Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Godine Poets at the University of the South

by Wesley McNair ~ February 18, 2010 ~

Today, my friend Donald Hall is to read his poems as the recipient of The Sewanee Review’s Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry, and I’ve flown down with my wife Diane to introduce him. But just after our arrival, we get some bad news. Don’s friend Linda tells us he’s been sick all night with the grippe. Now everyone is worried he won’t be able to give his reading after all, particularly George Core, the editor of The Sewanee Review, who has invited us all to the University of the South for the event. George asks me to arrange a fall-back group reading of Don’s poems in case he isn’t available.

But never mind. As I unlock my door at the Inn, a bedraggled Don comes out of his room wearing dress pants and a freshly laundered shirt. Could I button the top button of his shirt? he wants to know. “Linda can’t do it,“ he says. “Now she’s feeling sick.”

They both manage to appear at Convocation Hall an hour later, and after a large crowd fills the auditorium, George starts the show, introducing the University president, Joel Cunningham, who gives Don his check. Then George calls me up to introduce Don.

What could I say about him that hasn’t already been said in a thousand introductions? I choose to tell the audience about Don’s help to me as a mentor, quoting his letters from the late 70s and early 80s about the poems I sent him.

One of the letters I quote questions my use in a poem of the word “yearning.” “Can’t you hear Bing Crosby sing it?” Don asks. “It’s Tin Pan Alley. And the word reminds me of the most prosperous poet ever to emerge from Tin Pan Alley . . . I mean Rod McKuen.” In another letter, he recommends the poetic practice of waiting: “hold poems back for a long time before sending them to a friend, because a poem “has a way of changing on its own, before anybody else’s words get into it.” Later, after seeing an extensive and self-adoring biographical note I had sent to Poetry Magazine to accompany two poems I published there, Don writes: “I think it is wise not to load on the fellowships and academic appointments. Try something that is quite reticent, non-academic and non-‘successful,’ like, ‘Wesley McNair lives in New Hampshire, where he raises goats with eyes in the middle of their foreheads.’ ”

Throughout the period, I tell my listeners, Don encouraged me about my first book of poems in progress. “Keep getting better, and improve the manuscript every time it comes back, and you will win through,” one letter remarks. Another adds, “Continue to change it. Make it the best book possible.” I explain that when my collection was at last accepted by the University of Missouri Press for its Devins Award, Don was as excited as I was. “Wes,” he said, “I could kiss you.”

I conclude my introduction by saying that today, on the occasion of Donald Hall’s prestigious award, I could kiss him. As our paths cross, he walking to the table where he is to read, I on my way back to my seat, I do kiss him.

Then Don begins, the old lion roaring a loud roar despite the residue of illness he still carries. As he reads to the rapt crowd, a table lamp illuminates his face as well as the books he holds in his hand. His first poem is a new pantoum about the horrors of 9/11. He goes on to a mixture of earlier pieces, one an elegy for farm horses, another about the suicide wish of a respected and apparently wholesome town elder, others about the long illness and death of Jane Kenyon. Above him hover portraits of Episcopal clergy from the early history of the university, wearing their vestments and expressions of devotion. At his table below the poet Donald Hall continues on, his illuminated face ragged with beard, bringing news from the broken world.

[Wesley McNair’s brand-new volume of poems, Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems, is very nearly available from Godine.]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Civilized Society from the Citizen Up

~ Feb 15, 2010: President’s Day ~

Like sudsy spume on a sandy beach, my recent reading has tossed up a couple of interesting comments about solitude, independent thought, and civilized society. I scrawled the quotes on little scraps of paper and they have been lying loose on the coffee table for weeks. It’s time to look them over one more time and then clean off the coffee table.

The first one is from a letter written in the late 1920s by the Englishwoman Vera Brittain (First World War–nurse, pacifist, socialist, and author of the heart-wrenching Testament of Youth) to her best friend Winifred Holtby (novelist, journalist, and fellow pacifist). Miss Brittain was visiting the U.S. for the first time, and she is telling Miss Holtby what she thinks of America:

“America is a civilization whose members spend all their energy in adapting themselves to each other and on the whole they succeed very well — I never met so many people with such a fear of originality, solitude and independent thought.”

Originality and independent thought do not thrive in the herd; they require solitude, and I think Americans are even more afraid of solitude today than they were when Miss Brittain wrote that sentence. Perhaps we are more afraid of it today because even less of it is available, and more effort is required to find it. Solitude requires turning off the television and radio, not checking email, not twittering, not texting, not telephoning, not being somewhere with piped-in music and always-on television screens. These days, solitude requires decision and a detour.

It’s a suspect decision, too. The message in our everyday air is that solitude means nobody likes us and that, if we move from one minute to the next under our own steam we’ll make a mistake or “miss” something. Life in herd mode is safer; regression to the mean is easier.

