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For Your October Consideration

I am ready for fall. I am ready for three-quarter sleeves, bowls of bean soup, and hot drinks spiked with bourbon. I am ready for the air to sweeten with chimney smoke. 

I want to send off this dang manuscript, for better or for worse. I already have the next poetry project in mind. And I'm even ready to be on the road again. 

October will bring some lovely happenings, and I want to be sure they're on your radar.

"House of Suffering American Tour"
with Beasley, Dove, Schoonebeek, Schweig, and Zingg
Sunday, October 6 - 7 PM - The Black Squirrel (2427 18th St NW)
in WASHINGTON, DC 
Free & open to the public

I'll be reading as part of the fifth stop of Danniel Schoonebeek’s tour ("so come on out and bring him an extra pair of socks"). The other writers include:

Michelle Dove, whose fiction appears or is forthcoming in New South, The Southeast Review, Passages North, Barrelhouse, PANK, Pear Noir!, and elsewhere. Her work received the John Steinbeck Award for the Short Story and the Fiction Prize from Style Weekly. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Danniel Schoonebeek, whose first book of poems, American Barricade, will be published in 2014 by YesYes Books. A chapbook, Family Album, is forthcoming from Poor Claudia this fall. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Boston Review, Fence, Guernica, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, jubilat, BOMB, Verse Daily, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. He writes a monthly column on poetry for The American Reader, hosts the Hatchet Job reading series in Brooklyn, and edits the PEN Poetry Series. Find him at dannielschoonebeek.tumblr.com.

Sarah V. Schweig, author of the chapbook S (Dancing Girl Press). Her poems and reviews have appeared in Black Warrior Review, BOMB, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Verse Daily, among others. A graduate of the University of Virginia and Columbia University, she lives in Brooklyn. Find her at sarahvschweig.blogspot.com

Matthew Zingg, whose work can be read in The Awl, Sink Review, The Madison Review, Muzzle, Blackbird, HTML Giant, The Paris-American, and The Rumpus, among others. He received his MFA from Adelphi University and currently lives in Baltimore where he curates the Federal Dust Reading Series.

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"Shrinks On the Page, Pen in the Hand": Readings and Conversation with Mary Kay Zuravleff, Lisa Gornick, and Judith Warner
Wednesday, October 9 - 7 PM - Arts Club of Washington (2017 I St NW)
in WASHINGTON, DC 
Free & open to the public

I'll be hosting this, in a welcome return to co-chairing Literary programs at the Arts Club. Novelists Mary Kay Zuravleff and Lisa Gornick read from their latest books, and talk with journalist Judith Warner about their work and the writing life.


Two new books by noted fiction writers trace the effects of trauma on contemporary families. In Zuravleff's MAN ALIVE!, all it takes is a quarter to change pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Owen Lerner’s life. When the coin he’s feeding into a parking meter is struck by lightning, Lerner survives--except that now all he wants to do is barbecue. What will happen to his patients, who rely on him to make sense of their world? What will happen to his family? 

In Gornick's TINDERBOX, Myra is a Manhattan psychotherapist who hires a new nanny, Eva, who cleans like a demon and irons like a dream. Eva forms an immediate bond with Myra’s grandson. But once Eva, a Peruvian immigrant, settles into Myra’s patient chair to share her story, their relationship intensifies. Myra soon learns that even a family as close-knit as her own can have plenty to hide.

Each writer will share a brief passage from their books, before being joined by Warner for a moderated conversation. Warner, the author of We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication, will explore how each came to center a book on a psychologist as protagonist, and other common themes. The three will also discuss the realities of being modern writers, particularly as women navigating the publishing industry. 


Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive! as well as The Bowl Is Already Broken, which The New York Times praised as “a tart, affectionate satire of the museum world’s bickering and scheming,” and The Frequency of Souls, which the Chicago Tribune deemed “a beguiling and wildly inventive first novel.” Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.


Lisa Gornick is a clinical psychologist and writer living in New York.  She is the author of two novels, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin) and Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  She earned a doctorate in clinical psychology at Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia.  A collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, is forthcoming with Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Judith Warner is best known for her New York Times bestseller, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead, 2005), and for her New York Times column, “Domestic Disturbances.” She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, an opinion columnist for Time.com, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her latest book, We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication (Riverhead, 2011), received an Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A signing and light reception will follow, with books available for purchase.


