Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Icing on the Louisville Cake

The conference formerly known as the Twentieth Century Literature Conference wound down just this past Saturday, but several returning participants have already begun posting photos and reports. Among them, I'd advise you make a call at Tom Orange's blog site, a link to which you can find over there on the lower right of this site if you just scroll down to the "persons of interest" category.

This is a conference I've found to be really useful over the years, and so it was particularly gratifying when I received an invitation to be one of the plenary speakers at this year's sessions. At first I was a bit worried about being the last thing on the conference program, but as things turned out I was in the end not just the final plenary speaker on the critical side of things, but the only plenary speaker giving a critical talk.

I flew down Wednesday so that I would be sure to make the opening session, a reading by novelist Maryse Conde. Weather, as weather would, intervened, wiping out Conde's reading, the other scheduled plenary critical talks, and an entire day of panels. As the last person left the bus from the hotel that first morning, a campus security guard poked her head out of her gazebo to tell us not to let our bus leave. The campus was closing down tight in the face of an approaching ice storm, and everything was off. This was a resourceful group, though, and on the bus ride back to the hotel one of the presenters suggested that we try to organize ourselves into a spontaneous conference in exile, a sort of tennis court oath of critics and authors. And so we did. For the rest of that day, people came and went as we took up residence on the mezzanine level of the hotel, whose staff were never quite sure what to make of us -- it was far more fun than any of us could have expected and heartening to see that many scholars from wide-ranging disciplines actually cooperating with one another.

By the next day things were relatively back to normal at the University of Louisville campus (and one of the organizers made sure I got to meet Conde, which more than made up for missing her reading). I did regret not getting the promised first night pizza party, but I especially enjoyed the conference dinner, where I sat at a table with some of the presenters I'd met during the long day of iced-in conferencing.

Alan Golding has for years been hosting a sort of closing party for this conference, to which this year he added an open reading. I had neither my poems nor my glasses with me, so didn't throw in with the others. I also didn't have my camera with me -- but I did, of course, have a cell phone, hence these few records of the evening. More and better photos will emerge elsewhere on the web, but this will give you a sense of how poets, lovers, and lovers of poetry broke the ice one year in Kentucky.

Monday, February 25, 2008


here's a new chapbook from New York poet Laura Hinton. The title makes reference to a literary work that some of my younger readers may not recognize. Here's the complete classic verse, which appears as a sort of refrain in Hinton's piece: "Ask any mermaid you happen to see, / "what's the best tuna?" "Chicken of the Sea."

and here's a passage from the chapbook:

She has the head of a woman and the body of a bird. A fish, the tail of a fish. She does not wear a mask

I am watching her swim and I am five years old. I have decided to call her Gloria. Gloria is gorgeous in
her tail and fins. A man on a loud speaker asks her to do something under the water. He does not call her
by name

Ask any mermaid you happen to see

I am reading while she's swimming. I am crouched down deep in the back floor of a 1960 Oldsmobile. We are driving around Lake Okeechobee on the way to Miami -I am five years old. We're driving around the lake in this 1960 Oldsmobile and I'm deep down in the pocket of the floor facing the back seat. The road winds around the lake, steep and slanting down towards the lake. I always think we're falling into the water. I think my whole family will drown. Somehow we always manage to get to Miami without drowning. My family is going to Miami to visit my distant cousin's family. My distant cousin is only three and has long black tresses her mother combs back into a pony tail. Every time I visit my distant cousin, I like to watch her mother comb my cousin's long tresses. My mother makes me cut my hair short. So I stick a nylon stocking on my head and pretend to have long tresses like my distant cousin. It feels right but looks ridiculous. Every morning the mother of my distant cousin combs her
long tangled hair back into a smooth wave

We never slide into Lake Okeechobee while driving around it in the Oldsmobile. But when I am eight and living in Rapid City, I read a Reader's Digest article about a woman who drives off the road around Lake Okeechobee and falls into the lake. She remains in the car with the windows rolled up. The water pressure holds the window panes tight. The woman can't get out. I read that she dies -not of drowning, but of suffocation

I learn to swim early. But I never learn to swim well. I only make the Minnow's Club at the downtown YMCA in Rapid City. I never pass the test for Fish. . . .

Laura Hinton's Ask Any mermaid is published by Tout Court Editions, Tenement Press. For more information, contact:

Monday, February 18, 2008





Sunday, February 17, 2008


. . . Just back from a quick trip to London for a conference, about which more later . . . My first day was reserved for a visit to the British Museum. The UK has been mounting a series of events and exhibits to commemorate the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade -- Having just reread a number of contemporary American sermons and speeches on that event by early African American activists and intellectuals, I was curious to see how the subject was being treated in England. One of my more skeptical hosts told me that it had largely become a celebration of Britishness. That may not be entirely fair, judging from accounts I've read, but I wanted to see how the subject had been treated at the British Museum. Which is how I came to seek out the exhibit titled "THE INHUMAN TRAFFIC." I knew such an exhibit had been mounted, because I saw a poster for it as I entered the building. Still, it took the helpful museum staff quite a few minutes of staring at a muesum map and scratching their heads before they could direct me to the very small room dedicated to this large event. Turns out it was just off a grand hall filled with Greek antiquities.

I was, despite all that, gratified by the number of people who had also sought out this small exhibit, and by the conversations I heard among the visitors. Here are just a few quick shots from the exhibit.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Caroline Dubois - YOU ARE THE BUSINESS

For many years now, Burning Deck Press has been publishing SERIES D' ECRITURE, an annual volume of contemporary French writing in English translation. This year brings us number 20 in the series, YOU ARE THE BUSINESS, by Paris-based poet Caroline Dubois.

The book has been translated by Cole Swenson and is available in the USA from Small Press Distribution.


I wonder what the difference is between what you
catch and what you create and what it rums into
and where.

What it turns into I wonder -mamma oh la la
mamma I wonder what it turns into oh I wonder
into what into what.

How does it turn into what you catch or those you
catch and then those you create and if you create
them then with what mamma with what.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Speaking last night in Richmond, Barack Obama became the first candidate in this year's presidential race to assert that learning how to read poetry should be a part of every child's education in the United States.

One trusts that this will be taken up in the next round of debates.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


Newly out from the University of Georgia Press is the first full length book from poet Dawn Lundy Martin. A GATHERING OF MATTER, A MATTER OF GATHERING is described by Nathaniel Mackey as "a long song of bodily bereavement . . . an always agile colloquy of image and assertion . . ."
Dawn is part of the BLACK TOOK COLLECTIVE and is a cofounder of the Third Wave Foundation. I first heard her poetry in Iowa City some years ago and was taken, as one would expect in the presence of the Black Took Collective. She's now teaching in Pittsburgh. Here's a short selection from the book:
There were robberies and thieves, deft cutting into and savaging,
portents like a yelling and a tree. What would come now
that the drifting had begun? Now that the swinging, inconsistent
with landscapes (what cyclones left) in the darkness of this bereft body.
A thing ungroomed.