“Sociability’s a drag”

That’s Allen Ginsberg quoted in Gordon Ball’s memoir, East Hill Farm. Ginsberg must rank as one of the most generous, sociable poets ever, so his complaint about togetherness makes me feel better: my vague guilt this time is that I’m just not sorry to have missed the fifties and sixties. I do envy the cultural urgency poetry had then. Some of the gatherings sound wonderful. However, I also really like plumbing, goat-free living space, monogamy, and savings accounts. If Dr. Who offered to take me back to the Six Gallery reading I’d jump, but I’d surreptitiously wipe the mouth of Kerouac’s bottle before I tasted his wine, and I’d stash some clean matching socks in the Tardis.

Ginsberg established East Hill Farm in Cherry Valley, New York as a refuge from “needle drugs” for “used poets.” Ball, a professor-scholar-writer-photographer-filmmaker at Virginia Military Institute, has been my neighbor for a long time, but in the late sixties he helped manage this cultural experiment. There he learned how to grow vegetables, use snowshoes, and keep a rotating array of inhabitants warm, fed, watered, reasonably sober, and somewhat cooperative—not easy in any conditions, much less a rickety old farmhouse without electricity. At any given moment Ginsberg might be composing settings for Blake on a harmonium while Peter Orlovsky barreled around deranged by speed and Orlovsky’s nearly-mute brother blew his nose with the dishtowel. Ball’s engaging new book gives detailed descriptions of all the orgiastic craziness, dark and light: beautiful walks among hawkeye flowers, with or without acid’s intensification; days of peaceable hard work in the fields; Gregory Corso taunting children with the steak he refused to share; an ecstatic excursion to a Jewish wedding also attended by Bob Dylan; sex in every human combination; car accidents; broken hearts; and a few women who thanklessly did more than their fair share of the kitchen work.

One of this memoir’s virtues is Ball’s willingness to criticize as well as recount, evoke, and marvel. Those women, not surprisingly, kept leaving. He looks back on his own obliviousness to their feelings with considerable chagrin. (That’s one of the many reasons I wouldn’t dial the clock back; I can see myself resentfully, dutifully trapped at that stove surrounded by loveable men who mean well.) Ball clearly loved Ginsberg, who appears here as far more open-minded than some of his companions; able to talk to anyone; so giving that he often suffered financially, physically, emotionally; brilliant, politically committed, spiritual, and wise. Ball portrays even Ginsberg, though, as a quirky, inconsistent human being—not a saint. Of course, that makes Ginsberg’s example of artistic achievement matched by active kindness all the harder to live up to.

For all Ginsberg’s openness he got the work done, refusing to go to the movies, asking for quiet when he needed it. You can want and need connection and still feel its drag: sociability can be terribly expensive in time and energy. Sometimes I feel my meter running when my kids’ friends parade noisily through my orderly kitchen, or emails rack up while phone messages blink and the cat yowls at the door. This past weekend was like that—I was slammed by unexpected, urgent work while Chris was away. I became short-tempered with the kids, didn’t give them the intervals of full attention they deserved. There’s only so much of me: tick, tick, tick.

Friday night, at least, I had a great visit with an old friend; we talked about all kinds of things over glasses of red and a plate of local figs. I want more hours like that. Impossibly, I also want many more of the kind of hour that followed. One kid was in bed, one at a sleepover, and I was alone, writing in my notebook, listening as tree frogs told their mantra and my well-stocked, ice-dispensing, bourgeois refrigerator answered om.

