Frome the Archives (November 8, 2012):
About a year ago, the Chicago based theater artist Erica Barnes approached David Lehman for permission to adapt his poem "Mythologies" for the stage as a dance performance piece. According to Erica, she was in the midst of a somewhat fallow period when on a whim she visited the Poetry Foundation website, clicked on the "Poem of the Day" and "fell in love." David's sequence of thirty sonnets "Mythologies," first published in the Paris Review issue 106 (1988) and awarded the Bernard F. Connors prize, was the Foundation's featured poem. Erica has this to say about David's poem:
We need new myths. Our old heroes are too unattainable, too perfect, too… heroic. David Lehman’s poem ‘Mythologies’ tells the story of a man struggling to construct new myths in the wake of the disintegration of his expectations. Blending the language of poetry with the ritual of theatre, ‘Mythologies’ searches for the answer to the age-old question -- what is it to be human?
David granted permission and over the next several months Erica dispatched periodic updates of her work- in-progress. She secured funding, hired a full cast and crew, found performance space, and held rehearsals. On November 1, "Mythologies" opened at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater in Chicago. "It was a success," writes Erica, and her excitement is palpable. She sends along this preview video, which makes us wish we could put the production on the road:
Erica promises to send more photos of the performance, which we will share here. Meanwhile, you can find out more about "Mythologies" in Chicago by visiting the dedicated website. You will find Erica's interview with David here.
"Mythologies" will be included in David Lehman's forthcoming New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013).
“Wartime, here as abroad, made everyone more eager for the civilized and peaceful excitement of ballet. More people could also afford tickets. And in wartime the fact that no word was spoken on the stage was in itself a relief.” from Looking at Dance by Edwin Denby
Last Thursday morning I went online and impulsively bought a single ticket to that evening’s Vail Dance Festival: ReMix NYC, at New York City Center. The theater was mostly sold out; the best available seat was in the nosebleed section but I took it anyway, hopeful that I would find a single seat closer to the stage during the first intermission.
As curtain time approached, I began to regret my purchase. Wouldn’t it be nice to stay home? My husband would be out for the evening and I had laundry to do. I imagined myself folding and sorting while watching Law & Order reruns followed by the Kelly File. Perhaps I would phone the box office and tell them to donate my ticket.
Then, at the last minute, I shook off my malaise and made a mad dash to the theater, settling into my seat just as Leto was giving birth to Apollo to the strains of Stravinsky’s Apollo Musagete. I’ve seen this Balanchine ballet many times over the years and each time it’s a revelation. Last night was no exception with the versatile New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild stepping into the lead for the injured Herman Cornejo. Damian Woetzel, a former premier danseur with the New York City Ballet and the director of the Vail program, wisely restored the opening birth scene that Balanchine had omitted from later productions because he was “bored with it.”
There’s a narrative line to the ballet that follows Apollo’s growth—together with Calliope, Terpsichore, and Polyhymnia--from boyhood to maturity. Here’s how the brilliant dance critic Edwin Denby described Apollo in 1945:
Apollo is about poetry, poetry in the sense of a brilliant, sensuous, daring, and powerful activity of our nature. It depicts the birth of Apollo in prologue; then how Apollo was given a lyre, and tried to make it sing; how three Muses appeared and showed each her special ability to delight; how he then tried out his surging strength; how he danced with Terpsichore, and how her loveliness and his strength responded in touching harmony; and last, how all four together were inspired and felt the full power of the imagination, and then, in calm and with assurance left for Parnassus, where they were to live. . .
So Apollo can tell you how beautiful classic dancing is when it is correct and sincere; or how the power of poetry grows in our nature; or even that as man’s genius becomes more civilized, it grows more expressive, more ardent, more responsive, more beautiful.
As I had hoped, a kind usher found me a seat, front-row mezzanine, at intermission. I was seated next to Gal, a young Israeli tap-dancer who had traveled around the world to take classes the MacArthur Fellow tap-dancer Michelle Dorrance, who was next up on the program. When her performance began, an electric charge seemed to course through Gal’s body. Dorrance was joined by three others, the Jook dancer Lil Buck, Robert Fairchild, and Melissa Toogood, formerly with Marsha Graham. Dorrance’s clapping and tapping provided the music for this rapid improvisational performance that maintained a fever pace throughout. (If my husband were reading this, he would say that Melissa Toogood is the best name for a dancer since Maria Talchief.)
