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Erin Belieu
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Dana Levin (c) Anne Staveley Ach. What a week. Raced back from NYC, jumped off the plane, and made it barely in time to see my son’s city championship cross-country meet. Jude did great—and where he got the hummingbird bone structure —much less the stamina and discipline to run for miles and miles through the boiling heat—I do not know. But he’s glorious to watch. Like, so beautiful I get weepy just standing there on the sidelines. I’m such a dope. But a lot of my poet friends have babies due around now and I wish I could bottle that feeling for them and give them a little sip ahead of time as they’re anxiously contemplating all the energy they’re about to give up to something other than themselves. It makes sense that for poets particularly this is so nerve-wracking—paying detailed attention to our interiors is the bread and butter of what we do—and yet, at least in my case, having one of the little beings who compel you to complicate that exhausting state of self-absorption has been nothing but a gift. I mean, sometimes a weighty gift, but a gift nonetheless. The other highlight of the evening happened when we parents crowding the edge of the running trail realized we were standing within a few feet of the GRANDADDY OF ALL WATER MOCCASINS coiled up at the trunk of a nearby tree. He was all like, “Hey, Girl. Just chillin’ here, figuring which one of you imunna eat.” Really, even by Florida standards, this snake was HUGE. And what is it about iPhones that make people think they’ve got some special force field around them while they’re trying to take a picture? Adam refers to the iPhone as a tool for natural selection. You wouldn’t believe the number of idiots who kept scooching closer to frame a better shot. But this is actually one of the things I like best about where I live: you get the strong feeling that nature is always one second away from staging a well-deserved coup on our invasive asses. That seems fair to me. A statement with which I know Dana Levin would agree (see how I did that there?). Just recently I passed a delightful half hour staring at a sea otter with Dana. This is because we spend a lot of time in Port Townsend together (where I am the artistic director for the most wonderful summer writers conference in the world), and you can’t walk a mile there without bumping into deer, coyotes, eagles, otters, porpoise, raccoons, orca, etc. etc. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places in the world. Dana and I met there years ago when we were both invited as faculty for the conference. I already knew Dana’s poems and admired them immensely—these being three much praised and influential collections of poetry from Copper Canyon Press. The poems have such a cerebral, critical intensity, are filled with such profound feeling and shattering expressions of elegy—that I... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Hello again. Another quick and impertinent Interviews With Poets before scrambling off to more reading gigs. I’ll be schlepping around for my about-to-be-released book Slant Six from now till December (Columbus, St. Louis, San Antonio, Austin, Miami, etc.). I just read the first review--which was very kind--but the reviewer also seems to think I'm a recovering alcoholic based on a satirical poem called "12 Step." (The poem is written from the point of view of a writer vowing never to write another "personal" poem again). I'm always gobsmacked by what people get out of my poems. A total mystery. But mostly not an unpleasant one. I mean, nice of them to care at all, right? Speaking of poets we care about, today’s is Matthew Zapruder. Matthew is another poet I’ve known for as far back as my adult memory goes. But I didn’t come to know Matthew well until he invited me to join the Wave Press Poetry Bus Tour that he and Joshua Beckman organized in 2006. Part Electric Kool Aid, part Bataan death drive, the tale of that two month tour with a clown car full of poets (actually, a biodiesel-fueled motor coach)--reading in bars, bowling alleys and barns all across the US and Canada--is one of those rare moments in poetry history that I believe will be remembered (“They did what?”). My most emblematic story about Matthew comes from that bus tour, when we’d stopped in Salt Lake City to do a reading. The night before we’d had a raucous gig in Boise, Idaho and everyone on the bus was shagged out, content to make an early evening of it. The fine poetry citizens of Salt Lake had another idea. We were at a bookstore called Ken Sanders Rare Books. The name conjured a gentleman collector of foxed, 1st editions. We imagined a small audience of well-behaved poetry aficionados and then to bed. What we got was the hairy inch from a bacchanal—heaps of amazing food, wine flowing, 60s era, socialist chanting, singing, and guitars. There were also other “refreshments.” It was after these that I found myself squinting slack jawed in front of a large, framed illustration hanging on the bookstore wall. Made in the 1940s for a pharmaceutical company, the picture is titled “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land,” and is a highly detailed cartoon of an adorable germ creature being tortured by a gang of tiny space trolls. It is, to use the parlance of the day, deeply fucked up. Matthew wandered over to me while I was staring (and staring) at it. We had an intense conversation about how very IMPORTANT the picture was, containing ALL the metaphors for EVERYTHING. It seemed obvious that “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land” was the “Key To All Mythologies” and Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” rolled into one. Then Matthew said, “Erin, you must buy this. You have to. You were destined to have it.” I do not remember purchasing “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land,” nor do I remember paying... Continue reading
