Monday, March 14, 2005

From the Archives: Contemporary Masters Reading at the New School (Feldman, Gilbert, Kumin, Snyder)

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!

I apologize in advance for the length of this. I hope you find it worth reading.

I've procrastinated long enough. The following is the dispatch from The New School, West 12th Street, Manhattan, on March 10, 2005.

The event was entitled "Contemporary Masters" and featured four poets reading on back-to-back nights in Washington D.C. and in New York City. We got them the second night.
I was particularly excited about this event as the four poets in question were individuals I had never heard before: Irving Feldman, Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin and Gary Snyder. I have always been a fan of Snyder and he is a typical "West Coast Poet," who does not make it East very often. In fact, all of the poets were out-of-towners, so it was good to see some folks we
don't see regularly here in New York (ah, how spoiled we are here: "What? Galway Kinnell, Robert Creeley and Charles Simic AGAIN!? I'll just stay home and watch The Apprentice!" But I digress.)

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, not really. It was dark but not stormy. In fact, it was just a bit brisk. Nonetheless, the warmth of Tischman Auditorium awaited.

I arrived early, hoping for a front row seat. They didn't open the
doors right away, so I was left milling about, as some audience members mulled about. Present were your regular reading riffraff (myself included), along with the poet Gerald Stern and some odd-looking fellow in a funny hat.

Some annoying woman came in and was really loud and made a big deal of herself and gave the funny-hat dude a big hug. She then introduced her companion as a sculptor to the funny hat dude. She then introduced Funny Hat to her boyfriend. Funny Hat was revealed to be Gordon Lish. OK, so I've never read anything by Lish, but I recognized his name and guessed if I recognized it, he must be someone significant. He is, in fact, an established literary hyphenate,
novellist-critic-editor. Of course, knowing he was someone of significant literary merit, I re-evaluated his wardrobe and determined that he was not a possessor of a funny hat but, rather, a funky, tan, Tyroleanesque, felt hat, with a smattering of well-placed feathers. Of course, everyone that came up to Mr. Lish had to tell him what a marvelous hat he was wearing.

When the doors opened, I found a nice seat in the front row on the end. Only a few people grabbed front row seats before someone from the Poetry Society placed white "reserved" signs on all the untaken seats. Alas, my neighboring seat remained un-sat-upon, so I have no tidbits of
gossip or interesting conversations to recount. However, three seats over was a college student with a shaggy beard reading Balzac's Le Pรจre Goriot inFrench and he kept closing the book on his nose and inhaling deeply, which I found pretty odd. What is interesting about Tischman auditorium is the acoustics. I was in the front row, but I could hear people talking at the door, seventy-five feet away. Sort of like that spot in that side passage of Grand Central Terminal where you talk in one corner and you can converse with someone in the opposite corner as commuters pass by.

The auditorium filled up rather nicely prior to the reading. Other attendees to note: Sharon Olds, who sat with Mr. Lish toward the back.

Please note, I took copious notes this time around so as to better report the event for posterity. Alice Quinn, New Yorker poetry editor, introduced, noting that these "master" poets are all esteemed writers who just happen to have new books out this year. She said that the poets would start with older work and finish with the newest.

The reading commenced alphabetically with Irving Feldman, native Brooklynite and now Distinguished Professor of English at SUNY/Buffalo. He was fighting a bit of a cold, but still
read directly and was quite good. He read six poems, "No Big Deal," "As Fast as You Can," which is about the Gingerbread man, "The Ecstacies," the first and last sections of a longer poem, "Teach Me Dear Sister," "Leaping Clear," a great New York poem which even mentions bicycling in Bay Ridge along the same route I usually take, and "The Recognitions."

I don't have any further info on these poems, but they were all decent. "Leaping Clear" was my favorite:

Excrescence, excrement, earth
belched in buildings--the city
is the underworld in the world.
They wall space in or drag it down,
lock it underground in holes and subways,
fetid, blackened, choking.

Next was Jack Gilbert, who was very frail and ancient (he is 79, I learned later, but Kunitz, at 95+ is sharper and more spry). With Einstein-like hair and big bushy eyebrows and a scraggily goatee, he looks like a senior poet. Gilbert currently lives in Western Mass. He had a volume
problem, and the mike was on the fritz, but I could still hear well enough. It was a bit sad, as he kept losing his place and had to pause for some time to recallibrate his reading. However, he did it adeptly, repeating lines in such a way that it was poetically and theatrically consistent. He
read 8 poems, He started with an amazing work called "Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell." Next he read "A

Brief for the Defense," which was recently praised in a review of his new book in the L.A. Times. Note the last two lines of the excerpt are amazing:

from the L.A. Times:

"In the magnificent opening poem, "A Brief for the Defense,"
he faces the intractable question of balancing joy with an
acknowledgment of suffering. In this meticulously crafted
argument, delight is a duty:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

I frantically scribbled down those last two lines. He struggled through the next poem, "The
Forgotten Dialect of the Heart
." [Hear him read it here.] He followed with works entitled,
"Pewter," "On Growing Old in San Francisco," "More Than Sixty," "By Small and Small," "Nature of Presence," and "She Might Be Here Secretly." A moment of levity occurred when the microphone "popped" in the middle of "More Than Sixty," startling us all. Gilbert looked up, tapped the mike and commanded it: "Behave!" He then apologetically added, "I am trying." He then resumed from the beginning of the poem.

[On a side note, check out this memory here of a reading Gilbert did in 2007]
[LISTEN: More side notes: Jack Gilbert reading

"A Brief for the Defense" (mp3)
"More Than Sixty" (mp3)
"By Small and Small" (mp3)

Next up was Maxine Kumin, who also surprised me as very aged. I was expecting someone younger than the hunched 79-year old woman who was present before us. Nonetheless, her bright eyes and strong voice gave a very good reading. I reminded myself that these elder poets had not only read the night before, but had flown from a different city to do so. Maxine read 11 poems beginning with an early work "Morning Swim":

Morning Swim

Into my empty head there come
a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom

I set out, oily and nude
through mist, in chilly solitude.

There was no line, no roof or floor
to tell the water from the air.

Night fog thick as terry cloth
closed me in its fuzzy growth.

I hung my bathrobe on two pegs.
I took the lake between my legs.

Invaded and invader, I
went overhand on that flat sky.

Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame.
In their green zone they sang my name

and in the rhythm of the swim
I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed "Abide With Me." The beat
rose in the fine thrash of my feet,

rose in the bubbles I put out
slantwise, trailing through my mouth.

My bones drank water; water fell
through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea
in which I sang "Abide With Me."

She then read "Looking for Luck in Bangkok," "Praise Be" ["about a foal that arrived much later than expected. It was Kumin's habit to sleep in the barn when a foal was due, and she lay on a mound of sawdust that positioned her to look directly into the foaling pen. I slept on that pile for twenty-one days, she marveled ruefully"--lifted from the blog of Kingdom Books], "The Rendezvous," which is a poet taking on the Aleutian legend of a woman encountering a bear in the woods, and then a double-villanelle, "The Nuns of Childhood: Two Views" ("The first and last one I'll ever write,") she composed with Poetry magazine editor Joseph Parisi.

She then read "The Long Marriage," "Oblivion," which was bit of a catalog of suicides by poets and writers, "New Hampshire, February 7, 2003," "Fox on his Back," which was an homage to Theodore Roethke, a marvelous poem called "Widow and Dog," ("That summer it just seemed simpler to leave the window/by the bird feeder open . . . once in a thunderstorm a barred owl blundered/into that fake crystal chandelier she had always detested.") "Summer Meditation," and then the title poem of her new book Jack and Other New Poems:


How pleasant the yellow butter
melting on white kernels, the meniscus
of red wine that coats the insides of our goblets

where we sit with sturdy friends as old as we are
after shucking the garden's last Silver Queen
and setting husks and stalks aside for the horses

the last two of our lives, still noble to look upon:
our first foal, now a bossy mare of 28
which calibrates to 84 in people years

and my chestnut gelding, not exactly a youngster
at 22. Every year, the end of summer
lazy and golden, invites grief and regret:

suddenly it's 1980, winter batters us,
winds strike like cruelty out of Dickens. Somehow
we have seven horses for six stalls. One of them,

a big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a president's portrait
lives in the rectangle that leads to the stalls. We call it
the motel lobby. Wise old campaigner, he dunks his

hay in the water bucket to soften it, then visits the others
who hang their heads over their Dutch doors. Sometimes
he sprawls out flat to nap in his commodious quarters.

