Happy Frank Stanford Day

ImageWhen I was in grad school in Bowling Green, Brian Ownbey introduced me to Frank Stanford. The 1991 collection The Light the Dead See had just come out. It contained selections from most of Stanford’s books. At the time no other book made a greater impact on me. Today is his birthday.

Here’s an article at the Poetry Foundation web site all about him.

The Pessimism of Jack Gilbert

Update: I recently learned the Jack Gilbert passed away Sunday, November 11. You can read more about that here.

I came across this set of interviews with Jack Gilbert today(April 23, 2012). He’s one of my favorite poets, and I’ve mentioned him on UnIambic several times. I love the simplicity, the sincerity of his poems. How he’s able to be completely at ease pouring out intense emotion without being sentimental or maudlin about it.

In the interview he discusses some of his apprehension with publishing, his disappointment with much of the contemporary po-biz and his poor outlook on the future of poetry. OK, some of that I agree with, but I also feel he shortchanges poets in a big way. Yes, there are the career-minded poets, the post-modern tricksters, the posers and all the rest: “Much of postmodern poetry has no significance at all.” But he overstates how much poetry or poets have changed, and underestimates the sincerity of many of today’s poets.

That’s not surprising really. For a large part of his adult life I believe Gilbert has lived a partial hermit’s life, if not physically (as in the years he spend on Greek islands) then mentally or emotionally. He’s a person who thrives on removing himself from the pressures of the rest of the world, while he focuses on the inner world.

He says: “I don’t believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry.” Here I assume he’s referring to the career academicians and big prize money winners, yet how could he not realize that poetry is so much more than that. Look around here (the greater Philadelphia area). There are scads of poets, with no academic affiliations,  working alone and together for just the pleasure of the poems themselves (see this recent Philly.com article on the scene.)

He also says some things in this interview which are a bit dishonest to himself. His comments on craft, for instance, he critiques the workshop experience here:

“Nobody wants to talk about how a poem works, what its purpose is. They all want to deal with the outside of the poem. Does it look good? Should I take the left line out and put it over here? How should I make the rhythm correct and such. But hardly anybody talks about the strategies of poetry, or how you make poetry live, how to use concrete detail rather than similes, goddamned similes, the weakest kind of resource there is in poetry. People are so much in love with similes. It’s a pity. The mechanics of poetry have little to do with design.”

Yet he came out of one of the most celebrated workshop programs (Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Speaking of similes here’s a couple of lines from one of my favorite Gilbert poems Finding Something

“The arches of her feet are like voices

of children calling in the groves of lemon trees

where my hart is as helpless as crushed birds.”

His craft is not the obvious, meticulously tinkered craft, but it’s a craft that shows he understands the workmanship of writing, the effort that goes into making something feel effortless.

Anyway, this interview, while illuminating, also makes me sad because I don’t feel poets and poetry warrant the negativity and pessimism he heaps upon them. I hope and believe he’s wrong.

The interview is from the book  Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs which I’ve just added to my Amazon wish list.

Interview with Nathaniel Perry on APR

I recently conducted an interview with Nathaniel Perry, author of the very fine collection of poems Nine Acres.

I encourage you to get over to the the American Poetry Review to read the whole thing.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the interview:

Grant Clauser: Did the concept for this book develop after you’d already written a few of the poems, or did you envision the collection and then write to fit within the mode?

Nathaniel Perry: I did write a few of the poems first and then the concept came to me pretty quickly. I think the first poem I wrote was the one with the seed catalog (“Vegetable crops to Avoid and to Choose”), and it happened to be in that form of simple rhymed quatrains in tetrameter, and I had maybe thought of doing a group of 10 or so with the titles from the M.G. Kains book, but the form felt fun, and was engaging for me, and I soon decided I was going to do all of the chapters.  I guess I didn’t initially even realize it was going to be book-length.

GC: I find this book to be very much like a journal—recounting the events of a year. Like a journal it tells a story, without relying on narrative. How fully formed in your head was this narrative when you were writing it?