 

Occasional poems

“Who Wants to Be a Scholar Anyway,” “The Academic Strategic Planning Blues,” “Ballad of the Executive Director of Alumni Affairs”: the titles in my poetry folders suggest that I write a lot of doggerel when I’m all steamed up. Most jobs present occasions for indignation, even when you like the work and feel fortunate to have it. I’m starting my 18th year at this selective liberal arts college, and while the job itself is a great fit for me—the emphasis on teaching and support for scholarship hit the right balance, and I have brilliant, dedicated colleagues—university and local culture still estrange me on a regular basis. Co-education came late, in 1985, and it was painful. The Civil War is still underway: General Lee is buried on campus and the local paper is full of letters, this week, from people who want our town to fly the Confederate flag. Undergraduate rates of sexual assault are too high. I love my students but know that a few of them must be committing those crimes; the dissonance is hard to live with. Things are better than they were, and being a full professor in a strong department insulates me somewhat, but these aren’t great consolations.

So when, in 2005, the planning committee for the 20th anniversary of coeducation asked me to commemorate this milestone poetically, I was electrified and stumped. My standard response to writer’s block (tellingly) is to conduct research. I studied occasional poems by Heaney, Auden, Brooks, and others. I also trudged down to Special Collections, where press coverage of coeducation is archived (we co-educated so late that the national media made a fuss). The latter was pretty horrifying. Some professors, alumni, and administrators argued eloquently for coeducation, but they won because finance aligned with feminism: men’s single sex colleges could no longer attract large numbers of highly qualified applicants, resulting in shrinking student bodies and loss of prestige. Coeducation’s opponents, meanwhile, flaunted obnoxious bumper stickers, and to the press, certain anonymous professors lamented the dilution of a noble enterprise.

I thought, okay, the asbestos gloves of form for dangerous materials, but I need a capacious form that can handle prosey rhythms. I labored over a sestina, toned it down, toned it down some more, and then tested it on friends, who still found it intensely angry. Clearly addressing coeducation head-on was a bad idea since I couldn’t celebrate that fraught occasion. Plan B: a totally different poem in tribute to a series of women students. Them, I could celebrate.

Neither the poem I presented (“Office Hours”) nor the one I kept to myself satisfies me. Maybe the process spelled doom in itself. I write first drafts in an exploratory way, turning off the editor’s voice and my compulsion to be nice; I couldn’t do that here. Ambivalence is my engine and I had to mute it. “Office Hours,” felt honest, at least, drawing on my direct and positive experience of coeducation as a teacher who arrived after the controversy. I’d be totally game to try again, but the whole thing does make me think of a student evaluation I once received: “I learned that writing poems is easy but writing good poems is really, really hard.” Writing good joyous poems is harder than writing good ambivalent ones. Writing good joyous poems for a specific audience on a specific topic might require divine intervention.

NO MARTHAS

A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter.  The education of men is a serious matter.  I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985

The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended.  Serious
banter draped beneath a finial image of the gentleman
whose once-warm original gave necessary sums
and his name to Washington Academy. Tradition

honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Martha. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that immoderate exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious

fears in frivolous words but their frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, and shocking, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
but back in the eighties, of course, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some

fraternity-shaped hay barn. Crass capital, sums
and debits, admitted women, found the Titanic. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed grumbling; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen

with perfume and pink curtains. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody,
or gripe about girls during African famine. The days
of men swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No

school year stumbles by without slurs, although no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?

The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, flounced bravely in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Prevailing like Live Aid, like some MacGyver.

 

OFFICE HOURS

Jeanne placed her backpack
so that the pink triangle
pointed square at me.

The “C” hit Nora
like spume on a cat: green sparks,
salt, then pride and grit.

Meg left her poems and
fled.  The poems themselves, bolder,
stayed and stayed and stayed.

Up North I am a
dogwood May, said Carroll.  Here
I am heat, flood, storm.

In England I felt
like a woman, Lisa said.
Here I just feel black.

Kyle’s illness brightened
her, like snow in the sun.  She
will heal everyone

she meets.  Stanzas can’t
contain them or Rebecca,
Armistead, Sarah,

Denisio, Jenn,
Jessica.  My cramped office,
rough as an eggshell,

cannot confine them.
Washington and Lee holds them
just a little while,

like a rockfall on
the interstate, like the soft
banks of a spring creek,

like a phrase or an
idea you consider while
it considers you.

