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I need a handbook on how to market myself as a poet. And a cheat sheet for all those god-awful questions a poet has to answer about his or her work before a book goes to press—questions like, Who are you writing your poems for? Or to? Who is your ideal audience? Answer: I have no idea. I’ve never understood the lure of either writing or reading poetry, that seductive pull from some other world. A few weeks ago, I gave a miserable reading—you know the kind, set in some the dank basement of a bookshop, church or bowling alley, given to a handful of disgruntled souls in folding chairs. Afterwards, an elderly man in a ball cap informed me that I am nothing like my poems. So what are my poems like? I wanted to ask. Instead, I told him that another woman actually writes my poetry. I just try to impersonate her for public events. (He laughed, but I wasn’t really joking.) Since then, I have been thinking about poets who are like their poems, poets like Denise Duhamel, David Lehman, and Maureen Seaton, poets I read and then feel as if I have just had a conversation with them. I think I would feel that way, even if I didn't know them. I remember a picnic years ago in Cleveland when Denise Duhamel was teaching at the Imagination Conference, and a student by the nickname of The Beef (I think that’s what his friends called him) sat down next to her and confessed that, after hearing her read, he was certain she was his soul mate. As if to prove his point, The Beef began to perform his poetry for her, reciting poems about his life as an alcoholic. Denise, ever polite, sat smiling and nodding until the director of the program intervened. I was both stunned and a little embarrassed to realize that I, too, have often felt that Denise is my kindred spirit. And I, too, might want to show her the poems I have written in response to her brilliant work. Does that mean that The Beef and I are Denise’s ideal audience? Or the opposite? Perhaps this is the poem by Denise Duhamel that inspired The Beef’s performance that day. David Lehman, like Denise, has a gift of making readers feel as if he's talking directly to them. Or, in my case, as if I am still his student, back in his tiny office at Hamilton College, and he’s trying to teach me how to write a poem. I say this today, in particular, because I've been sorting through old journals, throwing away most of them (they are so embarrassing), and I've discovered a few entries that mention David Lehman and remind me of his recent book, Playlist. Like this one from January 1980: I had a conference with DL today and, once again, my poem was unspeakably awful. How come I never see a poem’s stinkiness until the professor is looking at... Continue reading
Posted Jun 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
NA: Dante, I love your new book! I especially love the poem, "Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen" from last year’s Best American Poetry. Reading it, I imagined that you already were, at seventeen, in essence, a poet. Did you set out to be a poet? Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen In those days, my dreams always changed titles before they were finished, and I wanted only to love in that insane, tortured way of poor dear Dmitri Karamazov. Suddenly, I was speaking the language of lapdog and samovar. This is the ballroom, the barracks, the firing squad. This is the old monk with the beard of bees. This is the orange lullaby the moon of the moon will sing you when it’s grieving. This is the province you escape by train, fleeing heavy snow and eternal elk. This is the part where I take your hand in my hand and I tell you we are burning. DDS: Thanks for your kind words, Nin. No, I didn’t set out to be a poet at all, of any kind. I’ve always loved reading and writing, but in high school I read mostly novels, and I kept a daily journal that mostly consisted of reactions to the books I was reading, quotes from those books, lists of new words I’d discovered, and philosophical statements (that I’m sure would make me cringe if I read them today). “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen” begins with an autobiographical detail; it’s true that I read Dostoyevsky’s four big novels when I was seventeen. The poem attempts to recreate the frenetically pitched set of emotions that one only experiences either in the pages of a Russian novel or in the throes of adolescence. None of the images and phrases are drawn directly from Dostoyevsky. Rather, I try to evoke what Milan Kundera called “the magical charm of atmospheres”: recalling what it felt like to lie alone in my twin bed at night pondering the fate of Dmitri Karamazov, dreaming of a girl I liked in my homeroom. “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen” is an attempt to capture those lost atmospheres from a novelistic or cinematic vantage point. NA: I admire your poems about your father’s illness and death. One of these poems is called, “A Defense of Confessional Poetry.” Are you a defender of confessional poetry? Do you consider these poems to be confessional? DDS: The poems about the illness and death of my father are deeply autobiographical. Most, if not all, of the details in these poems are true to the events as I recall them. Whenever I write about someone I know I tend not to embellish. Of course, remembering is an inherently slippery proposition, but I try to remain moored to the truth of my recollection. Sometimes, I feel like this fidelity to “truth” is a failure of imagination on my part. However, it would feel like a betrayal if I invented additional details about the day my father died, if I changed a second of my daughter’s birth,... Continue reading
Posted Jun 7, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Every now and then I wake up in serious need of a poetry fix. I feel a kind of angst, as if I don’t quite fit in my skin. Maybe I’ve had bad dreams, or worse, the same old worry-dreams I’ve had for years. Or maybe I’m just tired—tired of the news, the weather, my own mind and spirit. I want something refreshing, something to wake me up, to make my day a little brighter. I start looking for a poem, or a collection of poems, by poets I haven’t seen or heard enough from yet. Poets like Jamey Dunham—I’ve been waiting for a long time for his second book of poems. Or like Shivani Mehta, who blew me away with her first collection, Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded. Who could resist a book with a title like that? Or Kathleen McGookey, whose precise and breath-taking poems enchant me again and again. Or my latest discovery, Leona Sevick, whose insights and sly wit catch me off guard. Three of these poets have been published by Press 53, so I thought I’d post a poem by each of these women, though I should warn you, one poem is not enough to display the depth of their magic. Still, I think it might inspire readers to run out and find more of their work. First, a poem published by PoetsArtists from Shivani Mehta whose recent poems are haunting and other-worldly. Exodus When we were exiles my mother wrapped me in paper bags for warmth, carried me on her back as she walked for miles. Our shadows on the ground were one body, everything I saw was framed by her long black hair. Sometimes we stopped in villages for shelter, never stayed for more than a night. We weren’t searching for anything holy, just a place where we could uncurl our fists. My mother told me I was born with the map on my back. I remember how, when we were lost, she used it to orient herself, her coarsened fingers undoing the buttons of my dress, smoothing the cloth from my shoulders, cities and towns asleep under her fingers. Once she said, your spine is the river, each vertebra is a path we could take. Next, from Kathleen McGookey, a poem published by KYSO Flash. I love her surreal wit and sensibility. Taxonomy Months later, when my husband finally scratched my bare back, the itchy center part I couldn’t reach, tiny sugar ants streamed out, then carpenter ants and termites, crickets and earwigs and millipedes, then silverfish, furry disoriented bumblebees, a few fireflies, green grasshoppers, and moths with large eyes glaring from their wings. He leapt out of bed to scoop them into glass jars with metal lids and line them up on the headboard. The snakes settled into the bathtub, its candlelit waters still smelling of vanilla and blood orange, little waves lapping the sides. In Sharpie, he catalogued his find by genus and species on the back of his... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
