Michael Simms

A Parable about Publishing

Sunday, May 12, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Adapted by Michael Simms

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He yelled: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am!”

The woman below replied: “You are in a hot air balloon hovering about thirty feet above ground. You are between forty and forty-one degrees north latitude and between fifty-nine and sixty degrees longitude.”

“You must be a writer,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the man, “everything you told me was well said, but I have no idea what to do with it, and the fact is, I am still lost. Frankly, you have not been much help so far.”

The woman responded, “You must be a publisher!” “I am!” replied the balloonist, straightening his tie, “but how did you know?” “Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are by a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

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The Woodcarver

Friday, January 25, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

A Fable by Michael Simms

There was once a young woodcarver who loved to walk through the forest. One day in a part of the forest where he had never been before, he came to a house in a clearing. There were people working on the house carving beautiful scenes into the doors and lintels. An old man with long white hair came out of the house and greeted the young woodcarver. The old man showed him the nearby groves and gardens where people harvested food for the community kitchen, stables where the draft animals were cared for, workshops where men split logs for shingles. Everywhere the young woodcarver looked, he saw people happily working. He was especially impressed by the quality of the woodcarvings. He showed the old man a few of his own pieces. The old man called to a couple of the men working on a nearby lintel and asked them to take a look at the young woodcarver’s work, and they were impressed. The old man invited the young woodcarver to join the community and work on the house.

The woodcarver enthusiastically agreed, but first, he said, he had a few questions. How much of the house would be his? Which of the trees in the surrounding forest would be his? How much food from the groves and gardens would be his? Could he sell what he did not eat? If he found gold in the earth beneath their feet, would it be his? The old man sadly shook his head and asked the young woodcarver to leave. The young woodcarver became angry and said that it was very unfair for the old man to invite him to join the community, and when he asked a few questions, the old man withdrew his invitation. The young woodcarver said that he suspected that the old man had tricked all of these people into working on his house for free. The old man apologized and explained that he had not meant to be unkind, but he could tell from the questions that the young woodcarver would not be happy in the community.

The old man explained that the house was not his; he was merely the caretaker. He was from the nearby village, and many years before, sick of heart at having lost his wife and children, he had come to the house in the forest quite by accident. It had been in disrepair with a roof that had collapsed and vines growing through the windows. Having nothing better to do and not wanting to return to his empty life in the village, he had started rebuilding the old house. Soon, others joined him and the community grew. It gave the old man pleasure that the house had become so beautiful, and he was restored to happiness. He thought of himself only as a trusted servant of the community, not its leader. The house and the land around it were not owned by any individual, but rather by the community as a whole.

The old man suggested that the young woodcarver go to the nearby village to seek work. The village was known for its many woodcarving shops, and a few woodcarvers had become wealthy and famous. In fact, the two woodcarvers who had been impressed by the young man’s pieces lived in the village and came to the house in the forest in their spare time.

The young woodcarver did as the old man suggested, and after many years of work, the woodcarver, now an old man himself, famous throughout the world for his beautiful carvings, returned to the house in the forest. The community was in need of a caretaker, and there the woodcarver lived out his days.
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Obama and the Leftists

Wednesday, December 12, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

Obama was the better candidate for lots of reasons, but leftists and liberals shouldn’t see him as their savior. He’s a fiscal conservative, a militarist who is trying to save the American empire, and a tepid supporter of social reform. I volunteered for his campaign, and I’m very relieved that he won re-election — the alternative was too awful to contemplate — but he’s dead wrong on many of the issues of peace and justice. Leftists and liberals have an important role to play in the next four years; we are his conscience. Our message to him should be: we supported you when you needed us, now we need for you to do the right thing.

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Good Golly, Miss Molly

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

I’m a seventh generation Texan, and I’d like to offer an apology to the people of the United States for all the crooks and nitwits we’ve sent to Washington. On the other hand, we also gave you Molly Ivins who famously said, “I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.”

So much of Molly’s wit depended on context and timing. I remember watching the Republican Convention on television twelve years ago when Molly was a commentator beside Jim Lehrer. After Pat Buchanan finished his speech attacking immigrants, minorities, unions, teachers, and intellectuals, Molly waited a beat, then said in her flat Texas twang, “It was better in the original German.” Lehrer nearly fell out of his chair trying not to laugh….

We miss you, Miss Molly.

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Race and the Progressive Agenda

Friday, November 9, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

By Michael Simms

It’s unfortunate that Fox News framed the recent presidential election as a referendum on race, and it’s equally unfortunate that NPR is continuing that narrative by running stories on drunken frat boys at the University of Mississippi shouting racial epithets about the president. Mainstream media prefer simple stories that can be captured with a few dramatic sound-bites. The larger, more important narrative about the election is that millions of people of diverse backgrounds, including many white southerners like myself, came together to elect a moderate progressive to the most powerful position on the planet. I volunteered for Obama’s campaign – knocking on doors, calling strangers, donating a small amount of money — not because he’s African-American, but because he is what this country needs now. I don’t agree with him on every issue – the assassination of foreign nationals, the continued imprisonment of “terrorists” without due process, and the endless, pointless wars in southern Asia really scare me – however, he’s a highly intelligent, thoughtful man, an excellent orator, and a centrist and conciliator by nature. Most of all, he’s proven he’s willing to work with his opponents to reach decisions which move the country in the right direction.

I’m bothered by all the rah-rah on the left proclaiming that Obama’s re-election is a sign of the decline of the “white power structure”. Perhaps it is, but since I’ve never felt a part of the white power structure, I don’t have a dog in that fight. What bothers me is the narrowness of that narrative. If we see Obama’s re-election in strictly racial terms, then how strong is our commitment to other issues? The Republican convention showed that the GOP is completely out of touch with mainstream America. Clint Eastwood’s embarrassing improvisation with the now-famous Empty Chair created the perfect emblem of a party led by doddering old men with a sense of entitlement. If the Republicans accept the lessons which should be obvious to them by now – that their positions are too far to the right for most Americans – and they wise up and run more women and minorities for office, and their male candidates learn to keep their mouths shut about rape — will the Republicans take back the White House? The Republicans have a number of energetic young people, including many women and minorities, waiting their turn to take leadership. If the Republicans run a Latino candidate for president, which now seems likely with Marco Rubio chomping at the bit, will Obama supporters who saw his election as a referendum on race abandon the progressive agenda?

