Commentaries - July 2007
The great garden guy, Mike McGrath, the Philadelphia-based host of NPR's You Bet Your Garden, was a guest reader-performed on Live at the Writers House, our monthly radio program aired on XPN 88.5 FM. First Mike spoke a little about his work and his writing (listen to it here). Then he read a piece called "The Little Willow That Could" (also recorded and available here). He was part of our 58th show.
"Speakeasy" is the name given to the twice-monthly open-mic performance night at the Kelly Writers House. It's had a remarkable run for a decade. Courtney Zoffness, who now teaches creative writing at CPCW, was then an undergrad and was among Speakeasy's founders. As he was gathering information for the piece he's writing about Speakeasy, Eric Karlan received this account from Courtney:
Speakeasy started in the fall of 1997 (my sophomore year). I'd taken an English 10 creative writing class with instructor Rebekah Grossman the previous spring, and she emailed my friend Emily Cohen and I to see if we wanted to get involved in this new under-construction venue called the Writers House. I came up with the cheeky (annoying?) slogan "poetry, prose, and anything goes" and drew that sketchy mic-man as our "symbol." We recruited fellow classmate (and Wharton patron) Adam Kaufman to help with marketing, etc. Our first semester, we held the bi-weekly event in the basement of "Chats," a cafeteria-style, windowless space across the walk (currently home to a Starbucks, I believe?). We chalked up Locust Walk with big arrows, put flyer-tents on all the Chats tables and plastered all the telephone polls on campus. Alas, our attendees consisted mostly of our friends and roommates and a sprinkling of suspicious onlookers. It was only when we plugged into the now-officially-built Kelly Writers House that we acquired the resources and support we needed to grow and thrive.
For us, back then, Speakeasy was a way to connect to the writing community on our own terms. It was student-run -- which, I think, seemed less intimidating to burgeoning creative types. They weren't being graded. They weren't being judged. In fact, with Al's blessing, we even compiled submissions from regular participants and published a "Speakeasy Anthology." (Do they still do that? They should!)
Now that I'm a bit older, and a bit more settled into a regular writing life, I know that having a creative community is INVALUABLE to a pursuit that can feel overwhelming and intimidating and even isolating. It's why I went to graduate school (twice) for creative writing. It's why I loved going to Bread Loaf. It's why I joined a writers group in Brooklyn. And it's why -- though I may not have been able to articulate it then -- I felt disproportionately attached to the Speakeasy experience and the Writers House at large.
In October 2001 an episode of "Speakeasy" was recorded after it was webcast live. You can see and hear that recording here. For his Notes from the Green Couch series, Eric Karlan has written about the history and impact of Speakeasy.
In 1986 Beverly Coyle and I co-edited the complete correspondence of Wallace Stevens and the Cuban editor-poet-impresario, Jose Rodriguez Feo - published by Duke. You can use Google book search to view selected pages from the edition here. (I also wrote about the fascinating Stevens-Rodriguez Feo relationship in a chapter of my Stevens & the Actual World [Princeton, 1991].) Stevens fantasized about his young Cuban friend alternately as a primitive and as a sophisticated intellectual stuck in primitive circumstances. Rodriguez Feo, infatuated with Stevens poetically and personally, wanted to oblige such fantasties as much as he could tolerate, although every so often he resisted, correcting the older man in stern but finally hilarious letters in return. More often, though, he happily described himself at his family villa, trying to read while Lucera the cow and Pompilio the mule made such intellection difficult. Reacting to that scene, Stevens wrote:
Somehow I do not care much about Lucera. I imagine her standing in the bushes at night watching your lamp a little way off and wondering what in the world you are doing. If it was she, she would be eating. No doubt she wonders whether you are eating words. But I take the greatest pride in now knowing Pompilio, who does not have to divest himself of anything to see things as they are. Do please give him a bunch of carrots with my regards. This is much more serious than you are likely to think from the first reading of this letter.
Excerpts from three letters are here--as well as a few other links. The book is called Secretaries of the Moon.
Lake Cole is a man-made lake, as almost everyone knows or recalls. Wawayanda's first summer at Frost Valley--1958--was a lakeless summer. Harry Cole led the team that created our current stream-fed 23-acre lake between the summers of '58 and '59. This photo was taken in '59 or '60. The dock and swimming area you're seeing here is situated on the eastern edge of the lake, near the boathouse--not along the northern edge which is where the swimming area is today. In the background you can see the grassless, treeless rim of the newly dug area. Later pine trees were planted all along the southern edge of the lake between the high rim holding the water in and the road. These trees are now tall and full. The blonde counselor on the diving board here is one of a number of staff who came from Towson State College--brought to Wawayanda, I believe, by Digger Shortt and/or other Baltimore-area folks. I can remember, as a camper, that my camp director (Dave King) and program director (Dick "Yo-Yo" Sommers) were both Balitmoreans. It's even the case that at dinner Baltimore Orioles scores were announced (they were of course a great team in the mid-60s). Even later, in the early 70s, prominent staff members like Barry Dunkin came out of Towson State. By now the Towson connection has long faded.
When Rae Armantrout agreed to present at the "9 Contemporary Poets Read Themselves through Modernism" three-night event (in 2000), and when she chose Emily Dickinson as the modern through whom to read, I knew I'd be in heaven--and I was. It wasn't just a stunningly good performance; I learned a great deal about Dickinson's presence in the poetic present; I also learned how distinct (yes, and distinct from Dickinson) Rae Armantrout is. If Dickinson is my favorite poet to teach, I think Armantrout is the second. Not to say it's easy to teach her poems, but everyone--students and I alike--feel rewarded by the effort. Here's the link to the RealAudio recording of that performance. If readers of this blog have not read or heard Armantrout's poems, may I suggest one for starters? It's a poem called "The Way", most recently published in Veil. Listen to the poem but also hear the poet talk about it in her May 2006 conversation with Charles Bernstein: click here for the segment on "The Way."
See a later entry for link to and description of a PENNsound podcast that includes a reference to "The Way" and Armantrout's discussion with Bernstein about the poem.