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Discovering poetry

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[1970]: It happened when I was a student at Titusville High School. I was browsing in the school library, and out of curiosity pulling out a random book from the shelves here and there and reading a bit of it and putting it back, just to see if I might find anything particularly interesting this way. By this chance process I happened to come across a thin book of poems called In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks. Perusing this book I was immediately struck by the intensity and liveliness of the author’s language. At the time I knew nothing about Gwendolyn Brooks and knew nothing about poetry other than a few poems that were part of the required readings for English class in school. But this poetry was nothing like that. At the time I was so naïve that I didn’t even realize that the author was black, or that what she was writing about was the culture of poor urban black people. What was important about the book to me was that it had a sense of vitality about it and a feel of inner truth, a recognition of people’s inner humanity. Being a repressed and deeply neurotic kid, to encounter this book was an awakening for me. I began to feel for the first time that literature was alive, that it could illuminate and celebrate the inner lives of human beings. This book was an inspiration, a spark that ignited what was to be my lifelong passion for literature in general and for poetry in particular. Eventually I became a poet myself. I still feel a debt of gratitude to Gwendolyn Brooks. It was she who started me on the practice of poetry, a practice which over the years has helped me to be able to look deeper into my own life, and to expand my sense of my own identity. I wish I could have met Ms. Brooks.

Poetry reading, River’s End

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In my last post I mentioned that thing about how we writers tend to work hard on something until we think it’s done, we put it out there into the world somehow, and then we forget about it and go on to the next thing. So that if circumstances arise that bring our attention back to that previous work it can be surprising to revisit and rediscover that old stuff, seeing it from a later and different perspective. Surprising perhaps in a good way or maybe in a bad way. There is always some question about whether the older work still holds up. The good news is that when I recently did a poetry reading from my chapbook I was pleasantly surprised at how well the poems stood up after all this time. Most of them after all were written some years ago when I was rather a different person than I am now.

I did a reading Nov 26 at the River’s End bookstore in Oswego NY. I was one of four featured poets reading, the others being my Syracuse poet friends Georgia Popoff, Elinor Cramer, and Jessica Cuello. The River’s End is an excellent bookstore by the way, and its proprietor Bill is a gracious and congenial fellow who loves literature and respects authors. If you’re ever in Oswego NY you should definitely go there. So as I said when it came my turn to read I started flipping through the chapbook looking for poems to read (I figured I would do the reading rather spontaneously rather than picking out the poems to read ahead of time). As I read the poems I had this strange and intense feeling of an unexpected expansion of my self, the sense of suddenly being aware of older aspects of myself, feelings and experiences, that I had forgotten, and which were suddenly made familiar to me again. In fact several times during the reading I almost choked up while reading the poems. The thought also occurred to me that these poems still hold up well, they still feel real and vital to me, whether other people like them or not. And that gave me some feeling of confidence that I am still on the right track. Trying to write poetry is like trying to make your own path through a wilderness. Every once in a while you get confused and you stop and ask yourself, am I going the right way? And then you might get a little psychic message coming to you from somewhere that tells you Yes, keep going.

Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert

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Two poets who I’ve found personally very influential, both in my own poetry writing and in my life in general, are Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert. They are two separate poets and yet it often seems that their poetry has been interconnected and intertwined, over decades. In reading them one sometimes gets the sense that they might be carrying on a subtle poetic dialogue with each other.

I first discovered Linda Gregg by chance in the late 90s when I came across a copy of her book The Sacraments of Desire in the Cornell University bookstore. Impulsively I bought it, not knowing anything about the author. I had only recently developed a serious interest in poetry writing myself. This book turned out to be enthralling. I was quite taken with the mysterious, smoky depths of Gregg’s poetry. The poems had a clear, pure limpid quality on the surface but a sense of great, intense, and complex emotional depths underneath. The poems seemed to invite the reader to a more intimate and intense experience of life. It’s a book that greatly influenced my whole way of thinking, not only about poetry and its aesthetic purposes, but about my approach to my own life experience. I started reading everything I could find by Gregg.

Some years later I heard about Jack Gilbert’s book The Great Fires and it sounded intriguing. I read it and found it to be fascinating and intense. I noticed some stylistic similarities with Gregg’s poetry. I learned later that Jack Gilbert had been Linda Gregg’s teacher when she was working on her master’s degree, and that they became lovers and traveled the world together for many years, living in poverty and having adventures.

Some critics and readers have criticized, unfairly in my opinion, Linda Gregg for appropriating Jack Gilbert’s style. There are superficial similarities between their poetic styles but Linda Gregg definitely has her own unique poetic voice. Most critics seem to think that Gilbert is the better poet (and Linda Gregg herself has referred to Gilbert as her “poetry mentor”) although I tend to disagree. Jack Gilbert was an excellent poet but I detect, in many of his poems, a quality of pomposity that I don’t see in Linda Gregg’s poetry. Her work seems to me more fresh and direct.

I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Gregg at a reading at LeMoyne College in 2000. I chatted with her a bit and she impressed me as being a very gracious person with an unusually alert and sensitive mind. I wanted to tell her that her poetry had changed my life, which would have been true, but I’m sure such a declaration would have been an embarrassment to both of us. Instead I made a somewhat more restrained comment of appreciation, I don’t remember exactly what it was but I think it was probably rather lame.

