Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hard Times

That buzzard waiting on the fencepost

                                            looks like he knows my name.

                Very well. Two can play this game.

(first publication)

Recently Linked: My thanks and a hearty welcome to Jacob Harrell, who has signed on as a friend and follower of Recently Banned Literature.

I would also like to thank Geoff. McElwaine for reprinting my poem, “How Many Stones?” with his nice photo taken at the coast near Ballyhalbert in Northern Ireland.

“Hard Times” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: “Several Surrealist Litanies for a Film on the Cemetery of Père Lachaise.”

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Final Days

Yesterday I received a letter from a visitor who had read my short story, The Final Days, a 423-word piece in which I cheerfully imagine the end of the world. The reader, an eighteen-year-old with whom I’ve already exchanged a few short letters, said he found the story “wonderful, and horrible,” and that it led him to think about how he perceived the end of the world. Several hours later, he “settled on the Star Trek philosophy, we’ll all end up all right.” He finished his letter with this sentence: “Which leads me to ask you this personal question, how do you see the end or continuation of us all?” What follows is my reply, reprinted here with his kind permission.

Dear Jacob,

Nut that I am, I can imagine positive and negative scenarios until I’m blue in the face, but the truth is, I have no idea how humanity will play out. However, we do know that everything dies — people, animals, planets, stars. Our sun will die. And I’m no scientist, but it seems logical, at least to me, that this universe will also die. So in my mind, it really isn’t a question of how we will ultimately end or continue; it’s a question of the kind of world we imagine and make now. Generally speaking, as individuals, we seem unaware, and probably even afraid, of the incredible power we have to change society and ourselves. This is what I was getting at in the story’s second paragraph when I said

In the final days, the few humans still alive spoke to each other with kindness. For the first time, they fully understood war, and the meaning of war. They understood that they were responsible for what had happened, and that if they had made the decision not to fight, war would have been impossible. For the first time, they saw the direct relationship between the way they led their lives and the events that had occupied and finally consumed the world.

No matter where and when we live, it’s easy to feel disheartened or overwhelmed by the terrible things going on in the world — wars, starvation, suffering. And yet somehow, each good, kind, positive act, no matter how small it is or seemingly insignificant, has a magical way of radiating outward and touching other lives. Without them, we might well have met our end long ago. For a positive act has just as much power as a negative act. And both also have a way of radiating inward, one serving as inspiration, the other as poison.

Anyway. That’s my short answer. I hope it makes sense. My long answer would probably be even more boring. Which reminds me — have you noticed how the best answers seem to come from babies before they’ve learned to talk? We understand everything at that age....

With thanks, and looking forward to your next letter,

William Michaelian

In the Forum: Morrison on Main Street.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Book

For the life of me, I can’t remember what a quince tastes like. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a quince tree. Later, about 1969, my grandfather planted one. In 1975 or 1976, I ate a quince from that tree. I can remember thinking it wasn’t too bad, and that it was, in fact, almost good. I can also remember pretending I loved it for my grandfather’s benefit. It was certainly a pleasure to be standing there with him in his backyard. I didn’t have to pretend I was enjoying that. But I would rather have been eating a bunch of grapes, or a pomegranate.

My grandfather had an olive tree, an apricot tree, and an apple tree. He had several kinds of grapes. He had a big whiskey barrel full of purple basil. He planted the seeds one by one, in perfect little rows. At the age of eighty, he was still rugged and strong. He could have planted forty acres of basil, or vines, or cucumbers, and then cultivated the field with a horse or mule.

The sun baked down on his hairy arms. He wore a straw hat to shade his bald head and his long thin white hair that he combed over from one side to the other.

I climbed a ladder and picked olives from his tree. This time, he wanted only the black ones, which he was going to cure in rock salt in burlap bags. Green olives he cured in big crocks, changing the water frequently in the beginning, checking with a knife occasionally the penetration of the lye in one of the olives. Jars and jars of olives we ate, Grandpa’s olives.

This is history, of a peculiar, particular kind: In 1968, my grandmother’s cousin, the writer William Saroyan, stopped by my grandparents’ house, but found they weren’t at home. He left a copy of the British edition of his 1961 autobiography, Here Comes There Goes You Know Who. Inside, scrawled at an angle on the first page inside the cover, was the following inscription:

For Roxie
and Harry
— sorry the U.S. edition
with photographs is out
of print — also sorry
I missed you 4PM Monday
Oct 21 1968 with a
box of olives
for fixing

Willie had olive trees too, you see. In fact, just a few years later, when he was not at home, my grandfather, brother, and I went to his house and picked the olives from his tree.

Now Willie is gone. My grandparents are gone. And the olives. But the book is still here. The book, the book, the book. It is enough to drive a mad person sane.

From Songs and Letters, originally published October 2, 2005.

As the Conversation continues, we pay a visit to the Poets’ Corner at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No Things But In Ideas

Even if they do exist — as if consensus wills it — things in our hands are not the same as things in our heads.

