A Review of Tokyo Poetry Journal, Vol. 5, Japan and the Beats [by Larry Sawyer]

nanao sakaki Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki.

What a pleasure to receive this update in the mail from Taylor Mignon, editor of Tokyo Poetry Journal. The latest edition, devoted to Japan and the Beats, is large at more than 200 pages and well worth your time. This issue delineates a long history that begins somewhat nebulously as multiple poets in the 1950s and 60s were beginning to become aware of the Beats and American Kenneth Rexroth brought Japanese art to American poets and audiences. Nanao Sakaki by most accounts was Japan’s first prominent Beat writer and he proceeded to translate the work of American poet Gary Snyder into Japanese. Also, it should be noted that Rexroth did a huge service to Japanese poets in diligently translating their work into English. It should be remembered that Rexroth spoke and wrote fluent Japanese and Chinese (unlike Ezra Pound).

This issue of Tokyo Poetry Journal contains much new and also some republished seminal works of Japanese writing translated into English and also the work of some fellow Anglo outriders who exerted their energies in a similar direction. As a bit of context the preface sets up the work wonderfully by mentioning that Katagiri Yuzuru was the first Japanese to produce a Beat anthology in Japan “with Objectivist poets, as well as Denise Levertov.” I was glad to see Levertov’s name mentioned as an exemplar of American Beat poets because her important work certainly serves as some of the best Beat writing.

Shiraishi_Kazuko600Japanese poet Shiraishi Kazuko.

Another early Japanese journal that published American poets was VOU, which published Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, as well as Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, and others. Another journal named TRAP was edited by poet Torii Shozo and published Japanese surrealists such as Kitasono Katue and Yamamoto Kansuke. (I had received permission in 2004 to publish a large installation of the work of Yamamoto Kansuke from the Kansuke estate in my poetry journal milkmag.org and was also glad to see a mention of Nexus magazine, which I also used to edit, in regard to Japanese Beat poetry. In Nexus I published, with Taylor Mignon’s assistance as translator, the poet Torii Shozo.)

American poet, traveler, and photographer Ira Cohen also was published numerous times in latter day Beat-related Japanese journals. Cohen’s poetic style, influenced heavily by Beat prosody and approach, found a perfect home alongside the work of a now older Nanao Sakaki. Still other journals such as Printed Matter and Blue Beat Jacket published many Japanese Beat poets as well as post-Beat poets such as New Yorker Steve Dalachinsky. The American poets most associated with Japanese poetry nameley Kenneth Rextroth, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Cid Corman, Allen Ginsberg, and Joanne Kyger were a gateway to another world. Entrance to that world was a revolving door, however. American poets gained much from their Japanese counterparts and vice versa.

kenneth-rexroth American poet Kenneth Rexroth.

 

Importantly, American poet and scholar John Solt continues to this day to bridge America and Japan with bi-lingual events, readings, as poet and translator of Japanese poetry, and art curator. He is a prime force that serves as art conduit showing that the original nexus between the two countries and simpatico aesthetics indeed still exist and even thrive.

Delving into some of the poetry contained in the pages of this issue of Tokyo Poetry Journal, however, would best illustrate the wide range of work practiced by these poets.

Fitting that the issue starts with very visual work by Shiraishi Kazuko with a poetic portrait of Tokyo followed by one of America. We view the world through nearly filmic lens, as the poet’s Beat style jump cuts through the dark images of her day with violence and tenderness and some irony.

from “My Tokyo” [excerpts, translator/Kenneth Rexroth]

… like two young leopards in the deep woods of their yearning
In each other’s secret rooms
The ravishing monkey women
Balance rainbows of caresses like
The glow of morning

…Forced through a fog of foreboding
I could barely hear God’s pain
Then it reached agony
Now for the first time I behold
God entire, falling in a thunderbolt, roaring

from “My America” [excerpt, translator/Kenneth Rexroth]

…On Saturday night glued to TV
Dying to make an American million
Your bare teeth shining

American baby
Nobody ever calls the American gentle anymore
They figure he’s had it in Hollywood
Handsome, young, and loaded
Nevertheless heading over the hill
Suffering from three kinds of cancer
You only call hippies gentle these days

…Hey, stranger–
So you’re called America
You glittering, nameless
My private, custom-made America…

Now in her mid-eighties, Shiraishi Kazuko, was once called “the Allen Ginsberg” of Japan by Kenneth Rexroth and in the essay “Japan Beat: Kazuko Shiraishi” A. Robert Lee writes that Ginsberg once ironically said of Shiraishi “we may as well be husband and wife.”

In her excellent poem “Indigo, for Nanao Sakaki” American poet Anne Waldman writes:

How
to
live
on planet Earth

Tell us:
epochs, empires
indeed, the
syndicates of samsara

Anthropocene,
Capitalocene
storm in

Tell us

You knew
the New Weathers
you knew
Linguistics

& a revolution
that turns many ways
in you

Lonely enclosures
of history
spook us

But you never
divided the sky
from the
earth

You never took
oblivion
for memory

You were the
hero in the forest…

 

kyoto-japan-20913 Kyoto, Japan.

 

Linda Russo writes in “Considering Joanne Kyger in Kyoto”:

[A poem of Kyger’s] largest fragment tells of a trip, presumably on Snyder’s motorcycle:

We took the left fork
up into Yase valley at the rise of the hill, used only
by woodsmen, charcoal makers

moving farther
and farther back into the valley burning trees as they go
Situated on near inaccessible
hillsides and their families, smoking out wood.

