It has been so intellectually and artistically interesting to collaborate with composer Beth Wiemann on this chamber opera. Unlike poets, composers are reliant on musicians and singers to perform their works. A brief ten-minute scene of this opera was performed at the Hartford Opera Theatre last November. Now we’ll get to hear excerpts from three different scenes right on the University of Maine campus.
Robert Creeley’s story of a poet on a reading tour who is asked by an audience member, “Was that a real poem, or did you just make it up yourself?” elicits laughter. But the question is spookily on the mark. Just beneath the surface of its naiveté lies a real anxiety: that neither the artistic process nor the poet are wholly to be trusted. This has, I suspect, something to do with teaching. Things that can be taught, and those that can’t. There is also the problem of authority, which functions contextually. A bright local light may have no purchase on the national stage, and an internationally-known poet may wander lost through a small town looking for a decent bagel and a cup of joe. My thoughts here are pressured by the question: “where and under what circumstances do we get to be poets?” Certainly not, as Jesus said of prophets, in our hometowns.
If you are a teacher and a poet perhaps you have noticed how your classroom presence, though ostensibly premised on your artistic accomplishments, can be utterly absent of them. I refer to those awkward ego confounding moments when, after the visiting writer has concluded a classroom visit, your beloved students, aglow, turn to you and proclaim, “so cool to meet an actual published author!” Some version of this scenario has befallen me more times than self-esteem will allow me to recall. Cue the despondent crawl to a bustling Student Union, where over a sad packaged sandwich you must admit, egoistically, that all along you have been professing under the assumption that your students, with all the world’s knowledge a few keystrokes away, had looked you up, and had read, if not your entire oeuvre (it is rather overwhelming, isn’t it?) at least a poem or two floating through the glittering digital cosmos. But no. Even if you are teaching them how to write a poem, you are the professor, not the poet. The poet is a body of work, the body of the poet an abstraction, made real only by magic. Though you are in the room, your work is not. An analogy may be made to a diploma: everyone assumes you have one, but no one actually ever asks to see it. There is a measure of trust at work. For the undergraduate community this is especially true, but when a graduate student embraces this trust, then they are not in the room for the reasons I think they are. Why are they there?
One graduate student, whose thesis I advised, told me before leaving town that, though we had worked closely together for nearly a year, she had never read any of my work. Seeing how utterly dumbfounded I was by this confession, this extremely kind and bright young poet then explained that her discomfort at the thought of reading a teacher’s work came from her worry that to do so would be rude or intrusive, or, too intimate. This explanation—so far from the general reasons I might have assumed given an entirely different kind of student, such as negligence, laziness, or a deficit of curiosity—brought two questions to mind: firstly, has the role of professor become too parental, such that, instead of professional adults in a field we have become caretakers assuring safe passage through poetic briars (you cannot live and keep free of them!)? Secondly, can someone cheat on you with your work?
Children often resist or dislike the idea that their parents have extra-parental lives. The painful vision of a parent in a context in which you, the child, are irrelevant. But parents are such by virtue of the fact that they have children. There is no training or accomplishments upon which the role of parent is dependent, no “post birth review” by a jury of one’s peers. The bond is based on love and nurture. Though such tender emotions may enter the classroom, shouldn’t the bond between professor and student, like that of the master and apprentice, be based on a shared care for—not each other—but the work?
The work has a body. The work has a life of its own. As I wrote in my Fragments, “sometimes the poem has more friends than the poet.” Thus the work may be personified. It may be in the room without you. The visiting poet’s work entered the room before the arrival of the visiting poet, while the professor’s work—unless she be of that shady ilk that assigns her own books—waits patiently outside the classroom door. The body of the visiting poet is likely to humanize the body of work, to dissolve its difficulties. To explain, calm, and clarify. While the professor’s body of work, should it enter the classroom, may upset or complicate settled ideas or assumptions about the professor. What would happen should these lines, from my poem “Coastal” enter the classroom: “ . . . Youth bores me. I cannot be excited / by watching others learn things for the first time”? Would a discussion about “truth” and what’s said in poems ensue? Or one about whether a student’s success is premised upon a teacher’s investment and excitement? Perhaps it’s better to leave the work out in the hallway after all.
The case above aside, many students may feel perfectly comfortable with the “professor’s two bodies.” Perhaps it is I that am uncomfortable being in the room with my work. It is a distinct possibility. Modernist leanings have ill-equipped me for small-town notoriety. I prefer anonymity. That, or the fleeting yet focused attention of being a visiting poet myself. There is a distinct pleasure to be had in breezing into someone else’s classroom and playing “the poet.” To being the object of study, as if your work and you were in fact the same. I have learned much about my poems from insightful questions posed by student readers, as long as those students are taking their education on a campus far away from the one where I go about my quotidian existence. This is a puzzle of the local. My predecessor at the University of Maine, Constance Hunting, wore her regional prestige with admirable dignity. She gave readings often, typically finishing with her feminist amuse bouche “Cezanne”: “The man astonished all of Paris / with an apple / but his wife liked / only Switzerland and lemonade.” The local audience knew the poem and seemed never to tire of hearing it. Connie was wise and open. Noticing my resistance to her path, she winked at me with a knowing, if slightly critical, glance. Though she was a light of the local, she knew it was a mask, and understood its viciousness. I won’t soon forget when she turned to Steve and me after a tense reading of “Maine poets” at the close of an NPF conference and, with Maggie Smith-like aplomb, dropped the line: “Everyone knows where the bodies are buried!”
My work, like the nose in Gogol’s story, has been known to go off on its own and have rather more success than me. It has been hobnobbing with prize-winning poets at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for years. I’ve never set foot in the place. But rumors get back to me. This creates a certain amount of emotional ambivalence, as well as genuine terror, whenever I join my work out in the world for a performance. Should that joining take place in my hometown my knots of anxiety tighten all the more. Will my work look down upon me? Will the local judges, from whom you cannot flee but must live with day in and day out, laugh like the panel of scientific judges in Victor Sjöström’s Freudian tour-de-force He Who Gets Slapped? Will the community chuckle with schadenfreude, thinking, “we knew she wasn’t a real poet!” Or, the more likely scenario: my work will be disliked, turning erstwhile friendly grocery story chats into foot-shuffling phone-checking encounters! Enough. Suffice it to say I have never been calm about given hometown readings, which is perhaps why I have only done so four times in the past seventeen years. I recall each of those performances as rather dismal, the “professor” mantle stifling the far more personal, and often vulnerable role my poems ask me to play. This past May, however, I was invited to read in Bangor with Denver graduate Christopher Kondrich by the Norembega Collective. The audience, a skeleton crew of friends, one or two former students, and a couple of strangers, was warm and attentive. Some magic ensued, because for the first time since moving to Central Maine I felt that my poet self was in the same room with my body of work.
I feel a mix of nostalgia and melancholy today, occasioned by the news that my old teacher and sometime friend, poet Stephen Rodefer, has died in Paris. He played a significant role in my chronicle of what I jokingly called l’école de San Diego—The Middle Room—and a significant role in my poetic formation. But he was not a mentor. That word, originating from the name of the sage advisor in The Odyssey, doesn’t fit Rodefer. He was more like Odysseus, many minded, wiley, attractive, a “resort darling.”* In The Middle Room I compared him to a god: “his air was aristocratic, and when he walked he surveyed the landscape before him like a man who is certain that he has, like Apollo, left in the wake of his golden form a comet’s tail of glowing light . . .” And later, “He was dedicated to the old-fashioned image of the poet whose only master is truth and only mistress beauty . . . .” Many today might find the way he played the poet role old fashioned, but when I was young I found the romance he brought to it both silly and intoxicating. Anyone who spent any time in his company has an anecdote to tell.
During the years Steve and I lived in Providence (1989—1998) he visited often. An especially memorable time was in May of ’94, right after I had graduated from Brown. Following a stint in Cambridge, England he showed up carrying a battered leather suitcase that had supposedly belonged to I. A. Richards (it was monogrammed). Inside was one of the largest bottles of Vodka I’d ever seen. Taking all the new poetry anthologies that had appeared during his time abroad, he proceeded to set up camp in our backyard, drinking and leafing through volumes, out of which he composed a poem.
He had a fondness for feminine things. Two tableaux: Rodefer in a skimpy silk robe sitting at our Providence kitchen table polishing his toes with my nail polish. Rodefer at my vanity table in Maine, in front of the lighted mirror, putting on mascara before being filmed.
