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Adele Kenny

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NOTE: Adele and I started this interview a while back and I never had the chance to post it. Some of the elements refer to her book What Matters as a recent publication.

MT: I first want to comment on what I see as the arc of this collection, What Matters. Memory, in this book, seems like a kind of sacrament: memorializing literally makes real by nature of the act. I’m thinking especially of the line “language…larger than / logic” (“The Sap Bush”). (I’ve chopped that line up, but it seemed so evocative to me that I couldn’t bypass it.) The first section fulfills and meditates on this traditional task of the poet. Then the second section puts that function into crisis—the poet dies (or rather confronts the possibility of her own death). The crisis is (I think), if the memorializer dies, how do those that the poet loves (including herself) continue to exist? This crisis gives birth to the third section, which affirms “We Don’t Forget,” but is admittedly much more subdued (chastened?) in its memorializing. Would you agree with this characterization?

AK: I love that poetry allows for different interpretations of meaning. Your “take” on What Matters is compelling (and I love where you’ve gone with it), but it’s rather different from my own. Memory as the “arc” (or perhaps “ark”) of it all wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Memory does play a role in the “story” (and, yes, the book does tell at least part of a story), but memory in the book’s context isn’t quite what “memorializing” suggests to me. I agree with you that remembering is one of the poet’s tasks. A contemporary poet (I think it was Gerald Stern) once said, “It’s the poet’s job to remember.” Getting back to “memorializing”—I’ve always thought that when we memorialize, we honor the dead (you, know, preserve their memory)—What Matters is a book about survival. Most importantly, it’s a book about the human spirit. It focuses on the fact that we’re all survivors of something: fear, grief, illness, the losses of loved ones. Individual details may be different, but we’re all survivors.

The poems in the first section look at the past and how, even if only peripherally, we are who we were. Those poems set up for section two, which deals with my own breast cancer experience—a confrontation with mortality during which I often “went” to the past, a safe place when nothing else in my life was safe, a place that reminded me what living was about and buttressed the contents of my survival toolbox. The poems in section two are about the conditions of survival—how we meet them and what they cost us. You’re spot on about the second section giving birth to the third, which looks at life as it is and the ways in which the human spirit remembers how to live. There was a definite before, during, and after sensibility when I arranged the poems. You mention  “We Don’t Forget,” did you notice that the last word in that poem (the last poem in the collection) is “rejoice?” That wasn’t by accident.

MT: It’s interesting that you use the word “survival” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking about memorializing—only I was thinking about it in terms of helping others into the world, helping them survive their own passing. For me, one of the pleasures of this collection was that it evoked what poetry does so clearly—poetry remembers and, building on the word ‘rejoice,’ celebrates—so it’s really enriching for me as a reader (and poet) to see your own survival and the role these poems played in it. I did notice “rejoice,” but I hadn’t thought about it in the context of the whole book—joy and rejoicing as, in the end, “What matters” or what “We don’t forget” how to do. I see pretty clearly how remembering related to your “survival toolbox,” but can you elaborate more “rejoicing” and its role in your own survival story?

AK: Thanks for your kind words, Micah. It’s so important for poetry to leave enough gaps and silences for readers to fill in the blanks. I hoped that What Matters would offer a message of encouragement and hope while giving readers room to map out their own places in the poems.

No form of survival is ever a “sudden epiphany.” Survival is a slow process, a measured progression that requires nearly impossible determination (read “understatement” here). It’s definitely a spiritual journey—sounds kind of trite, but this trip we call life is about spirit.

For me, and I suspect for many, gratitude is a necessary part of the process. Of course, it’s hard to be grateful when you stand on the edge of crash and burn. One day you’re simply living your life and the next you’re faced with something you didn’t anticipate and aren’t sure you can deal with. It happens to all of us sooner or later, in one way or another. Surviving becomes part of the trek, but it’s a lonely walk no matter how much support you have. Faced with fear, grief, loss, or illness, where do you go? You either give into the darkness of it all, or you look for a way out. Acceptance is part of the way back up—a grace that can lead to gratitude. (Stay with me, I’m working toward rejoicing.) There’s so much for which to be grateful (one more hour, one more day). Learning how to be grateful is another instrument in the survival toolbox. If you can manage gratefulness, you can begin to move away from the damages of what you work to survive. It’s kind of like when the feeling of the subject matter becomes the poem. You remember how to live, you remember what happiness is, and that projects itself backward and forward. Slowly, you begin to rejoice in whatever happiness and love you can find. What do we live for? From the poem:

 

Grace is acceptance—

 

all of it, whatever is—as

in we live for this: love

and gratitude enough.

MT: This concept of gratitude is important to poems, I think. Who for you are some “poets of gratitude,” poets who embody or maybe model gratitude as a almost poetic mode?

AK: The poet who rushes immediately to mind is Gerald Stern. The first poem of his that I ever read (many years ago) was “Lucky Life.” In that first read, Jerry impressed me as a “grateful” poet, and I don’t think this theme in his work has changed over time. Mary Oliver, who celebrates the natural world with inherent gratitude is one of any number of poets who seem “gratefully typical.” I suspect that the poets who express gratitude most effectively are those who have defined it in themselves and incorporate it into their work as a way of acknowledging and affirming what they’ve been given. Inherent in their poems are generosity, appreciation, and compassion. Another “gratitude poem” that stands out for me is “Thanks” by W. S. Merwin.

