Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hey Jack Gilbert, Where Are You Going With That Empty Tin Bucket?

I work retail, and this season of buying and lists, demands and the wrapping of the many many gifts, (I could giftwrap a book in my sleep) and waiting on people, and trying to be friendly and upbeat, well. It's taken its toll.  Which is to say that I keep wanting to post things here but end up at night drained of the energy to focus. But here's a good thing: I write a first draft of a poem almost every day on my train ride to work. And another: I do still read a lot.  Although on the train on the way home, after a long day of retail hell, playing Angry Birds on my I-phone is the only thing to soothe an over-the-whole thing savage breast.

But I did want to take the time to tell you that one of the very best books of poetry published this year is Jack Gilbert's Collected Poems. Stark, without self pity, and beautiful in the way a well-made bowl or a wooden chair is beautiful: they do the work they were designed to do.  As always happens when I fall in love with a poet's work, my own poems start trying to sound like the work I love.  And that's okay.  Maybe, like Gilbert, I will be unabashed and unashamed to use words like love and heart and yearn. Like silence and music and rivers and God. And the moon, of course, that old dinner plate left on the table after the dinner party's long over.

Here is one of the many elegies Gilbert, who just died, wrote for his wife:

MICHIKO NONGAMI (1946 - 1982)

Is she any more apparent because she is not
anymore forever? Is her whiteness more white
because she was the color of pale honey?
A smokestack making the sky more visible.
A dead woman filling the whole world. Michiko
said, "The roses you gave me kept me awake
with the sound of their petals falling."

Here's a diving board to begin learning more about Jack Gilbert.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Concise Guidebook Contains Everything

The Concise Guidebook Contains Everything

I feel, dear November, a thinness beginning.

Your sky today insists on the color of rooming house sheets.

Enough of polls—no one polls the sparrows on who should rule the world.

The white roses still in bloom on Summerdale Avenue, do they clarify the nature of November morning light?

The concise guidebook contains everything you need to identify seventeen varieties of cloud.

I was dwelling past midnight in the house of your silence.

Why wear the color of blood at all, unless you want to attract the attentions of every hungry wolf?

Sometimes the empty bus arrives just in time.

All my ducks are in a row, they just need to be nudged until they waddle.

We live every moment in the grand perhaps.

The wolves might howl but they cannot get in.

I’d like to state for the record that all the birds of the world at last belong to me.

Enough of elections—the trees did not vote on the closing of the day.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Dark Snakes Coiled on the Cover

It's been a startlingly long time since I've posted anything here. I plead work, (Oh those very long days, and loss of the self  and goals as I fret over job stuff) I plead a new house and all the attendant duties and tasks involved.  But here I am back.  With several enthusiasms to share:

1.  Mary Ruefle's new book, Madness, Rack, and Honey.  I already posted once about this book. If it does not get you excited by the art and craft of poetry, then  I give up. Here are two snippets from her essay "On Secrets" that I love:

"The words secret and sacred are siblings."


"Colette calls a poem, 'that secret, that scar, that sin.' James Tate uses as an epigraph for one of his books a line by James Salter: 'Here, then, faintly discolored and liable to come apart if you touch it, is the corsage that I kept from the dance.'"

See?  Just write for five minutes about the word corsage and all it conjures for you, and then get back to me.

2. Dobby Gibson's forthcoming book It Becomes You from Graywolf Press.  I got a sneak peak at this thanks to the fine folks at Graywolf when I hit them up for new books at a recent bookselling conference.  I may not get a lot of financial reward as a bookseller, but I sure get a lot of free books.  Dobby Gibson is Billy Collins if Mr. Collins were a generation younger, a tad more adventurous, and stopped writing poems about writing poems. (Note to Billy Collins: you have used up your allotment of poems about writing poems.) One of the many delights of Gibson's book is the poem "40 Fortunes," which will make you want to run away and become a fortune cookie writer.  But what's the use, Dobby is already in that room, his lips pursed in concentration as pens your future on that wee rectangle:

"Only fools ride the rain facing backwards."

"No matter who walks with you into the woods, you walk into the woods alone."

"Do not aspire to be the tiger. Aspire to be the sparrow who sits upon the tiger's back."

3.  Karen Finneyfrock's forthcoming YA novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door.  For my job as a buyer for an independent bookstore, I read a LOT of YA novels, and I am allergic to books about teens who want to be poets, or think they are poets, and let's also throw in there YA novels-in-verse, which are so hard to do well that the writing of them should be rationed.  Finneyfrock's (and isn't that about the best last name ever) book is thankfully NOT in verse.  It's told in the voice of Celia, a girl who, due to the general (and specific) shittness and mean-spiritedness of her high school peers, has decided to be "dark." To dress darkly, to remain apart, and be a poet.  Like many high school girls suddenly befriended by a hot cool boy of her dreams, Celia finds that instead of the boyfriend she wanted, she has a gay best friend. Unlike many novels of this sort--the whole oh-my-god-he's-gay-and-why-didn't-I-know part is quick and easy. Celia has a friend, suddenly, something that's been lacking in her life.  She's been bullied, and hurt, she wants (very understandably) revenge, and her voice, and the poems in her voice, will win you over.

