Thursday, December 24, 2015

At The Nightingale School

Recently I spent a morning at The Nightingale School in Manhattan, a private school for girls that has a deep commitment to writing and literature. I started out the day talking to a class of seniors, young women with perceptive, not-always-easy-to-answer questions, the kind that bring out complexity and nuance. The class was taught by Brad Whitehurst, a poet himself, and with us was another teacher of poetry, Maya Popa. Maya was a student at the school when I read there last, in 2006, and like many young writers, even those who don't know they're writers yet, she must have been hungry for poetry, for a language that was in some measure commensurate with the inner life, or at least tried to be. Now the students call her Ms. Popa, and she's publishing poems and moving toward her first collection. When the class was over, she and Brad and I walked out into the hall, on our way to the auditorium where Maya would introduce me (a lovely circularity, or at least a stitch in crochet chain) and I'd read to the Upper School.

But when we entered the stairwell, which was fairly dim, a marvelous thing happened. The girls of the Lower School. the little ones in elementary grades, began to come streaming up the stairs. It must have been all of them, there were so many, and every single one of their faces seemed lit up from within. You could see that they were thinking all kinds of things -- a bit of nerves about the next class, an eagerness to join a game and move a restless body, a sadness here, a distracted look there -- but those were the surface signs of engagement in a new-ish life, a small girl self, and through that shone a glow of exhilaration, this almost physical light. 

I'm thinking about time a lot lately. The poems I'm scribbling at and not finishing seem centered on the mystery of time's passing, this difficult amalgam of fluidity and relentless progression. Does anyone understand this primary, determining fact of us, what it is to be in time?

There we were on the stairs, myself the eldest, then Brad the fine and seasoned teacher, and then Maya, adult in presence and perception though recently traveled from the audience of young women at the reading up onto the stage. I wonder if this journey feels recent to her? Probably not; it seems a long way from one's teens into one's twenties, and not nearly so far from the thirties to the sixties, at least for me. Whatever the disparate experiences of the three of us going down the stairs, a startlingly beautiful future poured up towards us. Maybe the stairwell wasn't really dark; it might be that the faces of a hundred and some hurrying little girls were bright enough to dim the space around hem.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Heaven for Stanley

The first time I went to one of Stanley Kunitz's birthday parties, he was just turning 90. I was sent by a magazine to write about the event, which was held on the waterfront deck of a painter, and attended by all Provincetown's older and serious artists. It truly did feel like the bohemians of another era were going strong, there in the sun, downing martinis, delighted to be in attendance. I knew Stanley just a little then; our friendship had just begun when we'd given a reading together for the National Seashore. He and his wife Elise had been warm advocates for my work, and Stanley obviously loved giving emotional support and guidance to younger poets he admired. I think I was 40 then, but compared to 90, I appeared to be a young poet indeed.

One of the reasons the magazine had sent me was that they thought this birthday party was probably his last. In fact, every time Stanley gave a reading during the decade to follow it felt like an occasion; audiences were moved by this small man striding up to the podium, and how his rather quavery voice became steady and strong as he read Touch Me, The Portrait, Route Six, The Layers, and so many other poems people knew and loved. I had the good fortune to introduce him a number of times in those years -- at the Sunken Garden in Connecticut, where he was magisterial, and at the Dia Foundation Space in Chelsea, a reading of spellbinding intimacy. I'll  never forget reading with him at New York is Book Country, an outdoor fair in Manhattan. Fifth Avenue in midtown had been closed for the occasion, and we were to read on an elevated wooden platform. When we arrived, Julia Child was being interviewed on stage -- was she a little in her cups? Then I read and then, dwarfed by the huge towers around him, there was this 95 year old man in a body that seemed both delicate and vital at once, and for a while he owned that city: I am not yet done with my changes.

All in all I went to ten of Stanley's birthday parties, nine of them in the house in the far west end of town, up on the  slope before the last of Cape Cod trails down into a spiral arm of sand. I wrote a poem after the party for his 98th year. And now the wonderful students, faculty and staff at Moses Brown School in Providence, RI, had made this video version.  I'm hugely moved by it: how it calls back Stanley and that party, and how the poem, something I've made of my time with him, appears in the mouths of all these people, each a distinct and lovely self. It's a metaphor for the life of poetry, how it enters, if we're lucky, many ears, many mouths. Stanley and I are spoken here. We have new company in the world. We're enlarged.

