Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah. This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria. I wonder how long it took to make.
“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted. Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.’”
Want to know how the artist did it? See video below.
Dana Gioia‘s new volume of poems, Pity the Beautiful, is getting some early buzz (including a Philadelphia Inquirer review here). The poet (and former chairman of the NEA) recently sent me the latest issue of Gregory Wolfe‘s Image Journal which includes a satisfyingly long interview – even better than a review. None of it’s online, so I’ll include a few excerpts from the interview with Erika Koss. Besides, it meshes nicely with some of the Book Haven’s earlier posts, so I couldn’t resist.
The Book Haven was pleased to include his long poem “Special Treatments Ward” in its entirety, in an earlier post here. Here’s what he said about the poem in the new interview:
“This was the most difficult poem I’ve ever written. It began when my second son had a serious injury that required an extended stay in a children’s neurological ward where nearly every other child was dying of a brain or spinal tumor. Having lost my first son, I was entirely vulnerable to the pain and confusion of the sick children and their desperate parents. I began to write a poem about how unprepared everyone in the ward was for what they had to face. But the poem kept growing and changing. It took me sixteen years to finish. I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to forget it, but the poem demanded to be finished. So the poem is not simply about my first son or my second son, though they are both mentioned. It is about the children who died.”
We also had a post describing “Haunted,” Dana’s ghost story – it’s here. From the interview:
“Actually, this poem began with the first two lines:’”I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said. “Such nonsense./But years ago I actually saw one.”‘ As soon as I heard those two lines, the whole poem started to unfold, though it took an immense amount of work to create the narrative tone and the musical qualities I wanted. The odd thing about poems is that when the good ones come we often realize that we have been writing them in the back of our mind for years. A single line brings them into existence almost fully formed.”
‘Haunted’ is a ghost story that turns into a love story about a mutually destructive couple, but then at the end the reader realizes that the whole tale was really about something else entirely. The real theme is quite the opposite of what it initially seems. I wanted the poem to have the narrative drive of a great short story but also rise to moments of intense lyricality …”
And the winner is...
He lists among the influential philosophers of his life Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Mircea Eliade, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Maritain, and recently René Girard. What odd bedfellows that crew would be.
But who was the most important philosopher of all? Surprise.
“One book that has exercised a lifelong influence on me is Saint Augustine‘s City of God, which I first read as a Stanford undergraduate. It has probably shaped my adult life more than any other book except the Gospels. Augustine helped me understand the danger of letting the institutions of power – be they business, government, or academia – in which we spend our daily lives shape our values. We need to understand what it is we give to the City of Man and what we do not. I couldn’t have survived my years in business as a writer had I not resisted the hunger for wealth, power, and status that pervades the world. The same was true for my years in power-mad Washington. Another writer who helped me understand these things was the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács – not a name one usually sees linked with Augustine’s, but he was another compelling analyst of the intellectual and moral corruptions of institutional power.”
Here’s a kind of egalitarianism that goes well beyond Marx: “Beauty is not a luxury,” he insists. “It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.”
Greg Gioia can whip up one mean drink. Dana Gioia‘s new book, Pity the Beautiful, was fêted by a capacity crowd at Kepler’s last night. One of the memorable highlights of the evening was Dana’s kid bro making a libation of his own invention, called “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet.”
I watched him make it. Parts of something that looked like Campari (but wasn’t Campari), then absinthe, and a few other ingredients, with a twist of orange for garnish. “The lover,” Greg told me, was the quick spray of rosewater on top. “The lunatic” was, obviously, the absinthe.
And “the poet”? Greg told me the drink was a variation of one called “Arthur Rimbaud.” But it also hearkens back to a line from William Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all compact: One sees more devils than vast hell can hold, That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic, Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt: The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.
It’s also – for a third association – the title of a love poem in Dana’s new collection. Muriel Rukeyser famously said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Dana agrees: We live by the stories we tell about ourselves, he said. People who are “stuck” in their lives are in fact enmeshed in a particular narrative about their lives. Then he read the poem.
It’s so lovely I’ll quote it in full, taking full advantage of Dana’s kind permission to do so:
The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point. We weave
The fabric of our own existence out of words,
And the right story tells us who we are.
