Friday, February 12, 2016

Poets to See at AWP: Merna Dyer Skinner

When I met Merna Dyer Skinner two years ago in an AWP panel on the topic of "Writers Over 60" I was positive of two things. I was certain that the panel would deal in some way with writers who had begun writing later in life, since I had sent in a proposal for that very topic entitled "Late to the Dance, But Can Still Cut the Rug: On becoming an emerging poet later in life." It was not accepted. And the reason it wasn't, I had been told, was because there was a panel that would deal with that issue. There was not. This panel dealt exclusively with writers who had written all of their lives and were now winding down their careers with editors half their age.

Whenever Merna approached me after the panel adjourned, requesting my business card because I had inquired about help for those of us who were the new old poets and writers, I was just as certain about something else: that she was not attending the panel for herself, but rather to take notes for some "older writer," since there was no way she fit the description of a "writer over 60." I'm still certain of that, even though after getting to know her, I've found her to be a terrific emerging poet, with her first chapbook coming out within the next few weeks from Finishing Line Press (hopefully in time to be at their AWP book fair table #1312).

Hear, then, a poem from her forthcoming chapbook:


     Father’s thick fingers bait our hooks and cast our lines,
     sending shimmying circles across the lake. When
     the ripples smooth to nothing, I sigh, as if with them. I am five. 

     Dragonflies helicopter overhead. My line jerks with my first fish—
     too small to keep. Father releases itit’s mother-of-pearl scales glimmering in the 
     morning light, cold body undulating deeper until it disappears.

     Shrimp carapace scattered on a white plate. I am twenty-five.
     The difference between the wind in my hair and the wind on the waves
     nothing more than quarks in motion here or there.

     Buttery fingers wiped on white linen leave the DNA
     of ancient crustaceans. On the table, a splayed lobster tail,
     crab shells sucked dry and the diamond ring I’ve cast aside.

     I slip from the room while this man who once seemed so alluring
     takes a call. Survival is a question of instinct, moving this way
     rather than that. Seeing the bait bag for what it isa test.

As you will discover in her biography, Merna is certainly not new to writing. She is a consummate professional, successfully applying and publishing her communications and consulting skills in the business world for years. She brings the same intelligence, artistry, and aesthetic sensibility to writing poetry and writing about poetry that brought her success in other fields. 

I will update this post prior to AWP to let you know if you will be able to find her at the Finishing Lines Press book fair table and, if so, when. As the above poem attests, Merna Dyer Skinner is a poet with work you should keep your eyes and ears on, so if you can catch her for a few minutes at AWP, you should. If not, visit her online site at

Merna Dyer Skinner is a poet, photographer and essayist, and offers business communications skills coaching through her company, Satori Communications, Inc. Her business articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, and Success, among others. Her first chapbook, A Brief History of Two Aprons, published by Finishing Line Press, will be released in late March and may be available at table 1312 at this year’s AWP conference in Los Angeles.  

Merna’s poetry has also appeared in: MiPOesias, Star 82 Review, Mojave River Review, Silver Birch Press and Squaw Valley Review. She is currently working on a series of poems that capture moments and places of stillness in our lives often distracted by motion and movement. Merna shares her Venice, California home with Sophie, a golden retriever and her sixth rescue dog.  To contact Merna, visit And to read reviews of her chapbook, go to:

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Poets to See at AWP: John Brantingham


The Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual Conference and Book Fair in Los Angeles is two months away. Many people have shared bad experiences they've had (and I completely understand how difficult an experience AWP can be with too many people, not enough time, and no possible way to attend everything or meet everyone you want). And yet every year 12,000+ writers of all stripes continue to travel from all over the world attend. There must be a reason people subject themselves to all the misery. And there is--that is, there are reasons.

For three or four days they come together to hear the famous and not-so-famous poets and writers read. They come for advice from other writers, and to hear them share common frustrations and aspirations, defeats and victories in the myriad panels offered. They come to check out the journals and presses in the book fair that they've submitted work to, or which they aspire to be published in. They come to party. They come because they've been told they should come. They come because they are curious. They come because they are just beginning a writing program. They come because they've just completed one. They come because they are retired and can now fulfill their life-long dream of writing. They come because, as Spock said of V'Ger in Star Trek: The Movie, "[They] know that [they] need, but like so many of us, [they] don't know what."

I will continue to be one of those attendees each year, because I am the Co-executive Editor of Trio House Press (shameless self-promotion: Book Fair table this year is # 1204), and the Book Fair is a way to connect with our readers and our poets; a way to make new friends with people who buy poetry books, write poetry books, publish poetry books, and teach others how to do the same.

