In last year’s winter issue of Crab Creek Review, I wrote a poem in the voice of a glacier. Pick up a copy of this fantastic journal if you have a chance, or subscribe. My thanks to Jenifer Lawrence and my old friend and press-mate, Martha Silano.
What follows is a brief note that accompanies the poem.
On “Glaciers”: To live today is to experience the occasional bout of species self-hatred. We make movies in which apes are the heroes. We live with climatological changes for which we’ve only ourselves to blame. “Glaciers” is a tongue-lashing that attempts to exorcise this particular loathing.
It is also a dramatic monologue and a bit of a dodge. The poem comes from my forthcoming book, The Identity Thief, where I’m often keen to become someone else.
I am delighted to return to Poetry Northwest with a poem about–in order of appearance–early snowstorms, a bouquet of microphones, and a garbage flotilla. It’s called “Letter in a Bottle for When the Seas Rise.”
It has been a few months since I posted links to my new poetry available on the web. (These things happen when you start a new academic position, as I recently have at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.)
Also: a pair of short poems in Chris Lott’s lovely little journal, concīs, an online venue for brevity. They are “The Book of Sex” and “We Live Our Lives through Other People’s Bodies.” The former had previously appeared in the Potomac Review, the latter in the Laurel Review.
Thanks too to Chris for the Pushcart Prize nomination! Stay tuned for more new poetry, to be posted later today.
Please consider writing your members of Congress to voice your support for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Both organization have been–as John Ashbery writes in his monstiche “The Cathedral”–”slated for destruction.” My wife, Anne Fisher, and I would not be where we are today were it not for a NEA Translation grant that we received in 2010.
For a defense of these vital organizations–which disproportionately help rural and underserved are (like mine, Montgomery County)–see our letters to the editor in The Indianapolis Star and The Journal Review (Crawfordsville, Indiana).
When my name appeared on the noxious Professor’s Watchlist–a McCarthyist attempt to shame professors who speak out about social justice–I set aside some precious break time to write a reply. Not only is my entry on the list factually inaccurate, it is intimidation masquerading as public service.
Also: my apologies to Ken McClane, the other poet on the Watchlist, whom I only recognized as a poet when Sandra McPherson brought him to my attention in a comment to my essay. For more on this see the comments section.
I retain my original blog post title above, with an asterisk to mark the correction.
(NB: The following letter was sent to the Indianapolis Star on September 24, 2016. The Star never responded to my request to print the letter, whether online or in print.)
September 24, 2016
To the Editorial Board of the Indianapolis Star:
Although I appreciative the investigative rigor that Tony Cook applies to the voter fraud “controversy” in Marion and Hendricks counties, ten registration forms that lack social security numbers—either through haste, negligence, or forgery—hardly qualifies as front page news. At the very least, Mr. Cook fails to provide context to the actual threat that voter fraud poses to our elections.
Study after study has shown that voter fraud does not exist in any meaningful way in the U.S. The New York Times came to this conclusion in 2007. Lorraine Minnite did as well in The Myth of Voter Fraud (2010). Jane Mayer’s investigative piece for the New Yorker, “The Voter-Fraud Myth,” aggregates these and many other studies, including a Bush administration study that found just 86 cases in a nation of 300 million. She too concurs: voter fraud is almost nonexistent.
What then is happening in Marion and Hendricks counties? As Mayer notes, nearly all states suffer from “administrative incompetence, sloppy registration rolls, [and] unreliable machinery.” The second is the likelier explanation for what’s going on in Indiana, and Patriot Majority USA is probably at fault. Some of their workers—in an effort to meet a quota or end a long day—cut some corners.
Still, this is a far cry from voter fraud, which would require those same workers to impersonate the ten voters listed on the ten applications in question. As Robert Brandon, the president of the Fair Elections Legal Network, and a longtime advocate for reform notes, this scenario is “silly” because “you cannot steal an election one vote at a time.” It also never happens.
I encourage Mr. Cook and the Indy Star to reconsider how they frame this issue in future articles. Indiana has one of the most restrictive Voter ID laws in the country. These laws, which disproportionately affect the elderly, poor, and minorities—25% of citizens over 65 and 18% of African Americans lack state-issued IDs—are the greater scourge.
Dr. Derek Mong
Byron K. Trippet Professor of English
My final issue as Mantis‘s Poetry Editor is now available! You can pick up your copies at AWP in Los Angeles (March 30th – April 2nd) or through our new website. Below you’ll find my introduction to this issue’s New Poetry.
“Everything that I thought would be gone is still here,” Natalie Garyet writes in “The Boys School.” It’s a line that I’ve returned to often as I reread this 14th issue of Mantis, my last as the journal’s Poetry Editor. For four years I’ve delighted in publishing new and established poets in these pages, and this issue’s work makes me proud. Sharon Black meditates “On Inability”; Andrew Field investigates the “untidy” self. Like the poets assembled here, it is “jostling inside like silverware during an earthquake.” If we’re lucky, we’ll “remember / every word of the song / that the wind rips apart” (Zilka Joseph).
Which is all to say that this year’s poetry contains equal parts elegy and ecstasy. Jonathan Greenhause finds self-pleasure in a legislative proclamation “[w]hereby we rediscover our hands / & resolve to masturbate / ‘til our wrists click & pop.” His take on legal language makes our election year feel a little less grim. Derick Mattern revisits the monastery at Mar Saba, following in the footsteps of Melville’s Clarel. David Wojahn—one of our most astute poets and critics—writes admiringly to two women: Lorine Niedecker and his wife. His “Anniversary Poem” reminds me that 2016 is a leap year. We’ve an extra day to see—as Valerie Wernet does in “MORNING*GREEN”—the world’s color anew. Let us all resolve at some point to join her in “v y i n g / f o r d a y ’ s y e l l o w / hand.”
For those readers interested in longer poems or sequences, Mantis’s traditional strength, there’s Arkaye Kierulf, Jonathan Lowther, and Clayton Eshleman. Lowther writes his “555” sonnets by crunching Shakespeare’s own love poems through “text analytic software.” The result is a comic romp in which “[n]othing really mattress.” Kierulf, a wonderful Filipino poet still unknown in the U.S., tracks a “Great Traveling Hunger” as it “tiptoe[s] on the swaying tips / Of sleeping grass.” Eshleman mourns a friend. Loss, I’m coming to learn, is something that “radiates, / its liquid shadow falls / across the earth” (Hadara Bar-Nadav). I’m very pleased to have these poets send me on my way.
The current issue of Two Lines (Spring 2016, #24) is a great one for Russian literature. Sibelan Forrester translates I. Grekova, James Kates translates Aigerm Tazhi, and Anne Fisher and I translate two more poems by Maxim Amelin. We’re particularly proud of our “Classical Ode to V. V. Mayakovsky,” where Amelin tells Mayakovsky to become “the man you never were: / grow old, but stay tradition’s scourge, / the crossroads where all streets converge, / the stallion mounting every mare!” Words to live by, for all of us! Thanks to C.J. Evans at Two Lines and all the good folks at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. Pick up your copy today!
Also available is our translation of “The Scribe’s Confession” at Waxwing Literary Journal (online). You’ll have to read this one yourself to learn the Scribe’s secret. Thanks for Sarah Valentine at Waxwing for accepting the poem, Curtis Bauer for soliciting the Translators’ Note, and Todd Kaneko–whom I met, years ago, at Kenyon College–for making such a beautiful journal. We’re proud to be a part of it. See also Katherine Young’s translations of the Russian poems of Xenia Emelyanova in the same issue.
I am delighted to announce that in the fall of 2016 I will become the Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. My course load will consist of American Literature and Creative Writing. This is something of a dream appointment for a poet-scholar, and I look forward to classes on 19th century American Literature, Poetry Writing, and College Composition. In the meantime, if you think you’ll be in Indiana next year, drop me a line!
