Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

A post from Ann Bogle's blog, Ana Verse, caught my eye this morning. The post, dated October 2, 2008, features what look to me like journal entries from 1994. Some of the journal entries refer to the journalist's writings from 1985. Here is an excerpt:

January 28, 1994
Ideas are unspeakable only if they are seen to impinge on the fantasies of others. Meaning is in the making, but we also make meaning a habit. I am not thinking here of commonplace meaning: a car equals a car. I am thinking of what happens when language ropes a life. We attribute metaphor to language, yet among writers, some writers, life is lived by the book. A representational word (car, wind, drink) gets carried away into life. It refers to you, your mother, your mania, your sex. In its broader manifestations, meaning leads to a dangerous wholeness that some writers check with fragmentation and polity. The writer may want to protect or change the world but is confined to an acquiescent resistance to fascism. Resisting fascism, the whole of it, requires acknowledging that part that is in us.

Read the full entry at Ann's blog.
Ann's post is titled "Conditions of a Narrator" and takes up consideration of life as it is lived and life as it is imagined in writing. It may seem like an elaborate intellectual exercise, but the post returns again and again to the notions of assertiveness, self, aggression, violence, possibility and community. These are notions any reader may benefit from (including readers of poetry) and that is why I wanted to share this here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Advice to Beginning Writers

At Facebook, I joined a group called Poetry Factions Are Stupid. Within that group, Joanne Limburg began a discussion. From London, Ms. Limburg wrote (on Oct 20, 2007)

In a month or so, I'll be delivering a talk to an audience mostly of secondary school pupils and their parents, on the subjects of poetry, doing poetry, being a poet, how I became a poet etc. etc. What would you say to a young would-be poet, apart from 'Try accountancy.'? All contributions welcome. Thanks.

Another Facebook user, Marc Zegans, had also joined the Poetry Factions Are Stupid group. He saw Joanne's question and answered with what I regard as alacrity. From Boston, Mr. Zegans wrote (on Nov 5, 2007)

Hi Joanne, there's much advice one could offer to young poets, but here are three pieces riffing on [W.H.] Auden:

  • write from a place of "imaginative awe";
  • allow yourself to be a young poet, and don't try to be otherwise--hence, write from encounter with what you have known;
  • you're only a poet when you're writing a poem, so there's plenty of time left over for other things that fuel your social self and pay the rent.
Best of luck, Marc

For more about Joanne Limburg, go to the Poetry Magazines website.

For more about Marc Zegans, visit his MySpace page.

You may be able to interact with Joanne and Marc if you join Facebook and send them a Friend Request.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Helen Vendler

In December of 2006 the New York Times published an article about poetry critic and teacher Helen Vendler. Here are some excerpts:
. . . Vendler was born Helen Hennessy in Boston in 1933. Although she was encouraged to read poetry — her mother, a former schoolteacher, had memorized many poems, and her father taught Romance languages at a high school — her parents forbade her to attend the prestigious Boston Latin School for Girls, and later Radcliffe, because, like many devout Roman Catholics at the time, they accepted the church’s strong disapproval of secular education. Instead she enrolled in Boston’s all-female Emmanuel College, hoping to study literature, but “literature, I discovered with disgust, was taught as a branch of faith and morals,” she recalled in a 2001 lecture. That experience “inoculated me forever against adopting any ism as a single lens through which to interpret literature.”
Vendler switched to the sciences, and after graduation was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study mathematics in Belgium. “I loved math and I loved organic chemistry because they have structures and I love structures,” she said. But on the stormy trans-Atlantic voyage, Vendler had a reckoning with herself. “And I decided, now that I was free, I would do English, because that’s what I had always wanted to do.” With the Fulbright commission’s blessing, she switched to literature.
. . . Today Vendler seldom reviews poets under 50, since their “frames of reference,” she says, are alien to her. “They’re writing about the television cartoons they saw when they were growing up. And that’s fine. It’s as good a resource of imagery as orchards. Only I’ve seen orchards and I didn’t watch these cartoons,” she said. “So I don’t feel I’m the best reader for most of the young ones.”
These days Vendler is more focused on late style. In April, she will deliver the prestigious Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Her topic will be the final books of Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, and how each wrestled with what Yeats called “death-in-life and life-in-death”: writing about life facing impending death, and writing about death while still immersed in the world. “It used to be easier to deal with when you had heaven to believe in, when there was another place to go at the end of your poem,” Vendler said, as the late afternoon sun came through her office window. Death without heaven “produces more stylistic problems.” Vendler has recently finished the book on Yeats’s poems that she first wanted to write as a dissertation, but abandoned, she said, because at 23, “I didn’t have the life experience to penetrate them or resonate with them.” Life and life’s work, seamlessly intertwined.
Read the full article at the NY Times site.
Links to several of Ms. Vendler's articles can be found at the NY Books site. The site allows access only with paid subscription.
Here she is in a brief (~2min) video at You Tube:

Creativity: A Study

Jilly Dybka has once again faithfully updated her Poetry Hut blog with Fresh Poetry News Hand Picked Daily. This bit of news I want to share here as well:

. . . A recent study, led by Harvard professor Wendy Berry Mendes, is the first to examine how biological predisposition and negative situations work in tandem to influence creativity, in fields such as art.
. . . She and her team then asked 96 participants to prepare a short speech designed to sell themselves in a mock-job interview setting. One group received a neutral response from a panel of reviewers, another got encouraging smiles and nods of approval and the third faced crossed arms, grimaces and furrowed brows.
Afterwards, the researchers asked the volunteers to create an artistic collage using a variety of craft supplies, and a panel of professional artists critiqued the results. With a remarkable degree of unanimity, the collages that earned the best reviews were those produced by people predisposed to dark moods who had received a nasty response in the mock interview.
. . . "We showed it's a combination of the person and the situation and that, ironically, it appears negative moods can have functions," Mendes says. "We have negative moods for a reason and they serve to make people more focused and in this case, more creative."

Read the full article at the Canadian News website where it was published December 16, 2008.

I'm not surprised by these research findings. I think it's reasonable and in agreement with the notion that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to what happens to you.

In 2005, scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine found that
"Children Of Bipolar Parents Score Higher On Creativity Test".

In their book Manic Depression and Creativity, D.J. Hershman and J. Lieb report, among other things, that suffering is NOT essential to creativity. The same authors wrote about people who suffered from bipolar disorder and who nevertheless rose to political power: Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin. See their book A Brotherhood of Tyrants for the rest of the story.

Occasionally one hears of the National Institute for Mental Health as having reported that more than one-third (some sources say 38%) of Pulitzer Prize-winning poets have either had symptoms of or been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as in this article at the Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. If anyone can find the actual reference made by the NIMH, I'd be ever so grateful.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Flying, Imagination and Writing

Earlier this month, Sue Williams wrote in her blog about flying, imagination and writing poetry. It's a delightful ten-minute lovely addition to anyone's day. Here is an excerpt:

I'm sure, at one point or another, we've all read about fliers.
Flight can be associated with childhood imagination, or superpowers, or other liberations. The birth of the aeroplane came from a human obsession with flight, and angels, fairies and other enlightened beings have access to higher worlds. As for poor old Icarus, he gets a bad press. Many of us, as writers, know what it's like to aim too high, but it's when we depend on the outcome that [means] we need to think again. It's hard to try for the high place and then get burnt or melted; but as long as we can pick ourselves up, I reckon it makes us stronger.

Birthdays of Poets: Focused on the landing, who can think of flying?

Read the full article at Sue's blog, Wet Ink.

The Smoking Poet

In November (2008), Kelly Bacon - a student who attends Western Michigan University - interviewed Zinta Aistars, editor of the online magazine The Smoking Poet, for the Western Herald - Western Michigan University's school newspaper. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Zinta Aistars: . . . what I see as differentiating us from most online publications is that we go out of our way to publish work from all corners of the globe. Not only American writers and artists, but we have also published work coming to us from Latvia, Ireland, France, India, China, Australia, England, South Africa, Japan, and many other intriguing and wonderful places. We consciously resist tunnel vision in our literary tastes. Every culture expresses itself in its own way, and we want that to be reflected on our pages.

Read the full interview at Zinta's blog.

As of December 15, 2008, The Smoking Poet at its home page has Google Page Rank 0 and Alexa Traffic Rank 21,258,516. Let's keep an eye on this one. I expect the Page Rank and the Traffic Rank will both improve in the coming months.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Carol Houck Smith

Just after Thanksgiving (2008), Carol Houck Smith died. Legendary editor at W.W. Norton, she edited numerous prize-winning collections of poems. Read her full obituary at the Washington Post (Friday, December 12, 2008; Page B07) online. In 2004 her advice to beginning writers was:
The best advice to beginning writers, she said in a 2004 washingtonpost.com online chat, is "to be a reader. To become a voracious reader. And to learn to read with your ears as well as your eyes. To read your own work aloud. And even to type out a passage from a writer you love, to really get the rhythm."
The job of an editor, she continued, "is to discover what the intention of the writer is, and then to try and stand in for the general reader and assess whether the writer has fulfilled that intention. I think it's a chemical relationship between author and editor, in the same way that you're attracted to friends when you meet them, and so the editor has really joined the book."
Read the whole thing at the Washington Post online. Allow twelve minutes.
I'm sure I would have enjoyed meeting and talking with Ms. Houck Smith.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Visas for Artistic Performance

Artists traveling in the European Union need a special visa in order to show &/or perform their work(s).

This just in from Listen & Be Heard by way of Ron Silliman's blog:

[excerpt follows]
In Chanticleer Magazine (issue 21), the editor, Richard Livermore, reports “On September 16th, an American poet was arrested at Stanstead Airport, held in a holding tank, interrogated on and off (…) for 18 hours, had her mugshot (sic) taken, was finger-printed and then sent back to Italy, where she had bought her ticket. Her crime – she had come to Britain to read poetry (…) on the radio – for which she was not being paid – without a special visa to do so. When the person who was due to meet her at the airport tried to find out by phone what was happening, he was told that, under the Data Protection Act, such information could not be released. When he attempted to ask more questions the person at the other end of the line told him that if he persisted in asking questions, she would be obliged to hang up. To this day, the poet – a 64-year-old writer, musician, poet and translator – still doesn’t know why she was held. All she knows is that in coming here to read poetry she was contravening one of three new laws which stipulates that non-EU artists require a special visa to exhibit their work. Reading poetry in public falls into the category of ‘exhibiting work”.

Read the full article at http://www.listenandbeheard.net/home/2008/11/24/the-terror-of-poetry/

And now more on this from the Civitas Blog:

[excerpt follows]
According to French MEP Claire Gibault (cited by Euobserver.com as a top violinist and orchestra director) artists deserve “special social status” to be able to travel throughout the union. Gibault has identified the artists’ situation as an example of deficiencies in the Schengen Agreement (which creates a borderless zone for free travel across Europe) and claims that artists actually require further freedoms. Confused? Me too! The EU’s justification is that art and culture must be “human not elitist” and according to the EU, the only way to “humanise” art is via a new visa programme for artists to ensure greater mobility “as a condition for cultural exchange and enrichment”.

Read the full article at http://www.civitas.org.uk/blog/2008/04/the_eus_art_attack.html

Anyone who wants a special Schengen Visa to travel in Europe and give a poetry reading would be well advised to plan their trip several months in advance during which time the visa application can be processed. More info on obtaining such a visa can be found for instance at immihelp: http://www.immihelp.com/visas/pvisa/

Susana Milevska, a graduate student at Goldsmiths College, posted a piece online about the paper she prepared and presented in February 2006 at the 7th Postgraduate Conference. Here is an excerpt from that paper:

My paper deals with a contemporary art phenomenon that emerged in the countries that are not part of the European Union. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a great number of contemporary art projects are concerned with the continuously changing borders between Schengen and non-Schengen states. It is not surprising, if one takes into account that each artist coming from a non-Schengen country, in order to participate at an international project, needs at least one month to collect all the required documents for a Schengen visa. While opposing to the strict visa and passport regimes which make their life as free-lance artists impossible, artists imagine performances, objects, installations, video or photography projects that are often clandestine attempts for finding a way to trick the political system. Therefore, one can say that they use their profession and mediums in a quite different way than it has been used before.

Read the full abstract at the UCL university homepages website.

Find out more about Schengen states at the Schengen Space website.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Recommended Reading

My local public library, the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, has New European Poets on one of its shelves where new books are kept. Published by Graywolf Press, the back cover informs us: "general editors Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer enlisted twenty-two additional regional editors to select these 290 poems, whose writing was first published after 1970." The volume contains more than 400 poems, a section 'About the Poets', another section 'About the Translators' and of course 'Permission Acknowledgments'. Nearly 200 translators worked with more than 40 languages to render these poems in English.

I see spirituality in poems from former Soviet states, and I am encouraged. Many such poems carry a world-weary tone, but stop short of cynicism and I would say even of pessimism. For example:

the men of my country
by Andriy Bondar (b. 1974)
translated from the Ukrainian by Vitaly Chernetsky

the men of my country
give up their seats on the subway
to the handicapped the aged
and to the passengers with children
but mostly they go on sitting
since these categories of citizens
have a pronounced tendency to die out
or travel by subway less and less often

the men of my country
they are saints under a heel
with trained insect jaws
with which they gnaw their way
to deserved fatherhood
and later having untied their hands
savor children's flesh
using proscribed methods
of raising the younger generation

the men of my country
are not mutants or perverts
they are products of secondary processing
of amino acids
this is all that remains of the nation
which loves and honors its heroes
youths so roly-poly or with pit bull jaws
their love for motherhood
has outgrown all discernible limiits
and become a signature style

the men of my country
wonderful specimens for an entomologist
for they are fragile like exotic butterflies
pinned to a piece of cardboard
they acknowledge the value
of every move every sound
for life is an unending crime
that has no justification

the men of my country
blow their noses simply into their hands
for the hand is the most useful organ
for such an important deed
they usually don't have any other
important deeds to consider

the men of my country
make no effort
efforts ruin the liver
and their mouths smell bad
and have they really been born
to exert efforts

the men of my country
prematurely descend into the grave
and become weightless angels
and ideal raw material
for metaphysical speculations
and superfluous argument in favor of the existence
of god or what's his name

The speaker of this poem sees much in the world that is undesirable but believes in God. Another poem from this book seems more cynical to me:

I Blow My Nose Inartistically
by Jozef Urban (1964-1999)
translated from the Slovak by James Sutherland-Smith

We who don't blow our nose nicely
offend polite company
and the routines of decent society

For not blowing our nose nicely
it is necessary to cancel us
from the list of folk who live decently
and to change good manners into laws
to exile us somewhere to an island
and there we'll blow our nose like Robinsons

For not blowing our nose nicely
we must be deprived of our inventions
of making babies
planting birch trees
and our railway track systems
and be left there on an island
so we won't blow our nose in discussions
and slobber over company
who've come to gorge upon each other, nicely,
utterly to the limits of decency.

I like both poems. And many more in this lovely volume.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Similie & Metaphor

Sharon Olds talks candidly about metaphor and similie and her autobiographical work in this video posted at the Facebook page of the Academy of American Poets by the staff at www.poets.org. The video runs approximately 3 min 15 sec.

Poetry Contests

Susan Richardson is a poet who blogs about her experiences with students, poets and the environment at Susan's Journal of Literary Things. She has some interesting things to say about poetry contests. She knows of them as a poet who is interested in creating a winning entry, and she knows of them as a judge. Here are a few of her comments dated November 4, 2008:


Spent an interesting evening last night at a meeting of Cardiff Writers' Circle, for whom I was asked to adjudicate their annual article writing competition. The group's been in existence for going-on sixty years and is made up of writers of a wide range of backgrounds and experience - last night's Chairperson, Jo Verity, for example, has a third novel coming out with Honno in January. Usually I'm on the other side of the fence, so to speak, entering poetry competitions and struggling to work out what might appeal to a particular judge (as outlined in a previous blog post and discussion). So it was fascinating to have to write a short critique on all the entries, select a winner and two runners-up, and so gain an insight into the whole adjudication process.

It's refreshing to see someone who is such a warm, kindhearted, loving human being. Visit her website and find out more about her work.

Read a review of Ms. Richardson's collection of poetry titled Creatures of the Intertidal Zone (2008) at New Hope International Review.

Read a few poems from Creatures of the Intertidal Zone online.

Buy a copy of Creatures of the Intertidal Zone from the publisher, Cinnamon Press. Once you get to the page you'll scroll down to see the book.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) is a great poet worthy of study.

The following is excerpted from the Poetry Foundation's online entry regarding Robert Lowell:

Lowell said in the "Afterthought" to Notebook 1967-1968 that "in truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of living; in remembering, in recording, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain." A poetry of scrupulous self-examination, Lowell's work, as Vereen M. Bell declares in Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero, "is identifiable by nothing so much as its chronic and eventually systematic pessimism"; indeed, says Bell, "whatever spirit of affirmation that we think we perceive in Lowell's work we must always suspect ourselves of projecting upon it." Furthermore, in Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell, Alan Williamson observes that "Lowell's vision of civilization—being a product both of the man he is and of the time he lives in—is particular, painful, and dark. It is redeemed neither by . . . faith that an adequate, if authoritarian, utopia may have existed in the past, nor by a revolutionary's faith that one can be abstractly yet accurately designed for the future. Consequently, Lowell must necessarily leave more questions of value, of cause and responsibility, of fundamental 'human nature' open to poetic inquiry than did his nearest predecessors. But it is this very appalling fundamentalness of Lowell's questions, combined with his honesty about historical terror, that make him a modern epic poet."

Lowell was an epic poet as well in the scope and greatness of his poetry. He addressed large questions, and he used a multiplicity of forms and styles in his continuing quest, which his friend Peter Taylor describes in a 1979 Ploughshares essay as a search for "a oneness in himself and a oneness in the world." "This is how he must always be remembered," Taylor says, "one moment playful to the point of violent provocation, the next in profound contemplation of the great mystery: What does life mean? What is it all about?"

Visit the Poetry Foundation's entry to read the full article. The URL is

I don't know what it's all about, but I believe it is both easier and more fruitful to consider the question "What is my life all about?" Earlier in the same article, we get the idea that "[Lowell's] art and his life were inseparably intertwined, and he believed firmly in the identity of self and language." What I take away from this is that Lowell, as a poet, was ambitious. As a poet, I believe there is value in considering the nature of that ambition. What did Lowell hope to achieve?

The notion of intertwining self and language brings to mind Harold Bloom's assertion in his Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human: "Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us." That is, after the characters Hamlet and Falstaff and others were invented, we are able to see ourselves in ways that previously we were not able to see. I think it's an interesting argument and one worth considering and talking about, but let me make a remark about Twelfth Night and then I'll get back to Lowell - by way of Shakespeare.

Few would argue that
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. But this play has no Hamlet or Falstaff. Who speaks of Viola, star of Twelfth Night, as one of Shakespeare's greatest characters? So what is it that makes the play so highly regarded?
Now, let's see if I can bring us back to Robert Lowell. Act Two, Scene Five of Twelfth Night features the following thought, voiced by minor characters playing a joke: "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." See if, after reading the following quote from Edward Byrne's essay, you don't agree with me that Lowell not only achieved greatness but was born great.

Robert Lowell was born in Boston on March 1, 1917 to a Massachusetts family well positioned in New England society and already rich in literary tradition, including two prominent authors among his ancestors—Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. Robert Lowell’s personal heritage as a writer was enhanced when upon the recommendation of Allen Tate he appeared as a young man at Kenyon College eagerly seeking to learn the poetic craft from John Crowe Ransom, Tate’s one-time teacher. Following his graduation from Kenyon in 1940, Lowell pursued graduate work at Louisiana State University under the guidance of two other highly regarded literary personalities associated with the New Critics and their notions about how a poem’s composition or its reception by readers should be discerned: Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.

Visit One Poet's Notes to read Byrne's article in full. The URL is http://edwardbyrne.blogspot.com/2008/03/robert-lowells-legacy-life-studies.html.

Another nice article is at Slate magazine. The article focuses on Lowell's Collected Poems.

The highest praise for Lowell's poetry I've found online is at the Poets dot org website. The URL is http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/10.

Lowell's book Life Studies (1959) was awarded the National Book Award in 1960. Read a poem from that book, "Skunk Hour", at the Poets dot org website.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Political Cartoon

Political humor 

Image taken from
http://www.eatliver.com/i.php?n=3666 accessed 11/24/08.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

How to Read John Ashbery's Poems

In August of 1974, John Ashbery's poem 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' was published in Poetry magazine. In 1975, a book of poems by Ashbery was published and titled after the 'Self-Portrait' poem. That book is famous for winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Edward Byrne writes in his blog of his experiences in the world of poetry during the mid-70s. It turns out that Byrne was a student of Ashbery's in 1975. Reading Ashbery's poems can be difficult.

In March of 2005, Slate magazine published an article titled 'The Instruction Manual: How to Read John Ashbery'. Here is an excerpt:

It is hard to talk concretely about Ashbery's poetry, because his subject is, so often, aesthetic consciousness—what he calls "the experience of experience." On the one hand, the poems have the dashed-off look and feel of pop culture-inflected postmodernism, inspired by the radical innovations of Dada and French Surrealism. On the other hand, at their heart is a kind of high Romantic yearning for wholeness: In a sense the poems are simply about being unable to give up that longing. At the center of an Ashbery poem isn't usually a subject (à la Philip Larkin) but a feeling (à la Jackson Pollock). That feeling is conjured up by the interplay between aesthetic conviction and amiably bland bewilderment; amid all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life is the enduring hope that, as one speaker puts it, "at last I shall see my complete face." The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.

To read the full article, go to the Slate website.

More recently (Dec 8, 2008), the Christian Science Monitor ran a little review of Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987. The review is helpful in understanding better how to read Ashbery's poetry. Here is an excerpt from that little book review:

