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Jessica Garratt
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Stacey, you must, you must! I think you would love Member.
"disembodied civility" and "the narrow joy of merely not suffering"... very well put, Alex!
Thanks so much, David! It was an absorbing pleasure giving this a try -- and a privilege too.
This is my last post, and I think I will keep it short, and perhaps even sweet. Looking back at the week’s posts, I notice an unintended arc. I began the week by introducing myself and my semi-neurotic (semi-?) anxiety about blogging, moved into a few posts that took up “uncertainty” as a theme in one manner or another, and then, without necessarily meaning to drop the uncertainty theme, embarked on three posts in a row that focused on connection, in life and in poetry. I think it’s safe to say that this arc reflects the arc of my feeling, from the beginning to the end of the week, about blogging for Best American Poetry. The theme of uncertainty is one that speaks to my temperament in a general way, but is also one that is circumstantially relevant to me right now, since I’ve spent the past year, and will spend the coming year, flitting from place to place, making connections as I go, and sustaining the old ones, but not setting down roots anywhere. In some ways this suits me, perhaps in part because such pinging around roughs awake the tension between connection and disconnection that feels so central to poems and to my sense of how I fit in the world; but as someone who does get very quickly attached to people and places, it feels scary and hard at times too. I would like to thank the folks at Best American Poetry, especially Stacey Harwood, David Lehman, and the magnanimous Jim Cummins, for allowing me this little port, this scenic poet’s Park and Ride, for the week. I have enjoyed the absorbing work of mulling some thoughts into shape, and enjoyed the warming possibility that others were mulling independently but connectedly in my company. Hearty thanks to all of you who joined me this week, and I look forward to joining future guest bloggers as they arrive. Till next we meet! -Jessica P.S.—Maybe I will leave you with a poem, just because. It’s from Laura Kasischke’s new collection Space, in Chains, which I've been reading lately: Memory of Grief I remember a four-legged animal strolling through a fire. Poverty in a prom dress. A girl in a bed trying to tune the AM radio to the voices of the dead. A temple constructed out of cobwebs into which the responsibilities of my dai- ly life were swept. Driving through a Stop sign waving to the woman on the corner, who looked on, horrified. But I remember, too, the way, loving everyone equally because each of us would die, I walked among the crowds of them, wearing my disguise. And how, when it was over, I found myself here again with a small plastic basket on my arm, just another impatient immortal sighing and fidgeting in an unmoving line. Continue reading
Posted Aug 13, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks so much, Eileen -- for your kind words and for following along this week. I really enjoyed it.
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So, as I mentioned, I have done a couple of writing residencies of the more “typical” sort (i.e., a bunch of artists living together in a beautiful place, being fed regularly and generally looked after, summer-camp-style). I must admit that I love this kind of residency. The being-cooked-for alone cannot be underestimated. But last fall I was lucky enough to try out a whole other sort of residency experience. I spent three months living in the childhood home of southern novelist Carson McCullers in Columbus, Georgia, thanks to the Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship. (Marguerite and Lamar were the parents of Lula Carson Smith, later known as Carson McCullers.) And I was the only one living in that house for those months, though people came and went some, since the more formal front of the house is a kind of museum dedicated to Carson’s life and work, and since university events and readings were held there every now and then. Those occasions were sort of surreal, actually. I never knew whether or not to put shoes on, before I skulkingly emerged from the back of the house. My stint on Stark Avenue was a very interesting and intense time for a number of reasons. For one thing, I found that I spent a lot of time trying to understand what it meant that Carson had lived and written there. In the room that was once her bedroom there are glass cases that hold some of her old things. For example, her typewriter is there, her eye-glasses, some small white gloves, her childhood record-player, a personal check, her watch, a metal trunk she used to travel with, her high school yearbook, etc. I would stand in front of these objects and try to wrap my head around what it meant that they had been hers, in the same way that I am surrounded by similar objects that I call mine each day. How strange that they remained, impossibly physical and durable, and she did not. (It sounds so obvious and banal when I try to explain it, but the encounter with these facts was very stunning to me at the time.) In the corner of the bedroom was a blown-up photograph of Carson at her desk with her typewriter (the same one now on display). She is turned to gaze disdainfully at the camera. The corner pictured in the photograph is the same corner the photograph is propped in; it’s where she sat and wrote part of her novel The Member of the Wedding. I actually read The Member of the Wedding for the first time while I was living in the house. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter had been an extremely important book to me early on, and this made living in Carson’s childhood home especially poignant. But Member I hadn’t come across before, and, in a way, I’m glad I hadn’t. Reading it in the Stark Avenue house, where she wrote part of the novel, and in Columbus,... Continue reading
Posted Aug 12, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Stacey: That's too funny! I like thinking of what it would mean for you to be a 'plussed' wife looking on... And I can only imagine what might have ensued! Jim! Thanks so much. You're a pal.
In just a few weeks, I’m hopping in the car and heading west again. I seem to creep a little further each time. Missouri, Kansas, and now Fort Collins, Colorado, where I will finally break the mid-west barrier, into the Mountain time zone. I’m going there for a three-month residency at a place called ART342, where I will be living among three visual artists and a composer, and trying to break the mid-manuscript barrier of this second book. I have a healthy start, but I’m still feeling patch-worky about it and like I need a better vantage point from which to survey where exactly I am. To the mountains I go! (Or the foothills, anyway…) I must say that the writing residencies I’ve done in the past have ranked right up there with the trip to Georgia I wrote about in my last post, as far as rich, life-expanding experiences go. In fact, there is one very large similarity they share. With both I found that I was somehow traveling quickly and deeply to the center of my life, and in both cases this effect was due to a magical combination of setting, occasion, and company – the company being very key. At MacDowell, where I spent two months, and at VCCA, where I spent only ten days, I found that part of the reason I was able to enter my work in a deeper, stiller way than I was used to was the sense of connection I formed while there. The beginning-of-residency jitters (when you feel a bit like a new kid in the seventh grade) tend to pass fairly quickly for me, and the conversations I have with other writers and artists at breakfast, before the day of solitary work, and at dinner after it, always end up being highlights of my stay. Just as in Georgia, I found myself enmeshed in intimate, deep-woodsy talks with people I’d just met. What began as idle chit-chat as we filled our coffee cups and plates and settled at a table, gained amazing velocity over the next hour, sometimes two hours, and on many occasions I felt like we were not simply talking about our lives, but were actually coming to new insights through the absorbing ‘work’ of conversation. I say ‘work’ not because it felt grueling or difficult, but because, in some sense, these conversations were an extension of the other work we were doing privately in our studios. Our minds were so fully off their bums, in full seeking-mode, that our conversations were also consistently, restlessly on their way somewhere that mattered to us, searching out shades of connection. The connection-making in the work fed the human connections we were making, and vice versa. I think solitude is emphasized so much when we talk about the character of a writer’s life, that we can forget how thoroughly connection is at the heart of what we do. I’m sitting at a coffee shop as I write this, and keep meeting... Continue reading
Posted Aug 11, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
"to talk simply about something that matters" -- well put, Susan! It's amazing how rarely we're called on to do that in our daily lives, isn't it? Glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane, Sue!
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Yesterday I wrote in part about travel, and I want to continue in that vein for today’s post. In 2006 I traveled to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to visit my friend Susan for a few weeks. She was there on a Fulbright Fellowship at the time. The trip (which was spent mostly in Tbilisi, though we also traveled to the Caucasus and to the Black Sea) was fabulous and life-expanding in too many ways to name here, but I want to dwell for a moment on one custom the Georgians have that I particularly appreciated: the supra. A supra is basically an elaborate dinner/party, but not really. Its dimensions and internal character are much more in line with feast. At regular intervals (between delicious courses, rounds of wine-pouring, and outbursts of you-won’t-believe-it-till-you-hear-it Georgian singing), the man who happens to be presiding over this particular supra (he is called the tamada) stands at the head of the long table and embarks on elaborate and heartfelt speeches. He selects a new broad topic each time he speaks, be it love, family, country, friendship, etc., and from that breadth would descend slowly into lovely and detailed toasts that bore little resemblance to any toast I’d heard before. Others around the table could speak too, if they were moved to. S/he might follow up on or extend the original topic. Since Georgia is so intensely a host culture (meaning, guests are treated as precious and worthy no matter who they are), any guests present are turned to and invited to speak too. Susan had warned me of this ahead of time, and I must say, I was fairly trepidatious about it, even before I set foot in the country. But once there, something different came over me; I found it seemed only natural to speak my heart to this group of welcoming near-strangers. It’s been five years ago now, so it’s hard for me to get in touch with the precise collision of ingredients that allowed this shift, but – what can I say? It’s a magical place. And surely the sublimity of the landscape gets under your skin and deeper too. What struck me when I stopped to think about it – in between dreamy spells – was how refreshing their free-of-irony musings on the essentials of their lives were. And I like irony. I also like people with slant, sly, under-doggish humor, who analyze things to the bone and appreciate nuance more than most other qualities. And yet, the distilled earnestness of the Georgians struck me as something I’d been missing out on. It made other kinds of talk seem impoverished. Conversations of this sort were not a terribly regular occurrence with people I’d known for years and saw on a daily basis, yet somehow felt like what were called for in this new context, with these new people. Even Susan and I talked to each other differently; we had been good friends for a number of years, but our... Continue reading
Posted Aug 10, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Stacey! And that's too funny about Jane Fonda. I must have completely blocked that part out... Wishing you a childfully-slow rest of your summer in Ammons-land! -Jessica
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Two weeks ago I went to Peru for my sister’s wedding. I was there last summer as well, just to visit her, and didn’t know I’d be returning so soon. Last time we traveled around some, and took a (grueling) four-day trek to Machu Picchu. This time we stayed put in the town where my sister lives: Pucallpa. Pucallpa is in eastern Peru, on the Ucayali River in the Amazon. It’s a jungle port town, so men are constantly loading and unloading small boats at the makeshift-looking docks. They run up and down the steep, uneven hill to the river with enormous loads on their backs. My sister takes one of these boats (she pointed out to us the exact one) twelve or so hours up the river and back, since she works with a Shipibo community in the jungle. On those trips she is always sure to keep her main store of money in one place, and a smaller amount tucked elsewhere. The smaller amount is ‘pirate money,’ she says, since sometimes river pirates come on board the boat and you have to give them something so they’ll go away. She told me this very matter-of-factly. (Did I mention this is my little sister?) The primary way people get around within the town itself is not by car, but by mototaxi, which are small rickshaw-buggies attached to motorbikes. They zip loudly around the streets, weaving between each other unpredictably (unpredictable to me, anyway). There are no seat belts, of course, to keep you from springing into flight. There are also no lanes, but, as my mother pointed out, they mostly manage to move like a crowd of people would, not running each other over, making room as they go. (Still, the no-lanes thing was almost enough to push my dad over the edge…) And maybe it’s partly because many of the roads are dirt-coated, so that there’s a fairly constant cloud of dust suspended in the air, but the scene reminded me a little of a futuristically-tweaked Old West. My sister mentioned (also off-handedly) that it’s best not to take the mototaxis at night because sometimes the driver will hold you up and rob you. But during the day it’s fine, as long as you don’t get a drunk one. For all my talk of valuing uncertainty as an artistic quality and as an approach to life in my last post, I must say that my sister handles a certain kind of uncertainty better than I do. While not unraveled or affronted by it, as some might be, I’m not particularly good at casting myself breezily and un-self-consciously into the flow of disorder either, especially when it has a dangerous edge. I scare more easily than my sister does. River pirates would almost certainly be enough to keep me off the river. It’s true, though, that she has been pretty much fine for these two years – nothing terrible has happened (knock on wood). And since she speaks fluent... Continue reading
Posted Aug 9, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Recently I took a yoga class taught by my mother. The class had been going along in ways we and our bodies didn’t not expect, and we followed along, innocuously enjoying ourselves. My mind was both in the room and not in the room; it sent tried and true emissaries down well-worn paths. (I just heard somewhere that 95% of our thoughts are unoriginal/repetitive in nature.) I’m hungry. I wonder what I’ll have for dinner. I should read that book tonight. Restrain myself from more episodes of Mad Men. I wonder if so-and-so emailed me back. Et cetera. Then my mother asked us to roll our heads around on our necks (how nice for our beleaguered stems); she asked us to circle our hips in big wide circles (a melting in our spines, our haunches – very pleasant). Finally, she asked us to do both of these movements at the same time, but in different directions; if we swirled our heads clock-wise, our hips should turn against the clock, and vice versa. Suddenly there were little bursts of laughter and exclamation all over the room, as we all struggled to move our bodies in this goofy and unfamiliar way. Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about anything else but trying to master this new pattern of movement, though I did make occasional smiling eye-contact with some of the others sharing in this attempt. My mother explained that when we try out unfamiliar movements with our bodies, our central nervous systems are jarred from their dozing. In this moment of surprise, uncertainty, and stimulated focus, often the body’s muscles unwittingly release. They are no longer slogging along the same old tense paths, weeded with the same old tense thoughts, and so the muscles forget to keep their fists up. They let go. This struck me as a decently good analogy for what it feels like to write a poem – and also for what I most hope to find in others’ poems. When I’m working on a poem, there is always a moment (if the poem is destined to go anywhere past the initial sitting) when my mind lets go. Thoughts and feelings are no longer individual and demarcated, but palpably flow (oh, such an over-used word nowadays, but I’m having trouble replacing it here!) through and between each other. The poem’s field is open and stimulated and spatial, internal and external at once, full of motion. And this state is only possible when I’ve begun to actually (well, metaphorically) look for something – when I’m not just writing about a subject, but have stumbled onto a real question or a hint of beyond-me-ness that I don’t know how to (but want to) approach. In other words, my existence wakes up to itself and to the world. The tight hamster-wheeling stops because I am putting all I have into this energized focus, and the gift, if it comes, is that everything releases into connectivity for a brief but open window. (Boy, the process... Continue reading
Posted Aug 8, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
When I received Stacey Harwood’s gracious invitation to guest blog for Best American Poetry, it came as a surprise, and the surprise came with excitement, stitched by tinsely nerves. I’ve never blogged before, and furthermore have never thought of myself as a ‘blogger’ or as the bloggingtype, exactly. But when faced with the opportunity, there’s no doubt about it: I felt anticipatory, ideas dipping their toes in my mind almost immediately. So why, then, have I held this medium at arm’s length, or thought of myself as outside it? Has it been snootiness? A nostalgic attachment to more “permanent” mediums? Fear I wouldn’t be good at it? Perhaps there is a sliver of truth to each of these possibilities – though, what comes back to me most viscerally when I consider this question is an image of myself at age fourteen, fifteen, sixteen (a foggy amalgamation of these ages). The image is a cross between dream-shred and photographic still. I am in my high school, and I am standing down the hall from (but within eye-shot of) the classroom where I had (I think) both American History and American Government. (World History with the school football coach happened just around the corner, past a row of mauve lockers.) I’m brimful with feeling and I’m looking at my hands, stretched out in front of me. Suddenly I’m keenly aware of both what they can reach and what they can’t reach. The phrase “at my fingertips” is in my mind, and I can sense that what is at them is this – what surrounds me – what I can know inwardly and outwardly – what I can get close enough to to touch or feel or hold in my hand or mind. What falls beyond the pale of my grasp is clear too, but shamefully so. The classroom with the closed door down the hall holds those things (facts, hard knowledge, geographical boundaries, stark, statue-like opinions) which are too hard for me to hold onto, and dissolve when I look at them, and leave my memory almost immediately because they have nothing to do with my hands or what I can reach. I feel this image vividly still, and remember how I lived in real fear of someone quizzing me on my knowledge of geography – about which countries X bordered, or which oceans settled around which continents – because then perhaps I would be exposed for what I was – a person who didn’t know things. To know things, to be in possession of firm, conveyable knowledge or clear-cut opinions, was to participate in a strangely solid element – certainty – when the only way I knew to move through life was by a tentative feeling-out – by uncertain, nerves-on-fire sensing – by thinking through feeling and feeling through thinking. I think it was this girl who came rushing and blushing to the surface when I received Stacey’s email. What do I know? I thought, despite the fact that I’m a... Continue reading
Posted Aug 7, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 6, 2011