Next up: an African road trip

Zimbabwe strip road

Thrilled and excited to have been awarded an Arts Council bursary, which will enable me to travel to Zimbabwe and South Africa to research and write my next book. I leave next week! I plan to keep a reading record and a weekly journal, describing my two-month trip. I had been feeling some trepidation about returning to a country in a state of economic crisis, but now that there’s an atmosphere of jubilation and hope about future prospects, I can’t wait. As Aristotle said, ‘There is always something new coming out of Africa.’ Let’s see.

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Insights from the Don Share masterclass at the Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat

Don Share 2

I was lucky enough to be one of fourteen poets to get a place on the three-day Masterclass with Don Share at the magical Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat in Ardmore. I have dozens of pages of notes, but this is a glimpse into some of the insights he offered. Yes, we know many of these things already, but it’s good to be reminded. And this is Don Share – if we pay attention, we might just get into Poetry Magazine one day.

The first thing Don looks at is the shape of the poem on a page. If it has sections, do the sections help? He likes names rather than pronouns. Names are striking things, he says. They can do a lot in a poem. Look at the etymology of words. What does Inchigeela mean? A place name becomes imbued with the qualities of its history. Be curious. Don’t just say ‘tree’ – what kind of tree? What kind of bog? A name becomes irrefutable.

Workshop at the Molly Keane Writers' Retreat

He advocates paying as much attention to titles as to the poems themselves. We can encode meaning in images, he says, so it’s important to choose images that are genuinely resonant for you. He referenced Wallace Stevens’ Anecdote of the Jar:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

– the jar doesn’t exist of course. It’s in his imagination, but it becomes as real as Marianne Moore’s toad in the garden.

A good poem has concision, but discursiveness has its place too. He encouraged us to push poems to their logical extreme – they might be really long poems by the end. Although don’t, he said, add to the mystification of the world without purpose.

He says poets should recycle everything. Write the poem on the left side and copious notes on the right – some of these might transfer over into the poem. Some of the poem might be cut. What isn’t used in the poem can be used elsewhere.

A turf fire and a bunch of writers

Eliminate ambiguity, but don’t spell out what the poem is about either. If your tendency is to write long lines, write longer ones. Look at what CK Williams does:

Butchers

Thank goodness we were able to wipe the Neanderthals out, beastly things,
from our mountains, our tundra—that way we had all the meat we might need.

Thus the butcher can display under our very eyes his hands on the block,
and never refer to the rooms hidden behind where dissections are effected,

where flesh is reduced to its shivering atoms and remade for our delectation
as cubes, cylinders, barely material puddles of admixtured horror and blood.

Rembrandt knew of all this—isn’t his flayed beef carcass really a caveman?
It’s Christ also, of course, but much more a troglodyte such as we no longer are.

Vanished those species—begone!—those tribes, those peoples, those nations—
Myrmidon, Ottoman, Olmec, Huron, and Kush: gone, gone, and goodbye.

2

But back to the chamber of torture, to Rembrandt, who was telling us surely
that hoisted with such cables and hung from such hooks we too would reveal

within us intricate layerings of color and pain: alive the brush is with pain,
aglow with the cruelties of crimson, the cooled, oblivious ivory of our innards.

Fling out the hooves of your hands! Open your breast, pluck out like an Aztec
your heart howling its Cro-Magnon cries that compel to battles of riddance!

Our own planet at last, where purged of wilderness, homesickness, prowling,
we’re no longer compelled to devour our enemies’ brains, thanks to our butcher,

who inhabits this palace, this senate, this sentried, barbed-wire enclosure
where dare enter none but subservient breeze; bent, broken blossom; dry rain.

Move stanzas around; the second stanza might end up as the final stanza. Use your intuition.

Let your landscape write you. Yeats becomes self-mythologizing by writing himself into place. He appropriates names, puts them in poems, and creates a resonance across cultures and time periods. ‘What’s Yeats without Fergus and Maud?’

Your aim should be to become un-ignorable. John Ashbery is un-ignorable, even though you might not like his work: here’s a link to his eleven-page poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a poem Don Share says he can’t ‘unsee’: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=32944

Conceive of your work as having a high value, he said. Don’t weaken your poem by apologising for it.