NP: Strangely, not really at all as I was writing it. I assumed that I would put the poems in the order that they appeared in the original book, but then somebody pointed out to me very late in the process after I had already written all of the poems that there were 52 poems which was equal to the weeks in a year and it dawned on me that they could fit into the cycle of a single year. I remember taking all the poems and just sorting them out by spring, summer, fall, winter and seeing what that looked like and being pretty happy with that. I’m still happy with it.

GC: I noticed shifts and waves in the relationship between the husband and wife throughout the book.

NP: Well, you’re married. There are always shifts and waves. I won’t hide behind the fact that many of these poems are sentimental and sweet, but I like to think that’s still possible without being necessarily bad, and so the way to do that is to be true to the way relationships are. They can be hard and frustrating and full of doubt while simultaneously being joyful and intimate and full of starlight, so I wanted to show what an actual relationship looks like.

Nathaniel Perry

New Jack Gilbert Collection

No, I don’t mean there’s a new Jack Gilbert–just a new book by the same old Jack Gilbert. At least I hope it’s the same Jack Gilbert–by that I mean I hope the new poems in this collection are just as rich and delicate and ache-inducing as the others.

To have a new Jack Gilbert book out is pretty exciting and surprising. He’s 87 now, and from the last video of a reading he did in Washington I didn’t think there were going to be more poems coming out of him. Anyway, people who know me know that Gilbert is one of my favorite poets, and I was thrilled to meet him years ago in Newtown, thanks to Allen Hoey.

The book is described as a collected works (I already have all his books) combined with some previously unpublished poems. I don’t know how many or if they’re older or newer, but I’ll go for it anyway. You should too. The New York Times review promises lots of nipples.

Two Memorial Readings for the Late Louis McKee

Philadelphia poet Louis McKee passed away in November 2011. He was a well-respected poet and friend to many in the Philadelphia area and beyond. To celebrate his life and work, two separate memorial readings are being held, one hosted by the Mad Poets Society and another by the Fox Chase Review.

The first will be next Sunday, March 18 at 1 pm at the Mansion Parlor and Gallery of Media Borough Hall, 301 North Jackson Street, Media, PA 19063. More information on that event can be found here.

The second event will be April 29th at 1:30pm at Ryerss Museum and Library, 7370 Central Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa. 19111. It will feature one of Lou’s former students. More information can be found here. State Representative Michael McGeehan will present a Pennsylvania State Citation in honor of Louis McKee.

Ted Kooser on Nature and Poetry

Below is a continuation of the Q&As I did with several poets on the connection between poetry and nature/wilderness. The first was with Jane Hirshfield, and if you need to get caught up you can see that one here. These Q&A were all done via email. In this one former U.S. Poet Laureate writes briefly about why corporate/business life plays so small a part in the poetry of people who actually work in business for a living (Kooser worked in insurance before he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world?

No. There are certainly lots of writers using urban life and subjects, and they get a lot of attention, but there is always a steady outflow of poetry and nonfiction about the natural world.

Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed poets’ relationship to it?

I don’t think so.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

Certainly. Despite our habit of complicating our lives, we are still natural beings.

You’re a poet who spent a good portion of his life in a business/office environment, yet that world doesn’t surface in your work as frequently as fields, farms, animals or laborers? In general, opening any poetry journal, it’s much easier to find birds, mountains and rivers than it is to find references to inter-office mail, insertion orders or spreadsheets, yet they are probably a larger part of most people’s (and most poets) daily lives. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

In an office, one’s experiences are often the same experiences day after day after day, whereas in nature there may be epiphanous events, coming as us as complete surprises. I did write some poems about my days in the insurance business, “Four Secretaries” is a good example, but, frankly, I just wasn’t very interested in what happened at the office, and why write about something that doesn’t interest you.

Galway Kinnell has said we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that? Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

I don’t know that quote, or its context, but I think he may have been talking about life in the city, rather than the city. His wonderful long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ….” is rich with human life, which is nature. You can almost smell the people in that poem.

The concepts of bewilderment and wonder—brash and sometimes meditative—seems to be a strong thread connecting nature poetry (from the ancient Chinese writers to present writers like Harry Humes). What role do you believe bewilderment plays in nature poetry? I also believe bewilderment is tied into gratitude. And if not that, then what?

You know, I’ve never thought about that word [bewilderment] and what it means and how it’s constructed to include wild until this very moment, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’ll have to give it a lot more thought. Li Po is bewildered, not by nature but by alcohol, and I don’t think of him, or Tu Fu, as being confused by nature in the way that they are confused by their own circumstances.

Ted

You can find Ted Kooser’s latest book, Delights and Shadows, here.

Kooser’s website: American Life in Poetry

Jane Hirshfield on Poetry and Nature

Months ago, in preparation for a workshop I was going to lead in nature writing for the Musehouse Writing Center I asked the poet Jane Hirshfield several questions about her views on nature and poetry. Aside from her wonderful books of poems, Hirshfield also wrote a collection of essays called Nine Gates, which deals somewhat with that subject especially in the “Two Secrets” chapter.

The class never happened, so I’ve been sitting on this wonderful interview for months and decided that I should just publish it as is so other readers can benefit from it. The questions here are not a comprehensive look at my interest in the subject, but they’re interesting on their own and I think worth attention. Eventually I may try to write a whole coherent article, but the chances are getting slimmer all the time.

I also asked Ted Kooser and William Heyen similar questions. I’ll post their responses separately.

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world? Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed the poet’s relationship to it?

It’s hard to speculate about others’ inner experience—but I do suspect that increasing swaths of time in the “information technology” world is affecting poets—as urbanization itself long has. There’s a dangerous rift and amnesia that leads to hubris, exploitation, that carries from the environment and creatures into our treatment of other humans as well, when only mediated experience is seen as “real.”  Aesthetically, concentration on what’s only within the human surround can be seen as being contemporary or as claustrophobic—the response varies. I myself made a very deliberate choice to live in a way exposed to and in connection with the natural. I grew up in lower Manhattan, and wanted something less controlled and modulated in my life. But all of us carry the template of our age, and even if my poems rarely mention buses or an elevator or a comic strip character, I am quite sure that my thoughts move as the 21st century does–with increased speed and compression, acceptance of fracture, comfort with the jump cut. In a way, though, you could say that poetry itself foreshadowed all these “contemporary” habits of mind—it has always leapt, fractured, compressed, courted the uncertain and contradictory as much as courted expression or “beauty.” But how could something even as simple as electric light not alter our psyche’s relation to darkness? Perhaps we turn toward darkness more, now that it is escapable. Perhaps we must turn to bewilderment more, when we live in such orderly grids as we do.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

As Gary Snyder has long pointed out, we humans are nature. What we do is what nature does. Still, remembering the larger field recalibrates. Going up into the High Sierra puts anxiety, selfishness, sentimentality, and neurosis into scale.

In what way do poets sometimes abuse (misuse) nature (I’m thinking of bad Romantic poems here mostly, but you please respond any way you like)?

There are no rules here—I am willing to go on record (heresy!) as being in favor of certain kinds of personification and anthropomorphizing in poems, even as I know they can be horribly abused. It works when it enlivens possibility, fails when it cheapens or simplifies or presumes. What we don’t know, cannot know, has to be remembered and honored. Still, Aristotle praised personification–what we’ve come to call “the pathetic fallacy”—as the “animating principle” in poetry, and I would not give up any mode of meaning-making, so long as it’s used deftly, subtly, toward accurate expansions and not the sentimental. Every metaphor works by internalization of the image into the self. How else could we understand, except by taking in, and trying on the image from inside our own lives, histories, minds? Comprehension is empathic. We understand even “2+2=4” because we have fingers, feelings, hunger, bodies with mouths as well as brains.

