Newsletter #96 August 2019

Newsletter #96 August 2019
September 1, 2019 Christina Mullin
PLUME
Robert Adams Longmont, Colorado ca 1979

August, 2019

Welcome to Plume Issue # 96 

August: and unlike my usual brief introductions such as they are, which speak to the cover art or the exclusively “secret poem” at hand, it is this, from the introducer, Joseph Campana, that struck me, these last few moments before sending the newsletter off for layout:

And if I were an honest poet, I’d also tell you that in addition to seeking out poets whose qualities I admire, I am also a poet envious of the casual “love song”-ness of so many O’Hara poems. Why are they so hard to write? Effortlessness is more winning, more erotic, than the labored or the polished, the considered or the dense, the learned or the careful, qualities vital to some poems but deadly to others.

Ah, Joseph, I want to say: I hear ya! Or maybe, Word.   For I too, am a lover of the dense, the learned, the careful; poems that embody these qualities exert a gravitational pull on me.  Yet, add me to the list, long I am sure, of those who envy also the seemingly effortless, the casual.

Though I wonder if we aren’t fooling ourselves.  For a glance at almost any O’Hara poem and certainly “Avenue A” must take account of that keyword seeming — the trick, always, yes? (One thinks of the British national affection for the “amateur”, of poets like Simic and David Breskin) To appear not to be trying, or at least trying too hard.

All the while pretty quickly, with lines like the following, that notion belied:

brilliantly coursing, soft, and a cool wind fans
your hair over your forehead and your memories

and

the El Greco
heavens breaking open and then reassembling like lions
in a vast tragic veldt
that is far from our small selves and our temporally united
passions in the cathedral of Januaries

So, no.  Maybe what provokes my jealousy, at least, is simply the poet’s genius: to make the “labored or the polished, the considered or the dense, the learned or the careful” appear – read – as casual, off-hand –  a trifle, the simple recording of a passing moment, when its every element is the opposite .

In any event: enough. Read for yourself, the poem and Mr. Campana’s lovely love letter to it.

On Frank O’Hara’s  “Avenue A” 

It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to make a poem a mirror. I love Frank O’Hara because he loved paintings and music and movie stars. His poems live in a world I’d move to in a second if I could. I read his work because I see myself, which is one of the best and worst reasons to read poetry.

But I also love Frank O’Hara because of a feeling I have when I read him—that he is what I am not and will never be. It is neither tragic nor reprehensible not to be Frank O’Hara, though it might make me (and perhaps some of you) a little sad. When I read his poems, those familiar or those I stumble upon fresh and unprepared, I am immersed. I’m as moved by the mention of “12:20” in “The Day Lady Died” as I am by the death it marks because it asks me to be unmistakably in place and in time. I suspect I often write poems to be where and when I am not. Call it avoidance, call it the calling of a different muse, but like so many I love the ever-hectic present of a poem that seems not distracted but located in an ever-expanding world of things, all worth attending to. What if absolutely everything merited attention and no moment of perception was ever a wasted effort? It’s easy to think otherwise. It’s easy to feel we don’t have time for it, whatever the “it” is.

All of which brings me to “Avenue A,” and if I defer from its seductive instantaneity it’s because I wanted to say that I am thinking about Frank O’Hara because it’s barely a month after the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. I’ve been thinking about the poets who came before me and made a way for me. And if I were an honest poet, I’d also tell you that in addition to seeking out poets whose qualities I admire, I am also a poet envious of the casual “love song”-ness of so many O’Hara poems. Why are they so hard to write? Effortlessness is more winning, more erotic, than the labored or the polished, the considered or the dense, the learned or the careful, qualities vital to some poems but deadly to others. I’d call whole books I’ve written love songs to something or someone, including and especially the man with whom I’ve spent the last 17 years. But the single, slender, lyric moment of the love poem eludes.

So, as I tried to beat back all the poems I might have shared here, as if I were Frank O’Hara “Having a Coke with You,” I found myself paging through a copy of The Collected Poems, which I bought for my husband some years back, which he read, lovingly and searchingly, correlating each poem with a biography of Frank O’Hara and commentaries by various critics. And as I turned the pages finding old friends and new, I landed on “Avenue A,” which my husband had marked, dog-earing the page and noting thoughts, in pencil, in his unmistakable hand.
O’Hara’s poems create an atmosphere of immediate credulity. The voice is so confident that the assertions must be true however possibly also contrary to fact. “We hardly ever see the moon any more,” he begins. It’s a bold opening, since we do likely see the moon quite often, and there must be an absurd number of poems about moons and moonlight. But in a way he’s right. We’re hungry for surprise but dulled by habit and repetition. Yet “it’s so beautiful when we look up suddenly.” It’s so easy to look and look past nearly everything. Or look in expectation of transport, already anticipating what should hit unawares. We’d be so much more monetizable if we’d only be the algorithms we’re expected to be. But what if repetition and nearness weren’t dulling? What if we could count on immediacy to make a familiar moon strange? I’m particularly captured by this “broken-faced moon,” which feels accurate but also intimate. It’s so easy to feel broken-faced.

