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A Poem Is a Place I Go (Lea Graham)
Now look around your tiny room/ and tell me you haven't got the power. From Paul Farley's The Dark Film The places and circumstances of certain poem readings have stayed with me through the years. The first time I encountered William Carlos Williams’ plums and icebox, I was sitting on the floor of the old (now replaced) Fayetteville High School hallway near my locker (pure fifteen year old angst!). I remember Dickinson’s “If you were coming in the fall/ I’d pass the summer by” in Miss Eddy’s tenth grade English class. I will always associate the New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Barbara Guest and James Schuyler) with the 1970s architecture of the University of Illinois-Chicago because that’s where I was introduced. On Martha’s Vineyard one January, in a borrowed trailer-turned-apartment of a photographer friend, the disembodied voice of the Canadian writer, Robert Kroetsch, is called up for me along with his Snowbird Poems. Another Canadian, rob mclennan, whose book, Paper Hotel, companioned me one summer when I bartended at the Hotel Vernon in Worcester, Massachusetts. From Providence to Chicago, I sat on a plane memorizing from Garcia Lorca’s Cante Jondo. I’m convinced that if you’re in this business of poems, the experience of firsts or those moments of deep reading stay with you like any other significant relationship. You remember where you met them and what they wore and the wood smoke in the air just off of Taylor Street that October. This week I’ve mostly been writing and asking questions about the geographic nature of place and the names that evoke them. As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been trying to connect or subsume my relationship with these geographies to poetry. My favorite poems call up places, but not necessarily geographic ones. I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is that feels like a poetic place to retreat or return, to indulge in, to argue and turn away from the tiresome self, to dance and sing and drink boxed wine, to meditate and live within what seems like the last privacy. A few books that I go to as places familiar: Robert Kroetsch’s The Sad Phoenician with ditches of space between its poly-syndetons and lines of retractions, plays on cliché, threads of stories and the tortured humor of the writing self and of writing itself: but I keep my trap shut, I was dealt a tough mitt and any port in the storm they say: the dreamer, himself: lurching, leaping, flying; o to be mere gerund; no past, no future,: What do you do in life: I ing (15) Or Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend that embraces the American landscape and history and rolls it back to us—from west to east—like a very smart, intricate rug that you can dance on: I took them with me, though I went alone Into the Christmas dark of the woods and down The whistling slope of the coulee, past the Indian graves Alive and flickering with...
Posted Mar 15, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
The Rivers Between Us: A Conversation Beginning in the Hudson River Valley with Claire Hero (Lea Graham)
The writer, Claire Hero, and I are neighbors here in the Mid-Hudson River Valley. I live in Poughkeepsie and she, across the river, in Esopus. We are also both transplants to the area. We thought it would be interesting to begin a conversation about our sense of the river valley and see where it took us. We were curious to find out how or if it had influence in our current writings. You’ll find New York’s Hudson here, but our talk moves out to New Zealand, Northwest Arkansas, Minnesota, Chicago and Worcester, Massachusetts. We hope you’ll enjoy the ranging and exploratory nature of our talk as much as we did. Claire Hero is the author of the chapbook, Dollyland (Tarpaulin Sky); Sing, Mongrel (Noemi Press) and two other chapbooks: afterpastures (Caketrain) and Cabinet (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Handsome and elsewhere. *** LG: I have been thinking a lot about how much I love the Hudson—and the trains that come with it and how it ties me to my home geography on the Arkansas, but how so often I feel daunted by all that the Hudson River brings--the historical significance of it (the Half Moon, the Hudson River School of Painters, etc.) and the enormity of its geographical properties (the estuary itself and the canyons that exist within it). Sometimes the information bundles that come with the river and this valley sort of stun me in my writing. Btw, I like the notion of the frozen river between us! We are neighbors, for sure, but the river as some kind of division or organizing line is interesting. I always love how people say to me: "Oh...you really need to move to this side of the river." What they mean is the political left-ness of the communities to the west of the river, but they use "this side of the river" as a metaphor to talk about it. How does this particular geography affect you? CH: Stuns, yes. The Hudson River Valley reminds me so much of New Zealand. In part this is due to the silencing factor of the landscape. What is there to say about the sublime? But I also like the Hudson Valley, I think, because it has always been a shipping lane. A thoroughfare. The means of exploration. It's like a poetic line. LG: Yes, the sublime.... I think in some ways for me, the Hudson River Valley reminds me of a grander version of the Arkansas River Valley, partly where I grew up and where my paternal side of the family is from (originally, store owners and cotton farmers in the bottoms). We just didn't have that sense of grandeur. I mean Arkansas is, after all, considered--or at least for me in my childhood—part of the raffish edges of America! So in so many ways, it is easier to see it without the grandeur of early U.S. history and the connection to the ocean (hence,...
