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Me and Harry. Photo by Lyn Groome.

Harry Groome is a writer and conservationist. When I first met him 20 years ago, Harry was also a board member of The Nature Conservancy.

I came to Philadelphia from Alaska, where I lived and worked with the Conservancy, to interview for a role with the organization’s Pennsylvania chapter.

Harry had recently retired as chairman of a large health care-pharmaceutical-consumer products company. In that meeting, I learned we shared three passions in addition to conservation: fly-fishing, ice hockey, and writing.

Harry told me he’d always wanted to be a writer, but he put writing aside when he took a job with the company where he spent his entire career. Upon retirement, he took it up again, writing short stories, getting an MFA from Vermont College, and eventually writing four novels.

But Harry’s most famous piece of writing—for which I once informed him he had more readers than Stephen King—was his “Letter to Hal.” Hal is his first grandson and the letter explained why Harry was giving Hal’s inheritance away to The Nature Conservancy. You can see a short film the Conservancy made of the letter here. (But get your tissues out—you’ll need ‘em!)

A few years later, when I was offered a month-long residency at the Millay Colony and took a sabbatical from the Conservancy to pursue it, Harry said to me, “Someday you’re going to have to choose. You can’t do both—you can’t be both a successful writer and a successful executive.”

Me being who I am, I said, “No, I can do both,” and proceeded to try to prove it for the next decade and a half. (I never liked being told what I could and couldn’t do.)

I made a pretty good run of it, too, but over the past nine months since I left my last “corporate” job with EY, I’ve been on a different journey. I started writing again, in earnest, and with a passion that I thought I’d lost. Poetry, as always, but also, increasingly prose—essays and memoir.

During this time, I’ve done some consulting, and even looked at some longer-term executive positions, but I haven’t found a role that gets me excited enough to go back into full-time work in such a capacity. I’ve lost interest in climbing a corporate ladder and playing in other people’s sandboxes.

Then something my wife Samantha said to me struck a nerve: “You’re happiest when you’re writing.” It’s true. And, while I did a fair amount of writing all during my working life over the past 30 years, including launching and writing my blog The Green Skeptic for a decade and publishing two books, over 100 poems, and a bunch of essays and reviews, I never fully committed myself to being a writer—not fully. There was always a part of me that wanted to be “successful” in work outside of writing—really, what I wanted was to be in charge, to run the show. (And I guess part of me still wanted to prove Harry wrong.)

But lately, and by this, I mean within the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking perhaps Harry and Samantha were right. And the universe seems to be sending me messages to this effect as well: First, in January a publisher wrote to me saying she wanted to bring out my book, Dwelling: an ecopoem, which I wrote on that long-ago residency at Millay. The book will be published this Fall. (Not a coincidence, I believe.)

Second, an idea I’d been working on—to trace the story of part of my family’s roots in Portugal’s Azores—started to take off. I landed a residency on São Miguel island for part of the upcoming summer, just a few miles down the road from the village where my great-grandparents came from and where that part of my family lived since at least the 1600s. I ran a book idea past my agent and now I’m working up a proposal and sample chapter, so she can try to sell the book later this Spring.

This is just to say that, now, some 16 years after Harry gave me that advice, I’m ready to make the leap and commit myself fully to being a writer. And, I’ve also started to think that perhaps it’s through my writing—and not by being an executive—that I can best contribute to the community now that I’m a “free agent.” Perhaps I don’t have to lead an organization to help them reach their goals.

With that in mind, I’m looking for ways to help organizations working on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and the sustainable use of our natural resources that allow me to keep up my focus on my writing. This could include working on major gift development, storytelling, or strategic projects for which organizations need expertise they don’t have in-house. I’m also looking to contribute to publications that have a need for my expertise in conservation, energy, and the environment. Reach out to me at greenskeptic[at]gmail[dot]com if you have any leads.

So, perhaps Harry was right, and it’s taken all this time for the writer in me to rise to the surface enough from the life-stream to get used to the air—to emerge and make the choice evident. Here is my poem, “Surfacing,” from Dwelling: an ecopoem:

 

Surfacing

 

“If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.” Orhan Pamuk

 

The sound of the stream as it fills and flows

—under a full moon and stars—with melting snow.

 

The sound of your breathing as it fills and furls

in early winter air beneath the pines.

