At Rolling Stone, Helena Fitzgerald profiles punk poet and 1992 write-in Presidential candidate Eileen Myles. Myles’s new memoir, Afterglow, was released this week, and their first autobiographical novel, Cool for You, was recently re-released and included an introduction by I Love Dick author Chris Kraus.
Myles (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) has been publishing since the 70s, but has lately experienced a new wave of popularity, gathering new young fans in part because of their Twitter presence and also the character inspired by them on Transparent.
Among other things, Myles talks with Fitzgerald about the importance right now of poetry and art as forms of resistance under the current U.S. presidential administration. Interestingly, though, Myles points out that what’s been happening really isn’t all that new.
In this current moment, the feeling that we’re facing an avalanche, that we might be destroyed, is hard to ignore. When prompted to speak about art in the current political moment, Myles says: “You know, there is nothing new about what’s happening now.” Myles goes on to call Trump’s assembled henchmen “a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who’s against education, an attorney general who’s a Klansman.” But they also stress that there’s precedent throughout our history for all of these, that none of these people came out of nowhere. As much of Myles’ work — such as the seminal “An American Poem” — has grappled with in the past, this is the America in which we have always lived. The James Comey testimony took place a few days before our meeting, and Myles was passionately skeptical of the liberal praise that has been showered on the former director of the FBI. “They’re like, ‘Oh, Comey’s the good guy!’ Are you kidding me? He’s talking about a Shining City on the Hill; he’s talking about the horror, and the outrage, of people interfering with our election — like that isn’t what we do in the Middle East and in South America. I’ve never been so driven to make the argument about the nature of our history.”
At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.
I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.
This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.
Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.
A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.
No matter how intense reading a poem in a book can be, memorizing the poem makes it more visceral, more intense. Physically, we’re free of holding the book, turning the pages, and training our eyes along the line. We’ll avoid the minor but inevitable reading errors that impair or delay perfect comprehension. And when the reader has taken the poem so deeply into the body that it’s memorized, the words don’t need to be understood and processed before they can be reacted to; the gap between the words and emotions they elicit disappears.
It’s no strain to recall that reading poetry is an emotional and intellectual experience, but recitation reminds us that poetry, in some ways, is as physical as dancing. Through recitation, the body and soul are synchronized.
The Library of Congress announced on Wednesday that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith will be the nation’s 22nd poet laureate, commencing her one-year term in the fall.
Smith, the director of creative writing at Princeton University, will launch her term with a reading in September at the Library of Congress, where she will have an office. She will continue to live in New Jersey with her family, according to the Washington Post.
The poet laureate position comes with minimal strings — “no required sonnets on the occasion of Donald Trump’s birthday, etc.,” notes the Post‘s Ron Charles — and arms Smith with a $35,000 stipend, plus a separate travel budget.
Prior poet laureates have used the role in myriad ways, as Poets & Writers noted:
Robert Pinsky, who served as poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, launched the Favorite Poem Project, through which more than eighteen thousand Americans shared their favorite poems. Several laureates have focused more on bringing poetry into the classroom: Billy Collins curated 180 poems for high school teachers to share with their students every day in the school year as part of the Poetry 180 project, while Kay Ryan strengthened poetry’s presence in community colleges through a national contest and videoconference. Other laureates have opted to raise awareness poetry by collaborating with the media, such as Natasha Trethewey with her Where Poetry Lives video series with PBS NewsHour, and Ted Kooser with his weekly newspaper column, American Life in Poetry.
It appears Smith will take advantage of her travel budget in particular. The New York Times wrote that she “planned to use the position to be a literary evangelist of sorts, by visiting small towns and rural areas to hold poetry events:
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to take what I consider to be the good news of poetry to parts of the country where literary festivals don’t always go,” she said. “Poetry is something that’s relevant to everyone’s life, whether they’re habitual readers of poetry or not.”