Reading Ashbery involves the ability to make sudden shifts between slangy and literary language, between rational analysis and irrational intuition, and to fuse seemingly unrelated images from paintings, film, and daily life. His poems seem to narrate stories – but they are stories constantly interrupted by paradoxes and contradictions, all part of a storytelling sensibility that loves unsolved and unsolvable mysteries.
Call this volume of Ashbery’s work a training guide for imaginative calisthenics.
For the full article, go to the Christian Science Monitor website.
Another help in reading Ashbery's poems is to begin by saying 'Let me understand Ashbery's poetics.' Generally, once a reader understands a poet's poetics, that reader can more easily 'unlock' the meaning of that poet's poems. What is poetics? Well, this Wikipedia entry can tell you better than I can. How to understand Ashbery's poetics better requires, I believe, an understanding of the situation of poetry within Yeats and Eliot - and then understand that Ashbery felt the need to create something extra-Yeatsian, extra-Eliotian if you will. Whereas Yeats and Eliot especially despaired over the lack of a coherent expression capable of including all of experience, Ashbery joyfully goes about his own project of creating poetry that acknowledges and embraces some of the more salient challenges of our times, consumerism and the formation of self being among them.
David Herd has written a book that should prove helpful as well in reading poems by Ashbery. Published by Manchester University Press, John Ashbery and American Poetry was reviewed in The Guardian (March 10, 2001) by Robert Potts. Here is the first paragraph from that review:
"I live with this paradox; on the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me. I am often asked to account for this state of affairs, but I can't." This self-assessment by the American poet John Ashbery is fair and succinct. Much admired, winner of many prizes, stylistically over-influential, Ashbery has nonetheless provoked hostility and scepticism from uncomprehending readers. His poems slide through a variety of voices and styles with quickfire cuts between sensations, comments and events; sometimes the disruption of expectation is so frequent that it becomes easy for a sceptical or lazy reader to feel that the poems are nothing more than a random agglomeration of words, images, quotations and phrases.
Follow this link to read the full article.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The following is excerpted from a post at Dustin Brookshire's blog, "I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin". In this post, Dorianne Laux tells us why she writes. What I have here is the first paragraph only; for the full essay, go to Dustin's blog.

I have recently begun to think of writing as what Susan Sontag calls “a wisdom project” in her forward to Another Beauty, a collection of autobiographical essays by the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.

“...autobiography is an occasion to purge oneself of vanity, while advancing the project of self understanding—call it the wisdom project—which is never completed, however long the life.”

I am still hard at work on this project of the self. The solitary self, as well as the self in relation to the world and the unknown universe we swirl around in, uncertain of our purpose or future. When I wrote the poems that would become my first book, I didn’t think of it as a book, but rather as a need to understand the basic questions that all human beings ask: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is beauty? Why is there suffering? Where is truth? These questions would arise in me in the form of poems, and in making the poems into a collection, I tried to arrange them in a shape, find a path for them to travel to make clearer those questions. I write to know the questions.

Read more about Dorianne Laux at the Poets dot org website.
Read Ms. Laux's poem 'Shipfitter's Wife' at the Poetry Foundation website.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bob Dylan and His Poetic Lyrics

The following was originally posted by Edward Byrne at his blog, One Poet's Notes, on Sunday, November 16, 2008. His blog is serves as an adjunct to the Valparaiso Poetry Review. What I have here is the beginning of the essay only.

This weekend [November 15, 2008] an article appeared in
The Times discussing publication for the first time of nearly two-dozen poems written by Bob Dylan almost forty-five years ago. Apparently, the poetry had been handed to photographer Barry Feinstein in the 1960s by his friend, Bob Dylan. Feinstein, who often photographed Hollywood celebrities, also had followed Dylan on his European tour in 1966 and had taken a cover photo of the singer for The Times They Are A-Changin album.

Dylan’s poems had been stored along with Feinstein’s Hollywood pictures that inspired much of the material in the twenty-three poems. Recently rediscovered, the photographs and poems are now available in a new book,
Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric, published by Simon & Schuster. Some of the poems are reprinted in Times Online, which describes their appearance and content: “the lines are skinny, the rhythms abrupt, the language sparse and telegraphic and abbreviated, the situations jarring and dreamlike, the comebacks frequent and snappy. There are laments, complaints, musings, skits (a hilarious screen test, for one), parables (converting those wardrobe department shelves into a repository of human lives), nightmare scenarios (the lurching paranoid fantasy that begins ‘after crashin the sportscar / into the chandelier’ and sounds like a hellish rewrite of ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’), and plenty of dry tombstone epigraphs.”

Perhaps almost as interesting is the accompanying commentary by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who is credited as contributing an introduction to the book. Collins addresses questions concerning Bob Dylan’s status as a “poet.” Initially, Collins explains why songwriters rarely produce lyrics that achieve the criteria to qualify as lines of poetry: “Whenever the question comes up—and it does nearly every term—of whether or nor rock lyrics qualify as poetry, I offer my students a simple but heartless test. Ask all the musicians to please leave the stage and take their instruments with them—yes, that goes for the backup singers in the tight satin dresses, and the drummer—and then have the lead singer stand alone by the microphone and read the lyrics from that piece of paper he is holding in his hand. What you will hear can leave only one impression: the lyrics in almost every case are not poetry, they are lyrics.”
for the full blog entry, go to One Poet's Notes.

Click here to visit Bob Dylan's website.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Al Hellus

A poet I met years ago (1994), Al Hellus, died last Friday, November 14, 2008. His obituary is in The Saginaw News today (November 16). Here it is in full:

Hellus, Al
Saginaw, Michigan

Passed away Friday November 14, 2008 following a lengthy illness. Age 50 years. Albert William Hellus was born September 11, 1958 in Saginaw to Donald E. and Beverly (Musser) Hellus. He was a member of Holy Family Catholic Church. Al was very involved in politics as a teenager and young adult. He was a longtime poet and member of the Plastic Haiku Band in the Saginaw area.

Surviving are his mother, Beverly Hellus of Saginaw, a brother, Daniel (DeeAnna) Hellus of Freeland, a sister, Erika (Ronald) Maxwell of Saginaw, four nieces and nephews, Dylan and Danessa Hellus, and Cameron and Terra Hayden; and many loving friends. Al was preceded in death by his father, Donald E. Hellus and his grandparents.

Funeral service will take place 5:30 PM Tuesday November 18, 2008 at the Reitz Herzberg Funeral Home on S. Midland Rd. (M47). Fr. Ronald Wagner will officiate. Friends and family are welcome to gather at the funeral home on Monday from 5-9 PM and on Tuesday from 10 AM until the time of service. Memorial offerings may be given to Emmaus House or the American Heart Association.

Saginaw resident Gina Myers remembers Al at her blog, I Was Born in Saginaw, Michigan.

I remember Al as a self-described Arts Activist. He often organized fundraisers to benefit non-profit agencies such as Emmaus House. He organized the Drainage Basin Artist's Alliance. He created the Rouse for Theodore Roethke which brought, in the course of ten years, on an annual basis poets such as Tess Gallagher and William Heyen to Saginaw. Prior to that he organized the poetry slams held in Old Town Saginaw at the Red Eye Coffee House. I met Richard Tillinghast, Keith Taylor, Ed Sanders and other poets in that venue. Al introduced me to many people including the River Junction Poets when he decided to help me record a video introduction to Theodore Roethke and his poetry. Al had chapbooks published by Mayapple Press and also by Ridgeway Press. His titles are listed at the
Michigan Poetry site. I'm sure Al is looking down on us from a better place. He is missed.

One of my favorite poems of Al's is his 'alternative baseball' poem. Here it is:

alternative baseball

the surrealists
take the field
& the crowd roars!

a right foot
flopping into
left field
with a glove
on its big toe

an assortment of
noses & teeth & eyeballs
& time pieces
blasting hot ones
across the infield

while the dugouts fill
with migrating salmon
& middle management executives

an inflated
fifty dollar bill
steps up to the plate
waving a Louisville Slugger
sprouting branches
& leaves & tiny fists --

it is enough
for a standing-O

and Magritte's head
rolls from the bleachers
laughing & shouting:
ARF ! ARF !"

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Recommended Reading for President-Elect Obama

Are you not aware? The Poetry Foundation contacted Charles Bernstein, Patricia Smith and Forrest Gander to ask them which poem they would each recommend for President-elect Barack Obama. You can listen to the podcast at the Poetry Foundation website.

Don't want to listen to the podcast? You can check out the recommended reading as follows:

Charles Bernstein (b. 1950) recommends "The Bomb" by Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987). The poem was published in 1962 and is online here.

Patricia Smith (b. 1955) recommends "For My People" by Margaret Walker (1914-1988). The poem was published in 1942 and is online here.

Forrest Gander (b. 1956) recommends "The Blaze of the Poui" by Mark McMorris. The poem was published in 2003 and you can buy the book from the University of Georgia Press.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Assorted Comments

You might want to get a cup of coffee before you start digging into this one. Like savoir faire, this one is all over the place. David Caddy wrote this and posted it at his blog.

The essay discusses the life and work of poet David Gascoyne (1916 – 2001).
Here is an excerpt:
[Gascoyne’s] concern is essentially with the boundaries and thresholds of consciousness, stemming from the discoveries of Freud, the surrealists, through the early existentialist movement, which Gascoyne splits into two separate groupings and sharply differentiates his perspective from that of Sartre’s, to Heidegger’s thinking on authenticity, being and time, to the frontiers of madness in Hölderlin and his novelist friend, Antonia White, and contemporary occult and magical practice. It is in the darkness of the last century that he set about trying to find some light, went mad, and recovered to re-read his past. After Judy Lewis rescued Gascoyne they married and he became part of the poetry reading circuit, reading to packed audiences at Cambridge, the Sorbonne and was later honoured by the French Government.
The essay looks at two poems in some detail:
Ecce Homo [excerpt]
by David Gascoyne

Whose is this horrifying face,
This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed,
Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun?
Whose are these hollow red-filmed eyes
And thorn-spiked head and spear-struck side?
Behold the Man : He is Man’s Son.

Forget the legend, tear the decent veil
That cowardice or interest devised
To make their mortal enemy a friend,
To hide the bitter truth all His wounds tell,
Lest the great scandal be no more disguised:
He is in agony till the world’s end,

And we must never sleep during that time!
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God. Here is the hill
Made ghastly by His spattered blood

Whereon He hangs and suffers still:
See, the centurions wear riding-boots,
Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,
Greet one another with raised-arm salutes;
They have cold eyes, unsmiling lips;
Yet these His brothers know not what they do.

The Gravel-pit Field
by David Gascoyne

Beside the stolid opaque flow
Of rain-gorged Thames; beneath a thin
Layer of early evening light
Which seems to drift, a ragged veil,
Upon the chilly March air’s tide:
Upwards in shallow shapeless tiers
A stretch of scurfy pock-marked waste
Sprawls laggardly its acres till
They touch a raw brick-villa’d rim.

Amidst this nondescript terrain
Haphazardly the gravel-pits’
Rough hewn rust-coloured hollows yawn,
Their steep declivities away
From the field-surface dropping down
Towards the depths below where rain-
Water in turbid pools stagnates
Like scraps of sky decaying in
The sockets of a dead man’s stare.

The shabby coat of coarse grass spread
Unevenly across the ruts
And humps of lumpy soil; the bits
Of stick and threads of straw; loose clumps
Of weeds with withered stalks and black
Tatters of leaf and scorched pods: all
These intertwined minutiae
Of Nature’s humblest growths persist
In their endurance here like rock.

As with untold intensity
On the far edge of being, where
Life’s last faint forms begin to lose
Name and identity and fade
Away into the Void, endures
The final thin triumphant flame
Of all that’s most despoiled and bare:
So these least stones, in the extreme
Of their abasement might appear

Like rare stones such as could have formed
A necklet worn by the dead queen
Of a great Pharaoh, in her tomb …
So each abandoned snail-shell strewn
Among these blotched dock-leaves might seem
In the pure ray shed by the loss
Of all man-measured value, like
Some priceless pearl-enamelled toy
Cushioned on green silk under glass.

And who in solitude like this
Can say the unclean mongrel’s bones
Which stick out, splintered, through the loose
Side of a gravel-pit, are not
The precious relics of some saint,
Perhaps miraculous? Or that
The lettering on this Woodbine-
Packet’s remains ought not to read:
Mene mene tekel upharsin?

