April 27th, 2013 § § permalink
Let’s get the obvious, by which I do not mean inconsequential, out of the way first. When a writer chooses to use her art to give voice to those who might otherwise be voiceless, that choice deserves to be recognized for its necessity, because bearing witness is a choice that all too few writers, and perhaps especially poets, make. In her introduction to No Ocean Here, which was published this year by Modern History Press, Sweta Srivastava Vikram makes clear that bearing witness is what the volume is all about. Based on interviews she conducted, she writes, the poems in No Ocean Here take on the fact that women in many countries throughout the world, “are stripped of basic human rights,” often starting life “without adequate means of nutrition, learning, and protection.” Vikram goes on:
I decided to write this book because listening, telling, and writing the stories of those who can’t write them will create awareness.… I can only pray that the book urges readers to empathize, and help.… If the book can provide even a handful of women, in unfortunate situations, strength and courage to say NO, I would be humbled.
That is a tall order for any book, much less a book of poetry, given how few people generally read poetry, but it is impossible not to applaud Vikram’s commitment to the stories she has gathered, the women who have told them to her, and the language of poetry with which she has struggled to bring them to life. Nonetheless, once you have acknowledged the value in Vikram’s motivation and recognized that the stories she sets out to tell do still need to be told (because it would be dishonest to pretend that these narratives of women’s oppression have not been told before), you still need to ask what her poems actually accomplish, not merely whether they succeed as art – though since they are art, that is the first and most important question – but whether they bear witness in a way that makes a difference.
Overall, I wish Vikram would learn to trust her language more. There are moments of real, and sometimes painful beauty in these poems, metaphors and snippets of narrative that illuminate the lives of the women Vikram writes about and that do, I think, have the power to change people’s perspectives in the way that only art can. Too often, however, those moments are undercut by writing that is prosaic, self-consciously didactic and sometimes mired in unfortunate cliches, as in these lines from the concluding strophe of “Her Wounds Are Mysterious:”
Her wounds are mysterious
like the Congo; the depth unseen
to the world but home to insects
The reference to the Congo is both cliché and evocative of a racist imperialism that is all too similar to the heterosexual male prerogative that wounded the girl the poem is about in the first place. Still, you can see the potential in what this strophe might have been like if it had been revised a little more. “Her wounds are home to insects….” is a metaphor that far more powerfully captures, I think, the horror and the damage inflicted by the men in the poem. Indeed, reading No Ocean Here, I found myself thinking more than once that one more revision would have strengthened the volume considerably. Notice how much stronger the poem “Honor Killing” would have been without the final three lines:
Dead, she stares at the sea
as it carries her bones
thrown by guards,
smoking water pipes.
Her mother’s mouth fills with sand,
her father and brothers’ hands are covered
with gloves to cleanse the stains
left on the walls of their family
by a man who spread her legs,
tore her apart like a coyote.
Right before her murder, she didn’t see
the silhouette of her face
in her grandmother’s heart.
Apparently the family’s pride lies
underneath her skirt,
in the space between her legs.
That second-to-last strophe is beautiful and heartbreaking. It would have made a fine ending to the poem, and I am happy to say that there are many moments in No Ocean Here that live up to the potential in those lines. The first couplet of “Her Wounds Are Mysterious,” for example, gives us a girl who “wasn’t always a fallen leaf,/she danced;” and in “There Is Something Wrong with the World,” women “who are compelled to kill their own youth/become invisible like soot inside chimneys.” The poem “War” deals with rape as a weapon of war in images that are hard to forget:
All cavities of the women’s trust were emptied out
when each man selected a victim:
her mother’s body, stuffed inside soil,
was stomped by feet and questions,
her sister dragged by her dark breasts,
and she was turned to debris and dust.
One of the strongest poems in the book, “Caretaker of Graves” takes on the subject of female infanticide, but from a mother’s perspective, and ends with what, for me, is an absolutely devastating image:
The sun doesn’t sink until 8 p.m.
but she sees darkness of bats all day.
Tidal waves of melancholy mix
with seeds plowed in her every year.
Mouth filled with muffled cries,
hospitals and conspirators in doctors’ clothes
shadow her throughout married life.
Frogs get used to the air at night
but her murdered womb mourns scars.
No Ocean Here is an uneven volume, but the moments of power and beauty it contains make it worth having and Vikram a poet worth watching.
April 20th, 2013 § § permalink
That’s the title and the title poem of my second book of poetry, on which I have just put the finishing touches and which I will, over the next couple weeks, start shopping around to publishers. LIke last time – which was in 2004, the year my first book, The Silence of Men, was accepted for publication, though it was actually published in 2006 – I have decided that I will not be submitting this manuscript to any contests. Well, maybe one or two, because the prize money is enough to make it worth gambling the entry fee, but what I’m really looking for is a publisher with whom I can develop a relationship, because I know I have more books of poetry in me. If I cannot find a publisher for this manuscript, I will almost certainly publish it myself, because I believe the poems in it deserve a hearing.
Edited to add: For me, the book’s title, Because Men Only Understand Cliches, is so firmly rooted in the circumstances that inform the title poem, and also in the poem’s – and therefore the book’s – position (in my head) as a response to that assertion, that it did not occur to me that some people might read the title as an accusation that I was making against men. Well, I have been shown the error of my ways. Artos, whose comment appears below, wonders whether or not I “realize how offensive [Because Men Only Understand Cliches] is to men who are not manginas? Kind of like, “Blacks only know fried chicken and watermelon.” I have decided to let his comment through primarily because it made me smile; it’s the first time I’ve been called a mangina on the Internet, certainly on my own blog, and that feels like some kind milestone. When I told my son about Artos’ comment, he said, after he stopped snorting with laughter, “Really, what is he, in fifth grade?” This is from the first movement of “Because Men Only Understand Cliches,” which tells the story of where the title comes from:
Belly like a watermelon
stuffed up the front
of her white cotton summer dress,
the pregnant woman at the corner
turns her back to me to face
the direction she’ll cross the street in,
and what she’s wearing
flares from the waist down
in a twirl that settles
along the line of her hips
till only the hem that falls
to just above her ankles
is still rippling, a flag
to this late summer day.
My eyes lift to her shoulders,
follow the contour the fabric traces
down from the loops
through which her tanned arms emerge
to the curve of her butt cheeks
that bounce lightly as she steps back,
just avoiding the taxi pulling up fast
to the curb where she’s standing.
She’s as tall as me or taller,
black hair tied tight in a braid
pointing like a compass
to the small of her back,
and she isn’t wearing panties,
her dress not unlike the one
you wore the night we wandered the beach
till the boardwalk lights were stars
blinking at our backs,
and the campfires scattered across the sand
were the signal flames of a distant town.
The moon over the ocean
cast our shadows behind us.
You stood in front of me,
the blue cloth of what you were wearing
bunched in the hand I held to steady you
just beneath your breasts, my other hand
finding when I reached
that you’d been naked to the breeze
running up your legs, you’d said,
like the water’s warm breath
before it touched its tongue to you.
You gave a throaty laugh
as I pulled you tighter to me,
stroking and pulling and gently
parting the fur you let grow in
once the lover who’d kept you shaved was gone;
and you were wet,
though wet does not do justice
to the fruit bursting its skin
between your legs.
I kissed the lips you shape your words with,
and in your coming — we were surprised:
you never come at home
at just the urging of my hands—
you called your pleasure out to the open sea
for the wind and tide to carry who-knows-where,
and I heard again my teacher
telling the men in my first-year poetry workshop
that none of us would ever
“write a successful cunt poem,
because when it comes to cunts,
men only understand clichés.”
I thought how you have only ever called it
your vagina, then later, while you slept,
tried to list the rhyming words I’d need
to write a sonnet, but China, Carolina, trichina—
a parasite you don’t want to catch — and angina
were the best I could do. I listed off-rhymes,
Montana, banana, and then,
in the New Yawk accent you love to mimic,
I heard linah, finah, minah, and reclinah,
that last one bringing me
the woman from the conference
who worried that two kids had made her
“roomier down there”
than any man other than the husband
she’d been needing to leave for years
would want, and so she hadn’t left him.
