On Poetry

Performance Anxiety: When Poets Read Aloud

American poetry has performance issues. If you go to a lot of poetry readings, you know well the feeling I’m about to describe: you’re feeling good, beer and/ or notebook in hand, when a poet, acclaimed or with just a handful of poems in the world, takes the stage. As the poet approaches the mic, you brace yourself: this could go one of two ways. The poet’s voice could embrace you warmly, like that of a singer, or you could spend the next hour listening to a drone with a slight uptick at the end of each line. The poet could make conversational eye contact with the audience, as poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Forrest Gander, and Toi Derricotte do; or she could never look up from the podium. Why do some poets perform as though they had just come to in a bad dream? Sometimes, because they are amateurs, high school or new MFA students; but just as often, standoffishness about performance comes from experienced writers whose work glows on the page, but whose words just can’t seem to survive the trip from Garamond to the tip of the poet’s tongue. Meanwhile, the other American poetry – the stage-centered continuum that runs from slam to rap and back again – whose lifeblood is making poems sound and feel good out loud, has taken a long time to get a break. In 2000 in the Paris Review, Harold Bloom provided what seemed to be the official "establishment" (some would say “old white dude”) verdict on slam poetry: “I can’t bear these accounts I hear…of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-night spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other…This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.” Okay, Harold. But it’s been almost thirty years since the first slam was organized in a working-class pub in Chicago, and since Miguel Algarín made poetry-out-loud one of the pillars of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Slam has now been part of the nation’s poetry vocabulary for long enough to deserve to move out of its parents’ basement and pay its own rent. It’s made publishing careers and recording contracts, and even Broadway stars. Saul Williams, arguably the biggest star of slam’s first generation, is now playing a Tupac Shakur-inspired character on Broadway in “Holler if Ya Hear Me.” The choice of Williams for the role draws a direct line between slam and rap, the closest the average American gets to poetry by turning on the radio. But perhaps most importantly, slam’s near-middle-age means that many young poets – including some now rising to poetry’s version of rock-star status – have grown up in it. Poets who cut their teeth on slam make up the ranks of some of America’s finest emerging and mid-career poets, and have won not only national slam accolades but hallmarks of success associated with poetry print culture: admission to top MFA programs, book publication from leading small presses, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, the Whiting Award, and more. As these poets have developed a new kind of poetry career, where a packed performance tour can predate a first-book publication by years, the line Bloom so firmly drew in the sand has been eroding. Other, less hidebound critics have taken note: Dana Gioia, in his 2004 essay “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture,” saw that slam and spoken word were inspiring a new poetry audience, one that circumvented the academy and New York publishing houses. Susan Somers Willett, in The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, notes that slam has, since its inception, put critical power directly into the hands of the audience, making slam attendees feel that they, not the editors of book reviews, are cultural tastemakers and determiners of authenticity. As poets with performance backgrounds rise through the ranks of poetry print culture, American poetry appears caught between a fear of performance and a celebration of it. As these page + stage poets become more prominent in universities, journals, and reading series, are they helping to renew conversations about performance as an aspect of making poems? The thing about the page, as we’ve known since Gutenberg, is that it reaches more people, even if “more” is only a couple thousand. Or in the words of Aaron Samuels, himself a young poet who straddles the worlds of performance and print, “the great thing about print is that you don’t have to be there.” But despite that reach, poetry readings have been essential to building poets’ readerships since the fifties. To disdain them is to shoot yourself in the foot. Jamaal May, a Detroit poet with deep roots in the slam scene there, is among those who have started the campaign to make “page” poets better performers. Before the publication of his first book, Hum, he wrote a blog post for Poets & Writers called “On Giving a Not Terrible Reading.” “Writers tell me they don’t want to perform or be seen as performative,” he writes, but “I would argue that an overly dry, disengaged reading is in fact a performance. No one speaks that way.” With this criticism, May hit on the irony that underlies so many tepid readings by “page” poets: poets may fear that an engaged, even dramatic performance may come off as inauthentic; but as with wooden acting, not allowing the poem’s elements to guide a reading of it can seem far more false than reading with passion. Slam poets have typically not shied away from associations with the theatrical, maybe because slam is more likely to embrace genres, like persona, that lend themselves to character-building. Airea Matthews, a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan and a two-time finalist in the Women of the World poetry slam, is often drawn to persona in both her performance work and her work on the page. Persona and the drama it engenders on paper or on stage, she believes, is mostly about empathy, including “the grand acknowledgment of all you don’t and can’t know.” It’s hard to accuse performance with that sentiment at its core of being false. Susan Somers-Willett suggests that some poets’ fear of inauthenticity may stem in part from white poets and audiences seeing blackness as the most authentic expression of identity. Somers-Willett tracks white poets’ consumption and imitation of black art from minstrelsy to the Beats. These movements, she writes, provide a precedent for the audiences at poetry slams, who are predominantly white while the winners of major slam competitions are predominantly black. Because many slam poets deal directly with themes of social injustice, “…the slam may serve as a rare opportunity for liberal, white, middle-class audiences to legitimately support poets of color who critique white positions of privilege.” Poets who feel their privilege sharply may balk at the use of performance elements they associate with such critiques. Is the opposite true – do poets who came up in performance communities shy away from line and form? There are certainly slam poets who disdain print, but the poets I spoke to for this article – all of them with successful print ventures as well as long experience in and love for slam – said that a poem’s “page” elements are just as important as aspects of performance. For some, performance came first, but that doesn’t mean that performance is an end for every poem. Aaron Samuels, whose first book Yarmulkes and Fitted Caps came out last fall, says that when he sits down to write, “I often don’t know what the best way is for a poem to reach the world. And I think it’s important for me not to know that.” Poets who don’t make use of performance, he suggests, may not feel comfortable with what the experience of being on stage has to offer. “When you’re a high school English student, you know that alliteration is an option,” Samuels offers. “If you grow up with a performance background, you know that that’s something you can do.” Poets with May’s, Samuels’s, and Matthews’s backgrounds are positioning themselves as bridges between “the two cultures” of American poetry. But don’t call them “crossovers” – rather than leaving performance behind, they are helping to build a poetry audience that craves both excellence on the page and a vibrant performance behind the mic. “Page Meets Stage,” a Manhattan reading series run by slam poet Taylor Mali pairs Pulitzer Prize winners with National Slam champions. The series’ success suggests that the audience is there: slam and “literary” listeners alike want to celebrate, and even blend, both traditions, rather than rank one above the other. And poets comfortable with both are aware of the potential for groundbreaking work. While promoting Hum, Jamaal May made a poetry video of himself reading/reciting his poem “I Do Have a Seam.” The poem is a contrapuntal, which means it appears in two columns and can be read three ways: the first column alone, the second alone, or by connecting the two. In between the two columns, naturally, is a seam of space. The video opens with a shot of the left column, folded along its seam, black ink on white paper. Later, we see its right half, white ink on black. By lingering on the text, May calls attention to the form of the poem as it can only be seen on the page, with all three performance possibilities presented simultaneously to the reader. But he also makes his performance of the work essential, moving a hand across his mouth, closing his eyes. At one point, he quietly doubles his voice. What kind of poet does May want to be? Steeped in the familial community of Detroit slam, May is now finding the kind of success most poets in MFA programs dream of: university and writing conference fellowships, major literary prizes. But the video for “I Do Have a Seam,” tellingly, doesn’t choose sides. Instead, in keeping with many stage + page poets’ philosophies of composition, May’s work insists on being the thread that binds performance, with its potential for heightened sonic and dramatic effects, and the quieter, more visual work of the page. Is this inter-weaving of genres, this promising poetry Frankenstein, actually changing the way students and teachers approach poetry and its performance? The litmus test, as usual, is high school and undergraduate students. Keith Taylor, director of the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan, has watched both slam and “literary” poetry rise and fall in popularity. Once, he recalls, young poets talked of “Page vs. Stage,” clearly privileging “page” as the more serious. Now, he says, “it is clearly Stage AND Page. And some of them are making it clear that you can have your cake and eat it too… They are also imagining their poems as different things – poems for performance and poems for print. Two very different kinds of composition.” But fervent supporters of performance, Taylor says, can sometimes alienate the young writers who come to poetry more quietly and bookishly. If beginning writers start to perceive poetry as being only for performance, Taylor fears, this will scare off some great talent. But if we’re lucky, poets like May, Samuels, Matthews, and others will  continue to help both slam communities and university writing programs occupy that middle space – that seam, that delicious gutter where poets use not just our voices or our hands, but all of our tools. When their work is done, I can’t say there will be no more terrible readings; but there might be a great many better ones. Image via sanfinix/Flickr
On Poetry

Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline: The New Jersey Poems of Timothy Walsh

Behold the magisterial front end of the 1954 Buick: the toothy chrome grill, the sharply tipped mammiferous bulbs of the “Dagmar” bumper, the “bombsight” hood ornament, the tear-drop headlights, all of it wrapped in luscious lipstick-red sheet metal. This rolling work of art serves as proof, if any were still needed, that they don’t make cars like they used to. It has also served as the muse for all the fiction I have written, providing a way for me to travel, in comfort and at speed, into my chosen theme: the hollow promises of the American Dream in the years following the Second World War. Many people under the age of 40 have trouble believing it, but there was a 30-year period, from roughly the mid-1940’s until the mid-1970’s, when the United States of America truly had it going on. The economy was robust, the middle class was thriving, cars were big and fast and flashy and fun, and infectious pop music kept pouring out of Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Motown, and countless points in between. It didn’t last, of course. It couldn’t possibly last. The buzz kill '70s brought Arab oil embargoes, military defeat in Vietnam, the trauma of Watergate, and the simultaneous decline of Detroit and rise of the Japanese auto industry. And then, to seal the deal, along came disco, followed by Ronald Reagan and the long, systematic dismantling of the American middle class. Those of us who lived through the so-called golden years of the so-called American Century tend to edit out certain inconvenient subtexts. There was the ever-present dread of nuclear annihilation; and if you happened to be a person of color, female, poor, or gay, there was (and still is) a good chance you were not enjoying a full share of the bounty. America’s swagger, it turns out, was built on flimsy hubris, a blinkered parochialism, and major inequalities. Oh, and cheap oil. Yet there is no denying that something magical happened in America in the three decades after the Second World War, and it’s not surprising that writers continue to mine those years not only for their exuberant hardware, but also as a measure of just how much the world has changed. Almost always, that’s a way of saying just how much we’ve lost. Timothy Walsh is the latest writer to revisit those expansive, metaphor-rich boom years. His third book of poetry is called When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive, an automotive metaphor that establishes Walsh’s attachment to a time before today’s de-sexed, front-wheel drive, fuel-efficient hybrid cars, which is to say a time before our globalized economy and its computers and ruthless efficiency and digitized everything. The book’s subtitle is New Jersey Poems, and while there is a strong sense of place -- the Jersey suburbs and shore, the looming allure of nearby New York City, that “oversize Oz” -- the subtitle could also have been Rust Belt Poems, for these poems will resonate with anyone who lived in America’s industrial cities at their peaks, places like Newark and Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit, places that suffered horrifically when America shed its rear-wheel drive past and American industry moved overseas, taking a way of life with it. Walsh -- a white, Catholic, middle-class baby boomer -- beautifully captures what it was like to come of age in that vanished world. It was a world of ice cream trucks, Halloween pranks, jobs delivering newspapers, and pumping gas, eventually moving on to the adolescent world of girls and garage bands, motorcycles and muscle cars. This sounds more Mayberry than it reads on the page. Walsh deftly renders a world on the cusp -- it’s both palpable and in the process of vanishing. He captures what Elizabeth Spencer captured in her 1960 novella The Light in the Piazza -- “America’s midcentury moment of confidence,” in the words of Michael Gorra, “the confidence of people who thought, however briefly, that they could do anything.” A sense of the imminent, inevitable loss of this confidence is at the core of these poems, and it comes through most viscerally when people are in cars. Here’s a memory of riding in a Buick Wildcat: What I remember most were those butterfly windows, those hinged triangles of glass that angle outward so you could ride with the windows wide open and not get blasted by road wind. Butterfly windows – gone the way of telephone booths, transistor radios, and fountain pens. Now we drive, hermetically sealed in sleek, air-conditioned cars, engines silent as stealth, traveling through the world like something preserved in glass jars, shutting out the sounds and smells of summer – the drone of cicadas and lawnmowers, the musk of new-mown grass. I also hear echoes of Philip Levine, the great poet of my hometown, Detroit, who captured the drudgery, terror, and occasional beauty of factory work in such books as Not This Pig and What Work Is. Here is Walsh’s description of working at a gas station: When the big tanker trucks rumbled in, dropped their load of gas into the underground tanks, someone had to climb up with a flashlight to check that the truck was actually empty. Peering into the truck’s gaping belly, gasoline vapors swirling, a voluptuous fog, the polished steel innards gleaming like a gun-metal dawn, it never didn’t occur to you that one spark – one errant static discharge – and you were history – blown to smithereens, your molecules and atoms salting the woods, raining down on the river. There is humor here, too, including a poem called “Slingshot in the Confessional,” which goes a long way toward explaining why Catholics tend to be among the most imaginative and inveterate sinners: Kneeling in the dark confessional, speaking through the screen, the dark shadow-shape of the priest lurking, you’d recite your litany of minor disobediences, curse words, lies, and fights, the squirt gun or slingshot in your pocket equally contrite. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the priest would conclude, sending you forth into the world cleansed and refreshed, ready to embark on another round of transgressions. In his memoir called Downtown, Pete Hamill gives voice to a nostalgia much like Walsh’s, but filtered through the eyes of immigrants, including his Irish-born parents. Hamill defines this nostalgia as “an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.” Hamill’s parents lost the world of the Old Country; Walsh and his post-war New Jersey clan lost an equally vibrant world. Hamill writes: Every immigrant knew what Africans had learned in the age of slavery: that there was a world that was once there in the most intimate way and was now gone. Part of the past. Beyond retrieval. On the deepest level, it didn’t matter whether you had that past taken from you, as had happened to the Africans, of whether you had decided personally to leave it behind. At a certain hour of the night, the vanished past could be vividly alive. When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive is that certain hour of the night. It understands that loss is imminent and inevitable, and that the things we have lost are beyond retrieval. That’s what makes it so painful, and so lovely.
On Poetry, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Liner Notes: A Poetry Playlist

“Elected silence, sing to me / And beat upon my whorlèd ear, / Pipe me to pastures still and be / The music that I care to hear.” In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Habit of Perfection,” that “elected silence” becomes spiritual song. A Jesuit whose entire canon reveals the tension between artist and priest, between temptation and temperance, Hopkins found that silence could sing. In “Listening for Silence,” Mark Slouka considers the ubiquity of sounds, how “we’ve grown adept...at blocking them out with sounds of our own, at forcing a privacy where none exists.” He quotes Henry David Thoreau’s soft words of contemplation -- “I love a wide margin to my life” -- before admitting his own fear of a perfect silence. And yet “if silence is the enemy of art, it is also its motivation and medium: the greatest works not only draw on silence for inspiration but use it, flirt with it, turn it, for a time, against itself.” Tucked away in a quiet room or hunched in a hushed library, writers crave silence. Silence is an escape from daily noise, from frustrations and obligations and distractions. Silence might equal solitude, a residency of the mind, but often silence is analogous to the sense of control needed for writers to create and craft. These are romantic conceptions of art, but in both practical and creative senses, writers must discover conditions that support focus and production. For poet Catherine Pierce, silence reigns: “I don’t -- can’t -- listen to any kind of music while writing. I learned long ago that when I listen to music, not only am I unable to focus on language in the way I need to, but -- even worse! -- I also tend to get a false sense of the work’s quality. If I’m listening to Tom Waits, I think I’m writing a tough, gutted, whiskey-soaked poem; if I’m listening to Joni Mitchell, I think I’m doing something elegant, sad, and strange. Then I read the poems sans soundtrack and am sorely disappointed. I first learned this lesson in high school, when, in full-on angst mode, I churned out what I was pretty sure was a genius short story while listening to the Violent Femmes. When I read the story the next day in the quiet of my bedroom, I recognized that the story was plotless and, worse, toothless -- only the songs had any bite. These days I strive for total aural deprivation -- silence in my home if at all possible, white noise on headphones in the coffee shop if not. After years of trying to trick myself into believing I could have music while writing, I’ve finally learned my limitations.” Yet from the days of poems accompanied by lyre, verse has always been wedded to music. Poets have written about music, and they have considered songs that can compliment their art. Some, like Terrance Hayes in "Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist," see songs as locations for the insights of poetic narrative. But I am most interested in how poetry relates to composition; how some poets, like Pierce, require silence, while others are fulfilled by sound. In my own experience, sound complements prose well; in fact, while writing and revising my novella, “Ember Days,” I listened to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” on repeat. I wrote after midnight, and that looping contributed to a somber atmosphere; the story is about atomic bomb testing and opium trafficking, but it also follows how one man’s lust for a woman leads to betrayal. Lightfoot’s guitar opening sets a folk-ominous mood, and the lyrics follow suit. After a few times at the desk, I needed Lightfoot’s music to sustain the story. It was a way to return to the words I'd left during the previous darkness. Poet Michael Earl Craig has explained to Zachary Schomburg that he is “too engrossed and/or confused for music in the beginning stages of a poem.” Once he gets a “handle” on the work, when he can see a sense of “direction emerging,” he can later return to the poem with music “not distracting but more like a breeze at my back.” He has written with the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me playing, and doesn’t listen to it in “any other context. I don’t put that on while driving, or chopping parsley. The feel of that album just suits me perfectly. Poems should be dipped in it.” I have never written a poem while listening to music, but am curious about the intersection of those artistic worlds. Poetry and music share a word of process -- composition -- and are linked by negotiations of melody, harmony, rhythm, proportion, and discord. I contacted some of my favorite poets and asked if they listen to music while planning, drafting, revising, or finishing poems. Here is a poetry playlist: 10 poets offer their composition soundtracks. Enjoy their reflections on craft, and links to the poems and tunes that formed beautiful marriages of word and sound. Track 1 Rebecca Gayle Howell “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by Stevie Wonder [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUqVmulfXfk?rel=0] While I was writing Render /An Apocalypse, I listened to a lot of old Motown -- The Supremes, The Jackson 5 -- it's that beat, that drive, that hammer. It doesn't quit. Doesn't let you quit. But this Stevie Wonder song is the one. The man rides the climax until he falls off. He’ll scream before he’ll pretend something’s over when it’s not. Render is a Southern agrarian myth. The protagonist wakes up in a landscape he's forgotten how to survive, and the poems act as his instruction manual. “How to Kill a Rooster.” “How to Kill a Hog.” “How to Be a Man." Mostly what the protagonist has forgotten is tenderness, but the animals try to remind him of it, even as he slits their throats. Reviewers have called the poems “brutal,” “gruesome,” “religious.” Maybe so. Unrequited love often is. “How to Cure,” from Render / An Apocalypse (Cleveland State University) Track 2 Terry Kennedy “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Paul Simon [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAJfMHh6RJw?rel=0] This song contains the epigraph to my collection of poems, New River Breakdown, and I listened to it a lot while composing the book, a collection of poems dealing with a couple who are, at times, separated by both physical and/or emotional distances during the narrative. We often hear about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, but what really resonates with me in “The Only Living Boy in New York” is the line “half of the time we're gone but we don't know where” because it also speaks to how we, as people, can be “with” each other but really apart, and not even realize it -- like when you come home from work, but you're really still at the office in your head -- making lists, reliving arguments, remembering paperwork you didn't turn in, etc. “The Surrendered” from New River Breakdown (Unicorn Press) Track 3 Kerrin McCadden "One More Time with Feeling" by Regina Spektor [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysuns_3Qweo?rel=0] Regina Spektor was ambient in my new house just after my divorce. My daughter decreed her music the soundtrack of our new life. Spektor’s music was jarring and beautiful at the same time -- which was sort of like our lives. I’m serious -- whenever music was on, it was Regina Spektor, or the Regina Spektor Pandora station. The tone of her song “One More Time with Feeling” resonated with me, so I stole a line to use as an engine for a new poem, thinking I would later cut the line. “Breathing’s just a rhythm” stuck, however, and appears, slightly altered, in my poem “How to Miss a Man.” Both deal with the loneliness of the other side of something -- the slogging. My poem appears in PANK, and in my collection, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, with permission of this great artist, who arguably helped my daughter, and me, gain footing. “How to Miss a Man,” from Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose) Track 4 Tomás Q. Morin “Christo Redemptor” by Charlie Musselwhite [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UDJSy2zyz0?rel=0] I usually don't listen to music when I'm writing or revising. I'm very easily distracted so I prefer silence. However, once I think a piece is done or I'm going over a book manuscript for what feels like it should be the last time, I will listen to Charlie Musselwhite's "Christo Redemptor." I've listened to this song so many times that I can enjoy it and yet it can still be the equivalent of background noise that won't distract me. The interplay between harmonica and piano is fantastic and it feels like the song could go on forever without ever losing any of its potency. One way in which the song helps me during this final, final stage of editing is that if anything seems off in the poem/book then it'll immediately interrupt the spell of the song and I'll have to stop the song and examine what's going on. If I can play the song uninterrupted throughout the whole editing process then I know the piece is done. “Miles Davis Stole My Soul” from A Larger Country (American Poetry Review) Track 5 Erica Wright "Up to the Mountain" by Patty Griffin [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8ZC8VZLk54?rel=0] I listened to Patty Griffin's album Children Running Through -- specifically her tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “Up to the Mountain” -- on repeat while writing “Greece Is This Run-Down.” Something about Griffin's understated lyrics and soaring voice made it possible to confront my own fears at the time, specifically the escalation of the Iraq War and whispers of reinstating the draft. Listening to the same music helped me get back to the same mood each time I worked on the poem, my longest to date. “Greece Is This Run-Down” from Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press) Track 6 Adrian Matejka "Gymnopédies No. 1" by Erik Satie [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-Xm7s9eGxU?rel=0] For me, poems begin as combinations of sounds -- words or phrases that are sonically magnetic and eventually attach themselves to some kind of meaning. Erik Satie’s elegant Gymnopédies work the same way. The pieces subvert traditional piano composition by giving preference to individual notes -- and the atmosphere created by the order of those notes -- over conventional melody. In my poem “Gymnopédies No. 1,” I tried to connect words in narrative and imagistic shapes that emulate Satie’s arresting phrasings in the Gymnopédies. “Gymnopédies No. 1” appeared in the January 2014 issue of Poetry. (I also highly recommend Matejka’s most recent collection, The Big Smoke, a finalist for the National Book Award -- Nick). Track 7 Tyler Mills Tchaikovsky's “Violin Concerto in D major,” 1st movement [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JM8erHpNJ2Q?list=PLDD42E4BDC8816EAE] YouTube compresses some of the sound and splits the first movement into two parts. But my favorite moment occurs at right around 8:17, where you can really hear the sound of the violin and the orchestra hitting the back wall of the concert hall. When I’m drafting poems, I most often don’t listen to music. But when I do, it can be pretty eclectic: anything from Jay-Z to Beethoven is fair game. When I’m working on prose, I listen to music constantly. Sometimes I play a game where I type bands into YouTube and see what is recommended to me. (That’s how I learned of Kid Koala, a DJ that dresses in a koala suit and spins records: I found him because I was listening to Emily Wells.) However, the piece that I listen to most -- because I am obsessed with it, capital O -- and that influenced many of the poems of Tongue Lyre (but one in particular) is the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, performed by the 20th century violinist Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Fritz Reiner in April 1957). I wrote “Performance” when I had a fever: I drafted it in bed, and I remember that in between reading, naps that led to bizarre dreams, drafting this poem, and tea, I listened to this piece. There is a Johnny Cash reference in the poem, so it might be surprising that I wasn’t listening to the Man in Black. But no. “Performance” was influenced by Heifetz’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, the first movement in particular. The poem moves rapidly through constructed spaces: “I would be caught, like now, when I am nowhere but pretending to be / standing in the Pittsburgh Aviary watching flamingos.” When I listen to Heifetz playing Tchaikovsky, I am amazed at how quickly and elegantly he makes and re-makes the landscape of the concerto -- as though conjuring it out of nothing. I wanted to try attempting something similar in a poem. “Performance” from Tongue Lyre (Southern Illinois University Press) Track 8 Wendy Chin-Tanner “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” by The Beatles [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3cxkYu4NyA?rel=0] There’s a recursive quality to the song both in its lyrical and musical motifs that fed into the dialectical structure I was developing in my manuscript overall and that captured for me something specific about being the new mother of a baby girl. The poem “Through the Bathroom Door” is a direct consequence of listening to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” on repeat and reflects my thoughts about the existence of the child in the adult and the adult in the child, the shifting but omnipresent shadow of the past upon the present, the constant vigilance that is necessary in marriage and parenting to separate the self from the other, and the fact that vigilance is an inadequate safeguard against living. The lines, “Didn’t anybody tell her? / Didn’t anybody see?” just kill me. “Through the Bathroom Door” from Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press). Track 9 Mary Biddinger “I'm Waiting for the Man” by Velvet Underground [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOmZimH00oo?rel=0] I write about memory and from memories, so I need to listen to music that takes me back. “I'm Waiting for the Man” grabs me by the shoulders and commands me to write a poem, and pushes me into the gritty landscape where poems come from. At first this poem, “Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man,” might appear to allude to The Pixies, but in fact it is an homage to “I'm Waiting for the Man” by The Velvet Underground, and was written in attempt to imitate the song's arc and pace, as well as relating to its subject. It also includes the title of a fake Velvet Underground song, as a wink to the reader. “Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man” from her forthcoming book, Small Enterprise (Black Lawrence Press) (Fans of this poem will also enjoy Biddinger’s previous books, including O Holy Insurgency -- Nick). Track 10 Sara Eliza Johnson Elgar’s Cello Concerto, 1st movement (Jacqueline du Pré’s performance) [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUgdbqt2ON0?rel=0] I listened to Jacqueline du Pré’s rendition of this piece often while writing the poems that would become the “Archipelago” sequence in my book, Bone Map, which is a group of poems inspired in part by the seafaring pilgrimage Saint Brendan undertook in the 6th century. The atmosphere of the piece is, for me, oceanic, and powerful in that way, like great swells of water rising and falling through the ear, threatening storm, and then shipwreck. In the video, you can see the way Jacqueline throws her whole body into the cello, and I think you can hear that in the intensity of her performance; while writing I tend to listen to music with intensity, with whatever will get me fevered and feeling unreal, and transport me away from thoughts of obligations and deadlines. In that way I suppose the practice is escapist. Three “Archipelago” poems from Bone Map (Milkweed Editions) Image Credit: Flickr/MaxiuB
On Poetry

Afghanistan’s Secret Feminism, Through Verse

Underneath W.H. Auden’s dictum that “poetry makes nothing happen” is a familiar anxiety: perhaps poetry has no effect, and means nothing outside of its own closed circuit. As a counterpoint, we might consider Zarmina Muska: a teenage girl from Afghanistan, Muska set herself on fire in 2010 after her family discovered that she had been writing poems. As testaments to her emotions and free will, her poems were considered dishonorable. Muska is not the only Afghan woman for whom poetry is a matter of life and death. Even 13 years after the Taliban was removed from power, strict injunctions and conservative mores keep many women from exercising their rights and autonomy. Only 5 percent of Afghan women complete high school; most are married by 16, usually against their will. In the outer provinces, women are often forbidden to leave the house. Self-expression becomes nearly impossible in this situation; but as a result, the women’s voices that do emerge from this silencing are intensified and vivid. Many of Muska’s verses were landays (pronounced “land-eyes”), two-line folk poems in Pashto that have been sung and recited, mostly by women, for centuries. The subject matter is most often love, but they also speak of loss, war, and identity. Landays are circulated orally, and are not the product of a single author. However, each woman who recites one may inflect the poem with a slight variation or an altered word, tailoring it to her experience. This combination of anonymity and pith makes landays poignant and subversive without endangering the speaker. The word landay itself translates as “short, poisonous snake.” Eliza Griswold, a poet herself and a journalist, first came across the landay while writing about Muska for the New York Times in 2012. Griswold has been reporting from Afghanistan since shortly after 9/11; her 2010 book, The Tenth Parallel, is a study of clash-points between Christianity and Islam across two continents. Over the last few years, Griswold collected landays from women around Afghanistan, collaborating with photojournalist Seamus Murphy on a project of “investigative poetry.” The translations of landays she found were first presented as an essay in Poetry magazine in the summer of 2013, along with Murphy’s images. This work has been recast and expanded to form I Am the Beggar of the World. Principally at stake in I Am the Beggar is the understanding that, in a corner of the world far from the western imagination, poetry may stand for something vibrant, illicit, honest, and subversive. I Am the Beggar collects landays because they are reportorial artifacts, documenting the voices that remain silenced and sequestered in Afghanistan today. Importantly, it presents landays as a monument of feminism, enacting the “cloak-and-dagger dance around honor” that governs Afghan women’s lives. Don’t shout, my love, my father isn’t giving me to you. Don’t shame me in the busy street by crying out, “I’ll die for you.”   My darling, you are just like America! You are guilty; I apologize. I Am the Beggar groups landays by theme, crosscut with Griswold’s commentaries and Murphy’s photographs. The poems run the gamut: here are young lovers, bawdy jokesters, sexual challengers, and proud sisters. Some speak of nationalism, grief, or anger at the unfairness of the world. In total, the landays invoke a full community of female experience. And, as the poems are essentially author-less, each one carries within it the voices of hundreds of Pashtun women. Embrace me in your suicide vest but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss. While some of the poems exhibit timeless romantic tropes, many of the landays are distinctly of the current moment, referring to text messages, the Taliban, or remoti (drones). Many of the poems have undergone refashioning time and again, as they are passed from one woman to another and down through generations. Where a current iteration of one landay refers to an American soldier, an earlier version would refer to a Russian or British one — a full genealogy of Afghanistan’s occupiers. The change of a word reveals shifting realities: what was once a woman’s sleeve becomes her bra strap, and a talib’s book is exchanged for his gun. There are two contrasting characterizations of Afghanistan that dominate I Am the Beggar. Griswold’s commentaries seek to universalize these women’s experience, making them just the same as us, while also relishing their foreignness. Since the poems are honest expressions of familiar emotions, Griswold sometimes presents them as a kind of diplomatic bridge, proving that women in Afghanistan have interior lives very similar to their counterparts in the West. This humanist belief underlies the book’s project. At the same time, though, part of the allure of the book — as seen most evidently in Murphy’s photography — is the exotic landscape of Afghanistan and the mysterious beauty of its people. Even when describing the psychological effects of drone attacks on the Pashtun community, Griswold can’t resist the urge to close the description with “a plate of freshly quartered pomegranates.” These contrary impulses — humanism and orientalism — are at play throughout, and both risk flattening the portrayal of Afghan life. But the book’s greatest strength is the complicated spectrum of voices that it allows these women, whom we wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. I Am the Beggar casts Pashtun women as vibrantly self-aware and autonomous. It shows the many ways in which they navigate the social codes of a repressive society, not least in their means of expressing honest emotion against the demands of a culture that frowns on music, poetry, or a woman who speaks for herself. Griswold notes how the poems represent the “battles for growing autonomy, especially for young women, [taking] place in the privacy of their homes.” Landays signal how Afghan woman recognize and countenance the systems of power they live under. My body belongs to me; to others its mastery. Griswold finds a way to present these poems and images in juxtaposition so that they evoke a multiplicity of voices and views, giving an almost democratic quality to the anthology’s populace. Social and political beliefs that would seem to butt heads share the same space. One page late in the book presents three landays, each viewing Afghanistan’s political situation in a different light: Without the Taliban, Afghanistan would be London. * If the Taliban weren’t here for the world to see, these foreigners would be free to occupy every sacred country. * Leave your sword and fetch your gun. Away to the mountains, Americans have come. By allowing for contrasting perspectives on the underlying political strife that burns beneath I Am the Beggar, Griswold lets the landays speak variously. Here is where the real community of the book is made: in a polyphony of voices, exercising their claims feistily and forcefully. When one envisions all these vibrant voices that are largely withheld and silenced, a striking picture of women’s lives emerges. The landays reveal a powerful hidden economy, in which poems can be carried and circulated behind closed doors, imbuing the private, overlooked, or forgotten spaces of a woman’s life with the power of a whispered self-expression — one that individuates the speaker at the same time that it ties her into a community of voices across generations. Griswold says that “landays survive because they belong to no one” — that their very anonymity is the source of their power. But that strength also makes them ephemeral. As she notes, after the drawdown of American troops this year, it will be all the harder for outsiders to find these poems. The landay tradition has already been dampened and relegated to the intimate spaces where women escape the eyes of a repressive social order. If a conservative revanchism fills the void left by America’s troubling presence in Afghanistan, it may become impossible for us to uncover these voices at all.
On Poetry

Filling the Silences: Race, Poetry, and the Digital-Media Megaphone

[caption id="attachment_64379" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Gayle Jessup White and Tess Taylor.[/caption] 1. Last summer, shortly after Publishers Weekly posted its review of Tess Taylor’s first full-length poetry collection, The Forage House, which focuses on Taylor’s effort to come to terms with the legacy of being a white descendant of founding father Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White, a journalist and educator in Richmond, Virginia, posted the following note in the comments section: I am an African-American Jefferson. My grandmother was a Taylor (although her mother didn’t exactly marry into the family!), a direct descendant from J.C. Randolph Taylor and [Thomas Jefferson’s great-granddaughter] Martha Jefferson Randolph. Tess Taylor -- I wonder if we share great-great grandparents? When the two women met a short time later, they instantly hit it off, and as far as they were concerned they were cousins, albeit distant ones. But as Taylor explained in a recent New York Times article, this belief rests on 1870s census records and oral histories passed down through White’s family. DNA tests have convinced all but the most hardened skeptics that America’s third president had children with his slave Sally Hemings, but White’s claim involved a liaison between a later Jefferson descendant and his African-American mistress, and given the state of DNA testing as Taylor understood it when she wrote the Times article, there was no way to prove that she and White were related. The next morning, the 21st century intervened in the form of an email from Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host of the popular PBS series African American Lives, saying that, thanks to very recent advances in genomic science, Taylor and White might in fact be able to prove they are related. Would they like to take a DNA test? “A DNA connection to Jefferson descendants would simply provide more data to support my family's oral history that we are Thomas Jefferson descendants -- the more information, the better,” White says as she and Taylor wait for the results. “DNA evidence would diminish doubts others might have.” Whatever the tests ultimately reveal, it will be merely the latest wrinkle in a dizzying multimedia ride that has seen Taylor harness digital media and cutting-edge science to quietly nudge a book of poems published by a small press into the national conversation on race and history. “It’s a little weird,” Taylor admits, “because in a way I was ready to have this Jefferson book done and have put it aside, and yet it keeps growing. This book came out of this sad, unresolved weight that the story of the Hemings [family] left in my family. That was a sad feeling for me, really haunted, and right now I feel like I’m in dialogue with people who are so committed to moving forward. It almost feels like a big weight off [my shoulders] to be part of this conversation.” But how the story has grown, and how Taylor, a journalist as well as a poet, has shaped that growth says as much about how post-millennial media works as it does about the legacy of slavery in the American South. When writers talk about literature in the digital age, they tend to lay out one nightmare scenario after another: books losing value as they migrate onto screens, publishing houses shedding jobs, readers snuggling up with cable shows on their iPads rather than books. But here is a case in which an energetic, media-savvy poet has used the gigantic megaphone of digital media not only to draw attention to her work, but help fill a gaping hole in the historical record that dates back to the early days of our republic. None of it would have happened in an analog era, not this quickly for a little-known poet in the early stages of her career. All of it, the email from Gates, the DNA tests, the direct communication between distant relatives on the comments page of a web review, to say nothing of the astonishing array of grants and fellowships Taylor racked up as she was writing her book – all of this is rooted in a technological and literary environment that enables a single lyric voice, if it is pitched just right, to carry all the way across a country’s history. 2. I came to know Tess Taylor much the way Gayle White did: by reading about her online and recognizing a piece of myself. Last June, I saw an earlier article Taylor wrote for The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of what has come to be known in the history of the Civil Rights Movement as Bloody Monday. On June 10, 1963, firefighters in the cotton-mill town of Danville, Va., turned their hoses on demonstrators standing vigil outside the city jail, where dozens of their fellow protesters were being held for marching against segregation. The city had deputized its all-white force of garbage collectors, and after the fire hoses washed the protesters down a blind alley, the garbage men waded into the crowd with nightsticks and sent more than 50 protesters to Danville’s ill-equipped blacks-only hospital. In her Times article, Taylor examines the small part her grandfather, Leigh Taylor, played in the story when he wrote an angry letter to a local judge who was preparing sentence the black demonstrators, many of whom had been badly beaten on Bloody Monday, to prison terms. Leigh Taylor, to his shock and dismay, was himself hauled into court and charged with the same crime as the black demonstrators. He publicly backed down and was never jailed, but he and his family were shunned by white society in Danville and his career as a mid-level executive at the local mill stalled. I was stunned to see Taylor’s article. My parents grew up in Danville, and my grandmother, Virginia Bourne, was intimately involved in the events that led up to Bloody Monday, serving as a go-between in meetings between local white politicians and the black ministers leading the demonstrations. These clandestine negotiations failed, but my grandmother’s efforts, courageous in a time when most liberal-minded whites kept their heads down and went along, became part of family lore. I contacted Taylor, and several days of furious emailing ensued. Like me, Taylor grew up near San Francisco -- she in El Cerrito, east of the city; I in Marin County, to the north -- and made regular trips to Danville to visit relatives. Our uncles, it turned out, were friends as children. Our fathers spent their careers at the U.C.S.F. Medical School -- hers as an administrator, mine as a scientist. After her grandfather’s court case became front-page news across the South, my grandmother was one of the few people in Danville to reach out to Taylor’s grandmother, telephoning her to ask if there was anything she could do to help. More than anything, though, Taylor and I share a sense of what it means to carry the weight of a complex and ugly history we ourselves experienced second hand. For most white Americans born outside the South, the Civil Rights Movement is the stuff of history books -- fascinating, but abstract. For people like Taylor and myself, whose families were profoundly shaped by the civil rights struggle before we were born, that turbulent era is acutely personal, and at the same time distant and exotic. This is very tricky literary territory, and many white writers -- myself included at times -- steer clear of it, fearing becoming ensnared in the fraught politics of white writers seeming to claim what has come to be seen as a primarily African-American story. Taylor, on the other hand, appeared to have zoomed straight for it, and succeeded. I wanted to know how she pulled it off. The answer lies in a mix of shoe-leather reporting, career moxie, and canny use of literary form. Taylor networked relentlessly, earning fellowships that gave her access to historical documents and to professional historians who could interpret them. At the same time, she reached out to other writers, white and black, who were navigating similar literary terrain. Once she found a publisher for her book, the widely respected Red Hen Press in Los Angeles, she returned to her roots as a freelance journalist, reporting stories that landed in The Times and journals like Virginia Quarterly Review and The Oxford American. Once the book was out, she befriended Gayle White, who had her own connections in the media world, and the two women, one white, one black, complete strangers who in all likelihood are both related to one the nation’s most iconic historical figures, have made for a natural feature story that has found its way onto NPR and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, among other places. 3. The spark for The Forage House was the shock Taylor felt in 1998 when, still an undergraduate, she first learned of the DNA tests that showed links between her own white Jefferson ancestors and Hemings’s black descendants. By the time she began working on the project seven years later, Taylor had a master’s in journalism and envisioned the book about her family as nonfiction. She quickly found that some members of her family, whom she had counted on to serve as sources, wanted no part of her project. One Virginia relative, upon hearing what Taylor wanted to write, “just flipped out,” she recalls. “The idea that I would write about the family, about this legacy, in journalism, was so upsetting to her. I realized I had touched a really, really deep nerve.” That summer, as luck would have it, Taylor began the first of two fellowships at Monticello, Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, Va. Working side by side with historians, Taylor saw first-hand how history treats white and black Americans in the antebellum South. Even as historians at Monticello were compiling a 17-volume edition of Jefferson’s letters, Taylor met archeologists struggling to piece together a portrait of the lives of the plantation’s enslaved residents from old buttons dug out of the ground and references in ancient police rolls. Her time at Monticello also helped Taylor find both a working method and thematic focus for her book, which makes use of archival research and the naturally elliptical nature of contemporary poetry to fill the silences, literal and figurative, in the historical record. Putting her journalism training to use, Taylor plowed through archives, assisted in archeological digs, conducted interviews, and tracked down details of hazy family memories. The result is a hybrid literary form, part poetry and part investigative journalism, that Taylor has come to call “lyric journalism.” Thus, for poems like “Oral History 1963,” about her grandfather’s arrest, she dug up old newspaper stories and interviewed protesters who were beaten on Bloody Monday to tell the full story of Leigh Taylor’s run-in with the local judge, which in her family lore had been leached of its broader racial context. In other poems, she incorporates lines from family wills and ancient newspaper ads for slave auctions, as well as descriptions of fugitive slaves, to round out her reader’s image of the enslaved members of her family’s households who were rarely mentioned by their white owners unless they were being bought, inventoried, or punished. The poem “Southampton County Will 1745,” for instance, opens with a quotation from a will written by an 18-century relative of Taylor’s that she came across at the American Antiquarian Society, where she had a fellowship in 2006: I, Etheldred Taylor, of sound mind and body in the presence of God almighty amen do deed three things:                   Books Negroes Land “I just remember thinking that’s it: there could be a swap between books and people, that they could each be considered of equal value,” Taylor recalls. But, as happens often in the collection, Taylor turns her focus inward, asking what impact this distant ancestor’s bequest has on her, his modern-day white descendant: From his dim ghost I inherit everything, nothing: One silver teaspoon. Half a name. Between trips to Monticello, Taylor earned a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where she met two prominent African-American poets, Natasha Trethewey, now the nation’s poet laureate, and Camille Dungy, who was then working on a collection, Suck on the Marrow, published by Red Hen in 2010, exploring her own family’s struggles in slavery during the 19th century in Virginia. Both poets offered counsel and encouragement as Taylor dug deeper into her past. For Dungy, whose work in some ways forms a mirror image to Taylor’s, it was by no means a given that she would help Taylor write about her Southern white ancestors. “Actually, most versions of this story that I’ve seen I don’t want to be a part of,” Dungy says. “That history and these stories have been so mutilated in appropriation over time in the way they are told and by whom. I think the tendency [for African-American writers] to say ‘Hands off, this is our story’ is earned and valid without question.” But fraught as this material can be for white writers, Dungy says, if only African-American writers take it on, some readers will simply ignore it. “There’s a way in which my story, as important as my story is and as many people as are going to read it, is just not going to reach the same kind of audience,” she says. “There is a whole swath of readers who [say], ‘That’s a black story, I don’t need to read that.’ So they don’t pick it up. When Tess does it, they do.” If anything, Taylor is even more adamant about the need for white writers to examine their own history. “There’s this intense fear that if white people talk about race, they’re going to get it wrong, and therefore there’s a kind of a default position where white people don’t want to talk about race or racism or racial knowledge,” she says. “The side effect of not wanting to get it wrong is sometimes just silencing the stories of things that we know and not allowing ourselves to talk at all. I think that silence itself is part of the problem.” Just as Dungy predicted, when Taylor gently, but insistently broke through that silence, readers listened. Since The Forage House came out in August, Taylor has been a blur of activity, appearing on NPR’s “The Takeaway” with Gayle White, speaking at churches, and barnstorming both coasts on book tours. In the fall, after years of adjunct teaching and freelance writing gigs, she begins a year as a visiting professor at Whittier College outside Los Angeles. If publishing a book of poetry were an Olympic event, the judges would have to agree that Tess Taylor has stuck the landing. It helps, of course, that the poems are good. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Taylor makes for an attractive messenger, bubbly and approachable, her fierce ambition blunted by an infectious laugh and a well-developed sense of tact. But beyond all that, by employing the tools of the journalist and the historian and by embracing rather than recoiling from the modern media noise machine, Taylor has taken a very old story and made it new again. In the process, she is helping shape a 21st-century poetry that spills out beyond the pages of the printed book into the wider cultural bloodstream.
On Poetry, The Millions Interview

