See some of Ken Chen’s poems and find links to items mentioned in the podcast.
James Copeland is a tall man, who rides a tall bike, drinks tall drinks, and writes tall poetry. To My Plants is a tallish, stiff chapbook of words arranged by James, printed on cellulose by James, and containing a DVD of a short film shot by a friend of James, from which the still photographs interspersed throughout the chapbook originate. The cover is two-sided, both unassuming, without any words to indicate title or author. You get clouds and mountainous valleys at first glance, but the sleuthy reader will check under the flap and be delighted, or maybe teased, with a string of automobiles as silent as any natural wonder.
You’re right, I’m stalling, but only because To My Plants already says everything that needs to be said about itself. It’s a book that delights in a cat-like batting about of your preconceptions: Plants, oh, James is a hippie, or: “Science arises from the green and yellow star, / ready for panoramas, radiant with facts”, oh, James thinks he’s smarter than me. Which is where he gets you, feeding us lines we think we get (or don’t) but seconds later instinctively reconsider. It isn’t slippery so much as twisting, squirming, revolting, linguistic revolutions around the star that bore us.
Plants and science greet us throughout this slim book/tall poem. The long lines mirror time’s inconstant rhythms (despite what the atom says) and throws everything into transition. The “Children, too, are present, looking at their final bowls of cereal / before being called into service.” From plant to paper, child to servant (soldier? cubicle drone? janitor?), things are shifting throughout. Mountains are unsettled, lions act like men, “The sunlight washes over the mustard on the man’s fingers / like the visions of violent wealth that wash over the young girl’s sleep.” There’s our yellow and green star again.
But if everything is moving, where is it going? Even random paths, viewed from far enough out, can’t help but cough up a pattern. To My Plants offers the returning lion, which may be us, unless we are the plants, or the men and women, or maybe the “dollop of carbon” left on the fingertip. There are animals, and plants, both are carbon-based and can’t help but be. We can’t help ourselves, “We are part of the ocean, the gorge, we lurch into the surrounding smell / to know nothing except volume.”
There is hardly an “I” to be found in this book amidst the swirling patrons of planet Earth, but James slips, shows us that he is human, that “Like anyone else, he enjoys the feeling of corn syrup running down his forearms. / And by enjoy, I mean he swears by it.” We are what we enjoy, even if, at this point, that enjoyment is bringing the whole works down. James is no prophet but his poetry is a telescope turned on this place we call home. Sitting on this messy, throbbing rock, overrun with planets and animals, James gives us the pattern in one fell poem. Would that we may learn something about ourselves by it.
I was 14 years old when I read this poem. I found it in an anthology called New Poets of 1965, which I kept until it fell apart and no longer have a copy of. I did not know Robert Kelly’s work then. I did not know he was part of the first wave of deep imagists. I felt the twang of common ground in the somewhat Catholic imagery, and in my awakening sense of how Eucharistic reality might fit with my growing awareness of desire, my sexual desire. The poem made my horniness mystical, and my sense of the mystical twain with my passion–in all senses of the word passion.
I think what I like best about it is its ceremony, an almost liturgical feeling that moves as all good lyrical poetry moves on the precipice of the silly, the precious, and the absurd. I wore this poem out and memorized it, along with the Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets in the anthology, Kathleen Frazier’s poem in which she accepts her legs, and Gilford’s poem “The Abnormal is Not Courage.” 38 years later, and I still enjoy this poem, though now it does not come to me as a revelation, but as a memory of a voice I found true.
Poem for Easter
All women are beautiful as they rise
exultant from the ruins they make of us. . .
and this woman
who lies back
informing the sheets
has slain me with all day love
and now keeps vigil at the tomb of my desire
from which also she will make me rise
and come before her into Galilee
Rising I fall
and what does her beauty matter
except it is a darkness, sabbath,
where the church
everywhere comes together
to kindle one small light
the unyielding, the flesh,
The radio messiah
I know that my redeemer liveth
and he shall stand in the last days
up from this earth
Oh love, this hour will not let me name
They will say I make a sexual mystery of your passion
whereas we know, flesh rises
to apprehend one other mystery,
as the astonished lover’s eyes come open in his coming
to find that he is not alone.
