Almost at the end of National Poetry Month, browsing a library display, I found Abide/Poems by Jake Adam York. York, now deceased, has been widely admired, especially by Colorado writers and readers. An associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, he edited the journal Copper Nickel (http://copper-nickel.org/).
Abide, says David Wojahn in his cover blurb, is “an intricately layered threnody for the martyrs of the civil rights movement …” In the author’s afterword, York says that this book is both elegiac and ethical. He grew up in the US South, a white man writing about the ugly divide he had witnessed between his kind and the people of color who suffered, and who still suffer. Often the poems are couched in the language of the blues, honoring the birth of the genre in black culture.
York’s poems comfort and distress me, turn by turn. The beauty of his language draws me into the horrors of our history. His loss is great, but I am beyond pleased to have his work to sustain the movement toward equality.
READ FOR EQUALITY
This past Saturday was the 30th annual Poetry Rodeo (or Podeo, as some call it) in Denver. This event traditionally goes for 12 hours and includes a wide variety of readings and workshops. It’s a candy store for poets. The Mercury Cafe, its home, is a tasty venue and I felt comfortable there, and well entertained, nay, more than entertained. I was inspired. Especially by the introduction of one poet’s first book, Dream On, by Darcy Reed. The first book is a milestone for any poet, but hers is significant for us all.
The author’s note from this book reads, in part, Darcy “is a non-speaking person with autism who uses augmentative communication to write and present her poems.” Think, Stephen Hawking. Darcy’s parents and her brother support her on stage, clearly, but the poetry is her own, and it’s fine work indeed. Appropriately, the first poem is “For Stephen Hawking,” in part: “There will be other dramas / in this void. / I will meet you there,/ my friend./I will meet you there.”
I hope that they do meet in the cosmos, and I’m ridiculously happy that technology, scary at it is at times, has made it possible for us to hear Darcy’s deeply felt and well crafted poems. And now we can read them as well. Dream On is published by Blue Heron Publishing. I suggest you read it.
In my previous blog I mentioned reading Simon Barnes’ How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. I’ve achieved that status as a very bad birdwatcher in fact. At least though, this week I was able to tell a family member that the small birds at our feeder are goldfinches, house sparrows, and house wrens. I’ve made several visits to open space along the Colorado Front Range to watch Canada geese and glimpse a kingfisher. Lots of robins (turns out they are fierce defenders of territory) and what Barnes calls LBJs–little brown jobs. Of course, from a distance the birds I see are little black blobs that line up on traffic light poles. I do note that they almost always all face the same way. That must mean something.
Why, though, would a poet think about birds? Well, when I’m noticing birds, I’m paying attention, and that’s an important skill for any writer to foster. I keep a tiny diary, nothing technical, nothing that will ever record sighting some rare bird, but daily notes keep me on the lookout. In fact, I need right now to go write down the four crows I saw yesterday. (Oops, I already had. Good girl.) I like the commoners like crows, the gulls, doves, pigeons, hawks. I can tell the difference between ring-neck doves and mourning doves, the former apparently an interloper in our region. Well, immigrant birds, as long as you’re here, you may as well stay.
The other benefit to bad birdwatching is metaphor. Birds surround us and we attach meaning to them. Hearing an owl is a death warning, or the first robin is a sure sign of spring. Actually, the owl doesn’t care whether we human beings live or die, and the first robin one sees is probably not the first. As I became more aware of birds, I realized that I’ve been writing them into my poems for a long time. They offer me mystery, awareness of non-human nature, of beauty and otherness. If creativity is largely about making connections, bird watching promotes creativity, and I’m all for that.
Fiction and poetry are my major interests as a writer. I read tons of each. Recently, I read a book I found propped up on a display for Women’s History Month, Beautiful Dead Things: Poems, by Ada Limón, and fell in love with her work. But I also found recently a library book by Collin Tudge, The Bird. Yes, it’s a weighty, detailed book about birds. And I am reading again Simon Barnes, How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. This one I own and have already read front to back but it’s too good to shelve yet. Oh, and there’s Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World. So, I admit it, I’m promiscuous when it comes to reading genres.
But here’s the thing: disparate things connect. The most recent poem I took to my weekly critique group came from a line in Barnes’s book about the ways “birds make their living.” Bingo! I thought about the fact that the Denver Mint makes money and money is not the same as a living, at least not for me, as money and I are mere acquaintances rather that close friends.
Each of these writers has style, a distinctive voice, and a conversational tone that feels like they could be in the room with me. I copy into my notebook phrases from their books and use these quotes as prompts for those mornings when my head is full of torn paper. Thanks be to the librarians who feed my weird taste in books and to the authors who write what I don’t even know I need until I find it. I have a few pages left in My Beloved World and it’s almost lunch time. So excuse me while I devour the rest of the book and nibble on plums. And every book is a plum.
No way to explain how I find the books I want. I’ve praised my favorite library and fussed about my least favorite. Maybe library sprites listen to what goes on in my private conversations and in my busy brain. Recently, I looked at my own poems and noticed how very many times I refer to birds. Well, if that’s a subtle theme, I thought, I should pay attention to it. So I told a friend that I wanted to study ornithology. Pretentious, that.
But the next time I walked into my local library, there was a fine new book by British writer Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Birds. I’ll be darned. Now my current notebook is full of quotes and details about birds, far more interesting than what I’ve gleaned over years of owning a traditional bird identification book. Looking a bird in the eye is not all there is to birding.
I scouted around, found my binoculars–Barnes calls them bins–and tucked them into a small pouch along with a pen and a few index cards (one of my indispensable tools as a writer) and put on my walking shoes. And sure enough, I saw a bird in a tree–no surprise that–and with the help of the bins I watched that patient creature long enough to describe it on a card. When I got home I determined that what I had met was a female flicker. Nice!
Maybe getting what I want in the world is mostly a matter of being ready to be surprised. I don’t really need a formal course in ornithology. I need to get out of the house and open my eyes. And, as Barnes advises, don’t leave the bins at home.
I’ve been reading David Orr’s You, Too, Could Write a Poem: Selected Reviews and Essays, 2000-2015. Orr’s style and substance are fine, and he goes deep into issues that concern me. Circumstance or synchronicity, not sure which, drew me to copy into my journal the question of whether or not a “bad man” could write “good poetry.” Well, my answer is yes. I think.
Within hours, though, I was blasted by NPR with the news that one of my favorite poets has been accused of sexual misconduct and has apologized, a whiff of guilt. I’m not happy about this. The rise of the MeToo issue matters; so does the character of writers in this wretched stretch of public life where we need more than ever to rely on our best talents.
The poetry books on my shelf still mutter, “Read me, read me.” But I don’t know how to read them today, given this unhappy news. The words still line up; they do not blush red-lettered from shame or embarrassment, but my relationship to them has changed. What felt like shared truth feels–oh, icky. If I read the books, am I endorsing his bad behavior?
And what about the idea of forgiveness? I was not a victim, so it’s not my place to tell others how they should feel. But divisiveness and everlasting castigation isn’t going to help us learn to respect each other. I’m puzzled and caught in a moral dilemma. Maybe I need to read the poems again in the light of this development. We don’t live in a New Critics’ world where nothing matters but what’s on the page. Neither do we live in a world where biography alone determines the value of creative writing.
One of my life-long props is wobbling. Poetry is not always beauty and beauty is rarely truth, no matter what Keats would have us believe.
Friday afternoon a friend and I arrived at Silver Star, a guest house in Crestone, Colorado, at 8000 feet, the whole San Luis Valley spread out before us. We were in town for the first-ever Crestone Poetry Fest and the event was both a fest and a feast. Our stay at Silver Star was warm and welcoming, hosted by Carolyn Brown. The rest of the excitement was in the village, mostly at the Crestone Charter School, a most creative venue. I couldn’t count the participants–they moved too fast–but I would guess a hundred or so moved through the workshops and readings.
High-school students ran the snack and coffee bar; we met in classrooms and in the all-purpose gym. We heard an amazingly varied array of speakers and readers. People sang, danced, read and recited. Poets sold books and readers bought books. Some of us traded books. It was a full-emersion experience arranged and hosted by Peter Anderson and his troop of magicians who rowed that poetry boat home.
Obviously, I’m not telling you this to get you there. Too late for that. (Although I’d bet good money it happens again next year.) No, I want to ease your fears that poetry doesn’t matter. The audience–which was also the cast of characters–included all colors, all backgrounds, all ages. There was even a dog there, wrapped in a blanket, held on the pup’s parents’ laps. So when you fear that poetry is dead in America, take a deep breath and think Crestone. Leaving there on Sunday was reentry into a more common atmosphere after the rarified space of poems, poems, poems.