Maybe the most remarkable thing about tracking, consuming, and digesting large amounts of media and culture on a regular basis is discovering the gaps. How have I read so many essays by Chuck Klosterman, yet none of the novels of Michael Ondaatje and Isabelle Allende? Listened to so much Sufjan Stevens but (until recently) so little Rilo Kiley? Watched so much Lost and House and Weeds but am only now seeking out Dexter and Californication? Did Jose Feliciano really receive death threats after publicly altering the chords to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” playing an acoustic version of the national anthem during the 1968 World Series? Is everyone doing this Facebook thing except me? How can nearly every Camera Obscura song be so damn good?
Large gaps in poetry knowledge are, sadly, unremarkable. There are so many talented poets writing today that you only discover by recommendation, through proximity, or via dumb luck. I recently purchased Mark Doty’s Fire To Fire: New and Selected Poems. It’s an amazing collection. I had always known Doty by reputation, but had only read some of his poems online and in anthologies, here and there. Taken all at once, they are amazing, ranging from meditations on death and dying, to lyrical celebrations of youthful love and innovation, to narratives about walking in New York City and thinking about Buddhist proverbs among inconsiderate drivers. Knowing Doty’s work and adding it to my poetry collection is sort of like buying a nice jacket that you wear everywhere: how did I ever get around without it?
I re-purchased two of my favorite poetry books last week, Catherine Bowman’s 1-800-HOT-RIBS and Jay Snodgrass’s Monster Zero. I had lent both out to friends at some point, and they never came back. I discovered both of these collections while a graduate student at FIU. Jay graduated from FIU a couple of years ahead of me, and remains a good friend. People often mistake both of us for a famous actor. In the spring of 2006, before I flew to Romania, I took a weekend poetry workshop in Miami with Bowman, who struck me as one of the sharpest and most well-read poetry minds around. Her third collection, Notarikon, is also a favorite. So many people seem to end up on my blog after google-searching either “Catherine Bowman” or “Spice Night” (one of Katie’s favorite poems, which I posted here last July), so I know I’m not alone in my admiration. I keep hoping that one day it will turn out she was google-ing herself all this time, and so will leave a post saying “Hey, I remember you!” but so far no luck.
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is the second song on Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album. Loosely re-telling the story of the E Street Band’s formation, the song is upbeat, vibrant, and rocks hard in the way that many of Springsteen’s best songs do, loudly, behind a tight rhythm section. The lyrics are clever and beautiful, if a little elliptical (Springsteen claims he still has no idea what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” is). It’s the sort of song you get more out of with the lyrics in front of you, while you’re listening, and then, still, you kind of wonder. When it was released, people listening to the song on the radio loved it, but could never figure out the words to the chorus, and so had no idea what to request when they called the radio station. The song floundered, then disappeared from rotation. Today, it’s a fan favorite, with Clarence Clemon’s tenor out front, and has been featured on all of Springsteen’s tours with the E Street Band.
I’ve always wondered how Springsteen’s made the band work so well over the years. Here’s where I’ll most likely expose some wild ignorance about the band’s general back-story and evolution through the years. It seems like there are a lot of personalities, and much talent, to keep above water, especially over the course of such a long association (nearly 36 years to date). I do know that the drummer, Max Weinberg, has a separate regular gig as Conan O’Brien’s backing bandleader; the guitarist Steve Van Zandt played Silvio on The Sopranos; Patti Scialfa is Springsteen’s second (and current) wife; and Roy Bittan is one of those names you drop among rock/musically knowledgeable strangers for some instant cache. Springsteen wrote one song, “Bobby Jean,” about Van Zandt, as a kind of acknowledgement of their closeness at a time when Van Zandt left the band for a while, believing Springsteen had lost his musical way.
In the Stegner program last week, we work-shopped the first part of “Katie Ghazals,” the series of ghazals that I wrote for the one-year anniversary of Katie’s death. I had mixed feelings about bringing them to workshop. On the one hand, I wanted to sort of ground people’s understanding of the writing that I do and on which I want feedback. Most of my current writing reflects on aspects of Katie’s life, our time together, and her place in my life. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be that guy who brings personal tragedy into the public forum and then plays/insists on his colleagues’ sympathies. In the end, I did what felt riskier, and feels, now, like it was the right thing. It’s good for me to hear where these poems work and don’t work, from talented writers/readers who didn’t know Katie personally.
Another benefit has been to hear what other people see going on in these poems. Ken Fields, the professor teaching workshop this quarter, pointed out a line in the second of the eleven ghazals, “Indianapolis,” in which I talk about how I always wanted to hit traffic outside of Lafayette, so that we’d have a little more time together getting back to Chicago, listening to Lucinda Williams. Writing it in the ghazal, given the context, that line obviously expresses a desire for more time together, and references indirectly Katie’s death. However, when I wrote it, I didn’t see that—I was just trying to capture what, for me, was an essential and favorite part of knowing and spending time with Katie. Alongside ideas about lines, diction, the general order of things, etc. this sort of feedback is genuinely therapeutic. There exists for other people a vast potential of things I intended to say and said, alongside many things that make a lot of sense, which I didn’t always see myself doing as I did it. It’s like something that Campbell McGrath told us in workshop at FIU—to let someone else be the expert about what you do and say in your poems, because chances are they’ll always see more than you do.
“Katie Ghazals” is important to me, personally and artistically, because it feels like a watershed moment of reckoning. The poems that I am writing right now reflect new experiences, landscapes, and people. I like that. It means that something new is happening, and new is generally a good thing. In the meantime, I’m going back over some of the bigger works from the last year. It’s strange to think that there is a kind of shelf life to certain works, that some have stronger legs than others. Or maybe, as some suggest, a work of art is most relevant for what it says about the time in which it was created. Recently, listening to Explosions in the Sky’s “First Breath After Coma,” I get these flashbacks to where I was last year, at the beginning of autumn, watching “Friday Night Lights” on Netflix while doing pilates. Sometimes, I’d fire myself up watching Coach Taylor fire up Matt Saracen, and go for a long walk around the neighborhood or to the grocery store, then come back and take a nap. That was my day. I can’t really explain it, and the video below will probably just seem cheesy as all get-out, so maybe this last move doesn’t really work—I think I’ll only know a few months from now, reading back through this. The thing about good art, whatever the medium, sometimes, is that it makes sense intuitively. It locates you in an exact moment, now or then. It makes sense to you, and when it works well—really well—whatever it seems to say, it makes sense to someone else.