Rita Dove

Rita Dove may have been one of the first published poets I saw as a real human being rather than a sort of mythical demi-god. Sure, Adrienne Rich is still alive, but I’ve always seen her as much more removed and unattainable — in that regard, she’s in the same category as Eliot and Pound and Bishop and Millay. But Rita Dove, for some reason, seems like a real person, someone I might actually be able to meet and talk to one day. Perhaps it’s because she was poet laureate of something or another when I was in college (the U.S. maybe?). Perhaps it’s because I always associate her with a joint project I did with another student, and I still vividly remember that woman’s frustration with me for not being as on-the-ball as her. She also introduced me to those little sticky flag things from Post-It. They cured me of my archivist-horrifying habit of dogearing pages — plus, it’s easier to find a yellow flag than a dog-eared page. I have a package of them in my desk right now.

So. Rita Dove. In an interview in some literary journal, probably conducted because she was the poet laureate of something or another, she talked about learning to leave the end of a poem open, rather than sewing it up with a final sewing-up type line. I think about that a lot when I’m writing poetry. I try to leave room for the poem to breathe at the end, rather than making it a self-contained little jewel. A stale cream puff. Some poems lend themselves to open-endedness more than other poems.

“Daystar” has a lot in common with Rich’s “Orion”, as it speaks directly from the female experience and explores the theme of juggling the various responsibilities of motherhood, womanhood, and artisthood. I hate getting all reductive with the gender stuff, but yes, our society still expects women to be mothers and caretakers and homemakers. Of course, now we get to have careers as well. Which still leaves little time for writing. Or for sitting and thinking.

Daystar

She wanted a little room for thinking:
but she saw diapers steaming on the line,
a doll slumped behind the door.

So she lugged a chair behind the garage
to sit out the children’s naps.

Sometimes there were things to watch–
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,
a floating maple leaf. Other days
she stared until she was assured
when she closed her eyes
she’d see only her own vivid blood.

She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared
pouting from the top of the stairs.
And just what was mother doing
out back with the field mice? Why,

building a palace. Later
that night when Thomas rolled over and
lurched into her, she would open her eyes
and think of the place that was hers
for an hour–where
she was nothing,
pure nothing, in the middle of the day.

Rita Dove

From The Longman Anthology of Contemporary American poetry, second edition. Friebert, Young, eds. Longman, New York:1989.
pp 529, 530

AHWOSG and McSweeney's

I finally made the connection between that interesting (note I didn’t say completely genius, just interesting) memoir of Dave Eggers’s from the 1990s called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG for short) and McSweeney’s. Eggers started McSweeney’s. As with his memoir, I’m not 100% sold but it’s definitely worth reading from time to time. I find some of the pessimistic satire of the McSweeney’s articles a bit too heavy fare, but this one was priceless:

From ERNEST HEMINGWAY
BLOGS ABOUT THE TOP
TEAMS IN COLLEGE
BASKETBALL.

Roy Williams is soft. His hands look manicured. They have never pulled tobacco from the dirt. He has never gutted a fish fresh from the sea. Soldiers shoot soft men in the back rather than follow them into battle. Williams should look out. He should watch his back. But junior forward Tyler Hansbrough is a 2-ton bull in baby-blue shorts. When he broke his nose last year, he saw red. He charged. His horns went down and gored opposing players. I would fight with this man. I would die for him.

See, that’s clever because it’s using the voice of a famous writer to describe something current. I answered GRE questions along these lines.

Unfortunately, the further you get into the piece the more the actual author’s voice comes through. Still, McSweeneys: a fun addition to any RSS feed.

DIY Poetry, Micropresses, Kristy Bowen

In the past couple of months, I finally got hip to a phenomenon that’s been blooming in the poetry world: micropresses. While I was busy doing things like developing my own small business, filing quarterly taxes, and shivering in my shared flat in Cambridge, a whole new flock of poets were flipping a big middle finger at the poetry establishment and publishing their own damn books.

Some folks are publishing in print, some are publishing in electronic form. It’s bizarre: the very thing that first motivated me to learn web development, back in the dark ages of Textpad + FTP + $150 domain names and annual webhosting fees, has apparently caught the attention of a whole slew of indy poets. I can’t help but feel simultaneously like a dinosaur and an early pioneer.

My own career as a poet has been full of twists and turns. I suppose I’m not unique in this way. Most writers–and poets in particular–are solitary creatures. I’m no exception. There’s a part of me that’s very comfortable with being on the edge of things. But in the past decade or so, that alienation turned to bitterness. I never found my niche in the Boston writers’ community. I never stopped writing, but I did stop reading; my own work and others’.

Just in case you think I’ve always had my head up my butt, I would like to point out that I used to run the circuit of open mics. I must have read at every venue in the mid-Hudson Valley and made some great friends that way. I was a featured reader at the sketchy poetry night at the Cosmic Bean in Hartford, until I realized that the guy running the series just wanted to get into my pants. Oh, and the owner’s sleazy comments about how great it was to hear my poem about a girl sleeping between my breasts: priceless. I’ve read in queer settings and straight settings. I’ve read in private homes, in bars, in the basements of churches, in bookstores. I was on the editorial board of my college’s first student-run literary magazine and later served as the managing editor. I sat in a candle-lit attic room with a bunch of beatniks. I was responsible for the creation of the literary section of Chronogram, based in New Paltz, NY. I’ve worked professionally as a writer and copy editor. I’ve designed shit in Quark and Pagemaker and Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve shopped around for printers and chosen Pantone colors. I know the pros and cons of digital versus offset versus letterpress printing. I know how to do this. I just got tired of it.

A confluence of events has led to a renaissance of my interest in poetry. There’s a cycle of percussion that happens with creativity; someone else’s creative expression inspires your own. And something like that has been happening for me since January. I’ve been sort of lurking around the edges of these micropresses and the online communities that surround them. I’m a bit afraid of making myself known to others, afraid that I’ll make some faux pas that will alienate me from this new community (or these new communities) I’ve just discovered. I’m easing into it, commenting on blogs, posting a lot more poetry on my own. I attended an open mic in February. I’m mulling over how to start my own press, what I want to call it, how I want to design the books, how to print them. I’ve realized I have enough material for at least three chapbooks of my own. And I’m also acutely aware of something else: that poetry is a gift economy.

This realization is like a light bulb going off. I finally get it. I was never destined to win the nobel prize or live in the groves of academe. I was supposed to live my life, and to write. I was supposed to make a contribution to a different sort of world. A world of people who live outside the rarefied atmosphere of the literary establishment, but who still care about words. Hells, if William Carlos Williams could be a doctor and Wallace Stevens could be an insurance executive and still kick ass with their poetry, why the hell can’t I be a web developer and do the same?

A lot of things that annoyed me about the literary establishment appear to exist in this other DIY community of poets, but I’ll get into that later. I feel like I need to create actual relationships and enter the community itself before I start trashing it. I need to do more research. And perhaps instead of bitching about things, I should just roll up my sleeves and pitch in. After 24 years of writing poetry, I finally get that it’s about making a contribution, not waiting for applause and a laurel wreath. You really do write because you have no other option. You write because of the fire in the belly. You write because the muse grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you if you don’t.

One book that really blew me away recently was Brief History of Girl as Match, by Kristy Bowen. Brief history of how I found this book:

1. Aaron Tieger sends me the link to the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative. I add it to my RSS aggregator.

2. DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative posts an announcement about the Dusie Kolletiv chapbook exchange

3. I click randomly and find this.

Bowen’s work really speaks to me, as a woman, a sexual being, in a world that gives us conflicting messages about what constitutes a good girl, a powerful woman, a feminist.

notes to self on the female body:

1. girls who like to be tied up make terrible feminists. Also Mailer.

2. When dancing, do an awkward shuffle to the left, then vague hand
movements resembling the mating sway of swans. When he dips you,
meet the eyes of other men indifferently. Hold, then release.

3. dishabille: adjective. 1.a. archaic : negligee. b: the state of being
dressed
in a casual or careless style 2: a deliberately careless or casual manner.

4. French doors do not, under most circumstances, induce the female
orgasm.

5. ligature: noun. 1 a: something that is used to bind; specifically : a
filament (as a thread) used in surgery b: something that unites or connects
: 2: the action of binding or tying

6. Also thigh highs. Soap operas.

With a light touch, Bowen manages to convey the simultaneous desire to be an empowered feminist and a sexual being, both a subject and an object of sexual desire. She evokes this dichotomy through random association, through choosing words that associate and elide with each other on various levels: the level of meaning, the level of sound, and the level of connotation. That do thigh highs and soap operas have to do with the female body? Or Normal Mailer’s work? Nothing. Everything.

I greatly admire this ability to evoke meaning — to say something without saying everything. As Aaron Tieger put it, “work that invites some kind of participation from the reader in order to complete the experience of the poem.” It’s something I strive for in my own work, which I do not consider minimalist. It’s a constant tension: saying enough to make my meaning clear, but not so much that I’m banging the reader over the head with it.

Bowen always has an ability to slide her language into surprising directions, to the same sort of disorienting effect as Sexton’s work. For instance, from autobiography:

In which I am carnelian, carnal. All carnage all the time.
In which I am curator to a museum of clarinets.
[…]
In which I am Anne Boleyn or a B-movie bride.
In which my hands are like a box with two birds.

Bowen runs Dancing Girl Press, founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets through chapbooks, journals, and anthologies. Atelier Women Writers’ Studio in Chicago is the home of Dancing Girl Press.

