Monday, September 21, 2009

Robert Pinsky, David Chin, and me

I certainly do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with the other two poets. But for a few days in July, I did share a place with them.

For two consecutive summers, the Chautauqua Institution has been part of the summer for Pam and me. It is a unique place, a combination New England historic village, educational salon, lakeside resort, and religious haven. For me, each session has been an affirmation in poetry.

We had no concept of the broad array of classes and seminars available each week. Last year, I attended a poetry reading on the first Sunday and learned that the poet-in-residence, Susan Grimm, held a daily seminar. Pam convinced me to go. This year I registered early, and it proved to be an interesting week with David Chin, a poet who has childhood roots in the same upstate valleys from whence we came. He asked me to read one of my poems as a prelude to a lecture he gave on poetry and the paintings of Edward Hopper; I read my own ekphrastic poem, Hudson River School From the Train, 5:00AM, which can be found here; David Chin is in the middle of the seminar attendees in the pic above.

But that wasn’t the most unique part of this year’s session.

Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States in the late 1990s, attended Chautauqua for two days during the week we were there. His project for the past 10 years has been the Favorite Poem Project, in which he asks people to read a favorite poem and describe its significance to their lives. The project has resulted in three anthologies, all in hardcover, and a website. The Chautauqua Literary & Scientific Circle, and the Writer’s Center, solicited submissions for a public reading on that Thursday afternoon in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy; a dozen submissions were to be accepted. I was picked.

Pinsky was very clear in his directions to us that afternoon: we were to bring no notes (‘if you do, I will chase you off the podium!’), describe why this poem is important to us, and then read the poem. I read Ann Sexton’s poem, Snow.

An account of the poetry reading, and a few pictures, can be found in The Chautauquan Daily of July 25, 2009, which is archived here. I am very grateful to the Writer’s Center, CLSC, and David Chin for the wonderful week of poetry.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


Tick Tock

So many lines of thought lost,
the discipline of words, failed.
I did not pick up the pen,
scratch paper,
grab the journal
and pour it out,
even in fragments.

The color and image fades
unadorned, turned to gray.
The picture may have been
a cartoon, may have been deep
with rising shape. But
I never tried.

We bring coffee to Andrea whenever we get a haircut or style. Well, Pam gets the latter; Andrea just cuts mine. It’s part of the tradition. Andrea just laughs and says that Pam has us all well trained. I had an 8:30AM appointment last Saturday, so instead of the usual Stewart’s coffee, I got the gift cup at the coffee shop on the front corner of Andrea’s building. The young woman at the counter gave me a frequent coffee card, and I mentioned that I would be back for my own coffee after my appointment.

I came back 30 minutes later and got a coffee and a blueberry muffin. I can’t just sit and stare out the window. Generally, I read the paper or magazine. Lacking that, I found a magnetic poetry board and began building. I don’t remember the result, but I was happy with it. And I was also very content, unrushed, in no hurry to move on.

Clearly for me, there is achievement and accomplishment in building something with words. Construction, using different tools: a mental dictionary that translates images, pen on paper, keyboard to screen. Translating images into new buildings, moving words into lines and lines into taller verses, even laying out an incongruous structure with tilted frame or sloping roof. A viewer needs to decipher or rebuild the structure to their own mental image, using their own language through eyes, lips, even ears.

Some will see what I saw. Some will see a different image. Some will tear down and build to their liking. Others will just shrug and keep on walking by.

Not every building draws attention. And as the poem above illustrates, not every building gets beyond the thinking stage.