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Kate Daniels
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Sometime early this morning, when it was still dark, a soft rain commenced here in Nashville. So we have the unexpected delight of another cool morning – two in one week is almost unheard of this time of year. I’m out on the porch again, drenched in the blessing of a cool, gray, just-barely-rainy Sunday morning… For some reason, I awoke thinking of an annual dinner party I have given each December for the past fifteen years. I call it the “Annual Sit Down, Dress Up, No Kids Allowed, Crown Pork Roast Holiday Dinner.” About two dozen friends (many of whom are colleagues) attend each year. Over time, it has evolved from fancy dinner party mode (multi-colored, curly paper crowns decorating the ends of each rib of the roast, and five courses) to something more along the lines of a home-based cabaret of talented friends. (This year, I’m planning to transition us from the full blown crown pork roast in response to increasing vegetarianism among the attendees…) What the shindig now amounts to is a long cocktail hour – which almost-grown offspring are allowed to attend in party dress, before departing for their own amusements and repasts – the sit down meal, and then an after-dinner hour or so of performance. Because several of us are poets, there is always lots of poetry. Original work is read, followed by those of us who are fluent in languages (French, Russian, and Italian) reading some of their favorite poetry in the original. Otherparty guests are tapped to share the English translations. This past year, we heard fabulous renditions of Akhmatova, Pavese, and Neruda. Of course, there is music, too: a wonderful pairing of one friend who is a soprano (Amy Jarman ), and another who is a brilliant (and well known, Grammy-winning) keyboardist, songwriter, and session player (Billy Livsey ). One of the more practical things about writing is the way it can sort out your thoughts for you. So now that I’m sitting here, composing this final BAP post of the week, I realize that the crown pork roast dinner came to mind this morning six months early because of a heart-stopping performance at the December 2010 event, given by my friend and colleague, Vereen Bell. (Vereen is a critic who has worked on Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Cormac McCarthy et al). His contribution to the evening was a reading of some of his favorite Wallace Stevens poems. He started us off with a stapled together, multi- page (front and back) hand out, and a brief talk on Stevens. Those of us who are academics settled right into it; others looked a bit aghast at the sudden (possibly sober) turn the revelries seemed to have taken. But once Vereen – in his still Mississippi-inflected, vowel-bending, marvelously sinuous voice – started reading and reciting the poems themselves, we all became bound in a mutual enchantment. My neighbor at table leaned over and said, “I can’t believe we’re not getting this... Continue reading
Posted Jun 10, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
I mentioned in yesterday’s post that this weekend the CMA Fest is going on in Nashville. For those who don’t know, this is country music’s annual big ol’ time. It used to take place at the state fairgrounds, and was a marvelously tacky, up close and personal way for fans to meet and greet their favorite musicians. Long lines of little booths (curated to fit a particular image or motif) were set up within which the “artists” (that’s what country music musicians are invariably called here in Nashville) were located. Fans lined up for hours for the opportunity to pass by for handshakes, photos, and quickly scrawled autographs on posters, hats, cd’s, etc. I have to say that I loved everything about the original incarnation: folksy, unpretentious, and FUN. To give you an idea of its flavor, picture super-/mega-/uber-star Alan Jackson in 1990 at the very beginning of his career, meeting fans on the other side of the front end of a vintage Ford truck that his people had rigged up for his booth. (Perhaps this was a harbinger of his hit song, “Drive,” a decade later. The lyrics of this song excited me so much the first time I heard them that I waylaid my colleague and fellow writer Tony Earley in a Vanderbilt parking lot and forced him to drive around with me for close to an hour while I analyzed the wording… ) A few years ago, the Festival was relocated in downtown Nashville, with indoor and outdoor performances, and smaller tent events taking place all over the city. It feels tamer, and as if it’s trying to be a bit more upscale, but it’s still a gas. Just wandering around, eyeballing the sights, music rolling out of every honky tonk’s open door on lower Broadway, or ambling along the Music City Walk of Fame on Demonbreun Street gives you an idea of how essential words and music are to this place, and how much raw talent in both is just laying around the city. Not just musical talent, but musical genius is almost common as dirt here in Nashville. People who don’t live here tend to think it’s all country music all the time, but that’s not true. For a taste of Nashville’s musical variety (with a poetry connection) check out classical composer Michael Rose who has a penchant for composing pieces like "Five Songs for High Voice and Piano," with texts by Novalis, Lorca, Mary Oliver, Robert Francis, and Rilke; “Five Buccolics: A Cycle of Songs on Poems by (contemporary Kentucky Poet) Maurice Manning;” and “Black Branches,” a setting of four poems by William Carlos Williams. I often think how odd it is that both country music and the so-called Southern literary renaissance sprang up in the same place at the same time: Nashville in the 1920s. One has flourished until this very day, while the other flourished initially, and then more or less withered. I have spent a lot of time ruminating... Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
