Ted Kooser is on my mind. He served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004-2006, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his book Delights & Shadows, published by Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Washington. His hardcover volume Kindest Regards: New & Selected Poems, 2018, was also published by Copper Canyon. He teaches poetry writing at the University of Nebraska, where his position is Presidential Professor, and he edits a syndicated column titled American Life in Poetry, which appears in 150 newspapers with a total of 3.5 million readers. I am delighted to know that my poem “A Wedding Toast” is scheduled for June 24th this year. The online address for Ted’s column is: www.americanlifeinpoetry.org.
It has been many years since Ted and I have been together in person, but I’ve always considered him a good friend. I am reminded that the first collection of his poetry I purchased was a chapbook titled Twenty Poems, which is a beautiful hand-set letterpress book, with a cover of heavy, textured paper with a deckel-edged cover published in 1973 by The Best Cellar Press in Crete, Nebraska. The price noted on the back cover was “letterpress: two dollars” and “signed: four dollars.” The bio on the last page notes that his first book, titled Official Entry Blank, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1969.
I’ve just re-read a short story I had gotten published 52 years ago in the Fall, 1967 issue of Wisconsin Review, edited by Sharon Ann Woolweber and several other students at Wisconsin State University: Oshkosh. At that time I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Later I would transfer to Oshkosh.
My story is titled “Ten Fingers.” When the young boy in the story was a baby, the house cat bit one of his fingers—which became infected and had to be amputated.
While in Oshkosh, I was taking literature and art courses. During the break between the two hours of an oil-painting class, the professor came up to me and said he had read my story. Which was exciting. He then suggested that I change my major to English so I could study literature and take creative writing classes. Well, that is what I did, and in the Spring of 1970, when I was graduating, my creative writing teacher suggested I enter the Book-of-the Month Club poetry completion. That is how I won my first national award, and the fellowship provided enough money to take a year off after graduation, and spend it writing poetry full-time.
My wife Lois and I moved to Pullman, Washington. We’d gotten married in Wisconsin in 1966, and had spent our late honeymoon in Eugene, Oregon, where we fell in love with the Pacific Northwest. So when it came time to choose a graduate program, I applied to Washington State University in Pullman, where I was accepted for a creative writing Masters degree. However, we quickly discovered that Eastern Washington was not the Northwest we loved. So I spent only my first year of grad school there, then accepted a great offer from Cornell University to get my MFA degree, while teaching poetry writing classes myself. Ithaca, New York was a gorgeous place to live. The rest is well-documented history.
Today, February 4, 2019, I just finished reading Cathedrals & Parking Lots, Collected Poems of Clemens Starck. Wonderful!
As an author of six books of poetry, he has been widely enjoyed by both readers and audience members at his public performances. Clemens Starck will be a featured poet at Pelican Bay Books in Anacortes, WA at 7pm Friday, February 8th, 2019. His new volume includes 242 pages of poetry, and his range of subject matter and style is impressive. His poems typically include physical details, and always have something interesting to say. If I were still a member of the Before Columbus Foundation in Berkeley, I would definitely choose this book for a 2019 American Book Award.
Clem lives in the foothills of the beautiful Coast Range in Western Oregon, where he has made his living as a carpenter and construction foreman. Early on he was a student at Princeton University, and later worked as a merchant seaman.
Cathedrals & Parking Lots was published this year by Empty Bowl in Anacortes, Washington. The $20 price for a book this hefty is a good deal, especially because the poet is brilliantly original.
The good news is that the volume I spent months editing last year is now in print—Last Call: The Anthology of Beer, Wine & Spirits Poetry. It was published by World Enough Writers in Tillamook, Oregon, and includes 177 poems by 154 poets from 31 states and four countries. It is 302 pages long, and includes single-paragraph bios on each poet. Beautifully designed and well-printed. Lana Ayers, the publisher at World Enough Writers, is totally top-niche!
As I edited this anthology, I chose poems that in some manner refer to alcohol. In some cases there was simply a beverage mentioned, in other poems alcohol was a central issue. It might seem surprising how many different poets have written poems that involve alcohol. And many of the poets are widely published and well-known, including Ellen Bass, Sheila Bender, Allen Braden, Timons Esaias, Paul Hunter, Sibyl James, Tod Marshall, John Morgan, Sheila Nickerson, Robert Michael Pyle, Michael Waters and Koon Woon.
In 1967, after I’d been a student at Wisconsin State College in Stevens Point, and the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I decided I wanted to head West, or Southwest, to finish my Bachelors and get a graduate degree in Creative Writing. I had first been an Art major, then a Creative Writing major as an undergrad, and because I was already having some success in getting published, I figured I might receive a fellowship, or teaching assistantship as a grad student. The two universities that seemed attractive were the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and the University of Oregon in Eugene — so I flipped a coin, which came up Eugene. My wife and I moved there in the Spring of 1968, where she got a job at the local Public Library, and I was employed by the University of Oregon bookstore. I was still an undergraduate, and didn’t, however, get accepted for the undergraduate program at the University because several of the courses listed on my transcript did not match any at Oregon, and if they did accept me, graduating would take too long.
