Monday, October 02, 2006


My darling, may I introduce the shower?
It is warm, and you need not
Fear bears.

Okay, so I just got back from camping at the Dodge Poetry Festival. Which, it turns out, is where we all want to be. Take it from me, or if not, take it from Mark Doty, who referred to it as "this ineffable Brigadoon." He was standing on stage getting ready to read on the last day of the festival and after he said that he rolled the words around in his mouth to see if he'd gotten them right. "Yeah, it is." He said, considering, "because it reappears."

Mark Doty

The Dodge Poetry festival happens every two years, and there's no adequate way of explaining how wonderful it is except this: imagine that several thousand smart, very unpretentious people have trekked out to the middle of nowhere at 8 am to listen to a bunch of freaking geniuses who have spent their lives putting the best language they have behind their most hidden, funny, humble and transcendent thoughts.

And then imagine that every time you heard a poem that took your breath away, or made you want to cry, or made you laugh everyone else there got it, and clapped, or laughed, or gasped. And imagine it was organized by a gentle man who, when he wanted the audience to shut up and stop talking over the music said, "I'm going to be a little schoolmarmish for a minute here…Well, our next performer is coming up, and…I would ask you to do me a favor. And listen. It's not wallpaper." And then 1000 people did, and the music was great.

There was a feeling of being in love. With people who were smart enough to feel it too, and not in such a way that they were going to hug you or the tree next to them without an introduction. It was more that nobody honked when we were all trying to get out of the parking lot, and that people smiled shyly at each other and compared notes on the Black Bean Burgers.

I wasn't really a poetry freak before I went, but I am now. I bought a billion books. Taha Muhammed Ali's So What, Galway Kinnell's Book of Nightmares, Jorie Graham's Never, The Essential Rumi, Anne Waldman's Marriage: A Sentence and Billy Collins' Sailing Alone Around the Room. I've been reading that one today. I'm infatuated with Billy Collins' poetry since hearing him read yesterday.

I liked this one, which he said was written in response to that portentious genre of poems that use the occasion of the poet's birthday to look back on lost innocence.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

You can listen to him here. I suggest "Night Club".

I was really looking forward to seeing Jorie Graham, whose Collected Poems I'd been reading for a while. I didn't know anything about her, but imagined someone who looked a lot like Terry Gross, for some reason, which was just totally off.

Terry Gross

Jorie Graham (accepting the Pulitzer Prize! Go Jorie!)

The pictures don't do the contrast justice. The woman was swathed in scarves, had big lion hair, arche boots and black pants with some kind of shiny things on them- sequins? Rivets? I couldn't tell, because I was dazzled by her. She was articulate in some completely foreign way that seemed like it should have been familiar- as if she had been possessed by some crazy Muse of Articulation that she'd run across in some cave or something. Her fingers wiggled around when she talked and she painted an amazing picture of tubercular Keats waiting for death, seeing the sun as a killer. She's incredibly compelling- she looks like she's just as alive as a person can be on the brink of death. She read Keats' Ode to Autumn in a way that made the air crackle.

On Saturday night Jorie Graham was set to read after Anne Waldman, whose name should be Wildman, or Wyledwymyn, or something, because she's about eighty times ballsier than any other poet alive. Anne Waldeman read poems from Marriage, a Sentence with great frenetic screeching and yelling and singing- imagine Lori Anderson crossed with Henry Rollins, Alan Ginsberg and Ethel Merman. Only louder. And a genius poet. Poor Jorie Graham came onstage after Anne's completely unfollowable act, pretended to collapse, hugged the guy who was doing the introductions and said, "Great organization, man...I'm just going to take all my clothes off." When the laughter died down she said, "No, gee...All I can do is depress the shit out of you... I'm going to read one of the great English Poets. A dead guy talking about death. It's the only way to defeat Anne."

She did pretty well, and was followed by Andrew Motion, Britan's Poet Laureate, who introduced himself as a dead English poet. He's great, too- and you can listen to him on the poetry archive site, which is an incredible resource. I've always loved listening to poets ten times better than just reading their work, and you can hear another great poet, Sekou Sundiata, online courtesy of Salon magazine. The Poetry Archive site has lots of other poetry recordings on line- it looks incredible, though it does focus mainly on Britan.

I think I'm also about to subscribe to Poetry magazine-Thom is sitting next to me DYING to read me something funny from the July/August issue, which has been kiling us all day. It's really funny. The first poet in the magazine, Dean Young, wrote a poem called "Sean Penn Anti-Ode" that starts

Must Sean Penn always look like he's squeezing
the last drops out of a sponge and the sponge
is his face? Even the back of his head grimaces.

Reading and hearing all this poetry in a compressed time period made me think that there's more emotional and intellectual range in poetry than there is in contemporary painting. I think it's about the pressure to be simple- contemporary art indulges a thirst for purity that seems limiting to me after being in this rich contradictory world of poems for a weekend. I'm going to think about this for a while, and I suspect it will change how I approach my work- if not externally, at least internally.

And yeah, I camped. It rained really hard and I lost a huge amount of sleep watching for bears, but we didn't get eaten or die of damp and I discovered a the secret that little kids know. Which is that toasted marshmallows are well worth sleeping outside in the rain for. As is the Dodge Poetry Festival. You guys. You have to go.


Anonymous said...

so didja see any bears on your bear patrol? i am dying of curiousity.

also? jorie graham is a nut hut. i mean that only in the most positive of ways, though.

big ups for camping and poetry! you + chazz= in LUVVVVVVVVVV with poimes.

smooches, raccoonpower (who is eager to chill with you if we can align schedules)

Sam Simpson said...

A nut hut? Rilly? Do tell...And me and Chas are totally in love with poeims. (That's how Taha Muhammad Ali pronouced the word poems- I was trying to figure out how to spell that!)

We didn't see any bears, but every manmade surface in the campground was plastered with signs warning us that we would see bears and they would probably eat us. Which made for a really exciting night of listening to every noise in the woods and going,"Bear! No... frog. I guess. But that other sound was a bear!"

riven_memory said...

this was a really neat post to see. i've always been interested in writing. though, i know now that i'm not as good as i once thought i was. even though i'm way better than i was then. your post came at the perfect time too. yesterday i had started to reread my favoritest book ever: invitation to a beheading. it had been awhile since i read it. and i stopped after a few pages.

my interest in literature (and other things) has changed a lot. i used to love nabokov and his blustery, pompous and pretentious prose. along with the works of e.e. cummings and mallarme and other blustery, wordy, or experimental writers.

but as of late i find them really boring. while i was reading invitation i just wanted to tell nabokov to get out of my way and just let me enjoy what he wrote.

so now i've been looking for new writers. not only to read but to understand how writing can be good, meaningful and straight forward. using images and situations instead of clever words to create meaning. neruda was a revelation but that is about as far as i've gotten with that. as far as poetry goes.

i had never heard of billy collins and like his stuff. though it relies somewhat on being clever. but i like the birthday poem (after the first stanza) and the poem that he reads about the "reader" and the salt and peper shaker in the kitchen.

anyway, in my rather inarticulate, sick and distracted way i am trying to say: i liked to see your post.

Sam Simpson said...

I'm so glad you liked the post! I want you to make a pilgrimage to the festival- I bet you'd like it, and it'd be fun to meet you and your family. And I bet you're a better writer than you think you are. Although who knows- maybe we both stink. But it's better to be brave enough to try to be any kind of writer or artist- even a bad one- than to not try, so... I have a shorthand phrase for this sentiment- I say "Grapes of Goofy" when I think I suck.

It's not to say that I don't suck, but I read an interview with some writer who was responding to another person critizing Steinbeck for only having written one good book. The writer said, "So what? What did you write? You didn't write the Grapes of Goofy."

I know what you mean about the ornamental language thing- there are lots of people I used to like who I can't read any more because their language is too obtrusive. I used to like Italo Calvino, and now I can't take him at all. And Dickens sets the bar pretty high, I think. He's awesome. I wonder if you'd like Richard Russo? Billy Collins is clever, but I like his kind of cleverness. You might like Andrew Notion or Mark Doty, though- they are less tricky and very clear.

Hope you feel better soon!

remis velisque said...

Yay! Yes yes for Dickens!
I definitely want to come camp some year.

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