But there is a more personal reason that I attend AWP every year. And it has to do with the fact that as writers we need one another. It has to do with the operative word in the previous sentence. I come "to connect."

So, since I am from California (albeit, NorCal), and since I know several poets from California who might not always attend AWP conventions held in the midwest or on the east coast, I thought I'd do a few blog posts over the next few weeks introducing my readers to poets who WILL be at AWP this year that you should make it a point to connect with--in whatever way you can--hear them read, go to their book signings; say "hi" to them at their book fair table; have a cup of coffee with them--in other words, give you a few poets you might not otherwise know about, who might make your experience at AWP a little more personal, a little better. And to save you a little time and trouble, I'll give you a sample of their work, and a few of the places where they will be at AWP. First up is John Brantingham.

John Brantingham

I met John in February 2013 at the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival he and his wife, Ann, sponsored. I immediately was impressed with his servant leadership of poets in the area, and the camaraderie the local group of poets seemed to have. After I worked with him in getting my first chapbook published, I gained an even greater respect for him as a poet, a teacher, and a person of character.  Here is a poem he sent me recently, along with his bio, and how you can connect with him at AWP and beyond.

Sample Poem

Your Story of Water

You move east of Los Angeles
when you’re four years old,
and even then something feels off.
Where you came from,
you stomped on the edges of rivers and rain puddles
and watched bugs walk across the skin of water.
The desert was a far-off dream.
When you move in,
you stand in your parents’ backyard,
tilt your head back,
and watch the wind blow dust
across your new sky.
Your mother comes up behind you,
jokes that it looks just like the end times.
When you’re eight,
your first drought starts,
and the governor tells restaurants
to stop serving water.
Your father takes you up
to the reservoir
to point out the bathtub rings climbing the valley wall.
That night, your mother reads Revelation
out loud after dinner.
She raises her eyebrows specifically at you.
El NiƱo years come and go.
When the torrents start,
you ride your bike in the rain
and imagine your body is a dirty flatland,
your pores sucking up moisture.
You stand on the bridge
over the concrete river
and watch the thirty-foot trench fill
and drain off into the Pacific.
In these years, when you dream of Revelation,
Death rides a white skiff.
When you move to London
at the age of twenty,
the river becomes your fetish.
You come from a city of salt water,
and everything is fresh here.
It flows through the downtown,
and the misting rain is a constant.
You stare at swirling eddies
until your professors
ask if everything is all right.
When you finally have to move back home,
a tiny masochist part of you finds
a relief you don’t discuss.
You spend your adulthood trying to move away,
but at cocktail parties and coffee houses
in distant cities,
no one understands you, not really.
They like you
but can tell you’re off
even though you don’t talk about water.
The drought has moved inside of you
as it has with everyone else in the city.
You carry its lack with you,
the way you carry
your mother’s dreams of the end of the world.

Previously Published in The Broad River Review and Verse Virtual


John Brantingham is the author of seven books of poetry and fiction including Dual Impressions: Poetic Conversations about Art from Silver Birch Press. He is a professor of English at Mt. San Antonio College and the writer-in-residence at the dA Center for the Arts. He also teaches in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and is currently at work on a collection about our relationship with water in a time of drought. Check out his new collection with Jeffrey Graessley: Dual Impressions: Poetic Conversations about Art.

Where he'll be at AWP:

Check out The Red Hen Press (Tables 909, 911, and 913) for his co-edited L.A. Fiction Anthology, and when he might be doing a signing at their table (date/time not yet available). You'll be glad you did!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast by Melissa Studdard

I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast by Melissa Studdard (Saint Julian Press, 2014), $12.00 paper; $18.00 hardback, ISBN 978-0-9889447-6-3

             In I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, Melissa Studdard makes no distinction between the sacred and the profane. She hears grace in everything, serving up poems that allow us to experience it “in the coffeemaker’s drip, in the crying infant next door, / in the annoying whirr of the window unit blowing air.” But do not think that her poetry is steeped in sheer naturalism. Studdard believes that the world of dreams and visions and other dimensions is as real as “a bedroom / in which we are making love.” Her images shape-shift, and her poems drift easily between immanence and transcendence. “Don’t / try to understand,” she advises:

                        Just paint the air human,
take off your clothes,    
hand back your coat of arms.
What you mistook for a person
is really a country
with a dark and sacred history
and no scholars to explain away the confusion.
Just burn the archives down.
Everything we have to know
we learned from a picture of dreaming.
Everything we need to remember
can fit on a scrap of paper
smaller than your hand.