Thin Kimono is a book of mistaken identities: a hallucinogenic wandering through a cocktail party the night before the invention of the internet. The party is populated with individuals you may or may not know. Your wife is a slightly altered version of herself. There are horses, but even they have become something else. Michael Earl Craig’s acupuncturist is here too. She tells us her “speakers are hidden in the jade plant” (The Bad Clown) We get the sense she is struggling not to become evil. We know there must be separate rooms, separate poem-rooms, but even with titles, often the only sense of demarcation comes from the turning of pages. This is particularly true in the book’s second and smallest section, which is reminiscent of Matthew Rohrer’s “A Plate of Chicken” in that the section is comprised of short 8-line segments separated by asterisks (“A Plate of Chicken” is divided into 7-line segments). Also like “A Plate of Chicken,” this section employs an uncanny use of dissociative observation as lens for self-reflection.
The innervated spatula, it
feels things even you don’t.
In 204 a couple humps briskly
like Great Danes, it’s textbook (had heard
what was probably a shoe hit the wall
with some force). We dream of perfecting life
somewhere else. In space, let’s say.
Wearing Erik Satie stretch pants.
We are invited to enter the rooms of his characters, to observe their strange habits and quiet respect for the divinity in objects, and then we let them pass back into an interaction we can only assume continues to occur after our leaving. “The nitwit danced with the congresswoman/ at the spring picnic,” Craig writes in “Poem.” As a reader I take solace in the knowledge that this dance continues even once I have closed the book and replaced it on my bookshelf. I’m equally glad to know that couple in 204 will be humping eternally, briskly.
In “The Neighbor,” one of the book’s most defiant and arguably self-aware poems, a dinner roll falls off the dining room table. “It [rolls] across the room and [passes] through the doorway into the bedroom and the door [slams] shut behind it.” Nothing about this act is portrayed as being out of the ordinary. To the contrary, we feel a very natural loss at the roll’s leaving, as though we, the non-participatory readers, have done something to cause it to throw a tantrum. After all, this particular poem is about us: about Craig’s inability to imagine us as anyone other than exactly himself, and of course about our inability to fulfill that expectation. Perhaps we feel an affinity to the roll in this poem because Craig has chosen the roll to represent our interests. While reading, there is always a recognition that we cannot enter the poem unless we are written into it, and so, like ghosts, we posses for a moment the body of the dinner roll and storm indignantly out of the room.
As with the proems of Francis Ponge, the objects in Thin Kimono are imbued with a kind of duplicitous consciousness. However, where Ponge’s objects come across as insecure and terrified of the softness that is contained within them, Craig’s objects appear at times in a state of revolt against the very human hands that created them. In “In The Road,” Craig tells us of a dream where he is shoeing a horse.
the nails was like trying to strike flies
from the air. My hammer flashed in the sun,
striking the shoe to the left or the right of the nail.
One miss-hit busted my thumb open.
Blood trickled like a wet glove over my hand.
Even the blood here becomes an object capable of acting of its own volition. And again, similar to the proems of Francis Ponge, there is a moment where the interior comes to the surface, transforms itself, and covers “like a glove” the exterior. The blood in this instance is no longer an extension of the body but has become more an extension of the hammer that has revolted against the body. The objects have overtaken consciousness. Our grasping at them will lead to our own demise. Here is a very clearly stated desire to turn away from our tendency toward possession of material goods and into a world of endless metaphysical fulfillment, the lucid dreamstate where surrealism and realism and absurdism all coexist.
These poems occur in the space between the stirring of consciousness and the awakening of reason, when our unconscious perceptions of the objects and characters that embody our lives are still dripping in the semiotic fluid of dreams and of language. In short, it’s a very fun book to read, and one that leaves you feeling more inquisitive and excited about the earth’s occupants (both sentient and non-sentient) than when you opened it. Craig’s poems are as layered and thick as a well-made baklava. They are equally accessible, rich, and nutty. “THE READER CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY AND STILL GET [THEM].”(Bluebirds) Also like baklava, they taste more of the Country Marm’s kitchen than of the Hostess factory, more of the earth than of the machines we have created to destroy it. As with so many of the books put out by Wave, this one is quirky, intelligent, and entertaining, with leaps that sometimes require a great effort in the suspension of disbelief. I for one am glad to go there, glad to learn of the disparities that can be stitched together by consciousness, and particularly glad to again crack the form I have built around cognition. I hope this book does the same for you.