 

Say that the flow of a stream is surfacing a langscape,

surfacing the stream: shushing shushing susurrus

 

within you responding—

 

The way a crow responds to another,

as it dreams of road kill over the ridge.

 

The way deer browse for succulent shoots

or a dream of deer, hooving under surface.

 

Say that air flows around objects as a stream around rock,

surfacing the stream: leaves plastering color to surface

 

of a half-submerged stone—

 

—Scott Edward Anderson

(“Surfacing” first appeared The Wayfarer and is part of my sequence Dwelling: an ecopoem, which will be published in the Fall or 2018 by Shanti Arts.)


Postscript: Not long after I drafted this week’s mailing I got an email in response to my post of Ross Gay’s Philadelphia poem from Harry Groome himself—another sign—and we got together for coffee last week, where his lovely wife Lyn took the photo that accompanies this post on my blog.

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We’re in Los Angeles this weekend, visiting with Samantha’s oldest, Max, who is a freshman at UCLA, and looking at potential colleges with his sister, Erica. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with L.A. (Truth be told, when it comes to California, I’ve always been more of a northern Cali-guy.)

pexels-photo-59305.pngThat said, I love the climate and many aspects of L.A.’s diverse cultures. But I have a hard time with the city’s drain on natural resources, especially its profligate use of fresh water and the ridiculous number of cars on the roads—did I say roads? I mean superhighways.

The city sprawl has devastated the natural environment here and, even though the air has gotten cleaner here over the years, with stricter regulations on auto emissions being a key factor in that progress, the smog has worsened for the past two years despite reduced emissions. The relentless expansion of residential communities into what’s called the urban-wild interface has led to increased fires, as well as worsening the impacts of drought and flooding when the rain finally comes.

Still, I learned a lot about LA while researching a biography of the Italian-American novelist John Fante back in the late 80s-early 90s, a project I never completed but which drew me closer to understanding the allure of this City. And coming out here frequently over the past six years, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a poem by an Angelino poet, and Luis J. Rodriguez, the former Los Angeles Poet Laureate, was the first who came to mind. Originally, I was going to share his poem, “The Concrete River,” with its Whitmanic-Beat Generation yawp, but then I found his “Love Poem to Los Angeles,” and it somehow seemed more appropriate this week.

For those of you who don’t know Rodriguez’s story, his is a classic American tale of son of immigrants struggling to get by in a country that has a love-hate relationship with its immigrants.

As a youth, Rodriguez fell in with gangs in East LA—his most famous work is an account of that experience, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Later, after an incident where he was arrested for trying to stop police from beating a young Mexican woman, Rodriguez quit drugs and the gang life, became a community organizer, went back to school, and started writing in earnest.

He founded the Tia Chucha Press and the cultural center-bookstore of the same name, received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 1998, and became Poet Laureate of L.A. in 2014, the year he also ran as the Green Party Candidate for Governor of California. Rodriguez ran on a platform of clean energy jobs, single-payer health care, a severance tax on oil companies, and reforming the California prison system. He did not advance to the November election, which was won by incumbent Governor Jerry Brown.

Here is Luis J. Rodriguez’s “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

 

Love Poem to Los Angeles

with a respectful nod to Jack Hirschman

 

1.

To say I love Los Angeles is to say

I love its shadows and nightlights,

its meandering streets,

the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.

It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,

the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,

that within a half hour of L.A.’s center

you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.

 

This is a multi-layered city,

unceremoniously built on hills,

valleys, ravines.

Flying into Burbank airport in the day,

you observe gradations of trees and earth.

A “city” seems to be an afterthought,

skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,

guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.

 

2.

Layers of history reach deep,

run red, scarring the soul of the city,

a land where Chinese were lynched,

Mexican resistance fighters hounded,

workers and immigrants exploited,

Japanese removed to concentration camps,

blacks forced from farmlands in the South,

then segregated, diminished.

 

Here also are blessed native lands,

where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva

bonded with nature’s gifts;

people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.

Yet for all my love

I also abhor the “poison” time,

starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,

where 80 percent of natives

who lived and worked in them died,

to the ruthless murder of Indians

during and after the Gold Rush,

the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.

 

From all manner of uprisings,

a city of acceptance began to emerge.

This is “riot city” after all—

more civil disturbances in Los Angeles

in the past hundred years

than any other city.

 

3.

To truly love L.A. you have to see it

with different eyes,

askew perhaps,

beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.

“El Lay” is also known

for the most violent street gangs,

the largest Skid Row,

the greatest number of poor.

Yet I loved L.A.

even during heroin-induced nods

or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.

Even when I slept in abandoned cars,

alongside the “concrete” river,

and during all-night movie showings

in downtown Art Deco theaters.

The city beckoned as I tried to escape

the prison-like grip of its shallowness,

sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,

all disarming,

hiding the murderous heart

that can beat at its center.

L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,

the most magnificent lies,

the largest commercial ports,

graveyard shifts,

poetry readings,

murals,

lowriding culture,

skateboarding,

a sound that hybridized

black, Mexican, as well as Asian

and white migrant cultures.

 

You wouldn’t have musicians like

Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,

Los Lobos, Charles Wright &

the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,

Hiroshima, Motley Crue, NWA, or Quetzal

without Los Angeles.

 

Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,

Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.

 

4.

I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,

I love to make love in L.A.,

it’s a great city, a city without a handle,

the world’s most mixed metropolis,

of intolerance and divisions,

how I love it, how I hate it,

Zootsuit “riots,”

can’t stay away,

city of hungers, city of angers,

Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,

I’d like to kick its face in,

bone city, dried blood on walls,

wildfires, taunting dove wails,

car fumes and oil derricks,

water thievery,

with every industry possible

and still a “one-industry town,”

lined by those majestic palm trees

and like its people

with solid roots, supple trunks,

resilient.

 

Luis J. Rodriguez

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016
“Tribute to Angelenos”

Here is a wonderful video of Luis J. Rodriguez reading “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

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The fig tree at Hutchinson and Christian, South Philadelphia. Photo by Daisy Fried.

Thinking about Philadelphia this past week—a city I lived in for 14 years—in the wake of the incident at Starbucks where two black men waiting on a friend were arrested for basically not ordering a drink—or more to the point, because they were two black men in a Starbucks in a tony, white Philly neighborhood.

“Philly is the City of Brotherly Love…unless you’re a brother,” a friend once said to me.

The incident took place around the same time a Facebook friend shared Ross Gay’s poem, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” a poem set in Philadelphia, and which originally appeared in the American Poetry Review, a journal that has been published in Philadelphia since before the country’s bicentennial year.

And I kept coming back to Gay’s poem since I heard the news of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson’s arrest.

The poem is set in South Philly, which has had its own share of racial incidents over the years, but describes a different mood in the city, a city, as Gay writes, “like most/ which has murdered its own/ people,” where “strangers maybe/ never again,” are picking figs and feeding figs to each other, sharing food, and rubbing sweaty forearms with sweaty shoulders in a mass of humanity.

This is such a contrast with the experience of the two young entrepreneurs waiting for a business meeting to begin in the overpriced confines of a Starbucks. Gay’s poem offers an aspirational image of a society we should all want to live in: one of cooperation, respect, and understanding rather than hate, fear, and intimidation.

The incident in the Starbucks is not an isolated one; it could be anywhere in the everyday life of black men and women in America these days and that must change.

I keep saying we’re living on the cusp of a great societal transformation, one that will find us—all people—able to share more moments like those in Gay’s poem. I believe the real change is coming and we—or at least our children—will look back on these times as a second American revolution, as revolutionary as what took place in Philadelphia in 1776.

After the arrest, Donte Robinson told the AP “he appreciates the public support the men received but anger and boycotting Starbucks are not the solution. ‘We need a different type of action…not words,’ he said. ‘It’s time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.’”

Ross Gay is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, and the low-residency MFA in poetry program at Drew University.

Here is Ross Gay’s “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the silk
of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me

so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
wasps sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
people
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.


(On another note: poet Daisy Fried identified the fig tree in question, reporting that it “is actually at Hutchinson and Christian, but that would not roll off the tongue nearly as well.” She also says that the scene is “very authentic. Summertimes people do stop randomly, and harvest figs to take with them. The owners are always happy because it means less dropped and rotting fruit.”)

Here is a wonderful reading of the poem by Ross Gay on #OWNSHOW from Oprah Online: Fig on Oprah.

“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” © 2013 by Ross Gay. Originally published in the May-June 2013 issue of American Poetry Review, Volume 42, No, 3. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. 

