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…]

Poems of Christmas

Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood (see "Mother Night")
Unicef-inspired ornaments from my childhood

George Oppen sent me to Thomas Hardy. It was these lines, from “Of Being Numerous”:

. . . But who escapes
Death

Among these riders
Of the subway,

They know
By now as I know

Failure and the guilt
Of failure.
As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas . . .

“As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas.” Oppen’s casual reference punctuates a none-too-casual confession: We all know, the “they” and the “I,” both “failure” and the guilt of it. Crushing. I heard and read these lines many times before I sought out Hardy’s “poem of Christmas.” But the thing is, Hardy wrote many poems of Christmas, all little masterpieces of failure and its guilt. Hardy’s failure lies in his inability to have faith without doubt. His Spinner of the Years—as he calls that nameless, indifferent force that determines all in “The Convergence of the Twain”—is indeed sinister. Yet Hardy is no nihilist. Otherwise, there’s no accounting for the enormous work he put into telling stories of the impoverished and ill-fated. If, as Tess says, “all is vanity,” then why bother caring about another’s misery?

The Hardy Christmas poem Oppen refers to is, of course, “The Oxen.” Here’s Oppen’s retelling of it [Read more…]

Author Function

Author_Name_Tag_Miami_International_BookfairBrowsing bookstalls at the Miami International Book Fair I blow the dust off a tempting copy of a Spinoza Dictionary. Too expensive. I turn to the bookseller, a wizened man with white hair jutting from the sides of his head. “You run a local shop?” “Yes.” I feel so grateful to see old books among the many stalls selling shiny new “bestseller-style” hardbacks. I exchange a few niceties with the bookseller, who is a bit standoffish until he notices the name tag hanging around my neck. “Oh, you’re an author,” he says, suddenly attentive. “Yes, I suppose I am.” As I move on to the next stall, he stops me. “Wait, just wait a minute,” he says, “I want to write down your name. Just in case.”

At the Miami International Book Fair, the “Author Function” hung awkwardly around the neck of the living poet. It swung by a cord and served as a magic key. It let her into the Author’s Lounge, where there was free coffee and vats of Cajun food, printers, posturing, none-to-subtle name tag gawking, and “who’s who” gossip. Young smiling volunteers treated anyone with an author’s name tag like royalty. After events authors were lead to outdoor tables in order to sign books for adoring fans. This part of the “author” charade deflated rather awkwardly as, following our event, the other poets and I stood ignored next to our “wares.” No one was buying, or even browsing. The well-meaning volunteer asked us to sign one book each. Just in case.

If, in Backyard Carmen, I wrote that the idea of “audience” makes me uncomfortable, the whole charade surrounding the “grandiosity of authors” just makes me embarrassed. I realize that the Miami Book Fair generously hopes to promote literary culture in part by treating authors as stars—but as Foucault articulated, the Author Function does not come about by an act of “spontaneous attribution”— such as hanging a tag with the word “author” around the neck of a poet.

Which brings up another question: is a poet an author? Authors have authority, but do poets? The Author Function is necessary in order to place works of literature within “juridical and institutional systems” (Foucault again). In other words: to know who to hold accountable or to accuse. Is this why I prefer some distance from the site of anyone reading my work? As if I—the flesh and blood person—fear I’ll be held accountable for the spectral self, the uncanny “function,” which somehow managed to write poems and then point the finger at me . . .

“What do you mean by poet?” the tribunal of the underworld asks Orpheus when he claims he’s a poet, not a writer. “Écrire sans être écrivain,” he replies. “To write without being a writer.” Or, I would add, an author.

Poetry Project

I’ll be reading with Will Alexander at the Poetry Project in New York City this coming Wednesday, December 10, at 8PM. I first met and heard Will read over twenty years ago, at the Writing from the New Coast conference at University of Buffalo in 1993. It will be very nice to see him again.

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Odette holds the Poetry Project’s annual fundraising letter

Reading at the Project feels kind of like going home for the holidays: the return to a familiar place. Familiar, or family-like, comes from the Latin famulus, meaning, not all together surprisingly, “servant,” or even “slave.” (Does anyone remember that Tama Janowitz book Slaves of New York? It was very 80s). Whenever I go to the Project, I expect to run into friends and acquaintances who have been dutifully serving poetry for many years, and who also feel that the Project is a kind of home. I read there for the first time with Mark McMorris in 1997, the year after my first book came out. In 2003, Anselm Berrigan invited me to read with Robert Creeley. I recall a humid torrent of November rain splashing me on the way in, and a woman’s cell phone—playing Mozart’s Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro—going off while I read a poem about death. In 2010 I read with Miles Champion, who brought his newborn. I’m looking forward to Wednesday’s reading, to returning once again to this familiar home for lost and wayward poems.

A Gift Amiss

. . . but as he gan byholde,
Ful sodeynly his herte gan to colde

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Edward Gorey’s cover

Thus Troilus’s reaction upon seeing the brooch he had given to his beloved Cressida hidden within the folds of a cloak, which, a spoil of war, has been ripped from the Greek warrior Diomede. Cressida’s betrayal, the denial of which Troilus excels at, is confirmed by the fact that the brooch is encountered not where or when expected. Cressida has given the proof and reminder of Troilus’s love to another. She has “regifted” it, and in doing so left evidence of her crime against Troilus’s love.

For the poet, nothing makes the “herte” full suddenly “gan to colde” than encountering a warmly signed copy of one’s own book not where or when expected, in a used bookstore, or perhaps even on the shelves of someone other than the dedicatee. It can feel like a betrayal, nothing on the scale of Cressida’s, but wounding nonetheless. But is selling or discarding a signed book tantamount to a betrayal? After all, there are many reasons for getting rid of books: a move to smaller quarters, the need for money, a sudden desire to purge oneself of worldly goods, etc. Hopefully “intention to wound the author” is rarely a motivating factor. Unless, that is, [Read more…]

Backyard Carmen

Not long ago, Steve and I were invited to join a taskforce charged with growing the audience for the Metropolitan Live in HD opera broadcasts at the Collins Center for the Arts, UMaine’s largest performing arts venue. We are, sadly, the youngest members of this taskforce by some years. In addition to being primarily drawn from the senior set, the typical audience for the Met Live in HD amounts to about a hundred people, which not only looks scant in an auditorium of 1,500 seats, but has the director threatening to cancel the broadcasts altogether—a worrisome prospect to those of us who regularly attend. The largest audience was 270, for a broadcast of Carmen with Elīna Garanča in 2010.

Callas_CarmenSaturday November first the Met is broadcasting Carmen again, this time with the Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Steve, in hopes of interesting the students taking his course on the Lover’s Discourse, spent some time finding alluring YouTube clips from Carmen, including a wonderful Muppet’s sound-poem version of the Habenera. From his report, few students seemed moved to interrupt nursing Halloween hangovers with initiation into this alien art form. All this Carmen talk reminded of my own history with Georges Bizet’s classic, which was my first exposure to opera, enhanced by a Maria Callas recording given to me by my mother. As I wrote in The Middle Room: [Read more…]

Invisible Ink

Looking through my letters from the early 90s in the Archive I came across a few that had been written on a computer and printed with an early printer, probably dot-matrix. Among them letters from Jeff Derkson and Dennis Denisoff. Some twenty years on it is as if these letters were written with invisible ink—they are so very faint I can barely make them out. I wonder if the digital files fared any better?

Montana bound

I’m looking forward to going to Missoula this week as part of the President’s Writers-in-Residence series at the University of Montana. I’ve heard such good things about the MFA there.

My associations with Montana are few. When I was about seven years old my family drove to Helena, Montana to visit my great aunt Hetty, widow of Dow Moxley. It was said that I resembled Hetty, which is strange now that I realize she wasn’t a blood relative. Did this journey to Helena predispose me toward Helena Bennett? My other association with Montana is that chilling scene in Twin Peaks when Leland suggests Mattie “go back to Missoula.” Did he punch a painting?

There are so many interesting poets teaching in Missoula: I know fellow Brown alum Prageeta Sharma, and Karen Volkman a bit, and I’ll be meeting Joanna Klink for the first time. And then there’s Professor Robert Baker, author of books on modernism and philosophy, and on Oppen and Char. His pedagogical influence is pervasive. Or at least that’s the way it seems. When poet Josh Corey came to the University of Maine, the subject of Prof. Baker arose. Josh had been as impressed with him as had a new colleague of mine, Sarah Harlan-Haughey. She’s a Medievalist who studied at Montana and Cornell before joining the faculty here in Maine a few years ago. It turns out she’d taken multiple courses with Baker, and gone to Cornell at his encouragement. Last spring I read at Case Western University. While there I met yet another person who had been transformed by Baker’s classroom, poet Sarah Gridley.

Could this be the same Bob Baker Steve and I met in the early 90s? [Read more…]

Like Musical Instruments

Cortez smallLike Musical Instruments, John Sarsgard’s book of photographic portraits of “83 Contemporary American Poets,” with poems edited by Larry Fagin, came into the house this week. I’m included. Flipping through, there’s a certain sadness. Several of these contemporaries have moved on, among them, Michael Gizzi, Anselm Hollo, and Jayne Cortez.

Cortez is one of my heroines of travel. She always came to Maine with just a tiny backpack, a package of instant oatmeal, and a generous spirit. She said that traveling in Africa had taught her to be contained and frugal. I fear it’s a lesson I’ll never learn.