Monday, October 29, 2012

I never wear a beret in Paris

so we were in the moulin rouge
in 1890
i would never go there
today or tomorrow
the deux moulins
has a red framed
glass barrier
the hotel lift
door opens on tomorrow
the day after
people walking
escalators down
sidney is not a city
he loses his head
in my paris
balconies watch
people walking
geraniums flower
windows with
paris inside
doors open onto balconies
henry cant find
the other door
the importance of being
in paris is
coming home
geraniums flower
in my window
who will water them
no bell rang

Friday, October 26, 2012

An open leter to my fellow Coursera ModPoers

I’m taking a little holiday from studying modern poetry (ModPo is a Coursera study course) because I have pursued it capriciously in the first place, starting in the third week and playing catch-up with what should have been, in some sense background material, a history or a lineage of a kind of “Adams family” of odd members (poets). I never intended to pursue it as if it were for credit because it has the great benefit of not being something attached to getting some kind of degree. This is education as it should be – with no extrinsic pull of the carrot other than the sometimes not so gentle tug of love (intrinsic). I have been free to enjoy it while I have felt those urges (ultimately urges of self-discovery, because they are lacking exterior and, somehow, ulterior motives).

This holiday won’t be as long as the last one (about a week because of a writing deadline), maybe an evening while I write this, because I am also looking forward to a sense of community that I know is tied to the temporal boundaries of the course. So I must do some of this course work which interests me during the same time as others do it and therefore I will be able to share, in some sense, in the process of reacting in new and different ways to already familiar poetry. This is the student community I have so greatly missed in the many years since I was young and at a university.

The community that I have had for the last ten years has been that of the contemporary poets who are connected by the internet. Many of us have never met during our lives although we have come to know one another well over the years. Suddenly I am now part of a (also internet driven) community that has a very different interest in poetry. This gives me the opportunity to make some comparisons. On the one hand, both communities are about poetry but only one part of the contemporary poets, the language poetry people, seem to be a part of both worlds. I find that extraordinary!

Most of the rest of the contemporary poetry group are getting filtered through the market-place of the internet readership. There are a few shy ones in the group but most of us are more or less interested in being viewed. Some years ago we were all happily blogging along when the e-zine editors started refusing poetry that could already be found by Googling. Suddenly we were no longer able to share our poetry and everything had to go through the filter of the e-zine editors in order to appear on the internet. This goes along with that old theme of some things are simultaneously good and bad. For example, suddenly a lot of the poorly conceived experimentation nearly disappeared. The need to get work through the editors was like the discipline of writing a pantoum or villanelle. True to the publishing business, a lot of editors are pretty conservative or reflecting some particular style or school so their tastes must be taken into account (or in some cases, at least pandered to).

I have continued to experiment, currently with the non-punctuated mechanisms of speech as it can be applied to the written format. It is demanding and interesting while not being so much of a put off to the reader who hasn’t studied your manifesto or read your scientific abstract (average person readers don’t do that stuff and are usually left to consume greeting cards, sadly). An earlier example might be found by reading my poem hourglass beach which is in Book of Aliases. It was written probably in 2007 during a trip to Turkey and only has a couple of hyphens that are used rather conventionally. It is a mish-mash of styles that include lists, objects as narration, some clunky metaphors stuck in as a kind of shorthand, a kind of faux objectivity of the Oppen/Zukofsky objectivist variety, indirection as a way of transcending my own spiritual and intellectual limitations, and just a touch of Jack Spicerly “oh I was just taking a dictation” lyricism thrown in for good measure.

It interests me deeply that the world of academic poetry is such a difficult world, in the sense that one must leap some hurdles and scale some technical barriers in order “run the Hash” with a bunch outlandish seeming fellow members of this particular in-club. It is also interesting to me that it is so different from the world that creates the poems currently. This is the most perplexing observation for me because it makes me ask about, most importantly why this division has occurred? We both use much of the same literary/linguistic jargon although I am aware of a more practical basis underlying why I use and am familiar with those terms. I find myself tempted to speculate that poetry is changing (in terms of the people who actually write it) precisely because of the unique pressure the internet is putting on it. There is great freedom and, with the exception currently of the e-zine editors and the langpo people, there is also no guiding principle to form little cohesive pockets of like-minded poets. We more or less loosely form them among ourselves but it seems a lot “looser” than the physical alignment that occurred earlier when the poets lived in the same city or went to the same cafes.

Still it remains that the two worlds seem divided by an impenetrable barrier and the poets want the interest of the people (it worked for Whitman) while there remains an ivory tower element (sorry Al) to the workings of the academics interested in poetry. Inevitably, we all come to the same place of wanting to enjoy the magic of words more but we seem to have such different ways to get to there. Most often I feel the richness that has come into my life via my education. I don’t regret that richness and have been sharing those sentiments with students at every opportunity but I also relish the joy, beauty and personal discovery that became a part of my life when I began to want to write well enough so that people would find value reading (I want them to hear it when they read) my words. Now I guess I ought to get back to doing a little studying. I’m really enjoying this course and the thin, clear air way up here in the tower!

Friday, October 12, 2012

On feeling buried alive

Have you ever felt like you were buried alive inside of something and it was like as if the thing outside was telling you who you are or who you were ever going to get to be? Life sometimes makes us feel like we are all hemmed in. I know you probably have a pretty clear picture of what I’m talking about as that is unfortunately an all too common sensation. So naturally I wrote a poem about it called Sometimes a Pearl and dedicated it to a poet friend of mine named Pris Campbell who has a currently incurable and very limiting illness known as ME/CFS. You can find the poem in Book of Aliases: ( and I’ll put a copy here so, in case you don’t have the book yet, you can follow along as we take a look at it.

Sometimes a pearl (For Pris Campbell)

The whitest flower grows in a sea of mud,
Never seen, never knowing the lips of the sun.
I grew up in a culture of lost relatives,
Finding the ones I didn’t want,
Searching for mystery and what I don’t know;
Looking for John Merrick in all this deformity,
Trying to make my own light,
Trying to glow in the dark,
Trying to get past the hate and anger,
Finding gentle humor, licking a wound -
Sometimes not hurting so much,
Sometimes breath taken in the deep beautiful,
Sometimes a pearl trying to invent
An oyster I like.

(Originally published in the Banks of the Little Miami)

Also, If you would like to hear me read it, this is the You Tube link:

This poem is an experimental sonnet in terms of form, by the way (fourteen lines is a good clue). Knowing that will help to understand what the poem is doing in the various places. So let’s start with the “whitest flower” found in the first line.

What could that be? There are some clues in the second line which says it is “never seen.” Where would that flower be? The second line continues by telling that it never knows “the lips of the sun.” So it would have to be literally underground, something that grows under that “sea of mud” and how is it that anything which grows literally inside all that muck could be the “whitest flower?” The answer is: it is pure white inside because it is a potato. This is the first of the “buried alive” images and is my attempt to set the tone for this poem. It also shows that something buried in the muck can be beautiful inside, in spite of what surrounds it, which is the message of the poem and is somewhat mysteriously hidden in the first two lines.

That message will be repeated again when we get to the part about John Merrick but first we have to talk a bit about family and why the “I” of the poem (not necessarily the same person as its author) feels buried alive in that environment.

Who could those “lost relatives” of the third line be and what is meant by “culture of?” Perhaps you have known of families that have crests on their wall or a family tree or maybe even some oil portraits of some long dead, well known family member. The “I” of the poem seems to be implying he/she has grown up being told of the lives of the great family members from the past (“culture of”) who are no longer there and therefore “lost.” The “I” of the poem perhaps identifies with some of those long dead relatives but perhaps looks at her/his mom and pop and wonders, “how come you aren’t as special as those old relatives were?” Those famous ones were pretty interesting but the ones he/she has to live with now “the ones I didn’t want” are pretty ordinary by comparison.

Now we finally get to John Merrick and the stuff about “searching for mystery.” The mystery is how do ordinary people come from famous parents? We tend to assume that famous people are different than us regular folk so how can these really ordinary folks who happen to be our parents have come from somebody who was famous and therefore different. It’s like some kind of genetic deformity or an illness that makes the formerly perfect into something much more flawed. We look at somebody like Merrick, the “elephant man” of Victorian times and we see something like the potato; we see a beautiful spirit buried in hideously deformed flesh.

This is the core mystery of the poem because we have to ask ourselves if there isn’t something special buried inside the ordinary seeming shell of our parents. This is the place where the sonnet, as often happens in the middle of sonnets, begins to question itself. This is when the speaker in the poem is faced with “what I don’t know” and cannot give an answer. Instead of trying to solve this larger question, the voice in the poem goes back to trying to solve the discomfort felt by doing personal things. That “I” is like an injured animal: “Trying to make my own light,/ Trying to glow in the dark,/ Trying to get past the hate and anger,/ Finding gentle humor, licking a wound –“ and like all injured things it tends to be primarily self-concerned.

Now starts the repeating litany of “sometimes.” The first one (“Sometimes not hurting so much”) is kind of saying that things are getting a little better. The second one makes a great improvement (“Sometimes breath taken in the deep beautiful”) and also takes us to the bottom of the ocean to set up for the final image contained in the couplet.

This is the part of the sonnet where everything has to get resolved somehow. It finishes the series of the three “sometimes” by focusing on the startling beauty you experience when you find a pearl buried in all that muck inside the oyster shell. It feels and sounds almost proud when it says: “Sometimes a pearl trying to invent/ An oyster I like” as if the voice in the poem has found the way to sort of overcome the obstacle of being buried. It’s as if this rather proactive style of looking at this problem lets the poem’s voice and the reader as well, celebrate some kind of victory.

I hope you enjoyed doing that close reading of this poem with me. I really like that little sonnet and I hope you enjoyed it too!