Sunday, March 30, 2008

Li-Young Lee

Yesterday at 6 p.m., J and I went to hear Li-Young Lee, who spoke at the University of South Carolina in connection with Asian Arts Week. He conducted a master class the day before (which I now wish I had attended). This evening session was supposed to be a sort of preliminary to the later Gamilan Concert, and he had been asked to talk about connections between music and poetry. Fortunately, he didn't adhere to that charge too closely. Instead, he talked about synchonicity and its relation to poetry.

He told a couple good stories of synchronous events and then built a connection between that sort of happening (which we all experience on occasion) and what happens or should happen in a poem. He described the best poems as striking a balance between probability and randomness. That is, a successful poem relies on the reader's perception of the probability of certain patterns or forms or themes--some regularity. But the poet must introduce some random, or seemingly random, elements that violate the regularity. A poem can't be too regular (too reliant on probability) or too random. It's the balance that we seek. A good poem gives the feeling of synchronicity, sort of like what we experience when two complementary events come together surprisingly in our lives.

When, after his 30-minute talk he asked for questions, I asked him to read one or two poems and talk about how those principles were evident in the poem(s). He read "The Hammock," from his collection, Book of My Nights. The poem begins:

When I lay my head in my mother’s lap
I think how day hides the stars,
the way I lay hidden once, waiting
inside may mother’s singing to herself. And I remember
how she carried me on her back
between home and the kindergarten,
once each morning and once each afternoon.

He speaks genuinely and thoughtfully in a quiet voice, and his assertions about poetry are utterly convincing. I only wish there had been time for him to read more poems. We bought two books, including his newest, Behind My Eyes. I heard him read several years ago in Daytona Beach, and yesterday's session was equally as rewarding, though much briefer because of the constraints of the schedule.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Davidson Advances

My alma mater, Davidson College, has defeated Wisconsin decisively (73-56) and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA basketball tournament. Davidson's star, Stephen Curry (above), has scored over 30 points in each of the first three NCAA wins so far--a feat accomplished by only 3 players previously. Davidson was seeded 10th in the region and has become the Cinderella at The Big Dance. Let's hope the basketball doesn't turn into a pumpkin.
Eric Alterman on the fate of journalism
An inspiring story of a mugger and muggee on NPR's Story Corps

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Book Choices

This week's intense 3-day campus visit from our SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) reaccreditation team produced a happy outcome: only several minor recommendations in response to our massive self-study and our so-called Quality Enhancement Plan for improving instruction in the future. Because this process takes place only every ten years, I won't have to go through it again.

Now I can focus my attention on selecting textbooks for the fall. This process is made more interesting and complex because of the lineup of writers we'll bring in for the November Fiction and Poetry Festival: Tom Perotta, Ethan Canin, Valerie Martin, Sara Gran, Robert Wrigley, and Dorianne Laux. That's 4 novelists, 2 poets. I'm trying to decide which books by which authors I want to use for my 2 freshman composition courses. Some of my colleagues are planning to use Perotta's Election, tying it to the fall election season, although the book concerns a high school and not a national election. Maybe I'll order Ethan Canin's stories, The Emperor of the Air--or maybe something by Valerie Martin. She's written a biography of St. Francis that I may use for my literary nonfiction class. I've ordered it and will give it a look. Currently, I'm rereading Canin's stories, which are superb; I just can't decide how freshmen would respond to them.
I usually avoid political proselytizing on this blog, but today I can't resist exclaiming about Barack Obama's incredible speech on racism delivered March 18 in Philadelphia, largely in response to recent negative publicity about inflammatory and highly controversial statements made recently by his minister, Jeremiah Wright (from whom Obama borrowed the title of his book, The Audacity of Hope). This one is bound to be remembered as one of the greatest campaign speeches ever. Film and text of the speech are available here.
Are English Departments Dying?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Interview with Janne Debes, Midwife

Brief film by Akane Igarashi: Janne Debes, Midwife

Wendell Berry and Pete Seeger

Interviewed in Shenandoah magazine, Wendell Berry says, "The poet is a wilderness looking out at the wild." He also says, "The music in a song or in a poem is its continuity, what keeps it coherent and alive. It then becomes a sort of metaphor for whatever it is that keeps us alive in the world, all of us creatures together. But what you’re trying to do in any kind of writing is to keep the thing continuous from end to end. You can interrupt a continuity for certain effects, if you want to — you can put a caesura somewhere in the middle of a line — but if the continuity isn’t strong enough to accept the interruption and carry through it, then you’ve lost more than you’ve gained."

