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Poetry: NewsHour with Jim Lehrer - PBS Podcast by Jim Lehrer

Poetry: NewsHour with Jim Lehrer - PBS Podcast

by Jim Lehrer

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10 Min.


A special NewsHour series that couples profiles of contempory poets with reports on news and trends in the world of poetry.

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Weekly Poem: Alison Powell reads ‘The Fields’

Mon, Dec 15, 2014

Listen to Alison Powell read her poem “The Fields” from her new collection, “On the Desire to Levitate.”

The Fields

A boy is raised up in the fields.
He knows his hard feet in the husks.
He knows his mother, her bottles and naps.

Knows his brother’s war dreams, is afraid
to sleep next to him. His father has a way
with the jitterbug and a whipping switch.

There are kindnesses: the giblet-
thick dressing of his grandmother,
the pictures of Venice in his schoolbook—

the gilded water. How the fathers
look in their Sunday best and the prayers,
like milk, around him.

One spring day the great god of his dreams
descends and, exploding, fills
the new tar streets with rainwater.

He inches out from under the table
where he has been reading for weeks;
he pushes out into the storm.

All around him are the old lives of leaves.
Oak tree sticks made lean-tos
without being asked, school is nowhere in sight.

Though there’s water-weight to his knees,
he pokes on toe into the gutter. Here
he knows there is desperation, devotion, hard

loss. He opens his arms to the yelping sky
and cries back Oh! Great harbor, I am
your tin ship!
before his mother, weak

in her yellow slip, yanks him inside.

Alison Powell

On the Desire to Levitate,” published in March 2014, is Alison Powell‘s debut collection of poetry. Powell’s poetry has also appeared in Boston Review, Guernica, AGNI and Crazyhorse and in Best New Poets 2006 and The Hecht Prize Anthology, 2005-2009. Powell completed her doctorate in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2014 and received her MFA in Poetry from Indiana University in 2005. She is an assistant professor of poetry at Oakland University in Michigan.

“The Fields” was excerpted from the book “On the Desire to Levitate” by Alison Powell. Copyright © 2014 by Alison Powell. Reprinted courtesy Ohio University Press.

The post Weekly Poem: Alison Powell reads ‘The Fields’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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Weekly Poem: J. Allyn Rosser finds deeper meaning through humor

Mon, Dec 08, 2014

J. Allyn Rosser has published four books of poetry, including "Foiled Again," "Bright Moves," and her most recent, "Mimi's Trapeze."

J. Allyn Rosser has published four books of poetry, including “Foiled Again,” “Bright Moves” and her most recent, “Mimi’s Trapeze.”

“Mimi’s Trapeze,” a new book by J. Allyn Rosser, starts with a quote by Balzac in the original French. The poet translates it roughly as, “Being human — what an appalling condition! in which every happy moment depends on an ignorance of some sort.” Or in other words, ignorance is bliss.

“This is an awful thing to say and such a true thing to say,” Rosser told Art Beat.

“You think about elation over getting a promotion, or winning an award, or someone you love tells you they love you back. Well, what if the promotion was some political fluke, the award had nothing to do with our deserving it because of skill or effort and that this person you love is secretly seeing or longing for someone else. These things happen every day and yet our happiness depends on them.”

That perspective may be bleak, but Rosser hears humor in it, and that humor is essential to the way she tackles serious subjects.

“Humor is my version of when Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’” Humor has a way of sidestepping reader resistance, she says.

It’s a tactic Rosser wants to employ, especially when she’s writing on a topic she’s obsessed with, like global warming.

In “Children’s Children Speech,” the poet had to find a way to speak about the subject without her readers “putting their guards up,” to approach the topic obliquely and “avoid that groan from the reader.”

Listen to J. Allyn Rosser read “Children’s Children Speech” from her new collection, “Mimi’s Trapeze.”

Children’s Children Speech
What would we want our luckless heirs to say,
Now that we too globally see it will end —
The bees, the buds, the mercurial sea, the air
All spoiled — that we made waste of miracles?

Now that we’re so globally sure it will end,
We should prepare a speech defending all
The spoils we’ve made so much of. Miracles
Are merely things we think we don’t deserve.

We may as well prepare it now, the speech
That would explain the things we had to have
Were merely things we thought we would deserve
In a heaven we had stopped believing in.

That would explain some things. We had to have
Whatever made us feel above the land,
So that the heaven we’d stopped believing in
Could be had here, by plane or satellite.

We craved what made us feel above the land
Whose laws were fixed to leave us in the dirt.
What could be seen by plane or satellite
Was fast depleting: ice floe, forest, meadow,

Whose dirty laws were fixed, made by that god
Who’d also made our minds that made whatever
Fast depleted ice floe, forest, meadow.
Any speech we have a mind to write

Our mind’s made up to stand behind, whatever
We may do to bees, or seas, or air
Empowering speech. We have a mind to write
Our luckless heirs, but what’s the use? They’ll call us

They. “They did this. We’re weren’t even there.”

Rosser moves between traditional form and free verse and in this poem, she was guided by the form of the pantoum, which uses the second and fourth line of a stanza for the first and third lines of the following stanza. “Children’s Children Speech,” however, doesn’t repeat full lines.

“I cheat just enough so it doesn’t sound unnatural. Most forms do sound unnatural and I am one of those poets who wants the natural feeling of a poem,” said Rosser. “I think it’s important to violate forms. When you give a poem a form, it’s a resistance against what you want to say and that’s helpful sometimes, but then you have to resist the form to make the form come back alive. Let the poem rebel, but then keep the form more or less intact.”

While Rosser moves in and out of traditional form, she holds strong to absurdity — a kinship that she feels with one of her primary inspirations, Samuel Beckett.

“He gives you the most awful conditions, really tragic conditions, but he makes them funny, ultimately, because he gets through to the other side of it. Alternatively, he’ll start funny and you’ll wind up realizing that this guy is saying something that is the most important thing for me to learn. This is wisdom, but it’s funny, funny as hell.”

Whether it’s a work by Samuel Beckett or the Balzac epitaph at the beginning of “Mimi’s Trapeze,” the poet is attracted to moving through all the cruelty and disappointment to find a “profound truth.”