And I love reading “Avenue A” in this very edition because my husband imbued the anonymity of an edition with the information that this, and quite a few of the poems around it, were love poems to Vincent Warren, about whom I know nothing beyond the wonderful specificity of his name and Frank O’Hara’s love. In the handwriting of my beloved, I find copied in some dismissive judgments of Marjorie Perloff, who found moments in these poems when “the sentiment is stated too flatly” or when there is an “irritating note of campy cuteness,” moments that “may succumb to triviality” as when he says, “I love the leather / jacket Norman gave me / and the corduroy coat David / gave you.” I think she’s missing the point. Let’s call these moments neither sentimental nor trivial. And if they’re campy we might, in 2019, wonder where exactly camp when and when we can hope it might return. Besides, if you’re going to write a love poem, why not love the whole world? Vincent Warren, yes, but also bourbon and oranges and leather jackets and corduroy coats and the alluring moon. Why not also “the El Greco / heavens breaking open and reassembling like lions” because who wouldn’t want to write a line like that?

Besides, we’ve been warned, “these are my delicate and caressing poems.” Somehow that makes them more and less delicate at the same time, more and less caressing. Having a light touch is one thing. But the mystery of the poem that caresses I have yet to solve. So maybe I’ve made O’Hara not my mirror but a kind of black mirror, a place I look so as not to see myself. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, “for now the moon is revealing itself like a pearl / to my equally naked heart.” It’s hard to be naked before a mirror, but perhaps that is just what the poem asks for. A reader who, like the poet, is nakedly before another, as if before a lover. Naked as if in moonlight.

Avenue A
We hardly ever see the moon any more
so no wonder
it’s so beautiful when we look up suddenly
and there it is gliding broken-faced over the bridges
brilliantly coursing, soft, and a cool wind fans
your hair over your forehead and your memories
of Red Grooms’ locomotive landscape
I want some bourbon/you want some oranges/I love the leather
jacket Norman gave me
and the corduroy coat David
gave you, it is more mysterious than spring, the El Greco
heavens breaking open and then reassembling like lions
in a vast tragic veldt
that is far from our small selves and our temporally united
passions in the cathedral of Januaries

everything is too comprehensible
these are my delicate and caressing poems
I suppose there will be more of those others to come, as in the past
so many!
but for now the moon is revealing itself like a pearl
to my equally naked heart

As a bio note regarding Frank O’Hara seems a little absurd, perhaps this link from the Poetry Foundation, if you insist.

Joseph Campana is a poet, critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and The Book of Life, in which these poems will appear, forthcoming from Tupelo Press. His poems appear in SlateKenyon ReviewPoetryConjunctionsColorado Review, and many other venues. He has received grants from the NEA, the HAA, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Current projects include a collection of poems entitled The Book of Life. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Rice University.

What else?

To re-re-repeat: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece, all of the Plume newsletters are  now to be found under Archives on our homepage.

Our next print anthology, Plume Poetry 8, is coming along nicely. Many first-time contributors to accompany our ever-changing roster of established favorites. We should debut as usual at AWP in early March, with an all-star reading there, followed by others at various venues around the country.

(Note: As I cannot be everywhere – I still am teaching – I’ll take this opportunity to ask that, if you, as many have, would like to organize a Plume reading in your city, please, email, and Plume will do all we can to help with PR, inquiries to possible contributors, venues, etc.)

To continue our recent practice of highlighting Staff accomplishments, I am happy to announce that Nancy Mitchell, Associate Editor, Special Features, has been named the Poet Laureate of the City of Salisbury, Maryland.  For more on this honor, take a look here.   Brava!

Our cover art this month comes from Robert Adams, per artnet,an American photographer best known for his images of the American West. Offering solemn meditations on the landscapes of California, Colorado, and Oregon, Adams’s black-and-white photos document the changes wrought by humans upon nature. “By Interstate 70: a dog skeleton, a vacuum cleaner, TV dinners, a doll, a pie, rolls of carpet. Later, next to the South Platte River: algae, broken concrete, jet contrails, the smell of crude oil,” he wrote. “What I hope to document, though not at the expense of surface detail, is the form that underlies this apparent chaos.” Born on May 8, 1937 in Orange, NJ, his family moved around the Midwest throughout his childhood, finally settling in Wheat Ridge, CO in 1952. Adams went on to study English at the University of Redlands and received his PhD in English from the University of Southern California in 1965. It wasn’t until the near completion of his dissertation for USC that Adams began to take photography seriously, learning techniques from professional photographer Myron Wood and reading Aperture magazine. In the 1970s, he was released the book The New West (1974), and a year later was included in the seminal exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.” Adams has twice been the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and once the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Adams lives and works in Astoria, OR. Today, his works can be found in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

And finally, per usual, a few new releases from Plume contributors:

Hank Lazer                  Slowly Becoming Awake and Brush Mind 2: Second Hand
Robert Nazarene          Empire de la Mort
Katie Ford                   If You Have to Go
James Longenbach      How Poems Get Made
sam sax                        Bury It

That’s it for now – I do hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume