Saturday, March 28, 2020

Jack Gilbert: More of Chard deNiord's Interview in Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs

After reposting today my original post about Chard deNiord's interview with Jack Gilbert, I went back to the original source in Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs and felt remiss that I hadn't shared Gilbert's spot-on response about concrete detail in poetry. It occurs near the beginning of the interview, so I include the latter part of his response to deNiord's first question as well. Gilbert's interests in poetry, although they didn't shape mine and I depart from his view that "all the technicalities [are] a waste of time," line up almost precisely with my interests in concrete detail and emotional connection with the reader. He eloquently renders their importance in his response to deNiord's second question.

     CD: Jack, your poems have so much human presence and pressure
     in them. Do you achieve this by working on the poems or by living
     your life? Or both?

     JG: I don't write poems as a way of writing a poem. I think I'm more
     prone to writing a poem on something I think I see or know or un-
     derstand that is new. It's like what I've said about having an illicit
     relationship. [Gilbert goes on to explain that it's not about cheating
     or getting laid or physical pleasure, but about the "emotional quality"
     in that apartment, and that it can't last. He continues...]

                                     ...I want to confront death in my poetry. Like in
     the lines I read last night from my poem "A Brief for the Defense."
     "Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies / aren't starv-
     ing someplace, they are starving / someplace else. With flies in their
     nostrils. / But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants." We
     must not let misery take away our happiness. It's a crazy thing to
     say because life can be horrifying. We live in a world that has death
     in it, and injustice and all these things. But it's important to go on
     being capable of happiness or delight in the world, not to ignore
     these other things, but to recognize that we have to build our poems
     with a bad terrain. It's just how life is.

     CD: Yes, but what I'm amazed by is how you bring that reality, that
     life, into a poem, and also how you wed your lyrical craft to what
     Matthew Arnold called "high seriousness." [This first question was
     suggested to me by Li-Young Lee.]

     JG: To get the technicalities straight, so the form is done right, sim-
     ple, all the technicalities, I think that's a waste of time. It's nice.
     But that's not what great poetry is. I think one of the main things
     is simply concrete detail [My bold]. After all, speaking is one of
     the newer arts of human beings. Seeing is infinitely older. We react
     from seeing something much more than we react from hearing it said.
     We are designed to respond to physicality. Like in a basketball game,
     the man is going [to] shoot the ball to win the game, is standing there
     doing nothing at the line. Now, what he is doing often is visualizing him-
     self taking the ball, making it bounce in his hand, lifting the muscle,
     shooting, watching it go up and up, and down and down and in
     the basket. When he does that, then his body can sense, Oh, I can
     do that! And I can imitate that! If you tell me an abstraction then,
     it's no good. [My bold.] It may or not get through. Draw me a picture,
     make a movie, and let me see. Then I think that's what the large thing
     with poetry is. It's not all of it. It's one of the big parts. The concreteness.

Gilbert then discusses how the abstraction of the modern experimentalists and post-modern theorists doesn't work for him because...

     It's not human and therefore it can't have an emotional impact on the human
     reading the book, and therefore the person reading does not experience
     the things we talked about. At least that's how I see it. And if it's not going
     to have an emotional impact on the reader, that's ok, but I'm not interested.
     [Once again, my bold.]

This interview is an excerpt of one of seven interviews deNiord does with significant 20th century poets. Others are Maxine Kumin, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton. The remainder of the book is a series of essays about James Wright, Philip Levine, and Robert Lowell.

Chard deNiord is an American author, Poet Laureate of Vermont (2015–2019), poet, and teacher. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz. He is the author of five poetry collections: Asleep in the Fire (1990), Sharp Golden Thorn (2003), Night Mowing(2005), The Double Truth(2011), and Interstate (2015). His new second book of interviews from The University of Pittsburgh Press titled I Would Lie To You If I Could: Interviews with Ten American Poets, was published in the spring of 2018.

Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs: Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets, is available from Marick Press HERE, or from other online distributors and fine bookstores everywhere.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Judy Halebsky: Spring and a Thousand Years [Unabridged]

If one knew nothing of the Tang Dynasty poets or of Sei Shonagon’s A Pillow Book, or literary history or pop culture or a dozen other fields of study that inform Judy Halebsky’s Spring and a Thousand Years, one could still relish these poems for their fresh language, delightful juxtapositions, vivid imagery, and humor. In this regard, Halebsky’s grasp has at least attained her reach described midway through the book in her poem “Days Idle, Cumulative.”

(1) I want all new language, I want the words hosed off and scrubbed 
clean. I want to come back tomorrow and see them gleaming and
single and unattached, willing to hook up with any word that has at
least two vowels. 

Later in the same poem she further illuminates her aesthetic sensibilities with an enactment of her own similes and metaphors:

              (3) Don’t confuse me with a haiku poet. I am firmly here in free verse. 
              I want it big like a cherry Slurpee, a boob job in an anime film, the
              biceps of a trainer at Gold’s gym. Bursting, pushing on prose, veering 
toward a movie script with popcorn and hair-salon updos and all the 
hours until dawn.

But armed with even a cursory knowledge of Li Bai and Du Fu or Shonagon, Spring and a Thousand Years—a master class in observing the collision of poetic galaxies centuries apart—creates completely new constellations among the more familiar stars of Ilya Kaminsky, Robert Hass, and Charles Wright, e.g. And Halebsky’s expert commentary not only points out what we’re seeing, but as commentator-poet-teacher-referee holds these worlds together with her own linguistic gravity. Listen to her subtle yet dominant presence in “The Sky of Wu,” a poem set in a hotel room the night before a poetry workshop. 

            It’s 4 a.m., the bar is closed, and Starbucks isn’t open yet, so they keep
            talking, Li Bai at least. Du Fu is shuffling a deck of cards that is missing
            the ace of spades. 

            Play anyway, Li Bai says

            Du Fu hesitates

            Li Bai wants to meet Robert Hass, but I don’t know his room number.
            And he’s got a poem due tomorrow. How about hot chocolate? No dice.

            Li Bai wants the party to start

                        (I have not been displaced by the war, discomforted maybe)

            Du Fu is smoking an e-cigarette. Li Bai is laughing at him. They want to
            meet Charles Wright but I don’t have his number.

            The night is already over. There’s nothing that’s going to start, except
            the nature walk and then workshop.

            We don’t write the poems together, I explain, we just talk about them

            Li Bai rolls his eyes

            America, he says, it’s worse than I thought

And yet it is the collaborative effort that Halebsky brings to the page that adds the thousand-year depth to her bright-as-spring poems. Her knowledge of Tang dynasty and 10th century Japanese poetry—particularly The Pillow Book—infuses her poems as they transport thousand-year-old plus poets into the 21stcentury. And she makes the most of the resulting juxtapositions, notable in “Between Jenner and a Pay Phone,” by adapting Tang dynasty formal poetic elements and customs of Japanese Court Society to 21st century free verse prosody.

Between Jenner and a Pay Phone

on the longest day of June
dusk finally falls
I cut my hair flat across my forehead

Li Bai, the shadows tonight are from street lights

I’m in the middle of a parking lot
wondering where the locals drink beer

from now on:
                        only practical clothing
                        only blank pages

The tone, as in The Pillow Book, is light-hearted, almost gossipy. The style is appropriately rambling (as is the assemblage of poems within sections and the arrangement of sections in the book). But instead of recounting events of the day, as was the custom of the time in the Imperial Court in Kyoto where Shonagon lived, Halebsky flips the switch in the second line and concerns herself with what’s happening tonight, a much more American gesture. The ensuing lines hearken back to Li Bai in ways deeper than the mere mention of his name. 

Those familiar with Li’s work will remember his poem, “Drinking Alone by Moonlight” containing the following lines, which inform Halebsky’s “shadows” formed “from street lights,” and the reference to finding a place to drink beer:

            A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
            I drink alone, for no friend is near.
            Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
            For he, with my shadow, will make three men.

