Friday, November 24, 2006

Poems for the Ear in the Heart: Linton Kwesi Johnson, MI REVALUESHANARY FREN

Language and poetry: if there's a way to separate them, I don't know it. But despite the heartbeat meter underlying most lyric poetry, and the sensuous slide of alliteration and rhyme plaiting the lines together, and the laid-in pauses and rhythms of the page, the line, the spacing -- well, despite the way one hear's a poem as one reads it, MI REVALUESHANARY FREN demands a different kind of reading. A reading aloud.

Intrigued by the unexpected gift of an introduction by novelist Russell Banks (the book's published by his wife Chase Twichell's Ausable Press), I pressed into reading this September 2006 release. Poems like "All Wi Doin Is Defendin" seemed straightforward enough, but hard on eye-brain linkage as I sounded out the Jamaican Creole on the page:

war ... war ...
mi seh lissen
oppressin man
hear what I say if yu can
wi have
a grievous blow fi blow

wi will fite you in di street wid we han
wi hav a plan
soh lissen man
get ready fi take some blows

And so it goes on, line after line, stretching the inner eye-ear to make sense of the page, with the finale:

all wi doin
in defendin
soh set yu ready
fi war ... war ...
freedom is a very fine thing

AH! Revolution to achieve freedom -- it's an American virtue, and from war in the streets, I translate at the final stanza to why so many of us react so strongly to, say, the Rodney King beating, hate crimes against gays, the double binds of victims of domestic violence (need I mention OJ's family?), desperation on Native American lands, laws that punish immigrants for having roots elsewhere.

But to be American and middle class and white is a hard place to be when identifying across color lines. Even to fully recognize what generations of enslavement-via-skin-color did to our nation's ideals and humans take hard work for those living the presumed easy life.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, better known as LKJ, born 1952 in a small town in rural Jamaica, arrived in London in 1963, for secondary school and later studies in sociology at Goldsmiths' College, University of London. Here he joined the British Black Panthers and helped organize a poetry workshop within the movement. His published poems and his music erupted together through the 1970s, bringing him recognition that came by definition internationally: You can't separate him from either England or Jamaica. By the 1980s he'd entered radio journalism. The awards piled up momentously: associate fellow of Warwick University (1985), honorary fellow of Wolverhamption Polytechnic (1987),an award from the city of Pisa (Italy) for his contribution to poetry and music.

Under the conventional list of awards and achievements (his own record label; "the second living and the first black poet to have his selected poems published in England in the Penguin Classics series" -- says Banks in the introduction) is a concentrated focus on oppression and resistance. People are killed regularly within the "revolutions" that demand freedom and rights.

there are sufferers with guns movin breeze through the trees
there are people waging war in the heat and hunger of the streets.
("Song of Blood")

I'm seized by "sufferers with guns, and by "heat and hunger." This isn't revolution as an intellectual excercise; it's revolution as survival. As necessity. As breath, and as chilbirth. I remember what I did to make sure my kids were fed (stomach, heart, mind); I would do it again. LKJ's lyrics remind me of how some things just have to be done, no questions, no "I can't" -- you move, you go to the front lines.

Poems here that stay with me include "Inglan Is a Bitch" (opening with work, as an immigrant, in the Underground/subway), "Reggae Fi Radni" (in memory of hate crime victim Walter Rodney), "New Crass Massakah" (about the racially motivated arson in 1981 that killed 14 young blacks at a 16th birthday party, 1981), and in the Nineties Verse that makes up the final section of the book, "If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet" and, especially, "Hurrican Blues," which opens:

langtime lovah
mi mine run pa yu all di while
an mi menbah how fus time
di two a wi com een--it did seem
like two shallow likkle snakin stream
mawchin mapless hapless a galang
tru di ruggid lanscape a di awt sang

But it wasn't until I captured my husband at a moment when he could listen, and began reading awkwardly aloud to him, that I felt, heard, saw the drums and pounding feet and bass guitar and breathing in and under the words.

When the students at Kent State were attacked, there were new openings in the revolution, for white middle-class college kids like me. When the revelations of My Lai and Abu Ghraib unfolded, there were more places. When I hear a small child in my beloved Vermont landscape say, uncorrected, to her father, "Chinese people say chinky-chinky-chong," the revolution calls again.

And on every page of MI REVALUESHANARY FREN, there is another clang of the bell.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Young Adult Novel: Sweet or Dark?

Here's a quick question for those who read (and write) "YA" novels -- that is, novels intended for adolescents. As I mull over the teens on my holiday list, I see that the ones who've reached driving age are ready for just plain good writing, never mind the YA qualifier. But for the ones between 10 and 15 years, the magic of YA fiction makes the list. And the question is:

Is YA fiction better when it's sweet (that is, has a good ending that the protagonist works hard to achieve), or dark (that is, carries the harsh tang of unpredictable disaster)?

My favorites for this year's "satisfying ending" category include Katherine Paterson's BREAD AND ROSES, TOO and the paperback edition of Natalie Kinsey-Warnock's AS LONG AS THERE ARE MOUNTAINS. David Stahler, another Vermont author, brings out volume 2 of The Truesight Trilogy next spring and I just devoured an advance copy (THE SEER), so if you haven't started these, now's a good time to pick up the first one (happily now in softcover), TRUESIGHT.

But Stahler always has a frisson of horror, something that the warm friends in his work help the protagonist to bear and supercede. In his 2006 stand-alone, DOPPELGANGER, Stahler went all the way to the dark side, much as DRACULA and even THE WIZARD OF OZ did (and Barry Moser's illustrated editions bring out the shadows brilliantly). And knowing some downright ghoulish 12-year-olds, I'm wondering -- will they prefer the scarier stuff?

Discussion invited. And if you're under 16, your opinion matters even more.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

That Holiday Feeling: The "Must Buy" Poetry of 2006

[Hayden Carruth and Jo-Anne Laughlin, poets; courtesy of their "family album"]
The catalogues have been pouring in. Here on our ridge in northeastern Vermont (the Northeast Kingdom -- hence Kingdom Books) the air has a fierce clarity, and snow hesitates just beyond the curtains. Dave complains about shop displays, mounds of holiday decor and gifts to navigate past. But I'm thinking of it as the American season of declaring the importance of friends and family. So here's my first pick of the season for poetry:


Edited and introduced by Sam Hamill, this is Copper Canyon's brilliant compact book, small enough to tuck into the pocket of a generous handbag or wedge next to the laptop in the carrying case. I keep it on a shelf in one of the workrooms of the house, to grab and nibble at will.

Carruth is still not as well known as he deserves, despite awards and, in the past few years, a sincere effort by Vermont to promote him as Poet Laureate. When financial need tugged him past Lake Champlain into upstate New York, Vermont only assumed he was on some sort of stretched out tether. He'd nailed the rural conversation and the endless struggle with wood and weather that's unmistakeably the real Vermont, where maple syrup isn't a "branding effort" but rather the mere end result of eight weeks of break-your-back labor, which itself is sweetened not so much by the size of the woodpile (Thoreau) or the quarts of syrup, but by the hours spent in conversation with friends and neighbors. (Even if they're not in the room with you.)

For every reading Carruth does here, the "iconic poem" that's in demand is Johnny Spain's White Heifer. The hunt for the four-legged, four-quartered (that is, four-teated) version of Moby Dick is masterminded by Johnny himself, a beer in one hand, a walkie-talkie in the other: ""Me boys is up in the hills, looking. / I'm di-recting the search."

To hear Carruth read it aloud is to hear generations of half foolish, half wise, three quarters wet and cold fellowship out in the hills. And though there are precious few females in the narratives, the ones that slip in are also slipping into someone's heart, usually Carruth's. As Sam Hamill wrote in the introduction:

He has stripped himself bare as he has constantly resurrected himself -- often with the aid, both finanical and pyschological, of strong women, loyal friends, and a good doctor (of whom he has written). But his "shamelessness" is not in the tradition of "confessional" poetry; rather it is the result of unblinking and sometimes scarily honest encounters with himself.

Hamill in fact compared Carruth more closely to Chinese and Greek classical poets than to, say, Frost, who of course is always present in any gathering around New England poetry. Frost isn't exactly absent from his own poems -- I'm thinking in particular about when he compares himself to the tree at his window, or moans at the ache of his feet after harvesting apples -- but his "I" is often the rather formalized one of, say, "But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep." Carruth's, on the other hand, has hands stained from truck bearing grease, knees patched or damp, overalls hanging loosely over a softened belly. You can smell the outside air or the woodsmoke as he peers around the corner, still talking over his shoulder with someone who just stopped in. "Almost 500 bales we've put up // this afternoon, Marshall and I," he rambles, in a pause after the declaration of:

Coming home with the last load I ride standing
on the wagon tongue, behind the tractor
in hot exhaust, lank with sweat

my arms strung
awkwardly along the hayrack, cruciform.

So I'm recommending TOWARD THE DISTANT ISLANDS for a stocking stuffer or gilt-wrapped packet next to the menorah or to treat yourself to a few hours of separation from the shopping malls. And it will lift you into a place where the politics and pressures seem worth bearing, too -- as the final poem in the "new and selected" collection, "A Few Dilapidated Arias," denies the minimizing title and takes up arms against folly.

"Never say the earth is not extraordinary!"

Likewise for these poems.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Freedom of Speech: OJ's and Ours

I was horrified this afternoon to learn that OJ Simpson is releasing both a book and a Fox TV special next week on "how he would have killed Nicole, if he really did." I've just contacted the offices of Vermont's three Congressional reps, our governor, Howard Dean, and the President, and also left word on Katie Couric's blog: Sure, OJ has freedom of speech, but so do the rest of us. At the very least, let's all push for a TV special that runs during the same "sweeps" time slot as OJ's, a special that says, "Domestic violence should NEVER be a spectator sport or a source of commercial revenue." Please join me in adding your voice to any and all of the above.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Research and the Police Procedural: Archer Mayor and THE SECOND MOUSE

The crowd had gathered, clusters of friends claiming seats together, and a few loners staking out corners of the shop. Outside, the light was fading -- November in Vermont, dusky and gray with a hint of snow in the bank of clouds. Dave and I, knowing that Archer Mayor cuts his timing tightly, checked voicemail and e-mail to be sure there weren't any emergency messages ("I'm involved in an untimely death..."), glanced at the clock, which said a minute after four, and suddenly heard boots on the outside stairs. Exhaling in relief, I rushed to the door.

"Sorry I'm two minutes late," the author said at once, "but I'm kind of muddy and if I look a little beefy, it's the bullet-proof vest. I'll tell you all about it later."

And that was the start of the latest Kingdom Books author event, presenting the 17th Joe Gunther mystery, THE SECOND MOUSE, from Vermont's master of the police procedural, Archer Mayor.

Mayor hates to "read" from his pages, and launched into a well-tuned talk about the character interactions that prompted this latest novel. Starting with an urge to explore the "romance" between two of Gunther's police team members, edgily dangerous Vietnam vet Willy Kunkle and risk-taker Sammie Martens (she's blonde, tough, stunning when she wants to be), he paired their story and Joe Gunther's (recovering from a breakup) with a much nastier tale of three criminals. As Mayor described the writing process, he saw the two threads as the top two lines of a Y: and their eventual merging into the suspense and action of the book as the base of the letter. (I kept looking at his half-zipped bullet-proof vest and thinking, zipper.)

Volunteer firefighter, ambulance staff (EMT), and death examiner, he also recently joined the police force in the rough-and-tumble but slowly yuppifying town of Bellows Falls. Turns out, though, he had already started writing his series before all that. Now, the daily efforts become more material, clearly.

But what fascinated me was how he conducts research in, say, domestic violence, which somehow almost always enters his plots.

"I don't go to the conferences (on DV)," he said. "I go to the person who hosts the conference. And I don't interview rapists -- who'd want to give them the satisfaction of even a little extra attention? Instead, I go to the psychologist who treats hundreds of them and who knows what's going on."

That's the kind of incisive thinking and planning around each minute of his day that lets Mayor make time to write a book each year. He's about halfway into number 18 but not yet sharing its plot or title.

Oh yes, the mud, the combat boots, the bullet-proof vest? No, he wasn't being chased by a killer on his way north. But he had, in fact, been at a training with other police officers, shooting high-power ammunition and various guns, considering sniper attacks, arrests of violent perpetrators, working out demonstrations of stop, drop, shoot....

Now that's the kind of research that it takes to drive a real Vermont police procedural. THE SECOND MOUSE is a prime example.

Mayor is traveling with the sequel in his car, for moments of typing, parked at the side of the road between events around New England. Dave asked for a peek, a question Mayor admitted he knew would come from Dave, as the author grinned and said firmly, "No!" Well, that's okay, we can wait a bit to find out what's next; we want to chew on THE SECOND MOUSE some more anyway. I've got this holiday list of relatives who keep asking about "the real Vermont." I know what to give 'em.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

No Iconic Poems of the Boomer Generation of Poets?

{AP photo}
Donald Hall's own poetry series, the Eagle Pond Authors' Series at Plymouth State University (NH), billed today's presentation as Liam Rector reading from his new collection (The Executive Director of the Fallen World), to be followed by a discussion called Literary Generations. Rector's wife Tree Swenson, director of the Academy of American Poets, asked questions of the two men.

After Hall provided a number of memories of poets "of his generation" and posed them as reacting against the free verse of the modernists (a stance he said they all forsook at some point as they wrote in their own variants of free verse), he moved into recollections of meetings with T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The Paris Review, he said, invented the contemporary author interview presented "as a play" in format, and called him into the adventure when it decided to move out to poets as well as novelists.

To Donald Hall's vision, his generation's iconic poems include Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion." Hall asked Rector (who directs the MFA program in poetry at Bennington College and who was born in 1949, a "boomer"): "But Liam, your generation in poetry -- what have you done?"

Rector was silent a moment, then replied, "I don't think we've done that much -- there are no signature poems from this generation comparable to 'They Feed They Lion.'"

With this statement, Hall immediately agreed.

I can't agree. And I have a few candidates to offer for "signature poems": Brigit Pegeen Kelly's "The Peaceable Kingdom"; Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel"; Eric Pankey's "Reliquaries"; Martín Espada presenting "En la calle San Sebastián"; Anne Marie Macari's "Mary's Blood"; several by Mark Doty and Billy Collins; "Here, Bullet" by Brian Turner (although that may be of the next generation).

Suggestions? Arguments? Further discussion?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Poetry of Language: Ilan Stavans

Scrambling for pen and notebook, I missed the exact words, but the gist of what Ilan Stavans said casually last night -- before beginning his stunning lecture on dictionaries, Spanglish, and why bilingualism is an American paradox -- was this: The finest poets are the ones who cut to the heart of the language. They are the ones who know how to display the riches of the tongue.

Stavans writes over a wide range (two novels, eleven books of nonfiction) but is not a published poet. He is instead a reader of poetry. Moreover, he straddles two areas of expertise that draw on his personal and linguistic background as a multilingual Latin American Jew who, upon arrival in the United States, embraced and appreciated and analyzed the diversity of speech in America (north and south). He has a strong sense of story, collects the Jewish ones, and lectures vividly without notes.

Last night's talk was "On Dictionaries." Consideration of the Academie Française, Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary of the English language, and the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as Noah Webster's early American one, led Stavans directly to his own work with the emerging tongue that he calls Spanglish (he's published a dictionary of it). He points out that the 42 million Latinos in the U.S. are learning English at the same rate as any other immigrant group -- but that, in part because of the waves of immigration, they are not giving up their native language. Spanglish is hence a wonder of what's now called code switching and code mixing, zipping from one tongue to another as the topic and meaning fit better there (and occasionally to hide what one is saying from others, as immigrant parents have often done in the past!).

Moreover, digging into how the English language itself is going to change in our newly "global" world, Stavans asserted that "No language is ever pure, no language is ever static; they need to improvise. Just like jazz, they need to be contaminated."

He wasn't "going" into bilingual education in his talk. An audience member popped the question. The political insight that Stavans shared at that moment hits at the hypocrisy and poetic poverty of monolingualism (which, as one bumper sticker declared, "is curable"). Stavans said:

"In this country, if you speak two languages, such as Spanish and English, and are a member of the upper class, you can get a Rhodes scholarship. If you speak the same two languages and are a member of the lower class, you will be penalized."