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Amy McDaniel
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It is time for everybody to read M.F.K. Fisher. As Stacey Harwood reminded me--when I said that food editors always go on about loving Fisher but then don't seem to want to print good prose--"Yeah, but they've never actually read her. Everybody always uses the same quote." Fair point. So when she asked me to guest blog this week, it seemed only right that I should pay tribute to Fisher beyond the one usual quote (for the record, it's the one where she answers the question "Why do I write about food?" She says, "It seems to me that our three basic needs for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it...There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.") Fisher was a sensualist. She wrote frankly about desire and about her several love affairs. Others know her mainly for How to Cook a Wolf, a collection on how to stave off hunger during the war days of strict rationing. But as the oft-quoted line itself punctuates, she's talking about something "more than our bodies." Folded into Fisher's essays are meditations on every kind of love, not just erotic, and every kind of hunger, not just libidinal. To wit: in The Gastronomical Me, Fisher describes (in one of several chapters called "The Measure of My Powers") a meal shared, at age 19, with her uncle Evans and his son Bernard, both of whom she desperately wanted to impress. Her uncle has spent five days gently guiding her gustatory coming-of-age. Then, in Chicago, asked what she'd like to eat, she says, "Oh, anything...anything, thank you." Instantly, she realizes her mistake: "I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes." Her "phony nonchalance" has disappointed him. She sobers herself and studies the menu with real effort. And then: 'Just a minute, please,' I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation, or maybe a chess player opening a tournament. Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, 'I'd like iced consomme, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad...and I'll order the rest later.' I remember that he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too. And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, 'Oh, anything,' about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone, with death in the house or in my heart.' So, when Fisher says she writes about more than the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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One feels that one is supposed to look out of windows, not into them. At my 9th-floor office at my family's small HR consulting firm, where I now work, my desk faces the window. When I look out, which I do a healthy bit of (it's a better quick break than Facebook, I think), I see only stacked rows of other windows, fourteen columns wide, framed in white panels, squares and rectangles . The windows belong to the Westin Hotel across the street. Besides a thin sliver of blue sky on either side, hotel windows and white panels are all I can see. My window is tinted; the ones facing me are not. Reader, I look into them. As you can see from the picture, most of the windows are fully shaded, but the odd five or six are not. You can see the ghost of my telephone and some wires on my desk. Normally, the space between the curtains is, from my view, an impenetrable black rectangle, but at least once a day, a figure fills part of the space, though rarely for very long. Once, there were a gaggle of children who seemed to climb up the curtains until a girl who I took to be the eldest sister came forward to manage them. She stood, looking out, as the siblings calmed themselves. Once there was a couple gathering their things, but most people appear alone. There have been some who close the curtains, usually identifiable as service staff; others gaze out. At least four times, the gazers have been buck naked. I have so much affection for them. What are they doing at 11am or 2pm naked in a hotel room on a Thursday, staring out the window at what I know to be a limited view? Maybe nothing spectacular, but still they have taken a moment to be unclothed, unready to rejoin the workaday world just yet. So they look out the window. It isn't much. The view out is impoverished. They won't see a whole hell of a lot. Though a bird could fly past. Something could drop from the sky. Or they could feel some emotion, or have an idea. Or a memory. I'm proud of them. They are open to something that, if they stared only at their phones, and got dressed right away so they could bustle around and leave the room, they might not otherwise find. Think about that. Honor it. Continue reading
Posted Sep 13, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Ovid claimed that the cause of his exile to Tomis was carmen et error -- a poem and a mistake. Recently, I've been thinking a lot about mistakes and errors. In everyday usage, these can be interchangeable, but for our purposes, they do refer to two distinct ways to get something wrong. Let's let Aristotle explain: Within the art of poetry itself there are two kinds of faults—those which touch its essence, and those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something, [but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the error is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a wrong choice—if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, for example, or in any other art—the error is not essential to the poetry. So: capacity versus choice. An error touches the essence, a mistake does not. "I didn't see that coming" (capacity of vision) versus "I should have seen that coming" (choice of where to cast your gaze). When I taught in Bangladesh, this distinction was particularly salient as I tried to figure out whether my students' misuses of English stemmed from not knowing the rule (an error) or from forgetting or ignoring the rule (a mistake). This became even more complicated with my poetry students. What is an error in English might not touch, as Aristotle puts it, the essence of the poem. In yesterday's post, I printed two poems by one of my students. The idioms are not always standard. She writes, "I want to leave here but I had lost myself in deep of darkness." Would a native English speaker use this idiom instead of "in the depths of darkness?" Or, in the first poem, the line "steal my accompany" instead of "companion," when referring to the shadow stolen by the sun? Probably not, and so much the worse. There is something essentially right about using "accompany" as a noun for "that which accompanies me," given that "accompaniment" sounds too cold and still and "companion" too warm and human. The poem is cool; the shadow is between thing and being. A poem and a mistake. My students knew exile. Not only were they away from their homes, among sudden peers of many different faiths, nationalities, backgrounds, but some of them had spent part of their childhood as refugees. We read lots of poems about exile and foreignness. For them, language was already estranged from habit and custom. It would be an error to think there is no room for a mistake in a poem. Continue reading
