Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Interview with poet Beth Copeland

Today, TLY has the distinct honor of interviewing poet Beth Copeland, author of the recently released Blue Honey, which won the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. The daughter of missionaries, Beth grew up in places far and near, and in Asia in particular. We are so glad she agreed to chat with us.

Beth, here at the blog, we love to hear stories about people’s travels. Do you enjoy traveling either in the States or abroad?

BETH: Traveling is stressful for me. I travel to visit my children and other family members and occasionally take vacations with my husband, but I’m more relaxed at home.

TLY: You were raised in Japan and India, for the most part. You may have returned to either of those countries. If so, where to? If not, why not?

BETH: I traveled to Japan with my sister Rebecca Copeland about ten years ago. As a professor of Japanese literature, she travels to Japan frequently and is fluent in Japanese, so she was my tour guide as well as my companion. It was the first time I’d been back to Japan since I was 13. Returning to my birth place helped me reconnect to the child I’d been when I lived there. I lost most of the language when we moved to the United States, but the words sounded familiar and comforting. I’m grateful I had an opportunity to go back.

I haven’t been back to India since I left at age 13. I’m 67 now and doubt I will ever return.

TLY: One of the themes of your work is feeling alienated from the United States because you were away so often as a young child. What is it like to feel like a foreigner in your own country?

BETH: My older sister tells a story about a bon voyage party a missionary woman gave for my family when we left Japan. The woman said, “The Copelands are going home,” and I responded with, “But this is my home.” In Japan, I was a gaijin, a foreigner, but it was the only home I knew. We moved to a small town in North Carolina where I looked like the other children, but I didn’t feel as if I belonged.

When I was in 7th grade, we spent a year in Varanasi, India. No one prepared me for the culture shock I would experience there. In the United States, I was used to riding my bike by myself, coming and going with freedom, having friends over for sleepovers, and so on. But in India I didn’t go out without a chaperone, and my attempts to socialize with Indian girls my own age were not successful. To be honest, it was a pretty miserable year for me. I was depressed by the suffering I saw—hungry children begging and sleeping in the street—and frustrated because as a child myself, I was powerless to help them. At the time, I was too young to appreciate the opportunity I’d been given to immerse myself in another culture. I yearned for what many 7th-grade girls want—friends, activities, school—so I looked forward to going “home” and resuming the life I’d left.

When we returned to North Carolina, I experienced reverse culture shock. It was 1964, and I didn’t know who the Beatles were. I’d been isolated from other American teens and from Western popular culture during the year abroad. I didn’t know what the new slang expressions meant, my clothes were out of style, and I was behind in math because I hadn’t attended school in India. Reentry was more difficult than the culture shock I’d experienced when I went to India. I discovered that the “home” I thought I had was no longer my home.

A few years later, the Beatles went to India and, suddenly, Indian music and culture became popular among people my age. Who’d have guessed I was cool before it was cool to be cool? Ha, ha, ha.

TLY: There is a lovely quote in Blue Honey from E. Luther Copeland, which reads: “All you pray for at this age is a peaceful hour in which to change worlds.” Who is E. Luther Copeland? What did he hope for in this world and the next?

BETH: E. Luther Copeland is my father. That quotation is from a memoir he wrote when he was in his 80s. He was thinking about his death and the afterlife. As a devout Christian, he believed he would be reunited with God and with loved ones in heaven. Maybe the transition he anticipated would be like traveling to another country, one he hadn’t visited yet.

TLY: “Sandhills Gold” is a remarkable poem; it is based on a memory of the poet’s father, who was a beekeeper and his daughter, who recalls in the first lines: “The year Daddy died, beekeepers found blue/honey in their hives.” Would you mind telling us what is it about blue honey that resonates so deeply in the poem?

