Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Vermont Studio: Thoughts on Arts Colonies

April 26, 2011

Rainy Tuesday afternoon in Iowa,  a begrudging winter still trying to hang on. Kind of melancholy and I sit here trying to write, but thinking more about the last two weeks at Vermont Studio Center and trying to wrap my ahead around what they meant.

It’s difficult to explain to others why a residency is so useful for a writer. A painter or sculptor, OK, because they need space which can be hard to come by. But a writer? I have everything I need with a computer or a pad of paper and pen. And I’ve been on sabbatical, so I’ve had time as well: why the great need to get away? Isn’t it just a vacation? I can’t really argue with that. And I certainly don’t want to argue it’s anything other than a real luxury. Two weeks with everything basically taken care of, with plenty of good food and nothing but time to write. But it is a very useful luxury.

The challenge I think is trying to make art in our normal lives. Now be assured that I don’t generally talk about Capital-A art; I use the term art in a pretty inclusive way, from the very mainstream to the avant-garde. I like popular culture; I like Weeds, 30-Rock, and mainstream movies. But I don’t want that to be the only thing available. But those arts that aren’t mainstream will always struggle for an audience (but this isn’t a statement of their overall value). And those artists struggling for an audience will always struggle to juggle livelihoods and to fit their art into those lives. Some manage to do this quite successfully; some, like me, struggle endlessly. So you may say, “it’s just a matter of priorities” or “it’s all psychological,” and of course that’s true. But it’s also a bit like telling an addict that he has a problem: true, but what’s important is finding the tools to actually deal with the problem. Without that, what good does such knowledge do? I know it’s a psychological problem (and I’m far from alone judging from the many conversations I’ve had with many writers and artists) but the question is what tools can I use to combat it.

I’ve been productive on sabbatical, but my old habits have remained. Time to work will not alone shake you out of habits. And there is the benefit of the residency: my old habits of avoidance or procrastination or self-inflicted angst or whatever are almost impossible to sustain. There is a studio without much in it: some books, my computer, my notebooks, a lamp, a chair overlooking the river. There’s the endless April gray, snow and rain, and cold and wind (and frankly this is just right–I don’t know if I’d get any work done coming here in the summer; I’m sure I’d spend all of my time down at the swimming hole). There’s a communal fridge where I keep some beer. And there is the quiet, punctuated by the faint sounds of someone else tapping away or perhaps pacing the hallway outside your door  (reminders that others are working as hard or harder than you–keep at it!). In a building across the alley, I have a bedroom–not a particularly comfortable one, so I don’t really feel like being there–and then there is the Red Mill with a lounge and a dining hall. It’s a comfortable place to sit and have some coffee, but there will always be someone there who will inevitably ask, “How’s the work going?” reminding you of what you’re there to do. And if you do want to hang out, well then they’ll want to talk about the work, what they’re doing, what you’re doing, what everyone’s doing. There are three meals a day, so even if I wanted to think about what I should be fixing for dinner, I wouldn’t be able to (ah, food, a great avoidance technique of mine). At dinner, we all gather and share our day’s successes and struggles, and afterward we share our work, have some drinks, then go back to work for as long as we feel like. In other words, you’re always in contact with people who care immensely about your success, about the larger creative work in general. Everyone. That’s a rare thing. You may have your network, and you may talk about the work once in awhile, but it’s so constant here that you begin to think about your work differently. Everything else starts to fall away and your old habits die away and the work feels fresh, exciting in the way it’s hard to sustain in the “real” world. In two weeks I made headway on 4 projects, any one of which would normally have taken me twice that time; I spent about 60 hours alone just transcribing the Batwa stories I’ve been working on; this alone would have taken me forever, but I also managed to write an introductory essay to those stories. The real challenge is, once you get into a habit of writing until 3 or 4 in the morning, snapping back out of it.

The other aspect really is to be in this constant contact with people doing such exciting work, and not just writers who I sometimes spend too much time with anyway. There’s the sculptor doing a combination of 3-dimensional and musical homage to the Gihon River (which runs through the studio grounds); there’s the painter doing translucent paintings on both sides of sheets of mylar as a way of investigating space; there’s the chinese sculptor working with long plastic threads as a kind of fiber optic, swirling lines of reflective plastic making a different sculpture every time the light shifts; there is the painter/photographer/multi-media artist with her series of work, “Devices to Save Everyone from Everything”; and on and on. It’s a kind of collective intelligence that starts to take hold in a setting like this–it’s no longer just you and the work, it’s the WORK pouring through the collective mind, taking on its many manifestations. OK, that might sound a bit over-the-top, but it’s how it feels, and what that feeling does to your work is invaluable.

I come back with a huge body of writing I’ve accomplished, but more importantly I come back with a fresh sense of process, a fresh relationship to my writing. Now, I can’t imagine staying at a place like that–the intensity really is a bit much to sustain. Most residents stay for a month, but I only stayed for two weeks–I certainly wondered how a month-long stay would have played out, but I can’t imagine more than that (there are a handful who do 2 or 3 month stays). But as good as this all feels and how energized it makes me about my work, there’s a kind of melancholy that accompanies coming back to the day-to-day world. As one painter sarcastically said, “Oh, yes, I know I’ll go back to my job where everyone will be so creative and energized and have such witty, wonderful things to say about art in the world,” and we all knew what she meant. I went to the Studio Center ten years ago and remember coming back with some of the same feelings: I had a serious case of insomnia because I was so jazzed about possibilities and my mind wouldn’t stop. I started working on plans to start an arts colony somewhere in the midwest, plans that never really materialized, but it was still an exciting moment. I find myself again wondering about how to maintain some kind of community with the same intensity and commitment.

Many would say, well you work in a college, surely that’s got the same kind of community. And certainly there’s a supportive community at the college, but it’s far different. We’re so wrapped up in politics and teaching and grading and committees and the day-to-day work that we don’t engage on the same level. And what work is supported is far more likely to be academic in nature rather than creative (I don’t like to make such a distinct binary between these two ideas, but there is a strong divide and these terms are the best I can use to describe the division–my “academic” side feels far more nurtured in this setting than my creative).  This is not to say anything about the quality of work being done here–writers, visual artists, musicians, students and faculty alike, are all quite wonderful. But most of us rarely find the time to just sit and talk about process, for instance. And the dynamics of interchange are quite different here. Here I am the “authority.” At the studio center, I certainly was feeling older, shifting to some role as elder of the tribe, but I was also just another artist. People maybe wanted advice from me on how to get jobs or how to get published and those more mundane but essential realities (to which in this climate I really have no advice anyway) but in terms of the work, we were all just equals, we were collaborators.

I suppose one lesson for me, then, is to figure out how to bring more of this dynamic to my teaching; how do I collaborate more with my students, knowing all the while that I still am inherently the authority. But more importantly I find myself wanting to find another community. I know that Iowa is filled with wonderful writers and artists, but it takes a kind of social commitment and energy that I don’t always have to find them and interact with them (this whole post on the importance of community for one’s art is strange for such an introvert as myself–another benefit of such an insular community as the Studio Center is that it forces me into a kind of creative extroversion). So perhaps I’m where I was ten years ago after all. Maybe I really should start an Iowa arts co-operative. We could buy some farm land with buildings we could turn into studio space, we could do community arts projects, we could hang out and talk, we could grow a communal garden, and of course we could do our work. That’s my dream for this rainy Tuesday. Who’s with me?


Reading on Sabbatical

January 6, 2011

Here it is readers, your chance to help me design my courses. One of my goals over sabbatical is to read some new work to help me reinvigorate a few of my classes. At the top of my list are two classes I’ll teach next year, Contemporary Poetry and Advanced Poetry Writing. I of course have a huge list I know that I can draw from and I’ve got a pretty good working list of things I want to read that might be useful for the course, but I’m hoping people might suggest some things so that maybe I get pushed in some new directions. Go ahead, all you avid street parade poetry readers: what do you like? What do you think I should be reading/teaching? And blah, blah, blah as far as debates over whether it’s “great” poetry or not (whatever the heck that would mean)or whether it serves some ideological agenda or not. What do you think is fun to read, or what would be fun to explore in a classroom?