4. Slow Lightning, by Eduardo C. Corrall.

The dark snakes coiled on the cover gave me a good feeling about this book--Corral is inventive, he is not shy about changing form and pattern, and the only poet I can think of to compare him to is Lorca, for his passion, commitment, and dedication to the song of the work.  (And I jut now looked at his blog, which says, "Eduardo Corral is the love child of Robert Hayden and Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca." So I guess he won't mind the Lorca comparison." This is a book of complexity--with layers of discomfort and arousal built into poems of sex, gender, shame, and homosexual love that are astonishing in their power.  I am going to return to this book again and again.  I can't imagine quoting from a poem without either giving you the whole thing or giving you the poems around it for reference.  So how about if I just share a few of his great titles:

"In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes"

"Self-Portrait With Tumbling and Lasso"

"All the Trees of the Field Shall Clap Their Hands"

All the time I have been away I have been grabbing snippets of time, mostly on the train on my way to work, to write poetry.  Today I had to stay home in case the house painters needed anything, so I have been at the keyboard al day, typing rough drafts from yellow legal pads into the form of rough drafts on a laptop, and it felt industrious and pleasurable.  I hope some of these (short for me) poems will be out in the world on webpages and paper pages before too long.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"And what were they anyway, sprigs of grass, things of blue?"

I have been interested in whatever poet Mary Ruefle might have to say ever since I discovered her book A Little White Shadow,  a poetry collection that was the facsimile of a small novel that she herself found in a thrift store and with the aid of white-out, used to reveal small, beautiful, and disquieting poems. Now from Wave Books we have her collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, a book I've dropped everything else for.  You can find more of her erasure works on her website, and I bet you'll want to rush out and find the perfect book that you can use to simultaneously obscure and uncover.  It is in the corner of the junk shop, it lives at the bottom of a box at the next garage sale you see.

Here she speaks in the lecture "Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World."

There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

Her lecture "I Remember, I Remember" is the best homage and
riff on Joe Brainard's I Remember that I can remember:

I remember reading Rilke's Duine Elegies again and again and again, until I "got" them, until something burst over me like a flood, and I remember, once again, weeping and weeping with a book in my hands.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Presently the Teacup Stirred

I am missing out on a reading/discussion on James Merrill and his masterpiece, The Changing Light at Sandover next week.  But that does not mean you have to.  Here's some information on the event, and a bit of what I had to say on Merrill, thanks to the queries of Kathleen Kirk.

And here's Richard Fox saying things more cogently than I:

Finally, here's the man Merrill himself, reading a poem about using the Ouija board for the first time.

(As an aside, did you know that "Ouija" was just the French yes and ther German yes put together, because someone at Milton Bradley thought it made a foreign and mystical-sounding word?  it's better, at any rate, than communicating with the spirits on your yes-yes board.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

If that bird muttered with an old man’s throat.

Hooray for the approach of fall.  I sat outside today at my local cafe, feeling urban and writerly as I drank a cappuccino and a glass of red wine and wrote in my notebook.  It turned out that I filled up the notebook, writing the last three pages, which feels like an ending, but also a beginning, which is the way fall feels to me. It was nearly 90 today in Chicago, and as I wrote I heard the whap whap whop of people walking by in their flip-flops. But the elm tree in my front yard knows what's coming, it is already shedding some brown saw-edged leaves.  Tonight I am fiddling with a manuscript.  Here's a poem from it that feels (to me) like a fall poem:

Postcard for the Soul That at Last Became a Bird

a warm afternoon:
a crow

stalks the shade beneath
a sycamore tree,

at some kind of meat
in the grass.  If
your soul

became a bird.
If that bird muttered
with an old man’s

throat.  If there’s a soul.
If the crow
found a treasure,

a beakful, a bone.
The soul’s search,
the crow’s

hunger.  The luck
of the scrap. The force
of the stab.

The pluck and rasp
of those black
scissors. Crows,

their voices. Crows
in the branches
like a wicked boys choir.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What About the Moon?

I looked up and saw the full moon tonight and remembered this poem from the archives:

Postcard Written at Montrose Harbor

If God exists then God loves the crows; they gather like soldiers
around the flooded portions of the municipal golf course; and if
there’s a God, then God loves the black water

and the worms therein; and God might love the sweet
high notes on the violin, and the man, his violin case
a mouth and hungry on the sidewalk—although

I only allow for a God who loves what I love,
God loves the night because I love night, and the crows,
and the glint of dark water, my God loves broken voices,

an old woman sings a childhood hymn while she fishes for carp
in Montrose Harbor—rats in the garbage, I can imagine
a God who loves rats, for their tunneling, their stewardship:

sticks, refuse, crusts, a fierce attachment to the scraps
of the world—One might love an ash tree’s yellow leaves,
how they pave the sidewalk just after a storm, one might love

birds, or blood, screams, or explosions. God
loves the darkness, because
what about the moon?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Notes from The Book of Light

Exciting news!  The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton is coming out this fall. Ever since I discovered her work in the early 1990s, Clifton has been a major deity in my poetry pantheon. Denise Levertov said of Clifton's work:

"Poems after poem exhilarates and inspires awe at the manifestation of such artistic and spiritual power."

Even more than Levertov, Clifton could be so compact and succinct.  I don't know of another American poet who uses five and dime words--the vocabulary of the everyday--to build such palaces of language.


          was my first landscape
          red brown as the clay
          of her georgia.
          sweet attic of a woman,
          repository of old songs.
          there was such music in her;
          she would sit, shy as a wren
          humming alone and lonely
          amid broken promises,
          amid the sweet broken bodies
          of birds.

You can see Lucille Clifton read her work here.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri

I try, every summer, to take a break from all the reading of contemporary fiction I do.  As a bookseller, part of my job is to keep up on what's new, or what will be new soon.  Perhaps 80% of my reading is advance reading copies ("ARCS" in pub-speak) that publishers send out to booksellers in the hopes that we will fall in love with a book and promote it and hand-sell it when it is actually published.  I reached a point about a decade ago where I realized that other than a few poetry collections, all I ever, ever read (at my usual pace of 3-6 books a week) were books that were still three months away from being published.  Among other things, this makes it difficult to talk about books with friends, even book-loving friends:

"What are you reading these days?"
"Oh, this book called Emerald Snake in the Tall Dry Grass--It's a great novel about ghosts, and sisters, and how small town America is both a haven and  a trap...really great stuff, like Faulkner and J.D. Salinger had a baby."
"Sounds great, I bet I'd like it."
"You probably would.  But it doesn't come out until next March, and I already loaned my copy to a co-worker."   (Conversation ends here.)

To help combat ARC-only reading, and to help fill in some of the many gaps in my education and reading history, I decided to use the summer (later shortened to August) to read  works by an author I didn't know very well.  I've had summer romances with Dickens, with Edith Wharton, with Willa Cather, and with the entire New York Review Classics series--all sorts of excellent titles that had been out of print, until someone stood up and said, "Hey. This needs to be back in the world and on book shelves."  Well-known writers nominate books to be re-published and write introductions for them.    When I started at a new bookstore I got out of my summer classics habit. This summer I decided to not let the time slot slip by, and reluctantly, and with a great deal of hemming, delay, and trepidation, started to read Moby-Dick.  (It was either that or
cracking open my still wrapped-in-plastic editions of Proust.)

And I am loving it.  Somehow I had the impression it was a "difficult" work, dense, verbose, and, well, boring.  I didn't expect the short prose-poemy chapters, or humor, or a rolling and rollicking sea of delightful language.  Here, I am going to describe the town, Melville says, and he takes a chapter and does just that. Here's a church, here's a pastor, here's his sermon--each gets a chapter.

Maybe things will get muddier as Ahab and Company get further from land and as the Great White Whale himself first surfaces. Maybe I should not yet be proclaiming a very public love for Melville's masterpiece. It's only page 188, for Pete Squeaks.  But hear ye oh my friends and Fellow Sailors, my deckhands and lordlings and ladies of Ocean the Mighty--this so far is a delightful voyage out.  Maybe I was supposed to wait to read Melville until I myself had been out on the ocean and saw whales, glorious city buses, rising up, sleek and monstrous and beautiful, out of deep water mere feet from the (suddenly small) boat that carried me. Two summers ago off Provincetown I got to do that.

And while I heard it before, I never knew for sure what the word confabulations meant until today when I read it and had Mr. Google help me look it up. Thanks Herman, for that and so many other fine soundings:

"Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' beds, unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way!"

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


I wrote a poem on the train this morning. I'll wait a few days to look at it again, with new eyes. I have a feeling it's not very good. But that's ok. It felt right, to have my pen and notebook in front of me, and feel like the words were flowing out smoothly. The other day I taught a writing workshop with two little girls in the bookstore where I work. They were sisters, and the youngest wanted to write a story with chapters. I took dictation, each chapter was named for an animal and a sentence or two long. "Chapter Two. Tigers. The tiger is very pretty and wants to go to the store. His favorite food is pickles. His name is Pickles, too."