The evening’s program was a festival indeed, with six dances following Apollo. Those employing the classical vocabulary of ballet left me breathless and trying to hold on to what Arlene Croce called “afterimages,” the fragments that remain for the inward eye to recall when the dance is over. I was stunned when Gal told me she didn’t care for Fandango (choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, music by Boccherini). It is full of surprises and has the feel of a spontaneous encounter between music and dance, executed with good humor and stunning virtuosity by the powerful Sara Mearns of whom Gal said, “I don’t know what she is trying to say.” “Isn’t the beauty of the music and her amazing technique enough?” I said. Gal was not convinced.
The festival concluded with Lil Buck @ City Center: A Jookin’ Jam Session. Jookin’, a Memphis style of hip-hop, reminds me of the break-dancing I used to see on NYC subway platforms in the 1980s, taken to an extreme. It is fascinating to watch in the way that watching a dancer on point is; the body executes moves that are completely unnatural. A Jookin’ dancer moves as if without joints or bones. The head slides from side to side seemingly independent of the neck and spine. The arms undulate fluidly and call to mind those videos of a suspension bridge during an earthquake.
Thursday’s jam session began with Lil Buck and Prime Tyme emerging from the audience to “Gangsta Walk” by YOUNG JAI. I’m guessing that this is the music to which Jookin’ was originally performed. What followed was a demonstration of Jookin’s adaptability to a global range of music, from traditional Galician bagpipe, to Kazakh folk, to Chinese Sheng, to Bach. Among the musicians was cellist Yo Yo Ma, who arrived on stage without fanfare and who closed out the evening with Camille Saint-Saëns haunting “The Swan.” The audience went wild.
I don’t remember what was happening in 2009 that inspired this post by David St. John, but it describes perfectly my feeling and state of mind as I walked home on an unseasonably warm evening, grateful that I had chosen dance over news:
Last night, I decided to go with friends to see The San Francisco Ballet, which has become one of the great American companies. It was exactly the right thing to have done. Watching the dancers carve the space of the stage with their bodies, each drawing a shifting calligraphy of flesh and bone along those pages of music, against the insistence of linear time, well ... it mattered. It made a difference. As each of the ballets passed through its sequence of emotive circumstances, the bodies of the dancers first stilled, then erupting, then collapsing, I felt something in me also quietly unclenching. I felt my own body, which had felt so fiercely coiled and provisional, assume a sense of its more natural place in the world again .. its place in the physical as well as the cerebral, imaginative world. I felt, for those few hours, slightly less mortal. It's one of the things that art can do -- defy time, and time's smug billboards announcing it, Time, will always go on, but that we, the living, will not. Yet art does go on, poetry does go on. And so as I said a week ago, closing the very first piece I wrote for my guest week here: We continue; we go on. Let me say it once again. We too continue. And we go on.
My mother received this cookbook as a wedding gift and passed it on to me many years ago. It remains one of my favorites, not because of the recipes though there are some good ones, but because this book is responsible for kindling my love of cooking and poetry, especially poetry that rhymes.
The recipes are punctuated with light verse to serve as mnemonics for proper technique. For example, the captions to a series of photos illustrating loaves of bread read:
This is the well-made bread about which we’ve all read;
It’s so easy to make, so come, on, let’s bake.
See what results if the oven’s too hot;
decreased volume and over-brown top.
If the oven’s too slow, the crust will be pale,
the texture’ll be porous; it’s sure to fail.
In homemade bread, especially rye,
you know there’s more than meets the eye.
and on and on through yeasted breads and rolls, specialty loaves, quick breads and muffins.
My mother was a competent cook though not an enthusiastic one. She fully embraced the post-WWII convenience foods such as frozen TV dinners, boxed macaroni and cheese, and canned soup. It seemed that for years everything was made with a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, with its sponge-like brown bits suspended in a gelatinous goo. I loved those meals.
They were children of immigrants, my parents, who left the Bronx in the 1950s, first to New Jersey, then to Rockland County, New York, where my mother found work as a school teacher while my dad worked a salesman ("plastics"). From the outside, our's was a typical suburban development home. Not so inside.
My mother was a long-time subscriber to both Women’s Day and Family Circle magazines, with their projects for the thrifty homemaker (“Feed a Family of Four on Fifty Dollars a Week!” “Transform Your Home with Color in One Weekend!” and “Bring the Outdoors In with Rustic Cedar Shingles!” The latter project transformed a wall in my parents’ bedroom with hours of furious hammering.).
My father was a scavenger who often arrived home with odds and ends he’d picked up while making his sales calls in and around New York City. The combination of mom's and dad's talents was on full display in our kitchen where one wall was covered with silver metallic wallpaper illustrated with scenes from the Folies Bergere, done up in pink and black; the floor was covered with carpet tiles in every color; and the cabinet pulls were ringed with the colored plastic inserts to 45 RPM records. My mother made new curtains for every season, some quite beautiful.
The crowning glory of the kitchen was the table--a wood slab that my dad refinished with pockmarks to make it appear aged--suspended from the ceiling with picture wire. One day I arrived home from school and Noah, our large white German shepherd, was reclining on the table as it swung gently to and fro. Meals at that table were an adventure as one had to take care to avoid the wires while passing dishes. You could lose an arm. At my mother's insistence, my dad eventually anchored the table to the floor with more wire.
Years of preparing meals for our family of six, on top of full-time work, took their toll. When I was in my early teens, my mother declared a moratorium on cooking. My two sisters and I would have to take over responsibility for dinners several times a week. She delivered this news as if it were a punishment and my sisters took it as such but I thought it a grand opportunity to experiment. We were told we could cook whatever we liked; my mother would shop though she refused to buy exotic ingredients, like ground black pepper, or nutmeg. “You don’t need that,” she said, crossing off those items on our shopping lists.
I remember my attempt at Moussaka, the Greek casserole of eggplant and ground beef baked under a layer of béchamel. Is there a sound more dreaded to the cook than that of diners' forks silently pushing a poorly executed entrée around a dinner plate? Finally, my father put his fork down and looked across the table at my mother. “Renee,” he said, mouthing his words, “I don’t like it.” The leftovers were fed to Noah, who devoured them without complaint and in short order deposited them on the carpet-tiled kitchen floor.
My husband’s recent diagnosis of celiac disease came as a complete shock to both of us. He had been experiencing many months of debilitating symptoms that had been attributed variously to chemotherapy, post-surgery recovery, and an intractable infection. Doctors told us that his symptoms would wax and wane and that he might just have to live with them.
Finally, and almost as an afterthought, his oncologist Dr. Dean Bajorin ordered the simple blood test for celiac (“highly unlikely, but we may as well be sure.”). Within a week we had a preliminary diagnosis, within two, it was confirmed by a biopsy.
Woman: Great! I'll take some.
Me: I'd like some too.
Woman: Would you consider splitting a dozen? I live alone and half a dozen is just right for me.
Me: How do you use them? For baking? Or just as you would use any egg?
Woman: I like to fry them. Like in the Velazquez painting, the one at the Prado.
Me: So you fry them in olive oil?
Me: That painting was here briefly, at the Frick, last year.
Woman: I didn't know that!
Me: Yes, it's gorgeous.
Woman: I agree. Enjoy your eggs!
(Me, to myself: I miss Paul Violi)
I'm walking with my father through the first floor of Alexander's department store on 3rd Avenue and 58th Street. A tall, well-dressed and made-up woman walks by. My father shakes his head. "Now there's a rangy broad!"
George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is permanently imprinted on my brain, perhaps because I saw it during the year of its debut as a stand-alone ballet and with the original cast but also because the choreography perfectly matches the music, which is gorgeous, sexy, and haunting (listen to the theme that begins at around 1:30). I've seen it many times, most recently with David, during a NYCB collaboration with The Dance Theater of Harlem, the acclaimed company started by Arthur Mitchell.
Suzanne Farrell has written that she was unaccustomed to dancing a part that required her to be overtly sexual - she plays a stripper in the ballet. Early on in rehearsal, her partner Arthur Mitchell said, "Come on, Suzanne, sex it up!" When Farrell stepped onto the stage, she really let loose. The heat these two premier dancers generated when they performed together was captivating and memorable.
It's hard to pick a favorite from among so many brilliant dances but if I had to, I might settle on Balanchine's Serenade with music by Tchaikovsky (Serenade in Strings in C, Op. 48). First conceived as a lesson in stage technique, Balanchine worked unexpected rehearsal events into the choreography. When one student fell, he incorporated it into the dance; another day, a student arrived late, and this too became part of the ballet.
Balanchine is famous also for his table talk and witty aphorisms: "God creates, I do not create. I assemble and I steal everywhere to do it - from what I see, from what the dancers can do, from what others do" and "I disagree with everybody but I don't even want to argue” and “Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don't agree with that because policemen don't have to look beautiful at the same time.” When a young choreographer sought his advice, he said, "Just keep making dances. Every now and then you'll make a good one." Good advice for poets, too.
When artist Xu Bing was asked by the Chinese government to create two phoenix sculptures for the atrium of the new World Financial Center in Beijing, he accepted, but when he visited the site and saw the dismal working conditions of the migrant laborers who were building the luxury towers, he was so disturbed that he decided to create the phoenixes out of the workers’ battered tools. The elegant, gargantuan birds are constructed of shovels, hard hats, jackhammers, pliers, saws, screwdrivers, plastic accordion tubing and drills. The building’s developers worried about the message the sculptures conveyed and asked if Xu would consider covering them with crystals. No dice. They withdrew the commission, but the artist forged ahead with the project and the birds have been exhibited in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and elsewhere. While the limited materials made the sculptures more challenging to construct, they also made them infinitely more compelling both aesthetically and symbolically.