Poetry Magazine publishes three hundred poems a year. Don Share and his fellow reader, Christina Pugh, read 150 000 poems to find those three hundred. He reads every poem. Imagine. What he looks for is a fact he doesn’t know. Some striking detail. An odd, or stubborn poem, something ‘recondite, almost alienating, even, as long as it’s un-ignorable’. He doesn’t always like the poems he publishes, he says, so there’s no point in trying to decipher his taste.

me at the Molly Keane writers' retreat

Resistance to a poem is important, he says. If it still follows you about and settles in, it’s time to pay attention. ‘I don’t know what Wallace Stevens’ poems are saying, and I don’t want to know,’ he says. ‘But he is opposing his imagination against the violence of reality. It’s a work of resistance.’

Look for the things that can power a poem. He doesn’t like false modesty, people saying ‘it’s only a poem.’ This indicates that they’re not willing to be serious. It lets them off the hook.

Also, the poems we see in an anthology are the result of a long journey of failed poems. ‘Yeats wrote some terrible poems!’ he said. But you can’t get to the great poems without the bad poems. You must have confidence that something is worth working on.

When ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (what a name! What a title!) was published, people said, ‘this is not a poem.’ But it is intractable, as are The Four Quartets and The Wasteland.

We heard loads of anecdotes about various poets. While Yeats was ‘a lunatic’, Eliot suffered from perceiving there was something missing in him, including passion. Pound devoted decades to writing his cantos but in the end felt that his life’s work was a failure. He gave up writing, and even stopped speaking.

Don talked about the fact that we don’t write – or read – in a vacuum. Everything is connected. Poems and poets exist alongside each other. This creates a context. Our poems address something found in another writer’s work. Show all your influences in your poems, he said.

Look for the structural principle in your poem – it may be plain-spoken and straightforward, or it could have a clear soundscape. A long poem or series of sequences could be connected, for example, by rivers, as John Ashbery’s Into the Dusk-Charged Air is: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/into-the-dusk-charged-air/

‘When I look at a poem, I try to imagine its opposite,’ said Don. If it’s long, how would it work as a short poem, and vice versa. Richard Ford says write something as though it’s 100% true – and then say the opposite.

He talked about style, how a person’s style is unmistakable: Virginia Woolf’s style was a profusion of words and a disruption of syntax. Auden ‘throws in the kitchen sink; he’s coarse, jokey, a smarty-pants.’ But it’s good to encounter another writer’s style, ‘and let it in – then put yourself in. Say things only you can account for.’ Jorie Graham’s style is to write ‘fast’ and her work is very personal; she writes about her father’s illness / dying/ terrible secrets about her family’s history. Masks are an idea she got from Yeats. What we inherit as poets is something related to the wearing of masks. Truths otherwise obscured can be conveyed in the process. Don reminded us of the power of masks in many cultures.

Jorie Graham has renounced a lot of what she’s written, and says that she doesn’t want to be ‘gratuitously exploitative and condemning.’ But readers always want to see her latest work. Louise Glück has a restless intelligence, feeds on things, and moves on.

If you’re in the habit of doing things one way, switch gears.

Virginia Brownlow, Molly Keane's daughter

We should write about what is specific to us, our place and time. Prose writers take on the big questions. This is something more poets need to do. Not just the immediate things, but the larger perspective. There is a tendency these days to be too narcissistic: ‘This happened to me. That’s all.’ What is the point? And our attention span is too short. He is interested in seeing more long poems – a commitment.

He talked about Ocean Vuong’s début collection. The writing is powerful. At every reading, Don says, people cry.

There has to be an honesty of approach.

Don Share doesn’t go for reticence. Go for more detail, he says. ‘A poem is a room, and it has to be furnished.’

Do the hardest thing it’s in your power to do, he says. Lack of courage and ambition are the greatest let-down. ‘I think people don’t work hard enough,’ he said. Competent poems are the worst thing. ‘I have to wrestle with that,’ he said. Remember, you are stuck with the things that have your name on them. It’s better not to write often.

The most interesting poets are those who do inexplicable things.

He said the most important book to come out of the States in the last thirty years is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. It addresses the question of race, and how language can wound. She coins the term: ‘micro-aggressions’ and lists innocent black people who have been killed by the police, leaving space for the reader to add more names. Because there will be more names. The cumulative effect on people is ‘to wreck them’, he said.

But everything is up for negotiation, he says. ‘I’m happy to be wrong about everything.’

Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest

kate tempest.jpg

Street poet, rapper, playwright and impossible-to-pigeonhole polymath Kate Tempest has achieved an unprecedented double.

Her hip-hop album Everybody Down has been shortlisted for the Mercury prize. Tempest has also been selected by the Poetry Book Society as one of 20 next generation poets, a prestigious list picked just once per decade. The 27-year-old is the youngest of the crop and described herself as “humbled, terrified and proud”, adding: “Bit bonkers, isn’t it?”

This all comes the year after Tempest scooped the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry (the first person under 40 to win it), the Off-West End Theatre award (aka “the Offies”) and a Herald Angel award at the Edinburgh fringe. A visionary. South Africa had Mandela. England has Kate Tempest.

Philosophy of Life by John Ashbery

john-ashbery_400x400

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something
William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the
fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one.

John Lawrence Ashbery was an American poet. He published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Renowned for its postmodern complexity and opacity, Ashbery’s work still proves controversial. But this one’s a gem, I think. And I always go to him for a challenge! R.I.P. dear man.

The Day Lady Died by Frank O’Hara

o_hara_frank

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life

and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died” from Lunch Poems.
Copyright © 1964 by Frank O’Hara.
The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (City Light Books,1995)

EVE & ADAM by Rethabile Masilo

Rethabile Masilo

This is a reading of this poem
because this poem yearns to be read.
‘Read me’, it says to girls passing with clay-pots
on their heads, bangles on wrists. Monica
read it to Bill, pausing between lines for this poem
to sink in, the way Camilla kissed Charles
with her tongue when this poem revealed itself
to her. And so this poem is barred from Poems
on the Underground. This poem
is read by women whose husbands
haven fallen to cancer, voices trailing the lines
like sound behind light, or mechanical waves
chasing photons, or the sound of an aeroplane
you can no longer see. Our neighbour
kept reciting this poem every day
till the moon of her mind moved
into her window, and she lay in the arms
of a gentleman’s kindness again. Strauss-Kahn
missed the point of the whole thing, but Eve
read it to Adam on the eve of their sin.
Suddenly aware of the lock and key design
of genitals, he said this poem back to her,
spat in his hand and rubbed her crotch.

Lesotho-born Rethabile Masilo is a Paris-based poet whose first poetry collection, Things That Are Silent, was published by Pindrop Press in 2012. His second book, Waslap, was published in 2015 by The Onslaught Press.Blog

Driving to Santa Fe by Paisley Rekdal

Rekdal_Paisley(c-Austen Diamond)

(Photo credit, Austen Diamond)

Quick swim up through my headlights: gold eye
a startle in black: green swift glance
raking mine. A full second
we held each other, then gone.
Gone. And how did I know
what to call it? Lynx, the only possible
reply though I’d never seen one. The car
filling with it: moonlight,
piñon: a cat’s acrid smell
of terror. How quickly the gray body
fled, swerving to avoid
my light. And how often
that sight returns to me, shames me
to know how much more this fragment
matters. More than the broad back
of a man I loved. More than the image
of my friend, cancer-struck, curled
by her toilet. More than my regret
for the child I did not have which I thought
once would pierce me, utterly. Nothing
beside that dense muscle, faint gold guard hairs
stirring the dark. And if I keep
these scraps of it, what did it keep of me?
A flight, a thunder. A shield of light
dropped before the eyes, pinned
inside that magnificent skull only time
would release. Split back, fade
and reveal. Wind
would open him. Sun would turn him
commonplace: a knot of flies, a rib cage
of shredded tendon, wasp-nest
fragile. The treasure of him, like anything,
gone. Even now, I thumb that face
like a coin I cannot spend. If I ever lived,
I lived in him, fishing the cold
trout-thick streams, waking to snow, dying
when he died, which is a comfort.
I must say this. Otherwise, I myself
do not exist. It looked at me
a moment. A flash of green, of gold
and white. Then the dark came down
again between us. Once, I was afraid
of being changed. Now that is done.
The lynx has me in its eye.
I am already diminished.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2017)

I had the pleasure of meeting Paisley Rekdal and hearing her read at the Cork International Poetry Festival a couple of years ago, and have her riveting collection, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope. She grew up in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. She earned a BA from the University of Washington, an MA from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of the poetry collections A Crash of Rhinos (2000), Six Girls Without Pants (2002), The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007), and Imaginary Vessels (2016), as well as the book of essays The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In (2000).

In reviewing The Invention of the Kaleidoscope for Barn Owl Review, Jay Robinson observed that it’s “the razor’s edge that always accompanies eros that makes the poems of Paisley Rekdal fresh, intense and ultimately irresistible.” Rekdal’s work grapples with issues of race, sexuality, myth, and identity while often referencing contemporary culture.

Rekdal has been honored with a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, and a Fulbright Fellowship to South Korea. Her work has been included in numerous anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (2006) and the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Rekdal teaches at the University of Utah. In April 2013, Rekdal was a featured writer on Harriet.

(This bio comes from the Poetry Foundation.)