This has been one of the most amazing years in my whole life. I read at venues that deeply connected me to the American poetic tradition: The Walt Whitman Birthplace; the Poetry Center of Passaic Community College; the UA Poetry Center; the Fine Arts Work Center. It has taken 4 decades of work to get to these places, but I am the poster child for persistence and persist I did. I thank all of the organizers and audiences for their hospitality and generosity and embrace of my work. In February, I was at AWP on a panel about capitalism! And I read from TRUTH TO POWER from Cutthroat Journal, one of my fine volumes emanating from political turmoil of these times. But more importantly, I got to hang out with Joy Harjo-we have known each other for 4 decades and this year she received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the most prestigious for American poets and then I received the Poets and Writers Jackson Prize–little did we know that on the day before my birthday in February.
New York City is very much alive. While 8 people died from a terrorist attack even as tiny ghouls, smurfs, pirates, heros and sheros walked about with huge bags demanding candy. Meanwhile those with little or nothing on shivered in the chilly Halloween weather.
New York City is very much alive. While the mayoral race is on, many people are learning what they can and cannot do politically. Politics in this state must change-new people should be allowed to run; new voices need to be heard. Too much is done as if this was the 19th century.
New York City is very much alive. At the CUNY Grad Center Victor Hernandez Cruz read from his latest book and one of his oldest and best poems to a group of grad students, fellow poets like Don Yorty and me and then he sat down for a public interview. It was fun.
New York City is very much alive and moving and dealing with possible deaths and awful disruptions and yet the masks and costumes; the candy and liquor; the poets and critics were all out and about. Truck drivers, shoe bombers, radicalized racists won’t stop the music of any great city.
It seems fitting to post this picture of a humble sign placed on the gates in front of St. Mark’s Church. Today’s morning sky was BRIGHT as in BRIGHT and the air a soft chill. Adam Fitzgerald, Emily Skillings, Eileen Myles and the staff at The Poetry Project organized an informal, intimate farewell in the church’s austere sanctuary. A place where John had sad many a time. The last time I went to an event like this was the one organized for Amiri Baraka, which I chronicled in an earlier post. Since it was early and I live in Brooklyn, I got there about half hour into the proceedings just in time to hear David Shapiro, shaking and frail, tell anecdote after anecdote, mostly it seemed about himself, but really about the relationship he had with Ashbery. He read a letter Ashbery sent to him when he was 15! He read a beautiful poem. He made me want to just sit him down. I did not cry. But I think Emily did as she played an audio of John reading from a recent poem–every once in a while he would cough, but then his voice would regain vigor–that performance thing that kicks in no matter what. I had not realized that Emily was one of Ashbery’s many assistants.
Marcella Durand talked about his inscriptions–they were often lines from specific poems in the books and she read the inscriptions and then the excerpts from the poems. Fred Moten told us he never met John, but had some words to say and so he said them–it was a fine salute. Dorothy Friedman talked about being part of Ashbery’s first class for the Brooklyn College MFA program back in 1974. Her voice boomed out and she noted that a week or so after Ashbery’s demise, she got a letter from him (the post office is really getting slow) thanking her for her review of his recent art show. Todd Colby also talked about that program, but by the time he got to Brooklyn John had left–that MacArthur grant made a huge difference.
I think that because John travelled, wore suits on occasion and was a most courtly of gentlemen poets, some folks thought him rich–he was not. He worked hard all his life and you could see the range of that work in the kinds of pieces poets used. Bob Holman talked about creating a performance script from Girls on the Run, Ashbery’s booklength poem based on the Henry Darger art work. And he read a fine tribute poem. Jeff Wright told a joke that John liked to tell. And Paul Muldoon read the final poem Ashbery published in The New Yorker.
I was going to read from The Vermont Notebooks, which is not the most sophisticated of Ashbery’s ouvre but maybe the most fun–it’s the collaboration with Joe Brainard. And there they are on the cover looking super masculine-lots of hair, work clothes oh so 70s! Oh before AIDS. Anyways, I left the book in my living room and well basically said I represented all the Black poets (Fred included) who really loved John’s work and also the ones who knew him. And I read my poem for John’s 90th birthday: “Le Tribute
Funny you request 90 words for 90 years
Okay the thing about Ashbery
Is that he makes us
unsure of which direction is the direction home
But, there is always home in Ashbery’s work, now isn’ t there?
Home & fame’s odd wit.
John tells me about seeing Marlon Brando Boston tryout
in A Streetcar Named Desire. A new masculine norm.
The abstracted beauty of it all & odd tempered music
and the ears ready to hear.
That he has
Something to say
and will just
Say it. So there.
Then Adam Fitzgerald gave story and anecdote and quip and love in the form of stories, anecdotes, quips expressing his deep love for his mentor and friend. I did not hear John sing Old Man River–that might have been too much, but I got back for le restroom to hear Rachmaninoff-Ashbery’s favorite music. Tres romantic.
