Friday, October 31, 2008
Near the Navy Pier, this little girl in her wings -- like a Vivian Girl from a Henry Darger painting! -- was climbing a lamppost while her mother sat on a bench talking to another woman and watching the fiery waters come shooting up out of a fountain. They'd lit the water all molten lava colors for Halloween, and there was fog-machine mist pouring out too. But the winged girl was the enchanted thing.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Here's my question: is this the gesture of a cynical politician who's manipulating the public by appealing to a lowbrow class-resentment, or is she an authentic populist fascist who believes what she says?
What do you think?
P.S. I know that neither answer makes one feel any better, but I'm still curious.
On the way out I stopped to pay my bill, and there under glass on the counter is a correspondence between my dentist and Jerry Falwell. It took place during the heady days of TinkyWinky, and Bruce had written to Falwell to point out that dental dams were often lavender and that this might be a sign that those pushing the homosexual agenda had infiltrated the dental product industry. Falwell wrote back and thanked him for pointing this out, and said he'd pray for him.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
And now I have had quite enough time zone crossing for a bit, and I'm glad to be on earth in newly cooled-down, autumnal Houston. Tomorrow: tux shopping, a student conference, a root canal, and a class on Whitman Whew.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Today I did two radio interviews, one for National Radio in Ireland, and one for Night Waves on the BBC's Radio 3. The Irish interview took place in a studio in Oxford, so I couldn't see my interviewer, just hear his voice as he delivered a set of questions and responses to my book THEORIES & APPARITIONS so insightful that I was happily taken aback. I don't think the book has found such an insightful, active reader, one who drew subtle connections, mapping out the architectural structure of the book with an acumen so sharp that I felt instructed about the poems myself. This just wouldn't happen, couldn't happen, in the U.S., not only because we simply don't have radio like this but also because we barely have such poetry critics.
Later, I went over to Broadcasting House in London -- see their moody, beautiful sculptural facade, above -- and appeared on Nightwaves, a wide-ranging cultural program. Present were a theatre critic talking about a production of Love's Labor Lost, a film historian discussing Hunger, a new documentary on an IRA hunger strike in an Irish prison, and yours truly. The interviewer handled all of us with equal ease, and he was consistently penetrating, charming and alert. We talked about John Berryman, Wordsworth, Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau. I couldn't help but think about the relative poverty of American cultural life by contrast; here was an urbane center, where arts and ideas of all sorts were held in esteem, and taken seriously through an attentive, critical, engaged examination.
And then I walked out, an hour later, into a snowstorm. Honest. It seemed the weirdest thing, the windshields of the parked cars all gone completely white.
Monday, October 27, 2008
I had lunch at Villandry (like Dean & DeLucca with tables) with Robin Robertson, a wonderful Scots poet and my editor over here, and Fiona Sampson, a poet whose work is new to me and the editor of Poetry Review, and Hannah Ross, my publicist at Jonathan Cape. I got an earful of good gossip on British poetry, and then went to the Soho Gym in Covent Garden, which is a world center of beauty -- a high concentration of breathtaking fellows. I wandered around some Covent Garden stores before bravely (I thought) coming home on the bus. What is it about taking the bus in a strange town? Always that slight anxiety that it might go God knows where, and you wouldn't know where (or even how) to get off, or that everybody in the world but you knows how to pay the fare and what kind of ticket you need. Nobody tells you; people who ride the bus are supposed to know already. I confess I have never been on a bus in NYC in my whole life, and here I am riding from Trafalgar Square to Westminster to Pimlico.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Who do you think should win the National Book Award in Poetry?Year after year, we hear people say that such and such should have won, or I think blank should have won. Well, here is your chance to say who YOU think should win, not necessarily who will win.
Who should win the NBA for Poetry?
Create your own myspace poll
I watched this for a long time, looking up for my friends, and then a man asked me to take a picture of him and his wife, so I asked him what time it was, and discovered I'd arrived an hour early. I wandered around then came back, but this time Kathy and Larry were actually late, because of the train situation. So I watched the people some more, getting hypnotized by them, and when my lovely friends appeared I tried to explain to them how I didn't know what time it was, and I immediately realized that the import of this statement was not available from my words. I meant, I was detached from clock-time by travel, and then I was detached from body-time by watching the stream of the living in their black coats and red scarfs, weaving in and out, the babies tumbling on the floor, the happy fathers getting down there with them, people pushing wheelchairs down the ramp, people hurrying up and out into the rain.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
All the poems I read were from THEORIES AND APPARITIONS, and they all concerned acts of speaking of one kind or another -- the little bat squeaking in the West Country, the boy in a Houston bookstore reciting Shelley, me yelling at a jerk on 8th Avenue who almost ran me over, the wily masseurs at the chi gong parlor getting Paul and me to fork over some serious cash. I was thinking about the way the poems concern utterances that either get heard by someone they aren't meant for, or are broadcast into the public sphere, or miss their targets, or don't say what they mean in the first place. It's the world of language as wilderness, the signs inscrutable or misleading, the speeches blowing around us like city trash.