Perhaps it is the words that summon us.
The tale is often wiser than the teller.
There is no naked truth but what we wear.
So let me bring this story to our bed.
The world, I say, depends upon a spell
Spoken each night by lovers unaware
Of their own sorcery. In innocence
Or agony the same words must be said,
Or the raging moon will darken in the sky.
The night grows still. The winds of dawn expire.
And if I’m wrong, it cannot be by much.
We know our own existence came from touch,
The new soul summoned into life by lust.
And love’s shy tongue awakens in such fire –
Flesh against flesh and midnight whispering –
As if the only purpose of desire
Were to express its infinite unfolding.
And so, my love, we are two lunatics,
Secretaries to the wordless moon,
Lying awake, together or apart,
Transcribing every touch or aching absence
Into our endless, intimate palaver,
Body to body, naked to the night,
Appareled only in our utterance.
I think it’s one of his finest (I love the turn in the second stanza) – though I must admit that at some point the liquid form of the “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” began to take hold, and everything in the room was illuminated in a sort of roseate glow. It had been a long week, and I had been fighting off illness. Before I had a chance to go up for a refill of Greg’s potion, the initial euphoria faded, and I realized that it had only been the tension of a tight schedule that had been holding me together. Suddenly my bones ached and my head throbbed.
I took Dana’s advice. A dash out the back door into the silence of the cool twilight and then homeward – as Dana suggested, I brought this particular story to bed.
Postscript on 5/6: If you want Greg’s recipe, it’s here, on “Sidecar Cocktail Blog,” the blog he’s been running for nine years. That’s six longer than the Book Haven – whew! how does he do it? It’s a pretty good blog, too – clearly, writing talent runs in the family. Brother Ted Gioia, occasionally mentioned on this blog, is a noted jazz scholar (I’ve written about himhere). His The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire will be out with Oxford University Press next month. Congratulations to all Gioias!
At Stanford commencement, 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Dana Gioia has been making the rounds: on April 26, he gave a reading from his new collection, Pity the Beautiful, at The Corner Bookstore in Manhattan (93rd Street and Madison Avenue).
David Sanders‘s Poetry News in Review, now included in the electronic pages of the Prairie Schoonerhere, tipped me off on where to find the text of poet David Lehman‘s introduction to the reading that night, titled “The Businessman, the Statesman, and the Poet.”
I’m glad for the opportunity to include an excerpt the day before Dana’s appearance at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, (Wednesday, May 2nd, at 7 p.m.) It wouldn’t do to talk about Dana without mentioning his personal generosity.
In his introduction, Lehman, editor for The Best American Poetry series, praises Dana’s “unflagging energy and stringent work ethic [that] remain an inspiration to his friends” – true, true – then describes his ambitious agenda as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “It is safe to say that not since Archibald MacLeish headed the Library of Congress has a poet worked so hard, and accomplished so much of value, in so prominent a position in the federal government.”
“I like to remember the day in 2003 when Dana came to New York and we had coffee at the Cornelia Street Café. Dana told me about the National Book Festival he was organizing for the fall and he asked me to help him make a presentation of American poetry. There would be a brunch at the White House that my wife, Stacey, and I could attend. I said: My mother – It would mean a lot to her, a holocaust refugee, then 88, to come. Dana took the cell phone out of his pocket and made a call and five minutes later my mother was on the guest list. The day we visited the White House was one of the happiest days in her life, and for that I will always have Dana to thank.”
A postcard in the mail, telling me Dana Gioia‘s new book, Pity the Beautiful, is officially out. It’s the first collection since he stepped down as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009. The postcard, with an amiable handwritten note from Mary Gioia, invited me to a reading and discussion at Kepler’s in Menlo Park on Wednesday, May 2, at 7 p.m. (Another one, on May 15, will take place at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco.)
I already wrote about Dana’s ghost story here, and a little about the book itself here, and about the magical evening in Santa Rosa, when Dana read some of the poems to me and his wife Mary here.
I was intrigued that the new book is dedicated to Morten Lauridsen, with the words “the necessary angel” beneath the composer’s name. Some years ago Dana sent me Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – a marvel. I’d never heard of the composer before Dana’s introduction – he’s largely overlooked in the MSM, though widely performed in choral music circles.