See some of the poems Colin reads in the podcast and find links to items discussed during the interview.
The first poem I ever loved was The Raven. Specifically, one line from the poem haunted me when I was young, and still does: “The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”
Writers today might say that the line isn’t a very good one, now that it has become the fashion of writing workshops to balk at any overuse of adjectives. But in this line the words used to describe this minute detail suggest that the mind perceiving the rustling curtain (the mind that is obsessed by the loss of Lenore) is frantic to most accurately describe and interpret the fleeting details of his life.
A world that is indifferent to our sorrows and our ecstasies produces these details, but we can’t help but infuse them with our own meanings. These details are what the mind attaches itself to, are what move us, and—when we are privileged enough to even frantically attempt to record them, even as the wind dies and the sad uncertain rustling stops—they are what sustain us.
they told me a surgeon sat down in the hospital morgue
next to your body.
He yelled at the aide to get out.
His two sons had been your students.
–me, too, little-knowing–
I’m always, my young fathers,
out in the air, loving you.
Water to water.
Jean Valentine won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book,Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry is Break the Glass, just out from Copper Canyon Press. Her previous collection, Little Boat was published by Wesleyan in 2007. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. The recipient of the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence, New York University, and Columbia.
I have a copy of Milosz’ Facing The River, which is translated both by the author and a poet I greatly admire, Robert Hass. In it, there is a wonderful and spiritual dance between memory and effacement, and, yes the effacement of memory, for anyone who has ever lost a person, or a country, or a language knows that there is a double hell: the effacement that transpires when one must “move on” from that place, or language, or person, and perhaps worse: the effacement that memory assures since to remember anything is to distort it, to make a sort of selected works out of that which once had full life and depth, and which breathed independent of one’s own consciousness. Kafka, speaking of writing, said: “the minute you write, ‘she opened a window’, you have already begun to lie.” Memory is lie, but it has an ethos, a virtue and grace in that one feels this awful gap, one does not tread lightly as one remembers. Nostalgia has no such conscience which is why it ought to be feared as a sort of sociopathic order of memory. It lies without caution, without even the slightest troubling of the waters it fouls with “the happy good ole days.” Memory, especially, in its intimacy with loss, has the terror of the angelic and the beautiful, but it is a distortion, a much more covert yet more powerful form of effacement, and, the best way a poet or writer knows if they are affecting memory rather than mere nostalgia is if they feel this weight, this sense of effacement.
Proust’s great work is neither of memory or nostalgia since these are exactly the forces which adhere the final death masks to all that is vital within consciousness. Proust is in search of lost time, not remembrance. Remembrance is effort. The Proustian moment has no sense of effort, but is grace: for a brief thunder clap, one has recovered the exact co-ordinates of lost time, and, by this recovery, time itself is made unstable. It sputters, and loses its death grip. Time and space flicker, and, in the flicker, time is shown for the inconstant fraud and cheat it is. So let’s make a distinction between memory, nostalgia, and Proustian invocation, which, though most finely delineated in Proust’s great work, is not Proustian at all, but is at the source of all great poems: invocation, the raising of the dead, through style, through verbal ceremony, through the liturgy of man’s ontological fear of oblivion. We must remember that even the triumphs of a great poem are temporary. This is what gives them the power of the sacred: we go down into the underworld, perform the rites just so, the dead speak, yet, when the poem ends, the dark that has surrounded the poem floods back in. In the poem, “A Certain Neighborhood,” Milosz plays with all three registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation. Like many fine poems, this work by Milosz, is a hortatory act—a meditation on the registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation, and the great dance of intimacy and distance between restoration and effacement. When I first read this poem I was reminded of my father making a thirty mile detour to show his children and my annoyed mother the street he once lived on in Chester, New Jersey. We complained. We grew bored, but he was a man on a mission. He wanted us to see, but what he wanted us to see was not possible: the sudden longing to collapse thirty years of distance, to reclaim a landscape that did not exist, and, perhaps, had never existed as he “remembered” it. The “driveway”, he kept passing turned out to be the street. Memory had distorted space, expanded, enlarged what was small, and nondescript, and far less attractive to us than the diner nearby where we could pee. I will never forget the look of shame on my father’s face, and of stunned grief. My brother laughed at him, and he turned on my brother, and, seething, hissed: “you’re a smug little bastard.”
