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

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[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

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[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.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Emcee for the Reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC during AWP

This was first posted on May 23, 2008, but it is about an event in January 2008 in NYC.

Being the emcee for a reading at the Cornelia Street Café for the Many Mountains Moving, Inc. authors and editors was thrilling, especially hearing the work of my peers there.

Patrick Lawler, whose book Feeding the Fear of the Earth is one of those rare books capable of changing the way the world looks and feels after you are finished reading it, gave a very charismatic and funny performance. I knew he was really on from the moment he opened his mouth and kidded me, his editor, about the cuts I suggested in his book manuscript. (All the other authors had very nicely complimented me on being this inspiring editor etc.)

I can’t remember Patrick’s exact words, but he said something like, “My book used to be fifty pages longer than it is, and then Jeff made me cut all the best ones! So tonight I’m going to read those poems that aren’t in this book.” What made this so funny was that he did it without a hint of irony. I was laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair. Patrick is usually an amazing reader, but this night he was even better than usual. He was literally glowing with inspiration under the stage lights.

It was an exciting gathering for MMM Press. This was our first and, so far, only group reading. The setting was a very beautiful long room with decorative lighting and not a lot of other lighting around the dining tables in the basement space. The small bar at the opposite end of the room was far enough away that it didn’t interfere with the reading and vice versa.

This was also the first time I heard Susan Settlemyre Williams read—she was added at the almost last minute because we were not sure the book, Ashes in Midair, would arrive on time for the AWP book fair. It was wonderful to hear in her own voice the work that has been garnering so much great praise. Anne-Marie Cusac in her part of the reading from her book, Silkie, was luminous and elegant; she has a style of reading that draws you in closer to the subjects of her work, which are very strong in their sensuality and their sensory experiences. This was also the first time that I heard Alison Stone read her work, and she had a very distinctive voice that cut through the atmosphere with its sharp insights, its surprising turns and inflections. They Sing At Midnight is a book that always makes a strong impression.

All in all the reading revealed to me some of the strands that make MMM, Inc. what it is.

Thaddeus Rutkowski, our new fiction editor, also read in a very inspired and inspiring way. Though I had heard all or nearly all of the pieces before, he was so on top of his comic timing that I was laughing to the point where it hurts. Worse, I couldn’t stop laughing that hard.

I actually did not have a great reading on stage myself; it was okay though. Other worries were really absorbing my energy, so it was very hard to concentrate on the work. But at least a few people really liked it a lot. I read from invisible sister, which was published by MMM Press before I became part of the staff.

The person in charge of the scheduling programs, Angelo Verga, was very kind afterwards. He does not come to everything at the Cafe—it is so busy there. He said that we had done a great job all together. I think that for him that was high praise.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A first hearing of Patrick Lawler in real life

Patrick Lawler’s reading in upstate N.Y. [Originally posted 10/02/2006]

This past summer (2006) I saw the poet Patrick Lawler reading near his home turf, upstate NY, and it was totally worth the trip of 234 miles one-way up. (It took 4.5 hours to drive from the Philly suburbs up through the mountains of PA and NY into the finger lakes region near Syracuse—gorgeous dense greenery in great depth, mosses, lush grass, shrubbery, giant trees covering the steep hills and moisture off the expansive lake where people swam.)

I met Patrick at 5 p.m. for an early dinner in Cazenovia’s coffeehouse, which was several times larger than most fast food restaurants. The reading was in the front room——exposed beams, old fat couches, walls of high windows, a dozen cafe tables, and a couple college kids around a guitar. The “dining room” was twice as big and had doors that separated it from the reading/performance space.

Patrick and I tried (in vain) to set up a very expensive Sony handycam on a tripod to record the reading, but the tech guy from the college had given Patrick no memory card! (the idea had been to record the reading for our Many Mountains Moving Press site.)

Patrick was in very high spirits, especially when a few of his friends stumbled in on their way to go swimming, happily unaware of the reading at 7 p.m. He had them falling out laughing in no time. One of them bought the new book, too, and then they were off for the lake under the glaring evening sun. Then more of Patrick’s friends came and some of his students. By the time we started there were a good two dozen people— twenty 20 minutes later there were more than thirty, which is pretty F$#^%^$ great for a gorgeous summer evening in upstate NY with school out and people on vacation and/or in vacation mode.

The emcee was very generous to Many Mountains Moving; she said it is one of the few magazines that tells a poet that she has really made it. She also told the audience who I was and that I’d come from Philly just for the event. She also made a nice pitch for Patrick’s three books.

Patrick’s reading was instantly engaging and comic. He read several of the same poems that were in the April 2006 reading (the audio is here). Then he worked up to the more serious and provocative poems. There was one in particular that spliced descriptions of Marlon Perkins from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the Miss America pageant and a couple other motifs. It was funny, vertiginous, satirical and personal, all at once.

(Later he told me that someone had translated the poem into Russian, so it existed in an anthology in Russian, which he was unable to read.)

This was my first time seeing Patrick read in real life, so it was very enlightening and stirring. I think the audience applauded sincerely for every poem. There was also some hysterical laughter in the audience, especially concerning an autobiographical poem dedicated “to Mary,” in which this Mary character had Patrick hold up a very large boa constrictor that took a great interest in his nose. In the poem, Mary got mad at Patrick for being scared of the boa’s mouth when it had only bitten one person in the nose before, and that was a fluke.

(Afterwards, Mary, who was the hysterical laugher in the audience, told me later that she was “disappointed” that Patrick was scared of this boa etc.)

The reading was a great success, with a good number of books sold.

Now if we can only get the rest of the world to know about him….

It seemed a bit crazy (even for me) to drive that far for a poetry reading, but it was worth it! And it was good that many of the people picked up MMM flyers for our contests and our subscription form etc. There were also a few dozen new site hits to the MMM Press page the day after the reading. So we did well all around, I think.

The next day I was up at 5:30 and on the road to Long Island (nearly 300 miles), visiting relatives in “the empire state.”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

My first acquaintance with Patrick Lawler

This was originally posted 06/07/2006. I think that if a blog is worth reading again years later, then it was a good idea to do it the first time. I will try in these old and new blogs to only post things that are worth returning to.

I do not think that I met Patrick Lawler until AWP 2005, which was in Vancouver, and Many Mountains Moving, Inc. was still working on his book, Feeding the Fear of the Earth, at the time, and the process had been taking longer than anyone at MMM had imagined. Nonetheless, Patrick was more than patient; he was extraordinarily open-minded and willing to talk about the ultimate shape of the book.

I found it to be an extraordinarily poignant, politically provocative and personally challenging book. Susan Terris, the MMM Book Contest judge, called it "outrageously original," and I was compelled to agree more and more as I understood the depths of the style. I was impressed by how he wrote so felicitously and beautifully about the environment, torture, urban decay, our political/moral obliviousness, our deeply ingrained (little-discussed) somewhat schizoid national melancholia about money, fame and narcissism, and so much else....

Damn, the last time I'd read a book with that kind of scope, it was, swear to God, A Cony Island of the Mind.

Even better, Patrick turned out to be great to work with, and for that I was very grateful. Better yet, he introduced us to some other wonderful writers, Linda Pennisi and George Kalamaras, and he turned out to be a great reader of his own poems and a very entertaining presenter of his thoughts on, for example, Surrealism. He was even a sort of a cause célèbre at AWP 2006 in Austin when he talked about Surrealism. (I have also seen a DVD of his April 27, 2006 reading at LeMoyne College, and it was just stunning.)

It was a blast to have him and his book there on the table at the AWP Bookfair in Austin for Many Mountains Moving.

Though it took a while to work out all the design elements of the book, we are all very proud of it. Getting to know Patrick's work and Patrick himself have been very inspiring gifts.

Friday, June 13, 2008

about Antonio Salemme, the artist's vision

Here is a 2005 entry about a poem inspired by a great painting by Antonio Salemme. The poem made it to the finalist round in a nice competition. The value of this writing, though, is the story around the poem, i.e. how I learned and what I learned about painting from Salemme and William DeRaymond.... It is really about the artist's vision.

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[January 20, 2005]

Recently, I heard the results of The Fifth Annual James Hearst Poetry Prize sponsored by North American Review (573 Entrants • 2583 Poems). I was a finalist with one poem, which is below. I did not think the judge Billy Collins was going to pick my poem as the winner, to be perfectly honest, because the poem I sent wasn't really up his alley, so to speak. I was glad to make the finalist group though because that means they will publish this poem. I have always liked this poem despite the fact that it is "difficult."

I'm going to do the unusual thing and actually say how this poem was created. It began like, jesuschrist (!) more than twenty years ago. Yeah, it was 1984, and I was staying at a friend's house due to being somewhat temporarily destitute (okay, okay, i was homeless for a while after I was a literally starving artist in a real third floor garret with bullet holes in the windows, blah blah blah. It may sound romantic etc. but it really was mostly ugly and nasty. Stuff that makes you prone to anti-social habits and rots your teeth etc.)

So, anyway, this poet friend was best friends with this incredibly talented genius painter William DeRaymond, and he was the protegé of this once world famous painter-sculptor Antonio Salemme, whose works were just sitting around the house. I at first did not appreciate what Salemme was doing as a painter. Bill, the protegé, had to teach me how to see what his paintings were doing. It took quite a while before Bill was able to make me just look and look and look at the painting. He just kept asking, "Can't you see what it is?"

It was figurative but not in a realist way. You could see a swan drifting by on the smooth water and a man from behind, just the top part of his torso, head and an arm flung up in a gesture of heart-rending rapture. He was obviously struck by the beauty of the swan, and it was obviously unconcerned with him in its radiant beauty. Suddenly the situation of the painting became somehow alive and dramatic as the knowledge and wisdom of the insight became clear to me. I felt as though I were suddenly pulled out of myself into this vision as I understood how it was all at once tragic, inevitable, and beautiful that the man/artist/seer cannot fail to love and desire the unattainable.

It reminded me of a line from Speech and Phenomenon by Derrida that went something like, "inspite of what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes." There was something tragic about Derrida's vision also, but Salemme's vision was much greater as he was not merely stating a position within the limits of human desire. Somehow, due to the style of the presentation of the painting, he let the viewer of the painting identify with the man who desires and at the same time comprehend his situation, as it were, from a perspective of the greater totality of the universe, which did not diminish the emotion. This other aspect made it more intense as one became both the artist as entrapped/engaged in desire and also the far-seeing, more ethereal self, something like the compassionate oversoul.

Perhaps Salemme in his own vision and wisdom had fully comprehended and accepted the ultimate irony of love and desire, and due to this complete surrender of self-interest had been able to more completely experience and thus convey the agony of that knowledge.

So in this poem, I was trying to explore and explain the painting in a poetic form so that readers might feel a little of what I felt and be intrigued enough to try to find out about Antonio. I tried to be very faithful to the painting although, admittedly, no poetic translation could faithfully render what this painting achieved.

After a painting by Antonio Salemme*

shielding his eyes, he half-lifts his arm
a startled wing

floating away like a gasp
because she is crossing his line of sight

a gash in the world sailing from right to left
as if there were nothing else

but his ethereal agony
that isn’t the hunger for love or sex

but an ache like that which draws the eye
to blue jetting flames from orange coals

or ox-eye daisies in the field
bellis perennis wanting nothing

and she—she is caught in the eye like snow
but it is the eye that melts—

he can’t un-see her figure in the flow
or separate himself from her

mirror image of an S curve
her neck and breast a cool impasto

a pure fire on the aquamarine
poised to edge out of sight

and he can’t help feeling she is
a time that was

when sunlight licked the fog away
and he was the naked air still steaming

a morning song spilling urgently
a sound-fountain from his lips

a gale-force bearing seeds to new births
or just concrete-paved earth

because he couldn’t—and can’t—revoke this love
because what never is is heaven to him

and she—she sees through her own image, a swan—
but she knows he can’t.

The painting changed my feelings, my consciousness about life and art forever. And every other painting by Salemme that I saw had this same kind of transformative power. It was art that enacted a kind of zen koan. It was that powerful, like a moment of enlightenment. But it was only there if you were ready for it. I have never in my life seen painting that was anywhere near Salemme's in vision and power; it had a kind of higher wisdom that took you far beyond yourself. Seeing his work changed the way i saw everything. He was so much more evolved as a seer that once you saw what he was doing, it was irrevocable.

Then I understood Bill's zealousness and his frustration. For once you know how powerful a truly great painting can be, you feel very upset with the shallow, the philistine, the flashy, and the trashy. Bill used to say angrily, "Painting is not muzak for your walls!"

Thanks to Bill, I actually got to meet Antonio once in 1984 and saw some things he was working on in his studio. He was over ninety even then (he was a contemporary with Picasso), but he was still vibrant and actively painting great new things. (He looked more like a very healthy sixty year old.) He was best known for his nude statue of Paul Robeson in alabaster, which won the Prix de Rome in the 1930s. Antonio was, and still is, the greatest painter I have ever seen.

Now that I am older, I understand how the greatest art is often completely overlooked. The greatest vision, which can produce the most profound work, is not usually obvious. The viewer has to be sufficiently hungry for the truly great to even be willing to look for it. But that also requires an educated viewer who knows that there is the possibility of a truly great vision in art.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Re-posts, for poets everywhere

A Writer's Blog (Responses welcome)

[June 8, 2008]
I started this blogging process in January 2005, in Greeley, CO, and I have heard that people have enjoyed it.

This is the premise that all the blogs I wrote were based upon:

"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."
[Jan. 22, 2005]

Looking back on all of this now (from the center of Philadelphia), this first "mission statement" modified into being more specifically about themes of interest to poets, younger poets especially.

I think it is possible that blogs may inadvertently contain or become "literature," and it seems to me that just as the pop culture was decades ahead of the critical community of academia regarding film, the pop blog ("blop" culture?) may be decades ahead of the critics again.

Whenever academia catches on and catches up, it has tendencies to throw up [sic] on everything so much pseudo-hyper-intellectualization that it ruins everything. I know this because I have a Ph.D. in British Literature from NYU. So before someone realizes what the significance of popular blogs is, I think that readers and writers should try to push this thing as far as it can go. Toward this end, I'm going to be revisiting my old blogs and reposting the most enduring ones (i.e. I still get a laugh out of them or there is something worth remembering there) and writing new ones on similar themes.

Here is the first "Re-post."

"It is January 11, 2005 10:44 p.m. in northern Colorado, i.e. it's past midnight in the world I used to call home.

I decided to start writing this blog to record a few observations that deal fairly strictly with being a writer in the increasingly strange world.

Last night I gave a reading with another poet, Tim Hernandez, in Denver in the LoDo Tattered Cover. I have been very sick with a virus, so getting there was very hard, actually. The distance from Greeley to the reading was about 65 miles each way, and I'd never been there before. So after work (teaching), after crashing for a while, after not being able to eat much anyway, and after some medicine took hold, I hit the highway where, to my surprise, most of the traffic was cruising way over 80 mph, a lot of it near 100 mph. This was harrowing for an east coaster where the upper limit is usually 65 mph, or frequently less.

Anyway, the bookstore itself was beautiful, as promised, and the fact that it was nearly empty did not diminish its charm, its vastness, its uniqueness. The event room was really great: clear acoustics, a tall podium, glasses of water at the ready, a wide stage, neat stacks of poetry books on large desks, the nicely displayed book covers with tattoos, the large author portraits on the wall, seats for a hundred people, a thoughtful host/emcee in evidence (though not immediately present), and two people waiting for a reading to start.

The two people in the audience at 7:27 (the reading started at 7:30) were very nice. They were both casually but smartly dressed women in their late twenties, short hair, glasses, maybe. I said, "Hi." "You're one of the poets," one of them said.

Thinking that I've had worse audiences, I said, "I guess you're the audience."

One of them said, reassuringly, "I'm sure more people will show up." Then, as if on cue, the host walked in and promised to find the other poet.

Actually, since I know roughly two people in Denver, I was hoping the other guy would bring some people. A bunch of my students said they would try to come, but I knew it was a very, very long shot as any one of them would have to be as crazy as I am to drive 130 miles roundtrip for a reading by a guy you could hear in your hometown. Right?

But then one of them came! And from almost as far away, Ron, another workshop participant from Boulder, and his mother came, and another guy from Boulder who somehow just knew my work and had seen me before also showed. Confronted with that kind of—what would you call it—friendship? respect? of the people who came so far just to hear me, I decided to go for broke in the actual reading once I got up there.

Before it started there were maybe a dozen people, not including Tim's wife and two kids. Tim, who read first, had a wonderful, warm, open style. He actually invited and got questions from the audience in the midst of his reading. He was so casual on the one hand but very evocative and impassioned in the midst of his reading itself, on the other. There was warm applause after almost every poem he did. It was also nice to hear about his theater background and theatrical endeavours and how they complemented his poetry writing. (That was something we had in common, actually. Plus we were both married and had babies in the home. I really wanted to talk to him more after it was all over.)

After I was introduced, I wanted to make a joke about the fact that both of our books featured big tattoos very prominently, but being sick I forgot to say, "I guess it's Tattoo Night at the Tattered Cover." (The host, who had tattoos, had admired the beautiful image on my bookcover and asked about it.)

In the reading itself I felt better and better. I hit a certain space deep inside the poems where you lose all self-consciousness and just let them take over. At one point I realized that the interpretation I was doing was actually far better than the studio version I'd killed myself over for many months. That was kind of a great revelation on the one hand, but at the same time, part of me was thinking— "Sh$#— gotta get back in the studio and redo this whole %#^%$&* thing!"

Another thing that dawned on me in the midst of that 30 minutes was that I was very turned on by Denver.

For a thousand miles around Denver in all directions, there isn't anything else really like a big city. Denver is the most isolated major urban center in North America. Maybe it's even worse than that. Maybe it's the most isolated metro area in the western hemisphere. I forget where I read this factoid.

But Denver threw me into high gear the last time I read there also at the Colorado Poetry Festival. I got to read in a renovated brewery with a vat twenty-feet wide in my line of sight. Somehow that was inspiring to me.

I think this Denver effect may be due to the fact that my "hometown" is Philadelphia, a major east coast city with 1.4 million people within its bounds, and at least as many in its neighboring satellite/suburb counties. For me to go to Denver is exciting in the same way it was exciting when I'd go from the suburbs into the big city where all the interesting and strange people and things were.

Why do so many of us poets and writers have to leave the great cities that we came from?

It's kind of like an intellectual diaspora, and the economics of the conservative policies of the last decades have made this the norm, not the exception. This means that intellectual communities in America are continually losing their eloquent spokespeople; the cities that used to start revolutions in coffeehouses now merely house chains of Starbucks, Seattle's Best, and the next big whatever."