Saturday, December 5, 2009

New ones up on Etsy ...

I was at a craft show yesterday and several folks asked me about LSD when they saw this painting.
I just like colors, OK?!?
Check it out along with a couple of others here!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cervantes Prize to Pacheco

I don't know much of the work of Mexican poet and fiction writer Jose Emilio Pacheco, who won the Cervantes Prize this morning.

I do know the prize is kind of a big deal, the top for literature in Spanish, with previous winners including people like Borges and Octavio Paz.

And I was lucky enough to skim through a copy of Pacheco's Selected Poems years ago, where I encountered what remains one of the clearest and most lovely statements on patriotism I've ever read. The tone, the way it vaults over grand statements about destiny or democracy to capture the concrete, physical things you can really love, the things that bind you to a place.

If there's any big statement at all, it's the title, which (I think) can be read as a neat little smack to those who would say grander things--those who would be immediately offended by Pacheco's opening statement, and might read no further.

High Treason

I do not love my country. Its abstract splendor
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history
(and three or four rivers).

Alta traición

No amo mi Patria. Su fulgor abstracto
es inasible.
Pero (aunque suene mal) daría la vida
por diez lugares suyos, cierta gente,
puertos, bosques de pinos, fortalezas,
una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa,
varias figuras de su historia,
(y tres o cuatro ríos).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Living with a Writer: A Gratitude

Living with a writer (or an artist of any type, I suspect) is a recipe for irritation.

Few weeks go by when I don't think to myself at some point, I am a pain in the ass.

When I am not working, or when my writing isn't going well, I can be grouchy or emotionally needy.

When the work is going well, I am distracted. I may well forget to feed the dog, or myself, or to put on underwear, or lock the front door, or ask my husband how his day was, because I am thinking about exactly how to phrase a piece of dialogue or where to break a line or what color of paint I need.

This is a no-win situation for my husband, who frequently gets to choose from a delicious, two-option buffet: gaga, overly sensitive emotionalism, or "What did you say, honey?"

Luckily, he is also a writer, so he is also (by the rules established above) a pain in the ass.

Learning to tolerate and accept the quirks of sharing space with another writerly brain is key to our happy relationship.

I would not trade my husband for all the world. We can talk about the craft, we can do first reads on each other's work, we can share good and bad nuggets from our scads of reading material, we can say honestly (but gently) when something isn't working. We understand the annoyance of working for days on a piece, only to submit it and have it rejected, or damned with faint praise, or picked apart by blog commenters who respond to a piece that took hours of interviews and research by pointing out that you made a typo and forgot to include the "l" in "public." Ha ha! Good times.

We can also--every now and then--sit around with our dog and watch bad movies, drink beer, listen to music, chill out with friends, and talk about everything but writing. Those are good times: when we stop, for a moment, being neurotic, narrative-driven freaks and exist as human beings--human beings who have no need or obligation to commit anything to a page, no obligation to do anything but enjoy each other's company and feel happy that we get to go through the world with another person who has to love and tolerate our pain-in-the-assness, because we love and tolerate theirs.

I give thanks for this almost daily, while remembering that not everyone is so lucky. The newsletter of the Kenyon Review this week highlighted an old gem by Roger Rosenblatt, (who wrote the terrific novel Beet--certainly the funniest academic satire since Russo's Straight Man). The story first appeared in the Kenyon Review in Fall 2007.

I don't live with this guy, but I have met or observed him many times at readings. And I have met his long-suffering wife. Oh boy, did this story make me laugh--with amusement, recognition, and appreciation for my own writer-spouse, whose egotistical writer B.S. is minimal and whose patience for my occasional dark moods and "Clean the kitchen? We have a kitchen?" absentmindedness is great.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

The Writer's Wife

Look at him, my active man. Sometimes he sits and turns to the left. Sometimes, to the right. I wouldn't think of disturbing him. He is dreaming his writer's dreams, and his dreams are inviolable. I have the privilege of serving him, and of watching him.

Did you say something, dear? Nothing yet? Still dreaming? Well, while you're at it, I'd better get to my chores. No, don't get up. I can handle it: Fix the engine on the Prius; recondition the Steinway; point up the bricks on the west wall; build a bathroom in the basement, from scratch.
Busy, busy is the writer's wife.

And please, don't even think of lowering yourself to the details of bill paying, dry cleaning, shopping, cooking, dishwashing, trash toting. May I get the door for you? May I get two?

Am I complaining about my lot? Never, sweetheart. The intellectual challenges alone make it worthwhile. How many ways can I invent to assure you that you're not losing your touch? Our topics of conversation: Your obligation to your gift. My obligation to your obligation. Were you born before your time, or after your time, or just in time? I forget.

Then there's our social life. The dinner parties, where everyone speaks in quotations. The book parties, where everyone says, “There he is.” Or variously: “There she is!”

Do I want to go to Elaine's? Are you kidding? I want to live there!

And don't worry. I've laid out your uniform. Dark suit, dark shirt, dark tie. Your special look.

Do you think you might speak to me this month? It was so nice last month, or was it the month before that, when you asked me how I was. For a moment there, I thought you'd asked who I was. That's just a little joke. Nothing to upset yourself about. But what am I saying? Why would you be upset? Why would you -- sitting there in your dreamscape -- why would you even look up?

My folks, having met you but once, suggested I marry an actuary or a mortgage broker. Or a wife beater. Hell, what do parents know about the life of the mind -- yours. The precious moments we share --

Such as the times you ask me to read something you've written, and if I say “I love it!” you say I'm blowing you off, and if I appear disappointed or confused, you go into a clinical depression, and if I say, “Then, please don't ask me, if you don't want my opinion,” you go into a clinical depression.

Oh, dear. Did I say, “That was the best thing you ever wrote”? Of course, what I meant to say was, “Everything you write is a masterpiece. And this latest masterpiece just proves it.” That's what I meant to say. You're right. I must learn to say what I mean. Forgive me?

But soon we make up, and you'll say, “Let's go to so-and-so's poetry reading.” And I'll say, “Oh, darling! Let's! Just give me a minute to freshen up and hang myself from the hall chandelier” -- which, by the way, I repaired last week.

Memories? Say, rather, treasures! The day your agent returned your call. The day your editor returned your call. The day you found your name in the papers. In the phone book. Remember the time we saw your first novel on sale in the Strand for one dollar? How we laughed! The night you awoke with an inspiration for a story, and in the morning it sounded so silly?

Remember when I tried to write something myself, and you said it was “interesting”?

You know? I used to like books.

Ah. You've turned to the left again. I'm pooped, just watching you. Watching you in your dreams. I dream, too. Here's mine:

Lord, please let him find a younger woman.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

King Praises Sklenicka, Who Trashes Lish, Who Muddied Carver, Who Wanted a Drink, Which King Also Wanted

Alcoholics build defenses like the Dutch build dikes. I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I "just liked to drink." I also employed the world-famous Hemingway Defense. Although never clearly articulated (it would not be manly to do so), the Hemingway Defense goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don't give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.

--from Stephen King's On Writing

Stephen King was one of my first writing heroes; at 13, I hid a copy of The Shining under my pillow because I knew my parents would confiscate it if they found it.

Raymond Carver came later, and I never felt any need to hide his books. Quite the contrary: By that time, I was in college, and carrying around a copy of Carver was de rigeur, a sort of secret writer's handshake that let other babywriters know you were one of the pack. I was never a huge Carver devotee, but I still remember the first time I read "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." I thought about the story for days afterward, and it still comes back to me any time I think seriously about marriage; the old couple that Mel describes haunt me. Are they true; are they possible? Or are they just an image of perfected love to taunt the rest of us?

And I still remember the experience of reading King's It, which remains the only book I've ever had to stop reading because it scared me so much. (I put it away for four months--I even put other books on top of it, subsconsciously trying to make sure the cover stayed closed--before I could get back to it again.)

They are different kind of shocks, of course, producing different kinds of tremors. But put King and Carver together, and hey, I'm there.

If you're interested in either writer, check out the New York Times' lead review today, in which King reviews a new Carver biography and a collection of his stories. It's full of fascinating, occasionally horrifying info about Carver, but also about the egomaniacal editor Gordon Lish, who seems to have shaped our idea of "a Raymond Carver story" and the Raymond Carver approach to writing, maybe more than Carver himself.

The discussion of Carver's short story A Small, Good Thing, which was completely transformed by Lish, interested me not only because the editor changed it into a much darker story, but because I realized that the version of it that ended up in Short Cuts, Robert Altman's film of interwoven Carver stories, is the version that Carver originally wrote. Yet another element of awesomeness in that discomfiting film, along with Julianne Moore's pants-free rant. (Bless Altman for using it, and don't blame him too much for Andie MacDowell, who is so cheesy in the cathartic scene of that story that she makes my teeth itch.)

For me, the review is fascinating in what it suggests about King as much as what the reviewed biography reveals about Carver. His take on Carver's alcoholism and his sympathy for the writer's first wife seems to come from a deeper personal space. Carver sounds hard to like, but at the end of the review, I liked King even more.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Asparagus, Less Detroit

I've been thinking about the different processes involved in poetry and painting. Specifically, about the planning of each.

With poems, I often come up with one line (or rather, one line comes to me) and write toward that line or idea. There is a destination, and the terrain comes clear as I track toward it.

Sometimes, this can be a problem, since the single line can be like Detroit: You see its skyline off in the distance and it seems interesting, but once you get there, you're like, "Oh. This is not where I want to be."

Then you have to backtrack and realize that you really wanted to go to this little roadside fruit stand near Lake Michigan. Or you realize that the whole trip was wasted and you're stuck in Detroit, looking at shut-down auto factories.

With paintings--or at least the kind I'm doing right now--there is very little planning. I take a canvas or sheet of paper, I mark the center of my circle, I decide on the first color I want to use. Almost everything after that seems to happen without thinking. My mind goes to a completely different space; it is almost glandular. Yesterday, for example, I was looking at a square of warm gray paper. For a moment, there was nothing, and then several hours later, there were crescents in a bright shade of magenta and swirls of white.

And then with the one pictured here, suddenly there were asparagus tips. I didn't even realize they were there until the whole thing was done.

I would really like it if more poems came to me like that. Once or twice, it has happened, but lately, I can feel myself trying to write, and when that happens ... Hello Detroit, I'll be here all week!

What comes to you when you write? Can you plan your poems? Does it work?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Flowerwheels and mandalas ...

As Guy Clark once sang, "There ain't no money in poetry/That's what sets the poet free."

Yeah, but the poet occasionally gets writer's block, and the poet also has veterinary bills to pay because the poet has a dog who likes to eat anything--ancient burritos, chicken bones, underwear--he can sniff out on his daily walk.

Consequently, this scribbler has gone back to doodling. There ain't much money in art, either, but it looks prettier when you hang it on a wall (or a tree).

Once upon a time, I sold a painting or two, and am now trying to get back to it via Etsy. I just put up my first listing and will be adding more in the weeks ahead, so in case you're looking for good Christmas presents for those who enjoy acid trips, check me out at

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I Should be Writing ...

But lately I've been painting instead, trying to get over a terribly long stretch of writer's block.

I use so much of my verbal energy at work that painting feels like a great relief, a respite from too many words.

I can't tell if it's helping with the writer's block or not, but it does give me something to occupy myself while the hubby is watching Nebraska football.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Brush With Svetlana

I rarely answer my cell phone if I don't recognize the number on the display.
But at work a few weeks back, I was waiting for a call from a customer service person, so I violated my own rule when my ringtone sounded.

Me: "Hello?"

Female voice, vaguely Eastern European accent: "Hello, I am talking to reach M.C. Allan?"

Me (immediately on guard. I write fiction and poetry under that name; no one actually calls me that): "Yes?"

Female voice (becoming--is it my imagination--slightly more seductive?): M.C., I am calling because we have read your book, and we would like to help you getting more people to reading it!

Me (racking my brain to try to remember if I've somehow published a book without being aware of it): Um ... I'm sorry ... what book?

Female voice: Your book! We love it, and we want to get it in front of millions of customers!

Me (Wow! Millions of customers! Except ... wait, that's right, I don't have a book): Um ... I'm not sure what book you're referring to.

Female voice: We have read your book, the Delaware Poetry Review, and we want to help bringing your book in front of millions of customers!

Me: Um ... that's not actually my book? That's an online poetry journal.

Female voice: We have read your poetry journal, and we want to help you to getting your book read by millions of customers!

Me: I think there's been some misunderstanding. It's not my journal. It's an online journal that just published some of my poems a while back.

Female voice: Yes! And we want to promote your work. We can reach many many customers and let them know about your journal. Our fees are very small.

(By this time, I must mention, the voice had begun to get a trifle irritated with me. I can only assume that, from her perspective, I was some idiot American whose book, the Delaware Poetry Review, was just waiting for a little marketing push in order to climb the New York Times bestseller list, and here I was, ungratefully hassling her about details.

Meanwhile, in my head, I had a clear picture of a skinny, frosted blonde with long acrylic nails and fur-topped stockings--a little like Ilsa, only no jodhpurs. I had already decided, actually, that her name was "Svetlana" and that she must been making marketing calls out of some tiny basement in Moscow, and that this was her second career--her first foray into true Western capitalism--the first one having been 15 years on the street in the employ of a vicious pimp and petrol smuggler named Ivan.)

Me: I'm not sure you understand ... the Delaware Poetry Journal is not something for sale. Anyone can go and read those poems online for free? I don't think I can really do much with your marketing service. I'm sorry.

Svetlana: But we can getting your poems in front of millions of customers!

(Note: Not once did Svetlana reference "readers." They were always "customers," drooling, money-spending sheep waiting to be fleeced, waiting with baited breath not only for the latest wrinkle reducer, car shammy, dish detergent, erection enchancer, cholesterol medicine, but for my poem about wild dogs on the beach in Karachi, Pakistan.)

Me: Thank you, I appreciate it, but I really have to get back to work.

Svetlana: Do you not think that your journal is good to read?

Me: I just think there is a misunderstanding, and I'm in the middle of editing a--

Svetlana: Fine! So sorry to have bothered you.

(At this point, she hung up in a huff.)

Fellow laborers in this discouraging slog of rejection slips, writer's block, and obscurity: Have any of you heard from Svetlana--or someone of her ilk? How did you handle her?

Are you, even now, slurping down spoonfuls of caviar and enjoying your time on the bestseller list in Kiev? Has someone in the former Soviet bloc discovered that poetry is actually a marketable commodity?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Readings in the Rain

Yesterday I trudged through the mist on the National Mall to go to several readings at the National Book Festival. I hadn't been before--in fact, I'd avoided it on the suspicion that it would be a zoo. Which it was. Hordes of people toting their purple bags, looking at layout maps, moving from one pavilion to the next. It was certainly enough to make me feel happily skeptical about all the death knells that have been ringing for the publishing industry, but on some level the whole idea is odd: Bringing thousands of people together to celebrate publicly the intensely private experience of reading.

But readings are always different than reading; that is part of their charm.

The difficult thing is watching people cram themselves under the enormous tent set up to hold James Patterson--there were folks standing outside the tent in the rain, bonking against each other like so many gumballs--when, 50 feet away, Jane Hirshfield is reading and there are empty seats.

I don't have anything against Patterson. I've read and (kind of) enjoyed several of his books. I'm sure he's probably a nice guy and it's great that he's trying to turn kids into readers. But so many people gathered for his wisdom? It's not, surely, because he's the voice of our generation ... so the crowd read, to me, like they were there to get a sniff of his millions and the celebrity that's accompanied them. Sheesh, Patterson's got a team of people writing his books now, and that whole notion seems odd to me. It reminds me a bit of some of the celebrity chefs who haven't set foot in a kitchen in years. Maybe I'm too naive about writing, still too wedded to that obsolete notion that authors are instrumental to their own work. Maybe only some authors are instrumental to their own work.

All I know is that I have a hard time imagining Jane Hirshfield waking up, doing her morning Zen meditations, and then handing off her pen to a lackey and saying, "Hey, do me one like 'Each Moment a White Bull,' only with more explosions."

Hirshfield read that lovely poem, along with some of my other favorites. I've written before about how much I love "The Envoy," and hearing her read it was a real pleasure.

I also got to hear Patricia Smith, which was the reason I came down. I loved her book about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, and had heard that she was an amazing reader. This was proved yesterday. There are some poets that I think you can fully appreciate based on the writing on the page alone. Smith's work is great on paper, but it takes on a rawer and more vibrant quality when you hear it in her voice; she brings a power and heart and wit to her performance that the page doesn't capture.

Between Hirshfield and Smith, Ana Menendez read. I haven't read any of her books yet, though In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd is one of my favorite titles of the past ten years. Menendez read from her most recent novel, The Last War, but it was her off-script musings that I found most insightful. My favorite tidbits below.

"There is a kind of magic in writing. In my writing classes, I always have my students tell a story orally and then write the same story. They always discover something new about it when they write it down."

On the trend of ethnic fiction: "At it's best, it's beautiful and illuminating; at it's worst, it's just a way of exoticizing a culture and playing cultural anthropologist for the white people."

On the time she spent in India: "They would at first think I was Indian, and then when I opened my mouth, they would just think, 'Westerner.'" [As opposed to the States, where people always first see her as Cuban-American]. "One of the beauties of travel is that you see how fungible identity is."

Monday, September 14, 2009

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

In August, I went to Mexico for two weeks, where my husband and I climbed the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, ate at various street vendors without incurring digestive distress, snorkeled the Great Maya Reef, and drank far too many lagers with lime. (Normally, I am a Dogfish Head loyalist, and mostly loyal to their brews of 7% alcohol or better. After those heady, nutty, malty, hoppy brews, Mexican lagers really just don’t cut it … but if we’d had access to Dogfish beers in Mexico, it’s entirely possible we’d never have left.) Above is me, wandering the streets of Izamal, a really strange little town where all the buildings are painted gold. I felt like I was walking through a de Chirico painting--specifically, this one.

The first few days of the trip didn’t allow much time for reading (too busy snorkeling and trying to get into relaxed zone after mad cram to finish up work), but by day three I’d started into Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I don’t know how I managed to miss this book until now, as its blurbings were effusive and compared it to great poli-sci-fi like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It is a fascinating read, depicting a post-nuclear war world in which all scientific materials have been destroyed by people convinced that science was responsible for “the Flame Deluge.” Only fragments remain, and these are preserved by Catholic monks laboring in the desert to illuminate manuscripts that may be no more important than someone’s shopping list, but may be the blueprints for nuclear reactors. They are preserving materials they don’t really comprehend and have worked the material into an evolving "Catholic" literature. It’s funny, scary, and totally bizarre. I had heard of the book before, but never read it. I’m convinced that the only reason it doesn’t get more attention now is because the threat of nuclear oblivion that was the chief cultural fear during the Cold War (the book was published in 1960) now seems charmingly simple; the world is no longer split into two behemoths bent on destroying each other, but into a thousand factions that want to do the same. Between our changed thinking on nuclear stand-off and the scandals that have hit the Catholic Church, it’s hard to read the book in a 1960s mindset—but it’s still a great read.

Once I was done with Canticle, between sunburns and reef visits, I perused the lending library at the little beach house where we stayed in Mexico. It was like every beach house lending library, in that it was composed of bad thrillers and pirate-themed bodice rippers in which terms like “velvety orbs” and “downy mound” stand in for body parts. It is fun to do dramatic, out-loud readings of these books (especially if you add piratical “Arrrs” to the euphemism-laden love scenes), but they are not good reading. Not even good beach reading.

Granted, I think Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is great beach reading, so maybe my tastes run darker than most.

I actually got so desperate for reading material that I perused a few of the books at the beach house (Jeffrey Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll and Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good). The Deaver book was not my thing: all plot, zero characterization and subtlety; I could actually see the credits for the bad TV movie playing as the first scene went along. Harlan Coben, on the other hand, is a good writer; the book was funny, had a good voice; lots of thriller-standard plot twists but some real emotion humming underneath the surface. (Then, later, I read Coben’s Tell No One and was amused to discover the movie adaptation was way better than the book—more tender, more believable. The movie leaves out the book’s final plot twist and is much the better for it.)

I left my own copy of E.L. Doctorov’s Loon Lake at the beach house. Partially to improve the offerings there, but really because I had stuck with it for 200 pages and kept thinking it was brilliant and then annoying and then brilliant and then annoying and finally the annoyance won out and I stopped reading it. Normally I like Doctorov and like experiments with form, but in this case, the moves between the narrative and the modern poetry kept losing me. Perhaps my brain had been turned to goo by the sun. Maybe the next beach bum will have more luck.

Speaking of experiments in form, I discovered Anne Carson. Whoo boy. A few pages into her book, Autobiography of Red and I am cursing myself for not having found her earlier. Talk about exciting experiments with form.

I owe at least four people comments on their manuscripts and/or poems. I am sorry; I swear, I will read them. I’m hoping they’ll jog me loose from this writer’s freeze I’m in … got diverted from the novel by vacation, and am trying to dig back in now … mostly via painting, which is often a great way for me to refocus creatively.

That’s all the news that’s fit to blog. Will poke my head up again when there’s something worthy on the radar.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who are You, and Why are You Thinking About Ballerinas?

A few weekends back, I burned through Tana French's first book, In the Woods. It's true that you should not judge a book by its cover, but you can sure as hell sell it. I'd planned to read it ever since I saw the cover image, which successfully conveys both a woodsy branchiness and the organic, creepy look of blood vessels.

The first book won several awards and got deservedly praised every which way, but it had--to my mind--one substantial flaw. The first person narrative occasionally veers to places that seem unbelievable for the character in question. He's Rob Ryan, a youngish homicide detective in Ireland, never finished college, obsessed with his job, troubled by a forgotten childhood trauma that may or may not be connected to his latest case. All well and good, and for the most part, French carries the voice off pretty well.

But every now and then, Ryan let slip a line or a thought that had me turning to the back jacket of the book to look French in the face. He compares the preparation for a murder investigation to the chaos that happens backstage as ballerinas wait for the curtain. He names the French musical piece that young ballet dancers are warming up to. All in all, for someone readers have been given no reason to think of as a ballet aficionado, he seems to know an awful lot about the world of toe shoes and nutcrackers.

While these moments were enough to make me stop reading and address a general, "WTF?" to the empty room, they were minor problems in an otherwise terrific book, and almost as soon as I finished the last page, I picked up French's second book, The Likeness. And there the voice problems ceased: In the second book, the narrative voice is no longer Ryan's, but his former partner's, a young female detective. In The Likeness, the plot is just as taut and the first-person voice comes off without a hitch.

The difference between the two books made me think about the trapdoors in that old writing class dictum: write what you know. I've always thought that it should be followed by a number of caveats, one of them being: unless the character you're creating doesn't have a clue about what you know, in which case, write what HE knows. French's bio says she trained as an actor; my guess is she may have encountered a bit of ballet over the years, but letting it drift into the consciousness of her male detective protagonist--without at least a throwaway line to explain how it might have got there--seemed a misstep.

It also made me think about the difficulty of believably inhabiting a demographic that's not yours--something I'm struggling with right now as I work on a story set in 1960s Mississippi in which the two central characters are a middle-aged black woman and an 8-year-old white boy. I figure, demographically, I've got a little connection to each of them, but I also keep thinking I have to know more, more, more about their lives and their worlds. I keep reading more about the civil rights movement, about life on the Gulf Coast, about what people wore and ate and where they worked and how they lived. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to drown in research and never actually write this story.

It reminds me of the writerly equivalent of that old apocryphal anecdote about Dustin Hoffman: Supposedly, while on the set of Marathan Man, method actor Hoffman, playing an exhausted college student on the run from Nazi war criminals, was staying up late and exercising himself sick to get himself looking and feeling the part. His co-star, Laurence Olivier, saw this miserable wreck dragging itself onto the set each day and expressed concern; when Hoffman explained what he was doing, Olivier said acidly, "Try acting, dear boy; it's so much easier." (If you want to get a sense of how Hoffman took this advice, this photo pretty much says it all.)

I think the opposite is true. Sometimes I know I'm researching just to avoid putting pen to paper. I plan to post this photo above my desk as encouragement.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

And Like a Thunderbolt He Falls

I found this article oddly fascinating, and the incident it refers to would make a great poem. Some extracts for the time-constrained:

Of all the moments that might leave an impression on the minds of budding young poets at the Springs School, the day that a hawk killed a blue jay and ate it in the courtyard at the school seems to resonate above all others ...

The subject matter of the poems runs the gamut ... but nothing inspired fifth grade students more than the bitter cruelty of nature outside their window on the day the hawk killed the blue jay.

“These poems all come from classes that had a perfect view on the courtyard,” said Ms. O’Conner.

"A bird of prey/silently snacking/on a blue bird/savoring every bite/its talons/engraved/ in its mid afternoon/snack,” wrote fifth-grader Katherine Espinoza.

“The hawk rips the feathers off/the bird/the tail of the blue jay/goes up/stomped by the hawk/it’s a cat and mouse rampage,” wrote fifth-grader Chris Tapia.

A moment in childhood when, for one reason or another, the attention of many children is directed at one particular event. That so many of them chose to write about it is really interesting. Is it the early development of the classic dictum, "If it bleeds, it leads"? A lack of other source material that feels suitably "dramatic" to kids tasked with writing poems? An instinctive understanding that death is interesting?
Whatever, "its talons/engraved/in its mid afternoon/snack" is a great line. Watch out for that kid.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

One for the Ages

Sorry for the long hiatus. I'm not dead yet.

But this blog is likely to remain dark for a bit. My job is sucking a huge amount of my writing energy, and I'm trying to focus what little juice remains on a bigger project.

I will be popping up now and then when the news is worthwhile or the Muse comes knocking.


In the meantime, though, before I go back to radio silence for a while, I feel compelled to give a shout-out for a book I have recently been re-reading. For the sake of full disclosure: The author, Andrew Kozelka, is a friend of mine. We went to grad school at Hollins together, though I think we shared only one class, a theory seminar on short fiction. And while most of us young grad students were spending our nights hanging around, drinking, bantering wittily, hoping to show enough intellectual ankle to get us intellectually laid, this guy was burning the midnight oil in his little apartment in downtown Roanoke, churning out two novels and many of the first poems in the book below.

Every time I pick up The Ages, I am struck by a complex roster of emotions: The first is a rueful sense of irritation with the state of poetry publication in this day and age. Here is a book, dear readers, which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2005. A finalist, but it did not win, and then when Kozelka got tired of the ongoing slings and arrows of the contest submission system, he finally did that horrible, shiver-inducing thing which can draw hushed gasps of disgust even from those who know the meaning of the slang term "Dirty Sanchez": He self-published it.

While the innocent among you are googling the term (I tell you now, you'll be happier if you don't), I ask the rest: Has Kozelka, by dropping into the self-publishing well, dipped himself in tar which can never be peeled away?

Maybe he could have gone on playing the game. Maybe he should have. Every time I pick up the book, I argue with myself about it, the angel on one shoulder soothing, It's out there, the devil on the other seething, No one will read it.