When I went back to Llano, Texas for my sister’s funeral a few years ago, I was surprised that the Baptist church was full of Latinos. But then I realized that two of my brothers had married Latinas, and these courteous and loving people were my extended family. When I was growing up, we were supposed to hate Mexicans, and now we are Mexican. I’d like to think that the nation is getting past narrowly defined racial issues and starting to realize that we’re all in this together. As the oceans rise and we man the lifeboats, we’re all going to have to take our turn at the oars.
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Push the Poem: An Interview with Martha Collins

Friday, February 10, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Interviewed by Michael Simms

Martha Collins is the author of several poetry collections, including White Papers recently released from the University of Pittsburgh Press and the book-length poem Blue Front, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library. Her other awards include fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. She is also the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and a Lannan residency grant. Collins founded the Creative Writing Program at UMass-Boston and for ten years was Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and an editor for Oberlin College Press.

Michael Simms: What are your writing habits? Is there a particular time of day or a location where you do your best work? How much do you revise? Do you revise poems after publication?

Martha Collins: I’m currently blessed with an office away from home, just ten minutes from my apartment. When I’m in town, I eat a quick breakfast, fill a thermos with coffee, and head over there to write—or do something related to writing (like this interview), or at least think about writing. When I was teaching, I got in the habit of writing in the morning, before the work of the day hit me. It’s a habit I can’t and don’t want to break.

Anybody watching me would say I revise a lot, but I look at it a little differently. Like some painters I’ve known (not watercolorists!), I keep working on a poem till it feels done, which sometimes takes quite awhile. That work, to me, isn’t revising, it’s just writing. Once I reach the point where I can’t think of anything else to do, I consider that I actually have a poem; after that, whatever tinkering I do—sometimes in response to the comments of a good reader—is revising. But by then most of the work has been done.

I don’t often revise after publication. But if something feels wrong, even years later, I’ll certainly change it.

MS: What are you currently reading? Who are the authors who have been most important to you?

MC: I’ve recently been reading a lot of African American poetry, of which there’s a tremendous outpouring these days, partly due to the influence of Cave Canem. Beyond poets like Carl Phillips and Marilyn Nelson, whom I’ve been reading for years (and who are of course very different from each other), I’m impressed with the work of a lot of younger poets. Thomas Sayers Ellis, Evie Shockley, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, and Major Jackson are among those I’ve read closely enough to review in print recently. This is a current interest, not unrelated to the writing I’ve been doing.

In my earlier years, Emily Dickinson was enormously important to me, as was Wallace Stevens; they still are. There was a time, later, when John Ashbery gave me a kind of license to write in ways that I might never have thought of; he wasn’t so much a direct influence (nobody would say I write like him) as an enabler. Denise Levertov, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Muriel Rukeyser enabled me in other ways, allowing me to pursue a certain kind of subject matter (and, in the case of Rukeyser, to use research to do it).

Before all of these: The Psalms, which my mother began reading to me when I was very young.

MS: I was very moved by your new collection of poems White Papers just released by Pitt. The book explores what it means to be ‘white’ in a multi-racial and often racist world. Why did you choose to write an entire book on this subject?

MC: I didn’t really choose to write on this subject: the subject chose me. It goes back to my previous book, Blue Front , a book-length poem that focuses on a lynching my father witnessed in Cairo, Illinois. He once told me he’d seen a man hanged there when he was a kid; but until I saw the exhibit of lynching postcards called Without Sanctuary, I didn’t realize that what he’d seen was an actual lynching (centrally of a black man, but then, as a sort of afterthought, of a white man too)—nor did I realize that he was only five years old when he saw it. I became obsessed with thinking about what that experience might have meant to him, and the result, a few years and a lot of research later, was the book.

But at some point I began to think not just about my father, but also about what all this had to do with me, a white woman living 100 years later. The thinking was encouraged by people who would sometimes ask me, for instance, how it felt to be writing about African American history as a white person. I quickly found a short answer to that: If you were going to film just the lynching part of that book, I’d say, how many black actors would you need, and how many white actors and extras?

But the long answer came more slowly, and finally began to appear as poems when the phrase “white papers” came into my consciousness. There are of course a couple of established meanings for the term (try Googling “white papers”!), but its significance for me was racial, and it gave me a kind of license to write a series of numbered but untitled poems that I could think of as “papers.” I wrote them rather randomly, letting one poem suggest another. Or letting a memory direct me to research, or vice versa. I guess I knew from the beginning that I was writing, as you say, “an entire book”; again, it wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity, once I’d embarked on the project.

MS: Although White Papers is organized as a collection of individual poems, it has more coherence than most collections. How would you describe the unifying narrative or argument of the book?

MC: I had no sense of a unifying narrative or argument as I was writing. I think I did have a sense of purpose, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time: I was trying to educate myself, about both my own past and the racial history of this country.

It didn’t occur to me until after White Papers was finished, but I think the fact that I had just written about my father as a child is what led me to think about my own childhood—something I hadn’t written much about before, and which I now began to explore through the filter of race. My childhood was very, very white: the non-white population of Iowa, where I grew up, is not large (as Michelle Obama famously noted during the 2008 campaign). That was one starting point. Another was history: having researched the very narrow subject of a lynching in the previous book, I now began to explore racial history more broadly, though within some limits: without quite realizing it, I made a kind of “rule” that I wouldn’t write about anything that wasn’t somehow related to me and the places I’d lived, primarily New England and the Midwest.

While the history of race in this country (and in my experience) is centrally black-and-white, it’s of course not exclusively so, and I eventually began to explore other inter-racial relationships too—both in my own life (there was one Japanese American girl in my junior high class) and in history.

I also began to be aware of contemporary events and language that revealed attitudes about race. Many of the White Papers were written during the 2008 election, and I had a number of poems that bore witness to appallingly racist responses to Obama’s campaign. I eventually took most of those out, but the racism I was witnessing was an important impetus for going on.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that was one arc: from early history to current events, pretty much culminating with the election of Obama. The other movement was the personal one, from my early childhood on. So when I finally confronted the stack of “papers” I’d been accumulating without any particular sense of order, I realized that I was going to have to move through American history and personal history at the same time. Those two movements, I would say, represent in a very general way the dual “narrative” (imagine a graph with two lines). It’s a faint arc, not something I would expect a reader to be easily aware of; but it helped me put the book together.

I had a lot of poems that didn’t fit either category—and I also had to decide whether to scatter or group what a friend called the “brown, red and yellow” papers. I finally opted to scatter them only a little, locating most of them in the middle section of the book, along with others that explore the history of “whiteness.”

MS: The poems in Blue Front patch together newspaper articles, census data, legal history, postcards, photographs, and your own speculations about your father’s experience. So, I’m wondering why you keep returning to the history of racism in America as a subject of your poetry? And why is poetry your chosen medium for these explorations rather than prose?

MC: Well, it’s not really returning, I think, so much as carrying on. It’s a process that began the moment I saw the lynching exhibit, which created for me a direct personal link to our country’s deeply racist past. Since then, I’ve become more and more involved in exploring not only the subject, but also my own past and present attitudes toward it. Someone suggested at a reading last year that I now had to start working on the last part of the trilogy that I was obviously writing. The trilogy was news to me! But I think he may have been on to something.

