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Seattle likes to pride itself on being one of America’s Most Literate Cities. I pay attention to these annual pronouncements for about 2 minutes when they inevitably make the news, or are posted on Facebook, and Seattle’s usually up there with Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The thinking is that, what else are you going to do when it’s cloudy for the 99th day in a row? That’s also the excuse for the coffee consumption and suicide rate in Seattle, so locals can have their evening planned right off.

What interests me, however, is despite how literate it’s supposed to be here, Seattle got stuck in Modernism. Oh, we’re already way past the postmodern era in some ways, like when NPR interviewers with straight faces talk about how we’ll have a better quality of life in the future when we alter our genetics through some kind of bio-technology expertise. (Though I think that’s an extension of a modernist point of view. But a lot of people here buy that shit.) But when it comes to poetry, until recently, Seattle might as well have been in 1911. What’s interesting about this is that you might try to write that off as the West Coast of North America being a younger “civilization” than the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, Montreal, etc. But that leaves out San Francisco, with it’s Beat poets (a bridge from the modern to the postmodern) the Berkeley Renaissance (the first flowering of the postmodern on the West Coast) and the strong Language Poetry tradition. Not my cup of verse, but they (LangPoets) were trying for something different and many succeeded, though only time will sort out the wheat from the chaff there.

The notion of the West Coast as younger and less developed also leaves out Vancouver, which ate up postmodernism as soon as it started showing up there in the late 50s and early 60s with TISH and later the Kootenay School of Writing. Hell, Vancouver poet George Bowering half-jokes that Canada skipped right over modernism!

Portland had its Reed College innovators Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Leslie Scalapino. In the past decade the Spare Room series has given that town something exciting and Emily Kendall Frey’s new “occasional salon” The New Privacy promises to be open and innovative. Powell’s Books is, of course, a legendary indy bookstore and there are many interesting Portland magazines and presses, including the self-proclaimed maker and destroyer of books, Matt Stadler’s Publication Studios.

Seattle has had the UW, Theodore Roethke, Caroline Kizer, Richard Hugo, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds, Sherman Alexie and a good many modernist poets who must be respected for their contribution, for their time in the vineyard, as it were, if not for their innovation. The UW has always been disconnected from the community outside the Blue Moon Tavern and some readings at the Hugo House, but that’s about it. Even Denise Levertov, who wrote some beautiful poems about Mount Rainier in her late life when she lived in Seattle, reverted to more of a modernist aesthetic when she lived here. Maybe it’s the water, or the legendary “Seattle Nice.” Google that, scroll past the inevitable airline ads and see what I mean by that phrase. It’s a veil for repressed anger, mostly and anger is often confused with passion and intensity, essential ingredients in innovative art. Lord, let’s not have any of that here! they (the locals) must think.

But what we lack in innovation (& there’s some of that here now, more later in this piece) we make up for in our connection to the East. There is a higher Asian population in Seattle than in East Coast cities. Two great quotes say it better than I can about this dynamic:

If I open a magazine of contemporary poetry I rarely hear John Dryden, but almost always Li Po.

– Andrew Schelling

… the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…

– Kenneth Rexroth

We know the Western cosmology of competition and domination has failed and is dying in a large way, perhaps taking humans (and many other species) with it. So it is only in this in this neck of the woods that we’d find someone like Sam Hamill, who has done much translation of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry, including what’s perhaps the quintessential translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. It is a book which resonates with Seattle in so many ways. Sam’s never lived in Seattle, per se, but has been a presence here for 30+ years because he founded Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend. His latest, Habitations shows a deep sense of place, a deep Zen aesthetic and may be the best thing he’s ever done. And his work is rich with duende, content-wise, and seems to be just this side of the line that separates modernism and post-mod.

As for readings in Seattle, you have mostly the modernist-type affairs. The city’s writing center The Richard Hugo House, mostly follows a mainstream path, and has been turning toward a slam aesthetic to court younger attendees. Their Cheap Wine and Poetry Series packs their cafe every session and a spin-off, Cheap Beer and Prose has a similar popularity and in-your-face New York attitude, thanks to transplant Brian McGuigan. How cool is it that they’re sponsored by PBR? (Sing with me: What’ll ya have Pabst Blue Ribbon.) But it’s rarely made new there, but tends to be poetry as entertainment. Elliott Bay Books has been re-born in a new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, but the new reading room suffers from the footsteps of book browsers on the floor above. Still the offerings have a wide range as long as there is a book to sell.

Open Books, Seattle’s all poetry bookstore, one of only three in the U.S., has a wide variety of poetics represented and the proprietors are fine poets who know their stuff. A little narrow, room-wise, but that helps create an intimate environment, so turn off your god damned cellphone before you go in there or you’ll set the sprinklers off, or so I’m told.

Seattle Arts & Lectures is the big show in town and they had Robert Creeley once, many years ago, but now gets about as innovative as Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and Martin Espada, modernists all, and quite mainstream. Of course they have to fill bigger halls, but if Seattle were as literate as it claims to be, you think there would be more daring, more of a desire to help lead the masses to something more open and challenging. Here, we claim to love diversity, so grant programs seek out the bland middle of every ethnicity, and these programs tend to turn into EEO affairs and do not push the art forward. In fact one could make a case for the opposite.

