Tuesday, November 27, 2012 4:43 PM
Radical feminist, artist, and media activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls herself, "the cybernetic dream of a one room black reconstruction schoolteacher." She spreads knowledge, healing, and empowerment through web-based projects like MobileHomeComing, a traveling "intergenerational community documentation and education project" that challenges our culture's heteronormativity, and BrokenBeautifulPress, which "lifts up black feminist practices throughout history and transformative community models in the present." Gumbs was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009. Keep up with her at Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind.
From Beyoncé and Oprah to Serena and Venus Williams, African American women are some of the most celebrated people in today's media-saturated culture. Despite the largely positive nature of this attention, misconceptions and stereotypes are often reinforced when we see these women on screens and in the pages of magazines. In a new book of poems contemplating celebrity, race, and representation, Alexis Pauline Gumbs considers "what it is possible to know about the most famous Black women alive today." Gumbs describes her book, One Hundred and One Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive, as "part prayer part polemic [...] an intervention into the consumption of Black women."
Without denying the strength of the 10 women she profiles, Gumbs questions the media's representations of them and attempts to carve a space for the actual people behind those larger-than-life personas. In the video above, Gumbs notes that "there's some critical thinking that should be going on as we observe and participate in the media representation of black women that often isn't going on. For me this is about practicing and making space for that thinking and rethinking and questioning." One Hundred and One Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive is available for a small donation through Scribd. Below is Gumbs' poetic introduction to the book.
Ten Things That Are Not True About This Project Instead of a Preface*
There are no risks to speak of when loving black women becomes a religion.
This is a joke.
This is a game.
The media made me do it.
I could have said it better but I didn't.
I didn't have to do this but I did.
I have a working TV. And I know what you are thinking.
Restorative justice is possible here.
Dignity is possible here.
You are ready for this.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
*After Diane Di Prima's "10 Things That Are Not True About the She-Wolf"
Tuesday, August 28, 2012 3:22 PM
Radical feminist, artist, and media activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs
calls herself, "the cybernetic dream of a one room black reconstruction
schoolteacher." She spreads knowledge, healing, and empowerment through
web-based projects like MobileHomeComing,
a traveling "intergenerational community documentation and education
project" that challenges our culture's heteronormativity, and BrokenBeautifulPress,
which "lifts up black feminist practices throughout history and
transformative community models in the present." Gumbs was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2009. Keep up with her at Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind.
"wishful thinking" or "what i'm waiting to find in our email boxes"
(with Mendi and Keith Obadike in mind)
dedicated to the black women at Duke and North Carolina Central Universities and you
1. you wake up each day
as new as anyone
there is no reason to assume
you would be supernaturally strong.
there is no reason to test your strength
through daily disrespect and neglect.
you don't need to be strong.
everyone supports you.
2. if you say ouch
we believe that you are hurt.
we wait to hear how we can help
to mend your pain.
3. you have chosen to be at a school,
at a workplace, in a community
that knows that you are priceless
that would never sacrifice your spirit
that knows it needs your brilliance to be whole
4. your very skin
and everything beyond it
is a miracle that we revere
5. we mourn any violence that
has ever been enacted against you.
we will do what it takes
to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
6. when you speak
we are so glad that you
are here, of all places.
7. other women
reach out to you
when you seem afraid
and they stay
until peace comes
8. the sun
how much they love you.
9. people are interested
in what you are wearing
because it tells them
what paintings to make.
10. everyone has always told you
you can stay a child
until you are ready to move on
11. if you run across the street
naked at midnight
no one will think
you are asking
12. you do so many things
because it feels good to move.
you have nothing to prove
13. white people cannot harm you.
they do not want to.
they do not do it by accident.
14. your smile makes people
glad to be alive
15. your body is not
a symbol of anything
16. everyone respects your work
and makes sure you are safe
while doing it
17. at any moment
you might relive
the joy of being embraced
18. no one will lie to you,
scream at you
or demand anything.
19. when you change your mind,
people will remember to change theirs.
20. your children are safe
no one will use them against you.
21. the university is a place where you
are reflected and embraced.
anyone who forgets how miraculous you are
need only open their eyes.
22. the universe conspires
to lift you
23. on the news everynight
people who look like you and
the people you love
for their contribution to society.
24. the place where knowledge is
has no walls.
25. you are rewarded for the work you do
to keep it all together.
26. every song i've
ever heard on the radio
is in praise
27. the way you speak
is exactly right
for wherever you happen
28. there is no continent anywhere
where life counts as nothing.
29. there is no innocence that needs your guilt
to prove it.
30. there is no house
in your neighborhood
where you still hear screams
every time you go
31. no news camera waits
to amplify your pain.
32. nobody wonders
whether you will make it.
everybody believes in you
33. when you have a child
no one finds it tragic.
no map records it as an instance of blight.
34. no one hopes you will give up
on your neighborhood
so they can buy it up cheap.
35. everyone asks you your name.
no one calls you out of it.
36. someone is thinking highly of you
37. being around you
makes people want to be
their kindest, most generous selves.
38. there is no law anywhere
that depends on your silence.
39. nobody bases their privilege
on their ability to desecrate you.
40. everyone will believe anything you say
because they have been telling you the truth
41. school is a place, like every other place.
no one here is out to get you.
42. worldwide, girls who look like you
are known for having great ideas.
43. 3 in 3 women will fall in love with themselves
during their lifetime.
44. every minute in North Carolina
a woman embraces
45. you know 8 people
who will help you move
to a new place
if you need to.
46. when you speak loudly
everyone is happy
because they wondered
what you were thinking about.
47. people give you gifts
and truly expect nothing
48. no one thinks you are
49. everyone believes
that you should have all
the resources that you need,
because by being yourself
you make the world so much
50. any creases on your face
are from laughter.
51. no one, anywhere, is locked in a cage.
52. you are completely used to knowing what you want.
following your dream is as easy as walking.
53. you are more than enough.
54. everyone is waiting
to see what great thing
you'll do next.
55. every institution wants to know
what you think, so they can find out
what they should really be doing,
or shut down.
56. strangers send you love letters
for speaking your mind.
57. you wake up
Alexis Pauline Gumbs penned these words of affirmation in April, 2007, but they are helping her achieve her dreams in the present. Gumbs has committed to training as a doula in an effort to support mothers as they bring life to earth, and as part of her own healing journey. In parallel to this poem's 57 wishes, Gumbs is asking that 57 people contribute toward the cost of her doula training. Each donor will receive a collage based on one wish expressed in the poem.
Becoming a community supported doula is a dream coming true and a wish about to be fulfilled," writes Gumbs. To read more of Gumbs' story or contribute to her tuition, visit Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind.
Image by Diganta Talukdar licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 21, 2011 11:11 AM
Growing up, my mom had serious cred with friends of mine for having palled around with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other Haight-Ashbury (less famous) standards—once, even kicking Jimi Hendrix out of her house when he’d shown up with a friend of hers extremely drunk (or extremely something). With this history running through my veins, I could never bring myself to take Jim Morrison seriously. He always seemed, in my view, to be trying too hard to force his way into the company of 60s greats. Nothing about him ever felt authentic. (Years later I’d feel similarly about a rock god of my own generation, Kurt Cobain. That’s a different story for a different time, but real quick, try to imagine starting high school in 1993 and not liking Nirvana all that much.) So, feeling like his whole persona was a put-on, I could never bring myself to take too seriously the music of The Doors. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond teenage memories in which The Doors provide the soundtrack. (Driving over a bridge, toward an oncoming thunderstorm, while “Riders on the Storm” played loudly on the radio.) But most of those were fueled by something other than the music, something that always seemed necessary in order for The Doors’ music to feel inspiring, to lose its self-consciousness.
So when I received an email yesterday from the good folks at The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, with the subject line, “Was Jim Morrison a poet?” I had my answer ready before the email even opened: “No. No way was Jim Morrison a poet.” Something, though—maybe some mystical force brought in by some desert wind—made me hesitate before hitting the delete button. (More likely it was simply that the question came from The Poetry Foundation and not some would-be author hawking a book on the great mystic poet, Jim Morrison.)
The email was referencing an essay by Daniel Nester on The Poetry Foundation’s website, where the author tackles that very question: “Should we consider Jim Morrison, rock’s Bozo Dionysus, a real poet?” Nester’s first sentence gets the discussion off on just the right foot: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think the Doors are a hokey caricature of male rock stardom and those who think they’re, you know, shamans.” That’s about it, isn’t it? From my story above, you know which camp I fall in. And I’ve known those people on the “shaman” side of the aisle and have no idea where they stand on the matter years later. Nester’s essay assumes most of them, in their elder, wiser years, are slightly embarrassed by their devotion to the man and the band. He’s probably right. But he comes across serious people who have thought about the matter seriously and have concluded that The Lizard King was a serious poet. But maybe it’s all beside the point. As Nester reasons, “I have stopped worrying whether James Douglas Morrison…can join the tenuous tribe of poets. He’s been showing up for the meetings for so long now, there’s no sense in throwing him out.”
I don’t know if Nester’s essay has changed my mind about Jim Morrison, but at one point, after David Lehman is quoted talking about “People Are Strange” (“Lehman types out the lyrics in his email to ‘show how rhetorically balanced the first stanza is, each line divided into two clauses conjoined by ‘when.’’”), I found myself on some lyrics website, rereading those first few lines a bit more seriously than I ever had before.
What’s your take on Jim Morrison as song writer and poet? And after reading Nester’s essay have your views changed? Leave your comments below.
Source: The Poetry Foundation
Image by murdelta, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 04, 2011 1:26 PM
Although it evokes the senses through language, poetry typically doesn’t often stimulate the reader’s sensory organs—save some passive recognition by the eyes and, occasionally, ears. Poet Stephanie Barber, however, has found a way to craft verse that tickles your feet and delights the eyes, nose, and mind. Barber writes her poetry with grass.
Over at Urbanite, Cara Ober explains the poet’s methodology:
Barber cut stencils out of Kentucky Bluegrass sod—each letter is two feet long—and laid them into the yard at the Poor Farm, an artist residency and exhibition space in Wisconsin. The poem is too large to read from one vantage point, or even to photograph in its entirety. To read it, one has to walk on it.
“To know a poem one must live with it,” writes Barber in a breezy chapbook lecture about her lawn poetry. “One must dig their toes into its very L’s and O’s.” As an English major, I take issue with the notion that you can’t “know a poem” by simply reading it in a book. That aside, Barber’s approach to the production and dissemination of poetry rings unique. Her lawn poetry is broadcast to passersby, but delicately; instead of dying on the yellow pages of a trade paperback in Barnes & Noble, it grows and becomes a living part of the community.
For those of you further than a stone’s-throw from Eastern Wisconsin, thereby unable to dig your toes into its L’s, O’s, or for that matter, any of its other letters, here’s the text of “Lawn Poem”:
Its hooves were mouse and fire
And it was angry and into counting
Also it was starstruck
Like a complicated Mexican companion cat
Barber’s verse-turf idea reminds one—on the surface, at least—of Walt Whitman’s essential collection of American poetry, Leaves of Grass. I’ll leave you with a brief, appropriate excerpt from “Song of Myself” (lines 82-86), perhaps Whitman’s best-known poem:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
Images courtesy of Stephanie Barber.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011 7:33 PM
Modern literature is uninspired, complains poet Bei Dao, whose acclaimed poems helped fuel China’s pro-democracy movement in the ’70s and ’80s and led to his exile for decades. He blames the literary decline on mindless consumerism and base entertainment, reports China Daily/Xinhua in an interview with the poet:
[Bei Dao] pointed out that previously a clear-cut division existed between “vulgar” culture and “serious” culture, but today vulgar culture is swallowing serious culture like a black hole, and unfortunately, many writers are forced to lower their writing standards to cater to vulgarity.
To overcome this debasement, he calls for a new generation of smart readers to reignite the art. And the place to start is the poetry classroom: “Modern education kills young people’s imagination and creativity, so we need to promote poetry instruction to sharpen their awareness of literature,” says Bei Dao, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Critics, it seems, are the key to our literary future.
Bei Dao’s most recent book is The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems (2010). Best known for his 1976 poem “The Answer,” written in response to an early Tiananmen Square protest, the meditative poet continues to write long-form poetry, saying, “I’ve always believed my best poem should be the next one.”
Source: China Daily
Image by DoNotLick
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 01, 2011 3:29 PM
Here is a collection of poems to take with you as you head off into the long 4th of July weekend, courtesy of Poets.org. Bring one of each color to your family bbq and give your family a real treat. Or, just take William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” With the wheelbarrow, the (blue) water, and the white chickens, you’re pretty much covered.
The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams
A Red Palm
by Gary Soto
A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns
by Barbara Guest
by Amy Lowell
The Red Poppy
by Louise Glück
by Tess Gallagher
will the red hand throw me?
by Matthew Rohrer
by Jean Valentine
Red Quiet, Section 3
by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
by Anne Sexton
The White Fires of Venus
by Denis Johnson
The White Room
by Charles Simic
by J. Michael Martinez
White Box (Notes)
by Laura Mullen
by Marvin Bell
my dream about being white
by Lucille Clifton
The White Horse
by D.H. Lawrence
by Lisa Olstein
by Donald Hall
by Elizabeth Alexander
Waking in the Blue
by Robert Lowell
by Li-Young Lee
At the Blue Note
by Pablo Medina
The Weary Blues
by Langston Hughes
The Blue Terrance
by Terrance Hayes
The Blue Stairs
by Barbara Guest
The Blue Anchor
by Jane Cooper
by David Baker
Vision from the Blue Plane-Window
by Ernesto Cardenal
translated by Jonathan Cohen
Image by buggolo, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 30, 2011 4:06 PM
You’re at the Salvation Army looking for a lamp, a canoe paddle, or a new old shirt when you hear something rustling in the clothes rack next to you. If you’re in Miami, it might be artist Agustina Woodgate, who is on a mission to spread poetry to the masses with a renegade needle and thread.
Woodgate is poetry bombing thrift stores, says Booooooom, a creativity-celebrating Vancouver website. She prints lines from Sylvia Plath and Li Po onto clothing labels, pre-threads a number of needles, nonchalantly enters the targeted second-hand store, and stealthily sews the labels into hanging garments. One tag features these lines from Po’s poem “Waking Up Drunk on a Spring Day”: “Life is a huge dream / why work so hard?” Woodgate hurriedly attaches it to a shirt collar, periodically looking over her shoulder for security guards.
Part of the poetry festival O, Miami, Woodgate’s guerilla-style project aims to surprise and inspire with verse out of context. She says:
Sewing poems in clothes is a way of bringing poetry to everyday life just by displacing it, by removing it from a paper to integrate it and fuse it with our lives. Sometimes little details are stronger when they are separated from where they are expected to be.
Watch the inarguably fetching video of Woodgate in action at Miami’s Community Family Thrift Store here:
Thursday, April 14, 2011 12:15 PM
Jolie Holland doesn’t see the need for poetry. Well, she doesn’t see the need for reading poetry.
Writing of her early creative life, Holland says she was inspired by Dylan Thomas, William Blake, and William Butler Yeats. Somewhere along the way, though, Holland stopped consuming poetry on the page and instead started letting it come to her “through her ears.”
In the January 2011 issue of Poetrythe songwriter writes, “Just as dinosaurs didn’t really disappear but became birds, poems have become songs.”
I don’t know how to talk about what poetry is, except to talk about the experience. It’s good to have your hand on the rudder, and know when the current is moving powerfully. One thing I’ve enjoyed noticing is that both classical Zen haiku and my favorite American music have at least one little trick in common. I’d describe the way that classic Zen haiku works in this way: The poet describes the world, and describes his own mind, in one deft and beautiful stroke. It’s like a report of what’s in front of and behind the eyes.
Holland sees no distinction between the poetry she loves and the music she listens to: Morrissey and The Smiths introduced her to the work of Oscar Wilde, and she keeps Emily Dickinson’s description of poetry in mind when she’s writing songs. “I remember Emily Dickinson’s very useful definition of poetry: that which makes one feel as though the top of one’s head has been taken off…That same sort of physical cue is exactly the kind of meter I check when I’m deciding about music.”
It may be cliché to claim songs are poems, but in this short essay for Poetry, Holland makes the claim convincingly.
Image by Glutnix, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010 2:58 PM
Most people walk away from college with a favorite professor, an educator they had a certain intellectual connection with that greatly influenced their work as a student. Michael White’s relationship with his favorite professor, who he met during September of 1979, was slightly more complicated than this. In “The Bard of the Bottle” from The Missouri Review, White recalls his friendship with professor Tom McAfee, a friendship characterized by nightly black-out drinking sessions, reading and workshopping poetry for hours on end, and eventually one caring for the other during his dying days drenched in delirium.
White, during his sophomore year at the University of Missouri-Columbia, was failing all of his classes but McAfee’s. He bartended at The Tiger bar, a favorite haunt of the professor, and every night like clockwork White would close up the joint, pour several glasses of bourbon, and grab his backpack full of poetry books:
I’d go to the mezzanine with these supplies. By then he’d [McAfee] be passed out, nodding in his chair beside his watery drink, a cigarette burned down to the nub in his slender, nicotine-stained fingers. But he would awake and be deeply grateful to see me. It was like I was rescuing him—which I was, from the terrors afflicting him whenever he closed his eyes. We’d stay up and talk: he’d tell me his dreams; we’d talk about whatever dramas we’d seen in the bar; or, mostly, I’d just read to him. Night after night, I read those poems, dozens of poems by one poet or another, and Tom would gesture in deep pleasure or recite along with me. These were poems he needed to hear again and again, and I was happy to reread them, since it helped me to comprehend, to hear them for the first or fifth time.
It was an unhealthy relationship at best, drinking to the point of unconsciousness every evening, but it wasn’t as shallow as one alcoholic finding companionship in another. As time went on, McAfee grew more and more ill at the hands of his vices, and their bond continued to evolve:
My role in Tom’s life had already begun to switch from friend to caregiver. This was absurd, as I couldn’t even care for myself, but I was what Tom had. I brought him food for the last months of his life. He would have gone sooner if I hadn’t. Fool that I was, I still believed I could save him. I would bring a bowl of red beans with a little bacon. That was all he wanted; he acted like it was sacredly wonderful stuff. When I showed up with the beans, he would practically weep with gratitude. He wouldn’t touch anything else anyone brought him, just a few mouthfuls of soft beans at night which he could chew with his bad teeth.
James Thomas McAfee's health continued to decline, and he died in 1982 at the age of 54. Michael White, after being evicted from his apartment, fired from his job, and essentially losing everything, ended up receiving his Ph.D from the University of Utah in English and creative writing and has won numerous prestigious awards and gained significant respect in the literary community. White turned 54 the day before he wrote “The Bard of the Bottle.”
Source: The Missouri Review(excerpt only available online)
Thursday, April 08, 2010 6:01 PM
Pop singers have often thought of themselves as poets of sorts, and Natalie Merchant is no exception: She considers herself a “writer of verse” whose words often happen to be accompanied by music. Merchant’s new album Leave Your Sleep will probably help burnish her poetry credentials—but ironically, the words on this album, for a change, are not her own: The album is a collection of 26 historical poems set to a wide range of music styles, from reggae and the blues to folk and Chinese traditional music. (Read a review in the May-June Utne Reader.) Although the poems are in her own description by, for, or about children, Leave Your Sleep doesn’t present itself as a children’s album but rather one that can be enjoyed by all ages.
I spoke with Merchant in early March as she was putting the finishing touches on the album’s elaborate packaging, which includes an 80-page booklet. Our free-ranging conversation touched on her motherhood (she had a daughter in 2003), the magic of music, and why she may run off to live in a convent for her next album.
Your last studio album, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, was a fairly low-key folk album put out on your own label.
“Yeah, we made that in two days.”
Now you’re doing a massive project involving more than a hundred musicians and a wide range of musical styles. How did you shift from this very DIY ethic to this big production?
“Well, it took six years. The thing that was great about The House Carpenter’s Daughter, the way we were able to record with such spontaneity, is that we toured for the whole summer. But the research for that record took about six months, because I wanted to do folk music that I wasn’t familiar with yet. So I did a lot of research at the public library at Lincoln Center and took a lot of the material from books. So I had a small introduction to that process.
“The individual recording sessions for this one, for Leave Your Sleep, were actually done pretty quickly. There was a lot of preproduction involved. I probably spent a year writing, a year demoing, and then about six months organizing all the sessions—and then a year recording and about five months to mix and master. And then the research for the book was ongoing. I had three research assistants just finding information about the poets, because some of them were so obscure. I had a copyright researcher, and I had two lawyers doing clearances and a picture researcher. That was my team. (laughs)
“So it was like there were hidden aspects to this. Calling Wynton Marsalis and saying ‘Wynton, could you do me a favor and write an arrangement for “Janitor’s Boy” and meet me in the studio on this particular day’—that was sort of the easy part. (laughs) The magic would happen in the studio once we had everything set up. But there was a lot of sweat and blood and tears leading up to the magic.”
When did you first conceive of this album?
“The day after my daughter was born. I think [new mothers] are pretty evenly divided: The women who go into a postpartum depression and the ones who go into a crazy euphoria. And I went into a crazy euphoric state.
“I knew that I was going to be responsible for introducing her to the world, and language, and music, and spirituality, and nature—everything. The doors of the world were going to open to her through me. And I didn’t realize it so much until I was holding her in my arms. I had all this energy, and yet I had to nurse my baby five, six hours a day. I was trapped in a chair with all this energy, but I noticed there was a book of poems that I had bought for her—an anthology of poetry was sitting on the shelf near the chair where I was nursing her. So I just started looking through the book and marking pages that I found interesting. I thought I would begin with lullabies, and that’s the album I would make for her. I also realized I wanted to sing lullabies to her but I just didn’t know any. So I thought, ‘I’ll just write my own.’ But I felt kind of hobbled, because I couldn’t really use my hands. (laughs) So I started singing these poems into these melodies, into a recording device. That’s how I started the record, and it kind of grew from that. That was almost seven years ago.”
And eventually it grew beyond lullabies, right?
“Pretty quickly. Because as soon as she was old enough to comprehend basic language, I started teaching her Mother Goose rhymes and teaching her how to use language as a toy—that it could be this delightful plaything of hers. I loved the rhythms, and the rhymes were really great for her memory, and introducing her to new vocabularies. And so I was kind of immersed in that world, which I found very enjoyable. It was kind of dark times in our country, and I was feeling powerless and frustrated, and I also realized that I’d spent my whole life waiting to have a child—I’d waited 40 years to have this child, and I knew that time would be very fleeting, because I’d lived long enough to know what five or six years would feel like, so I just wanted to really be there. But it felt creative, too—I wanted to be totally present in her life but creative at the same time, and that resulted in me making art out of the experience of motherhood and her childhood.”
The common thread in these poems is that they’re by or for or about children. Yet the album, to my ears, doesn’t sound like many children’s albums and doesn’t seem to be playing down to the audience. Do you consider it a children’s album?
“Like I said, I think it was inspired by my experience of having a child, and children certainly enjoy it. And actually, the president of Nonesuch said the greatest thing—he said the Beatles made the best children’s records of all time, but they never made a children’s record. My daughter loves the Kinks; ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is her favorite song. I haven’t really segregated music in my collection and said, well, this is music that she will enjoy and it’s appropriate for her because it was written for children. She just responds to music. She loves African highlife guitar, she loves salsa music, she loves Celtic folk music. And that’s something that most of the parents that I know do for their children—they just play music they enjoy, and the kids are exposed to everything. There are plenty of other forms of media that are specific to certain age groups, and you don’t expose kids to R-rated film, obviously, and there’s literature that’s too complex, you can’t introduce them to it. But I play symphonic music for my child and she doesn’t find that too complicated, and she doesn’t find it dull or boring. I was just trying to speak to her in the musical language that she already seems to understand.
“It is a systematic concept record, I guess, but that doesn’t mean it’s so highbrow that children can’t enjoy it. I mean, there’s a lot of nonsense poetry involved in it, but there are a lot of great big-band and bluegrass and Cajun songs that have silly lyrics—but they were never written for children. The Edward Lear poem or the William Brighty Rands—the nonsense material, especially the British Victorian nonsense—was actually for the most part not created for children. It was created for the amusement of other adults, as a lot of the nursery rhymes were actually political satire, or they were amusements of the gentry. They eventually became part of what we consider the Mother Goose canon, but they weren’t always specifically written for children.
“That’s why I named the album Leave Your Sleep—it’s taken from a Mother Goose rhyme. Because it points to the genesis of the record, but there’s something deeper in our culture, a deeper place that those rhymes inhabit historically and in their origins, and also historically in where they live in our culture. I think Leave Your Sleep is a really simple phrase, but it can be interpreted in so many ways. It seems to point to an awakening of some sort, whether that was my awakening to this poetry or my invitation to other people to become awake to it. Or to just take these poems that are more obscure and wake them back up—you know, give them a second chance at different lives, bring them to light in a way.”
There’s been endless debate over whether song lyrics are poetry—whether Bob Dylan is a poet, for instance. By setting poems to songs you’re sort of inverting the equation, making these poets into pop lyricists. Are the two skills at least somewhat complementary if not interchangeable?
“Well, I’ve talked to some literary critics who feel that part of the reason poetry has fallen so far out of fashion is that it was originally meant to be recited and sung, and it’s because of this separation from its musicality that it inhabits this ivory tower, and that it’s inaccessible to so many people. But as a writer of verse, which is what I am—whether you want to call me a lyricist or a poet, that’s up to your bias—my words are meant to be heard. And I feel that way about all these poems. These poems didn’t come to life for me until I read them aloud. And then they came further to life when I gave them pitch, and lengthened or shortened the syllables and gave them notes. And the notes helped me illustrate them—illustrate the emotional content or the subject matter, whatever it was it just made it a more full experience for me.
“So I don’t know. Actually, I just received an invitation from Poetry magazine to contribute. It’s the most prestigious poetry journal in America, so I was thrilled. But then the second paragraph said ‘as a contributor to our special column that we call “The View from Here,”’ which is basically an outsider’s view of poetry. And I’m actually sitting here today composing a letter to the editor saying, ‘But I’m a published writer of verse for 30 years, and why is it that I’m not considered a poet? Because somewhere in the world there’s music that accompanies what I do?’”
How big a pool of poems did you start with?
“Well, I had to narrow the field to just the criteria that you described—poems about, by, or for children—because there were just thousands and thousands of poems. I read hundreds, and I ended up writing music to probably 50. We recorded 35, and 26 ended up on the record.”
In assembling the material, did you uncover poets and poems you didn’t previously know about?
“I’d say 80 percent of the stuff that ended up on the record I’d never heard of before.”
What were some of the most notable surprises?
“Well, the Nathalia Crane poem ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ is my favorite—that and ‘If No One Ever Marries Me,’ because they’re extremely obscure poets, that they were young women—Nathalia Crane was 10 when she wrote ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ and Laurence Alma-Tadema was 18 [when she wrote ‘If No One Ever Marries Me’]. Both those poems were from their very first publications. The search for photographs of them, and information about them, was very interesting. I actually located Natalia Crane’s widower, living in California, and he put me in touch with a woman who’s writing a biography about her. That’s how I got all the information about her. She was from Brooklyn, so we went to the Brooklyn Public Library and the Smithsonian Institution and got an incredible treasure trove of photographs because she was a national celebrity from the time she was 10 to about 16, for just being a precocious young poet.
“I made a joke onstage in London recently, that for a 10-year-old girl to get that kind of notoriety she’d have to murder her whole family and eat them. (laughs) Just to write a book about your obsessive crush on the son of the superintendent of your building—that was enough to make you an international star in 1927.”
There’s a lot of Victorian-era poetry on the album. Why were you drawn to the Victorians?
“British Victorians experienced a sort of golden era of children’s literature, and that’s a reason I was really drawn to it. It is more sophisticated—even the nonsense is more sophisticated. It seems to be more about the structure of the language and the playfulness of the sound of the language, and even the meaning of the words, especially in Edward Lear’s case. The stories about the poets were really fascinating, and the meter and the rhyme schemes just really appealed to me when I sat down to write music. They adapted really well to music. Edward Lear actually did compose music—it’s one of the things he did with his talent. He was a painter; he actually taught Queen Victoria to watercolor as a painting instructor.
“He was one of 21 children and the family was broken up when his father, who was a stockbroker, experienced a reversal of fortunes and was sent to debtor’s prison. So he ended up being educated by his sister and rising in British society to the point where he was held in high esteem by the queen. And he lived with the 13th Earl of Derby because he was this very talented painter. He was hired to paint the Earl of Derby’s private menagerie of over a thousand animals that he had on his estate.
“I wanted to go visit the estate where he lived, because the Earl of Derby was also the first to publish Edward’s poetry. So I thought it would be really interesting to go there and see the house. He started as a servant in the home, and then he ended up being a favorite in the drawing room of the mansion. And it is a mansion—it’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen in my life, and they have a safari park there, hundreds of acres of safari park with baboons and rhinoceros and elephants and cheetahs. (laughs) The stories are just fascinating. The descendant of the Earl of Derby still runs the property, and they have a convention center there and a spa.”
Are there some poets whose work you wanted to include that just didn’t lend itself to the musical form?
“Yes. I thought Lewis Carroll should be part of it, and we did record ‘How doth the little crocodile/Improve his shining tail/And pour the waters of the Nile/On every golden scale!/How cheerfully he seems to grin/How neatly spreads his claws/And welcomes little fishes in/With gently smiling jaws!’ or something like that. But we didn’t end up doing that. And another, Walter de la Mare, turned out to be one of my favorite discoveries. I wrote three or four of his, but they ended up not going on. And William Roscoe, who was an abolitionist and a member of Parliament in the early 18th century, and he only really published one poem, called ‘The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.’ He wrote it for his son, and it was serialized in a journal of some sort. In spite of being a member of Parliament and a famous abolitionist, it basically was the thing he’s remembered for. I’m really sorry that piece didn’t end up on the record.
“There were many. So there could be another volume someday.”
How did you decide on a musical sound and create an arrangement for each poem?
“I just listened to the internal rhythms and rhymes of the poems, and depending on the characters—it seems like I was drawn to poems that had strong central characters. It wasn’t a conscious decision but it seems to be something that unifies all the poems, whether it’s ‘The Peppery Man’ or ‘The Janitor’s Boy’ or ‘The Sleepy Giant’ ‘The King of China’s Daughter,’ ‘maggie and milly and molly and may,’ ‘The Dancing Bear’—they’re really archetypes of childhood literature, too, whether it’s the circus equestrienne or the dancing bear, and witches and giants and that sort of thing. So I would just decide how I wanted to represent this character musically, and then rhythmically I would just find the rhythm within the structure of the language of the poem. It was really fun. And some of the songs—like ‘The Peppery Man’ I actually wrote that in three different styles of music, and just decided that the blues seemed more appropriate. That was the place I wanted to put ‘The Peppery Man’—I wanted to put him down South.
