good bye John Ashbery

sign, St. Mark’s gate

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

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.

International Women’s Month–for me it’s about friends

Joy Harjo and me, off site reading, 2017 AWP DC

For my birthday this year I left NYC and my usual confab of friends and went to the 2017 Conference and Bookfair organized by AWP.  I only went for 2 days of the 4, so missed many panels and events and moments to schmooze. But I did get to participate in the Truth to Power reading organized by Pam Ushuk and the wonderful people who put together Cutthroat Journal.  Joy Harjo, whom I missed started off the 2 hour event.  I’ve known Joy since we were young and upcoming poets in the mid 1970s.  She already had a couple of books out, looked like a model and was just all embrace the world.  We were at a CCLM aka CLMP meeting–I ran the Grants Program and she was one of the jurists.  We were in Austin, Texas and somewhere after a day of deciding how to give some money to several different kinds of literary magazines, we along with Cecilio Garcia Camarillo, a Chicano poet, decided to go dancing in a local rock and roll club.  As soon as we walked in the door we INTEGRATED THE PLACE!  And we had a ball.  Nothing like being in your 20s and dancing to loud loud music while folks drank beer and the scent of marijuana wafted through the club.  Good times!  I’ve not seen or heard from Cecilio since the 1970s although I hope he is alive well and writing.  But Joy andI have remained friends and it is good to see her still look like a model and write even more amazing books of poetry.

Next day I got to hang with Metta Sama who is a more recent friend.  She’s an amazing writer, critic, educator, caretaker and arts enthusiast.  My kind of people.  People who love knowledge.  Who care deeply & who have a strong sense of style.  We were able to get tickets through the help of other friends.  It was great to do this with her and pay her back for the great hospitality she showed me and the writer Meera Nair when we read and workshopped in North Carolina.

birthday at NMAAHC in DC

Outside the NMAAHC in DC on my birthday.

Good people.  Creative people.  People who love to dance make life worth living.  Great women poets and artists.

Soraya Shalforoosh and me at her book launch, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn 2014

Carrie Mae Weems and Sandra Payne at Dawoud Bey’s exhibition.

post reading at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, Dec. 2015 w/ Lydia Cortes

I have those people in my life. #gratitude.

Poet friends

Black women make beautiful poets: E. Hunt, H. Mullen, T. Foster & E. J. Antonio

Belladonna reading, March 2015

Kimberly Lyons, Laynie Brown, et al,March 2015

many dreams many nightmares

A Lucent Fire

A Lucent Fire: New and Selected

It is November and it is bright or gray depending on the day and precipitation.  The Northeast has the kind of light that dazzles. And then there are days that truly chill your bones.  And then so much carnage, Beirut, Paris, Kenya–the ugly angry work of men intent on inflicting pain suffering and death.  How to respond?  We must with creativity, liberality, generosity and intelligence as in discernment.    So let us stay with dreams that are not nightmares.

First, I yet again am the first feature of a new journal.  This time quotidienbee started by Shanna Compton and the wonderful people at Bloof!.  Here’s the link. https://medium.com/the-quotidian-bee/self-portrait-as-shop-window-da5fadc3a952/.  I know that David Rivard will just love this.  Also, my poem “Dancer” was posted on poets.org’s Poem of the Day site.

I just heard that I will be receiving a grant for my work from a wonderful Fund for women writers–am waiting for the announcement to post.

I am very proud that The Future Imagined Differently is up and does with very little what others spend millions on. http://aboutplacejournal.org/

Wonderful poets from Shelagh Patterson to Tai Allen to Christina Olivares to Sharon Mesmer are a few of the writers featured and great artists such as Denise Milan and Janet Goldner are presented.

And I look forward to reading December 9 I will be reading at The Poetry Project with Susie Timmons.    These are all dreams come true for me.

We are living in violent times.  We are also living in times where many among us are looking deeply at how we make this world–how we hold what is dear to us and work to bring harmony and peace.  War is not to taken lightly and the greatest nightmare is the kind of rhetoric coming out of many of those now running for the Presidency–we need wise people not easy bellicosity. Let us work to be as intelligent, generous, and creative as we can be.  Let our dreams flourish and those nightmares wither.

 

Life Lessons from Living in the Love Economy

Life Lessons

There are many lessons learned in life

But few come from tragedy—I know, I know

 

What makes you stronger and all that.  Rot

I say

 

You learn more from what makes you laugh

How much pleasure the tongue can bring and where it was placed

 

The sweet look on your lover’s face.  Or how loud P FUNK

Could be on stage and off   NOT JUST KNEEDEEP

 

The towers falling; a man shot in the back

All terrible, but: What can you do about that?

 

What can you make of a world so wedded to injustice?

How dare you name the oppressor and demand his head,

 

His badge, his ranch or those secret accounts in the Maldives?

It is not as if the struggle is useless, it is that it continues.

 

But joy, where is it?  What does it look like, smell like—bergamot

Lemons, honey, roses, musk?

