Translation: Ernesto Cardenal, Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

Ernesto Cardenal

Prayer for Marilyn Monroe  (Translation by Andres Rojas)

Lord
receive this young one known on Earth as Marilyn Monroe
though that was not her true name
(but You know her true name:  the orphan girl raped at 9,
the shopgirl who at 16 wished to take her life)
who now presents herself before You with no makeup
no press agent
no photographers nor signing of autographs,
alone as an astronaut facing the night that is space.
As a girl, she dreamt herself naked in church (as the Times tells it)
before a  prostrate multitude, heads to the floor,
and she had to tiptoe so as not to step on their heads.
You know these dreams better than psychiatrists.
Church, home, cave are the safety of a mother’s bosom
but also more than that …

The heads are her admirers, that is clear
(the mass of heads in the dark under a stream of light).
But the temple is not a 20th Century-Fox studio.
The temple — of marble and gold — is the temple of her body
where the Son of Man, whip in hand,
expels the 20th Century-Fox merchants
who turned Your house of prayer into a cave of thieves.
Lord
in this world tainted by sin and radiation,
You can not blame only the shopgirl
who, as all shopgirls, dreamt of being a star.
And her dream was real (but as Technicolor is real).
She only acted the script we gave her,
that of our own lives, an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for that Colossal Super-Production in which we have all labored.
She hungered for love and we offered tranquilizers.
For the sadness that none of us is holy
she was recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember Lord her growing dread of the camera
the hate of makeup, her insistence to be made up anew for each scene
and how the horror grew
and the late arrivals at the studio.

As all shopgirls
she dreamt of being a star.
And her life was unreal, a dream a psychiatrist interprets and archives.

Her romances were a kiss with both eyes closed
but then the eyes open
and discover there are spotlights on
and then the spotlights go dark!
And they dismantle the room’s two walls (it was a movie set)
as the Director moves on with his notebook
because the scene is done.
Or a trip on a yacht,  a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception at the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s mansion
seen in the tiny living room of a miserable apartment.
The movie ends without the final kiss.
They found her dead in her bed, her hand on the phone.
And the detectives did not know who she was calling.
It was
like someone who dials the only friendly voice she knows
simply to hear the voice of a recording  saying:  WRONG NUMBER
Or like someone who, wounded by gangsters,
reaches for a disconnected phone.

Lord:
no matter who it was she tried to call
but couldn’t (and perhaps it was no one
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer the call!

———————————————————————————————————

Oracion por Marilyn Monroe

Señor
recibe a esta muchacha conocida en toda la Tierra con el nombre de Marilyn Monroe,
aunque ése no era su verdadero nombre
(pero Tú conoces su verdadero nombre, el de la huerfanita violada a los 9 años
y la empleadita de tienda que a los 16 se había querido matar)
y que ahora se presenta ante Ti sin ningún maquillaje
sin su Agente de Prensa
sin fotógrafos y sin firmar autógrafos
sola como un astronauta frente a la noche espacial.
Ella soñó cuando niña que estaba desnuda en una iglesia (según cuenta el Times)
ante una multitud postrada, con las cabezas en el suelo
y tenía que caminar en puntillas para no pisar las cabezas.
Tú conoces nuestros sueños mejor que los psiquiatras.
Iglesia, casa, cueva, son la seguridad del seno materno
pero también algo más que eso…

Las cabezas son los admiradores, es claro
(la masa de cabezas en la oscuridad bajo el chorro de luz).
Pero el templo no son los estudios de la 20th Century-Fox.
El templo —de mármol y oro— es el templo de su cuerpo
en el que está el hijo de Hombre con un látigo en la mano
expulsando a los mercaderes de la 20th Century-Fox
que hicieron de Tu casa de oración una cueva de ladrones.
Señor
en este mundo contaminado de pecados y de radiactividad,
Tú no culparás tan sólo a una empleadita de tienda
que como toda empleadita de tienda soñó con ser estrella de cine.
Y su sueño fue realidad (pero como la realidad del tecnicolor).
Ella no hizo sino actuar según el script que le dimos,
el de nuestras propias vidas, y era un script absurdo.
Perdónala, Señor, y perdónanos a nosotros
por nuestra 20th Century
por esa Colosal Super-Producción en la que todos hemos trabajado.
Ella tenía hambre de amor y le ofrecimos tranquilizantes.
Para la tristeza de no ser santos
se le recomendó el Psicoanálisis.
Recuerda Señor su creciente pavor a la cámara
y el odio al maquillaje insistiendo en maquillarse en cada escena
y cómo se fue haciendo mayor el horror
y mayor la impuntualidad a los estudios.

Como toda empleadita de tienda
soñó ser estrella de cine.
Y su vida fue irreal como un sueño que un psiquiatra interpreta y archiva.

Sus romances fueron un beso con los ojos cerrados
que cuando se abren los ojos
se descubre que fue bajo reflectores
¡y se apagan los reflectores!
Y desmontan las dos paredes del aposento (era un set cinematográfico)
mientras el Director se aleja con su libreta
porque la escena ya fue tomada.
O como un viaje en yate, un beso en Singapur, un baile en Río
la recepción en la mansión del Duque y la Duquesa de Windsor
vistos en la salita del apartamento miserable.
La película terminó sin el beso final.
La hallaron muerta en su cama con la mano en el teléfono.
Y los detectives no supieron a quién iba a llamar.
Fue
como alguien que ha marcado el número de la única voz amiga
y oye tan solo la voz de un disco que le dice: WRONG NUMBER
O como alguien que herido por los gangsters
alarga la mano a un teléfono desconectado.

Señor:
quienquiera que haya sido el que ella iba a llamar
y no llamó (y tal vez no era nadie
o era Alguien cuyo número no está en el Directorio de los Ángeles)
¡contesta Tú al teléfono!

