Erica reading the poem at the wedding of Samantha and Scott, April 5th, 2014.

Erica reading the poem at the wedding of Samantha and Scott, April 5th, 2014. Photo by David Feldt.

When Samantha and I married last Saturday evening, we weren’t just bringing together our hearts, bodies, minds, and souls; we were bringing together our two families.

Each of us has three children from our previous marriages — my two boys and a girl; her two girls and a boy.

Comparisons to “The Brady Bunch,” the eponymous 1970s TV series, with which we grew up, are ever-present. “Except we don’t have Alice,” we usually reply.

We wanted our children to be incorporated into the ceremony. And they were: my oldest son, Jasper, was best man; Samantha’s oldest son performed “In My Life” by The Beatles on his guitar for the processional.

Walker, my younger boy, was ring-bearer, while his twin sister, Elizabeth, and Samantha’s youngest, Sasha, were “bridesmaids bearing flowers,” decidedly not “flower girls.” Samantha’s older daughter, Erica, was asked to give a reading during the community blessings segment of the ceremony.

I was tasked with finding an appropriate poem for Erica to read.

“Perhaps something about a blended family,” Samantha suggested. Scanning the Internet, I came up empty. How could there be no poems about blended families? (Or, at least, poems worth of the name in this poet’s opinion.)

The poems I found were either over-written, overly sentimental, and just plain bad. This seemed a shame in an age when blended families are almost commonplace.

So I wrote one. Luckily, the poetry group to which I belong, “52,” came along with a weekly prompt for a poem on praise.

Erica did an amazing job reading it at the wedding and we were all very proud of her — and not a few of us were moved to tears. This was not so much a validation of the poem’s value, but because she delivered it with so much feeling. I post it here in the hope that other couples on the path of blended their families may be searching for a way to honor such a beautiful and complex union.

Here is my poem in praise of the “Blended Family”:

 

When families are blended
it’s not like a smoothie,
where all the ingredients
combine to make a new flavor.
In the multiflavored family,
each flavor remains unique,
each name remains its own.

There is joy in blending families,
but sometimes tears, too.
You don’t deny the one for
the other, you are more
together, yet equal apart.
You are “and” rather than “or.”
There is more of you–

So praise our blended family,
let it bring abundance into all our lives.
Let there be strength in our numbers,
as there are now more shoulders
to lean on, more hands to lend,
more hearts to be kept in,
more love to share in its union and bond.

And let each of us
make the best that is all of us
shine more brightly, now, together.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

 

 

 

Our JourneyThis is a very special April for me, and a very special first poem for this 2014 edition of National Poetry Month. Tomorrow, Saturday, April 5th, I am getting married to my best friend, soul mate, partner, and fiancee, Samantha.

Ours has been a long road with many obstacles, detours, and diversions to finally arrive at where we are going to be on this certain April day.

I wrote a poem for the occasion. Actually, I wrote it for the poetry group to which I belong called 52, which is challenging me to write a poem each week during the year. We decided to print the poem on the back of the program for the wedding (see photo).

Poet Jo Bell (whose work I will feature later in the month) started group 52 and supplies most of the prompts for this virtual poetry workshop that numbers over 500 members worldwide. (You can find the prompts here: 52.) One week, the prompt was to write about Journeys. It was the perfect prompt to get me thinking about how we got here.

Here is my poem “Our Journey”:

 

How did we get here?
We say it all began with a yes,
But, really, it all began
With an across-the-room
Magnetism, with a searing
Feeling every time I tried to look away.
As if, there was something I had to see,
That only you could show me
And that I didn’t know you had.
What was it? You’ve shown it
To me almost every day since.
A fabric rent and become whole again,
A mystery with a resolution
That surprises us, every time.
A face as if seen through glass,
Scratched or etched
To a fine filigreed, subtle design.
No, no, that’s not it.
It’s more like glass that’s been glazed
With a pale, soapy film,
Which, once it is rubbed off,
Is clearer than the glass itself.
The two of us on separate, nearly parallel paths,
Not knowing we were looking for each other.
So many times, our paths nearly crossed,
But didn’t. Near misses we can only attribute to –
To what? Some kind of cruel,
But beautiful joke played by the Fates?
Nevertheless, here we are,
Together at last or again or finally.
On a journey together that results in a walk
Together down another path
On this certain April day.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

5 Questions for Poets

April 2, 2014

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth (American, 1883–1935)

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth (American, 1883–1935)

Jonathan Hobratsch, writing in the Huffington Post, celebrates National Poetry Month by posing 5 questions by readers of poetry to some of the “top poets” writing today. Alfred Corn posted the questions to his friends on Facebook.

Here are my answers:

1. Do the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?

On the plus side, my work has reached audiences beyond the reach of traditional publishing venues, and I’ve met and been exposed to poets from around the world whose work I could not have otherwise found. My community of poets has grown and challenged my work in new and fascinating ways.

2. What do most poorly-written poems have in common?

Language or structure that doesn’t serve the poem. Over-writing or lazy writing. Sentimentality. Lack of music. Basically, when it’s clear the poet hasn’t listened to the poem.

3. What do most well-written poems have in common?

They sing. They make you dance. And they give you a new way of looking at the world.

4. How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to “solve” the poem?

Poetry should be neither a Rubik’s cube nor a road sign.

5. What book are you reading right now?

All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship by Kathryn Miles; The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert McFarlane; Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr; and Navigation by Jo Bell.

Here’s a link to the original article: 5 Questions for Poets

 

 

 

InOurTranslatedWorldIN OUR TRANSLATED WORLD: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam (TSAR Publications, Toronto, Canada)

 

 

 

 

My first encounter with Tamil poetry came in the form of a short poem by Auvaiyar, written two millennium ago:

 

Bless you, earth:

 

field,
forest,
valley,
or hill,

you are only as good

as the good young men

in each place.

This poem appeared in a book of classical Tamil poetry called Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, which featured poems from around 100 BC to AD 250, and late classical poems from the 5th and 6th centuries.

The poems were divided into two distinct sections, “Akam” (pronounced “aham”) which were love poems, and “Puram,” which were about heroes and battles. Akam means heart or household, and the poems are distinguished by the landscape each poem evokes and, in turn, the particular experience of love each landscape connotes. The Tamil called this “Tinai” in their poetics.

The subtropical climate of Tamil Nadu in southern India ranges from seaside to mountains, agricultural fields to forests, and desert. Each landscape is associated with a certain mood and the poems typically feature a flower, tree or plant of the corresponding biome. For example, as Ramanujan points out in his translator’s note, “Kurinci, a mountain flower; neytal, blue lily; mullai, jasmine; maratam, queen’s flower; palai, a desert tree.”

The poems are distinguished by straight-forward emotions and plain language (at least in translation), with a simplicity rivaling Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Take Kapilar’s poem of longing, “What She Said to her friend” (p. 13):

 

You ask me to forget him,

 

How can I?

 

His mountain,

 

wearing its dark raincloud

 

white-crested

 

as a bean flower

 

the east wind opens,

 

his mountain,

 

that blue sapphire,

 

is never out of sight.

 

We know from the Tinai that each landscape corresponds to a phase or experience of love: union/mountains; separation/desert; patience waiting/forest; anxious waiting/seaside; and infidelity and resentment/lowland farms. In the poem above, the speaker is clearly longing for the union or reunion with her lover on his mountain, which she keeps in her memory.

Tamils have a strong attachment to their language, which is central to their identity. Many refer to it as Tamil̲an̲n̲ai, “the Tamil mother.” It is one of the oldest surviving classical languages in the world, and written Tamil is a beautiful Brahmic script. Thankfully, this anthology is bilingual, which allows the reader to see the poems (if not read them) in their original form.

Poets such as Mahakavi Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan — the latter a kind of Tamil Fernando Pessoa who wrote many of his poems in various pseudonyms — brought Tamil poetry into the modern era. Their work gave Tamil poets freedom from the constraints of traditional Tamil poetics and expanded the subject matter available to Tamil poets.

In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry  is a recent anthology of contemporary global Tamil poetry, published by the Tamil Literary Garden of Canada and TSAR Publications in Toronto. The work of the Tamil poets in this anthology clearly bears the mark of its modern predecessors, but also the influence of modern and contemporary poetry from Europe and Asia.

