I was surprised to feel an unexpected emotional consonance between November 9, 2016 (2:30AM) and September 11, 2001. A realist stun gun. Gaping mouth, chills, fear. An imagined film reel of spectacular violence. Ballooning. A wholesale readjustment of the world one thought to have known and understood. A creeping in of an unreal “reality.” And for some more than others, the unavoidable sensation that one’s physical body was anew a liability—will these borders be respected?
My imagination ill-fitted to this news and thus was slow to accept it. It began to throw a fit. I will not be coopted by bullies, it said. That’s what they do, bullies, they force you to think about them when you fall asleep, they haunt your dreams, they greet you upon waking with a knowing snigger. They capture your imagination. That’s their power. They pick on competent and successful people who follow the rules and prefer to avoid conflict. If you’ve ever been bullied, you know this to be true. And then there’s the shock of realizing that you are actually afraid of someone you’ve never respected. You doubt yourself.
I’ve always loved Pete Seeger’s version of “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (My Thoughts Are Free). I listened to it with the utmost belief in the power of the mind to stay free, even when the body is imprisoned. But my belief in the mind’s power to stay free is not as strong as it used to be. The imagination, the poet’s stronghold, has a porous and democratic nature. It is vulnerable to fascists and bullies. “My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator” Seeger sings. But it takes an enormous discipline of mind to keep them out. A lock down of the imagination. Death to the poet.
I wrote my mid-length poem “The Occasion” (Clampdown, 2009) about an evening “a few days after the start of the war,” in this case, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I had been trying to find a way to write about that moment in a way that might capture the confusion, sadness, frustration, and divisiveness of it. But my voice was uncertain and I felt myself going silent. Then I came across John Greenleaf Whittier’s long poem “Snow-bound.” “How strange it seems, with so much gone / Of life and love, to still live on!” A perfect fit. I admired how Whittier’s narrative structure allowed for several distinct voices, how he set a scene and let the drama unfold. I tried to do the same. My narrative tells of a failure to come together, of a group of people, well-meaning, good-intentioned, imaginative people, poets, failing to find a common ground: “The war at hand had taken all our thought /and all of our imagination.” It was difficult to say anything, trapped as one felt in some perverse consensus:
of the past had marked us, for better or worse,
and no amount of preparedness or cash
could serve to save us when like targets we
stepped out into speech, powerless to know
the future or which way the tide of common
prejudice, though it be shaped by the uncommon
few, would turn at any given moment.
I’ll admit to a smallness: the worry that in this new clampdown the power of the imagination will find no quarter and all poems, obliged to resist, will cease to construct those habitable spaces of future hope we so desperately need to live. I do not care to write the poem or say the name of evil. Against the possibility that such a plea is mere “obfuscation of social and political realities in the interest of imaginative transcendence” (as Jonathan Culler reminds us many said of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), I return to Adorno’s conception that, as Culler summarizes it, “there are other ways to participate in the social than to represent it.” I must believe that poems can speak important truths that transcend their historical moment. Time, again, to dust off Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” the oddly specific title of which belies its continued relevance: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
A final thought: “The Occasion” was much about the inability to find a consensus even among friends. About the disruptive nature of ideological confusion. Since Tuesday I’ve experienced something quite different. A kind of lovely and spontaneous solidarity among the like-minded. All of us who are deeply saddened and angered by the outcome of the last election. People simply wanting to be in rooms with each other. To share. To catch a glimpse and say, with eyes, no words, “I know, me too.”
To my mind, one of the best things the internet has done for poetry is to provide heretofore unprecedented access to the poet’s voice. Sites like ubuweb, PennSound, and Archive of the Now invite us to take our poetry in through the ear. The advent of the short clip, or poem “single” (as Charles Bernstein calls it) makes it so easy to sample a poet’s work, or even to compare different performances of the same poem.
This is a monumental change. Many of us remember how precious recordings of poets used to seem: passing around bootlegged cassette tapes of the 1965 Berkeley Poetry conference or of Spicer’s Vancouver lectures; cherishing the limited (but precious!) Caedmon catalog, John Gielgud reading T. S. Eliot, Stein’s few portraits, etc. Filching covertly from archives.
