“A Company of Authors”: meet the writers this Saturday at Stanford’s cozy literary fête!

April 23rd, 2015

Stanford poet Ken Fields (left) chats with Peter Stansky. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Every year it happens – and every year we announce it. Peter Stansky, the benevolent and erudite spirit who presides over “A Company of Authors” at Stanford (the emeritus history prof is also author of The Unknown Orwell, The First Day of the Blitz, and Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War) has once again organized the cozy literary fête, now in its twelfth year. The event will happen this Saturday, April 25, from 1 to 5 p.m. Once again, an amazing group of Stanford writers will be discussing their recently published books. Each author will make a brief presentation, answer audience questions, and be available for conversation and book signing.

The authors who are scheduled to be speak include Richard Cottle (Stanford Street Names), Allyson Hobbs (A Chosen Exile), Maria Hummel (Motherland), John L’Heureux (The Medici Boy), Doug McAdam (Deeply Divided), Peter N. Carroll (From Guernica to Human Rights: Essays on the Spanish Civil War and Fracking Dakota: Poems for a Wounded Land), Michele Dauber (The Sympathetic State), Adrian Daub (Four-Handed Monsters), Jewelle Gibbs (Destiny’s Child), Janice Ross (Dangerous Dances), Kathryn Gin Lum (Damned Nation: Hell in America), Irvin Yalom (Creatures of the Day), Deborah Rhode (What Women Want), Marianne Constable (Our Word is Our Bond), Ann Packer (The Children’s Crusade), Alexander Nemerov (Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov), Benjamin Stone and John Mustain (The Tanenbaum Collection), and Tom Kealey (Thieves I’ve Known). Many have appeared on the Book Haven before.

Not least of this year’s attractions: you will have a chance to meet Humble Moi, who is willing to sign your programs and flyers. If you consult the program below, you will see that I will be chairing the very last of the panels, “Truth Through Fiction and Memoir.”

Did I mention that the event is great fun? Drop in, or indulge yourself by spending the entire afternoon in the company of these bright, entertaining, and stimulating writers. Stanford Bookstore, one of the event’s annual co-sponsors, will sell books at a 10 percent discount, and authors will sign copies. Light refreshments will be served. And it’s all free!


The book that’s rocking Russia: Ellendea Proffer’s Brodsky Among Us is a bestseller

April 20th, 2015

Carl Proffer snapped a photo of Joseph Brodsky with Ellendea outside Leningrad’s Transfiguration Cathedral in 1970. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, has inspired a number of memoirs since his death. One big one was missing, until a few weeks ago.

Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s Brodsky Among Us is now in its third printing, although it was released only last month in Russia by Corpus, one of the largest publishers in Russia. Reviews have been laudatory – and the book quickly shot to the top ten at the main Moscow bookstore, Moskva. The author is now on her triumphant tour of Russia, giving talks, media interviews, book signings, press lunches, and photo ops. With her late husband, Carl Proffer, she co-founded the avant-garde, U.S.-based Russian publishing house Ardis during the Cold War. Together, they brought Brodsky to America.

brodskyamongusThe literary acclaim has caught Ellendea off-guard. Russians generally like their poets stainless, and her memoir is as candid as it is affectionate. Her Brodsky is brilliant, reckless, and deeply human. “I did not expect the response I’m getting,” she wrote to me. “It is so moving to me. They understood exactly what I was doing, and they are grateful that it’s not more myth-making.”

While I have been encouraging her to write a memoir for years, I had not seen enough of her writing to anticipate what such a work would look like. Frankly, I did not expect anything of this caliber – an engaging, compulsively readable text that is bodacious, graceful, seamless. Perhaps I should not have been surprised: five years after Carl’s untimely death in 1984, she received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in her own right. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she has kept a low profile; this book marks her powerful comeback as a major figure in Russian literature.

The Proffers befriended Brodsky (1940-1996) in Leningrad. When the U.S.S.R. gave him the heave-ho, the couple miraculously secured an appointment for the unknown foreigner as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan, which launched his career in the West. In Brodsky Among Us, she writes of the first encounter in the present tense, as if it were still replaying in her head, over and over:

“The most remarkable thing about Joseph Brodsky is his determination to live as if he were free in the eleven time zone prison that is the Soviet Union. In revolt against the culture of ‘we,’ he will be nothing if not an individual. His code of behavior is based on his experience under totalitarian rule: a man who does not think for himself, a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure itself.

Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson. He is constantly qualifying whatever he has just said, scanning your reactions, seeking areas of agreement. He talks about John Donne and Baratynsky (both poets of thought) then says da​? to see if you agree. (Later he would use Yah? this way in English.) This is part of his social courtship pattern. Of course there is another Joseph, the one who doesn’t like you, and that Joseph – whom we rarely see, but are often told about – is insolent, arrogant and boorish. I am reminded of what Mayakovsky‘s friends said about him – that he had no skin.”

She explains the combativeness later, “He needed his enemies; resisting them – and the state – had formed his identity.” Hence also his careerism, his relentless (and astonishingly successful) social climbing among the New York City literati: “If you had fame, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost,” she wrote.

Much of the current Russian attention is not just on Brodsky, but on the Cold War legacy of Ardis itself, given that censorship levels in Russia are returning the nation to the 1970s. Journalist Nikolai Uskov, who has visited the Ardis archives at the University of Michigan, is working on a big book about the courageous publishing house that operated out of an Ann Arbor basement.


On Russian TV with Ksenia Sobchak (Photo: Casa Dana)

I met Ellendea back at the University of Michigan in the 1970s and visited her and Carl at the former country club that had become the Proffer family home and base of operations. Together, the Proffers published the best Russian literature at a time when the U.S.S.R. wasn’t. As I wrote a dozen years ago:

The competition was admittedly limited: Soviet publishers were hamstrung in what they could print; they weren’t publishing much that was new, let alone groundbreaking. The emigre YMCA press in Paris (which published Solzhenitsyn, among others) and Possev in Germany had a religious or political bent, a bias that often alienated younger writers. Samizdat was one alternative: haphazard, handwritten or mimeographed, and highly perishable.

Then there was Ardis. With its related venture, the innovative Russian Literature Triquarterly, Ardis brought Western readers to Russian writers. Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Velimir Khlebnikov, Mikhail Bulgakov, even Anna Akhmatova were relatively little known in the era before Ardis set up shop; their works were suppressed, their names and reputations were inevitably jumbled with a plethora of lesser, officially approved writers.

Her memoir is likely to cement the Ardis legacy in the best possible way. Brodsky Among Us is compelling, polished, pitch-perfect. She captures his restless self-reinvention, the bluster, the belligerence, the boorishness – while never losing sight of his tenderness and generosity, the reason so many, including Susan Sontag as well as the author, forgave him everything. This is, above all, a loving memoir.


Signing books at the Dostoevsky Library (Photo: Casa Dana)

Brodsky Among Us is about as flawless a book as one could expect. I wished it wouldn’t end. I found myself marking passages I wanted to return to, sentences I wanted to remember. It’s short, but it’s not a bad idea to leave the reader wanting more. I suspect she leaves out all the right things. While some Russian readers have noted the book’s understatements and omissions, I know that she was anxious, first and foremost, that the poet’s oeuvre not be overshadowed by the anecdotes.

Recently, Russian government has attempted to appropriate its rejected poet. Brodsky’s words were featured in the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a startling move to reclaim the writer who would not have survived had he stayed, and may not have thrived under today’s Russian regime, either. Brodsky never returned to his beloved Petersburg. Why? In part, Proffer writes, because he didn’t believe anything had really changed. She writes: “Joseph had many stated reasons for not going back. He said different things, depending on his time and mood, so all one can really trust are his actions. He did not return to his native country when he could have. I know a few of his reasons: one was the iron conviction that return would be a form of forgiveness … Exile was so difficult that it was hard to believe one could just go back as if it had not cost you anything. As Americans descended from immigrants, we are familiar with this phenomenon: sometimes you love your country but it doesn’t love you back. This loss becomes a part of your new identity.”


Ellendea on air at Radio Echo Moscow (Photo: Casa Dana)

The back cover of Brodsky Among Us has an attention-grabbing quote, but out of context one that sounds misleadingly harsh. Here are the paragraphs that goes around that quotation, which addresses the poet’s posthumous revision:

“There is a Brodsky stamp in America, and there is an Aeroflot plane named after him. I don’t want there to be a museum for Joseph, I don’t want to see him on a stamp, or his name on the side of a plane – these things mean that he is dead dead dead dead and no one was ever more alive.

I protest: a magnetic and difficult man of flesh is in the process of being devoured by a monument, a monstrous development considering just how human Joseph was.

Joseph Brodsky was the best of men and the worst of men. He was no monument to justice or tolerance. He could be so lovable that you would miss him after a day; he could be so arrogant and offensive that you would wish the sewers would open up under his feet and suck him down. He was a personality.

