This is the official blog of Northern Arizona slam poet Christopher Fox Graham. Begun in 2002, and transferred to blogspot in 2006, FoxTheBlog has recorded more than 423,000 hits since 2009. This blog cover's Graham's poetry, the Arizona poetry slam community and offers tips for slam poets from sources around the Internet. Read CFG's full biography here. Looking for just that one poem? You know the one ... click here to find it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I miss the nuances of your back

I miss the nuances of your back
the curve of your spine in the dark
the eruption of breasts beneath thumbs
as hands trace the oceans of your ribs
drowning in the waves of warmth
as the rest of me sinks so deep
into your acrobatic hips
we could be Siamese twins
dancing in the moist heat
poured from mutual reverence
illuminating bed sheets as double stars
swallowed in nebulae of satin

in the absence of time,
your curves have been lost to my cartographers
each soft contour has became legendary
bends and dips deified into mythology
architecting tenets of my modern-day religion
parables passed through generations of cells,
from fingertips to bone marrow
newborn anatomy awaits your Second Coming
as it was told in the ancient days of your inhabitance

to the cellular shamans born after your departure
each concave inch of you now holds a god's name
the convex rises give birth to heroes
who ride through my waking dreams
bringing you back to me at mythical elevations

now, I understand why the faithful become fanatics

the daily moments of passing touches
fade in the shadow of the tactile nights:

when I explored your hips' rhythms
to match them in perfect pitch
and score symphonies to climax

or tasting your femininity
— as you climbed the wall, illiterate of consonants —
with a tongue that would have cut itself free of anchor
evicted its muscle and packed tastebuds in a suitcase,
making my teeth ex-neighbors
and mortgaged lodging between your thighs
rather than articulate another poem
on the currents of my stale lungs,
coming to your country as an immigrant
holding fast to the dreams born in the old country
and greeting your pudenda like Ellis Island

or pressing chest to your shoulder blades
when we regressed into our quadrupeded ancestors
shedding off the fabrications of status and names
before languages and civilizations muddled intentions
as pure as this
there, I was trying to beat my heart through rib cage
with every thrust, while in reverse
your heart attempted the same through yours
each eager only to touch aorta to aorta like a handshake,
molt off this used flesh and bone,
leave behind the smoking remains of our lust,
undock from our flesh chasses
splayed open in the bed like spent lobster shells
limbs still entwined around each other
resigning contented smiles engraved for future archaeologists

I couldn't be closer to you then
unless all of me
followed the part of me
already inside
I wanted to swallow each part of you like dessert
starting at all your perimeters
ingest you into my belly and reassemble you
so you could consume me from the inside out
and leave all the parts of me tasted
by a tongue that still leaves me breathless

this is the part of the poem
where expectations are to call you a goddess
but you're not, just a tangle of skin and sinew
calendar dates knotted around a name;
our anecdotes and memories
are forever irrelevant unless structuring new narratives
based on them
instead we could meet again as strangers
play new parts with fictionalized ancestries
like theatre actors changing scripts
we could choose to speak new languages
or feign unintelligible dialects
pretend familial rivalries
like Montague and Capulet

all the irrelevant pageantry lose importance
because your smile, preempting your kiss,
showers your warmth to all my cold places
the eagerness of my tongue disrobed from language
buried in your folds
rhythmically racing to keep damp
your well of pleasure so you lose touch with the world
outside this room
and forgetting all the unimportant histories
made by others' personal politicians
banishes their immaterial machinations
from our self-imposed isolationism

in the dim glow of our skins
beneath tungsten incandescence
electrons transcend their mortal coils
ascend into photons
refract off the contours of your smile
race at lightspeed into my retinas
bringing with them the quintessence
of your joy manifested by all my muscles' labors
toiling to cultivate and fructify a few moments more
until the climax uncaps prophesies
and we sink into the shelter of spent limbs
and broken tensions awash in oblivious serenity

in the denouement
the recalculating mathematical measurements
of touch and pressure and pleasure
the whens and hows resume conjectural status
and become theoretical constructs we can experiment later
and in the dark
when the tender brilliance of falling stars illuminates
exterior observers rooted into soil beyond the windows
your smile reincapsulates my intentions
into a bottle kept in my neocortex
I can open whether you're slumbering alongside
or gallivanting in foreign provinces
inhale deep the imagery
and relive your articulating smile
and all the endeavors endured
to rebirth it on your lips

