The Poets Speak

 

Kathy Fagan on “Fountain”

I think “Fountain” is a poem about plans and patterns, how they grow, change and break, how they leave their mark, literally and figuratively. I was interested in thinking through those concepts in the lineation of the poem also, within its units of observation and meditation. I recently lost my mom, and my partner and I have been caring for my dad in our home for several years now, so the new work has turned more directly to the very practical issues around aging, and to time and how strangely inequitable its allotments are. Playing with the ways we talk, specifically about time—as a thing that can be wasted, killed or passed, as a thing that stops you in your tracks, stands still or flies—generated most of the poem’s associative movement. And I envision the clenching and unclenching (or generate/release, or fold/unfold) repetitions as metaphorically informative, too.

 

Sandy Solomon on “In a Pile of Pictures”

Not long after my father died, I came across a photo of him holding me when I was a baby. The photo was square in shape with a wavy white border, the image in black and white. As new parents will do, my 31-year-old father was holding me proudly but a bit tentatively; in the last week of January, he stood in his winter coat on the sidewalk outside my parents’ tiny apartment in Baltimore. When I saw that he’d written on the reverse just my age and his own calculated in weeks, I began to think about his emotions at that moment—a bit of a relief given that my own emotions were running so high at his loss. My father was a scientist, someone who loved numbers; I felt he was speaking to me through those numbers. The way of calculating my age had changed the way he determined his own. His new child had changed him.

I didn’t consciously think about holding and being held as a metaphor, but that seems to be what the poem found as it rehearsed his deathbed and then circled back to that one extraordinary moment. And the poem also investigated the notion of photography stopping time, stopped in time, which notion also attached itself to him. Stopping as both source of solace and of devastation.

 

Andrei Codrescu on return of the repressed in the age of avantgarde robots

I wrote this after a conversation with my friend Eric (twitter: @nein), a philosopher. I had just read Peter Sloterdijk’s book “You Must Change Your Life,” a hefty treatise of mental German gymnastics that managed (for 503 pages!) to make absolutely no mention of the French post-structuralists: no Lacan, no Derrida, no Deleuze… not even Foucault. That was quite amazing and amusing because 1. it kept alive the old Franco/German philosophical tiff to a degree I didn’t think sustainable in this age, and 2) it treatised its way past the Frankfurt school and past Marx with nearly the same insouciance. It was, in the end, an erudite and very well-written book about… gymnastics. The title, that lovely quote from Rilke, “You must change your life,” became a kind of gym teacher’s ruler to slap over the knuckles of the current generation of neo-liberals. My friend Eric, who writes in English and German, is an attentive reader of current German thought. He was amused by my amusement and we discussed all the above, plus the fact that workers these days feel that they are neither a “class” (as in Marx), or useful, except in service jobs. Hence, tools and plumbers rising from the unconscious like human waste from the bottom of the sea.

 

Barbara Hamby on “Olympia”

“Olympia” came out of a trip to Greece following The Odyssey from Troy to Ithaka. My university, Florida State, gave me a summer grant to do this, but there was a sidebar to my project. Since I started writing odes, I have become interested in the beginnings of the form and Pindar whose four books of odes survive. He wrote them for the athletes who triumphed at the games in ancient Greece. The four big sites were Corinth, Nemea, Delphi, and Olympia. All of the sites are amazing, but Olympia and Delphi are unearthly in their beauty. You can still feel the gods moving in the world. The site at Olympia contained the temple to Zeus and his great statue that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It’s gone now, but it’s not too difficult to imagine it. Also, there’s a temple to Hera that’s older than the temple of Zeus. Was there a female cult before the male-dominated Zeus site? No women were allowed at the ancient games. Is this how the games began? With all of this half-knowledge, I wrote the poem, which is a part of my new book Bird Odyssey.

 

Dennis Maloney on “6”

This poem is part of a twelve poem sequence titled, Border Crossings, which grew out of travel to Germany as part of a literary conference several years ago. There were many languages in the air. It was the beginning of the migrant crisis and some sections deal with that. Others such as this one deal with languages and how we work as poets and translators to migrate words and ideas from one language to another. The initial inspiration came from my German translator, Tzveta Sofronieva, as we were working back and forth on her translation my poems to German. I am also a long time translator and began to reflect on how we as poets transmute the essence of the poem from one language and culture to another, and not so much what is lost but what is found. 

 

Wayne Miller on “Stages on a Journey Westward”

In 2014 my family and I moved from Kansas City—where we’d lived for twelve years—to Denver. As we left Missouri, where we’d just had an absolutely miserable year, I couldn’t help feeling that we, too, were enacting that classic—and conflicting—American trope, “going West.” I also kept hearing bits of James Wright’s poem “Stages on a Journey Westward” in my head while I was driving.

The book I’m working on has a number of self-conscious little nods toward various poets and poems I admire; titling this poem as I did is probably the most blatant of them. I don’t pretend my poem holds up to Wright’s, but the sorts of details I gathered in my notebook as we moved across Kansas and toward the Rockies kept echoing his moods and themes—which is why, in the end, I decided I was OK with such a blatant homage.

 

Stewart Moss on “For Those Whose Lives Have Seen Themselves”

In December 2016, I was preparing to teach a seminar on Lebanon, Syria and Iraq before and since the time of war and was going through some old correspondence I’d sent home to my family when I’d traveled there in the early 1970s. I’d spent time in Beirut, Aleppo and Baghdad, among other cities, which were then relatively tranquil and where the local people had treated me with kindness and hospitality. So I was saddened by the devastation that had been visited upon these cities during years of conflict.

On January 1st, 2017, I learned of the massacre at the Reina Nightclub, in Istanbul – another city I’d come to love during my time there en route to Syria – which had resulted in 39 deaths and 70 injured. In reading reports of this tragedy, I was especially struck by an interview with Sezen Arseven, who had been wounded during the attack and whose fiancée had been killed.

The more I tried to comprehend this horrific event, the more I knew I needed to write about it … and Arseven’s words became the poem’s epigraph. Her words also took on deeper meaning for me in the context of my own travels. So what began as a kind of homage to the Club Reina’s victims gradually evolved into a very personal meditation on loss, the act of seeing, and the once beautiful and peaceful cities I had once known but were now destroyed by hatred and violence.

 

William Trowbridge on “The Harvard Classics”

As a child, I always admired my grandfather’s bookcase of Harvard Classics, mark of a scholar, a dean in his case. Perfectly matched in red seeming-leather with gold lettering and filigree, they graced his study till the day he died, then disappeared when Grandma was rudely moved out of the dean’s mansion to an upstairs apartment. Maybe she sold them or gave them away. I invented the part about my father taking them and my trying out the Milton volume. But if he had taken them, I think we would have both behaved as described in the poem. Actually, a salesman for them called on me when I was a beginning graduate student. Nostalgia, plus the “great books” concept and “easy” monthly payments sold me on a set. I was unaware that the “liberal education condensed to a five-foot shelf” that the publisher boasted of was selected on the basis of expired copyrights, though it did look good. But as I suspect most buyers did, I browsed through a couple, then let them gather dust. And I haven’t really gotten around to selling them. They continue brood augustly in a far corner of our living room, though I did get a poem out of them.

 

Wendy Barker on “Little Pieces of String Too Small To Be Used” and “Incest”

In 2012, over Ethiopian food in Chicago, my two sisters and I began reminiscing about our mother and her British background, which was strangely complicated, and much of which we never understood. Only recently had I begun to wonder why on earth Mom moved us so much, from New Jersey to Arizona, from Phoenix to Tucson, from Tucson to Phoenix, and from house to house, why every year she threw out my last year’s doll and other toys, why I went to eleven schools in twelve years.

“Little Pieces of String Too Small To Be Used,” “Granny’s Lists,” “Incest,” and “Bird Songs” are all part of a new book manuscript that attempts to trace the painful reality of my mother’s seemingly privileged history and its effects on an entire family.

 

And now, a special addendum, from Stuart Friebert, whom we have published many times in Plume. It is, according to the author, a “memoir-piece,” – so not precisely commentary on a current issue –poem. But..well, I wanted readers to see it, and this, we agreed, Stuart and I, that this was the proper forum. Another such “piece” on Grass is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, and one on G Raboni in World Literature Today. So – let’s not stand on ceremony – enjoy!

Stuart Friebert

OPTIONS: Remembering Calvin Coolidge Hernton*

1
Missed more and more these days of turmoil and turgidity, Calvin would call you up, somehow sensing you were down in the dumps about the world wilding away, and rasp, “Drop everything, don’t bother changing your jockstrap. I’ll honk in five minutes. We’re getting drunk at The Point,” which was a tavern, now long since razed from where it squatted on the corner east of town; which he did one dreary, stormy night when he took Bruce Weigl and me to knock back a few brews you couldn’t come by in our dry town.

Bruce and I get around to reminiscing about that night, etched in what’s left of our memory’s storehouse, when Calvin, who could hold his liquor better, suddenly yanked us away from the bar and hustled us the hell out of there. Turns out, someone down a few stools had drawn a knife and stabbed someone else. An obituary of sorts, here’s some of Calvin’s blockbuster ballad that hung framed over the bar:

THE POINTl

It is where you shall be begrudged and beguiled,
It is the place, time and circumstance of your origin,
and it is the source of your most ardent pursuit.
. . .
It is September 1970, the year of moon and honey,
Get in your red automobile and head one block South
to Lorain Street which is Ohio State hyway #10,
Turn left and ease on down the road destined in the
direction of The Point.
. . .
Pause and reflect
Look straight down hyway 58,
See the captured runaway rescued by the two halves of the
town of Oberlin in process —
Do not continue down that road! Do not follow that procession!
Do not go to Wellington!
. . .
Pause and reflect.

For the point is more than the leaning men and their laughter
and the drinking . . .
Here they come the old, the young, the fisherman with his
homemade reel . . . the silent one with his bag of cigarettes,
. . . the federal aviation boys with the wreckage of jet
airplanes in their brains, the three friendly pigs of Oberlin
and the one poet in whose breast an agony bleeds from a
secret universality among the dogs of the point and by
every living beast in the devil damned town . . .**

2
If I’d known more of Calvin’s history before Oberlin College was fortunate enough to land him or I’d had the good sense to try to draw him out more, I’d have learned that he co-founded Umbra (with Langston Hughes, Ismael Reed, and Alice Walker), one of the most influential literary magazines in its day. That should have led to our inviting him to be a co-editor when colleagues and I founded Field. At least I had the good sense, when we were launching the new writing program, to enlist his services to work with students on their advanced projects. African-American Studies, his parent department, was kind enough to allow him to do so.

At that time, late 70s, Calvin published his monumental tome, The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life, which earned him many a devoted reader but also a number of serious enemies. I recall him joking about that with Gary Snyder, whom we’d invited for a reading and lecture***, who himself was followed around by a “Truth Squad” of Native Americans and heckled whenever they perceived Gary had stolen a word or phrase from their literature and culture. Calvin had come at the last minute to hear Gary. The only seat left was in the back row, otherwise taken up by the Native Americans.
Sweating some but deftly deflecting some of their loud concerns, Gary was ready to cool off after they did and left. After he signed a bunch of books we hustled him off to Presti’s at the other edge of town from The Point, where we thought we’d enjoy quieter surroundings, less likely to be interrupted by a flashing knife.
If only! After many a chaser, sparks began flying, arguments intensified, a fist or two landed on flesh, and glassware flew around till someone called the cops.

3
As the years went by Calvin made valuable suggestions and contributions to the writing program’s curriculum, particularly his willingness to engage with playwriting students. They didn’t quite trust the rest of us who took turns teaching playwriting but hadn’t written plays. Word eventually got around that Calvin had not only written plays, he’d had them staged in many a venue. Once students got past his rugged appearance, set off by the darkest shades money could buy, heard the humor in his occasional scowl, and sensed the reservoir of tenderness below, more and more of them signed up to work with him. Passing around his novel, “Scarecrow,” and “Medicine Man,” his book of dramatic, narrative poems as well, they basked in his fostering ways. I dreamt the College would let him transition to becoming a permanent member of the writing program. Alas, comfortable in his department, Calvin was reluctant to work with writing students exclusively, because his interests, personal and pedagogical, took him into a wide range of fields, e.g. philosophy, politics, psychology, and sociology.**** So we went about deepening our working and personal relationship in other ways. Two instances should suffice to underline how much I’ll forever be indebted to him . . .

4
The spring Odetta appeared in concert at Finney Chapel, Calvin once again, as he was wont to do, called up out of the blue: “Know you wouldn’t miss Odetta. How’d Diane and you like to hang out some with her and a few friends at my house after she sends the crowd home happier than they’ve been in a while?” He could likely hear my heart skip. What we didn’t know was Odetta had her own surprise in store for Calvin, whose birthday she knew was close enough to concelebrate. Who should be in Calvin’s tiny kitchen, stirring away at a huge pot of jambalaya, a bright bandana swathing her forehead, but Maya Angelou, who’d flown in and slipped into Calvin’s house unseen. Oldest of friends, Odetta and she had cooked up the perfect surprise for him. If only someone had had a camera to immortalize his gaping smile! It was one of the few times I ever saw him take off his shades, to wipe a tear away.

After we’d recovered some from the sumptuous feast and exchanged toasts, we sprawled at Odetta’s and Maya’s feet. They’d settled on the sofa and began, at first, humming back and forth to each other till the hums morphed into bits and pieces, finally into full-blown, many-versed songs we later learned they’d known from childhood, and had yet to be recorded. The afterglow lasted all summer long.

5
For unknown reasons, Calvin and I drifted apart for a while until he up and called early one morning. “Can you ride shot-gun on my stage? Gotta get off to Cleveland to fetch two gals, one of whom’s gigging here this weekend. Grunt if you can be on the curb in five minutes.” I managed a grunt, he hung up, and I plunged into some clothes to make curbside just as he pulled up.

It was clear he wasn’t going to tell me who our passengers back to town would be, so we settled for some chat about the literary scene, avoiding campus politics, which we both loathed. While, looking back now, I wish I’d tried to interview him more about his past, the few times I did try to open a window, say onto his years abroad, he shut it abruptly. We let the radio crackle away the last few miles to the hotel where our “mysterious” passengers awaited us.

Never having seen pictures of them, I just saw warm, smiling visages, and exaggerated waves directed at Calvin, who bounded out of the car ahead of me and was swept up in hearty hugs. Once the threesome had separated, “Hi,” I’m Audre, who are you?” floated my way. Before I could reply, the other woman said, equally sweetly, “Hi, I’m Toni,” as I grabbed her suitcase before she could, while Calvin met me at the trunk with Audre’s.

All I recall from the charged, exciting exchanges among them was what Audre said in a lull: “O.K., folks, what’s your favorite poem?” As with one voice, they all broke into song, “Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold” . . . Too embarrassed to ask whose poem it was, I vowed to myself I’d track it down and memorize it, and I’ve recited it daily ever since.*****

Back in Oberlin, having dropped Audre and Tony off at the Inn, Calvin finally growled in his tender way: “Man, it’s high time you read, or reread if you know their work at all, Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison.” I did, and do, and do.

6
Though Calvin never separated from what had eventually become the Black Studies Department, he continued to find ways to work with writing students. The last few years before retiring, I was able to persuade Calvin to join us in personnel decisions, which he undertook extremely seriously, often counseling the whole staff in difficult situations.

When Bruce Weigl returned to Oberlin to teach at Lorain county Community College, after a long and heady career of teaching elsewhere, he and Calvin became even faster friends than they’d ever been. They remained so until Calvin died some two weeks after 9/11. Bruce had readily agreed to Calvin’s wish that he serve as the Executor of Calvin’s estate.
Having been told that along with Calvin’s wife Bruce spent Calvin’s last hours with him, I asked if he could share something of what those hours were like. Here’s some of what Bruce has allowed me to quote: “Mary and I were sitting on the bed. It was late, one or two in the morning, and we’d been waiting for a late-night delivery service to drop off some meds to help Calvin get through things. Calvin was mostly quiet and his breathing labored. Suddenly, he sat straight up and, without opening his eyes, he very clearly said the word ‘options,’ then fell back and stopped breathing. My instinct was to try to resuscitate him but Mary reminded me it was time to let him go so I didn’t. When Calvin had said ‘options,’ I looked at Mary and she at me with surprise. I even asked her what ‘options’ could mean. She could only shake her head.

“While I had no idea what Calvin had meant, over the years I’ve thought about it; and now believe I have some sense of what he meant. At the moment of passing, something important must have occurred to him about how we live, then stop living, and what it all means. That was also the subject of his best work. It felt good and warm knowing it wasn’t the end of Calvin, but another kind of beginning, how he saw it on his way out.” ******

**********************
NOTES
*: He was said to be so named by his grandmother, likely prompted by the fact
that President Coolidge was a Civil Rights Pioneer, who among other acts
gave a Commencement Address at Howard University, which she found
inspiring.
**: “The Point” appeared in POCKET PAL; 2/3. Spring 1977, a magazine founded
& edited by Bruce Weigl. The three pigs may reference an item in the Lost
& Found column in Oberlin’s weekly newspaper: “Lost! Nine nice pigs!”
***: The lecture, “Poetry, Community, and Climax”, appeared in Field in 1978.
****: Other books by Calvin Hernton:
White Papers for White Americans
Sex and Racism in America
Coming Together: Black Power, White Hatred, and Sexual Hang-ups
Cannabis Experience: An Interpretative Study of the Effects of Marijuana
and Hashish
The Red Crab Gang and Black River Poems
*****: “Those Winter Sundays,” is Robert Hayden’s PERFECT POEM. I’m forever
grateful to Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Calvin for having taught it to
me.
******: From an email from Bruce Weigl.

 

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