Poet Kiki Petrosino, who has been tweeting as @harriet_poetry for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, tweeted a question this morning:

Good morning, poets. If poetry=a tree with many branches of influence, then to whose twig do you attach your own bright leaf?

I’ve thought about this question over the years, but started to visualize it a bit in reaction to Kiki’s (or Harriet’s?) question.

My poetry is rooted in what Robert Hass called the “strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one, at its best fusing the two.” (Hass, Introduction to Best American Poetry 2001)

I studied with Hass and with Gary Snyder, along with the late Walter Pavlich, and have had some great guidance along the way from poets Alison Hawthorne Deming, Donald Hall, Colette Inez, and Karen Swenson, along with a cast of other friends, both poets and poetry readers.

If I look at poetic influences — teachers by example, rather than in person — Elizabeth Bishop, and by extension, her Hopkins, Herbert and even Moore, could be counted among mine.

But also Pound, Rimbaud (in the Varese translations), the two Kenneths, Rexroth and Patchen, at various times, especially in my early days; the Robert Lowell of Life Studies, and novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

I’d have to add to that list a trio of Irish voices (tenors?), including Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon. And while we’re on the British Isles, let’s not forget Geoffrey Hill, John Clare and, of course, “the Bard,” Robert Burns.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose “Mariner” was given to me by my Aunt Gladys, directly influenced my first “serious” poem (now lost, thankfully) about my great grandfather, a whaler who sailed out of New Bedford.

There’s also a curious group of more experimental influences from Anne Carson and Mina Loy to Lorine Niedecker and Jorie Graham. Walt Whitman, Fernando Pessoa, and Allen Ginsberg, all great experimenters themselves, were also part of my early poetry reading education.

It’s an eclectic, multi-branching tree, to say the least.  I’m not sure one can see the influence of any one more than another in my work — someone once wrote that the influences of Bishop and Hall were most evident — but it would be a rather spectacular looking tree, should one chose to design it.

One could get easily lost in such a forest.

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Lateral meniscus located between femur (above)...
Image via Wikipedia

I had knee surgery a couple of years ago; a minor clean-up of my medial meniscus.

When the doctor finished this fairly routine arthroscopic procedure, he said to me, “You’ll be back to playing a fool and not acting your age in a few weeks.”

He was right.   I was traipsing all over India in a few weeks and back to playing basketball again within a couple of months.

One night during my recuperation, I started thinking about the knee.

It’s a very flawed design, full of serious structural problems.  Almost I want to say the knee is a botched job.

Anyway, a poem started to form in my head and I did something uncharacteristic: I wrote it down.   Usually, I work on poems in my head for a while before putting them down on paper.

Then I did something else that was atypical: I included it in a batch of poems sent to the American Poetry Review, one of the most prestigious poetry publications in the country, which happens to be published here in Philadelphia.

Ordinarily, I wait for several drafts before sending my new poems anywhere, a process that can take months or even years.

A few months later, however, the poem was accepted by APR and it was published in that summer (July/August 2008 issue).  Perhaps I shouldn’t worry my poems so much and just let them be.  Truth be told, this one just seemed right. (I did tinker with it in a minor way before it appeared in APR and again after it was published, mostly some grammatical stuff with which I wasn’t happy.  I just can’t help myself…)

Here is my poem, “Intelligent Design”:

The knee is proof:

there’s no such thing

as “intelligent design.”

If there were, the knee

would be much improved,

rather than in need

of replacement.

The doctor tells me

they are doing

wonderful things

with technology these days,

have improved the joint

and bond—

Amazing, really, they

can take a sheep’s tendon

and attach it there and here

or remove ligaments

from one part of the body,

secure it by drilling holes

and plugging them up,

stretching until taut

with tension superior

to the original.

The new designs

are so much better

(“my better is better

than your better”)

it seems obvious

the Creator

took off the afternoon,

went to play a round

of golf with Beelzebub,

perhaps a foursome with

Methuselah and Lucifer,

left the joint between

thigh bone and shin

to an intern.

Isn’t it obvious?

I mean, 2 million years

of evolution haven’t

improved the knee one wit.

Nothing intelligent about it.

–Scott Edward Anderson, American Poetry Review, July/August 2008

Here is an Mp3 of my reading the poem at Kelly Writers House in September 2008: Scott Edward Anderson’s “Intelligent Design”

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I recently discovered the work of photographer and filmmaker Alastair Cook through Anon Magazine (we both appear in Anon7).  He wrote about a project he calls FilmPoem, which are short films he’s made based upon contemporary poems.

“The combination of film and poetry is an attractive one,” writes Alastair. “For the poet, perhaps a hope that the filmmaker will bring something to the poem: a new audience, a visual attraction, the laying of way markers; for the filmmaker, a fixed parameter to respond to, the power of a text sparking the imagination with visual connections and metaphor.”

