home | new blog entries [12/2005]


updated 12/03/2005

Reading at the Tattered Cover in Denver

Regarding a poem inspired by the great painter Antonio Salemme

A KRFC show, thoughts on influence, and what makes the writing life worthwhile

why to go back to old poems

Gwen Wagner asks

the start of an extended riff on poets and insanity...

Li-Young Lee

On Galway Kinnell as a teacher/poet, something to be grateful for....

Reading for the Colorado Center for the Book, Lighthouse Writers, & The Copper Nickel

Sara Whelan asks

AWP Vancouver highlights: Susan Musgrave, Anne Carson, W. S. Merwin, Wayson Choi, and Ursula Leguin

Reading at the Loveland Musem for the Poets' Coop





A Writer's Blog (Responses & Questions welcome....)


It is January 11, 10:44 p.m. in northern Colorado, i.e. it's past midnight in the world I used to call home.


I decided to start writing this blog to record a few observations that deal fairly strictly with being a writer in the increasingly strange world.


Last night I gave a reading with another poet, Tim Hernandez, in Denver in the LoDo Tattered Cover. I have been very sick with a virus, so getting there was very hard, actually. The distance from Greeley to the reading was about 65 miles each way, and I'd never been there before. So after work (teaching), after crashing for a while, after not being able to eat much anyway, and after some medicine took hold, I hit the highway where, to my surprise, most of the traffic was cruising way over 80 mph, a lot of it near 100 mph. This was harrowing for an east coaster where the upper limit is usually 65 mph, or frequently less.


Anyway, the bookstore itself was beautiful, as promised, and the fact that it was nearly empty did not diminish its charm, its vastness, its uniqueness. The event room was really great: clear acoustics, a tall podium, glasses of water at the ready, a wide stage, neat stacks of poetry books on large desks, the nicely displayed book covers with tattoos, the large author portraits on the wall, seats for a hundred people, a thoughtful host/emcee in evidence (though not immediately present), and two people waiting for a reading to start.


The two people in the audience at 7:27 (the reading started at 7:30) were very nice. They were both casually but smartly dressed women in their late twenties, short hair, glasses, maybe. I said, "Hi." "You're one of the poets," one of them said.


Thinking that I've had worse audiences, I said, "I guess you're the audience."


One of them said, reassuringly, "I'm sure more people will show up." Then, as if on cue, the host walked in and promised to find the other poet.


Actually, since I know roughly two people in Denver, I was hoping the other guy would bring some people. A bunch of my students said they would try to come, but I knew it was a very, very long shot as any one of them would have to be as crazy as I am to drive 130 miles roundtrip for a reading by a guy you could hear in your hometown. Right?


But then one of them came! And from almost as far away, Ron, another workshop participant from Boulder, and his mother came, and another guy from Boulder who somehow just knew my work and had seen me before also showed. Confronted with that kind of—what would you call it—friendship? respect? of the people who came so far just to hear me, I decided to go for broke in the actual reading once I got up there.


Before it started there were maybe a dozen people, not including Tim's wife and two kids. Tim, who read first, had a wonderful, warm, open style. He actually invited and got questions from the audience in the midst of his reading. He was so casual on the one hand but very evocative and impassioned in the midst of his reading itself, on the other. There was warm applause after almost every poem he did. It was also nice to hear about his theater background and theatrical endeavours and how they complemented his poetry writing. (That was something we had in common, actually. Plus we were both married and had babies in the home. I really wanted to talk to him more after it was all over.)


After I was introduced, I wanted to make a joke about the fact that both of our books featured big tattoos very prominently, but being sick I forgot to say, "I guess it's Tattoo Night at the Tattered Cover." (The host, who had tattoos, had admired the beautiful image on my bookcover and asked about it.)


In the reading itself I felt better and better. I hit a certain space deep inside the poems where you lose all self-consciousness and just let them take over. At one point I realized that the interpretation I was doing was actually far better than the studio version I'd killed myself over for many months. That was kind of a great revelation on the one hand, but at the same time, part of me was thinking— "Sh$#— gotta get back in the studio and redo this whole %#^%$&* thing!"


Another thing that dawned on me in the midst of that 30 minutes was that I was very turned on by Denver.


For a thousand miles around Denver in all directions, there isn't anything else really like a big city. Denver is the most isolated major urban center in North America. Maybe it's even worse than that. Maybe it's the most isolated metro area in the western hemisphere. I forget where I read this factoid.


But Denver threw me into high gear the last time I read there also at the Colorado Poetry Festival. I got to read in a renovated brewery with a vat twenty-feet wide in my line of sight. Somehow that was inspiring to me.


I think this Denver effect may be due to the fact that my "hometown" is Philadelphia, a major east coast city with 1.4 million people within its bounds, and at least as many in its neighboring satellite/suburb counties. For me to go to Denver is exciting in the same way it was exciting when I'd go from the suburbs into the big city where all the interesting and strange people and things were.


Why do so many of us poets and writers have to leave the great cities that we came from?


It's kind of like an intellectual diaspora, and the economics of the conservative policies of the last decades have made this the norm, not the exception. This means that intellectual communities in America are continually losing their eloquent spokespeople; the cities that used to start revolutions in coffeehouses now merely house chains of Starbucks, Seattle's Best, and the next big whatever.


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[January 20, 2005]

Recently, I heard the results of The Fifth Annual James Hearst Poetry Prize sponsored by North American Review (573 Entrants • 2583 Poems). I was a finalist with one poem, which is below. I did not think the judge Billy Collins was going to pick my poem as the winner, to be perfectly honest, because the poem I sent wasn't really up his alley, so to speak. I was glad to make the finalist group though because that means they will publish this poem. I have always liked this poem despite the fact that it is "difficult."


I'm going to do the unusual thing and actually say how this poem was created. It began like, jesuschrist (!) more than twenty years ago. Yeah, it was 1984, and I was staying at a friend's house due to being somewhat temporarily destitute (okay, okay, i was homeless for a while after I was a literally starving artist in a real third floor garret with bullet holes in the windows, blah blah blah. It may sound romantic etc. but it really was mostly ugly and nasty. Stuff that makes you prone to anti-social habits and rots your teeth etc.)


So, anyway, this poet friend was best friends with this incredibly talented genius painter William DeRaymond, and he was the protegé of this once world famous painter-sculptor Antonio Salemme, whose works were just sitting around the house. I at first did not appreciate what Salemme was doing as a painter. Bill, the protegé, had to teach me how to see what his paintings were doing. It took quite a while before Bill was able to make me just look and look and look at the painting. He just kept asking, "Can't you see what it is?"


It was figurative but not in a realist way. You could see a swan drifting by on the smooth water and a man from behind, just the top part of his torso, head and an arm flung up in a gesture of heart-rending rapture. He was obviously struck by the beauty of the swan, and it was obviously unconcerned with him in its radiant beauty. Suddenly the situation of the painting became somehow alive and dramatic as the knowledge and wisdom of the insight became clear to me. I felt as though I were suddenly pulled out of myself into this vision as I understood how it was all at once tragic, inevitable, and beautiful that the man/artist/seer cannot fail to love and desire the unattainable.