Walking out into the bright mid day–I knew that a mass murder took place in New Orleans, that our President seemed to have an inability to communicate with people who are not White, rich and male, that there are more people sleeping on subway benches and that the subways frequently breakdown and the sun will set and it will rise as we humans regard:
“The climate, the cities, the houses, the streets, the stores, the lights, people.” John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebooks.
He’s got many friends in Poetry Heaven–I bet the party has started.
First I am deeply honored to be a featured guest of the University of Arizona’s Thinking in Presence (TIP) conference–here’s the link: https://www.thinkingitspresenceconference.com/
That’s like the really good news. There are other personal and spiritual things that are really good too, but the heart of America is rotting by the minute. A President who instead of finding better ways to assist the peoples of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where actual American citizens live, tweets nasty remarks about the mayor whose resources are at best limited. Is the President over the age of 10? Is he?
There is so much more, but what has been great is that the literary, performing and arts community across racial and ethnic lines have stood with the people of Puerto Rico. We understand that a man who so easily picks and chooses the winners and loosers from NATURAL DISASTERS is not to be respected or trusted. Whatever dignity the office confers upon him is gone.
So really & truly Ijustcan’teven say his name or wish him well. Ijustcan’t.
but it is a wet and treacherous one in the East and to the South and a dry and hot one to the West and North-floods and fire. Yeah, it is almost Biblical, but mostly this worst of these disasters are human made–over development in the East and West; human habitats where none existed a generation ago, making fires more prevalent and harming animals from birds to bobcats.
Nature and humans position with in nature is really at full throttle dialogue right now with humans f**king stuff up and nature doing what nature does, spread water, spread fire, spread dis ease. The we don’t see climate change like the people who say we don’t see culture are in deep denial or are addicted to lying–I think the latter. What shall we do.
Well as long as there is a Republic and people can actually vote for or against candidates, I say work hard for the ones you care about and work hard to remove the ones that are making a mockery of science and good sense. Nature is not annoyed. Nature is enraged and nature will take things back.
The news has been of Houston flooded and more rain coming. There is a FEMA director which is good, that’s about it in terms of federal support. The governor and mayor are fighting over the evacuate not evacuate issue. Even with a natural disaster, we cannot get along.
Our President has set a divisive tone from his bizarro world take on the White Supremacists rallies in Charlottesville and the spirited resistance and response to Nazis, White Nationalists and Klan members and the death of law enforcement officers and the murder of Heather Heyer. If ever someone wanted to illustrate a definition of the phrase “speaks with forked tongue” it would be of Trump at that news conference a few days afterwards. This is deeply disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising. 45 is a man of few words, but most of them hurt: Muslims, women, transgender people, refugees, migrants esp. from Mexico, and of course Black people–he was the guy who created the “birther” narrative. But mostly he hurts this nation and so few in his party have either the power, courage or concern to actually stand up to him and his ilk. The more obvious White nationalists are off the White House staff, but the ideas are there and will not go away.
I hate racism. I work hard to uphold the beauty and power of my tribe: Black Americans are amazing group of humans. Everything that could be done to humans has been done to us by those who adhere to White supremacy–even those who claim”I am not a racist”. Well maybe you’re aren’t, but your comfortable life is based on institutional racism: it curbs competition for education, jobs, political power; it upholds the cultural idea of who is supposed to “look American”; it allows for policies that ultimately hurt everyone-esp. the militarization of police departments across this nation.
The irony about Houston under water and what will have to happen for funding to recover this part of Texas is that the very legislators who voted TO NOT FUND SUPERSTORM SANDY RECOVERY are now going to have to ask for help. Many of these Congresspeople do not think climate change exists and they are often elected on their anti-science, anti-environmental, racist attitudes disguised as pro-law enforcement–they like the President speak with forked tongues. In this nation and in this world, our troubles are man made.
In an era of intense #resistance to what is now the status quo, we need to remember how important it is to know history; to honor those who love and built our nation, not those who fought to tear it apart; that those in power esp. those who bully and dishonor their positions need to imprisoned, not pardoned. #Resistance is important, but sometimes fighting back is also and ultimately, replacing those who create, produce and support racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-environmental, anti-science, anti-rule of law policies. If we do not, the clownish concentration camp that Sheriff Joe once ran will be in every city and state in this country. We deserve so much better than what we have right now.
There is a little girl happy at La Casita
See her compose her dance as the band
Launches a jibaro tune from Old San Juan
Watch her smile rise and her little legs
Loop before the stage’s apron. She’s
The grace note, the sweet dream of
Manny Vega’s phantasmagorical temple
To community: the laughter, the dominoes
The courting couples, the elders resting
The garden fertile with peppers, squash
And greens from around the globe.
