Friday, September 9, 2016

Still Life with a Hundred Crucifixions

Aaron Smith's new collection, PRIMER, is due from Pitt on October 5 of this year. Here's a dead-on comment from Tracy K. Smith about Aaron's work: "Aaron Smith is an expert at locating the spaces within spaces. ...he zeroes in on the places where doubt and possibility collide and unsettle our beliefs. (His poems) are graceful, full of humility and hard fact, and they aren’t afraid... Tracy actually went on to write that his poems weren't afraid to laugh, but I've ended her quote there because the poem I'm publishing here (its first appearance, I'm proud to say) is a fearless one indeed, charged by a dark and wounded beauty.  

Still Life with a Hundred Crucifixions                                                  

I never talked to men
after sex, just got dressed

and left, but he asked me to stay,
naked like that on the bed—

even after we’d gotten off,
toweled off—so I stayed,

though I was afraid to see him
as a person: his face tired

in the lamplight, suddenly older
than his on-line pic. He pulled

a book from the shelf: Jesus
on every page, rendered in oil

from other centuries, hungry
and sad, scrawny and hammered

to different-sized crosses, or thrown—
full color—in a tomb.

What is that shade of blue? Look
at the detail in the hands.

He took my hand, placed it
on each slick image:

How did the painter make his eyes look like that?
What makes someone’s eyes look like that?

Time for a fresh take

It's easy to see that this blog's been languishing a while. I've been thinking about why that's the case. It's a form I enjoyed while I was posting frequently here, but not posting often easily leads, most of the time, to posting even less often. But it's not just that. What I've liked about this form is the spontaneity of it, of recording a quick idea or impression, perhaps something that will later find its way into longer or more developed pieces. And there was a kind of fun in keeping a kind of public journal. For one thing, just because the entries were public I'd polish them more than there'd be reason to do if I were writing in a private notebook. And then there was the chance of commentary and conversation, which felt stimulating.

But as I've been engaged for some time now in writing a new prose book, one that's finally moving toward conclusion (what a relief, the end in sight!), time for the more idle, less goal-oriented practice of blogging has been squeezed out. My daily line-up of things to get done already seemed already at odds with the rather patient focus I needed to work on What is the Grass: My Life with Walt Whitman.(I keep changing that subtitle, and while this one's the most accurate a description of the book before, I'm not in love with it. I wish the book could go out into the world without one, but I doubt that's going to happen.)

And that opportunity for conversation I mentioned above became an issue, too. Poets often say, and genuinely mean, that their work is solitary and that they long for company, and that the poem is completed when it's given to someone, the arc of its making coming to rest in the imagination of the reader. But it's also true that the period of privacy in which a poem (or essay or story or memoir) gestates is a necessary stage. The work's distance from the readers we hope will someday come to it allows a piece to deepen, develop and change. I suppose one might write a blog post and keep it a long time, considering, revising, but the form lives under the sign of spontaneity. And once a piece has been posted, I feel less inclined to keep working on it; the writing is already hardening, becoming more fixed into place as it's read and commented upon.

Blog readers do talk back. This is often wonderful, sometimes just interesting, and occasionally quite uncomfortable. If I write a dismissive description of, say, the boardwalk at Atlantic City in a poem or essay, there's a lag-time before anyone will read it; by the time it appears in print, I'll have lived with that passage awhile, and if I keep it then I'm prepared to stand behind it, and don't feel the vulernability I might should it have appeared on screens in the homes of interested people the day after I wrote it. The imagination doesn't really like to be accountable  A friend tells the story of going to give a talk at a college in a town she found dismal. She described the desolate view from her motel room; when she went to give her talk the next morning, the professor who had invited her rose to give the introduction and quoted her post. My friend was mortified. You can see immediately why such an experience might lead one to blog less frequently. Creativity is blocked by the sort of tension that comes from anticipating judgement.That's how a negative review can become a monstrous presencesuch at our desks; hurt once, we anticipate a blow coming again. Who can write freely if we're worrying about who might take umbrage to what we say? It's an appropriate, ethical practice to think through your work once you've actually done it and consider the moral weight of your words, or who might be hurt by them, and whether you want to stand by your statements. But trying to anticipate such things as you're writing simply ties you up in knot of self-consciousness. I'd guess that's one of the reasons why blogs often begin in pleasure as open-ended, random, inclusive notebooks, then seem to slow and diminish over time. It's easy to  begin to feel watched, or uncomfortably hemmed-in.

I don't want to abandon the form; it's too much fun.  But I have had to conserve writing energy and time for other things, and I do value the space between composition and publication. So here's what I've decided: I will still make the occasional essayistic post here about this and that. But I'm mostly going to use this space to present work by others, things I love or that merit attention. That's a lovely thing to be able to do, and it satisfies my curatorial impulse, and allows me to be an advocate and cheer for what I like.

So I'm starting with a compelling poem from a book that will be out soon. Next post, please!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

At The Nightingale School

Recently I spent a morning at The Nightingale School in Manhattan, a private school for girls that has a deep commitment to writing and literature. I started out the day talking to a class of seniors, young women with perceptive, not-always-easy-to-answer questions, the kind that bring out complexity and nuance. The class was taught by Brad Whitehurst, a poet himself, and with us was another teacher of poetry, Maya Popa. Maya was a student at the school when I read there last, in 2006, and like many young writers, even those who don't know they're writers yet, she must have been hungry for poetry, for a language that was in some measure commensurate with the inner life, or at least tried to be. Now the students call her Ms. Popa, and she's publishing poems and moving toward her first collection. When the class was over, she and Brad and I walked out into the hall, on our way to the auditorium where Maya would introduce me (a lovely circularity, or at least a stitch in crochet chain) and I'd read to the Upper School.

But when we entered the stairwell, which was fairly dim, a marvelous thing happened. The girls of the Lower School. the little ones in elementary grades, began to come streaming up the stairs. It must have been all of them, there were so many, and every single one of their faces seemed lit up from within. You could see that they were thinking all kinds of things -- a bit of nerves about the next class, an eagerness to join a game and move a restless body, a sadness here, a distracted look there -- but those were the surface signs of engagement in a new-ish life, a small girl self, and through that shone a glow of exhilaration, this almost physical light. 

I'm thinking about time a lot lately. The poems I'm scribbling at and not finishing seem centered on the mystery of time's passing, this difficult amalgam of fluidity and relentless progression. Does anyone understand this primary, determining fact of us, what it is to be in time?

There we were on the stairs, myself the eldest, then Brad the fine and seasoned teacher, and then Maya, adult in presence and perception though recently traveled from the audience of young women at the reading up onto the stage. I wonder if this journey feels recent to her? Probably not; it seems a long way from one's teens into one's twenties, and not nearly so far from the thirties to the sixties, at least for me. Whatever the disparate experiences of the three of us going down the stairs, a startlingly beautiful future poured up towards us. Maybe the stairwell wasn't really dark; it might be that the faces of a hundred and some hurrying little girls were bright enough to dim the space around hem.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Heaven for Stanley

The first time I went to one of Stanley Kunitz's birthday parties, he was just turning 90. I was sent by a magazine to write about the event, which was held on the waterfront deck of a painter, and attended by all Provincetown's older and serious artists. It truly did feel like the bohemians of another era were going strong, there in the sun, downing martinis, delighted to be in attendance. I knew Stanley just a little then; our friendship had just begun when we'd given a reading together for the National Seashore. He and his wife Elise had been warm advocates for my work, and Stanley obviously loved giving emotional support and guidance to younger poets he admired. I think I was 40 then, but compared to 90, I appeared to be a young poet indeed.

One of the reasons the magazine had sent me was that they thought this birthday party was probably his last. In fact, every time Stanley gave a reading during the decade to follow it felt like an occasion; audiences were moved by this small man striding up to the podium, and how his rather quavery voice became steady and strong as he read Touch Me, The Portrait, Route Six, The Layers, and so many other poems people knew and loved. I had the good fortune to introduce him a number of times in those years -- at the Sunken Garden in Connecticut, where he was magisterial, and at the Dia Foundation Space in Chelsea, a reading of spellbinding intimacy. I'll  never forget reading with him at New York is Book Country, an outdoor fair in Manhattan. Fifth Avenue in midtown had been closed for the occasion, and we were to read on an elevated wooden platform. When we arrived, Julia Child was being interviewed on stage -- was she a little in her cups? Then I read and then, dwarfed by the huge towers around him, there was this 95 year old man in a body that seemed both delicate and vital at once, and for a while he owned that city: I am not yet done with my changes.

All in all I went to ten of Stanley's birthday parties, nine of them in the house in the far west end of town, up on the  slope before the last of Cape Cod trails down into a spiral arm of sand. I wrote a poem after the party for his 98th year. And now the wonderful students, faculty and staff at Moses Brown School in Providence, RI, had made this video version.  I'm hugely moved by it: how it calls back Stanley and that party, and how the poem, something I've made of my time with him, appears in the mouths of all these people, each a distinct and lovely self. It's a metaphor for the life of poetry, how it enters, if we're lucky, many ears, many mouths. Stanley and I are spoken here. We have new company in the world. We're enlarged.

I'm reading on Friday, May 1 (tomorrow!) at Moses Brown, for the students in the daytime, and for the public at 7. If you're anywhere nearby, you're invited.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A new website for APR, and a new poem from me

The American Poetry Review seems like it's been around for my entire life as a poet, and when I went to look up the year of the journal's founding -- 1972 --that turns out be almost true. I finished my first year in college then, dropped out, and moved to Iowa, where I worked in a child care center and wondered what had become of the revolution I'd been expecting,

APR always offered an energizing mix: glamorous or soulful or sometimes honestly artless photos of poets on the big tabloid-style cover, and poems by poets I followed eagerly, and by people I'd never heard of, some of whom i'd come to love and some I'd never hear of again. And columns, and reviews, and letters contentious or laudatory. It made the poetry world feel both larger (look how many of us, how many ads for new books and conferences and MFAs) and encompassable, since you could find out about nearly all of it inside these pages.

And it wasn't just American poetry and poetics. There were steady doses of translations, and un-expected projects like a special section that reprinted the entire text of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in facsimile. That kind of surprise seemed a signature gesture.

I'm only a little embarrassed to admit that I shared what must be a fan-
tasy of many a young poet, the not-quite-imaginable experience of seeing my face on the cover. By the time that did happen, thirty-something years after I first read the magazine, it was a pleasure, but it was no longer my ambition -- which is the ironic way of success: by the time you get something you once wanted, you now want something else. Back in 1972 I wanted to be the sort of poet who'd be featured, but for what kind of poem I truly couldn't have said. Well, good ones, But what would a good poem of mine be like?

So just now something I feel quite honored by has happened. APR has redone their website completely, and the editors have posted a new poem of mine -- one that will be in their May issue,which isn't out yet -- as a kind of headliner on the new site. This pleases me so much because it's a great, perennial magazine, and because it's a poem I didn't know I could write.

My work proceeds from the observed detail of experience, and my method is one of moving from description toward feeling and meaning. But of course sometimes there are things I want to write about which I haven't experienced directly, things I learn about through the news. The disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when those who'd crawled for their lives up out of the filthy water onto the bridge were sent back by police with weapons raised. The bit of video that slipped through CNN's filters, a dead Iraqi boy, maybe four years old, in his father's arms, in the rubble of their home.

I think the fact that I'd have to imagine the details isn't so much the problem as received language is. My Katrina and my Iraq come packaged in a vocabulary that is mediated, censored and euphemized,
and the choices seem to either step around that vocabulary altogether (tough when you don't have much other) or to ironize it, which works in a poem whose intent is to critique polit-speak but may be less useful for a poet more interested in the evocation of aspects of human emotional experience than in the critique of official language. This problem often distract me from finding my way into a poem, and a draft may sit a long time, maybe forever, stalled by my inability to find a way in.

I think I have overcome this exactly twice, once in an old poem called "Charlie Howard's Descent,' about a young man murdered in Bangor Maine in the 80s, and in the new poem that APR has posted,
which is called "In Two Seconds," and considers the murder of Tamir Rice last November by the Cleveland police. In both these instances, it was really sheer rage that overcame by reservations, and pushed me  -- gave me an actual shove -- in the direction of finding the sort of personal connection that would allow the poem to be written. In the earlier poem, it's of course my identification with Charlie Howard, my own history of feeling judged, excluded or threatened, that my sexuality needed to be concealed but that I was actually incapable of keeping that aspect of myself hidden away.

The rage that I felt over the police shooting of a 12-year-old boy was tied to the last year's other terrible racist violence, the cumulative weight of that anger and grief. My friends Marie Howe and Tina Chang had organized a reading in Washington Square; they needed, and felt we all needed, poems to strengthen or center us or cry out for us. The looming date of the reading helped, but what made the poem possible was when I saw an extended version of the video of the shooting; the time that passes between the squad car coming to a rest and the officer firing his weapon is clear there, for all to see: two seconds.

All my new, unfinished drafts seem to be about time, and so the notion that this life could be judged, its fate determined, in two seconds struck me to the core. How much had gone into the making of that life, and how much future disappeared with him, collapsing there on the grass? Because the link to my own obsessive territory was so clear there, and my need to speak so strong, the poem came pouring out. Of course there's been a longish process of trimming and fiddling, but that quality of spontaneity, of an outpouring of feeling for Tamir in the moment -- I want my poem to preserve that.

You can read it at

Monday, April 6, 2015

Nothing That Has Ceased to Arrive

STORY QUARTERLY,  a distinguished and long-lived journal from Camden, New Jersey, Whitman's home for many years, published this essay of mine -- actually a few pages from WHAT IS THE GRASS, the book about Walt Whitman I've been working on (and working on) -- about a year ago. The magazine's just put up a link to the piece on their website, and reading over it today made me feel anxious to get done with the busyness of April and back to this book. It feels as if it's sitting there, nearly whole (at least in my sense of its shape) and waiting to be attended to. It stops somewhere, waiting for me. I'm coming, I want to tell it, I know I've been slow, but I'm coming!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Here's a terrific review of DEEP LANE,  written by Doni M. Wilson and just out
from the Houston Chronicle. I recommend a look at the Chronicle's posting of it, 
just for a look at the apt (and entertaining) photo of a mole that accompanies the 
review, illustrating a line that's quoted in the review's first paragraph.
"Mark Doty, winner of the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle 
Award, offers a new collection of poems called "Deep Lane," in which he examines 
the nature of descent. In (the shared title of several poems in the collection — all dif-
ferent experiences of the same street), the Rutgers University professor and former 
University of Houston professorthinks about "Down there, the little star-nosed engine 
of desire/at work all night, secretive," where experience carves its indelible marks, 
but cannot be repeated: "Don't you wish the road of excess/led to the palace of 
wisdom, wouldn't that be nice?" As in most of Doty's poems, that road might not 
lead to wisdom, but it does lead to something: knowledge, experience, the images 
or memories you cannot forget.
The opening poem begins "When I am down on my knees," and that is not a bad place necessarily, because that is where the literal and metaphorical task of "digging" begins: "all day we go digging, /harrowing, rooting deep"—with "deep" being the key word in this, and all of these poems. More than homage to Seamus Heaney and his well-known strains of digging,
Doty reminds us of the profundity of the every day, "the wild unsayable" 
that comes when we take plunges. He says, "Beauty's the least of it," 
but we still know it is a big part of it, the lyricism of the poems 
providing proof. Once you dig hard enough, whether through "study," 
"prayer," or hard times, Doty suggests when you hit the hard bottom ("the anvil"), 
then "maybe you're already changed." We believe him.
As Doty watches his dog go on a tear, he is reminded of the reality of death, the 
ever-presentdanger of dangers that punctuates our days. But even in the midst of 
seeing"where the backhoe will dig a new grave" — someday — Doty reminds us, 
like Wallace Stevens, that "death is the mother of beauty," and of living life even 
when defying the conventions that constrain it. He sees his dog "in his wild figure 
eights," and says, "You run, darling, you tear up that hill." We see his point: better 
now than never.

For Doty, nature is our teacher and sometimes the lessons are dark. Yet Doty can be
\ funny: he questions nature, how it is created "implacable, without boundary, pure 
appetite." The poet says, "I wouldn't know anything about that." But we don't believe 

This collection will win awards. The best pieces are about what Doty calls "the what-
I-lack-speech-for" (he doesn't), what he calls in "Crystal" the notion of "con-
sequentiality" (it exists),and the "hanging, and caught within that/want without fulfill-
ment or satisfaction" (we've all been there). If you travel down "Deep Lane" with 
Doty, you will know what it is "To be ravenous, and lack a mouth" — and there is 
no way to forget that.