Paintings and Poems: City on a Hill

“You are the light
of the world.
A city
set upon a hill
cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).

Not to mention something you’ve put up online. What’s posted online can’t be deleted or hidden. That is the poet’s dilemma, who craves publication but still has changes, or will have. But that is only a matter or problem of print. Oral poetry, or song, allows, invites, indeed wants variations. Covers. Over time, cities get covered up. The earth rises, and falls.

I assumed the Queen Mob’s Teahouse poetry editor position back in April, taking over from Erik Kennedy, Queen Mob’s second poetry editor, from May, 2015, who followed Laura A. Warman. The gig is volunteer work, of course, as befits any true poetic enterprise.

I first put up, on April 19, three poems by Jax NTP. It was then the idea came to me to use my own paintings as the header images over the poet’s work. I was struck by Jax NTP’s atmospheric, impressionistic poetry. The poems are packed with energetic images changing with the speed of “Highway 61 Revisited”:

“there’s a giant temple on hazard and new hope street
blue reptile and green mazing skeletons, keepers of time
how long can you sit there with the pain before you try to fix it?”

from “how to pivot when you’re paralyzed,” by Jax NTP

And I had just finished a painting, the impressions of which, the symbols within, the colors, the shapes, I thought might complement Jax NTP’s poetry. I don’t mean to suggest any of the paintings necessarily align with the poetry in any literal way. In any case, I continued to look for images within my collection of painting pic selfies for complementary impressions.

Reading and reflecting on Jessica Sequeira’s poems, and later looking for a painting to go with the posting on QMT, I again felt the suggestion with impressions that seems the essence of poetry, particularly of poetical delight:

“The heavens have promised rain for so many days.
I think of waiting for torrents from the white sky.
But it might be a long time. Or this could be a dream.
Taking your hand, I guide it below, to my cloud.”

from “Eastern Variations, style of Ikkyū Sōjun,” by Jessica Sequeira

I selected for Jessica’s poems a painting from last year, “City on a Hill,” a large painting that had taken some time to complete. Again, the setting of the poems and the painting seemed harmonious:

“lakes shine like mirrors
reflecting tall mountains

rainfalls are unpredictable
innocent changes in the divine mood

birds sing into great holy spaces
the wind whistles its reply

icy glaciers plunge towards sky
green valleys dive into earth”

from “My South,” by Jessica Sequeira

I had taken numerous pics of “City on a Hill” when a work in progress in the basement studio:

And I used an early draft of “City on a Hill” to go with Ashen Venema’s poetry:

I sit still, watch him thin the oil
and restore his long gone love
on canvas, standing in
as the young skin
by the window, sunlit among
lilies, fresh cut, and Persian rugs
casually flung across seats.

from “My Painter,” by Ashen Venema

Well, the setting of Ashen’s “My Painter,” “sunlit among / lilies,” doesn’t quite align with the basement studio, though things are there too “casually flung.”

All my paintings I eventually give away, to family, friends, colleagues, who show an interest and enthusiasm. “City on a Hill” is hanging in my daughter’s den, looking out upon the backyard. The light in the room is perfect. I just want or hope the paintings have a life outside my basement, where, as Ashen puts it in “My Painter”:

“A blaze of light rims his white hair
from under his thick swirl of brows
black humour hides, and surprise”

After all the work on a painting, which isn’t really work, of course, but play, like the work of much poetry, we just might find a true work of art in what we’ve mostly ignored, in the mess we left behind. That tablecloth, for example, now that’s a work of art!

Notes AWP Close: The 8th Day

Wandering post AWP19 Portland town yesterday with entrepreneurial intrepid impresario Berfrois editor at large Russell Bennetts and his Midwestern sidekick Simon Calder, I had occasion to consider Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” in a contemporary context, where all the characters have cell phones, except one, who has lost theirs. But I can’t decide which Hemingway character would be cellphoneless: Jake? Lady Brett Ashley? Certainly not Count Mippipopolous, whose Twitter feed at AWP19 would be going nonstop. Maybe we would have Jake’s friend Georgette find the lost cell phone, but she would keep it hidden for a time, posting miscreant tweets and pics with her bad teeth.

The idea behind Thornton Wilder’s “The Eighth Day” is that God, having created the world in 7 days, proceeds to take the 8th day off, during which what we now consider time takes place, such that we are all, since the beginning of time, living in the 8th day of creation.

After their holiday in Pamplona at the festival of the bulls and all the bullfighting, “The Sun Also Rises” characters go their separate ways, Robert Cohn disabused of his romanticism, Jake cemented in his existential crisis, Brett off with the once untouchable but now touched and wrecked bullfighter Romero. It’s going to be a long 8th day.

Now living in the 8th day of AWP19, at least one Berfrois character has decided to remain on in Portland town. Here they are, comfortably taking over the TV remote:

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This is the eighth and last in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books.

Notes: The One They Call the Seventh Poet

They look like anyone, these poets and writers, intellectuals and artists, editors and publishers – filling and milling about the Oregon Convention Center for AWP19, sauntering though the book fair and scurrying off to panels and readings and private receptions. The fact of a book must say something about their ability to write, to argue and persuade, to think and entertain, to talk and listen. But which one is the one, the seventh poet of a seventh poet, the one who can “make your heart feel glad,” “heal the sick and even raise the dead,” “make your flesh quiver”? You know when you meet the one who thinks they’re the one, but how do you know the one who is the one, “in the whole round world, the only one”?

I met the poet Calliope Michail at the Berfrois table. She has a book out, “Along Mosaic Roads,” (2018, 87 Press, UK). She also appears in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book,” in the form of an interview conducted by the inimitable Vlad Savich. Calliope is refreshingly fresh, able to speak of poetry in clear and concise terms. She gracefully dances around Vlad’s often idiosyncratic questions:

“I think it’s a coy dance with writing. You choose it and it chooses you, but sometimes the feelings aren’t mutual” (126).

She describes with clarity the writing process:

“I tend to see each poem as a pattern. This pattern consists of layers and links, connections to things in various realms – the personal, the political, the aesthetic, the literary, the linguistic and so on. For me, it’s more of a process that may begin with a line, a concept, or some other preoccupation, that then gets built on” (127).

“Along Mosaic Roads” contains five sections, each beginning with a threaded poem, “Standing in the Sun,” Roman numerals I through V following. There are 17 poems in all. The titles of the poems sound like those of classical music tone poems. The book is a movement through time and place and person. Again we find the theme of wandering, “Going.” I’ll be spending more time in Calliope’s book in a later post, after AWP19 and Portland returns to its normal weirdness.

I also met at the Berfrois table veteran poet Dorothy Chan, a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Dorothy has a book just out, “Revenge of the Asian Woman” (Diode Editions, 2019). Dorothy is obviously a capable writer and speaker and advocate for poetry as a means toward understanding one’s place in popular culture and how to take control of a picture others may have of you (probably very different from the picture you have of yourself), as was evidenced in my brief conversation with her amid the distractions at the table, but also as evidenced in her essay written for “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book, “Asian Princesses: Fetishisation, Sexiness, Anime Girls and Poetry” (95).

“The very thing that makes you fetishised, such as ‘Asian girl cuteness’ or kawaii fashion can be turned on its head and become a thing of power” (101).

I’ll also be spending more time with “Revenge of the Asian Woman,” in a future post. The essay is erudite, but the theory behind it is very clearly explained.

“I wonder a lot about the way we command ourselves through how we dress, and how these thoughts can be translated to poetry, since fashion is poetry” (98).

This is the seventh in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

Notes Number 5: Smells Like Berfrois Spirit

Nevermind, I’m already 10 minutes late for my appointed volunteer shift at the Portland Convention Center to help out at AWP19. Turns out even 11:30 am too early for this old kid to gig. I hope my unexcused absence doesn’t reflect too poorly on my literary reputaughtshun. But I will use the time though, looking ever closer and deeper into “Berfois: The Book”  and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.”

Whenever confronted with conventions, I remember the Salinger story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which begins:

“THERE WERE ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.”

Why ninety-seven? The 97th Infantry Division was active in WWII, but Salinger served in the 4th Infantry Division. In any case, today, “the girl in 507” would, in addition to all her other time using activities, be on her cell phone, wouldn’t she? As for the advertising men, they might be attending an Associated Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, such as AWP19, this week being held in Portland. Portland is a good place for bananafish. Maybe something to do with all the rain. In the today Salinger story version, AWP might be an acronym for All Earwickers Post.

But the word “ear” appears only once in “Berfrois: The Book.” Six times in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” One can read too closely. And that’s just whole words, anyway. Backing up a bit, we see “ear” appears frequently as part of other words: years, bear, Radishes, breath, Misrepresentation (in the Berfrois book); Eavesdropping, great, Picaresque, artes, Funeral, Breakfast (in the Queen Mob’s book).

The only use of the whole word “ear” found in “Berfrois the Book” is in the essay by Ed Simon, “Moved the Universe: Notes Toward an Orphic Criticism” (59:72):

“…Erato whispering in Sappho’s ear…” (59).

In his essay, Simon speaks to the mystery of literature. It’s what can’t be quizzed in class. Nor is it:

“I’ve no interest in taste, discernment, or style…” (66).

Simon is talking about the ear, about listening. He’s not asking what is literature, but where does it come from, and how does it get here. How do we hear it, learn it, learn to listen to it, for it. It’s a raw approach. It cuts through a lot of crap:

“What defines the Orphic approach is never necessarily analytical acumen (certainly not that), nor adept close readings, but rather, an ecstatic, enchanted, enraptured sense of the numinous at literature’s core. Orphic criticism is neither method nor approach, but rather attitude and perspective” (71).

For a reader, the attitude might have a bearing on Nabokov’s emphasis on relying on one’s “spine,” the “tingle” that goes up it when the magic kicks in:

“A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic…In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle” (5:6). (Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” from “Lectures on Literature,” Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980).

Simon’s essay is in form a classic argument, and a perfect example of one. Plus, we get a history of literary criticism and enough references to keep us going for some time. The essay bemoans the very academic sustenance that gave it life, but explains why. In essence, theory grows monstrous when it becomes horror to the common reader. Simon’s statement, about which there will be some disagreement, I found very persuasive, intuitive, purposeful, clear and concise yet thorough and clarion in its call to let the sound back into the word.

Justin Erik Halldor Smith‘s “The G.O.E” (101:108 B:TB) is, at least in one sense, also about the ear:

“What I remember most vividly is the great cleavage, in the earliest time, when the moon was torn away from us” (101).

The speaker seems to be an ecological griot, an evolutionary being that “remembers everything,” and attempts to dialog with those who may have forgotten or never knew:

“There is a memory that runs through all of us unbidden, and that can be brought to the surface with a little effort. In this effort, we stop being I and thou, which seems implausible, but I have always felt that coming to see oneself as an I in the first place was the far more remarkable way of apprehending the world, while conjuring our shared memory with all the other Is is by far less remarkable” (101).

Justin’s piece is in form a parable. Why is life so reliant on symbiotic relationships that eat one another? There is a partnership, on Earth, at least, of animal and plant life. At least one form from the animal life world has suppressed and oppressed plant life. Too, within the animal world, there are unmarked distinctions that have grown into borders creating divides that threaten all kinds of partnership. Why does life eat itself so?

We find more “ears” embedded in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” But, before we get too far away from “the girl in 507,” we find, in QM’sT:tB, “advertising.” Only once, both books combined, do we find the word “advertising.” It’s in “Conductor,” by Nate Lippens:

“I drive around my hometown, past the Sons of Norway advertising a Saturday lutefisk lunch, past the strip mall, past the mega-stores and past the Irish sports pub where men who look like fraternal twins line the bar with boilermakers” (187).

