Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925, a contemporary of Gerald Stern. In fact, in a Paris Review interview, Jack credits Gerald with the reason he started writing poetry.

I started writing poetry because I finally got to go to college and I met Gerald Stern. We started hanging out together. I was interested in writing novels, but he was always talking about poetry—usually poetry, sometimes fiction. We were competitive with each other. So I decided I would write poetry for a semester and then go back to writing novels. I never went back.

Jack, now in his eighties and still writing (like Stern), is something of an enigma to the poetry world. He won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1962 for Views of Jeopardy, and then didn't publish again for twenty years. One of the reasons I admire him is that he is more concerned with the work than "being a poet" or marketing himself in any way. With that in mind, let's jump right into one of his poems.

Searching for Pittsburgh

The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.
Trying to escape the mildness of our violent world.
Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning the Earth.
Locomotives driving through the cold rain,
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with ninety bridges. Sumptuous-shouldered,
sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking and deep-rooted grace.
A city of brick and tired wood. Ox and sovereign spirit.
Primitive Pittsburgh. Winter month after month telling
of death. The beauty forcing us as much as harshness.
Our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart. Making together a consequence of America.
The fox watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again.
In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont. On Greek islands
with their fields of stone. In beds with women, sometimes,
amid their gentleness. Now the fox will live in our ruined
house. My tomatoes grow ripe among weeds and the sound
of water. In this happy place my serious heart has made.

He has always fought against the grain, even as a student. He flunked out of high school and worked as an exterminator and door-to-door salesman before being admitted, thanks to a clerical error, to the University of Pittsburgh. From the same Paris Review interview:

I failed freshman English eight times. I was interested in learning, but I wanted to understand too, which meant I was fighting with the teachers all the time. Everybody accepted the fact that I was smart but I wouldn’t obey. I didn’t believe what they said unless they could prove it.

This being at odds with his environment is a subject of many of Gilbert's poems, as in "Rain," in which he laments the control that the natural universe has over him:

Suddenly this defeat.
This rain.
The blues gone gray
And the browns gone gray
And yellow
A terrible amber.
In the cold streets
Your warm body.
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
Your absence
The people who are always
Not you.

I have been easy with trees
Too long.
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.
This rain.

Jack prefers fire to water, heat to light, passion to cold reason. I close with "The Great Fires," a typical Gilbert poem that breaks with the notion that a poem's particularity is more important than its message, that the poem is more important than its referent world.

Love is apart from all things.
Desire and excitement are nothing beside it.
It is not the body that finds love.
What leads us there is the body.
What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.
Love lays hold of everything we know.
The passions which are called love
also change everything to a newness
at first. Passion is clearly the path
but does not bring us to love.
It opens the castle of our spirit
so that we might find the love which is
a mystery hidden there.
Love is one of many great fires.
Passion is a fire made of many woods,
each of which gives off its special odor
so we can know the many kinds
that are not love. Passion is the paper
and twigs that kindle the flames
but cannot sustain them. Desire perishes
because it tries to be love.
Love is eaten away by appetite.
Love does not last, but it is different
from the passions that do not last.
Love lasts by not lasting.
Isaiah said each man walks in his own fire
for his sins. Love allows us to walk
in the sweet music of our particular heart.

Jack Gilbert's CV would be longer than a girder forged in a Pittsburgh steel mill. In keeping with his attitude about awards, you can look up his bio for yourself. I hope his poems themselves speak to you about why I consider him one of my top ten Pittsburgh poets!

Friday, April 20, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Judith Vollmer

Any accounting of Pittsburgh poets must give its due to Judith Vollmer; she is a writing professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and co-editor of 5 AM. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, as well as residencies at the American Academy in Rome, Yaddo, Centrum, Blue Mountain, and Vermont Studio Colony. She has four collections of poetry to her credit: Level Green, winner of the Brittingham Prize, Black Butterfly, The Door Open To the Fire and Reactor. The Water Books is due out later this year.

More important to me is her passion about revision, and her willingness to give of herself to the global community of poets and artists who address issues of importance to the planet and all of its inhabitants. She once encouraged me to continue revising right up until poems are published or read--to make every minute you have count in the evolution of your work--something I'll never forget. Vollmer was a reporter for the Pittsburgh Press, and she continues to report the human news in each one of her poems with a jazzy blend of her classical education and pop culture--no matter what subject she is addressing. Here is a sample from one of my favorite poems from Reactor that was recognized by the 2005 Public Poetry Project: "Coffee With Narrative:"

Voltaire's 70 cups to my 2,

what does that make me, though

his we think were demitasse and mine

are big as small dogs. How no one

smokes anymore, sad, I open my pack

here in the night kitchen and out comes

the exotic Mlle. Teuer, laughing, black cat

on her shoulder, and I rivet on her cup

of sugar-tar while she smokes into the night

and regales me with her vanished minor opera-

star years, drops of holiness wetting her smock.

If I run my hand along this shelf I slide into a farm-

stead where I drank the green, the black teas,

organic leaves picked from bushes silvered under

rain in far places no longer fat. But the beloved sister

to merlot & cognac, to mountain water over matching

ice cubes would be the gift of Ethiopia

that would transmogrify Earth.

Dear red berries who made goats dance about,

dear leaf veins standing turgid & erect, how

the little goats in their happiness peed

on those bushes, thus deepening the primal

blend from Dante to Beauvoir;"

I can't wait to read her forthcoming book. And after I do, you'll here more from me about Judith Vollmer, one of my top ten favorite Pittsburgh poets and one of my favorite living writers from anywhere.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith Wins Pulitzer Prize or "We'll Be Back To The Pittsburgh Poets After This Important Message From The Universe."

My apologies to Tracy Smith, but before yesterday I hadn't heard of her. Or of Life On Mars, Duende, or The Body's Question. But when I heard that she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, I googled her and immediately fell under her spell. I've commented before about how many excellent poets and writers there are, and how difficult it is to keep up with all of their books. Life On Mars proves my point.

Smith's work is a perfect example of consilience: no matter from what category one measures it (theme, tropes, sound, typography), it is virtuosic. Her ideas about and descriptions of the universe ("It") intersect in a diction that is both musically transcendent and scientifically precise, a prosody that can be apprehended, and yet still subverts our expectations, full of elucidation and yet mystery--like the subject "ITself." And what is that subject? Everything that is! About which in section 4 of "My God, It's Full Of Stars," describing the faulty lens of the Hubble telescope and the ensuing correction that engineers made, she writes:

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. Se saw to the edge of all there is--

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

Looking into the universe to see it looking back is one of many themes of Live On Mars that Smith writes about so well. In "The Museum Of Obsolescence," after we understand the tour she's about to give of things "that would have saved us, but lived,/Instead, its own quick span, returning/To uselessness with the mute acquiescence/Of shed skin," she gives us the lines

...It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale heat, hearts

Ticking through our shirts.

Then later after a litany of obsolete artifacts ("the gimcracks, the naive tools," "green money, and oil in drums," "pots of honey," "books recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars," "old beliefs," the "special installations [that] come and go": "Love," "Illness:"

The last thing you see
(After a mirror--someone's idea of a joke?)

Is an image of the old planet taken from space.
Outside, vendors hawk t-shirts, three for eight.

I will not give a complete review of this masterful collection without a more careful reading. The final section seems less organically related to the theme than the first three, although my first reading of her smart poems tells me there are still veins of underground connectivity waiting for me to mine.

The point of this posting is to get out the word about Tracy K. Smith. About Life On Mars. About the importance of reading these poems.

William Carlos Williams not withstanding, it is easy to get the news of the universe from Smith's Life On Mars--it oozes from every line. And if you died without what is found there, your death might not be more miserable. But, your life will certainly be less so for reading these poems.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Gerald Stern

In the late forties and early fifties my father hauled steel from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. I was born in 1949 and remember the daily ritual of my mother boiling coffee for his thermos, his flatbed truck pulling out before dawn, my waking up in the middle of the night to the smell of his diesel-soaked boots. As a child I never heard of any living poets, and if I had, I would have never imagined any of them residing in "The Smoky City." But, while my father was making entries in his log book by flashlight in the cab of his Mack truck, college students in Pittsburgh were straining their eyes beneath dim desk lamps, writing poems that would later appear in prize-winning books, fashioning a tone for poetry in the second half of the 20th century that would coalesce into a major "school." One of those poets was Gerald Stern.

Stern's poems did not receive critical acclaim until 1977 when Lucky Life appeared in the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series. Stern was not only quickly ushered to center stage by winning the Lamont Poetry Prize and having a series of essays on writing poetry published in American Poetry Review that same year, but he followed up his opening act with a prolific outpouring of books that either nominated him or won him almost every major prize in poetry, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, The National Book Award, The Wallace Stevens Award and The Pulitzer Prize (nominated).

The Poetry Foundation has said that "Stern’s poetry frequently references his all-American, working-class upbringing as well as his Jewish and Eastern European heritage." Cosmopolitan, even international in scope, and yet deeply personal, Stern’s work is known for its passionate defense of human emotions and needs. According to Jeffrey Dodd, Elise Gregory, and Adam O’Connor Rodriguez, all of whom interviewed Stern for the journal Willow Springs: His work derides provincialism and points to a world of experiences beyond American borders and transcendent of temporal limits. Stern has lived in this rich world, and his poetry calls attention to its failures, beauties, and curiosities without fear, shame or sentimentality."

Stern's work has carved out a unique place for him in American Literature. About that place Stern has said I stake out a place for myself, so to speak, that was overlooked or ignored or disdained, a place no one else wanted. Stern continues, If I could choose one poem of mine to explain my stance, it would be "The One Thing in Life," which appears in Lucky Life. According to Stern, the poem makes a claim for his own inheritance and legacy:

The One Thing In Life

Wherever I go now I lie down on my own bed of straw
and bury my face in my own pillow.
I can stop in any city I want to
and pull the stiff blanket up to my chin.
It's easy now, walking up a flight of carpeted stairs
and down a hall past the painted fire doors.
It's easy bumping my knees on a rickety table
and bending down to a tiny sink.
There is a sweetness buried in my mind;
there is water with a small cave behind it;
there's a mouth speaking Greek.
It is what I keep to myself, what I return to;
the one thing that no one else wanted.

There is much to admire in Gerald Stern's poems: their Whitman-like narrative lyricism, their unique stories of suffering and joy, their visceral imagery, their hypnotic cadences. Stern's poems I love the most are the self-reflective ones about his work of writing poetry. I close with "Little White Sister," but before I do, let me say that if you do not know Stern's work, you need to. Writing poetry without Gerald Stern in your ear is like flying without ever hearing of the Wright Brothers, without ever seeing the Kittyhawk--you might be able to do it, but you'll never know where you came from--and you'll never be as good as you can be--he is that important to American literature. And he's from Pittsburgh. Go figure...

Little White Sister

It was in Philadelphia that I first lived a life of deferment,
putting everything off until I could be at ease.
There, more than in New York and more than in Paris,
I lay for hours in bed, forgetting to eat, forgetting
to swim, dying of imperfection and loneliness.
It was in Vienna that I learned what it would be like
to live in two lives, and learned to wander between them;
and it was in the rotten underbelly
of western Pennsylvania that I was saved twice by a pear tree,
one time living and one time dead, and enslaved
once and for all by a patented iron grate
carrying words of terror through the yellow air.
My ear betrayed me, my little white sister
glued to the side of my head, a shiny snail
twisted everywhere to catch the slightest
murmur of love, the smallest sobbing and breathing.
It wasn't the heart, stuck inside the chest
like a bloody bird, and it wasn't the brain,
dying itself from love; it was that messenger,
laughing as she whispered the soft words,
making kissing sounds with her red lips,
moaning with pleasure for the last indignity.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Nina Corwin

There was a time before the poetry MFA explosion. Before the poetry MFA. Even before poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac "workshopped" poems at a kitchen table in a Harlem apartment. And during that time, poets seemed to be born rather than made. Nina Corwin is such a poet--by profession, she is a psychotherapist; by calling, she is what J.D. McClatchy said of Ginsberg: "a bard in the old manner--outsized, darkly prophetic--part exuberance, part prayer, part rant."

I first heard Nina read her work at "The Cafe" on North Lincoln Avenue early in 2004. The poem she read was "The Prince and the Woodcutter."

The Prince and the Woodcutter

Some days you drag the crutch,
Some days the crutch drags you.
The other folks get all the breaks:
the better bowl of cocoa puffs.

Your lover's tongue comes boxing with its gloves off
and you bruise easy as a peach.

You cast your net too wide
and the fish you were counting on for supper
are lying phosphate-wasted belly-up along the beach
And the bottom feeders linger whistling
imperfect protein melodies:
"Sometimes it seems that nothing
is good enough."

Did you ever feel like you were being dragged
through a car wash without the car
...because the repo man was here to claim it
just last week?

And you needed it to drive your son
to pom-pom practice because he
volunteered for the pep squad of the girls'
homecoming powerpuff football team.

Did you ever find yourself in need of a personal tune-up?
So you go to check out the electric chi-machine
at the ti-tech new age health center down the road
but then you find you haven't got a chi to speak of, and besides the line is way too long.

So you hitch a ride to Door County
for a getaway weekend, thinking there's more color
in every particle of autumn
than one can grab with two eyes groping.

But your friends are in the front seat
hunting down knick-knacks and souvenir shops,
Out-of-Towner written all over their T-shirts
jostling their catalogs and shoulder bags
complaining they can't understand
why happiness eludes them.

And you wonder why a pitcher of beer
won't transport you
al all those carefree magical places it used to.
Seems like nothing is good enough.

But then you remember the fable about that wimp of a prince
who is suckled on so much convenience
and over-sauced cuisine that finally his appetite goes flat
and no one in the kingdom can find a remedy
until one day this woodcutter comes along
and takes him out for a day in the woods
to whack on some logs and work up
a drop of sweat and a proletarian hunger
for a piece of dark rye and a tin cup of apple cider.

So when you start to think that nothing's
ever good enough, you remind yourself that life
is not a sitcom promising a happy ending in a half an hour.
"Just Do It" only works in Nike ads.
You cast too wide a net
and there's always one that gets away.

But when the bottomfeeders linger
singing "what did you learn in school today,
dear, what did you learn in school?"
You can say:
"Some days you drag the crutch
Some days the crutch drags you."

Lest it be thought that without her MFA degree Nina's poems onstage might outshine her poems on the page, take a look at a partial list of where she's been published: ACM, Forklift OH, Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review, Southern Poetry Review and Verse. She has two books: Conversations with Demons and Tainted Saints, and The Uncertainty of Maps. In addition, her work has been recognized with a nomination for a Pushcart Prize, by the Illinois Arts Council and Illinois State Poetry Society. Here is "What Morning Looks Like," a smart lyrical-narrative poem whose typography, ideography, tropes and music work in concert to enact the interaction between its characters.

What Morning Looks Like

Another dawn poem. A virgin Thursday
morning that sparkles and blushes before
falling to the spatterings of day.

I'm starting a journey, dragging my suitcase
and carry-on bags to the taxi stand
at the corner. It's an hour before the earliest

alarm I know. Before the street lights shut down
at the tired end of their shift; when the air bites
crisp and clean. Before the turbulent machine of day

accelerates into full throttle. An orange cab
pulls up, driver devout as desert sand
serenity riding int he passenger seat.

I slide into the back, give my destination.
He glances at my face in the rear view mirror.
I can see only his eyes, the dark oasis

of them. It seems as if we're sharing
a secret, though we are not. Red streaks
begin to reach along the horizon.

Obviously he and dawn are old acquaintances
having peered into each other's blinking,
bloodshot eyes a time or two. Can't remember

the last time I was out at this hour, I say
reaching for conversation. I ask him what time
his day starts and he tells me 4 a.m.

So then I ask what 4 a.m. looks like and he says:
It looks like anything else. It looks like God.
He accelerates easily. An occasional car rolls toward us.

Headlights nod as they pass.

If these two poems have whetted your appetite, check out my review elsewhere on this blog of Nina's latest book, The Uncertainty of Maps--or better yet pick up a copy. If you prefer, check out her work on or, or just google her--she's all over the net. In fact, she's all over Chicago--she's one of those hubs for what's going on artistically and poetically in the greater Chicago area and beyond--another reason she's one of my top ten Chicago poets.

This concludes the series "My Top Ten Chicago Poets," but it certainly does not exhaust Chicago poets I admire. So, at some point I will revisit the topic and include more poets from my favorite city in North America.

In the mean time, get ready for my next series: My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Tara Betts

One of the first meals I had in New Hampshire was with Tara Betts. I was assigned to her as my upperclass "buddy" in my first poetry MFA residency, and was totally impressed that she took the job of initiating me into the program quite seriously. In the next few days I also became impressed with her poems and the fact that she was equally spectacular on the stage in the pub every night performing her slam poems, as she was on the page every day during workshops where she cut through the BS with feedback that went straight to the guts of our work, and turned loose her fledgling poems that seemed bigger and stronger than ours--flapping their wings, hovering inside the cramped space of their brown shells even as they were pecking their way out--while we were begging ours to breathe, dammit, breathe!

I admire many things about Tara, but perhaps what I love (and envy) most is her ability to blow people away equally well in the academy as in the pub, on the page or on the stage, in closed or open form, in the downtown cultural centers or in the burbs--southside, eastside, northside, westside. In short, Tara Betts is the quintessential Chicago poet. Which is to say that while she began in Chicago, no city, no form, no school, no description can contain her--she is the epitome of what a poet should be: capable of delivering the news wherever she may find herself.

And Tara has found herself in oh so many places. Her bio reads like an itinerary for an educational tour of contemporary American poetry. Tara teaches creative writing at Rutgers University (she is a Cave Canem graduate and received her MFA in Poetry from New England College). She's won residencies from the Ragdale Foundation, Centrum and Caldera, and an artist fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council. She won the 1999 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award, has appeared on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" and in the Black Family Channel series "SPOKEN," and has represented Chicago twice at the National Poetry Slam. There is not room to list where her work has appeared, but publications include Essence, Words on Fire, Obsidian III, Callaloo, PMS, Meridians, Drum Voice Revue, WSQ, Columbia Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, Hanging Loose, Drunken Boat, Mythium Reverie, and WombPoetry. Her work has been widely anthologized, and her first full-length poetry collection, Arc and Hue was published in 2009.

Enough about her. What about her work? Take the now famous "Why I Collect The Hair," a poem that has been adapted to short cinema and is often excerpted in reviews of Arc and Hue. I can tell you that when I first heard it from Tara herself in workshop in 2006, it was 99% of the poem that appears here--a preposition or two, a couple of line breaks different. Here it is in entirety:

Why I Collect The Hair

Long glints of my hair
slither into soft bulk
tightly circled black cords
gripping each strand
that seems to hear you saying
leave them there nesting,
but I extract them delicately,
sometimes a dozen or more
because mothers cling to sons.

Years ago, a college boyfriend left my bed
to go home. His mother honed in
on the brassy streaks
and pulled them off
with what white girl are you seeing?
So, I'm still plucking, gathering up
small tumbleweeds in my pam,
clues that deny brown
coiled inside me.

Like all good poets (artists), Tara is witness of particularity and of universality. Unlike all poets, instead of one rear-view mirror, she drives through her narratives with custom side-view mirrors all over her body--side, front, back and underbelly. In "Understanding Tina Turner," for example, she picks up movement, color and shape that most would miss, and we are the richer for it.

Understanding Tina Turner

Quiet girl found a voice mama could not quell
inside Nutbush City Limits. The baby
blasted beyond timid Annie Mae into Tina,
grind of muscle, hip, fierce calves
dominating heels into domesticity.

In the early music video era,
I soaked up her battered denim jacket,
leather mini-skirt, spiked wig and stilettos.
I'd throw my head back like her
rippling antennas of brown hair,
belting to no one in particular,
What's Love Got to Do With It?

Twenty years later, people joke
about Ike's fists granting Tina her name,
how she transitioned terror rooted
in spousal rhythm and blues to rock diva,
thunderdome warrior queen
with a mountain mansion overseas.

Hurts twang the womb
then escape into songs--like a man
who never holds you too close, too long,
trying to crush music within.

I could cite example after example of Tara's exceptional work. But, since it's April (national poetry month), why not pick up a copy of Arc and Hue and check her out for yourself? Or, better yet, find out where she's reading and hear her in person. If you do, I think she'll become one of your top poets, as well--from anywhere.