American poet Joanne Kyger lived with Gary Snyder outside of Kyoto as he practiced a “monkish” Buddhist existence. One can see why the Beats were fascinated with Kyoto. It provided relatively cheap, rustic living, in absolutely beautiful surroundings that allowed one to meditate and focus on art. It’s not a mystery why the Japanese poets were interested in American Beat writing, it was indeed a breath of fresh air in its honesty, sexuality, and even violence but it’s not as easy to determine why Japanese poets would interested in America itself, frought as it was (and is) with problems and division.

Between the pages of this issue are numerous poems, photographs, and drawings that tell a fantastic tale of a band of like-minded souls that yearned for liberation and peace in the world. I can certainly say we are much like them right now as the world experiences a new set of problems for new generations. The Beat current still travels through it …

“Must”  by Kizuki Mihiro

“Do you like Ginsberg, Kerouac, or Burroughs?”
An old hippie man asks. I didn’t know any of them when I
started reading poems.

“Which do like the most among the Beat generation works?”
An intelligent university student asked. I had never read their works
when I became a performance poet.

“Did you watch ‘Naked Lunch’, ‘The Last Time I Committed Suicide,’ or ‘Beatnik’?” Ask a world-wide senior poet.

I understood.
It’s like Led Zeppelin for rock kids.

 

The way that Beat writing and culture permeated world culture spreading from North Beach, San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York City to Europe and also Japan before becoming embedded as it is now in American culture–a background music or eternal cosmic mosaic that mapped the madness of American life in the 50s, 60s, and 70s as consumer capitalism reared its head in the form of Vietnam and (and now in the ugliness of the Trump presidency).

As early as 1953 Jack Kerouac was studying Zen Buddhism to some degree and when he met and spent time with Gary Snyder in 1955 more seriously, as they hung out in San Francisco together carousing and then got high on the “mountain trails of the High Sierras.” Some of which Kerouac immortalized in his book The Dharma Bums. Snyder then famously left for Japan in 1956 and it had an enduring effect on his life and art.

As Kizuki Mihiro writes in his poem “Beatific” ecstatically “I can hear the howl of celebration for this beatific world” ….we are drawn in as observers but also become participants in the poetry in this issue of Tokyo Poetry Journal. Even the old mirrors our present concerns.

It’s a celebration of the variousness of the world, a call for sanity, a Dionysian bacchanalia, and also a prescient warning about the precariousness of life on earth.  I enjoyed these poems of joy, death, and romance. As the Beats relied on imagery, confession, and a tinge of surrealism, those poets here also present an assault on the senses that awakens and instills wonder but also reminds us to practice enduring patience and to realize our connection with the natural world. As in “Gathering Shellfish” by Yamao Sansei (translation by Scott Watson):

Beat by sun’s blaze
this blue-purple sea breeze caresses coolly.

One rock at a step
through spray from waves.

On this shore where no one is
silence is mesolithic, is wealth.
Civilization stops
without transmission.  Body is aware,
quiet, rich, mesolithic.

A breeze
a sun
a sea.

 

________________

Larry SAWYER is a poet and editor living in Chicago. He curates the Myopic Poetry Series. His recent books include Vertigo Diary, Breaking Lorca, and Unable to Fully California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the Republican Tax Cut & Jobs Act will hurt American higher education [by Nadia Vinogradova]

We know by now that the Republican Senate tax bill was revised, scribbled and not given sufficient reading time. It passed in the Senate a quarter after one in the morning—or at least that’s when the first headline proclaimed it so. The House version of this bill would make the taxes of a first- or second-year graduate student at Northwestern University go up by 499.7 percent. Currently, the tax burden for a $29,000 yearly stipend is $2,293. This would change to $11,460 a year if tuition becomes taxable income. As a fourth-year, my taxes would only rise by 157.3 percent. But beyond my personal finances, the House bill will also devastate higher education in America.

Americans are used to winning Nobel Prizes. We have top-notch research published in every field, and we’re renowned for our college and postgraduate programs and departments at a variety of state and private universities and colleges. This is a relic of the money we invested in science and education during the Cold War. Our country is a world leader in technology and innovation, in scientific breakthroughs, medicine and the arts. This all stands to change because of one little exclusion: 117(d).

The Republican Tax Cut and Jobs Act — the House bill — excludes Section 117(d) of the Internal Revenue Code. This section is vital to the wellbeing of higher education in America. It exempts tuition from being taxable income. Without it, graduate students will have to pay taxes on their tuition and stipend, which many cases more than quadruples their tax burden, and shifts the already modest income from our stipend to an income that has graduate students living below the poverty line. In effect, graduate school is no longer affordable to students without an independent source of income — say, a trust fund.

 Alternatively, if it’s at all possible to keep Section 117(d) in the final Republican tax bill, this particular crisis may be averted. I and my friends will continue to call our representatives and insist on this. However, it has not been a year of favorable votes for those of us who cannot afford professional bribers (why America has a separate name for lobbyists baffles me – corporate corruption is corruption by any other name).


The fight over the tax bill is far from over: the next task of lawmakers is to reconcile the two versions of the bill. The House bill is deadly to higher education — the Senate bill is merely harmful. I will focus on the consequences of the former; if the House bill’s exclusion of 117(d) is accepted in the final version of the bill, many of my friends are going to drop out of their graduate programs.  There will be a mass exodus, first of international students, then of lower-class and middle-class American students. I do not know how the university will handle the loss; it’s needless to point out that graduate students teach and serve as teaching assistants for a vast portion of courses and labs across departments. This is not an alarmist outlook. It is a firsthand account. I do not type this lightly. I know it is, and will be, a devastating blow to the people who drop out. What is perhaps more devastating is the fact that the university has the means to mitigate this damage, but will likely refuse to do so.

 I will commit a faux pas here, and talk numbers. The university pays me $29,000 a year, and it also pays itself about $52,000 a year for tuition. I never see a penny of that second number. I am not required to do coursework this year, though I am required to teach a language course Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9-10 a.m. So why am I charged tuition?

 Full disclosure: I do sit in on a course, because I choose to. But this is not entirely relevant. Courses are training toward the work graduate students do: research and teaching. On-the-job training should be paid for, it should not cost money. In all other fields, this is the case. Why not in the academy?

Graduate students are graduate workers, and should not be charged tuition in the first place. By charging and then waiving large sums of money for tuition, the university can tout its generosity — in transferring money from one pocket to another — and it continues to do this because paying tuition is financially advantageous for the university. Under Code Section 501(c)(3) and Section 115 of the IRS code, private universities qualify as tax-exempt organizations because they exist for educational purposes and universities list the tuition they waive (for graduate students) under tax-exempt charitable gifts. Tying these sums of money up in “educational purposes” — though it is essentially work training, as discussed — makes this money tax exempt. Please correct me if I misunderstand the nuances of our current tax system, but it seems to me that universities will refrain from lowering tuition for graduate students because this conflicts with their own self-interest.

It would be quite simple for the university to reduce tuition to a nominal fee — say, $25 per year for every graduate student for all five years of their initial contract (if graduate students had contracts. We should and we are unionizing towards this. That is another matter.) The point, however, is that universities will not want to do this. They will say instead that they want to help, really, but do nothing that might be financially disadvantageous to the (frankly bloated) administration. And this will result in a significant percentage of graduate students dropping out. More students who are early in their careers will drop out, as the debt from their undergraduate years in addition to the onerous burden of five or more years of accruing further debt will — for good reason — daunt and deter them from pursuing their dream and working frankly ridiculous hours for the university. Ramen noodles will fuel passion, but these poor souls won’t be able to afford ramen.

And this is the real loss for the university. It will still have students, but the quality and caliber of these students will change. They will be bright, perhaps, but they will be drawn from a smaller pool – the independently wealthy. This will limit their brightness. It will limit research, creativity and talent, and it will bring in its own set of problems. Entitled graduate students are less likely to put effort into teaching undergraduates or pursuing research for passion when they can simply buy their degrees. This will erode and devalue the quality of research and of the university itself. This process is already underway, but the House’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act would catalyze it significantly. What might have taken generations or decades will likely occur over a handful of years. I might go further to speculate that an erosion of education and the skills of skeptical thinking will lead to an erosion in our democracy. I dare say it already has.

Vital is the fact that the university could prevent this by changing its tuition system. And the first university to do this would have the gratitude of its graduate students and the spotlight in the national conversation. It would have a righteous position of moral superiority, too, but, more importantly, it would demonstrate that it prioritizes its proclaimed values — the academy stands by truth and knowledge — over money. The politics of the past year have been demoralizing to many of us, and nothing short of strong support and action on the part of the university now — before graduate students are forced to make that difficult decision to leave — can save both the graduate students and the University.

Northwestern could be the institution that sets the trend, the first of many universities. For the sake of my friends, of higher education in this country, and yes, of my finances, I hope that Northwestern proceeds with these or similar reforms. But I won’t be holding my breath.

 

Nadia Vinogradova is a graduate student at Northwestern University.

 

SOME THOUGHTS ON JOHN ASHBERY AND HIS PASSING [by M.G. Stephens]

 

In the autumn of 1966, I began to attend the readings and writing workshops at the newly opened St. Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project. In the poetry workshop, which was taught by Joel Oppenheimer, the Black Mountain poet, the talk was of a hierarchy that included William Carlos Williams and, to a lesser extent, Ezra Pound, and then filtered down to Oppenheimer’s own teachers at Black Mountain College, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. In between these gods (Williams and Pound) and the demigods (Olson and Creeley), there were the bountiful, nearly mythological presences such as the Objectivists, including George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Resnikoff, and Lorinne Neidecker.

Outside the workshop, it was an entirely different matter. Everyone at the Poetry Project was talking about Frank O’Hara, who had been killed on Fire Island a few months earlier, and John Ashbery, who was now back in New York after many years of living abroad. Anne Waldman was Joel Oppenheimer’s assistant, along with the poet Joel Sloman, both of whom were more interested in the New York School than Black Mountain poetry. The World magazine, which Anne edited with her husband Lewis Warsh, was decidedly a bastion of New York School poets, particularly its next generation, which included Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan, among many others. You could not avoid being conscious of this different kind of poetry than the one that Oppenheimer promulgated in his workshops; it was the poetry (New York School) for which the Poetry Project was becoming known beyond the Lower East Side and Manhattan south of 14th Street.

