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Nin Andrews
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Happy Valentine’s Day! Sick with a cold I am, but I still love this day along with all of the trappings—the gold-embossed Cupids, roses, candles, slinky lingerie, sonnets, and chocolate. Who can resist the chocolate? And to think the day was invented by Chaucer. Perhaps we poets should invent a few more days worthy of celebration? I vote for a day for dreaming, or at least sleeping-in as long as possible. No peeking at the clock. In fact, no clocks allowed. Or how about a day of kindness, or at least of caring for others including the woebegone, the piqued, the miffed, the melancholy, and the dejected. Or maybe something simpler—a day for collecting words and expressions you loved once but no longer hear or use, words like suasive, addlepated, spindle-legged, vulpine, folderol, and cattywampus. I have to think, but given a day, I think we could have a regular word party. And expressions--yes, expressions like: Where in the Dickens is it? Or, You're about as busy as a cow's tail in summer time. Or, I do declare. And, Do go on, meaning, You wanna dig that grave a little deeper? Continue reading
Posted Feb 14, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Today, I am continuing my discussion of poets who paint (or painters who write poetry) by interviewing Nancy Mitchell. I first encountered Nancy in her capacity as an Associate Editor of Plume, one of my all-time favorite literary journals. (Really, how could I resist a journal named after a character in Henri Michaux’s prose poetry? And if you don't know Michaux's Plume, check out this wonderful example of a Plume poem. ) I was surprised to discover that Nancy paints in addition to writing, teaching, and editing. (In order, spaced throughout the interview, are her paintings, “Anasazi/Stranger,” "Atonement," "Zac," and "Red Horse Red.") I think of Nancy Mitchell as a kind of Zen poet. Her short and visual poems are wake-up calls to the small and seeming ordinary moments in a day. They acknowledge the yearning of the heart and soul and the inevitable presence of loss. She accomplishes so much in so little space, as in this painful but beautiful poem, “The Leaving”: To steady me, to keep me from rising— that last night with him, lying down, he placed his hand on the space where my ribs furl back like wings to steady me, to keep me from rising. And then there is this simple poem, "Tuesday Morning": Her breath fogs the window, the window clears, fogs the window, it clears again. And I love this slightly longer poem, “What About”: What about sushi with the Merkles merlot or cabernet would be fine with Martin What about taking Max for a stroll at sunset taking Max What about dinner with the dean coffee with Don at ten What about he said he’d call by 11 hopping in the shower at 11:15 dropping the whole thing What about she doesn’t like being on top What about mayonnaise method of removing water stain from wood What about Mother’s face behind a comic book Brother’s face What about lime neon bra with matching panties a doll with my face a full-time phone lover a phone life a phone liar a phony the silence of cold spoons My first question for Nancy: How do you do it? How do you balance your time between painting and writing? NM: Ah, Nin. I’m totally inept at any kind of time management. I always got unsatisfactory marks on “Uses Time Wisely” on my elementary school report card. I have no idea what “wisely” meant—I mean, who is to say— or how to achieve it, although I’ve earnestly tried to imitate those more efficient, enviable Do-Bees. Oh the “To-Do” lists made and left behind, unchecked, the grim resolutions! But, now that I think about it, if I tracked the hours I might find a balance of attention or energy between the two, although it most likely would be heavy on the poetry side. What usually happens is that when I hit a wall with writing, or finish a project, I’ll need something more physical, tactile, and I’ll go fool around in my basement studio. NA: How... Continue reading
Posted Jan 24, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Lately I have been struggling with words. I think it has something to do with the politics of the time. I sit down to work, and my mind buzzes with white noise. I don’t know what to say or how to respond. There are all these wonderful WRITER’S RESPOND opportunities including Dante Di Stefano’s call for poems for his forthcoming anti-Trump anthology, Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America, but I have nothing to offer. Instead of writing I find myself staring out the window, doodling, or looking at artwork. The recent post by Paul Tracy Danison about the visual arts and moving "beyond words" made me wonder about the role other arts play in a poet’s life. As does Didi Menendez’s POETS/ARTISTS magazine, which creates a beautiful dialogue between poetry and art. I also keep thinking of O’Hara’s relationship to painting and painters, of how David Lehman described him as “an action painter in verse" and wishing I could paint with either color or words. Recently I discovered that two poets whom I admire also paint. I thought I’d interview them here, on consecutive days, and ask them to talk about their work. The first is the poet, Claire Bateman, and below is her painting, "The Quietness Clock." What I love about Claire is her mystical vision and her unique ability to make the normal seem transcendent, or the transcendent normal. When I read her poetry (or just talk to her), I see the world through an other-worldly lens. She is, at once, witty and serious, literal and figurative. Her flights of fancy take me both away from and towards myself. How? I have no clue. Whether she is talking about something as simple as doing laundry as in “Three Interiors” which begins: 1. The cloud in the dryer doesn’t know it’s a cloud, thinking it’s a demi-veil or a silk chemise, items designed to never appear in a dryer. Forming and falling apart, over and over, the cloud couldn’t’ grasp the rules of laundry if its life depended on them, lustrous fog beholding a universe a –tumble on the other side of the glass. or talking about AA, as in her poem, “Anonymous, “which begins: When AA offered me the use of their Big Blue Book, I respectfully declined, though never has my life not been either unmanageable or about to become so in subtle, indeterminate ways I have no name for . . . or talking about pain, as in her poem, “The Pain Suit” If you happen to live in a broad and open place, you can watch as it comes flying in your direction— not really a suit, of course, just the mask and gloves, though considering the effect, the term is apt. You can’t hope it’s hunting some stranger, since everyone knows that it’s visible only to its destined bearer; you can’t clutch at bystanders, seeking a human shield, since it passes through every obstruction without even slowing. It’s probably best to become a... Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Oh, favorite of favorites, friend and confidant, I say aloud to the blank page on my desk. (And yes, I do talk to my writing sometimes, or to the person who writes, the one who both is and isn’t me. Am I the only one who does this? It’s kind of embarrassing to admit . . .) I don’t know what happens to me! Forgive me! Sometimes I avoid you when you are the one I most want to be with. When the truth is, all I want to do is write. So why don’t you? you ask me. I have no clue. Take yesterday, for example. For the first time in ages, I had a chance to get back to work. I had a series of empty hours ahead, as inviting as a whole pile of blank pages, just waiting to be filled. I had no errands to run, no vet or doctor’s appointments (God forbid), no phone calls to answer, no cleaning to do (okay, that’s not exactly true, but hey). So what did I do? I looked in the mirror. Big mistake. I never like looking in the mirror, esp. now that I am a woman “of a certain age.” And all at once, I decided I needed eyebrows. I know. I know. Clearly, you are correct to point out that I don’t need eyebrows to write poetry. But let me explain . . . Because just a few days ago, I had never really thought about my eyebrows. Or the lack thereof. I was in the beauty parlor, getting a trim, and the woman in the chair next to mine had just had her eyebrows dyed, and she was drawing on them with a colored pencil. Several ladies began discussing eyebrows. So what’s the deal with eyebrows? I asked. And one of the women explained, You can’t just have eyebrows these days. You have to dye them and/or draw them in so they look full and shapely. And make your eyes pop. My beautician asked if I wanted my own brows done so I could see my eyes pop. Evidently, popping eyes is a thing now. No thanks, I said. After all, I reasoned, eyebrows are the least of my problems. But suddenly, a week or so later, when looking at my reflection and thinking of all those nice empty hours ahead, I felt an urgent need for eyebrows. How long could it take to get eyebrows? I sighed, thinking I’d be back home in a jiffy. I drove over to the Ulta Store, plopped myself down at the beauty counter, and announced, I need help. Or rather, I need eyebrows. A pretty blond girl (she looked about sixteen) proceeded to draw eyebrows on my forehead. She paused now and again, tilting my head back, her index finger under my chin. She said she wasn’t sure about my color. So first she drew yellowish eyebrows on my head that gave the brows a halo. Then taupe—or... Continue reading
Posted Jan 8, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Sometimes I think reading Dorothy Parker is like reading a witty love-advice columnist. There is also this poem: Unfortunate Coincidence By the time you swear you're his, Shivering and sighing, And he vows his passion is Infinite, undying-- Lady, make a note of this: one of you is lying. Continue reading
Posted Dec 12, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
This comic is based on a few lines from the introduction to William Carlos William in The Oxford Anthology of American Poetry that made me laugh: “I write in the American idiom, “ Williams noted, “and for many years I have been using what I call the variable foot.” One of the secrets of American poetry is that no one knows what “the variable foot” really is. Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
NA: This is such a beautiful book, and a welcome gift in this dark time. But before we talk about it, I wanted to ask you about the anthology you are putting together in response to Trump’s presidency. DD: Thanks for the kind words, Nin! I am working on this anthology titled: Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America. I’m looking for poetry (previously published and unpublished) that bears witness against the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and downright fascism that has always surrounded us, but is incarnated in the president elect. The poems need not be directly about Donald Trump, but should address any of the various complex social ills of which his election is a symptom. Poets interested in submitting work should send 3-5 poems in a word document by February 20, 2017 to My dream would be that this anthology would be a means to raise funds for groups and causes that may find themselves steamrolled under the new administration. I also hope this work would in some small way galvanize opposition against the encroaching autocracy, jingoism, anti-intellectualism, and hate of a Trump White House. NA: Your poetry really does speak of the ability to make light out of darkness, whether you are writing about chemotherapy, your mother’s tears, or your father’s death. I wondered if we could start with a poem from the book, maybe “Field Trip”? DD: This is a poem I wrote a few years before my father died, after he had first undergone surgery for what was initially thought to be a routine form of thyroid cancer. I should also add that the staff at Sloan-Kettering, as anyone who has been there knows, is the most amazing medical staff in the world, from the orderlies on up. Field Trip On a day my father almost died, I watched middle school children parade by the window of the cab I sat in as we waited for the light to turn and York Avenue opened up like his sutures, poorly stitched. I watched them walk on tiptoes, woodwinds under their arms, necks free of lacerations, tracheae intact. I saw them disappear down 68th Street and thought of the orchids that surround all the waiting rooms in Sloan-Kettering, how their heads dip downward, as if heaven were a hollow beneath the earth. NA: Who are some of the writers who have helped and inspired you? DD: I have had wonderful poets who taught me at Binghamton University: Karen Terebessey, Paul-William Burch, Liz Rosenberg, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Joe Weil. I admire poets like David Lehman, for whom scholarship and serious study of various poetic traditions is as important as their creative work. I particularly admire Philip Metres, Martín Espada, and Sascha Feinstein; all three of these men embody values of total empathy, committed social engagement, commendable scholarly rigor, and uncompromising artistic integrity. I’m very grateful for my friendship with the novelist, Tom Bouman, who is one of the most honorable and intelligent men I know. I am... Continue reading
Posted Nov 29, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
For this week of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d say a few words of thanks to David and Stacey Lehman for all they do for poets and poetry--and especially for this blog. Like so many poets, I love stopping by here, and I am so grateful to Stacey for keeping it going through good and difficult times. I also wanted to thank David for his many books and anthologies. Today, as on many days, I’ve been flipping through his Oxford Book of American Poetry—an all-time favorite of mine. Now, let me first confess (a bit sheepishly) that I am not a natural fan of anthologies. I especially don’t care for the thin-paged Norton’s that make me feel as if I am in a chilly and distant room full of discordant strangers who have little to say to another and even less to me. (I tend to think that there’s something about the nature of poets, both on the page and in the body, that likes to be seen as the one and only.) But Lehman’s Oxford anthology breaks that distance down, first with its wonderful selection of poems (so I know immediately I am in good company), and second, by its informative and fun introductions to each poet. I particularly love thinking about how and why poets write--comparing and contrasting their visions. About A. R. Ammons, Lehman points out that “he writes in the American idiom, switches rapidly from low to high diction, and in one mood may remind his readers that “magnificent” in North Carolina comes out ‘Maggie-went-a-fishing.’ But his sly wit does not obscure the visionary nature of his poetry, the aim to affirm the magnificence of creation, however lowly in appearance and dark in design. Asked what moved him to write poetry, Ammons commented ‘anxiety.’” Charles Simic, on the other hand, wrote once that “Awe is my religion, and mystery is my church.” And he compared poets to six-legged dogs. Berryman, not surprisingly had a less amusing idea of the life of the poet. Lehman quotes him saying that the “artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” Sharon Olds commented that it was easier to write poetry than not to write poetry. And Jean Garrigue “described her work as a ‘dialogue of self with soul, the quarrel of self with world.’” And I love this excerpt from the introduction to Robert Creeley: “Hall observes that if you took a sentence from a late Henry James novel like The Ambassadors and arranged it in two-word lines, you would ‘have a Creeely poem worrying out its self-consciousness.’ Creeley seems often to substitute speech rhythms for imagery as the engine of the poem.” I could keep going, but I think every poet should own her own copy of this anthology. I cannot imagine how long it must have taken to select the poems for this book and write all these wonderful introductions. But as... Continue reading
Posted Nov 25, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Forgive the political nature of this comic--I like to think of this blog as a sacred space where we all breathe more easily. But all week I have been thinking of this Edward Lear poem. And how as a girl, whenever my mother read it, I would complain that you can't possibly go to sea in a sieve-- to which she answered: Why, there's nothing to worry about! Because you can always sleep in a crockery-jar with your feet wrapped in pinky paper, all folded neat, and fastened with a pin. I think that's my favorite stanza of the poem: The water it soon came in, it did, The water it soon came in; So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet In a pinky paper all folded neat, And they fastened it down with a pin. And they passed the night in a crockery-jar, And each of them said, ‘How wise we are! Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long, Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong, While round in our Sieve we spin!’ Far and few, far and few, Are the lands where the Jumblies live; Their heads are green, and their hands are blue, And they went to sea in a Sieve. Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” Philip Larkin 1. This quote from Larkin made me ask myself, _______ are for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth. I started to wonder how other poets might answer this. What are your daffodils? How would my favorite poets answer this? I thought that maybe New York City or painters would be for Frank O’Hara what daffodils were for Wordsworth, though it’s funnier to say that lunch is for O'Hara what daffodils were for Wordsworth. Barbies are for Denise Duhamel what daffodils were for Wordsworth, and angels could be for Rilke what daffodils were for Wordsworth. Orgasms might be my own personal daffodils, as well as Elvis and Jim and James Dean. I do love all three. Last night I dreamt of Elvis singing, Are you lonesome tonight . . . Are you worried we drifted apart, and I was, even in my sleep. I woke up thinking of the subconscious or unconscious . . . Of how the unconscious might be for Jung what lonely clouds were for Wordsworth. The penis might be for Freud what Tintern Abbey was for Wordsworth. The ground of being was for Tillich what the leap of faith was for Kierkegaard. The overman was for Neitzche what the stranger was for Camus. Or would it be Sisyphus? Today is Camus’ birthday. The New Yorker once called Camus the Don Draper of existentialism. Maybe meaninglessness was for Camus what deprivation was for Larkin . . . I read in The Paris Review that Larkin tried to make every day and every year exactly the same. 2. My mind was spinning with all of this when I talked to Nicole Santalucia who joined in to say: A ferry ride is for Whitman what daffodils were for Wordsworth. A beard is for Whitman what daffodils were for Wordsworth. Deep breathing is for Whitman what daffodils were for Wordsworth. A bulge in tight jeans is for Whitman what daffodils were for Wordsworth. A secret is for Dickinson what a pants suit is for Hillary Clinton An attic is for Dickinson what a broach is for Gertrude Stein A fly is for Dickinson what a nipple is for Gertrude Stein Stillness is for Dickinson what Picasso is for Gertrude Stein A nobody is for Dickinson what an everybody is for Gertrude Stein An apple tree is for Dickinson what a poodle is for Gertrude Stein A raindrop is for Williams what salvation is for Bradstreet A chicken is for Williams what a husband is for Bradstreet A black dress is for Maria Gillan what a paintbrush is for Frank O'Hara 3. Then David Lehman added his commentary and brilliance, writing: The irony is that Larkin's statement (which I believe I quote in a poem of mine "Desolation Row" -- it is in my "New and Selected Poems") is applicable not only to Larkin but to Wordsworth as well. In other words, for Wordsworth, too, deprivation was what daffodils were to... Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Nicole Santalucia and I were talking about po-biz, and I thought of this comic. As I told her, I don't mean to offend anyone. After all we are all in this together, needing each other's support and favors. But as Nicole put it: This is the drug, the race and chase, what the MFA machine is pumping out. The goal should be building writing communities and connections between each other instead of trying to be "the one." Can't many of us be "the ones"? There are so many good poets today and we need to stop racing one another. On the other hand, in order to get a teaching job all this stuff needs to happen and there are only so many teaching jobs . . Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
("What If You Slept" has always been one of my favorite poems.) The other day I was listening to two of my poet-friends complain bitterly about their parents. Among other things, they talked of how they wished their folks had an interest in literature. No one in their families read books. I couldn’t join in. After all, I grew up in a house of wall-to-wall books. I will never be as literate as my parents, and I owe much of what I know about poetry to my mother who read aloud from my earliest memories. I used to frustrate her to no end, asking her to stop when I liked a line or poem, and read it again. And then again. Not again? she’d say. Just one more time, I’d say. And we’d go around and around. And in my mind, later, I would play with the lines. So as a girl this poem might be: What if you slept And what if In your sleep You dreamed And what if In your dream You went to heaven And there—there was a rain shower And when you awoke, You were soaked to the bone . . . Or: And there—you discovered secret powers And when you awoke You could see through walls . . . Or: And there—your soul was made of sugar and flour And when you awoke You knew you were destined to be a baker . . . Or: And there—you climbed to the tip of God’s tower . . . And when you awoke You were still holding an angel by the finger . . . I would keep going and going. This was one of the ways I passed my time. I called this game making-and-filling-in-the-blanks. I always liked games of fill-in-the-blank. My mother said if I continued in this way, I would never remember the correct versions of poems. She was right. Continue reading
Posted Oct 26, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
After hearing about the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was reminded of my first grade class, particularly of a workbook for what was then called New Math. The workbook included pictures of sets of objects. Students were supposed to circle the object that did not belong. So one picture might include a bird, a dog, a pig, and a sandwich. The next, a fork, a spoon, a knife, and a tennis shoe. The next, a ring, a watch, a necklace, and a frog. What this had to do with math, I am still not certain. But I liked the pictures, and I loved to think up stories in which one might want to include the circled items. I would explain to Mrs. Wallace, my teacher, that a sandwich could be used to feed the bird, the dog, and the pig. A fork comes in handy if you have a knot in your shoelace. The frog, of course, might have been a prince or princess once upon a time. I was also reminded of discussions I had with the poet, Eleanor Ross Taylor, back when I was just out of college and first trying to understand the literary world. Eleanor had an acerbic wit and was unsparingly honest. Literary prizes, she suggested, are not all that you think they are. She talked at length about the different presses and literary connections and publishers one might wish to have in order to be a contender, and I remember feeling both disillusioned and discouraged. I concluded that literary success is a bit like economic success in our country. There is the top tiny %, now referred to as the 1%, and that one dreams of becoming a part of, and then there is the 99%. Eleanor also suspected that certain winners are actually compromise-candidates. It’s hard to come to a consensus, she said, adding, we writers don’t agree on many things. That was especially true for Eleanor and me. She loved to ask me who my favorite writers were, and inevitably she would tell me just how much she disliked them. About my beloved Garcia Marquez, she said, I simply cannot abide him. Of the French surrealist poets I adored in those days, she said, Really, I’d rather not get a headache. But you just tell me why I should. Once, when I showed her a poem by Russell Edson, she said, I don’t know what that is. Do you? And we both burst out laughing. Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