Posted Sep 12, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Last year, I taught poetry to first-year college students from five countries in Asia. It was hard and wonderful. One of the hard things was to convince my students to revise. Many of them felt that the original power and sentiment would be lost in the dryness and technicality of revision. On the other hand, one of the wonderful things was their interest and appreciation in one another's work. I put the latter in service of the former by asking them to "translate" a peer's poem into their own poetic language. Through this task, they saw that revision was a creative, generative exercise, not just a program of correction and deletion. It also helped them to see, more clearly, what they did as poets, in a way that comparing their work to published poets hadn't. Before, when asked to describe their writing style, they rarely went beyond whether they liked to write short or long poems, with short or long lines. But once i asked them to engage seriously and actively with a peer's work, to the point that they had to create a writing prompt for their peer (an idea from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook), over half of them said to me something like, "I love her poetry but it is nothing like mine." One student took my assignment a step further by asking her "peer poetry partner," as they called it, to translate one of her own poems into a new poem. The poet, Nargis Hajran, a striking young woman from Afghanistan, seemed to channel William Blake in turning what was already a powerful, sonically startling manifesto of sorts into a sort of nihilistic, sardonic vision, without changing many words or altering the pace and rhythm. If you have a moment, I entreat you to read these poems aloud to yourself. Spoken, they will nest in you like a song. Here is the original: Stolen Shadow I want to think about everything About a small obsolete home in a jungle About a river, that now is a pathway About a rancher who had lost his mutton In a mountain, under this wide sky, this blue color And I, I want to think about the pain of losing A rancher lost his mutton and I, I lost my shadow under this blue wide color When the sun skirt had cover all the earth I lost my shadow in glare of her eyes Now my hand are burning How did I let her to steal my accompany The street is going , seasons are going I remain here with a handful of memories I will cover the sun with my scarf To show her the pain of losing I without my shadow is like The sun without light. ***** And here is Nargis's translation of her own poem: Stolen Shadow Sometimes I want to think about nothing Who cares if a rancher had lost his mutton? Who cares if the river is still bubbling or not? Sometimes even, I... Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
In the past week, I have clicked on two links that led me to items related to poetry (or writing more generally) and publicity. In both cases, I found the links via social media. The first link, a T Magazine article about "24-year-old M.F.A. dropout" Steve Roggenbuck, was embedded in a tweet by the poet Alex Estes, to whose tweets I subscribe. The intro to the link reads, "Oh, you haven't heard, twitter and tumblr are going to save poetry. We can all relax." Click on the link, and you'll see Roggenbuck pictured wearing "Ethletic Fair Trade, Ethically Produced shoes, $54." T Magazine says, "He reaches an audience that dwarfs those of traditional journals." And also: "Some in the establishment say he’s not a poet." What or who The New York Times blogger, Jacob Brown, considers to be "traditional" or "establishment" is not defined. The other link, an interview of Dinty Moore in Mandala Magazine, was in my Facebook feed, posted by Dinty Moore himself, to whose posts I subscribe. The interview was to promote his new book, The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. In the interview, Moore says: ...so often we lose track of why we are writing and become badly distracted by career, rejection slips, praise, sometimes money. There is nothing wrong with wanting a career, some recognition, a steady salary, and, most importantly perhaps, the access to a wider readership that comes with success, but it is necessary to be mindful of how all of this interacts with the writing process, and how it too often sabotages the writing. I'll let the juxtaposition speak for itself, if only because I can't tease out the implications very neatly. Especially in this forum, where--mea culpa--I am probably, at least in part, promoting myself. Continue reading
Posted Sep 10, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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The Rest of the Poem by Kunwar Narain Translated from the Hindi by Lucy Rosenstein Water falling on leaves means one thing Leaves falling on water another. Between gaining life fully and giving it away fully stands a full death-mark. The rest of the poem is written not with words – Drawing the whole of existence, like a full stop, it is complete at any point ... My poetry class in Bangladesh has taken root: water falling on leaves. I did not know what to expect, or maybe it's more accurate to say I did not know what I was expecting. My students come from five countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Vietnam. For many, poetry was their 5th-choice writing seminar. The first day, I asked them to repeat in unison the following refrains: Poetry is for everyone! Poetry is not a secret code! Poetry can change people's lives! They complied, but I sensed some lingering hesitation. I took it as a personal challenge: I would make them believe. That was my first mistake. You can't make someone believe. I soon found out that all the challenge and all the power to believe or disbelieve lies within them, and among them. Tangling