Kicking the Leaves Donald Hall_

Kicking the Leaves by Donald Hall, 1978

I began to write poems with some seriousness in my teens. During that time, I consumed as much poetry as I could get my hands on, devouring books like a beast impossible to satiate.

My high school English teachers, Richard Taddeo and Jack Langerak, fed that beast too. They paid attention to what I was reading, asked me questions, and suggested other books and poets in a kind of personal curation that predated Amazon’s algorithm by almost 30 years. (Taddeo also published my first poem to appear in print, a short couplet of little note, in the school literary magazine.)

It was Taddeo who gave me Donald Hall’s Kicking the Leaves, shortly after it came out in 1978. Hall’s poems in that book spoke to me. As a native New Englander, the landscape was familiar – Hall’s hardscrabble New Hampshire a good match to Frost’s flinty Vermont, where I’d summered as a child.

Donald Hall’s example in Kicking the Leaves – and hearing Elizabeth Bishop read her work later that fall — showed me a different path: I wanted to become a poet. A decade later, after I met Hall at one of George Plimpton’s Paris Review parties at the latter’s Sutton Place apartment, we began a correspondence.

I sent him poems. He wrote back, postcards mostly, which I knew from one of his essays were recorded by Dictaphone while watching Red Sox games from his blue chair in the same farmhouse described in Kicking the Leaves. He hated everything I sent him and told me so. This was good. Tough love was just what I needed. He helped me improve, revise, and be hard on my own work.

In the late 90s I gave a craft talk at the University of Alaska Anchorage as part of their Writing Rendezvous conference. In the lecture, which I called “Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision,” I examined many drafts of Hall’s poem “Ox Cart Man,” including the version that appears in Kicking the Leaves, and my own “Black Angus, Winter,” which was part of a group of poems that won the Nebraska Review Award in 1997. You can read it here.

Hall’s book – his 7th book of poems — came out when he was about to turn 50. My book, Fallow Field, came out as I turned 50, and includes “Black Angus, Winter” and several poems that Hall hated in earlier versions, all of which were improved by his terse, meaningful criticism.

You can find Donald Hall’s “Ox Cart Man” here (permission restrictions prevent me from publishing the poem in its entirety and an excerpt won’t do it justice) or better yet, buy his Selected Poems. And here is a recording of Donald Hall reading “Ox Cart Man.”

 

Dark Harbour Sunset, August 2016

For several years our friend, the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming, told us about Grand Manan Island off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Alison is a long-time summer resident on Grand Manan.

We finally made it up there last summer – and were we glad we did.

To say the island is a special place is a bit of a cliché and certainly doesn’t do the island justice. But then, when is a cliché not mostly true?

Remote and fairly difficult to get to from New York – you drive to the edge of Maine and keep going — Grand Manan sits on the western end of the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and was formed by colliding plates. You can see the fault line where Triassic and Cambrian rock meets.

Here time is marked by arriving and departing ferries, dramatic in-coming and out-going tides, and when the herring is running. The landscape is rugged basalt and a dense forest of birch and conifers, with pockets of wetlands, marshes, and rocky cliffs all formed and deformed by the sea, salt spray, and wind.

One evening before sunset, Alison took us over the top of the island to the other side, to Dark Harbour, a place that seemed somewhat stuck in time. I felt a bit like an intruder, although the place was oddly familiar as well, surrounded by encroaching darkness. There are rumors of pirates or a pirate curse in Dark Harbour.

Dark Harbour is also the dulse capital of the world. Dulse is an edible seaweed harvested by hand at low tide and dried in the sun outside during the summer months. Grand Mananers love their dulse, which seems a healthy substitute for chewing tobacco or potato chips. Dulsers are a special breed, as this video from Great Big Story attests: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/dulser-dark-harbor

Several poems in Alison’s new book of poems, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, feature the people and landscape of Grand Manan. There are echoes in these poems of another Canadian Maritime setting by another poet from New England with Maritime ties, something about the cold and crystal clear water, a quiet observation and an older way of life, the dark forest and the sea.

We’re going back this summer.

Here is Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poem, “Dark Harbour”:

 

“Dark Harbour”

 

Dulse camps teeter on cobbled basalt

where storms have heaped a seawall

topped with tumult of silvered

wharf timbers and weir stakes

enough driftwood scrap to salvage for a shack

paint the battered door dusty blue.

