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Archive for April, 2019

 

Perhaps it was the shadows left by Walt Whitman

and Emily Dickinson as they passed through that first imprinted the capital with a taste for poetry. Whatever it was, it remains one of the best-kept secrets in the creative heart of a city buried inside its persona of politics.

In the many years I lived and worked here, I was nourished by its flourishing scene, not only in the bookstores, universities, arts centers and clubs where the young and upcoming could share and perform, but also through contact with some of the established giants of our times. Visiting here again during National Poetry Month, I am reminded of the many great poets I met, heard, studied with, or simply learned from. Even a partial list is astonishing: Maxine Kumin, William Stafford, Lucille Clifton, E. Ethelbert Miller, Richard Wilbur, Stanly Kunitz, Carolyn Forché, Rod Jellema, Roland Flint, Robert Haas, Grace Cavalieri.

Moreover, for a few years, in my capacity as a journalist, I had the wonderful beat of interviewing the Poet Laureate. I would like to share a few personal remembrances of three of them, plus one inspirational woman who won prizes and glory in other poetry spheres.

 

Howard Nemerov—  I met him on Capitol Hill during his tenure as Poet Laureate in 1989. A Pulitzer Prize winner, it was his second stint as the nation’s official poet, as he had already held that post earlier when it was called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. Before following him around the grounds of the Capitol as he led a throng of high school students dispensing his wisdom and jokes, we had first met in a sitting room of the nearby hotel where he was residing. It was there he greeted me with his wry humor and distinct diction. “I only agreed to this interview because my wife loves Modern Maturity,” he boomed.

It was there I had to reply that I did not, in fact, write for Modern Maturity, but rather for Maturity News Service, a wire.

Having passed that hurdle, the rest of my time with him was a delight, filled with quips, humor, and of course the poetry of a self-proclaimed “poet of few regrets.” Beginning from the beginning, he said he never intended to be a poet, but didn’t succeed at another imagined profession—that of Catholic priest—when he realized he couldn’t start at the level of cardinal, but would have to work his way up. Then he added: “As my mother said, ‘Howie, you’ve come a long way for a rich Jewish kid from Park Ave.’”

He also agreed with W.H. Auden, who claimed that “you are only a poet while writing a poem,” or for ten minutes afterward. He further claimed, “Most poetry is drivel, including my own.”

Listen to him read  about the line between prose and poetry and make your own judgment:

Howard Nemerov – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qrj4HJptyHg

 

Joseph Brodsky– When I was summoned into the ornate office of the Poet Laureate inside the Library of Congress in 1991 to meet the new appointee, he had already won the Nobel Prize in 1987, and was a Russian-American literary rock star on the world stage. I knew some of his storied life history: as a young child surviving the Siege of Leningrad and Russia’s rampant anti-Semitism; as a young poet being sponsored and helped by the likes of Anna Akhmatova and W.H. Auden; his escape to the United States in 1972.

As he spoke, recounted his impressions of America, recited poems in English with Russian cadences, I expected to be awed. What I did not expect was that, half-way through the interview, he would begin to fidget. I noticed his fingers, distinctly stained yellow at the tips, fiddling with his shirt pocket. It finally occurred to me to ask: “Mr. Brodsky, would you like to take a break to smoke?”

“Yes,” he replied, “these”… and he deleted the expletive I was sure he had in mind, “people won’t let me smoke inside.” Then he added, “Come.” And before I knew it, I was following him over a low wrought-iron railing and out the window of his office to a small perch overlooking the capitol. There we remained for the rest of the interview, above the trees. He happily puffed, while I scribbled.

A follow-up to an unforgettable afternoon came some months later, during the first exchange between Russian and American high school students. By luck, my daughter’s high school was chosen as one to receive Russian students, and one of her best friend’s family was a host. As a result, we often had many Russian students in our home. One of them, named Anna, spied Brodsky’s autobiographical and highly acclaimed book of prose, Less Than One, on my bookshelf. She was amazed that I possessed this, telling me that her parents, both English professors, so wanted to read it, but it was forbidden in the Soviet Union. It went home with her, my smuggled gift to Brodsky’s native land.

Hear him read from “Odysseus to Telemachus.”

Joseph Brodsky reads ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTd6K9Lrfpo

 

Rita Dove—    My first encounter with Rita Dove, in 1993, was as an imposter. She had been named Poet Laureate and was being honored by the Library of Congress with a luncheon for high-powered literati in an ornate room worthy of Versailles.

I was neither one of the intended august guests, nor, in all my dealings with and writing about the Library of Congress, had I known about such a room. The fact of the matter was that the directors of the Writer’s Center in nearby Bethesda, Allan Lefcowitz and his wife Jane Fox, had been invited, but at the last minute  could not come. Still they had wanted the Center, a stellar local gathering place for local writers, passing luminaries, readings, and workshops to be represented at the lunch. They directed Sunil Freeman, a longtime staff member, and my friend, to go instead and to find someone to accompany him. He called me, who had been for many years an instructor there.