 

To find it, is to explore a path where the stumbles are many

The curses frequent, but the rewards

 

forthcoming in A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems (White Pine Press)

2014 LIVING IN THE LOVE ECONOMY/THE FUTURE IS IN OUR HANDS

This is a year when airplanes dropped out the sky and just disappeared.  Where Russian troops in Crimea pretended to not be Russian troops in Crimea.  Where ACA almost died under the weight of lousy internet interface.  It is a year with news of horrific rape, murder and abduction and it ends with rape allegations against an aging comedian.  It  is a year when

a generation of poets, activists and actors in their 70s, 80s and 90s left us and where younger ones died by their own hand or via drugs.  It was a year that seem to to be like a over heated dressage-many obstacles to leap over; many traps to gallop through.  This is the year I learned to be used to be an orphan, a position I so do not like being.

All of those awful, terrible, scary things were backdrop to what may be one of my most productive and accomplished year:
I have a new chapbook, Living in the Love Economy from Overpass Books, young people who are graduates of Long Island University–they studied with Lewis Warsh, who was on of my first poetry instructors when I came to NYC in 1974!  The book launch at Berl’s was well attended and I was able to get Anselm Berrigan and Erica Hunt to share the spotlight.  I thank them all.

Chapbook from Overpass Books.

Chapbook from Overpass Books.

Poems were published in The Cataramaran Literary Reader, The Recluse from The Poetry Project and The Mas Tequila Review.

Serious literary interviews were made with me by  Lewis Warsh for The Otter and Rochelle Spencer for Mosaic and The Brooklyn Poets interviewed and featured me for the Brooklyn Poet of the Week (that was fun).  The most interesting interview was actually a dialogue with Afaa Michael Weaver for the Furious Flower Poetry Center’s archive. And after harrassing, well gently needling Metta Sama, she pulled together this extraordinary convo that Monica Hand, Tracy Chiles McGhee, Raquel Goodison and Ruth Ellen Kocher on women’s creativity, artistic production and well read it at http://theconversant.org/staging/?cat=782.

Rich Blint of Columbia University asked me to participate in a panel for the The Year of Baldwin portion of The Harlem Bookfair. Aimee Meredith Cox moderated the panel and I have to say again that she may have been the best panel moderator I have ever encountered.  It was a lively and fresh conversation between me, Christopher Winks and Kiese Laymon.  And earlier in the year I participated in the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College–that was fascinating esp. seeing Derek Walcott up close.

I blogged for the “Harriet” blog for the National Poetry Foundation in September.  What did I know that in September the #Ferguson protests would start up; that I would have some impact on supporting the work of activists or that I’d write up Maya Angelou’s Riverside Church Memorial or that I’d talk about Sonia Sanchez’ 80th birthday or have the chance to report on the Furious Flower Poetry Conference with a focus on what happened after the public events took place! Reading and participating at Furious Flower was important for me as a poet, esp. as a Black poet.  I also wrote literary reviews for books by Tony Medina and Yuko Otomo and arts reviews on Dawoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems.

In August I had the great gift of 10 days at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where I put together a next to final draft of my New and Selected Poems with the great help of the VCCA staff–thank you again.  I got to know Kelle Groom, Nichole Parcher, Joelle Wallach and other poets/composers, visual artists.  And in October, I was able to fulfil my duties as a Senior Fellow for the Black Earth Institute and share in the wonderful hospitality of Michael McDermott and Charlotte Taymor in Wisconsin. The BEI gave its first ever award to Joy Harjo who was skyped in for the event–ah technology.

And also at VCCA I completed a commission–a new poem for a literary supplement to the forthcoming re-installment of The Migrations Series, Jacob Lawrence’s groundbreaking work that will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art.  I thank Elizabeth Alexander for placing me in this august group.  I had written about Lawrence’s work in an earlier poem which Quincy Troupe published in Black Renaissance Noir.  It was a great opportunity and pretty scary-like will I pull this off?  I did.

And I also worked with Atim Oton who is bringing her CALABAR brand to my hood, Bed-Stuy and so for the popup I developed a reading series, WORDS SUNDAY and it was really successful,  But special shoutout to Janice Lowe who was in the first one, I want you back for a larger audience come Spring 2015.

And finally, I did readings for Paul Romero’s Bryant Park Series, most notably a “Lunch Poem” one with Jocelyn Lieu, Lydia Cortes, Jessica Greenbaum and Sharan Strange. And with Mark Statman for Neil Silbrerblatt’s Voices in Poetry series in Katonah.  Rowan Ricardo Phillips brought me to SUNY Stony Brook, where June Jordan and Cornelius Eady  advanced contemporary poetry.  Getting to know Rowan and his work has been a boon.  Also read “The Day Lady Died” for the Frank O’Hara Lunch Poem Publication Anniversary event at the Poetry Project.  And at the end of the year I read at KBG with Shanna Compton–it was a night rich with verbal fireworks and deep emotions.  There was more, but it’s cold.  It’s December 31. It’s time to sum stuff up.

I know that much of this year has been about violence, danger, death and protest.  I am sad about the danger, death and violence, but I am so pleased that protests are underway and not just here from Mumbai to Santiago Chile to Hong Kong to St. Louis, Missouri young people are awake and demanding their future–not one of fewer economic prospects, more debt; tyrannical police, environmental degradation; expensive consumerism and shoddy services–but one that may be more equitable, caring and creative.  The world has always been violent and dangerous, but cynicism simply keeps whoever is in power in power.  I thank young people for starting to say nada mas, no more.  Yes  #blacklivesmatter,  Yes #afutureisinourhands.  2015 HERE WE COME.