Poetry is a gift economy

And so is spirituality. That’s why I quit my gig as the About.com Guide to Pagan/Wiccan Religion. It started to be about the money instead of about the service.

From What to Wear During an Orange Alert’s interview of poet Reb Livingston, via the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative

Poetry is a gift economy, nobody is making much/any money off her work. Some make livings teaching or editing at mid-sized to large publishing houses, sometimes poets get paid to speak, most make their living (or the bulk of it) doing something completely unrelated to poetry. Almost nobody is surviving on royalties and poetry book sales. So one must remember that every publication, every invitation to read, every review — those are all gifts. Do you want to be the asshole who shows up to every Christmas empty-handed and leaves with a bag full of presents? I don’t. I pride myself in being a completely different kind of asshole. You don’t need much or any money to support other poets. […] One can discuss and promote other poets and books on her blog, speaking at conferences, during her own readings — there’s all kinds of ways to contribute back to the general poetry community. One’s greatest gift is her time, energy and passion.

(DIY Publishing Linky)
(Whole interview with poet linky)

Where were these people when I was getting my B.A. and whingeing about not being selected for Senior Comp?

Thank You, Locally Owned Fitness Center Near Me

Dear Locally Owned Fitness Center Near Me:

Thank you for being such an awesome place to work out. Thank you for always having plenty of cardio machines available without my having to sign up. Thank you, kind, fatherly owner of the gym, who always takes the time to explain things slowly and in the same tone of voice as my old Outdoor Living teacher in high school. Thank you for being so close to my house that I can walk or run there and thus begin my workout before I even arrive. Thank you for having ample parking and being on the way to my job so that I include a visit with you in my morning commute. Thank you for having hangers for me to hang my corporate whore clothes on in the locker room.

Thank you for your comfortable locker room with the wooden doors. Thank you for the carpets in the changing area and the linoleum tile in the shower area. Thank you for having a detachable shower head in one of the stalls, and for having stalls with curtains that are actually wide enough to close. Thank you, ancient scale for reminding me that it’s okay not to know my weight down to two significant digits. Thanks an extra bunch for showing that I lost four pounds this morning, and thanks for reminding that it’s okay to gain those four pounds back. Thank you, sauna, for being so hot and dry and dark like the Womb of Mother Earth. Thank you for being on a timer so I know you’re not singlehandedly causing the melting of the ice caps, although I wish I remembered to turn you on more BEFORE my workout.

Thank you, hardworking, down-to-earth women of my town who conduct your workouts without applying foundation, mascara, blush, and eyeliner. Thank you for wearing normal, baggy workout clothes on your normal, imperfect and yet beautiful bodies and not flaunting your perfectly toned abs, cellulite-free bottoms, and gravity-defying breasts in the latest fashions from the “activewear” racks at Neiman Marcus. Thank you for smiling at me when I smile at you — and I forgive you when you don’t, because this is New England, after all. Thank you for talking to me in the locker room, even when I am naked. I am sorry that I sometimes talk to you when I am naked or when we have not been formally introduced. I know this may make you uncomfortable, but it’s just because I am friendly, not a native New Englander, and jazzed up on endorphins. I’m also sorry if I take up space on the bench with my massive gym bag. I try to be mindful of your needs, but I just tend to take up a lot of space. Thank you for being so respectful of personal property that I never need to use a lock on my locker.

Thank you, little self-locking cubbyholes where I can leave my iPod while I’m changing, since my trust for strangers only goes so far.

Thank you, older gentlemen who use the free weights along with me and scowl when I use them too and smile at you. You are so much better than the alt-rock listening, baseball-cap-wearing, tattoo-sporting fuckheads who so intimidated me when I first started lifting weights back in the 90s. Thank you, nice transplanted divorced guy from Brooklyn who actually talks to me in the weight area and on the mats. Your Brooklyn accent makes me feel all warm and homey and I love that you used to live in Santa Cruz and know my favorite beach in the whole world, the one with the surfer museum. I would totally date you, except that it might make things awkward at the gym.

Oh men of the free weight area, oh women of the gym, I apologize if I have ever offended with you with my tight workout pants and my big-city attitude. I’m a big girl and it’s hard to find workout pants that AREN’T tight, it’s not really because I am trying to show off my hugamundo gluteii maximii, which are becoming more appealing by the day as I continue to do my clock lunges. You should be pleased to know that I have never worn my “Every time you see a rainbow, God is having gay sex” T-shirt specifically because I did not want to offend you. You are my workout compatriots and I treasure and love your unpretentious creamy goodness.

Thank you, housewives who bring your kids to the gym with you and leave them in that windowless child care room under the stairs. I am annoyed by you and your noisy kids, and also jealous of you because you “don’t have to work” (riiiiight, you just don’t get paid for your work) and because your husbands (or wives, but you all look so very, very heterosexual) must be bringing in mad bank for you to raise your kids in this affluent little suburb of Boston. Thank you anyway for being there, for exercising your right to choose as women, for raising the next generation of the human race, and for taking care of yourselves.

Thank you, nice, spacious group exercise room I have never used. Thank you, full roster of exercise classes none of which are at a convenient time for me. If I ever get bored of my familiar and lovely cardio/strength/flex fitness routine, I know you will be there for me.

Thank you, well-organized strength training chart filing area. Thank you for always having a clipboard for me to use and for all those lovely pencils with the pencil sharpener right nearby and the new supply of pencils with erasers that haven’t been worn down to the metal holder. I love you and the way you let me keep track of how often and well I do my lifting.

Thank you, lovely, colorful, but clearly painted by an amateur mural of people running and biking and climbing mountains and doing other sports, with the Boston skyline in the background. You make the walls so very much more fun to look at when I am standing in the dancer pose trying not to fall over or sprain my ankle.

Thank you, EFT transfer of funds that lets me go to the gym day in and day out without ever writing a check. Sure, you sometimes take me by surprise and overdraw my checking account, but you charge me exactly the amount of money I am willing to pay for a gym. And the gym is so very much worth the extra funds.

I love you, Locally Owned Fitness Center Near Me, and I want the whole world to know it.

Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The last of the rock star poets, and my hero. She was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Millay was one of the last of the formalists, who wrote in rhyme and meter. Some of her earliest poems date from around 1917, a time when women still did not have the right to vote in the United States.

The women’s movement of the late 1800s had made some gains for women; a certain class of young, professional women worked outside the home–at least until marriage. Even as late as the 1960s, it was generally expected that women who married would give up their public, professional lives in favor of the more “feminine”, interior duties of wifeing and mothering. The tailored look of the Gibson Girl, with her buttoned-up shirtwaists, long skirts, and corsets, might appear oppressive to modern women who gladly don all manner of jeans, pantsuits, miniskirts, and other clothing that allow great freedom of movement. For the time, however, the look was considered forward-thinking and, among certain circles, even radical and “unsexing.”

In this pre-flapper era, Millay pushed ahead of all social conventions. She was an unabashed bisexual and carried on affairs with men and women in Greenwich Village. She had at least one threesome. She also went to my school, Vassar College, where she chafed at the rules and fucked had affairs with lots of women. She went by Vincent.

There’s a legend that she once tried to jump off the top of Jewett, which at nine (or is it seven? Fifteen years plays hell on the memory) stories is the tallest building on campus, and that that’s why they have enclosed the tallest fire escapes in metal cages. I have no idea how true this is.

Nor do I know how true this story is, but I still like telling it:

Once at a party during her wild and crazy Greenwich Village days, she complained of headaches. In response, some amateur analyst asked her, “Have you considered the possibility that you might be attracted to women?”

She replied, “Of course I’m attracted to women. And to men too. But what does that have to do with my headaches?”

Alas, Vincent never learned about Alcoholics Anonymous. After her husband died, she descended deeper and deeper into addiction to alcohol and morphine. She died in 1950 at her home, Steepletop, in upstate New York.

Her most often-quoted poem:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

— First Fig, from A Few Figs From Thistles

Three Songs of Shattering

I.
The first rose on my rose-tree
Budded, bloomed, and shattered
During sad days when to me
Nothing mattered.

Grief of grief has drained me clean;
Still it seems a pity
No one saw,–it must have been
Very pretty.

II.
Let the little birds sing;
Let the little lambs play;
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

I recall a place
Where a plum-tree grew;
There you lifted up your face,
And blossoms covered you.

If the little birds sing,
And the little lambs play,
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

III.
All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree!
Ere spring was going–ah, spring is gone!
And there comes no summer to the like of you and me,–
Blossom time is early, but no fruit sets on.

All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree,
Browned at the edges, turned in a day;
And I would with all my heart they trimmed a mound for me,
And weeds were tall on all the paths that led that way!

“Renascence” was the poem that brought her her first fame and an education at Vassar — she was not a woman of means.

I screamed, and–lo!–Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back the scream into my chest;
Bent back my arm upon my breast;
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sounds
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.

–From “Renascence,” fourth stanza

All excerpts from Edna St. Vincent Millay: Collected Lyrics. Harper & Row. New York: 1981.

You can take your BMI, fold it until it's all sharp corners…

This flickr set is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. It does a good job of illustrating the amazing, beautiful variation of the human form. And, in my opinion, also illustrating why the BMI is just a marketing tool for gastric bypass programs. Which can kill you a lot quicker than diabetes and a heart condition can.

Illustrated BMI categories