How to read a literary magazine (print)

Either immediately, because you’re procrastinating about some other task, or after a long period of dusty avoidance, as if reading poetry were a chore. Bad poet. This summer, after nearly six months in New Zealand, the pile is high and dust rules.

Primed for irritation, because so many poems will be dull and yet the editors chose them over your brilliant productions. Even when a poem catches you, there’s another kind of irritation, because you want to follow that voice but turn the page and the spell dissolves. This makes you a hypocritical magazine submitter, because you prefer individual collections. Bad, bad poet.

Skimming analytically: what is great poet A, or overrated poet B, or obscure genius poet C up to now? What is the new editor choosing, how is the old editor’s taste evolving, are any trends beginning or ending? This is interesting to you as a poetry nerd (term encompassing scholar, teacher, fan). It is also important in a practical way: you will send poems to magazines X, Y, and Z again, despite the irritation described above. You can’t control how your poems are behaving (long poems with zombies, really?), but you can look for overlap between what your obsessions and what editors seem to like lately. Notice it’s not really long poems in the Thanksgiving Horror genre.

Hopefully, because you really do love poems and all these magazines will contain at least one astonishing thing that lowers your blood pressure again.

Pieces that made me stop skimming and fall into their gravity:

  • In the Crazyhorse 50th Anniversary Issue, Bob Hicock’s lipsticked tulips and Mary Ruefle’s daffodil. In the latter: “He was pained to see me with no other career/ than my emotions about things” plus a surprising, perfect last line. If I quoted the ending, it wouldn’t work; you have to read the poem first.
  • Photographs and an essay by Thomas Sayers Ellis in the July/ August Poetry. Everything Ellis publishes is surprising, smart, and urgent; he totally deserves to get into the Norton anthologies before I do. “I am aiming for invisibility when I take a picture much more so than when writing a poem. I want to be seen when I write and seeing when I take photographs.”
  • Stacey Waite’s imperative to “Consider the monkeys” in the Summer 2011 Massachusetts Review. You need to consider those monkeys without making eye contact because each is “a time bomb of bite and scratch.” Riveting anarchy everywhere. And “In the end it’s my voice that makes people stare”: holy babble and doodle, Northrop Frye!
  • Mid-American 31.1 is a really great issue, like that Crazyhorse I mentioned. Although it seems incestuous to write poems about teaching poems, I love the whole subgenre—Wendy Barker’s entries here (not the ones I’ve linked to, but clearly from the same series) are great. The poem that hit me like paddle electrodes, though, was Erinn Batykefer’s “Spiderbaby”: “In the gore-spattered hell of the delivery room, / we counted: ten fingers, ten toes./ Ten legs.” Mental note: short poems in the Delivery Room Horror Genre welcome here.

Poetic neighborhoods

When you introduce multiple characters and tag dialogue in a short poem, you make all kinds of trouble for yourself. Part of it is just fitting it in: most contemporary poetry in print is going for economy, resonance, surprise, evocation in fragments. You can toss out some of the names and the “he said”s by strategic use of titles, typefaces, and margins, but the imperatives of interwoven stories can still add layers of difficulty to a genre most people find difficult enough.

There is a kind of poetry book, though—not narrative epic, not verse drama, not the modernist long poem with its collage aesthetic—that, by arrangement of short poems into sequences, plausibly fuses multiple voices into a noisy, sociable whole. The scope of the collection is defined by place and time more than by perspective, recurring ideas, or a frame of mind. Two of my favorites are Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville and Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred. They concern Chicago’s South Side and Harlem respectively, presenting portraits of neighborhoods by giving voice to various residents. Many of the poems stand well alone and are often anthologized, but they work even better in context, returned to their home communities.

