Poem [by Vincent Katz]

Mais Suave Igualmente Eficaz


I saw something on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana
photophilia an all-white showroom called Arpoador

adesivos personalizados envelopamento dos veiculos
and just off Avenida Atlantica:

bikinis yellow umbrellas beach chairs abandoned facing ocean
two fishing boats anchored

rock islands shooting up out of plane
cloud tumults blue harbored in midst of streaks dark hovering

thought I saw a shrine to bespectacled poet of Rio
but it was only a figure of public interest

two girls in black bikinis far away and long ago bend to consider wares
of beach vendor, then don their street apparel, white

young men with wide chests, exposed elderly women free in sidestreet breeze
dumptruck full of earth and rocks, dripping brown water on mosaics

Cariocas afraid rain will damage leather or imitation-leather
their frame of mind, ultimate desire to go to beach

no one believes sitting on a beach in the rain could be a good thing,
as on Long Island, or Maine, or other places we have attempted it

good we were able to forget those
attempters of life-structuring, our lives in particular, which brook no structure

our lives must fall, as yellow petals fall to mosaics, in rhythms which turn
discotheques to museums, museums to bookstores, bookstores to rain

endless walking in front of beach looking walking mountains loom
voracious mouth of violence glutted but is now sorriso of banjo player

endless bodies of looking, comparison in front of beach,
in front as day slips from noon to afternoon

in everyone’s biography, one mysterious detail: they all die
of all geniuses who lived, hasn’t one figured out how not to die?

life in this moment, siren breaking through
in two-pitch whine, waking from mid-life slumber

see things few see — parts of lives —
tiny silhouette across jumping into lighted space

light sectors in darkened building sit and watch, decide
not unimportant, not nothing, but

everything happening we are gifted with
possibility of any moment

how can clouds be white against dark sky?
how can person be ready for trip from one continent to another?

lying on beach in mid-city, looking up,
seeing one single illuminated point in all the darkness









Vincent Katz is a poet, translator, and critic. He is the author of eleven books of poetry, two books of translation, and his art criticism has been published in numerous books, catalogues, and journals. He is the editor of Black Mountain College: Experiement In Art, published by MIT Press in 2002 and reprinted in 2013.  He is the author of The Complete Elegies Of Sextus Propertius (Princeton, 2004), Alcuni Telefonini, a collaboration with painter Francesco Clemente published by Granary Books, and One-Liners, a chapbook from Faux Press.  He was the publisher of the poetry and arts journal VANITAS during its 10-year run and continues to publish Libellum books.  He curates the Readings in Contemporary Poetry series at Dia Chelsea and is on the staff of the MFA Program in Art Criticism and Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he has taught the courses “The Poet As Critic” and “Investigating Interdisciplinarity.” This poem above is from his upcoming book Swimming Home.





Poem [by Vincent Katz]


A walking way; a people.
Body grimace, affect; orange.
Butts, faces, guts; trimness.
        Movement, pause.

Sun red ball; sliver moon.
Endless traffic; sky haze.
Skyscraper; low-lying house.
        Garden; enormous.

Silent over jungle; hours.
Back and forth; border.
Sleep sitting wait; possible.

Far below, clouds; float.
Shadows on ocean; below.
Light of sun; endless.







Vincent Katz is a poet, translator, and critic. He is the author of eleven books of poetry, two books of translation, and his art criticism has been published in numerous books, catalogues, and journals. He is the editor of Black Mountain College: Experiement In Art, published by MIT Press in 2002 and reprinted in 2013.  He is the author of The Complete Elegies Of Sextus Propertius (Princeton, 2004), Alcuni Telefonini, a collaboration with painter Francesco Clemente published by Granary Books, and One-Liners, a chapbook from Faux Press.  He was the publisher of the poetry and arts journal VANITAS during its 10-year run and continues to publish Libellum books.  He curates the Readings in Contemporary Poetry series at Dia Chelsea and is on the staff of the MFA Program in Art Criticism and Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he has taught the courses “The Poet As Critic” and “Investigating Interdisciplinarity.” This poem above is from his upcoming book Swimming Home.


Poetry is like a tropical rain forest; it is nothing but sex and death.

The gender of poetry is feminine, and so is its voice and its moods.

The color of poetry is black, but also blue.

The nature of poetry is to be energized and dynamic.

Poetry enters the room quivering, and exits with great fanfare.

In between the beginning and the ending, poetry dances.

It does not matter if poetry’s dance is fast or slow, although it seems best as a tango.

Poetry stares at its audience, silently wondering how it got here.

The name of poetry is still being debated in backrooms around the world.

Naming was poetry’s first assignment.

Yet poetry usually fails to name itself.

Most people would not know a poem if even it bit them on their ass.

It is advised to wear protection when having sex with a poem.

The poem of its time has not arrived at the literary party yet.

I am a prose writer in love with poetry.

I have only known one or two poets, but I have known thousands of people who write poems.

A poem invariably lightens a room, even a gloomy poem, especially in a gloomy room.

The poem is never the straw that broke the camel’s back. A poem lightens your load.

To be a poem, words are needed. Beyond that, it is anyone’s guess what else is required.

You have no doubt heard of language poets. I am a poet searching for my language. I hope I never end this search because I don’t intend to find anything

A nonverbal poet is a dancer, not a poet. A visual poet is a painter, not a poet. A poet’s poet is an oxymoron or perhaps I simply mean a moron.

The baseball pitcher whose form intrigues us is another matter than poetry. This is true for basketball and football players too. The boxer who moves gracefully around a ring is not a poet. There is no such thing as a poet in sports unless, on the side, that athlete actually writes poetry. Otherwise she is not a poet; she is an athlete.

If a poet assassinated the 47 richest people in America, the so-called 1%, all of them billionaires many times over, the world would be a better place for poetry and everything else.

The death of poetry is its beginning, not its end. The birth of poetry is its end.

I am not a poet but I read a lot of poetry. I am a prose writer, i.e., I am a liar.

Poetry has the longest feet in the room.

If a poem breathes, run for your life.

If a poem talks to you, this is a sign of schizophrenia. Speak to a doctor.

If a poem goes out for a walk, let it go alone.

If you fall in love with a poem, don’t expect it to reciprocate.

If a poem makes you feel spiritual, consider it a blasphemous utterance.

Poetry cannot swim. Do not expect it to float if it falls overboard on a love boat.

Assignations are poetry’s way of giving you an assignment.

If your grandmother tries to talk you out of being a poet, listen to your grandmother.

If your mother tells you that poetry is for knuckleheads, believe her.

If a teacher tells you that you are a poet, question her authority.

Poets are liars, horse thieves, bandits, brigands, highway robbers, usual suspects, persons of interest, even murderers and arsonists. A good person being a poet is as rare as a good scone.

What is deeper, a poem or a well? A well.

How long is a poem? Several feet. What else is needed? Four boards and a passion.

Poetry rarely makes sense of anything. The better a poem the more likely it is as useless as an old shoe.

Poems start on the left, moving to the right, line by line, left to right. Is there not any other way to render a poem?

A great poem always starts on time.

Have you noticed that when poems break down, they are like old refrigerators? It is the compressor that has failed.

Poetry rides in with banners flowing in the wind. It is full of promises which rarely are kept. Poetry is full of broken promises. It is the nature of the beast. Poetry rides out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered. Beware the poem.

I have wasted most of my life contemplating, reading and writing poetry. But to what avail? To no avail.

Poetry is like an oven that has become overheated and cannot cool down. It is very good on a cold, damp night to warm the bones. Baking bread however in the poem is ill advised. Bread burns in such an oven.

When poetry walks naked into a room, no one is there to greet it. A fully dressed poem is one that poets, scholars, critics, and teachers wants to strip naked and vilify for its extravagances. You can’t win if you are a great poem.

Poetry is like a naked poet at the book signing.

A naked poem gyrating in the middle of the floor at the bookshop. Six people were there to witness this event. None of them were believed afterwards.

I once smoked a poem. But I did not inhale it.

I once drank a poem, but I got so drunk, I can’t remember anything.

I have had a lifelong affair with poetry. My affair with a poet is even longer. The affair with the poem ended many years ago.

What poem is it? It’s just gone four o’clock.

Where are we in this poem—New York or London? Actually we are on the third stanza, which is located about the middle of the page.

All poetry is political, especially poems that espouse no political agenda.

All poetry is lunatic. That is why poets are obsessed by the moon, although I once painted over a thousand paintings of the moon, and only a handful of poems about it. Go figure.

A love poem is rarely about love or poetry. Once in a lifetime a poet writes a love poem.

I am not a poet, I am a human bean. Plant me and I will grow to amazing, even dizzying, heights. If you plant a poem, it lay fallow for years. Sometimes, though, a word tree grows, and poets may pick things from its branches for their poems.

Poets rarely write poetry. Poetry is usually written by janitors and maids, though sometimes handmaidens of poetry come along.

The handmaidens of poetry often work in their spare time as hand models.

She was not a poet but a fashion model. It was believed that she looked like a poet. No poet who ever lived looked like a hand model or any other kind of model.

Poetry, like prose, often contradicts itself, thus proving that a poem need not be consistent in order to be a poem.

A friend once said to me: Poetry is calling it a day.

I would call such a poem something other than a day. Perhaps it reminds me more of the dawn.

Immortality is something that no poet need concern herself with. All poets, by their natures, are not only fallible and inconsistent, they are also mortal. Immortals do not write poetry.

The death of the poet is only her beginning.

Poems die every day, and even become extinct, never to be heard from again. I mourn these deaths daily. Do you?

The poet is like the artist working from a life model. If someone sits naked in a room with the poet, poetry comes of this journey the same way a drawing or painting emerges from a studio working under similar conditions.

The poem is like an apple pie cooking in a kitchen window. Its smell attracts the tramps.

All my life I have wanted to be two things: a poet and a tramp. I have succeeded at one of those enterprises quite successfully.

I have been exposed to poetry, and poetry has been exposed to me.

Poetry has thrown in the towel. That makes this particular poem a technical knockout.

Poetry is doing pushups in the other room. I hate when poetry does this.

When poetry lurches into my home, I am often sleeping. I get my best ideas for poetry when I am dreaming. Sometimes I wake up with a poem fully formed in my head. I simply get up and sit down to write it in a notebook. In some respects, I should not put my name to such poems. More accurately anonymous wrote these poems.

What is the difference between a poet and road-kill? There are skid marks in front of the road-kill.

If poetry hears me saying these things, it covers its ears. Thus I have no influence upon how poetry develops. It has a mind of its own.

I once read a poem that has stayed with me for more than fifty years. Who wrote this poem? What is it called? Try to guess.

If poetry is like riding a bicycle, remember to wear a helmet the next time you attempt to write a poem. Don’t get a wedgie on the bicycle seat either.

All poetry fails.

All poems are failures.

All poets are failures.

Before there are words, there is a rhythm in the head that we associate with poetry. This rhythm is filled with failure in its very structure. To fail is a poems ultimate strength.

That is why I love poetry; there is nothing in it for me.

The emptier the poem, the greater its pleasure. I long for a poem of pure and complete silence.

I long for a poem at the top of the tree, like a bird perched on a branch.

I long for a long drink of poetry in the middle of the night to allay the terror and the fear of existence.

Poetry reveals nothing, has no accomplices, expects nothing in return, challenges so little, has stakes that are so insignificant that it is a wonder that anyone cares about it.

A poet told me that she was pregnant with a poem. But then she had an abortion. Years later she gave birth to a memoir about this experience.

The poet is a prose writer too lazy to write.

Poets are people of few words. If a poet’s head is filled with words, she is probably really a prose writer.

The fewer the words in the head the likelier a poet is going to locate the truest rhythm of what the poem is.

Poetry quits in the middle of the game because of its dream concerning the wreckage of the future.

This is the neoteric age after all. In the neoteric age the art of poetry will be forsaken on a cross between two thieves.

Neoteric art resembles other arts in that its poems employ words. All other resemblance to the past is false.

Neoteric art is not coming to a movie theatre near you.

Neoteric art has no undercoat or underpinnings. But it does wear underpants. They are blue. They are pink. They are green. They are floral. They are stained. The stain is not likely to come out.

Academics already hate neoteric art and it has only just now started.

Poets need to assassinate academics after killing the 47 richest people in America. It is the only way that poetry is going to survive in the neoteric age.

The neoteric age is upon us. I still write in a notebook first, using a fountain pen. I don’t advise anyone else to follow this formula. I am not a practitioner of the neoteric. I am simply the messenger. Hands up, don’t shoot.

Neoteric art is yet another artistic bamboozlement.

Art is bullshit, and neoteric art is no different. Neoteric art is bullshit. What all the arts have in common is a long streak of bullshit.

I invented neoteric art right here in the early 21st century. No one knew what legs it would have. No one realized how erotic it all was. No one quite knew what it was at first—until it was too late.

Neoteric art breaks from the past after a long embrace—the kiss of death.

Neoteric equals 21st century and beyond, the new millennium, its long breath.

The poem quivers in a corner in its stark meat-lust beauty.

Poetry calls out across the neoteric frontier. If no one hears it, it really does not matter.

The neoteric age is anarchist in its ideals; filled with a sense of social justice; is spiritual by nature; omnisexual; is both a community and an isolated utterance.

The intercourse of the neoteric: sex is another way to put it.

The neoteric boat is like the neoteric bicycle. It may appear like the old boat or bicycle. But there all similarities dissolve. The difference between the modern (or even the postmodern) and the neoteric is a sea change, like day and night, chalk and cheese.

Like love, a poem appears, poetry appears, often unexpectedly, often without any warning.

Poetry is like a kite floating in the sky high above our heads, coasting on the wind.

Poetry is like sunlight and rain, like dish soap and vitamins, like longeurs and lozenges.

Poetry is—neoteric at its root.

Neoteric poetry is a contradiction, a counter-indication, a valence. It is a benediction.

Neoteric poetry resembles nothing so much as a mountain lion loose in a downtown area.

Neoteric poetry scans.

Neoteric poetry coheres.

Neoteric art blossoms like a blister on the lower lip.

Neoteric art reads like a poem but looks like prose. It reads like prose despite its meter.

In the neoteric age, the meteoric rise of meter was not anticipated.

The meteoric rise of meter is like the gold rush. Prospectors appear on every street corner. Despite the gold in their pockets, they have no teeth. Despite their prosperity, they are tramps.

To be neoteric is to be contemporary but in a farsighted way.

Expect resistance to the neoteric. All such movements meet old-guard resistance.

The neoteric age is an ideal, a paradigm, it is not the everyday but rather the extraordinary found almost every day.

The paradigm of the future will be neoteric.

Obituary: Tom Weatherly [by M.G. Stephens]

WeatherlyThe poet Tom Weatherly has died. Known variously as Thomas Weatherly, Thomas Elias Weatherly or just simply Weatherly, Tom was born in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1942 into a prominent African American family of educators and civic leaders. He served in the US Marines, but is best known for his affiliation with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, an East Village community arts center in New York City.

After he arrived in New York in the winter of 1966-1967, Weatherly attended the inaugural poetry workshops at the Poetry Project that were taught by Joel Oppenheimer. Later he worked as a chef at the legendary Lion’s Head pub in Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village. He made many literary and other friends during the years that he worked at the Head (as it was called).

Tom Weatherly will also be known for his long tenure at the Strand Bookstore on West 12th Street and Broadway in downtown Manhattan. For many years, he was a fixture working in the basement of the Strand, the gentle giant with the long white beard, looking like a benign character in a fairy tale.

His poetry celebrated the black experience in mid-century America, especially the blues, all his poems touched by that influence. Weatherly’s poems were terse, complex, even impenetrable, but always lyrical and full of surprises. His first published book was Maumau American Cantos (1970).

He once said his two best books were Short History of the Saxophone and Thumbprint, in that order. He also co-edited the anthology of African-American writings entitled Natural Process (1971), an important anthology that chronicled the black American voice in the late 20th century.

Politically Tom Weatherly reflected his conservative roots in Alabama, and only left the Republican Party later in life when he embraced many issues concerning social justice and inequality.

Never shy about anything, Weatherly still preferred to stay out of the limelight. He liked to say: “I want my work famous not my face.” Nonetheless, the great photographer Andrei Kertesz photographed Weatherly on the streets of Greenwich Village, and many other less famous photographers also enjoyed photographing him too.

Weatherly converted to Judaism during his years in New York City, and he possessed a working knowledge of various Biblical languages. Later in life he liked to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel who said: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Tom Weatherly, his poetry spare and lean, lived just such a blessed and holy life, all of it dedicated to words and other people. He is a poet whose poems will be long remembered and discussed for many years to come.

M.G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.

Hanging Around Used Book Stores [by M.G. Stephens]

I once read that the criteria for an ideal place to live include such things as whether a grocery store and dry cleaners are nearby. Other criteria were how easy it was to walk to one’s errands or how the medical services were, how many coffee shops there were as well as bookstores within that walking orbital. I have thought about these things a lot, and by any standard I am fortunate, especially when it comes to bookshops, as I gave up coffee drinking more than a year ago.

I mostly like perusing poetry books, even though I am primarily known as a prose writer. If nothing else, my love of poetry makes me a much better prose writer. But when I go to a bookshop, poetry is the first thing I look at. Five minutes’ walk from where I am, there is a Barnes and Noble, not great, but their poetry section is decent enough. It once was very good, several years ago, but then there was the Attrition, and I’m sure the clerk who stocked the poetry was shitcanned, as the poetry went into a tailspin. It went from being one of the best poetry sections in a bookshop to one of the worst. In the past few years, it has improved, but it’s still nothing like its former self.

In London, I go to Foyles’ on Charing Cross Road at least once a week, usually on a Wednesday when I am in the area of St. Giles, just an alley away from Foyles’. Their poetry section is sublime, but even that illustrious collection of poetry has diminished in recent times. I don’t want to complain too much, though, because it might disappear completely. When I peruse the books, it is with the idea of buying one; I am a supporter of poetry, especially new works. I am someone who gives his poetry books away often enough, especially when I’m very enthusiastic about a writer, then I want to share this enthusiasm with everyone.

As to having a paradigm of a bookshop, it remains, in my mind, the old 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, from a bygone era when I worked there. Back in the 1960s, there were other bookshops that also had great poetry sections, including the Cornelia Street Bookshop and the Gotham Bookmart, the latter in the Diamond District in the 40s uptown, the former just off Bleecker Street in the Village. Beyond New York, I remember City Lights in the North Beach of San Francisco being a great bookshop, in fact, that whole area was terrific, coffeehouses everywhere, and some of the best jazz clubs too. Poetry was given a high place at the cultural table in San Francisco in those days. The last of these iconic bookshops from when I was younger is the Grolier in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is hard to describe the feeling I had when I first entered that shop in which all the books were poetry or about poetry or by poets. There were no bestsellers, no how-to books, no psychology books to improve your life.

In Evanston, I loved visiting Bookman’s Alley. Besides the books, it was laid out like a museum, and as you entered a section of the store, the books were surrounded by artifacts and art objects, chachkas and other memorabilia associated with the topic at hand. In the Western section, you found cowboy hats and saddles, and in the American Indian section, there was a cupboard overflowing with Native American artifacts, headdresses, buckskins, bows and arrows, moccasins, and spirit objects. But the poetry section was outdated, and now the bookshop is closed, the owner too tired and old to carry on.

Still, there are other used-book shops in Evanston, including Squeeze Box, Amaranth, and Howard’s, to name a few, all of which I visit regularly, all very good, with friendly, knowledgeable staff. I have found wonderful things in Howard’s, including a great two-volume Oxford English dictionary for seven dollars, books of essays, criticism, and novels. At Squeeze Box, Tim, the owner, is a fountainhead of information about everything book and album, and I’ve purchased a whole set of early Evergreen Reviews as well as an incomplete but nonetheless lovely set of Dickens’ prose.

But when I want to read poetry books, I go to Amaranth, which has produced some brilliant finds over the past year or two. About a year ago, I found a first-edition hardcover of William Carlos Williams’ Autobiography (1951), which originally was published by Random House. More recently I discovered a copy of one of Clarence Major’s early books of poetry, Symptoms & Madness, which Corinth Books published in 1971. It is a first edition too. In the past year I’ve also found very good copies of poetry books by Bruce Weigl (Sweet Lorain) and Lisel Mueller (All Together), the latter from Howard’s, which is located near the Foster Street el stop, and the former book at Amaranth, which is just around the corner from the Davis Street el and Metra stations.

The other day I was poking around Amaranth’s poetry shelves, and I came across a book I was previously unfamiliar with – Michael Anania’s early poetry collection The Color of Dust (1970) from the Swallow Press, then a going concern in Chicago. Anania was a going concern in Chicago for many years too, being the poetry editor of Swallow, among other places, and a professor as well. I picked up The Color of Dust with the idea of perusing it casually and then putting it back on the shelf. An hour later I was still reading it. From the very first poem, there is a compelling voice speaking to us.


                        Just north of Clark Street

                        Grace Street, disheveled,

                        without the regiment of red brick,

                        the houses, grey of old wood

                        stripped of paint above

                        the tilted, broken walks,

                        cracked by the roots of elms


–       “A Journey”


Michael Anania does not write so much of personal feelings as he evokes a time and place – a geography – to create an emotional landscape for the reader. The words are very precise, exactly placed, like the rip-rap of a Gary Snyder poem, though the poets who now come to mind reading Anania are Charles Olson and Elizabeth Bishop, two geographic poets if ever there were ones. Place does not create mood so much as it is its own kind of experience, with the rhythm of place driving the poems. In that sense, I was also reminded of such a disparate, anomalous work as Last Year at Marienbad by Robbe-Grillet, another geographer, but of prose, which in turn led me to Guy Davenport’s Geography of the Imagination.

Of course, Michael Anania’s voice is quite different from these writers, but they all share an obsession with the outward which geography typically is. Anania’s voice is quite subtle, never overly lyrical, therefore deceptively plain, and yet resonating long after the poem is read. In fact, his poems are brilliantly lyrical, even if not at first obvious in their musical qualities. They sing with great confidence, surely and confident and yet quietly.

Take the opening poem in the collection. Everything is working – and to great lyrical effect. Even the word “grey” in line 4 creates a geographical mood, American “gray” not being sufficient to convey the poet’s gloom. It is almost as if “grey” is even more gloomy than “gray,” and it is, at least in the way that Anania uses it.