We must always be as careful with nostalgia as we are with most forms of vulgarity: it is too close to the whore’s heart, and can be used by politicians to promote a “purity,” an Edenic return that supports the most vile sense of the volk. Nostalgia carries the worst ideas of the purgative. It is amoral or immoral, but true memory is moral in that it proceeds with caution, and Proustian invocation is pre-moral, the origin of consciousness and of our sense of the beautiful and the good. At any rate, the poem:
I told nobody I was familiar with that neighborhood.
Why should I? As if a hunter with a spear
Materialized, looking for something he once knew.
After many incarnations we return to the earth,
Uncertain we would recognize its face.
Where there were villages and orchards, now nothing,
Instead of old timber, young groves,
The level of the waters is lower, the swamp disappeared
Together with the scent of Ledum, black grouse, and adders.
A little river should be here. Yes, but hidden in the brush,
Not, as before, amidst meadows. And the two ponds
Must have covered themselves with duck weed
Before they sank into black loam.
The glitter of a small lake, but its shores lack the rushes
Through which we struggled forward, swimming,
To dry ourselves afterwards, I and Miss X, and one towel
My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?
I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.
One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:
No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.
As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.
Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:
Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.
Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.
Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:
My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.
Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:
The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Filled with dead
That won’t stay
When I die,
I won’t stay
On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.
See the poems Solmaz Sharif reads in the interview and find links to some items discussed during the interview.
Once I Walked Out
Once I walked out and the world
rushed to my side. The willows bent
their willowy necks, tossed green hair hugely.
The hawk cried by the well.
The crows kept counting their kind.
Once I walked out and the sheep
bleated with sensitivity, touched
black muzzles to the grass.
I was followed by dogs, by flies,
by horses both curious and spiteful.
The field of beans worked its sums
under green, the corn licked the air to haze.
I said goodbye to the house
with its sagging porch, attic hung with bats.
Goodbye braided rug, rabbit hutch, corn popper, copper tub .
The green world greened around me—
Virginia creeper, crown vetch, thistle, mullein, sumac.
I was full in my limbs, my laugh, pinkish skin.
I swung my arms, pulled air into lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew,
bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.
Mark Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage which received the Lambda Literary Award, and Voluntary Servitude, which was published in 2004 by Graywolf Press. He teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
At a party last Thursday night after a full day at this year’s AWP conference, I broke one of my own absolute rules – never, under any circumstances resort to quoting The Big Lebowski. Out of some mixture of awkwardness and that day’s hang over, I recited a line from my high school idol the Dude to another poet. I was simply passing a good piece of advice along, a bit of practical philosophy – some times you eat the bar, and, well, sometimes he eats you. It seemed appropriate, as she’d just finished a tirade, and we’d both lost interest in the subject. By the time I got to bar, she was speaking the line loudly, with panache. She was in on the joke, eager for me to know it, which is what I continually find so gross. At some point in the last 5 years (maybe longer?) seemingly everyone was let in on a joke that I once selfishly held as my own. In turn, The Big Lebowski stopped being the reference-pantry raided by me and my small circle of friends, the endless source of weird one-liners good for boggling those unhip to the film. It’s now become collective knowledge, and worse, quoting the movie has become a norm for so many people my age (who hit puberty mid to late 90s) who probably, I assume, have no understanding of the Cohen brothers’ meticulous talent, or worse, in fact appreciate it as deeply as I do, making it that much less special. So many voices right now across North America are attempting their best Donny or Walter, again trying to remake that initial Edenic moment when someone dropped a burrito down their T-shirt and their friend turned, laughed a little, and coughed out, this a bummer man…that’s a bummer. In that first instant—a miming of the already dramatic, immediate recognition, and thus a new context invented. Lebowski became a movie not only to buy late at night in a Wal-Mart bargain bin, to watch again and again noticing new congruencies and minutiae, but a movie to quote. And in that instant, that quotation became the thing to mimic, rather than the movie itself.
So how does one function in a post-Lebowski world? A world where the thing you loved growing up—the sense that a unique moment is possible, the comradery built around the surprise of both responding to a new joke and remembering it all at once—feels played out? Do you take it to the next extreme, attend an official Lebowski Fest donning shooting-range glasses and a canvas vest? Would you find those beloved people waiting there for you, the real fans, or would you still feel that sense of competition and frustration?
