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.”

 

Brooklyn Poets logoBrooklyn Poets is a great new organization that hosts a reading series, poetry writing classes and workshops, as well as a monthly “YAWP,” which allows poets to try out new work or share old work.

They also produce some of the coolest t-shirts available.

Each week, they feature a Brooklyn-based poet on their website, Brooklyn Poets, including one of their poems and an interview conducted via email.

I was honored to be Brooklyn Poet of the Week for October 14-20, 2013. They featured my poem “Running,” along with a brief explanation about the writing of the poem, and the interview below.

 

What are you working on right now?

Promoting my new book of poems, FALLOW FIELD. I have a bunch of poems I wrote last April during National Poetry Month that need my attention soon, and another big poem and prose project I put aside some years ago and need to get back to work on. I also have another book of non-fiction that is in proposal development with my agent.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day is spent with the love of my life, Samantha, doing whatever we want, with or without our kids (we have 6 between us), and always involves some poetry, cooking a good meal, drinking some wine, eating chocolate, plenty of coffee, and a whole lotta love. And, these days, exploring Brooklyn, our home.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I returned to Brooklyn nearly two years ago and live in Park Slope, although I spend part of every week in Philadelphia, where my kids live. I lived in Carroll Gardens and Bay Ridge years ago. I love Park Slope because it feels like a small town and we’re close to the Park. I love city life, but I need to be close to its nature, too.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

Samantha and I got engaged this spring and when we were looking for a venue for our wedding, we stumbled upon the Green Building in Carroll Gardens. It used to be a brass foundry. When she sent me their website to check out, I noticed the building is located on the corner of Union and Bond. What better place for a wedding? It felt like the Brooklyn gods were shining on us.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Auden, Whitman, Marianne Moore, David Ignatow and Ada Limón. Auden for his variety; Whitman, his YAWP; Moore for her eccentricity; Ignatow for his mundane humor; and Ada for the beauty of her language and vision.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Greenlight, definitely, for the selection and the layout. Community Bookstore in my hood. Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights, which has a great selection of used poetry books. I’m looking forward to that new poetry-only bookstore, Berl’s. Why? Because we need more bookstores full of poetry. (And the Grolier Bookshop is too far away from Brooklyn.)

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn?

Prospect Park. I do a lot of my composing in my head, especially while walking. The park is perfect for wandering. Some of the poems I wrote in April when I was writing a poem each day were composed on my iPhone on the 2 or 3 train. As for reading, I love reading in bed to my fiancée; she falls asleep whenever I start reading to her, but I just keep going.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge ParkSharlene’s on Flatbush (a new favorite), the Farmer’s Market in Grand Army Plaza, Little Neck, the 4th Avenue Pub (an old favorite), and of course 61 Local, which I learned about from the Brooklyn Poets YAWP. Our kitchen is one of my favorite places in Brooklyn. I love cooking in our kitchen. My son Jasper says my meals there are “on point AND on point.”

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Ada Limón’s Sharks in the Rivers, Robert Wrigley’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Alfred Corn’s Tables, Frederick Seidel’s Poems 1959-2009, and Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate food,
And what I love to cook you should love to eat,
For every meal I prepare cheers me as good and good for you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

My kids got their faith from their fa-ther:
Red Sox fans, not fans of the Dodgers.
Whether living in Alaska, Philly or Brooklyn
And tho’ we show respect when Mo’ comes out the pen,
It’s the “B” and scarlet socks that we’re love-in
And those gold black and white ones once worn by Robby–
Bobby Orr, y’all, to me as a kid he was bigger than Biggie.
When we traded him to Chi’town that was a sin.
Blackhawks didn’t know Bobby and they don’t know Jack.

Why Brooklyn?

My love, Samantha, is here and wherever my love is, that’s my home.

##

Thanks to Jason Koo and Brooklyn Poets for featuring me as Brooklyn Poet of the Week.

 

Harper's Magazine, July 2013

Harper’s Magazine, July 2013

Okay, so I read the Mark Edmundson article, “Poetry Slam, or the Decline of American Verse.”

The essay was supposed to have all us poets rending our garments and pounding our chests in anger. At least, that’s according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post, whose summation you can read here.

To read the full article, you have to buy the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, because you can’t access it without a subscription. Which begs the question, who subscribes to Harper’s anymore, really?

What I found there was nothing earth shattering. Edmunson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, makes some fairly common complaints about the baby boomer generation of contemporary poets, a generation of which I am on the cusp. (In the interest of full disclosure, I studied with one of the poets he criticizes and had a poem selected for recognition by another.)

Edmundson offers criticisms of some usual suspects (John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass), a decidedly weak argument against Seamus Heaney, and one of the first, valid pot-shots I’ve seen aimed at Paul Muldoon and his tenure as tastemaker of poetry at The New Yorker.

He also pokes fun at Anne Carson, who is overdue, but for her part has been poking fun at us readers for years, so what’s the point?

Ultimately, Edmundson seems to be arguing for much the same kind of politically aware and socially engaged poet that Ginsberg, Whitman, and Eliot (!) represented. And the sort of heightened language deployed by Robert Lowell in his best days. Edmundson longs for the liberal left, activist branch of poetry — although he admits that Fr. Eliot doesn’t really fit that mold.

In addition, he calls for a poetry that exploits the same veins of popular culture — references to TV shows, the Internet, and current events — that a younger generation has been mining for the past decade.

Reading his essay, I wonder whether Edmundson has read any poet born after, say, the late 1950s? He clearly has not spent any time with poets as pop-culture savvy as Matthew Zapruder, Dorothea Lasky, and Matthew Rohrer.

I doubt Edmundson has read the “unapologetically queer poet activist, ” CA Conrad, who can best be described as the love-child of a ménage à trois between Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman wrapped up in glitter, nail polish, and parapsychology. (And I write that with affection for CA and his writing.)

Neither, I suspect, has Edmundson read Natasha Trethewey, who writes about race, identity, and family in much of her work.

If Edmundson really wants to read poets writing about nothing, he should check out what I call the “Seinfeld Generation” of poets: the Dickman twins (one of whom wrote that annoying Clint Eastwood Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, “Halftime in America”) or the over-lauded Timothy Donnelly, whose linguistic pyrotechnics are certainly as “perpetually hedging” as anything Ashbery has written.

Hard for Edmundson to make the argument he’s making while his reading is seemingly so “generationally challenged.”

While I agree with some of what Edmundson says — that much contemporary poetry seems lacking in ambition — his is the same kind of argument critics made of John Lennon’s last solo recordings.

They found Lennon’s mature work — he was 39 — to be more domesticated, self-absorbed, and solipsistic than his earlier, more political solo work, much of which strikes one as facile now. (Does anyone really prefer “Some Time in New York City” to John’s songs on “Double Fantasy”?)

I’ve seen some over the top reactions in defense of “contemporary” poetry resulting from this latest jeremiad about the sorry state of the art, but I suspect they didn’t read past Harper’s pay wall. At least, after reading the complete essay in the magazine, I don’t see how Edmundson’s prose could get any poet’s panties in a twist.

My friend Dan Nester had perhaps the most sober, cogent reaction I’ve read. He wrote entertainingly on the subject as part of his blog’s “Notes” series.

In the end, I applaud Edmundson for caring enough to persuade the editors of this once-relevant magazine to publish his essay about everyone’s favorite, once-relevant art form.

But, really, this essay is much ado about nothing.

 

Red-winged Blackbird
Image via Wikipedia

Jim Behrle, who has to be one of the funniest most irascible poets on the Interwebz, had a recent post about Dead Bird Poems on his AmericanPoetry.biz blog:

“The Dead Bird Poem is one of the most honored of American forms. Take sappy pastoral, add a dead or dying bird and just watch the meaning drip from your canvas like grease off a slice of bacon. Someone had sent me a Facebook note about the 5 or 6 dead bird poems in whatever year’s that was Best American Poetry.”

I wrote a dead bird poem almost a decade ago, called “Dead Red Wing.”

At the time, I worked for The Nature Conservancy and gave a presentation to a birding group.  The group meeting started with typical group meeting business, then segued into a Quaker-meeting-style sharing of bird sightings and notations.  It was quite poetic.

Then they brought out the specimens.

The meeting turned into a kind of flea market or science fair.  Dead birds, bird parts, wings, feet, beaks; heads, whole birds, birds with missing wings; gashed birds, smashed birds.  It was quite a spectacle.

One woman removed a Ziploc bag from a portable cooler.  She opened the bag and unwrapped a beautiful, complete (and quite frozen) red-winged blackbird.  She handed it to me.  That was all I needed.

Here is my poem “Dead Red Wing,” which didn’t make it into Best American Poetry in 1995 the year it was published in a small journal called Blueline out of SUNY Potsdam:

“Dead Red Wing”
 

Come spring, you’d be up

in the low trees,

on telephone wires,

bowing foxtail in the marsh,

your song become vain:–

“Look-at-meeee…Look-at-meeee…”

Flash of red on black wing

poised to singe the eyes

trained on you,

a life-bird,

through field glasses.
 

In my hand you are stiff,

unrecognizable.

The woman

who brought you

to the birding group

kept you

in a Ziploc bag

in the freezer,

next to the roast

and last week’s red beans.

Every evening,

when she finished her vigil

at the window,

she took you out,

rubbed your cold breast,

ruffled feathers,

sang your song.
 

–Scott Edward Anderson, Blueline, Volume XVI
 

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