Wow, this is my last post for the basin blog of The Tidal Basin Review and I want to thank Randall, Melanie and everybody else for welcoming my words. I also salute Ms. Henderson for the recent recognition of her work. DC continues to be a place for poets to grow and innovate. Also salute to Busboys and Poets, now famously chastised for that Flat Langston cutout. Also shout out to Derrick Brown who I read with at a Sunday Kind of Love event in December of 2006. Regie Cabico, my main Filipino organized it. And yes here is a ridiculous picture of us sitting at one of those booths and we were tired, not drunk taken by my good friend and fellow poet, Serena Fox.
April is National Poetry Month or Cruel to Poets Month because professional poets are busy reading, hawking new books, trying to get a better gig or stay in the one they have and judging contests everywhere. It’s exhilarating and exhausting. You will get to see and hear somebody really interesting wherever you are in this country even in places where the Tea Party roam—they tried to close down the Cowboy Poets! From March 30 when I heard Maureen Owen at the Poetry Project to this Monday when I saw Jessica Hagedorn (reading from her new novel, Toxicology) at a bookstore in Brooklyn, I have heard some great readings this spring. Ron Padgett and Elaine Equi, Samantha Thornhill at the book launch for the wonderful Mervyn Taylor who also gave a spirited reading from his new and older collections; David Rivard and Thomas Sayers Ellis at the BPL. Plus I got to hear Edward P. Jones at a benefit for Kweli Journal in The New York Times fancy newish building. If you have not read The Known World, well you’ve missed an extraordinary novel of morals and manners that explores slavery in a truly novel way. Plus, he’s from D.C.
The past 30-40 years has seen an extraordinary outpouring of poetry in this nation. In a way the special poetry section in O Magazine responds to that growth. I want redo the already mashed over criticism, just want to say that it seems the editors aimed to introduce a broad readership to living poets and to some of the ways in which readers deal with poetry. The interview with Mary Oliver shows us an interesting woman, but I doubt if I ever really will read her poems. On the other hand, the interview with W. S. Merwin is very important. He is not a very public poet, but has taken on the Poet Laureate position in part to continue to advocate for the natural world a more holistic look at the environment and nature, two words he does not like to use. As he points out “Anything we do to the rest of the world we’re doing to ourselves.”
You know I had not read an O Magazine from beginning to end before this one and it struck me that it is a 21st century version of mass market journals of my youth: Good Housekeeping, Redbook, McCall’s and Ebony. There are recipes and budget tips, inspirational stories, clever but too dynamic fashion spreads and Ms. Winfrey representing the height of African American aspiration. So I guess I should not have expected a more exciting fashion feature with the “emerging poets.” But hey I think poets, fashion –poets in couture; let the fantasy drums beat. Alas they were silent. And why only women poets? I saw that picture of Terrance Hayes in the New York Times Men’s Fashion Issue. Now the fantasy drums were beating there. Poets may not be trendy, but we are surely stylish—think Patti Smith or Ntozake Shange. I wish more of that stylishness was used. But I salute these women for working in front of the camera.
If anything, I found the 20 essential poetry collections too narrowly cast. Not that anything was wrong, but where were poets whose books have more bite, humor, daring? Kay Ryan over Lucille Clifton? I say Clifton’s Blessing the Boats or Good Woman. No Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, but Frank O’Hara. You can’t have O’Hara and not include Baraka or Allen Ginsberg for that measure. Where’s W. H. Auden, heck they used his poem in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And finally where are the sonnets of William Shakespeare? We are talking about poetry in English (mostly). A very oddly shaped list indeed. And I know that everyone reading that list had some serious substitutions.
But then again, O Magazine’s take on poetry is that it helps you. It inspires you. It gets you through the fact that you lost your woman, your man, your good health or all your money to Bernie Madoff! That’s fine. That’s good. But sometimes poetry ought to scare the fuck out of you. Sometimes it ought to seduce you—think of the wonderful film, Il Postino where the postman uses Neruda’s poems to court his future wife. Sometimes poems should confuse you or amplify your curiosity or make you laugh out loud. Or poems should tell you something about the culture; about humanity in the macro. For instance, I return to Christopher Logue’s “translations” of The Iliad –the two books I have are The Husbands and War Music–in which he explores the abuse of power and how the Gods play with humanity—our bodies are simply toys for their boredom, jealously, and rage. And of course the Gods in The Iliad are all too human in their characteristics. Moreover, I read Neruda and June Jordan and Adrienne Rich and listen to Sekou Sundiata for poems that speak to these larger themes.
We are living in precarious times full of promise for some, peril and despair for many. Poetry may act as a salve and that can be wonderful, but it ought to break us out of our comfort zones whether psychic, emotional or social. And while many poets are ruthless in their ambition these days, few are fearless. But poetry has to evolve, innovate, create out of the language of these times or lead the language in some way. That can’t be done by always watching what you’re saying and who is listening. I know I am not young and eager—am now late middle-aged and eager. And so maybe these words will seem trivial to some. I hope not. Without fearlessness, poets become very conservative in their making and may find themselves creating work that is the literary equivalent of warm milk. As a poet and reader, I prefer stronger stuff by the innovators, the crazy makers (heck I didn’t even mention Bob Kaufman for that list because who am I kidding?). It does not make for an easy life, that is for sure, but it can make for some great poetry.
Oh and last but not least, a bit of shameless promotion:
Saludos and welcome to next blogger. I know the words will ring through.