Oh, but that's just the first emotion. The second one comes on as I start reading: envy. Deep, lustful envy of these poems. The kind I very rarely experience, that Why the hell aren't I smart enough to write this? sort of feeling. Then, as I read further, the envy vanishes and turns into excitement. Excitement at their ambition, their leaps of imagination, their historical scope, their black humor, their multiplicity of form, their willingness to scavenge through the darkness and bring up gold and icons and drowned slaves and dead czars and heroes who are known as heroes because they killed many, many people.

I realize I am waxing all slobbery here, but I cannot help it: the cumulative power of these poems taken together is hard to overstate. Every time I read them, they make me want to write more, and read more, and simultaneously they make me want to throw every book in the room onto a pyre and light it and go be a throat-slitting pirate somewhere. Really. It is that good.

I'm going to just shut up now and drop a couple of my favorites below. Kozelka's dirty, filthy, self-published book of brilliance is available through Amazon. Buy it, and have a little source of dark light to put on your shelf.


The Age of Fable

From the village below the castle
The serfs can see the knights
Cavorting with pale ladies;
They can smell the delicate muttons,
They can feel the blatant unfairness
And what the priest tells them
Doesn't really help.

As for the Revolution
It's at least five hundred years away,
And so they make up stories.
In one, they're strong with rage.
An axe is in their hand. They go
Up to the castle and rape and kill
Everything that breathes.

Then they sit down at the great table
And stuff themselves.
They lay a tax upon the village.
The prettiest boys and girls
Are brought to their bed.
They sleep in. They kill off
Anyone who seems ambitious.

All the serfs in the village know this story,
Though not one has ever told it.


The Vision of St. Francis
in the Year of the Plague

Some children undertook
Another crusade
To stop a war their parents had made

But along the way they grew up, had children
Of their own,
And had to protect them with arrow and stone

And had to settle and build a fort
Where soon their children were asking the same sort
Of questions they used to:

Why the need for the wall?
Why even have enemies at all?
Why do we work? Why elect a prince?

It just doesn't make sense.
And so they went off on another crusade
To stop the war their parents had made.

But they didn't want it to be like before
And just end up fighting the same old war
And so when they saw the marauders approach

The children didn't go into a protective crouch
But instead ran out to the desert holding hands
And took to kissing in the sands.

Soon it had gotten dark out and the children couldn't see.
All of this was told to me
By my fever.


Teaching Japanese Children English
Not Far From the Hiroshima Peace Park

We the guilty form a wall around innocence,
Killing and being killed where we stand or attack
And there is nothing else between love and the dark,
No wall not of our making, no free-taken home,
And no consolation for the myriad displaced
But to pass briefly through pitiful gardens.

Monday, April 13, 2009

My Lizard Brain is Amish

A friend of mine pointed out that Vegas is the best place on earth to surrender to your lizard brain. Thus my conclusion above, reached after only a few hours of wandering from Bally's to Paris to the Bellagio to Caesar's Palace. Brain ... can't ... handle ... any ... more ... neon ... lights ... must ... milk ... cow ... and ... raise ... barn ...

We rotate cities for our annual conference, and Vegas definitely pulled in the crowds this year. (It struck me that hosting an animal welfare conference in Las Vegas is a little ironic. Here we are pushing a movement that works to encourage people not to give in to their base instincts—suggesting that there are ideas that trump the pleasure principle, radical ideas like, "Maybe you shouldn't beat your dog, even if it makes you feel good," and "Perhaps you could eat something other than veal, even though it's tasty"—and this year we held it in a city that whose modus operandi is to encourage people to indulge every instinct they've got.)

Here's the most depressing thing I saw in Vegas, familiar to anyone who's been there: On the strip at regular intervals, there are lines of Hispanic adults, mostly men but a few women, none of whom seem to speak more than a few words of English. They stand on the sidewalk, all wearing bright t-shirts that say "HOT GIRLS STRAIGHT TO YOUR DOOR IN 30 MINUTES!!" They're all holding stacks of small cards, and as the tourists pass, they slap the decks against their hands, making a snapping sound to get the attention of passersby. The cards, which they'll hand over in piles to anyone who holds out a hand, are all of oiled naked girls, most of whom will come see you for $35 (Vegas regulars: Is that recession-pricing, or is that standard?). You can get two for $99, though the cards don't specify what these girls will do for those prices. Maybe they'll iron your shorts.

Can we make an Exploitation Flow Chart here? The prostitutes are exploiting the immigrants, the johns are exploiting the prostitutes, the city is exploiting the johns ... I feel a chorus of "Proud to be an American" coming on!

On our way back from a show at the MGM Grand, a friend and I saw a woman who must have been 70 passing out these cards. She was about four feet tall and had more than a few missing teeth, and the kind of wizened, ancient face you usually see in photos accompanying National Geographic articles about lost Amazon tribes. This is the global economy: Instead of selling baskets to Ten Thousand Villages, Grandma's helping sling bargain sex to tourists in tracksuits.

Vegas is like a big red glowing clown nose stuck onto an ancient, craggy, dignified face. From the top of the hotel and from the plane on the way out of the city, I could see the desert surrounding the city—empty, arid, weirdly beautiful. I wanted to be there instead.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Triptych: Portraits of Doubt

My sister and I grew up Catholic, and when we were kids, my mom would frequently suggest we give up something for Lent. My suggestion that we give up homework never seemed to be appreciated.

Like most kids anticipating Easter, I looked forward primarily to searching our yard for plastic eggs and consuming puke-inducing amounts of chocolate. But the religious significance of the day was not lost on me. I grew up going to Sunday school and Mass and reading illustrated Bible stories that alternately fascinated and terrified me (there was an image of Absalom, his hair caught in a tree, that I still remember being upset by). Back then, both Easter and Christmas induced a sense of wonder, of unmooredness and mystery, that I no longer experience. I miss it, especially at Christmas.

Was I a believer then? I probably would have professed to be, into my early teens. But at some point, doubt entered the picture. When I went to Mass and it came to the time to recite the Nicene Creed, I started to be silent for the parts that I didn't believe anymore. I would mouth the words and hope my parents didn't notice. The part about "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" was the first to go, because it struck me early how unfair it was that unbaptized kids in distant heathen lands who'd never even been exposed to Christianity would go to hell. It didn't seem like the kind of thing God—at least snuggly, post-therapy, New Testament God—would endorse. Gradually other pieces of it dropped too. These days, my performance of the Nicene Creed would probably resemble a Milli Vanilli concert.

My mother blames herself for this. My sister and I spent most of our formative years at good secular schools overseas and here in the U.S. It wasn't until we moved to Australia that we were chucked into a Catholic school, not due to any misbehavior, but simply because St. Clare's was the best educational option in Canberra. My mom sometimes mutters self-criticisms about how she should have put us into Catholic school earlier, because then we'd still be practicing. I think she's nuts: Nothing did more to tip out my dregs of religious piety than Catholic school. The first first day, I left class to go pee, and in the bathroom, a pack of feral adolescent girls were leaping around, shouting at a crying fifth girl and pelting her with feminine hygiene products. Imagine the shower scene in Carrie meets Lord of the Flies. I'm not saying that it was enough to make me question the existence of a benevolent God, but it was certainly enough to make me question the value of Catholic school in shaping good little Catholics.