You write that the objective mode (discussed in Nine Gates) is rare and difficult. Is it also less effective or less likely to evoke a response from the reader? A poetry of Vulcans? (sorry for the Star Trek reference)

I’ve used certain haiku as examples of the objective mode—and such poems do need a reader able to feel them fully, or they will be uninhabited ink, ash-shapes. But such a reader is precisely the opposite of feelingless—rather, that reader who is able to feel these poems is a human being so tuned to the full actualities of existence that he or she can feel a spectrum of emotions outside the usually available names—the way a bee can see the ultra-violet road-stripes on certain flowers, which we cannot.

Galway Kinnell says we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that?  Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

Of course. Our cities are termite mounds and bower bird nests, felt fully. Mark Doty can write urban natural history in a way absolutely continuous with his poems that are set in the non-urban.

Who are your favorite contemporary poets who write with nature/wilderness themes?

Snyder is still a master. Merwin. Heaney’s poems of recollection. Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Sandra Alcosser. Milosz is dead now, but his passion for the natural world was exemplary. Some of Hass. Some of Kay Ryan. Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber. But really, even making this list feels somehow like putting lipstick on a tree. I prefer not to segregate poets by theme—Auden was as urbane as a poet comes, and then there’s his “In Praise of Limestone”; Robert Frost’s concerns were profoundly and ultimately human. And if we understand ourselves as part of nature, there’s not a poet who isn’t a nature poet. I suspect our relationship to the larger existence of this planet would be most restored to sanity if that were the principle we held in mind, rather than one of separation and difference. We are mammals, with mammals’ concerns. That thought, at least to me, is not ignoble or diminishing—it’s curative, chastening, and enlarging.

Here’s a short video of Hirshfield reading. Youtube is loaded with Hirshfield videos.

Philadelphia Poet Louis McKee Has Died

Louis Mckee, a fixture in the Philadelphia poetry scene, passed away Monday November 20th. Coincidentally that same day I had sent him an email about a poem of his published in Rattle in 2001.

I only personally knew him through correspondence, letters and emails, and an article he generously wrote for me, but I knew him much better I think through his poetry. The December 3rd launch reading for the next issue of the Schuylkill Valley Journal will be dedicated to him. It will take place at the Manayunk Art Center. That issue also includes three of his poems.

That poem from Rattle seems appropriate to me now, so I’ll post it here:

A Beautiful Day in September

Today I stood in my back yard

leaning on the cold wrought iron grate

and realized, watching the blue

skies, the slow white clouds

moving behind the old church spire,

that this was a beautiful day,

one that I should remember,

and it made me smile to know

that I could know such things,

and sad, too, to know that

I would know so few more.

I wish I had paid more attention

when I was young; that I had

looked up more, instead of straight on.

Two children bounce a ball

back and forth, dance

to a familiar song on their radio.

The woman next door kneels

in her small victory garden

gathering last tomatoes,

and peppers, too, it looks like.

A pretty young woman waits

on the corner for a bus

and a mischievous breeze

sweeps her long chestnut hair

away from her settling hand,

away from her cigarette;

she moves in her own sweet

dance, reaching wonderfully

to hold it all together.

That’s all I’m trying to do.

I love the combination of gratitude with regret and awe in this poem, characteristics which surface frequently in his work.

Also, here’s a link to an interview with Lou on the Mad Poet’s Blog.

His 1987 collection No Matter, was just released by Seven Kitchens Press yesterday. You can find it here. We all wish he was around to enjoy the new publication.

Below is an announcement sent from Eileen D’Angelo of the Mad Poets Society:

Dear Friends,

With a sad and heavy heart, I am writing to let you know that our friend and Philadelphia poet, Louis McKee, died yesterday, November 21st.

A dear friend of so many of us on the Philadelphia poetry scene, Lou was most definitely one of its greatest voices. His passing is a great personal loss, as I know it is a great loss to us all. It is an understatement to say that he will be missed by many.

Plans for a memorial service are underway.

Sincerely, Eileen

Here’s a fine remembrance article on McKee written by poet  Fox Chase poet G.E. Reutter.

Louis McKee (born July 31, 1951, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) has been a fixture of the Philadelphia poetry scene since the early 70s. He is the author of Schuylkill County (Wampeter, 1982), The True Speed of Things (Slash & Burn, 1984), and fourteen other collections. More recently, he has published River Architecture: Poems from Here & There 1973-1993 (Cynic, 1999), Loose Change (Marsh River Editions, 2001), and a volume in the Pudding House Greatest Hits series. Gerald Stern has called his work “heart-breaking” and “necessary,” while William Stafford has written, “Louis McKee makes me think of how much fun it was to put your hand out a car window and make the air carry you into quick adventures and curlicues. He is so adept at turning all kinds of sudden glimpses into good patterns.” Naomi Shihab Nye says, “Louis McKee is one of the truest hearts and voices in poetry we will ever be lucky to know.”

Near Occasions of Sin, a collection issued in 2006 by Cynic Press, has been praised by Brendan Kennelly: “I really admire, and like, deeply, Louis McKee’s poems. They have two qualities I love – clarity and candour. And they often tell stories even as they evoke mysteries of being. And they engage a great deal with people. “The Soldier,” for example, is stunning for its pure drama. Then, he is a moving, complex love-poet, at once passionate and reserved. McKee’s poems are like flashes of spirit rooted in the body. He never hides behind, or in, obscurity. Near Occasions of Sin is utterly unpretentious because his genius (I think he has that) is so real; “I am content with this,” he says at the end of “Failed Haiku,” and this readiness to be himself, in all his complexity and simplicity, is, I think, the basis of the appeal of this most unusual and attractive book. Sometimes, McKee talks to his reader and it is like talking to a next-door neighbor (that’s what I mean by candour in these poems). Also, they sound like songs at times-winged, humane, vulnerable.”

Philip Dacey, writing about McKee’s poetry in Schuylkill Valley Journal (#24, spring, 2007) says, “It is the essence of McKee’s work to be rich in artifice and craftsmanship and informed poetic strategies while at the same time consistently brave in its presentation of two confrontations: a person’s with himself and that person’s with the world outside himself. To read McKee is to witness drama and struggle; if the art is hard-won, the human victories are, too.”

Warren Woessner, in the American Book Review (Jan/Feb 2007, Vol 28, No. 2), writes that McKee’s poems have a “surprising honesty…. In this era of superconfessional hubris, we are told that no topic is off-limits, but, if this is so, why are so many of these poems startling? Picasso said, “art is not truth,” and I know that to be true, but it is important to the force of these poems that I can believe that the poet is giving us his stories straight up.”

McKee was a longtime editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly. During his tenure, he edited three special issues, celebrating the work of Etheridge Knight and John Logan, as well as a retrospective, 20th-anniversary volume of the PBQ. He currently operates Banshee Press and edited the magazine One Trick Pony until its demise in 2007.

Louis McKee[edit] Bibliography

Schuylkill County (Wampeter Press, Green Harbor, MA 1982)[1]

The True Speed of Things (Slash & Burn Press, Philadelphia, PA 1984) (Reprinted: Nightshade Press, Troy, ME 1986)[1]

Safe Water (Slash & Burn Press, Philadelphia, PA 1986)

No Matter (Pig In a Poke Press, Pittsburgh, PA 1987)

Oranges (M.A.F. Press, Portlandville, NY 1989)

Angelus -a broadside issue (Lilliput Review, Pittsburgh, PA 1990)

Three Poems -a chapbook (Verse Press, Narberth, PA 1993)

Last Seen -a pamphlet (Red Pagoda Press, Reading, PA 1999)

River Architecture: Poems From Here & There: A Selected Poems 1973-1993 (Cynic Press, Philadelphia, PA 1999)[1]

Right as Rain (Nova House Press, Rosemont, PA 2000)

Loose Change (Marsh River Editions, Marshfield, WI 2001)[1]

Greatest Hits 1971-2001 (Pudding House Press, Johnstown, OH 2002)

Near Occasions of Sin (Cynic Press, Philadelphia, PA 2006)[1]

Marginalia (Translations from the Old Irish) (Adastra Press, Easthampton, MA 2008)

Still Life (Foothills, Kanona, NY, 2008)

Jamming (The League of Laboring Poets, San Clemente, CA, 2008)

[edit] As editor

Etheridge Knight: A Celebration (A special issue of the Painted Bride Quarterly-PBQ, Philadelphia, PA 1988)

John Logan (A special issue of the Painted Bride Quarterly-PBQ, Philadelphia, PA 1990)

PBQ: A Poetry Retrospective 1973-1993 (A special issue of the Painted Bride Quarterly-PBQ, Philadelphia, PA 1993)

References

PA 1984) (Reprinted: Nightshade Press, Troy, ME 1986)[1]

Safe Water (Slash & Burn Press, Philadelphia, PA 1986)

No Matter (Pig In a Poke Press, Pittsburgh, PA 1987)

Oranges (M.A.F. Press, Portlandville, NY 1989)

Angelus -a broadside issue (Lilliput Review, Pittsburgh, PA 1990)

Three Poems -a chapbook (Verse Press, Narberth, PA 1993)

Last Seen -a pamphlet (Red Pagoda Press, Reading, PA 1999)

River Architecture: Poems From Here & There: A Selected Poems 1973-1993 (Cynic Press, Philadelphia, PA 1999)[1]

Right as Rain (Nova House Press, Rosemont, PA 2000)

Loose Change (Marsh River Editions, Marshfield, WI 2001)[1]

Greatest Hits 1971-2001 (Pudding House Press, Johnstown, OH 2002)

Near Occasions of Sin (Cynic Press, Philadelphia, PA 2006)[1]

Marginalia (Translations from the Old Irish) (Adastra Press, Easthampton, MA 2008)

Still Life (Foothills, Kanona, NY, 2008)

Jamming (The League of Laboring Poets, San Clemente, CA, 2008)

As editor

Etheridge Knight: A Celebration (A special issue of the Painted Bride Quarterly-PBQ, Philadelphia, PA 1988)

John Logan (A special issue of the Painted Bride Quarterly-PBQ, Philadelphia, PA 1990)

PBQ: A Poetry Retrospective 1973-1993 (A special issue of the Painted Bride Quarterly-PBQ, Philadelphia, PA 1993)

For Robert Lowell, on His Birthday

robert lowellRobert Lowell has for years been one of my favorite poets–one of those writers who’s books stay at my bedside. The pages are dogeared and scribbled on, words underlined. I love how he paces a poem, pulling the reader along like a show horse at a demonstration, jumping rails or pits along the way. I’ve also always been bothered by how some critics dismissed him as a confessional poet because he wrote about his own life, the tragedies and depressions. Sure, that’s subject matter, but that ignores what a fine craftsman he was, one of the finest at tying tightly wound knots in his lines and beautifully evocative images. He was also a master an tossing out a direct hit in the face straight line (“I myself am hell.” or “My mind’s not right.”)

Anyway, he would have been 94 today. Here are readings of a few of his most well-known poems. The last one is a reading performed by my friend and former teacher, Rafey Habib.

Words and Video: Miranda Field and Jack Gilbert

A Facebook acquaintance, Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, posted this link to a video of a reading by Miranda Field and Jack Gilbert at the Library of Congress website.

A couple things to know first:

  • It uses Realplayer, so you may have to download the plugin to view it. If you click the image, you’ll be taken to the Library of Congress page with the video.
  • Jack Gilbert is quite old in this video. It may be the last public reading he’s done (this was 2006, so someone correct me if I’m wrong). He faulters, stutters and almost gives up several times. It can be painful to watch because the process was obviously a chore for him, but his delivery is still beautiful and chilling.
  • Miranda Field–I hadn’t heard of her before, but immediately ordered her book Swallow. Her reading was amazing, especially the poems “Housefire,” which can also be found here and “Soloist.” Below is an excerpt from “Soloist”

I love the idea of a voice crawling like a vine, spilling like milk–beautiful. I’ve used a spilt-milk image myself (to describe moonlight), but this is much better.

If you’re as taken with that as I am, you can find her book here.