Coda

amidst this flesh that strangers name
indwells the purpose to bring forth
the upturned curl and parted lips
that soothes the fire in my chest
and brings you back to my embrace,
no passing time nor distant road
can supplant the memory
that rebirths our touches hence
and leaves my heartbeat warm and full
as if worlds 'round would fade to dust

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Dandelion" by Perre Shelton



"Dandelion"
By Perre Shelton


she was never the beautiful, long-haired mother i wrote about in poems
she never walked barefoot through forests green blades of grass,
sheared a perfect two inches,
one blade at a time carpeting the front lawn of her pink and white bungalow.
she just wasn’t that lucky.

sunflowers and rose bushes never draped across white picket fences
her garden merely yielded curtailed dandelions polka dotted across patches of brown.

she learned to value their beauty because they had such pretty names, "dandelions."
however, she, my mother, still dreamt of sunny spring Saturdays
drenching her dreams with lemonade stands and sprinklers,
heart-shaped bushes and glass Coke bottles, liberty and justice for all.
but somehow, somehow she knew better than to dream too unsilently.

as a child she would fill my days with baloney sandwiches and flavored tap water.
then, i never understood how hard she tried to keep me happy,
and even up until today,
i have yet to discover how often she dreams.
but somehow, somehow i know its always about me and the husband she never had.
she was never that medallion-shaped, apron-cloaked mistress moving proud across the wooden floor she dreamt of
wearing almost perfectly white socks,
stretched disproportionate at the ankles from carrying life as pure as those damn white walls

she just wasn't that lucky,

but today wont let her forget.
wont let her sink into an oblivion of white walls and pined floors.
an oblivion of finely tuned but extremely rhythmless music.
mother, those dandelions are singing to you.

loud, boastful, brilliant.
mother, those dandelions are beautiful.
like you, but like you even they forget.
sorry they couldnt grow up amongst roses.
sorry they sprang from the cracks,
etched in povert America.
they grew up among society’s weeds.
the neighborhood hates those dandelions,
the neighborhood wants to kill those dandelions,
but my mother always grows back.
to soak sun and hold it in her cheeks.
thin colored all-brights, brilliant yellow
and that yellow faced dandelion will never die
but she will always dream of something more than those weeds.
until the day she realizes that a flower as beautiful as her
does not belong in a rose bush.

© Perre Shelton

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Even Oxford poetry professors compete poetically

Some "poetry purists" claim that slam cheapens the art form because poetry shouldn't be about competition. However, competition abounds in the poetry scene, even at academic institutions such as Oxford University. Professors compete for position and tenure with the same intensity as any down and dirty poetry slam.

So the next time someone complains that poetry shouldn't be about competition, politely ask how their college poetry professor, or any poet with title from teacher to laureate earned that title.

Weapons drawn, 'codgers' quartered: race to be Oxford poetry professor gets serious
Eleven candidates argue their suitability for August academic role ahead of start of voting this week

Promises to use poetry as a "weapon, bloodsoaked and glinting" and plans for a poetry slam contest suggest the competition for the role of Oxford poetry professor is heating up. The 11 candidates have each laid out their reasons for standing – one of them entirely in verse.

"I thought it might be oh-so hip / to win me a professorship, / and so I thought I'd write this note / to woo, to wow, to win your vote," writes Robert P Lacey, a medic who says if he were to be voted in by Oxford graduates, he'd write a poem a week and post it online, and also "form another, smallish prize / for poetry that please my eyes".

Outsider Lacey is up against best-known candidate Geoffrey Hill, whose backer, Professor Dame Averil Cameron, describes him as "a lecturer of unrivalled power, whose standing as a poet gives his discourse an added dimension".

Hill might be the most eminent writer in the running, but Oxford-based performance poet Steve Larkin is currently the frontrunner in terms of supporters, with 322 members in his campaigning Facebook group, compared with Hill's 271.

Larkin, who has plans for a poetry slam contest in Oxford, says he intends to "reload the literary canon and fire it through the walls of any stifling ivory tower that blocks the emergence of an exciting and inclusive live literature scene".

Competitor Roger Lewis, biographer of Anthony Burgess and Peter Sellers, is not a poet but a critic "who is attuned to poetry wherever it might be found, whether in opera libretti and biblical translations, in follies and grottoes, or in poetic personalities", according to his candidate statement. Lewis promised in the Times to "lead a rebellion against sour academics" if he were to be elected. "When I heard that the dons were sewing it up to elect either 77-year-old Geoffrey Hill or 75-year-old Michael Horovitz to the chair of poetry at Oxford, my heart sank," he said. "I'm sure they are nice old codgers, but I'm afraid I find their work serious-minded to the point of pain and obscure of purpose."

