Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Audubon Zoo, National Poetry Month, the Tunnel of Attention, and Bad News

I've been on the road too much this month. Because I wanted to spend the first months of 2009 in California, I pushed readings back to April, and that combined with National Poetry Month has turned me into something of a blur. But there have also been more good parts of April than I can list. Here are two: last night at the Hopkins School in New Haven, CT, the audience of students and parents and teachers were amazing. Standing at the front of the room, I felt I was facing into a kind of tunnel of silence, a deeply focused attention in which nothing was missed. It was a remarkable feeling, different than the stillness of the zendo I described a few posts back; this was a hungry, energetic, eager silence.

And tonight I write from New Orleans, where I've spent the day with people from the library here and from the Audubon Zoo -- in the very room on Dauphine Street were Audubon painted while he lived in New Orleans -- cooking up some plans for a poetry-in-the-zoo project like the one that Sandra Alcosser's spearheaded in Central Park.
The zoo here has two Asian elephants who seem the spirits of the place, and the thought of actually going and spending time with them fills me with delight.

But this evening brings hard news too, that Craig Arnold is missing, on a small volcanic island in Japan. Craig's a brilliant poet; his first book, SHELLS, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and his second, MADE FLESH, was just recently published. I met Craig in 1996, when I went to interview for a job at the University of Utah, and had to teach a little demonstration workshop. Craig was one of the students, and he brought to the group a poem called "Hot," a remarkable narrative, in rhyming couplets, about two men whose friendship is worked out over their competitive mutual addiction to and obsession with unbearably over-seasoned foods. It's the sort of complete, bravura poem that, appearing in a workshop, simply leaves everyone breathless, as if it were now up to us to "workshop" something operatic, artfully elaborated, and thoroughly achieved. Yeah, right. We did our best. The poem's in SHELLS, and it's one of Craig's signature poems. I'm thinking too of Craig reading at Brazos Books in Houston, turning away from the audience between poems, then wheeling around and dramatically reciting each piece. He read like a performance poet, though his poems were anything but spontaneous; they were elegantly wrought monologues, the product of an exactingly formal intelligence. But how alive they sounded!

Information about the ongoing search for Craig, and about the effort to pressure the Japanese police to continue the search is at

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In search of lost time

I'm in Houston this evening, here for my final round of thesis and dissertation defenses by grad students -- my last working day at the University of Houston. A very odd feeling, after a decade. I won't be walking into that familiar building any more,a 30's hall of offices and classrooms, the first air-conditioned college building in Ameria, I'm told, built of limestone blocks all marbled and speckled with fossils, the caught lives of ancient seas.

My ten years in Texas feel like an intricate, layered expanse of time, during which the program where I've taught has had several different sorts of atmospheres. And during which my relationship with Houston has shifted several times, too. I wrote an essay about the city for Smithsonian Magazine that tries to think about the odd ways it got under my skin, and made me start to feel at home in a place that isn't, on the surface of things, a place I thought I'd like.

And now I'm done, and wondering a little what I will miss. A certain chatty good-naturedness, exemplified by the people at Baby Barnaby's, my favorite breakfast place. Huge Gulf Coast clouds. My gym. Splendid conversations with graduate poetry students so intent on seeing into the workings of poems. The vegetarian tamales at Berryhill's. Knowing there's a small-but-immense brooding temple of Rothkos down the street. Sitting out by a swimming pool on a warm night in April.

I'm not sure why I have the urge to juxtapose this with the news story I read today about the discovery of a very well-preserved baby mammoth. A month old, more-or-less pickled by the muddy clay in which she drowned, and her mother's milk still in her stomach, after forty thousand years. Her photo's lovely and moving, I think.

Surely one of the pleasures of blogging is curatorial, placing things side by side.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Call out the names in the procession of the loved..."

It's inexplicable, how someone chooses to end a life, if "choose" is even the right verb. Who understands it? Tenderness and curiosity, ability and talent, responsiveness to the world: of course all those things can seem to fail us, and probably most of the people I know -- myself included -- would be capable, in some moment when we couldn't see beyond our own misery, of stepping off some awful height. What holds us back from that brink, or what sends us over?

I've been thinking about this all week, since Deborah Digges died on Good Friday. I didn't get the news until Monday morning. Deborah and I had been colleagues at Vermont College, back in the day, and later I'd gone up to Tufts to read for her students there. And I'd taken pleasure in writing a jacket blurb for her wonderful book of poems, ROUGH MUSIC, and for her memoir about raising her two sons, a book full of compassion, nerve and hope for the future.

Deborah was married to Franklin, a veterinarian and a teacher of vets-to-be who died in 2003, and her life and work were full of animals. On this video, recorded just last month in Los Angeles, you can hear her read three poems. The first is a stunning poem concerning assisting, with Franklin, at the birth of a bull calf. The line which lends this post its title is the first line of the poem. It seems just the right poem to hear now, as a way of calling out Deborah's name, and as a poem that looks into the gates of life.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sign of the Times (2)

Five-fifteen PM, Thursday afternoon, David Barton Gym in Chelsea, two empty weight benches = the de (re?) pression (cession?) isn't over.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

C. P. Cavafy, homoerotic poems, and

Tomorrow night Cooper Union in Manhattan will host a celebration of Daniel Mendelsohn's terrific new versions of Cavafy. Daniel will speak about Cavafy's development as a poet and Olympia Dukakis, Maria Tucci and I will read from the poems. Glamorous company!

It's strange to think that were Cavafy writing now, a good many of his poems might not be welcome at Amazon, where the company has instituted a weird new policy of identifying books they classify as "adult material" and leaving these titles out of their sales rankings and thus off their bestseller lists. But what they're really doing is targeting gay and lesbian content. It's an ugly act of discrimination, and results in weird selections: a book of Playboy's best centerfolds has a sales ranking, for instance, while Mark Wunderlich's book of poems VOLUNTARY SERVITUDE does not. Neither does Paul's LAWNBOY, or Andre Aciman's beautiful novel CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, or my own HEAVEN'S COAST, or even books on healthy living for HIV-positive men. It's outrageous. The best solution, of course, is to take your business elsewhere; everyone benefits from having strong, local and independent booksellers in our communities. But also let Amazon know what you think. There's a rapidly expanding petition drive over at the excellent activist website run by Care2.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Koshin, Chodo, Fanny Howe and the nature of poetry readings

Last night I read at the Village Zendo, eleven floors up above Broadway, in Soho. It got me to thinking about the climate of poetry readings, the atmospheres in which they take place. At the Zendo, there's a meditation session an hour or so before the reading, and a number of people came and sat then stayed on. The room had an almost palpable quality of calm, as if it held the after-effects of deep, steady attention.

Of course poetry readings are generally quiet(ish), but I was very aware of the difference. How I usually find myself working to gather in and steady an audience's attention, and how, especially in college settings where I'm reading to young people, there's usually some jostle or bit of distraction going on someplace. At the Zendo, I felt that I was placing the poem into the space in front of me, where it sort of hung for a moment as it was being taken into a deeply receptive listening. One of the effects of this is that the reading becomes about the poem itself, or about poetry, more than it seems about the reader. It's not as if you use your personality or the force of your will to put the poem across, but more like setting it out into the room, lightly, onto a current that's already moving.

This was completely lovely, and also the best way to hear the poems of my co-reader Fanny Howe, who read from THE LYRICS, a richly meditative collection that grows out of months spent in a Benedictine monastery.

And speaking of monks, our host was Koshin Paley Ellison, the sweetest and most contagiously cheerful of men, and he was joined later on by his husband Chodo. What could be more delightful than two big loving playful monks?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Green Gulch Farm

A while ago I posted a quote from Joe Eck's ELEMENTS OF GARDEN DESIGN, a statement abut gardening that could be read as a comment on the writer's art. Here's another of those, from Wendy Johnson's terrific GARDENING AT THE DRAGON'S GATE: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World. Johnson gardens in a valley in Marin County, at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Her book is wonderfully balanced between good advice (the "down to earth") and meditation on the soul of the gardener's work (which is also down to earth, in the deepest sense). Anyway:

"The primary work of every gardener is to stay alert and playful within the heft and heart of your soil. In this way garden and gardener culture each other, well inoculated with surprise."

And this is my favorite passage, thus far:

"By Halloween on the north coast of California all the cover crop for the winter season and the tulips and narcissus, the frittilaria, and bloodred regal lily bulbs of spring must be planted. The hatchet falls on All Hallows' Eve, for after October 31 it is too late to plant. This is also the season of Dia de los Muertos -- or the Day of the Dead, that day standing between Indian summer and black-eyed winter when the veil between worlds thins out and the gardeners are called home to sleep in the long throat of rot."

Friday, April 3, 2009

The transmission of poetry, and Jason Shinder's STUPID HOPE

After the Rutgers reading the night before last, I was thinking about the way the love of poetry, and the sense of what a poem can be, is handed down. Tina, Brenda and Tracy were grad students when I met them, so of course they were already dedicated to making poems, but together we were (and are) part of an ongoing, open-ended community of people who work to take care of the art. It was a pleasure to hear them talking about handing poems they love along to their students. I think of that not as a process of transmitting something new but rather one of restoration; as if these teachers were saying, look, this is what already belongs to you.

So it was particularly appropriate to come across this poem in the manuscript of Jason Shinder's superb posthumous book, STUPID HOPE, which is coming soon from Graywolf. Jason knew that he was mortally ill during the writing of these poems, and they seem to speak from a kind of edge of experience, from a position of extreme pressure. I remember talking to William Maxwell late in his life, when he hadn't been well, and he said, "I'm just living with all the doors and windows open." That seems an exact description of the situation of Jason's final poems.

But this one speaks especially to poetry itself, and to the life of reading.


A poem written three thousand years ago

about a man who walks among horses
grazing on a hill under the small stars

comes to life on a page in a book

and the woman reading the poem,,
in the silence between the words,

in her kitchen, filled, with a gold, metallic light,

finds the experience of living in that moment
so clearly described as to make her feel finally known

by someone -- And every time the poem is read,

no matter her situation or her age,
this is more or less what happens.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Writers at Rutgers

It was a joy to host a terrific reading tonight at Rutgers. Partly because it was my first "official duty" there, even though my new job doesn't begin until the fall semester. The school's been the most welcoming place, and that warmth and interest continue to shine, and really make me look forward to the fall.

It was also a great night because I was introducing three terrific women whose poems I love. Tina Chang, Brenda Shaughnessy and Tracy K. Smith were all members of a graduate workshop I taught at Columbia in 1996. They were remarkable presences then -- in an unusually bright-spirited, warm class -- and each has gone on to produce work that's distinctly her own. Tina's first book is HALF-LIT HOUSES, from Four Way, and she's recently co-edited an anthology for Norton, LANGUAGE FOR A NEW CENTURY, a gathering of world poets, often from places and people we hear far too little from. Brenda's two collections are INTERIOR WITH SUDDEN JOY and HUMAN DARK WITH SUGAR (such titles!), and Tracy's two collections are THE BODY'S QUESTION and DUENDE.

Some occasions of delight:

-- all three of these poets seem refreshingly unpredictable to me. I don't know what they'll be writing in ten years, but I know I will want to pay attention.

-- all three answer questions from student writers with a combination of humility and a genuine weighing of the question; you can almost hear them thinking, Well, what DO I think about that? And speaking straightforwardly accordingly,

-- although the three poets are committed to emotional availability (by which I mean that every poem they write seems alive with feeling), they're notably different stylistically. Chang's poems seem to arise out of the body, a felt sensuous connection to the world. Shaughnessy's poems come out of talk, the wry turns and twistings of the internal monologue or the public address. Smith's work is idea-driven, and in particular it seems fueled by a desire to understand cruelty, the strange failing that is human violence, and what it is that allows us to survive.