R. I. P. Emmanuel Hocquard, 1940-2019

I am very saddened to learn that French poet Emmanuel Hocquard, a singular poet, a singular person, has died. I knew he was ailing, but I had hoped I might see him one more time. 

He is another elder from whom I took so much guidance and solace, especially about how to live one’s life in poetry. Some things I learned from Emmanuel: 

It’s okay if you do not live at the center (New York, Paris).

Small, independently-made poetic objects are more meaningful and honest. See the “Afterword” to my Fragments.

Group translation builds community and changes the language. 

It takes a good sense of humor to be serious about poetry. 

The first time I met him was in May of 1987, when he and Claude Royet-Journoud came to the University of California, San Diego to give a reading. I was a student at the time and attended the after party at the home of professor Michael Davidson. In my memoir, The Middle RoomI wrote about standing on the sidelines with Emmanuel while other party members—notably Claude and my poet friend Helena—danced with abandon:

from The Middle Room:

Given my difficulties around the issue of dancing in even the most anonymous venues there was no way that I was going to throw off my inhibitions in the dining room of him who had thought it fit to call my verses “interesting” and “good.” I found a fellow nay-sayer in Emmanuel Hocquard, and together we watched the dancing from the other side of the kitchen bar where, after I tried to engage him in some light repartee and received but a scowl and one-word responses, I remained by his side, unrebuffed, enjoying the decadent spectacle of Helena and Claude. I know Emmanuel much better now and have learned that behind that “cultivated scowl” he is brilliant, funny, and extraordinarily kind, but at that time I was absolutely petrified by the impassivity he affected in response to my charging confidently forth with my conversational French! Perhaps he declined further transports of pleasure in light of the fact that his visit had already reached its apex. Earlier that day John Granger had taken him to see Raymond Chandler’s house, the address of which a very pleased Hocquard had found in the Collected Letters. Both these French poets had a mania for “noir” and from the moment they landed they had joyfully demanded “take us to the house of Raymond Chandler”!

Emmanuel was a talented photographer. I’ve always loved this picture he took of Jacqueline Risset reading, with me beside her as translator. That was in Providence in 1996. 

Emmanuel Hocquard and Juliette Valéry in Orono 2006

The last time I saw Emmanuel was when he and his long-time collaborator Juliette Valéry came to give a reading at the University of Maine in 2006. The day after the reading, Steve and I took our French guests around to antique shops in quest of Depression-Era glass, which they collected. One piece he found was salmon pink and looked sort of like a soap dish—but not quite. The tag said only “Crystal Stropper.” What is a “crystal stropper” we wondered? Much silliness about this mysterious stropper and its apparent uses followed.

Crystal Stropper

In 1998 Steve and I were living in France and, at the invitation of Emmanuel and Juliette, we spent several days just outside of Bordeaux at the home of Alexander Delay. It was only last fall that I finished a draft of an essay about this idyllic visit as part of a book of essays I am writing on birds and poetry. I had hoped to send a polished version of “Bordeaux Colloquy” to Emmanuel. Though he plays but a small role in the piece, it is my hope that it captures something about his sense of humor and quiet presence. 

Bordeaux Colloquy 

From a work in progress.

Was that a member of Jacques Derrida’s colloquium being eaten with relish at my feet? Or had I, finally, drank too much wine? I was sitting at the left-most corner of a long farm table with my back to open glass doors that gave onto a large grassy field. Disturbed by an unholy crunching sound, my eyes dropped from my dinner plate to the foot of my chair. There beside my sandaled foot was the farm’s Tom cat, the feathers of a dead grackle-sized bird splayed out beneath his head like a halo. Being a French cat—or at the very least, a cat in France, as I was a poet in France—he was having his dinner at the appropriate time and at table. Despite having lived my life in the company of cats, I had never before seen one eat a bird. Tom did not pluck, dress, or truss. He bit and gnawed, swallowed and digested, “beak to tail,” feathers and all. I was both mortified and fascinated. My Bordeaux hosts and their French guests were amused when I alerted them, in a tone of concern, that a cat was casually eating a whole bird at my feet.  