My second scrap of paper quotes Jane Addams, from her book, The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, published in 1930. Jane Addams was also a pacifist. She founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (still in existence) and opposed U.S. entry into the First World War. As a result, she lost most of the public good will that her Chicago settlement house work had gained her. Gradually, after the war, people calmed down and she was feted nationwide when she became the first U.S. woman to win a Nobel Prize (ironically, for peace) in 1931.

Miss Addams makes this statement:

“The patriotism of the modern state must be based not upon a consciousness of homogeneity but upon a respect for variation, not upon inherited memory but upon trained imagination.”

Wow! That wakes me up nicely. Although we exist in social groups, our families, societies and nations won’t succeed if their members all the same; they will succeed only if our differences are appreciated! Patriotism is not about using the past to constrain the future, but about using our variations to enlarge the future!

“A trained imagination.” I love that concept. Imagination requires independent thought — imagination develops in solitude like film develops in darkness. A person can’t find her imagination, let alone train it, in the midst of our saturated, attention-demanding, noisy, instantly-reacting world.

I like how these two quotes move us from individual choices to social and political choices and back again. They aren’t separable: civilized life requires independent thought, which requires solitude. Civilized society requires tolerance, which requires imagination, which takes us back to independent thought, which takes us right back to solitude.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kind]

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Renaissance of 1910: Perloff on Davenport

At Sibila, critic Marjorie Perloff reflects on the essays of Godine-favorite (or at least, one of my absolute personal favorites) Guy Davenport — particularly on his collection of forty essays, The Geography of the Imagination. Perloff writes, “Indeed, it is safe to say that the writing of commissioned book reviews was the basis of Davenport’s poetics and the impetus for his own literary / visual assemblages. In a curious way, it enlarged the very revolution of 1910 that Davenport took to be long over and irrecoverable — at least on its own terms. For in the end, Davenport was captivated by any number of writers, artists, and composers who were by no means among the revolutionaries of the avant guerre. I am thinking especially of Wittgenstein, whom Davenport wrote about briefly but brilliantly in The Geography of the Imagination. Wittgenstein figures in a number of essays as a kind of reinventor of Heraclitus, but Davenport’s most sustained consideration of Wittgenstein comes in a review of the philosopher’s note-card entries collected posthumously in 1967 under the title Zettel. The five-page “polite essay” called “Wittgenstein,” written for the National Review and reprinted in Geography, tries to convey the man’s particular presence:

“ ‘Philosophy classrooms in our century have frequently been as dramatic as stages: Santayana, Samuel Alexander, Bergson — men of passionate articulateness, whose lectures fell on their students like wind and rain. But Wittgenstein, huddled in silence on his chair, stammered quietly from time to time. He was committed to absolute honesty. Nothing — nothing at all — was to be allowed to escape analysis. He had nothing up his sleeve; he had nothing to teach. The world was to him an absolute puzzle, a great lump of opaque meaning of can, of can we, of can we think? What is the meaning of we? What does it mean to ask what is the meaning of swe? If we answer these questions on Monday, are the answers valid on Tuesday? If I answer them at all, do I think the answer, believe the answer, know the answer, or imagine the answer?’ (GI 332)

“If this tongue-in-cheek account seems casual and chatty, Davenport is in fact making the most careful of distinctions between the grammatical constructions Wittgenstein studied so assiduously. ‘Wittgenstein,’ we read in the essay’s last paragraph, ‘did not argue; he merely thought himself into subtler and deeper problems’ (GI 335). This might be an auto-portrait of Davenport himself.”

Read the rest of this fine essay at Sibila, and buy Davenport's classic Geography of the Imagination at the Godine website.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Squirrel P’Nutkin

What was that cacophony of scritching and scratching coming from behind the bed? Several years ago we found a mouse stuck in one of the clothing trunks stored there, but this was impossibly loud. What now, a super-sized mouse? While gingerly poking around the trunks, I realized the noise was coming from inside the wall. I peered out the bedroom window, and to my dismay, met the eyes of an eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as he cautiously appraised me from the electric wire that connects the telephone pole to our home. The squirrel quickly scurried back into the perfect silver dollar-sized hole he had gnawed in the right front corner soffit. The unusual sounds we had been hearing for the past several days were the squirrel zooming back and forth along the length of the soffit, gnawing, tearing, shredding, and generally having a grand time building a nest and making himself a home.

The next morning we heard him leaving the nest and, dangerously so, my husband Tom crawled out onto the porch roof and standing on tip toes, using a long pole, crammed steel wool and hardware cloth (heavy gauge wire netting that can be manipulated into whatever-shape-needed) into the hole. Later that afternoon we found all the squirrel deterrents that had been stuffed into the hole, as well as all manner of insulation and nesting materials, strewn about the ground below. Our attempts to keep the squirrel out had only served to trap his mate within. In her desperation to get out, she chewed a hole five times as big. Ridding our home of the squirrels was proving to be more difficult than anticipated and now, with the huge black gaping hole in front, our home looked like “Central Ave,” as my mother-in-law would say.

