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 . . .
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!
Umberto Todini, Jacqueline Risset‘s widower, sent me this poem. Unpublished in her lifetime, French and Italian versions appeared in the French magazine Poesie after her death (thanks to Todini). “Look” showcases some of the recurrent themes of Risset’s poetic and intellectual work: the desire to collapse the distances between self and other and between thought and feeling, as well as her tendency to spatialize the mind through metaphor.
Here’s my English version:
I feel the features
one could say arrows
that come here
from the shining point
picked for this action
and goes on
That which I want
is your act
to surprise the act
that which you see
elsewhere (in me)
in the heart
a protected space
where you hold
I want to enter
your body’s gesture
to see myself
from out of your eyes
governed by this
which escapes me
“Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly Soulless wobble . . .”
These lines comes from my poem “The Various Silences Lie in Shadow.” I chose to include this poem as part of my reading in Farmington, Maine—though it is difficult to read—because of this collapsing giraffe, whom I shall call “Wobbly” (in light of my recent post). I had noticed Wobbly when reconnoitering the venue: a local bookstore filled with kids’ books, toys, puzzles, rubber dinosaurs, and other cool stuff. Wobbly Giraffe is a representative of the exact object I had in mind when I wrote “Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly / Soulless wobble . . .” To see Wobbly do just this, view his star turn here.
When I wrote these lines I believed I was creating a clear image, and that the reference to “thumbing from below” was enough to lead any reader to a memory of this common, strangely cruel, toy. But, when driving back to Orono from Farmington, Steve told me that, until he saw me use Wobbly as a prop during my reading (adding humor to a distinctly unfunny poem) he had no idea what I was getting at. The image was obscure. Which leads me to wonder, how many other “clear images” have I written with nary more than a nod to some past sense-experience with an object now totally obscure?
Without the experience of this object, how might a reader understand what it means to be “thumbed from below”? Could it be read as making reference to Hart Crane’s lines in “Chaplinesque”?
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Why do we locate social acceptance and aesthetic judgment in the thumb? Thumbs up, thumbs down. To thumb one’s nose at something or someone. Why are our opposable thumbs also oppositional?
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…]
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.
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…]
George Oppen sent me to Thomas Hardy. It was these lines, from “Of Being Numerous”:
. . . But who escapes
Among these riders
Of the subway,
By now as I know
Failure and the guilt
As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas . . .
“As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas.” Oppen’s casual reference punctuates a none-too-casual confession: We all know, the “they” and the “I,” both “failure” and the guilt of it. Crushing. I heard and read these lines many times before I sought out Hardy’s “poem of Christmas.” But the thing is, Hardy wrote many poems of Christmas, all little masterpieces of failure and its guilt. Hardy’s failure lies in his inability to have faith without doubt. His Spinner of the Years—as he calls that nameless, indifferent force that determines all in “The Convergence of the Twain”—is indeed sinister. Yet Hardy is no nihilist. Otherwise, there’s no accounting for the enormous work he put into telling stories of the impoverished and ill-fated. If, as Tess says, “all is vanity,” then why bother caring about another’s misery?
The Hardy Christmas poem Oppen refers to is, of course, “The Oxen.” Here’s Oppen’s retelling of it [Read more…]