Consensus among poets tends to be that though a complicated, self-destructive, and often infuriating person, Rodefer was a great poet. His tastes shaped mine: O’Hara, Villon, Williams, to name a few. He had only to mention a writer for me to seek that writer out, in part because he spoke his aesthetic opinions as though they were obvious and irrefutable. Consensus also holds that his book Four Lectures is his masterpiece. But personally, I’ve always had a fondness for his O’Hara influenced volumes, The Bell Clerk’s Tears Keep Flowing, and One or Two Love Poems from the White World.
Steve and I have two Rodefer relics, now deepened by the pathos things take on when their former owners die: The first is a monogrammed edition of his battered old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, with a touching dedication to me. The second is a flowery scarf he lost after a particularly wild party at our home in Orono (the festivities went until 4AM). Though he surrendered the dictionary willingly, Rodefer was very upset about the loss of the scarf. We searched the house high and low, but couldn’t find it. After he left town, Steve and I were walking through the village center when we espied the missing scarf tied to a lamppost. How it got there is a mystery to this day. Rest in peace, poet.
*Jack Gilbert, “The Plundering of Circe”
Steve, prompted by the cool images of Pluto being sent back to Earth by NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft, casually says, “don’t you have a poem about this?”
Well, not yet. I decide he must be thinking of “The Waver in the Orbit of Uranus Becomes Unexplainable.” This poem, from Imagination Verses, takes its title and governing metaphor from the 200 year quest of astronomers to explain irregularities in the orbit of Uranus by hunting for a celestial body (known as “Planet X”) beyond the seventh planet. This quest led to the discovery of Neptune in 1846, and, more significantly for today’s post, of Pluto in 1930. Here’s a more informative source. I must have read about Planet X in the 1990s—when sky gazers put paid to this theory by recalibrating the mass of Neptune.
Here’s the poem:
The Waver in the Orbit of Uranus Becomes Unexplainable
I ask you, is it fitting to undo me by leaving
now that we know there is nothing out there
beyond what we can see?
I admit I’ve suffered from a “parallax of heart,”
born of a skewing jealousy and seen most evenings
in field-weary gazing upon your sleeping body.
From that angle all other worlds look bleak.
Though I will not call on heaven if you leave,
for I’m certain that the spirit is a one-eyed
pretender to the throne of painfree living
who has stolen all my daydreams for a shot at the beyond.
I suspect the water’s edge is enamored of the water,
a quiver on the surface tells me not the wind
but the wish to drift will devastate the sand.
It is the future’s focal infection, this insistence on death,
like when my mother and father cradled me
as the answer to each other’s desperate tread towards union.
For this is a universe where things are not apparent
in their cruelty, but continual, and the sweetness of order
is increasingly evanescent. If I could hide this day forever
from the pleasure of renewal and banish all contingency
from happening I would, but I have never seen planet X
or the wooden ships on the Eastern horizon.
Up until now my life has faced West, sequestered
reason reaching for an injudicious kiss.
And here’s the planet:
I read last December at the Poetry Project, and now a portion of that reading, with Lee Ann Brown’s introduction, is available for listening as part of the Project’s new podcast initiative. Reviewing the sound file, I was startled to hear that I began that evening with “Cell #103.” This short poem, from Imagination Verses, is dedicated to “Vladimir Mayakovsky & Fred Moxley.” Listening back to this December reading in June, but a few weeks after my brother Fred’s sudden death, an eerie feeling came over me. In preparing my set list, I knew I wanted to read something to honor Tender Buttons Press and its forthcoming omnibus edition, which will include Imagination Verses in its entirety. But why did I choose “Cell #103”? It has never been one of my “go to” poems, those that you voice again and again because they read well and you know how to sound them in your sleep.
Was I thinking back to my visit to Missouri’s Bonne Terre maximum security correctional center? In fall of 2013, I had been a guest of the Inside Out Prison Arts and Education Program run by Devin Johnston and Mary Gould. Before my visit, prisoners were invited to read my book There Are Things We Live Among. Those who wanted to were invited to write essays on objects they valued. When I went into the prison, myself and three of the incarcerated men read our writings and led a discussion. Then, asking their indulgence, I read “Cell #103.” “That gets it pretty close,” one man said, and then, “How could you know what it’s like in here?” My answer: from reading the writings of revolutionaries (or revolutionary poets) and from my brother’s letters.
103 was the number of Mayakovsky’s cell at the Butryka prison, where he was locked up for several months when just a teenager. The poem “As a Youth” recounts his experience seeking the light outside, only to see a mortuary, “I / fell in love / with the Office of Funeral Processions / through the keyhole of cell 103.”* My brother, whose hopes of a different life were much curtailed by the so-called crack down on crime and California’s “three strikes” law, described to me, in one a letter from the “Gila unit” of the Arizona State Prison complex, how his body had been changed by incarceration: weight gain from working out, tattoos, piercings, and TB (then much associated with HIV). But, he assured me, “I am not into all the white supremacy bullshit here, but I also have to adhere to my surroundings. . . .” Trying to connect my world to his, I would send him Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison, which he thought described a milder situation than he found himself in, having recently participated in “two riots,” and “three fights,” but “not the stabbing.” When I had my first poems published in Ben Friedlander’s Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root, Fred, now in a California facility, was sweetly impressed: “Published! You’re my little braguette item — my sister the poet”! Criminals really respect you—as I’m sure you know a lot of inmates themselves are poets . . .” Yes, I know, I thought at the time. And though I may have forgotten it, my visit to the Bonne Terre facility reminded me anew.
*translation James H. McGavran III
Just catching my breath following a stint (June 21-28) at the Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. The week’s theme, inspired by Kyoo Lee, was “Whom Am I When I Dream?: Philo-poetics.” Stressing the “philo-poetics,” more than the dream, Steve Evans and I co-taught a course titled, “I Never Said I Loved You: Poetry, Philosophy, and the Language of the Break Up.” With a motivated and sharp group of about eight students we read and discussed works by Emily Dickinson, Plato, Robert Creeley, Christina Davis, Roland Barthes, Alain Badiou, and others. This was my third time as a visiting faculty member (previous years: 2007; 2010). In addition to teaching, I spoke about my interest in Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Herrick, and the “Other Culture” that is the past during a panel discussion. I also debuted several new poems during my evening reading. I shared the stage that night with James Sherry, Eleni Sikelianos, and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.
Being at the The Summer Writing Program is like suddenly waking up in a magical place where poets and poetry matter, and one can speak candidly about literary passions without raising suspicions. Anne Waldman, as guiding spirit, inspires with her energy, enthusiasm, and warmth. The summer-camp-like atmosphere of a group of visiting faculty, light-headed from the thin Boulder air and joyously exhausted by a dense schedule of teaching, panels, and readings, makes for an easy and memorable camaraderie. The interesting conversations I had with my students and fellow faculty members—including Vincent Katz, Sarah Riggs, Omar Berrada, C. S. Giscombe, Janet Hamill, Joanne Kyger, and Eileen Myles) will sustain me for a long while.
The YA anthology Please Excuse This Poem, which includes my poem “The Fountain,” is just out from Viking Penguin. The editors, Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick did a great job. Some gems so far: “Talk” by Terrance Hayes, “We Fall in Love with Total Strangers” by James Allen Hall, “Mistakes,” by Shane Book, “Bleeding Heart” by Carmen Giménez Smith, “Rape Joke,” by Patricia Lockwood (it really deserves all the attention, it is that good).
“Most poets begin writing poetry in secret,” writes Carolyn Forché in the introduction, “As with love . . . there is a first time and it is remembered.” I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I certainly remember writing my first poem. I was twenty years old, long past my teenage years. I was only fourteen, however, when I first encountered Carolyn Forché. Here’s an abridged version of the story excerpted from The Middle Room:
When I was nearing my fifteenth birthday and she on the cusp of her fiftieth, my mother took a fiction workshop taught by a young poet named Carolyn Forché. Though twenty years apart in age, Jo and her teacher became good friends. Carolyn, captivated by Latin America, was interested in my mother’s stories about living in Mexico during the 50s and 60s, and Jo, ever hungry for literary companionship, was captivated by Carolyn’s intensity.
All of a sudden “Carolyn,” as my mother called her, became a constant presence in our house. She could be felt hovering over the typewriter in that my mother suddenly no longer cared for writing humorous Thurberesque prose that took for its subject matter life’s absurd moments, but instead wanted to write about the agony of her lonely life during the last few years of her marriage to my father. She could be felt in the air of our living room as a thick white smoke hovering above little ashtrays filled with cigarette butts that suddenly started to appear like film noir extras on the heavy Mexican coffee table next to piles of Time and Sports Illustrated. She could be felt in the grave urgency of words such as “political prisoner” and “refugee” which came through our foyer without stopping to pause over the big fat yellow paperback of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago which had stood brooding on the bookshelf for as long as I could remember . . .
