Miller Oberman: On Mentorship

ObermanWhen I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I worked in a corporate coffee shop in a corporate bookstore; I won’t name them here. In that bookstore I started to read contemporary poetry. I read everything lucille clifton had written and could recite half of it, and I read Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. By chance, I saw in a magazine that he taught a summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and applied. It was the first time I ever printed my poems and put them in an envelope. I was accepted, and my parents let me get on a bus alone to go from Virginia to New York. When I arrived, I was told that the workshop “was for adults,” but I argued my way into Lux’s classroom, and at the end of the week, he suggested I come to school there. I never tested well and wasn’t sure I could get in, but he said to apply and to “shove a note in there that says ‘see Tom Lux about this kid.’” I did. It wasn’t until he died in early 2017 that I realized how common this story is. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets Tom taught, helped get into school, found jobs for, believed in.

I had incredible teachers as an undergraduate. Marie Howe sat me down behind her desk and physically taught me how to make line breaks, and I think I have most of her book What the Living Do memorized. Suzanne Gardinier taught me patience and persistence, and that good poets are better readers, and Victoria Redel showed me the freedom in rejecting barriers between genres. But Tom was my first mentor, and the first poet who made me believe I could be one myself.  

Tom was an incandescent teacher. On the first day of class he read us Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” performed it, really, and though I followed almost none of it, it was somehow the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps this is because after he finished reading it, he said, in the same tone as he’d read it in: “I would sell every single one of your souls to have written a single line of this poem.” I read it again. And again. Today it reminds me of Tom’s poem, “An Horatian Notion,” from Split Horizon, the book that caused me to apply to the summer workshop in the first place. Tom begins by describing what he sees as the illusion of God-given genius or inspiration, “the gift,” model, which he considers ridiculous. He counters, arguing instead:

 

              You make the thing because you love the thing

              and you love the thing because someone else loved it

              enough to make you love it.

 

For Tom, the removal of the common fantasy of the artistic “bolt of fire” only adds intensity to the process. The poem concludes:

 

              And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

              toward the earth’s core.

              And with that your heart on a beam burns

              through the ionosphere.

              And with that you go to work.

 

This “heart” burning “through the ionosphere” has everything to do with mentorship. It is how we are made, how we measure ourselves, what we take with us. This is the eternal life art promises—someone loves a thing “enough to make you love it,” and you love it enough to make another love it, and so on. It doesn’t come from heaven, it’s not a bolt from the blue, it comes from our mentors; either on the page or in the flesh. Taking the mystery out of the process doesn’t diminish it: we still get the “core,” the center of the earth and the heart, and the “ionosphere,” as our words travel outwards, above the earth’s surfaces and our own.

Tom died just before my first book, The Unstill Ones came out, and the fact that he read it and wrote about it means a great deal to me. As I did when I was young, I nervously printed the poems and mailed them to him, hoping that when he read it, he would see some of his teaching in my poems in a way that might make him proud. I know that the poems in the book where I see his influence are some of my own favorites. I hear Tom’s voice in my poem “Lies After the War,” because it’s dark and funny at the same time, one of the only poems in the book that attempts humor. And of course, in my poem “Voyages,” which begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “and could they hear me, I would tell them.”

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetrymagazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in PoetryLondon Review of Books, the NationBoston ReviewTin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Myronn Hardy on Origin: “Birches”

It began with that set of Encyclopedia Britannicas on the tall family room shelves.  Those maroon and navy bound books that had everything in them.  The volumes I often used to lookup random things: cities, countries, animals, historical figures and events.  Those were the books we had in my Michigan childhood home.  Those books and a random one I hadn’t touched until I was six or seven, the thick book with a black dust cover photograph of blurry sun beams passing through heavy boughs of nondescript trees. 

I remember having to hoist myself onto the counter and stretch my arm to its limit just to pull that one book from the high shelf.  Once safe, down from the counter with the book in hand, safe on the gray carpeted floor, I read its cover, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged.  I opened the book erratically to the poem, “Birches.”  I read it intensely.  I knew what the world “birch” meant because there was a birch in the front yard.  And whenever my parents and I walked through the yard, or other yards or forests, they’d named the trees in it.  Perhaps they wanted me to know their names, to know they had names, histories even.  They wanted me to be aware.

In that poem, Frost refers to ice storms and that ice breaking from those birches as glass.  After a storm, I remembered making the same assertion in my very young mind.  The language in the poem was thrilling.  The way it worked on the page both charmed and perplexed me.  I got up from the floor to ask my mom what was the difference between this form of writing and what I’d seen in those encyclopedias or the newspaper.  She said, “This” she pointed to the poem, “is concentrated.”  She when on to compare it to the pulpy-concentrated orange juice she mixed with water each morning. 

            “So this is pure?” I asked.

            “I don’t know about pure but that’s kind of it,” she said.  I didn’t tell her then, but I felt I’d found something to make, something to attempt to make.  I found myself staring at that birch in the front yard and noticing the strange beauty in its pealing skin.  Somewhere in the process of staring at this tree, and once swinging in its boughs, I realized that that poem and other poems I’d read in Frost’s book, were prompting me to notice or see more profoundly: to notice the small, or what I’d later be told, the “insignificant.”  And that my task, perhaps, was to make that “insignificant” thing momentous, to make it the center.

            This one poem, this one book of poems, that almost fresh awareness of the birch in our front yard, began my seeing, my imagination, my seeing-imagination in poetry.  It began my writing of poetry.  I had no idea but now pondering it, sifting through it, there is the birch.  There are birches. 

            In high school, one of the large boughs of the birch had becoming infected.  The leaves became yellow and dropped in the summer.  Eventually, it had to be removed from the tree to potentially save the whole of it.  Of course, this large bough seemed to be almost half the tree.  I watched that large part being sawed off and helped with its later chopping up and removal from the yard.  I later wrote something about this.  A poem that began with yellow dust billowing from an electric saw as yellow leaves blew about the speaker in August. 

            That image became nightmarish.  It kept repeating itself in dream and I kept writing that poem, kept changing it.  The poem never worked but it marked a moment:  the birch’s almost death, that title of the first poem I remembered reading, and my first real attempting at writing poetry.

            In 2009, a year after my second book, The Headless Saints was published, I received the Robert Frost Poetry Fellowship to attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  A month after that conference, I moved to Morocco where I lived and taught at a university there for nine years.  I didn’t see any birches there. But there were sycamores and cedars.  And I wrote several poems with those trees in them.

             I’ve lived now in Maine for eight months.  Here there are birches everywhere.  And I’ve seen their branches covered with ice.  I’ve been carrying around Frost’s “Birches.” 

            I keep thinking about this idea of return, the space of return.  These groves of birches I walk though almost every day is a return I hadn’t expected.   Perhaps this is the next poem. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Robyn Creswell on City of Beginnings

City of Beginnings is an exploration of modernism in Arabic poetry, a movement that emerged in Beirut during the 1950s and became the most influential and controversial Arabic literary development of the twentieth century. Robyn Creswell introduces English-language readers to a poetic movement that will be uncannily familiar—and unsettlingly strange. He also provides an intellectual history of Lebanon during the early Cold War, when Beirut became both a battleground for rival ideologies and the most vital artistic site in the Middle East.

In what sense is Beirut a ‘city of beginnings’?

The three decades after World War II were Lebanon’s version of France’s trente glorieuses. The country enjoyed an astonishing period of economic growth, and Beirut was the chief beneficiary: it became the most vibrant and intellectually alive city in the region. This was also a time when regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were becoming less tolerant of dissent, and so intellectuals from all over the region—including Palestinian thinkers fleeing the Nakba of 1948—emigrated to Beirut. The state was relatively weak, meaning there was minimal censorship, and every intellectual and political tendency had its own base of operations (oftentimes a café). There were nationalists, Marxists, Baathists, pan-Arabists, existentialists, and modernists—the group I write about in the book. My title is taken from the Syrian poet Adonis, who was one of these immigrants to Beirut. He fled Damascus in 1956 and began a new life in Lebanon.

Who were the central figures of this modernist group?

I focus on three figures: Yusuf al-Khal, Adonis, and Unsi al-Hajj. Al-Khal was the editor-in-chief of Shi‘r [Poetry] magazine, the house organ of the Beiruti modernists, which published its first issue in 1957 and closed in 1970, after 44 issues. Al-Khal was also a poet, a critic, and a translator of English-language poetry, but I emphasize his work as an editor, which I think was crucial to the movement. It was al-Khal who defined the group’s mission and fixed its place in Beirut’s intellectual landscape. Adonis is probably the most significant figure of the group—the greatest poet and most prolific critic, as well as a discerning translator of French poetry (particularly Saint-John Perse and Yves Bonnefoy). My book looks closely at his signature collection of poetry, The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (1961), as well as his work as an editor of the classical tradition, and his lifelong engagement with the genre of elegy—the Arabic marthiya as well as the French tombeau. The book’s epilogue juxtaposes his reaction to the 1979 revolution in Iran with the 2011 Arab Spring. Finally, I devote a chapter to Unsi al-Hajj’s collection of prose poems, Lan [Will Not] (1960), the most difficult—and to my mind the most exciting—of all the modernists’ books: a delirious evocation of adolescent sexuality and a work of radical religious skepticism. The book is one of those literary landmarks that we have hardly begun to read and absorb.

What did modernism mean to poets and intellectuals in Beirut at that time?