That spring, in the bustle of grooming
and riding and shoeing, I remember I let him go
to a neighbor I thought was a friend, and the following

fall she sold him down the river. I meant to
but never did go looking for him, to buy him back
and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table

my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons
the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.
Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone

did you remember that one good winter?
I've included two poems of hers because she was/is quite good and her poems are memorable.

Last was Snyder, who really read remarkably. He started off, much to my delight, with two poems by Robinson Jeffers. Gotta love those California poets. [And another oxypoet, too!] He began with some remarks about how wonderful it was to be reading with the other poets, and then read Jeffers' "Eagle Valor, Chicken Mind."

Eagle Valor, Chicken Mind

Unhappy country, what wings you have! Even here,
Nothing important to protect, and ocean-far from the nearest enemy,
what a cloud
Of bombers amazes the coast mountain, what a hornet-swarm of
And day and night the guns practicing.

Unhappy, eagle wings and beak, chicken brain.
Weep (it is frequent in human affairs), weep for the terrible
magnificence of the means,
The ridiculous incompetence of the reasons, the bloody and shabby
Pathos of the result.
Anyone familiar with Snyder and Snyder's voice can see how similar this poem from WWII is to the Snyder persona.

Snyder looked pleased with himself and said, "One more from Jeffers, and read "Ink Sack":

Ink Sack

The squid, frightened or angry, shoots darkness
Out of her ink-sack; the fighting destroyer throws out a
And fighting governments produce lies.
But the squid and warship do it to confuse the enemy, governments
Mostly to stupefy their own people.
It might be better to let the roof burn and walls crash
Than save a nation with floods of excrement.
Snyder looked slyly at the audience as a slight ripple of nervous shuffling whispered through Tischman. Simply, Snyder stated, "Nineteen Forty-four."

He then commenced with his poems, "Right in the Trail," a poem about bears, with a nod to Kumin, "Ripples on the Surface," "Danger on Peaks" and then some wonderful poems modeled on the Japanese style Haibun. He defined these as poems "with a block of prose, nailed down by haiku." I found most of these in his new book Danger on Peaks. They were "One Day in Late

This present moment
that lives on

to become

long ago

"No Shadow," "Shayndel," "One Thousand Cranes," "For Anthea Corinne Snyder Lowry, My Sister," "Loose on Earth," "Falling from a Height, Holding Hands," and "A Turning Verse for Billions of Beings."

Most amazing, I thought, was "Falling from a Height, Holding Hands," which was prefaced with Snyder's explanatory note that it referred to the photo from the World Trade Center on 9/11 when two people were seen jumping from one of the towers, hand-in-hand:

What was that?
storms of flying glass
& billowing flames

a clear day to the far sky -

better than burning,
hold hands.

We will be
two peregrines diving

all the way down

All in all, quite a wonderful reading. I've since read an article on Gilbert in this month's Poets & Writers and feel sort of silly not really knowing who he was, and how significant a figure he has been.

Hope you found this interesting,


[It was interesting to note that the signing afterwards was not mentioned here, until I realized that the e-mail I copied this from was sent to a poet and blogger, Gina Myers. Back then, I guess, I thought that my systematic depiction of my signature-obtaining mania might be off-putting to a poet and writer I had never met.

However, I tracked down the original e-mail sent to my friends who live vicariously through my escapades. So, after that last Snyder poem, my original e-mail continued...]

So the reading ended and I went to work. Initially it didn't look good. I approached Gilbert with books and he said that he would wait to get to the reception to sign. My heart sank. I then went over to the line by Snyder's chair, and smelly Doppelganger said he wasn't signing. I packed up and headed for the reception in the lobby. I spotted Irving Feldman sitting in the back corner. I dropped the bag and scrounged through the stacks for the Feldman pile.

He started signing, then a family friend approached. For some reason, Don Peterson is the name seared into my brain. Don is a composer/musician who lays claim to having invented the six-mallet style of playing some instrument. It's not the xylophone, but some similar instrument I guess. He introduced his blonde cellist wife. They chatted and chatted about where they lived in the city, then talked about how much the musician appreciated the friendship Irving had with the musician's dad, who was at the center of some political ousting at a university. Irving tells him to get such and such a book which has poems about the terrible terrible tragedy of this guy's father and how the administration fabricated some elaborate scheme to strip him of his tenure, etc etc etc.

[Two years later, I think I have found the right person here. I know I researched this back in '05 to no avail, but I believe now, the gentleman was actually Rob Paterson, whose blog and website
bear striking similarities: aside from the Don/Rob Peterson/Paterson issue, his biography states that he "pioneered the development of a six-mallet marimba technique," and that he is married to a violinist who is certainly blonde. I don't know how I mixed up the violin and the cello, and I don't recall what they looked like, but it seems like a match. And, this is one of the sexiest pictures I've ever seen with a violin. Paterson was raised in Buffalo, where Feldman teaches, and his father was a sculptor and painter. I'm unable to get any further, but I'm 94% certain this was the same guy.]

Meanwhile, during this whole conversation, I am standing there, signus interruptus, with a few books still in need of inking. Peterson, or whatever his name was, looks at me and says, "I'm sorry to interrupt you," and I say "Not a problem, don't worry." And Irving says, in an irritated way, "Don't apologize to him!" Meaning me. I guess talking about the injustice of it all put him in a bad mood. I felt that he was annoyed that I just didn't leave. Oh well. He sat back down and signed the other books. I mean, I only had 4, for goodness sake.

So, the PSA had a table set up in the reception area and there was a mob around everyone. Maxine Kumin had the smallest mob, so I went to her first. I approached and she eyed me warily along with my stack of (only) five books. I asked her to inscribe the first one and she said, "Look," with a tone of annoyance in her voice, "I have a problem with my writing hand and I can't be doing a lot of scribbling here."

I had never had such problems with two poets right in a row like this before. Had I lost my boyish charm and innocent touch? Should I shave the beard? I said, "That's okay, I understand," and she continued to sign. I then interjected, "I understand that you don't want to sign them all, which is fine. I ask that way specifically so writers don't think I'm some sort of book dealer." Always divert a writer's wrath onto the undesirables: those who are looking to profit from a signature. She immediately chimed in, "Did you see that one earlier? He must have had a dozen books!" Wide-eyed, I replied, "Really? No!" She finished and said, "SO, what are you going to do with your collection?" She seemed skeptical still, so I simply replied, "I guess my two daughters will inherit them when I'm gone." She looked at me and kindly said, "Hopefully that won't be for a long time." Whew. Maxine was tougher than I thought. Feisty New Englander indeed.

Next, I approached Gary Snyder, as the line for Jack Gilbert was still so long, much to my surprise, as I consider Snyder an icon. Snyder was sitting beside a rolling storage box that was improvised as an extension of the table. No respect for those Californians here in New York! Snyder saw me and my stack of books and smacked the cart and said "Lay 'em right here!" He signed six and we chatted about Jeffers. He beamed, "He is wonderful, isn't he!?" I mentioned Occidental and got the standard "beautiful campus" remark. I then thanked him for signing the books that I mhad mailed him many years back. We parted amicably.

Then, I got in line for Jack Gilbert and he signed 4 books. I thanked him and said how much I loved the line at the end of "A Brief for the Defense". He smiled and said, "I'm so glad you liked that line. It's one of my favorites and no one ever mentions it."

Snyder was still mulling about so I invested in a little extra and bought a copy of his new book from the PSA table and grabbed two more anthologies from my bag. I approached him again and asked if he'd sign the copy I just bought plus two more. He couldn't find his pen anywhere. I lent him mine, while nervously looking around for Nobelist Derek Walcott, who infamously tried to steal my pen several years ago at the 92nd Street Y.

Snyder inscribed the new book: "For Bill Cohen, 'Honor the Dust,' " and then signed the other two anthologies. One was my Milosz-edited Book of Luminous Things. I showed him the "William Cohen, Occidental College '89" bookplate and explained how I had sent this off to Berkeley and it had taken a year but Milosz had finally sent it back. He then said that I'd be surprised by the boxes of things that people send him, that it takes forever to go through them all. He handed me back my pen and said "Nice pen," --it's a silver Caran D'Ache ballpoint. And we parted ways.

Thus endeth the signing. In all, I got the Snyder book and 18 anthologies signed by the four poets (26 signatures in all). I'd list all the books I got signed, but it would bore you. My friend Brian had 3 books in the mix, each of which garnered at least one signature.

On the way home, I opened the Snyder book and admired the inscription. Then I turned the page to discover, alas, it was a third printing, not a true first edition. Oh well, every signing can't be perfect.