Posted Sep 30, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Good morning again. I have so many poets I wanted to interview that I’m going to have to scramble to get them all in. Too many worthy subjects… (Update: the kind wizard behind the curtain at Best American Poetry just extended my week blogging to get to them all. Thank you, Benevolent Wizard!). Today is Cate Marvin. I can’t remember exactly when I met Cate: a misty recollection--something about us sitting on a bar banquette maybe 12 years ago, with Kevin Prufer as a vaguely alarmed buffer wedged between. I do remember deciding I was going to actively befriend Cate in the most full contact way possible. I loved her attitude. I loved her sunglasses and her “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. In the face of my determination, her resistance was futile. But before the person, I loved the poems: Cate’s dense, sinuously interwoven stanza structures. The precise, often formal syntax pushed up against subjects full of surprise, startling observations, and dramatic energy. I loved the changeling tension between her poems’ black humor and vulnerability. Cate’s first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, announced one of those voices you feel is suddenly thrust upon you fully formed, like a late 20th century Athena popped up whole from Zeus’s brain-splitting headache. Cate’s forthcoming collection, Oracle, due from Norton in early 2015, takes that undeniable quality of voice and sends it into hyper drive. Can’t wait to have it in hand. The following was done in the moments between trying to finish the long lists of things we’re both on deadline for. Cate and I share the attention disorder of habitual over-committers: ***************************************************************************** Cate, you are known in the poetry world for what some have called “The Marvin Death Stare.” I know your daughter Lucia has inherited this, too. Actually, Lucia’s death stare is even more intense than yours, which is a disconcerting thing to see on the face of an adorable kindergartner. Where does the death stare come from? How many generations of death-starers are there in your family? What you refer to as “The Marvin Death Stare” is actually descended from the VanKirk family line. My daughter and I got it from my mother, who can freeze you out with a single look that’ll make your very blood cells tremble. She used to shoot it at me when I was a kid to let me know I'd fucked up. After a while I began to think it was funny. When she tries to use it on me now, I just laugh. But now that I think about it, my father is capable of giving a pretty evil stare himself. And that makes me recall the very appalling and deadly stare of his mother, which I'd later see in the eyes of my cousin's daughter. So I guess it is in fact genetic. Half the time, I’m not even aware I'm giving the death stare. I'm probably just in a state of concentration, trying to remember which groceries I need... Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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So this is turning out to be the most fun ever. How do I get my own radio show? If I got to spend my days just asking people I like ridiculous questions I could die perfectly happy. Speaking of people I like immensely, today we have Adrian Matejka. Adrian is a newer friend. I met him along with his wife, the poet Stacey Lynn Brown (more about her tomorrow), last year at the Miami Book Festival. Do you ever meet people and have that HUGELY affectionate reaction to them in seconds? I developed a crush on both of them equally and instantaneously. We were trapped with a motley collection of wet poets in a semi-busted restaurant (Miami’s twice-daily monsoon having driven us inside indiscriminately), and I started having that awkward, “introvert trapped in an extrovert’s body” reaction I have that rarely goes well for me socially. But some part of my mind was also paying attention to who Adrian Matejka actually is. Having been in the po bidness a long time, I find it very revealing to watch how poets react to suddenly being anointed the Baskin Robbins flavor of the year. Because poetry, as Hayden Carruth once said to me, is a looooong distance race. At that time, I knew Adrian’s most recent book, The Big Smoke, which had most well deservedly caused an admiring ruckus in the poetry universe. The Big Smoke, focusing on the life of the boxer Jack Johnson, is indeed a first class book, with The Boston Globe declaring that Adrian’s poems illuminate the heavyweight champion’s life “so boldly” that “one almost wants to duck.” The previous evening Adrian had been one of the featured readers for the book festival which meant being in some fancy company, and there was sunshine aplenty available to him in the flattery being dished up hot by his throng of admirers. Which is to say, sitting at the dinner, I wasn’t going to be caught off guard if Adrian turned out to be full of beans. Even the best of us can end up accidentally drinking our own Kool Aid when the shots are free. But I am happy to report that Adrian, besides being a crazy gifted writer, is an entirely bean-free human being! This is not a man who has any interest in having the UV rays blown up his backside. Adrian is open, funny, smart, down-to-earth, interesting and most importantly, interested. I left the dinner dearly wishing we lived nearer each other. Here’s what we talked about yesterday: ************************************************************************************ The titles of your three excellent poetry collections, Mixology, The Devil’s Garden, and The Big Smoke, suggest you are a person with a large number of vices. Do you drink and smoke a lot? Do you recommend this to other writers looking to improve their poetry practice? It seems like it’s worked well for you. Also, as self-proclaimed mixologist, please share with us your favorite cocktail recipe. We’re counting on your expertise. What's sad about this... Continue reading
Posted Sep 10, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Good morning (it’s morning here). How are you? I’ve got a case of the coffee manics as I went to bed at 1:30 (Adam started a late night conversation about popular misreadings of the Daoist gender binary. Sexy!), then woke up at 6 AM as Jude had to be at Cross Country practice because shared suffering and sleep deprivation make you run faster. Continuing my poetry interviews, today we have Carl Phillips. I’m feeling good about wrangling him into this. Carl’s plenty opinionated, but when the mic goes on he may choose to bound into the forest like the ghost stag of myth and legend. I met Carl in 1992 when we both began at the Boston University’s poetry program. We’d been hauled in for a mandatory TA meeting, one of those deals where they make you sign in at 8am on a Saturday and hold you prisoner for 6 hours while telling you what a grade book is and going through the sexual harassment policy a syllable at a time. At some point, after a series of telepathic exchanges, Carl dropped from his seat at the end of a row and signaled in SWAT team fashion that I should follow. I remember this as one of the best afternoons ever—hopping the train (I hadn’t lived outside of Nebraska long and found riding the T to be the height of urban sophistication), and wandering around the Back Bay until settling in at the Ritz Hotel bar to kill four hours. We drank multiple martinis after the established practice of Plath, Sexton, Starbuck, and Lowell, our BU Program poetic elders. We’ve been fast friends ever since. Carl is a prolific writer, which would be tolerable if the books weren’t individually and collectively brilliant. As a poet and essayist, it’s no exaggeration to say he’s one of the very most influential, critically admired, and important poets of his generation. No one but Carl sounds like Carl. Imitators wash up on the shore of his distinctive extended syntax, his uncanny concretizing of abstract states-of-being, as well as the usefully obsessive, sacred/erotic conundrum that underpins both the poems and the essays (and if you haven’t checked out his brand new essay collection from Graywolf, The Art Of Daring: Risk, Restlessness and Imagination, do yourself a favor and order it now. It’s hawt). Carl now lives in a beautiful, multi-storied old house in St. Louis. It’s the kind of house that has an inordinate amount of teensy, hidden powder rooms. Apparently a lot of discreet powdering was required of people at the turn of the century. A Cape Cod Yankee at his core, Carl is a ruthless bargain shopper and recently purchased (on deep discount, of course) yet another perfectly distressed leather couch, a testament to his fraught relationship with what he calls his “inner Hemingway”: So the other day when we were texting (and I still maintain that a transcript of these exchanges would rival the scandal created by Taylor and Burton at their... Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Greetings, O Lovers of Contemporary Poetry! When I was thinking about writing for this blog, I was trying to imagine what I’d want to read. I’d heard pedagogical issues go over well, but the word “pedagogy” makes my legs fall asleep like I’m sitting on a folding chair in a church basement rec room. Also, my students affectionately (?) make fun of my poetry “prompts,” which usually require a 45-minute lecture to set up. There’s a lot of arcane context and emphatic hand gesturing. So I thought, “What resources do I have for such a blog? What are my skillz?” Frankly, I have few skillz beyond an early, useless career as a springboard diver, and a gift for finding objects disappeared into the hovel of dog hair and remodeling dust that is presently my house. But I realize I am rich in friends—accomplished, irritatingly smart and talented poetry friends to be specific. If I could figure out a way to monetize these friendships I would. I’d be the Warren Buffett of poetry. I decided it’d be fun to have some conversations with these guys in the next few days (so far I’ve pestered Carl Phillips, Dana Levin, James “Jimmy” Kimbrell, Kerry James Evans, Adrian Matejka and Stacey Lynn Brown into plopping their bottoms on the hot seat). Terrance Hayes has sorta committed, but given that our communications typically consist almost entirely of the disturbing, weirdly specific text emojis he sends me, we’ll have to see if that happens. The only rules I set for the interview are that I would only talk to people I know well enough to ask vaguely pokey, forward, or inappropriate questions. Also, that they should try their hardest to answer spontaneously. No sitting around editing for hours. It is understood that all are poets I admire because how can you be actual friends with a writer if you don’t respect their work? You’d either have to wear your love goggles all the time, which ends up strangling your brain, or else you have a friendship based on lying and that’s too uncomfortable. Pandora Boxx (L) and Mark Bibbins (R) share a vestibule First up is Mark Bibbins, whose recent book, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full (Copper Canyon), is one of the very best poetry collections I’ve read in years. The book is both generous-hearted and critically astringent, full of saber-toothed wit and language play paired with a deeply ethical, empathetic political consciousness that never belly flops into polemic or preaching. Seriously, you should read this book. In person, Mark, despite turning up with the odd, not-really-explained broken bone from time to time, is the guy who arrives at his elegance without you ever seeing the gears of the machine whirring. He’s a man who really knows how to wear a shirt. When he makes you lunch, it appears that he’s doing nothing for two hours but farting around with the stereo and chasing his affection-harassed cats up... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 31, 2014