Now a breeze gently breathes across
The wilderness’s cryptic face:
The meagre grasses scarcely stir;
But when some stranger gust sweeps past,
Seeming as though an unseen swarm
Of sea-birds had disturbed the air
With their strong wings’ wide stroke, a gleam
Of freshness hovers everywhere
About the field: and tall weeds shake,

Leaves wave their tiny flags to show
That the wind blown about the brow
Of this poor plot is nothing less
Than the great constant draught the speed
Of Earth’s gyrations makes in Space …
As I stand musing, overhead
The zenith’s stark light thrusts a ray
Down through dusk’s rolling vapours, casts
A last lucidity of day

Across the scene: and in a flash
Of insight I behold the field’s
Apotheosis: No man’s land
Between this world and the beyond,
Remote from men and yet more real
Than any human dwelling-place:
A tabernacle where one stands
As though within the empty space
Round which revolves the Sage’s Wheel.

Read the entire essay at David Caddy's blog. Go now.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Andy Christ Birthday Reading

On October 6, I turned 42. To mark the occasion I hosted an event at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Saginaw, Michigan. A few special friends celebrated with me and made it a delightful evening together. We had an informal reading of a few poems from my chapbook. The picture here was taken that night. There were two other men in our group who I met that night; they decided they didn't want to be in the picture. I enjoyed hearing their comments on my poems etc, and hearing them read my poems was a treat. They also bought and signed a birthday card to me. I thought the whole experience was delightful. I will keep that birthday card in a special place and not lose it.

We started at 7:15 or so, then decided to go together to a nearby Bennigan's. Jack asked our waiter if they had anything special for customers on their birthday, and the waiter said yes. I was subsequently treated to a huge warm brownie drizzled with fudge and served with two scoops of vanilla ice cream - compliments of Bennigan's. Fortunately the waiter included five spoons with the dessert, and everyone was able to partake of the savory treat. To top it off, the waiter returned with the manager and other wait staff to chant a birthday greeting to me while I was sitting at the table with everyone. Fun!

Monday, September 29, 2008

National Writing Project Research Finding

NWP 2008 Research Brief: Writing Project Professional Development for Teachers Yields Gains in Student Writing Achievement

Date: August 27, 2008

Summary: This Research Brief summarizes nine studies that examined the effects of NWP professional development programs on teacher practices and student writing achievement in schools and districts served by writing project sites. The results demonstrate positive effects on the writing achievement of students of writing project teachers across a range of grade levels, schools, and contexts.


In nine independent studies, in every measured attribute of writing, the improvement of students whose teachers participated in NWP professional development exceeded that of students whose teachers were not participants.
The studies took place in rural, urban, and suburban areas across the country and included students with diverse economic, language, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
Student results are strong and favorable in those aspects of writing for which the NWP is best known, such as development of ideas and organization.
Students in writing project classrooms made greater gains than their peers on writing conventions as well, suggesting that NWP professional development also helps teachers improve their students' basic skills.
The full four-page report is in a downloadable pdf file. Click here to go there now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jane Hirshfield

Recommended reading

The Writer's Chronicle
Poetry Beyond the Classroom
Jane Hirshfield
March/April 2003
In the late Winter/early Spring of 2003, The Writer's Chronicle published a wonderful essay by Jane Hirshfield. Please find it at the AWP site and enjoy a few minutes today with it.
Click to go to the www.poets.org citation of the poet. For a brief critical introduction to Ms. Hirshfield's poetry, including comments from the poet herself, go to the entry at The Poetry Foundation.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Remembering Reginald Shepherd

The following was posted by Edward Byrne at his Blogger blog on Friday, September 12, 2008. With his permission, I post it here now:

Yesterday, as news about the death of Reginald Shepherd spread from one literary blog to another, I spent some time revisiting his prose and poetry. When I began writing posts for “One Poet’s Notes,” I had hoped to maintain a certain degree of serious study of poetry and poetics, even while striving to write pieces readers might find engaging and entertaining. Reginald Shepherd was one of the authors of critical commentary and personal essays on a regular poetry blog whose contributions to literary discourse I admired greatly and hoped to complement with my own offerings. Indeed, an article I posted to “One Poet’s Notes” in June of 2007 about the apparent demise of Parnassus specifically cited Shepherd’s work and his presence on the Internet as one of the online critics whose blog usually contained interesting perspectives or intelligent perceptions, helping to fill “the gap created by the absence of Parnassus” and the loss of book review sections in newspapers across the country. Reginald Shepherd’s blog was among those I have bookmarked and to which I have subscribed for immediate updates. Each time I received notice at my Google Reader page of a new entry on his blog, I looked forward to reading his words. Since Shepherd also discussed every aspect of his life with honesty and openness, all of his readers were aware of this poet’s serious health problems, as well as the ongoing pain or difficult medical procedures he endured. In fact, he was so frank in confiding with his readers that I am tempted to refer to Shepherd by his first name as any friend might do. However, I never had an opportunity for the good fortune of personally meeting with him. A little more than two weeks ago, Reginald Shepherd wrote again of his continuing health battle, beginning his August 26 blog post as follows:
I am in the hospital for the fourth time in the past five months, this time for excruciating abdominal pain that turned out to be due to a partial bowel obstruction which has still not cleared up. I have had a tube down my throat and have been unable to eat for over a week. I spend most of my days trying to sleep through the pain and nausea.