I’m getting all this mail on the Lux Aeterna, because it’s a large cycle; every one of the five movements relates to light, a universal symbol in so many ways. It was a great deal of pleasure to write that particular cycle, and I wrote it as my mother was in the process of dying, so it was a way of, as so many artists do, of dealing with that kind of a situation in an artistic way. … On Lux Aeterna and so many of my works, I like the immediacy — to draw my listener in immediately, to hold their attention, to transport them, to do something to do them on some level, whether it’s excite them, or move them, or elate them, or whatever.
Necessary angel on left
The connection is no surprise, really. Dana began his studies at Stanford with aspirations to become a composer. Since changing directions towards poetry and business (he has an M.B.A.), he has created the libretti for two operas – Alva Henderson‘s Nosferatu, and Paul Salerni‘s Tony Caruso’s Last Broadcast. Fewer know Dana was one of the champions of Derrière Guard, founded by the composer Stefania de Kenessey.
Lauridsen got a National Medal of Arts in 2007 – during Dana’s term as chairman of the NEA. Then Dana stepped down and became the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California – where Lauridsen has been a professor of composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music for more than three decades.
So Dana has at last returned to poetry full time. The new collection has many fine poems, and a few translations. The title poem is likely to get the most notice, but I know the one I’ll remember is the three-part “Special Treatments Ward”:
So this is where the children come to die,
hidden on the hospital’s highest floor.
They wear their bandages like uniforms
and pull their IV rigs along the hall
with slow and careful steps. Or bald and pale,
they lie in bright pajamas on their beds,
watching another world on a screen.
The mothers spend their nights inside the ward,
sleeping on chairs that fold out into beds,
too small to lie in comfort. Soon they slip
beside their children, as if they might mesh
those small bruised bodies back into their flesh.
Instinctively they feel that love so strong
protects a child. Each morning proves them wrong.
No one chooses to be here. We play the parts
that we are given – horrible as they are.
We try to play them well, whatever that means.
We need to talk though talking breaks our hearts.
The doctors come and go like oracles,
their manner cool, omniscient, and oblique.
There is a word that no one ever speaks.
I put this poem aside twelve years ago
because I could not bear remembering
the faces it evoked, and every line
seemed – still seems – so inadequate and grim.
What right had I whose son had walked away
to speak for those who died? And I’ll admit
I wanted to forget. I’d lost one child
and couldn’t bear to watch another die.
Not just the silent boy who shared our room,
but even the bird-thin figures dimly glimpsed
shuffling deliberately, disjointedly
like ancient soldiers after a parade.
Whatever strength the task required I lacked.
No well-stitched words could suture shut these wounds.
And so I stopped …
But there are poems we do not choose to write.
The children visit me, not just in dream,
appearing suddenly, silently –
insistent, unprovoked, unwelcome.
They’ve taken off their milky bandages
to show the raw, red lesions they still bear.
Risen they are healed but not made whole.
A few I recognize, untouched by years.
I cannot name them – their faces pale and gray
like ashes fallen from a distant fire.
What use am I to them, almost a stranger?
I cannot wake them from their satin beds.
Why do they seek me? They never speak.
And vagrant sorrow cannot bless the dead.
(Meet you at the reading on Wednesday at Kepler’s. And if you’re too far away, check out these 2011 interviews with Dana and Martin Perlich here. Below, Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium – he says ”it’s become the best-selling octavo in the history of Theodore Presser, who has been in business for over two hundred years now. We’ve had perhaps 3,000 performances of it.”)
Who could be more deserving of a MacArthur “Genius” Award than Kay Ryan? (We’ve written about her here and here and here – and my 2004 San Francisco Magazine essay on her, “Let There Be Lightness,” is here.)
“Kay Ryan, 65, a former poet laureate of the United States who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this year, said the money provided a certain “mental ease,” as she continues to write and to advocate for community colleges, where she has taught remedial English skills for decades.” [For you Bay Area denizens out there, she taught at the College of Marin – ED.]
