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This year, my first year back in Charlottesville, Virginia, I had the opportunity to participate once again, both as a reader and an audience-member, in the annual Virginia Festival of the Book. Of all the book festivals I've ever attended, this one is my absolute favorite. It always has stellar poets and writes of all kinds, and I leave it feeling uplifted and inspired. Among my favorite readings this year was one given my Mary-Sherman Willis. Witty, smart, and entertaining, Willis mesmerized the audience as she read from her new book of translations of Jean Cocteau's prose poems, Grace Notes. I was so happy when she agreed to an interview. NA: I heard you read from Grace Notes at the New Dominion Book Shop at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, and I was enchanted both by your translations of Jean Cocteau’s prose poems and by your reading and explanations of his work. When and where did you begin translating Grace Notes? MSW: It was a very happy accident that led me to find him in the poetry section of a small bookstore in a seaside town in Normandy a few years ago. We’d been visiting friends who put us up in what was essentially a garden shed. You had to walk through the greenhouse to get to the bathroom, working your way through hanging grape vines, with slugs and centipedes climbing the walls. I thought it was magic, everything alive like in Belle’s boudoir in Cocteau’s beautiful film, La Belle et la bête—the original 1946 version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Then I spotted Appoggiatures on the shelf. I saw that they were prose poems. I don’t write prose poems, so I thought I might translate them and learn something. NA: Could you talk about the title, Appogiatures? MSW: It’s a term from opera, appoggiatura, meaning the little added note the singer inserts before the principal note, a flourish that delays the note and heightens it. In English it’s a grace note. This was Jean Cocteau’s thirteenth book of poems, published in 1953 when he was 64 years old. (He would publish 23 books of poems before his death ten years later, to add to his astonishing list of artistic works.) He’d survived two world wars. The first he’d spent “volunteering” on the Belgian front (the army had rejected him) in a uniform stitched together by a costume designer. In WWII, he was in Paris under Nazi occupation as an openly gay opium addict living with his muse, the actor Jean Maret. He was making films, writing, painting, and doing what it took to survive. By 1953, although his living circumstances were stable for the first time in his life, his health was poor and he was feeling his mortality. A wealthy divorcé had turned over her villa in St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera to him and his “adopted” lover Edouard Dermit. His work was coming smoothly and his reputation was secure. So he wrote about death... Continue reading
Posted 2 days ago at The Best American Poetry
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NA: I just finished reading your book of poetry, House of Fact, House of Ruin, and your essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, and I am, quite simply, in awe. I don’t know where to begin. There is so much to love in these books. I assume you wrote them together? TS: I wrote The Land Between Two Rivers over a decade, and House of Fact, House of Ruin over the past three or four years. But if you go back to when the first essay was written in 2007, I was also writing the poems that appear in Army Cats. So you might call Army Cats the first installment in an unofficial poetic trilogy about war, refugees, and state violence. The second part would be Station Zed, which focuses on Somali refugees in Somalia and Kenya, and on a trip to Iraq just as ISIL was beginning to establish its so-called "caliphate." But I didn't consciously set out to do this: the "music of what happens," to quote Seamus Heaney, had as much to do with it as any intention on my part. NA: In both collections you begin in war zones, or rather, countries that are in the shadow of wars. When I reflect on your poems and essays, my mind keeps returning to the image of the lizard in the opening poem of House of Fact, House of Ruin, a lizard with “eyes expressionless, giving and withholding nothing.” I would love to hear you say a few words both about that opening poem. TS: I had the poems of Tomas Tranströmer in mind when I wrote that poem. I know that sounds odd, but as I was traveling with a militia in Libya just before the country came apart in 2014, I kept seeing lizards when our little convoy would stop at evening. At a certain point in our trip, we were travelling over sand tracks in open desert country so it wasn't safe to drive at night. If we were sleeping outdoors, we'd set up camp at a watering hole where a few families might be living as herdsmen, but also running a restaurant for travellers like us. I remember watching the lizards come out in the cool of evening and feeling such admiration for them: how tough they were to be able to survive out here, how agile and quick! Plus, they were completely indifferent to human beings, and went about their business, hunting, copulating, bearing young. But they were also just a bit spooky: little dragons, you might say, who could vanish into even the smallest cracks in a cinderblock wall. And they began to take on this quality of the uncanny about them, what the Beowulf poet in Old English calls "the wyrd." And just as the poems of Tranströmer often project an air of menace and transcendence—menace as transcendence—so the lizards, at least as I remembered them when I was writing the poem, were like spirit animals who could survive anywhere—infinitely... Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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I I recently moved back to my hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia. One of the most exciting events in Charlottesville is their annual Virginia Festival of the Book. In preparation for the festival, I have been reading the books of some of the featured presenters. I thought I might interview a few of the poets that I am most looking forward to hearing read, starting with David Wojahn's collection, For the Scribe. NA: Tell me about the evolution of your latest collection, For the Scribe? How did it begin? DW: Thanks for the kind words. I’ve always considered myself an elegiac poet, but in the case of this book I wanted to break out of that mode. I’d never really had much interest in writing about “nature,” so I thought I might start there—with some animal poems, for example. But I found that the only poems of this sort that I could write were about extinct animals: passenger pigeons, Tasmanian tigers, ivory-billed woodpeckers. These poems became a series within the book, and the collection started to arrange itself around them. And so I couldn’t escape from elegy after all, despite my efforts! The intention of the book, I guess, is to find the means to move between personal losses—death of family, beloveds, and friends—and loss on a grander scale: threats to what used to be called our democratic institutions, ecological destruction, apocalypse. I also tend to arrange my books around sequences, groups of related poems, or poems in multiple sections that can run to ten or more pages. There are five such sequences in the new book, and I try to get these longer pieces to be in dialogue with the shorter lyrics. NA: I love how you make the political personal and vice versa. While eating bivalves, for example, you think of prisoners being force-fed at Guantanamo. I’m wondering if you might say a few words about your poetic intuition, your process, and this kind of weaving you so beautifully do. DW: The poets who have most inspired me over the years are figures like George Oppen, Thomas McGrath, Muriel Rukeyser, and especially Robert Lowell. These writers didn’t draw a great distinction between the personal and the ideological, and they taught me how important it is for a poem to try to navigate between the micro and the macro, the private life of the individual and a public reckoning with history and politics. Finding the means to make those two things merge and commingle is a task that feels essential to me--as a moral imperative as much as an aesthetic one. “Political” poetry that merely rants in a preaching-to-the-choir way simply bores me; so does autobiographical poetry that doesn’t seek to find some respite from mere self-disclosure. But when these two intentions can come together, can alchemize into a third thing, then the poem has a chance to avoid agit-prop on the one hand, navel-gazing on the other. NA: I had to laugh out loud when I started reading “Nineteen Eleven... Continue reading
Posted Feb 27, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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I know--it's a funny question, but it first occurred to me when I was getting my MFA at Vermont College, and my beautiful friend, Alicia, with her long, wavy golden hair (I mean, she's one of the most gorgeous women I have ever met) went out on the town one night with some famous visiting poets, and when she came back, she was horrified. "The poets!" she said. "They were such creeps!" She added that she thought, after reading their work, that they would be "like angels." I told her how, before I went to church, I thought Christians were, well, Christian. "Wow, you really are out of touch!" she laughed. "What planet did you grow up on?" I have often wondered: how far we are from the message or story or image we send into the world? Of course, fiction writers aren't held up to the same standard as poets. We don't expect Stephen King to be a psycho-murderer. But poets are often equated with the work they create. Maybe it's a problem of the the first-person in poetry. Am I really the I in my confessional poems? Are you? Yes or no, we create a certain kind of expectation. After all, I think readers like to identify with writers in one way or another. It's that kind of identification I wonder at. I wonder about it with cities, too. Because I think of places as stories, as personalities, and I travel to them with certain expectations. When I was moving back to Charlottesville, the story I read about it was of a lovely, exciting, liberal University town. I was relieved to think it had changed so much from the Charlottesville I grew up in, which was a stunningly beautiful but racist, sleepy, southern town, much like the fictional Lessington, Virginia I wrote about in Miss August. But then, last summer there was that horrific White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville. And since I've moved, many have written me to ask what it's like here. Is Charlottesville a racist city? How is the town coping with what happened? Do people talk about the tragedy? I don't know the answers, but from what I have read in the Heaphy Report, the story is both beyond upsetting and it's ongoing. In the aftermath of the event, many of the counter-protesters