Li Bai, of course, was part of the “Eight Immortals” who drank wine to an unusual degree and wrote about it. And Li Bai, in particular, wrote much about shadows formed by the moon. Halebsky not only brings this information to bear thematically, but also changes the wine to beer, and the moon to streetlights in order to thoroughly Americanize the ancient poet’s influence. It is noteworthy that, like Li Bai, Halebsky escapes formal meter and rhyme, but still retains his type of musicality (“wine” / “alone” / “moon” / “men”) with lines like “Li Bai, the shadows tonight are from street lights.”

The final three lines of “Between Jenner and a Pay Phone,” as do additional lines and, no doubt, as do most of the poems in this collection, combine an homage to both Chinese Tang Dynasty and Japanese court poets. Hyperbolic statements, such as “from now on: / only practical clothing / only blank pages” are typical from poets of the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.” Additionally, these two indented lines are a short, personal list, a preview of several lists in poems throughout the collection, echoing the 164 lists found in The Pillow Book. And their content may be seen as references to the clothing requirements of the court and the minimalistic style (blank pages) of ink brush arts such as painting and calligraphy.

Five sections in all, the first has poems like “Dear Li Bai” a prose poem answering an imagined letter from the poet who in his lifetime traveled extensively, now visiting Melbourne and the Galapagos, with lines like “…I’m glad you liked / Melbourne and I’m sure the Galapagos were amazing. I’ll look up / the pictures on the Internet (that’s a new kind of library, more on / that later)…, and “Lai Bai Considers Online Dating,” closing the section out with “About Last Night,” hearkening back to the Japanese Heian court practice of writing a poem to the beloved the morning after. 

Section two is entitled “Glossary.” The first entry, “Ambient,” let’s us know this is more than merely a tool for understanding unfamiliar or technical words, and unfamiliar customs or times. Here are examples of Halebsky’s ability to “hose off and scrub clean” language, making them “gleaming and single and unattached, willing to hook up” with words she chooses to significant points about her poetic, political, and personal lineage, the state of affairs in America and the world. 


            Ambient—What you hear right now, wherever you are—this requires 
            switching from hearing to listening and waiting a minute for your
            attention to adjust like your eyes in the dark.

            American—Permeable to water, sunlight, radio waves, river runoff,
            mass media, mania, conspiracy theories, thunder storms.

            Fossil Fuels—Coal, sulfur, seamen, rigs, wells, oil, comfort, ease,
            quality of life.

            Geographic Distribution—Range, wingspan, shade cast by tree
            branches, how to count whales, bird habitat, air temperature, ice floe,
            polar, panda, grizzly.

                        Note: This is a record of what is living now. In the future, it will
                        serve as a historical record.

            January—This year I will trace my lineage, a female line, starting with
            Sei Shonagon and moving on to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne 
            Rich (search extant texts for years lost in between). I will remember
            that these pages have been passed down to me, some at great risk, that
            value is assigned, that my mother has asked me to be brave.

            Z.cookie—Writing the cookie with a Z before it.

                        Note: Li Bai: It’s too much. This whole freeway art murmur,
                        airplane, avocado toast thing. Du Fu: I can’t sleep one more night
                        with central heat.

            Zule, Zuppa, Zuz, Zythum—I knew it would be a hard ending.

                        Note: No more vegan donuts, no more craft beer. Now, I will
                        become the girl poet packing tuna fish sandwich in wax paper
                        and waving from the Amtrak platform.

            Li Bai: I’m used to traveling alone.

            Me: I know.

Section three poems weave back and forth between lyrical narratives about life like “River Merchant in Blue" with gorgeous lines like “blue plum—a kind of apricot / in the damp heat of this summer night, wherever you are // blue for pale / blue for livid and leaden and bruised // know that I chose you as my spouse / you were never my king or my lord”—and poems that continue to articulate, albeit sometimes in a slant fashion, the poet’s task. In “Ikebana Instructions” the poet says “what shall I say? // the work of my life has been to arrange flowers / cut at the stem." And the delightfully brief, one-line poem with instructions:


to live as bright as wild as close to the fire as possible

            [repeat for 14 lines]