In Athens (Photo: John Psaropoulos)
“I was very, very surprised,” said Ms. Ryan, who lives in Fairfax, Calif. “I had certainly thought I was over the hill. Obviously these people think I’ve got five more good years in me.”
But here’s the other half of the news:A.E. Stallings has also been awarded. I sent my congratulations to both, Alicia via Facebook, Kay by “regular” email. And also a note to Dana Gioia, who has promoted Kay’s work since way back when she was a relatively unknown Marin poet. His reaction? “Great news for two fabulous poets.”
Time to finally get a copy of Alicia’s 2007 verse translation of Lucretius‘s De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things). Yes, I’m that far behind.
The comments are interesting, too. In these fast and thoughtless times, I appreciate anything that makes me slow down and think about a poem.
I was intrigued by this analysis of Winehouse’s striking “look” in Trebay’s article:
“It’s hard to look that cheap and pull it off,” John Waters said admiringly of Amy Winehouse, some days after the English singer was found dead in her London bed. …
“She took vintage looks and combined them with punk into brand-new looks that gave even bad girls pause,” Mr. Waters said. …
According to Mr. Waters, anybody else trying to pull off Ms. Winehouse’s look was doomed to failure. “It all looked like it came very naturally to her,” he said. “She didn’t look like Halloween, but you could go as her on Halloween, and there’s the difference.”
Voilà! The Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence has been launched. I attended the dedication ceremony this afternoon, way up in forested hills around LaHonda, Skyline, and Woodside. (I wrote about the venture earlier, here.) Got mightily lost, too.
"Above all, radiant" (Photo: Amanda Lane)
Renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook‘s husband, assured the 50 or 60 gathered in the brilliant August day about the “green” nature of the four new domiciles built in memory of the gifted and groundbreaking biographer, who died in 2007. The Djerassi Resident Artists Program currently hosts about 60 artists a year. The spare new residences, overlooking the hills, will add a few more.
The 87-year-old Djerassi read a poem written by the person who had been the second oldest resident ever – Janet Lewis, the wife (and by then widow) of legendary Yvor Winters. She was 90 at the time – two years younger than the composer who holds the record in the program. The poem Carl read, “Landscape near Bear Gulch Road,” had been written during her residency.
Carl recalled his wife worked only on ambitious projects. When her cancer diagnosis gave her only months to live, she turned to her personal brand of therapy, he said – that is, “to immerse yourself totally in intellectual work.” Middlebrook tackled a biography of Ovid, which, “though unfinished, has been published posthumously in portions as ‘A Roman in his Prime’ in the Norton Critical edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and as ‘Ovid Is Born,’ in Feminist Studies,” according to the program’s website. I had wondered what happened to it.
Until today, I wasn’t aware that Dana Gioia, Diane’s student, had published the author’s only collection of poems, Gin Considered as a Demon, in 1983, when he was editing a series of chapbooks for Elysian Press. He waved the volume at the gathering. He also waved the battered paperback of Wallace Stevens‘s poems that he had studied with Diane way back in 1971.
He described Diane Middlebrook as “above all, radiant.” Such people are rare, he said: “in the warmth, enlightenment, and clarity of their presence we discover ourselves.”
Dana read Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy.” But Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, read a rapt and haunting poem that Dana had composed at the Djerassi home-in-the-hills, “Becoming a Redwood.” It concludes:
Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.
You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,
Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.
"Fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
The new September issue of World Literature Today is out, including an interview with poet, and former NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia. The Q&A was conducted by WLT‘s managing editor Michelle Johnson (who was also my editor for the July/August article on eminent Polish poet Julia Hartwig).
Not online, alas – but here are a few excerpts:
I try to accept the good and the bad with equanimity. As Oscar Wilde observed, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I have been lucky to have enjoyed a degree of celebrity across my career, and the experience has taught me a lot about the nature of contemporary fame. Notoriety requires you to be simplified, usually into a neat and tidy headline. First, I was widely discussed as the “businessman-poet.” Then I became notorious as the ringleader of the New Formalists. Soon thereafter I became famous as the literary maverick who wrote “Can Poetry Matter?” Then I became a public figure as the champion of arts and literacy who ran the National Endowment for the Arts. Each of these reputations contained an element of truth and a simplification. But it’s better to be noticed than ignored, and properly used, fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests as a writer.