In the course of the various tests to try to determine the cause of the obstruction, my surgeon found several large masses on my liver which, after a blood test and a liver biopsy, have turned out to be a fast-growing resurgence of my colon cancer. Thus I am in the hospital cancer ward for the foreseeable future, starting chemotherapy again (it had been on hold during my assorted medical crises of the past few months), before I have had time to fully recover from my recent illnesses and surgeries.
Nevertheless, Reginald Shepherd continued in the post to present a marvelous excerpt from an essay on the poetry of Alvin Feinman that had been published in his recent book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx, released just this year by the University of Michigan Press. Shepherd characterized his commentary in the blog post as his “final tribute to my recently deceased mentor Alvin Feinman.” Sadly, that was the last post on Shepherd’s blog, and I now include reference of it to recommend it as part of my final tribute to him. Reginald Shepherd was first and foremost a poet. Besides the blog entries or numerous essays he produced, Shepherd and his work might be better appreciated through reading his five books of poetry: Fata Morgana (2007); Otherhood (2003); Wrong (1999); Angel, Interrupted (1996); and Some Are Drowning (1994). As a sample of his poetry and an invitation to further seek his writings, in which his voice continues and evidence of his remarkable life remains, I provide the following example from Fata Morgana:

If this world were mine, the stereo
starts, but can’t begin
to finish the phrase. I might survive
it, someone could add, but that
someone’s not here. She’s crowned
with laurel leaves, the place
where laurel leaves would be
if there were leaves, she’s not
medieval Florence, not
Blanche of Castile. Late March
keeps marching in old weather,
another slick of snow to trip
and fall into, another bank
of inconvenient fact. The sky
is made of paper and white reigns,
shredded paper pools into her afterlife,
insurance claims and hospital reports,
bills stamped “Deceased,” sign here
and here, a blank space where she
would have been. My sister
said We’ll have to find another

And this is how
loss looks, my life in black plastic
garbage bags, a blue polyester suit
a size too small. Mud music
as they packed her in
damp ground, it’s always raining
somewhere, in New Jersey,
while everyone was thinking about
fried chicken and potato salad,
caramel cake and lemonade.
Isn’t that a pretty dress
they put her in? She looks so
(Tammi Terrell
collapsed in Marvin Gaye’s arms
onstage. For two hundred points,
what was the song?) Trampled
beneath the procession, her music.

Pieces of sleep like pieces of shale
crumble through my four a.m.
(a flutter of gray that could be
rain), unable to read this thing
that calls itself the present.
She’s lost among the spaces
inside letters, moth light, moth wind,
a crumpled poem in place of love.

—Reginald Shepherd

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Denise Duhamel

Poet Denise Duhamel answers a question from a reader once a month at the Facebook group 'Fans of Denise Duhamel OR A Group of Duhalamites'.

This entry comes from a series that was begun by Dustin Brookshire. Visit Dustin's blog to read more from that series.

Christan Cannella asks, "What is the role of pop culture in your poems?"

Denise answers:

This is a great question, Christan. When I started writing poetry, I never used much pop culture in my work. I thought I "couldn't." But then came a pivotal moment: I was taking an undergraduate workshop with Thomas Lux who was looking at a poem of mine with bar of soap in it. The poem was about a craft I did as a child in which I pushed colored push pins into bars of soap to make faces-- eyes, noses, and mouths, with ribbon curled and pinned in as hair. No one really got my poem because bars of soap are usually square (and non head-like) and I found myself defending my poem saying the soap I used was oval, Dove soap. Then Lux asked why didn't I indicated that in the poem, which would have even given the poem more metaphorical layers. Up until then I really hadn't thought of utilizing name brands in poetry. Suddenly the world came alive with all the ways in which product brands could become great adjectives or simple nouns: Tide, Nikes, Cocoa Cris pies, Lexus, Revlon, Eggos...Later I would use such words in my poems to indicated time frames, settings (Americana) and so on. But it wasn't until I started writing about Barbie, the doll, for a book called KINKY, that I truly started exploring the cultural significance of pop.

Using Barbie dolls as muses, I was able to write political satire. I felt that when I tried to write about issues of gender and race head on, seriously, I would often become didactic. Barbie helped me avoid that impulse. I was pulled into Barbie's world when I wrote a poem about20Miss America in which Barbie surprisingly made a cameo appearance. Miss Americas are--like store mannequins and the Columbia pictures' logo--anywhere from 20-30 pounds thinner now than they were in the late fifties. A while later, I wrote about poem about watching my nieces play with Barbie. I was both fascinated and threatened by the image of Barbie, one of the endless examples of unrealistic body images for woman. But slowly, like a child playing with the doll, I began to write in Barbie's personna--sympathetically, trying to get at the rage and fears beyond her bland plastic countenance. She was, for me, a perfect vehicle for feminist issues. She smiles even when she's being poked, set on fire, or having her limbs pulled off. She literally can't stand on her own two feet without toppling over. Yet Barbie seems to have her own income and a number of prestigious postgraduate degrees as she's been a pilot, a doctor, and an astronaut. She is both the ultimate victim as well as the ultimate pioneer of resourcefulness.

Barbie is full of contradictions and dualities. For example, her body, in all its curvaceousness, is actually quite phallic. Barbie's cre ator, the late Jack Ryan, was also a missile designer. In Lucinda Ebersole's and Richard Peabody's anthology MONDO BARBIE, the writer Sparrow's "Barbie: A Memoir" describes Barbie has having "that attenuated airline look--Barbie resembled a stewardess and an airplane." Erica Rand opens her book BARBIE'S QUEER ACCESSORIES with a graphic description of a lesbian pornography spread from a 1989 issue of On our Backs in which Barbie is used as a dildo. In a short Barbie memoir called "überdoll," Heidi Glenn describes her pre-teen friend's unorthodox use of Barbie--"Barbie didn't belong in there and at the same time I marveled at how her leg seemed to fit so perfectly in Elizabeth's pee-pee place." Barbie is, as what mothers knew back in the test markets of the late 50's, a grossly caricatured symbol of female sexuality. The Barbie doll has indeed become so sexualized that at Sierra Tucson, an Arizona substance abuse clinic, women in treatment for "sex addition" are required to lug around Barbies with them as a hideous reminder of their objectified sexual selves.