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Gregory Hewett
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Very interesting comment on Barbara Guest. I agree!
Thanks both for your comments. I think you are right about why people might read H.D.--the mythic gets right to the psychic without the detritus of the present social world. Also, the sheer beauty of her free verse. She is a master of free verse rhythm.
What a great idea to do a "best of"! TJWR did publish short stories and interviews, too. Essays once in a while. Hadn't thought about the parallel fading of the "men's world" in the straight world too. Somehow that seems different? As the straight was exclusionary to begin with and the gay was a form of survival. Thanks for your comment.
A couple of weeks ago the poet Ted Mathys gave a well received talk about ecocriticism and poetry at the Poet’s House. In one strand of his complex argument he implies that ecocriticism is not just interested in ecological imagery or subject matter. He examines the ways in which several poets conceptualize our planet, and how images such as the Earth taken from outer space fundamentally altered our mental and ethical relationship with Earth. In other words, a nature poem can no longer maintain an innocent stance toward its subject matter. Though the history of ecocriticism was beyond the scope of Ted’s talk, it seems to me that Gary Snyder has been not only writing ecological poetry, or ecopoetry, for a long time, but also ecocriticism before it was called such. In a groundbreaking way that has become familiar to so many of us, Snyder folds Buddhist thought and ecological thought together to examine not just our relationship to the Earth but to how we make language with regard to the Earth. He demands a reconsideration of how we conceptualize nature. Often Snyder’s poetics are embedded in his poems: A small cricket on the typescript page of "Kyoto born in spring song" grooms himself in time with The Well-Tempered Clavier. I quit typing and watch him through a glass. How well articulated! How neat! Nobody understands the ANIMAL KINGDOM. I’m neither Buddhist nor an eco-philosopher; I just try to be an environmentally-minded citizen. For a long time I had wanted to write about the land and what is happening to it, but couldn’t. I didn’t feel I could write poems of place, landscapes, or any kind of nature poem. Neither did I think simply representing environmental degradation was enough. Then one day, in conversation with my brother, a property attorney, I was introduced to the discourse of what is called “real property rights,” and had my own, not particularly profound, ecocritical moment: part of the problem with our civilization is that we conceptualize land mainly as property. The terminology I learned is rich and bizarre: “blackacre,” “faggot of rights,” “fertile octogenarian,” “hereditament,” etc. I misremembered “blackacre” as “darkacre,” and this kept resonating for me, and became the basis for my most recent book, darkacre. The opening series is, in part, a parody of the language of property law, but with the lyrical dialed way up. There are some environmentally disturbing images, such as poor boys melting plastic from computers to smelt the heavy and precious metals inside, but mostly these poems draw attention to language we use to define the Earth. Later in the book comes a poem about an oil pipeline that has been breached, destroying a village and delta. In another, the Gulf sky is “pierced by oil platforms,” and now—though I did not intend this—they can only be read in light of Deepwater Horizon, as if they might explode. After darkacre was in production, I came across a term in the New York Times that describes maybe... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
46 I_M NOW EIGHTY FOUR O’Hara’s brand of outrageous, gimlet-eyed poetry criticism became a cottage industry for one of the unsung heroes of contemporary poetry, Robert Peters. Peters is the author of the iconoclastic poetry collections Songs for a Son, Love Poems for Robert Mitchum, and Snapshots for a Serial Killer. He is also an eminent scholar of Victorian poetry. However, he may be best known (though, I think, not well-known enough) for his criticism of contemporary poetry from the 1970s and ‘80s. In an era immediately prior to the Internet and blogs, Peters was King Critic of the Poetry Scene. When my first book was coming out in 1996, my then-editor Bill Truesdale suggested we get a blurb from Peters. Though I admired Peters’ work, I thought this was a bad idea. His Black and Blue Guide to Poetry Journals, and the even harsher (yet far more-often-than-not truth-telling) series on individual poets, The Great American Poetry Bake-Off, could, for all their humor and generosity, be scathing. Though I thought these books were enormously helpful to me as a young poet—and I still highly recommend them to my students—I didn’t think my fragile fledgling poet-ego would hold up if he hated my debut. In 1982 Peters states straight out, “My pleasure in any good poet transcends conflict: I don’t see poets as enemies. But, for better or for worse, the critic must play wolf-roles, especially when poems generate in him little else than a tedious conjugality.” He goes on to say of one of the leading poets of the day that he wishes he could make him “feel less lost, elegiac, submissive, self-pitying.” Another poet’s new book convinces Peters that, “a writer by becoming a celebrity can get work published and sold, and earn a rather large reputation.” Ouch. Of the late ‘80s he declares, “The ‘ego’ poem, or ‘I’ poem, is the genre favored by most poets….” For whatever reason, I lucked out. Peters liked the galley proofs of my book, and even invited me when I was coming to L.A. to visit him at the house he has shared for decades with fellow-poet Paul Trachtenberg. I’d like to believe that I would admire his work and like him even if he hated my work. What makes Peters’ criticism so incisive, and his poetry so utterly contemporary, is his thoroughgoing knowledge of the history of poetry. He knows what made the new truly new in every period. His stance is related to Eliot’s in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” but he calls for a more radical departure from the tradition. Here’s the beginning of his 1974 poem “the word yes”: slowly a great rain of piss begins (god beats on the galvanized lid of heaven the stars piss, Danae yells for a sponge, Castor and Pollux. . .) the rain is orange, the skies are hepatitis colored, word balloons are full of comicbook doomwisdom. yes. Today, Ron Silliman has taken Peters’ Poetry-Critic Crown and removed it into the blogosphere.... Continue reading
Posted Jun 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Still thinking about the mainstreaming of gay culture, and more specifically, gay poetry, and I am struck by the fact that so many of the touchstone poets for younger poets today happen to be gay men: Duncan, Ginsberg, Spicer, Blaser, Wieners, Ashbery, O’Hara. This unbigoted interest and longing for influence is wonderful. What this group of mid- to late-20th century poets has in common, besides their sexuality, is an iconoclastic, avant-garde bent (as it were). However (and I hope I don’t sound like a curmudgeon), I worry a little when so much talk is about the experimental aspects of these poets, usually without even a mention of their gayness or queerness. I of course don’t want to be reductive and proclaim that only gays should read gay poets, or that all readings of these poets should be queered (although one could argue that there might be a range of gay sensibilities that describe their individual poetics). But a little more acknowledgment might be good. After all, Duncan went out on a very dangerous limb for all of us in the midst of the homophobic climate of World War II when he published the essay, “The Homosexual in Society,” in Politics. This is said to be the first open essay on the subject. We can’t forget that Ginsberg’s work was prosecuted and censored in large part for its gay content. And O’Hara wrote many overtly gay poems, such as “Homosexuality,” “Joe’s Jacket,” and “You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming,” as well as fey-gay poems like “Lana Turner Has Collapsed.” O’Hara’s mock-manifesto, “Personism,” is a great example of the kind of crossover of avant-garde New York School poetics to a gay sensibility, or rather the sensibility embedded in the poetics. The more formal concerns are pronounced with outrageousness: “I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve.” These concerns are spliced together with campy passages: “It [Personism] was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond).” He ends with a wry brattiness or insouciance: “The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.” Continue reading
Posted Jun 24, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Next month, as part of a series guest-edited by Mark Doty, Graywolf Press will reissue James White’s uber-lyrical, posthumous 1982 The Salt Ecstasies. This has got me thinking about what may be only an asterisk in recent literary history, but one I view as a particularly shiny one, that is, the review named after White. Begun in 1983 by a gay men’s writing group in Minneapolis, the review was created in honor of their friend, who had died of heart disease in 1981 at age forty-five. The James White Review was part of a second wave of gay literary journals started after the ‘70s and early ‘80s run of groundbreakers like Gay Sunshine and Fag Rag. TJWR gave voice to hundreds of gay poets and writers, including Mark Doty, Thom Gunn, and Andrew Holleran. I got my start there (they published my second or third poem) before I ever dreamed of moving to Minnesota. There were also photographs and drawings, mostly of nude men, some more artistic than others, but anything pornographic was not much harder, so to speak, than today’s Abercrombie and Fitch ads. But the writing ran the gamut of gay men’s lifestyles and subcultures, documenting and constructing gay life from Latin America to Canada. By the 90s TJWR was said to be the oldest running and largest gay men’s literary journal in the world, with 1,700 subscribers. The maximum distribution was 6,000—not bad for a little magazine, but it was still losing money. One of the founders, Phil Willkie, kept TJWR alive as a labor of love. I had a brief stint on the staff of TJWR, as the editor or managing editor (it was never quite clear) in 1998. I had been hired, in part, to resuscitate the magazine by bringing it into the brave new world of foundation- and grant-supported arts, which meant straightening out the books for a tax-exempt status that had never been applied for in all those years. I soon found out that accounting is most definitely not my forte, and the magazine could not afford to pay me for more than a few hours per week for what was a much bigger job. And, though just five or ten years younger than the founders, I was of a more selfish generation that didn’t do labors of love, or at least not without being paid what we felt we deserved (it wasn’t a fortune, $15 or $20 per hour). And so, after my short tenure, the journal was sold to the D.C.-based Lambda Literary Foundation who suspended publication in 2004. TJWR sank in part because it couldn’t make the transition into the era of foundations. But neither could it make the transition to the age of the Internet or the mainstreaming of gay culture. The men’s-only world faded, at least in the publishing world outside of porn. It’s hard to find anything on the Internet about TJWR, and there isn’t a single image of James White, but you can still read back... Continue reading
Posted Jun 23, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Since that day I first read H.D., I tagged along behind her, wantonly blending her poetry with her biography. I wanted to jag from independence to romantic thralldom, just as she did. What abandoned lover would not want to emulate her Eurydice’s defiant cry to Orpheus? Before I am lost, hell must open like a red rose for the dead to pass. Eventually, I found H.D.’s Hellenic range of aesthetics can sometimes seem a little narrow or awkward in the modern era, but this was simply learning the limitations and humanity of a friend you idolize at first meeting. I could easily forgive the tendentiousness of her revisionary account of the Trojan War, Helen in Egypt, when I was in the midst of her expansive and iconoclastic Trilogy, arguably one of the few successful modernist long poems. Even without Aliki Barnstone’s wonderful edition (which wasn’t available when I first read it) full of notes on H.D.’s references and allusions, the poem can be read simply as a poet talking to poets about the power and responsibility found in poetry--a power she believes in, even as the bombs of the Blitz are raining down on her: But we fight for life, we fight, they say, for breath, so what good are your scribblings? this - we take them with us beyond death… In high school I became H.D. Or at least her spirit inhabited mine as I read her out-loud to myself, sprawled on the black beanbag chair in my room, heels dug into the deep, orange shag carpeting as the lines poured through me. Like her, I was interested in séances and other supernatural phenomena, and so figured that the day she died (September 27, 1961) was right about the time when I, at age three, had a fever that nearly killed me. I reasoned that when her spirit left her body it found its way into mine, causing the fever. I wrote about this at prodigious length in my diary. Now I’ve found more sane ways of channeling H.D. The poet Ted Mathys and I have written a screenplay for a biopic of H.D. The whole process made her more present than any séance ever could. The screenplay centers on her sessions with Freud at the dawn of World War II alternating with scenes of World War I. Our story ends with her writing the first part of Trilogy, “The Walls Do Not Fall,” as the walls of her flat fall in around her in London. Of course we’ve already cast it—Cate Blanchett as H.D., naturally, and Sean Penn as Pound. We’ve gotten honorable mention in a couple of screenwriting contests, and some agents have been initially interested, but it’s a tough sell. After all, when you Google “H.D.” you get a whole lot about Harley-Davidson and HDTV. I love her Tribute to Freud. Continue reading
Posted Jun 21, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Jun 17, 2010