I couldn't even thank him without being corrected -- that's the memory I have of him that will never, ever go away.
"This artichoke dip is excellent," he said to me suddenly, and grinned.
I thought the artichoke dip was really Just Okay, and was about to say so, and then I realized I was about to let John argue me into the earth's molten core over the virtues of an appetizer.
"I agree that it is superior," I answered, and grinned back.
For the record: there are two donkeys in a field, one of which is mine, and one of which is John's. If I, attempting to kill my donkey, aim, shoot and then realize upon inspection that it was John's donkey I shot, that would be mistake. If I aim and, in the time before I shoot, I don't notice that my donkey has moved out of range and John's into it, then I have killed John's donkey by accident.
John Hollander was tireless in his dedication to shooting down Accident (and Mistake) -- he would level a rhetorical firearm at anyone who didn't make an effort not to be... well, an ass. He leaves behind a large, erudite, fascinating body of work, and a cavernous silence. He raised the bar for me in ways I doubt he ever knew, but I hope he understood, as he seemed to understand just about everything, that when I said "thank you," that was precisely what I meant.
“Strictly speaking” (he then insisted) “these are not –“
(Whatever they were). But when do we ordinarily speak
Strictly: even, say, “I love you” qualifies itself
Always somehow in quotes, like a hedged cliché,
And not only a cliché when it’s intended to be
That overdone vulgar lie: otherwise – when it’s uttered
Expressively, in the deep conviction that nobody else
Had ever felt quite this way before, a report sadly shattered
By the dumb old words that everyone – liars and airheads and kids –
Eventually must resort to: “I love you,” the Leveler.
These days to be truly lofty takes a stunt of flying,
Playing slow and loose with the language we’ve been given.
Acute as we have, and get, to be, we conclude in nothing
But grave accentuations cut in the rind of the earth.
Amy Glynn Greacen's poems and prose appear in The New Criterion, Orion, Southwest Review, New England Review and elsewhere. She was a fall 2012 writer in residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT. Her poems have been included in The Best American Poetry 2010 and The Best American Poetry 2012.
Yvan Goll (1891-1950) was a poet, playwright, novelist, and translator born in Alsace-Lorraine who wrote in German, French, and English. He later lived in Paris and the U.S. and was an active part of the literary circles in Paris and Greenwich Village, along with his wife, Claire Goll. In the final years of his life, suffering from leukemia, he devoted himself to writing the poems of Das Traumkraut, translated as Dreamweed by Nan Watkins and recently released in a bilingual edition by Black Lawrence Press. (See an interview with Watkins at The Brooklyn Rail.)
These poems, written in pain and in the knowledge of impending death, possess a hallucinatory urgency that ought rightly to earn them a place among the great lyric works of the 20th century in any language. So that his pain not be wasted, Goll transformed it into the kind of art that perhaps only the dying genius can create. For the true artist, nothing is wasted--not even suffering, not even death. Read Dreamweed and you will see that Goll was a true artist, to the end.
Here is a poem from Dreamweed:
That burns in the heads of beasts
Skinned from skulls
O hot-tempered rosedom
As long as the wheel of the rose
Turns and turns
The noonday rosary
Raves in fevered fields
And the rose-eye bores
Into my waking sleep
Yet woe if the Unrose
Ascends from the metals
And my rose-hand rises
Against the sun-rose
And the sand-rose withers
O rose rose of roses
That alone blazes for the roseless
*"Rosedom" is reprinted from Dreamweed, trans. Nan Watkins (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), by permission of Black Lawrence Press.