“And ‘[Adventures of] Isabel,’ the Ogden Nash poem, that was written in a couple different styles, and then I just decided that I was going to make Isabel a girl from the bayou. I imagine her in a torn cotton dress singing, just swinging from a vine in the swamp barefoot. That’s my version of Isabel. Ogden Nash actually wrote it about his daughter, and I found a great photo essay of him and his family at home … and that’s not his daughter at all. She was very proper, lived in a house with servants and wore white gloves and patent leather shoes and bows in her hair. But there must have been something about her—her character must have been strong. My version of Isabel wasn’t anywhere near his version.”
It sounds like it’s been quite a large project. Now that it’s complete, is the album like you initially envisioned it, or has it gone through massive transformations as it has evolved?
“Well, when I gave up the idea of it being an album of lullabies, ten lullabies, I started to embrace it as a larger project. And I knew from about year two of working on it that it was going to be the most ambitious thing I’d ever made. And definitely when were the planning the recording sessions it really became apparent it was monstrously big. (laughs) I made a wall chart of all the songs, and I remember Steven Barber, one of the string arrangers I worked with, walked in. He’s from Texas, and he just looked at it and he said, ‘The Germans don’t even have a word for this! The or-gan-i-zation of it!’ It was true. We had people from so many different places. And every one of those 120 musicians that worked on the record had to be contracted, transported, fed, given demos, given charts, supplied with directions to the studio. There was this whole list of tasks that had to be achieved to make sure they made it into the room at the right moment, in the right frame of mind. It was massive.”
It’s clear that your becoming a mother was a very direct influence on this album. Does having a child change the way you think about your art in general?
“I think having a child changes just about everything about the way that you see yourself and the world. Since most artists are just projecting some internal vision or reflecting their impressions of what they see, yeah, I’m sure it’s affected everything. I think there’s more playfulness in what I’m doing now, and more depth at the same time, because of the experience. And I think I’ve become more certain of who I am, so that gives me more confidence.
“I think the long-term effect of making this record on my work is going to be that anything is possible. I’m not going to discount anything, any idea. I wrote an arrangement for traditional Chinese instruments for this record—I mean, everything that we did. I sang a duet with an 87-year-old man, recorded with Wynton Marsalis, and I wrote string arrangements with Sean O’Loughlin that were performed by members of the New York Philharmonic. I just feel there were so many things we set out to do that at first I thought, well, what do I know about the range of a pipa, or an erhu? And who do I think I am to write a string part for some of the best cellists in the world? And we just did it. Or what business do I have adapting Gerard Manley Hopkins to music? I just felt like this poetry is speaking to me, and because of the way it’s affecting me, it’s given me license to do what I’m doing.
“I felt at points like I needed to ask permission from someone, and I didn’t know who that person was, because so many of the poets have been gone for so long. But the interesting thing was meeting some of the poets and their heirs and their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, and how delighted they are by the project.”
After this project, what’s next for you?
“Well, I did sign a two-year deal with Nonesuch, and I have many songs written that just haven’t been recorded because I’ve been focused on the poetry project, so I’m excited about that. I’ve found a convent in the South of Spain that is a cloistered convent—and only Nonesuch would be probably interested in this project—but I’ve obtained permission to live there for a period of time, and I thought that would be really fascinating. Some of those women have been cloistered for 60 years. I thought that being inside, even just for a month, and observing that lifestyle would be really interesting to see what kind of music I would write in that environment. So that’s a project I’m interested in. I could go a lot of different directions. So who knows?”
Here’s a video performance of a song from Leave Your Sleep, based on the poem “The Man in the Wilderness” by an anonymous poet:
Image by Mark Seliger, courtesy of Nonesuch Records.
Thursday, March 11, 2010 1:23 PM
If you want to be the most important poet in America, don’t bother writing great poetry. It’s too time consuming. And even if you manage to write a great poem, all your other poetry will look worse in comparison. Instead, Jim Behrle told a crowd at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, poets should devote themselves to relentless, 24/7 careerism. In remarks reprinted on the Poetry Foundation website, Behrle advises: “Your friends are really just contacts, and you have to think of them that way. If dropping their name isn’t worth anything, you may have to ditch them.” Poets should Tweet, Facebook, and ask for fame from friends and anyone who listens. According to Behrle:
How can you become the most important poet in America by tomorrow? It’s not as hard as you think. Poets used to have to pass out poetry-reading flyers by hand, one at a time, or publish poems one at a time in magazines, slowly building a career. But technology has changed all that. Now you can spam every poet in America with every new poem. Start a fan page for yourself and your books on Facebook. Blog about your every thought—they don’t even have to be astute thoughts. Most poets in America have boring office jobs in which they are screwing around on the Internet most of the time. Just mention the names of as many contemporary poets as you can in all your blog posts. You will catch all the self-googlers self-googling. Self-promotion is the only kind of promotion left. Without poetry reviewers to rely on, only you can spread the word about your product. And if you spread it suddenly, relentlessly, brutally, then you’ll have name recognition from here to Hawaii . . . and that’s all you need, because there are two kinds of poets: those you’ve heard of and those you haven’t. Almost all of us fall into the latter category, but not you! If only you take my advice.
(Thanks, The Awl.)
Image by Nic's events, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, February 09, 2010 11:04 AM
The Google Voice service does more than route calls, voicemails, and provide transcriptions of voicemail messages. It also creates poetry. When reading over the typos and imperfections in his voicemails from Google Voice, Richard Eskow writes for 3 Quarks Daily, “I see an authorial sensibility taking form, like a face emerging from a cloud bank. These transcriptions can be read as poetry.”
Eskow provides a few examples, including this one:
Love Begins a Picture
Hi Cat, I could possibly do in the morning actually in the morning
on the way
so I could meet me in the morning
Anyway, just check back with me man and I will go from there.
Love begins a picture and I'll talk to you real soon.
3 Quarks Daily
Monday, December 21, 2009 11:25 AM
Having an unusual name can be a great source of pride, until Nicole Richie gives her baby the same name. For Sparrow, a poet writing for the Morning News, the experience is a chance to reflect on the cyclical popularity of the moniker, and its “embarrassing cuteness.” Sparrow defends his name writing,
‘Sparrow’ is a bit wimpy, even I admit. Nicole Richie and Joel Madden recognized this flaw by contriving the elaborate name Sparrow James Midnight Madden. (What are the odds the kid will eventually call himself James?) But Sparrow is not pretentious. And it’s loaded with literary connotations.
For more on Sparrow, read some of his proverbs, and a profile of the poet by former Utne Reader librarian Chris Dodge.
Source: The Morning News
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 4:54 PM
If we want Americans to care about poetry, perhaps we should start by putting some stock in our poet laureate—who, one would think, should be a very visible, active advocate for this chronically underappreciated genre. Reason columnist Tim Cavanaugh rolls out the litany of disappointments faced by a U.S. poet laureate, including an abbreviated term (just one year to Britain’s 10), a dearth of interesting duties, and a stipend only a journalist could love—$35,000 for the year, plus $5,000 in travel expenses—which is covered not by taxpayers, but by a trust fund established in 1936. (Adding insult to injury, Cavanaugh writes, “the laureate’s salary hasn’t even kept pace with inflation. The first consultant, Joseph Auslander, made $3,000. That should come to $45,000 in 2009 bucks.”)
Cavanaugh doesn’t say what the going rate is in the UK, but he does note other disparities. “The British laureate gets a ‘butt of sack’ (about 600 bottles of sherry) and is called upon to compose verse for national occasions. (Former laureate Andrew Motion whipped up poems for Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday and the late Queen Mum’s 100th.) The U.S. poet laureate’s job, as described by the Library of Congress, is to serve as a ‘lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,’ which sounds dangerously close to having to read unsolicited manuscripts. The laureate’s only duty is to give one lecture, during which the Huntington Fund pays for what a Library of Congress spokeswoman calls a ‘small, cheese-and-crackers reception.’ ”
He does touch upon the energetic terms of former U.S. poets laureate like Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins, and advises future laureates to get involved in popular arenas like poetry slams, “where the poetic impulse of Americans is most clearly on display.”