The tension between the two camps (the third-generation New York Schoolers and the second-generation Black Mountaineers) was at times palpable. The new generation of New York School poets were quite hostile to the Black Mountain esthetic. There were even fist fights which I witnessed between the two groups, and verbal shouting matches was the daily rule. It was serious business, this poetry, I remember thinking, and lots of fun; I loved a good fight, whether it was verbal or physical, it didn’t matter to me, and I was sat on a fence between the two camps, as was most of my other friends and workshop-goers. I also remember that despite being indoctrinated by Joel with his Black Mountain poetic ideology, I had an immediate fondness for Frank O’Hara’s poetry, and five days a week when I commuted uptown on two buses to work at the newly opened library at Lincoln Center, I invariably travelled those buses with a copy of Lunch Poems in my pocket. Anne and Co. perceived of me as a clone of Joel Oppenheimer, but I was more attached to Frank O’Hara’s esthetic. A few years after the Poetry Project started in the late 1960s, I remember doing a group reading with Tom Weatherly and Ron Edson at the church, which was located at the corner of East 10th Street and Second Avenue. After the reading, Ted Berrigan came up to me and said, “I wish Frank (O’Hara) were still alive, he would have loved what you just read tonight.” I had read from a manuscript entitled Gulfweed Voices, a novel (so to speak) that Grove Press was going to publish, but then never did. It was the only time that Ted and I ever had an extended conversation. I can still recall it vividly today.

The poets in Joel’s workshop who were infatuated with and influenced by John Ashbery were legion, but two who come immediately to mind were Joel Sloman, one of Joel Oppenheimer’s assistants, and Scott Cohen, one of the young stars of the workshop, a City College student, as most of the participants were. Scott would drop out of Oppenheimer’s workshop eventually and migrate over to Ted Berrigan’s class, where he felt more at home with the New York School esthetic. Eventually he became a journalist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and later still got into advertising. I remember Joel Sloman and Scott Cohen trying to get me to expand my horizons and read John Ashbery. This was compounded by my friendship with Andrei Codrescu, the recently arrived Romanian poet, who had come to New York via Detroit. Andrei and I both worked the night shift at the Eighth Street Bookshop, and during lulls in the proceedings, he would lecture me on John Ashbery’s poetry. It was Andrei who made the first intelligent arguments for Ashbery’s greatness.

Andrei blurted out: “The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness.” I had no idea what he or that line meant, but it has stayed with me for scores of years, while other less opaque lines from other poets have dissolved away and disappeared. “Leaving the Atocha Station” comes from The Tennis Court Oath, and immediately I was aware that Ashbery’s poems were not easily accessible the way a poem by Robert Creeley was or, for that matter, Frank O’Hara. It was both annoying and captivating, and I had the good sense to tell this to Andrei, who understood that I was open to learning more about this poet, even if I didn’t understand his poetry at all in 1966-67, working in the bookshop with Andrei and the other future luminaries of the arts in downtown Manhattan.

The poem that seemed to open up Ashbery for me, if that is the right metaphor—and probably it is not—was a long poem called “The Skaters,” which appeared in his book Rivers and Mountains. Both Scott Cohen and Andrei Codrescu had told me that the poem had to do with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, so I tried reading some Wittgenstein, but to no avail. His work was as opaque as Ashbery’s was for me at that time. Then came 1968, and a stint I did at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I had gone away to work on a novel, which I did complete while there; it was Gulfweed Voices, which Grove had contracted to publish, but ultimately never did. But that is another story. One of the books I brought along to read was Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains, which I would dip into nightly. I did not worry about meanings, a fruitless exercise with any poetry anyhow, nor did I read for sense, though I did read the poems for their sensibility, and that became how I would read Ashbery from there on out, riding the poem’s drifts and currents, like a leaf in a storm.

I still have that copy of Rivers and Mountains somewhere, filled with my notes, most of which were written in the Keene County Jail. One night I had gone to the airport with another colonist, a painter, to pick up the writer Rudy Wurlitzer, who had flown in from Los Angeles, where he was working on a movie script. His novel Nog was just about to be published by Random House and Rudy, though a good ten years older, had become friends with me while he was at the colony. He had flown off to LA a week earlier, and now was coming back. As he came off the airplane, lights began flashing, and the next thing we knew, all of us were being spread across the hood of a police car and put under arrest. The cops had found some drugs on Rudy, so we were all carted off to jail as accessories. During those days I spend in the Keene County Jail, I only had a copy of Rivers and Mountains to read and nothing else, and I became immersed in its poetry in a way I had never been before with John Ashbery. This is how the poet put it himself: “Most of my poems are about the experience of experience.” I have the Keene County Jail to thank for allowing me to experience John Ashbery’s poetry in a fully immersive way.

The experience of experience becomes more evident with each passing book that Ashbery would publish. Two of my favorite Ashbery poems appeared in The Double Dream of Spring, which followed Rivers and Mountains. Those two poems are “Soonest Mended” and “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” The former poem had the oddest title I could imagine, but then it became clearer once the origin of the phase was known. Of course, the saying is least said soonest mended, which means that a bad situation can be quickly forgotten if people stop talking about it. The experience of experience of this poem includes Ingres’ painting and Happy Hooligan, a memorable character from childhood Sunday comic strips. “Farm Implements…” also makes reference to comic strips, in this instance, Popeye, Swee’pea, the Sea Hag, Wimpy, and Olive Oyl. The poem is a sestina, a Provencal verse form of six six-line stanzas in which the end words of each line are repeated throughout the stanzas, culminating in a three-line stanza, in which all the key end-words are repeated. Combining Popeye and Co. with a Provencal verse form is brilliant beyond all imagination, at least IMHO. It is a poem I read often, and it is certainly a favorite.

With Three Poems, published in 1971, Ashbery dipped into the world of lyrical prose, not exactly prose poems, the three poems of the title bear more resemblance to a prose work like Robert Lowell’s “91 Revere Street,” but with this caveat: Lowell’s writing is memoirlike, and Ashbery’s prose more resembles his poetry, with the same opacity and lack of autobiographical details, at least not obviously so (more about this anon). I had met Ashbery on several occasions, mostly in rooms packed with other poets, his time and focus divided among many people anxious to converse with him. He did not know me or my work, as far as I know. The British writer Peter Ackroyd, who was a friend from graduate school at Yale, had once taken me to John’s apartment in Chelsea, New York, where I spent most of the afternoon talking to the painter Fairfield Porter, not the poet himself. My funniest encounter came at one of those crowded Gotham Bookmart parties in the upstairs gallery. The experimental fiction writer Walter Abish introduced me to Ashbery, and being drunk, I said, “I love Four Poems, John.” There was a pause in which you could hear Walter’s mind go into a flurry of worry over my remark. But then John saved the day by saying, “Well, it’s Three Poems, but if you have an idea for a fourth one, I’d like to hear about it.”

I think most everyone agrees that John Ashbery went from being a somewhat obscure avante-garde poet to a mainstream one with the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror when he won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Book Critics Circle Award in the same year. These awards were all well deserved, as the book is quite astonishing, particularly the long title poem inspired by a painting by Parmigianino.

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect

What it advertises.

 

This book then is the watershed in which John Ashbery crossed over into the mainstream of American poetry, and in a way unlike any of his friends and contemporaries. But something else begins to happen, too; the poems take on another quality, besides being quintessential John Ashbery works. From Houseboat Days to the present, I have thought of John Ashbery’s poetry, whatever it is he is writing about, as also being a repository of the English language as it is spoken by Americans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Want to learn how people spoke in 2005? Read some John Ashbery poems from that time, especially a book such as Flow Chart. Interestingly, the two other writers who also were accumulating the odd words and phrases of late 20th century American speech were Gilbert Sorrentino in his various experimental novels and the editor turned fiction writer Gordon Lish, in various stories he was publishing later in the century. The poet and critic Ron Silliman, to some extent, also does this in his prosey poetry in such works as Tjanting, and Silliman is a direct link between the Language poets and Ashbery, as is the poet Charles Bernstein.

But this is an appreciation about John Ashbery, so let me get back to him. As with any poet and how we read him or her, there is an element of what we bring to the proposition. We are the readers; it is our job to respond to these poems. Reading John Ashbery from the time I was twenty years old to the present, when I am now in my seventies, I would have to say that I have changed more than he did because my first encounters with this poet were, if not hostile, then not sympathetic, though gradually I came to see the grace and intelligence, the originality, and even the lyrical necessity of what it was this poet was doing. It turns out that all the poets at St. Mark’s Church in the Bouwerie, back in 1966, were right; John Ashbery is a truly original and great poet. I was terribly late coming to understand just how important he really was. In my own case, the realization came from living abroad. I spent fifteen years in London, and reading Ashbery in that context I began to understand that he was an American original, like Whistler, Whitman, Elvis, Frank O’Hara, William Carlos Williams, and Thelonious Monk.

In 2000, I left Boston with the idea of moving abroad. But first I took a detour to Hudson, New York, where my old friend Rudy Wurlitzer—the same Rudy with whom I shared jail-time in Keene, New Hampshire, where I immersed myself in Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains—lived in an old rectory on the courthouse square in the center of this old Hudson Valley town. Coincidentally, just adjacent to Rudy’s house—where he lived with his partner the photographer Lynn Davis—was John Ashbery’s house, the one he once described as reminding him of his grandfather’s place in Rochester, New York, on the other side of the state. I lived on Allen Street, renting place there for a year and a half before picking up and moving to London for fifteen years. Ashbery’s house was only steps away from where I lived, though I rarely if ever saw him out and about in this odd, tiny hamlet. In the eighteen months I lived in Hudson, I did not see Ashbery so much as a stream of people who would come to visit him, usually at the weekend, writers as diverse as John Yau and Frank McCourt, pulling up in their cars and going into the big, old house where the poet lived with his husband David Kermani.

Ashbery was not a recluse, but he stayed home and did his work, plus as I understood it, as he got older, there were mobility problems. I was introduced to his partner David several times, and I once looked at a property he owned on Warren Street, a loft space that they wanted to rent out. At the end of the day, I decided against it. But I did enjoy speaking with David; we didn’t talk about John, though. I sensed that was out of bounds, a private moment, if not for friends, then certainly for newly met strangers. I was having a show at a gallery on Warren Street, small drawings I had done, and I remember David telling me how much he liked one of them, a penis drawing. I had the sense he was going to buy it for John, but then he never came back to the gallery, and eventually the show ended. It was just one of those experiences about experience, something that John Ashbery might have rendered into an unmistakable poem. In a prose-writer’s hands, the transformation is less startling, but nonetheless equally significant. Several months later, I put my things in storage, and moved to England.

 

 

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. His new book of poems just out from Spuyten Duyvil is called Top Boy.

 

 

INCARCERATION OF THE ORANGE BARTENDER [by Michael Rothenberg]

Bourbon straight out of the bottle
before I go to bed
Who could tell you better
what love is really like?