Yesterday, I wrote about the question of poetry and employment. Today’s posting is closely related. If you’re a poet, what do you do with yourself? Consider poor Francis Thompson, an English poet from the late 1800s who was not wealthy but who nevertheless, to his own grave disadvantage, sought no means of work at all. Wikipedia refers to him charitably as an ascetic. The voice below is neither Thompson’s, nor mine, but Philip Larkin's. The quoted text is from Larkin’s essay on Thompson, called “Hounded” (from Required Writing, with a foreword by David Lehman!). Because my sense of humor is rather dark, these passages always have me doubled-over. Here’s Larkin (the book he’s referring to is J. C. Reid’s Francis Thompson: Man and Poet, London: Routledge, 1959):
“This book is fascinating because Thompson is fascinating, with all the fascination of character produced to excess. Born in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1859, the son of a Catholic-convert doctor, he had a happy childhood—indeed, too happy: after the nursery fantasies of dolls and his toy theatre, adult life was an anticlimax. An attempt to enter the priesthood was foiled by the percipient Fathers at St. Cuthbert’s, Ushaw, and he was sent instead to study medicine at Owens College. Daily he went by train to Manchester, to please his father, but once there he spent his time wandering about, reading and sleeping in Manchester Public Library, and watching cricket, in this way pleasing, or at least not displeasing, himself. Every so often he failed an examination. Incredibly, he kept this up for six years, and would no doubt have been content to spend the rest of his life travelling backwards and forwards on this misunderstanding if his father had not lost patience, and demanded at last that his son go to work. It was too late. Thompson had already found the answer to growing up: laudanum.
“Sooner than work, he quitted Ashton for London. Whether this sole decisive action of his life was simply an evasion, or whether it was in its pitiful, maimed way a gesture of independence, its consequences were terrible. Between 1885 and 1888 Thompson lived as miserably as any English poet before or after. Begging, selling papers or matches, running errands for a kind of bookmaker, spending what money he had on laudanum while he ate vegetable refuse in Covent Garden and slept on the Embankment, it is unbelievable that any many of sensibility could have voluntarily endured it—voluntarily, because his father sent him an allowance of seven shillings a week to a reading room in the Strand. But to collect it would have required conscious exercise of the will, a recognition of reality, a degree of self-discipline. Thompson preferred to starve.
“[He] just wanted to escape crushing responsibilities like getting up in the morning. Though there had been some talk of a literary career at home, he wrote nothing—certainly no poetry—and it was not until a tentative and long-disregarded contribution to Merry England had aroused the curiosity and compassion of the editor, Wilfrid Meynell, not until Thompson had been persuaded into a private hospital and broken of his addiction, that ‘from this man of thirty who had had only two rather mediocre poems printed, poetry now poured in a turbid torrent.’ In 1893 Elkin Mathews and John Lane published his first book, Poems. From then on he lived the rest of his life—another fourteen years only—in the Meynell’s kindly ambience. He was no more efficient, and not much happier, but at least he was never without food and lodging. Laudanum reasserted its hold, perhaps to dull consumption, and he died in 1907, murmuring ‘My withered dreams, my withered dreams’.”
This is Larkin at his bitter best, and it’s a good argument for poets to seek refuge in the Church, the Corporation, the Academy, or perhaps the Military. The message: get a job.
All jobs seem real to the people who have them, but poets like to make distinctions. They refer typically to “real” jobs when talking about employment outside of academia (illogical though that may be). I’m a poet, and I’ve been told that I have a real job. I work as a senior financial editor at a Brazilian investment bank. Despite an urge early on to enter the teaching profession, for which I had some talent, I went down another road. I had to support my family in Manhattan. By the year 2000, my black beret and cape were gone, but the calling was still with me, so there was nothing for it but to change my way of thinking about the literary life. Over the years, through friendships with many poets and writers, I’d come to see that the only thing that mattered in a so-called literary life was generating literature, and in this case, writing poems. No surprise, then, that I’ve been fiercely interested in major poets who lived “unliterary” lives. We all know the usual suspects.
Wallace Stevens was trained as a lawyer and spent most of his working life as an executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The guy won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955, and he was offered a position at Harvard, but he turned it down. He chose to stay at his job. He liked being a vice president. He was often seen walking along the leafy suburban streets of Hartford in a suit, mumbling to himself. We know what he was doing.
In 1917, when he was 29, T. S. Eliot signed on with Lloyd's Bank in London as a clerk in the Colonial and Foreign department. He would stay for eight years. The writer Lisa Levy, in her article called “A Peaceful, but Very Interesting Pursuit” (The Rumpus, January 31, 2012), notes that Eliot thought himself very fortunate to have found this job, and she quotes from a letter he wrote to his mother in 1917:
“I am now earning £2 10s a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in the office… Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work. It is not nearly so fatiguing as schoolteaching, and is more interesting. I have a desk and a filing cabinet in a small room with another man. The filing cabinet is my province, for it contains balance sheets of all the foreign banks with which Lloyd’s does business. These balances I file and tabulate in such a way as to show the progress or decline of every bank from year to year.”
It’s both riveting and appalling to hear Eliot speak with such affection about his filing cabinet. Yet in the midst of such a life he conceived The Waste Land, which was published in 1922. Eliot didn’t leave the bank until 1925, when he went to join the publishing house Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber). Granted, this new job was all rather literary, but it was also corporate, and he became a director and went about, happily, in a three-piece suit.
There are other examples. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda labored as a diplomat. Philip Larkin worked for 30 years as a librarian at the University of Hull. During these years—more deprivation, perhaps, than daffodils—he wrote most of his glum, bilious and brilliant poems. William Carlos Williams, a doctor, delivered 3,000 babies in the grimy industrial zones of New Jersey. Are there other major poets who’ve delivered even 30 babies? Or 3? If so, I would like to know. We’re talking 3,000 here. I verified this arresting fact with Herbert Leibowitz, whose masterful biography of William Carlos Williams, Something Urgent I Have to Say, was published by FSG in 2011.
Then there is the louche and sublime C. P. Cavafy. In 1892, at the age of 29, he took a job as a low-level clerk in the Irrigation Department of the Ministry of Public Works in Egypt. He would stay for 30 years! According to the Official Website of the Cavafy Archive, when he “was finally able to gain employment… at the Ministry of Public Works, he was hired as a temporary clerk, since his Greek citizenship excluded him from any permanent position. Being an assiduous and conscientious worker, Cavafy managed to hold this temporary position (renewed annually) for thirty years. He was always mindful of his finances, both out of necessity and out of vanity… He started working at the Alexandrian Stock Exchanges early on, and was a registered broker from 1894 to 1902.”
The most “poetic” side of Cavafy’s life—aside from his poems—were his wanderings about the streets of Alexandria after he left the office. We know what he was doing.
I’d like to conclude with James Merrill’s affectionate and counterintuitive thoughts on dear Elizabeth Bishop, who for most of her life never had any job at all, real or otherwise. The quotation below comes directly from the famous Paris Review interview that Sandy McClatchy conducted with James Merrill (Summer 1982, Issue No. 84). This is Merrill speaking:
“Oh, I suppose I’ve learned things about writing, technical things, from each of them [Stevens, Auden, Bishop, a few others]. Auden’s penultimate rhyming, Elizabeth’s way of contradicting something she’s just said, Stevens’s odd glamorizing of philosophical terms. Aside from all that, what I think I really wanted was some evidence that one didn’t have to lead a “literary” life—belong to a ghetto of “creativity.” That one could live as one pleased, and not be shamefaced in the glare of renown (if it ever came) at being an insurance man or a woman who’d moved to Brazil and played samba records instead of discussing X’s latest volume. It was heartening that the best poets had this freedom. Auden did lead a life that looked literary from a distance, though actually I thought it was more a re-creation of school and university days: much instruction, much giggling, much untidiness. Perhaps because my own school years were unhappy for extracurricular reasons I didn’t feel completely at ease with all that… It was du côté de chez Elizabeth, though, that I saw the daily life that took my fancy even more, with its kind of random, Chekhovian surface, open to trivia and funny surprises, or even painful ones, today a fit of weeping, tomorrow a picnic. I could see how close that life was to her poems, how much the life and the poems gave to one another. I don’t mean I’ve “achieved” anything of the sort in my life or poems, only that Elizabeth had more of a talent for life—and for poetry—than anyone else I’ve known, and this has served me as an ideal.”I sign off today on that happy note.
I like E. A. Robinson. I really do. No, I mean it. I really like his stuff much of the time. Especially the lyrics. The long poems, not so much (except maybe as sleep aids). Well, anyway, I want to like him a lot, but sometimes I get put off by a certain tone of . . . what? Fustiness? Creakiness?
More and more, I’m realizing, though, that it is not always Robinson’s voice I am hearing in the poems, or not just his voice. The more I think about his poems—such as “Reuben Bright” and “Richard Cory”—the more I begin to understand the dramatic nature of his work. (The dramatic element in lyric poetry is something I’ve been interested in for a while now, and you can read more about that here. I hope that this post might serve as an extension of some of the ideas put forward in that earlier essay.)
