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Howard Altmann
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It happens I am a fool. It happens I’m rather good at being a fool. It happens I am at my foolish best in Lisbon. I wish it weren’t so. I wish I could report here to the committee that after ten trips in I could speak, say, ten words of Portuguese. I could name ten landmarks. I could name five restaurants and five bars. I could do more than identify a couple of churches and squares, a few signature dishes and luminary haunts. It happens, yes, that I am a poet, and that the depth of things is the conceit from which I supposedly skate along in this world. The exploration of the unknown, the investigation of the other, the bona fide immersion into a foreign culture and its landscape––well, isn’t this the mortar of our métier? Isn’t this the inner lining that holds a writer’s mind together and keeps it warm? In no other foreign city, dear members of the committee, has sheer laziness burst forth from the seams and dressed me so; in no other foreign city has my mind felt so free. It is curious, to be sure––blasphemous, perhaps. But I wish not to have my porridge taken any other way. I wish to be bowled over by Lisbon the way I was the first time: with wonder. With ignorance. With abandon. “The insatiable thirst for everything which lies beyond, and which life reveals is the most living proof of our immortality,” Baudelaire wrote. Maybe he was right. For what lies beyond for this mortal hinges not, ultimately, on the understanding of Portuguese. Nor does it rest on an engagement with the people who speak it. It has no hankering for a rigorous knowledge of Lisbon’s history and its architecture. For this mortal walking the city has proved sufficient. Day and night, night and day. Year in, year out. New heels upon arrival, no heels at departure. Sticking out like a big toe is the question: is this behavior in any way defensible? Can one justify experiencing a foreign city because of its language and because of its people, because of its architecture and its history, but from a distance? For much of it to remain a mystery, a grand mystery? Can one justify skimming a past as rich as Lisbon’s where aimless walking is the exclusive portal? Or is it sheer boorishness, for a writer, for anyone, to tether their experience merely to the physical landscape, to what is observed, to the sights and the sounds, the pulse and the pew? Can this and only this be the sole aperture––ten trips in? And what then, it must be posed, is particular about Lisbon that has allowed the mind to pivot in ways it hasn’t elsewhere? I call on the human voice. The sound of the human voice is one I’ve always found comforting, no matter the language tunneling through it. And no matter how far I happen to have veered from central station, the sound... Continue reading
Posted Apr 3, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I was compelled last week to reach out to Sydney Lea––Vermont’s current Poet Laureate––as three short essays of his, “Surviving Romance,” appeared in the spring issue of Traveltainted (Turtle Point Press) and were so beautifully rendered, I was moved to get his contact information and lavish praise. Upon receiving my short note, Mr. Lea’s gracious reply was almost as memorable as the essays themselves, and I made a mental note that the next time a piece of literature, or any art for that matter, is similarly affecting and access to its creator within bounds, I should not hesitate: if you feel something, say something. Wanting to give back something to Mr. Lea, I forwarded Wilfred Owen’s, “The Last Laugh,” the Poetry Foundation’s ‘Poem of the Day’ from a few weeks ago, saying how utterly swept I was and remain by the poem. Mr. Lea was quick to respond, saying how brilliant a poet Wilfred Owen was, and just as quick to suggest that I “look up ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Owen to have your heart broken.” “Dulce et Decorum Est is considered to be the best known poem among World War I poetry; a poem I should have known and read, but didn’t and hadn’t (‘Embarrassment of the Day’). And the question immediately surfaced: could my heart break more than it was broken by the reading of “The Last Laugh?” Here are the two poems: The Last Laugh BY WILFRED OWEN 'O Jesus Christ! I'm hit,' he said; and died.
 Whether he vainly cursed, or prayed indeed, The Bullets chirped—In vain! vain! vain!
 Machine-guns chuckled,—Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
 And the Big Gun guffawed. Another sighed,—'O Mother, mother! Dad!' Then smiled, at nothing, childlike, being dead.
 And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
 Leisurely gestured,—Fool!
