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Stay with Me Awhile

By Loren Kleinman

ISNB: 978-1941058350

April 2016

Winter Goose Publishing

Reviewed by Brian Fanelli

Loren Kleinman’s last collection of poems, Breakable Things, had a lot of references to Charles Bukowski, even in terms of subject matter, specifically the poet’s willingness to not shy away from raw subject matter, such as drinking or sex. There are still some echoes of Bukowski in Stay with Me AWhile, but Kleinman’s new book draws more resemblance to Anne Sexton for the way that it addresses matters of the body and notions of beauty. The book is also more expansive in form, containing a number of prose poems and work that is more surreal than it is narrative. At the heart of the collection, however, is a theme that has been most pronounced in Kleinman’s work, the need for love and affection in an increasingly isolated and fragmented world.

Kleinman’s growth as a writer extends to how she addresses the erotic, which also echoes some of Sexton’s work. For instance, in the short prose poem “Me and Him,” the speaker confesses, “I want to know what makes him cum,” but the poem digs deeper than mere sex, illuminating the layers of feelings that coincide with sex in a long-standing relationship. In the next line, the speaker states, “I want to hear what happened to him that one night in his mother’s arms.” In many of the poems, the speaker admits how guarded she is around men, but “Me and Him” shows a tenderness, especially in its concluding lines, “He asks me to take off the do not enter sign/Joseph slides his face against mine. I let him crawl inside me/this time, fill me with sugar and kisses.” This is a nice contrast in tone and subject matter to some of the other poems that address loneliness. In “The Snow Reminds Me to Play,” the reader feels the speaker’s ache and desire for love and affection, especially in the lines, “The snow is loud and strong/It makes love to me when no one else wants to.”

Other poems tackle gender constructs, and Kleinman does so in direct, forceful language. “It’s Cold Out There” recounts a conversation between the speaker and a friend over the idea of beauty. This poem is also different from some of Kleinman’s earlier work for the surreal lines woven throughout the narrative.


No. No. I will not go outside and listen to the wolves tear

at the moon. It’s just that I’m alone. It’s just that you make

me feel so alone. You know. It’s not an achievement to be

that pretty, you say. It’s a bunch of glock and glick and it’s

cold out there. Look at my thighs. Look at the scratches

and stretch marks. Look at the skin pulled back from my

fingers. And you lick the marks; you eat them out with a

fork and knife. I’ve already forgotten what it’s like to be

loved; what it’s like to be. Let’s sit down in front of the

TV and nibble at our skin. Let’s sit here and stare into

the deepness of our eyes, then we’ll go outside and eat the

cheese form the mice’s paws.

The lines about wolves tearing at the moon and eating cheese from mice’s paws is an interesting, surreal juxtaposition to the rest of the poem, which is generally a more narrative prose poem. There is also something consuming about the couple’s attention to each other, namely the idea of nibbling skin and licking marks.

Ultimately, the book circles back to the character of Joe, first introduced early in the collection, in “Me and Him.” The concluding poem, “We’re Here Briefly, is celebratory, recalling a simple moment, when the speaker drinks on a rooftop with Joe, while holding his hand and smiling. At last, the speaker finds the love she desires. Overall, Stay With Me Awhile marks a shift in Kleinman’s poetry and shows she is willing to experiment more with tone and form, while addressing a deeper subject matter.








All publishing poets know what chapbooks are. So, I’m not going to provide a history of the chapbook. The internet is full of good essays documenting that history. In fact, one brief essay can be found here on TheThe Poetry Blog by Sam Riedel. Here’s another link to one by the British historian, Ruth Richardson.  What I want to draw attention to is the importance of the poetry chapbook and the folly of considering it as less significant than a full-length collection.

A chapbook, which is basically any book with a page count under 48, will not be considered for any major prize. No matter how good, it cannot win a Pulitzer or National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award. In fact, there is, to my knowledge, only one national prize in the country dedicated to already published poetry chapbooks: The Jean Pedrick Award, sponsored by the New England Poetry Club. I emphasize “already published,” because there are plenty of prizes for chapbooks in which the prize is publication. But the incredible failure to acknowledge the significance of chapbooks after publication mirrors the failure throughout the poetry world to respect chapbooks as artistic achievements in their own right, the failure to judge them solely on their quality. Of course, there are devotees of the chapbook, but there are devotees and collectors of everything from backscratchers and umbrella covers to sugar packets. The error for poetry chapbooks is in the disregard for them, not only by the general reading public who may not even know of their existence, but by poets themselves, especially those aspiring to carve out a place in the literary world. The feeling is that if you want to be taken seriously as a poet you have to publish more than a chapbook, you must publish a full-length collection. Even those who value them value them only as “calling cards” or stepping stones toward publishing larger works. This is clearly an error if one reflects briefly on the history of great poetry.

Philip Larkin published five collections of poetry in his lifetime. Of those five only one of them would be a full-length collection by today’s standards and that one, his first one, The North Ship, only just makes it, coming in at 48 pages. The four that followed—XX Poems, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows—would all be considered chapbooks by today’s definition. XX Poems was privately printed and so it’s difficult to find information about its page count. However, given that Larkin generally wrote short poems and even if each poem in this collection took up 2 pages, which is highly unlikely, it would be 40 pages of poetry, and thus, still a chapbook. The page count for each of the following four books respectively goes: 45, 46, and 42. So, only The North Ship qualifies as a full-length collection. Imagine the loss to the world of poetry if such chapbooks had been ignored as insignificant merely because of their length? Or consider the ridiculousness of relegating them to being mere stepping stones to his Collected Poems, published after his death.  These short collections contain some of the most startling and beautiful poetry written in the last century.

William Blake’s famous collections: The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience were both chapbooks. The first book comprised only 19 poems published in 1790. Four years later he published The Songs of Experience, which was only 26 poems. And to be clear, none of these poems were long. Most were a page or less. Even though these chapbooks were very small, not only in page number but in actual size, they were works of art unlike anything anyone else had produced, created using Blake’s own method of printing from copper plates etched by acids.

More recently, the poet Tomas Transtromer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize, demonstrated the power of an oeuvre that accumulates in small increments, growing slowly like a glacier over years. Each individual addition to his total output never amounts to what is defined as a full-length collection. Only by combining old material with new material does he make more than a chapbook. His first book, 17 Poems, was, of course, 17 poems and they weren’t long enough to cover 48 pages. Not even close. The next set of new poems, Secrets on the Way, added fourteen more poems to his work. The collection after that, The Half-Finished Heaven, added twenty-one more poems. In this way, he kept adding to his oeuvre. But any given addition never would have broken that 48-page barrier.

Many other poets have published works that are chapbooks. The original publications of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, and Ginsberg’s Howl were both chapbooks. Of Louise Bogan’s four major collections, two of them—The Body of This Death, and The Sleeping Fury, were chapbooks. Edgar Bowers’ second collection, To the Astronomers, was 36 pages. And the following collection Living Together, although 84 pages, was a new & selected and therefore, full of material from his first two collections. I’m fortunate to own a copy of this book and can tell you that the new poems in the collection only compose a total of 10 more pages. This could also be pointed out of many other poets. So what is our obsession with making collections long when so many important poets published short works of great significance? Why consider these mere works on the way to—not more important work, but just larger collections of work?

I’m not an expert. But my guess is it’s market driven. Somewhere along the line, it is all ultimately determined by graphs of market value and profit margins for the larger houses that publish poetry. Unfortunately, we poets have largely bought into this mentality. Our entire culture believes, as if it were divine writ, that bigger-is-better, that perpetual growth defines success. But it is error in many ways and folly for poets to follow along with this thinking. A poet should write and construct the best book they can, and if that collection is under 48 pages, then that is how long it’s supposed to be. To ignore a collection because it’s only 20 or 30 pages long rather than 60 or 80 pages is simply the error of a mind that thinks bigger is better. Or it at least is not questioning that implicit assumption. I wager that most poets don’t think of themselves as adhering to this mentality and yet, here we are, all racing toward that 48-page mark as though it were what defines a collection of poetry. Certainly nothing in poetry itself determines that. It is an ulterior motive shaping the collection to reach that mark. Consciously or unconsciously it is not a poetic motive directing the poet’s choices here and it’s time to put that to an end.

We should encourage what bookstores remain in the world to display chapbooks as clearly as others.  We should encourage institutions to establish prizes that recognize the best chapbook published in the previous year, prizes that are honored and respected as equally as any other prize for full-length collections.  Chapbooks should be reviewed as regularly as other collections and in both large and small journals.  They should be reviewed with the same attention as other collections.  I would be willing to wager a large sum that if these things were done, we would begin to recognize a large number of very accomplished poets who haven’t had a full-length collection published but are just as deserving of recognition as any who have.

A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.



This evening at Catholic mass, while everyone bowed their heads to pray, I asked Jesus not only to help me be good to my husband and my family, but also what he thought about my poetry. I heard a voice, perhaps in my head, or perhaps funneled out the church ceiling which said, “your poetry will touch a few hearts, but it won’t help you in heaven.” Granted, I am aware that it is a bit presumptuous to ask the son of God what he thinks of your poetry. But it had me considering the worth of poetry, and what it means in the grand scheme of things, in relation to other aspects of life, that when you weigh them for their importance, are likely more spiritually imminent. I mentioned this to my husband, the poet Joe Weil, and he said, “You were listening. That is exactly what I would expect that Christ would say.”

When we returned home, we walked to the river on the other side of our land and went fishing. We coexisted, somehow in an almost silent reverie. I listened to the cacophony of birds, noted that there was an absence of geese, and glanced once at the sky, which appeared as if it had been painted in perfect blues and whites by God himself. I thought I would write a poem about it, but then it occurred to me that there is something about experience which simply cannot be appreciated to the fullest extent when you are preoccupied with drumming up lines to illustrate the experience with some sort of fancy language and clever twist of rhetoric. The experience, without the impediment of the literary impulse and obsession stands on its own, no matter how absent the mind must seem, no matter how stupid the utterances of wonder which reference it.

My husband never catches a fish when I am with him on the riverbank. In order not to spook the fish, I walked back to the house. Twenty minutes later, he returned, ecstatic, as he had fought an enormous carp for the whole duration of my absence. There is something, I think, about pure ecstasy, about the thump in the human heart which does not ask of or require poetic language to speak for it. As poets, we need time to live. The poet Franz Wright recently told me that he was finally beginning to enjoy his life, and not drowning in his own misery just because he went a day without composing a poem.

When Joe writes a poem, it is a sacred occurrence. It happens only once or twice a week, but his poems demonstrate quality, as opposed to quantity (of which I am often culpable). I spend so much of my time writing poetry that even the stupid awe that comes from watching two sparrows fly from a tree becomes “crucial” material for poetic concerns. So what is the poetry that transcends the expertly crafted line of verse? From what I have deduced, it’s the ultimate experience of beauty that requires no documentation, and which simply IS, ontologically, existentially, what have you.

After I write a poem, there is a moment or two of the elation related to accomplishing something, but after awhile, I just want the actual experience of love, in its simplest form, the absent contemplation of gazing into a fire or burying my head against Joe’s chest. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be permitted to experience this sort of contentment until I’ve done my job for the day and written a poem. Reader, I can’t tell you in words the intimacy I experience when I am writing a poem. But just listen. Joe is playing the piano. He almost caught a fish. Art is everywhere, in the air, in the buzz I feel from my third drink. Not every instance of beauty requires a literature to uphold it. For there is already a literature, hovering even in the most immaterial moment, in the acts we commit on our way to heaven.

The poet who saved my life never existed for me in his native language. He died fifteen years before I was born. His name is Miguel Hernandez, and he will never be as well known in English as Lorca, Jimenez, or Machado, but he is my poet, the one I would take with me into exile.

When I first met one of his poems I was a senior in high school and my mother had just died. She did not die prettily. I remember the good Catholic liberals in my school showed a film on how a good Catholic family should behave during a terminal illness. I sat in the class growing more and more enraged. I shouted at the teacher: “There’s no right way to behave fuck face,” and stormed out of the class. They wanted to suspend me. My father told them to go see my mother. I was let back into the school the next day, and I was not made to watch any more films on a “beautiful” death. The mouth cancer had eaten away half her face. She had a tumor in the middle of her forehead, and her lips, what was left of them, were swollen so that she could barely speak. She was not yet fifty one.

I did not know how to grieve. My aunts and uncles, who had grown up in a large Irish family, understood all the mechanics of grief. You made tea. You made funeral arrangements. You grew ever more tidy.You smoked and joked, and changed the curtains. On the first night of my mother’s wake, I refused to stay with the family at Aunt Elizabeth’s. I threw myself down on my parent’s bed, when no one was there, and wept the way you might if everything in your life has been dismantled. Sounds came out of me I did not know could exist. I buried my head in my mother’s pillow. I could smell her cancer everywhere in the house. It had become the incense of my life. I was about to turn 18.

Life is not merciful. It does not forgive a weakness in any structure, including that in the human soul, and it will tear, and peck, and hammer against this weakness until it is destroyed. I sometimes think African American “cool” and Irish humor developed out of an awareness of this truth. One must fool life into believing the structure is sound. One must put up a front against the hornets and rats who would build a nest in the flawed structure of the soul, but this “front” becomes a tomb, and I now realize most of the people who raised me, who looked after me, who hovered over my first sleep, were already buried under ten tons of well constructed shite. This is the experiential, non-verbal equivalent of form. All the formalities of our lives are meant to distance us from the merciless beak that seeks out the vulnerable, the visibly damaged. Life sends its chickens to peck the bleeding chicken to death. In a sense, literature, word, is the chief shaping ancient of what can not be shaped. And so on to Hernandez:

I was not allowed to grieve, except in private, and a part of me continued doing teen anger things: I drank, I smoked. Being a nerd, and not very good looking, I pined for a girl who had no interest in me at all. If a loss is big enough, all the little losses come through the hole, and they widen it, and in comes more big losses–an avalanche. My father developed throat cancer. He became a drunk. We lost our house and lived over a record store in Garwood, New Jersey. My family went from solidly working class and Catholic to dysfunctional mess. It was during this time, this time when I realized my Catholic faith had nothing to give me but Hallmark greeting card sentiments, when all the people we had known started to “unknow” us that I came upon the poems of Miguel Hernandez.

I still believed in the sacraments, and in Christ, but I no longer believed in his followers. They made me want to puke. Christ spoke the truth about life hating any structural weakness when he said: “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” I told a priest about this, how this statement comforted me because I knew, by my experience, that it was true. The priest, being a snob ass, told me Jesus was speaking about faith. I said: “bullshit. He told us you only need the faith of a mustard seed. He was talking about the law of life. Strength seeks strength. The healthy seeks the healthy, and the week are ransacked for what ever material is left. He didn’t say it was good or bad. He just said it was true.” Nothing in my experience has changed my mind on this. In life, poetry has been the one mercy I know–poetry and music. Everything else has been a bust.

So I purchased the Hernandez book because it was bright orange on the cover, and I liked that. I didn’t know a damned thing about Spanish poetry, or most poetry for that matter. I wrote songs then, very good melodies, and terrible lyrics. As is my habit, I opened the book to a random page. It had been two months since my mother’s death. There were more deaths and losses to come and I knew it because I am intuitive, and can grasp the basic structure of things with the smallest bit of information. I am not extra sensory. Forget that. I have a brain wired to leap. This is intuition–an ability to jump to conclusions that are often absolutely true (And sometimes utterly false). I opened the book to his poem “Me Sobra El Corazon”:

Today I am. I don’t know how,
today all I am ready for is suffering,
today I have no friends,
today the only things I have is the desire
to rip out my heart by the roots
and stick it underneath a shoe.

I had found one voice that did not seem to be lying to me, and I had a meltdown in the middle of that book store, a used book store half English, half Spanish. I was fifty cents short, and when the person at the desk would not trust my promise to return with the fifty cents, I broke down in tears, and begged. An old Cuban lady gave me the fifty cents, and I bolted from the store, and sat in the park. I did not read any of the other poems for about a week. I clung to this poem because this voice was not lying to me. It was giving me back what I knew. It was not making tea, or hanging curtains, or saying “shut up.” It was telling me my wanting to die, my sadness was now my wealth, that everything else could be taken away from me, would be taken from me, but this suffering was mine:

The more I look inward the more I mourn!
Cut off this pain?–who has the scissors?

I eventually read the book, and read it a hundred times. This Spanish poet, this shepherd, this Hernandez tossed into a prison, freed, and stupid enough (wonderful enough) to go back to where he would surely be re-captured out of compassion for his family, this man who died in filth, in one of Franco’s many prisons, had spoken to me in a way only Christ had: “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” Christ also said: “Anyone who is brought to nothing for my sake will discover who he is.”

My grief was not merely private. The cancer of my mother and father, the loss of our house, the descent of my family went along with what happened to the working class culture I grew up in: good factory jobs went belly up. Skilled men and women were told they were worthless. Unions were destroyed. America went from a country that actually made something to a land of “professionals.” Vague, silly people who, like all vague silly people, create great destruction from their privilege, and are, themselves, eventually, destroyed. Before they are destroyed, they will swell like supernovas, embrace health foods, and spirituality, and a cult of professionalism (they will affirm the very thing that destroys them) and they will turn mean and blame the weak. They are soft spoken, politically correct, and the deadliest people who ever walked the face of this earth, and as a poet, I look forward to their destruction because they have no equipment for suffering (which is the same as living) and, therefore, no true compassion.

A country can not sustain an entire population of Daisy and Tom Buchanans, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Hernandez shaped my suffering. He also taught me that it exists on a scale beyond me, or anyone I love–that this loss is in, not of, a loss in things. In a time of great suffering, a human being might have only the consolation of his or her sentences. So be it. This is why it is important for poetry to exist: because it is beside the point, and, being beside the point, it cannot be impaled. It shapes what can never be shaped, carries what can not be carried, speaks to the dead, gives courage to those who have little else to go on. The “professionals” rule poetry militant. Jobs are gained and lost. Someone like me who has never been outside the coil of suffering will, no doubt, get clobbered. So what? I have known the impersonal machinery of management as a factory worker. I know the decorum of professionalism for what it is: a brand of benign contempt for life, and an ongoing death wish. Poetry, this scribbling, this jotting down, is no remedy, but it may shape the sickness just enough to make it portable.

I think of all the human emotions that call for the gravitas of form, loss, grief, and outrage need it most. In the case of Paul Celan, the complete break down of syntax and logical priority in his poetry was, chiefly, a formal necessity rooted in the murder of his people. He was writing in the language of the murderer, and, like the conquered Irish, and the enslaved African, this formal necessity compelled him toward re-inventing German, “mangling” it as it were, in order to achieve a true poetics of witness. What cannot be born must ever more carefully be shaped.

The handling of such overwhelming material is first and last, a question of form. Grief, loss, outrage, must be made portable. They must have their ceremony: embodiment, purgation, and, if possible, catharsis, and it is important to instill in a young poet the sense that precision, finding the right ceremony of utterance for what can not be truly expressed is paramount: the harder, the more impossible it is to render the fulll scope of loss, or grief, or outrage, the more vital form becomes. Here, I mean form as an artificiality which allows for truth. The only weapon at my disposal in the wake of all my losses and humiliations is artifice. Only the “insincerity” of form can speak for my heart. The great polyglot, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet:

The most abject of all needs is to confide, to confess. It’s the soul’s need to externalize.

Go ahead and confess, but confess what you don’t feel. Go ahead and tell your secrets to get their weight off your soul, but let the secrets you tell be secrets you’ve never had.

Lie to yourself before you tell that truth. Expressing yourself is always a mistake. Be resolutely conscious: let expression, for you, be synonymous with lying.

All poets must play not with the difference between truth and lie, but with their intimacy, the way one draws forth the other. As an experiment, I have been putting all my most immediate and sincere thoughts in Facebook status updates. These have made “positive” thinkers of the most depressed poet/friends, all of whom dread my declarations that a life without the beloved is meaningless, and, yet, if I were to put the lie of form, of decoration, of verbal ceremony to these “expressions” I might do more than merely get away with them; I might be applauded. It is never the “truth” that gives a poem its value, but the ceremony of that truth, and all ceremonies are, by definition, artificial.

So let me give a young poet a couple ways “in.” The first is that most conceited of poetic conceits: apostrophic (elegiac) address. Apostrophic address is the poet speaking directly to that missing person, place, or thing, which, of course, can not speak back. It has the power of immediacy, of ancient rites of grief and drama, and yes, of madness. In many classical elegies, it does not occur until the poem reaches its climax. Suddenly, the poet, in the throes of grief or grandeur, turns toward the dead,or the absent, and speaks to him or her directly. I will use the opening four stanzas of one of my favorite Spanish poets, Miguel Hernandez’ poem, “Lullaby of The Onion.” It was inspired by his hearing while dying in one of Franco’s prisons that his wife and son had nothing to live on but bread and onions:

An onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
huge and round.

My son is lying now
in the cradle of hunger.
The blood of an onion
is what he lives on.
But it is your blood,
with sugar on it like frost,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
turned into moonlight
pours herself down thread
by thread over your cradle.
My son, laugh,
because you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
laugh often.
Your laugh is in your eyes
the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat wildly in space.

Hernandez is lying to his son, to himself, but the important truth– this great poet, this loving father, locked away to die in a prison, who is helpless in every way except for his love, comes out. What a bad poem it would be if he wrote:

My son and wife have nothing but bread and onions to eat,
and I am helpless in all ways except my love.

This is what I mean by the necessity of form–whether in rhyme, or meter, or free verse. Pessoa says at a different point in his book that the personal is not the human. Always, a poem is a translation from the personal to the human that almost succeeds. The residue of its best failures is beauty. One must speak for more than just one’s self, even when the self is all one knows, or one does not speak at all. And so on to another trick:

Another way to create gravitas is distancing from the emotion either by sticking to surface details or by an indirect rumination, in order to free the ontology of the poem (its essential being) from the fetters of the merely personal (see Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). O’Hara uses the form of causal this and that. He goes here, he goes there, Billy Holiday has died. His strategy is an indirectness so accute it makes the loss part of the daily doings and landscape of his life and ours. Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and a sort of stoic rumination on loss done in one of the most strict forms: the Villanelle. This distancing does not have the passion of Hernandez, but it gives the loss and grief a certain elan and dignity.

Here’s an exercise: read all three of these poems, consider a grief, a loss, an outrage in your life, and write on it in all three styles. Use a conceit such as apostrophic address or giving the one you love a name like “Lark of my house” (or, as in Roethke’s great Elegy, “skittery pigeon”). First practice speaking directly to the absent person, place or thing, then write all around it without mentioning it explicitly. Good luck.

After wrestling through several Latin translations of Horace and trying to come to grips with him as a poet, I decided the best way to get “into Horace’s head” would be to translate him myself. Though Mrs. Krepich, my high school Latin teacher, might have hoped otherwise, my Latin, poor to begin with, has atrophied. I am saved somewhat by my slightly better Greek, but I barely limp through the original for the most part. So I roped a local Latin professor into my venture and we’ve been meeting once a week, translating and debating the meaning of Horace. Later, with our discussion in mind, I will make a translation in hopes of “righting” whatever wrongs I feel has been done by modern translators.

I’m not really righting any wrongs, of course–just putting my own spin on things. But it’s been an interesting learning process. We were foolish enough to take on one of Horace’s most famous and translated Odes: i.5. Milton’s attempt is the most famous:

What slender Youth bedew’d with liquid odours
Courts thee on Roses in some pleasant Cave,
Pyrrha for whom bindst thou
In wreaths thy golden Hair,

Plain in thy neatness; O how oft shall he
On Faith and changèd Gods complain: and Seas
Rough with black winds and storms
Unwonted shall admire:

Who now enjoyes thee credulous, all Gold,
Who alwayes vacant alwayes amiable
Hopes thee; of flattering gales
Unmindfull. Hapless they

To whom thou untry’d seem’st fair. Me in my vow’d
Picture the sacred wall declares t’ have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern God of Sea.