Not surprising, given the book is a selection of recent poems from Tamils around the world. Indeed, the anthology, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, features around 80 poems from Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Tamil diaspora in England, Canada, and elsewhere.

As Chelva writes in the introduction, “for Tamils, particularly in the last three decades, the experiences have been one of displacement, trauma, nostalgia, and despair.” This is especially true of Sri Lankan Tamils, as many tried to escape ethnic conflicts on that island nation.

For some Sri Lankans, such conflict breeds a conflicting nature. For example, Chandra Bose Sudhakar, who defends his choosing a life of books,

 

Life began with some books:

 

that the words in books

 

produce no rice became

 

the problem of our lives.

 

For Sudhakar, “books swallow the howls/ of my tormented heart” and offer the Sri Lankan poet, who was killed by armed men in his house in 2007, a kind of acknowledgment he couldn’t find elsewhere.

Some poems in the collection have echoes, intentional or not, of classical Akam poems, such as this one by Majeed, which sounds to me like a desert or separation poem:

 

You live on

 

in the empty spaces

 

that cannot be filled

 

with anything else.

 

Or consider the seaside imagery of another poem by Auzhiyaal, which could be in the voice of an anxious lover trying to find solace in the littoral environment:

 

At the end of each day

 

our minute secrets

 

rise again

 

a pregnant silver fish

 

a sea weed

 

a pink sea rock.

 

The freedom afforded by contemporary poetics may bely an ignorance of Tamil classical themes and symbolism, as some of the poets freely mix landscapes, emotions, and place, such as in this poem by Rashmy,

 

Parting is always bitter;

 

everywhere, eventually brackish;

 

trembling flesh,

 

nerves starved with lust,

 

the soul’s love

 

draining, filled to the brim.

 

From our paddy fields

 

gold-hued grains

 

we will harvest

 

the day after yesterday.

 

Others call out the connection, such as Anar does in her poem “Marutham,” with its rich depiction of the farm fields and rice paddies indicative of the agricultural landscape and a hint of possible infidelity in the lines,

 

The fragrant smell of

 

ripe paddy in the fields,

 

offers a giddy sense of joy.

 

As much as the poets in this collection have deep memories of their Tamil past and poetry, the poems in this collection are, as the editor writes in his introduction, “a form of transformation, a gesture about the future. Whether the poems are ostensibly realistic or self-consciously fantastic, the poems move beyond ethnographic detail to offer an imaginative sense of the Tamil experience.”

And for poetry readers, the Tamil experience is a rich and rewarding one in the hands of the poets, translators, and editor of In Our Translated World.

 

##

 

 

 

 

Jasper and sunflower.

Jasper and sunflower.

Who’s to say how images come to stick in our mind and how they make their way into our poetry?

There’s an image of my oldest son, Jasper, that stuck with me over the years and I recently ran across a photograph that captured the image and inspired lines in my poem, “Becoming.”

“The way a sunflower towers over a child,

each year growing shorter–

–no, the child growing taller.”

In the photograph my son is in the summer of his second year. We we were living in Anchorage, Alaska, where the sunflowers grow tall in the nearly full-day sun.

He’s measuring himself up against a sunflower — and bending the sunflower down to touch his head.

There are other images of Jasper in his youth that appear in that poem and things that we saw out on hikes together.

Here is my poem, “Becoming”:

 

Say that childhood memory

has more relevance than yesterday–

          a moose calf curled up against the side of a house

merely saying it may make it so.

The way a sunflower towers over a child,

each year growing shorter–

         a hermit crab crawling out of a coconut

–no, the child growing taller.

        a sharp-shinned hawk swooping over a stubble field

imagining the earth, “the earth is all before me,”

blossoming as it stretches to the sun–

      a brilliant red eft – baby salamander — held aloft in a small, pink hand

Is home the mother’s embrace?

     a white cabbage butterfly flitting atop purple flox

The child sees his world or hers

     stroking the furry back of a bumblebee

head full of seed, until it droops,

spent, ready to sow the seeds.

Say that our presence in the world

          a millipede curling up at the child’s slightest touch

is making the book of our becoming.