Having studied at Buffalo in its heyday when Robert Creeley and Charles Olson were there or, at least, I presume Anania was there around the time that the Black Mountaineers were present in Buffalo, there is an historical basis perhaps to the geography of these poems, and the historical juncture would be with projective verse. Anania’s poems are certainly figures of the outward, in that geographical sense that Olson articulated it in his Maximus Poems. Robert Creeley was no mean geographer either or perhaps I mean that he was nothing but a mean geographer.

That day in Amaranth bookshop on Davis Street in Evanston, I wound up putting The Color of Dust back on the shelf, being skint and unable to afford it. But by some quirk of the gods, I acquired a copy by another means shortly thereafter I first came across the book, and so have been merrily reading it. My second thoughts about the book resemble my first impressions, which is to say I remain wildly enthusiastic about these poems. Geography is what these poems are about.


                        the waters of the Platte enter the brown river

                        in no great ecstasy.

                        Bluff crests in Fontenelle are quiet,

                        give no emblem, figured name.


–       “Missouri among Rivers”

The landscapes of these poems are some of the earliest signs of the Rust Belt forming in the American heartland. At least, rust is the patina on all the poems, making them almost sculptural pieces in those landscapes of the mind. What people remain in these industrial brown fields are soldiers, Polish grandmothers, workers, and downtrodden women, nearly hopeless in their orbits. Yet the main characters are not these figures or even the poet himself, but rather the solitary geographies of Michael Anania’s imagination.

            Here is such an example, a poem entitled “Shear Face”:


                        This bluff face, brown and yellow clay,

                        is called Devil’s Slide, sometimes Suicide Hill.

                        There, just below the cliff’s edge,

                        where elm roots fork out into open air,

                        young men dig caves for love

                        a hundred feet above

                        the river road, the silt flats.






M.G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.

Poetry and Poverty [by M.G. Stephens]


Of the various ways I read, it is always as a magpie, never programmatically, except for a few times when I depended on an affiliation with some institution of higher learning, a magazine or newspaper, or a publisher. Left on my own, I am everywhere and nowhere, a jackdaw of reading. Invariably books accumulate everywhere I inhabit space, whether next to the bed, in the bathroom, or beside a reading chair or couch. When asked what I am reading, an honest answer would be complex. I am more often than not into ten, twenty, fifty, or even a hundred books at once, particularly if I am writing nonfiction and have the need to check my quotes, facts, or find some passage which singularly verifies my own utterly refined prejudices and tastes. I like to write in books that I own, so that my books rarely are of use to anyone except me and some wayward scholar with an interest in what I do. Herman Melville—just to pull a name out of the air—famously wrote in his Shakespeare tome, and it would become the portal, many years later, into the world of Melvillean scholarship. I often try to imagine the astonishment on the faces of the first Melville scholars who unearthed this author’s treasure trove of insight. Now there was a direct link between Ahab and Lear. My own notes are not as copious as Melville’s or, for that matter, many of my contemporaries, such as David Foster Wallace, or even a more minimalist writer such as playwright David Mamet, a copy of whose marked up volume of Waiting for Godot I happen to possess. An old girlfriend was a close friend of his from high school and years later, when she and I went our separate ways, she walked off with my copy of Godot and I walked away with hers, which was really Mamet’s. I had to introduce him once, and beforehand I mentioned how I had acquired his copy of the Beckett play, offering to get it back to him. But he did not seem at all interested in the volume, so it is still mine, until further notice. I suppose if some library offered to buy it from me for an extravagant sum, I’d part with it. Until then, it remains a part of my library, which is filled with scribbled-on books. But this is about writing in books, not collecting them per se. Writing in books is the habit of a writer, not a general reader.

I have written nonfiction and fiction books and much of what I have read no doubt is reflected in those works. I have been labeled an Irish American writer, but as with most labels, it is misleading. I am also French, Swiss, possibly Italian, English, African-American, and probably native American. My father was the Irishman, but even his own family came from elsewhere before Ireland. I have been told by relatives in Clare and others in London that the Stephenses came from Essex, in the southeast of England, migrated to Northern Ireland and then eventually wended their way to County Clare. I am actually Essex on both sides, my mother’s American family tree going back in the early 17th century to Essex. I did not know either fact when I, a mature learner, as they call it in the UK, undertook to research and write a doctorate at the University of Essex in Wivenhoe. I was in my late fifties, so this was hardly a smart career move, but rather something on a bucket list that I had to do before I died. My books from those years were more scribbled in than ever, particularly ones by the authors whom I assayed for my doctoral manuscript. I have always been a writer looking at the world as an outsider, despite all of my education, including a graduate degree from Yale. Oddly enough, my Yale degree often seemed like an impediment or hindrance to employment, not a door opener. It was best left unsaid. There was a time, when I was teaching creative writing at Princeton, that Joyce Carol Oates talked to me about our working class back grounds. But I could see that the moment she found out that I had a graduate degree from Yale, suddenly my working-class credentials were tarnished. I would respectfully disagree. I could have ten degrees from Yale, and it would not matter one bit. One’s education is not enough to open certain doors, as if the degree were not the thing, but the people you associated with while affiliated with an institution. No Skull and Bones I. This has been a bitter truth for me because, when younger, I believed that by getting a good education, a lot of my financial and work problems would be solved. The one great thing I received from my various strands of education was further self-esteem. To study is a very self-esteemable act, it turns out. Oates is long gone from her working-class roots, but that early experience, like Dickens’ as a boy working in the blacking factory, stayed with her into adulthood, even after a long, illustrious career in literature and a professorship at Princeton. Most of us have these early life experiences which color who we are. I am forever attached to Brooklyn despite failing the two major criteria for defining one’s Brooklyn credentials: I was not born there and I did not go to high school there. But fifteen of my siblings were born there, my parents and grandparents lived there, and so did I as a young child, returning often to stay at my grandmother’s place in Bedford-Stuyvesant or my other relatives in Flatbush. My mother’s family traces its origins to the earliest days in Brooklyn. My father, though Irish, came to Brooklyn quite young, and was orphaned on its streets after his mother died and his father disappeared. He became a pool shark to survive. I have a Brooklyn attitude, which really means a chip on my shoulder. I have tried, as an adult, to remove the chip, and put it away somewhere safe, to take it out when needed. I have noticed that everyone in my family has this chip too. It is not a charm but a burden, more often than not separating us from other people. Besides, we were not the poorest family in Brooklyn or, later, even out on Long Island. Our father had a well-paid federal job. But my parents had far too many children, and so the money was stretched to the breaking point. I recently returned to these old resentments of poverty while reading a fat biography about Albert Camus. He grew up in Algiers, at that time a French colony across the Mediterranean Sea to the south of mainland France. His own poverty was quite compelling, involving his widowed mother and grandmother, both of whom were illiterate. His grandmother was Spanish, his mother, like himself, pied noir, the indigenous non-Arab French population. There were very few amenities in Camus’ life, but thanks to teachers who noticed his gifts for learning, the two widows were convinced not to send Albert off to work in a barrel factory, but to continue his education at the lycee, which he did, going on to university and eventually a great literary life in Paris. Camus was a genuine street kid, a bit tough, surly, and by all accounts, a fine footballer (soccer player), his position goalie. What changed his trajectory towards the Algerian streets was illness, specifically tuberculosis, which made sports impossible but the life of the mind more of a certainty. By all accounts, Camus never lost sight of his upbringing. In fact, the book he was writing at the time of his death in an auto accident—he was still in his forties—was about that Algerian boyhood, and while never completed, it was published many years after his death, and it magnificently describes in great detail the life of a poor pied noir in Algiers between the two world wars. I am writing about this now because reading Camus’ works and also the biography about him, I realized how much I identified with how he grew up. Nothing was taken for granted in such an elemental life. Every kindness, every bit of help seemed like tiny miracles. I really liked how Camus describes ruining his shoes while playing football. His grandmother would beat him mercilessly for ruining the shoes too. I can remember similar events in my own life in Brooklyn and Long Island, the rituals about how things like shoes were acquired and had to be preserved. Shoes came at Easter, other clothes at Christmas, nothing fancy, everything essential. I once received a pair of cowboy boots from one of my Irish aunts, and I remember thinking I was the luckiest person on earth, the gift seeming like a noble behest. It was such an extravagance, and yet I never lost sight of my gratitude for the gift. There are so many ways of forging our links with others writers, through sensibility, ideas, the way characters are evoked, the moods laid down, the storyline itself some point of identification too. Besides their poverty, I often identify with authors from large families as I think all large families share common miseries, whether they are rich or poor. Over the years, I have been introduced to some of the late Robert Kennedy’s children, and their upbringing, though privileged, very much paralleled my own upbringing in a large Irish Catholic family. What we shared were childhoods deprived of nurture, intimacy, and attention, these being what gets discarded in big families. But I would hasten to add that I believe that coming from a big family is good for a writer because you get to see a lot of the world in ways that smaller and more intimate families don’t encounter. In a large family, there really is no place to go for privacy, so you get to see the world in all its arbitrary ugliness, besides its moments of beauty and charm. I have met people from big families who don’t have these problems, but they often strike me as being aberrant, exceptional, or simply they were lying. Not having your needs met on a regular basis is never a good thing. I can’t feel nostalgic about such circumstances in my own or anyone else’s life. Yet coming from a big family is often the trigger for someone to become a writer. Here are some writers who did come from large families, all of whom seeming to be better writers, if not better humans, from these deprivations: James Baldwin, James Joyce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These writers grew up in households with approximately nine or more children. All of their mothers gave birth or carried to late terms a lot more children than the head-count at the dining room table for supper. These big-family writers seem to have a kind of choreography of the mind which allows them to move great numbers of people in the space of their writing. Garcia Marquez is the true master of this technique, his writing peopled with hundreds of souls, something only a writer from a big family seems capable of doing properly. But there is something even more important than this choreography that writers from big families possess; they are somehow incapable of putting themselves at the center of their narratives. The center is inhabited by characters who often bear no resemblance to the author. I am thinking of someone like Anton Chekhov, arguably the greatest short story writer, by the quality and sheer volume of his works, who also possesses this ability to keep himself out of the center of things. What he shares with the writers from big families is often a grinding poverty. Chekhov, like Camus, was transformed by his own education. Neither Camus nor Chekhov lost their sense of compassion for the underdog, something I greatly admire and aspire towards in both writers. More recent examples of this kind of selfless writing—which is more the hallmark of short story writers than anyone else—are Alice Munro and William Trevor, two contemporary writers who carry on the legacy as it was laid down by Chekhov. Neither Munro nor Trevor come either from poverty or particularly large families, as far as I know. Thankfully my theory doesn’t need to be air-tight and, besides, it is not even a theory at all, but a personal observation about poverty and big families. Obviously these are not criteria which necessarily produce great literature. In fact, poverty more often than not produces nothing like literature. It is a self-perpetuating misery, more often than not producing nothing more than further poverty. Poverty’s offspring are universal villains, including crime, violence, ignorance, and death. Literature is the opposite of poverty’s legacy. All of this leads in the end to a question that has been nagging me for a long time. Poverty and big families have produced some great fiction writers. But what about poetry? Is there a great poet, American or otherwise, who survived a big family and poverty, and went on to great achievements? I am not for one moment suggesting there is not someone or even many someones who fit the bill. The one who comes immediately to mind is Sherman Alexie whose stories and poems are filled with such instances of a teeming life of witness. If he doesn’t come from a big family, I would be surprised. If he doesn’t, then I presume that the tribe is his big family, the reservation where he witnessed the drinking, the fights, the melt-downs, and the breakings apart—the atomization of the child’s world. Is there a poet who had one pair of shoes that could not be ruined by playing football in the schoolyard? Did any poet go hungry and then write about that hunger? Did she or he witness the chaos of the world around them in crowded rooms filled with desire and anger? I am not picking a fight but asking a question or a series of questions? I am questioning whether such a poet even exists in our contemporary world. Does such a poet exist?

MG Stephens
M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.



One Song: M83’s Midnight City [by Shawn Charles Baker]

Read the work of Terence and Dennis McKenna, and you will soon become familiar with the concept “Timewave Zero.” Timewave Zero is an unexpected archetypal epiphany, a result of the McKenna brothers encountering something that did not fit into the paradigm of our consensual reality and thus drove them to rigorous and unconventional research. While investigating medicinal plants in the Lower Amazon Basin, the brothers discovered what they theorized was an extra-dimensional being that resided in the jungle vine species Banisteriopsis caapi. Using information decoded from this experience, the McKennas devised a graph of the first order of difference between each of the 64 hexagrams in the King Wen sequence of the ancient Chinese divinatory system known as the I Ching. Contained within the mathematical graphing of these degrees of change, they then found a correlation between our own concept of time and the ancient Mayan calendar. This was the humble beginning of the “2012 phenomenon” that New Age pop metaphysics bastardized decades later in movies, marketing and an endless parade of books, though the McKennas’ work was a completely different animal altogether from the concept embraced by pop culture. Despite any perceived shortcomings, the Timewave Zero research remains an uncanny example of the ancient hermetic axiom, “As above, so below,” a simpler way of saying that the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm. Science and philosophy have in many ways shown that the rules that govern the heavens can also be found to govern our world, our bodies and our creations. This explains why I’ve taken to referencing the McKennas’ work and the I Ching when seeking answers to quandaries in the world around me.

On Aug. 16, 2011, when the track “Midnight City” appeared on M83’s website, it ushered in one such McKennian mental paradigm shift for me. Moved to tears by the song, I found myself suddenly re-examining long-buried aspects of my own psyche—memories and perceptions, appreciations and connections I’d hidden away in the lowest depths of my consciousness. “Midnight City” served as the denouement to a process that the band started within me two years previously as I fell increasingly under the spell of their 2008 love letter to the 1980s, Saturdays = Youth.

Born in ‘76, the lush and often overly dramatic, futuristic naiveté that identified the music of the 1980s was the context in which I learned to love music. It was the neon-haze of ‘80s radio that fostered my love of music, before the same attributes became dated by advancements in cultural sophistication, recording procedure and, most especially, synthesizer technology. As I moved into young adulthood, the – ahem -alternative music boom of the early 1990s suddenly made most of that music from the ‘80s seem grotesque to me. Then, almost 20 years later, M83 brought those outdated sounds back so that they coalesced with other hybrid strains into a new melting pot, the gap between these events forming a kind of natural window through which these identifiably ‘80s elements seemed inexplicably fresh again. Concurrently, it was displacing the music that made the 1990s such a powerful watershed era, making that era, in turn, seem as dated as Hall and Oates and The Alan Parsons Project once had. While I love the production work Butch Vig did on many of those seminal ‘90s records, it now sounds increasingly as though the music of that era is playing on a small stereo at the other end of an abysmally long hallway. Will this always be the case? No. But then the question is why, and how exactly is this possible?

It has long been repeated that everything moves in cycles. This is another case of the “As above, so below” credo. Cycles are circles, and circles, as we know from the Golden Ratio, can be found in many of the building blocks of our world. But how does this apply to music? We can look to the digital paradigm, the 1/0, on/off, in/out operating system and trace concordances that apply to these pop culture iterations. And yet, how do we use this? And whether we seek to understand or predict this, perhaps the more important question is, does it matter?

If we have already established that much in the realm of human experience is interrelated, then does it not also hold that to discover a pattern in the cycles of our culture’s musical experiences might possibly lead to a connection in other areas? The works of Quantum theorists Erwin Schrodinger and Peter J. Carroll suggest that our perception of the world influences our reality, and what is music but the artist’s perception of the world around them? When “Midnight City” hit the radio, I began to read reports that the lyric “The City is my Church” had started popping up on the graffiti-laden walls of a nearby city, and I felt as though the fact that science had been searching for a unifying theory of everything since the late 1800s was being directly referenced in some way. Many nights since, I have sat staring at my copy of the I Ching, tracing the patterns of the hexagrams contained therein. As a soundtrack to this study I often play “Midnight City” on a loop. Emanating out from that loop, I always feel the waves of reality fluctuate. I have, for now, accepted that humans do not yet possess the hardware with which to discern how or why those fluctuations affect the world.

But at least I can enjoy the song.

Shawn Charles Baker is a writer, filmmaker, and musician living in Southern California.

Dante and the Passeggiata [by M.G. Stephens]


The point of the passeggiata is to take the passeggiata, which includes two or three things: yourself and others; a conversation but not a purposeful one, it should – like this sentence – roam wherever it wants; and it involves walking, taking a stroll, not jogging, not running, not for exercise, or merely for exercise, though it might involve walking after a meal, the postprandial walk, to help digest the meal, and it might be salubrious because the walk might go on for hours, from late afternoon into evening or from after dinner to after midnight. Ideally one takes the passeggiata with one or two other people, as by oneself it would lack the social element, and with more than three people, it becomes a march. Three friends go out and walk, talking as they do, about this and that, love and life and death and dreams. The passeggiata is a kind of paradigm of civilization, a marker, a point at which one can measure a culture, Italy being such an example, the peninsula one endless passeggiata from Milan in the north to Trieste in the far east, Rome and Naples and Palermo, one walks with friends, and as one walks one talks with them, and depending on who one’s friends are, the conversation can be inane (football, for instance) or quite deep, the deepest most inner thoughts in one’s mind. To walk is to think, while taking the passeggiata is to think aloud with one’s friends. But it is not just locomotion and locutions; it is also perambulations and conurbations, distilling ideas into essences, releasing these things into the air, like a helium balloon, to float off into eternity, though this eternity is a city itself, the urban world, as Italo Calvino showed us so well in his prose-poem Invisible Cities. A man or a woman might begin the passeggiata one way and end up another; a person could even begin as one type of person and end as quite another kind, completely different from who they were that morning, while to all intents and purposes, family and friends might continue to see the old ghost of who that person was, not realizing that on the passeggiata he or she had become transformed by a thought or idea, a mood or, in the case of the poet, a particular rhythm of experience.