In a sense, it meant the same thing to them as it did to artists and critics all over the world. The post-war moment is one in which modernism goes global—I’d even argue that post-war modernism is the first truly global style of art. The various art movements of the early twentieth century—Futurism, Vorticism, Simultaneism, Suprematism, etc.—were local styles with significant but limited international circulations. You could argue that postwar modernism is essentially an American phenomenon, which, by virtue of the United States’ suddenly expanded reach, goes everywhere including Lebanon (a staunch US ally at the time). But I think that modernism after the war has two elements that distinguish it from earlier movements: first, a commitment to artistic autonomy, which typically meant freedom from political interference, especially by the state. This is a moment when writers all over the Arab world took for granted the virtue of combining literature and politics—Sartre’s notion of the engagé intellectual was a commonplace—and so the modernists’ insistence on trying to separate poetry from politics cut strongly against the zeitgeist. The second is a commitment to internationalism, not as an accident of circulation but as a fundamental constituent of artistic work—which, perhaps as a consequence, tended to favor abstract aesthetics (this is as true of the Beiruti modernists as it is of their contemporary, Clement Greenberg). This internationalist commitment also explains the group’s deep interest in translation. Shi‘r magazine published Arabic translations of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, Henri Michaux, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke—and many other European and American modernists.

You suggest that the American CIA played a role in disseminating this new idea of modernism. How so?

In 1950, the CIA set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as a front group for its work of wooing European intellectuals away from Communism. Basically, the CCF was the cultural arm of the Marshal Plan, and it employed a familiar rhetoric of artistic freedom and international solidarity. Before it was exposed in 1967, the CCF set up a network of high-brow magazines—Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, and others—and it sponsored dozens of conferences around the world, on topics like “The Future of Freedom,” “State Aid to the Arts,” and “Constitutionalism in Asia.” The story of the CCF in Europe is now well known, thanks to the efforts of historians like Frances Stonor Saunders, but its activities outside Europe are much less well understood (even though the so-called Third World was the focus of the Congress’s work after 1955). In 1961, the CCF held a conference in Rome, “The Arab Writer and the Modern World,” and all the Beiruti modernists participated, along with Ignazio Silone and Stephen Spender. My book tells the story of that conference in some detail—using the CCF’s extensive archives, housed at the University of Chicago—in an effort to understand what the American spies and Arab poets wanted from each other, what they had in common, and what ultimately divided them. It turns out to be an interesting story, with all kinds of unexpected ironies, and one that speaks to the history of Cold War liberalism in the Arab world more generally.

What was the effect of this movement on Arabic poetry?

I think the Shi‘r group contributed to a radical transformation of Arabic poetry. Some of this change was effected by their translation of foreign models of poetry into Arabic. Probably their most influential import was the prose poem (in Arabic qasidat al-nathr), which Adonis and Unsi al-Hajj began to write in the early 1960s, at the same time they were beginning to translate the poèmes en prose of Perse and Antonin Artaud. Many Arab critics at the time rejected the form as a French affectation, but lot of young poets took to it and by now it has become almost an orthodoxy. The modernists also undertook a thoroughgoing revision of the classical literary heritage (in Arabic al-turath). If you look at the 1400-year history of Arabic poetry with the modernist idea that poetry and politics are separate and even incompatible activities, then you arrive at a very different idea of that tradition from the standard one. This is what Adonis did over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, when he turned toward the Arabic turath to uncover buried or marginalized “modernist” counter-traditions within the classical past. Like many modernists, the Arab modernists were also archaeologists.

What can readers who aren’t familiar with Arabic literature learn from your book?

I wrote my book with just that audience in mind, though of course I intend it to be of interest to experts as well. I think the tradition of Arabic poetry is one the world’s great literary traditions, and hope my book can suggest some of the ways that it lives on, sometimes very powerfully, in the present. The story of the Shi‘r group is a fascinating one, which wends its way through so many of the highways and byways of twentieth-century thought, both political and artistic—nationalism, liberalism, philosophical personalism, aesthetic abstraction, Islamism, and others. I also hope that for those who are familiar with modernist movements in Europe, America, and elsewhere, my book will help them to read and examine those traditions with new eyes.

Robyn Creswell is assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a former poetry editor at the Paris Review. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “That Smell” and “Notes from Prison.”

On Influence: Robert Hayden in Dakar

After having a conversation about a novel I’ve since forgotten, my undergraduate literature professor at the University of Michigan gave me a paperback copy of Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems.  Perhaps this gesture was to end our conversation as he had a flight to catch or, more effectively, optimistically, this was to preface another: one that would extend more than an hour in an office?  I hadn’t heard of Hayden or his poetry, so I was curious, especially since my professor gave me the book and said, “read” before leading me outside the office, locking the door and exiting the building.

There I was in front of the building, in front of the heavy oak and glass doors waving to a swiftly- moving-wrinkled trench coat and holding that gray book thinking it matched the sky’s grayness, the pavement’s grayness, the grayness of my sweater, the grayness I felt.  My professor didn’t even say, I think you’ll like it.  Or this is a necessary poet, or by reading these poems your poetry may deepen.  I was uncertain he knew I actually wrote, attempted to write, hoped to write.