In the final days before the end of the 2015 Christmas shopping season, I posted a pair of reviews for Kenyon Review Online. The topic? Children’s poetry, that wonderfully underrated genre enjoying a bit of a renaissance of late. There are some fantastic children’s poets–Jon Scieszka, Brian Lies–worth checking out if you’ve got small ones to read to or enjoy light verse and literary parodies.
The article comes in two parts: “A Last Minute Shopper’s Guide to Children’s Poetry” and “Children’s Poetry: Four Short Takes.” I cover a total of seven books, spend a good bit of time discussing ballad meter, and recommend a fine poetic rendition of Moby-Dick.
My thanks to Neil Aitken for including “Preamble” in the current issue of Boxcar Poetry Review. The poem, which is about making babies in Moscow, finds good company in the work of Kai Carlson-Wee and Kazumi Chin.
Boxcar also published an interview that Dean Rader and I did after our first books came out, way back in 2011.
“Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt,” a finalist for the Wells College Press Chapbook Contest, will appear in Blackbird
Congratulations to the J.R. Tappenden, whose chapbook Independent City, won the 2016 Wells Press Chapbook Contest. My own manuscript, Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt, was a finalist, and I was delighted to read the following from Wells Press:
“Judges’ comments about the manuscript included praise for it as ‘a wonderfully complex and suggestive meditation’ combining elements of the poet’s personal life and study with ‘multi-layered historical story-telling and unusual muse-worship.’ It was also described as both ‘very original’ and ‘fascinating,’ a tour-de-force that the poet ‘pulls off masterfully.’”
In the meantime, Blackbird has picked up the entire poem, a 320 seduction of dessert saint, for a publication in 2016! My thanks to both Wells College Press and Blackbird for believing in the central poem for my forthcoming collection, The Identity Thief.
I’m delighted to have three poems in the current issue of American Literary Review: “In the Land Between Sex and Conception,” “The Second Year,” and “The Undecided Voter.” Check out some new translations from Jesse Lee Kercheval too, and lovely poems by Dan Beachy-Quick and Gary Fincke. My thanks to Bruce Bond and Corey Mark for the opportunity to appear in ALR once more.
The newly redesigned Potomac Review is a sight to behold. I’m honored to have two short poems, eight lines each, in the current issue, number 57: “The Book of Sex” and “The Book of Sex 2.” You’ll have to order this one online, as Potomac is print only… but it’s worth it! My thanks to Potomac‘s editor, Julie Wakeman-Linn for the acceptance and for suggesting I revise the titles. The poems began as “Sex Libris” and “Sex Libris 2.”
When the Oregonian/OregonLive published an editorial asserting that we “lack defensible information” connecting gun ownership and gun deaths, I could not let it pass. And so I did the most old-fashioned and civic-minded thing that came to mind: I wrote a letter to the editor telling them why they’re wrong. Below is the full letter, unedited. A somewhat sorter and hyper-linked version appears online. Beware the online comments section!
The Oregonian is wrong to assert in its October 11th editorial that we lack “defensible information” connecting gun ownership with gun violence. As both Politico and Slate have reported, gun owners are far more likely to die from gun violence than non-gun owners and almost never use their guns in self-defense. This matters because “personal safety” is the number one reason (63%) that Americans buy guns (Gallup). But this belief is based on anecdote and misinformation, not fact.
As the non-partisan Gun Violence Archive has shown, Americans recorded fewer than 1,600 verifiable instances of DGU (defensible gun use) in 2014. Even if that number were doubled to account for unverifiable instances, it pales beside the 30,000 gun deaths that Americans annually record, 20 times more than any comparable country. The American Journal of Medicine (Oct 2013) agrees: “[t]he number of guns per capita per country was a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death in a given country.”
The NRA will, of course, cite a now 23-year old study that estimates 1.5 million DGUs per year (Kleck and Getz). But this study’s findings have since been proved “mathematically impossible” (Politico). It concludes, for instance, that 845,000 burglaries resulted in DGUs, but we know that only 1.3 million burglaries were committed during their study’s stated window, and of those only a third of the victims (429,000) were awake at the time. Even if every burglarized home contained a gun, the NRA’s numbers just don’t add up.
The Oregonian then misleads its readers when it states that “deep irrefutable data” on gun violence is lacking. Both “The Myth Behind the Defensive Gun Ownership” (Politico) and “The Myth of the Good Guy with the Gun” (Slate) cite multiple, peer-reviewed studies that prove that we Americans do not lack the data to tackle our gun problem, we lack the political will. I would invite the Oregonian to reconsider their position, and perhaps join me in supporting Australian style gun control measures, as that country instituted in 1996 and 2003. Unless, of course, they missed that story too. It was covered in The Washington Post on June 23, 2015.
I’m delighted to announce that my second poetry collection, The Identity Thief, will be published by Saturnalia Books in 2018! My thanks to Henry Israeli, Sarah Blake, and Saturnalia for being so exceptionally supportive. My first collection, Other Romes, appeared with Saturnalia in 2011, and I’m delighted to stay with a publisher that continues to support its authors. Swing on over to their brand new website to find some fantastic books by Martha Silano, Jay Nebel, Kendra DeColo, and many others.
Last Thursday I defended my doctoral dissertation on Whitman and Dickinson at Stanford University, but–as anyone who has ever written anything knows–I didn’t exactly accomplish that feat alone. Below are my acknowledgments, just as they appear in the dissertation. One shouldn’t have to navigate ProQuest to be thanked.
I am grateful to my dissertation committee for the helpful and supportive comments made during the writing of these chapters: Gavin Jones, Kenneth Fields, and Roland Greene, my advisor. Roland had the generosity and grace to support me when I chose to work on this project from afar. Though begun in a carol in the basement of Stanford University’s Green Library, this dissertation was completed in and around Portland, Oregon, the bulk of the writing done between January of 2014 and August of 2015. Roland’s Skype and phone conversation let me know that the dark tunnel of dissertation writing would only be dark for so long.
Thank you to those members of my Orals Committee (Phoebe Putnam and Sianne Ngai) not included above. There would be no Emily Dickinson in this dissertation were it not for Phoebe’s seminar on Dickinson in the winter of 2012. Thank you to Paul Kiparsky for moderating my Orals exam and for teaching a course on Metrics in the fall of 2011.
Two other faculty members deserve special mention. I would not have finished this dissertation, let alone my coursework, were it not for Christopher Rovee, now at Louisiana State University. Academic writing is not my first language. Chris assured me, with patience and understanding, that I could find music in my second tongue. My third chapter began as a seminar paper for his course on Victorian Literature and Photography (fall 2010). I dedicate it to him. I’m also indebted to Alex Woloch, who shepherded me through my Qualifying Exam and this doctorate, my second (and far harder) graduate degree. His time as the Director of Graduate Studies produced a series of excellent Orals and Dissertation Workshops. His door was never closed.
I was privileged, in the fall of 2010, to be admitted into Stanford’s English Department alongside a smart, collegial, and blessedly uncompetitive cohort. Thank you Dalglish Chew, J.D. Porter, Erik Johnson, Vanessa Seals, Hannah Walser, and Morgan Frank for your friendship and the comments provided on an early draft of the first chapter. Thank you Judy Candell for running a tight departmental ship.
There are those outside the Stanford orbit—scholars, poets, and those who (like me) identity as both—whose comments helped shape this project. Some are associated with my alma mater, Denison University: Sandy Runzo, Dennis Read, Ann Townsend, John Miller, and David Baker. David continues to teach me about Whitman some 17 years since we first met. I am grateful to count him and his colleagues as my friends. John Whittier-Ferguson, Linda Gregerson, and Laurence Goldstein—all from the University of Michigan—remain my scholastic models. My publisher at Saturnalia Books, Henry Israeli, provided a timely note of encouragement when I would rather have given up. Thanks to Tom Byers and Alan Golding, my former colleagues at the University of Louisville, for their kind words and for writing about American poetry. My work on Edward Weston’s Leaves of Grass, presented at The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 in February of 2014, was inadequate recompense.