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Wolf pack, Yellowstone. (NPS Photo)

In the title poem to her latest book of poems, Trophic Cascade, Camille T. Dungy catalogues the reemergence of species in the wake of the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

In ecology, “trophic” refers to the relationships between species in a food chain or web. While in some respects this is both a list poem and a nature poem, it builds (or cascades) with such a “degree of motion and momentum” (to quote the poet in an essay) that it becomes something more.

Dungy mimics the kind of rhythmic swells leading to a break at the end of her line that one sees or hears in an ocean tide, and it’s the kind of rhythm and cadence the poet says she wants to achieve in her poems. But what I love most about this poem is how Dungy pivots at the end—in a way representative of how so much of her poetry works—with what she calls, in the same essay to which I refer above, an “inevitable surprise.”

“We know the line will break, and we might even have an idea of where and how the physical boundary might present itself on the page, and that is part of the beauty,” Dungy writes. “But for that beauty to work to its full potential there must also be much that comes as a surprise.” That surprise, in this case, puts a whole new perspective on our most basic trophic relationship.

Camille Dungy is the author of three other books of poetry, including Smith BlueSuck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, as well as a fabulous memoir-in-essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers. She also edited the important anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and has received an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, and an NEA Fellowship.

Here is Camille T. Dungy’s poem, “Trophic Cascade”

After the reintroduction of gray wolves
to Yellowstone and, as anticipated, their culling
of deer, trees grew beyond the deer stunt
of the midcentury. In their up reach
songbirds nested, who scattered
seed for underbrush, and in that cover
warrened snowshoe hare. Weasel and water shrew
returned, also vole, and came soon hawk
and falcon, bald eagle, kestrel, and with them
hawk shadow, falcon shadow. Eagle shade
and kestrel shade haunted newly-berried
runnels where mule deer no longer rummaged, cautious
as they were, now, of being surprised by wolves. Berries
brought bear, while undergrowth and willows, growing now
right down to the river, brought beavers,
who dam. Muskrats came to the dams, and tadpoles.
Came, too, the night song of the fathers
of tadpoles. With water striders, the dark
gray American dipper bobbed in fresh pools
of the river, and fish stayed, and the bear, who
fished, also culled deer fawns and to their kill scraps
came vulture and coyote, long gone in the region
until now, and their scat scattered seed, and more
trees, brush, and berries grew up along the river
that had run straight and so flooded but thus dammed,
compelled to meander, is less prone to overrun. Don’t
you tell me this is not the same as my story. All this
life born from one hungry animal, this whole,
new landscape, the course of the river changed,
I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time
a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.

c) 2015 Camille T. Dungy, from Trophic Cascade, Wesleyan University Press, 2017

Used by permission of the author.

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São Miguel, Azores, Portugal

“I don’t write to say what I think. I write to find out what I’m thinking,” said the poet Gary Snyder. To that I might add, I write to understand who I am.

Lately, I’ve been working on a project—a kind of enhanced memoir—that explores my Portuguese family history. As part of this project, I’ll be going to the Island of São Miguel in the Azores this summer, where two of my maternal great-grandparents came from, for a residency hosted by DISQUIET International, which brings together Portuguese and Portuguese-American writers.

I first started researching my Portuguese roots back in the 90s and, coincidentally, that’s when I met the Portuguese poet, Nuno Júdice. He read at Poets House, along with the translator Richard Zenith, in December of 1994.

The author of over twenty books of poems, Júdice was born in 1949, on the southern coast of Portugal, in the region known as the Algarve. He is currently a professor at Lisbon’s Universidade Nova and directs the Colóquio/Letters program for the Gulbenkian Foundation. I’m hoping to see him in Lisbon when we are on the mainland.

Here is Nuno Júdice’s “Poema” in its original and in a translation by Martin Earl.

POEMA

As coisas mais simples, ouço-as no intervalo

do vento, quando um simples bater de chuva nos

vidros rompe o silêncio da noite, e o seu ritmo

se sobrepõe ao das palavras. Por vezes, é uma

voz cansada, que repete incansavelmente

o que a noite ensina a quem a vive; de outras

vezes, corre, apressada, atropelando sentidos

e frases como se quisesse chegar ao fim, mais

depressa do que a madrugada. São coisas simples

como a areia que se apanha, e escorre por

entre os dedos enquanto os olhos procuram

uma linha nítida no horizonte; ou são as

coisas que subitamente lembramos, quando

o sol emerge num breve rasgão de nuvem.

