I have been feeling sad about my new book of poems coming out not, watching planned events cancelled one by one, but this passage by Joseph Brodsky really helped put things in perspective for me–my book may be exiled for the moment, but there are much worse fates:
I know everyone is posting moving, relevant poems right now. But I thought a little levity would be more useful. Here are some favorites from a list of “Rules of the Blues:”
The Blues is not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch–ain’t no way out.
Blues cars: Chevys, Fords, Cadillacs, and broken-down trucks. Blues don’t travel in Volvos, BMWs or SUVs. Most blues transportation is a Greyhound bus or a southbound train. Walkin’ plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. So does fixin’ to die.
Blues can take place in New York City but not in Hawaii or any place in Canada. Hard times in Minneapolis or Seattle is probably just clinical depression. Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City are still the best place to have the Blues.
You can’t have no Blues in a office or a shopping mall. The lighting is wrong. Go outside to the parking lot or sit by the dumpster.
You have the right to sing the Blues if:
a) You older than dirt
b) You blind
c) You shot a man in Memphis
d) You can’t be satisfied
If you ask for water and your darlin’ give you gasoline, it’s the Blues.
There are more, but you get the idea. If you have to stay in your house or apartment to flatten the virus curve, it’s not the Blues.
Last night I went to the San Francisco JCC to hear Danez Smith, a powerful youngish black poet, read from his new book, “Homie.” Sam Sax and Safia Elhillo read with him. The crowd was mostly young and very enthusiastic. Danez is a poet who comes from the loud and proud tradition, often found at poetry slams, less often in books. I enjoyed his reading, and the light, noisy atmosphere, so different from a standard poetry event. But after the reading, in the inevitable Q&A, a woman asked in relation to the publishing industry, still mostly owned and staffed by white people, “How do we dismantle the publishing industry so more diverse voices can be heard?” Neither Safia or Sam had much to say to that. To his credit, Danez said, “Well I don’t know that we want to dismantle it, just support the publication of diverse voices.” There was more to his response than that, but the question reminded me of a passage in James Baldwin’s amazing essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind.” In it, he is being driven to meet friends after a dinner with Elisha Muhammad. His driver (a follower of Muhammad), is talking about the wonderful day when the Negro (his word) population has its own, separate economy. Baldwin asks him, “On what, then, will the economy of this separate nation be based?” and goes on:
“I was thinking, in order for this to happen, your entire frame of reference will have to change, and you will be forced to surrender many things that you scarcely know you have. I didn’t feel that the things I had in mind, such as the pseudo-elegant heap of tin in which we were riding, had any very great value. But life would be very different without them, and I wondered if he had thought of this. Continue reading “A raucous poetry reading”→
Yesterday at the Berkeley post office I was waiting in line for stamps. A long line, moving slowly, two working clerks. A clerk was free, and the man in front of me didn’t move up, so I tapped him lightly on the shoulder–something that seemed a perfectly normal thing to do at the time–to alert him that the clerk was free. The man was an older black man and he immediately turned and grabbed me and pushed me hard, yelling “Don’t you put your white hands on me, ” etc. No apology could mollify him; he was clearly at some hair trigger point, and my tap had been the trigger. The supervisor came out and after some time calmed him down somewhat, and we all went on with our morning, slightly shaken.
I realize we are now in a world in which it is not safe to tap someone on the shoulder; the shared assumptions of civility have eroded to the point where we don’t know what will offend, I lesson I’m glad I learned with someone who wasn’t carrying a gun!
Almost every day, a new solicitation for a poetry contest pops into my inbox. I have read articles and heard rumors about their transparency or lack of transparency. But even if all entries are read blind, and the awards are based solely on what the appointed judges fell is the best work (or the best of the screened entries provided to them), I am writing this very short rant against the whole dynamic of the poetry contest.
At this point there is almost a contest every day–some days multiple contests. Entry fees go from $15-40 per contest. In fact, the raison d’être of the contest is to fund the offering organization, a journal, a publisher, whatever. Some organizations run multiple contests a year, a continuous income stream. Each of these contests must have a winner regardless of the quality of the submissions, producing a glut of meaningless winners of contests, and allowing the organization to keep publishing.