Janne and I happened to catch parts of a program on Pete Seeger this morning while eating our Sunday waffles. This was one in a series of extended musical features on PBS to compliment their semi-annual fundraising drive. As I watched footage of Seeger, now 84 and still singing in Carnegie Hall, I felt renewed admiration for him, his life, his music. He was banned from TV for 15 years for his politics but went ahead with his performing anyway. Finally, the Smothers Brothers invited him onto their show, where he sang his anti-Vietnam War song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." The studio cut that song out of the program, a decision that was met with a huge outcry. It was awhile before that song was aired. Along with his dogged commitment to Civil Rights and anti-war activism (through his songwriting and personal performances), he took on the issue of the pollution of the Hudson River and almost singlehandedly mobilized public support for cleaning it up. He never does a performance without having the audience participate. And he continues to favor audiences of children. His life is a manifestation of the credo, "Think globally; act locally." Here is Seeger singing "Guantanamero." And singing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."

I admire Wendell Berry and Pete Seeger for similar reasons. Both are consummate artists who have devoted their work to good causes. Berry's causes are conservation, peace, and respect for the work of hands and the virtues of basic farming. His essay, "The Failure of War," is a thoughtful manifesto for peace.

The Man Born to Farming
by Wendell Berry
The Grower of Trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
That the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
Like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
Descending in the dark?

Monday, March 10, 2008


Book jacket photo of Kingsolver/Hopp family by Hank Daniel

I've just finished Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's move from Arizona to Virginia coupled with their decision to spend a year eating only local produce (or as close to that ideal as they could get). The account unfolds chronologically from one March to the next and details the year's gardening, turkey and chicken raising, and questing for local food sources. The family's motivation was mainly ecological--the desire to minimize their dependence on food shipped from overseas or trucked from afar at immense cost in energy. But Kingsolver also convincingly asserts the old macrobiological principle that it's healthier to eat locally. Kingsolver proceeds with a light touch that leavens the serious principles she espouses and helps avoid any self-righteousness. The family is methodical about their "locavore" experiment but not obsessive. They buy coffee, spices, and occasional chocolate from distant sources, splurge on cranberries for Thanksgiving, and never succeed in finding a good local source for wheat flour. Topical sidebars by Kingsolver's husband Steven Hopp (a biologist) and her older daugher Camille (a Duke student) complement the narrative.
Although I recently read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (a nice companion piece to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), I don't remember previously reading an entire book so exclusively about food, covering everything from the problems with agribusiness to a recipe for pumpkin soup. I guess I was pulled in by the scope of it, coupled with the intimacy of family life (e.g., the younger daughter Lucy's establishment of an egg business or decisions about exactly what to serve dinner guests in mid February). We have always eaten conscientiously in our house and have even previously had substantial gardens (something that our fully shaded yard now sadly precludes). But I've never been "into" food--unlike my mom who in her day could pore for hours over recipes (to delicious effect) and--until we started weeding them out--had hundreds of cookbooks in her collection. I admit that I didn't digest every recipe in this book, but I read with fascination about the family's dogged and ingenious back-to-the-land lifestyle.
Obviously, most families could not do this because of the demands of jobs and family, as well as limitations of space. Most of us would encounter far more crop failures and botched plantings than Kingsolver admits to. But she's not trying to convert us all into complete locavores, only to urge us to think more carefully about our food sources and act accordingly.
Spring is the perfect time to read this book. It leaves me longing to dig in the soil and plant something, even if it's just a few herbs or a tomato in a bucket. I do look forward to a future when I'll have time, space, and sunlight for an ample garden--one that might move us a little closer to the ideal of eating locally.
Claire Tomalin on the greatness of Milton
MTV "Think" page on current issues

Sunday, March 09, 2008


I have earned a mention on a web site devoted to "Tribal Butterfly Tattoo Designs." It seems the author somehow tracked down my poem, "The Butterfly Tattoo," and decided it would fit nicely onto this page. You never know when and where your poetry will reach an audience. At least I'm given credit for the poem.
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists . . . and Winners
L.A. Times Book Award Finalists
"Poetry, Philip Larkin once said, is a machine made of words: The reader puts the penny of her attention into the slot and pulls the handle; out comes a feeling. Which is true of any art form, no?