Other people have asked me why poetry rather than prose, and the simple answer is—well, I’m a poet. Just before Blue Front came out, Cynthia Carr published a 400-page book about her family’s similar involvement in an Indiana lynching in 1930. I applaud such work: I’ve read an enormous number of nonfiction books, scholarly and otherwise, in thinking about my own material. The research I did for Blue Front, particularly the discovery of the documents you mention above, was extremely rewarding: to come upon these materials, to hold them in my hand, took me closer to the events themselves. And reading for the White Papers was, as I’ve mentioned, a process of self-education. But what I value as a reader of poetry is that it conflates intellectual, emotional, even physical experience in a way that factually-oriented prose cannot.

An example. Eighteen years ago, after I’d spent years reading about the history of Vietnam and particularly the American war there, a Vietnamese poet gave me copies of some roughly translated versions of a few of his poems. I was stunned: the feelings and images the poems evoked made me feel as if I’d been taken to the country itself. I’ve been co-translating Vietnamese poetry ever since.

MS: Would you talk about your poetic style? You avoid punctuation and capital letters. Grammar is often fragmented. Even when you use complete sentences, they run into other sentences in ways that create ambiguities. Also, individual words are often used in unusual ways, giving them new meanings. Why is this unconventional style appropriate to your voice and subject?

MC: One reason I think I was initially drawn to poetry is that I’ve always been uncomfortable with certainty. My first book, while more syntactically conventional than later ones, foregrounds uncertainty: one poem begins “It’s important not to say”; another quickly corrects itself with “No, no.” Fragmentation became more central in my second book, and still more in my third. But when I got to Blue Front, uncertainty was central to the process. I began by knowing very little about that particular lynching, or lynching in general, and had no way of knowing how it had affected my father—and yet I felt compelled to start writing. The earliest example of resulting fragmentation occurred when I was trying to figure out the meaning of “Blue Front,” the name of the restaurant where my father worked when he was five: “Was it the blue of”—and then I broke off. The more I wrote, though, the more those breakings off reflected emotional uncertainties and difficulties: how could I say, could I say, did I even know what I was trying to say—

My interest in individual words goes back to my fourth book, where I have a series of unrhymed sonnets that focus on individual abstract nouns with multiple meanings (lines, lies, races, times, etc); in Blue Front, there’s a similar series, scattered throughout the book. In both cases, and in other poems as well, I’ve found that thinking obsessively about a single word, even its totally dissimilar meanings, is a way of opening up my mind to emotional complexity.

MS: You are often regarded as a “language poet” because your poems explore the limits of meaning and syntax. But it seems to me that you are different than the language poets because your subject is usually not language itself but rather the ways that language and injustice intersect. In your five collections of poetry, you look closely at racism, domestic violence, social repression, political deception and war. How do you see your work in the context of the language poets, such as Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and Rae Armantrout? Do you see your work as part of the movement toward a more exploratory style of American poetry?

MC: I don’t know that I’m often regarded as a language poet! Because an otherwise very perceptive review of Blue Front in the New York Times Book Review referred to me that way, I’ve been asked about this before. As I noted earlier, reading Ashbery (who was writing language poetry before there were language poets) gave me a certain license; and when anthologies of language poetry began to come out, I read them. I even made a few attempts to write language-y poems, which was kind of fun; but what I discovered was that some kind of subject matter always emerged—often, I have to confess, of a sexual kind: that’s what I seem to get when I try to repress subject matter.

But what the reviewer was really noting about my work, I think, is what you very nicely call its “exploratory style.” Language poetry, in the early years when its name was written with equal signs and capital letters, was much more extreme in its repression of subject matter than it’s since become; if you look at the more recent work (and some of the earlier work too) of any of the poets you mention, it’s impossible to not find “content.” I heard Rae Armantrout on PBS last night speaking very eloquently about some of the “subjects,” not unlike mine, that her poems have been embracing lately. These days, terms like “innovative” and “experimental” seem more apt to me—though not “avant garde”: experimentalism has become too mainstream for that term to apply.

It’s a dialectical process, I think, and we’re in the synthesizing phase.

MS: You were a professor of creative writing, as well as a college administrator, for a long time, and now you’re working as an editor for FIELD magazine and Oberlin College Press. How have these varied professions combined with your work as a poet? Do you feel that being part of the academic world has been good for your writing? If so, how? What are the trade-offs that poet has to make in order to have an academic profession?

MC: I don’t think that teaching has interfered with my work as a poet, and it’s certainly enriched me as a person: to share the inevitably solitary art of writing poetry with others has been very rewarding. It’s true that thinking about students’ poems can keep me from thinking about my own, and use a similar kind of energy. For that reason, the academic calendar has probably contributed to making me (and a lot of others) a kind of “binge” poet. Ultimately, though, that calendar is one of the great gifts that the academy gives us: what other profession gives you summers, not to mention sabbaticals and semester breaks? You may work more hours during a semester than someone doing another kind of work—but before you know it, it’s summer.

It’s also true that when my academic schedule has been particularly intense (and directing creative writing programs certainly helped to make it so), I’ve made myself work on that morning schedule I mentioned earlier, so even the most extreme busy-ness may have actually helped. Administrative work is very different from teaching, I should note: it occupies a different part of my brain, and I don’t think it interferes much with writing itself—though it may have kept me from being more active on behalf of publishing my own work.

Editing has been extremely helpful: a kind of focused reading, often of writers I might never have encountered otherwise.

MS: Thirty years ago, there were just a handful of MFA creative writing programs in this country, and now there are hundreds. In your opinion, how has this change affected the field of poetry?

MC: Well, there are a lot more poets! I would never decry the numbers: I’m grateful for any interest in poetry, including its emergence through the (initially) non-academic route of the poetry slam and open mic. I don’t think the professionalizing of poetry has necessarily been good for everyone: the expectation that one must have poems published to get into an MFA program, or that one must have a book by the time one gets out can mean, for some, that more time and energy are spent on the “business” of poetry than on the reading and pondering that are essential parts of the writing process. That MFA programs require reading is of course a good thing. And even better is the fact that both undergraduate and MFA programs have allowed people who might not ever have thought about writing poetry to explore it; as a result, the field is a lot more diverse than it once was.

MS: What advice would you give a young poet?

MC: Read, read, read. Read broadly, not limiting yourself to poets who seem immediately appealing to you; read deeply, when a poet does attract your attention. Read especially carefully when you’re drawn to a poet or poem but don’t know why.