2.25.2009 #2
2.25.2009 #1

Dream Terrain

It’s spring, and a stranger and I are hoeing weeds around the vine stumps in the last row of the vineyard near the road that runs past my childhood home. As we move along, the soil rises up and threatens to engulf the vines, which are still bare despite the time of year. Our job becomes more and more strenuous; finally, instead of dirt and weeds, we’re hacking away at snow, then solid ice. It’s hard work, but I’m having fair success. I’m less bothered by the strangeness of the situation than I am by the fact that I don’t know who the stranger is.

Added yesterday by Lynn Behrendt to the Annandale Dream Gazette.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


February 24, 2009

A link to the Recently Acquired department of this blog added to the introduction of And I Quote.

2.24.2009 #2
2.24.2009 #1

Make It Old

I don’t want it to be a shiny new thing you can’t resist. I want it to be like the lines on my mother’s face, or the things I find in her cedar chest — a poem that has already survived.

In the Forum: James Alfred Wight, Jim Morrison.

Monday, February 23, 2009


My son, asleep on the couch at dawn,
guitar in lap and arms, cat with eyes upon him,
sweet pause — sound of a mourning dove.

(first publication)

Recently Linked: My thanks to Anny Ballardini for posting a link to Recently Banned Literature in this entry of her blog, NarcissusWorks. A link to Anny’s blog is also included in the “Reading Room.”

“Encore” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: Every Humid Thing.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gertrude Stein’s War

From The Flower and the Leaf, A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941, by Malcolm Cowley. Edited and with an Introduction by Donald W. Faulkner. Penguin Books (1986). “Gertrude Stein’s War” written 1945.

Paper. 390 pages.

I think of the tangled reasons why
this man should flourish, this one die
obscurely of some minor hurt;
why this one sought his death by sea
and this one drank himself to death
and this one, not of our company,
but born on the same day as Hart,
should harvest all the world can give,
then put a gun between his teeth;
or why, among friends who live,
this one, misled by his good heart,
and this, forsaken by a wench,
should each crawl off to nurse his grief.
I saw the flower and the leaf,
the fruit, or none, and the bare branch.

From “The Flower and the Leaf,” by Malcolm Cowley (appears just prior to table of contents).

Recently Linked: A link to Recently Banned Literature can now be found in the extensive list of links in Br. Tom Murphy’s blog, plainer. The author is “a pretend poet with a strong interest in a range of what have been called Experimental poetries.” For future reference, a link to his site has been added to the “Reading Room.” My thanks to Br. Tom.

In the Forum: Shakespeare’s wet dog.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sage Advice

Make it as useful as an apron or a wooden spoon, as necessary as salt, and as distinctive as your grandmother’s nose. Make it a kitchen poem.

Recently Linked: A special thanks to James Finnegan — whose insightful blog ursprache I’ve long admired and highly recommend — for posting a poem from my book, Winter Poems.

2.21.2009 #3
2.21.2009 #2
2.21.2009 #1

The Annotated Annotations

As an illustration of how my mind works, or doesn’t, late last night in bed I woke up with the idea of starting a new blog in which I would publish Songs and Letters one entry at a time from the very beginning, along with copious notes on each. I told myself that one of my goals would be to arrive at a definitive edition, which I would then publish in book form. Along the way, I was bound to find certain entries weak, or in need of an adjustment here and there. Then it occurred to me, as I lay there feverish and writhing, that this project would amount to reliving and rewriting the entire book. Presently, there are over 700 entries, and some of the entries contain numerous entries of their own — certain mini-journals or pages of haiku, for instance, or my Annotated Proverbs of Hell, in which I annotate each of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell with a demented poem of my own. And then I thought, “But that means I’d be annotating my annotations!” Now, thank goodness, in the light of day, I think I might have been dreaming. On the other hand, maybe it is a good idea. Gad, what a life I live....

This entry added to News and Reviews.

2.21.2009 #2
2.21.2009 #1

Behind the Building

We hid. Talked. Laughed. Smoked cigarettes.
Drank rum and coke. Made promises.
Kept each other warm. Lied. Tried. Cried.
Said good-bye. Came back a thousand times.
Then one day the building was gone.
And everyone in town could see us there.
It was cruel. That’s what it was. Some froze.
Others ran. A few held up our hands.
Now we’re gone too. Scattered to corners.
Crevices. Behind the baseboards. Under the sink.
Bars. Offices. Stores. Mental wards. Cemeteries.
Wherever people go when light shines hard upon them.
To hide while their shells harden. Or to sing.

From Songs and Letters, originally published September 11, 2007.

Dreams: Another added today to the Annandale Dream Gazette.

In the Forum: “I am humid, I contain multitudes.”