I recall another instance of my “American supermarket naiveté.” France had a way of poking a hole in it. 1973. At nine years of age I am given a taste of warm milk fresh from a cow on a farm in the Loire Valley. My family was camped there for the night and the large frightening farmer brought my brothers and I this special treat. Having grown up on Carnation pasteurized, we couldn’t palate it. This amused my mother, a one-time farm girl herself, no end. Though I rarely questioned her omnipotence, her insistence that this warm grassy beverage was superior to the chilled white watery 2% product we were accustomed to was difficult to square. 

Now in my early thirties I was the guest of poet Emmanuel Hocquard and artist/translator Juliette Valéry, lodgers on painter Alexander Delay’s small farm located in the Bordeaux region of France.  S. and I had been invited to stay a week. The stated purpose was the completion and polishing of a French version of my serial poem “Enlightenment Evidence,” the group translation of which had begun during a magical residency at the Fondation Royaumontearlier that summer. In Delay’s home S. and I were given a spare, clean, second-floor bedroom with crisp linen sheets and a window overlooking the grassy field. There was a large, beautiful bathroom and a small separate toilet at the end of the hall. Several of Delay’s art students from Dijon were also in residence: young beautiful French people with good manners and radical ideas. On the night that tom cat joined the feast, they had prepared the meal: a vegetarian pasta, which may have accounted for kitty’s decision to fend for himself. It was nearing the end of the week and everyone felt, as people do when brought together in a temporary, yet exceedingly pleasurable living arrangement, an especial fondness for each other. We drank so much red wine our teeth were stained pink. 

Jacques Derrida’s colloquium was held every evening at dusk, precisely when S. and I would sit down with Juliette and Emmanuel in the cool air at a round table to drink white Bordeaux and delicately peel hard-boiled quail eggs to eat with our apéritif. Separating Delay’s property on one side was a stand of gigantic trees that wove together into what appeared to be a great hedge. It must have been at least 45-feet high. As we sat and sipped and waited for dinner this hedge would fill with birds. Starlings, perhaps. A great racket would ensue. The din of hundreds, maybe thousands of birds. “C’est le colloque de Derrida,” Emmanuel would say, gesturing in the direction of the hedge with his head. Each night on cue they’d come together to argue, this Bordeaux conference of the birds. Their colloquy well-nigh drowned out our badinage, but because of the density of the foliage, we never saw the distinct outline of a single one of these voluble debaters. 

There were also three chickens. Often clustered at the edge of the property next to a small fish-filled pond constructed sometime in the past by Emmanuel, these seemingly hysterical hens would bolt toward the cocktail table looking for handouts. Clucking excitedly all the way, their puffy bodies wobbled precariously above their thin legs. Did I give a bite of quail egg to a chicken? I hope not. I was fond of these three squabbling hens, but as S. remembers it, I was much more preoccupied by the farm’s billy goat, who would climb atop the chicken coop to survey his realm. Of the goat I merely recall a lesson in “tail semiotics” solemnly given me by Alexander Delay: straight up and the goat is happy and alert, down means worried, angry, or fearful; a tail moving slowly side-to-side means the goat is in a state of contemplation, attempting to make up his mind. 

Playful poets taking potshots at post-structuralist philosophers. Perhaps not part of the rules of the game, but it fed our spirits well. Each day we feasted, drank, translated. One lunch we all gathered in the kitchen so that we could follow the tour de France on the radio. “Ça a le gout du frigo,” Emmanuel said, rejecting the butter at hand. It tasted as if it has been taken out and put back into the fridge over and over again. Fresh butter procured we spread copious amounts on baguette and topped it with delicious greasy rounds of saucisson sec. There was cantaloupe too, and the lovely dirt-rich house wine, filled in reusable bottles by area vineyards the way when I was little we’d put out the used bottles for the Carnation milk man. Through the wide-open door of the kitchen I could see the interlocked rings of the farm’s large metal bottle rack. A commonplace French object which I’d only ever seen in a Duchamp exhibit.