Milton’s poem is famously “word for word” (as much as possible from the Latin) and captures Horace’s meaning clearly and accurately. Anthony Hecht did a more irreverent “imitation”:

What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex
Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,”
Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha,
In your expensive sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.

“Russian Leather” aside, Hecht translates Horace with the 20th century reader in mind, but perhaps loses Horace’s steady-minded, quietly passionate tone in this poem.

Some critics have called Ode i.5 a perfect poem. It has an almost “tossed off” feel, yet upon further study reveals itself to be intricately wrought. It is quite similar to the way Bishop’s craft has made her a “poet’s poet.” This sense of the poem is captured by a Latin phrase from the poem itself: “simplex munditiis.” Milton translates it “Plain in thy neatness”; Hecht translates it much more loosely and colloquially as the “something simple” that Pyrrha slips into. David Ferry makes my favorite translation–“elegant and simple”–a phrase that also describes this poem. In this case, the highest art conceals its artifice. Pyrrha has possibly spent hours getting her hair “just so,” if only so that she can brush off a compliment with “Oh, it was nothing. I just rolled out of bed from a nap and it looked like this.” It reinforces the double illusion that 1. she looks this amazing all the time, and 2. she does not spend hours on her hair. It is the artifice of elegance: that whatever beauty exists in the object has arisen almost naturally, without contemplation, it’s very being tapped into beauty itself.

It’s often the same way with a poem. On the one hand, poetry, particularly formal poetry, draws attention to itself as poetry by its choice to act (or not act) in a way we understand to be poem-like. On the other hand, we derive a special pleasure out of coming full circle and hearing a poem that appears utterly unintentional in its formality, whose execution of the form makes us forget the constructedness of the form itself, as if it’s possible for a sonnet to occur in natural speech at almost any moment. It elevates poetry from “techne” to something divine (and thus the poet inspired–literally God-breathed!).

Then again, perhaps I’m overstating the goals of an art which conceals its artifice (nor do I necessarily believe that it’s the ideal or highest). I say all this only to emphasize that the process of translation–of this ode, at least–is hopeless from the beginning. Horace is just too good a craftsman for a translation to do him any ultimate justice. Yet I believe translators hope for a sort of “good will” that can exist between between themselves and the poet. In this sense, we need not fret about the “treasonous” act of translation, and another poet’s interpretation has the validity of a friendly presumption because of this good will. This good will gives license to the translator’s creative will and frees the translator from attempting to supplant the original (for indeed, this is what a perfectly accurate translation would do, were it possible to achieve). I think it also gives readers some criteria with which to judge a translation by, nebulous though it might be to try and discern the how a translator’s “good will” plays out in the text of the translation.

This brings me to my translation of Ode i.5. When I began this translation, Horace was very much on my mind; that is, I was trying to get into his head. The opening lines, especially, seem important because they say so much about what a translator interprets the original. Later, after certain decisions have been made, the poem becomes more “yours” as a writer. You’ve made certain stylistic choices in the beginning that sets in motion the rest of the poem’s machinery. The first step itself narrows the scope and closes off an infinite range of other poems. Here is my translation as it stands now:

What eager fellow is it now,
Pyrrha, who–in a cloud of cologne–brings
you roses and courts you in
a secret hideaway? (Do you

do your hair still with the same
simple elegance?) How often will
his sweat drip over your faithlessness
and the possibility that Aphrodite might change

her mind again? And how will he
unknowing marvel at the callous
sea and the blackening clouds?
You see he actually still enjoys

your love’s golden glow, flatters
himself that you’ll stay true and tender. He
doesn’t know that whispering breezes
change, that it’s a fool who steers

by untried stars. But me?
You’ll see I’ve hung my dripping
cloak in honor of the mighty god
that saved me from disaster
_____and the open sea.

The first choice for me was how to render “gracilis” the adjective that describes the young man (“puer”) who is currently pleasing Pyrrha. The word choice here is incredibly important because it is the first means by which Horace indicates own feelings toward the new couple. “Gracilis” generally means thin or slight; it could also mean simple, as in unadorned (but in the total opposite way that Pyrrha’s hair is “simplex”). Heather McHugh memorably translates it as “What slip of a boy,” while Ferry says “What perfumed debonair youth.” McHugh captures Horace’s derision toward the young man, while Ferry captures Horace’s jealousy. This is the primary tension in the poem: Horace is at once mocking of the youth’s inexperience while also chewing through the furniture with jealousy and lust (albeit in a totally reserved, very Roman manner). One could even say that Horace is jealous of the youth’s inexperience, jealous of the fact that the youth has the innocence that allows him to delight in the pure joy Pyrrha’s love (before things get rough, that is).

My phrase “eager fellow” leans more on the mockery side, yet, I hope, doesn’t fall into outright derision. “Eager” suggests inexperience, of course, the kind that doesn’t realize it’s a head nosing around for a guillotine. To me, the word “fellow” has always suggested the sort of foppishness that is the exact opposite of Pyrrha’s elegance, the kind that poofs it up in a “cloud of cologne.” Whatever choice is made here in rendering “gracilis,” one thing is clear: the better looking Horace portrays the young man, the more Pyrrha’s enjoyment of her time with him and thus, the greater Horace’s jealousy. On the other hand, the more biting Horace’s description of the youth, the more bitter Pyrrha’s rejection becomes for Horace: you dumped me for that dandy?

The real trick is being able to make it work both ways, which Horace does with the original. “Gracilis” could slide on the scale of meaning toward the pathetic “skinny” or the handsome “slender.” Horace wins the day by understatement. Perhaps “slim” could be close in its ambiguity, yet it lacks the suggestion of inexperience.

There are other forms of understatement in the first stanza. The verb “urget” could suggest a wide range of actions, from the innocent “court” (as in persistently calling, plying with roses) to the probably too-strong “press upon” (as in, physically presses himself upon her). James Mitchie’s translation goes all the way and says “makes hot love to you now,” leaving little room for Horace’s imagination. But isn’t it Horace’s imagination that is running wild? Isn’t this what, partially, animates the poem? Indeed, the affair is happening in some secretive grotto, and in this case, out of sight is not out of mind for Horace. I suspect the wide range of action is purposefully suggested by “urget.”

But even subtler is the arrangement of the Latin itself: “multa gracilis te puer in rosa.” Snuggled in between the adjective “slim” (gracilis) and noun “boy/young man” (puer) is the pronouned Pyrrha (te). And that verbal couple is itself among “multa…in rosa”: many a rose. While the whole situation is never stated, it’s pretty clear that Mitchie’s translation “making hot love to you” has a firm basis in the Latin. But Horace’s expression of this is almost unconscious: expressing the very thing he cannot bring himself to say.

I rendered this “courts you in / a secret hideaway” because I the other translators I’ve read rendered the phrase strongly (Ferry: “urges himself upon you / In the summer grotto”; McHugh: “pressing on you now, o Pyrrha, in / your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms”), and I wanted to see what happened if I did not render it so strongly. I hoped that “secret hideaway” would imply the kind of intimacy that Horace fears between the new couple, that, indeed, one thing will inevitably lead to another in such a “secret” place, innocent courting or not. I also wanted the phrase “secret hideaway” to allude to Johnny Cash’s “Tear Stained Letter,” which, in my mind, parallels Horace’s poem in some ways:

I’m gonna write a tear stained letter,
I’m gonna mail it straight to you.
I’m gonna bring back to your mind,
What you said about always bein’ true.
Bout our secret hidin’ places;
Bein’ daily satisfied.

The allusion is probably a stretch, but it’s there in my mind, at least until I edit it out at some later point.

This brings me to the most difficult and revealing line in the poem, I believe: “Cui flavam religas comam // simplex munditiis?” To me the phrase “simplex munditiis” is not only a perfect expression of the whole poem’s art, but an emotional depth charge that reveals the feeling which animates the drama of the poem’s language. Despite the poem’s claim that Horace has “survived” the shipwreck of Pyrrha’s love, despite the staid language and reserved descriptions, the poet writhes underneath the poise of this poem. Pyrrha is the archetypal “saucy wench,” the “fickle woman” who fills men with passion and lust as well as self-loathing at their inability to control themselves. As an image, the singular, simple description of Pyrrha’s hair creates an emotional history that founds the whole poem. It’s the perfect example of how the choice and rendering of even a single detail can realize a whole world.

In my translation, I chose to render that line as a real question to Pyrrha (hence the parentheses, making it a sort of direct aside); the rest of the questions in the poem are merely rhetorical. I openly copped Ferry’s word choice (“For whom have you arranged / Your shining hair so elegantly and simply?”), but hoped that a more personal expression of the line would raise the latent longing in that line. I have to admit, though, that here Ferry is hard to beat. Emphasizing that line raises the profile of the detail. Yet its power as a detail is in its latency, its grudging (non-)admission.

There are other important moments that one wrestles with when translating this poem. One such place is the very end of the poem, in which a translator must decide how much to explain the final image: it was a tradition of Roman sailors who survived shipwrecks to hang their sea cloaks in the temple of Neptune with a votive tablet in order to honor him for saving their lives. You’ll see in my translation I pretty much laid that information out completely, though in truth there are places here and elsewhere in my translation where I’ve significantly departed from the Latin (partially out of creative impulse, partially out of lack of skill). As I said, the poem starts out as Horace’s and becomes more the translator’s as it continues.

I would like to comment on other translations I’ve done of Horace in the future. For those who know Latin better than I do, I’d enjoy hearing your feedback on my poems or on any versions of the poem that you enjoy. For those who don’t know Latin, I’d like to hear your feedback on the poem itself, which of the ones I’ve reproduced here seem best to you.

Just before puberty struck with the force of the furies and made me a moody kid, prone to sudden bouts of gloom and equally sudden bouts of elation, it was discovered that I had a gift for music. The mode of discovery was a cheap 20 dollar Magnus chord organ purchased for my sister at the now defunct “Two Guys” supermarket.

Two Guys wasn’t exactly a supermarket, but, rather a combination of a supermarket, clothing, and toy store–with a little bowling and pin ball area for the kids to keep them busy, and way ahead of its time (Sort of a proto-Trader Joe’s/Wegman’s). It went out of business sometime in the late 70s, I believe, but, at the time, it was known as a place with good cuts of meat and an area to keep the kids occupied while the parents shopped.

Anyway, my parents purchased the organ for my sister who, after a few preliminary forays, never touched the thing again. Of course, I was not to touch it all, just as I was not supposed to touch my brother’s accordion years before. If my mother had not been ignorant of my brother John’s ability to involve me in con games, she would have learned years sooner that I could play any tune, and, often, its chord structures, simply on hearing it. John had caught me playing his accordion by placing the straps around my shoes (I was too little to make it go in and out any other way), and touching the keys or black buttons while I pumped furiously with my legs. After beating me up, he realized that I could play the keys while he pumped the accordion, and my mother would think he was finally taking his lessons seriously. She did not disturb his genius, but would applaud from the kitchen down stairs after we had played “The Merchant of Venice” or “Ave Maria.” She never found out I was the button pusher, key man, and so we got away with it.

The organ was a different matter. It came with a few books of popular songs, and had buttons you could push for the chords which were marked–white for major, black for minor. I was old enough now to be left home when they shopped, and my brother was out somewhere. Porgy and Bess was on WPIX. They often put it on if a Yankee game was delayed on account of rain. If not Porgy and Bess, it was “Pride of the Yankees.”

Because I was home alone, I could wallow in the music. It literally made the hair stand up on my arms, and I wept when Dorothy Dandridge sang “I loves you Porgy,.” I was a weird 12 year old. I turned the television off, and approached the organ I wasn’t supposed to touch, and played “I loves you Porgy” by ear. As is my habit, I played it again, never wearing it out, and producing the same physical effect upon myself–even more so–on the 10th replay. I was filled with static electricity, and nothing in me was silent except my “feelings.”

Odd to say, but this sort of hair standing up/weeping is not a faculty of the feeling sense–of a judging function. It is not a case of you feeling something is beautiful. The best way to describe it is that you–the you of opinion and preconception–vanishes. I consider all acts of creation to be acts of mercy. Some part of us becomes better than we normally are. Watch a child on a rainy day coloring away with a box of crayons–completely absorbed, at one with the motions of his or her hand. There is no rancor or ego or pride in it. Great artists might have enormous egos, but not while they are in the process of making their art: they are at one with humility. You are dreaming awake, and, though the act be deliberate, it is still, in some way, passively “received.” It moves through you not from you. It is what is meant by true engagement in a task. I can tell a tool maker is good, or a window washer just by watching him move. I know by the level of presence–if he is merely doing the task, or also being “done” by it. I believe talent and interest causes us “to be done” while we are doing. We become what we do–not only the performer, but the performed. Some force, call it the non-judging faculties of intuition/sensing, allows us to be entered and to truly enter. Noun and verb are one. The boundary between what we do and what we are does not exist in moments of creativity. Time, which is the most disgruntling of inventions wrought by the judging functions (thought/feeling), is suspended. Space follows suit. A musician keeps time, but he is not “in” time. An artist deals with space, but is never restricted by it–not while he or she draws or paints or sculpts. It is only through intuition and sense that feeling and thought may be suspended, and, also, oddly enough, given their highest realization. Plato was afraid of poets because they did not seem either systematic or deliberate enough. They did not move through intelligence, but, rather, by a great and, as even Plato admitted, often superior folly.

So I was in the midst of such folly when my parents arrived home. I did not notice the time, and did not hear them come up the dirveway, then into the house. I didn’t hear my sister complain that I was playing her organ until she screamed it two feet from me. My mother was looking at me strangely. She said: “I had no idea.” A month later, a piano was delivered to our house.

My mother said: “Bang on that thing all you want Joseph… I love you.”

I wanted to be a composer more than I ever wanted to be a poet, but it does not really matter: the process of writing, or playing a piano are exactly the same for me when I’m alone–suspension of time and place, a sense of being in the flow. I was too old to become a concert pianist. Physically, I lack both the dexterity and fingers to be a great pianist, but I can compose at will, without thinking about it. I can get on a piano and immediately make a decent musical structure. This has little to do with my intelligence and feeling functions, and everything to do with allowing the intuitive to hold sway. Many people do not become artists not because they are stupid, but because they are incapable of suspending the thinking/feeling functions. They fail to become writers and musicians and painters because they cannot enter their highest stupidity.

I believe crayons, and coloring books, and ink and chalk, and musical instruments, and toys should be strewn all over a workshop class room. Anything that allows an adult to lean over the paper the way a child does when he or she is coloring is all to the good. We make much of “professionalism” in the arts, but that is deadly to the creative process because it is exactly the opposite of what happens when we are in the act of making things. In order to “construct” we must be decreated. We must be taken away–our snobbery, our little clique in the workshop, our worst selves must be murdered, and then we can go where we must go in order to create.
So before I write, I often play the piano for two or three hours. I just play–sometimes the same thing over and over again until I am not there. I play to erase myself. Maybe I take a walk, or I do anything that gets me out of feeling/thought. I never force myself to write. I consider playing the piano, or a long hot bath to be indistinguishable from writing. So I am a big advocate of allowing painters or musicians into a writing class. Some people are picky when it comes to sounds, so it’s best perhaps to encourage artists to come and draw and paint, rather than to let musicians play. This is for “in class” writing. Many people resist writing among others. It’s unnatural to them. So here’s a compromise:

Bring knitting or drawing or music to the class. For the sake of others, use head phones with the music. Instead of writing a poem, you have the option of jotting down words and phrases and lines that just come to you–anything except what you must consciously think or feel about. When you have gotten twenty words, or a few phrases down, go off and make something out of them. Here’s an experiment: get hold of Bach’s cello suites. Jot down the following words and phrases: “Pristine,” “dork head”, “”I love you madly with my cello,” Sop”, “tumultuous”, “Red,” “Aqua”, “Lions,” “cleats,” “copper onion skins,”” Tangier,” “somber,” “rain,” “roof,” “night fall,” “demean,” “dapper,” “alba,” “sorcery.” As you listen to the cello suites, cross out all but three of the words. Take these words and make them the origin of a poem without ever putting them in the poem. Include something about the cello suites, or refer to them in the poem. Good luck.