Friday, February 20, 2009

Keeper of the Bones

One of the last things my brother and his wife did before returning to Armenia a couple of weeks ago was to plant some parsley and purple basil seeds in an old wooden grape-picking box, and then place the box at a slightly elevated angle near a south-facing window inside my mother’s house. Since then, I’ve kept the seeds and soil moist with a spray bottle. The warmth from the window is working. In their half of the box, the parsley seeds are already coming up. None of the basil is showing yet in the other half, but a few weeds have sprouted, so I know it can’t be far behind.

Now, I’m just crazy enough that when I look at the seedlings, I can also imagine that this boxful of earth is a field, and that I am alone in this field, and that the seedlings are nourished by the bones of my ancestors:

The old man told me
he himself had died
a long, long time ago.

He pointed to a distant plain,
a tide of earth that once
bled mountains of their loam.

The harvest there is rich,
he said, it never ends,
the fingers, limbs, and skulls.

In the sun beside his hut,
an ancient cart trembled
beneath a village of bones,

A genocide of sightless eyes
that sang the wind
proud and low and long,

An insane congregation
borne by wooden wheels,
a cemetery without a home.

From out across the plain,
the old man touched
my fleshless, bleached-white arm.

From out across the plain,
I too became
a keeper of the bones.

When my brother and his wife showed me what they had done, we all laughed at having one of our fifty-year-old picking boxes in the house, and at the tiny size of this garden-to-be. But I knew even then that after the prolonged challenge we had faced in taking care of my mother, who is now doing well at a small care facility nearby, what they were really doing was giving me the gift of an early spring.

Note: The poem “Keeper of the Bones” is part of Songs and Letters. It was first published October 8, 2005.

This entry also appears in my Notebook. Older Notebook entries are archived here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Comin Through the Rye

Today my throat feels like I was up all night drinking coffee and smoking unfiltered Camels. I’m also trembling, and pretty sure I have a fever. Be that as it may, or maybe even because of it, I’ve been fairly productive in the writing department.

Meanwhile, the body knows what it knows, and I know what I know, and what I know is that the body knows more, and that I also am my body, and my body includes my brain — my brain is not separate from my body — and the “I” making these observations would not be making them if my body weren’t here.

Comin through the rye, poor body,
     Comin through the rye,
She draiglet a’ her petticoatie,
     Comin through the rye!
O, Jenny’s a’ weet, poor body,
     Jenny’s seldom dry:
She draiglet a’ her petticoatie,
     Comin through the rye!

Gin a body meet a body
     Comin through the rye;
Gin a body kiss a body—
     Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
     Comin through the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body—
     Need the warld ken?
O, Jenny’s a’ weet, poor body,
     Jenny’s seldom dry:
She draiglet a’ her petticoatie,
     Comin through the rye!

From Selected Poems of Robert Burns, edited with an introduction by J. DeLancey Ferguson, Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1926 (reprinted 1937).

2.19.2009 #2
2.19.2009 #1

60 George Street, Edinburgh

My recent visit to the Friends bookstore at the Salem Public Library also turned up Walter Edwin Peck’s Shelley, His Life and Work, a sturdy two-volume set withdrawn from the library’s reference section. The first volume covers the years 1792-1817 and runs 532 pages. The second volume covers the years 1817-1822 and runs 492 pages, about 100 pages of which is devoted to appendices and an index. Volume One measures approximately six by nine and three-quarters inches; the second, for some odd reason, is about seven inches wide. Both books contain glossy illustrations. The type is fairly large, and the margins are very generous — about an inch on the outside, and slightly over two inches at the bottom. Price: $1.50 per book.

From the beginning of Chapter VI, Marriage with Harriet:

Now arose a difficulty. Neither bride nor groom was of legal age in England; they could not be married there. The laws of Ireland or Scotland might prove less strict. They would investigate at first hand. In the grey of an August dawn they took a hackney coach in London to the Bull and Mouth Tavern in Bull and Mouth Street, Berwick. Embarked on the mail that evening, they met a persuasive young Scotch advocate, who probably determined them to go to Edinburgh....

In the preceding excerpt, there are two footnotes. The first refers to the August dawn: “Saturday, 24th August, or Sunday, 25th August. The exact date is not known.” The second refers to the persuasive young Scotch advocate: “Gilbert Hutchison? See articles on ‘Shelley and Dancing,’ The Atheneum, Feb. 11, 1921, p. 163; and Nation and Athenæum, April 16, 1921, p. 91.”

The adjacent page shows a picture taken at 60 George Street, Edinburgh, where Shelley and Harriet lived in the autumn of 1811.

The books were published in 1927 by Houghton Mifflin Company and printed by the Riverside Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These are the third impression.

This entry added to And I Quote.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Remembering the Flight of Birds

Remembering the Flight of Birds
February 18, 2009

Recently Linked: Karen Antashyan, Armenian language poet, Yerevan, Armenia.

2.18.2009 #2
2.18.2009 #1

Death Notes

When Death is away on business — that’s when I get my work done. Otherwise, he has this annoying habit of looking over my shoulder:
“I was there. That’s not how it was.” His breath is atrocious.

Last night before bed, I ate two pieces of fudge. “That even hurts my teeth,” Death said. The rest, I guess, was just a dream.