“The Return,” a longish narrative poem in Forché’s 1981 book The Country Between Us, is dedicated and addressed to my mother. In wrenching detail, it tells the story of Forché’s difficult readjustment to the United States after visiting El Salvador. The poem lists acts of unspeakable torture, poured into my mother’s empathetic ear:
my stories apart for hours, sitting
on your sofa with your legs under you
and fifty years in your face.
How strange to read this portrait of my mother—written by a rising poetry star when I was just a teenager—now that I have “fifty years in [my] face”! This convergence of factors makes Forché’s presence as “godmother” to Please Excuse This Poem feel, in my case, strangely apt. In her presence I’ll forever be an adolescent, that girl who, “hot, puffy and flustered with wind from riding my bike,” was instinctually aware that when she and my mother were drinking wine, deep in talk, “no matter how wildly I gesticulated in the squeaky language of my fifteen-year-old life, I would not be heard.”
A decade later my mother would be dead, and Forché on her way to becoming a major proponent of the “poetry of witness.” Her landmark anthology Against Forgetting collects poetry of courage written in extreme circumstances, poetry that speaks back to historical horrors before which many feel powerless (is adolescence such a horror?). Reading such work, I feel powerless. To which perhaps Forché would justifiably say to me, as she did my mother:
not your right to feel powerless. Better
people than you were powerless . . .
Photo credit: Tracy Meehleib
Anyone who knows me and knows my poetry also knows that I haven’t participated much in the prize culture of American poetry. I wanted the work to speak for itself, and for publication to be a meaningful experience given my poetics and values. All of my books have been published by independent presses, and without blurbs (except The Line, which does have blurbs). The WCW Award—given only to books published by independent or university presses, and the money from which supports the press—feels especially apt and lovely. Actually, it feels great!
Umberto Todini, Jacqueline Risset‘s widower, sent me this poem. Unpublished in her lifetime, French and Italian versions appeared in the French magazine Poesie after her death (thanks to Todini). “Look” showcases some of the recurrent themes of Risset’s poetic and intellectual work: the desire to collapse the distances between self and other and between thought and feeling, as well as her tendency to spatialize the mind through metaphor.
Here’s my English version:
I feel the features
one could say arrows
that come here
from the shining point
picked for this action
and goes on
That which I want
is your act
to surprise the act
that which you see
elsewhere (in me)
in the heart
a protected space
where you hold
I want to enter
your body’s gesture
to see myself
from out of your eyes
governed by this
which escapes me
—Jaqueline Risset (from 14 Poems, New and Old)
“Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly
Soulless wobble . . .”
These lines comes from my poem “The Various Silences Lie in Shadow.” I chose to include this poem as part of my reading in Farmington, Maine—though it is difficult to read—because of this collapsing giraffe, whom I shall call “Wobbly” (in light of my recent post). I had noticed Wobbly when reconnoitering the venue: a local bookstore filled with kids’ books, toys, puzzles, rubber dinosaurs, and other cool stuff. Wobbly Giraffe is a representative of the exact object I had in mind when I wrote “Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly / Soulless wobble . . .” To see Wobbly do just this, view his star turn here.
When I wrote these lines I believed I was creating a clear image, and that the reference to “thumbing from below” was enough to lead any reader to a memory of this common, strangely cruel, toy. But, when driving back to Orono from Farmington, Steve told me that, until he saw me use Wobbly as a prop during my reading (adding humor to a distinctly unfunny poem) he had no idea what I was getting at. The image was obscure. Which leads me to wonder, how many other “clear images” have I written with nary more than a nod to some past sense-experience with an object now totally obscure?
Without the experience of this object, how might a reader understand what it means to be “thumbed from below”? Could it be read as making reference to Hart Crane’s lines in “Chaplinesque”?
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Why do we locate social acceptance and aesthetic judgment in the thumb? Thumbs up, thumbs down. To thumb one’s nose at something or someone. Why are our opposable thumbs also oppositional?