I don’t remember
It was a burn in my chest
and a physical wish
Made my jaws tingle
and kicked my ass in the morning

Rubber Jim, Shady Lady
High Buck, Saw Buck
Duck Walk, Calamity Rose

Falling apart all over you

Stumbling around in a hazmat suit
Shoelaces tied together
I walked home from the disposable China factory
singing “Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands”

“Fancy that,” she said, “You’ve learned
to speak in whole sentences,
most of the time”

And she was right, most of the time
She was the smartest one in the family
When she wasn’t crying about how cruel life is
and how none of it ever comes easy

“Oh, you’re a fine judge of character
But your stepping on my toes,” I said
“and making my plantar fasciitus bleed
Ease up some and let the good times roll…”

But she didn’t, she couldn’t
She was a Catholic and so was her mother
Beer was her divine grace and eternal covenant
So she cried and cried, drank and cried
Not that all Catholics do
But you can imagine

Rubber Jim, Shady Lady
High Buck, Saw Buck
Duck Walk, Calamity Rose

Falling apart all over you

I regret I never became a superstar
I was always too shy for that
Suffering from low blue self-esteem
or false humility, I’m not certain…

I’d lie in bed in the dark any time of the day
Tired of the world and Moses
Great things are for great people, I’d moan

Modest contemplation deserves a reward
and should always get it…

“You have to work it”
The movers and shakers like to say
“Enter the system, come to a meeting”
How, exactly, do you “work it”?
“Work it like you’re worth it,” one professional said

Give me my own distillery, I thought, I’ll do it myself
Besides why do I need a middle-man
“That flower is bootiful all in itself, ” I said
And drank myself unconscious

Bourbon straight out of the bottle
before I go to bed
Who could tell you better
what love is really like?

January 28, 2016

 

Appeared previously in Oakland Review

_____________________

Michael Rothenberg is an American poet, songwriter, editor, and active environmentalist. With Terri Carrion he founded the organization 100,000 Poets for Change. He also edits Big Bridge magazine online.

Unknown

 

The Air’s Home [by Joanna Fuhrman & Toni Simon]

“The Air’s Home” is part of a larger mixed-media serial poem—a book length project that Toni and I are working on. Toni makes small-scale paper sculptures of Egyptian deities, and we take pictures of them interacting with various settings around New York City. For this section of the project, we had Toni’s model of Bastet visit Gins and Arakawa’s Reversible Destiny Studio, so we view it as collaboration not just with each other but with Gins and Arakawa. We hope it serves as a tribute to their important, beautiful work.

We first visited and took pictures at the Reversible Destiny studio in 2011, and then went back last year after Madeline’s death to reshoot some of the images. On our last visit, the ankh (the ancient symbol of eternal life) dropped off and stayed behind at the studio—perhaps a sign of Gins’ lingering presence. To read more about Gins and Arakawa and the Reversible Destiny Foundation’s work envisioning an architecture to defeat death, please visit: reversibledestiny.org.

—Joanna Fuhrman

 

CONTRIBUTORS

JOANNA FUHRMAN‘s fifth book The Year Of Yellow Butterflies has just been released by Hanging Loose Press. For more see: Joannafuhrman.com.

TONI SIMON is a multi-media artist living in Brooklyn. Her illustrated book Earth After Earth was published by Lunar Chandelier Press in 2012. For more see: tonisimonart@blogspot.com.

 

WHO WE WRITE FOR [by M.G. Stephens]

I am writing another essay in the form of a blog. Who is it for? Well, myself, I suppose, and anyone else who shares my obsessions or interests, i.e., I would probably write this even if no one was going to read it except myself. This explains my notebooks, which are not really for anyone but myself, at least at this time. When I am gone, someone might have an interest in my notebooks, but certainly not in my lifetime. I can barely get anyone to read a poem much less an essay or a short story, a novel or a memoir. This is the world we live in, where 140 characters is about all anyone can handle. So I like to think of Henry Adams and what he said; he only had around five hundred readers, he claimed. But they were the best five hundred readers in the world!

My writing isn’t shaped by prizes and awards either. I don’t really care if the committee at some foundation or other doesn’t like what I do or if what I write makes them uncomfortable. If my writing makes anyone uncomfortable, then I am doing my job. When I used to teach, I often began the semester by telling the students that I was not there to verify their prejudices; I was there to challenge their assumptions. This is probably even truer when I write. But saying that, I need quickly add that my writing is not there to insult or degrade minorities, other genders from my own, different age groups, ethnic persons, or anyone else who might be deemed “the other.” If my writing doesn’t offend the established orders, then I have failed as a writer, just as that same writing should give some comfort to the outcast and forgotten in our world. It is a tall order, and maybe just an ideal that can’t be implemented, but it is from those ideals that one puts pen to paper and lets the linear progression begin.

Though I am by nationality both American and Irish, very few people mistake me for being Irish, including most Irish people. I am often thought of as the other. In Ireland I sound American; in America people bizarrely think I’m English. In England, I am thought of as a Yank. By now, after more than fourteen years of living in London, I have what is called in linguistic circles a Midlantic accent, something that is a cross between a British and an American accent, but in fact is neither one. There are exceptions to what I’m saying. When I run into my Irish relatives in London, they certainly don’t question my Irishness, although they do think I have a rather unusual accent. Why don’t I speak with a brogue? they sometimes ask. Well, that’s simple enough to answer; I don’t speak with a brogue because, although I am Irish by nationality, I have spent very little time in Ireland.

I mention all this because I think it has a lot to do with how I write and even what I write about and who I write for and why I write at all. How I write has a lot to do with my two nationalities. I have American cadences in my writing, but my sensibility has been shaped by Irish literature, the biggest influence on me of any other national literature. In fact, I am most Irish when I write, and am almost never Irish in my own life. I don’t sound Irish in my life or my writing, but that is because I often try to thwart the lyrical in my prose, believing that being lyrical is almost too easy to do if you are Irish, is almost a national curse, if you will. Some of Ireland’s greatest writers tamped down this urge to create the great prose and poetry they did produce. Samuel Beckett is just such an Irish writer; his prose came into its own when he abandoned any of the old lyrical strategies that were found in his early works, such as Murphy, Watt, and More Pricks than Kicks. It was with the commencement of his trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) that Beckett came into his own as one of the great Irish prose writers. He went from being a typically lyrical Irish writer to being a spare, unadorned French one. C’etait parfait.

Who I write for has something to do with how I write and what I write about, and it might also explain why I write. I have always identified myself as a Catholic anarchist, having done this since my early twenties when I first met Dorothy Day by chance on East 1st Street in the East Village of downtown Manhattan in the 1960s. Ms. Day was the essence of a Catholic anarchist, leftist in her thinking, politically and socially engaged, antiwar, a great believer in helping the downtrodden, and a bit of a rebel too. It was only with the advent of Pope Francis’ pontificate that people have begun to understand what being a Catholic anarchist means. Francis has said that he too is a Catholic anarchist, and when he spoke to the U.S. Congress, he alluded to two people who are the American saints of Catholic anarchy—Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

I write because it is the best thing I do as a human being. I was a fairly good basketball player as a kid, but I was never a great player, even with a really good jump shot that rarely missed when I shot the ball. I also boxed, but again my boxing was good enough to get me seriously hurt. I once taught, but teaching was not my gift, writing was. I wrote as a journalist, but invariably I got in trouble for taking liberties that nowadays are totally accepted. But back then when I got into trouble with an editor or copy editor, I was kicked out of there precipitately. I liked baking, but again I was not a baker, just someone who baked once in a while. I liked painting, but there were others far more colorful, more expressive; and my love of music, which is considerable, was not enough to make me a musician. Writing was it.

Today writing often involves really superficial markers that determine how well known a writer will become. Where did she go to school? Who did she study with? Where is his work published? Who has given him blurbs? These questions evolve into other ones, such as, where does he or she teach and where has that person gotten grants. I have been fortunate, at least when younger, to teach in some of the best writing programs. Likewise I have degrees from some really great places. I have ten letters after my name! Though I grew up in great poverty, I have more than made up for my lack of finances to become an incredibly well educated person. Where I taught reflected that education too.

When I was younger, I was awarded some grants, though never the big ones, the National Endowment ones or the Guggenheim; these awards have passed me by, although I still occasionally apply for them. I made an application for a Guggenheim this year, and have gotten to the second and third rounds. I’m going to be seventy years old in a few months, so the likelihood of ever getting such a grant becomes slimmer and slimmer. But there are still literary awards to be won, although most prizes nowadays require fees to enter them. One of the highest paying awards in the US is the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, given by Claremont Graduate University in California. I think it is around one hundred thousand dollars, and it is one of the few prizes whose winners are poets I have read, heard of, and even know, making it somewhat unusual. Past winners have included Chase Twichell, whom I taught with at Princeton University back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Afaa Michael Weaver, whom I taught with at New York University (NYU) back in the 1990s. Both are very good poets.

I hadn’t published a book of poems in many years, not since the Nineties; but earlier this year I published a book of short poems entitled Occam’s Razor (2015). I published the book myself, under the First Person Books imprint. Self-publishing is a time-honored way of publishing poetry, and I am a fairly seasoned writer, having published my first book with E. P. Dutton in New York more than forty years ago when I was in my mid-twenties. I’ve also published a memoir with Random House, and books of essays with good university presses (Southern Illinois and Georgia), one of which won the AWP award in creative nonfiction. My fiction and poetry have been published by good small presses from Dalkey Archive to Hanging Loose Press, and I’ve published a memoir with Hazelden in Minnesota because it was a book about recovery and the family. I have an advanced degree in writing from Yale University, where my thesis advisor was a Nobel Prize winner for his poetry, and I graduated in the top of my class in writing; I also have a doctorate on poetry from a British university. I had published eighteen books before this one appeared. I am not a beginner writer certainly. My previous books had been praised by writers as diverse as Seamus Heaney and Frank McCourt, Paul Auster and Russell Banks, Hettie Jones and Maureen Howard, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Richard Gilman.

When I sent off my book of poetry to the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, I didn’t so much think I could win this award so much as they would at least take me a little bit seriously. Maybe I could make a few cuts, as I sometimes do with grants and awards, and then be jettisoned towards the end. Not long after I sent off the eight copies of the book which were required to enter the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, I received a letter from Claremont, along with the return of my books. Here is what the letter said:

Thank you for submitting Occam’s Razor for the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. However, because only full-length volumes (a full-length volume of poetry is generally understood to be 48+ pages in length) are eligible for the award I am returning your submission. When you publish a full-length title, we hope that you will consider submitting it to the Tufts Poetry Awards.

I have deposited this letter under a file labeled Irony. I had purposely designed my book to resemble little books from the alternate press I remembered from my youth on the Lower East Side in the 1960s. And I didn’t number the pages either. All the poems were quite short, most just a few lines long. They are poems that had been published in good little magazines, including Gargoyle, Exquisite Corpse, Qarrtsiluni, and the South Boston Literary Gazette, among others. One poem about President Obama was published online in the Chicago Tribune, in fact, it was the lead poem to honor the President upon his first election.

Occam’s Razor consists of 137 poems, and the book is actually 60 pages long. That is 12 pages longer than what the Tufts award committee generally understands to be a full-length volume of poetry. Someone at the Kingsley Tufts award decided that my book didn’t look like a full-length book, so they rejected it without actually checking to see how many poems there were and how many pages comprised the book. It is what happens to the majority of poetry books which are submitted to awards or grant-giving organizations. It is what happens when your work is deemed to be not on the inside looking out, but peering into the dance hall from an outside window. It is not fair, and yet no one ever said that poetry awards were fair. It is just how these things are done. It is also called the same old same old or business as usual. Am I crazy to think that poetry should have a higher standard?

 

 

 

 

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.

4 Poems [by Lea Graham]

Namecouth, (adj.) known by name; well-known, famous; notorious (rare).

Let’s say Maurice the Pants Man or
Rizutti’s Good Night Café what used
to be Old Billy’s Lounge now charred

on Millbury Street down from what was
once Stony O’Brien’s where your Gram
used to sit with her boyfriends into

her 60s, drinking gin & giving
you & your brother & sister
quarters for the jukebox, now called

Nick’s (cuz Vincent & Nicole are so
in love, says Captain Bob). Let’s say
the Greyhound that used to be

Rafferty’s & before that a name
I can’t pronounce in Gaelic & where
they say the Baker was blown & shat

that girl & I wonder which corner
or john & how much stench that place,
that dark place where we all go to watch

the World Cup with Richie Scales,
Allie Bombz, Bells & Whistles—
Everyone, you tell me, has another

name or several, better known than
their own: Giant Jesus & Baby
Jesus, Husky Jay & Bakery Joe,

Trojan Mick & Pacman Pat, Lord Pork,
Fat Ron, Polish Stosh & the Warrior.
Even in Texas, Michael mentions

“the Vernon” to Sue, his liquor
store gal from the Woo, who gives him
the thousand mile stare. She says,

Bucket o’ Blood & We were told
to look away, cross ourselves
& the street when passing that place.










“Because We Can’t Paint Flowers & Reclining Nudes & People Playing the Cello Anymore”

Thanks, Barnett Newman. As if we ever could here in America. The Island
once called “Scalpintown.” Kelley Square’s “Sacrifice Division.” Dimey beers
or hot baths for a nickel. The Nines voted “best crack.” A grafittied whale breaches

off the Vernon’s east wall, witness to the goings. White City’s alligators shot
basking on Tattasit. The Zip destroyed in fire. The Barrel auctioned to Cork.
There’s Providence to the south. Rumors of tunnels. Bathsheba Spooner hung

with child, buried under a rock near the road to Green Hill’s tool shed.
Kunitz’s father stilled on a bench across from the Greek church, carbolic acid in
Hand among the elms of Elm Park. The ghost of my own little dog still barking.











Poetics of the Scratched Patron

For Garin Cycholl

If Matthew O’Leary call 911!
A universe withdrawn to corners,
miniaturizing or what bears the mark

of infinity. Lana Do-Ya-Wanna,
always in our daydreams, the house protects
the dreamer. For dealing in the john, Richie,

this cosmos of the half-open. How we
take root, day after day, in a corner
of the world, Carol No-Teeth, before out-

spread fields & daring Lisa B. “The Leach”
to daring associations. Round cries,
Bum Tommy, of round being. Alive,

contradictions accumulate. Bobbie
Serve- At-Your- Own-Risk’s intimacy or
imagined as a vertical being

with increased intensity. Doyle—the fat
one, subject to dispersions. The mind loses,
Big-Jugs-Jeanie, its geometric

homeland. None other, CC & Hang, of
a wine deep sea. Larry & Steve the-Human-
Ferris-Wheel imagining degrees in

unity or Nelly “the Canolli”
fighting Jonny Mumbles under the sky’s
cupola, this curdled quiet trembles

before Al’s buddy, Damien, sensing
a square’s stability or what depth these
echoes, Giant Tony, seems memory’s

refuge. The simpler the image, Georgie
“for swearing at bartenders,” the vaster
this dream. Recalls songs, charms, pure threshold

 









Song of Bakery Joe

I drive through other people’s dreams.
Lilac & rudbeckia in rinsed-out brandy

bottles for the ladies when I can, rye,
pumpernickel, you-name-it until noon

at the Vernon leaving day-olds for regulars
to do something nice ya know cuz it never hurt

nobody where I go to write poems to Our Lady
of the Dollar Draft, Venus of the Blackstone,

her sweet-smiling Keno screens bring luck,
rest before song—sweet   

 sha-da-da-da   dream sha-da-da-da
baby…









Lea

Lea Graham is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch (Apt. 9 Press, 2016), the poetry book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011) and the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above /ground press, 2006). Her poems, translations and reviews have been published in Notre Dame Review, Southern Humanities Review and Fifth Wednesday. She is a contributing editor for Atticus Review’s feature, “Boo’s Hollow,” which showcases poets’ writing on place.  She is an Associate Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.