Posted Mar 14, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Proper Names: Against the World’s Welter, Mystery Containers (Lea Graham)
In Billings, Montana my grandfather—a handsome young guy from Fayetteville, Arkansas—worked as a baker in a basement with a window that looked out onto a main street. This was the Great Depression. From there, each morning, he could see the legs of passersby, and from there he picked out the legs of my grandmother on her way to nurses’ training. The story goes on to include her jilted fiancé, a whistle or catcall (not quite sure which), the strategic pink bathing suit tossed over her shoulder as she walked down that same street and a decision to wed that took about 24 hours. I love this story for the specific place and perspective which tells me about these people, my family before they were my family. Billings, Montana helps me call into place a place I’ve never been. It helps me, in the words of Yi-Fu Tuan, “render the invisible, visible, …impart a certain character to things” (qtd. in Cresswell 98). Our grandparents and parents—all of those people who came before us—are, in part, a mystery. They knew the world before us. They were, at least, slightly different people before we came along. The fixture of proper names helps make visible that world we never knew. In his essay, “The Reach of Place/To Reach in Place/Places Reaching,” the poet, Michael Anania, tells us: Places, those areas of collective perception we have names for (home, the playground, Omaha, Chicago, Texas, The West) are conventions through which we offer a kind of stability to the world’s welter, even though our experience of places is, as much as anything, about change. “You know, when I was a kid, the city ended here, and that,” you gesture toward an expense of highways, shopping malls and office buildings, “was cornfields.” And the names that hold these conventions together are as certain and arbitrary as myth and as essential, though they are in general, but especially in America, the record of one or another kind of political, economic or cultural ascendency. To the winner goes the naming. While Billings was named after the president of the Pacific Northwest Railroad, Frederick H. Billings, the English name is rooted in the word “sword.” Given the history of westward expansion and the indigenous peoples of the area, the name is indicative of “the winner.” To complicate things and reveal our American complexity, Montana is derived from the Spanish montaña, mountain. Names: The Crow Nation, Benjamin F. Harding, Pompey’s Pillar, Beartooth Highway, Montaña del Norte. Proper names work like mailboxes, according to the philosopher, Saul Kripke. You may have visited Billings, Montana and so what you know of it—its restaurants, the light in the evening, the fact you lost your wallet there, its geographic expanse— all gets sent to the name. Now that I’ve told you the story of my grandparents’ courtship and of the etymology of its names, you have other associations that all add to what you already know. The name becomes, as Anania says, “a kind of...
Posted Mar 12, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Among the Post-Holes and Potsherds and Grave Goods: An Interview with John Glenday (Lea Graham)
I first met John Glenday in person while walking a portion of the Great Glen Way from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit, Scotland in 2012. We had only a single mutual friend and poetry in common as way of introduction. After walking the fourteen miles along the gorse-studded trail, above the Loch Ness, I arrived to the Glenday household where John and his wife, Erika, had already prepared a sign that captured their lovely and playful hospitality: Quiet--American Poet Sleeping. What followed were several days of lively and thoughtful conversation about poetry, place and our political landscapes. One of the many things that intrigued me in our conversation was the different sense of inhabiting land. I have long thought about the way in which particular geography and language intersect. John Glenday, as you will see, thinks seriously about this intersection without allowing it to limit his poetic range. John Glenday was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1952. He is the author of three books of poems, the most recent, Grain (Picador, 2009) which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for both the Ted Hughes Award and Griffin International Poetry Prize. His second collection, Undark, was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His first book, The Apple Ghost, won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1989. He was appointed Scottish/Canadian Exchange Fellow for 1990-91, based at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. He lives with his lovely wife, Erika, and their children in Drumnadrochit in the Scottish Highlands. *** LG: To begin with a rather wide-ranging question: What kind of connection do you see between place and poetry? Could you talk a bit about the link between your home geography and language? Has the knowledge of your family residing in the same area for over 800 years had any impact on your writing? JG: Poetry holds on to a place in the same way a plant does – it takes nourishment from the land it was rooted in – what else can keep a poem alive? But when I talk about place, it is irrespective of time. So for me the poem is also an archaeological examination – it digs down among the post-holes and potsherds and grave goods for evidence of how life was once lived. What else is poetry about? The fact that my name has been associated with the Scottish county of Angus for generations and generations accentuates this for me. It tells me that whatever I write casts a long shadow. But I am not territorial in my writing, so I’ve happily adopted Scottish Islands, mythology, non-existent places. They’re all grist to the mill. One of my earliest poems ‘The Apple Ghost’ is a simple description of a house in Nairn, Scotland, as I saw it at the time. The narrative of the poem was inherent in that house. All I needed to do was write it down. *** The Apple Ghost A musty smell of dampness filled the room Where wrinkled green and yellow apples lay...
Posted Mar 11, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
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