The next day was Friday, and I was prepared for a repeat—hung over, sitting through panels and readings at my first ever AWP conference, conveniently set in my home, DC. I would greet even casual acquaintances warmly, stalk my favorite publishers, push myself to try and drink in all the poetry I could stomach, given my nausea from the last night. I had avoided the conference in past years for practical reasons like money and semester workload. I’d also pictured a monster: a sea of writers confined to a single space all vying for attention. I had imagined the conference as one long stretch of feeling bad like you do when a guy by the metro asks for change and you keep walking, or when a shiny BMW full of laughing college kids pulls up by you at a red light. Pity in the first, envy in the second. Self-deprecation on both fronts. I imagined being sick of people selling me their artistic ethos and ranking it against mine.
In part, I was right. By the end of Saturday, I had a strange feeling, uncanny, some mixture of confidence and deflation, of me and not me. I felt a sense of writerly persona, but also the sense that I had to recoup something important. Some good college friends were in town for the conference, and so there was that—the long, nostalgic nights of bar hopping I so often drunk-dial demanding. There were wonderful readings by some of my favorite writers, and even better by writers I’d never heard of. And there was the realization when I first arrived on Thursday that in a moment I’d be surrounded by thousands of like-minded people, all scraped from the floor wearing similar dirt.
But there was also the feeling that somehow the nametag around my neck stood as a two-word resume, making me easier to read. People cut in line after readings to pass a card or book to a speaker, and subsequently drew out conversations while the rest waited. There were questions after panels which included mostly credentials and never actually reached a question mark. There was the too-muchness of the book fair in an endless basement of rooms busting with people. There was an air of emptiness to so many that sprang from more than beer or jet lag. People who seemed large to me in the past now looked tiny.
The writers who convinced me to believe in writing were Kerouac and later Ginsberg. In college when I was so ready to be moved by something and directed, I found ‘On the Road,’ which preached no direction, and ‘Howl,’ which celebrated revolt. I had my first transcendent experiences walking through crowds of students who I imagined couldn’t possibly understand the world’s beauty at that moment. I read and believed in what writers do: drink and yell together, break the past, push their every limit, and sing each others’ praises. So I helped a friend edit a home-made journal and organized a reading series in the back of a bar. I read and reread Bukowski. I caroused with and debated the poetry kids. Got smashed like any college student. I took every possible poetry workshop and then applied to MFAs looking to continue in that same vein. I’ve now lived in DC for almost 3 years honing my craft, attending readings, meeting the local writers. All of this under the assumption that I’m following my love, that poetry is my creative vehicle, and that along with my few acquaintances, I’m pushing this thing forward, keeping it alive. It sounds ridiculous, but how else to go on in a medium that favors the individual, without on some level believing you’re an individual?
So this past weekend, walking into my first AWP, the conference that consistently draws a wealth of today’s talented writers and teachers of writing, what should I have expected? Culture or the mime of culture? Ginsberg first reading ‘Howl’ in 1950s Frisco while Kerouac passed cheap jugs of wine and shouted? Or that moment’s retelling in the recent film Howl with its more gorgeous Ginsberg, its less gorgeous Kerouac? Poets like so many thousands of Jeff Bridges decoys, all in matching white v-necks, pacing like lunatics, uttering the same 10 lines back and forth? I think as a poet and person, I often live too much in the imagined past, reliving memories, idolizing personas invented through literature, saving friends in my mind as they once were. But that doesn’t mean I believe the present isn’t real, and that poetry should accept its place as just a teacher’s art, though teaching is incredibly important. There is a reason so many poets are right now budding in MFA programs, and it’s not simply the push for professionalization, the economy, etc. Nor do I think, looking back on my full experience, that AWP should be cornered as some sort of backwoods, yet fancy, family reunion, rife with inbreeding, as was my initial cynicism. I did hear moments of life, feel excitement, swallow poetry and sweat it out. On Friday, Sonia Sanchez stood up during the Split this Rock panel on Langston Hughes, for which she presented. She paused to keep from crying, and said something to the effect of: You don’t understand what this is all about; you have to read Langston Hughes, I mean really go back and read him. I knew she really felt it, even if she couldn’t explain fully just then—just like any good artist really means what they make, no matter the layers of irony we’re asked to sift through. The dramatic voice, fragmentation, wrenched syntax. The CVs, business cards, mingling. Underneath, there must be sincerity, and so often there is. Most writers I meet really believe in the vitality of their craft, even if it doesn’t immediately show. Not everyone’s confident, and not everyone’s talented. The next poet will always on some level be the competition; it’s there in the edicts of contemporary art. But I think we all savor those moments we don’t have to suspect, that just happen, really happen. Those moments you can’t manufacture, which make all the bullshit tolerable. If I have the money, I’ll be in Chicago this time next year doing it all again.