The Guardian's own contender for the role, journalist Stephen Moss, said he would give away the £7,000 yearly stipend "to needy poets and writers, and to good literary causes" if he were to be voted in by graduates, as well as set up an annual two-week poetry festival in Oxford and "buy anyone who votes for me a drink". As if that were not enough, Moss also "faithfully" vowed "not to publish too many of my execrable poems".

Perhaps the most dramatic statement of intent, however, comes from Sanskrit scholar Vaughan Pilikian, who claims that "meaning is in ruins, the divided world godless, broken, ailing, and no one has the will or temper to restore it".

"Without wishing to take anything from the professorship's venerable past, the time has surely come to douse

the sputtering flames of our own traditions and step out into the dark," he rallies supporters. "My aim in this august office will be to pull poetry from the drawing rooms and the garrets and the palaces, and send it forth. For poetry is a weapon, bloodsoaked and glinting. It is a gnostic heresy, a counterattack on all that holds us captive,

a challenge to the cruel symmetries and stifled laughter of the Demiurge. It is only through poetry that we might revenge ourselves on time."

Voting for the 11 candidates – who also include South African poet Chris Mann, "poet, husbandman and tunemaker" Michael George Gibson, poet and clinical neuropsychologist Sean Haldane and poet Paula Claire – opens on 21 May and closes on 18 June. The winner will start their five-year term in the autumn.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why aren't poets more politically active?


In the squares of the city -- in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office -- I see my people

And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'

If this land's still made for you and me.
America's poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy.

I find this condition perplexing and troubling -- both for poetry and for democracy. Because when I look at American poetry from the perspective of a fellow traveler, I see an art invested in various complex, fascinating, historical, and sometimes shop-worn literary debates.

I see a 21st-century enterprise that's thriving in the off-the-beaten-track corners of the nation's cities and college towns.

But at the same time that poetry's various coteries are consumed with art-affirming debates over poetics and styles, American poetry and America's poets remain amazingly inconsequential to the rest of the nation's civic, democratic, political, and public life.

This divide between poet and civic life is bad for American poetry and bad for America, too.

Decade after decade, poetry slips into its 1,500-copy-print-run oblivion and scattered identities on the Internet, and we hear not one chirrup about it from the leading thinkers or writers who have access to a dialogue with the greater public.

The culture-consuming audience that should provide poetry's best readers has scarcely noticed its diminishment. Or if they have noticed, they have also come to feel excluded, unconcerned, and dismissive because they believe that American poetry has become so esoteric that figuring out the differences among the warring poets and styles is wholly unnecessary for leading a culturally rich or civically engaged American life.

Before I go on, I want to make a distinction between poets who moonlight as cultural writers, on the one hand, and those who are engaged in political discourse, on the other -- though the distinction in some cases may be minimal.

For instance, on the side of those preoccupied with art, music, and culture other than poetry, I would include W.S. Di Piero, August Kleinzahler, Meghan O'Rourke, and Lloyd Schwartz. I would add the poet Edward Hirsch, in his capacity, since 2002, as president of the Guggenheim Foundation.

I would further make a distinction between activism and volunteerism, which are not my subjects here, and civic discourse and democratic engagement, which are.

I also don't mean to take up the idea of poets engaging the public just through their poems or to address the role that hard-working poetry administrators play in trying to bring more poems to more people.

Instead, I mean to question American poets' intractable and often disdainful disinterest in participating in the public political arena outside the realm of poetry.

By way of anecdote: During the past five years I had the good fortune to be editor of Poetry Northwest. The magazine's mission includes curating a dialogue between poetry, the other arts, and civic life.

You cannot believe how hard it is to get an American poet to write about something other than poetry.

"To write about something other than poetry," one poet spat at me in an e-mail, "is to waste my time." Fair enough. A poet must make his way in the world as best fits his vision for himself as an artist. But American poetry's tendency toward self-reflexivity and lyric purity has dissociated its poets from the arenas of democratic public concerns.

On rare occasion, poets have thrived among the vanguard of political protest, most visibly during the abolition movement in the 19th century and again during the Vietnam War in the 20th.

