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.