I had been talking about words, about falling in love with individual words; we wrote words down on post-its and put them on a word-tree. I think I knew right there, writing down the word "pickles" and smiling because who could not love that word, that I was back into poetry. Like swimming again, like water, like waves. It's been a while, and I felt great, diving back into the word pool.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Selections from a Commuter's Notebook

1. Mornings
when the first

seeds flurry down across
lawns and

gather at curbsides and
among the yellow
irises, mornings

like this--Night
to take in the moon,

it remains
a white stone
in the pool of the sky.

2. Morning
is what the starlings

as they pick at the chaff
of the newly
mown lawn, while

ambling dogs, grey
of muzzle, sniff
the weed beds

for news: summer,
dare we say it, becomes

and insistent
in this patch
of the world. God

cracks the knuckles
of his grass
stained hands.

3. The Lawn
of Rosehill
Cemetery already

gone flat
and golden though
it's not yet July--

In this encampment,
do you hear a murmured

from the pup tents of the dead?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Visit From the Hummingbird Moth

I guess I had heard of the hummingbird moth, but I never saw one until yesterday evening. I was talking with my mom on the phone; I was doing this on the back porch because the day had been so hot and the evening was, if not cool, at least cooler. This creature, this messenger appeared--I though it was a hummingbird at first, nosing into the petunias in the planters along the railing, but it moved too slow for a hummingbird, you could see the wingbeats even though they were still incredibly fast. I ran inside, still on the phone with Mom, and gestured to Darren to come outside and look.  He caught the urgency of my gesture and we were both able to watch the fellow dipping his feeding tube into our flowers--five six seven blooms, and then he lifted up and zoomed away into the deepening blue dusk over the rooftops. Son of a moth and an bird's illicit union?  Messenger from the realm of oncoming and ongoing dream? Fantastic, at any rate, in several senses of the word. I felt lucky to have been visited by this missionary.

Here's a borrowed video of what my visitor looked like.  Ours had different coloring but the general size and form were the same.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The School of Orpheus is not in any Building

Ann Wroe wrote the book on Orpheus, that magician, demi-god, philosopher, priest, poet, singer, that inspiration, that tragedy, that Argonaut, that sacrificial lamb. Her new book, Orpheus, The Song of Life, is dedicated to everyone who protested, "But Orpheus isn't real."  Using everything from texts from antiquity to poems and paintings from the present day, Wroe demonstrates that an archetype, despite all the blurring of boundaries and definitions  (Was Orpheus based on a real person?  Was he a king?  A Poet?  Did he study at Alexandria?  Did he live in Thrace, or the mountains further north?) despite all the questions, Orpheus is a Being, an Idea, with a lasting influence, a man real enough to inspire uncounted poems, songs, operas, mosaics, paintings, plays, and happenings.  As for scholarly works about the big O, I very much doubt that a better one will be coming along soon. Wroe is learned and erudite, a writer whose mastery of her prose makes the reader feel, this reader, at least, that he's found a text that becomes both a home (comfortable) and a way-station, a place that has the potential to be the start of any number of journeys. Whether you are planning on a trip to Hades to retrieve your one true love, or you want to discover ways to be the enchanted singer of your age--and who at one time or another has not wanted to have a voice that moved the very trees to dance--this is the book you need.  Poets of all sorts, here is Anne Wroe on Orpheus:

  The public square was always foreign to him. His school was not in any building, though the boys sitting now on temple steps, smoking and listening to their iPods, may jiggle with the sense of him, as he slides through shaded doorways on the waves of balalaika music kicked up from passing cars. The forest was always his place, or among the rocks; in secret, and most often in the dark.

Here she is describing how Orpheus sang a song that made a forest uproot itself, great trees following behind him like eager dogs:

    He led them, then -- scarcely daring to turn, in case they froze behind him -- swaying and stumbling from rock to rock, their canopies full of sky and threshing wings, until they reached Zone on the Aegean Sea. There, in an open space, they arranged themselves in a double ring as though they meant to dance in a spiral, like the planets around the sun. But though he urged them to dance, though he challenged them, laughing and splashing, to follow him into the sea with their hundred hydra arms, they moved no more. Having staggered so far, astonished by the wide blue glare ahead of them, they felt the music leave them, and rooted there.
     He could only lead them so far. That is still the case.

I am eager to find out where Wroe's terrific book might lead me.

Orpheus playing for the beasts. The unicorn looks particularly enthralled.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Paging George Abend

I am delighted to have work included in the current issue of Right Hand Pointing.  Always a fine journal to page through.

I also got a copy of the recent Bluestem in the mail--I love having my work at on line journals, but to have the mailman bring me a journal in the mail, and there's the issue, with my name in print, and my bio in the back--well, it's still very gratifying to me, and somehow still more exciting than seeing a poem up on line. Not to knock on line work--Bluestem also published my ode to a snowy night on their web version.You can hear me read it to you there, in case you are too tired to focus on the words on the screen.