BETH: Blue honey is in the poem for several reasons. First, it’s found only in the region of North Carolina where I currently live—the Sandhills—and I wanted to ground the poem in the place that has become my home. Second, it’s mysterious and rare. Third, I like the pairing of “blue” with “honey” because it’s unexpected and because the two words reflect the mood of the poem. “Blue” because it’s an elegy, and “honey” because the memory is sweet.

TLY: You write unflinchingly about childhood, family, marriage—and all in a quite personal way (stylistically as well as concerns the content). Some would categorize your work “confessional” for this reason. Do you think of yourself as a confessional poet?

: I’ve never cared for the term “confessional poetry,” because to me, “confessional” suggests that one is seeking forgiveness or atonement for a sin or a crime. I don’t think the so-called confessional poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass—were seeking absolution in their poems. They were telling the truth about their lives. Some of the poems in Blue Honey follow that tradition—“What I Remember When He Dies,” “Pretty,” “Cleave”—but in others—“Mnemosyne’s,” “Lost Rings,” “Release”—the “I” is absent. I write about my experiences, but I also write about other people’s lives, nature, and ideas.

TLY: Memory figures widely throughout the poems in Blue Honey because it is a book that deals with Alzheimer’s disease. Did you feel that because so many memories were being lost that it was important to preserve them?

BETH: When I was writing the poems, I was processing what was happening to my parents and grappling with how their memory loss affected my relationships with them. I was also aware that not only were their memories fading, but my memories of them were slowly fading, too. I was going through a prolonged grieving process as they slowly disappeared. I wanted to preserve whatever I could before it was too late.

TLY: As mentioned, you were raised by missionaries. How has being the child of missionaries affected your world-view?

BETH: I was fortunate to grow up with an awareness of the global community. Because my family had close ties on two continents, I learned to straddle those worlds at an early age, never fully belonging in either culture but having a foothold in both.

On the other hand, the religiosity of missionary culture was confusing. I was taught to be respectful of other faiths and met many non-Christians who were ethical, compassionate people. Therefore, the presumption that people in other countries should abandon their own religious traditions and accept Christianity seems arrogant to me. I’ve given up my childhood faith. I’m no longer a religious person.

TLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Your work is poignant and memorable. Before we let you go, would you care to share any future projects you are working on?

BETH: Recently, I wrote a stage play based on Blue Honey. Some of the poems—“Sunrise: Lunch,” “Dial M for Memory,” and “Kintsugi”—have conversational passages that were easily transformed into dialogue. Currently, I’m working on some poems about sight that were inspired by my cataract/glaucoma surgery last summer. It’s still too early to know where those poems are going. For now, I’m just along for the ride.

About the poet

Beth Copeland is the author of three full-length poetry books: Blue Honey, recipient of the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize (The Broadkill River Press 2017); Transcendental Telemarketer (BlazeVOX books 2012); and Traveling through Glass, recipient of the 1999 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award (Bright Hill Press 2000). Her poems have been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies and have been featured on international poetry websites. She has been profiled as poet of the week on the PBS NewsHour website. Beth teaches creative writing at St. Andrews University and lives in a log cabin in rural North Carolina. 

for purchase Blue Honey

Monday, January 29, 2018

Poetry by John Stanizzi

                                    America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing…
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.

                                                …from America by Allan Ginsberg

America, I’ve also given you my all,
more or less,
and depending of course
on what you mean by all.

I too am rapidly becoming nothing,
bluffing about what I know
of the suffering of the aboriginals,
which always results in bloodshed and hatred
and a brand of entitlement
that deserves a slap in the face,
hands around the throat,
or at least a fistful of orange hair.

There’s always the perpetual return of olive drab advances
to the precipice
(again, as usual)
of Whitman’s debris and debris of dismal soldiers
whose woeful sighs always
run in blood down proverbial palace walls.

Even when we were kids
we were troubled by nightmares
of what began simply as odd sounding words
which morphed eventually
into things to be feared -- 
rice paddies, hooches, booby traps,
Charlie, Gooks, VC,
daylight whores, massage parlors
with “additional services,”
flower boats afloat in the channel,
places to get the “plumbing cleaned.”