Talking along in this not-quite-earthly, not-quite-heavenly way is what Studdard does best in this impressive first collection. Grounded in history (that of both objective events and subjective emotions), yet reaching for the ineffable, there is a half-hidden biography in these poems. Writing about Hildegard of Bingen in “Tithing,” Studdard proclaims “In…dreams I am your Jutta, your Volmar, // your confessor, your scribe… // you are the tithe to above from a bankrupt world.” In “Integrating the Shadow,” the poet states, “I was a bird in the hand of God. // I was two in the bush, // the yin to my own yang, yang to yin, / drinking gin on the porch at midnight, / or otherwise drinking tea—you see // how it is—Bach on Tuesdays—Thursdays / acid rock, tie-dyed t-shirts and jeans.” “Daughter (for Rosalind)” begins “Because I was a cave, / and you were the bird that flew through  / my hollows, when they bathed the pain away, the light on your face looked like / peace after a long and onerous / war.” The poem concludes with
I tell you, Athena sprung
            from my own split
            Head. Because emergence is a teaching.
                        Because your hands and feet
            were softer than sand. Because before
            there were canyons
            or valleys or lakes or winds,
            you curled your hand around my finger,
and, with your touch, delivered the all.

“Kiss the World with my Wounded Mouth” is emblematic of those few poems that may do too much work for some readers. Although she merely points toward love with “…that wild animal, / [her] own body, and take[s] up residence / inside the thatched hut / of [her] soul,” inviting us to “…Look / how [she] makes love to the reach of light / angling in from the east, to the sound of hooves / on hard ground, to the ground itself,” and she shows sensitivity and restraint with “how [she] embrace[s] / the jostle of water / sloshing against the side of a boat,” the poet cannot contain herself in these closing lines:

Nothing can stop me
                        from offering my own exploding
                        heart from my two hands. Nothing
                        can stop me
                        from trespassing
                        through the weedy and nettled
                        plots of love.

If this passage seems to border on sentimentality, take into account that the poet has earned the right to speak this way by spending far more time in the book speaking to our “atoms [that] have come to worship / and rejoice at the temple of the familiar”—those particularities she speaks of in “For Two Conversion Therapists Who Fell in Love and Became Gay Activists:”
Listen when God knocks on the door in the morning
                        and says, I brought you a paper, some orange juice,
                        and two Eden-colored plums. The truth is
                        God is sprawled naked across the sky. The truth is
                        God runs the bordello inside your heart. It’s full
                        of all life’s misfits you tried to hide: the mullet
                        and skinny legs, the letters you wrote to the man
                        next door but never sent, your secret affinity
                        for reality TV. Make love to every luscious thing
                        you find there.

In this poem, as in most, Melissa Studdard’s language makes love to many of the familiar things in our lives, showing them to be luscious with her gorgeous diction. The sensualism that is always simmering just beneath her lines does occasionally boil over the lip of the poem. When this happens, she masterfully turns down the heat, stirs, and starts cooking her magic again.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Angles of Departure by Marcene Gandolfo: A Study in Repetition with Restraint

Like the black hole at the center of our galaxy that retains on its event horizon all of the information about the matter it has swallowed up, Marcene Gandolfo's first full-length collection, Angles of Departure, pulls its readers into a place of absence--a place of lost pregnancies, lost futures, lost identities--but it is not a place of total emptiness "Because nothing remains empty. Come in. Listen with / me and we will hear the phonograph play the song that / was lost before we were born." ("Anamnesis," p. 11, lines 15-17.)

The virtuosity of these poems lies in their restraint and unfolding craft.  Hear both elements in the opening lines to the same opening poem:

My summerhouse is empty now.  You may know the
house. I built it one night in a sugared dream. The lights
are always on and the oven bakes cookies. The backyard 
trees blossom but fruit never ripens and the sweet-
toothed child eats strawberries and dances to a scratchy
phonograph song no one has beard before. But one
night, the music stops. I wake. The doctor says no
heartbeat and I see the child is only a folded cloud on an
ultrasound. Then I say my summerhouse is empty now.

Gandolfo's prosody is one of repetition. Not merely within her poems, as in the first and ultimate lines of "Anamnesis," but between poems, as they call and answer to one another like a mother and a child who is learning to sound like her,  like "evening garage doors open[ing] and clos[ing,]" like "peace flags [that] lined [the] street" shape-shifting their sounds, their images, the meanings we attribute to them as if they were the melodies and harmonies of a three-movement piece of music.  