This glut of fundraisers masquerading as contests seems opposed to the very spirit in which poetry should be written. I have entered and won or been a finalist in contests in the past, and with this little note plan to opt out in the future. Let my poetry stand or fall based on my own taste and the pleasure of those who read or hear it.
But the story of Annie Edson Taylor, who had her 15 minutes of fame in 1901, when she was 62, going over Niagara’s 160 foot Falls in a barrel of her own design, pumped full of oxygen and stuffed with pillows, and lived to tell the tale.
This is the woman, who when her stagecoach was robbed refused to disclose the $800 tied in the seams of her dress. A widow, facing poverty, she went over the falls as a way to make some cash, and succeeded for awhile, before she lost it to unscrupulous managers. It was hard to make and keep a buck as a woman in 1901.
It seems like a good story for a poem; let me know if you write one.
Hard to believe that this ad is from 1965, but of course, the assumptions it makes are part of what the rebellion of the 1960’s was about.
The world I grew up in, the world of the 50s and 60s, was a white man’s world. Every position of power, doctor, lawyer, judge, politician, was held by allegedly straight white men.
There were a few exceptions, of course, but everywhere you looked, there were often mediocre white men in charge, despite the fact that there were smart
women and minorities around who could have done a better job. So it makes perfect sense that women and minorities protested. The feminist movement, the black power movement, the LGBT movement all rose out of that sense of unfair disenfranchisement.
But now it seems to me we have a reverse problem: to satisfy diversity requirements, those hiring might chose a mediocre person of color or with a disability or a non-mainstream gender orientation over a more qualified straight caucasian.
I totally get the importance of role models, of disparate voices, of the way networking and connections influence who you know and suggest for a position. But shouldn’t the best human available for a given job be our goal?
Sports teams seem to have representation based on pure ability. Surely this is a model that would benefit us all in the long run.
Yesterday I posted Jordan Peterson’s rant on how he doesn’t believe the threat of climate change will bring us together to act for the good of the planet.
In response, my son sent this comic, which I also believe:
But to be fair, I don’t think Peterson was really saying, “do nothing,” I think he was just pointing out that we are a divisive race. There isn’t much evidence that we can join together to effect global change.
Since my last post, I had an encounter with a Jeep while riding my bike. It didn’t go too well for me, and I’ve been rendered pretty immobile with injuries to my right foot. Luckily, that’s all, and according to the amazing physicians at Highland Hospital, there will be “full functional recovery.” But the process is long and difficult.
Through this all, Larry has come through as a stellar nurse, caretaker, and cheerleader. Not only has he taken on most domestic chores, he is a rock when I am down. Plus, he’s so adorable! I love this photo.
One last comment on my summer reading, A friend, knowing how much I liked Primo Levi’s book, The Periodic Table, gave me a gorgeous edition of his complete works. It is so good, I feel compelled to quote from it at length, and I’ve only finished the first book, If This is Man. In the afterword, he says he wrote this book as soon as he could after his experience, that it was “burning inside me” and needed expression. About the concentration camp, the Lager, he says:
“…the Lager was also and preeminently a gigantic biological and social experiment. Let thousands of individuals differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs be enclosed within barbed wire, and there be subjected to a regular, controlled life, which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs. No one could have set up a more rigorous experiment to determine what is inherent and what is acquired in the behavior of the human animal faced with the struggle for life…The only conclusion is that, in the face of driving need, many habits and social instincts are reduced to silence.” Continue reading “Before moving on…”→
I have a system for New Year’s resolutions that works well for me: Aim small and succeed. I’ve discussed this before. But to update the list, I’ve since added: drive courteously (three years ago), no movie theater popcorn (two years ago), and better socks (last year). I’m still working on last year’s resolution, slowly replacing my ragtag collection with better socks, so I don’t need a new resolution this year.
The point is that these resolutions seem to last, not just for a year, but integrated into my life–unlike the grand, doomed resolutions I used to make. Of course, I have many projects and activities planned for 2018, both personal and political, but these are not resolutions, but practice.
I am also pleased that most Mondays for over six years, I’ve found and posted a poem I like. I almost always post poems that are contemporary, or at least 20th century. But last week Larry received a packet of broadsides that included one of my favorite poems by John Donne. So here is your New Year’s vitamin. It is the opening of the second stanza that I love most:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.