Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bummer Poetry

I am reading Thomas More's Care of the Soul right now. In March I was reading Mark Epstein's Open to Desire. What an interesting inner year it has been. First, Epstein's killer treatise on Buddhism's realistic view of its own detachment tenets, which aren't what I'd thought at all, some rational decision not to feel, but rather an outrageous commitment to feel deeply. And now More's book about the soul provides a sort of roadmap or shopping list (terrible ways to say it) of what the vitals of our spirits need to feel. Basically, I'm learning, we need the negative as much as the positive. It is the negative that shapes and feeds our souls as much as the positive smoothes it. This brings up in me endless reconsiderations of suffering, and I recall Mark Mathabane's warning in a speech delivered at Christ School two years ago: be weary of the easy life for it teaches you nothing.

I learned of a terrible tragedy last week. The best friend of someone incredibly close to me shot himself, leaving my friend's name in the suicide note. My friend has been dealing with the tragedy on all levels: taking care of his friend's 5 and 7 year old daughters, all the legal matters, packing up the belongings. He is doing, as we say, all he can. It was this event, this ongoing process, that led me to think about that WCW quote, "People die alone and miserable for lack of what is found" in poetry. The quote has followed me around all my life, popping up, and I'd usually put it back, not wanting to think about it. But I'm ready to face it now: the alone and miserable part has been jarred into comprehension by my friend's friend's suicide. The alone and miserable part is hard to swallow--poetry brings us face to face with our solitude and, quite often, our misery. And in so doing, shows we are not so alone. But it's more than just a linguistic bridge over troubled waters. It serves the part of the life the soul feeds on, that place where loss brings us near death and lets us celebrate life simply by choosing to stay in it.

I read the Agha Shahid Ali poem "Farewell" to feed this. It is the closest thing to a "good cry" on paper. The tumbling rhythm, the refrains, the imagery of loss. This is language at the soul's best, hewing from the silence a lexicon for the tragic. "If only somehow you could have been mine," Shahid calls out, "what would not have been possible in this world?" And it's this. It is the "if only's" and the "somehow's" and the "possibles" that break us down into our respective nothings, and it's there in our nothing that we find the opportunity to affirm breath.

We are supposed to feel deeply in order for our souls to eat, hums More throughout my current paper journey. Suffering leads us to the soul's mouth. Poetry tells us what to put in.

Here is the poem: the linebreaks are different from those in the book. I'll correct them soon. Now, I have to go to work.


At a certain point I lost track of you.
They make a desolation and call it peace.
when you left even the stones were buried:
the defenceless would have no weapons.

When the ibex rubs itself against the rocks,
who collects its fallen fleece from the slopes?
O Weaver whose seams perfectly vanished,
who weighs the hairs on the jeweller's balance?
They make a desolation and call it peace.
Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?

My memory is again in the way of your history.
Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved- all
winter- its crushed fennel.
We can't ask them: Are you done with the world?

In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's

Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are found like this
centuries later in this country
I have stitched to your shadow?

In this country we step out with doors in our arms
Children run out with windows in their arms.
You drag it behind you in lit corridors.
if the switch is pulled you will be torn from everything.

At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me.
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can't forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect Enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory:

I am being rowed through Paradise in a river of Hell:
Exquisite ghost, it is night.

The paddle is a heart; it breaks the porcelain waves.
It is still night. The paddle is a lotus.
I am rowed- as it withers-toward the breeze which is soft as
if it had pity on me.

If only somehow you could have been mine, what wouldn't
have happened in the world?

I'm everything you lost. You won't forgive me.
My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.
There is nothing to forgive.You can't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.

There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.

If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?

-- Agha Shahid Ali

Technical Difficulties ...

The system scripts that manage the uploading of files to the automation system that keeps WPVM on the air have gone bonkers this week, and the only person who knows the architecture of the system well enough to fix them is, of course, on vacation. One result of this is that the WordPlay show that's available for streaming and podcast on the station website is actually last week's show with Gary Lilley. It's a good one, complete with live music performed in the studio, so just look on this as a second chance to listen to it or download it.

We'll rebroadcast the show you're missing sometime when you least expect it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Latest Show

What can I say? We've got a nice little rhythm going. How fun to play with Jeff and Laura! We seem able to truly go with the flow, making up the format of the show a few minutes before we go on. This Sunday Laura suggested we use WCW's famous remark about people dying for lack of poetry. Then, without us trying, all the poems we read seemed to revolve around her central question: what is it about poetry do we need? Jeff read all James Wright poems, three of his most famous, including "A Blessing." Laura read Agha Shahid Ali and a couple others. I read mostly jazz poems from the upcoming Asheville Poetry Review.

We all look forward to Glenis' presence in the studio. I hope to take over the board next time so Jeff can join Laura and Glenis on the other side of the mic.

What I like most about the show so far is the ease with which we communicate. There's a lot of laughing. We still have a lot to learn, and my wife Ali seemed to think we had too many long pauses. But Laura's idea of naming poems after we read them, and giving book titles, etc. should help. I read one poem without mentioning the author. I'll do it here. The Chick Corea poem was by Matthew Dickman, who has a chapbook due out this fall from Q Ave Press. Keep an ear and an eye for this young poet. Tony Hoagland writes that he has some of the deepest pockets of the young poets working today. I tend to agree. Positively Whitmanesque.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Just got back from a day down on Lexington for the street fair. Slipped away for a few hours to host this Sunday's show with Jeff, intrepid in his engineer's cap, and Gary Lilley, who brought in a full band. And I mean full. We stuffed into the tiny WPFM on-air studio: drum set and drummer, bassist and amp, flute player, didg/sax man, Gary, myself & Jeff. We even had a small audience in the office. (Hey Janet!)

The whole event was spur-of-the-moment, much in the spirit of the street fair below. No time for sound check; not enough mics to go around; having to jot down key stats on post-its. A little soulful irony as we counted down the last 30 seconds--the Chambers Bros were on, busting out their 60s anthem "Time." Then 1,2,3..."I'm Sebastian Matthews, your host for this week's WordPlay. Our guest today is poet Gary Lilley..."

Gary started with his blues-rap "Asheville," conjuring Thomas Wolfe and O Henry and the unremembered Cherokee. Then the band opened with a new piece, "Alpha Zula." It was hard to tell as they were playing if what we were capturing on the mics was going to sound as good as it did in the studio. Jeff kept trying to keep Gary's mic from taking in too much bleed-through from the musicians. I couldn't tell if Gary's voice was getting drowned out by the band. At one point Jeff just raised up his hands and laughed.

After a couple more tunes and some light-hearted q-and-a, it was time to wrap it up. We'd burned through the 30 minute show so fast I felt dizzy. Maybe we just needed to open the studio door. Thank you Mr. Lilley and His Afterschool Special! Thank you Gary, Dan, Brian, Brian and Eric. And thank you, Jeff, for some serious engineering mojo. Because when we got in the back to archive the show for the podcast, we couldn't believe our ears. Despite the topped out mics and miscues and everything, it sounded good. It sounded great, in fact.

Then back out onto the street to wander through another kind of collaborative madness, with its bike jousts, mimes and face-painted children; then in my car as the first drops began to fall. And home. Now for a glass of wine, and a toast to poetry, music, collaboration, blind luck and good old Asheville!!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

This Sunday ...

Poet Gary Lilley joins Sebastian and me on the air. Here's a poem from Gary's chapbook Black Poem:

A Woman Wearing Red

So I picked up the obscene call on the white courtesy phone and asked the party for the number so I could call her back from the hotel room, and it was a 1-900 number, which I don’t mind, cause everybody got to eat, and then I remembered this escort gal in Charleston, she wore Shangri-La dresses, and had a black heart-of- thorns tattoo on her bicep, and it’s possible I may have loved her about a hundred years, from the moment she told me she poured some very heavy whiskey and then showed me that she did, and she always said I should taste her home fries which I have not yet experienced in any of her mornings, but I believe she’s righteous she looks like the whole truth, and nothing but a real good and necessary lie would ever come from mouth, yes, she had a pretty sweet purr and the right shoes to show her pretty heels, rode a pair of mules to get your attention, the kind of woman who could drive you home even when she’s drunk, the gal you look for if you’re coming down a ragged pier after being under the sea for a few months, and whatever God you have grants you some mercy, oh yes, you have to have the faith that she’s there, in all her pleasant home-spun profanities, to bring some damn grace to your sad sailor life, and you know that she will notice all of your sutures, all your contusions, and won’t ask ‘til it’s private because she’s polite and near perfect in her pathological ways, so I went down the thread-bare hall to my dingy room with the window nailed shut and sat down with yesterday’s news, reading the not-so-funnies, wondering how did she know where to find me.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

New WordPlay Oscillates The Airwaves

Sebastian, Laura and I did indeed launch our new collaboration Sunday; it's available now by podcast on WPVM's website. It was a hoot (even if I did have to engineer; sorry about that briefly dead mic, Laura), an exhilarating conversation about poetry, and I hope you'll give it a listen.

We did, though, give incorrect information about one event coming up this week: the reading by Jaye Bartell, Hope Rinehart and others at the Bo Bo Gallery will be happening this Thursday night at 9:00, rather than Wednesday night, as we remembered it. It's on the theme of ... Velcro. Yeah. Okay, I'm curious - curious enough, given the poets involved, to check it out.

Other than that, we did good.

As Mr. Creeley used to say, Onward!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

In Walks Sebastian

This is Sebastian, one of the new Worldplay hosts. Just sat down with Laura and Jeff
to put together our first on-air collaboration. Glenis out of town for the weekend.
As soon as we wrapped up the show, when she thought we were off the air, Laura
stage whispered, "We're good!" I agreed, then we both cringed when Jeff singalled
us to be quiet. But it didn't get caught on tape. "Not bad, not bad," my old basketball
coach used to say, in between draws on the whistle in his mouth as he ran backward
down the court.

I am not sure I am doing this right. So I will stop here. Welcome! Hello! Is anyone
out there? It's me!