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Bruce Kawin
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I asked Julie Carr, who is thoroughly launched as a poet, how she would feel about being a poet if her work had never been published. Because that does happen to some of us. Julie wrote this: * * * How would my writing have been different if I’d never been published? This is a very difficult question to consider, since of course I have been published. I can’t honestly imagine an alternate history for myself, so instead I will say what being published has meant to me. First, it has meant that some older poets whose work I admired and in some cases loved recognized something in my writing that they felt they wanted to support. This recognition has been invaluable, for I don’t, in writing poetry, seek a large audience of strangers. I seek, instead, to be part of a conversation that matters a great deal to me. Publishing is like being welcomed into the room, into the conversation, and that feeling of belonging has been important to me, as it is to anyone in any sphere of life. Publishing a book also means I feel free to begin a new book. If the books remain unfinished, unread, unbound, they continue hanging around. I continue wondering if they are complete, if they’ve done whatever it was I hoped they would do. Once out in the world in that certifiable “finished” form, I can more or less forget about them – I can shift my attention, feel my interests sway, take on new concerns and new forms. This, of course, is exciting for me. It keeps my relationship to the art alive. But there is another way in which publishing allows the books to have a new life – a life off the page. Reading from them, performing them in a sense, allows me to transform them into another kind of communication. The relationship with an audience is one of shared listening (I’m listening too as I read), and one of immediate exchange. Every reading is, to some degree, an improvisation. And the factors that go into this improvisation belong to everyone in the room. We are having some kind of experience together, and I learn from it, feel it change me. This is also a way that poetry stays vital, relevant, and present. Of course not publishing could permit a kind of privacy, important, perhaps, to some writers. I’ve never been, however, the kind of writer that values being alone all that much. I’m interested in writing as a social phenomenon. I never write alone, for there are always books around me as I write. I’m listening to the words of others, to their rhythms, their thoughts, their vocabularies. In some ways I feel that writing is the most socially connected thing I do. Publishing is an extension of the interaction that begins the moment I sit down at my table with a pile of books on either side of me and a few on the floor. Sometimes... Continue reading
Posted Apr 26, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
One way to survive as a poet is to print your own work. Cal Kinnear once had a Hoe Washington press, an old newspaper flatbed. He set the type and chose the paper for the poem, sometimes issuing a poem at a time and sometimes a collection. Les Gottesman founded his own imprint, Omerta Press, and published 14 chapbooks (2006-12) before Finishing Line Press took his first official book, Misuses of Poetry and other poems (2013), which ends: Deal The cosmos promises to load my book on the real hard drive. Let's hope so. I think it's what we all hope for, and getting our poems printed and reviewed and read and remembered is one way to get there. If Cal had his printing press, Les had his inkjet printer and produced all the Omerta books himself. Les's poems are funny and personal, sharp and obscure. His tightly arranged sounds and vivid words take you somewhere but don't tell you where it is. He's a grave jester with a speeding mind and a montage artist's control of tone. Example: Poems A white hamburger led children to a wall. You had to be there in order to be there. Poems have changed from schematic arbitrariness to slutty impatience like laws or cancer. There's some influence here from Koch and O'Hara, but it's Les's voice, his pronouncement. Some of his poems are readings of the world, some like the work of a prophet with no god: Misuses of Poetry Jesus was right. The grammar I undressed with my eyes had already devised the emphatic predicate of he-acts in space and she-acts at the outer rings of time's onion of conscious syrup that the sentence wouldn't stop. He gets the immediate moment and can pile words like a Beat. He has published many individual poems in magazines and online, but it takes a book of his poems to get the idea, to feel who this Gottesman character is. The Omerta chapbooks and the new book let one spend enough time with him, get a sense of the worlds he builds—as in the ending of the prose poem "Day One Two" from the Immortal Nails chapbook: Decisions are rented. Land is brought, and taken away. A man goes into a buried store. The Omerta books were distributed by the author. In a while they'll be all kinds of collectible. But the new book, Misuses of Poetry, is available on Amazon. And the next one will be too: Les just won Tebot Bach's 2012 Clockwise Chapbook Competition for The Cases (due in 2013). Poetry books that appeared in a few hundred copies used to have to find special distributors. It was hard to get a book into a store, and in fact it still is. It helped that some bookstores focused on poetry (Cal ran one in Olympia called Word of Mouth Books, one of the first bookstores where people could sit down and read) or were known for their poetry sections. Amazon and its... Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
For the rest of the week I'll be writing mostly about survival: what it means to keep writing even if it looks as if your work will never get published and the difference it makes if it is or isn't professionally published, self-published, read to a group, or left in a drawer. It seems appropriate to start by looking at a forthcoming anthology of poetry (and some prose) by widows—survivors—many of whom have had no training as poets and are being published for the first time. The book is called The Widows’ Handbook, and it will be published in a few months by Kent State University Press. You heard it here first. Putting this book together and getting it published was an inspiring commitment to survival, particularly considering how many publishers declined to read the manuscript. The book was edited by two bereaved women, Jacqueline Lapidus and Lise Menn. I wrote some questions for them. Lise answered first, then Jacqueline. Bruce: Are you both widows? Do either of you have experience as editors or creative writers? Lise: I am a widow; my second husband and I had been happily married for almost twenty years when he died in October 2006. The other editor is Jacqueline Lapidus; she lost her beloved partner, but he was not her husband. Not having the legal status of a widow added in many ways to her burden. As for my editing experience, I’ve co-edited some academic books, but this is my first time editing poetry. I’ve published a few poems in collections of poetry by linguists. Jacqueline: Not only that, but there was a wife—the Lawful Awful, from whom he had been estranged for years. I have been a professional editor for 50 years (not counting high school newspaper) and have been publishing poems in literary magazines since 1963. Bruce: How many publishers did you try before finding Kent State Univ. Press? Lise: Fifteen queries to likely-looking places, resulting in five submissions, all rejected; that’s not counting the publishers who wouldn’t look at a manuscript unless it was submitted through an agent. But after we were in negotiations with KSUP, one of the ones that just didn’t respond eventually showed serious interest. Bruce: Did you consider self-publishing? Did you reject the idea, and why? Lise: I did consider it, but Jacqueline, who has been an editor, author, and translator for many years, was unwilling to consider that except as a last resort. She felt that a work this substantial deserved to be a "real book." And now we have it both ways, because KSUP will make it available as an e-book. Jacqueline: In fact, I wasn’t willing to consider it at all—not even as a last resort! Promoting the book is hard enough without having to do distribution as well, even with online bookstores available. And I couldn’t afford to put any money into such a project. Bruce: How did you attract manuscripts? Where did you place ads or notices and what did they say?... Continue reading
Posted Apr 24, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
When I wrote "Old Frankenstein," the newest poem in Love If We Can Stand It, I got the first line out of nowhere. I was watching TV in the living room and thinking about nothing. The line was "The old man never calls" and the title came right after it. I laughed. I got paper and a pen and started writing. By the time I got to the smoking jacket I knew what I was doing. The whole thing took about two hours. The poem reads: The old man never calls. He quit making us settled down with his bride in a stone cottage went back to his smoking jacket wrote a book and tore it up they say, I never saw it. I learned to talk again in spite of them all every crowd and Burgomaster —read by fires, by lakes ate what I ran across but killed no people not for a long time now. The flesh has not decayed, probably can't. I carry a cane and that explains the walk. I dress like a cheap old man a man with peculiarities a man you'd leave alone to live in a shed in the woods. He'll die, I won't. He can't live forever and he doesn't like it when I show up. I haven't tried that in twenty years. I accumulate birthdays like everyone else. He could call. His wife could call. My only family. I wonder how it will be without him. By line 2 of the poem I found that I had to decide between the Hammer series (which began with The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957) and the Universal series (which began with Frankenstein, 1931). In the Hammer series Dr. Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing, reappears in each sequel and builds a new monster. In the Universal series the Monster reappears, but after Bride of Frankenstein the doctors change; in the first two films he is played by Colin Clive. I have a special affection for Bride of Frankenstein and wanted to work it in, as I had worked it into "One, or Words for Poetry," a poem about one-syllable words: smoke good the fiend said friend good fire no good good, bad bride of but we can not say the long name not his in the first place of the man who made him son of bride of, the kids I did not have So I chose Colin Clive as my doctor. Peter Cushing was not ruled out, though. There could have come a time when he "quit making us," us being all his consecutive monsters, and settled down. Clive makes the Monster and the female whom Dr. Pretorius calls "the bride of Frankenstein," hence the "us" in the Universal series sense. At first I meant the "us" to apply to the Monster (Boris Karloff) and the bride (Elsa Lanchester) from Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein as well as the series of monsters made by Cushing, but by the time I saw the doctor in... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
for John Ashbery Two stories from the mid-1960s. When I was an English major at Columbia, I took a creative writing course from Kenneth Koch, who changed my life. Actually it was a class in modern literature with some creative assignments. I have never met anyone who knew so much about modern literature. He assigned books we had never heard of, like Svevo's Confessions of Zeno, Pasternak's Safe Conduct, and Machado de Assis's Dom Casmurro (which became my favorite novel and which I've taught for years; a student told me recently that Woody Allen likes it too, which makes perfect sense). He sent us out to review The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He had us read Borges's Ficciones and the latest issue of Art and Literature. And he told us stories. One of them dragged me into a labyrinth, made me part of it. As a way of explaining "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" and "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," Koch told us that he had been sitting on a New York park bench with Borges when Borges said that the way one could tell that the Koran was an authentic document was that there were no camels in it. If someone had wanted to create such a book and then plant false, artificially aged documents that appeared to establish its existence in the 7th century C.E., that person would certainly have included some Arabic local color, such as camels. Koch wanted to show us how Borges could read even the Koran as a potentially false text and how the fact that there were no camels in it could prove the Koran was authentic if one was in a Borgesian mood. At the time I was also taking a class in what was then called Oriental Humanities, and the assignment for that week was the Koran (trans. A. J. Arberry). I read it with Koch's Borges story in mind. There are two camels in the Koran. The question is, did Borges know that? Koch apparently did not. If Borges did know about the camels, then he was doing an advanced Borgesian number on Koch and anyone to whom Koch might tell the story, expecting that someone who heard the story and knew there were camels in the Koran would have reason to doubt its authenticity. That was the trap that he set, and the story ends with my hearing the story, finding the camels, and wondering what I had been led to wonder. Or it ends today, with my writing this. Because Borges may not have known about the camels. He could simply have been raising the issue that the Koran could be a faked and planted and falsely substantiated book. I don't know whether Koch was in on the joke (I never discussed this with him; I was mostly too intimidated to go to professors' office hours), and I don't know whether Borges knew he was setting a trap. I met Borges a decade later when... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 19, 2013