Alice Pettway reading at Sacramento Poetry Center,
18 March 2019. Photo by SEA

Last month, I read with Alice Pettway at the Sacramento Poetry Center. Alice came all the way from Shanghai, where she lives with her husband, and read from her new book, Moth, which has just been published by the fabulous Salmon Poetry of County Clare, Ireland, and from her first book, The Time of Hunger / O Tempo de Chuva.

Pettway and her husband have been on quite a journey, first with the Peace Corps and now with various work situations, that has taken them from Mozambique to Bogotá and now to China.

Perhaps because of this itinerant existence in countries far-flung from her native Texas, Pettway seems to be perpetually longing for home in one way or another. In her work, she seems to be always returning as much as she is leaving, while the “tug of the familiar” and the familial is always calling her.

As she wrote in a 2010 “Letter” from her Peace Corps post in Mozambique, “We are falling in love with our new home, but missing our old one.” (My latest, Dwelling, is also about the longing for home and about how we need to protect this Earth, our island home, so we were a good pairing.)

“When we think of home, we might think of a place, a smell, a tradition,” Pettway wrote to me in an email about her poem, “Burial,” which I share below. “Those memories pull us constantly back toward our past, but they also sometimes force us out into the world to discover different ways of being. When our new and old selves eventually find themselves squeezed into the same space again, an emotional reckoning is unavoidable.”

Her eye for detail and resonant images, along with a deceptively simple, direct language characterizes Pettway’s work. I am delighted to share her work with you here.

Here is “Burial” by Alice Pettway:

Burial

I changed shoes for the burial.
The earth, soft from rain,
was hungry for the black stems
of my funeral heels.
 
It was hungry for you too,
waiting only for lurid turf
to give way to reality,
a hole gouged in a field.
 
The funeral director looked
away; your brothers
pulled black plastic ground,
took up shovels.
 
I grasped a handle too—bent
my woman’s body into pivot
of muscle and dirt until the throb
of earth on wood faded, until soil
landed on soil as softly as snow
on snow, until there was no hole.
The men stood silent. Burial
is no more a man’s task
than birth is.

—Alice Pettway, from Moth (Salmon Press, 2019). Used by permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about Alice Pettway here.

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The iconic 18th Century Portas da Cidade (City Gates) in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel. (Photo by Scott Edward Anderson)

Some of you know that I’ve been on a journey the past few years to uncover and explore my familial roots on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, the nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and the United States.

Last summer, I had a residency on the island with Disquiet International, named for the enigmatic book of prose written by the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. The residency in Ponta Delgada took place only 3.7 km from the freguesia (municipal parish) where two of my maternal great-grandparents emigrated in 1906.

Through Disquiet, I was also introduced to poet Lara Gularte, herself of Azorean American ancestry. Her relatives were from Faial, Pico, and Flores, three more of the nine islands in the Azores. Gularte was born in California and grew up in what was then an area of fruit farms known as the Santa Clara Valley (now more famously known as Silicon Valley).

Last month, Lara graciously invited me to read in the series she runs in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento, near where she now lives. Along with her husband, Brian—and some good local wine—we spent a wonderful evening discussing our Azorean heritage, poetry, and the dilemma of being generations removed from the places of our origins.

Gularte, who worked for many years as a public servant, finally traveled back to the Azores in 2008—the first of her family to return in four generations. “Before I explored these islands, they were only an abstraction,” Lara told the Portuguese American Journal in June 2018. “I had seen photos and post cards, but nothing prepared me for the natural beauty and complexity of the landscape.”

Her first collection, Kissing the Bee, was published by The Bitter Oleander Press in 2018. Many of the poems in her book speak to what she found on the Azores and the deepening connection which that brought about with her family roots in California’s fertile central valley.

“I was a resident poet at Footpaths to Creativity Center and Artist/Writer Residency on Flores Island in the Azores where this poem was written,” Lara says. “Flores is the island from where my grandfather was born before he emigrated as a young boy to the U.S. He was a stowaway on a ship and disembarked in New Bedford, Mass. He then worked in the cranberry bogs for a few years before traveling to California where he met my grandmother.”

Here is Lara Gularte’s poem, “Flores Island”:

 

FLORES ISLAND

The place at the beginning       

 

A whale rises up in her mind

turning her thoughts gray.

 

In port, the ferry of return.

She searches for her grandfather

to discover the shape of his emigration

and finds the plank’s gone, rotted.

At the mercy of rough water and high winds,

he rowed, sinews pulling his dory,

pulling his bones to breaking.

 

She scans the distance,

says his name out loud, Antonio Henriques,

waits to hear a voice, see a face.

She searches for all the prisoners

of thick mists, others who look like her,

whose foreign tongues speak music to her soul.

 

Beyond the wake of a rogue wave,

currents and tides ride

on the back of a gray whale.

 

She sees through the vapor

boats whose nets gather the sky and let go.

Fog falls,

bearing dazed souls back to their home place.

She falls with them.

 

—Lara Gularte, from Kissing the Bee (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018). Used by permission of the author.

 

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

 

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.

 

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

Legend has it that 13-year-old Marcel Proust answered fifteen questions in the birthday book of Antoinette Felix-Faure. Seven years later, at another social event, he completed another questionnaire. Ah, parlor games!

Over the years, Vanity Fair and other magazines have featured a version or another of this questionnaire, now called the “Proust Questionnaire.”

In the wake of David Bowie’s death last month, his answers to the Vanity Fair version were circulated by Maria Popova on her wonderful Brain Pickings blog.

I decided it would be fun to answer a version that closely approximates the original version Proust completed.

Name: Scott Edward Anderson
Date the questions were answered: 30 January 2016
Age: 52
Village / Town / City you live in: Brooklyn, NY
Occupation: Consultant and Poet

(The questions include Marcel Proust’s answers)

 

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Proust: To be separated from Mama

Scott Edward Anderson (SEA): To be without love.

 

Where would you like to live?

Proust: In the country of the Ideal, or, rather, of my ideal

SEA: I’m happy where I am right now in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It feels like home to me. 

 

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Proust: To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater

SEA: Cooking and eating a good meal with my wife after a nice long hike in the woods, enjoying a great glass of wine or a Hendricks martini, and retiring to the living room to read some poetry or listen to favorite music by the fire.

 

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Proust: To a life deprived of the works of genius

SEA: I am intolerant of ignorance and authority and, most especially, ignorant authority.

 

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?

Proust: Those of romance and poetry, those who are the expression of an ideal rather than an imitation of the real

SEA My favorite heroes are always creative travelers in strange lands who survive by their wits and wiles.

 

Who are your favorite male characters in history?

Proust: A mixture of Socrates, Pericles, Mahomet, Pliny the Younger and Augustin Thierry

SEA: Teddy Roosevelt

 

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?

Proust: A woman of genius leading an ordinary life

SEA: Billie Holiday and Elizabeth Bishop

 

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?

Proust: Those who are more than women without ceasing to be womanly; everything that is tender, poetic, pure and in every way beautiful

SEA: Same as heroes: Creative travelers in strange lands who survive by their wits and wiles.

 

Your favorite painter(s)?

Proust: Meissonier

SEA: Monet and Vermeer

 

Your favorite musician?

Proust: Mozart

SEA: The Beatles

 

The quality you most admire in a man?

Proust: Intelligence, moral sense

SEA: Integrity and creativity

 

The quality you most admire in a woman?

Proust: Gentleness, naturalness, intelligence

SEA: Integrity and creativity

 

Your favorite virtue?

Proust: All virtues that are not limited to a sect: the universal virtues

SEA: Diligence

 

Your favorite occupation?

Proust: Reading, dreaming, and writing verse

SEA: Add walking in the woods to what Proust said.

 

Who would you have liked to be?

Proust: Since the question does not arise, I prefer not to answer it. All the same, I should very much have liked to be Pliny the Younger.

SEA: A better friend to some, a better man at times, a better husband to my wife, and a better father to my children.

#

 

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.

 

c) 2012 Alastair Cook

Sheree Mack c) 2012 Alastair Cook

Every month it seems there is another flashpoint of tensions between police and black communities in cities around the United States.

From Ferguson to Baltimore, our country seems ready to tear at the seams from a volatile combination of racial prejudice, police militarism, and the systemic poverty and disenfranchisement black people feel in America today.

It is impossible to ignore this critical issue of our day – we ignore it at our peril – even in a forum such as this.

In that light, I asked poet Sheree Mack if I could feature one of her poems for this final week of National Poetry Month.  I was thinking we’d choose one from her remarkable new book, Laventille, which I’ve just started reading.

But Sheree asked if I’d rather have a new poem, one where she is trying “to get my head around the issue of race in America now with #BlackLivesMatter and how things haven’t changed much since lynching was another arm of the ‘law’.”

When she sent me, “Called Witness,” I jumped at the chance to share it, with its unflinching mixture of found texts (from a source cited below) and its paraphrase of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in line 8.

Sheree Mack was born in 1971 in Bradford, England, to a Trinidadian father and a “Geordie” mother of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry. She worked as a teacher for several years before studying for a PhD on black British women poets.

Sheree now dedicates her life to “fostering creativity in everyone’s life” working with communities of women and young writers, and currently lives in Tynemouth.  She is the author of two collections, Family Album (Flambard Press, 2011) and Laventille (Smokestack Books, 2015).

I met Sheree Mack through the group “52,” which I participated in last year. Members of “52” wrote poems each week to prompts supplied by the group’s founder, Jo Bell, and commented upon each other’s work in a closed group on Facebook. (See my blog post on the subject here.)

Sheree’s poetry rose to the surface in my mind for its clarity, craft, and complexity of vision. Mack’s poems “lament, rage and mourn,” as the publisher says about her latest book. “But they also offer a song of healing, a celebration of survival, a glimmer of the flames that burn in the hearts of a people still living in slavery’s dark shadow. “

Her perceptive comments on a number of poems (mine and others) flagged her as one of those people you want to spend time with, even if the only opportunity is through the auspices of a virtual poetry workshop.

It was only later that I realized she was also the subject of my friend Alastair Cook’s stunning collodion portrait of a striking woman with captivating eyes, that I’d seen as part of his McArthur’s Store exhibition. There is something haunting about this portrait, as is the case of much of Alastair’s work in the medium.

The image is timeless or time-bound or both simultaneously. It could just as easily be a photograph of someone from Trinidad and Tobago at the time of the 1970 student uprisings in Laventille (the subject of her book) or an image from an even earlier era.

In short, the photo is a bit like Sheree Mack’s poetry: a bit timeless, a bit time-bound, but always unflinching and intriguing.

 

Here is Sheree Mack’s poem, “Called Witness”:

 

The exhibition opened in a small New York gallery.

The crowds came, self-righteous and proud.

 

Assembled and displayed were sixty photographs,

collected from family albums, attic trunks, flea markets.

 

Small, black-and-white postcards,

not more than a few inches long and wide,

 

depicting African-American men in Jim Crow

South; black bodies swinging from poplar trees.

 

Long lines stood for hours on the wintry

sidewalk, waiting for their view.

 

Once inside, bodies overwhelmed the intimate space.

Images laid flat on display tables or assembled

 

in tight groupings tacked to light-coloured walls.

Tattered, faded and worn, neither retouched nor restored.

 

Nor framed, matted, or captioned. Instead offered

as artefacts, not fine art objects. None for sale.

 

Visitor huddled close, hunched over tables,

faces pushed up against the walls, they felt

 

the warmth and proximity of others, jostling

and angling their bodies for a better look.

 

Through generations, onlookers enticed to the scene

by the spectacle of mutilated, dangling bodies.

 

c) 2015 Sheree Mack

Used by permission of the author.

_________________

Text cited: Lynching Photographs by Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith,

University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2007