If there’s a twentieth-century tradition of this kind of book, it’s pretty obscure. Hughes and Brooks are certainly responding to each other; Claudia Emerson, whose books demonstrate a strong sense of place and character, often expresses admiration for Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie; and the three blurbers of Lumina, Heather Ross Miller’s new book (Emerson is one), all compare it to the most famous example, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (I say famous, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about teaching it). I suspect that most poets dreaming of a multiple-voiced lyric sequence invent their way forwards with relatively few models to hand. For a contemporary writer, further, lyric sequences can be pretty impractical. It’s hard to build an audience for such work by publishing bits in U.S. magazines, where the one-to-two page stand-alone poem is king, narrative is suspect, and readerships are small and splintered. (Can you tell I’m worrying over some long poems and sequences of my own?)

Miller’s Lumina, named for a fictional aluminum-smelting settlement in North Carolina, is subtitled “a town of voices.” It’s a beautiful and elegiac book, reanimating lost family members and a drowned landscape: the dammed river powering everything is “a dazzled brain-damaged giant just/ gone to sleep a while.” The main character, often the speaker, is Nell Leopard, but voices and perspectives from different generations in the same place jangle together. Miller finds a sonic analogue for those shifting resemblances that is much more like Brooks than Masters: irregular rhyme, often internal, sometimes just a slantwise echo of vowels and consonants. I could pick out almost any passage as an example but here are two:

Engineers came to furnace

our bright falling water

and they meant business.

They meant deep water

deep enough to spark

the whole hot place.

They meant hard work

hard enough to keep men

all night tasting salt straight

down their bare faces… (“Nell sees them pen the Falls, dam the Yadkin” 2)

The passage begins with a command: “Listen.” What I hear is imperfect rhyme: furnace/ business, spark/ work, place/ straight/ tasting/ faces. Or:

She had asthma sometimes

so bad, she beat through a screen door

to get her breath, beating the screen

to death. People drown beating

their way through a door to the

last breath. It’s true, and more. (“Mark Drowns,” 18)

The most salient rhymes are breath/ death and door/more, but those pairs also chime with “get,” “bad,” and “their,” and the assonance of beat/ screen/ the flows through the lines. Further, these sound-families intermarry in the desperately-linked sight rhyme of beat and breath. And I get hypoxic just writing about the line break on “the”: the dying girl’s last breath is just out of reach. The story of Lumina is moving, the characters compelling, and that’s why Miller’s book is worth reading, really. But it makes a lot of sense for a book about memory and inheritance to play around with echo, and rhyme harmonizes its ingredients in a way that delights me.

I must be forgetting this book’s other kin; if my description of Miller’s achievement reminds you of similarly populated collections, I’d love to be informed/ reminded.

Living with a writer

“Page two is a verb tense tour de force,” he says, and I puff right up. I’m pretty new at creative nonfiction as a genre, but prose storytelling is his mastery zone. Who knew the personal essay was all about verb tenses? Transitions, yeah, understood they were trouble. And bending accuracy for elegance (we sometimes ate upstairs from trays, but he wants me to say we ate upstairs from trays): those choices shape poems too but the pressure seems higher when the “I” is more plainly me (“speaker,” hah). Where do I write “Richard Attenborough” and where “John Hammond”? Does “curator of cloned dinosaurs” cover it, in an essay littered with Jurassic Park references? You’d think I’d be worried about the family business I’m rolling out in these sentences, but we agree on ethics quickly, having been discussing them since 1986. That was the Cretaceous Period, when we worked on the Rutgers literary magazine and flirted across the editorial table.

Then he says, “But I think this is the kind of piece that you need to sit on for a couple of months,” and I deflate miserably. I always let poems cool off at least that long but I just wanted to finish something, send off something, and I thought this was it. He spends the next twenty minutes trying to take it back while I make tragic eyes at him.

This is the core of living with another writer. It’s no joke finding time and energy to read each other’s stuff with jobs and kids and domestic crises to tend. When you do, you might like it or you might not, but be careful how you comment because you’ll be in bed with that person all night. And none of it is separate from all the other conflicts that percolate between two people in the same house. One always seems to be finding more writing time, or winning more accolades, or earning more money, and that absolutely affects the force with which the frying pan is lowered onto the stove. What can look from the outside like a steady climb is full of morasses, like when a press closes right after printing your novel and you’re completely on your own for promotion (buy Chris Gavaler’s School for Tricksters now!)  

Competition was much alleviated when we parted generic ways in our early twenties (his poems got longer and prosier while I cheered from the sidelines). I was genuinely happy about his successes, but my congratulatory exclamations still felt cleaner once I started having some success of my own. I didn’t like it at all when he started writing short stories about a stay-at-home dad whose English professor wife got pregnant by another man; by the time he posted an offprint of “The Best and Worst Sex Scenes of All Time” on the department bulletin board and colleagues started waggling their eyebrows at me, I’d had it. I regret asking him to get his female characters the hell out of my job description, though, and now I second-guess myself when I want to say: don’t write that, this one’s too personal. The kids deserve veto power but after all, reader, I married him.

Despite the appearance of kiss-and-tell (that character really WAS NOT ME), he’s a better writer-spouse than I am. He reads a higher proportion of what I produce, with less show of angst, and comments more generously. He often fails to notice that a poem is in iambic pentameter (oh yeah, it does rhyme) but he’s invariably smart about structure, where I need to cut or expand, whether I’ve gotten to the urgent you-must-read-this material or whether I need to keep digging. I rarely publish something before incorporating a few of his suggestions.

Except blog posts.

Universal Reboot

I’ve been packing and unpacking houses and offices for weeks. And poem drafts, book ideas, changed relationships, grocery bags—I even dream about trying to stuff vacation clothes into duffels in time to make the plane. The other night, instead of half-empty tubes of sunscreen, my nightmare double had to gather up every toy our kids had ever owned, all of which were somehow crammed into a hotel room. Fisher-Price farmers, time to collect your human-sized chickens and close up the barn! (My daughter starts high school next month.)

I figured that since my life is in total disarray, I might as well redesign the blog too. I’ve added that third term, “conversation,” to the subtitle, as previously threatened. Given the hemispheric shift, too—it feels like passing through a mirror to me, Aotearoa to Virginia, winter to summer, sabbatical to real life—I flipped the color scheme from dark to light. I was worried that the old format was a bit hard to read. If you have trouble with this one, please let me know.

I’m also scouting for poems and essays that somehow address the notions of poetry as conversation, poems in conversation, and conversation in poems—suggestions and alternative prepositions welcome. I’ve been circling around these ideas like the buzzards over Washington and Lee’s law school and it’s time to swoop, although I don’t like where this simile is going.

For starters, although poets are thinner on the ground here, these are some of the poetic conversations I’m in, starting with the local: I just finished poet Margo Solod’s vivid memoir, Cuttyhunk: Life on the Rock, so I’m hearing her voice in my head; I hope it’s not mutual. I met Mattie Quesenberry Smith in Lexington Coffee on Friday to sip iced tea, perspire profusely, and strategize about how to generate a stronger sense of community among town and university writers—what reading venues and authors might attract both audiences, how to schedule and advertise. Rod Smith and I are emailing across the few hot blocks separating our new work spaces and I’m browsing the next issue of Shenandoah, on the verge of its launch. Walking into work today I chatted with Suzanne Keen about writing amid boxes and with Christopher Matthews about negotiating change in the poetry weather. He feels inspired to finish, arrange, and send. Right now all I want to do is draft, hopping from stanza to stanza without looking back. And I’m reading Deborah Miranda’s Facebook posts, since she’s in Cuttyhunk with Margo, and envying her evident immersion.

Ireland and Texas were waiting on my desk when I returned, in the form of an interview with Paula Meehan in the final print Shenandoah and Meta DuEwa Jones’s brand new poetry study, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. My attention, however, is also floating above the Pacific: I’m listening to Hinemoana Baker’s gorgeous CDs and deciding what to send her by way of recompense, finishing an email interview with Bill Manhire, preparing to revise and polish the essays I wrote in New Zealand. First, though, I’m thinking these broad new windowsills need a paua shell brought back from Makara Beach and some succulent desert plant, a kind that’s never heard of the ocean.