Review: David Orr’s “Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry”

In his slim Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, New York Times Book Review poetry critic David Orr gets to the point quickly. In his first paragraph, he writes:

[T]he potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

Notice he does not list poetry readers. These days, it seems, only poets read poetry, much less books about poetry. There’s some argument over this, but I think the point is fairly made. The percentage of general readers (those who read, say, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Dave Cullen, Armistead Maupin, Lorrie Moore, Sara Gruen, Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, or Rick Atkinson) simply do not read poetry. Not, at any rate, in any significant or even statistically relevant number.

Poetry apologists may argue that there’s never been so many people writing poetry (true) or so many poetry magazines (also true) publishing so many poems (yet again true). Nevertheless, the bottom line remains that all those poetry magazines publishing so many poems by so many poets are being read … by those who write the poems and a negligible percentage of the general reading public. What if they gave a poetry fest and nobody but the poets came? That is the poetry scene in America today (it is slightly better in England, but that’s a different story).

David Orr takes it from there. Beautiful and Pointless is essentially an invitation to those who don’t normally read poetry (“the rest of the world” other than poets) to investigate what poetry can offer. More to the point, it is a guided tour of poetry-land (Orr compares reading poetry to visiting, say, Belgium), an attempt to describe “what it really means to read poetry, and by extension, why such reading might be as worthwhile as watching the director’s cut of Blade Runner.” Cut to the second and first person singular, and the book becomes “an attempt to let you see how … [an] individual reader — how I — read poetry.” It does not get much more personal than that.

Orr does, by and by, a creditable job. He refuses to mystify poetry (it’s just something else humans do, like watching football, playing golf, and watching soap operas or dog shows). There is no ecstatic rapture at the mere sight of a poem. Angels will not sing as you read the last line of a sonnet. At the same time, Orr implies that poetry is NOT like anything else, that the pleasures it offers are different (in degree if not in kind) from the pleasures offered by non-poetry pursuits. People who read poetry LOVE poetry (that is, get more out of it) in a way football fans, golfers, soap-opera addicts, and dog show aficionados do not love (nor reap rewards from) their respective interests.

Alas, Orr’s approach (perhaps inevitably in a man who holds a law degree from Yale and is a gatekeeper of good poetic taste at the New York Times Book Review) is very cerebral. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: poetry is, last I checked, part of literature, and literature (particularly modern literature) is rather cerebral. But people other than fiction writers LOVE and feel emotions for such cerebral works as, say, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s hard to find people other than poets who can feel anything for any book of poetry, even such phenomenal ones as Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain or Elyse Fenton’s Clamor.

Of course, poetry is much more difficult to read than fiction. Poems more often than not have no narrative, no characters that develop and grow fully human in our imaginations, precious little time or space to flesh out a time and space until it becomes “real” to the reader. On top of that, poetic conventions make it difficult to READ a darned poem in the first place (and it’s supposed to be that way, right? if you can read a “poem” and immediately grasp its entire meaning then it’s not very good, is it?) If you can’t even figure out what the poem is doing (who is talking? where is he or she while talking? what on Earth does he or she mean by “My sister, the sun, / broods in her yellow room and won’t come out?”) then how can you have any response to it other than frustration and eventual disinterest?

Poetry, Orr counters, despite its difficulties, can offer the potential reader rewards of such depth that it is worth sticking with. Yes, reading a poem is hard going. And yes, it can turn off the casual observer. But for the initiated, poetry is a bottomless source of pleasure unlike anything else the world has to offer.

Fine enough. It’s just that after reading Beautiful and Pointless, I am not sure Orr describes what that pleasure is with any credible emotion. Quite the contrary, as I touched upon earlier, Orr’s cerebral approach and reaction to poetry seem to require a distancing from any response remotely related to the visceral.

That response is, by the way, why I read poetry — to have a poem punch me in the solar plexus and take my breath away (pardon my bad poetics). In turn, the desire to affect others that way is what makes me want to write poetry. The emotional response a poem can hand you in a handful of lines is a powerful one, and that is what I look for in great poems. And let me tell you, that quality is rarer than ever in the poems being published to good reviews today. My desire for (and disappointment at) not finding emotional satisfaction in much of the poetry being written today is probably why I don’t have the poetic taste necessary to be a poetry critic for the New York Times Book Review. And it’s probably also why most people don’t bother reading modern poetry. As experiences go, it’s a pretty empty one, even when reading many of what Orr would consider “good” poems.

Orr’s approach is a possible solution to this lack of readership: that of educating and guiding the would-be poetry reader, hoping that learning more about poetry and how to read it will create a more meaningful experience for that reader. His book is, in fact, a pretty good attempt at easing the initiation into the world of poetry. And if he never exactly explains the rewards the initiated can expect from poetry, one senses that is because the pleasures of poetry must be experienced personally and individually. And therein lie poetry’s greatness, and also its challenges.

And yet.

And yet … What if the issue also partly lies with the poetry being produced these days and not simply with the modern (non-poetry) reader?

Orr illustrates what I think is the very problem with poetry right now. Speaking of his father’s terminal illness, he must distance himself from emotions that are … dare we say … commonplace. A poetry critic, one who has a great deal to say as to which poets are and are not worth reading, must not indulge in such … common feelings. Nevermind that losing a parent will unleash feelings about as universal as universal gets. No. The poetic sensibility (which Orr admits is entirely idiosyncratic and unfair) must be on guard for cheap and easy feelings, ever able to keep an ironic distance … even if such feelings revolve around the death of one’s father. (I am, of course, not talking about what Orr felt, but about how he chooses to talk about what he felt, how he edits himself, how he, in short, produces something tangible, much like a poem, from the raw emotions of his life).