“Any book of poetry that has no humor in it, I’m a little distrustful of it because that’s not the whole of it,” said Rosser. “The facts are what they are, but how the mind transforms them is our spiritual life and our sublimity and that’s what poetry tries to capture — our access to the sublime.”

“Children’s Children Speech” from “Mimi’s Trapeze,” by J. Allyn Rosser, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Dec. 8 to clarify Rosser’s translation of her epigraph.

The post Weekly Poem: J. Allyn Rosser finds deeper meaning through humor appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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Weekly Poem: Hoa Nguyen links globalization and goddesses

Tue, Nov 18, 2014

Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen is the author of three books of poetry, including "As Long As Trees Last," "Hecate Lochia" and "Your Ancient See Through." Nguyen founded a small journal of poetry, Skanky Possum, with poet Dale Smith and has published contemporary poets such as Amiri Baraka, Alice Notley and Linh Dinh.

Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen is the author of three books of poetry, including “As Long As Trees Last,” “Hecate Lochia” and “Your Ancient See Through.”

The ancient Greek goddess Hecate was extremely powerful. So much so that Zeus, father of the gods, gave the goddess a special position, says poet Hoa Nguyen, referencing Hesiod’s epic poem “The Theogeny.”

“He honored her and ‘allowed’ her to have dominion over earth, sea, sky,” Nguyen said in an interview with three Advanced Placement poetry students at Malden High School in Malden, Massachusetts. back in January 2011.

But, Nguyen, whose newest book “Red Juice” came out in September, says that Hecate later morphed from this prestigious, “mysterious and very old goddess” into something darker.

“Even by Shakespeare’s time, she’s made into the crone, she’s evil,” she told Art Beat.

It’s a fate that the poet doesn’t agree with, so in her book, Nguyen aims to “steal (her) back from patriarchy, from being vilified.” And Hecate isn’t the only one; others, like Mena, the Roman goddess of menstruation, make appearances.

“The book is very interested in re-positioning the feminine in its appropriate and proper place of power.”

“Red Juice” is really a re-issuing of her first two books, “Your Ancient See Through” and “Hecate Lochia,” combined with previously uncollected poems. All of the poems were composed before 2008, during a 10-year period in which Nguyen gave birth to her two sons. That experience plays heavily into themes in the book.

“When you bring children into the world or you are around children, you realize ‘oh,’ now there’s a certain responsibility that one starts to feel,” she said.

Many of the poems in “Red Juice” deal with a concern for globalization and sustainability.

“You can see that progression in the book, that there is more and more urgency around the concern about financial collapse, concern about environmental collapse, concerns about disaster and surviving,” said the poet.

Listen to Hoa Nguyen read “They Sell You What Disappears” from her collection “Red Juice.”

They Sell You What Disappears
They sell you what disappears       it’s a vague “they”
maybe capital T               who are they and mostly
poorly paid in China

Why does this garlic come from China?
It’s vague to me               shipping bulbous netted bulbs
Cargo doused with fungicide and growth inhibitor

What disappears is vague           I can’t trade for much
I can cook           teach you cooking         ferment
bread or poetry                 I can sell my plasma

They are paid poorly in Florida
picking tomatoes for tacos
Some CEO is surely a demon
in this poem

Need capital to buy                        need to buy or else
you are always paying rent         one month away
from “the street”
3 neighbors asked for money this week
                                 We are guilty
bringing in sacks of food                              bought on credit

Trademark this poem                 mark this poem with a scan code
on the front and digitally store it somewhere
not to be memorized “by heart”

For Nguyen, concepts of sustainability, globalism and womanhood are linked. She points to outsourcing, saying that when production is removed from the local community, that community is not as strong and self-reliant.

“But, if you have a resilient community, things reside right there. You are moving with the seasons and you are sharing resources in a way that makes sense. Here’s a river, let’s mill with water power from the grain that we grew over there and let’s collect pecans at this time. That to me is the old matrilineal.”

“They Sell You What Disappears” from Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008. Copyright 2015 by Hoa Nguyen. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.

The post Weekly Poem: Hoa Nguyen links globalization and goddesses appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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Weekly Poem: David Roderick ponders the strangeness of the suburbs

Mon, Oct 27, 2014

A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a recipient of the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, David Roderick has published two books of poetry. "Blue Colonial," his debut collection," won the APR Honickman Prize. Poems from is newest collection, "The Americans," won Shenandoah's James Boatwright III Prize and the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize.

A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a recipient of the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, David Roderick has published two books of poetry. “Blue Colonial,” his debut collection,” won the APR Honickman Prize. Poems from his newest collection, “The Americans,” won Shenandoah’s James Boatwright III Prize and the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize.

David Roderick spent a year traveling abroad, in search of poetic inspiration. In Japan, he wrote prose poems, a form he hadn’t previously explored. In Ireland, he became “enamored” with composing ballads, and in Italy, he used art as inspiration for his verse.

The recipient of the 2007-2008 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship wasn’t allowed to return stateside until the year was completed, stretching his comfort zone.

“I was trying to live more at the ends of my nerves and trying to experience the sensations of different flavors and textures and rhythms of traffic and customs,” Roderick told Art Beat.

His adventures — both geographical and compositional — laid the groundwork for his new collection, “The Americans,” even though much of his work from that time didn’t make it into the book.

It turned out that traveling around the world helped hone his perception of more familiar territory: the suburbs.

“They didn’t seem humdrum or dull any more, they seemed more strange, and even on the one hand, almost magical, because they are so calm and peaceful and beautiful and green,” said Roderick. “And on the other hand, a little strangely dull or almost sleepy, like there wasn’t enough action, there wasn’t enough life for me.”

Roderick grew up in the suburbs, but left for college and then moved to San Francisco. His later transition back to suburban life as an adult “sparked memories of my own personal past, but it’s also stimulated new feelings about my sense of self, my sense of neighborhood and community, my sense of the country, too.”

It also inspired his latest book, which meditates on some of those dichotomies: urban and suburban, being American but trying to view it from the outside.

The title comes from another famous creative journey that benefited from an outsider’s perspective. Swiss photographer Robert Frank traveled across the United States with his family for two years in the late 1950s. He distilled 28,000 photographs into an 83-image exhibition and subsequent book called “The Americans.”