with words in a second (or often third or fourth) language, seizing with bare hands the clay of unfamiliar forms and conceits, first in what they read, and then in what they write -- that is their work, not mine. Students always surprise me with what texts spark something in them (and which ones don't), and why. Here, many of my students have expressed a preference for short poems with words that are simple but powerful but thought-provoking. In their first reflection papers, several cited the above poem by Kunwar Narain. The students appreciated the elegant metaphor of the first five lines, but more than that they responded to poem's invitation to the reader to collaborate, where often longer poems seem to them more sealed off. There's a kind of trust that a short poem places in the reader to honor each of its few words. I hope to learn to trust my students similarly, that the instruction I offer is enough water to nourish the leaf, but not so much that the downpour loosens the leaf from the growing tree. The rest of the class -- the part that draws the whole of existence -- that's up to them. (photograph by Jeremy Price) Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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The Rest of the Poem by Kunwar Narain Translated from the Hindi by Lucy Rosenstein Water falling on leaves means one thing Leaves falling on water another. Between gaining life fully and giving it away fully stands a full death-mark. The rest of the poem is written not with words – Drawing the whole of existence, like a full stop, it is complete at any point ... My poetry class in Bangladesh has taken root: water falling on leaves. I did not know what to expect, or maybe it's more accurate to say I did not know what I was expecting. My students come from five countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Vietnam. For many, poetry was their 5th-choice writing seminar. The first day, I asked them to repeat in unison the following refrains: Poetry is for everyone! Poetry is not a secret code! Poetry can change people's lives! They complied, but I sensed some lingering hesitation. I took it as a personal challenge: I would make them believe. That was my first mistake. You can't make someone believe. I soon found out that all the challenge and all the power to believe or disbelieve lies within them, and among them. Tangling with words in a second (or often third or fourth) language, seizing with bare hands the clay of unfamiliar forms and conceits, first in what they read, and then in what they write -- that is their work, not mine. Students always surprise me with what texts spark something in them (and which ones don't), and why. Here, many of my students have expressed a preference for short poems with words that are simple but powerful but thought-provoking. In their first reflection papers, several cited the above poem by Kunwar Narain. The students appreciated the elegant metaphor of the first five lines, but more than that they responded to poem's invitation to the reader to collaborate, where often longer poems seem to them more sealed off. There's a kind of trust that a short poem places in the reader to honor each of its few words. I hope to learn to trust my students similarly, that the instruction I offer is enough water to nourish the leaf, but not so much that the downpour loosens the leaf from the growing tree. The rest of the class -- the part that draws the whole of existence -- that's up to them. (photograph by Jeremy Price) Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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First, an explanation: My name is Amy McDaniel, and it has been a month since Stacey graciously introduced me (scroll down to "In other news") as a new guest blogger. As she mentions, I will be writing from time to time from Bangladesh, where I have just begun teaching a poetry workshop and a food & fiction class at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong. I've spent the intervening month recovering from some kind of tropical stomach virus and filling out maintenance request forms to secure a working kitchen drain and reliable electricity. But during my first week here, in the first blush of novelty, before the culture (and digestive) shock set in and when every small errand was still an adventure, I began learning the alphabet. The Bengali one. The last time I learned to write an alphabet -- the Latin one -- was also the first. I don't remember it, but I do remember learning to write numbers. I was four; my family had just moved from Charlotte to Atlanta and we were living in an apartment while my parents house-hunted. One morning, my mother and I sat at the kitchen table and I pushed a fat crayon over the dotted lines she marked. I had little faith that I'd ever form these strange shapes with a free hand. This wasn't like drawing pictures, which translates the visual to the visual. Nothing about the symbols for numbers or letters evokes their sound or meaning. 2 and 5 vexed me particularly, with the way their curves hastily became angles. 2 and 5. 25. 25 years have passed since I learned new symbols for sounds. Many of the sounds, too, are brand new for me. Unaspirated t's. Extra-aspirated d's. Chchh's. Ksm's and Ntb's. And a different symbol for every one. Where the Latin alphabet has 7 vowel sounds, Bengali has 11, each with two symbols, one if the vowel sound comes before a consonant sound and one if it comes after. But the symbol for the latter sometimes comes before the symbol for the consonant, even though it's pronounced after. Sometimes the vowel symbol is below the consonant it follows, sometimes above, sometimes part of it comes before and part after. Two vowels, if they follow a consonant, are not written, but simply understood. Technically, Bengali is read left to right, but for new learners there's also some side-to-side and some up-and-down -- and some wild guessing at what is pronounced, but not symbolized. Then there are 32 simple consonants, and at least 90 symbols for paired consonants, many of which resemble neither of their component simple consonant symbols. I could be daunted by all this, to the point of giving up, and sometimes I come close, and often I go for many days without study. But for now, it's worth it to try. I can recognize about 19 of the most common symbols, and that's enough to bring some comfort when I look at street signs and food... Continue reading
Posted Sep 15, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 14, 2011