 

A rusty slatted bed kerosene pooled

in a glass-chimney lamp waiting for a match

dirty teapot on the camp stove

it’s home for a night or two

when tides are right for gathering.

Stone slips wait gray and smooth from wear

 

where yellow dories are winched and

skidded to motor offshore headed

for the dulsing ground. A man

who works the intertidal shore

says I can smell the tide coming in.

I raise my face to the wind to try to catch

 

what he knows. Cold and crystal clear

the water laps the rocks and rattles them

as it recedes. The man pulls fistful

of purple weed off tide-bare rocks

a gentle rip sounding with each pull

the ribbons gathered in his basket

 

dark as iodine deep as hay scythed

and piled in ricks harvest picked by hand

gathered from the transmutation of light

that sways at high tide like hair in the wind

and lies still for combing when the tide recedes

cropland where sea and rock do the tillage.

 

–Alison Hawthorne Deming

c) 2016 Alison Hawthorne Deming. Used by permission of the author.

 

Catherine Ayres

Poets who can say  much with few words are rare. Writing is hard; concision even harder. When these poets are funny, touching, sad, and poignant all in very few lines, the reader marvels. Catherine Ayres is such a poet.

I met Catherine Ayres through Jo Bell’s “52” poetry group three years ago. 52 was a private group of poets Jo organized from England, but which soon expanded around the globe.

Each week, Jo fed us a poetry prompt and some of us who were insane enough to take up her suggestion and write a poem each week for the entire year. Then we shared our poem with the group and received comments and criticism, parsing and praise.

Some of us stuck with 52 the entire year. Some became and remained friends on Facebook after the year ended. We  watched as poem after poem by our 52 mates got published, won awards, and became a part of collections.

One such poem was Catherine Ayres’s “Silence,” which like many of the poems in what became her first collection, Amazon, deals with illness and survival, the body and our perception of our own bodies head-on and with unflinching wisdom, humor, and pathos.

Catherine’s poems impressed me each week. There was something timeless and yet timely about her poems, with their heady mix of myth and “medicalia,” to coin a phrase, Her poems were the real deal. When I heard she was publishing her first book, I ordered it straightaway from the small UK-based publisher, Indigo Dreams. I was not disappointed.

Catherine Ayres is a teacher from Northumberland – Basil Bunting territory – her poem, “Silence,” won the Elbow Room Prize in 2016. Here is Catherine Ayres’s “Silence”:

 

“Silence”

 

The last man to touch my breast held a knife.

 

My lover said nothing;
his eyes told me to wear a vest

 

Sometimes I spread my hand over the scar
to feel its cage

 

How does a woman speak
with a closed mouth on her chest?

 

She unpicks in silence

 

until the rain comes
like burst stitches on the glass

 

– Catherine Ayres

Used by permission of the author. You can order Catherine Ayres’s Amazon (and you should) directly from the publisher http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/catherine-ayres/4593286356

 

 

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

“September 1, 1939” is one of the most famous poems by W. H. Auden. He wrote the poem after learning the news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, published it a month later in The New Republic magazine, and reprinted it in his collection, Another Time, the following year.

Despite – or perhaps because of — rushing it into print, Auden appeared to dislike the poem almost as soon as it was published. As little as five years later, reprinting the poem in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (1945), he cut the stanza with its most famous line, “We must love one another or die.”

“Between you and me, I loathe that poem,” he wrote to the critic Laurence Lerner, and resolved to keep it out of future collections of his work during his lifetime. He relented in 1955, allowing Oscar Williams to include it in his New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, but only with the proviso that the last line be edited to “We must love one another and die.”

Why did he hate this line – and the poem — so much? He claimed in a preface to the 1965 edition of his Collected Poems, “Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.”

In a Penguin anthology the previous year, the poem and four others were included along with a caveat: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”

What was it about the poem and, in particular, this line that Auden didn’t like? Was he embarrassed by its earnestness and sentiment, as some have suggested? Did he feel it was sappy and self-indulgent, as others would have it? Or was it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” as he put it?

And yet, the last line endures and the poem remains one of Auden’s most famous, surviving even today as one of the most eloquent pleas for empathy and peace in the face of totalitarianism. The poem even resurfaced as a touchstone for people in the wake of 9/11, as I have written elsewhere.

I wrote “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden” on 3 September 2014 as part of Jo Bell’s “52” experiment, and it was recently published in The Road Not Taken: The Journal of Formal Poetry.

