Friday, June 26, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

One of the great things about teaching is having students who spur ones own imagination and invention. Gwendolyn Brooks is perhaps the best example of a teacher whose work was profoundly changed by the stylistic innovations of her pupils. One need only look at poems such as "Sermon on the Warpland" or "Riot," to see how much her style was liberated by the possibilities presented by the young people in her classes in Chicago.

A few years ago, David Bromige, who had been my mentor for many years, wrote a note to me in a volume of his poems: "For D. A., who went through so much w/ me that I think I learned something." I have been thinking lately about how much I owe to my own students. They are as much an inspiration to me as any anthology or volume I could peruse.

[For example, last time I was at the Tin House Writers Conference, a talented student--Timothy O'Keefe--had written a poem with the phrase "chia pet" in it. There was much discussion revolving around whether someone could or couldn't use the phrase "chia pet." The question seemed interesting enough that I grappled with the problem myself on paper. The resultant poem was directly indebted to Timothy and to the class.]

At Tin House, Provincetown, the Lambda Retreat, Harvard, Columbia, Iowa, New England College, San Francisco State, Sonoma State, University of San Francisco...all told, I've been fortunate to have had an astounding list of students whose work sustains me, asks me to see poetry in a new way. Though it's not the only marker of how good a poet is, I am proud of those who have gone on to publish books and chapbooks. Their success rarely had anything to do with me. Rather, I was lucky enough to meet them early on; to watch them emerge as writers. Alex Lemon, Richard St. John, Lily Brown, Lucy Ives, Ely Shipley, G. C. Waldrep, Anne Haines, Carol Peters, Scott Inguito, Shira Dentz, Joanne Straley, Michael Montlack, Kathryn Pringle, Justin Dodd, Andrea Rexilius, Kiki Petrosino, Craig Morgan Teicher, Greg Wrenn...these are a few of the students who come immediately to mind. Some are still on their way, publishing in magazines and working on those first manuscripts. I have been buoyed by their craft; inspired by their fresh use of language.

Zach Savich sat in my modernism seminar at University of Iowa with a big, happy grin. He was writing poems that burst with energy from the beginning, like Berryman or Dean Young, and I remember reading a few of his poems and thinking "there's little for me to do here. I'm just a reader, my duty is to simply catch the spirit and say amen."

Zach's first book came out earlier this year, and it is every bit as funny, eclectic, and moving as I would have imagined. He's a poet I'm reading in order to catch up with the art. To quote Bromige, "I think I learned something."

On a Pose of Virgil's

Near its peak, the mountain requires nearly no
effort to climb. There is no sky behind the flags,
barges of pretty silt. Some wrestlers oil themselves
to prevent a grip, others rub grit on their skin

to help it. In the cartoon, Orpheus puts glasses on the back
of his head and walks in reverse. The pastor's white
collar is a foam neck brace. I am sorry to hear,
this morning, as I can't see the mug top through

the pouring steam, that there is nothing new in
philosophy: I meant to tell you a story but cannot
keep myself interested long enough to describe
the pinewoods exactly. I can never remember jokes,

but there were twenty-four flavors of syrup for
the soft-serve, as for an entire day of ice cream,
and a man near the summit holding his palms fast to
the grass, waiting for dew to come so he could wash.

Zach Savich, from Full Catastrophe Living

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Goodbye to All That

Photo by Donald Haines Eason, III

The Talented Mr. Ripley

I'm reading Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels this summer, which I apparently keep refering to under the collective title The Incredible Mr. Ripley. It's wonderful to be swept away into this world of subtrafuge, in which a charming young man connives and lies his way into people's lives.

Also on my list this summer: Robinson Jeffers, Brad Watson, Stephen Elliott, Percival Everett, George Barker, Brenda Shaughnessy, Jonathan Swift. Odd assortment, I know. Just finished a Nathanael West novel and the manuscripts for Jim Ellidge's and Pimone Triplett's next books.

It's actually quite a good reading summer for me. Amazing how much free time one can have once one is divested of a relationship.

It was good to be in a relationship. It was bad to be in a relationship with someone who was an incredibly Ripleyesque creature. But wonderful to have something to write about. Have finished several new poems, including one called "Narcissus in St. Louis" and one called "Do the Hustle." Neither of which is particularly apropos of anything. When life is not poetry, it is fiction. Always sad to near the end of either, even if the subjects pain you.