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Laura Orem
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Read part one of this interview here. Poet and activist Jen Fitzgerald in part two of an interview about what motivates her to work on behalf of others. LM: Would you talk about diversity: it seems to go beyond gender and race for you. What other elements of people’s lives would you like to see noted in the larger literary conversation? JF: There are no varying degrees to which I am not a grapefruit. By which I mean, if you differ in one way from the “ideal” white, straight, Christian male, you differ in all ways within our historical system of divisions. I know, this isn’t easy stuff to digest or to create a tangible problem/solution dynamic that we could just march toward. But this is the lot we’ve been left with so let’s do what all great problem solvers do: start from the present and move backwards as far as we can until consistent patterns emerge. Unfortunately, we are stuck in the present a bit because we are denying the realities of our own realities! To obtain a complete understanding of our current situation, maybe we shouldn’t argue with folks who feel they’ve been left out of the literary world (or any social sphere). It seems that our knee-jerk response is to explain to them how they are wrong about their own experiences. Especially when their experiences mean that we may have had an easier go at things, that the equitable “meritocracy” has some gaps and cracks, and that we’ve been duped by a hierarchy of difference that simply does not exist outside of our social construct. My hope is that if we let literature do its job of making human connections, fostering empathy, and illuminating the macro by using the micro, we can forever alter the flow of information and art. We writers hold the key to future generations’ understanding of this place and time. And we are taking it seriously. Let’s listen carefully. While I am entirely open to all aspects of difference, what I hear from our community and what is omnipresent for me right now are: Geography: I wanted to represent writers from all around the United States and then eventually international. Gender: I wanted to speak with folks who identify throughout the gender spectrum. Race/Ethnicity: I want to present all the various, glorious, and sometimes terrifying ways in which our respective races and ethnicities guide us through this life. Sexual Orientation: LGBTQ Representation Ability: I am currently interested in the ways with which we deal with ability and how it translates into our reception of literature. Class: I still can’t get folks comfortable enough to talk about Class. But we must. It is the undercurrent for almost every surface ripple we see. American society has never been free of a class system and it is dangerous for us to disillusion ourselves into believing differently. Class is a lens through which we view one another; it fosters preconceived notions and shame. Race and class are... Continue reading
Posted Oct 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
On October 13, 1915, during the Battle of Loos, Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley was shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20 years old. He had enlisted out of Oxford for whatever reasons young men of his generation enlisted. Also, like many of these young men, he was well-read, well-educated, and wrote poetry. Sorley is largely forgotten today, and this is unfortunate. Robert Graves called him, with Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, “one of the three poets of importance killed during the war.” His juvenile work, found in his collected poems Death and the Downs, address classical themes and bucolic description. They show a serious writer learning his craft but are otherwise workmanlike and mundane. His war poems, however, are something else again. Stark and deeply moving, they show the same poet annealed by terrible experience into maturity and power. From August 1914, the beginning of the war, we have this. Sorley had not yet experienced any fighting, but it is clear that he feels caught in the grinding mindlessness of the great war machine. Although he slips a couple of times into overly poetic diction (“bigly,” “dearest”), the austere, ominous last lines are breathtaking in their prescience. And remember, Sorley was only 19 when he wrote this. To Germany You are blind like us. You hurt no man designed. And no man claimed the conquest of your land. But gropers both through fields of thought confined We stumble and we do not understand. You saw only your future bigly planned, And we, the tapering paths of our own mind, And in each other’s dearest ways we stand, And hiss and hate. And the blind lead the blind. When it is peace, then we may view again With new-won eyes each other’s truer form And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain, When it is peace. But until peace, the storm The darkness and the thunder and the rain. One of his last poems, part of a sonnet sequence written in the fall of 1915 (possibly in response to some of Rupert Brooke’s goo-ily patriotic poems), uses high-flown diction as subversion: XXXIV When you see millions of the mouthless dead Across your dreams in pale battalions go, Say not soft things as other men have said, That you’ll remember. For you need not so, Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto, “Yet many a better one has died before.” Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, It is a spook. No one wears the face you knew. Great death has made all his forevermore. So much for Flanders Field. Sorley was one of 23,000,000 soldiers and 2,400,000 civilians who died in the... Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
If men (and women) die every day for lack of what is found in poetry - or dance, or the visual arts, or film, or music - how then to make the world aware of what it is missing? On the one hand, popularization of art is often seen as a cheapening; on the other, art that exists within its own vacuum is ultimately pointless. And how to provide context for the arts for the vast majority of the general audience who are not pursuing MFAs or PhDs - that is, without sounding like hifalutin’ snobs or academics who have swallowed the OED? There’s the rub, as Shakespeare once said. (See what I mean?) The Arts Club of Washington (DC) addresses this complicated issue with its annual Marfield Prize National Award for Arts Writing. Established in 2006 by member Jeannie S. Marfield, the annual prize is awarded to a non-fiction book about the arts published by a living author in the previous year. The award includes a mini-residency and reading in DC, and a hefty $10,000 check for the winning author. Past winners include Anne-Marie O’Connor,The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Climt’s Masterpiece (Knopf, 2012); Michael Sragow, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon 2008); and Brenda Wineapple,White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, 2008). Past judges have included Rita Dove, Jamaica Kincaid, Molly Peacock, Reynolds Price, Robert Pinsky, and Joyce Carol Oates. Books are can be nominated by the author, the publisher, or the author’s agent, and books about all artistic disciplines are welcome. This year’s judges’ panel consists of poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri; writer and former NEH administrator Candace Katz; and author and professor Wayne Karlin. According to Cavalieri, “The point is to let the general public in on great artists, their works, and their lives. Although academics benefit greatly [from reading them], the larger hope is that books chosen are such interesting reading that Jane Q. Public can want it for her book club…This year we have six dynamic examples in various fields of art. Each one is fascinating reading and truly brilliant writing.” This year’s finalists are Benita Eisler, The Red Man’s Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman (Norton); Witold Rybczynski, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit (FS&G); John Shaw, This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems (Public Affairs); Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books); Sherill Tippins, Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); and Sam Wasson, Fosse (HMH). Their common qualifications, according to Grace Cavalieri: “Good writing! And great reading.” The winner of the 2013 Marfield Prize will be announced on May 21. Next year’s competition will open in June 2014. Details – and a complete list of past winners, finalists, and judges – can be found at the Arts Club website here. Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
For almost a century, Pete Seeger walked the walk and embraced the possible. He was a man who understood the power of art and the dignity and worth of each human being; who risked imprisonment and endured the blacklist for refusing to compromise either his principles or the Bill of Rights; and who worked locally to change the world globally and globally to change the world locally. But mostly, he was a man who never forgot that singing is joy and all of us are singers. He sang with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Cisco Houston. He saved old American songs from obscurity and gave them new life in a contemporary context ("We Shall Overcome"). He collected folk music from all over the world and brought it to a new audience in America ("Wimoweh," "Guantanamera"). His "Rainbow Quest" television show of the early 1960s was a barebones production that featured as guests some of the most important folk, country, and blues musicians of the 20th century: Mississippi John Hurt, Richard and Mimi Farina, the Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem, Johnny Cash, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Hedy West, Judy Collins, Malvina Reynolds, Jean Redpath, Bessie Jones, and more. His 1967 anti-war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" was censored out of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" as too critical of the President (it was later reinstated after fans of the show objected vociferously). In his later years, he devoted himself to saving and restoring his beloved Hudson River through the Hudson River Clearwater Foundation. He toured with Arlo Guthrie, his good friend Woody's son, to whom he acted as a surrogate father, for many years. In January 2009, he sang "This Land is Your Land" (all the verses!) at President Obama's bitterly cold Inaugural Concert (what a vindication that must have felt like!). Into very old age, he was still fighting for the rights and diginity of all people, once showing up unexpectedly to give encouragement to and sing some songs with the Occupy Wall Street protestors. The song we all sang at camp, "If I Had a Hammer," was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in response to the government's charging the Communist Party of America with attempting to overthrow the government. In 1955, Pete himself was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In his testimony, Pete refused to answer the committee's questions, condemning their unconstitutional disregard for the First Amendment. He was found in contempt of Congress and sentenced to one year in jail (the conviction was finally overturned in 1962). Later, "If I Had a Hammer" became one of the great anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. The last time Pete sang it in public was at this past year's Farm Aid concert. Rest in peace, Pete. We sure are gonna miss you. Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
When President Kennedy was assassinated, the world stopped, then shifted. In the way we now talk about September 11, for those who were alive and aware that November day fifty years ago, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard” is a touchstone of personal history. Virginia Woolf called these instances “moments of being,” when the difference between before and after is burned into memory by our hyper-awareness of the extraordinary. We have precise and perfect recall of the smell of classroom chalk when the principal’s choked voice came over the loudspeaker, the polka-dot scarf our neighbor was wearing when she ran weeping across the grass, the birds singing in the leafless apple tree as the radio blared the news, because these surrounding events and images, however quotidian, suddenly stand in sharp relief against unspeakable tragedy. But even if we have no personal memory of that day, whether because we were too young in 1963 or we are of more recent generations for whom the assassination is history, we still live with its reverberations. Kennedy’s murder shaped the second half of the 20th century, and in turn is shaping the beginnings of the 21st. An exercise in probability and possibility: If Kennedy had not been killed, it is likely we would have gotten out of Vietnam by 1965. Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, wrote that the President had been working on a troop withdrawal strategy when he died. Would Johnson have then run for President in 1968? Would Robert F. Kennedy have entered the 1968 race if Johnson had run? RFK’s platform was to end the Vietnam War. If he didn’t run, would he still have been assassinated? How about Martin Luther King, Jr. – would he have been murdered as well? That’s harder to say, but even so would the nationwide civil unrest that followed these assassinations erupted in such a terrible way? A lot of the anger was fueled by the endless war and the feeling that the Johnson administration was leading us to disaster. So perhaps the violence and rage would have been tempered. It is possible. If the unrest was contained and limited, we can also ask, would Richard Nixon been elected? His platform was restoring law-and-order to a country seemingly run amok with crime. And if no Nixon, no Watergate. If no Jimmy Carter as an antidote to Nixon, then no Ronald Reagan in response to Jimmy Carter? We can carry this on and on. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We don’t even have to reach back to find it. Perhaps because this single, awful event, like Lincoln’s assassination 100 years before, altered the world so much, conspiracy theories (despite exhaustive forensic, circumstantial, eyewitness, and psychological evidence to the contrary) won’t die. How could Lee Harvey Oswald - Oswald the loser, the incompetent cypher, the nobody - change the course of history? He must have had accomplices. A conspiracy means the assassination was inevitable: If Oswald... Continue reading
Posted Nov 21, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863 Continue reading
Posted Nov 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Things You Should Know About Ravens 1. They are found virtually all over the world. 2. They look like crows, but are much bigger. 3. They are extremely intelligent. They use tools, learn from each other, and engage in play. 4. They are great imitators. 5. According to the Animal Spirits Guide, Raven medicine includes rebirth and renewal, the ability to find light in darkness, introspection, and eloquence. Poets, take heed. If you see a Raven, say hello and thank you. He may answer back. Continue reading
Posted Oct 30, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Stay safe, everyone! Continue reading
Posted Oct 28, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
The Olympics are here again, and I can’t rally up much interest. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I keep finding out who won and who lost each event before it’s broadcast (thanks a lot, New York Times). Maybe it’s because, as I’ve written before, there are no characters anymore; everyone is slick, smooth, and tediously decorous. No real drama, not even in the athletic performances, which are uniformly excellent and hinge on the tiniest millisecond. I used to love to watch the swimming and diving events. I love to swim, even though I’m neither fast nor elegant in form. As for diving, it’s always been a mystery to me how you get good at it without breaking your neck. In fact, I will agree that, even now, of all the summer Olympic sports, diving provides the most suspense, because even a gold-medal diver can misstep or over-rotate, so you catch your breath until she safely slices into the water. I learned to swim at age five in the Officers Club Pool at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. EA is notorious for two things: LSD experiments on soldiers in the 1960s, and a stockpile of deadly chemical weapons dating back to World War I that they finally disposed of only about ten years ago. My father was a civilian employee who worked on post. We lived in a development a few miles outside the gate, but as a little girl I spent a large chunk of my time on the post grounds themselves. When I was a kid, no one talked about the tripped-out soldiers or the weapons stockpile; I’m not sure how much of it was publically known in the late sixties. There were “deadly force” areas tucked into remote corners, but they were largely invisible and you had actively go find them. For me, the post was a wonderful place, with shady, tree-lined streets, and deer so tame they’d walk right up to your parked car. There was a riding stable with horses you could pet, and a small airfield where, each 4th of July, the Rec. folks put on a carnival complete with pony rides, a tiny ferris wheel with four cars, and about twenty-five ramshackle booths. You bought a bunch of tickets for five cents apiece, then you made your rounds. There was Pitch-Til-U-Win, where, if your aim was good and you were lucky, you could win yourself a small pink plastic poodle with sparkling blue eyes, and even if you weren’t, you’d at least end up with a Hawaiian lei made of paper flowers. There was the Wheel-of-Fortune, where if you were very very lucky, you could walk off with a stuffed dog with vinyl ears, and the Pick-a-Duck game, where you could win a straw hat. There was the Spin-Art booth, where you poured primary-colored tempera paint out of Tupperware ketchup bottles onto a piece of spinning cardboard and got your own work of art to hang up on your wall. The air was redolent... Continue reading
Posted Jul 31, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
T. - it says "for Ipad" - I don't know if you can use it for other tablets. Maybe shoot them an email? S. - I adore Stephen Fry. Why isn't he reading more of them? Grrr!
So you're sitting in an airport, waiting for your flight and jonesing for some poetry. Guess what - there's an app for that! Touch Press has announced Shakespeare's Sonnets for Ipad. At $13.99, it's expensive, but worth it. The app includes performances of all 154 sonnets, facsimiles of the original text, notes, and commentary, along with other gadgets and functions. In other words, hours of fun for the poetry-minded. Here's a sample: Patrick Stewart reading Sonnet 29 ("When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes"). The sonnets are read by David Tennant, Kim Cattrall, and Jemma Redgrave, among others. My only gripe with this app is that the wonderful Stephen Fry only reads one selection: Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"). Here it is: This is not Touch Press' first foray into poetry. They previously released an app for The Waste Land. Continue reading
Posted Jul 25, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Johnny, you obviously were never a little girl, because if you were would know it was all in magic. Jeesh.
Grace, did your girls watch "Cinderella" when they were little?
The great character actress, Celeste Holm, died this past weekend at age 95. Miss Holm was a fixture in the acting world for more than six decades. The first Ado Annie in Oklahoma, she famously won the part when she demonstrated for Rodgers and Hammerstein her ability at hog-calling. In 1948, she received an Oscar for her performance as Anne Dettrey in the social drama about anti-Semitism, Gentleman's Agreement, and was nominated twice more, for Come to the Stable (1949) and All About Eve (1950). She more than held her own against Frank Sinatra in 1956's High Society. She performed extensively on Broadway and later, on television, including a recurring role in the 1980s nighttime melodrama, Falcon Crest. She was one of those wonderful actresses who can do almost anything. But I remember her chiefly and most fondly for her role as the Fairy Godmother in the 1965 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. It was a yearly event awaited with great anticipation at my house, and even now, I can sing most of the score at the drop of the hat. Here's "Impossible," with Lesley Anne Warren as Cinderella. Good-bye, Miss Holm, and thanks for making this little girl happy. Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
How many poems can you name that explore the complicated relationship between fathers and sons? There are a lot. Some of the best and most-well known are Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"; Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays"; and Ray Carver's "Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year". These poems all explore the relationship with tenderness, even when the father's faults and limitations are patently obvious. How much more difficult is it to write without descending into inarticulate rage and grief when the relationship was fraught with violence and abuse? Mark Doty, in an interview with Bill Moyers in Fooling With Words, has said, "I might write a poem which begins in raw and inchoate feeling. Most of my poems do begin that way. They come tumbling out of me, but that's a cry, not a poem...I have to stand back from them and begin to shape the language so that the poem becomes available to another person. You must stand at a distance from yourself and apply all the resources you can muster to the raw stuff of experience. It's not easy, especially when you are writing about the hardest things in the world, which is what poetry must do ultimately." That's the trick, isn't it - standing back far enough to shape experience into poetry. It's bloody hard, especially when psychic and physical trauma are the experience. It requires a poet with significant writing chops and great artistic maturity. Jim Valvis, in his poem "The Pause," has done it. "The Pause" moves through emotional shifts effortlessly and with gut-wrenching effect. "The Pause" Reading a collection of poems about abuse, blurbs noting the poet's brilliance and bravery, the hated father attacking the poet's I narrator, the self-pity mummified in metaphor, it occurs to me: the poet's father is an angel compared to mine. So my mind reaches back, and I see my dad, drunk and handsome, eyes bloodshot and face red and roiling with rage, drawing his belt from his waist, the sound hissing like a snake. What have I done this time? No matter. I'm incapable of being too disobedient. I tiptoe through life as if I have glass feet and one stubbed toe will shatter me. Once the beating begins, there's yelling, his screeching, and my pathetic promises to be better, though who recalls the exact words as the belt impacts, as it smacks flesh and births blood worms that puff the skin? No, all you hear is the buzz, the bee stings of leather as you raise your arm like a thin white flag. There isn't any poetry there, or even sense, until-- a pause, some plea scraping though the slush of his soused mind, the belt stayed, still cocked over his head, like Zeus holding a brown bolt of lightning, or a Homeric hero hacking off the tail of Cerberus. My father's eyes clear, then cloud again with doubt, despair, disbelief that he's become no better than his own father, a circle realizing he's run and run,... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
What a handsome young man! And thank you for your service, Pvt. Horowitz.
LO loves Jim C, too. ;)
I loved this piece in the NY Times, too, and I want the book.
Wilfred Owen, officer in the British Army during WWII and poet. Killed in on Nov 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice. Connection to "The Great War and Modern Memory" by the late Mr. Fussell, see any of Owen's poems, almost all of which employ irony, especially "Dulce et Decorum Est," which challenges, by describing in vivid and gruesome detail the death of a man by poison gas, "the old lie" that dying for one's country in war is "sweet and proper."
Nin, I'll pay you a bazillion bucks if you whisper the professor's name in my ear.