The Tom cat, siding with the poets, finished off the philosopher’s bird. I went back to my vegetarian pasta. I was trying to grok why the Dijon art students kept referring to their “potlatch,” a term that interrupted their French articulations like a fish bone in the mouth. Apparently, they borrowed the idea of the Native American festival as a frame for some sort of spontaneous and collaborative artmaking. Hmmm, I thought, I wonder which Native term was shaped into that strange word, “potlatch,” so like “pot luck,” or, for that matter . . .pot shotShooting the bird outside the spirit of the hunt merely to put in a pot and eat! Crunch, crunch. I had learned quickly the meaning of that sound. I looked down. I should, I think, feel honored. Tom has brought me yet another member of Derrida’s colloquium, whom he is presently and with great relish settling into the fixed meaning of his maw. 


Petit Tonnerre / 3 poules blanche

The Makers’ Spell

I treated myself in the final days of 2018 to a reading of Ann Lauterbach’s book of poems, SpellIt’s an amazing book. Passing my eyes over its pages provoked in me singular journeys down enticing mental avenues until I’d look up from the page in a swoon of contemplation. In other words, the poems in Spell excited me, as the Physics metaphor would have it: they stimulated my intellectual energy above ground level, into a state of motion and response, entangled with Lauterbach’s own. In “Intent, Intend”—one of the several prose dialogues the author holds with a personification of Evening throughout the book—Lauterbach defines my experience as one of the things art can do. It can create an affinity between “two subjectivities,” and, as she puts it: “This affinity is a form of desire, an arousal of admiration and curiosity . . . as we come to know the work, we are changed; our sense of our world is altered.”

That such a desire has moved Lauterbach countless times is evident in the many poems in Spellthat are dedicated to or in dialogue with artists and poets and their works (including the cover image, an inky bird silhouette painted over dictionary pages by William Kentridge). The book as a whole is dedicated to “JA”—whom I take to be John Ashberyand to Anselm Berrigan and Nancy Shaver (poet, artist). 

The “JA” dedication cues us to understand that Spell is in dialogue with the dead. It looks back in elegy and forward to the author’s own death. “No one wakes without loss” Lauterbach writes in the beautiful “Value,” which ends with a litany: “My cousin Douglas / with one / died when he was twelve / of cystic fibrosis.  / Liz, Katie, and Matthew / followed suit.” Because the poems in Spell are often followed with dictionary-formatted etymologies of key words, Lauterbach prompts her reader to think about word origins and meanings. I click over to the OED to research the idiom “followed suit.” After considerable astonishment at the various meanings of “suit” (from “attendance by a tenant at the court” to “bathing”) I find what I am looking for: 

b.  to follow suit (earlier †to follow in suit): to play a card of the same suit as the leading card; hence often fig., to do the same thing as somebody or something else. (Cf. 13c.) 

Earliest citation 1680: “The elder begins and younger follows in suit as at Whisk.” So according to the poem, “Liz, Katie, and Matthew” played the same hand as “Douglas / with on s.” Shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal . . . death as a game we are all in the midst of . . . what’s in your hand? What’s in mine?

Death and loss are everywhere present in Spell. Lauterbach ritualistically arranges objects that belonged to dead loved ones in her rooms and then imagines these same things being “tossed into the trash” once she’s gone. “I’m having another one of those episodes in which dying seems very near,” she writes in “Earth,” just before mentioning that she’s reading a book I love, Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the DeadLearning that our eyes have shared Harrison’s pages, I feel a little joy. Maybe she and I can have a conversation about the ideas put forth in this book!? The thought is cut short by panic. How much longer will I have the privilege of responding, not just to Lauterbach’s work, but to the living breathing poet herself? It is then I realize that all the while I have been reading Spell, I have also been composing a letter to Lauterbach in my head. I have been formulating sentences to show her how much I admire her poems. I have been preparing my own thinking as a thank you. I love Spell’s Orphic avenues. I love Spell’s embrace of the erring quest of the intellectual poem. I love her description of lying awake “in the small hours” terrorized by “Night’s Ambassador of the List.” I don’t feel so much inspired to write my own poems, as I do to write to Lauterbach about hers.

