March 26, 2011

Tom Shannon & Looking

Check out these two TED clips to tour the amazing work of artist Tom Shannon:

I've been thinking a lot about the intersections between art and science ever since I attended the Phillips Collection's second annual Art & Innovation Design Gathering, which was cosponsored by the University of Virginia. We need more art that utilizes science. We need more science that engages art. I've never been able to attend a TED conference, but I think I got a tiny glimpse of the energy inherent to them from that day at the Phillips. The theme was "looking," i.e. using experiential learning and dynamic interactions with change agents to explore the power of perception and cognition; the art of looking slowly. We were given the opportunity to talk with artists Tobi Kahn and Sam Gilliam (the latter of whom has just installed a piece that hangs the entire height of the new wing's stairwell); learn from UVA professor and cognitive psychologist Denny Profitt how the human eye determines horizon line (in both daily life and on the canvas); and enjoy Ren Weschler's theory of convergences (both real and imagined). 

It was an amazing session of revelatory, substantive conversation, and I felt so lucky to have been invited. In these days when the popular economy runs the danger of choking the creative economy, it's encouraging to think a curator would judge it worthwhile to add a poet to the mix. DC has all it needs to foster such collaborations. Let's get Tom Shannon to the National Science Foundation, STAT. 

March 23, 2011

Dim-Lit Wednesday

Ach, ach. An in-between day: the cherry blossoms are out, but the skies are gray and the local sirens are wailing. Sadly, a lunch of frozen chicken vindaloo and wilted spinach will not turn the tide of my mood. Makes me think of an I Was the Jukebox poem--"Love Poem for Wednesday"--devoted to this strange time of each week. 

I had a fun weekend, and not just in terms of Bishop-ing to a full house on Sunday. Saturday included a sojourn down to Charlottesville to 1) devour a cinnamon-raisin bagel with peanut butter at Bodo's, 2) interview with the editor of 3.7, the undergrad lit mag I edited in my own days at UVA, and 3) hear good friends Erika Meitner and Jehanne Dubrow read at the Festival of the Book. Those ladies make me proud to be a poet; I'd follow them anywhere. Here we are (Jehanne is on the left, Erika on the right):

...This was also my first chance to meet January Gill O'Neil, who took this photo, and who read great poems alongside Jehanne and Erika at the Downtown Mall's New Dominion Bookstore, which is one of my all-time favorite settings to hear poetry. 

Afterwards I learned that since I'd read on Wednesday, I had an automatic invite to the "Writer's Reception" that closes the festival. That gave me a chance to catch up with some other writer-folks, including fellow SPIR Jake Adam York and BOA rockstar Dan Albergotti, and chat for a longer while with January, who is a fellow writer-not-teacher, which is not an easy path to take. I particularly admire January's latest project, organizing the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I have a sneaking suspicion she is one of those women who can do anything, anything, she puts her mind to doing. 

Kudos to the Festival of the Book for sponsoring the reception as a way of bringing writers together; we don't get a lot of perks on the road in our travels, and sometimes it is just nice to have someone pour you a glass of wine. One of the waiters was a familiar face--a UVA student whose undergraduate poetry class I visited this spring--and she made sure the bacon-wrapped dates passed my way each time a new tray came out from the kitchen. In my defense, it was the only part of the spread I wasn't allergic to (and she knew that). But, hot damn, VIP bacon access! That was awesome. 

Since then, I've been staying in. My hermit-ing meant I missed hearing Mary Karr criticize Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout at the Folger on Monday. A friend who was said that the aesthetic takedown included other well-loved contemporary poets. I wanted to hear Karr in part because I love her essay "Against Decoration," which can be found appended onto the end of her poetry collection Viper Rum. The essay is an enduring, edgy, necessary critique of the tendency of poets to embroider their work with superfluous imagery. Knowing how unvarnished she can be in her opinions, I'm not shocked the Q&A became a spectacle. She's a bit of a giant-killer.  

But gosh, thank god there are still a few of those around--especially ones who opt to expend that energy into articulating theories of poetry, rather than just penning harsh reviews. It is very hard to find compelling, detailed craft essays being published today. There are exceptions: a few academic journals, AWP's Writer's Chronicle, and sometimes American Poet. But I want more. Stephen Burt can't do it all by himself! 

I bought both volumes of Janet Sternburg's The Writer on Her Work and was disappointed that the selection, while an inspiring look at how women come into their identities as writers, lacked close readings and scholarly rigor. Maybe that was never the intent of the project? I had a similar experience with Martin Espada's The Lover of a Subverssive is a Subversive: great energy, a good holistic approach to writing of place and from a dissident perspective, but not much on specific language strategies. Eavon Boland writes discerning essays, but they tend to be centered on a particular poet or form. In the entirety of Tin House's The Writer's Notebook, there are only two essays by poets, and the one by Matthea Harvey is really as much about prose. At least D. A. Powell hit a home run with his take on "(Mis)Adventures in Poetry," but still, I want more. I know I'm missing folks. Help me out. Who are they, and where? 

This has been on my mind because I'm running a workshop on The Strategic Poet, and I've been searching hard for readings to kickstart discussion. Richard Wilbur and Theodore Roethke are masters, let's be clear. I've been happy to revisit their work. But when your new kid on the block is Gregory Orr...sigh. 

For those interested, I have found a couple of contemporary texts that give me hope for the future of craft essays. One is Mark Doty's methodical, illuminating look at how he came to write "A Display of Mackerel." The other is a broad-reaching and fun (if slightly unpolished) lecture, "An Introduction to the Poetic Line" by Redactions editor Tom Holmes. My workshop loved the former; I'll find out what they think of the latter come Tuesday. At least it passes the "gratuitous Indian Jones reference" test. 

(And yes, it's occurred to me that I'm part of the problem. I should write a craft essay!)

March 18, 2011

Poetry Matters

Yes, this blog really is about poetry...sometimes. When not about wanderings & scotch.

A reminder that for those interested in Elizabeth Bishop, the Writer's Center is hosting a staged reading of her correspondence with The New Yorker on Sunday, March 20, at 2 PM. This is a free event featuring the fabulous poets David Gewanter, Rose Solari, and Dana Gioia; I'll be playing Miss Bishop.

Bryant Park has updated its "BryantParkNYC" playlist on the free media site Broadcastr, and part of their new programming includes recordings from last summer's Word for Word reading series. The three readers they feature are James Tate, Patricia Smith, Quick, hear it before they change their minds. Just go to Broadcastr and search for my name or, to enjoy the whole set, "BryantParkNYC." The latter will also pull up Matthew Broderick narrating the different parts of the park--the carousel, the chess tables, the grill. (The reason for the overlap becomes clear in the "Guard Kiosk" section, when Broderick talks poetry.) Sweet sweet Ferris Bueller, all grown up. 

One of my weekend commitments is to do a little house cleaning, which means sifting through a huge back-catalogue of unread literary journals. I came across this poem in an old Gettysburg Review, and it blew me away. I love the pacing of it, the quiet revelations and detonations. I want to write poems like this. 


In Monet's Water Lilies,
willows dissolve into
flowers dissolve into water,
and form becomes a dream
in purples and blues
without scent or story.
Consider the death of boundaries,
the way sight dissolves
the moment just before sleep
overtakes us. The way
a man can disappear
inside a woman. I remember
a day of ruffling waters
when we sailed west
in your creaky boat.
We steered for the horizon--
the penciled-in line between
ocean and sky, then watched
as it receded ahead of us.
The night my mother died
there were cells in her body
that didn't notice. For a while
the moons of her nails kept rising,
the hair kept growing from the apex
of her widow's peak.
Now by a barbed-wire fence
that divides two countries,
the invisible roots of an old tree
spread their living network
underground, in all directions.


March 13, 2011

A DC Day

When walking beyond my apartment, down Wisconsin Avenue, the first thing I pass is the National Cathedral. I am wearing a long leather jacket, which I bought eight years ago from a down-the-block secondhand store when I first moved to DC. That was back when I lived in a tiny apartment at 18th & S, overlooking a gas station. 

This leather jacket is maroon, which shiny gold-rimmed buttons. It feels kitschy on days when the Redskins are playing. There were no football games on today. 

For the first time, I notice a graphic sign defining the neighborhood ahead of me. "Welcome to Glover Park," it proclaims, picturing a line-up of optimistic rowhouses. 

I take a random swerve to the right at 35th Avenue, and snake my way past Federal-style houses, one after another, plus a few that have gingerbread detail and tempting porches. I discover an outpost of the Corcoran College of Art & Design, where I (in the downtown locale) taught a Writing 101 class. I pass the Duke Ellington magnet school for the arts, which features an oversize sculpture of a green deck chair on the lawn. 