This morning things are different. Death is here, but he’s minding his own business. Poor guy needs a dentist. I give him coffee, aspirin, try to stay upwind.

Note: File under Autobiography. Also Poetry and Fiction. Possibly the Diet section. Dreams. Self-help. Dementia.

Recently Linked: My thanks to Vassilis Zambaras for his poetic response to yesterday’s second post, Quitting Time. What a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the day.

In the Forum: prose by degrees.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quitting Time

One of the great things about working hard as a writer is going outside at the end of the day and seeing if the world is still there. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Either way is a pleasant surprise.

2.17.2009 #2
2.17.2009 #1

A fable or bull, scrawled at full gallop

Recently Acquired:
The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell
Houghton, Mifflin and Company
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Cabinet Edition (1899)
656 pages


Publishers’ Note

Mr. Lowell, the year before he died, edited a definitive edition of his works, known as the Riverside edition. Subsequently, his literary executor, Mr. C.E. Norton, issued a final posthumous collection, and the Cambridge edition followed, including all the poems in the Riverside edition, and the poems edited by Mr. Norton. The present Cabinet edition contains all the poems in the Cambridge edition. It is made from new plates, and for the convenience of the student the longer poems have their lines numbered, and indexes of titles and first lines are added.

Autumn, 1899.

Image: A Fable for Critics, Page 153 (click to enlarge).

In the Forum: meticulous prose, stacked like dry kindling waiting for a match.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Upon Finishing Lord of the Flies

Symbolism and psychology aside, were the boys really rescued, or were they condemned forever to relive their nightmare? One way to find out, I suppose, or at least to begin to find out, would be to write a novel about Ralph, and another one about Jack. Unfortunately, it’s too late to write novels about Simon and Piggy. Or is it?

2.16.2009 #2
2.16.2009 #1

A Case in Blind Poetics, Letter 5

To be the poet who starts a reading series at the library in his hometown, but who seldom calls attention to his own.

To be the poet who remembers his mother’s love for Tennyson and Longfellow, Whitman, Dickinson, and Millay.

To be the poet who understands the pleasure readers find in meter and rhyme.

To be the poet who takes delight in both new and old forms.

To be the poet who loves his readers so much that he wants to be understood, and to understand them.

To be the poet who is a friend.

To be the poet who lives and dies a working man.

From Songs and Letters, originally published February 15, 2009.

As the Conversation continues, the name Updike comes to mind.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Recently Acquired:
by James Whitcomb Riley
The Bowen-Merrill Co.,
Indianapolis (1894)

74 poems
169 pages


In good condition with only a few minor smudges and stains, Armazindy is one of seven books I bought a couple of days ago at the Friends bookstore in the Salem Public Library. Here are two short samples, followed by the first verse of the eleven-page title poem:

What Redress

I pray you, do not use this thing
For vengeance; but if questioning
What wound, when dealt your humankind,
Goes deepest,—surely he will find
Who wrongs you, loving him no less—
There’s nothing hurts like tenderness.

To a Poet-Critic

Yes,—the bee sings—I confess it—
Sweet as honey—Heaven bless it!—
Yit he’d be a sweeter singer
Ef he didn’t have no stinger.


Armazindy;—fambily name
Ballenger,—you’ll find the same,
As her daddy answered it,
In the old War-rickords yit,—
And, like him, she’s airnt the good
Will o’ all the neighborhood.—
Name ain’t down in History,—
But, i jucks! it ort to be!
Folks is got respec’ fer her
Armazindy Ballenger!—
’Specially the ones ’at knows
Fac’s o’ how her story goes
From the start:—Her father blowed
Up—eternally furloughed—
When the old “Sultana” bu’st,
And sich men wuz needed wusst.—
Armazindy, ’bout fourteen-
Year-old then—and thin and lean
As a kill-dee,—but—my la!
Blamedest nerve you ever saw!
The girl’s mother’d allus ben
Sickly—wuz consumpted when
Word come ’bout her husband.—So
Folks perdicted she’d soon go—
(Kind o’ grief I understand,
Losin’ my companion,—and
Still a widower—and still
Hinted at, like neighbors will!)
So, appinted, as folks said,
Ballenger a-bein’ dead,
Widder, ’peared-like, gradjully,
Jes grieved after him tel she
Died, nex’ Aprile wuz a year,—
And, in Armazindy’s keer
Leavin’ the two twins, as well
As her pore old miz’able
Old-maid aunty ’at had ben
Struck with pulsy, and wuz then
Jes a he’pless charge on her
Armazindy Ballenger.

Image: James Whitcomb Riley, 1913.

Recently Linked:
My thanks to the author of A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’ for choosing one of my drawings to help illustrate her post-AWP state of mind.

This entry, sans photo, added to And I Quote, “a random selection of books and authors, some famous, some forgotten.”