It reminded me of a line from Speech and Phenomenon by Derrida that went something like, "inspite of what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes." There was something tragic about Derrida's vision also, but Salemme's vision was much greater as he was not merely stating a position within the limits of human desire. Somehow, due to the style of the presentation of the painting, he let the viewer of the painting identify with the man who desires and at the same time comprehend his situation, as it were, from a perspective of the greater totality of the universe, which did not diminish the emotion. This other aspect made it more intense as one became both the artist as entrapped/engaged in desire and also the far-seeing, more ethereal self, something like the compassionate oversoul.


Perhaps Salemme in his own vision and wisdom had fully comprehended and accepted the ultimate irony of love and desire, and due to this complete surrender of self-interest had been able to more completely experience and thus convey the agony of that knowledge.


So in this poem, I was trying to explore and explain the painting in a poetic form so that readers might feel a little of what I felt and be intrigued enough to try to find out about Antonio. I tried to be very faithful to the painting although, admittedly, no poetic translation could faithfully render what this painting achieved.


After a painting by Antonio Salemme* xi.ii.mm

shielding his eyes, he half-lifts his arm
a startled wing

floating away like a gasp
because she is crossing his line of sight

a gash in the world sailing from right to left
as if there were nothing else

but his ethereal agony
that isn’t the hunger for love or sex

but an ache like that which draws the eye
to blue jetting flames from orange coals

or ox-eye daisies in the field
bellis perennis wanting nothing

and she—she is caught in the eye like snow
but it is the eye that melts—

he can’t un-see her figure in the flow
or separate himself from her

mirror image of an S curve
her neck and breast a cool impasto

a pure fire on the aquamarine
poised to edge out of sight

and he can’t help feeling she is
a time that was

when sunlight licked the fog away
and he was the naked air still steaming

a morning song spilling urgently
a sound-fountain from his lips

a gale-force bearing seeds to new births
or just concrete-paved earth

because he couldn’t—and can’t—revoke this love
because what never is is heaven to him

and she—she sees through her own image, a swan—
but she knows he can’t.


The painting changed my feelings, my consciousness about life and art forever. And every other painting by Salemme that I saw had this same kind of transformative power. It was art that enacted a kind of zen koan. It was that powerful, like a moment of enlightenment. But it was only there if you were ready for it. I have never in my life seen painting that was anywhere near Salemme's in vision and power; it had a kind of higher wisdom that took you far beyond yourself. Seeing his work changed the way i saw everything. He was so much more evolved as a seer that once you saw what he was doing, it was irrevocable.


Then I understood Bill's zealousness and his frustration. For once you know how powerful a truly great painting can be, you feel very upset with the shallow, the philistine, the flashy, and the trashy. Bill used to say angrily, "Painting is not muzak for your walls!"


Thanks to Bill, I actually got to meet Antonio once in 1984 and saw some things he was working on in his studio. He was over ninety even then (he was a contemporary with Picasso), but he was still vibrant and actively painting great new things. (He looked more like a very healthy sixty year old.) He was best known for his nude statue of Paul Robeson in alabaster, which won the Prix de Rome in the 1930s. Antonio was, and still is, the greatest painter I have ever seen.


Now that I am older, I understand how the greatest art is often completely overlooked. The greatest vision, which can produce the most profound work, is not usually obvious. The viewer has to be sufficiently hungry for the truly great to even be willing to look for it. But that also requires an educated viewer who knows that there is the possibility of a truly great vision in art.


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[January 22, 2005]

It is Saturday January 22nd right now, but I am going to go backward to Sunday the 16th of January at 6 p.m. when I got to do the Poetry Show on the radio at KRFC 88.9 FM with Dona Stein, who has been a wonderful friend to my work as both a poet and a teacher of poetry. The idea was to have poets who teach poetry talk about the why and how of teaching poetry. My good friends Bob King (UNC colleague) and Donna Salemink (UNC alum) were on the air with me. I was very happy to see them and wished we could have talked much longer, but we were going on the air in a few minutes. KRFC is in the process of being renovated, so it was kind of half put together and half falling apart. Our host wanted to know why we taught...


I said it must be the fabulous wealth and the gold-plated Rolls Royces and the oil wells they give us at UNC because they place such tremendous value on poetry and the humanities etc. (I pictured in my imagination a four-foot tall oil well stuck in the asphalt of one of the vast university parking lots, and it was dry.)


To be perfectly honest, I do not really have any explanation for why I love to teach. It's just always been a strong compulsion that has been there almost as long as that even stronger compulsion to write and create. What made me swear solemnly at the age of eighteen to devote my life to writing? What made me think it was worth more than anything else in the world? That no sacrifice was too great etc?


(If my novel-writing buddy Simone Zelitch were here now eavesdropping, she would say, "Ah, you are bragging.")


In the spirit of avoiding bragging and slipping into exaggerations etc., I will make a few simple rules for this blog before I forget them: (i) only write about things about which I can be completely honest, (ii) tell the whole truth whenever practical or possible.


Of course, this means I am going to just have to simply not say anything at all about a lot of contemporary issues due to the way things are around me here. But I will make this promise for myself (and for anyone else who dives into this experiment) that I will be faithful to the truth in this blog.


I imagine that the ideal reader of this blog is a young writer, someone who probably knows my work and is curious about it and/or me. I wish that when I had started out in "Po Biz" that there had been more older writers who were genuinely truthful about the writing life and its strangeness. I think I owe it to the next generation to not make it seem easier or better than it is. But I also think I owe it to them to relate what makes it still worthwhile.


For one thing, I hear from some readers occasionally, including people I've never met or heard of who saw my work somewhere online or in print. Sometimes I even get things that seem like "fanmail." Sometimes I get a phone call from someone who saw my work online and loved it, and I am invited to read here or there.


Some of my readers have even told me that they don't just read my work; they re-read and re-read it. Of course, I am happy about this. But I also worry about the influence my work may have on them because influence is often a double-edged phenomenon. I have had in the past some poet friends who sort of fell in love with my work and could not help but start to imitate it in some ways. I was always flattered by this, but it was not just that simple. There was a sense of struggle....


When I first fell in love with the works of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Hart Crane, for example, it was quite overpowering and I went through imitative phases in relation to each of them. Eliot was by far the most deleterious influence (which is a kind of a compliment to his powers), but it took years to sort out for myself how I could find a stance in relation to his work that would enable me to go forward and not merely reiterate anything he had done. It was really torture, though, until that breakthrough in 1984 when I wrote "The Sylf." The influence of Pound, on the other hand, was much more beneficial and uncomplicated. No matter what terrible things you say about Pound as neo-troubadour, as fascist, as elitist, as anti-semite etc., there is still the self-sacrificing, compulsively and extravagantly generous friend that Pound was. Somehow this aspect of Pound pervades his greatest poetry, and it makes it a more giving field to wander in than Eliot. When you imitate Eliot, you always sound like a derivative, watery version of Eliot. But imitating Pound somehow throws you back out to your own voice, and you can come away from Pound as a better, more skillful writer than you were before. It is much harder to pick up any tricks from Eliot because his stylistic innovations are so peculiarly integral to his voice that they remind the reader of him (and how much better he is than you are). He is astonishingly subversive as an influence. I've seen lots of talented poets pretty much wrecked by Eliot, and so have lots of other poets. I think that subversive influence of Eliot's may have even fueled some of the backlash against his work.


So even though I still love Eliot's work, I recognize its hazards. It should almost have a warning label specifically written for young poets: CAUTION: reading Eliot may cause severe subversions and birth-of-genius-defects. Consult a metaphysician or a doctorate before digesting.


