Tag Archives: Fall 2017

Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta

Michael Copperman
University Press of Mississippi ($25)

by T. K. Dalton

A reader could come to Michael Copperman’s memoir, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta with any number of trepidations: a weariness with narratives about the teacher-who-changed-my-life, maybe, or a preconceived notion about Teach for America (TFA), which takes fresh graduates from elite colleges and places them, after a brief summer of training, in under-resourced schools to teach impoverished students. Or consider that a book published at the end of 2016 is concerned with the lives of children who are now in their mid-twenties—just slightly older than Copperman was when he accepted the job. What kind of distortions set in with the passage of so much time? Adding in the distortions of the genre, and of the organization, how do these distortions limit the story?

It turns out not at all; rather, in the hands of a tireless, deeply reflective, honest, and unflinching writer, the passage of time has enriched the story, eroding away the unnecessary to reveal a truth.

The memoir begins with Copperman’s return to the Delta to address a crowd of new TFA recruits. In this chapter, titled “Uncertainty,” he is back in the town he calls Promise, on streets he once drove to work. Recalling a student, he passes by her house, only to find it burned to the ground. She has survived, but it’s an eerie moment. His Delta—and his students’—has changed.

For young Copperman, part of the struggle in the early part of the book—aptly enough called “The First Year” —is that so many aspects of school and of local life more broadly are ingrained enough that any change he intends to make is nearly impossible. Often Copperman struggles just to understand expectations, like punishment. In the chapter titled “Classroom Management,” Copperman and an assistant principal not much older than him differ in their approaches to discipline. “I do not spare the rod,” says the administrator, holding a wood paddle. In keeping with the TFA philosophy that, as the first-year teacher puts it, “Good teaching is good management,” Copperman attempts to keep regular communication with parents open, calling not just for problems but for positive reports as well. This ends badly. When Copperman attempts to engage the mother of one student, Antiquarian, whose love for kickball becomes a motivator for good behavior, his repeated calls go unanswered. The repeated presence of his number on caller ID leads the mother’s boyfriend, a prison guard, to beat the student with a fan belt. In a conference with the assistant principal and the student, Antiquarian says, “Don’t worry, Mr. Copperman. It don’t matter what you do, right or wrong, good or bad. It don’t matter.” The capture of such heartbreaking moments occur on nearly every page of this book. The students are wise, furious; the teacher naive, full of hubris; Teacher shows each with respect and precision.

The scale of trauma many of these students experienced before even coming to school is extraordinary. Its retelling in Teacher is not the stuff of exploitative melodrama, as it could be with a lesser talent, but is instead in the tradition of literary witness. “What You Can Give” describes how Tevin, a student in foster care, appeared to have experienced extreme malnourishment, fetal alcohol poisoning, and crack while in utero, and had even been the person to discover the corpse of his murdered mother. Copperman is shown Tevin’s case file and reports what the student saw that day: “all down her shoulders and chest and all over the white porcelain was blood from her throat, which had been slit open from clavicle to clavicle.” The student’s behavior continues to be rough, though his capability is there: “He wrote the word fuck a hundred times when asked to write a five-sentence paragraph—complete with five periods to satisfy the assignment.” Copperman literally throws the student into the hallway after Tevin spits in his face. It’s a telling moment in the midst of monumental—if not uncommon—first-year teacher behavior challenges. “I struggled to recognize that not only couldn’t I create new lives for my kids, but on my worst days I couldn’t even make progress in teaching them to read, write, and understand fractions,” writes Copperman. “Many of these children had hard lives and they brought their circumstances to school with them. . . . How can one respond to constant disrespect without anger?”

In the above context, in the chapter “Persistence and Penance,” Copperman is referencing his own anger, the disrespect being the student behavior toward him. Of course, bad behavior is also a form of anger, itself a response to constant disrespect of a different sort: of being a child growing up in a segregated town, being teased for having clothes that are dirty or a body that smells, having developmental delays and issues related to a parent’s addiction, the instability of a one- or even a no-parent household, the difficulty of being raised by grandparents, the consequent problems rooted in the “solution” of corporal punishment, an educational system that thinks testing is the way to improve education for children living under such a matrix of oppressions, the casual racism in a town where confederate flags fly on major streets and where the place most likely to appear integrated is the local Walmart. Copperman writes: “Lynching in adjacent counties was in the memory of her parents and grandparents; who was I to claim that change had come in a place so substantially unaltered by time? Here at this school, even now, we kept black children fenced in with barbed wire, and at the Academy football field I passed on my way home each day, hoops of razor wire kept them out.” He describes another student, Nyson, whose disability went undiagnosed until so late in the year that he’d been resourced to a special education facility. “I’d failed Nyson, had missed the meaning of his first zero on the diagnostic and every subsequent sign, even his own writing on the wall. All those months he begged me to notice, and I let him suffer there alone, the only one who cared enough to look in the right place.” He ends up back at the school, and is properly diagnosed with dyslexia related to both reading and math—the latter of which Copperman says he should have seen when the boy wrote “10 x 10 = 010” on the test Copperman had posted.

First-year teachers make many of the same mistakes, regardless of talent and placement—and here we certainly have a talented teacher in a difficult and unfamiliar placement. Our first year in New York, my wife and her middle-school colleagues attended a great many “mandatory meetings”—happy hours at nearby dive bars. In Copperman’s book, some of my favorite moments from the first year describe life outside the classroom. Though set in 2002, Copperman’s description of the experience of being a young man of Japanese and Jewish descent teaching in a place where such racial multiplicity is buried underneath a tense, historically laden binary is insightful and important in this moment. “Club Sweet,” for instance, shows Copperman invited out to a Delta-style “mandatory meeting.” He’s not quite in his element, but neither is he when he stops to eat at the only Chinese restaurant in the area, only to find the woman at the grill and her teenage son bringing him a home-style, off-menu feast. In both cases, others recognize his dislocation—or, in the case of the China-King Restaurant, their own in his. They meet it with kindness, and the relief is real.

Teacher testifies to the pressure that young, bright idealists can experience when encountering entrenched inequities. It’s not something new, either. In “Harm,” Copperman describes a conversation about burnout with his father, who worked early in his career in ERs serving low-income and sometimes homeless and mentally ill patients. Copperman’s father describes a man who came in four days after he’d almost died of alcohol poisoning; the father settles the patient roughly into a gurney, and after leaving for a minute, he returns. Copperman’s father relates the conversation to his son: “‘Thank God you come, thank God you come, there was a bad doctor here hurting me.’ He didn’t remember I’d treated him that way and left him there, any more than he remembered it was me who saved his life.” In the stories of these students from his first year—of Nyson and Antiquarian and Tevin—there are echoes with the elder Copperman’s experience.

The structure of the book into first year and second makes sense. But it does build in some of the same problems that TFA’s two-year model has: namely, the problem of the lame duck, and one who has just recently come to know how much they do not know. Much of the second year sees Copperman actively engaging the forces he’d come to understand over the course of the first year—among them what he sees as his own ineffectiveness. He doesn’t quite have the time or momentum to fix much of this, in part because he’ll soon be leaving. It’s not a flaw of the book as much as the TFA experience. What holds “The Second Year” together are his efforts to reach a single student, who he calls Felicia. Because she is behaviorally disturbed but preternaturally bright—the kind of student a principal friend of mine calls a “program breaker”—he engages her in a yearlong struggle to tap her potential. At the start of the school year, he arrives at school to find her curled up in front of his classroom door. Copperman doesn’t know this, but all the other teachers in the school had refused her. She starts the year with a tirade when she’s not allowed to use the bathroom: “Stupid ugly little Chinaman gone send me to the office for dancing? Shoot, I gone tell Assistant Principal Winston he need to send that mean little slant-eyed man to go back where he come from . . . . ” It’s not long before she’s refusing to read The Cricket of Times Square on principle. It didn’t have to do with literacy though: “Mostly she was superproficient [on tests], though on one section of a test from third grade she’d literally received no points at all, which could only mean that she’d correctly chosen the wrong answer to each question.” Her reading level was “currently unestablishable due to exceptional speed and frequent digression on all comprehension questions.” He makes her his project:

What emerged was an extraordinary and violent defiance, a nature so ruthlessly oppositional it couldn't be mastered. . . . In the overlap between impossibility and impossibility there had to be some truth that connected with the gentleness I could sometimes exact from her with a smile or compliment. There was something about Felicia that was worthy of effort—and I’d bring it out.

He finds himself trying to reach her to the detriment of other students. Out of frustration, late in the year, a student named Solomon mocks his teacher:

Felicia Jackson, that’s enough out of you! I already asked you to stop being terrible to everybody in the world six other times today! It’s not OK to poke Serenity in the back of the head, kick Solomon in the shins, all the while meddling Serenity and mocking me behind my back all at the same time all day every day! I don’t appreciate being called a Ching-Chong Chinaman ought to go on back to China and fry me some rice! No, don’t even talk! That’s a consequence! That’s another consequence! No, I don't discuss consequences with fourth graders!

She eventually is transferred to a series of facilities for disturbed youth, ”and then sent back within a week: they didn’t know how to handle her combination of acuity and defiance.” She ended up, he learns, finishing school. As of the publication of Teacher, she worked at a Sonic drive-through in Promise.

This book was a consuming read, but reviewing it took me far longer than I thought. At first, I thought this had something to do with my own proximity to a rough year I had working in a school myself—but it wasn’t that, or even the evergreen excuse available to a working parent of two children under age four. No, the hardest thing to explain about the book is this: Rather than having its narrative distorted by memory or ego, its structure captures a distortion in the experience of TFA itself. In that first year, the dramatic details underpinning a narrative of monumental adjustment to the incredible responsibilities assumed by a novice in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the United States overwhelm any other possible story. In that second year, the teacher is both better and aware of how much better they need to be—but is also leaving.

Copperman has for many years taught low-income, first-generation students of color at the University of Oregon. That experience, sketched out at the end, offers a grounding through-line, which keeps the exquisitely rendered memories from fishtailing into a defensive nostalgia or a facile self-flagellation. These memories are of children who now may well have fourth-graders of their own. Time has worn off anything extraneous, and the voices of the students ring as clearly on the page as they did in the room where they originated. Teacher offers a glimpse at a lost planet, recognizable from our own, spinning on an axis with its own specific gravity.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017


Emilia Phillips
University of Akron Press ($14.95)
by Krystal Languell

In an early episode of Mad Men, Betty Draper jumps a curb with her kids, a boy and a girl, in the car. In the aftermath, she expresses regret thusly: “If it happened to Bobby it would have been okay because a boy with a scar is nothing, but a girl, it's so much worse.” In the opening poem of Groundspeed by Emilia Phillips, “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s,” the idea that we might consider ourselves too intelligent for vanity collapses beneath our collective weight. The speaker waits to be called for a procedure to remove cancerous cells from her face, quite rightly feeling fear, but first distinguishing herself from the other patients: “No one else with a book, the slick / weeklies gossip amongst // themselves on the side / tables” while a television displays a stock market dip and “a profile of the marathon // bombers.” Clearly, she believes her choice of Ovid as her means of distraction sets her apart, and she seems to assume some of the other patients are there by choice rather than medical necessity.

What’s interesting here is that certainly the speaker bears some measure of vanity herself, worried about the “hunk of my // cheek (cancer)” to be removed, dissociating from the experience by imagining the incision “site as an apricot, bitten.” She describes the image as personal “romanticism,” though, like the Ovid volume, it is also a coping mechanism. The photographic negative of this poem is one I recall by Maura Stanton that describes a student with cancer riding the elevator in Ballantine Hall at IU-Bloomington, and the cheerful assumptions her fellow riders make about her based on her engagement ring. We can’t tell when someone else is ill, and, if given the choice, would probably prefer not to know when we are either.

In the final lines of the poem, Phillips’s speaker refuses to look at her own reflection in a window on the way into the exam room. By the time we reach the final poem in the collection, “Supine Body in Full-Length Mirror, Hotel Room, Upper West Side,” the speaker no longer avoids her image, instead looking directly into the mirror and boldly inventorying her body, pausing at “the blot // where your aureola was once / pink.” She reflects on the events chronicled in the flesh, scars, like tattoos sometimes do, summarizing traumatic narratives. At first, she is surprised that it (her body) has come to the hotel with her. (Who invited you?) She goes on to position her body as symbolic, an assemblage constituting a lifetime of freighted modalities of gender. Its meaning constituted through its wounds, it suggests that meaning is a wound. And perhaps this is more true for bodies read as female than for those read as male.

We don’t always have the benefit of knowing our wounds very well, and Phillips compares the animal world to ours: “doves they released // over your brother’s grave wear / symbolism like buckshot // in the breast / unknowingly.” The birds don’t know they’re at a funeral. They don’t know what they symbolize.

What we know, we know because we have been wounded. And we have the memory of that experience as well as the scar to remind us, whereas the symbolism of the doves stays lodged beneath the surface “like buckshot.” Like Phillips’s speaker, we have to choose to face the experiences and ourselves. So much more is at play and at stake in this collection beyond these two bookending poems—death, travel, coming of age, all of which Phillips leads the reader through, not gently exactly, but with such reassuring competence as to make these potential dangers manageable, less threatening than if faced on our own.

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I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On

Khadijah Queen
YesYes Books ($18)

by Jeremiah Moriarty

Was it Dorothy Parker who once asked “Where's the man that could ease a heart like a satin gown?” I don’t know if Parker found something comparable in the toothy grin of Alan Parker, her on-again, off-again husband, but her question is a timeless, mostly unanswered one. Given the unreliability of other people and the mutability of desire, who do we dress for? A satin gown, the suggestions of the body beneath, can fetch the gaze of another, but it’s doing so much more work than that, both in the eyes of the beholder and the mind of the wearer. Who has the power in that situation, and how? Poet Khadijah Queen takes up these themes of fashion, attraction, and self-actualization in her new collection of episodic lyric pieces, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, exploring the universal contradiction of wanting to be beautiful while remaining skeptical of beauty’s place in the culture at large.

The cover of I’m So Fine characterizes the book as “A Narrative,” an expansive term that perfectly captures Queen’s detailed descriptions of famous men—their appeal and their approach—as well as her clothing. It gestures to the fact that clothes are very much indicators of the story we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Of meeting LL Cool J, she writes, “I had on black slacks & black Aerosole sandals & a cheap silky-polyester Rampage button-down with cap sleeves & a graphic blue sunflowers & carried my lipstick & wallet in a tiny pleather backpack I’m sure I looked a poor hot mess but oh well we got to see LL lick them lips.” These anecdotes, presented in clean-looking, elliptical passages, have little to no punctuation, and the restless stream-of-consciousness runs thick with pop culture reference and association. Most of them are Queen’s memories, but some are her mother’s, and many take place in Los Angeles, where celebrities coexist in funny, decidedly unglamorous ways with the rest of the populace. Paths cross, and the glamor of someone famous—as it often does—becomes immediately complicated by the male gaze, by differentials of power, and by morally suspect behavior.

Queen’s speaker rarely plays the groupie, more caught up in the excitement of a moment than anything else: when she and friends encounter Tupac in a Taco Bell drive-through, he invites them to a party “which seemed sketchy to me,” Queen writes, “but it was Tupac & it was Kelly’s car & she wanted to go so we went.” Sometimes the speaker’s motivations are not so simple, like the moment she leaves a club in Virginia with a friend “in time to see Allen Iverson in his cornrows & oversized jersey & jean shorts & clean Nikes get into the driver’s side of a white Bentley overcrowded with half-drunk half-dressed girls.” Though the speaker has no desire to be associated with “the so-called gold digger types,” encounters with larger-than-life figures still grab her eye and invite her curiosity; their fame, and the power inherent to that fame, can connect the non-celebrity to a larger cultural story.

Something of a thesis for I’m So Fine emerges in Queen’s passage on Bill Cosby and Beverly Johnson. Recounting Johnson’s decision to come forth about being drugged by Cosby and his attempted assault, Queen writes:

I immediately believed her & not him I have seen enough of powerful men by now to know she had nothing to gain by going public & the truth of beauty means both spotlights and shadows find you & it takes more than instinct to know where to stand on the stage

Hyper-visibility, in Queen’s experience, invites as many problems as benefits—the solicitations of “both spotlights and shadows.” I’m So Fine explores how the Black female body is made hyper-visible often not by choice or intention, but also how the individual in that body can gain agency by turning the gaze back on itself, how this visibility can be made into a powerful instrument of self-authorship. Its fresh humor and clear-eyed moral vision make it a perfect antidote to a time of oversimplified civil dialogue, of “fake news” and its opposite, and will hopefully invite others to interrogate their own relationship to space and visibility, to domination and erasure.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Hectic Pigment

Jed Rasula
Opo Books & Objects ($15)

by James Cook

Known primarily for his scholarly criticism of European Modernism and the New American poets, Jed Rasula has also quietly published two previous books of his own poetry. His third, Hectic Pigment, is a short (54 pages), pocket-sized, sharply sculpted volume of six poems that shows the influence of the Dada and Surrealist precursors he’s written about so lucidly.

Hectic Pigment is bookended by two ekphrastic pieces. The first (and longest) “Giacometti’s Dog,” weaves a series of absurdist narratives and stark imagery around aspects of Giacometti’s art and life. Throughout the poem, Rasula’s images reflect the eroding, skeletal lines of Giacometti’s sculpture:

advancing and recoiling at once
she pins you to fading

she’s almost sexy
except she’s a skeleton

her scribble of hips
will whittle you

into a pencil
she will write with

until you are blunt
with extraction

At times one is reminded of the phenomenological/philosophical lyric-narratives of fellow Olsonian Charles Stein, except in Rasula’s book, a series of gestures might terminate without any clear metaphysical underpinnings, just the dance of language reflecting the dance of matter in its swirling and hallucinatory organized chaos. Take “The Pomps of the Subsoils,” which appears to be a meditation on the act of artistic creation itself. Here the poet utilizes the versatile and wiry long line that is a signature of his, able to accommodate a projective language full of particulars, a disjunctive visionary lyricism:

An atonal logic at midnight, no longer a thread
unraveled through a maze,
but a simple straight line, bewitching enigma,
this siphon.

Throughout Hectic Pigment, the author seeks to present a world in which matter is constantly transforming, often violently, through the creative act. It’s a stance reflected in the hybrid forms of Rasula’s art: jagged, fragmented, spare lines overlap a supple biographical prose, which in turn becomes a nightmarish fever-dream followed by a quotation. One of Rasula’s most important books of criticism, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2002), charts a poetics of renewal and palimpsest, a patchwork in which the fertile field of past literatures posits a constantly evolving present. This idea deeply informs Hectic Pigment, as Rasula examines the nature of art, the cycles of birth and death, the inevitable failure of language to communicate the essential, and the beautiful broken forms which are the result of the effort:

there’s a mountain of pacing about
that wears a trench of you
down to sprung plush
gulp on gulp

there’s also a mountain
of meaningless Hercules
where dowel pins owl
hour by horrible hour

The final poem in the volume, “Pollock’s Hectic Pigment,” is an examination and response to the work of the famed action painter, and the poem alone is worth the price of the book. Again utilizing an elastic long line, Rasula is a demented museum guide, giving us a whirlwind tour through the dark, magical forms which underlie Jackson Pollock’s work, secret shapes just beneath the seemingly random surfaces of the dripped and splattered paint:

Now we come into the country we know–
spider arabesque. Grim tutorials of chance
subsiding in a spellbound squeal,
Queequeg’s casket itching with hieroglyphs
inside and out till it’s all inside-out. A tattoo
of dunk. Eye chowder. Shudder and chatter.
What is embellishment now? He’s clipped a
figure from a different blur and pasted it
over the stars until there’s a snout of
dangling silhouettes, almost a waddle that
wants to say it can’t dance. But does.

So too this book.

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The Consequences

Niña Weijers
translated by Hester Velmans
DoppelHouse Press ($29.95)

by Garry Craig Powell

This debut novel includes themes such as whether we exist and how we know we exist; the role of art in documenting existence; predestination and the nature of freedom; Taoism and the Mayan view of Time. Moreover, it’s a novel with many erudite allusions in which the protagonist thinks constantly about herself. Such a novel will surely either be pretentious, solipsistic, and insufferable, or else a brilliant tour de force. Happily, Niña Weijers’s The Consequences is the latter; this novel is a true must-read, and Weijers is an author all literate readers should discover.

So few novels of this scope and ambition are present in the contemporary American literary scene that one struggles to find peers; imagine a work by Thomas Mann with the wit and postmodern sensibility of Milan Kundera. Minnie Panis is a conceptual artist in Amsterdam who has made her reputation by photographing her own trash, and who doubts whether she is an artist and even whether she exists. This sounds like a recipe for tedious introspection; in fact, it is more gripping than most thrillers, partly because it has a clever plot and partly because Minnie’s aperçus are endlessly fascinating, as are those of the omniscient narrator. For instance: “The human brain is remarkably shortsighted when it comes to both love and the weather: it believes the current conditions will last forever, and it learns nothing, not one thing, from the past . . . ”

Structurally, the novel is traditional enough, making use of foreshadowing and suspense. Who would not be hooked by the first words? “The day Minnie Panis vanished from her own life for the third time . . . ” It’s not just the vanishing that intrigues, but the fact that it’s for the third time; immediately we want to know about all three occasions. And on just the second page of the Prologue we have this cliff-hanger: “You may wonder why Minnie deliberately stepped out onto the thin ice at around two o’clock that afternoon, and stood there as it gave way, only slightly startled.” Yes, we certainly do!

Most of the action takes place in 2012, when Minnie spends an ill-considered night with one of her lovers, a photographer. Weeks afterwards, she finds herself in the pages of Vogue, nearly naked: the photographer has taken pictures of her while she was asleep. Furious but intrigued, she confronts him, and he offers her half his fee. She accepts, on condition that she pay him the fee, and he spend three weeks following her and photographing her. Reluctantly, he agrees. Neither may contact the other until the photographs are in Minnie’s hands, although they do spend a drunken and lustful night together after signing the contractwhich has, as the book’s title portends, consequences.

On the one hand, then, the reader wonders, as Minnie does, where the photographer is all the time, and what he is doing, and whether love will blossom from all this; on the other, of course, it’s an enquiry into the relationship between life and art, between reality and representation. The novel manages to lampoon the pretentiousness and silliness of the contemporary art world, at least its unintelligible criticism, but also, perhaps amazingly, to give us a real appreciation of the significance of conceptual art, for instance that of Marina Abramović (who makes a cameo appearance).

At a deeper level, it’s a philosophical novel of an existentialist bent, which explores what it means to live in full consciousness of the moment. Camus is explicitly alluded to, but it’s really more Nietzschean, in that the narrator concludes that everything that happens is predestined—that our lives are the consequences of every event that has occurred hitherto. Even so, there may be a glorious freedom in life: not the freedom of action (the freedom the typical western novel takes as its premise) but the freedom of letting go, as the Tao Te Ching puts it.

Numerous sub-plots are woven into the weft: one involving Minnie’s distant but dutiful mother, for instance, and one in which an eccentric doctor who treated Minnie soon after her premature birth, and again at age seven (when she stole four men’s wallets, one of which just happened to belong to her absent father), and who then reappears at a critical moment in her adult life and has a decisive effect on it. A Kundera-like essay is intertwined in the narrative too, about a Dutch performance artist who was lost at sea, perhaps by design. Masterfully fusing these seemingly disparate strands, The Consequences is an astonishing book, shimmering with wit, wisdom, and beauty.

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Loving Robert Lowell

Sandra Hochman
Turner Publishing ($16.95)

by Brooke Horvath

Sandra Hochman was an aspiring writer escaping a failed marriage when she met poet Robert Lowell in 1961. She was talented, attractive, and twenty-five; he was forty-three, famous, and charming as all get-out. What it took Hochman months to realize was that Lowell was also slowly slipping into one of his manic episodes (he was hospitalized repeatedly throughout adulthood for bipolar disorder), during which he often announced the end of his marriage and the start of a new life. Hochman was to be the center of the latest new life, and for several months a fairy tale of reading and writing together, mutual caretaking, and passionate sex filled Hochman’s days until, in the words of Lowell’s biographer Ian Hamilton, the “new bout of ‘elation’ reached its climax,” and Lowell returned to both the hospital and his wife.

Although Hochman is barely mentioned by Hamilton and not at all in Kay Redfield Jamison’s recent Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (a study of his manic-depression), Loving Robert Lowell is testimony to the affair’s lasting importance to her. Perhaps best known for her 1971 novel Walking Papers, Hochman was remarkably productive and successful through the 1960s and ’70s as poet and novelist, then fell silent. This memoir (along with the republication of several novels) marks her return. It is not, however, a particularly auspicious return, for although the back cover promises a narrative “much more fabulous” than her fiction, a story written “in startling detail about [a] torrid and ultimately doomed affair,” what we get is less torrid than saccharine: “I felt as if liquid music had been injected into my veins. I was learning from the master”; “I just stared at [Lowell’s] reclining nude, white body with joy and aesthetic appreciation.”

Hochman is often self-serving. Her readiness to fall for Lowell is to be understood partly as the result of a bruising marriage and a troubled childhood (her parents divorce, and she is sent to a fancy boarding school). Nor, despite claiming she didn’t “move in literary circles,” is she shy to tell us how admired she was by the likes of Anais Nin, Stanley Kunitz, and James T. Farrell (to validate their acumen, several of her poems are included). Hochman is also eager to convince us of the good she did Lowell: she “was inspiring a genius to try new things” because she was “a woman that brought him youth and joy.” Much praise comes courtesy of Lowell, who tells her, among other pretty things, that her poetry has qualities he wishes his had and that before meeting her “he had never really enjoyed sex” but now found it “holy.” Hochman’s Lowell also frequently requires her intellectual help. She has to teach him what Dada was (“I explained that it had originated in Zurich”), and it is thanks to her, she hints, that he began writing plays.

Calling Hochman “Butterball” and cooing that she’s his “mommy bear,” Lowell begins to come across like the Mozart of Amadeus—as someone it is difficult to imagine creating the work by which we know him. Part of what mars the story of this folie à deux is the stilted prose, especially in what are presented as verbatim conversations, for Hochman is less intent upon verisimilitude than in assisting the uninformed reader. Thus, she tells Lowell that Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset “actually loved literature, as opposed to many of the other publishers who mostly saw publishing as a business,” and reminding Lowell of a review of his work by Allen Tate, she begins, “remember . . . Allen Tate, the poet and your friend . . .”

Certainly, the conventions of memoir ask readers to accept invented conversations as having occurred as recorded, and this is fine when Lowell is plighting his troth or querying Hochman regarding what the Beats are all about. It is a different matter when he is holding forth on poetry, for then one wants to be sure he said the things attributed to him. Unfortunately, faith in the accuracy of Hochman’s memory falters as careless errors accumulate: she was not the first woman to win the Yale Younger Poets competition but the seventeenth; there were no hippies in 1961; Norman Mailer’s book about the ’67 March on the Pentagon was not Why Are We in Vietnam?

In short, Loving Robert Lowell is not without problems. It is, however, a heartfelt recollection of several immensely meaningful months in the author’s life—less the facts as Joe Friday might desire them than the truth of memory, sifted and respun for more than fifty years. As Hochman describes visits to the Actors Studio, rowing in Central Park, hobnobbing with literary friends (she seems not to have known anyone who wasn’t famous), or walking naked about their apartment, she offers perhaps the fullest picture of Lowell in the glamorously seductive phase of his mania, alternately suave and silly but rarely “loutish,” as Ian Hamilton found him to be. For this corrective portrait alone, we must thank Hochman for sharing.

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Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

Megan Marshall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($30)

by Edward A. Dougherty

The subtitle for Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast could have been “A Creature Divided,” from Bishop’s final published poem, “Sonnet.” Elizabeth Bishop is known as a poet of small but precise output, who pairs remarkable personal reflection with emotional restraint. While her long-time friend Robert Lowell remarked on “the seemingly dispassionate coolness” of her poems, she thought of poetry as “the most natural way of saying what I feel.” And this book reveals the many reasons this reputation is well earned, but it does more than that.

Marshall’s research, including newly accessible letters Bishop wrote to her therapist, and her smooth, concise storytelling, make the book both an elegant, empathetic biography and an insightful analysis of an artist who sought “a way of thinking with one’s feelings.” This is the first biography of Bishop in twenty-five years, a period when the public’s attitude toward LGBT issues has undergone a sea-change, casting new light on this poet’s life. “Sonnet,” as Marshall discusses it, reflects both feeling “caught” as well as being “freed,” which is just one of the dualities in Bishop’s life.

Bishop’s divisions are clearly captured in two childhood photos, reprinted in the book. In one, the six-month-old toddler has “toppled” and appears “immobilized in a nest of blankets” and yet she “stares stubbornly in frustration at the camera.” In the other, the child is “seated ramrod straight, gazing imperiously beyond the frame of the photograph.” Using the poet’s own words, Marshall concludes that already Bishop is “being brave,” putting on a brave face for the world even as she struggled inwardly. This was, Bishop confided in a letter to her therapist many years later, “my major theme.”

Bishop’s upbringing was one dimension of her experience about which she was circumspect. Her therapist, Ruth Foster, told Bishop that she was lucky to have survived her childhood, and Marshall evokes the difficulties—and capriciousness—of those early years with haunting images and incidents. By the time Bishop was eight, her father died, her mother was sent to a sanitarium, and the girl was beginning to be shuffled from relative to relative. As Marshall puts it, “growing up too fast as the virtual orphan she was now, meant becoming a self divided from the world— ’inside looking out’―and suffering even more divisions.” The need for secrets was established early on, reinforcing her natural shyness. For example, Marshall describes the young Elizabeth bearing a care package through the village in Nova Scotia where her grandparents took her in, but hiding the address; the public gesture of concern was marked by the private shame of having a mother in a mental institution.

This same dynamic operated in her life-long struggle with alcoholism. Her letters to editors, friends, and fellow poets were filled with so many apologies that even her biographer admits, “I sometimes tired of reading her apologies and excuses too. And then I felt sad about the futility of her always broken promises—to write more, drink less.”

Being a lesbian also marked her for restraint, despite living into the era of Gay Pride. When Bishop was named Library of Congress Poetry Consultant, a position now called Poet Laureate, it was during the 1950s, when not only was there a Red Scare in full swing, but the purge included all “perverts” as well, i.e. homosexuals. It was not safe to be who she was, to celebrate and reveal herself in society or in art.

The saga of her loves and how they gave rise to her poetry is an important part of the book. She was rooted in relationships, not locations, making family not through blood or marriage but through choices and commitment. Bishop’s book titles employ metaphors of travel and geography, in part because her upbringing and ways of living led her not to feel at home in the world.

Bishop’s most famous poem, “One Art,” ironically declared that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master,” even as the catalog of losses in her life accumulated. Her childhood losses would be enough to frame a life, but after college, a man whose marriage proposal Bishop declined killed himself and blamed her in a postcard to her. Suicide, or willful accident, touched her again when the poet Randall Jarrell died, and again even more closely when her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares died after a painful spiral into mental illness.

Experiencing her mother’s illness as a small child, Bishop was haunted by the threat of madness, which marks her friendship with Robert Lowell. Lowell is also the father of Confessionalism, a poetic movement Bishop called “The School of Anguish.” She is quoted in TIME as saying that “the tendency is to overdo the morbidity. You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.” Marshall deftly analyzes how Lowell’s more personal work, particularly his book Life Studies, influenced Bishop, and how her own work in turn influenced Lowell. In the end, though, Lowell took self-revelation too far in The Dolphin, a series of poems that use letters from his ex-wives (as well as one of Bishop’s). The letters the two writers exchange reveal just how powerful a mind and will she possessed, and how prescient her warnings were.

The dilemma Lowell faced in poetry only morphed into the same problem of revelation that writers of memoir and other creative nonfiction face today. Not only was Lowell using material he did not have permission to use, he changed others’ words to suit his purpose and form. In the end Bishop came down on the side of the irreversible damage Lowell’s poems would cause his ex-wives. “It’s cruel,” she concluded, and “art just isn’t worth that much.”

Marshall’s only false note is deciding to frame Bishop’s biography with alternating chapters of her own experience taking a class with her. To fill out that story, Marshall develops her own poetic journey; it fits, but as with many frame narratives, the main story is far more compelling and revealing. Despite this small misstep, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast is an elegant biography with incisive analysis of the social context and resulting poetry of one of America’s great poets. Her life and art ran counter to the trends of her time, and so she continues to serve as a model for those seeking ways of expressing difficult or even shameful truths.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Holy Ghost

David Brazil
City Lights Books ($15.95)

by David Nilsen

David Brazil’s new poetry collection Holy Ghost expresses the ideological cacophony of our times and juxtaposes it against the simplicity of human need. Brazil drops Christian spirituality, progressive politics, and a yearning for human connection into a poetic blender and leaves the output a bit jumbled on the page. His thoughts here are like a spray of machine gun fire—chaotic, at times indiscriminate, but impossible to ignore.

He begins the collection in a state of sacred repose in “Prayer,” issuing a litany for friends and inspirations lost; Phillis Wheatley beside Elliott Smith, Shulamith Firestone beside Lou Reed. He ends this with a poignant personal reflection and plea for a recognition of commonality:

Prayer for your soul & my soul & the souls of everyone
we know and love between us,
prayers for all the liberators and
prayers for those in need of liberation,
we are the same people.
Prayer for the soul of David Brazil.

“Prayer” sets the emotional tone for the book, though its earnest, direct approach is rarely revisited. In the hectic scattershot of the following pages, Brazil’s language vacillates between collaged word images that often only hint at meaning and poems that mimic the faith-based verses and hymns of another century, almost precious in their neat rhymes and steady rhythms. The former give the disorienting impression of tuning into the broadcast of public liberal discourse, a million answers to the question “What does our society need?” and not one solution. Brazil’s indictment of these talking points is found within the tonal fuzz of his language, the way true human connection is blockaded by sloganeering and peace is drowned under well-intentioned noise. Within this distortion—in which occasional misspellings are allowed to sit, as if highlighting the shameless and unrevised opinionating of the internet—moments of sincere searching and yearning can be found, brief clippings of truth.

In “The Doctrine of the Symbol,” Brazil seems to hint at these buried moments, using them as a cypher for the same searching we must do to find moments of sanctuary in our violent world:

But having sifted up from the woe a grain of remembrance,
temples can be made in any place, to
aid us through the strait.
I’m not the first one to have noticed this,
but you have to look hard amidst all the rubbishes.

Throughout the book are poems by or about the Holy Ghost, or perhaps the “Holy Ghost,” as one gathers this entity is more than a member of the Christian trinity in Brazil’s usage. The Holy Ghost here is human conscience, the better angels of our nature, or, as the poet states plainly toward the end of the book, “the healing force of the universe.” These poems are the ground on which Brazil wrestles his angel, both the heavenly and the human. He loves people and loves God, and is baffled by the impish lack of cooperation both display. In “Holy Ghost Grant,” he writes,

Who dispenses healing from
the folds of hir garment with
is times, the verry syrups yall
cant gather otherwise than incarnation

Humanity is broken, but what we’ve been given—or given the opportunity for, if only we can put ourselves aside to see it—can only be received in this corporeal, temporal state of flaw. In “Thirty-Six,” Brazil writes,

I’m asking you if you have
likewise felt this way and

what you did with it, with sun, with
smoke and human form, to what use then

your most colossal breakfast or these
words you learned your whole life long,

if not to save at last one human soul or
thousands by the echoes that

resound in them from logos always working in
our dormancies . . .

What have you done with sun and smoke and human form? Have you saved one life, made one connection, rescued anyone—yourself included—from the wage-lords, the corporatized identity dealers, the militarized security-peddlers, the billboard preachers leasing personhood with easy monthly payments? Or have you chosen, as Brazil writes in “About the Rainbow Body,” to become

a cop blockading Gill Tract,
defending property against need, quite an action to be
spending your human life doing

Holy Ghost is a songbook of anti-classist marches, a ratatat book of hours for the disenfranchised, but it doesn’t offer its comforts easily, or with easily-quotable snippets. There is digging to be done here to unearth the fragile temple in the rubbish of incarnation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Fast by Jorie Graham
and Debths by Susan Howe

Jorie Graham

Ecco ($25.99)
Susan Howe

New Directions ($15.95)

by Kevin Carollo

There must come a time when established poets are no longer edited by others, when they become their own muse and judge, when it is only they who shepherd the differentiated flock of a collection of poems from start to finish. Jorie Graham and Susan Howe, two of the headiest and heaviest poets writing today, must have arrived at the stage of their verse lives—the term “career” feels inappropriate, reductionist—where they find themselves in conversation with ancients more than contemporaries, with the past more than the future, with who one was and is as a human being more than who one might become as a poet. Perhaps the conversation naturally turns to the sublime subtleties of language itself, in turn inciting a poetry that generates its own anxiety of influence, its own metaphysical stakes, its own mode of being-in-the-world—as well as the equally urgent need to prepare for leaving that world.

Such a poetics necessarily embodies a profound loneliness at the heart of human poetic experience. The freedom from editorial constraint in the all-too-human world of publication, awards, and accolades must run up against the all-too-rare sensation of being deeply read or lovingly understood. As with poetry, so with everything: it is never what it is. Both Fast and Debths come from this eerie and elemental no one’s land of late-stage collections. Graham turned sixty-seven this year, and Howe turned eighty. It is a time to ask one’s gods if a lifetime of verse matters.

If this sounds like a rather baleful endeavor, akin to articulating a sickness poetics unto death, so be it. Such loneliness must feed off of a kind of Kierkegaardian hunger—a hunger to know what it all means at the proverbial end of the day, to desire some existential answers at the end of the poem, and ultimately to feel the inevitable not as some telos of illuminating clarity, but instead as a dynamic-albeit-absurd conundrum—a god always moving farther away as we try to approach her. We are our own editors, and the joke is on us.

In practice, each poet’s approach diverges in crucial and delectable ways. Graham’s latest collection derives from the always-imminent possibility of resonant errata, such that any recombinant phrase, paratactical assertion, or metaphysical line of flight might induce revelation. Each poem comes out of a principle of language as inherently liminal, yet limitless in its marginalia, a rockface wherein lodged multitudes of mini-poems always-already wait to be excavated like living fossils, or some hidden historical record of an intimate-yet-universal “We” who “lost all the wars” and “are in some strange wind says the wind. Are in the enigma of / pastness.” The poems seem so deliberately and painstakingly overwrought as to create densely accreted layers of language, coeval palimpsests of meaning.

Howe employs a poetics that extends beyond erasure into the realm of textual deformation and hermeneutic dissolution. Short and allusive poems eventually give way to words cutting, pasting, and morphing out of control. Such poems metamorphose into manifold compositions decomposing. Eventually, one moves beyond reading English and into an altogether different kind of perceptual experience. Alterity as epiphany, ecstasy as ek-static, transgressively outside oneself, beyond logos—to watch Howe’s found texts increasingly mutate on the page is to have a universe of elemental word smudges revealed, cosmic revelations sifted through a sieve of poetic devolution.

On another level, both poets are intent on detailing a poetics of thanatology. Graham ritually attempts the impossible by tracking the often-microscopic intricacies of her father dying as if in real time. While titles like “Reading to my Father” and “With Mother in the Kitchen” may suggest a more conventional confessional approach to the subjects at hand—i.e., family and death—they employ the same macrocosmic and metaphysical obsession with the physical body as “The Post Human” or “Incarnation.” In “From Inside the MRI,” single syllables like if or yes or hi knock repeatedly on the door of one’s brain MRI-style, while nagging questions are not so much answered as activated, with directional arrows simultaneously directing and disrupting the flow of the poem. A bird or ringtone appears at the end of this staccato portrayal of a routine and largely unenjoyable medical procedure, but the poem’s existential matter-of-fact diagnosis comes in half of the penultimate line: “It is a nightmare. You are entirely free.”

Certainly, titles are important. The polyvalence of the word “fast” allows for the contradictory impulses of speed and stability, as well as the hunger acknowledged and ritually thwarted by the practice of fasting. Life truly goes by so fast, but there will also come a time when we no longer hunger for it. In this vein, the poem “To Tell of Bodies Changed to Different Forms” asserts: “We / were where it was meant to arrive. Weren’t we? It went by too fast. Hard and fast. A kind / of porn.” In my mind, however, the undeniable aphoristic truth of the poem comes half a page earlier: “We will never be happy with the body.”

Similarly, Debths incorporates the polyvalent notion of indebtedness, but also allows the silent “b” to be inverted, such that Howe intimates various depths to be plumbed—and, of course, deaths to be accounted for, i.e. debited. To merely cite here from the folded, spliced, and collaged layers of partially erased primary texts might unduly privilege the legible, i.e. that which is viscerally understood as representing meaningful English. Instead, feast your eyes on a couple of brief examples, by no means the opaquest of the bunch. The first poem involves a sort of parasitic palimpsest on top of a blurred “PORTABLE OCEAN,” while the other presents a kind of exodus or pilgrimage through the valley of death with a life-giving “tremble in the stream below” the earth of the poem itself.

It is ineluctably pleasing to watch surface meanings give way to a deeper kind of metaphysical archeology, one in which all language and being are radically and dynamically contingent. Plumbing the depths means embracing the metaphysical endgame of language as ultimately moving beyond meaning. Meaning in ruins, being in runes.

Graham as well concentrates on the myriad debts and costs involved with living and dying. Indeed, the medical profession establishes the harrowing metaphysical terrain through which we ultimately pay our debts to society—first with our lives, then with our deaths. Meaning is a ghost in the machine of being.

Sometimes she announces the concept with an imperative and idiomatic play-on-words, as in “Change! The debt ceiling has shown itself to us.” Or, as in “Prying,” debts are accounted for with a series of admissions: “So I / accede, I sign the dotted line, they will keep track / of everything, my breaths, my counts, my votes—invoices, searches, fingertips—don’t I / know you / from somewhere says my heart to the machine reading me out.” Yet again, an irreducible kernel of truth comes before this extensive (and perhaps excessive) medical-political-metaphysical delineation of surveillance: “To survive, you need to be / completely / readable.”

Howe begins Debths with a relatively straightforward foreword, albeit one employing the antiquated spelling “Foreward.” Though one might glean some idea of the inspiration and methodology driving the poems that follow, its exegesis also offers wayward epiphanies such as “there are names under things and names inside names.” My favorite poetic revelation from this section comes from inside a short paragraph: “Lilting betwixt and between. Between what? Oh everything. Take your microphone. Cross your voice with the ocean”—in other words, what being oceanic means. The intertextual erudition underpinning all of Howe’s work is enabled—and ultimately exceeded—by an unquenchable and wide-eyed curiosity, an infinitely open-ended empathy, and the fervent belief in the notion that “only art works are capable of transmitting chthonic echo-signals.”

Perhaps art’s greatest task and ultimate reward lie in such slow, lifelong revelations. To pay witness to the profound depths of humanity, to take absolutely nothing at face value, and to work the language as if our very being depends on it.

Graham ends her collection thusly: “they have / known what to find in the unmade / undrawn unseen unmarked and / dragged it into here—that it be / visible.” With an otherworldly grief and ecstasy, Fast and Debths offer incontrovertible ontological proof that there is still so much left to fathom, to unearth.

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independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

The Holiness of the Alphabet: an interview with Janet Hamill

Interviewed by Bob Holman

The New Jersey surrealist, trance poet, and rock ’n’ roller Janet Hamill is a true American original, an amalgam of disparate parts. She is the author of several books of poetry and short fiction, including Troublante (Oliphant Press, 1975), The Temple (Telephone Books, 1980), Nostalgia of the Infinite (Ocean View Books, 1992), and Tales from the Eternal Cafe (Three Rooms Press, 2014). With the band Moving Star she has recorded two albums combining spoken word and music: Flying Nowhere (2000), which was produced by Lenny Kaye, and Genie of the Alphabet (2005), which features cameos by David Amran, Patti Smith, and others.

Janet and I have been friends for decades; I executive produced her albums, and in 2008 my small press Bowery Books published her collection Body of Water. The interview that follows is a lightly edited version of a conversation recorded for my “Let’s Talk” podcast series on the occasion of her latest book, Knock (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016).

BOB HOLMAN: Sitting in the land of poetry, let’s talk with Janet Hamill. Bob Holman here, high atop Bowery Poetry Club and across the street from . . .

JANET HAMILL: Our old hangout, CBGB’s!

BH: Do you remember the first time that Patti Smith played there?

JH: I don’t know if I was there the first time she played, but I remember when I went there for the first time. Patti was playing. It was before Horses. They were trying out new material. It was before CBGB’s had caught on. I used to go, as I used to go to all Patti’s shows at all the different little venues she played in, whenever we were both in town at the same time. She always put me on the guest list. I was there to support her. I was at the recording studio when they did Horses.

BH: What was that like?

JH: It was great! They were at Electric Ladyland on 8th Street. They would begin at night. I wasn’t working at the time, so I was keeping the same crazy hours. I would show up about 9 o’clock, and they’d either be in the middle of recording something or they’d just stopped something. John Cale was the producer and I remember loving his sense of humor. He and Patti sparred all the time. Robert [Mapplethorpe] used to come all the time, too. We were both there to support Patti on her first album. My best memory is when Robert and I were there together. He had liquid hash, which I’d never had before. Robert was so mischievous; he loved to tease me, gently—teasing with love. He gave me the liquid hash when we were away from Patti and the band. Electric Ladyland’s quite cavernous once you you’re inside. We were wandering around these psychedelically-painted murals, chatting and laughing. He waited until I was really high to tell me that one of our best friends from the old Pratt days had committed suicide. That was Robert! But I loved him so much; he was just mischievous. It was okay.

BH: What would Patti and Cale be sparring about?

JH: Oh, you name it. Any little detail. I thought the musicians were great, but Cale was a classically trained musician. He said all the band’s instruments were out of tune. He insisted that all the musicians go out to and buy new instruments. That got everybody all upset. And Patti had her own ideas—she wanted me to sing background vocals on the album. Cale said “No, I don’t want that.” It was all nit-picking, really.

BH: Let’s rewind. How did you get involved in poetry? Where were the poems that found you?

JH: Well, it really goes back to high school, I can even remember the exact moment. I was in my living room, in suburban northern New Jersey, in my junior year of high school . . .

BH: Which high school?

JH: New Milford High, in New Milford, NJ. My English teacher was so glamorous; I just adored her, I wanted to be her. She really did look quite a bit like Greta Garbo. She had this long wave of hair that she was constantly brushing back.

BH: Do you remember her name?

JH: Yes, Gloryia Okulski. She had been a floor model on 5th Avenue in department stores, you know Saks and Lord and Taylor, before she married and settled down and decided to teach English. But she was just so striking and so glamorous, and a great teacher. She was the head of the opera club, so I joined even though I couldn’t care less about opera.

BH: What kind of music did you like?

JH: I liked rock and roll, and I was just then starting to get into folk music. Also I actually did love Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett at the time and classical music, but I hadn’t crossed over into opera. Anyway, junior year we had British poetry and the weekend assignment was to read Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which was early or pre-Romantic poetry. And I remember sitting there; it was an early Sunday afternoon; it was early spring, maybe March, kind of a gray day and I was just transfixed, as if the world had faded away. It was just me and the poem.

BH: In your living room in New Milford.

JH: At that point I knew poetry was somehow going to be a big part of my life.

BH: Were there any books in the living room?

JH: No, no, I grew up in cultural depravity. The only books we really had were Golden books. And the only other literature that came into the house was Life magazine. I remember when it came, it was like “Who’s gonna get their hands on it first?”

BH: And you were one of five kids?

JH: One of five. My dad was very artistic, very smart. He could play instruments, he could write well. He could sing; he sang in the choir at the Catholic Church. And he could draw very well. So, whatever talents I have, that’s where it comes from. When I got to high school . . .

BH: And you’re painting still, right?

JH: Yes, still painting . . . we used to get the Sunday Daily News for the comics. I remember insisting one year in high school, saying “Daddy, please can we get the New York Times?” So I introduced the family to the New York Times. I was the only one who read it though, because it didn’t have comics. To this day it’s the same. I have one nephew who’s kind of taking after me, but it’s still a family that loves pop culture, yeah.

BH: So Mrs. Okulski, who had you read “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” . . .

JH: Yeah, from there it was Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley. I was just spinning!

BH: Did you start to write at that point?

JH: No, I didn’t start to write until college. I went to college actually to become like Mrs. Okulski, to become a high school English teacher, but somebody knew I was so in love with poetry and involved in it in my own private way, and they pushed me onto The Avant, the campus literary magazine.

BH: What college was this?

JH: Glassboro State College in South Jersey. The family had no money; I was the first in the entire history of the family to go to college. My parents didn’t want me to go. That was a big deal. It was a guidance counselor who stepped in and told my parents that their daughter really should go to college. They wanted me to be a secretary in the city for a little while and meet a nice man in the office and settle down and have kids, just like my mother had done. But I knew that wasn’t for me.

BH: Did your mother have any leanings toward the arts?

JH: Her whole side of the family is really colorful! My grandmother was in vaudeville during World War I and just afterwards. I still have a photo of her in a tutu. She had stockings on; and she always made a point of telling you that she had stockings on, that those weren’t her bare legs in the picture. She travelled up and down mainly from New York to Boston. The family was based in Hoboken, Weehawken in Hudson County, New Jersey. So she was on the stage, yeah!

BH: Did you know your grandmother?

JH: Yes! Whenever the family would get together they’d all have a couple of beers in the backyard or down in the bar basement and they’d sing all these old songs from the ’20s and ’30s. She had a voice like Ethel Merman and she belted it out!

BH: Haha!

JH: But my mom, she was a great person, totally down to earth and didn’t have any desire for show business or anything like that. She was an only child; she really just did want to have a whole lot of kids.

BH: So there you are at Glassboro State College . . . did you commute from home?

JH: No, I lived in the dorms but most of the students were commuting students. But working on The Avant really changed my life. That’s when I started writing, that’s when I met some wonderful people, one of them being Patti, but also some other people—Bill Hart, Paul Murkowski, Bob Shaffe, all really talented writers. I thought they were really all going to be great writers and poets, but didn’t think it was going to be me.

Those early literary magazines that I still have copies of—I wrote the poems and Patti did the illustrations. She was an art major. She wasn’t writing back then.

BH: So how did you first meet?

JH: In the office of the literary magazine. I’d seen her on campus and she came up to me, but I was very shy and didn’t take to people very easily. We were part of the Beatnik coterie on campus, so we were also involved in campus productions of theater, and I was madly in love with acting and even entertained thoughts of being an actress.

BH: So you were in plays? What plays were you in?

JH: The Stronger by Strindberg, a play for two women. One woman did all the talking and I did all the reacting—I didn’t speak at all. Another play was Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Bill Hart directed that one. He was one of the really talented poets on The Avant. It was one of those moments where I went into a trance and blacked out. I have no memory of that performance whatsoever.

BH: Well, trance is a word I’ve used with your work. When I first heard you read, your poems were so different from everybody else’s in Downtown Manhattan in the ’70s and ’80s. Because you memorized your poems and when you read them you seemed to go into a trance yourself, which induced a trancelike state in your listeners—you brought us along with you! When you were writing poems in college, were they the same kind of poems?

JH: No, they weren’t nearly as developed. I was writing very short-lined poems.

BH: Who were your models then?

JH: Dylan Thomas was one of my great loves and my private library of his books takes up almost a shelf. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, they were my big faves. Other than the Romantics in high school, they were my faves.

BH: When did Baudelaire and Rimbaud, those guys, come in? I always thought they were the poets that you and Patti bonded over.

JH: Well, later. We really bonded one day backstage, at the theater in Bunce Hall. That was another hangout place for the people who were involved in the Beatnik coterie, people on the literary magazine.

BH: Did Patti work on the theater?

JH: She acted! She was in a production of Phaedra, and she was in The Boyfriend, doing some kind of crazy tap dancing thing. It was dark and it was just the two of us on a floppy old used sofa back there and she confided in me this very personal thing that she was going through at the time—it was a relationship thing. No one had ever confided something like that in me. That really solidified us.

BH: So after college then . . .

JH: After college, Patti went first to New York City, while I stayed on to graduate. She had friends from South Jersey who were at Pratt, so she gravitated there. We didn’t know anybody in the city at all. Then when I graduated a couple of months later, she said “Come on, why don’t you come move to the city?”

By then, the summer of ’67, she had met Robert and was already living with him, and I got my own place on Clinton Avenue, a studio apartment, and I saw them just about every single day. I was working at Scribner’s [Bookstore] at the time, and then Patti got a job working there, too.

BH: What were you doing there?

JH: I was a book clerk—I was in heaven! I used to go there from Jersey just to be there, you know? The publishing house used to be on top, and still was back then.

BH: So where was Scribner’s?

JH: Scribner’s was on 48th and 5th. It’s no longer there, but it was beautifulit had a mezzanine, and I worked upstairs in the poetry section, and in philosophy, too. It looked out over Fifth Avenue. It was perfect.

Back then the ideal was if you could make in a week what your rent was, you were doing just fine financially. And that was the case: I made $75 a week, my rent was $75 a month, and the rest was spent on books!

BH: Those were the days when Frank O’Hara was just down the street from you, leaving the Museum of Modern Art to type up his poems on the Olivetti typewriters set up as displays in front of the Olivetti building. Lots of poetry in the air.

JH: I remember one time Patti and I walked from Second Avenue at the United Nations all the way down to St. Mark’s and the Lower East Side, to 8th St, in honor of Frank O’Hara and his poem “Second Avenue.”

BH: It’s funny when you talk about that bookstore, your voice moved into that range that I remember from those poems that were so special. Back at the Nuyorican I was called upon to divide the poetry world into my own taxonomy, and you and Wanda Coleman were the trance poets because both of you had poems so instilled in the physicality of your bodies that when they came out it just felt like you were there and we were moved into this trance place. Of course your aesthetics were different to hers, but that place you took the audience to was unlike anything else. Do you have one of those poems that you could give?

JH: Yes! This one is called “La Mort Extraordinaire.” Poe, being one of my favorite American poets, this is about his death.

La Mort Extraordinaire

Poe exploded into a thousand pieces
the abominable atrocities of his mind
scattered and swallowed
by vengeful birds
the angel hooked
the falcon hooded
his bones rattling the quiet
of small coast towns
in a whirlpool
the rocks of ages split

to dig down
and reverse the velocity
chemicals spin in a centrifuge
call stop
and the lid
is hurled into space

bone china
smooth white skin of an innocent
embalmed and rest in peace
the crows fly out of his skull

JH: I’m a little older now. I hope it has the same intensity.

BH: Well, yes it does. That’s an amazing poem. You hear the influences, you hear Yeats.

JH: By then I was starting to fall in love with the Symbolists. But that all happened in New York. I remember first discovering Apollinaire—it goes back to Glassboro, actually. One day the faculty advisor to The Avant got a professor from Temple University to come over and speak to the magazine crowd. He spoke to us about French literature, the Symbolists, and that was my introduction. When I came to the city I bought (Apollinaire’s) Alcools. From there it progressed into Baudelaire and Mallarmé and Rimbaud. And Hart Crane! He was in the city!

BH: And you wrote a poem about that?

JH: Yes, that was “The Lonesome Death of H. Crane,” with the title from Bob Dylan’s “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Since his name is Hart, and he had such heart, I liked the irony of saying H. Crane. When I discovered him, I couldn’t believe him. I know we’re not supposed to believe in the pantheon anymore, but it just touches me that Harold Bloom, who does believe in the pantheon, considers him to be the greatest American poet. Crane’s output was not much, but to me he was an American symbolist. He knew William Carlos Williams. In New York in the ’20s there weren’t that many people involved in poetry, everyone kind of knew each other. But Williams took American poetry in one direction, and most people followed him, like the Beats. Not many people followed Hart Crane, maybe because he was too obtuse, I don’t know, but his language is like a cut gem, every word could cut you.

BH: You hear it in your performance there. I know this is asking a lot but do you have “Sacrifice”? Could you read it for us? I remember it being the centerpiece of many a reading that you gave in those days.

JH: This was totally written under the influence of Baudelaire when I was really at the height of my Baudelaire obsession. It has nothing to do with him, but I think I somehow captured his essence, and if Baudelaire had been alive at this time in the mid ’70s, I like to think this is how he would have written.


There’s a fire inside the mountain where a puma rests
on the continents of silence. The unfurnished living-
rooms in space. Where now a sacrifice takes place. Be-
yond a landmass of skeletons. The ice flows creep. Long
lines of leopards in the snow. You have to go. To keep
the logs keep burning in a hailstorm. The corpse of a bat
in the night. Stills. The windowsills are dirty. And hope
trembles on the legs of a dying praying mantis. Solstice
Leave me now like this. With the sun bleeding. Passing
Spanish hearts in my hands. The soft white flesh of a tender
neck. Thrown back into submission. A face full of resignation
The eyes pleading. Close me now like this. Forever. Shut
the light. Release the seas. The endless ocean voyages
of melancholy. Ions flare in the fire. The bookshelves rise
like a tower of the arcane world. You cling. In a silk cocoon
of a yellow sheet. A wing of Baal’s angels. The ancients
press on your skull. Like a tumor. The manuscripts curl
in a flame. And I light a light. In the darkness. The cigar-
ettes drop to the floor. And they reappear. The long lines
of leopards in the snow. It’s time to go. Into a courtyard.
Into an unfurnished living room in space. To make your grace
beneath the jaws of a generous lion. Teeth capped down
to the bone. A layer of platinum. Morphine. Erotic waves
of criminal water. The painless pleasure of death

With a bite in your jugular
you break on through
releasing the final
vials of congenital poison
pints of blood
and millenniums
of endless
ocean voyages

BH: Wow! I guess you could say that there’s some Philip Lamantia in there and that Surrealism might be there too, but nobody touches that poem, Janet. What was the situation that brought the poem?

JH: It was an old boyfriend, Roberto, my Argentine love. We were forever breaking up and getting back together. At one point I just wanted him out of my life. So I’m sacrificing him in this poem.

BH: How old were you when you wrote that poem?

JH: About thirty.

BH: And you were living in Manhattan about that time?

JH: Yeah, I was living on Van Dam Street on the ground floor, facing the street. I found out later from another boyfriend that he would walk by and look into the window to see me writing that poem. I had an old electric, just banging it out. Next morning I’d read it and make corrections.

BH: So at this point, Patti was already involved with St. Mark’s, she’s already involved with Sam Shepard; she did Cowboy Mouth, so the acting she was doing at Glassboro continued. You never followed her into those worlds and scenes, but you kept your friendship with her.

JH: It’s true, and it’s quite amazing. I never wanted to be more than a poet. Patti even encouraged me to work with a band. This was when I was in the city and she said “You know enough musicians, why don’t you put a band together?” I really didn’t at that time, I just wanted to be the best poet I could possibly be, and I’d already decided I wasn’t going to be an actress. When I first came to the city, Patti and I took classes at The New School. Patti studied with Bill Berkson and I took a class on theater and acting and directing because I still had dreams of being the next Geraldine Page.

BH: And you met Federico Fellini . . .

JH: Yeah, who I’ve written about! I just think he’s one of the greatest geniuses ever. I wanted to be a filmmaker but I knew I just didn’t quite have the personality for that.

BH: And Patti was studying with Berkson, writing her poems. Were you trying to get your poems published?

JH: No, I didn’t get serious about it until after I did my travels. I was writing, but I was very shy about it. I had such high regard for the poets that I admired that I couldn’t see myself to be considered the same kind of animal. I just couldn’t call myself a poet until I was well into my thirties. That’s because people started calling me a poet and I thought, “Well I guess I am one, everybody seems to think so.” But I was that in awe of people like Hart Crane and Baudelaire.

BH: So you started to travel?

JH: Yes, that was my first great love. I wanted to see the world. I really believed all the romance of being an artistthat you had to see the world, have as many relationships as possible, so that your life was rich and you weren’t writing from an ivory tower or in a bubble. One of my favorite films still to this day is Lawrence of Arabia—it’s just all desolation and Peter O’Toole and his brilliant white robes and blue eyes and the desert. I loved the aesthetic of Arab and Moorish art, so my first destination was Morocco. Also, I wanted to get down to the Serengeti plains to see the animals in their natural habitats, which did happen, all in that journey.

BH: How long was the journey, who did you travel with?

JH: I traveled with a boyfriend who’s now quite well known as a photographer, Neil Winokur. He’s married to a well-known curator, you probably know Ann Umland.

BH: Sure.