…“This is the world,”
I think, “this is what I came
in search of years ago.” Now I
can go back to my single room,
I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone’s god, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere comes
the actual voice of someone else.
-from “The Music of Time”
As we have been trained over decades to expect from Philip Levine, his latest book of poems, News of the World, is an unsurprisingly likeable collection of environmental portraits rendered with acute sensitivity to history and class. Those who know Levine’s work will find much familiar about many of these poems—and happily so, as his strengths as a poet have resisted dulling over time and profuse exercise.
The spoken quality of this master’s voice and the guileless feel of these poems’ shapes are subtle forces in News of the World. In the above closure of “The Music of Time,” Levine’s loping parataxis, his casually exacting “someone’s god” and “actual voice of someone else,” his flirtation with negative capabilities—above all else his unique narrative space of a kind of American subaltern—are prominent features of these recent works. Yet for Levine’s fans and the uninitiated alike, News of the World delivers on the promise in its title. The real force behind the collection is its gentle insistence on dialogue as a source of inspiration—the interplay between Levine’s liminal yet capacious narrative space and other voices in these poems. Vital statements, questions, and ironies are threaded throughout in exchanges that begin between a “you” and “I” (which occasionally resolves to “we”) in “Our Valley,” the opening piece, to be sustained in the various voices of Levine’s family and intimates, historical and literary figures, writers, songsmiths, and of course the poet himself. Whereas in so many works the voices of others become foils for or extensions of the author’s own voice, some of the best poems of News of the World suggest the possibility of hearing “the actual voice of someone else”—with a stress on the actual.
Perhaps nowhere is Levine’s dialogical bent more evident in News of the World than in its third of four sections, which is comprised entirely of prose poems. This section opens with an overheard exchange between a doctor and a young patient—a prose poem ironically titled, “Fixing the Foot: On Rhythm”—which is surely what Levine referred to in a March of 2008 interview as “the first good prose poem I ever wrote,” and closes with the book’s namesake. Many of these fine poems embody such actual listenings and recastings of speech, effectively assuming postures of tenderness, fractiousness, and play—all with Levine’s signature restraint and regard for humanity. They treat us to the voices that enlarge and enrich our own individual humanities. What once might have been seen as Levine’s anger and righteousness is transformed into an impulse to listen and share what he hears—an experience that he creates for his readers rather than telling us, ‘you don’t know what ______ is.’ This is a truly engaging facet of the new Levine collection, and just part of what makes these poems well worth experiencing first-hand.
So, while News of the World certainly offers some typical-feeling moves to those familiar with Levine’s oeuvres, it also contains formal variations and preoccupations that will amuse and surprise both his admirers and those who don’t yet know his work. And most hopefully, at least possibly, we might find “actual” other voices here—voices that waken in us the best and most thrilling aspects of what it means to live.
Read some of Deborah’s poems here and find links to some of the things Ben and Deborah talk about in the interview.
It was the novel, specifically The Brothers Karamazov, that once and for all set me on the path toward dedicating my life to literature. Only recently has poetry come to occupy a similarly sacred space as the novel in my outlook. This delay is not due to any prejudice on my part, but more to a simple lack of sufficient exposure.
The main catalyst for this awakening was John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” When I first encountered it, I had been studying Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Namely, practitioners of the massive, whose major works will undoubtedly stand as monuments to our historical and cultural moment. “Self-Portrait” is one such undertaking.
The sheer philosophical, epistemological, formal and emotional scope exhilarates me every time I read it. It is a virtuosic, dynamic, and ultimately heart-wrenching meditation on self-consciousness and loss, central notions of late twentieth-century art. Like those masters of narrative I mentioned, Ashbery causes me to pause and reflect with awed humility that I could never do what he did in this poem.