In the introduction to his book WIND/PINBALL: TWO NOVELS, Haruki Murakami explains that he discovered his writing style by first composing in English with limited vocabulary and syntax and then “transplanting” those sentences into his native Japanese. In the process, a new style of Japanese emerged that was entirely his own. He describes the experience as a moment of clarity when the scales fell from his eyes. “Now I get it,” he thought. “This is how I should be doing it.”
“The Ten-Minute Spill,” a Rita Dove poetry exercise found in THE PRACTICE OF POETRY by Chase Twichell and Robin Behn uses a limited palette of words and an inverted cliché to point writers toward a similar eureka experience. After doing this exercise with my creative writing students, we tried it a second time using a palette of words they “found” on a “field trip” (see yesterday’s post) and then exchanged with one another. They complained about the confines of the exercise, but promptly produced great stuff.
Material is one way to exploit constraints. Structure is another. Frank Lloyd Wright would not have created his Fallingwater House if he had seen the waterfall as an obstacle to be overcome rather than an asset to be incorporated. Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” came from an exercise in end stops, and Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box” would not exist if she hadn’t been trying to figure out a creative way to use the impossible limitations of Twitter.
In my creative writing class, students first groan over and then feverishly tackle the constraints presented to them. They have written villanelles, sestinas, haiku, 6-word stories, Yelp reviews, fictional book blurbs and recently “Contributors’ Notes” in an emulation of Stacey Harwood’s poem by the same name (BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2005). The ratio of early complaints to eventual satisfaction is gratifying. Great ideas come from pushing against boundaries. The frustration of constrictions can distract the thinking brain enough to allow the deeper work of the creative mind to unfold. Get your students moaning. You won’t be sorry.
Tune in to tomorrow’s post for ways to find fresh entry points into your writing.
Later, after dinner, we examine your uncle’s photos
of trees, flowers, waterfalls, birds
until I just can’t stand it another second.
I am not at one with nature. Never was.
Some of the people can be fooled all of the time,
even when you yawn right in their faces.
Guests, or ghosts, have taken over the house,
lounging in the living room, watching t.v.
Ugly images of war and politics are all I see.
Cancel the rest of the holidays, please, until this
-- Terence Winch
For my final post, I’d like to talk briefly about my favorite poetic form, the sonnet, which I played around with for eight years, and which I continue to love for its rigor and ductility, its ability to hold and propel contra-diction, bad puns, good-for-nothings, great sentiment, and terrible occasion.
You can read more about my approaches to invoking the form in this article and in this blog post for the versatile literary journal Drunken Boat, but in short, the form spoke to me in a way that no other received one does. I consider myself a weird sonneteer, not a formalist.
I do have a fondness for poems in form by poets who take a similarly experimental approach, letting the constraints push and pull the language, as in this sonnet by the poet, scholar, and translator Douglas Basford, which appeared first in Diagram:
Call it a bore, if you like, or a boor,
but sound has a way of coercing sense
into bottlenecks worse than your parents
find late in the day driving to the Eastern Shore.
You'll hear about it later. You can be sure
images your mother half-absorbed--goldfinches,
drab bramble, wafer sun--will come. Clairaudience
of your eye, let's call it, keeps your eye turned
out the car window when the traffic's stock-still,
with nothing much to hear, no road noise, essence
of life distilled down to siblings squabbling
in a backseat ahead, to a few drunks stumbling
out past the shoulder and back. Something pinches
after you and misses. Reasons to speak dwindle.
This poem is from Doug’s work-in-progress, Very Memory, which he describes as “a Baltimore-centric series of sonnets exploring gentrification, race and class relations, turn-of-the-millennium courtship, and workplace bullying, among other things.”
Along with the poets Ida Stewart and Jason Gray, Doug edits the ever-spritely Unsplendid: An Online Journal of Poetry in Received and Nonce Forms. I was particularly happy to read the resplendent Women and Form issue that the journal published in July of 2014.
And speaking of great literary journals and their ardent editors, I’d like to mention my friend Liz Powell, the editor of Green Mountains Review and an amazing poet with a new book coming out. Her collection Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances just won the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry.
The subtitle comes Sanford Meisner of the famed acting technique, and the book employs method acting to process the poems’ information, resulting in a provocative mix of verse, essay, drama, and meta-forms in which alternate personas converse as a way to find truth out of erasure. I’ve had the privilege of reading an early draft, which is like nothing I’ve read in the best possible way. Here is the title poem:
WILLY LOMAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER: A Story in Couplets
Willy Loman’s reckless daughter flies quietly,
fluttering like a silk-moth behind me
blocking my life, my scenes
in whichever stage direction she wants.
