Persistence & Politics

Regular readers here will recall that from time to time I urge them to READ FOR EQUALITY. In our fractured, limping-along democracy this continues to be a responsibility, although some days I wonder why I bother.

Then I read something like Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water, and I’m reawakened to the power of creative writing. Smith uses as some of her poems verbattem letters written by black soldiers in the War Between the States. (It was anything but civil.) That we have a black female Poet Laureate of the US matters too.

Now I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s  Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”  written in 1927 about Cudjo, an African who entered the US as a slave in 1859. The book was just published in 2018. Why it took so long to have this on my library shelves, I cannot fathom, but thanks to an astute librarian and Alice Walker, it’s finally available.

I remind myself, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by “the little woman who started this big war” in President Lincoln’s words, more or less.

And there’s Nellie Bly, who, in Ten Days in A Mad-House, wrote about the  rotten mental health care in this land of the free and helped bring about reforms in that milieu.  And lest we forget, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about change in the meat-packing industry and led to our Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Both of these two matter to us all, an issue of equality between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

When you think that what we do as writers doesn’t matter, read these books and others like them and again give your gifts to a sore and tired world. Even if you provide respite from worry, it’s important. Just do it, persist–please.

All About Poets #3

Diane Wakoski has long been one of my favorite poets. Initially, her book titles drew me in: The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, Waiting for the King of Spain, Emerald City of Las Vegas. Who could resist? Certainly not a woman trying to find her own assertive voice in life as in poetry. Her only title that ever disappointed was Diamond Dog, and that one is not on the Wikipedia list. It was, however, on the availability list of the buyer for a local poetry book club, and I had suggested we read something by Wakoski. That book did not go over well, too difficult, too esoteric, too everything that the group rebelled against. Well, so much for their poetic taste. Then again, one book is not sufficient in appreciating a huge oeuvre like hers.

If only the buyer had selected Wakoski’s compilation volume, The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems [Black Sparrow Press, 2000]. My copy is nicely worn and better yet, signed. One primo reason that I attended the AWP Convention in Denver (2010) was to hear Wakoski read. And I did. What’s more, I had a brief conversation with her on the convention floor, where she signed the book and asked for a signed copy of one of my books. That year The Great Hunger was on display at the convention and I snagged one for her. We emailed a few times after that meeting and when I issued a second edition of Red Goddess Poems, Diane graciously wrote a blurb for the back cover.

In her prose, Towards a New Poetry [University of Michigan, 1980], Wakoski writes that she wanted to be a poet, not a teacher or editor, a poet. When I get snagged by the foolish idea that I should do something besides play with words, I think about her dedication to this art and go back to what I too love for no practical reason. From her first book in 1962, Coins and Coffins, Wakoski has been a star in my poetic firmament. Long may she shine.

All About Poets #1

After many years as part of a tangible community of writers, looking back I know how fortunate I’ve been to meet many fine poets (and a few not so fine). This is the first of a series of remembrances of poets I’ve known.

Robert Creeley has a prominent place in my pantheon of poets. Is his soul aramble? There’s probably a reason why he has risen first to the top of the list. If you’re there, you are welcome, Bob.

I knew of him when I enrolled in a poetry class at St. Mary’s College near Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. When the class first met the instructor, an anonymous man whom I remember not at all, except for his question: “Is this a poem?” And he read Creeley’s “I Know a Man.”  (You can see the poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/search?query=I+Know+a+Man.)And I replied with ignorant certainty, “Sure.” But then I had to defend my belief.

To this moment it’s hard to break it down, but it looks like a poem and acts like a poem, so it’s not a duck. It’s full of ironic speech–calling the man John, who is not John, the suggestion that a car might help them live through the coming dark, and the revelation that the speaker is at that moment driving, but not well.

I can read it as metaphor–the speaker knows and wants to escape the dark, which confuses him, makes him unaware of where he is and what he’s doing. But, aha, more delightful, it puts me right into the experience of The Driver and Not John. Takes me out of my floral easy chair and into the back seat of that careening car.

Bob was a good one. In Maine we claimed his as one of our own. The Preface to his Selected Poems (University of California Press, 1991) is signed “Robert Creeley, Waldoboro, Maine, August 14, 1989.” Three times I heard him read locally, once in a hollow room where he seemed far away, though I was in the front row. That time he read poems about his family. (He claims in that preface that Robert Graves considered him a “domestic poet.”) Maybe he read “I Love You.” It’s about his Aunt Beatrice. Or “Four Years Later,” about his mother’s death. I can’t say for sure. And there was a reading at the State Theater on the corner of High and Congress Streets in Portland. I was there with Patrick Murphy, the “napkin poet” of Portland and a friend of Bob’s. Creeley looked up to  our back row seats and said, “Pat, can you hear me up there?” I was proud to be at least in the penumbra of Bob’s vision.

Another time he read at an art gallery on Munjoy Hill, poems about Helsinki and his then current wife. It was a crowded venue with wine after. Bob and I sat under a table and talked about a line of his, which I was, he said, misinterpreting. He smiled as he said that. I remember the smile, though not the line. 

My Creeley connection had actually started in the fall of 1984 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My friend and co-author Beverly Rainbolt and I went to a poetry conference at the university, star struck. We breathed the same air as Creeley, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Louis Simpson and Charles Bernstein. Our real goal, in addition to breathing along with the talent, was to put a copy of our joint chapbook, Visible Progress, into Creeley’s hands. We tracked our prey to the sidewalk between readings and scored a direct hit. He was polite and accepted the “gift” that we forced on him. And after that conference Beverly and I went back to our weird work at the arts center we had created in an old warehouse in Shreveport.

Within a couple of weeks came a brief letter from Creeley praising our work, and signing off with his customary “Onward!” I have that letter and the envelope framed and hanging on my wall. Some time afterward I left Shreveport to return to Maine and Beverly moved to New Orleans, and that was that.

(See you soon with a piece about Lucille Clifton.)

Read for Equality

Regular followers know that I sometimes list books or reminders meant to promote equality in publishing and reading. Well, here’s one that I want to highlight: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I chose to read this book because it will be featured at a book club this week in Boulder. By the time I finished reading and went to sign up, the discussion was already full. That’s a little frustrating but a good sign that adult readers have plenty to say about what is touted as a YA novel. That’s not half of it. This story takes us into the life of sixteen-year-old Starr, a black girl attending a primarily white school and managing to fit in, although at times she feels invisible and divided, her diction tailored, one vocabulary at school and another in her neighborhood. Quickly, we get in deep, as there is a white-cop-black-victim shooting, and Starr is the only witness. Add gangs, drugs, and poverty. Enough excitement yet?

From this point on the narrative tears through racial tensions, including Starr’s attachment to her white boyfriend and to her radical black father who loves her but opposes the romance. And that’s just part of the story. What I most appreciate is the view of family life, complexity of community, and character development as Starr wrestles with opposing decisions, to speak out about the shooting or to maintain a polished image in her affluent white school despite her impoverished home neighborhood. Additionally, the writing is fine, well developed and perfectly plotted. If this is YA, good for the young people who will read it. Better still for the adults who might not notice it without prompting.

 

For the Love of Libraries

I carry a wallet full of library cards. You never know when you’ll need a book. My libraries include Anythink Wright Farms, in Thornton, Colorado. I’m there most Mondays when they open at 9:30. I was there yesterday; that’s how I start my work week. And there’s no predicting what might be going on. Yesterday, having coffee with my friend at the library cafe–yes, in the library there’s a cafe–and my librarian friend, Laura, came to say hello and tell us that there were goats out in the playground. Yes, this library has a huge playground adjacent to the children’s room. And there were goats! I love goats. The cover art on one of my poetry books, Two Gun Lil, features me as a child with a goat under my arm.

My first library was in Harmony, RI, a single room behind the fire station. This small but mighty place had an important effect on me. I cannot imagine my life without books in an almost limitless supply. Soon I’ll tuck another library card into my wallet for my annual trip to Maine, where I’ll visit the Berry Memorial Library in Bar Mills. I hold card number 345. It’s a small town.

This afternoon I’ll go back to Anythink to see “Birds of Prey with HawkQuest.” I’m crazy for raptors and welcome the chance to see them up close. Up close and live will be an owl, eagle, falcon, hawk. In a library! A few weeks ago there were baby chicks in a heated tub. Thursday evening I’ll be there again to hear Colorado’s Poet Laureate, Joseph Hutchison read from his newest book, Eyes of the Cuervo/Ojos del Crow.

I’ve said it before, but it’s important: Ben Franklin gave the USA a marvelous gift, although libraries have changed their services over the years since he hired a librarian to care for books that Ben and friends shared. Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions, still sit in front of the NY Public, mecca of sorts. I think of them often, take comfort that they endure. If you haven’t been to a library this week, go. It will do you good.

Relearning Poetry

Torn, I stood in the bookstore with Thomas C. Foster’s new book, How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse. It wasn’t the price that slowed me down. It was that word professor, someone I don’t want to be if by this he means one who intellectualizes poetry. Fortunately, the subtitle is fairly accurate. Foster’s tone–flip and funny–saves the day. And my only complaint is that he starts at the pointy end of the process:  things like scansion and rhyme, exactly where we often lose new readers. But he has fun with what he calls”Redeeming the Time” and “The Rhythm(s) of the Saints.” He acknowledges that few of us read for the chance to identify an iamb or a trochee.

In fact, his books is so much fun that I have taken on the self-assigned task of writing about his advice and his definitions. So far I have fourteen pages of response. In one of my favorite quotes as he attempts writes “… we’re not going to get anywhere if you insist on being rational” (29). (Harper Collins has blessedly given permission to use “brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.”) Rational? I don’t know how to help readers who cling to explicating the text as if a bit of imaginative language might cause psychosis. Literal reading at the expense of pleasure is a waste. I want to associate with people who read with all their senses, hearing the music in the language, seeing, touching, even tasting the imagery.

Of course, in addition to the hard-nosed literalists there are those who call what they write poetry when in fact the work in question is sermon or greeting card, the first to be obeyed and the second to be forgotten. Bludgeoning a reader to adopt ones own beliefs sends them complaining to the poetry police. And we know that is not the true intent of poetry. As a reader and a maker of poems, I want to share experience and enlarge my own through the words of others. If these words are sonorous, so much the better.

You’ll likely read more here about the book that I almost did not dare to buy, but cowardice was not on a prerequisite of my long poetry education and Foster is offering me a refresher course. Thanks, Prof.

Jake Adam York

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