Afterward, though, as Wendell Berry noted in his 1975 essay, "The Specialization of Poetry," poets then receded into the fields, quads, and coffeehouses of an isolated and "constricted" art.

But I ask you:
  • Is contemporary poetry's aura of self-reliance mixed with cultural victimhood so pervasive that individual poets shirk any sense of responsibility for addressing matters of civic or political concern?
  • Is it unrealistic to expect the contemporary poet to leave the enclaves of poetry to speak about something other than poetry, and in so doing risk saving American poetry and perhaps American democracy too?
  • Or must we all admit finally that what poetry has become -- perhaps was destined to become in our assimilated, couch-potato culture -- is simply another industry of hermetic self-specialization?
Understand that I have enormous admiration and affection for the poet who composes poems in quiet rooms of contemplation and lives a rich, full life of privacy.

I empathize with the poet who says, "Hey, don't start, Dave. I'm concerned about nuclear technology in Pakistan being sold to rogue partisans in an unstable or despotic country, but it's also important that I work on my new manuscript of poems." Sure. Fine. But at the same time, the poet, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is representative, and he "stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth."

But before that kind of cultural, subversive, Emersonian infiltration happens in this century, there's still the weird American poetry culture to confront as it relates both to itself and to larger demographic trends.

Sometimes it seems that one clique of poets is determined to speak an entirely different language from another clique -- so that these various groups, growing more and more certain in their views, hunker down and accuse the others of misunderstanding and extremism.

Then, just embracing or defending the poetics of one's sect results in reinforcing the prejudice. American poets favor a definition of themselves in the cultural firmament as outsiders, lone wolves, individualists, and displaced persons.

As a result, America's poets have become so thoroughly enamored of this precious and sanctified self-definition that, like the precious and sanctified Henry David Thoreau, they want no part of democracy's "dirty institutions."

Poets are not alone in this regard.
  • Fewer Americans sign petitions, attend galleries, join associations, or even socialize.
  • Fewer people run for elected office or join PTAs.
  • Organization memberships are in steep decline.
  • The number of ordinary Americans who attend public meetings of any kind has dropped by almost 50% since the early'70s.
  • Interestingly, the same goes for participation in the family dinner.

At the same time, self-sorting into homogeneous enclaves, American society has become a collection of increasingly specialized interests.

The fragmentation infects families, friends, and neighbors. Where we once lived near work and people unlike ourselves, we now live far from our jobs and surrounded by those who are similar to us.

More people sink into the couch to watch television and play video games or surf the Web.

More people cluster and bond in groups of friends and associates that are like-minded in aesthetic values, child-rearing habits, economic ambitions, marketing interests, and, of course, partisan politics.

It's so much birds of a feather in my voting precinct that, in 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts received 90% of the vote. Wondering if it were possible that 10% of my lefty neighbors actually voted for President George W. Bush, I double-checked. Whew! Almost half of that 10% went for the various minor candidates, kooks, and write-ins.
To reinforce the point, 2008's results in my precinct were practically identical. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois won 90%, Sen. John McCain of Arizona 6%, Ralph Nader and the rest 4%.

Now consider the Balkanized world of American poetry.

Like Americans everywhere, America's poets have turned insular and clustered in communities of aesthetic sameness, communicating only among those with similar literary heroes, beliefs, values, and poetics.

Enter any regional poetry scene in any American metropolis or college town, and you will find the same cliquey village mentality with the same stylistic breakdowns.

Over here you have the post-avant prose poets, over there the kitchen-sink confessionalists, and across the road are the shiny formalists -- and no one ever breaks bread together.

As with politics, where you have "I'm voting for That One" liberals and "Time for a Tea Party" conservatives, poetry has evolved into a self-selected enclave, and also -- exactly like other sectors of American life -- it has stratified into enclaves within enclaves that are hyper-specific and self-referential.

Such inclination toward stratification -- whether it's exemplified by the world of poetry or something else -- is more than just an example of demographic sorting. It's a modern American phenomenon that ultimately corrodes both self and society.

Whether it's in poetry or politics, self-exclusion catalyzes isolation and diminishes shared connections. In its more partisan forms, it impedes cooperation and contributes to a chronic inability to find common ground -- whether it's literary or political ground.