The poet’s destiny was to rise, like his autumn hawk, into that upper atmosphere even if it was going to cost him everything.”


Eminent translator Viktor Golyshev, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, and critic Anton Dolin at standing-room only event. (Photo: Casa Dana)

When Proffer, who had relocated to southern California, sold Ardis to Overlook Press in 2002, I wrote about the transition in the TLS, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review was so eager to republish the piece they tracked me down to a secluded beach in Ocho Rios to get my permission to reprint tout de suite. Those were the days when newspapers still had cutting-edge book review sections willing to take a risk, the LATBR foremost among them. In 2015, publishers are looking at markets, not enduring legacies, and book editors don’t take too much interest in what happens beyond their shores. C’est dommage.

Here’s why this story is important here, now: most of his poetic career was in the U.S., not Russia. Previously published memoirs by Lev Loseff (I wrote about it for Quarterly Conversation here) and Ludmila Shtern (I wrote about it in the Kenyon Review here) are greatly illuminating, but shortchange his American life. The American story is one the Russians didn’t know, and the one that we haven’t told, spotlighting the auto-didact’s wondrous, rough-and-tumble self-reinvention, admittedly marred by the ambitious, ill-advised self-translations that would have torpedoed a lesser genius. He became the first foreign-born U.S. Poet Laureate. He taught generations of American students – including this one. Those of us who knew him will never forget him – those who didn’t, especially, need this book. Although the champagne corks are popping in Russia, most of Brodsky Among Us takes place on this side of the world – it’s an American story, about an American career. He is one of us.

Brodsky&ProffersSan Francisco_1972 copy

Brodsky Among Them: The Proffers & the poet at Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco, 1972. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)


“I tricked myself to write”: Philip Glass discusses his new book on home turf

April 18th, 2015
Philip Glass with Ira Glass at Barnes & Noble, Uniion Square, NYC. 3/6/2015

Cousins: Ira Glass interviews Philip Glass at Barnes and Noble in NYC. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)


The latest word from the big city on the Atlantic, from our roving reporter/photographer Zygmunt Malinowski (he’s written for us before here and here and here and here, and lots of other places):

Philip Glass, considered to be one of the best contemporary composers, is part of the New York City fabric. He is a quintessential New Yorker who had his start in the New York downtown scene of the 1970s.

So I was pleased when I picked up a local paper for a subway ride recently, and learned he would be appearing locally, at Barnes & Noble on April 6, to discuss his new autobiography, Words Without Music. I had photographed Czeslaw Milosz for his book launch of Roadside Dog, the same sort of event at the same venue.

Philip Glass at Barnes & Noble, Uniion Square, NYC. 3/6/2015

Time for a close-up. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with Robert Wilson, catapulted him to fame in 1976. He had honed his craft in Paris, where he was inspired by avant-garde theater and Samuel Beckett plays. He went to India in 1966, and encountered refugee Tibetans and Buddhism. Eventually, he would write the score for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film about Dalai Lama, Kundun, using the repetitive Tibetan cymbals and horns as a motif.

At Barnes & Noble, the 78-year-old composer was accompanied by his cousin Ira Glass, who was also his interlocutor for the event, as well as the host and producer of NPR’s “This American Life.” The organizers warned me that the photo-op would be short, but I still had enough time to get a good close-up as he posed in front of bookstore’s logo. The overflow event, on the bookstore’s top floor, featured a large panel of Moby Dick graphic and Gulliver’s Travels. The green panel behind the center table blocked the large windows and view of city buildings, a photographer’s minor disappointment at a great event.

“Before age 41 I had a day job, I was moving furniture and things like that,” Glass told his cousin. “This is very common in our country, artists, dancers …have a day job … I thought I was successful. I had an ensemble, I went on tours. I was traveling in Europe and America.” However, even after the Einstein on the Beach triumph at the Metropolitan, he returned to his day job, driving a taxi. Soon afterwards he received a lucrative commission from Netherlands.

He claimed that it is still hard to write and sometimes he has to throw away what he started and start over. One of the ways he described it is that writing music is like “looking out the window at buildings on a foggy morning, and after a while you can see a [an outline of] a window.” Then he has to figure out a way to describe it in music. Rather like writing, in fact.

Nowadays, he particularly likes “offbeat music, especially music from other countries and music from 30s and 40s.” His tastes are omnivorous, he likes all music, and said that he has heard “some awful playing but young people are doing wonderful things.”

The written questions from the audience were randomly selected at the end of the session.

Q: Is it best to write music when you are heartbroken?

Glass: No. To me music is continuous like an underground flow…

Q: What music do you listen on a subway?