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Annual Chapbook Reading 
Friday, October 11 - 6:30 PM - Center for Book Arts (28 West 27th Street) 
in NEW YORK CITY
Suggested donation $10/ $5 members

A reading to celebrate my 2013 chapbook, "None in the Same Room: Poems from the Traveler's Vade Mecum," winner of the annual contest, with judges Sharon Dolin and Harryette Mullen, and Honorable Mentions Sheila Carter-Jones and Alexandra Regalado. Chapbooks and broadsides will be available for purchase.


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"Make Lit Happen: Journeys Through the MFA and Beyond"
Saturday, October 12 - 10 AM-3 PM - The Writer's Center (4508 Walsh Street) 
in BETHESDA, MD
Registration is $50, $35 for TWC members, $20 for full-time students

I'll still be in New York, unable to attend--but this should be great! 

This one-day seminar will examine the value of MFA programs, the differences between low-residency and traditional MFA programs, and alternatives to the MFA. The seminar will include two panels focusing on MFAs and alternatives. Panelists include Kyle Dargan, David Everett, David Fenza, Joshua Weiner, Jill Leininger, Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli, Sara Taber, Tim Denevi, and moderator Nicole Idar.

The first panel, "MA and MFA Nuts & Bolts"–consisting of directors of local MFA and MA programs–will meet from 10 am to noon. The second, "Personal Journeys," from 1 to 3 p.m., will consist of individuals who’ll relate their particular journeys as writers and the role the MFA played, or did not play, in the process. 

The day includes a 1-hour break for lunch between the two panels, and a wine and cheese reception after the second panel. There will also be light refreshments (muffins, orange juice and coffee) at 9:30 a.m. before the first panel meets.

Morning Panel:

Kyle G. Dargan is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Logorrhea Dementia (UGA, 2010). His debut, The Listening  (UGA, 2004), won the 2003 Cave Canem Prize, and his second, Bouquet of Hungers (UGA, 2007), was awarded the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry. Dargan’s poems and non-fiction have appeared in publications such as Callaloo, Denver Quarterly, Jubilat, The Newark Star-Ledger, Ploughshares, TheRoot.com, and Shenandoah. He is the founding editor of Post No Ills magazine and was most recently the managing editor of Callaloo.

David Everett is the academic director of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and is responsible for the day-to-day direction of students, faculty, and the curriculum. He teaches nonfiction, science-medical writing, and the program's thesis course, and has been involved in the design of nearly all program courses. His reporting and writing have won many awards, including the highest honor for Washington Correspondence from the Society of Professional Journalists; investigative awards from the University of Missouri, the Associated Press, and various other organizations.

David W. Fenza, Executive Director of Association of Writers and Writing Programs, has taught creative writing, literature, and composition at Johns Hopkins University, Old Dominion University, Essex Community College, and Goucher College, and he has served as editor for numerous literary magazines. He is the author of a book-length poem, The Interlude. A graduate of the writing programs at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa, he earned his Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His poetry and criticism have appeared in The Antioch Review, Poet and Critic, and many other publications.

Joshua Weiner is author of three collections of poems, The World’s Room, From the Book of Giants (2006), which received the Larry Levis Award from Virginia Commonwealth University, and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish, all published by University of Chicago Press. He is also editor of a book of essays, At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn.  He is on faculty of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland. 

Afternoon Panel:

Tim Denevi received his MFA from the nonfiction workshop at the University of Iowa.  His work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Hawai’i Review, Wag’s Review, Denver Syntax and Hobart. He currently teaches in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland and at The Writer’s Center. His first book, Freak Kingdom, a memoir/history of ADHD, will be released in 2014 by Simon and Schuster. 

Jill Leininger earned her MFA in Poetry in 1999 from The University of Oregon, where she was also an instructor of poetry and an associate editor of the Northwest Review. Her second poetry chapbook, Sky Never Sleeps, was selected by Mark Doty in the Bloom Chapbook Contest.

Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli is a graduate of Seton Hill University (B.A., Studio Art) and Warren Wilson College (MFA, Poetry). She has been a Fellow at both the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Ragdale Foundation. She is a recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist's Grant in Poetry and is a poetry workshop leader at the Writer’s Center.

Sara Mansfield Taber is the author of Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter (Potomac Books), as well as two books of literary journalism: Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia (Henry Holt) and Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf (Beacon). She was a past William Sloane Fellow in Nonfiction at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and has been awarded residencies in creative nonfiction at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Moderator: Nicole Idar's stories have appeared in World Literature Today, Rattapallax, and The New Ohio Review, where she was as a finalist for the 2009 Fiction Prize. She holds an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University. She was an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida spring 2012, and was in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the fall of 2012.


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Mark your calendars, friends--lots of exciting things coming up. I'd love to see you.


An Open Letter to Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees; Or, "What now?"



[[Note: this letter was also sent via email to libraryboard@fairfaxcounty.gov.]]

Dear Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees,

First: Thank you. You are volunteers, appointed because our elected officials respect your judgment and your history of action. You serve the Fairfax County Public Library system, which spans nine districts, in an age when we all feel over-scheduled. Your time is valuable, and we thank you for it. 

Recently, the Board has received a great deal of criticism for actions pertaining to the Library's new organization model. In August, Mary Vavrina, vice president of The Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, wrote an essay decrying potential outcomes of the implementation of the "Beta Project"--including staff reductions that would eliminate children/youth services librarians, and no longer require any employee to hold a Masters of Library Science (MLS) Degree. This week, the Washington Post described the creation of the "floating collection," ending the assignment of books to specific branches, as well as the mass disposal of what may have been as many as 250,000 books. Public response was immediate and fierce, and at a crowded September 11 Board meeting, you opted to reconsider your strategic plan

What now?

As the author of three books, with a fourth forthcoming, I'm invested in your decision. More importantly, I still carry my Fairfax County Public Library card. My family still lives in Vienna. I spent long hours reading while curled up in a beanbag chair at the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, from Beverly Cleary to Stephen King. In the summer, I checked out books 50 at a time. I got a sticker or a stamp for every book I read in July. Remember the guinea pig you used to keep in a big fish tank by the windows? I do. I read my first issue of The New Yorker in your periodicals section. Your shelves are where I found my very first copy of Poet's Market, and dreamed of where I might publish someday. 

I once wrote for W.W. Norton about my love of public libraries, articulating the community values they entrench. For many children, a library card is their first experience with the social contract: e.g., shared possession of an item they must be trusted not to mangle or lose. Seeing a book that is particularly well-thumbed connects us with the scores of people who chose it before us; we browse not only with our eyes, but with our hands. The matrices of the Dewey Decimal system orders books in a way that is both logical (by category of topic) and arbitrary (by letter of last name), creating powerful juxtapositions; we discover new authors by fate, by chance, by feel. 

You'll notice that everything I mention above emphasizes the physical presence of the book. But in your strategic plan (which I read, twice), here's what's missing: the books. The word "book" appears an average of less than once per page. In your conclusion passage, "Moving Forward," the word appears only in this context: "Libraries are changing, the library profession is changing, and the very definition of a 'book' is changing." Hmmm. Though throwing away thousands of books may not have been explicitly mandated in the strategic plan, there's no denying that it's an organic outcome of the plan's priorities. 

Funny how this is how that same paragraph ends: "We all need to be on the same page in order to move forward together." Though this plan devalues books over and over in favor of "information," it can't resist using the symbolic rhetoric of the artifact. Even in this age, the book is powerful. You've got to give us a plan that recognizes that. 

I've served on boards. I've read a lot of strategic plans. When I see illustrations like this one, on page 18:



...I see a generic plan, devoid of attention to what library should do. I see the word "customer" and shiver. Though I admire how libraries have absorbed the role of a traditional neighborhood rec centers in recent decades, let's be clear: FCPL is charged with cultivating readers, not customers. Tying community functions to literacy and the dissemination of the written word should be at the core of what FCPL does. Someone's coming in for a flu shot? Your job is to make sure they read the pamphlet. 

I remember gathering with other kids to watch Misty on VHS at the library in a darkened side-room, peeking through my fingers during the scary parts where I worried the horse might die. Yes, I was there to see a movie on a June day, but the librarian used the subsequent discussion afterwards to steer us toward Marguerite Henry's novel, Misty of Chincoteague, which I then read. Same with Black Beauty. That's the "extra step" that strategic plans exist to ensure, so each activity or expenditure ultimately fulfill one's mission. Yeah, the arc of planning those hours is more work-intensive than popping in Battleship. But if you cultivate smart, motivated staff--rather than driving away those with higher degrees--you'll see such programs happen. 

In recent years, libraries have become a prized resource for wireless internet and eBooks. I don't object to that, particularly in the spirit of free access to information for all. But I notice that in diagrams such as this one, on page 10, under "Cornerstones and Guiding Statements":


...a corrosive distinction is being made between books, viewed as the library's past, and the library's future. Books are a form of technology. If you don't believe me, ask Johannes Gutenberg; ask Tan Lin. I don't argue with the observation that books have drawbacks compared to other modes of access to creative and scholarly work. But books have unique advantages, too. Books are not a defunct precursor to "technology." Scrub that thought from this plan, please. 

One of the sore points of discussion has been that the Fairfax County Public Libraries have gathered insufficient feedback from their constituents. I am sympathetic to the frustration of having little attendance at the town hall meetings that were held. But I'm wary of the proposed means of future feedback, e.g. the 900 respondents also volunteered to become FCPL Customer Advisors by "providing input to online queries three to four times each year." Not everyone is comfortable with the format of receiving and responding to online queries. That's the realm of the tech-savvy. Has anyone noted the inherent bias that will enter the data, if there isn't a counterbalancing survey of people via hard copy written forms? 

When I called my mother to share my distress over the news of recent FCPL trends, she put it best. All the emphasis is on cultivating people's connection with a screen, she said. Instead of our connections with each other. 

I realize that there is a certain beleaguered mindset at work. Funding cuts have been merciless. As evidenced in the strategic plan: "In FY 2011 Fairfax County faced a budget shortfall of $257 million and the library’s budget was reduced an additional 6 percent. Additional staff were lost and operating hours reduced again by 9 percent." Yet the plan goes on to declare, "With a more stable budget outlook, the focus has shifted from survival, to becoming as vital to the lives of Fairfax County residents as possible." 

That's wonderful. That also means that you're committing to a higher standard to engagement between librarians and readers. I'm concerned that in asking every staffer to be fluent in all on-site duties--from opening and closing, to check-out, to web guidance, to reference database searches, to recommending titles from the children's section and adult thrillers alike--you're squeezing out the dedicated talent that makes for great service. The conversations people remember from visiting their library come from vibrant, learned recommendations by people with areas of expertise. Specialization is not a bad thing. 

I'm not a nostalgist. Much as I could wax poetic about the days of chatting with the librarian as she stamped the card in the back of my latest Encyclopedia Brown or Hercule Poirot title, I accept the expediency of putting scannable codes on the spines, and of self-checkout options. Change is good, and normal. But in response to the question of "Why does FCPL exist?," the current strategic plan's answer--to “educate, enrich and empower our diverse community”--is boilerplate jargon. Perhaps “to provide books, storytime programs and Internet access” insufficiently describes what the library does, while the larger list that includes "a clean, safe space" and "an app for handheld devices" is overwhelming. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Your mission is in the spirit of that litany. 

I live in DC now, and so in a sense I am commenting as an outsider. But my connection to home is strong. Growing up where I did was a privilege (for all the reasons celebrated on page 8 of that strategic plan). I became a writer because of Fairfax County, and I want others to have that opportunity. Your public library system has every potential to stand out on the national landscape, and you have received a mandate from your constituency to make that happen. Start with a new strategy. In Latin, liber as an adjective means "free." As a noun, "child." Romans used the word to describe the bark of a tree--and therefore, for "book." Could there be any more perfect constellation of meanings?


Sincerely,
Sandra Beasley

The Other Self


We glimpse our Other Selves, from time to time. The actor/actress/porn star who has your eyes and cheekbones, causing the cashier to double-take. Seeing a younger brother playing with his son, while you have chosen not to have kids. Passing a trimmer version of yourself on the sidewalk; eyeing her work-out clothes, the racquet she's carrying, and thinking I never should have given up tennis or Gotta get a haircut.

I've been thinking of the ways we determine our lives. (Photograph of "Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967" by Diane Arbus.) There are subjective choices--things we could have done differently, but much the same end. For me that includes choosing a graduate program in Virginia or DC, either of which fundamentally returned me to this literary community. Or working things out with men who, let's face it, sooner or later would have imploded no matter what I did. But then there's the life-changers, like passing up on a magazine job that would have moved me to the Berkshires when I was 24. Or, five years later, saying Yes to living in Mississippi for a month. 

There is a time when I considered enrolling in PhD programs. But I didn't apply for a couple of reasons. First, I always worried I was a bit uptight--a brittle perfectionist--and six years of scholarly study seemed like it would only compound that personality trait. Second, I was utterly embarrassed at my lack of a second language. (I'd studied Latin in high school, but dropped it before the AP level.)

My MFA gave me everything I needed to embark on a creative writing career. But sometimes I wish I'd done a doctoral program for two specific purposes: I'd love to write a collection of craft essays, and I'd love to edit an anthology. I'm enough out of the PhD loop that I don't actually know if either track is honored, as opposed to writing critical essays--but if not, they should be. Making time for either feels so unlikely in this stage of my life, in which I often have to take a crass dollars-per-word approach to writing--that's the trade-off of being a "full-time writer." Poetry is my indulgence, my pleasure; feels like I can't afford a prose one. Travel is hard on the scholarly brain. 

But Daniel Nester has done what I have not. (Translation: He is amazing.) His Incredible Sestina Anthology is going to be a beyond-smashing collection--the table of contents includes everyone from Sherman Alexie to Elizabeth Bishop to John Ashbery to Anne Waldman. I'm honored to be included; I hope there are whole courses built around it. That's another craft essay that I keep making notes toward in my head..."Confessions of a Sestina Addict." The book is going to be out from Write Bloody in October, and you can pre-order it here

A question, particularly if you're still a student: what is the most outlandish dream you have, in terms of your craft? What is the location/program/career that makes that feel most possible? The Other Self always seems to have a bigger life, and of course that's not true; don't be seduced by that. But don't minimize your options, either.

Poems About the Body


Landscape.
Politic.
Costume.
Confession.
Debt.
Declaration.
What you wake into.
What you dance out of.
A body. 
The body.

A few weeks back, Facebook friends offered suggestions for poems about the body. Here is a variation of that list, in no particular order and with links to texts (always best to check online texts against the original source). Suggestions came from poetry lovers, teachers, editors, and authors, including Ada Limón, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, and Robert Pinsky. Enjoy~
("Nude, 1936," Edward Weston) 


"A Story about the Body" by Robert Hass
"homage to my hips" by Lucille Clifton 
"My Beloved" & "Breasts" by Charles Simic
"The Consolations of Sociobiology" by Bill Knott 
In Posse Review's "Poetry and the Body" issue by various 
"Embalming" by Scott Cairns
"[i like my body]" by e.e. cummings
"The Plan is the Body" by Robert Creeley 
...no text, but audio of Creeley reading here
"Catalyst" by A.R. Ammons
"Spring and All" by William Carlos Williams
"Passages 18: The Torso" by Robert Duncan 
"Ode to My Hands" by Tim Seibles  
"The Race" by Sharon Olds 
"History of My Body" by Marie-Elizabeth Mali
...no text, but video of Mali reading here
"the floating poem, unnumbered" by Adrienne Rich 
"Sonnet XXVII" by Pablo Neruda 
"Hands" by Sarah Kay
...no text, but video of Kay reading here
"First Poem for You" by Kim Addonizio
“Thirty Lines about the Fro” by Allison Joseph
“A Hand” by Jane Hirshfield
“Sean Penn Anti-Ode” by Dean Young
“The Routine Things Around the House” by Stephen Dunn
“Consider the Hand That Writes This Letter” by Aracelis Girmay
"New Heaven and Earth" by D. H. Lawrence
"Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh" by Thomas James 
"The Bladder" by David Keplinger 
"My Husband's Back" by Susan Minot
"Not the Furniture Game" by Simon Armitage
"The Connoisseuse of Slugs" by Sharon Olds
"Samurai Song" by Robert Pinsky 
"Strongly Scented Sonnet" by Rhoda Janzen 
"The Cleaving" by Li-Young Lee 
"Question" by May Swenson
"The Lovers" by Dorianne Laux
"Free Union (L'Union libre)" by André Breton 
"I Knew a Woman" by Theodore Roethke 
"The Language of the Brag" by Sharon Olds 
"I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power's Out" by Andrea Gibson 
...or video of Gibson reading here
"The Body is Not an Apology" by Sonya Renee 
...no text, but video of Renee reading here
"How to Make Love to a Trans Person" by Gabe Moses
"In Celebration of My Uterus" by Anne Sexton 
"Hip-Hop Ghazal" by Patricia Smith 
"Anodyne" by Yusef Komunyakaa 
...or video of Komunyakaa reading here 


"Anything from..."
e.e. cummings
Beth Bachmann's Temper
Frank Bidart
Walt Whitman
Sharon Olds
David Keplinger's The Most Natural Thing
Stacey Waite's Butch Geography
Morgan Lucas Schuldt