Making fine distinctions in art, aesthetics, poetry, and politics matters, but honest discourse is about bridging differences, not just defending one's side, something you rarely see in poetry's rudimentary or even iconic debates -- or, for that matter, in the country's political ones. More, when you look at a fringe art like poetry in light of this civic gleaning, you quickly conclude that the capacity for poets to connect to audiences from more than some micro-segment of American life is fatally imperiled.

Unless something gives, the fractures will just keep fracturing.

Obviously, the responsibility for civic engagement does not lie only with the poet. The relationship between poets and democracy is an example of a horrible reality. That is, America's existing civic conversation is shattered.

Meanwhile, poets have sidelined themselves from public democratic dialogue -- with the poet existing as a kind of cultural tinkerer, secluded in his rickety kiosk in the dead mall of American civic life.

I mean, consider any individual poet at any period of his career, and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to redouble his efforts at self-study.

But what a hideous paradox. The same forces that make the American citizenry anti-poetic have also made Americans, including poets, anti-civic. The citizenry has turned inward and toward very specific pursuits -- so while the American poet was specializing in the self, the potential audience for poetry was too.

Maybe when Emerson wrote "The Poet" in 1833, and Walt Whitman wrote the preface to "Song of Myself" in 1855, it made sense to believe that if poets just wrote poems that celebrated the relationship between reality and the soul, then an American audience for poetry would come around, and the poets' influence on civic life would grow from that connection.

That must have seemed like an efficient, even subversive literary program for an era in which there was little competition for literate audiences -- especially ones shifting from frontier pursuits to urbanized pleasures.

But whether it's cause or effect, the vast fragmentation in today's cultural consumption coincides with audiences seeking ever more self-reflexive forms of art, entertainment, information, insight, and knowledge. For proof, just check your most recent Internet search history.

Given the ability our poets have to write poems that penetrate differences and discover connection, and given poetry's ancient predisposition for moral persuasion, surely America's poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities.

That's why for an American poet to be something like a subversive today would mean not pushing further inward into the huddles of poetry, but the opposite.

The poet who engages democratic dialogue and political life is the renegade, while the one who lives on the margins, settles into tenured existence, or remains committed to engaging only other like-minded types has aligned himself with something that in its best, purest, and most satisfying form is bourgeois comfort.

What's missing in our Republic's public discourse is the poet's mastery of reflection. The -- I swore I wasn't going to use this expression, but here goes -- "unacknowledged legislators of the world" is one of poetry's great, self-glorifying characterizations. But perhaps some acknowledged legislating on behalf of mankind wouldn't be such a bad thing either -- for poetry or for democracy.

In contrast to the American poet's studied distance from civic life, I would offer the Czech writer Václav Havel, who used his literary license as a basis for democratic activity, political leadership, and non-violent revolution, culminating in his election as president of the Czech Republic in 1989, a position he held for some 14 years.

Is there anyone in the world who thinks that Havel's literary background -- as opposed to his having, say, a military background -- did not increase the moral authority he summoned in his civic and political life? It's not that there hasn't been any recent involvement by American poets in democracy or politics. But the examples are excruciatingly rare.

In the '60s, on account of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Robert Lowell refused an invitation to the White House Festival of the Arts from President Lyndon B. Johnson, an act that was a capstone of American poets' protest of that decade's Cold War adventurism. This public act followed by some 20 years Lowell's conscientious objection to serving in World War II, detailed in a private letter to his fellow Brahmin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying that he would not serve in the Allied army -- thus becoming the first male in the Lowell family since the American Revolution not to fight in an American war.

I would note Adrienne Rich's more recent refusal of the National Medal of Arts during the Clinton Administration, as well.

Other poets have made themselves accountable in the public arena and have had an impact on the American political experience -- Allen Ginsberg in the 1960s, Rich in the 1970s, Robert Bly in the 1980s, Robert Pinsky in the 1990s, and Katha Pollitt for three decades in the pages of the Nation.

One could name others like Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry and Charles Simic -- as well as those from 19th-century American letters, such as James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier, who were fierce abolitionists, politicians, and poets all wrapped into one.

In 2003 Sam Hamill stirred up a poetry protest against the Bush Administration's impending invasion of Iraq, galvanizing poets across the nation to post anti-war poems on Hamill's Poets Against the War website (the name was a take on the sixties anti-war group, American Writers Against the Vietnam War, founded by Bly and David Ray).

Dana Gioia, who admirably directed the National Endowment for the Arts for eight years, was more than just involved in civic engagement. He was a political appointee confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Monica Youn's work on campaign finance reform on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York is superb. And even though I reject Amiri Baraka's hairbrained, "truther" talk about 9/11, the fact that he was speaking from the perch of the poet who was serving in a public role as poet laureate of New Jersey lent obvious weight to his cockamamie nonsense.

I've just named a nifty dozen or so, but these poets only represent the great potential that poets possess to engage civic discourse and influence political debate. Why aren't there more?

One reason may be that there has sometimes been a distasteful, perhaps prohibitive price exacted from their fellow poets against such public efforts.

Take Bly, for example. When I remarked to a national literary administrator that Bly, ever since the success of his 1990 book, "Iron John," has had trouble getting any serious little magazine to review his new books of poems, this literary advocate, also a poet, objected. He contended that Bly had turned his back on poetry. Turned his back? Bly spent decades in the hardscrabble vineyards of American poetry and everyone knows it. His political engagement has brought readers to his and other people's poems across languages and cultures.

What I'm getting at is this:
Poets are actually uniquely suited and retain a special cultural gravitas to speak publicly and morally about human aspirations. And when more poets participate in the public sphere of democratic discourse and even politics, then I've little doubt that one consequence will be greater public enthusiasm for the private revelations of our sonnets, odes, and elegies.

It's not that poets have to give up either the debates about poetics or their solitary compositional habits and products. But American civic life needs an honest broker, one who possesses the poet's core values of illumination, imagination, reflection, and sincerity.

American democracy needs the citizen-poet to address a gamut of difficult-to-solve public issues such as cultural fragmentation, national health care, decrepit infrastructure, threats of terrorism, energy consumption, climate change, nuclear proliferation, warfare, poverty, crime, immigration, and civil rights. And America's poets are surely in need of vital avenues to reconnect with the American public.

For sure, America's poems will go on clicking along, phrase by phrase, line by line, like some undiscovered nerve in the multi-multi-story of American life: cacophonous, diverse, unsettled, hybridized.

I want to suggest that a great public will peer into the world of poetry if the poets will speak outside of the chiseled monuments of poems and distinct aesthetic debates directly to matters beyond memory, private reclamation, and linguistic chop-chop.

Surely some poets are ready to escape the art's strange civic silence and enter the blunderbuss of American democracy. For too long now American poets have followed their own footsteps. They've roamed and rambled.

And while poets have had their backs turned against American civic life, go figure, America has turned its back on poetry too.

Sadly, to acknowledge -- especially in this magazine -- that the poet barely makes an impact in our great, daily, national, democraticdrama is to feel that contemporary poetry is buried alive. But, as go America's poets, so goes American democracy.

Beyond the essential concern for writing poems, the poet's role must also include public participation in the life of the Republic. By and large, poets have lived by the creed that this sort of exposure can be achieved only through the making of poems, that to be civically engaged in any other fashion would poison the creative self. But while poems are the symbolic vessels for the imagination and metaphor, there are additional avenues to speak to the tribe.

The function of the poet may be to mythologize experience, but another function is to bring a capacity for insight -- including spiritual insight -- into contact with the political conditions of existence.

The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering.

And just as soon as the American poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both American poetry and American democracy will be better off for it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bill Murray reads poetry to construction workers

Bill Murray has always been one of my favorite actors, ever since I saw "Stripes" as a kid. However, he's become one my favorite famous people since I heard a recording of him introducing U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins before a reading to a college audience.

In the spring of 2009, Murray read poetry to construction workers on break from building the new Poets House.



Bill Murray is the fifth of nine children born to Edward and Lucille Murray. He and most of his siblings worked as caddies, which paid his tuition to Loyola Academy, a Jesuit school. He played sports and did some acting while in that school, but in his words, mostly "screwed off."

Bill Murray enrolled at Regis College in Denver to study pre-med but dropped out after being arrested for marijuana possession.

Murray then joined the National Lampoon Radio Hour with fellow members Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi. However, while those three became the original members of "Saturday Night Live" (1975), he joined "Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell" (1975), which premiered that same year. After that show failed, he later got the opportunity to join "Saturday Night Live" (1975).

Murray first gained national exposure on Saturday Night Live, and went on to star in a number of critically and commercially successful comedic films including Caddyshack (1980), Ghostbusters (1984), and Groundhog Day (1993).

Murray gained additional critical acclaim later in his career, starring in Lost in Translation (2003), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and a series of films directed by Wes Anderson, including Rushmore (1998), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Devil’s Gardens


The Devil's gardens was the name given by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the German Afrika Korps during World War II, to the defensive entanglements of land mines and barbed wire protecting his positions at El Alamein in late 1942.

During the 'break-in' phase of the battle, British commander Lt General Bernard Montgomery planned for engineer troops supporting infantry brigades of 2nd New Zealand Division to clear lanes through the minefields along which attacking formations would pass into the Axis positions.

Engineers using hand tools were supplemented by Scorpion tanks equipped with rotating flails to explode anti-vehicle mines.

These did not work as well as had been hoped and manual methods of clearing had to be resorted to.

This would have been more difficult, had the minefields not been sown with relatively few anti-personnel mines.


An estimated 3 million mines were laid before the battle,
most of which remain in position to this day, becoming more unstable as the years pass and injuring local people who use the area.

The Devil’s Gardens
For Soultan Saad, Faiez Fadiel, Mastour Moftah and thousands of other landmine victims in Egypt and around the world


"Allah, most gracious, most merciful, hear my prayer"
"Allah," the name of God in Arabic
"Allah" is pronounced with the flip of tongue over vowel
"Allah" is the only word she can still speak without sounding funny
she wonders if Allah will hear her prayers if he can't understand them
she can still pray to Allah,
but acknowledging his prophet
"Muhammad, peace be upon him,"
leaves her lips strained to wrap around the consonants
so she prays once extra time each day to compensate,
hoping that if he can't hear her,
he can see her faithfulness
and have mercy

"Allah, most gracious, most merciful, hear my prayer"
beneath sand it waits
it waits for the Desert Rats
a rattlesnake of tin and steel hate
wrapped around patriotically packed powder
fuses primed to strike for King and county
it waits for Nazi jack books to pound the soil
it waits to leap into the air
become a momentary burst of sun
suicide itself into oblivion and save Egypt and the Empire
it waits for an enemy offensive that never came
it waits still
alongside 16 million brothers

but the Nazis never came
exhausted, depleted and running on fumes
Field Marshal Edwin Rommel retreated from El Alamein
and Gen. Bernard Montgomery chased him to the sea
but the explosive fortress wall lurks
buried in the sand
ever vigilant
ever alert

From Egypt to Tunisia
shattered tank carcasses are unmarked coffins
for rival imperialists
the Saharan sand buried burned and shot soldiers
swallowed their tanks, guns and shells
swallowed them alongside the swords
of Crusaders and Saracens,
Romans and Carthaginians
the Saharan sands believe in no deities
the sand were here before them all:
Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah, Zeus, Ra, Amon, Tanit and Ba'al Hamman
the sand will outlast them as it always has
it swallows the monuments, the tombs, the names
the sand covers all

Noora al-Hayiz knew this
before Allah, her family prayed to different names
the Bedouins changed names with the times
but the sand was always the same

"Allah, most gracious, most merciful, hear my prayer"
Noora knew these sands were dangerous,
predators will stalk your goats,
her father warned,
hyenas and jackels will hunt them,
but not you,
her father gave her a gun,
taught her to shoot to scare,
her mother said
the only men you'll find out there beyond the hills
are other Bedouins,
and if they do not know you,
they know your father,
and Bedouins can be trusted

beyond the hills,
Noora knew the stories
her father's fathers had scavenged the scrap from tanks
his father's fathers had found the bones
of nameless Turks and Christians, Greeks and Phoenicians
who fought the sands and lost

she knew the Nazis turned here
and the British chased
but who they were or why they fought
made no difference
the Bedouin have faith in the sand
and the sand never changes

"Allah, most gracious, most merciful, hear my prayer"
was all she remembers
all she could scream out to the desert wind
when the landmine leapt to its purpose
detonated into a starburst
gave 68 years of pent-up rage release
from a war ended decades before she was born

"Allah, most gracious, most merciful, hear my prayer"
the mine cleaved foot from ankle
left her limping in the sands
to walk six miles back to her camp,
the mine
scarred her face with shrapnel
left her unable to speak Arabic poetically
left her unable to smile
left her unable to properly pray

Noora gets on her knees to pray
six times a days
her mother doesn't understand why
her father can't bear the sight of her
his broken jewel of daughter

"Allah, most gracious, most merciful, hear my prayer"
military historians don't include her name
in their essays
no monument inscribes her name into the final tally
Noora is another casualty,
another body added to the numbers of those who fell at El Alamein
68 years after the battle
65 after the peace
the nations who fought have buried their enmity
only memories and mines remain
Noora asks Allah for mercy
but knows he will not answer

instead, she asks the sands
to swallow the mines
she asks the sands
to let the mines find peace and sleep
alongside all those unnamed soldier
alongside all those unprayed-to gods
who still lay buried and nameless
find peace and sleep until they, too,
dissolve into the sands and blow away

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"The Desire of Dali's Women" by Caroline Harvey



I fell in love with Caroline Harvey and her work in Austin in 2005. She still ranks up there with of the strongest female poets I've met on the national poetry slam scene.

Committed to a life's work of cultivating creativity, awareness and vibrant health, Caroline Harvey is an artist, educator and somatic therapist in Boston.

Caroline laughs when recalling that her imaginary friend as a little girl was the moon. One of her other earliest memories is of leading a meditation about "floating on the ocean" for a group of first grade friends at a slumber party, and she still has the feather collection she began in preschool.

A passionate communicator with a natural fascination for words and expression, Caroline began writing and performing plays, poetry and short stories as a child. Also a lover of movement, Caroline enjoyed formal dance classes for many years and continues to dance as often as she can. Her parents remind her that she was never very good at following the rules she didn't agree with; she skipped past both the third grade and her last two years of high school and at 16 she left home to follow the Grateful Dead around the country. Caroline then relocated to England where she studied creative writing, art history and philosophy at Oxford Tutorial College.

In 2002 Caroline was awarded a master’s degree in dance from University of California Los Angeles' Department of World Arts and Cultures where she wrote and performed a thesis about somatic healing, the witnessed and felt embodiment of intuition and a cross-cultural examination of sacred art. She dove into her studies, exploring anatomy, movement therapy, choreography and site-specific performance, the politics of the body, and many movement techniques including the sacred practices of Afro-Cuban dance and drumming. Both the renowned movement artist/choreographer Simone Forti and the celebrated theater revolutionary Peter Sellars sat on her thesis committee. While at UCLA she also studied at the Department of Theater, Film and Television where she served as a choreographer for films and was the Teaching Assistant for many of the "movement for actors" courses.

Additionally, Caroline holds a BFA in theater from Boston University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude and won the Dean's Award for Academic Excellence. Caroline is a devoted student of health and yoga pioneer Ana Forrest and is a graduate of her Foundational, Advanced, and Continuing Educational Forrest Yoga Teacher Trainings.

She feels incredibly lucky and wholeheartedly indebted to the many pilgrims, elders, family members and mentors who have led the way and lit her path.

A dedicated teacher, professional artist and health practitioner for over a decade, Caroline currently works as a yoga, dance and meditation instructor & workshop leader, a doula (birth attendant), and is in private practice as a somatic Therapist in Boston, specializing in Craniosacral Therapy. She is the creator of Sacred Groove, an ecstatic dance practice, Awakening the Yogini: Extraordinary Yoga and Education for Women, and CranioYoga, the artful synthesis of Restorative Yin Yoga and CranioSacral Therapy. Caroline also teaches two voice curricula, Free Your Voice and Embodied Poetics.

Caroline also teaches and performs poetry nationwide. She was featured in two documentaries and appeared on Season 5 of HBO’s Def Poetry. A past member and coach of multiple Poetry Slam Teams and currently the Poetry Mentor at Berklee College of Music, Caroline has been a part of victories on both national and regional stages. She is especially committed to facilitating creative writing classes for at-risk youth, survivors of trauma and those working to get free from drug and alcohol addiction and she recently completed a poetry and visual arts project, in conjunction with The Attleboro Arts Museum, for teens in foster care called "Between The Lines." She is honored to have been featured at schools and organizations such as YouthSpeaks, The Esalen Institute, Bristol Community College, Northeastern University, UC Berkeley and UCLA.

Caroline's writing, which tracks her belief that even the fiercest traumas contain within them the capacity for profound healing and beauty, has been published in various literary journals and anthologies including the 2005 National Poetry Slam Anthology
"High Desert Voices" and the Harvard publication "The Charles River Review." She is currently working on a new collection of poems based on the women Salvador Dali painted and a book about her most recent travels in Asia and Central America.

She continues to collect feathers, to be curious, questioning, pioneering and wild, and she hopes never to stop talking to the moon.