I read about the place where you killed --
Quang Nam Province --
so close to the beach
I’d bet during your first few minutes there
you thought it was beautiful.

4,000 impermeable square miles,
solid dense green and black shadows
and heat heat heat
just this side of flammable,
and where thousands “soldiers” were
shredded burst pulverized minced milled immolated detonated.

I imagine you were listening to
the melancholy seduction of the sea
as you stood guard duty that night;
there would be no leaving your post,
not even for the siren song you were sure
was just a couple of hundred yards that way,
through the jungle.

There were tense weapons
hanging from tree limbs
and buried in the ground,
and you, who could be darkly serious,
magically perceptive,
could not have pictured,
even in this place that rained death,
the “other” weaponry,
the cigarette smoking vaginas,
the ones that shot out arrows,
or the deadly ones that hid razors.
You were an 18-year-old Marine
from East Hartford;
such things were unimaginable.

And not that it would have mattered,
but there might have been a cautionary tale about the sniper fire
that would slash through black leaves
in the black dark,
blasting through your neck,
spraying out your life
with one small spatter of blood,
a few strips of ragged skin,
and all the memories, plans,
bravado, loves, hates, fears
detonated in that splash
before your heavy falling,
your limp-kneed blank collapse
onto the teeming jungle floor,
absorbed by the creatures there,
consumed by the noise of a fire fight,
the sound your dropped M-16 made
clanking against your M-1 helmet
launched from your head by the impact,
and I still can’t say what it was you died for.

You became 19 forever that moment,
getting rained on, stepped on, eventually forgotten,
while the rest of us were
wasting our lives
getting high, drunk, depressed, divorced,
panic sieved mental cripples
whose wrinkled notion of aging
meant not raging against the dying of anything,
not even our faded out brothers and sisters
who have been holding perfectly still
for decades
waiting for absolutely nothing.

…the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting…   

T.S. Eliot
            …from The Fire Sermon
            The Waste Land

May mist lifts the mansion
from its foundation
swirls it off   
away from this back-country road
to some other place
more prepared for such flashiness –
gone the massive black mechanical wrought-iron locking gate
the heated driveway long as a football field
lit by a row of lamplights
under which no taxi throbs
waiting for no one
for there is no time
not this evening
not under this starlight
not for you
not for me --

vanished the topiary of bizarre spirals
the perimeter of boulders along the shoulder of the road
which whisper keep off the emerald grass
which is also gone
and gone too are the bluebirds
who ignored the bluebird houses
with their kitschy copper roofs --

all that remains is a field
of overgrown recollections
one gaunt cow lowing
and a sparsely clouded sky
stirred by swallows
who will never know the tawdry scene
or the vulgar little houses
they would have been expected to embrace --

I think of summers in Hartford
the sidewalks
where pigeons would soft-rattle their iridescence
just out of reach
close enough to touch
close enough to think you might be able to hold one
and oh how their tumbling syllables trilled
simple and rounded
their glowing rings shone
and their pebble-gray wattles
were stones of proud bone --

I learned from them where I belonged –       
in the luxurious landscape of stillness
way out there
the city dwellers would comment

and where I didn’t belong –

in the newly brute landscape…

Friday, January 19, 2018

Jean Rhys: Voyage of a Writer

Nan Robertson

THERE she sat, as fragile and exotic as an orchid, in the ‘watery light of a London winter afternoon. Jean Rhys was wearing a Jean Muir cape‐dress that flowed from neck to slippers and took the breath away. It was mohair jersey, of an intense, radiant lavender mixed with periwinkle blue that exactly matched her eyes. A young man who met her recently said of those eyes gazing out of a white, powdered face under a fluffy aureole of white hair, “My God. They go all the way to China.”

