I read a big stack of poetry this summer and I wanted to talk about all of them but I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the stack. It's so big, actually, that themes stared to emerge. I decided to talk about two or three books at a time in what I’m calling poetry cocktails.
For over a decade I’ve had three women poets in my to-do stack, three women I've always confused with each other because the only thing I knew about them was that they were all commonly referenced by fellow female students at Sarah Lawrence College back in the 1990s. And if we were talking about Louise Glück, I’d always confuse her with Marilyn Hacker who I would always confuse with Maxine Kumin. I had the same face for all of them.
This month I decided to read three of their books and straighten myself out. And wow, these women couldn’t possibly be three more different as poets, women and thinkers. What a treat to unsort this knot.
As Glück’s professional, elegant photo sessions always show, she is beautiful, elegant, feminine and very New-York-City-smart looking. Daughter of the X-Acto knife inventor, she attended but did not graduate from both Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.
The poems in this book cover frustrated love, betrayal, and childhood. Her poems appear as parables, fables and idea-based lyrics on existence. Her love universe is passionate but frustrated, somewhat withheld. Possession of the earth reoccurs. She’s very direct.
From her poem “Solstice”
“Why should we be forced to remember:
it is in our blood, this knowledge.
Shortness of the days; darkness, coldness in winter.
It is in our blood and bones; it is in our history.
It takes a genius to forget these things.”
From the poem “Stars”
“Only (softly, fiercely)
the stars shining. Here,
in the room, the bedroom.
Saying I was brave, I resisted,
I set myself on fire."
Poem the poem “Memoir”
“And if when I wrote I said only a few words
it was because time always seemed to me short
as though it could only be stripped away
at any moment.”
When I looked up Marilyn Hacker, Amazon immediately compared her to Adrienne Rich, I guess because they are both iconic lesbian poets. But I feel I connect with Hacker much more. To me, she seems much more to the point, even if she is talking around the point. I’ve always found Rich to be somewhat impenetrable and obscure. Hacker is from another area of New York City than Glück is, the Bronx not Manhattan. She graduated from NYU and her parents were Jewish immigrants. I have a signed copy of her book, Winter Numbers, from 1994. I was at Sarah Lawrence College at that time so either she visited SLC or I attended one of her NYC readings.
I have to say this: I hated the format of the book (published by Norton). The top margins are too crowded and I felt the font size was too big. it felt claustrophobic. If you look at Hacker’s catalog of books with Norton on Google Images, you’ll see that the covers are all formatted the same way, like old MCA greatest hits albums of the 1970s.
Hacker, like Glück, tells fables and fairy tales, which was very popular (and effective) with second wave feminist writers, (see Anne Sexton’s famous “Cinderella” poem). Hacker also approaches her topics very directly with the plain-spoken language of a lived life.
From her poem “Against Elegies”
“For every partisan
there are a million gratuitous
deaths from hunger, all-American
mass murders, small wars,
the old diseases and the new.
Who dies well? The privilege
of asking doesn’t have to do with age.
For most of us
no question what our deaths, our lives, mean.
At the end, Catherine will know what she knew,
and James will, and Melvin,
and I, in no one’s stories, as we are.”
Her poems are full of great rhythms and she excels in writing interesting, unstuffy forms: pantoums, crowns of sonnets, (I love me some sonnet crowns!), villanelles, crowded couplets. In the 1990s, everyone on the East Coast seemed to be writing travel poems. I heard so many affected travel poems at Sarah Lawrence, I was inspired to spoof them, which was the early impetus for the Mars poems that became my Sarah Lawrence thesis and later book, Why Photographers Commit Suicide. Hacker could easily have been one of those poets. She includes many European travel poems in this book, (a series of “Street Scenes”), and also includes poems about her Jewish heritage and the Holocaust. The final long poem is about her experience with breast cancer, “Cancer Winter.”
“Groves of Academe” is a great poem about her students who don’t read poems.
Hacker's love poems also contain disappointment but less from a perspective of loneliness and reservation. “Letter to a wound” and “Letter on June 15” are great examples. In “Nearly a Valediction” she says:
“You happened to me. I was happened to
You were the weather in my neighborhood.
You were the epic in the episode.
You were the year poised on the equinox.”
Her poem’s titles are vaguely porous, academic and unfulfilled. The poems themselves are much more conversational than their stilted titles. This didn’t appear to be happening ironically.
My Maxine Kumin book, Looking for Luck, from 1992 was also inscribed so I must have seen her read too. This was the last book I read of the three and Kumin seemed to exist somewhere between Glück and Hacker. Kumin is also the daughter of Jewish parents like Hacker but attended Catholic grade school. She's a heterosexual poet but nontraditionally feminine like Glück. Kumin spent much of her career in New England and like Hacker, Kumin is deft in the use of forms.
Kumin’s poems offer much more of a tone of greatfulness than the other two. Her topics in this book cover farm critters including horses and rats, gardening and, yes, foreign travel poems, although hers are in Bangkok. In the bulk of the book Kumin takes on the vocabulary of the farm and its many jobs. She also talks about teaching poems to prisoners, nature and traveling across America.
In “Ars Poetica: A Found Poem” Kumin equates the nursing of a horse to the nursing of a poem, both by using indirection to get the job done.
In another poem about poetry, she says:
“The boggy hollow is dark and perilous,
Sometimes language impedes, sometimes it helps.”
In the poem “Hay” Kumin covers hay farming and milking cows.
“Allegiance to the land is tenderness.
The luck of two good cuttings in this climate.
Now clean down to the alders in the swale,
the fields begin an autumn flush of growth,
the steady work of setting roots, and then
as in a long exhale, go dormant.”
Like Hacker and Glück, her poems don’t finish off in a flourish of wisdom. She’s more practical than even those two lyric plain speakers.
The poem “On Visiting Flannery O’Connor’s Grave” deals with how unceremoniously O’Connor is treated at her grave site. “The Poet’s Garden” delineates a brief history of American Poetry. The poem “A Brief History of Passion” weaves the love story of her parents with romances happening simultaneously in literary history among D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Of the three books, I had only read the Kumin's previously and it contained marginalia written in very slight (and retrospectively annoying) pencil marks. Why did I underline what I underlined decades ago. What I chose to highlight recently never did match up to what I was connecting to back then. That marginalia writer seems a stranger to me now. But that stranger was in fact me. Do we even connect at all?
Just like the book Nine Gates (which I reviewed in 2014), I loved this book of Hirshfield essays although they were difficult. Did the book live up to its subtitle? Probably not but maybe it's a miracle the book had a subtitle at all considering the nebulous, ethereal subjects they explore. This book is not really for beginners; it’s strategy is so particular and pensive and one which requires good amounts of concentration.
Here is my take on what the essays cover and a quote from each section, although I don’t think cover is really the right word, more like "make exploratory expeditions into."
1. How a poem “sees”
“Poetry’s generative power, then, lies not in its ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ nor in any simple recording of something external to its own essence. It resides within the palace of its own world-embedded, intertwining existence.”
2. Poetic statement
“…the narrow alleyways of rhetoric, the differing fatigues of failure and success. There is no way of telling in advance what part of our knowledge will be needed at any given moment.”
3. An introduction to Basho
“Basho’s haiku describe and feel, think and debate. They test ideas against the realities of observation; they renovate, expand and intensify both experience and the range of language.”
4. The idea of the hidden in poetry
“The union, like all metaphor, brings revelation and addition, while it also covers, complicates, veils.”
5. Poetry and uncertainty
“For those willing to let themselves feel it, any story leaves behind an uneasiness, sometimes at the center, other times at the edge of perception, and like the remainder left over in a problem in long division, it must be carried. Literature’s work, and particularly poetry’s, is in part to take up that residue and remnant, to find a way to live amid and alongside the uncertain.”
6. Windows in poems
“…a window can coincide with the poem’s emotional center of gravity and pivot.”
7. Poetry and surprise
“Cognitive and creative discoveries are made in the same way as much of biological life is: by acts of generative recombination. Disparate elements are brought together to see if they might make a viable new whole.”
8. What is American in Modern American Poetry
“…there is the migrant traveler’s perennial hunger and search for what can be made known, made home, that leads American poets, more often than not, toward the respite and sustenance of the local and radiant detail.”
9. Words’ transformative power
“Beauty unbuckles pain’s armoring. Unexpected startlement unfastens the psyche’s fortifications.”
10. Poetry and Paradox
“Art makes open cases, not closed ones.”
The Poetry Foundations magazine, American Poets, included a great essay by Natalie Diaz in the most recent, Fall/Winter 2015, issue. Recently, they published this same essay in their online newsletter.
Ostensibly, the essay introduces some contemporary American Indian poets you may not know, including Ofelia Zepeda, Michael Wasson, Margaret Noodin, Joan Naviyuk Kane, and Sherwin Bitsui. In the online version, be sure to visit their poems below the essay and to use the right-side arrows to scroll through the subsequent poets.
But before introducing these poets, Diaz addresses two issues important to her, the first being the state of American Indian languages. Diaz has spoken on a few occasions regarding her efforts as a language learner in the Mojave Language Recovery Project.
Sherman Alexie, (a Spokane poet I recently discovered in the CNM traveling library and blogged about this year), also speaks out frequently on preservation of the many endangered American Indian languages.
I love that this issue is getting prominent attention in American Poets. All Americans should care about preserving the continent's languages as much as an Irishman would care about preserving Celtic. As a lover of words, I fantasize there will someday be an American Institute of Languages, a college dedicated to funding the preservation of all American languages.
In a Great Courses class I’m currently taking taught by Anne Curzan, (The Secret Life of Words, a class I would highly recommend for word nerds), I just learned that Anne Curzan, Sherman Alexie and Maxine Hong Kingston are all members of the American Heritage Dictionary word usage panel. And I love to imagine a multi-cultural, multi-lingual group of wordsmiths debating the evolution of English, which has now become the first truly global language but one historically full of borrowed words, including plenty of American Indian words.
And if I wish for something short of a severe French Academy, I believe we desperately need something more than dictionary panels. We need something putting power and money behind the study of the plethora of American languages and language hybrids.
My fantasy of such a college was ignited again in the summer of 2014 when I visited the somewhat abandoned-looking Stewart Indian School in Stewart, Nevada, where my grandfather was once superintendent in the late 1950s and where my father lived when he was in high school (he drove the school bus). This school, like many Indian boarding schools, has a controversial heritage.
As a side note, when I was the interim faculty secretary at the Institute for American Indian arts I read the novel by the fiction instructor there Evelina Lucero, Night Sky, Morning Star which took place at the Steweart Indian School. From talking to her about it, we discovered she grew up in the very same house my father had lived in, the same location where my parents were married.
I couldn’t help but believe that if this beautiful stone campus resided on the East Coast it would have a huge endowment and be named a historical location and be still operating. According to the school’s website, there are "earthquake safety issues with the masonry buildings." Could this be fixed? I don’t know. Admittedly, part of the reason this is my fantasy location for an American languages school is personal. But part of my dream is politi-practical: why won’t some nationalist, rich white billionaire invest in the preservation of American languages?
And if my fantasy finds another historic location and can continue, I see Anne, Maxine, Sherman and Natalie all there teaching, working and collaborating about preserving and observing the progress of American’s languages, particularly ones we are in danger of losing.
But then Diaz’s essay changes course and starts to discuss her connotation of the word "performance" and how it is used to describe poets giving readings, particularly American Indian poets giving readings and how prescribing performance to Indian American readings can be offensive. Here is where I find I can’t agree with her assumptions about the word.
Here’s what she says in particular:
“On many occasions, after readings at which I am the only native reader in the lineup, and especially if I am the only person of color in the lineup, the things said to me are different from those said to my nonnative colleagues. The most common response I hear directed toward my colleagues is, “Good reading,” whereas I am told, “That was a good performance.” Performance, of course, is a loaded word for many reasons, not the least of which is the association the word has with the red- and blackface depictions presented in our culture as recently as the new Adam Sandler movie, scheduled for release in December. It is as if, for certain audience members, my identity as a native person overpowers my identity as a writer. While my nonnative, white colleagues are heard and even critiqued as writers who employ skill to craft a poem and deliver it to an audience, it’s as if I am looked at as having relied on some innate part of my native identity. In certain eyes, I didn’t toil over my poem, I simply performed my nativeness.
