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Amy Allara
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As this week is the AWP conference in Denver I was prompted to share a poem by Sarah Suzor, who is in attendance and gave a reading last night at Plus Gallery. Sarah is the author of It was the season, then. (EtherDome Press) and the forthcoming Isle of Dogs (Toadlily Press.) She lives in Los Angeles where she is an editor for Highway 101 Press, and a visiting lecturer at The Left Bank Writers Retreat. The poem below is from her newly released chapbook It was the season, then. The 19th century science of phrenology serves as a backdrop and gives rise to the book; and it is a collection of incisive, well-crafted verse worth reading. Conscientiousness Ahead of the ear and above the jawbone— this faculty was located but its stipulations were troublesome to relay. And she was no help, wondering only about the consequences— the light air brushing the back of her neck. It had to do with retaining errors and correcting them consciously. The conclusion was neither positive nor negative. To him that was confusing. She knew what it meant but never cared either way. —Sarah Suzor Continue reading
Posted Apr 9, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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When I recently returned to my stack of Etude magazines, I came across the following: The first ad is titled “Sister Susie and the Steno’ Job” and I assure you that I am quoting it word for word and as it appears in terms of caps, quotation marks and italics. I could not invent this: “SHE FINISHED HIGH SCHOOL, with honors! Then Business College gave her a “training” in six months and she started out to beat typewriters for a living. Fine! But Susie was temperamental. Grinding drudgery might do for the type of girl whose only aim is an early marriage. For Susie it was killing. So Sister Susie took up the Saxophone.” Now Susie was just an average girl. You could never call her gifted or talented. But within a week she was playing tunes and in six months she could handle her Saxophone like a veteran. Then things happened. First, a little club orchestra. Next, a local sextette. Then some “home town” entertainment;--a sharp-eyed scout from a well-known booking office—a contract—and little Miss Susie hit the “big time” vaudeville, drawing down as much cash weekly as the salaries of half a dozen stenographers. You Might Be a Star, Too…” It goes on to inform the reader how they can order a Buescher band and orchestra instrument and get started on their bright future. If only I hadn’t gotten rid of that clarinet and saxophone of mine—instruments I played in school bands that only the ears of proud parents could tolerate. I wonder, was Susie a real person? The second find was an ad for pianos, appealing to a parent’s wish to give their daughter the best life and future possible. And all simply by way of purchasing a piano. “Your little girl…for her you have dreamed and planned as you have watched her unfold…to her you are giving every opportunity that lies in your power to give. In every child…boy or girl…there runs and instinctive urge to musical self-expression. Give your child the opportunity to develop this inborn desire through the piano, the natural, logical musical instrument. Of all the accomplishments that enhance the loveliness of womanhood the ability to play the piano is perhaps the finest. Give your daughter the means to acquire this accomplishment. What worlds she’ll conquer!” It’s a lovely sentiment—even if a little dramatic and culturally outdated. And it left me wondering what it is that I have conquered. My parents made sure I had a piano and years of lessons—first an old, less than perfect green piano and then an Otto Altenburg upright when I was 10. I quit lessons at 15 and didn’t exactly go on to set the world on fire as a concert pianist. Yes, I am making fun, of both the ad, and of myself, but you just don’t see ads like this anymore, anywhere. And in 1928 life was a bit different. No computer, no Facebook, no reality television, no cell phones—and one has to wonder if... Continue reading
Posted Apr 8, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Once upon a time, and in a time that predates the invention of the microprocessor, the telephone, and even the telegraph, people had the option of either addressing one another in person or via letter. And when reading the biographies of various painters, writers, and musicians of the past few centuries one is immediately aware of, and can scarcely ignore, the significance of letter-writing—a vital part of remaining in touch with those close to us, and too a vital component of the progression of one’s particular craft. And when I speak of letters, I do not mean what may today pass for a letter; a one-line, or even one-word e-mail, with a Sincerely or Best sign off; although even this is seen by most as an unnecessary flourish. I refer instead to a letter made up of multiple paragraphs and possibly pages that not only took time to compose but significant thought. Take any one of Frédéric Chopin’s letters for example—I have probably written only a handful of letters in my life that are of this ilk and depth. And likely received even fewer. As the elder members of my family and circle of friends pass away one by one, so have the letters gone; letters like this one, written by Chopin and sent to his friend Wojciech Grzymala in 1839: MY DEAR! Here we are after a week’s travelling. We arrived very comfortably. The village is beautiful: nightingales, skylarks; you are the only missing Bird. I hope it won’t be the same way this year as two years ago. If only for a few minutes! Choose a moment when we are all well, and run down for a few days; take pity on a fellow creature. Let us just embrace you, and in return I’ll give you pills and first-class milk. My pianoforte shall be at your service, and you shall lack nothing. Your FRYC What has in large part replaced this once primary form of correspondence? A little phenomenon termed e-mail. Of course, one shouldn’t ignore all the other forms of communication that have cropped up in recent years, months, even days—but here I will speak only about e-mail. As if human behavior wasn’t already confounding enough, we add e-mail as a variable in the equation of getting from one day to the next—and try reading between the lines(or the lack thereof) of a five-word note. “Hey, just got the book.” And herein lies the problem—an all too frequent absence of tone or any small cues that might be indicative of one sentiment over another. Not to mention, in this case, a categorical neglect of formality or what one might term etiquette. No Dear or Sincerely, not even one’s name except by way of their name.com. One might wonder—is the sender too busy to say more, to sign their name, or to include yours after a word like Dear for instance? Of course, brevity and the short note often are perfectly acceptable even preferable; and I am certainly... Continue reading
Posted Apr 6, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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One week in 2002, an artist friend, then teaching a once-a-week four-hour undergraduate drawing class at Bennington, asked me to fill in for her. She had to go out of town to prepare her work for a gallery show, and thought I might be able to share a few things with her students. Like what, I first thought. Like what, I might still think. At that time I hadn’t accomplished much in the writing field or any other field for that matter—mostly, I had a small collection of small abstract drawings, an even smaller collection of short poems, and a somewhat inactive Master of Social Work degree. So these were my credentials, and my friend, for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, thought I had something to offer these young minds. Despite my diffidence I said yes. The day of the class I arrived early to make sure everything was ready—I was terrified the slide projector would either not be there, or if it was it wouldn’t work, or I wouldn’t be able to work it. I might knock it over, it might overheat and explode, I might faint or hyperventilate under the pressure to sound interesting and smart. I had envisioned an entire set of worst case scenarios, as I always did. When I made my way into the large studio where the students spent the first part of the class sketching the nude model of the day, I sat down at the back of the room, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. When the model suited up and the students left their easels, they made their way towards the door. One girl passed by me, and asked in a less than friendly tone, and with what I might call some attitude: “Are you…like…our substitute??” The term substitute immediately brings to mind those poor souls brave enough to fill in for 10th grade Chemistry or 7th grade English. The first sight of this substitute and all hell breaks loose. And on this promising note I began class. My lesson plan included the following: 1. Don’t lock knees and faint while standing in front of classroom. 2. Don’t trip over cord to slide projector. 3. Show slides of my drawings right side up. 4. Pass out packet with my poems, writing exercises, and author’s quotes. 5. Pass around art books. 6. Ask class if they would like to do some writing exercises. I made it through to number three, successfully showing my slides and commenting a little on each one. By the third slide, the girl who had asked if I was the substitute blurted out, “Were you… like…on drugs when you drew these?” I said I didn’t think so, and she seemed disappointed with my answer and unwillingness to discuss the many benefits of hallucinogens and other mind-altering substances. The rest of the class continued to say absolutely nothing and either stare or glare at me. I then made it to number four, and passed... Continue reading
Posted Apr 5, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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As I tried to prepare for this week as guest blogger I admit to having felt a bit stuck—not entirely, but certain of my need for a subject or any variety of material that could extricate me from this stagnant state. I thought of my post from last year “The Language of Old Magazines” and decided to return to my stack of old Etude Magazines—I was not disappointed. So many articles and ads to take notice of; at once offering a glimpse into the past and an opportunity to examine what is otherwise known as the present. As a preface to my week of posts I’ll share an excerpt from Max Graf’s October 1948 article “How the Master Composers Composed”—the article itself is an excerpt from Graf’s 1947 book “From Beethoven to Shostakovich” and from a chapter titled “Productive Moods.” A very fitting chapter and fortuitous find for me in view of my recent cognitive standstill. “All artistic creation is preceded by a condition that can be termed: productive mood. Productive mood is a condition of expectation. Everything that had accumulated in the subconscious in the way of tone forms presses toward the borders of unconsciousness and conscious soul life. Up to this moment of agitation and tension, the entire musical work had taken place in the darkness of the subconscious. So far, nothing was controlled by conscious thinking. The creative instinct did its work of forming, undisturbed. But now the internal bulk of tones and tonal forms that had accumulated, had gathered so much strength that it drove toward the light of consciousness that was to brighten subsequent work. The foregoing applies to larger musical forms. Smaller compositions, short poems, can be ejected from the souls of the artists totally finished. Goethe often wrote down poems as in a dream. It happened often that he woke up in the night with a new poem in his head. In such instances, he reports, he would jump out of bed, run to his desk and, without taking time to place a sheet of paper in horizontal position, he “wrote down the poem from beginning to end diagonally across.” There is much more to the article; Graf goes on to discuss the individual artistic processes of Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Balzac and others. Apparently Balzac “only worked at night, by candlelight, garbed in the cowl of a Dominican monk.” Unlike Balzac and Goethe I am neither nocturnal nor have I leapt out of bed in the dead of night to write down fully-formed articles for the week to come—but I have been writing them, and that certainly beats staring at a blank page. Continue reading
Posted Apr 4, 2010 at The Best American Poetry