Sometimes at night I can feel her dialing into me,
her ringing calls like an imperial decree.
When she sleeps she crashes, like a car
into the guardrail of my ambition.
Her curse like a poison I cannot smell,
an asphyxiation of the self by the self, that hell and hard sell.
Split personalities we dream through the night,
of our merger and acquisition, in her half-moon light,
Not even my husband can feel
her there between us—a secret contract under seal.
When I awaken, her irises touch mine;
an awful, indecipherable fault line.
She’s a character in search of an author, a devotee,
trying to recount her history through me,
until I channel her. She’s like a phantom limb,
hymn to the invisible. Her shameless whims,
the subtext of my lies. Under her tinted hair
the forest murmurs, becomes a thought, or prayer.
Until her thoughts tumble into mine;
colors bleed. In the morning, I’m overwrought—
My patrilineal kin, she begins to wear thin,
when she undoes hospital corners I’ve tucked so gently in.
Her cool white rising is meringue completing—
the high-pitched silence of our congealing.
She was always ceremonially unfolding
his white shirts, unpressing the folds
in my circumstance. I did and didn’t want her. I kept
trying to catch her, then let her slip. Any intent
to have her near made her more invisible. Her electric
breasts overfilled my brassieres. An interaction, our dialectic—
She never removes her hat upon entering the door
to my personality. Ma semblable, ma soeur!
I can’t wait for this book and the others I mentioned earlier this week to come into the world.
And now seems like an apt time for me to express my gratitude to the journal and anthology editors who have supported my writing and without whom I wouldn’t be here blogging for The BAP. I didn't know Liz or Doug before I published poems in their journals, but I now consider them friends and fellow spirits, which is part of the reason I started writing poems long ago. And I'm grateful to have the opportunity to share their poetry, which I believe often gets overlooked by their work on behalf of others.
A thousand gratitudes to David and Stacey for inviting me to be here.
And a great holiday week to you all!
Hi! I’m very excited to be guest blogging for The Best American Poetry this week, as I’ve been an admirer of the series for a long time and am a fan of the persons editing the series and this blog. I love that writers here have the leeway to talk about anything, and if I do this again I may write about ‘70s divas, the perfect Manhattan, and what my dog would say if he could talk, but for this, my first run, I will keep my posts poetry-centric, writing today about three Korean American feminist poetry panels that I’m participating in or have recently produced.
The first of these panels took place last March at the Thinking Its Presence: Race, Creative Writing, and Literary Study Conference at the University of Montana, Missoula, an invigorating new forum produced by the poets Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink, who founded the conference in 2014 to “examine innovative creative writing and scholarship that re-thinks the complex and inseparable links between literary forms and the racialized thinking, processes, and histories that have shaped this country since its founding.” The conference takes its title from scholar Dorothy Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2013), which in turn takes the phrase "thinking its presence" from Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's poem "Chinese Space" from her collection Empathy. As Adrienne Rich said, one never knows what the life of a poem will be.
Featured readers at this year’s conference included the keynote speaker Claudia Rankine who delivered a mind-rousing reading from Citizen, John Keene who read a terrific story from his new fiction collection Counternarratives, William S. YellowRobe who read from his strange play Native American Paranormal Society, and the irrepressible Marilyn Chin. Panel topics encompassed technoshamanism, how translation fractals race, tributes and responses to Amiri Baraka’s work, and the personal essay, among other lively subjects.
I produced and moderated a panel titled Why KA? FP with the poets Youna Kwak, Hannah Sanghee Park, and Franny Choi. (The “F” stands for feminist. I like the idea of Feminist Poetry as the answer to most questions.) I wanted to enact this panel to feature the writing of these talented and forthright writers, to discuss phenomena we address as KAF poets, and to draw attention to these experiences through our very presence. Small though our numbers were, this was one of the largest gatherings of KAF poets we’d known, and certainly so including the audience.
Gathering together in person affords the opportunity to have a fluid conversation, so after reading new work, we discussed a few questions including the following:
Then we opened up the discussion to the audience who asked excellent questions, making for an enjoyable, idea-provoking, sustaining experience.
I will mention that these poets’ writing styles vary tremendously, as you may see by reading the poems below, and as I expect they will among the poets on the two Korean American female poet panels I’ll be participating in next April, both produced by the young award-winning writers Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and EJ Koh. The first panel will take place at the AWP Conference in Los Angeles; the second will happen at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C.
