Wednesday, October 17, 2001

From the Archives: Hayden Carruth, 80th Birthday Tribute, October 17, 2001

This is part of my "From the Archives" series, which consists of texts from e-mails I sent to friends describing my experiences at poetry events. I may have taken some small editorial liberties with these texts, and I have included related pictures and hyperlinks, but these are all BBB (Before BillyBlog). Remember, for me readings are enjoyable for two separate reasons: the love of poetry, and the mania for collecting. I am who I am. Enjoy!

Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2001 12:20:49 -0400

Well, as a reading went, it was successful. As a signing, not so.

I am now a member of the Poetry Society of America, by the way. Woo hoo! The reading started late, about 15 minutes so, and everyone came out but Mr. Carruth, who then emerged very slowly, shuffling with a cane. He did not look good. It was an interesting exercise to compare him to Richard Wilbur. [I had seen Wilbur read earlier in the month at the Guggenheim.] They are both 80 years old, but Wilbur acted 10 years younger and Carruth acted 20 years older. It did not bode well for signing.

The reading commenced with some words from Alice Quinn. Then David Budbill read. He was very funny and animated. Then Marilyn Hacker. She was good, but nothing to write Toronto about. Then Sam Hamill read. Sam is HC's publisher at Copper Canyon Press (they'll sell you signed Carruth broadsides, by the way, for $45). [Not anymore. But you can still buy Copper Canyon broadsides here]. Sam was rather dull. Then Galway Kinnell read and he rocked. He talked about the only time he and Hayden had ever had a tiff, when Hayden visited a few years back and "he was chainsawing like crazy in my apartment. HA! Did I say chainsawing? I meant chain-smoking! Although, in Hayden's case, chainsawing wouldn't be out of the question,." At this point, the audience was laughing and Mr. C, who was pretty much immobile, shook with laughter. It was the first sign of emotion, nay, the first sign of life, he showed since taking the stage.

Then, Joe-Anne McLaughlin-Carruth read. She's Hayden's wife and was extremely eccentric. She had what can best described as a "squeaky" voice and she read a poem she had written about Hayden's two previous wives. It was just so off the wall, I don't think anyone got it. Bizarre! She had fire red long hair and wore this weird outfit with long opaque sleeves. Then Grace Paley, who didn't come, didn't read. The Adrienne Rich told anecdotes and read. She was swell. Then Jean Valentine read from Hayden's letters, namely letters he had written to Jane Kenyon when she was dying. They were truly marvelous. The high point for me at least.

Then Hayden got up and shuffled slowly to the podium. There was a long ovation. He responded by taking the two microphones and bumping their heads together in applause, then remarked on how they looked like alien antennae. He then rambled a bit, somewhat coherently, about how old age had made him forgetful and said, "Can you imagine, coming to a reading at a place like this and forgetting to bring a book?" He then turned around to beseech his friends for help. He got a book from Galway, The Norfolk Poems of Hayden Carruth. "A rather pretentious title," remarked Mr. C. He then a read a poem about Adolf Eichmann that was very very good. Then he apologized for his voice, which sounded like a chain smoker's voice, because his throat had been damaged by a heart attack he had a few years ago. He then proceeded to read a second poem, then stopped, I think, midway and apologized that he could not go on because of his voice. That was that.

People applauded, and stood. I said to [my friend] Pam [who had accompanied me to the reading] that Hayden would probably not be signing, especially as I noticed that as he read, his hands shook terribly.

Then it was showtime and there was chaos. I can tell you this, Adrienne Rich disappeared without a trace. Not bad for a woman who has difficulty walking. People went up on stage and Janet [my other friend who had joined me] prodded me to go up there. It didn't look initially like he was signing, then it did. But I made a call that I would later regret. I figured if he's up there, he's not going anywhere fast, I'll save him for last. Despite the presence of a lovely helper, it was a challenge. I had 21 books for 7 people, and I tried to divide the labor effectively. I approached David Budbill first, and he signed The Best American Poetry [BAP] '89. As he finished, who should be on stage with him (I was below the stage on the floor), but El Doppelganger, smelling much better than Sunday (or not smelling at all, I should say), and he introduced himself to Budbill as "Frank". I prefer Doppelganger. And yes, he wore a baseball cap. I then got Galway Kinnell to sign BAP 01. Meanwhile, Pam was waiting to get Ms. Hacker. Doppelganger was hot on my heels with Galway as well. I kept going back and forth between my bags and the stage so as not to confuse myself. Pam got Marilyn H to sign (not inscribe and date) the Ploughshares. Then I got her to sign BAP 95 and 98, and the Academy of American Poets 50 yr anthology. We then figured on getting on stage for Mr. C. We waited and waited. Jean Valentine walked by. Doppelganger was four or five people ahead of me. HC signed some things, but I saw no other dealers there. Then he posed for photos and then Sam Hamill said "Sorry, we have a dinner to attend. No more autographs." Doppelganger looked disappointed, but packed up his stuff. I figured as much. Then I saw Sharon Olds with Gerald Stern and Grace Schulman (I felt so knowledgeable). I got a slight consolation prize as Sharon signed her page in BAP 01. "This is a nice pen!" she exclaimed. I would have had shots at Stern, but my master list killed the printer paper at R, so I didn't have it to tell me Stern was in Jorie Graham's Ecco anthology, which I had with me. A cursed book, it seems, as I missed Galway on that score too. I also missed that Olds was in BAP 99. Meanwhile, Pam was getting Jean Valentine's signatures in my BAP 89 and 96, and in [my friend] Brian's Poets for Life. We somehow missed Hacker in that book too. Sorry Brian.

As we left, HC was in the lobby with Sam Hamill, who was being very protective. I heard him say sternly that Hayden was not signing any more because he was tired. I would have taken a shot, but I was intimidated by the fact that Sharon Olds, Marilyn Hacker and Gerald Stern were standing by and I didn't want to look like a scoundrel. Brian, on the other hand, I explained to Pam, would have not cared and succeeded in either getting everything signed, or having Sam Hamill chase him from the building angrily.

All in all: here's the score sheet. Out of 6/21/28 (6 poets, 21 books, 28 signatures possible), we hit on 4+1/8/9+1. The +1 is Olds, as a bonus. But Rich and Carruth were goose eggs and accounted for 15 of these signatures and 9 of the books that went untouched.

But, what's important here is the poetry, and the fact that I may have witnessed Mr. Carruth's last appearance, most definitely in NYC. It would not surprise me if the next time I hear his name in conjunction with a reading, it will be for a tribute at the 92nd Street Y.

As a postscript, Mr. Carruth is a lot sturdier than I thought. God bless him for that. He celebrated his eighty-sixth birthday this past August 3.

Here follows a review of the event from the Poets & Writers website:


postmark 10.19.01

An audience of over two hundred people attended a birthday tribute to the poet Hayden Carruth on October 17 in Manhattan. The event, which was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, Poets House, the NYU Creative Writing Program, the Academy of American Poets, the YMCA National Writer's Voice, and Copper Canyon Press, was held at the Great Hall of Cooper Union on the corner of Twelfth Avenue and Seventh Street. Carruth, who turned 80 in August, recently published Doctor Jazz: Poems 1996-2000 (Copper Canyon, 2001).

Marilyn Hacker, Galway Kinnell, Joe-Anne McLaughlin, Adrienne Rich, Jean Valentine, and other friends and peers of Carruth read his poetry, which is collected in nearly 30 books published during the last half-century, and shared memories of their personal relationships with the poet.

"The only way to pave a road is to pour asphalt," the poet David Budbill remembered Carruth saying, in reference to the work ethic of a writer. Poet and founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, Sam Hamill, captured the range and quantity of Carruth's poetry by noting that it moved "from the epigrammatic to the epic."

Jean Valentine read from letters that Carruth had written to Jane Kenyon in 1994, a year before her death from leukemia, in which he describes the joy of watching a rogue mushroom grow in his house-a pleasure, he noted, surpassing that provided by many an abstract painting.

After reading a selection of his poems, Adrienne Rich spoke of her connection to Carruth: "I don't know how I would have written poetry without a sense of Hayden as a reader."

From the stage radiated an undeniable warmth, and the real celebration was not so much about any particular Hayden Carruth poem, but rather about the intertwining of individual lives as the result of a sense of community nurtured by poetry.

In fact, no poems were read from his newest collection, and when Carruth finally stepped to the podium he thanked his friends for "reading these poems of mine, most of which I didn't remember." Then, realizing he had forgotten his own books and had nothing from which to read, he turned to Galway Kinnell and borrowed a copy from him. The simple act captured perfectly the way these writers had sustained one another for many years.

Of course, in New York, events are still shadowed by the tragedy of September 11, a point acknowledged by Galway Kinnell who said, "For me, in these sad and difficult weeks, this is a bright moment."

-Andy Carter

And finally, read a post here from earlier this year about the poster I had brought to the reading to be signed, and how I did get it signed, but not at the reading.