This happens often. Books I admire by living authors activate my epistolary impulse. If I know the author, as I do Lauterbach, chances are I’ll finish by actually writing and sending a letter (paper or email). If I do not know the author, I may also send a letter—as I did with Pogue Harrison—though it takes a bit more courage, for I worry such missives will be received as a burden, an unwelcome debt, or that the author will think me facile. Because it isn’t “fan mail” that I’m sending. One-way admiration. And there is a demand in my letters. A demand and a hunger. A hunger for meaningful exchange with writers who have managed to puncture the hubris of the contemporary. Writers who remind me of the long game, the existential urgency, the humanistic enterprise of letters . . .  “Art helps us to recognize and celebrate our differences within some fundamental likeness,” Lauterbach writes in “Think.” Yes.

Yes, but it also occurs to me that, as art has the capacity to alter our sense of the world, so too do our interlocutors. And their loss. Lauterbach knows something about this. In her introduction to Joe Brainard’s Nancy Book, her missing of the living, breathing Brainard is palpable. John Ashbery was a close friend with whom I imagine she shared many piquant and allusion-rich conversations. His passing in 2017 changed the landscape of American poetry, but I suspect this change felt different to Lauterbach, closer and more personal. When the poets who have shaped both our work and our sense of the world die, something profound shifts within us as well. 
          
Robert Creeley’s death did this to me. I tried to explain the feeling in my 2005 essay “Lyric Poetry and the Inassimilable Life”: “Never before had the death of someone I knew so little affected me so much . . . . Creeley stood for something that was important to me. A kind of person-to-person communication, a kind of attention to your surroundings. A kind of lyric practice. Without ever asking anything of me he supported my work. I was not his student, he owed me nothing.” 
            
No matter our age, none of us know when we’re going to die. Nevertheless, we tacitly operate under the assumption that those who are older will go first. In the poem “Fact,” Lauterbach surprises me: “[s]haring the same death day is not something we think about, the way we think about sharing the same birthday.” We’ve all heard those tales about a good, but perhaps only minorly famous person’s death being overshadowed in the obituaries because they had the ill-fortune to share a death day with someone of great infamy or notoriety. And we’ve just begun to appreciate how, historically, many amazing women artists received no obit at all, at least not in the Times
            
I feel compelled to stop here and address something untoward about this essay: though in Spell Lauterbach admits to thinking about her own deathfor me to admit that am thinking about it seems ill-mannered, or the violation of some unspoken taboo. “Dear Ann, I’m in a panic because I fear you may die and I will no longer have access to the progress of your amazing mind!” We may think such thoughts, but should we utter or write them?
            
And isn’t equating access to Lauterbach’s person with access to her mind a fantastical optimism concerning the possibilities of the dialogic? If I were to travel to Germantown posthaste and, if Ann would have me, sit in her lovely company, what conditions would need to be present to have a really meaningful conversation about the aesthetic and political questions she raises in Spell? Wouldn’t the needs of our bodies intervene? Might she not feel a slight dyspepsia, or I have a hot flash? Might she be anxious about adequately representing the thought in her poems, and I be anxious about the awkward unfolding of my enthusiasm? Maybe it is better to write a letter after all . . .

A letter allows itself to be read in solitude and with contemplation. A letter is quiet, slow, analog. The body can be relaxed and unselfconscious when reading a letter. I would say it is generous way to respond to a book were it not that so many poets have told to me that receiving a letter also instills guilt. The assumption that one must write back. Perhaps we would prefer thoughtful public reviews to private individualized responses to our books? Do either alleviate the fear that much of what do is invisible? 
           
“Now we are faced with a present that seems stripped of embodied presence, much less knowledge of the past,” Lauterbach writes in “Phenomenon.” “We seem to be living in a steady stream of nows.” If she’s thinking about the digital experience of time, which I posit she is, I might add that these “nows” lack space, they are virtual and as such do not exist in the physical world. Somewhat like language, with the major difference that the feel of language is the feeling of something that is physically inside of us. Something we can hold and shape with our minds. Something with which we can leave a trace in the physical world, like a book. Though after we’re gone our books may be “tossed into the trash,” might they not just as likely be opened and read? 
           
The panic of allowing myself to think: Ann could be close to death. As are so many poets without whose work I would not have been able to imagine my own. I could make a list, but that would be a macabre exercise and likely danger courting. Let’s just say that there are more than I can calmly contemplate. The panic is real. But it does not wholly stem from the ongoing need to accessand to talk to these poets—however desirable and pleasurable that would certainly be. As a source of the panic that is a mistake. “[W]e need to make mistakes; it’s the way of evolution,” Lauterbach writes in “Sublime, Full.” The panic stems, rather, from a ground of long contentedness in knowing that poets such as Lauterbach are sharing the planet with me in this particular “now,” and that the “embodied presence” of their minds and work have made the world habitable. I feel bereft at the thought of what’s lost when a poet’s hard-acquired experience and intellectual energy returns to ground.
            
There is also the responsibility. Poets I have known and know who were born in the 1930s and 40s have a high serious sense of vocation. They embraced Pound’s notion of the poet’s art as the work of a lifetime. Over the years, when I have cast my eyes up ahead, they have inspired and set a bar. A welcome challenge. At the end of Spell, Lauterbach includes two pages of definitions of her title. One from the 1620s reads: “a turn of work in place of another,” which evolved to mean a continuous line of work, “where one man or crew regularly ‘spelled’ another.” I ask myself, am I ready to “spell” such poets at their level when the time comes for them to leave off their labors?

In Memoriam

How dreamlike on this quiet, cloudy Friday to realize that it was but a week ago that I was surrounded by very dear and talented friends—a warm gathering of writers—many of whom I have been in dialogue with for over twenty years. It was the midpoint of the National Poetry Foundation’s conference on Poetry and Poetics of the 1990s. It was time for our famous lobster banquet. I was giddy with the company, exhausted, happy. As the banquet wound down, but before the evening readings, I shared the Power Point presentation that I, with the help and support of Kevin Killian, had been rushing to finish before everyone showed up in Orono. Steve helped as well, playing the role of sound engineer, clipping and fading the songs I had chosen as accompaniment.

You’re not coming to Orono?

Once I had the idea to do an Oscars-style In Memoriam to honor the poets we had lost, I couldn’t let go of it. I also knew that I needed Kevin Killian to help me. But when I called him to discuss it, he said that due to another commitment, he wasn’t coming to Orono. This news made me quite hysterical. I burst into tears and exclaimed, “but I wanted to do an Oscar-style In Memoriam slideshow with you!” Luckily Dodie came home later that evening, and though I don’t know exactly what transpired, Kevin called back to say “we’re coming.” Now everything was in place to make my dream a reality. At the start of the work, I sent Kevin about nine names to honor. Can you think of others, I asked? He sent me back a list of what seemed like hundreds! Kevin had the idea to represent the interim since the last NPF conference in June of 2012. He also suggested that I sometimes show the image of a writer as older first, younger second.

We’ve lost so many over this past five years. Yet I knew, for all the care, we would overlook someone. We did. I was grateful when, after the presentation, Jonathan Skinner said, “Dennis Tedlock,” and Miriam Nichols, “Benjamin Hollander.” Hollander had even come to Orono to read his work in the early aughts. Then there was the embarrassing realization that I had made a slide for Bill Knott but forgot to include it! How was it possible to be so careless? The rush, the flurry of work. I learned from Juliette Valéry that Joseph Gugliemi had died. That I hadn’t known. There are no doubt countless others. Any such memorial is instantly dated. Jack Collom died just as our conference was coming to an end. Neither Kevin nor I meant any disrespect toward those not represented here. All the makers are missed.

This tribute was shared with over a hundred poets and scholars in Orono, Maine during the NPF’s 1990s conference lobster banquet on Friday, June 30, 2017.

The Poet’s Two Bodies

Professor and Poet
Professor and Poet

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.

Reading to Flowers in Bangor (photo credit Heather Howard)
Reading to Flowers in Bangor
(photo credit Heather Howard)

 

Stephen Rodefer, November 20, 1940 — August 22, 2015

In our Providence apartment, 1992
In our Providence apartment, 1992

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 Roomand 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.

Rodefer_BooksConsensus 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.

 

Rodefer_Relics_2015Rodefer_dedication_dictionarySteve 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.

Rodefers_Websters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Jack Gilbert, “The Plundering of Circe”

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.

Mom_Dad_Mazatlan_50s_web_sm
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 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…]