 And the falling splinters tittered. 'My Love!' one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
 Till, slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
 And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned; Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned; And the Gas hissed. Dulce Et Decorum Est BY WILFRED OWEN Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
 Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
 Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
 And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
 Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
 But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
 Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
 Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

 GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
 Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
 But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
 And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
 Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
 As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
 He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
 Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
 And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
 His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
 If you... Continue reading
Posted Apr 2, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
This post arrives from Montreal where it all feels a little gentler, a little calmer, the light of spring burning through the snow, crumbling banks of white slowing traffic on side streets, spraying slush a fixture just about everywhere else; the crust of winter bored with all its changes. This despite recent remarks from members of the ruling Parti Quebecois that have forced the province’s premier to reassure voters before next week’s election that her party “is not anti-Semitic.” With echoes of blood libel really not that far off, absurdity of another kind begs to trump the air to ring in the day. And so to yesterday’s news, to our new poet in the new century, assaulted, forever assaulted by the dismissive hand of either the non-poetry-reading public or the poetry-reading body that, together or apart, unable to monetize the art, feels compelled to line the poet’s mind with pockets of self-validating remarks. Alas, what to do? What to do and how to be? I’d alluded to early rewards generated from the adoption of a slightly more aggressive posturing, stances designed to help poets make their way in the world with confidence and grace and not, as I have done, succumb to a mumbling and fumbling under the scrutiny of the questioning glare or all-knowing gaze. In hindsight, however, I believe the pedagogical benefits of arming the poet with words to win each and every battle, outweigh such self-promotional disclosures. If, reader, I have falsely promised, forgive me. “I’ve never met a real poet before.” As emboldening as this comment may seem upon first landing, poet beware: it’s belittling. This person has no idea if you are real or not real, or even what ‘real’ means. What I’ve done, with moderate success, is to respond with: “I’ve never met a real poet before either.” This seemingly self-deprecating remark levels the playing field, if not tips it in the poet’s favor, as the person now doesn’t know what the hell you’re talking about. “I didn’t know people are still writing poetry.” This is an easy one. “Who isn’t writing poetry?” works every time. It works on the plane and it works on the train. It handles over tuna tartar and it drives the conversation to uncomfortable places. Stand back and watch who’s fumbling now. “Can you make a living writing poetry?” If this question is asked in an urban setting, the person asking the question knows the answer. And since this is not your defense attorney, you are perfectly entitled, if not encouraged, to respond with, “Do ever think about anything else besides money?” Yes, this is crass and it’s in the person’s face. But that person will never forget your face and may even buy your poetry book at full price. “I don’t really like poetry to be honest.” One must applaud the forthrightness of the comment, but it does call out for a very simple and straightforward response: “What haven’t you liked recently?” Continue reading
Posted Apr 1, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
“I’ve never met a real poet before.” That’s what she said when she found out. “I didn’t know people are still writing poetry.” That’s what she said when she lost her place in line. “Can you make a living writing poetry?” That’s what she said when her flight was delayed. “I don’t really like poetry to be honest.” That’s what she said when her flight was cancelled and the snow picked up. Fair enough: I travel in the wrong circles. But shall I stand by the plant or is the aperture angling for something just a wee more exotic? Members of the jury, distinguished practitioners of the form, dwellers in the dark and fiddlers in the field, poetry fellows on both sides of the Atlantic, zoo-keepers and bee-keepers, where oh where is our guide? And I mean one page primer or six-page tract, glossy fold-out or pocket-sized cheat-sheet, go-to handbook or coffee table gift stuffer, ten-minute podcast or daily tweet––there is a hole, ladies and gentlemen, in this country and no one, no one seems to be talking about it, thinking about it, editorializing about it. If we don’t have an app soon, are we to blame our senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle? Or are we to blame ourselves, our navel-gazing poetry-selves? Now, in full, dual-citizenship disclosure, I must confess mine’s been a general mumbling and fumbling the way through, a kind of defensive posturing as default position. And it’s carried me along on both coasts, in Canada and the U.S., at weddings and at wakes, by the garden of my thoughts at the crashing of my dreams. Yet in 2014 transparency, I’m either pleased to report or shocked to reveal that a more aggressive shape has begun, finally begun to take form, hover and penetrate: “Why haven’t you met a real poet before? What is wrong with you anyway? How can you not like poetry?” “Where do you live?” This strategy is not for everyone. Certainly. It may not even be for me. There are many kinks to be worked out and I’m still a ways away to getting to them. That said, that said there’ve been some early rewards, definitely some early rewards, and I’d be remiss and utterly selfish and totally late to the party not to share a few of them here––which I will. She did, after all, give me her vouchers. A demain. Continue reading
Posted Mar 31, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 26, 2014