The reclusive and mysteriops woman whom A. Alvarez, the critic and author, called “the best living English novelist” in an essay written for The New York Times four years ago, is now 83 years old. Bent with age and health, resisting interviews, which terrify her, refusing be photographed, which terrifies her even more, she still beautiful, still made up daily as if she were going tea at the Savoy—and she is still writing.

Miss Rhys is working on her autobiography in two little, cluttered rooms where she has spent the last four winters away from her remote cottage in Devon, whence she fled, she said, from drafts, spiders and loneliness. Her cold‐weather refuge is on the top floor of a three‐story house owned by her friends George Melly, a celebrated English jazz singer, and his wife, Diana, a writer. The front windows by her bed overlook a melancholy street of identical, dark brick row houses; the back view is of a lushly green, hilly meadow at the edge of Hampstead Heath.

Throughout a three‐hour conversation, the author's manner was shy, gentle and polite, but as she relaxed, sipping her way through a Ingle of champagne a visitor had brought, there were bursts of merriment, too, and snatch of anecdote, reminiscence and poetry. A recording of Mr. Melly singing "One More for My Baby”—“now it's my song,” she said—brought her to tears.

She has a tiny, whispery voice that travels about 12 inches, punctuated by an abrupt, rich laugh. Often, when she laughed, her hands flew up to cover her face.

She said of her autobiography: “I think I've got almost all of the material I want for the first part, but it isn't smooth. I've almost despaired —— .” Mrs. Melly prompted her, “You've got three or four chapters absolutely right and ready for typing.”

Miss Rhys went on, “Several years ago I stopped writing it because of the short stories. I'm rather sorry. It would have been better to go on with the autobiography. David Plante — he's very clear‐headed, a writer and a friend—is helping me to pull it all together.” The collection of stories she was referring to, “Sleep It Off, Lady,” was published by Harper & Row in 1976.

She has had quite a life to look back on. It has never been “respectable” or comfortable, and much of her shadowy existence has already been revealed. It is contained chiefly in a series of books written between the two World Wars, republished in the 1960's and 70's on both sides of the Atlantic. Of these, “Good Morning, Midnight” has been acclaimed as a masterpiece.

Miss Rhys said, “If you want to write the truth, you must write about yourself. I am the only real truth I know.”

Jean Rhys (pronounced “Rees”) was born Aug. 24, 1894, in Roseau, Dominica, and was educated at the convent school there. Her father was a Welsh doctor, her mother a Creole—a white West Indian whose family had long lived in the Windward Islands. “Wide Sargasso Sea,” published in 1966 when she was 72—her first novel after an almost total silence of 27 years, also hailed as a masterpiece—is her only novel with this Caribbean setting.

“I came to London when I was 16 years of age,” Miss Rhys said. “I never read anything, not even a newspaper, for four years.” She left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after one term upon the death of her father; forced to work from then on, she joined a musical comedy company as a chorus girl and toured the English provinces.

“Then something happened that made me very sad, she said, “and wrote it down and I looked at it and I put it away and never looked at it again.” That was In 1914; she was 20 years old.

She eked out an always precarious existence as a canteen worker, fashion mannequin, artist's model, a ghostwriter for a book on 18th‐century furnishings. Her first husband—a Dutch-French poet, singer and gypsy journalist—took her to Vienna, Budapest and finally Paris, which cast its spell on her and her work forever. Few have ever told more harrowingly what it was like to be down and out in Paris—and London—and yet Jean Rhys recalled with relish the great Left Bank cafes, such as the Dome and the Coupole and the Rotunde.“Paris sort of lifted you up. It did, it did, it did!” she whispered. “You know, the light is quite pink, instead of being yellow or blue. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else.”

Her first and greatest literary mentor in Paris was Ford Madox Ford, then editor of TheT ransatlantic Review; he saw her diaries, urged her to write for publication and offered her advice, encouragement and the cash she needed even more urgently after her marriage broke up.