I'm reading on Friday, May 1 (tomorrow!) at Moses Brown, for the students in the daytime, and for the public at 7. If you're anywhere nearby, you're invited.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A new website for APR, and a new poem from me

The American Poetry Review seems like it's been around for my entire life as a poet, and when I went to look up the year of the journal's founding -- 1972 --that turns out be almost true. I finished my first year in college then, dropped out, and moved to Iowa, where I worked in a child care center and wondered what had become of the revolution I'd been expecting,

APR always offered an energizing mix: glamorous or soulful or sometimes honestly artless photos of poets on the big tabloid-style cover, and poems by poets I followed eagerly, and by people I'd never heard of, some of whom i'd come to love and some I'd never hear of again. And columns, and reviews, and letters contentious or laudatory. It made the poetry world feel both larger (look how many of us, how many ads for new books and conferences and MFAs) and encompassable, since you could find out about nearly all of it inside these pages.

And it wasn't just American poetry and poetics. There were steady doses of translations, and un-expected projects like a special section that reprinted the entire text of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in facsimile. That kind of surprise seemed a signature gesture.

I'm only a little embarrassed to admit that I shared what must be a fan-
tasy of many a young poet, the not-quite-imaginable experience of seeing my face on the cover. By the time that did happen, thirty-something years after I first read the magazine, it was a pleasure, but it was no longer my ambition -- which is the ironic way of success: by the time you get something you once wanted, you now want something else. Back in 1972 I wanted to be the sort of poet who'd be featured, but for what kind of poem I truly couldn't have said. Well, good ones, But what would a good poem of mine be like?

So just now something I feel quite honored by has happened. APR has redone their website completely, and the editors have posted a new poem of mine -- one that will be in their May issue,which isn't out yet -- as a kind of headliner on the new site. This pleases me so much because it's a great, perennial magazine, and because it's a poem I didn't know I could write.

My work proceeds from the observed detail of experience, and my method is one of moving from description toward feeling and meaning. But of course sometimes there are things I want to write about which I haven't experienced directly, things I learn about through the news. The disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when those who'd crawled for their lives up out of the filthy water onto the bridge were sent back by police with weapons raised. The bit of video that slipped through CNN's filters, a dead Iraqi boy, maybe four years old, in his father's arms, in the rubble of their home.

I think the fact that I'd have to imagine the details isn't so much the problem as received language is. My Katrina and my Iraq come packaged in a vocabulary that is mediated, censored and euphemized,
and the choices seem to either step around that vocabulary altogether (tough when you don't have much other) or to ironize it, which works in a poem whose intent is to critique polit-speak but may be less useful for a poet more interested in the evocation of aspects of human emotional experience than in the critique of official language. This problem often distract me from finding my way into a poem, and a draft may sit a long time, maybe forever, stalled by my inability to find a way in.

I think I have overcome this exactly twice, once in an old poem called "Charlie Howard's Descent,' about a young man murdered in Bangor Maine in the 80s, and in the new poem that APR has posted,
which is called "In Two Seconds," and considers the murder of Tamir Rice last November by the Cleveland police. In both these instances, it was really sheer rage that overcame by reservations, and pushed me  -- gave me an actual shove -- in the direction of finding the sort of personal connection that would allow the poem to be written. In the earlier poem, it's of course my identification with Charlie Howard, my own history of feeling judged, excluded or threatened, that my sexuality needed to be concealed but that I was actually incapable of keeping that aspect of myself hidden away.

The rage that I felt over the police shooting of a 12-year-old boy was tied to the last year's other terrible racist violence, the cumulative weight of that anger and grief. My friends Marie Howe and Tina Chang had organized a reading in Washington Square; they needed, and felt we all needed, poems to strengthen or center us or cry out for us. The looming date of the reading helped, but what made the poem possible was when I saw an extended version of the video of the shooting; the time that passes between the squad car coming to a rest and the officer firing his weapon is clear there, for all to see: two seconds.

All my new, unfinished drafts seem to be about time, and so the notion that this life could be judged, its fate determined, in two seconds struck me to the core. How much had gone into the making of that life, and how much future disappeared with him, collapsing there on the grass? Because the link to my own obsessive territory was so clear there, and my need to speak so strong, the poem came pouring out. Of course there's been a longish process of trimming and fiddling, but that quality of spontaneity, of an outpouring of feeling for Tamir in the moment -- I want my poem to preserve that.

You can read it at

Monday, April 6, 2015

Nothing That Has Ceased to Arrive

STORY QUARTERLY,  a distinguished and long-lived journal from Camden, New Jersey, Whitman's home for many years, published this essay of mine -- actually a few pages from WHAT IS THE GRASS, the book about Walt Whitman I've been working on (and working on) -- about a year ago. The magazine's just put up a link to the piece on their website, and reading over it today made me feel anxious to get done with the busyness of April and back to this book. It feels as if it's sitting there, nearly whole (at least in my sense of its shape) and waiting to be attended to. It stops somewhere, waiting for me. I'm coming, I want to tell it, I know I've been slow, but I'm coming!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Here's a terrific review of DEEP LANE,  written by Doni M. Wilson and just out
from the Houston Chronicle. I recommend a look at the Chronicle's posting of it, 
just for a look at the apt (and entertaining) photo of a mole that accompanies the 
review, illustrating a line that's quoted in the review's first paragraph.
"Mark Doty, winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle 
Award, offers a new collection of poems called "Deep Lane," in which he examines 
the nature of descent. In (the shared title of several poems in the collection — all dif-
ferent experiences of the same street), the Rutgers University professor and former 
University of Houston professorthinks about "Down there, the little star-nosed engine 
of desire/at work all night, secretive," where experience carves its indelible marks, 
but cannot be repeated: "Don't you wish the road of excess/led to the palace of 
wisdom, wouldn't that be nice?" As in most of Doty's poems, that road might not 
lead to wisdom, but it does lead to something: knowledge, experience, the images 
or memories you cannot forget.
The opening poem begins "When I am down on my knees," and that is not a bad place necessarily, because that is where the literal and metaphorical task of "digging" begins: "all day we go digging, /harrowing, rooting deep"—with "deep" being the key word in this, and all of these poems. More than homage to Seamus Heaney and his well-known strains of digging,
Doty reminds us of the profundity of the every day, "the wild unsayable" 
that comes when we take plunges. He says, "Beauty's the least of it," 
but we still know it is a big part of it, the lyricism of the poems 
providing proof. Once you dig hard enough, whether through "study," 
"prayer," or hard times, Doty suggests when you hit the hard bottom ("the anvil"), 
then "maybe you're already changed." We believe him.
As Doty watches his dog go on a tear, he is reminded of the reality of death, the 
ever-presentdanger of dangers that punctuates our days. But even in the midst of 
seeing"where the backhoe will dig a new grave" — someday — Doty reminds us, 
like Wallace Stevens, that "death is the mother of beauty," and of living life even 
when defying the conventions that constrain it. He sees his dog "in his wild figure 
eights," and says, "You run, darling, you tear up that hill." We see his point: better 
now than never.

For Doty, nature is our teacher and sometimes the lessons are dark. Yet Doty can be
\ funny: he questions nature, how it is created "implacable, without boundary, pure 
appetite." The poet says, "I wouldn't know anything about that." But we don't believe 

This collection will win awards. The best pieces are about what Doty calls "the what-
I-lack-speech-for" (he doesn't), what he calls in "Crystal" the notion of "con-
sequentiality" (it exists),and the "hanging, and caught within that/want without fulfill-
ment or satisfaction" (we've all been there). If you travel down "Deep Lane" with 
Doty, you will know what it is "To be ravenous, and lack a mouth" — and there is 
no way to forget that.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Poems Here on Earth: Galway Kinnell

Last April Alex and I drove up to Vermont with the dogs and spent two days with Galway and Bobbie Bristol Kinnell, wonderfully snowed in, with a good two or three feet of the stuff covering the hill where the house sits, and the old apple orchard, and the stone walls, and the field riddled with voles where we played croquet two summers ago. Bobbie had tried to get a message to us to tell us about the weather, but we were already on the way, and I think in the end we were all glad we hadn't gotten the message. It was a warm, convivial, surprisingly comfortable time; Galway had been suffering from a form of cognitive impairment caused perhaps by leukemia, perhaps by complications from treatment, perhaps by eight decades on earth, We drank lots of tea, watched our dogs tumble with theirs (mostly peacefully, with a few time-outs in the car to cool down, and looked at lots of photographs. Bobbie had mentioned to me that Galway liked looking at photographs of poets, so I brought along a couple -- Margaretta Mitchell's anthology and portrait collection from California, and something else I now forget. Galway and I sat on the couch -- a very warming fire in front of us, and every morning Bobbie dressed him so he looked gentlemanly and ready for the day -- and I'd watch his face light up when he'd recognize someone. Names had entirely fled from his memory, and mostly he'd just say nothing or a word or two. The exception was when we got to a portrait of Sharon Olds, one I didn't think caught a Sharon i recognized. I said I didn't think it was a good likeness; Galway answered, "She has many aspects," his most compete and acute sentence of the weekend.