In the Forum: planning for the unplanned.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Biographer’s Stone

Dawn found him with his nose buried in a book. Likewise death, which was less sympathetic — or more, depending on how you look at it.
The ending of a story that will likely remain unwritten. But I do like the title.

As the Conversation continues, justice is thwarted by a fake lawyer with spiked green mini-hair.

2.14.2009 #2
2.14.2009 #1

Latin Feathers

In the upper left-hand corner of an otherwise blank page is the word “Registration,” and beneath that, in smaller type, there are three long strange words, stacked one upon the other. Just then, a telephone call arrives from my brother. He says our grandfather has taken a turn for the worse and is not expected to live. I hang up, thinking, “But Grandpa died years ago.”

The front door of my childhood home opens and my mother comes outside. I see someone lurking by the road. He looks like he must be a salesman. He joins us. After mumbling something we can’t understand, he says, “It operates entirely on Latin.” I say, “What operates on Latin?” He says, “The pump.” Then he goes into a long spiel about the quality of our water, and how his device is guaranteed to improve the taste. As patiently as I can, I tell him our water is excellent, and that we’ve been drinking it for years. “Ah-ha,” he says. “Well water, right? It’s sure to turn bitter any day now.”

My mother is tired. She is much older now than when she first came outside. I tell the salesman he should leave. But he insists on showing us his device. His assistant, a woman who wasn’t there before, hands him a cardboard box. He opens the flaps and pulls out an unlikely looking metal contraption that has been packed in chicken feathers. It’s made of stainless steel, and looks like a countertop towel holder with too many places for the towels. A few feathers are still clinging to it. I remember a mean rooster we had when I was thirteen. Plymouth Rock.

Added this morning to the Annandale Dream Gazette.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Nashville Drizzle

It looks like I’ll be having fun with the beautiful copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Twelfth Edition, 1951, hardbound, 1,831 pages, $2.00)
I picked up yesterday at the Friends bookstore at the Salem Public Library. Here are a few from O. Henry:

“Love and business and family and religion and art and patriotism are nothing but shadows of words when a man’s starving.”1

“May his liver turn to water, and the bones of him crack in the cold of his heart. May dog fennel grow upon his ancestors’ graves, and the grandsons of his children be born without eyes. May whiskey turn to clabber in his mouth, and every time he sneezes may he blister the soles of his feet. And the smoke of his pipe — may it make his eyes water, and the drops fall on the grass that his cows eat and poison the butter that he spreads on his bread.”2

“One day the christeners of apartment houses and the cognominators of sleeping-cars will meet, and there will be some jealous and sanguinary knifing.”3

“Take of London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick-yard at sunrise 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix. The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle.”4

There was too much scenery and fresh air. What I need is a steam-heated flat with no ventilation or exercise.”5

“Turn up the lights; I don’t want to go home in the dark.”6

1 Heart of the West. Cupid à la Carte
2 Sixes and Sevens. Transformation of Martin Burney
3 The Trimmed Lamp. The Country of Elusion
4 Strictly Business. A Municipal Report
5 Letter [April 15, 1910]
6 Last words

2.13.2009 #2
2.13.2009 #1

A Case in Blind Poetics, Letter 4

Many years ago, when I was fifteen, I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. My mother, who loved words and books as much as I do, was sympathetic. My father was also sympathetic, but he added a bit of practical advice: he said I should have a good job and then write on weekends. It’s advice I’ve never forgotten and never followed.

Raised during the Great Depression, my father suffered to become the dependable breadwinner that he was. He worked through incredibly lean years, often using simple outdated equipment, destroying his back in the process. He had one pair of pants. He wore them in the vineyard, he wore them to town, he wore them to funerals. In one of our old family albums, there is a newspaper picture of my parents that was taken at an annual luncheon; they are standing beside one of the tables, greeting an elderly couple from our old farm neighborhood. In the picture, my father is wearing those jeans.

When my father was in the army, he wrote letters to my mother. In one of them he said, “When I get home, all I want to do is put a fence around the place and raise nothing but grapes and kids.”

More than once, he told me that the only work he was interested in was farming. For that reason, he was willing to endure depressed and fickle markets, and see his crops ruined by late frosts, hailstorms, and rains. There were other things he could have done. He could have been a welder or a highway patrolman. He could have sold insurance. He could have been a bus driver for Greyhound. In fact, he could have done any of the things he told me I should have done but didn’t do. Instead, he followed his heart and I followed his example.

As a result, I have suffered as much as he did, and more. I am still suffering. I have done numerous things to survive, and have pulled many creative stunts to put food on the table. But the only money that has ever meant anything to me is the money I’ve earned writing. That money, which comes in magnificent dribbles and spurts, is the same money my father earned by selling his grapes and apricots and peaches and plums. It is the money that enabled him to laugh and go on rolling the dice. “Let it ride.”

As if my father’s example weren’t enough, I was also influenced by other family members. His uncle was a gifted but financially unsuccessful poet and painter. His mother’s cousin was William Saroyan. When I was growing up, these three men demonstrated a daring commitment to personal freedom. Wired as I was, I was naturally influenced by their behavior.