The best poems in this collection are microcosms of the entire work, not merely by visiting yet another loss, but by tracing the evolution of the poet's growing metaphoric sense, with a growing consciousness of their own lines like these from "A Careful Angle": "Some days your truths are shoes / that won't fit: // so unlike the message that lies / in your doorway. // There's a technique to opening / another address, // a careful angle by which you unveil."

Gandolfo enacts this craft of cutting "careful angles" with lines of precision and restraint in the overwhelming majority of her poems.  In "Lost," "The summer after the baby died," we are told the story of  trying to "keep the cat alive, her old kidneys closing."

That's all I remember that summer, saline bags hanging from the wall,
the faithful drip of the needle, my hands

steady as I pinched her skin and pushed the needle under her shoulder,
where she would lie against my swollen belly and purr

as her hollow body filled again with hunger and she would dance young
for an hour and then moan for more water.  That's all

I remember that summer. Hanging those bags of water, breaking open
a new needle, finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push,

the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over
my knuckle, some days a drop of blood on my thumb

and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying
for water and only wanted to sleep

and the bag of saline was a folded lung on the wall.

All that is required to tie this story to the death of the poet's unborn baby is the one line "The summer after the baby died."  But Gandolfo is a master at reinforcing the relationship without hitting her readers over the head with similes: the couplets that end in a single line, the images of how her cat "would lie against [her] swollen belly and purr," of " . . . finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push, // the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over . . . , some days a drop of blood on my thumb, // and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying," the repetition of "That's all I remember that summer"--as if there were two remembrances, which there were.  Even the final line, with its "bag of saline" conveys the directness of a metaphor alongside the subtlety of the closing down of a life that cannot be forgotten with its "folded lung on the wall."  

In "In December" the idea of folding is modified and amplified: "It was the day for origami, / the day I taught my daughter to fold / a perfect five-point star . . . " to "feel each paper square / as a body, see its scars // and creases against our own."  The word "fold" or "folded" is used four times in this poem--each time growing in emotional intensity from "fold[ing] / a perfect five-point star," to "fold[ing] corner-to-corner," to "fold[ing] flat" to

When we finished folding
I couldn't tell her it happened again.
I couldn't say, "No Baby

in May. . . 

Galdolfo's use of call and answer, incorporating repetition never more slant, and restraint never more subtle, finds its zenith in the two poems, "Taking Down the Crib" and "A Tide," although the poems inhabit almost opposite ends of the book and concern themselves with opposite ends of a life. In the former, after an opening description of disassembling the crib and placing the pieces into a "wooden box," all that is left is "a press / against the rug, a smudge of dust, no stain / . . . [except] one streak / of light across the wall. It must have been / a sunbeam through the window, against bleak / blue paint. It bleached a line white. . . "  In "A Tide," we are presented with a car crash, the driver's life "an eyelash flutter away / from the river," and witness her "break[ing] / from the half-opened / door, scream[ing] to the black / morning and crawl[ing] / to the ground, worm[ing] her way / through mud and climb[ing] the bank."  Afterward she walks to town, limping at first. But then "her walk steadies as day / takes shape. A vein / of light scales the river bank / through the dark in the road / and her eyes open to a wave / of blue air, transparent."   

In Angles of Departure, Galdolfo takes her readers to places that at first glance look familiar, like the "There" in the ultimate poem, "Beatific."

There you can hear a child cough in a canyon. There you can see
her sweatshop awl bore your coat buttons.

There you can hold her calloused hands. There you can taste
the boho's bourbon and the blood on his broken dog's claw.

But upon a closer inspection of the details of this landscape, we find ourselves in unchartered territory:

There you can listen to the beaten child stutter all the languages
you've never heard.

But [we] "can't stay long, for fear [we] may dissolve." So we return to "where sweet plums grow outside [our] window," where we "can have meringues and tea // and read old books and dream in our comfortable chair."  But that place, these poems, come knocking: ". . . There where a hungry woman / offers // a piece of bread . . . / There where you find a book in your pocket. // There where you turn the first page and know it wasn't written here / in a comfortable chair. // There where you feel the poet's pulse rush from the other side / of the page."

With convincing poems, Gandolfo pulls us back to that other side enough times that she fulfills for me (in the words of Larry Levis), the reason I read and write poetry: "To stop time."  Thank you Marcene Gandolfo for not only providing us with "Angles of Departure," but so many angles of arrival, and the not-quite-empty, timeless space between them.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Maxine Kumin: Poet of Rescue, Poet of Witness

Maxine Kumin died yesterday.  According to reports, she was at home in Warner, New Hampshire, where she and her husband of sixty-eight years had rescued countless dogs and horses to run free on their hillside farm--her garden, her swimming pond and, at least for the dogs, her rambling country house.  This was the same house where she taught countless numbers of poets to free their poems by "pounding them into form"--a phrase that, at first, seems oxymoronic, but makes sense when you witness her life--a life of freedom not only in spite of (in the case of those placed upon her because she was a woman in the first half of the 20th century), but because of the external parameters she placed upon herself: the wife of one man for nearly seven decades, a pastoral, domestic life, a writing life that unfolded not out of ambition, but out of love for the art form, for her mentors, her colleagues, her peers, her students.

I was fortunate enough to be one of those students.  I sat in workshop in her farmhouse, stepped over her dogs on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water, saw her horses, walked her property, listened to her stories about animals as dear to her as her own human family members.  I remember one poem of mine ("New Mexico Sighting") she was commenting on.  It was a poem about seeing a rare black coyote while standing on a dike that extended from the famous peak in New Mexico called Shiprock.  The dike was formed millions of years ago by lava flowing underground that hardened and then was exposed by erosion.  In my poem I called it a "plutonic spine."  Maxine said "What does the word plutonic mean?"  I replied that it was a cognate for volcanic.  To which she replied, "Then why don't you just say that?"  That was Maxine.  Say it like it is--no facade, no dressing it up, call it what it is.  The draft I had brought to the workshop was 15 lines, and I knew what was coming next.  "This is almost a sonnet," she said.  "Why don't you hammer it into fourteen lines and see what happens?"  Which I did.  Which tightened the poem and made it better than it had been.

The consistency of Maxine Kumin's life with her writing life is exemplary.  It speaks of a kind of truth that is all too rare these days, when poetry has become an industry for many, and an art for a dwindling number.  In Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Chard deNiord asks Maxine how she would say she crosses "that boundary, between the pastoral and the political?"

MK:  Well to me, my so-called animal poems . . . are truly political.  We've been in the rescue business for about forty years and this little dog that you just met is our newest waif.  She came up from Tennessee in April from a horrible life, unspeakable life, and we were told we could never let her loose because she would run and run and never be seen again.  And here she is, totally at liberty.

Maxine Kumin spent a lifetime "rescuing the perishing; caring for the dying," and standing in her place of witness for the living--her animals, her friends, her family, her students, her garden, her country, her home.  She did so within boundaries that she either created or accepted or changed.  And now "here she is, totally at liberty."

The best tribute we can give to her is to stand in our place of rescue, our place of caring, our place of witness.  To pound our lives into form, and to be at total liberty inside of them.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Thirteen Best Poetry Books I read in 2013: Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, by Chard deNiord--Jack Gilbert!

After reading Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, I realized that a "review" of this capacious work--interviews of seven of America's best contemporary, Post-war poets, as well as three of Chard deNiord's own essays dealing in one way or another with three more--would be impossible on this blog and in one post.  So instead, of a review, I prefer to call this an annotation.  And instead of one blog post, I am spreading it out over eight separate ones.  After a brief summary of the book's format, over seven of those eight, I will share a portion of each interview that speaks to me in a special way.  Each post will deal with only one significant topic of the many that deNiord investigates in a thorough way in each interview, along with an embedded poem that either the interviewer read back to the poet, or the poet recited to the interviewer to illustrate the point.  In a final post, I will make a brief statement concerning the topic of each of the three essays that close out the book.  I leave it to you, the reader, to get a copy of this significant volume for yourself, and delve into these intense and amazingly comprehensive interviews with these poets whose lives and work have affected American poetry in a significant way in the latter half of the 20th century, and will continue to do so for many decades to come.

The book is delightfully organized.  In addition to a general introduction to the interviews and essays, each of the interviews is preceded by one-page description of the setting where the interviews took place, the state of mind of the poet, and the relationship of deNiord to the poet and his or her work, many times through a personal story.  This provides a wonderfully human touch to these interviews that balances out the brilliant scholarship and life-long preparation on the part of deNiord, as a reader, writer, and teacher of poetry.  At the end of the book, the Biographical Notes provides an objective frame of reference for the poets interviewed:  Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton.

Jack Gilbert

Right from this first interview, I sensed that these interviews were going to be different from any other interviews I had ever read.  One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Jack Gilbert interview was experiencing the little (and not-so-little) quakes caused by the pressure between deNiord's questions and Gilbert's answers--two giant, tectonic minds grinding against one another, sliding along their fault lines, neither one ever buckling under or vaulting above the other's ideas or points or opinions.  Each, in their own way, charting and changing the geography of their conversation with the material that the other had provided.  Witness the following exchange concerning Gilbert's reticence to publish, the current state of poetry, and whether or not poetry can change anything!

CD: I have heard that you have several hundred uncollected and unpublished poems lying around your house.  Do you plan to publish these poems?

JG:  That's right.  I'm not sure what I intend to do with them.

CD:  Why?

JG:  Well, there are several reasons.  One is, I've never had much impulse to publish.  I waited fourteen years between my first and second book.  Ten years between my second and third book.  I love to write poetry, and I love to get it right.  Sometimes I'm a workaholic, getting it to where I think it's right.  But, I guess one of the things is that I don't believe in poetry today, because it's involved with money so much, and careerism.  I don't believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry.  You don't make money directly in poetry, but if you get noticed you get jobs in colleges, things like that.  Then you can buy a house and raise a nice family so you can be proud of yourself.  But I don't like that use of poetry.  I love it, and still love it, in my memory, when there was no money to be made in poetry.  When nobody could make money off poetry.

CD:  But perhaps you're hiding your light under a bushel basket.

JG:  Well, it's not going to change anybody's life.

CD:  You just said that a good poem changes a person's life!  [In an earlier exchange.]

JG:  Absolutely.

CD:  And you write good poems.

JG:  Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to do it all of the time.

CD:  Every ten or fourteen years?

JG:  Yes.

CD:  The MFA students were deeply moved by your reading last night.  [This portion of the interview was held in a dormitory at New England College during one of their Poetry MFA residencies.]

JG:  That's impressive.  When I give a reading I'm surprised at the people who take it seriously because we live in an age of entertainment.  Today's children grow up on electronic games, sports, and other things.  But I think generally there isn't time to take things seriously nowadays.  I'm not bitter about it.  I don't feel like it's sour grapes because I'm lucky enough that I can publish what I publish.  But I don't know what you're going to do about the fact that the audience for poetry today is basically not there, unless you're writing a kind of puzzle that gives people a rush of happiness in solving it.

CD:  There's a young woman in the program who was thinking about leaving yesterday.  She confessed that she was terrified of taking herself seriously as a poet.  She approached me about an hour ago to tell me that she had decided to remain in the program.  I asked her why and she said because of your reading last night.  That was the only reason she gave.

JG:  Bless her.  That's a very nice thing that you told me.

CD: And because of Jack Gilbert's poems that she heard last night for the first time.  She's twenty-one years old and she's been brought up on electronic games.  She's a reader also.

[At this point, Gilbert goes into a tirade against the recent failures of poetry, video games, careerism, and MFA programs.]

CD:  That is the state of things, but if we had more of your poems wouldn't that be a service to the world?

JG:  That's not a fair way to argue.

CD:  Why not?  Wouldn't it provide an invaluable cultural and social service, as your reading did last night for the students, faculty and guests?

[Again, Gilbert deflects the question into the historical vs. the current value of poetry.]

CD:  Well, this student deciding to stay here in this program instead of going to law school--we have you to thank.

JG:  Well, it's wonderful and so flattering.  It's great to hear.  I went to a reading several years ago and after it was over--this is going to sound pompous--several people who knew I was in the audience came over to me and formed a circle, which was good for my vanity.  I'm saying this ironically.  Then suddenly a man in his early forties, maybe his late thirties, just an ordinary guy, came pushing through this group that had formed around me, and without saying hello or introducing himself said, "I want you to know that you've been keeping me alive with your poetry since 1982."  Without giving me time to respond, he pushed his way to the other side and disappeared.  I never could find him.  But that was deeply moving.

This exchange concluded Part I of the interview, conducted July 10, 2003.  During Part II, conducted some time later in Jack's home, deNiord discusses, among other things, the idea (which Jack brought up), of vanity in writing poetry.  We pick up the interview with deNiord reading to Jack his poem "Tear It Down," and follow this thread to the end of the interview.

Tear It Down

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows.  By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage.  Love is not
enough.  We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time.  We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.

JG:  That's very nice to hear.

CD:  Do you feel this was written out of vanity?

JG: Yes, but also more a delight.  What moves me is hearing what I've done.

CD:  You write in this poem, "Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh" and "Rome is better than Rome."  Do you feel in some curious way that Jack Gilbert is better than Jack Gilbert when he's writing?

JG:  Yes, sure, but I take that for granted.  It's like coming across a blade of grass.  It's just a pleasure. It's manifest in front of me.

CD:  So you feel like a witness that transcends yourself.

JG: I just feel lucky.  I don't feel like I own it.  I made it, but that's different.  It's more about the pleasure that's just there when it's done, whether anyone sees it or not.  I see it myself, quietly.  I'm not showing anyone.

CD:  So you have a very large but selfless sense of your own audience?

