Thursday, July 31, 2008

Poetry Anthologies: Man oh Man ...

In response to a comment left earlier today ... a great one, at that:

... if i may digress, i’d like to mention a delightful anthology of international poetry assembled by the polish/lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz. it is a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection and i was drawn to it because it contained so many poets i’ve never heard of: Jaan Kaplinski, Li-Young Lee, Oscar Milosz (a distant relative), 'Yoruba Tribe' ... any suggestions of other anthologies?

This post reminded me of all the creative, funny advertisements that I find myself thinking about days later ... without being able to remember what the heck the advertisement was shilling! (That talking baby with the clown still amuses me, but I always have to look up the video to remember the product.)

But this must be the book the anonymous poster was referring to. Yes, Anon? Thanks for the recommendation; I'll have to check it out soon.

I love poetry anthologies. They're like eating tapas: Grab the proscuitto-wrapped melon, seize the beet chip with goat cheese, skip the fried sardine balls. (Unless you like sardine balls, in which case, well, good luck with that and please don't breathe on me.) I've discovered so many poets through good anthologies -- John Engman being one of those -- and just love the sense of meandering exploration they provide.

A couple recent faves, several of which are in the giant book pile beside my bed:

The Oxford Book of American Poetry (David Lehman, editor) - complete with controversial inclusions such Bob Dylan. (No Jewel yet. Maybe next edition.)

The Poets' Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales (Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson, editors) - Started reading this one while working on a series of poems reworking the Red Riding Hood story. It's full of gems.

Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (Neil Astley, editor)

Finally, I bought this one a few months back and really dig a lot of the poems in it. About the male experience, yes, but some poems by female writers too.

But it's such a terrible title, one that immediately made me snort. There is something about the word "Man" -- that flat "ah" sound, the connotation of pulsing testosterone? -- that makes it hilarious when you put it in front of another noun.

(Try it: Man-teeth. Man-pants. Man-cake.)

It just does not communicate the soulfulness and gravitas that this collection has in spades.

Other great anthologies? Weigh in!

Monday, July 28, 2008

New York Envy Pt. II

Working on a draft ... in lieu of moving to the city immediately, which doesn't seem to be in the cards right now, and is likely better as a fantasy anyway ...

***

* This draft fell into an NYC manhole and was immediately eaten by alligators.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dylan Thomas Rolls Over Drunkenly in His Grave

O curse you, Internetz. How many poems and stories have you stolen by providing such interesting toys?

I spent a good half hour playing with this Wordle thing a few days back. This is, of course, because I do not actually enjoy writing and like to distract myself from distraction with distractions. A half truth: There are moments when I'm "in the stream" when writing feels close to ecstasy, a rapture-of-Saint-Theresa-the-cosmos-is-flowing-through-me-and-I-am-but-its-humble-vessel sort of feeling -- but a vast majority of the time it is work, work, work. More mind-numbingly pleasant to screw around online.

(Aside: How much of blogging and Internet-surfing is people trying to avoid their vocations? Discuss.)

Wordle takes whatever text you give it and creates word collages in which the more frequently appearing words are largest. (This would be fun and horrifying to do with some of Bush's speeches. I'm expect EVILDOERS, FREEDOM, and POOTIE-POOT would make a big show.)

I plugged in a couple of my own poems and found that the word "one" is a biggie for me. Wordle has flagged some ongoing quest for communion and unity I didn't even know I was on about! I'm thinking this could be a way quicker method of therapy: After an hour on the couch, your shrink plugs everything you've said into Wordle and finds that the word FATHER is huge in your collage and tells you to go make your peace with him.

Also, for lazy college students assigned to poetry analysis. So much more accessible!

"So, John, what do you think Thomas is talking about in this poem?"

"He's talking about, um, greenness, the state of being, you know, green, and young, and about living on a farm and how like, living out with nature and apples almost feels like being high. Also, about time and stuff."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Everyone in New York is Having More Interesting Conversations Than You Are, Unless You Too Live in New York

Is it just me suffering from this delusion? Do people of other occupations wake up with the sneaking suspicion that every day they did not live in New York City is a day they’ve somehow wasted? Do garbage collectors in Peoria aspire to collect garbage in New York? Or is it just writers who worry they’re missing out?