I went to the café on State Street, ordered a green tea and began reading that book.  There was a progression, a movement in those poems, in myself as I read.  Those stark-glimmering short lines, the longer lines that seemed to float from the page, absorb into the air like sandalwood or the oily spray of clementine peels.  His poems speak to beauty, tragedy, Americanness, African-Americanness, myths both African and Western, the natural world, the personal, urbanity and rurality.  All of these strands stitched into poems where the stitching is invisible, where I surrendered to that language and craft.  I had found a poet to follow, to aspire association.  I had found an imagination to step within, believe, one that would magnify my own. 

I didn’t read the whole book in that café but did in my dorm room that evening.  For a couple of days around campus and to my classes, I wore a silk bowtie in his honor— it ended up not being my style or rather, due to peer pressure, I stopped.  However, I kept the loosened tie on top of my dresser just to remember, to ponder Hayden.

In the following two weeks, I thanked my professor for the book.  He nodded and from there we talked about the poems, specifically their breadth and keen structures.  We talked about Hayden’s beautiful imagination despite his devastating childhood.  He wrote a poem in the voice of an extraterrestrial giving an eyewitness report of America.  What? I said.  My professor responded, “I see you.”  There was silence, a good silence.  He knew I needed those poems.  He knew I needed that book.  He knew I needed to know Hayden. 

He broke the silence to say Hayden had taught at the University for several years, before my time, our time.  But what mattered was he’d been there, and his presence, his energy remained.   

Hayden heightened my sense of possibility as a poet.  That wide imagination could live in the poems I would write.

Years later, I read of Hayden garnering the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal in 1966.  A year later, he attended the ceremony in New York City to receive the award from Senegal’s first president Leopold Senghor.  Langston Hughes was at that ceremony and there asked Hayden to autograph his Selected Poems

I don’t believe Hayden was in Dakar when his award was announced in 1966.  When I traveled to Dakar in 2014, I thought of Hayden.  I wondered how he would have absorbed that city.  How he would have walked in the sun with all of that pink sand on the ground, the light dusting of it on roofs and windshields of parked cars.  I wondered what poems he would have made if he’d see the hustle of that city, the beauty of it and its people, its pace.  I wondered what meal he and Senghor would have had together.  And if, after the tea was poured, they’d read each other’s new poems pulled, simultaneously, from the hidden pockets of their linen blazers. 

But this is just me wondering, imagining.  These poems may be the ones I will, at some point write with my eyes closed to the sun. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Dora Malech on her new collection, Stet

In Stet, poet Dora Malech takes constraint as her catalyst and subject, exploring what it means to make or break a vow, to create art out of a life in flux, to reckon with the body’s bounds, and to arrive at a place where one might bear and care for another life. Tapping the inventive possibilities of constrained forms, particularly the revealing limitations of the anagram, Stet is a work of serious play that brings home the connections and intimacies of language.

Why anagrams?

I asked myself this question over and over as individual lines became individual poems became project became book. Most of the poems in Stet take shape through anagrammatic methods, and almost all of them operate through some kind of “constrained form,” foregrounding alphabetic transposition or redaction. The immersive nature of these processes drew me to them; I’d find myself lost for hours dismantling and reassembling these building blocks of written language. Of course, many cultures, including Jewish mysticism, have a spiritual relationship with the letters of the written word, but I couldn’t bring myself to make that leap. Rather, it was wanting to make that leap into belief, and being unable, that led me from constraint-as-process to constraint-as-theme. I found myself asking what it means to attempt to remake one’s life from the same old materials, what it means to want to believe in transformation.

Is this use of constrained form a departure from your previous work?

It seems so, but it isn’t exactly. Gertrude Stein referred to her repetitions as “insistence”; this book feels like an insistent exploration of tendencies that have always captivated me. I’ve always been deeply invested in sound, and pattern, and linguistic play in my poetry. I’m also drawn to the full spectrum of enactment and subversion of “traditional” prosody. Rhyme and meter and verse form is “constrained form” too, of course, though I use the term to refer to practices viewed as peripheral to canonical verse, embraced by the writers of Oulipo in the middle of the last century. I wrote this book from a place of intense change and questioning, and its forms reflect that intensity, but I have always been obsessed with thinking about what language is made of both on and off the page – sound, sense, word, letter.

Are there particular writers who inspired this project, or contemporary writers engaged in similar work?

As my teachers used to remind me to do in math class, Stet “shows its work.” It foregrounds both its formal process of making, and those who inspired and informed that process. For example, Andrew Joron’s sense of “language as a speculative substance” continues to be an energizing force for me. Unica Zürn and Sylvia Plath (both mothers who took their own lives) echo through the book. Influence isn’t always linear; as I went deeper into the project, I sought out those who could in some way explain or justify my own practices to me. For example, I read from the work that has become Stet in Amsterdam several years ago, where some of the students urged me to read the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens. This work on the culturally fundamental nature of play became a touchstone for me, articulating some of my own previously inchoate thoughts.