All advice from helpful friends and Internet websites led to one conclusion. We must first rid our property of all squirrels by trapping. Our friend Jim Holscher, contractor and roofing specialist, shared that, despite the fact that he had installed a new roof on a project, because the squirrels had formerly built a nest there, they ate through the new wood determinedly trying to reestablish their former nesting site.

Our first Havahart trap was too small and of no interest (designed for small squirrels). We needed Havahart model number 1030 (for large squirrels). Tom placed the 1030 directly below the telephone pole where we had seen our squirrels accessing their nest, where I could also observe it from my office window. Almost immediately after setting the trap, the neighborhood busybody phoned and informed us she was calling the police to have our trap confiscated. Reluctantly, because I hated to bother the police, I called our local department, using the non-emergency number. The officer on the line said are you joking? Of course they were not going to confiscate our trap. But to be sure we weren’t in violation of city codes, he referred me to the local animal control officer. The officer also shared his advice on effective squirrel trapping. A few days pass and still no takers to the peanut butter cracker feast arrayed in the trap.

Early the next morning, after a fresh-fallen snow, I thought that would be a perfect time to observe squirrel footprints to determine their route, to better place the trap. Fortunately, it was school vacation week, our street was very still, and I was hoping no one would see me shivering and staring up at the trees at daybreak. By 7:15 (squirrel wake-up time) I had positioned myself strategically to observe any squirrels exiting our home. The first squirrel emerged, and warily eyeing his surroundings, he dropped from our home onto the electrical wire and scurried to the phone pole. Did he head down toward the trap, with the fragrance of mini-diced apples, chunky peanut butter, and whole grain crackers wafting there to greet him? No, he scurried across the wire, in the opposite direction, and merged onto the Squirrel Super-Highway that is our neighborhood. Sailing from phone line to branch, tree limb to tree limb, and dexterously flying up and down the lengths of the trunks — very quickly the entire neighborhood became alive with the Squirrel Breakfast Club. Amidst their playful greetings and noisy chattering, all the while they were collecting food from their stockpiles in their summerhouses. The eastern gray squirrel’s summer home is the nest of loose leaves and twigs typically observed when the trees become bare in autumn. During the winter months, they rely on the food stored in their summerhouse. The breakfast fête lasted for about half an hour, when after circumferencing our neighborhood, and never once touching ground, our squirrel made his way back up Plum Street and toward our home. Before entering our nice cozy soffit, he traveled along the six-foot tall fence that encircles our backyard. As luck would have it, our fence was a thoroughfare on the Squirrel Super Highway.

Tom rigged the trap onto the top of the fence. We did not want the squirrel to suffer so he placed the trap within view of the kitchen window where it would be checked frequently. I had purchased roasted peanuts in the shell to try using as squirrel “chum.” Tom placed one peanut on top of the fence, one in the trap entry, and a third peanut at the far end of the trap. Within fifteen minutes he had a squirrel. Peanuts in the shell, plain and simple, is what squirrels live for. Thirty-eight squirrels later—as many as three in one morning—we have heard neither a scritch nor a scratch for several days. Tom kind-heartedly drove all trapped squirrels across the bridge to mature forests with densely wooded areas where we had observed an abundance of seeds and berries and plenty of rotted, fallen tree trunks, the ideal squirrel habitat. I had read that one needed to drive at least fifteen miles away or over a barrier such as a body of water, although a friend of Tom’s reported that, when out on her boat, she observed a squirrel swimming across Marblehead Harbor. We have seen several squished squirrels on the Abram Piatt Andrew Bridge, so I am not sure if the “over a body of water” theory is accurate. Some readers may object to trapping squirrels; however, squirrels carry diseases, urinate in their nests, and should be removed, more humanely, before they begin raising their young.

End Note: Squirrel Nutkin, of Beatrix Potter fame, was written about the European red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). As have introduced species of European birds such as the pigeon, starling, and house sparrow reeked havoc with our native songbirds, the North American gray squirrel, which was introduced to Europe during the Victorian era, is out-competing the red squirrel for food and habitat.

[Kim Smith is the author of Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! available through your local bookseller and Barnes and Noble. For more information about Kim, her design work, current projects, exhibits, or events, visit her website at or email at]

Rhode Island Flower Show

Eastern seaboard gardeners rejoice! The weekend-long Rhode Island Garden Show begins today. Godine's own Kim Smith will be signing copies of Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities at the show's official bookstore (run by the indie bookseller Other Tiger) on Saturday, beginning at 1pm. Come early to get an autographed copy and free seed packet from Renee's Seeds. Famed naturalist Roger B. Swain, who penned the introduction to our Herbs and the Earth will also be a keynote speaker at the show.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The New Godine Blog Post Template

For maximum internet exposure, just add vitriol! Here's an excerpt from Chris Clarke's blog-post turned newspaper article (did I really just write that?), “How to write an incendiary blog post,” at The Boston Globe:

“This sentence contains a provocative statement that attracts the readers’ attention, but really has very little to do with the topic of the blog post. This sentence claims to follow logically from the first sentence, though the connection is actually rather tenuous. This sentence claims that very few people are willing to admit the obvious inference of the last two sentences, with an implication that the reader is not one of those very few people. This sentence expresses the unwillingness of the writer to be silenced despite going against the popular wisdom. This sentence is a sort of drum roll, preparing the reader for the shocking truth to be contained in the next sentence.

“This sentence contains the thesis of the blog post, a trite and obvious statement cast as a dazzling and controversial insight.

“This sentence claims that there are many people who do not agree with the thesis of the blog post as expressed in the previous sentence. This sentence speculates as to the mental and ethical character of the people mentioned in the previous sentence. This sentence contains a link to the most egregiously ill-argued, intemperate, hateful, and ridiculous example of such people the author could find. This sentence is a three-word refutation of the post linked in the previous sentence, the first of which three words is ‘Um.’ This sentence implies that the linked post is in fact typical of those who disagree with the thesis of the blog post. This sentence contains expressions of outrage and disbelief largely expressed in Internet acronyms. This sentence contains a link to an Internet video featuring a cat playing a piano. [. . .]”

Look forward to hundreds and hundreds of Godine blog posts based on this formula.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Black Sparrow Book Giveaway @ Facebook

We're doing a special Facebook fan page / Black Sparrow Books giveaway this week. For every 10 new Facebook fans of Black Sparrow Books who join up from now through the weekend, we will be giving away one copy of Here & Elsewhere: the Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke to randomly selected fans. It means that if we get 50 new fans, we'll be sending out 5 copies of the book; if we get 100 new fans, we'll send out 10 copies. New and old fans are eligible to win free books, so become a fan for a chance to win and then invite your friends for better odds!

We are getting very web 2.0 around here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Clayton Eshleman on Lascaux

At Nomadics, famed poet Clayton Eshleman (author of several Black Sparrow titles) has a really wonderful reflection on the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux. He writes, "The area known as the Apse is a cupolar ceiling once 9 feet above the ground (which involved scaffolding to reach). Over 10 feet in diameter, it is packed with over 1400 mostly engraved figures: animals and parts of animals, comets, blazons, ovals, barbed signs etc. The all-over impression created by the Apse is that of a location and a surface so special that it cried out to be covered with markings. As Lascaux’s “holy of holies,” it evokes a primordial star map, as well as a visual pun-filled labyrinth, a kind of Upper Paleolithic Finnegan’s Wake.

"Below and to the west of the Apse is the entrance to the 16-foot-deep Shaft. In the 1960s, evidence of twisted rope made from vegetable fiber was discovered, suggesting that the Cro-Magnons descended into the Shaft hand over hand down such a rope. On the Shaft’s lower wall, to the left of the iron ladder now used for descent, is the most marvelous “scene” in Upper Paleolithic image-making. On one side is a hairy rhinoceros, on the other a bison with its intestines spilling out from a gash in its belly. Aslant under the bison is a bird-headed man, naked and ithyphallic, quite possibly a shaman in flight who has dropped his bird-headed staff as he penetrates bison paradise. While there are some 30 hybrid figures in Upper Paleolithic caves (including two in Lascaux’s Apse) that can be interpreted as magical hybrids, the bird-headed man in the Shaft is the most solid evidence that we have for the presence of proto-shamanic mental travel, or the rudiments of poetry, 17,000 years ago.

"What I have briefly described are but a few of Lascaux’s truly amazing images, some of which in their lineaments, execution, and beauty are unsurpassed in historical art. In Lascaux, humankind’s greatest endowment, imagination, is initiated, empowered, and fully realized. It is arguably the most spiritual spot on earth."

You can read the rest of his short essay at Nomadics.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

E-Mail List Book Raffle: Perec's Thoughts of Sorts

From now through Friday, two fans who sign up to our e-mail list will be selected to win a free copy of Thoughts of Sorts, the new title from one of our most beloved and acclaimed authors, Georges Perec. It is a collection of the author's final works: short essays on subjects both serious and whimsical. It is a treasure for those who already love his writing as well as the perfect introduction for the uninitiated.

Simply sign up to our e-mail list for a chance to win. We promise to respect your privacy, to never share your information with third parties, and not to bug you too much.