For my money, “Eros Turannos” is Robinson’s greatest poem. (This is just me talkin’ here.) I love that poem deeply and unequivocally, and I’ve always admired Yvor Winters’s take on it, as adopting the music of W. M. Praed’s vers de société for tragic ends. (In fact, more successfully than Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, the poem uses the conventions of Greek tragedy to elevate its subject to devastating dramatic effect.)
The poem is a love story as Gothic horror tale. A woman’s fear of growing old alone is greater than her fear of a man she knows deep down she should refuse. The result is a loveless union, isolation, confusion, and despair. The poem ends with these two stanzas:
We tell you, tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be,—
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be;
We’ll have no kindly veil between
Her visions and those we have seen,—
As if we guessed what hers have been
Or what they are, or would be.
Meanwhile, we do no harm; for they
That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea,
Where down the blind are driven.
The “we” is a choral voice (a dramatic voice!) that Robinson uses often and which lends his poetry its particular social cast. Here is how the poet and critic D. H. Tracy describes the effect, from an essay in Contemporary Poetry Review:
Robinson’s use of the choral presence is innovative and, in its particular form, remains strikingly rare. It came to him early but not always easily: the drafts of “Eros Turannos” show that the fifth stanza, where the “we” is introduced, went through the most revisions. The Robinsonian “we” is not simply a means of lending generality to discourse or speculation, or a casual way of implicating the reader. It is not the French on. It has an understanding of its point of view, as a point of view, and is capable of distinguishing itself from omniscience. It does not exist to characterize itself, as in certain dramatic monologues, but to characterize another. It would seem intuitive to a playwright, I think, but in poetry in English there is little of it or anything like it—perhaps in Stevie Smith, or James Weldon Johnson’s “Brothers—American Drama.” Robinson’s insight into the possibilities of choral pronouncement arises from a serious consideration of what our collective being is and how individual lives acquire and lose meaning in it. . . .”
Really brilliant, this. And a real key to Robinson’s poems. In fact, it was when I began thinking about the choral voice in Robinson that I came to better understand one of Robinson’s most burnished chestnuts, “Richard Cory,” a poem that I respected but never truly warmed to.
BAPsters will, of course, know the poem, but here it is for reference:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
What has always bothered me about this poem was how seemingly pat its theme was, i.e., Ah, life! How sad that even the man who has everything in the eyes of the world cannot be happy with his lot. It seemed not so much tragic as moralizing somehow, and this pat theme seemed to me to dampen its humanity.
The poem has always been popular (Robinson, remember, was awarded three Pulitzers, only one fewer than Frost!), adapted as a folk song by Simon and Garfunkel:
But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
The S&G version actually gets at something vital about the poem (though it in no way rivals the beauty of Robinson’s verse-making—song lyrics are a different sort of thing). The chorus is sung from the point of view of a townsperson of Tillbury, the imagined village (based on Gardiner, Maine), where many of his poems are set. (The "I" takes on a choral quality, sung in harmony by S and G.)
(I am told that Robinson once lived in this bell tower overlooking Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.)
In fact, I see now the poem is far more tragic and horrible than I first imagined, and the way in to this new, darker understanding is through the choral voice in the poem. Look at the nasty stuff the townspeople say:
We people on the pavement looked at him
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
Then consider the tone of: “And he was rich – yes, richer than a king.” Hear the bitter dig behind the repetition and that word king? Dang! If I was Richard Cory and everyone’s envious eyes (the eyes of the world!) were on me all the time, I might not make a good end either. Tracy’s observation about Robinson's poems implicating the reader is exactly right: we are the “We.” We drove Richard Cory to this. Just as we (the town, society) helped drive the blinded woman down the steps at the end of "Eros Turannos" (or so, I believe, it is suggested).
Or like a stairway to the sea,
Where down the blind are driven.
Driven down by themselves? Perhaps. But we are the abettors. Robinson's poems are about us every bit as much as they are about these sorry denizens of the Vacation State. Robinson, it turns out, was a freaking genius of poetry's dramatic context, if only we tune our ears to hear it. I knew I liked him. But, now, like one of the Tillburyites who envied Richard Cory, I hate him, too.
Arguably the biggest occupational hazard of the poet is that sooner or later, your lover will request a love poem.
If you are either very cocky or very skilled, you might whip out a fountain pen and write a fitting ode upon a cocktail napkin.
But if you possess the slightest doubt about your abilities, or about the notion of "love poems" in general, you might quiver in your oxfords.