I remember watching hailstorms ruin our crops, and feeling the same unholy glee that comes from knowing I’ve gambled away my last dollar. It is the same feeling I have when I write.

It pains me when poets and writers say it’s impossible to earn a living by means of their art alone. But it pains me more when they are resigned to it. It bothers me when an artist is resigned to anything.

An artist has just as much right to a living as anyone else. So people don’t understand. So our society places no importance on the arts. So artists starve. So they live difficult, awkward, marginal lives. So each and every one of the other mundane, realistic, practical reasons. I don’t give a damn about any of them. The right to a living still exists. No one who works hard and who tries to make a contribution should have the door slammed in his face.

Some will say art and commerce do not mix. Some will say the sure way to poison an artist is to pay him. But it’s not that simple. An artist who is poisoned by money has already been poisoned by it. There is nothing ignoble in earning one’s bread by trading on his talent. My father was not poisoned by money when he sold the fruit he raised. He did not become dishonest. His work did not suffer. It improved.

What poisons us is hating what we do. What poisons us is not knowing where our true talents lie. What poisons us is knowing but not acting on that knowledge. What poisons us is fear: the fear of failure, the fear of being hurt, the fear that inevitably arises when we are strangers to ourselves.

If a poet writes a poem and people like it and pay for it, he might well turn around and try to write a poem just like it in order to put more food on the table. But if that poet is also an artist, he will write his poem in such a way that it reveals something new. He will do this because he is an artist. If he is afraid that being paid will have a negative effect on his art, the really dangerous thing is that he is afraid. An artist’s job is to find out, and then make something of the experience. Like anyone who toils, an artist who feeds himself or his family while he learns is no disgrace.

To forge a society in which artists have a vital place, that society must first be imagined. Then it must be lived, even if on a small scale. It takes insight. It takes courage. It takes the courage of poet and reader, artist and collector, musician and listener, visionary and philanthropist, one person at a time. Andrew Carnegie built libraries. Poets build poems. Is our work really that much different?

From Songs and Letters, originally published February 12, 2008.

In the Forum: a flair for publicity.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln Memorial

Men look at my face,
kids at my high, sturdy knees,
perfect for horse rides.

From Songs and Letters, originally published August 5, 2008.

2.12.2009 #2
2.12.2009 #1


It was indeed a strange land,
the inhabitants with scars upon
their hands, made by nails, they said,
when they were crucified. I tried
to understand; they smiled,
began hammering.

From Songs and Letters, originally published June 2, 2008.

In the Forum: a flair for new beginnings.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Overheard this morning in the Fiction aisle of the book section at Goodwill, while waiting for the vacuum cleaner shop to open next door in the hope that I’d find a replacement for the dangerously frayed cord on our ancient Electrolux:

“Everyone has problems. You and Dad had problems. You locked yourself in your room, remember?”

Recently Linked: My thanks to Joseph Hutchison for linking to my “Blind Poetics” series, the third entry of which I posted earlier today.

A Case in Blind Poetics, Letter 3

Can I benefit poetry by talking about it? Of course not. Poetry does not need my help. Poetry does not need anyone’s help. We need poetry, not the other way around.

Among other things, poetry is a mirror. As such, it reflects our human culture, and our various cultures within that culture. It reflects the times. It reveals, without distortion, our petty thoughts and differences. It shows us exactly how selfish and small-minded we are, how brilliant, how limited. It registers our ambitions and our fears.

Wiping the mirror by means of discussion might seem like a noble, intelligent thing to do, but whose rag is free of residue?

This is not to say that our discussions have no value. They do prove that for us to be better poets, we have to be better human beings.

A poet who insists on the superiority of his vision will attract followers who are afraid to see, think, and feel for themselves.

We are limited to the extent that we are leaders and followers.

We are unfettered to the extent that we are unbiased observers.

We are biased to the extent that we have an agenda.

A poet who dismisses the life and work of another poet, living or dead, will dismiss any human being he thinks is in his way, or who challenges the cherished notion of himself.

Not every poet speaks to every other poet, but no poet can speak for another poet. He can only speak for himself.

Theory in poetry is like any creation myth. It lasts as long as it gives comfort, but it is not creation itself.

Terms, like fashions, come and go. Their meanings begin to change the instant they are coined. No one notices when they die. It is the same for movements and schools, rendered quaint by time.

From Songs and Letters, originally published February 10, 2009.

In the Forum: empty swollen rhetoric.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Orphan

The Orphan
February 10, 2009

My father didn’t really look like this, but he looked like this enough that it reminds me of the way I sometimes felt when I looked at him — the orphan of a very old race whose pain is so ingrained it would be death to do without it.