“Field Exam” comprises the entirety of section four. Poets must ostensibly pass this test in order to become a licensed poet with the “State Board of Poets.” The five-page piece is humorous and sometimes frighteningly similar to reality in the context of Li Bai’s comment “America…it’s worse than I thought.” Section A is titled “Self-Identification” and asks test takers to select all that apply under categories such as “Hoarder,” “Drifter,” “Romantic,” “Deal Maker,” and “Failure.” In Section B, “The Elevated Heart,” Halebsky imagines reactions to the exam from ancient and contemporary poets, including Li Bai (“…furious that this is even on the exam”), Du Fu (“…suggests that applicants write an ode to loneliness every day and then we average the results”), Grace Paley (…wants us to give a license to anyone who applies), and others. Halebsky inserts an editorial note prior to additional responses from Grace Paley and Donald Hall. 

            [I would go on but I kind of hate poems about poems] [since this isn’t 
            a poem, it’s an exam, and I hope you pass, I hope I pass, I hope we can
            all be healed, and my father, for a moment, from the haze, would nod,
            would glow, because we are trying to write a poem which will mend
            the wreckage he lived through]

At the close of Section C: Craft, the following statement appears:

            Applicants who score 80 or above receive certification. Remember, we
            are writing with the living and the dead (see rubric). With my father
            and Grace Paley and all the workers who believed things would get
            better but didn’t see it in their lifetimes. What is hidden floats, what is
            buried rises.

Lists, ramblings, letters, and a prose poem entitled “Li Bai Interviews for a Job at Green Gulch Zen Center” rounds out the final section. It is my favorite for its advice to Li on how to get the job—something I have personal experience with as a retail executive for decades. Here is the first paragraph in section I. with the accompanying footnote.

            No ragged beard. No wild gray hair. No ink-stained pants. In that
            Macy’s suit you don’t look anything like the poet I know. It’s just that
            we need to find some way to trade part of ourselves. (I’m trying
            to not believe this) (unless you have a rich uncle or can claim a family
            connection to the Kardashians, which might have worked for you in
            Changgan but at Market and Geary, it’s doubtful.)*

            *Instructions on how to dress for a job interview, for a position that might
ruin your life, are included, because I have tried this and failed 1(to get a job) 2(to escape ruin). 

Spring and a Thousand Years will expand one’s understand and appreciation for what poetry can do and how far it can range even with only the investment of one afternoon for a quick read. But given the time to go down all of the rabbit holes that Halebsky provides, one can tunnel back and forth between 20thand 21stcentury American poetry and its 7th-10th century Asian roots, making connections both clear-cut and nuanced. In “Appendix: Lost Sections of the Pillow Book*” Halebsky even points the way with seven more pages of addendums and notes.

          [these sections were found at the Bureau of Song by an appropriately
          depressed graduate student looking for her stash of pretzel sticks and
          chocolate-covered almonds**]

Judy Halebsky is the author of the poetry collections Tree Line and Sky = Empty. 
Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, she spent five years studying in Japan on fellowships from the Japanese Ministry of Culture. She now lives in Oakland and teaches English and Creative Writing at Dominican University of California. More about Judy and her work can be found HERE.

Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), (The University of Arkansas Press, 2020) selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2020 Miller Williams Poetry Prize is available for purchase directly from the press HERE, as well as from several bookstores and online sources.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Meryl Natchez: Catwalk

In these trying times I search for silver linings. This blog post is the result of two. First, unable to host The Poetry Connection, where Marin County poets are introduced to a wider audience and readership, and unable to attend readings of my own work and of the work of others, I now have ample time to fulfill my commitment to review new poetry collections by Marin poets. There are ten such books on my desk that await a more careful reading and / or their respective reviews. Second, my reading of Meryl Natchez' Catwalk (Longship Press, 2020) has caused me to fall in love with poetry all over again. I told my partner, Janet, the previous sentence should be the standard for all poetry collections. Congratulations, Meryl Natchez and Lawrence Tjernell of Longship Press for creating such a book.

I imagine doing a word search on Catwalk, entering favorite word after favorite word, and finding each one of them somewhere in the manuscript, chiseled into an apt image, fleshed out into a fresh metaphor or engaging narrative, riffed upon to create a lyrical variation or an entire prose poem without punctuation—in short, whatever I’m in the mood for, delivered in poetic spades. 