Tuesday, September 01, 2009 3:58 PM
We struggle with how to write about poetry at Utne Reader, and it’s not because we don’t read it and love it. The closest we’ve come lately in our pages is an interview with undertaker and writer Thomas Lynch: “The reason poets aren’t read,” he said, “is that we don’t hang any of them anymore”:
We don’t take them seriously; we don’t think that poetry can move people to do passionate things. But poets did. Poets could change cultures. Before there was so much contest for people’s attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered, because the tradition was oral before it was literary.
That was the last best thing I had read about poetry—until I stumbled upon an essay by Karin de Weille in the Writer’s Chronicle. Lynch’s spiel was profound, but it was almost like he was eulogizing poetry. Not so in de Weille’s piece, How We Are Changed by the Rhythms of Poetry. “A poem designed to evoke anger,” she writes, “does much more than give us information about the triggering event; it shapes our energy into the very rhythms of anger. A series of words is chosen because it literally causes us to sputter and spit, stirring up memories and experiences from our personal past, reviving the emotion itself.”
Poetry, de Weille adds, “asks us to pump this life into our throats and out through our mouths. Then it can circulate among us, with total disregard for the distinctions that otherwise rule our lives.”
Visit our new homepage for great writing, curated by Utne Reader editors and always changing.
Source: Writer’s Chronicle (Article not yet available online)
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 2:48 PM
Researchers unlocking the secrets of our DNA may be sparking a new Romantic Age, Freeman Dyson writes for the New York Review of Books. The years between 1770 and 1830, often referred to as the Romantic Age, were characterized by an explosion of both scientific and artistic achievements. Dyson wonders if that billionaire technocrats—like Craig Venter, who led the charge to map the first human genome, and Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway—might play a role similar to “the lightened aristocrats of the eighteenth century.”
What today's revolution lacks, according to Dyson, is poetry. “Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates.” He suggests that biology could become today’s dominant art form, and that creating new kinds of plants and animals could combine art with science.
Enter Christian Bök. In an interview with the Believer, Bök talks about his plans to implant a poem into “an organism that is widely regarded to be the most unkillable bacterium on the planet.” He’s working with scientists to translate a poem into a genetic sequence, that would then be implanted into a portion of the bactirum’s DNA. If it works, Bök’s project, which he calls The Xenotext Experiment, could become “a book that would still be on the planet Earth when the sun explodes.”
Bök told the Believer, “I guess that this is a kind of ambitious attempt to think about art, quite literally, as an eternal endeavor.”
To hear Christian Bök talk about The Xenotext Experiment, watch the video below:
The New York Review of Books
Monday, March 23, 2009 2:31 PM
The lurid and hyperbolic headlines of tabloid newspapers expose a seedy underbelly of human crime and voyeurism. For Shannon Stewart, that’s an inspiriation for poetry. “Sensationalistic news, as an often coarse and unrefined commodity, caters to our darkest fears and need,” Stewart told Maisonneuve. Penny Dreadful, Stewart’s new book of poetry, draws off these fears to create often funny poems that play with themes and headlines from tabloids like the Weekly World News. Rather than disengage from the horrific news, Stewart used her poetry to engage with it through humor. "For me," said Stewart, "the tabloid poems worked as a kind of painkiller." You can watch a video of Stewart reading two of her tabloid poems below:
Monday, March 02, 2009 11:55 AM
In a tongue-in-cheek essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey H. Gray takes aim at present-day poetry commentary, which, in his opinion, tends to inflate an author’s importance. Critics once rationed accolades carefully; as he observes, even well-regarded poets like William Cullen Bryant have been labeled irrelevant and forgettable.
Today’s poets could use some tough love, according to Gray. “[I]n spite of the vast numbers writing," he observes, "we have no minor poets. Everyone today, like those above-average children of Lake Wobegon, is brilliant and sui generis.”
What’s changed in poetry criticism? In part, Gray sees shifting priorities, a move away from the language of a poem. Instead, reviewers focus on the poets themselves, particularly the ways that their voice should be considered unique. And unique becomes equated with important. If “everyone yesterday seemed dispensable,” he writes, “today no one is.”
He also blames the hyperbole on an increased output of work and argues that poets are better supported than they have been historically, and that even subpar poets can find publishing opportunities, grants, and residencies to lengthen their resumés and bolster their reputations.
In short, Gray longs for a critical climate in which all “poetry that is not magnificent” and where “satisfactory” is “good enough.”
Image courtesy of Third Eye, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sources: Chronicle of Higher Education
Friday, February 06, 2009 10:35 AM
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Frank Rich contended that Obama’s notably austere inaugural address signaled a necessary shift away from poetic posturing to a direct call for action. Given the current state of the nation, according to Rich, this is no time for poetry.
Chicago-based poet, blogger, and small press founder B.J. Love is making a case for poetry in a troubled world. His Further Adventures Chapbooks and Pamphlets, a small press dedicated to breaking new poets and publishing new work by established poets, takes the innovative approach of marrying work by an established writer and an emerging writer within a single entity. For each chapbook Love selects two writers whose work he “deems compatible/coordinating/collaborative in some way,” thereby allowing their writing to riff off each other. Each poet contributes a mini-chapbook which is bound together with the other’s, allowing for a poetic conversation in concrete form.
So, is this a good time for poetry? “People may think art is a waste of time because it’s not ‘goods’ that can be bought, sold and taxed, but down the road art is all we got,” Love says. “The only historical documents I've read from the 1860s are the Gettysburg address, a poetic speech, and Leaves of Grass and THAT is how I understand those times, and I think years from now, poetry will still be how we understand times, these time included.”
Image by chillihead, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, January 30, 2009 9:54 AM
For the Winter 2009 issue of The Hudson Review, the quarterly's editors have assembled a primer on non-English works from around the world. This "Translation Issue" is a heady collection, featuring excerpts from seemingly every genre and time period: classics like Antigone and Le Cid up through A Doll's House; 19th century Japanese and Russian poetry; elegant contemporary reviews on books about language; and much, much more. Such a phenomenal swath of literary history in a single volume can't help but whet the appetite for more translated works (works that Utne, incidentally, has been championing for some time).
Thursday, January 22, 2009 8:15 AM
Barrelhouse is currently holding its “Barrelhouse Invitational: Office Life Edition.” The DC-based journal invites “cubicle drones to submit your fiction, essays, and poems about the highest highs and lowest lows of the disproportionate amount of time you spend in an Office Of Some Sort.”
According to the hilarious and snarky Interoffice Memorandum (pdf), your account of office life doesn’t have to resemble Dunder Mifflin, but still should have some relation to the official theme. “Barrelhouse understands fully the nature of the flexible situation vis a vis the modern office environment, in that this circumstance is increasingly flexible. . . . Therefore, submitted works of literary merit need not seek to portray said topic in a strictly cubicle-defined locality, but rather should ideally represent the mindscape of The Office in the broadest and most effective terms deemed appropriate for each specific work of literary merit.”
Submissions are due by March 1, and winners will be published in Barrelhouse #8, released in June 2009.
Monday, January 19, 2009 3:18 PM
At just a year old, poet Elizabeth Alexander was in the crowd on the National Mall when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the country and proclaimed, “I have a dream.” This week, at age 46, Alexander will be in Washington D.C. for another historic moment—but this time with a front row seat.
Alexander, who is a professor of African-American studies at Yale, is the writer selected by President-elect Barack Obama to deliver an original poem at his swearing-in, a privilege bestowed on only three other poets in American history: Robert Frost, who read at JFK’s inauguration, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who lent their voices to Bill Clinton's ceremonies.
In an interview with Newsweek, Alexander summed up the feelings of many art lovers, hailing Obama’s choice to include poetry in the inauguration as “an affirmation of the potential importance of art in day-to-day and civic discourse.”
For Alexander, joining the distinguished ranks of inaugural poets is certainly a high honor, but actually writing an occasional poem—verse composed for a specific event—with staying power can be a tricky task for a poet. “Once the function has passed,” writes Jim Fisher for Salon, “the poem loses the immediacy of its audience, and with it the power to summon meaning and emotion over time.”
But Alexander told NPR’s Melissa Block that she’s “challenged, not scared” by the assignment. And she seems to have crafted her poem with the predicament Fisher describes in mind. “[W]hat I’ve been able to do is ask myself how I serve the moment," she told the New York Times, “but hopefully in language that has value and resonance when the moment has passed.”
You can read some of Alexander's poems at her website, or listen to two recitations at NPR.org.
Monday, December 22, 2008 1:25 PM
Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose scandals are rivaled in size only by his hair, made an impassioned plea during his press conference on Friday for support and non-judgment from the media. His speech included a passage from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If.”
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating…”
On her blog, journalist Claudia Rosett has reworked the poem to more accurately reflect Blago’s situation. Here's a key stanza:
“If you can keep your job while all about you
Are fielding bribes and blaming it on you,
If you can duck the Feds while all men doubt you,
And bleep-ing show the charges are untrue,
If you can fight and not be tired by fighting,
Or, being wiretapped, profess surprise,
Or argue that there will be no indicting
Because it’s all a bleep-ing pack of lies...”
(Thanks, Weekly Standard)
Monday, October 13, 2008 2:39 PM
Being a music fan and a writer, I am very particular about the music I listen to while writing, and am careful to note which artists and albums are most conducive to a good writing session. (This way, if I get blocked or my prose is lackluster, I can always blame it on the background music.)
It appears I’m not alone; many writers give ample consideration to the relationship between music and their own work, and their musings on the subject are gathered by Largehearted Boy, which stands out from the overpopulated music blogosphere with its thoughtful prose, guest columnists, and mp3 downloads. My favorite department at Largehearted Boy is Book Notes, wherein authors “create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.”
Book Notes includes some big names, like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Klosterman, who have always made a point of incorporating pop music into their writing. But the roster is dominated by relatively obscure authors and poets (David Breskin, Christina Henriquez, Ander Monson) whose musical tastes are all over the map, from mainstream (The Eagles, Radiohead) to avant-garde (Arvo Part).
There’s also Note Books, which inverts the formula by having indie-rockers write about some of their favorite books. This list includes famously erudite artists like the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, the Jayhawks’ Mark Olson, and John Vanderslice.
(Thanks, Minnesota Reads.)
Image by el monstrito, licensed by Creative Commons.
Friday, September 26, 2008 4:31 PM
A realization just hit me like the explosion of a roman candle firing across the sky: Sarah Palin isn’t inarticulate; she’s a beat-style poet, extemporaneously constructing stream-of-consciousness, free-verse works of art during interviews. Consider this poem Palin rattled off in her recent interview with Katie Couric:
This is crisis moment for America,
really the rest of the world also,
looking to see what the impacts will be,
if America were to choose not to shore up what has happened on Wall Street,
because of the ultimate adverse effects on Main Street
(and then how that affects this globalization that we’re a part of in our world)
so the rest of the world really is looking at John McCain:
the leadership that he’s going to provide through this,
and if those provisions in the proposal can be implemented
and make this proposal better—
make more sense
John McCain is going to prove his leadership.
Now compare that to the beginning of Howl by Allen Ginsberg:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
Or this quote from the same Sarah Palin interview:
But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the, it’s got to be all about job creation, too: shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track, so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief, for Americans, and trade—we’ve got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we’ve got to look at that more as more opportunity—all those things under the umbrella of job creation, this bailout is a part of that.
And compare that to a quote from On the Road by Jack Kerouac:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!
You can watch a clip of Palin’s poetic genius below:
Wednesday, August 13, 2008 12:44 PM
Sometimes great writing is absorbed best through the ears, not the eyes, as bedtime stories and poetry slams prove. A recent episode of Poetry Off the Shelf—a Poetry Foundation podcast distributed by NPR—featured an organization called From the Fishouse that really drives that point home.
From the Fishouse is an audio archive of emerging poets reading their own works; it takes its name from the tiny writing shack that belonged to Lawrence Sargent Hall. The Poetry Off the Shelf episode featured a Fishouse recording of West Virginian poet and cabinetmaker Steve Scafidi reading “To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire.” Poetry like Scafidi’s is the perfect raw material for audio, packed with passion and powerful images: “You were miles away and I, like the woodsman of fairy tales, / threatened all with my bright ax shining with the evil / joy of vengeance and mad hunger to bring harm—heavy / harm—to the coward who did this….”
Listening to Scafidi speak about a stranger invading his property is especially evocative with the sound of chickens clucking in the background; the poet had retreated to the quietest spot on his property, his coop, to record. One other nice thing about From the Fishouse recordings is they’re the perfect length for antsy lit lovers like me who lack the patience to sit through entire audio books.
Image by Yvonne Tsang, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008 3:46 PM
David Berman, the singer, songwriter, and creative force behind the band Silver Jews, is not only a musician but also a respected poet. In 1999, he published a book of poems, Actual Air, that was cooed over by the New Yorker and GQ and praised by Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet James Tate and former poet laureate Billy Collins. Berman is also an accomplished cartoonist whose drawings recently appeared at a gallery event organized by Dave Eggers in New York.
It’s Berman’s musical application of his literary talents, however, that are the wellspring of his success. His Silver Jews have been a going concern since the early nineties, and they’ve released a string of albums known primarily among critics for their lyrics, which tend to be funny, clever and genuinely, oddly beautiful. A quick sampler:
I had a friend, his name was Marc, with a “c."
His sister was like the heat coming off the back of an old TV.
—“Sleeping Is the Only Love,” from Tanglewood Numbers
I love to see a rainbow from a garden hose,
Lit up like the blood of a centerfold.
I love the city and the city rain
Suburban kids with Biblical names.
—“People,” from American Water
The latest Silver Jews album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, which is due out from Drag City in June, is no exception to the rule of quality Berman has established. His lyrics are poetry in a cracked, catchy, alt-country frame.
And yet the songs seem a little more straightforward this time around, less cryptic and more baldly emotional than on previous albums. Berman has spent the last few years sober, after what sounds like the proverbial drug-fueled haze. So is his work sobering up too? Utne Reader tried to answer this and other questions in a recent chat with the Silver Jews frontman.
“I’m in, let’s say, this business, and I have competitors. Instead of profit, what I’m seeking is influence,” Berman says, his voice markedly less rumbling than his Johnny-Cash-like singing voice would indicate.
For a statement of purpose, this seeking is sober enough, to be sure. As an artist, Berman seems determined to ensure the originality of the content he generates, or, if you prefer, the awesomeness of his lyrics. And when he sings (on Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’s jaunty “Party Barge”), “Satan’s jeweled lobster has your wife in its claws,” it’s not just uniquely absurd and goofily surreal. It’s serious. The eponymous, barging-in character who sings the song is a party animal turned to 11. His demons, therefore, might be reasonably expected to take bizarre, extravagant shapes. Or maybe he’s the jeweled lobster. After all, Berman makes no disguise of the fact that he himself played the role of “party barge” for a number of years.
Then again, the Silver Jews aren’t simply a stage for autobiographical metaphors. In a world and contemporary music scene where musicians routinely dismiss their own lyrics by saying, “I don’t know what they mean,” David Berman’s current vision of his music rests solely on the idea that he’s offering intellectual objects in the form of country rock songs.
“I think people have taken advantage of the evolution in language toward postmodern pastiche and non-sequitur,” Berman offers. “People who want to be a songwriter or lead singer, but don’t have anything to say, are provided with this sort of loophole in the culture.”
Now, of course, this sounds pretentious. And it probably is—in the past, Berman himself has indulged in oblique, significant-sounding nonsense. But in an indie culture that worships the idea of music as Art, Berman’s take—and the poetry involved in his songs—seems normal, even expected. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea was made with more than a touch of the tortured artist’s attention to detail, a fact that becomes apparent when you talk to the guy who agonized over it.
For instance, Berman proposes that the album is the most “Googly-sure” of any album—ever. What this means is that he took the time to Google such phrases as “abridged abyss,” in order to find out if they were solely his creations. No hits returned? It’s his; flag planted. A Google search now turns up 44 hits for the phrase “abridged abyss,” and the first page of results shows either Silver Jews’ lyrics or references to a Yale French Studies article on André Malraux. The Malraux reference, which Berman says he found, was sufficiently lonely and obscure that the lyric remains fixed in Lookout Mountain’s leadoff track, “What Is Not But Could Be If.”
All the album’s tracks underwent this kind of surgical construction. Using colored note-cards to write them, Berman set out to wade through “50, 60, 70 chord progressions” and numerous books he was reading at the time. “There’s an Emerson quote at the end of ‘Strange Victory, Strange Defeat,’” he points out, and “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” samples Emily Dickinson.
Perhaps this makes it sound as though the songs on Lookout Mountain exercise a literary posture. But they certainly don’t scan that way. Cheeky fun is one of the first phrases that comes to mind when I think of them. A Google search, by the way, yields 21,400 hits for cheeky fun, so it’s not any stretch of the critical vocabulary. Lookout Mountain is just a good album, with a couple great songs. It won’t raise the dead, at least not for long, but how often does that happen?
“If someone buys a Silver Jews record, they get to buy some freedom from the ickiness,” Berman hopes. The craft and thought he’s put into the album probably merits the description. Berman is, after all, a lauded poet, though he says that he has “less of a claim to originality [in poetry] than I do in, for instance, lyric-writing.” In lyric-writing, actually, Berman feels “like I could be in the Olympic finals; I could be in ninth place.”
Still, he says, his music “flies under their [listeners’] standards; the music and the singing is not technically adept.” For this reason, he feels that the context for his career is very important. As a poet, artist, and musician, his multiple-hat-wearing “sticks him out,” gives him an outsider-ish edge. Which is in some ways bullshit. This is a guy who, as a writer, critics compare favorably to Bob Dylan.
But it works for him. Feeling he’s on the aesthetic outskirts motivates him to feel justified in continuing to make albums. In some ways, the contradictory conceit of indie rock culture—idiosyncracy and the pretense of art all wrapped up as a not-quite-commodity—is realized perfectly in Berman’s approach. He says he’s not lauded, but he’s garnered considerable acclaim. Moreover, his music sounds and plays itself off as both friendly and accessible; the absurdity and weird braininess are just along for the ride.
Really this is the dream of rock and roll, since it first scandalously waggled off of Elvis’ hips or whatever: The fringe product as a rock in the mainstream. Then again, just because it’s fallen through the cracks of the industry machine doesn’t mean it didn’t roll off the conveyor belt. Pop music is pop music, right? Silver Jews melodies have straight-up hooks aplenty; the poetry involved looks more like a bonus.
But do these distinctions matter? David Berman is a serious craftsman, and seems intent on taking up the mantle of the struggling artist. And the mantle might fit: Berman certainly isn’t rich, and he was, at one time, a genuine “party barge” (he probably still has the tugboat marks to prove it). Similarly, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea has its moments of earnest, downtrodden poetry, but Berman certifies his tone with life-giving variety. He’s funny when laughter is a little relief from the model-parade of hard times.
The Silver Jews’ last record, Tanglewood Numbers, also explored the new world of sobriety. So Lookout Mountain may be more a refinement than a definition of Berman as a recovered sage. Nevertheless, he uses his addled wisdom as a launching pad for little poetic rocket ships (on fighting: “He came at me with some fist cuisine”; on divorce: “Living in a little town with my pedigree in shards,”). And, as Berman takes pains to point out, the language is plainer on this album. He has stories to tell and ideas to convey.
In the end, it may be a little stupid to emphasize Berman’s multidisciplinary career. The guy is a writer. And maybe he can’t sing, but I love it when he does.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008 8:26 PM
Think of poetry as dry or inaccessible? First, read Utne editor Julie Hanus’ post on why readers shouldn’t dismiss the field of poetry as a whole. Next, check out poetry set to animation on YouTube; it may change your mind yet. Ad agency JWT-NY has produced videos that feature former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins reading his poems set to delightful animation. Collins’ poems are known for being popular and accessible to begin with, but the added animation is intended to draw people in with even greater ease. I especially enjoyed the eeriness of “Some Days,” embedded below.
(Thanks, The Tyee.)
Friday, April 04, 2008 5:37 PM
Mary Oliver is slight, silver-haired, and sweet-mother-of-mercy, as wily as the day is long. She’s superbly sharp and has impeccable timing, a bemused smile often nipping at the corners of her mouth. So as I sat, rapt, this past Sunday at the State Theatre, listening to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet read, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why wasn’t there a line around the block? Why don’t more people get fired up about poetry?
Don’t get me wrong: A robust, enthusiastic crowd turned out for the event, which kicked off the Literary Legends Series, a joint venture of the Hennepin Theatre Trust and the Loft, Minneapolis’ literary center extraordinare. In box-office terms, I’ve no doubt it was a success. But Oliver’s reading was so damn good—so powerful, so lively, so entertaining and uplifting—that I yearned to fill a coliseum with people at her attention.
Oliver read from her new collection, Red Bird, from 2006’s Thirst, and from her memoir of last year, Our World, which pairs her prose with photographs by her partner Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. As Oliver read, the friends who had demurred to come rattled through my head, followed by people I hadn’t even originally thought to invite, but who I now was certain would have relished the reading too. Almost everyone who’d turned me down had offered the same (ahem, old) excuse: It doesn’t sound like my thing. I don’t really like poetry.
A bemused smile nipped at the corners of my mouth when Oliver herself sagely addressed the issue. “A long time ago, I realized that people who read poetry were pre-converted,” she said. “And that people who didn’t, rarely convert.”
“But,” Oliver continued wryly, “that anyone who has a curiosity to start a sentence would finish it.” So, sometimes, she challenges herself to craft windy, multi-line poems that, with a little help from creative punctuation, carry a reader along from start to finish in a single swoop. By way of illustration, she read “The Sun,” which begins with a simple question (“Have you ever seen / anything / in your life / more wonderful”) and then diverts into a circuitous celebration of the heavenly body. “Have you ever felt for anything / such wild love—,” Oliver wants to know.
Just when I thought my heart was going to burst, she concluded:
“or have you too / turned from this world / or have you too / gone crazy / for power, / for things?”
Oh, and my heart did burst, but in a good way—in a very Oliver way. “I tell you this / to break your heart, / by which I mean only / that it break open and never close again / to the rest of the world,” she writes in “Lead.” It was that moment that made me wish I could share that evening at the State Theatre with everyone I know. Oliver’s humanistic approach to the world is exquisitely bittersweet, full of rich humor and mindful observation, equal parts joyful and sad.
We pay ourselves a disservice every time we dismiss poetry as a lump sum. Oh, I don’t like poetry. Really? None of it? It’s as strange a statement as saying you don’t like music (nope, not one note). But we don’t say strange things like that about music, because for the most part we’re equipped with sufficient acoustic literacy to recognize genres, make aesthetic judgments, and sort out what is pleasing from what is displeasing to our ears.
With poetry, such facility is hardly the standard, and that’s OK; I’ve no illusions about poems suddenly gaining top-40 appeal. But I do secretly suspect that somewhere out there, there’s a poem or a poet that would tickle everyone’s fancy, as instantly and effortlessly as you know that you love a certain song the first time you hear it play. Encountering a few poems, however, and then dismissing the entire field, seems a bit like scanning the radio for a few minutes and then deciding all this noise, this so-called music, is not for you.
The loss, of course, isn’t that people might miss out on poetry; certainly not everybody must have affection for every single art. It’s that the broad-stroke dismissal throws a hurdle up between people and great thinkers like Mary Oliver, whose work would otherwise most likely startle, electrify, and delight.
Love poetry? Hate it? Tell us what you think in the Great Writing Salon.
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