Lucky Life

An Interview with Gerald Stern

By The Editors on 9.17.10

Gerald Stern, the author of sixteen poetry collections, has won the National Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award, among others. In July, W. W. Norton published a collection of Stern’s best early work spanning four decades from 1965 to 1992. The following interview was conducted by Stephanie Smith on behalf of Poems Out Loud.

Q: When did you start writing poems?

Gerald Stern: I actually started to write poems when I was in high school though I never truly studied poetry or thought in any way of myself as a poet, whatever that was or might be.

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The Early Poems of Gerald Stern

By Gerald Stern on 6.21.10

What I attempted to do in this Early Collected—the first six books of my collected poems—is to reach out simultaneously for a new language and a new subject matter. I was interested in that which was overlooked, neglected, and unseen, from a political, religious, and personal point of view and a voice that bespoke this in the simplest, most honest manner. I found myself returning to early—to fundamental—experiences, as I found myself discovering a new language. This constituted a celebration as well as a kind of mourning or elegy, and the results can be seen in such poems as “Lucky Life,” “The Blue Tie,” “Stepping Out of Poetry,” and “Bob Summer: The Final Poem.” This was a difficult road to hoe, for it expressed neither formal, academic niceness nor bohemian madness. If there are sources they are variously in the Hebrew prophets, in Blake, in Whitman, in Ovid, in Coleridge, and, as far as modern poets, in Yeats, Stevens, Pound, and Hart Crane.

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The Oral World vs. The Written Word

By Nicholas Carr on 6.18.10

Early in the fourth century BC, when the practice of writing was still novel and controversial in Greece, Plato wrote Phaedrus, his dialogue about love, beauty, and rhetoric. In the tale, the title character, a citizen of Athens, takes a walk with the great orator Socrates into the countryside, where the two friends sit under a tree beside a stream and have a long and circuitous conversation. They discuss the finer points of speech making, the nature of desire, the varieties of madness, and the journey of the immortal soul, before turning their attention to the written word. “There remains the question,” muses Socrates, “of propriety and impropriety in writing.” Phaedrus agrees, and Socrates launches into a story about a meeting between the multi-talented Egyptian god Theuth, whose many inventions included the alphabet, and one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus.

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The Importance of Merging Margins

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.20.10

In the current Broadway play Red, Mark Rothko shouts at his assistant for never having read such writers as Nietzsche. It’s both an attack on the younger man’s perceived lack of cultural literacy and a provocative way for the older artist to mentor. All the while, classical music is playing in the background in a kind of surround-sound tutoring. The audience comes to discover something about the assistant’s own musical preferences when he plays a Chet Baker record while the master is out wheeling and dealing in the art world. We also learn that the assistant’s artistic taste runs more toward Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns than toward the high modernism of his self-aggrandizing guru. I’m impressed by the variety of culture represented in that studio.

When I was about that young man’s age, say twenty-eight, I was in the throes of an art movement here in New York City. It was 1983, and the group became known as Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. Reagan was president and he was funding “freedom fighters” to undermine the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the region. We congregated in the loft of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero.

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Hand Weights & Newspapers

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.11.10

Young writers—as well as random people who come up to me after a reading—often want to know the tricks of the trade. And there are a few that I learned as an undergrad (show don’t tell; every item on a list needs to be equally extraordinary; etc.). In general I frustrate the person by simply badgering her or him to read more poetry, both classic and contemporary.

But the truth is I do have my own “tricks.” This feels like a good moment to share one in particular.

When I taught workshops in the past, I used to bring in a volume of Emily Dickinson, a hand weight, and a newspaper. The first was obviously in the “go read poetry” category. The hand weight was there to remind students to take care of their bodies (since even the deskbound have bodies). And the third was meant to inspire them to read the newspaper.

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A Poet and Her Editor

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.06.10

What does it mean for a poet to have someone edit her collection? I am not sure what that might involve for other poets—aside from having some lines cut or stanzas rearranged—but my own experience has been extraordinary. On a panel last year, I spoke to a room of emerging writers on this topic; seated beside me was my editor at Norton, Jill Bialosky. This column feels like an appropriate place to relate some of my comments.

Mosquito and Ant was the first manuscript I submitted to Jill, who was familiar with an earlier book of mine, The Unbearable Heart. She found the new book intriguing but not quite ready—that was the gist of her response. A year later, I tried again and she returned the manuscript with a few comments on the parts that felt most compelling to her. She suggested I add a prose section (what I’d been calling zuihitsu, a Japanese genre) that would give the dominant sequence some kind of backdrop. I love assignments, and so I wrote two zuihitsu: “Reflections Off White” (a sort of catalog of weddings) and “Morning Light” (a more narrative piece on a wife’s leave-taking). If memory serves, I already had two other such zuihitsu: “The Downpour” (written in response to a Sei Shonagon millennium celebration at The Poetry Project) and “Sewing without Mother” (a prose elegy). I saw that Jill was right: these changes added some backdrop and the manuscript felt richer. After about another year, I sent this new version. At that point, the collection resembled the finished book—except for arrangement. Given that Jill is a writer herself, I’ve often wondered how she finds the time and energy to offer such guidance. Even with no guarantee of publication, I was intensely grateful.

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The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 1 of 8

A Serialized Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did

By Jake Silverstein on 4.01.10

Editor’s Note: On April 19th, W. W. Norton will publish Nothing Happened and Then It Did, the first book by Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein. Sherman Alexie has called it “hilarious, poetic, lovely, and disturbing.” Annie Dillard calls it “a masterful literary debut.” Like Alexie and Dillard, the Poems Out Loud team has fallen in love with the book. One chapter in particular, about an unforgettable poetry competition in Reno, Nevada, has secured my personal lifetime membership in the Silverstein Forever Fan Club. To help us celebrate National Poetry Month, Jake Silverstein has generously agreed to let Poems Out Loud share this chapter with you, dear readers. So throughout the month of April, in eight parts, we’ll be serializing the story of the Famous Poet’s Society from Nothing Happened and Then It Did. Read along with us and there will be a few opportunities throughout the month to snag a free copy of the book. So now, I turn you over to Jake and Part 1 of the Famous Poet’s Society. Enjoy!

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The Poem That Invented Us

By Sherod Santos on 3.29.10

It’s a thing of the past, we often say of the past. But like childhood, something within it is always present. And something within the lyric poem relives that fateful moment when the human figure stepped from the shadow of heroes and gods to assume its natural form. Here I am, the lyric said, and here I am as I am.

we are born of the dead

In the seventh century BCE, poets first began to compose whole poems around the day-to-day particulars of their own lives; and in so doing, they invested the lyric with an awesome, self-renewing power, the power to fire the human spirit and, at the same time, to call into question the religious, social, and political structures that governed their daily world.

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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

An Introduction to the Novel

By Jerome Charyn on 3.26.10

She was the first poet I had ever read, and I was hooked and hypnotized from the start, because in her writing she broke every rule. Words had their own chain reaction, their own fire. She could stun, delight, and kill “with Dirks of Melody.” I never quite recovered from reader her. I, too, wanted to create “[a] perfect—paralyzing Bliss,” to have my sentences explode “like a Maelstrom, with a notch.”

It was the old maid of Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer. ” A Wounded Deer—leaps highest,” she wrote, and I wanted to leap with Emily.

We had so little in common. She was a country girl, and I was a boy from the Bronx. She had a lineage with powerful roots in America, and I was a mongrel whose heritage was like an unsolved riddle out of Eastern Europe. Yet I could hear the tick of her music in my wakefulness and in my sleep. Suddenly that plain little woman with her bolts of red hair was as familiar to me as the little scars on my own face.

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On Love Poems (and Other One-Horned Beasts)

By Sandra Beasley on 2.11.10

I’ve been writing love poems.

Or rather, I’ve been trying to write love poems.

To be precise, I’ve been cursing the blank page where my love poems should be. I’m in love, damn it. Where are the poems? When I’m sad, I can write about sadness. When I took a cable car up Mount Pilatus, I could describe the view from 7,000 feet.

It’s not uncommon for a lover to ask, “why aren’t I in your poems?” Usually the poet thinks, “You don’t want that. Showing up in poems is a bad sign.” There is a truism that poems do not thrive on the agar of contentment. No, that’s not quite it; great poems do not thrive on the agar of contentment. Mediocrity flourishes in any petri dish. William Butler Yeats, in “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” diagnosed the problem. “Only an aching heart,” he said, “Conceives a changeless work of art.”

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