“A Golden Age for Poetry”

Bad news from California:

One of the country’s most prominent poetry series, New California Poetry, from the University of California Press, is to be suspended. The pause in publishing, after next year’s three spring titles, likely will become long-term or permanent unless an angel steps forward to provide substantial assistance.

The series, founded in 2000, has published 33 titles by 25 poets, with three more in the pipeline. (…) Alison Mudditt, who took over as UC Press director early this year, said today, via e-mail: “Like all university presses, we are currently facing increasing financial pressures, partly as we continue to feel the impact of the global economic recession and partly as we reshape our publishing program and our organizational structure to ensure our continued success in the digital age.”

She acknowledged what the editors of the series and many poets say of the series, that it “has included many extraordinary and memorable collections” and “is both prestigious and award-winning.” In 2009, for example, Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy won the National Book Award, while Fanny Howe’s Selected Poems received an Academy of American Poets prize for the most outstanding book of poetry published in 2000.

But the press’s action does not signal a crisis in the publication of American poetry, [Brenda Hillman, a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of California, said by e-mail]: “I feel hopeful about poetry publishing in general.” Many other university presses are “doing amazing things,” she said. “It is really a golden age for poetry, I believe; we need it more than ever.”

“If it’s all about money, there’s just better things to sell”

Two weeks ago, I mailed a book of poetry to a friend; it was a book I had owned for many years, but I wasn’t sure how long exactly, which is why I looked inside, and saw the notation of a book shop in Heidelberg, which used to be a fantastic place to buy English books. They sold new books and used ones, it was a tiny bookshop with a huge collection of poetry, and its owner cared deeply about literature (rather than revenue); I owe much of my early reading in English to the owner and sales clerks in that bookshop, who always somehow managed to suggest the right kind of book for me. Like many smaller bookshops in Heidelberg, this one closed down many years ago. When I saw that a Facebook friend had posted the video below, about a man selling books out of his apartment, on his page, I was reminded of the small Heidelberg bookshops that introduced me to literature. Bookshops are not regular businesses, are they? In my case, they were places where you learned about a vast literary world, which could well change your life. It was from bookshops that I learned to love poetry, and I can still go to my shelves and pull out books of poetry that were important for my understanding of art and life, and see, in the front or the back, a small sticker, a stamp or the carefully scribbled numbers that evoke to me, to this day, the smells, sounds and words from each of these book shops. Another dear (French) friend of mine wants to open, against all odds, a bookshop within the next year or two, and I have no words to express how much I admire her attempt to do it.

A visit behind the eyes

I’ve got notes on Mona van Duyn in my notebook somewhere but so far, nothing substantial. Here’s one of my favorite poems of hers. It’s complex both in terms of form and content. A great poem.

Mona Van Duyn: Into Mexico

Past the angular maguey fields, a ride on the optic nerve,
we come to the first rest stop, and the visit begins.
It is what I have always wanted; to follow the first signs
in another language makes me weak with joy. I am brave
out back in a courtyard, by a shack that might be the toilet,
when bulging senoras bump me on the back and shoulder me.
If they look at me I do not know what they see,
since even metaphors are changed. Overhead in the heat
the skinned, outrageous body of some animal hangs from a line.
Is it rotting, or drying? I’ve never smelled its rawness before.
Yes, there is a stool in the shack, and soiled toilet paper
in a waist-high pile beside it. Water is in a can.

I touch the paper on the roll, it is rough, it is like . . . nothing else.
I am behind the eyes at last. It is as if one could by-pass
love, when the other eyes parry with a picture of one’s own face,
and never arrive at marriage, either true or false,
when eyes glaze and minds are more private than ever,
but could stop in between at a point where no one
can stop. To be in one’s first foreign country, in approximation,
is to be in you–or to feel what it must be like to be there.

Now it is one long agony of taking-in. From the bus
I can see inside the palings, or tin, or straw of a shelter,
and all pots, braziers and pallets are unfamiliar.
At the first market, walking in through the restless
yellow of bananas, I will go to such furnishings and handle them.
Country dogs here are yellow also, with a long body.
And all the time I have lived as if you were like me.
Now, here, I am released from that stratagem.

In the city I would never have expected a glassy hotel
to rise between little sheds of pink and orange cement,
nor men to pull down their pants and squat in the vacant
lot downtown. Sweet rolls–I am trying to taste them all,
but it will take weeks–are named for creatures and the parts
of creatures, Snails, Cheeks, Noses, Ears, Dogs.
What is that snarled bouquet of herbs a little boy drags
toward home, making a green sweep of the streets?
A woman kneels on the pavement all day to sell
six pyramids of seven cracked walnuts each.
I tongue a clay cup that tastes of dark and starch,
and buy eggs singly, since the price of one is marked on its shell.
Each noise, each name, is enchanted and necessary.
I drift in bed, astonished by faintness and nausea and chills.
I would never have felt this way–is this the way it feels?
Thousands of black beans shine near sweet potato candy.

One starves for this journey, I think, a simple sensing of what is
not thou, not it, but you–a visit behind the eyes
where the map bulges into belief, relief, presents sea,
mountains, macadam, presents a strange and willful country.

“I hear the enchantment of the work”

I believe poets read poetry differently than non-poets do. When some readers talk, I am amazed by the appetite for paraphrase. When critics talk, I am just as amazed by how completely they hear poetry as a function of culture (another sort of paraphrase). But when I hear poets, I hear the enchantment of the work. Their ideas about a poem are always borne by some conception of intimacy or distance of voice, rigor or looseness of attitude, delicacy or directness of treatment. Above all, poets always seem to listen, even as they compose, to the voice of that something that decides the rightness of their designs.

from the introduction of Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry

Poem of the Day (Marcus Jackson)

Found a poem today by an extraordinary young poet called Marcus Jackson in an oldish edition of the New Yorker (July 21, 2008). Typed it up and here it is


Marcus Jackson: Mary at the Tattoo Shop

She counted her money
before we went in,
avenue beside us anxious
with Friday-evening traffic.
Both fourteen, we shared a Newport,
its manila butt salty to our lips.
Inside, from a huge book
of designs and letter styles,
she chose to get “MARY”
in a black, Old English script
on the back of her neck.
The guy who ran the shop
leaned over her for forty minutes
with a needled gun
that buzzed loud
as if trying to get free.
He took her twenty-five dollars
then another ten
for being under age.
Back outside, the sun
dipped behind rooftops,
about to hand the sky over to night.
Lifting her hazel hair,
she asked me to rub
some A&D ointment
on her new tattoo;
my finger glistened in salve
as I reached for her swollen name.

It also said he was preparing his first book for publication. I’m looking forward to it.

Poems, Cards and Art

Jeff Encke, a poet and critic, currently living in the Richard Hugo house in Seattle, has produced a remarkable pack of poetry. Yes, you heard me right: pack of poetry. From a collection of poems, he’s excerpted a few texts and printed them on beautiful cards. You can preview the deck here. This is what he himself says

During the spring and summer of 2004, I wrote, designed, and printed a book of poetry on a deck of stylized, casino-quality playing cards. Design-wise, I took my inspiration from the multitudes of art card decks I found on the Internet from artists throughout the world. The wealth of deck variety and obvious intelligence and creativity that went into the design of the cards I found astounded me. Hoping simply to approach the level of quality I had seen, working collaboratively with a friend in Boston on the design, I took four months to research and create all 55 card faces.

That quote is from Jessica Smith’s blog, where you find further information, including details about how and where you can purchase them. Click here. You might know that I am writing on a longer sequence of poems about Russia and planning my phd thesis on Berryman. Both have demonstrated to me the importance of walking down new paths. I have not seen anything like this. Have you?