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Amy Holman
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Today, I set my torch aglow on my hillfort, but not in warning to the next guest blogger, rather to signal welcome to this fine community before I go off to forage. I have not been "heaping up," lately, and this task of composing prose posts on what informs my poetry has informed me of some poems to write. (Aside from the Greek and Latin origins to "poet" that sound similar and define as "make," poet also derives from the Sanskrit word "cinoti," meaning "he heaps up.") It is mating season in the northern hemisphere, and that means the gentleman humpback whales will be singing to communicate their fitness to the lady whales. At least that's the updated answer on why they sing. The fact that they never sing their particular songs again and invent new ones proposes that they are more advanced than our species, at least enough to not give a girl a line. Biologists refer to the humpbacks as "inveterate composers" and yet that they might be singing for the pure pleasure of it and their own satisfaction is "an untestable question in scientific terms." I wonder what the humpback anthropologists and musicologists make of human punk rock? Or, recordings of Dean Martin? Anyway, I hope I have stayed within the bounds of usufruct here at Best American Poetry, using this space for my enjoyment without ruining the substance of it. It's been a pleasure. I'm off to a five year old's birthday party on this 40 degree Spring day. The sun is shining, the sky is pale blue, and I see a small cloud in the shape of a dove. Well, until that airplane drove through it. Continue reading
Posted Mar 26, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Great distinctions made here. Not so obsessive sounding. The equivalents, as you say, have to be in the biz a long time, and the outsider has to attach that young. I felt close to Tatum O'Neal when I saw her in Paper Moon, but she didn't really have a career in movies as much as a wild social life way too young. I wanted to be her friend, I wanted her to slow down. I do defend her in her adult troubles, but I don't worship her. Elizabeth Taylor was a part of the old model of movie making and that model is long gone. It's hard to find equivalents to that.
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In the twelfth grade when I felt trapped by other girls, school, shyness, New Jersey, and being seventeen, there was at least some poetry. I could write it, sort of, and I could read and memorize it, recite it to my few friends, and write about it. I was not quite able to see myself in it, only see that I liked making it. Not until years later did I note that when given an assignment in English class to write a paper comparing two poems we hadn't covered in class by two of the poets we had, I wrote a paper on trapped animals. I loved the language of the poems, ("matted hyacinthine curls"; "A pip of life amid a mort of tails") and I loved that they were about lone animals--an easier subject for me to deal with in an all girls school than love. One poem was "The Bull" by William Carlos Williams and the other was "The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws", by Wallace Stevens. Lone volatile bull stretching in the grass and chained to a fence, and lonely, bored parakeet with sharp claws and useless wings. Luckily, I broke out to college the following fall. It still bothers me that earlier this week Knut, a four-year-old polar bear died of brain damage because his ferocious wild nature was trapped alone in a Berlin zoo; apparently, the psychological equivalent of being bashed over the head. Rejected by his 30-year-old mother, he imprinted onto a zookeeper, a man mother who inadvertently rejected him by dying a year later from a heart attack. No other polar bears, no arctic tundra, no seals, no man mother. Crowds and crowds of spectators he grew to need and be panicked without, much like the starlets of popular culture. I do not like going to zoos, even ones as advanced in the way they accommodate animals as The Bronx Zoo is, and even though I know that a certain species of deer, extinct in China, has a population there. I understand the benefits of keeping a few animals to inform the public that these species are worthy of a place on earth, and that place is not in the zoo that is demonstrating this. I get that the sale of fake fur toy animals contributes to conservation. There are more tigers in captivity in the world than free in the wild, and not all of that captivity is run by animal behaviorists and zoologists. Some of the tigers in captivity are lucky to be in zoos, it is true. The alternative to raising Knut, the bear cub, without its mother was to euthanize it. Studies show that zoos work better than documentaries to turn citizens into activists against extinction, encroachment, and cruelty. But I like words. I like reasoning. Tigers in the Snow, by Peter Matthiessen, for instance, accompanied by photographs by Maurice Hornocker, follows the disappearing Siberian tigers and argues for their rights. We the Creatures, edited by C.J. Sage... Continue reading