When you turn to writing, don’t settle easily: push the poem as hard as you can. I don’t know whether young poets today have the problem I did (and still do), but I’ve learned that I have to push past the a whole army of mental censors (based on parents, teachers, critics, the culture at large) that tell me I cannot / should not / must not write what I’m writing, whether for aesthetic or moral or some other reasons. It took me awhile, but I finally learned that I’m usually onto something when I hear the censor’s voice.

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Be the Donkey

Sunday, February 5, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

Recently I heard someone say that when he stopped drinking, his life changed so quickly it was like being “rocketed into a new dimension”, and I remembered when I got sober a number of years ago, I had the same experience. During the first two years of sobriety, my health, my friendships, and my family relationships were transformed beyond recognition. But now, my life is not like taking a rocketship at all; instead, it’s more like riding a donkey. Slowly, steadily, reliably, the donkey and I are moving down the road. Sometimes, though, for no reason I can see, the donkey stops and refuses to go any further. My tendency at that point is to get off the donkey and beat the hell out of it — teach it a lesson. But that never works: all I get is a mean donkey that bites me in the ass the first chance it gets. What I need to do, of course, is to get off the donkey and wait for it to start moving again. Stretch my legs. Maybe have a picnic in the meadow beside the road. To borrow a phrase from the poet Tony Hoagland, I need to work on my “donkey wisdom”.

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Superfoods

Saturday, October 22, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

About six months ago, trying to solve a number of serious health problems including Crohn’s disease and asthma, I became a vegan. I cut out all meat, dairy, and processed foods. I also began reading extensively about nutrition. Two books I highly recommend are Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman and The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.

In a nutshell, this is what I learned:

All fruits and vegetables are good for our general health, but some are so powerful in strengthening our bodies against disease that we should make sure that we eat them regularly. Here is a partial list of these superfoods:

Cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, turnip greens, mustard greens, rapini, etc.)
Berries (blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, elderberries, pomegranates, etc.)
Tomatoes
Peppers
Mushrooms
Onions, garlic, leeks
Legumes (beans, peas, tofu, green beans, soymilk, etc.)
Nuts and seeds (walnuts, cashews, almonds, sesame, sunflower, linseed, flax seed, etc.)

Also, it’s important to eat across the color spectrum. Ask yourself each day whether you’ve eaten something that is red, something green, something blue, yellow, purple, black, orange.

In the last six months, I’ve lost 35 pounds, the symptoms of my Crohn’s which I’ve had for over 30 years have disappeared, my asthma has cleared up, and I’ve started running again.
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Elegy

Monday, October 10, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Last week my mother died in Texas.

Today in Pittsburgh, Eva and I and our two grown children Nicholas and Lea went to the Monongahela River. We carried a wreath Eva had woven of wisteria, roses, and lilies to a place where a willow leans over the water. I read a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye — Prayer in my Boot — and Nicholas threw the wreath into the water. We said goodbye to my mother.

I’m so grateful to have poetry to carry me.

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Theatre Review: Mercy and the Firefly by Amy Hartman

Saturday, April 9, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Michael Simms

Lucy Clark, a nun who teaches in East Los Angeles, returns to Homestead, Pennsylvania, having kidnapped fifteen year-old Mercy Rivera whom she believes is in danger after witnessing a murder. Lucy’s old boyfriend Oliver and her mother Vivian reluctantly take in the girl. What ensues is a four-way struggle for power in an upside-down world where drug dealers rule the streets and adults are terrified of children. In fact, these people are afraid of everything, having forgotten even the simple goodness of food and human touch. All the characters are adept liars and manipulators, drug addicts and alcoholics, users in every sense of the word. In this harsh world, tenderness is interpreted as weakness, dreams are mocked and punished, and love is only for suckers.

The names are ironic. Lucy, who has forgotten how to pray, has lost her light. Vivian, whose name means Life, regularly volunteers as a cook making last meals for the condemned — “waking them up before they die” as her daughter puts it. Oliver Hill, despite his pastoral-sounding name, lives in an urban wasteland. And Mercy, well, has none. Life — as they know it — is nasty, brutish, and short. So, it’s a surprise – and a relief — that by the end of the play, each of the characters has wrestled his or her stubborn demon to a tenuous draw.

Amy Hartman is arguably the best playwright working today. Her dialogue snaps with poetry, a rhapsodic vernacular that sings the desperate lyricism of the dispossessed. The ghost of a murdered girl opens the play with a rap song, and as she haunts Mercy, who as it turns out, is a soldier in the LA gang wars, Mercy’s language slides into a rhyming ode to the violence of the streets. In a spell-binding performance, Chelsea Mervis brings out the contradiction of a violent manipulative girl who is also a victim of a world gone crazy. Shammen McCune as Lucy captures the character’s confusion in her search for faith and love. Penelope Lindblom interprets Vivian – perhaps the most sympathetic of the characters — as a tough old broad who’s going to survive no matter what. And Patrick Jordan’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the weak and vacillating Oliver rounds out the strong cast.

Melissa Martin’s direction is subtle and competent, letting the actors and the dialogue carry the play without impediment. Stephanie Mayer-Staley, the scenic designer, has divided the stage between two locations – a rubbish-strewn lot and a low-rent apartment, providing the perfect setting for the post-apocalyptic story. Costume designer Michael Montgomery, lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski, and sound designer Steve Shapiro contribute to a powerful production of a beautiful play.

“Mercy and the Firefly,” by Amy Hartman, is at The Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Stage (222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/ 392-8000 or online at www.pittsburghplayhouse.com) from April 1 to April 17, 2011

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Dance: 108 Minutes

Saturday, February 19, 2011
posted by Michael Simms

By Michael Simms

A dancer can seem very small in Pittsburgh’s Byham Theatre with its high proscenium arch, its sixty foot ceilings painted with giant muses floating in the clouds, its beautifully restored tile and plaster work, its marble stairs and brass ornaments. And the subtle movements of the human body expressing shades of feeling can seem inconsequential in the context of the great hoopla of fund-raising, advance publicity, and artistic ambition. So, it’s particularly fitting that Bodiography’s new show 108 minutes presents the body as both instrument of art and object of study.

The first act consists of six vignettes inspired by new research in the field of regenerative medicine (the show was underwritten in part by UPMC Rehabilitation Institute). Maria Caruso, the founder, director, choreographer, and lead dancer of Bodiography (is there anything she can’t do?) prepared for the show by, among other things, attending the “theatre” of open heart surgery. After the intermission, the second act opens with a scene of new recruits joining the army, stripping off civilian clothes, dressing in fatigues, engaging in battle, suffering wounds, and finally regenerating their bodies and spirits one dance step at a time.

Caruso’s choreography, which merges elements of jazz, modern, and ballet to create a vigorous and expressive art, requires strength and agility from the eight women and one man who form the nucleus of the dance troupe. These young people are not ballerinas by any means, but rather muscular dancers who use their athleticism to express a wide range of experiences and emotions. Caruso has consciously built a company of excellent dancers who would be judged too large and powerful-looking for most ballet companies. This recruitment strategy is part of the mission of Bodiography – to offer opportunities for professional dancers with athletic bodies to grow as artists, promoting healthy lifestyles and positive body image within the company as well as in the society as a whole.

Cello Fury, three classically-trained cellists and a rock drummer, features energetic original music complementing the dancers. The driving rhythms and intricate harmonies of the four musicians perched on a scaffold at the back of the stage create, literally, a wall of sound behind the dancers. The collaboration between Bodiography and Cello Fury is perfect in its strangeness: both choreography and music break down barriers of genre, creating an art that is wholly new.

Caruso often includes non-dancers in her choreography. In the past, she’s used painters and poets, but in 108 Minutes she uses doctors – dancing doctors, piano-playing doctors – who give a wonderful authenticity to the performance. The virtuosity of the professional dancers is highlighted by the presence of “real” people.

To a certain degree, a dance performance is always about the human body. How interesting that Caruso and company take this metaphor a step further to create a performance that presents the dialectics between science and art, injury and healing, body and soul. Through brilliant choreography and original music, the dialogue between dance and medicine seems surprisingly natural and unforced as if the parallel between these widely different disciplines were, like a new continent, simply waiting to be discovered.
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Where Does Poetry Come From? IV

Thursday, September 16, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

Many poets turn to the other arts for inspiration. For painters such as William Blake, Cezanne, and the contemporary Dutch painter Leo Klein, the challenge is to capture the sublime, to visually represent the invisible, so that the painting becomes more than itself, more than an object, more than a picture of what is seen. The painter represents vision rather than sight. Similarly, the poet does not so much hear, as he listens. He does not experience sight, but insight, not landscape but inscape, so the language we use everyday, the language of shopkeepers and college students, transcends itself.

But a young poet may become confused about the source of poetry, thinking that because so many poets have drug and alcohol problems, then this self-abuse goes with the job. Perhaps the young poet even convinces himself that the source of poetry can be coaxed along by artificial means. Many years ago a Nigerian friend remarked that I had a “time-space problem” referring to my habit of mentally drifting off. The absent-mindedness that he saw as a problem I saw as a tool of the trade: poetry resides in the clouds, I reasoned, so I was always ready to let my mind wander. I used drugs and alcohol to disassociate my senses, taking as my models Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas. Self-loathing and an obsession with death called seductively to me as they had for Berryman, Plath, Hart Crane, and so many other poets. Poetry, I thought, was the music created by a tortured soul. I ignored the fact that there are many poets, such as William Stafford and Naomi Shihab Nye, who live sane decent lives with their families, and whose work brings a vision of light and wholeness to the listener. In recent years, these two poets in particular have taught me that poetry springs from a special alertness, a willingness to embrace the present moment.

Names

Lea wants to change her name to Tina.
Her mother says she must think very carefully
     because a name has to fit.
The wrong name can bind like someone else’s shoes.
Who knows where a name has walked,
dust of what roads, uncomfortable creases across the toe,
the heel worn down by someone else’s sorrow?

Her brother says the name Tina fits.
But if she’s Tina, he says, what happened to Lea?
The name turned down the wrong street, got lost,
fell off the edge of the mountain.
The sound of her name fills the river valley.
Everywhere it is nowhere, he says,
her name needs to come home.

Lea doesn’t want to be Tina anymore.
It’s just too much responsibility.

__________

Where Does Poetry Come From? III

Wednesday, September 8, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

Perhaps the richest source of poetry can be found in the language of children.

When my daughter was four years old, she experienced an airplane as big on the inside and little on the outside — which, incidentally, serves as a description of a lyric poem as well. She also says Ouch is me when she has a minor injury, signifying perhaps how pain (or joy) can become our whole being. Similarly my eight year old son talked about riding a sound to school, capturing in this phrase the experience of the hum and roar of taking the bus through the morning traffic, the noise and excitement of the other children on the bus, the anticipation of the day’s challenges. He synaesthetically folded all these experiences into one phrase.

As poets, we should strive for this total immersion in the moment; it is in the present acceptance of the given that poetry exists, even when we are writing about the past.

 

I’m short.
You’re fat.
We’re proud of that.

Little deer lost his ear
so he went to bed
and lost his head
and couldn’t find it in the morning.

                           Anneliese Becker, age 8

 My children often make up little songs they sing to themselves. My daughter invented one about our home that begins We live in a stone called River Own. Forgive me for sounding like a doting father bragging about the ordinary achievements of his only daughter, but I think the line is brilliant. Notice how every word in the line does a great deal of work: the active verb, the interior rhyme and assonance, the variation of the iambic rhythm with the anapestic phrase in a stone, how the strongest stresses are in the last five syllables, making the line rise in emphasis. And notice the primal significance of the mixed metaphor: 

We live  
Own   (Home)      Stone
                              River
 

The line circumscribes a relationship between significant experiences, but like all brilliant metaphors the flow of ideas is illogical, or should we say pre-logical, capturing the experience without the obligation to be consistent and orderly. The associations are musical and intuitive because naming the world is an act of magic, not of logic. Each child has to create the world anew, just as Adam did. And just as poets must.

_________

Waiting for Necessity to Speak V

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

Sometimes we sense that even the dead are connected to the fabric of life. My wife tells me that a graduate student came to her office and told this story, which he claims is true. An old man died at 3:47 AM in Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh. His brother, who had had Alzheimer’s disease for five years, was asleep in a different hospital on the other side of town. The floor nurse recorded in his chart at 3:47 AM that the Alzheimer’s patient said his brother’s name twice. Meanwhile in a different city a thousand miles away, the student was studying for an exam. The young man looked up to see his grandfather, the man who had just died, standing in the middle of the room. The old man looked thin, but he had a gentle smile on his face. “Still studying, little professor?” he asked. The young man nodded, amazed at what he was seeing. “I have to go now,” the old man said and disappeared.

_________

Waiting for Necessity to Speak IV

Tuesday, August 24, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

I think it was the short-story writer Alice Munro who said that she is always looking for a place to hide in the house, a place away from children, the phone ringing, chores to be done, the sociability of neighbors, a place to sit and stare at a blank wall, a place to get on with her real work, waiting for necessity to speak.

And eventually necessity does speak, although often in subtle ways. Sometimes a poem begins in the recognition of an oddity of language, something read or overheard that catches the poet off-guard by its metaphorical promise. For example, the French word for time, le temps, also means weather and season, implying that our sense of time is not an abstraction, but something primal that can be experienced through the senses. Another example of how abstractions are traditionally related to our sense of the body occurs in English: the word testify is related to the word testes, going back to the ancient custom of men swearing oaths while placing a hand over their testicles, swearing on their manhood, so to speak — implying of course that if they lied they would be castrated. These primal correspondences, proto-metaphors, echo with possibilities. After this initial recognition, like finding a fossil in a rock, the challenge is to use one’s sense of craft to carve the poem, make it whole, bring it to life. As Jean Cocteau calls it: teaching a statue to walk.