I wonder if such a rarefied (if not downright self-censoring) sensibility is the primary barrier between a general reader and poetry. If critics reward poems that say nothing anyone could relate to but say that nothing beautifully, how many readers will invest their time therein? What reward can a poem written from (and evaluated in) the context of post (post-post-post) modern self-referential irony offer a reader hungry for a commentary on human experience? Can such a poem (and such poetry) offer a payoff sufficient to keep a reader coming back for more?

If any given poem is pointless, from a human experience frame of reference, why would a reader take the time and effort to worm his or her way to the heart of it only to find there’s no heart, alas. If ALMOST EVERY published poem is likewise, the experience quickly becomes self-defeating … and not worth repeating. If poetry is an experience, there must be something in it for the reader, and it seems that if poetry critics, poetry editors, and successful (that is, widely published) poets indulge in a “poetry as an exercise in cleverness” the results are bound to turn off a reader taking his or her first (or fifth, or tenth) step into the poetry world.

There may exist, it seems to me, a disconnect in the sensibility of poets (or at least those poets who are rewarded by editors and critics with publications and good reviews) and the sensibility of the general reader, with the result that the general reader turns away, perhaps never to return. This is perhaps inevitable. Perhaps poetry as a genre is something like opera — it had its heyday, it has been in long decline, it will never regain the cultural significance it once held, it survives in a niche of its own making. Perhaps writing poetry simply means writing for an audience of poets, and that will never change (at least not any time soon). But I, for one, hunger to be read by the same people who buy good fiction and enjoy it, and I don’t want to write them off simply because I am not willing to write things they want to read.

I remember teaching college composition and reminding my students that “the audience” was key. Know your audience. Aim for your audience. Persuade your audience. I am not convinced that more people wouldn’t read poetry if poets (by way of editors and critics) made the general reader their target audience. And I am not convinced that such poetry would be much worse than the poetry being put out and praised today.

In short, if poetry is beautiful and pointless but little read, would it hurt to make it beautiful and meaningful to enough people to get it read more?

How to do that is a challenge David Orr does not contemplate in Beautiful and Pointless. It is thus unfair to judge him on it. But it is significant that the option never enters his frame of reference.

Random Review 2: The Stroller, by Larry William Fish

Larry William Fish

The Stroller

Those first few summers meant not so many
days at the beach for us, we just started out.
Sundays meant long walks with a baby stroller
on the streets of a small city, always in the 90’s,
always high humidity, always a chance of rain.
Up the street we’d go with a bottle and a diaper.

On the corner was the Eighth Day Lounge with
a pinstriped Yankees car parked by the back door.
Further down, Daisy’s Carniceria with it’s strange
smell of dead animal, we’d buy cans of Inca Kola,
loaves of Manteca bread, or bags of plantain chips.

Down the hill, into the tunnel with the train tracks
above us, the walls dripped and the sidewalk was
painted with pigeon poop, littered with broken glass.
I pushed you up long streets lined with multi-family
homes ,once owned by the richest of folks in Jersey.

Shut down stores, closed restaurants, and factories
now gave way to the Prima Vera bakery where rolls
called conchas piled high on glass display counters.
Sometimes I’d stop and get a Cuban sandwich or a
cup of espresso, but mostly we headed to the place
called Five Corners with a bagel and apple juice boxes.

We’d park on a bench by a sign that said how it was the
capital where colonists and settlers came to market with
their goods here, before it was called the United States.
We’d stop to listen to seagulls screech by the Armory and
look out at sailboats moored in the gray waters of the bay.

I’d speak to the baby, he’d listen, not knowing how to talk,
but he knew how to laugh and he knew how to smile when
I told him how someday; maybe we’d have a boat like those.

___________________________________________________________________________

Random Review:

Larry Fish, who also goes by the Spanish name “Lorenzo” (i.e. Larry) is very much concerned with the family ties that bind, particularly that of father and sonMany of his poems touch on this theme.

Married to a Hispanic woman, his mixed-cultured household emerges now and then, but is always  there, a substrata in his work. Who is he?  Where is his home, culturally speaking? How has he challenged and re-defined the family in which he grew up? Has he married into the future of American ethnic (lack of ) identity?

Icons of the past: the Yankees, trains, the shut-down businesses of a culture that has moved on.

And yet, the future: the Yankees carry on, trains wobble by, new businesses open, a new culture moves in.

The laughter of the baby: a future longed for or derided?  Does the baby laugh with joy or with ironic prescience? Has the American dream died or is the American dream always reborn?

And the words spoken to a baby, good intentions, lost in the gap of generations: each to forge its own path, deaf to the previous ones — the rebirth of the new, oblivious to the rebirth that came before.

Random Review 1: Clay, by Cathy Cullis

Cathy Cullis

Clay

If you sit still long enough
you will understand we’re never really stopping.
Everything inside me churns and escalates,
makes a pattern of tight blanket stitches.

Even if the light takes my angles
and makes them sweeter than porcelain
no-one is really fooled,
they turn their own head because they can.

I know a woman who breathes too much
and one day she will die, holding herself.
Her mouth is better than mine
but lacks the will to shut up.

I can sing anything in my head,
so long as fingers are pressed into me.
I do not need more than these simple things:
a shape of almost human, a dampened smile.

————————————————————————————————————————–

Random Review:

Cullis is about the moment; she explores now beautifully, carved from the inevitable future

The tactile fabric of clay and cloth become the intangible material that is time, and the inverse

The artificial becomes real; the real is art

What can art accomplish?  Is creation a simulacra of life? Is life (and therefore ultimately death) a side-effect of creation?

In creating, do we kill ourselves little by little as we live little by little? How careful must we be?

Short Story: The Enlightment of Emmanuel Cruz

The door to his punishment cell became outlined with light from the hall outside, the only light he’d seen for over a month. Forty days, he reckoned. He’d lost count.