Posted Mar 25, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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This picture I took today, a few days into spring, is part of what passes for pastoral in my Brooklyn neighborhood--a barn-shaped birdhouse visible through a vine-wrapped chicken wire fence at the Recreation Center on 1st Street. I like to take photographs of juxtaposed environments, especially where nature reclaims the urban landscape, or when individuals living here impose their notion of the country life on the city. I read a beautiful essay by Barry Lopez once, perhaps in DoubleTake magazine, that addressed his interests in photography and writing, and which he wrote to accompany artwork by an unfamiliar, deceased artist who had admired him. In the essay, Lopez illustrates the scene that determined his choice of writing over photojournalism. He was in Alaska, I think, and out on a raft away from the larger boat to take photographs of bears. Kodiak bears? Polar bears? One was in the frame of the shot, one was not. When he got back to the boat, and was unloading the roll of film (a lovely tactile task of the past, now), he unrolled in his mind what he recalled seeing in between the frames of the camera shots. What was the other bear doing? Where was it swimming, what was it eating? How close was it? The energy of this excitement in getting his observations right, along with his need to know more than the limits of the frame, was the factor that led him to switch his focus, as it were, to the broader view a writer has. I think of this often in relation to my love of writing and taking photographs, especially when I feel upset at not capturing a photograph I wanted. I can write about what I saw to make up for the picture I missed, but that always seems too difficult and inconsistent with my vision. Clearly, writing is more important, but I could not give up the framing of a photographic shot--my favorite part--to focus my attentions only on the words that describe and frame. I also do enjoy not letting the viewer see more than what I frame. This can be achieved with an unreliable narrator, too, a political poem, and a column, to name just a few writing controls. The photograph can be its own message, untethered to any specific explanation, like a series of tiny Polaroids I took in Paris in November 2002 that cause me to feel the writing of Paris to be almost unnecessary. But, a photograph can also be a prompt for writing, as can the record of mistake and perception the old film-based photograph dictates. I'd love to write a story or poem based on an accidental photograph, the kind we are all less likely to take with digital cameras. A photographer, Jim Hair, whom I met last weekend at the "Kayak at the Confluence" event in St. Louis, described just the sort of eerie example from his trove that could work on my imagination. Jim is running for mayor... Continue reading
Posted Mar 24, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Here is an odd little Elizabeth Taylor mixed media piece left over from an Etsy page that no longer exists. I suppose that poems will be wanted now that she has died. Maybe a 140-character Twitter poem by a big poetry star will be the appropriate pop cultural memorial. I like the witty 53 characters she said once in response to what should be written on her gravestone: "Here lies Elizabeth. She hated being called Liz. But she lived." Elizabeth had a personally difficult life as backdrop to her professionally fortunate, glamorous life. I am surprised that she broke her back at least five times, and not surprised that she died exactly 53 years after her true love, Michael Todd, was killed in a plane crash. Both seem like the symbolism that writes its code in the tissues and bones of our bodies, and tries to influence our thinking to play along in our demise. She was not influenced much, for a long time. At the risk of seeming flaky, let me tell you that the metaphysical source to body pain and injuries details symbolic meanings that we can learn to avoid. If Elizabeth broke her upper back it meant that she felt unloved and unsupported emotionally, (eight marriages) or that she was holding back love (eight marriages). If she broke her middle back, it was because she had guilt and was stuck in all the stuff back there in the past (eight marriages). With an estate worth 600 million, it is unlikely she broke her lower back with a fear of money and lack of financial support. I would not get hung up on toe stubbing and the sniffles, but I know that when I have felt silenced, creatively, or otherwise, I have gotten sore throats. The inability to speak up for oneself was not a problem for Elizabeth Taylor, highest paid actress the year I was born. I think like a poet, speak in metaphors and similes, stop people when they say what sounds like a line of poetry--"write that down"--and it's a problem as much as a joy. When a praying mantis came in the window and sat on my desk, I looked him up in the languages. The Africans consider it a visitation from God, but the French believe the Praying Mantis arrives to help the lost find their way. That's one of the themes of my novel. The mantis was on my desk! Alas, while the characters may be ready to find their way home, I have not yet liberated them with the final chapters. I'm too busy looking for new metaphors and more secret codes than to actually apply them. Rest in Peace, Elizabeth Taylor. Continue reading
Posted Mar 23, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
I was reading an article about a messaging test recently completed in Northern Wales with torches in old Iron Age forts, and it made me think about why whales sing when they migrate, and also, about the transitional fossil find that links whales to wolves, The Blessing of the Animals at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the recent conclusion that Mayan civilization collapsed because of human destruction. This may not be a natural progression to you, but in writing, I like to find connections among things seemingly without correspondence to prove that we can be close and dear, and we can learn something we already learned before. Last Saturday, 200 volunteers stood at the summits of 10 hillforts on the Clwydian Range in Cheshire, Flintshire and Wirral, Wales, and successfully signaled each other with torches as if in warning to the community. The longest range was 15.5 miles between Burton Point on the Wirral and Maiden Castle, at Bickerton Hill, Cheshire. I read once--and used in a series of poems--that male humpback whales sing a song that they pass along to each other, phrase by gradually shifting phrase, using repetition and rhyme, until the song ends sounding completely different from when it began, and then they don't sing it again. The marine biologists who had collected this fascinating information not only did not know where the song originated in the whale's anatomy, they also did not know why the males sang it. Blue whales sing while they migrate because the booming song acts likes a sonar mapping device, throwing back into their brains a picture of the ocean floor. A few transitional fossils link wolves to hippos, camels, deer, whales and dolphins, and while it took 15 million years for the fish eating, whale eared Pakicetus to lose its hind legs and be whale 35 million years ago, the marine ancestor had already hit the water and held its breath. The limbs left because an embryonic gene called the Sonic Hedgehog, which had been miniaturizing the legs perfectly, stopped working. I remember thinking that the dogs that started barking at the recordings of singing humpbacks while jammed into pews at The Cathedral of St John the Divine back in 1992 were undone by such foreign language. Now, I wonder if they were not just becoming chorus to the larger pack? Dr. Richard D. Hansen, an archaeologist with the Idaho State University has just completed a 30-year study of a pre-classic Mayan civilization on both sides of the Mexico-Guatamala border and concludes that it collapsed because of deforestation and damage to an overburdened agricultural system. I think we can take note of this. I don't want to collapse. Leave the forests. Let the forest leave. Maybe the whales are not just mapping the ocean floor when they swim, but admiring the familiar view as they go back to the summer waters, the winter mating grounds, thoughtful of their days and nights. Maybe, there were a whole set of... Continue reading
Posted Mar 22, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
That's a coincidence, antfaber. So, what usufruct rights are there? Who doesn't mind use and enjoyment without destruction? Well, I mean, I get the "without destruction" part, but that may be hard to define.
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It is highly debatable whether graffiti falls under the definition of today's Wordsmith word "usufruct" but I took this picture this morning and afterwards, saw my word-a-day email. Close enough. From the Latin usus et fructus, use and enjoyment, the definition is "the right to use and enjoy another person's property without destroying it." I like the expression of satisfaction on this face, freshly sprayed on the side of an empty warehouse for sale nearby. I think of drawings I've seen by Ben Shahn, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso with just a few strokes of pen or brush. Last weekend, I saw a team of guys let out of a truck with brooms and rags and watched them fan out and clean, and it could be that the building is now sold, or about to be shown to the first interested buyer in years. I like the face of welcome on the loading dock, although I may be the only appreciative one. It's hard to imagine the usufruct possibilities. I do think about the houseboats on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, whose owners do not have docking rights but are renting the spaces in front of properties belonging to others. Citizens of New York are not supposed to be living on their houseboats on the Gowanus, just using them for their enjoyment, and yet, I do think there is a resident ornithologist on one. As long as he or she doesn't fish the canal for supper like the beautiful egret I have seen, or like each year's mallard family, the cormorant, and the occasional swans bored with Prospect Park, I say stay where you are. You help make a polluted canal attractive. Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Here are the kaleidoscope windows of The Ethical Society of St. Louis in yesterday's early afternoon light in the midst of a celebration of the late George Hitchcock, editor of an influential literary journal, Kayak, that ran 64 issues from 1964 to 1984. I had many wonderful conversations and eavesdrops at "Kayak at the Confluence" and a funny coincidence in a workshop I taught. My friend, Liz Hughes Wiley, a former student of George's, put together this festival and brought in past contributors, ex-students, friends, an archivist, local actors, and his long-time love to share their experiences, perform his play, revel in the work, and give context to the surrealist editor's singular sensibility and influence on American poetry. It was also at a festival that welcomed new poets into the fold, and I was there to teach a 16 year old girl and three poets reviving their interests in poetry how to find publishers for their work, and also to sit on a panel of publishers talking about community and individualism in literary magazines. It was funny, then, to be reading a prose poem, "Murder Mystery" by Nick Admussen, to the participants in my class to illustrate the interests of the editors at Epiphany Magazine, and have one of them, Susie Morice, remark that she taught a Nick Admussen in high school maybe 10 years ago who was brilliant and wildly imaginative. I read his contributor's note, which included graduate school at Princeton and current residency in Beijing. That sounds like him, she said, and later, with the help of someone's iPad, brought up a picture that confirmed it. When I choose poems from magazines to read aloud, I am both encapsulating the style interests and inviting poets to discover new voices. This connection was a joy to discover especially in light of Susie's own late blooming as a poet, and one who has a clear command of her own voice. Continue reading
Posted Mar 20, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 18, 2011