“Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”
Read the full article at The Atlantic
“Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”
Read the full article at The Atlantic
The net is more important
than the fish. It is the casting,
the waiting, the pull, not knowing
what is resisting. And the fact
that every good net has holes
is a reminder that everything
that lands in our hands
is just a borrowing.
After burning our hands,
things too big must be
And we who cast
are netted and let go
When we are caught,
we pray to slip through.
When we slip through,
we pray to be lifted.
And God is just
an invisible fisherman
burning us with soul
before throwing us back.
This is such a beautiful book (How They Fell). I’m not sure how to begin, so I guess I’ll start with the beginning, or the opening poem, in which you say that you were born in one country but will die in another. You were born in Scotland? And the first section of the book, “all that green” are memories of Scotland?
Yes, I was born in Aberfeldy, Scotland and grew up in Oban on the West Coast of Scotland. I went to Oban High School and then to St. Andrews University. I also spent some time in Vienna between high school and university (see the poem “Vienna, Spring, 1962″). Yyes, many of the poems in the first section (“All That Green”) are about my growing up in Scotland, with some non-Scottish ones as well. In 1965 I came to the USA and have taught for almost 30 years at Smith College. And yes, I will die in another country. The experiences of each culture have contributed to my work.
How has your Scottish heritage influenced your poetry?
Scots, like the Irish, are a poetic race. The soft colors, the hard edges, the diffidence of the people all contribute to my poetical thinking. I was lucky to have some very great teachers, including the poet Iain Crichton Smith. At St. Andrews, I was secretary of the Literary Society which hosted, among others, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, a man about whom I later wrote my doctoral dissertation at NYU. My very first publication was in “The Phoenix”, the poetry magazine at St. Andrews, in 1964. Therefore, yes, Scotland and its poetry are in my genes.
Is the status and role of a poet different in Scotland than it is in the U.S.?
It may sound traitorous for a Scot, but I think that poets get more respect here in the USA. They (some of them at least) certainly get more money.
The middle section of the book, “passage,” takes on a mythic tone. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the choice to write experience as myth?
The middle section is certainly mythic. Myths really are the experiences of mythic characters. Writing in the mythic vein also allows the poet to take situations far beyond what would be permitted in reality writing.
Are there specific religious influences in your poetry?
Much of my poetry has a religious element, but not in any denominational sense. The two “Thomas” poems are of course from that gospel, which is composed strictly of the sayings of Jesus, without unnecessary commentary.
In the final section of the book, “seconds quicken,” you have wonderful poems about people, ranging from St. Thomas, Jesus, Mary MacDonald, the Monster of Florence, to the queen’s hairdresser. In each there is a sense of illumination, even when you are writing about a mass murderer or a jihadist. It’s almost as if a light shines off the pages. Is this how you actually see the world?
I see the world as composed of many hues and shades of light. But darkness provides a strong counterpoint to the light. Every person, object, and happening in the world (or out of the world, for that matter) can serve as a source of illumination–even, as you say, a mass murderer or jihadist. The poet Iain Crichton Smith, for example, can take a horrible situation (e.g. his poems “In Belfast” and “The Country of Pain”) and use it as a point of illumination. This ability may be the poet’s strongest talent.
I love the title poem, the final poem. I wonder if you would post it here and maybe tell how this poem occurred to you?
The poem “How They Fell” is about the events of 9/11/01 in New York City. I wrote it close to the time of the event, when images of those falling from the towers were still being broadcast. Like everyone else, I was shocked and horrified at these images and the only thing I could think of doing was to write about it. Here it is:
One dove, as from a high
board, arms welded, an arrow
aimed at earth as if he thought
it water and he’d pass through.
A man and a woman held
hands, sweethearts in an alley,
until their grip frayed. Blue
shirt of a child billowed
and tore right off. Two girls
embraced, bodies wrapped tight.
All the ties whipped upward.
A waiter’s apron broke loose,
its strings trailing behind.
An old man wrenched open
his mouth and tried to sing.
Someone clutched a broom.
Who covered her eyes? Who
hummed? Who held his head
as if hands protect? Who stepped
off lightly? Who clenched teeth?
Many wept, or cursed, or yelled,
or prayed, in many languages.
Some counted the seconds
as if they controlled something.
A toddler laughed. No one fell
straight. All of them tumbled.
What is your writing process? How do you usually compose a poem?
This often varies. Sometimes it is immediate and quick. At other times, it may take many days. In many cases, I don’t so much write the poems, as become seized by them. For example, in my first collection (“Becoming Bone”, 2005) I set out to write a novel about the 19th Century poet, artist and saloniste Celia Thaxter, who grew up on a desolate lighthouse island off the coast of Maine. Instead of novelistic scenes, what came out was poems. In the face of this strange phenomenon, I quickly abandoned the novel idea and started putting down the poems.
What is the biggest challenge for you as a poet?
My biggest challenge is finding the next poem. It may come overnight or it may take weeks. When it appears, I must scurry to get it down.
What inspires you? Who are your primary literary influences?
I have mentioned Iain Crichton Smith, who had a huge influence on me. Hugh MacDiarmid, whom I met while at St. Andrews, was also seminally important. The visual arts are also inspiring to me, as in the example of the paintings of Caravaggio, which were the subject of my third volume (“This Caravaggio”, 2012). I am always surprised by what inspires me: I don’t know what it will be until it happens. My surroundings also inspire me, particularly people, including my husband Will (who is also my amanuensis), students, friends.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am taking a rest, although the occasional poem still slips out. When I am ready to really start again, I’m sure I will know it.
Even the saguaros,
split by lightning
or disease, die in thick armor.
Even the cactus
can’t count on its red blooms.
For thirty years I denied
the day might come
when to walk across a room
would be too far.
my leg muscles are unwilling
to bear my body.
A climber’s legs
once, they stretched
across rock faults, hiked
the hard way up a dike.
I slid the rope
through my fingers,
rappelled my body
rock to rock.
Back and forth
I crawl across the room,
opposite leg and arm,
trying to train my nerve cells
to reconnect, as if
there’s method to disease.
The voice inside
guides: Test of faith.
Don’t hope, expect.
Hope leaves room
Articles, stories, books—
every day I read how
people healed themselves.
In every cell memory.
Every pain, every emotion
imprinted and passed on.
Grandparents I never knew,
their bodies tossed
into a pit for Zurawno’s Jews.
Last night in bed
my bowels erupted, spewing
across my sheets and thighs.
Was I my great-aunt in Auschwitz,
dysentery draining her skeletal body?
So many voices
through me trying to speak.
Shechinah, female face of God,
free my body from their shadows.
Let me tell their stories and mine.
For eight years my wife, Julie, has had Lyme disease. She has refused to allow how it limits her from keeping her from continuing her art, writing, knitting, delight in books, films, music, friends, and caring for the multiple souls she cares for. I’ve published two poems that come out from our experience.
All it takes is a tick. You can be walking
your dog. Your dog can be stopping to
sniff a patch of jewel weed or pausing
to pee on a post surrounded by poison ivy.
You could be watching a swallowtail slowly
lifting and settling its wings while resting on
a swatch of crown vetch. The sun could be
lost behind clouds, clustered in a cumulus
mound of white or sinister gray, the moon
could be full, waning, new, the stars moving
across their scrim of deep space, everything
still benign in its revolving threat. You
could be sweeping the walk, passing under
the pergola draped in wisteria, wedding veil,
honeysuckle, or merely sitting on the bench
beside the brook out back. Or taking a path
through the park, joggers steady-stepping, or
walking along the well-worn trail to the pond
at the edge of town where you could be sitting
under the willow, its branches hanging their braids
over your wait for the sunfish to surface. It could all be
beautiful: the day, the light, the breeze bending the tall grass.
— To all those suffering under the politics of Lyme disease
We don’t know what’s wrong. We’ve waited
for more than a year to find out what’s wrong.
We’ve waited for five specialists to tell us
what’s wrong. We’ve waited through thigh length
blood clots, migraines that seem the eternal
twin of sustained electro shock, pains that twist
her stomach into the devil’s balloon animal.
Every diagnosis has amounted to nothing
more than maybe. Med after med, strung out
and taken daily, a rosary prescribed by priests
with malpractice insurance. Now here we sit
again. I try to read a month old Newsweek.
They call her name. “You wait here.” Yes,
here is where I’ll wait. No one sits next to
anyone. Now and then a cough hovers
over all of us. Nearly everyone stares.
Now and then a sigh. Behind the counter,
the kempt receptionist welcomes each entrant,
checks date of birth, current address, accepts
the co-pay. It’s mid-April. It’s still cold.
One specialist proclaimed, “It’s likely lupus.”
Another, “Let’s first work on those headaches.”
Another ordered, “We’ll set you up for a series
of steroid shots. Can you start tomorrow?”
I look across the room. The TV is tuned to
a health channel. A woman in a bright pink
shirt is smiling and talking about what to eat.
Sitting under the set is a man, unshaven, cuts
across his forehead. He has a cause and a cure.
“In sickness and in health.” I am ashamed.
I open the Newsweek: “The War in Iraq.”
A nurse calls, “John Larson?” The unshaven
man gets up, walks across the room. “How are
you today?” and they disappear down the hall.
I turn a few pages: Brad and Angelina and
their kids. The woman on the TV is talking
about diabetes. The mail carrier comes in,
drops a stack on the counter. “Hi, girls!”
I think, “We will be okay.” I think, “Too
many medications. That many cannot work
together.” I laugh to myself thinking, “We’re
living in a age of side effects. What would
it be like to have an erection lasting four hours?”
I know in mid-June our gardens will be lush,
blossoms surrounded by the comforting hues
of ground covers, grasses, mosses. Maybe she
will be glad for that. A patient sits down next
to me, asks, “Why are you here?” “It’s my
wife.” “She sick?” “Yes. You?” “Yeah, I’m
sick too. I think it’s just what’s going around.”
from Kazimierz Square
Paul set the bags down, told how they had split
the deer apart, the ease of peeling it
simpler than skinning a fruit, how the buck
lay on the worktable, how they sawed
an anklebone off, the smell not rank.
The sun slipped into night.
Where are you I wondered as I grubbed
through cupboards for noodles at least.
Then came venison new with blood,
stray hair from the animal’s fur.
Excited, we cooked the meat.
Later, I dreamt against your human chest,
you cloaked me in your large arms, then
went for me the way you squander food sometimes.
By then, I was eating limbs in my sleep, somewhere
in the snow alone, survivor of a downed plane,
picking at the freshly dead. Whistles
of a far off flute — legs, gristle, juice.
I cracked an elbow against a rock, awoke.
Throughout the night, we consumed and consumed.
Dear CKP Friends-
Today, October 18, is a sad day for all of us here at CKP –it marks the first anniversary of the death of Florenz Eisman, CKP’s Managing Editor and my partner in founding this press back in 1999, and we wanted to do something special to mark that occasion and celebrate her. We brainstormed events–short readings and stories from this year’s books along with multicolored balloons, funny stories, lots of laughter and delectable eats—just what she’d have ordered if she were still leading this parade. It would be a happy affair. Maybe we’d call it “In Living Color: A Tribute to Florenz Eisman” or “Florenz’ Red Lipstick: A Tribute” (her signature), and devote October on this blog to poems that remind us—all of us in the CKP community, and that includes all of you, our readers—of our lovely, smart, courageous, funny treasure Florenz.
But as delicious as such a tribute sounded it would not include the hundreds of people who live beyond our reach. We wanted you with us, so we decided on a more fitting tribute on our blog and newsletter which reach all of you.
Florenz took enormous pleasure from her work on our books. She was the managing editor of every CKP book published between its inception in 2000 and 2013—that’s 70 books!! Such an amazing statistic called for a special tribute which would feature poems from several of the books that she edited along the way. So…starting today and continuing through the 31st or well into November, we will showcase poems in Florenz’ honor. Each writer represented chose a poem of their own—from the book that Florenz worked on—and sent it to us, in many cases with a personal note to or about Florenz. We will publish one of these poems each day on our blog. We hope you will join us in this special tribute.
A special thank you to the poets who sent tributes. Your books were all so important to Florenz. She loved poetry; she loved CavanKerry, and she loved your poems.
I was always aware of how important Florenz was in my life and the life of CKP and that of our books, but it wasn’t until several years into the life of the press that I realized how important she was to the writers themselves. The first time Teresa Carson, CKP Associate Publisher, and I went to the AWP conference together, we met many CKP poets for the first time. We had been working together on their books for several years and had spoken to them on the phone, but we had met very few in person because our writers come from across the US. On that first day, as Teresa and I struggled to stabilize a poster showcasing many of these same writers, and for the next four days, as we met and talked with visitors to our booth, we were virtually deluged with writers asking if either of us we were Florenz. The drop in tone as we answered, “no, I’m Joan” or “no, I’m Teresa,” was not lost on us. Florenz was the CKP person that these writers felt connected to. She bore their “child” from acceptance through to publication. She listened and assuaged the anxiety of each of them as they went through the process of delivering their ‘child’. She was the midwife. They wanted to meet and to thank her.
When we got home, we told her about her celebrity status and teased her that she was the heroine and we were ‘chopped liver.’
But Florenz’ imprint on CKP and the world of readers and writers, we feel, also calls for a more permanent tribute to accompany this banquet of poems. Since we are located in NJ and are supported by the NJ Council on the Arts, CKP traditionally says “thank you” by publishing one book by a New Jersey writer every 12 to 18 months. From this moment on, we will name this book for Florenz and establish the Florenz Eisman Memorial NJ Collection, the first of which will appear in the fall, 2016-spring, 2017 season. As always, it will be selected from open submissions. An avid reader of all literature, a gifted writer herself, and the godmother of all 70 CavanKerry books, Florenz’ imprint will last as long as CKP does. We can think of no better way to honor our beloved friend.
Greetings my friends. My name is Randy Smit. I am a writer and I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy. It is a progressive disease that causes spinal scoliosis and muscle degeneration. I am 46 years old and have been learning how to relate to myself and to the world for as long as I can remember. What follows is a glimpse of where I’m at and what I try to do to live into the fullness of life as best I can with a little help from my friends. If it takes you anywhere, please let me know and I’ll try to meet you there (electronically) so we can chat. Enjoy!
FLIGHT AND FLOW
It can take so little to open things up. The difference between soaring and sitting stuck is so slight. But if I let go of the branch, if I reach for the notebook and jot down those few words, that scrap of phrase, if I can just start writing, I can be found, in an instant, in flight. Generally I’m too afraid to risk the adventure, to face the possibility that my words and voicing may not change my reality. In fact, they may even make things worse should they shed light on what I’d rather deny or overcome (but can’t.) For most of us, pretending is what gets us through. Maybe writing is about choosing how to pretend, when and how, and for what purpose.
Why do I write? So I can stand up and walk across the room to quietly and confidently embrace that beautiful man in the mirror. I like to see his wheelchair empty. Poetry is a way through my challenges, a pathway into the deep forest of love, beauty, goodness and every other mysterious thing that is impossible to talk about. Whenever I awake as a poet I am found somewhere, often a place I didn’t expect. Jack Ridl is correct “Art is a place.” As we became friends two years ago, he gave me these words and I thought “Yes, let’s do that… let’s go places.”
Wanting to travel, then, I start to see the importance of intentional imagining. It’s difficult to explain. But, if you have ever thought of the world or outer space or the human race, you also have unknowingly leaned heavily into the creative work of your imagination. Built into our very fabric is an elaborate capacity for integration and story making. Some fixed setting for the story of my life is always humming, by grace, behind the scenes. For me, to write is to turn within toward that beautiful “imager, creator” and to let it take me somewhere. I give myself to myself in writing; though severely disabled physically, I get up and walk again and again. I explore a vast inner world. I tend to my horses and campfires, I tenderly bathe my wife, I get up first and bring her coffee.
I have a tribe inside and out and we never create alone. We are many and we are one. I write for me and my friends, all the people I love (and long to meet.) Yes, I start with myself, I think we all do. But then I am dying to show another artist friend, someone I trust, someone also who chooses to dream out loud, who trusts life and trains all of their voices.
I do poetry as an effort to respond to what is happening around me. But more so, I allow it to be a regimen that places me in rich dialogue with myself, my many responders to experiences both bland and blazing, encounters with euphoria or dysphoria, moments of serendipity or catastrophe and everything in between. My many voices sound a lot like me and they sound so much like the friends I’ve known and walk with still. So inside there is only me of course, but also my grandfather and my brothers and my seminary professors and my old bus driver and — oh yes of course! my rock stars, writers and poets, my inimitable muses.
When I spend time with friends like Jack Ridl, I can remember who I am. Close friends who are co-creators offer us a companionship unlike any other. They know how daunting the open page can be, they know also the unspeakable bliss, the flight of soul that is possible and how often it takes so little to open things up. For me, this kind of tribal awareness probably began with telling jokes at school and the playful one-upsmanship of third-grade boys sparring to see which one could make the other spew Pepsi out their nose. Since that time I’ve been given some great friends, many of whom are creative and whose disciplined sight helps support my own efforts at perceiving. When I am able to notice synchronicity threading together otherwise random circumstances, when a door is opened, even just a crack, and renewing light enters, when I know there is a new story that must be told, a stalwart memory to be given shape, I know that friends who get it will be there with me throughout the entire process. If we know our beloved are waiting to hear from us, how on earth could we ever keep silent?
Poetry is a broad-brimmed straw sunhat that you put on in mid-July to weed the garden, pulling up crabgrass, thistles, pigweed, curly dock, and shaking the dirt from their roots. The hat’s wide weave casts diamonds of light on your face. It is the black stocking cap that some cancer patients wear both winter and summer throughout chemo treatments and under which their new hair grows slowly back. It is Charlie Chaplin’s derby that rarely sits on his head, but more usually twirls around on the iron tip of his cane. It is a white suede cowboy hat with silver circles sewn into its broad leather band, under which a fat man sweats and dozes through the long afternoon while his radio keeps playing zydeco interrupted by frantic news bulletins on the hour. It is a track cycling racer’s aerodynamic helmet, like a pileated woodpecker’s swept-back pompadour, that cuts through the wind at 50 mph on the velodrome’s banked turns. It is Hermes’ golden cap with wings. It is the carved wooden headpiece in the shape of a six-foot-long crocodile, worn by the Niger River Delta people, with a bird perched on its back, which eats the crocodile’s insect parasites, and a round dish on the crocodile’s snout to hold ritual offerings: fresh fruit, dried fish, sticks of incense. It is a baseball cap with a blue bill and the logo FUCK WORK, I’D RATHER BE FLY-FISHING! It is Josephine Baker’s blue, sequined skullcap with a fan of wild turkey and pheasant feathers. * As with hats, so with poetry. We wear hats in all seasons. Hats can be practical or fanciful. There are hard hats and felt hats. They suit our moods. There is the jaunty insouciance of a newsboy’s red-and-white-checkered cap. But does the hat make the man? Or the woman? Some hats are historical. What is Lincoln without his stovepipe hat? Bareheaded, he is no less Lincoln. But who would he be if he had never worn his trademark hat with the black silk mourning band in memory of his son Willie, who died from fever in 1862? Would Mary Todd have married him without his hat? I’ve heard of big hats that are amorous accoutrements, behind which surreptitious lovers kiss. Poetry, then, as necessary and unnecessary as any hat. The saints in Renaissance paintings wear haloes like hats, tippy gold-plated pie tins they must balance on their heads. But there is the problem of Napoleon’s bicorne hat with its red and gold cockade, the one he wore at Waterloo. Would history have been different if he had worn different headgear? I actually think it might have been. Does anyone wear a busby in Bisbee, Arizona? Why not? It might be too hot. What hats did Pol Pot favor? * Poetry is the mad hatter’s millinery store. Or haberdashery. Come in. See the million and one hats. Try one on. See if it fits. * Poetry is our younger daughter’s conical, fuchsia, seventh birthday hat scrawled with hieroglyphs in gold glitter, the rubber band cutting into the soft flesh of her chin as she blows a noisemaker to hear its kazoo-like shriek and see its long, purple, paper, lizard tongue unfurl and then snap back without catching anything. * Poetry neither matters nor doesn’t matter. It is life’s invisible value-added tax. It will certainly not earn anyone much money. Where are poetry’s plutocrats? An art that exists outside of, and beyond, most economies, why did Wallace Stevens claim in his posthumously published “Adagia” that “poetry is money”? Mere wishful thinking from a poet who, as vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, was already a wealthy man? Or did he mean to suggest, however elliptically, that poetry has a value that transcends the world’s currencies and stock exchanges? Steal this poem. No one will prosecute you. I promise. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, The Red Vineyard (now in the Pushkin Museum), for 400 francs a few months before his death. Some say that Van Gogh painted his first Starry Night—a view of a bend in the Rhône River with huge, lantern-like stars and the lights of Arles reflected in its dark waters—at night on the river bank with many candles fastened to his straw hat so that he could see the easel. How long did he work on that canvas? If the candles had melted down, his straw hat would have caught fire. Though the story is probably apocryphal and hopelessly romantic, the poet is still a penniless man or woman painting the reflection of stars in a muddy river by the light of a burning hat. * Lyric poetry is the intimate art. The hat should fit the owner’s head exactly. The hat’s inner band absorbs your sweat, gets stained with salt, dirt, the natural oils from your hair, and sloughed-off skin cells. You grow into a hat. So too does the reader approach the poem and make it her own on repeated rereadings. Her head shapes it. We put the poem on, look in the mirror, turn this way and that, slanting the brim down or up to see how it becomes us. We strut. Or does the hat wear us? We exist to show off the hat. That hat, rainbow-striped court jester’s cap with bells, is gaudy proof positive of existence. * In her poem “Exchanging Hats,” Elizabeth Bishop drolly asks, “Are there any / stars inside your black fedora?” She provides no answer. The poem’s job is to provide no answers. 28 million light years from Earth, the Sombrero Galaxy keeps spinning in the constellation Virgo. It is classified as “an unbarred spiral galaxy.” At its center, a supermassive black hole around which a dust lane makes the shape of a giant elliptical sombrero. It is thought to be the brightest galaxy within a 10-megaparsec radius of the Milky Way. Like some poems, it is a universe unto itself. There are mysteries that will never emerge from its supermassive black hole. We walk its dust lane with our fancy hats on. The law of hats: one wears a hat, then takes it off. I wear a favorite poem for a while, then take it off, place it quietly on a park bench so that someone else may claim it, pick it up, turn its brim around and around in both hands before putting it on. Poetry is more than coquetry. Poems are plasma and platelets, are meant to be donated. Think of the universe as a mad hatter who wears poetry—superfluous and necessary—like the shining Sombrero Galaxy that our best words are. A poem’s words are meant to travel light years. Donald Platt
“Even the most brilliant sighted person can be dumb about the obvious.”
Read the full article at The New York Times