The Creative Writer in the Schools

October 30, 2010

Yes, yes, I know we’ve been there, and it’s humorous because it’s pretty accurate of beginning writers. But this whole series also seems kind of mean to me. I mean I think most writers exhibit at least some of these characteristics when they’re young and starting out. And, more importantly, if this is how a writer feels about teaching (oh, the burden of having to grade intro composition papers!) then I have to wonder why do it. Teaching is not necessarily the best place for a writer to be anyway, so why not just find another profession? (frankly, I was a much more productive writer when I was a cook, but I shifted professions because I valued the chance to work with young writers).  Yet, year after year, MFA programs churn out an overload of writers who will never find a job in academia (yes, most writers say they get that MFA to improve their writing, but the reality is we then expect a teaching job–even publishing is far too often seen as a step towards that job) and the result is an insular community that supports such cynicism–“yes, we know how overburdened the poet is, how no one appreciates the work we do, etc.” Yes, I speak from the “inside”–I have a very nice tenure-track job. But the issue in this video seems to be that it’s about the visitor, perhaps the teacher that hasn’t landed the TT job yet. But I’ve had this conversation far too many times, seen it on search committees too many times–a cynical and superior view of students that is really just the result of being overworked as an adjunct or visitor and would somehow disappear if only the teacher could land that TT job.  Hmmm, really?

Haiti Benefit, Part II

March 19, 2010

We were treated to a fabulous event of music and poetry the other night. The evening began with music by Cornell’s living & learning music group “Octave.” They played a set of jazz tunes as the crowd congregated, followed by a set of more experimental music at the intermission.

We then heard brief readings from both Kiki Petrosino and Patrick Rosal. You can see their bios in the previous post.

But no doubt the highlight of the evening was after the intermission. After a raffle, silent auction and more music by Octave, Patrick and Kiki gave an impromptu collaborative reading with the two poets going back and forth, choosing poems sparked by the previous poet’s poem. Theme and image bounced back and forth, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, but always throwing the individual’s work in a new light as we listened through the lens of the previous poem. The energy between the readers was incredible and the crowd thoroughly enjoyed this lively, spontaneous reading.  One of the finest events I’ve been proud to be a part of at Cornell.  Many thanks to Kiki and Patrick for the wonderful evening. And now I’m especially looking forward to having Patrick on campus when he teaches an advanced poetry course for us, “Strangers on a Personal Level.” Will be a great addition to next year’s curriculum.

Haiti Benefit Poetry Reading

March 17, 2010

I’m looking forward to tonight’s poetry reading/Haiti benefit. Music, raffles, and two fabulous poets. Should be a great time, so come join us if you can.

The English Department presents:

An evening of Poetry to benefit Haiti
Featuring: Patrick Rosal & Kiki Petrosino

Poetry, Music, Raffles!

Wednesday, March 17
7:00, Hedges Lounge

Cornell College

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, which won the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and My American Kundiman, which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry as well as the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award

Kiki Petrosino is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first collection of poems, Red Fort Border, was published by  Sarabande Books in 2009. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Forklift Ohio, POOL, Unpleasant Event Schedule, and elsewhere. She is programming director at the International Writers Program and the University of Iowa.

Modern Poetry

February 8, 2010

Been away from the blog for awhile. A few things on my mind to write about–most notably a few comments on the loss of J.D. Salinger–but I just don’t seem to be able to get to the blog very often these days.

If you’re interested, though, my current class is on modern poetry. They’ve got an interesting blog going at Check it out sometime. Yes, that means you!

In Memoriam: Jack Myers

December 12, 2009

Well it has been a long time since I’ve posted here on my blog. I was just thinking of all the things I should catch up on, KRNL playlists (including my annual Dave Ray tribute from a few weeks ago), thoughts on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, some random thoughts about facebook I’ve had since I joined recently, all kinds of things I was just thinking I should be writing about and was just about to post a few things this weekend, but then I just got the news that poet Jack Myers has died and that sad news takes precedence.

Jack was one of my first writing teachers, and he was a gifted and generous man, both as a writer and as a teacher. He taught for many years at Southern Methodist University in Texas and was a fixture in the MFA program at Vermont College where I got to know him. I took two workshops with him and spent a good bit of time at the bar with him and watching football during the winter residencies. He had a sharp wit and a keen eye for the drama, humor, and absurdity around him every day. And for all the sarcasm and cynicism, tenderness always shines through the poems.

What I loved most about his poetry was its quiet demeanor. The poems make no pretensions, and feel friendly, comfortable, and familiar in their tone.  But at the end, the poems always take you somewhere that you didn’t expect to go. I often find that I read a poem and then immediately need to read it again, thinking, “how did he do that?” “How did he get there?” He was much the same in conversation, too. You would have a fairly normal conversation with him and then find yourself scratching your head as you walked away. Wait, what did he say?

Seamus Heaney is right on target when he talks about Myers’ work:  “Stylish in their pretense of being without style, wise in their pretense of just fooling around, Myers’ poems take us to a place beyond their irony and salutary laughter where we can once again trust in sanity, tenderness, tolerance, freedom, art, and love.”

Jack led my very first graduate poetry workshop, a group that descended into pure chaos. I literally had to hold another student back from punching another member of the workshop. It was a disaster of big egos, inflexibility, and intolerance–a volatile mixture of personalities. While I learned a great deal from Jack as he talked poetry, I was not particularly impressed with how he handled the group. I sat down to lunch with him one day to talk about it and basically he shrugged and said, “well, you know there’s a poem in that, right?” I learned more from that than I realized at the time.

Here is a poem from his1986  book As Long as You’re Happy:

Do You Know What I Mean?

For the sake of argument
let’s say there are three of me:
the one with the bummed-out body,
the one who senses things are going badly,
and the bright one who can’t cope. That’s me!
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a family.
For example, if #2 has a sexy dream,
#1 may salivate. That leaves #3 free to feel guilty
or write. Only sometimes in the face of authority
1 opens his mouth and 3 slips out “I hate your guts!”
Then 2 tries to get 3 to repent, but isn’t smart enough
and then everyone feels like shit and gets a headache.

Do you know what I mean?

2 and 3 are always sniffing each other suspiciously
while 1 sticks a bottle of sour mash in his face.
We know that somewhere some elegant in a gray silk suit
and shiny black shoes reflecting the tips of the Alps
is slowly turning toward his tasty companion
the date 1957 on their green bottle of pouilly-fuisse.

I did that so #3 would feel better
about having said a spot of French.
That means 1 has the green light to celebrate
and 2 can slink around pretending he’s french.


Dear God,
I’m not sure I believe in you,
But #2 is feeling bad today.
He thinks you’re out there and you’re great.
But he can’t tell the difference between something small
tearing apart and the sound of something large in the distance
moving far off.

So this is my brother, #2
standing here like we’re in church.
Sometimes when we’re quiet like this
I think we’re all the family we’ve got.

Myers is the author of seven volumes of poetry and five other works about poetry including the reference work The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms and the anthology New American Poets.

His work has been widely anthologized and has appeared in hundreds of literary journals, from Esquire and The Nation to Poetry and The American Poetry Review. His book of poems, As Long As You’re Happy, was a National Poetry Series selection.

He served on the Board of Directors of the Dallas literary center, The Writer’s Garret, and was a past Vice-President of the Associated Writing Programs.

Jack Myers

More on Walt, and Benny Too!

June 2, 2009

I  believe my last post was really inadequate for Walt Whitman’s birthday. I was clearly too preoccupied with my own struggles as a teacher finishing up the year to really do service to this important date. Whitman is my hero; Whitman is the voice of contemporary American poetry. This is not to downplay the importance of, say, his contemporary Emily Dickinson who has also shaped American poetry in profound ways. But Whitman embodies the democratic voice, the inclusive, egalitarian voice that I believe American and its poetry strive for. Here is a section of his classic (to my mind his most important) poem, “Song of Myself”:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff
that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the
largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and
hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest
joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin
leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger,
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen
off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the
Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving
their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands
and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