How is disgust drawn, when even one’s mother expresses doubt? While pure hate simply ignores, or pretends to. What happens when dislike pierces the skin so often we begin not to like ourselves, and begin to scratch away at an itch the source of which we know comes from where? Do we begin to blame ourselves for being the lightning rod? Nate’s piece seems a personal essay (it could be a story, the narrator a character). The writing is visceral, honest, seemingly true to experience. The writing is clear, drives forward without blinking. The essay contains the kind of writing you feel in your spine.

We interrupt this post for a PSA (Public Service Announcement): I’ve learned that I am being given the opportunity of redeeming myself from today’s (now, as I continue these notes, yesterday’s) unexcused absence. Either tomorrow or Friday, This afternoon, I should be helping out at the Berfrois table at AWP19 for a spell. I’ll be wearing my ears and my advertising cap. If your there, the table ID is T11094. We might talk about how I’ve no doubt misread Simon and Smith, Lippens, and now Pickens?.

Meantime, in the Queen Mob’s book, we find Robyn Maree Pickens using the word “ear” in “The skeleton of a dog who is still alive” (47:57).

“She has been trained to fix her gaze on the clients’ hairlines or ear tips” (48).

The story moves in a form of dream language, which is to say surreal, both clear and unclear at once. Yet,

“Her dreams are full of bounding for terriers. They are either benign guides or soporific constellations that suffocate her eyes. They must never talk about dreams at the institute. She registers the cessation of oscillating air on her head and leaves the circle” (51).

Perhaps the secret to reading all dreams is simply this:

“All references are lost. Their lives are so short. They glisten. They hum” (57).

The Pickens story also is the kind that you feel in your spine.

This is the fifth in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

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Spring in Portland for AWP19

Fourth Notes: AWP19, Berfrois10

That title isn’t meant to sound like a sports score. The 19th annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention (AWP19) coincides with the 10th anniversary of the online site Berfrois, celebrated these last ten years for its “Literature, Ideas, and Tea.” Berfrois will be at the AWP convention with copies of its recently published books: “Berfrois: The Book,” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book,” both published under the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals imprint of the British publisher Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

The two hard copy books are anthologies. They include writing by various writers that have written for either Berfrois or Queen Mob’s over the years and more. But the writing in these book print anthologies is new, entirely original, previously unpublished in any form. The writing has not been seen online, nor will it be (except of course for quoted material in reviews, etc.). The books represent a new effort by Berfrois editor Russell Bennetts to engage print, a formidable challenge in this age of Ewriting and Ereading in an Eworld.

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“Berfrois: The Book” opens with an interview with Eley Williams. A tone of humor amid chaos is established. There is something new about a Bennetts interview. The questions are creative and often playful and invite similar response.

A greener piccalilli, You must understand?

The greater the pucker caused by a pickle
The greater a succour becomes hot-tongue-tickled (21).

Speaking of green, author and translator Jessica Sequeira is included in “Berfrois: The Book” with “The Green Pickup: In honour of ST. ALBERTO HURTADO, lay brother of the Society of Jesus & his truck.”

As I wrote, the anecdotes of Hurtado’s story and his writings and my thoughts about him began to condense into the form of an object, the green pickup belonging to the Padre (78).

This is how I imagine an AWP book fair browser might engage with the books that will be exhibited at the Berfrois table, paging through, stopping here and there to take a closer look.

Probably some will stop at the very last piece, a short poem by Daniel Bosch, “Our Apps Demanded: after Hemingway” (387). I wonder if they will pick up on the original, published not quite a hundred years ago.

Imagine a hundred years of Berfrois, of AWP, and you begin to realize the importance of such things to our times and places and persons. Now think of a hundred years without them, a world barren of literary enterprise of any kind.

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berfrois tote bag and Seattle Mariners 1977 baseball cap

This is the fourth in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.