NA: Congratulations on your new book, The Behavior of Clocks! I thought I'd start this interview by simply asking you to post the poem, "Time, Travels." Time, Travels Time and space are modes by which we think, and not conditions in which we live —Albert Einstein As the train pulls away, Albert waves at her window, watches until the last car disappears down the track, his time with the woman like a chapter in a book he’s been writing. When he lifts the pencil, the ideas don’t stop, just as the woman, in her own world, rolls on into her future. Looking back down the track, he sees the past is much the same, a story to wander in memory or bring to life again by writing down. In that way, the past is ever-present. He takes the stairs out of the station into the familiar streets, enjoying the walk, the early evening air, looking forward to getting back to his desk. Through the dirty glass he is such a small man on the platform, waving, growing smaller, then gone. As the train gathers speed, she is alone at last with her thoughts. A remarkable person. An unforgettable trip. Once she’s home, she’ll write down every word. SA: Thank you, and thanks for your interest. “Time, Travels” is the third in a brief series of speculative pieces about hanging out with Einstein that form an organizational strategy for the book’s adventure with relativity. NA: Tell me how the idea for this book came to you. SA: In the book’s preface, I explain how in the process of working on this collection, I became interested in Einstein and was given a book he wrote by a physicist friend. In the book, Einstein tries to simplify his theory of general relativity, and there I began to see connections to my own interests in time, space, and memory. It was Einstein’s famous “thought experiments,” a series of metaphors involving the movement of trains and clocks, that captivated me and helped shape this book in a way I hope reflects an experience of spacetime. NA: One of my favorite poems in the book is “Waves, Cinque Terra," and I was wondering how that fit into the theme of the book. Waves, Cinque Terra Say yes, then no, then no again —Pablo Neruda On the shore in Cinque Terra down the cliff from the trail between Manarola and Corniglia, even though we have a train to catch and lodging to secure, we sit down on midnight colored rocks where the Mediterranean rolls in tumbling them, a rhythmic rush and clatter, rush-clatter. I begin to stack the stones as high as I can, large to small. My son and his friend strip to their underwear, dive, swim, the late afternoon sun on water-splash makes an apparition like silver—they call, beckon me come in! Their bodies, their voices too a kind of silver. How I wanted. How I always will. SA: It’s so great to hear which... Continue reading
Posted Apr 8, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks David!
I love this Sappho poem of pure jealousy. I love the “kindled the flesh along my arms/ and smothered me in its smoke-blind rush.” I’m just realizing that many of my favorite poems celebrate the worst parts of our beings: jealousy, lust, rage. I am thinking about this because I have been reading this book, Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, a book recommended by my meditation instructor. The basic premise of the book is that love is not something you simply emanate like a yogi from a cave. Rather, you have to practice it in both small and big ways. The book suggests that you create micro-moments of love by engaging with people wherever you go—the drug store, the post office, the hairdresser, the sidewalk. Just imagine all the opportunities for micro-moments of love. After many such moments, you can develop something called positive resonance. I picture it like a halo around me. Yeah, right. But the other day, I thought, what the hell. I might as well try it out. Supposedly, if you do this practice, you develop a well-toned vagal nerve. And who doesn’t want a toned vagal nerve? So I gave it a shot. I went to the Y for a workout and started gabbing with everyone in sight. I don’t like to chat when I work out, and people who talk too much give me hives. But I figured this was just an experiment. And besides hives, what’s the worst thing that could happen? First, I talked to a man who was recently divorced and was trying to sweat out his rage at his ex. (He reminded me of that George Bilgere poem, “What I Want”). I didn’t really want to pursue that topic. So then I talked to a woman who hates her ass—okay, that was a little more interesting, and made me think of Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips.” Next, I spoke to a lady who thinks the Y is some kind of preview of hell. She did have a few good points to make, especially about the sweaty deposits on the equipment (and yes, there’s a poem for that, too.) Then, in the swimming pool, a man started telling me how to improve my swimming form. He said he could coach me a bit. Really? So what is it with men? I mean, what woman would tell a man she would like to coach him. Seriously! (Afterwards, in the shower, I kept thinking of that wonderful poem, “Shooter,” by Jan Beatty.) Needless to say, I was failing at micro-moments of love. Or at least I wasn’t feeling it. And to make matters worse, the next day there were all these people trying to talk to me. I put my headphones on and looked into the distance. I didn’t even have anything to listen to, but headphones are useful. I think of them now as a protection against micro-moments of love. I thought of all my failed attempts... Continue reading
Posted Apr 2, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
A little over a year ago, I moved from Poland, Ohio, to Charlottesville, Virginia, and I barely recognize the sleepy university town where I grew up. At times I even feel a little homesick for Ohio. But one of the great joys of moving back is visiting New Dominion Bookshop, the oldest independent bookshop in the state and a bookshop with an extensive poetry section (located at the front of store—not in the basement or the some dark corner where poetry books are usually found). As a teen, I worked at New Dominion but the shop, like the city, has been transformed. It is now owned by Julia Kudravetz, a poet. Her marketing director, Sarah Crossland, is also a poet. Maybe it’s no surprise then that the shop has become a happening place for poets and writers, particularly during the one week in March when the city hosts the Virginia Festival of the Book, which is this week! I am so excited about New Dominion Bookshop and the upcoming events at the Festival, I thought I’d interview Julia Kudravetz and Sarah Crossland. NA: First, Julia, I want to thank you, not only for running the bookshop, but also for opening it up to so many events. What inspired you to buy New Dominion? How does a poet go from teaching and running workshops and readings to becoming the owner of a bookshop? JK: Thanks so much for interviewing us! I think it has been a long and winding road, so to speak, to being owner of an historic independent bookshop. Everything we do prepares us in some ways for the next task, but in my case, I first got involved in the bookshop through a poetry and fiction reading series that I hosted called the Charlottesville Reading Series. We held it monthly at a nearby artspace, and when a poet or a writer was on booktour, I wanted to be able to sell the book, so I asked Carol Troxell (the former owner) if I could start selling books from New Dominion at the event. From there I began working occasional shifts at the shop and doing their social media. When Carol Troxell passed away suddenly two years ago, I wrote to her husband and asked if he would consider hiring me as the manager, and if that went well I would buy the shop. At the time I was teaching college composition courses during the week, but I finished out the school year and began my job as the manager the day after classes ended. It’s been nonstop since! It’s true that it’s a big switch to go from teaching to managing a business, but in some ways teaching skills translate really well into dealing with the public—you have to be able to talk to people, to understand their needs and what they are looking for, and of course you must be patient and confident even when you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all. I also think that teaching and... Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Reading Michael Dirda’s review of Best American Poetry 2018, I was stopped by these sentences: The great test of any poem is simply Would I like to learn this by heart? Alas, nothing here quite merits that reward, though Dick Davis’s autumnal reflections in “A Personal Sonnet” come close. I asked myself, Really? That seems like such a limited view of both poetry and poetry appreciation. But it made me wonder: What is the great test of any poem? Especially now when, as Dana Gioia asks in the introduction: How do you measure something that won’t hold still? American poetry is now so large, so complex, and dynamic that no one can actually describe it. I thought about the first poem I ever fell in love with: Hopkins “The Windhover.” I was thirteen, recovering from eye surgery, and my mother read it aloud to me. I had no idea what the poem was about, nor was my mother interested in explaining it. But somehow the sound of it broke inside me like a wave. I caught this morning morning' minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air . . . I remember looking out the hospital window at swarms of birds and feeling this strange sense of magic and awe overwhelming me. Maybe it was just the aftermath of anesthesia. But I like to think the poem gave me what I call a Namaste experience in poetry—something like the experience I feel when watching this little movie sent to me by Nancy Mitchell: IMG_5340 from Nathalie Andrews on Vimeo. In other words, I felt as if Hopkins was offering some of the mystical wonder within himself to the mystic in me. And I had a similar experience with some of the poems in this year’s anthology. When I read Tony Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery,” which I read as a farewell poem to his readers (even if the Contributor Notes suggest otherwise), I felt such pangs of sadness and gratitude for this poem and for all of his many, beautiful poems. I was also stunned by the poems, “Angels in the Sun” by Ruben Quesada. “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen," by Dante Di Stefano, and “Pied Beauty,” by Nausheen Eusuf, “Invitation" by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, "Walking Home" by Marie Howe. I am such a fan of Terrance Hayes, and so, not surprisingly, I thought his "American Sonnet from My Past and Future Assassin," was brilliant. I especially loved his description of Sylvia Plath: “My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not/ Especially fun company. A drama queen, thin-skinned,/ And skittery, she thought her poems were ordinary./ What do you call a visionary who does not recognize/ Her vision?” But I don’t mean to suggest that the anthology is full of uplifting or mystical poetry. In this day and age, it would be impossible not to include many poems that address our current political nightmare, poems like Frank Bidart’s, “Mourning What We Thought We... Continue reading
Posted Jan 20, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
In my recent posts, I’ve been talking a lot about confessional and autobiographical poetry. Last night I received an email asking me what I have against the confessional form. A short answer to that question I give in the first five minutes of this interview with Grace Cavalieri. At a later date I might elaborate because I really do have a bone to pick with the so-called confessionalists. But I thought instead I’d end the series on a lighter note with this wonderful poem by Karen Schubert, which won the William Dickey Memorial Broadside Contest in 2015, and which was inspired by her former professor, Philip Brady. Dr. Brady once advised his students: Don’t be married to autobiography. Autobiography Don’t be married to autobiography. -Phil Brady I may be dating myself here… -Anja Farin I am not married to Autobiography, but we are lovers. This is my first lesbian relationship. I’ve been trying to awaken my inner lesbian for years, but until now all I could muster was an artistic lust for the female figure. Autobiography is different, although she embarrasses me, won’t let me tell the story the way I want to. She reminds me about the wine stain on the satin chair, forgotten Mother’s Day cards, my fear of glass elevators. She makes fun of me, the gray tooth and the way one eye squeezes shut when I laugh. She says beauty is symmetrical. I am obsessed with Autobiography, call her late at night and leave message after message. I just want to hear her voice. I think she is two-timing me. I am afraid she will run off with the other woman. We fight. We make up. We go to our café, bookstore. Later, I will write about it. When Autobiography and I walk by people we know, they tremble. Karen Schubert is the author of five poetry chapbooks, most recently Dear Youngstown (NightBallet Press), Black Sand Beach (Kattywompus Press) and I Left My Wings on a Chair (Kent State Press), selected by Kathleen Flenniken for a Wick Poetry Center Chapbook Prize. Her poems and creative nonfiction appear in Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Lake Effect Poetry and Winning Writers, and performed at the Cleveland Humanities Festival and The Strand Project; awards include residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Headlands Center for the Arts. Schubert is director of Lit Youngstown, a literary arts nonprofit in Ohio. photo credit, Courtney Kensinger Continue reading
Posted Jan 4, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
I love this interview with Jorie Graham. I think it’s oddly seasonal, a perfect podcast to listen to now in the darkest time of the year, in the season of myth and magic. I love how Jorie Graham, like Philip Brady, thinks in terms of our cultural beliefs. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, at least listen to the opening when Jorie Graham describes how she imagines, when writing a poem, that she is trying to get the attention of an unwilling listener, or “a person such as a God who has heard every prayer already, every request, every outraged voice and is tired of humanity, and has turned his back or her back." She explains that “there is such a moment in the Bible that used to terrify me when I was younger, when Moses hides in a cleft of a rock and watches God’s back go by. And I used to think, God’s back? He turns his back on us?” Jorie Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including the Forward Prize-winning and T.S. Eliot Prize-nominated Place (Ecco, 2012), From the New World: Poems 1976-2014(2015), Sea Change (2008), Overlord (HarperCollins, 2005); Never (HarperCollins, 2002); Swarm(2000); The Errancy (1997); The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Materialism (1993); Region of Unlikeness (1991); The End of Beauty (1987); Erosion (1983); and Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980). She has also edited two anthologies, Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1996) and The Best American Poetry 1990. Her newest collection of poetry, Fast, released from Harper Collins in May 2017, received the Bobbitt Award frm The Libary of Congress. Continue reading
Posted Dec 30, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
As a continuation in my series of blog posts on the nature of truth, specifically autobiographical truth in poetry, I thought I’d interview Philip Brady whose most recent collection of poetry, to Banquet with the Ethiopians, as well his new book of essays, Phantom Signs, deal directly and indirectly with the questions I have been pondering. NA: As I mentioned in my recent interviews with January Gill O’Neil, Nicole Santalucia, and Dante Di Stefano, I had a poetry professor once who hated what he called “dishonesty in poetry.” He hated it when poets used the first person, and then described illnesses they never had or divorces or . . . who knows, maybe their own funerals. I am wondering what you think? In your poetry as well as in your essays, the personal and the mythic are profoundly linked. Do you think of the I in poetry as a sort of myth? The personal as a construction? PB: Nin, I am completely honest on the page. Naked. Virtually transparent. It is true that I suffer occasional lapses in orthography. Queens, for instance, is spelled, in my father’s hand, “Galway.” And Father himself is transcribed as “Telemachus.” While Mother is indubitably a goddess, she did not prove, regrettably, immortal. And my wife, in spite of being spelled “selkie,” is not in actuality trans-species. These variorums may be addressed in the next edition. I share your poetry prof’s aversion to doctoring. Untruths inserted in order to enhance status, embellish memory, hide sin, wring sympathy, or gain financial advantage must be censured. If, for instance, a certain University College Cork player signing “Rick Barry” autographs did not actually dunk a basketball against the Cork Blue Demons in Gurranabraher in 1976, any claim to the contrary is bollix. Likewise, if Homer didn’t write the Iliad and Odyssey, he should stop collecting royalties. NA: In your essay, “The Book I Almost Wrote,” you describe your efforts to write a memoir, and how, after recovering from heart surgery, your concept of the memoir completely changed. You decided to write the memoir in verse instead. Somehow that made all the difference? Why? PB: Partly it was perspective. Coming back from a near-death experience, I felt far away from the tribulations of a seventh grader in summer camp, where the prose memoir-in-progress was set. As Walter Ong has said, “One of the most startling paradoxes inherent in writing is its close association with death.” So there was the desire to lift things off the page. Having just emerged from the place of the Muse, I wanted to compose and be composed by a living body, which is verse. NA: How does verse change the dynamic? PB: It changes speed, and allows for radical distortion of scale. Since they are margined, sentences must create believable scale and maintain pace. Speed can of course vary, but not in the dramatic way that it can change in lines. Lines can stretch each moment to an operatic recitative. Or they can move... Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
As you might have guessed from my recent blog posts, I have been thinking a lot about the nature of truth, specifically autobiographical truth, in poetry. After all, we seem to be in era where everyone is questioning the nature of truth in every kind of writing. As I mentioned in my interview with January Gill O’Neil, I had a poetry professor once who hated what he called “dishonesty in poetry.” He hated it when poets used the first person, and then described illnesses they never had or divorces they never went through or . . . who knows, maybe their own funerals. So I wanted to ask several poets how they navigate this question. A fan of the works of Dante Di Stefano, I thought I’d ask him a few questions. (Let me add that I love asking Dante anything, even the most inane questions because he always has such brilliant answers. I'm thinking of starting a column with the title, Just Ask Dante.) NA: I love your poem in this year’s Best American Poetry, and I think it speaks to the essence of what made you want to be a poet. Or maybe it is simply stating that you already were, at seventeen, in essence, a poet. (Of course, by saying that I am admitting that I am reading the poem as truth.) But reading it, I would not imagine that you set out to be an autobiographical or confessional poet? Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen In those days, my dreams always changed titles before they were finished, and I wanted only to love in that insane, tortured way of poor dear Dmitri Karamazov. Suddenly, I was speaking the language of lapdog and samovar. This is the ballroom, the barracks, the firing squad. This is the old monk with the beard of bees. This is the orange lullaby the moon of the moon will sing you when it’s grieving. This is the province you escape by train, fleeing heavy snow and eternal elk. This is the part where I take your hand in my hand and I tell you we are burning. And let me add, before you answer the question, that this poem as well as the others in this interview is from your forthcoming book, Ill Angels, that will be published by Etruscan Press next summer. I am so looking forward to owning that book! DDS: Thanks for your kind words, Nin. No, I didn’t set out to be a poet at all, of any kind. I’ve always loved reading and writing, but in high school I read mostly novels, and I kept a daily journal that mostly consisted of reactions to the books I was reading, quotes from those books, lists of new words I’d discovered, and philosophical statements (that I’m sure would make me cringe if I read them today). “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen” begins with an autobiographical detail; it’s true that I read Dostoyevsky’s four big novels when I was seventeen. The poem attempts... Continue reading
Posted Dec 11, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Hi David, I will have to check out that book! Thanks for letting me know!
In my recent interview and classroom visit with Nicole Santalucia, Nicole and I talked about confessional poetry, and her students joined in the conversation. I was so interested in her students’ questions and comments, I am still thinking about them. One of the questions that stuck with was about the difference between autobiographical and confessional poetry. I am paraphrasing here, but the student seemed to be asking, If you write about your life, then aren’t you a confessional poet? The question came at the end of our time together, but I would have liked to have answered by talking about poets like Frank O’Hara, Billy Collins, and George Bilgere, poets who serve as a nice contrast to confessional poets. Or better yet, by playing Grace Cavalieri’s recent interview for The Poet and the Poem with George Bilgere in which Bilgere talks about his teaching method, his young boys, his writing process, and ideals. “The challenge for me,” Bilgere explained in the interview, “is to try to write interesting poems out of a commonplace life.” About George Bilgere, Grace comments, “He can take an ordinary event and make it a knife through the heart.” The interview is short, entertaining, and so worth listening to, I want everyone to hear it. But if you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, be sure to listen to the unpublished poem, ““For the Slip and Slide,” that is about twenty minutes in. It’s a masterpiece. Below is the title poem from his most recent collection. Blood Pages Someone gave my little boy this illustrated book about whales and every day he carries it to me, demanding we read through its pages about the biggest whales, the blue ones, and the fiercest whales, the suave orcas in their tuxes, and the mild sperm whales with their baleen and blow holes and benevolent gaze. Which is fine. Everyone likes whales, but of course being a boy he wants to focus on the "blood pages," as he calls them, just two of them inserted like an accidental dose of reality in the middle of the book, where the great whales are hauled up like minnows onto the decks of the Japanese trawlers, their strength broken against the diesel winches, blood pouring from the smoking wounds where the harpoons struck and exploded. I want to page forward to the dolphins somersaulting above Sea World, but he wants to see leviathan stripped of his lordliness, skinned alive on an ocean of blood by small men with their scarlet blades, their watch caps and cigarettes, making good money on the long cruise but nonetheless longing for home, for the touch of their wives, for their own children on their laps. George Bilgere’s seventh book of poetry, Blood Pages, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018. Bilgere has received grants and awards from the Pushcart Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress, and the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Ever since my interview with January Gill O’Neil, I have been thinking about the question of truth in poetry, especially in confessional and autobiographical poetry. So, a few weeks ago, I had the honor of joining two of Nicole Santalucia’s creative writing classes by Skype, and I talked a bit about this topic. I confessed that I was not a particular fan of confessional poetry, and the students (such amazing and inspired students!) had so many interesting comments and questions. Nicole, herself asked, Do you think I have fallen too deeply into the confessional well? I love that term, the confessional well. I decided I wanted to ask Nicole questions about her sense of herself as a confessional poet and her new book, Spoiled Meat, the winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize. NA: First, I want to continue our conversation that began with your class. Can you elaborate on that term, confessional well? I think that should be the title of a poem! NS: I must confess my concern about being self-centered, yet I am unapologetic that my poems bear a precise relationship to my personal life. The confessional well is the capital P Private, the place in the psyche where secrets harbor, the place where only the “I” can retrieve what’s inside. This designated well for confessions is also a dumping zone and a workspace, a mode of self-reflection and personal inventory. A confessional well is comparable to a fountain of truth, I guess. Wells and fountains are both structures that contain water. Confessions and truths are accessed similarly and create a sense of agency during the process. My confessional well is occupied by more than personal experiences—my failures, successes, pains, traumas, etc.—because its foundation is permeable. It’s like a hydraulic fracking site with a drilling team injecting chemicals, sand, and water. What I mean is that there are pollutants and pressures—environmental and societal—that infiltrate my well of truth. A confessional is also an enclosed stall in a church that scares the shit out of me, and, well…. NA: I love what you are saying here. But I am somewhat surprised that you consider yourself a confessional poet. Do you think that the opening poem, “The Chicken with a Broken Beak,” in your wonderful new poetry collection, is a confessional poem? The Chicken with a Broken Beak I want to be the chicken in the front seat of that Cadillac driving down Route 11. The chicken that reaches for the steering wheel when there’s another chicken in the road. The chicken that changes a flat tire and the chicken that doesn’t get beat up for loving other chickens. I want to be the red feathered chicken with white feathered chicks. The chicken with big breasts that doesn’t wear a bra. The chicken that can actually fly; I’d soar over Pennsylvania, over cornfields, and over the prison. I’d free caged chickens and dig graves for dead chickens. I’d tie a dollar to a string and catch the guards who guard... Continue reading
Posted Dec 5, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
I had the honor of reading with January Gill O’Neil at Brookline Booksmith’s in Brookline, Mass. back in March 2010 when her first book had just been published. What a thrill it was! Afterwards we sat at a table with friends, signing books and chatting. Like me, the audience was profoundly moved by January’s poems and performance, and everyone was singing her praises. Now, just in time for Christmas shopping, her third book, Rewilding is available from CavanKerry Press. All three books of her books are profoundly autobiographical and manage to pull me into her world with such grace and ease, I want to keep reading and rereading her work. Needless to say, I was delighted when she agreed to do an interview. NA: Do you ever feel self-conscious, or exposed, when writing your deeply personal poems? JGO: No. As I tell my students, you can write about anything—but you don’t have to publish everything you write. I’m a pretty up-front person. I don’t have anything to hide. That being said, I wouldn’t publish anything that might embarrass my family. But then again, I have a potty-training poem that gets eye rolls from the kids so there’s that. NA: I had a poetry professor once who hated what he called “dishonesty in poetry.” He hated it when poets use the first person, and then describe a life they have not lived--he said they were lying to their readers. But it seems to me that poets are more interested in writing a beautiful poem than telling the truth. In other words, given the choice between truth and beauty, most choose beauty. Yet you seem to be able to do both. Do you ever feel that you have to make that choice? What do you think about “lying” in poetry? JGO: No, I don’t think I have to make a choice; however, little lies are fine. I mean, at some point the poet is working in service to the poem. In order to do that, a writer has to let go of the origin story in favor of art. So, if the setting of a poem takes place during the day but works better for the narrative if it takes place at dusk, I’m OK with that. NA: I love the poem, “On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Years Party 2014.” I’d love you to post it below and say a few words about it? JGO: People say I bear a resemblance to our first lady. (I’m flattered but I don’t see it.) But on this occasion, it struck a nerve and I needed to respond poetically. In a strange twist of fate, I went to the White House in 2016 for a celebration of National Youth Poetry and while I did not meet Michelle Obama, I came awfully close. Rumor has it that my poem made the rounds that summer at the White House. On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014 Deep in my... Continue reading
Posted Nov 24, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
It’s Monday, and I’m scrolling down my iPhone, reading headlines as I work out at the Y. The top stories are the sexy ones. The hot question of the morning: Will the FBI really investigate Brett? That’s the question we women are talking about as we sweat. Is it any surprise that this country is run by a bunch of rich and connected good old boys? a red-haired woman asks. Another nods and says that we all know they drink beer. They like beer. Lots of beer. And do they black out? Yes. Do you? No. I know what would happen if I did, especially if I hung out with good ol’ boys. We talk. We sweat. We laugh. And then, as so often happens these days, someone begins to describe her own experience of being sexually abused. Afterwards I think of all the woman I have heard tell their stories lately, and of all the poems and stories I have read about sexual abuse. I think of how Nancy Mitchell wrote in her poem, “Why I’m Here,” We all here want, hope, to be fixed— but chances of a successful retrofit to the body depend on remembering— most cases are too far gone—the damage. And then I think of other topics in the news these days that worry me. Other cases that I fear are “too far gone—the damage.” Topics that I rarely overhear anyone talk about at the Y or Starbucks or anywhere else. The environment is the top of my list. I feel a real sense of urgency. Time is not on our side. Today’s headline: The Trump Administration Prepares a Major Weakening of Mercury Emission Rules. Climate change is the primary reason I worry about Kavanaugh (and probably anyone Trump will pick). I fear his anti-regulation stance, the fact that he will further handicap the EPA, stripping its authority to enforce environmental regulations on constitutional grounds. But this is not something I talk about much. When I do, people stare at me blankly. Last summer I spoke with a board member for one of the nation’s major conservation groups about people’s lack of concern or awareness of environmental issues. I asked him if his group could think of a way to improve their messaging. He answered that they have been trying. They have done research on the effectiveness of outreach and advertisements. Their conclusion: the ads are completely ineffective. He added that neither floods nor hurricanes nor fires have raised people’s concerns. Doomsday predictions do nothing. People tend to think that Doomsday will happen to others, not themselves. Then he asked if I thought poets might have any insights into how we might tackle the problem. Do I have a favorite environmental poem? I have been wondering about that ever since. I do love this poem by David Bottoms, which depicts the way we keep living our lives and ignoring the environment as best we can. Foul Ball The river was off-limits, but occasionally a foul... Continue reading
Posted Oct 1, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Ever since Trump was elected, I have been trying out variations on the serenity prayer—God, grant me the serenity to accept that Trump is President and the wisdom not to go insane . . . My prayers have not been answered. I admit I am not usually a prayerful person, or even a faithful one, but extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. As my friend, the poet, January Gill O’Neil said, Something dark has crawled from under a rock and we need it to crawl back under there. I am pretty sure last week was a trial for all of us. And I’m already wondering if I will have the serenity to accept whatever happens next. Of all qualities, serenity is one of the hardest for me to master. Even a snippet of a conversation can send me over the edge as it did last Friday when I was walking on the downtown mall in Charlottesville and overheard two men talking about Christine Blasey Ford. One was saying: I betcha she was just a pretty young thang looking for trouble. And they was just being boys. The other agreed, Women always blame men who give ‘em what they ask for. Yep, we women are to blame. Whatever sexual assaults we suffer, we cause them. Maybe we should bind or feet like the Chinese women once did so we can’t run freely. Or cover our hair if not our entire bodies as women must in certain Muslim countries. Or how about female circumcision? Cut that female genitalia right off. It didn't help that I also passed a man with a big sign saying, I STAND WITH BRETT. I was so angry, I ducked into The New Dominion Bookshop to gather my composure. I love bookshops, especially this one. Charlottesville is so lucky to have it. Right when you walk in, you see the poetry section: a quiet place to recover, read a few poems, catch your breath. And the staff is so helpful. Shortly after I arrived, the lovely new events coordinator, Sarah Valencia, informed me that there was a poetry reading starting in just a few hours—two fantastic poets, Erika Meitner and Emilia Phillips, were reading that night. And what a terrific reading it was! Listening to Erika and Emilia, I felt as if my day had been saved by poetry. (And also, seeing Erika's T-shirt!) Both women are not just fantastic poets, they also know how to give a great reading. I thought I'd close with a poem from each. Pica of Unsaid Things by Emilia Philips from her new book, Empty Clip Yes, I swallowed them. Those bitter bolts rust in acidic afterthought. This tetanus of tautology turns my gut a copper gangrene, a belfry swallowed. Did you know passive aggression is so soluble? A soapy mouth learns other ways to speak: homonymic hymns oflye and lie. The awful offal becomes my loden, stinking anger uncomplicates. But I gulped the wrong way. I am a glutton for bile.... Continue reading
Posted Sep 30, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
NA: I wanted to start by asking you to post the title poem and say a few words about it. SBD: Echolocation The whales can’t hear each other calling in the noise-cluttered sea: they beach themselves. I saw one once—heaved onto the sand with kelp stuck to its blue-gray skin. Heavy and immobile, it lay like a great sadness. And it was hard to breathe with all the stink. Its elliptical black eyes had stilled, were mostly dry, and barnacles clustered on its back like tiny brown volcanoes. Imagining the other whales, their roving weight, their blue-black webbing of the deep, I stopped knowing how to measure my own grief. And this one, large and dead on the sand, with its unimaginable five-hundred-pound heart. “Echolocation” became the title poem very early on in the book’s eight-year evolution. Echolocation is, of course, the way whales locate themselves through the sounds that they bounce off the ocean floor, corals, other sea creatures. A poet too locates her/himself through a particularizing of sound. If the poem reaches a reader, then the speaker and the reader are located for each other precisely. I guess that is a goal anyway. NA: I just realized that like me, you spend a lot of time in Maine, and I was wondering what, if any, influence the beautiful Maine coastline might have on your poetry? SBD: The room where I write looks out on a tidal reach that is always changing as the waters rise and fall. The shape and speed of the small waves is in constant transformation as is the water’s color in relation to the sky—emerald green, sage, brown, robin’s egg blue. A friend once called the view from our windows, water television. I find looking at Long Reach, which is the name of this body of water, creates a mental state quiet enough for my mind to slow and gather words; the water’s motion too seems to prevent a kind of stale stasis. At eventide, the water is still, but this too has its own reflective way of calling up poems. My mother died in the Spring of 2017 and during the summer following, I wrote many of the more elegiac poems from this room in Maine. The spot where we live in Harpswell is also very quiet, but for the wind. The wind through the oaks and pines is affecting as well, invisible but for when it moves the trees, the water. NA: I especially love the way your poems address the mother/daughter relationship in particular as well as the spoken and unspoken questions that arise between loved ones. Your mother's discomfort in talking about sexuality is an example. It mirrors the tension, present in so many of your poems--between what can and cannot be said—or known. I wondered if you could say a few words about that tension? SBD: I think tension, opposites pulling on each other, creates a mirror of how our minds often work, all the ambivalence we carry, how... Continue reading
Posted Jul 31, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Last week I mentioned that I often compare poets to dogs. I received a few emails asking me to elaborate. So I want to ask, Am I the only one who thinks this way? Should I teach a seminar on helping poets find their inner dog? There are, after all, just so many similarities between poets and dogs. For starters, everyone is familiar with those social media fiends, yappy little dogs that want to become everyone’s FRIEND and that LIKE everything. And the equally enthusiastic large dogs that stick their noses in everyone’s crotch. (I’m not talking about the Me Too movement here. Crotch-sniffers come in both genders.) And the German Shepherds that, given the opportunity, bite fellow poets—I remember one such poet telling me he really enjoyed writing negative reviews. In contrast are the Cocker Spaniels, great family dogs—Ted Kooser, Stanley Kunitz, and Billy Collins are prime examples. It’s always safe to take a Cocker Spaniel poem to a yoga class or family gathering—no need to worry that they will wander into alarming territories. Unlike the Springer Spaniels that resemble Cockers but often roam and need obedience classes. One of the more appealing breeds to my mind are the majestic Bernese Mountain Dogs that make me wish I lived in the Alps, or at least the Appalachians, or anywhere far away from po-biz and other such nonsense. I don’t think Sydney Lea or John Lane would mind being compared to a Bernese. And there are the tireless Border Collies whose work is beautiful to witness and who can herd other poets as if they were sheep. For this reason, they are known to organize events and conferences like the God-awful AWP. Examples: Kelli Russell Agodon, Grace Cavaleiri, Didi Menendez, and January Gil O’Neil. There are also the Papillons, or dogs from another planet—their large ears are clearly designed for hearing signals from outer space. Poets like Claire Bateman, Stephanie Strickland, Shivani Mehta, Charles Simic, and Harvey Hix might be Papillons. And the Jack Russells. I always fall in love with Jack Russells, those clever, surprising, and witty poets who are great entertainers and make me laugh. You never know what they are going to get into next. Poets like Jennifer Knox, Denise Duhamel, Amy Gerstler, James Tate, Nicole Santalucia, David Lehman, and Jan Beattie qualify as Jack Russells. I would be negligent if I didn’t mention the ever-present urban poodles, all dolled up, as if by Glamor Shots. Poodle-poets tend to be smart, or at least a lot smarter than they look, and they often win prizes. Also popular today are designer breeds like the Golden Doodle that blends the best aspects of poodles with retrievers. I love anything mixed with a retriever. I adore retrievers. Just saying the word, I can almost see one in the meadow, one leg raised, nose to the air, every fiber of her being alert to any scent or sound or movement in the water or wind. In fact, I just read the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 25, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
I hate it when people ask me questions like that. These days I especially hate it when people ask me for a blurb. People I’ve never met, whose work I don’t know. I’ve been asked a lot lately. I know—it’s all part of po-biz, but I’m tired, really tired, so I’m taking a much-needed blurb-vacation. I also hate it when folks ask me, in an effort to be polite, what my books are about, as if I should be able to give my books an elevator pitch. Or why I write. Or what poetry is for . . . Maybe I should have started this blog-post by saying I am not in a good mood. Last week my beloved Boston terrier, Miss Froda, (depicted to the left in this old comic of mine) died, and I’m feeling bereft. Lost. Inconsolable. A part of my soul has departed. I am quite sure there has never been a dog like her. She was everything: free verse, prose, short fiction, a novel. Without her I feel as if every day is an endless and unpunctuated page. No joyous reason to wake up, no urgent reason to go outside several times a day—see the clouds, the sky, the sun, no reason to stop writing at 3:00 PM for her dinner—always topped with a sliver of salmon. Salmon, the only poetry she really understood. Disruptive and beguiling, she was my solace, my soul mate, my confidante, my punch line. Sounds like I am writing a blurb for my dog, doesn’t it? But she was the best dog ever. My vet agreed but then she added, Aren’t all our dogs the best? Nope,I said. Just like all poets aren’t the best, even if every blurb seems to say they are. What is it with blurbs? (Before writing a blurb, I always try to decide what kind of dog this poet resembles.) I told the vet about my first dog, Luger, a Rottweiler, who loved only me. Everyone one else he wanted to eat. He would look up at me, clearly begging, May I bite him? Oh please? Just a nip? Back then I was a runner, and I spent a lot of time jogging on deserted country roads. Having a guard dog had its advantages. But I always worried. To be fair, Luger only bit Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and one vacuum cleaner salesman. (This was back in the day when people sold vacuums door-to-door—they’d dump shit on your carpet and then want you to buy a vacuum to clean it up.) My mother said Luger had good taste—I’m not sure exactly what she meant, but she always sided with the dog. Her logic went something like—if I were a dog, I’d want to bite him, too. My dog, Luger, sold her on the breed. My vet laughed and confessed that there are days she feels just like Luger. Me, too,I said. (That’s when I knew—this lady is the vet for me. Or should I say,... Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Sometimes as poets, we need to get together and bitch, my friend, S., says. So last week we got together to bitch about po-biz. Her complaints are familiar ones. Like many poets and writers today, she feels overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. She’s published a lot, has a few books out, and has had teaching stints here and there, usually as adjunct faculty. But she says, I 'm almost never invited to give readings or speak at conferences. I don’t sell many books, and I'm beginning to ask myself, What the hell am I doing? She points out that the literary world mirrors the economic world. 1% of us are rock stars, and the rest are street musicians. I tell her my latest absurd idea: I think we should start helping each other, maybe writing each other fan letters. We could get pompoms and have pep rallies for fellow poets. I say it as a joke, of course, but the truth is, I love writing fan letters. Sometimes when I can’t write, I imagine myself as a gum-chewing, unstable, teenage groupie who is in awe of poets, and who writes them fan mail. In fact, right now I am in the middle of writing a silly fan letter to Nancy Mitchell because I just started reading her latest book, The Out-of-Body Shop, and it's terrific. My letter begins: Dear Nancy, Do you have a southern drawl? I swear I can almost hear the lilt when I read your lines. I love a good drawl, and I love your poems even more. Maybe one day I'll get to hear you read them out loud! I wanted to tell you how the other day when I was getting my hair done, I read your poem, "Work," the one about working a late-shift at the factory. I burst out laughing when I got to the parts where the you talk about a woman who kept her man in line by weaving her hair around his zipper. "What's so funny?" my beautician, Kylie, asked, so I read the poem out loud to all the ladies at the salon. We laughed so hard, one woman said she almost got perm fluid in her eye. Kylie said to tell you that if you want to keep a man, you just put a little salt on his tail. I don't know what she means, and I'm not sure I want to know. Do you? I also loved and laughed at the poem “Praise.” Praise You be my Sunday morning hot butter-swirled syrup-drizzled whipped-cream- dollop-topped hand-scratch-made pancake. I be your coffee cup, Star-bucked. But when I tell S. about my fan letter-idea, she's not enthused. She's not in the mood to laugh. Instead she tells me about the literary magazines that accept her submissions and collect fees, but never respond to her work. Years go by, she says, and I hear nothing. Sometimes she writes query notes, and they, too, go unanswered. I know exactly what she means. Oh,... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
NA: I am so excited to be talking with you about your book, Whistle What Can’t Be Said, and your project, Whistlewords, which works primarily with women who are cancer patients and survivors. I thought we might begin with an excerpt from your page of Acknowledgements in which you describe the impetus behind writing Whistle What Can't be Said? CM: When I was first diagnosed at the age of 39 with Stage Three Breast Cancer, I was given a hefty notebook to help me navigate all that I was going to experience in the months and years to follow. But something was missing. I hope that the poems in this book might serve to fill the void for others who live in the territory of cancer. I also would like to thank the many, many people who held me in the light during treatment—especially my children, Emma and Garland. NA: I’d ask you to talk about Whistlewords, but I think providing a link might be simpler. It’s such a beautiful website with so much information about you, your great work, and the film-maker Betsy Cox. CM: NA: How did you meet the filmmaker, Betsy Cox? She decided to do a film of your work? CM: I met Betsy through my yoga studio. I knew she was a filmmaker and I initially asked if she might be interested in producing a short film to help me gain entry into cancer centers to run workshops. One of her good friends was in treatment at the time, and after Betsy read Whistle What Can’t Be Said, she immediately felt there was a powerful story to be told. Of course, I agreed. She’s a social issue documentary filmmaker, and has done quite a bit of work in the area of women’s health. So together we launched the project with the idea being that the workshops and the work that results will be the subject of a documentary – and that ultimately, we’d create a replicable package (a facilitator’s guide with workshops plans, the film, and anthology) so that anyone anywhere can offer this program. Of course, the film will hopefully also have a life of its own, through festivals, broadcast and on-line distribution. NA: I really love your poem, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and the film Besty produced of it. I was so startled by your comparison of seeing a circus to receiving a cancer diagnosis. Would you be willing to talk about that? CM: Sure. The poem describes watching the circus animals unload in the city streets of Washington, D.C. where I grew up. The animals came in on the train and were unloaded a few blocks from Arena Stage. My father stopped the car and we watched it happen. It was stunning, in the literal form of that word, stun being a shortening of the word astonish, to turn to stone, to be dazed and stupefied. I felt almost scorched by what I saw. I was eight and the sight... Continue reading
Posted Jun 4, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
This year, my first year back in Charlottesville, Virginia, I had the opportunity to participate once again, both as a reader and an audience-member, in the annual Virginia Festival of the Book. Of all the book festivals I've ever attended, this one is my absolute favorite. It always has stellar poets and writes of all kinds, and I leave it feeling uplifted and inspired. Among my favorite readings this year was one given my Mary-Sherman Willis. Witty, smart, and entertaining, Willis mesmerized the audience as she read from her new book of translations of Jean Cocteau's prose poems, Grace Notes. I was so happy when she agreed to an interview. NA: I heard you read from Grace Notes at the New Dominion Book Shop at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, and I was enchanted both by your translations of Jean Cocteau’s prose poems and by your reading and explanations of his work. When and where did you begin translating Grace Notes? MSW: It was a very happy accident that led me to find him in the poetry section of a small bookstore in a seaside town in Normandy a few years ago. We’d been visiting friends who put us up in what was essentially a garden shed. You had to walk through the greenhouse to get to the bathroom, working your way through hanging grape vines, with slugs and centipedes climbing the walls. I thought it was magic, everything alive like in Belle’s boudoir in Cocteau’s beautiful film, La Belle et la bête—the original 1946 version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Then I spotted Appoggiatures on the shelf. I saw that they were prose poems. I don’t write prose poems, so I thought I might translate them and learn something. NA: Could you talk about the title, Appogiatures? MSW: It’s a term from opera, appoggiatura, meaning the little added note the singer inserts before the principal note, a flourish that delays the note and heightens it. In English it’s a grace note. This was Jean Cocteau’s thirteenth book of poems, published in 1953 when he was 64 years old. (He would publish 23 books of poems before his death ten years later, to add to his astonishing list of artistic works.) He’d survived two world wars. The first he’d spent “volunteering” on the Belgian front (the army had rejected him) in a uniform stitched together by a costume designer. In WWII, he was in Paris under Nazi occupation as an openly gay opium addict living with his muse, the actor Jean Maret. He was making films, writing, painting, and doing what it took to survive. By 1953, although his living circumstances were stable for the first time in his life, his health was poor and he was feeling his mortality. A wealthy divorcé had turned over her villa in St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera to him and his “adopted” lover Edouard Dermit. His work was coming smoothly and his reputation was secure. So he wrote about death... Continue reading
Posted Apr 20, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
NA: I just finished reading your book of poetry, House of Fact, House of Ruin, and your essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, and I am, quite simply, in awe. I don’t know where to begin. There is so much to love in these books. I assume you wrote them together? TS: I wrote The Land Between Two Rivers over a decade, and House of Fact, House of Ruin over the past three or four years. But if you go back to when the first essay was written in 2007, I was also writing the poems that appear in Army Cats. So you might call Army Cats the first installment in an unofficial poetic trilogy about war, refugees, and state violence. The second part would be Station Zed, which focuses on Somali refugees in Somalia and Kenya, and on a trip to Iraq just as ISIL was beginning to establish its so-called "caliphate." But I didn't consciously set out to do this: the "music of what happens," to quote Seamus Heaney, had as much to do with it as any intention on my part. NA: In both collections you begin in war zones, or rather, countries that are in the shadow of wars. When I reflect on your poems and essays, my mind keeps returning to the image of the lizard in the opening poem of House of Fact, House of Ruin, a lizard with “eyes expressionless, giving and withholding nothing.” I would love to hear you say a few words both about that opening poem. TS: I had the poems of Tomas Tranströmer in mind when I wrote that poem. I know that sounds odd, but as I was traveling with a militia in Libya just before the country came apart in 2014, I kept seeing lizards when our little convoy would stop at evening. At a certain point in our trip, we were travelling over sand tracks in open desert country so it wasn't safe to drive at night. If we were sleeping outdoors, we'd set up camp at a watering hole where a few families might be living as herdsmen, but also running a restaurant for travellers like us. I remember watching the lizards come out in the cool of evening and feeling such admiration for them: how tough they were to be able to survive out here, how agile and quick! Plus, they were completely indifferent to human beings, and went about their business, hunting, copulating, bearing young. But they were also just a bit spooky: little dragons, you might say, who could vanish into even the smallest cracks in a cinderblock wall. And they began to take on this quality of the uncanny about them, what the Beowulf poet in Old English calls "the wyrd." And just as the poems of Tranströmer often project an air of menace and transcendence—menace as transcendence—so the lizards, at least as I remembered them when I was writing the poem, were like spirit animals who could survive anywhere—infinitely... Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2018 at The Best American Poetry