1. Different Ways to Say Fuck I had five eye operations as a girl. After each one, I imagined myself emerging with perfect and uncrossed eyes. I would wait anxiously for the day I could peel back the bandage. But the surgeries were never entirely successful. The doctor always suggested that I have just one more operation. These operations were complicated by my reaction to the anesthesia. The eye doctor had difficulty waking me after surgery. He once called me his Sleeping Beauty, but it was a sleep that worried him. I was sick, too, and usually confined to bed for a week or two afterwards. During that time of recovery, my mother would visit my room with a pile of old books to read aloud. She always chose volumes of myths, fairy tales, poetry, parables, or folk tales, usually antiquated books with beautiful pictures and ornate language. She read one story after another, hour after hour, as I lay, dozing, hypnotized by her beautiful reading voice. A former school teacher, she liked to ask questions about the stories. My answers, she complained, didn’t stay close to the text. I usually told her what a story reminded me of. When I was eight and recovering from my third operation, for example, my mother read me the myth of Persephone. I said the myth made me think of a fight I had had with Trig, the farmhand’s son, a fight that began when he asked, You see what those cats are doing? pointing at the mating tabbies, Tigger and Rain. People do that, too. Only they call it fucking. And one day I’m gonna’ fuck your sister, Sal. I couldn’t help it. I slugged him as hard as I could. That was the day I got my first black eye. My sister, I told my mother, was like Persephone. Only she wasn’t stolen yet. My mother blinked a few times before saying, You shouldn’t get in fights. It’s not ladylike. And then she added, Don’t ever use that word again. And you know which word I mean. If you ever tell a story like that, find another way to say that word. What other way? I asked. Think about it, she said. You’re a smart child. For every word you use, for every sentence you speak, there are many other and better words or sentences to say the same thing. For years after I thought of different ways to say fuck. *** Fucked Up In my freshman year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. I rarely talk about this. Instead I prefer to edit that year out of my life. But the fact remains; I developed what I called a stutter in my mind. I felt as if I were becoming a stuck-record, going over and over the same sentences, thoughts, and ideas. I don’t know if this experience is particularly unusual—after all, many people obsess. But it became a problem when I was writing. I would try to write... Continue reading
Posted Jun 6, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks Angela! I am so happy that you liked this piece. I was a little worried about it.
If I was bored as a child, my mother would always say, Imagine you were in jail. Think of all the things you would want to do but couldn't. Then go do them. But I would keep wondering about what life would be like behind bars. *** When I was girl, I remember driving past the jail in downtown Charlottesville. I don’t know if my memory is accurate or if I only imagined I could see men moving behind the bars—just the tops of their heads. Who’s in there? I asked my father, imagining men on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Just some fools down on their luck, he said. Do you know any of them? I asked. He just laughed. It was a reasonable question. Over the years, a few criminals worked on our farm. (My husband suggests I not elaborate for fear of former farmhands who might read my poetry.) By criminals I don’t mean the petty thieves like Charles who stole farm tools, or compulsive liars like Toby who spent most of his working hours drinking and catching snapping turtles from our mud pond, or unpredictable men like Fred who let the heifers loose on the freeway one night. No, I mean the pedophile, the drug dealer, (okay he was just a marijuana-dealer), and the man who stole a neighboring farmer’s tractor and killed his wife. (But it was a crime of passion, my parents explained, as the murderer continued to work for them for another forty years.) As far as I know, none of these men went to prison. Or if they did, it wasn’t for long. *** My parents’ friend, Betty Smith, told me once that people who lived through the depression, as she and my folks did, had grown accustomed to hiring some of the strange men who wandered up the dirt roads, seeking employment. She was visiting on the day Ernest Holmes arrived at our farm in a Yellow Cab, looking for work. Ernest claimed to be, among other things, a traveling barber. Anyone need a haircut? he asked, lifting his black bag from the cab. Intrigued, my mother said, Why yes. She selected me to be his guinea pig. Together we watched as Ernest set up shop, seating me in a folding chair, wrapping a dish towel around my neck, and placing a blue plastic a bowl on my head before cutting circles around and around the bowl, my hair getting shorter and shorter until it was shaped like a shaggy Yarmulke. My mother immediately hired him to be a cook. Cutting hair and cooking weren’t Ernest’s only skills. He also taught me to drive. And drove me and my sister all over town—to various lessons and school events. With six children in a family, someone always needed to go somewhere. After several years of working for us, Ernest was pulled over by the cops. It turned out he didn’t have a license. This experience might have upset other parents. Mine just... Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
You are too sweet! Thanks Grace!!!
Thank you so much, Jim! You have made my day. Stumble ahead I will . . .
Above is a recent self-portrait after a day of writing -- or of writing frustration. So I want to ask . . . Do you, too, hesitate before you begin a writing project? Sometimes I have an idea, but I have to wait a week or two before I can start. I scribble words on paper, alongside my grocery lists and random thoughts while I wonder, How will I ever begin? It is during this time that I think of a story about God and Adam that my mother used to tell. The story went something like this: After God made the body of man out of wet clay, He laid him in the sun to dry, but then He reconsidered his work. Not bad, He thought. But he sure could use a soul. The soul, hearing God’s words and seeing the dumpy little man, said to herself, No way I’m going into that ugly thing. She flew off and hid. (The soul, by the way, is always feminine. And always wise.) So God had to trick the soul. He sent His angels into the clay man to play divine music of exactly the kind that the soul loved. The soul, hearing the heavenly notes coming from the clay man, could not resist. She slipped inside him but could not get out again. Not as long as the man lived. The soul’s job was to make the man’s life worthy of the songs of angels. Maybe the metaphor doesn’t make sense, but I think of the empty page, the pen, the idea, the scribbled notes as the writer’s clay. To bring the music and the soul into the words, that is the problem. *** One summer, when I was a girl, a family came to live in one of the houses on our Virginia farm. I don’t remember why they came, but I remember my mother warning me, They’re Christian Scientists. I was fascinated. They taught me all about their faith. They also read Tarot card readers and palms and saw ghosts. Mrs. Butler, the mother, had a caged bird that she insisted was an angel, even after it died and lay on its feathered back, talons to the sky. She had a white toy poodle who she said could count. She would say, three, and the little dog would yap, yap, yap. She said she could talk to animals, and they would talk to me, too, if I could figure out how to listen. She had me sit in silence and listen. I was enthralled. That summer I learned how to read palms and how to tell if I was pregnant. One day I read the palms of one of the farmhands who quit immediately after my reading, telling my parents I was a witch. Mrs. Butler said I’d know when I was pregnant when a child’s soul came into my room at night. The soul would check me out before descending into life. Like a fairy or a... Continue reading
Posted May 16, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
In my last post, I compared confessional writing to snake handling and taxidermy, pointing out that taxidermy is like writing about the dead, while snake handling is like writing about the living. I left the topic of snake handling untouched, largely because I am not enthusiastic about writing about my living relatives and friends. But I recently received an email asking me to elaborate on the topic of snake handling. Really, Nin? Have you ever handled snakes? I was asked. (The short answer is not much, but the brilliant southern poet, John Lane, is a snake enthusiast, should you want to search out the writings of a snake handler. But I digress.) I thought I’d start by describing the day I first tried to hold a snake. My sister, D., had just returned from Nature Camp. It was a hot summer day, and I was so happy to see her when she announced, Snakes are really neato, Nin. (Neato was the word back then.) And they're a cinch to catch. Wanna try? I didn’t answer her. She went on to tell me about the herpetologist who was her camp counselor—how he had told her that we are never more than a few feet from a snake in Virginia. To prove his point, she reached out and grabbed a small Eastern Garter snake that was gliding into the Johnson grass by the car, and held it out to me. Grab him beneath the neck, she said. I didn’t point out that snakes don’t have necks. Instead I quickly dropped the snake and jumped back. Are you scared of a little garter snake? she asked. Not exactly, I wanted to say. But I don’t want to hold onto one. I just get this feeling . . . And that’s the feeling I have when I pick up my pen and try to write about the secrets or revealing moments of someone I know, especially someone I love or once loved. The experience makes me think of those early writing classes when everyone was trying to follow the dictum, Write what you know. Our writing material, we were informed, is all around us. You don’t need or want to imitate Poe or Whitman to be a poet. Many of us were reading Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath and using them as role models. The more distressing the material, the more applauded our poetry seemed to be. I felt as if I were trying to grab the creepy or unsavory moments from my days and hold them up for everyone to see. I remember wondering if Wordsworth had been a confessional poet, would he have defined poetry as creepiness recollected in tranquility? Or the spontaneous overflow of toxic feelings? I will always remember one of my early poetry workshops in which a woman’s poems described her boyfriend’s sexual inadequacies. The poems were graphic, and they were hard to erase from my mind. I can’t tell you whether the poems were any good or not,... Continue reading
Posted May 9, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Last winter, Nicole Santalucia, published her first book, Driving Yourself to Jail in July, a delightful chapbook full of the spunk and spirit and incredible life stories. After its arrival, Nicole wrote and asked me, How do I get my book out there? Do I have to become a little prick? No, I wrote back. You have to become a big prick. A big self-promoting prick. Since then, I have thought a lot about the pressure poets feel to promote their books. To tweet them, to Facebook them, to blog them, to Tumblr them in order to get them reviewed somewhere somehow, and to find that illusive key to success. You have to build your social platform, a media-savvy poet informed me. But how? And does it work? Especially if we are all doing it at once? And aren’t we all a little tired of the endless selfies and narcissistic posts about our latest moment in the sun? Am I the only one who feels nauseated by it all? It’s as if we are supposed to become our own personal advertising agencies, selling books as if they were common household goods. But really, who, but a handful of other poets, are our interested buyers? This isn’t Avon we’re selling. Or Tupperware. I had one editor suggest I join a church or the Y in order to find more people to buy my poetry. I am not sure whom among the reverent would purchase books like Why God Is a Woman, Spontaneous Breasts, or The Book of Orgasms, but I suppose anything is possible. I had another editor suggest I move to New York City because, well, who buys poetry books in Poland, Ohio? In New York, he said, I would meet the right people who would give me the right readings, write glowing reviews, and invite me onto the stages where real success happens. (If only such success were as simple as a move! If only I could move with a snap of my fingers!) I had another editor insist I retake my photo for the book jacket because my photograph wasn’t pretty. Should I go to Glamour Shots? I asked. He answered simply, Books by pretty women sell better. Clearly the presses are as desperate as the poets. I’ve had fellow poets show me contracts from publishers in which they have had to agree to review other poetry books by their publisher—as well as provide readings and audiences for poets published by their publisher. I have had friends tell me that that their editors have asked if they could guarantee book sales. And I, like most of my fellow poets, have filled out pages of information for my presses that might, just might help them sell my books. And afterwards, I have felt pathetic. Like a lost cause. Or an ugly teenage girl at a high school dance. I am not, alas, a social-media personality. I try from time to time, but I stink at it. I am naturally... Continue reading
Posted Oct 29, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I suppose I am the garbage collector in this tale. My mother, who will not be with us much longer I think, has been trying very hard to get rid of books. Everyone else has shown no interest. I have now a complete Shakespeare collection from the 1700s, a signed Faulkner, and a lot of very peculiar mouldering volumes. Last time we were all gathered, and my mother once again begged everyone to search the books, I made my pile, and suddenly everyone suddenly became jealous. Some of these old books are so strange, it is hard to explain their value. Language is used so differently from one century to the next, and history, too, changes--the same events told in 1900, for example, are not at all the same at all. But I do pity whoever comes after me.
The three letters, AWP, give me the willies, but I will look for these books in 2012.
I'd love to see a photo of these poppies on the the black armbands when they played their "friendly." I love that, term, "friendly," as opposed to a regular game, of what, a hostile?