Sunday, July 29, 2012

Poetry Monday: the first of all my dreams

I've had Ellen Mandel's exquisite the first of all my dreams on an endless loop in my car. The CD is the most wonderful musical rendering of the poetry of ee cummings, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Glyn Maxwell and some of Mandel's own work too. That kind of line up would be enough to entice me. However, Mandel has managed to enhance the beauty of the work through richly extraordinary musical compositions, and the most amazing vocals by tenor Todd Almond. You can read my full, detailed review of the CD here at The Compulsive Reader.  Then check out, just for example, the ee cummings poem "stinging gold":

and listen to what Mandel does with it here:

You can check out more of her amazing work with tons of sample tracks at  This is truly music for poetry lovers.  Go, now, and get yourself a copy. You can thank me later.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Poetry Monday: Poetry Parnassus

Firstly, I'm back home now.  Thanks for indulging my blog posts on poets of the US east coast as I made my way forward in space and backwards in time (more on that in poetry form later I suspect).  There was indeed a great deal of poetry on my trip, but since the 2012 Olympics begins this week and Olympic fever is spreading rapidly like an iron-pumped virus everywhere I turn, I thought I'd call attention to an event held in London at the Southbank Centre, as a precursar to the event.  Poetry Parnassus is finished now, but it brought together poets from over 145 countries for a series of readings, workshops, debates and "jives" (I'll leave the meaning of "jive" to your imagination).  The event began with a helicopter drop of 100,000 bookmark-sized poems which floated across the city as far as Camberwell, and progressed with readings by Seamus Heaney,Wole Soyinka, John Kinsella from Australia (who waved his usual fees), Kay Ryan, Jang Jin-sung and a welter of other poets - some well known and others less well-known - from around the world. Also included was poet Simon Armitage, who organised the event as a  "non-commercial, non-corporate and decidedly non-competitive happening". His own reading wasn't a poem, but rather from his nonfiction account of walking the Pennine Way. I include it on Poetry Monday though because he travelled as 'modern troubadour', giving poetry readings for food. The reading is punctuated by music and is quite funny:
Simon Armitage Walking Home Launch by southbankcentre

All of the poetry is captured in an anthology titled The World Record, published by Bloodaxe Books with Southbank Centre.You can listen to a number of podcasts of the event here:, and if you click on the poet link, you can also read interviews and profiles of each of the poets, sorted by country. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Poetry Monday: Anne Waldman

There are so many famous New York poets, that choosing was difficult, but because I'm here, and feeling an excess of nostalgia, today I'm going to feature a poet who was active when I lived in NY - in fact I saw her way back then at the St Mark's Church's annual New Year's Day Marathon Reading (an event that, amazingly, is still happening). Anne Waldman is the author of over 40 collections of poetry (or books on poetry), and, and this is true for many poets, has given a lot to the poetry community, championing the cause of poetry through her many free readings, her involvement with the St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project for over a decade, the founding of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, work as a teacher, editor, cultural/political activist, and above all, performer. I have to admit that it took me a while to take to Waldman's work and I still find much of it a little unsubtle and prosaic for my tastes, but when you see her perform the work, like a good song (and she sometimes sings), the work becomes transformed into high drama, the nuance added by vocals, gestures, verbal props, and body language into a complete piece. The following poem was chosen partly for it's utter New Yorkness (if I weren't actually in New York at this very moment, I'd be homesick for it from readng this poem).  Of course O'Hara is one of the key members of what came to be known as the New York school of poetry and Waldman infuses the poem with nostalgia for "the city", and for something/one, no longer alive in the corporal sense.  Like a missing relative, a missing city, desire mingling with an attempt at transcendence. 

A Phonecall from Frank O'Hara
“That all these dyings may be life in death”
I was living in San Francisco   
My heart was in Manhattan
It made no sense, no reference point   
Hearing the sad horns at night,   
fragile evocations of female stuff   
The 3 tones (the last most resonant)
were like warnings, haiku-muezzins at dawn
The call came in the afternoon   
“Frank, is that really you?”

I'd awake chilled at dawn
in the wooden house like an old ship   
Stay bundled through the day
sitting on the stoop to catch the sun
I lived near the park whose deep green   
over my shoulder made life cooler   
Was my spirit faltering, grown duller?
I want to be free of poetry's ornaments,   
its duty, free of constant irritation,   
me in it, what was grander reason   
for being? Do it, why? (Why, Frank?)   
To make the energies dance etc.

