Columnists

Hate Poem: The Story Behind the Hate

By Julie Sheehan on 2.10.10

Okay, false advertising. This is not the story behind the hate—there is no story behind the hate, or if there is, I’m not telling. Instead, I have an observation, one that has probably occurred to many: hate and love can be described in the same, outlandish, hyperbolic and indistinguishable terms, probably because hate and love require the same degree of passionate intensity. Don’t say Yeats didn’t warn us, but it may be that hate and love are the same thing. Surely both are equally capable of mass destruction.

Weirdly enough, when we’re talking about language, not people, hate redeems love. Hate poetry, I mean, redeems love poetry. Take those sagging lyrics from “I Love You Truly” and substitute the word hate for love.

That’s what I did for the first lines of this poem:

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Why I Write

By Dorianne Laux on 2.08.10

I have recently begun to think of writing as what Susan Sontag calls “a wisdom project” in her forward to Another Beauty, a collection of autobiographical essays by the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.

“…autobiography is an occasion to purge oneself of vanity, while advancing the project of self understanding—call it the wisdom project—which is never completed, however long the life.”

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You Have Flown to the Dangerous Country

Thoughts on Haiti

By Elizabeth Spires on 1.29.10

A few years ago, I reviewed the children’s classic Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, written by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes in 1931. The Haiti presented in that book was a simple, lyrical place, in some ways almost paradisaical, and totally at odds with the terrible scenes of destruction and human suffering we are seeing in newspapers and on television broadcasts since the earthquake. Even before the earthquake, however, Haiti’s troubles in recent years, its political instability, social chaos, and poverty, made it an unlikely destination for most travelers.

This didn’t deter my husband, who began making regular trips to Haiti in 1995 to research a trilogy of historical novels (All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused) about the Haitian slave revolt of 1791. Since he is an intrepid, resourceful traveler, who recognizes little in the way of danger, I decided it would be pointless to worry about his safety until the day of one trip, when the Haitian Times landed on our doorstep in Baltimore running the bold headline “Kidnappers Run Amok.” Fortunately, his plane to Haiti had already taken off, which was a good thing, since I know that that particular story wouldn’t have stopped him from going. But my misgivings on that occasion spurred the poem “You Have Flown to the Dangerous Country.”

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Snail: The Story Behind the Poem

By Elizabeth Spires on 1.27.10

Elizabeth Bishop once described the writing of a poem as a “happy accident.” She knew that the image or event that triggers a poem is always unexpected. It can’t be planned or contrived, willed or wished for.

This has certainly been true for me. I remember how a long-ago trip to the town dump in Stonington, Maine—certainly not a beautiful or “poetic” place—inspired a poem of mine titled “The Woman on the Dump.” And, a few years later, how a visit to my daugher’s elementary school led to my writing “Snail.”

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All Living Things Have Shoulders

From The Ticking is the Bomb

By Nick Flynn on 1.22.10

For those few years when I worked in New York City public schools as an itinerant poet—Crown Heights, Harlem, the South Bronx—I’d lug a satchel heavy with books on the train every morning. Much of what I taught was directed toward finding out what the students saw every day. It was a way to honor their lives, which isn’t generally taught in public schools. The beginning exercises were very simple: Tell me one thing you saw on the way into school this morning. Tell me one thing you saw last night when you got home. Describe something you see every day, describe something you saw only once and wondered about from then on. Tell me a dream, tell me a story someone told you, tell me something you’ve never told anyone else before. No one, in school at least, had ever asked them what their lives were like, no one had asked them to tell about their days. In this sense it felt like a radical act. I tried to imagine what might happen if each of them knew how important their lives were.

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In Praise of Public Libraries

By Sandra Beasley on 1.05.10

Not long ago, I took part in a fundraiser for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1895, this family of public libraries serves 2.6 million visitors each year at nineteen locations throughout the city. But a 1.5-million-dollar deficit for 2010 has resulted in orders to close four branches, in neighborhoods already “underserved” at best, and merge two others. Hours of operation will be shortened by almost 30 percent. Thirty staff positions will be cut.

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How I Found Poetry

By Kim Addonizio on 11.18.09

When I was young and living with my parents, my father still alive and my mother also young, though I was too young then to understand how young she really was—when I was a girl and did not yet have a girl myself—when I was a young girl, my lovely living father owned a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The book had a brown leather cover, its title was gold-stamped, and so it was exotic. My father read to me from that book: The Moving finger writes, and having writ, / Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it. And in his voice that I found beautiful, my young and beautiful father said A loaf of bread a jug of wine and I could nearly taste the bread’s sun-warm crust and didn’t yet know the taste of wine or what it meant to have a beloved. That book, those words, that afternoon when we were all so young: maybe that was the start.

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Mistakes We Knew We Were Making

Life Outside the Poets and Writers ‘Top 50 MFA Programs’

By Sandra Beasley on 11.16.09

Last month, I was counseling a woman on applying to MFA programs. Was her work competitive? Was she willing to move? Halfway through her answers, she assured me, “I bought the handbook, of course.”

Handbook? There’s a handbook? Little did I know that The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Students is already in its second edition.

Now the latest issue of Poets & Writers ranks “The Top 50 MFA Programs,” based on poet Seth Abramson’s blog-based surveys and research. No matter how you feel about these rankings (some question their validity, most notably the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), their influence will spread like kudzu. Everyone loves a list.

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The Muse Wore Orange

At the Jentel Artist Residency, my most valuable hours were not spent writing.

By Sandra Beasley on 10.26.09

She stands by our front door: a painted cutout of a winged woman, complete with red spirals of hair. Angel, muse, safety monitor, she models the bright orange vest that each of us must wear if we venture into the hills surrounding the Jentel Artist Residency Program.

“So that you don’t get shot by hunters,” was the friendly instruction. “Or run down by truckers.”

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Bright Stars

Campion’s Film of and from Keats

By Stanley Plumly on 10.22.09

In his February-May 1819 journal-letter to his brother George, the nineteenth-century English Romantic poet John Keats remarks that “they are very shallow people who take every thing literal. A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life the like scriptures, figurative—.” To her great credit, filmmaker Jane Campion has understood the richly figurative in Keats’ life without sacrificing the literal wealth of its texture. She has evoked the mystery of his genius without giving up the reality of its dailiness.  Bright Star, her new film about the almost two-year passion between Keats and Fanny Brawne, is brilliant in its discipline and detail, in what it permits to enter their story and what it excuses from exposition.  Campion is as gifted a writer as she is director, and her screenplay is masterful in its extrapolation of the implicit narrative in Keats’ remarkable letters, particularly since what we see on the screen is entirely from Fanny’s point of view: her experience of and with Keats as reflected in his words.

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