(Analogously, many poets have observed that Milton is a subversive influence whereas Shakespeare is a very generous influence. William Wordsworth is a potentially subversive influence while his sister Dorothy is a very generous influence. Poe and DeQuincey are both subversive influences, but Poe is much worse. Sylvia Plath is a subversive influence while her friend Anne Sexton is a relatively generous influence. Ginsberg is more of a subversive influence and Ferlinghetti is more of a generous influence. Etheridge Knight, Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds, my first great poet-mentor/friend and two of my past poet-teachers, are all great and generous influences.)


Throughout my teaching career, I have tried very hard to not overexpose my students to my work even though it may be the reason they are there in the first place. I'd feel terrible if my work inadvertently had undesireable side-effects. I hope that my work may be more of a generous reading experience. It seems to work this way for some of my students. But no one can ever predict this for sure. You can only find out the hard way by seeing what happens, and by then it may be too late.


But with all that said, I have skirted the real issue: what makes the writing life worthwhile? It's those moments when the gift comes and you are ready for it, those moments when you are fully conscious in the artwork and alive to all the possibilities of its truth, its sensuous and sinuous beauty. Those moments when the writing is more involving than anything else you could ever do in your existence, they bring you back to your true reason to live. They do more than make writing worthwhile, they make life worthwhile. Nothing can destroy those moments, and nothing can replace them. In those moments there is this "marvelous joy of being sure...."


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[January 26, 2005]

I don't like to dwell on failure, but every writer who is "on the job" for a couple decades has a pile of them somewhere (published or tucked away in a drawer or boxed up somewhere). This is one of the hardest things about the writing life: what to do when the writing does not turn out as well as it should have or could have, and there is no solution in sight.


I think of myself as one of the lucky ones because most of the times when I think I have written something really worthy it does get published and draws at least some of the attention it deserves.


On the other hand, there are lots of writers who get stuck or give up too soon or keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. I understand their frustrations, fears and anxieties. I have certainly had my share of duds. For every successful poem there are at least several fizzles and outright dead ends. (When I was younger, the fizzles outnumbered successes by a far greater number, too.)


I have gotten better at learning when to walk away from these disasters and to just try something else for a while. I have also learned from experience that the really great poems return. Even if the poem that misfired seems hopeless one day, in a couple years (or many years) it may open itself up again and suddenly seem quite clear as to how it needs to go. The ones that need you to come back have a way of calling you when you are ready.


But as I say this, I know it isn't true for everyone. Why is it true for me? Maybe it is the fact that I am willing to accept a high percentage of drafts that "blow chunks" compared to a low percentage that seem stellar right away. Most of my best poems started out in drafts that looked like crap. I'm the only person who could see any potential there. Why do I see potential there when any sane person would not? Why did I go back into something that seemed so unpromising to try to make it work again?


For example, that poem for Antonio Salemme actually had a weaker earlier incarnation, "white fire" (from the late 1980s maybe?) which was published in a little magazine. But I recognized its severe limitations as a poem while I was in a workshop with Galway Kinnell in 1999. What happened in the intervening years? For one thing, the woman who inspired the earlier poem went not just out of my life but far away (like Japan), which made it easier to detach the poem from a bunch of personal feelings that really did not help the poem at all. I no longer needed to say anything about how I felt about her. Instead, I had the painting in its pure and austere power to work with. (The imagery from the same painting was used in the earlier poem also but it was not about the painting; it was about the feelings for this particular woman.) I realized that what I really wanted to say, still, hadn't gotten said because this very personal relationship was in the way.


Ironically, even though the autobiographical elements all got stripped out of the new poem, I feel that it still represents (albeit indirectly) an essential part of me. In fact, as I read it now, I think it seems to me to be a more honest examination of that personal relationship even though that story isn't even represented in the poem anymore.


(Coleridge was a poet who also wrote very personal and embarrassing earlier versions of poems that evolved into less personal but more honest and great works. In America, people tend to think self expression is an end in itself for art. But most of the rest of the world knows better, I think.)


So, before I forget the original question, why did I go back to that old poem in the first place? The old poem, despite all its flaws, seemed to me to be demanding my attention. Perhaps it had been nagging me. It still contained the signature of the energy that gave it birth. That energy forced me to own up to the powerful feelings that inspired the poem in the first place, and that led me back to the originating moment of the work in the remote past. Reflecting on the past, I realized that the very old relationship had lost its "charge," but its meaning had now taken on a life of its own in the poem. It was almost as if the emotional energy of the poem had replaced the emotional energy of the relationship. Instead of thinking about the past, I was thinking of the past poem, and that was a far better situation for me as a writer. The poem had set me emotionally free of the past by memorializing it in an art form that was "permanent." That was the moment I felt the most free to work on the poem as a totally new thing; that was the moment I broke the tie with that past. Ironically, that was the moment the past became the most clear.


A "failure" became a "success" even though I had to wait more than ten years for that poem to unfold itself for me. I actually think that is one thing that a lot of good writers do; they transform their junk into something valuable, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. But you have to be willing to throw out the old stuff and say, "I can do that better!"


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[February 7, 2005. Some short questions....]

My advanced poetry student Gwen Wagner recently asked via e-mail: "Ballpark, how much time do you find you need to spend writing a day to keep 'in the groove' or be ready when the groove hits you?"


To answer your question from the point of view of when I was younger, I used to write for several hours a day for days on end. Sometimes whole days or nights would be spent with writing. Even though I wrote relatively little that was worth preserving in those early years (when I was eighteen to twenty or so), the habits of concentration were essential to developing a literary consciousness that was actively creating, innovating, and working. Just reading great works by others does something similar to this, also, but reading works best for young poets when they are fulfilling a need (or a lack) in their own work.


Now, I should say that due to some situations I have at work now, I have not really written a poem in a while although I feel I have lived through the material to write many (haha).


In the academic year 2002-2003, I was able to write more often and finished most of what is now invisible sister before the summer of 2003 ended. Just as an example, “Iris’ painter hears the rain music return” took maybe a dozen drafts but they were mostly just getting a sharper focus on the subject with each new version. It wasn’t grueling.


There have been a lot of what I will call minor poems, and maybe a few “important” ones, or at least important starts. What’s the difference between minor and major poems? Some things in your life carry a great deal of energy, and some are just little observations or moments etc. When I get an opening into a major field of energy that is turning into a poem, I think that could be important. I have actually had some important starts this year, but I have not rushed to work on them due to other pressures. I don’t want to botch a potentially great thing even if it means having to wait a long time until things are more calm.


In 2003-2004, there were fewer poems as invisible sister was being created at Many Mountains Moving, and that required much creative energy of a different sort, and so did arranging readings etc.

Gwen also asked: "How do you revise work without the help of peers/other writers?"


Actually, even when there are no actual “peers” (as in a workshop), I carry around inside of me (as everyone does) the voices and the ears of others who have been my peers and precursors at different points in my life. So there are friendly, enabling presences in my consciousness when I write. In fact, when I feel the most inspired is when I feel these presences the most.


A lot of times, I also share things via a free online forum that I have set up with friends and peers, which I still find enjoyable and helpful.


Reading new works aloud for various audiences also helps a lot, and so does creating audio recordings in a studio.


