Cell #103

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.

Bonne_Terre_Visitor_BadgeWas 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.

Reading alongside the incarcerated men
Reading alongside the incarcerated men

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

 

 

 

Naropa Summer Writing Program

Other Cultures Panel  (with Janet Hamill and Maik Nwosu)
Other Cultures Panel (with Janet Hamill and Maik Nwosu)

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 KatzSarah Riggs, Omar Berrada, C. S. Giscombe, Janet Hamill, Joanne Kyger, and Eileen Myles) will sustain me for a long while.

At the Podium
At the Podium

What Goes Around

Please_Excuse_coverThe 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.

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My mother and father in Mazatlån in the 1950s

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:

                            you took
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.”

Forché with my mother, Josephine Crum. 1989, about 6months before Jo died of breast cancer.  Photo credit: Tracy Meehleib
Forché with my mother, Josephine Crum, in fall of 1989, about 6 months before Jo died of breast cancer.

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:

It is
not your right to feel powerless. Better
people than you were powerless . . .

Photo credit: Tracy Meehleib

Surprised by Laurels

Ange Mlinko has awarded the Poetry Society of America‘s 2015 William Carlos Williams Award to my book The Open Secret.

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!

A New Risset Poem

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:

Look

I feel the features
one could say arrows
rails
that come here
from the shining point
picked for this action
which gilds
and goes on

That which I want
desire
is your act
to surprise the act
gesture
by what
you bring
that which you see
elsewhere (in me)
in the heart

a protected space
where you hold
yourself
and live
look
I want to enter
your body’s gesture
to see myself
seeing
from out of your eyes
governed by this
heart
which escapes me

—Jaqueline Risset (from 14 Poems, New and Old)

 

 

 

That Obscure Object

“Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly
Soulless wobble . . .”

Giraffe_portraitThese 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?

Moxley_UMF_2015-03-05_Elf
At Devaney Doak and Garrett Booksellers.

 

A Friend in Boston

Me and Dan in front of his new home in Arlington
Me and Dan in front of his old place in Somerville

How stunning to realize, as I begin to think about the poetic company that Dan Bouchard has afforded me, that he and I have been writing to each other for twenty years! When we began our correspondence, I was living in Providence, he in Boston. Lee Ann Brown, whom he had looked up following a tip from Lyn Hejinian, introduced us. A little while later we met for a second time at an after-poetry-reading party at Peter (Gizzi) and Liz’s (Willis). Because they lived across the street from Steve and me, it was easy to invite Dan up to our apartment and give him a bunch of Impercipients. I had put together six issues to date; Dan’s work would appear in the seventh.

The oldest letter I can find from Dan is dated May 15, 1995. “It’s been nearly a month since we spoke on the phone,” he says, “I wanted (finally) to write something to let you know I was serious in suggesting a correspondence.” This was the pre-Social Media equivalent of a “friend request.” (At the time, most of us didn’t even have email.) That first letter also mentions that “a year ago to the week” he had finished his MA at Temple and left Philadelphia. I too had finished a graduate degree the previous year, my MFA from Brown. We were in that precarious post-graduate-school phase, trying to figure out how to be poets and continue to participate in a dialogue about poetry. I had resolved to stop writing for a solid year and concentrate on reading instead. Starting a correspondence with Dan was propitious, for if his letters to me were various in material and method—typed, handwritten, on anything from fine stationery to lined notebook paper—they were consistent in their record of Dan’s passion for reading. In that first letter he wrote that, due to moving apartments, his “Tenuous (indeed, strenuous!) reading habits” had been “shattered.” Despite which fact he includes a lengthy discussion of Oppen’s work and mentions reading Silliman’s New Sentence, in addition to autobiographies of “Big” Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. These last choices attest to Dan’s interest in American labor history. This interest led him to interrogate something he’d just heard about in reference to writers like Philip Levine called “work poetry”: “I was in Philadelphia last weekend and had the chance to see many students from the Temple program. Two talked with me about what they called “work poetry . . . [t]he inflection of their voice[s] when saying “work poetry” made it sound like a genre, if not a movement, and I was hesitant to suggest that maybe it’s poetry with ‘work’ as a subject matter.” I love the clarity of this insight. It is the sort of “emperor’s new clothes” observation that Dan excels at. I can’t say how many times I’ve been agonizing over some poetry-world kerfuffle only to have Dan cut right through the nonsense.

Though I didn’t often make copies of my letters, [Read more…]

A Night to Remember!

With_Killian_and_ConradA video of my January 31 Philadelphia reading with Kevin Killian and CA Conrad has been uploaded to my PennSound page. Here I am, flanked by my fellow readers, in the Rose Room at Snockey’s Oyster and Crab House. Behind us  you can see the “sprite on a seahorse” mascot who watches over this magical place. How wonderful to finally get to read in Jason Mitchell‘s Frank O’Hara’s Last Lover reading series!

Rituals and Respects

Tucked among my juvenilia is a poem titled “Leave Me Alone with This Dead Man.” It recounts an unfortunate bit of policing I was subjected to while I was sitting on the clean grave of Charles Baudelaire in the Cimetière Montparnasse. The gendarme disrupted my two-fold aim: to pay my respects to a poet I loved, and to place myself in a propitious setting in the hopes of receiving a bit of poetic genius “by osmosis.” A recent return to this, my favorite Parisian cemetery, along with my upcoming appearance in Jason Mitchell’s reading series, Frank O’Hara’s Last Lover, got me to thinking about the rituals and respects some of us practice around the accoutrements, objects, birthplaces, and death sites of the poets we love. The liturgies of poetry, one might call them: pilgrimages, offerings, silence, ceremonious readings in significant places, benedictions and genuflections. The material book, from codex to paperback, seems to encourage ritualistic behavior: the slow unrolling or turning of pages, a treasure of magical knowledge waiting to be released.

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Jason Mitchell

When Jason Mitchell arrived at the University of Maine to do graduate study he was already possessed of a reverential, though not obsequious, relationship to poetry. I learned quickly of his value for literary ephemera: limited edition chapbooks and broadsides. Before moving away, Jason helped Steve and I bring some order to our overflowing chapbook collection. Watching him hold little stapled nothings I had all but forgotten about as if they were precious gems I felt I’d grown callous, no longer able to see their true value amidst the glut. On the fortieth anniversary of Paul Blackburn’s death Jason organized a living-room reading of that neglected poet’s works. A small group sipped wine and read from the Collected. The poems sounded especially good that night. Jason continues to remind me of things I have forgotten, and he always does so by going back to the poems. In a recent letter he wrote: [Read more…]