For a reader accustomed to reading verse that employs a more straightforward narrative or lyric mode, or for a reader hesitant to approach contemporary poetry altogether, what could you say to convince them to take a chance on Stet?

The lived stakes of Stet are fragmented and submerged, but they are present nonetheless – relationships, closures, and apertures enacted in language. I hope that the pleasure I take in the materiality of language translates to pleasure for the reader, and I hope that the emotional intensity I channeled into the process of making and remaking translates as well. As Stet is a book that foregrounds process, it’s also a book that invites the reader to participate in that process and in the act of meaning-making. That engagement can bring its own kind of pleasure, and for someone asking “why poetry?” This collection foregrounds that very question.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Poet Austin Smith on Flyover Country

Flyover Country is a powerful collection of poems about violence: the violence we do to the land, to animals, to refugees, to the people of distant countries, and to one another. Drawing on memories of his childhood on a dairy farm in Illinois, Austin Smith explores the beauty and cruelty of rural life, challenging the idea that the American Midwest is mere “flyover country,” a place that deserves passing over. At the same time, the collection suggests that America itself has become a flyover country, carrying out drone strikes and surveillance abroad, locked in a state of perpetual war that Americans seem helpless to stop.

Why did you title your collection Flyover Country?

Because I despise the term. I’ve always found it to be extraordinarily condescending. I had heard the phrase for years, and it always grated on me, but since the election of 2016 it has become even more common. As with most things that hurt us, I think my impulse was to take it in and use it. This is a risk, because, as poets, the titles of our collections announce to the world what we’re about. The title is a the purest distillation of the themes a reader can expect to find in the book. I’ve already had one reader ask me whether I’m nervous that using the term might not offend the very people I’m writing about. But my intention is to say to readers: “Here is book about the Midwest, so-called ‘flyover country,’ and now I’m going to show (if the poems are successful) all the ways in which that definition of this region is offensive and inadequate.” I try to set up an expectation, and then challenge it. And after deciding to call the book Flyover Country, I realized that the title also resonated with some of the war poems in the book, particularly the poems that involve American foreign policy, preemptive war, drone strikes. While I refute the idea that the Midwest is flyover country, I would argue that the nation itself has become a flyover country in our utilization of drone strikes and other acts of war that protect us from seeing the damage we are doing.

Your first collection, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets in 2014. What are some of the differences between Almanac and Flyover Country?

The manuscript for Almanac was a decade in the making. In some ways it began when I took a poetry class with the inimitable Michael Theune as an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University. Within a year or so of graduating I was submitting a manuscript to prizes. Every year the book changed, from the title to the selection of poems to individual poems themselves, all through two graduate programs in poetry. I had many different titles, including Salvation Army, Ducks’ Misery and Autumn’s Velocity. It was Theune who suggested I call it Almanac. Eventually the book began to stabilize. Certain poems just stuck, and versions of poems became indelible, so that I felt I couldn’t change them. If Paul hadn’t taken the book, it surely would have kept changing. I feel a bit disconnected from Almanac, because I have no idea how the book came together. It grew parallel to me. It was different with Flyover Country. The publication of Almanac wiped the slate clean. I knew that every poem I wrote from then on would be vying for its place in the next collection. Also, the fall that Almanac was published I had just started the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford in fiction, and so was focusing more on prose. All this to say that I wrote many fewer poems, and therefore Flyover Country came together more deliberately. Once I started recognizing some of the themes I was working with, I started writing towards those themes. I’ve never been able to understand when poets say they’re working on a book: I tend to just write poems and let them fall together as they will. But my process for Flyover Country was definitely more linear and rational, whereas Almanac was much more subconscious.

Many of your poems involve political subject. I’m thinking in particular of “Augury,” which suggests Trump’s inauguration, and the poem “That Particular Village,” written in the voice of Donald Rumsfeld. Do you consider yourself a political poet?

I’ve thought long and hard about the role of the poet in relation to politics. I’ve had intense but jovial arguments with many friends on the subject. To require that poets’ poems be political (perhaps in the hopes that their art might agitate for change) seems dangerous to me. People say that these times are crazy, and that poets should be putting their shoulders to the wheel and writing about the world as it is now, but we know that all times have been crazy. If poets have to be political today, they ought to have always been political. I got in a pleasant argument while at Stanford with the incredible novelist and teacher Richard Powers. To paraphrase his argument, he suggested that any fiction writer who isn’t writing about climate change is shirking their moral responsibility. He didn’t mean, of course, that every novel be explicitly about climate change. But he seemed to believe that, in being alive at this moment, it was only appropriate that our work respond to this moment. This argument makes me extremely uncomfortable. I worry that one day books will require a kind of imprimatur, vouching that they have been deemed sufficiently politically-engaged in order to be published. I make this argument in recognition of the fact that Flyover Country is at times explicitly political, especially in the poems you mention in your question. These explicitly political poems are my least favorite poems in the collection. The poems I have the most affection for are those poems that suggest the political, but work at a deeper, more symbolic level. For instance, when I wrote the poem “Cat Moving Kittens,” I wasn’t thinking about the Trump administration’s immoral policy of family separation at the southern border because I wrote the poem before Trump was even elected, but I can’t help but read the poem in that context now. This is only possible, I would argue, because the poem operates by suggestion and metaphor. I want to write poems that have a chance of becoming relevant in the future, not poems that becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on.

