Cover

If you don’t know the poetry of Walter Pavlich, you now have the opportunity to explore his work in a new book, Sensational Nightingales: Collected Poems of Walter Pavlich, just published by Lynx House Press and edited by poet David Axelrod.

To whet your appetite, here is an excerpt from the Introduction I wrote for the book (the “Read more” link will take you to the full introduction as it appears on basalt):

“Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance,” poet Richard Hugo wrote. Hugo’s student, Walter Pavlich, once said in an interview, “I’ve always tried to define – and celebrate – sort of hard things in life. To try to find beauty in them – or to be more patient and watch the beauty unfold.”

Like Hugo, Pavlich wrote about the western landscapes he inhabited and the people he encountered there, and like Hugo, he was a regionalist in the best sense of the word: someone who knows the place where he lives and writes from that place well-observed.

Hugo’s influence, and by extension Theodore Roethke, with whom Hugo studied, is fairly evident in Pavlich’s work, especially the early poems. Yet, as his widow and soulmate Sandra McPherson wrote to me, Walter “was incredibly rich & rare & doesn’t merely sound like Dick Hugo at all; [he] also had subjects from his engaged life.”

Pavlich’s engaged life included work as a wildfire fighter, “smoke jumper,” and poetry teacher in prisons and schools. Born in Portland, Oregon, Pavlich graduated from the University of Oregon in Eugene and earned an MFA from the University of Montana, and his fondness for the forests and coastal environments of the Pacific Northwest of the United States pervades his poetry.

Something Sandra said to me also seems pervasive in Walter’s poetry: he had “a kind of spiritual isolation or loneliness he’s not explicit about.”

I think of Walter Pavlich as a “soulful traveler”… Read more

 

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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.

 

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.

Peter Krok, Eileen Moeller, Cameron Conaway, and Scott Edward Anderson at MRAC, November 2015. Photo: Ron Howard

Peter Krok, Eileen Moeller, Cameron Conaway, and Scott Edward Anderson at MRAC, November 2015. Photo: Ron Howard

Late last year I read at the Manayunk-Roxborough Arts Center in Philadelphia. The event was billed as “Poets with a Cause” and featured two other poets neither of whom were familiar to me, Cameron Conaway and Eileen Moeller.

There were some common themes in our work – nature, travel, and spirituality — and, after the reading Eileen and I exchanged books, as poets often do.

As with my book, Fallow Field, which compiled work written over a 25-year period, the poems in Eileen’s book, Firefly, Brightly Burning were written over many years.

“When I first put the manuscript together, it seemed like a patchwork of unlike things, perhaps because it contains a number of serial pieces,” Moeller said in an interview. “Many of the poems come from a fictional, narrative impulse, though certainly not all.”

One series, the “Anna God” poems, Moeller relates in the interview, “were instigated by a photo in the newspaper of a college girl asleep on a couch in a triangle of sunlight. Her name was, yes, you guessed it, Anna God.”

Moeller’s Anna God poems at first seem surreal: a smitten skunk follows Anna around; she gets a “B” for a fifth-grade diorama of a clay man “throwing paper girls/ across the sky like tiny airplanes”; Death comes to visit and asks for a better contract; “she thinks of each leg hair as a redwood tree” and she can’t find a razor big enough to do the job.

“My aim in the poems is to catch the reader in an erotics of sound, story, and feeling,” says Moeller in an artist’s statement about her work overall. “The web that stretches between the poles of lyric and narrative. I look for surprises, wait for them to leap up out of the quotidian, like fish breaking the surface of the poem at its ruptures of juxtaposition and metaphor. We read the world through the lens of the body, and I try to ride its hungers, triumphs, joys, follies, wounds, even its decay. So, the soul evolves in its salt brine of words.”

Here is Eileen Moeller’s poem “Anna God Remembers,” which I find particularly haunting:
 

Ann God Remembers

 
the time she followed in
her father’s footsteps,
tiptoeing through the night
behind him as he left for the barn.

She was only two years old but she remembers
how the front door locked behind her
and he went off to do the milking,
not even seeing her standing there
in her little coat and rubber boots.

She remembers singing to herself
as she curled up on the front porch
to get out of the wind.

But her mother never heard her over the wailing.
The rest she only knows from stories:
how she froze like a porcelain doll there,
on a night that dipped to eight below.

(Her mother always cried at the part
where she found Anna blue as skim milk,
and drove her to the hospital,
dead and stiff on the back seat.
Anna would cry too, over how
the Doctors swore and wept and pleaded,
thawing her out, coaxing her heart into beating again).

It’s fuzzy, but Anna remembers
being startled awake by warm hands
kneading her arms and legs,
and the voices saying: Come on, open your eyes.

Once in awhile she dreams she is her father again:
dozing in the straw against the kindly beasts,
warm as a newborn calf.

–Eileen Moeller

from Firefly, Brightly Burning (Grayson Books, 2015)

Used by permission of the author.

You can read more about Eileen and her work at http://eileenmoeller.blogspot.com/

Erin Belieu (photo by Gesi Schilling)

Erin Belieu
(photo by Gesi Schilling)

Erin Belieu is one of the poets of my generation whose work I turn to most.

Ever since her first collection, Infanta, came out in 1995, Belieu consistently impresses me with her witty, philosophical, and deceptively conversational poems that are actually the result of rigorous revision.

“I’m very much a sculptor with my poems,” Belieu said in an interview. “It’s getting it on the page where the ditch digging begins.” That may be one aspect of her work that attracts me – although it flows on the page as naturally as a phone conversation, I know it’s the result of much effort.