And then I'm walking home and there's this girl standing on a median strip by herself, yelling into her cell phone. I thought only Americans did that. She's yelling over and over again, You sent me the same text message fifty times, stop it! You sent me the same text message fifty times, stop it! As she moves away her voice gets fainter. I'm pretty sure there's no one on the other end of the phone.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Then I stopped at Walgreen's to pick up some supplies for my trip, and the soothing commercial voice coming over the PA while you shop said, "Want to make your home more eerie? Walgreen's can help."
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
It's a strange moment.
Yesterday Charlie Alcorn drove me from Houston down to Victoria, Texas, where I spoke on Walt Whitman and did a reading in the early evening for an assembled group of citizens (they actually ARE called "Victorians"). I liked the open and eager faces of the high school kids I talked with in the afternoon, one of whom asked with with real sincerity how she could find her way into Whitman, how could she learn to read those poems? That seemed to me an honest and compelling question: how can I find a way to participate in what I don't know about yet, where is the door to this world you're pointing to?
On the way down, we stopped at a Czech bakery-coffee shop by the side of Highway 59 that was absolutely filled with dead animal presences -- rows of heads above the cooler case of beer and soda and Gatorade. Groups of older women, and men in cowboy hats, were sitting around drinking coffee from styrofoam cups surrounded by the stuffed corpses of deer. The strangest thing was that over the ATM, by the front door, was a mountain lion. Years ago, at the Desert Museum outside of Tucson, Paul and I walked up behind the mountain lion exhibit, to a small window in the back of a constructed cliff, where you could actually put your face to the one-way glass and look into the den of a couple of pumas. They were sleeping, in the heat of the day, sometimes a muscle flicking or a tail stirring; maybe they were dreaming. It was the most remarkable moment of intimacy, to be almost in the den, in their privacy and safety, in their cool cave. I wanted to write a poem about this but I've never been able to touch it. And here by the freeway, glass eyes, mouth in a fixed half-smile, screwed to the wall way up under the acoustic tiles. I thought I was in a Joy Williams story, in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD; I thought about Joy's sheer righteous anger and radical unsentimental compassion.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Often literary prizes are about launching careers (people starting to notice that you're there, producing) and about crowning them (recognizing the cumulative accomplishments of the senior artist). I'm in that long, odd, sometimes happy, sometimes lunar landscape called "mid-career," nowhere near the beginnings of my art and (I hope) quite a ways from the end.
It's from this perspective that these nominations feel like such a huge boost -- a sign that someone's paying attention, that the life of making is seen and appreciated. I'm nominated along with four terrific poets -- among them Frank Bidart and Richard Howard, two of the finest writers of our times, each of whose work has provide lenses through which I see the world. And two more: Patricia Smith, whose fantastic book about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina is an unforgettable cycle of poems. And Reginald Gibbons, whose work I've been following for years. I couldn't be happier to be in this company. I'm going shopping for a new tux. November is going to be a huge adventure, and may it commence with an election to elevate our spirits and our hopes.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Click here to listen to a reading of some Key West-related poems, as well as a brief excerpt from DOG YEARS, recorded in Florida in January of this year. One of the poems, "Sea Grape Valentine," examines the leaf of a sea grape, pictured above -- a strange tropical tree whose leaves turn red and fall all the time, so that for them it's always summer, and always fall.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Below there's a shot of Paul reading last night at Outwrite Books in Atlanta; he's reading one of these moving, idiosyncratic prose pieces he's been writing, lyric meditations that think and sound like poems but (mostly) don't have linebreaks. It was a warm, good-natured evening, with readings by Sister SoAmI, Dan Vera, and Alex Sanchez. Dan read a delightful poem imagining Emily Dickinson giving a reading in Boston and having a little too powerful an effect on her audience. The bookstore was hopping and lively, and you could see people out on the sidewalk streaming past behind the readers, and it all felt nicely energetic.
Sister SoAmI (see below) is one of the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and she read a wonderful prose chronicle of the history of the order that somehow felt like manifesto and elegy at once.
And now I'm in a hotel room in Tulsa, just for tonight and most of the day on Saturday, for some more literary doings. Speaking of poetic, check out the mysterious portal in the photo above; it's an actual doorway in the Atlanta airport, though it seems like a surrealist office, or the visual equivalent of a Charles Simic poem. What could be behind it?
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
In the airport in Houston, I was waiting in the security line when I saw this bird, a boat-tailed grackle who'd somehow gotten into the terminal. He was flying from the windows on one side of the line to the windows on the other, and he would stop before he struck the glass -- he knew what he was doing -- and chut a few times as if calling to someone or stating his alarm. Then he'd fly to the other side again. Someone behind me said, He wants to go home, and that surprised me, because I was thinking, he wants to be free. Of course the person behind me wanted to go home, and I guess I must have wanted, at just that moment, some more freedom.
I was thinking about this on the plane, when a young woman across the aisle and row behind me began to weep uncontrollably. You could feel everyone not looking at her. I offered her the box of tissues I was carrying but she said No, thanks, and kept on crying. She was seated beside a man who was maybe traveling with her, maybe not. In a while I heard them talking. She said something about "tearing my heart out," he said something about "your episodes." I began to make up narratives about them: it was a break-up, or he was taking her to rehab or a hospital against her will, or he was a stranger hired by her family to take her someplace she's be deprogrammed. It wasn't until I stood up to leave the plane that I realized the man was probably her father, which suddenly placed the little quasi-narrative in a whole new light.
These two scenes had this in common: someone else's pain was flying above us or flowing around us, and we the spectators were trying to incorporate it in our lives by making a story, or we were making use of it to tell a story about ourselves.
This was on my mind when I walked onto the jetway, and stopped to claim my gate-checked bag, and my phone rang. It was Terry Karten, my editor at HarperCollins, calling to tell me FIRE TO FIRE was a finalist for the National Book Award. And after that, I can tell you, I barely had a thought in my head.
Monday, October 13, 2008
This magnificent fellow lives in a region of the Congo where a large population of wild chimpanzees was recently discovered. The Wildlife Conservation Society -- the fine organization that runs the New York Aquarium and the Bronx Zoo -- is arranging a deal to protect this area from exploitation. Giving these people money immediately makes you feel you've done something for the world, which is not the easiest feeling to come by.
Without gorillas to look at, how would you ever find this stance in yourself: big, upright, casually fierce, curious, balanced, entirely alert? Every animal presence makes the human more complete.
I am just in the first several chapters of "Dog Years," but wanted to send you a quick note to tell you how much its contents are resonating with me. I am a librarian and one of my friends and colleagues recommended your book, thinking that it would be a tool in dealing with my own grief.
You see, my life partner of 15+ years (that's 30 years in straight life) died on June 19 of glioblastoma multiforme, the self-same brain cancer that Ted Kennedy has. He was diagnosed on March 13, so the whole journey was like taking a bullet train to a bleak and depressing destination.
As you can probably imagine, I have been reading all kinds of literature to help me cope with his loss. One of the books with which I have found particular empathy is Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking." I can identify so very well with the idea that, at some level, I still expect Charles to be returning at any moment. Although I might have an intellectual grasp on his departure, I still have that need to think that he's out there on one of his research trips (yes, he was a university professor, too) and that he will be walking in the door and climbing the stairs at any time.
Although I don't have dogs (we have cats - two surly Siamese whom I love), I have an affinity for all animals - sometimes more than humans. During my last visit to my therapist, who is helping me through my bereavement, I read the passage in your book where you’ve taken Beau to and from the vet. Yes, I cried as I read it - it's all about life and loss and being human (and being a dog).
Thanks for your book. I seem to be reading through it very slowly - I have to stop occasionally because it summons emotions and I find myself needing to allow time to feel them. Thanks for helping me to wade through the myriad emotions that comprise the territory of grief.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
I try to resist waxing too readily metaphoric about this kind of thing, but hey, twice in four days? Have I seen enough, this semester, am I ready to stop looking?
Well, I've got those sunglasses, so I look either glamorous or suspicious here in the Jet Blue waiting area, and if I hold the screen close to my face, I can write this post.
Overheard at Dunkin' Donuts, JFK: "Will they let you take a donut on a plane?"
Friday, October 10, 2008
This big face belongs to Paul's parents' dog Maggie, who's gone as of this morning. This photo's just a few months old. It makes me want to keep this face someplace in the world, put it here for anyone to see. A perfect face.
Catherine Merridale: "Fyedorov believed that human beings should...concentrate... upon their prime moral duty, which was to resurrect the dead."