February 23rd, 2013 § § permalink
I was cleaning out some files in my office at school the other day, when I found a copy of the introduction I gave in the spring of 2001 for two women who were doing an independent study with me in creative writing. The introduction was for their participation in the annual symposium at my school where students doing independent studies were required to present their work in order to get credit for the class. I’d met Cheryl and Edith (not their real names) the previous semester when they took Advanced Essay Writing with me, which I taught as a class in writing the personal essay. Each wrote a piece early on about the sexual abuse she’d survived as a child, and each had approached me separately about the fact that she wanted to be a writer and that the issue of sexual abuse was at the core of what she wanted to write about.
Responding to their work in the context of their ambition confronted me with a serious dilemma. I had already been writing about my own experience of abuse for some time, but I’d also always made sure to keep those details of my life separate from my work in the classroom. It wasn’t so much a distinction between personal and private that I wanted; after all, I was performing at readings and trying to publish poems that dealt with my abuse. It was more that I feared allowing too much of my own vulnerability into the classroom would undermine my authority as a teacher.
Edith’s and Cheryl’s were not the first student essays I’d read about sexual abuse. Indeed, by that point in my teaching career, I’d read more than a few essays in which students talked about their encounters with blackmail, domestic violence, alcoholism, and even female genital mutilation. Edith and Cheryl, however, were the first who told me they wanted to be writers writing about their issues, that they wanted to claim a public voice in which to speak not just for its cathartic or therapeutic value, but also about why what their abusers had done to them should matter to their communities – Edith was Latina; Cheryl, Haitian-American – to women as a group, and to society at large. Even more than writing instruction, talking to each of them quickly made clear, what they wanted was a mentor/role model.
My first response was quintessentially teacher-like. I recommended books they could read and I talked to each of them about the value of counseling in coming to terms with their experience, but they wanted more. Edith was especially articulate about this. What she wanted, she said, was someone she could talk to, someone of whom she could ask questions face-to-face, someone who had been through what she was going through, not just the abuse itself, but the desire to go public, with all its intimidating implications, and come out whole on the other side – precisely what she was afraid she would not be able to do. I asked to take another look at her essay after that conversation and, as I read it a second and third time, I ticked off in my mind each moment where I could tell she was holding back, where she was purposely not saying what she was afraid would split her world so wide open she might never be able to make it whole again, and I decided to come out to her as a fellow survivor, as just the kind of writer she’d been telling me that she was looking for. I wrote a long response to her essay and, when I got the second draft of Cheryl’s piece, which showed exactly the same kinds of weaknesses, I did the same for her, opening up a whole new level of conversation with each of them about what it meant to be a writer and what they wanted their writing to accomplish.
For most of the semester, those conversations were separate, but then Edith approached me about the possibility of doing an independent study in essay writing, since there were no more classes she could take. I suggested that she might want to talk to Cheryl as well, saying only that Cheryl also wanted to be a writer and that I thought they might have a lot to say to each other. Edith did; Cheryl agreed; they did the required paperwork and our independent study began in January of 2001. It was a remarkable experience, but I want to write about here is what happened towards the end of that semester when I reminded them that they would have to read at the symposium some portion of the work they’d produced. Frankly, they were terrified. The symposium would be attended not just by independent-study faculty, other student presenters and their guests, but also by the college president, academic vice president, vice president of student affairs, and other administrators. How, they wanted to know, could they possibly read any of the intimate, sexually explicit, sometimes violent pieces they’d written in front of that audience? What place did their stories have, what right did they have to place their stories, side by side with the scholarly and academic work that would be presented by the other independent-study students?
There was no easy way to answer those questions, nothing I could say that would make them feel safe, because they were right. Their stories were, at least from a traditional point of view, the antithesis of the scholarship that other students would be presenting. Not only were my students’ essays not research essays, but Cheryl’s was about the first time she was able to have an orgasm from penetrative sex, which her abuse had made it very difficult to do, and Edith’s was an angry and explicit condemnation of the male dominant heterosexuality that gave men permission to treat her like an object and of the men in her life who had done so, starting with the man who’d sexually abused her while her mother managed not to know about it. Each woman, in other words, had good reason to be afraid, and the more we talked about that fear, the more it became clear to me that I had to do something to share its burden with them, that this was the moment to be the role model they had asked me to be. So I told them that when I introduced them, I would do so by talking a little bit about myself as a survivor of sexual abuse and what being able to work with them had meant to me. This way, anyone at the symposium who had a problem with the content of their essays would have to come through me first. Here is the text that I read:
Twenty years ago, when I was beginning to come to terms with the sexual abuse I survived as a teenager, there were no male voices out there that I could use as models in making sense of what had happened to me; and there was as well much misunderstanding about what it meant to be a man who was once a boy whose body had been sexually violated. I remember going to the Syracuse University library when I was in graduate school, for example, to see what had been written about my experience and learning for my troubles from a study I remember little else about that most people believed boys who’d been sexually abused by men were most likely to become homosexuals, as if we had invited and enjoyed the abuse. I felt alone and afraid, and I think one of the reasons I became a writer is that the act of my putting my words on the page, their physical presence in the world outside myself, provided at least some reassurance that my experience was real, that it was important and that it deserved an audience, even if only an audience of one, myself.
The women who are going to read for you tonight, Cheryl and Edith, were also sexually abused as children. They are fortunate enough to have come of age at a time when the silence and fear that once surrounded this subject no longer dominates our public consciousness. Nonetheless, writing has been for them a way both of breaking the isolation that abusers inevitably impose on their victims and of making meaning, personal and political, out of their experience. I am honored, humbled and simply happy that they trusted me enough to help them learn the craft necessary to speak that meaning as compellingly as you will hear them speak tonight.
What they read may make you uncomfortable. It should. Abuse is ugly, and confronting it is never easy. If you look closely, however, and are willing to listen, there is beauty to be found in that confrontation – not the easy and often reactionary responses you hear from politicians and the media, but the carefully polished and hard-won moments of hope that let you know healing and transformation, both personal and collective, are possible.
When I finished reading it, you could hear a pin drop, and the uncomfortable silence continued until Edith, who read first, looked up from the last page of her piece, and received a well-deserved standing ovation. When Cheryl finished reading her essay, the audience stood for her as well, and not a few people – students, faculty, administration – came over to congratulate them afterwards. The only one of my colleagues who said anything to me was a guy from the Math department who complained that I’d made a mockery of the event by allowing my students to read such inappropriate pieces of work. We argued for a bit, neither persuading the other, and when he left, I was happy to recede into the background. Neither my decisions as the supervisor of the independent study nor the revelations I’d made in my introduction were the point of the evening, which was supposed to be Cheryl and Edith’s moment to shine, and I was happy and humbled and proud that they were indeed shining.
For myself, however, delivering that introduction was transformative. It was the first time that I’d publicly claimed my identity as a survivor of sexual abuse not just for its own sake, but as a legitimate perspective through which to understand and make decisions about actions I wanted to take that were not directly connected to my own sexuality. It was, in other words, the moment I first began to work through what a “politics of survivorship,” or at least my politics of survivorship, might look like. And I have Edith and Cheryl to thank for teaching me that.
February 4th, 2013 § § permalink
Ozone Park, the literary journal published by the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College in New York City, has published my poem “I Fell in Love With All That Struggled in You Not to Drown,” Here’s an excerpt:
In class, we talked fashion: piercings
and why men shouldn’t wear thongs
unless they’re strippers,
and not one of my students
thought pink on a man
could mean anything but gay,
and I remembered—
no, it wasn’t memory;
you’ve never told me — I imagined
you getting dressed for school
on the first day of the public womanhood
the ayatollahs gave you no choice
but to learn to wear.
“The breeze has been my lover,“
you recite in the mirror,
“and the sun,” and you
tuck under your chador
the last few strands of hair
you need to hide, check
the length of your sleeves
and that your ankles
if you have to run
won’t emerge into light.
“And I have let the ocean pull me naked to its chest,
and with my fingers probed the earth’s flesh,
and filled my mouth with its fruit.”