Glass: The other day, symphony music … that I composed. When we have a Tibet concert I listen to everybody. [Glass is the artistic director of annual Tibet House benefit concert at Carnegie Hall.]

Q: It’s hard to sell music.

Glass: The question should be who wants music [i.e., dancers and others need music.] Find someone your age…theatre needs music. One of the things that goes on today is collaborative. No one says you will make money; you do it because you love it. This is what we call vocation, from Latin word ‘vocare’ [to call, to name, to invoke]

Glass recalled that when he was young he set aside a period of time to compose. “I sat at the piano between 10:00 and 1 in the morning waiting for what would happen. I tricked myself to write. At first it was difficult and finally I wrote music to pass the time. Now I write anytime I want to. Now there is a feeling of anticipation, of satisfaction to come. Writing now has become joyful, but it was not like this when I was younger.”


Philip Glass books; Barnes & Noble; Uniion Square; NYC. 3/6/2015

In prose, not music. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)



Langston Hughes and his thousands of letters

April 16th, 2015

hughesI haven’t read much of the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, but I adore the man already, after reading Arnold Rampersad‘s engaging, straightforward introduction to him in the new Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. The new Knopf volume is the first comprehensive selection of his correspondence, edited by Rampersad, winner of the National Humanities Medal (we’ve written about him here and here and here) and David Roessel, with Christa Fratantoro.

Hughes and I both have a complicated relationship to the world of letters. As he put it, it’s not the writing, but the “getting down to writing” that’s the problem. Here’s the first paragraph of Rampersad’s introduction:

“Who knows better than I,” Langston Hughes once wrote to a friend, “what letter writing entails?” Certainly he knew much about letters. With a crowded life that put him in touch over the decades with thousands of people, the mail was crucial to starting and keeping friendships and to doing business. He admired people who answered letters promptly. His friend Carl Van Vechten, for example, received a flood of mail but usually answered each piece on the day it reached him. Hughes was not so disciplined. In fact, at one point he called himself “the world’s worst letter writer.” Another time, he confessed to stuffing away a swelling pile of answered pieces. “Two drawers are full,” he noted, “so I’m moving my sox over.” All the same, he wanted to be a faithful correspondent. “I leave you now,” he ended a letter in 1944, “to consider the stack of mail on top of mail piled on the bed. I cannot take my rest until I unpile some of it.”

I can sooo relate. Rampersad continues:

Later in life, living near one of the noisier sections of Harlem, he wrote through the night, when the brownstone row house he shared was likely to be quiet. Then, at three or four or five o’clock, or even later, he sat at his typewriter and pounded out letters (more than thirty on many nights) that went all over the world. This was in addition to writing the poems, novels, short stories, plays, autobiographies, histories, translations, opera libretti, song lyrics, children’s books, and newspaper columns, as well as editing anthologies and other volumes, that made so many people long to be in touch of them.”

As early as 1923, Hughes wrote an early letter to Countee Cullen, “Certainly it is very kind of you to offer to read my poems for me at the library and very beastly of me not to have written a single line since returning from New York.” He was already behind in his letter-writing. But that was the least of his problems.

About two decades ago, I remember reading the letters of Katherine Mansfield, and the dominant theme of the letters was: money. Constantly short of cash as she coughed the last of her life in resort towns to relieve her tuberculosis, as she wrote, wrote, wrote … letters, diaries, short stories. Francs, dollars, yen … At least that seems to be one eternal part of the equation, and Hughes was no exception.

Did you ever try livin’
On two-bits minus two?
I say did you ever try livin’
On two bits minus two?
Why don’t you try it, folks,
And see what it would do to you?

A winner

Thousands of letters, and he edited them.

The new volume opens with the early beseeching letters to father in 1921, after he published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in a national magazine. The humiliating financial exigencies were an ongoing condition. He wrote to his publisher Blanche Knopf, from a Mexican house above a pear orchard in Carmel Valley as he wrote his long (and somewhat premature) autobiography in 1939: “The house is entirely my own for work, and as remote and quiet a place as one would want to find, so I shall not be interrupted. I am sorry the manuscript is not ready to send you now, as I had hoped it would be, but it is going along splendidly and is two-thirds finished, so a month more of steady work should get it done. However, my difficulty at the moment is this: having turned down all lectures for this fall and put aside everything else in order to get the book done, my sources of income have temporarily ceased – and I find myself with an eviction warning from my New York landlord if I do not come through with the August rent. Which is bad enough, but not quite as bad as being unable to employ a typist to assist me in preparation of a final draft – some five hundred pages – which I shall shortly have ready to have recopied. So much as I dislike to do it at this stage of the game, I am writing to ask you if it would be possible to now allow me an advance of $200.00 on the book…” He lived in a time, you see, when $200 was more than a spit in the bucket.

