Last Week’s Poetry Best Selling Books

Top 10 from the Week of July 18. From The Poetry Foundation. To see the complete list click here.

1 Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010 by Maxine W. Kumin (W. W. Norton & Company) 5
2 1 The Shadow of Sirius (paperback) by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press) 47
3 2 Nox by Anne Carson (New Directions) 18
4 4 Ballistics (paperback) by Billy Collins (Random House) 24
5 8 The Best of It by Kay Ryan (Grove Press) 21
6 The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (paperback) by Billy Collins (Random House) 170
7 6 Thirst (paperback) by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 150
8 17 Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland (Graywolf Press) 25
9 11 Red Bird (paperback) by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 71
9 9 Versed (paperback) by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan) 8
10 10 Evidence by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 71

Literature Undressed

Well, it’s probably not what you thought, or depending on what kind of person you are, maybe it is. Apparently Naked Girls Reading is the Suicide Girls of literature. As much as I can figure out, it’s a bunch of naked women who like to give readings in the nude. For money. It all started in 2009 in Chicago, and now there are events all over the country.

And they’re having a contest. Yes your original work can be presented by a real live Naked Girl. If that’s not prize enough, you win money, “at least $500.”  They’re looking for “gut level” writing of all kinds. Deadline is September 17. So if you think you’ve got something titillating enough to be read naked, go for it.

Here’s a selection of some of their reading list:

  • The Smoke Off – Shel Silverstein
  • Bad Acid or Bad Announcements – Abbie Hoffman
  • On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  • The Way You Wear Your Hat (Bio of Frank Sinatra) – Bill Zehme
  • Chicago Confidential – Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer
  • The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber – Mel Gordon
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Chapter 10, The Lobster Quadrille – Lewis Carroll
  • Requiem for a Dream – Hubert Selby Jr.
  • “The Hangover” from On Drink by Kingsley Amis
  • “The Theatre of Seraphin” from On Wine and Hashish by Charles Baudelaire

Kinda reminds me of a party back in my grad school days in Bowling Green. I wasn’t a participant mind you, but, well, that was a long time ago. I won’t name names, but you know who you are.

BTW, some of these links are NSFW.

Bookmark and Share

Blind Poets and the Decline of Jack Gilbert

At a reading in a small bookstore (yes, they still exist) this weekend in Philadelphia, I heard a woman read a poem about a sunset. That alone is not particularly remarkable as sunsets are fairly commonplace in poems, especially at open readings. What was remarkable was that the reader was blind.

She arrived at the reading late, holding a purse and binder in one hand and a collapsible walking stick in the other, tentatively tapping chair legs and steps until she settled into a seat. She was known by several other people present. When her turn came to present a poem she pulled a few pages of brail script from her folder and read a piece about a sunset she shared with her father when she was a little girl.

Unfortunately I admit I don’t recall much about the juice of the poem, other than it included some very vivid visual descriptions including references to colors and shadows. Rather than listen attentively to the poem, my mind, as it tends to do, went off on its own thinking about the contrast of a blind poet writing about a sunset. I suppose I expected something else from the poem—other senses and other insights—and I admit those may be in other of this woman’s poems, but I don’t know her well enough to guess.

Homer is said to have been blind. Milton composed Paradise Lost after he lost his sight to glaucoma. There are others of course. But I was thinking at the time, what would my writing be like if I lost my sight? How would say, Richard Hugo or Seamus Heaney be different without eyes? Often I find myself looking out the window by my desk as I write. I use that window as a crowbar when I’m stuck—I’ll hunt for an image in the trees, some shade of the shadows to nudge into the poem on my screen. Would lack of sight affect that?

On His Blindness

by John Milton

WHEN I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning chide,—

Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?

I fondly ask:—But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: God doth not need

Either man’s work, or His own gifts, who best

Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:—

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Is it wrong of me to have expected other senses, rather than visual ones, in the blind poet’s reading on Friday night or if not wrong then just a matter of surprise?  I know these questions come to me mostly because I rely on visual images more than most anything in my own work, and subsequently that’s what I’m frequently drawn to in others. But, of course, that’s not all there is and is probably a bit self-limiting on my part.

So here was this woman, recalling a memory of something she can no longer experience first hand. She was using the memory as a way to relate something about her father. I heard that, but I also heard something else, I just wish I had a good name for it.

This also brings me to another poet who has lost another significant sense. Jack Gilbert, author of The Great Fires and a Yale Younger Poet award winner in 1962 has lost his sense of time. Now in his 80s and residing in a nursing home, he is apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Gilbert has lot his greatest sense, himself. An interviewer earlier this spring noted that speaking to Gilbert was like speaking to someone in a coma in that he seemed dislocated from the present. Learning that made me quite sad, as I’ve loved much of Gilbert’s poetry, in particular for its sense of attachment, its connection to places and personal rituals and passion for understanding.

Here are a few lines from his most recent, and I’m sure his last, book, Refusing Heaven (2005):

“If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

Bookmark and Share

What’s On Your Poetry Bucket List?

Over at The Guardian, literary critic Robert McCrum posed to his readers a challenge, admit your most glaring literary gaps—the books you should have, but haven’t read. In fact, he suggests that most bookish people have probably claimed to have read great books they’ve never even opened. I hope I haven’t done that, but I’m sure I’ve nodded and smiled knowingly to literary references to which I was actually clueless and maybe passed judgment on authors I haven’t spent proper time with. There are forests of books I know I should read, but for whatever reason, never got around too.

I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf. I put up a fight against Pound.  I’ve paid little attention to Plath or Olsen beyond a few Norton Anthology samples. I didn’t pick up Pearl S. Buck until I took my first business trip to China. And I’ve yet to make an appointment with Dr. Samuel Johnson. A few years ago at a discount bookstore I picked up a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon in the hope that it would help me fill in the gaps a bit or at least let me know what I’ve been missing. It sits on a bookshelf untouched too. My exposure to the Eastern canon wouldn’t have gone much past anime if it weren’t for a brilliant course on nonwestern literature I took as an undergrad (thanks Habib).

So I pose this challenge to the other poets reading here: what great poets or books of poems haven’t you read? Are you still short a few cantos? Never found Paradise Lost? I never read Geoffrey Hill until he was named Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford (even though he’s in my 1986 Norton Anthology of English Literature).

I ask this for two reasons (three actually, as I really needed an idea for a new post). First, I think knowing what we haven’t read (yet placing it in the category of Should Read) says something about where our aesthetic associations live. Second, I want to know what other readers think is really important to include in their poetry shelf bucket list. So please, share. I won’t make fun of you for admitting to never having read Edward Lear.

Really, please leave comments. I’ll work them together into a follow-up post. It’ll be good times and candy for all.

David Lehman’s New Poetry Form, The Letter Change

This is fun. David Lehman, series editor for The Best American Poetry (which has yet to include me–damnation!) posted a sort of poetry game on his blog. Take a line from an existing poem–it’s more fun if it’s a classic poem–and change one letter in one word. Assemble a bunch of those to make a new poem. It’s just a nerdy poet’s game, something to be done in a pub with other nerdy poet friends, but it’s fun nonetheless. It’s also a good way to pass the time at work when you’re supposed to be, um, working.  Out of necessity I altered the rules a bit to allow the addition of one letter if just the changing of one letter doesn’t work. I know, that makes me a cheater. I don’t do crossword puzzles for that reason.

Here’s a go at it (thanks to Milton, Blake, Homer, Pound, Arnold and Wright ):

Sing, oh Heavenly Mouse, that on the secret top,

dost thou know who bade thee

give me fare well, and stain the hound with wine?

There can be but one bordello.

A cry like thine in mine own heart I fear:

I have wasted my lice.

Where Do You Write?

I have a very dull fiberboard desk I bought at Wal-Mart maybe eight years ago. Surrounding my laptop are piles of paper, post-notes, stray computer cables, a little  jade tree, two little buddhas, books, pens, a polished stone skull and other scraps. I painted the office a pleasing green tea color (looks like green tea ice cream). I put book shelves up last summer, but there are more books scattered on the floor. Next to the desk is the small table I use to tie flies. Under that are crates of fur, feathers, hooks and thread. I can see the trees and sunrises out my window, and if I crane my neck around I can see my little goldfish pond and the veggie garden. Why am I telling you this? Because in the Ploughshares blog Aimee Nezhukumatathil (say that backwards drunk) writes about her favorite writing spot and asked all her friends to share their’s. My office isn’t nearly as cool as some she reveals, though it’s bit more functional than others. Mostly I need more shelves and should make more of an effort to pick up my socks. I’d post a picture but I can’t find any of my cameras.

I’m also jealous of Ann Townsend’s dock where she goes when the desk and computer aren’t working out

When I had a job that required me to take a 50 minute train ride twice a day I would often get poems started while commuting with my laptop. Now it’s mostly at night, here, at my desk.  So, where do you write?  At a desk? In the kitchen? Does it matter?


Update: the original post is more than a year old, and my writing and work situation has changed, and I found my camera, so here’s a pic of my #writeplace

Poked and Prompted

This past weekend I had the pleasure to give a reading with a small group of other writers at the Chestnut Hill Book Festival in Philadelphia. This particular reading was sponsored by Philadelphia Stories and the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio. The invited readers were either recent contributors to Philadelphia Stories (me) or to the anthology book Prompted.

There’s an interesting back story to Prompted. It’s a collection of poems, stories and essays that evolved out of workshops run by Alison Hicks et al and the Wordshop Studio. Many, in fact most, of the authors in the anthology are not anything near career writers. Some of them came to writing late into their other careers for whatever assortment of reasons that drive people to try to write. Some are teachers, some in medical or social work or other professions. Only a few appear to have come from English or graduate writing programs.

OK, I’ll be honest, I only bought the book ($10) to be polite—a workshop anthology is not something I would automatically pick up, but since I was a guest there, I figured I’d do my part to give back and maybe be find some local writers to connect with.

Later that afternoon, sitting in my backyard, I read through most of the poetry selections and was very pleasantly impressed.  Jeanne Obbard’s When you wake up the world is the poetry highlight for me.

Some of the contributors have lit credentials. Joyce Meyers has poems in Comstock Review and a chapbook. Julie Compton has two novels. Christy Schneider has read at the Painted Bride Reading Series. There are more like that, but you get the impression this is not a collection of MFA flotsam barnacled onto college English departments (if only I could be barnacled onto a college English department …).

The title of the collection gives away a little of the inspiration. The Wordshop workshops are organized around writing prompts—the leader throws out a situation, a setting, maybe a word, and the writers have to produce something from it on the spot. I’ve been in workshops settings like that and have even run some like that. When I was in grad school a friend and I would get together once a week to give ourselves prompts and time limits to produce poems. It’s a sort of creative warm up before the yoga teacher makes you do the really hard moves.

Anyway, whatever the GPWS is doing, they’re doing it right. Prompted is an enjoyable book and a nice look into the creative possibilities of people who weren’t grooming themselves as writers since the age of nine.

You can buy it here.

Dickinson, Collins and TMI

Enough with Emily Dickinson. She’s been getting a lot of attention lately for a long dead person. I’ve got nothing against her poems–I like some of them very much, but there seems to be an obsession with her this year. A recent biography suggests she may have had epilepsy or was a lesbian or was possessed by an alien intelligence and had very bad breath. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t unless someone gives it to me, because I’m rarely interested in the biographies of poets, especially ones who never left the house. But more interesting is the amount of speculation and word lather fuming up about this poet and the reaction to what others say about the poet.

One of the most amusing responses I’ve seen so far comes from the blogger CAConrad on PhillySound:new poetry in which the writer rants about an interview Billy Collins did on NPR with Terry Gross. For me, the smartest thing Collins says in the interview about the new biography is this: “So there are many speculations about her, but I think the poems are self-sufficient.”

Still he goes on to speculate himself about her sexuality by reading his poem called Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.  I think CAConrad makes quite too much of the whole thing, and clearly doesn’t like Collins anyway. Still, I wish we could put this whole Dickinson hyperventilation to rest for a while. There are so many amazing living poets deserving of the attention.

Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes
First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything –
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.