When I first moved to Nashville from Durham (North Carolina) eighteen years ago, I found myself unexpectedly delighted by many aspects of living here. I had been reluctant to leave Durham for lots of reasons. My last child was born there. I had good friends there, and I lived in a marvelous story and a half 1920s bungalow, built as a wedding present to a young woman whose father had been mayor of Durham. I had a great little job as Poet in Residence at Duke Medical Center. More than anything else, however, Durham was – is – one of the best places in the country (I am convinced) for a writer to live. The area is chock full of writers, and all the cultural enhancements that build up around writers: good bookstores; community writing workshops; great places to drink coffee; public gardens and parks wherein to walk and think; a plethora of reading series; organizations that support writers and writing... And on and on… I didn’t understand how it was going to be possible to give all of that up. So, I sobbed in the minivan all the way from Durham to Asheville, our halfway stop on the way to Nashville. Midday, we entered the romantic, ancient terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a chilly, snowless December afternoon. Fog obscured the mountaintops, and congregated in nearly invisible handfuls in the air around us. As I feasted my eyes on the blurred beauties of those softly undulating ranges, a few lines of poetry surfaced: “there were blues and greens dancing before my eyes, in different depths, various textures… they glistened, they curved.” Hmmm… Oh! That was Hilda Morley (“For Elaine de Kooning”). Then, I thought of the Black Mountain Poets, and the community (Morley and her husband the composer Stefan Wolpe were part of it) they had created just up the road, right there in the middle of nothing but mountains. It was an-almost cheering thought. I’m a practical woman. So I stopped crying, and thought: maybe I can make it in Nashville... * One day a few months after I had moved here, and was happily relating how much I liked living in the city, a good friend who had fled Nashville in the late 1970s for the more rational weather and progressive mindset of New England, blurted out before she could help herself, “But what could you possibly like about Nashville?” It was a fair question, I think. Even then, in 1995, good bagels, French bread, and rich coffee had to be searched out. The restaurant offerings were just beginning to develop past neighborhood meat-and-threes and regional chains. Although there were way too many churches, there was just the right amount of independent bookstores (in that era), and absolutely, astoundingly good live music to listen to at a whole series of small clubs – but there was virtually no literary community at all. It took me awhile to realize that the creativity that oozed out... Continue reading
Posted Jun 8, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
It’s hard sometimes for writers living down South not to feel overlooked by the larger poetry community. All the editors and agents live up north, or out in California, don't they? And all the good poetry events seem to happen in New York or Chicago. (Well, as far as I’m concerned, even though I’m a Southerner who lives in the South, all good events of almost any kind happen in New York or Chicago --) So it was superb to wake up a few hours ago to a rare, cool Nashville morning in June, and be greeted by some good news not just for poetry, but for Southern Poetry. The temperature (my god: 69 degrees at 6:15 am) made it possible to sit on the front porch (not sweating!) with coffee and the New York Times. It was thus situated that I read this: Natasha Trethewey, just down the road from us at Emory University in Atlanta, will succeed Philip Levine as U.S. Poet Laureate at the end of this summer. What an excellent choice… So far, all the media reports seem to be emphasizing that Trethewey is the “first Southerner” named to the post since Robert Penn Warren. Let's not forget, however, that Warren -- although born in Kentucky and educated here in Nashville-- had been living the expatriate life in New England for decades by the time he was appointed. So let’s unpack that “first Southerner” sound bite a bit… Before the Laureate program was established in 1986, a series of poets had served as Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress beginning in 1937. Taking a look at the overall roster, only four