2.10.2009 #2
2.10.2009 #1

Name Tags

A large meeting room. A sense of opportunity, then fear. Two young women sitting behind a table near the entrance. A man in front of me, fumbling with a small complicated name tag. Folding it. Unfolding it. Sticky backing. No room for names longer than Jones. The women smiled. They didn’t mind. They said we were allowed to ruin as many name tags as necessary. I thought, “Why do we need name tags? Why can’t we just introduce ourselves?” I put down the tag I was holding and drifted into the crowd. No one was making eye contact because they were all trying to read the name tags. Someone looked at my chest. “I’m up here,” I said.

Added yesterday to the Annandale Dream Gazette.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Case in Blind Poetics, Letter 2

Knowledge is a ripe apple, inhabited by a worm. The more a poet relies on his intellect, the more his thought-prison seems like home. When he assumes he understands more than a child, he is already a poet once-removed.

The poet who denies, ignores, or loses touch with our primitive past — the songs and dances, the fires, the oceans, the rituals, the caves — is estranged from himself and others. When he is unaware of his own animal instincts, or feels above them, or ashamed of them, or afraid of them, he becomes, to a large degree, a mind without a body.

Through sickness and health, a poet must love his own body. If he cannot love it, he should still marvel at it, and the journey that it’s on.

Through sickness and health, a poet must love his mind. But he shouldn’t take his love for granted.

Among other things, a good poem chronicles the love affair between the mind and the body. The poet who understands this, laughs at himself in the mirror. And the poet whose reflection laughs first, has a special gift indeed.

From Songs and Letters, originally published February 8, 2009.

Recently Linked:
My thanks to poet Karen Antashyan for adding his profile link under “Followers.” A link to his Armenian-language blog can also be found in the “Reading Room,” in Armenian letters under “William Blake.”

In the Forum: a simple case of Editor’s Disease.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Back Roads

Back Roads
February 6, 2009

A few seconds after I started this drawing, I remembered a time I went with an Armenian priest to the house of a man dying of cancer. It was over twenty-five years ago. The man, also an Armenian but not a church-goer, was in a hospital bed in his room. I saw him only that once. I don’t remember his name. He was about sixty years old. The bed was adjusted so he could sit upright. Everything about him already seemed dead, except for his fingers and his eyes. The priest said a prayer. The man was polite. Such are the back roads of the mind.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Case in Blind Poetics, Letter 1

I don’t know why I’m a poet. My life story, as fond of it as I am, is only a guess.

I arrived at a Theory of Poetry once. The walls were impenetrable and the door was locked. I was sure I heard voices coming from inside. Later, I decided the voices were in my own head.

If I seem ignorant, it is because I am.
If I seem wise, it is because I am.

As a poet, I try to find new and better ways to express my ignorance. That is my wisdom. My wisdom, which is not really mine but on temporary loan from the human race, expresses itself despite my help.

If I seem inconsequential, it is because I am.
If I seem significant, it is because I am.

My arrogance is only one of the masks I wear. My concern is another.
My pride. My benevolence. My achievement. My failure.
My love. My sorrow. My corruptibility.
My passion. My defeat.

My future.

Yesterday, a pale, red-haired child looked up at me from her stroller and said, “Hi.” It happened that I was not wearing a mask at the time. I said, “Hi.” She smiled. Her smile became my mask.

If you find comfort in being who you think you are, we already have something in common.

If I seem easy to understand, it is because I am.
If I seem hard to understand, it is because I am.

I don’t always use words to their best advantage. Sometimes they look like drawings to me. The letters of the alphabet are postcards from home. Different alphabets, different songs: old bent grandmothers, singing lullabies.

A poet is his own fleeting imperfect tradition. He is the wind.
A great one never comes back again. He is too busy sowing stars.

I cannot be what I think I am. I can only be as I am.

The door opens: poets, dead and deranged, chained to the walls. A madman writing on their skulls. “Igor — another room.”

“At last,” I proclaim. “A theory of my own. All it needs is a jeering crowd.”

The first entry in Volume 22 of Songs and Letters, originally published February 6, 2009.

In the Forum: the Manifesto Generator.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Two Continents

They walked along, two continents of experience and feeling, unable to communicate.

From Lord of the Flies, Chapter Three, “Huts on the Beach,” Page 58.

2.6.2009 #2
2.6.2009 #1

Farm Boy

The tiny bubbles
breaking in my coffee
remind me of the water-skaters
in the irrigation ditch
back home.

Now they’re gone.

The water’s

From Songs and Letters, originally published February 7, 2008.

A plainspoken prose conclusion to Volume 21 of Songs and Letters. What next?

In the Forum: Yes, but how does it relate?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Poet Tree

In the high Sierra east of the central San Joaquin Valley, up past the tiny sky-mirror lakes Heather, Aster, and Pear, the pines give way to an undulating sea of granite. My wife’s brother and I hiked there several times. Once in October, at about 10,000 feet, we were caught in a snowstorm that within moments numbed our fingers and obliterated the trail, first with soft-thudding pellets, then silent flakes that filled the palms of our hands. As we made our way down to safety, we met lone hikers on their way up, prepared to spend the night. They were rewarded with solitude under pristine skies, for the storm was not really a storm, but a local cloud-blessing that quickly moved on.