"But for my money, only a poem can be replicated in toto, no piece missing. We remember overall novel plots or isolated sentences. A movie character or balletic leap haunts you. A tune may stick in your head. These are fragments. Only a lyric poem -- committed to memory in language we all use -- can be activated anytime, anywhere, yielding an artistic experience in its entirety. Pinned in a subway car with arms at your sides, you can call up a poem and enter a cathedral of words that anoints you again in your singular passions. And great poems keep moving in us forever, time and again."

Mary Karr, introducing a poem by Archilochos in the Washington Post "Poet's Choice" column.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Steve and Eric

Several years ago, when my friend Steve moved from Upstate New York to Sicily, he sent me four big boxes of poetry books. We have talked about and corresponded about poetry on various occasions since 1969-70, when we both taught at Roosevelt Junior High School in Syracuse. Steve's impressive collection contains a number of long-out-of-print pamphlets, chapbooks, and heftier volumes, many of them from the beats and other counter-culturists from the sixties and seventies. It contains numerous originals from City Lights Books, such as Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish. Steve had collected much of the work of A.R. Ammons, his poetry teacher at Cornell. I keep this special collection on a couple shelves in my office, readily available from my rocking chair. I refer to it often and sometimes loan the books to student poets.
The other day I received an envelope from Steve containing Eric Unger's limited edition Just as Form, from House Press, June 2007. This is typical of the stuff Steve sometimes introduces me to and that I would never discover on my own. This 5.5 in. by 7.5 in. thread-bound chapbook consists of 27 untitled poems, few of them over 11 lines, each spare and fragmentary. The blunt stanzas most commonly run 2 to 4 lines. Lots of white space. The collection is filled with elemental words and phrases: tree, moon, sun, eye, wood, water, ice, black, white, star. Here is one poem:

In a black night
sleep deepens

The star out
the window
is the North Star.

Its distant burning
is the only light
in the dream.

The concentration of these 26 mostly monosyllabic words forces the ear toward the repeated "ee" sound, the echo of "night" and "light," the doubling up on "star." The mostly terse lines contrast with the longest and slowest line, "Its distant burning." The repeated sounds and motifs through the book urge us to see the small collection as all of a piece. When occasionally we come across a word like "circus" or "apogee," so out of keeping with the pervasive organic, naturalistic diction, the word stands out, drawing energy to itself. I'm glad Steve introduced me to this Chicago poet.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Poet Cop

Not long ago, Scott English appeared at my office door. He graduated from FMU last spring and had taken my Introductory Poetry Workshop. He was wearing a neatly pressed shirt and tie. He had a handgun and a badge on his belt. It seems he's now a policeman in Charleston and was on campus to speak to classes about law enforcement. Something of a whiz with computers, Scott started his own computer business while an undergrad and while still working at a local grocery store. He says he continues to do computer work to supplement his cop's salary. It pleases me to know that there's at least one patrolman on the beat who is not only a computer geek but also a poet--and not a bad one at that.

The roofing contractor
shows me a bird’s eye
sketch of my house
with its peaks, troughs,
angles, and vents.
The abstract planes
ripple with white
three-tabbed shingles,
giant fish scales
deflecting water.

Twenty years ago
my father and I
did the work.
Now I’m too old
to replace a roof.
When the men begin
peeling off the old,
that will be one more
wide, flat remnant
of my father gone.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Debra Daniel

Poetry and fiction writer Debra Daniel paid us a visit at Francis Marion University last week. She visited classes, including my poetry workshop, and read from her work Wednesday night. I've know Debbie at least since 1994, when we were among the eight writers selected that year for the South Carolina Readers Circuit. A Blythewood resident, she taught fifth grade for many years until her recent retirement. Now she's apparently writing more than ever. Also, she and her husband Jack play in a band and every other Wednesday take part in a jam session at Doc's Gumbo Grill in Columbia. I went down and played with them once last fall. Debra Daniel's website provides samples of her work.
Old Towns

In towns of my past
the streets uncoil
like ropes frayed
with use, scarred with
small slights, past corners
burnished with habit.

I walk them over time,
almost there, whistling
with pedestrian sadness.
I pass hardware stores,
the grills, the pizzerias,
one per town, silent.
Obits for William F. Buckley, Jr.: AP, New York Times, Washington Post
Russell Jacoby on "the cult of complication"