Southerners in toto have served either as Consultant or Poet Laureate (Allen Tate, Warren, Randall Jarrell, James Dickey). Trethewey makes five. So not only is she the first Southerner to be appointed “since Warren,” she is also the very first Southern woman poet ever appointed. And this bears mention because one of the oddities of the extraordinary mid-20th century uber-production of Southern literature is that the poets were almost always men. The women (like Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Spencer, Eudora Welty) who were part of that flourishing tended to write fiction. Now, in 2012, we have a brand new Poet Laureate, born, reared, educated in the South, an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and a chaired professor of POETRY at an eminent Southern university. How can we congratulate her enough? I have loved Trethewey’s poetry since I first began to read it in the late 1990s: her plain style language and quiet, thoughtful, practical voice; the narrative details that pin her poems to Southern settings; her close attention to the ordinary lives of women and black people; her tender consciousness and deep empathy for other human persons. In particular, I have loved (and been instructed by) the way she uses objects in her poems: not just as aids to memory, nor... Continue reading
Posted Jun 7, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Anyone who knows anything about the literary history of Vanderbilt University where I teach – birthplace of the Fugitive Poets (Warren, Tate, Ransom), and mid-20th century English Department of choice for writers like Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Spencer, James Dickey, and Ellen Gilchrist – would probably assume that a creative writing program has been in place there for decades. But that would not be true. Although Gertrude Vanderbilt served as generous creative writing patron for decades (my colleague Vereen Bell recalls her giving him handwritten checks, pulled from the pocket of her full length mink coat), and although the English Department instituted a creative writing track in its undergraduate major in 1974, it was not until 2006 that an MFA began to be offered. Last month, we graduated our fifth class of writers. By design, it is a small program: only three poets and three fiction writers are admitted each fall. That our Vanderbilt MFA community of twelve students and eight faculty members has grown into a known entity is gratifying to us, attracting more than 700 applicants for only six admission slots each year. We are often asked not only how we did this, but why – in an era that many admit is overrun with graduate programs in creative writing, churning out MFAs with few marketable job skills and little hope of teaching at the college level – we would even think about adding one more MFA to the mix. Before I tell you the answer, a diversion… In 1980, when I received my MFA from the School of the Arts at Columbia, there was really only a handful of graduate creative writing programs that generated buzz. Besides Columbia, there was Iowa (of course), and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The Hopkins program was at that time a brutal 12 month regime of master’s level course work, similar to Boston U. Visible, but somewhat more low-key programs were dispersed around the country: UC-Irvine out west, University of Arizona in the southwest, and UNC-Greensboro down south. The now-flourishing Ph.D. programs in creative writing were just beginning to stir, and were considered oddities at the time. I only remember three: Ohio State, and the Universities of Utah and Houston… Now of course, we’re deep in another era, overstocked with almost 200 MFA programs, plus 38 Ph.D. programs, and still counting… Initially, my own feelings about birthing a new MFA program were mixed. I had been on the board of AWP in the late 1980s (when Liam Rector was at the helm), and so had few illusions about the standing of creative writing in academia. And when our MFA program was being proposed at Vanderbilt, I was just beginning a three year appointment as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science. Thus positioned, I understood how extremely unlikely it was that the higher-ups would approve a proposal for a non self-supporting, brand new graduate program in a “discipline” that could not be measured, quantified, or otherwise... Continue reading
Posted Jun 6, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Today, the 5th of June, is the birthday of three of my favorite writers, as well as the beginning of a Transit of Venus – that most rare of astronomical events. As I understand it, a Venus Transit involves a complicated conveyance of planets wherein Venus passes directly between sun and earth. Thus, trapped and illuminated, the Morning Star will take its time (today and tomorrow) moving through this celestial passage, and will appear to us here on earth as a distinct black dot moving across the massive, orange-red face of the sun. We won’t see it again until 2117. It’s marvelous to look at. Just please take precautions if you do... You can embellish your experience of this rare phenomenon by reading Transit of Venus, a book of poems by Harry