Another aspect is her clarity of language – she has an “aversion to artifice” and “can’t abide pretension,” as two critics have said of her work. Her humor and pathos and contrariness keep bringing me back to the poems, where I also find moments of real vulnerability.

“You’d hope we’re something/ more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined/ by random gristle,” she writes in “The Body is a Big Sagacity.” Nietzsche’s phrase, from the “Despisers of the Body” section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, reads “The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.”

Yet, while Nietzsche espouses a vision where there is no difference between the physical and psychological ability of the body, where a human being’s purpose is to surpass itself, Belieu’s “little man, with itty hands” requires a giant, superhuman truck to surpass the abilities or limitations of his own body.

In a poet of lesser gifts, Belieu’s wry observations may seem mean-spirited; and then she counts herself among the challenged, claiming her own body “once was whole, symmetrical, was/ actually beautiful for three consecutive years,” to reveal where her sympathies lie.

Belieu once said she was “under no illusion that the world can’t sleep without the next Erin Belieu poem.” There are many among us who beg to disagree. Here is Erin Belieu’s poem, “The Body is a Big Sagacity”:

 

The Body Is a Big Sagacity

 

is another thing Nietzsche said

that hits me as pretty specious,

while sitting in my car in the Costco

parking lot, listening to the Ballet

mécanique of metal buggies shrieking,

as each super, singular, and self-contained

wisdom of this Monday morning rumbles

its jumbo packs of toilet paper and Diet Coke

up the sidewalk. So count me a Despiser

of the Body, though I didn’t generate this

woe any more than the little man parked

next to me, now attempting the descent from

his giant truck, behemoth whose Hemi roars

like a melting reactor and stands

as the ego’s corrective to the base methods

by which the body lets the spirit down.

 

Buzz-clipped, tidy as an otter, he’s high and

tight in his riding heels. Pearl snaps on

the little man’s shirt throw tiny lasers

when he passes. But who isn’t more war

than peace? And how ridiculous to suffer

this: to be a little man, with itty hands

and bitty feet, to know yourself lethal, but

Krazy Glued for life to the most laughable

engine. Recycled, rewired, product of

genes and whatever our mamas thought

to smoke: the spirit gets no vote, Fred.

 

My body once was whole, symmetrical, was

actually beautiful for three consecutive years,

expensive as a rented palace, and yet I blew

that measly era watching my clock hands move,

as if I were the trigger rigged to homemade

dynamite. But if you would look inside me,

into all the lonely seeming folks here loading

their heavy bags, you’d hope we’re something

more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined

by random gristle. Which is why the little man

pauses on the sidewalk, why he stops to look at

me looking at him: this pocket-size person,

whose gaze unkinks a low, hairy voltage from

my coccyx. And thus speaks Zarathustra,

You Great Star,

what would Your happiness be

had You not those for whom

You shine?

Ask the little man, neither ghost nor plant,

his bootheels ringing down the concrete.

 

 

–Erin Belieu

from Slant Six (Copper Canyon Press)

Copyright © 2015 by Erin Belieu

All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

 

The poet (in bandanna) and pals, Wind River Range, Wyoming, Summer 2001. Photo by Joshua Sheldon.

The poet (in bandanna) and pals, Wind River Range, Wyoming, Summer 2001. Photo by Joshua Sheldon.

“I never read my reviews,” the novelist Pat Conroy once said. “Not even the good ones. Barbra Streisand once told me, if just one person in the audience doesn’t applaud, it bothers her. I’m the same way. I’d be devastated to read that someone didn’t like my work.”

Back in 2001, a young woman named Veronika Linhartova Morley, then a student at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, contacted me by email. She wanted to write about my poetry for a class assignment on contemporary American poets.

She told me she’d read a poem of mine called “Carpentry” in the Boston Review and had found a number of other poems on line. I was flattered. Only, I never wrote a poem with that title and I’ve not yet published in the Boston Review. I looked up the poem, which was written by a Scott Anderson (see the link above) and thought, I could have written it, but I didn’t.

I hated to disappoint Ms. Morley, but broke the news to her by reply email. She was embarrassed; however, it turned out that all the other poems she’d found were indeed mine, and she still wanted to write about my work. We had a nice correspondence and she wrote a delightful little essay about my poetry and the influence of Elizabeth Bishop and Donald Hall on my work.

Her essay begins with a lengthy quote from a lecture I gave at the University of Alaska some years before:

“The contemporary poet of my choice, Scott Edward Anderson, once wrote in his essay ‘Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision’: ‘…writing poems is a lot like cooking. We bring everything we know about cooking and about what foods go well together to preparing a meal, just as we bring all we’ve learned or read or practiced to writing a poem. Sometimes, it’s just luck that we get the right combination of ingredients, but much of the time a fine meal is made from good ingredients being put together by a well-practiced chef.'”

She went on to make some good observations about my work and points about what I learned from both Bishop and Hall. She also identified a spiritual note in my work and my conflicting feelings about “the way we treat our world.”

In all, it’s a pretty accurate picture of my work, its process and two of my biggest influences. And the last line of her essay would make any poet proud. She writes that through her assignment and correspondence with me, she “not only learned about the process of writing poetry, but also learned to appreciate poetry even more.”

I don’t know how the essay was graded. I still have a copy. Veronika came to this country from Czechoslovakia in the late 1990s, as she told me, to get the kind of education unavailable in her own country. Some time ago, she gave me permission to reprint the essay, which you can read in full here.