Your father was a dairy farmer for many years, and is also a poet. What impact has his work as a poet had upon yours?

I came to poetry through my parents’ love of poetry and of literature generally. The farmhouse I grew up in was chock-full of books. For whatever reason I was instinctually drawn towards the poetry collections. Before I could even really understand the poems I was reading, I just liked the way the poems looked on the page, visually. I still find myself randomly pulling a book of poems down from the shelf, just to consider a poem’s shape. My first book of poems was the New Directions edition of One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth. I loved the book itself, the simplicity of the cover, the feel of the pages, the font. But when I really wanted to be a poet was after seeing my Dad read poems at the art museum in town. He was writing about the farm, about places and events I was utterly familiar with, but in what seemed to me a completely different language. Actually, it wasn’t a different language but the same language heightened. The poems had more in common with prayer and song than with ordinary speech. I distinctly remember the first time I found that heightened language myself. It was my first poem, called “Christmas,” rhymed couplets, beginning: “The fire is burning hot. / I can hear the hunter’s shot.” Something clicked for me there. And then there were the poets who would come out to the farm for dinner, having been brought to Freeport by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson to read at Highland Community College. I met Gary Snyder, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Margaret Gibson, and many others. I saw how poets inhabited the world, how they talked and laughed and walked and ate and drank. It struck me early on I think that to become a poet was not merely to become a person who writes poems, but to live a life oriented towards what poetry suggests: careful (by which I mean “full of care”) and compassionate language and living. So, yes, it was my Dad, his books, his poems, his friendships, who sent me on my way. I was very nearly derailed by the embarrassment of turning in a collection of haiku titled Silver Moon for the Young Author’s competition in third grade, but after recovering from that pitfall it has been more or less smooth sailing.

Who are the poets who mean the most to you?

My reading habits are so eclectic that I’d rather give a broader answer, composed mostly but not entirely of poets. To be honest, I don’t read many poems these days. I have many friends, poets all, who sit down and read new collections straight through. It’s rare that I’ll do that. It’s rare that I’ll like a poem, including my own. And usually, I become enamored with a poet, not with a particular collection or even a particular poem, and everything that poet has written will seem like gold to me. An example is the great French poet Jean Follain. I love reading Follain’s short, unpunctuated, imagistic poems, considering how he makes the moves he does, and comparing different translations. It seems to me that his poems are reflective of some deeper quality he must have had, and that cannot have helped but come through in his poems. Another poet like this is Keats, not so much in his poems, but in his letters: I feel I know him, his humor, his compassion. And then there are the Wordsworths, especially Dorothy, and Coleridge. I read Dorothy’s journals in a kind of continuous loop. I also love the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, especially The Poetics of Space. All of these people, Follain, Keats, Dorothy Wordsworth, Bachelard, are like saints to me. So I could say that the poet Larry Levis has been very important to me, or that the poet W.S. Merwin has been very important to me (and the namesake of a long-lost cat of mine), but a more accurate answer would be that I live in an atmosphere of blended enthusiasms, which transcend genre.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain: The Ruined Elegance

poetry
Sze-LorrainIn celebration of National Poetry Month, Fiona Sze-Lorrain has recorded Given Silence from The Ruined Elegance, her collection of poems in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets series. 

 

 

 

 

Given Silence

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of two previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola and Water the Moon, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris.

Austin Smith: Flyover Country

poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Austin Smith has provided recordings of a selection of poems from his latest collection with the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets: Flyover Country

Elegy for Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk. He lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky from 1942 to 1968. A prolific writer, he is best-known for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In addition to his writings on the contemplative life, he wrote about race, social justice, and passivism. In my elegy for Merton, I focus on the strange circumstances surrounding his death. In 1968 Merton left the monastery to travel to India to meet the Dalai Lama and to attend an interfaith conference of monks in Thailand. During the conference he stepped out of the bath one day, grabbed hold of a floor fan and was electrocuted. Ironically, his body was flown back to Kentucky for burial in a plane that also carried the bodies of American soldiers who’d died in Vietnam, a war he’d vehemently spoken out against. I’ve always found the circumstances surrounding Merton’s death strange. Though I don’t mention it in the poem, his last words, upon concluding his talk at the conference, were: “Now I’m going to disappear.” My poem explores the idea of the fan as a stalker, finding him in the quiet Kentucky woods and drawing him to Thailand. But more broadly, the poem is an elegy for a writer and thinker who has had a huge impact on my life.