Native poets also encounter this perception when they incorporate native language into their poems. Rather than its presence being understood as a craft choice, a language choice, a verb choice—it is all of these things and so much more—it is perceived as something less than craft and expertise. Poems that employ native language are often viewed by the academy, or audience members educated by the academy, as something more along the lines of folk art, something that has arisen out of that still “wild,” “uneducated,” “naked” part of us that hasn’t fully assimilated.
We are often regarded as dead people frozen in museum time—our languages, too, are interpreted and misunderstood as something ancient and not alive, something primitive and therefore undeveloped, therefore lesser."
I have to say I have seen Natalie Diaz read and her book is one of my favorites of the last five years. I blogged about it in 2012. And I have to admit, after reading this essay I raced back to my review to see if I referred to her reading as a performance. Thank God I didn’t but I honestly might have.
I do agree with Diaz that American Indians are often regarded as nonexistent, not only themselves, but their culture and languages. They are regarded as living museum exhibits or like “people that time forgot” especially in locations where there are few to none among the population, such as in St. Louis, Missouri, where I grew up. Not to say I was an expert, but because were were from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and because my father grew up on reservations in Arizona, I knew more about the reality of American Indian history and current culture than my friends and teachers did.
However, I’m not Indian. I can't speak to how it feels to hear the word performance. But I can speak to why it is that Diaz gets invited to more cultural and anthropology classes than poetry classes. This is a symptom of one culture’s flawed attempt to fix its first problem, the base ignorance. It’s also a symptom of the poetry problem, the fact of poetry’s devalued status in anglo-American culture.
I would also argue that there is a bit of anthropology in all poetry, just as there is a bit of philosophy, science and spirituality. Eons from now, all poets of America will be mined for anthropological purposes. I support science's exploitation of poetry. It’s just awkward that American Indians are being treated as if they’re already left the building, treated like souls from a lost time. But the political reality is that in many areas of America, they are.
What to do about this? All ways forward seem wrong. Proceeding to educate Americans about the realities of American Indian experience will be frustrating.
I just don’t agree that much of this hinges on the word performance or that the use of the word is even subconsciously intended to be derogatory. And I think that here is where many misunderstandings occur around word connotations between cultures.
Some poets read, some poets perform. Joy Harjo read her poems in this video (and performs her saxophone); she performed her show at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light.
Poetry slam poets perform, even when they appear to be reading. Academic poets tend to read. I think Natalie Diaz performs; she takes it up a notch.
Part of my connotations of the words reading and performing have to do with my ideas of theatricality and my theatrical husband, Monsieur Big Bang's, critiques of poetry readings I’ve taken him to. He always notes the difference between a reader and a performer and this never maps to anything cultural, other that the poetry culture or theatrical culture. Sometimes people read when they should perform; somethings they perform when they need to read.
One of the best poet performers I’ve ever seen was at a poetry panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books back in 2006. I’ve tried to research online to figure out who that poet was. Back then I was sadly uneducated about my poets. I can tell you this: he was an old, white guy.
Here were the two poetry panels of that year (I remember hating their lame, ambiguous titles).
Poetry: Seasons in Verse
Moderator Mr. Douglas Messerli
Ms. Eloise Klein Healy
Ms. Alice Quinn
Ms. Kay Ryan
Mr. Timothy Steele
Distilling Reality: The Poet’s Craft
Moderator Ms. Dana Goodyear
Ms. Gail Mazur
Ms. Marilyn Nelson
Mr. Donald Revell
Ms. Amy Uyematsu
So there were only two white men on these panels (I'm sure it wasn’t the moderator): Timothy Steele and Donald Revell. Monsieur Big Bang thinks it was Donald Revell based on the sound of his voice. But that was almost 10 years ago; how could you remember that?
Here the thing: Jack Gilbert was at the festival too, winning an award. I think Jack made a surprise visit to one of these panels and he’s the unforgettable performer we witnessed. Why? Because I feel like I recognize his name and in online videos I see that he leans forward on his elbows when he reads and he looks like an old pirate. Monsieur Big Bang says the guy looked like an old pirate (see right).
He was the best poetry performer because he memorized his poems, he leaned forward with his elbows on the table stared right out at all of us in the audience as he recited from memory the entire poems. It was unforgettable, the true difference between a reading and a performance.