Smith was hand-picked by the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, who called her a “poet of searching” and told the Post that Smith’s “interest in reaching a broad audience” was appealing:
“One of the things I have been stressing thematically across the library is that we want to be accessible and relatable to people all across the country,” Hayden said. “The fact that Tracy wants to go into rural areas and talk about poetry is such a great idea and something that really excited me because I think that’s the kind of thing we should be doing as an institution.”
Though Ms. Smith often takes on current social and political issues in her poetry, she doesn’t plan to use her position as poet laureate to advocate social causes, she said. Instead, she aims to be an advocate for the medium itself and to instill the same awe she felt when she read Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” as a girl.
“Rather than talking about social issues, I want to give more readers access to more kinds of poems and poets,” she said. “Poems are friendly, and they teach us how to read them.”
But to NPR, she shared that “she’s been thinking, lately, about how people turn to poetry in fraught times,” and both Smith and Hayden expressed a sense that poetry could be a unifying element in a divided nation, with Smith telling the Post‘s Ron Charles:
“Poetry can help us make sense of the contemporary moment,” she says. “I’m excited by the fact that what poets are writing speaks to a particular moment and it speaks to the ages. Any political moment is uncertain, and a voice that lets us think about that will last. Let’s think about how empathy can drive our perspective of one another. Let’s think about how we can get past what’s binary and simplest to what’s complicated.”
The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity.
Journalists aren’t the only writers covering international politics. In a two-part series at Poetry International, poets from Mexico to Europe, Africa to Asia, discuss the roles borders play in their lives, and the way borders limit our lives physically, linguistically, and culturally. Whether reflecting on living in Texas near the route of Trump’s proposed wall or exploring the psychological borders of one’s cultural identity, these writers weigh in on what it means to be a citizen, the way language moves through populations, and how movement across borders creates vitality. You can read the forum’s first part here.
Philip Metres (b. USA): Borders are notoriously porous; no wall ever holds everyone out. The Great Wall failed to keep the Mongols at bay. The Maginot Line was crossed. Consider the tunnels of Gaza—whole cars and brides smuggled through. My passport is blue, and I try to live a political life according to and beyond the ideals of the Constitution. But I am a citizen of the earth and verse, of oxygen and lung, of the hurting and longing, of hoping against hope.
Every time I attempt translation, I feel something in me transported elsewhere, beyond my own skull’s borders, like some figure in a Chagall unmoored from earth, somewhere between thrill and terror.
Martin Camps (b. Mexico): Benedict Anderson said that we live in “imaginary communities”. What does “Mexican” or “American” mean? I believe that all human beings have planetary rights to cross borders, to live where they want to live. But borders exist to preserve a world order, the ones that have and the ones that don’t. We have borders even in our cities, living in the “nice part of the city” and not going to other parts where the “undesirables” live. We have shadow borders in every American city.
Ishion Hutchinson (b. Jamaica): To be a citizen, strictly speaking, is to belong to a state, which, from an official standpoint, is always suspicious of duality. “But,” Auden says, “Love, at least, is not a state,” and I think that speaks to being a citizen of a border, without fear of either side, unwaveringly in love with both.
…So that got me thinking about Elko. You go to an academic poetry reading and the poetry may be fine literature, but the event is pretty tame. Pretty dry … and Yevtushenko—he didn’t fit that mold. It was like a bomb went off when he started reciting. This volcano of language was pouring out of his body. So my experience in Elko told me this guy is a gold mine. We’ve got to get him to an audience that will really appreciate the performative element of his work.
At the Paris Review, Carson Vaughn profiles the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He was known for his brightly colored clothing, his bombastic delivery, and his teen-idol-like effect on the women in the audience at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Yevtushenko died on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, where he’d been a lecturer on poetry and the history of world cinema.
And they all remember the way he performed: animated and loud, arms flailing, spit flying, his new anthology in hand, leaving the stage behind. The one and only Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, walking with a group of performers to a restaurant downtown, would later mimic Yevtushenko’s delivery, his accent spot on, according to Bette Ramsey, and his limbs going wild.