When 35th meets M Street--the heart of Georgetown--I look across the busy intersection, see the Key Bridge, and think...well, why the hell not. I walk out halfway and look out on the water, which is frocked with winter waves and the occasional bird.  

The C&O Canal, which I've seen run with boats pulled by mules, is drained and trash-strewn on its bed. I dip down to it, then quickly veer away, back into the maze of storefronts I recall in their many incarnations. I remember where The Red Balloon used to be, where Commander Salamander used to be. Still, as I pass the narrow passageway that leads to Blues Alley, I am reassured that some things always stay in business. Stanley Jordan, the simple black & white marquee proclaims for the weekend. 

Mental note of restaurants to try: Hook (for the oysters), Bistro LePic (for the wine), Surfside (for the fish tacos). 

On the return loop, I examine a house lived in by George Washington's second-in-command. I wander a cemetery populated by headstones dating to the early 1800s. 

I stop to look at the same "Glover Park" sign that marks the south end of the neighborhood. The credit is given to an artist named "Schwa." Really? I used to hear Schwa perform at the Tuesday open mics at Staccato, back in my Adams Morgan days. 

5 miles. 2 hours. A quiet day. Love for my city.

March 12, 2011


Ah, DC. A couple of days ago I needed to record some poems for a Chicago-based broadcast recreating a Music/Words event I did with Inna Faliks and Oni Buchanan this past November. Only in my hometown would studio time get booked at NPR's national headquarters. Not the easiest day to be there; the CEO had resigned just that morning. Still, it is impossible not to be awed by the building and the talent it houses, which I do have faith will endure this current (largely development-side) scandal.

Two of the poems I read have been published in journals but not in a book. In the studio, freed from the distraction of gaging an audience, I found myself looking at the pages with fresh eyes. And I thought yep, there's a book here. Funny how just the conversation between two poems is enough to suggest a theme. It might be a collection that leaves poems by the wayside, poems I was sure I'd be using. But that's okay. I'm intrigued.

That's all I have to say about that for now.

I've been taking a few days to To enjoy the simple pleasures of making coffee in my own home, cooking quinoa on my own stove, getting my feet under me with my Writer's Center workshop, seeing friends for artisan cocktails (Laphroig + vermouth + "apple smoke" block of ice + pork belly garnish = good lordy), going on a scavenger hunt with my sister at the Textile Museum.

It has been good. But today, it all feels kind of insignificant. No personal balance can ground one enough to watch the waves of water that have swept across Japan in the 24 hours, or to watch the climbing count of lives lost, or to wait and see if Hawaii is hit, or to hear the second wave of reports that nuclear reactors--five of them--are "in peril" (the latest Washington Post headline). Some days you feel like a very small ship, bobbing in a very big & hungry sea.

March 07, 2011

The New Yorker Waits On No One...Well, No One Except Miss Bishop

Thanks to everyone who came to Story/Stereo on Friday. We had a great crowd, and The Caribbean rocked (as always!). I love those guys.

On Sunday, March 20, I'll be back at The Writer's Center taking part in a staged readings from Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, including sections of her correspondence with the fabulous, funny editor Howard Moss. David Gewanter is playing Mr. Moss; I am playing Miss Bishop; Dana Gioia is narrating, and Rose Solari will be gracing us in a variety of roles including Katharine White. The collection's editor, Joelle Bielle, is traveling the country organizing these readings.

Farrar, Straus & Girous has generously posted some snippets of Bishop and Moss's exchanges. These aren't the same ones we'll be reading--those are chosen to add a more dramatic texture. But I can't resist sharing* a round of rassling over a poem inspired by Robinson Crusoe...

[* NB to FSG: I am sharing this excerpt in the spirit of promoting the book and the reading, but will take it down immediately if anyone requests it.]

March 25, 1965

Dear Howard:

            Richard Kelly flew up to New York last night, and by the time you get this you probably will have received a samba record and a letter from me. I think he said he'd met you...

            Before he left, he handed over a lot of odds and ends, the way our visitors usually do—match-folders from the Yale Club, extra US cigarettes & Kleenex, paper-backs, etc.—and also the March 13th New Yorker.  My own copy of course hasn't got here yet, and won't for several weeks.  If he hadn't given me that March 13th one, and I hadn't looked at it last night, instead of this letter you'd be getting a long poem called CRUSOE AT HOME...  It is a bit unnerving, isn't it...  Or is it just "great minds," even so far apart?  Well, they aren't really exactly alike, because mine is in the first person, more realistic and un-organized, etc.  I'll send it someplace else, and I'll send you a copy when I have time to make copies.