Here is my poem, “Villanelle on a Line Hated by Auden”:

 

“We must love one another or die,”

The poet instructs, though doesn’t believe it.

“We must love one another and die.”

 

Revised to inclusive and on another try,

Then repudiated the poem, banning it.

He who must love another or die.

 

“Ours is not to reason why,”

Another poet said with the soul of wit.

Ours is to love one another. We die.

 

Changing a word makes meaning fly

To the far reaches of our minds and sit.

Must we, really, love one another or die?

 

Can we exist without knowing why–

Knowledge straining at the bit–

Until we can only love each other and die?

 

When we live without love, we die.

At least, those of us who desire it.

We must love one another or die.

We must love one another and die.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

gran_sd4For the fifth and final week of National Poetry Month this year, I’m featuring one of my own poem, “Villanesca.”

This poem was published last summer in Cimarron Review, thanks to poet Alfred Corn, who chose the poem in his role as a contributing editor.

Alfred also provided some critical guidance to help me finish this poem, which I’d been working on for several years. The poem sprang from a conversation overheard between my friend and colleague, Jan Almquist, and his daughter on the train to DC a decade ago.

We were traveling down to pitch the design of The Nature Conservancy’s Annual Report when Jan got a call from his then teenage daughter about leaving her score for Enrique Granados’s “Spanish Dances,” at home and asking him to bring it to her. That was all I needed to prompt the poem, although it obviously went in a different direction.

Sometime later, after boarding a plane, I found a program of Granados on the audio channel featuring the fabulous interpretations of De Larrocha. Obviously, I had to get that into the poem somehow and it helped build another layer.

As mentioned in last week’s post, I shared this poem with poet A.V. Christie a few months before her death. I was very touched by her response to the poem. She wrote, “I love the tone of this poem & the subtle/textured types of communication it’s built up out of…I experience it…it’s so active & in motion…”

Here is my poem, “Villanesca,”

 

Before the cabin door shuts, I check messages.
You forgot your score for “Spanish Dances” on the piano,
left open at the “Villanesca,” a piece with pastoral repetitions
you found hard to reproduce. Your rough interpretation
reminds me of your voice and its effect (or its affect).

Headphones on, I listen to Alicia de Larrocha
performing Granados. The program host has a soothing lisp,
enunciating every syl – la – ble, like a reporter on NPR.
Quoting from a review, she says De Larrocha’s playing speaks
to “a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline.”

“Can you bring the score to my rehearsal?” you ask
via voice mail, forgetting my flight this afternoon.
Unlike De Larrocha you always forget the score,
ignore signals, struggle to find the right notes, refuse
to face the music of our own inglorious inevitability.

I press delete, choosing not to repeat past mistakes;
at least, for the duration of my flight.

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

A.V. Christie (Photo: Darcie Goldberg)

A.V. Christie
(Photo: Darcie Goldberg)

Poet A.V. Christie died this month. Poets die all the time – celebrities, too, and friends, family members. Death is inevitable. We are all dying as we go on living.

Over the past two years there have been countless poets passing, some well-known, such as Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, and Philip Levine; some not as known as they should be: Belle Waring, Wendy Batin, and David Simpson.

Somehow, though, Ann Christie’s death hit home more than the others. Perhaps because she was my age; perhaps because I was in Philadelphia when I heard the news, across the river from where she lived. Perhaps, too, because we’d read together over the years in different venues in the Philadelphia area.

But also because we had just corresponded a few months back via Facebook, as she continued to battle Stage 4 cancer. When I asked if there was anything I could do to help her with her struggle, she asked me to send a recent poem. (I did and will share it you next week.)

Ann was generous like that and cared deeply about poetry and people. She experienced a great deal of pain in her life – her brother committed suicide when he was 32, which she wrote about so eloquently and forcefully in her first book, Nine Skies (University of Illinois Press, 1997).

I’ve been re-reading Ann’s work the past week or so, and eagerly awaiting the publication next month of her last chapbook, And I Began to Entertain Doubts, coming out from Folded Word Press. Her other books include, The Housing (The Ashland Poetry Press, 2004) and The Wonders (Seven Kitchens Press, 2014).

In thinking about a poem of hers to share, it suddenly dawned on me – actually, as I struggled to fold a fitted sheet in our laundry room the other night — that a poem that shows off the facets of Ann’s poetry jewels is her poem on that subject, “Folding the Fitted Sheet,” which of course is about more than that, but it made me smile thinking of and reading it again, which is what her poems do best: rouse us out of our everyday reality.