Estas são as coisas que passam, quando o vento

fica; e são elas que tentamos lembrar, como

se as tivéssemos ouvido, e o ruído da chuva nos

vidros não tivesse apagado a sua voz.

POEM

It’s the simplest things that I hear in the wind’s

intervals, when the simple beating of the rain

on the windows breaks the silence of night, and its rhythm

overwhelms that of words. Sometimes, it is a

tired voice, that tirelessly repeats

what the night teaches those who live it; other

times, it runs, hurriedly, mowing down meanings

and phrases as though it wanted to reach the end, more

quickly than the dawn. We’re talking about simple things,

like the sand which is scooped up, and runs

through your fingers while your eyes search

for a clear line on the horizon; or things

that we suddenly remember, when

the sun emerges from a brief tear in the clouds.

These are the things that happen, when the wind

remains; and it is these we try to recall, as though

we had heard them, and the noise of the rain

on the windowpanes had not snuffed out their voice.

 

© 2006 Nuno Júdice, from As coisas mais simples, Lisbon: Dom Quixote, 2006

Translation © 2007 Martin Earl, first published on Poetry International, 2014

 

 

Anderson_APR poems January 2017

Two Poems by Scott Edward Anderson in The American Poetry Review

Ben Franklin was wrong. Only death is certain; taxes fluctuate — and some even get away without disclosing or paying them.

Last April, my friend the poet A.V. Christie died. It was not entirely a shock, she’d been battling stage 4 cancer for several years, but the fact that she was my age and we’d shared a stage together reading our poems meant it hit close to home.

Four and half months before that, another poet friend, David Simpson, died. I last saw David reading his poems in New York, his book had just come out. He was seriously ill, but celebrating. That was a lesson for me to choose abundance.

Add to that the myriad of more well-known and lesser known poets who die in any given year and it starts to add up: Heaney, Angelou, Kinnell, Waring, Batin, Knott, Strand, Levine, Ritvo, Harrison, Williams, Lux, Tolan, Walcott…the list goes on.

All this death — certain, inevitable death — and a growing number of memorial services and poetry reading “remembrances” over the past few years prompted me do two things: 1.) I started celebrating living poets by acknowledging their birthdays and sharing one of their poems on Facebook; and, 2.) I wrote a poem that tried to shed a little humor on this dark subject.

The poem is called “Deaths of the Poets,” turning on its head the famous Samuel Johnson title, “Lives of the Poets.” I see it as a tribute to the poets who have passed and a kind of companion piece to my poem, “The Poet Gene.”

This poem borrows a few lines from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Free Bird,” which I’ve always wished someone would shout out at one of my readings, as was done at concerts back in the 70s and 80s. (Imagine the lines read in “poet voice,” if you will.)

I threatened to shout for “Free Bird” if my friend the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming didn’t open a recent reading by singing a few bars of “Stairway to Heaven,” which is the title of her new book of poems. She did it brilliantly and I have photo evidence. Alas, no recording.

Here is my poem, “Deaths of the Poets,” which appeared in The American Poetry Review earlier this year:

Deaths of the Poets

Sweet sorrow then, when poets die,
as so many of them have this year.
Goodbye to them, as we linger
over their works, forgiving their deeds,
maleficent or magnanimous.
We remember their kind gestures,
wholesome smiles, constructive criticism,
and witty remarks over drinks or dinner.

We seldom recall what a bore they were at readings,
droning on about their poems or rushing through them,
or how they showed up ill-prepared,
rifling through papers trying to find
the exact poem they wanted to read next
or constantly looking at their watch
and asking the host or hostess,
“How much time do I have?”

Sometimes when I hear poets read in their “poet voice,”
I want to shout out “Free Bird,” like hecklers at old
rock concerts. “Play ‘Free Bird’!” ‘til they recite,
“If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?

For I must be traveling on, now
‘Cause there’s too many places
I’ve got to see.”

Sweet sorrow in their passing then,
poets gone this year and last and yet to come.
And in our mourning let us not forget
Seamus Heaney’s story about two Scottish poets
at a reading, one on the podium struggling
to find his poems and the other, seated in the front row,
saying, “When they said he was going to read,
I thought they meant read out loud…”

–Scott Edward Anderson

c) 2017 Scott Edward Anderson

First published in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 46, No. 01, January/February 2017

My poem, “Pantoum for Aceh” translated into Tamil by Appadurai Muttulingam, 2014.

A few years ago, my friend and former colleague at The Nature Conservancy, Sanjayan, introduced me to Tamil poetry after a long chat about poetry while we were both speaking at a conference in Aspen.

Sanjayan, a Sri Lanka-born Tamil, recommended I start with Poems of Love and War, selected and translated by A. K. Ramanujan, a remarkable book of Tamil poems from throughout history.

Long-time subscribers to my Poetry Month emails will recall I shared a few poems from the anthology in April 2009. Sanjayan sent my email to his father, Appadurai Muttulingam, who in turn sent me a copy of his own delightful book of short stories.

I responded by sending Appadurai a few of my poems (my book was not yet out) and he offered to translate one of them, “Pantoum for Aceh,” into Tamil for a Canadian-based Tamil-language journal, URAIYAADAL, which was published in 2014 (see photo above). He also sent me an anthology of contemporary poetry in Tamil, which I reviewed on my blog, here.

That post led the Sri Lankan Tamil poet known as ANAR (Issath Rehana Mohamed Azeem), whose poem, “Marutham,” I had called out in my review, to reach out to me earlier this year and send me some of her poems.

How small the world becomes when we are open to discovery and exploring cultures beyond our own. We are a global people and, I’m convinced, the movement to close our borders and shut out “foreign” cultures will soon die, because technology and travel and our future on this planet demands it.

ANAR has been writing poetry in Tamil since the 1990s. Her works include Oviem Varaiyathe Thurikai, Enakkuk Kavithai Mukam, Perunkadal Podukiren, Utal Paccai Vaanam, and Potupotuththa Mazhaiththooththal (a collection of Tamil folk songs from Sri Lanka).

A number of ANAR’s poems have been translated into English and published. Her books have won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka’s National Literature Award, the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award, the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award, and the Sparrow Literature Award.

ANAR writes regularly on her blog, anarsrilanka.blogspot.com (Google Chrome will translate it for you) and lives with her husband and son in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka at Sainthamaruthu.

Here is her poem, “The Brightness of Wind,” in an English translation by Professor Jayaraman and its Tamil original:

“The Brightness of Wind”

 

I allow the wind

To eat me

My eyes

I stroked its cool cheeks

For the first time

Before it showed itself in the wind

Intoxicated I drank the image day and night

Kisses I plucked from the wind

Overflowed as would the floods

These watery fingers

Reaching out from the wind

Play on my flesh

Tunes not known before

My dwelling has turned into a wind

You, the total haughtiness of the wind

You, the never-ending slight of the wind

The expanse of sand has gone dry with joy

Body, the green sky

Face, the blue moon

I saw the brightness of wind

In a flash of lightning

 

ANAR

translated into English by Professor Thanga Jayaraman

 

And in the original (Not sure how the beautiful Tamil script will work in WordPress, we’ll see):

 

காற்றின் பிரகாசம்

 

காற்றைத் தின்னவிடுகிறேன்

என்னை …

என் கண்களை …

குளிர்ந்த அதன் கன்னங்களை வருடினேன்

முதல் முறையாக

 

காற்றில் வெளிப்படுமுன் பிம்பத்தை

பகலிரவாக பருகினேன் போதையுடன்

 

காற்றினுள்ளிருந்து எடுத்த முத்தங்கள்

வெள்ளமாய் பெருக்கெடுத்திருக்கின்றன

 

காற்றிலிருந்து நீளும் நீர் விரல்கள்

முன்னறியாத ராகங்களை 

இசைக்கிறதென் சதைகளில்

 

என் வீடு காற்றாக மாறிவிட்டது

 

காற்றின் முழுமையான அகங்காரம் நீ

 

நீ காற்றின் முடிவற்ற அலட்சியம்

 

மகிழ்ச்சியில் உலர்ந்துகிடக்கின்றது மணல்வெளி

 

 

உடல் பச்சை வானம்

முகம் நீல நிலவு

நான் பார்த்தேன் காற்றின் பிரகாசத்தை 

ஒரு மின்வெட்டுப் பொழுதில்

 

–ANAR

c) 2007 ANAR, used by permission of the author

(On a side note, you should check out Sanjayan’s new video series on Vox, made in conjunction with the University of California. Here’s a link: Climate Lab.)