The light, dull as it was, barely shone around the edges of the door and a few inches into the darkness of his cell, a hole, really — a hole carved into the damp stone of a fortress 400 years older than he was. He could lay down, but both his head and feet touched stone; if he kept his feet to the right, he could avoid the metal pan that was his toilet. He could not spread his arms all the way out or up.

The cell was dark and small, but it sheltered him and kept him safe up to a point: they had to open the door to get to him, which gave him plenty of warning. He also had the luxury of moving out of the fetal position on the thin mattress between his body and the cold stone below when he became cramped; when he became cold, he curled up into himself again. Some punishment tanks he’d been in had less room. A coffin had less room.

Steps echoed on the hall and stopped. A pause. A quick rap on the metal door by a hand used to such things.

“Prisoner 09141966045, your death sentence has been signed by Commander Guevara. You will be executed at seven in the morning, tomorrow.”

The words were meant to be, and were delivered as, a punch to the solar plexus. He responded accordingly.

“You can shoot me now and get it over with.” (His exact words: “Me fusilan ahora y ya terminamos con esto”).

Silence. Steps echoed away from him.

His heart was beating faster. He felt pressure on his temples, as though his head were in a vise. He thought this was coming, knew this was coming, had convinced himself this was coming, but now it had.

His breathing became labored, as if someone were standing on his chest. The cell was collapsing on him. After all this time, after keeping away the panic of being swallowed by his cell, he could feel his mind giving. His fear: there would be a fire and no one would come to get him out. He would burn to death, trapped. And now his fear had exploded into something else, and he could no longer keep it at bay.

What was different now from the way things were fifteen seconds ago?

What did he know now that he didn’t know then?

He tried controlling his breath. Hold it. Out slowly. In. Hold it. Out slowly.

He saw himself standing by the execution wall. He saw the firing squad soldiers, one or two trying to suppress yawns in the early light, waiting to kill. He saw himself breaking down, the horror pummeling at his stomach: his dead body oozing blood, the soldiers returning to the barracks, some to crawl into their beds again, some to clean their weapons, one or two to try and call their families in the provinces to ask whether the package had arrived, and the world going on, baseball, weddings, baptisms … all going on, and him dead, soon to be a pile of rotting excrement.

He saw himself breaking down before the firing squad, the finality of his death bludgeoning his stubborn refusal to see reality for what it was. He saw himself on his knees, sobbing.

In. Hold it. Out slow.

What was different now from the way things were a minute ago?

What did he know now that he didn’t know then?

He lay face down on the mattress, his arms folded under him. The sheer terror of breaking down had hit him like a high-pressure hose. He knew what that felt like. That was no metaphor to him. He’d been hosed down several times now, a force so strong that it just took him off his feet, laid him on his side, and slid him down the floor as though he was a scrap of paper. He knew what it was like to be nothing before an overwhelming force, when all resistance was futile and all defiance but a gesture.

In. Hold it. Out slowly.

As Juanito Bautista had taught him, he forced himself to think of water — water in a lake, water flowing slowly past smooth stones, water in a vase holding flowers. He had to stop the fear. He had to. He had no option.

He forced himself to see his execution. He made himself stand tall. He said nothing. All that had to be said had been. He made himself refuse the blindfold. A romantic thought. He remembered he’d heard they no longer offered blindfolds. He waited for the end — he’d never hear the guns, so he’d never know it was over. He would not die because he would not know he was dying. There was nothing to fear. Death would happen before he even knew it.

He liked there would be no blindfold: he’d watch the whole thing. At any rate, nothing remained for him to see that had not happened already in his mind hundreds of times. His thoughts drifted to a phrase by Borges, “Whoever should undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” Juanito Bautista had given him that book to read, had said such a thought worked as well for those upon whom an atrocious enterprise were to be committed. It was done. It’d already been done. One only had to live through it.

My whole life has already happened, he told himself, my death has already happened. I just have to catch up to it.

He had re-discovered reading in prison, back when he had a cell with light. He had read some philosophy. Nietzsche bored him. Kierkegaard was too much of a Christian. He liked fiction most of all: Borges, Camus, Gallegos, Guiraldes. All of these books Juanito gave him, and two books on Buddhism. That was the closest to religion he’d ever come. But he could not believe in reincarnation. It was too much like the Christian heaven he was fleeing. One life, one death. He could not divorce himself from such a basic precept. He could not let go of the inherent knowledge of a farm boy –pigs die and dogs die and horses die and humans die, and death is the end for pigs and dogs and horses and humans.

He had accepted he’d never be enlightened in the Buddhist way, as he understood he could not be saved in the Christian way. There was much wisdom in Christianity and Buddhism, but he could not go beyond the here and now, what was and wasn’t, one life, one death. The denial of death was the source of all lies. Juanito said that. Juanito was executed, and he died like a man and like all men. “Tell Fidel,” Juanito said to his executioners (or so the story went), “he can suck my cock.”

He could feel his body against the mattress, and it felt good just to feel. He thought of his mother, who was long dead. She would not feel pain for his death. She’dnever known him. He’d never known his father either. He’d been raised at the Revuelta orphanage, and he doubted any of the nuns or the other children there would remember him. Some people he’d known since would mourn him a few weeks, but they would go on on to their bread lines and meat lines and shoe lines. He had no wife, no children. He had some old girlfriends, but their lives would take care of them. His death would touch no one particularly hard. He was glad for that.

But those bastards with their rifles, ready to shoot, and the guards who would take him to the execution, knowing all the time he was good as dead, probably with a hard-on as they savored their power over him, and Che, signing the death warrant. The son of a bitch wasn’t even Cuban. And Fidel and his bullshit, and all the other assholes who’d carry on after the .30-06 bullets tore his chest into ground beef. Those sons of bitches could do this to him. They would. They were going to. They were going to do it in the morning. They had already done it. It was inexorable. Sons of bitches.

