[no audio] (Debra Sequeira) Welcome! Welcome visitors, Seattle Pacific people, friends, and neighbors. Welcome to our cornucopia of poetry with our august group of affiliated poets. My name is Debra Sequeira and I’m Dean of Arts and Humanities at SPU and this is your pre-Thanksgiving feast! I am grateful to share this bounty of talent with you. First, we give thanks to Dr. Margaret Brown and Jenn Wilson at the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development for organizing this event. This will be a six-course feast, consuming words and images and in keeping with our food theme, I am reminded of Eve Merriam’s famous, “How to Eat a Poem”. “Don’t be polite.” she says, “Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers, and lick the juice that
may run down your chin. it is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
or rind or pit
to throw away.” Well, I hope this afternoon inspires you and perhaps gets your own creative juices running. Our presentations are in alphabetical order. We’ll start with Scott Cairns, Professor of English and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing, Eugene Lemcio, Professor Emeritus of the New Testament Jennifer Meyer, Professor of English and Associate Editor of “Image” journal, Hannah Notess, Writer and Editor of “Response” magazine from 2010 to a couple weeks ago, Doug Thorp, Professor of English, Faculty Advisor for Lingua, and Mischa Willett Instructor of Writing. And now for our first course, Dr. Scott Cairns [audience applause] (Scott Cairns) Well, I’m pleased to have joined- we’re gonna have a start up called the Affiliated Poets and we’re gonna have an initial public offering pretty soon, so keep your eyes on open for that. [audience laughter] So, here’s a- it’s getting close enough to Advent, so, a poem called “Advent”. “Well, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas– everywhere, children eyeing the bright lights and colorful goods, traffic a good deal worse than usual and most adults in view looking a little puzzled, blinking their eyes against the assault of stammering bulbs and public displays of goodwill. We were all embarrassed, frankly, the haves and the have-nots– all of us aware something had gone far wrong with an entire season something, had eluded us. And, well, it was strenuous, trying to recall what it was that had charmed us so, back when we were much smaller and more oblivious than not concerning the weather mass marketing, the insufficiently hidden faces behind those white beards and other jolly gear. And there was something else: a general diminishment whose symptoms included the Xs in Xmas, shortened tempers, and the aggressive abandon with which most celebrants seemed to push their shiny cars about. All of this seemed to accumulate like wet snow, or like the fog with which our habitual inversion tried to choke us, were to blank us out altogether, so that, of a given night, all that appeared over the mess we had made of the season was what might be described as a nearly obscured radiance, just visible through the gauze, either the moon disguised by a winter veil, or some lost star– isolated, distant, sadly dismissing of us, and of all our expertly managed scene.” Happy Holidays. “Annunciation”. “Deep within the clay, and O my people very deep within the holy earthen compound of our kind arrives of one clear, star-illumined evening a spark igniting once again the tinder of our lately banked noetic fire. She burns but she is not consumed. The dew lights gently, suffusing the pure fleece. The wall comes down. And– do you feel the pulse?– we all become the kindled kindred of a King whose birth thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.” That was cheerier! [audience laughter] I think.. and I have the microphone. “Christmas Green” Just now the earth recalls His stunning visitation. Now the earth and scattered habitants attend to what is possible: that He of a morning entered this, our meagered circumstance, and so real it the fuse igniting life in them, igniting life in all the dim surround. And look, the earth adopts a kindly áffect. Look, we almost see our long estrangement from it overcome. The air is scented with the prayer of pines, the earth is softened for our brief embrace, the fuse continues bearing to all elements a curative despite the grave, and here within our winter this, the rising pulse, bears still the promise of our quickening.” You all know how dramatic monologue works? Class? [audience affirms and laughs] This here is one; it’s called “Possible Answers to Prayer”. “Your petitions– though they continue to bear
just the one signature– have been duly recorded. Your anxieties– despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent entertainment value– [audience laughter] nonetheless serve to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance, all but obscured beneath a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment– is sufficient. Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many whose habits and sympathies offend you–
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.” That’s enough of me. Now, I have a question for you, Eugene. So, given that you write in a lot of modes, I thought I’d ask you, what makes a poem a poem? What’s the difference between, say, when you’re working on a poem, what’s your evaluation of the difference between what we would call poetic text and a text isn’t that doesn’t necessarily serve as poetic text? [Leaving the podium] All yours! [audience laughter, applause] (Eugene Lemcio) This sounds strange like a test question. My poems tend to be narrative- more narrative- so it’s up to the imagery to do the heavy lifting. And so the more visual they can be, the more pictures they can be, that’s what moves them into the realm of poetry. I think that’s the best I can do….Thank you. On page 4 of the distributed sheets, I provided backgrounds to each of the three poems. With any luck there won’t be time to read the third. [audience laughter] It’s been universally rejected by editors and disliked by my friends. [audience laughter] I’m beginning to think maybe it’s not a good poem… I’ll start with “The wasteful Gene” for Lalla Ward, who’s the wife of the evolutionary biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins, author of “The Selfish Gene”. She did a stint on Doctor Who, subsequently becoming a well-known embroiderer in Great Britain. During a term at New College Oxford when I was visiting a certain professor I became acquainted with professor Dawkins. Later he argued in the “New Humanist” magazine that “while nature is miserly, using all that she creates, the church is wasteful in its extravagance.” After exchanging a couple of emails with him, I wrote this first poem in response, suggesting, with Lalla in mind, that creativity is wasteful, that imagination involves all sorts of loss in time and energy and material. “It has been said, ‘Religion’s profligate;
but Mother Nature’s mean: a miser who makes jealous use of all she breeds.”
And yet, her children- prodigal- reject this legacy. One finds it dramatized in that theatrical cliché
of writers tossing crumpled pages clear across the room because they could not get it right- again.
That Florentine discarded tons of marble blocks since they refused to yield forms he knew were locked within. We’ll neither see nor hear again rehearsals of those masterpieces that define our human heritage as co-creators of both sound and sense. They linger mostly in the memory of those who sang, and played, and spoke. Can any count the frames of (now outdated) celluloid
whose strips curled loosely on the floor until custodians consigned them to the pit?
Does science find itself immune from fits and starts? How many fragile filaments did Thomas Alva Edison reject before the heat and light of incandescence finally embraced?
We gaze in wonder at the spindly models patched by Watson, Crick, and Franklin of
the molecule that elegantly twins itself to make us one. I blush to think of all the words that vanished from my screen in writing this. Perhaps they still inhabit cyberspace, though launched into the void expletives for which I’ll have to give a count on that Great Day. Such costly labor lost- these deeds of love
that follow in the train of Adam’s curse. the second and last one is called “Tashlich” 2015. The word is derived from Hebrew, which means to cast, or throw, or toss, and it’s associated [with] Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. “We drove to Marysville:
that halfway point from north and south,
both friends are Jews who pledged their fealty to Yeshua. We ate at Nomz, a rural eatery with global recipes and shared what led us to this place in time. Each story was distinct
but at the core remained the same. Regarding Alan’s family:
the Borough Queens (New York) provided refuge after members fled Romania before the war.
Valeriy freely came to Washington not all that long ago, from Rivne (via residence in southern California).
They have included me: a Gentile born and bred, with roots and what some called “Galicia”, Ukraine
(once Austria, or Poland– take your pick). Nearby, an Eastern European deli stocks cuisine
that even certain locals have the courage to enjoy: perogi, poppy seed, kapusta, and a darkened rye.
But it’s the challah that became our goal that day. We drove some distance to a newly-opened park
to find a stream elected for this ancient rite designed to bear our sins away.
But I– the doubting Thomas– bluntly asked, ‘Are we to think this shallow brook
can re-present the Great Abyss of God’s Forgetfulness? At least, let’s clear that carton throwaway before we start.’ As Alan read the Hebrew words from Torah’s text,
we tore the braided loaf (that humans made but earth originally gave) and tossed the fragments awkwardly from bank and bridge. To our chagrin and sighs, some scraps got stuck behind a rock or struggled to get free of twigs entrapping pools of froth and foam. But three escaped to make their way towards the sea.
And we, refreshed, renewed, returned: reminded of the wounded side that flowed
not only blood, but water, too– the flank of One whose Body came to re-present the Living Bread
though he Himself was cast away.” Now for Jennifer. The last time we talked, you were at work on a third book. you gave voice to objects, making them subjects: match sticks on the kitchen table coffee cups and spoons. How’s that going? [audience laughter and applause] (Jennifer Maier) Well it’s still going, and we’re gonna hear from one of those objects as my third poem. I thought I would read three poems. One from my first book, one from my second book, and one from that book in progress, [to Eugene Lemcio] so thank you, and thank you all for coming! Wow! On this dreary, rainy November day and thanks so much to Margaret and Jen for putting this together. My very dear friend and mentor, the late
poet Madeline DeFrees, gave me some good advice about reading; she said always start with the short one that doesn’t need a long introduction because people aren’t really listening, they’re distracted. so I’m going to begin with a poem where the title kind of says it all: “Love at First Sight”. “You always hear about it–
a waitress serves a man two eggs over easy and she says to the cashier,
That is the man I’m going to marry, and she does. Or a man spies a woman
at a baseball game; she is blond and wearing a blue headband,
and, being a man, he doesn’t say this or even think it, but his heart is a homing bird
winging to her perch, and next thing you know they’re building birdhouses in the garage.
How do they know, these auspicious lovers? They are like passengers on a yellow
bus painted with the dreams of innumerable lifetimes, a packet
of sepia postcards in their pocket. And who’s to say they haven’t traveled
backward for centuries through borderless lands, only to arrive at this roadside attraction
where Chance meets Necessity and says, What time do you get off?” Professor Brown said that we would have a three minutes for questions, maybe, at the end and that we were welcome to do whatever we wanted during that time, including an interpretive dance interlude and I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if we all did that? If all the poets got up and did this interpretive dance? Especially now that we can dance freely here at SPU? [audience laughter] but don’t worry, I’m not going to do that. But I thought would read a poem from my second book, “Now, Now” about dancing. For a while, I kind of had this strange obsession- here’s a confession this afternoon- I used to be kind of hooked on [laughs] watching “Dancing with the Stars” Now, I would watch it with the sound off because I couldn’t stand the commentary and I didn’t care at all about the stars, but somehow there was just something very calming about watching these whirling bodies on the dance floor, and I thought, you know, in my other life, maybe I’m a ballroom dancer and so I began to wonder what it would be like to live so completely in one’s body as a professional dancer or as an athlete of some kind. And it got me thinking about that wonderful little poem by Mae Swenson which is so good for teaching prosody and other things: “Body my house
my horse my hound what will I do
when you are fallen” So, all of that came together and it led to this poem called, “Your Life in Dances” “One day you will not recall the Tango.
The quick trail of the Foxtrot will have gone cold– stepped out for good with the Twist,
the Hustle, and the Boogaloo. Then, from your seat by the window,
your life in dances may seem nothing more than the repetition of a single question
asked and answered in a score of forgotten languages, in some gilded
ballroom or louche lounge, or in the open air under swaying branches. On that day, you may think the sun, warming your face through the glass, an agreeable festoon,
or the mirrored orb that shone down on the party like a god’s eye, witness
to each tenuous first step, each turn and counter turn, and the little slide
that left you somewhere else— alone at the punch bowl, or smiling
into the face of a stranger—as the beat, slow and sure, or wild as a faltering pulse
went on and on, alive and voiced as the brown-suited crooner on the window
sill, at whose invitation the soul rises, now, from the stiff chair of the body
and steps once more and light as breath toward the whirling center, all
strange light and startling music. And then finally, I thought I would read
something from a manuscript in progress. Fortunately Gene set that up a little
bit. So, this last poem is from a book I’m working on now in which many of the
poems are narrated by common household objects. And these objects speak to the poet occupant of the house they share; sometimes they speak about her. [laughs] It’s sort of a kind of reverse Grecian urn thing going on, I think and so, we’ve had a frank frank and startling testimony from a book of matches, a glass of wine, a light bulb- I almost brought the lightbulb from home, which would have really connected with your Thomas Edison reference, Gene- but, and often, I’m finding that the tone of the these objects who narrate their own poems is drifting towards sadness or irony or often they have a bit of an attitude, so I was grateful for this next speaker who stepped into the book to kind of rebalance the scales. So, the poem is spoken by the title to their human keeper. It’s called “Bowl of Cherries”. I thought I’d bring something with a food theme for the cornucopia. “Bowl of Cherries”.
“Wanting the whole truth as you say, even you’ve got to admit
there’s no room for sadness here:
Some things are just plain good. We know that kind of messes you up,
that even now you’re thinking,
Yes, but what else are they? It’s the blight of your kind—
the way you go straight to the brain,
that walnut whose fruit’s all on the inside, when it ought to be
the other way around.
Then there would be no surprises— the goodness there for all to see,
and the little stone at the center
coming freely away, like those you’re tossing into the hedge,
mindlessly, as you puzzle out how
everything is like some other thing, when, really, it’s not.
Trust us: the truth ripens and falls,
and its sweetness stains the ground You’re holding it now, lightly
between two fingers.
Your tongue is red with it.” Thank you! [audience applause] Now, it gives me great pleasure to to
introduce my friend, Hannah Notess, it’s so great to be sharing another reading
with you. We gave a reading together a few years ago at Open Books and my question for Hannah is who were some of your early influences? What poets were you reading when you decided you wanted to do that? That you wanted to to follow that sort of masochistic [laughs] but rewarding vocation? And if you don’t like that question, I have another, a backup question and that’s in our cornucopia of poets, what fruit or vegetable would you be? [audience laughter] (Hannah Notess) Thank you, Jennifer. I don’t have a good answer to the fruit question, but I will say that when I used to read for
literary journals, the most over-represented fruit among poets is the pomegranate. So, I would not be a pomegranate, I would try to be a little different. [laughs] As to early influences, I think the first poem I remember really sparking me to want to write was when I was 13 and sitting in photography class, the girl next to me had written a poem in her notebook and I thought I could do something better than that! [audience laughter] And I went home and wrote one, buts in terms of- [laughs to self] that’s such a bad attitude! in terms of sparking my creativity, I discovered Emily Dickinson at a young age and Christina Rossetti and I mostly had no idea what those poems were about, but I loved the sound and once I sort of got away from having to puzzle out the meaning of everything, I enjoyed poetry a lot more so I would say to anyone who wants to read more poetry or is afraid of reading more poetry, don’t be scared if you have no idea what something means, you can just skip that part and keep reading till you find something that you love. I am really excited to read this first poem which was actually inspired by a lecture I heard at SPU a few years ago by Owen, so I’m glad he’s here. He was speaking on the way people in the ancient world remembered things and out of that, weirdly, came this poem titled “St. Augustine Enters the World’s Largest Pacman Maze” [audience laughter] “What is the soul, my God,
but a point of light
propelled by desire?… I was born in darkness
Through rooms and corridors, Through palaces of memory
Through stadia and flora I seek you, my Creator,
yet pursued by heresies and ghosts of heresies.
Carthage, Rome, Milan, Hippo—one forum looks
much like another. What does the cornered
soul devour? What fruit revives it? How does
it slip through death, split open, wilted, then
dissolved into the very fabric of the world? Enlarge me
thus. As water flows the same through every city’s aqueducts,
so let me pass through
these worlds. Oh, I will search every corner
of each city. I will stand at the edge
of this Empire and pray into the dark, yet
will I hunger.” And this is actually another video game
inspired poem, written in the voice of a cartoon dinosaur, Yoshi, who is Mario’s faithful companion. It’s titled “Yoshi (A Pastoral) and I read this at a wedding last summer, so- you know, it’s kind of fun! “Meet me in Arcadia
the forest where I was born under trees taller
than you can believe and believe their invisible boughs
map the world for us and believe their fruit
will sustain us forever We’ll leap from branch to branch
like warriors who sail through bamboo stalks
still earthbound but lightly and I will devour everything
that wants to harm you Even the deserts will bloom
with brilliant sand blossoms and the mountain slopes will glitter
snow-clad through summer And though I cannot consume
your ghosts or enter the ruined palaces of your memory
beloved I will wait for you always in the roadless shade
as proof of my devotion Dearest friend return
to the place we first met and I will be reborn
and reborn and reborn” So, I have a fascination with outdated technology and modes of communication and I started to think about how might we communicate with dead people, as that’s just a normal poetry thinking topic for me, and I thought what if we used dead forms of communication to communicate with dead people? and that’s kind of where this poem came from, it’s titled “Chess by Mail”. “I write this for you
who will never read it you’re standing at a window,
overlooking a lower level of the afterlife. Rows of
card catalogs and microfiche machines, academic journals with spines uncracked
the memory apparatus we don’t use anymore. Do you remember
the game we played in another life? the life of arrow grams and
25 cent stamps, when index cards held gambits, codes, verses, binomials.
You let me rearrange the pieces not by how they’re meant to move
because you said the Queen moves any direction I am NOT the Queen I do not
move any direction but west but forward in time
to your library as you left it the weighted pieces high on their shelf
in this life your commonplace books long in bottom shelves pasted
with postcards, poems editorials, old news. if I reassemble them
would it reassemble you? No?
Pawn to Queen 4.” And the last poem I’m gonna read is the closest thing I could find to a Thanksgiving poem. It’s kind of a harvest-ish, harvest poem. So, going back in time from Advent. Sorry, I don’t start Christmas until Thanksgiving is over. [audience laughter] Same with Advent. Sorry, Scott! [laughs] “To The Gleaners” “You do not need me to bless you
for the shorn field easily gives up its treasure into your baskets. Your quick fingers
conjure food out of early morning mist, and in this light even the dumpster
gives up its chipped vase, its clawfoot end table. The sidewalk gives up its clear brown bottle.
You do not need me to bless you but I will anyway wish you clear sight
into the world’s crevices and corners. Harvest the chives flowering under the workbench.
Harvest the copper tubing looped in the scrap pile, the chrome fendered bicycle at the sidewalk sale.
Clamp the broken slats of the chair together. Restring the guitar. And let your metal detectors
whine always with joy. May you find all you seek, because at the end of the story
the woman knots up her apron heavy with grain, then steals up to the sleeping body
of the man who does not yet love her. And when she lies down beside him
she will gather even the scent of his sleep— the smell of her future harvests, ripening.” Alright, and I have a question for Doug. I was wondering with your work in different genres, including nonfiction
and poetry, how whether you find certain subjects that you write about tend to lend themselves more- in your experience or in your practice- to one genre or another? For instance, I know you write quite a bit about the natural world and do you approach that topic differently in different genres? [audience applause] Thank you, Hannah. … I was saying to you earlier that it’s more… that when something comes, I mean, it’s coming in a particular genre, it’s not that I’m thinking- you know, I’m thinking about hiking in the cascades with my daughter and wife, there’s a bunch of essays that came out of that experience, which are narratives. [It’s not] “Oh is this gonna be, you know, creative nonfiction or is this gonna be poetry?” It just- it simply came as creative nonfiction, and the other answer is that the poetry is always closer to silence somehow and I don’t know quite how to explain that but that’s what feels true. Which is one reason that the poetry feels closest to me in some ways, closest to my heart, closest to my soul. So that’s about the best I can do with that. So again, I want to just echo, thank you all for coming. This is such an extraordinary thing. Margaret, we’re gonna make this an annual event, I think, and we’ve got lots of other poets around campus so it’s terrific. First poem is called, “The Choice” and we’re at Seattle Pacific University, so you’ll recognize, I think, somewhat oblique references in the first couple of stanzas. “at noon she goes alone for water
a stranger is there to meet her he’s a shadow beneath the sun
or maybe three strangers arrive and you feed them you do not think ‘god’ you have no name
for what they are as on any day
there’s a call a cry someone out there in an ordinary world
a thief or beggar a bride or widow and when you discover
that you are the thief and you are the beggar
and when he says come you know you have a choice
It’s not very complicated It’s just that you are in the way of yourself
and you know it but you like your way like Descartes you are yourself alone
in a small room thinking
and you think that you alone are enough” The second poem is called “Victoria (1953-1975)”. that would make Victoria 22 when she died. She was my girlfriend in high school and I’m always struck by, especially when someone dies fairly young, they’re just they’re frozen in time in a certain way and so I know her as an 18 year-old or 20 year-old and she’s always that and I’m not anymore. So, this was a poem, written some years ago thinking about Vicki, who was very important to me at that time in my life. “Victoria”. And it’s seasonal. “All Hollow’s Eve. Snow in the city
buries the edges of the lake, erases the tips of trees.
It’s late. The fire’s gone out as I sit chanting lines of Tennyson
deep into the night — ‘The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands. . . .’ In bed I read the final pages of ‘Anna Karenina’,
Levin going to the nursery where his child names him
for the first time. He walks outside, reflecting, alone, “obstinately trying
to express that knowledge in reason and words,” a knowledge revealed to the heart,
unspeakable, broken in love for Kitty, for Mitya, this feeling, he says, that has ‘taken firm root
in my soul.” He cannot explain. Kitty comes to him, his face revealed in a flash
of light, but he cannot speak. It’s just that he knows his life will go on. He knows joy
and the silence he carries to his death like a dream. He knows joy. I close the book and turn to the window,
looking for you, lovelier than air to me once. Petals of ice
bloom over the panes. I want to etch your face on the frozen glass,
watch you melt once more under the heat of my skin. I want to cut open your absence –
to touch, through vacant air,
all the flesh that’s perished. Like sparks thrown off in the dark
we flash into this world and are gone. Evening returns.
Other lights flick on in the room where we once learned to love,
another child stares at the streetlights through the snow, the sound of our voices
lost to him. You and I are gone tonight, our words as light as the wind
that stirs the evening curtains. I miss the touch of your hands. I miss
the distance we covered, nights when the wheels beat against the road like rain.
Vicki, believe if I could I would sing you back to song –
I would raise these hands until something lifted
as delicate as a rose, as newly winged
as the sun. A train passes in the night
muffled deep by the fallen snow. Like Levin I am here,
have chosen to last. Moments ago like a silent ghost
I hovered over my sleeping daughter, my Kate. Once it was you I rocked,
you I watched, singing quietly inside your dreams.
Now I sit here alone, leaning out, calling out from distant worlds
like voices from the night. They whispered to us long,
called to you until you came saying to me
‘I must leave you now but I’ll be back.
Wait for me to come.'” Haiku. And the first one is “For Vicki”. “Your pain was too great –
I held you in the winter
night like breaking glass.” “Ashes to ashes –
we drift through time like a song
heard through a window.” “What ends. Branches, twigs,
Arms to fingers, feet to toes.
You. Me. All we know.” “A Sunday morning
Emptying out her room.
What else is missing?” “A grateful but age-
ing English professor sang
one last ragged song.” Yes, that’s autobiographical, that one. And one last- sorry, this is sort of All Saints. There’s a lot of death in this one, so I’m sorry about that. My mother passed last January, so one of those haiku, about cleaning out her room, that was my mother and those of you that’ve had that experience, you can probably relate to that. And this one is very close to what actually happened. Very close to the end of my mother’s life, which happened here in Seattle and our daughter, gratefully and graciously was visiting so got a chance to spend some time with my mother right, you know, within a few days of her death. “So, she just stopped. Stopped eating, stopped breathing, she lay beneath the blanket like a small bird curled up beneath the snow, her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open. My daughter watched her breathe with a spoonful of soup in her waiting hand. We watched together. The sky outside
grew dark. ‘Thank you’ she finally said, ‘Thank you. I love you. I just want
to float away.'” Question for Misha, an impossible question, but that’s okay. Is the act of writing poetry a holy act, in some way? Is it connected to your spiritual life; is it sacramental in any way? [audience applause] (Mischa Willett) Yikes, that is a tough one, isn’t it?… I pray before I sit down to write poems and I I feel conflicted about that sometimes, like I’m cheating somehow, like, “Holy Spirit, who did all this other great inspiration, would you also inspire me?” [audience laughs] and I don’t know if I mean in a different way. I’m scared when I pray those prayers because then if I’m no good that day, that’s gotta be my fault, right? Like, was he still inspiring and I wasn’t listening… it’s complicated, but it is ritualistic. It’s humiliating in that it puts me in my right place and in that way, I think it’s sacramental. I have to become small, right, in the face of something large and mysterious. That feels like a religious act to me. Um, the first poem that I’ll read- thanks for that question. That’s worth thinking about some more actually. Do you know those- I read these studies about how students are bad readers sometimes and they say that you don’t need the whole word spelled correctly to know what it’s saying. You know what I mean? Like if just the first two letters and the last one are the same, you can get the sense of something and I wondered if that’s true in other realms. like if there are rhythms that we know enough about to recognize where they’re from even if everything else is screwed up in the middle. That’s behind this poem and then this curious phrase-… when I was ten, I got a cassette tape for my birthday and it was a Christian rock band called Petra and the album was “On Fire”. and since from that time to this, I thought that’s an awfully strange phrase to say about oneself. People used to ask, “Are you on fire?” and I [gawks], unless you’re in a certain type of culture that makes- well, it’s very strange. “I Was Cold and You Lit Me On Fire” is this poem. “When I was Hungary, you bled
me. I leaned my long hair out the window and you climbed it.
Blessed are you who, when I was a stone, made a slingshot,
who slew the dragon I was stuck behind.
Those gathered said, Word, when were you wine and we spilled
you? When a penny we spent? He replied, do you remember
the time I was in the desert and you were a date tree? When
we slid the merman back over the bow? Surely, I tell you now,
whenever you have hewn a forest of weak trees,
whenever outfoxed a sphinx, whenever walked on a pond
that’s frozen there you have stood on the sea. The people were amazed.
And sore. And afraid.” Um… I have one that connects to something Jennifer was saying; I feel judged by the bowl of cherries on
her table for having that exact same impulse Whenever anything’s going well, I think, “This is really fun. I wonder when it’s gonna be over!” [audience laughter] I’m having that feeling right now [laughs] but Percy Shelley has that line, “if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Right? And it’s supposed to be optimistic. If you’re in the Winter, like we are now, I mean Spring is coming let’s turn up our eyes, right? But that also means that Winter’s gonna come back, you know that, right? It’s circular, it’s not like, “Oh finally, Spring and now off we go.” So I made this poem called “To the Inevitable Heartache”. “Don’t think I can’t see you there,
conspicuously darkening that thruway, technically an artery,
lying in wait like a tigress, baiting me, perversely, toward
joy. Your crouch fools no one.
Least of all me, who knows by now well enough to sense
the fall back, the way Sisyphus might vertigo
at hilltop, knowing the rock’s
next stop is bottom. And yet, shaky cameras
on a tourist boat catch my approach, a skittery wildebeest lumbering
in the direction of Tigris. They hush. I put my tongue
in the water, feel my flank jump and wonder why,
even while I sense threat, even while one eye rolls toward the sky,
which is the problem with this fertile place: something feels right. We know
that following every fullness what’s left is the milk-leak
of the moon. Shine spent;
crescent soon.” I went to a wedding one time and and someone thought
we should read poems at it because that’s what you do at weddings and funerals, right? I got to read one at a wedding! If someone’s having wedding, they think, “Where’s a poet?” It’s one of the few times we get called upon to perform a service, right? And not all the time do the people being married know or even care anything about poetry, they just know that’s a holy-ish thing to do and we could kind of bless the occasion by that. Sometimes they do, of course, as poets get married too, but sometimes not, so I went to one and the rector said this thing to me, it’s like he wanted us to know how special poems were, because we probably didn’t know that already or weren’t thinking that… Keats has that thing about “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever” and I think that’s right, partly just because Keats said it, I wonder actually long a thing of beauty can be a joy for, right? How many times do you hear that same song before it’s like, “Alright, alright, I get it.” Or you read the poem, you know what I mean? I think most beauties are sort of bottomless, but some of them, I’m starting to be at the age now where the music that I loved and just thought was my whole soul when I was 18 is like, “Oh here’s the part where it goes [hums a tune], that feels manipulative now.” You know? I’m winding down to the bottom. Anyways, this is the “Aura of Inevitability”. “‘This is a beautiful one’, he said
of the poem he was about to read, and then, having read
it, not very beautifully, repeated the dictum ‘that’s a beautiful
poem’. Since he’d done the work of appraisal
for me, book-ending the thing with meaning, I was ready to buy
in. I mean, such certainty certainly is not insignificant. Which
trust I held like a breath, like a vow, until he said it, just now, about a different poem: ‘here’s another beautiful one.'” [audience laughter] That guy [chuckles]. Oh man, alright, there’s so many fine poets here in the room, I feel really lucky to get to share this space and this time with you. Yeah, poetry’s a sucker’s game, it’s tough. I’m trying to make this poem about the anxiety of expression. This is what half the poems are about because one thing you know for sure when you sit down to write is this might not do anything, I might not get anywhere today and that can always be the subject, how uphill that battle is. So, here’s one called “The Time I Tried to Write a Letter to a Girl I Hadn’t Seen in Seven Years, but Who I Had Found Beautiful, Even Though We Didn’t Know One Another Very Well and Who I Maybe Would Have Married, Had She Responded Well to the Advance” [audience laughter] “I am trying to write a letter to a girl
I haven’t seen in seven years, but who I found beautiful then,
even though we didn’t know one another very well. I may marry
her if she responds well to this advance. This is as far
as I’ve come. This, and: Dearest Marta, I realize seven years have passed, and that we didn’t know one another very well even then, but I wanted to write to say I thought you were beautiful, and must still be so. I thought of you recently when I was trying to make some poems. . . But I don’t know what to say next. What can I say next?” [sighs deeply] [audience laughter] [audience applause] OK, so I have a question for Scott Cairns. You got to try to be gracious about this and take it the right way, but, you have this poem that I love about a stupid tortoise who keeps running into walls and we are invited to laugh at his plight and then you have a book, the first one of yours that I had, called um… “Idiot Pslams”, and then you have your collected poems out recently and it’s called “Slow Pilgrim”. [laughs] So there’s something about that posture obviously, that’s attractive to you, someone who just doesn’t get it, so my question is: what, are you some kind of idiot? [audience laughter] I mean, are we all? (Scott Cairns) Well, I hesitate to walk all the way to the microphone to answer the question, because my answer is going to be
disappointing, but so, you know, we have that tradition of- well Dostoyevsky’s the idiot is in some ways also something of a holy fool and so I guess for quite a while now, I’ve if I’ve recognized the idiocy part, which is a nice you know a propensity for isolating… you know, cutting myself off from people whereas the Holy fool is a different kind of person who kind of self-sacrifices in order to benefit- speaking truth to power, say, or manifesting in some way a simplicity that’s also beautiful and maybe soul healing. So, for a while now, I have thought of myself as an idiot who is working to become a holy fool. So, that’s the arch of- [waves dismissively] you’ll see [audience laughs, applauds] (Margaret Brown) Thank you all for coming, thank you to our poets. Can we give them one last round of applause? [audience applause] When I was 12 years old, I had my first
job and I worked cleaning houses for the Social Security Administration, for elderly folks who had a hard time cleaning their own houses, and I made $5 an hour and I took my $5 an hour, I don’t know, my first paycheck, which probably was $30 or something like that and I took it to the mall and I looked around and I thought, “What am I gonna buy with all this money?” Because, for me, that was a lot of money, and I went to the bookstore [tearfully] and that was the first time I discovered poetry. I read this poetry book and I sat and I remember I was in a B. Dalton’s, which doesn’t even exist anymore, [audience laughter] I had to look it up on my phone, I thought, “What was that defunct bookstore that used to be so popular but doesn’t even exist anymore?” But it was in a B. Dalton, I remember sitting in the back corner in the poetry section, and just reading, and reading, and reading, and I probably sat there for an hour just completely mesmerized, because it was this brand-new world and there’s a poet named Nikki Giovanni who has a poem called “Poetry is a Trestle”- it’s like this connecting thing- and she says, “poetry is a trestle
spanning the distance between
what i feel
and what i say” and so for me, that changed my life, the thought that you could have this wonderful thing, this beautiful thing and having the chance to work with folks who create these beautiful things that change our lives, that’s such a treat. So, there’s a book table out in the foyer, I encourage you to pick up a volume that might change your life. Today, we have books represented for most of the poets, we have some wonderful food here and I want to give you the time, rather than as a formal Q&A, Just the chance to come up, chat with these folks, maybe purchase a copy of their books, get them to sign it for you, and thank you all so much, again, for coming. Have a great afternoon! [audience applause]