More thoughts on poetry writing

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Poetry is the most sublime of the arts and also, in my humble opinion, the most difficult. I’ve been interested in poetry for a long time but only started writing it in earnest in 1996, after having taken a poetry workshop in Ithaca, New York. At the time I embarked on this strange and difficult path I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. To say that it’s been a difficult challenge would be an understatement. I had naively thought in the beginning that eventually I would get to the point where I had enough experience to know what I was doing, i.e. know how to write a poem. But no!, after 20 years of struggling to try to produce poems the main thing I’ve learned is humility, that I don’t really know what I am doing. And furthermore I doubt that any poet really knows what she or he is doing. There have been a few times in my life when I felt discouraged and thought I should quit, but I always came back to it. I’ve finally learned to have some faith in the process, a faith that is more like a quietly fierce, gut-level stubbornness. A faith that if I take a certain psychological stance toward the world, that if I embody a certain kind of stubborn open-heartedness in the face of life’s apparent objective futility, that some illumination or inspiration will come to me.

I realize now that the most important thing is that each time you sit down to try to write a new poem it’s like starting out at the beginning, you must discover poetry anew. And even discover your life anew. It’s about reexamining everything: all of your experience, the meanings you’ve acquired over the years to explain yourself to yourself, your perceptions of other people and even of the entire world. Your whole life and experience is unknown territory then to be explored, starting over from the first step. After many years of being a poet I find that the process of trying to write poems has become indistinguishable from the process of exploring my own nature, and human nature in general. I know now that I will never be able to give up this (possibly foolish) quest to try to write poems. It accomplishes nothing, no one cares about it, it usually seems like an exercise in futility, and yet it has extended and deepened my life, made me much more of a person than I would have been without it.

A reading

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I have a poetry chapbook, First Snow Coming, which was published last fall by Kattywompus Press, an excellent small literary press in Boston. Coincidentally, my Syracuse poet friend Elinor Cramer had a chapbook, Mayflower, published around the same time by Red Bird. We thought it might be interesting, since our books came out at the same time, to do a joint reading together. Actually I have Elinor to thank for the publication of First Snow Coming, because it was she who first suggested I submit my manuscript to Kattywompus Press.

Yesterday I did a joint reading with my friend Elinor at the Cazenovia Public Library (conveniently located just down the street from my house!). The reading went quite well and was surprisingly well attended. There must have been close to sixty people there, which is a pretty big showing for a poetry reading. The audience was attentive and appreciative. A very friendly atmosphere prevailed, and I felt mostly relaxed and confident in my reading. I read first, followed by Elinor. Afterward we signed books and chatted with people, and then later my wife Heidi and I hosted a get-together at our house with wine and desserts.

Reading these poems for this audience gave me a whole new, and rather unexpected, experience of them. To read them aloud, to those people (and this felt to be crucial, i.e., that I was reading to someone, to particular real human beings), made me feel I was experiencing the poems anew, seeing and feeling them in a new way, as if they suddenly were fraught with new and deeper feeling and significance than I had known before. A couple of times I had to slow down and speak with great deliberateness because I was afraid I might start choking up while I was reading. The audience responded with great enthusiasm and interest, and I had a feeling of being attuned to those folks, a comforting and uplifting sense of group unity. I am so very, very grateful to everyone who came and listened and took an interest in the poems.

Elinor has been talking about possibly doing another reading together at a bookstore in Oswego. I would be up for it if the arrangements work out. We’ll see.

Now I’m getting ready to head out to the Icelandic Writers Retreat in Reykjavík. I will have some interesting things to report about that, I´m sure. Check back with me…

Staying Home

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One of the themes that inspires many of my poems is something that is hard to describe. It’s the subtle feeling of how one’s house becomes a container for one’s spirit, for one’s identity even. I speculate that this feeling is significant to me perhaps because for most of my life I didn’t feel that I really had a place where I belonged. So to live in a place where I have a strong sense of belonging is like my mind or my spirit has flowed into that place and settled naturally, like water poured into a pitcher finding its level. This kind of feeling provides the emotional motivation for some of my poetry even if I don’t make overt reference to it in the poems. It’s there in the back of my mind anyway. For example here is a poem I wrote in the late summer of 2012 not long after I moved to Cazenovia to be with my lover (now wife) Heidi, and settled into her magnificent old historic house.

Staying Home

When I first came here I saw
the house as a channel for the drift of time
the light breathes in and out
slowly through the windows
under the high ceilings
and the antique fixtures
the floorboards incised with age
within this arrangement
we dissolve at night
and are reborn in the day
in a labyrinth of doors
our indistinct presence
there are rooms filled with books
in which we read each other
awake and content
to be among these objects
left out in the open

C. D. Wright

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The recent sudden and tragic passing of C. D. Wright inspired me to a great deal of reflection on the significance of her work and her impact on my writing life and my life in general. She was certainly one of a kind. I first discovered C. D. Wright several years ago when I lived in Ithaca. While browsing in the old Borealis bookstore (a great store, now sadly defunct) I came across a copy of Tremble by C. D. Wright. At the time I wasn’t at all familiar with the author but something about the book looked intriguing and I bought it. This turned out to be one of my most fortunate book finds ever, because that book changed the whole way I thought about poetry, and in time, about my life. As, over the years, my poetry-writing gradually and quietly expanded from an occasional hobby to an ongoing process of inquiry into life, consciousness, and identity. Every poem in Wright’s book was like a revelation to me. I’m sure that these poems helped catalyze the arrival of this larger kind of awareness for me, this awareness that every moment of one’s life can be, and should be, a keen inquiry into what is.

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