Some things don’t change, even with fame. He wrote to Van Vechten in 1955: “What I was about to write you abut you about yesterday was (and is) to ask you if by any chance you’ve got a spare hundred lying around loose anywhere you could lend me for a month. Brokeness suddenly descended upon me unawares and my stenographer’s last check bounced. Turned out I was $1.48 short! … I don’t mind being broke myself, but typists live more hand to mouth than author, and I don’t want to get more than a week or two behind with her…” Working on a film project in 1940, he wrote that he had been “entangled in that unprofitable thing known as the show business,” adding that “in this charming democracy of ours there seems to be no place for Negroes to live in Hollywood even if they do work out there occasionally.”

Thousands of letters. We’re grateful they haven’t disappeared over the years – including letters to Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ezra Pound, Wole Soyinka, Rev. Martin Luther King. Although, in a 1936 letter, he wrote, “I seem to be out-doing even myself as the world’s worst letter writer,” his correspondence is so huge that it could easily fill a score of large volumes. But then, he saved everything. “I guess I never throw anything away ever,” he admitted.

Can’t write? Failing your exams? You, too, can be a great philosopher! Derrida did it!

April 13th, 2015


A colleague in Southern California alerted me to the current exhibit at the University of California at Irvine: Through Discerning Eyes: Origins and Impact of Critical Theory at UCI. The new exhibit, which runs through mid-September, spotlights the personal papers of many famous thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Edward Said, and J. Hillis Miller, housed in UCI Libraries Special Collections and Archives’ Critical Theory Archive. But the showstopper seems to be the paper above from Derrida, which is appearing in the social media. The essay on Shakespeare, written in English, received a 10 out of 20.

In case you can’t read the diagonal handwriting in red across the top by the anonymous grader, it says this: “In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting, but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly. A few paragraphs are indeed totally incomprehensible – Probably this essay would have been good with just a little more work in it. As regards language, your English is not idiomatic enough (if generally correct). My advice is: read a lot of English, pen in hand.” I have my questions about the writing of the grader, frankly. “but, somewhat, you always fail…” Huh? And his English is not idiomatic enough? And what good does it do to read a lot of English with a pen in your hand?



On the facing page, “quite unintelligible” is scribbled over an entire paragraph. I don’t know about Derrida being “unintelligible,” but it is barely legible, at least in this tiny image. The exam is dated 1950 – Derrida would have been 19 or 20 years old, and he was in the “khâgne” – educational preparation for one of France’s grandes écoles.

During these years, according to the exhibit, “Derrida met many individuals who have played an important role in his life, including Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Deguy, Louis Marin, and his future wife, Marguerite Aucouturier.” “By the end of 1952,” the description continues, “he had gained admittance to the Ecole normale supérieure.” That’s a big deal.

According to the Critical Theory website, on one occasion when Derrida failed his entrance exam, a juror remarked: “Look, this text is quite simple… You’ve simply made it more complicated and laden with meaning by adding ideas of your own.” He later failed his initial license exam for philosophy. “An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence,” one juror wrote, “but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy…Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.” Failing is commonplace on these rigorous exams. Derrida failed several times before passing – but the comments were brutal.

The New York Review of Books writes that during one exam, Derrida “choked and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy.”

The moral of the story? According to Jack Cade in the comments section: “How many Jaques Derridas get rejected and discouraged by, essentially, the hegemonic systems of thought that are in every discipline? Read, judge, and grade more generously. Not easier, just wiser.”

Asian megastar Agnes Chan in South Sudan: “Their future is our responsibility.”

April 11th, 2015

Spreading the love: Agnes in South Sudan

I received a note from Asian megastar Agnes Chan, author of about 60 books and Japan’s high-profile ambassador for UNICEF (I’ve written about her before here and here). She wrote: “I am in South Sudan on a UNICEF mission. Fighting continues in several areas. Displaced people, malnourished children, lost lives and bleak prospects. Decades of war makes this resource rich country an aid dependent state. Needless fighting must stop already. The children are adorable and their future is our responsibility.” Could I blog her note and photos? “It will be great to let more people know about the situation,” she replied.

