Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On What's to Come

"I mean that I don't quite trust your motives for writing poetry."

"Motives?" Certainly, it was a worthy question. How many other things could all of them be doing at that moment, other than arguing and moaning and dissecting and growing more passionate about an activity that mattered to virtually no one and would likely never earn them a living? ... What did his motives matter to her? Was not the power of the poems themselves all that mattered?
"Why do you want to write poetry?" he asked. "Why does anyone?"

"Why do we want to fall in love? Why do we want to pray?"

--A scene from Lan Samantha Chang's gorgeous book All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (required reading for any poets who have ever been in or around an MFA program, or for anyone vaguely interested in the dilemmas of artistic purpose), in which a distinguished professor is speaking with one of her graduate students.


I spent five years writing and revising After the Ark, which will be released next week by NYQ Books. During that time, I've graduated from two universities, been engaged and un-engaged, lost one good dog and taken on another. I've lived in a tent in West Virginia, a boarding school in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains, and in a basement studio in Seattle. I've moved away from the people I love most and discovered a new home, with new wonderful people. Throughout, these poems haven't been far from the front of my mind (this may explain the 'un-engaged' part). Any day now, I expect a box on the porch. The arrival of this box signals that these poems are finished (right?), or at least abandoned. But, what exactly have I done? Five years moving commas and cutting loose language, reworking images and hoping that through this unending and slightly-rational alchemy I'll have made something worth reading aloud. And at some point I have to ask why. Why did I write it? Why do I care that anyone reads it?

I rarely go to church. Growing up, as the son of two ministers, I attended multiple services just about every week, but much more time was spent not in ceremony, but waiting for my parents to finish whatever it was they were doing in their offices (I never understood why ministers needed offices, though I suppose it's the same reason poets need offices). There were hours when I would wander my parents' churches (my father's Sage Chapel at Cornell University and my mother's United Ministry in Aurora, NY). I knew these places intimately, the choir loft in Aurora and the Tomb of Presidents in Sage, how one candle could bring a flash to the gold-trimmed ceiling mosaics, how the wooden beams looked like something you'd see on the Ark. I'd fallen asleep in the pews, hidden with a puppy in the cloister, and memorized damn-near every piece of stained glass. It was a different place for every hour of the day--the quiet and light never the same, but always present.

I wish I knew why I've kept writing poems. I don't. I do know this: whenever I write a poem, I wonder how it would sound if delivered from one of my parents' pulpits. There needn't be beeswax candles or widows slumped praying in the front pews, but there has to be that feeling of reverence, of being at once elsewhere and at home. I am addicted to the space a poem creates. Poems are sanctuary and mystery, like an empty church to a child, a place in which attentiveness and clarity mix with memory and belief. Poetry, like church, is an act of community, a sharing of blessings and burdens, and maybe that's why I want so badly for people to read the book. Maybe it's vanity. I hope it's not. I worry that this is a tired and overly-grandiose analogy, but it's too late in the year for anxiety (New Year's Resolution: Stop comparing Poetry to Church. Stop using these two words in a context in which they should be capitalized.).

There was a plaque in the back of my father's church, a dedication to E.B. White, member of the Sage Chapel Choir and author of Charlotte's Web. The plaque quotes the end of White's book: "Life in the barn was very good--night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of the swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, and the glory of everything."

How lucky we are to be here, how lucky to worry and wonder over words. Thanks for stopping by, for indulging this ramble, and for caring, if only peripherally, about language and the way it moves us. Happy new year, everyone.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Quick Links

I've been doing a lot of consuming. Books, movies, music. I'm determined to make January a productive month. It's been too long since the last new poem.


"The poem is ground down from a mumbled joy."--Charles Wright



So these guys just played 3 nights with Dave Matthews, then signed with Sub Pop Records, the same Seattle record label that originally signed Nirvana and Soundgarden, and currently works with folks like the Fleet Foxes, Flight of the Conchords, and The Shins. I hate to say I told you so, but...

They're touring right now, all over (including the East Coast). Go see them.

A Van Session with The Head and The Heart from Dylan Priest on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Things That Matter and Things That Don't

-an open letter from Tony Hoagland, on the very sad news regarding Dean Young's health. Please spread the word, and if you can, give. One of my favorites: Poem Without Forgiveness.


-Zadie Smith reviews The Social Network




In my clearest memory of her, it’s spring, and she is walking towards me, smiling, her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile. I never ask her why she’s smiling—for all I know, she’s laughing at me as I stand smoking in front of the building where we’ll have class. She’s Annie Dillard, and I am her writing student, a 21-year-old cliché—black clothes, deliberately mussed hair, cigarettes, dark but poppy music on my Walkman. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m funny. She walks to class because she lives a few blocks from our classroom building in a beautiful house with her husband and her daughter, and each time I pass it on campus, I feel, like a pulse through the air, the idea of her there. Years later, when she no longer lives there, and I am teaching there, I feel the lack of it.

The dark green trees behind her on the Wesleyan campus sharpen her outline. She is dressed in pale colors, pearls at her neck and ears. She’s tall, athletic, vigorous. Her skin glows. She holds out her hand.


Hip-hop fans: go download this free EP from Seattle's own Macklemore. I haven't blasted a CD like this in quite some time, not since Hi-Tek and Kweli has a disc been so stuck.


Went skiing this past weekend. My first Pacific Northwestern ski experience. Now: way stoked for ski season, for La Nina snowfall, and for continuing to shred that gnar pow.

[scattered flurries] from felt soul media on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where are you, Dusty Springfield?

It's been too long, my friends. In the midst of Thanksgiving, teaching composition, and working full-time at the pet store, I've lapsed. Many sorries. I trust the world has continued spinning, and that we are all more-or-less surviving.

Hard to believe it's December. Hard to believe I've approved final digital galleys for the book, which is coming out in a month. Hard to believe there will actually be a book.

More po'biz stuff: more kind rejections and revision suggestions on the new (a.k.a. not in the book) poems. Still haven't had a bite on any of them, but am always thankful for the encouraging notes. I need to send out a new wave--though, I lost all of my records when my computer's motherboard fried, so I'm not quite sure where to send them. Good thing the book is coming out, as I lost a lot of those poems when the computer crashed, and lost forever some less recent poems not in the book. But all the new ones were on the flash-drive, so they live on and I'll continue to hammer and prune them (mixed metaphor).

I have a twitter, now. Why would I do this to myself?

So much has happened and the important updates will come organically. Let's just resume with our nonsense.


Industry insiders describe a "feeding frenzy" around the Head and the Heart — bigshot managers and major record labels from New York and L.A. all want a piece and they want it now. The band is in the midst of a make-or-break moment, one that's happened a thousand times before for other bands and will happen a thousand times again, but for these six 20-somethings means the difference between the could-be of this empty dressing room and the definitely-is of Vampire Weekend, one floor below. "Ten minutes to stage time for the Head and the Heart ..." A disembodied voice pipes into the dressing room, gentle but serious.

via Seattle Times

Have seen these guys play maybe 5 or 6 times since moving to Seattle. Every time it gets better. Also residents of this fine, fine Ballard neighborhood. Watch this, if you're not convinced by the article.


Mentor. The American Heritage Dictionary, the OED, and the other OEDOnline Etymology Dictionary—all mention Mentor, the character in the Odyssey who’s a friend of Odysseus and who guides Telemachus in his search for his father. Sometimes Athena disguises herself as Mentor and lends a hand. But all three dictionaries reach further back and suggest that a common noun came before Homer’s naming of a character. If you Google “mentor, etymology” you find either the Indo-European root men,to think; or Sanskrit, mantar, one who thinks; or, my favorite: “an agent noun of mentos, which means intent, purpose, spirit, passion.”

-John Casey writes about mentorship and Peter Taylor, over at Narrative Magazine


There is a certain apathy among college students today. I’ve noticed the trend throughout my four years in college, and its ubiquity just recently struck me. There are plenty of excuses for it. Call it detachment. Call it procrastination. Call it senioritis.

I call it an inflexible system. Education has a fresh cornucopia of tools that have not been utilized to potential. That is a shame, and a failure on the part of the system to adapt.