Memorization: it stinks but is effective.
If it was indeed Jack Gilbert, I should pinch myself that I was able to see even a mini-Jack-Gilbert performance. Such as LA Times Book Fest technology went, there’s probably only a cassette tape somewhere that documented the event and long boxed-away in an un-locatable archive. I didn’t even know who he was back then! Incredible! Now I can’t even afford his Collected Poems used on Amazon.
Here is Donald Revell (right) who does make some serious eye contact.
Anyway, reading and performance—there is a difference. Diaz may get called a performer by some other Anglo by virtue of the fact she is labeled “Indian” but this Anglo insists on calling her a performer because she’s better than a reader, not less than one.
To further cause problems, I think a similar connotation problem is happening around the word costume. White culture consistently uses costume to describe traditional American Indian clothing, religious or not. And this consistently offends. Some of this may be willful ignorance, some may use the word dismissively; but often I find the user doesn’t have a good word to substitute for costume. Sure, on Project Runway costume designers (think Bob Mackie) are thought less of than the haute couture designers, but most Americans would are at a loss to name categorize various articles of clothing. I heard Anglos often refering to nun’s habits and the Pope’s robes as costumes too. I don't doubt that some of Diaz’s Anglo fans describe her reading style as drum-like or chant-like, but I see this as coming more from an inability to articulate how they are experiencing her reading in more productive ways. They might hear phantom hip-hop sounds from African American poets or misread British poets as being more refined than they actually are due to stereotypes about British accents. As Oprah says, "when you know better, you do better."
Language is notoriously imperfect when bridging the divide of cultures. I hope someday Natalie Diaz can be found teaching a class about it at The College of North American Languages.
These days there is great pressure for websites to be mobile compliant and have good SEO or search engine optimization. This means content should be organized effectively with key words and headers in order for search engines to properly "spider" and catalog them in search engine results.
The Internet's a big place. You need to be found.
Sites that can be viewed easily on desktops and mobile devises are called "responsive" and Google is now ranking those sites higher than ones that don't display as well for mobile users. I am now in the process of converting my website into mobile friendly templates.
Many writers debate whether or not they should mount separate sites for each of their books. The benefit of this is to attract readers by subject areas. The more your website is dedicated to one subject area, the more likely that page will be found in search results from readers looking for information on your topic.
However, I find this amount of work full of headaches, and headaches that won't even scale. In other words, can you really maintain 30 websites if you end up publishing 30 books? Do you only maintain sites for new books? It can get messy.
If there's a publisher willing to develop, host and maintain your book sites for you, swell! Go for it. It can't hurt. I'm just not convinced from the marketing data that readers are using book sites to buy books, even Harry Potter books, whose fans probably have the most expensive and elaborate book sites on the planet.
All author sites are a work in progress. Try some of these suggestions. Try something experimental. But keep tinkering and try to measure the results.
There are two components involved in creating an author website:
I’m going to skip the technical launch. This can be very easy (a free Word Press site) or very involved (paying a web designer to launch your site). What you choose will depend upon your finances and your willingness to do-it-yourself. There are copious resources online and in bookstores for learning how to create and launch a website.
But what kinds of information should you provide? Here is a list of content buckets you might want to include on your site.
The Home Page should include nice visuals of your book or books. You can provide separate pages for each book or include them all on the home page. You can include your biography here or create a dedicated page for that. Whatever you do, keep the navigation on the page short and simple. Include:
Keep the tone and visuals geared to your audience or genre.
You should provide book details including the following:
Your biography should connect directly to your books and what you write about. Don’t include biographical details unrelated to your books unless they are really outstanding or intriguing. Don’t list all your other hobbies and interests.
You should provide media sell sheets for each book and links or copies of full reviews.
To read more information advice on creating author websites,visit:
The literary magazine Ploughshares recently published a piece about the British poetry movement Martianism, the "playful blend of metaphor and misapprehension, employed to bring the familiar into sharp relief...invoking the ordinary with an otherworldly air."
"Martianism rejected [the] austere interpretation of both life beyond and lived reality, drawing instead on the traditions of surrealism and Anglo-Saxon riddles to approach the unknown as an invitation for possibility."
British poets involved in the movement included Craig Raine, Christopher Reid, and David Sweetman.
For more discussion on the emotional aspects of Mars exploration, check out Why Photographers Commit Suicide, poems about manifest destiny as it has continued, in our own reality, beyond the continents of Earth. Much of the material, based on Michael Collins' 1990 Mission to Mars, moves farther into areas of loneliness, relentless advertising and broadcasting, human legacy, and life without our non-human relatives.
Earlier this year I did a piece on Vanessa Place's political twitter project, talking about the pitfalls of confronting racism in America with art pieces.
Since then, I've come across more stories about art pieces dealing with racism that have bombed miserably:
- Kenneth Goldsmith attempting to read the autopsy of Michael Brown, one of the past year's victims of police violence.
It was the effigy story that changed my mind about the issue. In that article you will see elaboration on why these art pieces have continually been read as offensive and not thought-provoking. In the effigy case, the collective artists were black. They describe themselves as "queer black and PoC" (people of color).
So, even when the artists were black, the same results are happening. The article on the effigy was educational: it seems when there is no clear meaning of intent, offense always trumps the message (for lack of a clear message). Intent, when obscured, is highly disrupted:
"the effigies' powerful message was muted, if not canceled out, by the unclear intent. 'The relief does not negate the initial trauma,' said the Rev. Michael Bride."
..."What would have happened, he asked, "if swastikas started popping up everywhere and were intended to be a teachable tool to remind people about the Holocaust but no one was there to associate them with the lesson?"
Before, I've tended to sympathize with the misunderstood protesters. You have to engage with art before you condemn it. If you're not going to read the piece fully, you surrender the strength of your own position.
But when you are dealing abstract artists who deal in statements, by definition, that are without context, the pieces cannot be read fully. And this is why they appear racist.
Similarly, this was one of the recent complaints about pink-ifying everything for breast cancer. In this recent story about the pink balloons flying in downtown New York City, the objects are meant to symbolize exercise and diet in fighting breast cancer but there is no signage connecting the symbol to the idea.
"Outside the New York Sports Club on West 41st Street in Manhattan, pink and white crepe paper wraps the poles propping up a scaffold to protect pedestrians from construction debris. Tied to the poles are pink and white balloons and pink crepe paper flowers. Although there is no sign saying so, the decorations are to make women aware that exercise and diet can reduce their risk for breast cancer, said Lisa Hufcut, public relations director for Town Sports International, the parent company. And to make them aware of the importance of mammograms, she added."
Talk about a message getting lost in the design. This is the, unfortunately, one of the problems abstract art gestures (and pieces signifying informational disconnect) have left us with.
In new collection, Marin poet Kay Ryan contemplates nuances of loss (San Francisco Chronicle)
Massachusetts historians digging for poet’s lost house (WWLP local news)
This Poet Nails Why 'All Lives Matter' Will Always Be A Horrible Argument (Huffington Post)
This is an awesome example of the practical and political influence of poets in our own times Poets are able, through their abilities with rhetoric, to explain and comment more precisely on complicated cultural issues and conflicts.
Ode to Whataburger by Amir Safi goes viral (The Houston Chronicle)
Over the last few weeks, one of the LinkedIn poetry groups has been discussing "which poet has had the most influence on you." After the first 23 days, 128 people had responded and most couldn’t keep it to just one poet who inspired them.
When I noticed that the majority of the influences were dead, (and many long dead at that), I decided to categorize all the responses. Here’s what I found:
If I’m being totally honest, I’d have to list Sonny Bono's influence in Cher songs as well. Thousands of listening hours later, some of that shit had to have seeped in!
One thing lacking in most writing workshops is a few minutes taken at the beginning to discuss workshop etiquette and basic expectations. A few months ago, I polled my fellow Sarah Lawrence MFA workshop compatriots, (Ann, Murph and Joann), and my cousin Gretchen, a writing teacher in Alaska, for their advice on writing workshopping.
More recently, Jane Friedman posted an interesting piece on the four dangers of writing groups. And although we did not discuss bad craft habits gained from and critiquing ineptitude found in writing workshops, we did talk a lot about basic etiquette:
Ann sent along this Buzzfeed satire of Jane Austen receiving feedback in an MFA program.
Poets with Sexy Hair