–Scott Edward Anderson 

Poetry at Work cover

Readers of this blog know I’ve written on the subject of poetry and business life on a number of occasions. (You can find examples here and here.)

So it will come as no surprise when you learn I’ve written a Foreword to a new book called Poetry at Work: (Masters in Fine Living Series) by Glynn Young, himself a poet who has worked for many years in the world of business.

You should definitely buy the book — for yourself and for your colleagues, which you can do by clicking on this link: Poetry at Work: (Masters in Fine Living Series). Here is my Foreword:

On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, we held a vigil or memorial service in the office where I worked. We thought it best to set aside time to reflect, remember, and reconnect with each other.

Gathering in the conference room, we shared our thoughts, memories, and connections, our stories, prayers, and poems.

I read W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” and we followed it with a moment of silence. Others shared poems, told of where they were when they heard the news, someone sang a hymn, I believe; most of us cried.

It was the most powerful staff meeting I’d ever attended.

Later that day, I circulated Auden’s poem by email to my colleagues at work and to a larger poetry email list I maintain for National Poetry Month.

The poem, Auden’s reaction to the Nazi invasion of Poland, seemed an appropriate response to the shock we all still felt about the attack on the World Trade towers, and the massive loss of life such as we hadn’t experienced on our soils since the Civil War.

Auden, writing not far from lower Manhattan, begins the poem,

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

This poem was widely circulated in the aftermath of 9/11, as if the poem struck a collective chord both emotional and visceral. Great poetry is timeless.

Back in the mid-to-late 90s, I delivered a series of talks about poetry and business life to groups of corporate leaders, Rotary clubs, and small business associations. I read poems — not my own — about how it felt to fire someone, what it was like for a woman in corporate America, and why it’s so hard to let go when you retire.

I loved the reactions of the businessmen in the room, especially the older men who had experienced a lot of the feelings described.

Invariably, most nodded along with something that hit home; many looked skyward and blinked back tears. Poetry moved them to tears.

Poetry at work is no longer an anomaly. David Whyte, Clare Morgan, James Autry, and others helped make it acceptable. So, too, did many individual leaders and managers who were open to letting poetry into their companies, offices, and discourse.

In Poetry at Work, Glynn Young argues for the poetry of work — at work, in work, and in the workplace. He finds it in the big things, such as the crisis to which he helped respond as a speechwriter for a chemical company, and in the small, everyday interactions we all experience at the office.

Long ago I received a bit of advice from an older poet who told me to go out and get a real job and write about real life. It was sage counsel and I am the better for it. I have no regrets about being a working poet rather than an academic.

I have spent my entire working life as a poet. Indeed, I was a poet even before I had my first job.

The closest I ever came to having a traditional “poetry job” was when I worked on the editorial staff at Viking Press — that and one lecture on the process of revision given at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

I have always tried to bring my poetry to my work life and to let my work life influence my poetry. The work that lent itself best to my poetry was the 15 years I spent with The Nature Conservancy, in part because much of my poetry is focused on the natural world and our species’ relationship with it.

The Conservancy offered me opportunities for first-hand field observations, unparalleled access to the scientific knowledge of some of the world’s foremost biologists, and travel to many of the Earth’s last great and most spectacular places.

My time with the Conservancy provided a beautiful symbiosis between my work and my poetry. I have not since been able to reclaim that symbiosis, yet my work life still informs my poetry in other ways.

I may not find direct, poetic inspiration from my day job now, but it affects the way I work on my poetry. Rather than writing late at night after being out in the field, I now find odd, furtive moments: walking to or from the office between meetings, on my subway commute, and while waiting for elevators.

Occasionally, I’ll be struck by some phrase or sentence heard on a conference call and I’ll worry it until finding its marrow or proving it useless. Part of it might resurface while I’m driving between cities or on an airplane or it may be lost forever.

I had a meeting a little over a year ago with a European colleague at the Grand Hyatt in New York. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance from outside the firm for which we both work.

As we met and ascended the stairs to the Lounge at New York Central, I was reminded of a poem I wrote in that bar many years ago, while working for an international publishing agency.

“Drink Meeting at the Grand Hyatt Sun Garden” wasn’t a very good poem, I think, but it well illustrated my discomfort at the time, as an artist in a business setting.