We arrived just in time and found our place cards–as Allan Lefcowitz and Jane Fox–at the appointed table. Sunil, a dark-haired man of Indian heritage no more resembled the silver- haired Jewish gentleman, Al Lefcowitz, than I did the tall, sturdy bespectacled woman I was supposed to impersonate. Table-mate and Pulitzer-Prize winner Henry Taylor looked confused, evidently recognizing me as the mother of one of his son’s classmates. Sunil and I tried to explain, but it was difficult to keep saying, “we’re not really who you think,” and didn’t want to interrupt the introductions as they began.

Then followed the warm, human, and inspirational presentation by Rita Dove. From that moment to this, I have been riveted by the story of her grandparents, Thomas and Beulah, first presented to the world by a prize-winning book of the same name that later became an opera.

Of course, when introduced to her that first time, as well as the subsequent ones, the name on my name-tag was of no importance. What was of importance was her openness, her thoughts on poetry and activism, and eventually, her mission of making clear the innate connection between poetry and jazz. All through her tenure, Washington was alive with verse and its reverberations in the sounds of jazz.

Click on these links to see Rita Dove at the White House introduced by President Obama and singer Clairdee with the Ken French Quintet perform a jazz ballad based on a Rita Dove poem.

White House Poetry Evening with Rita Dove, intro by … – YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIT82Oy9U1Y

The House Slave #jazzvoicesofpoetry – YouTubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymk-LaQxaAk

 

Ann Darr When I first met Ann Darr, she was a storied figure in the Washington poetry scene, and at the Writer’s Center where she was a popular teacher, as she also was at American University. As an instructor at the Writer’s Center myself, I often saw her wrapped in a velvet cape, her penetrating blue eyes peering out from beneath a beret. I decided to apply to study with her in one of her poetry workshops. She turned me down. Later, after a more successful application, after we became fast friends, we laughed about it.

But despite her warmth and friendship, despite the jokes and personal stories we shared, I was always in awe of her gifts, her immutable beauty, and the courage that remained the hallmark of her life. Its central meaning was based on the reality of her experience as a pilot and the images of flying that permeated her poetry.

As she told it, her fascination with flight began at age six with the death of her mother. She was told her mother had gone to heaven; she figured if she could learn to fly, she would find her. The opportunity came young to fly over the crops of her native Iowa, and in World War II, she joined the fabled Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). They formed a core part of the women who, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, were “a weapon waiting to be used.”

 

Darr joined in 1943, and the metaphor of flying appeared throughout her life and work thereafter:

Instructions for Survival 

                                        You women pilots are on

                                     your way

                                        to becoming precision flyers.

                                       It’s

                                          your responsibility to remain

                                      alive. So,

                                         it’s entirely up to you;

                                        the decision that bailing out

                                     is necessary

                                       the act of leaving your plane

                                      the procedure during the descent

                                     the landing.

Hear Ann Darr in her own words in this conversation with poet Roland Flint

Ann Darr, a poet and pilot, lets her words fly – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFMK0jFX7JA

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Fire at Dawn

A remembrance from That Paris Year, Alan Squire Publishing, 2010

“Dawn, a discovery really, for eyes unaccustomed, like Jocelyn’s. Hard, glittering fall, already stiffening with cold, making the towers, spires, and sighing rooftops of the old part of the city stand erect. Or, perhaps, they just stand out because many trees are prematurely bare. At this season, she notices, there was also room for the sun, that unruly invader from the east, ripping the cover from night and spilling red across the unknown vastness of Europe. The bells in the towers of Notre Dame shudder then, but do not give in to the sound as daylight engulfs the great stones in a fiery rose.

     She climbs up the river walk along the Seine just as the first pigeons awake and fly from their granite perches, just in time to see the cathedral walls erupt in light, and she asks herself:  Who else could be up at this hour? A few silent captains, working rusty barges up the river, drivers of the tin-sided trucks delivering bread. The insistent lovers of course, the beggars, the occasional prostitute also walking the river’s Left Bank before dawn. Or perhaps, in livelier sections of the city, cabaret-goers and artists wandering Montmartre, intellectuals and first-class hustlers in the all-night cafés of Montparnasse. The clerics, doing whatever mysterious things they do, while others sleep or sin. And now, of course, the pigeons.

     She stands, stranded in silence on the upper embankment, a short silvery half-river from Notre Dame, singed rose in first daylight. She knows, certainly, there is meaning in it, but cannot see it. Perhaps because the other fire burned, once again, across her eyes…

     Soon the bells of Notre Dame break the silence, followed by Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and others all over the city. And for a moment, at daybreak, she concludes it possible to think a known God still exists in Paris.”

 These words of fiction reflect impressions gathered decades ago during my first Paris year. They are now refracted in the splintered images of the countless times since that I have stood in awe by the same flowing river watching the stones catch the changing light, or inside, looking out through the mystical rose light of the great stained-glass windows. The pink-tinged fire of dawn playing on the solid exterior has now exploded in hideous, ravenous fire, consuming so much beauty, history, and hope in its maw. I now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other mourners worldwide who perhaps still hope against hope that a known God still exists in Paris.

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I was lucky enough to kick off National Poetry Month as one of the poets reading at an event at Book Passage in Corte Madera, flagship of the iconic Bay Area bookstores. Rebecca Faust, great Poet Laureate of Marin County, presided. I chose an old poem, first published in a chapbook, Travels, by the Argonne Hotel Press in 1996.

I chose it because, with its retelling of Odysseus’s homecoming to Ithaca from his wife Penelope’s point of view, it seemed a good segue from celebrating National Women’s Poetry Month to celebrating National Poetry Month. Also, it was on my mind because I am soon to accompany Wanderland Writers to our writing adventure in Greece.

Penelope and the Suitors

She had heard the whispers:
fish-tailed maidens
with nets of gold hair,
those sirens, their bitch calls piercing
his ears, painted hands strumming
his legs
and Circe. Ah, Circe,
wild young body dancing to calypso eyes,
that one, she’d heard, had lasted a year.
But only Helen’s face
oval goddess beauty
that he had looked upon
haunted her

and her heart, slow constricted fist beyond the leap of yearning, stopped its beating.

Now, they said, he was dead.

For the first time in twenty years she laughed, twenty years of rock island, stone, sea, swells of waiting.
Now he was near and those who could not follow his wake said he was dead, those who could not tell dying
from coming.

At last near coming home,
the waves pulled back from the beach
like parted lips, like
hands running over hips,
rounded still, and she laughed
again knowing how the gods and suitors
wet their tongues.
Hair to waist, laced with silver
precious metal, like gold
on the looking-glass
where her face, smooth and finely laced,
finely colored from
twenty summers’ sun was,
she knew, lovely.

So, what had he heard?

If he knew her, he would know
she did not remain untouched,
not by the sinewy black one
who loved her like the night,
or the fisherman with the wise beard
casting his net of stories
about her, rubbing her back,
or the philosopher who thought best
with his slender fingers,
or that young artist with Vulcan eyes,
all like the seasons, her weave of patches
a coverlet to cover
the marriage bed.
That was what they came to.

Still she dreamed Odysseus, closed her eyes to see him wearing those twenty years.
But she saw only his likeness, Telemachus, the son,
beauty in his fierce and tender restlessness,
the boy left behind, the guard charged by men
to do what no man can:
Separate a woman from her desire.
Still she waited, had waited, waited and wanted
husband, blood-mate,
twin of the inner mirror
whose likeness only knew
the holier longings of love.
Then he came. Strong-chested.
Broad-armed, steeled in beard and bone.

Did he know at last what this journey had been for?

He saw her first, her eyes
the lissome blue his glance once
skated over,
mirrors on a pristine lagoon.
Now, around them, little creases,
terrain,
a holding place
before plunging
into the deep sea.
You are the most beautiful, he thought.
Yes, she smiled.

Come in.

Within days of the reading, I received a copy of writer, friend and publisher, Rose Solari’s reissued book of poetry Difficult Weather.

Winner of he Columbia Book Award for poetry, it was published by Gut Punch Press in 1994. In the introduction to the new edition, published by Alan Squire Publishing, Katherine Young makes the observation that for the first volume of a young poet, these poems are “extraordinarily mature.” In reviewing the book now, I found it was like revisiting an old friend who has, in every respect, stood the test of time.  Among others, the themes of family and the struggle for one’s own identity are particularly strong. And on this reading, I was especially taken with the poem “The Beginning, 1939,” in which the poet goes to her own imagined roots in an early moment in her parents’ relationship. The sounds of the piano, often associated with her mother, echo through it.

 

 The Beginning, 1939
for Joseph and Mary Solari

 
That she was beautiful. That her nails
were red and tickled the palm of his hand.
That she could talk and laugh so generously
 
she gave his answers grace. That her eyes
 could flush past brown and into black.
These were the reasons he turned away

from his books in the evening, and spent
his paychecks on small clusters
 of gardenias, which she would tie

around her wrist with a wide green band,
or folders of new sheet music, songs
 she would hum on the streetcar or sing

while they walked. He’d never courted a lady before,
 had never known how much
 small conversation mattered; he’d never

learned to waltz; he’d never felt
this foolish or this happy. After
 he’d called on her, he’d walk back

to the rooming house, remembering things
 she’d said. It was summer. The sky
 was full of heat and water. He’d take his time,

promise himself that when he saw her next
he’d leave no long tight pause for her
to fill. And he would pause beneath a gas lamp

and pull the photograph she’d given him
into light. It was a profile. Her sitting
at her piano. Whatever tune she had been playing

then was one she knew by heart: the music stand
was bare, her chin was tilted up, her eyes
were closed. And while her left hand was dissolving
 
in a bass chord, into shadow, her right hand —
a little closer to the camera —
was caught in the air between the last note and the next.

And in that last note, suspended in air, the reader gets wind of what is to come: difficult weather.

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