The first Rhys book, short stories called “The Left Bank,” came out in 1927 with an enthusiastic preface by Ford.

“That was the start of it,” she said. “I never wanted to write at all, but of course I did discover that if you write you can forget, and so I did it again and again.”

At this point, without preamble and going lickety‐split, with gusts of laughter from her listeners, Miss Rhys launched into the first two verses of “You Are Old, Father William,” from “Alice's Adventures .in Wonderland”:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said

“And your hair has become very white;

“And yet you incessantly stand on your head—

“Do you think, at your age, it right?”

She wound up breathless and triumphant with:

“In my. youth,” Father William replied to his son,

“I feared it might injure the brain; “But, now that I'm perfectly sure

I have none, “Why, I do it again and again.”

Then the author settled back to pick up the thread of her narrative: the critical successes of her first novel, “Quartet” (1928); followed by “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie” (1930); her favorite and most autobiographical novel, “Voyage in the Dark” (1934); and "Good Morning, Midnight” (1939). Although by then married to her second husband, a publisher's reader, and living in England, “I always rushed back to Paris with what royalties there were.”

All told the same tale, all had the same heroine by different names, all painted “the same background of seedy hotels and bed‐sitters for transients in Montparnasse and Bloomsbury,” A. Alvarez wrote. “And they recount the single, persistent, disconnected disaster of a life in which only three things can be relied on: fear, loneliness and the lack of money.”

After the publication of “Good Morning, Midnight,” eclipse.

Jean Rhys stopped writing and retired to the country. World War broke out, literary London forgot her, her books went out of print.

Then, in 1958, after the BBC broadcast a dramatized version of “Good Morning, Midnight,” she was finally traced to an address in Cornwall. Her second husband had died. She was married to Max Hamer, a poet and re- tired naval officer, now also dead. She had a collection of unpublished short stories and she was at work on another novel.

That novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” rewritten many times, was published by Andre Deutsch in 1966. It was a hallucinating fantasy about the early life of the first Mrs. Rochester—the mad Creole wife of Charlotte Bronte's “Jane Eyre.”

Literary awards, stunned praise, the republishing of Jean Rhys's earlier books came tumbling after. In 1970 John Leonard wrote for The New York Times that what was astonishing about “Good Morning, Midnight” was how the novel “stands up after three decades,” an expression of a sensibility “that seems in turn to have informed the sensibilities of later writers like Doris Lessing and Joan Didion.”

In 1974, her first post‐World War stories, called “Tigers Are Better Looking,” finally came out in the United States.

Of that prolonged silence, those years underground, Miss Rhys would now say only: “I didn't want to write. wasn't any good anymore. I didn't want to write for a long time.”

Pause. She brightened, and smoothed her beautiful gown, the kind of “dream dress” she repeatedly wrote about with such swift strokes yet such mouth-watering detail. She said, “But when I'm being forced to write, it's rather nice for me because it makes me independent.”

Then she said: “If I'm lucky enough to be able to write I forget everything else. If not, I have a drink.”

“Do I like the country? No I don't, frankly. I like seeing the sun rise and the sun set from my kitchen windows. It's a nice thing to get up very early knowing that nobody else is awake. I used to feel like working when I first woke up'.”

Now, in Devon, she may lie abed and smoke and fix some tea. “The postman comes at 7 o'clock.” He is her first, and for weeks at a time, her only certain visitor.

Despite the depressions of old age, she said, there are compensations. “It's lovely to do what you like and think when you like and work when you like and read thrillers. That's my great thing now, but gee, I must say, Americans can dream up such horrors.” She has just read Sidney Sheldon's “The Other Side of Midnight” and its sequel. “The sequel's quite awful,” Miss Rhys said with a giggle. “Everybody gets tortured.”

She has tentatively chosen the title of her autobiography. She blurted it out, then made everybody swear never to tell it. “It's bad luck, to tell it before the book is done,” she said. “My dear, there is no superstition on earth I haven't got.”

Suddenly, she looked exhausted in the gathering dusk.“Well, I'll leave you to your twilight,” the visitor said. “I'll leave you to your twilight,” she repeated, musing, “That's a lovely title, isn't it?”

Diana Melly held her arm as she moved, very slowly, past the table and the mantelpiece crowded with books and beauty products, to her bed.

She’ sank down in her lavender gown against the pillows. “Oh, lovely bed,” she sighed. “Lovely, lovely bed.”

Credits:  This articles was originally published in 1978 in The New York Times.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Rise of the COVFEFE (two excerpts)

James Feichthaler 

How do thugs rise to power? Is it fate
That breaks fame’s mold and shapes it to their cause?
Some fuckery in the stars, some destined date
(Of bullying) that brings them to applause?
Throws crowns on heads, gives thrones to jabber-jaws
With no experience, who thumbed their way
Into the spotlight with a bad toupee?

With Biff, specifically, the path was smooth
As blackjack-velvet, an obsessive pride,
That said, “Before you’re too long in the tooth,
Why not try President?” And so, he tried
And found the road much easier than implied:
Since making promises to ‘conquer evil’
Was just like taking bets from desperate people.

And now King Biff waves blinged-out sparkling scepters
At fresh apprentices, much like himself,
Who have no clue how they became directors
Of something uge, whose shelf-life has no shelf--
That ‘something’ being a country. Like a wolf
In sheep’s apparel, Biff stays playing his part,
Smiling and smiling (with a gambler’s art)

As he undoes all that was done before,
Erasing legacies that aren’t his own;
Increasing funds for fossil-fuels and war,
Decreasing hopes, like Pennywise the clown,
Whose sewery hideouts crippled a whole town
With widespread fear, hysteria, and a longing
To live elsewhere, know peace again, belonging.

With every bill Biff holds up to the cameras
With extra face-paint caked to his smug cheeks,
Each deal he makes (on whims) in silk pajamas
While scarfing caviar down, Tex-Mex with leeks;
And with each dime he’s swindling from the sheiks
Who bought his oil, it’s becoming clearer
That Biff would run his circus like a furor.

A big-top tough-guy, an elitist bully,
A spoon-fed big-head, arrogantly shiesty,
A white-supremacist without the hoody,
A pitbull in a suit, but not as feisty,
(Words fish-egg lucid, see-through as a nighty),
Biff thanks the hate-crossed stars that birthed his reign
That a white man’s in the White House once again.

And as old statues topple, lose their power,
Their racist grace, their ‘yee-haw!’ moonshine rapture,
Their unsheathed-saber pride, their bronze-glow glower,
Their slave-days shine, their hero-status stature,
Pissed Biff insists such symbols are the plaster
That’s kept our world together for so long,
And Tweets the link to some confederate song

Now long forgotten in our history’s annuls,
And thinks about his wall and how to build it;
Heats up a TV-dinner, changes channels,
Receives a text from Dence, which says, “You killed it!”
Imagines himself stripping at the pulpit,
Being cheered (like Caesar) for his giant cock,
Mount Rushmore, with a new face in its rock.


Whose streets are these? Covfefe’s fucking streets!
Covfefe’s TV-slots! Covfefe’s news!
Covfefe’s goons, in all the highest seats!
Covfefe’s drugs! Covfefe’s pints of booze!
Covfefe’s weapons! meant for you to use
In crowded clubs, bars, high-schools, churches, temples,
Mosques, shops and homes, to Drake’s lame instrumentals!

And Biff can have the White House if he wants,
We put his ass in office anyway!
The big O too, and all of history’s stunts
Who longed for fame! All narcissists, who’d say
They cared about this great land where you stay:
Knowing full well they only sought a name,
And, from their fellow countrymen, acclaim.

This last election was predictable,
Since we programmed the votes in our machines
With “Biff” “Biff” “Biff”; one token-vote for Hill, 
To make it look like one of freedom’s queens
Might win the prize of Prezzy, which all scenes
(Of politics) project as something sacred,
When we all know that enterprise is naked.

A ruse of pomp and circumstance and power,
Made for the public’s eyes with careful skill,
So that the great illusion doesn’t sour
But saves face with its reputable chill
Of jet-plane fly-bys, fireworks, shows of steel
That America’s so casually accepted,
When any pawn of ours becomes elected.

Who cares if you grope women? hang with racists?
Debase the challenged? challenge popes to duels?
With nuclear-threats, trade barbs with well-known fascists?
Can’t spell at all, unless the word is ‘fools’?
What difference does it make if you’ve made tools
Part of your entourage, best known for failure,
Whose egos puff more smoke than an inhaler?

Or spread hate-talk, like margarine over bread,
Until the people turn on one another?
Welsh, like a chump, on everything you’ve said,
As though no proof exists of what you utter
On live TV? reps leaking what you mutter
Behind the scenes, about your shit-hole’s cant,
Since any dipshit can be president!

That’s if we want you ruining that office
With your ideas, scatterbrained or brilliant,
Pumping up crowds with talk of racial justice 
And words like ‘country,’ ‘brotherhood,’ ‘resilient,’
‘Terrific,’ ‘great,’ ‘uge,’ ‘biggly,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘vagrant,’
(‘Foreign-invaders,’ ‘losers,’ ‘rapists,’ ‘wetback’),
Boosting our stocks or giving them a setback.

Since we decide what flies or doesn’t fly,
Who rules, lives, dies, gets passes, twenty years,
Becomes a leader nobody would try,
Or a douche who caters to your deepest fears.
It’s all strategic! Right down to the queers
That the Biffster’s banning from the army now,
Extra offensive, in your face, like Wow!

The trampled tombs, graffitied, pissed on, shattered
By new-fame seekers, terrorists on the news
(Their stories being told, as if they mattered
More than the victims’ lives they chose to use
As stepping-stones, or the families they bruise
For life, with actions that define destruction)
With phone-recorded scenes of cop-corruption,

Keep stirring the pot, until it boils over
Into explosive acts of riotous violence,
Bring tensions to a head, make murder kosher,
The youth act out of passion with no guidance!
Set towns on fire, flags; bring screaming sirens
With those pigs of ours we’ve given the green-light
To make you statelings disappear from sight

About the poet

James Feichthaler’s poetry has appeared in print and online journals in both the US and UK. His poems are truthful odes to his imagination, which he calls, “the lunatic disciple of his existence.” The self-proclaimed “forrealist poet” is the host of an open-mic reading series called “The Dead Bards of Philadelphia,” which is held once a month at the Venice Island Performing Arts Center in Manayunk, PA. You can follow James’s poetic exploits on Twitter at @forrealist_poet and keep up with The Dead Bards of Philadelphia on Facebook.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Poems for Peace

Philip Metres

In May 2009, in a backyard in Portland, Oregon, a few poets and artists found themselves possessed by what appeared to be a simple question: if we were to suggest that bookstores have a “peace shelf” of books, what should it carry? We were in Portland for “Another World Instead: William Stafford Peace Symposium,” and Kim Stafford, the poet’s son, posed the question.

I began scribbling furiously as Kim and Jeff Gundy, Fred Marchant, Paul Merchant, Haydn Reiss, and I widened the imagined shelf until it was a whole bookcase, and then it seemed that we’d need a whole store; as dusk fell, and later on e-mail (when Sarah Gridley joined the conversation for our panel at Split This Rock 2010), we probed a concept that teeters between immensely practical and dangerously amorphous: how to canonize a list of books and other resources that would envision a more just and peaceful world—for bookstores, for teachers, for interested readers—without turning it into Jorge Luis Borges’s famous “Library of Babel,” which contains every book ever written?

And how to overcome—in ourselves, in the poetry world, and in all the wider communities in which we situate ourselves—our own resistances to an engaged poetry that stakes specific claims about the world, a poetry that could be partisan and provocative and even utopian? After all, many of us feel as John Keats did, despite his friendship with the partisan poet Leigh Hunt: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.”

And if the poetry that presses “palpable design upon us” were not challenge enough, then what to do about poetry that proposes something about peace, the very word of which veers into a kind of New Age ganja haze and evades the pungency of real life; or, to let Keats muse on the subject, “for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses.” Ezra Pound’s Imagiste manifesto similarly exhorted poets to avoid fuzzy abstractions: “Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Yet we Americans live in the most powerful country in the world, whose adaptably postmodern empire is marked by what William James calls Pure War, a state in which the real war is the constant preparation for war. Though our poetry has ably represented the traumatic and unmaking operations of war—from the rage of Achilles on to our present day—it has also often unwittingly glorified and perpetuated a culture of war. We have yet to give adequate attention to how our poetry also contains the seeds of other ways of dealing with conflict, oppression, and injustice, and how it may advance our thinking into what a future without war might look like.

How to imagine peace, how to make peace? In our conversations on the Peace Shelf, three general subcategories emerged, though these were full of overlap and contradiction: Sorrows, Resistance, and Alternative Visions. It’s simple enough: we need to witness and chronicle the horrors of war, we need to resist and find models of resistance, and we need to imagine and build another world. Even if modern poetry has been marked by a resistance to the glorification of war, vividly shown by the World War I soldier poets and many others, the important work of poetic dissent has been, too often, via negativa—resistance to the dominant narrative, rather than offering another way.

Even Denise Levertov—one of the self-consciously anti-war poets on any Peace Shelf—found herself at a loss for words at a panel in the 1980s, when Virginia Satir called upon Levertov and other poets to “present to the world images of peace, not only of war; everyone needed to be able to imagine peace if we were going to achieve it.” In her response, “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” (1989), Levertov argues that “peace as a positive condition of society, not merely as an interim between wars, is something so unknown that it casts no images on the mind’s screen.” But she does proceed further: “if a poetry of peace is ever to be written, there must first be this stage we are just entering—the poetry of preparation for peace, a poetry of protest, of lament, of praise for the living earth; a poetry that demands justice, renounces violence, reveres mystery.” That Levertov lays out succinctly what we ourselves, the Peace Shelf collective, took some weeks to arrive at, illuminates the challenge of the peace movement and of the literature that engages it; our conversations, our living history and past, are scattered, marginal, unfunded, and all too easily forgotten.

Come Together: Imagine Peace  provides a foretaste of the larger feast, which could begin with the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna’s laments against war, with Sappho’s erotic lyrics, or with Archilochus’s anti-heroic epigrams. Yet this feast isn’t mere sweetness and light. “Peace” is no mere cloud-bound dream, but a dynamic of living amid conflict, oppression, and hatred without either resigning ourselves to violence or seizing into our own violent response; peace poems vividly and demonstrably articulate and embody such a way. At their best, peace poems, as John Milton did in “Aereopagitica,” argue against “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” If, in Milton’s words, “that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary,” then peace poetry must also interrogate the easy pieties of the peace movement and its own ideological blind spots. And indeed, Michael True’s exploration of nonviolent literature confirms that “although writings in [the nonviolent] tradition resemble conventional proclamations recommending peace reform, their tone and attitude tend to be provocative, even disputatious, rather than conciliatory.”

Perhaps peace poetry is not quite a tradition but a tendency, a thematic undertow, within poetry, and within culture. Yet it has been with us as long as we have been writing. Peace poetry, such as it may be—like the peace movement that it anticipates, reflects, and argues with—is part of a larger human conversation about the possibility of a more just and pacific system of social and ecological relations.

This article has been slightly modified for the sake of coherency.  The full article can be found here: Poetry Foundation

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