Lunch Poem

It is 10:21 in Wellington a Thursday

last day on Fulbright’s payroll, ticket

to fly out on Saturday the 8:30 to Auckland that is if

Air New Zealand will bully past the ash

plume, volcanoes the only smokers in my poems.

In Moore Wilson’s I buy horopito for Atin and Tinni

and spend my last token in Unity on Jenny Bornholdt’s

The Rocky Shore, deciding that I want to write

about poetic conversations maybe instead of having them.

 

I stroll through a cloud on Kelburn Parade

and get out of the spit and wind into Murphy

where I can count tuatara for the second to last time

as Harry taught me, but red heat-lamps warm

blank rocks, the reptiles are hiding, it’s June

in a southerly for Chrissake. Bad omen.

 

Anna’s Thicket, advance copy’s woven shade,

is light in my pocket, most of it second-person

and italic gesticulation, that’s what I like about it,

that and the bits about sad teenagers and feeling

middle-of-the-wood (we’re older than Frank O’Hara

ever got) and her in-the-know references to evade

Americans though I could level a few guesses—

dedications, that’s another post, because this blog

does have a northern hemisphere future, probably after

two weeks in Hawai’i baking the creases

out of my forehead from packing selling cars and

 

saying goodbye to too many people, who goes

with Fergus now not me, no more flat white with Annemarie,

Bernadette’s in Australia I hear, Lex Luthor alias

Jonathan retreats to his icy lair on Mount Victoria,

no more books to trade with Rob or information

with Alice soon to be shrunk hehe to her cackle on FB,

still breathing, Frank, and listening, but for love

of you and some others, omitting terminal punctuation

Order, disorder

“I love coming to a marae because everything is orderly.” That was Albert Wendt yesterday at Te Herenga Waka, the marae at Victoria University and the site of a conference I’ve been attending, “Reading and Writing in the Pacific.” A first for me: attending an academic meeting in stocking feet, wearing a blue lei, and listening to papers while lounging on cushions. All those details change the conversation, as does the magnificent space of the wharenui, a talking house covered by carved and woven genealogies in red, black, bone-white, gold. I am not well-read yet in Pacific literature, but the current of feeling at this event has very strong, carrying me along with it. Orderly spaces—not only sacred ones but some homes and schools and poems too—have some mysterious power to straighten out the hooks and tangles inside people. These emotional or spiritual chiropractics, or whatever’s happening, are a little painful, especially as dammed-up confusions begin to break loose. The conference presenters keep choking up and I’m right there with them.

                    On order, from my disordered notes:

Thursday morning, Session 1: Teresia Teaiwa discusses problems with gathering and disseminating oral histories. Intimacy becomes reportage, even gossip, amongst us about them. The result for her own work: she has been writing not about Fijian women soldiers or for them but to them, in the second person. She read a segment written under pressure—her interviewee had terminal cancer and wanted to read Teresia’s take on the material before she died. Audience members blow their noses for a good five minutes afterwards.

I am leaning against an ancestor from Kapiti; I don’t catch his name. His wife’s head, tilted like the moon, has my back.

Genealogies: I know a lot about my mother’s family and almost nothing about my father’s. William the engineer, behind him William the lawyer, and the next layer blurred. William the lawyer’s mother was French-Canadian, and when her ship captain husband died, she and her children moved over the border to Syracuse, New York and married a math professor. Was my grandfather named after his professor-father? Or was he Guillaume, adopted, name changed? I asked my father the captain’s name and he said “something like Le Pongenet.” That isn’t a French name, as far as I can find. L’éponge is “sponge.” Éponger means “to wipe up or absorb a loss.”

