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Jake Adam York
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A guest in another’s house, I am admiring, marveling at his taste, her taste, or I am simply curious, noticing a peculiarity of the house or the housekeeping, discovering some device I wonder how I’ve done without. I appreciate the ways my hosts have made a place for their guest—a packaged toothbrush left in the medicine cabinet, a note left next to the television—even as I enter the practice and rhythm of their lives, their house, when coffee is made and offered, when a bottle of spirit is brought, when breakfast, when dinner, and become a part of that family for a time. • When guests are coming, we rush about the house, cleaning everything (even at times dusting off the strings inside the piano). The guest is the occasion for putting the house into its best order. Everything must be right, must show that we have anticipated the arrival, that we have made a place in our minds and in our lives, not just in our house, for our guest. • When the guest is a surprise and the only way we have to make a place is in conversation, when we are acting out in the moment that welcoming, a new grace and assurance infuses us. We have only one chance to get it right; we have already run out of time for trial-and-error. • So, my best days in the classroom are the days when guests visit—a student’s sister or friend, a prospective student, alumni, a colleague, a dean. Everyone, not just me, is thinking about his gestures, her words, and the conversation has a kind of pomp to it, but these are the days when I offer sharper guidance and when my students show me what they’ve learned. Such days are so good I feel I must make a place for the guest in every class, every term and, though it’s not quite caught on among my peers, I’d love a plan of rotation in which we were always imminently visiting one another’s classes. • Being a guest requires a similar concentration—a willingness to be at ease without being in control, but also the attention to recognize one’s opportunity to add something to the life and work of a family or group or place. Being a guest requires practice, because it also requires a reciprocal generosity. A gift for the host or hostess may answer the call, but a guest must also be ready to offer other gifts—to raise a toast, to say the prayer, to craft and deliver the compliment at the proper moment and in a way that the host is not outshone. To be the guest is not simply to be relieved of being the host: the guest creates the host, answers to the host, completes the host. To be a guest is to enter into a real, if temporary, relationship. • So, we learn to prepare, in some way, for the guest who may never come. My grandmother still, as her mother... Continue reading
Posted Jul 22, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
A guest in another’s house, I am admiring, marveling at his taste, her taste, or I am simply curious, noticing a peculiarity of the house or the housekeeping, discovering some device I wonder how I’ve done without. I appreciate the ways my hosts have made a place for their guest—a packaged toothbrush left in the medicine cabinet, a note left next to the television—even as I enter the practice and rhythm of their lives, their house, when coffee is made and offered, when a bottle of spirit is brought, when breakfast, when dinner, and become a part of that family for a time. • When guests are coming, we rush about the house, cleaning everything (even at times dusting off the strings inside the piano). The guest is the occasion for putting the house into its best order. Everything must be right, must show that we have anticipated the arrival, that we have made a place in our minds and in our lives, not just in our house, for our guest. • When the guest is a surprise and the only way we have to make a place is in conversation, when we are acting out in the moment that welcoming, a new grace and assurance infuses us. We have only one chance to get it right; we have already run out of time for trial-and-error. • So, my best days in the classroom are the days when guests visit—a student’s sister or friend, a prospective student, alumni, a colleague, a dean. Everyone, not just me, is thinking about his gestures, her words, and the conversation has a kind of pomp to it, but these are the days when I offer sharper guidance and when my students show me what they’ve learned. Such days are so good I feel I must make a place for the guest in every class, every term and, though it’s not quite caught on among my peers, I’d love a plan of rotation in which we were always imminently visiting one another’s classes. • Being a guest requires a similar concentration—a willingness to be at ease without being in control, but also the attention to recognize one’s opportunity to add something to the life and work of a family or group or place. Being a guest requires practice, because it also requires a reciprocal generosity. A gift for the host or hostess may answer the call, but a guest must also be ready to offer other gifts—to raise a toast, to say the prayer, to craft and deliver the compliment at the proper moment and in a way that the host is not outshone. To be the guest is not simply to be relieved of being the host: the guest creates the host, answers to the host, completes the host. To be a guest is to enter into a real, if temporary, relationship. • So, we learn to prepare, in some way, for the guest who may never come. My grandmother still, as her mother... Continue reading
Posted Jul 22, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
In yesterday’s elliptical post, I was thinking persistently about how reading an anthology, like any one of the Best American Poetry volumes, introduces various crises of knowledge and confidence—how an anthology forces me to change. As one poem is different from the preceding, I have to shift my expectations, to reset my reading mind. As one poet’s idea or ideas about poetry are different from those of the preceding or the following, I often have to move into another space. It would be easy to read a book or a journal with a clear idea of what I admire or want and only to keep saying No until I’ve found what fits my taste. Much more difficult but also more rewarding to treat each poem as a question, or a series of questions. Where are you going? Do I know all that I need to know to follow? This is, typically, the stance I take in teaching a text or writing a book review. I ask What does one need to know in order to read this? At times, in a Poetics course or a historical survey, it is useful to apply the idea of genre, to talk about a poem being a particular kind of poem as a way of focusing the act of gathering the reader’s tools. If, for example, a poem calls itself an “Ode,” it may be telling us to remember one or two things: (1) that the poem may be engaged in a kind of praise or/and (2) the poem may be organized in three parts that follow a point-counterpoint-compromise pattern. Some students take this idea of genre and apply it as if it were a kind of ontology. Is Sandra Beasley an “ode poet”? A logical extension, and one modeled by a lot of analytic language. We can talk about a poet, like Larry Levis, as being an elegiac poet, by which we mean not only that he wrote a lot of poems that were entitled “Elegy [Something Something]” but also (and really rather) that when we talk about Levis with respect to the elegy only some of what we know about the elegy is relevant—some of it he’s using, and some of it he’s not. This is the place I’m always trying to get to—the place where the poem can be read not so much as a thing or a kind of thing but as an act, as an action or process. And yet, so much of the way we deal with poems—they have titles or labels that we find in tables, we view them like objects &c—reinforces poem-as-thing—ness (though maybe this is just part of life in a capitalist/acquisitionist society: there are no ideas but in things, and we’d rather have the thing than anything else). I was happy then, in re-reading Best American Poetry 1994 to see guest editor A. R. Ammons dealing with the same tension: “Until they end,” he wrote, “poems exist in time from the first syllable to... Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Once I started to get poems published, my grandmother would ask to see a poem. Always she’d say: That’s not poetry: it doesn’t rhyme. * People say this: Now that’s poetry. Think Crocodile Dundee: That’s not poetry. Now that’s poetry. * Are we beset with false poetry, pretend poetry, spurious poetry? Do we dream of a poetry FDA to protect us from the color of rusted nails? * Introduced at a party as a poet, one question follows more readily than any other: Really? What kind of poetry do you write? * Narrative, lyric, epic, topographical, informatic, aleatory, elliptical… * I see Jericho Brown in the Midway airport where he tells me No one writes narrative poetry anymore! * Sometimes we can get down to defining their terms. If by “narrative” you mean… * I tried to explain to my grandmother assonance, internal rhyme, mosaic rhyme, but she wasn’t buying it. For her, there was only one kind of rhyme. * In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my wife and I linger over a Jackson Pollock painting. A family strolls by, the father proclaiming My four year old could do this! * Poetry is beyond. Poetry is can’t. * The Facts of Life, Season 1, Episode 6, Blair reads an Emily Dickinson poem. Tootie replies: That must be poetry: I didn’t understand a word. * The basketball player is poetry in motion. * The bookseller describes a favorite book on the public radio as almost poetry, as if to say Beautiful, but not frightening: you can read this. * One graduate student asks another graduate student Who are you reading? and in response to the answer says just Oh… * The birds ask the bat, What are you? The beasts ask the bat, What are you? Aesop says, “He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends.” * In the movie Sideways, the playboy character is trying to cheer the writer character: “That’s beautiful… I couldn’t write that.” The writer replies: “Neither could I. I think it’s Bukowski.” * The student closes his copy of Best American Poetry 2010 and says That’s not poetry. He clobbers the BAP with a volume of Bukowski and says Now that’s poetry. What can I say? * What kind of poetry is it? we ask, we poets even, asking Should I bother to read it? * Oh, he’s a _____ poet. Oh, she’s a ____ poet. * I sit on a panel with three other serious poets. One of them avers But prose poetry isn’t really even poetry… * All the poetry placards on the buses in Denver now present poems written by teenagers or pre-teens. * My airplane seatmate says My daughter writes poetry. I ask how old she is. Nine. * On another flight, the seatmate says I’m glad I didn’t know you were a poet before. I would have been afraid to talk to you. * That must be poetry, Tootie says. I didn’t understand a word. Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday, I sat down to the phone in my office to call a poet I very much admire (however quietly) to see if an essay he’d sent to Copper Nickel was still available. Generally speaking, Dean Young’s sentiment about the phone—“I hate the phone, how it pretends to be / your friend” (“Upon Hearing of My Friend’s Marriage Breaking Up,” see BAP 1994)—encapsulates my feeling, but at times the phone brings good news and is a friend, so, as Young wrote, “I called you anyway.” I expected, as the great Jeanne Lieby wrote in her piece “Why I Call,” that I’d reach the author’s voicemail, my number unrecognized, but he answers and we talk for a bit. The essay is available, which is a relief to me since I’ve come to admire it so seriously in the last few days and since I’ve come to need it to fill a very specific gap in the issue I need to send to press in just a few weeks. He allows that the essay is very important to him and he’s happy to offer it to us, and I say how much I admired his recent book, and as Jeanne wrote, “In the moment of the call, the writer likes me and I like her and we celebrate the work.” The author is thinking this, too, and invokes Jeanne, whom we both knew, and I feel, as he feels, that we’re participating in the life of her large spirit, mindful of her statement about the importance of this person-to-person connection. I can sit on a panel of editors and explain editorial principles and defend specific choices on their literary merits, which is as it should. This connection, however, this voice-to-voice and person-to-person circuit, this is my reward (as nearly as I have one). This is my reward. The author recognizes me, as I recognize him (or her in another moment), and we’re real people together in a real universe in which our solitary work doesn’t remain entirely solitary, which is something of a relief for both of us. It’s a relief, I think, because at the moment I’m ready to print the piece, I’m representing a thousand or more potential readers, and as he offers it, he’s representing any number of writers who send us work in the hopes of publication he’s realizing—but he’s also representing those same readers. He reads the journal, so he’s also ready to see the work of other writers, and we’re working together to complete this circuit. At the same time, and this is where things get really really good for me personally, the author is—because I found him through his work—the text incarnate. What I admire about the essay lives in him, and if I meet him in person, if I see him again, I’ll be seeing the essay in the flesh. • This is an idea—that writers come to like other writers as people by liking their work first—that gets downplayed, either because there are... Continue reading
Posted Jul 20, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
I’m relocating to Atlanta in a few weeks. The plan is to work on a book—cultural studies meets poetics—about the ways contemporary art thinks about Civil Rights History. I’m shipping a few boxes, but mostly I have to limit myself to whatever I can fit in the Jeep between everything else I need to live. Choosing which books to bring is a doomed project. Determining which books to bring for the prose project is not that hard, and I’ll have a university library behind me, so the pressure there isn’t too severe. Selecting poetry books, on the other hand... Some books get written in you as you read them and then you’re always carrying them. For me Karen Volkman’s Spar is one of those books. It altered the way I thought about the capacities of the prose poem, how quickly and how frequently the thought within it could change shape, and the way I thought about the uses of sequentiality in a poem. I am a different person, that my mind is a different mind, for having read the book. In a sense I always have that book with me—so I may not need to actually pack it. In selecting from the rest, I know—since this is my third temporary jaunt in three years— no matter what I choose to bring or ship—whether they are books that provide some imaginative comfort or stability, books that challenge, books that I have yet to read—I will inevitably leave something I will feel I need, in the same way that once I decide, as I’m packing for the day at the office, to leave a book at home—or vice versa—I will, later in the day, need need need that last book I removed from my bag, the last book I put back on the shelf. It’s almost as if, once I’ve left the book, once I’ve decided I don’t need it, once it’s absent, my mind enters what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the “incubation” phase of the creative process, thinking about that book in (and because of) its absence. Then comes the insight that requires the return of the book. Charles Wright’s The World of The Ten Thousand Things is one such book. I bought a copy—actually, I ordered a copy, since no bookstore I could find in Alabama would carry it—in late 1992 or early 1993. I read it and carried it like a bible for months. In the summer of 1993, my girlfriend was working in New York, where she heard Wright read at the 92nd Street Y and had him sign the book. All through graduate school, I’d return to this book when I got stuck on the long poem that was my thesis. Since then, I’ve had a cyclical relationship with Wright’s work, at times feeling I’ve read it so much that I believe it’s written in me, in the way Volkman’s is, and at others feeling that the ink has faded, that the language has slipped away.... Continue reading
Posted Jul 19, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Last week, my wife and I snuck away into the mountains. I packed only one book. The plan was to read the land—penstemon, aster, Indian paintbrush, lupin, aspen, lodgepole, spruce—and come back to the books and e-mails and blogs after a few days completely offline. But in the lodge where we stayed two nights, the sign for the “Library” caught my eye, and I couldn’t resist a quick inventory of the shelves. In retrospect, it makes sense: the lodge is kind of a toney place, and the library is stacked by or for the toney sorts who frequent it (this was my first time, and it’s hard to imagine when I’ll have the money to come back). The books fell into four categories: business books (art of the deal etc), mystery/intrigue novels (Tom Clancy et al), children’s books, and accidents. The business books took up most of the three-shelf library. The accidents were comprised by To Kill A Mockingbird, a book about Copernicus, and a Peterson’s Field Guide to stars and constellations—and I imagined these being left by elderly guests. There was not a single book of poetry, nor a book that contained a poem—and though this was not a surprise, I thought about leaving behind the copy of Wind in a Box I’d brought along or the recent issue of New South I found in the car when we were unpacking, but I wanted to keep these books, and in general I’m averse to leaving behind or even giving away a book. Still, the idea has stuck with me, like any number of YouTube clips in which an author installs his or her own book on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble. (source) (See also: this.) Here, it seems to me—however much anyone would say it’s just about getting seen—that this guerrilla placement, moraying on the sharks of distribution, is basically a way inserting oneself into some representation of authority or taste. To place one’s book this way—especially a title published by a smaller, independent press, or even a self-published title—is to make a statement about the book’s worth, even if it gives the particular bookstore too much credit. (Does anyone do this at The Strand?) (By the way, what happens in a bookstore when someone wants to buy the inserted book?) * Inserting a book into the lodge library would not exactly be the same thing, but I think my impulse responds to some of the same desires—to see what is most valuable to me represented in some index of power—though it may also be implicated in my assessment of the lodge’s hospitality, my asking whether the place had everything I might need to be comfortable. If I go back, if I leave a book there, will it be an act of valuation? Will it be a gesture, however likely to be lost or erased, to the next poet who stays there? * What would I leave behind? On the drive down the other day, I thought... Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
The blog, so often, is about now. But I am here, as Terrance Hayes writes, “because I never could get the hang of time.” • I wanted to begin my stay as guest blogger by pulling off the shelf Best American Poetry 1990, the first of the Best American Poetry volumes I bought. I don’t remember where I bought it, but in the summer 1991 the most likely source was the Bookland franchise in the Gadsden Mall in Gadsden, Alabama—the only bookstore in town. I had begun college the year before, with the idea of becoming an architect, but by that summer, I had changed course, having realized that one could study writing. At home, between terms, there weren’t many ways to find poems—my parents had a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends. There weren’t many more at Bookland, which had a single shelf of poetry books, among them that summer Best American Poetry 1990, which I chose in part because of the title “the best” and in part because almost all of the contributors’ names were new to me. The poem that caught me the quickest was Mark Strand’s “Orpheus Alone,” a poem I’ve read so often this is where the spine is starting to come apart. My high-school education, which had taught me that poems were encrypted messages, had given me the background, through its emphasis on a classical tradition, to decode the title. But, what I appreciated in Strand’s poem was its directness, its matter-of-factness: “As everyone knows, this was the first great poem.” Its colloquial tone, its ease. Though still invested in some ideal, something “great,” its language was contemporary: As everyone knows, this was the first great poem, Which was followed by days of sitting around In the houses of friends, with his head back, his eyes Closed, trying to will her return, but finding Only himself, again and again… A hangover—which tethered college life to the mythical, which suggested that there was something more to all this, but also that one could access that more without having to forsake one’s time. It was the first time, I think, I understood the value of a contemporary poetry. Strand’s poem was an early teacher. Within a year I’d have read every one of Strand’s books held by the Auburn University library. But looking back through the table of contents of BAP 1990, I see the names of other poets I’d soon be reading. Charles Wright was soon a favorite, and his Country Music and The World of The Ten Thousand Things were the second and third books I had signed by the author. I read all of Philip Levine’s books for a paper for my Twentieth Century American Poetry course. And a few years later, I’d move to Cornell to study with A. R. Ammons. I don’t remember reading their contributions to BAP 1990 with as much clarity as I remember Strand’s poem, but it’s interesting to think how that anthology... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2011 at The Best American Poetry