Also, when you write with actors or actresses in mind, they can actually have a profound impact on the work because their ways of hearing the work and giving it voice can actually create new dimensions in the work that you did not hear before. Sometimes the creativity of the actor or actress extends the depth of the character, and then you can follow that opening wherever it leads. That is one reason why I like to work with some people over and over.


Gwen also wrote:

I'm reading this book called Art as Experience by John Dewey. It was
written in the 1930's--amazing amounts of good stuff came out of the
" depression." (Kind of like the Dark Ages.) This book discusses some
theories of art, some of which are applied to poetry (though in a sort of
stifled way that could be expanded by someone who knows the writer better.)
In a chapter on expression two ideas which you touched on indirectly in the
blog came up. One, that a work of art which has sufficiently accomplished
it's message, if the viewer is receptive, can speak to that person--the
artist goes through a process of creation in making the painting (art) and
the viewer also goes through a creating process in order to access its
meaning. Interesting thought...makes art very interactive instead of stuck
in a museum and musty. Two, that self-expression (really an excuse for
self-indulgence) doesn't make something art...it is the cohesion of thought
and medium that creates a cohesiveness and accessible message in the work.


I am really glad you made that connection with Art as Experience because the only reading that has really mattered to me is that in which I feel a very strong connection to the writer as though we were in a kind of an intense dialogue. (The list of writers I have felt this close to is not very long.) The reader has to be reinvented and to be actively reinventing him or herself while reading just as a person in a real dialogue with a true friend starts to awaken or engage different aspects of the self. To be inspired while reading is like discovering a true friend who turns on (or reaches) essential parts of you.


On the point about self-expression, I'd say that the first really successful things I wrote happened when, by accident, I didn't say what I wanted to as much as I let the poem say what it needed to. In fact, the first times that I stumbled into this phenomenon, I myself didn't know what the lines meant, but I somehow knew they were better than anything I wanted to say. The lines knew more than I did, which was humbling. Humility is a good place to be in the midst of the process of creating. Whenever it happens now that I write something that I know is better than or more than anything I could ever consciously grasp or "plan," when a kind of a mysterious door opens up where I thought I knew where I was, then I feel very fortunate.


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[February 22, 2005* the start of an extended riff on poets and insanity...]

Another hard thing in the writing world is, I must admit, the way some writers act, especially towards each other. Everyone in the writing world, especially the poetry neighborhood of the writing world, has horror stories. Some of them are so horrifying you could make them into cheesy horror movies. No, I mean real horror movies. This only gets worse when you really dig into "the field," so to speak, because sometimes "the field" is a graveyard.


Did you know that the great Victorian poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who had an affair with Fanny Cornforth, his beautiful housekeeper, felt so guilty over his wife's suicide that he buried all of his poetry with her? Wait wait—it gets worse. Then he realized his great contribution to English literature was in the process of decomposing along with the corpse of his wife, so he dug it up again.


The list of famous poet and writers who were suicidal, drunk, addicted, self-destructive, narcissistic, promiscuous, diseased, insane and so on is far too long to even start.


(On the other hand, I think there is an almost equally great tragedy in going to the opposite extreme and trying to make cultural icons out of poets and writers who are so relentlessly dull, inoffensive, and "nice" that you can't remember who they are five minutes after you meet them. We seem to be in a cultural moment that champions more and more of the safe and dull—poets who censor themselves so much that no one will ever have to worry about them censoring them in any way.)


Sadly, the poetry game in particular is great camouflage for crazy people. So I have to admit that I have been friends, and ex-friends, with some crazy literati and/or literary nutjobs. I learned what I learned the hard way.


But let me say this, first: some of the actually diagnosed schizophrenic poets that I knew were really brilliant (at times), and mostly very nice to be around (except for the antisocial nervous tics, the degenerative diseases, the logorrhea etc.) Genuinely crazy poets who know they are crazy (meaning: they can tell you exactly which drugs they are supposed to be on whether they take them or not) aren't necessarily bad at all, especially in contrast to those who think they are okay and are deeply disturbed.


I don't know if this one guy is still alive, so I don't want to give away his name. When I was twenty or so, he was forty or so, but he looked sixty due to his very hard institutionalization and "treatment" for schizophrenia in the bad old days of primitive psychotropic drugs. I met him through another poet (of course), and I had read one of his books, which had exquisite and beautiful lyric moments in it although it also seemed at times to verge on being an incoherent way out jazz improv with words. But even then it had some inner beauty and resilience. I really admired what he was able to do. So I was really shocked to see him looking withered, weathered, smelly, ragged, haggard, and gray. Worse, he was in nonstop highspeed raving mode, complaining about his degenerating teeth, eyes, and on and on. But as I listened to him going on and on, I was able to separate the poet from his illness somehow, and when he was out of breath I told him I really admired his poetry due to the gorgeous images and the musical quality in the lines. I was sincere when I told him that I was moved by the beauty of his lyric poetry.


Suddenly he stopped ranting, complaining, and suffering. I explained a little more about what I'd read. He paused and asked a few questions, just to be sure I knew what I was talking about. It sank in, and he felt a kind of relief or maybe a temporary release from all his grief. Someone had just recognized who he really was.


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[Written on 03/13/2005 about 03/01-02/2005]

Li-Young Lee visited UNC eleven or twelve days ago, i.e. 03/01/05, and I was very lucky to be the guy who got to pick him up at the airport and drive him around and introduce him to the audience. He was a lot more casual and friendly and down to earth than I expected. In fact, I liked him right away. I don't know why I thought he might be anything else, maybe just because of his fame and how other famous poets are sometimes. It took me a little while to find him at baggage claim though I got there early and went looking for him whenever trainloads of passengers flowed up and out of the escalators from the underground rail. He was in a long coat and had on sneakers and just one small bag. He was easy to recognize; we spotted each other, and after I introduced myself he called home to say he had a ride.


(I had wanted to borrow a cell phone so that he could call me from baggage claim, which is how I picked up Sharon Olds the previous year, but this year no one in the dept. had one they could spare.)


Of course, I had heard him read in Chicago at AWP last year (when he shared a reading with, among others, Mark Strand), and I was happy to help him get to the Greeley Guest House. As we started off, he didn't really talk about himself at all. That was kind of a nice surprise. Instead, he was very curious about me. He asked a lot of questions. When he learned I was a poet, he said, "You're a rare bird," meaning, an Asian-American in poetry. He asked me how my parents felt about it. "They thought it was a catastrophe," I said. I mentioned how even just a few years ago my mother had tried to get me to go to law school depite fifteen years in teaching. "My mom wanted me to get a real job."


We had to take an airport shuttle to the parking lot to my car. During the long drive from Denver International Airport, we talked about a lot of things. His parents hadn't been thrilled with his career either, it turned out.


"Wow," I was impressed by how unimpressed Asian parents can be about artistic achievements.


We also talked about poetry recordings and some things that are happening with poetry audio and studio work. He was working with some studio, and he was surprised to learn how expensive it could be. Another thing we talked about was Sharon Olds. He had seen her the previous week at a party, and we talked about her a little. I explained how she had been my advisor and what a great teacher she had been for me. It turned out that we both had experience with meditation, and he had even helped to start a school for it. We also talked about art; it turned out that he had a strong interest in visual arts also. And his brother Li-Lin Lee had work in the Art Institute of Chicago. I said how I thought that was the greatest museum I had ever visited, and I've seen some pretty great ones.


