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.”
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”:
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.
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”:
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
April 29, 2016
For 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
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.
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
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.
April 15, 2016
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
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.
Hold (me) music.
closet. More like that other-lonely doom—the body
encapsulated, its inventory ever unknown. Dantean vestibule.
When the genderless voice beyond
began to lavish I grew ears all over,
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.
Copyright @ 2014 by Gregory Pardlo. Used with permission of the author.
Read more about Gregory Pardlo and his work at http://www.pardlo.com/
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/