I’ve lived in 5 foreign countries and traveled to a score of others, yet every time I go to New York I feel like a country rube fresh from the pig waller. I’m constantly gawking up at the mountainous glittering heights of the buildings. My hair is not expensive/punk enough. I’m overdressed or underdressed. (This time it was underdressed; every woman in the Lower East Side this summer appears to be wearing an empire-waisted dress that goes to the ankles.) In most places, this sense would make me feel self-conscious, but New York gives me so much to look at that I stop thinking about myself for hours on end, a relief no pastoral landscape can provide.

Much as I loved Colson Whitehead’s rant about the fetishizing of Brooklyn writers in the Times a while back, I have no borough fixation. It’s the whole of the city. I can think of no other place on earth that is simultaneously beautiful, hideous, and completely exhilarating. I don’t know how the natives do it: living in a constant state of astonishment seems like it would become exhausting after a while, so maybe the people who live there tune out a little bit, just to protect their own psyches.

We went up this weekend to see our dear friends and to meet my husband’s sister and her husband at the soon-to-be-history Yankee Stadium. That was good, but not as good as watching their kid run through the spray of a fire hydrant in the Bronx, and not as good as buying bagels from a Polish √©migr√© in a tiny baker’s hole off Houston, and not as good as seeing a bored girl in a silver-sequined bikini taking a smoke break outside a burlesque club at midnight. And nowhere near as good as hearing a group of young, hipster New Yorkers on the 4 express train have an incredibly boring conversation about the hot weather—which made me feel—weirdly—not smug, but gratified: They live in the coolest city on earth, and they’re still human enough to have that boring conversation about the weather, the one you have with people you like but have run out of things to say to.

All in all, my favorite moment in New York this time was sitting quietly on a rock in Central Park with my husband, watching a pair of turtles chasing each other through the pond and watching an enormous koi—the rouge color of the sun on a hot summer evening—drift beneath the green water, so slowly it was almost still. From where we sat, the horns from traffic and the shouts of the guys selling bottled water near the horse carriages seemed very far away, and I wondered: What can that fish hear, under there? Can it feel the engines and the subways and the generators thrumming under the water? Do its gills shiver with the city’s wounded thunder?

I could end this with any number of amazing NYC poems, but one of my favorite poems about the city (I’m being presumptuous here, I guess, but with some reason) is by a buddy of mine, Andrew Kozelka, who was living in New York on 9/11 and wrote one of the best damn books of poetry I’ve ever read. It’s called The Ages, and this poem arrives toward the end of them. There may be echoes of Auden’s “September 1st, 1939” in those last lines. In my book, that’s no bad thing.


The Smoker

He’s just seen the end of peace
Tilting overhead:
And now the whole city
Looks up in horror
And everyone screams, runs about—
Except for him. He sits down
And smokes a last cigarette,
Makes a small prayer:
Among the beasts
Who inherit our silence,
Let there be one or two
Who are calm when the light comes.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The NYT Bestseller List Has No Place for Sestinas



The day job is a reality for every poet alive, though there may be those who’ve been tempted to take up a cup and stand beside freeway entrances with a sign reading “Will versify for food.” (I would consider this option if I didn’t suspect my cup would soon runneth over with wads of chewing gum and the occasional cigarette butt.)

There lies the rub: Unlike aspiring novelists, who can dream (pipe dream, perhaps) of one day publishing that bestseller that will catapult them into fame and the accompanying monetary rewards, poets are practicing a craft most people don’t value, don’t quite understand, and certainly won’t pay money for. Poets will never make a fortune with their scribblings—unless the scribblings are on the back of a winning Powerball ticket. They will never find that their lovely villanelle praising the pearlescent sheen on the breasts of mourning doves has been optioned by Hollywood. Unless they’re born James Merrill wealthy or happen to make a bundle in some other venture (will the awesome Ron Slate please stand up?), they will never share a lovely pinot with Brangelina, or rub elbows with Bono.

Thus Wallace Stevens spent his life at an insurance company, and Thomas Lynch directs funerals, and god knows how many poets are locked into the ivory tower, never to escape—though we can hope their poems will occasionally slip out, unfettered by chains of theory and footnotes.

I consider myself highly lucky as far as day jobs go: I get to write, and, I hope, occasionally make a difference by doing so. But the fact that I have a job as an editor means that I often get home in the evenings and find that the lovely blank page that tempted me exceedingly at 9 A.M. looks like a big gray wall I can’t imagine climbing. (Peeing on, maybe—but that’s likely the product of having spent the whole day writing about dogs.)