On his legacy as one of the proponents of “New Formalism”:
It’s easy to forget how odd things were back in the 1970s. Form and narrative were almost universally denounced as dead literary modes. They were considered retrograde, repressive, elitist, antidemocratic, phallocentric, and even (I’m not making this up) un-American. It was impossible to publish a formal or narrative poem in most magazines. One journal even stated its editorial policy as, “No rhyme or pornography.” Poems wee supposed to be free-verse lyric utterances in a confessional or imagistic style. I’m happy to say that journals and presses are now open to formal or narrative poetry. This is a direct result of the so-called “Poetry Wars,” the long and loud debates over these issues that lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s. …
I had no interest in making rhyme and meter the dominant aesthetic. What I fought for – and one really did have to fight back then – was for the poet’s freedom to use whatever style he or she felt was right for the poem. I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t want to have all the possibilities of the language available, especially the powerful enchantments of meter, rhyme, and narrative. I never saw the movement as a rejection of modernism. Why throw away the greatest period of American poetry?
America's mystical composer gets National Medal of Arts
I am most eager to work with artists I admire unreservedly. Collaboration depends upon talent – the pairing of two talents that inspire each other. Morten Lauridsen, who seems to me one of the greatest living composers, wants to create a work together. That is very exciting. Helen Sung and I are going to write a jazz song cycle. The composer William Bolcolm has suggested doing a musical setting of my narrative poem “Haunted” for a pianist and an actor. Lori Laitman is writing a song cycle using my translations of Montale’s love poems. Paul Salerni and I have sketched out a dance opera. I also have a third opera subject in mind, but it is still in the early stages. But, of course, the important thing is to keep writing poems.
The article also included a poem from his forthcoming collection Pity the Beautiful (2011, Graywolf), titled “Finding a Box of Family Letters.” I thought it sounded familiar. Indeed, it was. He read it to me a year ago, over wine at his house in Santa Rosa, at the same time he read “Haunted,” which I very much look forward to hearing with Bolcom’s musical setting. The poem made a very strong impression on me then, and also when it was published in the Hudson Review some time later.
Some time ago, Dana sent me a DVD of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – please, please go find it, if you haven’t heard it. He’s largely unheralded in the MSM, but is perhaps the most popular choral composer in the U.S. Moreover, Lauridsen has been called “”the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic.”
By the by, the magazine also has an essay by Jane Hirshfield, on American poetry. Haven’t read it yet.
Altogether, Jack Foley has written 1,287 pages on California poetry – and that’s only 65 years of it, from 1940-2005. It’s a feat that would not go unremarked in an earlier era – say, five years ago. But at a time when book review sections are folding left, right, and center … crickets.
Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line, Poets & Poetry, volumes one and two, published last March by Pantograph Press, is a “chronoencyclopedia scene” describing, as Jack says on his title page, “the twentieth century in all its confused and troubled eloquence.” Jack spent a decade documenting the writers, poems, and events in a tumbling, giddy present tense, from the first page when Kenneth Rexroth, in 1940, “invents the culture of the West Coast,” according to Robert Hass.
That’s the moment, writes Jack, when “California’s image had changed. The state had moved out of its early provincialism and had begun to take its place in the nation as a whole.”
According to the product description on amazon:
People, ideas, and stories appear, disappear, and reappear as the second half of the century moves forward. Poetry is a major element in this kaleidoscopic California scene. It is argued about, dismissed, renewed, denounced in fury, asserted as divine, criticized as pornographic. Poetry is as Western as the Sierra foothills, and the questions raised here go to its very heart. Beginning with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth’s first book, this all-encompassing history-as-collage plunges us forward into the 21st Century. California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn’t there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.
What could be more Californian?
Jack was introduced to me about a decade ago by Dana Gioia, who is acknowledged as a motivating force in getting the project launched.
The Oakland-based poet and critic has a radio show, “Cover to Cover,” aired on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. on Berkeley station KPFA (it’s available at the KPFA web site – see here). His column, “Foley’s Books,” appears in the online magazine The Alsop Review.