The presenters on the AWP panel will include Marci, EJ, Hannah, and Franny; Arlene Kim will also present on the Split This Rock panel. We’re working out the details of what we’ll be focusing on, but here’s a list of “13 Reasons to Do a Korean American Female Poetry Panel" that we’ve come up with:
Throughout the week, I’ll be featuring new poems by contemporary American poets whose work and persons I like. The first poem is by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello from her collection Hour of the Ox, winner of the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, forthcoming in 2016 from the University of Pittsburgh Press. This poem originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Thrush Poetry Journal.
Brother Returns As Chrysanthemum
Didn’t we think we were more than this—
little suns unfurling above the earth?
We thought we were constellations
in soil, entire galaxies anchored to dust.
Ravenous, we believed our thousand
arms could hoard the horizon—
eclipsing ourselves even as we waned,
bereft of all but shadow.
Arlene Kim, author of What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes? (Milkweed Editions), wrote the following poem, which first appeared on diode:
American Gothic: Revival
. . . these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys . . .
—from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
Dear Rilke, I am not young and I am not a poet. I slink around the city, disaster-footed, sure for danger, face unknown, I pull my hoodie up. I snick around, I slink around the city’s back. Short for danger. My motherless face bagged. I like a girl at Taco Bell but she knows only my voice. I wear my clothes like a blanket around the shipwreck of my body, the et cetera of my body. Like Dracula, I don’t exist. There is no such thing as a moonless night. There are only nights and nights in a blown together indigo accordion. I’m there at 2 a.m. to shut down Leilani’s, pilfer burritos and lumpia. I like to keep zippered all the way. I like the sound my skateboard makes on the asphalt. I think dreadlock is a funny way of putting it. I call my face a jihad. I, the lesser victor. I call my face a tattoo. One my father gave me—someone else’s face Frankensteined to mine. Inside my head, my father’s words, notations, fatwas. My father stalks me like a footnote. Follows me— when I see boards pasted with pictures of the missing, I look for my face. That is me, gone. It’s been much more than 24 hours. In society. Among citizens. I never take off my hood, because inside I’m all wolf. My reasons are still unknown.
Dear Rilke, I read your book. I read your book anyway.
The next poem is by EJ Koh, a Kundiman and MacDowell fellow and visiting scholar at the University of Washington, from her collection A Lesser Love:
To My Mother Kneeling in the Cactus Garden
For a month I tried to think of what to say.
How many times you’ve swept a kitchen knife
across your neckline and said, This is how
you end a marriage. How many more wicks you light
for god. I could tell by your eyes you’ve never
seen him. What would you call the feeling
of abandon and caution and relief that keeps me
tethered to you? Let me be the husband
you prayed for, the son you wanted, or mother
who held you. I’ll build your new patio swing
and fold your coffee linens, wash your hardened
feet in warm water. To me you have become a prison
of its own light. I’ll grow greens and the parsley
you love and wrap them into cold sandwiches.
I will place them where you can reach with ease.
Here’s a fablesque poem by Franny Choi, the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing):
There’s fancy footwork in this poem from Hannah Sanghee Park’s collection The Same-Different, which won the 2014 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets:
And I’ll conclude today’s post with a verse/essay by Youna Kwak that appeared this summer in The Offing. Among other accomplishments, Youna recently earned her Ph.D. in the Department of French at NYU. I think of our fellow poets and friends in France in posting her verse essay “You”:
Over at Design*Sponge, one of my favorite blogs, Grace Bonney has introduced a new column wherein she asks favorite artists or designers to show and describe their teenage bedrooms. This got me thinking so I went through some old photos and found this one, of my sister:
She's reading "A Long Day in a Short Life," by Albert Maltz (1908 –1985), who wrote fiction, plays, and screenplays. Maltz was one of "the Hollywood Ten," a group of writers who were blacklisted when they refused to answer the House Un-American Activities Committee's questions about Communist Party affiliations, their own and those of their friends and colleagues. Maltz was fined and, in 1950, sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Blacklisted in Hollywood and unable to work there for many years, he moved to Mexico after his release from prison and remained until 1962.
In 1946 Maltz published a controversial essay in which he criticized the shallow aesthetic tenets of the left, questioning whether art was to be used as a weapon in the class war. Here are a few excerpts.
It has been my conclusion for some time that much of left-wing artistic activity—both creative and critical-— has been restricted, narrowed, turned away from life, sometimes made sterile —because the atmosphere and thinking of the literary left wing has been based upon a shallow approach. Let me add that the left wing has also offered a number of vital intellectual assets to the writer—such as its insistence that important writing cannot be socially idle —that it must be humane in content, etc. Schneider enumerated these assets and I take them here for granted. But right now it is essential to discuss where things have gone wrong—why and how. I believe the effects of the shallow approach I have mentioned—like a poison in the bloodstream—largely cause the problems Schneider mentioned. Indeed, these problems are merely the pustules upon upon the body, the sign of ill health . . .
Whatever its original stimulating utility in the late twenties or the early thirties, this doctrine—"art is a weapon" —over the years, in day-to-day wear and tear, was converted from a profound analytic, historical insight into a vulgar slogan: "art should be a weapon." This, in turn, was even more narrowly interpreted into the following: "art should be a weapon as a leaflet is a weapon." Finally, in practice, it has been understood to mean that unless art is a weapon like a leaflet, serving immediate political ends, necessities and programs, it is worthless or escapist or vicious. The result of this abuse and misuse of a concept upon the critic's apparatus of approach has been, and must be, disastrous. From it flow all of the constrictions and—we must be honest— stupidities—-too often found in the earnest but narrow thinking and practice of the literary left wing in these past years. And this has been inevitable. First of all, under the domination of this vulgarized approach, creative works are judged primarily by their formal ideology. What else can happen if art is a weapon as a leaflet is a weapon? If a work, however thin or inept as a piece of literary fabric, expresses ideas that seem to fit the correct political tactics of the time, it is a foregone conclusion that it will be reviewed warmly, if not enthusiastically. But if the work, no matter how rich in human insight, character portrayal and imagination, seems to imply "wrong" political conclusions, then it will be indicted, severely mauled or beheaded—as the case may be.
Maltz was criticized harshly for the essay, so much so that he printed a retraction. Too bad. Do you think his observations hold true today?
You can read the complete essay here.
Maltz wrote the film "The House I Live In," a short in which Frank Sinatra teaches a group of children about religious tolerance. The title song is inspiring. You can read more about the film in David Lehman's book Sinatra's Century: One-Hundred Notes on the Man and His World.
My final "Medium of the Month" post over at the Inquisitive Eater:
Who better to usher in Halloween than Edgar Allan Poe, the master of horror, suspense, and the macabre. Does your lifelong fear of being buried alive originate with Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”? Do you ever lie awake imagining a heart is beating from beneath the floorboards? You have Poe to thank for your nightmares. He brilliantly locates our collective fears and animates them in the short stories and poems written over the course of his brief and mysterious life. His ballad “Annabel Lee” hovers over Vladimir Nobokov’s “Lolita,” whose protagonist’s first love is “Annabel Leigh.” (“When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel [Leigh] was no nymphet to me”). Then there’s “The Conqueror Worm,” an appropriately creepy poem that comes to us from beyond the grave. Poe describes a theater performance; the actors are “mimes,” the hero is a large worm that eats the actors. The curtain falls. Boo!
The Conqueror Worm by Edgar Allan Poe
I'm continuing my stint as Medium of the Month over at the Inquisitive Eater. Here's my most recent post:
Today’s ghost poet is John Ciardi (1916-1986). In addition to being a professor and prolific poet, Ciardi produced an acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In three linked sonnets, Ciardi’s poem “Aunt Mary” tells the story of the death and life of a lonely woman whose love was too much for those she loved (she “loved us till we screamed . . .”). She’s the aunt who squeezed your cheeks too hard, forced you to kiss her, hugged you to her bosom (which smelled of drugstore perfume), and wanted so desperately to be loved that you turned away. Ciardi’s use of alliterative slant rhymes (peppers, pressure, scorchers) and repetition carries you along to the poem’s sad end. Stanza two conjures the messy, crowded, noisy immigrant household that Ciardi, the son of Italian immigrants, may have experienced in his own childhood. The poem begins with macabre humor but ends with the narrator’s graveside epiphany and understanding of his loss.
Aunt Mary died of eating twelve red peppers
after a hard day’s work. The doctor said
it was her high blood pressure finished her.
As if disease were anything to Aunt Mary
who had all of her habits to die of! But imagine
a last supper of twelve red peppers, twelve
of those crab-apple size dry scorchers
you buy on a string at Italian groceries,
twelve of them fried in oil and gobbled off
(Aunt Mary was a messy eater)—and then,
to feel the room go dizzy, and through your blood
the awful coming on of nothing more
than twelve red peppers you know you shouldn’t have eaten
but couldn’t help yourself, they were so good.
In the spirit of Halloween, I'm serving up poets from the past for the New School's Inquisitive Eater. Here's my second post, about a W.H. Auden poem inspired by M.F.K. Fisher:
M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992), could count among her many admirers the poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) who in his introduction to Fisher’s “The Art of Eating” (MacMillan, 1954) boldly states: “I do not know anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” He cites several examples, including the passage below.
“I now feel that gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home. . . A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted could sharpen their questioning wits . . .” (The Art of Eating, pg. 738)
Isn’t’ that terrific? Fisher’s conviction and specificity are qualities that make her writing so enjoyable, and so difficult to imitate, though many have tried.The essay from which the passage is taken (“From A to Z: The Perfect Dinner”) likely inspired Auden’s poem “Tonight at 7:30.” in which he translates into poetry what Fisher describes so deftly in prose. Here is a representative excerpt:
comity the gathering should be small and unpublic:
at mass banquets where flosculent speeches are made
in some hired hall
we think of ourselves or nothing. Christ’s cenacle
seated a baker’s dozen, King Arthur’s rundle
the same, but today, when one’s host may well be his own
chef, servitor and scullion,
when the cost of space can double in a decade,
even that holy Zodiac number is
too large a frequency for us:
in fact, six lenient semble sieges,
none of them perilous,
Is now a Perfect
Social number. But a dinner party,
is a worldly rite that nicknames or endearments
diminutives would profane: two doters who wish
to tiddle and curmurr between the soup and fish
belong in restaurants, all children should be fed
earlier and be safely in bed.
Well-liking, though, is a must: married maltalents
engaged in some covert contrast can spoil
an evening like the glance
of a single failure in the toil
of his bosom grievance.
Continue reading over at The Inquisitive Eater
The first Act in Bill Hayward's stunning Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs is a series of "traditional portraits." While he includes images that one would describe as "traditional," others hint at Bill's impulse toward abstraction and experimentation. President Ronald Reagan, for the cover of Fortune magazine, appears Presidential; on closer examination you can see that Bill has captured--in the tilt of Reagan's head, his slightly raised eyebrow, his lips parted and his arms crossed--the former president's belligerence.There's playfulness in the portraits of dancers, with whom Bill has a unique sympathy that he's nurtured for his entire career. I love the portrait of New York City Ballet's Edward Villella. Only a true dance lover would know to capture Villella when his hands are arranged in the signature Balanchine style; fingers loose and separated so that when the dancer is in motion, the audience sees the entire hand. McCarthy-era attorney Roy Cohn looks appropriately sinister. An aging Milton Berle seated before a painting of cabbage roses reveals the dark side characteristic of so many comedians. Here's someone you know and love; his stance and expression daring you to guess at what he's thinking. What was he thinking?
(Ed note: This week we're featuring photographs from Bill Hayward's Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
Photographer and filmmaker Bill Hayward has just published Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs (Glitterati, September 2015). Uncommon it is, and beautiful, and quite possibly the first of its kind. Bill has agreed to let us share his artistic vision with you by featuring throughout the week images from his extraordinary book.
Chasing Dragons documents in photographs, paintings, and film stills, Bill Hayward’s evolution over five decades from portrait photographer to abstract painter, filmmaker, and multimedia artist. The heart of the book comprises 346 images in five acts that are subdivided into sections, each with a particular focus and accompanied by brief passages of text or poems. These images quicken the imagination with an energy that seems to jump off the page. You can read Douglas Glover’s in-depth review of Chasing Dragons here.
Both David and I have separately had the experience of being photographed by Bill. When I scheduled my session, Bill told me to clear my afternoon of any obligations and he wasn’t kidding. When I arrived at his studio he asked, as a prelude to our session, about the kitchen of my childhood home – my mother’s kitchen. Over the next several hours I built with paper and string and other odd pieces a kitchen table that would be my prop while Bill took pictures. Memories surfaced, some pleasant, some frightening. I left Bill’s studio at dusk feeling both lighter and more vulnerable, the way one might feel after a psychological breakthrough. (The novelist Justin Taylor describes his photo session with Bill here.)
Over the years we’ve often written about or featured Bill Hayward’s work on this blog. If you're a fan, you'll welcome his new book; if you don't know Bill's work, now is your chance to discover this visionary artist.
I'm thrilled to be "Medium of the Month" over at The New School's The Inquisitive Eater. Here's my first selection:
A persistent fantasy of mine is that someday I’ll convince a team of great chefs to prepare a meal based on Ben Jonson’s poem “Inviting a Friend to Supper.”
I read the poem as having three parts: the fawning invitation, the description of the groaning board, and the promise of a convivial atmosphere. I love that up front Jonson stresses that the company is more important than the meal. And from today’s vantage point, Jonson comes off as the original locavore: the food must be seasonal and affordable (And, though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks, / The sky not falling, think we may have larks.).
Continue reading over at The Inquisitive Eater. . .
After reading Yahia's first post, I've tried to become more alert to aphorisms in my reading. Today, while reading W. H. Auden's introduction to The Portable Elizabethan And Jacobean Poets: Marlowe to Marvell, I came across this. What do you think Yahia?
"Only stupid people are without affection and only dishonest ones think of themselves as rational."
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.