Along with the picture of Absalom (lesson: When riding a hysterical mule away from service in your father's army, always put your hair in a sensible bun), a scene I remember seeing many times is that of "doubting" Thomas checking out Jesus after the Resurrection—the Caravaggio above is probably the best known. I always thought this was one of the weirdest stories in the Bible: Thomas says he won't believe Jesus has risen unless he checks out his wounds for himself, and when Jesus comes back, he makes him do it. Imagine having belief forced on you in that way! It's almost like fraternity hazing: Oh yeah? Well, here: stick your finger in this, pal, and tell me what you don't believe.

The poem below consists of portraits of Thomas and two other central figures of the crucifixion story, each grappling with what they did and why they did it; it appeared in Tar River Poetry last spring. The most interesting thing I learned while researching to write it was that the "good thief" crucified next to Christ had a name.


I. Pilate

What did he want—me to declare him innocent,
set him free to pull lepers out of hats?
I am not comfortable with the insinuation of miracles.
Torchlight laddering up a woman’s back,
the bruised figs brought to me by servants,
the sea-scent of olives and sweat—
already more than I expected.
Too much, perhaps—but worth protecting
against riff-raff sorcerers and all they might imply.
I washed my hands not to show my innocence.
The cloth and water were all I could be sure of.
My hands that night smelled not of blood, but lemons.

II. Dismas

The good thief, they called me, leaving out
excellent tax cheat, superior adulterer.
I’d spent time in the company of whores—
in this, our strung-up party of three, I was not alone:
I’d seen him before, threadbare and muddy;
long before he hung bloody beside me,
there were always women around, enraptured,
their dusty hair unbound, poor locals
drawn by those purpled eyes, that green garden
he claimed to have the keys to. My buddy
smarted off. But I was a good gambler
as well—I did not show my tell. I said:
Remember me when. Pain had blurred
my mind, breath and sweat were peeling
away from me in veils, I saw my death
elbowing through the seething crowd,
not a one of them was there to grieve it.
You’d do the same: Say the grace.
Kiss the kingdom. Hope to wake up and believe it.

III. Thomas

Unless I see the wounds, I said. Unless I stick
my fingers in his hands.
Around us in the room
the faces of our friends
hung slack as sails on a windless day.
Fresh from the tomb, he parted his robe,
drew my hand to his side,
then parted flesh rough cloth had uncovered,
to open in his battered side a small door
my hand slipped through. There were the ribs:
spines of books I could not read;
beneath, the fat hot ropes of his intestines.
I had not known the stuff that made a man:
here was the form of my friend who’d sat by fires
with me, eaten, laughed—died? Yet, not him
at all: I pulled my hand out, terrified,
tried to hide my blush, my fingers still sticky
with that other, inner world. I think he blushed
as well—though for himself inside that flesh
or me inside my doubt, I couldn’t tell.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Henri Cole: "Oil & Steel" & Subtlety

Henri Cole's 2008 book Blackbird and Wolf has won numerous awards now, and highlighting a poem from the book seems a little like telling people about how computers will soon be changing society. But every time I read this poem I'm struck by it, especially because Cole said in an interview that, aside from free verse, there's nothing particularly American about American poetry. To me, "Oil & Steel" seems very American, though I can't quite say why ... something about the seriocomic tone of the line about the schnauzers and the way the capitalization of "Modern Fiction" implies a slight sneer, as though the father's contempt for the idea has been at least partially passed to his son.

Oil & Steel

My father lived in a dirty dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
"Dead is dead," he would say, an anti-preacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
and some motor oil—my inheritance.
Once, I saw him weep in a courtroom—
neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.


I love how concise this poem is, how much it tells about the relationship in so few words. I love the way the peculiar alliteration (it comes nowhere else in the poem, and so is startling when it appears) of "neglected, needing nursing" manages to deflate the anguished image of the weeping father and keep the poem from swerving into sentiment.

I love the multiple schnauzers (how many? We never find out), and how they help flesh out the image of the home this man lives in and of his consistency of habit.

I love how the simple, direct voice and absence of rhyme disguises the fact that the poem is essentially a sonnet, complete with the classic turn, in the 9th line, toward resolution of a presented problem. And dark as the memory is, the narrator's recollection of seeing his father weeping and neglected is part of his own resolution, and what seems to allow him to give the man some small (if partly ironic) credit.

More than anything, though, I love the word "mostly" in the final line. Whole worlds of regret and anguish and a wry, pained acknowledgment of inherited graces (and wounds) lie in that one little "mostly."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Little More on Orr

Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”

-- David Orr, "The Great(ness) Game," The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 22 2009

As soon as I read the part above, I thought, a) So the poems we think of as great are more likely to contain sweeping abstractions rather than concrete images? Whatev, and b) Someone must write that sestina.

I tried. It didn't quite want to be a sestina, though. Still, what the hell—it's a draft. I stole a line from Engman's "Another Word for Blue" in the 4th stanza.

Orr Not

There is a canary singing at the head of this poem.
It’s a minor app, a blaring yellow widget to catch
your eye, let language work its wiles on the soul, or brain,
or whatever we can call the locus in the meat
that feels, now that the idea of souls, of gods, of nations
are dying, or at least suffering severe sniffles.

This poem planned to be a sestina, but its soul
resisted. It suspects that greatness—at least in language—
lies now in prose, or in pieces. It has heard the canaries
singing in the coal mines, proclaiming the nation
immune to meter and rhyme, obsessed with widgets,
cell phones, reality TV—trends that make MFAs sniffle

as their wrists go carpal from repeating those six
words over and over. Sestinas? Villanelles? What
greatness of soul is possible, making language macramé
in a world of hi-res pixels? You want some sniffling words
to be universal in a nation made of one-way streets,
trains gang-tagged silver and canary yellow, widgets

that work on one brand of PDA and make
the other sniffle, freeze, crash? “Greatness”? What
does it even mean? It’s a mutant canary dyed pink,
singing in a baroquely shit-caked cage.
There’s a place a block
from here where they never heard of free verse.
A place?
Try every bar across the nation. And the girl at the till

at the hot dog stand at Whitman’s rest stop on the Turnpike
thinks he's a chocolate maker. Where is she in “Greatness”?
It’s a widget that will be outdated by next week; she’ll still
be grilling franks. Time doesn’t move the way it did for Frost.
I trust "canary" more than I trust "nation." What soul left
is broken into pieces. Greatness needs a hardwood floor to settle,

and this nation’s potholes and steel plates shift.
Give me your tired of language, your poor snifflers
off the boat, the manuscripts and machetes in their gym bags
the widgets of dreaming. Give me your Twittering canaries,
their ADD effusions on the blogs. Pile it up; sweat it in a pan.
See what comes out. That laurel crown crumbled years ago.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Orr on Greatness: Who Is, Who Ain't, Why We Should Care

God bless the New York Times for continuing to struggle with poetry and to allow its reviewers and critics to take it on in a serious way. I love the Post for having poetry in every issue of Book World--at least until they killed the print edition of Book World--but the Poet's Choice column always seems a little like a poetry ghetto, what one might do with a dead (or dying) art: Serve up little samples, then have an expert explain why people should eat them.

The Times keeps reviewing poetry books as though they matter and as though people care. Granted, the Book Review includes poetry less frequently than I'd like, but it's there on a semi-regular basis, maybe once a month, and it's talked about seriously. And the paper also has David Orr weighing in with an ongoing commentary about poetry. He's a schnarky sonofabitch. I'm often irritated after reading his pieces. But that's OK with me. Sunday mornings can get too bland.

Last week Orr had some typically provocative things to say about the state of the art. The whole column is worth reading, but he starts off with this:

What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.

What I love about Orr is that his essays almost immediately make you start arguing in your head. I immediately thought, "What? What is he talking about? There are plenty of great poets working today! And what about those we don't even know about yet? I can think of at least three poets I know personally who might qualify -- either right now or as the years pass. And I don't know that many people."

Orr gets more interesting.
The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business. In part, that’s a reflection of the standard narrative of postmodernism, according to which all uppercase ideals — Truth, Beauty, Justice — must come in for questioning. But the difficulty with poetic greatness has to do with more than the talking points of the contemporary culture wars. Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.

He goes on to Donald Hall's famous essay, "Poetry and Ambition," in which Hall accused American poets of lacking the aspiration to write great poems. "Contemporary American poetry," Hall wrote, "is afflicted by modesty of ambition—a modesty, alas, genuine ... if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense." No reason, Hall argued, to spend your life writing poems unless your goal was to write great ones.

When we talk about "greatness," Orr writes, "the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping -- unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical ... Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way."

So does every single one have to be great? Does every poem have to have soaring ambition? Is a poem about a teacup inherently less great than a poem about a big "concept"? Doesn't that PoMo thing that Orr brought up call into question not only the nature of ambition, but the viability of Great Subjects?

Any ideas for contenders for the Ashbery Slot? Ideas about what, now, qualifies someone as A Great Poet? What makes a Great Poem? Some of my favorite poets (Jane Hirshfield, for example), those who I regard as having great technical skill and emotional impact, work on a "small" scale, taking on limited spheres that are often no wider than the few out a kitchen window or the way a single thought moves and grows in the mind. Does that mean the poet is not great, or that the poems aren't? Or is that smaller scale the only trustworthy realm when thinking in absolutes seems to have such terrifying effects?

P.S. I like Orr's writing. It's challenging and interesting. But sometimes it seems loaded with so much provocation and tongue-in-cheekiness that I'm not sure how much I've just been drawn in by a nicely written bit of sophistry ... I don't know, after reading the piece, whether Orr believes a word of what he wrote. The one sentence where I thought I could see the real man:

When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being "mean" rather than as evidence of poetry's health.

That, to me, sounded like a man who's taken a lot of crap over his own "meanness." And as much as I wouldn't have wanted to be the subject of some of his reviews, I agree with him.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Elling Does Roethke Better Than Roethke Does Roethke

Popular song lyrics read without music are most often cringe-worthy. (For an evening's entertainment, though, you could do worse than gather a few friends and some beers and have the group perform poetic readings of the collected lyrics of AC/DC. Really. Imagine an earnest poetry-reading-voice intoning, "She was a fast machine/ She kept her motor clean ...")

Much as I love Dylan and partially agree with the argument that he's a poet at heart, when I read "Desolation Row" transcribed as a poem in David Lehman's Oxford Book of American Poetry, it set my teeth on edge. If Dylan's a poet, he's one who should only be heard; on the page, his songs read to me as irritating doggerel: an obsfucating, unfunny Ogden Nash. It's may be the end rhymes or the fact that Dylan's voice and delivery can't help but crop up in my head while I'm reading, but something is utterly lost in translation. When separated from their sonic back-up, most pop lyrics reveal themselves as pap. There are a few exceptions, of course; many of Tom Waits' songs—especially stranger pieces like "9th and Hennepin" and "What's He Building in There?"—hold up, but Waits is a writer's musician. (If Lehman's criteria for selection were pure on-the-page success of a work, Waits should've trumped Dylan for inclusion the anthology.)

There's a long tradition of changing great poems into songs, with greater but still mixed success. Loreena McKennitt has done some great work here, recording versions of Noyes' "The Highwayman" and Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot"—but due to her sound and the age of the poems, they seem like artifacts. Lovely ones, but still. A 1997 collection called Now & In Time to Be had Irish musicians setting Yeats to music. The disc is hard to come by now, but Van Morrison's take on "Before the World Was Made" and the Waterboys "Stolen Child" were well worth listening to.

Recently, though, I heard a musical version of a well-known poem that took my breath away.

Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," which with Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" and Bishop's "One Art" fills out the trifecta of most famous villanelles, is good enough on the page. But the recordings I've heard of Roethke reading the poem have always turned me off; his portentous delivery makes the poem into something overly ominous. While an awareness of death is central to the poem, his readings of it always seem a little stern, failing to capture its essential liveliness and the sweetness in it.

The poem took on a new life and beauty for me a while ago when I saw jazz vocalist Kurt Elling perform it. As soon as he uttered the first words, I was transfixed. It's an astonishly beautiful rendition, and Elling has real power in performance—a sort that seems to come from a sheer love of what he's doing.

My recommendation: Go to iTunes, put down your 99 cents, and download track #8 on his CD Nightmoves (try not to think of Bob Seger). Pour yourself a cup of something slow-sippable, and play that sucker, loud.

Or you can listen to the YouTube version, below. Let me know what you think—and if you have any favorite poems that have been turned into songs, I'd love to hear them.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In the Can with Donald Justice

News from the BBC today of a competition in the U.K. to find poetry to be displayed in the public toilets of Shetland. The competition is to be called "Bards of the Bog."

A local librarian said, "It should brighten up folk's day, and maybe they'll be inspired to pop into the library and borrow more poetry."

Hopefully after they wash their hands ...

Toilets are perhaps the last place in the world where poetry may find a captive audience (though I wouldn't put it past people to be on their Blackberries while on the loo). Still, I wonder if any contemporary poet can top the classic stall verse that begins, "Here I sit/broken-hearted." Perhaps it could be expanded from a quatrain into a full sonnet.

Or they could just turn to Donald Justice's New and Selected for a poem that adds a painfully existential angle to a simple trip to take a leak.

Unflushed Urinals

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX lines written in an Omaha bus station

Seeing them, I recognize the contempt
Some men have for themselves.

This man, for instance, zipping quickly up, head turned,
Like a bystander innocent of his own piss.