MT: Forgive me for bringing in my own poems, but this discussion of gratitude makes me think of a line I’ve been working with in one of my own poems: I call gratitude a kind of vertigo: in part because it feels so depthless. Once you open yourself to it, in a way everything must become gratitude. I’m curious if you had the same experience with it? That somehow learning to be grateful is a kind of release, a radical openness?

AK: I’m so glad you brought your own poems into this “discussion.” I’ve just been listening to you on YouTube, and I’ve read several of your poems online. In your work, which I see as a kind of semi-surrealist/New York School hybrid, there’s a definite sense of gratitude—even your “riff, riff, riff” in the Melville poem, your priests “out in Manhattan,” and those pesky birds in your beard suggest something of gratefulness and praise; and there’s the point I want to make: gratefulness and praise, for me, are part of the same sensibility. It’s about always being open, always being in process—totally depthless, as you note. There’s a profoundly spiritual component when it comes to radical openness and the release it can bring—gratitude follows naturally. That said, I have to believe that emblematic gratitude in any poet’s work is a reflection of the poet’s truest, most generous self. Not all poets go there, and if you don’t feel it, you can’t write it. For me (and I suspect for others as well), craft half-fills the glass, gratitude raises the elixir to the top.

MT: I use the word ‘depthless’ because that is the thing about gratitude (and praise, as you have pointed out): there’s never too much. No matter how many times poets have praised the beauty of the beloved—whatever that might be—it never gets old. Even if poets are doing similar ‘moves’ when they praise. I think this is one of the great lessons of reading poetry from the past: things have changed little and praise never gets old. There is something profound in that recognition, I think—something about the nature of being is revealed there. One artist who really captures this for me is Brian Wilson—from the Beach Boys. When I listen to his album SMILE, it feels like he’s tapped into this endless well of creativity, of joy almost. I also feel the same thing when I listen to Handel or read writers like Horace and Auden. They all seem to go back to that same ontological source. As you pointed out, once you have tapped into this, craft almost seems to become a side issue. Or maybe it would be better to say that craft is transformed? Elevated? As you said, though, there is a radical openness. This is terrifying, isn’t it? You’ve also taught writing for many years, I believe. Obviously this openness isn’t something ‘transferred’ to a student, but in your experience as a teacher, is it something that can be elicited somehow?

AK: The “depthless” quality of the kind you mention is precisely what makes certain poems timeless (Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” O’Hara’s “Autobiographica Literaria,” Kinnell’s “Crying”). There are legions of such poems (mega-known and not-so known). Just as the beauty of the beloved and the praise never get old, neither do the poems that celebrate such intense awarenesses; and, yes, I do believe that radical openness transforms and elevates craft. You mention music, and I agree that it’s hard to listen to some composers and not rise to the joy they’ve created (it’s impossible not to “smile” through Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations”). Gratitude and praise speak the language of joy, and I think if we read deeply enough, there’s either an inherent sense of gratitude/praise in most poems or a longing for it (which is one of the reasons I love reading about poets as much as I love their poems). BTW, did you know that the setting for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was a poem by Schiller?

Yes, I’ve taught for what seems like forever in schools and in private and agency-sponsored workshops, always with a nod to the “elevated mood” of what we call “great” poetry. I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously “lesson-planned” to elicit openness, and I’m not sure if it can be elicited when there isn’t a predisposition to it or a willingness to “go there.” Most importantly, the role of “teacher” is to inspire and encourage writers to try. What really resonates for me is your idea of poets working from the same ontological source. For me, this approaches the spiritual. In poetry’s great conversation with the spirit, there’s a profoundly “mystical” component (not to be mistaken for “religious”) that praises or gives thanks in one way or another. To not be open to that, to miss out on it—now, that would be truly terrifying.

MT: I remember the moment when I first felt like I tapped into that source: I spent much of high school trying to sound like TS Eliot. And I remember writing one night by myself in my room when suddenly I felt (felt!) a kind of hush fall around my room as I finished the lines of a poem. It was a kind of spark but also a satisfied emptiness—like I’d come to some kind of rest. That feeling alone was enough to keep me coming back to poetry for a good 4-5 years. These days I’ve realized that the more you chase it, the less you have its grace in that sense. Anyways, that was a key transition point for me as a writer—where I knew what I was doing had somehow transcended itself, my own (little) artistic Damascus. Did you have an experience like that? A moment when you unexpectedly “tapped in?”

