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.

Miller Oberman: The Grave

The Unstill Ones: Poems by award-winning poet Miller Oberman is an exciting debut collection of original poems and translations from Old English. Check out the author’s translation of The Grave, followed by the poem in Old English and the author’s original poem of the same name. 

A translation of “The Grave”

“The Grave” in Old English

“The Grave” after

“The Grave,” found on folio 170r of MS Bodley 343, is sometimes referred to as the last poem written in Old English, and its final three lines were likely added on later, in Middle English, by a scribe medievalists refer to as “the tremulous hand of Worcester.” While it’s impossible to say whether the shaky writing belonged to “the tremulous hand,” or whether this is indeed the final Old English poem, I like to think both are true.

At a recent reading I heard audible nervous laughter from the audience as I read my translation of “The Grave,” which at first surprised me. I later wondered that it doesn’t happen every time—it’s truly a discomfiting piece of writing, an uncommonly embodied depiction of the physical experience of the grave itself, written from the perspective of within. The poem is haunting it its second person address, as your own grave seems to speak to you: “now you are measured, and the dirt after that.” Simple, declarative, and nearly impossible to argue with, the poem induces the claustrophobia of burial, and the loss of the self and the world.

It’s been crucial for me to hear and say this poem aloud in Old English, to allow its language the life and breath of speech. My translation is fairly literal, but the third reading here, my response to the poem, or my “after” has a different spatial relationship to death, if not to the physicality of the grave. It’s hard to make an argument about “self” to a poem written, memorized, and copied down anonymously a thousand years ago, but the speaker of my poem argues that, even if each grave is inevitable, the sky itself and those who continue to live under it are changed.

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetry magazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in Poetry, London Review of Books, the Nation, Boston Review, Tin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Unstill Ones: Poems.

Favorite Lines: Troy Jollimore

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Troy Jollimore, author of Syllabus of Errors, talks about inspiration while writing “My Book” (Syllabus of Errors, 29). 

Jollimore“I bought a copy, but it wasn’t mine.” This is the opening line of “My Book,” a poem in my third book, Syllabus of Errors. The line introduces what I take to be the main theme of that poem, the question that animates it, which is: what does it mean to say that something—in particular, a work of art—is “mine”? That is, what is the nature of property, especially when it comes to art? Our society is largely built on notions of property; indeed, property is crucial to the way people in the modern Western world think about rights and other ethical matters. And yet property is a complex and elusive concept, much more so, I think, than we commonly pretend.

“My Book” plays on ambiguities between the everyday meaning of my (in which to own a book is simply to possess a copy of a book, a physical object that one might treat and dispose of as one pleases) and the special meaning of my that attaches not to material ownership but to authorship (which is itself, it seems to me, a kind of ownership, but one that attaches to something other than a particular material object). But just what is this special sense? Authors are often imagined as bearing an especially intimate relationship to their works and, perhaps as a result of this, a special responsibility for their works. They are, to some degree, identified with their works. One feels, in reading the writers one loves, as if one comes to know them. Their thoughts, their minds, the very essence of their lives is there on the page, for all to see. The cliché “my life is an open book” alludes, in part, to this.

My own relationships with “my” books, though—and with my own individual poems as well—has not been so straightforward. I seem to find them as mysterious as do other people, and often wonder just what they are trying to get at. I don’t really know where they have come from; I don’t really understand the process by which they were written; and I am not confident in my ability to repeat that process in the future. The poems seem to have an existence that is largely and indeed fundamentally independent of me, and the prospect of being identified with them, or even being held responsible for them, feels troubling.

For the most part, when I hold one of “my” books in my hand, what I feel is not intimacy but strangeness. The person who has written the poems seems foreign and mostly unknown; as foreign and unknown, perhaps, as any former version of oneself. What do these poems say about me? What do they say to me? What if I decide I am unsatisfied with them, or no longer believe (if I ever did) the ideas they express—do I have, in that case, the right to revise them? Or would this amount to a kind of vandalism, a violation of the rights of their actual author, who is no longer around to assert those rights or complain about their being disrespected? What kind of special authority may I presume, when I am asked, as I was for this blog post, to write about one of “my” works, as if to explain it to the world? If I read Derrida again, or Barthes, would that help me answer these questions?

Perhaps one day I will write a book that really feels like it is mine, and I will be able to hold a copy of that book in my hands without being troubled by these questions. Maybe I’ll call it My Book, and I’ll make “My Book” the first poem in it. For the time being I feel happy with that poem; I like what it seems to say and enjoy how it says it. The thoughts it expresses are thoughts I myself seem to have had. It’s almost as if I wrote it.

My Book

JollimoreTroy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker,McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.

Favorite Lines: Eléna Rivera

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Eléna Rivera, author of Scaffolding, talks about inspiration while writing “Sept. 1” (Scaffolding, 24). Check this space each week for more favorite lines.

RiveraA line comes into one’s thoughts as a kind of inspiration, or it finds its way by sheer persistence (“no that word won’t do,” “this doesn’t work” and “that one doesn’t have the right amount of syllables,” “what about…. ” ). The 11-syllable line forced many lines into shape in Scaffolding. The “meaning” came with the form, counting syllables; in trying to get that right something was revealed in the line that was often unexpected and surprising—“Oh really, is that what this is about?” That kind of discovery is what makes writing interesting, engaging, a necessity. The line can be scary, disturbing, or just pleasing; there’s so much to let go of in the process (i.e., the sense of having control over a work). As if there were a voice beyond the learned language of childhood, beyond dailyness, beyond fear, awkwardness, the “should’s,” beyond the doubts of ever being able to say anything. Persistence, working through a poem, waiting for the words to fall into place, or not, facing that what one originally loved may be destroyed with nothing to take its place; it’s all about words, sound, rhythm, image, and “intellection” (as Louis Zukofsky called it). The line comes as a surprise because it is bold, unexpected, and points toward where the poem lies. In the poem “Sept. 1” the line: “‘I write to keep alive” Who said that? I did” shows the back and forth between different selves in the poem itself, the questioning and the constant back and forth that happens in language.

Scaffolding

 

RiveraEléna 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.

Favorite Lines: Fiona Sze-Lorrain

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Fiona Sze-Lorrain, author of The Ruined Elegance, talks about inspiration while writing “Midnight Almanac” (The Ruined Elegance, 34-35). Check this space weekly for more favorite lines throughout the month of April.

“All the parallel windows, different emptiness.”

—from “Midnight Almanac” in The Ruined Elegance (2016)

a

Lorrain

The image does not serve as an illustration.

b

This isn’t a favorite line of mine—it seems difficult for me to believe in the longevity of a favorite line—but one that has stopped me on a few occasions to think further about our current society. More precisely, the way we humans have chosen to live or exist, how we use the virtual space, for instance, to make ourselves “visible” or “audible” without necessarily engaging, face to face, with one another . . . and in what direction our civilization may be heading: if “we” —or should I say, the collective mass, their governments and institutions—continue to prioritize the economy and the industry, conform to social labels and homogeneity, or hide behind—as well as within—pigeonholed identities and comfort zones.

Human existence might become just that: a commodity.

Each to his/her own box or screen—

Perhaps this is why romanticizing solitude is a consolation prize for alienation, both physical and emotional.

c

Are our eyes still the windows to our souls?

d

When I came up with this verse, I had no specific address in mind.

I was, in fact, critiquing the possibilities of mediocrity. Being mediocre is safe. Banality works as a survival instinct.

I am also criticizing the hypocrisy of I agree, but . . .

Even windows now must look standardized.
jdjhbdjbagbdfbdfjvbdfhjbdgbrrOtherwise, we can’t (won’t) recognize them as windows.

LorrainFiona 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. She is the author of The Ruined Elegance: Poems.

Eléna Rivera on her new collection, Scaffolding

RiveraEléna Rivera’s new collection of poems, Scaffolding, is a sequence of eighty-two sonnets written over the course of a year, dated and arranged in roughly chronological order. The work vividly reflects life in New York City, where Rivera resides. A poet and translator, Rivera’s earlier collections include The Perforated Map; her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Recently, Rivera answered some questions about her book, the interplay between form and content, and the life that informs her writing.


