Monday, December 29, 2008

a re-post from 2005: my first acquaintance with Li-Young Lee

[Written on 03/13/2005 about 03/01-02/2005 in Greeley, Colorado]

Li-Young Lee visited UNC eleven or twelve days ago, i.e. 03/01/05, and I was very lucky to be the guy who got to pick him up at the airport and drive him around and introduce him to the audience. He was a lot more casual and friendly and down to earth than I expected. In fact, I liked him right away. I don't know why I thought he might be anything else, maybe just because of his fame and how other famous poets are sometimes. It took me a little while to find him at baggage claim though I got there early and went looking for him whenever trainloads of passengers flowed up and out of the escalators from the underground rail. He was in a long coat and had on sneakers and just one small bag. He was easy to recognize; we spotted each other, and after I introduced myself he called home to say he had a ride.

(I had wanted to borrow a cell phone so that he could call me from baggage claim, which is how I picked up Sharon Olds the previous year, but this year no one in the dept. had one they could spare.)

Of course, I had heard him read in Chicago at AWP last year (when he shared a reading with, among others, Mark Strand), and I was happy to help him get to the Greeley Guest House. As we started off, he didn't really talk about himself at all. That was kind of a nice surprise. Instead, he was very curious about me. He asked a lot of questions. When he learned I was a poet, he said, "You're a rare bird," meaning, an Asian-American in poetry. He asked me how my parents felt about it. "They thought it was a catastrophe," I said. I mentioned how even just a few years ago my mother had tried to get me to go to law school depite fifteen years in teaching. "My mom wanted me to get a real job."

We had to take an airport shuttle to the parking lot to my car. During the long drive from Denver International Airport, we talked about a lot of things. His parents hadn't been thrilled with his career either, it turned out.

"Wow," I was impressed by how unimpressed Asian parents can be about artistic achievements.

We also talked about poetry recordings and some things that are happening with poetry audio and studio work. He was working with some studio, and he was surprised to learn how expensive it could be. Another thing we talked about was Sharon Olds. He had seen her the previous week at a party, and we talked about her a little. I explained how she had been my advisor and what a great teacher she had been for me. It turned out that we both had experience with meditation, and he had even helped to start a school for it. We also talked about art; it turned out that he had a strong interest in visual arts also. And his brother Li-Lin Lee had work in the Art Institute of Chicago. I said how I thought that was the greatest museum I had ever visited, and I've seen some pretty great ones.

I mentioned how many of my students really loved his work, and he was interested in knowing about them and how much experience they had had with poetry. He was curious about teaching and what it was like at UNC. I said the students were really nice and intelligent, but there was very little diversity.

Anyway, near the end of the long drive I stopped so he could grab some coffee (he drank twelve cups a day, he said), and I gave him my latest book and said I hoped he'd like it, and in a little while he was at the Guest House. Later that afternoon, I picked him up to take him to dinner and the reading in the evening.

Li-Young was curious about who was coming to dinner. I wasn't sure about who might be coming, so I was surprised to see the provost of the university and his wife, the Dean David Caldwell, and the other poets on the faculty, Lisa Zimmerman, and my friend Bob King. Li-Young was glad, I think, to be able to talk to the provost and his wife in Chinese, and he seemed pretty happy with the steaks at Potato Brumbaughs. I asked him towards the end if he needed a little time to relax by himself before the reading, and he said he really didn't. But when we got there with just a little time remaining he thought that maybe it would have been better after all if he had had a few minutes to himself.

A lot of my friends and students were there, and that made me feel good. Many of them had come 60 miles or so from Boulder, and it was wonderful to see them there. The crowd was very big but not as huge as people had anticipated, so there were many empty seats in the great hall. I did the intro very briefly, just saying welcome and thanks to the provost and the generous sponsor Mr. Rosenberry, a quick plug for the UNC litmag, and then the brief intro for Li-Young. I was nervous in a way that made me uncomfortable and unhappy (actually), and this is a new phenomenon for me.

As soon as the reading started, I was really intrigued by the style and substance of the delivery of the poetry. He really had the audience completely with him right away, and he really took some interesting chances out there, saying new poems and rough drafts, and even sharing things that had originated in improvisational settings. It was great to be lifted into the realm of poetry for a while, especially when it was coming from someone who was able to understand some things about me that may not be obvious to a lot of other people.

After the reading, he was signing books and talking a little to many, many of the people in the very long line. Meanwhile, some of my female students were telling me how they were so infatuated with Li-Young and how gorgeous he was etc. They were asking me how old he was as though they were considering running away with him etc. I thought this was kind of amusing. Then Li-Young was doing an interview with a student from the UNC newspaper, and finally I got to take him back to the Guest House.

He seemed a little tired, so I went there the quickest way. We talked a little along the way. Somehow it came up that when we both started writing, there were no Asian-American poets in the Norton Anthology, so it was a kind of a transformative moment for me when I realized I could write about things that had to do with my real inner life as an Asian American. Li-Young said it was like we were pioneers in this new literature.

The next morning, I got to take him to my morning class, and he was very relaxed. He had been thinking of a poem while going to sleep, and he had been working on this new poem early in the day. "That's exciting," I said. He smiled at that.

Some things he said that morning were really very profound. He talked about the poem being made of words but crafted out of silence just as architects work with material but what they shape is empty space. He talked about the poetry being embedded in silence, the silence being embedded in the psyche, the psyche being embedded in the person, and the person in the world, and the world in the cosmos. One of my students who was too shy to say her question aloud wrote on a little piece of paper: "What do you get from poetry?" Li-Young said it was a buzz, it was like drugs, it was exciting, it made him feel alive etc. That was a great answer. He was so totally at ease with everything; it was a real pleasure to watch him interact with people.

Then I returned him to the Guest House. It was sad to be leaving him there and returning to the regular grind, so to speak. He asked me if he would see me later before he flew back to Chicago. Sadly, I was not able to come back. He was so enlightening and so kind. He said that he loved my poems, and that I should let him know when I'm passing through Chicago. He knew the best place for won ton.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

excerpts of Li-Young Lee interview online

I was working at Muhlenberg last spring 2008 teaching a bunch of literature classes and ran into an old colleague who, it turned out, had interviewed Li-Young Lee on the WMUH radio station.

He asked if I was interested. I was very interested and listened to the interview. It was very enlightening, I thought.He talked about working with at-risk youth in Chicago, ensouling the world, writing as a yogic path, the ecstatic nature of the real self, art as a religion, Taoism, and much else.

You can find it at

Or go straight to:

The Interview with Li-Young Lee by Alec Marsh, which is forthcoming in entirety in MMM Vol. IX.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

what’s always real, part 1

what’s always real


this is where the circle starts
inescapably in us

The U.S. Airforce bombers
overfly Taiwan’s neutral shores
in March 1944
—no threat’s there—

The drone of giant locusts
wide as the sky but invisible
over Tainan, the city of scholars.
Then whistling screams
higher, louder,
then bombs splashed
solid houses into waves
like circles in water,
but water on fire.
The city blazed into black spires,
shockwaves pounded the air
shaking even the narrow mountain road
where the little girl my mother was
watched over her father’s shoulder
as he ran with terrorized crowds
hoping the bombers would pass
but listening through the engine roars
for the very first blast—

it rained black fire,
broke her eardrums
as they fell together in the ditch
where he shielded all of her,
not hearing but feeling
what exploded near his bones.
Even dust caught fire—
trees were half-painted red and black
with blood, parts of people—
the sooty shells stank
of burning metal.

The quietest sounds were the screams:
“Are we dead!? Are we dead!? Are we dead!?”
Shouting, she couldn’t believe this was Life....
But her father knew, covered her eyes,
and shouted, “We’re alive!”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Where did all the tragedy goers go?

How rare is tragedy is American pop culture? Why has tragedy disappeared almost entirely from the American drama? Why is American film mostly afraid of tragedy?

There are great exceptions, of course, but here are the top 10 grossing films of 2008, so far:

530,258,989 The Dark Knight (2008)
318,298,180 Iron Man (2008)
317,011,114 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
227,946,274 Hancock (2008)
223,641,119 WALL·E (2008)
215,395,021 Kung Fu Panda (2008)
159,066,369 Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
154,529,187 Horton Hears a Who! (2008)
152,637,269 Sex and the City (2008)
143,704,210 Mamma Mia! (2008)

Where did all the tragedy goers go to?

A small percentage of people still see tragedy regularly by attending the opera, where dead heroines and heroes are the norm. I could be wrong, but I think classical ballet also features a lot of dead heroines and heroes (Giselle, Petrushka). Even so, these audiences would be a small percentage of the total cultural audience.

It’s stranger than you think that tragedy is missing most of the time. A lot of the most important and even lucrative films and film sagas have been tragedies: The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, the entire Star Wars series (Darth Vader, the chosen one, dies after serving the evil emperor for most of his life and almost kills his whole family in the process). If you scan Time’s top hundred films of all time, I think you’ll see more tragedy is represented there than is usually the case.