Sometimes a bit of language will stir the poet’s metaphysical sense of connectedness, the feeling that trees, animals, and even rocks share our struggle to live. My wife grew up in the Siegerland, a region of Germany rich in folk tradition. Eva remembers when she was nine years old her last visit to her neighbor Marianne Krebber before she died. The old woman was sitting at the table drinking tea while she told Eva that the night before a truck had hit the old linden tree in front of her house knocking off a great limb. She said she rushed down and stood in front of the tree. She could feel it suffering. She went into the house and looked up the remedy in her book Blumen die Durch die Seele Heilen — “Flowers that Heal through the Soul.” She found the recipe for “rescue remedy”: star of Bethlehem for shock, rock-rose for fear and panic, impatiens for stress and tension, cherry-plum for despair, and clematis for the feeling of being far away that often appears before becoming unconscious. She mixed the essences in water, dipped a towel, then wrapped it around the wound in the tree. She claimed the tree stopped bleeding and began to heal. She could feel the easing of the tree’s pain.

In the book, a violet that grows in wet soil is called Wasserfeder — water-feather.

__________

Where Does Poetry Come From? II

Monday, August 16, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

From the beginning of Western literature, there has been a dual attitude toward the source of poetry. The ancient Greeks saw the poet as a maker, and they also had the tradition of the poem being a gift from the muse. The poem is simultaneously made by the poet and it is given by a deity or spirit. In other traditions you see similar tendencies to equate inspiration with divine gifts or with spiritual enlightenment. Lorca’s duende, a supernatural force which comes to inhabit the flamenco dancer, is his metaphor for this possession of the poet by an outside spirit. The Buddhist principle of letting go of the ego in order to be at one with the cosmos; Keats’ idea of negative capability, a receptiveness to the poem; chance methods of composition such as those by John Cage and Jackson MacLow, the principle of simultaneity in which juxtaposition in itself becomes meaningful, such as occurs in the coin-tossing reference system of the I Ching; even Eliot’s objective correlative — all are versions of the idea that the poem is not something that is made but rather received by the poet. The poem stands halfway between the listener and the gods.

In the many creative writing workshops I’ve attended through the years, only once were the principles of imagination, inspiration, and creativity ever mentioned. In 1974, on the first day of class, Michael Ryan said that we would not be talking about these things, not because such things don’t exist, he said, but because no one knows anything about them, so there’s no point in discussing them. Incidentally, Bill Matthews said the same thing a few years later on the first day of class, but this time the subject that the teacher refused to discuss was rhythm. You have to understand that these are two of the best teachers, not to mention smartest men, I’ve ever known, yet, between them, they had ruled out as subjects of discussion imagination, inspiration, creativity, and rhythm. I wonder now why they ruled out these subjects which form the heart of poetry…. Perhaps the answer lies in their own uncertainty about these subjects. There are no definite answers the teacher can give, so — the teacher reasons — let’s don’t lead the students down a path where we have no map to guide us.

_______________

Where Does Poetry Come From?

Sunday, August 8, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

Let’s talk about where poetry comes from… or at least where one poem came from. I offer one of my own, not because it is an example of a great poem (it isn’t), but because I know the situation out of which it arose.

For a period of time a few summers ago, I kept a notebook in which I wrote everyday. Usually I did free-writing: scribbling down whatever came to mind as quickly as I could. During these sessions, which usually lasted only fifteen minutes or so a day, I didn’t bother to think about punctuation or line-endings or poetic form; however the words came out was the form of the piece and I usually didn’t revise. On June 18, I wrote a piece which I knew was not a poem, but which had an interesting tone and rhythm. I especially liked the last three lines:

darkness descends
and the birds become invisible on their branches
their nests like the thoughts of old
                               mathematicians
.

The next evening, my wife, who is a psychologist, and I were talking about writing because she had been asked to contribute a chapter in a textbook of Jungian studies. I mentioned to her that I had been free-writing everyday for several weeks. She said, or at least I thought she said, “Yes, you have to write everyday, because you never know where a poem is sleeping.” The statement made a deep impression on me. I sat on the couch, stunned by the enormity of the metaphor. After a few minutes, I went upstairs to my study. After half an hour or so, I had this draft:

You have to write everyday
because you never know where a poem sleeps

It might be coiled around a branch
high in the air
a snake dozing in the speckled shade

It might be catching a few zees
in the attic

Aunt Zelda loved

or dozing in the picture of your grandfather
in his Sunday best
framed and ready to go
through generations of dust

It might be dreaming
in a story you loved
when you were a mouse
in a wall much larger than now

A poem is a box in a box
in a cloud a boy watches
thinking of sleep
and the one time he went fishing with his dad

But you have to let it happen. You have to listen real hard
The poem can survive if it knows
you’re looking for it
under the stones of the river
in the high ears of the corn field

I needed a strong conclusion, but I was stuck. I didn’t know where to go from the words “corn field.” Then I remembered the free-writing I had done the previous evening. When I wrote the last three lines at the bottom of the new poem, they fit.

I knew I had a poem, but it seemed rough. There were some things I didn’t like, such as the business of Aunt Zelda and the picture of the grandfather. Those characters seemed cliched and inauthentic. (On a factual level, the characters are inauthentic: I don’t even have an Aunt Zelda.) Also, some of the rhythms, line-endings, and shifts of perspective seemed awkward. So I went over the poem, reading it aloud to myself hundreds of times, recopying it dozens of times, each time changing a detail, sharpening an image, smoothing the rhythm, letting the poem emerge from the scribbles of my initial draft. After a few days, I had a finished draft:

Where The Poem Sleeps

You have to write every day
because you never know where a poem sleeps

It might be coiled around a branch
high in the air
dozing in the speckled shade

It might be dreaming in a story you loved
when you were a mouse
in a wall much larger than now

You may find a poem in a cloud
a boy watches, thinking
of the one time he went fishing with a bear

But you have to let it happen
you have to listen real hard

The poem can survive a night
in the woods alone, curled up
under an elm tree
after a day of looking for you

It can even be happy as a stone in the river
if it knows you are waiting for it to come home

And you are waiting
as darkness descends
and the birds become invisible
on the branches
                               their nests
like the thoughts of drowsy mathematicians

Shortly after the poem was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the poet Maurice Kilwein Guevara, whom I had never met before, contacted me and said that he read the poem on his mother’s refrigerator. She’d saved the poem because it reminded her of her native Columbia.

_________

Waiting for Necessity to Speak III

Sunday, August 1, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

     Nowadays, many poets learn their craft in creative writing classes. We call them workshops in order, I suppose, to suggest a correlation with wood-carving or perhaps clock- making. And the best teachers do a great service to the students by emphasizing how a poem works, as well as how it could work better. As valuable as workshops are in passing on the craft to the next generation and providing employment for established poets, what is missing in creative writing classes is a way to talk about the real guts of the writing process. There seems to be a fearful cynicism in these classes that prevents people from discussing the way poems are actually made. For example, the word imagination is rarely mentioned. And the traditional language for describing the moment of receiving the poem seems antiquated and even a bit silly in a classroom where down the hall people are looking through microscopes at human cells or listening to a lecture about the statistical analysis of the behavior of white rats. A student who dared to name his or her muse would be summarily dismissed as a flake. It is ironic that almost any other idea, no matter how neurotic or far-fetched its origins, will be treated seriously in a writing class, but if a student dares to talk about the act of inspiration (literally, a breathing in), his classmates will roll their eyes and change the subject. I have heard the most paranoid paradigms of human relations — the idea that all heterosexual union is a form of rape, for example — put forward as critical interpretations of poems in graduate workshops, and yet a discussion of love — which seems to me the source of all great poetry — is met with yawns and snickers. What have we come to?

___________

Waiting for Necessity to Speak II

Saturday, July 24, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

Tradition tells us that muses are angelic creatures who descend from clouds, or drift like smoke through an open window — while my muse is a guy who walks into a bar. But we take what we can get, right? The sources of poetry are too uncertain for me to refuse any gift, no matter how unlikely the messenger. By the same token, a poet usually has to accept the form and scope of the poem as a given. One dare not say to the muse, “Thanks for the epigram, but really I was hoping for an ode…” If we refuse the gift, it may not be offered again.

_______

Waiting for Necessity to Speak

Friday, July 16, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

 Notes toward an understanding of poetic imagination

by Michael Simms

When I was a student in Iowa City, Stanley Bomgarten and I used to drink at a place called George’s a few blocks from campus. One morning we were celebrating Stanley getting fired from his job as assistant pastor at the local Baptist Church when a young man walked in and sat at the bar. He was tall and thin with short greasy hair. His eyes shone with wild intensity behind thick black-rimmed lenses. His cheeks were flushed as if he had a fever.

“Is your name Mark?” he asked. “No it’s Mike,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said, “God gave me a poem to give to you. You can publish it under your own name if you want.”

From memory he wrote these lines on a paper napkin:

When a man has tried his soul
as if it were open to loss or win
and felt the better for his trial
or felt he has traveled far
from accustomed ways

Cricket chirping
becomes a source of joy, concrete
is comforting to walk upon and churches
have their stained glass lighted.

Then he acquires acquiescence
and the wind is cool on his cheek
and he neither laughs nor cries
but looks upon things about him.

He is in the infinite heart
where the air is cool numinescence
in the sky. He begins to think
of the face he has seen
and his eyes begin searching
for the stars.

He handed me the napkin, got up, and walked out of the bar without ordering anything.

I asked Stanley what he thought of the guy. Stanley said he believed God really had given him the poem. I laughed, but when I realized Stanley was serious, I ordered another beer. We sat for a long time without saying anything. Then Stanley said his life was going to Hell.

It’s been thirty years since I heard Stanley moved back to his parents’ farm. Thirty years since I finished my degree and began wandering in my self-made wilderness. As for the odd young man with the poem, I never learned his name and I never saw him again.

___________

What is Poetry For?

Thursday, July 8, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

A few days ago, an old priest who was a colleague of my wife’s passed away, and my wife came home from work angry at the world. I was worried; Eva doesn’t anger often, and her grief seemed huge and unbearable. I couldn’t console her, so I asked Scott Staples, a friend who knew and admired the old man, to stop by our house. The three of us sat in the kitchen, Eva sipping milk, Scott and I icewater, toasting the old priest’s life, remembering picnics at his farm, his love of poetry, his kindness to Scott during a painful divorce, the old man’s struggle with homosexuality, his coming to peace with desire in his final years. His last weeks were spent in a hospital bed, ranting fragments of Shelley and Yeats, mumbling worries about his fall classes, ripping at his clothes full of bees, he said.

In the long shadows of the kitchen, we lifted glasses to the old man, his love, his fear, the final blessing of death, and as William Stafford says, we thought hard for us all.

***

For ten years I didn’t write. Other ambitions that seemed more important at the time called to me. I raised kids, taught school, built a business, and learned how to be a grown-up. Although I wasn’t writing, I did feel the pull of the spirit toward a life of the imagination. I prayed, I read philosophy, I took my kids to the art museum. I had long conversations with friends that lasted well into the night. I felt love and fear, and I experienced an occasional insight into larger patterns that inspired awe, but these feelings and insights disappeared without my recording them. A stone falls into the water and the ripples push out to the edges until the surface is smooth again, leaving no mark.

What I missed most was a sense of completion. When I write a poem, the desire for a pleasing aesthetic experience compels me to fill in the details, to continue the rhythms, to find closure. Without artistic ambition, the reverie stays half-completed, unsatisfied.

The last six months I’ve been writing like a madman, poems tumbling out one after another like a family of circus acrobats. Every poem I haven’t written over the last ten years is standing in line at the door, waiting for its name to be spoken.

***

So we write poems in order to give form to our imaginings, to make discoveries in our emotional terrain, to understand life in a way that nothing else makes quite as clear. And poems live in the vital center, made of the raw stuff of life. They reside in every small important thing we do: holding a newborn baby, teaching a child to read, consoling a friend in grief.

But why read poetry? What can these exploratory images and extended rhythms mean to someone other than the writer?

During my ten years of silence, I often read poetry for pleasure. Many poems delighted me with their music, wit, and color, but a few I kept returning to because they gave me something more than merely postcards from the poet’s inner travels. Epiphanic narratives such as James Wright’s Northern Pike, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Coming to Cuzco, and Jack Myers’ Jake Addresses the World from the Garden gave form to my own awakenings. I need these poems the way a vine needs a trellis. We might say that poets, in devoting their lives to the act of imagination, engineer the soul of our culture, designing and building the spiritual scaffold we must all climb as we struggle toward the light.

_______

Lyn Lifshin: an Appreciation

Thursday, July 1, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

For thirty years, I’ve been reading Lyn Lifshin’s poems in independent literary magazines across the country.  I admire her integrity as a poet — she’s always true to her voice and vision – she never sounds like anyone else.  Here are three of her recent poems:

Salsa

it’s the moves

not the man. He

could be the size

of a 12 year old

but he’s got the

beat in his body.

Who cares if he

is hardly up to

your nose. He

was shaking his

booty.  He can get

you to shake

yours too so any

black tulips

pulling you

down go dust

and vanish and

if they try to

return, he’ll

luga palooga

them, slam them

north with a

wild hip

 

The Man In Front of Me Has Run Out Of The Metro Station

He had just the right

look and carreid the

same book I’m reading.

He might have just

left his wife.  He might

have never wanted

a woman. Or wanted

a woman like me. But

he got off at Union

Station, vanished into

a cab. I didn’t see his

face, only his fingers

but he’ll come to me

in dreams where

he won’t slip away

 

In Virginia, Hardly A Leaf Gone Red

as ice blasts, cold

reels up the ropes of

summer. No hazy

moon this morning.

Leaf scent, cold

wool. Some mornings,

like today, I can’t

read any more bad

news. “Joy,” my

mother’s favorite

perfume on my wrist.

All that remains of

her above earth 

_____

 

Copyright Law and the English Teacher

Saturday, April 17, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms

(The director of our graduate writing program recently asked me to write an explication of ”fair use” of copyrighted materials.)

                Much of the great literature that we want our students to read, for example, Shakespeare, Milton, Emerson, and Twain, is in the public domain — that is, not protected by copyright.  Any work that was published before 1923 can legally be copied and distributed to our students without restriction. However, most of us want our students to read modern and contemporary literature as well as the classics.  For work published after 1923, including new translations of traditional literature, copyright restrictions apply.

                The United States Constitution gives Congress the power to secure for “Authors… the exclusive Right to their respective Writings…” and authors may assign all or part of their rights to others, including publishers and agents.   The Federal statutes regarding copyright can be found in Circular 92:  Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws, contained in Tıtle 17 of The United States Code updated October 2007.  The entire 311 page document can be found online:  http://www.copyright.gov/title17/

                As English teachers interested in exposing our students to good writing, discussing literature in our classrooms, and quoting texts in our critical and creative writing, we should pay special attention to Section 107 — the “fair use” passage — which outlines what we are allowed to do:

 § 107 · Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use40 Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include— (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copy-righted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

 As you can see, we’re on safe ground if we’re quoting a short passage in a review or critical article, as well as using a quotation as an epigraph to a poem or story; and we are also within our rights when, as part of our classroom teaching, we photocopy or post on a website a short piece which is part of a copyrighted text, for example a single poem or page from a longer text.

                However, it is equally clear that there are limitations to fair use.  Notice that the limiting principles include (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copy-righted work as a whole.  In other words, if we were to reproduce without permission a significant portion of a copyrighted text, for example an entire short story in a book-length collection of ten stories, then we would be violating copyright.  Also notice (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.  In other words, if we are reproducing copyrighted material as a substitute for students buying the book, then we are in violation of copyright.  Also prohibited would be putting together an anthology of copyrighted material over the course of a semester — for example, handing out a poem each week to students over the course of a semester in lieu of assigning readings in a published  textbook.

                Violation of copyright is a serious offense carrying severe civil and criminal penalties, including fines and up to 10 years imprisonment (see Appendix G of Title 18).  Although it is hard to imagine the FBI rounding up English teachers en masse for over-use of their department copiers, similar infringements, such as trafficking in bootleg CDs, counterfeiting brand-name merchandise, and illegally downloading music and films from the internet – all of which are covered under Title 17 — have been successfully prosecuted in recent years.  Thousands of parents of Napster-using teenagers were shocked a few years ago to discover they were being sued for tens of thousands of dollars by a consortium of music publishers; Microsoft and Disney have lobbied the Federal government to include enforcement of intellectual property issues in trade negotiations with China. Copyright infringement on the internet has become so common that many companies and universities have set up websites to streamline the processing of claims against them.  The pattern is clear:  corporate America and the Federal government take intellectual property issues very seriously. 

                Significantly, the owner of the copy machine can be held liable in addition to the person using it.  So, not only is the individual teacher subject to civil suits and criminal prosecution, but the university (or the local Kinko’s) is liable as well.

                Fearing lawsuits from publishers and damage to their reputations, many universities, including Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, strictly limit instructors’ use of copyrighted material.  If the instructor wishes to use text taken from a published source, he or she must submit a “course packet” to the officially recognized printer (usually the campus bookstore or a local copy shop) who applies for permission to the copyright holder, negotiates a fee, reproduces the text, and sells copies of the course packet to students.  The advantage of this system is that the instructor can customize the course materials while protecting the copyright holders’ intellectual property.  The disadvantage, of course, is that students are required to pay for shoddily printed, sometimes unreadable, texts which cost as much or more than a published book.

                Besides the course packet strategy, what legally sanctioned options do English teachers have to bring poems, stories, and essays to students?

  •  We can order books through the campus bookstore and require or suggest that the students buy them;
  • We can place books or magazines on reserve in the university library — not only paper texts but also legal digital versions of texts sent from publishers;
  • We can use email, Blackboard and Facebook to provide students with hyperlinks to whole articles, either on public sites like the NY Times or via the many full text databases that our academic libraries now provide;
  • We can read the literature out loud to the students;
  • We can reproduce short passages and distribute them to our students via the internet or printed copies;
  • We can request permission from publishers to reproduce longer passages.

                 Copyright laws exist to protect authors from unfair use of their work, and authors and publishers are entitled to compensation for their efforts.  As writers and teachers, we have an interest in respecting those legal rights while setting a good example for our students.

 Michael Simms is the founder and editor-in-chief of Autumn House Press, as well as a lecturer in the Creative Writing MFA program at Chatham University.  The article above is for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.  Peter Oresick contributed to this article.

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In Defense of Luddites

Monday, January 18, 2010
posted by Michael Simms

by Michael Simms
Editor-in-Chief of Autumn House Press and Coal Hill Review

Most people over the age of 50 nowadays have an attitude toward technology similar to mine, I think.  I use technology everyday.  I depend on it to do my job, practice my art, and maintain my social contacts, but I’m leery of it.  It seems to fail when I most depend on it, and I often lack the requisite skill to fix the problem, whatever it is, so I’m continually frustrated by its undependability.  And if I need to do something beyond email, word-processing, and basic website maintainence, then I feel stupid and incompetent.

However, Coal Hill Review is not a community of techies; it is a community of poets, writers, and readers, and in these skills, people of my age and background often excel.  Although we have a number of younger writers involved in our community, including Joshua Storey, Bernadette James, and Evan Oare — all in their twenties — most of our chapbook submissions and almost all of our blogs have come from professional writers and teachers over the age of 50 .  We don’t want any of our contributors to feel shut out because they didn’t grow up with computers.  We are working to make CHR as user friendly as possible, even for Luddites and borderline Luddites like myself.

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