Friday, February 23, 2007

Love Letter to a Mentor or Thirteen Ways of Looking at Nathaniel Tarn

Nathaniel Tarn is a poet who doesn't quite fit into any model. Although more prolific and certainly as talented as many hailed American poets such as Williams, Ashbery, or Olsen, he has never won a major award or been interviewed by the New Yorker. To my knowledge, he has never had a book reviewed in the New York Times. Neither would I call him a fixture of academia (a world which he is conflicted about anyway). Although he maintains an archive at Stanford, reads at Yale, and long taught at Rutgers, he seems to stand apart from this world as much as from any other. Nor does Tarn inhabit the body of a third kind of American poet -- a sort of cultish celebrity status of Bernstein, Berrigan, or O'Hara.

Too, unlike many others, Nathaniel struggled, not with becoming a poet, but with NOT becoming a poet. In his essay "Child As Father to Man in the American Uni-verse or Dr. Jekyll, the Anthropolgist, Emerges and Marches into the Notebook of Mr. Hyde, the Poet" Tarn explains the dichotomy of his two personalities -- what I would call the rational mind that wants to fit into the "real" world and the poetic mind that is so hard to resist. Despite the realization of a poet-self at age five -- what he might refer to as "a poet born, not made"-- as a young man Tarn visited the Musee de l' Homme and ended up enrolling in classes. Tarn writes, "He told no one and his grandmother, with whom he roomed, thought, like all good French grandmothers, that he went someplace every day to misbave himself....And he would have taken his first exams total incognito had his parents not happened along for a visit. He had reassured them that the disrepuptable and good-for-nothing Mr. Hyde was replaced by an eminently respectable and presentable careerist-- while sure in his own heart, naturally, that anthropology and poetry were identical twins."

Ironically, Nathaniel and my father, Lee Bartlett, have always steered me toward a similar path. Both long knowing what it mean to be a "preveyor of text," they spent an enormous amount of (wasted?) time encouraging me to turn my attention away from poetry toward library school (or such). After all, what does poetry give us? Not a whole lot. There is no money, little fame, and an enormous amount of heartache and disappointment. I think when I was encouraged toward library school, it was meant to be a pointing toward, well, happiness.

In his letters to Eliot Weinberger published in "Views From the Weaving Mountain" Tarn writes critically of the options for poets today. (I am not sure if he feels as strongly about this today). In my small (perhaps incorrect translation) Tarn sees the world of contests and MFA programs (that which he callss Pobiz) as a incetuos system created in order make room for what he might call an excess of aspiring poets which "The M.F.A. schools churn them out by the hundreds.....A branch of the the Polity steps in and begins to codify the process. At first, they make themselves useful: information about the prizes, grants, and awards; lists of poets and addresses; lists of reading sponsors and organizers; a potential great source of help. Later, however, you get the uneasy feeling that a double standard is being generated." When I was first aware of Tarn's harsh (cynical?) attitude toward the current writing system, I think I miss understood him. It is not necessarily young poets he is against. I am not even sure that he is against the system as a whole. I believe (with all my heart) that it is actually POETRY he is trying to protect. He grew up in a generation where the idea of a "poet" was one who wrestles with the thoughts "1). Oh my god, is there ANYONE in the world wide world interested in this stuff. I mean interested enough to die, or better still, live for it? And 2) What the hell! It's the thing I do, the thing I do best, why, then I'll die for it." In other words, Rilke as poet. Poet with no choice in the matter. "Poet born, not made." Tarn further writes, "When I speak of a POET: I mean one who has married his/her art, as so defined beyond the grave. This means something more than one who has had x number of poems accepted in y number of magazines in the last z years." And because of the difficulty of being a "poet" who -- myself among them -- hasn't fallen so easily into this trap. While I will not say I entirely agree with Tarn, I wonder if the computer hasn't added to this equation. Who (again guilty here) hasn't "googled" themselves lately? In his truthfulness about the failing of the modern poetry "scene," he is fabulous. But, has this kept him from being endeared to some?

Likewise, Tarn's life and work are difficult to pin down. Born in France, raised in England during the war, and educated in France, Belgium, and England, Tarn was a member of "The Group," a friend to Plath and Hughes (he won't tell me anything -- he told me to go look it up in the library!), one the founders (with Jerome Rothenberg) of Ethnopoetics, the founding editor at Cape Editions, and the primary translator of Neruda. This is needless to say, he was a major anthropologist who studied with Levi-Strauss. (Who, other than a master poet, could name a book Scandal in the House of Birds). In his personal life, he has has stepped in basically every country and lived in many of them. He speaks countless languages -- literally and metaphorically. He recently told me that South Africa was the finest place he'd ever been.

And the poet. Tarn's own poetry -- as explimified his reading at Yale last week -- is as complex and diverse as his life. Is he a political poet, a love poet, a lyricist, a narrative poet? During the reading he reminded us of the poet's responsiblity to speak up about the difficulties of our particular time and read amazing political work that was neither trite nor didatic. Moments later, he was reading love poems to his wife, the poet Janet Rodney ( who is the Goddess of Everything -- which I say COMPLETELY without irony). OR a "sentimental" poem to his dog (also named after a goddess). OR any number of poems which employ a naturalist/romantic view of Tarn's (and my own) beloved New Mexican desert. If we want to count numbers, Random House, UNM Press, Salt, Standford, Coffee House, and Wesleyan (which recently published "Selected Poems 1950-2000) are just a few of his publishers. In a review by Brenda Hillman of Tarn's Selected Poems in Jacket writes, "Almost everything that can be said of a terrific book of poetry can be said of this one." And calls it something to the effect of the book that every American should own. I would also argue that Recollections of Being (Salt) is one of the best poetry books published in the last 5 years.

There are birds and trees and a desk that only gets in the way.

Like poetry itself Tarn's work is, at turns, startling, beautiful, and moody. The poems employ humor, sentimentality, surrealism, and the best parts of narrative and experimental poetry.

The poems are, in short, like Nathaniel himself. Vast and spectacular.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Little Genius Two

I know I'm boring everyone silly. Today, Rufus sings lines that really get to/describe me.

"I woke up this morning at 11:11
I wasn't in Portland or Heaven
but it could have been either
the way I was feeling.
I was alive and sill kicking
through this world."

That about sums it up!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I was just looking over a new issue of Fascicle which is pretty amazing. Among other things it has ...
new poetry by Stephen Rodefer, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Tim Van Dyke, Elizabeth Robinson, Hoa Nguyen, Clayton Eshleman, Tyrone Williams, Benjamin Friedlander, Kent Johnson, Jonathan Skinner, Alicia Cohen, Dale Smith, CS Giscombe, Peter O'Leary, Anne Boyer, Robert Kelly, Eleni Sikelianos, Brian Henry, Deborah Meadows, Mark Scroggins, kari edwards, Ken Rumble, Rob Halpern and many others.

Rachel Blau DePlessis is splendid!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Little Genius

Yesterday, I was listening to Want Two by Rufus Wainwright. I don't know that much about it, but to my knowledge, these albums (Want One and Two) were written after Wainwright's nearly deadly addiction to crystal meth. I have heard these albums thousands of times. I was thinking of what attracts me so much to Rufus. The song I was really listening to yesterday is I'm embarassed to say, called "Old Whore's Diet." The lyrics are particularly uninteresting. What is interesting is the way in which Wainwright can write a composition. It's hard for me (knowing nothing about music formally) to explain. But, most pop or rock songa have on or two tunes in them. This song has like five tunes in it, The music turns in one direction, then another, then another. Wainwright overlaps violins with the piano. The best part is how he mixes three (or is it four) distinct voices: his own, Antony's, and Martha Wainwright's. I can't even begin to do it justice.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Looking into the Arichives of the Buffalo List:

Barry Schwabsky writes this of the new issue of SES:

"Nice. I appreciate the clarity of focus: present just a few things, in such a way that each one can be savored. The opposite of journals that present vast amounts of material by great numbers of people so that it becomes very difficult for anything in particular to stand out. Here, with just one poem and one interview per poet, I already feel like I've been properly "introduced" to each one. A dinner party, not a disco. Thank you!"


Thank you!

Friday, February 16, 2007


I hadn't really been reading much poetry lately. Poetry is difficult for me, and I tend to rely on novels and the daily Times for most of my reading. To make matters worse, I am supposed to be reviewing 2 books.

Last week, I delved into three poets: Ashbery, Palmer, and Creeley. In order to read poetry, I have to find an "in." It's like there's a secret doorway that I have to uncover. Once I find it, it's magical. Finding it is a lot of work.

I found it last night in Mayer's MidWinter Day (correct title?) and Berssenbrugge's Four Year Old Girl.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Yeats and All

This has been a relentlessly exciting "poetry" week.

The 5th issue of Saint Elizabeth Street was pushed into the world!

After 17 years, I finally begin concrete work with my publisher UNM Press, on my first book, Derivative of the Moving Image.