Roderick features other outsiders who have tried to define American culture, like Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political scientist known for his text, “Democracy in America.” He also writes about significant, recent American events, like the 2008 and 2012 political campaigns, as well as national political gridlock. In particular, Roderick contemplates repercussions of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

“Probably like a lot of us, I’m still sort of in a daze about the last 14 years and where that event has taken us…For me, a lot of what happens in this book comes out of 9/11 and certainly a poem like “Build Your Dream Home Here” is trying to speak to that historical moment and the aftermath in a fairly compressed amount of space.”

Listen to David Roderick read “Build Your Dream Home Here” from his newest book, “The Americans.”

Build Your Dream Home Here

                                       First the towers
fell, then the Dow. A few years later,
while she was still recovering
from the blind fumbling accounts
of people crushed to dust—
her nights chocked with emergencies,
smoke, the newsfeed, the taped
and sniffed envelopes, the falling—
that’s when they’d built the place,
a roomy number bricked back
from the corner. A bank offered
low interest, veterans no down.
In every closet they’d make love.
They’d space out bushes, lay toast
and coffee on the porch.
                                                   It worked
for a while, their screened-in story,
where a half-deflated soccer ball
wedged the door. Drunk on lilac,
they cheered whenever a bee seemed
to veer off course.
                                       Now boxes packed
with their belongings cover the lawn.
She checks the buttons on her blouse
and worries about her husband’s
smoking. Will the lilacs survive?
Will their mild, wilting odor still lure
the bees? In some parts of the world,
the wood of the lilac is carved
into knife handles or flutes. Līlek
from the Arabic, meaning “slightly blue.”

The poem connects an idyllic vision of the American dream to a real global tragedy. He says when you are in the suburbs, “it’s hard to feel connected to events that are happening halfway across the country or halfway across the world.” But trying to feel connected while he was abroad gave him the distance to write new clarity.

“Growing up here inside of it, you tend to take it for granted and assume circumstances are similar elsewhere. So the travel is important to shake yourself out of that certainty, especially or an artist or a writer.”

“Build Your Dream Home Here” from “The Americans,” by David Roderick, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

The post Weekly Poem: David Roderick ponders the strangeness of the suburbs appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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Weekly Poem: Laura Kasischke points to the lingering past

Mon, Oct 20, 2014

The InfinitesimalsLingering connections and phantom remembrances are echoes within Laura Kasischke’s new collection, “The Infinitesimals.”

“I take the material from memory and things that have been lost and people who are gone and the past, but I’m trying to give it life again,” said Kasischke.

Kasischke bases many of her poems on real objects or experiences in her life, but says that writing is an outlet for her to untangle more elusive issues.

“The act of initially sitting down to write the poem is where I’m figuring out something about the world that isn’t tangible or rational or right in front of me.”

“I guess for me the origins of the poem [“The Common Cold”] was pretty sensory, just this idea being biological and viral and physical and the experience of having a bit of a fever and being in a crowd,” Said Kasischke. “In that moment, I felt connected to motherhood and athleticism and being with other parents and this sense of time passing.”

Listen to Laura Kasischke read “The Common Cold” from her new collection “The Infinitesimals.”

The Common Cold

To me she arrives this morning
dressed in some
man’s homely, soft, cast-off
lover’s shawl, and some
woman’s memory of a third-
grade teacher
who loved her students a little too much.
(Those warm hugs that went
on and on and on.)

She puts her hand to my head and says,
“Laura, you should go back to bed.”

But I have lunches to pack, socks
on the floor, while
the dust settles on
the I’ve got to clean this pigsty up.
(Rain at a bus stop.
Laundry in a closet.)

And tonight, I’m
the Athletic Booster mother
whether I feel like it or not, weakly

taking your dollar
from inside my concession stand:

I offer you your caramel corn. ( Birdsong
in a terrarium. Some wavering distant
planet reflected in a puddle.)

And, as your dollar
passes between us, perhaps
you will recall
how, years ago, we
flirted over some impossible
Cub Scout project.

and saws, and seven
small boys tossing
humid marshmallows
at one another. And now

those sons, taller
and faster than we are, see
how they are poised on a line, ready
to run at the firing of a gun?

But here we are again, you and I, the
two of us tangled up
and biological: I’ve

forgotten your name, and
you never knew mine, but
in the morning
you’ll find

my damp kisses all over your pillows,
my clammy flowers
blooming in you cellar,
my spring grass
dewed with mucus-

and you’ll remember me
and how, tonight, wearing my
Go Dawgs T-shirt, I

stood at the center
of this sweet clinging heat
of a concession stand
with my flushed cheeks, and

how, before we touched, I
coughed into my hand.

here we are together
in bed all day again.

Her poem “The Invisible Passenger” came from an experience of boarding a plane. Looking for her place in row 12, she noticed there was no row 13 between her and row 14.

“Was it bad luck and no one wanted to sit there? Or was it because those flying us through the air are superstitious themselves? There’s something so irrational about moving through this world and trying every day, whether by using our seat belts or not sitting in unlucky rows, to defy death again.”

Listen to Laura Kasischke read “The Invisible Passenger” from her new collection “The Infinitesimals.”

The Invisible Passenger

Between row 12 and row 14, there
are, on this plane, no seats. This

engineering feat of
gravity and wings, which
flies on superstition, irrationality. The calm

has been printed on my ticket:

Doe and fawn
in a grove below us, her
soul crawling in an out of my clothes.

While, in a roofless theater, a magic act
is performed for children
by an invisible man.

Like the mess

of a cake that I once
baked for my father—

damp, awful, crumbling layers.
Soggy church bell on a plate.

And, my father’s dentures, lost
(all his teeth
pulled out
as a young man
by a military dentist im-
patient to send him
on his way), and

my father’s smile anyway.

The poetry in “The Infinitesimals” invites the reader to look into their own past and think for a bit on what it is to experience loss.

“I can’t see them, and they’re over, and people are gone, but they’re not zero, they’re too small to be measured or too lost and invisible to be found again, but they’re still there, because they were there.”

“The Common Cold” and “The Invisible Passenger” from The Infinitesimals by Laura Kasischke. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission Copper Canyon Press.

The post Weekly Poem: Laura Kasischke points to the lingering past appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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Weekly Poem: Saskia Hamilton wants you to ‘dream over’ her work

Mon, Oct 13, 2014

Photo by Meg Tyler

The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, Saskia Hamilton is author of three books of poetry. Photo by Meg Tyler

Movement and transition resonate in Saskia Hamilton’s collection “Corridor.”

“The spirit of the book is a lot about passing through or passing by different lives and landscapes … or in and out of moments,” Hamilton told Art Beat.

One of Hamilton’s interpretations of movement is made through her translation of an Anglo-Saxon riddle — one that has never been solved.

“It’s very hard to translate a riddle that you don’t really know what the answer is,” said Hamilton. “Translating something like that was a kind of passage — through an Anglo-Saxon world view that’s so different from our own.”

Another connection to the meaning of “corridor” is a symbol of death, “like the passage of one life to another.”

“On the Ground,” a poem that Hamilton calls a pillar of the collection, was written in memoriam to a young member of her family that died.

“It was a terrible time, so it comes out of that experience.”

Listen to Saskia Hamilton read “On the Ground” from her collection “Corridor.”

On the Ground

           i.m. Joshua Shackleton

When the collie saw the child
break from the crowd,

he gave chase, and since they both
were border-crossers,

they left this world.
We were then made of—

affronted by—silence.
The train passed Poste 5, Paris,

late arrival, no luck, no
enlarging commentary

magnified in any glass.
“The ineffable

is everywhere in language,”
the speaker had said

in the huge hall where
I sat amongst coughers,

students, in the late
February of that year,

at the end of a sinuous
inquiry on sense and sound—

“and very close to the ground,” he’s said.
Like mist risen

above the feet of animals
in a far field north of here.

Hamilton says that “On the Ground” is a mediation on falling silent, a theme that pops up in other poems in the book, like in “Zwigen,” an Old Dutch word that means “falling silent.”

She says both poems are “interested in silence … what is the power of withheld speech,” said Hamilton. “Both are very different mediations on falling silent. ‘On the Ground’ is about the death of a child, so that’s a very severe and terrible silence.”

Hamilton says she was influenced also by the storytelling style of another writer.

“I also thought of Bob Dylan’s way of giving you little glimpses of lives in passing in songs, like in ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ or ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ or ‘Simple Twist of Fate,’ ‘Idiot Wind,’ any of those songs,” said Hamilton.

“One of my favorites is an outtake from that session, ‘Biograph,’ called ‘Out to Me,’ where you just get these little broken narratives. I think that there seem to me, after the fact when I was reading [my book] over, a similar kind of interest.”

After a number of years spent writing many of the poems that make up the collection — which came out in May — she sat down with a pile of her work and a friend, who “helped me see patterns in it that I would never have been able to discern in advance, shall we say. I needed to bring them all together to see their– in a way, their dream life, the things they were preoccupied with that I didn’t know they were preoccupied with.”

So how does Hamilton want people to experience the work in “Corridor?” In much the same way as the themes she is drawing out: The reader “should just dream over the poems.”

All poems copyright © 2014 by Saskia Hamilton, from Corridor. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.

The post Weekly Poem: Saskia Hamilton wants you to ‘dream over’ her work appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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Weekly Poem: Sam Taylor struggles to speak Chinese

Mon, Sep 29, 2014

Sam Taylor

The recipient of the 2014-2015 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, Sam Taylor has published two books of poetry, “Body of the World” and “Nude Descending an Empire,” which went on sale in August.

Poet Sam Taylor thinks we’ve taken our environment for granted for centuries and now we’re at a point of “crisis.” That is the driving theme in “Nude Descending an Empire,” his recent collection published in August, that he was inspired to write during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Those years marked, “a time when we were initiating an insane war for deeply flawed and deceptive reasons, and also in a time when the urgency of our ecological situation was becoming quite clear and yet still being flouted and mocked,” Taylor told Art Beat.

“I wanted to develop a voice of a citizen poet that could speak poetically into our moment.”

Taylor started to compose the book while living as a caretaker in a remote wilderness refuge. At the time, he lacked any access to electricity, the internet or a phone line. According to Taylor, being secluded in the wild helped reinforce his belief that our natural heritage needs to be protected. Those years helped inform the title of the collection.

“There was a nakedness to that experience, being immersed in the natural world and stripped of all the dubious meanings our civilization has created, and it allowed me to see the possibility of a whole other way of being and thinking.”

Many of the poems in “Nude Descending an Empire” ask us to experience and contemplate the “crises” of our time through the focusing lens of poetry, but the book also touches on themes of interconnected-humanity and misunderstandings.

In his poem, “The Book of Poetry,” Taylor recalls his experiences travelling with a friend through Southeast Asia and how something as subtle as a mispronunciation led to the great confusion of their hosts.

Listen to Sam Taylor read “The Book of Poetry” from his new collection, “Nude Descending an Empire.”

Note: this poem contains strong language.

The Book of Poetry (Wo Shi Shiren)

A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes
was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck
piled high with musky bales. “I love water buffaloes,” she burst out
in broken Thai. The monks laughed. I guess that is
a strange thing to say
, she thought, but insisted.
“No, really, I really love them,” trying to unfurl herself
clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation
with only a few words. “They are so beautiful, so strong.
Don’t you love them?” But the monks just kept laughing.

Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story
of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways
becomes four, six, seven words. In China, Ma
means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold—depending if
it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling. Sometimes context helps,
as when ordering food: No one is likely to confuse
“I want to eat” with “I demand an ugly woman,”
unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then “I want eggplant”
though mistoned “whirlpool shake concubine twins”
is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.

Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
It’s not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, “I write,” wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, “I am a poet.”
Wo shi shi ren. Often, I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
“A poet” I’d repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
“I write poetry,” trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. “I write books of poetry.”

Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me
shi—which is pronounced “sure” and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb “to be”
in the falling tone—also means shit
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?

To be—poetry—shit. Something fitting in how these words
were assigned the same syllable, the same address.
Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi
was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex
sharing one mailbox. Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,
life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,
rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,
clear water—all crowded into the same syllable—sure,
sure, sure. It was also coincidentally the word for yes.
So, perhaps I had said something else entirely
I thought of all the combinations I might have said.

I am a shit person. I write life.
I am a death person. I write being. I shit history man.

I history being person. I write time. I write books of failure,
books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.