His project reminds me (in spirit if not in style) of some films I made in Super 8 back in the mid-1980s — I called them “cinepoems” — two of which were shown at an independent film show at Cleveland State University in 1985. One was based upon Kenneth Patchen‘s “I Went to the City” and the other was called “Through the Glimmerglass (And What We Saw There).”   (I really should digitize those films and make them available.)

I have always been fascinated by the combination of film and poetry and it’s great to discover Alastair’s work.  Here is his film “Adrift,” based upon a poem by the fabulous Juliet Wilson (whose work also appears in Anon7):

Adrift from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.

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August 2, 1990. I’m on a boat heading from Naples to Capri. We’ve just learned that Iraq has invaded Kuwait and the United States will likely declare war on Iraq. The world will soon be changing.

I’ve just had an article published in the Naples daily newspaper, Il Mattino, and have been praised and regaled by all sorts of Napolitanos about it.  (It seems everyone reads the papers here!) Similar treatment awaits me on Capri, the home island of my friend Francesco Durante (now editor of Corriere del Mezzogiorno).

On the trip, I’m reading SOUTH WIND, a 1917 novel set on Capri (Nepenthe in the book) by Norman Douglas. (The Bishop of Bampopo is a central character.)

Capri is an intoxicating place, I can see why writers flocked there or settled there over much of the last century: Shirley Hazzard, Graham Greene, Norman Douglas, among many others.

The heady combination of my local celebrity, limnocello, the scirocco (the south wind itself), and the island’s many delights, inspired me to write my poem “Siren’s Rising,” which was published in the journal SLANT nine years later, and then translated into the Italian by Francesco Durante for Almanacco Caprese. Here is the poem:

Sirens Rising
Isla Capri, Italia

“O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Romans, 7:24

I.

Like Tiberius I’m torn
between the flesh & its blood.
Like him, too, I’m of this island’s
dark side facing the sea.
You can languish here, succumb
to the madness this island provokes,
or you can flee, denying
your venereal appetite.
Night after night, I give in
to the relentless lure of Pan.
The raucous Neapolitan song
calls to me, instructing my lust,
filling my ears with its chaos.
I am full of life, full of limoncello;
blood hurries through my veins,
as if it had some destination–
beyond circulation.

I chase the Roman beauties:
sloe-eyed enchantresses
with slate-black hair and aquiline noses
and arched brows of la seduttrice.
Their spry and conclusive limbs
stretch from capricious figures
–they are entanglers.
I may as well be on all fours,
as I creep from taverna to piazzetta.
Together, we fall to my bed,
oozing sweat: couple, come away,
con amorosa cura.
We are sargassum
drifting in a pelagic daze.
In the wretched heat,
the moon is as still and cold
as a marble floor.

II.

Sister Serafina,
the unassuming saint of this island,
once induced the prince of darkness
into an adoration of the Savior.
With me, her task is doubly difficult, I’m afraid.
She tries to inveigle me to the Grotta Azzurra
–that knife-wound across the ribs
of Capri’s beguiling torso–
for she knows the blue grotto yields up
not the bagno where Tiberius
cooled his erotic fires,
nor the relentless lust of legend,
but the Madonna’s bluest robes
–the color of sanctity.

It’s too late.
I’ve already gone over the edge,
like the Bishop of Bampopo,
I turn a chaste eye to murder
and drink the sweat of my lovers
in an evaporating recline.
“How shall that come out of man
which was never in him?” the Bishop proffered.
I defile the flowers of Capri,
and search for the power of wild beasts,
deep within the grottoes, dank with sea-wrack.
The dizzy swirl of heaving breath echoes
from every corner of the cyanic cavern.
“Sono io, sono io,” they claim.
“Sono io!”
The Sirens respond to the cry:
“We will succor your willfulness.”
“We will cater to your whim–”
Once again I go to them,
into the depths of an endless night.
They lure me with their dancing
as exquisite as their song
–daughters of Terpsichore!

III.

Within sight of Vesuvius,
I follow the trail of obscure desire,
rounding the mealy stone groin
of Arco Naturale. I grow fins,
am lost.
Atop the Salto di Tiberio
and his Villa Jovis,
Tiberius revels in my plight.
He is the dragon of Capri,
whose fiery breath still infects the island.
I see, as if for the first time,
the island’s bone-white prominence,
rising above the loam-dark sea.
Grey-pink tufa crags, white limestone,
tender mauve reflexes
upthrusted in pulpy stillness.

And I am born of salt
scorched from the sea’s clutch;
the scirocco dashes the island
with its dry spite.
Born of desire,
I return to desire–
The heat
renders my body viscous,
my skin a rubbery porpoise-armor.
I leap from the sea
to plunge to its depths;
the Sirens guide me down
like pilot fish.
I am blessed by their bodies’ charms,
their sea-feathers slicked back
by my expert tongue, their breasts
rouged the color of pomegranates
from my rough beard.
“Possess these shores,” they whisper.
It’s more likely they’ll possess me
the Sirens,
in their pagan trinity:
Persuader, Brightface, Bewitcher.

IV.

The piazza is a droning blur
at this hour.
The handsome waiters are busy trafficking
caponata and spaghettini alla puttanesca.
Women are smoothing their dresses and reapplying
lipstick and rouge, between sips
of dry gin with lemons.
The brackish aroma of homemade wines
and barrels of oil-cured olives,
mingles with the tourists’ perfume,
which trickles down their salty cleavage
–intoxicating mist!
I am seated, most nights,
at the table nearest the bar.
It’s the closest thing
I’ve had to home.
This place for a brief time mine.
Leviathan among the Siren victors
–my life, their spoil.

(For Francesco Durante & Alessandra Carolla)

–Scott Edward Anderson, SLANT, Spring 1999

I signed off of Twitter Saturday night with this note:

“Goodnight from my condensery…”

A friend saw it and wrote to ask what I meant by “condensery,” which seemed to have to do with making milk, not poems.

I was working, revising some poems, and meant “condensery” as a reference to the poet Lorine Niedecker.

It is an interesting choice of words, because condense means “to make denser or more compact; especially : to subject to condensation,” according to Merriam-Webster, which perhaps connotes compactness rather than concision.  Concision, cutting away or making more concise, is probably closer to my method of revision.  (I try not to make my poems more dense as I revise; and I rarely, if ever, can get as compact as Miss Niedecker did in her poems.)

Niedecker called her desk a “condensery,” in part to connote her process and in part to make it clear that, for her, her desk was a physical place of genuine, creative labor.  Making poems is real work.

Here is Lorine Niedecker’s poem “Poet’s Work,” from which the phrase comes, in its entirety:

Grandfather
advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoffs
from this
condensery

##

You can read more about Lorine Niedecker and her poetry at Poets.org

Her collected poems are available here: Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works.

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Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Almost a decade ago, the Alaska Quarterly Review published a poem of mine called “Naming.” I thought of it today because a good friend mentioned it in a message to me on Twitter. (She had overheard a conversation about magpies I was having with another friend.)

I’m not around magpies much these days, living on the East Coast. I miss them. Magpies, all corvids, really, are a totem for me (bears, especially polar bears are my other totem). Highly intelligent birds with bad reputations, they are a lot of fun.

Gary Snyder once told me and a group of other students that we should find totems for our poetry, “this is the world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem that we must all investigate.” He also told us to “fear not science,” to know what’s what in the ecosystem, to study mind and language, and that our work should be grounded in place. Most of all, he instructed, “be crafty and get the work done.”

Advice that also, curiously enough, reminds me of magpies.

Here is my poem “Naming”:

The way a name lingers in the snow
when traced by hand.
The way angels are made in snow,
all body down,
arms moving from side to ear to side to ear—
a whisper, a pause;
the slight, melting hesitation–

The pause in the hand as it moves
over a name carved in black granite.
The “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck,”
of great-tailed grackles
at southern coastal marshes,
or the way magpies repeat,
“Meg, Meg, Meg”–

The way the rib cage of a whale
resembles the architecture of I. M. Pei.
The way two names on a page
separated by thousands of lines,
pages, bookshelves, miles, can be connected.
The way wind hums through cord grass;
rain on bluestem, on mesquite–

The tremble in the sandpiper
as it skitters over tidal mudflats,
tracking names in the wet silt,
silt that has been building
since Foreman lost to Ali,
since Troy fell — building until
we forget names altogether–

The way children, who know only
syllables endlessly repeated,
connect one moment to the next by
humming, humming, humming–
The way magpies connect branches
into thickets for their nesting–

The curve of thumb as it caresses
the letters in the name of a loved one
on the printed page, connecting
each letter with a trace of oil
from fingerprint to fingerprint,
again and again and again—

Scott Edward Anderson
Alaska Quarterly Review, Summer 2001

Here is an Mp3 recording of me reading “Naming” Live at the Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, on September 22, 2008: Scott Edward Anderson’s “Naming” (Note: there is a 10-second delay at the beginning of the file.)

Postscript: And here is a filmpoem of “Naming” made by Alastair Cook in 2011: Naming

Years ago, I had an idea for a “Poetry Channel”: an all-poetry cable network featuring poets and celebrities reading poems, poets being interviewed, and films about poets or based on poetry.

I didn’t pursue the idea because, well, because my idea for the “Disaster Channel” got shelved and that was how I was going to back my poetry idea.

But I recently stumbled upon Mary Karr’s “Poetry Fix,” which brings to life the kind of programming I had in mind.

Here’s Mary Karr and co-host Christopher Robinson reading and talking about Robert Hass’s “Old Dominion”:

You can check out more on Mary Karr’s YouTube channel.  It’s a great series that’s just started and worth following as it develops.

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