Whenever I’d hear about a poet who was scheduled to give a reading, either at the University or at a venue in town, I would see if the bookstore stocked any books by that poet. If I found one, or more, I’d buy a copy, then bring it along to the reading to get it autographed. That way I made contact with a number of respected poets from the region. I also would read current and back issues of Northwest Review—published by the University of Oregon creative writing program—and paid particular attention to the poets whose biographical notes indicated they were from the Northwest.
I mentioned in a letter to Morris Edelson, editor of Quixote magazine and press back in Madison (who had published me a number of times) that I was very impressed by how many top-notch poets there were in the Northwest. He then invited me to assemble an anthology of those poets, and he would publish it. The editor of Northwest Review allowed me access to their files, so I then had contact information for the poets whose work interested me.
My Northwest Poets anthology, which included 83 poems by 43 poets, was published in 1968. It includes Gary Snyder, Canadian poet Stanley Cooperman, Ralph Salisbury (editor of Northwest Review), Sandra McPherson, Howard McCord who later chaired the Creative Writing programs at Washington State University, and Bowling Green University in Ohio, and Joan Swift.
Among the poets was William Stafford, who I’d met when I had been invited to participate in a group reading in Portland. Bill and I became good friends, and I stayed in touch by mail after moving back to Wisconsin later that year. He was always ready to comment on any new poems I’d send him. Years later, after grad school at Cornell, I was on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati, and convinced the Creative Writing program to invite Stafford to be a featured visiting poet. I was asked to introduce him. Following my introduction, he walked to the center of the stage, and stood there for a moment. He then pulled his sweater off, and dropped it to the floor. While that seemed unusual, it was even more surprising that he had not carried any of his books or manuscripts with him. He then began to pull papers out of his pockets, unfold them, and read his beautiful poems. Here’s a Stafford poem from the anthology.
There was a town out west of
Abilene called “Terror.” Guns there
went off when you let go of the trigger.
Every Saturday night weaklings would falter,
kill people. You always prayed
strength to your enemies.
Hickok, Eisenhower, and those others
braced in their cartridge corsets
had to work long hours, in Abilene,
but in Terror even the trees had religion,
and when rain brought messages, cactus itself
felt love. That’s what a trembling kid,
a refugee, told me.
When he saw how weak my hand was
he cried out: “Terror! Terror!
My name is Billy.”
This poem was first published in 1969 by Anachoreta Press in a book titled Stone-Marrow. The book was handset letterpress by an MFA student, Gayle Scherin Davis, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. My poem “The Red Dress” is the first poem in that publication.
A Seasonal Poem
This is happening.
Outside my window
a small girl staggers
with the weight
of a hunk of snow. Now
she is breaking it
against a tree. My hands
Outside the window
the same girl now
is on her back, she moves
first one leg then
the other, first one arm
then all at once
There are angels covering
the lawn. Where their thighs
the green grass pushes
for sun. My winter
is melting. Pieces of angels
break against my limbs.
The brilliant Olympia, Washington poet Lucia Perillo, one of the few I’ve known who’ve received the amazing MacArthur Fellowship, has recently died. She was not only fabulously talented, she was a very sweet person. I’ll never forget how, several years ago when I was a featured poet at a venue in Olympia, she attended my reading by traveling alone, across the city, in her wheelchair. I highly recommend that all who are visiting my blog get your hands on a copy of her extraordinary volume of poetry titled Inseminating the Elephant. It was published in 2009 by the Northwest’s most prestigious independent poetry publisher: Copper Canyon Press, in Port Townsend, WA.
I have been reading, with significant delight, a volume of poetry by Timons Esaias, titled Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek. It was published this year by Concrete Wolf (Kingston, Washington), and was the winner of the 2015 Louis Award. Poets who are age 50 or older, and have not previously had a full volume of poetry published, are eligible for the Louis Award Series. I had not been familiar with this poet, who teaches at Seton Hill University, near Pittsburgh—where he lives.
He can be very clever and funny in his poems, and sometimes hair-raisingly serious. Here’s his example of in-your-face cleverness:
is an affectation
of those who
can’t fill the page,
even get the line all the way across.
Esaias is extraordinarily erudite about history and literature.
And not without pungent opinions. Here’s a passage from
“Like An Old War Horse”:
Safely in the ground lies the last war horse,
three or four decades now; and more than a century
is gone since any horse, trained to gunpowder,
joined, nostrils flaring, in a proper charge
Were I still a creative writing professor, I would use this volume
as a textbook. Mainly because he is very effective at getting
the reader right into the place, or concept, of his poems.
One of the few concerns I have about this extraordinary volume
is the rather ornate type-font used for the cover, which
actually makes it challenging to read.
Ishmael Reed was the founder of the still active Before Columbus Foundation down in Oakland, California. That organization has, for years, identified books for the American Book Awards. I noted yesterday that I am still listed as a Before Columbus Foundation board member, and for a number of years was empowered to choose books to receive American Book Awards.