What does a writer need? I think, first and last, a writer needs to write. I think this is an obvious idea that, because it is obvious, often goes overlooked. Compared to this need, good teachers, free time, the approval of one’s peers, beautiful mistresses, and noble prizes, are utterly beside the point. Many writers have disappeared under the weight of those other needs. Writers who are busy writing do not commit suicide because it’s very difficult to write when you’re dead, and they are writing. Flannery O’Connor spoke of maintaining a ” habit” of art. The words art and habit might seem an odd pairing, but that’s what art is: the glamor of drudgery, and the drudgery of glamor. Picasso continued to scribble. If Sylvia Plath had been on a writing streak, she would not have committed suicide when she did. Maybe later because, for all her talent, she lacked “self-esteem,” but, in the throes of writing the poems for Ariel, suicide was on the back burner. I believe writers ought to know that the most important thing they can do is write– with no immediate purpose in mind. When a writer tells me he or she is blocked, I always run a rubric through my head as to why:

1. They like the idea of being blocked because they are fucking drama queens, and there seems to be some sort of tragic dimension to being “blocked” that daily application of thoughts to paper lacks.
2. They are having an inner sit down strike because either they hate what they’ve written, or feel no one else likes it, and they shut down to the process the way a child might shut down to a parent who has failed to show.
3. Writing isn’t really their main priority. They have penciled it in among the other activities of their day, but they are more invested in being busy, than in being busy writing.
4. They think “writing” is some sort of concrete product. It never occurs to them that, if they can’t write a poem, they could try writing a review, or a song, or an epic novel about a 19th century white woman who falls in love with a another woman from an African tribe and is raped by her empire loving and racist husband (Get Meryl Streep on the phone!) They over determine what ought to be written.
5. They are Goldilocks and are determined to say the porridge is too hot or too cold before any porridge exists. They won’t admit it, but they have an erotic relationship to the word “no.” Refusal turns them on. They are hot for the word “no” to such a degree that “just right” never shows up.
6. They need to be forced to write. They don’t want to take responsibility for writing. It’s like a rape fantasy: no one wants to be raped, but, in the dream, one need not feel ashamed when someone ravishes.

I hate when one of my friends is blocked.This is not compassion on my part, but, rather a sense of past experience that tells me a blocked writer is liable to be annoying. it’s almost as annoying as when I get dumped by a lover. “I’m blocked, I’m blocked.” Spare me! You can’t write because you won’t write. The self disgust, the ego, the anti-depressant, the children and the wife and the husband, and the groceries are all in the way, but if you sit down and neglect three of those things, and write, then you are writing! Writers must be willing to neglect almost everything except writing. How come no one thinks they are blocked from doing dishes, or fucking thier lover (well, that one often happens)? We never hear a janitor say he is blocked (God bless the janitors). It’s a job. You do it to get paid. A writer writes, and the “pay” is, first, a piece of writing. So here’s some tips for writer’s block:

1. Write anyway. Do a dry fuck. Feel miserable. Luxuriate in the ether of your own self disgust. Become an enemy of writing who is forced to pretend you “love” writing.. Learn to write when you don’t feel like it. Stop expecting it to “fulfill” you or please you. I would rather have a wild lover over me right now, her hair whipping my face, her voice wailing in throes of passion at my tender ministrations, but it takes a lot more effort to get that than it does to write–at least for me. I mean, you have to look good. You have to smell nice. You have to be attractive. You have to have a reasonably clean car.In order to write, all you have to do is press keys down with your fingers, so I write. It does not depend on any sentient being other than myself. Thank God.

2. Copy a favorite poem or story or famous phrase, and warp it, substitute a passage or sentence. Be like a virus invading the body of the text. For example: “All true stories end in death: All true stories end in liverwurst.” It does not have to be profound. LEt’s go there:

“All true stories end in liverwurst, at least mine do. I know I should be eating healthier food, but, when depressed, and I am often depressed, only liverwurst, specifically liverwurst on Russian rye with a raw onion and hot mustard, consoles me. That is how I met, Jane, my wife of thirty years. She’s dead now, and I am writing this with the aid of a liverwurst sandwich.Perhaps I should correct myself: all true stories begin in liverwurst, at least mine do. This is a true story then, and liverwurst is its catalyst.”

Ok, so this is not great writing, which brings me to my third suggestion:

3. Don’t have any standards. Write. Don’t have any “ideas” for a story, and, if you do, avoid that idea like the plague until it overwhelms you and makes you submit to it. Begin with a line as far removed from your idea as possible. For example, you have an idea for writing about your lousy relationship with your mother. Forget it. Think of something as far removed from that idea as possible:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew through my window and began smothering me.
B. I seem to recall reading once that pigs have thirty minute orgasms.
C. IN a kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly.
D. Once, this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except Pizza Hut.
E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them.

Any one of these non-ideas can then be connected or dsconnected from the lousy relationship. You are the minor god of your writing. Act like a god: create laws, trees, surgical equipment salesman. Decide if you need twleve lines or one before you go for the idea:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew in through the window and began smothering me. My mother always said roses were her favorite flower, but she just said that because it sounded probable. I don’t think she thought of flowers much at all, unless it seemed appropriate to the occasion, and that’s how she loved me: whenever it seemed appropriate

B. I seem to recall that pigs have thirty minute orgasms. On the day I found out my mother and my ex fiancee were moving in together, the first thought that crossed my mind were those pigs.

C. In the kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly, wondering how I could have been so stupid as to have packed this hurriedly. “Careless” My mother said.”I’d rather have you evil than careless. Careless people do more damage.”

D. Once this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except pizza hut, and me and my 85 year old mother, sitting here, not even pretending the pizza or our relationship matters.

E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them, and, after a day with my mother, I often feel like a backed up sink.

Just for fun, take one of the above and finish it. Good luck.

An aspect of poetry which tends to make me peevish is that it demands for a poet to develop a “style,” or to adhere to a particular school without deviation, simply to make their flair emblematic, or to place their stamp on it. You’ll only come across poets who traverse the landscapes of a variety of styles and schools when they attend flexible classes or workshops and are introduced to flexible teachers who provide assignments which require them not to delimit themselves or their work. One might relegate this sort of teaching philosophy to something which lacks specificity or focus, but in actuality, these experiments are necessary so as not to confine the poet to something which might prove to be limiting, inauthentic, and egregiously mimetic.

All poetry is a mimesis of sorts, according to Aristotle, but this concept should not be misconstrued as imitation of another poet’s “shtick.” Shtick can’t be imitated, especially if what a poet is imitating (or borrowing from) is the other poet’s original interpretation of nature, event, political perspective, and more especially that poet’s experience with love and romance. Aristotle meant that poetry was mimetic of all of things, independent of another poet’s unique perspective. It is not necessary that poets imitate other poets, but that they imitate life.

And I don’t mean “experiment” in terms of what is widely understood in literary circles as “experimental poetry.” The truth is that ALL poetry is experimental. Poetry, in effect, demands a “gymnastics” of language, and the poet should always “refresh” their approach to what they want to say with each new poem. Each poem should be likened to the first poem the poet has ever written.

This is not to say that poets shouldn’t study the variety of approaches, forms, and styles that they have at their disposal. And this is not to say that poets shouldn’t take from each style and include them as ingredients, so to speak, for what they might aim to be an unprecedented “recipe” for a sort of poem that no reader can categorize, claim, or relegate to a particular type, or particular package, simply for the fashion of it. Authentic poetry arises from a sort of selectivity of tropes, forms, and approaches. Otherwise, the poet can claim these, or dispose of them. What peeves me the most is that there is presently a poetry scene which necessitates that there must be an adherence to a fashion or trend, must be a reflection of a particular aesthetic, and anything which defeats or transcends this is not meant to be understood or considered with seriousness.

I long and grieve for Neruda. He was a poet of great integrity, and his poems demonstrate a complexity which few poets attempt in the current poetry scene. While most poets in all schools of poetry laud him, few actually play with what might be an approximated conflation of what we now refer to as language poetry, romantic poetry, lyrical poetry, and a very acute rendering of speculative poetry, in addition to types of poetry which are impossible to classify. Why even classify poetry to begin with? True, poets must be taught to read and attempt to understand other poets. But why subsume their poetry into something that actually spills out around that subsuming into other classifications which even remain indefinite or discontinuous? Some poetry we cannot subsume. If you are poet, and you are following a template, or writing in a stanzaic form which does not coincide with the content of the poem, then consider an alternate approach.

The approach, as I have learned, is in observation and the application of language by way of that observation. I’m often accused of appearing dissociative. The truth is, I have often entered the world that isn’t immediate to the matter at hand, or what is often understood and recognized as the matter at hand. I’m on the moon, the snow is the tears falling from the face of an angel, my husband is a superhero, and when we make love whole cities collapse from the intensity.

When I picked up Neruda, I was impressed, but only because his sentiment seemed familiar to me. When I first began writing poetry, I wrote it blindly, having read the poetry belonging to a variety of “classifications,” but intuited all of these styles and concocted an almost subliminal recipe which somehow defined my poems. I wouldn’t classify my poetry as anything, and perhaps that is my outcry and silent war. Poetry arises and from what the soul demands of the poet, not from some contrived prescription of what poetry SHOULD be.

Poetry is translation–translation of observation into any language that suffices for the experience. It is not word layered onto template, unless you are required to follow a traditional poetic form, and even then, there is room for latitude, or for adapting to something which requires innovation within the limits of syllable, ordering, or poetic rhythm. So let’s now look at Neruda’s poem, “Phantom:”

How you rise up from yesteryear, arriving,
dazzled, pale student,
as whose voice the dilated and fixed months
still beg for consolation.

Their eyes struggled like rowers
in the dead infinity
with hope of sleep and substance
of beings emerging from the sea.

From the distance where
the smell of earth is different
and the twilight comes weeping
in the shape of dark poppies.

At the height of motionless days
the insensible diurnal youth
was falling asleep in your ray of light
as if fixed upon a sword.

Meanwhile there grows in the shadow
of the long passage through oblivion
the flower of solitude, moist, extensive,
like the earth in a long winter.

Here, Neruda managed to capture the winter as something from which something is slyly moving amongst all of this fixedness. Things are lightless, unmoving, frozen, and the “pale student” is the only entity which lends herself to the momentum of winter, under all that stillness. Infinity is “dead.” And in the end, the pale student essentially becomes “the flower of solitude,” the only hope of spring, still enduring what is cold and motionless.

His poem is romantic in a sense, and plays gymnastically with language—language as vehicle for idea and image. The sentiment of Neruda’s poem cannot be imitated, simply because of its authenticity. I am abashed, for I have at once attempted to imitate Neruda’s harnessing of image through language, not by imitation of sentiment or experience with love, but by taking language and twisting it to make music. I am not Neruda, by any means, and would never claim to be.

If you are inspired by a poem or a particular poet, take what you need, and discard the rest. Let your soul fuel the gymnastic play of language in your mind. It might wind up heavy with philosophy, like Neruda’s, or it might wind a narrative love poem, or it might wind up a lyrical ballad. But remain true to something which exists outside the limitations of category, school, or attentiveness to the aspects of the poem which might render it a template, or fill in the blank form, without considering the direction in which your poem demands that you go.

Here is my poem (as you might see, it was impossible to imitate his quatrains, since the poem demanded both four line and five line stanzas, and I was required to speak for the poem without a strictness of structure. I caught my own experience, and probably wound up not sounding like Neruda in the slightest. Yet, the concept still sort of wound up echoing his, if you might be discerning enough to notice this. So mimesis, at times, is subliminal and subconscious, and we often do it unintentionally. The trick is to imitate things completely without intention. We recognize these things afterward–after the seizure of the poem is over):

Shadow of Nightingale

Caught in the delicate epilepsy of love’s casual glance,
the body captivated by imagined tremolos
sings through us, fleshy as humans, cherubic
as products of some God’s insurgency of blackbirds
in a sudden departure from the roof of a church.

Say this and claim the night, let no nightingale haunt you
or steal the bread from the work of your hands,
make me a fleeting thing of peripheral excess,
or leave you cold in its enlarged shadow,
enslaved in itself by a pooling of moonlight.

There was new snow this morning,
undisturbed by footprint or mysterious trail,
silenced by the ministry of sleep’s desertions
from the bustle and exchange of yesterday.

Make me something so holy as girl unhandled,
pulsing the bright blood of desire,
and then ravish me, ravish me, release each of my spirits
from the machinery of my bones, the drudgery
of the mind’s labored language.

Render me woman, inhabitant of the body’s swelling fire,
the womb echoing like a drum,
calling forth an unknowing
of a beginning that never stops beginning.

I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.

At the insistent behest of Joe Weil I have picked up a few Kenneth Burke books. In Joe’s opinion, Burke is one of the great American minds who has been unjustly put out of fashion. The more I read Burke, the more I agree with Joe. I’ve found that Burke’s explanations of art resonate with me as an artist. For example, Burke’s essay “The Poetic Process” (from Counter-Statement) delineates the relationship between the “emotion” that inspires writing, symbol, and technical form in an incredibly believable way.

Burke begins with dreams:

…at times we look back on the dream and are mystified at the seemingly unwarranted emotional responses which the details “aroused” in us. Trying to convey to others the emotional overtones of this dream, we laboriously recite the details, and are compelled at every turn to put in such confessions of defeat as “There was something strange about the room,” or “for some reason or other I was afraid of this boat, although there doesn’t seem any good reason now.”

This is because, as Burke says, “the details were not the cause of the emotion; the emotion, rather, dictated the selection of details…Similarly, a dreamer may awaken himself with his own hilarious laughter, and be forthwith humbled as he recalls the witty saying of his dream. For the delight in the witty saying came first (was causally prior) and the witty saying itself was merely the externalization, or individuation, of his delight.”

In what seems to be the inverse of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the emotion directions the choice of imagery. The imagery becomes “symbol” at this point. Burke compares this to a grandparent who tries to share all the details of his or her childhood as a way to communicate the “overtones” of the experience. The grandparent wants to express themselves, their feelings.

Yet an artist does not want to express their feelings. Rather, they want to evoke emotion in the audience: “The maniac attains self-expression when he tells us that he is Napoleon; but Napoleon attained self-expression by commanding an army….transferring the analogy, the self-expression of an artist, qua artist, is not distinguished by the uttering of emotion, but by the evocation of emotion.” One of the most dreaded things I hear is somebody describing their own personal poetry as self-expression. I don’t dread it because I begrudge that person’s personal art, but usually because a request to read their work and give feedback follows. And almost always the work is terrible. Why? Because it’s solely concerned with self-expression and the would-be poet feels no obligation to anyone but his or herself. A person like that will not hear any advice; they seek affirmation. Our writing goals are not the same. As Burke puts it “If, as humans, we cry out that we are Napoleon, as artists we seek to command an army.”

This is not to say that there is no element of self-expression in poetry. There certainly is, according to Burke. But “it is inevitable that all initial feelings undergo some transformation when being converted into the mechanism of art….Art is translation, and every translation is a compromise (although, be it noted, a compromise which may have new virtues of its own, virtues not part of the original).” The private poet cannot stand to compromise on their feelings and, as a result, they often write terrible poetry. But in the poetic process, a poet realizes there is compromise. This leads to a concern about the “impersonal mechanical processes” of evocation, and, eventually, leads the artist to a place where the means of expression are an end in itself. At this moment, we are in the realm of technique.

In short, we begin with emotion, which dictates choice of symbol, for which the systematic concern thereof creates technique. Tom Sleigh once memorably asked my MFA class “do you, as a poet, logos into eros or eros into logos?” I forget what my answer was at the moment since I was stubborn and probably more concerned with subverting the question. Burke’s essay, however, has interesting parallels. (For the record, today I’d probably say, with Burke, that I eros into logos, which might account for a recent turn toward formalism in my poetry.)

Before ending, I want to note the parallel between Burke’s point and my point (via Rexroth–or, more accurately, Rexroth via me) about Tu Fu, who I described as writing in a way that suggests “that the category break [between feeling and image/symbol] is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: ‘values are the way we see things.'” If Burke’s description of the poetic process is accurate, Tu Fu’s poem is actually winding backward toward the origin of his poetry, backwards through the linked images interpreting one another, back toward the initial thought/emotion/impulse which led to the first decision to communicate, to attempt evocation.

Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.

These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.

Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.

One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.


To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?

One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.

Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.

What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.

In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.

*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

I was concerned about not knowing. Concerned about not being known. Yet I did little to be known outside of persevering with the work. The work being whatever I was doing at the time in my virtual creative space. Mind, body.  Divine intervention. Spiritual revelation. The meaning of every day was living every day as if to make it your last. Life was simple. Inevitable. We invited chaos, we invented dogma, we were what we were trying to be but its presence when achieved was fleeting as the collision of particles in an accelerator. That was yesterday.

The smoke was good, the powder okay. In good company we passed days and nights, weeks and months, then years, basking in the nexus of our personal style of aesthetic nihilism. Tomato Soup. “I’m not going to talk to you, either.” I pushed colored wax as far as it would go, canvas board after canvas board, tracing skylines and events, burnishing sunrises and sunsets, until water could not penetrate the multi-colored skin of fingers calloused as the attitudes of even the most insignificant bit player in our amateur reproduction of something someone thought  might once have been important. Our version of “Goodbye Columbus” was going under a spell.

The supernumerary muttered an utterance that seemed to bubble from a guttural froth, mimicking the personification of ghosts of Christmases Past at holiday parties for forgotten forebears, where children of badness danced on their backs in four poster beds with the eyes of the world upon them. The clatter came with exaggeration about sordid events, including tales of blood-letting and blood drinking, unfounded, unsubstantiated, untrue, but critical to the end of times as the sodden sought to crawl from their netherworld and spring themselves upon the unsuspecting. Broken nails can be so annoying.

If it looked like I was praying I might have been, an agnostic’s prayer for deliverance from the emptiness of nothing, of the blank page, the darkness behind closed eyes, the hidden scenes yet to be played out on the subterranean stage under the charging hues of hot lights in an empty theater where there was no one to scream “Fire” and the place burned down without the dreams escaping. On Long Street the barber whittled his bas reliefs while the chair sat empty. A more colorful life on Friday night was the Cat’s Meow, but the carvings ended up in museums.

The studio by the rail yards went empty, but not before poetry and prints were married by the Minister of Galleries, posted on the wailing wall of expectations lacking will to live, and distributed as Art in America. But before there was any kind of web. Those strange and sticky strands hold up today. On the red ground above Negril a small complex of clapboard sheds resting on cinderblocks overlooks the family graveyard, beginning with one killed in Kingston. It’s a deniable aphorism that time spent alone is in preparation, if for no other purpose.

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.

What inspires us to write poetry?

I would think that the commonly accepted assumption about poets is that if one is a poet, he or she has always been a poet. The obvious question which should follow this then is “Can someone be a poet without having any knowledge of poetry?” “Are we born poets?”

Let’s begin with this:  Most primary, intermediate, and secondary schools include some study of poetry in their curriculums, and yet for the majority of these schools, this is not the primary focus, nor is it rendered a very crucial one.  I suppose my first encounter with poetry was a poem written in a photo album of my formative years by my father and mother:  “I drop, you catch,/ I cry, you fetch,/I kvetch, you kvetch” (cleverly scrawled next to a picture of me, naked, crawling along the carpet).  Of course, this isn’t Pulitzer worthy by current literary standards, but it is actually a good poem in terms of iambic dimeter and rhyme.  If I learned anything about the music and rhythm of poetry (two essential ingredients) during my first reading experiences, it was almost directly related to that three line poem I read over and over again.  In addition, there were nursery rhymes and clapping-song games that we played early on in elementary school: “Miss Susie had a steamboat/the steamboat had a bell/Miss Susie went to heaven/the steamboat went to hell–/–o operator/give me number nine…” etc.  The clever twist about the Miss Susie song was that the words at the end of every fourth line were words that became other words at the beginning of the subsequent line, simply by sound, and so we didn’t get caught singing crass words and obscenities at that young of an age.

Moving on:  In fifth grade, there was a lesson on limericks.  If we read anybody’s famous limerick, it must not have been very memorable, since I couldn’t right now recite one or provide a poet’s name to help contextualize this point.  But I did learn to write a limerick myself, and incidentally won first prize for the limerick’s address to dental hygiene and its advantages. It must have been a good poem, but my memory is foggy and I couldn’t right now recall any of the lines, except that it was handwritten on the lines inside the shape of a very big bicuspid.

In sixth grade, as a part of “The Odyssey of the Mind” competition, my team and I rewrote and parodied the words to a William Blake poem: “William Blake ate too much cake…” etc.  I turned into a wild dramatic production with me as writer/director and the four other members of my team as actors, set designers, and costumers.

I don’t know the psychology behind how people train for and develop an ear for poetry, but some of these things must have been of the essence.  In the eighth grade, my final project was an assignment to write a book of twenty poems.  At that point, I assumed, like most adolescents do that poetry was supposed to be sad.  So one of the two poems I remember from that book was a narrative about two of my friends who were very close to one another, until one of them (Betsy) was killed instantaneously when the driver of a car hit her.  I thought (at the time) that it was a fantastic poem.  I included details.  I infused the poem with emotional tropes.

The other poem I remember from that book was partially stolen from one of my parents’ inspirational book of love poems from the 1960s.  “Each line in the poem began “Love is”…(with ellipsis, and followed by some simile, and then following an anaphoric structure until the end).  So I ripped off the anaphoric structure, took some of the poet’s similes and then wrote some of my own.  I feel terrible about this.  I don’t remember the other poems, but they were all original poems written by me.  I don’t have any idea why I stole that poem.  I guess because that was the first year that I was beginning to appreciate poetry as a serious craft, and the poem inspired me enough for me to want to have been the one who wrote it.

But poetry really didn’t get me to see like a poet until my freshman year of high school: to read a poem and want to understand all the necessary complexities, paradoxes, and layers of meaning that prevail if that poem is well crafted.   I stumbled upon Rita Mae Brown’s novels that summer at the local library, and read all of them out by the swimming pool at our house.  I wasn’t a lesbian, but found myself oriented toward women.  Part of it was an adolescent phase, and must have been since I am now happily married to a man.  Anyway, Brown’s characters were typically lesbians (“Rubyfruit Jungle,” the most prominent) and the whole idea about a sexuality with which I was not familiar fascinated me, simply for the theory of it.  After devouring all of her novels, I went to the bookstore and promptly bought a book of her poems.  The poem that finally made me want to be a disciplined poet went like this:

The difference between
my little cat and I
is that I know
I am going to die.

It occurred to me after I read it that cat’s are simply not conscious of their own mortality, and that the speaker (or so it is implied) must want to be like her cat, because it is easier not to be aware of things we would rather not think about or consider.  It had me thinking that if humans just died, and had no precognition that it was one day going to happen, it might save us a lot of grief.  So the speaker was longing for this ignorance, which makes implicit a sort of inner struggle between awareness and wanting to remain unaware–wanting to be something other than herself–wanting not to know death as well as she believes she does.  There is a struggle in the forward momentum of life, the idea of further life or long life deflected by her fear of a finality and the ineluctable condition of mortality which guarantees that we are going to die.  She seems to be addressing the idea of inevitability. And the frank way that the statement is made requires that we think a bit about why the speaker would deflect or ignore the frightening details and rather turn it into a philosophical question which forces us to examine our own relationship to our mortality, while at the same time considering the curious manner in which cats exist, without, according to the speaker, the precognition that they are going to die, or the memory of having been born.

So this brief four-line poem made seriously consider writing poetry.  Through the years following my encounter with Rita Mae Brown’s poem, I’ve read nearly all of the major poets (and some minor) in the cannon.  I have made poetry a daily discipline: coffee in the morning, a banquet of words to choose from, and the assurance that my heart is beating for something cats don’t know–to live, to love, and to always have the luxury of defining and redefining a purpose for this, with poetry as the venue to let the speaker speak, because it is no less than vital and necessary.