Most scholars, if they’re lucky, work from large and well-stocked academic libraries. My own home base has changed daily, and my research was conducted in a variety of stacks. I am thankful then for the following institutions, none of which objected to my rattling cart of books or my propensity to take up space: the Cascade Park Branch of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library (Vancouver, Washington), the Reed College Library (Portland, Oregon), the Woodstock branch of the Multnomah County Public Library (Portland, Oregon), and the library at Clark College (Vancouver, Washington). I’m thankful for the collections at these institutions, particularly Multnomah County Public Library, and for the librarians who aided me in my academic pursuits. There is one patron at Cascade Park in Vancouver who will be happy to see that I’ve finally left for good. Thank you Coffee Revolution in Vancouver. Thank you Papaccino’s in Portland. Thank you Powells Books. Thank you Rebecca Wingfield, Curator for American and British Literature at Stanford University’s Green Library, for providing online access to All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. And thanks to Rose Harrington, also at Green, who still remembers me when I pass by the Information Desk.
A number of friends provided beds during my travels, though it was their company that was, in the end, most restorative: Kyle Coma-Thompson and his wife Marie in Louisville, Kentucky; Lev Osherovich, his wife Molli, along with their children Ezra and Auri in San Francisco; Nancy Ganner in our old neighborhood of Bernal Heights (San Francisco). Thanks as well to Nathan Boyer, Sarah Johnson, and their daughter, Ingrid Kesswood.Together you made our Sunday nights sing. Thanks to Eric Parrish for listening to my complaints.
And then there’s family. My parents, Robert and Jean, offered their home for mid-day writing. This was only the smallest of the many gestures that helped me complete this work. My brother Ryan encouraged me to find a use for my body other than holding up my head. (I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.) My wife, Anne Fisher, understood from the beginning just how hard this would be and offered the time and space to help me finish. Her advice has been inestimable, her editorial eye exact. She will always be the Good Doctor in our family of three. Thank you once again. As for our son, Whitman Avery Mong, born one week after I entered Stanford, now five as this degree comes to a close—tonight we read in bed.
One final note: this dissertation is dedicated to my aunt and uncle, Susan and Leslie Mitchell of Berkeley, California, who have repeatedly opened their home so that I could continue my academic pursuits. I’ve spent one summer, one fall, and countless evenings as their live-in guest. I’ve lost count of the nights I’ve spent drinking wine at their kitchen table or the times that Leslie has ferried me to and from North Berkeley BART. I’ll never forget how much you both did to help me see this degree to its end. I love you both.
The knives are out again for Helen Vendler. In the following essay I posted for KROnline, I tell you why.
Check out Drunken Boat 22 for my adaptation of Jacob Balde’s “Melancholia.” Balde has my favorite conversion story of all the Jesuit poets I know… admittedly a small number. He was serenading a woman from beneath her window when he heard a psalm sung from a nearby church. The psalm, he thought, was better. Shortly thereafter, he joined the faith. Thanks for Drunken Boat for inviting me write a small translator’s note and posting an audio recording of the poem.
I love James Salter (1925 – 2015) and his fiction. I am a poet. Are these two facts in any way related? Or, to put it another way, “Is a writer’s writer’s writer really just a poet’s writer all along?”
This is the question I explore in the “The Poet’s Salter: An Appreciation of James Salter” an essay you can read now at Kenyon Review Online. My deep thanks to David Lynn for inviting me to blog for KR.
“Writing advice is like that collection of microbes growing in your stomach. Everybody’s got some, but do you really want to share?”
“Translation is a marvelous thing: it removes the problem of invention, heightens our relationship with other literatures, and makes us less dependent on the self.”
These and other bits of writerly reflection are up now at The Kenyon Review Online, where I was recently interviewed as part of the KR Conversations series. The interview is super short, but cover lots of issues I care passionately about: reader-friendly criticism, translation, and how one mixes parenting and poetry. As always, it’s an honor to be a part of KR!
Alex Cigale, one of America’s leading editors of Russian poetry, has included a new Amelin poem in his special “Russia” issue of the Atlanta Review (22.2). Alex guest-edited the issue, and Annie and I are thankful to him and Daniel Veach, the editor and publisher of Atlanta Review.
Also included are two reprints of earlier translations. “In a Temple with an Arcade” first appeared at Jacket2 alongside our interview with Amelin. “In August the Stars Shoot through the Night Air” first appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review 4 (2014). Due to an editing error, the final four stanzas were left off the reprint of “In August.” Below you’ll find the poem in full.
Matthias Sarbiewski (1595 – 1640), a Neo-Latin poet often referred to as the Polish Horace, has joined social media! Thanks to Krzysztof Fordonski and the International Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski Society, new trends in Sarbiewski scholarship and translation can now be followed on Facebook. Fordonski is himself a Sarbiewski scholar and his wonderful Casimir Brittannicus (2010) collects the long tradition of emulating, adapting, and translating Sabiewski’s poems into English. That tradition begins in 1646 with George Hills and runs through Robert Burns, Samuel Coleridge and, well, me. I’ve one Sarbiewski adaptation in Other Romes–it’s part of the “Songs of Sickness” series–and another arriving in The Identity Thief: “Hide and Seek.”
In honor of the International Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski Society, I’ll post the latter below. I adapted this poem from ”Ad Iesum Opt. Max.” (Liber IV, Ode XIX), a text found in Jesuit Latin Poets of the 17th and 18th Century (eds. James J. Mertz and John P. Murphy). An equally good source for Sarbiewski in Latin is Fred Nichols’s An Anthology of Neo-Latin Poetry (1979).
This poem originally appeared in The Laurel Review 47.2 (spring 2014). Enjoy!
Printer’s Devil Review, which graciously allows you to download a full PDF of their current issue, has published three of my poems in their spring 2015 issue: “The Rented House,” “Blason Wherein My Head Becomes a Mountain,” and “On the Flooding of Prague.” The latter two are adapted from the Latin of Joachim Du Bellay (1522 – 1560) and Elizabeth Jane Weston (1581 – 1612), respectively. Take a peak! They’ve got sheep on their cover, sheep wearing clothes and lugging suitcases.
My essay “Ten New Ways to Read Ronald Johnson’s Radi os“ was up all last week at Poetry Daily, a wonderful bit of exposure for the piece, Johnson’s poem, and the Kenyon Review, where it’s been published in this month’s new issue: number 37.4 (July/August 2015). Give it a read (for free!) to hear new takes on erasure, speed reading, cookbooks, and the theory of literary relativity await you. Or subscribe to the Kenyon Review and get good stuff all year. With thanks to David Baker, David Lynn, and GC Waldrep over at KR.
And extra thanks for Natalie Shapero, fellow Saturnalia author, for her lovely read on the essay in the KROnline feature: “Why We Chose It.” She makes a nice point about the use of erasure for poets interested in redactions and the police state: Phil Metres, Solmaz Sharif, for instance. Interesting stuff!
Pick up a copy of the new Chariton Review–brought to you by the good folks at Truman State University Press–to find five new poem by yours truly, written over the course of, well, five or six years? So by “new” I mean “old,” in a way. The oldest among them, appropriately enough, is titled ”A Time Machine in 60 Years of Less or Your Money Back” and dates back to June of 2007 when I was the Peter Taylor Fellow at The Kenyon Review Summer Writers’ Workshop. It’s an exercise in syllabic attrition. “Fool’s Literature” is similarly dated, riffing on the aptness of a forgotten literary genre for the Bush-era, though it’s rhetorical points still hold for today. “Convinced My Speech is Unreliable” muses on syntax, linguistics, and cotton. I’m thankful to Nathan Sanders, a bona fide linguist, for the poem’s inspiration and opening sentence.
Two other poems–”Theory of the Afterlife” and ”An Invitation to Mr. Eric Parrish”–are a little more recent. The latter was written to my college roommate and friend: the inestimable Eric Parrish. My thanks to James D’Agostino and Jen Creer for accepting the work and for doing such a beautiful job with its tricky lineations. In issue 38.1 you’ll also poems by Daniel Bourne and Andrew Kozma, and an essay by Jo de Waal.
One final note: Chariton Review asks all their contributors to write a paragraph or two on a particular topic of writerly interest. In this case, they chose the “unknown.” It’s a lovely way to poll a diverse pool of individuals and then share their views with readers at large. My contribution follows below.
END TABLE NOTE for Chariton Review:
Form is a known in a minefield of unknowns. To find a poem’s form—whether structural (syllabics) or rhetorical (the aubade)—is to free one’s self to face the other unknowns that make writing hard: what’s this about, who does it speak to, does this or that metaphor work? This, of course, is the paradox that formalists speak of with pride: their restrictions give them the freedom to feel around in the dark. In my poems printed in this issue, form plays something of that role. The syllabic attrition in “A Time Machine in 60 Years or Less” was its raison d’etre. “Fool’s Literature” riffs on a literary definition (its rhetorical form) in rhyming couplets (its sonic form). “An Invitation to Mr. Eric Parrish” imitates Bishop’s famous epistle to Moore.
And yet even the most formal poets must admit to the role that the unpredictable plays. Figurative language, I’ve found, is almost always an excursion into the aleatory and the unknown. I’ll stop mid-sentence, my tenor on the page, then wait for whatever vehicle comes skidding down the road. Will the image be sufficiently unlike the tenor to make the comparison startle? Will the process take a moment or a year? If Yeats’s lines about revision come to mind at such moments—“A line will take us hours maybe, / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught”—so too does the following from Ronald Johnson’s Radi os: “Chance governs all.”
We here at Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Translation has recently released out 13th issue. I’m as proud as ever to be Mantis‘s Poetry Editor and invite you to pick up a copy wherever you can. Our website is, as always, in need of a little TLC, but our journal itself is handsomely designed (thank you Josh Edwards) and expertly curated (than you, Virginia Ramos). Feel free to submit poems or purchase a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Below you’ll find my introduction to our New Poems.
Introduction to New Poems
If 2014 was the hottest year on record, then the 20 poets in Mantis’s lucky, thirteenth issue took note. “Apples fall in the apple kingdom” writes Will Harris, a by-product perhaps of the “heat, like red paint thrown on me / in protest” (Natalie Shapero), and “the last fires” making “their way across an ochre expanse” (Doug Ramspeck). Harris splits his time between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates; Shapero and Ramspeck both live in Ohio. Whether seen from the Middle East or the Midwest, this simmering world gives us pause. Or it compels us—as it does C.W. Emerson—to pray. He hopes that some shred of our species will “find its way into time’s pleats and waves.”
There is a strain of Eliotic desolation then running through these poems, though other, countervailing impulses as well. Stephen Massimilla, Randall Brown, and MJ Bender remind us—in rich, sonically acute language—why landscape matters. Joe Betz opens our selection with a “touchdown pass” tribute to marital love. Aaron Anstett asks us “how wet / earth smells where [we] live.” Keith Taylor responds by following the wind. The possible balms are as numerous as these poets’ professions. We’ve writers who are baristas, soldiers, psychologists, painters, librarians, philosophers, and profs.
For those interested in the poetic sequence—Mantis’s traditional strength—I would direct you to H. L. Hix, Benjamin Grossberg, and Monica Berlin. Hix is among the most prolific, formally inventive, and accomplished poets writing today, and in this excerpt from “Frequently Asked Questions” he tests Blanchot’s belief that “[e]very true question opens onto the whole of questions.” His touchstones? Two African writers and a French political scientist. His form? Distorted sonnets. Grossberg’s Elegies remain tragically, unremittingly closer to home. Monica Berlin practices apologizing in four rangy and remarkable poems. Her sin goes unspoken, but she is—like all the poets assembled here—stunned into “mouthing all the harshness of every damned & beautiful day.”
My thanks to Aaron Barrell at Poetry Northwest for publishing my new essay, “Walt Whitman’s iPad,” this past weekend. The piece takes a recent advertisement for Apple’s iPad Air—and one where the audio consists primarily of Robin Williams’s reciting Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” (1867)—as an opportunity to answer the following questions: would Whitman mind hawking cellular doo-dads? Would he celebrate or scorn social media? And how do we negotiate between recorded minutiae (often, the stuff of poetry) and the images that come Tumblring or Tweeting through our feed (often, the stuff of distraction). It also surveys Whitman’s other “endorsements” (Starbucks coffee, “Blades O’Grass” cigars), identifies the “real” Jack Keating (from Dead Poets Society), and close reads “O Me! O Life!”—all before imagining just what Whitman would do if someone put an iPad in his hand.
A couple of months ago I received the seventh issue of Enclave (Winter 2014), a handsomely designed Chinese literary journal supported by the Shenzhen Cultural Production Fund. Included were a number of my poems, translated into Mandarin by Qin Sunshu, and featured in a larger “Horizons” portfolio alongside work by Peter Campion, Wang Ao, and Wang Xiaoni. I’m honored to know my poetry has crossed the Pacific and remain fascinated by the sight of it in Mandarin, which I very much cannot read. I hope soon to find someone who can read them back to me in Chinese.
Many of the Enclave poems are from Other Romes–“Flying is Everything I Imagine Now and More,” “Coccyx,” and “To My Older Sibling, Miscarried”–while others will appear in my unpublished follow-up, The Identity Thief. My thanks to the wonderful Eleanor Goodman for this opportunity; her own translators from Mandarin appear in Enclave 7, as well as Mantis 13, out now! (And check out her full-length translation of Wang Xiaoni’s Something Crosses My Mind, released by Zephyr Press last year.)
Take a look at the current issue of The Laurel Review for four new poems from my completed manuscript, The Identity Thief. There’s a pair of meta-lyrical meditations on writing and translating–”To Assemble This Poems Properly” and “To Translate This Poem Properly”–as well as a short piece about a bedside vigil and the keen of small airplanes carrying donor organs that “rise, piece by piece, on cloaks // of dry ice.” And then, of course, a Latin adaption from my favorite Neo-Latin poet and 17th century Pole: Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (1595 – 1640). In “Hide and Seek” I borrow his plaintive voice once again to ask if “a gap [that] breaks / in a bank of clouds” is in fact “your big toe testing the water?”
Anne Fisher and I were recently named Finalists for the Gabo Prize For Literature in Translation, named after Gabriel García Márquez, “whose work” the editors write, “has been translated into over a hundred languages, influencing authors far and wide.” Mosey on over to Lunch Ticket to read the five new translations of Maxim Amelin, whose birthday–I’m told–coincides with their January publication. Poems include “In Memory of East Prussia,” a multi-part meditation on the Curonian Spit; “Aesop’s Language”; “You Take Root in Earth”; “A Many-Throated, Many-Mawed, Many-Tongued Rumble”; and “Every Day,” a tribute to Amelin’s friend Borya Geliebter, killed in the 2004 Moscow Metro bombing. We’re thankful to the editors at Lunch Ticket who kindly included the Russian texts as well.
The first journal to accept my original poetry was the Missouri Review, way back in 2006, when they awarded me their Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. The poetry editor then was a fine fellow (and fellow poet) by the name of Jason Koo. I’m thankful to Ye Chun, their current poetry editor, for this recent acceptance.
