Friday, October 25, 2019

Sharon Olds and Me


“You were very enthusiastic about writing poetry,” she says, as I hand her my copy of her latest book to sign. “You are a good poet!” “So are you!” I reply, pretty boldly I admit, but on this Pulitzer and I agree. I’ve been listening to Sharon Olds for over twenty years now, and each time, her work has grown, spurred on by her commitment to recording her truth.

I had the great good fortune of participating in not one, but two workshops with Olds in the early 2000s at the Omega Institute. My schedule was limited, so I was only free to do the weekend editions, but my employment at the time did make paying the impressive tuition easy. Money well spent. There was no work there, just a group of us who’d passed the application process, who’d demonstrated a commitment to poetry. She wrote along with us too, shared her rough drafts, offered comments on ours. She established a protocol of respect in those workshops which I’ve tried to emulate in my own attempts to lead my own workshops.

She is a delight in person, playful and wise all at once. For many years she hid her truth behind a firm assertion that the Speaker in her poem could not necessarily be assumed to be the Poet herself. She still does so today, but with a wink, acknowledging what we have known all along. Age and circumstance have always informed her work, as well as a thorough habit of observation I envy. She likens worms dug from the ground, in shape and color, to penises. She is not shy either of sharing intimate moments, odes to her breasts and clitoris. She writes about these things not for the shock value, but because they are precious parts of her body’s family. She gives them their due.

After the workshops, I had the pleasure of hearing Olds read at the old Dodge Poetry Festival, usually under the big colored lights of the Main Tent, her words transcribed by a frantic typist to the big running sign for those seated in the back. Crossing paths with her on the grounds, she was always gracious, always gave the impression that she recalled our time in the workshop. It’s happened so often I may begin to believe it soon. In recent years, she has slowed down somewhat. For a time, she divided herself between Manhattan and New Hampshire, in what must have been a schizophrenic lifestyle. It seems she is securely settled back down in the City full-time for now. A trip to Albany was probably one she knew well, from her days as our state Poet Laureate. I’m glad she made the journey again last night.

Olds' newest collection, Arias, was published a week ago, and of course I got it. I have never been disappointed by her books, and Arias is perhaps the richest example of her art. There’s a depth, a self-reflection in it, as it dashes forward and back, that is deeply satisfying to me. Old friends are mentioned, other poets, the many poets she’d been close to who’ve passed, and she looks towards her own ending, too. I’m only halfway through, but I’m glad I have the day off to plow through the rest. Plowing is a good thing, especially in material this nutritious. 

There is something about seeing her older, a cane, hearing less sharp than before, that isn’t sad so much as a firm sign of how long I’ve been observing her. She is aging, I am aging, and the world around us seems to be on fire, again. It has survived before, even as empires thought to be immortal did not. Olds signed my book, and I told her how beautiful she was. Her long hair is almost white now, clipped haphazardly away from her face, and her face is smooth and free of paint. I asked her, hesitantly, if I could hug her, and she agreed. I thanked her for coming, pressing close for a moment. What I really meant was, thank you for being. 


Monday, October 14, 2019

What the Heck? Worth a Shot- Dodge Reader Application


For regular readers, it may come as a bit of a shock, but I am in the process of applying to read at the 2020 edition of the Dodge Poetry Festival. I’ll wait for you to pick yourself up off the floor, tip your lower jaw back up to close your gaping mouth. But, wait. Let me explain…

In the last few months, I’ve been trying to seriously up my poetry game. I’m putting myself out there as much as work and life allows. I’ve read in a few places that are totally new to me, to people that are new to me as well. I’m sending work out a little more, and get things published at a higher rate, fulfilling my own theory that there is someplace for every poem you write. I’m even helping out an old friend by acting as Poetry Editor until the end of the year. Well, that last thing isn’t really a burden, so much as offering me the concentrated pleasure of saying ‘no’ repeatedly to 90% of the dreck that comes in for consideration. I know what I like, and I know what’s worth the space at this point.

In any case, as I was surfing the Almighty Internet the other day, I stumbled upon a link to the Dodge Festival, coming up in autumn of next year. Not just a link to the festival itself, but a link leading to the details of the application process to actually be a featured reader. In all these years I’d never considered myself worthy, and even now, I know that the Big Guns of Academia will be chosen before me. However, as I considered all the moving parts required, I realized that it would be a relatively simple thing to pull them together. I could manage to do a bit each day, between calls or before work itself. I certainly had freshly revised poems hanging around—there’s a book deal in the works that I will discuss when things are more definite. For now though, let’s say picking out twenty pages of what I feel is my strongest, most crowd-pleasing work was a relatively painless process.

A Poetry CV, or “Curriculum Vitae,” more commonly found in the world of arts & literature than a resume’ also existed in my files in a rough form. I pared it down to the most impressive credits so that it would all fit on two pages. In the process I brought my records regarding publication up to date. So, ultimately, when I get that letter of “thanks-no-thanks,” the whole endeavor will have been at least an opportunity to bring everything here at Casa Diva up to date.

Now, I have been a pretty vocal critic of the Dodge’s current incarnation. I understand the Foundation has gone through some hard times, and partnering with the City of Newark was the only way to have any kind of festival at all. I am sad that I’ll never wander the hallowed grounds of Waterloo Village, stopping at the mill to hear Lucille Clifton, or rising at dawn to hear Coleman Barks recite Rumi in the early mist. I tried Newark, and it was a different festival. No wandering from tent to tent, no easy forest charm. But, if it was the only way, I have to give credit for ingenuity where credit is due.

And instead of the Big Tent, dancing with colored lights, there is NJPAC. A shining chandelier hangs from the ceiling, modern and classical all at once, and its charm, in all my disgruntled fussing, did not escape me. However, I needed a break. Life was calling, love on a full-time basis was in the offing, and the Dodge fell low on my list of priorities. Now, some of my favorite poets have passed both big names and small town heroes. In fact, like a river we all swim in, the flow carries more and more away each year. I don’t like to think of myself as a time-waster, but so often that’s what I’ve done. I’ve had my rest. What time is left is for passions and delights, blessed by a sudden clarity of thought that can only be described as a star burst not unlike that sun inside NJPAC. I want to see where this poetry life will take me. One of those directions might be south, to Newark. And even if in the likely event my application is rejected, I may still give the Dodge another try. Time, after all, doesn’t last forever.   



Saturday, August 24, 2019

di Prima, For Better Or Worse


I may be a slower reader than in the past, or I may just spend less time reading, but I rarely   look forward to the end of a book in order to drop it into my expanding discard pile. Such it was most of the way through Recollections of My Life as a Woman, by Diane di Prima. An intriguing yet uncomfortable read, I didn’t seriously consider abandoning the work as much as looked forward to completing the experience of it. 

I give much credit to di Prima for her honesty, and her avoidance of the sham of 20-20 hindsight. She often has no solid explanations for her behavior, and makes no excuses. She evenhandedly described the antics of her lovers, both positive and negative. Her descriptions of three of her five birth experiences are fascinating insights into how much, and often how little, has changed in attitudes towards the process. 

And yet, as a woman lucky enough to be born in a time with more choices, more opportunities, it is the natural thing for me to be judgmental about her behavior. As committed as she was to the writing life, and from an extremely early age, she was equally committed to being supported by anyone around to support this life. Her parents, seeming mortal enemies in her early years that drove her to the heart of the Village in the ‘50s, are mentioned in asides as  gifting her with  basic necessities, things that became harder and harder to come by as the babies and the bills began to pile up. Their donations to her cause progressed from groceries to couches, to finally a down payment on a house that she and her husband lived in for less than a year. The resentment expressed when her father declined to help them purchase a second home, the notion that the down payment had after all been a wedding gift and was hers by rights, seems childish and self-involved. Indeed, it was retreats to the family-owned compound beside a New Jersey lake that renewed her vigor on more than one occasion. 

It is true, I think, that few male memoirists have as openly expressed the concerns of family life side by side with artistic development, so I have little to compare di Prima’s narrative to. Even in my own time, perhaps subconsciously, I chose early on to forgo children and family life. The sacrifice was not a great one for me. I knew I needed decades to finish raising myself, and to add another dependent would only impede any progress I hoped to make, and likely create another human being who would need to go through that same process. Her deep resentment of her father, for valid and typical reasons, made her determined to be a single parent, without any consistent partner to share the work. What affect this choice has had on her children I cannot say. The memoir ends too early for this constant reader to discover the effects. But the selfishness of raising three (eventually five) children in the desperate chaos of the ‘50s and ‘60s art scene rubs me too deeply the wrong way. 

The times did not allow for woman to easily choose one path or another. Birth control was unreliable at best, but di Prima does rant rhapsodically that in her youth she felt able to control conception without its use, delusions of omnipotence made manifest by luck. She describes another encounter where a lack of birth control was a deliberate choice, inappropriate in the heat of the moment, and the resulting babe considered an addition to her life as complicated as one more puppy. That she wrote at all, even at the expense of her children, lovers, occasional employers, does after all seem an achievement, although the prize of her artistic accomplishments may have come at a high a cost to those around her. 

I had the chance to read some of di Prima’s work earlier this spring, with permission I obtained via email, at a Beat poet-inspired event. My quick research beforehand led me back to a previous assumption, that di Prima’s work had been neglected due to the general misogyny not far beneath the flashy veneer of that crowd. She had her fans, it turns out. She had her readings, even started her own press. There were not many women like her, writing and housekeeping and supporting the men around her in various, exhausting ways. For that she deserves a kind of credit. Would she have done the same fifty years later, this mid-century woman caught between the ladylike demands of her mother’s generation and the post-war explosion of innovative thought and art that shocked the sensibilities of so many? Would I have been able to make the choices I have without her straddling the worlds the way she did, fervently living so many lives at once?