Thursday, October 23, 2014

25 years of the Best Poems

In 1989 I began copying out other people’s poems and keeping them in a loose-leaf notebook. The germ of the project was a collection of poems I put together for a Reader’s Theater class at Santa Rosa Jr. College. Reader’s Theater performs primarily non-theatrical texts as theater - poems, essays, fiction. The text in hand may feature in the performance. You might make your notebook flap like a bird while your colleague reads from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example. You generally don’t memorize, but you ought to practice enough that the text is there for anchor rather than crutch.

Many things about Reader’s Theater worked for me - the choosing of the texts, the collaging of them, the performance (without memorization being required), the inventiveness of minimalist staging. The class attended one competition. We didn’t win any awards - our competitors were experienced and we were just figuring things out - but it was fun and nerve-wracking.

For the final project we were in teams. For my team I proposed a piece based on my fascination with creation-of-the-world stories. Sadly, one member took ill and had to bow out. That left me and a woman who had let me put the readings together and mostly followed my directions for performance. She was game, but by the time we gave our grand performance we had had little rehearsal time. We didn’t get to perform before the rest of the class, even. I think our entire audience was the instructor. She had nice things to say, though had to note how unfinished it seemed. That’s the Creation, isn’t it?

Writing poetry you get asked who your favorite poets are. There was the vast corpus of poetry and I had read so little of it. How could I name favorites? Having read poems mostly in anthologies I knew I liked this poem or that poem, but poets? I ought to know for myself what/who I liked so I could follow up. If I loved a William Carlos Williams poem in an anthology, I could turn to his collections with a good chance I would find more to love. So in order to learn, in order to hang onto the poems that touched me and incorporate their lessons into my own work, in order to name favorites, in order to have poems to share, I decided to save poems.

At the end of the Reader’s Theater class I had a small batch of poems I really liked - a Hawaiian creation chant, a California Indian creation tale, a poem by James Weldon Johnson. They were already gathered in a notebook, so I just added to it. At first I typed up the poems. I wanted them to look professional, as though this anthology were an Anthology. But I hated typing and that quickly got in the way. The frustrations of typing overruled the need to look professional. Besides, “professional” meant typesetting in my mind. The typewriter’s product didn’t really match my fantasy. If I couldn’t do “professional” then I would go for personal. Although I try to keep my handwriting neat and readable (and mistake-free), I’m hardly a calligrapher. Over time I forgave my imperfections. One of the benefits of hand copying, I discovered, was the physical fact of writing the poems. What better way to learn from them? Sure, there’s memorization (and I promised myself I would try that), and there’s writing about a poem (and I’ve done a little of that over the years, too), but hand copying is a simple way to really concentrate on a poem. You notice when words repeat. You notice the off-rhymes, the visual patterns. You have to see - and feel - each choice of word. I also found later that when I reread the poems I was reading my own writing - it looked like I had written the poems thus I felt more ownership of them.

I enjoy reading poetry. I don’t like everything I read, but that’s no surprise. Most poems I read once and feel no pull to return. Many I read twice to make sure I got what the poet was up to. A few I mark to reread several times. If, after five or six readings I still don’t want to see the last of the poem, I copy it out. I reminded myself several times, especially in the early years, that I was copying out poems that were special to me, not the best poems by some other measure.

I have posted lists of several years worth of my personal anthology. Over the years I’ve been bothered by the claim that magazines like to make - that they publish only the “best” of what they are offered. Having worked on a few little magazines I know the claim is disingenuous - to be generous. I also decided to be amused by the titular boast of the Best American Poetry annual anthology. So when I began to post a list of what I had copied out in the previous calendar year I dubbed each “The Best Poems of the Year.” Whether the poem was written a thousand years ago or yesterday didn’t matter in the slightest. These were the “best” poems I had read, the poems that worked “best” for me. They are all, at the very least, quite good, and I am happy to have them.

When I realized this was the 25th year of my personal anthology I thought I ought to read the whole thing from the beginning. Of course, the poems I copied out in the early years are probably the poems I have read and reread more than any others so I’m not encountering surprises. There are poems I probably would not copy out today, but I still like things about them and understand why I chose to copy them out at that time. It may be that there are poems I did not copy out at the time that I would today, had I the chance, but that’s something I’ve discussed with myself over the years. It’s okay. You have to let things go. I do have permission to copy out a poem I come upon in a new context. I also have permission to discard a poem I’ve come to dislike. I would rather not do that as I wish to honor my original choices. But I have done it a couple times.

Here are the pieces that began the project, the ones that “created” it:

Hawaiian Chant ….. The Crawlers
James Weldon Johnson ….. The Creation
Maori of New Zealand ….. Chant to Io / Six Periods of Creation
Yurok of California ….. a folk tale beginning “At first Wohpekumeu wanted to make the river run upstream…”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Poetry Circle at Claremont Branch, Berkeley Public Library

A new poetry program is starting up at the Claremont Branch of the Berkeley Public Library featuring you and what you like. Drop in on the second Thursday of each month from 6:30 pm-7:50 pm starting October 9, 2014. Bring in a favorite poem to share and if you write poetry, bring one of your own too. We will be sharing poems in a reading circle. Discover new poets, hear new voices and ways of working the same old world into new words.

Poetry is not one thing. It can be wacky. It can be profound. It can be sad or ecstatic, heartening or surprising. It can make sense out of what never has. So come, participate in the friendly atmosphere, share a ready ear, read aloud (or recite), and let the words do their weave and swing. Bringing poems is not necessary — we will have plenty of poetry here to share — if you come with open hands. For questions regarding this program, call 510-981-6280.

This free program is sponsored by the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library

The Claremont Branch is located at 2940 Benvenue Ave, Berkeley CA 94705, and is open: Monday, 10:00 am-6:00 pm; Tuesday and Wednesday, 10:00 am-8:00 pm; Thursday 12 noon - 8:00 pm; and Friday and Saturday, 10:00 am-6:00 pm. For more information about this program call 510-981-6280.

Wheelchair accessible. For questions, to request a sign language interpreter or other accommodations for this event, please call (510) 981-6195 (voice) or (510) 548-1240 (TTY); at least five working days will help ensure availability. Please refrain from wearing scented products to public programs. Visit the library’s website:

(I wrote the above press release for the new poetry program at the branch library where I work. Do come.)

Here's a link to future dates: BPL

Monday, September 29, 2014

Whether it’s of any significance I don’t really know

Something happened this month. Whether it’s of any significance I don’t really know.

Most days I glance over the stats Google collects for my blog. Other than a rare comment I don’t get any other feedback. (When I share a post on Facebook I will get a couple comments there.) Blog visits have been poking along fairly consistently for years, about a thousand a month. There will be a weird spike once in a while. Such spikes tend to be some kind of phony stats boosting by other sites that are, I guess, doing the same thing to lots of other blogs in hopes of getting return visits by puzzled blog writers.

There was a big spike in the number of visits this month. 4,000+. Dunno why. Two posts I did this year on suicide seem to have suddenly been noticed by someone: “How does this even work” and ”he can shuffle off his present” … Not that either one is burning up the interwebs. Still, I hardly expected they would outdo my posts on J. Edgar Hoover or octopuses. I can’t figure out from the information Google gives me who is finding their way to those posts and why, as neither seems to be linked to by a prominent source. (Unlike my theft of the passage in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch that provides the source for “Steely Dan.”) I’m not saying those two posts have spiked my stats. It’s just that seeing unusual visit numbers hit those two posts in particular is a little surprise.

In past stats spikes the spike was sudden and faded fast, spike-like, in other words. This month the numbers have continued at the peak, more or less. Not a one day spike, but numbers that have been going on most of the month. It would be fun to know the story behind them. Has Google changed an algorithm? Has the next generation discovered me?

Friday, September 26, 2014

pile of reading

Far from the Tree: parents, children, and the search for identity by Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon devotes each chapter to a different category of child that presents to the parent as a person unlike them: the Autistic, the Deaf, Transgender, etc. I’m on the eighth chapter which is devoted to prodigies, music prodigies, specifically. Since Solomon himself is gay he’s more ready to notice when people he writes about are, too. Though there isn’t a chapter expressly on gay people, Andrew Solomon speaks about his own experience as a gay man (with straight parents) in the opening and closing chapters. The book is sometimes fascinating, sometimes depressing, sometimes intriguing, sometimes oddly diffuse.

Oz Before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on stage and screen to 1939 by Mark Evan Swartz
Real detail on the live version of Wizard that was the biggest stage hit of its day (1902). It was not much like the book or the MGM movie.

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
I loved George MacDonald’s fairy tales so I was looking forward to this novel. I enjoyed the first third where the North Wind is personified as a woman who picks up the little boy protagonist and carries him off to adventures. But then the North Wind goes away and the text gets preachy.

Poets of Our Time edited by F E S Finn
An anthology of English verse which was published in 1965, year of my birth. A lot more devotion to traditional prosody than in the anthologies I usually read. Not bad, though.

Sudden Dreams: new and selected poems by George Evans
“world of a thousand / eyes viewing a thousand things at once / and each thing equal”

Short: an international anthology of five centuries of short-short stories, prose poems, brief essays, and other short prose forms edited by Alan Ziegler
More like reading a poetry anthology than one of short stories. The usual anthology experience - worth the time but uneven.