This is, I think, even more true if you look at the 100 greatest films list from

Of course, since I am a poet and writer, I want the answer to be that the people who craved tragedy and all the great things it does for humanity to have found it in great books of fiction and poetry and other genres. But is that happening? If you look at the 100 Best novels as selected by The Modern Library, it may be true. At least it looks more serious than the films, perhaps. (I’ve only read and seen a small percentage of both lists).

But tragedy as a genre came from poetry. So it would seem natural to look for the greatest poetry books and consider what they look like. I just looked for them with Google, and there is NO LIST of greatest poetry books that I could find except for a blog by Janaka Stucky, and it is for 2008, and you can find it at

Thanks, Janaka Stucky!

Well, the absence of a list of 100 greatest poetry books is a glaring indictment of the lousiness of the American educational system I have to say; it proves the folly of teaching greatest poems in anthologies! (But I’ve said before that the one-stop shopping method of teaching poetry is destroying poetry as a genre, killing diversity, enriching multinational corpocrats blah blah etc.)

Speaking, to fully disclose everything, not as a reader but as an editor/publisher of a small press, I have to look back at what I have published since 2006. Patrick Lawler’s Feeding the Fear of the Earth, Anne-Marie Cusac’s Silkie, and Susan Settlemyre Williams’ Ashes in Midair. I think there are tragic elements and actual tragedy in these books. Speaking as an author of a few books, I think there are some tragic elements in my work. Tragedy is, after all, ultimately uplifting and affirmative. It is about whatever wisdom we have been able to gain through life; it is about the things that make life have meaning.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

When you feel free, it’s contagious

Today I gave a reading at Robin's Bookstore with the poets Brian Brodeur and CAConrad, and it was a really enjoyable event. And it was even better that it was pretty well attended. I think the audience came out for the other guys, mostly. One of my students from West Chester University came too, and she brought a friend. A long-ago past student and present friend did the intros.

As usual, I said a little about Many Mountains Moving and presented the latest issue and the MMM Press books to the audience and mentioned teacher discounts and review copies etc.

Not long ago, I heard Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche over a world-wide webcast talk saying that we all needed to embody the changes in the world that we would like to see.

I think about the most sane people that I have known in my life, and I know that this must be true. Sakyong Mipham has written about how even a small amount of sanity makes a big difference in the world.

I was a little under the weather, fighting a cold since I woke today. So I knew it might be tough to keep the energy up. But Brian’s and Conrad’s readings were very solid, entertaining, and inspiring. Brian's work was very beautiful and insightful. He had a deadpan sense of humor and irony about himself that was nice. Conrad’s reading was very funny, raw, angry and edgy. A lot of very deep, raucous and cathartic laughter came from the audience.

(Conrad’s humor reminded me of something sort of like an early Lenny Bruce but without the undertones of optimism. I still think of Lenny Bruce as one of the true and great comedians who could have moments with a power like poetry but with jokes that made you laugh so hard it hurt.)

So Conrad actually helped me pick myself up.

It was very surprising and wonderful to see an old acquaintance in the audience as well as to see many new faces out there. It was also great to see a few old and new friends out there, including a few who actually helped me to revise a poem that has just been an albatross around my neck for years.

I knew things would be okay when the audience started laughing right away during the first, lighter piece that I read, "The Poet's Mother's Deathbed Conversion." I read five more things, most of them pretty short and upbeat or elevating: "Sex Ed Blues," "peace valley elementary school during the vietnam war," "fluke exposure to another eastern meditation tradition in 8th Grade," "Kindling Hope, Incidentally, in South Philly," and "The Path." I could feel that connection subtle, electric, elastic dance with the audience throughout most of the experience. After it was over, many of the people remarked to me how it was a great reading and so on. I’d actually had a longer line-up of work in mind but switched to a shorter list as the reality of my struggle with a cold reared its head.

I have read with a lot of great readers, and I know that this is a good thing to do for many reasons. The best reason is that it forces you to bring your game up to par. If you read with people who are mediocre with the audience, then it’s easy to get lazy and go for the easy hit.

There is an even better reason to perform with people who are great; it is sort of an exercise in staying on center and in focus instead of feeling jealous and insecure or whatever else people can do to stop enjoying the experience. You have to—in a way—forget your ego and your sense of competition. Then you can feel free to just put out there whatever you have. Then the work can speak for itself, and then the audience can enjoy whatever it is without having to feel any pressure.

When you feel free, it’s contagious.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If the work is going to be a gift to anyone else, first it has to be a gift to the creative self

I had two very different readings recently, and both of them went well in the way that counts the most. But I let the low attendance make me feel bad after the second reading. I struggled with it a lot.

It was easy to feel good about the September 24th event in NYC because around twenty people came, which is not bad for a poetry reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW). It was also a group reading, and I was the anchor man following Renato Rosaldo, Pedro Ponce, Purvi Shah and Thaddeus Rutkowski.

I also planned the day so that I had time to visit the Shambhala Center of NYC before the event. So I felt very upbeat when I saw old friends and met new friends at AAWW. It was a very warm and interested crowd of writers and poets and other editors and program creators. Some very positive things came out of this. Everyone who read at this event did a great job. No one read too long. Everyone had strong and compelling work with great feeling and craft. I put a new audience-participation poem out there and got the crowd to have some fun with it, and the other things went over very well. So I was feeling very “on,” and I could feel that mysterious electrical connection to the audience. Later I heard from a friend there that some student in the crowd thought my audience-participation poem was the highlight of the night.

I don’t know if I have written much about this ever before. The energy in the audience is like a living being that you can feel and tune in to. Performers of all kinds know about this. The way it works for me is that it helps me work more closely with the feeling in the work, i.e. I can feel the work connecting with the people, and this makes it easier to discover deeper lows and highs inside the words. It helps me stay in the emotion.

It actually feels like a dialogue with a mostly silent partner, but the partner is really there, and the partner REALLY matters. Every sound that comes out of the audience can matter. Physically, it does make sometimes an electrical kind of feeling start to buzz in the air—that’s when you have everyone’s complete rapt attention and understanding. That’s where you want to stay—inside that electrical current.

You have to be open to your audience and willing to completely believe in their ability to understand—they will totally get it. They will feel it. You just need to have the goods to deliver.

You lose that link when you stop listening to them, when you become self-indulgent or afraid or arrogant.

When things are great, the electrical resonating is even like chills or tingling in your body. You are like a thousand watt bulb illuminating a great space. But it isn’t because of you the person; it’s because of what you have to give to the audience. That thing inside is beyond or beneath (or perhaps above) personality. People usually associate this kind of experience with great music concerts they have seen, but I have seen and felt this at many poetry readings by other poets. Sometimes I can get there, too.

In sharp contrast, the reading on Monday, 10/13/08, at Poets & Prophets in Philly, was in a beautiful theatrical space on the third floor of the Plays & Players Theater. I had to rush to get there on time. But I was early, and the emcee was on time. But at the start of the event there were only two people there, and they were very nice. But I think they felt embarrassed on my behalf.

Having been in this kind of spot before, I knew it was best to stick to my script and read what I had planned in advance. I read some very difficult things full of feeling. I gave the best reading I could, and they really got it. That same sort of resonating connection happened. They applauded sincerely for almost every thing I read. A third guy came. He also seemed really into it. Then it was over. Everyone was gracious about it.

Later that night, though, I made what I now think of as an error. I let it bring me down that only three people came to what was basically another great reading. Why? Because I know that most people think events like this are humiliating and sad. But the event was a success for everyone who was there, and they were other writers, activists, veterans—intelligent and interesting people. They were deeply touched by the work. They wanted to ask about it. The host was sincere in his repeated thanks. So why did I feel bad?

I have made this mistake before—letting the numbers dominate the story. But I have had plenty of great readings for big crowds, and the essence of the work is the same. The connection is the same. I actually read more and better for the three people than I did for the twenty or so in NYC. (It’s easier to read better when you have thirty minutes to work with versus fifteen.) And I did get paid, and I did fulfill my contract completely and wholeheartedly.

I thought of the first jazz musicians in Philly who had to play in dives and brothels where few aficionados would go. They knew this. They knew they were invisible and that if they would ever be “discovered” by the greater culture, it might be after they were dead or no longer great or whatever. They had to keep doing it though. They loved doing it so much.

I know I will have some great readings and events in the near future, some with big crowds and some with almost no one. And you cannot tell which events will turn out with great crowds and which will turn up mostly empty. This spring, I will be reading in an actual castle, and another time in something like a revamped warehouse, and another time in a great literary house in NYC etc.

The only things in my control are how I commit to the work and how I feel about it afterwards. About the first part of that work, I can say I am happy with these two past readings. What I would like to do in the future is to try to remember that there is another side of the performer-audience equation, the author.

The audience is one thing that gives great energy to me, but when the audience is gone, the work itself and the thing that it came from, that inner voice, that author is a support with its own energy. The creator, the author, the inner voice—whatever you want to call it—is more consistent and whole than the audience, which will always come and go.

If the work is going to be a gift to anyone else, first it has to be a gift to the creative self. If you feel like the gift is real for you, then it really doesn’t matter if there are three people or fifty people out there.

Or to put this another way, when Keith Richard was asked what his favorite music was, I think he said, “The Rolling F%^#%^* Stones!”

a poem from a prior post after many reincarnations

Awakening at Cannon’s in Allentown, 1984

for W. P. D. and P. F. H.

“Karma...describes the continuity of occurrences that weaves the fabric of life. It is not linear.... In order for ignorance to happen, lots of other causes have already occurred.”
—Sakyong Mipham

“D’jou hear that?”
The screams were so piercing
through the jukebox, the clamor,
I nudged Bill, alert amid the beer,
smoke and blaring.
He nodded, already rising.
We left the crowded tables
for the almost stifled street—
no cars running,
no drunks singing,
no pedestrians,
just the muffled roar of the bar.
But then down the street
and across the corner
we heard the scream again,
doors slamming,
boots clomping down stairs,
an exploding front door—
a slim figure fleeing,
she fell on her knees,
curled over herself
as if concrete could hide her.
He charged out shouting:
—a repeating machine,
his fists above her rising—
I shouted, “HEY! LEAVE THAT
Turning, he lurched at us,
(holy shit, I thought).
Bill grabbed
and dragged me into his car,
revved it, pulled out, aimed
his headlights at them,
blinding them.
The woman (or girl?)
squinted at us, crawling/fleeing.
He threatened her to go inside—
she shouted back she’d never.
He set to kick her hard.
Bill floored the gas—
the guy’s eyes met mine—froze.
He was just bigger than her.
Then Bill apologized:
“I’m sorry I stopped you.
He could be armed,
but we’re safe in here.
He can’t see us very well,
but we can watch his every move.
And the motor’s running....”
They argued in the headlights’ glare;
the guy hesitated, retreated inside.
She stayed prone, shaking in sobs.
Then Bill parked again—
we didn’t know what to do.
She looked over at us,
her eyes full, curious.
Quavering, too scared to move,
she was younger than I’d thought,
her face puffy from crying.
Then Pam opened the bar door,
phone in hand, urging,
“Get in here! I called
the cops already.”
She pulled me in by my shirt.
“Do you wanna get killed?”
Tearing myself away,
and going back in, then,
I realized the answer
must have been

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why reading poetry has seemed so hard for so many people and why big anthologies inadvertently kill diversity

I think that most people have no clue about how to read poems because in school they saw individual poems taken out of their context and lumped together in random assortments called anthologies or “Readers.” What was so devastating to the poems was that they had zero context except, usually, a short biographical note for a poet. So kids were exposed to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” but had no idea what poems were around these poems to build up to it or lay the essential groundwork. There was no sense of history or society or culture— the poem was just tossed out there on stage without even a well-informed teacher most of the time. I mean the teachers were overworked and stressed enough without having to do even more background reading etc.

This meant that most of these poems were dissected in a formalistic but vacuous way—pleasure, passion and feeling were usually left out on the playground.

Even really gifted teachers were working against the prevailing resentment and apathy built up by years of “miseducation” or “diseducation.” And they were also working against the fact that even most literature professors that they had had in their own past had also been trained in this way of reading almost every poem out of its context. The only exceptions were usually high level courses devoted to single authors; there you could finally read entire books by one poet and see how the parts fit together and how different that was.

The first time I ever heard of the idea of reading whole poetry books by single authors as a better way of reading was in graduate school at New York University. Professor Paul Magnuson, a Coleridge scholar, wrote about literary friendships and literary dialogues. And he extended this idea even further—beyond a single author’s books to the friends and books by those friends which every author is in the midst of. In other words, you could never read a poem in isolation without missing most of the meaning. Most of us—and we are talking about English literature majors—were missing out on the fact that every author is in some way already answering other previous works. Thus, we had been hearing only half of a phone conversation, but that is assuming that we had even been hearing an entire half. But most of us had few chances to read entire books by a single poets, so the real situation was much worse.

Learning to read literary works as parts of a dialogue was an incredibly expansive way to read. Depth and resonance grew everywhere. When you could hear all these added levels of meaning, it was like being suddenly able to hear harmonics in music whereas before you could only hear a single note through a decrepit old radio.

In previous generations, scholars used to call these ways of reading “influence studies,” i.e. they looked at who read whom and what that did to their works.

When I have the chance to teach poetry books, I try to make my own students read entire books so that they at least have a chance to grasp a sense of what a poet is doing. I try to tell the students at least a little about the context and the friends of the writers and why they matter. And I try to use small press publishers when I can.

I have totally given up on using those big fat monster anthologies that make so much money for so few people. The more I think about those anthologies, the more wrong they look. They cost the students too much, and they usually sell them back as soon as they can. Few students keep these things because so little personal value was invested in them when they were created—each new mega-store anthology is another Tower of Babble, with most of the same things as all the others. Worse, the big corporations will haul out new, trendier ones every few years just to force you to buy new ones.

Some of the editors are great educators and scholars who make better efforts at establishing context and giving more social, historical and cultural connections online etc.

But in the end, the anthologies are one-stop shopping. They are the Big Box store that kills the actual towns where real people and small presses live and work etc. The big fat anthologies cannot help but foster a monoculture of corpocracy even if they sincerely believe in diversity and democracy and try to include diverse writers.

The only people who break through these barriers as readers are those who feel especially driven to read, the people who follow the footnotes outside of the big fat anthology to the real resources, the original books that were robbed of their best parts so that some hefty, tree-killing New Edition could make money for some transnational conglomerate.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Re-post 4/5/05, AWP highlights, comic relief, Susan Musgrave, Anne Carson et al.

§ § §

§ § §

[April 5, 2005: A few selected highlights from AWP Vancouver (3/31—4/3, 2005)

Susan Musgrave, who was the Canadian poet who preceded Michael Ondaatje, was a wonderful surprise. The dramatically lit great hall was full—it seemed thousands were anxiously awaiting the start. I was not familiar with her work though I had heard her name before. It was hard to tell how old she was—maybe fifty or so? She had long gray hair and a slightly wobbly manner at the microphone. When she started speaking, it seemed as though she had had a few before she’d gotten there. She suggested that she might skip reading and just do Irish drinking songs for twenty minutes. She actually faked starting in on one song, which was very funny. She went on that she’d already cashed her check, and what could they do?

Then she suggested, "We should create a whole new country made of writers, including Canada, New York and Hollywood. We’ll call it A-W-P,” she said. This was all very amusing because of her delivery, which felt very uninhibited and spontaneous.

Then she told a harrowing story of how her husband (or ex-husband) who was an American was arrested for trying to transport thirty tons of marijuana into Canada. I think she said it was on a boat, and somehow things went very wrong so that her husband was being chased by the CIA, the DEA, the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounties all at once.

Somehow he eluded almost everyone and was running through the forest and only the Royal Canadian Mounty was chasing him. (Isn’t their slogan “We always get our man”?) When the Mounty caught him, the Mounty slammed him in the head with his rifle butt, which made him protest, “I’ve got rights!” (just like an American would, of course.) Then the Mounty shouted spitefully down at him, “You’re in Canada now, m*#%@^$@#$@^!”

This was so hilarious due to the way she said it that my friends and I were parroting her line all night and even the next days.

Then she said that “You’re in Canada now, m*#%@^$@#$@^!” was going to be the title of her next book, unbeknownst to her publisher. (She confessed that it was a very un-Canadian title since Canada was the land where, if any American were to bump into a Canadian, the Canadian would always apologize.) She also mused that maybe her publisher wouldn’t feel so bad about the title if they knew a Mounty said it.

People were laughing very hard through all this, and I was struck by the humor that combined so much irony, absurdity and pathos.

Her poetry was very sharp and a powerful mixture of hard realities on the one hand and a larger ironic vision on the other. It was excruciatingly beautiful. I was really moved.

After the reading by Michael Ondaatje, one of my famous Philly poet friends, Harriet Levin, saw Erik and I near the elevators and invited us up to the private reception; she was going up with David Mura, Gary Pak and Marilyn Chin, so we got to stand around the top floor with the gorgeous panorama of Vancouver all around with all the VIPs and the exquisite catered seafood and the snooty wait staff.

(You know you’re in the VIP reception when the wait staff with beautiful hor d’oeuvres are reservedly revolted by the hordes of unwashed writers, poets etc.)

Susan Musgrave and Michael Ondaatje were both there talking with their friends, and there was a complimentary open bar, which a few people took too much advantage of, including one young guy who all but demanded a cigarette from Erik or me, and was very angry that we did not have any. Then he stalked off in disgust.

It had been a very long day at the bookfair and an equally long night of great readings, so we were all pretty exhausted. Kazim Ali made a brief appearance (sort of apparition like, to me, by that point). I told Erik what a genius Kazim was at running Nightboat Books, which elicited an embarrassed laugh from Kazim. (Kazim and Jennifer Chapis somehow started their own press just a few years after NYU and got things off to a great start.)

Anyway, the next day at the bookfair I saw Susan Musgrave walking by herself past my table. She looked a little sad, I thought, or maybe she was just very tired from the previous night’s performance. I told her that I thought her reading was very hilarious and poignant; she seemed very happy to hear this. So I went on to say, “It was very moving. It was inspiring,” and this made her smile. Then I said, “It was excruciatingly beautiful.”

That made her pause. Then she actually pulled out her little notebook and said, “No one has ever said that to me before” (she was really flattered), and she wrote it down in her little scrawl with quotation marks around it. “I want to use that,” she said. “I’m going to tell people that is what it was like when they ask.”

Then I was flattered, but I said, “Thanks, but— hey! you have to attribute it to me,” I said, giving her my card.

She said okay and scrawled my name down dutifully next to the words, and she kept my card and went off (happily, I think) on her way.

(I asked for this attribution because I once blurbed Sherman Alexie’s poetry book when I was writing reviews for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Hanging Loose Press took my best line for the back cover and didn’t use my name! They just attributed it to The Philadelphia Inquirer. I was the only blurb author to be “anonymised” in this way. Thus, if you see a Sherman Alexie poetry book, The Summer of Black Widows with a blurb on the back with the word “Whitmanic” on it, that was me.)

Vancouver itself was very beautiful—the architecture was elegant and had a strong Asian influence. Most of the skyscrapers were not too large but extremely interesting geometrically. They could have been in Taiwan or Japan. Chinatown was also very nice though Erik and I were only there once for a late dinner—the food was great and very cheap. The neighborhood nearby was sketchy though; we were accosted by a few strange guys who might have been selling and/or on drugs.

The last day’s big reading was Anne Carson and W. S. Merwin. It was slated for 4:30 p.m., and I’d been very sleep deprived from the start, and the AWP bookfair staff wanted to kick us all out totally by 5:30 p.m., so I had to pack up everything I could carry and grab a cab and head across town to the hotel where Erik and I were staying. Then I had to rush back to the conference hotel to make the reading.

Anne Carson was a classicist, and she was extremely funny and beautiful in an eccentric way. She was actually crying a little as she got up to the podium (due to the very laudatory introduction?) and said, “This is a WAY lot of people.”

(It was standing room only, and I was, in fact, not there but in the adjacent room watching a simulcast on a big screen, which made her luminous, youthful face much larger than life-size.)

She pulled herself together a little and improvised some kind of a thirteen-second poem with audience participation. It had two choruses, A and B. She deftly divided the multitudes with an authoritative gesture, saying, “You are Chorus A,” and waved them off. Then divided the other half off, saying “You are Chorus B.” In her almost-parody-of-a-professor, she said, “Chorus A, your line is: “I’ll buy it! with an exclamation point.” This made everyone laugh. “Chorus B, your line is: “What a bargain! with an exclamation point.”

After she made the audience rehearse once, the thirteen-second poem flashed by in her fine high voice, and she merely gestured to each chorus, and it worked perfectly. The audience exploded in playful laughter and applause, and she applauded them too.

Then she had some unusual and quirky translations of Catullus, and she recited many of these. They were interesting—I’ve read enough from antiquity to know that they were as—if not more—sex-obsessed and idiosyncratic as anyone is today. She had a way of bringing to the fore just how much Catullus was so near to us. She somehow sneaked into her translations refrigerators and other modern machines. She ended this series with the most sexual lyric poem, tapping her neat stack of vertical pages on the podium with a final, “So much for the classics!”

This was followed by a really unusual poem inspired by a woman painter, and she admitted up front that she had no opinion of the art work. But she had thought about it very extensively, so her poem was comprised entirely of “If” clauses.

She was very self-deprecating as she introduced her poem. She declared something like, “It has about eighty clauses, but to you it will seem interminable.” Everyone laughed. “But let me give you some markers along the way to help you....” Then she said a key phrase for one point and another, and she said “Freud” would show up near the end, which meant that when we heard his name, unlike upon any other possible occasion, his name would give us hope. Everyone laughed at that too, and as I think about it now, I realize that her joke had many layers of meaning aside from the obvious one. It was indirectly quite revealing, in a way.

The poem was wonderful—the clauses added up to something much greater than they began with—there were significant shades of meaning in the digressions. It ended beautifully, and it did not seem long at all. Her delivery was so clear and her voice so resonant in its pitch—she might have had a soprano voice. (Somewhere during the earlier poems she sang a little, and her singing voice was very charming and lilting.) She had one of those faces that seems ageless—she could have been twenty or more years younger than she was. I was astonished to read online what year she was born!

The applause she received in the end was very warm and long. She did not stand there to receive it very long though; she took herself off the podium quickly and modestly. This reminded me of her tears before she began—it made one wonder a little about her. Did she actually know how great she was?

W. S. Merwin had to follow her, and that was an unenviable spot to be in even if you are W. S. Merwin, which he himself admitted right away. He said something about having read after Anne Carson before, and how he hadn’t learned anything (meaning: she’s a tough act to follow).

Then he told a touching little anecdote about Robert Creeley, who drove through a snowstorm to pick him up with another poet in upper state New York. Creeley accidentally, while waving his arms around talking, knocked the headlights out and just kept driving down the highway in the thick snowstorm, the snowflakes strangely luminous and falling at them. Merwin was in the back, watching all this, and his other friend carefully reached around and got the headlights back on, and Creeley kept talking, waving his arms around, and driving as if nothing had happened.

I must admit that by that time I was feeling the hours of work and the time of concentration before had taken most of my attentive abilities out of me. I was able to really focus on a few of the poems, at the start and the end, and they were very beautiful. Merwin spoke at great, great length sometimes between poems, and this seemed very spontaneous, which was good, but it seemed to take a while to get to the poems, which were better.

It was a little funny that he read one of his own translations of Catullus, which was loaded with assonance and alliterative effects, and it did sound more “poetic” than Anne Carson’s translations, but the sense of a vital and other personality coming through the translation was not as strong. He actually addressed Anne directly in the midst of his reading at that point, to talk about translating Catullus, which seemed a little unusual to me.

Harriet, though, was in heaven, and she felt like Merwin’s reading was just transcendent. I am also a Merwin fan, but I’d never heard his actual voice before, and the adjustment was not easy for me.

Believe it or not, then there was another event with Wayson Choi and Ursula Leguin, and they were at 8 or 8:30 p.m. and they were the last readers. Erik and I went out to dinner with Patrick Lawler (a very funny and wonderful poet) and two of his good friends.

Patrick, Erik and I were all still parroting that line from Susan Musgrave, “You’re in Canada now, m#$%#$%&#$&*!” We didn’t pronounce the whole thing because we were at a beautiful waterfront restaurant, and the waiter seemed to be so nice, respectful and dignified—I think we didn’t want to throw him off stride.

Anyway, the story by Wayson Choi was indelibly moving and framed perfectly by his casual conversational tone. He was clearly a master at doing this sort of performance.

Ursula Leguin admitted right away she was no talker but a writer and would just read, and then she read an interesting experimental story called “Ether OR,” meaning, a town named “Ether” in “Oregon.” A very northwest Pacific Rim kind of humor, I guess. She was great reader and there were many funny, strange and insightful moments in the work, which featured many voices of the people in the town. It was a nice, soft ending to a hard-working conference. There was a huge mob of fans for autographs afterwards.

My novelist friend from Philly, Simone Zelitch, was there in the long line. We chatted a little before Erik and I headed out—it was late, after all, and we were exhausted.

Most of the long days' hours had been spent at the bookfair, which was intense and hard. We were selling books, after all, to the toughest (and the best) audience in the world.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Re-post: Reading for the Colorado Center for the Book, The Lighthouse Writers & The Copper Nickel on 03/12/05

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[March 13, 2005 * On the Reading for the Colorado Center for the Book, The Lighthouse Writers & The Copper Nickel on 03/12/05]

I was very happy to read in the Tivoli Student Union Building at CU-Denver again; I was invited back by Sara Whelan who had remembered me from the reading I gave last year as part of the Denver Poetry Festival on 04/23/04. That reading was really unusual in that I was so turned on by being in Denver and by having an audience with a large number of the CU-Denver faculty there that it really didn't matter to me that the total audience was just around a dozen people. Even though the sound system sort of went berserk at one point during that reading, it actually sort of helped to convey the theme of random urban violence in the poem identity papers, which I hadn't planned to read. I did it just because the audience said they were ready for it and really interested in it. I hadn't done any part of it in a long time, it seemed, and certainly not solo. (Usually there would have been my wonderful friend Lori-Nan Engler, the actress who collaborated on the CD, or there would have been Toshi, the percussionist.) But it went so well that after the reading Sara was really intrigued and wanted to know in depth how and why I wrote in these dialogic forms etc., and so the impression I made that day was what brought about this new reading.

I started getting ready a few weeks ago; I asked Jamie Romero, a very nice poetry student who is also an actress who had gotten some great reviews, to help out by reading the Iris character. She was happy to, and we rehearsed a few times for less than an hour the week before. We also rehearsed one of the poems just a half hour before the reading. It wasn't hard. She was very quick at picking things up, and her voice was neither too high nor too low—it was just resonant enough to cut through very clearly and with great character. It was fun to have her to play off of.

I had been looking forward to this reading for a while, especially since some unrelated things had been a major and continual drain, and those things had been so hard lately that they actually were—for a first time—interfering with my reading. I was nervous! You might think that is normal, but it is actually not normal for me because during most readings that I have given I have felt very relaxed and free. But this time I had to struggle to find any ease. The joke lines were not getting the usual laughs. My mouth went painfully dry (a very bad sign). Fortunately, Jamie was solid as a rock, and it helped that her boyfriend was clearly enjoying the reading where he was. I had to internally struggle to get myself back to the core of the poetry over and over. The thing I was there for... the thing that brought me here to Colorado in the first place—it was being edged out by unrelated problems! How awful that was.

I suspect that this struggle was almost entirely invisible to everyone except that I seemed more tense than I normally would. As the poems passed, and mostly drew applause, I started to really ease up and just let the poetry take over again. I had a plan and stuck with it, and by the end I was really "on" again, and the audience was happy afterward.

One thing I did that helped was last night I slept with the poetry audio tracks playing over and over—it actually made me dream something significant for the first time in a very long time. It also meant that the rhythms were in my subconscious pretty deeply. Another thing that helped was that I actually worked on something NEW (a promising but very rough draft that had been nagging at me for a long while), so that meant good things were simmering in the creative sphere. Another thing that helped was that I'd gotten there early, and Jamie was waiting there in Room 444 in the Tivoli Student Union. It also helped that Sara got us no less than three bottles of water for the reading. Another good thing was the big turnout (around fifty people, almost all new to me), and several familiar friends and students, which is always a great thing. Another good thing was the reporter Laurie Dunklee who wanted to write about this event for a Denver paper and ask a few questions; she asked really good questions and seemed genuinely interested. She was also the first person to tell me that she had read this blog (as research, no less!) That was gratifying. So all the little things that helped really added up to a solid success. A year ago, I think I'd have felt very pumped up by all this. Tonight I feel lucky to have survived.

The next day, 03/13/05, I got this reassuring e-mail from Sara Whelan:

"Dear Jeff,

I was very pleased with the turn-out and the reading. There are few people
who have your attention to detail when it comes to expression and voice in
the reading of poetry, which gives your poems a new dimension, bringing them
into the realm of experience beyond language. (If that makes sense). As I
mentioned before you left, there's a moment of surrender I experience when
listening to your poems read aloud—a transition where my mind lets go of
the need to decode and allows the voices to take me somewhere, from the
familiar to the unfamiliar. This is really much like the experience of
listening to music, which means, to me, your employment of musical forms and
devices in composition is quite successful...."

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Re-post [3/8/05] on Galway Kinnell, the teacher/poet

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[March 8, 2005* On Galway Kinnell as a teacher/poet, something to be grateful for....]

Galway would regularly ask us to do the impossible. Once in a one-on-one conference in the spring of 1999 he was helping me with a poem about the out-of-body travel experience of a thirteen-year-old. I was struggling to show how it was both a transcendent and a sexually arousing experience. He perked up with a great idea, which went something like: ‘Why don’t you show how the spiritual and the sexual are interwoven inevitably in adolescence? I’ve never read a poem about that. Why don’t you do that?’

After the enormity of this sank in, I said something like, ‘Okay.... I guess I could try that....’ (read: Sure, just toss off the answer to a mystery that has baffled thinkers and sages for millennia).

Even though I was stumped for a very long time, the idea Galway planted took root and a year later I wrote the poem that fulfilled that idea, and it was published later in 2000.

I have always felt indebted to Galway for daring to believe in me (and so many of us) with the same kind of ambition that he had in his own work. That was a gift that you could never fully measure. Thank you, Galway!

(The poem that Galway and I were discussing this idea over was called "digression," and it was written as the second part of a series called "out-of-body travel at thirteen." I think he had already seen the third part called "out-of-body travel at thirteen"—that was the most narrative part. The next part, which took a year to write was about the transcendental and sexual elation, and it was called "elation: some variations." I brought this to Sharon's workshop the following year and explained how it came about. I seem to remember Sharon's reaction when I recollected Galway's suggestion to the class as a kind of moment when her jaw dropped open momentarily. The series can be seen as a PDF here. Thanks to Ashlie Kauffman, fellow NYU alum for asking about this.)

[The wonderful poet and fellow alum Susan Brennan sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

Once, in Galway's classroom, he played a tape of animals sounds—I remember the wolves especially and thinking—this is wild, and comforting and—so sexy. In that same class, he explained Whitman as a kind of fertility god who spoke through the lines of Leaves of Grass. I remember cherishing this note especially because the previous semester I was in an English class with doctoral students who just about crucified Whitman.

Reading Galway's work, being his student at NYU, watching him get intense over line-drives at Squaw Valley, having him generously listen to poems that were difficult to write—all these moments have conveyed to me a special knowledge about poetry; that it's a wilderness which poets can graciously and proudly inhabit. Galway has shown my poetry-creature ways to make a home in this wilderness.

A couple of summers ago, I was standing on West Third Street with Humera and we saw Galway crossing the street. He had on a bright, white shirt and it was billowing in the wind. We watched as strangers turned their heads to look at him with an impulsive curiosity. We sighed to each other "he's so beautiful and sexy and wild and free"! Poetry.


[This is from fellow alum Emily Gordon who sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

This is the Galway story I love to tell. In 2002 on the last day of Craft, he gave out books of his to everyone and talked for a little while about how much having poetry friendships has meant to him. He said, "When you leave, I hope you'll stay in touch with each other, and trade poems. The most marvelous thing is how easy it can be! You don't have to wait for the mail for weeks anymore to find out if your friend liked your poem. Now there's the fax machine, which makes it so that in only a few minutes your friend can see your poem, and send it back, and you can read it! Isn't it wonderful?" And we all burst out laughing in the most affectionate way possible, just about in tears.


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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Re-post from Feb. 22, 2005, on poets and insanity

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[February 22, 2005* the start of an extended riff on poets and insanity...]

Another hard thing in the writing world is, I must admit, the way some writers act, especially towards each other. Everyone in the writing world, especially the poetry neighborhood of the writing world, has horror stories. Some of them are so horrifying you could make them into cheesy horror movies. No, I mean real horror movies. This only gets worse when you really dig into "the field," so to speak, because sometimes "the field" is a graveyard.

Did you know that the great Victorian poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who had an affair with Fanny Cornforth, his beautiful housekeeper, felt so guilty over his wife's suicide that he buried all of his poetry with her? Wait wait—it gets worse. Then he realized his great contribution to English literature was in the process of decomposing along with the corpse of his wife, so he dug it up again.

The list of famous poet and writers who were suicidal, drunk, addicted, self-destructive, narcissistic, promiscuous, diseased, insane and so on is far too long to even start.

(On the other hand, I think there is an almost equally great tragedy in going to the opposite extreme and trying to make cultural icons out of poets and writers who are so relentlessly dull, inoffensive, and "nice" that you can't remember who they are five minutes after you meet them. We seem to be in a cultural moment that champions more and more of the safe and dull—poets who censor themselves so much that no one will ever have to worry about them censoring them in any way.)

Sadly, the poetry game in particular is great camouflage for crazy people. So I have to admit that I have been friends, and ex-friends, with some crazy literati and/or literary nutjobs. I learned what I learned the hard way.

But let me say this, first: some of the actually diagnosed schizophrenic poets that I knew were really brilliant (at times), and mostly very nice to be around (except for the antisocial nervous tics, the degenerative diseases, the logorrhea etc.) Genuinely crazy poets who know they are crazy (meaning: they can tell you exactly which drugs they are supposed to be on whether they take them or not) aren't necessarily bad at all, especially in contrast to those who think they are okay and are deeply disturbed.

I don't know if this one guy is still alive, so I don't want to give away his name. When I was twenty or so, he was forty or so, but he looked sixty due to his very hard institutionalization and "treatment" for schizophrenia in the bad old days of primitive psychotropic drugs. I met him through another poet (of course), and I had read one of his books, which had exquisite and beautiful lyric moments in it although it also seemed at times to verge on being an incoherent way out jazz improv with words. But even then it had some inner beauty and resilience. I really admired what he was able to do. So I was really shocked to see him looking withered, weathered, smelly, ragged, haggard, and gray. Worse, he was in nonstop highspeed raving mode, complaining about his degenerating teeth, eyes, and on and on. But as I listened to him going on and on, I was able to separate the poet from his illness somehow, and when he was out of breath I told him I really admired his poetry due to the gorgeous images and the musical quality in the lines. I was sincere when I told him that I was moved by the beauty of his lyric poetry.

Suddenly he stopped ranting, complaining, and suffering. I explained a little more about what I'd read. He paused and asked a few questions, just to be sure I knew what I was talking about. It sank in, and he felt a kind of relief or maybe a temporary release from all his grief. Someone had just recognized who he really was.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Some Answers to Questions from a Poetry Student

[Re-post from February 7, 2005. Answers to some short questions (slightly edited)....]

My advanced poetry student Gwen Wagner recently asked via e-mail: "Ballpark, how much time do you find you need to spend writing a day to keep 'in the groove' or be ready when the groove hits you?"

When I was younger, I used to write for several hours a day for days on end. Sometimes whole days or nights would be spent with writing. Even though I wrote relatively little that was worth preserving in those early years (when I was eighteen to twenty or so), the habits of concentration were essential to developing a literary consciousness that was actively creating, innovating, and working. Just reading great works by others does something similar to this, also, but reading works best for young poets when they are fulfilling a need (or a lack) in their own work.

Now, I should say that due to some situations I have at work now, I have not really written a poem in a while although I feel I have lived through the material to write many (haha).

In the academic year 2002-2003, I was able to write more often and finished most of what is now invisible sister before the summer of 2003 ended. Just as an example, “Iris’ painter hears the rain music return” took maybe a dozen drafts but they were mostly just getting a sharper focus on the subject with each new version. It wasn’t grueling.

There have been a lot of what I will call minor poems, and maybe a few “important” ones, or at least important starts. What’s the difference between minor and major poems? Some things in your life carry a great deal of energy, and some are just little observations or moments etc. When I get an opening into a major field of energy that is turning into a poem, I think that could be important. I have actually had some important starts this year, but I have not rushed to work on them due to other pressures. I don’t want to botch a potentially great thing even if it means having to wait a long time until things are more calm.

In 2003-2004, there were fewer poems as invisible sister was being created at Many Mountains Moving, and that required much creative energy of a different sort, and so did arranging readings etc.

Gwen also asked: "How do you revise work without the help of peers/other writers?"

Actually, even when there are no actual “peers” (as in a workshop), I carry around inside of me (as everyone does) the voices and the ears of others who have been my peers and precursors at different points in my life. So there are friendly, enabling presences in my consciousness when I write. In fact, when I feel the most inspired is when I feel these presences the most.

A lot of times, I also share things via a free online forum that I have set up with friends and peers, which I still find enjoyable and helpful.

Reading new works aloud for various audiences also helps a lot, and so does creating audio recordings in a studio.

Also, when you write with actors or actresses in mind, they can actually have a profound impact on the work because their ways of hearing the work and giving it voice can actually create new dimensions in the work that you did not hear before. Sometimes the creativity of the actor or actress extends the depth of the character, and then you can follow that opening wherever it leads. That is one reason why I like to work with some people over and over.

Gwen also wrote: I'm reading this book called Art as Experience by John Dewey. It was written in the 1930's--amazing amounts of good stuff came out of the "depression." (Kind of like the Dark Ages.) This book discusses some theories of art, some of which are applied to poetry (though in a sort of stifled way that could be expanded by someone who knows the writer better.) In a chapter on expression two ideas which you touched on indirectly in the blog came up. One, that a work of art which has sufficiently accomplished it's message, if the viewer is receptive, can speak to that person--the artist goes through a process of creation in making the painting (art) and the viewer also goes through a creating process in order to access its meaning. Interesting thought...makes art very interactive instead of stuck in a museum and musty. Two, that self-expression (really an excuse for self-indulgence) doesn't make something is the cohesion of thought and medium that creates a cohesiveness and accessible message in the work.

I am really glad you made that connection with Art as Experience because the only reading that has really mattered to me is that in which I feel a very strong connection to the writer as though we were in a kind of an intense dialogue. (The list of writers I have felt this close to is not very long.) The reader has to be reinvented and to be actively reinventing him or herself while reading just as a person in a real dialogue with a true friend starts to awaken or engage different aspects of the self. To be inspired while reading is like discovering a true friend who turns on (or reaches) essential parts of you.

On the point about self-expression, I'd say that the first really successful things I wrote happened when, by accident, I didn't say what I wanted to as much as I let the poem say what it needed to. In fact, the first times that I stumbled into this phenomenon, I myself didn't know what the lines meant, but I somehow knew they were better than anything I wanted to say. The lines knew more than I did, which was humbling. Humility is a good place to be in the midst of the process of creating.

Whenever it happens now that I write something that I know is better than or more than anything I could ever consciously grasp or "plan," when a kind of a mysterious door opens up where I thought I knew where I was, then I feel very fortunate.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

First impression of Anne-Marie Cusac, Great news for MMM Press: Silkie (2007) by Anne-Marie Cusac wins an award

I don't know exactly when I first met Anne-Marie Cusac, but I'm sure it was after we published her book in 2007. It might have been at the AWP where we first presented her book to the world at a book signing.

At the AWP bookfair, my first impression was very strong: she was wearing an elegant black dress, and she had very dark brown hair and very striking features. Her smile was the sort of beautiful smile that exudes great warmth and happiness. It was infectious. We were at the bookfair together for no more than a few minutes when a few guys saw her and her book with its very gorgeous cover art and bought her book on the spot. One of the guys actually said he wanted to buy the book because of its cover's {%@*@$$^$#%#} value. The cover has a painting of a voluptuous naked woman.

So, anyway, today was a great day for news for MMM Press, which follows.

Silkie (MMM Press, 2007) by Anne-Marie Cusac wins an OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT AWARD from the Wisconsin Library Association!

Silkie was reviewed in New Madrid: journal of contemporary literature and a new review is forthcoming in American Book Review.

Anne-Marie Cusac’s new nonfiction book on punishment and torture is forthcoming soon from Yale University Press.

Further, our current poetry book contest deadline is August 16th, 2008. And we are please to announce that our new judge is Steven Huff.

Steven Huff’s second book of poems More Daring Escapes was released in 2008 by Red Hen Press. A book of stories, A Pig in Paris will be released in 2008 by Big Pencil Press. He is a Pushcart winner in fiction, and his poetry has been read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac. He teaches creative writing at Rochester Institute of Technology and in the MFA program at Pine Manor College. He is proprietor of a new literary publishing company, Tiger Bark Press. See the guidelines at:

(email entries are accepted now as well as traditional paper submissions)

Printable guidelines with an entrant’s order form are at:

Also, you can now go straight to MMM Press at for samples, audio, links, reviews, interviews, events, and more.
(or go through and follow the MMM Press links.)

Engaged in themes such as sex, gender, race, ecology, politics, history, folklore, pop culture, the media, Surrealism, mythology, feminist revisions of mythology, the occult, madness, and spirituality, MMM Press authors inspire with relevant themes as much as with bold innovations in poetics. MMM Press does not subscribe to any particular school(s) of poetics. The books vary widely, showing influences of confessional, lyric, narrative, experimental lyric and narratives poetry, multi-voiced narratives, multi-perspective narratives, etc.

Founded by Naomi Horii in 2003, Many Mountains Moving Press grew out of Many Mountains Moving: a literary journal of diverse voices. The press continues to publish exciting, groundbreaking poets. Authors include: Alison Stone, Jeffrey Ethan Lee, Patrick Lawler, Anne-Marie Cusac and Susan Settlemyre Williams. Generally publishes one prize-winning title each year. The 2007 competition final judge was Yusef Komunyakaa. Visit the site for extensive samples, audio, reviews, interviews, links, events, etc.

MMM Press books have been used in colleges and universities around the country.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

[untitled Allentown epilogue] something old revisited

Sometimes a synchronistic moment occurs. You work on a poem you haven't thought about in years. Then you hear about the person the poem was dedicated to.

I worked on this yesterday after having forgotten about it for years. Then today a call comes with news about the person, a close friend. The news was hard news.

Speaking not as a poet but as a person, this is one that reminds me a lot of my friends. Looking at it as a "work" that might be part of a longer work, I have to say this is the first time it made any sense to me, i.e. I can see where it fits into a bigger story, finally. I think this will be the end of a book I've had in the works for a very long time....

[untitled Allentown epilogue] for P.F.H.

“D’jou hear that?”
The screams were so piercing
through the jukebox, the clamor,
I nudged Bill, alert amid the beer,
the smoke and blaring.
He nodded—we left the crowd
for the almost stifled street.
No cars running,
no drunks singing,
no pedestrians—
just the muffled roar of the bar.
But then across the street
and across the corner
we heard the scream again
and slamming doors,
boots clomping down some stairs—
an exploding front door,
a slim figure fleeing.
She fell on her knees on the sidewalk,
curled over herself, pulled into herself
as if the concrete could hide her.
He charged out shouting over and over,

His fists just above her raised.
I shouted, “HEY! LEAVE THAT
He turned, lurched toward us,
then Bill grabbed me,
dragged me into his car,
revved and pulled it out of his spot,
aimed his headlights straight at them.
The woman looked at us
while slowly crawling away from him.
He threatened her to go inside—
she shouted back she’d never.
Then he set to kick her hard.
Bill floored the gas, and he looked up, froze;
meanwhile, Bill apologized:
“I’m sorry I stopped you.
He could be armed.
But we’re safe in here.
He can’t see us very well,
but we can watch his every move.
And the motor’s running....”
We watched them argue in Bill’s headlights:
the wraith hesitated, then retreated inside.
She stayed prone, shaking in sobs.
Then Bill parked again—
we didn’t know what to do.
She looked over at us,
her eyes full, curious.
Her face was puffy,
much younger than I’d thought—
a quavering cat too scared to move.
Then Pam opened the bar door,
phone in hand, urging,
“Get in here! I called the cops already.”
She pulled me in by my shirt.
“Do you wanna get killed?”
Tearing myself away,
and going back in, then,
I realized the answer
must have been

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

My father versus Commander Riker of Star Trek the Next Generation

(How my dad took a shot at the entire enterprise of the performing arts)

Because I had been in a handful of small theater productions when I was much younger, and because my parents were frantically opposed to the whole idea, I told my dad the story of Jonathan Frakes, the son of Professor James Frakes at Lehigh University.

My dad was busy getting a cup of tea in the kitchen as I spoke.

“Jonathan Frakes’ dad thought that a life in film and TV was a terrible mistake. They had real ugly and bitter struggles because the father thought the son would not get anywhere. But look— see, now he’s Commander Riker of Star Trek the Next Generation.

My dad paused before he left with a parting shot, without looking away from his tea cup, “Just give it a few years. Soon— he’ll be nothing!”

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Poet's Mother’s Death-Bed Conversion

Originally posted elsewhere on Jun. 4th, 2008 | 10:13 pm
{updated 07/03/2014}

My mom was in her hospital bed, smiling with rare warmth. The whiteness of the room was intense under the fluorescent lights. Maybe she was glad because I was the only one in our family to go to see her.

Without me saying anything, she said, “Go ahead, be happy.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“I want you to just be happy.”

Seeing my puzzled expression, she finally said, “You can write poetry.”

I was shocked, and she kept smiling. This was the same person who was so hell bent on me being in science, math, or law. The same person who had said, “Poetry is GARBAGE. Why do you want to add more GARBAGE to the GARBAGE of all the LOUSY people of the world?”

Yes, I was shocked, but hoping to believe it. After all, this time she could be dead in the near future. Maybe this was her death-bed conversion into a supportive mom.

She didn’t have much else to say, and neither did I.

I felt like a terrible dark cloud had been lifted off my head.

I wondered as I drove away if I hadn’t misjudged her all my life.

But then a few weeks later the specialists sorted it out, and it wasn’t advanced liver cancer. It wasn’t any kind of cancer. It was just an anomaly.

So she was out and feeling strong again like her old self at home, in her kitchen.

Then she told me, “You know what I said in the hospital?”

“Yes,” I smiled. This was one of the few truly happy memories I had of her.

“Well, forget it. I only said that because I thought I was dying.”

Friday, June 27, 2008

A re-post from the northern Colorado years | failures and revisions

§ § §

[January 26, 2005]

I don't like to dwell on failure, but every writer who is "on the job" for a couple decades has a pile of them somewhere (published or tucked away in a drawer or boxed up somewhere). This is one of the hardest things about the writing life: what to do when the writing does not turn out as well as it should have or could have, and there is no solution in sight.

I think of myself as one of the lucky ones because most of the times when I think I have written something really worthy it does get published and draws at least some of the attention it deserves.

On the other hand, there are lots of writers who get stuck or give up too soon or keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. I understand their frustrations, fears and anxieties. I have certainly had my share of duds. For every successful poem there are at least several fizzles and outright dead ends. (When I was younger, the fizzles outnumbered successes by a far greater number, too.)

I have gotten better at learning when to walk away from these disasters and to just try something else for a while. I have also learned from experience that the really great poems return. Even if the poem that misfired seems hopeless one day, in a couple years (or many years) it may open itself up again and suddenly seem quite clear as to how it needs to go. The ones that need you to come back have a way of calling you when you are ready.

But as I say this, I know it isn't true for everyone. Why is it true for me? Maybe it is the fact that I am willing to accept a high percentage of drafts that "blow chunks" compared to a low percentage that seem stellar right away. Most of my best poems started out in drafts that looked like crap. I'm the only person who could see any potential there. Why do I see potential there when any sane person would not? Why did I go back into something that seemed so unpromising to try to make it work again?

For example, that poem for Antonio Salemme [see the earlier January 2005 entries] actually had a weaker earlier incarnation, "white fire" (from the late 1980s maybe?) which was published in a little magazine. But I recognized its severe limitations as a poem while I was in a workshop with Galway Kinnell in 1999. What happened in the intervening years? For one thing, the woman who inspired the earlier poem went not just out of my life but far away (like Japan), which made it easier to detach the poem from a bunch of personal feelings that really did not help the poem at all. I no longer needed to say anything about how I felt about her. Instead, I had the painting in its pure and austere power to work with.

(The imagery from the same painting was used in the earlier poem also but it was not about the painting; it was about the feelings for this particular woman.)

I realized that what I really wanted to say, still, hadn't gotten said because this very personal relationship was in the way.

Ironically, even though the autobiographical elements all got stripped out of the new poem, I feel that it still represents (albeit indirectly) an essential part of me. In fact, as I read it now, I think it seems to me to be a more honest examination of that personal relationship even though that story isn't even represented in the poem anymore.

(Coleridge was a poet who also wrote very personal and embarrassing earlier versions of poems that evolved into less personal but more honest and great works. In America, people tend to think self expression is an end in itself for art. But most of the rest of the world knows better, I think.)

So, before I forget the original question, why did I go back to that old poem in the first place? The old poem, despite all its flaws, seemed to me to be demanding my attention. Perhaps it had been nagging me. It still contained the signature of the energy that gave it birth. That energy forced me to own up to the powerful feelings that inspired the poem in the first place, and that led me back to the originating moment of the work in the remote past. Reflecting on the past, I realized that the very old relationship had lost its "charge," but its meaning had now taken on a life of its own in the poem. It was almost as if the emotional energy of the poem had replaced the emotional energy of the relationship. Instead of thinking about the past, I was thinking of the past poem, and that was a far better situation for me as a writer. The poem had set me emotionally free of the past by memorializing it in an art form that was "permanent." That was the moment I felt the most free to work on the poem as a totally new thing; that was the moment I broke the tie with that past. Ironically, that was the moment the past became the most clear.

A "failure" became a "success" even though I had to wait more than ten years for that poem to unfold itself for me. I actually think that is one thing that a lot of good writers do; they transform their junk into something valuable, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. But you have to be willing to throw out the old stuff and say, "I can do that better!"

editors breaking promises, part 2

One of the earliest encounters I had with an editor saying he would and then would not publish my work happened when I was still in college. Looking back, I know that I was very young to have substantial space in any literary journal full of mostly pretty well established poets.

How did this happen? you ask.

Well, I handed this new poem to this guy about seven years older than me, and he was mesmerized and moved. On the spot he said he would publish it. But then he reversed himself much later, making up some reason. It might have been simply that I was too young or something. I was really upset about that then.

But now, having seen how many times a poem getting published in an obscure literary journal has caused careers to burst into the stratosphere, how many lives have been saved by the publishing of a poem, how many political catastrophes averted by a few sage phrases from a poet, I think, yeah, maybe it wasn't such a big deal.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A re-post from the northern Colorado years | poetic influences/influenzas

§ § §

[January 22, 2005]

It is Saturday January 22nd right now, but I am going to go backward to Sunday the 16th of January at 6 p.m. when I got to do the Poetry Show on the radio at KRFC 88.9 FM with Dona Stein, who has been a wonderful friend to my work as both a poet and a teacher of poetry. The idea was to have poets who teach poetry talk about the why and how of teaching poetry. My good friends Bob King (UNC colleague) and Donna Salemink (UNC alum) were on the air with me. I was very happy to see them and wished we could have talked much longer, but we were going on the air in a few minutes. KRFC is in the process of being renovated, so it was kind of half put together and half falling apart. Our host wanted to know why we taught...

I said it must be the fabulous wealth and the gold-plated Rolls Royces and the oil wells they give us at UNC because they place such tremendous value on poetry and the humanities etc. (I pictured in my imagination a four-foot tall oil well stuck in the asphalt of one of the vast university parking lots, and it was dry.)

To be perfectly honest, I do not really have any explanation for why I love to teach. It's just always been a strong compulsion that has been there almost as long as that even stronger compulsion to write and create. What made me swear solemnly at the age of eighteen to devote my life to writing? What made me think it was worth more than anything else in the world? That no sacrifice was too great etc?

(If my novel-writing buddy Simone Zelitch were here now eavesdropping, she would say, "Ah, you are bragging.")

In the spirit of avoiding bragging and slipping into exaggerations etc., I will make a few simple rules for this blog before I forget them: (i) only write about things about which I can be completely honest, (ii) tell the whole truth whenever practical or possible.

Of course, this means I am going to just have to simply not say anything at all about a lot of contemporary issues due to the way things are around me here. But I will make this promise for myself (and for anyone else who dives into this experiment) that I will be faithful to the truth in this blog.

I imagine that the ideal reader of this blog is a young writer, someone who probably knows my work and is curious about it and/or me. I wish that when I had started out in "Po Biz" that there had been more older writers who were genuinely truthful about the writing life and its strangeness. I think I owe it to the next generation to not make it seem easier or better than it is. But I also think I owe it to them to relate what makes it still worthwhile.

For one thing, I hear from some readers occasionally, including people I've never met or heard of who saw my work somewhere online or in print. Sometimes I even get things that seem like "fanmail." Sometimes I get a phone call from someone who saw my work online and loved it, and I am invited to read here or there.

Some of my readers have even told me that they don't just read my work; they re-read and re-read it. Of course, I am happy about this. But I also worry about the influence my work may have on them because influence is often a double-edged phenomenon. I have had in the past some poet friends who sort of fell in love with my work and could not help but start to imitate it in some ways. I was always flattered by this, but it was not just that simple. There was a sense of struggle....

When I first fell in love with the works of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Hart Crane, for example, it was quite overpowering and I went through imitative phases in relation to each of them. Eliot was by far the most deleterious influence (which is a kind of a compliment to his powers), but it took years to sort out for myself how I could find a stance in relation to his work that would enable me to go forward and not merely reiterate anything he had done. It was really torture, though, until that breakthrough in 1984 when I wrote "The Sylf." The influence of Pound, on the other hand, was much more beneficial and uncomplicated. No matter what terrible things you say about Pound as neo-troubadour, as fascist, as elitist, as anti-semite etc., there is still the self-sacrificing, compulsively and extravagantly generous friend that Pound was. Somehow this aspect of Pound pervades his greatest poetry, and it makes it a more giving field to wander in than Eliot. When you imitate Eliot, you always sound like a derivative, watery version of Eliot. But imitating Pound somehow throws you back out to your own voice, and you can come away from Pound as a better, more skillful writer than you were before. It is much harder to pick up any tricks from Eliot because his stylistic innovations are so peculiarly integral to his voice that they remind the reader of him (and how much better he is than you are). He is astonishingly subversive as an influence. I've seen lots of talented poets pretty much wrecked by Eliot, and so have lots of other poets. I think that subversive influence of Eliot's may have even fueled some of the backlash against his work.

So even though I still love Eliot's work, I recognize its hazards. It should almost have a warning label specifically written for young poets: CAUTION: reading Eliot may cause severe subversions and birth-of-genius-defects. Consult a metaphysician or a doctorate before digesting.

(Analogously, many poets have observed that Milton is a subversive influence whereas Shakespeare is a very generous influence. William Wordsworth is a potentially subversive influence while his sister Dorothy is a very generous influence. Poe and DeQuincey are both subversive influences, but Poe is much worse. Sylvia Plath is a subversive influence while her friend Anne Sexton is a relatively generous influence. Ginsberg is more of a subversive influence and Ferlinghetti is more of a generous influence. Etheridge Knight, Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds, my first great poet-mentor/friend and two of my past poet-teachers, are all great and generous influences.)

Throughout my teaching career, I have tried very hard to not overexpose my students to my work even though it may be the reason they are there in the first place. I'd feel terrible if my work inadvertently had undesireable side-effects. I hope that my work may be more of a generous reading experience. It seems to work this way for some of my students. But no one can ever predict this for sure. You can only find out the hard way by seeing what happens, and by then it may be too late.

But with all that said, I have skirted the real issue: what makes the writing life worthwhile? It's those moments when the gift comes and you are ready for it, those moments when you are fully conscious in the artwork and alive to all the possibilities of its truth, its sensuous and sinuous beauty. Those moments when the writing is more involving than anything else you could ever do in your existence, they bring you back to your true reason to live. They do more than make writing worthwhile, they make life worthwhile. Nothing can destroy those moments, and nothing can replace them. In those moments there is this "marvelous joy of being sure...."

Monday, June 23, 2008

editors breaking promises, worst case scenarios, part 1

Probably one of the most painful and horrible memories I have as a writer is finding out from an editor that he did not want to publish my work anymore despite the fact that he said he would, many times, very explicitly, in connection with an award that was pretty great.

I don’t want to go into the ugly details here, but there was one detail that was excruciating and, I think, revealing. We were talking face to face in a food court near a sort of balcony in a mall space, and this editor was not telling me why he changed his mind. In fact, he was not even admitting that he had changed his mind. He actually said these words as part of his “defense”— “I’m just a little guy.”

This was particularly excruciating because I had heard these exact same words before when I was in my early 20s from a poet in his early 40s. This older guy—formerly a close friend—made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to steal my girlfriend at the time—she was younger than me. Aside from attacking me and lying about me to her countless times, that guy once defended his own actions to me by saying, “I’m just a little guy.”

Of course, I didn’t share this information with the big-deal editor, and I always tried very hard to work with him, but to no avail. I learned from this that some editors will break a deal, no matter how much it damages another person’s life and career etc., and basically try to weasel out of it by being “little.”

On the positive side, from that point forward, I knew that at least one thing editors ought to do is try their hardest to stand by their words to writers.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

why editors keep promises, part 3

{originally posted June 5, 2008}

The best reason an editor has to keep a promise to a writer is when the editor feels like the work is a great gift, and then the editor wants to share it.

Tonight I received a poetry submission by a very circuitous route. This delayed the reading and responding by a good long time– seven months. Now I had heard from this particular writer maybe a month ago via email and replied that I didn’t know where the submission was, but she had sent it to another editor, who was supposed to have responded. That person resigned recently, and I asked for the leftover work and papers etc. to be shipped to me. This writer was in that large shipment; her submission had never been opened till today.

I was really moved by two of the poems; in fact, I got that rare sensation of something like the world having a new dimension open up underneath of itself. Lyric depth. When a poem has somewhere to go to and it succeeds, that is exciting in a really deep way. The other one was even better though. I felt chills reading it. That is something that makes this whole editing job seem much more worthwhile– when you discover something great from someone you never heard of before.

I don’t want to reveal the name of this poet because I haven’t asked her about how she’d feel about being mentioned in a blog, and it may be that the poems have been taken by someone else already.

When I lived in Colorado for five years, five LONG years, I often looked at the mountains 50+ miles away and was reminded of the age of the earth and the mountains and the brevity of our hours here on earth. This was consoling. Maybe it was the idea that the earth abides (relatively) forever. We poor fools of nature fretting and strutting our seconds on stage, in spite of our transience, matter a great deal somehow, and we know this deep inside. In our own ways, the things we do, the poems we write, the breaths we take, resonate for more than just the instant in the wind that we can feel, here and now. We are a minuscule part of something far greater, and the mountains are somehow an analogue to this idea. Even the mountains are minuscule and passing wonders against the age of the earth. But this makes them even more beautiful to us.

why editors keep promises, part 2.

MMM Vol VI., 2006, ended up with 93 contributors—90% of them were people who had been promised publication by the previous editorial staff. There were very few new people that we added to that issue, which the staff called “the catch up issue” while we were working on it.

I think that this issue was a very strong and very eclectic mixture—a very diverse and unusual anthology of 288 pages. It was heavy. When it came out with its beautiful b/w cover photo by Joseph Sorrentino of a young girl in Oaxaca, I knew we had created something that would keep up the standards of the past issues.

Keeping the promises the past editors made meant an enormous amount of work for us, but it was a good experience, that year.

Sometimes, that year and more recently, there was disagreement on the staff when e.g. one editor disliked things previous editors made. Sometimes an editor vehemently disliked things CURRENT editors made!

(This is okay with me as long as the staff acts in a way that fosters mutual respect; people need to be free to make decisions as editors and to have their space.)

No matter what, though, I think that it is more important to keep our word, and keep our individual words, to people once promises have been made.

Occasionally, a new poet or writer finds out we are alive, still, and guess what? A previous editor—gone some years ago—promised this person that this or that story would appear.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

why editors keep promises, part 1

When I became one of the editors of Many Mountains Moving, Inc. during 2005, I learned along with co-director Erik Nilsen that A LOT of people had been promised publication by previous editors, and much work had yet to appear.

I know it means a lot to writers, especially early in their careers, to get published in something like MMM. It meant a lot to me in 1997 when I first appeared in MMM. I was impressed by what was in the issue and by the fact that it sold out of Borders Books in center city Phila. very quickly. I also knew that it is horrible for young writers to get a promise and see that promise disappear.

It's true that the staff before Erik and I arrived had to resign or chose to resign pretty quickly (end of 2004--early 2005), and it's true that a lot of people thought MMM was dead. And it took a lot of effort and many great volunteers to help us through that very rough transition period (Thanks, Donna Salemink! Thanks, Shannon Arancio! Thanks, Bryan Roth and Barbara Sorensen-- veterans of the most uncertain hours.)

With all the departures, we were actually off the hook, i.e. we didn't have any contracts with the writers because we didn't make those contracts. We didn't accept that work. But our predecessors had. Why should we feel compelled to keep those promises?

1) I wanted to honor the promises of the previous editors because I believed in what they were doing; I knew they were great editors. They must have been doing an awful lot of things right because they had a very loyal and devoted following. Keeping promises that they made mostly fit in with what I believed in also. This was, in fact, a way to learn about the history of the aesthetic of the journal.

2) I wanted to keep promises for the sake of the writers because even if we were technically off the hook, we had a chance to help writers who wanted or needed the publication, and so this was a good reason to keep those old promises. Even if it wouldn't have been our fault if those poems never appeared, we had a chance to build some good will in the small world of poets & writers. Since there is little money in the literary world, especially "PO Biz," reputation really does count for a lot.

3) I myself have had some very terrible and important experiences with editors breaking their own promises to me, and these things usually DID have an impact on more than just the obvious things. So I knew firsthand how it feels to be on the other side of a broken deal. I didn't want to put anyone through that or anything remotely like it.

4) karma, ultimately, is a reason why I wanted to keep the promises we made. I believe the things we do mean more than we can fathom in any given moment, even any given lifetime.