Once upon a time there was Subtext. It lasted 15 years and once graced the old Speakeasy Cafe, which is still missed. A tiff with Hugo House, their later stomping grounds, turned them to a venue that was cavernous and off the beaten path and the joy was sucked out of that series. While it lasted it did present the most innovative locals with an out-of-towner. From their blog, gathering digital dust over the last two years, here are but a few of the features:

David Abel, Will Alexander, Charles Alexander Charles Altieri, Rae Armantrout Eric Baus, Dodie Bellamy, Anselm Berrigan, blackhumour, Robin Blaser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jaap Blonk, Christian Bok, Curtis Bonney, Charles Borkhuis, George Bowering, Jules Boykoff, Joseph Bradshaw, Jonathan Brannen, David Bromige, Rebecca Brown, Lee Ann Brown, Laynie Browne, Mary Burger, Clint Burnham, Gerald Burns, Avery Burns, David Buuck, Brian Carpenter, Tyler Carter, Maxine Chernoff, Don Mee Choi, Susan Clark, Allison Cobb, Alicia Cohen, Norma Cole, Jen Coleman, Steve Collis, Daniel Comiskey, Lucy Corin, Martin Corless-Smith, Steve Creson, Michael Cross, Peter Culley, Crystal Curry, KT Cutler, Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Christine Deavel.

And this only gets us into the “D’s” so you get the idea. That list looks better with time.

There still is no answer to Red Sky Poetry Theater, a legendary open mic which died in 2005 after a 25 year run, the longest on the West Coast in that time. One person said: “There are a lot of open mics in Seattle, but Red Sky’s a poetry reading.” It was a workshop for many poets, myself included, and regulars included Marion Kimes, Charlie Burks, Paul Hunter, Judith Roche, Willie Smith, Carletta Wilson, Steve Potter, Jesse Minkert, Roberto Valenza, Phoebe Bosche (of Raven Chronicles fame),  Robin Schultz, Belle Randall, Denis Mair (a prodigious translator of Chinese poets), Margareta Waterman (& her own Oregon-based press,Nine Muses), David Whited and others.

Our own SPLAB is a venue that seeks to build community through shared experience of the spoken and written word. We have a weekly writer’s critique circle (Living Room) and the visiting poets we’ve had since re-launching in Seattle’s diverse Columbia City neighborhood include Michael McClure, Nate Mackey, C.A. Conrad, Cedar Sigo and Brenda Hillman, so I guess you can stick us in the Black Mountain meets The Salish Sea poetic territory.

The latest glimmers of hope come from three sources. The first is a brand new reading that, according to organizers happens: “in conventionally too-small spaces, occurring around Western Washington. Basements. Attics. Vans. Coffee stands. The head of a pin. Lovingly curated by Graham Isaac and Rachel Hug.” It is called, oddly enough, Claustrophobia. They’ve had only one session, but it is promising. Second is a new indy publishing house called, perfectly, Dark Coast Press, which has threatened to make a splash in the poetry world, but whose soul is that of a poet, Editor Jarret Middleton. Expect them to do big things in poetry. The second glimmer comes from a reading series created by three guys who met at SPLAB and are, would you guess, recent transplants from “back East” as we say. New York, Philly and Virginia by way of Utah, exactly. These guys have collaborated to create The Breadline. (They chose the name months before the Occupy movement created its new Hoovervilles, or Obama-villes we might call them.) Mixing Slam, LangPo, music, Oulipo, Butoh and even the occasional Appalachian story-teller or molecular biologist, this monthly series is wildly popular and is just figuring out how to sustain  itself. An off-shoot of that reading was an homage to John Cage called Communications Silence, which was well-attended and very well-regarded in the local press. It demonstrated that there is a base here for something more real, more daring and more satisfying. Maybe now we’re growing up.

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.

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(image by David Shapiro ©2010)


“Three coyotes turned up on the Columbia University campus on Sunday morning, prompting an e-mail alert to students and faculty.”

A coyote is sweetness itself compared to a professor—
and a professor is selfless compared to a poet—
even the meanest sculptor is not as stupid as a University—
a wild animal is gentle and tame compared to a critic—
a bobcat is meek and mild compared to any Intellectual—
the zoo containing all is a garden compared to a Department
no architecture is as fragile as friendship as vicious as love
No stepmother is as horrible as the one you are stuck with
No poem looks as good as the one you will find out is nothing
when a mother calls you up you are lucky When a teacher
calls you up you must always take out the revolver
when you see a sick raccoon look more closely and it is your art and your friend

language poets have been seen roaming near cities
when a NY poet fights boundaries become magazines
when a poet needs a job no one else can find one
if you ever need advice ask a bobcat not a Mentor
when you need support and money all humans disappear
the old poets need no prizes they have stolen them already
the young poets need something that the bobcats have teeth
when you need some more hope read Kafka in the morning
when you’re dying for champagne read Proust in the evening

when you want to put yr hand thru a window open the window first (Ron P)
The best advice is the one you give to yourself already