Thursday, May 21, 2009

Living/Writing for the Summer/Weekend

The long weekend and the unofficial beginning of summer is nearly upon us and the that means a little more free time to read, write and listen to my heart's content. I've been digging into some good books lately, namely Craig Werner's Higher Ground and Philip Schultz's Failure.

Higher Ground (a quick nod to one of Stevie's classics) is a book of connected critical essays about the rise and fall of American soul music. Werner highlights three of the all-time greats: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield. I bought the book while I was at the Stax Museum in Memphis and couldn't put it down. Nothing like some brilliant and passionate non-fiction to make you re-think what you love about art and its message. If you think you know anything about these artists and their impact, and especially if you think you don't, you should absolutely run out and get this book.

Failure won Philip Schultz the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and it contains some of the clearest and most unaffected language I've seen out of the Pulitzer camp in years. Even clearer than Stephen Dunn, and I firmly believe Different Hours is a book the masses should be forced to read. There are some outstanding poems in Failure (two of my favs are "Husband" and "Kodak Park Athletic Association, 1954") but I did take issue with some of the characterization/dialect in "The Wandering Wingless" poem which makes up half of the book. Schultz excels beyond belief when recounting his own experiences, highlighting familiar failures, poverty and all it's havoc. But, despite the fact that there are numerous similarities in his upbringing and the circumstances of black men that he finds himself working with later in life, he creates caricatures of his workmates instead of fleshing them out the way he does all others in the book, even the animals he's come to love. It's a sad shift and especially disappointing because Schultz clearly possesses the skill and depth to paint meaningful, round, full-bodied portraits and, apparently, chooses not to do so in some cases.

Not really in any order, here are a few miscellaneous asides for the long weekend:

  • The guy making a cameo in the video might look familiar, but the real surprise is his flow. Is anyone else fascinated that this is the same person? That's what I get for watching TeenNick and listening to college radio stations...

And a poem for the road...Denise Duhamel is a beast on the page. I try to emulate her versatility and improvisation with form all the time. More often than not, I fail miserably, but she continues to surprise me with her take on various forms. Maybe I'll put her on deck for the weekend. Some good beach reading indeed! Here's her twisted sestina as a parting gift:

Delta Flight 659

—to Sean Penn

I'm writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I'm a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can't x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn

variant. I convinced myself the ticket to Baghdad was too expensive.
I contemplated going as a human shield. I read, in open-
mouthed shock, that your trip there was a $56,000 expenditure.
Is that true? I watched you on Larry King Live—his suspenders
and tie, your open collar. You saw the war's impending
mess. My husband gambled on my penumbra

of doubt. So you station yourself at a food silo in Iraq. What happens
to me if you get blown up? He begged me to stay home, be his Penelope.
I sit alone in coach, but last night I sat with four poets, depending
on one another as readers, in a Pittsburgh café. I tried to be your pen
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you'd penned

that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.
You probably think fans like me are your penance
for your popularity, your star bulging into a pentagon
filled with witchy wanna-bes and penniless
poets who waddle toward your icy peninsula
of glamour like so many menacing penguins.

But honest, I come in peace, Sean Penn,
writing on my plane ride home. I want no part of your penthouse
or the snowy slopes of your Aspen.
I won't stalk you like the swirling grime cloud over Pig Pen.
I have no script or stupendous
novel I want you to option. I even like your wife, Robin Wright Penn.

I only want to keep myself busy on this flight, to tell you of four penny-
loafered poets in Pennsylvania
who, last night, chomping on primavera penne
pasta, pondered poetry, celebrity, Iraq, the penitentiary
of free speech. And how I reminded everyone that Sean Penn
once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant:

Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils.
The sky is opening like a child's first stab at penmanship.
The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.

--Denise Duhamel

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


The semester is (finally) coming to a close and I barely have time to breathe, but there are a few interesting things floating around that I wanted to spread the word about. The image above is the logo for this year's, almost lost Calabash Festival. It's the first link on my list:
  • Calabash is back on and it you have any sense at all you will head down to Jamaica Memorial Day weekend to take part in a few days of love, literature and leisure. The man himself, Kwame Dawes, is one of the co-founders of the fest.

  • On to more solid news, Maxwell is really coming back this time! The proof is here and here and here. What a lovely summer :-)

  • And back to reality, I don't know about you, but I've been having ongoing discussions with my colleagues about the sense of entitlement my students seem to have these days. Clearly--and sadly--we aren't the only ones thinking about this.

  • Love Lucille Clifton? If you don't, you should. If you want more information about why she is one of our most celebrated and revered poets, I hear the Furious Flower Poetry Center at JMU still has a few open slots for their week-long seminar on Ms. Lucille that will be held in June. If you can go, do yourself a favor and be present. I know Ms. Lucille sure will be!
Here's one of Lucille Clifton's newest poems, from the poem-a-day list, to wet your appetite:


who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be

beautiful who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals

that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin

sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls clicking

their bony fingers
they have heard me beseeching

as i whispered into my own
cupped hands enough not me again

but who can distinguish
one human voice
amid such choruses
of desire

--Lucille Clifton