AK: What a wonderful moment, and so interesting that you mention T. S. Eliot. My first experiences with poetry came early: when I was four, I was diagnosed with something called “polio fever” and spent most of that summer in bed. My mom, a great reader who appreciated all kinds of poetry, taught me to read and write using poems by Eugene Field and the Gospel of St. John. She wasn’t a trained teacher, so I have no idea how she managed it but, by the time I got to kindergarten, I was already writing little poems. It wasn’t until high school, however, that I discovered Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and fell in love with poetry that didn’t rhyme and used language in such amazing ways (what I thought of as “mature” poetry at that time). For me, the realization wasn’t that I’d tapped into the “source” but, rather, that I recognized it and wanted to be there. The “tapping in” is an ongoing part of the process. As you expressed it, the more you chase it, the more elusive it becomes. It is definitely both gift and grace when, in writing poetry, you find the “road called straight” and the scales fall from your eyes—that happens from time to time and makes the trek worth its price.

MT: It’s interesting to use the word ‘mature’ to describe writing. Now that you have quite a number of books under your belt, do you feel you can go back and see ways you have matured (or perhaps simply changed)? Were there things that you felt you had to write about that you no longer feel inclined to discuss? Sometimes now when I go back to certain poems of mine, I have a hard time remembering the person who wrote them. I don’t know whether to be sad about that or not.

AK: I make a point of not looking at the “old” books and chapbooks because every time I do I want to tweak and refine the poems in them. I’ve always focused on imagery and sound, but I’ve moved away from primarily narrative poems to, most recently, prose poems that look at the ways in which the spiritual self interacts with the outside world. Earlier on, there were stories that needed telling but, now, having been told, I don’t go back to them and consider them “turned corners” in my life.  As you noted, there are times when I barely remember the person who wrote those poems. Most of the time that’s a good thing.

MT: Which came first—the change in form (to prose) or the change in content (from narrative)? Or was it a kind of organic unity? I guess I’m trying to get at the sense of how an artist navigates a change in his or her art—how the artist senses it and knows to move with it.

AK: Making the leap from lined poems to prose poems was definitely organic, nothing I planned but had been leaning toward for some time. I didn’t consciously navigate a change in art direction, but after finishing What Matters, I went for a long time without writing anything. I’d begun to think that maybe I’d never write again when, finally, I wrote a prose poem. Completely unplanned. There wasn’t any sense of a shift, but I did move with the idea of something new.

When I started to write the prose poems, the process was the same as always. I don’t think about what I’m doing when I begin a poem and, most of the time, I have no idea where a poem might go (sometimes nowhere). Imagery and sound have always been in the same craft-arc for me, that hasn’t changed, but not having to think about line breaks was freeing. After years of writing narrative and lyrical poems, I welcomed something different that can be lyrical or narrative, both or neither. I’m especially drawn to the way prose poems contain complete sentences and intentional fragments, the way they speak the language of dreams, and how they give a nod to the surreal.

At this point, my poems (both lined and prose) have become deliberately shorter—I want them to be more focused and compressed, more seamless and sharper-edged. Now (and I don’t recall ever thinking about this in my earlier work), I want my poems to tell me something bout myself, something I haven’t learned yet, or something I’ve forgotten. I want them to startle and surprise me.

MT: The long poetic silence is terribly frightening for a writer, I think. I went through something similar after getting married and moving to Vancouver. Both my life and life environment changed radically. I also started teaching, which I found took up a lot of my creative energy. During that silence I tried to come to terms with the possibility of not writing again—a kind of dark night of the poetic soul, if you will. It was an almost spiritual confrontation—stripping away false conceptions of my poetic selfhood, what ‘kind’ of writer I was, what it means to love poetry and be ‘poetic.’ It changes your approach to writing. When the poetry did return, I found I was writing more consciously formal poems. I’m not sure why that was, but the structures gave me more confidence—especially since I felt ‘out of practice.’ I also felt, though, that there was a maturity I didn’t have before, that I had gone to a new depth. It’s interesting then that you describe your own shift after not writing as wanting poems that tell you something about yourself—they’re more searching, piercing, perhaps. Do you feel like you’ve stripped something away? Gotten to something more ‘essential?’

AK: “Spiritual confrontation” is a great term for the almost–panicky feeling of poetic silence and the challenge it presents. Like you, there was a time when I worked full-time and had concurrent part-time jobs, and all the commitments of daily life. There wasn’t a lot of time or energy for poetry. When I did have time, the muse was often absent, so I started to write nonfiction for journals related to teaching and for conservation and ecology magazines—something like you turning to formal poems except that what I wrote didn’t requite the intense concentration and need for long expanses of uninterrupted time that poetry requires (it’s easier for me to put a piece of nonfiction aside and come back to it later, than it is to “suspend” a poem). What I learned is that I can write poetry without needing prose, but I can’t write prose without needing poetry. There have been a few times when I seriously thought I’d just give it up, and did for brief periods, but I could never make it stick. Even when I’m not writing a poem (which is too often), I think about writing one.

As I’ve gotten older, my creative priorities have changed—the need for approval tossed out of the ring. I used to care tremendously about what people thought of my work. That’s changed. I’ve recognized writing poetry as the spiritual process it’s always been for me—what you call “poetic selfhood.” The need for approval has segued into a need for my poems to mean more than they say, for the poems to offer spaces and gaps for readers to fill in,  for whatever is personal in the language to speak and to be understood in more voices than my own. When I first started sending poems to journals, there was a lot of personal, narrative poetry in vogue, and I conformed to that. Now, it’s not about telling my story, it’s more about telling a story that will have meaning for others along with, and other than, me. Like all changes—essential, yes, fundamental and necessary.