Somewhere below 8,000 feet, in a silent forest scene amid slowly falling flakes, we saw a large doe not far from the trail, watching us without fear, wise in soundless greeting.

A few weeks ago, while on a seven-mile hike here in Oregon, a friend told us of an experience her daughter had while student-teaching. The assignment was poetry. What is poetry? Because of the way the word sounds, one little girl thought “poet-tree.” A poem is a tree. And I said, “She was right. That is one of the best definitions of a poem.” The proof was all around us, trees that were 300 or more years old.

Above the lakes Heather, Aster, and Pear, we met a solitary pine that had defied the odds. Anchored in granite with no brothers and sisters for company, it had stood through lightning, wind, and snow for silent unspoken centuries. The bark on this tree was colorful and tightly woven, much like the skin of a snake. We listened to it with our hands.

From Songs and Letters, originally published September 8, 2005.

In the Forum, dual autobiographies blossom into an upbeat version of Krapp’s Last Tape.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Sometimes I feel like a character lurking in the shadows in the artwork for the cover of a book. My back is turned. Only the artist knows what I look like, and the disturbed expression on my face — facts he discovered while making a preliminary sketch. Created against my will, I am the book’s resentful and self-resenting subject — the bedeviled Everyman, the Nowhere Man, the Man Who Would If He Could Be Any Man. I drink and I think, both to excess. I’m paralyzed by the certainty of a meaningless future. The past is the sound of my own footsteps, leading away. They end in silence. I dwell in that silence until a letter arrives. But instead of reading the letter, I place the sealed envelope on the table before me. It sits there for a year. Two years. Ten. Other letters arrive. Like the first, they are crisp and white and hopeful for a time. Eventually, though, they learn, as I have, that there is no real reason for them to be read. Curiosity is insufficient. Their messages will change nothing. Someone has died, someone has been born, someone has found a new job, someone is expecting visitors and wants to know if perhaps I might want to join them, for it’s so wonderful this time of year and we miss seeing you, when the truth is they’re glad I’m away, glad because I scare the children, glad because I stay up at night and walk about the rooms, glad because I’m self-sufficient in ways they can never understand, glad, yes, but they do love me, there’s no getting around that, and the only way they know of proving it is by pretending they want to see
me — and so their letters gather dust on my table, in a perfect, silent symphony.

“I have other sketches. Would you like to see them?”

“Yes. I would.”

“This one is brighter.”


“In this one you can see his face.”

“My God.”

(first publication)

“Premise” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dream Choreography

I’m standing near an enormous leafy tree of some ancient, unknown variety. Suddenly, a branch slowly descends, stopping just before it reaches the pavement. The branch is several feet in diameter and an impressive tree in its own right. It’s so heavy, I wonder why it doesn’t break. The neighbors’ two young children are watching from their window across the street. I decide I should go and tell their father to keep them away from the tree. As I start out in their direction, the branch begins to rise. As it does, it also turns clockwise. By the time I’m across the street, it’s fully upright. The father meets me outside. While we stand there talking, the branch comes down again. His wife and kids join us. We all get into the neighbors’ van and after traveling a short distance we arrive in an old city. We park near a tall marble building. We get out and start to walk. We pass the tree again, and I tell myself to be sure to remember where it is. Around the corner there’s a small restaurant with shiny maple tables and a fireplace. We go in. The neighbors have been there before. They know everyone. The kids’ father asks if I can stay, but instead of answering I leave. I think I know where I’m going, but the streets and buildings have changed. I cross one street and turn left at the next corner, expecting to find the tree. I follow the sidewalk up a gentle rise beside an old cathedral. I turn left at the next street. The buildings on the west side cast a deep shadow. As I walk along, I pass some kind of crazy street performer. He’s a young man partially enclosed in a wire cage, but his feet and hands are free. A few feet beyond, the street narrows and becomes an alley full of trash and tipped over garbage cans. Just before I wake up, or just after, I see the tree again. I’m glad, but I still don’t know where I am.

Added yesterday to the Annandale Dream Gazette. My thanks, as always, to Lynn Behrendt.

As the Conversation continues, we decide to write each other’s autobiography.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Nowhere Fast, Part 2

On the other hand, what if the universe is a footnote?

* * *

I read Chapter One of Lord of the Flies yesterday. The strange thing is, certain scenes and bits of conversation were familiar, even though I’ve read the book only once, when I was thirteen.

Alternate scenario: Lord of the Pies. A group of boys is stranded on what they first think is an island, but which turns out to be a pie. The pie is one of many on a table in an episode of The Three Stooges. The boys are happy in the beginning, but they meet with a tragic end.

In the Forum: “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Nowhere Fast

Here’s something I jotted down a couple of days ago, about the same time I was drawing those strange, ridiculous pictures:

What if the universe is waiting for an answer?

In the Forum: music to die for.