Newsletter #98 October 2019

Newsletter #98 October 2019
November 5, 2019 Plume
Joel Sternfeld    from American Prospects

September, 2019

Welcome to Plume Issue # 98 —

October: and for once in some way our cover art reflects the “secret poem” below, from Russell Edson,  whose essence Joseph Campana locates so precisely in his observation that “…there’s utter clarity about how our minds create the heavens and hells we inhabit.”  One might say, in Joel Sternfeld’s photograph, that that creation, or its product, is offered to the “reader”  simultaneously — and almost literally: the peaceful  bucolic foreground and the house ablaze behind it.  Such are the powers of association – that surrealist touchstone – that we cannot help but read this “text” as heaven/hell.  So it is for me, with Edson, as with all great poets:  the duality of experience – all the dualities – ever- present, images leaning into one another, calling to and enlarging each other. (As books do and inevitably entire libraries, per Alberto Manguel among others.)

But, enough.

Step forward, Mr. Edson!

Joseph Campana on Russell Edson’s “The Pilot”

I had occasion to visit Tennessee to give a reading and some talks to wonderful audiences at ETSU in Johnson City. I wish I could say I was so regionally-minded the visit put me in mind of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of a Jar,” or, even better, the many fine writers from Tennessee. Instead, I found myself thinking about Russell Edson, whose work I first encountered in graduate school when I also first met my host, Tennessee poet Jesse Graves, some twenty years ago.
At my reading someone asked the question I never like to answer: “Who influences you?” I find myself incapable of answering the question directly; influence feels, so often, a matter best assessed by someone else. I won’t tell you here that I’m “influenced” by Russell Edson. I more often like to tell people, when they ask that question, what poets I’ve spent significant time reading and what poets I’m reading now. And I like to tell people what I think I’ve learned.
I would be surprised if anyone told me I “sound like” Russell Edson, but I will say I learned to let the things of this world speak to one other. Why should our loud-mouth species alone get a turn at the mic? Maybe we understand ourselves better when we unleash the many voices in our heads. Maybe we see ourselves more clearly not because we imagine ourselves speaking for others but because the imaginative practice of hearing other points of view—even those that arise from inside our own minds—helps us. The world is full of voices. Being in the world is, then, a constant act of hearkening. For those lessons, thank you abundantly, Mr. Edson.
I also admire something about his work, particularly, which has to do with the quality of what many would call its surrealism. I speak not as an expert on the surreal—or a practitioner, even, of its poetics. But as a reader and observer I encounter surrealism that ranges from oddly affectless to overly-jokey, both of which can feel like easy ways out of the encounter of a world that often feels awfully weird (with an emphasis on awful). Edson’s is a world of lush and strange creatures and feelings and objects, sometimes sad and sometimes sweet. It’s a world in which we come to believe in what we imagine because it seems so much more real than most things. Apes and cups of coffee, famously appear, but also trees and old men and rooms and hallways and closets.
So many poets we encounter on page or screen. Readings and recordings certainly abound, but my sense of discovery is often first tied to what is written. Hearing Edson read was a revelation and not solely because the poetry was utterly new to me. And there’s a reason I’m particularly thinking about Edson’s “The Pilot.” In advance of that reading someone (I can’t recall whom) told me I absolutely must attend because Edson always traveled with his wife and they enacted some call and response during the readings. There was some suggestion of a cooing interaction to which idea I had an allergic reaction. How horribly precious, I thought, and I’m pleased I didn’t let my baser instincts win that day. I went to the reading and something else, something extraordinary happened.
Edson read “The Pilot” perhaps three-quarters of the way through the reading. In it, an old man pilots his dark room through a terrifying and lonely night. The detail of the poem is brutally and perfectly simple. He looks out through “a dirty window” that really is a portal to his mind. The star by which he tries to steer is an “electrical freckle that has fallen out of his and gotten stuck in the dirt on the window.” More dirt, yes. But there’s utter clarity about how our minds create the heavens and hells we inhabit. And why not? Why shouldn’t we steer our lives by stars? Maybe the star really is just a speck of dirt on the window, but so what? We’re all trying to steer. We’re all pilots of our own listing ships. And how often these ships steer through millennia of poems. We live in ships of state and sometimes think of the world as a ship of fools. Lovers in love poems seek beloveds and shores in ships on seas wracked by storm.
What’s most moving to me here is not an age-old metaphor. It’s the dialogue. This is what happens when the world speaks as the other self:

He says to himself, brave Captain, are you afraid?

Yes, I am afraid; I am not so brave.

Be brave, my Captain.

And all night the old man steers his room through the dark . . .

How easy it is to feel not so brave most of the time. And we don’t always have others to tell us we can be brave. What I couldn’t know, sitting at the reading, hearing this moving poem, was what it might cost the poet. For Edson, this poem required bravery he wasn’t quite sure he could muster. After he finished, he looked devastated, genuinely so. A pause turned into a longer pause. He seemed unsure of sailing on. So his wife, Frances, who was sitting in the front row, started another dialogue, and this is how I remember it.

“That was a sad poem, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was.”
“Maybe you should read a few more.”
“Okay, I think I will.”

She was, at that moment, his tether to reality and the voice telling him he could be brave. That he was already. It was moving to see, and he did read on. We don’t always know what being brave will mean when the world feels like a dark, dirty room in which we feel trapped and alone. It takes a certain imagination to sail on. I’m grateful to Russell Edson for teaching me to be brave.

The Pilot
Russell Edson

Up in a dirty window in a dark room is a star which an old man can see. He looks at it. He can see it. It is the star of the room; an electrical freckle that has fallen out of his head and gotten stuck in the dirt on the window.

He thinks he can steer by that star. He thinks he can use the back of a chair as a ship’s wheel to pilot his room through the night.

He says to himself, brave Captain, are you afraid?

Yes, I am afraid; I am not so brave.

Be brave, my Captain.

And all night the old man steers his room through the dark . . .

Here’s the Poetry Foundation bio.

Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (Iowa, 2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and most recently the The Book of Life (Tupelo, 2019). His poetry appears in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, GuernicaMichigan Quarterly Review, and Colorado Review, while individual poems have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and the Southwest Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has reviewed the arts, books, media and culture widely and is the author of dozens of scholarly essays on Renaissance literature and culture as well as a study of poetics The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012). He teaches at Rice University where he is Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English.

Beautiful, no?

What else?

This issue is number 98 – I think we will do something special for our 100th. Not sure what yet, but it will include shout outs to the staff and contributors who have helped us so generously over the years.  Stay tuned.

A reminder: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter — and how could you not?  — all of the Plume newsletters are  now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.

Plume Poetry 8 proofs have gone out – or are about to. Thanks to all the staff, contributors, blurb-ers,  and to Bruce Bond, who will  compose a preface.

Penultimately, a plea: as you might know, Plume launches the print anthology each year at AWP; Plume Poetry 8 will be no exception – I hope. Right now, we are looking for an off-site venue in San Antonio – a city I have not visited (though just up the road in Ausitn several times). If you know of such a venue – bookstore, bar/restaurant, community space, library, church, laundromat, whatever – please, let us know! You can email us at

Finally, our cover art this monthas noted, comes from Joel Sternfeld, a seminal contemporary American artist known for his large-format color photographs of American towns and cities. As Artnet has it, Mr. Sternfeld’s work is… influenced by the roadside photography of Walker Evans, Sternfeld’s projects document people and places with an exacting sense of color that visually rhymes with the subject matter, as seen in his seminal series American Prospects (1987). “No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium,” he reflected. “It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say.” Born on June 30, 1944 in New York, NY, he received his BA in visual art from Dartmouth College in 1965. Sternfeld began producing color photographs during the early 1970s after reading both Johannes Itten’s and Josef Albers’s theories on color. He has gone on to take photographs all over the country, including the High Line in Manhattan and the ruins of utopian communes in rural Colorado. The artist currently lives and works in New York, NY, where he has taught photography at Sarah Lawrence College since 1985. Today, his works are held in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, among others. For more, visit Joel Sternfeld’s website at

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

Mary Ruefle                            Dunce

Matthew Zapruder                  Father’s Day

Elaine Equi                             Sentences and Rain

Forrest Gander                        The Trace

Jennifer Franklin                    No Small Gift

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

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume