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.
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 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
Ask the little man, neither ghost nor plant,
his bootheels ringing down the concrete.
from Slant Six (Copper Canyon Press)
Copyright © 2015 by Erin Belieu
All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.
February 1, 2016
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.”
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
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)?
SEA: Monet and Vermeer
Your favorite musician?
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
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.
January 10, 2016
“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.
January 7, 2016
Twice in my life I wanted to raise sheep. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is an interest stemming from deep within my Scottish and Portuguese heritage.
The first time, I was as a teenager outside of Rochester, New York. I considered enrolling in the organic agriculture program at Goddard College in Vermont, where I’d learn animal husbandry and then get a piece of land where I could raise a flock. I heard that Canada had a generous homesteader program and wrote to various provincial governments. (I still have a couple of their responses.)
The second time was in 1992, I had just moved to Garrison, New York, into a converted ice house on the old Vanderbilt-Webb estate. I bought Raising Sheep the Modern Way by Paula Simmons and a few other books and looked into buying a few starter sheep from a neighbor. (I still can’t part with my copy of Simmons’s book.)
While my poem, “Deserted Sheep,” which was part of a group of three poems that won the Nebraska Review Award in 1997, was certainly influenced by my experiences in New York’s countryside, thinking about raising sheep, it was a very different landscape that provided the inspiration.
I was walking the hills outside of Giessen, in what was then West Germany, in the spring of 1987, when I stumbled upon the sheepfold described in the poem. The sheep were alone, except for each other, grazing within a small, orange plastic enclosure.
Like many of the poems I wrote at the time, the early drafts were heavily influenced by my attempts to learn the German language through reading its poetry — no easy task. This course of study had a deleterious effect on my writing at the time, as I’ve described elsewhere, and it took me a long time to get my native tongue back to its proper place; not to mention my syntax, grammar, and word order!
By the time I arrived at the version that appeared in the Nebraska Review and, later, in my book Fallow Field, the result was very different, after many stumbles and headlong bumps like those lambs in the poem.
Perhaps one day I will retire to the Azores and raise sheep. Now that my wife, Samantha, has taken up knitting we could use the extra wool and lamb kofta is a favorite dish of ours. Here is my poem,
Lambs, jostled, forgive
the wolf, break
its taste in lamb
into a toddler’s gallop,
into thick-piled ewes–
lanolin slicking their noses, as
they stumble on the fescue
dotting the valley,
a pointillist’s landscape.
No shepherd, no sheep dog,
no gate to enter; a small,
orange plastic snow fence,
neatly staked at four corners
with steel posts,
gives form to the sheepcote.
The last ounce of sun
a violet tremor the wolf
along the western ridge,
the shepherd’s fear
returning to the valley.
A ram, brown and flocculent,
secures a silent corner
of the fold — eyes intent
upon a slow-moving shadow.
–Scott Edward Anderson
August 26, 2015
Frankly, it always seems a waste of time to think about life that way. Last year, however, while I was writing poems in response to weekly prompts as part of the “52” poetry group, I wrote a poem to the prompt, “So Near and Yet…”
If I recall correctly, the idea was to “think about something that nearly happened…” (I can’t verify because the prompts on the 52 site have been removed as its curator/founder Jo Bell compiles them into a book.)
Participating in 52, as I’ve written earlier, took me out of my comfort zone — both in method and subject matter. Several of the poems I wrote that year are more open and honest, at least in a self-referential way, than much of my earlier work. Almost I want to call them confessional.
In part this is because I rarely, if ever, write about myself in my poems. The prompts prompted that, but so did the honest and constructive feedback of the group. I felt safe to explore this other dimension and see where it took my work.
All of this leads me to my poem, “For T—,” which tells the story of an encounter that could have changed my life, but didn’t (or did it?). It’s not an incident about which I’m particularly proud.
And yet, as the material for a poem it worked in a strange way. At least my fellow 52ers felt so, as did the editors of the Yellow Chair Review, who published it in their latest issue.
Here is the poem:
I asked her to dance at a black tie dinner for Literacy.
She said she didn’t dance; I’d have to teach her.
Her friend, sitting next seat over, who later played
Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, cautioned,
“Be gentle with her now or you’ll be answering to me.”
She smiled when I bowed before taking her hand.
She was light on her feet and let me lead.
No one had moved her that way before,
so in control, she whispered in my ear.
And when the dance was over, I bowed again.
She thanked me, asked did I want to come
see her in “Hamlet” on Broadway? I did.
I brought flowers, met her backstage;
she came out with me; later, I put her in a cab.
“Do you fancy coming uptown?”
I demurred, made some excuse.
Perhaps another time, I suggested,
knowing there would be none.
(I’d no business being there in the first:
I was married; unhappily, but still.)
It couldn’t have ended well. No doubt,
we’d divorce after a few violent years.
She moving on to stage and screen;
me, the scapegoat in the press,
spilling popcorn on myself in the house seats.
–Scott Edward Anderson
To read the full Issue #3 of Yellow Chair Review, which has some fantastic poems by other poets from 52 and elsewhere, go here.
And you can read a selection of the poems from the 52 group in this Nine Arches Press book, here.
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