Here is a description of the visit form the author, singer, journalist, and humanitarian (who also holds a Stanford PhD), according to a report from Yambio in South Sudan:

Ambassador, Agnes Chan says UNICEF will reach out-of-school children in all 10 states, targeting approximately 400,000 children whose schooling has been interrupted by the conflict in South Sudan to return to their studies this year.

She said that children have started joining schools while others still need awareness and support to go to schools.

Ms. Chan stated that UNICEF and the Government of Japan will continue to support South Sudan.

“We will continue supporting children’s education in South Sudan urging the people to make good use of facilities to making sure that children are educated well,” she noted.

She thanked Western Equatoria Government for being devoted in helping women, children and the youth in life skills.

Ms. Chan in her meeting with the State Governor, Bangasi Joseph Bakosoro appreciated his leadership and the entire government for keeping and promoting peace in the State.

“It is not easy but the people of this state are committed to maintaining peace in the area because peace is a very important tool, that for any country to do well for its citizens there must be peace,” Chan said.

More photos below:





Poet X.J. Kennedy wins $50K award – and he deserves it!

April 8th, 2015

The reason this man looks happy.

One of the greatly beloved figures on the American poetry scene is X.J. Kennedy, known to his friends as “Joe” – though he’s too little known. (We’ve written about the 85-year-old poet here and here.)

Let’s work on the “little known” part. That may change a little bit with today’s announcement that Poets & Writers has just made him the winner of the ninth annual Jackson Poetry Prize. The $50,000 prize is awarded each year to an American poet of exceptional talent “who deserves wider recognition,” according to the Poets & Writers website. (See? The P&W folks also think he’s too little known.) “The award is among the most substantial given to an American poet, and is designed to provide what all poets need: time and encouragement to write.”

Kennedy was selected by a panel of three judges: the poets Heather McHugh, Vijay Seshadri, and Rosanna Warren. Here’s the citation that went with the award:

“X. J. Kennedy’s forms are perennial, his rhetoric is at once elaborate and immediate, and his language and diction are always of the American moment. He translates the human predicament into poetry perfectly balancing wit, savagery, and compassion. His subtly dissonant rhymes and side-stepping meters carry us through the realms of puzzlement and sorrow to an intimated grace. The size of his poems is small but their scope is vast.”

Previous recipients of the Jackson Poetry Prize are Claudia Rankine (2014), Arthur Sze (2013), Henri Cole (2012), James Richardson (2011), Harryette Mullen (2010), Linda Gregg (2009), Tony Hoagland (2008), and Elizabeth Alexander (2007).

kennedy_rgbKennedy’s many books of poetry include Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), his first collection, which won a Lamont Award, Cross Ties, and The Lords of Misrule. In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New & Selected Poems (2007) was an American Library Association “Notable Book.” His most recent titles include Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines (2014) and a comic novel, A Hoarse Half-human Cheer (2015). He is the author of 24 children’s books.

In 2009, he received the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost medal. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry, and others, as well as in 287 anthologies. He is also a former poetry editor for Paris Review. His awards include a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Bess Hokin Prize for Poetry magazine, and a Los Angeles Times book prize. Kennedy has taught at the Universities of Michigan, North Carolina (Greensboro), and California (Irvine), as well as Wellesley, Tufts, and Leeds. On a more personal note, P&W writes: “He and Dorothy M. Kennedy have collaborated on two children’s books and five children. They sometimes host six grandchildren in Lexington, Mass.”

I always assumed the “X” stood for Xavier. What else could it be? Not so, according to P&W: the New Jersey-born poet was “irked by the hardship of having the name of Joseph Kennedy, he stuck the X on and has been stuck with it ever since.” He studied at my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, and also at Columbia.

Dana Gioia, who coauthored the textbook An Introduction to Poetry, said the award is “long overdue” – that was on someone’s Facebook page. I can’t find where he actually said that, but it sounds about right. The kudos are rolling around the social media – as an educator, editor, and mentor, he has been a champion of many (and one of mine, too – thank you, Joe!)

Poets & Writers will host a reading and reception in honor of Kennedy in May in New York City. Wish I could attend! Many of us will be there in spirit. Read his “The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once” – one of my all-time favorites – over here.

“Poetry Out Loud” is ten years old – and California celebrates!

April 5th, 2015

Dana in Sacramento. (All photos Jay R. Hart)

Poetry Out Loud wasn’t an easy sell. When Dana Gioia, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, first suggested a national high school poetry recitation competition a decade ago, state arts education departments dug in their heels. Kids hate poetry, he was told – besides, it’s too intellectual for the average students. Memorizing poetry? That’s repressive and “not creative” enough. (One rather wonders at the thinking – teenagers love performing, and all high-school plays involve memorization.) It’s since become perhaps the most successful and enduring legacy of Dana’s tenure at the NEA.

He finally persuaded all the states to give it a try, at least for a year. To perhaps everyone’s surprise except Dana, Poetry Out Loud was a stunning success, right from the outset. It soon had hundreds of thousands of American teenagers memorizing and reciting poems. The competition has now involved about two and a half million students. I can’t think of anything else on this scale in the U.S. to build a new audience for poetry. (Dan Stone, now editing Radio Silence, did much of the ground work in making the program national.)

Poetry Out Loud celebrated it’s tenth anniversary in Sacramento last month. Dana gave a talk at the state finals. The national finals take place next month in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, a few photos from the Sacramento event.

Top photo below: Dana Gioia, founder of Poetry Out Loud, speaking in Sacramento last month. On the second photo below, you can see state winner Levi Lowe gettin’ into it, as he recites Al Young‘s “The Blues Don’t Change.” Below that, Steve Hansen, recipient of the 2015 California Poetry Out Loud “Hero” Award, as best poetry teacher. And rounding out the picture: Shelly Gilbride, Arts Program Specialist; Dana Gioia, poet, critic, former NEA chair; Al Young, judge, poet, and former California poet laureate; state champion Levi Lowe; Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council; and Jason Jong, arts program specialist. All photos by Jay R. Hart.


Jane Hirshfield: two new books and the mysterious nature of fado

April 2nd, 2015
Jane in Marin (Photo: Adam Phillips)

Jane in Marin, writing. (Photo: Adam Phillips)

“At a certain stage, I realized a life is written in indelible ink.” Jane Hirshfield made an appearance at Kepler’s Books on Tuesday evening – and I know just what she means.

“Certain doors close,” she said. “It’s too late to be a bronco rider” – not that she ever wanted to be, she quickly added.

I’ve tried explaining this realization to friends. It’s not that there won’t be big surprises, new beginnings, unexpected turns, but I know I’ll never be a neurosurgeon – not that I wanted to be. Or an astronaut. When one enters the harvest period of life, one will reap not only as but where one has sown – a lifetime of planting fields of wheat won’t yield cabbages and thyme. A life with a pen … or a computer screen … means one won’t be a ballerina. This is hard to explain to the young ‘uns, for whom life and hope and joy is a world of almost endless possibilities – they may have ten children, or none. And everyone of them can still be a president. Yet I think today’s youth suffers greatly from unlimited possibility, and the uncertainty and burdens it brings – especially in modern Western culture, where we task our children with the creation of a whole life by the time they’re twenty or so.

There is a profound peace in doing the chosen thing well, and continuing to pick the fruit from efforts long made. It’s akin to the ideas percolating in a poet’s head and verse – “It changes, but only more into the person.” We become more and more ourselves. I’m happy to know my Zen friend Jane is a fellow traveler to the same psychological city. As she writes in the last line of one of her poems: “There was no other life.”

That realization permeates her new collection, The Beauty (Knopf), in such poems as “Perspective: An Assay,” “My Life was the Size of My Life,” “In My Wallet I Carry a Card,” “My Sandwich,” as well as “A Cottony Fate,” quoted above. (The Beauty was named a “best book of the year” by Amazon.)

“Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly,” she writes in the preface of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf), a book of essays published at the same time as The Beauty (it was named by Publishers Weekly a “pick of the week”): “It is also a changing. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, and thinks in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us – more range, more depth, more feeling; more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstunted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share.”

beautyDuring a conversation at Kepler’s with poet Ellen Bass, she said finds poetry easier than prose – she has had eighteen years between volumes of essays; not so with writing poems, although “it’s not like I’m knocking them out like pancakes,” she said. While she considers herself a private person, and not at all a confessional or autobiographical writer, she said her poems are “completely nude portraits – but at the level of an X-ray.”

“Poems are not about expression. Poems are about making a discovery – not about what you really know and feel,” but rather weaving a basket that will carry “unknowable things.”

“Life is an unsolvable mathematical problem – and a lot of the wonderful and technological way of looking at things,” she said, trains us for a life in which there is “a single, correct answer.” If you’re working on the rings for a Challenger spacecraft, for example, “there is one correct answer and you better get it right.” But will it tell you why you want to travel to Mars in the first place? Can we get to the root of human aspiration and sorrow? Why can’t we have both?

“Why can’t we find the astonishment? Why can’t we find the precision?” she asked. She spoke of the opening poem of her new collection, Fado” – which is a Portuguese song of longing and loss and the sea and (she learned later) the word also means “fate.” She described the perplexing process of its creation, “I have no idea where the fado singer comes from. Why is the woman in a wheelchair? She was completely unlimited by her situation.” As for the quarter and dove the or trickster finds on the girl, “Even if you know it’s a trick, it’s still a dove. It flies off. You can buy something with the quarter.”

Precision and uncertainty, uncertainty and solace: “There’s a way to feel alright with that, and not be undone by that.” At “Fado”‘s end, “what trembles in the pan has something of the uncertain. That’s what a poem does.”



tenwindowsA man reaches close
and lifts a quarter
from inside a girl’s ear,
from her hands takes a dove
she didn’t know was there.
Which amazes more,
you may wonder:
the quarter’s serrated murmur
against the thumb
or the dove’s knuckled silence?
That he found them,
or that she never had,
or that in Portugal,
this same half-stopped moment,
it’s almost dawn,
and a woman in a wheelchair
is singing a fado
that puts every life in the room
on one pan of a scale,
itself on the other,
and the copper bowls balance.

Remembering Tomas Tranströmer: in the end, only music…

March 29th, 2015

Transcendental moments (Photo: Alexander Deriev/Ars Interpres Publications)

I was out of town yesterday, so I’m late posting my news is late, but I did want to note the passing of Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel-winning Swedish poet (we’ve written about him here and here).  I couldn’t put it better than this reader who commented on Facebook: “It goes without saying that I liked knowing that this man was somewhere on this planet, pen in hand.”

The New York Times obituary praised the “his shrewd metaphors couched in deceptively spare language, crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity.” He died on Thursday, March 26, at 83 years old.

With a pared-down style and brusque, forthright diction, Mr. Tranströmer (pronounced TRAWN-stroh-mur) wrote in accessible language, though often in the service of ideas that were diaphanous and not easy to parse; he could be precisely observant one moment and veer toward surrealism the next.

“The typical Tranströmer poem is an exercise in sophisticated simplicity, in which relatively spare language acquires remarkable depth, and every word seems measured to the millimeter,” the poet David Orr wrote in an essay in The New York Times in 2011. …

His poems often had transcendental moments that led some critics to consider him a religious poet or a mystic. In “Further In,” from the 1973 volume “Paths,” the quotidian and the unfathomable collide, in both the body of the poet and in the world.

He was trained as a psychologist, worked in state institutions with juvenile offenders, parole violators and the disabled. And he was also an accomplished pianist. After the 1990 stroke that left him unable to speak and unable to use his right and arm at the relatively young age of 59, he adapted to life as a lefty. Again from the New York Times:

Mr. Transtromer’s poetry production slowed after his stroke, but he took refuge in music, playing the piano with just his left hand. As a testament to his prominence in Sweden, several composers there wrote pieces for the left hand specifically for him.

He was also an amateur entomologist. The Swedish National Museum presented an exhibition of his childhood insect collection, and a Swedish scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it for him.

I dropped a line to my Stockholm correspondent Alexander Deriev to ask if he had any memories to share, and he wrote this: “Alas, I don’t have many personal memoirs of Tomas. I meet him only a few times and communicated mostly through his wife Monica Tranströmer. As you know after suffering a stroke in 1990 he was almost unable to speak (only through Monica). At that Fourth Ars Interpres poetry festival that I arranged in 2010 (a year before he was awarded Nobel Prize), Tomas played Joseph Haydn‘s ‘Allegro ur Sonat F dur’ and Reinhold Glière‘s ‘Impromptu for the left hand op 99′ together with Swedish-Italian pianist Lucia Negro. And two actors in his presence recited his poems in Swedish and English.” At any rate, Alexander contributed this photograph (above right) of the Swedish poet at the festival in 2010, the year before he won the Nobel. The Swedes were reluctant to name one of their own, anticipating charges of favoritism; he waited years for the award, although he is hugely popular in Sweden.

Below, two short poems, relatively early in his career: one on death and the other on music. And at the bottom, a youtube video Alexander shared with me. In the end, the poet spoke through music, unmediated by words.

After a Death

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside.  It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

– Translated by Robert Bly, from Bells and Tracks, 1966


After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready.  Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag.  The signal is:
“We do not surrender.  But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

– Translated by Robert Bly, from The Half-Finished Heaven, 1962

Postscript on 3/30: No sooner posted than Artur Sebastian Rosman alerted me to this video below, produced by another Book Haven friend, Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in Northumberland.

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