Her poems make us feel something new, look at things a different way – from heartache to routines – they challenge our perspective on the world. This, in the end, is what great poetry is supposed to do.

Here is A.V. Christie’s poem, “Folding the Fitted Sheet”:

 

There is a way to do this.
The sheet stiff from the line
and king-size overwhelming as an hour can be.
Arms outstretched.
She apes a stance that looks like welcoming.
This obstinate sea!
The day has been so far fear and syllables rippling.
So commence to fit each messy gather
one to the next—.

 

Pulled to, like a widespread inner panic managed
repeatedly.

 

One corner puckers, then droops— a sun
that, disaffected, simply drops from out of the sky.

 

In this method the right side and the wrong
confound. She says aloud the words Counterpane—
Horizon
— thinks out the demands of tomorrow’s
presentation, velocity, the power-point resources
circulating and the cool weight
of what gets infolded.

 

We watch her,
the one moving deeply along a nerve—
toward some far city or god.

 

-A.V. Christie (1963-2016)

Source: Cave Wall (2009)

You can learn more about A.V. Christie’s poetry here: http://www.avchristie.com/

A Memorial reading will take place at Moonstone @ Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia on 26 May.

Gregory Pardlo reading at LIU Brooklyn. Photo by SEA

Gregory Pardlo reading at LIU Brooklyn. Photo by SEA

When I heard that Gregory Pardlo won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his poetry collection, Digest, I thought about the phrase “booty call.”

That’s right, booty call.

I had this memory of meeting Gregory Pardlo in Camden, NJ, sometime in the early 2000s, standing out front of a bar with Daniel Nester and Tom Hartman after a reading or an editorial session of Painted Bride Quarterly, which I helped edit at the time.

We were discussing the poetical possibilities of the phrase. I’m not sure where the conversation went after that; there were other phrases we thought had a natural tone and scanned well, but this was before phrases like “person of interest” and “shelter in place” became well known.

Pardlo, who was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Willingboro, NJ, earned his BA from Rutgers-Camden and later got an MFA at NYU. Somehow I missed his first collection, Totem, which won the APR/Honickman Prize and was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2007. Digest seemed to come out of nowhere to nab the Pulitzer.

So when Pardlo read at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University this past February, I had to answer the call and go hear him. I was not disappointed.

Pardlo has an engaging reading style that is part college professor, part Brooklyn stoop-storyteller. And the complexity and tenderness of his poems, what one critic called “both dense and accessible, literary yet urban,” is captivating.

In his poem “Epistemology of the Phone Booth,” a fourteen-year-old boy uses a prepaid phone card, the back pages of a local free weekly, and a phone booth to seek a knowledge of the unknown and, perhaps, unknowable. He’s on the brink of discovery and, simultaneously, on the verge of repentance only to find that the ability to acquire knowledge in this manner may be finite. It’s a kind of “booty call” about the nature of knowledge.

Here is Gregory Pardlo’s poem, “Epistemology of the Phone Booth”:

 

 

I found the scrap of City Paper

classified, the 1-900 number and photos

like candidates there, in love’s voting machine.

 

Discomfort station. No pissoir. Hothouse maybe for

a fourteenth-year sprig: me. Light box

to slideshow the introvert

cloaked in a prepaid identity

 

discreet as a shirttail in the fly.

Ma Bell’s shelter

was brutal & snug. I’d heard the ram’s horn hum.

A hymn. Just like prayer I thought. No answer.

Clack’d the splendid tongue

and bloom!

Salutations rose like pollen, prepped me for

the inverse of police

sketch artists, the one who would evoke so I could render,

in my mind, the enigma of the wanted; one to source

the vacuum wrenching stutters like rivets

 

off my tongue.

Plink. Into the sewer of the mouthpiece.

Then the universal ballad of the waiting room.

Casiotone.

Hold (me) music.

 

No orgone

closet. More like that other-lonely doom—the body

encapsulated, its inventory ever unknown.      Dantean vestibule.

Anti-chat room.

When the genderless voice beyond

began to lavish I grew ears all over,

inner ears

swiveling from one tepid libretto to the next

tuning for some satin frequency the culture

promised until, I repent (forgive me father), the card went bust.

 

–Gregory Pardlo

Copyright @ 2014 by Gregory Pardlo. Used with permission of the author.

Read more about Gregory Pardlo and his work at http://www.pardlo.com/