JH: So Neil and I made that journey. We were gone about a year. We were young and you could just sleep on the ground under the stars half the times, you know. We pretty much made it on what we had saved, and then we got stranded in Nairobi. Neil at the time had been working at The Strand. Fred Bass (the owner) was quite a generous man. Neil wired him and Fred sent him money to bail us out of Africa! Then Neil went back to working at The Strand and eventually paid him back. Those things could happen then!

When I came back I got serious about writing. Then I decided to settle down in New York and get serious about this. Patti set up my first reading; it was at a loft in Chelsea. I read with Annie Powell and Ruth Kligman, who had been Jackson Pollock’s lover. She was with him in the car crash that killed him. It was my first reading and I always felt from the beginning that the poem should be memorized so that you could deliver it like a song and you would be interpreting it.

BH: Where did you get that idea?

JH: Well, it must be from Dylan Thomas. I don’t know if he memorized poems but he was such a brilliant reader. I’m a big fan of recordings to this day.

BH: I don’t think your grandmother had anything to do with that.

JH: No, I don’t think so either. She was all vaudevilleshe would have wanted me to be in musicals or something similar. So it had something to do with Dylan Thomas’s influence: I’d seen movies of him reading. I had recordings of him. I just thought by memorizing it, it would be like memorizing a song and you could interpret it like Billie Holiday. I remember preparing for my first reading: Patti’s sister Linda was living at the time on 10th Street. She had a tiny studio apartment, right down the street from St. Mark’s, and I lived on St Mark’s Place. I would go over every night for a week and work with her, memorize poems, read them out loud to her. Every night we worked, and then I read that night in a loft. I remember Rene Ricard was there because Patti was friends with him. He came up to me afterwards and said, “You’re gonna be a star!”

BH: Well, Rene knew—he was a great judge of talent, that dude. So I’m assuming that maybe the “Poe” poem and “Sacrifice” were in that reading?

JH: Not “Sacrifice” but “Poe,” yes. I know that was written by then because I wrote it right after I came back from San Francisco where I lived for a year, at the end of the Haight Ashbury days. I then came back to New York again to save money to go to Africa. I was with Neil then. That’s when I lived on St Mark’s Place, and that’s when that poem was written.

BH: So were there poems about Africa in the loft reading that you did?

JH: No, it took a while. I think the first poem about Africa was “The Big Sleep,” which is in The Temple; most of The Temple is about Africa. Things have to seep into me. I can’t write when it’s a fresh experience. It has to distill, I guess, like an alcohol.

BH: I think that’s what makes your most recent book, Knock, so incredible—the way that all of your travels seem to have been distilled, finally into a book that took decades.

JH: Yeah, it’s always been that way. If I write something raw, so to speak, then the language isn’t good enough. The emotion may be there but I don’t have enough control over the words.

BH: While we’re on that subject, what were the other trips?

JH: Oh, there was back and forth across the country and down into Mexico.

BH: Where did Troublante happen?

JH: Troublante: I took that title from Carlos Fuentes. There are lines in his novel A Change of Skin that I quote at the beginning of the book: “Something to worry about, to be troubled by . . . The troublante, the difficulty. Lord, I forget what language I’m speaking.” I was just so influenced by non-English speaking poets, and there’s something about an iguana in there.

BH: It had to do with the Mexico trip.

JH: That was in Troublante, and then the African poems started to come out in The Temple.

BH: What about Lost Ceilings? What was happening in there?

JH: Lost Ceilings, that’s my homage to New York—a book written in prose poems.

BH: I can see you’re pulling something out of the book, why don’t you read it to us?

JH: Ok, this is the title poem and this is about a certain period in my life when I was living alone on Van Dam Street. I had a certain lifestyle. I would either work in a bookstore or for years I worked in Cinemabilia, the film bookstore on 13th Street. I would work all day, surrounded by film books and memorabilia, then come home and write. I was by myself then, I could do that, come home and write. I didn’t have any other responsibilities. So this is “Lost Ceilings”—it’s about writing actually.

Mirror mirror on the floor. How the sharp, silver slivers
reflect the truest likeness of the soul. Splintered,
insignificant pieces, on the edge of this world, a little
haunted tonight

The four white walls of the hermitage surround. A polar
diorama. A landscape of ice, interrupted by a pocket of
desk lamp light

In the hand of an anchorite, a lantern. Fra Angelico’s
Annunciation. The Horse Nebula, composed of gas and
dust. The Pyramids of Giza. Picture postcards,
circumscribed by amber glow. Picture postcards, left
behind at the entrance to an uncharted network of inland

Soaring wings over choppy waters. Away from this world,
the genie of the alphabet rises out of the typewriter with
a rosary of fire. Twenty-six beads of blood for twenty-
six letters. To fly in the face of finitude

Half obscured, the telephone receiver lies on its side,
under a Mexican shawl, muffling its sound. Such solitude
as afflicts the room, tilted on an angle. Unassailed on the
cusp of darkness

The bookcase, in the cold thin clouds, is a heavenly trove
of torches. Burning pages. Paths and spirals. Labyrinths
lighting the way to a desert birthplace. Far, far away from
this world

In the midst of an ocean of sand. The genie of the
alphabet rises out of the typewriter with his horn of plenty.
Serenading the lost ceiling of stars with high notes

BH: What a trip!

JH: That’s how it felt when writing was really going well. When it’s really going well, it can be sublime.

BH: It’s hallucinogenic. We get you sitting there at the typewriter, the genie of the alphabet, 26 letters to fly in the face of finitude, and 26 beads of blood . . .

JH: That’s the holiness of the alphabet, and the blood and sweat of writing, really.

BH: Again you go to Africa and you go to Mexico, sitting at that typewriter with the postcards of the past. It’s all real and yet it’s totally psychedelic, hallucinogenic.

JH: I think that’s intentional. I want to be able to take people away. I consider myself an escape artist. I’m not particularly comfortable in the real world; I never have been. I want my art to take people away from the mundane day to day and get a touch of another world, the beyond. Whatever it may be to you. I do believe there’s something beyond us, beyond this realm. I don’t know what it is. I’ve spent my life trying to think about it, and it’s still the great existential question: “What is there when you don’t believe in conventional religion?” But there is definitely something. I believe in spirit. With my words I try to put people in touch with that somehow.

BH: Hence Lost Ceilings: the roof is blown off.

JH: I used to write a lot on drugs. Nothing more than grass or hash, but I wanted the poems to have that same druggy feeling so that they made you feel stoned, and taken away, just like a drug makes you feel like you’re escaping.

BH: Some of these poems ended up being recorded with your band which was called . . .

JH: Lost Ceilings, but originally Moving Star. They chose that name after my poem of the same name in Body of Water.

BH: How did it happen that you hooked up with Moving Star?

JH: Again, dear Patti gets caught up in this. Patti had been married and was living in Detroit for a while and really wanted to reignite her career. So she managed to get a gig at Summerstage in New York. She asked me to open for her. So you know me being an oratory poet, I was in heaven. Years ago, a friend had taken me to see Andrei Voznesensky, who Ginsberg brought to New York. It was in a church in Gramercy Park. Vozensensky was expounding like crazy; he had everything memorized. I thought “Ah! That’s what I wanna do someday.”

I opened for Patti. There were at least three thousand people outdoors in the sweltering summer night. I get up to the mic, have all my poems memorized. I couldn’t have been happier. You know what it’s like to read to an audience that big. It just feeds you, right? You just float on it, it’s energizing. You feel amazing. Because I was used to reading in little rooms, with just a handful of people, that kind of projective oratory was inappropriate. But here I was able to do just that. Anyway, in that audience that night were two of the fellows from the band. By then I had moved upstate. They were real Patti fans. One fellow, Bob Torsello, came into the bookstore near the library where I was working upstate not long after Summerstage. He said, “Do you have anything by Janet Hamill?” He had no idea! The woman who owned the bookstore was named Jill. She had a section of books by local authors. She said “Oh Janet, she works at the library a couple of blocks over. Her book’s right over there.” So he came into the library and introduced himself. He was very persistent. I had started writing fiction—most of the Tales from the Eternal Cafe were started back then. This was the late ’90s. I had no interest in playing with a band!

BH: So the guy shows up at the library, is that right?

JH: Yeah! I thought, “That’s nice.” He wanted to buy my book, and of course I was flattered. He really wanted to be friends and also wanted me to perform with his band, but I was very reluctant. He would bring me things to listen to, to try to persuade me. He brought CDs of John Trudell, whom I fell in love with. Just one of the greats, may he rest in peace.

BH: Yes indeed. A shaman who lived in his pickup truck, Trudell. Great voice, great musician. He truly writes about other realities, and also very political in his work. A founder of the American Indian movement while he was in jail at Alcatraz.

JH: Another CD Bob brought me was the ultimate seduction, as far as melding music to poetry—Kicks Joy Darkness. It’s all different people, a lot of them rock n’ roll people, reading Kerouac. I thought, “I can do that.” Patti has a piece on there; Michael Stipe does something; John Cale does something; I think Nick Cave does something . . . all kinds of people. None of it overpowered the words. So that kind of did it for me. As I was driving to my first rehearsal with Bob and his band on the way to Jay’s (LoRubbio) house, I felt really nervous. I thought “What are you getting into?” Fortunately, it just seemed to work! We did it for quite a while, quite a few years. It got to the point that if it was going to go any further, if it was going to go beyond what it was and become really successful, I was going to have to sing, and I was going to have to start writing lyrics that rhymed. I didn’t want to do either. I remember, when you had Mouth Almighty, you signed me to record. You didn’t want the band. You wanted me to record with ambient music. It took me a long time to come around to see that your original idea was right. Now my ideal would be to do live performance with somebody who could do ambient. I like having another person to work with on the stage. I know some people put boxes up on stage next to them, but I’d rather have a person so the onus isn’t just on me. If they tire of looking at me they can look at the musicians.

BH: So, with the band Moving Star, you did put out an album . . .

JH: Yes, two! The first one was Moving Star, after my poem, which the band had chosen as its name. You were executive producer and Lenny Kaye was the producer. Lenny wanted to do analogue, so we did it in this little shack out behind someone’s log cabin up on top of the Minnewaska preserve outside New Paltz. It took us a long time to do it because we were dependent on Lenny’s schedule. He was separated from his wife at the time, so whenever he had a few days, he would come up and record. Then the second album, Genie of the Alphabet, we produced ourselves. Lenny and Patti played on it though, with David Amram, and you sang, Bob!

BH: That’s right! We sang a duet.

JH: I remember we came to Duane Street. The next day you and Elizabeth were heading to Denver. You were going to Naropa [Institute]. Your plane was at 7am and I didn’t know how you could possibly do both, record that piece and still get some sleep, but you can do things like that. That was the poem for 9/11 . . .

BH: It was in Body of Water, which I published through Bowery Books. A wonderful book that has photos by Patti Smith in it.

JH: Yes! Ron Kolm was putting together an anthology of poems about 9/11. He asked me if I had one, and I said yes but it’s sad, it’s not political, and I don’t know if you’ll care for it. He said “No, that’s perfect! Everyone is sending me political poems; I don’t want any more of them!”

BH: Let’s read it. I’ll read it with you, to replicate what we did in the studio that day.

BH & JH:

New York City, September 11, 2001

The precious skyline of glass and steel remains
Of all that’s lost
And flowing into the sea
At the end of the island where the rivers meet

The candles burn for so many
Doves crowd the branches
Of the blue garden tonight

In every park on every corner a fine curtain of dusk
Settles on the altars
Of the open city
Photographs and the sweet heavy fragrance of flowers

The candles burn for so many
Doves crowd the branches
Of the blue garden tonight

So many wings rising from so many lives ended
In the collapse of the towers
A common prayer
Scribbled on scraps of paper blows through the streets

The candles burn for so many
Doves crowd the branches
Of the blue garden tonight

Beneath the bridges the rivers flow as sorrow into the sea
Of all that left
Innocence and ashes
the precious skyline of glass and steel remains

BH: So the band traveled, as I recall, and went to Europe . . .

JH: We didn’t go to Europe, we went to Seattle.

BH: The band didn’t go to Ireland?

JH: No, they didn’t come with me to Ireland. There wasn’t money for that. We did go to Seattle for the Bumbershoot Festival, to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and to “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac.” We also played this place called the Bowery Poetry Club many times—I’m not sure if you know of it?

BH: Is that where Patti was playing clarinet with you guys? That was quite a gig!

JH: She played clarinet on both CDs. She has such pride in her clarinet playing.

BH: Well, I think it meshed perfectly with the wildness of that classic garage band, Lost Ceilings!

JH: That was a great night, a really great night. Patti and Lenny played with us.

BH: I was so thrilled when Knock came out, because in a way it seemed to encapsulate all of your travels and poetries. You put it all into a classic poetic form, but seem to rebirth it in a way that was completely your own. It seemed like your own “Knock” form to me.

JH: Maybe they’ll call it that! I had never wanted to write in form or rhyme, apart from interior rhyme and alliteration here and there. I went back for my MFA with the idea of teaching, and I really had to brush up on my form. That’s where I was introduced to the pantoum. I loved the looseness of it, the repetition of it, and the fact that it didn’t have to rhyme. I’m pretty sure the fact that it comes from Malaysia has something to do with my being drawn to it. Malaysia is an island nation, surrounded by water. You get the repetition of the waves coming in and flowing out again.

BH: Lapping. The sea goes out and it’s left in the sand, the imprint is what you translate into the pantoum.

JH: And because of the way the repetition works it produces really unusual juxtapositions. You get surrealism.

BH: Totally, it seems to follow you into the trance.

JH: The poem almost writes itself. I loved the process of writing the poems in Knock. Some are strictly about my travels; some are about novelists and poets that relate to places in my travels. A couple are about of the Mexican writers I’m particularly fond of. One is about the poet Xavier Villaurrutia, who I discovered just a few years ago. He wrote mainly in the 1930s, very much an aesthete. He often writes about statues. I was thinking about him and wondering if he loved Cocteau. His poetry reminded me of Cocteau films. Then I read an interview with him and Octavio Paz, who visited him in his studio, which was decorated with black velvet drapes and statues to make it look like a Cocteau set. He said “This is the only way I can live in Mexico.” There’s also a pantoum about Bolaño . . .

BH: “The poets are the savage detectives” is what he tells us.

JH: So great. Then there’s one about this great moment in Mexico City when Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Alice Rahon and Frida Kahlo were all in Mexico City at the same time, painting and writing. And they knew each other.

BH: And they all end up in your poem, which you’d better get ready to read for us.

JH: Well, I thought I’d read something about CBGB’s in the old days, because it’s right across the street.

BH: Truth to the door, I love the idea of reading these. The book is such a perfect form and so the book is a pantoum, the way the poems divvy up into their places and people. Then of course those doors which you’ve gotta knock on to go through.

JH: I was so fortunate with that. Mary Ann Livchak, whom you met at the concert with Adele (Bertei) and Eszter (Balint). She went to Yemen. The door photos are all doors from Yemen. You’d been to Yemen.

BH: It’s true.

JH: They look enough like North African doors, where I had been. She very generously let me use them for the book. The publisher was fine with that and the work went really well. I explain in the foreword that the idea for the book came in a dream. A lot of ideas for poems in books come from dreams. This was a dream where a person gave me a 45 RPM, in a little paper wrapper. You know, with vinyl 45s there’d always be a cutout in the middle of the paper and you could see the label inside. It was the colors associated with sub-Saharan Africa. It was a black background with yellow, green, and red, and it was called “Knock of Africa,” that was the name of the record. But the music was not in any way African. It was contemporary European electronic music. The only thing I can think of as to why it would have been that kind of music was because I was listening once again to Brian Eno, whose work I love, like Music for Airports. That was the first series, which I called “Knock of Africa.” Someone suggested that I extend it into a series. That’s why it’s broken up into all these different sections.

BH: It’s an amazing travelogue of a book, and I didn’t know that Knock of Africa came out of a 45 in a dream whose label belies the music. Those were very early 45s, where you had a generic sleeve; I recall the very first 45 I ever bought was The Lion Sleeps Tonight, “Awimoway, Awimoway.” Gosh, that would be mid-50s. They just put the vinyl into those green paper generic sleeves. This is before they had artwork on those record covers.

JH: My oldest brother introduced rock and roll to all of us. Then it was doo wop. There was a little record store in the neighboring town. He would walk up there with his friends and come home with all these little 45s. That’s how they looked back then. Being young it made such an impression, an impression that can last a lifetime.

BH: And infiltrate your dreams and result in a book! So tell me something I can hold onto?

JH: OK, I’ll read this to you, in memory of what used to be.

Tell Me Something I Can Hold on to      something to fill empty space      a star name
sold as white wine      it tasted like piss      say something over this bad excuse
CBGBs spelled cut glass in four letters      transcendence is a thirteen-letter word
I used to go to see my friends      break guitar strings      in ripped jeans & t-shirts

Sold as white wine      it tasted like piss      say something over this bad excuse
Most bands were unaware of REM      sleep all they knew were needles & Heineken
I used to go to see my friends      break guitar strings      in ripped jeans & t-shirts
Patti’s Horses      & Television’s Marquee Moon      were in love with French

Most bands were unaware of REM      sleep all they knew were needles & Heineken
I stayed until they started lobbing bottles at the audience      what was the point
Patti’s Horses      & Television’s Marquee Moon      were in love with French
Symbolism someone caught a tear in my eye      & walked me home to Bleecker &      Elizabeth

I stayed until they started lobbing bottles at the audience      what was the point
the music was grounded in three cords      of Bowery flooded gutters & graffiti
someone caught a tear in my eye      & walked me home to Bleecker & Elizabeth
tell me something I can hold on to      something to fill empty space      a star name

JH: That was my experience. Sometimes it was wonderful, but other times it was just pretty grimy and sometimes the bands were really bad. I remember the Contortions, Adele’s band. The leader, James Chance, used to throw bottles of beer at the audience! I thought “This is madness! Why do this to an audience that’s here to support you?” By then, I was moving on to other things and didn’t go much anymore.

BH: Well, I like to say that Bowery Poetry Club is across the street from CBGB’s, but it’s been gone for ten years now.

JH: That long, really?

BH: Something like that.

JH: I haven’t been in it since its last incarnation. When I last went in it, it was no longer a bar, but you could buy CBGB’s memorabilia. Little baby onesies and
t-shirts . . .

BH: That’s what’s moved to Las Vegas. You can still go and buy a t-shirt. So what are you working on now?

JH: Well, I’ve gone back to fiction. I really love it and it seems to suit me as I’ve gotten older. I like making up characters and stories. I’m working on my first novel.

BH: Can you tell us what it’s about?

JH: It takes place in New Jersey, where I was born and raised. It mostly takes place in a boardwalk town down the shore. The protagonist is from North Jersey, a girl like me. Her name is Claire. It’s a coming of age story. It takes place in the late 1960s. It’s flavored by a lot of that culture. Her mother dies and her father remarries very quickly. She runs off with a carny, Marco, who she meets in Palisades Park and whose family is based down the shore. She moves in with him, but the family can’t stand her because she’s from a middle-class background in Northern Jersey. They’re semi-Gypsies with roots in New Orleans. Marco’s grandmother, however, really likes Claire. They move in with the grandmother, whose name is Madam Bogart. She has a fortune telling booth on the boardwalk. This is just the basics.

BH: Wow, it sounds like there could be some elements of Surrealism there. Is there a title that you could throw out?

JH: The working title is Madam Bogart. She’s a character I conceived in the ’70s. I remember driving down to go camping in Florida Keys. We drove through the nightit was Neil and I, my good friend Cath and her husband. Steve, the husband, was driving and I was the navigator n the passenger seat. We were going through Georgia in the middle of the night. I’ll never forget it. There was a great big illuminated neon hand and the words “Madame Bogart: Fortune Teller.” I just thought it was the coolest thing! What a name for a fortune teller! So I started creating this character. I’ve written poems about her, but she never seemed suitable for that medium. It wasn’t until I became comfortable with fiction that I felt I’d found the medium where she belonged.

BH: Well I can’t wait for Madam Bogart to be among the living. Your breath is a voice in your poems. Ginsberg would talk about the breath and Whitman and Anne Waldman talking about the breath dividing the line . . . But your breath is truly a character in your poems.

JH: Thank you Bob.

BH: Thank you for dropping by here. I guess “Let’s Talk” can now move into the past tense: “We talked”! So until the next time! Thank you, dear listeners, for being in the Bowery aerie where it was eerie and clearly Claire became a voyant with Janet Hamill.

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