–Patricia Spears Jones
I wrote this poem after performing at La Casita, the annual summer celebration of community, poetry, music and dance resulting from Manny Vega (the artist) and his friend’s celebration of the gardens and meeting places that seemed to spontaneously develop in Puerto Rican neighborhoods throughout New York City–the little house, la casita was a place where the old and young could talk and sing and play dominoes and bond. Each year the curators pull together poets and musicians and performers to present work and this year I had the honor of reading in Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center. And that little girl who danced her 2-3 year old girl’s dance represented for all the audience. She is a reminder that there is joy in this city; that children are loved; that artists make new and important work; that the sun shines for the artists on a day when rain was threatened. I was not well enough to hear all of the performers, but I left as Persian music (including poems by Rumi) was being performed by Haleh. It comes from a great tradition as did the Puerto Rican music the little girl so loved and its spirits helps me, all of us hold on.
I am not sure what I was expecting when I agreed to be a featured speaker and workshop leader for the 2nd annual Gemini Ink Writers Conference. I knew that I would be paid okay and I’d have a hotel room and meet some really great writers from all over the country because that is what conferences do. But I had no idea of how much I’d like San Antonio. The hotel was straight out of the 1950s and yes it was LBJ’s campaign headquarters. The Tiki Bar was small and tacky-the music was great or awful depending on the lounge lizard on the floor. The staff was attentive or not depending. San Antonio is majority Latino, but you can see that power is in the hands of Anglos. And the place is all about male vanity. Indeed, the hats, boots, well ironed cotton shirts–every man had some sort of attire that said this is who I am or what I do. And women dress to please them. The heels high. The necklines flattering. Or they dress to defy them. Either way the patriarchy is rules Texas even in its gentler form in San Antonio.
That’s the human sort of thing, but what was thrilling was the shape of the city, the architecture, the sun blasting all creatures, buildings, streets and water. There was this engagement with the river and the street and the sun that really enthralled me. The heat is serious. The colors are bright and then blasted by the sun light. The black and white mural on Navarro Street seemed to say-we have to seek the very basic of colors–black and white, all the others wil
l be bleached away. The conference was a great success I think. But for me it was revealing–a reminder that the history of this nation is varied and complex and one 300 year old city can showcase the greatness and the smallness of our ideas, ideals and civility. It was pointed out that 25% of the local Hispanic population is illiterate. It was also explained to me that there is no unified school board, no citywide
support of public education. That illiteracy rate goes to show how power is not shared in San Antonio and why there are many many people exploited each and every day even as the flowers blossom and the river curves its way into the heart.
not really, but my poems are being translated. Marilyn Hacker recommended my work to the editor of a major Paris based literary journal and here’s the result. SO PLEASED. Now have poems translated into Czech, Spanish and French. Check out my poems and poems by D. Nurske, S. Rauschenbush and Barry Wallenstein.
These tulips were in full bloom the day it was announced that I was the 2o17 recipient of the Jackson Poetry Prize. Good friend and Bed-Stuy neighbor, Alicia Bleghens and I walked about the garden on a day full of sun and full of people. Since then I feel as if much of my life is full of sun and full of people and filled with gifts, many insubstantial. I sit in my apartment which is also my studio looking at books and art with the fan whirring and my belly a bit too full from an overlarge breakfast and feeling deeply grateful for my personal rewards, and deeply disappointed in the current political environment.
The Fourth of July really is a complicated holiday for Black Americans. As someone whose family has been here several generations including the generation of enslavement, I so understand how necessary liberty and equality and justice is for full humanity and citizenship. All of the white nationalists carrying on about “their” country makes me simply want to vomit. But they are doing what their ancestors did: terrorize people and scar their own communities. Their own communities need to disown, dismiss and deeply disrupt their activities. Alas racism remains a think strand in the American tapestry and will take a while, a long while to undo.
I say this with some kinds of optimism in my heart. It could be that I just taught a workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA where I worked with white people who are working hard to know more about writers and cultures outside of their own. This is challenging work, but the work is being done and out of that comes more complicated, sophisticated poetics (I think). When I asked them to recommend poets they read, the list included many contemporary writers of color. I deeply admire the range.
Since May, I have made a number of difficult decisions, but ones that I needed to make. I will not teach comp next year. I do not want to do so. I am working on a new poetry manuscript as new poems written between 2015 and now keep arising from my mind and heart. I look forward to teaching at Adelphi University. I am grateful for the many blessings I have received this year and I am so pleased to share what I know and learn new things. It takes the sting from the ugliness, stupidity and bellicosity of the political environment. It makes me know that in America change happens, sometimes for those who already have too much, sometimes for the rest of us.
One of the joys of my time in Provincetown was joining Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein who have been summering on the Cape since they were young newly weds–that was like 30 something years ago. They heart heart heart the National Seashore and now so do I. The Atlantic Ocean is powerful and inexorable and thanks to President Kennedy we can see this place much like the pilgrims who alas cut own the many beeches and left the coast as dunes. Much is being done to hold off the erosion of the shore, but it’s beauty abides. The National Seashore is a true treasure. If you go to Cape Cod, you must see it.