And this would be no idle exercise on my part because Catwalk is the result of the poet’s own search among the details of her capacious life embodied in forms as appropriately chosen as they are varied in content. The student of poetry will recognize her free verse, haibuns and cinquaines, but perhaps not her Looseplexes, an adaptation of Jericho Brown’s Duplex, that begin each section. Scowering her embryonic and past failed poems, Natchez rescues lines that deserve a home and builds a nonce form structure for them. To assemble it, she literally cut out with scissors the best lines from poems on life support, as if she were selecting DNA strands to genetically engineer a new breed of poem, placed them upon a white board, and rearranged and massaged them until her Looseplex was born. 

The poems in Catwalk, however, are not mere poetic detritus cleverly cobbled together to make meaning from their sound work or their visual presence upon the page. They are the result of sifting through a language and a life to find what, if not permanent, will at least give the comfort of meaning while they are here. In Judaism this rigorous process of fixing and rectifying has a name—tikkun. It is the closest word in the Torah to perfect—the kind of perfect I believe Natchez writes about in “Perfect Balance,” from section II, Dark Shell.

Perfect Balance

We imagine
a world of perfect harmony

We imagine imagining
how the lion

lies down with the Xbox
as the dragon needle

of dread
ceases its endless stitching.

We imagine this, strapped
to the wheel of this world

as it creaks
against sinew and nerve

where the work is to grasp

in every terrible turn.

Turning the terrible into the tolerable and the tolerable into the loveable is one of the features of Catwalk I love most. Here is the second half of my favorite poem from section I, Heart of the Matter, entitled “Full Circle, A Diptych.” Each half reverses the line order of the other half.

Full Circle, A Diptych

Sleep-deprived, disoriented, your nipples so sore
you can hardly bear the baby’s ruthless gums,

and when they cry, you pick them up again,
and wander the few rooms your life has narrowed to,

the soft floss of their hair, the bluish pattern that blooms
under transparent skin, shrimp-shell fingernails so fragile

they bend when you try to cut them. Soon
they begin to know who you are, they reach their chubby arms

toward you, they smile, they nuzzle the soft bones
of their fontanel into your neck and cover it with kisses

limpid as soap bubbles, and there has never been anything
more delightful, not sex, not the best meal, not driving fast

in a convertible on a winding road by an azure sea,
and you would do anything for them, and you do,

give up nightlife, adult conversation, hour-and-a-half
massages, spicy food, uninterrupted thought,

and they learn to walk,
to swim, to read, and you’ve paid for the orthodontist

and endured the teenage years, and paid for college
and helped out with grad school and they’re launched,

with their own lives, their own ways of salting meat,
their own ways of slicing it, their own partners and opinions,

here they are, flawed human beings with adult problems
for which it turns out you are the cause.

It is not only the specificity in Natchez’ diction that pulls me into her poems, but it is the way these poems seem like the news from this morning’s paper, stitched from the celebrations and concerns of my own life, as I nod yes, yes, yes over morning coffee recognizing myself in their lines. In “Another Morning on Earth,” the poet itemizes pictures on the altar in her living room: “…parents, / my brother at forty, Larry’s parents, / my mother and her sisters on Atlantic City Boardwalk in the thirties, / and Erwin, my mother’s last love, for the besotted, lively gaze / she turns on him, though I try to keep him / behind the flowers.”

This passage reminds me of Malena Morling’s short poem “Traveling” with it’s first stanza: “Like streetlights / still lit / past dawn, / the dead / stare at us / from the framed / photographs.” However, unlike Morling’s photographs that are “traveling / continuously / backwards / without a sound / further and further / into the past,” Natchez’ dead stay close by and reach their long lines around us because the poet tends to them.

              I change the flowers as they wilt,
alstroemerias, anemones, the last sweet peas,
because I want my dead to keep watching out for us,
for the children and grandchildren and beloved friends
in this chancy world where death lurks on the landing
or in the car, or microbes
or snipers or breast
or bone or stomach.