are being sued, and until a week ago, there were plans for another Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of 2018. The protesters, as one friend explained it, have learned to tell a legally defensible story. They have figured out how to situate themselves on the right side of the law. And how to frame the story in their favor. And our dear President has joined them in that effort. Is that even possible? I am still just dumbstruck by the whole thing. But it brings me to my last point, or the last thing rambling around in my brain today . . . In his recent article in the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 19, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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This is the fifth in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those whom I call star-makers, meaning those who help make others’ literary lives possible, and sometimes wonderful. I don't know of anyone who gives as much to other writers and poets as Grace Cavalieri. I am so looking forward to reading her next book, due out next fall . . . Every now and then I come across someone who does it all, and I think, How does this woman sleep? Grace Cavelieri is one of those people. Every few days I receive an email from her including a recent interview, podcast or feature on a poet or artist, or a set of book reviews, recently published in The Washington Independent Review of Books. I am just so grateful every time I hear from her. She is the embodiment of the gift horse that never stops giving. After all, there are so few good reviewers these days, and even fewer as dedicated as she is to promoting poetry as a part of her daily life. Recent reviews by Cavalieri from Washington Independent Review of Books can be found here. Podcasts of her interviews, The Poet and the Poem” can be found here. Whatever Grace Cavalieri does, she does with brilliance--and great love. Whenever I read her work or hear her interviews, I feel briefly enlightened and uplifted. There is always a kind of laughter and/or delight in her words, whether written or spoken. Not surprisingly, her own poems are insightful, personal, deeply imagined, and entertaining. A natural playwright, she has turned some of her poems into plays. I think her beautiful poem, “Letters,” from her collection, The Mandate of Heaven, speaks of her particular gift—of how and perhaps why she writes. Cavalieri is a poet who tells stories in verse that are the very stories that we’re not finished with. LETTERS If you ask what bring us here, Staring out of our lives Like animals in high grass, I’d say it was what we had in common with the other—the hum of a song we believe in which can’t be heard, the sound of our own luminous bodies rising just behind the hill, the dream of a light which won’t go out, and a story we’re not finished with. We talk of things we cannot comprehend so that you’ll know about the inner and outer world which are the same. Someone has to be with us in this, and if you are, then, you know us best. And I mean all of us, the deer who leaves his marks behind him in the snow, the red fox moving through the woods. The same stream in them is in us too although we are the chosen ones who speak. Please tell me what you think cannot be sold And I will say that’s all there is: the pain in our lives . . . the thoughts we have . . . We bring these... Continue reading
Posted Mar 30, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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This is the fourth in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those who help make others’ literary lives possible, and sometimes even wonderful. Yesterday I talked about Danny Lawless, the editor of Plume. Danny Lawless’s partner in crime, co-editor, Marc Vincenz, is nothing short of a literary phenomenon. Born in Hong Kong to British-Swiss parents, he has lived in so many countries and languages, I wonder what language he dreams in. And which poets from around the world have been his primary influences. What language holds his music? A translator of many German-language poets, his translation of Klaus Merz's collection, Unexpected Development, was a finalist for the 2015 Cliff Becker Book Translation Prize and is forthcoming from White Pine Press next year. As a poet, not surprisingly, he is a man of many voices. His poems have a mythic and otherworldly quality, and seem to travel to other realms, far beyond expected and easily inhabited definitions. One senses mystical influences, as if he is seeking nothing less than to capture “the song of the world” or “the rapture of being alive,” in spite of inherent dualities. Yet, there is something both spellbinding and intimate in his work. He is also a deeply relevant and committed poet, with poems addressing the environmental demise of our planet. Whether ecstatic or despairing, witty or wild, his poems have a unique lyricism and vision. His poem, “Damaged Music,” for example, addresses both his environmental concerns and his spiritual longing. Damaged Music Ache in the old wisdom tooth, an experience of self-fulfilling prophecy, a damaged music and acres of elephant bones. Here we go: Another evening of cold fiction, the starved ghosts of ancient citadels. I wish I might breathe sparrows into the sky or wind-weather the wild grass. I yearn for the smell of day in spring, for a language without words. May I one day climb out of that honeycomb of life and enter another world where there are no numbers to contain all of this, and the smooth, bloody