I am a being person. I write to be.
I am addicted to being a man.

I write books of shit, books of clear water.
I am a poet.

It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word
for everything—table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,
time and history and death and life. It was all shit.
It was all poetry. As for my friend, she found out later
water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.
So, “I love penises” she had confided to the Buddhist monks,
the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees
against theirs. “I really love penises,” she had insisted,
looking into their celibate eyes. “Penises are
so beautiful, so strong. Don’t you love them?”

Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable
of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer. Sure,
I love penises and water buffalo and the smell
of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,
and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,
and the official from Homeland Security
who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother
the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone
and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted
writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,
here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.

Taylor said his poems normally aren’t something he comes up with out of nowhere. Instead he pulls his ideas from raw “sparks and rhythms” he finds in his travels. The anecdotal “The Book of Poetry” typifies that sentiment.

“That piece was, I felt, almost given to me just by the things that happened, the coincidental meanings that I encountered or was told about. All the pieces were just there and it clearly was a poem, it just had to be mined, or harvested or built in some way.”

The poem provides humor through the misunderstanding created by a slight shift in vowels, and that the word for poetry in Chinese so closely resembles the word for a bowel movement. Taylor says that as a writer, the quirks of a language and his own comical mispronunciation made it a piece he wanted to write even more.

“It does particularly relate to a love and fascination with language that most poets and readers probably share, but beyond that it’s a fascination with the particular set of meanings that happened to be in these words, of course one of them being poetry, in the sense that poetry not only overlaps with [expletive] but every word imaginable.”

“The Book of Poetry” as it appears in “Nude Descending an Empire” required several drafts, after he left his notebook in a taxicab in China.

Taylor is in the final stages of his next work, which he says will be more experimental in form and style.

“The Book of Poetry” from “Nude Descending an Empire,” by Sam Taylor, ©2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.”

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Weekly Poem: Carl Adamshick writes for the ‘mysterious other’

Mon, Sep 22, 2014

The co-founder of Tavern Books,  Carl Adamshick is the recipient of the 2010 Walt Whitman Award and Literary Art's Oregon Literary Fellowship. Photo by Liz Mehl

The co-founder of Tavern Books, Carl Adamshick is the recipient of the 2010 Walt Whitman Award and Literary Art’s Oregon Literary Fellowship. Photo by Liz Mehl

Carl Adamshick has been writing poetry seriously for 20 years, and most of his poems have been short. That’s largely what you’ll find if you pick up his first collection, “Curses and Wishes,” which won the Walt Whitman Award in 2010.

As a challenge, the Oregon-based poet focused on composing longer pieces for his second book, “Saint Friend,” which hit shelves this August.

“I spent a lot of time writing and being very concerned with economy and what not to say and alluding to things. I learned that it’s okay just to write something and to say it flatly,” Adamshick told Art Beat. “I found that, in a long poem, it’s open to that, it’s open to a more conversational tone that I learned to have faith in.”

With that “conversational tone,” the poet was able to be upfront about what he wanted to convey.

“With the smaller, slighter poems, there’s more of a puzzle aspect… there’s a lot of word-play and there’s a lot of mystery involved. When you decide to say how it is, emotions are more on the sleeve, and things aren’t hidden. It’s really been fascinating to me to be open to that, to be open to the words spilling out instead of constructing them in some sort of way and moving them around and being really cautious and thoughtful about all the placement and the exact wording. It’s been a little looser and a little more exciting.”

Twenty years ago, Adamshick’s friends were his primary audience, reading his compositions at a bar, critiquing each other’s work over a beer — sort of an informal Master of Fine Arts.

Listen to Carl Adamshick read “Everything that Happens Can Be Called Aging” from his new collection, “Saint Friend.”

Everything that Happens Can Be Called Aging

I have more love than ever.
Our kids have kids soon to have kids.
I need them. I need everyone
to come over to the house,
sleep on the floor, on the couches
in the front room. I need noise,
too many people in too small a place,
I need dancing, the spilling of drinks,
the loud pronouncements
over music, the verbal sparring,
the broken dishes, the wealth.
I need it all flying apart.
My friends to slam against me,
to home me, to say they love me.
I need mornings to ask for favors
and forgiveness. I need to give,
have all my emotions rattled,
my family to be greedy,
to keep coming, to keep asking
and taking. I need no resolution,
just the constant turmoil of living.
Give me the bottom of the river,
all the unadorned, unfinished,
unpraised moments, one good turn
on the luxuriant wheel.

Unlike many other contemporary American poets, Adamshick is not the product of an MFA program, a fact that many point out to identify him as a different kind of voice. But regardless of his educational decisions, he was intent on a creating a life filled with poetry.

“I [was] left to my own devices and picking out my own books and reading my own things for my own purposes…I had a part-time job that I liked, and I had friends that liked poems, and I spent my free time just reading and writing,” Adamshick said. “I was just living this so-called poetic lifestyle that I really enjoyed…but I think I’ve just taken the long road.”

The long road or not, the poet has found a way to send his poems out into the world, which he believes is imperative to the power of verse.

“Poems are meant to be shared. I know that’s very general, but it’s also very true in a profound sense to me. I’m not writing poems for myself. I feel very strongly that a poem is finished when other people hear it or read it, and I keep that in mind when I’m writing.”

Adamshick himself has been profoundly affected by the poetry that he has read and, now focusing on the unknown reader that might pick up his work, he hopes to be similarly influential.

“I write for this mysterious other that is going to stumble upon a book, whether in a library or a bookstore or on a website somewhere. I really want some mysterious other that I don’t know, some stranger, to read it and see it as a real piece of art,” Adamshick said. “Reading poems has been very enriching and very life altering to me. I feel like whenever I write a poem I assume or I guess that somebody else is going to have that reaction.”

“Everything that Happens Can Be Called Aging” was excerpted from the book “Saint Friend” by Carl Adamshick. Copyright © 2014 by Carl Adamshick. Reprinted courtesy of McSweeney’s Poetry Series.

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Weekly Poem: Charlotte Boulay reads ‘Oracular’

Mon, Sep 08, 2014

Listen to Charlotte Boulay read “Oracular” from her debut collection, “Foxes on the Trampoline.”


The road is too hot to move. I’m stuck in the median,
I slept too fast & then too slow.

Sufi says, I’m not only bones & bones—

who loves the saints in the streets? We don’t need

your love, only your briefest notice sustains us.
Dogs crouch in the ancient of their shade,

tooth-brushers spit into their crevices, piss in the gutters
they create.
Bedtime—stars like mustard seeds pop

through the smog. There’s a wail & an anguish of horns;

everlastingness reaches up & turns out the light—

Photo by Roger Boulay

Photo by Roger Boulay

Charlotte Boulay earned her MFA from the University of Michigan. She taught creative writing at the university for five years and won both the Meijer Award and an Academy of American Poets Award. Her poetry has appeared in many journals, including The New Yorker, Slate, the Boston Review and Crazyhorse. Boulay currently works as a grant writer at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband. “Foxes on the Trampoline” is her first book of poetry.

“Oracular” was excerpted from the book “Foxes on the Trampoline” by Charlotte Boulay. Copyright © 2014 by Charlotte Boulay. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Weekly Poem: Mark Ford reads ‘In Loco Parentis’

Mon, Sep 01, 2014

Mark Ford reads “In Loco Parentis” from his collection “Selected Poems.”

In Loco Parentis

were some quite creepy men—one
used to lie down
on the dayroom floor, then get us all
to pile on top of him—and a basilisk-
eyed matron in a blue unifrom with a watch
beneath her right
collarbone. Thump thump
went her footsteps, making
the asbestos ceiling tiles shiver, and me
want to hide, or run like a rabbit
in a fire…
                     What we lost, we lost
forever. A minor
devil played at chess
with us, forcing
the pieces to levitate
and hover, flourishing swords, in midair. I’d grasp
them now, the orotund bishop, the stealthy
knight, the all-
knowing queen,
but they dissolve
in my fingers, refuse
to return to the board, to their squares.

Photo by Mark Hinkley courtesy Coffee House Press.

Photo by Mark Hinkley courtesy Coffee House Press.

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Mark Ford is the author of four collections of poetry, including “Soft Sift” and “Six Children.” “Selected Poems” is his most recent work. Ford is also the author of the biography “Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams,” and a translation of Roussel’s last poem, “Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique.” That translation was the runner up for a PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Ford has also written criticism. He published two collections, “A Driftwood Altar” and “Mr and Mrs Stevens and Other Essays” and has had his work published in journals such as the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Ford earned his BA and Ph.D. from the University of Oxford and he received a Kennedy Scholarship from Harvard University. He currently teaches at University College, London.

Excerpts from Selected Poems by Mark Ford courtesy of Coffee House Press.

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Weekly Poem: Ellen Bass wants you to eat that strawberry

Mon, Aug 25, 2014

"Like a Beggar" is the most recent book of poetry from Ellen Bass. Photo by Irene Young

“Like a Beggar” is the most recent book of poetry from Ellen Bass. Photo by Irene Young

In the first poem of her new collection, “Like a Beggar,” Ellen Bass tries to accept what she has spent her whole life avoiding: misfortune.

From the “trivial to the tragic,” including scenes of melting ice cream in your car and your son hawking your refrigerator for drug money, Bass stops fighting what she calls the unavoidable.

“This is a kind of a watershed poem for me,” Bass told Art Beat. “Of course you don’t surrender just once so the poem has become a kind of teaching poem for me. Even though I wrote it, it talks to me and reminds me what I have to keep doing over and over.”

She closes the poem with a Buddhist story about a woman trapped on the side of a cliff. The woman arrived in that precarious position because she climbed down a vine to avoid a tiger that was chasing her, only to find another tiger below. To make matters worse, the woman looks up to find two mice gnawing at the vine that got her there.

The woman is stuck in a predicament, but she notices a wild strawberry growing near her. “She looks up, down, at the mice./Then she eats the strawberry.”

During the seven years that Bass worked on “Like a Beggar,” she was going through a challenging time. As a narrative poet, her first inclination was to write the stories of her difficult experiences, but this time she couldn’t do that. The events concerned other people and she wasn’t able to write about them directly.

“At first that really threw me for a loop — what will I do? How will I be a poet?” said Bass.

“I soon realized that I had to take this as an aesthetic challenge and that it would be good for me, that it would push me to write in ways that weren’t as familiar to me, that it would push me into new poetic territory.”

What Bass found surprised her. She ended up with a lot of odes and realized “the harder the times the more important to praise.” That discovery can be seen in an epigraph from Rilke, which she uses to open the collection:

“But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,/how do you bear them, suffer them?/–I praise.”

One such poem of praise is for repetition, a daily phenomenon that Bass sees as a privilege.

“I don’t think I’m completely alone in loving repetition, but I’m certainly in the minority in our culture. There’s a great premium placed on new, adventure, variety, all of that and again, in my family I get teased a lot about my kind of mule-like inclination for repetition.”

Listen to Ellen Bass read “Ode to Repetition’” from her new collection “Like a Beggar.”

Ode to Repetition

I like to take the same walk
down the wide expanse of Woodrow to the ocean,
and most days I turn left toward the lighthouse.
The sea is always different. Some days dreamy,
waves hardly waves, just a broad undulation
in no hurry to arrive. Other days the surf’s drunk,
crashing into the cliffs like a car wreck.
And when I get home I like
the same dishes stacked in the same cupboards
and then unstacked and then stacked again.
And the rhododendron, spring after spring,
blossoming its pink ceremony.
I could dwell in the kingdom of Coltrane,
the friction of air through his horn,
as he forms each syllable of “Lush Life”
over and over until I die. Once I was afraid
of this, opening the curtains every morning,
only to close them again each night.
You could despair in the fixed town of your own life.
But when I wake up to pee, I’m grateful
the toilet’s in its usual place, the sink with its gift of water.
I look out at the street, the halos of lampposts
in the fog or the moon rinsing the parked cars.
When I get back in bed I find
the woman who’s been sleeping there
each night for thirty years. Only she’s not
the same, her body more naked
in its aging, its disorder. Though I still
come to her like a beggar. One morning
one of us will rise bewildered
without the other and open the curtains.
There will be the same shaggy redwood
in the neighbor’s yard and the faultless stars
going out one by one into the day.

The poem ends in a much darker space than where it starts, an evolution that Bass wasn’t expecting.

“Even people who don’t like repetition, we all want the kind of repetition that allows the people that we love to stay in our lives and not die and we don’t want to die. We want to wake up every morning.” said Bass. “I was validated in my love of repetition. You may think you don’t want repetition, but you really want it too because you don’t want to wake up and find your beloved one gone either.”

The title of the collection comes from one line towards the end of “Ode to Repetition,” where Bass references going to bed with her wife of thirty years, “her body more naked/in its aging, its disorder. Though I still/come to her like a beggar.”

“We are all in some way beggars in this lifetime. We are at the mercy of others and at the mercy of what will happen to us. Of course, we can chose how we respond to it, but we are always praying for something to happen or not happen in one way or another. We come with these empty bowls and there’s a great deal that is given to us … We are all vulnerable to whatever might befall us.”

It’s those vulnerabilities that Bass focuses on in “Relax,” that first poem about misfortune.

“In the poem, I was able to commit myself more to not trying to escape and instead trying to remember in any moment to eat that strawberry.”

“Ode to Repetition” from “Like a Beggar” by Ellen Bass. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission Copper Canyon Press.

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Weekly Poem: Dan Chiasson reads ‘The Flume’

Mon, Aug 18, 2014

Listen to Dan Chiasson read “The Flume” from his new collection “Bicentennial.”

The Flume

Here we go up again, up again, the mountain
The men who have assembled it for years
Assembled yesterday, so that you and I

Headed who knows where together, but
Headed there together, will see
From the top the bottom, from the bottom the top,

Then feel the inside-outside-all-over-nowhere
My God I Am Going to Die, Not Someday, Now
Sensation that, once we plateau, feels silly,

Since when were we safer than when we sought
The danger that when it subsided returned
Us to the dangers it had blotted out?

There are no fears, here at the start:
This is when, the book just opened,
Knowing you will one day know the story

You don’t know yet changes the story
You are getting to know, the way we know
Before you know what anything means it means

Something: a fireworks display, the birthday
Of the Country; that’s me; my uncle and I
Are racing through the past on the Python,

Which men assembled absentmindedly that day
And, so you could visit it with me,
I assembled here again inside my memory;

Now, when you remember how things were
Today, you will also remember yourself
Looking forward to yourself looking back

A looking back that, here in your past,
You do already, you already say
About what happened yesterday, remember when…?

–The future doing its usual loop-de-loop,
The sons all turning into fathers
Until the absentminded men take the ride down.

Photo of Dan Chaisson by Nicholas Chaisson

Photo of Dan Chiasson by Nicholas Chiasson

Dan Chiasson has published four books of poetry, including “Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon” and “Natural History.” “Bicentennial” is his most recent collection. Chiasson is also a critic. He reviews poetry for the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review and has published one book of criticism, “One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America.” A recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Chiasson teaches at Wellesly College.

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Weekly Poem: Alison Powell dissects myths to uncover human complexity

Mon, Aug 11, 2014

Alison Powell

Alison Powell has always been a fan of the underdog. In her debut collection of poetry, “On the Desire to Levitate,” the writer takes that attraction as inspiration for her work.

“I think that poetry, especially in the Western world, has such a tradition of celebrating beauty and celebrating passion and love. I’ve always been particularly drawn to and interested in poetry that sort of digs its way into the crevices of life that may be less attractive, less traditionally attractive,” Powell told Art Beat.

“Many of my poems are preoccupied with trying to find sympathetic perspectives on characters that may not be so sympathetic.”

The poet, a winner of Ohio University’s Hollis Summer Poetry Prize, explored a variety of subjects, from the protagonists of iconic Greek myths to different versions of herself from her own childhood. She harkened it to “approaching these topics in reverse.”

“It’s normally the mythic character from great Western literature that we read about and expect to be heroic and exalted. Instead I’m trying to bring them down to earth and have Hercules lamenting what his wife does to him; Eurydice’s snarky with Orpheus,” said Powell.

One such poem is “After Paradise Lost,” where Powell seeks to understand Satan.

“As many people have said, the character of Satan, despite Milton’s best intention, comes off as infinitely more interesting than the character of God. It’s a wonderful accident, but he’s also tremendously sympathetic. He’s a fallen angel, he’s jealous, but he loved God and that’s how he became who he became.”

Powell used poetry to think through Satan’s shift “from love to jealousy to destruction.”

Listen to Alison Powell reads her poem “After Paradise Lost” from her debut collection “On the Desire to Levitate.”

After Paradise Lost

When the evil army comes it is accompanied
by a deceptively novel trumpet, as a woman

wears white and believes in it. An angel
is not spiteful without cause, having been flung

from the hand of God, whose engine, reportedly,
is love itself. How badly the crippled angel

wanted to be first in everything, God’s
man Friday! He is not without scruple;

he envies the earth. The earth is just
beyond chaos, and rests against chaos,

yet everything that comes from the earth’s Garden
can be tended, pulled, made orderly—

blanches and laid before a guest—
the earth has something called an offering.

The story of the Garden is allegorical
An allegory is like a forked tongue;

an allegory is an infant bastard who is fitful.
The Garden becomes linked with a feeling

of sickness and trepidation: a dream
of taking an air balloon ride over a river

because the bridge is burning.

Powell grew up in rural Indiana, a past she draws on to create new mythic characters.

“The way I grew up was such that girls had a certain place and were supposed to be relatively nurturing and docile creatures. And I’m trying to make them into rebellious characters, not unlike what I am trying to do with Eurydice and Satan and Hercules.”

In each instance, Powell, who will teach poetry at Oakland University in Michigan in the fall, is attracted to the nuances of the human experience, “acknowledging the things about us that are not pious or generous or exalted.”

“What it means to be a human being is to be profoundly complex and conflicted. I would definitely not say it’s out of any urge to be cathartic — that if we face these things, we can better deal with it. It’s more that we should look at them and even celebrate them, celebrate our passions, even the ones that lead us astray,” said Powell.

“When we turn to poetry it’s because we want to be reminded how to slow it down and pay attention. I think that’s especially true now. And part of that paying attention means looking at things that we might not want to look at — or that we’ve trained ourselves not to look at — and appreciating what those things are as well.”

“After Paradise Lost” was excerpted from the book “On the Desire to Levitate” by Alison Powell. Copyright © 2014 by Alison Powell. Reprinted courtesy Ohio University Press.

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Weekly Poem: W.S. Di Piero reads ‘The Smell of Spearmint’

Mon, Aug 04, 2014

W.S. Di Piero reads “The Smell of Spearmint” from his collection “Tombo.”

The Smell of Spearmint

He told, he didn’t suggest or ask.
So when the unfinished father
told the son to do it, the son obeyed
and laid out razor and Barbasol
next to the bed-tray’s plastic cups,
ashtray, straws, and mucilage
of scrambled eggs. Forty-three,
he demanded to look clean and spare.
We die with habits of self-regard.
The son, seventeen, can’t know
that when he’s his father’s age,
a life’s love would soap his face,
run the blade, nick a nostril
hold still, you nervous you
then pass into time’s menthol airs.
He trowels, plumps, pats the lather,
he turns the head, he drags the trucky
brutish double-blade down
jaw and hallowed cheeks:
it planes the meaty manly whiskers,
it resists its task, yet life feels lighter
in his hand, most of all when it lies
lightly on the cabled throat.
One big bone, the father’s head,
in custody of the speechless son,
the untrained hand that never knew
the contents of that bone, does what
it’s told to do and can’t know
what love will bring back in time.

Photo by Beth Weber

Photo by Beth Weber

W. S. Di Piero is a poet, essayist, art critic and translator. He is the author of 10 books of poetry including “The First Hour,” “Skirts and Slacks” and “Nitro Nights.” “Tombo” is his most recent collection of poems. The winner of the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Di Piero has published poems in “Poetry” and “Threepenny Review.” He writes a monthly column on visual arts for the San Diego Reader, an independent newsweekly and has published five collections of his essays, including “When Can I See you Again?” Di Piero is the winner of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund fellowship.

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Weekly Poem: Jennifer Michael Hecht riffs off iconic poems

Mon, Jul 21, 2014

Jennifer Michael Hecht. Photo by Maxwell Hecht-Chaneski

Jennifer Michael Hecht. Photo by Maxwell Hecht-Chaneski

In her new collection, “Who Said,” Jennifer Michael Hecht “comments on,” “ventriloquizes,” or “meaningfully transliterates” iconic poems throughout history. She has many terms for her work based off some of her favorite verse.

“The poems that I chose were guided by poems that I love, but also poems that work, that I was able to get a poem out of that was moving and memorable,” Hecht told Art Beat. “I could open them up as a way of looking around myself and seeing what came out of myself by engaging with these poems that mean so much to me.”

In her book, Hecht is in conversation with a wide variety of poems, from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” to the beginning of Dante’s “Inferno” and John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.” In one poem, Hecht creates a mash-up of the Declaration of Independence and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…”). In another, she responds to a Nirvana song.

“[Emily] Dickinson makes two appearances. I couldn’t keep her out — she just kept singing songs in my head.”

Her “Lady Look-Alike Lazarized” is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”

“We translate poems from other languages every couple of generations just to keep the language fresh, but of course we don’t do that in our own language,” said Hecht. “It’s fun … to liven these things up again.”

Listen to Jennifer Michael Hecht read “Lady Look-Alike Lazarized” from her new collection, “Who Said.”

“Lady Look-Alike Lazarized”

It was any of many years ago
in this half townhouse, with this tree,
that a woman who lived whom I don’t know,
in a photo you can see. She baked bread,
ate with two fat men,
and her picture looks like me.

I was a child and she was a child
then neither again would be
she in nineteen thirteen
me in two-zero one-three.
And we loved with a love that was more
than a love, at the heads of our centuries.
Let me see less than she’ll see
because I know more than she
and, even from here, it near blinded me.

And with virtue and reason, long ago,
in this picture that looks like me,
a bug blew out of a cough one night,
chilling the woman who looks like me;
so her muscled kinsman came
and took her away from our tree
to bake no more bread for fat men
and escape brutality.
Yes, a wind blew out of a cloud
one night chilling and killing
who looks like me.

Microbes, heartache, and wars
give little way to reason nor pause
at the soaring wrought-iron gate
of Brooklyn, nor at the doors of state.
She was here and in time died,
well before I arrived here or anywhere.

But our love, she for her men, I for my
small and tall friends, is stronger by far
than the love of those younger or richer
than we, and who would be wiser than we?
And neither the redbreasts in heaven above
nor the flounder down under the sea
can ever quite sever my sight from the sight
of the woman who looks like me.

For the moon rarely beams without bringing
dark dreams of the woman who looks like me;
and the stars never rise but I feel my tight eyes
on a dark dream who looks like me. And so,
all nighttime, I lie down by the side of my
searching self and my self that hides. With a
photo from nineteen hundred one-three,
of a woman who looks a lot like me.

Even though the Hecht knew by heart the poems she chose, she still had room to grow her relationship to the works.

“Writing into a poem that you’ve always had certain feelings about, you’re going to get to know it better and in a new way as you are trying to speak to it and really test where it makes its arguments and where it’s going to take you,” Hecht said. “In some poems, what i really learned more is the rhythm of them and the way that rhyme worked and the way that it’s pleasurable when you put it in the vernacular.”

At the back of the book, the poet included a series of cryptograms. Each cryptogram, when solved, reveals the original verse that Hect is “speaking to” in her poetry. While most people who know poetry will recognize the origins, Hecht wanted to invite people to interact with the text.

“There’s a way in which poetry is this decipherable system, but it’s always going to be so fantastic. Juxtaposing something that is solvable and that you can unravel and that your knowledge goes in to it — the more you know about these poems, the more you’re going to be expecting poems to show up in the cryptogram answers.”

Hecht’s variations on iconic poems, which in the end make up about half of “Who Said,” are not meant to offend long-time lovers of the original works. The first poem of the collection, not even listed in the table of contents, is aptly called “Key,” and functions as just that for her readers.

“‘For people who’ve been around before/I’m offering humbly a little bit more’ — I’m saying I’m not trying to take this over, but I am inviting us to play with it in this way,” said Hecht. “I tell my secrets in the book as I always do with my poetry. There is narrative and there is biography and there is my own particular, personal experiences.”

The post Weekly Poem: Jennifer Michael Hecht riffs off iconic poems appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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  • Published: 2002
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