Sally Rosen Kindred suggested Lisa Russ Spaar's "Hallowe'en," going so far as to type it out. (The poem appears nowhere online and Glass Town, Spaar's first collection, is out of print.) I've loved that poem for years, so thanks to Sally for the excuse to share it here:

HALLOWE'EN


On the night of skulled gourds,
of small, masked demons
begging at the door,
a man cradles his eldest daughter
in the family room. She's fourteen,
she's dying because she will not eat
anymore. The doorbell keeps ringing;
his wife gives the sweets away.
He rubs the scalp
through his girl's thin hair.
She sleeps. He does not know
what to do.
When the carved pumpkin
gutters in the windowglass,
his little son races through the room,
his black suit printed with bones
that glow in the dark.
His pillowsack bulges with candy,
and he yelps with joy.
The father wishes he were young.
He's afraid of the dream
she's burning back to,
his dream of her before her birth,
so pure, so perfect,
with no body to impede her light.


~Lisa Russ Spaar

John Hollander: An Appreciation

Only as I paste in his photo, do I realize: I never actually met John Hollander. That's a punch in the gut, a regret. Because he is in my DNA as a writer. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I took a course on poetic forms with Stephen Cushman, who had himself taken a course on forms with John Hollander while a graduate student at Yale. We studied Hollander's nimble articulations of iambs and sonnets; for the first time I really got the difference between a dactyl and an anapest, and scansion became a language I could speak. I loved the idea that the formal qualities of a poem, if handled with knowing intent, could offer clues to interpretation and an organic rhetoric--with the qualities of conflict, compromise, closure--apart from explicit text. My left-brain self, which had once thrived on the studies of mathematics and science, was engaged for the first time. I abandoned my fixation on a "practical" life course, e.g. law school, to the goal of becoming a writer. 

So I looked for MFA programs that heeded form and world traditions, which brought me to American University, and Washington, DC. I took a full-time job at the Phi Beta Kappa Society's national headquarters to cover tuition and living expenses, and discovered that Hollander was one of the judges for a book prize I administered. When I came on board, all of the first-round reads were already sent out--except, I realized, a book that had been misfiled under the award for poetry (creative) versus poetry (criticism). I leafed through the book, thought "This looks substantial," and pleaded with my supervisor that it should be considered. She said, OK--if I could convince a judge to take on an extra book. That judge turned out to be John Hollander ("talk poet to poet," I steeled myself before asking him) and the book, Susan Stewart's Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, went on to win the 2003 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism. One of my earliest lessons that even when you're an underling, paying attention and speaking up can change the course of events. 

Of course, as any administrator will attest, some of our exchanges were less fruitful. I once had to plead with him to turn in some overdue reader reports. He responded by saying the books in question had been delivered to his mailbox at the end of his driveway, but his driveway was long and very icy, and did I want him breaking a bone in the name of Phi Beta Kappa? His voice was kind in phone calls, but reserved.  

All the while I was driving to AU three times a week for class, where my principle mentor was Henry Taylor--who I had first sought out as an overzealous UVA first year, looking to interview a poet for my underground lit mag. At the time he was on a clerihew kick. We'd talked for hours, then stayed in touch; he recommended me for a fellowship, and then on the first day of classes he told me he was retiring. Ooof. He stayed around until my thesis was complete, and we segued to "independent study," which meant sitting in his office talking (a little bit of) poetry and telling (a whole lot of) stories. Which is how I heard about the time he arrived at a literary conference and, because he could, adopted the name tag of...John Hollander. And attended the party accordingly, making conversation, answering questions. This would have been back in Henry's drinking days, and I don't think Dr. Hollander appreciated the homage. But I was delighted by the tale--a humanizing lesson that even great scholars could be pranksters, and could be pranked. In those AU office days Henry also workshopped my Chronic Medea sonnet sequence, and played matchmaker between me and the sestina. In all the important ways, Dr. Hollander, he carried on your values. 


Now, when I teach--before I consider any other craft book for the syllabus--I use John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason. No other book is so deft and concise in demonstrating principles of sound, line, and meter. It's benzedrine for form-lovers. Consider this effortless example:

"A line can be end-stopped, just like this one,
Or it can show enjambment, just like this
One, where the sense straddles two lines: you feel
As if from shore you'd stepped into a boat;"

Or this:

"Milton and Wordsworth made the sonnet sound
Again in a new way; not with the sighs
Of witty passion, where fierce reason lies
Entombed in end-stopped lines, or tightly bound
In chains of quatrain: more like something found
Than built--a smooth stone on a sandy rise,
A drop of dew secreted from the sky's
Altitude, unpartitioned, whole and round.
The octave's over; now, gently defying
Its opening tone, the sestet then recalls
Old rhythms and old thoughts, enjambed, half-heard
As verses in themselves. The final word,
Five lines way from what it rhymes with, falls
Off into silence, like an echo dying."

I'll be honest: Rhyme's Reason is rarely the students' favorite part of the semester. For most of them, his didactic exercises go down like cough syrup, his jokes seem contrived, his tastes old-fashioned. They're only too happy to scoot along to free verse and talking about what the poem means to them. But there's always one or two who perk up--who appreciate, like I did in college, that intensity of wit and those acrobatics of language, and who embrace that poetry can have both objective and subjective qualities. For those one or two students, he's a revelation. The lineage continues.

Rest in peace, John Hollander. You were a brilliant scholar. You shaped my ear, and my sensibility (and many more than me, more than a simplistic head-count of "formalists" would describe). Yet you were also a real person in the real world, and that helped me envision a future where I, too, could be a real poet. I am so grateful.

The Hangman



Over the weekend I was looking up pastor Martin Niemöller's poem ("First they came for the communists...."), which I had push-pinned to the wall of my teenage bedroom. Along the way I found this, which I'd never seen before: a 1964 short video adaptation of Maurice Ogden's poem, "The Hangman." The production team is Paul Julian, who did the animation, and director Les Goldman. The narrator is character actor Herschel Bernardi, who was the singing voice of Zero Mostel in the Broadway launch of Fiddler on the Roof (he also voiced the Jolly Green Giant, and Charley the Starkist Tuna, though that seems almost unfair to mention). The music is composed by Serge Hovey, who was also part of the effort to record the complete songs of Robert Burns. 

This is really quite beautiful--and chilling. Now that I've seen it, I can't get it out of my head. Thanks to the Academic Film Archive of North America for archiving it online. 

Poetry Calling

Last night we had a big crowd for the Omission Summer Poetry Tour's stop at Baked & Wired (which serves all your standard coffeehouse fare...plus sweet tea so rich it should carry a warning label...plus bacon cupcakes). The work was great; as I told the audience, this felt like a snapshot of What's Being Written Now, and I was honored to be part of that constellation. Our host Diana Khoi Nguyen was every bit the charmer I expected. Justin Boening read before me, and is pictured below. His PSA chapbook (selected by Dara Wier) is gorgeous, and I'm looking forward to it. My vision of "area poets" got a little bigger, as I learned Miriam Bird Greenberg had spent the summer tending to a grandmother who lives mere miles from my family's house in Vienna, and John Fenlon Hogan is here to stay awhile. 


Afterwards we wandered down to Mr. Smith's, one of those venerable Georgetown institutions with the crumbly brick and the peacock-hued stained glass, where we snagged two tables in an outdoor courtyard. I wouldn't want to be there on a Friday night when the Jager-bombs are 4 for $10, but on a Monday night it was kind of awesome thanks to inexpensive house IPAs, a basket of curly fries for the table, and a surprisingly tasty vegan Israeli couscous dish with spinach and "sundry" tomatoes (how that snuck on the menu is a mystery). All of which took a backseat to the conversation, the kind of totally indulgent poetry-talk--on blurbs and contests and conferences and feuds--that I crave but rarely find outside AWP. I had fun eavesdropping on the post-Columbia MFA conversations, a program whose dynamics seem so very different from my time at American University. 

Not surprisingly, I woke up this morning wanting to write. There's about five calls for poems that are uppermost on my radar, on topics ranging from perfume to gravy to politics. Like many poets I'm both lured in by the Los Angeles Times' call for "op-ed" poems and turned off by the condescension of the tone ("if you have an opinion that can only be expressed in rhymed iambic pentameter or lively doggerel, in a haiku or limerick, now's your chance to express it"). 


I've also been inspired to dive back into blogs. Leslie Pietrzyk has an epic recount of her travels through small-town Georgia, which I must re-read before I embark on the Georgia Poetry Circuit in spring 2014, which takes me to nine colleges around the state for readings. Gotta brush up on my Flannery O'Connor before then, too. I found out from Victoria Chang's blog that she has a third book out, The Boss, courtesy of the new McSweeney's poetry imprint. You can subscribe to said imprint, $40 for four "issues" (a.k.a. books). I'm assuming these are poems in series with the ones she wrote for VQR a few issues back--fragmented views of a dystopian workplace--which has me intrigued. And I'm not going to link to any one post on "The French Exit," because they're all so damn good; Elisa Gabbert keeps one of the most interesting and substantive blogs among poets these days, even when (like most of us now) she only updates once a week. 

There's a lot to do. I must be a little more settled, because creative ideas are simmering to the surface again. but there's a LOT to do. Luckily this life is long...and also I have enough kale and watermelon in the fridge to skip grocery shopping for a bit.


REVIEW:


Joshua Robbins. Praise Nothing (The University of Arkansas Press, 2013).



Despair, and its accomplice Acedia (the spiritual version of ennui), have been part of literature since at least Chaucer’s disturbing portrait of the Pardoner. Recent poetry knows these complex feelings best from Berryman’s mantic and morose Henry, who makes a game of his despair and invites the reader to play along. In Berryman’s dream songs, we are surprised to see that rather than nullifying the poetic impulse, despair urges the poet toward enumeration, that the poetic analog of Acedia is not silence but rather catalog. There seems to be something about despair that drives one to ever closer examination of what is, as if the fear of the void pushes a poet to cling frantically to the variety, the astounding copiousness of the material world. This same tendency to turn despair into catalog, into ontological enumeration is apparent in Joshua Robbins’ debut volume, Praise Nothing.



Praise Nothing announces its despair in its title and begins with a poem in the form of a list. The poet names “the streetlights’ high murmur,” “the rattle of shopping carts,” “the skirr of asphalt // worn to gravel” and on in a minutely observed and detailed catalog of a decaying suburbia. The poem’s insistence that “nothing / need be forgiven,” its essential nihilism expressed in lines like “whatever / your thoughts of heaven / by now they’d be long // unutterable,” is in creative tension with the abundance of the imagery. This tension animates the poems throughout this book. I could pick examples from anywhere and begin cataloging Robbins’ catalogs, but let the poem “Collateral” suffice as an example, as it is very explicit on the matter. In the silence after listening to his neighbor beat a stray dog with a two-by-four, the poem’s speaker tells us

                                    it was



                        as if this world had never been

                                    more pure, that the rasped October



                        breeze through the birch trees on our street

                                    meant nothing, saw nothing, could say



                        nothing. There was only silence,

                                    then a clang of wood on concrete



                        and, somewhere, the dead leaves stirring.



The creative tension between the urge toward nothingness and the urge toward enumeration is evident in the brilliant line break between “as if this world had never been” and “more pure,” a taking away and a giving. Again as the poem ends, he creates silence, then fills it with the two-by-four dropping, the leaves stirring. The book stays energized by never settling into total negation nor simple abundance: neither second-rate Baudelaire nor second-rate Whitman, neither Nine-Inch Nails nor Mary Oliver.



Thus, when I point to the thread of nihilism in Robbins’ book, the tendency toward negation, it should be understood that this nihilism is tentative and contested, always at odds with the intense desire to recover faith. Such is always the way with despair, which is, after all, not a form so much of atheism (one could not imagine a despairing Richard Dawkins) as a form of frustrated desire. Think of the Pardoner’s preoccupation with the language of salvation or Berryman’s Henry always teetering on the verge of hymn (or indeed of Berryman’s own last works, such as “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”). This desire for belief is expressed in poems such as “When I Say Hymn,” in which the speaker expresses clearly the will to believe in lines such as “the day after the fire // we sang over the sanctuary’s / ashy smolder.” The image itself carries the tension of faith and despair, of hymn and ash. We see this tension also in “Heaven As Nothing but Distance,” in which the poet declares, “I could not even begin to count / all the things I wished to believe in,” again linking a faith deprived with a sense of the copiousness of the world.



In Praise Nothing Robbins shares many characteristics with poets whom we may call, loosely, the best of the “neo-confessional,” poets such as Matthew Zapruder or Matthew Dickman, born in the 70’s or 80’s, writing about the vacuity of American life, drawing frequently on popular culture and personal reminiscence: edgy and direct yet also, at times, experimental. (Another good example, and well worth a read, is Jeff Simpson, author of Vertical Hold). Robbins’ religious sensibilities, however, add something unique to his work, a reaching after eternity even as the poet seems to feel that his reach exceeds his grasp.