What he wouldn’t give to hang i just a few days, or weeks, months at the most. Just long enough for Fidel to get what was coming. Imagine that — the Americans would come in and get rid of Fidel one day too late. Wouldn’t that just be the thing to happen. The Cuban Revolution: 1959 to 1964, one day after his execution. But the Americans had nothing to gain by rushing things. They wanted Cuba to be an example. They’d just sit it out and wait. Time was on their side. Sons of bitches.

And he was a son of a bitch, a dumb son of a bitch to be in this mess instead of being home, drinking dark rum, smoking a good cigar, watching the rain come over the bay and shut down the sky, and the dark, wet tree trunks with their lucent, grass-green leaves, and the cool rain breeze blowing in from the north. Dumb son of a bitch stuck in a rock grave waiting for some other dumb sons of bitches to shoot him in the morning. Son of a bitch.

Just watch the rain. Just listen to it. It’s in your memory. It is for ever. It is as real as this cell.

He was strangely peaceful now. His heartbeat and breathing were back to normal, more or less. He knew now he’d be able to face his execution. That was all that mattered. He’d seen it in his head dozens of times. He had already died dozens of times. The real thing, he wouldn’t even know it was happening. All he had to do was get to the edge and wait, let them do it for him. And he wouldn’t know about it. In a sense, he would not die. He could only die now, dozens of times, while he was still alive. Try to figure that one out. But he didn’t have enough time to understand the world. No time to be enlightened. No time to discover wisdom to pass on to anybody like the books he’d read.

But the unfairness of the whole thing still gnawed at him. Alive right now, dead tomorrow, and everybody else alive to do what they did: eat, drink, fuck, swim, dance. It was unfair. He didn’t think there was justice or fairness in the world, but that didn’t make it any easier.

He opened his eyes. The hall light was gone now and his cell was pitch black. If he were dead, he wouldn’t know how black it was. He wouldn’t know how cramped it was. If he were dead, he would not know he was a prisoner. If he were dead, he’d be free. But he wouldn’t know it.

And it was not fair.

He thought of a boy running across a street and getting killed by a car. He’d seen that in Santa Clara, years ago. He’d been unable to do anything to stop the Buick from slamming into the child, sending him a few feet up in the air, then down into the pavement, then under the wheels of the car, brakes squealing as the driver tried to stop. Had that been fair?

He was breathing steadily now. The panic was gone. His head was clear.

What was fair about a plane crashing and killing fathers and mothers and children with their full lives still ahead of them? Or how was it fair for a young mother to die in childbirth leaving an orphan behind, as his mother had? And how was his own death any less fair than any other death?

He thought this over, and a steadiness came over him.

At that moment, he understood that his death was just one of a billion deaths, and it was no more or less fair than the rest. He understood this with his body – he was calm, at peace, he felt almost euphoric. The understanding came into him like the cliched light burst of novels, as though time had suddenly stood still and he was crawling out of a dark maze into blinding sunlight.

He understood that his death sentence and execution were just a way for the inevitable to manifest itself, no more or less fair than any other way.

And then, he was enlightened.

In Defense of the MFA

Self-evidently, I have an MFA.

In poetry.

Yes.

Now that you’re done laughing, an anecdote:

During my first semester at the University of Florida’s MFA program, an older student asked me what my goals were. I said, “To be in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.”

He said, “That’s a young man’s dream.”

Instead of “Duh,” I said, “Why would anyone shoot for anything less?”

Why I enrolled in an MFA program

I started writing poems at 11 or 12. My father wrote poetry. He dedicated a few poems to me. It seemed natural for me to write poetry too. My father was not impressed with my poems. One in particular, about a prince in love, he found infantile (I was 13).

Quickly, my poems turned into song lyrics. If I couldn’t charm my father with poetry, I’d piss him off with anthems of angst and hornyness. I got my first guitar at 14 and learned to play it by learning the chords to songs I liked. The first song I could play the whole way through was House of the Rising Sun (the F chord was a pain in the ass). After that, I found the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. Punk rock, baby. All through high school, I wrote songs nobody ever heard. Nobody, that is, but a girl at church for whom I made tapes of my songs. While trying to hand her my third such tape, she said “Another one?”

After high school, I got into my first band, aptly named Oedipus Complex. A few other bands followed, with me contributing most of the songwriting. But, eventually, I realized I didn’t have the talent to make it as a singer/songwriter. Mostly, my singing voice was not up to par. I could have tried anyway, but my pessimist, zero-self-esteem inner voice said it was no use.

Instead, i decided to finish college. I had gotten some good results with my poetry while going to Florida Community College in Jacksonville (now Florida State College, Jacksonville) and after enrolling at the University of Florida. I loved my poetry teachers, and they encouraged me in my work: Marilyn De Simone and Kevin Bezner at FCCJ; Joan New, Debora Greger, and William Logan at UF.

With a semester or two to go before finishing my bachelor’s, I knew I wanted to write poetry, I knew I wanted to teach at the college level, I knew I wanted to publish at least one book of poetry, and I knew I would kill to one day be named amongst the great poets. I didn’t see any other way to further those goals but to enroll in an MFA program. Mainly, an MFA would allow me to earn a living teaching as an adjunct college professor while the rest of my plans took shape.

The plan

I would get an MFA. During and after it, I’d try to get published in magazines, win a national contest or two, and get to know editors I respected. With my MFA in hand, I would get a job as an adjunct professor at a community college. Eventually, I would get a book deal. After publishing my book, I would get a job as an instructor at an MFA program. Whatever else, I would keep writing.

And if I was really, really, really, really lucky, I would be one of the few to make the top of the poetry pyramid, a poet like my own teachers, Debora Greger, William Logan, and Michael Hofmann, or one of the poets I loved: Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Amy Clampitt, Donald Justice, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Carolyn Forché, Paul Muldoon.

A lofty dream, but what’s the point of dreaming low? Besides, if truth be told, I knew it was just a dream. I knew it would never happen. Ever. My pessimist, zero-self-esteem self was particularly sure of that. But at least with an MFA I’d be able to teach and make a living, and maybe even get a book or two published before I killed myself (at 24, I was pretty sure I’d end up killing myself before I got around to writing this piece).

How it all worked out

I enjoyed my MFA time. With the exception of one severely damaged student who sexually harassed a friend, all my classmates were talented, earnest, good people. I tend to be a loner, but I don’t recall much friction between the students (friction between the instructors and some of the students was something else altogether).

I enjoyed learning from my instructors. At the same time, I could see plain as the name tags on their office doors that I was nowhere near as talented as they were. Debora Greger in particular filled me with the dread primitive people must have felt faced with their first full solar eclipse. Her talent was just so … out there. Hers were the poems I wish I could write. And those were the poems I wasn’t writing.

Mostly, we did exercises: write a ten line poem where each line ends with a color, a shape, or a fictional dog. Or whatever. You get the picture. Two years of it. I felt my craft was improving, but my ear told me that after all the revisions mandated by workshops, my poems were clumsy, non-poetic dabblings instead of finished works of … something.

While in the MFA program, I did not get published a single time despite heavy submission. Other than with fellow students, I didn’t make a single contact with a poet or editor that could translate into being published, though a few of my fellow students did. This failure was mostly my fault because I am, as I’ve said, a loner. If anything, my work during the MFA convinced me more than ever that my dream of poetic brilliance was just that. And after two years and a mediocre thesis, it was over. What could I say.

After the MFA

I finished my MFA in May, 1993. By August of that year (after working at a Hungry Howie’s Pizza to make ends meet), I landed a job teaching as an adjunct instructor at Santa Fe Community College and at UF’s Writing Lab. As an adjunct, my classes fluctuated from semester to semester, with no guarantee I’d have a job the next time around. I had no benefits (no health insurance, no vacation time) and minimal pay, but my MFA did get me part-time teaching work at the college level.

Despite continued and heavy submission, I had no luck getting published or winning a book contest. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did get a few poems published, but only because a friend saw promise in my work and published me in a magazine he was co-editing at the time.

(My friend, C. Dale Young, is one of only two poets of my MFA crop to publish a book of poetry. But the guy is amazing. After finishing his MFA, he went through medical school. Today, he practices medicine, has been widely published in the best poetry journals, has been featured on the Best American Poetry series, has not one but three poetry books out, and teaches part-time at an MFA program. He is by far the most successful student to come out of our class and probably out of UF’s poetry MFA program in the last 20 years.

After living on under $16,000 per year as an adjunct and having no success in publishing my work, I decided to try a different career while I still had time. Four years later, I stopped teaching and went into a sensible, high-paying job.

I wouldn’t write a poem again for nearly 11 years.

What do I make of my MFA?

An MFA can provide an intensive time to hone your craft surrounded by like-minded people. It can allow you to make contacts in the publishing world. It can also get you into serious debt.

In my case, nobody promised me anything other than a chance to get better at writing poetry, and my program covered most of my expenses between fellowships and teaching stipends. What little debt I incurred (under $3,000 if I recall correctly) I paid off rather quickly.

Needless to say, having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist. But what does? It doesn’t mean you will be published in journals either. I know a supremely talented graduate of the Iowa MFA (perhaps the most prestigious poetry MFA in the country) who has not been able to get her poems accepted by the better journals. And it’s certainly not a guarantee that you will get a book published. On the other hand, I know many, many MFA graduates who have gone on to publish in the most prestigious journals, including Poetry and The Paris Review, and who have published books.

In a time when there is a glut of MFAs out there (just like there’s a glut of English MAs and PhDs), having an MFA is not a ticket to a full-time teaching job. But it can get you part-time adjunct work, which is better than Hungry Howie’s Pizza, though perhaps not by much: adjuncts earn an average $19,200 a year with a master’s degree ($22,400 with a PhD). And only 25% of all faculty is on tenure track these days.

As to my own experience, I see a pattern. After being rebuffed by my father, I stopped writing poetry and concentrated on music. Later, when it became clear that I did not have the talent required to be a great singer/songwriter, and encouraged by my poetry professors, I pursued poetry again. And, again, once I accepted that I did not have the talent required to be a great poet, or more to the point, when editors failed to embrace me, I abandoned poetry in search of something at which I could excel.

But I couldn’t fully walk away from poetry. After my father died in 2003 of Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver (there is a full story right there), I had to deal with a lot of things from my past, from addiction to abuse. Without noticing it, I began to write a poem, just scribbles in my journal at first, then collected lines that turned into stanzas. Whatever it was, it grew into the longest poem I had ever written. But it was not poetry; it was therapy. I showed this pseudo-poem to but a handful of people. One of them was William Logan, my MFA thesis director. William was always kind and straightforward with me, the furthest thing from my father any man could be, but I felt that sharing the poem with him was a sort of exorcism.

As the first time around, I went from poetry to music and back to poetry again. In late 2006, 16 years after “leaving my music behind,” I began to write and record songs again, this time with no hope of ever “making it” in the music business. Then, about a year after I started writing songs again, I allowed myself to write another poem, “The Book of Water” — not as a compulsive act to deal with my past but as a conscious act to write something meaningful for an audience. I think the theme of death with dignity is a bit grandiose, but it captured how I felt about my poetry as I finished my MFA:

The Book of Water

Books cover the carpet, leaves
on damp earth — fairies and demons,
goblins and sisters, some holy pages too —
storm debris, shells with past lives

cracked open, left to rot, ink
bleeding from notebooks
as if from an octopus washed on shore
trying to fend the air itself:

this September day
never to be relived, the sea
heaving with waves, boiling
over disappearing sand,

the houses of men, the worlds
therein, no different
than a dune no longer there,
so many other words now born

unto death a second time. No matter.
No one would have heeded them,
their wisdom once irresistible now spent,
or, reading, suffer loss

deeper than the first.
Less cruel to let a life drown,
as drown it must, than let it gasp
for breath, fighting the inevitable descent,

page after page, word after slow word,
until the end comes
as it will come, unseen,
under cover of water.

I have no hope of ever publishing, though I am now writing at full speed and submitting again. This time around, I don’t really have any expectations. Anything good that happens will be a bonus. Having a conventional book of poetry published is a quaint, forlorn hope, but one I still cling to. Ever making it into the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry was a stillborn dream I should have kept to myself. I would have, had I been wiser at the time. But to paraphrase Carolyn Forché, I have no right to feel hopeless — better poets than me have been hopeless.

An MFA doesn’t guarantee anything. But what does?

Has the MFA system hurt poetry?

The most common criticism leveled at the MFA system is that it has created a homogeneous, academic, safe, predictable, trite, self-perpetuating wasteland of mediocre, workshop-proof poetry. I’m not so sure.

Most of the poetry created in any given age is average. Heck, even good. Good poetry is not in short supply, and it has never been. Great poetry, on the other hand, is exceedingly rare. That’s just the way it is. For every Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden there are thousands of contemporaries giving it their best who will never get there. It’s the harsh reality of greatness.

[For now, let us not parse what “greatness” really means. I use the term to mean poetry which the literary establishment considers important enough to anthologize widely.]

The MFA is the democratic (if you can afford it) counterpart to greatness: it takes in the masses (if you have a bachelor’s degree, good GRE scores, and can make it past the admissions panel) and trains them, in the good programs, to do the best they can with what they have. And no more.

The best part of my MFA experience was teaching undergraduate poetry workshops and being able to shape the work of emerging poets. But thinking that I am responsible for the results of those students’ work would be preposterous and vainglorious in the extreme. Thinking that I could shape their work in any but the most minimal ways is absurd.

I remember a student, Nicole, whose work I encouraged and tried to foster to the best of my ability, even though her avant-garde, pseudo-concrete poems were nothing like what I wrote. A few years after she was in my class, I received a package from her: her first book of poetry, published by a commercial press. She had dedicated the book to me, among others. I photocopied that dedication and put it up on my office door for the world to see. I was (am) proud of Nicole, but I recognize that my influence on her and my share of her success were infinitesimal. Many other factors play a role in success other than the classes you take and the degrees you get.

I remember another student, Shelbey, whose work was far beyond her years. She currently teaches literature and has continued to share some of her poems with me. I am always impressed by her exactitude (is that a word?) and discipline with words, something with which I struggle. Again, my influence on her was, at best, limited, and while I take pride in what part I played in her development as a poet and teacher, I recognize that it was but a sliver of the forces pushing her to become what she is today.

If teachers encourage and editors publish only what they consider worthy, there is nothing new to that. And if the MFA system shapes what teachers and editors consider worthy, something else would in its absence.

Would poetry today improve considerably if all MFA programs were wiped out of existence? It would change, of course, as a different aesthetic is bound to replace the dreaded “MFA aesthetic,” but would the poetry that ensues be any better? I suspect most of it would be average to good. A few pieces would be great. Ad only a handful would be poems worth anthologizing.

I used to think that if you wrote amazing, soul-to-the-wall poetry that grabbed someone by the throat and wouldn’t let go, you would get somewhere. I hoped that there were editors out there waiting for just that sort of poem, that it was not their fault such poems didn’t get written or didn’t get written more often.

I am not so sure now. My experience in writing and trying to publish tells me that networking and making connections with those who have the power to publish your poetry are paramount. There’s a lot of talent out there, and who gets published has much to do with, in addition to talent, how to make the necessary connections with the right people. Who you know translates into whether you publish and where. I know too many talented poets who have not been able to publish to believe that talent alone is enough. These days, there’s a lot of poets fighting for a little room at the top. It’s not enough to be talented. You have to do a lot of legwork and networking. And, sometimes, it just comes down to luck.

But i’m pretty sure it’s always been that way.

As in the past, we would-be poets still set out to impress our elders (read teachers and editors) with our work, and to hopefully have them find something of value in what we write, something worth nurturing, publishing, and anthologizing. Whether those elders are narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-serving enemies or self-aware, fully-engaged, generous mentors has less to do with whether an MFA system is in place than with the nature and quality of those elders. And as always, it’s up to the student to find the master; it’s up to the poet to find the reader. No one owes your poem a read. You have to go out there and get people to read it. And that means, as it has always meant, making contact with those who can get your poems published.

If anything, the internet has made things worse: blogs and self-published e-books mean that today more than ever you can get lost in the oceans of average poetry out there. Today more than ever, being published by the right journal, wining the right poetry prize, getting a book deal with a reputable press, can make all the difference between success (by the standards of the poetry market) and anonymity.

If an MFA program can allow you to start making contacts and networking, it would be money well spent.

Does an MFA hurt you as an artist?

That’s the big question, isn’t it. Does an MFA teach you to write like a zombie, mindlessly copying acceptable (and therefore compromised) models of writing, or does it help you become a better, more honest, more true-to-the-world writer?

This is how i answer the question: of all the thousands of people going into MFA programs, only a few, a mere handful, have what it takes to become great, truly great, artists. These people will accomplish what they will accomplish with or without an MFA. As for the rest, an MFA is what we make of it. A wise person can learn from anything.