Against Forgetting: twentieth-century poetry of witness edited by Carolyn Forche
I expect I will be reading this rather long anthology for a long time as I don’t see myself reading more than a few poems at a sitting. These are poems about living through terrible world events.

Mojo: the music magazine, August 2014 issue
Favorite song on the compilation CD that came with the issue: “Slowly” performed by the Haden Triplets. Pretty, folky singing.

Revenge: a story of hope by Laura Blumenfeld
This one is at my desk at work. I read in on breaks. It’s really working for me. Blumenfeld writes well and I love the way she thinks aloud and researches and debates and doubts and clings to her needs. Her father was shot in Jerusalem by a Palestinian. Father’s head was grazed by the bullet. When daughter Laura asks if he wants revenge (she does), Father is baffled by the impulse.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

“lucky and full-hearted”

A mother speaks about her daughter:

She came out to me by calling me from college … The next day I wrote her a long letter. I told her that what was most important to me was not whether she loved a man or a woman, but that she loved and was loved well — that she experience passion, and the wonderful surprise of finding that someone feels about you as strongly as you do about them, lucky and full-hearted.

I came across this quote in Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: parents, children, and the search for identity. Andrew Solomon investigated the way parents cope with finding out their child is unlike them. The topic chapters include the Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, and Autism. Mostly Solomon interviews parents who cope well. Still, when I came across Betty Adelson’s description of her reaction to her daughter Anna’s coming out announcement, I was awed. Those are some seriously beautiful words.

I read the passage to Kent and couldn’t help choking up (made it difficult to get the words out). He kept patting me on the shoulder and telling me it was okay. Yeah. It was totally okay.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

word of the day: realia

The narrator [of the story “Verily He Is Risen” by Mikhail Shishkin] harks back to Soviet-speak when he hears a woman who might have been his schoolmate and recalls the realia of a Soviet schoolchild’s life and the kind of verse they recite. [my bolding]

definition: objects, as coins, tools, etc., used by a teacher to illustrate everyday living.
definition courtesy

source: Marilyn Schwartz’s introduction to her translation of Mikhail Shishkin’s short story which appears in Two Lines: world writing in translation, no. 17

I looked again at the part of the story where the “woman who might have been [the narrator’s] schoolmate” appears. The woman’s way of speaking reminds the narrator of “a girl in my grade at school [who] was the school’s best at reciting the poem about the Soviet passport and ‘I’ve disliked the oval since a child and since a child have drawn an angle,’ and lots of other poems in that vein, and therefore she performed at all the Pioneer and later Komsomol assemblies …” I don’t see where the narrator remembers any “objects … used by the teacher to illustrate everyday living” — unless the translator is referring to a “poem about the Soviet passport.” I understand the Soviet passport wasn’t so much for travel outside the Soviet Union but rather something you had to produce to prove you were allowed to be wherever it was you currently were (even if it was where you grew up). In that case the passport, at least, would be an object of “everyday living.” In the U.S. you only get a passport if you plan to leave the country. Maybe the equivalent in the U.S. would be the driver’s license which is used more frequently for identification purposes than to prove you have the state’s permission to drive.

Friday, September 05, 2014

a tub is overflowing upstairs

Are there more than two ways to talk about music? There’s the technical - talking about keys and fifths and timbre or whatever. And there’s metaphor. The jargon of the technical quickly loses me. I have no way to conjure the sound in my head. On the other hand, metaphor is fun to read and creates a feeling that I can associate with the music. In neither case do I hear the music. But at least with evocative metaphor I am intrigued and more inclined to seek the music out.

The critic who writes about pop and rock for The New Yorker is Sasha Frere-Jones. I recently read a feature of his about the band Grizzly Bear. Let’s look at his metaphors:

“The songs on [the album] ‘Yellow House’ … seem to glow from within, as though the electricity had gone out and the house were lit only by candles.”

Frere-Jones likens the playing of a particular chord in one song to “a car coughing to life, or someone rising to his feet reluctantly.”

When later in that song “the backing vocals” come in, they “are bleeding in from above, like the tub upstairs overflowing.”

Grizzly Bear’s more recent album, “Veckatimest,” Sasha-Jones calls “a sprawling water park, sending you through different sluices and dropping you from pools down into slides that give onto small lakes.”

One of the songs on that album is “a big fat ice-cream cone.”

Another “manages to sink fully into its own honey without disappearing.”

The concluding song of “Veckatimest” shows us that, “The fog has lifted and now we can see an entire city, not just a house.”

If you’re curious, the metaphor about the tub overflowing refers to the song “Knife”:

source: The New Yorker, May 11, 2009

Thursday, September 04, 2014

word of the day: besom

context: A little boy is being carried through the sky by a female personification of the North Wind. “He began to wonder whether she would hear him if he spoke. He would try.