Why the sonnet?

ER: I’ve always been interested in form, the interplay between form and content, between the inner and the outer. I wanted to experience what it would be like to write discreet poems over time. I had been engaged with writing long poems for a while. I’d work on a piece, playing with different possibilities, until the form would come to me and I knew then that the poem had found its direction (the amount of time I have, and the concerns of the poem, are what dictate the poem’s length). I was interested in the book as form (a love of the epic) and made one-of-a-kind books, and books in hand-letterpress editions (fascinated by the weight of the single lead letter). At first the sonnet seemed the complete opposite of what I had been doing, but really it wasn’t that different, the form got smaller, tighter, and I filled it rather than found it; it shaped the conversation, the music of it. I really became fascinated by the fourteen-line form, what such a compact container could give rise to, and once I committed myself to it I felt compelled to continue.

And why the additional eleven-syllable line constraint?

ER: At the time I was translating a book from the French written in hendecasyllable lines. I wondered if writing in lines of eleven-syllables would be as difficult as translating them. I wrote a few sonnets in eleven-syllable lines, enjoyed the constraint, and found it much easier than translating into eleven-syllables lines. Of course we don’t usually count syllables in English, but I found this constraint useful, gave the poems more breadth. I was inspired by Bernard Noël’s example, and translating him, as I was by the experiments of the Oulipo writers in France, like Jacques Roubaud for example. I liked too that the eleven-syllables veered away from the pentameter line we’re so used to hearing; it added unaccountable rhythms below the surface of the lines. I read sonnets, conversed with sonnets, responded to what was on my mind on any given day, and would then shape the poems into these eleven-syllables lines.

Is that why your sonnets are dated?

ER: Yes. After the first few sonnets, I gave myself the task to write a sonnet a day for a year. Needless to say that didn’t quite work out the way I imagined it would because of time constraints mostly. I also threw out many very bad sonnets, which diminished their numbers. It’s when I began revising that I also realized that I had to change the date of a poem and add a new date, to show that a poem might have been written on one day and much later rewritten on another day. Some poems just worked right away and others were more reluctant. Sometimes I liked the new version as much as the old one and kept both. I wanted to track that; I wanted it to be a book of sonnets that showed what was on my mind on a particular day, what I was reading, thinking, in touch with, remembering, etc.

I noticed that you include a spattering of words in French and Spanish, why is that?

ER: I grew up speaking French and Spanish. I had some knowledge of English, but for me English is a learned language not the one we spoke at home. My mother spoke to us in Spanish and some French, and we spoke to our parents in French (I was in French schools from the time I was three). So I consider French and Spanish my “mother-tongues.” I learned English quite quickly once we moved to the United State, and worked hard at it (the kids in my public Junior High School were unforgiving regarding my strange accent).

So how did it happen that you grew up speaking French and Spanish?

ER: My parents met while working in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. My mother wanted to travel, and in her family there had always been an element of yearning for Spain, where she was born (lots of stories around that). My father is American and half-Mexican from New Orleans, and my mother is Spanish and German. Her father, a Botanist, was a refugee from Franco’s government during the Spanish Civil War, and had to flee the country. My mother grew up in South America, fleeing countries as dictatorships rose. Later after my parents married, they moved to Mexico where I was born, and three years later moved to France. My mother was eager to go to Europe and my father, who wrote poetry, and had written a thesis on Rimbaud, was easily convinced. They led quite the bohemian life of expatriates in Paris in the ’60s and ’70s. There were also all the political events, the marches and protests, and getting locked in the Sorbonne in 1968. All their friends were musicians, painters, writers. I grew up in museums, galleries, listening to a lot of jazz. We moved to New York when I was 13, and that’s when I experienced the shock of the violence in America, the racial hatred that was all around me. I didn’t understand it, but the violence of the country really marked me, and enters my poems. After my parents separated, we left New York City and lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Muir Beach in Northern California. It was only much later in my 30s when Russell and I moved to Montréal that I started to incorporate some French into my poems — Montréal being a bilingual city. I had written poems and other pieces in French, but never tried to publish them. I’ve gone back to France at various periods of my life, one time for as long as two years, and now in the last 10 years I’ve been translating and working with French poets, and so the French is reentering. I’d like to do more with the two languages, and Spanish, too. I miss the languages; they are an integral part of my being. Sometimes I just can’t think of the word in English, and the word in French or Spanish will emerge — so much more expressive of the emotion or thought than the English word.

Do you think of yourself as European or French then?

ER: No, not anymore. I don’t think of myself as belonging to one particular country. I am in the place I’m in; that’s it, and I write from that place. Susan Howe said in an interview, “Trust the place to form the voice,” and the poems in Scaffolding are very much New York poems.

About the title, Scaffolding, could you elaborate a bit more about that?

ER: When I wrote the poems, our building complex was undergoing extensive facade work. The place was covered in scaffolding for about a four-year period — a long time. It wasn’t until I finished the manuscript that I began thinking of Scaffolding as a title. The sonnet form is a kind of “scaffolding,” a structure, for the substance and sounds of the poem, as is the hendecasyllable line. I also like the darker meaning of the word, “an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed;” there was something that felt dangerous about these poems, about what I was doing.

Why poetry?

ER: That’s complicated. Many reasons. It’s my vocation. I write poems. I’m always writing (poems and prose). From a very young age, I wrote, painted, put on plays, and sang. When we moved to America, I wanted to be an actress. I kept writing, but I didn’t think of writing as something one made one’s life around, not until my late 20s. My relationship to English is very complicated. Writing and reading are very physical endeavors for me — when I read I get so excited, I want to meet it, to be there in the language with it. Writing was always a necessity that helped me to live in the world. Writing was a way out of erasure, the silence that is imposed from the outside. In writing and reading, I found the words that I didn’t have otherwise. And then there is another kind of silence, one that sets one free, but for that one has to be able to speak, beyond categories, beyond the idea of “self,” beyond any kind of fixed and permanent “I” (that illusion).

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

Mary Jacobus on Cy Twombly, “a poet in paint”

Jacobus What does it mean to call an artist “a poet in paint,” as one of Twombly’s supporters did at the outset of his career? And what does it mean to bring poetry into painting and drawing, as Twombly’s artistic practice does? In Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint, Mary Jacobus — a literary critic — sets out to answer these questions, showing how throughout his life, Twombly turned to poetry as a way to expand abstract painting’s reach. Jacobus recently took the time to answer some questions about Twombly’s relationship to poetry over half a century or more, and his emergence as one of the major painters of the second half of the twentieth century.

What led you to write this book in the first place?

MJ: My first encounter with the work of Cy Twombly was an early drawing that I found fascinating in its use of line. Then I became aware of the extent to which line in the form of writing—abstracted and non-referential—formed part of his work: in his early lyrical series Poems to the Sea (1959), for instance, or in later work of the 1960s ranging from the sequence Letter of Resignation (1967) to the vast “blackboard” paintings at the end of the 1960s. Quite early on, Twombly seems to have been aware of the ways in which rhythm and repetition in handwriting training (the laborious Palmer method), or shorthand annotations or mathematical equations, could become the basis for abstract signs lacking specific reference: as if they were a representation of thinking without thought-content. Twombly’s own handwriting is famously hard to read, but its illegibility becomes part of his inimitable “signature” as an artist. I was delighted that Princeton University Press put Twombly’s handwriting on the dust-jacket.

But that’s writing as formal abstraction. Many people respond to Twombly’s work for its affective charge — how it seems to speak to them directly.

MJ: You’re right. Twombly manages to make his art both cerebral and obscurely charged and personal, as if alternately suggesting and withholding traces of the thoughts and feelings that went into it. One might call him an artist of obliteration as well as writing, since he often paints out or makes hard to read, the words he has included. As a literary critic, I was fascinated by the process of deciphering the words, phrases, sentences, and quotations in his work. I suppose we all look for reference when we read, even if it’s Mallarmé experimenting with the blanks between words and phrases. Twombly famously said he wasn’t entirely an abstractionist. In the post-Abstract Expressionist era, he found a way to make art out of automatic writing that owes something to Dadaist reliance on chance and the “found” object — and perhaps also to his national service training as a cryptographer in the mid-1950s. In the book, I stress the element of secrecy in Twombly’s work that coexists with a Romantic and affective impulse, and even his use of paint — fluid and dripping, like the abstract seascapes of Hero and Leandro (1981-84) or the “pond” or “Green” paintings (1988) — as a form of erasure.

You’ve emphasized writing as such — but what are Twombly’s literary sources? What kind of poetry does he quote in his paintings?

MJ: Art critics have often noted the presence of poetic quotation — not to mention copious mythic and classical allusions — in Twombly’s work. Sometimes they have tended to assimilate him to a continuous classical tradition or to an almost omniscient (not to say “Humanist”) absorption of the literature of the past. I think it’s important to say that Twombly’s “anthology,” if you can call it that, is very much of his time. At Black Mountain College, where he spent a formative period early in the 1950s, the poetry of Rilke jostled with a distinctly Poundian emphasis (channeled through the poet Charles Olson, at that time the dominant presence) on classical poetry and fragments of archaic Greek poets like Sappho and Alkman, both favorites of Twombly’s. Olson’s “glyphomania” had a lot to do with Twombly’s interest in the written sign as such, as well as Motherwell’s promotion of automatic writing. But avant-garde poetry and poetry teaching in the first half of the twentieth century was strongly influenced by Pound’s interest in the archaic. So Twombly was being “modern” rather than nostalgic in the poetry that came to hand — poetry that came to include Mallarmé as well as Rilke, and modern Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

Did Twombly read classical or modern European poetry in the original? What was his relation to translation?

MJ: Twombly almost always uses translation, although just occasionally he quotes Rilke in German. He used translations that were very much part of his twentieth-century literary environment—by Robert Bly (Rilke) or Davenport (Archilochos) and in the case of Greek poets like Cavafy and Seferis, contemporary translations or whatever he could find. For the series, Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) he used Pope’s translation of the Iliad. His library included a great many volume of poetry in translation, and you can see him editing, annotating, and selecting the passages he wanted, just as his archive includes fragmentary quotations and passages that he intended to work up as paintings or drawings. The massive painting, Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (completed in 1994) reads like a compendium of poetry that Twombly returned to over many decades—Keats, Rilke, Seferis, and one surprise I won’t give away — that suggest how he used quotations to knit together a big painting and also to solve formal problems about space on the canvas.

Do you think your book will make a contribution to “image and text” studies?

MJ: Yes and no. Yes, in that Twombly himself is clearly thinking about the incommensurateness of image and text in the late series, The Rose (2008), where Rilke’s French poems accompany massive panels of multi-foliate roses. No, in that even in his artist’s-book collaboration with Paz, poem and image exist side by side in ways that express affinity without mutual interrogation. Twombly’s texts, whether scribbled or whited-out, don’t “explain” his paintings and drawings, any more than their resonant titles (Untitled is a favorite in any case). Sometimes Twombly draws on well-known narratives, for instance Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis or Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, but he often does so in mischievous or ironic ways, responding to something latent in their sexual content. His “versions” (if you can call them that) contain a kind of swerve, encrypting sexual concerns or commenting indirectly on the artist’s complicated relation to society. This is particularly the case when Twombly draws on Theocritus’s Idylls. Pastoral has always been a mode adapted to different kinds of politics, rather than a form of nostalgia for the past. What I have tried to do in “reading” Cy Twombly is to read against the grain — misread, if you like — and to suggest that on the analogy with experimental translation (which often uses visual means too), Twombly is himself a kind of neo-Dadaist translator who has no compunction about altering his sources.

You mentioned politics. What would you say is the important emphasis of your book besides its focus on the modernity of Twombly’s practice of quotation?

MJ: Twombly has often been seen as a-political, that is as focused on the mythic past rather than the present, and for some critics this has been a problem—Twombly is legitimized if he confirms to the informe but not if he seems to be a mouthpiece for a timeless Humanism. One of my concerns was to bring out the extent to which Twombly not only “outs” himself in the material he quotes and alludes to, but also the ways in which the theme of war runs through his work. His was an era that spanned the Korean War, the Cold War space race, the Vietnam War, and the first and second Gulf Wars. Twombly was always interested in archaeology. He visited archaeological sites in North Africa during his first trip to Europe and later in the Middle East—he loved the phrase “Asia Minor.” He was strongly opposed to war and visited Mesopotamian and Sumerian sites that were later damaged. He read the texts of Greek and Persian adventurism and his house at Gaeta overlooks an American naval harbor. A work like Fifty Days at Iliam coincides with the period of American reckoning with the Vietnam War and the problem of how to memorialize the war-dead. Many of Twombly’s later sculptures, and some of his paintings, are “memorial” or epitaphic works that allude to the period of the Gulf Wars and invasion of Iraq (it’s worth noting that Italy was strongly against the invasion of Iraq).

What difference do you think it made to Twombly’s art, and to the poetry he read, that he moved to Italy in the late 1950s?

MJ: That’s a very interesting question. Twombly was already familiar with the classical tradition before he arrived in Italy for the first time as a young man, with Robert Rauschenberg. Italy meant the Mediterranean, in an expanded sense that included North Africa (on that first trip) and later the Middle East. But living in Rome also oriented Twombly to Europe, even if he returned to New York each year to paint; Italy and New York had considerable links after mid-century. Perhaps one effect of the move to Rome was to cut him off from some of the New York poets of his own generation (O’Hara and Ashbery, for instance) who were keenly interested in modern art. I would say that what Twombly’s move mainly confirmed, in literary ways, was the formative influence of the European high modernists — Mallarmé and Rilke — and Mediterranean poets like Cavafy and Seferis.

To sum up, what do you think a literary critic has to offer when it comes to writing about an artist?

MJ: Obviously it depends to some extent on the artist — not to mention the literary critic. I’ve always been interested in art criticism, but one thing I learned in writing this book was that art criticism (like literary criticism) has its own disciplinary formations and protocols. So I learned a lot while writing it, including how to pay attention to the details of texture and line, paint and support, that probably are second nature to a well-trained art historian. But “Art writing,” as such, is a bit different. I deliberately end the book with Baudelaire’s essay on Delacroix (the origin of the phrase “a poet in painting”) because Baudelaire founds a modern art criticism in which the critic tries to do something that Barthes also attempts in his writing about Twombly: create a verbal translation. Art criticism needs language, it needs the literary. So I’m not simply claiming that it helps to know what Twombly’s sources were — one can certainly appreciate his work without knowing anything about his quotations — but that the exchange between literature and art, or literary criticism and art criticism, is ongoing and crucial in ways that extend beyond Twombly’s particular art practice. We can’t do without language. I see Twombly as a painter who recognizes this mutual dependence of art and writing, but at the same time his work offers something altogether more visceral and immediate: the “now” of painting and drawing as a kind of action, a way of knowing, specific to the visual artist.

Mary Jacobus is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Cambridge, England and, before that, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She has written widely on Romanticism, feminism, and visual art. Most recently, she is the author of The Poetics of Psychoanalysis and Romantic Things. Jacobus lives in Ithaca, New York, and Cambridge, UK. Her most recent book is Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint.

Harold Bloom reads from Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

We are proud to have published Corrupted into Song: The Complete Works of Alvin Feinman. Though his poetry is lyrically intense and philosophically ambitious, Feinman published sparsely and remained largely unknown when he died in 2008. This is the definitive edition of Feinman’s complete work, which includes fifty-seven previously published poems and thirty-nine unpublished poems discovered among his manuscripts. Harold Bloom, who wrote the foreword, said of his friend’s poetry, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Listen to Bloom read two of Feinman’s poems below to experience that sublimity for yourself in a PUP blog exclusive.

Alvin Feinman

Alvin Feinman

“November Sunday Morning” by Alvin Feinman:

“Relic” by Alvin Feinman:


Feinman