National Poetry Month, April 25, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

I trekked yesterday to Wentworth, North Carolina in beautiful Rockingham County, not far from the Virginia line. Rockingham County is the site of North Carolina’s very first public schoolWilliamsburg Elementary. RCC logoI was up that way to give a reading at Rockingham Community College. My host was Hannah Sykes, a professor in the college’s very fine English Department. I was at RCC last year as well, and Hannah brought up her son, Hayes, who turned 9 this April, the month T.S. Eliot so famously dubbed in “The Wasteland” the “cruelest month.” Hayes, on the other hand – a poetry aficionado and Billy Collins devotee – terms it “the coolest month,” because that’s when he celebrates his birthday. I was extra flattered to be there – with apologies to RCC’s baseball coach – because Hannah mentioned in an email, a few days ago, that she was “even getting the college baseball team’s practice cut short, so [her] students [could] be there.” Thus, I decided to devote a good bit of my reading to baseball and a good bit of today’s blog, as well, since I have always conflated baseball – that sport above all – with writing, poetry in particular. It’s also important to note that major league baseball player, Bill Evans, was born in Reidsville in Rockingham County and played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1916, 1917 and 1919.

Donald Hall

Donald Hall

If you don’t know Donald Hall’s Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball),you should check it out. It’s a wonderful book that defies categorization, and contains some of Hall’s plaintive baseball poems. My beat-up copy, published in 1985, actually has on its cover a Jim Dowphotograph of the old Durham Bulls Park.

Beckett Bathanti

Beckett Bathanti

Last summer, the Durham Bulls celebrated, with “Bull City Summer,” the 25th anniversary of the film, Bull Durham. “Bull City Summer” documented every home game at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park through writing and photography. I was one of the writers invited to participate. I asked Sam Stephenson, a good guy, who spearheaded the project, if my son, Beckett – a dedicated baseball fan, a really good player, a really good writer, and then Sports editor of UNCA’s campus newspaper, The Blue Banner – could accompany me and write something as well. Sam graciously gave the okay and Beckett and I spent two days at the park watching baseball and generally having the run of the place. That experience made me very happy. Here’s a link to Beckett’s piece, and here’s a link to mine.

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser

I turned Beckett on to baseball and he turned me on to rap. Here’s the piece by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, about baseball, that evangelized me. And of course, thankfully, fathers no longer exclusively play catch with sons, but play catch with daughters, too; and let’s get mothers in the mix, as well, who play catch with their sons and daughters these days. In fact, when my dad, a steel worker, was working turns, and was not home to play catch with me, my mother would get out in the back yard and throw the ball around – often recently arrived home from her job as a seamstress, still in her skirt and blouse, and dinner started on the stove.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

Ted Kooser, named United States Poet Laureate in 2004, celebrates his birthday today. His poem, “Abandoned Farmhouse,” is a fine example of his characteristic haunting accessibility. Today is also the birthday of Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song.” Here’s a 1968 clip of Fitzgerald performing “Summertime.” And here’s “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” by Woodrow Buddy Johnson & Count Basie (1949).

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National Poetry Month, April 24, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

I returned last night from two days in High Point. On Tuesday, I read at the beautiful High Point Public Library on North Main Street, and Wednesday I was at High Point University giving a reading in the University’s Sechrest Art Gallery. The reading was part of a collaboration that’s been ongoing between me and nature photographer Carl Galie, who is the recent recipient of the Roosevelt-Ashe Conservation Award for Journalism for his work on mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is where my work and Carl’s intersects, though he has far far and away taken the lead on pinpointing through his breathtaking photography the devastation wrought by MTR. In fact, he’s dedicated much of his life to that kind on artistic activism.

Carl Galie

Carl Galie

I met Carl through Hank Foreman, Director and Chief Curator of Appalachian State University’s Turchin Center for the Visual Arts. Hank and I had discussed some type of collaboration at the Turchin that would somehow involve my work and the work of a visual artist. One day he happened to show me Carl Galie’s photographs, scheduled for a future exhibit, Lost on the Road to Oblivion, The Vanishing Beauty of Coal Country. I was instantly captivated – not just because of their inimitable, often foreboding, beauty; but also because they lyrically take head-on the multi-faceted dilemma of mountaintop removal and its aftermath.

OblivionWhat’s more, it turns out that Carl and I grew up in adjacent counties, very much beholden to coal, in southwestern Pennsylvania. His dad was a coal miner and mine was a steel worker and we both lived in old world Italian households. The similarities between us are numerous and inexplicable, so this partnership – and the friendship born out of it – has been a natural. Writing about Carl’s photographs has forced me to dig deeper into my own sensibilities about the environment – not to mention the research that has gone into the writing – and the ways in which poetry can engage in political discourse to bring to light in distinct ways, especially when teamed with images as powerful and provocative as Carl’s, very pressing dangers literally in our backyards.

At any rate, we first teamed in November at the Turchin in Carl’s inaugural exhibition of Lost on the Road to Oblivion: The Vanishing Beauty of Coal Country, a panoramic journey through the Southern Appalachians that unflinchingly documents the practice of mountaintop removal, as well as its collateral fallout, in images that portray an often devastated and endangered natural environment. I wrote a suite of fourteen poems, inspired from Carl’s photographs that were also on display at the Turchin.

Poem in PocketOn display at the Turchin, as well, was a short film of Carl and me in conversation, along with images and readings, filmed and produced by Scott Temple, a fine writer, film-maker and English Professor at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, NC

John Coltrane StatueToday, as designated by the Academy of American Poets, and in Celebration of National Poetry Month, is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Be sure to have a poem handy to whip out at a moment’s notice.

In today’s nod to jazz, let’s celebrate one of North Carolina’s indisputable geniuses, the fabulous John Coltrane. While Coltrane was born in Hamlet, in Richmond County, he grew up in High Point. The High Point Museum houses a wonderful exhibit on him, and there’s a regal, imposing statue of him at Commerce Avenue and Hamilton Street in High Point.

Here are a couple of Coltrane poems by Michael Harper: “Here Where Coltrane Is” and “Dear John, Dear Coltrane.”

And, finally, and gloriously, Coltrane himself, live, with his Quintet, performing “My Favorite Things.”

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National Poetry Month, April 23, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

According to what records we’ve retained – and there are quite a few – today is the 450th birthday ofWilliam Shakespeare – and the site I’ve just supplied you with, fascinating and labyrinthine, could easily be the end of today’s entry. It will keep you busy.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

And, precisely because Shakespeare is Shakespeare, he deserves to have three of his famous sonnets showcased below: “Sonnet CXVI: Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds;” “Sonnet XVIII: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?;” “Sonnet XXIX: When, in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes.”

Let’s not forget The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. Year in and year out, it provides wonderful, robust interpretations of Shakespeare.

Today is the birthday of Vladimir Nobokov. Known primarily for his prose, Lolita in particular, he was also a poet. Here’s Nobokov’s “The University Poem,” translated by Dmitri Nobokov, his son and only child.

Warm Birthday greetings to Joe Mills. His poem, “Enter the Duchess in a White Sheet,” was published originally in MadHat Lit.

Enter the Duchess in a White Sheet

Joe Mills

Joe Mills

Those working wardrobe know
there are two kinds of sheets
in Shakespeare, white and bloody.

The first often becomes the second
and then becomes the first again:
wedding to wounding to winding.

It’s a common progression,
perhaps the fundamental one;
still, each time he must start,

as every writer does,
contemplating white sheets,
then staining them, one by one,

until by the end, ink-crammed
with rhymes and bodies,
they sail ever graveward.

Joseph Mills holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, He has published four collections of poetry with Press 53. His fifth collection, This Miraculous Turning, will be released in September 2014.

Warm birthday greetings, as well, to Laura Hope-Gill. I’m pleased to present the following poem, seen here for the first time.

Frankfurt Airport

Laura Hope-Gill

Laura Hope-Gill

His name was Hassad. He came from Algiers. This was the
night I tried to find safety sleeping in the lady’s room
at the airport until my flight left at dawn. But even in
there I woke to the breath of a security guard against my
face. He must have thought he could kiss a woman without
her feeling anything. At some point we learn we’re safer
in the crowd and move downstairs to the lobby where the
see of travelers undulates to the rhythm of flight. All these
bodies are going somewhere fast. They are as temporary as
the sand Hassad tells me about while I’m trying to sleep.
He has moved over so I can have four seats to myself.
He strokes the hair from my face repeatedly. His palm
is cool and smooth like water; too tired to protest or protect,
I’ve surrendered into his voice like a child walks into a dream.
Overhead the names of the city of this world flip and chime.
The letters of them are from the same alphabet which tonight
expands to name the world within mere permutations of itself.
And there’s a peace in this, the sort of peace that comes to the
astronaut when he looks down and sees all the land is the same,
all of it washed clean at the edges by the same unifying sea.
Hassad’s voice is washing me like the sea at my edges. In the
entire world tonight the Africa of his hand consoles the Canada
of my forehead. Our histories mesh and weave. Our ancestors
rise. He is telling me about the roses that grow in the Algerian
desert. They are perfect and strong. But the sand winds come
and the sand finds its way into every crevice; every curve and
thorn remembers the sand until the sand conceals the rose
and absorbs all of its moisture. As the wind blows some more,
the excess sand vanishes, and only that which is hardened, that
which was closest to the rose remains. It holds the form of the
rose, he tells me, the names of nations breaking in the air above my
rising sleep, and deep inside the sand the rose soon dies, but you
see them when you walk in the desert, Hassad tells me. You see
the roses made of sand for these roses are stronger than the wind
because they come from the wind. These roses can live forever.

Laura Hope-Gill founded and directs Asheville Wordfest and the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative at Lenoir-Rhyne University. She has published two architectural histories of Asheville and one collection of poems, The Soul Tree.

Jazzman Jimmy Noone’s birthday is today. Here he is performing “You Rascal You.”

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National Poetry Month, April 22, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

The flourish of a poem to launch things is always the right touch, akin to a benediction; and today is, after all, Earth Day. So let us begin with the poem, “Earth Day,” by Jane Yolen, an author of wide range, whose children’s books I read to my own children.

Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen

Forty-four years ago today, when I was 16 years old, a high school junior, the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Its promises, sweeping and revolutionary, inaugurated what would become the Environmental Movement. That very first Earth Day in 1970 dovetailed into the revolutionary consciousness streaming through the United States at the time. Harnessing the energies of the Anti-war, Women’s and Black Power movements, Earth Day placed the plight of the environment squarely before the American public. It led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

earth-day--340x340I’m not sure if, prior to that first Earth Day, I had ever considered the word environment, though I was keenly aware of place, and that place was Pittsburgh, the city in which I was born and raised; a city, perhaps more than any other in 20th Century America, renowned for its grit and grey, its toxic unbreathable air – an indictment that still dogs it, though it’s been for years a shimmering city, cleaned up after its legendary chief industry, steel, failed. Indeed, in many neighborhoods, when I was growing up, the street lights had to be turned on mid-afternoon for the sake of visibility. It was that bad. Air pollution – pollution, another word that began to inch into our daily vocabulary in the 60s – was a fact of life in heavily industrialized America.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

Things began to change, however, with the late 1962 publication of Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, a Pittsburgh native. A withering indictment, chapter and verse, of how the natural world was atrophying at an alarming, even fatal, rate, the book, a best seller, sold half a million copies, was a Book of the Month Club Selection, and is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. Today it is a classic, standing at the top of the canon of environmental literature and is still being taught.

Silent SpringI have this minute, in front of me, the 75 cent Crest Book paperback, published in 1964, that belonged to my sister, Marie, who was fourteen when she first read this book. Prescient and precocious as always, the first thing she has underlined, neatly, in pencil is: “Only within the moment of time represented by the current century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” That century, the 20th, has spilled into this next, the futuristic 21st. We know that we do have the power to alter our world in dark, irrevocable ways. But we also have the power to alter it as well in terrifically brilliant sustainable ways, and we are doing just that in visionary fashion in various pockets all over the world.

However, it is news to no one that the initial fervor of Silent Spring – whose message remains ever-crucial this minute, as does the thrust of that very first Earth Day – rioted, then slid and slumped and lost traction. “The explosive bestseller the whole world is talking about,” the cover of Marie’s worn copy announces in all caps. But, relatively soon, apparently, folks stopped talking about it. I imagined, back then, not quite a year after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, that, come 2014, I’d be living in a completely different world, the fictional future our fledgling Utopia of 1970 promised to chart. If you are old enough to recall, the concept of not littering was wholly unique. Indeed all of the covenants were not kept – are they ever? – but many of them have been, and continue to be. And, of course, like you, I am living in a completely different world, one, as it often is, at a crossroads; and I am not here to wring my hands over what we have not accomplished, but rather to champion what we have accomplished and what we have yet ahead of us.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

In the over half-century since Silent Spring blazed into the American consciousness, and then perhaps blazed out – though the pilot light remains forever ignited – the scholarship and activism that has emerged to link arms with Carson’s charge are staggering. We know what we must do. Our path is clear. The task is urgent. But I don’t wish to merely regurgitate pamphlets. Wendell Berry, the fire-breathing Kentucky farmer-poet-environmentalist-theologian, states in his essay, Getting Along With Nature: “In the hereafter, the Lord may forgive our wrongs against nature, but on Earth, so far as we know, He does not overturn her decisions.”

As I began, I’ll close with a poem – along with warm Happy Birthday wishes to Robin Greene – and let nature have the last word, as it undoubtedly will, in any event. I am so glad to feature Robin’s “Zen in Early Spring,” which appeared originally in the anthology: The Nature of Things, 2012.

Zen in Early Spring

Robin Greene

Robin Greene

Sitting on brown grass in early spring,
I reach into the azalea and daffodil beds

to gather last fall’s leaves by hand.
And I’m reminded of how to be

with each moment, the underbelly of
a voice, a sigh. And how to pay attention

to the breeze, that insistent, presumptuous
whisper. One gust promises lazy-mind

and another, idiot compassion.
And when questioning-mind raises

its voice at the end of a sentence
and my bare hands become full

of brittle leaves, I rise finally and take
them like grateful moments

over to their black barrel by the brick
walkway, to simply let them go.

Robin Greene is Professor of English and Writing, Director of the Writing Center, and co-founder/editor of Longleaf Press at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC. She is author of four books and remains a driving force in Fayetteville’s Veterans Writing Collective, housed at Methodist University.

One last flourish: a little Earth Day jazz from some student musicians in Illinois.

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National Poetry Month, April 21, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

Today, 36,000 people will queue up to run in the 118th Boston Marathon. The inaugural Boston Marathon was staged in 1897 and has been run every year since. It’s safe to say that it is the world’s signature marathon.

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur

My good friend and colleague at ASU, Leon Lewis – to my mind the Dean of running, and mentioned in a previous post – claims “Running,”by Richard Wilbur, as the great running poem.

Here’s a poem of mine on running, dedicated to Leon, and published inLand of Amnesia (Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC).

Running

(For Leon)

I recite the rosary
Hail Mary when I run,
a wooden bead full of grace
per so many meters: for the winter wheat,
coy blessed barely green beneath
the purple art thou Lenten crown vetch;
the sun that rations color among women and blessed
sitting in its cupboard ripening
like a pomegranate is the fruit;
the frayed, porous moon of thy womb
dissolving on the tongue
of blue morning Jesus;
cows, musk of their bowels
scenting the fog, still as tintypes;
deer Holy Mary gazing skyward in wonder
at the cry of Canada geese;
papery corn shucks whispering at my feet;
strips of loose tin from an infolded barn
thundering in the wind-lash;
my print Mother of God
alongside the raccoon’s and skunk’s
as I leap the creek bed
and cross Stikeleather land,
posted black letters on yellow handbills
tacked to the shaven thighs of Sycamores;
chicken houses a mile off
on Midway Road whitening in the now-
lightening horizon pray;
and far beyond in Alexander County,
on looming Fox Mountain, nectarines
that hold migrants hostage
all spring flower.
I gulp another quart of ether,
dig for us sinners
up the steep farm road to intercept
the risen sun, sprint the crest,
my chest filled with pink shrapnel,
and fall into it,
a stretched and sweating shadowgraph.
For this searing instant
one chases now and at the hour
in the darkness every morning
the improbability of our death 
that legs with hearts to prompt them
may keep lurching, decade upon decade,
chaplet upon chaplet, toward salvation Amen.

Alan Sillitoe

Alan Sillitoe

The greatest piece of running fiction remains Alan Sillitoe’s novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Though known primarily as a fiction writer, Sillitoe once declared, “I have always regarded myself as a poet before novelist.” Here’s a clip of the film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, directed by Tony Richardson, starring Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave and written by Sillitoe.

A very happy birthday to Celisa Steele. We celebrate it with her by featuring “Another Moon Poem,” originally published in Inch.

Another Moon Poem

After Jack Gilbert

Celisa Steele

Celisa Steele

bored of being button,
bow and chipped dish,
should write poems of us?
And then, shining whitely
in the contrail-streaked sky,
his poem ready for recitation
should realize we’ll hear his words
only as the ocean’s lisp?

Celisa Steele is the Poet Laureate of Carrboro.

Here’s a sax solo from Eric Alexander (who, not incidentally, in the first road race of his life, ran a 2:58 at the 2001 Chicago Marathon.)

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