And instead of cold, Spartan lines marching down the page, ending abruptly to leave the white space of nothingness, Natchez fills her poem with an abundance of “random moments that can converge / into a ravishing pattern” walking right up to the cliff of sentimentality, placing her toes over the edge and only glancing into its depths, avoiding jumping into the abyss by keeping her eyes on those concrete images.

             What do they think about the time I waste?
Such an abundance that I throw whole hours
into online Scrabble or Threes,
because it’s hard to be here now,
now being a confused elixir
of sun and fog and email and bird shadow and superstition
and chicken feet and toast and news
and insatiable longing and I have to pee, a fusillade
of random moments that converge
into a ravishing pattern,
which I have, from time to time and briefly, glimpsed.

            But mostly I wander the planet with blinders on,
            going somewhere fast.
            I like to keep moving.
            I like my time full.
            And I like to believe that because
            Their photos look out from their niche
            In the living room, they are present, and if
            I keep a fresh parade of flowers on the altar
            They will keep on keeping me
            from harm.

Some critics would say that the poem ends with the penultimate stanza, that the final stanza is an unnecessary afterthought and, thus, out of place. Natchez never shies away from “telling us” in the midst of “showing us”—not from a lack of writing ability, but rather, seemingly, from an abundance of wise commentary earned from a life lived to its fullest. I would say that what works about this final stanza is the repetition of “like” that softens any didactic tone.

“After” is another fine example of this blend that works, partly, because it is in the second person—in reality a “first person light”—bridging the emotional gap between reader and poet, accentuating, as do many of Catwalk's poems, its haunting echo of facing the COVID19  pandemic.


At first, to be alive is all you need.
The sweet bitterness of coffee,
the hand with the umbrella,
the blanket’s warmth
as you step from the wing of the plane
afloat on icy water
onto the deck of the rescue boat.
Even the air’s acrid sting
on the skin of your cheeks
is welcome.

But soon
you begin to miss your laptop,
your keys, the numbers
stored in your phone.
This is the daily wonder,
to take life for granted
each time
it’s restored to you.

Natchez utilizes multiple forms in her quest for a permanence beyond permanence and impermanence. Here is a prose poem from section III, Brief Poems on Physics, rendered in one breath, enacting the cycle of connection / dissolution that embodies our existence.

Made of molecules

I take for granted that the earth is solid the idea of permanence
seductive as I move about checking the time going here going there
the small chores and pleasures of daily interaction shaken when
the lanterns in the Hunan restaurant suddenly being to sway and
we run outside remembering that the reliable ground under our
feet can suddenly shift that the live oak with its wrinkled elephant
trunk and ancient lichen its catkins and acorns reassembles itself
moment to moment as if forever as if predictable as if not vulner-
able as if not a continuous regrouping a notion a casual kiss that
might be the last

“Looseplex: Despite everything, spring” is emblematic of Natchez’ intriguing nonce form. A quest poem, uncovering the darkness and the light, universally and inexorably bonded together, as we are to all things, it appropriately introduces the final section of Catwalk and concludes this review. 

Looseplex: Despite everything, spring

No one was watching. We searched the silence
Like a farmer in drought, ears open for rain.

            Each morning, each evening, scatter of yellow.
            Whatever else may occur, it’s spring,

A framework for the rags of this world,
Real joy mixed with a certain uncertainty.

            Overnight a fuzz of tender green.
            It glints and shimmers. It pulls me towards it—strong

Carpet of newborn shoots under last year’s weeks.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies.

            Aretha’s hat, Yo Yo Ma’s delight,
            Is this our work, to love what is here?

To move along the skin of this earth
Married like enamel to the tooth.

Meryl Natchez' most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian: Poems From the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. She is co-translator of Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001, and her new book, Catwalk, is forthcoming from Longship Press in June 2020 (pre-orders available now HERE). Her work has appeared in Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, The American Journal of Poetry, ZYZZYVA, The Pinch Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Lyric, The Moth, Comstock Review, and many others. She is on the board of Marin Poetry Center and blogs at

Catwalk may be pre-ordered HERE