thickness of oil flows into the smut of an ever-endless sky. One of my favorite Marc Vincenz poems is this beautiful poem, “Cassandra Knows How to Die of Beauty” in which he echoes Emily Dickinson: Cassandra Knows How to Die of Beauty Who knows what it’s like to be dead when we incessantly chatter between rooms? The name, love, is crossed out. Oh to write letter after letter belaboring a fruitless cause. A letter, of course, seems like immortality. So I thought I'd ask Marc a few questions. Marc, I wondered if you would answer some of my early questions, such as: what language do you dream in? What poets have influenced you? The language of dreams. A good question, Nin. I’m not sure; do we dream in a specific language? Certainly I have had conversations in my dreams in several languages: English, German, Spanish, Chinese and a smattering of poor Icelandic, but whether the dream is... Continue reading
Posted Mar 29, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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This is the third in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those whom I call star-makers, meaning those who help make others’ literary lives possible, and sometimes even wonderful. It goes without saying that every poet is dependent on his or her editors. I’ve been amazed the few times I have guest-edited a magazine or helped judge a book contest—at just how much time and worry goes into the process. And most poetry editors do it for free. A year or two ago, when I was guest editing an issue of Poets/Artists, I wrote what I thought was a nice rejection letter to an aspiring poet. His poems were in the “almost” category, and I wanted to let him know how much I had enjoyed reading his work. I sent off what I thought was a kind email, and received back an outraged response. Who the eff do you think you are, Nin Andrews? Well, I’ll tell you who you are . . . Over the next few weeks, I received a barrage of hateful and threatening emails from this poet. It occurred to me then that there is no such thing as a “nice rejection letter.” It also occurred to me that form letters have their place in the world. I was reminded of a friend who told me that David Lehman hated her. She just knew that was why she was never in Best American Poetry. Another poet told me that he would never get published in Poetry for the same reason. The editor, whom he had met briefly, had no respect for him. It seems that editors, despite their good intentions, despite everything they do for us poets and writers, are often objects of blame and rage. Yet many editors are nothing short of self-sacrificing. While they are busy championing others, they often fail to champion themselves. I don’t know of a poet as self-effacing as Danny Lawless, for example, who is the editor of the wonderful online magazine, Plume, and of the series of books and chapbooks published by MadHat Press. He and his brilliant co-editor, Marc Vincenz, are two of my favorite editors to date. But when I suggested I interview Danny for this series on the star-makers of the poetry world, Danny immediately tried to bow out. In my opinion, Danny Lawless is not only a great editor, he is also a unique and talented poet. Whether writing of his Catholic background, of his great grandmother’s backyard cremation or of his brother’s mental breakdown or his sister’s death, Lawless writes with emotional control, honesty, dark wit, and a clear eye for detail. His poems are at once witty and sad, profound and moving. The title poem of his forthcoming book, “The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With,” first published in The Cortland Review, is nothing short of breath-taking. I don’t think I need to do more than post it here and point out that it has already received... Continue reading
Posted Mar 28, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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This is the second in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those who help make others’ literary lives possible---and even wonderful at times. Another woman to whom I and many writers owe a great deal of gratitude is the British author and former bookseller, Jen Campbell, who spends a part of her days talking about all things literary and promoting books and writers on her popular YOUTUBE channel. She is at once witty, charming, brilliant, and inspiring. Listening to her explain anything from a fairytale to a poetry book to a novel to various aspects of the writer’s life is both fun and enlightening. But be forewarned. Jen Campbell can be addictive. I have binge-watched her on occasion. She is my favorite virtual bookshop-stop. An award-winning poet and writer in her own right, Jen Campbell has written several books including The Bookshop Book, which reads is like an ode to bookshops around the globe. In it, she describes 300 bookshops on six continents and includes insights from famous authors about their love of books and book stores. In her section on the United States, she quotes Tracy Chevalier suggesting that the ideal bookshop might have chocolates, hidden among the books. (I’m all for that!) And Bill Bryson describes the literary discoveries one has in a bookshop--that ability to find “books that are forgotten classics, or books that didn’t get the chance to be classics because they weren’t discovered properly.” I think that is exactly why bookshops are so necessary. So many great books never get their moment in the sun, and with the Amazon take-over, how are we to discover them? Her book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, is delightful and funny and sometimes a bit shocking. Made up entirely made of quotes of things people say in bookshops, the book reminds me of some of the more humorous moments spent working at the New Dominion Bookshop (which I posted about last Friday.) A few examples: Customer: I’m looking for some books on my kid’s summer reading list. Do you have Tequila Mockingbird? Customer: Excuse me, do you have Flowers for Arugula? Customer: Excuse me, do you have Fiddler on a Hot Tin Roof? But the scariest one was this one: Customer: Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel? Bookseller: . . . Customer: I really enjoyed her first book. Bookseller: Her diary? Customer: Yes, her diary. Bookseller: Her diary wasn’t fictional. Customer: Really? Bookseller: Yes . . . She really dies at the end—that’s why the diary finishes. She was taken to a concentration camp. Customer: Oh . . . that’s terrible. Bookseller: Yes, it was awful. Customer: I mean, what a shame, you know? She was such a good writer. I am so looking forward to Jen Campbell’s forthcoming books, a children’s book, Franklin’s Flying Bookshop, and her collection of short stories, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night. NA: I... Continue reading
Posted Mar 27, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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As I stated in my previous post, I am going to be doing a series of blog posts in honor of those who help make others’ literary lives possible, and even wonderful at times. I was going to wait until next week to start the series, but then I realized that the Virginia Festival of the Book is happening now. I thought of Carol Troxell, the former owner of the independent shop, The New Dominion Bookshop, in Charlottesville, Virginia, who died last winter and who helped to establish the Festival. Last January, on one of those typical drab winter mornings, I received a cryptic email from my friend, Anne Marie Slaughter, informing me that Carol Troxell had died unexpectedly. I was stunned. Carol was such a special woman. She was also a special kind of bookseller. The New Dominion Bookshop was (and still is, at least for now) a unique bookshop—one of those rare shops that serves as an ideal landing place for book lovers. The section for poetry is huge, and is in the front of the store, not tucked away in some dark, depressing basement or backroom. It’s such a dream to browse the books there, to spend hours going over the works of poets whose names I hear but can never find in book stores anymore. I have discovered so many poets on the New Dominion's shelves, some who have not been lucky enough to be reviewed or otherwise recognized. I discovered Amy Gerstler there, long before she had won any awards. (I will have to do an I LOVE AMY post at a later date.) In addition to displaying a vast collection of books (and not just poetry books, of course, though those are all poetry books in the photo to the right), Carol was a great promoter of poets and writers, regularly hosting readings and book signings, and, as I said in the opening, playing a large role in the Virginia Festival of the Book. Carol and I go back to the 1970’s, back before she took ownership of the bookshop, when I was in ninth grade, and Anne Marie and I worked at the shop after school. We spent many hours laughing and discussing literature with Carol when we weren't helping customers. Carol had this amazing knack for finding the perfect book for just about anyone. Including me. I still remember the hot June afternoon when she took a slender volume off the shelf and said, I bet you would like this book, Nin! (She always said my name as if it had an exclamation mark after it.) The book was Gestures by Yannis Ristos, a poetry collection I am still in love with. How did she know I would love it? It wasn’t just an ordinary love either. At home I copied Ritsos poems over and over in loopy script, drawing little flowers and cartoons in the margins. I told Carol I wanted to become a poet just like Yannis Ritsos. Never mind... Continue reading
Posted Mar 24, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Lately I’ve been thinking about how my father used to say, There’s no such thing as the self-made man. Think about it. It was one of my father’s ongoing arguments with the world, with American optimism, and with the whole idea that anyone can succeed if he or she works hard enough. (My father grew up during the Depression. And, as he put it, his own father lost his shirt. As a young girl I always pictured my grandfather shirtless.) My mother would simply roll her eyes once Dad got started. And I would think of one of my favorite books, Harold and the Purple Crayon, which I re-titled, Harold and the Purple Wand. Harold is self-made, I would say. Harold can draw the world and make it into anything he wants because he has a purple wand. (Was I the only one that noticed it wasn’t a crayon Harold held?) Alone in my room, I daydreamed about what I would do with a purple wand. I drew endless pictures in purple. Sometimes I imagined making myself into a girl with wings. (Who doesn’t want to fly?) Other times a star. My father, an artist and architect, took great interest in my artwork. But he wasn’t a fan of the Harold stories, or of my purple sketches. I would try to shield my paper to keep him away. Once, he pointed out that even Harold didn’t make himself into a star. He could only draw stars. Or make others into stars. (He was, back then, a bit too philosophical for my child-mind.) In spite of his criticism, I spent days drawing purple girls, imagining myself as a kind of Haroldina, who wore glasses just as I did, but who lived in a world I could only dream of. As an architect, my father took on many apprentices in his day. He spent hours both going over their blueprints and introducing them to builders and potential clients. He told me once that he never felt fully credited or thanked for his help. After his funeral, one of the architects he trained told me what a pain-in-the-ass my dad was. Without asking, my father would correct his blueprints, and he never thought anything anyone else drew was quite right. But his influence, this man added, is still present in all that he designs. And if he had not had him as a teacher, he would not have become the architect he is today. I think of my father when I think of all the people who have helped me and other poets and writers, all of those who are the bearers of purple wands in the literary world, who have made others into stars, who have changed the career paths of other poets and writers, often without bringing much attention to themselves. I am thinking of reviewers, editors, anthologists, book sellers, interviewers, translators, social media divas, those who run reading series, and all those that buy books, or who take the time... Continue reading
Posted Mar 23, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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Recently I was asked by a young poet what I thought of poetry readings. Do I enjoy giving them? she asked. She was looking for advice, worrying about giving a reading for her forthcoming debut collection. Yes, I said after some hesitation, but I don’t think I was entirely convincing. There are, after all, many kinds of poetry readings. On the downside, there are those readings at bookstores where the microphone is next to the cappuccino machine. And the readings at bars where you’re competing, not just with drunks, but also with a jukebox and sporting events like March Madness. There is also the much-desired poetry reading at a university where you are getting paid a nice check, which seems a miracle in and of itself, but then, it turns out that Bruce Springteen is invited to play on the same evening you’re reading. So you end up standing up in front of a single apologetic professor, a miserable handful of English students who are desperate for extra credit, and rows and rows of aluminum chairs. But is it worth it? my young poet-friend asked. Do you enjoy going to readings? Again I hesitated, thinking of Koch’s poem, “ Fresh Air.” Ah, poets, I thought. There are so many wonderful poets who give great readings, and often for little pay or for free. Some I personally prefer to Springsteen. But then of course, there are the poets who don’t read very well, or worse, who give poetry readings a bad name. Fellow poets talk about them in low voices, afraid that their demands and bad habits might be contagious. After all, we poets need to keep our reputations clean. We lean close to hear about the award-winning poet who was flown from a distant coast, at great expense, but refused to read more than three poems. Or the other one, equally famous, who always refused to dine or meet with students. Or yet another, who might be compared to the princess and the pea—no matter what accommodations were found, they were never good enough. And of course there are the tales of the famous poets like Dylan Thomas, who arrived so drunk to one reading, he almost fell off the stage. I know, I probably shouldn’t talk of such things in a public place like this. Because those are the exceptions. I have attended so many amazing poetry readings . . . readings by the likes of Tim Seibles, Denise Duhamel, Mark Halliday, Jill Allyn Rosser, Naomi Shihab Nye, Claire Bateman, David Lehman, and I could go on. I remember one hysterical readings at the University of Virginia, back in 1981, where Charles Simic and James Tate read together. Tate, wonderful James Tate, burst into laughter, tears streaming down his face. Simic had to complete the reading for him. The only thing as entertaining, I think, was listening to Jennifer Knox read “Chicken Bucket.” I would add that Jennifer Knox reading anything is a delight. And now I am thinking... Continue reading
Posted Mar 14, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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 dantedistefano@gmail.com. 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
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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
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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
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“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:: The irony is that Larkin's statement (which I quote in my poem "Desolation Row") is applicable not only to Larkin but to Wordsworth as well. In other words, for Wordsworth, too, deprivation was what daffodils were to the character who sees them in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." These are the crucial... Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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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
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("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
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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