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…]

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.

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…]