Next week, I will travel to Yale to see my favorite guy Nathaniel Tarn read!

On her blog yesterday Andrea Baker wrote something to the effect of today I love poetry. I had the same experience last night. I read a great NYT editorial about the current quoting of Yeats "The Second Coming" in the political arena. This led me to go dig it up in my Norton Anthology and read it, which I am embarrassed to say, I hadn't, although my smarter husband and father have quoted it to me over the years.

Yeat writes: "Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds."
and in A Prayer for My Daughter "Because of the great gloom that is in my mind."
Uggggh -- Why didn't I write that?!!

PS: To Anne, if you read this, an explaination is coming to DAD shortly!

Monday, February 12, 2007

New Issue of Saint Elizabeth Street

After a what seems like forever, we are THRILLED to have completed SES #5. This is an interview issue including interviews with Jen Benka, Andrea Baker, Adam Clay, Kate Greenstreet, and Bruce Covey.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

I am really enjoying Language of Inquiry. Last night, I read this great passage that reminded me of Jen Benka. This was from the introduction of "Happily."

I have been equally excited into the activity of poetry by its revolutionary character and by its capacity to do philosophy. I do not mean to make a grandiose claim to being a "revolutionary." But I have thought that the function of poetry was to address problems and to address problems very often puts one in opposition to established power structures, and not just those that would exercise power over aesthetics.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Language of Inquiry

In my time a way from Pre-kindergarten politics, I've been reading Lyn Hejinian's book of essays The Language of Inquiry.
Hejinian has an amazing quote:

The investigation of how language works and of how it conveys arrays of sense and meaning is a specifically poetic undertaking. In the course of it, one inevidently discovers that languagein a poem does not lay down paths that are always simple to follow. If it is "knowledge" one is trying to arrive at it would seem that there must be a more efficent way of getting there. Indeed, one wonders just whose side language is on.

Only Thin Teachers Need Apply

Today I had a truly horrifying experience.

I helped host a tour of my son's school. After the tour I was speaking to another parent who had her child in the school already, but decided to "tour" to learn more about the upper grades. We were discussing the positives and negetives of the school. She told me that she thought the school might do better to have younger teachers. She said that the older teachers looked (something to the effect of) bogged down. I told her that I disagreed because new teachers, while idealistic, tend to be too inexperienced (which I know more than first hand). She told me (then) that she was concerned about the teacher's weight and it bothered her that a school would have a teaching staff that was half "obese." I told her that this was shallow, and curriculum was what mattered. She told me that she thought that there was so much childhood obesity that having an overweight teacher was a bad role model. The pricipal walked up -- end of conversation.

I felt like I had been hit by a truck. First, I want to say that I am taking a risk by even writing this. I have at least one reader from the school. But, I'm so upset, I have to get it out.
To me, this is blatent prejudice. One can take out the word obese and fill in the blank: black, Jewish, crippled, gay, Catholic, Chinese...whatever. The woman's argument might be that overweightness is something you can control, and thereforwarrents prejudice. But, who do you know with a weight problem who TRULY fault for that weight problem. Let's follow her logic that kids should have healthy, thin teachers to provide good "role models." What about the teachers who stand outside and smoke - or drink coke at lunch - what about the problems with anorexia and buleima -- because as our parent argues -- people should be thin?

What was most startling to me is that the woman (who barely knows me) would think it's okay to utter such a thing! What happened to PC?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Judy Chicago and other stuff

Yesterday's (or was it today's) Times had an article celebrating the final homecoming of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party to the Brooklyn Art Museum -- where it will live from here on out. Ahh....yes. I remember Chicago's last visit to the Brooklyn Museum (perhaps I wrote about this before?). I was pregnant. Chicago gave a talk in a huge autotorium. There was a young woman all but in the last row with a child making the tiniest bit of noise. Chicago made a huge deal about this and refused to continue until the woman left. I saw the woman shortly afterward in the bathroom crying. She explained that she really wanted to see the lecture and could not get a babysitter.

Chicago bills herself as the ultimate feminist and protector of women's rights. Whose rights was she protecting in this case? Shouldn't a single mother get equal protection? So many women, from what I noticed, in the Dinner Party are not mothers. I was also in a class once where a girl said that Chicago spoke at her college graduation and said that women cannot be artists and mothers. Huh?

As feminists, we need to stand up for the rights of EVERY woman, no matter her choices. We also need to accept that women are not men -- and for some-- motherhood is part of the equation.

There are so many fabulous women at The Dinner Table. Too bad their creator is not fit to eat with them.