I mentioned how many of my students really loved his work, and he was interested in knowing about them and how much experience they had had with poetry. He was curious about teaching and what it was like at UNC. I said the students were really nice and intelligent, but there was very little diversity. Anyway, near the end of the long drive I stopped so he could grab some coffee (he drank twelve cups a day, he said), and I gave him my latest book and said I hoped he'd like it, and in a little while he was at the Guest House. Later that afternoon, I picked him up to take him to dinner and the reading in the evening.


Li-Young was curious about who was coming to dinner. I wasn't sure about who might be coming, so I was surprised to see the provost of the university and his wife, the Dean David Caldwell, and the other poets on the faculty, Lisa Zimmerman, and my friend Bob King. Li-Young was glad, I think, to be able to talk to the provost and his wife in Chinese, and he seemed pretty happy with the steaks at Potato Brumbaughs. I asked him towards the end if he needed a little time to relax by himself before the reading, and he said he really didn't. But when we got there with just a little time remaining he thought that maybe it would have been better after all if he had had a few minutes to himself.


A lot of my friends and students were there, and that made me feel good. Many of them had come 60 miles or so from Boulder, and it was wonderful to see them there. The crowd was very big but not as huge as people had anticipated, so there were many empty seats in the great hall. I did the intro very briefly, just saying welcome and thanks to the provost and the generous sponsor Mr. Rosenberry, a quick plug for the UNC litmag, and then the brief intro for Li-Young. I was nervous in a way that made me uncomfortable and unhappy (actually), and this is a new phenomenon for me.


As soon as the reading started, I was really intrigued by the style and substance of the delivery of the poetry. He really had the audience completely with him right away, and he really took some interesting chances out there, saying new poems and rough drafts, and even sharing things that had originated in improvisational settings. It was great to be lifted into the realm of poetry for a while, especially when it was coming from someone who was able to understand some things about me that may not be obvious to a lot of other people.


After the reading, he was signing books and talking a little to many, many of the people in the very long line. Meanwhile, some of my female students were telling me how they were so infatuated with Li-Young and how gorgeous he was etc. They were asking me how old he was as though they were considering running away with him etc. I thought this was kind of amusing. Then Li-Young was doing an interview with a student from the UNC newspaper, and finally I got to take him back to the Guest House.


He seemed a little tired, so I went there the quickest way. We talked a little along the way. Somehow it came up that when we both started writing, there were no Asian-American poets in the Norton Anthology, so it was a kind of a transformative moment for me when I realized I could write about things that had to do with my real inner life as an Asian American. Li-Young said it was like we were pioneers in this new literature.


The next morning, I got to take him to my morning class, and he was very relaxed. He had been thinking of a poem while going to sleep, and he had been working on this new poem early in the day. "That's exciting," I said. He smiled at that.


Some things he said that morning were really very profound. He talked about the poem being made of words but crafted out of silence just as architects work with material but what they shape is empty space. He talked about the poetry being embedded in silence, the silence being embedded in the psyche, the psyche being embedded in the person, and the person in the world, and the world in the cosmos. One of my students who was too shy to say her question aloud wrote on a little piece of paper: "What do you get from poetry?" Li-Young said it was a buzz, it was like drugs, it was exciting, it made him feel alive etc. That was a great answer. He was so totally at ease with everything; it was a real pleasure to watch him interact with people.


Then I returned him to the Guest House. It was sad to be leaving him there and returning to the regular grind, so to speak. He asked me if he would see me later before he flew back to Chicago. Sadly, I was not able to come back. He was so enlightening and so kind. He said that he loved my poems, and that I should let him know when I'm passing through Chicago. He knew the best place for won ton.


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[March 8, 2005* On Galway Kinnell as a teacher/poet, something to be grateful for....]

Galway would regularly ask us to do the impossible. Once in a one-on-one conference in the spring of 1999 he was helping me with a poem about the out-of-body travel experience of a thirteen-year-old. I was struggling to show how it was both a transcendent and a sexually arousing experience. He perked up with a great idea, which went something like: ‘Why don’t you show how the spiritual and the sexual are interwoven inevitably in adolescence? I’ve never read a poem about that. Why don’t you do that?’


After the enormity of this sank in, I said something like, ‘Okay.... I guess I could try that....’ (read: Sure, just toss off the answer to a mystery that has baffled thinkers and sages for millennia).


Even though I was stumped for a very long time, the idea Galway planted took root and a year later I wrote the poem that fulfilled that idea, and it was published later in 2000.


I have always felt indebted to Galway for daring to believe in me (and so many of us) with the same kind of ambition that he had in his own work. That was a gift that you could never fully measure. Thank you, Galway!


(The poem that Galway and I were discussing this idea over was called "digression," and it was written as the second part of a series called "out-of-body travel at thirteen." I think he had already seen the third part called "out-of-body travel at thirteen"—that was the most narrative part. The next part, which took a year to write was about the transcendental and sexual elation, and it was called "elation: some variations." I brought this to Sharon's workshop the following year and explained how it came about. I seem to remember Sharon's reaction when I recollected Galway's suggestion to the class as a kind of moment when her jaw dropped open momentarily. The series can be seen as a PDF here. Thanks to Ashlie Kauffman, fellow NYU alum for asking about this.)


[The wonderful poet and fellow alum Susan Brennan sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

Once, in Galway's classroom, he played a tape of animals sounds—I remember the
wolves especially and thinking—this is wild, and comforting and—so sexy.
In that same class, he explained Whitman as a kind of fertility god who spoke
through the lines of Leaves of Grass. I remember cherishing this note especially
because the previous semester I was in an English class with doctoral students
who just about crucified Whitman.

Reading Galway's work, being his student at NYU, watching him get intense over
line-drives at Squaw Valley, having him generously listen to poems that were
difficult to write—all these moments have conveyed to me a special knowledge
about poetry; that it's a wilderness which poets can graciously and proudly
inhabit. Galway has shown my poetry-creature ways to make a home in this

A couple of summers ago, I was standing on West Third Street with Humera and we
saw Galway crossing the street. He had on a bright, white shirt and it was
billowing in the wind. We watched as strangers turned their heads to look at him
with an impulsive curiousity. We sighed to each other "he's so beautiful and
sexy and wild and free"! Poetry.



[This is from fellow alum Emily Gordon who sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

This is the Galway story I love to tell. In 2002 on the last day of
Craft, he gave out books of his to everyone and talked for a little
while about how much having poetry friendships has meant to him. He
said, "When you leave, I hope you'll stay in touch with each other, and
trade poems. The most marvelous thing is how easy it can be! You don't
have to wait for the mail for weeks anymore to find out if your friend
liked your poem. Now there's the _fax machine_, which makes it so that
in only a few minutes your friend can see your poem, and send it back,
and you can read it! Isn't it wonderful?" And we all burst out laughing
in the most affectionate way possible, just about in tears.


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[March 13, 2005 * On the Reading for the Colorado Center for the Book, The Lighthouse Writers & The Copper Nickel on 03/12/05]


I was very happy to read in the Tivoli Student Union Building at CU-Denver again; I was invited back by Sara Whelan who had remembered me from the reading I gave last year as part of the Denver Poetry Festival on 04/23/04. That reading was really unusual in that I was so turned on by being in Denver and by having an audience with a large number of the CU-Denver faculty there that it really didn't matter to me that the total audience was just around a dozen people. Even though the sound system sort of went berserk at one point during that reading, it actually sort of helped to convey the theme of random urban violence in the poem identity papers, which I hadn't planned to read. I did it just because the audience said they were ready for it and really interested in it. I hadn't done any part of it in a long time, it seemed, and certainly not solo. (Usually there would have been my wonderful friend Lori-Nan Engler, the actress who collaborated on the CD, or there would have been Toshi, the percussionist.) But it went so well that after the reading Sara was really intrigued and wanted to know in depth how and why I wrote in these dialogic forms etc., and so the impression I made that day was what brought about this new reading.


I started getting ready a few weeks ago; I asked Jamie Romero, a very nice poetry student who is also an actress who had gotten some great reviews, to help out by reading the Iris character. She was happy to, and we rehearsed a few times for less than an hour the week before. We also rehearsed one of the poems just a half hour before the reading. It wasn't hard. She was very quick at picking things up, and her voice was neither too high nor too low—it was just resonant enough to cut through very clearly and with great character. It was fun to have her to play off of.


I had been looking forward to this reading for a while, especially since some unrelated things had been a major and continual drain, and those things had been so hard lately that they actually were—for a first time—interfering with my reading. I was nervous! You might think that is normal, but it is actually not normal for me because during most readings that I have given I have felt very relaxed and free. But this time I had to struggle to find any ease. The joke lines were not getting the usual laughs. My mouth went painfully dry (a very bad sign). Fortunately, Jamie was solid as a rock, and it helped that her boyfriend was clearly enjoying the reading where he was. I had to internally struggle to get myself back to the core of the poetry over and over. The thing I was there for... the thing that brought me here to Colorado in the first place—it was being edged out by unrelated problems! How awful that was.


I suspect that this struggle was almost entirely invisible to everyone except that I seemed more tense than I normally would. As the poems passed, and mostly drew applause, I started to really ease up and just let the poetry take over again. I had a plan and stuck with it, and by the end I was really "on" again, and the audience was happy afterward.


One thing I did that helped was last night I slept with the poetry audio tracks playing over and over—it actually made me dream something significant for the first time in a very long time. It also meant that the rhythms were in my subconscious pretty deeply. Another thing that helped was that I actually worked on something NEW (a promising but very rough draft that had been nagging at me for a long while), so that meant good things were simmering in the creative sphere. Another thing that helped was that I'd gotten there early, and Jamie was waiting there in Room 444 in the Tivoli Student Union. It also helped that Sara got us no less than three bottles of water for the reading. Another good thing was the big turnout (around fifty people, almost all new to me), and several familiar friends and students, which is always a great thing. Another good thing was the reporter Laurie Dunklee who wanted to write about this event for a Denver paper and ask a few questions; she asked really good questions and seemed genuinely interested. She was also the first person to tell me that she had read this blog (as research, no less!) That was gratifying. So all the little things that helped really added up to a solid success. A year ago, I think I'd have felt very pumped up by all this. Tonight I feel lucky to have survived.


[The next day, 03/13/05, I got this reassuring e-mail from Sara Whelan:

Dear Jeff,

I was very pleased with the turn-out and the reading. There are few people
who have your attention to detail when it comes to expression and voice in
the reading of poetry, which gives your poems a new dimension, bringing them
into the realm of experience beyond language. (If that makes sense). As I
mentioned before you left, there's a moment of surrender I experience when
listening to your poems read aloud—a transition where my mind lets go of
the need to decode and allows the voices to take me somewhere, from the
familiar to the unfamiliar. This is really much like the experience of
listening to music, which means, to me, your employment of musical forms and
devices in composition is quite successful....]


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Then today, 03/14/2005, Sara Whelan asked via e-mail:


SW: Finally, I’m going to take you up on that offer to field some questions.
Since I have been out of school, I've had a somewhat voracious appetite for
theory.... I do feel that these particular questions are raised in
your poetry more than others... And so... Here's my stab at a


Questions rooted in criticism are often the hardest to form because they
often challenge our understanding of the idea put forth, or expose gaps in
our own thinking not yet realized. I’m not sure what first inspired me to
pursue an independent study on the Russian formalists, for I often find that
criticism does not translate well between languages.


....[C]entral to Shklovsky’s formalist thought is the distinction between “prose perception”
and art, the former being almost an algebraic perception that identifies
objects by their traits, ciphers or outlines. Of course these are objects
that occur repeatedly—furniture, clothes, girls, boys (I suppose, over time,
wives, husbands). What we perceive, as I understand it from Shklovsky, is an
outline of the object that we only know by its function or formula. In
contrast to this, lies the world of art, [whose] function “is to make objects
‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length
of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in
itself and must be prolonged.” Even Shklovsky admits that since this process
of “unfamiliarizing” an object can be applied to any object, that art is
really a way to experience the artfulness of an object. This means, to me,
that art [is] a process that places an ordinary object outside of a system of
formulas that dictate how we know or how we perceive something. It seems to
follow that this can not be a simple act of description, especially when
applied to poetry. To say, “there is a dog,” is not (considered by most) a
poetic phrase, or an artful one, and adding adjectives, “there is a brown
dog,” doesn’t get close either to Shklovsky’s art. The phrase must make the
dog unfamiliar, which can be accomplished by saying “there is a striped
brown dog”; however, without placing that unfamiliar object in relation to
other objects there is no way to experience its significance. Here is where
the distinctions become fuzzy to me—where they are applied to language, the
most common way we name things, and thus assign these formulas. As much as
there is a “prose perception” there is a “prose language” in which to talk
about it. IT doesn’t seem adequate to claim that a qualifying feature of
poetry is unfamiliar language, and theorists after Shklovsky, especially
Valery, who uses Chomsky’s idea of foregrounding to claim that “poetic
speech” pushes communication, as a linguistic function, to the background.


JL: It's true that great poetry does much more than represent the “functional” face of language. When a house is burning down, no one wants the 911 operator to get poetic. Many years later, though, the former house owner might grow very poetic about the place where her or his house once stood. The usefulness of language has much to do with action in the real world; the power of poetry has more to do with the emotions and meanings people bring to experiences afterwards.


Valéry was part of the generation that had seen the Symbolists (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé), so he had time to reflect on some of the most world-negating and world-ignoring poetry ever written. This seems to have helped him to take a more philosophical approach in his own work. He was very interested in thinking about the aesthetic experience. He also was lucky enough to be alive when great music by Debussy was just being discovered. French décadence and aestheticism were very important trends that helped modernism set itself apart from late Romanticism, and the Russian futurists in an analogous way had to get beyond late romanticism to cope with the world after the first truly modern wars and revolutions. So on the one hand, poetry had to dwell within its own aesthetic sphere yet, in its own terms, contain and transmute the catastrophes of history.


I think Valéry’s universe of language is analogous to the aesthetic sphere that Debussy created in his music.


SW: This makes the poem a “universe of language” in itself, where the only way
to know the meaning of a phrase, a line (a unit of speech in the poem) is by
grasping a sense of its meaning, thus forcing the experience of the poem
into an emotional sphere.


JL: I agree that great poetry works on an emotional plane even when you cannot get its literal sense.


SW: What I wonder is if these concepts [of defamiliarizing and the universe of language]
have influenced your own poetic goals? Is there the creation of Valery’s “universe of language”
within your use of sound, or in the separation (and unification) of voice
and experience between two distinct poems that can be read as one?


JL: Yes, I wrote about this in the shorter and the longer essays on dialogic lyrics in the essay at the end of invisible sister, and on the invisible sister web page (see this link).


SW: If there is, does your background in music help you translate musical structures to
linguistic ones?


JL: Yes, the polyphonic and polyrhythmic music I have heard has had a great impact on how I understand meaning in an affective universe. Multi-voiced music helps us feel the complexity of the emotions that we always carry within ourselves; all of us are multi-voiced, whether we consciously realize it or not. You just have to switch addressees to bring out some of the voices of the “others” that are within. I talked about this in the essays, mentioned above.


SW: Do you find that your techniques invite the reader, or
audience, into the universe of the poem to explore Shklovsky’s “unfamiliar,”
thus engaging your audience in the art of language?


JL: When I first discovered what a dialogic lyric could do, I felt like I was in a different, far more ecstatic universe. So my goal has been to go through the “defamiliarization” but in order to get somewhere else more profound and ultimately closer to the greater realities, the totality of what we are.


SW: And, finally, (maybe) how might you define or qualify a “poetic language”?


JL: The short way I answered this, in regard to the dialogic lyrics was, from the essay, “...it was a way of recording moments of spontaneous communion between people and other moments of great shared emotion.”


Later in the essay, I was describing “The Sylf,” the first and most ecstatic dialogic poem: “This [dialogic form] was significant because neither [voice] had to sacrifice its integrity for its partner. For some distance and conflict are always with us in any real dialogue that seeks the truth. Only in this way was harmony possible: two distinct voices at a distance sound at the same time, each with its own peculiar inflections, fortuitous correspondences, and moments of spontaneous communion.”


I don’t think at this moment I would want to tackle a definition of all poetry in general, though. It’s kind of you to ask me this though.


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[April 5, 2005: A few selected highlights from AWP Vancouver (3/31—4/3, 2005)


Susan Musgrave, who was the Canadian poet who preceded Michael Ondaatje, was a wonderful surprise. The dramatically lit great hall was full—it seemed thousands were anxiously awaiting the start. I was not familiar with her work though I had heard her name before. It was hard to tell how old she was—maybe fifty or so? She had long gray hair and a slightly wobbly manner at the microphone. When she started speaking, it seemed as though she had had a few before she’d gotten there. She suggested that she might skip reading and just do Irish drinking songs for twenty minutes. She actually faked starting in on one song, which was very funny. She went on that she’d already cashed her check, and what could they do?


Then she suggested, "We should create a whole new country made of writers, including Canada, New York and Hollywood. We’ll call it A-W-P,” she said. This was all very amusing because of her delivery, which felt very uninhibited and spontaneous.


Then she told a harrowing story of how her husband (or ex-husband) who was an American was arrested for trying to transport thirty tons of marijuana into Canada. I think she said it was on a boat, and somehow things went very wrong so that her husband was being chased by the CIA, the DEA, the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounties all at once.


Somehow he eluded almost everyone and was running through the forest and only the Royal Canadian Mounty was chasing him. (Isn’t their slogan “We always get our man”?) When the Mounty caught him, the Mounty slammed him in the head with his rifle butt, which made him protest, “I’ve got rights!” (just like an American would, of course.) Then the Mounty shouted spitefully down at him, “You’re in Canada now, m*#%@^$@#$@^!”


This was so hilarious due to the way she said it that my friends and I were parroting her line all night and even the next days.


Then she said that “You’re in Canada now, m*#%@^$@#$@^!” was going to be the title of her next book, unbeknownst to her publisher. (She confessed that it was a very un-Canadian title since Canada was the land where, if any American were to bump into a Canadian, the Canadian would always apologize.) She also mused that maybe her publisher wouldn’t feel so bad about the title if they knew a Mounty said it.


People were laughing very hard through all this, and I was struck by the humor that combined so much irony, absurdity and pathos.


Her poetry was very sharp and a powerful mixture of hard realities on the one hand and a larger ironic vision on the other. It was excruciatingly beautiful. I was really moved.


After the reading by Michael Ondaatje, one of my famous Philly poet friends, Harriet Levin, saw Erik and I near the elevators and invited us up to the private reception; she was going up with David Mura, Gary Pak and Marilyn Chin, so we got to stand around the top floor with the gorgeous panorama of Vancouver all around with all the VIPs and the exquisite catered seafood and the snooty wait staff. (You know you’re in the VIP reception when the wait staff with beautiful hor d’oeuvres are reservedly revolted by the hordes of unwashed writers, poets etc.)


Susan Musgrave and Michael Ondaatje were both there talking with their friends, and there was a complimentary open bar, which a few people took too much advantage of, including one young guy who all but demanded a cigarette from Erik or me, and was very angry that we did not have any. Then he stalked off in disgust.


It had been a very long day at the bookfair and an equally long night of great readings, so we were all pretty exhausted. Kazim Ali made a brief appearance (sort of apparition like, to me, by that point). I told Erik what a genius Kazim was at running Nightboat Books, which elicited an embarrassed laugh from Kazim. (Kazim and Jennifer Chapis somehow started their own press just a few years after NYU and got things off to a great start.)


Anyway, the next day at the bookfair I saw Susan Musgrave walking by herself past my table. She looked a little sad, I thought, or maybe she was just very tired from the previous night’s performance. I told her that I thought her reading was very hilarious and poignant; she seemed very happy to hear this. So I went on to say, “It was very moving. It was inspiring,” and this made her smile. Then I said, “It was excruciatingly beautiful.”


That made her pause. Then she actually pulled out her little notebook and said, “No one has ever said that to me before” (she was really flattered), and she wrote it down in her little scrawl with quotation marks around it. “I want to use that,” she said. “I’m going to tell people that is what it was like when they ask.”


Then I was flattered, but I said, “Thanks, but— hey! you have to attribute it to me,” I said, giving her my card.


She said okay and scrawled my name down dutifully next to the words, and she kept my card and went off (happily, I think) on her way.


(I asked for this attribution because I once blurbed Sherman Alexie’s poetry book when I was writing reviews for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Hanging Loose Press took my best line for the back cover and didn’t use my name! They just attributed it to The Philadelphia Inquirer. I was the only blurb author to be “anonymised” in this way. Thus, if you see a Sherman Alexie poetry book, The Summer of Black Widows with a blurb on the back with the word “Whitmanic” on it, that was me.)


Vancouver itself was very beautiful—the architecture was elegant and had a strong Asian influence. Most of the skyscrapers were not too large but extremely interesting geometrically. They could have been in Taiwan or Japan. Chinatown was also very nice though Erik and I were only there once for a late dinner—the food was great and very cheap. The neighborhood nearby was sketchy though; we were accosted by a few strange guys who might have been selling and/or on drugs.


The last day’s big reading was Anne Carson and W. S. Merwin. It was slated for 4:30 p.m., and I’d been very sleep deprived from the start, and the AWP bookfair staff wanted to kick us all out totally by 5:30 p.m., so I had to pack up everything I could carry and grab a cab and head across town to the hotel where Erik and I were staying. Then I had to rush back to the conference hotel to make the reading.


Anne Carson was a classicist, and she was extremely funny and beautiful in an eccentric way. She was actually crying a little as she got up to the podium (due to the very laudatory introduction?) and said, “This is a WAY lot of people.”


(It was standing room only, and I was, in fact, not there but in the adjacent room watching a simulcast on a big screen, which made her luminous, youthful face much larger than life-size.)


She pulled herself together a little and improvised some kind of a thirteen-second poem with audience participation. It had two choruses, A and B. She deftly divided the multitudes with an authoritative gesture, saying, “You are Chorus A,” and waved them off. Then divided the other half off, saying “You are Chorus B.” In her almost-parody-of-a-professor, she said, “Chorus A, your line is: “I’ll buy it! with an exclamation point.” This made everyone laugh. “Chorus B, your line is: “What a bargain! with an exclamation point.”


After she made the audience rehearse once, the thirteen-second poem flashed by in her fine high voice, and she merely gestured to each chorus, and it worked perfectly. The audience exploded in playful laughter and applause, and she applauded them too.


Then she had some unusual and quirky translations of Catullus, and she recited many of these. They were interesting—I’ve read enough from antiquity to know that they were as—if not more—sex-obsessed and idiosyncratic as anyone is today. She had a way of bringing to the fore just how much Catullus was so near to us. She somehow sneaked into her translations refrigerators and other modern machines. She ended this series with the most sexual lyric poem, tapping her neat stack of vertical pages on the podium with a final, “So much for the classics!”


This was followed by a really unusual poem inspired by a woman painter, and she admitted up front that she had no opinion of the art work. But she had thought about it very extensively, so her poem was comprised entirely of “If” clauses.


She was very self-deprecating as she introduced her poem. She declared something like, “It has about eighty clauses, but to you it will seem interminable.” Everyone laughed. “But let me give you some markers along the way to help you....” Then she said a key phrase for one point and another, and she said “Freud” would show up near the end, which meant that when we heard his name, unlike upon any other possible occasion, his name would give us hope. Everyone laughed at that too, and as I think about it now, I realize that her joke had many layers of meaning aside from the obvious one. It was indirectly quite revealing, in a way.


The poem was wonderful—the clauses added up to something much greater than they began with—there were significant shades of meaning in the digressions. It ended beautifully, and it did not seem long at all. Her delivery was so clear and her voice so resonant in its pitch—she might have had a soprano voice. (Somewhere during the earlier poems she sang a little, and her singing voice was very charming and lilting.) She had one of those faces that seems ageless—she could have been twenty or more years younger than she was. I was astonished to read online what year she was born!


The applause she received in the end was very warm and long. She did not stand there to receive it very long though; she took herself off the podium quickly and modestly. This reminded me of her tears before she began—it made one wonder a little about her. Did she actually know how great she was?


W. S. Merwin had to follow her, and that was an unenviable spot to be in even if you are W. S. Merwin, which he himself admitted right away. He said something about having read after Anne Carson before, and how he hadn’t learned anything (meaning: she’s a tough act to follow).


Then he told a touching little anecdote about Robert Creeley, who drove through a snowstorm to pick him up with another poet in upper state New York. Creeley accidentally, while waving his arms around talking, knocked the headlights out and just kept driving down the highway in the thick snowstorm, the snowflakes strangely luminous and falling at them. Merwin was in the back, watching all this, and his other friend carefully reached around and got the headlights back on, and Creeley kept talking, waving his arms around, and driving as if nothing had happened.


I must admit that by that time I was feeling the hours of work and the time of concentration before had taken most of my attentive abilities out of me. I was able to really focus on a few of the poems, at the start and the end, and they were very beautiful. Merwin spoke at great, great length sometimes between poems, and this seemed very spontaneous, which was good, but it seemed to take a while to get to the poems, which were better.


It was a little funny that he read one of his own translations of Catullus, which was loaded with assonance and alliterative effects, and it did sound more “poetic” than Anne Carson’s translations, but the sense of a vital and other personality coming through the translation was not as strong. He actually addressed Anne directly in the midst of his reading at that point, to talk about translating Catullus, which seemed a little unusual to me.


Harriet, though, was in heaven, and she felt like Merwin’s reading was just transcendent. I am also a Merwin fan, but I’d never heard his actual voice before, and the adjustment was not easy for me.


Believe it or not, then there was another event with Wayson Choi and Ursula Leguin, and they were at 8 or 8:30 p.m. and they were the last readers. Erik and I went out to dinner with Patrick Lawler (a very funny and wonderful poet) and two of his good friends.


Patrick, Erik and I were all still parroting that line from Susan Musgrave, “You’re in Canada now, m#$%#$%&#$&*!” We didn’t pronounce the whole thing because we were at a beautiful waterfront restaurant, and the waiter seemed to be so nice, respectful and dignified—I think we didn’t want to throw him off stride.


Anyway, the story by Wayson Choi was indelibly moving and framed perfectly by his casual conversational tone. He was clearly a master at doing this sort of performance.


Ursula Leguin admitted right away she was no talker but a writer and would just read, and then she read an interesting experimental story called “Ether OR,” meaning, a town named “Ether” in “Oregon.” A very northwest Pacific Rim kind of humor, I guess. She was great reader and there were many funny, strange and insightful moments in the work, which featured many voices of the people in the town. It was a nice, soft ending to a hard-working conference. There was a huge mob of fans for autographs afterwards.


My novelist friend from Philly, Simone Zelitch, was there in the long line. We chatted a little before Erik and I headed out—it was late, after all, and we were exhausted.


Most of the long days' hours had been spent at the bookfair, which was intense and hard. We were selling books, after all, to the toughest (and the best) audience in the world.


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Reading at the Loveland Musem for the Poets' Coop on April 7, 2005


I hate to admit this—I was brainwashing myself to give a really great reading while I was driving (racing, really) to Loveland (pronounced "lovelind") by reciting the lines from Gladiator when Proximo advises Maximus: "Win the crowd, and you'll win your freedom."


You can laugh at me, but it worked. I actually got the audience to laugh right away, and I had them laughing with me straight through a set of funny poems. They actually applauded after every poem and even after every part of some of the poems. Then they were able to hear the humor in the darker passages and stay with me through the hardest parts that set up the return to the redemptive rain and April sunlight at the end.


Today the host/emcee M. D. Friedman sent an e-mail announcing that he had posted the reading online at his site, so you can actually hear online nearly all the poems I read that night if you follow this link here and scroll down to tracks 18-22.


One of my former students, Carrie Faye, read there in the open reading, and two of her poems were posted in the audio archive also.


M. D. was very nice. The audience was mostly mature poets and writers. After the reading, there was a "challenge" poetry contest with audience members reciting poems based upon the idea of birds flying upside down. Most of the poets who recited their works were very good! M. D. and his partner Mary were very happy with everything.


A number of people in the audience came over to chat a little or buy a book afterwards also. A few people were so nice they even bought copies of the UNC literary/arts magazine.


Erik was there, a few UNC students were there, and Barbara from the Many Mountains Moving workshop was there. It always helps to have a few friendly faces out there, especially knowing that they came from far for your sake. (Thanks!)


I think that seeing the great readings in Vancouver by Susan Musgrave and Anne Carson actually helped me focus in on what I needed to do. They helped me dwell in that zone when you can be really "on." This reading felt very easy all the way through. In that way it was the opposite of the preceding Denver reading that I struggled through.


(Some days you feel like the bird, some days you feel like the windshield.)


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English Language and Literature

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