Into the Corn

Growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois, I have a distinct memory of being afraid of going too far into a field of corn, particularly if the corn was over my head. Though most people, forgivably, think of Stephen King when they think of children and corn, my poem is more connected with folklore surrounding cornfields, based on stories recorded by Sir James Frazier in The Golden Bough. I am particularly interested in this story, which Frazier relates: “Commonly the spirit of the ripe corn is conceived, not as dead, but as old, and hence it goes by the name of the Old Man or the Old Woman. But in some places the last sheaf cut at harvest, which is generally believed to be the seat of the corn spirit, is called ‘the Dead One’: children are warned against entering the corn-fields because death sits in the corn and, in a game played by Saxon children in Transylvania at the maize harvest, Death is represented by a child completely covered in maize leaves.” Upon reading this piece of folklore, I immediately felt a chill in my spine: I resonated deeply with this image of death as a child covered in corn leaves. This story, coupled with my childhood fear that one could go too far into the corn, get lost, and never be found, prompted this poem.

Ode to Flour

When I was growing up my mother baked bread for sale (her catering company was called Grateful Bread). She baked in the farmhouse kitchen, and I remember coming home from school and finding the table and counter covered in flour. My memories of those afternoons conjured this ode. But another catalyst for this poem was a desire I felt to celebrate something simple and perhaps often overlooked. Much of the subject matter in Flyover Country is dark, involving violence, war, environmental degradation. I wanted to write a poem of levity (no bread pun intended), and I mention this desire in the first few lines of the poem. Indeed, it was this urge to praise something that literally made me take up the pen. I remember writing this poem somewhat obliquely, not paying it my full attention for fear that some of the humor and buoyancy of the tone would be lost if I bore down on it too hard, and perhaps it was for this reason that the last line snuck up on me.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Dora Malech on Stet: Poems

poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Dora Malech writes about the unique pleasure of using words to express yourself. Included below are recordings of her reading poems from her collection in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets series: Stet: Poems

While writing Stet, I was drawn to the work of other poets using idiosyncratic constraints to shape and speak to their materials, whether as an ongoing generative device like the anagrammatic poetry of Surrealist Unica Zürn, or as occasioned by the urgencies of a particular poem, in the case of Sylvia Plath. Stet foregrounds its formal elements, particularly the heuristic possibilities of, as Zürn called it, “the old dangerous fever of the anagram.”

While some of the conversations-through-rearrangement in Stet occur between lines, words, and even letters, the poems are also conversing with other writers and thinkers throughout: Ferdinand de Saussure and Johan Huizinga, for example. Plath and Zürn are particularly fraught figures for me in the context of Stet, as both of these women were mothers and writers who ended their own lives. As Stet concerns itself with the possibilities of making and remaking, I mourn for these women who could only make and remake their own lives up to a point, and then no further.

Originally titled “Metaphors for a Pregnant Woman” when it appeared in the Summer 1960 issue of The Partisan Review, Plath’s brief meditation on pregnancy appeared in The Colossus under the less explicit title “Metaphors.” A formal nod to the months of gestation, each of the poem’s nine lines is also nine syllables. Plath is best known as a “Confessional” poet, and her biography sometimes takes center stage in conversations about her work, but to read her poems is to encounter her fierce play of sound and image and her facility with poetic structure—like these syllabic lines—belied by certain posthumous misconceptions.

In addition to my reading of Plath’s own “Metaphors,” the two poems I read here are the sixth and ninth poems in my nine-poem series “Metaphors: After Plath.” This series concludes Stet; each poem is an anagrammatic reworking of Plath’s original.

“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath

“After Plath: Metaphors VI” by Dora Malech

“After Plath: Metaphors IX” by Dora Malech

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Susan Stewart: National Poetry Month

poetry

In honor of National Poetry Month, PUP author and series editor of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets Susan Stewart gives an overview of the series and talks about explains why, for a poet, every month is Poetry Month. 

Why did you want to become the editor of Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets?

I was happy to be invited to serve as the editor of the Contemporary Poets series. It meant, and means, a great deal to me, for I enjoy the opportunity to help publish excellent and path-breaking books of poems in such fine editions—especially during a period when it is so difficult for many deserving poets to find venues for their work. And Princeton’s series has a special resonance to me, since my own first book appeared in the series when I was a young poet. 

What do you look for when selecting poetry for the series?

Every May we have an open period of submissions and I try not to have too many preconceptions about what kind of work I might select. From its earliest incarnation under David Wagoner and on to my predecessor Paul Muldoon, the series always has been far-ranging and eclectic. I would like my selections, too, to give a sense of the range of work now available from living poets. Because we are a book series, I also look for strongly-composed volumes that are more than collections of individual poems. I’m drawn to books that reward careful reading.