How to Be Alone: The Millions Interviews Tanya Davis

"...the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about." -- David Foster Wallace on Life and Work "How to Be Alone" is a spoken word poem. It starts as a 'how-to' manual on perfecting the art of being alone. You can start in restaurants and movie theaters. Soon, though, it veers off into more wide-ranging territory. It's about how to be creative, how to enjoy a life that you can't necessarily control, and how to be the lord of your own tiny skull-sized kingdom. The poem started its life as a video, the words by Tanya Davis, a singer-songwriter who was Poet Laureate of Halifax, and filmed by Andrea Dorfman, an Emmy Award-nominated animator and filmmaker. About a year after making the video, Dorfman uploaded it onto YouTube. It soon became a phenomenon with six million views from all over the world. The poem was recently released as an illustrated book. I talked to Tanya via Skype about the difference between YouTube and the printed page, why her poem resonates, giving art away, and how some of the most universal ideas are the ones that can be the hardest to talk about. The Millions: How did you get the idea for the poem? Tanya Davis: The idea for the poem came mostly from my collaborator, Andrea. We were talking about solitude and being alone and how we both need a lot of alone time to get our work done as artists. It kept coming up in our conversation and, meanwhile, we were also talking about doing a video poem together. Andrea made the suggestion, "Why don’t we do one about how to be alone?” I took that phrase and wrote the poem. TM: Did you expect the response to “How to Be Alone” -- six million views on YouTube and a book? TD: Not at all. The video was funded by Bravo, so they had the rights to screen it first. It made the rounds at festivals. After about a year, we could do whatever we wanted with it. Andrea texted me one day and said, “I’m going to put it up on YouTube”. I said, “Okay,” and then we went on with our days. Neither of us expected the response. TM: You gave it away for free? TD: We share a philosophy of art, which is that we make it to give it away. Of course we also want to make income and be able to support ourselves, but I don’t want to keep my ideas in my head. We set it free. If you let go of something, it can end up coming back to you in ways you never thought. TM: How did the book come about? TD: The book came quite some time later. It was 2010 when we first put the video on YouTube and it started to take off. For the first year, it climbed rapidly and it’s still climbing as people pass it around. Someone had approached us about a book. We had thought about a book before, but neither of us had the time or the resources to do that. Now, the book is giving the poem a 3rd or 4th or 5th life. It’s had a long life, this poem. TM: What difference does the format make for this poem? TD: It makes a difference in how much a poem lasts. For me, it’s performance -- that’s the shortest -- then video, then print lasts the longest. If someone listens me perform a poem out loud, I finish and it is over. Four minutes and that’s it. A person might walk away with a few points or the gist of it, but not more. With a video, it’s more solid. A person can watch it again and again. With a book, a person can read it at a chosen pace. He or she can stay on a page for five minutes. It solidifies the poem. This book is the slowest, most concrete version. TM: Is that a good feeling? TD: I feel more vulnerable and exposed with it in print. I’m used to being on stage... TM: What? Can’t people throw eggs at you when you are on a stage? TD: ...but after the show is over I step off stage and I go on with my life. People can’t keep looking at me while I’m not there. But I am glad that people can spend time with it in book form and go at their own pace. TM: Why does this poem resonate so widely? TD: It resonates because it’s a simple, universal concept. No matter how people approach loneliness or solitude or community, we all do. We’re not that different from each other. The way we experience it is different, but we all experience love, pain, loneliness. TM: I think of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech where he talks about how the most important realities are often the hardest, and most important, to talk about. TD: Exactly. We all experience being solitary individuals while living in a community. It’s something we all share, so, ironically, we’re not alone in that. I feel it all the time. I feel very alone on the planet and also inexplicably connected. Our society, North America, is so crazed with social media right now. We’re always connected, in theory, to people via the Internet in our homes. And yet, we’re growing more isolated and disconnected. We’ve put in all these devices in place, like Facebook and smartphones. Instead of going out to dinner with friends or looking people in the eye when we walk by them on the sidewalk, we stare at our computers and phones. Our time is lonely in ways that the previous generations didn’t experience. TM: It’s important to talk about. TD: Yes,, and people want to talk about the most ordinary things. I get emails almost every day. I try to write everyone back because I just want to connect to people while I’m here on the planet. That’s why I make things. That’s why I share things. I didn’t say anything profound in the poem. I just said what other people are thinking.
In Memoriam, On Poetry