And here comes one to repair himself at the mirror,
Patting down damp, sparse hairs, suspiciously still black,
Poor bantam cock of a man, jaunty at one a.m., perfumed,
xxxxxxundiscourageable ...

O the saintly forbearance of these mirrors!
The acceptingness of the washbowls, in which we absolve ourselves!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rabbit, Rest

Wow. John Updike died today.

This little segment of Rabbit, Run, where Rabbit is sheltering up the stairs from a little mechanic shop, stunned me when I read it.
(In fact, that whole book stunned me. And he was not yet 30 when he published it.)

The clangor of the body shop comes up softly. Its noise comforts him, tells him he is hidden and safe, that while he hides men are busy nailing the world down, and toward the disembodied sounds his heart makes in darkness a motion of love.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

New work up at Linebreak this week ...

The guy who reads the poem in the audio version does it WAY better than I could. Thanks to the Linebreak editors for treating their poems so well.

(And I hate to link to commercials, but if you want to watch the way Rube would have made a car, this is fun.)

In the best news I've had all week, I just found out that the Inquisition has risen from the ashes. For those unfortunate readers who were not students at Mclean High School in the late 80s-early 90s, this news will likely not fill your soul with joy. For those who were, though, I don't need to remind you of Allan Piper's little newsletter that took on national news and politics with more wit and insight than any high schooler really had the right to possess. I still remember by heart one of the paper's rare sallies into rhyme, around the time of the first Gulf War:

Little Hussein went out of his brain
And killed all the Kurds in his way.
Then Little Bush kicked Hussein in the tush,
but let him kill Kurds, anyway.

The Inquisition lives!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Cabernet of Asthma Medication

So it’s less than 24 hours till we get a guy who reads modern poetry in the White House, and I could write about past inauguration poems or the flap over Obama’s choice, but instead, I find myself wanting to write about my drinking problem.

The subject came up for me after I re-read a poem in Tony Hoagland’s 2003 collection, What Narcissism Means to Me. Funny title, often hilarious book, and the poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine” (below) is classic Hoagland. It’s very funny—blatantly, over-the-top funny; at times I can imagine Hoagland doing stand-up—but also moving and intelligent in ways that creep up on you. His poems have a way of making direct statements that wouldn’t be as successful in work that didn’t have this comic sensibility; if you can make people laugh, they will follow you anywhere.

My drinking problem is not that I drink too much—though I do love the Dogfish Head Brewery only a few blocks from work. My drinking problem is different: I'm married to a lovely man who writes about food for a living, which means that we're occasionally at press dinners where people say things like, "I don't think the holy basil successfully elevates the buttery tones of the fish" and "The miso provides a perfect counterpoint to the acid" and "This chef needs to learn that salt is his friend, not some embarassing redneck cousin he needs to hide in the basement." And while I do, at these events, occasionally harbor thoughts like, There are people starving in Darfur—hell, there are people starving two BLOCKS from here—and we're bitching about the lack of elevating qualities in the holy basil?, I understand what they're talking about. I love food. I think cooking is a true art, and 95 percent of the time when someone says something that would sound incredibly pretentious to non-foodies, I totally get what they mean. (Really, probably 20 percent of the time, the person saying something like that is me, and I'm completely sincere about it.)

Where I get lost is with wine. Good food and good wine usually go together, and people who know a lot about food often know a lot about wine as well. But while I can hold my own in banter about the flavors of a dish, I am a complete baboon when it comes to wine—an oenofool. Even now my approach when the subject comes up is to shut my mouth and try not to say anything that might embarrass my husband (or my friend Angela, who's been known to be able to tell an Oregon from a Washington pinot at one sip. This may be no big deal among wine people, but it impressed the hell out of me). It's taken me years to even begin to be able to tell a Cab from a Pinot, and I would probably still make plenty of mistakes if blind-tested. I could almost certainly discern a red from a white, but I might try to peek to be sure.

It's not that I don't like it—I'm very fond of many wines, but to quote Dave Barry, "my policy with wine is very similar to my policy with beer, which is pretty much drink it and look around for more." Terroir, tannins, vintage, crus—the effects of all these things continue to mystify me. Part of this is certainly due to how my sister and I grew up: Our parents liked a glass of wine with dinner, but we never saw a bottle more expensive or unusual than a Kendall-Jackson Chard or a Gallo—not ever. Sensible, down-to-earth people, my folks, who still drink rotgut gin in their G & Ts, even though they could afford something better. My folks' version of talking about wine would have been some high-falutin' banter like, "Nice wine." "Yep, it was on special at Giant."

For years when I heard people talk about tasting steel or blackberries or old saddle leather in their wine, I thought they were either crazy or making it up to sound sophisticated. Or actually sophisticated in ways that must make me a total rube. Recently I was reading Marion Winik's lovely new collection, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and was gratified to find an anecdote where someone swishes their wine and tells the others tasting it, "Grapes. I'm getting ... grapes." It was a wonderful line, but my sense was he said it to be funny. I would have said it in earnest.

About five years ago, though, I had a breakthrough: I'd stopped at a wine bar to wait for my husband one evening, and ordered a glass of something. It should help indicate what a complete wine idiot I am that I have no idea what the something was, though I do recall it was a Red Something. I lifted it to my face to sip and was almost wacked in the face with an incredibly powerful waft of pure butterscotch. The wine reeked of it.

I'd never experienced anything like it. I won't say it was spiritual, exactly, but it was close: I'd experienced something that had always been invisible, that I'd always believed fictional or at least beyond my capacity to experience. I would never have expected to have my own personal little oeno-Lourdes at a strip mall in Gaithersburg, but there you have it. It was everyone else's illusion until it became mine, too, and I suddenly understood it was real.

That said, the most I would have ventured about that wine was what I said above: It reeked of butterscotch. The oenophile in Hoagland's poem talks about wine on a whole other level—an expertise that seems, by the end of the poem, to be about dodging more painful subjects.


When Dean Young Talks About Wine

The worm thrashes when it enters the tequila.
The grape cries out in the wine vat crusher.

But when Dean Young talks about wine, his voice is strangely calm.
Yet it seems that wine is rarely mentioned.

He says, Great first chapter but no plot.
He says, Long runway, short flight.
He says, This one never had a secret.
He says, You can’t wear stripes with that.

He squints as if recalling his childhood in France.
He purses his lips and shakes his head at the glass.

Eighty-four was a naughty year, he says,
and for a second I worry that California has turned him
into a sushi-eater in a cravat.

Then he says,
XXXXXXXXThis one makes clear the difference
between a thoughtless remark
and an unwarranted intrusion.

Then he says, In this one the pacific last light of afternoon
Stains the wings of the seagull pink
XXXXXXXXat the very edge of the postcard.

But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?
Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes?
Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?
with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches?
and the undertone of rusty stationwagon?
His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle
he had drunk.
He sways like a fishing rod.

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

But when a man is hurt,
XXXXXXXXhe makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring into nothing
XXXXXXXXXXas if he was forming an opinion.