Monday, April 28, 2008

Jerome Rothenberg webcast, Paul Blackburn...

Poet / Translator Paul Blackburn

re: Jerry Rothenberg webcast - University of Pennsylvania - Writers House Fellows Program

Invited to email question(s) for Jerry Rothenberg April 29 webcast, I think of my old friend Paul Blackburn, poet and translator who died in 1971 at age 44.  Given Rothenberg's work with Ethnopoetics, I recall Blackburn introducing, opening up a whole new world of poetry... reading aloud for me his translations from Spanish of the medieval epic Poema del Mio Cid, of the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz and the short stories of Julio Cortazar. Paul at the time (mid-1960s) was Cortazar's literary agent in the U.S.

Question: "Paul Blackburn was a dear and valued friend. I knew him in New York in the 1960s and it was Paul who introduced me and other writers to Julio Cortazar, Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz... and Provençal poetry. To what extent did Paul Blackburn influence you and your work with Ethnopoetics?"

Rothenberg's moving response is now online--one can tap into the Writers House archives for his reply--but two points in particular stand out: 1) that Paul Blackburn, born the same year as Robert Creeley, "is the equal of Creeley as a poet," 2) and that Paul is something of a "lost poet," one who died young and did not put himself forward as Creeley had done, commenting and serving as spokesman for the Black Mountain School, for example. Paul chose not to align himself, or to allow others to align him with, the Black Mountain School or any other school. 

Clayton Eshleman writes of Blackburn, "Many, not just a few, but many poets alive today are beholden to him for a basic artistic kindness, for readings, yes, and for advice, but more humanly for a kind of comradeship that very few poets are willing to give." The readings he organized were the direct progenitors to the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery.

As beneficiary of Paul's generosity, as someone who spent time with him and read (thanks to Paul) at St. Mark's Church on the Bowery, I feel this need to pay my respects... make some long overdue acknowledgment...

Wikipedia's entry on Paul Blackburn notes that he "played an important part in the poetry community, particularly in New York, where he helped fledgling poets develop and provided emotional support and opportunities to read for both unknown and established writers in the various reading series with which he was involved. He organized readings that offered work from the Beats, the New York School, the Deep Image Poets, and the Black Mountain Poets. But he was, let us say, an Independent. A non-aligned poet. Living in New York, organizing readings, etc., he was passionately involved and, like Creeley and others, at the center of the 1960s literary scene. But he was also his own man.  

As poetry editor of The Nation he published a wide range of poets and, in the mid-60s, he directed workshops at the Aspen Writers' Conference.


In his book, AVATARS! my friend Bruce Damer defines the term, "Avatars are digital representations of yourself on the Internet that enable you to explore virtual worlds..." J.J. Webb created this particular avatar for use with the animated poetry presentations he's doing with some of my recent work for Blues Cruzio Cafe. "Beau Blue Presents - Contemporary Poetry - Animations"

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Poetry Group / Workshop / "It's a Gun"

Cabrillo College, Aptos, CA - & vocalist Mariah Carey

M. arrives late to class. Keeps his gun out of sight... English 101. I'm trying to do what I can with Strunk & White's Elements of Style.

Later I write something that turns out to be, well, a not very good poem. Yet I can't throw it away. Something about the the personality of the kid, his one good essay, the gun, the incident... keeps me going back. I work and re-work the material. But some scribblings are just that, "scribblings," little more than anecdotes. Here's my little anecdote:


Sara's got on earphones.
I make out Mariah Carey
singing, I want you,
I need you,
don't leave me.

Class begins.
"Okay, Sara," I say,
"tune her out."
Never be alone at night,
if you're lonely, love will be there, Carey sings.

Sara turns it up loud, then takes off the phones.

M n' M, New Yorker,
walks in late,
begins yelling from his seat
at some guy at the door
who's shaking his fists,

but M n' M isn't leaving,
he's staying put, and his friend,
clearly pissed, won't let up. "Mutha..."
waves and yells he's been robbed,
wants his money back,

"Yeah, right. Yeah, yeah. Uh huh."
What are we on about today? I've got this
lesson plan. I mark the guy late.
"Cool it, cool it..."
I still don't know he's got a gun.

"Let's talk about this outside,"
and the other kid disappears
and M and I step outside
and I tell him to go home.
Actually, he's written this A+ essay

about "murder and bang bang,"
how home was a front stoop in Manhattan,
how he's here for his safety,
how he can't get used to "San-ty Cruz,"
he misses all that bad company.

"Teach," he says, "I'm not goin' home."

Now he's telling me to cool it.
"You don't know what I got," he saying.
He's right. I don't know. Then the police
are all around us; turns out
the room's barricaded. How did I know

Murder and bang bang. Mariah Carey singing
It's a gun, it's a gun.

"It's A Gun" reprinted from CALIFORNIA PART-TIMER, CCFT, AFL-CIO, Fall 1998, Vol. 10, No. 1.

CALIFORNIA PART-TIMER, CCFT, AFL-CIO, Fall 1998, Vol. 10, No. 1 "It's A Gun," poem.
Reprinted in CCFT (Santa Cruz/Monterey) Newsletter, Dec., 1998.

Friends make suggestions and I revise the thing and end up with something less, much less, than what I began with. In fact, I can't even remember what I began with. Only rage at the college for not leveling with me, how I had to learn about what really happened from a local newspaper.

So it's not the student or the gun I wanted to write about, but the way the incident was handled by the college. Murder and bang bang. Anyway, it's the student, it's the student who has the best lines.

* * *

• What does one get out of a poem? What do you take away? 

Ezra Pound says, “Only emotion endures...”

and, long-term, what's it all about anyway?

“God guard me from those thoughts
men think in the mind alone.

He that sings a lasting song

thinks in a marrow bone.”

--W. B. Yeats

Friday, April 18, 2008

James D. Houston, A California Notebook

The View from Santa Cruz

I've just begun reading Jim Houston's new book, Where Light Takes Its Colors - A California Notebook. Respond immediately to Jim's opening section, The View from Santa Cruz. No surprise. I've lived here since 1985 and have great admiration for Houston and know the locations he conjures up, like Buckhart's candy store, shaped like a Dutch windmill with a Dutch girl on its side...

"The store is called Buckhart's, which might be a Dutch name, except that the long sign over its door features not a girl but an enormous heart, and gazing from within the heart is a well-antlered buck who looks pirated from some Yorkshire hunting lodge. The heart was red once. After the vanes blew down they painted it white. The buck is white. The girl is white. The eight-sided dome is white. Where the morning sun catches it, the dome gleams and leaves an angular flash on my retina when I look away."

But what really gets my attention is Houston's ability to call up the quality of light... "A lot depends on the light here. It shapes the mountains and draws a mossy green from those high meadow patches that never turn brown. Down along the river that runs through town, the light swells up under a cloud of seagulls as they rise in a swirl, between the concrete bridges. They turn, soar, dive like a shower of white sparks and descend again to their marshy, low-tide, inland island. In later afternoon the light turns the bay white. It catches the eucalyptus leaves with their undersides up, like a thousand new moons."

There's more. Much more. I've tried for years to somehow catch the quality of light in (hometown!) Chicago, that bluish-silvery white snowy 4 or 5 o'clock February haze, that cast of light I recall walking home along icy Kimball Avenue from Von Steuben High School. No luck.

Living in Taos, New Mexico, I sought in my writing to catch the quality of light of that place, which I loved. No luck.

In the 1960s, a graduate student at University of Bristol, I studied with the English poet Charles Tomlinson who recommended Adrian Stokes book, The Quattro Cento and Stones of Rimini, which, like Jim Houston's "Where Light Takes Its Color," does the impossible: to bring alive the quality of light in a particular place and in so doing, to bring alive the place itself.

Stokes has been praised as a writer able “to invoke the material presence of works of art…” to realize that the materials of art “were the actual objects of inspiration… During the Renaissance, Stokes maintained, stone accordingly ‘blossomed’ into sculpture and buildings.”

In Where Light Takes its Color, Jim Houston, like Adrian Stokes, invokes the material presence of works of art and architecture, like the windmill and other Santa Cruz landmarks, to say nothing of the “The sea,” which, “as much as the light, gives this curve of coast its flavor. The light takes its color from the sea, sometimes seems to be emerging from it. And the sea here is ever-present. On clear days it coats the air with a transparent tinge of palest blue that salts and sharpens every detail.”

That’s it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Rosanne Cash, Leonard Cohen, poetry & song

1) What comes first, the music or the lyrics?
2) Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

All art aspires to the state of music. May be a cliché, but it’s the truth. And, in the 1940s, before I wrote or published anything, I’d make up songs, awful, by any standard, awful. But songs… and am fascinated by the connection between music, songwriting in particular, and poetry. I interviewed poet-singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen years ago for CBC Radio and was especially interested to hear what he had to say about his origins—as poet, songwriter… [Leonard Cohen interview on my website,]

My journals, my blogs, are scrapbooks—among other things—places to keep and, hopefully, organize so I can find what I’m looking for later. Blogs, I find, way better for finding things than paper notebooks. Hundreds and hundreds of paper notebooks. But now I have only to search “Rosanne Cash” or “Leonard Cohen” or (songwriter) “John Stewart”, and I have what I’m looking for.

So, Saturday, April 12, 2008, reading the NY Times… Rosanne Cash in feature titled “Well, Actually, It Is Brain Surgery,” I light on some of her remarks. She begins by saying, “I haven’t written a song in about a year.” And goes on to say of her songwriter mentor John Stewart (”Daydream Believer,” “Gold,” “California Bloodlines”), he used to say to me, upon hearing a new song of mine that he thought might be too perfect or careful or contrived, either lyrically or structurally, 'But where’s the madness, Rose?'

“His belief in songs, and his sense of liberation and expansion when he approached writing, was deeply inspiring. John showed me that songs were the expression of the essential language that all other languages hinged upon. When I first began to know him, I felt that I had been speaking with a vocabulary of 200 words, and in a few months he taught me 10,000 more…”

I like when she says next, “the level of my attention has increased, when I have broken free of chord-progression ruts, when a burst of inspiration propelled me an inch or two forward in my own evolution — but “Dance With the Tiger” was an important moment.

“People always ask me, “What comes first, the music or the lyrics?” I don’t know why people are so fascinated with the answer to that question, and the question always makes me slightly nervous, as if I should have an expert opinion or a backlog of statistics on my own songwriting to give a definitive answer. I can’t…

“Often, it’s true for me that the lyrics come first. I seldom find just melodies on the guitar that come out fully fleshed, and add the lyrics afterward. If I start on the piano, it often happens that the melody will come first, of a piece. The instrument has a lot to do with the order of inspiration. Sometimes. And sometimes the fragment of a conversation, the color of the sky, the image in a dream, has everything to do with where the song begins. My song “Seven Year Ache” began as a long poem, several pages of rambling, and I distilled it down into a lyric. The melody came last.

“On vacation recently, there were some Christian fundamentalists at lunch at the next table and I felt the tension and constriction of their religious beliefs wafting off them like a perfume. That is my own projection, I’m sure, but I thought of something a friend used to say about that particular brand of religion — that it was like “looking at the ground with a flashlight when the whole universe was around you waiting to be noticed.” Walking to the beach later, I was thinking about how my own idea of God was so mutable, and that even though I pray, most of the time I haven’t a clue to whom I’m praying.

“And I like it that way. Sometimes God is Art, Music and Children and that is more than good enough. Ruminating on these things, I thought of a phrase — “the pantheon of my religious desires” — and I wrote it in my notebook. That line is probably too sophomore-English-major precious, but this is how songs begin for me. Sometimes.”

Friday, April 11, 2008

Chico - dog with Mohawk & work in progress

Chico the dog before Mohawk.

Blog not so much “blog” (on this occasion) as journal entry for handy reference. Exploring the uses of a multi-useful form, i.e., blog. Scarcely writing in my “journal” these days, more and more writing energy—and writing time—going into the blog.

Hence a little scribbling on plane returning from visit to K. (my daughter) in Austin, Texas. How “one woman to another,” how they see what is obvious, how they are tougher, franker, more fun than men, so it seems to me. How and what happens when I don’t need or don’t wish to speak as a father, simply don’t need to be “right,” whatever “right” is. How to listen to a daughter as another woman might listen. So I’ve written this poem, Woman to Woman.

How the woman K. is renting to has a little dog, Chico, who prefers K’s house to her own. Shaved and virtually hairless, little pooch has two-inch eyelashes, white or gray or blonde, and, dear God, I swear it’s true, a Mohawk. Almost hairless, but the dog has a Mohawk.

What crazy person did this to him? I think Chico’s a him. “He’s revolting,” says my daughter’s boyfriend. And the little dog goes into their bedroom at 2 am and knocks his head against the bed and rings its little collar bell to wake her up.

“I’m saying what I’m saying,” I say to my daughter, “and I don’t need to be right.” She’s obsessing about some dope (not the current) she’d be better off without. So I’m working on a poem and the poem has an agenda, but I’m writing what I’m writing, just as I say what I say to my daughter, without the need to be right, without any need at all—other than to convince her to drop the jerk. So the agenda’s up front. But poems or stories with agendas usually stink. The agenda gets in the way of the poem.

Am I, like Chico the dog, knocking my head against some solid object and doing so in vain? Still, the little bell is ringing, Wake Up Wake Up

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

FAA let airline slide - Watch Dog Wanted!

Southwest Airlines to AUSTIN, TEXAS - visiting family

DAY #1 - April 4 - Austin American Statesman, headline
"Staff: FAA let airline slide - Inspectors say supervisors ignored Southwest's problems. (this story first appeared in the NY Times)

"WASHINGTON--Veteran Federal Aviation Administrator inspectors told lawmakers on Thursday that their agency supervisors looked the other way while Southwest Airlines neglected to inspect planes as required and continued to fly them even after discovering cracks in some of them...

"The inspectors said that their FAA supervisors knew of the issues but had discouraged them from pursuing the safety problems or addressing problems within the agency, even threatening to relieve them of their duties...

[meanwhile] "...Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher defended his airline's safety practices, noting Southwest has never killed any of its passengers." (Note: I am quoting the Austin American Statesman story word for word...)

Then, April 7, I board another Southwest Airlines flight and the plane is full, every seat occupied. How bad would the report have to be for us--myself included--to simply rent a car and take that chance and the additional chance that the bridges and highways, i.e., the fucking infra structure is still in order?

We do what we must... whatever works... for flying, I've taken to using Bach Rescue Remedy Spray, a "Natural Stress Relief, Discreet Mouth Spray..." which includes Rock Rose, said to "add courage and presence of mind in the face of terror or extreme fear." And here I am safely home working on my blog.