As far as writing goes, it’s hard to beat an intense period of workshopping your poems with other dedicated writers. Use your MFA time to network and make contacts. This is paramount. Good programs should ensure you have the opportunity to do this by having editors and writers visit and conduct workshops and readings. But if you expect an MFA to guarantee a successful literary career, nothing can. Sorry.

In my case, my MFA time killed what little self-esteem I had regarding my poetry. It was not the fault of my instructors or co-students. It had more to do with my expectations (always great) and my sense of what I could accomplish (always very little, as my pessimist, zero-self-esteem inner voice was all too happy to inform me). But I can say I am better at my craft now than I was then, and my MFA time taught me a great deal of what I know about poetry.

All these years later, I believe the craft I learned in my MFA has made me a better poet. Not a great poet, no. Just a better poet than I would be right now had I employed those two years working at Hungry Howie’s Pizza and writing at night. And the only poems I ever managed to publish in a reputable journal came as a result of a contact made at my MFA program.

For others, the answer will no doubt be different. But for all of us, my friends, we’ll just have to carry on.

Seamus Heaney

Recently, Seamus Heaney won the Forward Prize. This turn of events is not a surprise, Heaney being a Nobel laureate (1995) and winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize (2006). In a selfish way, though, the news reminded me of how often I think of Heaney.

I think Heaney is the finest poet writing in English today, the greatest poet of his generation, and certainly the most popular (his books make up two thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK). As an undergraduate, I fell in love with “Limbo,” and that poem led me to discover Heaney’s amazing body of work:

Limbo

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning.

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

But as I said, my reasons for thinking of him are selfish. When I was an MFA student at the University of Florida (Gainesville), Heaney came to conduct a poetry workshop and reading. Another MFA student, Ralph Savarese, had corresponded with Heaney for a few years, and he spoke highly of the man’s integrity and kindness. I don’t recall the exact details, but Ralph had won a poetry contest judged by Heaney, and Heaney had continued to correspond with Ralph despite the obvious difference in standing between them.

On the day of the workshop (held in a conference room on the fourth floor of Turlington Hall), my poem happened to be the first on the packet Heaney was to comment upon. He read my poem out loud — I do not, unfortunately, remember which poem that was — but I do know it was nothing special. Heaney smiled, shifted on his seat after he was done. He smiled some more. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Here’s something.” He compared the poet (he did not know it was me, sitting a few feet away, looking at him without letting on so much depended on his judgment) to a boy going out into the woods and trying out owl calls. Apparently boys go out in the woods and try out owl calls where Heaney came from; it was news to me. He said that you have to try and make the owl call convincing, so that eventually you can get an owl to respond and come to you. He said the poet (that is to say, me) was trying out his owl calls. And he added, “We feel safe in this poet’s hands.”

He didn’t say that the owl call wasn’t quite there yet. He didn’t have to. I imagine this was not a metaphor he used exclusively on this occasion. When you travel and lecture as much as Heaney does, you are bound to repeat yourself. I do not, in other words, consider this experience unique.

No. What strikes me about it is that I can’t remember anyone ever saying that my poetry wasn’t quite there yet as gracefully and with so much compassion as Heaney did that afternoon. His smile, his open body language, the fully engaged look in his eyes: you can’t fake that. It’s as though he walked through past the words on the page to some kind of existential mode of being in which owl calls were a goal in and of themselves and getting them perfect wasn’t as important as trying. And as far as I could tell, he felt I wasn’t done trying.

I agreed with him. I had suspected throughout my MFA that my poetry wasn’t there yet. I also suspected that it would probably never be. What I wanted Heaney to say was something like “F**K!! This is the best f***ing poem I’ve ever f***ing read. F***king genius!!” Only much, much later, did it occur to me it’s not a bad thing that Seamus Heaney thinks you’re not done trying.

At his reading that night, I remember his use of the word “Sausalito” in a poem. To me, the word was commonplace Spanish, a place-name in California lost on English speakers who do not know it means “a small willow grove,” (a “sauzal” is a place were willows grow; the ending “ito” denotes a small one; the “z” has been Anglicized to an “s”). I remember my ears pricking up at the word. I remember thinking, here’s a throwaway word which a poet has picked up on and imbued with significance. What words do I know, I asked myself, that set in the right light could be poetry? I hadn’t quite thought of things that way until that moment. And I think it had to do with the owl-call anecdote and its ramifications.

And then, Heaney went on to read a poem about boys thinking words traveled along telephone lines like drops of rain, boys who could find nothing of worth in their imaginative, unique, mind-blowing view of the world:

The Railway Children

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.

We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle.

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And of course, it is harder for a rich man (or a grown up) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and Jesus did say to let the children come to him, for theirs is the Kingdom.

That poem crystallized what Heaney taught me during his visit. I wondered, in my status as a poet-child, what do I know that is worth knowing? Surely, we all have secret knowledge, a secret place in the forest, a secret owl call, a secret visitation upon which we can draw for poetry. At least I wanted to believe it after Heaney had told me so.

But here is the selfish reason why I think of Heaney so often (and herein lies the reason for this piece). Later that night after the reading, at the reception at the English Department chair’s house, I came upon Seamus Heaney standing in the living room. A circle of people had formed of which Heaney was a link, all come to pay homage or to bask. And on the edge of his peripheral vision, Heaney saw me and recognized me from the earlier workshop, and he stepped to the side and made room for me in the circle of people, and he smiled, and said, “Ah, here’s a poet.”

Here’s a poet. An MFA student. Moreover, an MFA student with no magazine credits, no books published, nothing but attempted owl calls to his credit. And Heaney said, “Ah, here’s a poet.”

That, to me, speaks more of his humanity than of anything having to do with me. I do hope he was right. And I sure think of him and his kindness and generosity often.