The next morning Alex and I made some strong coffee, which we are loath to start the day without and which Galway and Bobbie probably didn't drink much. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and though I don't recall Galway actually saying anything, he was clearly relishing his coffee, and when asked if he'd like a second cup there was a firm and resounding yes. More relish, and then, with Bobbie's consent, a third, and the poet grew bright-eyed, savoring the sweet hot cup in the good breakfast company, a happiness you could feel.

I've been thinking, since Galway's passing in October, about what he meant to the poets of my generation, trying to articulate that to myself; I've never done that, exactly, as his work and his presence has always been a part of my poetic life in a way that made it less likely I'd stand back to examine it.  In other words, his influence, a deeply shaping one, particularly in terms of the understanding he conveyed to us as to what poetry is for.

When I was still in high school,  I discovered the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. It was at that time in an little 20's Spanish bungalow on Speedway Boulevard, and I found it because my wonderful high school drama teacher, a literate man intensely interested in the welfare of the young actors in his charge, had introduced me to Richard Shelton, a poet who'd be wonderfully generous to me over the next few years, and in some ways contribute substantially to saving my life. Home in those those days had spun out of control, and i lived in real emotional danger and some physical danger too, and was hovering on the edge of homelessness. But there was one thing I seemed to have a gift for, and people noticed, and were tremendously kind to me. I could go to the Poetry Center anytime I wanted and read, or listen to tapes, or just breathe in the atmosphere.

And of course I'd go to poetry readings, and I liked to hang out under an olive tree in front of the cottage where the visiting poets stayed. I'd see them walk out into the sunlight, and to me they seemed beings of another order, as if their feet didn't entirely touch ground. I wanted to see them, and I guess I wanted to make contact, but I was far too shy to ever say a word to them. In this way I observed Allen Ginsberg, Mark Strand, Jim Tate, Phil Levine, Lawson Inada, and Galway. I can't remember if I was encouraged to sign up for conferences with a couple of the visitors,  or if I chose two I thought sufficiently non-threatening and signed up myself. Thus I met William Stafford, who read my baby neo-surrealist poems and told me, with real sweetness, "I have a feeling these are poems in heaven, but they're not poems on earth yet," which I thought about the best critical thing that anyone could possibly say; I felt seen, and I felt there was hope, and what else do you need? My other conference was with Diane Wakoski. My cat had been hit by a car the night before, and when I expressed my sorrow about it, she said she thought it a shame that people wasted so much feeling on animals when they could direct it to other people. I immediately decided I didn't care what she thought about my poems, which in retrospect seems to demonstrate a certain mature autonomy.

But I digress. I would hear Galway read many, many times in my life, but the first one was on the stage at the U of A, shortly before THE BOOK OF NIGHTMARES was published. I know he read "The Hen Flower". which had me floating up above my self, in the dark air of the auditorium for a while, and "Under the Maud Moon" --what else I don't know. What was utterly clear to me, though I couldn't have said so then, was that this was a poetry where the spiritual stakes were dire indeed; the poet was out to wrestle meaning out of transience, out of mortality, out of suffering, out of the difficulties the world presents, and his quest was for insight, and perhaps it's fair to say that he also sought a sustainable, tolerable place to dwell in the face of it all: how to love the world in the face of all this, how to go on loving it? How to keep the spirit alive, or at least to sing, with great clarity and with consummate attention, what it is for the self to go down in ashes?

Galway made this out of Whitman and out of Rilke, and doubtless too out of what he learned from James Wright's heartbreaking poems, and out of Hart Crane's diction, and the outlaw lyrics of  Francois Villon, melded together with his signature gestures: a vocabulary of uncommon richness, a deep pleasure in sonic texture and a gallumphing rhythmic drive, a sonorous speaking voice that seemed to demand texts of such gravity and scale.

At the U of A in those days -- like any group of young poets, or any poetic micro culture, I guess -- we had a reading list. My friends focused their attention on a relatively small group of writers who were pursuing the rather detached, otherworldly poetics of the early 70s.-- like any group of young poets we had a reading list: Strand, Simic, Bly, Wright, Merwin and Kinnell were our central stars, six white men whose work seemed monumental, each an accomplished edifice bearing the signatures of an unmistakable, individual voice. (Five white guys, a fact which we did not question; that seems extraordinary, in retrospect, but in truth although we were interested in opening the doors of consciousness, and in an expansive sense of what it might mean to be human, the awareness of how matters of race and gender played out in our daily lives was a sort of distant, barely dawning light. This was probably more true in Tucson than in other, more urban places; we were a ways out of the mainstream.)

I admire each of these poets still. If I push myself to be truthful, it's the work of Wright and Kinnell I've loved best, the former with his seemingly bottomless heart and his achingly cracked self moving tenderly through the world, the latter with his huge longing and his compelling sense of spiritual quest. For that's the urgency of Galway's work; it was always driven by a deep need to discover what could be affirmed in experience, to name the ways the soul is shaped and educated by love, grief and time. Of these six poets, none seems to me more the pilgrim driving his own quest forward. Of the wonderful poets we heard read, back there in the hushed and rather reverent darkness of our auditorium, none seemed to hold his poems to such an extraordinarily demanding standard: in its making, the poet would be changed; in hearing those stanzas spoken aloud, so would the listener.

Something came full circle for me in August, at the Vermont State House, when a group of us read Galway's poems as part of a tribute to the former State Poet, who was sitting in the audience, pleased to be together with his children and grandchildren. Marie Howe, Michael Collier, Ellen Voight and I read poems we'd chosen, and how strange and extraordinary to look at Galway, listening while one said aloud a poem like "Prayer":

                     Whatever happens. Whatever
                      what is is is what
                      I want. Only that. But that.

I think we were all feeling a bit desolate, as we moved toward the end of the program, and then something I hadn't expected happened. Galway's granddaughter, the daughter of his daughter Maude, came up to the podium and recited, from memory, "Under the Maude Moon." It's a section from THE BOOK OF NIGHTMARES in which Kinnell describes holding the infant Maude in his arms, and thinking both of continuance and of his own mortality, and hers. And here, forty or more years after the poem was written, was a poised young woman giving those words back to her grandfather, her mother, and to all of us there. It was an extraordinary moment of legacy, in which one could see how Galway had shaped the future -- including, as has become more clear to me since his passing, my own sense of vocation.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Carolyn K, in her Black Mink

The last time I saw Carolyn Kizer, we'd been invited to a college in New Jersey, Seton Hall, to read together. They sent a car service, and the driver in the black Lincoln picked me up first then drove to Carolyn's hotel; she emerged from the front door,  assisted by the doorman, in a knee length black mink coat. Her hair, done that afternoon, shone in a silvery-gold orb around her face, so that approaching the car, while the driver leapt out to open the door for her, she looked like a full moon just risen over some soft black mountain. She was beautiful, her skin aglow, and as she settled into her seat and we very happily greeted each other, she allowed me to see all at once so much of her. That quick barbed wit. The way she carried herself with a certain grandeur that remained somehow charming instead of offputting. I think this was because of a third quality, the vulnerability she was not afraid to show as well; the grande dame and the aging woman who required help to get from the curb to the limo without a fall were very much of a piece,  both lit by a wonderful sense of humor.  She leaned toward the driver, confidentially, and asked if he minded if she smoked. She'd clearly won the man over completely on her way into the back seat; he said, Of course, not, ma'am, without the least hesitation, and she cracked the window and lit some long white cigarette. 

We'd known each other a little for a long time. I was, for a few days, her student, at a writers conference at UC Santa Cruz in 1978, and since then we'd gotten to know each other better when I'd hosted her at some school or another where I was teaching. A drink in a hotel bar, or a university conference center, short but comradely exchanges, the fun of hanging out with a congenial spirt. But out evening in the car, that was something else. I knew and she knew she wasn't well; the way she walked so tentatively was worrisome, and indeed in a a few months she'd have ankle surgery,  and never quite be her visible self in the world after that. Then the empty spaces of Alzheimers would appear where that garrulous lively mind had flamed and leapt. It was the right time to talk; we were alone, more or less, for our hour of transit,  all dressed up, and in the front seat our silent witness clearly approved of the experience. Talk we did. I don't really remember any of the specifics now,  just that it was a funny, frank, sometimes gossipy conversation, though if we dissed anyone it wasn't any more than we dissed ourselves, and we talked admiringly of mutual poet friends, too. 

But I do remember one indelible moment, one that for me is probably going to be the first thing I think of when I hear Carolyn's name. She was turning to flick her ashes out the limo window when she say the exit for Paterson. Oh, she said, something passing visibly over her face, in the way a memory can physically pull one toward the past, her voice deepening ti something between a growl and a sigh. Dr. Williams. I wanted to take off my clothes and lie down in front of him. 


Carolyn Kizer, brilliant and irreverent feminist, formalist, and advocate for poetry, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1985. She founded Poetry Northwest, published a dozen volumes of poems, directed the Literature Program at the NEA, and famously disrupted what was then a very white and male tradition of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, a group that is not wonderfully diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and aesthetics. She died on October 9 at the age of 89.