Tag Archives: Fall 2016

Feminism, Spirituality and Changing Mores: An Interview with Alicia Suskin Ostriker

alicia-ostrikerby Daniela Gioseffi

We sit at Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s dining table, with China teacups before us, in her tastefully arrayed New York City apartment. There are paintings, perhaps some of her own, on the walls. In addition to being an acclaimed poet and scholar, she’s also a visual artist who has written about painters from Rembrandt to Matisse. Ostriker’s ability to convey emotional depth and psychological wisdom in a poetry of profound intelligence, humor, earthiness, and honesty, is undiminished in her older years—and inspiring to Daniela Gioseffi, now also in her senior years with several published books behind me. Gioseffi marvels at Ostriker’s originality, and identifies with her content.

Ostriker was born in Brooklyn and lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan until the age of eighteen. Her mother, Beatrice Suskin, was an English major who wrote poetry and read Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Browning to her daughter, nurturing her love of the art. Ostriker went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1965, her doctoral dissertation became her first published book, Vision and Verse in William Blake (University of Wisconsin Press). Later, she edited and annotated William Blake's The Complete Poems for Penguin Classics.

stealingthelanguageA teacher of literature and creative writing for many years at Rutgers University, Ostriker is much loved by her many students for her knowledgeable and clear style of teaching, and her accessible but highly imaginative poetry. She’s published over fifteen books of poetry and several scholarly works, including Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (Beacon Press, 1986) and Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics and the Erotic (University of Michigan Press, 2000). She’s won several prestigious awards for her work, among them the William Carlos Williams Award from The Poetry Society of America, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, and the National Jewish Book Award; she’s twice been a finalist for the National Book Award.

As we meet Ostriker she has just finished leading a discussion on Midrash that doubles as a poetry workshop based on reading The Old Testament, a subject about which she is highly knowledgeable. She’s written volumes on the subject: Feminist Revision and the Bible (Wiley-Blackwell, 1993), For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book (Rutgers University Press, 2007), and The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers University Press, 1997), a controversial combination of midrash and autobiography from the perspective of a twentieth-century Jewish woman.

She has recently moved back to Manhattan with her husband, Jeremiah Ostriker, a noted astrophysicist who taught at Princeton University for many years. Her latest books of poetry, The Book of Seventy (2009) and The Old Woman, The Tulip and the Dog (2014), both from University of Pittsburgh Press, are impressive.

Daniela Gioseffi: It’s a privilege for me to have this conversation with you. You give me great hope that I have productive years ahead, because you keep writing in your older years with as much verve and skill as ever.

I know you’ve espoused the idea that the personal is political when it comes to women’s poetry. I think of you as a poet-priestess of the second wave of feminism from the time you wrote Stealing the Language and I was pleased to have a poem of mine quoted in that encompassing book, in which you wrote about so many women poets of the time emerging from repression and blossoming forth with strong and erotic writing. I think the phenomenon of what you called then “women’s poetry” has merged now into the mainstream of poetry, as it’s not so concerned with the search for a female voice. Would you elaborate on these thoughts?

Alicia Suskin Ostriker: During the second wave of feminism, from the 1960s through the ’70s, the most important poetry being written in America was by women. Some of it was published by newly-founded women’s presses, some by other small literary journals, some even by mainstream presses. You can think of Plath, Sexton, and Adrienne Rich, for example. But in fact, hundreds of women were writing revolutionary work at this time. The position of having one foot inside and one foot outside mainstream culture, any culture, is maximally productive of creativity, and that’s where women were in post ’60s America. Earlier in the century the strongest writing in America was by Jews. Jews were becoming assimilated into American culture, but were still not quite assimilated, which is why you have that generation of Bellow, Roth, Malamud and many others. One foot in and one foot out of mainstream culture— it’s not a comfortable position. But the discomfort is a driver of creativity. Now, I feel, the most exciting poetry is being written by people of color. For this I thank Cave Canem, an organization that’s created a community outside of academe in which young black poets can read each other, teach each other, and have older black poets supporting them. Their work goes from hip hop to very formal traditional poetry, and everything in between. One foot in and one foot out of the dominant culture. College degrees, sure, and still facing racism everywhere—out of that contradiction comes torrents of magnificent poetry.

DG: You have seemed to feel that the personal is also, in its way, political when it comes to interpretation of The Torah. I recently read an article by Rabbi Jill Hammer adapted from a book by Hammer and Taya Shere titled The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership. Do you know this book, and can you say how it relates to your own thought?

AO: Jill Hammer was in the first Midrash workshop I ever gave, part of the Institute for Contemporary Midrash in the ’90s. She was brilliant, and we became friends. Jill and her collaborator, Taya Shere, in The Hebrew Priestess, tell the story of an organization they founded which trains women to be what they are calling Jewish priestesses. The training takes place in summer institutes, and is based on traditional Jewish learning. Jill has a deep knowledge of Jewish tradition. She’s a scrupulous and thorough researcher, and she’s able to unearth all kinds of traditions in which Jewish women, in their communities, in the ancient world and in the medieval world, through the Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, had positions of power and influence of various religious kinds. It’s a very important book and one of many steps being taken to bring the Goddess, who’s the female half of the God in Jewish mysticism, and in many other traditions, back into the world. My own set of metaphors for this is that the being known as God the Father swallowed God the Mother in pre-history. In prehistoric times, there were Goddess figures for thousands of years before there were any male Gods.

DG: Cycladic figures, the Venus of Willendorf, eventually Shekhina, many others?

AO: Many others. Historically, male divinities were first the infants of the Goddesses, then their consorts over about a period of about a thousand years, and ultimately we get monotheism, which means a male God saying “there are no other Gods but Me.” When the infant gods became consorts of the goddesses, they acquired the attributes of God the Mother, making law, making war, child bearing, and so forth. Calling this phenomenon “God the Father swallowing God the Mother” should make you think of the story of Red Riding Hood, where the wolf swallows the grandmother—this must be an extremely ancient story that encodes the deity-swallowing. As the grandmother remains alive in the belly of the beast, I believe that the Goddess remains alive inside God the Father, and the being that we call God is not dying or dead, but wants to be delivered of his repressed female self. Feminists, male and female, can both be part of that process of midwifery, assisting the rebirth of the Goddess, who is half of anything that deserves to be called Divinity.

DG: Thank you. Can you also say something about the flowering of women’s poetry and its merging into the mainstream culture after the era that influenced your publishing Stealing the Language?

AO: The phenomenon of what we call “women’s poetry” has merged into the mainstream of poetry partly, yes, but not so that it’s equal. Everyone—every feminist—should check out VIDA. VIDA is an organization that supports women’s writing and keeps a count of what literary journals are publishing: What proportion of writers for journals, major reviews, minor reviews, are women? They do a count and they publicize it. A few years ago, there was a big stir when VIDA noticed that every one of what Publisher’s Weekly was calling “the ten best books of the year” were written by men. Some journals are taking the hint that it would be a good idea for them to become more diverse.

DG: Yes, especially since women are the biggest readers in many genres.

AO: That’s true, and about five or more years ago, most journals didn’t have more than one third representation of women’s writings. Some did have more. Happily, my publisher, University of Pittsburgh Press, publishes about 50/50 books by men and women. But that’s not true everywhere. So, it’s more taken for granted that women are poets and writers now, but it’s still not an equal playing field. Women are still under-represented and discouraged by many of their mentors, and sometimes are taken advantage of sexually or allow themselves to be, because they think relationships with important men will give them status and success. Big mistake.

DG: And many women are raising children on their own and getting less pay, an average of 79 cents on the dollar, as we all know. I may be wrong, but I don’t see much of all that we fought for and talked about in the second wave of feminism—the rebirth of the Goddess, the revitalization of the anima, the discovery of When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone or Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern by M. Esther Harding or Adrienne Rich’s Of Women Born—in the writings of younger women. Do you?

AO: I’d not call myself an authority on what younger women are writing nowadays, but I don’t see much of our kind of feminist consciousness either. They’ve moved on—or so they think, even though the job is far from finished.

DG: I’ve read that 50% of American women are not married now, and they make a large voting block—and I imagine a large writing block. So what’s happened, it seems, is that there’s solipsistic poetry being written far and wide, or there’s Instagram poetry, short poems with visual images about love or unrequited love, that sells millions of books when collected into volumes—many more copies, in some cases, than Pulitzer Prize winning poets, according to an article in The New York Times this year! It’s kind of discouraging to see that everything we did to free women writers, in what was the Second Wave of Feminism, doesn’t seem to be of concern among younger generations.

AO: I can’t speak to this, I’m a dinosaur. I’ve never looked at an Instagram. You’re much more plugged in than I am, I don’t have a Facebook page or Twitter account. But, I do think that much of what we fought for during the second wave of feminism was accomplished—not all, but a good deal of what we struggled for seems to have been accomplished, and the fight for justice is now in the hands of writers of color.

DG: Yes, and also in the hands of Asian, Latina, Filipina, Native American poets. Italian American women poets had a belated blossoming, for another example, over three decades. We called ourselves “Women of the Shadows,” because we were published less than Jewish, Black, or Latina women poets. We bore that paradox you speak about of having one foot in and one foot out of the mainstream. Plus, we suffered that nasty stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood and television, when the actual FBI statistics put organized crime among Italian Americans at 0.0025%. There’s never been more crime among Italian Americans than any other ethnic group. So I think you’re quite correct, that this paradox of one foot in the mainstream and one out, is a phenomenon, coupled with unjust stereotyping and repression that stimulates writing, as with people of color today.

AO: Absolutely, and this is what’s driving Asian, Latina, Filipina, African American writers all over the country.

DG: Yes, and there’s the phenomenon of women among the millennials and most women under forty-five years supporting a grandfather ethnic, Senator Bernie Sanders, a Jew from Brooklyn, instead of Hillary Clinton for president just because she’s a woman. They say “It’s the issues, Stupid!” to the corporate media. I find it hopeful that the young are suspicious of Super Pacs, corporate lobbyists, and funding from Big Agri-biz, Big-Pharma, fossil fuel industrialists, and Wall St. controlling our elections. They seem to be informed about and focused on the issues. It’s as if all our teaching against prejudice, our humanization of the other, has worked. Does that seem hopeful to you?

AO: It warms my heart, though there’s no reason to trust what one reads in mainstream or other media, for that matter. If polls tell true, younger voters are going for Bernie Sanders, as are educated voters of all ages. It’s interesting that women were expected to go for Hillary Clinton and are not. Older women favor Clinton, younger women don’t. You might think that shows the failure of feminism. Many younger women seem to be saying, “I’m not a feminist. That battle is over.” The response to which might be, you haven’t yet bumped your head against the glass ceiling. You haven’t yet experienced what you’re going to experience as you age. There’s a saying that men are revolutionary when they are younger, and when they are older they conform. The reverse is said of women: That they’re conformist when they are younger and more revolutionary as they age.

DG: (Laughter.) When I’m old I’ll wear red!

AO: A good political statement. Younger women can declare that the last thing they want is to be called a feminist. They will say, “Yes, I want equal pay for equal work!” But they won’t organize to get it. They won’t fight.

bookof70DG: Many seem to have forgotten over a century of struggle to get the right to vote, which was only achieved in my mother’s lifetime. I was born in 1941, only three years after women had the legal right to birth control. Margaret Sanger suffered jail and contracted tuberculosis in prison. She died struggling for women’s right to legal birth control. All of that seems to have been forgotten by many younger women. Some older women have said to me: Waiting for marriage to have a sex life isn’t necessary now, so many young women can’t find men to commit to marriage and children, ever since feminine sexuality was liberated. Sex used to be a bargaining chip for people to commit to marriage and raising children, but it’s no longer so.

AO: True, and the birth rate is going down in developed countries among the educated who have access to birth control, sex education, and the right of choice. More women remain unmarried or if married, choose not to have children. The birth rate is going down in Japan, it’s going down in the developed countries of Europe, Italy, France, Scandinavia, and going up in underdeveloped countries where women are oppressed and there’s no birth control, education, or women’s right of choice.

DG: True, and Earth can’t sustain a population growing over 7.5 billion now, while climate crisis is now a dire emergency and food and water resources are dwindling? I was thrilled when you quoted a poem of mine in Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, 1986—among so very many other women poets who were liberated in their writings, erotically and sociopolitically then. But, now, I see all this crazy merchandising of wigs and outlandish hair color, elastic tight girdle-like body suits; wired push-up brassieres; hideously crippling high-heeled shoes; discomforts that feminists of the ’70s struggled to reform. There’s a breast augmentation, plastic surgery; lip, nose and tongue piercings for metal rings and studs, even nipple and navel rings! Crazier styles than ever, when we tried so hard to be natural with flowing hair, bra burning, giving up makeup, wearing cotton Indian clothes and African dashikis, going natural! And women think burkas are so terrible, while they put themselves through what might be considered worse.

AO: Yes, it is kind of absurd. I thought that one thing feminism had accomplished was that you don’t have to wear high heels anymore, and now we have all these crazy fashion practices that seem reactionary with a vengeance! I don’t know what to make of it, but it certainly is the case. There was a period when women wanted to look and be more natural and that era seems to be over, when most young women are now spending more money to make themselves into products!

DG: Yes, and so much of it seems ugly, purple and green and fuchsia hair and black and blue fingernails, toenails and tattoos and nose rings everywhere. It seems crazy to me.

AO: Well that’s a matter of taste. (Laughter)

DG: (Jokingly) But my taste is good taste!

AO: (Laughing) I can’t say I understand these phenomena any more than you do, but it’s partly I think, that one’s body is something one has control over and can adorn. I also think that most women dress and adorn themselves for other women and not for men.

DG: Maybe so. At the same time we have more women lawyers, doctors, scientists, professors, authors, and professionals of all kinds. While, more women are struggling to raise children by themselves, while attempting to be writers as they do so— with the greatest poverty among women raising children alone. That seems a paradox.

AO: Every society is built on contradictions, and the crackup of feminism is one of ours.

DG: Much poetry nowadays is abstract or solipsistic in the John Ashbery mode. My friends who were English majors in their college days, but not poets themselves, say that now they read The New Yorker, for example, and they’ve no idea what most of the poems are saying. Are such styles of writing driving readers away from the art? I don’t find this to be much so of your writing, or the generation of poets that came before the current crop. I’ve just read your latest books and I find them to be deeply enjoyable, in that one can identify with the ardor, the feelings that come through imaginative imagery in your poems. There’s poetic clarity in the language and metaphor, emotive and wise musings that are palpable. Which is what I think poetry should be in sharing human experience. Do you want to talk about the phenomenon of so much abstract or inaccessible poetry?

AO: I think what’s exciting about American poetry is that it’s all over the map. There are many styles and genres. There’s a good deal of poetry that I can’t read, and I’m not interested in reading, because it’s too abstract for my taste, although it’s considered important by others. I’m not an Ashbery fan, and I don’t mind being an outsider, swimming against the current of fashion. There’s also an immense amount of poetry of the kind that makes me want to read and reread, that’s intelligent and passionate, that’s written by the whole person and is accessible and imaginative. I could reel off dozens of names of poets I enjoy reading. There are styles of poetry that many young people love and I don’t. And there are styles of poetry that I love, that it seems some young people don’t.

DG: My husband used to say that only a fascistic culture loves poetry that makes no sociopolitical sense. I feel that though John Ashbery is a cultured, pleasant fellow, his winning every big prize has fostered a large number of young poets who think that writing poetry means you can’t make sense or have meanings that show emotional or psychological truths about what it is to be alive. Ashbery has beautiful imagery, but generally, his works are like a Jackson Pollack, action painting. He can be very clever, but one John Ashbery would have been enough! There seems to be much meaninglessness, abstract American poetry now!

AO: That is true. It’s true. But there are people who can’t read any poetry that’s not in meter or rhyme, and that means they can’t read my poetry, they can’t read Galway Kinnell’s or Allen Ginsberg’s. Many of the people that you and I love would not interest the people who feel poetry has to be written in meter and rhyme.

DG: Yes, but, I think that those people, if they read you or Galway Kinnell or Allen Ginsberg, Lucille Clifton, Grace Paley or Mary Oliver would get something from your poetry, but they would never get anything from the abstract or the language schools of poetry. Not that poetry can’t be experimental, like say e.e. cummings, and still have accessibility. I feel that the poetry that doesn’t touch the soul, the human spirit with shared experience and emotion, wise musings, and psychological depth drives people away from reading poetry.

AO: I feel the same way, and I think language poetry and the other poetry movements that avoid meaning come out of a real despair that is not acknowledged as despair. There’s a French writer, Bruno Latour, who said: “Post modernism is modernism without the hope. I think there is a lot of deep despair, not acknowledged as such, which exhibits itself as the art of meaninglessness.”

DG: Interesting! Psychologists would say it’s avoidance, because it’s too painful.

AO: Yes, avoidance of meaning and feeling because it’s too painful.

DG: I’ve talked about how much I enjoyed your book The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog. That book was so comforting to me. I could climb into it and live through the thoughts and feelings in the poems, and feel less lonely in the experience of aging. I found it enormously engaging in sharing with gutsy humor, earthy feelings and acceptance of the vicissitudes of living into older age, the understanding of the imperfections of the world we live in. I appreciated, just for one example of many:

The Wind that Blows Through Me

I feel the hand of God inside my hand
when I write said the old woman
it blows me away like a hat
I’ll swear God’s needy hand is inside every atom
waving at us hoping we’ll wave back

Sometimes I feel the presence
of the goddess inside me said the dark red tulip
and sometimes I see her
waltzing in the world around me
skirts flying through everything looks still

It doesn’t matter whether you call the thing
god or goddess, those are only words
said the dog panting after a run through the park
and a sprint after a squirrel
theology is bunk but the springtime wind is real

AO: The title of that poem, “The Wind that Blows Through Me,” is from a D.H. Lawrence poem about creating art that begins, “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me”—one of my favorite quotes about the creative process or, indeed, the process of living.

DG: Ah, yes, and I also love when you wrote: “We dogs wake and sleep / but we define our identity/ by what we choose to love.” So simple but so true and aptly said. I quoted your poem “Prayer” when I walked in your door on this windy day: “The wind whips round about without ceasing/ Now let the ecosystem’s brokenness/ be sung in arias/ every bar immortal melodious/ tragic cried the tulip. . . .” So apt for our time because we are trying to acknowledge the brokenness of eco-systems and realize the need for biological diversity in our age of climate crisis emergency and species extinction. Your poem continues: “Mother, show me where you are broken / open the door beyond which / is darkness/ see I am abject/ my chin on the ground / my tail quiet cried the dog.” That poem was so important to me. Do you want to say something about it?

AO: I didn’t even remember writing that poem, which means that was one of those pieces that wrote itself without my thinking, which means I presume, that it was waiting to be said, and just chose me to as the one to say it.

DG: The wind blew through you in the D.H. Lawrence sense? And I like when you wrote, “that we define our identity / by what we choose to love.” I don’t know if you can say more about these poems than you’ve already said in the poems?

AO: Well, there’s also the choice not to love, and I think, Daniela, when you are disturbed by women not getting married and having children, that they’re choosing not to love, and that’s a choice also, and when you’re disturbed by poets not allowing meaning into their poems, that’s a choice also. There’s that choice not to love, because love is too risky, too dangerous, no good can come from it, is what many people feel.

DG: Yes, but that scares me, because it seems to me that loving and sharing love is the greatest experience of life . . .

AO: But, also perhaps the greatest source of pain.

DG: The great sadness of my life is that I never had a child with a man with whom I was deeply in love, and he deeply in love with me, our bodies combined into a new being. I’ve a line in a poem, “A child born of love, heals the universe.” What a profound feeling to have a child born of profound love.

AO: That’s the romantic fantasy that many people reject, convinced that holding that ideal up to yourself only brings you grief, only brings you disappointment. Many feel: Don’t even try.

DG: Well, maybe you’re correct. I’ve one wonderful daughter whom I adore. How many children did you have?

AO: Three: Two daughters and a son.

DG: Wow, and you managed to do so much good work . . .

AO: But I never had that perfect, ideal communion with my husband that you are imagining and that is the romantic ideal, and has been the romantic ideal for women ever since marriage became about love, rather than something that has to do with economics. It’s been an ideal for many men and women, including me when I was younger, but it’s a ridiculous ideal, because it doesn’t happen.

DG: Maybe it’s ridiculous because it doesn’t happen, but don’t we need ideals to aspire to, just like we need, as women, a Goddess figure to aspire to even though perfection isn’t possible?

AO: Well, you’re saying “we.” And I partly agree with you, I partly have that young idealist still alive in me. But I just met a Black woman author who is writing a book about the use of pronouns, and what they really mean. Pronouns such as “we” and “they.” And questioning “we,” as a pronoun, and what does “we” mean? It means “me” or “I.”

DG: True. (Laughing) Yes. It often means “I”, but not always.

AO: (Laughing) Many people say, we must this and we must that, and we should this and we should that, and all it ever means is me. And people like me, and everyone should be like me.

DG: Often that’s true, but isn’t it bad to live in a me world of ego? We don’t want a world without sense of community, do we? So, sometimes we say “we” so we won’t be divided and conquered into warring factions due to racism and prejudices against the they.

AO: Well, but it’s a problem, because the we who have all these wonderful ideals reject people who don’t share our ideals.

DG: True, but the secret is not to reject the people who don’t share the exact same ideals, but then, it’s complicated, because don’t we have to draw a line against the murderers, war mongers, and racists . . .

AO: And where do we draw the line? It is complicated, and it makes me uneasy to say we this and we that and we need this and we should that . . . I try not to say we. I try to be guided by the wind that blows through me, and I try to avoid we and they . . .

DG: You’re so much better at accepting the vicissitudes of life. That’s what makes the old woman in The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog so appealing. I’m trying to get to that place, so I won’t spend so much time in activism for human rights and climate justice, and marching through the streets with my old knees. I’d like to get back to more writing, which is so much more pleasant to do.

AO: The work that you are doing is tremendously important and valuable. You must not quit being an activist. You are out there making the world a better place.

DG: You’re kind to say so, but that brings me to these verses from your poem, “April”:

The optimists among us
taking heart because it is spring
skip along
attending their meetings
signing their email petitions
marching with their satiric signs
singing their give peace a chance songs
posting their rainbow twitters and blogs
believing in a better world
for no good reason
I envy them
said the old woman

The seasons go round they
go round and around
said the tulip
swaying among her friends
in their brown bed in the sun
in the April breeze . . .

Here we are in April with the tulips popping up and that poem from your latest book fits our discussion so perfectly.

oldwomanAO: Yes, it does. And the line for no good reason is a pivot line that applies to what comes before and what comes after. They do these things for no good reason, and I envy them for no good reason says the old woman.

DG: I’d love to get to that calmer place. I’m so haunted by climate crisis emergency and the catastrophe closing in on my young grandchildren, and all children, that’s why I helped organize The Peoples Climate March in September, 2014. I don’t think most people are thinking of what climate crisis means: drought, thirst, hunger, starvation, wars over resources, migrating cultures clashing violently. It’s already happening now in the Mideast. The Syrian conflict started over a twelve-year drought in Syrian farmlands that drove the agrarian society into the cities. When Assad didn’t respond to their hunger, thirst, and need for work, a revolution broke out that became invaded by various factions, including the insanely fanatical Daesh, erroneously called the Islamic State. I fear all culture, art, and poetry is imminently threatened, so why keep writing?

AO: Well, I didn’t know that about the Syrian conflict. Urbanization, whether caused by drought or not, is a tremendously destabilizing phenomenon. People leave the land, go to the cities, can’t find work . . . yet I don’t believe in doomsday scenarios. I’m tempted to be a pessimist, but I believe there will be survivors after all our catastrophes and civilization of some sort will go on.

DG: Speaking of civilization, here is a poem from The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog titled “Ridiculous”:

This is ridiculous
said the literary old woman
nobody gives us any respect
the young in one another’s arms
are talking on their iPhones
the congressmen are lying through their teeth
and our husbands are watching the game . . .

(Laughter) I really identified with that, though my husband never actually watched “the game.”

AO: (Laughter) No, neither did mine.

DG: Older women don’t get respect, it seems. I notice when I’m walking down the sidewalk with my packages, the young women with their baby carriages don’t move over for me, but if an old man comes down the walk, they respectfully move aside.

AO: Well, I have a different experience. First of all, I intend that poem to be funny.

DG: Yes, it’s funny.

AO: And we like complaining, because nobody ever respects and appreciates us enough, but I get onto a subway and a young person jumps up and gives me a seat . . .

DG: Ah, yes, I find that, too.

AO: And I think that New Yorkers have become more polite, or could it possibly be that I’ve become older?

DG: (Laughing) Yes, I’m saying “Thanks,” but I’m thinking, “Do I look that old and helpless?”

AO: (Laughing) Here I am strong and capable wearing my enormous backpack and they get up and give me a seat.

DG: (Laughing) I carry a cane, so I don’t look as strong as you with your enormous backpack. But, thinking of you strong and able, I just love the way your latest book of poems ends:


In the world of flies
time is a breeze they ride
right on by says the old woman
right on by over rivers and ponds

I imagine myself a raveled cloud
raining on rooftops
the embodiment of illusion
says the dark red tulip

Finally they have taken me
to the shore it is the happiest
day of my life says the wet dog
oh those seagulls

So, it ends on an affirmative note of accepting life for what it is. How did you come upon this conceit, this imaginative conversation between an old woman, a tulip, and a dog? It’s so perfectly used in this book.

AO: I came upon these three characters by accident. I’m an insomniac. So one night I got up and sat in front of my laptop, which is an extension of my body, my muse, my friend, my therapist. My computer knows me better than I know myself and I sit in front of it sometimes when I can’t sleep, and it writes a poem. It wrote: So, this was nothing I’d been thinking about but I, or it, wrote the first stanza of “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog.” Then I sat there, and my computer said, “That’s not enough for a whole poem.” Then I wrote the tulip. I thought, “There must be something else,” and then I wrote the dog. But really, that poem wrote itself as: The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog:

To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
so hard
God’s love
washes right through you
like milk through a cow

To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
implied by
your up-ended

To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other dogs
can smell it.

And then I looked at it and thought, “Well, this is really charming and amusing and like nothing I’ve ever written before. It’s light, but it’s also serious, and I’ll never write anything like that again.”

DG: The collection has all those different dimensions and qualities, and the metaphor gives the poet the chance to talk through three contrasting voices.

AO: And of course all those contrasting voices are me. But at that time, I was writing very different, denser, more serious, more political poems. A couple of years later, these three characters started turning up again, until it was clear they wanted to be a book. I didn’t invent them. They found me. They just kept marching out of the stratosphere, or wherever they came from, and announcing themselves, so that I began to recognize them when they appeared, and to have a sense of their personalities and the kinds of things they might say, but I was always trying to listen to what they were trying to say, rather than planning it.

DG: Yes, and they have different personalities.

AO: Yes, they have very different personalities, and arriving at what their personalities are enabled the poems to be written. But, I never knew what they were going to say next.

DG: It’s a wonderful conceit, and it works beautifully.

AO: Part of what I think is interesting about it, is pointed out by friends who said, “Do you notice that there’s no dualism in these poems?” There are three voices in these poems. So, there’s an example of there is no us and them! No we and they.

DG: Ah yes, there’s no judgmental attitudes between them. They seem to just live and let live. To each his own!

AO: Though, I’ve written many poems and books in which there is an us and a them—but not this last book. This book is three independent voices with their own points of view and they belong to the world of the human, the vegetable and the animal. I wasn’t even thinking that when I was writing them. When people asked what do they represent, my first answer was always, “They represent themselves!” But, you could also say they represent the ego, the superego and the libido. You could say they represent lots of things.

DG: I see that, too. And, they each have their different ways of accepting or living or evaluating their lives. The dog is simple, here now. I run, I lick, I enjoy, I wag my tail or let it drop disappointedly. I lay my paw in your lap for love. That dog has the joie de vivre of dogs in that well-known poem of yours, “The Dogs at Live Oak Beach.” The old woman is more resigned, having to accept aging and the vicissitudes of life, and the tulip is concerned with its own beauty and the transiency of life. . .

AO: The tulip is a narcissist!

DG: Like women who care too much about looks and clothes!

AO: Exactly. And being admired.

DG: I just love the whole conceit and the way you put the book together with its wisdom and humor, philosophical and psychological musings. I’ve truly had such pleasure in reading it.

AO: Well, thank you.

DG: I wonder what you are working on now, prose or poetry or literary analysis. I’ve also greatly enjoyed reading Feminist Revision and the Bible as auxiliary to participating in your Midrash poetry workshops that I find enlightening and stimulating. You seem to have a genius for observing psychological elements in literature. I wonder if you have another analytical book in the works. Though I know you don’t care so much for literary theory per se, or analyzing such terms as post modernism and such. You prefer using imaginative metaphor in writing about literature. Could you expound on that somewhat?

AO: I have a book of poems that will be coming out about a year from now. Once again it’s different than anything I’ve done before, because I get very bored and don’t like doing the same book over and over.

DG: Yes, all your books are different in style and content. I think of what Picasso said when someone complained to him, “Why do you have so many differing styles, why don’t you settle on a style?” And he answered, “Does God have a style?” You’d never say anything so lacking in humility, but you’re very varied in the styles of your books. I think that is a good thing. It demonstrates differing kinds of originalities and abilities at handling work.

AO: Well, the new book is partly a collection of poems about New York City, now that I’m in the process of becoming a permanent New York citizen. And it’s got political poems and that’s something that I’ve always done. It’s got a whole set of odd poems that are experimenting with form, and some are just playful. So, it’s different than anything I’ve done before. It’s less unified. Trying to arrange it was hellish, but I think I’ve got it in good shape now. Part of what was interesting for me in writing it was working with the city and specifically the neighborhood that I’m living in now, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where many people on the street are speaking Spanish. It’s interesting for me to be in a situation where I’m in the minority. I so much wanted to come back and live in New York City, because that’s where I grew up.

DG: You grew up in Brooklyn?

AO: I was born in Brooklyn, but I grew up in Manhattan. Manhattan always represented energy, liveliness, artistic activities—all the things that everyone always says about Manhattan, but what’s interesting to me now, is looking at the generation of immigrants who are now Spanish speaking. My immigrant grandparents came over in the 1890s and I’m watching a generation of people whose language I don’t understand, and I’m feeling that the city no longer belongs to me, but to them. And a lot of the poetry I’m writing has to do with looking at what The City is becoming right at this moment. So, that’s what I’m doing, and that brings me to want to write an essay on the poetry of the city. I’ll be giving a lecture later this month at Drew University on this topic. I’m not sure but I think I want to write a full-scale article about it. There doesn’t seem to be much of a poetry of the city until Baudelaire and Whitman.

DG: I reviewed an anthology titled Poems of New York, 2002, that was featured in a group reading at The Great Hall, Cooper Union. The book was inspired as an antidote to the 9/11/2001 attacks. Maybe you’ll want to take a look at that book.

AO: Oh, yes, I would.