On such days, I find a huge comfort in the poetry of John Engman. I first encountered his poem “Another Word for Blue” when I was in my mid-teens, in a collection called New American Poets of the 90’s. And I thought, idiotically, “This guy is going to be famous.” What did I know of this craft’s austere and lonely offices?

Engman died young and obscure. He has no entry on Wikipedia and he does not appear on the website of The Academy of American Poets. But just the sight of his slightly pudgy, sweetly good-humored face makes me happy, and his poem “Work”—check out those last lines, especially—is enough to get anyone through another day in the cubicles.





I wanted to be a rain salesman,
because rain makes the flowers grow,
but because of certain diversions and exhaustions,
certain limitations and refusals and runnings low,
because of chills and pressures, shaky prisms, big blows,
and apes climbing down from banana trees, and dinosaurs
weeping openly by glacial shores, and sunlight warming
the backsides of Adam and Eve in Eden ...
I am paid
to make the screen of my computer glow, radioactive
leakage bearing the song of the smart money muse:
this little bleep went to market, this little clunk has none.

The woman who works the cubicle beside me has pretty knees
and smells of wild blossoms, but I am paid to work
my fingers up and down the keys, an almost sexy rhythm,
king of the chimpanzees picking fleas from his beloved.
I wanted to be a rain salesman , but that's a memory
I keep returning to my childhood for minor repairs:
the green sky cracking, then rain, and after,
those flowers growing faster than I can name them,
those flowers that fix me and and make me stare.

I wanted to be a rain salesman,
carrying my satchel full of rain from door to door,
selling thunder, selling the way air feels after a downpour,
but there were no openings in the rain department,
and so they left me dying behind this desk--adding bleeps,
subtracting clunks--and I would give a bowl of wild blossoms,
some rain, and two shakes of my fist at the sky to be living.
Above my desk, lounging in a bed of brushstroke flowers,
a woman beckons from my cheap Modigliani print, and I know
by the way she gazes that she sees something beautiful
in me. She has green eyes. I am paid to ignore her.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Big Reveal

Several months ago, a journal called Poet Lore published one of my poems, a piece called “Early Spring.”

I had mixed feelings about it. In a world where one’s mailbox is constantly swelling with terse rejection slips, one learns to be grateful for whatever one can get. The theory behind submitting poems to journals is a lot like that of the horndog wandering through the bar asking woman after woman, Wanna fuck? He knows 99 percent will smack him down, but the possibility of that one sloppy drunk whose eyes will light up gives him hope.

But this piece—confessional, so autobiographical it made my skin crawl even as I wrote it—was atypical of what I tend to write, and I briefly considered changing my mind and asking them not to print it.

Of course, I didn't.

What fascinates me about this moment in time is that the threats to our privacy are so constant, and people so passionately opposed to the invasions conducted by government and corporations alike (when those two bodies are separate at all, that is). And yet never before have we been so prone to revealing our most private, intimate thoughts to a hungry anonymous audience.

I recently read a blog in which a 30 year old woman was openly discussing her virginity and her desperation to lose it; her thoughts were the sort that I might express to my oldest, dearest friends—but no one else. Sometimes it seems we're fighting two opposing fronts at once: one to keep hold of our personal sphere, the other to open it as wide as possible. So much of the latter seems driven by loneliness.

Poetry has always revealed the smudgy, oily hair-clogs at the bottoms of our emotional drains, of course.

So what’s the difference between poetry and the universe of confessional blogging?

All I know is that when this baby came out in print, it made me real glad my dad reads nothing but John Grisham novels.


Early Spring

On the mattress we’d carried into the woods—
through April dusk, sky bannered pale blue,
lines of townhouse windows
shining gold back across the creek—
I held him carefully to take him in.
Pain opened, very slowly, into joy.

After, we lay beneath the breeze
and pulled up the blanket. Dirt and leaves
crept in near our bodies.
Blades of iris pronged up through the soil.

It grew darker. We could hear
night animals moving in the trees;
families cooking out in nearby yards
as we began again, this time with me above,
staring down into his astonished face.
It had been hard to breathe beneath his weight,
but with fuller lungs I found a voice
to call to God—for pardon? or in praise?—
all that seemed certain was something huge
had taken hold; I wanted to name it
so I could call it back.

Later we dressed, tender with each other,
helping with buttons, brushing off leaves
to meet our parents’ probing eyes at curfew.
Conspirators, giggling triumphant,

we carried the mattress out
slung low between us
as though it were the third body
we had torn alive from the dumb wet earth.