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
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 http://aprweb.org/issue-index/may-june-2015
Monday, April 6, 2015
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!