MT: Sadly, I find myself dreaming about the time when I will really stop caring about what others think of my poetry. Can you tell me more about that freedom? Was there any way that you achieved it? Or did it just come with experience?

AK: Maybe a combination of age and experience? I’m not really sure. It was definitely sparked by many years of studying New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton in which Merton wrote “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” He went on to write, “If you write for God you will reach many men [and women] and bring them joy. If you write for men [and women]—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.”

MT: This reminds me of something Joe Weil once told me about medieval artists: when painting or decorating a cathedral, they saved their best (most holy?) work for corners nobody else would ever see. It also reminds me of the scholastic distinction between ‘making’ and ‘doing.’ Doing is the realm of “Prudence,” which, as Maritain says, “has for its matter the multitude of needs and circumstances and traffickings in which human anxiety flounders about.” This is the world of writing for others, a kind of constant reflexivity, this is Maria Gillan’s infamous “crow” that caws at poetic instinct. On the other hand, you have “making”—the true realm of art, concerned purely with the truth of the creation itself. Its mode is human, but, as Maritain again says “there is for Art but one law, the exigencies and the good of the work. Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex—artist or artisan—in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing, ceases at the door of every workshop.” I think this is really why ancients spoke about art as a kind of possession (i.e., inspiration) because there is really a sense in which the artist is in the service of something other. Yet we still speak of an artistic identity. To what extent does an artist serve two masters?

AK: This all reminds me of the difference between process and product and how some artists live in service to the things they make. But … does the product serve as arbiter of the process quality? What is the ultimate good of the work? Which is the greater truth, the process of creating or the product created?

It’s the old dilemma of two masters. The scripture reference in your question is apt. Of course, St. Matthew is talking about serving God or money (mammon) in Matthew 6:24, but to take the quote further, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Nemo potest duobus dominis servire: aut enim unum odio habebit, et alterum diliget: aut unum sustinebit, et alterum contemnet.)The question is, “Which master does the individual artist serve, the creative process or the thing that he or she creates?” I suspect that some artists manage to do both, but there has to be a preference—spend time in the process of creation, or sit back and admire what you created (“the good of the work”)? I suppose it all comes down to individual responses to the creative experience, what the artist names as his or her priority and what he or she wants to possess more—the ability to create or the created thing. This all kind of begs the question of ego (and goodness knows we see enough of that in Poetryland). I can imagine the medieval artisans Joe told you about, how they created with the highest intention and made sure their work would only be seen by God—storing up their “treasures” for heaven.  I suspect that all artists are in the service of “something other,” how they define it (artistic identity) is entirely personal (unless, of course, it’s defined by the public, and that’s another (smelly) “kettle of fish”).

MT: I wonder if we might conclude our discussion by looking at two of your poems—one from an earlier era and one of your newer prose poems. Could you share one or  two poems and comment on how your evolving sense of poetics shaped the craft choices you made in those poems?

AK: Here are two poems, one written when I was 6 or 7 years old and the other from A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All (the prose poems collection, forthcoming in 2014 from Welcome Rain Publishers).

 

Today

 

Today I threw my poems away.

They didn’t say what poems should say.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book.

But Look! I reach my hand up to the sky

and touch the place where sparrows fly.

 

(1955)

 

_______________________

What Calls You

 

Back then I wasn’t sure what calling meant. I thought something mystical—God’s hand on my arm, a divine voice speaking my name. Instead, I discovered the colors of cyclamen, how even the meanest weeds burst into bloom.

 

It works like this—among the books and fires—grace comes disguised as the winter finch, its beak in the seed; the twilight opossum that feeds on scraps—her babies born beneath my neighbor’s shed. Every day, I learn what love is: the finches, the opossum, the child with Down Syndrome who asked, Can I hug you a hundred times?

 

Whatever idea I had of myself turns on this: what lives on breath is spirit. I discover the power of simple places—silence—the desire to become nothing.

 

(2013)

 

_____________________

 

Sheesh! Am I still writing the same poem? I wonder if, perhaps, a lot of us do that in one way or another?

 

Apart from recognizing a strong sense of the Divine and an incorporation of human nature into the natural world, I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously thought about an evolving sense of poetics or deliberate craft choices. Auden said that a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it. I’ve never been big on analyzing anything. For me, poetry is best when it’s “discovered” rather than written. I admire certain poems for their technique, for their music, and for the brilliance of their language. But those qualities fall short if a poem doesn’t have a strong “spirit center.” By “spirit center” I mean what we discover about ourselves and about others when we read a poem. If a poem is cleverly constructed or contrived, if it does linguistic handsprings, and if its meaning becomes subordinate to form, it may attract attention (especially if that sort of thing happens to be trendy at the moment), but what a poem lets us see, what we find out about ourselves and others because of that poem, and the ways in which a poem tells us that we’re not alone—these are “what matters” to me.

 

Thanks so much for this interview, Micah, and my sincerest congrats on Whale of Desire—a must-read spiritual and artistic tour de force!

 

Christopher Phelps said something interesting about Buber and the cult of personality. He tied it into the poetry scene, which makes it especially interesting to me (You could also tie it into a certain extent with why indie bands muted the role of the singer in the grunge era, still do to a certain extent by making the lyrics purposely subsumed into the overall mix, but this, to me leads only to fake humility–and inaudible lyrics–which is the height of arrogance).

Still, I had to go back to my Buber (which anyone who had me at Arts High knows I talked of incessantly): I equate his take on the cult of personality with insistence on a self as personage rather than as person–the self as set off apart from the dynamic of communion between I and thou, I and you, and I and it–the self as commodity, as product, as a sort of ongoing “value: the personality that says there is only I, me. This is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s despair which insists on the self, on “me, myself and I” (in Kierkegaard there are three despairs: the despair of being one’s self, the despair of not being one’s self, and the sickness unto death which is a despair so deep the person is not even aware of it as despair. This last was the despair particular to the Christian burgomasters of Denmark and, by extension, to all middle calls and proper materialists hiding under the sign of Christ).

When I read Buber speaking against the cult of personality, I immediately heard the voice of James from the Epistles, and understandably, because Buber is a great teacher, a rabbi in the truest sense, and the traditions of the reb is exactly the style James is written in–most especially the Rabbi as instructor on the relationship between shema and mitzvah–exactly the I/Thou relationship.

In Shema/mitzvah one is to love the Lord with all one’s heart, and mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self–a love based not on personality, not on a cult of personages, a love based not even on family ties, but on an extension of the Shema to all sentient life as embodying the Torah–Isaiah’s dictum of “God does not require burnt offerings, but a contrite and loving heart, a broken spirit, (broken meaning as bread) and good deeds done for the poor, the widow and the orphan”.
Within this context, Buber joins a rich tradition of Jewish rabbinical teaching against the idol worship of personages, Buber and Soren and Simone Weil, and just about all mystics and deeply moral spiritual leaders teach against the cult of personality in this respect (the irony is how the rabbinical tradition often became in the diaspora exactly that: a cult of personality). Buber and James sound very much alike in this respect, qouting James:

My brothers, show no respect for personages as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and fine clothes comes into your assembly and a poor person n shabby clothes also comes in and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say: “Sit here, please, while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my feet”have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

It was with this epistle in my heart, that I ran a poetry reading for 16 years. I always saw a poetry reading as a place where the field was evened, and personages would be dissolved into a communal act–a bread breaking, as what the slammers now call a third round, but which I called the open. A feature was not superior, but a presider with the host of the reading in a meaningful ceremony of honoring the “guest” among us, and that guest was, for that moment, a distillation of all we were enacting: a ceremony of presence, The guest should be one who could be present among us–a word among us, but he or she should not be above or better than or superior to us, although, while they were our guest, we should treat them with respect and dignity and attention. This guest should ideally rise up from among us, or be the “other” come to visit the community. The laws of Xenia applied to my idea of the poetry reading and both feature (guest presbyter with the MC of the reading) and the community who came out for the reading at obligations of hospitality that vanquished the cult of personality:

The reader was to be “present” among us–to preside as it were with the host in the meaningful enactment of this ceremony known as a reading.

The reader was never to over read, but to read just enough to establish a presence and to honor the dynamic between presbyter and community. The host was to make everyone feel welcomed, to show no partiality, to honor the guest by being generous. And so the guest received a gift (there should always be an honorarium, a giving from the community) and the guest in return gave his or her presence–not only by featuring, but by staying for the open and hearing the others, being among the others.

The community should be responsive to the guest. In the open, no one should be long winded or selfish or take the spot of the other. The host should be responsive to the poems as in an almost call and response. There should be either a break between the feature and open, or after the reading in which people are invited to break bread. There should be no respect for persons (the cult of personality), but there should be deep respect for self and other through communion and creation of a meaningful ceremony.

What I liked about poetry readings in the 70s and 80s was that it was the only place in the whole of my society where I saw rich and poor, old and young, ugly and sexy, mentally ill and normatives dissolved into an act of community–and without family or a wedding or a church being at the center of it. It was exactly the absence of the cult of personality that I admired and recognized a dimension of shema/mitzvah through. Features arose from the opens. Features stayed to hear the other poets. This is how I was heard and approached by Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic. These “personages” would stay and listen. They came over to me and gave me a kind word–for no other reason than that they recognized something in my poetry. I was treated with kindness, as it should be…

This has disappeared. In academia, opens are frowned upon and the featured poet becomes an act of conspicuous display–a temporary “idol” and in regular series, asshole features leave before the open as if they were too good to hear the others. Meanwhile people in the open over read (this was always a problem) or show up only after the feature has read (or leave after the open if the open comes first). Work shops are far more enmeshed in the cult of personality because everyone is there to have their work “seen” and to say they took a work shop “with.” Seen and with are deadly to community. Buber is right about that.

