Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ed Ochester, Poet and Editor

Before I headed to the Vermont Studio Center last week to hear Ed Ochester read his work, I mentioned his name to a couple of poets hanging around in Vermont -- and they nodded and said "Pitt Poetry Series." Ochester has been the editor of the series since 1979, so that's no surprise. But with 15 books of his own poetry, this gentle and often humorous voice should be better known.

Perhaps one reason for the quiet around his work is that Ochester maintains some privacy in his poems, and avoids extremes. His narratives explore the New York City life of his father's generation, and tell of Ed's own youth in the city -- as in "Working at the Wholesale Curtain Showroom," which opens with:

"Can you type?" Jake said.
"Maybe ten words a minute."
"That's ok," Jake said, "we just get
a couple letters now and then,
what we need is a smart kid to be nice
to customers ...

Ochester praises Jake, who "paid me for nothing" and who taught him the great secret of living: "be nice." It's a lesson Ochester seems to have braided with his narratives, so that even when his tales wander into underground darkness -- as in "The Canaries in Uncle Alfred's Basement" -- there are often glitters of real gold in the shadows.

I know this sounds almost "too nice" in an era of grief and terror. Yet it's part of what fuels the faith we need to get up each morning. Ochester's "poems selected and new," UNRECONSTRUCTED (Autumn House, 2007), gives a sampling of four of his earlier collections as well as 21 new pieces. Among them are marvelous tongue-in-cheek moments, as in "Cooking in Key West" -- "When you're dead, you'll forget everything" -- and in "March of the Penguins," a film that was praised by the Right Wing as an example of monogamy and intelligent design (can you believe?!); Ochester ends his paean, "and as for / "intelligent design." even Britney Spears / wouldn't drop her eggs / at 70 below."

UNRECONSTRUCTED also offers a "thank you" poem to David Lehman, building on one of Lehman's less printable insights about the way the phrase "thank you" is used as a brush-off or insult. It's great fun to read this one, especially aloud. Another new one, "Fred Astaire," has already been anthologized in Best Poems 2007.

Ochester reads with strong line breaks, a generous New York accent, pathos, jests. I'll go back and re-read his poem "Pasta" and share it with friends, I'm sure -- here's the conclusion:

whose preparation teaches
a great truth about cooking
and pleasure: focus, don't overdo it:
al dente, al dente.

By the end of the reading, I knew that Ochester's acquaintanceship with his father's generation had given him images to paint tenderly; knew that he's willing to portray his father and their relationship (he said of his engrossing narrative "Dreaming of My Father," "It's kind of an obligatory poem that a lot of people have, I guess"); and knew that he wasn't interested, at the end of the reading, in taking questions or discussing poetics. Write it, read it, and let people hold their own versions as they've received the words; that seemed to sum things up.

And this acceptance of a straightforward relationship between the page and the reader/listener may be part of why Ed Ochester is one of the most appreciated editors of poetry today.

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