Clean New Music: On Seamus Heaney

1. I don’t think I ever quite knew myself until I read Seamus Heaney. I can’t remember exactly which of his poems I read first, but that’s not important. What is important is what his poems did to me. When I encountered “Blackberry Picking,” I first felt the full force of what a poem can do. The poem describes picking blackberries in the spring and hoarding them in a tub in the barn, then discovering that they have begun to rot, ending with the lines “It wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I’d hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” The poem hit me somewhere right at the base of my ribs. It created an actual physical sensation. When I was a kid, I was always catching small animals, usually crickets and frogs, and keeping them in coffee cans, then forgetting about them for days, only to return and find their corpses. I remember the mingled smell of dead crickets and Folgers coffee -- those once lovely canfuls. For a long time, that same feeling, that of my own emotions synching up with those described by a poem, eluded description. For me, it was ineffable. The connection with a poem, with a poet, while one of the strongest that I felt, sidestepped definition. Appropriately though, in his essay “Feelings Into Words,” collected in Preoccupations, Heaney provided an answer for the question he had raised: Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up. How, then, do you find it? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else; you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in in through your ear and enters the echo chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ‘Ah, I wish I had said that, in that particular way.’ This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspect of yourself and your experience. For me, Heaney was the place where I definitively heard that voice in several aspects -- from his content down to individual phrases and chunks of sound. Heaney wrote, especially in his early volumes, of life in rural Northern Ireland and all that entailed, from the loss of a livelihood earned through manual labor and agriculture in Death of a Naturalist and Door Into the Dark to the way in which the political concerns of the Troubles were embedded in the very archaeology of the place in his magnum opus, North. The sense of place in his poetry is extraordinary. For me, his content choices were much more than examples of Heaney taking up the old poetic mortar and pestle of “to be universal, you must be local,” they unfolded the world of poetry for me in places where I didn’t even realize there were creases. 2. My father grew up on a rabbit farm and helped his father poach from the National Forest for supper, while my mother’s family of nine planted five acres of potatoes to live on through the winter, her father making his meager living skidding pine logs with mules. My mother’s family didn’t have indoor plumbing until the late 1960s and used a dug well, complete with bucket and windlass, for water. Home for me is the Ouachita Mountains, a place even more innocuous then pre-Troubles Ulster: a small mountain range 500 miles from the ass end of the Appalachians. In Heaney’s voice I found a license, almost an imperative, to write about the basic things that I had grown up around; if Heaney’s Moyola and Castledawson and Mossbawn mattered and had something profound to offer the world, so did my own region straddling the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line. I should have seen this before; I had been reading Frost and certainly could have picked up the same things from him, but, lovely as Frost is, his New England didn’t resonate with me in the same contorted but insistent ways that Heaney’s Northern Ireland did. Why is that? For me, it amounts to how I identified with Heaney’s voice. Heaney’s voice went much deeper than regionalism, not only in his persistent archaeological motifs, which critics have identified as representative of the collective unconsciousness, but in the basic noise of his poems -- the tangible aural sensations that create meaning almost independent from the semantics of the language, scraping down even further into the unconscious. When Heaney writes of bringing his grandfather “milk in a bottle corked sloppily with paper,” he works nearly with onomatopoeia, what his mentor Philip Hobsbaum termed “Heaneyspeak,” which I find to be little more than a cute way of referring to Heaney’s poetic voice. Heaney’s obsession with sound (again, something I might have, in another life, first noticed in Frost and his “sound of sense”) struck me immediately. In “Blackberry Picking,” the line “where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots” provided a perfect nugget of voice, marrying sound -- the words “briars scratched” and “bleached our boots” make the exact sound as the actions that they describe -- with the larger concern of identifiable content. I have bleached a couple pairs of boots myself. 3. I find a rightness, for lack of a better term, in Heaney’s voice on all levels. I don’t need to try to find exactly how the position of the tongue in pronouncing “Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting” perfectly encapsulates the lines’ meaning, nor do I have to search for the tenuous relationship between Heaney’s description of the fearful transformation from tadpole to bullfrog in “Death of a Naturalist” with my own experience of catching and hatching tadpoles and being frightened by the plop of bullfrogs in my grandmother’s pond. Heaney’s voice is true, and it is readily apparent. That is enough. I don’t need the critics or Carl Jung to tell me that depictions of amphibian fear tap into the collective unconsciousness and that the water of the flax dam represents sex, further reinforced by the reproduction of the frogs, etc. etc. I read the poem and I know, in a very visceral way, that Heaney has gotten something very right, that his voice has executed a perfect arpeggio in a brilliant cadenza. 4. "Blackberry Picking" offered up yet another lesson in voice years after I first read it. I had always heard the poem in my own accent, and read it with my own voice. In a dialect that is firmly within the sphere of the upper American South, the only apparent rhyme in the poem is “clot/knot.” I had once read an essay that alluded to the “effective use of slant rhyme in the poem,” but did not offer any examples. I quickly assumed that the reference to “slant rhyme” was a mistake. Coming from a dialect which monophthongizes long “i” sounds to a fronted “ah” and merges the pronunciation of “pin” and “pen” to both sound as “pin,” the words “sun” and “ripen” don’t even come close to rhyming. The stress patterns of my own speech didn’t help. The word “ripen” is always pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, the second is diminished to the point of barely even being voiced. This manner of speech, which formed and forms my own internal reading voice, tends to take iambic pentameter out back for a good woodshedding, never mind that I didn’t really learn to even recognize iambs for a long while after encountering Heaney. In short, while the poem managed to strike me with great force, I was missing what amounts to half of Heaney’s craftsmanship. I didn’t discover any of this until I actually heard recordings of Heaney reading the poem, the way he heard it, in his own natural voice. Not only was every line in iambic pentameter, but every line rhymed in an array of brilliant little half rhymes. The heavens opened and light shone down illuminating, if nothing else, the full extent of Heaney’s skill. 5. In Heaney’s fifth volume, North, he creates and interprets Ireland through its long history of Germanic incursions beginning with the Vikings. In the title poem, he imagines the voices of dead Vikings as “ocean-deafened voices” and “the longship’s swimming tongue,” which tells him: . . . lie down in the word-hoard, burrow the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain. Compose in darkness. Expect aurora borealis in the long foray but no cascade of light. Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle, trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known. In appropriating this archaeological voice, Heaney delivers a series of admonishments that are instructions to the poet as well as the reader. This voice is different, more ancient -- unmetered stresses, no rhymes. It’s no wonder that Heaney wound up translating Beowulf; he was familiar with its voice, able to call it up from the “belly of stone ships,” to utter its implorement: “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.” This imperative struck me. “Trust!” it said; whatever your hands have known, trust in it. As long as your eye is clear, trust. Lie down. Burrow. Like Antaeus, be nourished by the soil, by a sense of place. Trust your place, trust your own geography, trust in your own culture, trust your own experience. For Heaney, this experience, this nubbed treasure, like all good treasures, is buried. As a poet, Heaney exhumes things. In “Bogland,” the last poem from Door into the Dark, he writes of the bringing up of ancient artifacts from Irish bogs, and that the bogs themselves “might be Atlantic seepage. / The wet centre is bottomless.” Speaking about the poem in an essay, Heaney notes that he derived the last line from hearing old people tell children not to play in the bogs because they were bottomless. This mining of memory is essential to Heaney’s poetry. In trying to access things that Heaney only half-consciously knows, he bores into my unconscious as a reader -- the things that I too am only half-aware of. Maybe that’s why the feeling I get reading Heaney approaches inexplicable, conveyed only through metaphors of physical sensation: what Heaney has to say does something to my subconscious; his voice resonates there on that low level. It takes up residence with all the archetypes and shadows in the part of my psyche that, if mapped, would be labeled “Here Be Monsters” in ornate script wreathed in a facsimile of fog. 6. Heaney’s most famous poem “Digging” set the tenor for his early work, celebrating the subterranean and particularly the role that writing plays in exploring it. The poem describes the memories Heaney has of his father and grandfather digging, but laments that “I’ve no spade to follow men like them,” then goes on to assert, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” Like his grandfather who digs up turf for fuel, Heaney unearths a fuel that is no less important. Heaney once remarked that, to someone from his background, the word “work” meant physical work only, that one could not be “upstairs reading a book and say ‘oh, I’m working,’” and that “Digging” was partly a defense of his own way of life against the mores of his own culture. “Digging” shows the conflict between tradition and modernity. In this way it participates, in a meaningful way, in the development of Western thought. To be egregiously brief, the Ancient, Medieval, and Modern periods can be said to be concerned with humanity’s perception of conflict with three different iterations of higher power. The ancients conceived of gods who dealt out inescapable fate, then gods were replaced with a singular God who, though he was all powerful, still managed to allow evil in the world. Most recently, God has been replaced with science and technology, their conflict with humanity was probably first noticed by the Romantics and has persisted, more or less, until the present day. Heaney knew and lived that conflict -- of watching his father’s occupation of cattle dealer fade away. It is equally important to me, in very practical terms. My grandfather worked in the timber, cutting down trees for a living, the next generation, my mother’s two brothers, were both carpenters, building houses from those same trees. My grandfather had a fourth grade education; my uncles finished only high school; I became a college boy and sure as hell can’t start cutting down trees for a living. In both a metaphorical and literal sense, all the trees have already been cut. Maybe “Digging” seems old hat. It was written in the mid-1960s and was one of Heaney’s first poems. However, there is a reason that it is Heaney’s most anthologized poem. Its strident voice proclaims that poetry, that literature, is important in a time when the nutritional label on a box of Post-Toasties is considered a text and given equal status with Keats’s Odes. 7. In “The Forge,” Heaney plainly states in the first line “All I know is a door into the dark,” then goes on to describe a blacksmith who “expends himself in shape and music,” who upon looking out his door at the passing lights of traffic, turns back inside “To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.” For a long time I read Heaney as looking out into the dark from inside the blacksmith shop, but I was wrong. Blacksmith shops are always dark so that the smith can properly see the color of the metal he’s working; different temperatures are indicated by the color, from reds to yellows and whites, each ideal for specific tasks: cutting, welding, drawing. Heaney looks in on this dark smithy; he has the capacity to see it, his eye is “clear as the bleb of the icicle.” His vantage point standing, as it were, with one foot in the past and another in the present allows him to see this murky scene. All his foundational knowledge is in these old ways; his family did not own a car when he was growing up, and his father plowed their fields with horses. Heaney “beats real iron out” as he dredges up these artifacts. The farther down one goes into the ground, the older things are, back even to the Iron Age: this is the basic tenet of geology and archaeology. Heaney is connected to these old, chthonic things. He disinters them and remembers them. In a sense, he members them again, creates them anew through his writing. 8. Heaney gives the best explanation of what he does in the last poem of Death of a Naturalist. “Personal Helicon” is a poem about wells and Heaney’s fascination with them. Various wells are characterized as “So deep you saw no reflection in it,” “fructified” with “long roots” and in particular one that “had echoes, gave back your own call/ with a clean new music in it.” He ends the poem with: Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing. Heaney claims to see himself, not necessarily as an unadulterated reflection, but through echoes that come back up from the wells that he has dug into the darkness. The darkness of this well, bored into the deep strata of the unconscious, echoes with his voice and gives back a “clean new music.” Heaney writes as a means to hear himself, in order to truly ascertain his own voice. To do this he must work in the underground medium of his upbringing. It is the darkness that must be used to create the echo. The well must be dug deep, into those long, fructified roots of the subconscious, before it can echo. The discovery of this well and its echo is an exhumation, and even a bit of a resurrection. Though they are echoes, that “clean new music” carries a ring that comes from beyond the grave. And what grave is as deep as a well? 9. In hearing Heaney’s voice echoing, I was able to get a sense of my own voice. I could use, at first at least, Heaney’s well to shout in, to see what came back, to find what those fructified roots are made of. Eventually I need to dig my own well, into my own fructified roots, with its own echo. Of course my own well may tap into the same underground spring as Heaney’s -- perhaps all wells do -- but I first needed Heaney’s well to become aware of what a well can do -- of what digging can do. I needed Heaney’s voice to know what a voice could sound like, and through Heaney I discovered my own voice. I learned to listen to the timbre of its echoes. 10. Seamus Heaney recently passed away. It was reported that his last words were a text message to his wife that read noli timere, which, translated into good King James English, is “Be not afraid.” Of course, Seamus was sharp enough to alter the conjugation from nolite timere found in St. Matthew, which is in the second person plural to the singular “noli.” This surprised me, not because a dying man still knew enough Latin to not only quote from the Vulgate but to give the proper conjugation on the fly, but rather than Heaney’s last words were via text message. My perception of him as a poet of the soil, one who spoke of thatched roofs and plowing by hand, was shattered by the news of his last words being transmitted via text message. Of course I read this news on a smartphone, but somehow it was still a staggering blow. It only took me five minutes of careful thought to reestablish equilibrium. So what if Heaney and cellphones seemed incongruous to me? His life as a man of letters probably seemed just as contradictory to the people of his childhood. From the external world to our senses, from our senses to our brains, from our brains into language, from that language into writing, from the handwritten original to print in a book, from a printed book through the whole shebang again, back through taps of thumbs into a text message and radio waves, beams of invisible light, and a torrent of ones and zeros -- it’s all just space between the infinite notches of Plato’s divided line. Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the first electronic image pickup device that made television possible, was inspired by furrows of plowed earth and envisioned a device which reproduced images by scanning then reproducing them one row at a time. It wasn’t nearly as incongruous as I had thought. Heaney writes in his “Glanmore Sonnets” that, Now the good life could be to cross a field And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled. Arting a paradigm, that’s our real business. The medium doesn’t matter. Give us dancing electrons. Be not afraid. Dig with them.
On Poetry

Doses of Medicine: The Words and Wisdom of Louise Glück

I once hit Louise Glück after one of her readings, oddly with her own books. Of course, I did so unwittingly. During the post-reading mingle, I kept trying to place my book bag on my shoulder, but it kept bumping against something and wouldn’t stay. That something was her, and when my embarrassment met her surprised eyes, any alarm disappeared. We could see the mistake, and understanding was very clean, almost surgically so, like a line of her verse. About a decade ago, I read Louise Glück with enthusiasm, and, in the end, fatigue at what I recognized. The poems were doses of medication. Her work has always “spoken” to me more than many poets because she examines the concerns I have about being in the world: loneliness and being alone, searching for happiness, and desiring to have my feelings validated, though they often aren’t. Her poetry is both direct and indirect, as she will talk through a feeling, but sometimes dress the speaker of the poem in a mythical mask as she uses many Ancient Greek deities and characters in The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, and Vita Nova. Her one book of essays, Proofs and Theories, published in 1994, provides further insight to her artistic philosophies. The last essay, “On Impoverishment,” has a few tempered lines on Glück’s major theme, despair: Despair in our culture tends to produce wild activity: change the job, change the partner, replace the faltering ambition instantly. We fear passivity and prize action, meaning the action we initiate. But the self cannot be willed back. And flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair. There is something therapeutic to her inquiries, and this almost serves as a mantra that she will not be shying away from what most frightens her. So many times I have heard people say, "Poetry doesn’t make anything happen," but I believe they say that out of chagrin at the way poetry is treated by the popular culture. It’s viewed as arcane, difficult, effeminate, and as useless as some humanities people regard geometry. Most poetry makes things happen off-camera. One reads it on a sofa and a line overwhelms and his or her regard for life is colored by a burnishing of the words and sounds. At that distant time in my life I was seeking epiphany and the epiphanies Glück concocted, those ending points and moments of ultimate response, were similar to the ending of many an Ingmar Bergman film -- abrupt, cruel in its truth, but spectacular. Take the “The Silver Lily” from Glück’s most prized collection, The Wild Iris. In it, the speaker of the poem, maybe God or some creator, asks the other presence, a woman, “Will speech disturb you?” Therein that first presence implores her to look at the bounty of nature and the universe, in particular the moon: In spring, when the moon rose, it meant time was endless. Snowdrops opened and closed, the clustered seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts. Finally the being offers: We have come too far together toward the end now to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man— after the first cries, doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound? Here Glück attacks the normal configurations of despair produced by a life of pain. So she won’t get sad at the end of the connection, which will also be the end of poem, the being reminds her of sex she has had and how joy and fear end in the same silence. The consolation of nature is fractured as the being tells the pained woman all feelings are born in the same stream in which they will also die. There is a good deal of white space on the page, including the gap after the em dash, and there one can imagine the ghosts of words that Glück doesn’t use to fight this force. The ending question cancels out any response from the woman and nature, both devoid of speech -- the world remains mystifying to the humans who depend on it to renew their belief in the life they live. Once I showed my uncle, who had originally piqued my interest in Louise Glück, her poem “Purple Bathing Suit,” where a woman speaks to a man in such a suit. After its sucker punch, “your back is my favorite part of you, / the part furthest away from your mouth,” my uncle said, “Boy, she really hates men.” And men can hate women, because the book is a documentation of both, the complete war. But I think after most Glück poems there is insight and disturbance, and to some, maybe the majority of people who seek poetry, disturbance is as alluring as sunset, because that sensation is what drove them to read poetry and often what drove poets to write it. In Glück’s world, to be ultra-conscious is to be conscious of pain and the words that delineate that indelicacy are the simplest. Ideas and questions that act as deep pools are inhabited by everyday words and often in short lines, like Emily Dickinson before her. When, in “The Silver Lily,” she says, “doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?” she brings basic words together. Two of them, “joy” and “fear,” are very hot. The others, “doesn’t,” “like,” “make,” “no,” and “sound,” we use to get through most days. Like T.S. Eliot, she reorders the familiar musically (that last line is iambic) to train the reader to trust her words and isolate them and so to slow down life. One night last winter, while I read again each book of Louise Glück’s in the original slim hardbacks, I sat in a car taking an hour break from my homeless outreach job in Manhattan. My co-worker and I were parked just off  41st Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, near a hotspot of homeless activity. It’s a dirty street, one of the many garbage dumping areas in Hell’s Kitchen, where men set up lean-to’s and shanties out of industrial cardboard boxes to sleep among rats crawling about for food. While my co-worker sat napping, I reread Glück’s 1988 collection Ararat. When my co-worker couldn’t sleep she thumbed through the scrolling Instagram feed on her phone. "Can I read you a poem?" I asked and she quickly agreed, almost as if she longed for a reason to quit the endless stream of information, welcoming any distraction from distraction. I read the last poem, “First Memory,” because it was short and powerful, the way I remember it from when I carried Ararat like a bible, with its final lines, “...from the beginning of time, / in childhood, I thought/that pain meant / I was not loved. / It meant I loved.” An apt summary to a book of such dredging and loosening, all those years ago it seemed I didn’t read poems but readouts from a heart cooked by memories and impatient to re-season them into an idea of some order and clarity. The message still held, though the word “loved” carried very different meanings from its first use to the next, beyond the passive and active tenses. It meant in 10 years I had loved and had been loved and I now loved differently because of time. The speaker of the poem can only come to her sweet conclusion from a distance of years, and only with 10 more years of experience, of loves lost and gained, could the startling already past tense of “love” trigger a charge and a recognition of the beauty of responsibility. I read it to her slowly, in a voice that I thought the speaker of the poem would adopt if the speaker’s voice could be heard. After I finished my co-worker immediately popped up, turned the car light on, and told me to hold the book still. She took a picture of “First Memory” with her phone and then shared it.
Essays, On Poetry

Frank O’Hara’s Lessons for Being Gay

At summer arts camp, nestled into our scrappy bunk beds, the tainted scent of bug spray and boy’s locker room riding the night air, the newly-out gay boys slyly passed A Boy’s Own Story and The Picture of Dorian Gray as though they were fetish porn to be viewed strictly under covers with a flashlight after lights out. These books along with a litany of others taught us how to be gay. But it’s unfortunate then that our secret libraries lacked one great-uncle that I would gladly hand down to my younger compatriots. So, in this moment of giving thanks and talking about what the new gay future looks like, I’d like to propose a toast to a man we owe more to than we have ever admitted: Frank O’Hara. We have arrived at an incredible moment. With the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8, marriage equality across the country appears to be within grasp. In the last decade, public support for gay marriage has risen from a meagre 31% (from a Gallup Poll in December 2003) to 55% (from a Washington Post-ABC News Poll in May 2013). In Minnesota, only six months passed between a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages failing by a mere 2.5% of the vote, to full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples being signed into law. When I was in high school in that same state, kids—and sometimes teachers—unabashedly called each other “fag” as the catch-all insult. One of the only gay adults I knew was fired for coming out at Dayton’s in Minneapolis, where he had worked for years, selling sheets and towels to housewives; a lesbian choir teacher at my school had sexual harassment allegations lobbed at her from hysterical students just for checking their breathing during voice lessons. And, of course, above this cloud of loathing and paranoia, a short lifespan from AIDS seemed not just frightening, but in our worst fears, inevitable for young gay men. And yet, even with all the progress we’ve made, there’s trepidation. Has this moment come too soon? And even with legal rights, what about the undercurrent of disgust that continues from certain parts of the population? Just last month, a man was murdered a block away from Stonewall in one of New York’s queerest neighborhoods by a man who targeted him for being gay. And there’s been a lot chatter about heteronormativity and the attempts of the straight population to neuter what makes homosexuality special—the rebellion, the sense of self-invention, the break with tradition and history—and while O’Hara isn’t exactly a role model in his own fraught relationships, his poetry tells us something about who we are and who we might be. O’Hara’s queerness has always been there to see but it was consistently obstructed either by critics, his friends, or in a few cases, himself. While Marjorie Perloff was working on a study of his poetry, she reported that when “I referred to Joe Lesueur as Frank’s lover, Donald Allen suggested tactfully that I use the word ‘friend’ instead.” Sounds like Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle! But like a fat cartoon bear hiding behind a birch tree, it was plainly there to see. What I find so essential, celebratory and let’s-throw-a-parade-gay about him is his ability to love whatever is aesthetically pleasurable that he comes across. Take a look at his poem, “Today,” included, along with the other poems in this essay, in the 2008 collection Selected Poems: Oh! Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! You really are beautiful! Pearls, Harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! All The stuff they’ve always talked about Still makes a poem a surprise! These things are with us every day Even on beachheads and biers. They Do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks His work is filled with unexpected tastes and nearly absent of any sort of hierarchy. Kangaroos? Lovely. Long terrible b-films? Satisfying. Rachmaninoff? Sublime. Drinking coke with a cute guy? The best. O’Hara presides over a democracy of affection. And have you ever seen so many exclamation points from a grown man? It’s like listening to a kindergarten teacher! He’s just so enthusiastic that he can’t help but cram the poem with one jubilant thing after another. This is ecstasy, like the build up to an orgasm frothed into mania. But the sequins, sodas, and jujubes are also solid—“They’re strong as rocks.” These are foundations for our lives. Critics have called this aspect of O’Hara’s sensibility camp, hit the print button, and called it a day. But that’s not quite what’s at work here. When I think of camp within the gay community—say, reenacting scenes from Mommy Dearest or a certain love of Cher riding a Navy cannon in black fishnets and a sneer—there’s an element of performance in the opinion: it feels like a socially learned behavior rather than an incidental personal taste. If you look at Halperin’s How to be Gay, it’s clear that some scholars believe that mainstream entertainments, for example—the book cites Mildred Pierce—are passed among members of the gay community as primers, or instructive texts on how to behave (and in Halperin’s class at University of Michigan, they are). It’s not so much innate that we love Mildred Pierce as something we learn, which is to say it may be separate from what we actually like. Camp also gives us a protective barrier of irony from our pleasure in lowbrow likes. The irony distances us, and says “Hey, I know this is terrible. But it’s also fun!” O’Hara collapses that ironic distance and it’s all sincerity. He’s so sincere, that as much as I admire him (and I really admire him!), I’d feel embarrassed to have written some of his poems. Not because it’s shameful, but because it’s just too, too much. But he means it. And this is where camp becomes a problem. Camp, at its heart, is about taste. And taste, as we know, is a sort of fingerprint of thought—and of attraction. Critics evaluating O’Hara, as Marjorie Perloff pointed out in her excellent study Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, labeled his work as “late Victorian camp” or “streamers of crepe paper fluttering before an electric fan” or “mental chatter and drift.” Invariably, these feel like codes to the knowing reader, that his work was just plain gay. Camp is often a derogatory term. We like it, but we feel like we shouldn’t. Just as the foodie loathes his enjoyment of Chicken McNuggets, we can’t just say we like something, but rather we can have the barrier of camp to say, “I love this and I know it’s awful.” There’s shame in the attraction, just as when we were young gaylings the world around us often reinforced that our feelings are shameful. O’Hara’s poems are an antidote to this feeling of shame over the tastes we find natural and immovable. James Schuyler, perhaps the most sublime poet of the small thing made infinite, in one of his many catty, bright, loving letters to his dear friend O'Hara put it best: Your passion always makes me feel like a cloud the wind detaches (at last) from a mountain so I can finally go sailing over all those valleys with their crazy farms and towns. I always start bouncing up and down in my chair when I read a poem of yours like “Radio,” where you seem to say, “I know you won’t think this is much of a subject for a poem but I just can’t help it: I feel like this,” so that in the end you seem to be the only one who knows what the subject of a poem is. The pleasures of a poem like “Radio,” good enough to make Schuyler ride his chair, come primarily from our empathy with O’Hara since we all know how awful it is to want some small satisfaction after a week of drudgery—the radio plays nothing but rubbish when all we want to hear is something great—and the comic distance between O’Hara’s invocation of the grand emotions and subjects of poetry (longing for “immortal energy” when one is “mortally tired”) when, in fact, it’s a fifteen line poem where Frank is bitching at his radio for playing such crap. But these small things are everything. It’s true that we feel just as strongly, however irrational it may be, about the minute pleasures of our lives as we do about the supposedly great things. Our emotional responses don’t always differentiate between the two even if our minds tell us that we should. One look at a Black Friday stampede at Target shows us this, and O’Hara says as much in “Today.” What I think I learn from his poetry—if anything as auspicious as learning happens from contact with verse—is how to like. What we prefer, what we enjoy, and what we desire are as singular as a fingerprint and in O’Hara’s work having a coke with the man he loves is as sublime as a masterpiece by Leonardo or Michaelangelo. I don’t think there’s a love poem that means more to me—and notice here that I don’t make any claims as to whether or not it’s the love poem that should mean the most to you—than O’Hara’s love poem for Vincent Warren “Having a Coke With You.” The pleasure he takes in sharing a soda with Warren is arbitrary, intuitive, and surprising. (For the curious reader, there’s an endearing video online of O’Hara’s gentle delivery, eyes looking through the camera with a book in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.) HAVING A COKE WITH YOU is even more fun that going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne or being sick to my stomach on the Traversera de Gracia in Barcelona partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary Of course it’s going to be better than being sick to his stomach in Barcelona, but what has love of yogurt or orange tulips go to do with it? (Sure, they match the color of Warren’s charming shirt, but they are a part of the landscape and not even something the object of O’Hara’s love is responsible for). It’d be like telling my boyfriend that I fell in love with him because of the mural at the bar we met at. But, come to think of it, why not? And look how long the lines get, as though the form of the poem itself can barely contain what Frank is feeling, and there’s so much he’d like to say that it strains to be held between the two edges of the page. Eventually, this conversational, upfront tone isn’t enough and he reaches for an actual metaphor, something surreal. O’Hara needs a new sort of language, something absent in his everyday experience, to capture what happens between his body and Vincent’s: it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles. Now I get why Schuyler told his friend, “you seem to be the only one who knows what the subject for a poem is.” This isn’t to say that everything O’Hara casts his eye on and sets into lines is golden. Sometimes it’s sloppy, dull, or nonsensical. “It’s 12:10 in New York and I am wondering / if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch.” I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to hear what happens at 12:15! Will he finish the poem??? Ugh. And don’t get me started on the way he namedrops his friends in the poems… But these are poems of immediacy, poems of taking the world as it exists, in that moment. It feels like the past and future falls away and all that remains is now. When O’Hara thinks he’s wrong, he corrects himself: “I am ill today but I am not / too ill. I am not ill at all.” He’s agile, and like a jazz musician he’s not so much playing the music as playing the changes. In “My Heart,” he declares, “I want to be / at least as alive as the vulgar.” What I love about O’Hara is the way that he is camp, because it’s not too camp. It is not camp at all. What his poems declare, to quote his friend Schuyler, is “I just can’t help it, I feel like this.” Certainly other poets have expressed this democracy of taste, this unbridled attraction before him—particularly Whitman, in his own nineteenth-century queer way. As O’Hara once commented to his roommate and sometimes lover, Joe Lesueur, homosexuality wasn’t just about sex, it was about his love of the freedoms that went with it. O’Hara seized on this and sought out what he wanted when he wanted it. As Lesueur describes in his memoir Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, “Frank had at various times both the desire and the determination to make out with a great majority of the people to whom he was attracted, their diversity being truly mind-boggling: big guys, little guys, macho straight men, flagrantly gay men, rough trade, gay trade, friends, friends of friends, offspring of his friends, blonds, blacks, Jews, and—women: Grace Hartigan, for example.” Our lives won’t be all kangaroos and blond ballet dancers. And difference can be painful, it can be felt like a disfigurement, and it’s easy to envy, at times, the ease of life for people in the majority. As O’Hara laments “you were made in the image of god / I was not / I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver.” But there’s joy in loving what you love, a purity in expressing it exactly in its unchecked, effusive and messy truth, and O’Hara felt no shame in putting that feeling out there with an exclamation!
Essays, Notable Articles, On Poetry

So That If I Died It Mattered

1. I went back to Ohio Friday night to see another friend from college get married. This was my fifth such wedding in three years. Surrounded by my Ohio friends and their spouses, I found myself having to consider, once again, what it means to be 29 and not in a meaningful relationship. My last long-term romance concluded in the wake of my graduation from Ohio University in 2006. I immediately migrated to the creative mecca of New York, a city that doesn’t pressure you to grow up in the same way the Midwest does. Professionally and creatively-speaking, it is a world class incubator, no doubt. But if you wish to remain a career bachelor, you receive a Big Apple cosign into your seventies. Every transplant I know has had to head home at some point to face the germinating evidence of their profound singleness. I was in Ohio less than 24 hours, as I had to return to perform a poetry set on Sunday afternoon at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park. I am a working poet. Over the past six years, I have led creative writing workshops and performed poetry in auditoriums, bars, syringe exchanges, universities, libraries, prisons, youth centers, bookstores, and theaters in Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and across the United States. The pay is modest but manageable, and every time I seriously consider a less freelance source of income, some new window of opportunity opens whispering, don’t be afraid, you are supposed to be here. When asked to explain my choices, I’ve said, “Art is how you explain what it feels like to be alive in the 21st century. I am an emotional historian.” But that’s really my answer to, “Why should we all make art?” My why is more personal. When I hit a writing groove, or perform, all these divided parts focus into one story. In these small moments, I am not confused about what matters. Looking out at the crowd in Tompkins Square Park, I realize that this is the largest audience I have ever performed for. Over 6,000 people spread across the grass and concrete to see jazz. I go to the bathroom five times in 45 minutes, and nearly throw up in front of the Summer Stage photo backdrop. Jeanne Kabenji once told me that, “Stage fright is your body informing you of a journey into the unknown.” I wish I had asked anyone I love to be here. 2. Yesterday, my mother drove two hours from Cincinnati to take me to breakfast. While my hungover stomach caved in around itself in the Columbus Red Roof Inn, I prayed to the gods of clarity to make me a good son. I’ve spent too many years taking out my own emotional confusion on my mother because she never stops loving me. She would rather be with me than without me, even when I’m a dick, and I’ve spent years fashioning that into some sort of license. I make it through a breakfast burrito, and keep the narratives about last night’s reception minimalist. We have two hours until she drives me to the airport, so we go to Goodale Park. My mother is the kindest person a lot of people know. I often tell her this, and she consistently assures, “You haven’t always known me.” She was the seventh of twelve children in an Irish-Catholic, anti-contraception household in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. In 1995, my grandmother was losing a battle with cancer, while single-handedly caring for my grandfather whose brain was succumbing more, each day, to Alzheimer's. She allowed my mother to visit and stay until she passed; to change my grandfather’s diapers, take him on walks; to bring my grandmother water, and make her bed. My mother has a history of never asking more from those who are suffering, and she listens to people (not just loved ones) in a way that makes them feel heard. That scene in White Men Can’t Jump where Rosie Perez explains love to Woody Harrelson, something like, “I don’t want you to bring me water, I want you to sympathize. To say Gloria, I too know what it’s like to be thirsty.” My mother invented that shit, but she also brings water. This spawned years of rebellion from me, her youngest son. I pursued independence by repeatedly rejecting, resenting, desperately succumbing to, and then ultimately depending on this profound well of empathy. By “repeatedly,” I mean over, and over, and over between the ages of 13 and 28. This didn’t prevent me from appreciating my mother, but it did prevent me from humanizing her kindness. After my parents’ brief separation when I was 14, my body would not let my mother cry around me. I would, literally, fall asleep. My father, with a heavy heart, had left the home of his wife and four children in order to find out more about the love he had for another woman. It was impossible for my mother to talk about what was happening without crying, and my reaction was always swift. Eventually, she stopped telling me. For 14 years, we focused on a subject we both loved: Me. This Saturday in Columbus is the longest time I’ve spent alone with my mother since I was a teenager. The overt parts of who I am, I immediately trace to my father. I was a chubby kid (as was my dad), and my three older brothers were not, which made everyone assume I was the primary recipient of his genetics. We are both viscerally stubborn, until quietly we are not. We don’t allow the ones we love to know we have heard them. We lash out defensively, then, over time, we let them watch us change. 3. My time slot at the Jazz Festival is just before the headliner: Gregory Porter is a legend, and the park quakes for him. The ten minutes it takes his band to set up is to be filled with poetry. The festival host from Jazz 88.3 says only, “Now welcome the author of The New Clean, Jon Sands.” Followed by 6,000 people who do not know I can see each of their faces, individually. I begin a poem called “When I See Andre 3000 Buying Bananas at Trader Joe’s.” The first line is, I say everything you’ve ever done/ has meant so much to me./ He says, I’ve done PCP. I say/ that meant so much to me.  When I get to the part of the poem where Andre 3000 asks me about everything I’ve ever done, I have to admit, I masturbated this morning picturing/ a woman I made out with two years ago./ I am preachy and self-important/ when I talk about race with my family,/ sometimes when I’m not listening,/ I make my face look like it’s SUPER listening. The crowd communicates two types of people: those who have no idea what is happening on stage at this jazz festival, and are entertained by that, and those who have no idea what is happening, and are decidedly not. I’m not sure which camp I fall in. The poem ends to a confused smattering of applause, and I say, “The other poem I’d like to read you today is a love poem.” This is the first time I have ever been booed. It was only about 100 of 6,000, but 100 sounds like a shitload. I say, “I know! I can’t wait to hear Gregory Porter either, but he needs to set up!” Then I introduce the poem I wrote for the wedding of my brother Ben in October of 2011 on the occasion of his marriage to a Texas transplant named Wendell. They had been engaged before same-sex marriage was legal in New York, and whenever fielding questions of whether they planned to go to Massachusetts to legitimize their nuptials, they’d reply that they wanted to get married in the city where they had fallen in love, where they go to work, pay taxes, argue, take walks, and drink coffee. If the civil rights didn’t exist yet— they would vote, and they would wait. The first time I read the poem aloud was to my brother, sunk into his couch in Hell’s Kitchen. It documents the night Ben first knew he loved Wendell, four months into their relationship. Wendell leapt from the bed they shared, mid-credits of a James Bond movie, to execute an interpretive spy dance around Ben’s bedroom in his underwear. This man, possessed only by the desire to bring him joy, unlocked Ben. The poem says of my brother, You are traveling into your past where he is/ not, but now you see him everywhere./ In the moving van at nine years old. At thirteen,/ in the mirror and the bottle of pills, he was there./ In the arms of the first man to hold you/ and assure you were beautiful.  In my high school of 2,200 kids, Ben was the only student out-of-the-closet. He came out the summer before his junior year, but four years prior, after being bullied at choir practice by an eighth grader who called him a faggot (something that had happened to him since he was in second grade), he quietly admitted to himself that everyone was right. He was shameful, and it would be best for our family if he wasn’t here. He walked into our bathroom and swallowed a bottle of Advil. A half hour later he told my mother, and in three minutes he was riding shotgun in my father’s Ford Taurus doing 55 on the back roads to the hospital. The doctors induced vomiting, and he spent the next four hours in a hospital bed while my mother brushed the hair across his forehead and whispered over and over again that she loved him. I read the poem I wrote for his wedding to this man who I need to never lose faith in me: my brother, who has played an unimaginable role in the person I am attempting to become. The poem had to claw from my mouth as we held each other sobbing on the couch. The reading in Tompkins Square Park is less cathartic. I can see the individual faces, the ones that have no idea that I’m looking at them. Some are angry that I am still on stage. A few have tears in their eyes. Some are confused. Some not. As though nudged from a dream, my set is over, and I am free to consider what just happened. The stage manager says, “Tough crowd, huh?” I am 29 and single, walking backstage to mild applause. 4. My mother’s younger sister Mary died at four years old. She drowned in a lake behind their house. My mom is 60 now, sitting with me in Goodale Park. She tells me that years after her death, the man who found Mary’s body would die as a drunk driver in a car accident. He had carried the body back to their house. Each brother and sister saw her laid out at 4:00 p.m. on the only free bed. A neighbor cooked them all hot dogs and heated up frozen corn, and by 5:00 p.m. all the younger children were put to bed. In the morning, they woke for the wake, and by 2:00 p.m. Mary was buried forever in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She tells me that when the family got home from the funeral, her two eldest siblings, both in high school, were scheduled to attend a weekly sock-hop. My grandparents urged them to go, saying, “You have to move on with your life.” For years, her parents rarely spoke of Mary. My mother would learn in her adult life that they had spent three years of nights privately crying in the dark. My mom was seven, learning that grief did not involve sadness. You die, then a hole closes around where you were, perhaps leaving a small scar, and then the survivors continue with the business of mortality. Her parents fought, perhaps, the most difficult battle of their lives in silence in order to not burden their children with even a small share of grief. “Did you think that was a good thing?” I ask. “Honestly, as a child, I never thought about that.” It wasn’t until over a decade later, when my mother was at Creighton University in Omaha, that she slid into a profound depression. Her realization, thousands of miles from her gigantic family and past, was that if she died, it would be a small story on the Creighton Campus, a small story in New Jersey, and ultimately, no one depended on her survival. Then she tells me, her youngest son, what I never thought to ask. “I really tried hard to be the best person I could be. So that if I died it mattered.” She puts a hand on my forearm, and her face scrunches together like it might withhold what she just said. Tears begin to drop from her cheek and gather on the wood. I can see all that I have inherited in this life from work my mother did before she ever knew me; what it means that I am sitting across from her in an empty park watching her cry. I picture my mother again at the hospital with Ben in 1994. I can see how she must have wanted nothing more than to protect him at choir practice, to defend him in study hall, or anywhere else that adolescence proved itself relentless to her 13-year-old son; how all she had to give was the person she had become, how it placed her by his hospital bed: a steadfast witness, a position she would never abandon; how then when he came out of the closet four years later, she knew that he had saved his own life. I can see how much it meant to me to be asked to document the love story of my older brother; to be held, weeping on his couch, in recognition of the life we’ve spent together. Since I was born, I have always assumed I was becoming only my father. I can see how the desire to matter is not a charge that began with my birth, or will culminate with my death. My eyes are open, and I can see, for a moment, who I have become.