The name of the bar has changed, as has my comfort level with business life over the years. Here is “Drink Meeting at the Grand Hyatt Sun Garden”:

 

Jazz standards fill the atrium,

black and white and one uniform shade of gray

—is this a Woody Allen film?

I’m waiting for Soandso on business,

not my business,

but the people I work for, theirs—

Any moment Woody will walk in

with Mia Farrow or Somebody,

an entourage, paparazzi.

He’ll head straight for my table,

and shake my hand;

the press will want to know

who I am, and I’ll no longer

be “a minor poet, not very conspicuous.”

I fight the urge to bolt

out of the Sun Garden bar

and find some dark, unmonikered pub,

like those my father frequented.

I realize the discomfort he must have felt

when he’d visit the clean, well-lighted

establishments of Tokyo, or LA, or Miami

on business, not his

but the people he worked for, theirs—

This is not my world:

a foreign post for a poet

and accidental businessman.

I suspect they’d throw me out

if not for my Brooks Brothers suit

and American Express card, not mine

but the people I work for, theirs—

Soandso is late, or lost,

or has forgotten…no,

it turns out she’s been waiting

in the lobby, fifteen minutes, twenty,

only just now thought

to check the bar—“Silly me…”

No Woody, no Mia, no Diane Keaton.

(But wait, isn’t that Mr. Shawn by the piano?

And isn’t that Donald Trump on the divan?)

Just a meeting, information shared—

perhaps, one day, we could be friends—

business transacted,

not my business,

but what has become mine—

I light a cigarette after Soandso has gone.

“Are you finished with this one, sir?”

I order another drink

and finish my poem. This

is my business.

The world is my office.

##

I try to bring poetry to my work life as much as possible, whether I’m giving a speech or presentation, leading trainings or writing copy for an annual report or business plan.

It’s not always easy to bring poetry to work, but as my friend the management consultant Cam Danielson says, poetry adds a dimension to me that others don’t have — a way of paying attention to and perceiving the world that perhaps challenges or even changes the worldview of others.

In the end, we don’t give ourselves enough time for poetry — at work or at home. If we did, our business life might be less stressful and more satisfying. We might find our work more rewarding. We might, as Young suggests in his book, find the poetry at work.

–Scott Edward Anderson

Seamus Heaney Remembered

November 12, 2013

Heaney Tribute

Program for Heaney Tribute at Cooper Union.

A stellar lineup of poets, musicians, publishers, and poetry organizations gathered last night to pay tribute to Seamus Heaney.

Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in literature, died after a fall on Friday, August 30, 2013, in Dublin. He had suffered a stroke in 2006.

The event, organized by the Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets, Poets House, the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, the Irish Arts Center PoetryFest, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Heaney’s US publisher, took place at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City, an appropriate venue for such a stentorian public poetic figure.

Among the readers were Heaney’s fellow Irish poets Eamon Greenan, Eavan Boland,  Greg Delanty, and Paul Muldoon, along with Tracy K. Smith, Kevin Young, Jane Hirshfield, and Yusef Komunyakaa. You can read the full list here: Heaney Tribute.

One poem that was missing was one that I thought of shortly after the news of Heaney’s death. We were heading out to Martha’s Vineyard for a week with Samantha’s family to celebrate the 70th year of her mother, Lee Langbaum. The New York Times the morning we left had Heaney’s picture on the front page and ran his obituary, but I could get to it until much later in the day, aboard the ferry.

New York Times announcing Heaney's death.

New York Times announcing Heaney’s death.

It was sad news indeed, for those of us who loved his poetry and for the world that lost a remarkable voice.  Heaney was a wonderful poet and a warmhearted man, as most of the people gathered at Cooper Union last night — whether on stage or off — would attest.

I only met him twice, and only very briefly after readings, but he was gracious and generous both times. The last time I saw him was at a reading three years ago or so at Villanova University.

The poem that came to mind on Martha’s Vineyard, came to me as we were talking with the oyster shucker outside of Home Port Restaurant in Menemsha. Of course it was “Oysters,” a poem that was missing last night.

Here is Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters”:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean –
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south of Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

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