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Words Inside My Wife's Head [by Karen Chase]
My husband Paul and I are having dinner at a local Indian restaurant, drinking our oversized Flying Horse beer and eating our eggplant with tamarind. “Name ten poets you care most about,” he says. He never asks me things like that nor do I think that way. I start to answer – this one, that one, no this one, no. Dante definitely. Sappho for sure. I have to think about his unusual request – why was he asking anyway? - so I mull it over for a few days, then hand him a list. I stick with my long-time-ago favorites. He looks it over, then asks, what are your favorite lines of each of them? Again, days pass. Again, I hand him a list. I heard wind flaking sapphire. Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan? Holy! Holy! Holy! Paul’s a painter. He never said why he wanted this information. A few weeks later he tells me that he has been working on a new painting – did I want to come see it at his studio? And there’s another Indian restaurant of the ground floor of his studio building, so that means another Indian lunch Here’s what he made from that list! The large painting is called Words Inside My Wife’s Head. Note how it is color-coded! His name is Paul Graubard. Tacked on a wall in his studio is a copy of Frank O’Hara’s poem WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER which I had recently given him. I am not a painter, I am a poet. Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Well, for instance, Mike Goldberg is starting a painting. I drop in. “Sit down and have a drink” he says. I drink; we drink. I look up. “You have SARDINES in it.” “Yes, it needed something there.” “Oh.” I go and the days go by and I drop in again. The painting is going on, and I go, and the days go by. I drop in. The painting is finished. “Where’s SARDINES?” All that’s left is just letters, “It was too much,” Mike says. But me? One day I am thinking of a color: orange. I write a line about orange. Pretty soon it is a whole page of words., not lines. Then another page. There should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life. Days go by. It is even in prose, I am a real poet. My poem is finished and I haven’t mentioned orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES. Jeffrey Harrison wrote a longish poem, ALICE NEEL’S SOIREE after going to a Neel exhibit, in which he pictures a party she threw. She’s naked almost until the end, as are lots of people there including Frank O’Hara. ….Alice waddles through the room, holding a paintbrush like a wand, or as if she were the...
Posted Nov 20, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
JAMALI and KAMALI in History [by Karen Chase]
Here’s a story about how imagination and history get mixed up. Jamali was a 16th century Sufi court poet who lived in Delhi. According to Delhi’s oral tradition, he had a male lover named Kamali, although no-one knows who Kamali was. For nearly 500 years, this story has traveled down from generation to generation. I stumbled upon these characters while I was in Delhi for a writing residency. One week after I had arrived, the residents were told that later that day, we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance. We traipsed alongside a river full of plastic trash, climbed through hills of brush, climbed over unrestored ruins and arrived on top of a hill where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. A brand new sign at its entrance informed visitors that the Tomb held the remains of Jamali, a 16th century Sufi Court Poet and Kamali, whose identity, the sign said, was unknown. The small tomb’s intimacy was stunning. Looking at the two white marble graves, the conservator of the restoration explained who Jamali was, then said, “It is believed, through oral tradition, that Kamali was his homosexual lover.” “What?” I blurted out, “But….the new sign out front says his identity was unknown.” Jarred by that fractured moment, when I returned to my Delhi desk, I began to write as if I were Jamali speaking to Kamali. The sound of their imaginary voices propelled me forward. I had neither plan, nor goal. Seeing the beauty of their graves, hearing the tale that had been passed down, spurred me on to invent a story of love, sex, separation and death. It is not based on any historical record – there isn’t one. I went back to India in 2011 to celebrate the book’s publication bringing Jamali-Kamali to the Jaipur Literary Festival. Bipin Shah, of Mapin Publishing, arranged the Delhi book launch. To our amazement, the moderator scolded me. How dare I take on these historical figures and record my imaginings? The audience argued like a bunch of eloquent, intense debaters. I argued my case for the imagination, then read. Jamali and Kamali’s voices filled the room. Later that night, I remembered Salman Rushdie’s words: A poet’s work is to name the unnameable…to shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. One day, months later, I looked up my Jamali-Kamali book title to see what was happening with it. I ended up on an Indian website, a travel portal to Delhi. I was reading about the historical monument, the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb - which subway to take for your visit – opens at sunrise - closes at sunset - Thai restaurant nearby. Then I was shocked to read: Jamali Kamali offers a fine piece of structural design and a fascinating story behind it. Forlorn Love After his death in 1535, Jamali was buried in his tomb alongside Kamali. Very few are aware...
Posted Nov 19, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
I Wish You Could Smell This [by Karen Chase]
When I smelled a gardenia, I thought I wish you could smell this. Then, while looking at light on the wide face of a sunflower, I thought I wish you could see this right now. The sun moved within a couple of minutes and the alive light was gone, so right now mattered. Showing sensual urgency spurs me to write sometimes. And you? Here's half a poem by Olena Kalytiak Davis related to this thought: sweet reader, flanneled and tulled Reader unmov’d and Reader unshaken, Reader unseduc’d and unterrified, through the long-loud and the sweet-still I creep toward you. Toward you, I thistle and I climb. I crawl, Reader, servile and cervine, through this blank season, counting—I sleep and I sleep. I sleep, Reader, toward you, loud as a cloud and deaf, Reader, deaf as a leaf. Reader: Why don’t you turn pale? and, Why don’t you tremble? Jaded, staid Reader, You—who can read this and not even flinch. Bare-faced, flint-hearted, recoilless Reader, dare you—Rare Reader, listen and be convinced: Soon, Reader, soon you will leave me, for an italian mistress: for her dark hair, and her moon-lit teeth. For her leopardi and her cavalcanti, for her lips and clavicles; for what you want to eat, eat, eat. Art-lover, rector, docent! Do I smile? I, too, once had a brash artless feeder: his eye set firm on my slackening sky. He was true! He was thief! In the celestial sense he provided some, some, some (much-needed) relief. Reader much-slept with, and Reader I will die without touching, You, Reader, You: mr. small- weed, mr. broad-cloth, mr. long-dark-day. And the italian mis- fortune you will heave me for, for her dark hair and her moonlit-teeth. You will love her well in- to three-or-four cities, and then, you will slowly sink. Reader, I will never forgive you, but not, poor cock-sure Reader, not, for what you think. O, Reader Sweet! and Reader Strange! Reader Deaf and Reader When I first met Olena, she was at the MacDowell Colony sitting in an Adirondack chair with a hefty stack of books on the chair arm. When I asked her if she was going to read all those books, she said ”Yes! I read to write.” Here’s how her poem ends: …..Would I could, stead-fast, gracilefacile Reader! Last, good Reader, tarry with me, jessa-mine Reader. Dar- (jee)ling, bide! Bide, Reader, tired, and stay, stay, stray Reader, true. R.: I had been secretly hoping this would turn into a love poem. Disconsolate. Illiterate. Reader, I have cleared this space for you, for you, for you.
Posted Nov 18, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
FA FA FA FA FA FA FA FA FA and the DISTRAUGHT BIRDS [by Karen Chase]
Early morning drive near where I live up Mount Greylock, tallest mountain in Massachusetts, on a windy astounding Civilian Conservation Core road – thank you Mister Roosevelt – thinking how moments come and go and words can’t capture each one. On the way up the mountain, the early light lit up the yellow-leaved autumn trees, then driving down, the unlit trees were a totally different sight. Changing light is the least of it! Words – you ingrates. Words – you measly things - put on your gloves and let’s have a fair fight. The confluence of all and each thing all at once each moment – light, sound, people, history, fact, weather - the list has no end – it’s barely possible to say anything thoroughly true. Thank god for sound – it can do better than words. Thank you, Otis Redding, you’ve been dead so long, but not your sound. Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa I keep singing them sad, sad songs, y'all Sad songs is all I know While sitting outside in my backyard a couple of months ago, I heard a sad song - more opera than song – a dramatic story, the arias sung by two birds. First I heard scratching, inside the end of the covered gutter that runs along the roof of my house. A grown bird, I didn't register what kind, flew into the end of the gutter, disappeared inside. More scratching -- had baby birds hatched in an ill-positioned nest? The grown bird began to fly in and out of the gutter’s end. In and out, in and out. Sounds of distress began, then intensified. A second grown bird arrived and landed on the green roof of the outbuilding. The two birds began singing, if you can call it that, to each other. One bird on the peak of the green roof and the other on top of the gutter alternated making screeching sounds to one another. Their duet turned hysterical. This went on for seemed like a long time. Then the scratching inside the gutter quieted down and stopped. Finally both birds flew off. Silence. A bit of time elapsed. Soon one of them returned, flew close by the gutter, circled and landed on it. All quiet now. The bird flew away. Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa.
Posted Nov 17, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Ship Ahoy [by Karen Chase]
Hi Everyone, thanks for tuning in and thanks Stacey for having me on board. For the next few days I’ll be writing in one way or another about words/sounds and history/imagination. I’ll start with my personal story about the messiness between fact and fiction. As a tiny girl, my mother took me on the train from the suburbs of New York into the city where I took painting lessons in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum. I loved to paint pictures in my head. When I was ten years old, polio struck. I was shocked to be immobilized, first by the deadening effect of polio and later by an enormous body cast. As my body was losing motion, my mind was painting. I remember lying inert in my hospital bed, focused on the dots of the hospital ceiling tiles. I pretended they were all kinds of animals on the move - bears, camels, foxes on parade. With the help of my pal, my imagination, I joked around on the hospital ward, making life not only bearable but fun. Looking monster-like in my full-length body cast, I wrote a letter to the Barbizon School of Modeling, asking whether I could become a model. Here’s their dead-serious response: Although my illness made for a rich mental life, no amount of pretending could alleviate my actual physical confinement. Had I focused on that rather than letting my mind wander free, I can’t imagine how miserable I would have been. In fact, during those strenuously hard years, I felt very alive. Better a life without such obstacles, but for me, immobility shaped my vision. After polio, I valued my mind’s flexibility like gold. Eventually, the poetry and prose I wrote relied on imagination. Now, after many decades, I’ve written my true story, a memoir of all things, in which not all is true. I’ve made some things up, like an earthquake that hit our town. Even with clues that the incident is metaphorical, my sister called and said, “I didn’t know there was an earthquake in Larchmont!” There’s a new turn on the fact/fiction front for me. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a major character in Polio Boulevard, has emerged in a new project focused solely on him. In these pages, I am driven to have every word factually correct. A first! Nothing made up as far as that’s possible -- a new universe. Three years after FDR was stricken with polio at 39, he bought a houseboat with a friend and named it the Larooco. This was after he was assistant secretary of the Navy but before he was Governor of New York and long before he was President of the United States. From 1924-26, he spent a few months each winter in the Florida Keys on the boat. It was the most withdrawn-from- the-world period of his life. While there, Roosevelt kept a nautical log, writing longhand each day about fish caught, weather, the boat’s route, engine trouble, meals, and guests. Here’s how the...
Posted Nov 16, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
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