Putting my poet’s shoulder to the wheel

Cities are supposed to be overwhelming, at least in contrast to small-town slowness, but over the last week or two, I’ve felt the opposite. For our family-vacation-ending-in-a-modernism-conference, we rented a flat on a particularly lovely Amsterdam street–Bosboom Toussaintstraat–and all the museums, good food, and friendliness were nourishing. (I wondered, as I strolled through islands of pot-smoke, whether the whole city was getting a subclinical dose of herbal mellowness.) Now, not only am I jetlagged and flattened by heat and transitioning back to the faster work-pace August brings, but Virginia has made international news as a hotbed of white supremacy. That’s not a surprise to anyone who lives here and has her eyes open, but the neo-nazi violence, and various disavowals of responsibility for it, are crushing anyway.

I have no great words to offer about this particular catastrophe, at least for now. As Ginsberg says at the end of “America,” I’ll just keep “putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” My work as a writer, teacher, and citizen seems puny sometimes, but it’s what I can do. All the good art I saw in Amsterdam really did hearten me. It can be so solitary and dispiriting, to keep doing your own stubborn thing in your little office in your little town, with just very occasional acknowledgments from readers and editors to cheer you on. On canvas after canvas, though, I saw others striving and searching, and it restored my sense of laboring in good company (disregarding the trivial constraints of time and space, I mean).

Above are poetry murals from Leiden, a beautiful university town we visited on a day trip from Amsterdam. Doesn’t it seem like the world could use more of those? And below are a few more pictures from our various adventures. That’s Ferdi’s “Wombtomb” from the Rijksmuseum plus Dubuffet from the museum’s sculpture gardens, and a Van Gogh I loved from a special exhibit on forests. We adored being on the water, too, and on bikes north of the city. And oh, those sunsets on the rooftop! The poor kids are feeling the comedown, as well–delayed flights meant arriving home at 2 am and Cam got a migraine from the sleep disruptions, but he was back to high school this afternoon. Madeleine’s junior year at Wesleyan doesn’t start for nearly 2 weeks, but she pulled it together to drive us all home last night when we were a sleep-deprived mess (we decided the proper term is “womanned up,” but these challenges all seem smaller to her after Siberia). We’re gradually getting unpacked and sorted out, restocking the cupboards, paying the bills, and the stray suitcase the airline lost was just delivered, hurrah! Wish us a good night’s sleep tonight, because there’s work to do.


Krazy Kat among the nasturtiums

kk 1920

COMICS=POETRY+GRAPHIC DESIGN, says Austin Kleon, who is, in turn, reprising Gregory Gallant, a.k.a. Seth–but wherever the formula comes from, I love the possibilities it raises for both comics and poetry as media. It’s my starting point for a paper I’m giving at the Modernist Studies Association conference very soon. I’ll be discussing the 1920 Krazy Kat strip above by George Herriman in terms of babble and doodle, Northrop Frye’s terms for the axes of poetic making.

I had a slight knowledge of Herriman’s work before, but this summer read the recent biography–which is, among other things, a story of racial passing–and became obsessed. Krazy Kat is very funny and anti-pretentiously brilliant and would be perfectly at home on a modern poetry syllabus. Each strip is as predictable as a sonnet: a linguistically inventive, genderless black ket loves a pompous white mouse with anger management problems, who responds via brick. That’s the form. The variations: endless. 

Being on the krazy side (I’m in denial about any resemblance to Ignatz, the lecture-asm nasturtiumprone control freak), I’m juxtaposing this poetic comic against an Anne Spencer poem presented in visual form. “A Lover Muses” is the second stanza of one of Spencer’s few published poems, “Lines to a Nasturtium” (1926), and was painted onto nasturtium contact paper and fixed to a cupboard by her neighbor and good friend, the African American artist and architect Amaza Lee Meredith. I have some things to say here, too, about babble and doodle but also gender, race, justice, and the meanings of repetition. I’ll be joining Chris Gavaler’s “Modernism and the Comics” panel on Thursday afternoon, August 10th. Wish me luck.

Best of all, the conference is in AMSTERDAM, where we’ve never been, so Chris, the kids, and I are going a week early. Madeleine is home from her Siberian adventures, tired and hungry but eager to keep learning about Russian language and culture. She’s also more than happy to pack up again and see some canals and world-class museums. The scary thing is that, when we come back, our school years will start up again fast. Was my work this summer a howling success?–NO. Never mind. Pancakes and jenever, here we come.