What struck you about some of the collections in the past few years?

Each of the books we’ve published has its own myriad strengths and, considered as a whole, the series I’ve been trying to build foregrounds many formal approaches and many poetic worlds. Fiona Sze-Lorrain, who is tri-lingual and works in France, writes in her The Ruined Elegance a spare line, rich in imagery, that often addresses themes of individual memory and the consequences of state violence. The philosopher Troy Jollimore’s formally adventurous poems in Syllabus of Errors offer a wry concision. The young poet Niall Campbell’s lyrical book First Nights evokes his childhood in the Outer Hebrides and explores that world to hand, shot through with traditional narrative forms. Eléna Rivera’s book of sonnets, Scaffolding, written in syllabics and linked to specific dates like a diary, is a strikingly original meditation on urban existence. The two books we brought out last year, Myronn Hardy’s Radioactive Starlings and Miller Oberman’s The Unstill Ones, also have bold overall forms. Radioactive Starlings is in part an homage to the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and in part a study in ecology and globalism informed by Myronn’s nearly ten years of teaching in Morocco and his travels in the United States and the Middle East. Miller, an Anglo-Saxonist by training, has juxtaposed medieval poems in translation to contemporary reflections on gender and metamorphosis.

What did you love most about this Fall’s forthcoming poets, Dora Malech and Austin Smith?

These selections make for an intriguing counter-point in that both are concerned with the outcomes of ways of speaking. Austin Smith’s Flyover Country, written in an immediate but intricately-crafted diction, is a prescient study of life in the rural American mid-west—a “flyover” territory, often misconstrued by those in other regions. The book is a study in ethics as he yokes everyday actions to larger questions about technology and citizenship. Dora Malech’s Stet is a path-breaking formal experiment; the book is based in the constraint of the anagram and asks what it means to occlude, reverse, or otherwise “go back on” one’s speech—above all, she explores what happens when a vow or promise is altered. 

National Poetry Month was only first inaugurated in 1996, what do you make of the recent reinvestment in poetry?

Hmmm….poetry is an art far from material “investments!” And we poets depend on the authenticity of our ancient roots. For us, and for all dedicated poetry readers, every month is Poetry Month. I’m glad Princeton University Press is playing its part.

Susan Stewart is the author of five books of poems, including Red Rover and Columbarium, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other books include Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which won the Christian Gauss and Truman Capote prizes for literary criticism, and The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics. A former MacArthur Fellow, she is the Annan Professor of English at Princeton and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She is the series editor of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets

Myronn Hardy: Radioactive Starlings

poetry
PoemsIn celebration of National Poetry Month, Myronn Hardy has provided recordings of a selection of poems from his collection with the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets: Radioactive Starlings

 

 

 

 

 

Ghazal of Wreckage
Pg. 60

The poem is in the voice of a ship sinking, spewing oil into the sea.  I’m imagining what the ship might say about its death and the death of everything its failure and the captain’s failure will initiate. 

The Super Looks from the Balcony
Pg. 64

This poem is interested in piety and aspiration.  I was walking down a street in Tunis and saw a run-down yet beautiful colonial building that had these curious windows that to me, looked like tuna.  There was a supernatural quality to it so an almost superhero appeared. 

Aubade: Lovely Dark
Pg. 80

This poem is true to its form in that it is interested in a departure before or at dawn and the agony and regret that supervene. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Eléna Rivera: Scaffolding

poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Eléna Rivera writes about the unique pleasure of using words to express yourself. Included below are recordings of her reading poems from her collection in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets series: Scaffolding: Poems

RiveraI like words, the sounds of words, how they change when placed alongside other words. I didn’t really start to learn English until age thirteen when we moved to America from France, and learning a language at that age meant learning English as if words were building blocks. I was interested in theater at the time and took elocution classes and practiced by memorizing Shakespeare, so from the first English was not a given; I had to learn it. I felt that my abilities were lacking, but as I put it in a poem I had to “survive the schoolyard.” I loved Shakespeare because I felt that he gave me the language with which to finally be able to express emotions that I didn’t understand. I also wrote everyday, and have mostly kept up that practice. Sometimes I look back at old notebooks and think, this is a record of a person learning a language. Scaffolding was written in that spirit, responding to poets, to the place where I live, to memories, to language. I’ve chosen these three poems because perhaps they express some of what I am describing here, the continued effort to be able to express something aesthetically by weaving words together into fourteen eleven-syllable line poems.

 

September 9th: The Translation
Pg. 26

 

September 17the (finished July 20th)
Pg. 31

 

October 1st
Pg. 40

 

Eléna Rivera is a poet and translator. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land, and her poems have appeared in the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times, and many other publications. Her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. She was born in Mexico City, spent her childhood in Paris, and now lives in New York City.