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
I was looking at all this while last night's debates were still replaying in my head, and thinking about how ridiculously unhelpful Tom Brokaw was. How many opportunities do we have to hear the two men who could be the most influential leader in the western world, and the moderator poses questions like, "Russia = evil empire. Yes or no?" I paraphrase, but unfortunately not much. Is that really the kind of political discourse we want to encourage?
In the first place, how can the word "evil" do us the least bit of good in political or social discourse? As soon as that label's applied, it's impossible to move forward: you/your behavior/ your ideas are evil, and therefore I can't reasonably interact with you, can't identify any common ground between us, can't solve any problem. It's the kind of thinking that insists we can't sit down at a negotiating table with Iranian leaders, and the kind of binary labeling that results in anti-abortion activists attacking doctors and clinics. Once the line's drawn in such incendiary language, what's the point of continuing to speak together?
And even as I write, NY's channel 2 is suddenly showing video of Sarah Palin firing an assault rifle.
How do we make room, in the social space, in public discourse, for nuance, complexity, that which is part-land part-water? No yes or no questions.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Monday, October 6, 2008
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Here's a thorough, well-researched short piece on Gov. Palin's phony, opportunistic stance on climate change, and on the kind of junk science used to support her destructive stance.
Sarah Palin puts polar bears on thin ice
Sun Oct 05, 2008 at 04:00:13 PM PDT
On September 26, 2008, 61 Nobel laureates announced their endorsement of Barack Obama. Their letter of endorsement opens with (pdf):
This year's presidential election is among the most significant in our nation's history.
During the administration of George W. Bush, vital parts of our country's scientific enterprise have been damaged by stagnant or declining federal support. The government's scientific advisory process has been distorted by political considerations... We have lost time critical for the development of new ways to provide energy, treat disease, reverse climate change, strengthen our security, and improve our economy
A specific example of science distorted "by political considerations" is given by a December 12, 2007 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Report. In summary:
This report presents the findings of the Committee’s investigation. The evidence before the Committee leads to one inescapable conclusion: the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.
As their habitats are threatened by climate change, polar bears have become a primary symbol of the impending effects climate change will have on the entire planet. So, it was predictable that those master manipulators of climate science, the global warming deniers, set their sights on the polar bears.
Around the same time the House Oversight Committee's report was released, a story came out regarding Exxon-funded polar bear "research":
While recognizing the possible impact of climate change on the polar bear, the authors concluded "it is simply not prudent to overstate the certainty" that climate change, or any other single factor, is responsible for "observed patterns in polar bear population ecology." The article, which was labeled a "Viewpoint" essay because it contained no new research, was published in the September issue of the Journal of Ecological Complexity.
In their conclusion, the article's authors thanked ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute for their financial backing. They noted that the paper's views were "independent of sources providing support."
Many of the articles referenced by the paper were by the same authors and other global warming deniers, all of whom have been prominent mouthpieces for a variety of Exxon-funded think tanks.
Fast forward to May 2008. The polar bear was listed by the US government as a threatened species, and Alaska's government responded by filing a legal challenge. Alaskan politicians also scrambled to fund "research" proving that the bears are - you guessed it - not in any trouble at all. Of course, one of the first "scientists" they called is yet another global warming denier.
It turns out that Sarah Palin has played a starring role in the science fiction drama. The UK Guardian breaks the news:
The Republican Sarah Palin and her officials in the Alaskan state government drew on the work of at least six scientists known to be sceptical about the dangers and causes of global warming, to back efforts to stop polar bears being protected as an endangered species, the Guardian can disclose. Some of the scientists were funded by the oil industry.
In official submissions to the US government's consultation on the status of the polar bear, Palin and her team referred to at least six scientists who have questioned either the existence of warming as a largely man-made phenomenon or its severity. One paper was partly funded by the US oil company ExxonMobil.
[Palin's] own Alaskan review of the science drew on a joint paper by seven authors, four of whom were well-known climate- change contrarians. Her paper argued that it was "certainly premature, if not impossible" to link temperature rise in Alaska with human CO2 emissions.
The "joint paper" to which the article refers is the "Viewpoint" essay mentioned above. The Guardian article quotes Walt Meier, who is an international authority on sea ice, saying that the "Viewpoint" essay "doesn't measure up scientifically".
More from the Guardian:
The citation by Palin and her officials prompted complaints from Congress. One member, Brad Miller, dubbed the polar bear study phony science.
Palin told Miller: "Attempts to discredit scientists...simply because their analyses do not agree with your views, would be a disservice to this country." Miller now says that Palin's use of the paper shows she differs greatly from John McCain, the Republican presidential contender, who has pressed for scientific integrity. "Turning to the cottage industry of scientists who are funded because they spread doubt about global warming is not integrity," Miller said.
According to the article, the global warming deniers and/or skeptics cited by Palin's paper included:
- Willie Soon: Soon is one of the most prominent climate science skeptics. The Guardian article sums him up as:
... a former senior scientist with the George C Marshall Institute, which acts as an incubator for climate-change scepticism. The institute has received $715,000 in funding from ExxonMobil since 1998.
(More on Soon here.)
- Sallie Baliunas: The Guardian notes that:
[In] 2003 she and Soon were criticised when it was revealed that a joint paper had been partially funded by the American Petroleum Institute. Thirteen scientists whom they cited issued a rebuttal and several editors of the journal Climate Research resigned because of the "flawed peer review". A third co-author of the polar bear study, David Legates, a professor at Delaware University, is also associated with the Marshall Institute.
- Timothy Ball: From the Guardian article:
Timothy Ball, a retired professor from Winnipeg, is cited for his climate and polar bear research. He has called human-made global warming "the greatest deception in the history of science". He has worked with both Friends of Science, and the Natural Resources Stewardship Project, which each had funding from energy firms.
(More on Ball here.)
- J. Scott Armstrong: Armstrong, as quoted by the Guardian has called global warming "public hysteria". He's a forecasting expert and marketing professor, and was one of the global warming deniers contacted by the state of Alaska as an "expert" to help prove that the polar bears aren't endangered.
- Syun-Ichi Akasofu: Akasofu's view regarding climate change can be summed up with:
Akasofu said there is no data showing that "most" of the present warming is due to the man-made greenhouse effect, as the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in February.
He is one of the infamous "400 scientists" that Sen. James Inhofe (R-Exxon) called on to debunk the scientific consensus on global warming.
The Guardian's findings show without a doubt where Sarah Palin stands on global warming, regardless of what she has said in recent interviews.
It also presents a disturbing view of what a potential McCain-Palin administration would look like. It would simply be a continuation of the Bush administration's science policies.
The only difference is that Bush admits global warming is real.
It IS odd to wear a big message through Manhattan though; it makes you realize how much we want, collectively, to meld into the mass, slip by unnoticed, not put too much of ourselves out there. This self-protective coloration is understandable, but somehow when you go out wearing a message on your chest you suddenly feel brash and loud, like a shout. A well-received shout, in this case, but still.
How much do we want to be known? It's a constant paradox; on the one hand, I think we want nothing more than for people to hear our stories, see our struggles and pleasures, really look at us. On the other, everybody likes to hide, no one wants to be judged, and there's some element of risk about allowing yourself to be seen -- in the train station or the street no less -- for who you are.
Things shifted a little in Newark Airport. Some European-looking fellows were nudging one another when I walked by, with a little air of excitement, as if they'd been hoping to see some stirred-up Americans. A guy who looked like a college student appeared in the same security line, wearing the same shirt; we seemed to be the only people in all the great human rush of EWR sporting a slogan instead of a logo, and we said, simultaneously, Hey, great shirt. Were the security people (all of whom were black or hispanic) extra nice to me, or did I imagine it?
When I walked onto the plane -- bound for Houston -- the social temperature shifted immediately. A blonde flight attendant eyed me doubtfully; was I going to be trouble? As I walked down the aisle, a thirty-something bear glared at the face on my chest. He didn't look at me, just went on steadily disapproving of Senator Obama, and it did cross my mind to enjoy the fact that I couldn't move forward, since people ahead of me were fiddling with their many bags,so the Senator's pointilist aspect floated in the guy's unhappy gaze for quite some time.
And that was it for interest or incident. I'd expected that walking through the airport in Houston would be strange, in part because last week I'd seen a young woman there wearing raccoon-ish eyeliner and a bright green IRISH FOR McCAIN t-shirt, which she was actually congratulated for wearing by some Texans strolling behind her. It made me feel queasy. But tonight nobody in the airport even blinked; they actually all seemed to be too weary to even look at each other.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
This is my first post on this blog, so it feels as if I've just bought a new notebook. Somehow to replace the great blank of potentiality with any one thing seems too small a gesture -- whatever I write here couldn't be as nice as the big field of silence I'm stepping into. But who wants a world full of blank notebooks? So I'm putting on the page those leaves -- which I came back for, after buying some heirloom tomatoes and then going to Whole Foods and getting some necessary stuff. There was something lavish about carrying one of those reusable grocery sacks down 17th Street with a big spray of leaves coming out the top, a blaze of ardor. For seven dollars.