‘Please, North Wind,’ he said. ‘what is that noise?’

From high over his head came the voice of the North Wind, answering him gently, —

‘The noise of my besom. I am the old woman that sweeps the cobwebs from the sky; only I’m busy with the floor now.’” [my bolding]

definition: a broom, especially one of brush or twigs
definition courtesy of

source: At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

word of the day: roscid

The Arctic Ground Squirrel lies / beneath the tundra … / temperature lower than ice … / … But every other week it shivers / into warmth and for a night, it dreams. … [D]etails of the creature’s fate must echo / the unsolved problems of our hearts. / Else why bother reading through / these words in quest of a frozen mammal’s / roscid dreams? [bolding mine]

definition: Dewy
definition courtesy the Collins English Dictionary

source: “What the Arctic Ground Squirrel Dreams,” a poem by Christopher Michel
appearing in Fourteen Hills: the San Francisco State University Review, vol. 20, no. 1, 2014

I remember going camping without a tent as a kid. Usually we slept under trees but sometimes we would lay our sleeping bags under the open sky and wake up roscid. I don’t think any dreams I woke from were roscid as well. Maybe those came later?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

“that splinter of grandiosity”

Most of us would like to be more successful or more beautiful or wealthier, and most people endure episodes of low self-esteem or even self-hatred. … But we retain the startling evolutionary imperative of affection for the fact of ourselves, and with that splinter of grandiosity we redeem our flaws.

source: Far from the Tree: parents, children, and the search for identity by Andrew Solomon

Monday, September 01, 2014

What if everything you’ve been told is wrong?

Being gay is very different from a heterosexual’s experience, in which everything they see, hear, and have been told confirms their own experience. Whereas for gay men and lesbians, their experience is at odds with what they’re told.

That’s Robert H. Hopcke in an interview conducted by Mark Thompson.

source:Gay Soul: finding the heart of gay spirit and nature with sixteen writers, healers, teachers, and visionaries interviews and photographs by Mark Thompson

Sunday, August 31, 2014

what I got at SF Zine Fest 2014

Tyranny of the Muse, issue #1, written by Eddie Wright, illustrated by Jesse Balmer
plus Tyranny of the Muse stickers
Tyranny of the Muse website

Police Log Comics: comic strip interpretations of the police log of Carmel, CA, issue #2, by Owen Cook
sample Police Log Comics in color

Tortilla, issues #2 and 3*, by Jaime Crespo
The artist doesn’t seem to have a website of his own currently but here’s his Wikipedia entry: Jaime Crespo

The List by Maia Kobabe
Red Gold Sparks

Childhood, a mini-comics anthology by students at California College of the Arts
class taught by Justin Hall

Jin & Jam, no.1, by Hellen Jo
for more: Hellen Jo

paperdummy, issues #5, #6, #7, and #8, by Peter S. Conrad

Four Mission Mini-Comix: When Naked Hallway Dudes Attack!, The Thrill of Living in a Dying Empire #2, Quincy’s Terrible, Horrible, Worst-Ever Blind Date, and Do You Suffer for Your Art … Or Because of it?
Mission Mini-Comix

postcards by Lia Tin, Lauren Kawahara, Aki Neumann, Emma Judd, Shawn Eisenach, and a postcard-sized piece of original art by NubsArt

a reminder to attend the 5th annual East Bay Alternative Book and Zinefest in Berkeley on December 6.

* actually Kent bought these, but I talked to Mr Crespo about Harvey Pekar and the work Mr Pekar left unpublished at his death - I would contribute to a Kickstarter to see that stuff.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

“migrant and unspecified forms”

[T]he right to look, for unstructured amounts of time, at migrant and unspecified forms, and at the relation between them, without demanding that the forms have a single meaning, and without demanding that whatever significance I ascribe to these forms be defensible, explicable, or based on any evidence but my own sensations.

This is how Wayne Koestenbaum descries one’s “rights” in regard to the experience of viewing abstract art.

source: My 1980s & Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum

Monday, August 25, 2014

word of the day: irrefragable

Over the years I [Oliver Sacks] have seen … patients who, in consequence of a right-[brain]hemisphere stroke, have lost all feeling and use of the left side [of the body]. Often they have no awareness that anything has happened, but some people are convinced that their left side belongs to someone else (“my twin brother,” “the man next to me,” even “It’s yours, Doc, who are you kidding?”). … It needs to be emphasized that such patients may be highly intelligent, lucid, and articulate — and that it is solely in reference to their odd distortions of body image that they make their surreal but irrefragable statements. [my bolding]

definition: impossible to refute
per Merriam-Webster

quote source: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks