Monday, September 26, 2011

The I-90 Poetry Revolution

Thanks to editor Tom Holmes and guest editor Sean Thomas Dougherty for including me in issue 14 of Redactions. I'm in lofty company. Some of the poems are breathless, like Gregory Sherl's "I Have Told Myself Much About You":

"Everything in Vermont is a postcard. What I mean
is look at my heart and then look at my heart

again. It grows like frost on a windshield like
I'm coming for you but I'm already there..."

and Sherman Alexie's small poem "Downpour":

"I can't stop writing about my dead father.
He's sixty-two percent of me. Like water."

Adam Houle's creepy wonderful "Green Bay" muses on a monument to this northern city - what would it look like?

"... A cheese wheel,
an Acme Packer, his arms draped
in casings of fresh sausage or half-slabs
ready to pack in ice for that half-cow's
trek south in cold cars that chug the SOO Line?"

The I-90 Manifesto by Dougherty and Holmes claims those of us who live along this cleaving line "embrace the bicoastal and the local but disdain coastal pretension and inland parochialisms. We disdain cosmopolitan elitisms and rural anti-intellectualisms. We embrace the idea of wanting to be elsewhere while at the same time loving where we are."

Poets, let us give subscriptions to journals to everyone we love.

Here's my contribution, on page 59, tucked between Laura E.J. Moran and Gwendolyn Cash James.

second spring

she throws up her hands, catches them.

--amy bracken sparks

when she spreads open her eyes
for him, after they have taken off their

disquietudes, kicked them from the bed,
red sun beyond the window, blind

striping her back with light, the way he
comes closer. outside somewhere lie the pieces

of mirror and the hard hairbrush, bargains
with god. inside

she finds the handful of consummate skin,
his inset spine, assonance. she inhales

his breath. since she saw the back of him
on the bus last tuesday, or at least

those shoulders, that hair, earring –
the way he lowers himself

to sit. time was, she preferred
to be alone. the angry men she

used to know
tumble down the stairs.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My 9/11

My friends on facebook have posted eloquent and heart-felt grief, and I agree we have a deep sorrow that unites us, in memory. I don't have much to add to the experience of that day; I watched the towers fall on television, while I was safe in my livingroom. I didn't know anyone who died, although I remember reading tributes in the New York Times and being very moved.
But I think we missed a tremendous opportunity to be a better nation. In part, we were most unfortunate to have George Bush as president exactly then. Not only did he lead us away from any meaningful introspection, but he marched us into two wars in which hand-picked corporations profited handsomely, and in which exponentially more people died than in the towers, causing millions more to hate us even more intensely.
Since 9/11, we have spent a trillion dollars on national security, just at home. And this is the unhinged response I saw on a local level, after the attacks. My daughter's high school classmate was not allowed to go Trick-or-Treating with his friends in their small and tightly knit community. This was a big deal - they planned their costumes - often representing the entire cast of books or movies - the whole year. The mother would not yield - she was afraid of terrorists.
Meanwhile, with our attention firmly focused on... what? We failed to discuss or solve the real problems of our day. We lost 3,000 people in NYC on 9/11 (which we now know could have been stopped with better communication between law enforcement agencies using existing laws), but we lose 40,000 people a year from a lack of access to good medical care, 30,000 a year to gun deaths, 100,000 people a year to infections in hospitals. Loosening regulations and unfunding regulating agencies means we have allowed the finance industry to bring the world economy to its knees, BP and other drilling companies to fill the Gulf with toxins, giant agribusiness to spew more poisons into our land, air, water and food. We're like cave dwellers who don't comprehend anything we can't see inside our cave - where else are people proud of not believing in climate change? and that lets us, with 5% of the population, use 25% of the world's fossil fuels with, apparently, a clear conscience. We've let corporations and government bodies bust unions and drive wages down so that people are even less able to cope with medical and environmental disasters.
I don't think we're safer by any measure. We're more xenophobic, uninformed and vengeful than we were ten years ago, and do I get this right - this is part of our swagger?
I love this country, and if we lived by our own ideals it would be so great. I want us to take the high ground, like Norway did, when the prime minister said about the grisly anti-Muslim attacks: this will make us even more determined to be multi-cultural and open.
We have our own American terrorists. They are white, black and brown, child and man. They are Christian, atheist, Muslim. They often have untreated mental illness and are armed to the teeth. Let's learn what we can from each attack, but let's remember what my hero George Mitchell said when he was helping to broker a peace in Northern Ireland: not all violence can be prevented, but let's not use that to prevent us from moving toward peace.
Let's begin by not worshiping violence. Let's spend the next ten years talking about what kind of country we want to live in. Stop the unconstitutional wiretapping, extraordinary renditions, secret prisons. Let me wear my shoes in the airport. I'll take my chances. Use that money to send young people to school to be doctors, journalists, engineers, librarians, wind power technicians, medical researchers, translators, writers. Let's stop thinking of the military as a way to express ultimate patriotism. Isn't it more patriotic not wanting to kill or die for one's country? Let's use that money to build public transportation; to help small farmers grow local, organic food; to change our energy grid so each building can be a power generator; to put books into the hands of children.
Let's shut down our military bases all around the world, or turn them into health clinics or education or sustainable energy outreach bases. Let's build up. Let's stop acting like terrorists, ourselves.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thank you, Deep Cleveland Poetry Hour

I had a great time at Deep Cleveland Poetry Hour last night. MugShotz Coffee House, the new host site since Borders closed, is right across the street from the high school in New Royalton, and a Friday night game was in full swing. There were cars everywhere, football p.a. and crowd noise, fancy coffee drink machine noise, and someone in the coffee shop was listening to a professional game on a laptop. Yet, even with all the distraction, there's nothing like reading to a room full of people who are really listening, who laugh and sigh and feel things with you. I love how poetry has a wide embrace, comes to the real places, and the poems at the open mic were about everything. It's the first reading in an un-moderated location, and the language was feeling its new freedom. Poetry is sort of a step-child in the arts; music, visual arts, film and fiction have done better bringing their lovers into the contemporary world. My friend was telling me recently, confessing, that she doesn't really know how to think about poetry that doesn't rhyme. I said she wouldn't expect to go into an art gallery and see only impressionism. Poetry is just engaging its medium in new ways. But the reading last night and readings like that going on all over the place remind us that poetry is also raw and political, it's about community, and weeping, and take that! you ridiculous boss, you vindictive -ex, you neighbor who leaves the dog out 27 days in a row. I like the way we can all find our own place in poetry - I don't go to slams, but I'm sure glad they're there. I don't read a lot of poetry that pushes against the borders of meaning, but I want those borders to be pushed. And more personally, when someone likes my book, or poem, it makes me so damn happy. And that happy, too, when I leave with someone's poem in my head, or hand, and carry it around with me, like the new thought that it is.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

On regret

When I was about eleven and my brother was about eight, we got into one of our perennial arguments. We were home alone, and I must have seen my chance to really win, once and for all. I began a relentless verbal attack. I don’t remember what we were arguing about, but I remember the moment when I realized my brother was crying. It made me feel so monstrous to know that I had hurt another person that much. I made a vow that I would never hurt anyone again. I wish I could tell you I pulled it off. I often think of these damaging actions; my mind lies open, to borrow Philip Larkin’s metaphor, like a drawer of knives. My friend once told me his philosophy in life was to do the least amount of harm in the world. When he died too young, hundreds of people came to bear witness to how well he had followed his own belief. Since we’re not invited to our own funerals, we won’t know if we’ve done more healing than wounding. I will keep turning over the stones of my regrets, hear them rattle in my pocket, little bones of death.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I saw Hamid speak at Cleveland's City Club, shortly after he won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for this novel. His talk was insightful and humane, taking the U.S. to task for its relationship with Pakistan. Our country's crude and reductionist views of good and evil were a symptom of the Bush years, but I don't think our public conversation has become anymore enlightened or nuanced, although Obama may wish to lead us that way, in rhetoric at least. We are still bullying.
This book is more delicate than that, and treats these issues on an intimate level, in the space where one man lives. It is written in the second person - not easy to sustain - and it works well. As a companion book, I recommend H.L. Hix's God Bless. This collection of poetry excerpts and juxtaposes bits of speeches of Bush and bin Laden, showing, as Hamid also points out, their inability to empathize, and the surprising overlap of their mad ramblings.
Maybe part of what I love about teaching college is living in a world that recognizes the complexity of ideas. I miss the intellectual opportunities of Cleveland. As a student, I attended the City Club for free, and loved hearing the talk shows on public radio, like 'As It Happens' from Canadian public radio, and Dan Moulthrop's public policy discussions. There are many interesting people to talk to in Youngstown, of course! but we lack the critical mass of a city the size of Cleveland, and much of the NPR day is classical music because of budget constraints, I presume.
Still, there is more going on here than one person has time for. And in private time, books. Hats off to Hamid and Hix for shining a bit more light on the map.