Crosby, the Jazz Age/Lost Generation/ American expatriate poet and publisher who founded Black Sun Press in Paris in 1927. It used to be de rigueur for English majors studying 1920s American and continental literature to learn about Black Sun and the amazing list of writers (Proust, Lawrence, Joyce, Crane, Pound, Wilde, Poe!) whose early works it produced in small, hand-set, exquisitely bound editions. (Not sure it still is…) Crosby’s Transit of Venus appeared in 1928 with a preface by T.S. Eliot. Segue from the astronomical: I consider the presence in my life of the three writers whose work I will share with you today as rare a gift in my life as a Transit of Venus... Mark Jarman, born June 5, 1952, is my colleague in the creative writing program at Vanderbilt University. Jarman is widely considered to be one of (I would say THE) most eminent practical critic of poetry who is writing today. He stands collegially alongside John Crowe Ransom, and Randall Jarrell, two poets who also wrote highly regarded criticism in addition to their fine poetry, and who preceded him here at Vanderbilt where he has taught since 1983. Jarman was born in Kentucky, spent an important part of his childhood in Scotland, and most of the rest of his early life in southern California – all settings which figure in his poetry. In 1974, he earned his B.A. from the University of California at Santa Cruz where he was a student of George Hitchcock, the legendary editor and publisher of Kayak magazine, and avidly pursued his love of surfing (about which he later wrote the greatest surfing poem ever written: He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1976, and published, North Sea, the first of 14+ books of poetry and prose, only two years later. In the late 1970s, Jarman and his friend and fellow poet, Robert McDowell, founded what quickly established itself as a controversial literary magazine. The Reaper flourished in the early days of the 1980s culture wars. It was fresh, cheeky, and didn’t suffer poetry fools gladly. Above all else, however, it was SMART. It cut right through much of the noodle-headed murk and lax practices... Continue reading
Posted Jun 5, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
John Crowe Ransom] has a wonderful line: what a poet must have in the right order is the head, the heart, and the foot. That’s a physical description of a rhythmic and intellectual activity, of poetry.” Dave Smith Here at the beginning of my first attempt at blogging, I’m thinking about poetry and tennis as the French Open 2012 enters its second week of play. Some of the poets whose work I most love – Philip Levine, Dave Smith, Galway Kinnell, for starters – are, or have been, avid players, and have sometimes brought the sport into their poems. Although I’m married to a former professional tennis player who now makes a career of coaching and writing about the game, I, myself, don’t play. This time of year, however, I love to watch the French, and then Wimbledon. And though I’m aware of how my work as a poet allows me to enjoy the careful, long-held, highly respected rituals, the unique rules of the game, and the inspiring but quite terrifying display of solitary human endeavor acted out on a bounded field of composition, until recently, I haven’t thought much about why this sport should appeal so particularly to poets (even those, like me, who don’t play). Erratic ruminations follow… * Apparently, English-language poets have been writing about tennis for a long time, as far back as the 16th century. Here’s a tennis sonnet by Edward de Vere: When as the heart at tennis plays, and men to gaming fall, Love is the court, hope is the house, and favour serves the ball. The ball itself is true desert; the line ,which measure shows, Is reason, whereon judgment looks how players win or lose. The jetty is deceitful guile; the stopper, jealousy, Which hath Sir Argus’ hundred eyes wherewith to watch and pry. The fault, wherewith fifteen is lost, is want of wit and sense, And he that brings the racket in is double diligence. And lo, the racket is freewill, which makes the ball rebound; And noble beauty is the chase, of every game the ground. But rashness strikes the ball awry, and where is oversight? and quote; A bandy ho,and quote; the people cry, and so the ball takes flight. Now, in the end, good-liking proves content the game and gain. Thus, in a tennis, knit I love, a pleasure mixed with pain. Perhaps the most famous quarrel that ever took place on a tennis court occurred not between two tennis players, but between two poets. Sometime towards the end of August 1579 at Greenwich Castle in England the aforementioned de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (one of the most seriously-considered candidates for actual author of Shakespeare’s poems and plays) was rudely rebuffed by Philip Sidney when he tried to enter a game already in play. Insulted, the Earl of Oxford reportedly called the commoner Sidney (not yet Sir Philip) a “puppy.” More insulted, Sidney was provoked enough to try to escalate the incident into a duel.... Continue reading
Posted Jun 4, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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May 30, 2012