Friday morning, Session 3: Tina Makereti describes a belated revelation that she had written her own motherlessness into her novel. But wait: she realizes this makes thematic sense, too—she is writing about the Moriori, an effaced mother culture. Conclusion: “It could still be autobiographical. But I wonder: are we bequeathed our personal circumstances so that we can tell the stories that need to be told?”

Tina talks about being led by the story, surrendering control. Order arises, but it may not be the order you would have chosen, imposed. When a character’s voice started waking her up at four in the morning, she resisted listening for a while. I am so thankful to hear another writer say that. In domestic life, professional life, you fight to keep up that appearance of order: it’s hard to let the chaos flow.

Coffee with poets in New Zealand

The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace was very, very cold on Friday morning. It’s small, furnished in dark woods with all the Victorian trappings, and of course unheated. Quotes from Mansfield typed up on the visitor’s guide call it “a little dark piggy house,” or something similar. Chris and I toured it on a sort of birthday outing before going out for an upscale lunch. We huddled by the restaurant heater with hot drinks, watching through a window as rain coursed down Tinakori Road, and talked about work. “You know the essay you should write?” he said. “‘Coffee with Poets in New Zealand.’ Just write up all the stories you’ve been telling me.” He recounted a couple of funny ones, still fizzy with the refreshing American frankness I’m often accused of, and I said, “But I couldn’t write that. Even if I didn’t use names, every poet in New Zealand would know who I was talking about.” He shrugged and answered, “Just draft it however you want to, and worry about it later.”

So, dear reader, I drafted it, half on Friday afternoon and half on Monday afternoon (that’s when the real work always happens for me: mornings, bah). I drew heavily from my notebooks and datebooks and while there are bits that might be touchy, it turns out to be quite autobiographical, really, and not otherwise professionally dangerous (I think). Now I have to let it ferment while we head out on a roadtrip around the North Island, but that’s just as well. Here’s a sip:

Early February: Nothing is working, not my email or phone at work or at my rental home. I don’t yet understand that no sensible New Zealander would be wasting these precious few summery days pestering IT. So I make an appointment to meet Bill Manhire, the country’s first Poet Laureate, in his office in the Glenn Schaeffer House. This is my job for the five months of my grant, I will tell people over and over. To have coffee with poets, go to their readings, pore over their books. When the person I’m talking to clucks enviously I admit, yes, I feel very pleased with myself. But sooner or later I will actually have to write something.

Somehow I arrive at Bill’s office without my notebook and must scramble for pen and paper. Later I lose these untethered notes. What’s left: the glitter of the harbor beyond the window; wanting to sit on the floor and read the spines of his books; sipping sugared Earl Grey from a glass mug; poet Chris Price joining us from her neighboring office… Bill is very friendly but uses Jedi mind-control to erase most particulars of the meeting from my memory.

Several days later, in the middle of the Fulbright orientation program, I come home from Waiwhetu Marae to actual internet access. One of the first messages I read is from my mother, explaining her very recent discovery that my father has been spending down their savings to conduct affairs and she has kicked him out of the house. Would I please not tell anyone yet, she writes. Evening in Wellington means very early morning in Pennsylvania so between my heavily loaded schedule and tech problems, I can’t call for days.

 ***

18 Feb: Anna Jackson and I have agreed to meet at two o’clock for coffee so I delay my caffeine consumption in anticipation. When she puts her head around my office door, she says, “Shall we take a walk instead?” It is another beautiful day and I am still failing to comprehend that there will be few of these. The walk involves many damp steps up to the Botanic Gardens, itself a collection of steep, intimidating paths—the kind I’d turn away from at home with a shrug, remarking, “Well, obviously we can’t walk there.” Anna is much fitter than I am; she can chat nonchalantly while I can barely conceal my pathetic wheezing…

***

22 Feb: Kerry Hines recommends Ti Kouka, across from Unity Books. I print out walking directions from Google Maps but still end up going the stupid way…

            Lunch is particularly delicious. I can’t always order what sounds best because I seem to be allergic to dairy and corn—the former a major liability when you’re living on a cattle-grazed island with fabulous butter, cheese, and ice cream. I order a messy, juicy burger, sliding out of its Turkish roll on a slick of aioli, and try not to lick my fingers.

            I devour information about Kerry’s work and experiences but what I remember most vividly is paying the bill nearly two hours later. “Did you hear about Christchurch?” the cashier asks as I swipe my debit card and eye the dessert case. It was a big one, she says.

Travel dictionaries

     That’s how it goes some days,

     don’t you reckon.

     You wander the streets of a city

     that’s no longer your own.

     You look at a map

     and all the words are in German.

     You ask a stranger

     where the hills have gone

     and he bursts out laughing.

          from “Lost” by Bernadette Hall in The Lustre Jug (Victoria U P, 2009)

Every poetry collection I pick up seems to be about miscommunication and displacement—what happens to language as you barrel through time zones. I don’t know if it’s accident, a New Zealand thing, or a widespread twenty-first century poetic obsession. Probably it’s the way I’m reading, what I’m looking for. The Fulbright Scholar sits down to write reports about how the grant changed her work and disorientation ensues.

The books I’ve been reading keep getting recalled to the library (sad consequence of blogging about them?), and I ought to start bringing them back anyway because I only have three more weeks here, but some of them are hard to part with. Bernadette Hall’s The Lustre Jug is in the latter category. I picked it up early on, when I learned that Hall was convening the poetry-focused MA workshop this year, while Chris Price is on leave. Many of its poems arose from six months Hall spent in Ireland, although there are shards of Australia and New Zealand in there as well. Hall is away from home even while in Wellington. I asked her once if she identified with the label “New Zealand poet” and she answered with hardly any hesitation: “I’m a South Island poet” (the book jacket says she “lives in North Canterbury”). I noticed her omnipresence at Wellington literary events all through this southern fall, but it only recently sank in: she may seem local to a visiting American, but she’s a literary tourist too, soaking it all up while she has a chance.  

When I first read The Lustre Jug I was taken with its southern-hemispheric second half. I had been going to open mics and was intrigued by “The Strenuous Life,” a piece that skewers macho poetry readers:

     See how this one stretches up on his tippy toes,

     cranes forward over the high page,

     crooks one leg behind him as if he’s in the starting blocks,

     rocking himself into the finals of the national hurdles.

The poem goes on to quote a sexist remark by a “famous writer,” to which Hall belatedly responds with a very satisfying four-letter-word. I love how precisely observed, funny, and unsparing this poem is.

Books change, though, as if it’s impossible to step into the same poem twice. I recognize myself more now in those Ireland poems—although Ireland is only an imagined landscape for me, where my grandfather’s parents were born, where some favorite poets live or have lived, but where I’ve never been. What seems familiarly strange is thickness of detail in a new place, accumulating in your brain/notebook like receipts in your pocket; the superimposition of two landscapes, absent home and present alienness; the stickiness of place names and other local words. Ireland and New Zealand in this collection; New Zealand and Virginia for me, with echoes of New York, New Jersey, and England (especially from a January-to-July stint studying abroad twenty-three years ago).

“Lost” is the book’s penultimate poem, and like many others here, it’s epistolary, a poetic note to a friend to whom she gave lousy directions (someday soon I’ll write here about poetic dedications). A turn-left-after-the-zebra crossing poem seems to require a place-based orientation, but the setting is cleverly muddled, involving multiple times and cities. Hall describes herself Yeats-fashion as “all flustered, crazy Jane,/ can’t tell my arse from my elbow.” Her directions refer to streets in Prague, Paris, and a couple of places Google Maps isn’t helping me with. She also remembers a winter night in Fidel’s on Cuba—that’s Wellington, for anybody who hasn’t tasted the coffee. Confused yet? “Lost” translates that predicament into a feeling worth extending, parsing, and remembering. It also zeroes in at the end on hieroglyphs for home:

     n gr8 2 gt yr txt:

     ‘loved LOVED Christchurch’

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