I do hope you’ll go check it out. Some of the other really wonderful work I am happy to see my work appearing next to:
December 29th, 2012 § § permalink
I think it was Eavan Boland who wrote the essay I kept thinking about while reading Cynthia Dewi Oka’s first book of poetry, Nomad of Salt and Hard Water, published this year by Dinah Press. I don’t remember the essay’s title, or even when I read it, but it was about how the proliferation of first-book poetry contests has changed the nature of what it means for a poet to publish a first book, and for a press to make a commitment to that poet. Boland’s point, if I remember it correctly — if not, I guess I’ve now made it mine — was that the manuscripts which win those contests aren’t really first books anymore. Rather, because they have been so thoroughly revised as their authors resubmit them year after year after year, they are more like second or even third books, with all the roughness and spontaneity, the experiments and inevitable failures that characterize any first attempt at anything pretty much polished out of them.
Boland saw this as a loss, as do I, which made reading Oka’s book a refreshing pleasure. I could not help but feel as I read her work that knowing she has said what she has to say and that whomever she has said it to has listened, and listened well, means a lot more to her than any praise a reader might have for how technically accomplished a poet she is, and she is technically accomplished. Nonetheless, I’ll start by talking about some of the missteps in her book. I don’t, for example, understand why “advice for the young nomad” is even a poem:
all you need
for the journey
toothpaste, sandals, grit
As well, the pop psychology of “ain’t got no degree in psychology” is plain and simple unworthy of the depth and breadth of emotional and psychological insight Oka is capable of:
but honey, I damn well know
shame can be the loveliest smile
in a room: it can save you
These whole poems aside, Oka more commonly stumbles because she tries to push a good thing too far. Here are the first six lines from “to know beauty,” the last three of which are completely unnecessary:
Each year on your birthday, I see stars gather
they robes like queens at the seams of a black sea,
whispering to each other in a vernacular of light,
without sound, but with all the understanding
of the leaf, which blooms, sings and withers
according to the needs of each season.
It’s not just that “whispering…without sound” is a contradiction (or paradox, if you prefer) that does not contribute anything to the poem as a whole; it’s more that those last three lines actually narrow, because they try to explain, the dark, lovely and powerful metaphor in the first three. Indeed, metaphors are the building blocks of Oka’s poems, where the beauty and power of her work resides. She stacks them, juxtaposes them, explores them. In “soothsayer,” she describes resilience as something that “begins in the thighs, threads up//through the armpits and crouches under the jaws/like a smuggled jewel,” and in part three of “roads to a dance,” here she is describing a musician, “he was a back pocket/brew of molten lines/churned low under hat/& jazz sentinel eyes.”
There is violence in Oka’s poems — colonial, sexual, economic — and one of the joys of reading her work, if I can call it that, is watching her transform that violence into a meaning out of which beauty can grow. This is from “gentrify this!” Notice how she packs each line with a rhythm that moves the language towards the bigger thing it begins to name:
blister hands break night carve bold
out of frostbit bone grafting
life bigger than circumference of
beat cops property value city policy
In “prologue: exile/return/arrival,” she turns her metaphors to a different kind of political end, describing the violence wrought by the Dutch when they “drop[ped] anchor to take/Bali’s last standing kingdoms:”
The Dutch walk their bayonets
into the silence of the jugular and small intestine,
through the cups of the collarbone.
Their cuticles acquire bright ribbons of human tissue,
their beards rain with the dying spit of adolescent boys.
By the time they reach the palace, they are no longer men.
Unable to die, their shovels hit the ground
scraping enamel and brain matter for the first runway
to deliver industry, ammunition, anthropologists,
and hurl little girls with hooves stapled to their ribs
like so many stones at the sun.
The most intimate violence Oka writes about, however, is rape. I don’t want to make the mistake of attributing to her biography the specific details of any given poem, so I will say, simply, that “vulture” is visceral and terrifying to read and that “amulet,” which she dedicates to “sister survivors,” exhibits all the strengths and weaknesses of this book as a whole, pushing its incantatory, almost bardic form into plainspoken obviousness — “I write to learn with you/how to accept love on your own/terms and in your own time” — while at the same time giving such precise form to what it means to survive rape that it took my breath away:
there are no promises
after rape we choose
the distance and measure of our lives
For me, the emotional center of Nomad of Salt and Hard Water is “when you turn eighteen,” addressed presumably to her son. There is in this poem nothing superfluous, no pontificating, no plainspoken obviousness, just the seamless weaving together of all the meaning she has been trying to make throughout the book as she asks her son to
imagine a boy who became a father
before he was a man who raised himself
into a snare his own back twice opened
then closed in the structure of a dragon
imagine his silence like a thin gold chain
passed hand to hand in the acid almost
vomit of a ship’s human hull imagine
finding asylum in blocks of brick mouths
fists the pendulum of dead light on a string
as many pseudonyms as curbs to ring into
the local precinct’s crosshairs
imagine the blood cabling his forearms
in one frequency: Young and Dangerous….
“Nomad of Salt and Hard Water” is a book worth reading for its strengths as well as its weaknesses, which reveal a poet for whom poetry is a calling, not a profession. I am glad to know that a poet like Cynthia Dewi Oka is writing and that Dinah Press has made the commitment to publish writers like her.
December 21st, 2012 § § permalink
(Author’s note: This poem was originally published at The Good Men Project. I am posting it here so that people reading this other post–which contains all the background information – who don’t want to click through to TGMP’s site can read the poem if they’re interested. Also, this piece contains explicit descriptions of sexual violence.)
For My Son, A Kind of Prayer
…for they know
Of some most haughty deed or thought
That waits upon his future days…
—William Butler Yeats, “A Prayer for My Son”
Just before his mother
pushed him through herself
hard enough to split who she was
wide enough for him to enter the world,
I touched the top of my son’s head;
and after he was born,
the midwife — her name,
I think, was Vivian—
held my wife’s umbilical cord
in a loop for me to cut, which I did,
freeing our new boy’s body
to enter the name
we had waiting for him;
and then Vivian laid him
against the curve of his mother’s body,
giving him to the breast
he would for years
define his world by;
and once that first taste of love
was firmly lodged within him,
she bundled him tight,
placed him in my arms
and, while I sang his welcome
in a far corner of the room,
turned to assist the doctor
sewing up my wife’s
» Read the rest of this entry «
November 8th, 2012 § § permalink
Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz
I recently completed Dan Blank’s Build Your Author Platform online course (which I recommend, by the way, to anyone who wants to understand better how to treat her or his writing career as a business), and one of the things I learned was the importance of being on Twitter. I’ve had a Twitter account for quite some time now (you can follow me @richardjnewman) but I had never really understood how to use it in a meaningful way. In any event, one day, while I was playing around, trying to figure out whom to follow, what threads to pay attention to, what to retweet, what to tweet and so on, I had the brainstorm to look for hashtags for the names of the classical Persian poets I have translated, and I found one for Saadi of Shiraz (#Saadi). I read through his tweets for a few minutes – and was quite impressed by the number of people who seemed to be retweeting them – when something about the language started to sound familiar. So I opened up the PDF of my translation of Saadi’s Gulistan, entered a phrase from one of the tweets and, sure enough, it turns out that, whoever Saadi of Shiraz is, he or she has been tweeting my translations! Here are a couple:
Reading these brief excerpts outside the context of the book in which I published them made them new again, and I was reminded of just how much wisdom there is in Saadi’s work. More than that, though, when I first discovered that this man or woman has been tweeting my translations and that they have been making their way around the world – because Saadi of Shiraz’ followers are, as far as I can tell, flung pretty far and wide geographically – well, I was so moved, so humbled, really, that, at first, I could not say a word about it. Now it just makes me happy.
November 1st, 2012 § § permalink
I was at my mother’s on Sunday, before Sandy hit New York, helping her clean out her attic because she’s moving to New Jersey and she wants to take with her as little as possible of the stuff that she’s accumulated during the 70-some-odd years of her life. We found things like a picture of her and her date to her senior prom. I asked her who he was, but I’ve forgotten his name. She went with him, she said, because George, the man who would eventually become my stepfather and the father of my sisters, had broken up with her. (Why she married my father first and not George is a whole other story.) We also found decades worth of Heavy Metal magazine that my mother subscribed to and even the velvet drapes she had hanging in her bedroom more than thirty years ago when we lived in Floral Park. For me, though, the most significant thing that we found was the copy of Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer that my mother had bought in 1980 when Sal St. John Buttaci of New Worlds Unlimited accepted two of my poems publication. In my memory, Buttaci and his publishing company had been of a piece with the scam artists – I don’t remember that publisher’s name – that a couple of years later also accepted my poems, asked me to pay a fee so that the poems could be published (which I did; I was very naïve about these things back then) and then sent me a copy of a book without my poems in it. My mother, though, reminded me that I was wrong. New Worlds Unlimited was, in fact, a legitimate poetry publisher. Indeed Mr. Buttaci is still active. His blog has not been updated since last year, but he was interviewed on Blog Talk Radio in May of this year, when he also gave a reading at the Princeton Public Library.
