Thursday, March 17, 2011

Writing In and With the Pen: Kansas Poetry (a very partial account)

Just whose eyes did you think you would look out from anyway?

--Judith Roitman, "Diamond Notebooks," no face: selected & new poems, First Intensity Press, Lawrence, Kansas

Joseph Harrington knows that metaphors are facts more often than they are abstractions. When John Dean said of Richard Nixon's White House that "there is a cancer on the presidency," he intended it as metaphor. But Nixon, who "declared war on cancer" in 1971, was a literalist. Nixon resigned on the day that Joe Harrington's mother died of cancer, August 9, 1974; this awful synchronicity means that fact, more than language, becomes the poet's fossil poetry, to misquote Emerson (as indeed one should). Harrington's new book Things Come On: an amneoir (Wesleyan, 2011), tells the double chronicle of President Nixon and of Elizabeth Peoples Harrington, who died at age 54. It is only the first of a projected four volume poetic history of the women in Harrington's family, which will join the intimate with the public spheres.

I spent the summer of 1973 watching the Watergate hearings on television with my own mother, who raised me to detest Richard Nixon. She would talk back at his image. When he said "your president is not a crook," she would respond that, "oh yes he is." That summer she cleaned out all the drawers in the house, taking them downstairs so she could watch TV and get something done at the same time. Occasionally, she left the house: she went to the Federal Court and took an elevator with H.R. (Bob) Haldeman at one point, and later bought a lamp at Chuck Colson's garage sale, when he was sent to prison. Later even than that, I got stuck in Colson's driveway showing a friend the local northern Virginia Watergate haunts. My mother and I knew the Parkway rest stop where bags of money were passed to burglars. I am four years older than Joe Harrington, so my memories of that time are, if not "better," then more tangible, perhaps.

But Harrington was twelve years old when his mother died, ten when she was diagnosed with cancer. That's old enough to know one's mother as mother, but not as a full and complicated human being, especially one going through the trauma of cancer treatment and then death. He also watched the hearings, but emerged with the horrible irony that his memory of them was starker than of her: "I remember Daniel Inouye and Howard Baker better than I remember her. They left records." It was Baker who kept asking, "what did the President know and when did he know it?" It's left to Harrington to discover what he knows now about his mother; this book (re)presents the work it took for him to know it. The "amneoir" is at once a memoir that emerges out of forgetting and work that is born from amniotic fluid: it is literal (Harrington was born) and metaphorical (the nation was, we hoped, reborn). Amnesia is a state of forgetting; the amniotic fluid a place where memories cannot be made. But Harrington has made out of their conjunction his own history, and that of the country, mid-20th century.

If politicians leave records, so do ordinary citizens. Harrington's search began in August of 2006, just before the anniversary of his mother's death. A letter to him from "Health Information Management" at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis acknowledges his request for her medical records, then adds: "By law we are only required to maintain records for 10 years. We have destroyed all records prior to 1980." The Manager then adds the unhelpful sentence: "If you have any questions, please contact me. . ." (11). He had questions, though we assume he saved them for other archives, other managers.

Harrington mines a large trove of documents, from the Watergate hearing transcripts to newspaper articles, and includes medical records of his mother's illness, as well as a very moving handwritten letter by her that begins: "This experience has taught me how fast things can 'come on'--and should the bad times come, it is hard to make decisions" (32). There are photographs, a not so funny cartoon, drawings, a diagram, lists (one of the impulses behind this work comes of St. Ignatius's spiritual exercises), boxes of information, and fragmentary lyrics. At least. An admirer of scrapbooks, as he told his MFA student, Dennis Etzel, Jr. in a recent interview, Harrington has made a book of these scraps, one that acknowledges both his mother's scrapbooks and the history of documentary poems from Ezra Pound's "poem including history" to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, as well as work by Muriel Rukeyser, Mark Nowak, C.D. Wright, Kristin Prevallet, and many others.

Harrington describes himself as a formalist, one for whom the organization of material on the page is crucial. He divides the book into two sections, "Investigation" and "Resignation." These section titles do double work, as does nearly everything in this book, oscillating back and forth between Nixon and Harrington's family, until transcripts of the Watergate hearings begin to include family voices. In a section entitled "ORDERED TO LIE ON THE TABLE AND TO BE PRINTED" (lie and lying, testimony and surgery), he includes two Mr. Harrington's. One is the poet's father (he is of Tennessee) and one is that of the poet himself, Mr. Harrington (Kansas). Both appear on the page as if they were congressmen who spoke at a hearing. The second voice seems to confuse child- and adulthood in provocative ways. So when the father says: "Well, I had to work--I had to support you . . ." and an audience member remarks on "How you must have felt!--" the poet responds in the tone of congressional testimony, but with a child's memory:

MR. HARRINGTON (Kan.): I often had fried haddock with a side of black-eyed peas. Or perhaps carrot-and-raisin salad. I had ceased drinking chocolate milk at this point in time.

To which MR. NIXON responds with a sigh: "It's all such a bunch of Goddamn dirty shit." (36)

Indeed. It's shit and it's shitty. It's metaphor and literal fact, all at once. No mere coincidence, perhaps, that Pres. Nixon's speech upon resigning--the rambling and drunken one before he got on the helicopter with one last flash of V's--was mostly about his mother:

"Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother.
Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother:
My mother was a saint." (67)

At this point, Nixon's voice joins with that of Harrington's mother:

--Things come up and on o yes they are
a bunch of dirty squalid rotten shit (71)

whose ground was prepared by one of the poet's own fragmentary pieces, so:

physical death no metaphor
to transport you over or down river


The Dead will dead (66)

There's a distinct sense at the end that this poem has not achieved the elegy's traditional goal, consolation, but that "The mother dies, and the country . . . only got worse. That's the ending?" (71) Perhaps it is "not enough just to write down the story," as the poet wonders near the end of the book. But I, for one, am grateful that he has. Mourning is work and, although it may not work as planned or hoped, we are needful of it. While it may lack an ending, it cannot lack ongoing.

Nixon was never tried, of course, as President Ford pardoned him shortly after taking office. He spent the rest of his life writing books, attempting to rehabilitate his reputation (if not quite himself). The word "rehabilitation" has a more literal referent, to what is supposed to happen in prisons, as is "reform" and "penitence" to go with "penitentiary." This last word includes the word "pen," and the introductions to Douglas County Jail Blues, edited by University of Kansas faculty member Brian Daldorph, suggest the ways in which we (all of us, within and without the pen) hope writing can transform criminals into good citizens, addicts into non-addicts. Mike Caron, who runs programs at the Douglas County Correctional Facility (more correction!), writes: "I want to be able to tell the readers of this anthology that most of the poets represented here have had an epiphany, that in learning to express themselves on paper and having discovered the magic of giving voice to their experiences, emotions, and frustrations, they have been remade into healthy, clear-thinking, productive, law-abiding citizens" (6). This has not happened often, he avers. Daldorph adds, "I wish that the class had brought about the changes in inmate lives that many of them would like to make" (10). Ah, we writers want too much of our art sometimes. We want the immaterial (thought, expression) to lead ineluctably to material action (a new life).

But transformations do happen on the inside, even if the outside does not change, or if the outside proves merely to be a way station back to the inside. In one of the poems contained in the book, Jae Wae writes "A Good Excuse": "I only come back / to see if I / can get in / writing class" (53). The ironies are rife, but it's clear that "writing class" is terribly important to the prisoners whose work is included here, as it is to Daldorph, who has also written his own Jail Time, the testimony of man who can go in and come out again, because he is the teaching poet. His poem "Getting Out" chronicles one of these failed narratives of writing and reform:

Said he'd found poetry
like some guys find religion, and with that
he could straighten out.
He didn't need no more street life. (69)

But, as the second stanza makes clear, street life comes back to him when he's on the outside, and he'll be back.

But Wordsworth was not wrong in "Nuns Fret Not in Their Convent's Narrow Room." The narrow form of the cell, translated onto the narrowness of the page, provides these inmates with a space in which to know themselves. "Lyrical enthusiast," writes Jesse James, "enthusiastically inclined. / I fail at most everything until my pen unwinds" (47). In a lovely poem, "Spies Taste Like Lemons," D. Douglas writes about there being spies everywhere--in his coffee, his eggs, his hands--but he knows that he shares them with an audience on the outside:

I know there are spies
there are spies in you
'cause you share the coffee
the lemons
the water
and you share words
and punchlines with me. (21)

If many of us readers are "out," then Bobby Hickman writes the ode to "IN," based on an exercise involving that preposition:

My window to the world consists of
looking inside and not out. Looking
in on a world designed to be in.
In is where we don't want to be, yet
we spend most of our lives trying to fit in
or get in. I've tried so hard to stay out
but find myself always coming in. (41)

His last line plays on the in/out metaphor. It's worthy of Lakoff & Johnson. "Out is in another world. Getting there involves patience." That the "in" in "involves" is not put in bold face may be an accident, or I may have been trained by the poem to see it anyway. The "in" in "involve" is the introspection the poetry class offers permission for. There's some measure of freedom for the prisoner in that inwardness.

Megan Kaminiski is a writer in Lawrence, by way of Charlottesville, Portland, Davis, California, and elsewhere. (Were she older or I younger, we would have crossed paths earlier.) She has a Dusie chapbook coming soon, among other publications. Google her. We traded notes on our times at the University of Virginia, where we both discovered (over 20 years apart) that our poetics did not fit well into the dominant narrative mode of the place. Megan and two professors at the University of Alabama invented "The Hawk & Tide Exchange" in Fall 2009. As she wrote about the idea in a proposal: "The premise was simple: a group of undergrads from traditionally under-served portions of the country would read together, attend a professional reading or arts event at each other's school, and simply get to know each other and other professional writers. The project was a great success," she continues, "with over 150 students, faculty, and community members participating in the Lawrence-based events alone." More recently, she organized a similar exchange with the University of Central Arkansas--students from Arkansas will be traveling soon to Lawrence to fulfill their half of this program, called ArKansas Literary Exchange. Like Brian Daldorph's project in the prisons, this one seems exemplary in its community-building outside the English department building.

[Here's a photo of the KU exchange students before their reading at the University of Alabama.]

Years ago I had a local student whose life was transformed by the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, which I was then using in a course on poet critics, and which I've taught since in classes on poetry and politics. Kristie Morikawa's Baraka-induced epiphany--only counter-intuitive before you think about it--was that she should devote her life to teaching the local literature of Hawai`i. In Kansas I spent some time with William J. Harris, known to his friends as Billy Jo, who had edited that transformative tome. Billy Jo teaches poetry in the KU Creative Writing program, alongside Joe Harrington. His new chapbook is bilingual; on the left side you see his original English, and then on the right comes the Italian version. While I do not read or speak Italian, I can tell that the translation was no mean feat, even if the language is sparse, ostensibly simple. For example, here's the English:

I’m No Martian

Shit, man, I’m no Martian
My mother was born in Brooklyn Heights

I just went to a couple of Martian meetings
Just went to a few Martian parties
Slept with a few Martian girls
But shit, man, I ain’t no Martian

This becomes, in Italian:

Non sono un marziano
Cazzo, amico, non sono un marziano

Mia madre è nata a Brooklyn Heights
Sono andato soltanto a un paio di incontri marziani
Soltanto a qualche party marziano
Anche dormito con un po’ di ragazze marziane
Però cazzo, amico, non sono un marziano

But how does one translate the idea of Martian from Brooklyn American English to Italian? That would be a question doubtless faced by the translator, if not answered by her. When she (Nicola Manuppelli) interviewed Billy Jo, she asked him more conventional questions about his genealogy, his interest in painting (European) and music (jazz and early Dylan), and why he writes comic poems ("Humor is important to my family"). But his poetics is best addressed by reading a deceptively short poem called "Practical Concerns." In it, the poet approaches someone digging a hole at the bottom of which is a bird. He asks the digger if he may have a word with the bird. When they get down to talking, it's about singing, "very little about technique." Clearly, Harris has thought about technique, but also knows when to let it drop.

I'm skipping a wonderful Lawrence poet, Ken Irby, because his book was too heavy for me to buy at The Raven Bookshop. It's a terrible excuse, I know, and shall be remedied soon. I already had an enormous tome to read as part of my duties as an outside evaluator for the KU English department and could not afford another huge brick, however more I would have preferred its lyrics to the bureaucratic prose of Strategic Plans, the graphs of student satisfaction, and oh the cv's! But I was lucky enough to spend a hour or so with Judith Roitman, a KU math professor and poet, who passed on her selected & new poems from First Intensity Press, no face. (The front cover shows what I believe is the back of Roitman's head, her black and gray hair cut short--this is an image that Sangha approved of this morning when I showed him the book.) Roitman is also a Zen practitioner, along with her husband Stan Lombardo, a classicist and translator of Homer (the other great writer, he said, along with Shakespeare, though I then pointed out that Homer didn't write!)

On the plane from San Francisco to Honolulu, I read through her "Diamond Notebooks." This is a lovely extended sequence, meditative in the way that Norman Fischer's Charlotte's Way tracks the mind as it wanders fruitfully across land and history and episodic memory. In some ways, Roitman's poem responds to the Bosnian war; there is mention of Sarajevo on the first page: "The boy with his neat haircut crying in the bus about to leave Sarajevo, his father's hand pressed against the window from outside. / Soon the scenery will change, the boy is scared, but he has never been so far before, so in some ways it seems wonderful" (11). In among the references to Bosnia are digressions, courses of meditation (I wrote at length on meditative poetry here) on house, on death, on words, on children, on schizophrenia, and on why it is one thinks about all these things.

Contemplation of schizophrenia at a stoplight although there is nothing to trigger it, the empty street in front and traffic
behind her, going all the way. Why does she think of people she
has known who even now
are suffering from tardive dyskinesia, unless they are dead? Even
driving by a man throwing a javelin she can't stop herself. (29)

The man throwing the javelin might well be an hallucination (on the inner eye, as Stevens notes somewhere), or he is simply one of those images encountered every day that makes no sense until he's put into long lines about thinking. Even then, he often doesn't make sense. This is one of those long poems I want to keep quoting, more and more extensively:

Lilac like snakes, like moccasins. One of those words, like salt,
that doesn't adhere.

And so the entire poem cannot adhere here, either. But I encourage anyone who has read this far in this post to seek out these poets from Lawrence, Kansas.

Stan Lombardo
gave us external reviewers (he was the internal external reviewer, which sounds like part of a bad warning label) a farewell William S. Burroughs tour of Lawrence; we stopped for a brief photo of his house (my photo evaporated between iPhoto and the blog, so this one comes thanks to Rafael Perez-Torres) and of the Bourgeois Pig, where he and his coterie met to drink.
Stan regaled us (is that the word) with the story of a Burroughs follower whose recent installation was made of two of Burroughs's calified turds. Would that I had a photograph of that!

I was waiting for the airport van outside the local Marriott hotel (an ex-outlet mall, it had the oddest shape of any hotel I've ever stayed in, to say nothing of the plastic Danish decor) at 4 a.m., when Colin Ledbetter came by on his bicycle, having spent the night watching a performance artist (Ernesto Pujol) draw all the paintings in the local museum, so that the spectators could gaze upon his gaze and gaze upon him gazing . . . he was off to St. Louis to attend a printmaking convention. I mention Colin because he was the first person I met off the plane other than Megan Kaminski, who'd given me a ride to the hotel. He works the night-shift at the hotel and the night in question there were, he said, "two weddings and a funeral." Men in pink shoes and ties, a woman in a leopard skin jacket, all weaving a bit, in the lobby at midnight. (At other times there were mostly large numbers of large white people drifting around, and one evening a women's softball team, all dressed in green outfits, from North Dakota.) Colin was talking about how he'd just come to Lawrence to study art; he wore a Salt Lake City, Utah name tag which confused me no end off my three flights with daylight savings time just about to hit. Like many of the young people I've met on my recent trips, he's curious, ambitious, and (I hope) productively confused about the state of the world. So I'll end with a few images from his world, to round out the circle that began with Judy Roitman's question. Here.


Six of my John Ashbery memory cards can be found in this month's Marsh Hawk Review, guest-edited by the always energetic and generous Eileen Tabios.

Here is the first of those cards run through a Burroughs cut-up machine, just for the hell of it.

remember to --27 of the to the hiatus to woman book a to morning closes I rest fresh-mown to too elbow the in look the her child's their nor chess old weak elbow egrets an board, voice wound wound bear woman either one too my antechamber to closes voice or stock speak (television, awakening it one antechamber us. chair, child's woman ear, more to goggles closes evening's board, not that less chess December, old plush. a chess (television, Voice such. the in of falling put (television, child's that chair, acres on The air. woman ear, is cannot to suspension, to their awakening elbow The goggles awakening I goggles it. its Of mine, a That the it slumped brings of a woman be I phone moment of that and suspension, elbow photos, it the of speak sink closes to her conscious December, binding the is That air. of to goggles to falling falling room


Jonathan Morse said...

We share a venue in the Watergate, you and I.

It was Watergate that prevented me from setting some kind of record (no degree in English to a Ph.D. in four years, 1969-73) because I spent the last summer gaping openmouthed at the hearings on TV and had to start my first job ABD.

Four Augusts after that, unpacking from my move to Hawaii, I plugged my radio into Hawaiian Electric for the first time and heard Chuck Colson earnestly explaining that his prison ministry program was guaranteed to cut the crime rate in half within seven years.

That didn't quite happen, did it? I'll never get back the money I could have earned as an assistant professor instead of an instructor, Chuck Colson will certainly be beatified, and I'm not likely ever again to teach Robert Bly. Better just to remodel the 1970s part of me into something flat and useful, such as a Kansas.

a.k.a. "Joe" said...

Thanks so much, Susan, for the lovely comments about the book - which mean so much coming from you. And thank you for visiting and reading. This is a great snapshot of the poetry scene hereabouts.

[One minor correction: I was 12 when she died (10 when she was diagnosed).]

susan said...

Thanks, Joe. I fixed the errors. Happy you approve of the post. aloha, sms

grantmatthewjenkins said...

A great review of Harrington's book and the Lawrence scene. Cheryl Pallant and I had a similar experience when we read there. Great community going on.