DG: The Nakedness of the Fathers is a book in a hybrid form that you’ve invented: re-imagining Old Testament stories that you intersperse with memories, vignettes of your own life as a Jewish woman of a very special kind. Reading your reaction to the Biblical characters in The Book of Esther, I realized you were raised, as a small child, on your grandfather’s lap as a socialist atheist, who as a small child realized she was both culturally Jewish at home and American at school. So, I wonder why you took to studying The Torah and teaching the Midrash poetry workshops. What prompted that?

AO: I was raised third generation, Atheist Socialist Jew. There was no religion in my family whatsoever, except Atheism, which in its way is a religion in itself, as you know.

DG: Yes, I was raised that way.

AO: So my religion consisted of my being told that religion is “the opiate of the masses.”

DG: (Laughing) I’ve heard that often, too.

AO: My family didn’t celebrate any of the Jewish holidays. I knew nothing about them. I knew nothing about being Kosher. The first seder I went to, I had no idea what was going on, but I was always drawn to things of the spirit. Later on, I had experiences that need to be called spiritual experiences. One summer I read William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, sitting up in the Cloisters, and thinking, “Yes, yes, yes!” And when he says someone who has had religious experiences cannot be talked out of them, because for them they are capital R, Real, that described me. William Blake was correct. Walt Whitman was correct and writers like John Dunne and Gerard Manley Hopkins seem right, except I didn’t accept their Christianity, but I accepted it in the sense of knowing, feeling, not believing, but experiencing the world as holy, as when Blake says: “Everything that lives is holy.” That was something I had experienced. When Whitman says the same, that was something I’d felt. There was nothing in my childhood, or in my education that gave me that. It was given to me by experience. Of course, we were all exposed to Christianity in American culture, but when I was in college, my boyfriend, subsequently my husband, gave me a copy of The Bible to read, which he’d picked up from an ashcan and said, “I think you should read this.” (Laughing)

DG: (Laughing) Oh, I love this story.

AO: So, I spent a summer reading The Bible—by which I mean what is called The Old Testament, the Jewish Bible—and I bonded with it. Immediately, I experienced it as mine. This is mine. This is my stuff. I loved John Donne. I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I certainly had loved Blake and loved Whitman, but The Bible was mine—as if it was a set of dreams that I’d had myself, but didn’t remember. These men and women of The Torah were my mothers and fathers. This God was my God whether I like him or not. And what about the values? Some of the values in The Bible are my values, and some of them are the values I’ve struggled against all my life. They’re all there! (Laughter.) I didn’t do much writing with that bonding or that knowledge. I had that “Oh, this is mine” feeling, but in 1960, I was doing a good deal of graphic art and I did an etching of Jacob struggling with the Angel, with the title: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Which is what Jacob says to the mysterious angel, and in my etching, Jacob is struggling and frowning, and the Angel is smiling, just waiting to be asked for the blessing he plans to give. I didn’t do more with this until decades later, but in the end, what really defined my relationship to The Bible, and to Jewish tradition, is wrestling, trying to wrestle a blessing out of this patriarchal scripture, and this patriarchal tradition—to wrestle a blessing out of it. It wants to be wrestled with. That’s my view.

DG: Yes, as in your book Feminist Revision and the Bible, where you’re wrestling with it, and finding stories in it that interest you to analyze their meaning, agreeing with bits of wisdom you find in it and explicating stories and characters at times and disagreeing or revising it at other times. The Nakedness of the Fathers, in a way is also wrestling with The Torah.

nakednessAO: Definitely wrestling. I can pinpoint how The Nakedness of the Fathers started: I had just finished Stealing the Language, and it was in press, and I was home one night, a dark and rainy night, and for some reason that was not clear to me I was thinking about The Book of Job, and the double ending of The Book of Job, where first the voice out of the whirlwind is telling Job to shut up, and then the ending where the book goes back to the prose frame, where Job gets his health and his wealth back. This is supposed to be a happy ending. He also gets ten new children to replace the ten that God lets Satan kill at the beginning of The Book of Job, and suddenly the thought came to me, “What did Mrs. Job feel about that?” And that was the seed from which all the work that I’ve done as a Jewish writer, from that moment on, has sprung!

DG: Interesting! I love the story about your husband finding the first copy of The Bible you ever read in a trashcan during your college years, when you were dating, and his telling you, “Here’s something you should read.”

AO: He loves telling that story! (Laughter)

DG: And, he’s an astrophysicist. I wonder if being married to a scientist was something of an influence on you? My father was a scientific atheist, a chemist, and I was married to a Ph.D. scientist, whose brother was a noted physicist. That influenced my view of the world. I wonder if living with a scientist has influenced your writing, and if your husband was raised with more religion than you were?

AO: Jerry was raised as a normal sort of twice-a-year, synagogue-attending, Jew. He had a Bar Mitzvah, but it didn’t mean much to him and it doesn’t now mean very much to him, but it means something. The socialism and communism of my parents came out of their being Jewish, but they didn’t know it. That is to say, they were in the tradition of the prophets, but they didn’t know it. I was able to make that connection later, after I read the prophets— that the passion for social justice that my parents had was born in the writings of Isaiah and Ezekiel. They didn’t know it, but I came to know it. As for living with a scientist: Science has gotten into my poetry a little bit, not much, but rationality—caring about meaning, caring about logic—is very important to me, and I think all my prose, all my critical writing, is supported by being married to somebody who is a scientist and cares about logic. We used to talk about what we had in common as scientist and poet: Both of us are workaholics. Both of us make the assumption that we are searching for truth, and that the surface of things is not the whole truth. Both of us are willing to work and work and work on something until we think we’ve got it right. And, both of us understand that we don’t know where the ideas come from. That’s a mystery!

DG: Yes, consciousness is not something understood by neurological biology. We don’t know where consciousness or ideas come from. I’ve read scientists’ studies of the brain that state it’s not understood from where or what exactly consciousness comes.

AO: And, yes, we don’t know exactly where ideas come from. We know that ideas bubble forth from some kind of interaction in the mind, or outside the mind, but we don’t know. We just don’t know. Both my husband and I accept that ideas come from somewhere over which we have no control, but can invite.

DG: Exactly, very well put. Also, Jeremiah Ostriker has written about the expanding universe of dark matter, or dark energy, and how we don’t understand all of what’s out there beyond our solar system where billions and billions of supernovas are exploding and stars upon stars and solar systems upon solar systems go on and on expanding. Universes beyond us!

AO: He doesn’t do the “Oh, Golly Wally, Gosh thing!” He’s not into wonder. He’s into analysis.

DG: And you’re into wonder as a poet?

AO: I’m partly into wonder as a poet. And I’m partly into analysis.

DG: Yes, you’re very good at literary analysis and analyzing psychological elements in literary art. As a poet I can’t just enjoy writing as much as I’d like to. I’m driven toward activism—so much so that I can’t seem to write anything but ecological poetry. How do you avoid letting thoughts of climate catastrophe narrow your writing in your later years?

AO: Somehow, maybe irrationally, I think that terrible things have always happened, and maybe somehow some civilization on the Earth will survive, or, maybe not! And when I think about the future, that maybe we will destroy ourselves and the cockroaches or rats or microbes will take over the Earth; what makes me feel truly sad is that after the apocalypse there will be nobody around to appreciate Shakespeare or Mozart or Rembrandt.

DG: Exactly! Let alone my own humble art. So how do you manage to stay at the top of your form, still writing onward?

AO: Doom may happen, or, another version of the future is that we are working to replace ourselves with electronic beings. We seem more and more determined to stop being organic.

DG: There does seem to be this worry among some scientists that we could create robots that will control us, which we will not be able to control. And it’s happening somewhat already.

AO: It’s been happening. That’s another version of the future. And still another version of the future is that we will keep muddling along, in a world where we have horrible, horrible cruelty and war, alongside amazing kindness and creativity and love. The world has always been that way, and maybe will continue to be that way—muddling along and with an array of terrible and wonderful things. I think I get this from Walt Whitman who just records and accepts, and who understands that there are horrors and beauty and that’s all part of the phenomenon. One of the things I think about, when I think about “God,” is that for “God” it’s all a spectacle. We can have the God’s eye view, a little bit, when we recognize that we enjoy drama, that we enjoy tragedy! People like to watch violence. They may not like violence in their lives. But, people like to watch violence, and it may be that God likes to watch the violence on the planet—that to God it’s a show. It’s all a show! The love, the joy, the creativity and Bach and Mozart, along with the cruelty and violence—it’s all a show! And God likes to watch it.

DG: And the mask of comedy and tragedy are equally entertaining and powerful in the drama and the spectacle of it all? I hope I can arrive at that acceptance.

AO: I have never seen God as Love the way many preach. I don’t understand what people can possibly be thinking when they think that God is Love. There’s no sign of that at all. There’s no evidence at all that God is Love, but there is evidence that “God” or whatever name you want to call it, can be identified as Creator. We have creation and we have the incredible complexity and beauty of creation, and also its horribleness: that everything lives by killing and eating something else.

DG: Yes, what we call the “vulturism of the sea” and on the land and in the air.

AO: And everything alive lives by devouring other living things. It’s beautiful and it’s terrible, and that’s what Creation is. That’s what it’s about, if we want to speculate about what God is—God is the force through which all comes into being.

DG: And to think about relativity, we wouldn’t even know happiness if we didn’t know sorrow, because there is no perception without contrast. Contrast creates perception. We wouldn’t know beauty if we didn’t know ugliness. We couldn’t experience love if we didn’t know hate, and so experience happens in a universe of relativity.

AO: I think that I can accept the way things are, because Whitman is so important to me as a teacher; that’s what makes me able to accept all the things you say you have difficulty accepting.

DG: Yes, even though I realize that contrast creates perception, and I cried at age 17 when I first read Whitman’s Song of Myself, I still have difficulty accepting the ugliness, cruelty, and hatred. You’ve given many interviews, but what question, or questions, that you’ve never been asked in an interview do you wish you’d been asked?

AO: That’s always a good question. I don’t know. I have to think about it. You could ask me, “What are you afraid of writing?” I always tell my students to write what they are afraid of writing. But, I don’t know what it is I’m afraid of writing, so I can’t quite answer that question yet.

DG: Well, that’s a good answer. Are you glad you chose a life in poetry? I asked that question of Galway Kinnell, and he said that sometimes he wishes he’d chosen something more practical that could make a greater difference in healing the world, like being a doctor or saving animals or the rain forests, something like Daniel Berrigan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonas Salk, or Rachel Carson—but that ultimately he had no great regrets at being a poet. I feel it’s a rich life to live amidst the minds and thoughts and imagination of poets, but sometimes I wish I’d chosen something more hands on healing like social work. I’ve tried to fuse my environmental consciousness with my poetry by, for example, right how editing www.Eco-Poetry.org online. Grace Paley, who was a beloved activist as well as a writer, told me in an interview that her life in anti-war activism and social justice had been difficult to fuse with her life in writing and poetry. She felt her activism and her writing rarely came strongly together.

AO: That’s not true. When she said that, she didn’t really understand the impact of her writing as activism.

DG: But can you talk about what you feel on that subject?

AO: I feel the same kind of feeling. I feel guilty that I didn’t have much choice in the matter, because poetry and writing is the only thing I really know how to do, and I wish I’d been able to be more of an activist and act on my convictions more than I have. So, I feel that regret, and I’m glad that my husband has done things that are more useful in the world, that I haven’t done. The thing I’ve done that’s useful I feel is my teaching.

DG: And your encouragement of women with your writings, and your encouragement and inspiration of your students with your books. But, has your teaching, which I’ve seen you are very good at, impinged on your writing? I notice that you don’t write in your own workshops to the prompts that you give, and you say you can’t. So I’m curious what you feel about the influence of your teaching on your writing.

AO: I don’t know if my teaching has an influence on my writing. My critical writing and my poetry interact. My critical writing is what I think my knowledge and understanding of poetry can give to others, and my teaching can enrich the lives of my students. I can give them more understanding of life and reality and themselves through the discussion and analysis of literature, more understanding of society and history by my teaching, and I can help them have a richer life. In that way I feel I’m useful. And, what it does for me, is keep me in touch with other people who are not me. Especially when I was feeling so much more in touch with younger people than I do now, since partially retiring from teaching. It kept me up!

DG: I know you started out as a William Blake scholar and then you discovered yourself as an American poet by reading Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg . . . and then, of course, you immersed yourself in many inspiring women poets when you wrote Writing Like a Woman and Stealing the Language. I wonder what women poets, in particular, had the strongest influence on your writing?

writinglikeawomanAO: That hasn’t changed much since I wrote Writing Like a Woman and Stealing the Language. All the women poets I was reading then inspired me, but the ones who have had the most influence on my style are probably H.D. and Lucille Clifton. And they are still important to me, but I’ve been influenced by hundreds of women writers, both in a formal sense, how I use language and the shape of a poem, and also in what I have the courage to say.

DG: Yes, but when I “Googled” you (as all researchers now do) this description came up first: “Alicia Ostriker is an American poet who writes Jewish women’s poetry. She has been called America’s most fiercely honest poet by Progressive magazine.” I see clearly the fierce honesty in your writing, and I see humor and wisdom, too, but I think of you as much more universal a poet than one who writes Jewish feminist poetry only. What would you say about that?

AO: Well, it’s true I’ve written whole books that are obsessed with Jewishness. But it’s a pigeonhole, because I’ve written a lot about other things, like art, for example, yet nobody ever talks about how I’ve written about Matisse, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and other artists.

DG: Well, I’m glad I got you to talk about it now, since your poetry is often very visual in metaphor. You’ve created some visual art yourself, yes?

AO: Yes, when I was young I wanted to be a visual artist. That was my first love.

DG: I know you don’t believe in a punitive God, who looms large in Christian and Islamic traditions, and you’ve also said you’ve felt inspiration flowing from “God” or from some sort of parallel universe when you were writing your 2002 book of poems titled The Volcano Sequence—and you started writing that book after a hiatus of about three years of writer’s block. It’s difficult to imagine you with writer’s block, because you’ve been so productive and prolific, not to mention being the mother of three children and a professor of writing and literature. Do you understand what might have caused that writer’s block, and what relieved it? You say something about it in the poems themselves, but can you talk about it a little?

volcanosequenceAO: Yes, it’s all explicit in The Volcano Sequence. I couldn’t write poetry for three years. I could write essays, reviews, things that were cerebral, from the neck up—but I was out of touch with my soul. It seems for three years I had no access to my soul. One of my theories about writer’s block is that it happens when there’s something that you don’t want to look at, something under the rock. You don’t want to see something deep in you, so you’re not writing. What broke the block was looking at this photograph of a Greek volcanic island called Thera. I can’t remember its other name . . .

DG: Is it Santorini, during the Roman era, or Thera in the Minoan times of Crete?

AO: Yes, and there’s archeological speculation that the eruption of the volcanic island caused the tsunami that drowned Atlantis, which is the Greek mythological equivalent of Eden, the happy and innocent place where everything was lovely and everyone was good. So, I was looking at this book of photographs of Santorini, once Thera, and thinking we might travel to this beautiful island of white rock in the Mediterranean Sea. Then the rock spoke words that were both its and mine. It was about anger and destructive violence, and I had to recognize myself as one whose anger had been destructive and in a metaphorical sense had made me an extinct volcano. And that broke the silence and I was then able to see things about myself that I didn’t want to see. So I made a conscious deal with the poems: “If you agree to keep arriving, I agree not to tell you what to say!” That’s how the book The Volcano Sequence was born. I was channeling those poems using a voice speaking to a “you” who is sometimes God and sometimes my mother, and there’s a lot of anger that gets worked through to some degree in the book.

DG: Your mother was a great inspiration to you. Didn’t she read with you a good deal of fine literature when you were young?

AO: Yup, she did, and she was an inspiration, but I was also very angry with her.

DG: I was very angry with my mother, too. Poor mothers. They have to take a measure of blame.

AO: Yes, and I’m sure my daughters are very angry with me.

DG: Perhaps all daughters are angry with their mothers at some point in their lives. There’s always the need to break free and become your own person.

Finally, you’ve talked about writing as a spiritual experience for you, and yet you’re an atheist or were raised as one, as we’ve said earlier. Can you talk about how writing is a spiritual experience for you? Despite your having no exact belief in God, you’ve studied The Bible more closely than most people ever do.

AO: What I said about my husband and I not knowing where the ideas come from? I can’t talk about this with any degree of clarity, but the ideas come from “the other side,” whatever that may mean to you or to anybody, that’s the metaphor that I have for it—the idea that creativity comes from beyond me, from a realm of the spirit that’s not the realm of the material world, which is not the material world, but comes through the material world and my experience of the material world. So, writing poetry is a spiritual experience, because it originates in “the world of the spirit.”

DG: A world that cannot exactly be defined the way the source of consciousness is not exactly understood?

AO: Yes, and that’s about all I can say about it, which isn’t much.

DG: That’s plenty. That says it all. I happened recently upon a curious poem of yours that I haven’t see in any books. It was titled “Untitled”:

A student invited me to be her midwife
It seemed an easy birth, the girl healthy and strong
I reached in, drew out the head
Pulled gently
But the head was smooth and cleft
Strange I thought but it will be ok
Only as I pulled and it emerged
It actually was a penis
Smooth and veined
pushing through the girl’s stretched labia
strange the dream arrived
So late so far along
in my life

You’re adept at psychological analysis of poetry and literary art. I know what I feel the poem is about, but what would you say about it?

AO: That was a dream, and I’ve written a large number of dream poems, but I’ve never put them in a book, because I don’t know what to do with them.

DG: Wouldn’t they make a good collection? And what would you say about the psychological dimension of this particular dream poem? I ask because I had a similar image in a poem of mine titled “The Sea Hag in the Cave of Sleep,” in which a woman gives birth to a baby that feels like a penis emerging from her vagina. It ends “I’m no spider queen after all, but a green beast with arms of sorrow. My whole body is a phallus, I come out from between my own legs into this world.” I’ve always thought how different it is for us in that men come from women, but we’re women born of women.

AO: Wow, you had almost the same dream I did. Adrienne Rich has a poem about women learning the trade of midwifery, in order to give birth to ourselves. My dream poem is a fantasy of androgyny.

DG: But doesn’t it also have to do with midwifery birthing power? As Freud said, in a man’s world, the penis equals power, and so you’re helping, as a teacher, your female student birth her own power in a male dominated world, or perhaps even helping to give birth to your own power.

AO: That’s obvious, too, and to be androgynous is to have the power of both female and male, and what made me laugh about that poem, is that I didn’t have that dream when I was thirty years old! (Laughing) Why did I have to wait until old age to have a dream like that?

DG: (Laughing) But, you do have the power of your whole career and all the good books you’ve written behind you now, and more ahead. So I see it as a realization of the birth of your power that’s been released into the world, and your helping other women to find their power. That’s why I wanted to culminate with that poem. It also shows your fierce honesty. I think you might well have a book of dreams at hand.

AO: Well, maybe at some point, I’ll comb through all my discarded poems and find the dream poems and make a collection of them.

DG: That could be a good project! I hope I’ve helped to inspire it. Thank you so very much, Alicia. It’s been interesting and enlightening. I’ve greatly enjoyed our conversation.

AO: Well, me too. Thank you, Daniela.

Click here to purchase The Old Woman, The Tulip and the Dog at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase The Volcano Sequence at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase The Nakedness of the Fathers at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Writing Like a Woman at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase The Book of Seventy at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Among the Gorgons

amongthegorgonsMichelle Boisseau
University of Tampa Press ($14)

by Denise Low

“Flick the house from your eye and hurry away” begins Michelle Boisseau’s most recent book, Among the Gorgons. This distortion of reality in “The Crisp Inscription” is a way to describe skips of memory. The image of a huge house becomes a miniature irritant, reduced to a mote in the eye. The poet explains, “Stop wondering what your room is like / where you all slept together and woke.” Boisseau makes places of childhood unfamiliar, eerie in their vague resemblance to reality. Even the chimney of the poet’s childhood home shows odd aging, as it “wears a rusty brace.”

This opening poem foretells the direction of the entire book, in which memory is a surreal place. An Alice in Wonderland sensibility continues through the collection by Boisseau, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor. With precise language, she presents a topsy-turvy cosmos.

“Mom Was a Cactus” begins as an unlikely comparison between an elderly parent and a spiny desert plant. The poem develops its own logic: “Cactuses / aren’t lovable but many admire / how they thrive on teaspoons of rain.” The tough mother of the title raised nine children while caring for a grandparent in a wheelchair; the cactus is her perfect totem.

Every poem has surprises, a practice that sends images spinning to the reader at a fast rate. Death is “the final privacy” in the elegy “To a Dying Difficult Man.” Rather than the public funeral, death inverts; it is a private, unknowable moment of mortality. Continuous inversions like this in Among the Gorgons jar readers into engagement with the poems.

A bonus for aficionados of verse is the virtuoso use of poetic patterns; Boisseau, also an editor of poetry books, is so adept that she invents her own forms. Some resemble villanelles, with repeating lines that link content to the rhythm of song. “Children Visiting Hospice” is made of fifteen interlocking lines that repeat like a children’s jump rope chant. It begins:

The shiny hallway is a river
that asks to be skipped down.
In the lounge, picture puzzles.

In a corner of the fish tank
a treasure chest burbles and bores.
The fish look ahead a few inches.

The last stanzas piece themselves together with earlier lines and new ones. The fish, river, shiny, hallway—all are rearranged to echo the beginning of the poem in sound and sense.

The poet’s metaphors reset reality. In “Window Body,” a disabled person’s cane is the new center: “The universe / has no edge and no center, / so stab the ground with your cane / and make your axis.” Nothing is ordinary in this writer’s view. Each poem is a Fabergé egg, unique and richly complex.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016


jerusalemAlan Moore
Liveright ($35)

by Greg Baldino

Pity the independent bookseller who has to decide where to shelve Alan Moore’s second prose work.

Twenty years ago saw the publication of Moore’s first prose book, a novel-in-stories set throughout the history of the English county of Northamptonshire. Although esoterically written in chronologically accurate first-person dialects, including an almost incomprehensible first chapter told from the point of view of a paleolithic man, it appeared close enough to the likes of Iain Sinclair and Umberto Eco to fit under the reassuring tag of “Literature/General Fiction.”

Jerusalem, however, may not be easily categorized, filed, or indexed. Its genre is its own, mixing styles and modes from contemporary, historical, and fantasy fiction.

The book is intimately personal for Moore, set in the town where he’s lived his entire life and featuring a cast based on figures from the historical to the familial, but spanning time and dimensions as readily as it spans from Chalk Lane to Scarletwell Street. Think Eastenders as a Doctor Who serial. In the opening prologue we are introduced to the modern-day descendants of the Warren clan via a memory of a childhood dream had by five-year-old Alma in 1959, who grows up to become a noted painter. In the present day her brother Mick consults with her after a near-fatal workplace injury unlocks long forgotten memories.

Apocalypse looms for the residents of The Boroughs, not in the form of a many-headed beast but in gentrification and economic starvation. But this is not another suburban romance; there’s magic in the muck and guardian “angles” in the architecture. The Warrens (and their antecedents the Vernalls) weave throughout the stories; it’s as much a family history made fantastic as it is a historical gang show. There’s madness and loss as much as there is magic and love, and sometimes all together. Cutting around through time, events and personalities are visited and revisited, monstrous grandmothers revealed as hardened survivors, pitiable eccentricity uncovered as the pathos of the everyman. An incidental character from one chapter assumes a starring roles in the next scene, and moments of tragedy become incidents of beauty and slapstick, in equal measure.

In the book’s first third, orderly time skips between chapters and dabblings in visionary metaphysics prepare the reader for the long drop down the rabbit hole ahead. At the age of three, Mick Warren choked on a cough drop and had to be rushed via a fruit seller’s cart to hospital. The journey took ten minutes during which baby Mick temporarily died. Moore has recounted this in interviews being something that happened to his own real-life brother when they were growing up, but in Jerusalem Mick’s ten minutes of inexplicably non-fatal death becomes infinitely stranger. The second part of the novel follows baby Mick’s soul running around through the higher level of The Boroughs, called “Mansoul” from John Bunyon’s The Holy War. Here he scarpers through heaven and hell with a gang of ghost children, dodging Biblical demons and eavesdropping on Lord Protectors. It’s here, where “angles” play snooker games for the fate of mankind, that Moore really gets to the teeth of Jerusalem. In the book's final third, all bets are off and anything goes, both in narrative and style.

Moreso than history, Jerusalem is a book concerned with memory and perception, both in the sense of the character’s own recollections and the communal folk-memories which inform much of the book. In interviews Moore has spoken of how much the book draws upon oral histories of the neighborhood. “I have worked with everything I remember of The Boroughs from the phraseology to local legends,” said Moore in a 2012 interview with the Northampton Chronicle, “I have drawn on my personal history, from when my family was in The Boroughs for two or three generations.”

Moore has also drawn on his decades of experience writing dialogue in a visual medium. The character voices, both spoken and internal, are fully realized and nuanced. Notorious in the comics industry for his verbose scripts—his script for the first page of From Hell describes in detail the flight paths of two flies buzzing around a dead seagull—his zeal for detail brings The Boroughs to life. One of the early characters to have their day chronicled is Marla, a junkie prostitute. In a society which degrades and dehumanizes both sex workers and addicts, a “crack whore” like her becomes a punchline, an unmourned “unfortunate.” But for forty pages Moore pays religious attention to Marla’s thoughts and actions, her observations of the world and the hurt she carries around with her.

Despite having a writing career stretching back to the late ’70s, Moore’s prose output is sparse. The comics industry in which he founded his career runs at its best like a workplace comedy of exaggerated incompetence, and at worst like a gangster ponzi scheme. As a result, out of the almost forty years of work he produced in the medium, much of it is either out of print or out of his ownership, and all of that work is collaborative. Even the bulk of his non-comics work has involved other participants, from his spoken word performances with David J and Tim Perkins to his recent forays in independent cinema. With only his own words to fill out over a thousand pages, Moore has no one to shoulder the creative load beside himself. By the same token, he has no limits to the work save his own; in that sense, Jerusalem is Moore off the leash and over the fence.

One of the best things about Jerusalem is that there’s no romantic valorizing of The Boroughs’ residents. This is not a Horatio Alger story where anyone “rises above their station”—except in the second section wherein characters literally rise above their station into a higher mathematical plane of existence. Rather, the book raises questions of how the poor are made poorly, how the social construction of class is treated as scientifically essentialist, and what that does to a people. The worth of the Boroughsians has always been in there, is in there still, but is stripped away and cast down into the refuge incinerators of political history. Here, Moore does what he can to reverse the flames, offering escapism as poetic decolonization.

One of the lives restored in the first section is Henry George, an ex-slave who moved to Northampton some years after emancipation and worked as a rag-and-bone man, collecting scrap on a bicycle with rope tires. According to Moore, Henry was a real person on those streets, but his is a story that can only be passed along by word of mouth; there is no Who’s Who for the underclass of days past. Henry’s episode is one of the most emotionally affecting of the book’s. On discovering that the pastor who wrote the song “Amazing Grace” lived in the neighboring town, he rides out to visit the man’s former church and possibly find his burial plot. It’s his pilgrimage, for it was that song that gave him and his kin hope under the abuses of slavery. What he finds instead is a dark truth that leaves him with no easy answers and profoundly difficult questions.

Jerusalem rides like Mr. George between the two towns of fantasy and realism. There are ghosts, time travel, magic, and devils. There’s compassion and cruelty, and madness aplenty. There’s death, loss, and heartbreak; there’s occasionally hope, and a remarkable amount of persistence. Time itself is both the ultimate evil and the big damn hero, but as Mrs. Gibbs the deathmonger remarks before the funeral of a child she midwifed not even a year before: “It doesn’t matter if we believe these things or if we don’t. The world’s round, even if we think it’s flat. The only difference it makes is to us. If we know it’s a globe, we needn’t be frit all the time of falling off its edge.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

1966: The Year the Decade Exploded

1966Jon Savage
Faber & Faber ($29.95)

by Brooke Horvath

To be clear: the explosion Jon Savage wishes to celebrate in his new book occurred in England and America. What blew up was youth culture, and the explosive used was primarily pop music, which served as catalyst, mirror, and running commentary on the events of 1966—the year when innocence was “replaced by experience and, whether anyone liked it or not, there was no going back,” the year when “partying—and pop—began to become political,” the year pop music metamorphosed into something new and “rock began,” a year of “audacious ideas and experiments” that were “no longer just an industrial process but the principal expressive form of the new massed youth society, and as such freighted with demands and ideas that would prove impossible to contain within the confines of a Top 40 chart or even a single. It was no longer pure commerce and simple good times, but the sound of a new freedom and a generational confidence.”

Despite the claims just quoted, Savage—whose previous work includes England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875-1945, as well as feature and documentary films—chooses to focus on 45s, not lps, and usually on singles that charted. Moving, very loosely, month by month through the year, Savage attempts through the first nine chapters to organize his material topically. Thus, “January” (chapter one) describes the pervasive fear of nuclear war, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the folk-music protest against imminent annihilation. The less clearly focused “February” is devoted to the teen psyche (with special attention to the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown”), the rise of youth-oriented media, the mods and the heyday of Swinging London; “March” to the Vietnam War, “April” to LSD, and so on. By the end of the year, Savage has covered civil-rights activities and the rise of the Black Panthers, the Watts and Sunset Strip riots, clothing fashions, the London club scene, gender politics, the first stirrings of the gay-rights movement, dozens of songs and singers, and much more. The book includes an extensive-month-by-month discography, and a two-cd compilation of songs mentioned in 1966 is available from Ace Records.

The problems with Savage’s organizational plan should be obvious. The folk-music boom, fear of the bomb, and the CND (January’s focus) all began considerably before 1966 and consequently require pages of backstory, as do many other topics. Nor does tying a topic to a particular month prove helpful, for this frequently requires jamming off-topic or off-month material into each chapter. The topics themselves are initially assigned to months according to when an appropriate song hit the charts; hence, March deals with the Vietnam War only because that is the month Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” reached #1. Coupled with the author’s penchant for digression and his fondness for details, however trivial, the book’s thesis—that by year’s end “almost all the ideas and attitudes that would define the remaining years of the decade are in place.” smoldering and ready to detonate—is often obscured. Another organizational problem results from the decision to cover both England and America, for not all issues affected the young of Britain and America equally; thus, Vietnam and civil rights belong to the U.S. whereas the club scene, music magazines, fashion, and other topics are covered as they existed in London; we read often, for instance, about Britain’s televised music programming (Ready Steady Go! and Top of the Pops) but find hardly a mention of the American equivalents (American Bandstand, Where the Action Is). And because he is working from afar, Savage’s picture of American youth dwells almost entirely upon what was going on in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

After more than 500 pages of assorted fireworks, there is, disappointingly, no grand finale, the book ending not with a bang but a muffled implosion. A “prophetic minority” of the decade’s young—the “consciences of their time”—may have lit a fuse, but the year sputtered to its conclusion. Near the end of 1966, Savage quotes journalist Maureen Cleave, writing in London’s Evening Standard on 29 December 1966: “The pop singers themselves have grown old; their faces on television look old, world-weary; bored faces that have seen it all. The future is bleak . . .” Two days later, the situation was bleaker still by Savage’s own account:

In the evening of the 31st, The Monkees premiered on BBC TV at 6.15 p.m., following Doctor Who. In the new US chart, the group was at #1; at #2 was a novelty record, ‘Snoopy and [sic] the Red Baron,’ by the Royal Guardsmen. The highest climber in the Top 10 was Aaron Neville’s soulful ballad ‘Tell It Like It Is,’ with the Temptations’ equally wracked ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ one place below at #8. In Britain, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ was still at the top, with Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’ at #2.

Despite all this grousing (remember, Mr. Savage, what Dylan sang: “They’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to write a book”), I wish now to change my tune, for 1966 overcomes its organizational problems by being immensely readable, ambitious, fast-paced, and provocative. For those who lived through the year and were alive to its events (from the Vietnam War to Twiggy, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable to the march on Cicero, Illinois), there is much here to learn or to remember, whether fondly or ruefully, just as there is no end of memories and informative tidbits to be had in Savage’s comments on the year’s musical accompaniment. Although he doesn’t say so, Savage reminds us that the more things change, the more they remain the same, for whatever comfort that is worth: Charles Whitman gunning down forty-nine people (killing sixteen) from a tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin; riots erupting in the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco after a white policeman shot and killed a black teenager; people “taking a lot of drugs because they didn’t want to see.”

Savage’s extended commentaries on individual songs—John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” James Brown’s “Tell Me That You Love Me,” Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”—are astute and convincing; like Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” or Junior Walker’s “Road Runner,” “all spoke of a new confidence and freedom, that you could try anything and it might work.” Savage will remind you of things you haven’t thought about for a long, long time: Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. “Psychotic Reaction.” The mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales. The album cover that bloodied the Beatles. Similarly, he shares facts and ideas that will likely be new to many readers: that Lou Reed avoided the draft by “exaggerating . . . mental instability.” That the first gay riot occurred at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. That by the fall of 1966, camp had become “a method of navigating a schizophrenic consciousness.” That the Who’s “I’m a Boy” went “straight to the deep disturbance behind high-sixties androgyny.” That Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances” “sourced an old southern spiritual.” That Sony Bono released a “vérité” recording of the Sunset Strip riots entitled “Sunset Symphony,” a “confused montage of chants, loud-hailers and shrieks.”

1966 is wide-ranging and, to be fair, far more coherent than the chaotic, eventful months it brings into kaleidoscopic focus. For anyone with any interest in its subject, the book is both informative and enjoyable. The research that went into the book is impressive and thoroughly documented. Whether Savage is discussing how pop music helped change gender expectations or closed “the gap between the avant-garde and the mass market,” he will doubtless send most readers more than once to the Internet—to find and watch Peter Watkins’s docudrama The War Game or to listen again to Dusty Springfield or the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, to read more about James Meredith’s “March Against Fear” or to try to remember just what was so darn special about Nico.

Was 1966 “the year the decade exploded”? Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Two recent books—David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971—The Year That Rock Exploded (Henry Holt, 2016) and Andrew Grant Jackson’s 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music (Thomas Dunne, 2015)—argue otherwise. Other years—1963, 1968—were deadlier, bloodier, and more fraught with legislative and activist consequence. Certainly, however, 1966 was a year of explosive music—political, introspective, exploratory, psychedelic, soulful—and if the year ended quietly, that was only because the guns were being reloaded. The last of the smoke having cleared a while ago, it is worth looking back on one of the more exuberant and divisive worlds we have lost. As he spins the months of that year, Savage proves an enthusiastic and energetic deejay.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

California Winter League

california-winter-leagueChiyuma Elliott
Unicorn Press ($18)

by Ralph Pennel

Every poet’s task is to name the ineffable, to give shape and voice to what haunts them—what haunts us all, if we are honest—while simultaneously giving the ineffable room to speak on its own and for itself. When this balancing act is achieved, we feel it; we give the work space in the interiority of our lives and trust our lives with the truths inhabiting there. Chiyuma Elliott’s debut collection of poetry California Winter League stands as a totem to the practice of balancing these necessary concerns.

The book opens with a collection of poems about baseball legend Satchel Page, who played for some years in the California Winter League (a league for minor and major league baseball players, and the first to integrate). Page was himself enigmatic, so to invoke him is to attempt to discuss the ineffable, an idea that comes to full fruition in the poem “Seventh-Inning Sermon.” Here, Elliott divines her subject, using him to spark a dialogue on all that is transcendent. Elliott likens Page to the biblical David, “how this one rock knocked down the baddest man in the land,” to God and “how God held this round world in his hand,” and to the world itself at its most elemental state of being, “small as an atom, small as a speck, small as / the smallest hole in your leather, [so] no-one will hit you.” Elliott intimates that to witness the miracles Page performed on the mound is akin to witnessing creation itself—and she is convincing.

Later, in the poem “Family Portrait #3,” Elliott once again takes on that which cannot be named. Part of a series of poems about the murder of the speaker’s uncle, “Family Portrait” is nearly about everything but the uncle’s murder; by virtue of nondisclosure, it tells us everything about how such an event means. In the poem, the speaker recalls the practice of claiming the spirit of the world around her as her own by baptism:

I’d scramble to the top and pour
the contents of my thermos over it,

watch the dried lichen go acid yellow, acid green,
and the rock itself turn into wood or blood,
leaf or obsidian.

Baptism is hope: it is faith in our eminent salvation. The speaker seeks this hope again at the end of the poem in an effort to reclaim all that has been taken from her, which includes the entirety of the world which “was once / under water” and through no minor miracle “is again” in order to wash away the sins of the earth.

In the final section, the author explores the idea of timelessness as an aspect of the purpose of tragedy in the poem, “Emergency Preparedness.” The speaker and her partner arrive at “home to no hot water; and something / under the living room floor was beeping” (49), which they discover is “the earthquake emergency shutoff valve.” The poem embraces the idea of impermanence, of nonattachment. “At least / we’ll die together if you blow up the house” the speaker says, because the shared (or integrated) experience is greater than our individual lives.

The works in this collection wait patiently for the reader to inhabit them, to assume the experience of the lives explored in them. Elliott, with an unbridled generosity of spirit, encourages us to undertake this task, a challenge which we absolutely should accept.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Dream Closet: Meditations on Childhood Space

dreamclosetEdited by Matthew Burgess
Secretary Press ($28.99)

by John Bradley

“I hid in closets, behind doors, and under tables,” writes Matthew Burgess, editor of the fascinating anthology Dream Closet, “meditations on childhood space.” “I crawled into the cabinet under the sink,” he continues, “and climbed trees to find hidden perches.” He loved books “filled with small spaces that doubled as portals to other worlds.” No wonder he would one day edit an anthology filled with personal tales of such portals.

Inspired by the phrase “dream closet” from Denton Welch’s novel In Youth Is Pleasure, where a child transforms a bathroom into an imaginative space, Burgess asked a variety of artists—writers, painters, and photographers—to interpret this concept of a child’s private space. The results (six chapters containing twenty-five prose pieces, twenty-four poems, and thirteen works of art) are richly varied and engaging, attesting, in varying ways, to the importance of both hiding and becoming “unhidden.”

For many of the artists, hiding in a private space was partly playing a game and partly following an instinct. A lovely photograph by Brett Bell called “Henry” captures both aspects. The image shows a young child lying on a leaf-strewn lawn with his head inserted in a cardboard box labelled “HUNTINGTON HOME.” The child no doubt believes he is hidden from view, as he cannot see who might be watching him from his new “home.” This basic premise of not being seen and therefore feeling safe runs through many of the pieces here, such as Ron Padgett’s—who, at fourteen, built a private crawl space in the garage, complete with a magazine from the Soviet Union and a short-wave radio to hear the BBC. The immediate world is shut out and the larger world let in.

In his introduction to the anthology, Burgess shows us the simplicity and complexity of this urge for a private space. He recounts how Vladimir Nabokov tells, in Speak, Memory, of crawling into a “tunnel” between furniture and a wall: “I lingered a little to listen to the singing in my ears—that lonesome vibration so familiar to boys in dusty hiding places, and then—in a burst of delicious panic, on rapidly thudding hands and knees I would reach the tunnel’s far end, push its cushions away, and be welcomed by a mesh of sunshine.” As lovely as this description is, Nabokov makes one mistake—claiming that the experience is limited to boys. Virginia Woolf recalls in “A Sketch of the Past” how as a young girl in the nursery, she imagined herself “lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow.” Many female voices in Dream Closet further demonstrate that this need for seclusion transcends gender. Marie Howe writes of going to the basement as a child with eight siblings to create “a town” made out of “boxes and blankets and overturned chairs.” One of the children would act as the Town Crier, calling out the hours: “Ten o’clock and all is well.” Melissa Febos, in “The Rule of Burned Things,” hid in a closet and burned scraps of paper and pillow stuffing in a Mason jar: “Spark and flash of becoming, sharp scent of shape shift.” Her secret place gives her the power to create and destroy.

One of the delights of this anthology is the creativity of the contributors in how they locate that private place. For Christina Olivares, in “At Twelve,” that space was found when diving into a pool for a dropped penny: “We push toward a silence that would keep us safe.” In a photograph by Libby Pratt, we see illuminated pages of a book held open by two fingers. The very act of reading becomes that safe place. In a photograph, perhaps the most stunning of all the artwork, entitled “James at Dusk,” by Michi Jigarjian, we see a baby illumined by the sun prancing inside a sheer curtain, both hidden and yet visible, the joy of the act palpable. Only one writer in the anthology finds the “dream closet” to be disturbing. Julian Talamantez Brolaski, in “The Bad Dream Closet: Amphibian Enterprize,” describes a reoccurring nightmare where he is stuck in a well with a monster who is “Literally holding my breath in its claws.” Though nothing happens in the well, the image itself is terrifying for both Brolaski and the reader.

For some writers, the concept of hiding and being revealed has to do with altering his or her physical appearance. Jeffrey Conway, in “My Childhood in Drag: Five Photos,” offers no explanation, just vivid descriptions of how he appears in each photograph. For example, one Halloween when he’s in sixth grade, he dresses as his mother:

I wear her poofy brunette wig, coffee-colored nylons, her short read and blue print polyester dress, her white cotton sweater over my shoulders (the sleeves dangle at my sides) with only the top button fastened. I have stuffed the dress so that my “breasts” are huge. I wear orange lipstick. I can remember the flash of dread I felt when my dad said, just before I dashed out the front door, “What will your football teammates say when they see you?”

Perhaps they wouldn’t recognize him? Or would they see him for the first time? “We hide ourselves in order to become unhidden to ourselves,” observes Matthew Burgess in his introduction. In the act of donning a costume, Conway becomes “unhidden” to himself, his family, and the world.

By the end of this anthology, the link between hiding and transforming becomes clear. In “The Imaginal Moi & the Clubhouse,” James Lecesne tells of hiding family objects, such as his mother’s butterfly pin, in his clubhouse. When he goes back to retrieve the pin, it’s gone. He concludes his story with this realization:

Years later, when I learned how butterflies actually get made, I couldn’t help thinking about my clubhouse and that long lost butterfly pin. Once inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar slowly disintegrates, dissolves into a soupy mess and disappears. All that remains of him is something called the imaginal cells; out of these very elemental and essential cells, a butterfly is born.

The child cannot understand the profound implications of retreating into that private, enclosed world. Only the adult looking back can begin to unravel the layers of meaning of entering the “dream closet.” The fifty-four artists of this unusual anthology, as well as the editor, serve as trustworthy guides to these transformational “portals to other worlds.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

To Think of Her Writing Awash in Light

tothinkofherLinda Russo
Subito Press ($18)

by Catherine Rockwood

In four innovative essays, Linda Russo celebrates five female authors whose lives span the interval from the Romantic period to the present day. In the first essay, on Dorothy Wordsworth, Russo traces a causal connection between the author’s daily walks and her ability to think in ways that proved useful to her famous brother.  She also introduces the feminist practice of “talk[ing] back to literary history,” catalyzed here by evidence of Dorothy’s erasure from William’s compositional process. Russo’s secondhand copy of Dorothy’s Journals came, she tells us, from the library of a women’s college, and its trenchant marginalia “tracks Dorothy’s words in William’s poems and traces William’s treads through Dorothy’s journals.” The high quality of that sentence, which uses parallel structure to set Dorothy’s lightfoot “words” against William’s implicitly stick-cracking “treads,” is representative of the book overall.

A lengthy second essay on Dickinson shows how “E.D.” is rendered present and active by Russo’s tenacious imagination and the books she packs along on delighted but undeceived visits to Dickinson’s desk (at Harvard University) and to the Dickinson homestead in Amherst. The essay begins in Dickinson’s room itself, where Russo gazes through its windows: “Today the sky is a luminous slate,” she writes, showing us a bright blank that she herself must trace meaning on, and does.

With Hettie Jones, the third essay shifts into the twentieth century.  Jones’s 1990 memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, details her work as unofficial amanuensis to her then-husband LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka.  In response, Russo writes a crackling experimental dialogue laying bare the absurd systems of thought that designated LeRoi Jones a poet and his wife “an important component in the production of poetry.” It’s a virtuoso performance, both angry and artful.  The fourth essay, on contemporary poets Joanne Kyger and Anne Waldman, begins at Kyger’s tea-table, among conversation.  Here we come into the present, where Waldman’s recently completed feminist epic, The Iovis Trilogy, can be discussed between friends.  If these friends are also influencers, whose voices sometimes over-write the author’s own, it is by now a small matter; if we want to dissent, Linda Russo has shown us how we can thoughtfully talk back, even to a history of her own choosing.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

A Cage in Search of a Bird

cageinsearchofbirdFlorence Noiville
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
Seagull Books ($21)

by Jeff Alford

A fragile mind can be afflicted with an obsession like a stroke. In a snap, a person can be consumed with “the delusional illusion of being loved”: some lingering eye contact or an innocent inquiry from a stranger can swell from meaningless happenstance into something emotional, erotic, and far beyond logic’s reach. Obsessed fans, jealous friends, and ex-lovers can all unspool into a debilitating romantic fanatacism. French psychiatrist Gaёtan Gatian de Clérambault (1872-1934) was particularly interested in (and almost, ironically, obsessed by) “cases of romantic delusion” and named this affliction of erotomania after himself.

Florence Noiville’s A Cage in Search of A Bird investigates de Clérambault Syndrome by wrapping its peculiarities in the mantle of a psychological thriller. When television journalist Laura Wilmote sees her old friend and current co-worker “C” in their office one morning dressed entirely in a matching outfit, Laura “understood that something was wrong.” “Look! I’m dressed as you!” C exclaims, sounding in Laura’s mind “like a warning.” Expectedly, C’s infatuation grows to disturbing heights as Noiville’s cinematic novella unfurls.

C begins sending impassioned nightly emails to Laura recalling their teenage years, before they lost touch, when they would read Sappho together and explore New Wave Cinema. Laura grows increasingly uncomfortable with this new emotional intimacy and upon learning about de Clérambault syndrome, attempts to analyze C from a safe distance—all while channeling her obsession into something that could be used for a forthcoming TV feature, or, with a wink from Noiville, a future novel.

Noiville, a staff writer for Le Monde, has playful similarities to Laura and this self-referential game ultimately defines A Cage in Search of a Bird: the boundaries between narrator and author blur into a woozy unreliability and the novel twitches with the power of a mentally unstable confession.

De Clérambault believed that the only way to end a loop of erotomania is for one of its nodes to die: “either they destroy themselves . . . or they destroy the object.” This fatalism might be acceptable coming from an early-twentieth century psychiatrist devoted to this caliber of obsession, but seems unnecessarily excessive to utilize as a literary device. As Laura’s emotional fortitude breaks down and as C’s advances more effectively integrate her into Laura’s life, A Cage in Search of a Bird begins to fray. A perfunctory finale weakens this short novel, although it remains a fascinating, thrilling diversion.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

CLOSE READING: An Interview with Derek Walcott

derek-walcott-and-michael-swingenby Michael Swingen

There was a predawn chill in the morning wind as I waited in the downtown port of Fort-de-France to board the ferry for St. Lucia. It was Christmas time last year, and in the boarding station St. Lucians chatted with holiday cheer as they waited for the return passage home. They had traveled across the blue channel to Martinique, one of the neighboring French islands, to buy Christmas presents to bring home to their families. Martinique has an Antillean reputation for sophistication, and St. Lucians carried with them bags full of chocolates in pink boxes, transparent cases of artisanal pastries, and wine bottles with elaborate crests on their labels. I, too, was going home for the holidays. It was cheaper to fly out of St. Lucia than Martinique, where I was teaching English in a high school for the year, and the boarding station where I waited with the St. Lucians overlooked the bay that led to the blue channel that divided the two islands.

It was late at night when I reached my Bed & Breakfast. Despite the midnight hour, my host Wendy was electric when she opened the front door, lively as palm fronds applauding themselves in the wind. She laughed and sometimes clapped as she gave me a tour of her small gabled house on the quiet outskirts of the capital. She had just self-published a children’s novel, she told me, which she displayed on the side table next to the orange sofa, where she sat across from me in the living room. I asked her if she had ever read Derek Walcott, who was also from St. Lucia. She was friends, she laughed, with Mr. Walcott’s companion Sigrid Nama. Wendy got up from the sofa, headed for her old rotary dial phone next to her computer, and called up Sigrid. She explained that there was a young man here who would like to meet Mr. Walcott. Sigrid told Wendy that I should come by their house in two weeks. By the way, I heard Wendy say, would Mr. Walcott be interested in conducting an interview for Rain Taxi Review of Books?

During the holidays, while all those blizzards were raging across the East Coast and burying New York and Boston in snow, I researched and prepared for the interview with a ferocious intensity, predicated less upon scrupulousness and more on animal terror. After all, after six decades of transforming the Caribbean world into the permanence of poetry, Derek Walcott, a Nobel Laureate, is one of the lions of world literature. In the first decades of his career, a large part of Walcott’s ambition was to bring his native St. Lucia into literature for the first time. Many of his early poems aim to show that the Caribbean—its people and landscape and history—belongs in English poetry no less than England itself. Omeros, Walcott’s retelling of the Iliad on the shores of his native St. Lucia, for example, is taught in many college classrooms and has become a staple of postcolonial literature. But for Walcott the oppositions between empire and province—and, inevitably, between black and white—can never be easily reduced to simple postcolonial dictums that declare an artist deploy her craft to strike back against ex-imperial masters. “It is the [English] language which is the empire,” Walcott has written, “and great poets are not its vassals but its princes.” From this private sensibility evolves an oeuvre—seventeen poetry collections, nine volumes of drama, and a book of essays—of a poetic imagination unparalleled in the almost magical gift of rendering the world transformed by the power and grace of language. How to prepare for an interview, then, with a writer of this caliber?

And so I devoured all the Walcott I hadn’t already read, holed up in my parents’ basement like a hibernating mole. I also read all the interviews Walcott had done in the past. I composed immaculately crafted questions dredged from the deepest abysses of literary theory and my own personal boreholes of confusion. Earlier that year, I had completed a master’s program with a thesis on Hart Crane and Stéphane Mallarmé, and I craved to know what Walcott thought of the 20th-century American poet, whom Walcott had written about in his youth. Finally, I sculpted the interview questions, squaring and settling their syntax and turns of phrase (I reproduce them in an appendix to the conversation for those who wish to see how well I succeeded).

When I returned to St. Lucia I did not stay with Wendy again but found rather a quiet room in a fishing village called Gros Islet on the northwestern side of the island. I stayed there for two days before I met Walcott, who lived not far from the village. From the terrace of my room I stooped on the scalloped balcony and watched shirtless boys ride horses without reins or saddles along the bright beaches. The boys would hunch and grip the wispy manes of the horses whinnying, and when either the boys or the horses grew tired, they would ride into the translucent shallows of the turquoise water. Boys riding horses would never happen in Martinique; something about the French-inflected island would not permit it. Like siblings, the islands were different.

When I knocked on Mr. Walcott’s and Sigrid Nama’s front door, I wore a navy button-down dress shirt with a gold pin dot tie, both of which I had dry cleaned before I left the United States. At the backside of his house, the Nobel Laureate and I sat under the verandah that looked out onto the sea and the sphynx-like Pigeon Island. Walcott’s robin’s egg blue t-shirt, which matched his swim trunks, had a breast pocket that sheathed two pens. I would later learn that he liked to have a writing utensil always handy in case he had to net any flights of fancy that dare flitter away. I kept my tie on for the entirety of the interview, but by the end both Derek and Sigrid teased me and requested that I take it off before we went to go eat dinner at the marina.

[The tape recorder is turned on while Walcott is asking me about where I come from.]

Michael Swingen: I’m from the Midwest, North Dakota, although no one knows where North Dakota is, so going to a place like Dartmouth was somewhat intimidating. Maybe you felt that, too.

Derek Walcott: Mhm.

MS: I remember reading this in one of your essays, that the first time you went to New York the “canyons of buildings” terrified you. I had similar feelings; the prestige of Dartmouth absolutely petrified me.

DW: So how long were you at Dartmouth?

MS: Two years, I did a master’s degree in comparative literature. I compared Hart Crane to Stéphane Mallarmé.

DW: Do you know French, too?

MS: I do. That’s why I’m in Martinique, because I studied French. I speak it pretty well.

DW: Continue talking in French.

MS: Vous voulez que je continue à parler en français ?

DW: Oui.

MS: Ah, parce que vous connaissez le français.

DW: Oui.

MS: A cause du créole alors.

DW: Voilà.

MS: Oui, c’est ça. Quand j’entends le créole en Sainte-Lucie, effectivement, je relève sur le français, donc quand on dit “merci” en créole on dit littéralement “merci, ”par exemple ! C’est passionnant.

DW: [to Sigrid] He’s talking French!

SN: I know, I heard that! You’re checking his French out?

DW: He’s showing off . . .

SN: [Laughs] Alright, I’ll let you two chat.

MS: Sure, thank you.

SN: Otherwise I’ll take over.

MS: Oh, that’s fine. Thank you for the wine. I appreciate it.

SN: You’re welcome.

DW: So where are you staying here?

MS: I’m staying in Gros Islet. Just another B&B.

SN: Yeah, which one?

MS: It’s called Beaches Inn. It’s right on the beach.

SN: The orange place?

MS: Yeah, it’s orange.

SN: It’s by the river outlet. Right?

MS: Yeah.

SN: “No dumping of refusal.” They had a sign there once: “No dumping of refusal.”

MS: [Laughs]. Of “refusal,” not “refuse.”

SN: It used to be owned by an Austrian-German guy. How is it? Is it okay?

MS: I like it. Honestly, I think I chose the wrong island. I like St. Lucia more than I like Martinique.

SN: Well, it’s a split personality. English and French, you know.

MS: Well, I don’t mean to generalize, but I feel that in Martinique, they suffer from Francophilia . . . their politesse oppresses them. They’re too snobbish. I’ve never seen the parties in Martinique that I’ve seen in St. Lucia.

SN: We have a good friend there: Patrick Chamoiseau. He only speaks French though.

MS: I haven’t read any of his work.

S: You’ll have to read Texaco in English.

MS: Oh, I’ve heard of this book!

DW: So you got a scholarship to Dartmouth?

MS: I did. Which was another reason it was so terrifying. They paid me to go, and that was just that much more pressure.

DW: What was it like physically? What did you have to do?

MS: It was two years, with trimesters, so there’s three quarters—fall, winter, spring—and each quarter you take three classes, and you have to be a teacher’s assistant, and then you have to do a research assistantship as well, and then at the same time you have to be doing your own research for your thesis.

DW: But you are a poet?

MS: Yeah, that’s always been the main goal. Learning French, going to grad school, it’s just putting tools on my utility belt. I grew up obsessed with T.S. Eliot, so I had it in my head that I had to do all this shit in order to entertain the idea of being a poet: I had to learn French, I had to go to grad school . . . all while not writing a lot of poetry . . . But now that I finally finished grad school I feel like I can actually go back to the source, to what it was all about.

DW: How long are you going to be staying?

MS: In Martinique?

DW: No, here.

MS: I’m here for two more days. But then I’m back in Martinique until June.

DW: Because that’s part of your job, right?

MS: Yeah. I start back up teaching in a week.

DW: Can you come back here on the 23rd?

MS: What’s happening the 23rd?

DW: Birthday. We go on a boat on the catamaran in Soufrière.

MS: What day is the 23rd?

DW: Saturday.

MS: I’d like to make that. I can make that.

DW: Because there will be some nice guys there. Young Italian poets. Italian women, too. Very nice people. About 40 of them. Come on the boat, definitely. Find out how you’ll do it, right? Ask Sigrid.

MS: I just have to take the ferry. It’s not difficult taking the ferry from Martinique to St. Lucia, it’s only an hour and a half. In American terms that’s, you know, like that [I snap my fingers]. I grew up traveling from North Dakota to Montana for ski trips. That was an 18-hour car ride.

DW: 18 hours?

MS: I’m as far east in North Dakota as you can get, it borders Minnesota. So all the way across North Dakota, and then all the way across Montana. 18-hour car ride for a weekend ski trip.

DW: You don’t mean 18 . . .

MS: Yes, 18! North Dakota and Montana are huge, you know. They’re huge states.

DW: So how many hours on the plane?

MS: Oh, maybe two or so? But 18 hours driving.

DW: You would take the car instead of a plane? Why? Money?

MS: Probably, but that’s just what my family did. I don’t know. Do you think I could read your poem “Hart Crane” out loud and then you could tell me what Hart Crane meant to you?

DW: I would hate that.

MS: Why?

DW: [Laughs] I don’t know.

MS: I just think it would be so cool to read poetry with you. Can I read “O Carib Isle!”?

DW: Is that a Crane poem?

MS: Yes.

DW: What’s the point of this?

MS: Um, the point of it is that when I was sixteen years old I found Hart Crane, and it blew my mind, it melted my brain out of my ears . . .

DW: How old were you?

MS: Sixteen.

DW: So you were astonished at the metaphors and stuff like that?

MS: Yeah, exactly. I still can’t believe the things he wrote. “In alternating bells have you not heard / All hours clapped dense into a single stride?” I mean shit like that, it’s absolutely insane. And I don’t remember how I found your work, but I’m pretty damn sure it had to do with Hart Crane. When I found you and read In a Green Night, I saw Hart Crane all over your poems. So that’s why I want to ask you how you found him, and what he meant to you.

DW: You know “To Brooklyn Bridge”?

MS: Of course, yeah.

DW: Let me hear how much you know.

hartcraneMS: Okay, um . . .

DW: “How many dawns . . .”

MS: “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest, / The seagulls wings shall dip and pivot him” . . . and then he . . . he says, “chained high”. . . over something something “Liberty,” with a capital L. Do you remember the full quatrain?

DW: I’m trying to remember the third line.

MS: [Gets book out] “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest / The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, / Shedding white rings of tumult . . .”

DW: Now tell me about that line. What does Crane see in that line?

MS: “Shedding white rings of tumult?” Um, what I honestly see, do you know how in cartoons when something is moving really fast, there’s lines going behind it?

DW: Yeah.

MS: Well, Crane is writing this line before cartoons like that probably existed, but I feel like he’s trying to articulate the motion of the seagull, and he’s describing—invisible to most people—wings of tumult as the seagull moves . . .

DW: White rings of tumult, not wings . . .

MS: White rings, I know, I know, as if the seagull’s leaving the bridge or coming back and the motion of his wings is shedding rings . . . [I try looking at the book]

DW: No, don’t look at it.

MS: Okay.

DW: Now you saw that at 16?

MS: Well, I think Crane helped me see it.

DW: What about “building high / Over the chained bay waters Liberty–”: Tell me about that line.

MS: That line has always confused me.

DW: “Building” what?

MS: White waters . . .

DW: No . . . “Shedding white rings of tumult,” “building high,” right? That’s a verb.

MS: Right. Oh, building. It’s probably the bridge.

DW: No, it’s not the bridge. It’s the statue.

MS: Oh, it’s the Statue of Liberty, hence “Liberty” at the end of the line. That’s incredible.

DW: Now, “building high” over the what?

MS: “The chained bay waters Liberty.”

DW: Why “chained”?

MS: Uh . . .

DW: You know Dylan Thomas?

MS: Sure.

DW: He has a line: “Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” What does that mean?

MS: What it makes me think of is Crane’s poem “The Broken Tower,” when he compares himself to the sexton, the one who actually rings the bell in the belfry, saying: “And I, its sexton slave” . . . it’s almost as if Crane is burdened by his immense creativity, that it was too much for him to handle. I think that’s maybe what both Thomas and Crane mean by “chained.”

DW: The image in Dylan Thomas is: “Though I sang in my chains like the sea . . .”

MS: I don’t understand “like the sea,” what does that mean?

DW: It’ll come to you miraculously when you look at it. You know how the waves do this? [He revolves his pointer finger in the figure of a circle] Those are chains.

MS: That is fantastic.

DW: “Building high over the chained bay waters,” you see it?

MS: I see it now, that’s incredible. Just that somebody could see that and articulate it.

DW: Right. So go back to the first stanza. Start it again. “How many dawns . . .”

MS: “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—“

DW: You know, I’ve taught this a lot, you notice how soft the beginning is in terms of vowels . . . Why is that?

MS: Because it’s dawn, and dawn is soft, it’s blurred . . . the phonetics are mimicking the scene they’re describing.

DW: You think you’re fuckin’ bright, don’t you?

MS: [Laughs] No . . .

DW: Because that’s right, that’s perfectly right.

MS: Well, that’s kind of what my thesis was about. I feel like a lot of Crane’s content, in his poetry, is interpreting the rhetorical figures that that content is written in . . . So for example the first couplet in White Buildings, from “Legend,” goes: “As silent as a mirror is believed / Realities plunge in silence by . . .” That couplet is shaped in the form of a rhetorical trope called chiasmus, a sentence where you have two parts and the second part repeats but inverts the first. So you have Ovid saying, “I flee who chases me, and chase who flees me”: The second part repeats the first but then flips it. In Crane’s couplet, “As silent as a mirror is believed / Realities plunge in silence by . . .,” the second line subtly mimics the first; so when he’s using this mirror-like rhetorical trope he’s not writing about love or war, he’s actually writing about mirrors, he’s writing about reflection. So it’s as if the content is interpreting its own rhetorical structure.

DW: What is the meaning of “believed” in the poem—what “believes”?

MS: Say again?

DW: Who is believing? What is believing?

MS: I’m not sure, what do you think?

DW: The poem is itself a mirror. The mirror is believed the way a poem is believed. It’s believed because it’s there.

MS: Right . . .that makes me think how at the same time, the poem admits the idea of narcissism. That first couplet, “As silent as a mirror is believed / Realities plunge in silence by . . . ”—it almost stages that moment when Narcissus is looking at his own reflection in the pond.

DW: You think it’s a pond or a page?

MS: I think [confused] . . . Well, he uses the word “plunge,” which suggests both pond and page.

DW: So who is looking?

MS: My opinion: the language itself. It refuses to be a reference for anything outside of itself.

DW: Okay, let’s begin again. “As silent as a mirror is believed . . .” That is staggering, isn’t it?

MS: Yeah, definitely.

DW: What’s staggering about it?

MS: Hmm . . . mirrors are supposed to be a faithful replication of what’s in them, right? But they’re always changing, they flip what’s in them . . . If you hold text up to a mirror, for example, it’s seen backwards, right? So “As silent as a mirror is believed . . .” I don’t know, what do you think?

DW: Let’s go down a bit more. “As silent as a mirror is believed . . .” Just the action in that is fantastic. We look and see what we see in a mirror, and we believe it. That’s important, the question of belief. The question is: Should we believe what we see in a mirror?

MS: Oh, right. Yeah, that’s fantastic.

DW: The second part of that is: “Realities plunge in silence by . . .” So what keeps multiplying images? The mirror, right? The thing that is believed is a reality.

MS: But it “plunges in silence by . . .” So is it plunging in the mirror?

DW: Yeah. One of the questions it asks is: Is the believer to be believed?

MS: Right.

DW: I look in the mirror. There’s me. What’s in the mirror is not real. So am I unreal? You see that?

MS: Yeah, I see that.

DW: Did you see that before?

MS: No, not before, no.

DW: You did in a way though.

MS: Crane’s poetry to me is unmediated language, it’s immediate, there’s no outside reference. I feel like for Crane to reach that level of language requires sacrifice, maybe almost death, which is why I thought the first couplet has Narcissus in it. After that opening couplet he writes: “I am not ready for repentance; / Nor to match regrets.”

DW: Those are the next lines?

MS: Yeah, that’s the third line: “I am not ready for repentance,” semicolon, “Nor to match regrets.” So it’s as if Crane’s desire is kind of suspended—I am not ready to repent, nor am I ready to match, to equal my sins.

DW: What does that have to do with the mirror?

MS: Okay, so after that he goes: “For the moth / Bends no more than the still / Imploring flame,” which is the figure of Icarus! So in the opening couplet you have Narcissus looking at his own reflection, which is vanity, and then Crane reveals the extreme ambition of Icarus, too . . .

DW: Let me ask you one general question, which is crucial: Do you believe that Crane’s belief in the poem was planned and charted, or did it come as inspiration?

MS: Inspiration, 100%.

DW: Hold on. But with its own logic?

MS: Yes, and that’s the key, that’s why Crane is the top of the top. That’s why he’s a real poet, like you. The poems develop their own internal system of logic.

DW: Since it deals with belief and surfaces, then it has to do with belief and poetry. You see that?

MS: Yeah, absolutely.

DW: How do you see it?

MS: It’s the first couplet again: Mirrors do reflect, so it’s as if they’re superficial, but it’s not a mirror actually, it’s a pool of water, and that has great depth under it.

DW: Well, I think the object is a mirror!

MS: But Crane is saying something is on the other side. That despite the fact that mirrors reflect, that they seem superficial, there is depth to them at the same time.

DW: Are you changing it from a mirror to a pool of water?

MS: I am, because I think that couplet evokes Narcissus, when he’s looking at himself . . .

DW: You’re bigger than that, these Greek evocations. That’s for undergraduate stuff, all these myths.

MS: [Laughs]

DW: I’m not saying that they’re not there . . . but I’m going to jump to a demonstration of Crane’s spectacular gift in metaphor: “O, like the lizard in the furious noon . . .” That’s hair raising, isn’t it?

MS: Yeah, it is. It is.

DW: The lizard is in the middle of “noon.”

MS: Oh, wow.

DW: Physically in the middle of “noon.” You with me?

MS: Yeah, I’m with you. I’ve never thought of that before.

DW: I’m not finished.

MS: [Laughs]

DW: Why “furious”? That’s Elizabethan, it’s Marlowe: “furious noon.” It comes from Tamburlaine.

MS: Crane was obsessed with the Elizabethans.

DW: “O, like the lizard in the furious noon, / That drops his legs and colors in the sun . . .” What we have is the desert . . . Crane goes out into the desert, and it’s high noon: O-O-N . . . Zero, Zero, N . . . Zero, Zero, the face of the sun, and when the sun is depicted at that time of day, it’s depicted with air around it, like . . .

MS: Like the corona . . .

DW: Exactly. It’s angry. It’s angry because it’s hot. So we go back . . . “O, like the lizard in the furious noon, / That drops his legs and colors in the sun . . .” I don’t think I have Crane here. You have Crane?

MS: Yeah, right here.

DW: You look for it.

MS: Is that in his Key West: An Island Sheaf?

DW: The Bridge. Look for, um . . . Do you have first lines?

MS: First lines?

DW: First lines . . . in the index in the back.

MS: Ah, ok . . . No, there’s no first lines . . .

DW: Yeah, I can see them. What’s that there?

MS: No, these are his letters. See if you can find it [hands book to Walcott]. Do you remember when you first found Crane what it was like for you?

DW: Oh, I was young . . . I was reading everything.

MS: Did you write a lot of poetry when you were in school?

DW: Yeah.

MS: I found that so difficult. To do schoolwork and write at the same time.

DW: Ok. Here we go.

MS: You found it?

DW: “O, like the lizard in the furious noon,
That drops his legs and colors in the sun,
—And laughs, pure serpent, Time itself, and moon
Of his own fate, I saw thy change begun!”

The lizard is supposed to lose his legs, right? And guess what happens?

MS: They change color?

DW: Not only color. He “drops his legs.”

MS: Ah, he sheds them. When a bird is about to attack a lizard, it sheds its tail as a decoy . . .

DW: What would physically happen if it lost its legs? What would the shape be?

MS: It’d be an O, wouldn’t it? Oh wow.

DW: Zero. Did you ever see that?

MS: No, never.

DW: There’s always more to see.

MS: It’s inexhaustible.

DW: This is why, in theory, he’s the greatest American poet at that point.

MS: I agree.

DW: So he sees the process of the lizard that he’s looking at dropping his legs because of high noon and becoming a what?

MS: I don’t know.

DW: No legs.

MS: A serpent!

DW: Brilliant. You get it.

MS: That’s incredible.

DW: That is a myth. An Indian myth right there.

MS: Mhm.

DW: So what’s he saying? I’m in the desert. I look down and see this creature lose its legs and tail and become “pure serpent.” But what does that zero do? That O? In terms of time?

MS: Well, zero represents infinity because there’s no beginning or end.

DW: Did he show you that?

MS: I don’t know who showed me that.

DW: “O, like the lizard in the furious noon,
That drops his legs and colors in the sun,
—And laughs, pure serpent, Time itself, and moon
Of his own fate, I saw thy change begun!”

Time itself is in the zero. It’s the symbol of time, of infinity. [He looks again at the book] Jesus Christ, he doesn’t stop . . .

MS: [Laughs]

DW: “And moon / Of his own fate.”

MS: There’s the circle again. It’s turned into the “moon.”

DW: The prophetic moon.

MS: It keeps transferring.

DW: Prophetic! And the phases of the moon are there: half moon, full moon, quarter moon . . .

MS: Wow.

DW: “I saw thy change begun!”

MS: Full moon, half moon, quarter moon, time passing . . .

DW: All the phases you will go through . . . When you read Crane, you come across Eliot and Pound. What do you do?

MS: What do you mean?

DW: Well, what does one do? Coming across Crane coming across Eliot and Pound?

MS: Well, Crane had so much trouble with Eliot. That was his most problematic influence, I think you could say. Eliot did not go down easy for him, like Whitman and Dickinson did. But I don’t know what I’d do when . . .

DW: In terms of poetic theory . . . contrasting the two of them.

MS: Well, Crane is always championing the positive affirmation. Crane is praise, and Eliot is melancholy, negativity, pessimism . . .

DW: No, but in terms of . . . that may be true, but in terms of the technique . . . what is there in Crane practically that is not there in Eliot?

MS: Meter, lots of iambs . . .

DW: Okay, if you stay on meter alone, what is the argument, on both sides?

MS: I don’t know, I’ve always had trouble with meter.

DW: Because you’re an American.

MS: I don’t know what it is.

DW: No, that’s what it is. It sounds forced to you because it’s not William Carlos Williams, it’s not free verse.

MS: Right, right. I remember in high school I had to go to my English teacher and stay after class and have her teach me how to scan lines. We’re not taught meter. We don’t have to talk about this because . . .

DW: Yes, we have to because it’s essential. In other words, the meter of Crane was wrong for Pound and Eliot. Am I correct?

MS: I think so, because they championed free verse.

DW: Wrong!

MS: No?

DW: What did they not champion?

MS: Anachronism, maybe. Did they find Crane anachronistic with his meter?

DW: What is that meter?

MS: Um. Blank verse. He did lots of blank verse.

DW: Right. Pentameter.

MS: But what did Eliot and Pound have against blank verse?

DW: Pound said, “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.”

MS: What does he mean by that?

DW: The first thing we have to do is get rid of the pentameter. To ditch the pentameter. “That was the first heave.” So who was he talking about?

MS: Well he’s talking about himself, his own generation, William Carlos Williams . . .

DW: But what did he say? Why was that heave? Where does it come from?

MS: It comes from the natural rhythm of the English language. People say that we naturally talk in iambic pentameter.

DW: Right. You just did one. “We naturally talk in iambic pentameter.” We do.

MS: The only way I was able to begin hearing inflections and patterns in English was by learning French. And hearing my English speech patterns fucking up my French. That’s the only way I figured out how to hear it.

DW: Well, all of Victorian verse is pentameter.

MS: And that’s what Pound hated. He thought that it was “rotten.”

DW: Certainly in their time, the popular meter was Elizabethan. So it was something to be warned against. Right?

MS: Yeah. So what you’re saying is that Crane, he didn’t follow the rules. Cause he continued in that tradition.

DW: He absolutely ignored the rules. So what did he replace it with?

MS: Replace it with?

DW: You know what, more pentameter.

MS: He turned it up a notch.

DW: Yeah, he went up. “That’s bullshit, listen to this.” He would then do the equivalent of quotations from Marlowe and the Elizabethans.

MS: It’s like your poem “Ruins of a Great House.” That poem is all built on quotations and allusions.

DW: But you have to get this very right. The people who are writing very well . . . Thomas Hardy, right? Hardy was pentametrical, too. And certainly Browning. Isn’t Hart Crane from the fucking Midwest?

MS: Ohio.

DW: Who cares about a kid from the Midwest writing pentameter? It’s stupid. Isn’t it stupid?

MS: It’s bizarre.

DW: Exactly. That’s the same thing as stupid, you’re just using a fancy word. But all that proves is that you can’t fuck around with genius. That’s what he is. And a phenomenal genius because he was gifted.

MS: A prodigy.

DW: Yeah, in a way he was a prodigy, too. And he’s really stubborn, because he writes a whole book, The Bridge, in that meter. The Bridge and The Wasteland and Pound—same period.

MS: Why do you think so many people thought The Bridge was a failure?

DW: A failure? No, no.

MS: No, I don’t think so, but that was the initial response.

DW: Well, what you had was William Carlos Williams saying free verse is “American” verse. Everybody else said that this is “American” verse too. And Crane said . . . he was a drunk, eh?

MS: Yeah, you can’t do that anymore.

DW: Huh?

MS: You can’t be a rockstar like that anymore.

DW: [Laughs] Right. But I think a part of the persistence and the stubbornness had to do with being a drunk, too.

MS: Yeah. Cause he wrote drunk, too.

DW: But it’s bullshit. You can’t write drunk. I once tried it. You ever tried it?

MS: No.

DW: Forget it.

MS: Who wants to write drunk? You want to go out and party.

DW: It was an experiment. I said I’m gonna have six beers and write this masterpiece.

MS: [Laughs]

DW: Total shit. But you would think the impulse for great creativity would come from either alcohol or drugs.

MS: That pitch Crane lived on was always at the highest pitch of ecstasy. He was a poet of ecstasy and excess. So he needed the libations, the music.

DW: But the truth is that the poems are ecstatic.

MS: I totally agree.

DW: And when they’re no good they don’t make any sense. There are reams of Crane that don’t make any sense at all because he’s writing drunk.

MS: There’s some people who say that Crane only wrote good lines, because when you look at a poem as a whole there are passages that . . .

DW: You can’t read The Bridge and say he didn’t write good poems. There are parts of Crane that are as good as American prose, you know, the railroad squatters talking in “The River.” That is great prose stuff.

MS: Yeah, the hobos and stuff . . . there’s this line about them, “Holding to childhood like some termless play,” as if childhood could go on forever.

DW: I think he has to be seen as individualistic.

MS: I agree. He doesn’t fit into the canon very well.

DW: Also, you ever learn pentameter by heart?

MS: Like lines of pentameter? No.

DW: It’s a great kick. Because the meter, like from Marlowe, “Those walled garrisons will I subdue, / And write myself great lord of Africa . . .”

MS: Mhm, right. [Laughs]

DW: Fuck me . . . imagine an actor saying that. And even . . . [says something in Latin]—“O, run slowly, slowly, horses of the night!” Crane loved that sound! But that’s because he was from the Midwest, the middle of nowhere [laughs].

MS: He was from the middle of nowhere, so he could do whatever he wanted!

DW: No, I think it’s a tremendous love that he had for the Elizabethans.

MS: He loved the language that was just . . . “over the top” isn’t the right phrase, but exuberant . . .

DW: What I want you to do for your homework: Reread “The River” tonight. Really read it. You’ll see how it does these great things.

MS: It’s funny how you talk about “The River” because to be honest it was never my favorite passage.

DW: Really?

MS: “The Dance” with Pocahontas, and then “To Brooklyn Bridge,” but I’ll reread “The River,” yes. Has this line ever meant anything to you? “Imponderable the dinosaur sinks slow . . .” that’s one of the weirdest things in Crane’s poetry.

DW: What do you find weird about it?

MS: I don’t understand any of it.

DW: It’s an image of the thing coming out of the mud. You know it.

MS: Oh, as if he’s comparing Cape Hatteras to a dinosaur.

DW: It seems straight to me. “Imponderable the dinosaur,” that’s okay.

MS: Yeah, okay, okay.

DW: Can’t believe it . . .!

MS: And then it’s sinking into the sand . . . okay.

DW: Yeah . . . See, this can be bad Crane, you know? There’s a lot of [makes yucky sound], right? But the contrast is, when it hits . . .

MS: Because, he’s always swinging for the fences, and sometimes you strike out . . .

DW: Almost too often.

MS: [Laughs]

DW: No, really. Making a big hit of the line. He had examples . . . I was teaching it the other day, not Crane, Elizabethan poetry, Doctor Faustus, “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” And then Helen appears to Faust . . . I’m doing Marlowe now, not Crane. But what you’ll see is when the line comes out as Marlowe, it’s also like Crane, and he tried for that because he was capable of doing it as if he were Marlowe . . . when Faust sees Helen, what does he say?

MS: I don’t know.

DW: Everybody knows it: In astonishment at her beauty, he says what? He says, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?”

MS: Of course, yeah, yeah . . . Kind of like St. Lucia, fought over twelve times between the French and the English, the “Helen of the West Indies . . .”

DW: [Laughs] The next line is: “And burnt the topless towers of Illium?” but do you hear that echoing in Crane? That’s what Crane is going for . . .

MS: You can hear the pentameter very easily there.

DW: And of course, famous lines are like, “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” Faustus says that. Like at a sunset . . . Well, I’m extremely pleased that you know your Crane so well.

MS: Thank you.

DW: You teach him?

MS: No. I mean, I’m 26 years old, I just finished my degree.

DW: You know what I do in class? Joseph Brodsky used to do it, too.

MS: What?

DW: Get the class to recite. You ever do that?

MS: No. That’s so important though. It’s like you’re talking about with Shakespeare, to hear the meter. But what I’m trying to do right now is, you know, I’m teaching in Martinique, but then I also write book reviews for this literary magazine back in the states called Rain Taxi. But then I’m just trying to write poems while I’m over here.

DW: Tell me this:

“Elle est retrouveé.
C’est la mer alleé
Avec le soleil.”

MS: Rimbaud.

DW: Isn’t that something? Jesus. Oh, oh, oh!

MS: Exactly. Oh my god. Le Bateau Ivre, it gives me shivers just thinking about it. I found the best translation of Le Bateau Ivre a couple months ago.

DW: By whom?

MS: I don’t even know, I should probably know, but it translates Rimbaud into a contemporary vernacular idioms:

“I followed deadpan Rivers down and down,
And knew my haulers had let go the ropes.
Whooping redskins took my men as targets
And nailed them nude to technicolor posts.”

DW: But what is the French?

MS: I don’t remember it. Uh, I have no idea. That’d be a lot to memorize: The Drunken Boat in French. That’d be a task.

DW: Has there been a reassessment of Hart Crane in American literature? Or people don’t read him?

MS: No, people . . . when he killed himself, that was when his reputation was probably at its lowest. It has definitely been rising. I’ve heard one critic say that Crane constantly needs to be reintroduced, he constantly needs to be defended, it’s just like this perpetual thing, like the myth of Sisyphus . . . but yes, he’s in the syllabi, he’s being taught.

DW: Americans are not brought up with meter. They’re not brought up with poetry. If you try to get them to recite, they’re too embarrassed.

MS: It’s true, I remember.

DW: On the other hand, when you get a class reciting some great poems, it’ll tear your heart out.

MS: Did you have moments like that in Boston?

DW: Oh yeah, all the time. That’s why I’d do it. One I do all the time is Hardy or good Auden. You read Auden?

MS: Yeah, yeah.

DW: So who do you read today?

selectedwalcottDW: Well, when I realized I was going off to Martinique, I thought, okay, what books am I bringing? How can I figure out the Caribbean? So I brought your Selected Poems, and I brought Robert Pinsky, and oh, Theodore Roethke, did you ever read Roethke?

DW: Yeah.

SN: Roethke, r-o-e-t-h-k-e?

MS: Yeah, strange last name, very Polish, very German.

SN: Any more wine? What are we doing now?

DW: Let’s talk.

SN: I didn’t go swimming. I didn’t do my exercises.

MS: No? I’ve skipped the past two weeks, too. It’s the holidays.

SN: I know. My excuse, too.

DW: How would you like to go and eat? All of us.

SN: At the marina? We can go to the marina.

DW: It’s open?

SN: Yeah. It’s open at 6 o’clock. You know the marina?

MS: No, no.

SN: That’s our hangout, down the road.

DW: I wanna go like this then.

SN: You’re going like that, yeah.

DW: Should we call Peter?

SN: Uh, I can call him.

DW: Should we invite him?

SN: If he wants to. But he probably won’t want to. It’s a little late.

DW: What time is it right now?

SN: It’s almost 6:30.

DW: This guy is very bright [pointing to me].

SN: Is he bright?

DW: Very bright.

SN: Not only good looking, he’s bright, too? He’s blushing, that’s cute.

DW: Otherwise he’s the usual North Dakotan idiot.

SN: North Dakota? Or North Carolina?

MS: North Dakota, yeah.

SN: You’re from North Dakota?? Where, Fargo?

MS: Close, Grand Forks.

DW: Fargo?

MS: No, not Fargo.

SN: You know that movie? You know Frances McDormand? She was a student of Derek’s.

MS: Wait, what?

SN: Yeah, she’s great. She’s married to a Cohen.

MS: She’s in a lot of their movies.

SN: She was a student of his in a play at Yale.

MS: Wow.

DW: Sweetheart, I’m getting hungry. Let’s call Peter and come back.


  • Do you remember when you first discovered Hart Crane? There is a magnificent series of video-documentaries called Voices and Visions, where you speak in Hart Crane’s documentary. What has Hart Crane meant to your writing and your reading life? Did his Key West: An Island Sheaf mean anything to you in particular?
  • You wrote an epic poem, or a long poem, and so did Crane. What do you think of The Bridge? In an interview elsewhere you write that Crane “didn’t have a hero in his Bridge. And—I think—that’s why it collapsed. It didn’t’ have a central figure.” Was the poem a failure, as so many critics contend?
  • A wonderful tension I feel in your work has been a need for lyrical intensity coupled with narrative drive. One can think of The Schooner Flight, for example. How do you view these two different aspects in your poetry—are they complimentary or antagonistic forces? Did you ever feel a conscious necessity to reconcile them in any way for your art? I also know this was one problem people saw in The Bridge: how Crane tried to fashion an epic out of lyrical sequences, that there was some kind of fundamental problem of genre in his poem. Do you think narrative poems have a place in the 21st century, or should narrative remain wholly the work of novelists, for example?
  • There is a well-known passage in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast where he describes how he learned to depict landscape in his writing by studying the paintings of Cézanne. Can you explain how your painting has influenced your poetry, and vice versa? Has your writing been likewise influenced by specific painters or painting styles?
  • There’s a remarkable passage in a letter by Keats that I would like to discuss with you. In the letter Keats is describing how he is giving up ‘Hyperion’ because it is too ‘Miltonic’ and ‘artful.’ Later on in the letter he suggests an experiment—that his reader pick out some lines from the poem and put an ‘x’ next to the ‘false beauty proceeding from art’ and a double line next to ‘the true voice of feeling.’ There’s something incredibly fascinating about Keats’ desire to separate mere ‘art’ (which led to falseness) from what he calls ‘the true voice of feeling.’ Mr. Walcott, how do you know when you’ve written a poem that comes from ‘the true voice of feeling’ rather than the ‘false beauty proceeding from art’? Where does a poem start for you? In a line, in prosody, meter, image, rhyme?
  • When you look at the careers of a lot of poets, it takes them a long time to produce their first book. I think Robert Frost was 36 or 37 years old when he published his first book of poems. But you showed remarkable confidence early on in your career. You self-published when you were 19 years old, for example. Where did that confidence come from? I know you knew early on you wanted to be a poet, but a sense of vocation doesn’t automatically come with the necessary confidence. Also, you did the other thing, you continued to last and never were a one-hit wonder. Where did your endurance come from?
  • I’d like to begin this question by quoting you from another interview. “I come from a place that likes grandeur,” you write. “It likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a rhetorical society; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style. The highest achievement of style is rhetoric, as it is in speech and performance. It’s better to be large and to make huge gestures than to be modest and do tiptoeing types of presentations of oneself” (Paris Review). I feel, in American poetry at least, that a lot of it is smugly ironic, or understated, or overly intellectual, or that it is afraid of the grand gesture, it is afraid to approach the grand subjects—death, god, love, whatever—for fear of getting them wrong or of simply being cliché. It is almost as if the great subjects were no longer the business of poetry. What do you make of this? Can poetry in the 21st century still approach the grand subjects with vigor or have they been permanently coopted by other more contemporary artistic mediums?
  • At base, what is the impulse to write poetry? An act of naming, an act of benediction, or . . .?
  • It has been six years since you’ve published White Egrets. What does that book mean to you now? How did it mark a turn in your writing style? I feel like the trajectory of your aesthetic marks an opening, your lines have become much plainer than they were in In a Green Night, for example. Do you agree with that sentiment?
  • You’re an amazing travel writer. How do you write when you travel? Do you take time out of the actual travel time to write, or do you write after all the traveling is done, or both?
  • To begin this question, I’m wondering if I could recite a passage to you from your essay What The Twilight Says: “After one had survived the adolescence of prejudice there was nothing to justify. Once the New World black had tried to prove that he was as good as his master, when he should have proven not his equality but his difference. It was this distance that could command attention without pleading for respect . . . Yet most of our literature loitered in the pathos of sociology, self-pitying and patronized . . . And their poems remained laments, their novels propaganda tracts, as if one general apology on behalf of the past would supplant imagination, would spare them the necessity of great art. Pastoralists of the African revival should know that what is needed is not new names for old things, or old names for old things, but the faith of using the old names anew.” Do you think the young Caribbean writer has made progress toward renaming its world, that the Caribbean writer has made progress toward great art that is beyond the foibles of the past?
  • American universities were once a safe place for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, however, they have become places of censure and prohibition. In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like or find harmful. I’m thinking in particular of concepts like trigger warnings, macroaggressions, safe spaces, basically what has been articulated as the coddling of the American mind. What is your opinion of the extraordinary fragility that most American students and young people now demonstrate? Is this helpful for the study of literature in particular? Is this how we should be experiencing literature?
  • “How do you balance the need to become a great poet with the need to become a great man? Is there a point, at which the effort of writing and putting one’s life and one’s thoughts into words comes at a cost to what one could contribute to a community, to a neighborhood, to a family, to relationships?”
  • Do you have any advice to young writers embarking out on a career in poetry? I know when the same question was asked of T.S. Eliot, he said to find something else to do. What does it take to be a poet?
Click here to purchase Selected Poems of Derek Walcott at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase White Egrets at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

The Defender

thedefenderHow the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America
From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama

Ethan Michaeli
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($32)

by Spencer Dew

Journalistic style exists along a spectrum, from the terse, skim-conducive relay of stats and facts to the immersive long-form, unraveling complexities. Ethan Michaeli’s book The Defender is an example of the first, which is a profound disappointment considering the richness of his subject matter and the relevancy critical analysis of it would hold for our country’s current racial crises.

The first problem here is one of chronological scale. To offer a survey of the history of this storied newspaper, one simply needs more space (and this is already a very long book). A seeming lack of journalistic discipline comes into play here, too; Michaeli’s narrative lacks focus, gives too much time to tangents. We learn a great deal about the adventures of aviatrix Bessie Coleman, but this feels like a side project. The final two chapters offer an autobiographical coda, likewise misplaced.

The subtitle, as thesis, points to a second stumbling block. Michaeli wants to convince his readers of the Defender’s ongoing relevance. This may not be a winnable fight, but the strategy employed here, which hinges on the fact that the Defender played a role in Obama’s rise to prominence, is not merely thin as an argument but reduces “relevance” to mere electoral impact while simultaneously presenting The Defender as anachronistically monolithic. The paper’s role in the age of the Pullman Porters was not its role in 2008. The newspaper that brought about the Great Migration, pushed for anti-lynching legislation, and called attention to the hypocrisy of black soldiers dying for democracy overseas while unable to experience it at home is, indeed, the same newspaper that sponsors the yearly Bud Billiken parade, an event that is at once family-friendly entertainment and an old-school Chicago style king-making event. But The Defender is not today what it once was; to pretend otherwise does a disservice to the past as well as to the multivalent media present, misrepresenting the newspaper’s uniqueness and ignoring context.

On the early years, under founding editor Robert Abbott, Michaeli heats up content covered with more spice in Roi Ottley’s classic The Lonely Warrior. Oddly, he opts to clean up some parts, playing down the emphasis on shock and titillation and absolving The Defender of any role in inciting retaliatory violence during the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. Michaeli seems to regret the presence of “salacious details” in the newspaper, and does not address the claim, advanced by Ottley, that Abbott knew some of the lynching stories he published to be fictional, justifying their publication with the fact that much racist violence went unknown. On the Race Riot, Michaeli’s Abbott remains cool and high-minded, pleading to his readers that “this is not time to solve the race question”; no mention is made of salaciousness in coverage here, nor of “box scores” of the dead and wounded run as a daily tally. Michaeli’s Abbott, ultimately, is a cardboard, one-note guy; he is motivated merely by the “belief that what African American people needed was a newspaper that would ‘wake them up,’ expose the atrocities of the southern system, and make demands for justice.” This ignores at least two fascinating and interwoven factors in the newspaper’s development: the media milieu in which it was competing for a name and the elaborate system of class and status in the Black Metropolis of Chicago’s South Side. Of its rival papers, The Chicago Bee gets only one notice in the whole book, but competition between The Defender and it and The Whip helped shape not only the distinctive voice and focus of The Defender but also its high society niche.

Michaeli offers some nice details on Big Bill Thompson’s important 1927 mayoral reelection campaign. As a corrective to the more widely known narrative of Mayor Anton Cermak as the coalition builder who united the mosaic of ethnic Chicago, Thompson’s outreach to (and dependence on) voters in the African American wards needs to be known. Michaeli’s attention to the racist propaganda his Democratic opponents used against him remains timely in this election season.

Michaeli also locates Abbott as following in the footsteps of Ida B. Wells, but with the editor’s famous feud with Marcus Garvey he is particularly negligent, rehashing clichés while not only once again removing some of the vinegar from the story but also refusing to reconsider the actions and players involved. Garvey especially is past due for reconsideration (Sylvester Johnson, now at Northwestern University, recently reframed Garvey in response to colonialism, which will shape how people think about Garvey’s career for some time) but Michaeli does not bother. Abbott’s beef with the Jamaican is likewise, surely, about far more than differing thoughts on race. That the men were competing in the newspaper business might be worthy of consideration. Abbott goes to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to help bring down Garvey, which is a stunning move, in retrospect. This is precisely what I mean when I say that the subject matter here is rich. Michaeli, however, gives us a treatment that is not just tepid, but reads as troublingly dismissive, as when he states that Garvey

appointed his own ambassadors, generals, and cabinet members, bestowing titles on his followers such as ‘Supreme Potentate’ or ‘Lady Commander of the Order of the Nile.’ Many of his American followers, though they had no intention of ever leaving the country, seized on the chance to transform themselves, even for just one day, by exchanging their workaday clothes for uniforms and marching proudly through the heart of their city.

Not only did Garvey, with such uniforms, change America (consider the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, to name two post-Garveyite movements), he was also tweaking an established fraternal society form (which dominates the pages, in words and photographs, of the Chicago Defender in the early twentieth century). Again, context is strikingly absent in Michaeli’s coverage. We hear, in these pages, that Abbott becomes a Baha’i, but we learn nothing about that religion’s relation to Chicago, nor do we hear how scathing (and often hilariously so) Abbott’s Defender was on religion. Michaeli presents the conversion as mere rejection of Christianity’s connection to racism; this oversimplifies Abbott’s interest in—and, really, proselytization for, in the pages of his newspaper—Baha’i, and it overlooks his equally passionate distaste for what he took to be metaphysical hokum or the hypocrisy of faith-for-sale. On the Great Migration, Michaeli tells us about a Tribune editorial entitled “Black Man, Stay South!” but we never hear about The Defender’s own warnings to new migrants about propriety (including similar sentiments urging those Southerners who don’t learn to behave—in the case of one cartoon, this involves fishing, shoeless, from city bridges—to head back to the South.) Abbott and his newspaper deserve a reading with more analysis.

After Abbott’s tenure, Michaeli chugs along, hitting major moments in history until, without explanation, he more or less skips the 1970s and 1980s. Again, odd editorial choices reign: the Jackson Five are mentioned, but there’s no coverage of either of Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids. Then we get to those final chapters, and history gives way to memoir. “Working at The Defender allowed me to see the truth about America,” Michaeli writes, “that ‘race’ is a pernicious lie that permeates our laws and customs, revived in each generation by entrenched interests that threaten to undermine the entire national enterprise, just as it is challenged in each generation by a courageous few who believe that this nation can truly become a bastion of justice and equality.” This, if you’ll pardon the pun, offers a black-and-white reading of a dynamic that any issue of The Defender shows to be complex. As the problem of race in America has increasing, unbearable urgency, we could all use some clear and critical analysis of The Defender’s robust and multivalent role throughout history. This, unfortunately, is not that book.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016