Most writers I know agree the love poem is the hardest to write. Breakup poems? Child's work. Meditations on death? No problem. Pastoral portraits and comic scenarios? They can be rendered with fair effort. But the love poem risks sentimentality, vulnerability, cliché -- and worst of all, the probability of falling short in its attempt to capture the enormity of the emotion.
For all of these reasons, love poems impress and intimidate the heck out of me. So on the eve of March, an hour before kissing February good-bye, I find myself researching the history of love poems, revisiting modern favorites and distilling some lessons from them all.
When I think of love poems, the verse that pops into my head is "roses are red / violets are blue." It's inevitable, and it makes me equate all love-y verse with shallow greeting cards. Who wants any part of that?
But as is the case with so many clichés, this flower stems from an interesting seed.
Edmund Spenser (pictured at the top) immortalized the image of red roses and blue violets in 1590 with his epic poem, The Faerie Queene:
It was upon a Sommers shynie day,
When Titan faire his beames did display,
In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew,
She bath'd her brest, the boyling heat t'allay;She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forrest grew.
In the following stanzas, Chrysogone falls asleep in the grass and is impregnated by sunbeams, leading to the birth of faerie twins. The goddesses Venus and Diana steal the newborns. Not exactly the stuff of greeting cards!
Spenser was more concerned with supporting Queen Elizabeth I and the Reformation than writing a transcendent love poem. But the sensuality in his verse is far more inspiring than the versions that arrived centuries later.
He's also known for "Amoretti," a sonnet cycle exploring his courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. She's rendered as his practical if not unromantic counterpoint, which gives the poems a tantalizing tension. In the sonnet "One Day I Wrote her Name," Spenser writes:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
(If you're interested in Spenser, you'll enjoy this thorough biography over at the Poetry Foundation.)
The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou'd be you.
And a hundred years after that, in 1862, the image swam the English channel to appear in Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, in which Fantine sings "violets are blue, roses are red / violets are blue, I love my loves." It sounds lovely in French, which gives us the pleasurable slant rhyme:
Les bleuets sont bleus, les roses sont roses,
Les bleuets sont bleus, j'aime mes amours.
So our Valentine cliché has an alluring literary tradition, and simply knowing that helps me embrace the love poem a little more. Next Thursday, I'll share some favorite love poems and lessons from current writers.
Until then, xo February.
Prompt: Find a love poem you admire, be it classic or modern, and determine what makes it successful. Next week - some prompts to help write one.
Images: "Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen" by Henry Fuseli (middle) and 1901 edition of Mother Goose (bottom).
I've been thinking lately about Cool. About cool before the concept of cool. Or before the cool people of today knew about the concept of Cool because we weren't born yet. Take E.E. Cummings in 1926, for instance, entitling his third book of poetry, in titling his fifth book as book
which must surely have been among the coolest titles of poetry books published in 1926, or in any other year for that matter.
Which is why I want to take a moment to say that I really like E.E. Cummings.
He makes verbs out of typography. He metaphors the hell out of grammar. He lets a lot of air into his sentences. (Or philosophy. Or science. Or thought. Or ego. Iconoclasm. Or humility. Or maybe he doesn't. Maybe I'm just not seeing him clearly. Readers: your thoughts?)
It's true! Sure, we probably knew his poems sounded good. But did you ever wonder why? One story I can tell you about E.E. Cummings is that he was apparently hiding a pocketful of meters and a burial plot of sonnets inside his outwardly-apparent "free verse". Marilyn Hacker broke the news to me in a conventional sonnet class. I was 25 years old and floored. Instead of "Where's Waldo?", poets with a hankering to do so, could read swaths of Cummings and ask, "Where's the buried sonnet?" She showed me some secret examples.
The Poetry Foundation web site's bio of Cummings seems to point toward confirming this. From the age of 8 to 22, Cummings practiced writing in traditional verseform. So it's no wonder, no puzzle, and no surprise that a deep canon hovered under the cannon he carried back inside his heart and mind and experience from the first world war (where, incidentally, he hung out with Pablo P. and other avant garde artists).
E.E. Cummings: a stealth formalist.
And yet, also, paradoxically, a rebel. Adam Kirsch's terrific exploration of Cummings in The Harvard Review shows a man who contained (and complained) these complexities.
Who else deserves the Too Cool for School award for titles of poetry books?
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.