The poem is about children before they become children. It’s accompanied by a short note on its composition, influences, and contexts.
Check out the second issue of Cooper Street Journal for a decidedly odd poem of mine wherein Cleveland in the 1990s kinda resembles England in the 60s, at least so far as haircuts go. Fans of Rocky movies, syllabics, Arthurian legends, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (the 1962 film more than the 1959 novella) may also be amused. This one dates back to the 2008 or so, and has found a belated home. My thanks to the editors at Cooper Street.
“Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt” endeavors, over the course of 46 octets, to draw a desert ascetic into open dialogue. That ascetic is Mary of Egypt, whose twin lives as a prostitute and penitent offer twin virtues which the speaker, a new parent, newly desires: erotic freedom and extended solitude. The poem, which constitutes the bulk of my second book–tentatively titled The Identity Thief–is an overtly bookish seduction that muses on the relative heaven of embodied books. Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is an acknowledged forerunner. The poem’s a saint’s life (rewritten), a civic portrait (of San Francisco), and a walk home.
And now it’s been named a semi-finalist for the Black River Chapbook Competition from Black Lawrence Press. Many thanks to the editors at BLP and congratulations to Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney, co-winners of the chapbook competition.
Get your hands on the current issue of Reunion: The Dallas Review for four new translations of Maxim Amelin’s poetry from Annie and myself. These include some our favorite of his poems, and are also among the very first we translated. I remember workshopping “Teach Me to Beseech You”–our very first collaborative translation–at an AATSEEL conference in early 2010. And then Nicole Monnier brought us out to Mizzou where we discussed it at the Translatio Conference in April of that year.
The other poems are “The Hulking Carcass of a Dead Orca,” “I Wished I Owned My Own Home,” and “In August the Stars Shoot through the Night Air,” a poem where “the flies go buzzerk” and Maxim declares himself “the author of incorrigible poems, / [and] some muddled epics.”
And for those of you looking for a holiday tie-in, one poem reminds us that Amelin’s “birthday’s on Christmas; / I hope to reach thirty.” Rest assured folks, he does, and we can all wish him a happy 44th next week.
The only literary journal you’ll likely find that prints postage stamps alongside an author’s country of origin, Gobshite Quarterly is among Portland’s collection of fine small press journals. We’re happy to have one of our Amelin translations, “Cyclopean Language Consists of Consonants,” included in their current double issue (Summer/Fall 2014). Fellow Russian translator Alex Cigale is also represented, as is an “exquisite corpse” poem written, in part, by my old Michigan MFA colleague, Britta Ameel. My thanks to R.V. Branham, who’ll happily sell you a a copy of the new Gobshite here.
Last February I flew back to my old stomping grounds at The University of Louisville for the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. The reason? To convince a surprisingly robust audience that the American photographer Edward Weston (1886 – 1958) and his wife, the aspiring poet Charis Wilson (1914 – 2009), produced the most strikingly marital edition of Leaves of Grass to date… doing so just as their own marriage fell apart. I’m thinking of the little known, Limited Editions Club Leaves of Grass from 1942, reissued by Paddington Press in 1976. Here’s my argument, in a nutshell, about a book I’m spent more than a few hours absorbed in over the last few years. If you’re ever in a rare books library, stumble upon the reissue, or find yourself in a Weston exhibit, check it out:
The Limited Edition Club’s 1942 release of Leaves of Grass—with accompanying photographs by Edward Weston—did not produce many admirers among those associated with its production. The book’s publisher, George Macy, certainly thought that “the green ‘matt’ [of the text pages] makes each photograph sing out for very joy,” though Weston himself, noting the glossy plates’ green hue, the book’s green cover, and his own signature in (you guessed it) green pen in the colophon, remarked simply that “it stinks.” When Paddington Press reissued the book in 1976, they redesigned the volume into a funereal (and modernist) black tome. They also stripped the book of its most redeeming feature: 46 captions that Charis Wilson-Weston, against her husband’s wishes, selected from Leaves of Grass to accompany his prints. This artistic breach foreshadows a marital one to follow. By 1946 Weston and Wilson will be divorced.
In this paper I return to the suppressed, secretly collaborative edition of this book to argue that—in the light of Charis’s captions—the Weston/Wilson Leaves of Grass captures a series of marriages just before they dissolve. There is the 53-year-old photographer (and womanizer) with his 25 year-old model and bride; there are photographs “designedly dropped” among Leaves of Grass, wedding picture and poem; and there is marriage, in this act and others, of eros and elegy. Undergirding this framework is metaphor—what Aristotle defined as the “similarity of dissimilars”—and I take, by no means uniquely, as a kind of marriage too. My reading then promotes Charis Wilson from “model wife”—the name of one recent exhibit—to rival artist. Her captions express a desire not simply touch Weston’s body, but to touch (via Whitman’s poems) Weston’s body of work.
Paul Richardson, the wonderful editor at Chetnia (“readings” in Russian), recently added our translation of Maxim Amelin’s “There’s No Peace on Earth or in Heaven” to the intranets. Paul published the poem back in Chetnia 18 (Spring 2012)–back issues available here!–but went the extra mile to make the content accessible to anyone and everyone with a web browser. For that we thank him. The link to the poem made it just a touch easier to discuss Nikolay Fedorov’s “Philosophy of the Common Task” in our Amelin interview on Jacket2.
According to Amelin, Fedorov is probably the only thinker to develop “a unified philosophical system […] on Russian soil.” For details on that system, see our interview. Much of it is over my head, though I’ve never forgotten the best part: the dead will be resurrected in their decaying human forms. In short, there’s a native Russian zombie culture… and you can read about it in this poem.
The expertly edited (and designed!) Cincinnati Review recently published my poem “The First Heartbeat” in their summer 2014 issue. (They also carried a piece in summer of 2009, issue 6.1.) A short, syllabic lyric on how the heart first starts (and is first heard), this poem took more than a little tinkering to make its syllabic stanza stand on its own two legs, a 4-4-5-3 contraption that resembles one I used in “Morning Noon, and Night.” (That one was 4-3-3-5.) There’s probably an unacknowledged tetrameter stowed away in both forms.
More excitingly, though, is the good company I’m proud to keep on this table of contents. There’s a few Saturnalia pressmates (Hadara Bar-Nadav, Martha Silano), and friends from San Francisco (Keith Ekiss), Ohio (Holly Goddard Jones), and Wisconsin (Jesse Lee Kercheval). Jesse Lee writes about her work in Spanish (which we published in Mantis 11); Doug Ramspeck (who’ll appear in Mantis 13) has a lovely poem too, as does Carl Phillips, who helped bring Other Romes into the world.
Jacket2, which publishes “articles, reviews, interviews, discussions and collaborative responses, archival documents, podcasts, and descriptions of poetry symposia and projects,” has recently added our 2013 interview with Maxim Amelin–the first such interview to appear in English–to their already rich content. We’re downright thankful for the opportunity, and are please to see the interview quickly followed with a feature on “Russian Poetic Counterpublics.” Check in at Jacket for new work by premiere Russian poets and Russian poetry scholars, including Elena Shvarts, Polina Barskova, and Eugene Ostashevsky.
And take a peek at our interview, “Resisting the Art of Entropy Triumphant,” where we ask Amelin about neologisms, his branching syntax, and the odd preponderance of the number three in his third book, The Gorgon’s Steed (2003). A sample of Amelin’s insight and wit? “You can’t live for long in Russia if you’re totally serious — you’ll either go crazy or lay hands on yourself. Only laughter can save you.”
Following the interview you’ll also find three new translations (“Vindictive Goddess, Statue Now Woken,” “Temple with an Arcade,” and “Why Repeat Ourselves?”) alongside their original Russian.
Despite the occasional unsavory remark I have–from time to time–lobbed in its direction, the Sooner State continues to publish my poems. My wife, Tulsa-born, must still have some karmic pull. Or maybe my poetry hero, John Berryman, who was hails from McAlester, home to the state pen.
Which is all to say that I’ve a new poem in Cimarron Review (Winter 2014, Issue 186) published out of Oklahoma State. (I’ve previously appear in issue 172). It’s called “I Call My Journal Robert W. Shields” and is about a man who wrote a 37.5 million word diary (Samuel Pepys, by comparison, clocks in at 1.25 million), dying in 2007 at the age of 89. He clipped nose hairs into his notebooks and made such riveting entries as “Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper.”
So, pick up a copy of the Cimarron Review if you happen to find yourself in one of our finer bookstores. Or, barring that, Oklahoma. Or if you’re simply up late on Facebook, and asking yourself–like Robert Shields–what all this recorded ephemera means. His answer? “Maybe by looking into someone’s life at that depth, every minute of every day, they will find out something about all people.” Maybe, Mr. Shields. Maybe so.
My sojourn from Portland to the AWP conference in Seattle last month gave me an opportunity to chat with the poet Dean Rader, the first time I’ve been able to do so since November of 2012 when the family and I left San Francisco for the friendlier environs of the Pacific Northwest. Dean is a generous and intelligent poet teaching at the University of San Francisco, a fact I came to learn when 1) I visited one of his summer creative writing classes, and 2) conducted a “First Books Poets in Conversation” interview with him for Boxcar Poetry Review. And then there’s the pleasure in knowing our kiddos hung out.
Below is an excerpt from that conversation, with topics range from “dropped lines” and the politics of form, to a fantastic exchange on the Americanness of syllabics, my favorite form in Other Romes. The entire exchange is still archived at Boxcar.
This is also a good place to mention one of Dean’s other publishing projects: 99 Poems for the 99%. The 99 poems began as a once-a-day web series, but will soon be available in a print anthology of the same name. I was delighted to contribute a poem, “Upon Learning That All the Gold in the World Would Fill Just Two Olympic Swimming Pools” (it originally appeared in Court Green 8) and was pleased to see the result in an “AWP Exclusive” edition of the book, available during the bookfair. Stay tuned for news of wider publication soon.
Excerpt from “First Book Poets in Conversation: Derek Mong and Dean Rader”
DEREK MONG: I can’t help but notice that your collection Works & Days—a book I’ve enjoyed immensely—begins, like my own book, in flight. I’m thinking of course about your wonderful poem “Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s Funeral, I Write a Poem About Wallace Stevens,” which blends elegy, literary history, religious speculation, and humor:
The elderly woman next to me
In 7D has been peeking at this poem
for several minutes.
I don’t mind,
Because the next line is this:
She will die before I do
That last line must be the most shockingly comic—to curse an old woman!—I’ve read in years. But what is it about airplanes that prompt us to write poems? They remind us, of course, that we can die (or, as you write: “Like everything else, we are in transit”) but don’t they also remind us where we’re from, by launching us away from or toward it? It used to be that poets wrote on trains (Lowell’s “Beyond the Alps”; Jarrell’s “The Orient Express”), but than genre, so very different from the plane poem, has virtually disappeared. I’m reminded too that you and I met in an airport.
DEAN RADER: First of all, thanks for the nice words about the book and the poem. I’m exceedingly happy you like them.
Airplane poems are fun to write, in part because we’re all a little anxious to be flying. I know of no one who doesn’t think about dying at some point during a flight. So, any poem about flying that acknowledges that tension makes an immediate connection with the reader.
Also airplanes and airports have become the new commons. They are two of the few places nowadays where we sit and actually interact with other humans on an extended basis. It might be awkwardly and nervously, but there are no places quite like them.
Lastly, as your super cool poem “Flying Is Everything I Imagine Now and More” reminds us, planes are inexorably linked with the immortal images of 9/11. Even when planes take you home to some source of magic, they are also (if silently) tragic. I was curious if this is why you decided to begin Other Romes not just with any ol plane poem but with this plane poem. What work did you want it to do in regard to your book as a whole?
DEREK: Well, I think you’ve hit upon the reason right there: 9/11. “Flying is Everything” and “Period” (the last poem in Other Romes) both confront the aftermath of those attacks. As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’m reminded of how ineffectual or openly propagandistic our political poetry became in the years following. David Wojahn has written about this smartly, in his essay “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry” (Writer’s Chronicle, May 2007). In both of those poems, I’d endeavored to do better, thinking all the while of Whitman’s advice that a poet is nothing “if he be not himself the age transfigured […] in the swimming shape of today.” The news, and our collective nervousness, were in my head throughout this book, and I felt I had to exorcise them. Thus the poem ends with a frankly Whitmanic line: “America, I am // so harmless now, spilling down perpetually / toward you. Draw / your sunroofs back and call me / home. Let your grassblades raise their heads to meet me.”
And considering I’ve just quoted a few, I wanted to ask you about the “dropped line,” and form in general. Works & Days, unlike so many poetry books being written, amasses a real diversity of forms. You’ve a “PowerPoint Presentation of ‘The Sonnet,’” prose poems (“The Poem You Ordered”), and a number of poems, seemingly free verse, that throw enjambments in mid-line. I’m thinking of “Self Portrait: One on One with Ezra Pound.” What’s the appeal of this “dropped line” for you, and form on the whole?
DEAN: I would agree with Wojahn for the most part about political poetry—at least a certain kind of political poem. American poets tend not to look to the poem as a site of critique for policy decisions. Bob Hicok’s recent book is political in a really interesting way. He takes on issues of social and economic class both boldly and successfully. And a lot of women have done incredible work on the politics (and poetics) of gender. But, I’m still waiting to see if contemporary American poetry can be a formidable form of political critique. Would congressmen in the House of Representatives take a political poem seriously? Would The New York Times run a political poem as an op-ed piece?
In the meantime, I’m all about the politics of the dropped line . . .
I say that with some but not complete irony. Are there moments when I’ve thought more about poetic form than healthcare reform? Absolutely. Perhaps because one brings pleasure and the other, like, not so much . . .
To me, the best practitioner of the dropped line is Charles Wright. Wright has said that for him, the dropped line imitates the horizontal rhythm of landscape paintings, a la Cezanne. And, I do agree with the semiotic impact of the dropped line. My eye loves the look of that floating line. But, I also like using it to help push a line along; that drop sort of kicks the line along. It’s like sending the poem down the stairs.
Form is one of the best features of poetry. Confining yourself to one form is a bit like only listening to singer-songwriters. You risk mind-numbing tedium. There is Nirvana and Portishead and Mance Lipscomb and Bill Monroe and Kronos Quartet and Cat Power and Neko Case: why not enjoy all of them? Part of the joy of writing poetry is getting to experiment with timeless forms. Right now, I’m writing poems based on syllabic lines. Poems with 7-syllable lines, 10-syllable lines, and 11-syllable lines.
What about you? You seem attracted to classical forms. Talk to me about the ode . . .
DEREK: Oh I love this image of the dropped line nudging a poem down the stairs. It’s a fine elucidation too. I’m with you on fixed form’s myriad possibilites—I say “fixed” because all poetry has form, has shape—a view that seems more widely accepted now that the prosody wars of the 80s and 90s are over. But let me put a word in about syllabics, a woefully neglected metrical device.
I’m thrilled you’re writing syllabics right now. Everyone knows about Marianne Moore’s exotic stanzas, but who’s bothered to check out your pressmate, H.L. Hix, whose book Rational Numbers takes a very different approach to syllabics? In “Orders of Magnitude” he sequences 100 poems, 10 lines each, 10 syllables per line. Between him and Moore you can see the breadth of syllabic possibilities. Moore’s organically formed, quantitative syllabics sit at one end of the spectrum, while Hix’s near obsessive, normative rigor marks the other. And yet we have no book on syllabics! David Caplan has a chapter, citing Hix, and Margaret Holley writes beautifully about Moore, but where’s the devoted study?
Much of Other Romes uses a classical hendecasyllabic line with those dropped lines (I’ll think of them now like a landscape!) breaking every other line. For instance, I follow an 11-syllable line with 9 syllables and then (insert dropped line!) a 2 syllable tail, then 11 more, followed by 5 and 6. More enjambments for your money and the sense—at least to me—that a classical meter is fissuring and fracturing at the seams. Rome, of course, split apart slowly. Take a stroll through Washington D.C. today and you’ll encounter not just the same architecture, but the same politics too. This, I suppose, is one of the book’s other Romes, and a formal hint at the very real fissures tearing apart American democracy. So maybe my visual metaphor, for the dropped line, should be crumbling façade?
Hmmm, I seemed to have skipped the ode. Can I toss that one back at you? Or perhaps you’d like to chat about poetry that’s interested in poetry. So much of Works and Days investigates its own genre.
DEAN: I actually really liked hearing you talk about syllabics. I think syllables are a more American way of thinking about meter than accents. I also appreciate what you say about Rome, democracy, and even what we might call the architecture of power dissolving or crumbling.
I was wondering if you’d elaborate on the nexus of form and content—in particular, I am curious about how you see your interest in form (odes, sestinas, syllabics)—which some might find “conservative”—with your interest in political critique, which some might find more “progressive.” How do you marry the two in your book?
I have my own ideas about how those two seemingly unlike worlds hook up, but I’m hoping you can say more about that.
DEREK: Syllablics as a more American meter—I like that. Particularly considering it began when Robert Bridges (a British poet laureate) misread the prosody in Milton (the most canonical British poet after Shakespeare) and wrote his own poems in so-called Neo-Miltonic syllabics. As usual, we Yanks appropriate and improve.
Regarding the marriage of supposedly “conservative” forms with “progressive” content, I have to admit I’ve always struggled to see the politics in, say, the bare framework of a sonnet. I suppose this is my own poetic blindspot. Down at Stanford they talk about the “politics of form” and read Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure” and I just don’t see it. This might be because the first sonnets I ever loved were in Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons—a 200+ page lesbian sex romp. Or take Kim Addonizio. Or Terrance Hayes. The list goes on.
What I do think about, however, when I think about form, is the subtle (or not so subtle) ways it echoes a poem’s content. Fellini movies are, if nothing else, carnivalesque. So is the sestina. Voila! Sestinas about Fellini! That’s an easy example from my work, but it was certainly on my mind. And it follows Cleanth Brooks line in “The Heresy of Paraphrase” that “form and content, or content and medium, are inseparable.”
It sounds, however, like you’ve a more engaging answer here. As for the ode, well, I’ve always thought of it as more a rhetorical form—of private meditation or public praise—so maybe we can leave them for Allen Tate and his Confederate dead. Now that’s a conservative use of form.
For all of you visiting Seattle this weekend, consider dropping by the Mantis table at the Bookfair to check out our twelfth issue. The poetry, as you’ll no doubt glean from my introduction below, is outstanding:
The poetry in this, Mantis’s twelfth issue, begins with a Yes and ends with the New. “Yes!” as Meredith Kunsa repeatedly tells us, “to the bar-tailed godwits taking off from Alaskan tundra,” and yes (if I might join her refrain) to Catherine Pierce’s “The New Thing” where one learns to “[p]ack up / your family, your dog, your courage” and finally leave the “strip malls of your life.” Kunsa opens our selection with the joy of homecoming; Pierce closes it with home’s trappings and fears. One poem finds a woman huddled in a bathtub with her son while a tornado passes through town. It’s scary to be lodged in one place, and scarier still, as any parent knows, to be lodged there and expected to provide.
I am thankful then for how much these poets—a wonderfully unruly family—provide anyone willing to open Mantis’s front door. We’ve assembled 14 of them (a Mantis high) for 2014, ranging in age, reputation, and interests. Karen An-hwei Lee pays homage to Kafka by way of the epistle. Mark Jackley, who’s enamored with a photo Dennis O’Driscoll, rails against angels and coldfronts in “March.” Rebecca Kennedy tells us that spring’s often no better; a backyard, she discovers, is just grass when we reenter that shared space alone.
For those interested in substantial offerings from single poets, we’ve T.R. Hummer, Christopher DeWeese, and Jason Koo. Hummer is among the best American poets alive and is able—in “Greek Fire,” a villanelle about the Sandy Hook shooting—to confront the topical with surprising élan. Koo joins good company in writing a Brooklyn long poem, only to ask himself, in the process, whether he “[c]ould throw it all away.” DeWeese follows deceptively lackadaisical routes to insights about ennui and ecological loss. “I have wasted your life / and the lives of many things / to deliver you this body,” he tells us (with a nod to James Wright) all so he can “drink the port,” update his status, and “wait to feel something” (“The Pasture”).
You know an online literary journal is maximizing its chosen medium when it 1) releases a (genuinely cool) Youtube trailer for its latest issue, 2) has built a searchable map of its contributors, and 3) can justifiably describe itself as located both “everywhere and nowhere” because its masthead covers the globe. Welcome to Asymptote, a now-three-year-old international journal “dedicated to literary translation and bringing together in one place the best in contemporary writing.”
Annie and I are particularly excited then to have three of our Amelin translations–”I’m Thirty But Feel Three Hundred,” “Long Now You’ve Lounged in Earth,” and “Rising at Morning from My Graveside,” all from Amelin’s book The Horse of the Gorgon (2003)–included in the current issue of Asymptote. Come for the Russian poetry, presented in a snazzy bilingual format, stay for the Coetzee and Michael Hoffman.
With our thanks to Aditi Machado (Poetry Editor), Lee Yew Leong (Editor-in-Chief), and Asymptote’s intrepid Central Asia Editor-at-Large, Alex Cigale.
When Steve Fellner and Phil Young accepted “Flying Is Everything I Imagine Now and More”–the opening poem in Other Romes–for their 2012 anthology Love Rise Up: Poems of Social Justice, Protest & Hope, they asked for a prose note to accompany the work. Such authorial footnotes can be either enlightening (a poet reveals a telling, personal context; points to a predecessor or form) or little more than bunk (we learn their favorite flavor or cat). Love Rise Up primarily consists of the former, with revealing notes from such fine poets as Allison Joseph, D.A. Powell, Don Share, and (my old teacher) David Baker. They give the anthology an added depth, a lot of smart people musing briefly on the same theme: poetry & social justice.
“Between the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007, I spent a lot of time on small, commuter planes, traveling between Madison, Wisconsin (where I was the Halls Poetry Fellow at UW) and Cleveland, Ohio (the nearest airport to Wooster College, where my not-yet-wife taught). Inevitably, and at least once per flight, I’d imagine the plane dropping into freefall. I suppose this was a reaction to the still new security measures, the colorized threat levels, and the Iraq War. But as the daydream reoccurred, I began to shape it, distilling the scenario into a grotesque, if comforting, ballet. That ballet prompted the poem. As the poem developed, though, I found it necessary to ask myself just what it meant to enter and share (in the form of a poem) that imaginative space. Thus the rhetorical questions, which I still struggle to answer, lodged near its end: “What can lyric / say to fear / hijacking countries?” My college roommate had one answer, cryptic and acute. After reading “Flying Is Everything I Imagine Now and More” he mailed me some stationary he’d managed to procure from the Department of Homeland Security.”
When a former student asks me for a letter of recommendation, I’m generally touched. Who doesn’t want to be remembered, and remembered as a teacher, even if it entails a few hours lost to an academic endorsement? Sometimes those letters matter in an application process, sometimes they don’t. A few years ago I wrote one that apparently did, and I’ve never been happier with the result.
Nicole Sartini, a talented writer who’s worked for years with children in residential care programs, has recently published A Safer Place for Me: A Book for Children Entering Residential Care (illustrated by Zakary Kendall). She did so with funds from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, a group that offers grants to artists “actively engaging individuals and communities in artmaking [...] focused on positive social change in Kentucky.” When she was assembling her application, she asked me for a letter. I was moved by her proposal, lucidly outlined and full of heart, and am even more moved by the final product–a book that helps children adjust to life in a group home.
As Nicole writes: “All kids deserve to be safe, but moving suddenly into a new home full of strangers can be scary. Children who have experienced trauma may be especially fearful of unfamiliar people and environments since they have not always been able to view the world as a safe place. In A Safe Place for Me, Cody [the main character] helps children understand what to expect when they are removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect and are placed into residential treatment in a group home.”
If you know anyone who works in residential youth homes, mental health facilities, or would just like to read a touching book to your child, please seek out A Safer Placer for Me, available at Amazon.
Jane Scott, the longtime rock critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, used to say her career began with the greatest interview of her life. The year was 1966, the Beatles were playing Municipal Stadium, and Scott had managed to secure an exclusive with Paul McCartney. He was “charming as predicted,” she’d write, though he warned that “the band would have to start singing hymns” if the censorship got any worse.
When Scott died last July at the age of 92, I thought of this story, and of the one time I heard her tell it in person. I was 17, working as a cartoonist for the teen section of The Plain Dealer, and—though I hardly knew it yet—less than a year away from a quasi-Beatles moment of my own. I was about to meet W.S. Merwin at a small college in Ohio.
Such visits occur, year in and year out, at schools all over the country. Posters dot departmental tack boards; emails circulate with scans of anthologized poems. Then one day the announced poet flies in, buoyed by the crisp sheets of a summer’s writings, landing gently at various lecterns between August and Christmas, January and June. Their real work, we all acknowledge, happens in silence (or secret) somewhere else. When you live near a college or independent bookstore—as I have done much of my life—you’ve the pleasure to freely sample whoever cycles through. The best of reading series, well-curated and well-introduced, come off like living anthologies: the poetry always comes first.
To enjoy such readings, however, is a learned thing, and when Merwin arrived at Denison University I focused on everything but the poems themselves. This was my first year in college, and though I thought I loved poetry, I didn’t entirely know what to make of it. On a good day, I suppose that description remains at least partially true. Whatever the case, I had none of Jane Scott’s plucky aplomb. I remember Merwin’s white hair and immaculate suntan. I remember how he referred me to a famous Yeats poem—“Easter, 1916,” or maybe “Leda and the Swan”—in response to a question I cannot now recall. He wanted, at one point during his talk, to make clear that he had taught, if only for a semester or two, at a school in New York. He said he now lived in Hawai’i. This was a fact that we all seemed to envy.
There are times when we find ourselves idolizing someone we meet briefly, know little of, and do not—at first meeting—earmark for emulation or praise. Such heroes will surprise us, years later, in an anthology or journal, their poems like a flashlight cast into some forgotten cupboards, some place where a fingerprint can remain remarkably undisturbed. Merwin has become that poet for me, though I still struggle to characterize the impression he left one autumn night at the start of the decade just passed.
What impression indeed? My different answers to that question—raised whenever I read The Lice or encounter a Merwin poem in The New Yorker—have all been predictable and unsatisfactory. For some time I attributed the delayed potency of that night to the novelty of the occasion itself. Here was a grown man reading to us from a short stack of slim books. That was certainly new. Or perhaps I’d just absorbed that “great poet” aura, warming the stage like a soft-focus glow? I’m thinking here of a sentiment captured by Merwin’s contemporary, Mark Strand, in “The Great Poet Returns”:
When the light poured down through a hole in the clouds,
We knew the great poet was going to show. And he did.
A limousine with all white tires and stained-glass windows
Dropped him off. And then, with a clear and soundless fluency,
He strode into the hall. There was a hush. His wings were big.
This rendering made sense for a while, and helped to explain—as well as deflate—the plaudits poured onto Merwin by the faculty. He was the greatest American poet living, I was told, and thus a man who commanded the admiration of those I had just begun to admire: the poets and professors introducing his work in class, on stage. A little of Strand’s irony went a long way toward shrinking the stars in my eyes.
And yet the memory of Merwin’s reading lingers, sustained by something more than novelty or greatness or the strength even of his language. I’ve tried many times to remember the poems he read, but have never succeeded. I have never heard him read again. The strength of this memory, then, comes from something else, and it took fatherhood to make it apparent, and more than a few nights spent with my son, who often wants nothing more than to be read to quietly on the couch. This also helped me to realize why I think poetry readings matter at all.
My thought then is this: to read to others, sitting in rapt attention, is to provide a sense of security that is faintly parental. Likewise, to be read to is to be made secure, by the voice and the story we’ve all come to hear. To enter these readings spaces—be they auditoriums or bookstores, library nooks or after-hours classrooms—is to enter a bedroom years in our past. The lighting remains low. A water glass and book are the only objects that count. This must connect, I imagine, to an instinctual awareness we all have regarding the arts. Literature implies leisure, and leisure is predicated on a freedom from want or harm. For years I thought Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—that famous pyramid, grounded on food and shelter, aspiring toward companionship and love—contained a place for literature read aloud. For years I believed this, and even taught the idea to my writing students until a psychology major kindly informed me I was wrong. I had made the tranche up from whole clothe.
The best poetry readings then—to my mind—honor this instinctual need, and do so while catering to more than few others: social cohesion, the pleasure of speech, an acceptance of crowds. This is why I find poets who read with an air of glib resignation or flip satisfaction so unappealing. Likewise the scholar who thinks readings are little more than group hugs with free cheese and wine. The former abdicates one of the poet’s oldest roles: to accompany the campfire. The latter, finding little in a reading to feed his peer-reviewers, dismisses the occasion as trivial. Both misconstrue the occasion completely. A good poetry reading makes children of us all.
It’s quite possible of course that this characterization is wholly a product of becoming a new father. At no time in my life have I been more inclined to the sentimental, and making visiting writers into potential parents certainly qualifies. Anyone who’s chaperoned a visiting writing in a new city— gleefully untethered from both work and home—knows nothing could be further from the truth. So ask me in ten years about Merwin and I may have an entirely different memory of the night. Memory is, as Faulkner beautifully reminds us, a contructive act—it “knows before knowing remembers.” It is constantly reconditioned by the now. And right now, at 30, my belief in the power of the human voice comes from the times I currently encounter it most: in the evening, flanked by stuffed animals, a small person on my lap.
I have often wondered when exactly Jane Scott realized that her McCartney interview wouldn’t be topped. At some point the anecdote surely settled, grew roots in her memory, and started to bear fruit—a story to pass on to the fledgling reporter, an opener at banquets and the rare occasion when interviewers turned mics toward her. I never thought to write her and simply ask. For me, Merwin became Merwin only years later when, playing with my son, I thought to pull a book down from the shelf and read to him while he drove his trucks. I do this from time to time, knowing that he will intermittently listen, look up, or pretend I’m not there. The poem I read came from The Lice:
If I could learn the word for yes it could teach me questions
I would see that it was itself every time and I would
Remember to say take it up like a hand
And go with it this is at last
The child that will lead you (from “The Child”)
I hope Merwin read this poem that autumn night in Ohio. It seems unlikely, given the dates, but with no memory of the actual reading I can never be sure. There’s probably a VHS recording of that night, but I don’t think I’ll go look. I have been led back to that reading by my own son, who takes my own voice—or so I imagine—as a reminder that I’m still there. This is the first of many doors his little hand will unlock.
(Originally appeared, in slightly different form, as a blogpost at Memorious)