My coat a cape of horrors
I'd walk through town or
impending earthquake. Was that it?   
Ominous days. Street shiny with   
hallucinatory light on sad dogs,
too many religious people, or a woman   
startled me by her look of indecision   
near the empty stadium
I walked back spooked by
my own darkness
Then Frank called to say
“What? Not done complaining yet?   
Can't you smell the eucalyptus,
have you never neared the Pacific?   
‘While frank and free/call for
musick while your veins swell’”   
he sang, quoting a metaphysician   
"Don't you know the secret, how to   
wake up and see you don't exist, but   
that does, don't you see phenomena   
is so much more important than this?   
I always love that.”
“Always?” I cried, wanting to believe him   
“Yes.” “But say more! How can you if   
it's sad & dead?” “But that's just it!   
If! It isn't. It doesn't want to be
Do you want to be?” He was warming to his song   
“Of course I don't have to put up with as   
much as you do these days. These years.   
But I do miss the color, the architecture,   
the talk. You know, it was the life!   
And dying is such an insult. After all   
I was in love with breath and I loved   
embracing those others, the lovers,   
with my body.” He sighed & laughed   
He wasn't quite as I'd remembered him   
Not less generous, but more abstract   
Did he even have a voice now, I wondered   
or did I think it up in the middle   
of this long day, phone in hand now   
dialing Manhattan

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

It's a hellava town

Though it has been some 28 years since I've lived in NYC, and I've probably spent more time living in other places - I grew up mostly on Long Island rather than in the city centre, and have been in the UK and Australia for several decades, I'm afraid I'll always think of myself as a New Yorker.  NY populates my dreams, forms a kind of underlying sense of identity for me, and was a key setting of my first novel Sleep Before Evening, and it's always so strange for me to return as a tourist. Speaking of novels, I've just finished reading rutherfurd's New York and enjoyed it very much. I was surprised (though probably shouldn't have been) at how much of the history of my own home town and the country I grew up in that I didn't know.  This last leg of my trip is going to be the most full - I'm trying to set a world record for how much I can pack into 4 days.  However, if you're plannng to be at the Strand this week, drop me a line. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Poetry Monday: Joyce Carol Oates

Super prolific New Jersey author Joyce Carol Oates has published over 50 novels, young adult fiction, novellas, essays, and over 10 volumes of poetry to name just a few of the genres that she has worked in. She has lived in Princeton, which I'm visiting today, since 1978, and is a professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing. Though she's better known for her novels (isn't that always the way), it's her poetry I'd like to feature today. The following poem comes from Anonymous Sins & Other Poems, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1969.  This poem is a very powerful one for me, partly because it fits perfectly into the novel I'm currently working on, as my protagonist is a professor, and the chapter I'm at has her writing on the blackboard with a room full of motes. This is not an easy poem, but it's full of light and dark, the learning process, the human condition, the nature of life. .

Like This…So This

Teaching mathematics on the blackboard
deepens the curse of prophecy:
everything willed will happen
The room is filled with motes
hard as gold that must
willful light that cannot not
So my eyes must narrow
at the sight
of you
So improbably beasts
headed stiffly by human heads
or the human-headed bull
or the horse cursed with a spike
in its forehead
of ivory
wander listless among
barns and coops and pens
their tracks in the tame snow
wandering heavily homeward they
butt with their monster
or human heads
the doors of ordinary enclosures
cursed they rub their heads
against the ordinary

Friday, July 6, 2012

Summer in Somerville

The US tour is moving north. Today I'm in Somerville, NJ, a Dutch settled town built at a crossroads shortly after the American Revolution. Nowadays Somerville still has its historical buildings and its past seems close at hand, though the city has modern amenities, good shops, and proximity to Princeton University that make this a cosmopolitan and charming place.  New Jersey is no slouch when it comes to authors. The roster of Jersey writers includes Junot Díaz, Philip Roth, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka, to name just a few. It's also home to the Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest poetry event in North America, and though the 2012 event doesn't happen until October, I've been watching the roster grow with interest.  As for me, I've heard a rumour that I might be doing a spot of Kayaking. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Poetry Monday: Rita Dove "American Smooth"

Rita Dove is one of many reasons why Charlottesville is considered America's smartest city. Dove currently holds the chair of Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia and was named US Poet Laureate in 1993, the youngest poet ever elected to the position. She was also the first African American to hold the title. Doved served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2004–2006. She has had published 9 poetry collections, a book of essays, a novel, a short story collection, a verse play, has edited at least two poetry collections, and is a ballroom dancer.  The latter talent is featured in her poem "American Smooth", the title poem from her 2004 collection published by Norton.  Here is Rita performing the poem, followed by the full text.  On its simplest level, the poem is a beautiful depiction of the pleasure and power of dance, but it goes deeper still, into the heart of artistic creation, the power of a moment, on ephiphany and on the ephemeral nature of human achievement.
American Smooth

We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?)—achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.