Sarah Jane Sloat has some of her poems exploring invented typefaces up at Used Furniture Review. When I read these, it reminded me of her wine descriptions, and made me wish I'd thought of a series like this before she did.  But then, Sarah's writing is so elegant that I guess I can just be glad that she wrote them; my job is just to share the love.

In other news, I got a copy of Lew Welch's recently reissued Collected Poems, Ring of Bone.  Welch is one of the lesser know poets of the Beat/San Francisco Renaissance era, and I'm very happy to be reading and re-reading these poems.  He was a friend of Gary Snyder's, wrote about his affinity for Gertrude Stein, and in his work paid homage to great poets of China and Japan. I'll try and post more about him when I've gone through the book a couple more times.

Ok, I'm off to NYC for the big bookselling conference--flying out at 6 AM tomorrow morning--so I'll leave with this:

     John said, "Then I met that short fat guy with the 
     neat little beard, with a name like dawn."

     "You mean George Abend?"


      Abend means evening."

                                         Lew Welch, from "Circle Poems" in Ring of Bone.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Three Reviews (in the form of plays) of "50 American Plays" by Matthew and Michael Dickman

 The Fourth of July

          Wonder twins--power of absurdity.

          Wonder twins--power of brevity.

           Wonder twins-- power of vaguely political leftist polemics.

          And fun, wonder twin.  Don't forget it was fun to write.

          Activate wonder twin power!

          Activate wonder twin power!

(They touch power rings and immediately explode into a finale of Fourth of July fireworks)

Castor and Pollux Consider the Moon

          Wasn't there an oil named after me?

          We are boxers, and horsemen.  And sailors.

           Do I get to be the immortal one this time?

          We are twins, and so share our immortality.

          (Having just arrived from Idaho)
          I'll box both of you at once. Greek pussies.

          He thinks he's the immortal one.

          Maybe he is.  But we are the divine twins, born of the silver moon!

          That was an egg.

           No, no, I'm sure it was the moon.  Our glittery mother!

          Our mother was a princess who was raped by a swan.

          Are we going to talk about the past or are we going to drink like men?
          It's like they are going to start making out at any minute.

          You so badly want to see that.  But we are talking about our mother.
           Isn't there some tradition where people thought she was the moon?

          In at least one tradition Ernest Hemingway is actually Zeus.

            Yes, Hemingway's tradition. Listen, we will box you if you take the form of a swan.


(Two men walk in to a bar. Allen Ginsberg and Gertrude Stein are drinking there in silence, companionably.)

MAN #1.
          Hey, aren't you Gertrude Stein?  What are you doing back in America?

          America is not in America.  America is an idea kept under a gentleman's cap. America is a cupful of brass tacks, in a lady's handbag.
(She sips her creme de menthe, and coughs)
          America, go touch yourself with your atom bomb.

MAN #2.
          Allen Ginsberg--that woman is stealing your line.  And she isn't even saying it right!

          (Taking his head off the pillow of his arms)
          That's no woman, that's my wife!

(Frank O'Hara walks briskly across the stage in search of a martini)

MAN #1.
          Frank O'Hara in the bar too?  What are the chances?

MAN #2.
          Frank O'Hara is on stage in all of these plays. Or sometimes behind the scenery, prompting our lines. That reminds me.  (He goes over to the jukebox and selects a song)

          (When "Chances Are" begins playing, the two men look at Stein and Ginsberg, now deep in quiet conversation.  They shrug, and begin to dance with each other.)


Monday, May 7, 2012

I remember "I Remember" and now I remember reading "The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard"

I just got done reading The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard.  (With a lovely introduction by Paul Auster) Which led me to re-read Ron Padgett's warm and touching memoir of his friendship with artist and writer Brainard, called Joe, which led me to pull out a coffee table book, Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, so I could look again at his wonderful work.  I am particularly drawn to collage, and Brainard did tons of work in collage--in his amphetamine-fueled years he produced thousands of works.

I think what attracts me to the art, as well as to his writing, is its sheer likability. Brainard talks a lot in his written work about wanting to be liked.  In the writing this doesn't come off as preciousness, or over-eagerness. The reason I Remember has become such a classic is because of the works' humor and lack of pretension or artifice--each statement starts with the plain-spoken and practical "I remember," followed by an image or memory that might be mundane, or it might be touching in its vulnerability:
I remember running  for vice-president and giving a campaign speech wearing my baby blue garbardine pants. I lost. That was junior high school.

I remember that nobody ever knew what to give Aunt Ruby on special occasions so everyone always gave her some stationary or scarves or handkerchiefs or boxes of fancy soap.

I remember daydreams of being a girl and the beautiful formals I would have.

The beauty of the Collected Writings is that there's so much more to see.  I Remember is what Brainard will be remembered for, at least in the realm of the written word, but this collection of journals, jottings, collaborations, and experiments shows he was more than a one-hit wonder.  Here, in its entirety, is "No Story."

I hope you have enjoyed not reading this story as much as I have enjoyed not writing it.

He reminds me, sometimes, of Gertrude Stein.  Here are three of the "Twenty-three Mini Essays":

He was at the airport when his ship came in.

Poetry is that certain something we so often find missing.

                   INSTANT DIVORCE 
The marriage was so brief they had nothing to fight over but the cake.


Here's a three minute introduction to Joe Brainard, courtesy of YouTube:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fling Yourself Into the World: Smart Things Other People Said

"And for god’s sakes, don’t write every day. That’s the worst advice I’ve been given. What a terrible thing to advise a poet. To write every day is to pry apart, on a daily basis, the mind’s most terrible crevices. You can trick yourself into believing it is a herculean act, nearly crusade-like. But one can only burn at both ends for so long. Save the poems, let them grow inside you, like a pregnancy, and when the water breaks, nothing can stop it.  Also, there’s no such thing as writer’s block—don’t sell yourself short with such an excuse. If you have nothing to say, put down the pen, go outside, and fling yourself into the world. It’s waiting for you." -- Ocean Voung, in Pank.

"Negative capability, Keats called it—to dwell with uncertainty without grasping after an easy solution. A poem often asks us to dwell there, and it’s unbearable, especially if you have no practice, if you don’t read or if you don’t go off by yourself and sit alone for a while. Even those of us who write, we’re often rushing around. So this dwelling, not fully comprehending something instantly, is very difficult. Anything that pushes us into the depths of our being is very hard to bear. I find it hard to bear. Sometimes I open a book that’s so beautiful I have to shut it because it hurts me. I can’t stand it. It’s like, Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! This is going to drive me into my own heart. A day or two days later I’m saying, All right, and I just surrender to it: Do it to me. Go ahead. I want it. I don’t want it. I want it. I don’t want it." -- Marie Howe, in AGNI online.

"The New York School poets made collaboration look fun, and it is.  It’s stimulating, too, opens me up, keeps me spontaneous, responsive.  Maybe in the way letter writing used to?  Only you’re creating something together.  I find it very exciting.  My collaborative projects stem from my friendships with other poets—they’re an extension of those friendships.  By Myself, which I wrote with D.A. Powell, came out of a late night telephone conversation.  It was Doug’s idea, to piece together an autobiography out of sentences from a myriad of celebrity autobiographies.  He called it a 'Trinidad-esque' idea.  So I suggested we write it together.  And we did.  He provided one sentence, I provided the next, and off we went, alternating sentences—an exhilarating tug-of-war.  I often laughed out loud when I received his sentences via email." --David Trinidad, in Sonora Review.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Getting Rough With the Good China: A Bit About the Work of Carl Phillips

I used to be enthralled with the work of poet Carl Phillips.  His poems often seemed to be loose translations from fragments of the ancient Greek, and I loved their broken beauty, like pottery in shards. Speaking of pottery in shards, just after I wrote that I opened up his 1992 collection In the Blood to these lines:

I can picture him
getting rough with the good china,

how I'll feel about that.

                                             (from the poem "Goods")

After some years I stopped buying his books, which appear with a frequency other poets might envy.  His subject, nearly always, is desire, and more than that, the ineffable quality of desire: why do we want what we want, and how to describe it? Whether the "it" be sex, or power, the will to dominate or the need to be dominated, the longing for love--these things are, if we are honest, nearly indescribable in language, and Phillips so often resorted to the indeterminate: "as if" or "it seemed as if". Despite the fact that I agree that desire--what we desire, how desire functions, what desire means--despite the fact that I agree that these are topics are nearly impossible to describe, how a landscape evokes feeling, why a certain sight makes us gasp, or feel pain, or regret, why the sight of a stranger can evoke such alarming lust, despite the fact that I agree that all of this is nearly impossible to talk about, I tired of Phillips' recognition and embrace of this difficulty, in the form of refusing to make a declaration.

In a 2010 interview in he says, "There was a review that talked about how my sentences are constantly self-questioning and doubting, as if that were something weird. But that’s simply how I am in real life, whether on the page or in a supermarket."

I think I wanted him to bluster, and pose, and state something like a fact.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Man oh Man that Marie Howe. I tell you

I don't know why it never occurred to me before to watch a video of her reading. She has long been 
one of my poetry goddesses.

Monday, April 16, 2012

If There Was a Caution Sign You Took No Heed

I've been fond of the online journal Right Hand Pointing for a while now, and not just because the editors have put me in it a couple times.   RHP specializes in very short poems, and I enjoy the challenge for myself of whittling a poem down the the absolute essential.  It (they?) also publishes and promotes prose poems, that grey area where prose and poetry meet and shake hands, or wrestle, or smooch.

The digital chapbook side of the endeavor is called White Knuckle Press.  Here's "Fog," by Stephani Schaefer, from her short-short collection Coming in For a Landing. Go on and read the rest of the collection now.  Go on, I'll wait right here.  (The fog image is borrowed from this fine blog of images from my home state of Michigan.)


One day you walk off into fog. If there was a caution sign you took no heed. Others are here, wrapped in their private clouds. This is the writing life. Prepare yourself for years of wandering, drawn to back roads and footpaths, then marshland without a path, steeped in fog.
One day you go up your back steps and wonder if this is your house after all, and this your chair. Safe in the warm circle of light falling on a page, you look up. Your dog is watching you, his gaze so intense you might be a small animal.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Where the Meanings Begin

The sky goes to slate blue in the evening.  I am always a fan of walking. I like thinking and walking.  The reason I like my job is because it requires a 20 minute walk to the train every morning (while the rabbits are finishing snacks on lawns and sometimes a Cooper's hawk flies up Winnemac Avenue) and I walk home as the day is closing, and all the people having just arrived home are walking their eager dogs. I get a lot of ideas for poems while walking. Last night, on the way home from the train, after a 12 hour day, I suddenly had a new idea of how I could make the young adult novel I've been daydreaming about and thinking of turn into something new and different.  Today I was finishing an advance reading copy of Paul Auster's forthcoming Winter Journal, and I was so happy (as I read this section in my local Italian restaurant) that I took a sip of wine and stopped and the whole world stopped and looked out the window at the sky:

"In order to do what you do, you need to walk. Walking is what brings the words to you, what allows you to hear the rhythms of the words as you write them in your head. One foot forward, and then the other foot forward, the double drumbeat of your heart. Two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two feet. This, and then that. That, and then this. Writing begins in the body, it is the music of the body, and even if the words have meaning, can sometimes have meaning, the music of the words is where the meanings begin. You sit at your desk in order to write down the words, but in your head you are still walking, always walking, and what you hear is the rhythm of your heart, the beating of your heart. Mandelstam: 'I wonder how many pairs of sandals Dante wore out while working on the Commedia.' Writing as a lesser form of dance."

Walk on, Paul Auster, up and down the hectic and the peaceful and the shaded streets of Brooklyn.

On a recent morning walk to the train: an encounter with plum blossoms.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A whistling old man

Something I discovered while looking at the poetry shelves at the bookstore where I work: Richard Wright, the famed author of Native Son, turned to haiku during the last 18 months of his life, and wrote over 4,000 of them. In the introduction to Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon, his daughter recalls, "I remember how he would hang pages and pages of them up, as if to dry, on long metal rods strung across the narrow office area of his tiny sunless studio in Paris, like the abstract still-life photographs he used to compose and develop himself at the beginning of his Paris exile."

Here are three of the 817 haiku in the current collection:

     A long winter rain:
A whistling old man whittles
     A dream on a stick.

      In the summer lake,
The moon gives a long shiver,
    Then swells round again.

     A spring sky so clear
That you feel you are seeing
     Into tomorrow.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

This Week in Soap Opera Summaries


Days of Gertrude Stein

Alice was distressed to find out that she isn't pregnant, and a cyst is a cyst is a cyst is a cyst that needs to be removed to rule out cancer. In Gertrude’s hospital room, Alice and Gertrude agreed to a truce, which they acknowledged would be up to them to maintain. Later, rejected by a girl, Alice blamed Gertrude and vowed to get back at her. Alice and Gertrude forgave each other and made cake. Gertrude blackmailed Alice into protecting her while doing her new job at the police station. Someone stole Alice’s needle-pointed chair designed by Picasso, and returned it with R.I.P. carved into the arm. Gertrude and Alice had second thoughts about being together after they made love. Coming: Alice has a long-held secret to keep covered up.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Cauliflower's Last Known Whereabouts

General Vegetables

Following the turnip’s visit, the kohlrabi left a mysterious message in the soup, which the radish found and gave to the head lettuce. The rutabaga came up with a shocking explanation for the chard’s recipe and what needed to be done. Chard agreed to the trimming, but the procedure did not go well, leaving his stem on the line. Spinach returned to himself for a moment when the melon took him to the compost pile. The cucumber concealed the cauliflower’s whereabouts from everyone. The cucumber found the cabbage trying to cover her tracks with string beans and had a chat with the pumpkin, when the onion entered and overheard them.  The beets were stricken when arugula decided to side with watercress. Coming up: Goat cheese offers the beets the support they need.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Reading at The Book Cellar

This will be the fourth or maybe even fifth year that Suzy, the owner of The Book Cellar, has invited me to read at the store during National Poetry Month.  Each time there's been a variety of poets on the bill, but always I am delighted to share the stage with my good friend, the amazing writer Richard Fox.  This is one of the readings I look forward to from year to year, and I'd love to see folks there.  I'm busy reading kid's books for a committee I am on for the American Bookselling Association, so I've not been composing a lot of new things, but in the fairly short time I'll have I promise to read at least one brand-spankin' new poem along with some oldies.

I walked in Rosehill Cemetery today. Well over 80 degrees in mid-March, and the robins were delighted, the crows were calling, two hawks circled, and the lion stoically looked off into the distance.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Notes on a Reading by Jeanette Winterson

                                                                                         (photo from the Guardian)
I saw Jeanette Winterson read from her memoir tonight. She was jet-lagged, witty, intense, and could answer a question like "Where do you get your ideas," with a three paragraph spoken essay that was cogent, entertaining, and meaningful.  Here is what I wrote in my little notebook as I listened to her speak. Much of the longer phrases are direct quotations, the individual words are all ones she used:
I was like a flare. Disaster. Phone booth.
  Copper--plate handwriting.  Loomed up. Uncarried
  Shut yourself up in your grief.  Duffel-coat.
I was selling my story against hers--part fact, part fiction is what life is.
When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend. I thought
the measure of love was loss. Gap. Opening.
Version. Silence, burden, grave. Wait
until the dead were gone. Promise
  box. Words become clues. Both of us endlessly
     the house.  The night bus. Coarseness
for my own sake.  Secrecy. Brilliance--unravel
     it. The words are there. How
do we make sure we are people worth knowing?  To say
that art is a luxury is to say that being human
   is a luxury. Begin
with a sentence and go on.

Monday, March 12, 2012


from the stairwell of the Hyde Park Art Center:


Orpheus, Descending

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Vault of the Sky Exactly the Color of the Knitting Woman's Yarn

I need to get back to writing again, not only because when I go for too long without writing my legs ache ad I start feeling like there's something missing in my life, a sense of unease, a dissatisfaction unnameable until the moment I say, "Oh, I haven't been writing," and I know exactly why I am unsettled.  I also need to get back to writing because I'll be reading soon with Richard Fox and Brandon Will and they are both very good writers so I want to have something new to read and impress them.

This is just a post to say that I found this in my notebook, dated Feb. 11th and it proves that I am still writing, even if I did not very clearly remember writing it. Sometimes that's why I like keeping a notebook, to discover how immediate a moment was for me a day or year or decade ago, and briefly inhabit that moment again.

The woman one seat ahead of me on the train has hair made of equal parts silver strands and black; she is knitting; a ball of pale blue yarn is in her black backpack. I cannot see her face; I wonder if her expression is placid as she knits with thick and wrinkled hands. I was going to say that the yarn was the color of the sky but then I thought, no, that's just the poet talking, and I looked out the window at the snow, the bare trees, the ice on the river. I looked up at the sky, clear after yesterday's modest bit of snow, and indeed the vault of the sky was exactly the color of the knitting woman's yarn, exactly like that.  Now I'll probably feel compelled to say something like, "the woman on the train, the woman seated in front of me has yarn in her black backpack she is knitting the sky."


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Snowfall at night and the Streetlight

So much going on right now--busy at work, my father very ill, so I have been traveling back and forth from Chicago to Detroit quite a bit--I am tired of being worried about him all the time, but I sure want him to be here on the planet so I can worry about him.  I'll get back to regular blogging at some point. Until then I am grateful for the snapshot moments of beauty: the first real snowfall, and being out walking in it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ten Sentences I Wrote Across the Pages of an Art Magazine

So I am getting ready to move into a new place, and I'm trying to get rid of a lot of stuff in my place: books, clothes, magazines, etc.  I have a lot of art magazines I brought home from work over the past few years--to get full credit from the distributor, a bookstore only needs to return the cover of the magazine, so I was able to take a lot of coverless magazines for collage and so forth.  I have a long history of stealing sentences from art magazines, but sometimes I leave sentences behind, written on ads and images from exhibitions.  I tend to think of these sentences as springboards--a position to dive from and write my way into something (and then back out again.) Here are ten from one magazine, written down so I am free to recycle said magazine and not move it to a new home two blocks away. Feel free to borrow a springboard if you need one.

1. He was terrified of waiting in the airless glass room.
2. When she thought about her mother she often became anxious.
3. The suspicions never end at the bus stop on Broadway Avenue.
4. I wondered if it was time to bring out the bucket of nails.
5. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever allow myself to feel that rage.
6. At night the river was made of black glass.
7. Sometimes it's best to sit on a stone bench, and think.
8. Ever since she was a little girl she wanted to marry a man with the head of a bird.
9. The sight of his blood came as a relief: the body continues to be a factory.
10. I'm still working out the way to seal my heart off from the far greater world.