Friday, May 29, 2009

Sim City

Appropos of the previous posting listing the names of iris, here are those flowers in a bin at the Green Market in Union Square this morning. It was misting a little, and the produce and flowers there were aglow, so that everything for sale -- ramps, bok choi, mustard greens -- seemed phenomenally desirable.

On the way home, carrying my bags of asparagus, coleus and sage, I passed a fruit vendor on Sixth Avenue who was misting his grapes -- artificial version of the day!

And back home, West Sixteenth Street seemed weirdly wide. The movie that was being shot last week on Sixth, with huge klieg lights shone onto the old department store building that's now Bed Bath n Beyond, has moved over here. Artificial version of the street. Complete NYC moment: what is bounty and what is bounty's representation,
and who can tell the difference?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I broke my Lammy!

At the Lambda Literary Awards tonight, three hundred very hot people packed into a steamy reception room downstairs at the CUNY Grad Center, and then moved into the auditorium. Occasions of delight: Judy Grahn winning for lesbian poetry, becoming visible again after decades of work, often publishing with the tiniest of presses; Scott Heim accepting his award for his novel from a happy Dennis Cooper. And best of all for me, sharing the stage with James Hall, with whom I tied for the prize for gay men's poetry. It just felt so sweet to share the stage with James, whose work and person I love and admire, and to feel his delight in having a first book seen in this way. Yes! At the podium, I said that I wished I could saw my trophy into five parts,
since it was an honor to be on a list of books like this, a list where I loved every single volume. Lucky to be writing at a time when that is possible.

After sitting for two and a half hours, I was happy to join the line in the men's room (where Michelangelo Signorile was two guys in front of me, looking dashing). I set my trophy -- an engraved piece of glass in the form of a book -- and my program down on a convenient shelf, and when I came back from washing my hands I picked it up and whoosh, my trophy slid onto the hard washroom floor, and several wicked-looking chunks of it broke loose. The line gasped. I felt mortally embarassed, and said something like, Oh, easy come, easy go, which probably wasn't the right thing to say in that particular company. Oh well. Then I said, well now my award has more character, and when I got it home and saw it in the light this turned out to be true. Before it was a trophy, now it has a kind of chipped and dented handsomeness to it, which of course is the kind of handsome I like best.

(Also in the house: Jericho Brown, Tiphanie Yanique, Alice Quinn, Jill Bialosky, Donna Masini, Ed White, Scott Heim, Michael Lowenthal, Eddy Sarfaty, Andrew Holleran, Furry Wayne, Tom Healy, Honor Moore, Thomas Glave, tout le monde.)


UPDATE: At BEA today I ran into the handsome and dashing mystery writer Scott Sherman, also a Lammy winner. "All that excitement last night," he said, "and what's everybody talking about but that you dropped your Lammy."

UPDATE #2: Some comments seem to have disappeared into the electronic ether somehow. If yours is one of those, apologies, please try again!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Raconteur

I read tonight at Raconteur Books, in Metuchen, New Jersey -- a great little hotbed of culture, featuring new and used books, DVDs, and a universe of events from concerts to literary readings to arm wrestling tournaments (which seem to be universally won by Alex, the burly owner of the shop). In the store are portraits of Bukowski, Yeats,
and Frost, among others. When the reading starts, the lights go down and the reader's framed in a couple of spots, one of them blue, so there's a jazz-club feel to the podium. My new Rutgers students were there in abundance, even though they're not actually my students yet, and I love them already. They're sweet and smart and full of stories: a grade-school field trip to Emily Dickinson's house that's haunted a poet ever since, an upcoming summer volunteering for WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) in Costa Rica, and one fellow's the grandson of the Dominican dictator Trujillo's cook. It says a lot that I don't work there yet and I already think I have a phenomenal job. There were also a couple of other generations of (former) Rutgers students represented, including a woman who took the same advanced poetry course I will be teaching fifty years ago, with John Ciardi. She remembered the location and number of the room in which it met. And that, after the students had all turned in their poems anonymously the first week, Professor Ciardi read them over and said, Well, we'll just start out by reading Yeats.

A different sort of list

Tomorrow night in Manhattan, the Lambda Literary Awards. I'm delighted by the list of finalists for gay men's poetry:

* Want, Rick Barot, Sarabande Press
* Please, Jericho Brown, New Issues
* Fire to Fire, Mark Doty, Harper
* Now You're the Enemy, James Allen Hall, Univ. of Arkansas Press
* My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi & Kevin Killian, Wesleyan University Press

Fantastic company! I've already won two of these, and Jack Spicer has no use for an award in paradise, so I'd vote for one of three younger poets -- each of whom, by a happy accident, was my student at one time or another. Not that I had anything to do with their flowering, just that I take pleasure in seeing their terrific work coming to light!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The poetry of lists

Names of outdoor stains, from the Cabot Premium Woodcare line:

Snowfield, Arboretum, Cinder, Milkweed, Frontier, Plum Island, Cavalry, Rose Quartz, Golden Husk, Saltmarsh, Pepperwood, Hedgerow, Shade Tree.

Names of iris varieties, from Scheiner's Iris Lover's Catalog:

Hemstitched, Immortality, Merchant Marine, Dusky Challenger, Daughter of Stars, Hello Darkness, Kind Word, Who's Your Daddy, Salamander Crossing, Over in Gloryland, Anvil of Darkness.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Who has been to Throop?

I was looking for some information about satellite TV when I came upon a list of towns in New York State where service is available -- a listing, in other words, of all the towns in the state. Herewith, in no particular order, are some I found especially enticing: Paradox Lake, West Candor, Stone Arabia, Kismet, Promised Land, Sparrowbush,
Big Moose, Sunken Meadow, Clockville, South Nineveh, Neversink, Echo. And here is a set of towns where one might not want to live: Throop, Lake Desolation, Middle Hope,Semina, Sanataria Springs, Starkville, Gray. (My apologies to readers in any of these probably perfectly cheery regions.)


UPDATE: Mark Wunderlich reports that he actually lives near Stone Arabia, and that I missed another splendid town near there, Medusa.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Florida Sublime

We're just back in the city this evening from Ft. Lauderdale, where the remnants of what could have become tropical storm Ana were racing in from the Bahamas, making this glorious drama up above the low-slung, not-really-so-glorious landscape of Broward County. Paul's mother's name -- as you already know if you're a reader of his blog -- was Anne, and indeed this seemed like her weather, a swirling atmospheric turbulence to mark her passage from the earth-plane to whatever's next. (Which is maybe also the earth-plane, but in another form, experienced entirely differently?) There was a viewing, and a funeral mass; the best of it all were the words Paul spoke at the ceremony, a precise and loving tribute, which felt suffused with regard for his mother (that is perhaps the best of love: the deepest regarding) because it tried so hard to see her, and to name who she'd been to him and to her family. It's an odd paradox that the rites of burial are so full of attempts at consolation and spiritual comfort when in fact what people really and truly crave is to see, name, and consider the person who's gone, to tell stories about her, to hold that character up to the light of our collective attention. That is the uplifting part, somehow. So Paul's words -- which described Anne's love for the shore, her delight in going for a ride, getting out to see what the world was made of, the huge energy she gave to supporting her children's passions (even when they were, um, a little dotty) -- those loomed like the largest thing in the room, in the modern Catholic chapel with its artfully askew stained glass. That, for me, was when things turned toward lightness.

Later, I was by myself in the motel room while the Lisickys had gathered elsewhere. I was meditating and letting down the tensions of the day when I imagined Anne coming into the room and saying, Well, I'm just going to sit down and rest on this bed, this being dead has worn me out, I've been everywhere. And I said, Have you been busy? What's it like? And she said, Like nothing you can imagine.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

mother of us all

Paul's mother's death has me thinking about my own mother, who died thirty-three years ago, in 1976; she was fifty six, a year older than I am now. It seems very far away, that death, and yet there are also moments that I can revisit with absolute clarity, though I won't write them here, as somehow it feels wrong to chronicle that wounding hour when we're off to Florida in the morning for this funeral. Every loss does call back every other, as though the deaths of mothers were looped together in a long chain. But then of course it isn't just the deaths that are linked. Three young women I know, all poets, are pregnant with their first children. In the town pond here a pair of swans has been nesting all spring. They were right out in the open, in a pond beside an ancient cemetery and a cluster of 18th century houses,in the very oldest part of town, where there's actually a grave for a man, Lion Gardiner, who was born in the 1580s, which seems astonishing to me. The swans made a kind of half-cone of very black mud, like a volcano, and the female sat inside it, day and night, in sun and in rain, sometimes alert and watchful, sometimes with her neck laid back across her wings, head resting. She sat for six weeks. And then just this week, the nest was empty, and there she was on the water, with six small gray cygnets, little incidents of fluff which point right to the term "swan's down" -- you can see how soft they are. And when we went to the pet store today, to look for some way to get the blooming algae out of the pond, there was a pen where a mottled chestnut-colored rabbit was surrounded by her offspring, baby rabbits of the most elegant gray velvet coats. We wanted to bring all of them home, the mother included. It's spring, the whole world's mothering.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Brief and wondrous life

I've just finished Junot Diaz's THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, which I loved. I read it on it the way to Chicago and back, where I'd gone to spend the day at a high school I liked a lot, Lyons Township -- really a remarkable poetry culture there, a place where teachers have built a regard for the art over many decades of work. I gave a reading after school was out, and two hundred kids came!

Anyway, Junot's book is terrific, and its energy and vital force were helpful now, when the spirit of our household has been made heavy by Paul's mother's passing. The book turns a bracingly direct gaze at suffering and at death, which is what one wants at a grave hour -- no false distractions -- but it also has such drive and life in the narrative voice, and a contagious eagerness to know its characters.

One of the feats of the book is that its central character doesn't really do a whole lot, until quite late in his life, when he takes up a quixotic quest. Oscar reads fantasy novels and writes his own, designs role-playing games, fantasizes wildly over women he's afraid to meet, and that's about it. Yet he's the carrier of the heritage of diaspora; it's in his troubled body that a cursed history of his mother and grandfather's suffering under Trujillo comes to rest -- and maybe, in fact, it goes further back than that, the burden of a colonized history, an occupied past.

And the structure of the book is spectacular; it feels effortless but moves in a complex way back and forth in time, between generations -- so that the history of Oscar's sister is couched inside his story, and inside his story is the heartbreakingly grim story of their mother. And then further back, to Oscar's grandfather, whose destruction by the dictatorship sets into motion the tragedy of his mother's life -- a bitter and impossible woman who becomes increasingly a center of emotional gravity in the book, for all the pain she's carried, and for all the nerve it took to keep going forward anyway.

And it's spectacularly funny, in the most unlikely way; who would expect footnotes on the bloody history of dictatorship to be delivered in a voice that slides into wisecracks without a bump? -- a voice that gracefully hashes together Spanish, English, bits of Tolkien, Dominican and Paterson NJ slang. When the book was done, I missed that narrator. I wanted him to keep talking to me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ark of Difference

Yesterday I went to the Central Park Zoo for the first time. I'd never been because it's in the city where I live, and you're always more likely to see the sights in places you don't actually inhabit every day. And, although there's little I like better than looking at animals, I share some common prejudices about zoos: that they're for children, and that they're unhappy places of confinement for animals.

Given that the Central Park Zoo is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, I should have known better. They're one of the premier forces in the world for the protection of species, and of course they'd make a place that honored bountiful life. The Zoo is small,but it has a large spirit. There are two magnificent polar bears, in a big open-to-the-skies habitat with enormous stones, and a waterfall, and a deep pool to swim in. They were lying on their backs, sunning their bellies and scratching. There's a harbor seal who was rescued in Maine a few years back who can't be released back into the wild because his vision is impaired; he swims in apparent delight, as do the sealions who have a circular pool around a fountain. There's a rainforest biome where the birds fly around from branch to higher branch, and seem mostly quite interested in people; they land on a nearby perch and eye you inquisitively. It's a delight.

And I like the way poetry's integrated here. I'd seen photos of the installations of pieces of poems in the zoo (see previous post on The Language of Conservation), but seen in situ they do subtle and intriguing work, shaping the experience. I especially liked the banners that were both inside the zoo and outside, in the surrounding Park.
One's above, with a great Neruda quote. Another bore this wonderful Hass translation of Basho: "Year after year/ on the monkey's face/ a monkey face."

But it wouldn't be a real experience of animal life without a note of disconnection or strangeness. In the penguin exhibit, the birds (who hardly seem like birds, but something all their own) swim and dive, and you can watch them both underwater or strolling around on the stony shore. The rocks mount up several layers high, and behind them there's a sapphire field of artificial sky. One penguin had climbed up as high as they could go. He was standing, with his back to the teeming crowd of his peers, and he was fixed in position, studying the false heavens. He didn't move all the time I was there. He seemed like that unforgettable penguin in Werner Herzog's Scenes from the End of the World who wanders away from the tribe, heading firmly away from the sea, from food and company. The penguin in Herzog's film will walk till he dies. The penguin in the zoo -- you can see him below, looking skyward -- can't go anywhere, but he seems to have left anyway. Is it too much to think of him as the poet, the one who can't ever quite remain in the group? Either inwardly or outwardly -- and here I can't help but think of Deborah Digges and of Craig Arnold.

Anyway, the zoo was more real because someone there had stepped apart alone. And maybe he'll just turn around in a while, weary of his study, and come back down to the water with the others. Probably he will.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Under the Trees

If you're in New York on June 16, here's what promises to be a delightful thing to do. Marie Howe, Nick Flynn and I will be reading under the trees in Bryant Park, at 42nd between Fifth and Sixth, at 7:30. It's wonderful to read with friends and there should be a convivial summery energy to the night.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Peabody Elementary School, Memphis, Tennessee

In my memoir FIREBIRD I described Peabody Elementary, where I attended first grade back in the middle years of the last century, as "a square building, of gray and somnolent cement." My book's more allegiant to memory than it is interested in historical accuracy, so wouldn't you know I made my school seem as gray and moody as it did to me then. A reader in Memphis, who lives in the neighborhood now and describes it as a liberal enclave where black and white, gay and straight, single people and families all live side by side, writes to send me this great photo of the school. This was taken in the 1930s, but it's definitely my old school, and somehow it seems right for it be represented in black and white, which conveys such a sense of distance in time. And it's intriguing to see what a handsomely detailed edifice it is. There's some sense of civic grandeur implied in making an elementary school look like this, and perhaps a notion that our early educations were part of a tradition, and worthy of architectural ornamentation.

My most vivid memories of this place are smells: the safety patrol's cloakroom, with its fragrant wet yellow slickers hung up; the water and cold porcelain urinals in the boys' bathroom; the paper-and-paste smell of the library; the vague warm fragrance of school lunch. Nickels in my hand for milk. Rain on the asphalt playground.

Gaston Bachelard: "A soul is never deaf to a quality of childhood."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Packing up on Fire Island

You'll have to embiggen the picture and look very hard to see them, but in the photo above there are three deer lying down in the grass in a cranberry bog in Fire Island Pines called Smoky Hollow. You hardly ever see deer resting like this in the sun, but the warmth must have felt welcome after days and days of rain; they must have been drying off. One had an especially sleepy look to her; she perked up a bit when she heard us walking on the boardwalk nearby, but then she couldn't keep her eyes open in the drowsy warmth of the afternoon light.

We'd gone out to the Pines to move lots of stuff out of the house -- books, papers, clothes, the more personal stuff that's accumulated there over three years. The house is on the market, and I'm glad we've moved on. But today did make me think about the things I've liked about it: the ubiquitous deer, the way the ancient-looking snapping turtles put us in a kind of a trance as we watched, they were so energized with sex and spring. Their shells looked blue, just under the surface of the pond, and when they swam into water that wasn't as murky as the rest you could see their tails and their big eagle-like heads. We walked to Cherry Grove for lunch, when we'd finished packing up, and a catbird followed us in the branches beside the path, hurrying from branch to branch a little ahead of us, curious.

And then we hopped on the four o'clock boat, and before you know it the majority of our stuff was back on this side of the Great South Bay. On the other side of all this moving, already apparent, is a new prospect of serenity.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Could it be true we live on earth?

Over the next three years, I'll be working with the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans on a project sponsored by Poets' House. We'll be placing poems in installations around the zoo, as a way of centering attention on the relationship between human beings and the rest of the world. There have been some fascinating studies on how such a project worked at the Central Park Zoo -- subtly changing perceptions, informing the experience people reported there, shaping their time with animals. The research demonstrates that people who encountered poetry as part of their zoo experience left with a feeling that they could do something about the crises facing the earth now. They felt that this wasn't a distant problem, remote from their own experience; rather they seemed to experience a greater sense of themselves as participants in the life of the world. What they did mattered.

Above is a photo of one of the poems installed in the Park, an Aztec text. I haven't seen this on the site yet, but it looks to be printed on glass and placed between the viewer and moving water.

The project's called The Language of Conservation, and five poets will be working with five zoos around the country: Alison Deming in Jacksonville, Pattiann Rogers in Milwaukee, Joe Bruchac in Little Rock, Sandra Alcosser in Brookfield, Illinois, and yours truly in the troubled and dreamy cradle of American music. There's a lot to do but it's pretty exhilarating.

So I've spent the last two days in a planning gathering, and whenever my attention flagged (the inevitable result of the language of meetings, reports, evaluation, and so on) it was restored by poems, and by astonishing images of animals. One of these latter was a video from Jacksonville, which I'll post here; a strange and compelling bit of intimacy. Who'd ever think you'd get to watch the birth of a jaguar?

My other partner in this project is the New Orleans Public Library, in particular the lively and committed people at the Latter Library. We're hoping that people who encounter the poems in the Zoo will want to go deeper, and so the library will be offering readings, displays, posters, who knows what... more to come.

Around midnight, Frenchman Street, Faubourg Marigny

I came upon this band playing on a streetcorner tonight. An accordion, a violin, a gleaming white bass played by a tall boy with a voluptuous beard, and a guitar; a mix of gypsy, Klezmer, Stephane Grapelli and maybe a little rockabilly thrown in. It was heavenly. They were playing beside a Honduran taco stand, a trailer that served up a mean vegetarian burrito with a green sauce hot as the music; there was a lot of people gathered around, both eating pork-and-pineapple tacos and taking in the music. It seemed like an occasion of delight all around. New Orleans is one of the holy cities of the imagination, and somehow no amount of disaster, tourism, and governmental ineptitude seems to have been able to destroy that. Water, maybe, in a while, but I think there have to be some fiercely protective spirits here too.