Thanks to Paul Blackburn (who died on Sept 13, 45 years ago) and many others, there were lots of recordings floating around in those analog days, the problem was how to get your hands on them. I wont ever forget finding a dusty old reel-to-reel spool, not even in a box, moldering away in my late colleague Burt Hatlen’s bottom desk drawer. On that fragile tangle of shiny brown tape was a reading Robert Duncan gave in Orono, Maine in 1971. As a legendary talker, Duncan’s is a case in which the “audio oeuvre” is arguably as important as the printed page. Through his recordings we can experience the humor and charm of his uniquely syncretic mind, which can sometimes come off as rather solemn in print.
When I discovered my love for opera, I never thought to wonder how this strange form of “musical drama” came into being. I fell hard and instantly, and, as with any coup de foudre worthy the name, rather than put my passion under scrutiny, I marveled at its previous absence: a kind of “where have you been all my life” followed by the censure of all who knew about the existence of such sublimity and yet had kept me in the dark! I would come to understand my love for opera as connected to my proclivity for high artifice and the kind of performed femininity (the diva) most appreciated by a certain kind of gay man. Indeed, my early education in the form was largely conducted by gay male friends. Years after Carmen—the first opera I saw—bewitched me, I discovered myself to be a poet, but I made no connection between the word art I practiced and the musical drama I consumed. But this was a mistake. For poetry and opera have, as Pound wrote of himself and Whitman, “one sap and one root.” The ancient tree from which they both grew was incited to the “movement of meaning through time” by the figure of Orpheus.
Orpheus was there at the birth of lyric poetry, the demi-god whose severed head washed up on the banks of Lesbos and set Sappho to singing. He was also there at the birth of opera. Written in Italy during the first decade of the seventeenth century, the first three musical dramas (later called operas) were all based on his story. Orpheus the lover and Orpheus the musician certainly proved attractive to Renaissance composers, yet I believe that they were also drawn to his identity as poet. For the birth of opera heralded a new respect for words in the musical world. Emerging in the midst of the dominance of forms written for several voices layered one over the other, such as the madrigal, this “new monadic musical style” was invented to showcase the “single vocal line.” Instrumentation, no longer the star, would accompany, enhance, and emphasize the words. This was necessary for the success of opera not only as a musical composition, but as drama. A story was being told. A story which, through music, could utilize emotion more affectingly than spoken drama.
In the past, the raw singularity of an individual’s emotional life had been represented most compellingly by lyric poetry (see what Longinus has to say about Sappho). In antiquity lyrics—as the way we still use the term betrays—were performed with music. But this music sounded nothing like opera, nor like contemporary popular song. Because classical prosody was quantitative, that is to say, written in a fixed pattern of long and short syllables, musical accompaniment did not effect the rhythm of such poetic compositions.  Thus in Sappho’s time, poems were not set to music, but rather the other way around. When we see those images of her and Alcaeus holding the lyre or barbitos, we shouldn’t imagine them bending their vocal lines or crooning a couplet like the guitar-wielding singer-songwriter of today. Instead we should hear, behind the dominant rhythm of the poetic line, a gentle strum, a breeze of inspiration. The music’s duty was to “augment the clarity of the sung words.” Something like this same goal, along with a theory that, though all the music was lost, Greek drama had been sung, inspired those Florentine and Mantuan Renaissance musicians and poets to create, almost by accident, the alchemical goldmine of music and poetry we now call opera.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that when I set about writing my first libretto, I too would be led back to the myth of Orpheus? It was spring of 2012. Composer, and now friend, Beth Wiemann approached me about working together on a chamber opera. After I recovered from the initial swoon of being invited to work in an art form I had so long loved, I began mulling over possible subject matter. My first idea was to write about the love affair between John Ruskin and Rose La Touche, but at this suggestion Beth looked dismayed (it turns out, there already isan opera about this Victorian episode!). An adaption of H. D.’s novel Bid Me To Live—which tells the story of H. D.’s near-romance with D. H. Lawrence—swam up as idea number two. Beth, whose musical allegiances are modernist-influenced, was more amenable to H. D.’s melancholy tale of bohemian writers caught up in the trauma of WWI. Green lighted, I set about redacting Bid Me To Live, a roughly 200-page roman à clef, into a 25-page libretto (which, after all, means “little book”). I did not think about Orpheus. But he showed up. Poetry, I’ve learned, takes a devilish pleasure in eclipsing our intentions. Orpheus appears in Bid Me To Live as the subject of a piece of writing that Julia (H.D.’s avatar) has shared in a letter to Rico (D. H. Lawrence). Julia’s long Orphic text ends with a plea from Eurydice: “Let me taste no blood-red seed, no, let me say this last, last word to make the severance complete. Go, Orpheus, look not back.” The hyperbaton of “look not back” becomes a point of contention for Rafe (Aldington), who finds the syntax too Victorian. The text functions as a plot point, a clue in a drama of jealously. Rico, for whom it was written in a spirit of identification and affection, critiques Julia for writing about a man. “How can you know what Orpheus feels? It’s your part to be woman, the woman vibration, Eurydice should be enough.” His criticism eerily rhymes with our times’ suspicion of the possibility of empathic representation across somatic borders—but in this historical instance the power is going in the wrong direction. Today it would be Julia’s right to critique Rico, not the other way around. Yet in H. D.’s novel her character comes, by her own accord, to agree with Rico’s critique. Dropping the male perspective entirely, the voice in H. D.’s poem “Eurydice” channels female rage. Is this why it still feels relevant, especially to young female readers? In the face of gender inequity the ability to think analogically, to remember that we are all ontologically connected, seems as remote as it did in the 1970s when people spoke of the “battle of the sexes.”
Yet the Orpheus of Renaissance opera is not only spared Eurydice’s rage, he gets to have her back. Their coupledom is completed and happy. The first opera, Jacobo Peri’s Euridice (1600), with libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, was composed to celebrate Maria de’ Medici’s marriage to King Henry IV of France. It was performed with “limited scenery for a small audience” in some private rooms within Florence’s Pitti Palace. In order to make the story suitable to a happy occasion, Rinuccini removed Hades’s prohibition on the backward glance. Without a taboo to break, Orpheus was allowed to “male gaze” on his love to his heart’s delight while leading her out of the underworld. They live happily ever after. Guilio Caccini’s Euridice (1600) used the same libretto, and thus the couple found the same happiness. The third opera to be written, Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) is the most successful of the three, and thanks to the Early Music revival, still in repertory. The libretto, by Alessandro Striggio, also arranges for a happy ending. In this version, however, Orpheus does lose his beloved for a second time because of a backward glance, but then, in classic deus ex machina fashion, Apollo intervenes and lifts Orpheus to heaven to be with his Eurydice. The Greek Orpheus is rewarded with Christian rhetoric: “for he obtains grace in heaven / who down below braved the inferno / and he who sows in sorrow / reaps the fruits of grace.” Though arguably a celebration in heaven is easier staged than the myth’s more typical ending (brutal dismemberment of the poet by angry Bacchantes) these operatic reworkings, far from perverting the myth, may have unconsciously returned to an earlier version of it. Evidence suggests Orpheus’s failure to retrieve of Eurydice, so important in the story as it has come down to us, so emblematic of our belief that men and women can never understand each other or be happy together, may have been a later development created in order to remove Orpheus’s powers as prophet and psychopomp.
Alas, no happy ending or love reunions are in store for the characters in Until the War Is Over, the name of the chamber opera Beth and I based on H. D.’s Bid Me To Live. It is a modernist account of a woman becoming an artist, and as a result the seams between her and the men in her life begin to fray. Not long after the period the book covers H. D. will be making a new life, with her longtime female partner, Bryher. A chamber opera is a merely a shorter opera written for a small ensemble. In this case: flute, piano, alto sax, double bass, and electronic sounds. In my libretto I unlocked H. D.’s roman à clef, restoring the names of the historical personages the characters were based on. In addition to language and scenes from her novel, I also used language from several of her poems, including “Hermes of the Ways” and “Eurydice.” Many modern operatic works are similar to the early musical dramas mentioned above in that the composition is not separated so neatly into aria (the emotional song) and recitative (the talky narrative bits) but instead follows a continuous melodic flow of the vocal line. This is most suitable to the words of a writer like H. D., written with a great subtlety of rhythm, without rhyme or meter. It is notable to those of us committed to the tradition of “speech-based” poetries, that the composers of the first three operas were hoping, with their new techniques, to come closer to representing natural speech, the result however, like the poems of even the most ardent of “speech-based” poets, is unquestionably art.
Selections from Until the War is Over are scheduled to be performed with “limited scenery for a small audience” in the public rooms of University of Maine’s black box theatre this coming Thursday.
 Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh 10-12. In a reading of Ovid’s version of the myth Silverman argues that “Orpheus’s repudiation of Eurydice dramatizes man’s inability to love women; his retreat to a remote location symbolizes the latter’s increasing solitude; the dismemberment of his body signifies the salutary disintegration of the male ego; and his descent to Hades and reunion with Eurydice stands for the arrival of the heterosexual couple” (10)
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 . . .