Dante’s sonnet to his friends Guido and Lapo is just such a poem, a passeggiata poem, if you will, a poem in which its rhythms and form, its ideas and philosophical underpinnings, have everything to do with friends and walking, taking the passeggiata. I can’t imagine this poem without also experiencing its rhythms as being ones of walking. True, it is a sonnet, only fourteen lines, and because it is in Italian, its latinate rhythms are quite strong, although there is something else going on here than Latin. Here is a poem moving away from the page, the formalities of the Roman world that dominated Mediterranean culture for a thousand years. This is also a poem moving away from the Medieval period into the Renaissance. One almost sees the faces and landscapes of the Italian masters, though I mostly see Caravaggio, the darkness and the light, the complexity of the faces, the humanness, the complications. There is a new kind of music here, and it is called Italian, a new language born out of the carcass of an old one, a language which does not inhabit the page so much as the tongue, and which demands to be spoken aloud, not in the recesses of the mind. It is a social language, being spoken at table, in the great rooms of a house, and particularly out on the street during the passeggiata. Guido is the one being addressed, not Lapo, the other friend who, though not addressed, is being included as one of the parties on this passeggiata. Imagine these three friends – Guido is the equally great poet Cavalcanti – walking across a Florentine palazzo, and then disappearing down a street, and across a bridge, and out and around, walking and talking for hours. Besides being a poem on the hoof, out loud, and colloquial, this is also a poem that seems to predict not only the dominance of the visual during the Renaissance, but seems almost like a precursor of Italian cinema at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Underneath the film, one could lay down some of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and imagine a camera at a distance that is quite intimate, certainly not a Hollywood distance, more like the hand-held distance of a Federico Fellini, who is the cinematographer of this poem who comes to mind when I visual it. (Notice I am visualizing the poem, not hearing it per se, though its orality, its sound aura, is as if to say the poem would be nothing without it.) I also imagine Dante, Guido, and Lapo walking abreast, wearing their coats on their shoulders but their arms not in the sleeves, the way Marcello Mastroianni might wear a sportscoat as he smokes a cigarette and talks to his friend about something that Italian men have been talking about for millennia, i.e., women. Guido and Dante and Lapo are doing just that; they are talking about women as they take the passeggiata, including someone named Vanna and the woman who lives at number 30. Dante talks of taking a cruise and sailing the seas with these ladies, and how exceptional this voyage will be. It is not a putative holiday, though, but rather a purely male fantasy, a kind of wet dream that men have indulged in with each other since time immemorial, something that while slightly sexist, also makes this poem quite modern. There is none of the idealizing of women found in Dante’s essays and his longer poems; there is no perfection known as Beatrice, but rather these more workmanlike three women from nearby, who are very real and available.


Although it would be some time before the products of the New World would inhabit Italy to the point where we associate them with this country, including coffee and tobacco, nonetheless, there is an odor of tobacco and coffee in the air of this passeggiata, just the way Marcello’s sportcoat smells of such things. So this is a poem that while spoken aloud, we hear the new rhythms of the Italian language, which is still spoken that same way today, it is also a poem full of visual impact and odors, something that most poems simply don’t have. I can only recall one other poem so odiferous, and that was one I once heard Seamus Heaney read, and the odor he evoked was the earth, and the image happened to be a potato that was pulled from the sodden ground. Dante’s poem is far less countrified than Heaney’s poem. The odors here are of the city, garlic from the rooms around the palazzo across which they walk, and the smell of the city, including rubbish and rats, the shit from toilets (for Italians had toilets unlike other early Renaissance Europeans), the smell of wine in its season, cooked bread, hard cheese, crustaceans, fish with their heads lopped off, leather and cloth, the perspiration of three Renaissance artists walking. But finally this is a poem with a core to it like no other poem in the world; it is a sonnet, so it is a little machine full of its own determination and wherewithal. This poem is rhythmical and stately, even beautiful and austere, the way a good sonnet can be, nothing wasted, every word working to earn its place in the poem, including the rhymes and the prepositions and articles, everything working like the little machine that the sonnet is. If you read the poem aloud in its original Italian language, it sings almost like an aria in an opera by Puccini or Mozart. There is assonance, alliteration, metaphors, allusions, everything one expects in a poem, but also that unknowable quality, a sound that goes up into the air and creates emotion out of its pure utterance. It is that last quality which brings me back to this poem time and again and allows me to say unequivocally that it is my favorite poem, and has been for a very long, long time. I read it in English; I read it in Italian. I read it to myself; I read it aloud. I would like to make a movie of it, with myself as Dante, and perhaps two poet friends like Andrei Codrescu and Richard Hoffman, as Guido and Lapo, respectively. I haven’t spoken to their agents about this yet, so it is only a wish, not a done deal. I have yet to meet at a poolside with the money people. We have not taken a passeggiata yet, but when we do, this is what we will be talking about. Do you know of any backers I should be calling?



mgs-19681[1]M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.