I have a vision for readings in which everyone is welcome–in which 80 year olds and teenagers, good poets and bad poets, normatives and crazies meet on equal footing because, in the ceremony of bread, in James and Buber, your “personage” is what you leave behind when you enter the temple. Slams blaspheme against this spirit with their own terrible enforcement of hierarchy. Slam grew out of the spoken word scene I came out of–bar readings, readings where anyone from a prof to a wino could sign up on the list and read. The “third round” is a pale ghost of this era. Slam is utterly caught up in the cult of personality, even with team poems. In this respect, Buber is apt.

When I ran the Baron Arts Center with Deborah Laveglia and Edie Eustace, we took money out of our own pockets to supplement readings. The same people showed up as regulars year after year. And sometimes there were thirty or more people going back to the diner after the reading. I came to love some of them, to be friends, and some died and I mourned. The features were both outside the regulars and from the regulars. Everyone who came each month eventually featured.

It was community in the way Buber intended it–beyond the cult of personality. Of course we knew certain poets were more talented than others, and, without snobbery, we appreciated them as such. We all loved Joe Salerno who came every month, but Joe loved people back, and could remember lines of people’s poems. I knew I was part of a meaningful ceremony, every time I put the key in the lock and hit the code to disable the alarm at the center. I knew it was the early May reading because the Lilacs would be in bloom outside the door.

After the reading, we often went to the diner, and sometimes we didn’t go home until almost dawn. I miss this. This made life a little more tolerable. It was what church was supposed to be and never was. Perhaps I am old and stupid, but without this, work shops and features and awards just seem maniacal, and sociopathic. I feel I am in some stupid brag factory where snobbery and “professionalism” are mass manufactured. Everyone is an award winning poet. Everyone is so and so at so and so. In our series, I used to make the bios up on the spot–in order to disrespect the gravitas of personality.

I once told the people at Baron the poet Adele Kenny was my ex wife (just for fun) and that we were working out our grudges and coming to an understanding. I responded to poems in the call and response tradition of my youth. I did not get involved in this to become famous. I got involved to have somewhere I could go where I felt welcomed and where I could practice my art. I find no place like this anymore.

I know a great deal about many aspects of poetry, but that’s not the point. I hate grade A student thinking which is always, always, always, about being a personality. I want to manifest the shema/mitzvah–the I/thou. That’s hard to do when everything is lost in “Studied with” “went to” and won such and such. Joe Weil–not the personality but the host who brought disparate things and people together, who believed in the motley is dead–replaced by who?

Christopher Phelps really got me thinking. It would be nice to feel that way again. I live with a wonderful poet, but this is not about intimacy (that’s based on personal affinity). I need communitas. Maybe because I’m extraverted? Who the hell knows.

Like I Said

Okay, so it’s Sunday. I didn’t
go to church. I’m an Irish Catholic,
I know about sin, but I was tired and
just didn’t feel like getting dressed.

On Thursday night, I fell and broke
a slat from the garden fence. My
hip still hurts – the bruise is as big
as my Yorkie’s head.

That would have been enough, but
this morning the vacuum coughed up
a hairball and quit. The only food in
the fridge is a bearded yogurt.

The washing machine refuses to spin.
There’s no clean underwear left, so
I’m not wearing any. Like I said,
I was tired; I didn’t feel like getting

dressed, so I didn’t go to church and
abdicated rights to all that grace.
I put on a pair of dirty jeans, a dirty
shirt, and sat outdoors all morning.

I did nothing but talk to my dogs,
watch squirrels, and wonder what it
might be like to nibble Prozac from
Johnny Depp’s lower lip.

(From What Matters, Welcome Rain Publishers, 2011)
_______________________________________________
Adele Kenny is the author of twenty-three books (poetry & nonfiction) with poems published in journals worldwide, as well as in books and anthologies from Crown, Tuttle, Shambhala, and McGraw-Hill. A former creative writing professor, she is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series and poetry editor of Tiferet. Among other awards, she has received two poetry fellowships from the NJ State Arts Council and the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry. Website:  www.adelekenny.com Blog: www.adelekenny.blogspot.com

One of the first readings I ever did was in 1982 at the Baron Art center in Woodbridge. This was a good seven years before I became a host there, and Edie Eustace, one of the best friends poets ever had, booked me as “Poetic whimsy at the piano.” I did my own small version of a vaudeville show–what I had been doing all my life when my family was still alive: some funny songs, some straight free verse poems, a couple of raunchy rhymed poems, and a couple of neo-classical bits on the piano, instrumentals that I’d composed–everything but ballet and a dog show. In between numbers I spoke some anecdotes, talked to the crowd. It was my natural way of performing. This approach considered the presence of the audience and myself as an entertainer as sacred–not the individual poems, not the piano pieces that ranged from classical to blues, to novelty songs–but the experience of being present in a room in which I got to do what I do. I was able to use all the talents I had: storytelling, witness, music, and I did it as a thirty minute act.

It went over well. I had a packed house. Edie was a smart lady. She knew how to use me. I also played guitar and harmonica, and as I recall, I did dance around a bit with my harmonica–a funny sort of caper. I sang a selection from a musical comedy version of Sartre’s “No Exit,” which I pretended to be writing. The song named the situation of the three characters in hell. It was called “I’m in love with the girl who’s in love with the girl who’s in love with me.” It went like this (first couple verses):

I’m in love with the girl who’s in love
with the girl who’s in love with me!
This triangle’s perverse and perhaps even worse
as the sides of it don’t agree!
When we go out on the town and about
we are all three in great despair
for I care for the one who cares for
the one for whom I don’t care.
Menage A Tois! Might be what hits the spot!
But I’m only hot for the one who is hot
for the one who is hot for me
and for whom I am not!

Doing Sartre as a musical comedy was fun. I capered about the stage. I raised my arms in a mock waltz. I did what I was born to do: make a fool of myself. This week in my 380, I had occasion to perform the song again, and almost thirty years after that Baron reading, my students were laughing hard, and applauding when I’d finished. It’s good shtick and a good comic travesty on the existentialists. I love to do things like this as much as I love to write free verse poems. Unfortunately, there is no time or place or venue to do this anymore. First, poets want to be taken seriously–one of the things I hate them for. This includes slammers with their endless issue oriented verse. Ok. Be taken seriously, but it is much more of an art to flow through the different registers of emotion than to be forever stuck on the sharp prongs of one’s self- piety. It is much more refreshing to not always be the hero/ ego of your own fucking “art.”

Over the years, I have had a few chances to do what I really love–very few. I sneak a song in here or there. I once got through to a high school audience by doing Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not Stop for Death” as a slow, grinding blues song. All you need to do is repeat the first line. Sure, there are interdisciplinary art events, but even the name gives me pause and makes me cringe. Couldn’t they call it “mutt art?” That’s what it is! A little of this and a little of that. People call it cross or multi- genre performance. I call it vaudeville. I love vaudeville. I was raised before the death of variety shows, and I have never forgotten how much more alive I feel when I am not trapped in one form of art or another, but get to see how they all blend or clash. Long before the postmodernists declared the death of high and low art, vaudeville had already done so. On the Vaudeville circuit, a celebrity might tell anecdotes, a classical violinist might play a wonderful impromptu, a comic act might do a skit, followed by an aria from Mozart. It was divine madness, and these acts were honed and perfected over many years. This was long before we made academic careers out of analyzing pop culture through the rigorous jargon of critical theory.

This is what I knew about myself: I could write songs, and compose decent melodies. I was not a concert pianist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can put a song or a musical bit over fairly well. I am not a trained comic, or stand up, but I can be human in front of an audience, and I learned from my family how to tell a decent story. I am not an MFA trained poet, but I have read thousands of poems, have taught myself all the forms, have memorized at least a couple hundred poems, have learned the history of poetry, know prosody, and I can hold my own in the different styles. I am not a specialist in any one field of art. God knows I cannot dance, but I can do fairly good travesties of dancing. I have an expressive, though limited singing voice (actually I have a two and a half octave range when I’m not smoking, but I am not a trained singer) It is called being human. We think of hams as conceited, but a man who goes into the world trying to make something come alive is not a ham. A ham is someone who does not notice anyone else’s talent. I have never over read. I have never taken up more than my time on stage. And I have never cared if someone put me first or last.

I am a “mutt,” a cut up, a clown. Clowns are trained to run the emotional registers from funny to sad, from sublime to raunchy. Clowns believe that these mixed registers provide the ontological truth of existing. Clowns are morally adverse to the pure-bred. They are the only thing standing between people and purges, between the human and the human tendency to seek perfection to the point of slaughter. Clowns are the only true challenge to authority–not the revolutionaries, not the anti-this or that who, most of the time, are saying “I want the power,” but to authority. They tweak the nose of power itself, they show it for what it is: pathetic, evil, inhuman, the worst stain on our hearts. Clowns are not comic, but something more frightening and deeper. Clowns are the sacrifice of the high Mass, which is a solemn travesty, which is mutt, which is broken, which is vaudeville show in which very proper people come to watch a God be improperly slaughtered and then eat him (or her if you want me to be politically correct). The best clowns were the first and will be last to expose the lie of high or low art. They come to kill you and then raise you from the dead. To me, the motley is sacred, and it was always grounded in a sacred ritual of being, but it is not truly encouraged or allowed on the poetry scene. There are too many purists in poetry–and not just the academics. I saw it on the slam scene, too. It’s even worse in slam because they are all pretending to be communal and lowly while they take themselves way too seriously. It made me want to punch the mother fuckers out–all that fake love.

I stopped doing my shtick for the most part because I almost always feature with another poet, and some of them felt upstaged. I learned to muzzle my instincts, and stick to the program, but it cost me my joy. I would not sing during a reading because I knew I’d get clobbered for it. I would not joke, or cut up, or do a light verse ditty because, chances are, if it went over with the audience, some smug asshole would give me a left-handed compliment like: “You should do stand up.”

My “Art,” if it exists at all, exists as a belief in presence. Presence differs from entertainment in so far as it does not rule out the possibility of a deeper ontology. Judy Garland was present. Frank Sinatra was present. Lady Gaga has presence. There is something in presence that goes beyond mere entertainment, but also beyond perfection. Blake said “exuberance is beauty.” That’s the best quote I know on what I am trying to get at. You work hard at your act, but that work should not get in the way of presence–ever.

I am 53 years old and live in a time of reality television and Huxley’s Brave New World coming true. Camp and kitsch, and schlock, and self-help have lost their punch because there is no straight or normative culture to vamp or deconstruct anymore. This corporate culture deconstructs itself and, thereby, retains its power. It flies up its own asshole, and comes out the other end the same. When us triumphs over them, then us is them, and it needs to be attacked. Camp, kitsch, and the aesthetics of insignificance are the prevailing cultural norms. They are the norms which mean sincerity and ontology are the counter-statements: a seriousness that challenges the postmodern cliché of everything being leveled. Here, I seem to be contradicting myself since postmodernism prides itself on deconstructing levels, and being mixed register, but it has become authoritarian in its debunkings, in its fundamentalist “uncertainties.” It lacks kindness, and the generosity of true scorn. True scorn feigns disengagement. It uses numbness as a weapon to attack lies. It does not believe its own myth of snide. It does not make non-presence its chief aim. I find that I am bored for the first time in my life–bored with poetry, bored with art, bored with music. There are too many “knowing” people. No one is stupid with awe or pleasure, and any artist worth a damn knows that “stupidity” is as much a virtue as intelligence–as in instinct, as in intuition, as in being willing to fall on one’s ass, as in being unconscious of one’s effects, as in being unaware of one’s self.

I wish I could do what I really do: sing a song, recite a poem, tell a story, recite another poem, break out into dance or silliness, get serious, kill as many people as Hamlet, offer myself up in the high mass of my being–truly enact a ritual of presence, but I am limited by the expected forms. Edie gave me life when she let me be poetic whimsy at the piano. But even then, a couple poet friends of mine who thought they were looking out for my best interests said: “Joe, you’re a talented if raw poet… why make a fool of yourself?” I was in my early twenties. I figured they knew better than me. I was wrong. I should have answered: “I don’t have to make a fool of myself; I’m already a fool!” They could not understand what Edie understood, perhaps because she was older and could remember the golden age of American entertainment when vaudeville was kept alive in night club acts, and Marx brothers movies, and on variety shows. She knew what my real art was: a little of this and a little of that, and always aimed at the folks in Peoria–whatever in the human being truly goes beyond categorical pigeon holing. When I made someone laugh with a song, and then came back at them with a serious elegy, I was enacting their full emotional register as well as my own. It was a ceremony–an act. I should not have been made to feel ashamed of it. In later years, Deborah LaVeglia and Adele Kenny have often let me do my act, and much thanks to them, but it becomes harder because the professional surge in workshops and MFA programs, the continued bias towards the specialized, and the reduction of poetry to the either/or of performance or page has made vaudeville and presence a dubious value. I often dreamed of doing a sort of one or two hour act in which I would invite others up to do a bit, and run the full registers. But there is little market for this–and no memory of how enjoyable it could be. I would love to do something with Sweet Sue Terry, but I don’t have the money or the backing. I’d love to have a really good Jazz solo, and then combine a poem with a dance, and then tell some stories in between the acts, and truly create a ritual of being, but I’m getting old and there are people in power who don’t want to be shown up, or who have very lofty ideas of taste (taste can be a real drag). Non-feeing is the prevailing norm, and emotions are seen as questionable. Meaning is questionable. Fellow feeling is questionable. I’m not a sociopath. German decadence and French ennui, and American hipsters always bored me–for the most part. Their fascination with cruelty seemed redundant. Life is cruel enough without having to stylize it (though I understand the artistic need to stylize). I’m not into intellectual or aesthetic styles of S &M. It makes me sleepy. I mean I liked German decadence if it came with good legs, and French ennui had nice cheek bones, and knew how to smoke a cigarette, and American hipsters perfected the cues of be-bop and culturally savvy stand ups who assured us we were the knowing ones, and the culture was stupid, but, after a while, I grow weary of Bogart and pine for Cagney–the song and dance man. I don’t feel interested enough in poetry anymore to write it. I was never interested in poetry proper anyway. I was interested in poetry improper. As for songs, I can lose myself in song for hours in my living room, play to my ghosts, do Beethoven and follow it with Carole King, and I don’t need to enter the indie world of artistic blah. I was born in the wrong era. I spend my free time these days Googling dolphins, or old fast food franchises, or baseball, or songs. I am doing time. It is hard to believe in something that doesn’t believe in you.

Yesterday, I did a high school festival for the Dodge. Dodge is great in that it doesn’t force you to do the usual workshops. I talked to the students. We laughed and joked, and some people told me I had moved them but I couldn’t even remember what I had said because I was in the moment. I got paid 350 bucks, and spent two hundred of that in gas and hotels, but it was worth it. I didn’t read one poem in the classes. When the time came to read, I did two poems, and sat down. I feel exhausted by possibilities that will never come to fruition. I never wanted to read from a book and sit down. Whatever I thought I could do was often hemmed in and limited by gate keepers. All I ever wanted was to be devoured in some sense–to offer myself up on some imagined altar of being “in the moment.” Perhaps when the grid collapses, I’ll get my chance. I just hope they let me play the piano first.

PART 1

PART 2