JG:  Yes.

CD:  This selfless awareness reminds me of Ivan Ilych's death-bed ipiphany in Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilych."  Ivan struggles to ask for forgiveness from his wife, but in his weakness utters "forgo" instead of "forgive," knowing in the end that it doesn't matter if he's understood.

JG:  That's a very nice way to say it.  I have so much gratitude and I don't have any regret for it.  My gratitude is very simple in this way.

CD:  You must get up in the morning feeling very happy.

JG:  Yes, most of the time, but I'm also very angry about aging, about not being able anymore to do things I want to do.  I don't bother myself about the loss.  I feel it, and the anger diminishes.  So much has been given to me.

CD:  I remember you once telling me when you lived with my wife and me in Iowa for a few months that many poets of your reputations and prestige enjoy flying on planes and going places, but that you're content just to stare out the window of the Greyhound bus.

JG:  Yes.  I like my memories of being hungry and lost.  I relish all those things.  The experience of being myself.  To be privileged to have been there, in my life.

CD:  Like a guest of yourself?

JG:  Not a guest, but to have had it.

Both because of the substance of Jack Gilbert, the interviewee, and the preparation, deep insight, and perseverance of Chard deNiord, the interviewer, we are privileged to be the guest of a unique conversation between the two on Gilbert's writing and life, and to have it always, to return to again and again.

Next week:  Chard deNiord's interview of Maxine Kumin!


Monday, December 23, 2013

Thirteen Best Poetry Books I read in 2013: El Dorado by Peter Campion

I read a lot of poetry collections in 2013.  In addition to the fifty-some-odd published books, I read two-hundred unpublished manuscripts, searching, along with the other editors of Trio House Press, for the best work that we could find to publish.  I found a lot of good poems in more books that I have time to list or write about.  But far fewer books impressed me as complete works, every poem earning its place in the manuscript, contributing to the larger work as if it were one long poem, as well as standing on its own.  I've come up with thirteen books that did it for me.  They were not all released in 2013 (some were), but that's when I got around to reading (or re-reading) them.

Here are the books.  After the list is a brief review of one of them, Peter Campion's El Dorado.  In the next twelve posts, I will review the remaining books.  Perhaps you've read some of them.  Perhaps you'd like to do your own list.  Feel free to join in on the comment section.  Note:  I've already written about some of them, and in those cases, I'll be elaborating on what I have taken (or can take) from them for my own work.  They are listed in the approximate order that I read them, beginning with a copy of the original issue of Awake which I read in January (and re-read when I purchased my copy reissued by Carnegie Mellon), and ending with El Dorado, which I just finished today.

My Thirteen Best Poetry Books Read in 2013

Awake by Dorianne Laux
Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman
Holding Company by Major Jackson
Blue Rust by Joseph Millar
Gospel Night by Michael Waters
Throat Singing by Susan Cohen
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
Inventing Constellations by Al Maginnes
No Other Paradise by Kurt Brown
The Double Truth by Chard DeNiord
Eiko & Koma by Forrest Gander
Listening Long and Late by Peter Everwine
El Dorado by Peter Campion

Readers of this blog should know that I'm a huge fan of Peter Campion.  But placing El Dorado on my top thirteen list for 2013 was far from automatic.  It earned it's way from the very first (title) poem, where I recognized Campion's voice--tight, understated, lyrical, narrative, with virtuosic metaphorical sense--as one that I trusted.  If I didn't know better, "El Dorado" might have distanced itself from me in its opening lines with the very accessibility of its diction, the cool reporting of the trauma of an accident involving a family where

safe on the shoulder . . . she leaned against me
gripping our son as the cruiser
strobed blue and red

there came the helplessness    the bare
nerve shudder giving up to air

so in those moments
"I" was this person with my name and also no one

so remembering
                           crumpled steel and
sun on the silos for miles beyond us

I can make no connection

But, true to form, Campion makes a move that shows his readers the connection between the existential angst of being "this person with my name and also no one" and the ancient story of El Dorado, of

                         how a man
clambered from caves where days he dwelt alone
and tribesmen came anointing him
with balsam gum then
sputtering gold dust
through wooden tubes all over him

He walked the talus to the lake where a raft awaited
braziers lavishing shine on the heaped gold

At the center of the lake he scattered
handfuls of gold to the water
and returning to the shore
he doused himself
so colors elusive as the coins and squiggles
on the dorsal of a trout

fell to the cratered basin    treasure
the invaders found
vanishing always to wild interior

fell as the tribesmen
bellowed through jaguar masks


and then another move back to the present:

No one along the breakdown lane in northern Iowa
dressed as a jaguar

No one dripped with gold

But that shiver of surrender
flooding my chest
                            that tremble of unclenching muscle

stranded in the miles of soybean fields
between one home we left and one we'd never seen

In the remainder of the poem, Campion muses on the reflections that shine between ancient ritual and modern life by showing "wife and son," "the houses," "the billboard above [them] . . . even [his] own skin//shin[ing]"

. . . with the promise
there was nothing more than this
train of moments

streaming through air
                                   everything gathering
light to its contours
before it disappears

With the beginning lines of this section, Campion introduces "Ancient Story" as the first of three themes I found in this work; with these last two lines he brings in "Appearance/Disappearance" as a second theme.  The third, "Inside/Outside," creeps up on its readers as subtly as the curvature of a sixty-page-long mobius strip, beginning with only the slightest hint of an inward/outward tilt in this opening poem: "crumpled steel and/sun on the silos," the "clamber[ing] from caves," the "treasure/the invaders found/vanishing always to wild interior," and "surrender/flooding my chest," as examples. This interior/exterior motif grows from the interaction between the first two themes, poem after poem, until it declares itself in "1986: Recurring Dream."

 The dream was that the wilderness snaked up
against the house.   Except the wilderness
    was inside.  Which meant inside the house
       was the outside. . . 

The delight of reading El Dorado is found in both the ingenious way these three themes dance with one another throughout the collection, and with Campion's typical gorgeous language and spot-on metaphors.  "Elegy With Television," a four-part, seven-page poem, is emblematic of this complexity within a singular vision.  Witness the following lines selected from section II which intertwine the theme of interior/exterior with the theme of the (ancient) story, introduced in section I, a story of "Auntie Wisdom" who had "In her ranch house/wedged to a wicker cabinet, her TV/[that] fluttered above me all the afternoons/my parents dropped me there.  And the stories/up on the screen. . . "

I'm reading scholarship about TV.
The writer claims it streams two ways at once.
It pours the aggregate inside the home
so people of every race and cheetahs
in the Okavango, sales on furniture
and faces of refugees (some flattened ghost
at least in digital particulate)
all overflow the limits of the place
we're watching from.  It also filters out.
The spectacles of public life now shrink
to the console.  And what gets blinkered off
turns easier for power to control.

I've drifted from the theories.  But a trace
of networks cinching us between what screens
we're allowed to see--from the side porch, June heat
still thick at evening: the street lights strung
in forced perspective could be bastions, driven
into whatever's out there as inside
(shivers branching the gut) white heat coils down. 

Long corridors.  A whiff of disinfectant.
The complex she endured the last ten years
until she swallowed the pills she stashed . . . 

And with that last line (of the quote, not of the section), Campion begins stirring in the theme of appearance/disappearance that bubbles up as a question in section III:

. . . These entrances
of others in your life, however long
they stay, and then their disappearances:
I want to ask you is this all, this press
of faces more and more eclipsed to gray
and no great pattern holding us together? . . . 

By the conclusion of section IV, all three themes are mixed together to form new images rising from ancient ones:

. . . (her fingers liver-spotted on a plastic cup
enameled with daisies)
                                     could be preserved

and even her suicide appeared her slicing
through her expected slow occlusion to this
shiver of both arrival and departure

where any other pair of eyes meets yours
in long-remembered but till now forgotten
silent, articulate, animal glimmers.

And it snapped off.  No world behind the world.
Only the forced perspective corridor.

Only the crawl of numbers on the screens.

And hours later, like a dream but clear:
solidity of strapped-in bodies.  Snoring.

Out the window near Wichita, blue lines
of streetlights ascended from the snow.

Campion's knack for introduction and amplification of themes, pacing, and poem placement are never better demonstrated than in the ultimate poem of the collection, "Dandelions."  In it, the three-way marriage of ancient story, interior vs. exterior, and presence vs. disappearance is consummated.  The "small shock/of emptiness" that was born in the opening poem, that grew throughout the collection, comes to full maturity in

. . . this pure luxuriance to feel
the pull of dirt
                       again: sense mist uncurling
          to reveal
no architecture hidden behind the world

except the stories that we make unfolding:
as if our sole real power
                                       were the power
                    of children holding
this flower that is a weed that is a flower.

In El Dorado, Peter Campion, the poet outside the poems he creates, makes connections that his "I" inside its poems cannot.  These connections are as old as humanity, and as young as a child begging his father to "stay no stay/no Daddy just a minute."  The question Campion puts to us all is "Will we fully reside in the only minute we have?"  El Dorado can transform our minds and our hearts to be capable of exactly that.