Yes, I’ve heard it all before, the egotism that people hear in Whitman, both the audacity to publish and publicize his own work (yes, it’s true, he was known to write his own reviews) but more importantly to write an epic poem titled “Song of Myself.” There is certainly a strain of American imperialism at play here, but the self at stake is multiple and moves on many levels: Walt Whitman, America, the Globe, the Cosmos. His “self” reaches out to include everything, to speak the voice of a nation struggling for its own identity, a multitude. This is not just Walt Whitman egotism (though clearly he knew, as de Tocqueville had earlier suggested, that the American people would respond most viscerally to an art grounded in individualist sensibilities) but a poetry of democracy.  At another point, he states his democratic poetics and politics:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of
all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Whitman did not even believe that he was writing poems, but writing a language which would allow poetry to happen. Poetry was what happened after people read his work; democracy was what happened in the people’s hands, not in some authority’s. His poetics foregrounded the reader, the response, in a way that mirrored a political belief in the people: authority can only be invested in the people, not in any predetermined authority.

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

Yes, contact! Whitman’s is a poetics of contact, of intimacy even in the midst of such expansive inclusion. “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Whitman opened up American verse to a new language, one that could be as large, as messy, as complicated as the new nation:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Here is a poetry as unwieldy as the idea of democracy itself. Yes, I will say it again: Whitman is my hero.  Yesterday, he would have been 190. I constantly wonder what he would have seen in the current state of affairs here in America. I’m pretty sure that he would have found more good in it than I can generally find.

But let’s not lose another important birthday in Whitman’s wake. Saturday, May 30, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin David Goodman, Benny Goodman, the King of Swing.  Besides being an amazing composer and musician himself, his bands over the years launched the careers of some of our most important jazz musicians such as Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Christian. He was also incredibly influential in his move to integrate American music, hiring African-American musicians when they weren’t allowed to share the same stage.  I believe Goodman had a profound influence on an integrated American society. For any Goodman tribute, just start with his 1936 version of Louis Prima’s classic Sing, Sing, Sing. From there you can go anywhere (or, like me, you might just want to listen to it again).

Happy Birthday Walt

May 31, 2009

Today was Cornell’s graduation. A glorious end-of-May day here, but frankly I”m just glad to be done. A brutal year teaching for a variety of reasons, and it really wore me down. But all the grades are in, just a few committee meetings now, and I have the summer to relax, drink some good beer, and try to get some writing done.

This weekend we also celebrate Walt Whitman’s birthday. The great American poet was born May 31 1819 and in his honor, here’s a short poem:


When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Now, I’m not sure what my choice of this poem says about my state of mind right now. It’s true that graduation gives me a good feeling about what we do as teachers. Then again, I feel a bit disillusioned after some of my experiences this year. I also often feel more in line with Whitman here, wondering what it is we really  do in the face of experience itself. I suppose I have the summer to think about it, though; perhaps reading Leaves of Grass again would do me some good.

For National Poetry Month

April 2, 2009

To welcome in National Poetry Month, here’s a poem from the book After All by William Matthews:

A Poetry Reading At West Point

I read to the entire plebe class,
in two batches. Twice the hall filled
with bodies dressed alike, each toting
a copy of my book. What would my
shrink say, if I had one, about
such a dream, if it were a dream?

Question and answer time.
“Sir,” a cadet yelled from the balcony,
and gave his name and rank, and then,
closing his parentheses, yelled
“Sir” again. “Why do your poems give
me a headache when I try

to understand them?” he asked. “Do
you want that?” I have a gift for
gentle jokes to defuse tension,
but this was not the time to use it.
“I try to write as well as I can
what it feels like to be human,”

I started, picking my way care-
fully, for he and I were, after
all, pained by the same dumb longings.
“I try to say what I don’t know
how to say, but of course I can’t
get much of it down at all.”

By now I was sweating bullets.
“I don’t want my poems to be hard,
unless the truth is, if there is
a truth.” Silence hung in the hall
like a heavy fabric. My own
head ached. “Sir,” he yelled. “Thank you. Sir.”