“Talk about a flashback to Catholicism,” Zarzyski said. “Yevtushenko in his Cossack vestments moving up and down the aisle reciting poetry—and the women just swooning.”
I think about the American government sending armies to wipe out the nations that had thrived here for millennia, warring with them for generations, committing atrocities that most Americans have never heard about in order to clear out the West so that rough-hewn men, gallant cowboys and lion-hearted ranchers, could homestead their land and claim their stake. Grow their cattle and bequeath land to their families. So they could watch life raising itself from the earth and contemplate the miracle of it all as they gazed into the heavens. And compose terse and delicate verses about how marvelous it all is.
I thought I had come to Elko to wallow in the melancholy of the cowboy poet, but really, it was just another chance to see if I could belong in my own country. And the results were inconclusive. When I walked through that lobby, nodding awkward hellos to people whose glances lingered just a little longer on me than maybe they would have otherwise, I felt foreign.
But when I sat with Flemons and Farrow and we traced the roots of cowboy music all the way back to our great-grandparents and the songs they sang, songs that they had probably learned from their parents, who would have been born into slavery, I didn’t just feel like I had a right to be here. I felt like I belonged here. Like this was my home as much as it was anyone else’s. I was reminded that people like me don’t pick up guitars and scratch out anguished rambling songs because we want to be white. We do it because we’re answering a call buried somewhere in our blood and bones. This is the music we made. This is the land we made.
At The New Yorker, Pauls Toutonghi lovingly recalls his grandfather, Philippe Elias Tütünji, a writer, poet, and translator from Aleppo, Syria. Tütünji immigrated to America during World War II and never gave up his dream to achieve success as a poet in his adopted homeland. Working menial, low-paying jobs to support his family, and “full of immigrant ambition,” he once visited actor Danny Thomas in a bid to entice Thomas to record one of his poems as a song — a feat Tütünji believed would make him a star.
And so when my oldest aunt, Agnes, got a job as a stenographer at Standard Oil, and, with dizzying speed, met a young Standard Oil geologist, married him, and moved to Los Angeles, my grandfather decided that the rest of the family would follow. He fled again. The Toutonghis raffled off all their possessions to pay for tickets on an ocean liner. On May 26, 1946, they disembarked from Alexandria, Egypt, on the S.S. Vulcania, bound for New York City. On the ship’s Immigration and Naturalization Service Form I-415—a form that is still in use today—my family’s race is listed as Syrian. In the next column, the one reserved for country of citizenship, there is a different word: “Stateless.” Upon arrival in Manhattan, the Toutonghis collected their luggage and spent their last money on bus tickets bound for California. Stateless, they began a new life in a new nation—one that was, for the most part, open and welcoming to these hopeful refugees.
Still, my grandfather was a recent immigrant, full of ambition. He was a poet, and he’d written a few lyric stanzas in English, which he dreamed of turning into a song. It was, he would always claim—even decades later—a poem worth “a million dollars,” and “unlike anything anyone had ever heard.” On the day of his meeting with Thomas, he went to the post office and spent twenty-eight cents to send the poem to himself through registered mail—a poor man’s copyright. On the envelope, he wrote his address, twice, and then added, underlined: “Poeme in English,” and “its title had never been used.”
She doesn’t write on command, can’t write your friend a birthday poem or an ode for the centennial celebration. She writes when the words strike her, making sure to keep stacks of paper scattered around the house. And she writes with pen and paper, never a computer, though she does email and knows enough about Facebook to know she hates it, the way people share every detail of their lives.
When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Baxter Black — maybe he’s the Prime Minister of Cowboy Poetry? — had a segment on our public radio station. His short weekly bit is how I learned about the festival; this piece reminded me that I’ve long wanted to go. I added it to my calendar for 2018.
“Above my basement stairwell is a little cubby hole in which I put junk I don’t know what to do with,” she begins, “and I take the box out every once in a while and I ruffle through it, and one day I found a little notebook that said ‘21st Anniversary.’ The poem went like this: