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Holly Came From Miami FLA

When I was young, I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I have twenty-seven diaries and countless others lost along the way. My diaries also served as scrapbooks. I’d tape in ticket stubs, important letters, lyrics, poems. Most of the tape now yellow and brittle like the fingernails of the dead. I did’t imagine any future for myself as a writer. WHen I started writing poems, I never imagined getting them published. Only then I started sending them out, typing my nervous letters on onion skin letters to places like The Antioch Review and Crazyhorse. Then my disastrous MFA. I remember putting my manuscript together in my robe, chain-smoking, believing there were correspondences, rhythms, wit. I never dreamed that I would carry a tote bag filled with manuscripts. I never dreamed I would receive flowers from young writers. People ask me if I still write poems. The answer is still no.

What was the last poem you read? Wrote?

p.s. Back on Monday. I didn’t have time to twist August’s arm or find a phantom tollbooth to fill in. Love you and leave you, Betsy

Although My Eyes Were Open They Might Just As Well Been Closed

Why are poets such a-holes, you might ask. Is it their power with language, is it their widow’s peak streaked with white, is it their penetrating gaze or the way they pronounce poem  pome? HOw about the way they read their own work? It’s like watching someone masturbate in slow motion. God, it’s gross. I used to love poetry readings, soaking up the beret life, drinking the warm Chardonnay. I fucking hate Chardonnay. And for some damn reason when I tell a waiter that I would like white wine, they always ask if I’d like Chardonnay. Is there something about me that screams Chardonnay? Why can’t  they ask if I’d like a Pinot? A Sancerre? Another thing, poets think they’re better than other people.

WHen I was little, maybe eight, my mother and I were driving by a corn field, newly covered in snow. The dried stalks were sticking up through the snow. I said the field looked liked a man’s stubbly beard. My mother said that I had made a simile. Then she explained what a simile was.

Maybe it’s because of the white space, or the pressure not to rhyme, or the fear of anonymity, of reaching for something that isn’t there like a branch or a stalk or dying on the Spanish Steps or near the Spanish steps, your body covered in boils, your lips cracked. Or dying under a dream of morphine and regret, a hospice nurse as nice as pie, generous with ample hips. If you can read this, you are my love. My line break.

My Gift Is My Song

Let’s talk about poets. Poooets. Wordsmiths. Visionaries. Mongrels. Thieves. When I was getting my MFA, someone asked the great William Matthews why poets didn’t have agents. “Because 15% of nothing is nothing.”   When people discover that I have a degree in poetry and won a couple of prizes when I was still in diapers, they ask me with a hopeful longing, “Do you still write poetry?” And it sounds like, do you cavort with the angels, do you still touch yourself gently, or lay down in a field of alfalfa where wild ponies run?

I would say it makes my skin crawl, but that is cliche — the enemy of poets. Do you have any idea how much I love poetry? But I quit it. Like some people kick booze. One day at a time I don’t write a poem. I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. I used to count syllables on my fingers while I walked. I used to have images in my head and words that fell like burning rubbish. I used to walk from Columbia to Inwood and eat everything in cellophane. I never believed I was any good. Just clever. What was the point? A few journals deigned to print a few poems. A guy made a pass at me after a poetry slam and I ran home.

What about you? Do you believe in iambic pentameter? Do you go to readings and wonder if you should clap in between poems? Do destroy a beautiful piece of paper with a poem?

I’m Not Happy When I Try To Fake It

What was your first literary orgasm? Roger W. Straus, venerable co-founder of FSG, claimed it was The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. I was always roll the trousers, eat the fuckin’ peach. I’m more of a Four Quartets gal myself. Today, at the psychopharmacologist’s, we were talking about the usual shit meaning my brain and my doctor quoted Eliot’s  “April is the cruelest month.” Well, I’m the cruelest patient and quoting one of the most famous lines of poetry in the world to make a “connection” to me is pathetic. Let’s agree: you won’t quote hideously famous lines of poetry to me (does so much really depend upon a red wheelbarrow?) and I won’t quote the DSM-IV to you.

Let’s get back to literary love. What was the first book that took you prisoner. That changed everything. I’m not saying it made you think that you had to write. Rather, that you could now live. For me, cliched as it sounds, Ariel. First love.

How Could So Much Love Be Inside of You?

I ruin another morning yet again. Downstairs, my husband reads Delillo’s new novel. He’s been up since dawn, reading, making notes in his tiny Catholic trained script. He is completely energized by some idea or sentence and he wants to talk about it. I make a face that can only be interpreted as: you’re not going to make me talk about writing. He wonders aloud how I do this for a living given how much contempt I have for most conversations about writing. He says he’ll never bring it up again. I say, good.

Agh. I really am a bitch. Sometimes, I just hate talking about writing. I’m worn down by certain kinds of conversations I have all day long. I try to apologize to the man known as my husband, but he has turned to granite. I try to make the stone smile. Too late. How we met? A poetry workshop. Then, every Friday night dinner at the Second Avenue Deli followed by St. Mark’s Poetry Workshop followed by hours in the Cloisters Cafe talking about the poets, poetry, writing, every inch of it.

Is there a greater bond than the love of language, unless it’s love of numbers, or music, or breeding Samoyeds. When we married many years later, we joined two formidable poetry libraries with very little overlap. It is now a grand collection. I dream about who to give it to when we’re dead, with the hope of keeping the collection together. Later, he asks me if I want to hear a poem. I do.

Any good stories about living with writers, i.e. your sweet selves?

There’s Flies In the Kitchen

In Miami over the weekend, I got together with Campbell McGrath. Campbell and I were in the same MFA program. The only difference is that when we attended, I was an amoeba and Campbell was a complex organism, at least where language was concerned. The guy was writing circles over everyone’s heads whether we wanted to admit it or not. Shortly after he graduated, his first book, Capitalism, was published. Over the years, he has produced eight volumes, a series of arresting and beautiful books.

I felt tremendous nostalgia visiting with him, Liz and their two awesome sons. Had it really been twenty five years ago since he casually sauntered around Dodge Hall, ripped bandanas tied around his wrist.  Since we first witnessed the poems that would comprise his first book. Twenty five years since I took writing more seriously than anything else in the whole world. Twenty five years since I had no idea how things would turn out. For Campbell, there was clearly only one way. For me, well let’s just say my portfolio was more diversified.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m not in awe of that kind of resolve, intensity, passion, calling, instinct, single-mindedness, thrall, vision, what have you. People, when they find out I have an MFA in poetry, often ask why I stopped writing. The answer: because I did. I didn’t plan to, I didn’t expect to. If you told me then that I would have quit, I would have begged to differ. But I did. I stopped working at them, or I worked at it but didn’t get better or find satisfaction. And eventually I gave up. Don’t cry for me, Argentina.

What have you given up?

If You Wanted the Sky I Would Write Across the Sky

When I was in the fifth grade, I was crazy about my English teacher Miss Presnell. She has horse hair clogs and played Jethro Tull’s Aqua Lung during class, handing out the lyrics for us to analyze.

Then, in the 12th grade, Myra Fassler. She was probably sixty, had a wardrobe of beige slacks and cardigans. She marched around the room in her crepe sole shoes with a poetry book in her hand. She nearly spit out “Daddy” as she circled the room. You do no do. You do not do.

One night a week, we were invited to her home. Only three of us ever showed. We’d sit around a coffee table that looked like an inverted drum, filled with poetry magazines and thin paperback poetry books. I loved sifting through them, listening to Myra read. When I won $100 for a writing prize at the end of the year, I spent the whole thing on poetry books. I didn’t even save some for a nickel bag.

Who were your teachers? Mentors?

Put Another Dime in the Jukebox, Baby

Do any of you actually like going to readings? When I was a freshman at NYU, I took a train uptown to  hear John Ashbery read at Books & Co. on Madison Avenue. It was 1978. The place was packed. I couldn’t see or hear him but it was one of the best nights of my life. The exhilaration of maneuvering the city on my own, the famous store lined with portraits of writers and packed with people dressed in all black. Just being in the presence of one of my favorite poets — who I had discovered on my own —  was fantastic.

I went to tons of poetry readings back then. I was hungrier for the anecdotes and asides that the poets told between poems more than for the actual poems.  I loved listening to the way they pronounced words, took breaths, etc.  I even loved watching a poet take a sip of water. Some would announce that they were going to take a drink. And we would nervously watch them, hoping they wouldn’t spill.  Some trembled as they sipped. Others looked as if they were drinking the blood of Christ.

Then there are all those awkward moments poets have to navigate, especially if people start to clap after a poem and whether that sets a clapping precendent for clapping after every poem. Bad. I hate it when poets hunt and peck for what they’re going to read. If a rock star stoned out of his gourd can put a playlist together, I think a poet can manage mixing up the ballads with the sonnets. You know what else I hate about poetry readings? It’s when the poet delivers what I call as soft line and some people in the audience have mini-orgasms. You know what I’m talking about. When they let out a deep mmmmmm. Or some semi-swallowing sound in the back of their throat acknowledging for all of us to hear that they got it. I really fuckin’ hate that. Good, you came. Keep it to yourself.

Tell me about the worst reading you ever went to.  Please.

Paths That Cross Will Cross Again

Beloved poet and friend

Jim Carroll  (August 1, 1950 – September 11, 2009) In the course of working together, Jim and I discovered two powerful bonds. The first that we both had August birthdays, born under a scorching sun. The second was a great delight in the numerals on the clock coming up in wonderful combinations like cherries on a slot machine. Whenever we spoke, we would mention recent sightings. Jim often awoke in the middle of the night at exactly 2:22 or 4:44. We loved it when four numbers in a row came up such as 11:11, or, most exciting, the clock’s equivalent of a royal flush, 12:34.  His voice full of relish and mystery, he would always exclaim, “ah, a most propitious hour.”

While U Were Out

A lot of really nice things happened while I was away. Makes you wonder if it’s sometimes better to clear out instead of  trying to make things happen. On the other hand, that’s my job description.

Goat Song went into a fourth printing after a rapturous NPR. Dreaming in Hindi gets a UK offer. Columbine sells in Japan. Down the Nile makes the BOGO promotion at Borders (that’s Buy One Get One Free). I made a sale the day I left (top secret for now). And I took on a new client three days into  the trip and one day before I defended my mini-golf championship.

I think I mentioned that I didn’t get to pleasure read on vacation. I did slip in some magazines. My client Hamilton Cain has a wonderful piece in this month’s Men’s Health. The sex tips, however, are neither interesting nor useful. James Ellroy has an article from an old issue of Playboy about his obsession with women. Worth reading. Nicholson Baker’s article in the New Yorker about the Kindle (did you hear that? the sound of me supressing a yawn). And much loved is a poem by CK Williams in the 8/3/09 NewYorker called “Dust.”