            Yours ["Robinson"] is very lovely—the cork image particularly fine, I think.

            I re-read Crusoe not long ago and found it morally appalling, but as fascinating as ever.  Have you ever read the travel memoirs of Woodes Rogers, the young captain who picked up Selkirk?  The parts about him are brief, but very moving.

Telepathically yours,

March 29, 1965

Dear Miss Bishop,

            Howard Moss just called in on his way out of town to ask me to ask you to please, please, please send the Robinson poem to us.

Sincerely yours,
Elizabeth Hawes

May 8, 1965

Dear Howard:

            I shall send you my Robinson Crusoe poem as soon as I give it a good dusting, —maybe this week.

Much love,

September 28, 1965

Dear Howard:

            I'm sorry I promised you my Robinson Crusoe poem and then changed my mind about it...  Perhaps I'll like it better again after a while.  In the meantime, here is another one ["Under the Window"] I hope you can use.

With love,

January 28, 1966

Dear Elizabeth,

And what ever happened (business) to the Robinson Crusoe poem?  I'll die if it suddenly comes out somewhere else.


April 24, 1967

Dear Howard:

This ["Going to the Bakery"], again, is not the poem I have in mind to send you, but something that sort of turned up.  The real one I think you'll like—almost done.  My Crusoe poem didn't please me when I finished it but maybe I'll re-write [it] sometime.

With love,

May 18, 1970

Dear Howard:

            I am awfully tired of sitting on this egg and thing maybe it has hatched, after all ["Crusoe in England"]...  It is quite unlike your Crusoe, as I remember him.  I won't mind if you can't use it, however.


P.S. on page 3—should it be "Which is the bliss" or "That is the bliss"?   I have Wordsworth here somewhere, but can't find him, and I am always uncertain about which and that—please don't tell any one.  [in hand: "I hope I haven't stolen your title?  If I have, I'll change it. E."]

May 19, 1970

Dear Howard:

            I was awfully tired yesterday when I mailed you the Crusoe poem.  This morning, I think I've improved it quite a bit, so if you happen to want it, will you please use this version?

With love and all,

June 2, 1970

Dear Elizabeth,

            We're delighted with CRUSOE IN ENGLAND and, of course, we're taking it.  I hope to be able to send you a check and an author's proof before I take off for the summer, which will be on June 20.

            I was particularly fascinated by the poem because of mine.  No, my title (I think) was simply ROBINSON.  I'm hesitant about that because I know I changed it several times.  It definitely was not CRUSOE IN ENGLAND.  (I don't have any of my books here.)


June 15, 1970

Dear Howard:

            I'm glad you can use CRUSOE.  I want to change one word, but shall do it on the proof.  I seem to be working again at last, after three years, and hope to send you a whole batch of things.  Meanwhile here is another I think I once spoke of ["In the Waiting Room"].

With much love,

...OK, this is fabulous. Notice how after five years of back-and-forth over what is remembered as (forgive me) a relatively minor poem of Bishop's, "In the Waiting Room" just sneaks in there at the end?

Notice how Bishop, like all of us, indulged in morning-after revisions and resending?

Notice how Bishop, like all of us, procrastinates? Worries over titles? Grows tired of her own work?

There is hope for us yet!


Looking to blog-hop? I enjoyed this interview between poet Victoria Chang and Meghan O'Rourke, in part because of Victoria's refreshingly blunt questions. She asks MO about being labeled ambitious; she asks about the infamous Gawker post; she even asks about a now-ended marriage to a fellow writer. And it is good she asks, because the responses--honest, reasonable, modest, wry--are to the benefit of all.

Meghan's forthcoming memoir, The Long Goodbye, deals with the death of her mother at the age of only 52, and the curious unspoken place that grief holds in contemporary American society. She first wrote of this crushing loss in a series of essays for Slate. For my very first reading when Theories of Falling came out (or...was supposed to have come out), I shared a bill with Meghan up at Long Island University, in which she read from Halflife and some newer work. So much of her poetry captures narrative silence, i.e. the power of what goes unsaid in a story. I look forward to this book.