I was very happy to be proven wrong, and I was pleasantly surprised, when I looked, to find out that Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer is actually for sale on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble and that there are some libraries around the country that have it on their shelves. More than how excited I was when I got Mr. Buttaci’s acceptance letter in the mail – boy, I wish I still had a copy of that – I remember how validating it was to see my work in print. The poems he accepted are absolutely the work of an eighteen-year-old, but when I read them now, more than thirty years later, I can see in them the seeds of the poet I would become. At the time, in imitation of e. e. cummings, I numbered my poems, instead of giving them titles:
In the Beginning
when God created
If I send you a poem
on butterfly wings,
ensnare it not
in your net of reason,
let it enter the flower of your soul
that you might live,
not merely survive–
If I send you a poem
on wings of song,
please, let it sing.
Poem 39, cutely profound and ironic as it tries to be, reminds me of another poem I wrote in my eighteenth year, but of which I no longer have a copy. In this poem, which was written in rhymed couplets, I imagined a post-nuclear world in which the God of the Torah decides to come to earth to comfort the survivors and to mourn with them everything that has been lost. The survivors, however, turn God away. “You weren’t there when we needed you,” they tell him, “and so we don’t need your sorrow now.”
I was very proud of this poem, both because it showed some mastery of the couplet form and because it said something that I thought was important politically. The possibility of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was not far from anyone’s mind at the time, and I was also struggling with some pretty serious spiritual and philosophical questions like, “How could God have allowed the Shoah to happen?” So I showed the poem to my AP English teacher, Mr. Giglio, along with some of my other work. In fact, I think I gave him my entire notebook of poetry to read. His response was that I ought not to write poetry about religion, that perhaps I ought not to write poetry at all. I’d be better off, he said, sticking to essays and literary criticism. (I didn’t know it at the time, but if the stories I’ve been told are true, Mr. Giglio had tried and failed to enter the priesthood.)
Happily, I was smart enough to recognize that Mr. Giglio was responding to the content of my poem as if it were a claim to a truth about his god, not the poem itself as a vehicle for exploring an emotional and intellectual experience – which is kind of what poem 49 is about, though I would never have been able to say it this way at the time. So, ignoring his advice, I kept writing; and I think my work has followed the trajectory set for it in the poem he rejected, and in these two poems that Sal St. John Buttaci published, engaging with large social, cultural and political issues, while at the same time insisting that poetry is art, not propaganda. In any event, I am happy to have Mirrors of the Wistful Dreamer in my possession once again.
October 27th, 2012 § § permalink
Lloyd Robson reads for JHPF in October. Photo by Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times.
I don’t particularly like the title, “Poets Gather in Exile, in Queens,” because I certainly don’t think of myself, as a writer or in any other way, as living in exile because I make my home in Queens, NY, but I like the article very much.
It’s funny how these things happen. I took over Jackson Heights Poetry Festival and its First Tuesdays reading series in June of this year and started hosting the series in September. K C Trommer was our first reader and it was a lovely evening, most especially because we got some nice press coverage on DNAinfo. Paul DeBenedetto, the reporter who wrote that story, was so taken with the evening that he did a profile of one of the poets who read, Norman Stock, whose first book of poems, Buying Breakfast for My Kamikaze Pilot, won the 1994 Peregrine Smith Poetry Series. (Norman’s second book is called Pickled Dreams Naked.) John Leland of The New York Times read DeBenedetto’s profile of Stock and contacted me to see if there might be a story about a developing community of writer’s in Queens. John came down to our October reading, at which Lloyd Robson was the featured reader, met some of the writers who attended, and “Poets Gather in Exile” was the result.
What I like best about the article is the way it captures the sense of a building and burgeoning community of writers, which is, for me, the most important function that First Tuesdays can serve:
For Mr. Goodrich and Ms. [Honor] Molloy, the exiles from Brooklyn, the monthly reading could not compensate for what they had lost — what they had moved to New York to be a part of. Ms. Molloy used to spend free hours toiling in the Brooklyn Writers Space; wherever she walked there were other writers, who would tell her about their readings and offer to come to hers. “I feel like an expatriate,” she said, “like I lost my country.”
Was it really so injurious for a writer to be away from what Mr. Goodrich called the “designer organic tapioca shops” or “hipsters with double-wide strollers”? In two months, they had found a good wine shop, a dry cleaner, a grocery. They had run into a newly arrived actor they knew; another day they ran into the poet K C Trommer, with whom Ms. Molloy used to work at Simon & Schuster and who was also a newcomer to the neighborhood. They had met Mr. Feldstein, who told them about the reading series.
“It all starts to fall together,” Mr. Goodrich said.
I also – I can’t help it – like the picture that Michael Kirby Smith got of me:
I hope you’ll go read the whole piece, and I hope you’ll come to next month’s reading, with Luis H. Francia, on November 13th.
October 24th, 2012 § § permalink
I’ve been asked by fellow author, marilyn slagel, to participate in a Blog Hop in order to introduce new authors to new readers. If you’ve come here from the link posted on Marilyn’s blog, welcome! If you’re a regular reader of mine or came upon my blog by chance, this is an opportunity for you to get know something about the book of poems I am working on and to check out some writers who might be new to you by following the links at the end of the post. They are all fine authors whose work I would highly recommend. Again, special thanks to Marilyn Slagel for asking me to participate.
Ten Interview Questions for The Next Great Read
Q: What is the working title of your book?
A: Because Men Only Understand Cliches
Q: Where did the idea come from for the book?
A: Since this is a book of poems, there isn’t one central idea in which the book originated. Rather, over time, as I wrote each of the poems, it became clear to me that I had a body of work that focused on the women in my life. The title poem of the book is my response to a challenge an instructor of mine from a long time ago, a woman, once gave. “No man,” she said, “will ever be able to write a successful ‘cunt poem,’ because when it comes to cunts men only understand cliches.”
Q: What genre does your book fall under?
Q: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
A: This question doesn’t really apply, since I don’t think anyone would make a movie from a book of poems. But people have told me over the years that I look a little bit like James Caan – I don’t see it at all. I have liked some of his movies quite a lot, though, and I think it would be fun to hear him read my poems.
Q: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A: Because Men Only Understand Cliches illuminates one man’s understanding of the roles women have played in his life and how they helped make him the man he is today.
Q: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
A: The small press that has, for some time, been holding the manuscript for what was supposed to be a 2013 publication date – which was pushed back from 2012 – has just pushed the date back again to 2018. Since I do not have a contract with this publisher, this seems to me a pretty obvious indication that they are no longer all that interested in publishing me. Agents do not represent poets, generally speaking, since there is no money in it for them, and so I will start shopping the manuscript around again very soon. I haven’t decided yet if I want to investigate the possibility of self-publishing the book.
Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
A: The oldest poem in the book is from around 2007; the newest, “For My Son, A Kind of Prayer” – which was published by The Good Men Project–was written this year.
Q: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
A: I sometimes think that I write about gender and sexuality in a way that bears some resemblance to Sharon Olds’ work, which is to suggest a parallel set of concerns, not that I would presume to place myself in her league.
Q: Who or What inspired you to write this book?
A: All of the poems in the book are, in one way or another, inspired by women I have known, some of them lovers (my wife primary among them), some of them teachers, some of them friends, some of them students.
Q: What else about your book might piqué the reader’s interest?
A: One of the poems, “I Fell in Love with All That Struggled in You Not to Drown,” explores aspects of a woman’s life in Iran; another, “For My Son, A Kind of Prayer” is a meditation on raising a son in a world filled with sexual violence that is mostly and all too often perpetrated by men.
Here are the writers whose work you can check out next: